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There Is Nothing Wrong With Being Yourself

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Something had been bugging Jay for more than a week now. They’d all noticed, but Jay was doing his level best to pretend that nothing at all was going on. He ducked into shadowy corners or behind things more often than normal to avoid giggling groups of teenagers, usually of the fangirl variety. When he wasn’t outright hiding from people, he stuck close to his friends, including Ben, and used them as a buffer between himself and everyone else who tried to interact with him. As amusing as it was the first time Jay subtly (or not so subtly depending on who was asked) used Carlos as a sort of human shield between himself and another person, the second, third, and fourth times were more worrying than amusing. Jay just wasn’t the type of person that kept people at arm’s length.

However, no one wanted to try and force the information out of him before he was ready to tell them. They’d tried once or twice but had never gotten any further than opening their mouths, a comment on the tip of their tongues, before they decided they didn’t want to make the tension in Jay’s shoulders even worse.

So none of them said a word about it.

That didn’t mean they weren’t paying extra attention to him so he knew that when he did want to talk, they were ready and willing to listen.

~*~

Jay was far from stupid, but sometimes he felt that way. There were times when he found it difficult to concentrate on reading assignments. It was always worse when he felt stressed. The words would blur together or the letters seemed to rearrange themselves on the page, and the more he tried to concentrate, the worse things seemed to get. He’d never admitted the problem out loud, but his friends had figured it out anyway.

He wasn’t upset that they had figured it out for three reasons. One, they never said anything about it at all. There were no hints, not even subtle ones, and no one asked him any embarrassing questions. Two, they never used it against him. There were no accusations or taunts or silent, judging looks and so he really had no need to feel defensive. And three, he thought the tactics they’d decided use to help him deal with it while still managing to avoid ever mentioning it were super adorable.

It wasn’t uncommon for Evie to declare she needed someone to practice all the new hairstyles she’d learned about on. Jay was her number one test dummy partially because he had the longest hair out of all of them, and partially because, unlike Mal, he rarely complained about it so long as he was well compensated. Sometimes, compensation came in the form of a snack and sometimes it was just a head massage. Jay wasn’t ever going to complain about either of those; Evie was the best at head massages.

Lately, she’d taken to distracting Jay by asking him to let her try out a new braiding technique. Then, while she brushed and braided his hair, she or someone else would ask questions about whatever it was he had been trying to study. Carlos or Mal would read bits of the textbook out loud, and they would all quiz each other on the information, even if they didn’t have that class.

Sometimes, Mal would write short, simple notes in precise scrawls so Jay could go over the information again on his own. Jay was pretty good at remembering the things people had said, but he appreciated the notes all the same. Mal always managed to write them in a way that made them easier to read. Jay thought it was a weird combination of the font she used and the spacing of the letters, but he wasn’t willing to rule out actual magic being involved. He supposed it didn’t really matter so long as it worked.

And if Evie had resorted to weaving flowers in Jay’s hair while the four of them sat in the evening sun and discussed the scientific advancements of the past century because Jay had been unable to properly concentrate on a textbook for days, well….that was okay.

At least Evie stuck to Jay’s color scheme, and the flowers did smell nice.

~*~

Mal disliked cinnamon. Sure, she’d eat things that had cinnamon in them, but if she had the chance she’d trade or pass them off to someone else at the first opportunity. Usually, she’d pass them off to Carlos, but honestly, they all tried to feed Carlos as much as possible. He was just so tiny, and his eyes always filled with wide-eyed wonder whenever someone handed him a treat. Of course, they were all just as likely to feed Evie, but though she never turned down food, she still cringed if offered too many sweets in one day. So Carlos was offered a lot of junk food and Evie was handed any healthy but still tasty snack they could get their hands on.

Mal disliked cinnamon, but every afternooon for the past four days, she brought a plateful of snickerdoodles to whichever room Jay and Carlos were hanging out in. Jay suspected she was actually baking them herself, sometimes with Evie’s help, if the expressions on the girls’ faces were anything to go by. No one pointed out that Jay’s favorite cookies were snickerdoodles, and no one had to.

Like the rest of them, Mal might still be having trouble figuring out how to find out just what was bothering someone, but she definitely had the whole comfort food thing down pat. Asking Jay if he wanted her or Evie to make anything else wasn’t at all subtle, but it was definitely appreciated.

~*~

Everyone heard Jay slip out of the room one night, but no one went after him until fifteen minutes had passed without his return or at least a text telling them where he’d gone.

Somehow Carlos knew he would find Jay on the tourney field. It was the middle of the night and way past curfew, but sure enough, there Jay was, tossing pilfered beanbags into the air and hitting them with his tourney stick in the general direction of the goal. He wasn’t aiming at all, just hitting them with all the force he could muster. Angry hisses and growls that sounded almost inhuman were just barely audible over the sound of beanbags hitting things.

Dude let out a soft woof and ran to fetch one of the beanbags Jay had just launched into the bleachers. Jay whirled around at the sound, stick raised high and teeth bared. His shoulders slumped when he spied Carlos, and he kicked at the bucket of beanbags hard enough to knock it over. Carlos waved from his spot on the outskirts of the field then shoved his hands into his pockets. If Jay didn’t want to talk, that was fine, but Carlos wasn’t going to let him stay out here all alone. Jay would just have to deal with him sitting on the bench until he felt like interacting with people again.

But Jay was already stalking his way toward the bench. He looked slightly less angry than he had a few moments ago. He didn’t ask why Carlos had shown up, just glared at the ground and accepted the water bottle Carlos held out to him. He drained it all in one go and tossed it on the ground. He lasted about two seconds before he gave in to the urge to kick the stupid thing.

“Goalie or hitter?” he asked Carlos and gestured to the extra equipment scattered on the bench. He may not have expected anyone to show up, but he’d certainly been prepared for it. The fact that someone had cared enough to look for him made him feel better, somehow, but it still wasn’t enough to take the edge off of the unease prickling at his skin.

“You look like you still need to hit something so goalie,” Carlos decided. Dude came back with the beanbag, looking especially proud of himself, and Carlos took the time to praise the dog for a fantastic job while Jay stalked back to the bucket of beanbags, collecting more along the way. Carlos frowned at him for a moment. He wasn’t afraid of Jay, not anymore, but he was afraid he wouldn’t be any good at helping his friend deal with….whatever it was he was dealing with. He didn’t know what to do, but he supposed helping Jay release some excess energy (and a little bit of anger and frustration) would have to be good enough until he figured out a better way to help.

Carlos made it all the way to the goal before Jay noticed all he’d grabbed was the spare tourney stick and an armful of beanbags in case Jay needed extras. Jay glared at him for an entire five seconds before he stalked over to the bench, grabbed a shield and a helmet, and tossed them in Carlos’ direction once he made it back to the bucket of beanbags.

Carlos ducked his head to hide his smile and strapped on his helmet and shield. Then, when Jay still refused to actually hit anything in his direction, he double checked that everything was secure and lightly tapped his shield with his stick. “They’re just beanbags. It’s highly unlikely you’ll inju-whoa!”

A beanbag sailed through the air, hitting the edge of the goal hard enough to make a pinging noise that seemed to echo in the night. It hadn’t come anywhere near actually hitting Carlos, but it had gotten its point across. Don’t talk and pay attention.

If that was what Jay needed from him right now, then Carlos could definitely deliver.

~*~

Carlos was exhausted by the time they stopped. It might have been the lack of sleep or it might have been the grueling exercises Jay had run him through. Jay was doing his best to speak as little as possible, but Carlos figured he had gotten pretty good at figuring out what Jay’s gestures, glares, and frustrated huffs of air meant.

Jay had dropped his tourney stick without a word and stalked over to sit down on the bench. Even in the dark, it looked like he was doing his level best to glare a hole into the ground. Carlos figured the best thing he could do right now was to clean up the beanbags littering the field. Dude had taken a nap under the bench but Jay had woken him up when he sat down. Dude was a pretty smart dog and it didn’t take him long at all to start helping Carlos out.

Jay had gone the entire practice without touching Carlos. In fact, he’d been careful to stay out of arm’s length so when he tapped Carlos’ shoulder with a water bottle, Carlos jumped and whirled around, spilling the contents of the bucket in the process.

“Sorry,” Jay murmured. “Drink some water. And don’t…don’t clean up. I’ve got this. Just go to bed or something.” He didn’t make eye contact, and his shoulders slumped. He looked even more exhausted than Carlos, as if all of his energy had been sapped out of him. Some of it was probably because he’d been running himself to the ground for most of the night, but this was more than physical exhaustion. He looked almost defeated.

Carlos had no idea what to do about that, but he knew what he wanted to do about it. He remembered the differences between life on the Isle and life in Auradon.

Back on the Isle (and before they’d all decided to embrace Goodness as much as possible), they’d made do with rough housing. A punch on the arm for a job well done, an elbow to the side to include someone in on a joke, or the rough housing he and Jay had so often engaged in after the four of them had become allies. (Not friends. No one had friends on the Isle) Carlos had known the exact moment Jay had decided he was worth having around because no matter how painful their rough housing looked, Jay was always precise with his movements in a way that was almost gentle. Jay still rarely left so much as a bruise, even when he had Carlos in a headlock and giving him a noogie or tackled him to the ground and initiated a tickle war.

The casual touches between friends and family in Auradon still amazed him, amazed all of them really, and sometimes he still expected someone to ridicule him for comforting a friend, for showing the greatest weakness that was caring for another person (or the worse weakness of showing they cared and therefore admitting they were weak). They all had moments where they would tense and wait for someone to sneer or berate them for it, but they had all stubbornly decided that if they wanted to grab a friend’s hand or put their head on their shoulder or give them a hug to make them feel better, then no one was going to stop them. Except maybe that friend, if that friend didn’t feel like being touched in that particular moment.

So he didn’t even think twice when he dropped the bucket and gave Jay a hug. Jay looked like he needed one right now. Hell, maybe Carlos needed one, too. He figured they both deserved the reminder that things might feel completely horrible, but they weren’t alone and didn’t need to be alone. A hug was practically the ultimate expression of “I’ve got your back.”

He wasn’t sure who was more surprised when he hit the ground hard enough to knock the air out of his lungs – him or Jay. He’d even managed to hit his head on a tourney stick, but it didn’t even really hurt all that much. He was more surprised than anything else, and he might have felt betrayed had he not seen the look on Jay’s face.

Carlos had never seen that much terror on Jay’s face before, not even when Maleficent was doing her best to tear him to shreds then set those shreds on fire. Jay stared down at him just long enough for his terrified expression to burn itself into Carlos’ memory before he bolted. Carlos didn’t even have enough time to inhale enough air into his lungs to call out for him to stop. By the time he could breathe properly again and had sat up, Jay had disappeared into the darkness.

Dude whimpered and crawled into Carlos’ lap, first sniffing at Carlos’ chest as if to make sure he was alright, then licking at his chin. Carlos scratched behind Dude’s ears in an effort to comfort him, but he probably felt ten times more worried than Dude did.

“We are going to need serious back up,” he decided. He, Mal, and Evie were going to get to the bottom of this.

And if it turned out someone in the school was responsible for making Jay upset enough to lash out at one of his friends, was responsible for the terrified look on Jay’s face…..well, that person would find out that he, Mal, and Evie could be their parents’ children just as easily as they could be their own person.

~*~

The numbers on Ben’s alarm clock glowed bright blue in the darkness and declared it far too early for Ben to even think about getting out of bed. There were birds chirping in the tree outside his window, and like most mornings, he seriously contemplated opening his window and roaring at them until they flew away. Pre-dawn was the worst time of the day because it was too early to get up but too late to properly go back to sleep.

He was so busy glaring at the clock and the window that it took him several minutes to realize he really shouldn’t be smelling fresh coffee. It took another minute before he noticed the thermos someone had placed next to his alarm clock. He could barely see the steam rising out of the top of the container, but it was clear that was where the smell was coming from. Now he just had to figure out where it had come from.

He sat up and rubbed at his face. He should probably be worried that someone had broken into his room in the middle of the night. If any of his advisors (or, heaven forbid, his parents) found out about this, they would have fits. No one was really worried about assassination or things like that in Auradon, but there would still be hours of meetings where people argued about extra guard rotations and….

And there was a plate of Ben’s favorite snacks on the other side of the thermos. He could see a blueberry muffin, a packet of gummy butterflies, trail mix in a baggie, and a bag of pretzels. All of these things were easy to pocket and carry around, which meant one of Mal’s friends was likely the culprit. He was glad he didn’t have a roommate for them to freak out.

When he actually looked around, it was easy enough to spot Jay. He was sprawled in the middle of the floor, hands behind his head, and was staring up at the ceiling. He barely moved at all and seemed to be breathing in careful, precise, and controlled patterns. Even in the darkness, Ben could see the concentration on Jay’s face, and while he didn’t want to interrupt him, he also wanted to know why in the world Jay had broken into his room.

He had a feeling he was going to need caffeine for this conversation. He really shouldn’t have been surprised to find the coffee had been prepared exactly the way he liked it. The coffee and the food were clearly peace offerings that doubled as an apology for the break in. He was just about to offer Jay a pillow or something when the other teen spoke.

“I didn’t know where else to go,” Jay admitted quietly. He didn’t look at Ben, just kept staring at the ceiling, and then clenched his jaw shut. Instead of sounding nonchalant like he’d intended, he sounded lost and wary. Ben wasn’t going to kick him out of the room. He wasn’t going to get angry because of the interrupted sleep or for Jay bothering him with his stupid problems. He was probably going to try to share the food Jay had brought him and ask way too many questions.

But Jay tensed and got ready to roll out of the way. Everything he knew about Ben told him Ben wasn’t going to do anything cruel, but he still expected him to. That prickling sense of unease and wariness that went down to his very bones was the reason he was in the middle of the floor in the perfect position to roll behind the nearby table and chairs or dart to the door if he needed a quick exit.

And he was going to need a quick exit. There was no way he was going to be able to look Ben in the eye or even stare at the ceiling and lie about why he’d intruded in on Ben’s space. It didn’t matter how upset he was or how terrifed he felt or hwo angry he was at the world in general for not making more sense. He’d shoved Carlos when his friend had tried to make him feel better. He hadn’t needed to stick around to know he’d hurt him. He’d heard him hit the ground hard enough to leave bruises and was mostly certain he’d heard Carlos’ head hit something, too.

He’d hurt Carlos, the boy who was still afraid of nearly everything because instinct demanded it but who was brave and stubborn (and maybe a tad bit foolish) enough to interact with the world anyway. If Jay was still the sort of person who would hurt Carlos, then how good was he, really? How much of him was capable of actually changing and becoming something better than the person he’d been raised to be? How much of the Isle was etched into his bones and how many of those scars would twist and shape the person he was becoming into a monster even worse than the one he’d been?

Jay was so lost in thought that he didn’t even notice when Ben cautiously moved from his bed to a spot a few feet away from Jay on the floor. He sat down, placed a pillow in the space between them, set the plate of snacks within Jay’s reach, and sipped at his coffee. He hoped he managed to keep a blank expression on his face when Jay flinched at the movements and said nothing until Jay relaxed a little bit.

“Do the others know where you are?” he asked because though he was pretty sure he knew the answer, it was still important to ask. It was clear that Jay was running from something and considered Ben, of all people, a safe person to run to. It was better than Jay holing up somewhere all miserable and alone, even if Ben had no idea what to do beyond telling everyone else Jay was all right and making sure Jay didn’t startle and bolt.

“No,” Jay grudgingly admitted after a few moments of silence. He rolled over and grabbed the pillow so he had something to hide his face in. “I…..will you make sure Carlos is okay? But don’t…don’t tell them where I am?”

Ben stared at Jay for a moment, noting the way Jay refused to look at anything and appeared to be doing his level best to smother himself with the pillow. His words were muffled because of the pillow but still understandable. Ben nodded even though Jay couldn’t see him and set his thermos to the side so he could stand up and get his phone.

“Yeah. I’ll send him a text to see what’s going on.“ Even if it wasn’t even five in the morning, yet. Maybe he’d miraculously figure out how to deal with this situation by the time he finished texting.

~*~

To: Mal, Evie, Carlos
From: Ben
Jay’s hiding out in my room.
No idea what is going on but
will try to find out. He wants
to know if Carlos is okay?

*

To: Ben
From: Carlos
IS HE OKAY? MAKE HIM
DRINK SOME WATER PLEASE
I am fine, btw. Has he told
you what’s wrong?

*

To: Ben
From: Evie
Please keep him there until
we can send reinforcements :)
What would you like for breakfast?

*

To: Ben
From: Mal
DO NOT LET HIM LEAVE!
C says J shoved him on accident
and is probably freaking out over
it. V is putting together care package
for me to bring over so I can find out
what is going on.

*

To: Carlos
From: Ben
He seems upset but is not physically injured.
I will try to feed and water him before someone
gets here. Hasn’t really said what’s wrong yet

*

To: Evie
From: Ben
I will do my best. Jay brought snacks
and coffee when he broke in so maybe
bring stuff Jay likes? And more coffee
please and thank you

*

To: Mal
From: Ben
I was not supposed to tell the
rest of you where he was so I
don’t think he’ll be leaving any
time soon. Think trying to prod
him out of his own guilt will
work at all? Or make him bolt?

*

To: Ben
From: Carlos
ty for helping even though
it is really late/early

*

To: Ben
From: Evie
Kay. Will send M with coffee
and provisions. Hugs!

*

To: Ben
From: Mal
omg no, Benny Bear, plz
You are amazing but he will bolt
like cat from a room full of rocking
chairs. But don’t worry I think I
know what is going on. Please stall
until I can get there

~*~

Mal arrived with two travel mugs of coffee and Dude trailing beside her as her escort. She gave Ben a somewhat distracted kiss on the cheek, somehow managing to avoid a horrible collision when he bent down and she stood on her tiptoes, and then handed him both of the travel mugs. No more than thirty minutes had passed since the round of texting ended, and Jay hadn’t left Ben’s room. This had nothing at all to do with Ben. While he’d been texting and trying to figure out a potential plan of action in case Jay tried to leave, Jay had fallen asleep.

“Hey,” Mal greeted softly after she shut the door. She crept forward to check on Jay, careful not to touch him or make too much noise. She figured she’d let Jay sleep for a little while longer before she woke him up so they could talk. When she turned back around, she studied Ben for a moment then smirked at him.

Ben still looked a bit dazed and sleepy. It was way too early for him to function properly. Not until he’d had drank at least half of one of the mugs of coffee first. He sipped from one of the travel mugs as quickly as he dared, trying to avoid both making too much noise and burning his mouth. Mal just smirked at him and waited for him to realize he was standing there in nothing but his boxers.

It took longer than she’d expected. Ben managed to finish at least half of one of the travel mugs before he paused mid sip, blinked at her, then glanced down at himself and blushed bright red. He didn’t even say anything just let out a quiet, strangled squeaking noise and retreated into his bathroom. Mal cackled as quietly as possible and started digging through his dresser so he would have something to wear. She tossed a shirt and a pair of sweatpants at the bathroom door just as it cracked open and Ben’s head poked out. Accidentally hitting him in the face was just a bonus.

While Ben got dressed (and probably had a very minor freak out), Mal dragged a blanket off of his bed and covered Jay with it. His only response was to grumble something incoherent and attempt to bury his head even further underneath the pillow. Mal grabbed the plate off of the ground before someone ended up kicking or stepping on it and sat on Ben’s bed. She opened the packet of gummy butterflies and started picking out all of the red ones.

Ben shuffled out of the bathroom, face still slightly red, and sat on the bed next to her. “Why are you a morning person?” he asked with a grumpy sigh and offered the second travel mug of coffee to her.

“Because I’m awesome,” she answered and took a swig of the coffee before handing it back to him. “Keep it. You’ll need it more than I do.” She paused and bit a gummy butterfly in half, using the chewing as a stalling tactic.

“Let me guess,” Ben spoke before she could. “You don’t want to kick me out of my on room, but….” He trailed off and gave her a smile. He understood. If they gave Jay a chance to escape, then they’d probably have to do all of this all over again.

“Would you mind? Carlos said you can use their room for a shower and stuff, if you want, and V can bring over more breakfast options.”

“Nah, it’s fine. You figure out….this,” Ben said and made a vague hand gesture at Jay. “I’ll go for a run or something and if things aren’t sorted out by dawn, I’ll take Carlos up on his offer.”

“Thanks. You’re the best,” Mal told him and gave him a kiss.

~*~

Jay woke up because someone was staring at him. He had a pillow on his face so he couldn’t actually see anything beyond the blue fabric, but he was absolutely certain someone was staring at him. Sure enough, when he moved the pillow just the slightest bit, Mal was there. She was laying on her stomach on the floor, arms pillowed under her chin, and her eyes were glowing just the slightest bit as she stared at him. He wondered how long she’d been there.

He wasn’t at all surprised to see her there. Either Ben had panicked and asked Mal for help, or Mal had just figured it out all on her own. Or a combination of the two. Or maybe even something else. He supposed it didn’t matter. The two of them stared at one another for a moment before he sighed and moved the pillow underneath his head. He might as well be comfortable for this conversation.

Neither of them spoke for several minutes, and since Mal seemed perfectly content to do nothing but give him (slightly intimidating)sympathy stares, Jay finally relented and spoke first.

“Is Carlos really okay?” he asked and glanced away. Given how close they were, it would be practically impossible not to notice any change in Mal’s expressions, but if he avoided looking directly at her, he could at least pretend he wasn’t in trouble.

“Not even a bruise,” she answered. “You scared him.” Her words made Jay flinched, and she hastily added, “Scared for you, Jay. Not of you. I swear. No backsies.”

“But I-I hurt him, Mal. How can he-“ he cut himself off and buried his head in the pilow so he could let out a quiet, muffled, and frustrated scream. When he lifted his head, his eyes were a little red, but neither of them were going to comment on it. “I didn’t even think about it. He was just in my space and I just….”

“Couldn’t stand the thought of someone touching you?” Mal asked with a sympathetic grimace. They all had moments like that and for very different reasons. Mal thought back to when Jay had first started acting strange. Everything had started with the cheerleaders and his teammates. Given what she knew about Jay and what she knew about Auradon society (and, okay, Isle society, too)….

The pieces clicked together in Mal’s head and she let out a relieved sigh. She could fix this. It might take a few tries because Jay was stubborn, and she might need to have an awkward conversation with Ben’s mom (Belle was very forthcoming with information). But she could definitely fix everything.

The silence had once again gained a stubborn quality about it and Mal shifted just enough to avoid making her arm fall asleep.

“Okay so I’m going to say something, and if you don’t want to hear it then I’ll stop. But you clearly don’t want to tell any of us anything so….let me guess?”

“…..yeah, I can go for a round of twenty questions,” Jay agreed somewhat reluctantly. At least he was looking at her again.

“I don’t like parties and crowds and things that much,” Mal said slowly, choosing her words very carefully. She waited until Jay inclined his head in a nod before she continued. “But I like spending time around you guys and sometimes parties and crowds in small doses.”

“Only if you have someone to hide behind,” Jay murmured and smirked when she stuck her tongue out at him.

“But you like parties and people and talking to them and interacting with them, like the flirting and stuff.” She paused to gauge Jay’s reaction. His shoulders were tense again, but he still kept his gaze locked with hers. “Because…actually I have no idea why. I know you used to use it as a distraction so you could steal stuff or manipulate people, but….”

Jay shifted so the fingers of one hand could tap out a tune on the ground. He really wanted to stand up and pace the length of the room for this conversation, but he knew he couldn’t trust himself not to run away. This was a conversation that needed to happen so they could figure out how to deal with it. If there was something wrong with him, he trusted Mal to do the right thing. Even if the right thing was sending him back to the Isle.

“Compliments make people feel nice. It’s not like I lie to anyone or anything. I just…I like making them smile, and I like the attention. But then….a few of the guys on the team were talking about this girl.” And here he paused to make a face at Mal because he really didn’t want to repeat some of the stuff they’d said.

Mal’s lips twitched into a faint smirk, and she flicked her fingers imperiously. “I’ll use my imagination. Go on.”

“They said some stuff, and when I thought about it I realized….it’s just…..” He trailed off and let out a rush of air in a frustrated sigh. “You like Ben, right?” he asked and waited for her confused nod before he continued. “You want to…you know,” he mumbled.

Mal stared at him for a moment before her eyes widened, and she was torn between embarrassment and amusement. She decided on amusement because amusement would, at least, carry her through the conversation. She could be embarrassed later. Besides, Jay looked traumatized enough for the pair of them.

“Sex, Jay. You can say sex or, you know, other stuff.” She’d never seen Jay turn bright red before, and had the conversation topic not been so serious, she would have cherished the sight. And possibly teased him a little bit. Instead she continued with barely a pause, “So you’ve been acting weird because you realized you…don’t want to have sex with girls?”

Jay mumbled something Mal couldn’t quite make out, mostly because she was trying to remember a conversation she and Evie had had with Belle after the period fiasco. Belle had assured both of the girls that same sex couples were accepted in Auradon. (Honestly, it had never occurred to either Evie or Mal that anyone would have a problem with any form of True Love, but whatever) She’d certainly never heard anyone say anything different, but boys were always weirder about things than girls were. Plus Chad was friends with people on that team, which automatically made them horrible people until proven otherwise.

“It’s okay if you like boys, Jay. V, C, and I certainly don’t care, and I bet Ben doesn’t either. And if anyone el-“

“I don’t like boys either,” Jay interrupted in a rush of breath. He’d practically shouted the words out and looked slightly terrified that he’d actually said them out loud. If that look was anything like the look Carlos had seen on his face earlier, Mal would have to congratulate Carlos on his restraint. Mal already wanted to transform into a dragon and rip half the tourney team apart for causing this whole mess.

Instead, she took a deep breath and slowly reached out to place her hand on Jay’s arm. She could feel him trembling, and he flinched a bit when she first touched him. He didn’t shake her off, however, and though he was refusing to look at her again, it didn’t seem like he was going to bolt out of the room. Not yet anyway.

“That…explains a lot of the things I’ve seen you do over the years,” Mal admitted, hoping to make Jay smile at least a little bit. It didn’t work so she pressed on. “But that’s fine, too, Jay. It’s-“

“No it’s not!” he hissed at her and ripped his arm out of her grip. He was on his feet before Mal could protest. He started pacing the length of the floor and ran his hand through his hair once, tugging hard enough to make Mal wince as she scrambled to her own feet. He crossed his arms over his chest and turned to face her, still refusing to look her in the eye. He managed to stand still for about three seconds before he started pacing again.

“Everyone likes someone, Mal! Boys or girls or both! But I don’t which means that there’s-that there’s something wrong with me. And what if we can’t fix it? What if it means Chad was right and all I’ll ever like to do is hurt people o-or it means that I…that I’m just like your mom or Carlos’ mom? That I’m incapable of loving people and I just get worse and worse until I-I-I….” he took a deep, ragged breath and tried to ignore the fact that he was only just barely keeping tears from streaming down his face.

“I don’t want to hurt you guys,” he said so softly Mal could barely hear him say it. He slumped against the wall by the bathroom door and slid to the ground. He couldn’t stop shaking, and despite his best efforts, his breath came in great ragged gulps but it still seemed as if there wasn’t enough making its way into his lungs.

“Shit,” Mal mumbled and rushed over. Jay didn’t protest or fight back when she sat beside him and practically tugged him into her lap. He just curled around her and buried his face in her neck. For the longest time, the only sounds in the room were Jay’s panicked sobs and Mal’s attempts to walk him through breathing exercises.

“There’s nothing wrong with you, Jay,” she murmured and rubbed his back. He was practically squishing her at this point and clearly didn’t believe a word she was saying. Mal had absolutely no idea what to do about this. Carlos and Evie were ten times better at making people feel better. Mal was just the one who made plans and then awkwardly stood to the side and maybe patted someone on the arm when they were this upset.

“Okay, what if…what if Evie or Carlos did some research? I bet if we asked they could bring back loads of proof that there’s nothing at all wrong with you,” she suggested after she thought she heard Jay call her a liar into her shoulder. Jay didn’t really react to her suggestion, but he wasn’t protesting so she dug her phone out of her pocket so she could text them.

To: Evie, Carlos, Ben
From: Mal
SOS
J + PANIC ATTACK =
NEED HELP ASAP

~*~

Later, Mal would admit that Jay’s panic had made her panic. Just a little bit.

Right now, however, she was just glad she had two awesome friends and a boyfriend who were willing to drop whatever it was they’d been doing and rush over to Ben’s room to help her calm Jay down. Evie even brought cinnamon rolls, and Carlos arrived with the electric kettle that worked best out of all the ones they’d scavenged. Ben arrived with dripping wet hair, an inside out shirt, and only one sock.

Mal hadn’t really stopped the breathing exercises so Jay had calmed down for the most part. The panic attack had left him a little dazed, however, and Ben had to practically carry him to his bed. Jay tugged ineffectually on the blanket until Ben got the right idea and just piled all the blankets and pillows on top of where Jay had curled up. Carlos set up the kettle so he could make tea and kept giving the bed wary glances. He clearly wanted to help but was probably afraid he’d end up upsetting Jay again.

Evie set the plateful of cinnamon rolls on the table, not even bothering to pry off the saran wrap, and then helped Mal stand up. “What happened?” she whispered.

“He’s freaking out because he realized he’s…what’s that thing called? When you don’t like boys or girls?” Mal tried to explain, gaze flicking from the pile of blankets and pillows that was Jay over to the table where Ben was trying to help Carlos. The two boys were trying their best not to stare, but they still kept shooting Jay worried glances.

Evie frowned for a moment before realization suddenly dawned on her face. “Ooooohhhhh, that makes so much sense.”

Carlos finished the tea preparations then hovered halfway between the table and the bed, reaching out every few seconds then dragging his hands back to his sides. Unlike his favorite human, Dude had absolutely no problem with jumping on the bed and burrowing his way under the blankets. Everyone tensed for a moment until they heard Jay’s muffled and incomprehensible murmurs. When his voice didn’t sound upset, they let out a sigh of relief.

Carlos was the first one to sit on the edge of the bed, but he was soon followed by Evie, Mal, and then Ben. Evie sat close enough for her shoulder to brush against the blankets. Mal sat about a foot away from the blankets and stared at the spot she thought Jay’s head was. Ben sat behind her so he could place his chin on her shoulder. It was a bit of an awkward position, but it allowed him to loosely wrap an arm around Mal which seemed to make her relax just a bit.

The pile of blankets shifted and moved until Jay’s head was revealed. He was curled around a pillow, refused to move into a position that would let him actually look anyone in the eye, and was very obviously repeating the breathing exercises Mal had been walking him through not too long ago.

Dude shuffled his way out of the mess, licked at Jay’s chin, then crawled into Carlos’ lap. Carlos was pretty thankful for that. As long as his hands were occupied by Dude, he wouldn’t do something like try to hug Jay and upset him again.

“Hey,” Carlos greeted Jay after a long, awkward moment of silence. “You feeling any better?”

Jay shrugged a shoulder and tilted his head in Mal’s general direction. “I…Mal.”

Mal’s eyes widened when everyone’s attention turned to her, and she glanced at Evie for help.

“You said Jay realized he’s on the ace spectrum and got upset?” Evie offered. That was about all she’d been able to get out of Mal anyway.

“There’s a spe-okay, we are looking that up in a minute, but long story short, Jay said he realized he doesn’t like girls or boys and thinks there’s something wrong with him. Which there obviously isn’t, but he doesn’t believe me so….” Mal said. Her teeth caught her lower lip when she was done speaking, and she glanced from Evie to Carlos, hoping she hadn’t completely screwed up the explanation.

“Dude, why would you-that is completely normal. There’s nothing wrong with you,” Carlos insisted, sounding almost angry on Jay’s behalf. “Some people like girls, some people like boys, some people like girls and boys, and some people don’t like girls or boys or anything inbetween. And some people only like girls or boys or girls and boys sexually and not romantically…” he trailed off and shrugged a shoulder when he realized everyone was staring at him.

“It was in one of the books Belle’s mom recommended,” he explained. “I’m pretty sure I have it in our room. It mostly just explained puberty, but there was a whole chapter on different types of sexuality. Is it not…I mean, I figured since your mom recommended it that it was pretty reliable, information wise, but…”

Ben thought for a moment then shook his head. “No. I mean, yeah, it’s reliable. It’s just not really talked about? We can get more books or look it up online or I can find someone to talk to you about it?” he suggested then gave Jay what he hoped was an encouraging smile when Jay gave him a wary stare.

“I don’t-you’ll think it’s stupid,” Jay mumbled, but he scooted closer to Carlos so his head could press up against his friend’s leg. Evie took the opportunity to scoot closer, too, so she could scratch the top of Jay’s head.

“It’s not stupid if it upset you,” Carlos insisted and gave everyone else a thankful smile when they echoed his statement.

“If you don’t want to tell them you don’t have to,” Mal added. “I can do it, if you want.”

Jay shook his head, but he couldn’t bring himself to speak again until Carlos’ hand joined Evie’s on top of his head and Mal had reached out to place a hand on his leg. The kettle made a horrible shrieking noise that made everyone jump, and Ben got up to turn it off. Jay hoped he brought tea back with him.

“I don’t want to hurt you guys,” Jay admitted quietly, and no one said a word when he paused to take a shuddering breath. “If I’m incapable of love-“

This time someone did interrupt him. All four of them, in fact. It was impossible to tell just what Evie, Mal, and Carlos had said, and Ben’s interruption was a muffled curse when Jay’s words made him drop a tea cup and splash hot tea all over his hand.

“I’m fine,” Ben informed them then added, “You don’t have to want to have sex with someone to be capable of loving them, Jay. Most parents tend to love their children and vice versa.”

“Yeah, and I love you and I never want to have sex with you because that would be gross. You’re practically my brother,” Mal said with a decisive nod. She even crossed her arms over her chest, just daring Jay to argue with her.

“You’re really not my type,” Evie said with a small smile that was quickly threatening to turn into an amused grin.

“I’ll try to contain myself,” Carlos deadpanned and managed to keep a completely unimpressed look on his face long enough for Jay to twist around and stare up at him. Carlos lasted another second before the look on Jay’s face forced him into giggling. Jay had never used his ‘hey, sexy, what’s up?’ expression on him before, and given the current situation, Carlos found it hilarious.

Apparently so did Mal and Evie because they started giggling, too.

Ben brought a tray full of cinnamon rolls and teacups over to the bed. No one commented on the entire tea set he’d pulled seemingly out of nowhere. Jay sat up and everyone rearranged themselves on the bed so they could eat.

“So are you done freaking out?” Mal asked after everyone had finished their first cinnamon roll. “Can we reschedule it if you aren’t? I am exhausted, and it’s Saturday so we should watch all the horrible movies we missed out on when we were kids.”

“We should watch the one with the spaceships,” Jay decided and grinned when his suggestion turned into a good natured argument. Ben insisted on watching a series in a certain order, Carlos insisted Jay had mean a different series involving spaceships, Evie was trying to get everyone to agree to a schedule for food and breaks, and Mal just shared a grin with Jay.

“Feel better?” Mal mouthed while the others argued.

Jay thought about it and shrugged. “I will,” he mouthed back.