Mal could feel it when Hades’ magic started to work, the way she’d felt it the second her mother burst through the barrier and started wielding again. Her inheritance recognized where it came from- probably why her hair was shifting bluer lately. She’d been spending too much time near Hades and her roots were making themselves known.
With all the guards and Mal nearby, he didn’t bother trying to escape. His ember wasn’t much good for that sort of thing either- his domain was death and the underground, not, you know, lockpicking.
Audrey’s eyes opened and she sat bolt upright. “Oh, my granddaughter,” Queen Leah said, grasping Audrey’s hand tight. “Thank goodness you’re all right.”
For a moment, Audrey looked at her grandma, and Mal thought this might all be resolved like a bad dream with a show of remorse. Then, Audrey’s eyes flitted around the room and landed on Mal, and she leaped out of bed, nails out and at the ready, shrieking, “You! You did this to me, you stole-“
“Bibbidi-bobbidi-back to sleep,” Fairy Godmother said, waving her wand.
Audrey crashed to the floor. Ben helped Queen Leah move her back to bed.
“I wake her up and she tries to kill my kid, figures,” Hades grumbled. “She’s not gonna die- not unless she attacks Mal again, anyway- so I assume I’m heading back home?” King Adam nodded, which made the guards step forward smartly to begin frog-marching Hades out of the room. “Nice seeing you, Mallie,” he called over his shoulder. “Bye forever.”
Mal watched him go, rival emotions warring in her stomach. Hades had never been a father figure to her, not really, but then again, he’d helped when she’d asked. Twice. He’d let her borrow his ember, one of the few symbols of power he had left, and he’d come here among these holier-than-thou upper-crust Auradonians to help a girl he’d never met and had no reason to like, just because Mal had asked. He didn’t even expect anything like payment.
“Wait a second,” Mal said, hurrying out behind him, into the hallway. “Dad.”
Hades turned. The guards hesitated, a little unsure what to do at this point, but evidently, they respected Mal enough not to fight her on this. “What?”
“Thank you,” she said.
They stood in the hallway looking at each other for a long moment. Mal had rarely seen Hades even when she lived on the Isle- her mom had kept Mal well clear of any potential rivals for her daughter’s loyalty- so she studied him now. They had the same fashion sense, apparently, all leather jackets and ripped jeans and whatnot. Most of her face was her mother’s, but looking at him… she had his jaw, his eyes.
She was never going to see him again.
It surprised her, how much that idea hurt, never having a relationship with her father. Mal trotted up to him and gave him a hug. “I’m gonna miss you,” she said quietly, because no one needed to hear this but her dad.
He tucked his chin against her shoulder- the best he could hug back, given the manacles. “You’re my daughter,” he said. “You’re gonna conquer the world.” When she pulled away, he caught her hands in his, squeezing tight. “Be magnificent,” he told her.
“I will.” She swallowed. “I won’t forget you.”
Hades smirked at her. “Like you could. Tell that boy of yours, he mistreats you, he’s gonna have a hell of a reckoning when he goes to the Underworld.”
Mal smiled as her father backed away- the guards wouldn’t wait for him forever, especially not while he was obliquely threatening the king. “Bye.”
Mal didn’t really do big emotional introspection- or, at least, she liked to think she didn’t- so she promptly turned on her heel and trotted back into the room, where Queen Leah was stroking Audrey’s hair like she was sick instead of crazy.
Ben caught her eye when she re-entered the room, then turned to face the situation at hand. “All right,” he said. “Fairy Godmother, you’ve recovered the crown and the staff, right?”
She nodded. “Safely locked away back in the museum.”
“I don’t want to tell you guys how to do your job,” Mal said, “But what if there was a little more security around all the dangerous and important magical items in your very-Google-able magic item museum? My friends and I broke in there our first night here so successfully no one knew we’d done it, and now this.”
Ben nodded. “I’ll improve the guards.”
“Can you discuss this somewhere else?” Queen Leah asked. “My granddaughter needs her rest.”
“Queen Leah,” Ben said with infinite gentleness, “We can’t leave her alone right now, not after what she did.”
“She’s not alone,” the woman replied, affronted. “I’m watching over her.”
Ben knelt beside the old queen’s chair. “And I know you’d protect her with your life,” he said. “But we’re not afraid for Audrey, at the moment. We’re afraid of her.”
Queen Leah scowled. “What are you going to do to my granddaughter? You know this isn’t like her- she was misguided, going through a rough time at school; her mental health was-“
“I know,” Ben said gently. “I know. Because nothing like this has happened in Auradon before-“ Ben threw a glance at his parents, who nodded- “we’re going to have some kind of trial. Air the evidence, determine what happened, and decide what the consequences should be. And I promise, if nothing else, Princess Aurora and Prince Philip will be there to advocate on their daughter’s behalf.”
Part of Mal felt happy and proud, looking at the way Ben was handling the old queen. He was so unfailingly kind and gentle, extending his empathy and compassion even to people who’d just finished attacking him and his kingdom. He could see the best everyone, and it was one of the things she loved most about him.
The other part of Mal, though, was filled with white-hot, irrational, jealous rage. Had any of the villains on the Isle gotten this treatment? Had anyone argued that their parents had been misguided, that they’d just had a bad year, that they needed mental help? No, their parents had just been called monsters and thrown away.
Which was wrong! The treatment of their parents was wrong, so it was good that they were treating Audrey differently, but Mal couldn’t help it. She wasn’t Good, not entirely- she didn’t always feel the right thing.
“In the meantime,” Ben said, standing up. “Fairy Godmother, would you mind keeping watch on Audrey with Queen Leah? I don’t want to take you away from the school, but with your wand, you’re the most likely to be able to restrain Audrey peacefully.”
“Of course,” Fairy Godmother said. “I’ll keep an eye on her.”
“Just for a while,” Ben said. “Just until we figure out what comes next.”
Mal was not the kind of person who needed her boyfriend around her 24/7/365. She was independent and ruthless, feared by one and all. But these big banquets were much easier to navigate with Ben there, because he was like a translator, smoothing the rough edges of cultural clashing that inevitably happened whenever Mal tried to talk to someone born and bred in Auradon. He knew she liked him there, and so without ever talking about it, he did his best to stick to her side like a burr.
These banquets being what they were, however, Ben got waylaid by someone with a program they wanted implemented, so she was on her own. And she could absolutely handle it, no problem.
She was in the corner because it provided her a defensible position.
She wasn’t hiding.
“Hey,” a woman’s low voice said. “You’re Lady Mal, right?”
Mal whirled around and automatically made note of the woman’s dress for Evie. It looked different than most of the other princess dresses, drape-y-er and with a waistline slung low over her hips. It was a nice shade of purple though. Maybe Evie could make Mal a dress sort of like this one- it didn’t really look Auradonian, but it definitely wasn’t Isle, either. Mal could do with a third style option. “Um, yes, hi. I am. I’m sorry, I don’t know your name.”
“Megara,” the woman replied. “You can call me Meg. Technically Lady Megara, but anytime anyone uses my title, I get the urge to look around for whoever they’re talking to, because it can’t possibly be me.”
Mal laughed, and for once, it was even genuine. “That’s how I feel every time they call me a lady,” Mal confided.
Meg smiled back at her. “They gave lordships out like penny candy after unification. Everyone who was a big hero without being royalty was suddenly a member of the nobility. We bond over how fake it sounds sometimes- I’ll be sure to invite you in the future.”
“I appreciate it,” Mal said. “I won’t call you Lady Meg if you don’t call me Lady Mal, deal?”
“Deal.” Meg twisted her mouth to the side, looking over Mal. “You don’t know who I am, do you?”
Mal frowned. “… Meg, short for Megara? Is this a trick question?”
“Well duh, I just told you that part,” Meg said. “But you don’t know who I am.”
Whether in the Isle or in Auradon, those words said with that inflection meant exactly one thing. “No, I’m sorry, I don’t know your story,” Mal said. “Should I?”
“I heard you were Hades’ daughter.”
Mal felt her face go carefully blank. That information was public now, and it was fine. No one was targeting her for it. She was in Auradon; she was safe. “Yes I am,” she said. “I take it you knew him, before?”
“He tried to steal my soul.”
“He does that.”
“My husband is responsible for Hades being on the Isle.”
Meg smiled. “No defense for your dear old dad?”
Mal shrugged. “Mom kept him away from me- I’ve only met him a handful of times, and now he’s on the Isle, so I don’t- I don’t know if you want me to defend him so you can yell at me with a clear conscience, or-“
“No, no,” Meg said. “You got me wrong. I’m not here to try and get revenge. Hades is the god of death. He steals souls. Getting mad at him for it feels kind of like getting mad at the sun for burning my skin. Do I sleep better at night knowing he’s trapped in the Isle? Yes. Am I concocting some crazy revenge plot on his daughter who barely knows him? Absolutely not.”
“This is going much better than the last time I was at a party and bumped into someone my parents tried to kill,” Mal said.
Meg threw back her head and laughed. “I like you, kid. You’ve got moxie. I heard old Leah was giving you a hard time. She over that yet?”
“Well, her granddaughter is currently under Fairy Godmother’s watchful eye while we figure out what to do with her and I’m here as the king’s date, so no, no she absolutely is not.”
“Good luck with all that,” Meg said.
Sarcasm. Mal had missed sarcasm, away from the Isle. “Are you and I going to be good friends? I think that would disappoint Hades, and wouldn’t that be a novel change of pace, me disappointing him instead of the other way around.”
“I’m not sure he cares much about me and Herc, but hey, if it makes you happy, go nuts.” Meg offered Mal her arm. “Shall we track down that wayward boy of yours?”
Mal smiled. “We shall.”
“Thinking of the Sleeping Beauty Clan,” Meg said as they wandered through the crowd looking for Ben, “What do you know about what’s going to happen to Audrey? I know Queen Leah’s pushing for clemency, but I don’t know. Leopards don’t change their spots.”
“There’s going to be a trial,” Mal said. It was good- the rule of law was good, everything being fair and transparent was good, but she’d spent too much time on the Isle to ever think of a trial as a good thing. Trials had ruined the lives of everyone she’d ever known. “Ben hasn’t decided exactly how, though, ‘cause he wants everyone to weigh in without making it, you know, a total circus.”
“He’s a good kid,” Meg said. “Too young for all of this, but he’s good right down to the bone. He’ll do what’s right.”
Before she could stop herself, Mal asked, “What even is right, in this situation?”
Meg smiled as she looked sidelong at the girl. “That just slipped right out, didn’t it? Don’t be embarrassed. I think, when all’s said and done, the girl needs to be punished. We sent people to the Isle for less, back in the old days.”
“And look how well that turned out,” Mal replied.
Audrey’s trial ended up happening in the only way it could- in front of the Council.
Ben had all kinds of councilors, of course: the lifelong bureaucrats who’d served Auradon since its inception, its best educators and scholars, and of course his parents. The Council was different. Beauty and her Beast had crafted one country from dozens of kingdoms, and the former kings and queens did not give up authority easily. To pacify them, King Adam had given them all seats on a council whose actual powers were relatively limited but whose influence was vast. It included all the best that Good had to offer, benevolent monarchs sitting side-by-side with folk heroes and soldiers.
It helped, a little, that Audrey spent the entire trial fixated on Mal with bright, angry eyes, testing her restraints every few minutes like she couldn’t bear to not be attacking Mal at any point in time. It helped, a little, that Mal flinched every time Audrey did so.
“Please,” Aurora said, looking up at Ben with her back straight, chin up, begging with all the royal pride she had. “Please, that is my eldest daughter. She is not well. Let me take her home, we can restrain her there, let me and Philip take care of her, heal her- Flora, Fauna, and Merriweather could use their magic if you let them, just-“
Audrey lunged again, rattling the chains loudly, and again, Mal flinched from where she sat in the audience. Evie held her hand and Jay wrapped an arm around her shoulders, glaring right back at Audrey.
Ben gave Aurora the best smile he could, under the circumstances. “I wish I could. I know how upsetting this is for me, and Audrey is only one of my oldest friends- I can’t imagine how much more upsetting it would be for you. But I am the king of Auradon, and in Auradon, it has always been the rule that if you hurt people, if you steal magic to be used for your own selfish purposes, if you threaten the life of a child, then you are sent to the Isle of the Lost.”
“That’s for villains,” Aurora said. “My daughter is not a villain, my daughter is-“
“Girl pulled a knife on me!” Celia shouted from where she was supposed to be sitting quietly in the audience. “That’s an Isle of the Lost move right there, believe me, I’d know.”
Aurora tipped her head at Ben. “And we’re believing her? Should we have Princess Tiana and Prince Naveen explain why that’s a bad idea?”
“Celia is not her father,” Ben said. “And even discrediting her testimony, there is overwhelming evidence that Audrey cursed half the kingdom asleep and cursed the other half into stone. Your highness, the last person to curse a kingdom asleep was put in the Isle of the Lost, you know that better than anyone.”
“But she’s my daughter,” Aurora said, eyes too bright. “Please.”
Finally, another of the councilors stood- General Mulan. Ben relaxed, seeing the Council’s self-appointed voice of reason finally intervene. “We grieve with you, Aurora,” she said. “But you’ve made your case. It’s time to sit down.”
“I’ll never see her again.”
Ben shook his head. “No. The more I think about it, the more I realize that a permanently closed barrier isn’t helping anyone. There are people who deserve to be trapped on that island, the worst and most dangerous of the bunch- Hades, Ursula, Shan Yu. But the children who live there deserve a better life than what’s available on the Isle, and they also deserve to see their parents, so I’ve been thinking… I am going to create a checkpoint, a place for controlled entry and exit from the Isle, only for people we know we can trust. You could use that to visit your daughter whenever you wanted, Princess Aurora.”
Now it was Princess Ella who stood up- one of Princess Aurora’s oldest friends, so of course she continued in the same thread. “What about Mal and Uma?” she asked. “They both stole magic, threatened the kingdom. Where is their punishment?”
“Mal undid what she wrought, and has since been a model citizen,” Ben said. “Uma’s plan failed, and while she did illegally live in Auradonian waters for the better part of a year, she was also instrumental in stopping Audrey from enacting her plan. Furthermore… this may make me sound biased, but the biggest victim of both of their schemes was me, and I understand their reasons and forgive them. Audrey victimized everyone in Auradon, and while some may forgive her, not everyone does. Also, it’s worth noting that Uma is living back on the Isle, not here in Auradon.”
“Voluntarily,” Princess Ella said. “If you condemn Audrey there, she will not go voluntarily.”
Ben nodded. “Uma also only attacked in an attempt to free herself and her friends from prison, a prison they were only in because of an accident of birth. I cannot condone her actions, but as motivations go… who among us wouldn’t have tried something similar, in her shoes?”
Ella frowned. “It sounds like your mind is made up.”
“I… I think it is. Audrey must go live on the Isle.”
Mal leapt to her feet. “Ben, if you send her there, you need to bring Freddie back here to Auradon, Freddie Facilier. Audrey pulled a knife on her little sister- unless there’s a barrier between her and Freddie, she’s going to get revenge.”
Princess Aurora looked horrified. “She’ll be in danger- you can’t assure her safety, Ben-“
“She’ll be perfectly safe so long as Freddie’s gone,” Mal said. “If it’ll make you feel better, I can ask Uma to keep an eye on her, help get her settled in a new place.”
“Yes,” Princess Aurora said, voice dripping with sarcasm, “That would make me feel better.”
Ben smacked the gavel hard. “Good,” he said, willfully ignoring Aurora’s tone. “That’s how it’ll be, then. We’ll give Audrey and her family two days to pack her things and say their goodbyes, and then we will deliver her to Uma on the other side of the barrier. She will stay there on the Isle permanently, allowed regular visits from her family.” When Princess Aurora opened her mouth, ready to object, Ben added, “My decision is final.”
Setting up the Auradon-Isle checkpoint and granting Uma and Harry the very first checkpoint pass-cards to let them travel through it was the worst thing Ben had ever done. It was a political and bureaucratic nightmare, he barely slept for an entire week, Mal started hovering next to his desk with big concerned eyes, and he almost threatened four different people with murder, but in the end, he did it. They were going to open up the Isle one way or another, he kept arguing, and the only way to make the transition smooth is to have Isle leaders help organize it, and Uma was basically all the Isle had. Well, Mal and Uma mentioned some other girl a few times, but he didn’t know her, so he wasn’t going through all of this again for her. They’d start with Uma and Harry; that would have to be enough.
Despite the hard-fought battle, or perhaps because of it, Ben found himself smiling at Uma and Harry sitting in the council chamber. Neither one of them had shed any of their Isle look- Uma still had her tricorn hat and turquoise braids; Harry still had his aggressive eyeliner and coat modeled after his father’s. The only concession they made for Auradon was in their lack of weapons- their swords were back home guarded by others in Uma’s crew, and Harry’s hook had been carefully placed in a box that Ben had agreed to keep an eye on personally.
A few of the other councilors noticed them- Prince Eric especially kept glaring at Uma- but by and large, they were ignored, slouching low in their chairs in the back of the room, eyes suspiciously darting about.
“All right,” Ben said, smacking the gavel. “I call this council meeting to order. All we have on the agenda today is continuing to hammer out details for opening up the Isle. What ideas do people have?”
Wendy Darling raised her hand. “I’d like to propose a program.”
“The floor is yours.”
She stood up and smiled out across the crowd. “In recent months, a lot of us realized for the first time that the children of the Isle may in fact be in danger of abuse from their own parents. Many of us, like myself, assumed that the villains would love and protect their children if they chose to have them. Now that we know that’s not the case, I suggest that some of our officials go into the Isle and assess each parent’s ability, and, in the case of abusive or neglectful parents, remove the children and place them into an environment where they can thrive. I’d be happy to offer up my home as a foster situation for children fleeing abusive households.”
Ben nodded- not a bad idea. Mal and her friends rarely talked about the specifics of their life on the Isle, but he knew it wasn’t good. He’d seen Carlos’s scars when they’d all gone swimming. You don’t get those in a loving home. “Have you talked to anyone else about participating in this program?”
“I have a list of potential foster homes,” Mrs. Darling said, passing forward a piece of paper, “And a handful of us, myself included, are willing to go into the Isle and conduct parental assessments. Assuming you grant us pass-point cards, that is.”
“I promise, those will become more readily available in the future,” Ben said, glancing at the paper and setting it aside. The names weren’t a surprise- everyone in Mrs. Darling’s circle of friends was on it. “Sounds good to me. Anyone else have thoughts, comments on it?”
Uma stood in the corner of the room. “No,” she said. “You can’t do that.”
Ben smiled and said, “You all know Uma. She and Harry are here representing the opinions of Isle residents so they can have a voice when we discuss issues that may affect them. What’s your problem with Mrs. Darling’s proposal?”
“I don’t trust you,” Uma said. “Who are you to judge who’s being a good parent and who isn’t? What’s to stop you from calling all Isle adults bad parents and taking all their kids away?”
“I’m a parent,” Mrs. Darling said. “I raised two excellent young men. I know what children need- a safe home environment, three square meals a day-“
Harry outright snorted at that. “Good luck finding that anywhere on the Isle.”
All the blood drained from Mrs. Darling’s face. “Are you… are you Captain Hook’s son?”
Harry gave her an incredibly toothy smile.
“Chill,” Uma said, gently shoving him in the shoulder. “Look, I get your whole heroic-savior thing, but it’s too late. Yanking kids away from their families is just gonna make them more pissed off.”
“Only the ones with abusive families,” Mrs. Darling replied, her ferocious smile not reaching her eyes.
“By your definition, everyone on the Isle is abusive because we don’t have the resources not to be,” Uma said. “Me and my crew, we keep an eye on some of the orphans, and if they stay on the boat they’re gonna get taken care of as best we can, but we can’t feed them three times a day. I can’t feed myself three times a day with what y’all give us.”
Mrs. Darling’s eyes glittered dangerously. “Maybe you should sacrifice for your children, feed them at your own expense.”
“Hang on,” Ben said, interrupting Uma and hoping beyond hope that she didn’t get offended. Judging by the way she glared, she absolutely did. Well, he’d had a good run, and having Harry gut him wouldn’t be the worst way to go. “Both of you are making excellent points.” Both women frowned at him in confusion. “Mrs. Darling, you’re absolutely right. I know some of the kids on the Isle are subject to egregious abuse at the hands of their own parents, and I want nothing more than to get them to a safe space. But Uma, you’re also right. Some things that would be considered abusive on Auradon are just par for the course on the Isle, like limited meals, and if I’m right, child labor? Dizzie mentioned working for her grandmother’s shop.”
Uma rolled her eyes. “Child labor. Dizzie swept the place after school and you’re calling that child labor.”
“Exactly,” Ben said. “To a lot of us here in Auradon, the idea of putting little Dizzie to work is horrifying, but she wasn’t being hurt and it’s the way things are done on the Isle, so that absolutely shouldn’t be grounds for taking a child away from her parents. So I think before any version of Mrs. Darling’s program is implemented, we should get a better sense of how kids live on the Isle, and fix what problems we can fix. Am I right in thinking giving out food would be a good place to start, to get a look at the kids, at least?”
She looked sideways at Harry, who shrugged. “Fine,” Uma said. “Some of the older kids might not take your free lunches, but the knee-biters will.”
Ben nodded. “Thank you. Who would be willing to donate food to the Isle children?” A sea of hands went up. “Good- I’ll circulate a sign-up list. At first, I’ll manage this program personally, with input from Lady Mal and Uma regarding the specific needs on the Isle, but once it’s established, I’ll be more than happy to delegate it to whoever’s interested. And Mrs. Darling- we can use this to take a look at the Isle children and get a better sense of what their situation is. Does that sound fair?”
Mrs. Darling nodded, then directed her fake smile at Uma. “Absolutely.”
“I just wanna say,” Harry said, getting to his feet, “Wendy Darling… if you try’n take CJ away from our papa, because of your history, that’s not goin’ to end well for you.”
Uma grabbed the back of his coat again, tugging him down. “Harry-“
“He makes a good point,” Ben said. “I think, to avoid even the idea that people might be acting on old grudges, no one who helped testify against any villain may be involved in casework regarding said villain’s children. That applies to everyone- Mom and Dad won’t get to have any input on Gaston’s kids. Does that sound fair?”
Mrs. Darling frowned. “Hang on- I know better than anyone just how unfit for parenthood Captain Hook is, I-“ Harry tried to lunge to his feet, but his captain was swifter, pinning him down with one arm over his chest. “Look at what a violent young man he raised!”
“You’re talkin’ about takin’ his little sister away,” Uma said. “We don’t care about much on the Isle, but family’s family. He’s bound to get a little defensive.”
Princess Ella stood up. “I’m also not sure about this rule,” she said. “Some of us have firsthand experience with these villain’s parenting skills. Our input is relevant.”
Ben nodded a little as he thought. “You’re right, Princess Ella. However, I think… I think there’s too little trust between Auradon and the Isle right now for your input to be well-received.”
“Plus, if you knew our parents were gonna suck at being parents and left us there for a couple decades anyway, aren’t you complicit in what’s happened to us?” Uma asked.
Princess Ella sniffed, sitting down once more.
“Tell you what, I’ll leave the rule open to case-by-case appeal,” Ben said, “But in general- no one who participated in a villain’s trial is eligible to manage casework regarding said villain’s kids.” He banged the gavel. “Cogsworth?”
“Right away, your Majesty,” Cogsworth said, bustling out of the room with a piece of paper- the new law, to be formally put into the Auradon law code.
God, Ben liked getting things done. “All right. Onto more cheerful matters- let’s get this food drive organized and see what we’re dealing with, in terms of quality of life for Isle kids.”
“Hey, Carlos,” Roger said with a smile from where he sat behind the receptionist’s desk at the animal shelter he ran with his wife. “How was school?”
“Good!” Carlos flung his bag into its usual corner. “Evie and I absolutely crushed the chem final. Mal and Jay said it killed them though, so. Fingers crossed they graduate on time.”
Roger smiled. “Anita’s out running errands, but she promised to be back by dinnertime. Hope you like dumplings- she’s definitely going to bring you some takeout.”
“You know that’s my favorite,” Carlos said. “Did that veterinarian friend of yours call back about recommendation letters?”
A look of panic crossed Roger’s face briefly. “I… have no idea. Anita will, though. I can’t imagine why she couldn’t recommend you, so.”
“No worries. You’ve already done so much for me- like, more than anyone else would have, especially with, you know. My background,” Carlos said. “I… I really appreciate it.”
“Of course,” Roger said. “You’re a good kid, great with animals. That’s all we need around here.”
Carlos smiled at Roger for another second, then ducked into the back to get to work. There weren’t that many stray or abandoned animals in Auradon, but there were always new puppies, or cats who’d gotten lost, or animals that had been surrendered for reasons outside their owner’s control. And the parrot. The parrot freaked Carlos out, because no matter how much Roger and Anita insisted it wasn’t Iago, Carlos was absolutely convinced it was Iago.
There wasn’t much to do today, so Carlos had lots of time to just hang out with the animals. One of the kittens was feeling especially cuddly, so he just picked it up like a baby and wandered around the back of the shelter with it, poking around, investigating. The bulletin board of headlines about the shelter fascinated him- Roger and Anita got plenty of good press, because everybody liked reading about rescued animals, and they’d pinned up all their favorite articles. He’d seen the pictures before: Roger and Anita in their house with their dogs, Roger playing piano to a group of spellbound puppies, Anita cutting the ribbon to the then-new shelter. However, he’d never had the time to read everything in excruciating detail before.
Roger and Anita Radcliffe pictured above at Dalmatian Plantation, their country home famously purchased after saving Dalmatian puppies from Cruella de Vil.
Carlos almost dropped the kitten.
Unlike most villains on the Isle, Carlos’s mother hadn’t fixated on the people who’d taken her down. His mother had instead been wholly obsessed with the dogs. The story she’d told about her life on the outside had never mentioned the names Roger and Anita- it had only been the dogs, the ninety-nine perfect Dalmatian puppies, the freakishly clever too-perfect puppies who’d resisted her turning them into a coat.
Carlos knew his bosses had Dalmatians, but he hadn’t realized they had the Dalmatians.
He walked back out front.
“Oh my God, isn’t she precious?” Roger said, coming out from behind the desk. “Hi, little one, who’s a sleepy baby?”
“You…” Carlos couldn’t find the words. “You and Anita owned the Dalmatians.”
Roger frowned. “You didn’t know that?”
“No, I- I ran into your wife at the dog park, she saw me with Dude and she just… she just let me know I could volunteer. I- I’m Cruella deVil’s son, and this whole time, you’ve been… you owned the Dalmatians.”
“Breathe,” Roger said, putting his hands on Carlos’s shoulders. “Breathe. That’s all in the past, this is the present.”
“But Mom… she- she tried to skin your puppies. She still talks about them, sits around and daydreams about turning puppies, your puppies, into a coat.”
“Cruella de Vil, Cruella de Vil,” Roger sang, “If she doesn’t scare you, no-“ Carlos made a face; he didn’t exactly have good memories associated with that song. “Sorry, that’s insensitive. Look, our dogs are fine. Your mother’s in a place where she can’t hurt any more animals, and best of all, her son is in the business of fixing up animals, and he’s also a great kid. This turned out perfectly.”
Carlos sighed. “You’re crazy,” he said, turning back into the back room to return the kitten to its littermates.
“I’m not crazy!” Roger called after him. The jingly bell on the front door sounded, and he added, “Anita, tell the boy I’m not crazy.”
“He is crazy,” Anita called. “Hi, Carlos, I brought you some takeout- dumplings and a Coke okay?”
Carlos poked his head out from the back. “You owned the Dalmatians.”
“He didn’t know that, honey,” Roger said.
“I know he didn’t know that- how did you find out? I was so careful,” Anita said.
Carlos narrowed his eyes. “News clippings in the back mentioned my mom. Why were you keeping this from me?”
“I thought it might freak you out,” Anita said. “I heard what happened between Sleeping Beauty’s family and your friend Mal, and I thought, no way, I do not want to get involved in that, I just want to take care of some dogs.”
“You knew who I was the second we met,” Carlos said. “And you hired me to work with animals, after what my mom did to you, you personally. You guys are crazy.”
“Oh, that’s why you were calling Roger crazy,” Anita said. “He absolutely is not, we made a great call and I stand by it. Well, now that the cat’s out of the bag- or the dog, rather, I suppose- would you want to visit our home sometime? Meet some Dalmatians?”
Carlos sat down hard on the floor.
“What, it’s not like you’re going to skin them,” Anita said, as if the very idea was ridiculous. “Yes, you have your mother’s affection for red, white, and black as a color palette, but that doesn’t mean you’re going to go crazy and kill a bunch of dogs, you love animals too much for that. So why shouldn’t you meet our Dalmatians?”
“Anita,” Roger said gently, “I think you’re overwhelming the boy.” He grabbed the box of takeout food and carried it over to Carlos. “Come on, eat something. Want to call one of your friends to come get you? Jane, Evie, Jay?”
Carlos looked up at Roger, offering him food and a phone, and Anita, who was looking down at him with tenderness and kindness. “You don’t hate me,” he said. “For my mom. You… you don’t hate me.”
“Of course not,” Anita said. “You’re not her. Now eat up, your sandwich is getting cold.”
Saying “let’s organize a humanitarian food delivery to the Isle kids” was much easier than doing it, and saying it wasn’t exactly easy. The Council wasn’t good at detail work- too many opinions, too much history. Big ideas they absolutely could handle; the execution of minutia, not so much. And of course, Ben was eighteen years old, so he had no idea what the hell he was doing. He suspected no one did, so he just gathered a bunch of people who all knew something relevant and got them into one room in the hopes that magic would happen.
His parents were invited, because they had successfully run Auradon for twenty years.
Uma, because she knew the Isle best, and Harry, because he went where she went, a non-negotiable term of Uma’s attendance.
And then him and Mal, as referees.
“We don’t need some fancy government welfare program,” Uma said. “Just let people and stuff in and out. We can buy food if people are allowed to sell it to us. That’s all we need.”
Ben’s parents exchanged a look. “But we’re offering,” Belle replied, turning back to Uma, “Wouldn’t you prefer some of your basic necessities, freely given, rather than-“
“No, no, we don’t.” Uma glared, enough to make Ben’s dad shift his weight as he bit back the urge to defend his wife.
“And why not?”
“We don’t trust you.” Neither of Ben’s parents had anything to say to that. Uma settled back in her seat, arms crossed, a self-satisfied smirk on her face. Harry, Ben noticed, shifted his weight back a little, mirroring her, but he remained on the edge of his seat, ready to spring into action at a moment’s notice. “None of us trust you to be even a little bit fair about any of this, not where the Isle is involved.”
Adam was the first to recollect his words. “I beg your pardon? We’re the good guys, we don’t cheat, we play-“
“Where are you gonna deliver all this food?” Uma asked.
Adam frowned slightly. “Somewhere centrally located, ideally in a district with other service-based businesses-“
“Town center is Ginny’s territory,” Uma said. “Unless Mal moves back to the Isle and you give her, I don’t know, four weeks to run Ginny and her friends back to the ‘burbs. Ginny wouldn’t let me or any of my friends anywhere near anything you put in town center.”
“Then we’d put it in your territory,” Beauty replied. “On the condition you’d let anyone in.”
“And then Ginny’s fears are confirmed, you’re playing favorites because I’m here talking to you and she’s not, so she sneaks up behind you one quiet night and tries to suck the marrow out of your bones.” Uma scowled. “We. Don’t. Trust. You.”
Ben nodded. “The next time we meet up like this- because there’ll have to be a next time- we’ll make the meeting more open. It’s not fair to make you and Harry speak on behalf of everyone in the Isle.”
“Princess here could help, if she wasn’t busy pretending not to be from the Isle,” Uma snapped.
Mal rolled her eyes. “Please, I’m behind on the times. I thought you had my old territory, not Ginny. You really let Ginny take the best spots? What, did you turn chicken?”
Harry leapt to his feet, roaring, “You watch your-“
“Harry,” Uma said, catching him by the back of his shirt and towing him back down. “Chill. You know my pirate crew prefers shorelines. We don’t have the manpower to have the shores and town center. Ginny would surround anyone I put in your old territory. Think it through.”
“See?” Mal raised her eyebrows. “This is why we put up with your personality. You know the Isle.”
Uma narrowed her eyes at Mal, inherently suspicious of any kind of praise coming from her old rival. Ben didn’t want this to devolve into them just sniping at each other, which it absolutely could, so he asked, “Is there anything we can do as a gesture of good faith? I know we can’t build trust overnight, but something that might be a first step, so delivering food can at least go smoothly?”
Ben almost frowned- she was a very decisive young woman, Ben was pretty sure he’d never seen her hesitate before- but he didn’t want her to think he was mad at her. Of course, she wasn’t looking at him. She was looking at Harry, whose eyes were level and serious for once, not burning with his usual fanatic mania. He nodded.
“One thing,” Uma said. “Y’all have been in charge of this system, you and your parents, and all the reparations you’ve done so far, it hasn’t cost you anything. Not really. If you did something that hit a little closer to home, we on the Isle would see that you mean business.”
“It sounds like you have something in mind,” Beast said.
Uma’s chin came up, proud. “Give Gil a scholarship to your fancy prep school,” she said. “Gil, son of Gaston.”
When his parents froze stone cold, Ben realized that keeping this conversation going was really going to be up to him. They were afraid of Gaston- his mom had told him that one night, after telling him the story of how she’d met Ben’s father before bed. He’d asked her about Gaston, curious about the only character in the story he hadn’t met, and she’d said she hated talking about him, because it just reminded her of how scary he was. She’d described what it felt like to have her options stripped away by his proposal, how he’d almost sent Grandpa to an insane asylum, how he’d done his level best to kill Ben’s dad after she knew Adam was no beast. The next day Ben had asked his dad about it, expecting him to get angry and protective of his wife, but he’d just been scared too. He’d told the other half of the story, the half where he was trapped in a castle knowing his beloved was trapped somewhere else, and that if Gaston successfully killed him he would then go on to take Belle away from her books and force her into a life she would hate. It was more than a fear for his life or hers, Adam explained- it was the fear that Gaston would keep Belle living but kill something vital inside of her, the part of her that Ben’s dad loved.
However, Ben had also met Gil, and the idea of being afraid of Gil was as absurd as being afraid of, like, a cow. Yes, cows were big, and cows could theoretically hurt people, but they weren’t smart enough to be a credible threat. Or, you know, have malice.
“Would anyone get mad that we’re bringing in one of your friends instead of someone else?”
Uma shook her head. “No, they’d expect stuff like that. Evie got to bring her little friend to Auradon and Mal got to bring the Faciliers, so of course I get to bring mine. No one would get mad- well, not madder than they already are.”
“No,” Belle finally said, voice small. “No, I can’t.”
“What?” Mal said, voice icy cold. “Gil’s not even a threat. He’s in Uma’s crew out of pity.”
“Hey,” Uma snapped. “I don’t say that shit about Carlos or Evie, so you don’t-“
“No,” Belle said again. “I- I’m sorry, I can’t.”
Mal fixed her eyes on the dowager queen. “Your majesty,” she said. “You let me and the others in, knowing we’d freak out all your friends this bad, but you can’t handle Gil? He’s dumb as a rock. He and Jay get along like a house on fire. He’s not… I’m more of a threat than Gil is.”
“You’re defending him,” Belle said. “What his father did-“
“We know,” Uma growled. “Believe me, we all know exactly what Gaston’s like. You didn’t mind leaving all of us trapped on an island with him, but God forbid his son, my friend, come get a fucking education.”
Beauty shook her head. “But you were children.”
“And?” Uma replied.
Belle blinked at her. “What do you mean, and?”
“You know that Gaston liked picking on people weaker than him, better than anyone,” Mal said. “Children are weaker than him.”
“He would- he would bully children?” Belle asked.
“Duh,” Uma replied.
Belle chewed her lower lip. “But Gil isn’t like that, right?”
Uma rolled her eyes. “Gil follows directions. He was only a bully when I told him to be, and never against the kids we look after on our boat. They all think he’s great, climbin’ all over him like he’s rigging or something.”
The queen looked at the king, then said… “Fine. Fine. A gesture of goodwill. We’ll get started on the paperwork.”
“You’re friends with the Radcliffes, right?” Mal asked. “Roger and Anita?”
“Of course,” Beauty replied. “Why?”
“They’ve already done this,” Mal said. “With aplomb. If they can manage it, so can you.”
Uma gave Ben’s parents an incredibly terrifying smile. “Also, if you hurt Gil in any way-“ she very deliberately let go of Harry, “I’m gonna stop holding this one back.”
Mal fidgeted beside Ben in the limo, watching the guards ineffectually attempt to pull Isle-dwellers away from their truck long enough to unlock it. The only real in-shipments the Isle ever saw were the garbage scows- the gleaming truck was new and different and everyone wanted to get the first crack at it.
A couple of the littlest kids watching, here for the show, were sucking on rocks. Mal remembered doing that when she was their age- when Isle kids got too hungry and kept crying, grownups would give them rocks to suck on. Something to keep their mouths occupied when food wasn’t available.
There was food in the truck and those four-year-olds were sucking on rocks.
“I know it’s not my job, but-“
“Do it,” Ben said.
Mal burst out of the door, climbed on top of the limo, and leapt from there to the top of the truck. “Hey, morons!” she shouted. “Get away from the truck, the guards are trying to unlock it to give out food, but you’re all in the way.” At first the kids froze, used to listening to her, but then she said the magic word food and they couldn’t help but press closer. “Back up or we’re driving away.”
The mob staggered backwards.
“Good. Now- no, don’t unlock it yet, if you do, they’re gonna rush you,” Mal said. “Toss me the key.”
She’d seen the jackal-hungry smiles on some of the older kids’ faces- they absolutely would have attacked an Auradon guard for food, but none would attack Mal, especially not when she had the high ground. “All right. The food is pre-packed lunch bags. Everyone gets one. One. You tell us your name, we write it down, you get food. Don’t try to come back here in a disguise, I know you, I know your faces, you can’t fool me. We want your names because we’re working on projects to make the Isle suck less, and maybe let more kids into Auradon, and for all of that they need to know who all’s here. So once you get food, spread the word, make sure everyone shows up. It’s free food, we just need your name. The king might ask you some questions after you eat but you don’t have to answer. Understood?” Ben would also be taking notes on the kids’ conditions, but they didn’t need to know that.
Mal surveyed the crowd. There were some sour looks- there were always sour looks on the Isle- but nothing hostile enough to signify future violence. “Okay. I swear, if anyone tries to rush the truck, I’m turning into a dragon. You saw me do it and none of you can stop me.”
“And then I’ll gut you for chum,” Uma called from where she and her pirate crew lurked at the edge of the crowd. “Pretty princess is finally keeping one of her goddamn promises, don’t any of you knuckleheads give her an excuse to weasel out.”
Mal made a face. “Thanks, Uma.”
Uma flipped her off.
Rolling her eyes, Mal leapt off the truck to unlock the back doors. Uma swept through the crowd to meet her right at the front of the line and leapt up into the truck bed once the door was open. “You sure you got enough back here, highness?” Uma said.
“We have a second truck waiting in case we need it,” Mal said. “Are you here to be snarky or are you here to help?”
“Help,” Uma said. “What, you gonna get everyone on the Isle fed yourself? ‘Cause you know we’ll lie to the king, his guards, whoever, if there’s food in it for us.”
Mal gave Uma the smallest possible smile. “Thanks.”
“Welcome.” Uma glared out into the crowd. “Come on. Harry, Bonny, Desiree, you first, grab your grub then go round everybody up.”
Her lieutenants got bright-eyed, looking at the truck.
“Harry, make sure the children stay on task,” Uma said, voice dangerously sweet.
Harry looked up at her with his usual bright, fanatical eyes. “Of course.”
Mostly for the sheer joy of it, Mal asked Uma after they’d handled the initial rush, “So are you and Harry dating?”
“Ooh, fancy Auradon girl talking about dating. You really forgot what it’s like here?”
Mal rolled her eyes and dutifully noted down the next name. “Of course I didn’t. Just because we didn’t call it dating doesn’t mean it isn’t. Are you hooking up, or whatever?”
“None of your business,” Uma said. “Next!”
Credit where credit was due- Uma made the whole thing go ten times faster. Which, once Mal had a chance to think for a second, made sense. She worked at a restaurant. She had relevant experience.
The process took all day, but finally around six or so, the steady stream of villain kids slowed down to a trickle, then to nothing. Ben joined Mal and Uma to sit beside them on the back of the truck.
“It’s so cool how you guys know everyone,” Ben said. “Anytime someone tried to grab a second lunch, you were onto them.”
“I’m a community leader,” Uma said with relish. “Me and my crew keep tabs on this place, ‘specially since Mal and her chosen playmates bounced.”
Mal swallowed her bite of food. “What Uma means is, we both led gangs, and if you didn’t remember everyone’s face and whose side they were on, you were just asking to get a knife in your back.”
“That’s what I said.” Uma gave Mal a big, fake smile. “Anyway, little king, what are these lists really for?”
Ben frowned. “What do you mean? You were there are the meeting where we decided this, we just want to figure out who’s here, who needs help, who needs a pass-point card, who-“
“Yeah,” Ben replied.
“Y’all are gonna let us run around Auradon after what I did?” Uma replied.
Mal smirked. “No, we’re going to let everyone but you run around Auradon, because the first time you were there you love-spelled the king and tried to attack everyone.”
“Pot, kettle,” Uma said. “Then I saved your asses, so if the pattern holds, do I get a hot princely boyfriend? Not you, blue. You bore me.”
“Aren’t you…” Ben trailed off, looking at Mal with a perplexed frown. “Wouldn’t that upset Harry?”
Mal patted his knee. “The Isle is complicated.”
Uma scowled. “Fuck you.”
“Fuck you,” Mal replied companionably. “Or wait, no, that’s Harry’s job.”
Ben, eyes wide, said, “Whoa.”
Both girls dissolved into laughter. “I’m sorry, Ben,” Mal said. “This is how we’ve always talked here.”
“Didn’t mean to offend your delicate sensibilities,” Uma added with a distinctly predatory grin.
Blushing bright red, Ben changed the subject. “This worked, though, right? I mean, even with it being on the shoreline? Did Ginny and her people come by?”
“Not herself, but most of her minions,” Mal said. “Uma, you can look over the list, see if I forgot anyone who boycotted.”
“She and I talked it over,” Uma said. “And-“
“You talked to her?” Mal asked, whirling on her old rival. “Not in person, right?”
Uma rolled her eyes. “Of course in person. I had Harry and Gil right behind me, plus all the others on rooftops. Anyway, we parleyed, and we ceded the gateway to you and your bullshit, Mal. It’s from my territory, so she didn’t mind, and it’s you finally keeping a goddamn promise, so I don’t mind. Fair warning, though- don’t try to pull this anywhere else, because Ginny’s still, you know. Ginny.”
“Did you see what you needed to, Ben?” Mal asked. “From the kids, how we live here?”
“You’re not part of we anymore, princess,” Uma replied with a big, fake smile.
Ben nodded. “Yeah. I should be able to talk Wendy out of resource requirements- you know, taking kids if their parents can’t feed them- and maybe just restrict her to rescuing ones with no dedicated caretakers, or those whose caretakers are violent against their kids. Would you be okay with that?”
Uma blinked when she realized he was looking at her. “I can’t exactly be against it,” she said. “Fewer orphans runnin’ around would help everyone.”
“We might open up the definition a little more later. I know right now, if I tried to take all kids whose parents were being emotionally abusive-“
“There wouldn’t be anyone left,” Ben said. “But Uma… you understand, right? That parents shouldn’t treat their kids the way you all are treated here?”
Uma nodded. “Yeah. Yeah, I fucking know that, better than you do. But y’all put us here, y’all left us here, so you don’t get to be mad about how we turned out.”
“Exactly,” Ben said. “So, we rescue the violently abused and work on reducing all the other kinds of abused later.”
“Not as bad a rule as it could have been,” Uma said, getting to her feet and shaking out her skirts. “They’ll be expecting me back in Harbortown. My crew gets restless when I’m not about, and I got mouths to feed.”
Mal leaned over and counted out leftover lunchboxes. “You picked up any more knee-biters since the last I heard?”
“One,” Uma said. “Little boy, Dirk.”
“You guys really go all out naming those kids after weapons,” Mal said, adding one more lunchbox to her stack then passing them over to Uma. “For your mouths.”
Uma nodded. “This is the least of what you owe us, highness,” she said, then melted into the night.
“You all move very quietly around here,” Ben said.
“It’s how you avoid getting shanked,” Mal replied.
“Hey,” Ben said on the car ride home.
Mal looked up at him, squeezing his hand. “Hey.”
“I feel like I should know more about Ginny Gothel,” he said. “You and Uma mention her quite a bit, but I don’t… I don’t really know anything about her. And I think you’re both afraid of her, which means I should probably be absolutely terrified.”
Mal dropped her eyes to their interlaced fingers, nodding. “I am,” she replied. “Scared of her, I mean. Even with the barrier, I just… I got in the habit of being afraid of her.”
“How is she… I don’t mean this as a slight, but how is she worse than Uma?”
“Well,” Mal said. “She’s a cannibal.”
At first, the noises refused to translate themselves into words in Ben’s head. His ears were working, but his brain just didn’t accept the input. He reran what she said over in his mind again, and no, yeah, she said cannibal.
“She only ever ate one person,” Mal said, “But also, she ate a person, and you don’t exactly have to eat a lot of people to have eaten enough people to be terrifying.”
Contrary to popular belief, Ben did know how to swear. He just saved his swears for moments when they were most sorely needed. “What the fuck.”
“Yeah, the Isle, um…” Mal sighed. “The Isle sucks.”
“… what the fuck.”
Mal squeezed his hand again. “So. Mother Gothel is obsessed with looking young and being powerful, but she got stuck on the Isle with no magic, so she, uh, turned to dubious science. She got it in her head that blood transfusions from younger people would make her younger, so all us kids on the Isle got pinched by her at one point or another.”
“And she took your blood?” Ben cried.
“Yeah- it barely even hurt, it was more annoying than anything,” Mal replied. “Anyway, Ginny grows up with that in her house, and we’re pretty sure Mother Gothel was tapping Ginny from the second she could fit a needle in her veins, which made Ginny, you know. Not quite right in the head. She also got her mom’s obsession with wanting to hoard magic, so she hung around everyone who’d ever controlled so much as a lick of it. She was with Madam Mim one day, helping deliver one of her granddaughters- she doesn’t eat the baby.”
Ben had gone noticeably green about the gills, which was why Mal stopped herself mid-story to reassure him of the outcome. She rubbed his back as he took several deep breaths. “The baby is fine,” Mal said. “I don’t remember which one of Mim’s grandkids it was, but the baby is fine. Alive and well on the Isle.”
“I was not ready for this,” Ben said.
“Why do you think Uma and I are so coy about Ginny when we talk to you?”
They sat in quiet for another minute, Ben breathing heavily. Mal patted his back some more. “Okay,” he said. “Ginny’s helping with the baby who makes it to the end of the story alive.”
“Not helping so much as hanging around, I guess, but whatever. Anyway. Madam Mim’s daughter died in childbirth. Horrible, but it happens sometimes on the Isle. Lots of times. Whatever. Mim has Ginny take the body away to be buried, to get her out from underfoot, and apparently it occurred to Ginny that the girl had magic in her, and that her mom got youth out of blood, so she thought she could get magic out of the dead body. And, uh. She ate it. Not all of it. Parts of it. But, uh. Word got out, and…”
Ben’s stomach threatened to revolt.
“She never did it again, mostly because we all got very good very quickly about keeping bodies away from her, but, uh. She caught Uma once, and you know, Uma’s the daughter of a very powerful sea witch, so, uh… Ginny kept threatening to suck the marrow out of Uma’s bones, and honestly it was just luck that I got there in time to keep her from hacking off one of Uma’s fingers.”
“Stop,” Ben said.
“I asked you for this.” Ben took some more deep breaths, feeling deeply, guiltily happy that he was in Auradon, a nice thick magic barrier between himself and the Isle where a genuine freaking cannibal lived. “She’s not coming to Auradon.”
“Oh, absolutely not,” Mal said. “She’s committed to trying to eat everyone with so much as a lick of magic in them. It’s why I’m so afraid of her- I’m half-fairy, half-god. She’s done… a lot of things to try and get to me. She managed to stab me once and I saw her licking the blade clean. No way she’s coming to Auradon.”
Ben’s stomach rolled again. “You want me to treat with her the way I do Uma.”
“Absolutely not,” Mal said. “But lots of kids follow her out of fear, and if you want to improve their lives, you probably have to deal with Ginny at some point.”
“I regret this entire conversation,” Ben said.
“Count your blessings,” Mal replied. “You didn’t have to live with her for sixteen years.”
Her lipstick was slightly smudged.
Evie fixed it with the little handheld mirror that was no longer magic. “You look great,” Doug said, wrapping his arms around her waist from behind her. He ducked his head into the join of her neck and her shoulder, carefully keeping her makeup intact. “We can head out whenever you’re ready.”
“Look,” Evie said. “Meeting my boyfriend’s parents would be stressful enough, but there’s also… your aunt.”
“She’s super nice,” Doug replied.
Evie rolled her eyes, checking her eyeliner as she did so. “Look. I think, given my history, I am well within my rights to be a tiny bit neurotic about this.”
“Of course.” Doug pressed a kiss to her shoulder. “But if we stay here much longer, we’ll be late, and I don’t think that’s exactly the first impression you’re going for.”
“You’re right.” Evie snapped the mirror shut and listened to the voice in her head that always sounded like Mal- you don’t have to look pretty for people to like you, your mom lied to you, this is damage like what Cruella did to Carlos, just on the inside instead of the outside. “Let’s go.”
They got in the car and drove to Snow White’s mansion in silence.
Normally, Doug liked having music playing, or he’d talk to her or something, but Evie was beyond grateful that he was letting her be quiet for a little while. He held her hand on the center console when he could, but otherwise let herself prepare for this in silence.
Her mother tried to kill Snow White. Multiple times. She sent a huntsman after Snow with a knife, and when that failed, she gave Snow a poisoned apple. That was her mom. Her mom did that.
“She’s your sister,” Doug said when they were almost there. “Stepsister, technically, but that’s still family.”
“Family is complicated.”
“She’s not really my aunt,” Doug said. “Obviously, otherwise, you know, this-“ he squeezed her hand- “would be weird. But I know how she thinks about family, so I’m pretty sure she’ll be excited to meet you.”
“It’s really complicated.”
“If you want to have some kind of relationship with her, I think you can get there. You know. Eventually.” He shifted the car into park and turned to her. “You ready?”
She shook her head no. “Let’s go in.”
Hand in hand, they approached the castle.
Doug knocked on the front door.
It opened to reveal a very familiar, very beautiful face. A face one might still say was the fairest of them all.
“Dougie!” Snow White cooed, throwing her arms around her pseudo-nephew. “Oh, it’s so good to see you. And you must be Evie?”
Evie’s stomach dropped somewhere below her feet. “Yes. It’s- thank you for having me.”
Snow pulled away and gave Evie a dazzling smile, extending a hand. “It’s lovely to meet you- Doug has nothing but good things to say about you, and I won’t lie, I’ve been following your designing career. You’ve made some absolutely beautiful dresses.”
“Dizzie’s been helping,” Evie said, shaking Snow’s hand. “She’s gotten a lot better at hand-stitching since she’s moved here.”
Snow’s smile made a full, bright resurgence. It wasn’t even just that Snow was beautiful, Evie realized- it was that she had some intangible, unquantifiable personal charisma. Her beauty wasn’t just her face, it was the expressions she made with it, the way she made others feel. She squeezed Evie’s hand once, turning a handshake into an affectionate gesture, then stepped back. “I’ve stranded you both on the doorstep. Come on, come in, I know Dopey is eager to meet you as well, Evie, and Doug, all your aunts and uncles have missed you.”
“Always good to be home,” Doug said, smiling at Snow.
“And I’m always happy to have you,” Snow said, bestowing her dazzling smile first on Doug, then on Evie. “Both of you. I promise.”
Evie smiled back. Her anxiety hadn’t totally melted away, but it was less, now. She followed Snow White into her house and proceeded to have an entirely lovely, if at times awkward, conversation with the group of people her mother had tried to destroy barely more than twenty years ago.
They lived in a time of miracles.
“I feel like it would undercut the gesture of goodwill for you to welcome every VK student to Auradon Prep except Gil.”
Ben’s dad sighed from where he sat in his office reading a book and definitely not hiding from his son. When he didn’t make any actual motion to move, Ben pulled out the big guns. “You’re not gonna make Mom go alone, are you?”
The book shut and Ben’s dad stood up. “I’m coming.”
“Be nice,” Ben said. “Or I think Uma might kill someone.”
“I don’t know what you and Mal see in that girl,” his dad grumbled.
Loyalty. Or, at least, that’s what Ben saw. He couldn’t speak for Mal; she was her own person. He didn’t understand how people could look at Uma and not see loyalty oozing from every pore. He spent time on her boat, around her crew. They didn’t cower from her the way sycophants would cower from a tyrant- they came to her with questions and concerns, followed her directions quickly and efficiently, smiled and laughed while they worked. They treated her like the council treated him.
Except Harry, but Harry seemed to be an exception to a number of things, at least where Uma was involved.
“Please tell me your parents are right behind you,” Mal said when Ben took his place next to her by the road.
“Yep,” Ben said. “I chivvied Dad out of his office, and Mom was always planning on coming.”
Mal nodded. “Cool. Because, uh, I know a lot of the Auradon people get wigged out meeting the kids of the villains they used to fight, and if this whole softening-of-the-barrier thing is gonna work, everybody needs to get really cool about that, really fast.”
“Why can’t everyone be Roger and Anita Radcliffe?” Ben asked fervently.
“Big mood. Oh, here they are-“
Sure enough, his parents were standing in the crowd, looking very uncomfortable but also present, ready to welcome Gil, son of Gaston, to Auradon Prep. And not a moment too soon- here came the limo from the Isle.
Gil popped out with his usual semi-vacant smile firmly in place. “Ben! Mal! That car is awesome! It’s, like, a whole room in there.”
“We like to roll out the red carpet for our new arrivals,” Ben said, shaking Gil’s hand. “Welcome to Auradon Prep.”
There was just enough of a politician in Ben to hang on to Gil’s hand until the camera shutters stopped going off. Those pictures would do more for Isle-Auradon unity than a thousand policies, an ironclad example of the next generation burying their parents’ hatchet.
Thankfully, his parents stepped forward without him having to summon them. “Welcome to Auradon Prep,” his mother said, sounding very composed and offering Gil her hand to shake.
“Whoa, Dad was right, you are super pretty! But, like, in a mom way,” Gil said.
There was a long pause. “Well,” Beauty finally said. “Thank you. I think.”
Ben’s dad had nothing to say, just extended his hand to shake. Gil took it with enthusiasm. “My dad wanted me to tell you things but Uma said I shouldn’t, because you don’t wanna hear it. Uma’s right, right?”
Ben’s dad nodded. “I don’t want to hear anything your father has to say.”
“Cool,” Gil said. “Nice to meet you!” The pleasantry was offered vaguely at both of Ben’s parents, then Gil turned back to Ben and Mal. “Uma said you two would show me around and tell me what I had to do now and everything.”
Ben nodded. “Yep! Me and Mal are going to give you the nickel tour, and then we’re going to pass you off to Jay. It seemed like you two got along pretty well during the, uh, Audrey incident, so we figured you’d be happy having him show you the ropes here.”
“You can ask him whatever questions you have, the way you would with Uma back home,” Mal added.
Gil beamed. “Cool.”
Ben led Gil into the school. Mal went to follow them, but Beauty stopped her with a hand on her arm. “He’s… he’s not a very bright young man, is he?”
“I think you know better than me how much his dad doesn’t like reading,” Mal said. “We’re pretty sure Uma and Harry taught him how, when he was already, like, eight.”
“But… he’s not mean.”
“Nope,” Mal replied. “Very dumb, so he’ll say crazy insensitive things sometimes, but it’s not out of a place of malice. He’s like a puppy; he’ll chew up your shoes but he won’t mean anything by it.”
Beauty nodded, then said exactly what Mal had been praying for. “He’s not as bad as I thought he would be.”
Jay was really going to miss tourney once school was over.
Don’t get him wrong, not going to classes all the time and being in control of his life and schedule again would be absolutely incredible, but he really loved sports. Tourney, fencing, jousting- all of it was just so fun. Teammates, exercise, competition… sports really did have it all.
Which is why he found himself alone on the tourney field one late spring afternoon, idly batting around a ball and feeling very old and nostalgic.
“Hello?” a pretty middle-aged woman called from the edge of the field. “Are you Jay?”
“Yes I am, why?”
She smiled. “Good. I called the coach here at school looking for someone willing to help my son out with his tourney skills. He loves the game, he’ll be starting at Auradon Prep in the fall, and I was hoping to hire someone to help him get better over the summer. You interested?”
“This is a job?” Jay asked. “You’d pay me to play tourney with your kid?”
The woman nodded. “Yes. Your coach mentioned you’re pretty good, and very patient with people who are less good, so he thought you’d be a good fit. Are you in?”
Jay blinked. “Uh, yeah I’m in, that sounds awesome. I didn’t even know that was, like, an option for a job.” Then he frowned, hesitating. “Hang on, you know who I am though, right?”
“Yes,” the woman said. “I know you’re from the Isle. But the king trusts you, and your coach trusts you, so that’s good enough for me.” Rustling around in her purse, she pulled out a business card. “My son’s name is Aziz, he’s thirteen, kind of scrappy. Give me a call, we can work out the details once summer gets started.”
Jay took the card, eyes catching on the name.
He reread it.
He reread it again.
“Um,” he said. “You’re, um. You’re Princess Jasmine of Agrabah.”
“I am indeed.”
He opened his mouth, then shut it again. He really didn’t know what to say. He’d teased Carlos when he’d come home in a tizzy because the Anita and Roger he’d been working for were the people who’d owned the dogs. He’d laughed when Mal came back to their room after meeting Lady Megara (who was apparently connected to her dad somehow) and wouldn’t stop talking about how “unexpectedly cool” she was. He’d smirked when Evie spent two hours getting ready to meet Snow White for the first time. But now that it was him, face-to-face with the woman who’d featured so heavily in his father’s angry, bitter ranting, he couldn’t see the humor in it. His brain just stopped functioning as he stood there, statue-still, staring at her business card.
“I thought if I led with that, you might’ve just run away,” Princess Jasmine said. “I am serious about this job, though. If you want it. You don’t have to. Aziz just really likes tourney.”
“Princess Jasmine wants me to spend time around her kid,” Jay said. “Voluntarily.”
“Yeah,” she replied. “Although, I mean. I’m Sultana Jasmine now, but there’s no reason for you to have known that.”
Jay sat down hard on the bench on the sidelines of the tourney field. “Are you mad at me?” Princess- no, Sultana Jasmine asked. “For, you know, helping send your dad to the Isle?”
“No,” he said. “I just… I grew up hearing stories about you. It’s weird meeting you. And you’re normal.”
“What were you expecting?” Jasmine asked with a teasing smile.
“You don’t want me to answer that.”
“I really do,” Jasmine said, ducking her head to try and meet his eyes. “I… the longer I sit in Council meetings, the more I realize I don’t really know what life was like in the Isle. So if you’re willing to share with me, I’m… I’m eager to listen.”
Jay studied her face. She couldn’t actually want to hear this, but on the other hand, he wanted to tell her. He wanted her to know what it was like, in part because he wanted to purge it from himself and in part because if he had to live with this, so should he. “Dad called you a whore,” Jay said. He wanted to maintain eye contact like a man, but he couldn’t help it, he dropped his gaze on the last word. “Called you… a lot of names. Said you were the reason I was almualidin, why I’d never seen Agrabah, why-“
“He called you almualdin?” Jasmine asked, voice dangerously low. “He said that? To his own son- to his own son?”
“It means mixed-race,” Jay said.
Jasmine nodded. “Yes, yes- I, I know that, Jay, but it’s… that’s an incredibly rude way to refer to someone mixed-race. You were his son.”
“Are,” Jay said. “That’s my dad. He’s not great. He turned me into a thief and made me sleep outside half the time, and he said all that shit, but he’s still my dad. Other than, you know, Mal and Carlos and Evie, he’s what I got.”
“Did he tell you what he did?”
“I figured it out,” Jay said. “I…” He hesitated, not sure how to bring it up. “So on the Isle, there aren’t exactly, you know, two-parent households. Most of us exist because our parents had a fling and one of them decided to keep the baby, but there were some people- some men, sorry, who, uh. None of the women would talk to, because of what they did over here. Like what my dad did to you.”
Jasmine’s face went hard. “He tried to rape me.”
Jay nodded. “And I know that, because of, you know. My mom.”
Concern flickered across her face. “I- who is she?”
“No idea. She saw she had a boy and decided I should be raised by my dad. He saw me on his doorstep and kept me- I had small hands. Good for picking pockets.”
He watched Jasmine take a deep breath. “Thank you for telling me.”
“You can say you wish you didn’t know.”
Jasmine made a face. “I wish the world wasn’t like this. But this… this guilt Aladdin and I have, it’s another reason why we asked you to tutor Aziz. It’s our fault you didn’t grow up here in Auradon, so if we can help make up for that rocky start, then we want to do it.”
“I like tourney,” Jay said. “Lets me channel my energy somewhere productive. Or, that’s what Fairy Godmother says, anyway.”
“I’m glad,” Jasmine. “You want to get paid to play it with my kid? Even after this?”
Jay nodded and stood, extending his right hand. “You’ve got a deal.”
She shook on it, smile breaking across her face.
Harry was sitting at the edge of the dock, boots on the warped wood behind him and toes in the ocean. The sun was setting somewhere behind the clouds that permanently enshrouded the Isle, so the evening felt close and dimly lit, like a small room illuminated with a single candle. Uma’s chores were done for the day, and he was beautiful in the low light, so she sat down to join him.
“I wonder what Gil’s up to,” Harry said once she’d settled.
“Eating,” Uma said. Gil’s appetite had been prodigious, and, well, she was hungry. She had food on the mind.
It made Harry quirk his lips in a smile, anyway, and that wasn’t nothing. “It’s weird here without him,” Harry said. “I keep lookin’ to my side, expecting to see him there, and he’s just not.”
A sentence dangerously close to admitting that he missed Gil, and that wasn’t… that wasn’t done, on the Isle. But Uma missed Gil too, and hearing that Harry felt the same, it helped, somehow. “Fewer things are gettin’ knocked over,” Uma said. “Fewer dumbass comments. Never thought quiet would be so loud.”
Harry kicked the water a little. “You reckon he’s all right, over there? With all them weird Auradon folks?”
“Jay’s looking out for him, he’s all right,” Uma said. “He better be, anyway, or pretty-boy Ben’s gonna have a big storm comin’.”
That made Harry smile. “It’s for the best, you sendin’ him over there. He’s gonna be happier, and we’re gonna be more productive.”
They were alone. It was a quiet night, they were alone, and Uma hadn’t felt quite this sad in a long, long time. “I miss him.”
“I miss him too.” Harry was quiet for a long moment, then carefully asked, “Hey, Uma?”
“What is it?” she asked.
He kicked at the water. “You know I like how we are now.”
Uma arched an eyebrow at him. “You think we’re done mixing the Isle and Auradon? Hell no, the food alone-“
“No’ that, that bit’s the worst,” Harry said. “I mean, you and me. Captain and first mate. Ambassador and bodyguard. I like that.”
Uma could feel her shoulders creeping up towards her ears. “Thanks for sharing with the class.”
Harry absorbed her sarcasm in stride. “But things are changing, you know? We don’t have to be so… so hard all the time, and I thought, if we’re on Auradon, we could…”
Words failed him, so he put his hook down and picked up her hand instead.
Uma didn’t lie to herself- she didn’t want to get surprised when others knew things about herself she didn’t, so although Uma lied to everyone else, she never lied to herself. When she was thirteen, she had a crush on Mal. It wasn’t an obsession or a rivalry, although Uma called it both to save face- it was a crush. She was honest about it within her own mind. So she’d known, for a long time, that she’d been falling in love with Harry. What was love, if not knowing that someone always being there to catch you when you fell, feeling that every problem was more manageable if that person was there with you, trusting someone with your life and being entrusted with theirs in return. In the same vein, she’d known Harry felt similarly- she saw it in his eyes, every time he knelt before her barnacle-encrusted throne, that devotion burning in him. And being in Auradon, around Mal and Ben… of course he’d start thinking this way.
“No,” Uma said, pulling her hand away. “We have to stay how we are.”
Before the barrier had a hole in it, Uma would have lied. She would have told him the lie he needed to hear to bury this idea forever. Visiting Auradon had infected Uma with hope, however, so she couldn’t bring herself to shut him down entirely. “We’re still on the Isle,” she said.
“Not enough, and not to something that would make that any better of an idea.” Uma looked at him. “They have sexism in Auradon, and it’s coming in with the doctors and the food trucks. I am the queen of this Isle, not you, but if we… they’ll assume it’s you.”
Harry pulled a foot out of the ocean to twist his whole body to face her. “You are my queen,” he said. “I would never try to take anything from you, and if I did, I’d fail.”
“I know. And the Isle knows. But I need them to know too.” Uma nodded at Auradon, glowing gold in the sunset they never got to see. “So no, Harry. We’re gonna stay how we are.”
He nodded and turned back to the ocean. After a moment’s pause, he said, “I love you.”
“I love you too,” Uma replied. “But I can’t be what you want me to be, the way things are.”
Harry nodded. “I can live with that.”
“Good.” She knocked shoulders with him. “No dying on me now, Hook.”
“Aye, aye, cap’n.”
The first pass-point cards were finally being given out. Other than the ones that Uma and Harry had, but Uma and Harry were like Mal and Evie and the others. Leaders and whatnot. But finally, finally, finally normal Isle kids were getting pass-point cards, and Dizzie was absolutely thrilled, because the first ones to visit Auradon with these cards were Zell and Annie, her little sister and her cousin finally getting to visit the big, bad world together. Leave it to Granny to figure out a way to make Dizzie help babysit even with a magic barrier between her school and Curl Up And Dye.
Her mom and Aunt Anastasia would have dropped Zell and Annie off, Dizzie just knew it. She peered in the windows on the Auradon side, Evie urging caution behind her, mindful of the cameras, but Dizzie couldn’t quite bring herself to care. Her mom was on the other side of this building. She hadn’t seen her mom in two months. Auradon was great, Evie was great, everything was great, but sometimes, Dizzie just missed her mom. Not the Isle, not Granny, just her mom. And Aunt Anastasia sometimes.
She hadn’t thought she’d missed Zell until she came out of the checkpoint, at which point she realized she’d missed her little sister so much and wrapped her in a tackle hug.
“Dizzie!” Zell shrieked, squeezing back. “Look, it’s Auradon!”
“I know, and you’re here!” Dizzie shrieked back. “You and Annie!” She freed one arm to include her little cousin in the hug too. “I missed you.”
From behind her, Dizzie distantly heard Evie say, “Oh, no, Fairy Godmother, it’s all right, you really don’t need to-“
Unfortunately, Zell and Annie had heard Evie too. They pulled themselves away from Dizzie and peered around her, one head poking out either side of Dizzie’s torso, to catch a glimpse of the Fairy Godmother who’d been featured so prominently in their bedtime stories.
“Wait, you’re Fairy Godmother?” Zell asked. “I thought you’d be taller.”
Affection immediately flashed into annoyance. “Zell, that’s so rude, you can’t just-“
“What’s she doing here?” Annie asked. “Are we in trouble?”
Fairy Godmother simpered down on the girls. “No, of course you’re not in trouble. I am Fairy Godmother, and I run the school your big sister attends. I just wanted to meet you before she brought you onto campus.”
“I promise, Fairy Godmother, I’ll supervise them all day,” Evie said, applying gentle pressure to Fairy Godmother’s arm in an attempt to steer her away. “You don’t have to-“
“Why did you send my mommy to the island?” Annie asked, frown firmly in place, stepping out from her cousin’s shadow. “What’d she ever do to you?”
Dizzie sidestepped so Annie was behind her again. “I’m sorry, I-“
Zell shoved her sister aside. “Annie’s just asking a question, don’t make her shut up-“
“I’m telling Mo-“ Dizzie cut herself off, because no, she couldn’t tell Mom. She had had no way of getting in touch with her mom for two months.
Evie put a hand on Dizzie’s shoulder and gave Fairy Godmother her most charming smile. “Zell and Annie are high-spirited, but I promise, they’re not going to cause you any problems, Zell just missed her sister and Annie always-“
“I’m not angry,” Fairy Godmother said with a smile for Evie. “It must be very hard for the little ones to understand what’s going on.”
“Yes, you know, it’s-“
“I’m not confused,” Annie said, crossing her arms and full-on glaring at Fairy Godmother. “I know my mommy and Auntie Drizella were really mean to Auntie Ella when they were little, calling her names and stuff, and I know that’s only okay if you’re on the Isle, but they’re really sorry and they’re not nearly as mean as everybody else on the Isle, so why’d you make them go?”
Fairy Godmother leaned down over Annie, probably trying to get on the girl’s level but only really succeeding in looming over her. “Your Auntie Ella had to sleep on the floor while her stepsisters got beds. She had to live in rags while her sisters got new clothes. They could have helped her, they could have given her-“
“Granny would’ve yelled! And besides, me’n my sisters have to sleep on the floor and live in rags while Auntie Ella and her kids gets beds and new clothes, so aren’t you just like my mom and Auntie Driz?”
In any other context, Dizzie would have found it funny, the all-powerful Fairy Godmother backing away from her little cousin Annie, but in this situation, all she felt was fear. She didn’t know Fairy Godmother that well- she’d been actively avoiding everyone who knew enough to hate the name Tremaine- but generally, people didn’t like getting schooled on morality by her seven-year-old cousin. “I’m so sorry,” Dizzie said, “Please don’t make them go back, or if you do, can I give them snacks, I-“ she rooted around in her pockets for something portable, something they could take back with them.
“I owe you girls an apology,” Fairy Godmother said.
Dizzie looked up and over at the headmistress. She looked like she’d just seen Ginny Gothel drop down in front of her. “It hadn’t occurred to me, that your grandmother might treat you girls and your parents the way she treated Ella. Or that… or that your grandmother had that degree of control over your mothers when they were children. I’m sorry I didn’t bring you here sooner.”
“You can’t make me stay,” Zell said. “I promised Mama I’d come back.”
“Of course you can go back,” Fairy Godmother said. “Ben told me this would just be a little visit, for your big sister.” The headmistress’s gaze shifted to Dizzie, who dropped her eyes to her shoes. “Dizzie,” Fairy Godmother said gently, “do you… do you agree with your little sisters?”
“Annie’s her cousin,” Evie corrected. “The one that yelled at you, her mom’s Anastasia.” Her hands came down on Dizzie’s shoulders. “You can be honest with her,” Evie said quietly. “It’s safe to be honest with her.”
Evie wouldn’t lie to her. Evie looked out for her, when she could. Dizzie lifted her eyes and said, “Yeah. It’s not fair that you saved Aunt Ella but left all the rest of us kids on the Isle. Not just me ‘n’ Zell ‘n’ our cousins, but all of us. You should’ve saved us too.”
Fairy Godmother nodded. “You’re right,” she said. “I should have.”
“Hey, Dez,” Uma said, dropping to sit next to Desiree on deck of her ship. “You been checking in on Audrey, right?”
Desiree nodded, not looking up from her figures. “Yeah, making sure she was still alive and whatnot, why?”
“Mal asked about her today,” Uma explained. “Told her I’d delegated and she got mad. She’s actually worried about the bitch, even after what she did.”
“Mal’s had practice forgiving bitches.” Desiree said, then, apparently realizing what she’d just done, winced and looked up. “Sorry. I dropped off the allowance you approved, made sure she was in one piece, and then I left; I don’t have anything more than that.”
Uma sighed and got to her feet. “Looks like I gotta check in on her.”
“Sorry!” Desiree called after her.
Dez was the logical person to put in charge of keeping tabs on Audrey, based on the assumption that Audrey would have trouble fending for herself, especially on the Isle whose rules she didn’t really know. Dez kept track of the Lost Revenge’s money, a job less glamorous than that of Uma’s fighters and bodyguards but just as necessary. Uma hadn’t taken into account that Desiree tended not to notice things about people. It’s honestly a miracle she hadn’t gotten herself killed yet.
Audrey had been assigned a little apartment downtown not too far from Curl Up & Dye, where she worked. With Dizzie gone, the old lady had been more than happy to hire the Auradon girl at Uma’s request. It was doubtful Audrey was actually keeping any of her salary, because her shiny good looks were akin to writing “pickpocket me” on her forehead, but still, it should have been keeping her busy and out of trouble.
The first thing Uma noticed was that the apartment next to Audrey’s was empty. Its door was locked and the wall separating it from Audrey’s apartment was gone.
Uma knocked on Audrey’s door. “Hey, pretty pretty princess, open up, it’s your benefactor. I’m supposed to make sure you’re not dead.” She paused, waiting for Audrey to come to the door, but nothing happened. “Audrey. I need to make sure you’re all right. Audrey.”
“God, I better not find your body,” Uma said, kneeling in front of the door to pick the lock. “Mal will kill me.”
Before she could finish, the door opened to reveal Audrey. Uma looked her over with a keen and critical eye- she’d picked up some more dark pink clothes somewhere, plus a smoky grey leather jacket. Her makeup was perfect, her hair was immaculately curled, and more damningly, the apartment behind her was massive and clean, with no visible chips or patches.
Uma was an established gang leader on the Isle and had been for years. Her mother was a major villain and her allies were legion. Everything they owned was patched or chipped or repaired. Audrey had no allies and her mother was a hero, but she had an apartment that looked good as new?
“Who are you?” Audrey asked.
“Don’t play,” Uma replied. “You know who I am.”
Audrey rolled her eyes. “Did you say Mal was worrying about little old me?”
Uma gave the little princess the most forced, zero-effort smile she could. “I think it was technically your mom, but Mal sent me. You look like you’re doing fine, though, so I think I’m gonna cut your allowance.”
Audrey’s face didn’t flicker even a little. Uma couldn’t decide if the girl was an incredible liar or if she genuinely didn’t give a shit. “I’m sorry,” she said after a moment, “Am I supposed to care about that?”
“Nope,” Uma said. “But I thought it’d be worth knowing that you’re on your own now. No safety net.”
“I’ve never needed one,” Audrey replied. The door swung towards Uma. “Bye, now!”
Uma stepped back and let the door slam shut.
As she walked home, she thought about the Auradon girl. She seemed to be doing just fine on the Isle- all those dumbasses on the mainland were fretting over nothing, per usual. Having seen her in a non-combat, non-trial situation, Uma understood how a little better. Charisma was everything on the Isle, and Audrey had a particularly useful kind, all commanding and domineering. It was a high-risk, high-reward kind of approach to Isle life, especially with the power vacuum created by Mal leaving and then yanking out Freddie, her heir apparent.
It was more comforting than it probably should have been, knowing that some opportunistic little shit was going to knife Audrey on her way home one of these days, in an ill-fated attempt to become the next big power on the streets.
Whatever. Not Uma’s problem anymore. She’d tried, and besides, she had enough on her plate without this.
“All right,” Ben said, smacking his gavel. It gave him an immature little thrill every time he did it, making him think look at me, I’m a grownup, I have a gavel! “Any other motions for the day? Excel-“
He’d continued on autopilot, because everyone told him when they had a motion for the day. They didn’t have to, but they always did, so he could organize them in order of importance and make sure he got to everyone in a timely fashion. A couple of times he’d made sure to address specific concerns first so interested parties could duck out of the Council meeting early without missing anything they cared about. But there stood Wendy Darling, smile on her face and hand in the air. “Yes, Mrs. Darling, the floor is yours,” Ben said. Maybe he’d forgotten her. Maybe she’d had a good idea during the meeting. It happened sometimes.
“I’d like to request that my Child Rescue Service program be implemented,” Wendy said with a smile.
Ben froze for a second, then forced himself to relax, to smile. He had to be Wendy’s friend. Uma and Hook certainly wouldn’t be, and someone had to advocate for the Isle children in a way Wendy would listen to. “Good, you’ve talked to Uma about the details?” For a second, he thought about adding “and Harry”, but at the last minute decided against it, grudges and feuds being what they were. “I’m so glad you came to a compromise.”
“I’ve taken her comments into account,” Wendy replied. “The revised program has made allowances for the pervasive poverty on the Isle and will only re-house children who have abusive or absent parents.”
Ben’s eyes flickered over to the back corner of the room where Harry and Uma always sat, an island of Isle neon against the sea of Auradonian pastels. They were looking at each other, faces carefully blank. After a second, Uma stood. “Can you clarify your definition of abusive?” she asked.
“For now, in light of our cultural differences-“ Wendy stressed the phrase and Ben could see the effect it had on the other Council members, how Wendy was making herself seem so reasonable, so lenient, so tolerant of these bizarre and brutish Islanders while still standing up for her beloved lost children- “I have limited the definition of abuse to physical abuse- that is, parents who hit, kick, bite, or otherwise physically injure their child’s body- and gross neglect, where parents spend a majority of their non-work hours in a different building than their child or do not attempt to feed them at least once a day. I’m sure you can’t object to these definitions.”
The way Harry was looking at Uma, almost pleading, made Ben sure that something in those definitions was wrong. Maybe Isle parents had to spend a lot of time away from their kids for… he didn’t know, villain reasons. Maybe parents physically injuring their kids was inevitable, somehow. He’d need to ask Mal later.
But honestly, what Wendy was saying… Ben agreed. Bare minimum, they should all agree on certain things. Parents shouldn’t hit their kids. Parents should be home at least some of the time and make an effort. So unless Uma was willing to argue, he knew what he had to do.
“All right,” Ben said. “That all sounds very reasonable to me. Thank you for taking the feedback from Uma and Harry so graciously. Does anyone have any final comments or suggestions to the Child Rescue Service program before we enact it into law?”
He waited for a long moment, hoping that someone would see something he hadn’t and propose some little alteration that set the tension in Uma and Harry’s eyes at ease. But everyone in the Council was like him, like his parents, and so they all agreed. It sounded reasonable. Very, very reasonable.
He smacked the gavel again. “It’s law.”
It wasn’t as much fun to smack the gavel this time. God, Ben hoped he wasn’t growing up.
Uma and Harry did not have a designated office in Ben’s palace. They didn’t. Offices in Ben’s palace were handed out to big fancy important Auradon hotshots- Council members and important bureaucrats and whatnot- not upjumped Isle rats.
There was just a spare room that Ben let them use on the rare days they needed to do things in Auradon. Which had, entirely without them meaning to, become something like every other day, because there was always some new bullshit law or regulation that Ben needed them to look over, and Uma was spending more and more of her time on the Isle running around collecting input and hearing suggestions and less and less time terrorizing people. And paperwork would get wet if she brought it back to the Isle- they lived on a boat, after all- so it made sense to leave all her paperwork in Auradon,
All this to say- the spare room absolutely was not Uma and Harry’s office. It just had all their work in it and they spent about half their time there.
Not their office. They weren’t important enough to be offices. They couldn’t be.
A knock sounded at the door.
“Hey, um, Uma?” a little tiny high-pitched voice asked. Vaguely familiar. “They told me this was your office-“
“It’s not my office!” Uma roared. She looked up to see a small brightly-colored child in front of her. One of the Tremaines- the older one, that worked in the shop. Harry shook them down on payday. Uma had never bothered learning her name, though- the kid had thrown her lot in with Evie, and was therefore, by extension, Mal’s problem. “What do you want?”
The kid blinked. “Um. Ms. Uma, um, ma’am, you get to go to King Ben’s Council sessions, right?”
Uma narrowed her eyes. “Yeah, duh, is this some kind of joke?”
“No!” the kid squeaked. “No, um, no ma’am, I just. I was wondering if you could, maybe, um… propose a new law to help get lesser villains off the Isle. Like Mom.”
Uma hummed. “What’s your name?”
“And your mom’s name?”
Uma did some quick thinking. Villains liked to talk about their glory days, to keep their old grudges alive and to entertain themselves on an island without wifi, but not all villains ran in the same circles. Uma’s mom was Ursula. Uma played with higher stakes than itsy-bitsy Dizzy Tremaine.
Heroes, it turned out, also liked to talk about their glory days, so Uma had been force-fed the hero’s side of every story featuring any council member. As a result, it only took a few seconds for Uma to remember what Drizella Tremaine had done to warrant a life sentence among the worst people the world had to offer.
She was mean to her stepsister when she was eighteen.
“Huh,” Uma said.
“Not everybody,” Dizzy said in a rush. “Like, we shouldn’t just drop the barrier entirely or something like that, because then people like Gaston would just come in here and- you know, but Mom and Aunt Anastasia, they know what they did was wrong, and Fairy Godmother even said that they probably shouldn’t be there, and-“
“That’s a good idea, shortstack,” Uma said.
Dizzy froze. “Really?”
“Yeah,” Uma said. “You’re right. People who never hurt anybody, they did their time. Plus, I mean, what else are we gonna do with all the little kids over there? They don’t deserve to live on the Isle, but they do deserve to, you know, have a mom.”
Something dangerously close to hope was peering out of Dizzy’s eyes. “Mom and Aunt Anastasia and all my cousins could come live here!? We could be a family here?!”
“All right, you just hit a pitch only dolphins could understand,” Uma said. “This law ain’t passed yet, and there’s no guarantee it’s gonna get there, but I’ll give it a shot.”
“Even if they won’t let you bring your mom over?”
Uma snorted. “They shouldn’t bring my mom over. She’s a nightmare person who deserves every inch of what she’s getting. But your momma… I’ll see what I can do.”
Uma didn’t see the little girl move. One second she was hovering a few paces inside the doorway to the spare room Uma sometimes used as an office, and the next second Uma had a buck-fifteen of evil step-granddaughter squeezing the absolute life out of her. “Thank-you-thank-you-thank-you-thank-you, Uma!” the little girl shrieked. “Oh, I gotta go tell Evie, she’ll be so excited!”
“You do that, kid,” Uma replied as Dizzy streaked from the room like a bat out of hell. “You do that.”
Uma woke up earlier than sin one Tuesday morning to the sound of screaming. Not entirely atypical on the Isle in general, but very unusual in the houseboats that made up Harbortown. She grabbed her sword and her hat as she tore out of her room, up the stairs and onto the deck proper.
Guards in Auradon yellow and blue had grabbed Dooby and Buck and were dragging them, screaming and fighting like the devil himself, from the deck of the boat two down from hers.
She felt Harry by her right shoulder. “Get the rest of the kids out of here,” she told him. She didn’t waste time seeing if he obeyed- of course he did, he always did- just grabbed a rope tied up for just this purpose and swung over to the guards. “Hey! Hey!”
“Uma!” Dooby yelled, grabbing for her. “Don’t let ‘em take us!”
“What the hell is this?” Uma asked.
The guards backed away from her slightly, although without releasing Dooby and Buck. “We’ve been ordered to fetch the children known as Dooby, Buck, Dirk, and Lassie, because they do not have adequate parental supervision. The king approved the order.”
Uma’s blood ran cold. Fucking Wendy Darling used her bullshit law to target them, as Uma had started to fear she would. She should just count herself lucky that the bitch hadn’t tried to nab CJ, because then this whole thing would have gone to hell in a handbasket with Harry sticking his hook in everything and everyone.
God, and she’d picked just the right kids for this stunt, too. Her mother had at least a little interest in being a parent, so Uma had a bed in her mother’s house and was fed somewhat regularly. Some of the old pirate crew, however, had less than zero interest, and so they hadn’t minded it when Uma recruited their kids to her gang and took over the bulk of the parenting abilities. (Well, not Uma herself, more like her and her lieutenants. It took a village.) All four were eight or younger, and the only parents they really had were Uma and her gang.
Her mind raced. Where were the others? Dirk was the youngest of the bunch, only four, so he was probably in with one of her lieutenants. Bonny, probably. Lassie… where would Lassie be?
Down the dock came another guard, holding Lassie under one arm. Her mass of curly black hair waved as she did her level best to bite the hand that held her.
“Y’all are kidnappers now?” Uma asked. “These kids don’t wanna go with you.”
“Yeah!” Buck shouted. “We don’t wanna go!”
The nearest guard gave Uma a look that positively dripped pitying condescension. “These children deserve good parents. That’s where we’re taking them, to good foster families in Auradon.”
The boat anchored across the dock from Uma’s was for her favored lieutenants, and it was in this boat that Uma caught a flash of movement. The guards couldn’t see it, of course- it was behind them- but Uma could. Peeking up from the trapdoor that led from the deck to below, she could just barely see Bonny’s bright eyes.
Uma frowned at her, just slightly.
Bonny retreated back below, a few seconds passed, and then when the trapdoor lifted again, Uma could see Dirk’s eyes, wide and wet with tears.
Uma heard movement behind her- a fourth guard, disembarking from her boat, going down the dock, probably searching for Dirk. One guard for each kid. They were being underestimated.
She needed to give Bonny an opening to get her and Dirk the hell out of there. First thing’s first- get the attention of these three on her. Dooby was the smallest, and his guard seemed moderately distracted by the appearance of Lassie, so it was child’s play for Uma to snatch Dooby out of the guard’s grasp.
That got their attention.
“I take care of these kids,” Uma said. “Me and Harry, the rest of our pirate crew. They’re doing fine here.”
“Give us back the child,” Dooby’s guard said, reaching his hand out.
Uma drew her sword, holding Dooby with her left arm and her sword with her right. “Oh yeah? Make me. How do you even know this is the right kid?”
“We have pictures,” Dooby’s guard said. “Uma. If you continue to resist, we may be forced to revoke your pass-point card.”
“Bring that up with King Ben,” Uma said. “I’m trying to prevent a quadruple kidnapping.”
The fourth guard reappeared, done searching the boat. He came down the gangplank, onto the dock, crossing to the other side, which meant this was the best moment to act.
Uma booked it for her boat. “You’re never getting your hands on Dooby again!” She waved her sword, cutting ropes willy-nilly and hoping these landlubbers would genuinely fear her boat was in imminent danger of sailing away. (There was a barrier. Uma had never smelled fresh sea air or set sail for a horizon. All she knew about real seafaring was the rocking of a deck beneath her feet and the constant gnawing of thirst and hunger.)
“What are you doing?” Dooby whispered.
“Trying to help Bonny and Dirk escape,” Uma hissed. “You’re done for, but Dirk might be able to get away.”
It worked better than she could have dreamed. All four guards shouted and ran onto Uma’s boat. In their surprise, Buck’s guard loosened his grip just a bit, and Uma didn’t raise no fool. Buck immediately kicked the guard hard in the dick, and the second the guard was down, the little boy was booking it down the dock and into the Isle proper. With his guard curled in the fetal position, Lassie’s hyperfocused on his thrashing charge so she didn’t escape as well, and the two unattended ones focused on Uma’s “escape attempt”, Bonny had all the opening she needed. She streaked off her ship, Dirk in her arms, and quickly caught up to Buck. Uma saw the three of them vanish into the thick jungle that separated Harbortown from the ‘burbs.
She relaxed. Two out of four safe. Not bad.
“All right,” she said, once the two guards had their swords on her. “Tell you what. I’ll go quietly if you let me tag along, see Dooby and Lassie to their new homes. They’ll go quietly if I go with them.”
“I’ll never go quietly!” Dooby shouted.
“Yes you absolutely will,” Uma hissed. “You will if I say so.” Louder, she added, “Deal?”
The guards looked at each other, then sheathed their swords. “In addition, you’ll tell us where Dirk is.”
“He spent the night at his mom’s,” Uma lied boldly. “And before you ask, I don’t know where Buck might have run to. They’ll come home eventually, once they get hungry. You can get them later. You let me tag along now to drop these two off, and I’ll deliver the others myself, next time I see them.”
She waited for them to take the bait.
“Fine,” one of them said.
“Lassie,” Uma commanded, “Cool it.”
The girl looked at Uma with big, outraged eyes. “What?”
“We’re cooperating for now,” Uma said, “And if you don’t like it, then you’ll still be going to Auradon, but I’ll also be pissed. You want me pissed at you?”
Lassie froze. “No.”
Uma put Dooby down and took Lassie’s hand. “Let go of her,” she said to the guard. “She’s gonna be good, and I don’t like it when strange men lay hands on my girls.”
The guard released Lassie like the girl was on fire.
Uma knelt to give Lassie a hug, an action so out of character Lassie almost pulled away. “Listen,” she said in a sharp whisper, “I sold you and Dooby out to make sure Dirk and Buck got away clean. I’m not abandoning you, I’ll figure out how to get you home soon, but in the meantime, I need you to play along. Understood?”
“Yes, cap’n,” Lassie whispered back.
“Good,” Uma said, then stood, grabbing Dooby’s hand with her free one. “Now. Let’s get these kids to Auradon.”
They were most of the way to the checkpoint when Lassie was plucked into the air with a delighted squeal, settling onto Harry’s shoulders, her favorite place in the world. Uma relaxed fractionally with her first mate at her side- it meant the other kids in their crew were safe, and that probably the word was out across the Isle that Auradon was kidnapping children now. Plus, she just felt safer when Harry was around, because she was a lovesick dumbass.
“Hang on,” one of the guards said. “Are you coming too?”
“I go where she goes,” Harry replied.
When it looked like the guards might argue, Uma said, “Your king has his bodyguards. I have Harry. You really gonna fight me on this?”
Uma liked how much the Auradonians feared her.
They led Uma, Harry, Dooby, and Lassie through the checkpoint (Harry and Uma showing their pass-points, the guards showing the papers they had for Dooby and Lassie’s extraction) and into one of their shiny blue-and-yellow Auradon cars.
“We’re really going to Auradon?” Lassie asked, looking out the window as the sea sped by behind them. God, Uma wished they’d let her sail her boat for real, even just once. That would be glorious. “Actually into Auradon?”
“Yup, that’s what’s happening. You and Dooby, given away to some random Auradon family.”
Harry skimmed a head over Lassie’s curls- not enough to be an obvious sign of affection, but enough to comfort the poor kid. “I believe Dooby will be going to Princess Ella and Prince Charming, and Lassie will be going to stay with Mrs. Darling herself,” one of the guards said.
No one but Uma knew Harry well enough to see how his jaw jumped at the mention of Wendy Darling, the way his knuckles whitened on his hook. Peter Pan was his father’s true nemesis, but he had enough hate in his heart for Wendy Darling too. Wendy, who’d helped Peter humiliate his father. Wendy, who’d been the one to point to Captain Hook and his whole crew in the trial all those years ago, damning them to a life in the Isle.
Lassie was going to be living with Wendy Darling.
Uma forced herself to make peace with that and move on.
“Both of you,” Uma said in a whisper, tapping Dooby and Lassie firmly on the heads. “Gil’s at Auradon Prep. You need anything, you go to him, and if you can, you go to Mal.”
Lassie frowned. “Mal?”
“I know she’s been our enemy, but she’s got mad power here in Auradon, and more importantly, she’s got the ability to send messages to me. Whatever beef me and Mal have had, it’s gonna take a backseat to making sure you two are all right. We clear?”
Dooby and Lassie nodded.
The drive to Auradon wasn’t long, but this time, they didn’t stop at the school or the castle where political affairs were conducted. They went a bit deeper into the country, finally pulling up at an oversize cottage with Wendy Darling herself waiting in front of it.
“Welcome, children,” Wendy said as the Isle kids poured out of the car, Dooby clutching at Uma’s hand and Lassie settled once more on Harry’s shoulders. “I know you have been facing hardships on the Isle, but that time is- I sent you for four children, and you come back with two and these rabble-rousers?”
“One of the children ran away and the other was hiding,” one of the guards said. “And Uma and Harry were… very insistent that they escort the two children we managed to catch.”
Uma gave Wendy a big, fake, toothy smile. “I’ve been looking after Lassie and Dooby,” she said. “You understand why I’d want to make sure they got settled right. And Hook goes where I go.”
Wendy glared at Harry. “That is so inappropriate,” she said. “Put that little girl down, it’s not proper for a man to be touching a little girl like that.”
Uma caught the frown that flashed across Harry’s face. Lassie was six. Lassie was six, Harry had changed her diapers, and he was holding her by her legging-clad knees to make sure she didn’t fall off his shoulders.
“In what world does letting a kid ride on your shoulders equate to bad touching?” Uma asked, watching Harry sweep Lassie up and over his head, then settle her safely on the ground. “She likes being carried. Because she’s six.”
Wendy stretched out a hand towards the little girl. “Come here, honey, you don’t have to put up with them anymore.”
Lassie, bless her, immediately ducked behind Harry’s legs, afraid of the strange adult trying to touch her.
“Meet Dooby,” Uma said, shoving the little boy forward. He knew better than to resist. “We think he’s either six or an undersize seven. Dooby, this is Mrs. Darling, you’re gonna be nice to her or I’m gonna make you wish you were.”
Dooby looked up at Mrs. Darling. “Why’re you kidnapping us?”
“I’m rescuing you,” she replied. “You don’t have parents, so I’m going to look after you until your new mommy and daddy can come pick you up.”
“Do I need parents?” he asked.
“Yes, you do,” Uma said. “Remember, Dooby. Play nice.”
“Play nice” had become the pirates’ code word for when they needed the little ones to behave. Most of the time, of course, the little hellions were allowed to do whatever the hell they wanted, but sometimes, for their own safety, they had to do things like follow directions or be quiet, or else Ginny or Mal would get their hands on the kids. Dooby knew exactly what “play nice” meant, although Uma was fairly sure invoking it in Auradon was breaking some cardinal rule of the Isle.
Sure enough, Dooby gave her a horrified, betrayed look, but he still took Mrs. Darling’s hand. “Thank you for kidnapping us,” he said. “If this is Auradon, do you have food?”
“Lots,” the woman said with a too-white smile. “Wanna go inside and eat it while we wait?”
Dooby ran off without hesitation and without looking back. Atta boy.
Uma plucked Lassie up off the ground from behind Harry. “I know this sucks,” she said to the little girl, “But this is what’s happening. Mrs. Darling has food, and a soft bed, and she’s not going to hit you, just make you follow a bunch of stupid rules. Play nice, and we’ll come back to visit to make sure Mrs. Darling is playing nice too.”
Mrs. Darling sniffed. “I’m not sure that boy knows the meaning of the word nice.”
“Do I have to?” Lassie said.
Uma nodded, then placed the girl back on the ground. “Now go run inside and help Dooby eat this woman out of house and home.” The second the little girl was inside the house and out of earshot, Uma said, “Let me make one thing clear. If you make either of them sad, if you tell them that they’re bad children or that the things they believe from the Isle are stupid, we will come back. We will come back, Harry will have his hook, and we will bring those kids home, are we understood?”
“I’m going to get King Ben to revoke your pass-points if it is the last thing I do,” Mrs. Darling hissed.
“That won’t stop me,” Uma replied. “I’ve done worse things than you can imagine for those fucking kids. You, darling, don’t scare me. If you mistreat them, I will know, and Harry will kill you. Am I understood?”
Mrs. Darling sniffed, then walked inside and shut the door with a decisive bang. They heard the lock click shut.
“That wasn’t a yes,” Harry noted.
Uma nodded. “I want you to go back to the Isle and batten down the hatches.”
“No,” Uma looked over the horizon in the direction of Auradon Prep. “No, I’m going to have some not-so-friendly words with Mal about this.”
“Mal,” Uma said, bursting the door open. “What the fuck.”
“What?” Mal replied.
See, she hadn’t been expecting Uma to track her down in her dorm while she was studying for finals. Evie had left the dorms after testing out of her classes to focus on her burgeoning fashion empire, but Mal didn’t have her friend’s brain. It was also nice, to have mundane school worries to occupy her time instead of massive, kingdom-ruling kind of worries.
Also, Mal hadn’t thought Uma knew where she lived.
“The bitch just kidnapped some of my kids,” Uma said.
It took Mal a second to place who “the bitch” must be, but then it came flooding back. Wendy’s Law. Wendy Darling. “She… the hell were you doing to your kids?”
“I’m not their biological mom,” Uma said. “So they’re apparently being grossly neglected.”
“Does it specify-“
“Parents,” Uma said. “If they called me mom, we might have been able to make a case, but they don’t, ‘cause I’m not.”
Mal stood up, planting her hands on her desk. “Did she really do a full lap of the island, see all the actually terrible parents, and then circle back to your houseboat and grab some of your children?”
“Revenge is a hell of a drug,” Uma replied.
“Jesus,” Mal replied. “Which ones?”
Uma smiled wryly. “She tried to grab four, but she only got two. Buck and Dirk got away, but she put Dooby up in Castle Charming and she’s got Lassie in with her.”
Mal reviewed everything she could remember about Uma’s deck rats. “I don’t know Dirk.”
“He’s four,” Uma said. “Bonny took him and ran.”
“Okay,” Mal said, nodding. “Okay. What do you want me to do?”
“Send them home!”
“It’s where they live!”
“Should it be?”
They glared at each other in mutual frustration for a second. “You’re telling me,” Uma said, voice dangerously low, “You really think Dooby is better off with Cinderella and Prince Charming than me? They’re gonna-“
“They’re fine,” Mal said. “Their son is a douchebag, and yeah, they might try and make Dooby a cookie-cutter Auradon kid. They will almost definitely rename him something a little less Isle. But they’ll feed him, and take him to a doctor, and he won’t get picked on-“
“My kids don’t get picked on,” Uma said, “They-“
“They’re safe on your boat, but what about when they’re out and about in the Isle?” Mal asked. “They’re little. They get picked on. All of us get picked on. On the Isle, you know, it’s just normal, par for the course, but here… people will be nice to him, Uma.”
“They’ll make him soft.”
“You’ll make him hard.” Mal sighed. “Look. I don’t like that Wendy used this law to come after you and your kids, who are by far not the worst off. But I mean… it got him in a house, with a bed, three meals a day and sunshine on his face. I can’t just yank him back.”
Uma sat down hard on the bed that used to be Evie’s and was now no one’s. “What are we gonna do with all the little ones, Mal?” she asked. “Taking you guys away from your parents, you know… for Carlos it was a mercy, for the rest of you, it was a small price to pay. But for everybody else, I mean… their whole lives are on the Isle, even if they deserve a better life here. What the hell are we gonna do with everyone?”
“I don’t know,” Mal said, sitting down on her bed to face her old foe. “As much as Wendy implemented this in the bitchiest possible way, she might not have started in the worst place. The kids you took in, they didn’t have parents that cared about them. Now they do.”
Uma was shaking her head before Mal even finished talking. “I don’t trust her with them,” she said. “These people- can they actually care about my kids?”
“I’ll keep an eye on it,” Mal said. “Make sure Lassie and Dooby are okay. And if you’re gonna keep hiding Dirk and Buck, you know, I won’t rat you out, but it’s worth asking… I’ve traveled all over Auradon, right? And I’ve always noticed… their kids are taller than ours.” A muscle in Uma’s jaw jumped, a tell Mal remembered from their middle-school years. She was frustrated. “If you keep Dirk, and raise him on an Isle diet, he’s going to grow up smaller and weaker than if he got fed Auradonian.”
It was against their natures to let silences go on too long. Especially around one another, the temptation to try and land the most cutting verbal blow, or get in the last word, was too tempting. But Mal knew it sometimes took words a second to sink in, so she stayed quiet.
Uma knotted her hands in the duvet. “Is there anyone here you like?” she asks. “Of the adults, I mean. Someone whose kids turned out good, who’ve treated you and the others nice?”
Mal nodded. “A couple people, I could make you a list.”
“And take me to meet them?” Uma asked. “I wanna look them in the eye. And maybe your fancy-pants boyfriend could give me some pass-point cards for my other kids, so maybe… maybe they could see if they liked anybody?”
Mal leaned forward. “You mean, let the kids see if they liked any couples who we trust? To see if they’d be willing to live with any of them?”
“It doesn’t resolve the larger problem,” Uma said. “We still gotta deal with all the other knee-biters on the Isle who deserve a way out but… at least the ones I took in could get a better life.”
Abruptly, Mal couldn’t bear the distance between them. She crossed the aisle, sat down on Evie’s bed next to Uma, and covered one of the pirate queen’s hands with hers. “You’re a great parent,” Mal said. “You take excellent care of those kids. It’s not fair that they put us on an island with no resources and a whole bunch of adults who’ve spent their lives perfecting the art of ducking responsibility. Those kids would have died without you.”
“Keep the bitch from taking any more of them,” Uma growled. She didn’t move her hand. “And I’ll make sure they find nice Auradonian mommies and daddies who’ll love them.”
“Roger and Anita Radcliffe already basically adopted Carlos,” Mal started. “Ben calls Fa Mulan the voice of reason in Council meetings, and I’ve met her daughter, she’s kind and smart and-“ she nudged Uma’s shoulder- “and she knows her way around a sword. Then there’s…”
“It seems the new students are all settling in well here at Auradon Prep,” Belle said, putting down her teacup. “But I know you all understand each other better than I could, so what do you think?”
Mal nodded. “I think it’s going pretty well. It’s not a particularly difficult group, you know? Squirmy and Squeaky are so little, Dizzie wants to be just like Evie when she grows up, Freddie’s just happy her sister is eating so she’s making sure they both toe the line, and Gil’s really not that bad, not at his core.” She sipped her tea. The first time Belle invited her for this sort of thing, Mal hadn’t liked the tea at all- watery and faint compared to the gritty coffee they served on the Isle. But then Belle had made teatime a weekly thing, a place where the two of them got to know each other and Mal could voice her opinion and it was respected, and so slowly, over time, she’d come to love tea. It tasted like afternoons with a mother figure who loved her- strange, but in a good way.
Belle smiled. “Good. Good. I won’t lie to you, Mal- I was very concerned when Uma requested Gil attend Auradon, I just- I couldn’t imagine what he would be like, with Gaston for a father and someone who would marry Gaston for a mother.”
“Why do you think Gil’s parents were married?” Mal asked before she could catch herself.
“Well, I suppose you don’t have real marriage on the Isle,” Belle replied, “Not legally, anyway, but you understand. Someone who was willing to bear him a son, then.”
Mal put the teacup down. It was fragile- she didn’t want to break it. “Your majesty, I don’t mean to-“
“Belle,” the queen insisted, reaching over to squeeze Mal’s hand. “You don’t have to stand on ceremony with me, I’ve told you that. You’ve been doing so well with it, too.”
“Right.” Mal bit her lip. “Belle. You know Gaston. You knew him, you know, before. Do you really think some woman would look at that and go, yes, please?”
Belle shrugged. “I don’t know, some of the women I grew up with thought he was handsome; they fawned over him. I figured- it was one of them, someone like them, I mean.”
“No,” Mal said. “No, no it really wasn’t. There are a couple of men on the Isle, like Gaston, or Claude Frollo, that, you know, the trial sending them to the Isle meant that no woman would go anywhere near them willingly.”
“But then…” Belle trailed off, going pale. “Hang on, did he- but all the women on the Isle are villains, they can protect themselves, they can-“
“When they had magic, or weapons, yes,” Mal said. “Which are banned on the Isle.”
Belle’s knuckles went white against the arms of her chair. “How many children? How many children does Gaston have?”
“He has five sons that we know of,” Mal said. “Deux and Trois- I mean, Gaston Jr. and Gaston the Third, they’re twins. Then Gil, and then two younger ones, I didn’t ever bother learning their names, ‘cause they were Uma’s problem.”
“What about daughters?” Belle asked, the muscle in her jaw jumping.
She deserved to know, because she asked. Because she was so genuinely horrified by what Gaston had done. Because she’d sent him to the Isle assuming all the women there could defend themselves, because she’d immediately understood what must have happened to these women to result in a child that they gave to Gaston to raise. Because she’d already seen what Trois had seen that morning all years ago when he happened to wake up before his father and seen his newest sibling on the doorstep and thought to check the baby’s sex.
“One,” Mal said. “At least, one that we know of. She doesn’t live with him. By the time she showed up, the pirates already had a reputation for having lots of kids running around, so Trois sent her away to live with them. Gaston never touched her- he doesn’t even know she’s his.”
“And the other one- Frollo?” Mal nodded. “Does he have any daughters?”
Mal frowned. “Not that I know of. None that live with him, anyway. I only know about Lassie because Uma and I were… it doesn’t feel right to say friends, but I’m also not sure what else to call her.”
“Lassie?” Belle said. “Isn’t she living with the Darlings now?”
“Yes,” Mal replied. “Uma is… unhappy, with that situation, by the way.”
Belle stood. “I have to go help her,” she said. “It’s my fault, I assumed- I just, I don’t know, I thought he wouldn’t do it to anyone else, and he just… those poor women. It’s all my fault.”
“Calm down,” Mal said, pushing the queen back into her seat. “Lassie doesn’t know who her dad is and we’d like to keep it that way, so maybe the Belle shouldn’t show up at her doorstep looking guilty.”
“She doesn’t know?”
Mal shook her head. “That’s the point of a secret. Trois knows, because he’s the one who found her. Uma and Harry know, because they took her in. You and me know. That’s it. That keeps her safe.”
“Her brothers don’t even know they have a sister?”
“Trois is the only one with a brain,” Mal said. “The others would let it slip. Even if they didn’t mean to, they’d tell their dad, and then… we don’t really know what he would do, and we really, really don’t want to find out.”
Belle wasn’t looking at Mal. She wasn’t really looking at anything in particular, her brow furrowed and eyes unfocused. “I did that,” she said. “That’s… that was my fault. I… I did that.”
“Do you understand why the Isle kids hate Auradon so much?” Mal asked.
“I’m starting to,” Belle replied.
“All right,” Ben said, smacking his gavel. “First order of business of the day is going to be very controversial, so let’s just remind everyone, normal Council business rules apply even when someone says something you’re not expecting or really don’t like. Uma, the floor is yours.”
“Thanks for that introduction,” Uma said. “So, y’all know I’m here to represent the Isle kids, what we want, what we need. This idea came from Dizzy Tremaine-“ Uma paused to pick the little girl up and stand her up on a chair so that people could see her. “We’d like to pass a law allowing lesser villains- people who never hurt anyone- to come back to Auradon if they want.”
As Ben had predicted, absolute uproar burst out the second Uma finished saying “come back to Auradon”. Dizzy flinched back a little at the noise, which made Ben’s heart hurt kind of a lot.
He went to town smacking the gavel, but really, there was nothing for it but to tap into the beast within. “Quiet!” he roared. “I get it. People have objections. This obviously is not the kind of thing we’re going to pass right away with no revisions. But I want to repeat what Uma just said, in case any of you misheard her. The Isle kids would like to propose a law allowing villains whose crimes do not include violence against other human beings to come back to Auradon after twenty-one years of imprisonment on the Isle.”
“We’re not askin’ for my mom to come back. Nobody wants that, because Mom would go right back to wheelin’ and dealin’ and ruinin’ lives. She should stay right where she is. But Dizzy’s mom, Drizella Tremaine, was mean when she was eighteen years old, so she’s lived alongside literal war criminals for twenty-one years, and her kids have to pick between spending time with their mom and eating three times a day.” Uma glared out among the pretty princesses and dashing heroes. “We don’t think it’s that big of an ask, to see if you could grant them parole.”
Ben nodded. “Thank you, Uma. First comment.”
Everyone’s hand shot up, and then, almost as quickly, everyone’s hand dropped except for Princess Ella’s. “Highness,” Ben acknowledged, “The floor is yours.”
“I would like to remind everyone of the exact circumstances under which Drizella Tremaine was banished to the Isle,” Princess Ella said, voice tight. “I was treated like a slave in my own home by the only parental figure I had left. My stepsisters, instead of helping me, or even just ignoring me, delighted in my squalor. If I ever found any little source of joy, they ripped it up. I slept on the floor, I ate their leftovers, I-“
“Yeah, highness, we really aren’t going to feel sorry about you sleepin’ on the floor and eating leftovers,” Uma said. “That’s just our lives.”
“Uma,” Ben said gently, “It’s Princess Ella’s turn to speak.”
Uma glowered at him, but mercifully remained quiet.
“I apologize, your highness,” Ben said. “Please continue.”
“They are hateful people,” Princess Ella said. “Cruel and spiteful and jealous. They may not have tried to kill me, but they tried to break my spirit. I don’t know what I would have done if Charming hadn’t shown me kindness when he did.”
When she was quiet for a moment, Ben smiled. “Thank you for your comments. I have a feeling Uma would like to respond?”
“Actually,” Dizzy said. “Can I?”
“Sure,” Ben said.
“Mom and Aunt Anastasia know that what they did was wrong,” Dizzy said. “They tell that to me and Zell and our cousins all the time. And… I don’t know exactly how Granny treated you, but… she blames Mom and Aunt Anastasia for us being on the Isle, she always says if they’d nabbed the prince we’d be in Auradon. She makes them sleep on the floor, eat her leftovers, work all day. When Mom got pregnant with Zell, Granny threw her out. Fairy Godmother… I told all of that to Fairy Godmother and she said that didn’t seem fair.”
Princess Ella shrugged. “I see justice being done. That’s just how they treated me. They didn’t object when it was-“
“Your highness,” Ben said. “I hate to interrupt, but I thought I should warn you. Your argument would be a lot stronger if you could look at your niece when you were speaking to her.”
“They’ve never met,” Uma said, voice icy and cold as the ocean depths. “Dizzy’s been over here all by herself, no family, and Princess Ella’s never said a word to her.”
“She looks too much like her mother,” Princess Ella said haughtily. “It dredges up-“
“We all, collectively, need to get over that,” Ben said. “Everyone in this room, other than Uma, Harry, Dizzy, and me, has someone on the Isle that they personally sent there. That person’s child is allowed to travel in Auradon. You are going to run into them. And you are going to treat them with the same respect you show to Evie, Carlos, Jay, and my fiancée, because these children did not ask to be born the children of villains. My mother and father welcomed Gaston’s son to Auradon Prep. Carlos de Vil volunteers at Roger and Anita Radcliffe’s animal shelter. Jay coaches Sultana Jasmine’s son in tourney. Get over it.”
Princess Ella’s lips thinned to a line, but she turned and looked at Dizzy. The little girl flinched back enough that Uma’s hand went up to support her back. “I understand why you get to go to school at Auradon Prep. I don’t like it, but I understand it. But your mother deserves what she’s getting, so I will not be supporting this program.”
Ben looked out over the Councilors. There were some nods in agreement- Wendy Darling and Prince Eric, obviously, because they would rather die than agree with Uma and Harry on anything; Prince Philip, because of his ongoing feud with the family Maleficent- but not as many as he’d feared.
“Can I say something?”
Ben smiled. “Of course, Hercules.”
“I just wanted to remind everyone that Hades actively tried to destroy the entire world,” the big man said, shifting his weight from foot to foot. “And steal the soul of my wife to subject her to eternal torture. So, uh. First of all, that’s the kind of crime we sort of had in mind when we established the Isle, and second of all, his kid is going to be our queen, and Meg and I haven’t said squat, because Mal is a perfectly fine young lady and shouldn’t be viewed only as a walking, talking embodiment of her father. So. Uh.” Hercules looked vaguely lost. “That’s all I have to say about that.”
Ben gave him an encouraging smile. “Thank you, Hercules. All kinds of people were put in the Isle, and I think it is worth re-examining the crimes we convicted these villains of and the punishment they’ve received. They’ve spent twenty-one years in exile- I think it’s fair to say that it’s possible, for some of them, twenty years is enough. For example, um- Princess Ella, how old were you when you met your husband?”
“Eighteen,” she said.
“And- forgive me if this question brings up painful memories- how old were you when your father passed?”
“So your stepsisters have spent more than twice as long in squalor as you did,” Ben said. “I believe it’s worth asking if that’s fair.”
“Uma, Harry!” Gil cried, running over to the limo and grabbing his friends in a hug. “I’ve missed you guys!”
Harry clapped his buddy on the back with his non-hooked hand, but there was still too much of the Isle in Uma for her to be happy with overt displays of physical affection. “I can’t breathe, Gil,” she complained, ducking out of the hug. “How’ve they been treating you?”
“Super good,” Gil said. “I eat a lot here. Jay’s been helping me out, right, good buddy?”
Jay, who’d walked Gil down to where the limo was arriving, nodded. “That’s right, dude.”
Gil gave a bright, guileless smile.
“Harry and I have to work today, yelling at people about laws, so we can’t stay long,” Uma told Gil.
As his face fell, Harry added, “So we brought you some other guests to keep you company.”
He stepped aside and two young boys darted out from the limo- Gideon and Richard, Gil’s youngest two brothers. They tackled him in a hug and the three of them went down wrestling like so many puppies.
Last out of the car were Gaston Jr. and Gaston III, more commonly called Deux and Trois on the island. They were some of the oldest children on the island, already twenty and the spitting image of their father. Deux happily slammed himself on top of his siblings, but Trois looked around, surveying Auradon for the first time.
Uma clapped Trois on the shoulder. “Make sure he’s all right? I gotta go handle things.”
“I am capable of looking after my brothers, Uma,” Trois snapped.
“Touchy,” Uma said, arm instinctively flying out to keep Harry from lunging at Trois to avenge the perceived slight. “Back in a while to give you a lift home.”
Trois scowled at her as she and Harry headed back into the limo and drove off.
The visit from Gil’s brothers had been Uma’s idea. Because almost all the kids had been granted pass-point cards by now, she hadn’t had to run the idea past anyone. She’d just asked them if they wanted a lift to Auradon Prep to see Gil and they’d said yes. However, she probably should have asked around anyway, because unbeknownst to her, Belle had made a point of taking a walk around campus grounds every afternoon and greeting the now-common little knots of Isle kids in an attempt to help them feel welcome.
It was for this reason that Belle found herself unexpectedly face-to-face with two near-perfect copies of a young Gaston.
“Oh,” she said, stopping dead in her tracks.
Trois scowled. “Fellas,” he said over his shoulder, without looking away from the queen. “We got company.”
His brothers disentangled themselves and got back to their feet. “Hi, your majesty!” Gil said cheerfully. “These are my brothers! Gaston 2, Gaston 3, Gideon, and Richard.”
Gideon, the second-youngest, cocked his head at the queen. “Which majesty are you?” he asked.
“Belle,” Trois replied.
“Dad’s Belle?” Richard asked, twisting his head to look at Trois.
“I do not belong to him,” Belle snapped, then took a breath. “I apologize, that came out harsher than I meant it to. Yes, I knew your father, before the Isle.”
Gil nodded. “She’s nice.”
Deux and the little ones beamed at that, happy to take Gil at his word that Belle was a nice lady, but Trois was more suspicious. “We weren’t expecting to see you,” Trois said.
“She’s here all the time!” Gil replied cheerfully. “She likes saying hi to people visiting.”
Richard waved. “Hi!”
“Hi,” Belle replied with a quick smile. “I don’t mean to distract you- I’m sure you’ve missed your brother.” She hesitated for a second, then said, “Feel free to decline, but I was wondering- would it be possible for me to speak to Trois privately for a moment?”
Trois sized her up with narrowed eyes, then nodded. “Hey, Gil, can you and Jay show the others your room? I’ll catch up when I’m done here.”
Gil puffed out his chest a bit. “I can do that! Come on, this way, brothers!” The pack of them shuffled along, Richard hanging off Deux’s arm while giggling madly.
“What do you want?” Trois asked, voice flat.
“I wanted to ask you what you’d like done with Lassie,” Belle replied. “Mal told me who she was, and she’s currently living here in Auradon with Wendy Darling. Would you like me to-“
“I’m gonna kill her,” Trois said. “Mal, that little bitch-“
Belle sidestepped to keep Trois from leaving. “I asked,” Belle said. “I… I wondered what had happened to your father and Mal… enlightened me, on how he chose to behave on the Isle. Including telling me what you did for Lassie.”
“It’s none of her goddamn business, just ‘cause Uma was sweet on her-“
“You’re Lassie’s brother,” Belle said. “Uma and Mal are working out what they ought to do about the rest of of Uma’s orphans, but Lassie’s not quite an orphan. You are her kin, and you cared about her enough to send her somewhere safe. Where would you like her sent now?”
Trois scowled, studying Belle. “You’re serious?”
The old queen nodded. “It’s my fault she exists- my ignorance, my blindness. I have to take responsibility for her.”
“Fine,” Trois said. “Adopt her. Princess Lassie of Auradon has a ring to it. You really want to do right by her? Raise Gaston’s child.”
Belle flinched at the invocation of his name. “Is that what you want for her?” Belle asked.
He cocked his head at her like he was confused by the question. “Uh, yes,” he said. “If she’s a princess, she’ll never be cold, never be hungry, never get hit by- by anybody, never get- she’ll have guards on her, 24/7. What else could I want for her?”
“Does he hit you?” Belle asked.
“Yes,” Trois replied. “Are you surprised?”
“Yes.” Belle pressed her lips together and blinked hard. “I know it’s naïve of me, and I shouldn’t be surprised, but I am. I still am.”
Trois sighed. “Your debt to us is paid in full once you sign the papers to adopt Lassie. We don’t need your guilt and we don’t want your pity.”
“I don’t pity you,” Belle said. “I’m not proud of it, but I’m afraid of you. You… you and your twin, Deux… you look so much like him.”
“I’m not him,” Trois snarled. “Stop looking at me like I am.”
Belle set her jaw and nodded. “I’ll try.”
Ben was pretty sure that Uma and Harry would eventually catch him staring at them and that would be how he would die, but he also couldn’t quite make himself stop, not at a big formal function like this. Unlike Mal and the others, they insisted on wearing only their own clothes from the Isle, so they stuck out like sore thumbs, looking like they’d just been drudged up from a neon version of the seafloor.
They stood apart from the festivities, too- most everyone else was dancing, laughing and whirling about the floor having a grand old time, but Uma and Harry always ended up on the sidelines, well away from the patterns native Auradonians made as they eddied about.
But the really interesting part, the reason Ben couldn’t really help but keep watching them, was the way they moved relative to one another. Plenty of people wanted to talk to Uma, seeing as she was the unofficial, unelected queen of the Isle. They’d pull her away from Harry and into their conversations, but she and Harry… even as he watched he could barely track it, the way Uma shifted her shoulders to push her conversations around, pivoting to keep herself within Harry’s line of vision. It had taken him a few such functions to figure it out, but he’d done it eventually- Harry only moved when people were in-between him and Uma and Uma was trapped in a conversation, like he always needed a clear path to bolt to her side. It looked like they were orbiting each other, and Ben found it endlessly fascinating.
“If you keep checking Uma out, Harry will kill you,” Mal said, sidling up beside Ben. “No exaggeration. He’ll gut you like a fish.”
“Thematically appropriate,” Ben said, ripping his eyes away. “Is it better or worse if I admit I was watching them both?”
Mal raised her eyebrows. “Didn’t think you had that in you.”
“No, not like that, I just- the way they interact, it’s so interesting. But you say they’re not dating?”
Mal smiled. “We don’t date on the Isle. I told you that by the Enchanted Lake.”
“Yeah, it’s more gang activity, I remember, but…” Ben frowned and found his gaze skittering back to Harry and Uma. Harry made no attempt to hide how closely he watched his captain, his bright fanatic’s eyes tracking her every move, but what fascinated Ben most was that even though Uma looked like she was fully engaged in her conversations, she kept Harry in her peripheral vision. Clearly, his devotion was reciprocated, at least a little. “I just don’t see any explanation for their behavior other than them liking each other.”
“Oh, they absolutely do,” Mal said.
That brought his full attention back to his girlfriend. “Then why aren’t they dating?”
“Admitting you like someone is showing weakness,” Mal said, as if this was self-explanatory. “Having a crush, being sweet on someone, whatever. It makes you soft, which makes you a target. I wasn’t kidding. Gang activity is what we do instead of dates.”
“I guess I just don’t understand how being in a gang with someone can take the place of dating.”
Mal sighed. “If I use an example to explain this to you, do you promise not to freak out about it?”
“Okay.” Mal squared her shoulders and deliberately looked away, scanning the room with a relaxed posture held so rigidly he could make out the tendons on her knuckles. “Well, when Uma and I were younger, you know, just starting out, we liked each other. If we’d been in Auradon, I don’t know, we would have passed each other notes in class. Held hands. Gone to the school dance together. I don’t know what middle-school dating is like here.”
“That’s basically it,” Ben said.
Mal nodded briskly without meeting his eyes. “Oh, okay. Okay, good. Anyway, we couldn’t do any of that, because we’d have gotten mercilessly teased for having a weakness, so instead, our gangs went to war. I know that sounds stupid, but, like… it gave us an excuse to be obsessed with each other. We could parley to discuss terms if we wanted to hang out. We could challenge each other to duels if we wanted to touch, you know. It’s not enough to replace real dating, but it’s enough to… I don’t know, scratch the itch. Take the edge off. Express what feelings you could in a way that wouldn’t get you killed in the dead of night. Knowing she was thinking about me too… it was like having the crush reciprocated. Sort of.”
“What happened?” Ben asked. “To your, I don’t know, relationship? Or is that word too associated with dating?”
“She met Harry,” Mal said. “He liked her, started playing the role of her mad dog. It’s better than a rival, for, you know, letting you touch someone, hang out with them. She started preferring spending time with him than with me. I got the hint, made other friends. We got less obsessed with each other, and I guess that was it. Although, she was still real mad when I said I never thought about her on Auradon, so maybe she was still a little obsessed.”
Ben re-evaluated his observations of Harry and Uma. “It lets them go everywhere together,” he says. “Lets them act like a team without looking weak.”
“There you go, you get it,” Mal said. “You get an A-plus in Isle Culture.” She knocked her shoulder into his. “If you ever reference any of that out loud to Harry and Uma, she’ll kill you herself.”
“Yeah, that sounds about right,” Ben said. “Shall we dance?”
“We shall,” Mal said, striking an overly-formal Lady Of The Court pose to make him laugh. She thought his “shall”s were pretentious; she was probably right.
They whirled onto the dance floor; Mal occasionally stepped on his toes but Ben couldn’t have cared less. At the end of the song, they stopped to applaud the band, and found themselves right next to Princess Ella and her husband.
“Ben!” Ella said delightedly. “I was hoping to run into you so we could talk about the villain parole bill.”
Ben gave her his best smile. “I thank you for your interest, really, I do, but I promised my fiancée a night without politics in it, so…”
“Just a moment of your time, please,” Ella said, placing a hand on Ben’s forearm to keep him from fleeing with Mal. “Have you ever talked with your mother about what happened between her and Gaston?”
With a sigh, Ben placed his hand on the small of Mal’s back- the closest thing he could do to an apology- and replied, “Yes, ma’am. Gaston tried to kill my father. Under Uma’s proposed law, he would be ineligible for parole.”
“But LeFoux would be,” Ella said. “He watched Gaston corner your mother, sharpened the weapon Gaston would have used on your father, and you’d allow him back into this country?”
For a second, the rhetoric worked. For a second, Ben wanted to say no, he hurt my parents, he deserves to be there but then he forced himself to remember Dizzy Tremaine, who just wanted to see her mom again, and how Ella wouldn’t even look at the girl. “I empathize,” Ben said, “Really, I do. But from a legal perspective, I can’t justify keeping him imprisoned.”
Mal gave Ella the fakest smile Ben had ever seen. “Anyway, I am enforcing Ben being a person and not a king for the evening, so-“
Mal had sidestepped so she was between Ella and Ben, nudging Ben along to walk away from the situation. Ben tried to go along, to whisk Mal away for another dance, but then Ella caught Mal by her forearm. Ben didn’t like being grabbed himself, but he generally trusted people and had known Ella since he was very young. Mal also didn’t like being grabbed, but she absolutely did not trust Ella and had pretty bad memories associated with being grabbed because of the island.
All this to say- Mal twisted Ella’s arm while breaking the woman’s hold on her, skittering backwards.
“You startled her,” Ben said immediately, stepping between the women, “She’s from the Isle, when-“
“What’s going on here?” It took Ben a second to place the voice because he didn’t turn to look, but eventually he remembered: Megara, Hercules’s wife. They didn’t talk to his parents much, but they sat on the Council. Generally good people. Mal mentioned liking Meg once before. “You okay, shortstack?”
Mal scowled. “I’m fine. I didn’t give you permission to touch me.”
“I just wanted to talk for a second,” Ella said. “Make you realize just how silly this idea is, letting villains back into the country.”
“We all make mistakes,” Meg said. “I almost got my husband killed. If he was a grudge-holding type, I’d be on the Isle right now. I don’t see why some of the henchpeople and lesser villains can’t come back and try and get some semblance of a normal life.”
Ella scoffed. “Of course you’re siding with them. You haven’t changed a bit since the founding of the Isle.”
“I stand by what I said then, every bit of it,” Meg said. “And look! I’m right. Drizella’s girl makes an excellent point. Boo hoo, her mom was mean to you, she’s been living off garbage for twenty-one years. Isn’t it time to let bygones be bygones?”
Ella’s mouth thinned into one small line. “This is a horrible idea,” she said. “And I’m going to prove it. You want to pardon villains? Fine. But we’re going to start with the absolute worst of the lot. However you end up phrasing the law, you’re going to end up having to admit someone truly horrible to this place, and I’m going to make you face that first thing.” She turned on her heel. “Charming?”
“Coming!” He trotted off after his wife.
Meg, Mal, and Ben found themselves standing in a gap in the crowd, presumably caused by everyone edging away from the argument. “We were trying to have a nice evening,” Ben said quietly, holding Mal’s hand. “No politics, no drama, just. Hanging out.”
Meg took a healthy swig of whatever was in her glass. “You kids go do that. I’ll deal with the fallout from all of this nonsense.”
“Really?” Mal asked.
“No, but I will put Herc on it, which is honestly better.” Meg spun them around and gave Ben a little shove. “Go, dance, have fun, and if you even think about anything serious, I’m going to send you both to a tiny Greek island with no wi-fi for a weekend. Go.”
Carlos was stacking dog food cans when Anita and Roger cornered him in the back room. This was already comfortably suspicious enough, but it got even worse when he noticed Roger leading Dude along, nudging him towards Carlos like he expected the boy to need his security blanket. “What’s going on?” Carlos asked, eyes darting between the Radcliffes.
“Why does something have to be going on?” Anita replied, voice too bright and too perky.
Carlos swept his arm in an all-encompassing gesture.
“Fair,” Anita said, looking sidelong at her husband. “We, um. We wanted to talk to you about something, something that might be a little bit of a delicate subject.”
“Anita and I have always been happy with just us and our dogs,” Roger added, “But recently, with you helping out around the shelter, we’ve come to think of you as… maybe not a son, but like a, a kid we care about quite a bit. Like a close nephew.”
Carlos brightened slightly. “I- thank you.”
In sync, the married couple tilted their heads at him, making identical faces of slight sympathy. “The villain parole law passed, and with the way the regulations were written… well, your mother has applied,” Anita said gently. “Anyone whose crimes did not include physical abuse of another human being could apply, and because she was sent for gross animal abuse, she… she qualifies.”
“Oh,” Carlos said. He reached down and picked up Dude- it was a good call, bringing him for this conversation. Roger thought of everything.
“Anita and I have talked it over,” Roger said, “And we feel obligated to testify against her in her parole hearing. We just- you know we don’t like the idea of anyone suffering over there, but we have close to two hundred dogs on our plantation now, and we just…”
He looked at his wife for help, who promptly provided it. “We don’t trust her around animals,” Anita said. “And I… I understand you may be angry or upset with us about this decision, as of course you have every right to be, but we thought… we care about you, so we wanted you to hear it from us.”
The Radcliffes looked at him with big, worried eyes. Carlos scratched Dude’s ears, taking comfort in the rapid beating of the dog’s heart.
“Please say something,” Roger said after a minute.
They liked him. They really, really liked him. Anita brought him his favorite foods for dinner every night he spent around the shelter. Roger always made up songs while he worked with Carlos scrubbing out kitty litter boxes or washing the dog beds. Carlos even let Anita kiss him on the forehead, sometimes, and let Roger pull him in to one-armed hugs. He really liked them- he trusted them.
“Can I…” Carlos swallowed hard. “Can I help?”
“Help with what?” Anita asked.
“Testifying against my mom.”
Roger and Anita frowned, looking at each other. “You don’t have to do that,” Roger said. “We don’t expect you to… if you want to testify for her, you know, trying to help her get out, we’d understand, she’s your mom-“
“I want to,” Carlos said. “I don’t… I don’t want to be on the same side of the barrier as her.”
His friends had taken advantage of Ben’s pass-point program to visit their parents. Mal and Hades had a standing Sunday lunch that Mal described as “terrible, but in a good way”, Evie stopped by her mother’s once every few weeks to drop off hard-to-find beauty supplies, and even Jay had gone back to talk to his dad a few times. Carlos, on the other hand, had not. He had no interest in ever seeing his mom again.
Anita and Roger were quiet for a second, then Anita said, “Okay. Yes. Yes, we’ll help you figure out how to do that. We can’t guarantee the outcome of the trial, of course, um, but whatever happens afterwards, we’ll be here for you, you know that, right, Carlos?”
He nodded. “She, um. Ben said anyone who’d been violent on the Isle has to stay, right? I mean, really violent?” Everyone on the Isle had been violent towards another person at some point or another- Mal had mentioned having to talk Ben around because a strict no-violence rule would have booted her and Jay back to the Isle for doing the bare minimum for survival. He let it be a case-by-case basis, what would be considered beyond the pale.
“Yes, but Cruella only tried to hurt animals,” Roger said, “And she didn’t even succeed, so there’s a chance-“
“She hit me,” Carlos said. “Everyone’s parents, you know, sometimes, but she was worse. The worst. Everybody knows. She- Ben won’t let her stay. If I testify.”
The Radcliffes froze.
“I’m sorry about this,” Anita said, then pulled him in for the tightest hug he’d ever gotten in his life. “I know you’re jumpy about being touched but- I have to hug you right now, I’m sorry.”
After getting over his initial instinct to freeze, Carlos forced himself to relax, then hugged her back. Yes, he was a little hesitant about being touched, but this was Anita. Anita and Roger would never hurt him.
“So, we just adopted you,” Anita said conversationally. “Um. I’d say I’m sorry but I’m not.”
“We’ll handle everything on the bureaucratic side to get you signed up to testify,” Roger said, putting a hand on Carlos’s back. “Don’t worry about a thing. She- she won’t be coming here. Absolutely not.”
Carlos pulled just far enough away from Anita to look over at Roger. “Thanks.”
“Don’t mention it,” Roger said. “We just want you to be safe and happy.”
Oh, Carlos thought. That’s what unconditional love feels like.
Belle got out of the car in front of the Darling residence with her shoulders square, jaw set. Adam supported this. Ben supported this. The phalanx of guards around her supported this. She knocked on the front door and waited with her politest smile affixed firmly on her face.
“Your majesty!” Wendy said when she pulled open the door, “Queen mother, how are you?”
“I’m well, thank you,” Belle said, enduring the hug. “I’m afraid I’m here on rather delicate business, unfortunately, Mrs. Darling.”
Wendy nodded. “Of course, I know how busy you are. Come in, come in, have a seat, can I fix you some tea?”
Belle had never been to the Darling house before. The interior was fussier than she’d expected it to be, lots of fragile things and doilies, little figurines and dried flowers in delicate vases. The effect was lovely. “Yes, thank you.” In all actuality, Belle didn’t want tea- she didn’t really know how this conversation would go, and she wanted to be able to leave in a hurry- but it was polite to accept.
Wendy fussed around the kitchen getting the tea together while Belle remained in the living room, perched on the edge of a Victorian armchair, admiring the room.
A pair of eyes appeared in the doorway.
The rest of the little girl came out from behind the jamb, and Belle got her first good look at Lassie. She was scrawny in the way most Isle kids were scrawny, but the bit of time she’d spent with the Darlings had already helped fill her out. She was built sturdy- unsurprising, given her father- and Belle had no doubt she’d grow up to be big and strong like her brothers. She had a mass of curly black hair that fell half in her face. “Where’s Mrs. Darling?” Lassie whispered.
“Making tea,” Belle replied, equally quiet.
Lassie nodded, then carefully picked her way into the room, all exaggerated caution. The process was, to put it mildly, slow.
“Now, come on, Lassie,” Mrs. Darling said with exasperation, reappearing in the doorway. “I told you to be careful, not to be silly like this. Chop chop, off you go.”
“Where are you going, honey?” Belle asked.
Lassie looked at her. “Outside, so I don’t bother the grownups. It’s a manners thing.”
Only a little Isle child could say “manners thing” in such a dismissive tone- it made Belle smile. She wanted to tell the girl she could stay, because it felt rude to talk about Lassie without Lassie in the room, but it was Wendy’s house. She didn’t want to get the girl in trouble.
“Good remembering,” Wendy said. “Now run along- carefully, though, we don’t want a repeat of the vase incident, now, do we?”
Belle watched the girl carefully pick her way to a door that led out of the sitting room into the yard, at which point she started running pell-mell, flat-out, arms and legs akimbo. She ran the way Jay did on a tourney field, wild and free and utterly unlike the way people moved in Auradon.
“That’s my new ward, Lassie,” Wendy said. “I adopted her from the Isle.”
Something about the way Wendy said it rubbed Belle the wrong way. Good people were not always perfect, and thus sometimes prone to bits of competitiveness, mostly to see who was the best. Belle herself was guilty of it- she’d catch her tone sometimes when she was talking with other council members, faux-humbly bragging about helping construct a new library. She didn’t help on the construction sites because it was the right thing to do- she did it so she could brag about it later. Designing the libraries and seeing them full of people reading and talking after they’re built- those were the parts she really liked, the parts she did because she wanted to make the world a better place.
Wendy was talking about raising a child the way Belle talked about ostentatious volunteer work.
“I actually came to talk about Lassie,” Belle said, putting her teacup down. “We were going over some paperwork recently and I noticed a bit of noncompliance.”
Belle nodded. “See, when Lassie was given her pass-point card and permission to live here in Auradon, she had to name her parents. She’s a foundling- she never knew her parents- so she put the closest thing she had, Uma and Harry.”
“They’re children,” Wendy said. “Much too young to be her parents.”
“I agree,” Belle said, “But the fact is, they raised her, and they’re the only guardians she’s ever known- for want of a better word, I suppose. We got an error message putting Lassie in our systems, though, because… from its perspective, her grandfather is Captain Hook, and her current case worker is you, and there’s-“
“Your son’s law, to prevent bias in how the Isle children are handled.” Wendy blinked. “I never thought about that, in connection with Lassie.”
“Oh, of course you didn’t,” Belle said, still all smiles. “I know you, Wendy. You would never leverage a law designed to protect vulnerable children for political reasons or revenge.” Belle was not sure she actually believed this- she knew firsthand how strong and seductive grudge-logic could be, so it was entirely possible, even probable, that taking Uma’s children was a calculated attack. But saying that out loud might make Wendy fight her on this, and that wouldn’t be good for Lassie. “But we’re trying to get those poor children on the Isle to trust us, and part of that is showing that none of us are above the law, not even Council members.”
Wendy hummed. “Which means?”
“We’re going to have to place Lassie in a different home,” Belle said. “Ours, actually- I thought you might be more comfortable if you knew exactly where Lassie was going, instead of having guards simply show up one day and take her away, citing some law.”
For a long moment, Wendy looked at Belle through narrowed eyes, which briefly made the queen worry that she’d laid it on too thick. Well, Wendy, if you’d thought this through in the first place and treated Uma and Harry with respect, you wouldn’t be sitting here marinating in the fact that you don’t have the moral high ground.
Finally, she nodded. “Of course. Anything to help the cause.”
Belle beamed. “Thank you, Wendy. You’re an angel.”
Wendy got up and walked over to the mantle, where a delicate silver bell sat. She rang it and called, “Lassie, can you come here please?”
“We can go to her,” Belle offered, sure that the little girl had no way of hearing the bell from outside. Also, the idea of summoning a child with a bell just sort of rubbed her the wrong way. The girl wasn’t a dog, or a servant. “It’s beautiful out today.”
Without waiting for a response, she headed out the door to track down the girl. She wasn’t too hard to spot, squatting on the edge of the lawn poking at the ground with a stick. When Wendy followed Belle outside, she exclaimed, “Oh, Lassie, honey, you’re getting your dress all dirty! Don’t play with that mud!”
Lassie jumped to her feet. “Sorry, Mrs. Darling.”
“It’s just a little dirt, Wendy,” Belle said with a smile. “My Ben got much dirtier when he was a little boy. With Adam’s encouragement, Lord help me.”
Wendy smiled. “I know. It’s just- it’s so hard to keep the house clean.”
“I understand,” Belle said, then turned back to the girl. “Lassie, do you know who I am?” The girl shook her head. “My name is Belle, my son is King Ben.”
“Whoa,” Lassie said, eyes going wide. “That means you’re ‘mportant.”
“It means I used to be important,” Belle said solemnly.
“You’re going to be living with Queen Belle now,” Wendy explained. “I was so excited to bring you home, I plum forgot the rule that I’m not allowed to directly deal with any of Captain Hook’s children- or grandchildren, in your case.”
Lassie frowned. “Captain Hook isn’t my grandpa.”
“We listed Harry as the closest thing you had to a dad,” Belle explained. “That makes Captain Hook kind of like your grandpa, and we just want to make sure it’s very clear to Uma and Harry that we’re following our own rules.”
“So I can’t live here,” Lassie said. “Why can’t I go home with the other lost kids?”
Belle looked up at Wendy. “Can you pack up her things? I’ll talk this out with her, you don’t have to stay here if you don’t want to.”
“Thank you,” Wendy said with feeling, then fled the room.
“Uma sent me here,” Belle said. It was technically a lie. However, Lassie didn’t know who Trois was, and the revelation about her heritage was a little heavy for a six-year-old. Belle thought telling the real story, but replacing Trois’s name with Uma’s, was as true as she should get with the child. “She didn’t trust that Mrs. Darling would take good care of you, so she asked me to take care of you instead.”
Lassie frowned. “Why didn’t she trust Mrs. Darling?”
“Mrs. Darling really doesn’t like Captain Hook, or Harry, because he’s Captain Hook’s son,” Belle explained. “Uma’s worried that Mrs. Darling might be mean to you, to try and hurt Harry’s feelings, for revenge.”
“I thought Auradon didn’t do that.”
“We’re not supposed to,” Belle said. “But people are people. Things happen. Are you okay with coming home with me? I know last time you moved the guards just sort of grabbed you. We can call Uma when we get to my house-“
“Can we call Bonnie?” Lassie asked hopefully.
Belle frowned. “I’m not sure who that is.”
“Her daddy’s one of the pirates,” Lassie said. “She’s in Uma’s crew and she spent the most time with me’n the other knee-biters. I miss her.”
Belle nodded. “We will absolutely try to get in touch with her,” she promised. “It might take a while, because we’ll have to find her, but we’ll track her down eventually. If you want to check in with Bonnie, you can.”
Lassie chewed on her lower lip, studying Belle. Belle stayed still, sitting on her butt in Wendy Darling’s front lawn, looking back at the little girl. “Can we call Harry if we can’t find Bonnie, instead of Uma?” she asked.
“Sure,” Belle said. “I want you to feel safe. Whoever you want to call to feel safe, we can call. If you want, we can stop by and see Gil in person on our way to my house. He goes to school with my son now, here in Auradon. Did you spend any time with him on the Isle?”
Lassie nodded, sitting down cross-legged in front of Belle. “Sometimes. He’s the silliest. He was busy a lot but when he wasn’t, he was the best at playing.”
“What were your favorite games?”
Bit by bit, Lassie started opening up to her as they sat there on the lawn, just talking. When it was time to go, Lassie reached for Belle’s hand, and it felt like progress.
“I can’t believe we’re even entertaining this as a possibility,” Mal heard Princess Tiana say as the Council settled in to their seats. “This is ridiculous. Ben should never have allowed it.”
Unfortunately for the princess, pettiness was in Mal’s blood. “King Ben,” Mal corrected, turning around. “And he’s not granting Facilier free leave. He’s granted Facilier a trial.”
“You don’t know what he’s like,” Princess Tiana said. “You don’t know-“
“He was the headmaster at my school,” Mal said. “And my friend’s dad. I do know him. He was better than most of the adults on the Isle. I mean, low bar, but still.”
Princess Tiana frowned. “Your friend?”
“Freddie,” Mal said. She turned to see where her old friend was sitting in the front row of the witness box, holding Celia’s hand. They’d been settling in well- she was proud of them. It was kind of a weird feeling, but definitely not an unwelcome one.
The doors in the back of the room opened and in walked Dr. Facilier himself, cuffed and followed by Fairy Godmother, wand at the ready. He took a seat at the defendant’s table, waving to his daughters. They waved back.
“All right,” Ben said. “Let’s get this started. This is a parole hearing for Dr. Francois Facilier, hoping to earn the right to live in Auradon. Why do you think you deserve it?”
Dr. Facilier stood. “I am not a good man,” he said bluntly. “I lied, I cheated, I stole. But you’re grantin’ amnesty now for those of us who never hurt nobody. You forgive thievin’ around here- ain’t that right, Prince Aladdin? Prince Eugene? I done wrong, I got caught, and I did my time on the Isle. Now I want out because you got my girls here on the mainland, Freddie and Celia. They’re fifteen and eleven- still young enough to need a dad. I know none of y’all like me, and I don’t expect you to. I just want to be out to be near my girls.”
Ben nodded. “Thank you. Princess Tiana, you requested to speak against, and I don’t think any of us here would begrudge you that right. Go on.”
“He turned my husband into a frog in an attempt to steal my best friend’s fortune,” Tiana said, standing up behind Mal. “Maybe he didn’t send an assassin after him, but he turned my husband into a frog. Frogs can’t exactly defend themselves. He almost died- he would’ve died, if not for me. And even before that, we all knew about the Shadow Man, where I grew up. He made terrible deals with dark entities because he was thoughtless and greedy for power. His girls, that he professes to love so much, they’re better off without him.”
“Liar!” Celia shouted.
Freddie whacked her upside the head- not hard, Mal noticed, just enough to get the point across. She could tell the difference at a glance, thanks to her time on the Isle. “Sorry, King Ben,” Freddie said. “She’ll shut up.”
“You’ll have your turn,” Ben said to Celia. “But in the meantime, I really do have to ask you to be quiet, or you’ll have to leave. Do you understand why?”
Celia scowled and refused to reply.
“Follow the rules, cherie,” Dr. Facilier said. “Ain’t worth makin’ a fuss yet.”
“Fine,” Celia said. “For you.”
“All right,” Ben said. “Now, one of my primary concerns if I allow you to leave the Isle and live in Auradon is the safety of my kingdom. Do you plan on harming anyone here, especially Princess Tiana or Prince Naveen in revenge for their role in sentencing you to time on the Isle?”
Dr. Facilier shook his head. “No sir,” he said. “I don’t wanna give any of y’all an excuse to take my girls away from me. If you don’t believe me, take my magic. I ain’t much of a threat without it- ask anyone on the Isle.”
“Mal, Uma?” Ben asked. “That sound about right?”
The girls exchanged a look, followed by a nod from Uma, who added, “Also, uh, his deals tended to be at his own expense. Takin’ away his magic is gonna keep him safe more’n than anybody else.”
“Rude,” Facilier said, “Just ‘cause I didn’t fleece mermaids-“
“Let’s not get into this,” Ben said. “Fairy Godmother, would it be possible to restrict him from his magic?”
Fairy Godmother nodded. “He doesn’t have any of his own- it would be very straightforward to prevent him from making any further deal with, how shall I put this delicately…”
“Devils,” Facilier said with a toothy smile.
“Shades,” Fairy Godmother finished.
Ben nodded. “Princess Tiana. If Fairy Godmother assured us that he had no ability to access magical power, do you believe Dr. Facilier would be capable of hurting someone, or is he only a threat with magic?”
“He’s a talker,” Princess Tiana said. “I don’t think he’d go around getting into fistfights or killin’ people in the dead of night, but the man can talk anybody into anything. That’s always a threat.”
“I want to be with my girls,” Dr. Facilier growled. “Fatherhood changes a man. Any of you fellas in here gonna try to argue that point?”
“What restrictions would you want to impose on Dr. Facilier to be assured he’s not a threat?” Ben asked. “Pretend for a moment that he’s definitely coming to Auradon, what assurances would you need?”
Princess Tiana studied him. “No magic,” she said. “For him or those girls. And a guard on him 24/7, to make sure he’s not corrupting anyone.”
“Hang on,” Freddie said, standing. “Me and my sister deserve to learn magic- it’s in our blood, same as Mal or Jane, we-“
“No you do not,” Dr. Facilier said. “They’re fey. All you got are leftovers from the deals I made with things you ain’t ever gonna see- girl, if I hear you’ve been fooling around with devils I am gonna whoop your ass, you hear me? You are not gettin’ involved with all that- that’s how I died, you remember? They ain’t gonna take my girls.” He looked up at Ben, eyes a little terrifyingly manic. “Regardless of what you do with me, keep my girls from meddlin’ with powers they can’t understand,” he said. “Please. For their own good.”
Ben looked between the furious parties. “Tell you what,” he said. “Freddie and Celia are welcome to learn magic but only-“ he raised his voice over the sudden yelling- “Only from Fairy Godmother or a teacher approved by Fairy Godmother. She’ll keep them from walking down dark paths while still letting them connect to this part of their heritage. Does that sound fair?”
“We don’t need magic anymore, dear,” Fairy Godmother said.
“No, but we can still use it,” Ben replied. “Like Freddie said, it’s in Mal and Jane’s blood, and there’s some others of us who were born to magic. Most of the sorcerers turned wicked and were sent to the Isle, so it’s imperative that when their kids come to Auradon, they learn to use their powers for good, not evil. And who better to steer them right than you, Fairy Godmother?”
Freddie scowled. “We gotta learn magic from her?”
“You get to learn magic from her,” her father replied. “Now sit down and behave. What kind of example you settin’ for Celia?”
Glowering, Freddie reclaimed her seat.
What else, what else did Ben want to hear… “Freddie, Celia,” he said, turning to face the girls, “Do you want your father here on Auradon?”
“Duh,” Celia said.
“He never hurt you, or scared you, or intentionally withheld food or comfort from you?”
“No!” Celia shouted.
Freddie made a face. “Withholding comfort is kinda par for the course on the Isle. If he came runnin’ to hug me every time I skinned a knee I’d have been eaten alive. And a couple times he kept food from me to make sure Celia got enough to eat.”
“Come on, that’s clearly terrible,” Princess Tiana said. “You want those girls to stay exposed to that?”
“I ain’t never eaten ‘less both of my girls did first,” Dr. Facilier said. “And if I could only fill one stomach, then yeah, I picked the littler one. You don’t like it, you shoulda sent more food to the Isle instead of askin’ me to feed my baby girls on scraps of garbage.”
“He’s a good dad, I’m not tryna complain,” Freddie said. “I just didn’t want his parole in jeopardy because y’all thought we lied.”
“You did lie,” Tiana said. “Just because you walked it back-“
“I’ve seen bad parents on the Isle!” Freddie yelled. “Believe me, most of my friends wouldn’t be here tryin’ to get their parents outta that place, but here me and Celia are! That oughta tell you something about my daddy.”
“All right,” Ben said, locking eyes with Freddie. “Calm down. Here’s what I’m thinking right now. I haven’t heard anything that suggests to me that Dr. Facilier would be a threat to Auradon if Fairy Godmother blocks him from access to magic. And his daughters are right- if they want him here, that means he’s got to be better than most people on the Isle. I also want everyone in Auradon to feel safe, however, so this is what we’re going to do. Dr. Facilier, your first year in Auradon will be spent under house arrest. There will be guards on the exits and spells on the doors, and if you leave your house, you will be sent back to the Isle. After a year, we’ll see how you’ve behaved, and if you’ve been good, we’ll decrease your guard.”
Celia scowled. “Then what’s the point of him even leavin’ the Isle if he can’t go outside?”
“He’ll be able to tuck you in every night,” Ben said. “He can help you with your homework and cook you dinner. He’ll be out of that Isle culture that can make even the best people I know do terrible things. And, everyone in Auradon will have a chance to get used to the idea that villains can change and rehabilitate, so maybe in a year, Princess Tiana and Prince Naveen may be more comfortable with your father going grocery shopping with you or taking you to the park.”
He kind of expected Freddie to argue. This was much less than the Isle kids were hoping for- he knew that. Nothing about this situation was what they wanted- they’d wanted Drizella on trial first, for her to go entirely free, for there to be genuine forgiveness and healing. But instead, Freddie just glanced over at Mal and Uma and the three girls looked at each other for a long time, staying quiet.
This is as much as she expected, Ben realized. Guards and mistrust and judgment for her father, but at least she’d get to see him. At least he’d be there for her sister’s childhood.
These wounds ran so much deeper than Ben could even imagine. Healing them wouldn’t take a lifetime- it would be the work of generations. He thought it would feel good, reuniting a family and letting them live in Auradon, the land of milk and honey, but it didn’t. It just made him sure that the happily-ever-afters weren’t really his to give. The Faciliers deserved this, of course they deserved this. The fact that they hadn’t had this before was shameful, enough to outweigh any happiness this moment could have brought Ben.
He had so much work to do.
Buck wriggled in his seat, twisting to look out the windows. “Where is this?”
“Greece,” Uma said as Harry tugged on the back of Buck’s shirt, forcing the runt to put his butt back in the seat. “You know how the Isle has Harbortown, downtown, and the suburbs?” Buck nodded. “Auradon’s got little, I don’t know, sub-parts too. This one’s called Greece.”
“It’s on the coast,” Harry said. “Lots of boats.”
Buck gave Harry a look like he thought the older boy was supremely stupid. “Everywhere’s got boats.”
“Some areas are landlocked,” Harry replied solemnly. “And what do we call the poor fools who dinna have boats?”
Harry gave the kid a high five.
“We must be here,” Uma said, looking out the window.
Harry looked up. “Why?”
Uma’s one-time rival was waiting outside a big house, all white marble and columns, as unlike the Isle as possible. She’d seen Mal as Auradon as possible, hair all bleach-blond and in fluffy dresses in pastel purple, and she remembered Mal from the Isle, Mal with hair like rotten grapes and swathed in eggplant leather. This Mal was somewhere in-between- Isle enough to get Buck to trust her, Auradon enough to not look painfully out of place here.
Mal nodded as the others piled out of the car. “Sup.”
“Sup,” Uma replied. “Where are these so-called potential parents?”
Mal nodded, and Uma followed the direction of the nod to where two people were standing on the beach behind their house. “They know you all like the water. Thought you’d want a home turf advantage.”
Uma picked up Buck and held him out in front of her by his armpits. “What are their names?”
“Meg and Hercules.”
“What are the rules?”
“Don’t lie about nothing but also behave.”
“Do you have to like them?”
With the last answer, Uma put the boy back on the ground and Harry ruffled his hair. “Let’s go,” Uma said to Mal, trying to reclaim her businesslike cool.
Mal looked at her oddly for a moment, but eventually shrugged and sauntered over to the couple. “Hey, the kid’s here,” Mal said. “This is Buck, with Uma and Harry, who you know. Buck, this is Megara and Hercules.”
Buck looked up at Megara with a cocked head. “I thought your name was Meg.”
“It’s a nickname,” Megara said.
Hercules knelt beside Buck. “It’s so nice to meet you. I really hope you’ll like us, because we really want to help out with all the kids on the Isle.”
Buck took two big steps backwards.
Uma put her hands on her kid’s shoulders. “This isn’t working, he-“
“You don’t know us,” Meg said. “You’re right, it is creepy that he just got all up in your business. So what do you want to know?”
Buck narrowed his eyes at her. “Do you already have kids?”
“I don’t really want to be pregnant, and babies freak me out. Kids your age are easier to deal with. You already talk.”
“Why are you really doing this?”
“Mal asked,” Meg replied. “And I think Hercules would be a good dad.”
“Do you think you’ll be a good mom?”
“Do you have food?”
“Can I have some?”
“Yes, it’s right there.” Meg pointed, and Buck fell on the little picnic blanket like he’d never seen food before.
Hercules looked at his wife with a betrayed expression. “You don’t think you’ll be a good mom?”
“I’m not exactly maternal,” Meg said. Eyes flicking to Uma and Harry, she said, “I don’t mean, like, I’m going to be mean or something, I’m just not exactly… nurturing. But the kid’ll have Herc for that.”
Uma and Harry studied Meg for another second, then Uma turned to Mal. “I’m sorry I doubted you.”
“Yeah, you fu-freaking should be,” Mal said. “I’ve known you for how long now? Heard you talk about your kids how many times? Do you think I picked Meg and Herc out of a hat for them, like oh, it doesn’t matter who takes Uma’s kids? No, come on.”
“You’re right,” Uma said.
“I’m sorry,” Hercules said, “That made you like us?”
Uma nodded. “My kids don’t trust nice, and they absolutely know when they’re being lied to. You’d fit in well on the Isle, Meg.”
Meg blinked. “Thanks. I think.”
Buck appeared at Meg’s feet, tugging on the bottom of her skirts. “What’s this?” he asked, holding up a lump of something white.
“Goat cheese,” Meg said. “Do you like it?”
“Yeah.” He sank his teeth into it, looking up at the other grownups with one hand still buried in Meg’s skirt. “What’re you talking about?”
Meg put a hand on his head. “Do you think Uma and Harry and Mal want to see the food in your mouth? Come on, chew, swallow, then ask questions. We were talking about how Uma should have trusted Mal about us.”
“He’s not gonna have table manners,” Uma said disdainfully. “Not important on the Isle, not-“
She cut off because Buck did indeed, chew, swallow, and only then ask, “Mal likes you?”
“Yup,” Meg said. “We both like sarcasm and the color purple. It means we hang out in the same corner whenever there’s some big public function.”
Buck looked at Uma. “Do we like Mal now?”
“Ish,” Uma said, giving her former rival a look.
Mal smiled. “Thanks ever so.”
“Then I can like ‘em.” He took another bite of his cheese, chewed, swallowed, then said, “Are you landlubbers?”
Hercules scoffed. “Come on. What kind of Greek doesn’t own a boat? You… you like boats?”
“I live on a boat,” Buck said. “They have a boat and goat cheese and we like them. I can stay here.”
Meg nodded once and ruffled his hair. “That was easy. We have a spare bedroom that’s gonna be yours- wanna go see it?”
“Sure,” Buck said.
Still clinging to her skirts, Buck followed Meg into the house.
“Is that… is that it?” Hercules asked. “That can’t be it. It shouldn’t be that easy- is it that easy?”
Mal clapped him on the shoulder. “The kid likes you. I like you. Uma trusts my judgment-“
“I wouldn’t go that far-“
“On this, at least,” Mal said, giving Uma a halfhearted glare. “You guys were serious about adopting him, and he was serious about being adopted. Congratulations, it’s a seven-year-old boy named after a pirate weapon. Happy father’s day and all that.”
Uma sucked in a deep breath. “So I’m gonna leave him here,” she said. “I’m gonna get back in that car, and I’m gonna drive away while he’s still here.”
“Yep,” Mal said. “You’ll come visit him in a couple days.”
“Couple days,” Mal said, all but shoving her ex into the car. “Give him a chance to get settled, you helicopter mom.”
Celia and Freddie were waiting hand-in-hand on the bridge when Ben arrived. They were standing right outside the Auradon-side door to the checkpoint, backs to the road, expectant. Freddie was wearing her neatest clothes- still distinctly Isle, all leather and leggings, but with no holes, no patches. Celia’s hair had been brushed and tugged into two little buns at the top of her head, tied with green ribbons.
“I’m not late, am I?” Ben joked as he came up behind them. He’d been walking deliberately loudly since he noticed the Isle kids, but it was still worthwhile to talk if approaching them from behind- they didn’t like getting snuck up on, any of them.
Freddie turned around to see Ben; Celia’s eyes remained fixed on the door. “I don’t know, you’re the king. You allowed to be late?”
Ben checked his watch- he was, in fact, fifteen minutes early. Understanding Isle nature as well as he did after his long crash course, he thought he understood why. If they admitted they were here early, it would be too much like caring. Sure, they’d all but begged the court to let their father walk free, but God forbid it look like they cared about the man.
He nodded and beckoned the guards over. “Tell you what. You’re here, I’m here, and I bet you anything your dad is here on the other side. Let’s bring him over now.”
Freddie froze stock-still, but naked hope shone bright on her younger sister’s face. “Really?”
“Yes, really,” Ben said. “Freddie, you’re not allowed through the checkpoint at the moment-“
“Because I will try to cut that bitch if I see her and I do not feel any regret about it-“
“Right,” Ben said. “So you have to stay here. Celia, do you want to stay here with your sister, or come with me to get your father?”
“She’s staying here,” Freddie said. “If somethin’ goes wrong, Dad will want us in Auradon, not on the Isle side.”
Ben nodded. “That’s very fair. But Freddie, I promise you- your dad will come out through that door, and you’ll get to go home with him to a place here, in Auradon. I promise.”
“Make good on this one, and maybe, in the future, your promises’ll mean something,” Freddie said.
“Very fair,” Ben said. “Then let’s do this.”
Sure enough, Francois Facilier was waiting just outside the door on the Isle side of the checkpoint, and for a minute, the similarity between him and his girls left Ben floored. Something about the way he held himself, half on his toes, looking at the checkpoint with that expression- he looked just like them both. “Hello,” Ben said. “You ready to go home with your daughters?”
“Past ready,” Facilier replied.
“Highness! I mean- your majesty!”
Ben looked beyond Facilier to the mob of watching Isle-dwellers. Uma and Harry weren’t here, but he thought he caught someone wearing piratical face-paint, keeping an eye on the situation for them. But the call came from someone else, someone he didn’t recognize, a homely woman clutching a piece of paper to her chest. “Hello- I’m sorry, we’re in a bit of a hurry, I have a promise-“
“Please can you take this?” she asked, pushing the paper at him. “It’s for my daughter, I haven’t seen her in months, I-“
“Who’s your daughter?” Ben asked, letting one of his guards take the paper. It was a habit his father had drilled into him- do not accept gifts from strangers. Always make them go through your guards.
The woman blinked. “Dizzy Tremaine,” she said.
Drizella. Ben held his hand out for the letter, and the guards passed it to him. “I’ll deliver this to her the second I get the Faciliers settled,” Ben promised. “And I promise, your trial is coming.”
“Tell Dizzy I love her, and I miss her, and- and I’ll give her a hug as soon as I can,” Drizella said.
“I will,” Ben said. “But I really have to go, I need to-“
“Yes,” Drizella said. “Thank you, thank you.”
Ben nodded, tucking the paper into his chest pocket and turning back to Facilier. “I’m so sorry,” he said. “Let’s get going.”
The faces. That was what mattered, the way Freddie’s face crumpled when she saw her father walking in the Auradon sun, the way Celia’s lit up as she dropped her sister’s hand to run to her father, the way the bad doctor squeezed his eyes shut as he held his daughter to him and extended a hand to the other. Ben almost felt like a voyeur observing the moment, watching them cling to each other in their newfound freedom.
Uma knew it was no coincidence that Mal just so happened to sidle into Uma’s office (not her office, the spare room where she and Harry worked and kept their papers) while Harry was out checking on the kids. Mal clicked the door shut behind her and sauntered over to the chair on the other side of Uma’s desk.
“What do you want?”
“I want to talk to you,” Mal said, leaning back in the chair and crossing her legs at the ankles. She was more Isle Mal than usual- sometimes Uma hardly recognized her old rival in her dresses and her pastels, but at the moment, she almost looked like she’d never left, like she’d walked right out of Uma’s memories.
Uma narrowed her eyes. “About what?”
“First you have to promise you’re not going to run,” Mal said. “Because you don’t want to have this conversation.”
“All righty then,” Uma said, picking up her things. “Thanks for letting me know, enjoy this room, I’ll-“
“Okay,” Mal said, standing up. “I’ll go get Evie. She can have this conversation with you.”
Uma had an entirely petty, entirely childish, envious dislike of Evie. Mal replaced her with another blue-haired girl, a weak, pathetic stand-in for Uma. Yes, Uma had replaced Mal with Harry first, but still. Also, Evie was entirely too peppy and sympathetic to Auradon. To understate the facts, they did not get along. “No,” Uma said.
“You have this talk with me, here, in your space, or Evie hunts you down and you have this talk at her house, on her home turf. Which do you want?”
There was the steel in Mal’s eyes that Uma used to love, before she developed her crippling weakness for sun-bright fanaticism in a disturbingly attractive shade of ice blue.
Uma sat down. “I hate you.”
“Feeling’s mutual,” Mal said, also retaking her seat. “Now. Why haven’t you put Harry out of his misery and kissed him yet?”
“It’s me or it’s Evie, and we both know which one will be less painful for you,” Mal replied. “Come on. Spill.”
It was immature and villainous but Uma just wanted to lash out, make Mal as uncomfortable as Uma herself. “Since when are you tryna push me into Harry’s arms? If I remember right, you were heartbroken when he started hanging around me, ‘cause I found someone just as fierce and rotten as you but he never-“
“Yes, we were in a relationship and it ended,” Mal said, leaning forward. “Both of us were jealous and petty and miserable when we got replaced. It’s because we were in a relationship, and it ended.”
“What will your people say?” Uma replied, voice a taunting sing-song, hating herself. “Their shiny nice Auradon princess used to mess around with an Isle girl. They don’t like dykes and-“
Mal arched an eyebrow. “They’ll learn,” she said. “And Ben already knows, because we’re in a relationship where we talk about our feelings and kiss, but you’re not in one of those, because you’re stubborn and stupid.”
Uma scowled. “I gave you a blue kink.”
“You did,” Mal replied. “Talk.”
Uma signed. Mal wouldn’t run her mouth about this, except possibly to Ben, and she wouldn’t let Ben run his mouth about this. So there really wasn’t anything to risk, talking it over with Mal, and something about the fresh air and sunshine in Auradon… it was making her weak. “You know why,” Uma said. “You live in Auradon now, and play by Auradon rules, and that’s great, but I’m still on the Isle. Isle rules apply.”
“The Isle rules are changing,” Mal said. “Wanting to be in Auradon is okay. Eating food that tastes good is okay. Going to a doctor when you’re sick is okay. Why can’t dating be okay too?”
“Love is weakness.”
“Yes,” Mal said. “But it’s a strength, too. You don’t have to be ashamed of it anymore.”
Uma rolled her eyes. “We’re fine the way we are. I like it.”
“And I liked mealy apples,” Mal said. “It was fine. And then I came here and had a strawberry and I realized, that whole time on the Isle, I could have been eating strawberries. Uma, do you know how much happier we would have been when we were kids if we could have held hands?”
“We woulda gotten the snot kicked out of us,” Uma replied.
Mal looked up at the ceiling and exhaled slowly. “I know that, Uma, that’s why we wrestled and then went home and thought about how each other’s skin felt for an hour like the useless little dumbasses we were. But Uma, imagine, if no one would have hurt us for it, how much happier we would have been if we could have just… I don’t know, held hands and walked along the beach and talked.”
Uma wanted to resent how well Mal knew her, because she’d basically plucked Uma’s seventh-grade fantasy from her head, but she couldn’t quite bring herself to do it. She didn’t like Mal the way she used to anymore, but Mal was still Mal, and Uma would always have a soft spot for her. “What’s your point?”
“You can have that with Harry,” Mal said. “He wants it. Everyone already knows he’s your weak spot, even if they think it’s because he’s your most valuable servant instead of your boyfriend, so why are you torturing yourself with-“
“Because it’s terrifying and you know it!” Uma shouted. “Saying mushy love stuff out loud? Kissing? It makes you so… so-“
“Vulnerable,” Mal said. “We can be vulnerable now, Uma, I promise-“
Uma shook her head hard. “No. I have to stay strong-“
“Without vulnerability, you’re never going to be really happy,” Mal said. “Holding yourself back will just keep you feeling lonely and scared and angry, and the Isle isn’t like that anymore. It doesn’t have to be like that anymore.”
“What do you want from me?” Uma snapped. “Double dates with you and Ben?”
Mal scoffed. “No. Crazy as it sounds, Uma, I just want you to be happy.”
“You think I’m not happy?”
Mal stood. “I know it,” she replied, then waltzed on out of the room.
“Princess Ella,” Ben said with a smile. “Can I talk to you for a second?”
She turned back to him- she’d been on her way out of the Council chamber before he’d called out. “What can I do for you, Ben?”
He gave her his best, most genuine smile. “Your stepsisters are going to end up Auradon. Fairy Godmother and I both agree that it’s what’s right, and Dizzy Tremaine is absolutely precious. She’ll sway everyone to our side if we give her the chance. So my question is, are you going to fight us on this, or are you going to capitulate quietly?”
Ella’s lips tightened and her brow furrowed as Ben spoke, but he did his best to maintain his own congenial expression. “This feels quite a bit like blackmail,” she said.
“That’s not what I want,” Ben said. “I just want Dizzy to have her mother back in her life as quickly as possible. Do you really think you can keep Drizella and Anastasia from Auradon for the rest of their lives?”
“Not now that you’ve released Facilier,” Ella said. “A decision I still disagree with, by the way.”
Ben nodded. “Your concerns have been noted.” He pulled out a piece of paper he and Cogsworth had drawn up earlier. “I’d like to avoid forcing Drizella and Anastasia through a trial; I don’t believe it’s necessary. I’m collecting signatures from Council members to enable me to pardon them unilaterally. I would not feel comfortable doing this without your okay.”
“And if I say no?”
“Then they get a trial,” Ben said. “The two of them and their five adorable daughters, one of whom is already a success story.” He softened a little. “I… I don’t understand what it must have been like growing up the way you did. I can’t. And- and they were wrong, to treat you the way they did. It was violence. Not always physical violence, but violence nonetheless. But… they’ve been on that isle for twenty-one years, Princess Ella. Please let them go.”
He knew he’d won when she broke eye contact. Her eyes flicked up to the ceiling and he watched as they grew too bright and she blinked hard. She pressed a hand to her mouth, took a deep breath, then said, “I’ll sign it.”
“Thank you, Ella.”
“It was wrong,” she said, looking at him. “I know it’s not as flashy as what some of the others did- my stepsisters didn’t curse kingdoms or try to kill people, but… it was wrong. They deserved a punishment, for what they did to me, and for what people like them did to people like me all the time before we set up the Isle.”
Ben nodded. “They got what they deserved, Ella. They were wrong, and they were punished, and now they’re done being punished.”
“Not my stepmother,” Ella said. “Please don’t make me let her come back.”
“No,” Ben said. “Dizzy doesn’t want her grandmother in Auradon, and honestly, neither do your stepsisters. She’s a bad influence. Your stepsisters aren’t, not anymore.”
Ella nodded. “All right. Do you have a pen?”
A week later, Ben got to watch Drizella run out of the checkpoint and pick her eldest daughter up in the tightest hug possible. This is what he was working for, he reminded himself. The future that Drizella, Anastasia, and their daughters would get to have in Auradon.
He didn’t forget the workload awaiting him, or the sense of guilt he had over his role in their separation, but it was a little easier this time to focus on the good. Those were five innocent children who no longer had to choose between their bare necessities being provided to them and seeing their mothers. Those were two women who’d served their time for their crimes and would get to re-enter society and work on rebuilding their lives. Those were families whose lives had taken a sudden turn for the wonderful.
He could live with that.
Uma appeared one day without warning. One minute Belle was alone in her library, reorganizing her shelves, and the next minute, Uma was there.
“Oh!” Belle said, almost falling off her ladder. “I’m sorry, you startled me- I didn’t hear you come in.”
“You took Lassie,” Uma said.
Belle carefully got down off the ladder. “Yes,” she said. “I’m not sorry and I won’t give her back.”
“Gil’s brothers visited,” Belle said. “I met them, briefly, and afterwards was convinced that Lassie needed to be in my household, not Wendy Darling’s. I used the rule Ben passed regarding heroes interfering in the lives of their villain’s child- or grandchild, in Lassie’s case. On paper, Captain Hook is her grandfather.”
Uma frowned. “Harry’s not her dad- he and I, we- we didn’t-“
“I know,” Belle said with a smile. “But we had to put something down for her parents, and, lacking better options, we put down the two of you.”
Belle got the sense that there was a lot going on behind Uma’s eyes, ferocious calculation, continuous checking to see if Belle was bullshitting her. “You met Trois,” she finally said. “Mal told you who Lassie was, and then you met Trois, and he guilt-tripped you.”
There was no point in denying it. “Yes.”
“That wasn’t her secret to tell,” Uma growled. “Mal, you stupid-“
“It’s my fault,” Belle said. “What happened to her mother, her brothers’ mothers. Their existence is my fault, and I could not live with myself if I didn’t take responsibility for my actions. Lassie’s a delightful child, it’s no hardship.”
Uma scowled. “Don’t look at her and see him,” she said. “If you do, I’ll know, and I’ll take her back. She’s her own person, don’t-“
“I promise,” Belle said. “You can stop by and check on her whenever you like, but she will stay my daughter. It’s what Trois wanted for her, so it’s what she’s going to get.”
That made something almost like a smile pull on the very ends of Uma’s lips. “She still run everywhere?”
“Full tilt,” Belle replied with a proper beaming smile. “Cogsworth complains that she’s taking years off his life with the stress of chasing her.”
“Why does he chase her?”
“In case she needs something,” Belle replies. “She also thinks it’s a hilariously fun game, and it gets her tired enough to nap in the afternoons, so I count it a blessing and let them go at it.”
Uma stared at Belle for a long moment, transparently sizing the queen mother up. “I’m glad she’s with you,” Uma finally said.
“Me too,” Belle said. “For her sake, obviously, because she’s a delightful young girl and it’s a privilege to know her, but also… I think it’s good for me. Raising his daughter. Not quite closure, but… coming full circle, maybe.”
Uma nodded once. “You’re lucky you started with liking Lassie for herself first. I’mma be watching you, highness.”
With that, Uma sauntered off. Belle smiled to herself and decided it was time to leave the library and see what her beloved little daughter was up to now. Maybe do a little running wild herself, Isle style.
“All right, Yrza, I know you’re around here somewhere,” Mal called into the twisting alleyways that made up the Isle center. Her older siblings were deemed old enough to make informed decisions- Yzla to attend Auradon Prep, Zevon to stay behind on the Isle- but Yrza, at seven, was not. “I promise, Auradon’s a nice place. Yzla’s there.” Nothing. “There’s food.”
The grid search sprawled across the entire island. The Isle was small enough that a determined seven-year-old girl could get to any corner of it if she was sufficiently scared, but large enough that it took some several dozen former VKs and guards to search it properly.
“Yrza,” Mal called again. “Here, Yrza Yrza Yrza.” Mal sighed. “You’re not a cat. I don’t know why I did that.”
The Isle center- downtown, they always called it- left Mal feeling off-kilter, simultaneously familiar and foreign as it felt. The underlying bones (the permanent structures, rather) were still the same, but everything laid on top was different. Not just the graffiti, but the stacked boxes making pathways to slanted roofs, the corrugated tin of makeshift shacks- it had all changed just enough to give Mal pause.
Lots of places for a scared little girl to hide, though, and Yzma and her children had lived downtown. Yrza would know all those hiding spots. “Come on, Yrza, I’m not going to hurt you.”
“Didn’t peg you for a liar, M,” a mocking, high-pitched voice called from the shadows.
Mal whirled, icy adrenaline pouring into her veins, sending everything into high definition. “Ginny, I swear to god-“
She melted out of the shadows like a nightmare, ghost-pale and gaunt with wide, wild eyes. Physically she was almost insignificant, a full head shorter than either Mal or Uma and probably not a hundred pounds soaking wet. In spite of all of that, she sent a chill of dread down Mal’s spine. “I’m so happy to see you again,” Ginny said in a singsong.
There was a rusty pipe nearby- Mal grabbed it and brandished it at Ginny. “Coming at me alone was a bold choice,” she said. “You’re gonna let me go, and then-“
“Who said I was alone?” Ginny asked.
A door creaked open beside her and out stepped Audrey, because of fucking course Audrey and Ginny were in cahoots. Of fucking course they were. Because both of them, when presented with two terrible options, went out of their way to make a third, extra-terrible option and then choose that, because they were both absolute nightmare people.
“Audrey,” Mal said, “If you were ever good, at any point in your life-“
“I probably wasn’t,” she replied.
Mal kept the pipe trained on Ginny. “You don’t know what she’s like,” Mal tried, “You didn’t grow up here, you don’t know the shit she’s pulled. Ginny tell you she’s a cannibal? Yeah. Yeah, she ate a person.”
Audrey smiled, which just made Mal’s stomach sink. “I know. Looking for magic, right? It’s why she was so delighted to hear that your dad is Hades. Half evil fairy, half god of death… wonder how that’ll taste.”
Okay, that was unfortunate, Audrey had lost the few remaining marbles Mal thought all people had by default. Including the marble labeled cannibals are crazy people, do not enter into cahoots with them. “I’m gonna be going now,” Mal said, slowly backing up, eyes jumping between Audrey and Ginny. “You two stay there, I’m gonna-“
Mal made one critical miscalculation. Uma maintained control of her gang through a combination of charisma and brute strength. Mal’s control came from her mother’s status as unofficial queen of the isle. Ginny’s, however, came from her reputation and everyone’s fear. Not that Uma and Mal weren’t feared, but it wasn’t like Ginny’s fear, not at all. Uma had her lieutenants and Mal her admirers, but Ginny had followers, kept firmly under her control thanks to a potent combination of worshipful adoration of their leader’s batshit crazy bloodlust and fear that if they disappointed or betrayed her, she would quite literally eat them alive. It made for very loyal, very numerous followers.
All this to say- Mal forgot that Ginny always had bodyguards somewhere, waiting.
One of them cracked her over the head and everything went dark.
She hadn’t really expected to open her eyes again.
She’d gotten caught by Ginny Gothel, and everyone knew what would happen if Ginny got her hands on you and you had any kind of magic in your background. Generally, people don’t wake up while they’re being eaten. But Mal’s eyes fluttered open to show her that she was in an underground cave of some sort, a fire blazing in the middle and its smoke billowing out a hole in the roof.
“Explain to me why I should listen to you?” Ginny’s deadly quiet little voice asked.
“It will give you what you want.” Audrey- right, they were in cahoots, because both of them were the world’s worst person. “It will also give me what I want and do wonders for your reputation. Imagine the fear you’ll inspire when people hear you ate Mal’s fingers in front of her, while she could watch.”
Adrenaline made Mal suddenly sharp. She was in a chair, shoulders and ankles and right arm strapped to it with what looked like industrial-strength Velcro. Her left arm was pulled away from her body, her wrist strapped down to a table so tightly she could barely wiggle her fingers.
The table had knife marks on it. A cutting board.
“No,” Mal said, “No, no no no, no, Audrey, come on, please-“
Audrey whirled on Mal. “I want,” she said very deliberately, “What I deserve. I want you to suffer how I suffered when I take back everything you took from me. Ginny was more than happy to help.”
The fire had a grill suspended over it.
That first surge of adrenaline edged over into pure, unadulterated panic. “Ginny, Ginny, come on, don’t you ever want to go to Auradon? The first time, you know, um…” It was very hard to rationalize cannibalism. “You know, the Isle is tough, I could convince them it wasn’t that bad, that you just did it ‘cause you were starving, but if you do this- Ginny, they won’t forgive this, don’t you want to see Auradon?”
“No,” Ginny said, picking up a meat cleaver longer than her arm. Mal whimpered. “Why would I want to leave our island?”
“The only thing I miss about Auradon is the food,” Audrey said. “And that’s not really a complaint Ginny here shares, is it? Not with the treat she’s about to enjoy.”
Ginny was dangerously close to her left hand. Mal changed tacks. “Ben will send the guards in,” Mal said, “He loves me, I’m going to be queen, if you kill me, he’ll, he won’t rest until he brings you to justice, he’ll-“
“Do what?” Ginny asked. “Banish me to the Isle?” She leaned in close. “I’m already there.”
There was this dull thunk somewhere off to Mal’s left, and then explosive pain shot up her arm and she screamed, full-volume, a kind of damsel-in-distress scream she hadn’t thought she was capable of until now. She looked down at her left hand to see what had happened, then kept looking down because it just didn’t compute, she couldn’t understand what she was seeing, it didn’t make sense.
Ginny handed something over to Audrey. “Your requested payment.”
Audrey slipped something shiny onto the fourth finger of her left hand, blood smearing over her smooth, unscarred skin. Mal’s engagement ring- Audrey had Mal’s engagement ring, because her brain finally understood what had happened to her.
The bitches had cut off her left pinky and ring finger, and left a sizeable cut at the base of her left middle finger.
Ginny put Mal’s two fingers on the grill while Audrey admired the ring. Mal turned her head aside so when she threw up, it wouldn’t be on her fresh wounds. “Gross,” Audrey said. “Um, nameless goons, can you please do something about the bleeding there? Your boss wants to savor this meal, and the meat will go bad if Mal dies and starts rotting.”
The fire was sizzling. The fire was sizzling as fat dripped off Mal’s fingers into it.
She was still screaming. She wasn’t sure she’d stopped screaming. There was no way for her to make sense of what was happening, it was all too horrifying to think about.
“Do it,” Ginny said, and then the goons were pressing fabric into the wound, which was somehow both better and worse than it just spilling her lifeblood onto the floor.
Mal absolutely had to get out of here.
“Audrey,” she said, “Audrey, you have what you want, you don’t- Ginny will turn on you, she’s got no friends, just underlings-“
“And now an ally,” Ginny said. “She is skilled in social manipulation. Her talents complement mine. So long as she is useful, she has nothing to fear from me.”
“But what about when your usefulness runs out?” Mal asked. “Audrey. Come on. Look around. You know this is wrong.”
Audrey leaned in close to Mal. “I know. And I like it that way.”
And then she collapsed into Mal’s lap.
Behind her was Uma, wielding a two-by-four with rusty nails sticking out of the ends. Ginny was already crumpled in a sad-looking heap by the fireplace. The goons yelled and rushed Uma, but the pirate queen had backup. Harry came running at them with a feral cry, hook in his left hand and cutlass in his right.
“Let’s get you the hell out of here, huh?” Uma said, kneeling by Mal’s legs to undo the straps.
Mal sobbed in some horrible mixture of fear and relief. “The fire, Uma, I- please don’t let her-“
Uma nodded. “Harry? Knock the grill over when you have a minute?”
“On it!” Harry clubbed the nearest goon with the hilt of his sword, then kicked the grill hard, turning it on its side. Mal watched her fingers fall into the fire and melt into ash with something that felt almost like relief. No one could eat them now.
“Okay, I’m gonna undo this strap now, and it might hurt,” Uma said, moving to Mal’s left wrist. “You ready?”
“All righty then,” Uma said, and tugged it free. The movement jostled Mal’s hand and she screamed again, because why did losing two fingers hurt that much?
Harry walked over, sword at his hip. “I have something else that I think belongs to the lady,” he said.
Pinched between his fingers was Mal’s engagement ring.
Mal dissolved into tears again when she saw it, because she wanted nothing more than to put it back on her finger and be Ben’s fiancée again, but the finger itself was gone. “Come on, Mal,” Uma said gently. She took the ring from Harry and slipped it on Mal’s right ring finger. “It’s yours, you fucking earned it. If you don’t wear it outta here, Audrey’s gonna get her hands on it again, and we don’t want that, do we?” Mal shook her head. “Good. Now let’s go find your boy, okay?”
Mal let herself get dragged to her feet, her left arm over Uma’s shoulders and her right arm over Harry’s. She tried to walk, but it was hard to keep any weight on her feet, so she mostly just let them drag her along.
“The girl,” Mal said. “Yrza, is she… did they find her?”
“She’n Evie went back to Auradon like two hours ago,” Uma said. “When you didn’t come back, I knew Ginny prob’ly got the drop on you, so I went looking underground. Heard you scream, came running.”
“You keepin’ pressure on?” Harry asked.
“I can do that or I can carry her,” Uma said. “I’m doing what I can.”
“I’m not gonna make it,” Mal realized. She was lightheaded and woozy from blood loss. “I’m not-“
Uma ducked out from under Mal’s arm. “Pick her up?” Uma requested, and Harry immediately complied. She pulled off one of her scarves and wound it around Mal’s hand, tight enough to make Mal yell and try to kick her. “Whiner,” Uma said. “Now, come on. You gonna give Ginny and Audrey the satisfaction of killing you just ‘cause you lost a couple fingers? Who even needs all their fingers anyway? No one. Now stay conscious, you little shit, or I’m gonna have Harry throw you in the ocean.”
As everything faded to black, Mal said, “I don’t take orders from you.”
“Fuckin’ bitch,” Uma muttered.
For the second time that day, Mal woke up surprised to find herself still alive. It took her a second to remember exactly what had happened, and when she did, she wished she didn’t. She made a face, trying to sit upright.
“Oh no, honey, don’t do that,” Belle said, and there was pressure on Mal’s shoulders, keeping her down. “You’re in the hospital, recovering, don’t push it.”
“Are you sure there’s nothing more you can do?” That was Ben’s voice. He was holding her right hand, a sensation so normal and familiar that it was like an anchor to normalcy in the sea of horribleness that surrounded her.
The next voice was a little harder to place. “Yes, I’m sure,” her father said sharply. “Don’t you think I’d fix Mallie all the way if I could?”
“Dad?” Mal asked.
“Can you tell these nice hero-types that I’m not the god of healing? You’d want Apollo for that, but no one wants Apollo,” Hades said. That must be his hand on her ankle- Ben had her right hand, Belle had her shoulders, and she could vaguely hear Ben’s dad pacing off to one side. He patted her gently. “But you’re up, you feel like yourself?”
Mal nodded. “Thanks, Dad. Don’t kill them.”
“My kid is down three fingers,” Hades said. “I make no promises.”
Mal looked down at her left hand. She knew her pinky and ring finger were ashes in Ginny Gothel’s hearth, but the middle finger was gone too. “Infection,” Ben said. “They took the finger to save the hand, I’m sorry. Uma burned it and threw the ashes in the ocean- she said you’d want to know that.”
“Yeah,” Mal replied, “Good.”
His thumb stroked the back of her hand. “She’s never going to lay hands on you again.”
“Good lad,” Hades said. “All right, you only promised me ‘till she was awake. You can send me back now.”
Mal vaguely heard Adam and the guards start moving, but then Belle said, “Absolutely not. Your daughter is in the hospital. Adam, what would you do if it were Ben lying here?”
Ben’s dad sighed. “The guards stay.”
“Absolutely,” Ben said. “Mal, what if you had guards on you permanently, forever, to keep something like this from happening again?”
“No,” Mal replied. “Audrey tried to take my ring.”
Ben pulled her right hand to his lips and pressed a kiss to the knuckle just below her engagement ring. “You got it back,” Ben said, “And it’s just a symbol. She can steal whatever rings she wants- she’s stuck on that Isle and you’re still here in Auradon, with me, and my parents, and your dad, and we’re going to build a better world and be happy in it. She can’t take that.”
“All right,” Uma said, looking at the two captives tied up on her deck. “I’ve been cool. I’ve played by the rules. But honestly, both of you, what the fuck.”
She looked between the princess and cannibal as if she expected a reply. Bound and gagged as they were, however, a reply seemed unlikely. Harry, off to her right, slid a whetstone over his hook, savoring the shnickt it made. Neither girl was outwardly affected by Harry’s show, but that was to be expected. Audrey was a princess, trained in poise, and Ginny was a fucking psychopath.
“What am I gonna do with you two?” Uma mused aloud.
Kidnapping rival gang leaders was generally considered a bad idea, as they had their gangs lying in wait. If Uma kept Audrey and Ginny here much longer, their followers would swarm Harbortown full of rage and blades, butchering anyone in their path to free their fearless leaders.
No matter what, their entire gangs would come for them.
“I have an idea,” Uma said. “Come on, guys, help me move them.” When Desiree came to help, Uma stopped her with a hand. “Not you. You, go get me some chum- the oldest, rankest stuff possible.”
Desiree nodded once, sharply, then scurried off down the gangplank.
“All right,” Uma said, looking at her pirate crew carrying the girls on their shoulders. “Follow me.”
She led them towards the Gate- the most civilized part of the Isle, Auradon manners slipping in through the checkpoint. As such, it had become the most popular place to hang out among the Isle’s kids. It didn’t get you labeled a wimpy coward the way hanging out in Auradon proper did, but it was still a little less terrible than everywhere else.
“All right,” Uma said, once they arrived at the plaza crossroads just outside the gate. It was dead quiet now, what with Uma and her crew making a ruckus on their way over, but once they cleared out, the plaza would fill up with people again. “String ‘em up.”
Bonnie frowned. “What?”
Uma pointed to some scaffolding above the plaza that connected the rooftops on the two sides of the street. “We’ve got ropes. String them up.”
“We’re not hanging them, are we?” Bonnie asked.
“No,” Uma said, “I’m not stupid and I like visiting Auradon. Tie it around their waists and stomachs, like a harness. Nothing lethal.”
Her pirate crew looked at her for a moment, seemingly bemused by this simple request, but then went to work obeying, throwing ropes and tying them to the girls. “Don’t hoist quite yet,” Uma said. “We’ve got one more ingredient coming.”
Within a few minutes, Desiree came trotting up with two huge, stinking buckets of chum. Uma took one with a word of thanks and upended it onto Audrey.
“Oh my God!” the princess shrieked, doing her best to shake the rotting fish off from within her bounds. “What did you do?! This is designer!”
Ginny was quieter when the chum was dumped on her, although because she was constitutionally incapable of not being terrible, she did try to bite at Uma’s fingers. So Uma made her wear the chum bucket as an absurd helmet.
“Now you hoist ‘em,” Uma said.
Her pirates gave a great heave-ho, and then the girls were up, suspended perhaps six feet off the ground, stinking of rotten fish and defeat. Uma turned back to her pirates with a satisfied grin. “Make sure everyone comes this way over the next day or so. Bonnie, you make sure nobody touches them. They’re here for our entertainment.”
Uma reached up and patted Audrey on the foot. The girl tried to kick, but Uma was too quick for that. “Good luck commanding fear and awe now, assholes,” Uma said, and sauntered back off towards Harbortown.
Mal smiled at the reporter with far more teeth than necessary. She’d been looking forward to the day she could get revenge on these people (with justification, of course) ever since they stressed her out into her panic attack a year ago. “Are you sure you need to go in there?” she asked.
The reporter tightened her grip on her pad. “I- our readers are interested in the outcomes of these trials-“
“Which will be announced once they’re over,” Mal said. “Do you really need to be inside while it’s happening?”
Mal leaned in closer, let her smile get truly predatory. “I’d rethink that if I were you.” She deliberately relaxed her posture, giving the woman a little more space. “I’d be… very disappointed, in any reporters that chose to be inside just for the drama.” She deliberately lifted her left hand to her throat to fiddle with her necklace with her thumb and forefinger, drawing conspicuous attention to the bandages where her other three fingers used to be. “I’ve been having a rough couple of weeks, and if there’s a mob of people gawking at him like he’s an exhibit in a museum…” She sniffed and dabbed at an eye with her right hand. “I just- I don’t know what I’ll do.”
The reporter’s eyes grew wide. “Oh! Oh! Yes, of course, Lady Mal, I’ll- I’ll leave right now.”
That one dealt with, Mal circled back to where Carlos sat outside the closed doors of the courthouse, Radcliffes on either side of him, holding his hands. “How many people have you shamed into silence, now?” Carlos asked.
“I don’t shame them,” Mal said. “They’re responsible for their own feelings. They shame themselves.”
She shifted her weight from foot to foot. If they were on the Isle, it would be natural as anything for Mal to crouch in front of him, or sit on the floor by his feet, physically putting herself between Carlos and external threats. Here, though, it was unladylike.
Roger stood and stretched, dropping Carlos’s hand. “I’m gonna go grab a coffee. You need anything, Carlos, Anita?”
“Did you just stand up so Mal could sit next to Carlos?” Anita asked. “If so, you don’t actually have to leave.”
Roger looked sheepish. Mal took his seat, butt on the very edge and leg jumping. They weren’t on the Isle anymore. They weren’t on the Isle anymore, but Cruella was here, not just on the mainland but in this building, and Mal was more than ready to act as the bodyguard Carlos needed.
Carlos tried to smile at her. “Thanks.”
“Ben should’ve just rejected her petition,” Mal growled. “Shoulda just said no, bitch, never gonna happen.”
“That wouldn’t be fair,” Anita said gently. “This is going to be her only day in Auradon, we know that.”
Mal nodded. “If she wins, I’ll kill her.”
“They’ll send you back,” Anita replied.
“Worth it,” Mal said flatly. She could feel Anita and Roger giving her side-eye, judging her for her willingness to kill. “You don’t know what she’s done. She deserves it.”
Roger nodded. “You’re right, we don’t. But she can’t hurt Carlos anymore, not ever again, no matter what happens.”
Jay came trotting down the hallway, eyes skimming across faces as he checked for threats. Before he was halfway to where they sat, Anita stood to hold her husband’s hand, letting Jay take her seat. “Got rid of ten more journos before they even came in,” Jay said, both legs jumping. His eyes didn’t settle once he sat.
“Thanks,” Mal said.
Carlos looked up at the Radcliffes and extended a hand, which Anita immediately took. “You’re gonna be all right, sweetie,” she said. “Promise.”
“Or we’ll kill her,” Jay said.
“We’ve been through this,” Roger said with a wry smile. “With Mal, while you were gone.”
Jay turned on Mal with a scowl. “I have dibs on Cruella and your mom, you have dibs on the Evil Queen and my dad. We’ve established this.”
“Oh, so you get to keep your dibs on the only one who might come back through?” Mal said. “I see, I see how it is.”
Anita frowned, looking between them. Mal braced for the inevitable judgment- get to kill someone, really, Mal- but instead, Anita said, too gently, “Were… were all your parents like her?”
No, was the true answer. No, their parents were not all like Cruella. They were all horrible in different ways. All of them bore scars from their lives with their parents, but no two scars were quite alike. But no matter how much Carlos loved these people, they weren’t Isle-born; they could never understand.
The doors opened.
“Time to go in,” Mal said, standing and pulling Carlos to his feet. “You ready?”
“No,” Carlos replied. He crouched down and picked up Dude, who’d been napping quietly at his feet. “But let’s do it anyway.”
It must’ve been pretty hard for Carlos to walk, boxed in with the Radcliffes and Jay and Mal, but none of them gave him so much as an inch. If Mal could keep Cruella from so much as seeing Carlos, she would. Unfortunately, that was not the point of the day.
Cruella was already sitting at the defendant’s docket.
She’d worn her furs.
“Wow, I want to punch her,” Anita muttered. “I thought I’d be over it by now, but… no, I still want to punch her.”
Mal noted with satisfaction that the room was emptier than she’d ever seen it. Ben was there, as was the necessary quorum of Council members, but all those members were ones who knew the Isle four at least a little and had proven themselves trustworthy. The anti-Isle faction bit itself in the ass on this issue- all it took was Ben gently insinuating to Ella that Carlos had had a childhood not unlike hers, and the princess had immediately chivvied all unfriendly faces out of the court, including her own. There were guards surrounding Cruella and on each exit. But there were no onlookers, no journalists, nothing not strictly necessary.
Jay and Mal slapped a very discreet high-five.
“All right,” Ben said. “We have everyone. Are all absent Council members’ votes assigned to a present member?”
General Mulan stood. “Yes, and no one has more than two extra votes.”
“Excellent, then we have a quorum, and this trial can proceed,” Ben said. “This is a parole hearing for Cruella de Vil, hoping to earn the right to live in Auradon. Why do you think you deserve it?”
She stood, and Mal heard the satisfying clink of handcuffs muffled by the mass of furs. “I never hurt anyone,” she said. “I never even threatened to hurt anyone, just stole some dogs. And they’re all fine, so I hear. So I don’t see why I shouldn’t get to come and live among civilized people once more.”
Ben stared at her, impassive. “Carlos?” he called. “You wanted to testify here?”
Carlos nodded and stood. He held Dude with one arm, giving him a hand free to hold Anita’s. “She might not have hurt anyone before the Isle, but she did while she was there. And I know, you had to issue exceptions, because on the Isle some pain was just, you know, par for the course, but, um.” He took a steadying breath, and Mal saw Anita’s hand squeeze tight. “My mother was abusive towards me,” he said. “When I was little, she used to put out her cigarettes on my skin, because she… she wanted me to have spots, like a, a Dalmatian. I slept in the closet surrounded by repurposed bear traps, which were there to protect her furs, and, um- sometimes they closed on me while I was trying to go to bed, because she’d rearrange them without warning me. Other kids worked on the Isle because their parents’ business needed them- Dizzie swept floors, Uma waited tables, whatever- but I worked because my mom wanted a personal servant, and she had a kid, and she acted like that was the same thing. Everyone’s parents hit them, but Cruella… I had it worse. You can call in whatever Isle kids you want if you don’t believe me. I had it worst. They’ll agree.”
Ben paused, doing his best not to look at Carlos with pity. Mal had warned him. If his gaze turned pitying, for even a second, she was going to slap him. “Is there anything else you’d like to add?”
“No,” Carlos said, sitting down hard. Anita tugged him into her arms.
Cruella narrowed her eyes. “I recognize you.”
“You kidnapped our dogs,” Roger said.
“You kidnapped my son,” Cruella retorted.
Anita gave Cruella a glare that would have frozen the sun. “We rescued him. Leave it to you, not to see a difference. If it matters, King Ben, my husband and I would also like to formally request Cruella not come back, we have 207 Dalmatians at our last count and we’re almost positive Cruella will try and turn them into coats.”
“Uma?” Ben asked. “Given your knowledge of Cruella, does that sound likely?”
“Oh, hell yeah,” Uma said. “She skins the Isle rats when she can for their furs. She’d absolutely go back to dog butchering if she goes back to Auradon. Bitch is crazy.”
“Objection,” Cruella said. “Can the jury inject personal opinion in so vitriolic a manner?”
Ben nodded with a bright smile. “Yes! Yes, she can. Do you have any defense for the way you treated Carlos? Burning him so he’d have spots, for example, do you have any justification for that?”
“He exaggerates,” Cruella said. “He- oh.”
Carlos had stood and started pulling off layers. Mal caught vest and shirt as they were discarded so he stood in front of the Council shirtless, the little round spots speckling his shoulders, back, and chest plain in the light. “What was that, Mother?”
“Oh my God,” one of the Council members said.
Mal looked them over- they all looked legitimately appalled at his treatment. True, these were already the friendliest faces, but to a man- they were all absolutely horrified. Her estimation of them ticked up several notches.
“Are you sticking with ‘he lies’ as a defense?” Ben asked.
Princess Rapunzel stood. “You can call it, your Majesty,” she said. “We don’t need to hear any more.”
“I have to let her defend herself,” Ben replied. “Unfortunately.”
“There is nothing she can say that can justify those wounds on her son,” Princess Rapunzel said. “I know what abusive parenthood looks like. This is it. She’s staying on the Isle for the rest of her miserable life.” She looked down the Council seats. “We’re in agreement?”
Ben beamed and smacked his gavel. “Great! Cruella de Vil, your parole is denied. Guards, drag her back to the Isle.”
Carlos watched his mother get pulled from the stand and dragged out of his life for good. “Okay,” he said, turning to Jay and Mal. “I want to go for ice cream. Can one of you text Evie? I feel like having a really good day in the sunshine with my best friends.”
Mal smiled. “That sounds like a great idea.”
Harbortown was quiet these days.
Part of it was that all the ankle-biters had been given away to families in Auradon, and they had always been the noisiest part of Harbortown. Part of it was that most of the adults had been pardoned, as Harbortown and the suburbs had traditionally held mostly henchmen and minions, the worst of the worst forcing their way into town center. So many people had left that her neighborhood felt like a ghost town.
Uma knew that most of the quiet, however, had nothing to do with the number of people, but rather what the remaining people were doing. There weren’t any screaming matches, any swordfights. Uma’s remaining lieutenants were lazing on the boats enjoying the warmth of the day, talking quietly and laughing. The remaining pirates- two murderers, plus a handful unwilling to leave their home despite being eligible for pardons- were playing cards.
It was peaceful. Uma wasn’t used to finding much peace on the Isle.
“Ready for the food run?” Harry asked, knocking his shoulder into hers.
Uma nodded. “Yeah. How many heads?”
“Thirteen- six teenagers, five adults.”
Uma nodded again, he rammed his shoulder against hers once more, and they headed off into the Isle.
Harbortown was not the only place affected. The suburbs had been completely abandoned, the wind whistling through the streets and blowing leftover trash around. It tried to fill Uma with fear and dread, but she pushed it away. Every empty house was a pardoned henchman, another child or two safely installed in Auradonian schools, more people partaking in the mainland’s prosperity. Plus, it was a buffer zone between sleepy Harbortown and downtown, which was a bit less sleepy, what with Ginny and Audrey living there.
“It’s changed a lot,” Harry said when they were almost out of the suburbs, kicking a can down the road. “All quiet-like.”
“Yeah,” Uma said. “The Isle’s different than it used to be.”
Before long, they were at the building Mal and her friends had donated to the Auradon government to run their doctor’s services and food pantry and whatnot. It was in the heart of downtown, but it had Auradon royal guards around it. No one was stupid enough to attack people coming here.
“Hey, Uma, Harry,” one of the guards said. “Here for some rations?”
“You know it,” Uma said, passing by him into the building, pushing the door open wide enough that the group coming in behind them could catch it. “You got our cash, right?”
Harry handed it over. “Desiree counted it out.”
“Pre-emptively shifting the blame, I see,” Uma replied with a smile.
“Money hasn’t been her job to manage for years or anything,” Harry joked.
The man running the food pantry, some Agrabah transplant whose name Uma had never bothered to learn, gave her a beaming smile. “Hey, Uma, Harry. What do we need today?”
“Five teenagers’ meals, six adults,” Uma said, handing over the money.
He took it and put it in the gleaming register. “Fewer again. You still shedding people?”
“Talkin’ them into goin’ to school properly,” Uma said. “Just the stubbornest ones left, but I’ll wear ‘em down.”
“Good on you.” The guy placed two bags on the counter. “Anything else you need while you’re here?”
Uma shook her head and took a bag. “Just dinner.”
“All righty then,” the guy said. “Have a good day. Next?”
The group that had followed Uma and Harry in wasn’t a pack of friends, just people who’d happened to arrive around the same time. They were waiting in the queue quietly, most tapping away on their phones, but no one was shouting or shoving. There weren’t any Isle adults within eyesight or earshot, so everyone was just… playing nice.
Or… not playing. Being. Being nice.
As they walked out of city center, Uma watched her fellow Isle kids, really watched them. No one was younger than thirteen or fourteen. It wasn’t like everyone had gone completely soft in the head- people had weapons on them, kept their eyes open and heads on a swivel- but it didn’t feel like a war zone anymore. People nodded at them as they walked by- a cool, uncaring jerk of the head, but better than a sneer or an attempted pickpocketing. It didn’t smell like garbage anymore. Now that people could get their hands on nice things, taking weekend trips into Auradon, they wanted to keep them nice. No more rotten food and trash everywhere. The Isle was still colorful and loud, but it wasn’t quite so mean anymore.
The rules had changed.
Harry was walking on her left, so she was sandwiched between him and the walls, a position he could most easily defend. He was carrying his bag of meals in his left hand, hanging from his hook, leaving his right hand free.
She looked at his hand. Fair skin, broken nails, callouses and rope burns, strong tendons. His hands were familiar to her. They worked her ship, fought for her, raised her children.
She shifted her bag and took his hand.
He looked over at her, surprise bright in his icy eyes. He touched her a lot, all a part of his mad-dog fanaticism, but Uma had never, to the best of her recollection, returned the favor.
She gave his hand a squeeze.
Slowly, impossibly, he smiled.