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Trust Not Your Prowess Nor Your Strength

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“Hang on,” Mal whispers. She throws an arm out, catching Evie in the chest and halting her mid-stride. They’re standing outside the dark wood door of the boys’ room. With Mal leading, they retraced their steps through the halls of the castle with silent ease, peering around corners to avoid being seen or stopped, though no one had so much as crossed their path. 

 “I gotta use the secret knock.” 

Evie raises an eyebrow, but takes a step back. Mal takes a step closer to the door, and knocks exactly once. Then, after a beat, she knocks again. 

The door opens to Jay, who peers left and right down the hallway before rolling his eyes. Stepping back, he ushers them both into the room, looking tense.

“That’s your secret knock?” Evie asks, incredulous. 

“The genius,” Mal says imperiously, “is in its simplicity.”

Carlos, from his seat on the far bed, mouths the words along with her, looking bored. Closing the book in his lap, he stands, sliding it out of sight under a pillow as he makes his way to the middle of the room. 

Jay throws the lock forcefully into place. The second he turns around, he’s crowding Mal, looking her over like she may have been stabbed in his absence. They all clocked the same things earlier: The fine tremor of her hands and shoulders, the tension in her spine. She kept it well off her face, but each of them has had to hide an injury before - they know the tells. 

“Something happened.” Jay says, “With Prince Fuckface. What did he do?” 

Jay’s anger is an intimidating thing. He seems to grow with it, taking up more space, jaw firm and eyes sharp. It’s nothing like the Jay that Evie is used to, who’s all charm and misdirection. 

Mal snorts, “Prince fuckface couldn’t kill a mosquito if it bit him first,” She dismisses, “It wasn’t him.”

Carlos delivers a smack to Jay’s arm, “See?”

Jay relaxes almost imperceptibly at that, but pushes on. 

“Don’t try to tell me nothing happened, Mal,” He warns, “I backed your play, but I’m not an idiot.”

“No one said you were,” Mal replies, softening. 

 “Listen,” she sighs,  “It’s magic, alright? I’m a fucking fairy who’s never felt real magic before, and I lost control. I- ” she hesitates. 

“I fucked up, alright?”

Jay and Carlos digest this for a second, watching her carefully as she closes her eyes, takes a breath. The frustration is back, same as before, and it brings with it a tenseness in her shoulders.

Evie has never seen Mal falter before. In every situation, she proceeds with surety of self and singularity of purpose. She knows what she wants. She knows who she is. Jay and Evie, they both have facets - personas they slip into, aspects they can hide away or hide the rest of themselves behind. Mal is just Mal - an unwavering constant. Both the unstoppable force and the immovable object. 

She doesn’t show weakness. She doesn’t admit her mistakes. 

“Alright,” Carlos allows, still keeping his eyes on her. His voice is low, guarded but calm. 

Evie wonders if Mal realizes that her boys have her back just as much as she has theirs.

 “I think we should talk about tomorrow,” Evie suggests, stepping further into the room until she’s joined their loose half-circle. It doesn’t escape her notice that even now Jay is facing the exit, shooting periodic glances at it as if by rote. 

Mal relaxes, grateful for the turn of attention. Whether Mal’s magic will continue to be volatile is a pressing question, but a question that can be shelved for later. There are a lot of pressing questions to choose from, at the moment.

“Actually,” Carlos says, “I think we should talk about food. We nabbed enough from that car to last us a day or two, but we don’t know where or how hard it will be to get more.”

Jay straightens, cutting a look to Mal, then hustles over to the bed.

“Speaking of,” He slides his pack out from under the bed, crouching to dig around inside of it. After a second, he emerges with a smallish brown package. 

“Keep your strength up,” He says, tossing it to Mal in an easy underhand. She catches it, frowning.

“Don’t,” Carlos advises, when Mal’s mouth opens to voice her protests. She snaps it shut. After glaring down at the bar for a moment, she peels off the wrapping. Inside is a muddy, dirt brown log.

Carlos and Jay haven’t dipped into their stores yet, if their curious attention is any indication. Evie watches carefully as Mal sniffs it suspiciously. The barges bring food from Auradon, so logically they should have some experience with Auradon food. Evie’s never seen anything like this come over on the barges before - it’s all produce, eggs, milk, and bread. 

Mal takes a bite, and they all lean in, expectant. 

“Mh!” Mal’s eyes go wide as she looks down at the little brown thing. 

“Good?” Carlos prompts, after a moment where Mal just turns it over silently in her hands. 

“Holy shit ,” Mal exclaims through a full mouth, “Evie, try this!”

She thrusts the bar toward Evie, who takes it from her with two fingers, holding it up. The first bite has revealed a filling. The familiar sight of peanuts is comforting, but there are other unknowns inside. 

Food is food, ultimately, and Mal seems to like it well enough. Evie bites. 

Sweetness coats her tongue, creamy and decadent. The outside coating melts in her mouth, creamy and sweet, leaving behind the peanuts and a light, chewy filling. Some of it sticks to her teeth, but it dissolves when she runs her tongue over it. It’s like nothing she’s ever tasted before. 

She tosses the bar to Jay, who catches it seamlessly. “Eat that,” She commands, no frills. 

“Only ‘cause you asked so nice,” Jay teases, but does, chewing and swallowing

“‘Los, c’mere,” he says urgently, closing the space between them to hold the treat up to Carlos’s lips. Blinking away surprise, Carlos leans forward, taking a bite. Evie looks away. 

“It’s sweet!” Carlos says with surprise, “and… not sweet?”

“Whatever it is, we can’t waste it,” Evie reminds them gently. Carlos nods easily, but it’s Jay’s impulsiveness she’s worried about. 

Jay jumps up to return the bar to Mal, eyebrows serious as he does, so perhaps she doesn’t need to. Mal purses her lips at him. 

“Strength.” He tells her, firmly. Mal takes another bite. The moment stretches, everyone watching her. 

“Tomorrow?” She prompts, shifting uncomfortably under the attention.

“Tomorrow.” Jay confirms. Carlos slides off the bed, crossing the room to the desk and retrieving the shiny new paper and pens.

“A list.” He explains, preparing to write. 

“Written?” Evie prompts gently. Carlos grins, boyish and bright. 

“Let me have this,” he cajoles, a kid with a new toy, “I’ll burn it after, I promise. No evidence.”

She settles at that, gives him a relenting nod.

“Alright,” Mal says, calling them to attention. She’s standing now, facing them all as equally as she can manage. The tremulous set of her shoulders has settled, her eyes faded to a dull glow. Evie isn’t naive enough to think she’s really adjusting, or that the sweets had really helped much - the curtain that she’d lowered in their room, for the boys, is drawn firmly back up, but the raw wound is still bleeding behind it.  

“What do we know? Go.”

-

Two hours later, Carlos has filled three sheets of paper, Mal is pacing, and Evie has migrated to the bed nearest the entrance. She’s leaning back on the pillows with her legs crossed at the ankle, idly studying their nails. Information breakdown is something they’ve grown good at, as they prepared for their daring escape - Mal sets the tone, controls the dialogue. Carlos is analytical, and he knows things - an uncommon amount of things, really. It’s a weapon in its own right, she thinks: Jay sleeps with a knife, Carlos arms himself with information. Useless every night but one. 

Mal is incisive. For everything that Carlos tells her, she picks through what’s relevant, connects the pieces together until she’s made a plan. They’re used to working from scraps, and this time is no different. There are too many unknowns for any of them to be off their guard. 

Evie and Jay bring their fair share to the table, too - Carlos and Mal are the planners, but no one knows people like Evie and Jay. Evie feels it isn’t terribly self-aggrandizing to say so - Mostly, it’s a skill that’s only an asset in the moment, but it’s proven invaluable for mapping out the what-ifs. Evie recounts what she’s gleaned of Auradon’s culture over the years, with the caveat that it came from Grimhilde’s mouth first. Mal seems to understand exactly how many grains of salt to take it with. It helps. 

“Stay sharp,” Mal says grimly, as they start to wind down, “It could still be a trap.”

A knock at the door, shave-and-a-haircut, makes them all tense.

Jay is up in a moment, crossing the room. Carlos slides his papers under the stack of blanks, sliding his chair away from the desk until he’s spinning it idly in the center of the room. Evie nearly leaps off the bed, hands flying to gently adjust her hair, her dress, her makeup. With the tip of her finger, she neatens the edge of her lipstick - it’s cheap, and tends to bleed - before licking the evidence carefully away. Smoothing down the edge of her dress, she looks up.

Mal is watching her. She takes a deep breath through her nose to stave off the blush she can feel at her neck, feeling abruptly seen . People don’t see Evie without her permission. 

“Doug,” Jay greets, standing in the partly-open door. He’s hiding them from view, warning them of the company. Evie can picture the disarming, friendly smile he’s pasted on.

“Uh, hi,” Doug says from out of sight. He’s cautious. Evie softens, tucking her hair behind one ear. Her shoulders drop from their regal and rigid stance. Jay casts a half-glance over his shoulder, and she nods. 

The door opens all the way. 

“‘Sup man?” Jay says easily. Mal, Evie and Carlos are arranged in a triangle, and Jay splits the difference between Mal and Carlos as he steps back to let him in. It leaves Evie vulnerable, but that’s a calculated move. 

The great mystery of Jay is how he can be the most attentive mind in the room and the most impulsive at the same time. It gets him into scrapes about twice as often as it gets him out of them, but apparently it’s part of his “charm”. 

“Doug!” Evie says, eyes warming and voice sweet. He seems startled to see her. Behind him, Mal wrinkles her nose. 

“How sweet of you to stop by!” Evie smiles with her whole body, stepping up to greet him. He’s disarmed, brows climbing up to his forehead as Evie toys with the neckline of her shirt. His eyes flick down for the briefest moment before locking onto her eyes. 

“Uh, I,” he says, the picture of eloquence. 

“I’m here to take you guys down to dinner,” Doug says with an undemonstrative wave of his hand. The others close ranks quickly. Jay’s jaw goes tight as he readies himself for a fight - as if this twink would be the one to take them somewhere by force. Were it not for Doug, she’d laugh.

Like all good partners in crime, Evie and Jay have a few simple nonverbals - just the basics, for safety. Pinky to thumb for backup, pointer to thumb if you’re in the clear. Closed fist means wait, open hand to the face means run. 

“Where’s dinner?” Evie questions innocently. The hand on her shirt moves to her necklace, closing all her fingers around it. Wait. 

Jay settles.

Doug seems to gather his bearings, soldiering on with more certainty now, “Dinner’s in the cafeteria. We didn’t hit it on our tour because it was closed, but that’s where we take our meals.” 

“Meals?” Mal repeats skeptically. The band kid gets points for simply tilting his body to accommodate Mal’s interruption. Mal doesn’t, for drawing attention. 

“Uh, breakfast, lunch and dinner?” Doug clarifies, frowning. Mal’s expression doesn’t waver. “You guys, like, eat, right?” Doug checks, glancing up at the boys each in turn with a frown that borders on concern.

How quaint.

“We eat.” Carlos confirms, after a second too long, He’s guarded, the delivery’s awkward, but it must do the trick because Doug smiles at him. 

“And is it cool if I show you guys where to go do that?” The soft, probing smile he offers is almost… charming. 

And hey, it sounds like their food problem is solving itself. 

Mal narrows her eyes at Doug for a moment, then shrugs. “Yeah alright Band Boy, show me the food.” 

The touch is blink-and-you-miss-it quick. Mal brushes past Jay to lead them out, the bare skin of her hand grazing his exposed arm.

A sharp crack cuts through the space, a flash of light like a static shock - impossible to hide. 

Carlos leaps forward just as Jay stumbles back, grabbing him with steadying hands. Mal teeters a few steps, but stays upright. Her face has gone white, lips parted. It could be simple surprise, if she played it right, but it's not. Her eyes are back to shining full force again, but she doesn't tamp it down like last time. Maybe she can't. The thought is - well, worrying, to say the least. 

Doug makes like he’s going to reach for them, but Evie’s hand lands sharply on his shoulder before he can move. He glances to her, and she purses her lips, shakes her head.

“Jay?” Mal’s voice is low, but it's rough, and there's something troubling under the surface of it that makes Jay’s head snap up. Mal’s facade is cracking clear in half - Jay sees it too, because he brushes Carlos off. 

“I’m cool.” he dismisses, letting his hand fall to his side. Evie watches it flex and clench experimentally, just out of sight. 

“Doug!” Evie blurts, diverting attention as quickly as she can. He turns to her, eyes wide and lips parted like he really doesn’t know what to do here. She can work with that. 

“I’d really love to know more about this ‘cafeteria’,” she gives a little handwave at the foreign word, signaling her excitement, “Perhaps you can show me -” the slightest emphasis on me - “And my fellow new students can join us in a moment.” 

Evie is frankly impressed with herself that she didn’t stumble over what to call them. Doug cuts a look over to Jay, who is frowning deeply at her, but gives a slow nod. Jay isn’t allowed to come because he needs to show Mal and Carlos that he’s not faking, and Mal needs to see that Jay isn’t faking before she’ll be able to compose herself, and Carlos needs to be their voice of reason, and none of that can happen while Doug is standing there being an outsider. 

Evie, for her part, plays a better shill than any of them. Besides, Doug marked himself an easy target the first time he blushed at her. She’ll be fine. Alone is how she does some of her best work.  

Sticking together is more important for the rest of them right now. 

“Sounds good!” He says, and he’s relieved when he can finally turn back toward the door. 

“After you, Miss Evelyn,” he says, flashing her a grin. She curtsies, sliding him a soft smile just to see the way his cheeks flush.

They’re all the way down the hallway before he musters enough courage up to break the silence, but she’s caught enough of his glances to know he’s been building up to it. 

It rushes out like a burst dam, “Am I allowed to ask what just happened?”  

Evie tilts her head consideringly. “You’re allowed to ask.”

He looks at her, and his eyes are sharper now that they’re alone. She thinks maybe Doug is smarter than she gave him credit for when he says, like he already knows, “And you’d give me a straight answer?”

“I can give you a lot of things, darling.” She replies, softening her gaze into something sultry as she turns to him, “but a straight answer is almost never one of them.” 

Doug coughs out an awkward laugh, flushing from his neck to the tips of his ears and breaking eye contact quickly. 

“At least you’re honest about it,” He quips, ducking his head. 

They turn down some stairs, another beat passing before he says, “They’re okay, though?”

It’s quiet, sincere. Despite herself, Evie falters for a moment in her steps, leaning against the bannister. It makes Doug stop in his tracks to look at her. It’s not a question she was expecting. These Auradon boys, they work off of a different script. Doug is watching her like he cares about her, about what the answer is. 

“Evelyn?” He prompts, still low and gentle and sincere, now with a hint of concern. He has big eyes that hurt to look at. 

She looks anyways, brushing off the moment like she brushes off an identity, like it’s easy as anything. 

“They’ll be fine. They’re over the worst of it.” She breezes, picking up her path down the stairs. It takes him a beat to follow, but he allows this answer, falling into step beside her again.

-

The cafeteria is bright, studded with tables and covered in bright, cheerful food. How food can be cheerful, she can’t begin to guess, but cheerful it is nonetheless. She stops in the doorway, casting her eyes over the whole of it. Doug waits patiently with her, so she tries to keep it brief, hides all evidence that she’s steeling herself for the people that lie inside. 

There are a lot of people, all dotted around various tables in clusters that make her feel like she’s analyzing gang dynamics. Four exits at each corner, a reasonably clear path between the tables, and food sits on a long table in the center of the room, with a glass shade over its top. There appears to be another line along the far wall. The entrance they’re standing at the mouth of leaves her no real way to escape this scene unnoticed, but no one has clocked them yet. They will. She breathes, deep but silent, the spicy ambient-magic-scent pulling deep into her lungs, and turns on.

Like magic, a girl looks up from a table near the middle, straight at her, and it ripples through the room. She’s glad that Mal and the boys aren’t here, that she’s the first. At the very least, she’s breaking the seal, and that might ease their way. Their eyes itch, but she’s used to that. Without looking directly at anyone, she says to Doug, “Shall we?”

He gestures another ‘after you’ toward the far wall. Her expression settles comfortably into something soft but knowing. It’s got a dangerous little edge to it, an undertone of smugness, and her mother would slap it off of her in an instant. She wants to be interesting, but unapproachable. Not haughty, not like Audrey was in the hallway, but enough to make a person think twice about asking questions they don’t want to know the answer to. Really, if Jay were here, that would be enough all on its own, and if Mal were here she’d offset even the softest and princessiest of demeanors, but with Doug, she’ll have to make her impression standing on her own two feet.