Final installment. Hope you all enjoyed the story!
Jane was reading by the light of a lantern, crickets chirping in the decorative bushes, sitting slumped on the stone bench as she tried to focus on the book she held in her hands.
She heard a set of familiar footsteps and sensed someone sitting on the bench next to her, but she refused to look up.
It was agonizing waiting in the silence that followed, but she forced her face to stay pointed towards the book.
She jumped slightly when he finally started talking.
"I have this recurring dream," he said. "I'm in her house again. Sometimes I'm back in the closet. All those furs. And it's dark. Like it was. And there's the traps on the other side, and it's just my mattress and the safe door. Except this time the door is locked. I can't get out. And I know she's there. She's got me locked in. And I can hear her. Sometimes she's laughing at me, and sometimes she's yelling at me."
Jane swallowed; the lump had returned.
"Sometimes I'm able to break out but all the doors and windows in the house are always locked. And I can hear her, and I know she's there. Sometimes I see her and it's—all over again. Sometimes I make it to the second floor balcony and I can look out. And I see my friends in the street. And I yell at them to come and help me. But they can't hear me. Or my voice isn't working. Or she grabs me, and pulls me away, and…"
Jane finally looked up at him, and saw him folded over on himself, arms wrapped around his torso, staring at nothing again.
He took a shaky breath. "It always feels so real. And when I wake up, sometimes I can't remember that I'm not there anymore. Sometimes I wake up Dude or Jay because I'm panicking."
She listened silently.
"It's been such a long time since I've seen her," he said quietly. "I was starting to get her voice out of my head. I wasn't having the dream as much."
Jane folded the book and let it slide onto the bench next to her, hugging herself against the chill in the air.
"And then I saw her today." His voice was diminishing to a whisper. "And it all came back. I couldn't do anything. I couldn't think. I wanted to be brave. I wanted to stand up to her. And stand up for you. But I couldn't. Because I'm scared. She makes me scared. And I'm weak. Because I always go back. I would go back. If she took me I would go back. Because I don't know anything else."
"But you know this now," Jane said. "Auradon. Your friends. And you know me."
Carlos nodded. "I do," he whispered. "But I still hear her voice in my head."
His hands reached up to cover his ears, as if that would stop the noises in his mind. Jane couldn't stand being distant anymore; she slid closer to him and wrapped her arms around him, tightening her grip when she felt him shaking.
"It's okay," she told him. "You're away from her right now."
"I'm sorry." His voice cracked. "I shouldn't have brought you. That must have been so horrible for you."
"Not as horrible as it must have been for you." Jane felt guilty for being angry at him. She'd gotten into plenty of fights with her mother—who didn't fight with their mothers?—and even though she wouldn't describe herself as the bravest person ever, most of the time she was able to stand up for herself, especially now that she was older. But she forgot that Carlos was different. And Cruella was different. If Jane could see the mean side of Fairy Godmother—Fairy Godmother, for goodness's sake—what must it be like to face the anger of a parent who's an abusive villain?
"But there's one thing I don't understand," Jane said. She gently pulled Carlos's hands away from his ears, and smoothed the hair around his face. "I can see how horrible she must be, but doesn't she love you at all? She called you her one true love."
Carlos gave a sticky laugh. "She wasn't talking about me."
"No?" Jane said, drawing back in surprise.
Carlos shook his head. "She was talking about her furs."
Jane felt her heart breaking. "Oh, Carlos." She hugged him again, feeling him lean into her slightly.
"She might love me, a little," he said quietly. "In her own weird, twisted way. I mean, she kept me. And she trusted me to help her with stuff."
"But that doesn't excuse the other things she did. She made you sleep in a closet?"
She felt Carlos tense and start to lean away; she shook her head vigorously and pulled him back. "Never mind. You don't have to tell me. I'm sorry."
He shrugged. "It's okay."
She wanted to say, No, it's not okay, but stating the obvious probably wasn't going to help much. She shifted until she was facing him from the front and he could wrap his arms around her if he wanted, which he did.
"You don't have to see her again," Jane said.
"Yeah, I do," Carlos said. "She's my mom."
"Well, if you do, I can come with you." But maybe that wasn't the best idea, after what happened today. "Or not," she amended. "Just let me know. I can come or not come. Whatever you need."
She felt him nod against her shoulder.
"Do you want to go inside?" she asked.
"Not yet," he said.
She hugged him a little bit tighter.
"Thank you," Carlos whispered.
It started to rain after a while—didn't it always at moments like this?—and they stood up from the bench, letting go of each other. Jane grabbed Carlos's hand before they started walking, and she felt him pull her a bit closer. They headed down the path towards the garden gate.
"Do you want to stay at my mom's place with us tonight?" Jane asked. "She could make us cookies."
"Chocolate chip cookies?" Carlos asked.
Jane wondered why that was significant. "Sure."
"I'd like that," he said.
Jane nodded. "I'll text her."
The cookies were ready by the time they reached the house. If Fairy Godmother noticed the multiple typos in the text she received from Jane, she didn't say anything. She managed to make out most of the words, which was fortunate, because Jane had been typing on her phone one-handed. She wasn't going to let go of Carlos anytime soon.