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The Ones Who Wander

Chapter Text

Ginny Gothel was used to a lot of things. For starters, she was used to the sour coffee of the goblins that always left her with a bitter taste dancing in her lips, to the winter-y coldness that took possession of the island during all four of the seasons despite the scorching sun above them, to the feeling of an empty stomach, not only because there was not much to eat in the Isle but, more importantly, because she still held on to the mild hope that, one day, if she was thin enough, made up enough, graceful enough, Gothel would turn to look at her. Talk about heedless thinking.

Of course, living in the Isle of the Lost one had to get used to some things.

However, there was one thing that she would never, try as she might, get used to, and that was Gothel ways. The reason for it was simple and no, it was not that she was not yet ready to accept the fact that Gothel would never change. It was the complete opposite: what made it impossible for her to learn and resign herself to her so-called mother's ways was the fact that they kept changing.

At the moment, all Ginny wanted was to get her out of her hair. Literally.

"It's time, it's finally time!" That's what had woken her up, just before Gothel's long fingers found their way to her curls and dragged her out of the heap of dirty rags she called her bed.

"What are you talking about? You're hurting me!" Ginny screamed back at her, trying to make her mother let go of her hair. Old as she was, Gothel had a strong grip and, what was more, a crazed gleam in her eyes that had only worsened with the years she'd spent in the Isle.

"Ha! It's finally time, finally time! After sixteen years of being trapped with you, useless child, I'll finally get a chance to come out of this place and be young again!"

"What are you talking about, Gothel? It won't work, let me go!"

"Sixteen years, but it will be over soon, very soon!"

"It won't work, let me go!" Ginny repeated, already feeling tears prickle in the bottom of her eyes.

This wasn't something out of place, dare she thought about it that way. Gothel had been "working" on a way to leave the Isle long before she was even born, though those last "sixteen years" Ginny had become nothing other than her guinea pig. Well, that and the one responsible for her stretch marks and even more premature aging process. Not that Ginny would have been born to her if she'd had been given the option.

"This is stupid, Gothel, let me go!" Ginny cried, knowing full-well that it was stupid to try to reason with her mother, but knowing, as well, that she was not above it.

"I've waited long enough, idiot child!" Gothel laughed, her iron grasp around Ginny's locks seeming tighter to the girl once she stopped fighting back and allowed her mother to haul her out of their deteriorated hut.

This wouldn't work, Ginny knew that. The barrier wouldn't come down even if she bled to death and her hair was cut and washed away by the sea. No, Gothel wouldn't become younger even if she bathed in Ginny's tears and she transfused Ginny's 'purer' blood into her body. And she had tried all of those things.

No matter what Gothel did, Ginny wouldn't become a blonde, willowy girl with huge emerald eyes and a hair so long it wouldn't fit in their shack.

No, all Ginny had to offer to her mother was a skinny daughter with waist-long curly hair and chestnut eyes. All she was could be summarized in raven hair and 'not enough.'

Yet, Gothel wouldn't stop trying to get her 'poor flower' back. She wouldn't, for the life of her, accept the fact that beautiful, innocent Rapunzel was gone and all that was left behind to replace her was the maiden she was dragging towards the woods, the maiden with eyes darkened with blood and sleepless nights.

"Hickory, oak, pine and weed, bury my heart underneath those trees*," Gothel started chanting, unheeding of Ginny's huffs. "And when a southern wind comes to raise my soul, spread my spirit like a flock of crows."

"It won't work!" Ginny shouted once again. "You will never see Rapunzel again!"

That was when Gothel's fingers let go of the girl's hair, and despite the fact that Ginny had thought that to be the one thing she desired, the gesture wasn't as she'd pictured it―instead of simply letting her free, Gothel shoved her against the trunk of a tree. Before Ginny even had time to scream in pain, Gothel's jeweled fingers were already in her cheek, the strike of her slap strong enough to make Ginny's neck crack as it was forcefully turned.

"You have no right to speak her name!" Gothel roared. "My baby is out there, living with thieves and monsters and meanwhile I'm trapped in this dumpster with you and your pitiful attempt of being her!"

"I will never be like her!" Ginny managed through the blood that dripped from her mouth.

"That I know," her mother spat, gripping the neck of Ginny's dress so she could pull her closer to her as she spoke. "And that is why I need to get rid of you to get her back."

Gothel was crazy, that was all Ginny knew for sure. She became crazier by the second and nothing, magical, medical or mundane would give her back the sanity she had lost centuries in the past.

"Old heat from raging fire, come and light my eyes. Summer's kiss thru electric wire, but I'll never die!"

Ginny had heard that song a thousand times, as seasons changed, as she became older, and it could only mean one thing: Gothel had come up with another way to reach immortality and de-age, which, in return, could only mean one thing―Gothel had a plan to torture her so she could recover her own youth.

"It won't work, it won't work, it won't work," Ginny whispered, a plea so notorious in her voice it would have been painful, had they not been in the Isle of the Lost. Gothel, however, had long in the past turned a deaf ear to whatever her daughter said.

Ginny closed her eyes and let her tears run down her cheeks freely, careful, nonetheless, of biting the inside of her cheek to prevent a scream from coming out once the pain began. She didn't get to see the dagger that shimmered in Gothel's hand, neither did she take note of her mother's triumphant smirk. What she did feel, though, was the acute end of the weapon as Gothel stabbed her chest.

"Sycamore, ash moss and loam, wrap your roots all around my bones. And when they come for me, when they call my name, cast my shadow like a bellow's flame."

She didn't have time to cry in pain before Gothel made her next movement: dragging the knife across her skin, first vertically, then horizontally, up again and then from left to right, as if she were marking something, typecasting it into a squared box of blood and flesh.

True to her word, Ginny didn't scream, and it wasn't only because she had a reputation to live up to, but rather, because she was too horrified to even utter a witness to the agonizing convulsion that pierced through her body.

"You can bury my body, but I'll never die! Hickory, oak, pine and weed, bury my heart underneath those trees."

"M-Mother…." Ginny managed through her trembling lips, surprised even in her state that Gothel didn't correct her.

Gothel, to not break the habit, ignored her and continued with her newly invented ritual, this time, letting go of the dagger, which fell, blood-stained and harmless, to the ground before her fingers, with nails so long they seemed a crow's claws, entered the ensanguined cavity she had just created in Ginny's chest.

To be honest, the girl didn't even feel the pain anymore, she didn't force herself to choke down sobs or a plea for mercy. What she did feel, however, was the warm liquid that exited her chest and was soon tainting her torn-up dress with a bright red, brighter than Ginny had ever seen, warmer than she had ever felt.

It was only a few seconds before Gothel found what she had been looking for and, with hands that dripped blood and vengeance, took Ginny's still-beating heart out of her chest.

"Sixteen long years, that's how much I've waited for this!" the old hag laughed, bringing the blood-soaked organ to closer to her face. "Sixteen years with you, a useless nobody, tugging at my sleeve and twenty years of torture away from the mainland! That's how much I've waited!"

Thunder roared in the distance, and either Ginny's vision was clouding or there was really something magical in Gothel's actions, as the unforgiving sun of the Isle was suddenly covered by a veil of clouds as gray as her mother's hair.

"M-Mother, please…" Ginny let out in a shaky whisper, knowing full-well, that Gothel would ignore her. It didn't matter, she would think later, since her voice had been so low she couldn't even remember if she'd actually said the words or just thought about them.

She must have been delirious, Ginny thought as she saw Gothel prepare to chew on the heart that she taken out from her body, heart that she could still feel beating loudly in her ears, heart that, if the crimson lines that marred her vision didn't deceive her, was still connected to her body.

The ground started shaking. Cracking. Disappearing.

Who knew, Ginny thought dizzily, perhaps it had worked. Perhaps, this time, her mother's spell had finally worked. And through all of it, the only thing that she was certain of was that, be it that Gothel recovered her long-lost beauty or not, at least, at least it would be too late for her. She wouldn't recover from the gap in her chest or the blood loss. At least, for her, it would be over.

Soon, soon enough, in a jiffy, and what an irony it was that she thought of her death in so mundane words.

Suddenly, there was a scream in the distance. Or had it been close to her?

Numbly, Ginny opened the eyes she hadn't noticed she'd closed and was even more flabbergasted than she was already at the bizarre sight that greeted her: a humanoid blue figure towering over her mother, boney fingers making wide gestures.

"And I've spent twenty years listening to you idiot mortals lament over what you lost when that stupid beast put you here!" the newcomer exclaimed in disgust.

Whatever her mother answered ―if she even did― was lost for Ginny. In fact, she must have lost conscience all together, because the last thing she recalled thinking was: he must be Hades, Lord of the Dead.

And, by her train of thought, that could only mean one thing―she was, as she had predicted and even desired, dead. Dead, there was no more to it. No more scolding from her mother, no more cuts, no more anything. She was dead. Funny, Hades was another villain and through her hazed state all she could think of him was that he was her savior.

Hades, despite having spent the last twenty years trapped in the Isle like all the other villains, was rarely seen. He didn't like to mix with those commoners. Dirty mortals, that's what he called them.

"Oi, girl, do you plan to lay there the whole day or stand up?" a murmuring voice questioned her limp body. Ginny didn't even stir, so Hades sighed. Mortals.

Tracing the girl's sweaty forehead with his ice-cold fingers, he finally managed to make her eyelids flutter. As soon as Ginny's eyes focused on him the scream she had been swallowing for oh-so long found its ways through her lips.

"What are you doing?" she let out hoarsely as she tried to gather the rags of her torn dress and cover her breasts with it.

"Oh, no fancy introductions?" Hades smiled with his pointy teeth. "No 'Oh, lord Hades, I am so fortunate to have you here, thank you for saving my life'?" he questioned. "It's a shame, you mortals are losing your manners."

"What do you want?"

"Quite some things, actually. To get out of here, to conquer Olympus, to see my wife, but then again, none of them can be granted by you, can they?"

"What?"

"Oh, girl, how is it you're called? Gin?"

Numbly, she nodded, despite the fact that no one had ever called her that. She had always been Ginny, nothing more, nothing less.

"Alright, so, Gin, if I wanted to take away your innocence and your ephemeral life, don't you think I would have done so already?" he inquired, pointing at something in the ground.

That was when Ginny noticed it―the unconscious body of her mother, sprawled on the dry grass as an open wound on her head bleed.

"G-Gothel!" she whispered. "Is she… is she…"

"Dead?" Hades offered. "Ha! She is as dead as you are, and by that I mean very much alive!" He laughed, nudging Ginny's side as if to question why she wasn't cracking with laughter as well.

"What did you do to her, you monster?"

"Oh, here's what I get for saving your life," Hades said, a smile much more sinister than the one he'd sported until then plastering his lips. "This is why I'm not a hero, it would have been much easier to let you die, if you prefer that I can disappear and leave you to the tender mercies of your progenitor."

"What?" Ginny uttered. And that was when she remembered―the dagger, the knife, the blood. Forgetting about her inhibitions, she stopped trying to cover her naked breasts and instead dropped what was left of her dress to inspect her wound.

There was dry blood prickling at her skin and some of the liquid was still warm in the fabric of her skirt, but, where she should have had a deep gap and an empty chest all that was left was a scar. A prominent, notorious, worm-like scar but she supposed that was better than bleeding to death.

"You did this," she let out, more a statement than it was a question.

"Wrong again, sweet pie, I didn't do that," Hades laughed. "I put your mother to sleep, but you? You're not my problem."

"Then how…Why?"

"Oh, sweet children like you don't stand a chance in the outside world, do you?" he continued. He had a smile that made Ginny uneasy, and not precisely because it was vicious, but rather because it looked almost… nice. Kind. Those were not things you encountered in the Isle. Suddenly, his snicker turned darker. "The barrier around us does not only keep magic out. Far from it, there's magic inside the Isle as well, though it's not one we can bend and use, it has specific instructions. For example, no one can die inside the Isle. How else do you think you children haven't died after your parents drink too much? How else do you imagine villains haven't killed each other in a battle to gain power."

"What?"

"But, darling, I'm a god, and the silly magic the fairies possess is no match to my powers. Fairies die, gods do not, girl, remember that," Hades continued, not paying attention to Ginny's interruption, much like Gothel had done. "The barrier, however, is becoming weaker. Soon enough, there won't be a barrier anymore. Strange things are happening in Auradon, and it's just a matter of time before they start happening here as well. Hide from Gothel, there's nothing more she can take from you and don't trust I'll have your back a second time. Hide and wait for whatever will happen to happen. This will be over, and despite the fact that I cannot see the future, I foresee it won't be as bad as you expect."

"What?" Ginny whispered, her head throbbing.

The earlier fog seemed to reappear as her mind whirled, the forest around her seeming to tilt on its axis as she tried to comprehend all she'd been told. The barrier? Weakening? One day… to fall? That was… that couldn't happen. Thinking it could would be like hoping the sun would fall off the sky or that one day her mother would start treating her like the queens from Auradon's corny shows did their daughters. It was, simply, something that wouldn't happen.

"What are you waiting for, girl? An invitation," Hades taunted, the sand under his feet turning to a blueish smoke that was soon swallowing his figure completely. "Get out of here, Gin, before I regret having come out of my house for you."

Ginny ran. She didn't remember raising to her feet, she couldn't conjure the last image she'd seen of Hades or of her mother. She ran, that was all she knew. And in the distance, louder than the waves crashing on the shore, all she could hear was Hades' maniacal laugh.

She arrived to the place she'd called her house and packed. She changed her dress and tried to wash the blood away. She tried not to flinch whenever the wound in her chest sent waves of pain through her back and arms.

The only place she could think of to "hide" was the old church of the Isle. The fact that they had an emaciated replica of the Cathedral of Notre Dame had been hilarious until then, mostly because the majority of villains were god-less and the their descendants didn't want anything to do with a compassionate god when they had only known the opposite of that in their lives.

She didn't arrive to the cathedral, panting, because of what it represented to the believers. She only went there because Claudine Frollo, the only girl she had some kind of relationship with, lived there.

They weren't friends, of course, there were no friends in the Isle of the Lost, but they had spoken a handful of times and she had defended Claudine from the Gastons on a couple of occasions. Claudine had fed her in return.

This time, Ginny didn't want food, she didn't even want clean water. All she would ask for was a place to stay.

Chapter Text

There were a lot of things that had changed since they'd been in Auradon, and while that went without saying, there were times in which Evie couldn't help but be surprised at how different their lives were now.

It was curious, when she'd started hanging with Jay, Carlos and Mal, she'd thought her life couldn't have been any better. Yes, she still had to go home to her mother and food was scarce, but now she had someone to talk to, someone she could rely on, someone she trusted, and while that was a word rarely heard in the Isle, Evie didn't mind going against the rules if it meant she could keep those people close to her.

Now, Evie was actually convinced that things couldn't get better―she had her friends by her side, a boyfriend who loved her and thought she was beautiful regardless of the color of her lipstick, a dry and cozy place to call home, and food ―that wasn't rotten― on her plate.

Some things they were still getting used to. Jay, for example, had made a habit of holding the hand of the one who was walking next to him ―usually Carlos― whenever his fingers twitched with greed.

It wasn't perfect, not yet, and more than once Jay had asked her to distract a princess while he retrieved her bracelet. It wasn't perfect, but it was something.

Carlos, too, had made it a goal to overcome the fear of not being "good" enough ―fear that, of course, had been engrained in his system by none other than Cruella de Vil― and had started attending the group study sessions of their class.

Carlos clearly didn't need to study, but that wasn't why he was there―he went to help others, to explain the things that came naturally to him to the ones who didn't find Math or Chemistry to be that simple or as exciting.

Carlos was constantly saying that he was clumsy and didn't know how to express himself, but Evie had heard a handful of their classmates say that they understood better when he explained than when the teachers did. Evie agreed with them.

And she... she was learning, that was all Evie could say for herself. She was learning to be passionate about science and fashion at the same time, with no fear of what others would think about it. She was learning to be daring when it came to her clothes, to her make-up, to what she said. And yes, sometimes she needed to be reassured that Mal was right beside her when she tried a new outfit, sometimes Doug had to prompt her to answer the teacher's questions, but that was fine; she was getting better and she fiercely wanted to believe that, one day, she wouldn't need all of that. One day the memory of her mother would only be a ghost pushed to the back of her mind.

Nevertheless, while she waited for that to happen, she was glad to call Mal and the boys her friends.

She was also deeply proud of Mal, and not only because she had single-handedly taken down the Mistress of All Evil in a fight but, rather, because her friend had finally listened to what Ben and she had been saying for months and had attended one of the Council's meetings.

Truth be told, this wasn't the first meeting she'd attended, as Ben had been taking her with him for some weeks now, but this was the first one Mal would be sitting there as part of the Council, instead of simply sketching in her notebook or mentally making fun of Auradon's ways.

That day they would be discussing Ben's first decree as king: taking all of the villains' children out of the Isle. Some of the heroes argued that four was more than enough of their enemies' spawn to have in Auradon, while some considered it was unfair to only take out a handful of the children.

Ben, specially, was convinced that four was nowhere near enough when there was an estimated number of twenty more children still living on the Isle, which was currently facing an embargo after Maleficent's escape.

Ben had been offering Mal a chair on the Council for months, yet she had declined every single time, saying she wasn't interested in politics and that, if one of them had the right to actually represent anyone anywhere, that was Evie, who actually knew how to behave when it came to royalty.

Evie smiled. Yeah, she knew what dress to wear and what earrings would match her high-heels the best, and she had been trained in the ways of speaking to a sovereign, in the perfect curtsy.

Mal, however, was a natural-born leader. She had a stare that sent chills down anyone's spine and a no-beat-around-the-bush attitude that forced the people around her to listen to her.

Back at the Isle, people had feared Mal, and while some of their fellow islanders were convinced that her powerful aura came from Maleficent, Evie knew better. Yeah, the origin of Mal's magic and bewitching eyes was Maleficent, but Mal had power of her own, a voice that was made to give orders and to be obeyed, magic or not.

Mal would do great things, she just wasn't ready yet, and Evie didn't mind standing next to her while Mal conquered the world, so she had, as well, declined Ben's offer when he had proposed she took the chair in the Council. Mal would do it, when the time came.

And, apparently, this was the day.

True to her personality, Mal had repeated a thousand times that this would be the one and only time she attended one of those boring meetings as a participant rather than a spectator, and she was doing so only to shut their mouths up.

Evie, however, didn't believe her.

Once she started getting involved, truly getting involved, Mal wouldn't be able to stop doing what she knew was right. She was passionate like that. And she had a good heart, regardless of what she said.

"Girl, for the last time, where's Mal?" a squeaky voice interrupted both her train of thought and Evie's hands on the sewing machine.

Oh, right, Mal had also been working on that other project ever since Maleficent's defeat.

"Maleficent, I've told you, she's with Ben. If you're hungry say 'please' and I'll feed you," Evie replied, barely stopping herself from rolling her eyes as she started working again.

"I'm not hungry," the lizard-sized villainess whined.

This time, Evie didn't stop herself from showing her annoyance as she huffed.

Evie had tried to be supportive of her friend when Mal decided to keep Maleficent's shrunken figure in their dorm instead of putting it in a zoo or sending it right back to the Isle, but, for some reason, she just couldn't feel at ease when she was around the lizard.

Conversely, Mal didn't seem to mind Maleficent's constant complaints or sarcastic remarks.

Evie supposed it had something to do with the fact that this was Mal's mother they were talking about and, to Mal, her presence didn't seem so annoying.

It was strange, or at least it appeared to her, that despite everything their parents had done to them, they were still at their... mercy.

True, they weren't in the Isle, and apart from Mal, they didn't have to see their parents, yet... Sometimes, when she couldn't sleep, Evie wondered what would happen if they ever found themselves face-to-face with their parents.

Chances were they wouldn't be as strong as Mal had been.

They weren't like their parents, Evie knew that for sure, they didn't want to be like their parents, but... it could have had something to do with the blood relations they still shared with those people.

No, if Evie's mother gave her an order she wouldn't have complied, but... she was saying this while she was safe in Auradon, her mother imprisoned far away, magic restraining her from ever reaching Evie's residence.

What would she have done if she had Grimhilde in front of her? What would she feel if her mother's raised eyebrows and condemning eyes were trained on her?

Evie wished she could answer that she would have been able to turn a deaf ear to Grimhilde, she wished she could have said that she wouldn't have payed attention to whatever her mother ordered her to do, but she knew better.

Mal had already proven that she was more than capable of facing Maleficent on her own, but Evie had a theory that the fact that Mal was willing to go to great lengths to ensure Maleficent's safety and comfort meant that, in the end, Mal was just like them, just like her―somewhere, deep down, she still held on to the childish wish that, someday, somehow, her mother would turn to look at her with something other than despise.

"Girl, don't make me repeat myself, where's my daughter?" Maleficent asked again.

"Or what, you'll hiss at me? I've told you already," Evie answered, standing up from her sewing machine so she could reach the counter in which Mal kept Maleficent's lizard-food. "She's out with Ben, she'll be back shortly, if you're hungry I'll feed you."

"I'm not hungry," Maleficent complained. "But Mal should already be here."

Evie rolled her eyes in annoyance.

"She doesn't have to be here, you know," Evie muttered. "She can come and go as she pleases."

"Idiot girl," the lizard replied instead, turning away.

No, Evie didn't want to say Mal was foolish. But what her friend was doing proved otherwise.

Mal, just after the coronation was over, had walked over to Ben, her head held high and shoulders thrown to the back. She wanted to keep the lizard, that's what she had told her boyfriend.

People had argued, of course, but Mal had put her foot down and Ben had supported her. It was her mother, after all, and if there was one thing Auradon valued, that surely was family.

Besides, Mal had made it pretty obvious that she wasn't about to betray Auradon for her mother, as stated by the fact that she was the one who had defeated Maleficent when she had broken free of their impenetrable barrier.

So Mal had kept the lizard, carefully placing her in a glass terrarium, a magic shield around it that only allowed a force from outside the terrarium to go inside the barrier.

Parallel to that, Mal had tried to... "train" Maleficent, for lack of a better word to define it. For example, instead of simply feeding the lizard as if it were a pet, Mal had made it a point to wait until Maleficent reluctantly said "please" before placing dead crickets and a few slices of apples or tangerines in her plate.

Mal also refused to refill Maleficent's water bowl unless she asked "nicely", and that, for Mal, mostly meant that Maleficent didn't try to give orders to her or scream at her.

The longest Maleficent had gone without eating was two weeks and another one without water. After that incident, she had yielded, for the most part, at least, and uttered a disdainful "please" once every two or three days.

It wasn't much, but Mal thought she was making a progress, and while Evie could clearly see that Maleficent would never change, she wasn't about to take that twinkling hope from her friend.

The Fairy Godmother had said that, if Maleficent learned to love, her size would grow, expanding to the size of the love that resided in her heart, so Mal had made it her duty to care for Maleficent until that happened. Therefore, Mal measured Maleficent once a week and wrote down notes on her evolution.

Mal thought she could teach Maleficent how to love in the same gentle and patient way that Ben had taught her to, or at least that's what Evie guessed her friend's train of thought was.

She didn't want to be negative, but they all came from a world where imagining the "best" scenarios didn't take them too far. To survive in the Isle one had to be cunning, yes, but also realistic, and Evie sincerely thought that Mal was losing the cold-headed approach that had characterized her until then, at least when it came to Maleficent. And Evie was torn between being honest or simply letting Mal discover things for herself. Who knew, perhaps it would work, though it was unlikely.

Evie was about to return to her half-made dress for the summer dance of Auradon Prep when the door of her room was violently opened.

And there was only one person who would dare enter the ex-villainess' dorm without knocking first.

"Mal, what-?" Evie started to say as she turned over her shoulder, her eyebrows raised in confusion.

"There you are!" Maleficent cut her off. "Where the hell were you, girl, do you think this is-?"

"Cut it," Mal replied shortly, not even turning to look at her mother. "I'm not in the mood to deal with you."

"You're not in the mood? Girl, did I ask you what you felt like?"

"So... I take the meeting didn't go very well?" the daughter of the Evil Queen guessed.

"It didn't go well?" Mal repeated sarcastically. "That's saying little! They're idiots, Evie, idiots! Picture this: I'm sitting next to Ben, hearing Snow White and a couple of her friends arguing that it's not a good idea to bring all of the children to Auradon and that the four of us is more than enough. To my left, Ben is the epitome of patience and he's trying to tell them that his decree very clearly stated that all children should be given a chance to live here, he says that to bring or to not bring the children is not in discussion, alright?"

"I follow," Evie leaned back against her sewing table, settling in for the conversation. "What then?"

Mal sighed loudly, running her hands through her hair nonchalantly. "Then Ben says that he's had an idea: he wants to send an ambassador of Auradon to the Isle of the Lost, so this person can coordinate the children's arrival and get informed about how the Isle works."

"Well, it's not a bad idea..." Evie let out, fidgeting with her hair.

"No, it's not," Mal replied in exasperation. "The problem is that he then went on to nominate me as ambassador! Me, of all people!"

Evie leaned forward, eyes sparkling and a gentle smile in her lips. "That's a great idea! Then you can-"

"No, Evie, that's a terrible idea," Mal differed. "I'm not the one Ben's looking for, not when it comes to this, but that's not even the point!" she huffed.

Evie chewed on the inside of her lip, fidgeting with the navy blue ribbon she had been sewing on to her new dress. "Then what happened?"

"King Edward from Andalasia, that's what happened!" the daughter of Maleficent roared. "Apparently, he doesn't believe I'll be able to stay loyal to Auradon! He's unsure that bringing the other children is a good idea, but he knows there's not much he can do on that department, so he's settled for being a jerk towards me because it's not a wise thing to do to give a title to someone fathered by a villain, even after I saved their sorry asses from my mother!" Mal flung her notebook across the room, shooting daggers at her mother's lizard form. On her side, Maleficent simply hissed, showing off her forked tongue.

The ribbon slipped Evie's grip, her lower lip trembling in disbelief. "What?"

"As you hear it, Evie!" the girl huffed. "A huge debate started, and Snow White made sure to go two steps back and ask if it was really necessary to take the children out when we had already got passed that!"

"Umm... was it that bad?" Evie inquired after her friend had taken a couple of deep breaths, gesturing to take Mal's hand in hers, which went by unnoticed by the daughter of Maleficent as she made a fuss with them. "I mean, someone must have spoken in your favor, right?"

"Yeah, Ben, Adam, Belle, the Fairy Godmother, Mulan," Mal listed, rolling her eyes. "Esmeralda and Phoebus, but that's about it."

"They're scared, Mal, don't make it personal," Evie tried to reassure her, managing to take Mal's right hand in hers.

"Me? They're the ones who make it personal! We haven't hurt any of them, yet they feel it's their right to treat us like shit just because our parentage!" Mal screamed, slamming her fist on the mahogany desk she had placed Maleficent's cage on. The lizard remained unamused.

The hurt and confusion on Mal's voice echoed the one in Evie's heart. It wasn't fair. It simply wasn't fair. Why should they face again and again the judgement of strangers for what their parents had done? Brushing the loose bangs of her braid away from her eyes, Evie tried to push her own feelings aside in order to help Mal deal with hers.

"Mal, listen, they shouldn't do this, but, I mean… that's what fear is all about, they're not thinking about what they do."

"No, Evie, you know I'm right! They know nothing. They saw what the villains were twenty years ago, and that's the last they bothered to find out. They remember Gaston with his shotgun hunting down huge beasts and I'm not talking about Adam. They remember Ursula as a giant monster who would sink ships with a twist of her hand, they only remember what Jafar looked like when he was a powerful sorcerer, but they haven't seen Gaston drunker than humanly possible about to beat to death anyone who crosses paths with him. They have yet to go to the Isle and see what Frollo looks like when he's following the step-granddaughters until they start walking faster. Evie, they only know Cruella from when she was famous and powerful, but they haven't seen her when she's about to beat Carlos up."

"Mal, please―"

"No, Evie, that's my point!" Mal cried out, her breathing becoming harder. "They can only picture the villains in their peak, but they wouldn't know what they're capable of now, when they're at their worst. They fear the faded memories they have, but they have no idea that right now, on the Isle, is when the villains are the scariest that they've ever been."

The room got too quiet, as there was nothing Evie could say to argue with her friend. Mal was right, that was all there was to say. Yeah, she could understand what was behind the heroes' actions, their train of thought made sense―yet, that didn't make it right.

The four of them were constantly questioned about their motives and they were more often than not forced to prove their loyalty to Auradon. If something went wrong, they were immediately suspects and it probably didn't help that they all stood out at their respective areas, as that made some of their not-so-kind classmates think they were cheating or taking advantage of magic to reach their goals.

So... Mal was right, none of the heroes had sat in front of her mother, unmoving, for more than an hour while she inspected every aspect of her make-up and outfit, only to be deemed ugly, unfit, clumsy.

The heroes were a lot of things, but they were surely wrong when it came to this, and despite the fact that Mal's unorthodox ways probably weren't the wisest of ideas, perhaps quietly sitting at a meeting, hand raised as you waited for your turn to speak wasn't going to be very productive either.

Before Evie could come up with something to say that both calmed Mal and reassured her that she'd have her back, a crackling noise broke the silence.

"I cannot believe it!" the lizard said. "This is what had you so worked up?"

"Maleficent, this is really not the time―" Mal snapped, her eyes shooting fire as she turned at her mother. Without noticing it, Evie tightened her grip around Mal's hand.

"Oh, foolish child, you thought they would react any differently? Ha! You're my daughter, you're all as bad as we are! And them? They're not any better. What did you expect? That they'd welcome you with open arms and a huge smile? Think again," Maleficent sneered, her forked tongue coming out of her reptilian snout.

"Shut the hell up, Maleficent, I can't deal with you right now," Mal replied after a few silent seconds as she raised her right hand to massage her temples.

"Ha! What a way to speak to me, huh? Do you think I'll allow you to talk to me like that, young lady?"

"I do not want to speak to you, Maleficent, what part of that have I not made clear enough for you? Or is your small brain making it hard for you to understand?" Mal questioned, taking a step forward towards the terrarium, her eyes gleaming emeralds.

"Watch your tone with me, or else―"

"Or else what?" Mal cut her off. "You can't even feed yourself, shut up! You cannot even get out of that lizard-bowl or whatever it is called and if I were you I'd stop being a giant asshole to the one person that cares for you, because listen up, Maleficent, I'm the only one in this whole kingdom that gives a single fuck about you."

"Mal Bertha, watch your tone, I will not repeat myself."

"Fine by me! Stay in your cage and do so in silence because I don't have the time to deal with you right now!"

Feeling the atmosphere growing more and more conflictive around her, Evie let her breathing slow down. There was a knot in her stomach that seemed to become tighter whenever Mal talked back to Maleficent.

Again, it wasn't that Mal was saying lies, but rather, that all she said was too... real and too relatable. Too raw, too honest.

Evie felt like an intruder eavesdropping a conversation that wasn't meant for her ears. Mal was under too much pressure at the time, and perhaps it would be good that she let it all out with someone that was already looking for a fight on a regular basis rather than on someone innocent.

Silently, Evie tried to step back and leave the room to give Mal the privacy she deserved for this intimate moment.

And then... something happened.

"Stay, please," Mal whispered, her voice nothing like it had been mere seconds in past as she argued with Maleficent. Evie nodded, gently squeezing the hand that Mal had gripped around her wrist in reassurance.

With that established, Mal turned back to her mother, a glimmer almost sinister in her eyes.

"You know what? Don't stop talking to me, I have a better idea," she said, a snicker firm in her lips. "It's my turn now. For the last sixteen years I've been forced to listen as you listed everything that you didn't like about me, so now it's my turn, Maleficent."

"You? You will never be half of what I am, you should be ashamed!"

"And I am," Mal replied. "I'm ashamed I ever wanted to be like you, so pitiful and insignificant. I will not be half of what you are not because I can't, but because that's not what I am aiming for."

"Foolish child!" Maleficent crackled a laugh, the squamous beard under her reptilian chin puffing out.

"No, it's my turn to speak. You know what, Maleficent, what do you think would happen if I decided that I care for you just as much as you did for me my whole life, huh? What if I get tired of you and just send you back to the Isle? How do you think the other villains will react? Do you think they'll give you a warm welcome after all you did to them? They'll hunt you down! You're nothing now, nothing! Get that into your system and get used to it! You're nothing!"

"So this is all you have to tell me after you learned Auradon's ways? That's a shame! I thought you valued family a lot more!"

"Family? You want to talk about family? I cannot believe it, Maleficent, you have to be stupid if you think I consider you my family! All you ever did was lay a freaking egg! I'm not even sure it was you who incubated it and not your goblins!"

"Ha! Of course I did it, Mal, those idiots cannot be trusted with anything!"

"Oh, good, am I supposed to feel grateful for it?"

"You tell me, after all you've learned in Auradon!"

"What I learned is that I despise you! All of this is your fault! If you weren't my mother I wouldn't be seen as a certain backstabber by everyone I meet! All of this is your fault!" Mal rebuked, her chest coming up and down too fast for Evie's liking. "Tell me, Maleficent, how does it feel that the one thing that you thought made you weak— how does it feel that love and friendship, those condemning emotions, those things you never allowed yourself to feel for fear that it'd make you less powerful was the one thing that defeated you once and for all? No sword, no magic, no spear―just genuine love. When you speak to me again, you'd better have an answer for that."

And with that, Mal was gone, the slamming of the door not as violent as her entrance to the room had been. It had sounded more tired than enraged, more defeated that fuming.

"I'm glad that's why you were waiting for her!" Evie accused Maleficent in the expectant silence of the room, before she, too, exited the place.

—*—*—

When a couple of hours later Belle finally found Mal, she was sitting in the empty stands of the tourney field.

"Hey," she said softly. "Do you mind if I sit here?"

As an answer, Mal simply shrugged, her legs pulled to her chest as she chewed on her right thumb.

"I'm sorry you had to listen to all of that. Both at the council and... and with Maleficent."

"How do you know?" Mal whispered, her eyes stubbornly placed on the empty space in front of her rather than on her interlocutor.

"Evie told us," Belle answered. "She also mentioned she's worried about you."

"I'm fine, you can tell her that," Mal let out tiredly, though she pursed her lips at the mention of her concerned friend.

"Mal, I'm worried too," Belle continued, deciding to go one step further and take Mal's left hand in hers. "And, again, I apologize for how they treated you."

"It was to be expected," the girl muttered, and though she still hadn't established eye-contact with her, Belle counted the fact that she didn't reject her touch as a win.

"They will have to get used to it, you guys are part of Auradon now."

"Yeah, tell that to King Edward and Snow White," Mal said in an undertone, and there was so much resignation in her voice that, not for the first time that day, Belle was grateful that her son had a deeper insight than all of his kingdom put together and had decided to spare the innocent a punishment that was only meant for a few.

"Mal, I have a surprise for you, do you think you can... come with me?"

"Another surprise?" Mal inquired, finally turning to look back at Belle.

"It's not a bad one, I hope," the former queen tried to explain, a kind smile finding its way to her lips.

"Yeah, don't you have a saying that goes 'Hope is the last thing to die'?" Mal joked, although she rose to her feet when Belle did and she followed the former queen down the stands either way.

"We do, but that's only because we believe hope is the strongest of all human feelings."

"I thought it was love?"

"Well, yeah, we do think that too," Belle laughed. "But then again, isn't hope born from love? The love for oneself, for a friend, for family, for life?"

"I don't know, is this a trick question?" Mal replied, a small smile playing at the corner of her lips. "We didn't really have an Auradonian philosophy class back at the Isle."

"I would imagine," the former queen nodded gently. "But then again neither do we here, so... let's make this about opinions and not dogmas, okay? What do you think?"

"I... I can barely say I understand love, I don't think I do," the daughter of Maleficent confessed.

"No one does for real, sweetie, that's alright."

"I don't think I know what love really is or how it feels, but I... I've seen it making someone impulsive, protective, fierce. It gives you a strength you didn't know you possessed until then, when you have no weapons and nothing to cling on to. It's stronger than magic and it's more... volatile than it too."

"That's a good answer," Belle smiled.

They walked over in silence for a few minutes, walking into the woods that surrounded the tourney training fields until they finally reached their destination: in the middle of a clearing, two horses were tied to the trunk of a willow.

"This is Phillippe the Second," Belle said, immediately walking over to let the biggest horse's snout smell her hand. "He's a Belgian draft horse, and he's mine," she explained. "And this girl right here," she continued, giving a gentle nudge to the smaller, yellow horse next to her. "Is Ambara, she's a strawberry roan and she's Ben's, though I'm sure he wouldn't mind it if you rode her for a bit."

"Umm... I don't think so," Mal said, a nervousness that was much more teenager-ly in her voice. "I don't think I'm a horse kind of person."

"If it's because you've never rode one, I can teach you, that's alright," the former queen offered.

"Well, it's true that I have never ridden one, but it's not only that... I just don't think riding horses into the sunset is my thing."

As if he'd understood her, Phillipe the Second stomped his foot in the ground. Unable to stop herself, Mal let out a tiny scream.

"I'm so sorry!" Belle laughed. "They won't hurt you, I promise. Phillipe, behave yourself, don't you see we have guests?" she scolded, turning to the horse, despite the fact that her chuckling made it hard to take her seriously.

She had an interesting laugh, Mal noted. It was nothing like her mother's. Instead, when Belle laughed, she didn't feel like the brunt of the joke, but rather, Mal was tempted to follow Belle's example and giggle herself.

"Come closer, let them see you better," Belle instructed next, taking Mal's right arm so she could draw it nearer to Phillipe's big nose.

This time, as the horse licked her empty fingers in search of a treat, Mal actually let out a small chuckle.

"So, if you're not into horses, I have to assume that you prefer cars, right? Like most of the new generation?"

"Well, if you want to hear about it, I don't think cars are for me either," the daughter of Maleficent explained. "I've only been in them once, in the limo that brought us here, but, other than that? I guess I didn't like the feeling of being caged. Cruella had one, though, and I think Carlos knows how to drive, but that's about it."

"If that's the case, then he should get a license. Actually, I think all of you should take driving lessons..." Belle suggested as a second thought, laughing again when she heard Mal groan softly in annoyance. "Okay, okay, you wouldn't like that. Moving on, so... if you don't like horses but you don't really like cars either... what would you actually like to get around with? By ship?"

Mal shrugged as she clumsily ran her hand along Phillipe's strong neck muscles. Horses weren't that bad, she thought, though perhaps their size was a little intimidating for someone as short as her. It was when she raised her right arm to scratch Phillipe's ears that the sleeve of her jacket slipped until her dragon tattoo was revealed. She smirked, a mischievous gleam in her eyes.

"I think I have an idea of what I like," she said, fully turning to Belle, allowing only a fast glimmer of emerald to run through her eyes for the sake of drama. "And no, I've actually never traveled by ship."

"Okay, so what is it?" Belle inquired. "What do you like?"

"It's a surprise," Mal decided. "Mostly, because I have yet to see if I can make it work."

"Well, now I'm certainly curious to find out!"

"Trust me, if I make it work, there won't be a way of missing it," Mal laughed, closing her eyes for a couple of seconds as the wind blew around her, if only to imagine how that simple breeze would feel like had she been able to fly.

"Alright, I'll wait for it then!" Belle promised before her countenance turned darker "Actually, that reminds me of why I brought you here."

"Oh, right," the daughter of Maleficent nodded, feeling her dreamy-estate fade away.

"Ben chose you as the Ambassador of Auradon in the Isle of the Lost," the former queen explained, all business now, no trace of the playful woman she had been mere seconds in the past.

"What?" Mal uttered, turning to her, everything about flying reptiles and horses forgotten. "That's impossible! Everyone was against it!"

"Not everyone, sweetie. Ben wasn't," Belle explained. "You see, the High King of Auradon is forced to listen to everyone's opinion, but in the end his opinion is the one that matters the most, and he wants you to have that title."

"I-I can't take it, Belle, I'm very sorry," Mal clumsily informed her.

"Why would you say that?"

"I'm not the one you're looking for, I'm truly sorry," Mal tried to explain. "Belle, I'm honored, but... that would never work out."

"What do you mean?"

"I don't know a thing about politics, I don't understand how this works for you and I'm not sure I want to," she began, fidgeting with her fingers, if only to steady the shaking in her hands. "To understand, I mean. You saw how I handled things back there―I completely exploded. I was fuming and I acted on it instead of being patient and civil. Your ambassador is not me, I'm very sorry, but the one you're looking for is Evie, not me."

Instead of becoming mad, instead of scolding her for being such an ungrateful person, all Belle did was gift her with a gentle smile.

"Evie rejected the title too," Belle explained. "You're our only option."

"What?"

"You see, you were Ben's first option from the beginning, but he thought it'd look too biased for others, so he asked her first instead" Belle explained, deciding to let Mal have her space instead of reaching out for her again. "And she refused for the exact same reason you're declining now: she said you were our best candidate, not her."

"Yeah, the only difference is I am right and she's not," Mal decided, swallowing hard as she tried to understand the new information. "She knows all there is to know about etiquette and politics, I don't know a thing, I don't even know how to behave, did you notice I was the only one there not wearing a dress? Belle, I'm flattered, I am, but you saw how I reacted... I will never be your Auradonian prototype of modesty and charisma."

"And we're not asking that from you," Belle promised, her perfect smile still in place. "We want you to accept this title because we want you to be you. You're strong-willed, passionate and stubborn. You were the one who stood firm in front of Maleficent to defend us, and while some seem to have forgotten about it, Ben hasn't," Belle said, caressing Ambara's ears. "You know the Isle, you know its inhabitants and you are not afraid to voice your opinion. All of this put together means that, while I adore Evie, I think you are more prepared for this than she is."

"That can't be," Mal repeated.

"I have direct orders from the High King," Belle shrugged, as she gently slipped a small badge into Mal's hand.

"What is this?"

"Read it," Belle instructed.

The pin couldn't have been bigger than the key to her locker, Mal noted. Shaped like a shield, the golden item had Auradon's emblem engraved into it, with the sole exception that, behind Adam's head as a beast there was a pair of wings. Dragon wings—long, round at the top but becoming closer together towards their tips, until they looked like a slightly crooked Auradonian heart. Blinking, she noticed she'd been wrong—it wasn't just one dragon, but two of them staring face-to-face at each other. The vivid image of the tattoo carved into her own skin. Under the crown that topped it all, instead of the inscription saying "Auradon", the script she read stated "Dragon of the Kingdom".

"What is this?" Mal uttered in desbelief, slowly turning back to Belle, if only to try to find the answers to her questions written in the former queen's face.

"Your new title. That is, if you accept, of course, we don't want you to feel pressured into it," Belle let out nervously.

"Really?" Mal tried to mutter sarcastically, but her voice trembled as she grasped the badge more tightly. Ben must have had been planning this for so long, she dwelled numbly. Ever since… ever since the first meeting he'd invited her to attend, probably. How long had Evie and Belle known what he was planning and… and no one had told her anything.

"Mal, a dragon is majestic creature, a protector," Belle began after a few silent minutes.

"Allow me to differ," the daughter of Maleficent complained.

"Ben chose it himself, and I have to admit I wasn't convinced about it at first, but then it made sense," Belle continued, not minding the interruption. "A dragon is the biggest of all magical creatures, it's unpredictable, strong, cunning, yet, what it holds dearly is something you wouldn't try to take away from it unless you don't mind losing your life while at it. A dragon is territorial, a fierce protector of what it owns. What is it that it protects with so much zest? That varies. Gold, jewels, animals, princesses. A dragon protects its most precious possession," Belle continued, taking the girl's shaky hands between hers. "You have the heart of a hero, Mal, Ben knows that, yet, he saw even deeper than that and once again proved that I might need glasses. Mal, you also have the fierceness of a dragon and we believe ―I mean, Evie, the boys, Ben, Adam, the Fairy Godmother and I― that once you realize that you will do great things."

"I... I don't know," Mal let out, her voice short from a whisper, as she squeezed the golden pin until the edges were carved into the palm of her hand.

«A dragon protects,» Belle's voice repeated itself in her head. «A dragon protectsit's most precious possession.»

Wasn't that what she had done, standing in between the mother she'd feared for her whole life and the friends she had slowly learned to love? Wasn't that what she'd done, as she made it a point that she'd beat anyone who dared touch Carlos or Evie back when they were at the Isle? Wasn't that why she felt her blood start boiling whenever someone made a malicious remark about Jay or even Doug, now that she knew how important he was to Evie?

Sure, she had defeated the Mistress of All Evil, what a great display of courage, but still, a small voice in her head repeated over and over that her mother wasn't that bad.

Yes, Mal's features paled with a single one of her stares ―well, at least it had while Maleficent was still in her human form―, but Maleficent hadn't beaten her to the point Mal was laying in puddle of her own blood.

Yes, Maleficent had tried to manipulate her into endangering people who were important to her on a handful of occasions, but Mal didn't feel her blood becoming cold whenever she heard her mother's voice. She could still have the luxury of despising her mother passionately, while she knew for a fact that Carlos was too scared, even now, after more than four months of having lived in Auradon, to even curse his mother's name.

And while both Cruella and Grimhilde were pretty bad themselves, Mal wondered, wondered with the morbid curiosity of the ones who don't know better if they were in fact the worst that the Isle of the Lost had to offer.

That island housed the most vicious criminals of all times, the most feared, the most dangerous, and it only made sense that, if you put a rotten apple in a basket filled with good ones and the bad one managed to send all of the other ones to waste, then, if you put all your rotten apples in the same basket, what you got in return would certainly be something nasty, foul-smelling and horrifying.

Her friends ―her family― were safe, that was all Mal knew for sure. Yet... some hadn't been as lucky, and while she was still convinced that Evie was the one they should have chosen, the pin was getting heavier in her hand and she felt the answer burning in her throat.

"I'll do it," she answered hoarsely. "With a few conditions," she added, before Belle had time to rejoice. "Evie stays by my side whenever I need her and I get to do things my way, no beat around the bush, no etiquette nonsense."

"We wouldn't have expected any less from you," Belle smiled, as she threw caution to the wind and circled Mal's shoulders.

"You'll do great, we're certain," she whispered into her ear, hugging her a little more tightly.

«We'll see», a condemning voice that sounded suspiciously like her mother's echoed in her head instead of Belle's kind reassurances. «We'll see how 'great' you do before things turn south and you fuck up.»

«That won't happen», her own voice replied. And it was true, she wouldn't allow it to happen.

Belle was right about one thing, if nothing else―she was stubborn. And that day, as the Dragon of the Kingdom insignia weighed down her left hand and cut into her skin she promised to herself and to Ben and to Evie that she wouldn't let them down.

She was strong-willed, that she knew for sure. It was time she proved just how much to Auradon.

Chapter Text

Unfortunately, Belle had failed to mention that the title Mal had been given would only become official once Auradon held a party to honor the occasion and Ben personally put the golden badge in her hand.

So much for keeping a low profile, Mal thought, holding back a huff as she remembered the countless times she'd turned, trying to find a position in which she felt comfortable while wearing the mermaid dress Evie made her. Evie insisted she'd worked around the clock to finish in the two weeks that had passed since the council's meeting, but Mal was pretty sure that the daughter of the Evil Queen had been hiding her development on that dress ever since she and Ben had allied to make her the ambassador.

She suppressed a smirk. Evie had done a good job hiding the dress in progress, Mal had to hand her that, and while she was still a tiny bit mad at her and at Ben for hiding their decision from her, she understood why they had acted like they had.

On the other hand, Mal also had to admit that she liked her new dress way better than the one first one Evie had gifted her with.

In all honesty, she would have worn anything Evie made, but it appeared that her friend had listened to her reviews on the dress she'd worn to Ben's coronation and had planned the new one around them, taking away the frills and turning the color into a darker shade of purple.

Well, good thing it was over, Mal decided, putting down the picture frame that had sent her thoughts swirling back to the celebration of the night before.

Ben had insisted on giving her an office in his castle, to ensure she had a place to work, he'd said, no matter how many times she repeated that as long as she had Evie and a notebook she would manage.

In the end, it turned out to be good idea, given that they wouldn't be able to stay in Auradon Prep for summer vacations and Ben had offered them to stay at his family's palace.

Still, Mal couldn't help but think that a whole room to call her office, with more furniture than she'd had at her bedroom back at the Isle was, more than a necessity, an extravagance.

On the other hand, perhaps all of this luxury was only Ben's way of apologizing for the fact that, now that she was actually absorbed in politics, she'd have to brook a good number of council meetings and royal lessons, the first of which would begin in roughly fifteen minutes.

For this first meeting, Mal had explicitly asked that no actual sovereigns were present. Yes, she would have to get used to their more-often-than-not backward ways, but for the time being she didn't want to worry about accidentally pissing off an important queen, therefore she'd requested that only Ben, Evie, the Fairy Godmother, Belle, Adam, Jay, Carlos and Freddie be present.

No, she really couldn't afford to be concerned about etiquette when the children hadn't even arrived; once the villain kids were in Auradon, Mal supposed she'd have to watch her behavior a little more, as both the eyes of Auradon's and the Isle's citizens would be on her, but, for now, she was content with just discussing the things with the people whose business it was.

When she finally reached the conference room where Ben had asked her to meet with the others, she wasn't sure of what she would encounter inside.

Fortunately, Ben, the only one who was already there and who had been in charge of organizing this meeting, had agreed to keep Auradon's need of luxury and grandeur out, and instead of an exaggerated focus on the color of the curtains and in preparing each of the places for the attendees, all that was inside the room was a round mahogany table—but even that small detail was important: it wasn't a rectangular piece of furniture, at which head Ben would be seated, with the most important person to his right and so on in an infinite list of formalities that Mal couldn't have cared less about, but rather, a circular one, in which each place was worth the same in importance― surrounded by nine comfortable-looking armchairs.

Well, if nothing else, there were no cameramen in the room, which eased a knot in Mal's throat. It was a personal issue, probably, but she didn't like the feeling of being under someone's eye―she was much too used to it thanks to Maleficent's habit of stalking her every move.

"Hey," Ben greeted her with an easy smile and eyes that sparkled.

"Hey yourself," she replied back, allowing the king to embrace her shortly.

"Are you ready?" he said, too concerned with her well-being for Mal's liking.

"Honestly? I don't know what to expect," she admitted, choosing one of the chairs. "But I have to thank you for not going over the moon with this and making it more... discreet."

"Anything for you," Ben laughed. "However, if there's anything-"

"Ben, I'll be fine," she rolled her eyes. "This will work, there's no other option. Besides, I'm just glad that I'm not wearing a dress right now."

"Really? We're talking about the Isle of the Lost and you're worried about your choice of clothes!"

"Well, excuse me, but it's not as off-track as it seems!" Mal tried to explain. "Point number one, if I ever tried to wear something like this at the Isle, I would have been eaten alive. And, point number two, since I never got used to wearing their fluffy skirts I'm not comfortable in them. I had to wear a silly dress to your coronation and to my own ceremony, but if someone expects me to wear one of them on every meeting I swear I'll-"

"You'll what?" a newcomer inquired. "Hex them with a goodness spell?"

"Shut up, Jay!" Mal replied with a roll of her eyes, much to her interlocutor's amusement.

"What? I'm only being objective here!"

"You're only saying that because you've never worn a skirt," Mal grumbled.

"Well, if he wanted to, he could try," Carlos suggested, picking out the chair to Jay's left. "I mean, Auradon is all about equality, so I don't think it'd matter that he wore one..."

"All settled, then," Mal said, thinking for the first time that, perhaps this wouldn't be such a bad day after all. "I'll ask Evie to start working on that as a summer project."

"Thanks for your help," the son of Jafar said sarcastically as he turned to Carlos. To his side, the son of Cruella merely shrugged.

Slowly, the other attendants started arriving, with Freddie being the last one to reach the room, and though the daughter of Facilier excused herself saying that she had gotten lost in the castle, Mal suspected that she had actually forgotten about the whole thing instead.

It was funny, Mal thought, that, while Ben had tried to make this as etiquette-less as possible, Evie was still sitting to her right, as Adam was to the current king of Auradon. So much for a casual meeting.

"Welcome to everyone and please allow me extend my appreciation of your presence. As I'm sure you all know, during the course of this summit we will be discussing the extraction of the children that have been born in the Isle of the Lost so they can start a life here in Auradon," Ben started to say once everyone had chosen a chair. "First of all, it is of great importance that we are all introduced to each other, therefore-"

"We already know each other, can we skip this part or...?"

"Jay," Mal hissed.

"You can take the boy out of the Isle but you can't take the Isle out of the boy," Freddie chanted.

"No, no, it's okay," Ben laughed, ignoring the scowl his father sent in the son of Jafar's way. "I suppose that, since we had agreed to keep this meeting formality-free, Jay is actually right..."

"So, no beating around the bush, then?" the daughter of the Evil Queen inquired, taking a notebook out of her purse. "Shall we get to the point immediately?"

"It would seem that way, any other... suggestions?" Ben dared ask, as he quiered his interlocutors' opinion on the matter in a silent glance―across him, Mal shrugged, signaling that anything was fine by her; Jay appeared pleased with himself, which Ben decided to take as an agreement for him to continue, to the son of Jafar's left, Carlos seemed to want to disappear, and Freddie winked an eye at him, so the king decided that was a positive answer too.

To his right and after a silent debate with among them, his mother, his father and the Fairy Godmother agreed too.

"Fine, then, we shall get started right away," Ben instructed. "The main point of discussion for this meeting will be the procedure with which the remaining villain children will be removed."

Several nods from his listeners followed Ben's first statement, which encouraged him to continue.

"As you are all aware, the first approach of Auradon towards this goal has already been made, and though we all consider its outcome was a success, our ambassador does not think that repeating the same operation would be as… fruitful."

"What do you mean by 'repeating the same operation'?" the Fairy Godmother, Fayanna, inquired, sending Mal a curious look.

"He's talking about doing things like you did when you first got us here," Mal piped in. "That is, taking a small number of the kids, say four or five and placing them in Auradon Prep for them to learn Auradon's ways."

"And why is it that you oppose to doing it that way, dear?" Belle questioned. "Given how well it worked out the first time I thought that..."

"The first time didn't really 'work well', objectively speaking," Mal pointed out, a small fuss in her hands. "Maleficent broke free from the Isle and almost killed us."

"But Maleficent's escape didn't have anything to do with your... arrival," the former king of Auradon interfered.

"Except it did," Evie let out in a nervous laugh.

As Belle, Adam and the Fairy Godmother gave each other a strange look Mal couldn't help but sigh.

"Maleficent wanted the Fairy Godmother's wand and it was our duty to get it for her," Mal explained with an apologetic smile, not really wanting to go into details. "In fact, the only reason out parents signed the authorization for us to leave the Isle was because they wanted us to get that wand. We didn't... it wasn't until two months ago that we were notified that our coming to Auradon had been part of Ben's decree."

"You didn't know?" the Fairy Godmother questioned.

"How would we have?" Jay said, a smirk that looked forced upon his lips.

"Wasn't my son's decree read to you? Weren't you asked to sign your agreement to it?"

"Dear," Belle cut her husband off.

"No and no again," Mal replied with a calmed smile. "Technically speaking, the only one who would have been benefited from our stay in Auradon would have been Grimhilde, in case that Evie got herself a rich union, but other than that, Jafar needed Jay to... umm... provide for his store," she replied in a condescending tone, her eyes trained on Jay as he spoke, as if to ensure she wasn't crossing a line.

"Even so, you should have read the pronouncement at the very least or even―"

"Dad," Ben warned, sending a nervous glance in the daughter of Maleficent's direction.

"It's fine," Carlos finally spoke up, his hands fidgeting in his lap. "If you... you said that what you wanted was to help the children, right? To help us, so... if it's... if it's as you say, then... then you should know that things are very different in the Isle, and you should be prepared for that."

"Carlos..." Ben trailed off, receiving a shrug from the son of Cruella.

"Carlos is right," Mal interfered, deciding against any more circumlocution when she caught Jay placing a reassuring hand in Carlos' knee. "Which is exactly my point: if you want this to work, to really work, with no escapees and no stolen wands, then we must plan it carefully."

"You said you were against our initial plan, why is that, Mal?"

"First of all, Fayanna, the parents' permission needs to be made irrelevant. The decree states that every one of the children must be taken out, therefore, we must not give them the liberty of making a choice that was never theirs."

"Call me Fay, Mal," the headmistress said absently, her eyes trained on Belle as she spoke.

"Mal, listen, I understand that your parents may have been difficult to be with at times, but… they are still your guardians," the former queen defended with a concerned smile.

"Ha! Our guardians!" Freddie spoke up, her eccentric look as she laughed not making much to ease the woman's nerves. "Belle don't be offended, but our parents don't care. I mean, I'm pretty sure that my dad doesn't even know I'm not in the Isle anymore, and I've been here for two months!"

"Wait, you haven't… you haven't talked to him, sent him a letter to explain where you are?"

"How would I? There's no signal in the Isle, remember? And, even if I wanted to stay in contact with him, I wouldn't be able to send him a letter because of the embargo."

"So… none of you have spoken with your parents since you came to Auradon?" the Fairy Godmother inquired in whisper, her voice sounding so heartbroken that Mal had to stop herself from rolling her eyes at the good woman.

"Save from me and my lizard mother, no," Mal replied instead. "Well, there was that incident for the Family Day before Ben's coronation, remember? It didn't go well," she added in a second thought.

"But then that means that you haven't even sent them a letter… to let them know you're okay?" Fayanna exclaimed worriedly.

"No," Mal repeated. "And that's exactly the point―we don't want to do it. We don't want to speak to our parents or see them or remember them even, and I'm not speaking just for the five of us, I'm doing it for the Isle children, all of them, whom I'm almost sure, would confirm my words if they were here."

"Is this… is it true?" Belle questioned, her gaze heavy on the villain children.

"Well, I'm not opposed to seeing the old man again," Jay started after a dense moment of silence. "But, if I did, chances are he'd… ask me to steal again, and that would be pretty counterproductive, so… I'm better off without him."

"I'm telling you, my dad's crazy," Freddie announced with another laugh when Belle interrogated her with a look. "I mean, he's scared his own shadow will kill him, so… If I have to see him again, I can pull it off, but, really, I'd rather not have him screaming at me for trying to murder him."

With a slow nod and pursed lips Belle turned towards Evie.

"Ummm…" the young girl managed, shooting a glance in Mal's direction, who nodded almost negligibly, as if to say 'Go ahead, tell her'. "I… I know it wouldn't be good to see my mother again, and even though sometimes I do wish I could do it, I… I don't think the consequences of such an encounter would be worth it. She wouldn't approve of how I look now, she wouldn't approve of my eyeshadow, of my friends, of Doug, of… anything, so… I think not seeing her is for the best.

"Darling, I'm sure she'd find you beautiful, regardless if you've decided to try a different style," Belle tried, provoking a bitter laugh from the girl's perfectly made-up lips, same that she tried to convert into a nervous one as she played with her long hair.

"No, she wouldn't," Evie replied in a voice that as barely tainted with hurt. "But that's not… what's the word…? Odd. She never thought I was, not even back at the Isle," she trailed off, shaking her head as if to physically jerk away from her thoughts, whatever they were. "Besides, Freddie is right. My mom doesn't care I'm not there anymore, so… I shouldn't care that she is not here either."

The former queen nodded, her smile fading slowly from her features, her hands, one placed on top of the other, resting neatly on the mahogany table.

"Carlos?" she inquired at last, turning to the son of Cruella de Vil, who visibly hunched under her gaze, not daring to meet her eyes.

"Mal's right," he answered simply, though his breath hitched. "I don't… I don't want to see her or to talk with her. Never again," he added, not in a second thought, but rather, as if those last two words were the only thing he could really think of, even when it was so glaringly hard for him to verbally express it.

"I… I see," Belle managed, locking eyes with the Fairy Godmother, a sad resignation spreading through both their countenances. "Then what… what do you suggest?"

"Taking the children out without a care about their parents' opinion," Mal repeated, her voice and expression impenetrable. "Trust me, none of the villains will care about their children, unless having them in the Isle presented them with a benefit of some kind, such as Jay or Carlos' cases, which is exactly why we should take them out."

"It's not as easy as that," Adam piped in. "Legally speaking we can't just-"

"There is a way. Evie," Mal instructed, her voice denoting an order even when she had only said her friend's name.

With a nod, the daughter of the Evil Queen took a sheet of paper out of her purse.

"Well, we decided to do a bit of research," the girl said, composed again from the previous outburst, at least in appearance. "Legally, we could revoke the villains' tutorship over their children, this means that we'd have to give their guardianship to someone else, which may prove a little difficult, but it's a solution."

"There was once a time in which kings had the right of life and death over their subjects," Ben argued. "With all that power it's ridiculous that we are debating over how to demand the tutorship of two dozen children."

"Ben, we refer to that period of time as barbarism," the former king replied.

"Please allow me to differ, Adam," Mal interfered. "What is really is life in the Isle, not depriving the villains of the custody of children they didn't even want to look after."

"How are you certain of this, Mal? How can you confirm the sincerity of your words?"

"Because I've lived in the Isle and I've seen the things I speak about," Mal counterattacked. "That is more than can be said of others."

"Dad," Ben piped in before their discussion turned more serious. "I agree with Mal, if we stop to consider what the villains want or how they want it, what will happen is that they may start to plan another breakout, and they may be more successful this time than the precious one."

"That is ridiculous, son!"

"But not impossible, we ought to know that by now," Carlos argued, his eyes glued to his lap.

"Well, Auradon Prep can take custody of the children, just like we did last time," Fayanna suggested. "But... two dozen children are more than we can handle at the time. If we broke that number into groups of four or five, then maybe-"

"No," Mal interrupted, adamant. "That won't work."

"Do you mind explain us why you think that?" Adam inquired with a scowl.

"I... there's no reason other than I feel it would be unfair to do that," the daughter of Maleficent hesitated for the first time in the afternoon, sending a nervous look in her friends' direction.

"And why should this affect the decision of the ruling when, if we don't break the big number down into smaller groups Auradon Prep won't be able to handle them?"

"I'm sure you'll understand, Adam, the point in this, as Ben has already pointed out is that it is of vital importance to remove the children from an environment that is noxious for them."

"Which is exactly what we will do, only-"

"They'll think that you're only postponing their departure of the Isle because you don't care about them," Jay said, deciding to aid the daughter of Maleficent.

"Why would they think that?" Belle inquired worriedly.

"Belle, don't be offended, but they're forced to live on the Isle for a crime that they did not commit, eating and wearing Auradon's leftovers, which is saying too much now, since, because of the embargo they don't even get that anymore?" Freddie said, her chuckles not as crazed as before, a gleam of hidden remorse shining briefly in her eyes.

"That is exactly my point," Mal said. "The first step towards eradicating these wrong ideas is actually taking the children out in a tangible proof that shows them they are in fact important for Auradon and for its king, but I do think we should do this as soon as possible and at once, instead of going back every two months or something like that while they are still living with their parents."

"But we won't be able to handle twenty of the villains' children here, we barely-"

"Fay, if we broke the total number into groups of four and then waited for them to adapt before going back for the other children it'll take probably a year and a half to take them all out," Mal cut the Fairy Godmother off, her tone denouncing something akin to a plead.

"What is it, Mal?" Belle inquired in a soft voice. "Something is worrying you, all of you and that's where this haste is coming from. What is it?"

Instead of answering right away, Mal sent the other Isle children an inquiring look. Slowly, the four of them nodded, Carlos leaning a little more closely to Jay. Then, Mal locked eyes with the king of Auradon, a fierce edge to her features. Not really sure if she was asking his permission or if she was defying him, Ben nodded too. Only then did Mal take a deep breath to reply to the former queen's question.

"The children back there are starving, making clothes out of rags and being forced to live with their parents," she began, and if her voice so much as trembled, nobody dared to mention it. "It never bothered us, not me at least, while we were at the Isle, but now... now it makes me... it makes me uncomfortable."

"What did you say about their parents? Is this why you all oppose so strongly to asking for their permission to take them out?"

"Belle, we're talking about the villains you were too scared of to allow them to be a part of your society, what makes you think that in the last twenty years they became functional?" Mal replied flatly.

"They are your parents..." the former queen tried once more, provoking a snicker from Freddie and a contemptuous smirk from Jay.

"And terrible ones at that," Carlos muttered.

"Mal, but your mother-"

"My mother is known as the Mistress of Evil, yet she was a decent parent," the daughter of Maleficent let out. "That's more than can be said of others, which is precisely why I am concerned."

"Mal, I understand your worries," Fayanna spoke up again. "I... I didn't like the way your parents talked to you during the Family Day celebration, but... Auradon Prep won't be able to handle two dozen kids at once."

"And it shouldn't," Mal agreed. "Especially considering that we only have two months left before classes are over and the campus closes its doors until September."

"That's certainly something we hadn't thought about," Belle nodded.

"Even if we made Fay the legal guardian of the children, two months are not nearly enough for them to get used to Auradon," Evie pointed out.

"Exactly," the daughter of Maleficent conceded.

"Than what do you suggest?"

"Listen, Belle, thanks to your generous offer, we have a place to stay during the holiday season, but I'm aware that the castle of Auradon won't be able to receive twenty children any more than Auradon Prep."

"Are you saying that we should postpone their arrival until you go back to school?" Adam inquired.

"On the contrary, I am proposing that we bring it forward, so the children are ready to begin the school year already knowing how to behave here in Auradon."

"But, Mal, without the Remedial Goodness class, how do you think they will learn such a thing, especially if they are not in the campus?"

"Fairy Godmother, don't take it personal, but the Remedial Goodness class didn't really... help," Jay offered in a huff at the same time Freddie, who had never had the arguable pleasure of assisting one of those classes interrogated her peers with a look.

"What do you mean? Those lessons are the ones that allowed you to learn about goodness and love!" Fay laughed nervously, her eyes frantically scanning one of the children after the other in search of gesture that confirmed her last statement but finding none.

"Fay, allow me to differ," Mal grimaced. "We didn't really... learn anything there."

"What are you talking about, Mal? You were top of the class!"

"Yeah, though I have to say it wasn't because I paid attention or because the subject interested me," the daughter of Maleficent admitted with an apologetic smile. "Jay, quote me, what did I say when you asked how I knew the answer the Fairy Godmother's questions."

"She said, and I'm obviously quoting," Jay began with a mischievous smile. "'Just choose the answer that sounds like the least fun'. After that, we all started to get good grades on RG."

"Is that true, Fay?" Adam interrogated.

"W-well... I don't know, but, children, at the coronation you all chose goodness!"

"That is exactly what I'm talking about," Mal interrupted kindly. "It was not a subject on the matter that made us learn what friendship and love felt like, as these are things that can only be taught through experience."

"That makes sense," Belle let out in a whisper after a moment of silence.

"What made us defy our parents despite the dangers of doing it wasn't a hypothetical question of 'What would you do?'" Mal added. "But, rather, it was the fear of losing that which we'd learned to hold close and cherish. I didn't want all of Auradon to become just as dull and empty as the Isle. I wanted... I wanted to be with Ben and having Maleficent here... the idea made me uncomfortable," she shrugged, even though a crimson shade dared to taint her cheeks. "Whatever the reason for the others to stay they will have to present themselves, in case they want to, that is."

"I liked the tourney team," Jay admitted before Belle used her tactic from before and interrogated them all with nothing more than a raised eyebrow. "It was... it was nice to have something different other than the 'There's no team in I' motto of my father."

"I wanted to stay with the girls and Jay," Carlos managed, short of a whisper. "And Dude too and... compared to that my mother's wigs didn't sound very... tempting."

A look of worry crossed Fay and Belle's eyes, but they decided not to comment on anything, at least for the time being.

"The dresses here were beautiful," Evie piped in then, trying to make her sweet voice enough to sugar-coat anything unpleasant they'd said, especially when the conversation was not yet over and things could still turn out very wrong. "And there was Doug too, and, well... Mal and Jay were staying, I didn't want to lose them."

"Love is always a good motivation," Fay conceded as Belle turned to interrogate Freddie's motivation.

"The food here was good," the daughter of Facilier shrugged.

"Good how?"

"It wasn't... you know, rotten," Freddie explained, the wrinkles around her lips enough to denounce her smirk was forced.

"This is what I'm talking about," Mal offered, not giving Belle and Fay time for another of those compassionate looks that made her skin crawl, perhaps because, not being used to them, she mistook them for pitiful ones. "We must take the children out of the Isle immediately and teach them Auradon's ways before we return to school in little over four months so that, come the new schoolyear, they will know how to behave properly."

"And how do you plan for this to happen if we've repeatedly stated that we cannot pay for so many children's arrival, especially if, like you just said, you do not trust the Fairy Godmother to teach them the ways of Auradon?" Adam inquired again, feeling that they were just beating around the bush.

"I do trust the Fairy Godmother," Mal replied, adamant.

"That still doesn't answer my question."

"Evie and I came up with a plan," Mal smiled, turning to the girl in question. "Ben said that not all of the sovereigns were against the children's arrival," she began, waiting for her boyfriend's nod before continuing. "Esmeralda especially and Cinderella approached me to offer their help, if the necessity of it ever came."

"Certainly, and I can see how Queen Cinderella would be of help, but the gypsy..." Adam trailed off with an unconvinced grimace.

"The children must learn what a family is and how it is like to be in one," Mal continued, ignoring the former king's interruption. "And, Fay, Belle, before you say we have our parents... it's difficult to count someone as a family, even more so by Auradon's standards, when that's the one person you want to get rid of."

The former queen of Auradon and Fay crossed another one of those concerned looks that Mal was growing so tired of, which caused Mal to shake her head a little before continuing.

"So, as I was saying, the only way for the Isle children to understand how a family works is through immersion and since, as you've stated before, family is the core of society, by learning to be functional within a family they will learn to be functional within society itself."

"Mal..." Belle managed, before her son pulled himself out of his astonishment and questioned the daughter of Maleficent.

"Are you suggesting that we send the children to live with a royal family?" the king of Auradon asked, eyebrows raised in both disbelief and surprise.

"No, not royal families only, just hero families," Mal explained. "Anyone who cares enough to open the doors of their house to us."

"That helps with the lack of tutors while also giving them someone to rely when it comes to Auradon's way of living," Evie seconded, her smile both hopeful and nervous.

"But it's an insane idea!" Adam decided as soon as he recovered from his surprise.

"Do you think so, Adam?" Belle smiled. "I find it quite... promising."

"That would also make the extraction of all of them at the same time possible," Fay let out, as if talking with herself.

"And that way Auradon Prep wouldn't be overwhelmed," Ben handed, a proud smile upon his lips when he locked eyes with Mal across the table.

"It's dangerous," Adam observed. "What would happen if one of the children is violent?"

"Well, Adam, while I'm aware that you are presenting a very possible scenario, I'm forced to answer your question with another query: why do you think it would be better to place... unstable teenagers directly into an environment with few adults to watch over them and have the same adults watch over all of them at the same time instead of taking one child to a complete family so this group of people can handle only one kid, focusing in his special needs or issues?"

"Someone got good at debating," Jay clapped, nudging Carlos' side. Next to Jay, Freddie whistled, to Evie's great concern.

Mal, on her side, settled for sending a fierce glare in Adam's direction.

"Dad, I... I actually agree with Mal and Evie, it makes sense and it simplifies all of the other options we'd gone through," Ben replied, once again mediating between Mal and the former king.

"The heroes would be called, what? Tutors?" Carlos inquired, his calculating eyes finding Mal's adamant ones.

"That could work. I don't think they'd like being foster parents," Mal tried to brush off, but the crease in her brow gave her worry away.

"It's still dangerous," Adam replied with less aplomb.

"We've thought about that too, Adam," Evie offered with a conciliatory gesture. "Though we may have approached it the other way around."

"What do you mean?"

"That, since our priority were the children, what we considered was the idea of the heroes not being as welcoming as they wanted others to believe they were and... using this campaign as an excuse to get a revenge on the children for their parents' deeds," Evie explained, her hands flying to play with her hair in a nervous gesture.

"Why would you think something like that would happen here?" Belle inquired, her lower lip trembling as she faced Evie.

"Trust me, Belle, after the Isle you pretty much believe anything," Mal said, before Freddie had time to make an unwelcomed remark.

"There's no team in I," Jay repeated casually.

"Therefore," Mal hissed, glaring at both Jay and Freddie. "Evie and I reached the conclusion that it'd be for the best if we offered the possibility of changing tutors, both for the children's and for the tutors' wellbeing."

"Follow-up meetings," Carlos let out in an undertone.

"What?"

"Follow up meetings," the son of Cruella repeated a little more loudly. "Both with the heroes and with the Isle children, separately, just in case... just in case something goes wrong."

"Wonderful idea," Mal conceded in a softer voice as Evie wrote Carlos' words down in her pad.

"How would we choose the tutors?" Belle asked, her eyes going back and forth between the Isle children, marveling at the simple way in which they communicated, with a purse of their lips and a slight nod.

"I was thinking about raffle them off," Mal shrugged, asking her friends' approval with a slump of her shoulders.

"No," Carlos argued. "That could backfire. See, for example, the Gastons, what if they end up with someone like Cinderella or Snow White?"

"They would manage," Freddie shrugged in a giggle that was a little dark for a young girl like her.

"What do you suggest then, Carlos?" Evie questioned, ignoring the daughter of Facilier.

"Place the children with their parents' opponents," he answered simply.

"You're suggesting this as the safe option? You're saying this wouldn't backfire? For real?" Mal inquired, flabbergasted.

"Yes, I am," Carlos replied. "If you... think of it, it makes sense―you're placing the children with the people that know what their parents are capable of doing, with the people that already stopped them once."

Mal heard that Belle said something to Fay, but she wasn't listening, her mind weighting Carlos' words. Her train of thought was only stopped when, to her right, Evie's small hand wrapped around her wrist.

Turning to her friend Mal was reminded to breathe by Evie's encouraging smile.

"There are still cons. Again, what if the heroes don't want the children? What if there are more than one child to the same set of heroes, say, Harriet and Sam for example?"

"We could get more than one hero per case, if that were the situation," Ben offered. "For example in Freddie's case there's Queen Tiana and King Naveen, certainly, but there's also Mama Odie, who would probably interest Freddie more."

"I don't know if I would trust a child to Mama Odie," Belle admitted with a nervous giggle, though her words were ignored.

"Besides," Ben continued. "Like Mal said, there are not only royal heroes and I'm sure that we'd be able to find others willing to help, even if they were not directly affected by the villains' behavior, like Madame La Bouff or even the dwarves."

"Then that means we wouldn't be able to raffle the places," Mal pointed out. "I like the idea, but it will complicate everything."

"There's also the fact that we're not certain of how many children we're expecting," Evie shyly pointed out.

"What?" Adam roared. "We've been talking about two dozen children and now you say that you're not sure?"

"We said we had an estimated number of twenty-two children," Mal replied calmly. "But we could be missing some of them."

"What do you mean? You all lived there, didn't you know each other?" Belle question just as Fay argued: "But you went to the same school!"

"Well, there was a witches school that, obviously, none of us attended," Jay explained. "So no, we didn't go to the same school."

"And I had only been attending their school for a couple of months, so there's a lot of people I don't know," Evie seconded.

"And it's the Isle, so no one really cares about the other," Freddie added, just to close with a flourish.

"Someone needs to go back to the Isle, preferably someone who knows how to handle the Isle," Mal finally said in a stern voice.

After a collective scream demanding more explanations from her, she continued.

"Evie and I talked about it last night and we came to the conclusion that the only way in which we can meet the Isle's demands and needs is by knowing which these are, and that is obviously something that we cannot do while we are here discussing what the Isle lacks and what it has in excess from the comfort of Auradon," Mal offered resignedly. "I've lived in the Isle long enough to know what to do while in there, and since Ben's original idea was to send an ambassador to the Isle of the Lost I volunteer to visit my hometown.

"Are you out of your mind, Mal?" Belle inquired, slamming her small fist on the table. "After what you just said about the Isle you expect us to agree with this insane idea?"

"Actually, Belle, I'm the most prepared to carry on with this insane idea as you call it," Mal laughed, somewhat bitterly and somewhat ironically. "You see, my mother is not in the Isle waiting to ruin my life, and everyone saw, via the only channel available in the Isle that the one who defeated the Mistress of Evil was me, therefore they now respect me and all of my mother's goblins and properties are now mine. I don't have anything to fear at the Isle other than the Isle itself and I am loyal to Auradon, which I think is also a good addition."

"But it might be dangerous, dear!" the Fairy Godmother argued.

"Precisely," Mal nodded. "Which is why I wouldn't dare let anyone other than me go back. I know how to take care of myself, I will be fine," she concluded, her eyes locked with Carlos', her hands holding Evie's tightly.

"Ben, you cannot allow this… this is an insani-"

"A great idea," Ben interrupted with a sigh.

"What? No!"

"Mother, I believe that we already knew Mal had a strong temper and wouldn't back down of something," the king smiled. "I trust her."

Straightening her back to appear a couple of inches taller, Mal smirked.

"Ben, you said you wanted an embassy," she began. "In my position of ambassador I can offer you my mother's castle, which in her absence belongs to me for this project, as a tale-tell sign that I am equally committed to it as you are."

"Mal, I cannot accept-"

"Ben, you brought us here and you will be handling the five of us during summer vacations, trust me, this is just a small something to repay your attentions. Besides," Mal added. "The house has been empty ever since my mother escaped the Isle, it might as well serve a better purpose."

"I accept your generous offer only because it would be impolite to decline it," Ben sighed after a silent moment, a playful smile in his lips.

"It's settled, then," the daughter of Maleficent agreed, mimicking her boyfriend's expression.

"Fine, then, to conclude we have that the children will be assigned to a tutor, preferably the one who fought against their parents, is that correct?" Ben recapitulated, waiting for everyone's agreement before continuing. "Mal will go back to the Isle to repair Maleficent's castle and confirm the number of children that are to leave the Isle and-"

"Actually, in that department... Mal and I think that it'd be for the best if the villains don't know about your decree or Mal's real intentions to go back to the Isle," Evie interrupted, her pen tightly held in her right hand.

"What? Why?" Fay asked.

"Because it'd be too obvious!" Freddie retorted. "Remember when we said some of the villains might not want to let their children leave because they... use them?"

"You have the recording of you naming me Dragon of the Kingdom," Mal began, her eyes glued to Ben as she tried to ignore Fay's heartbroken look as she stared back at Freddie. "Send it to the Isle's channel and make everyone know that I'm working for you, but don't mention your decree. If you need it edited I'm sure Carlos can fix it, don't worry," she offered, receiving a nod from the aforementioned.

"But what will you say you're back at the Isle for, then?" Adam inquired.

"We need not ask about it," Mal shrugged. "We say I'm there to fix up the embassy and that's that."

"Will they believe you, dear?" Belle asked too.

"If they don't is their problem, I'll be saying the truth," Mal scoffed. "Get me the visas for the children and I'll make get them on the ship."

"We have a ship now?" Adam questioned with surprise.

"A limo wasn't enough and an airplane was too complicated," Evie replied, proving she and Mal had spoken lively and long about it.

"What about the tutors?" Fay asked.

"When can you have a list of the heroes willing to help?" Mal questioned, turning to Ben.

"Give me two weeks," the king of Auradon responded.

"I can go to the Isle in fifteen days, then," Mal decided, the pen Evie had given her placed between her lips. "You can send the list to me there and I'll write down another one of the children. Evie then will then help me place the children with the heroes, taking into account the exceptions we've just discussed."

"That sounds like a plan," Ben laughed, beaming.

"There are still a good number of things that could go wrong," Adam muttered.

"Perhaps, but we must believe that our will alone is enough to prevent things from being unsuccessful," Mal replied with a conciliatory smile. "I'll send you a list featuring both tutors and kids within a week of my arrival, that should be enough."

"That would be in three weeks from now," Carlos said, his eyes trained on Mal.

"Raise that to four weeks, just to be prepared in case of a mishap," the daughter of the Evil Queen suggested.

"What then?" Ben questioned. "Will you wait for our approval of the arrangements?"

"Yes, we'll wait until we have the approval of the four of you, Fay, Belle, Adam and you, Ben, before embarking the children," Mal nodded solicitously.

"Will they know who they will be placed with?" Belle questioned.

"I don't think that's a good idea, for either of them," Mal refused after locking eyes with Evie. "The children won't know who their tutors will be. In fact, I think it'd be better if they don't know about the guardianship arrangement until they arrive to Auradon. It's only fair that the heroes don't know either."

"Why is that?" Fay questioned in high-pitched voice.

"If the heroes really want to help they'll do so no matter the child they are chosen to look after," Mal explained simply. "Isn't that what you Auradonians always say, 'Do good without minding at who'?"

"Well, it is, but-"

"No buts, Fairy Godmother, it is our duty to live up to these standards," Ben cut her off, smiling. "So, in four weeks from now, if I'm not mistaken, everything should be ready for their arrival, am I correct?"

"Exactly," Evie nodded, taking just a few seconds to go over her notes.

"How much time will you need to get Maleficent's castle ready?" Belle inquired, her eyes fixed on the daughter of Maleficent.

"The embassy," Mal corrected with a mischievous smile. "Two or three weeks at most."

"Then you would arrive in five weeks instead of four," the former king pointed out. "Will you return a week after the others?"

"Well, it was my intention to return with them, as I think I should be here at the time of them learning about the guardianship," Mal explained.

"Then you would all be back within five weeks from now," Carlos said, even if just to make sure everyone was on the same page.

"But then you'll lose classes!" Fay said, making a small fuss with her hands.

"Oh, that's a fair point!" the daughter of Maleficent laughed. "But I wouldn't worry. I have these geniuses to help me out, Fairy Godmother, I shall be fine," she said, gesturing for Evie and Carlos, as the daughter of the Evil Queen coyly turned to her lap and the son of Cruella blushed.

"Are you sure, dear? Perhaps we could postpone this until the holid-"

"No, Belle, it is of vital importance that we do this as soon as possible, I don't want to delay it anymore," Mal replied, adamant.

"But you will-"

"The last week of classes will be the one of exams, am I right?" the daughter of Maleficent continued, directing to the headmistress of the institution, waiting until Fay nodded to continue. "I will be back in time for my exams and that will be that."

"Are you sure?" Belle asked one last time, her genuinely worried eyes placed solely on the daughter of Maleficent.

"Belle, if you're asking whether or not if I'm sure of how successful this will be, than I have to admit that I cannot answer such a thing," Mal confessed, slumping her shoulders. "Nevertheless, I've learned in my time in Auradon that one must always strive to do the right thing and help others. Therefore, I can honestly say that yes, I am sure that this is the right thing to do."

A moment of silence followed Mal's statement, her eyes fiercely fixed on Ben's. Finally, the king of Auradon smiled and nodded almost negligibly at his girlfriend.

"It is settled, then, within fifteen days from now, Mal will-"

"One more thing, Ben," the daughter of Maleficent interrupted. "I want the ship that will take me to the Isle to be loaded up with supplies to feed the children during the period of time between my arrival and their departure."

"Clothes as well," Evie suggested, though a dark cloud had crossed her eyes.

"There will be more than enough time for them to choose clothes once they arrive to Auradon," Mal refused. "Let's prioritize―clean water and provisions that are not leftovers will be enough."

"That sounds reasonable," Ben conceded. "I see no point in them suffering from the embargo too."

Mal made a gesture that spelled 'Thank you' with only a tiny touch of sarcasm, as she had a reputation to live up to.

"Is it decided, then?" Ben inquired. "Within two weeks from now Mal in her capacity as ambassador of Auradon will leave our lands heading to the Isle of the Lost to enable us of organizing the children of the Isle's arrival to our land, is there any opposition to this proposal?"

Slowly, Ben turned around the table, mimicking his mother's strategy of interrogation as he placed his inquisitives eyes on his interlocutors one by one, unmoving until he received an answer, so they could each feel the weight of his gaze.

When at last and albeit his father's sulking the former king of Auradon nodded, Ben concluded that it was all decided.

"It is done, then," he said, smiling. "I will send the videotape of your designation so it can be seen in the Isle as you requested. And I shall also notify them of your departure and a schedule a ship for you," he said to Mal. "As for now, we shall consider this meeting to be over. We will schedule another one before Mal's departure."

Several nods followed Ben's statement as the king of Auradon proceeded to write down a memorandum in an agenda that, much like Evie, he had been noting down during their assembly.

Letting out a sigh she didn't know she'd been holding, Mal let herself fall down into her chair, her left hand massaging her temple.

"You did it!" Evie congratulated in an excited whisper next to her.

"I didn't do anything," Mal replied, resignation in her voice. "This has just begun, Evie, we've yet to see what happens."

Recognizing her friend's the truth in her friend's statement, all Evie could do was bite her lower lip to hold back a sigh and squeeze Mal's hand in hers.

Perhaps Mal was right and there was no way to be certain of the success this exploit would have, Evie thought, her reflection only slightly tainted with bitterness, but Mal had also said that giving up was not an option and Evie knew as well as Mal did that they wouldn't go down without a fight, not then, not ever.

Chapter Text

This time, Mal was ready for the celebration.

Well, somewhat.

Perhaps it was more accurate to say that she had been expecting it from the beginning. Because, of course, Auradon couldn't simply do something discreetly and with no fuss, no, of course not―Auradon needed to blow trumpets and play loud drums. Auradon needed long-winded speeches and balloons and microphones and cameras.

On the bright side, at least she hadn't been forced to wear a dress for this... celebration.

"Mal, are you sure you don't want me to go with you?" Evie asked next to her, the gentle waves of the shore crashing under the wooden removable bridge she'd use to aboard the ship.

"Positive," Mal rolled her eyes. "And if you sent a suitcase with Lumiere you either ask him to bring it back or you resign to not seeing your things until I come back."

"Mal..." the girl whispered, almost a sigh.

"Evie, no. That's final; it's not up for discussion. I said no two weeks ago―I meant it then and I mean it now. You're not coming with me," the daughter of Maleficent repeated, her voice not unkind, but firm.

"But it's dangerous!" Evie argued.

"Indeed it is," Mal nodded. "Which is exactly why you are not coming."

"Ever since we came here from the Isle we've done everything together, Mal, I don't want you to-"

"Is that it, Evie?" the daughter of Maleficent cut her, placing both of her hands on Evie's shoulders and then letting them slide, until she was holding her friend's hands. "You fear I don't trust you enough?"

"I know you trust me, but..." she trailed off, gesturing towards the ship.

"Evie, I'd put my life in your hands in a heartbeat," Mal promised, her eyes locked with hers. "That is why I need you to stay here―because I trust you. And because I need someone to watch after them," she concluded, sending a look towards Jay and Carlos, who stood a few meters away from them, talking with Ben and Adam.

"You're using them to bribe me," the daughter of the Evil Queen complained.

"Maybe, but that doesn't change the fact that I mean every word I said," Mal accepted, squeezing her friend's hands in hers. "Evie, listen, I trust you and I need you, therefore I want you to be safe. I'll be back in three weeks, not a minute more, now go tell Lumiere to bring your things back."

Sighing, Evie bowed her head, eyes closed. The daughter of the Evil Queen pursed her lips, but instead of withdrawing from Mal's touch like her friend had feared, she returned a small squeeze.

When Evie finally reopened her eyes, there was no trace of the storm that had previously darkened them.

"Fine," she sighed again. "I'll let you go."

"Thank you," Mal echoed.

"But with a condition."

I should have known that, Mal grimaced. Oh, she should have known better than to expect someone to agree with her when there was no trap, nothing done under the table, even if it was someone with a character as sweet as Evie's.

"What do you want?"

"I know that I shouldn't pursue a relationship with my mother," Evie began coyly, her fingers shaking. "Listen, I know I shouldn't want to see her or to talk to her, not after what happened during Family Day or after what happened with your mother, but I..."

"Evie, what are you trying to say?"

"I can't see her again, I know that," the daughter of the Evil Queen continued, seeming more collected. "But I want to ask something from you," she said, letting go of Mal's hands to take a sealed envelope from her crown-shaped purse. "I... I want to ask you if you could give her this."

"Evie..."

"Mal, you've had the chance to speak with Maleficent," Evie argued. "Things are not going very well between you two, but at least you have tried to make them better. Don't take that away from me."

"Evie, don't do this-"

"Jay and Carlos don't want to have anything to do with their parents, which is understandable-"

"And which you'd do if you had a bit more of common sense," Mal condemned in a soft voice, knowing that her words wouldn't be enough to stop Evie.

"But I'm not like them, Mal," the daughter of the Evil Queen let out with an apologetic smile. "Don't take this away from me. I know it sounds... stupid, but I need to know that she is as bad as you think she is, as bad as Auradon makes her look."

"I don't want to see you hurt," Mal said, rolling her eyes with annoyance despite the fact that her voice remained gentle.

"I know, Mal," Evie smiled. "That's why I want to ask this from you―give her the letter and if she doesn't... if she doesn't answer, if she is like we remember, then... then I won't try anything else."

"Don't promise anything you can't fulfill," Mal asked, her eyes locked with Evie's―calculating, heavy. Finally, Mal looked away. "Fine," she concluded heavily. "I'll give her your letter."

"You will?" Evie inquired, more to assure herself than because she doubted her friend's word.

"I will," Mal sighed, taking the envelope the daughter of the Evil Queen offered her and carefully putting it away in the black folder Ben had given her roughly fifteen minutes in the past―the list of the heroes who were willing to open the doors of their houses to the soon-to-arrive children. "But if she doesn't answer or if her words are not the ones you wanted to listen, don't say I didn't warn you about this."

"And if that happens, don't say I was not aware that this was the most likely outcome," Evie offered back, a note of resignation obvious in her voice, even when her smile didn't falter. "I knew I could count on you."

Before Mal could answer that simple sign of trust, a third voice was heard.

"Mal, where's Freddie?" Ben called, raising his voice to be heard above the racket. "Isn't she supposed to be here?"

"How am I to know?" Mal huffed. "I'm not responsible for her!"

"I'll go look for her," Evie offered, her laugh obvious in her voice as she wrapped her arms around Mal.

"I'll be back," the daughter of Maleficent whispered into her friend's ear as she returned the gesture.

"I know," Evie answered, her breath warm on Mal's neck before she broke off the embrace, the gesture feeling like a more eloquent good-bye than all of her previous words.

"I'll go with you," Ben said before Evie walked away. "I have to go look for my mother too."

With a last glance in the daughter of Maleficent's way, both Ben and Evie turned on their heels and disappeared in the crowd that had congregated around the soon-to-sail ship.

Knowing that the awkward conversations had just began, Mal walked over to catch up with Jay and Carlos, who had remained together after the other two's departure.

"Are you sure you want to go back?" Jay questioned as soon as she was close enough to ensure he'd be heard even if he spoke in an undertone, which prevented others from listening to their conversation, a technique they had all mastered.

"Yes, I am," Mal answered with a sigh. "And I'm also sure I don't need backup."

"Just asking," Jay chuckled, raising his hands in surrender.

"Yeah, well, I need you here in Auradon. All of you," she said, perhaps more to reassure herself than to order them to stay instead of doing something stupid like following her back.

It made sense―she wouldn't be able to concentrate on the real reason she was going back to the Isle if, instead of doing the paperwork and matching out the children with their tutors she was constantly worried about the wellbeing of the ones she'd come to consider more than her friends―her family.

At least, if they'd stayed in Auradon she'd know they were safe. She could handle herself alone.

"Until I return, you're in charge," Mal instructed, her eyes heavy on Jay's.

"Ha, as if I didn't know that," the son of Jafar mocked.

"And don't you think I've forgotten," she replied, a mischievous glimmer dancing in her eyes. "Evie is already working on the skirt we talked about. I'm thinking dark red and gold will look marvelous on you."

"You're both insufferable," Jay decided with a huff that, despite everything, wasn't ill-intentioned.

After that, a heavy silence fell over them. And silence was definitely the word because, despite the noise that Auradon was making just a few meters away from their little group, at that moment, it was only the three of them.

"C'mere," Mal let out, more worried than she wanted to admit about Carlos tense posture and the way he kept averting his eyes from hers. For God's sake, how badly was Auradon affecting her, she wondered as she wrapped her arms around Carlos' shorter figure. "I'll be fine, stop overreacting."

Decisively, Auradon was influencing her, and perhaps it would also be good that she went back to the Isle if she wanted to keep her reputation.

Surprisingly enough, at that moment, she couldn't have cared less of what the boisterous people around her thought of her actions.

It was interesting, or at least it seemed so to her, that even when they purposely tried to follow Auradon's example, they just couldn't do things the Auradonian way.

For example, right then and there―her arms were indeed wrapped around Carlos' back in some sort of embrace. However, the son of Cruella wasn't returning the gesture, and while someone who followed the Fairytale-Land's standards would have found that to be a sign of distrust or even an offense, Mal was far from disgruntled by it.

In fact, she couldn't have cared less about Carlos' seeming lack of interest in the contact. And the reason was simple―it wasn't that she didn't worry about her friend or that she was as heartless as her mother had wanted her to believe she was. No, far from it, to her, the mere fact that Carlos was allowing her to touch him was enough sign of trust.

So, even Auradonian gestures and customs seemed to work differently for them.

She smirked, perhaps out of worry, perhaps as a challenge for Auradon's standards as her arms tightened around her friend's shoulders.

"I'll be fine," she said after a while, the annoyed tone that covered her voice not enough to mask its gentleness.

"Be careful," Carlos advised simply, his forehead pressed into Mal's shoulder, the muscles around his shoulder blades more relaxed than they'd been in the whole day.

"Always am," Mal sentenced, breaking off from the improvised embrace. "Now, it's ten to twelve and this thing is supposed to weigh anchors at twelve o'clock, so I'd better get on it."

"It won't be punctual," Jay decided.

"What do you mean? This is Auradon," Carlos protested.

"Precisely, we're still missing a wordy speech from either Fayanna or Ben about this 'bonding opportunity' and 'display of kindness'," he replied, blinking more times than were necessary in a very bad imitation of the Fairy Godmother's facial expression. Mal groaned. "You'll leave at twelve thirty, if things go as planned."

"I would have preferred not to remember the speech part," she muttered, giving in to Jay's one-arm hug as the son of Jafar continued to snicker.

"It's Auradon, you don't get to 'forget' about speeches!"

"Yeah, right, I'll keep that in mind," Mal shot back sarcastically before she sighed and her false expression of horror turned serious once more, which in return made Jay get a hold of his own carefree attitude to turn it more severe. "Watch after yourselves, I want to find you're all in one piece when I get back."

"Bet on it," Jay called loudly once she had already turned around, her left foot on the first of the steps from the wooden bridge that would lead her to the ship.

Five minutes later Ben met her on the deck, the Fairy Godmother following close behind.

"Seems like Jay won," she muttered with a raised eyebrow.

"What?" Ben inquired.

"Nothing," she brushed off, her eyes scanning the clapping crowd under them.

"Mal, before you leave-"

"If you want to ask me if I'm sure about this, save it," Mal cut him off. "If I have to listen to any of you saying that you're worried about me once more, I'll throw up."

"Well, I wouldn't want to cause you any malaise before you even have the chance to be seasick, but-"

"I said save it," she repeated, impassible to Ben's nervous laugh.

"Mal, I'm worried about you, that's all."

"Trust me, Ben, I know," the daughter of Maleficent replied, slightly turning to meet Ben's eyes for the first time in their conversation. "But it's not me that you should be worried about."

"Well, you're not the only thing I'm worried about," Ben admitted. "See, I know there's a good number of things that could go wrong, but there's also the fact that it's kind of my fault that you're going back to a place you've openly said you didn't want to return."

"It's not your fault," Mal assured, her tone softening just a bit. "If I didn't want to go I wouldn't be doing it. I've made my choice and you should all respect it, regardless of how… jeopardous you think it is."

"In my defense, I'm not 'thinking' it's dangerous. The Isle in itself is treacherous."

"Yeah," Mal nodded. "Good thing I was raised there and know how to handle all that wickedness."

"I just don't want you to be hurt in any way."

As all answer, Mal laughed carelessly. "Then why are you even having second thoughts about it? I can handle the Isle. Take it from me, see, I'm not worried, especially not about you."

"Well, maybe that's because I'm going to be here safe and at home-"

"Ben, as soon as this ship gets going, that's exactly where I'll be heading―home."

"Mal…"

"Listen, I know we don't really call the Isle that. And yes, sometimes I call my mother by her name and returning there was certainly not in my to-do list, but I can pull it off, and you better than anyone should know the weight of duty," she finally admitted, deciding there was no point in putting up a stoic act in front of someone who could read her like an open book. Ben grimaced.

"Yes, and that's exactly why I asked you to go there, as the King of Auradon," he nodded. "Because I know you can do this and because I need to finish what I started. However, I'm not talking to you as king now, but as your boyfriend."

"Well, then, as both the ambassador and your girlfriend I have to tell you that there's really no need to worry," Mal replied, standing her ground. "I'm the safest option to send back, as my mother won't be there. And, Ben, if I have to go back there in order to prevent them from doing it, then so be it," she concluded, discretely pointing to a spot in the front row of the multitude, where Evie, Carlos, Jay and Freddie stood next to the former kings of Auradon.

"I know, and for that I admire you," Ben whispered, placing a soft peck on her left cheek. "But please promise me that if something happens you won't hesitate to call me or come back, even."

"I promise I'll call if something happens, but as for coming back… I don't think so," Mal replied after a few seconds, her jaw set tight. Taking her right hand in his, Ben laughed.

"I didn't expect anything less from you," he said, nodding to the Fairy Godmother, who took a step forward. "Now, if we may, my lady, let's get this ship going."

To be completely honest, Mal didn't hear a word of Fayanna's speech. Yes, she mentioned how much of an opportunity of union this new crusade was and she probably congratulated Ben on his performance. In fact, Mal was pretty sure that she had said something along the lines of 'Despite his youth, King Benjamin has proven to have a sagacious mind and a sharp intuition, let's all hope that this new approach will be what we've lacked before, enabling us to bring Auradon and the Isle of the Lost together.'

Yeah, she probably said something like that but, in all sincerity, Mal hadn't been listening.

For once, her disinterest wasn't born from boredom or a feeling of superiority. Rather, what had distracted her was the clapping multitude under them, the bright smiles that the attendants wore, the general excitement.

Perhaps it was just the prospect of a celebration, but even then, it didn't make sense.

This was a ship of respectable size, filled with supplies and ready to sail with the Isle of the Lost as its destination―it was pretty obvious that this project wouldn't be cheap, and yet… Auradon, at the moment, at least, didn't seem very concerned about the economic loss. In fact, they didn't even seem alarmed for the fact that in little under a month in the future the children of their most vicious enemies would be walking on the same streets.

She didn't know what she had been expecting, but, to be honest, it hadn't been this… welcoming. Well, it was a welcoming to the plan, not to the children themselves, she reminded herself, but they were already starting off way better than Mal had feared, and, according to Fay, good beginnings often times lead to good endings.

This was a good augury, it had to be, Mal decided, offering the crowd a mischievous smirk, and even if the Auradonian crap and superstitions were catching up with her, she supposed one had to trust these small things, these lingering hopes that recoiled to dark corners, these ridiculous omens.

Shortly after, Fay abandoned the podium, stepping back so the crowd could cheer for their king and Ben gave his own speech.

"As you know," Ben began once the ovations had quieted a bit. "Next to me stands the Ambassador of Auradon, Dragon of the Kingdom, Mal from the Isle of the Lost," he said and, surprisingly enough, a new round of roars followed Ben's statement, making the only thing that stopped Mal from stepping back being Ben's warm arm around her waist.

Rigidly, Mal bowed her head, a sign that she had heard Ben's words and the public's ovations

"Today, the Pharaoh will weigh anchor towards the Isle of the Lost," Ben continued, his gentle smile never wavering. "Within three weeks from now our ambassador and our ship will be back bringing with them the children of the Isle of the Lost, as I am sure you know, from having heard the report the Fairy Godmother and I gave last week."

This time, it was the Fay's turn to give a small curtsy, her trademark giggles coming out of her pink-colored lips.

"Now, without further delay, I want to ask you to give Mal a big applause in recognition of her courage before she leaves," Ben asked, gently pushing Mal forward before the crowd complied and burst into a boisterous acclaim.

After that, things happen very fast. She remembered Ben turning to face her, his glimmering eyes focused on hers as he gave her a bow, his right hand holding her left one, as his left arm was neatly positioned at his back.

"You will do just fine," he promised, raising his voice to be heard above the multitude's roar. "I'm certain."

As an answer, Mal offered him an unsure smile before Ben stepped back and the Fairy Godmother took his place.

"You're ready, Mal?" she inquired, though it was more an expression than a real question. Mal nodded nonetheless. "Well, then," the Fairy Godmother continued, taking out her magic wand that had been concealed under the sleeve of her dress. "In that case, bibbidi-bobbidi-boo!"

The fairy laughed, a spark coming out of the tip of her wand as she gave it a twirl. Her small flicker reached the helm of the shipand as soon as it touched the wood, like a firework, it became four or five more specks of light, that soon separated and hurried to reach the sails of the vessel, making the knots that held them back untie themselves.

"This should be enough to take you to the Isle," Fay said with a mischievous smile. "It won't be like Captain Hook's ship, but it'll have to do, as even he had a crew and you've refused to have anyone in charge of the ship."

"It would have been unnecessary."

Fay nodded. "I expect your magic will be enough to bring you back, but if it is not, please don't hesitate to-"

"It will be," Mal cut her off, the salty smell of the air making her sound more convinced.

"Until your return, then," the old lady smiled, bowing down her head in a small curtsy.

Mal, deciding to be respectful as well had decided for imitating the gesture, but soon enough Fay had wrapped her arms around her in a fast hug.

"Good luck," the Fairy Godmother whispered into her ear before turning on her heels and abandoning the ship escorted by Ben.

Another round of applause erupted from the public as Mal decided that, given the fact that they were already there, she might as well give them something to clap about.

With a twirl of her own wrist, Mal lifted up the wooden staircase Fay and Ben had used to descend from the vessel. With another movement from her fingers, Mal weighed the anchor.

Giving the crowd under her a puckish smirk, Mal turned her right hand into a fist, restraining the magic that fought against her, its course already settled.

Slowly, Mal turned to look at the only people she cared for out of the several hundreds in front of her and she nodded, the gesture, so small per se, becoming almost negligible given the distance. Nonetheless, she gave that last assurance to Evie's proud smile and to Carlos' attentive gaze, to Jay's snicker and to Belle's waving, to Ben's hopeful expression and to Adam's severe features.

After that, she let go, straightening her fingers to allow the magic to flow as it pleased, waving only once, a last good-bye to the people she cared for.

Soon enough, the wind filled her sails, the magic, held back for longer than it had liked, coming out all of a sudden, which gave her weighing a small turbulence, the sound of the waves crashing into the hull of her boat loud enough to quiet out the noise of the applauses behind her.

Fayanna had calculated correctly, and in little over two hours the Pharaoh was already arriving to the Isle of the Lost.

She decided to drop the anchor by herself instead of doing it with magic. The pestilence hit her before she even descended to the quay. Home, sweet, smelly home, she thought to herself.

Mal decided not to bring anything with her right then. She would go give the Isle a look, see how the Bargain Castle had handled while they were away, probably grab something at the goblin's pub before she went back to the vessel to retrieve her suitcase.

Before the embargo, whatever the Isle received of goods had been left right at the entrance of the 'city', as the dock extended a few meters in front of the barrier, which allowed the Auradonians to disembark their ships and unload them without risking any of the islanders to harm them.

After discharging the ships, they would carry Auradon's leftovers through the barrier, where they'd leave them for the islanders to fight over the wastes.

The barrier was a tricky thing, that was for sure. Instead of dropping it every time a ship arrived to allow its crew to go through it ―which would have provided the villains with multiple chances of escaping―, the barrier had been modified to enable some people to go through it.

In all honesty, Mal wasn't yet sure of how that worked, but she understood that it was some kind of trademark each person had, like one's fingerprints. Apparently, each person had an aura, a something that identified them and made them… themselves, and magic, fascinating as it was, seemed to be able to pick that up, hence why the barrier could be modified to allow some people into it while it still forbade others from coming out.

It was strange, but at least Mal was now able to walk into the Isle as well as out of it.

Before crossing the barrier ―actually entering for the first time in her life― Mal let out a long sigh.

As soon as she stepped into the Isle the loss of her magic was almost tangible to her. It seemed a weight had been lifted from her, but it wasn't a good feeling; it was as if that weight was something necessary. It wasn't a worried kind of weight, it wasn't a bad weight. It was a crucial weight, like a limb or the pressure of someone else's hand on yours. Sure, it was something heavy, but it was a heft you wanted to keep.

She swallowed heavily. She'd have three very hard weeks ahead of her if she'd come to depend on her magic as much as it seemed.

Unlike what had happened in Auradon, when she arrived to the Isle, there was no mob waiting for her at the dock. In fact, there was no one there, and while a part of her did dwell on the loss, she was mostly happy that she could breathe easily now.

While it was true that none of the islanders had bothered to appear, Mal knew that they were aware of her arrival, as the video Ben had aired clearly marked this date as the one she would return to her birthplace. So much for giving them information.

Ten minutes later, Mal arrived to the goblin's pub, not having made a serious attempt to go unnoticed, but not having called any attention on her either, or at least it seemed so, given the fact that no one had approached her or tried to speak with her, though some of the pedestrians did send strange looks in her way. Not that she had stopped to question them.

"Give me one of your moldy coffees," she ordered, not bothering to add a 'Please' or to even address her request to one of the goblins in particular as she took a seat in the bar's highchairs.

"My, my, looks like, for once, Auradon wasn't deceiving us," a voice behind her said.

"Yeah? Don't tell me about it. Between me packing to come and the terrible smell I wasn't sure if this was not the island I want to go to," Mal replied, turning to face her interlocutor as she made a bubble with the gum Fayanna had advised her to chew in favor of avoiding getting seasick.

"Ha! Is it my impression or is your character still terrible?" the girl inquired, stepping forward so Mal could see her more clearly, which allowed her to recognize Harriet Hook, the daughter of the man who had once terrorized Neverland.

"Ruthless as ever," Mal said, giving a small kick to the empty chair next to her, a clear offering for Harriet to go seat with her. "You, make that two coffees!" she barked at a grumpy goblin that had been unfortunate enough to be close by. As all answer, the creature scoffed.

"So, tell me, Auradon's honey wasn't enough to sweeten you, was it?" Harriet continued to ask once the goblin left them alone.

"Was four months enough to forget me?" Mal shot back. "You'll need more than that to make me a pretty princess."

"That's what I told Ginny―you would never work for those idiots," the pseudo-pirate rolled her eyes, receiving her steaming cup when another one of Maleficent's former minions delivered their order.

"Hold your flying ship, girl, I didn't say that," Mal replied, a grimace that was half disgust and half pity once the smell form her mug entered her nostrils. "I am indeed working for Auradon."

"What? You, the daughter of the Mistress of Evil?"

"Well, no one said I had my mother's blessing, did they?"

"Mal, c'mon, this is stupid. Why don't you say that you have a plan under your sleeve and want to get your revenge on Auradon after what they did to your mother? The whole Isle is speaking about this," Harriet continued, her expression confused, if not worried, because no one, despite what they said or how they acted, could have wanted to stay in Auradon, with their voluminous dresses and pastel wallpapers, much less be in Auradon's side.

"First of all, Harriet, I'm not sure you got things correctly―I was the one who transformed my mother into a lizard," Mal explained, taking a small sip of coffee―which proved to be her worst decision of the day, as a strong nausea hit her the moment the greasy liquid touched her taste buds, her first impulse ordering her to spit it back into the cup. "And I assure you, my appearance here has nothing to do with my mother."

"Um, a shame," Harriet muttered. "Is it true, then? You're one of those paltry princesses?"

"Do I look like one to you?" the daughter of Maleficent retorted, allowing her eyes to glow emerald for only a split second. Laughing loudly, Harriet raised her hands in surrender.

"I'll give you that one, but others won't be as easy to convince."

"We'll see about that!" Mal chanted.

"I'm leaving you, Mal, it'd be terrible to be seen with you," the pirate said, standing up.

"Is that how your dad taught you to greet old friends?" Mal questioned, a mischievous smirk in her lips.

"You know my dad doesn't do friends, neither old nor new," Harriet answered, snickering. "And, for the record, we weren't friends now, were we?"

"I'll give you that one," the daughter of Maleficent echoed, pushing the steamy mug further away in the bar. Harriet, perhaps noticing Mal's disgust for the beverage, perhaps simply to make a statement chose that exact moment to take her cup and emptied it in a gulp.

"Well, we'll see about you," her interlocutor answered in a shrug before she turned on her heels and headed for the pub's exit.

That had gone better than expected, Mal told herself as she turned back to her foul-smelling drink. Well, the part about speaking to Harriet, not the part about her coffee. Seriously, how in hell had she drank that with no second thoughts or a quick visit to the shore in order to throw up?

"Oi, Mal!" Harriet's voice called her from the entrance, several tables away. "Think fast!" and with that, she unsheathed her sabre to send it flying across the establishment, raising various complaints from the other costumers and an almost-stabbed goblin.

"Ha!" the daughter of Maleficent let out as she jumped off her chair, her foot kicking the bench with so much force that it wobbled and fell on the wooden floor with a dull sound. With easiness, Mal waited until the sword was close enough for her to reach it, her slim fingers slid into the handle with grace. "Now this is what I call a greeting!"

"If I challenged you to a duel, would you accept?" Harriet questioned, her eyebrows raised at Mal's ability display.

"If you challenged me to a duel, I'd beat your ass, like I always do," Mal answered, grinning.

Seeming pleased with her, Harriet nodded and clicked her tongue.

"You think fast!" Mal called her, gesturing to throw the sable in the same way it had been flung to her.

"Nah," Harriet brushed off. "You keep it, looks like someone forgot your weapons."

"I don't need them to send you idiots running," she smirked. "I have myself."

"Very well, you keep hoping that will save you once everyone finds out you've changed sides."

"Hey, Harriet, I'm counting on you to spread the news!" Mal said, almost an order.

"My boys and I will have it covered by dusk," Harriet nodded, before turning and leaving the establishment for real.

Mal smiled, genuinely this time.

If there was one thing Harriet took pride on, that was certainly the crew of her ship. Truth to tell, it wasn't a real ship, but rather, the leftovers of the one that her father had once sailed on, which Hook had been allowed to keep in the same way that Cruella had kept her mansion and her mother had kept Bargain Castle.

Theoretically, the ship was there to provide a place to stay for Hook and his old crew, but it also served as some sort of playground for the younger kids, who recognized Harriet as their captain.

In the past, Mal had found Harriet's actions to be ridiculous. Now, however, she thought it was… curious―the kids didn't follow Harriet around because they had been forced to do so. On the contrary, they genuinely liked Harriet, and often, kids that were not related to Hook's old crew spent the day in the ship.

In return, Harriet cared for them, making sure they all had something to eat, beating up anyone who dared threaten one of her boys ―or girls, as there were some of those with her too―, giving them a place to stay in her ship.

Under any other circumstances, Harriet would have been made fun of or even threatened for the soft spot she so obviously had when it came to those kids, but, to honor the truth, no one dared to do so, as she was the best swordswoman in the Isle, bested only by Mal and Jay, who had enough problems of their own to worry about what Harriet Hook did or didn't do, though Jay was some sort of friendly acquaintance with her.

The news of her return would get around in no time, Mal concluded, deciding it was time to get going as well. She sheathed her new sabre and turned to leave a single coin for the goblins in the bar. This had to be the first time she paid for something in the Isle.

"My lady," the goblin that had served her called her.

"Excuse me?"

"My lady," he repeated, its head bowed. "This one's on the house."

"And where's this generosity coming from?"

"You're our new master," the creature explained, his hoarse voice sounding more bored than flattering.

"I'm your what now?" Mal chortled, unable to stop herself.

"You defeated Maleficent, therefore you are our master now," the goblin continued to explain. "As Bargain Castle now belongs to you, so do we."

"Interesting," she muttered, raising her eyebrows as she weighted her words, her scanning eyes looking around the establishment, receiving several nods from other goblins. "Keep the coin either way," she decided. "I have a feeling I'll need your help soon enough."

Mal waited until the goblin answered with a groan before she turned and left the pub, deciding it was finally time to head home.

Her arrival to her mother's castle was slightly different than she had expected it to be.

For instance, the building was… not like she remembered. Yes, it had always been old and dirty, and the right wing of the castle had been crumbling down long before Mal left to Auradon, but even then the pieces of furniture had been neatly placed around the building, despite the dust they had accumulated on it, as most of the rooms were unused.

Now, the front door was precariously balanced, as it had come off three of the seven hinges that were supposed to hold it in place. The dust was gone, but not because it had been cleaned. Rather, several footprints and turned tables proved that unwelcomed guests had made a use of the installation, probably for a very short amount of time―only what was necessary to give a look to Maleficent's belongings and take what they wanted.

With surprise, Mal realized that her mother's chamber had suffered the most damage. Her clothes hadn't been stolen, rather, they had been turned to threads, the curtains of her room hung from the broken curtain rod, her window ―the one that opened to reveal the balcony she had often used to bark others at the other islanders― shattered.

The library ―because yes, hard as it was to believe, Maleficent's castle possessed one― was mostly unharmed. Mal supposed that their burglars hadn't found anything of interest there, and it made sense, why would they bother fighting over an old magic book, useless in the Isle, when they could get food, jewels or even a table that wasn't broken?

With even more bewilderment, Mal found out that her room had been left untouched, it had even been cleaned after her absence. Her pencils were still in place, the Byzantium cover of her bed just as she had left it nearly six months in the past.

"Odd, very odd," she said out loud, perhaps only to hear her voice over the heavy silence around her.

Mal decided that having her old room was good and old, but she had to get to work. She decided that Maleficent's library was the most appropriate place to set up her new office.

Fine, first things first―she needed to call Fay and discharge the ship. She would also need to do an inventory of the things they had lost. She probably should go through her mother's things, throwing away what was ruined beyond repair and storing the things that could be fixed. The broken window and the tumbledown door were things she wanted repaired immediately, as she didn't like the idea of any more unwelcomed guests.

Before she reached the library, she was intercepted by a group of ten, perhaps twelve goblins. Talk about uninvited people.

"My lady," the one from the pub greeted her. She didn't know if the title repelled her or attracted her.

"She's really back," another one, from the back, said. "Looks like the pirate girl wasn't deceiving us."

"As she wasn't deceiving me," Mal nodded. "What are you doing here?"

"We've come to present our honors to our new master," the first one replied, receiving several nods from its peers. "We also want to let you know that we regret not having been able to protect Bargain Castle better and we will accept whatever punishment you deem reasonable."

"Enough of that," Mal cut them, an uncomfortable weight in her throat. "I couldn't care less about the castle. You arrived just in time and we'll settle for that," she said, brushing it off.

Confused, the creatures turned to look at each other, growling something that was too throaty for Mal to catch.

"I'm the one giving orders now, do as I say, do it right and you won't have to worry about the wrecks of this place, am I clear?"

"Yes, my lady," they answered in unison, their voices hoarse.

"Good," she said. "You will be allowed to keep your garrets or dungeons, whatever it is, I couldn't care less about them, but believe me when I say that if I don't like your work I'll send you out of Bargain Castle with nothing, so you'd better do it right, is that clear?" she began, giving the ruins of her old house a calculating look.

Again, her mother's minions nodded their agreement, which allowed her to continue.

"First of all, I want that door fixed," she began, pointing towards two of the goblins. "Go get more hinges at the bazaar, now. Second, the window of my mother's bedroom―get more glass and put a new one in place. Clean the pieces of old one," she continued, pointing to three more of the creatures. "But don't touch of her things. You four," she said. "I want the dining room impeccable by six in the afternoon."

"Ma'am," one of them called.

"Yes?"

"Did you say the dining room?"

"Yeah, what then?" Mal raised an eyebrow, annoyed at the interruption.

"That's a big place, are you expecting visitors?"

"That is none of your business," she replied stoically. "Now go clean it." With a respectful bow that probably symbolized it regretted having asked, the creature retired, followed by the other three that had been assigned the same task.

"As for us," Mal called to the remaining five goblins. "We'll go to the ship that brought me here and unload it. As it is anchored outside of the barrier you won't be able to reach it, but I'll pass the cargo to you and I expect you to bring it to the library with no further delay, are we clear?"

"Ma'am, what did you bring? Is the embargo lifted?" one of the creatures asked, its tone hopeful despite its throatiness.

"Packages from Auradon and no, the embargo is still going strong, but I warn you―I know exactly how many of them I brought with me and if something goes missing, I'll know exactly who it was and the consequences won't be pretty, are we on the same page here?"

With a bow of their heads, they all agreed.

"Good, get going," she ordered, her voice commanding enough to make them obey immediately. "And you," she stopped the goblin that had greeted her at the pub. "What's your name?"

"Excuse me?"

"Your name, are you deaf?"

"No, my lady," it answered gutturally.

"Then?" she raised an eyebrow.

"Despotes, ma'am," it said in an undertone.

"Despotes, huh? Interesting," she smiled to herself, thinking she had probably heard it before, perhaps in Evie's language lessons. "I like you, Despotes," she continued. "I like you enough to make you my right hand, you know what I mean? You're the one in charge of them," she pointed to the crumbling door. "If something goes wrong, I'll go to you. You're my… my second in command, do you think you can pull that off'"

"Certainly, my lady."

"Good," she decided, satisfied that her day wasn't turning all that bad. "How many of you are there?"

"Fifty or sixty, ma'am."

"That will have to do," she muttered. "Get them to the shore, we have a hard day ahead and we're gonna need some help, understood?"

With a nod, Despotes retired. Mal sighed before following the creature out of the castle. Who would have thought, she told to herself, that the time would come when her mother's inheritance would be so useful.

Chapter Text

To be honest with herself, Mal had groaned a minimum of five times per hour during the first few days after her return to the Isle of the Lost.

It wasn't the foul smell that filled the air she breathed in, it wasn't the lack of order in anything that was ever done in the Isle, it was... something else, a dull ache that followed her around even when she barked orders at the goblins or when she tried to keep herself busy.

She didn't want to say that she felt sort of... nostalgic for Auradon, but what was true was that, in the Isle, she felt... out of place, to say the least.

Regardless of that, she had work to do and like she had told Evie, she would stay in the Isle for three weeks, nothing less, nothing more.

Mal had started working the very next day of her appearance in the Isle.

Initially, her plan had been to feed the children starting the night of her return, but then things got complicated as the goblins didn't finish cleaning the kitchen and neither was she able to finish unloading the vessel.

Despite the reputation she had to keep up, Mal had been awake and ready to begin her duties at seven in the morning. Originally, her plan was to go to the bazaar and make a public announcement during which she explained the new functions of Bargain Castle as the Embassy of Auradon and the fact that, from that day on, the children would be able to attend to the embassy and be served food thrice a day. She would still keep the... placement program to herself for a little longer.

Unfortunately, Mal failed to remember that no one in the Isle was a morning person.

The first few days Mal had been short from screaming out in frustration, mainly because everywhere she turned around she saw something that needed fixing, another item she had to add to her already-very-long to-do list.

There was also, of course, the fact that everything would have been easier if only she could have used magic, anything could have been a snap of her fingers away, from fixing a broken window to cleaning a room, yet―she wasn't allowed to use it.

Among the things that she could have done more efficiently if only she'd had magic was calling Ben to tell him she still had everything under control. Every. Day.

At first, it had been a mild annoyance, knowing that there was no signal in the Isle and that she would have to leave the barrier and remain on the ship for as long as the call prolonged itself. However, when the fourth day came by and she had to step out of Bargain Castle, walk all the way to the port, leave the barrier, experiencing the sudden growth of a power that became inexistent as soon as she put a foot on the Isle again, which always left her a little disorientated for the first few minutes, before even having dialed Auradon's castle's number, Mal was ready to cry out in irritation.

It was half from the annoyance of doing all of that leg work and half from the fact that, while she was on the ship, engrossed in describing the Isle's crumbling buildings as she walked in circles around the deck, she could have been getting something done in the castle.

She had explained that a million times to Ben, but... there was really nothing he could to help her in that department. A whole new project of reconstruction for the bazaar? Sure, that could be arranged. Blankets for the children? Most certainly, how many? But... a spot in the Isle where magic could be performed and signal was available? Not happening.

Mal had also spoken with the Fairy Godmother, explaining to her how necessary a phone in the embassy really was. For Mal it was almost a matter of common sense―if the event of an emergency ever came, it was terribly questionable that she, the only one in the Isle of the Lost who could actually leave the place, would be able to get to the barrier and call for help.

Fay was adamant―the barrier couldn't be brought down.

However, Fay hadn't been counting on Mal's wit―two days after having spoken to her, Mal was calling Fay once more: she had found a solution.

At first, Fay had adamantly refused, but when Merlin, Yen Sid and Ben said it was actually a good idea, Fay was forced to listen to it.

Mal had kept it simple―her idea was to change the barrier, not to bring it down. Back at Auradon she had been studying magic, her time spent in trying to memorize what gave magic its... essence and core.

Apparently, the barrier had been put in place with the help of several magical entities like Fay, Tinker Bell, Merlin and Yen Sid himself.

First of all it was important to note that every single person, regardless of their magical abilities, had an essence of its own.

For normal humans, it wasn't very important, except, perhaps, that it became the reason why some people disliked others, even if they hadn't really spent much time with them. It was an aura, something like that.

However, for magical entities, each one's essence was highly important―it gave power to their magic, a seal that allowed others to recognize their work as theirs and it gave strength to their potions or spells.

Which was why, when the magic of different people coexisted in the same spell things got... complicated.

According to Mal's theory ―that Fay didn't seem to want to consider and Yen Sid admitted he dreaded― the barrier around the Isle was unstable in itself, which explained why it was so hard for her to step in and out of the barrier―the obstacle didn't only go against her nature, as she was a magical creature, it also did so with a rickety power that was fighting against itself.

So, if what you wanted was a stronger barrier what you needed was less people participating in the project. As it happened with everything else, the more ideas and people were involved, the messier it got.

Now, of course no living creature had enough power to place a strong, competent barrier around the whole Isle of the Lost and Mal didn't want that either, but, between two or three forceful magical entities... perhaps something smaller, like Bargain Castle could be circled, as if putting walls around it, allowing the signal to reach the castle and magic to be performed within this... barrier-less extension.

Fay hadn't seemed thrilled with Mal's suggestion, but the daughter of Maleficent had told her that at least she was offering a solution. Merlin, on the other hand, had become beautifully excited at the mention of a place where magic could be performed freely.

It had taken several more phone calls ―during which Fay often forgot that there was no coverage in the Isle and tried to call Mal when she was not in the ship, thus helping Mal make her point―, a week and a half of taking one step forward and two more backwards and Ben's intervention before Fay agreed to at least give it a try.

After that, a new debate began, this time, concerning the two or three individuals who would be responsible of the new barrier... or the lack of it.

Certainly, Mal was aware that her magic alone wouldn't be enough to do such a thing but, she estimated, Merlin's, Fay's and her own powers would be more than sufficient to complete a barrier around Bargain Castle, strong enough to only allow the ones she, Ben or Fay expressly permitted of entering and solid enough to protect the ones within it from the ones between the two barriers, the one that impeded the islanders from leaving and the one that circled Bargain Castle.

In the end, it'd come down to one simple statement―according to Evie's knowledge on politics, the whole extension of an embassy belonged to its country, and that included the sky too. Therefore, the sky on top of Bargain's Castle shouldn't be confined to the punishment of the Isle any more than the palace itself.

Almost two weeks after Mal's arrival, Merlin himself appeared in the Isle, having refused, much like Mal herself, to be taken there by a responsible crew, choosing to teleport Archimedes and himself to the Pharaoh's deck, were Mal was waiting for them instead.

Fay had refused to participate in this particular project, though Yen Sid had volunteered to help.

"Huh, to be brought here I would have rather stayed with Arthur," Archimedes huffed puffing out his chest as soon as Merlin and he had settled in the ship.

"Nice to meet you too," Mal deadpanned.

"Don't listen to this old fowl, age has made him cranky," the wizard replied affably as he pulled Mal in for a short albeit tight hug.

"Cranky, me?" Archimedes complained, flapping around Merlin's head so he could change from the wizard's left shoulder to his right. "After a whole life following you around with your senile ideas, suddenly I'm―"

"Knock it off, old chicken," Merlin warned, repeatedly tapping his staff on the wooden deck. "If you don't keep your thoughts to yourself I'll volunteer to take Yen Sid's place as teacher here!"

"That won't be necessary," Mal pointed out, unaccustomed to the wizard's arguments with his familiar. "Soon you will be able to teach to these children without having to face the... disadvantages of the Isle."

"See? She's a visionary, unlike others," Archimedes huffed.

"After I advocated for education during the Middle Ages I'm not a visionary?" Merlin scoffed. "Grateful old bird you are!"

The next two days were full of hustle and bustle, with Merlin coming and going and Mal trying to figure out what she was supposed to do in order to keep her guest comfortable. Fortunately for her, Merlin traveled with everything that he needed.

The morphing of the barrier was more draining than Mal had expected it would be, which basically translated in a sudden dizziness that she hadn't been prepared to face as soon as the new barrier had been put in place.

After that, during a whole week, every single time Mal turned around too rapidly or carelessly a wave of nausea would seize over her, forcing her to grab on to the corner of a piece of furniture and take deep breaths until she felt like herself again.

So much for having practiced her magic back at Auradon.

*―*―*

The day Merlin left, barely three days after his arrival, was not a sunny one. At least it wasn't raining Mal reflected on, almost feeling the need to apologize for the cloudy sky, even when there was no possible way she could control the weather.

Only Mal and Yen Sid had woken up early to give their farewells to the wise man, though only Mal would be able to escort him outside of the barrier, as Yen Sid had no clearance to do it.

"Merlin, Merlin, aren't you forgetting something!" Archimedes chanted, flying around the old wizard.

"Oh, keep your mind to yourself, Archimedes, I'm busy!" he commanded, trying to push the bird away.

Mal sighed and refrained the urge to roll her eyes. During the last days she had gotten used of those two's ways.

"Your Alzheimer is kicking in!" the owl protested, though he finally settled in Merlin's right shoulder.

"Well, now that this grumpy antiquity allows us," Merlin started then, sending Archimedes a glare. "I'll let you know that it was a pleasure working with you, miss, with both of you."

"It was a great honor to receive you too," Mal offered, bowing her head.

"It's been quite some time since I actually practiced any magic," Yen Sid piped in. "It feels good to have it back."

"To be honest," Mal said. "All this time I didn't know what I was missing on. All my life I'd lived... deprived of magic, thinking my mother exaggerated its greatness. But now I know why the former casters find it so difficult to live without it. It's as if you've lost a part of yourself."

"You are quite right," Merlin nodded, pleased. "Being stripped of your magic is losing a part of your identity."

"He's never agreed with the banishment of magic," Yen Sid pointed out with a shrug, leaning down to speak into Mal's ear as if it were a secret, even though he's voice was loud and unashamed enough for Merlin and Archimedes to hear.

"Oh, and do you?" the old wizard argued. "It's outrageous! Being born with a talent and not using it? Degrading the witches and sorcerers who undergo years upon years of studies to forbid them from ever casting again? Making this... floating junkyard magic's great achievement of this century? It is ridiculous!"

"That without mentioning the fact that they are robbing the children of the Isle from even finding out about their powers," Archimedes nodded, for once agreeing with Merlin. "Children at Auradon know they are gifted and study the theory of magic even if they are not allowed to practice it, but here? Like you said, Mal, you don't even know what you're missing on."

"Perhaps that's for the best," the daughter of Maleficent offered with a grimace. "You cannot miss what you don't know. What good is there in showing them what they can't have?"

"I do not agree," Yen Sid said. "The ideal would be that they could have it.

"Auradon is scared, and as such, it has taken desperate measures," Merlin nodded. "One of them was this island, another one is the prohibition of casting magic. Neither of them helps anyone, and I'll go as far as to say that they actually harm a good number of people."

"On the bright side," Yen Sid, who had kept in touch with Fayanna via handwritten letters, added. "Things are changing. The fact that they've decided to take the kids out is a good start."

"You've always been too optimistic, my friend," Merlin argued. "There's still a long way to go."

"But a man has to start somewhere," the other caster shrugged.

"I hope you are right, my friend," Merlin nodded. "Perhaps change is indeed coming. Look at you, lady, six months ago you hadn't even casted your first spell and now you're one of the most promising young fairies."

"I wouldn't call me that given that you chose me for this little bibbidi-bobbidi-bo because you were out of options," Mal offered, making a tiny fuss with her hands.

"What are you saying, Mal?"

"Just the truth, Yen Sid," she shrugged. "Don't you think I know every other caster at Auradon refused to come, much less to alter the barrier?"

"Well, that depends on how you want to―"

"Merlin, this would have been easier if we'd had a more competent team assigned for the task," she shrugged. "Don't get me wrong―you are powerful wizards, you, Merlin, are said to be the wisest of them all. But... it's been twenty years since Yen Sid casted magic at all, and I haven't really been trained to use my powers. I am indeed honored to have worked with you, but I'm aware that I was not the... most prudent option, or the wisest."

"Well, kiddo, the fact that you were indeed our safety option does not change the fact that your powers are promising," Archimedes argued, overflying Mal's head before returning to his master's shoulder.

"Perchance it is time to make a bet on change," Merlin nodded, giving Mal a smile.

"We'll see about that," she replied. "All I know is that it's time for you to get going."

"It sure is," the wizard nodded. "Old friend, we shall see each other soon," he said then, turning to Yen Sid.

"Sooner than you think," he conceded, bowing his head a little.

"You're still forgetting something!" Archimedes called loudly again once they were out of the barrier.

"Forgetting... forgetting?" Merlin questioned his hands going through his robes as if counting his luggage.

"The girl," Archimedes pointed out.

"Oh, oh, right!" Merlin nodded, gently hitting his staff on the ground, which made a suitcase appear. Not even sending a glance in Mal's way, Merlin opened it and began to throw things in the air, frantically trying to find something in the bag.

"Am I not always saying this?" Archimedes rolled his eyes. "He'd lose his head if it weren't pasted to him.

"Always saying this, always saying that," Merlin grumbled. "Well, Archimedes, if you're so wise why don't you tell me where the package is?"

"Huh, you act like I keep a written record of all of your things," the owl complained. "All I know is it's not in that bag."

"Are you sure?"

"Yes, you said it was fragile and shouldn't be sent with everything else, that's what you said."

"Fragile, fragile..." Merlin drummed his fingers on his lips. "Oh, right! Forgive me, my dear, I almost forgot!"

"Because you are a walking mess," Archimedes muttered.

"Here we go!" Merlin said, not seeming to have heard his familiar's words.

"What now?" Mal let out under her breath.

"Here it is!" the wizard repeated, taking out a blue cardboard box from a bag that he had summoned while Mal was busy talking with Archimedes. "I almost forgot, young lady, but this old bird serves for something once in a while."

"What is it, Merlin?"

"A friend of yours, someone who impatiently waits for your return asked me to give you this," Merlin smiled, offering her the circular cardboard box.

"Who was that?" Mal inquired with just a bit of suspicion in her voice.

"Oh, I get a feeling you will know as soon as you give it a look," Archimedes offered, taking a seat in Mal's shoulder.

"We'll see about that," Mal shrugged, receiving the package from Merlin's hand.

Sighing, Mal raised her hand to take off the lid of the box, revealing the top of what seemed to be a small plant.

"What is this?" Mal let out, sliding her hand into the box so she could get a hold of the plant's pot to pull it out.

The pot she could identify, at least―it was ceramic, painted a light lilac as background, with two symbols, each a copy of the other one. She smirked―two dragons facing each other, their tails not tangled, but touching at their tips so that they formed a heart, an Auradonian, pathetic heart.

"Evie, definitely Evie," Mal decided, turning the pot around in her hand to look at the plant.

It was a small, green ball, covered in more thorns than Mal could count and with a sheet of what looked like white hair. Scattered here and there, tiny pink flowers showed up.

And if this was Evie's doing... Mal thought with a smirk, turning back to the seemingly-empty box.

"Bingo!" she muttered, upon having found a red, sealed envelope with her name written on the front.

«I thought you might feel lonely. It's a mammillaria hahniana. Water it once a week. It's a cactus, but don't leave it straight under the sun. Missing you, Evie.» Smiling, she placed he letter in the inner pocket of her jacket.

When she turned around, neither Merlin not Archimedes were there anymore, the crumbling deck and serene ocean the only witnesses of the words they'd spoken.

*―*―*

The other thing she had been working on since her arrival to the Isle was feeding the Isle children.

Truth was, that had been one of Mal's priorities, along with fixing the broken doors and having a very sour conversation with Grimhilde.

It hadn't been as easy to carry on with it as she'd made Ben believe it would be.

For Benjamin, this was just a matter of logic... of Auradonian logic, of course―to the people from the Fairy-Tale-Land it made perfect sense to think that, if the main problem was the lack of food in the Isle, then all they had to do was send packages of it and then it would all be fixed.

Clearly, they had never seen a tiny glimpse of the desolation that lurked around every single corner of the Isle. It was oh-so glaringly obvious that no one had left their immaculate palaces to spend a single, solitary night in the icy realms of the Isle of the Lost.

If she thought about it, Mal could discern between the way she, having been born and raised in such a tempestuous place, saw the world and the way Ben, a sweet, happy Auradonian kid, did.

It made sense that they thought, acted and even talked differently and, despite the fact that sometimes she craved to just smack him across the face because how could he be so oblivious, Mal would never wish him to know how things were done at the Isle. No, heedless as it was, stupid as it sounded, she wanted to... shield him from what she knew and from the Isle itself.

It was for the best, perhaps, that what Ben thought when someone mentioned 'starvation' was not being able to eat lunch because you had a project to deliver just after recess. Perhaps it was better that Ben, the innocent boy, could only match the words 'lack of food' with realizing that you were out of chocolate and having to eat something else for dinner.

Mal didn't blame Ben ―or any of the hero kids, either― for not knowing the things the people born and raised in the Isle did. On the contrary, she found it somewhat... endearing, for lack of a better word. It was innocent, charming and it made her want to spare them the suffering that had been her daily bread while at the Isle.

She was aware, however, that not all of her peers would be of the same opinion. Conversely to her, some of the Isle children might find that difference, so glaringly obvious, to be enraging rather than meritorious, and Mal couldn't blame them anymore than she could blame the Auradonians' ignorance.

Yes, there was a humongous gap between the way she had been raised and the way Ben and the others had been, but that was not the young king's fault, so there was no need to hold any grudges against him and, if she were honest with herself, neither did she feel rancorous against Adam or Belle.

Besides, Ben was trying to fix it, though that was a rather useless thought, because 'trying' had never been enough, not at the Isle.

'Trying' wouldn't make the scars carved into Carlos' forearm disappear; 'trying' wouldn't magically grant Evie's burning desire to stop checking herself in the mirror. 'Trying' wouldn't return a solitary ray of warmness to the empty eyes of the children that had greedily watched her return and bark orders as if nothing had changed, even when she was wearing new clothes ―actual new clothes, not just new because it was the first time she wore them―, even when her commands weren't as harsh and her eyes didn't burn emerald.

Perhaps it was too late for it to matter, but if 'trying' was enough to take the children of the Isle out of that toxic environment and feed them, then she was willing to give it a try.

The first time she'd opened the new doors of Bargain Castle and invited the very people that had plundered it inside, the villain kids had thought she was out of her mind.

When a few hours later she'd done the same, the only one who entered was Harriet Hook.

"Huh, look at that, who would have guessed?" Mal greeted her, taking a seat on the head of the long ―and very empty― table.

"You know how things are here―nothing stays secret for too long," Harriet declared, carelessly taking a chair to Mal's right, her legs spread apart and her left hand casually resting on top of her knee.

"Well, it's not as if I'm trying for it to stay secret," Mal shrugged. "So what? I suppose you're here for the food and not to pay me a visit."

"Surprise me," she winked.

Soon after Mal had barked an order to Prodotes the goblin was back with a tray that contained a pear, a bar of amaranth, a glass of orange juice and a plate of scrambled eggs that he placed in front of Harriet.

Unimpressed, the daughter of Hook raised an eyebrow at Mal.

"Oh, don't look at me like that," Mal smirked. "Isn't my word enough for you?"

"To be fair, you haven't done anything to earn my trust," the pirate offered.

"I can't believe you," Mal snickered. "Although there must be a first time for everything, huh?" And with that she took the glass of juice in her right hand and swallowed its content down. "Happy now?"

"Not yet," she replied. "The food."

Rolling her eyes, Mal took a fork and picked out a spoonful of scrambled eggs.

"Have you realized I'm not trying to kill you or do we need to continue doing stupid things?" she inquired, still chewing.

"Not quite, but I'll give it a try," Harriet decided with a shrug, finally digging into the food, exhibiting her fine islander manners.

"I take the embargo has been pretty bad, then?" Mal questioned after a moment.

"Worse for some than for others, you know how things are around here," Harriet offered nonchalantly. "Why are you even asking?" she inquired, drinking down the glass that had been refilled after Mal's demonstration. "It's not like you care about it now that you have your own castle."

"Point number one," Mal replied in a low tone, ignoring the hitch in her breath. "I didn't care while I was even at the Isle, screw the castle, your question was wrongly formulated from the beginning."

"Oh, please forgive me, princess," she spat, as if her words were a curse. With the inflection she gave them, they might have been as well.

"I'll have to spare your life, peasant," Mal shot back, although her words lacked the venom of a swearword. "It's like I said, Harriet―there might be a first time for everything."

"And you expect me to believe that?" Harriet deadpanned. "Suddenly Auradon has decided that they care about you and send supplies to not starve us to dead while sending you, of all people, as the person in charge? At least give me an excuse I can buy."

"Given how you don't have money to buy anything, I doubt that would change a thing," Mal rolled her eyes.

"What's the catch, Mal, c'mon?" Harriet inquired, her eyes trained in Mal's. "You're offering the moon and the stars and no way to get there."

"The catch is that you'll have to learn to use a napkin and a fork," the daughter of Maleficent said in an undertone.

"What was that you said?"

"I said that we do have a ship," Mal replied with annoyance.

"A ship?" Harriet repeated, a gleam that was well-known to Mal flashing in her eyes―greed.

"I got your attention, did I not?" Mal laughed, throwing the thin paper she'd used as napkin to Harriet's face. "Start practicing."

"What are you playing at?" Harriet inquired, her tone so low it was almost a growl.

"Nothing," Mal hissed, leaning closer to Harriet's face, until she was merely inches away, her own face the only thing Harriet could focus on. "Now get this straight because I won't repeat it―if I wanted you dead, I wouldn't play around with silly poison and fake charity. Trust me, I have a much better taste than Grimhilde. If I wanted to kill you I would do so with my own, bare hands."

"That sounds more reasonable than a sudden change of heart," Harriet concluded.

"Good," Mal replied, jumping off her improvised seating spot to turn on her heels and abandon the dining room.

By dinner, Harriet was back, this time with her whole crew.

Locking eyes with Harriet, Mal raised her right eyebrow in query. As all answer, Harriet nodded, almost negligibly.

―*―*―

The next morning, before Harriet and her kids even arrived, Mayra and Melvin, Morgana's children, shyly entered the castle, Melvin tightly gripping his sister's hand in his, even though it seemed that the little girl was the one leading them in.

Finally something in the Isle was working the way they had planned it would while in Auradon, Mal thought to herself.

Still, it called her attention that Morgana had remained by the door the whole time, thinner than she remembered her to be, her skin, once green, now of a unhealthy gray.

For obvious reasons, Mal had prohibited the villains of entering the building, allowing the lingering fear of Maleficent to prevail now that the she was in charge just so she could make the threat she'd growled at the goblins believable enough for them to guard the doors like they should.

Currently, Prodotes and Servus were closely watching every one of Morgana's moves, even when she didn't seem intent of entering the palace and only watched her children talk to Mal, her right hand gripping her left until the stormy gray of her hands turned a waxy white.

She personally served the plates for the kids and, in honor of the something that she had seen dancing in Morgana's dull eyes as Mal led her children away, she decided to sit down with them in the huge, otherwise empty dining room.

Mayra was a chatterbox, Mal discovered soon enough. The little girl buzzed with energy and uncontained ideas, tone too cheerful for the Isle as she sat fidgeting with her long, black dress that feigned small tentacles at the bottom.

Melvin was more reserved. He had his mother's green skin and aquiline nose, eyes a pale gray. He carefully watched every one of Mal's actions, and with just a look at his eyes, Mal knew that she was not allowed to touch Mayra or even Melvin himself.

Well, it wasn't that a ten year old could forbid her of doing as she wanted on her very house, but she had recognized the lurking fear in Melvin's eyes, a copy, albeit smaller, of the one she'd seen in Morgana's, the lingering knowledge of what they'd heard Mal's mother was capable of doing and what Mal herself had done. She wouldn't touch either of them, she could respect that.

Besides, it wasn't like she was a big fan of physical contact herself.

After that, both children started eating, not a word spoken about the fact that, for a moment at least, they'd thought all of this was a trap.

In all sincerity, Mal wasn't surprised ―or even offended― about the suspicions, but there was something strange in Morgana's relieved expression when she saw her children return to her half an hour later. There was something odd in the tiny jump in Mayra's steps as she reached her mother and in the tranquility with which Melvin took Morgana's hand in his.

For a second, Mal's eyes caught Morgana's. In them, Mal was unable to read the unleashed despise Grimhilde had looked down at her with or the throbbing contempt her own mother liked to wear around her. Instead, Morgana seemed fearful, lips pursed and her thin figure straightened to her tallest.

Her Auradonian knowledge didn't kick in―Mal didn't smile back at her, even if the gesture would had been forced. Neither did her Isle instincts―she didn't send a threatening glare Morgana's way.

Instead, she mimicked Morgana's pursed lips and nodded almost negligibly. Morgana nodded back before turning on her heels and disappearing into the crowd.

―*―*―

For supper, there were more people than Mal had personally opened the door to sitting in the dining room.

The first ones to enter, once again, had been Mayra and Melvin, Morgana's ghostly figure standing guard by the entrance once more.

She couldn't help a smile as she led them in, nodding stiffly at Morgana.

Soon after, Harriet's crew bursted in, making more noise than Mal was comfortable with.

Mal had just finished showing Morgana's kids to their seats in the dining room when Despotes called her, announcing there was someone else at the door. Puzzled, the daughter of Maleficent raised and went to answer, finding none other than Ginny Gothel waiting for her, her eyes glaring.

She was thinner than she remembered, Mal noted, her hair slightly shorter and a dark bruise in the shape of fingers circling her neck. Ginny didn't even bother trying to hide the hematoma.

"Ginny," the daughter of Maleficent greeted curtly.

"Rumors are you brought food with you," she said as all answer.

"And I suppose rumors are that you are... welcome to come in and consume it too, am I right?" Mal replied, her voice hesitating slightly when she had to put the fact that she was opening the doors of her house to the very people she'd fought against into words.

"The Isle is always filled with gossiping, I didn't think you'd forget that."

"Well, for once these aren't merely rumors, you see," Mal offered, moving out of the door to allow the other girl to enter. "Auradon did send food for you and I'm in charge of delivering it."

"And what's up with this sudden interest in us?" Ginny crackled with laughter that was half despise and half raw pain.

"Well, the Isle of the Lost is part of Auradon, you know."

"And when has that mattered to them? When in hell have they cared about the Isle as they sit in their marble castles and attend their balls and gloat about how great they are?" Ginny hissed back, breathing heavily before she composed herself and shot daggers at Mal, even when the daughter of Maleficent knew that her cold stare wasn't really meant for her.

Mal didn't tell her that some people at Auradon did care, she didn't say that Ben had cared for a long time. Mal didn't answer that they should all know better than to blame the mistake of a few on everyone.

"Honestly? I don't know, but what does it matter?" she replied instead, shrugging. "They won't lift the embargo because they're too thick to do that, but they're doing this now and I'm really not in the mood to rant and rave about them, do you want to eat or not?"

"Is it true, then?" Ginny inquired, still shooting daggers at her, even when for a split second something akin to disbelief had flashed in her eyes.

"Well, yes," she replied, not being able to help the annoyed tone of her voice. "What else do you think I am doing here?"

"So I suppose you're one of them now, aren't you?"

"Me? I'm too twisted for their taste and they're too insipid for mine," Mal shrugged, placing a sealed sandwich and a glass of water along with a red fruits bar in a tray that she then extended to Ginny.

"I've seen you," the daughter of Gothel replied, not taking the plate Mal offered her. "Your arm locked with that petty prince's and those pompous dresses, all smiles for those idiots at Auradon."

"In honor of the truth, I hate wearing dresses," Mal replied sternly as she decided against correcting Ben's title. "And I don't smile, I smirk. Anyways, what do you want? Either you sit and you eat or you get out of here."

"I see that you haven't lost your sweet attitude," Ginny hissed after a long while, even when her eyes finally left Mal alone to send the food on the tray an inquisitive stare.

Rolling her eyes, Mal took the bar and opened it, her movements closely followed by Ginny. She was getting tired of this, Mal decided as she dismissively took a bite of the piece of food before returning it to the trade, same that, this time, Ginny accepted.

It was so ironic. If she had done something like that in Auradon, they would have all argued about her poor manners―yet, here, at the Isle... this was the biggest sign of trust there was.

"Take a seat, I don't want to fight with you," Mal said, turning on her heels as she headed to the library. She didn't stop to see Ginny's fingers clenched around the tray.

By supper, Ginny was back, accompanied by Claudine Frollo.

Claudine, who had been tall already before Mal left for Auradon seemed to have gained a couple of inches in her absence, which almost forced Mal to tilt her face to look at her.

Claudine's steps, however, seemed insecure and Mal noticed with a crease in her brow that the girl also limped, her right hand applying pressure to her hip, something she didn't remember she had done five months in the past.

Ginny, just for a change, gave Mal a dirty look as soon as she had opened the door, but the daughter of Maleficent merely shrugged and directed the two of them to a table, placing a bowl of tuna and salted cookies in front of them.

It was strange, Mal dwelled on later, that Ginny had stopped shooting daggers at her as soon as she had done that, Ginny's right hand placed on Claudine's knee under the table, where she thought Mal wouldn't be able to see the gesture.

She decided not to think very much about it, but something in the way Ginny stepped in front of Claudine whenever she approached Claudine too much reminded Mal of what Jay did when it came to Carlos.

After that, it became official―the Embassy had an actual, functional dining room that served three daily meals to the majority of the children in the Isle of the Lost.

In all sincerity, Mal had never expected herself to be excited about such a thing, yet... there she was, feeling as if half of her job was done now that she had taken the smallest glimpse of Auradon to the disregarded streets of the Isle.

She should have known better.

―*―*―

Now that she didn't have to personally prove that the food she was serving wasn't poisoned, Mal had just about enough time to write down the names of the children and call Evie to ask for her advice when it came to the placings.

Usually, she wrote down the names of the children and a few traits of their personality.

Sometimes, Mal wasn't sure of the parent of a certain child and, in those cases, she called in her little helper or, like she preferred to be called, her 'spy'.

It was more like a game than anything, but Mayra had taken a certain liking to 'working' for her, though that mostly meant gossiping about what had happened during Mal's absence and informing her of the villain parent of a certain kid.

Either way, paperwork was a pain in the ass, that had long been decided by Mal, but what was worse was to be the one doing it.

Currently, she was not even halfway done and two weeks of her mission had already been lost between fixing Bargain Castle and the dining room project.

Matching the kids was proving harder than it should―firstly, because instead of twenty kids, it turned out to be more like fifty, as no one has bothered to count the descendants of the Huns.

Adam, of course, wasn't very pleased with this... new discovery, and Mal herself wanted to smack her head against her desk because really? Why in hell had no one remembered that the Huns had their own territory in the southern part of the Isle?

Sighing, Mal placed down the paper in which she'd been writing possible placings for the last two hours. This would all have been easier if she had at least a tiny idea of what the kids were actually like, and what the heroes' personalities, so that she could work out their strengths and deficiencies, but all she had to work with were vague assumptions that she wasn't even sure if they were facts or not.

"Seems to me not everything is going like you planned, is it?" a stranger's voice said, making Mal jump in her seat.

"Who are you?" Mal inquired, her eyes frantically scanning the room―which was, apart from herself, perfectly empty.

"Oh, introductions are always my favorite part," the voice said, and right after it had finished talking, the office filled with heavy smoke for a split second. When the fume disappeared, a shadowy figure stood by the door.

"Who are you?" she repeated, swallowing down a cough.

"My, my, if you ask the same question over and over this won't be fun," the stranger said, appearing right in front of Mal's desk in the blink of an eye. He didn't seem to have taken a single step. "My name is Hades, god of the dead, you know, not quite as enthusiastic as other jobs, but I make it work. You can call me Pluto if you're feeling Roman, are you feeling Roman?"

"What?"

"Definitely not Roman if you have to question yourself," Hades condemned.

"What the hell!" Mal said, her confusion changing to a rage that was half fear and half puzzlement. She blatantly ignored the hand Hades had offered her.

"Um, let me guess, I'm not supposed to be here?" Hades continued, the tiny flame on top of his head dancing. "You thought your silly barrier would keep me out?"

"What do you want here?"

"Are you always this... rapid to get down to business?" her interlocutor questioned with a smirk. "Not that I'm complaining, I've always saved a dark spot in Tartarus for those who make me lose my time and aren't... interesting."

"What are you doing here?"

"Now, now, those manners," Hades laughed. "See, I'm here because I want to... mend my ways, you know?"

"You shouldn't be here," Mal pointed out, her fists clenched.

"Oh, I'm aware, but I couldn't let you believe your inane barrier was oh-so powerful, could I?" the god continued, winking at her, which only made Mal stare back at him with more despise. "Don't look at me like that, you'll thank me for my kindness, you'll see."

"What do you want?" Mal questioned once more.

"Not yet, sweetie pie, first we'll have to go through a lesson," Hades brushed off. "Okay, you're wondering why I'm here, aren't you? Allow me to explain―you see, your magic is mortal, while I am not. I'm a god, and as such I'll still be here long after you and Fayanna and good, old Merlin have died. Your barrier is strong, I'll hand you that, but it only works against lesser beings like that sad excuse of a sorcerer."

"You mean Jafar?" Mal couldn't help but questioning.

"Jafar and the whole Isle," Hades shrugged. "So this answers your question―I am here because your magic will never be enough to control mine. After all, my power is much more than what you, mortals, can even dream about."

"Why haven't you left the Isle, then?"

"Don't ask stupid questions," Hades ordered, the flame in his head burning orange for a split second.

"So, just to be sure, you're telling me that the barrier is enough to pin you to the Isle but not sufficient to strip you from your powers?"

"If I were you I'd watch my words, daughter of Maleficent," Hades hissed from between his teeth. "I can still be pretty dangerous," and with a flick of his hand, he lit ablaze the papers Mal had been reading minutes in the past.

"I'm not the kind of person that takes these suggestions seriously," she replied, calmly raising an eyebrow as she snapped her fingers, putting out the small, bluish fire.

"You're reckless and you're stubborn, we'll see how far that takes you," Hades crackled a cruel snicker.

"I ask, yet again, Hades," Mal said, her eyes burning emerald. "What are you doing here?"

"Like I said, stubborn," he chuckled darkly. "Listen, kid, I don't care about you. If you're working for them, if you're just pretending to be on their side while you plan your revenge, if you're stealing tons of gold from Auradon―I couldn't care less."

The god explained nonchalantly, his hands making a tiny fuss.

"I am the god of the Underworld, of the dead," he continued. "And unlike Apollo I cannot foresee the future. However, I can guess and trust it'll turn out to be pretty accurate. You mortals cannot discern between those two."

"What does that have to do with me?" Mal questioned flatly.

"Hold your horses, I'm getting there," Hades brushed off. "My point is that the barrier won't last forever. I don't know when, but the memory of what this island represents will wash and wear off just like a mortal's life. A time will come when a spawn of the very same ones who placed this boundary will bring it down. Or, perhaps, when the magic itself disappears, once the casters that conjured it have passed away."

"Interesting prediction, but I find no use for it," Mal decided, her eyes locked with the god's.

"I suppose you don't now, child, nevertheless, take it from a fellow caster―I dearly advice you listen to me and learn my words" Hades offered nonchalantly. "On the other hand, what you should 'find a use for' is this: I know why you're here. See, the world of the living is actually a very small place. Being tangible, two people cannot use up the same space, something ghosts have no problem with doing, yet―you believe the living world is infinite, interminable. Your embargo has not made an impression in me or in the contact I have with the world outside the barrier, therefore, I know why you're here, Maleficent."

For a moment, Mal didn't say anything, despite having visibly flinched at the mention of her complete name. Hades, knowing what he had done, merely smirked at her.

"Allow me to repeat myself, my dear―I do not care about whose side you're on. However, don't think that you've been secretive enough about the genuine reason that you've returned. I am aware that the ship that brought you here will soon take some of the inhabitants of the Isle to Auradon."

"How do you... how do you know?" Mal let out, short from a whisper.

"Oh, so I was right!" Hades replied gleefully. "See what I mean? Mortals don't discern between knowing and guessing if you act sure of yourself."

"What does that matter? Even if it were so, you wouldn't come with us."

"Oh, it is so, I am fairly sure," he brushed off carelessly. "Sweet pie, I haven't tried escaping the Isle because I know the barrier is highly unsustainable. I consider these few years a... vacation, a getaway from my brothers and their nonsense. I can wait for this island to sink into the sea if I want."

Mal grimaced, feeling the tips of her nails digging into the palm of her hand. She supposed that what Hades said made sense―he was immortal and had eternity to wait for the barrier to dissolve into nothingness.

On the other hand, she still didn't understand why in Hell he'd felt the necessity to burglarize into her castle and start a conversation with her about it. For all she cared he could wait seated for Auradon to get rid of the barrier.

"Well, like you've so kindly pointed out, I do not share your immortality, therefore I do not have your time to loose. Get to the point."

"Listen, kid," Hades continued, not giving away any signals that he'd heard her. "I care not about me, but I have a daughter that has done nothing to deserve the treatment Auradon gives her."

"You have a what?" Mal questioned with piercing eyes.

"C'mon, there are people here with three or five kids and I don't get to have a daughter?"

"I don't have a daughter of yours registered in the files, you don't have one," Mal argued matter-of-factly.

"Of course you don't, she's never been in the umm... how do you call it? The upper world. She's stayed with me, underground, all along. I didn't want her to be around the kind of people that inhabit this island. I find them... disgusting."

"You're telling me that you've hidden her of everyone and that no one has ever heard of her, but I am supposed to trust your word on this?"

"My wife, Persephone, can confirm all of what I'm saying," Hades rolled his eyes. "You may need to use a phone or to write to Olympus, given how she's a free soul that wasn't condemned to the Isle, but she'll give you my alibi"

"The wife that you've illegally kept in touch with, am I right?"

"Girl, you said you didn't have time to lose, why are you even asking! Of course I've illegally talked to my wife!"

Right, Mal thought. Of course he'd talked with a wife that she had never heard about because he had a daughter no one had ever seen. Just a normal day at the Isle of the Lost.

"And what do you expect me to do with this information?" the daughter of Maleficent argued, not knowing if her voice was tainted with annoyance or trepidation.

"I don't expect you to do anything with it, for now," Hades winked at her. "But I thought you should know, just in case you weren't saving her a seat in the ship."

"What?" Mal let out. "After hiding this... hypothetical daughter of yours for, what? Nineteen years?"

"Fourteen," he corrected with a fuss of his hands.

"Fourteen, twenty, who cares!" she said, short from screaming, slamming her left hand on her desk. "Hades, listen, I'm getting tired of you, get to you point. Why are you coming forward now about this girl, whom I'm not yet sure even exists?"

"My, my, sweet pie, is your time... ticking?" he offered, crackling a loud laugh as he snapped his fingers, making a pocket watch appear in the tip of his index finger, proving once again that he hadn't been lying about the magic part. "Repeat your question, girl, nicely this time, like they must have told you at Auradon."

For a split second Mal's eyes lit bright green, her chest going up and down too fast, which only made Hades' grin enlarge.

"If the girl exists, why are you coming forward now after having hidden her for so long?" she questioned sternly, her knuckles stiffly gripping the back of her chair.

"I like this attitude better, well done," the god said, clapping exaggeratedly. "You've now earned an answer to your nicely-formulated question!"

Biting her tongue, Mal managed to not reply a blunt 'Well, get it over with', instead taking a very deep breath, which made her nostrils swelling up with rage. Hades smirked with pleasure.

"You see, Maleficent, I am not as terrible as you seem to think I am," Hades said calmly, his countenance dropping down his grin to make room for a seriousness that, for less than a second, made him a sovereign people should worship and bow down to. "I do care about Haidee. She could wait with me here until the barrier comes down, after all, she is as immortal as I am. Regardless of this, she deserves to live somewhere better than a floating rubbish bin."

"You expect me to believe that you are concerned with her well-being?"

"Oh, I don't expect you to believe me, but I do hope you figure out there is not trap in what I say," Hades laughed loudly once more, rubbing his long, blue fingers together. "You see, I am Death, sooner or later you'll come to my domains. I don't need silly lies to get what I want."

"And you expect me to believe that." Mal inquired stiffly. "Is that correct?"

"Oh, girl, who cares about what you believe or not?" he smirked. "You're here to collect the kids, aren't you? Be sure you know your numbers and do your job."

"What?"

"I know your orders, Maleficent. Therefore, take my daughter out of here," he ordered, before turning on his heels. "Oh, and in case you need a further proof of my intentions ask yourself the genuine purpose of the barrier."

"What do you mean?"

"Haven't your good friends at Auradon told you?" Hades clapped. "My, what a time to be alive! Although, you know, I'll always be alive!"

"What are you talking about now, Hades?"

"Hasn't Fayanna, your fellow fae, your kinswoman, told you?"

"What? That the barrier was placed there to stop people like you from walking among normal people? Everyone knows that, Hades, you're losing your touch."

"And I suppose you're not losing you're saltiness, are you?" he mocked, smiling gleefully. "Yes, yes, that's right, the barrier does all of those things, keeping magic out, keeping magic in, forcing 'people like me' into this filthy place."

"I know that, get out of here."

"You must be fun at parties," Hades sighed, his smile not faltering even once. "Though some of your... facts are mistaken. For starters, there are 'people like me' all around Auradon, in the high mountain of Olympus, in the deep, dark domains of King Triton. And trust me, girl, there are people much worse than me walking around as well."

"You're making no sense," Mal let out, even when she knew he was.

"You're playing big game now, girl," he pointed out. "Make sure you're choosing the right side, that's all I'm saying."

"I know which side I'm standing on," Mal uttered, her voice low, almost a growl.

"Oh, I suppose you think so, yes," he nodded nonchalantly. "But... can I interest you in... huh... what your chosen side is hiding from you?"

"There's no such thing."

"Oh, you trust them, that's worse than I thought," he rolled his eyes. "Listen, pick a side, do as you wish, but most of all, don't give loyalties to anyone but you. Don't marry an idea, get a purpose and do what you have to do to get there, because the people who agree with you today may not do so tomorrow."

"What?"

"I possess the wisdom of both life and dead, I'd listen to what I'm saying," Hades laughed. "Look, work for Auradon all you want, be their pet and deliver the messages they're too wussy to deliver themselves."

"So you were condemned to live your eternity in the Isle of the Lost after you tried to overtake Olympus and destroy three fourths of Greece but you expect me to take your advice seriously? You're nuts!"

"It is true I did all of those things, yes. However, while that can make me seem like a terrible person... I never lied. I wanted the power and I repeatedly admitted so. I'm not lying now, that's for sure. I told you already―I don't need to."

"You're making no sense," Mal repeated.

"But I will, hear me out," he shrugged. "Have your precious friends told you about the barrier or not?"

"I know all I need about the barrier," she decided sternly.

"You think you do, huh? That's so sweet," he laughed maniacally. "Has someone told you that anyone living under that barrier is... unable to die?"

"That's ridiculous," Mal uttered, feeling her heartbeat quicken.

"Oh, it is, but it's not the first time mortals have decided to... play around with their mortality. Lesser sorcerers and fairies promise they can stop time, turn it back, provide an eternal life all around the world, they have since the Earth started spinning."

"What does that have to do with anything?"

"It has to do with everything, sweet child, because this time I can assure you that the barrier actually works."

"You're only saying this because you're the god of the Underworld, it actually makes sense to trust you on this one," Mal said, almost stuttering.

"I've never asked for your trust, sweet pie, unlike others," he laughed. "Hold your horses, will you? You may want to listen to what I have to tell you. Now, where was I?" he questioned himself, pretending to have forgotten as he drummed his fingers on his lips. "Oh, right! The barrier!"

He was out of his mind, that was what Mal wanted to believe. He was just... bubbling out nonsenses, stupid things. He couldn't get out of the Isle, that much was true... for now. However, Mal was starting to wonder how true that was―was he unable to break free from the Isle's barrier or did he not want to do it?

Either way... Hades was making no sense.

Except he was.

"Listen up, Mal Bertha―the barrier impedes anyone living within its perimeter to perish. If you don't trust me enough, give it a try―leave one of your apples under the barrier. Sure, it will wrinkle, but it won't rot."

"All of the food served here rots."

"Uh-huh, wrong! When they bring it here it's already rotten," Hades explained carelessly. "But a life, a soul? Have you ever wondered why the worst magic of all is the one done upon a soul? Only under exceptional circumstances can you bring someone from among the dead. Yet, Auradon did it when they built this island. You know that, c'mon, your mother was one of the Returned."

"That proves nothing."

"Well, then why don't we move on to... big numbers? Would you like that better?" Hades said, jumping to seat on the surface of Mal's mahogany desk. "How do you think your sorry asses survived for, say, nineteen years, seventeen in your case?"

"What are you saying?"

"Oh, isn't your obliviousness endearing?" Hades clapped, his features stoic. "Get this into your thick skull―you kids haven't starved to death here because you cannot die whilst surrounded by the barrier your compassionate former kings ordered to put in place."

"That cannot be, the barrier―"

"The barrier has more purposes than you think. Tell me, you've seen the outcome of Gaston's... moods. Explain to me, what happens during those?"

"Well, the last time Desiree lost a leg and I seem to remember a quarrel in which Ratcliffe almost beheaded Gaston."

"Well yes, but... the girl didn't lose her life, did she? And neither did Gaston die, despite the blood loss," Hades pointed out matter-of-factly. "Why do you think that happened? Wouldn't it be easier to kill you all? Don't you think that, if they could, the villains would have killed each other by now? Why do you think Maleficent allowed Grimhilde to live after their little disagreement? The Mistress of Evil wasn't that kind of person, was she?"

Mal wasn't listening anymore, her right hand shaking despite the tight grip she had on the back of her chair.

This couldn't be. That was it.

Hades had lost his mind after too much spoiled ambrosia. He hadn't talked to anyone except a hypothetical daughter in over fifteen years, he'd gone nuts, end of the story.

No one... no one would have a mind wicked enough to mark a place that even death wouldn't be unable to reach. No one would have the power to such a thing, it was... it was ridiculous to even entertain the thought of it!

So many times she'd heard Ginny wish for her mother's death, so many times she had watched Carlos after one of his mother's outbursts, covered in more blood than he should be able to, barely breathing. So many times she had watched Evie go one or even two weeks without eating anything, drinking near nothing, first because of the lack of food in the Isle and then because Grimhilde wouldn't allow her into the castle if she so much as thought of eating.

So many times she'd looked back to their life at the Isle and wondered, wondered with an uncomfortable stomach and ragged breathing, how was it that they had even survived.

No, Hades wasn't making sense, that was final.

"You're lying," she condemned, letting out the breath she'd been holding.

"Oh am I, my dear?" Hades winked. "I've told you―I don't lie. Ask your beloved Fayanna if you don't trust me enough."

"You're lying, you have to be!" Mal let out in a shaky voice.

"Am I, darling?" he questioned. "Or am I tying loose ends that you'd rather remained untied?"

It was too cruel, too... unnatural.

Placing the worst creatures in history together and allowing them to breed children was bad already. Not feeding those children with more than leftovers and trash, forcing them to live off garbage of the bright, perfect Auradon was bad enough, but taking... taking away the only relief they had, the silent wish that, one day, their victimizers would meet with fate and die, unabling the children that had never seen anything in their lives other than the countless piles of trash of the Isle from ever... leaving that place, in any way they could... that was beyond the imaginable.

"See what I said, child?" Hades smiled, the most sympathetically someone like him could manage. "You children are not alive because in the end it turns out that your parents aren't crazy and actually held back before they could... harm you enough to provoke your passing. Oh no, that's right, you're only alive because they were unable to kill you."

"That can't be," Mal argued for what seemed to be the millionth time.

"Listen, Mal, I know you're confused," Hades continued, jumping off the desk to circle Mal, surrounding her with his tunic's smoke as he placed a hand on each of Mal's shoulders. "You trusted them and no one bothered to give you this... crucial information."

"I refuse to listen to anything else you say until I've talked to Auradon," Mal decided, trying to get to get a hold of herself. "I'll take your daughter into consideration. You may leave now."

"As you wish, child," Hades nodded with an overly-exaggerated wave of his hand. "I don't care what side you're on," he said once more, walking over to the door. "But remember what I said, Maleficent―the best thing you can do is marry a purpose, not a side."

Instead of reaching for the doorknob like any normal person would have, Hades decided to show off once more, crackling a last laughter that made the walls shake before he disappeared into a cloud of blue smoke.

This couldn't be, she told to herself, shaking as she took her seat, her hands going up to rub her tired eyes. This couldn't be.

Chapter Text

They still had five more days before they left when Mal received another unexpected visit. Fortunately, it wasn't Hades.

Prodotes was the one who knocked on her door and notified her that, while they had repeatedly told the villains that Bargain Castle was now out of their reach, that hadn't stopped one of them from trying to surpass the barrier.

"What now?" Mal answered in annoyance.

"There's someone at the door who insists in speaking with you," Prodotes explained.

"And he is...?"

"It's a woman, actually. Anastasia Tremaine, the daughter of―"

"I know who her mother is," Mal cut him. "What does she want here?"

"She says she will only speak to you."

"Then she won't speak at all," she shrugged, turning back to the letter she had been writing before in a clear signal for Prodotes that he was dismissed.

Fifteen minutes later, Anastasia had not left the border of the Embassy and Mal was starting to feel curious as to why she had such a strong resolve when it came to seeing her.

"Let her in," Mal ordered Servus, who nodded awkwardly before doing as he'd been told.

"Don't touch me, I know my way," Mal heard Anastasia say before there was a knock on her door.

"Come in," the daughter of Maleficent ordered.

With a grunt, Servus opened the door, allowing Anastasia to enter.

"You're dismissed, close the door," Mal said, not even raising her eyes once the daughter of Tremaine stood in front of her desk. For a moment after the echo of the door shutting had turned into an expectant silence, neither of them said anything.

At the end, Mal sighed and stopped her writing so she could finally look up to meet Anastasia's eyes.

"Take a seat," she commanded with no circumlocution as she pointed to the mahogany chairs placed in front of her desk. With a stiff nod, Anastasia did as she was told, her sunken eyes staring almost blankly back at Mal. "I suppose you didn't scream at my goblins for forty-five minutes just because you wanted to welcome me back, did you?" Mal questioned sternly.

Anastasia, bony cheekbones projecting long shadows that lengthen her insipid face, shook her head. "I came here to talk to you," she let out, voice hoarse.

"Well, then? What do you have to say?" the daughter of Maleficent inquired bluntly.

"You're leaving the Isle soon," she began, fidgeting with a strand of her disregarded hair. "I... I heard that you'll take some of us with you, the ones that-"

"Excuse me?" Mal laughed, not even trying to hide the taunt of her voice.

"You'll take some of the islanders with you, at least that's what-"

"Even if it were so, what makes you think you even have the right to come and question me about it?" Mal inquired with a prideful smirk.

"You don't understand," Anastasia breathed out heavily. "I couldn't care less about me."

"Forgive me if I doubt your word," the daughter of Maleficent raised an eyebrow.

"No, you don't understand," Anastasia repeated. "I don't... I know that Auradon couldn't care less about me, trust me, I'm aware that I... that no one there can remember a single good thing I did and I've long since accepted the fact that I'll stay here and rot and die in this place."

"Well, Anastasia, if you're so cunning and already know that, explain to me why you're here making me waste my time."

"I don't care what happens to me either!" the older woman said, raising both of her hands to make a small fuss. "You don't understand, Maleficent! I don't... I don't care about me. I know what I did to be here, I earned it."

"Then what-?"

"This is not about me, Maleficent!" Anastasia let out, slamming her open palm on the desk, raising her voice for first the time. "I don't care about me, I can live here. I can, but my son..." she said, her voice barely a whisper in her shaking lips. "Anthony, you've seen him. My son doesn't deserve this place."

"You expect me to believe you?" Mal questioned, unhearing to her complete name. It was, after all, common knowledge in the Isle that her mother had named her after herself. Though, to be fair, no one had dared called her that while the real Maleficent wandered the Isle.

"I know better than to expect something from others. Nothing is free, I know that," the daughter of Tremaine claimed with a flat voice.

"Then why, may I ask, did you argue so strongly to be let in?"

"I don't care about the cost, I want him to get out of here," Anastasia said, skinny arms clinging to herself as she crossed them over her chest.

"Who even said that was even a possibility?" Mal laughed, knowing there were still a few more days to go before she could make the announcement of the evacuation public. She was tempted to do so, however, when Anastasias empty eyes looked straight back at her.

"Do you know nothing about my family, Maleficent?" the daughter of Tremaine began after a few frozen seconds. "Through the years we've been called a lot of things―liars, thieves, riff-raff, cruel. But above all of this, there's something everyone agrees on―we're determined. Everyone has a price, tell me yours and whatever you desire you shall have."

"I doubt you have anything that peaks my interest," Mal crackled. "Therefore I suggest you leave before-"

"Try me," Anastasia hurriedly answered, her voice an octave higher.

"My word is final, Anastasia, get out of here," Mal rolled her eyes, standing up so she could direct the woman to the door and make sure she didn't pocket any of her belongings.

Instead of following the implicit order, Anastasia began to frantically search for something in the folds of her discolored dress. Upon finding the small package she'd been looking for, Anastasia nearly tossed it on Mal's table.

"What is that?"

"Find out for yourself," Anastasia spat, straightening herself in the chair. When they returned to her sides, Anastasia's hands shook.

Of all the flaws Mal had, she could honestly say that the one she despised the most was her curiosity. Everything could have been easier if only she'd stuck to the plan and kicked Anastasia out.

Refraining a sigh, Mal returned to her desk and took the blue small bag in her hands. It was wrinkled, and its color, once a velvety deep blue, was nothing but a faint hue of turquoise now. Anastasia was delusional if she believed she would be impressed by such a thing.

However, the little bag was heavy, and again, showing off her fatal curiosity, Mal decided against simply throwing it back at Anastasia and opened it instead.

Cold metal met the tips of her fingers as soon as she slipped her hand into the wrapping, and the jingling of a chain, so small, suddenly became all that Mal could hear in the silent room.

It was silver, Mal was sure as soon as she'd taken it out, knowing eyes marveling at the delicacy of the work, gaping at the simple thought of something so pure surviving among the filth of the Isle. It wasn't a long chain. If Mal had worn it, the ornament would have barely reached the lapels of her jacket. It wasn't a complicated work either, only a plain, silver necklace.

What made Mal stare back at it in awe, however, was its pendant―from the fine necklace, unashamed and prideful, hung a sapphire the size of a small child's fist.

"Where did you steal this from?" Mal let out, still spellbound with the beauty of the item.

"That's none of your business," the daughter of Tremaine growled. "Get my son and my nieces out of here and the necklace is yours."

"What if I say no?" Mal inquired, her fingers wrapped around the silver chain like claws. Anastasia's lips trembled.

"Don't do that, Mal," she exhaled, sunken eyes wide with a plea.

"Give me a good reason to do as you say," she sneered.

"Listen, you've... you've been to Auradon. You've had a chance, don't take this away from them," the woman began, frantic eyes scanning Mal's features in the desperate search of the slightest nod of comprehension. "I don't want anything for me, I don't care what happens to me, but whatever that is, he doesn't deserve to pay for my mistakes. Neither do the girls. We chose this life, and we chose wrongly, but you've taken away the sole possibility of them ever electing what they want their lives to become. You're robbing these children of what they could be, what they would be if only they had been born somewhere else, somewhere that didn't force bloody knuckles and... and starvation on them."

There were few things Mal could have answered to Anastasia´s tear-rimmed eyes. She could have been honest, but this was the Isle―truth was often frowned upon. Besides, something else held her back―it was yet too early to ignite Anastasia's soul with hope. It was not the time to be honest. Not yet.

"Yeah? What if I told you some things are just the way they are?" Mal let out in a small voice, leaning down as she sat on her desk, her right arm supporting her weight on her leg so she became the only thing Anastasia was able to see.

"You'd be lying," Anastasia said, short from a whisper, reaching for the hand Mal had supported on her own knee. Anastasia was shaking so badly that Mal's own arm began to tremble with the contact.

"How are you sure of that?"

"I can see it," Anastasia pleaded. "You wouldn't have come back if you didn't believe there was something worthy waiting here."

"Get off me," Mal ordered, shaking off Anastasia's hand until she let go. The woman didn't even cling to her. "I don't know what you're talking about," Mal offered, her chest going up and down rapidly. "I don't care about what you've heard, but we all know that the only thing on this Island are leftovers, and if you think you can come and cry to get my pity you're dead wrong."

"Don't be like this, Maleficent," Anastasia whispered, her glassy eyes a black abyss. "I beg you, my son is not to blame for the mistakes I made."

"You're right, however," Mal continued, feeling her insides churn uncomfortably as she ignored Anastasia's desperation. "When you say that each of us have a price."

"What are you saying?" escaped Anastasia's dry lips.

"I don't care who you stole this from," Mal shrugged, tossing the precious necklet on her desk, where it fell unceremoniously. "I've never been greedy, and I don't care about money. On the other hand, what I really value is information."

"What does that even mean?" Anastasi whispered shakily.

"I mean that the Isle doesn't trust me. And they shouldn't, to be fair, as I'm working for the other... um... side now. But they trust you―why shouldn't they? You're on the same ship they are on."

"That's not true, I am not like them," Anastasia argued, making a small fuss with her hands. Her voice had come out with much more strength than everything she'd said during that afternoon. Interesting, Mal thought to herself.

"Oh, I can see you're different," Mal conceded. "But they think you are like them, and that's more than enough for me."

"What do you want then?" she questioned, her countenance seeming more composed.

"I want you to be my informant," Mal answered, no beat around the bush. "I want you to let me know whatever happens in the Isle. Who has been seen with who, new alliances, broken ones―anything and everything. Even what seems too small to matter, how many children attend Dragon Hall, everything."

"What for?"

"That's none of your business," Mal purred, a despiteful smile on her lips. "You want those punks out of here, don't you?"

At the mention of her family, Anastasia pursed her lips and looked down, her hands becoming fists.

"Every two days you'll write your discoveries down and put them in this little bag," Mal continued, forcing her voice to come out as a command as she snapped her fingers. On Anastasia's lap now rested a small, purple bag, its top sealed by two strings that formed a bow. In the center of the fabric, a dragon spreading its wings had been swung. "Only you and I can open that, but every two days one of my goblins will take it from you. You won't have to come and deliver it personally, don't worry. You only have to write the news down and my goblins will find it."

"What are you going to do with that information? What are you going to-?"

"Oh, if I were you I wouldn't ask so many questions," Mal replied with a nonchalant smile, jumping off her desk so she could direct Anastasia to the door again. "Do as I say and not only Anthony, but Drizella's daughters too will get out of here safe and sound."

"Don't hurt them," Anastasia whispered. "Whatever you do, don't hurt them. They are children, they don't know what they're doing, please don't hurt them."

"I assure you they will be treated like they deserve," Mal bowed, her voice a genuine pledge, even when her voice seemed threatening.

"Don't hurt them," Anastasia whispered a last time before she exited the room, both of her hands reaching for Mal's wrist, were they clung hard enough to bruise.

"Get off me," Mal repeated, voice lacking her usual harshness as she shook off Anastasia's hands once again.

"I'll give you anything you want, but don't touch a hair in their heads, I beg you."

"Don't come to my place again," Mal ordered. "I'll see that they get out of here."

"Thank you," Anastasia let out, short from a whisper, the escape of two forbidden words.

"I'm not doing this for you. And I'm not doing this for them either," Mal cut her. "Don't come here again, because I may not be so compassionate."

And with that, the youngest daughter of Lady Tremaine was out, along with her bony fingers that had gripped around Mal's wrists like claws and her trembling voice.

Long after she had left, long after the dark veil of the sky had brightened and Mal had gone down to serve breakfast for the kids, Anastasia's defeated voice was still sounding clear as a bell in Mal's head, the icy feeling of her fingers still around her wrist.

—*—*—

It was the day after Anastasia's visit that Mal had scheduled a more... pleasurable meeting.

Yen Sid, despite not having crossed her mind in the months since she'd left the Isle had become more interesting in the past few days. He was, after all, a powerful magician who had decided to stay behind in hopes of educating the islanders even when he had not earned the Isle himself.

Although his work had not been remunerated, Mal knew he was still standing on their side and had offered him a room at Bargain Castle, to show him that he was part of Auradon and to improve his living standard by taking him to a safer and cleaner environment.

Surprisingly, Yen Sid had refused, arguing that his old shack was all he needed. Yes, it was small and not very luxurious, but it served its purpose and kept him warm. Yen Sid wasn't an ambitious person, that was for sure, and instead he'd told Mal that he already had all that he needed. What they had agreed on, however, was the fact that Bargain Castle had too many empty rooms.

He'd said there were other people who needed a spare room more than he did.

At first, Mal hadn't understood what he was talking about, but upon a closer reflection she'd reached the conclusion that Yen Sid had been talking about the kids. And he wasn't wrong.

For years she'd seen Carlos spend the night at Jafar's store or even at Evie's room just to escape one of Cruella's drunken outbursts. For years as well she'd seen Jay nonchalantly brush off the fact that he'd rather pass the days stealing off at the bazar rather than go back and face his father's complaints and resentful eyes.

There was no way to know whether or not if it'd work, but perhaps it was time to prove that, while the Embassy was following Auradon's lead, it was doing so on its own accord, with a set of rules that were unheard to Auradon and a plan that could be changed if the occasion called for it.

By morning the next day, as they served breakfast in the boisterous dining room, Mal made a new announcement―from that day on, any of the children born in the Isle would be able to request a room in the embassy, be it to escape a disgruntled victim of robbery or to hide from a disappointed parent. She didn't add that, however, and settled for letting them know that the doors of Bargain Castle were now opened for them.

Of course, her new suggestion was soon met with arguments.

"What kind of joke is this?" Yzla inquired, playing with her fork.

"As I am not laughing I would assume it is not one," Mal counterattacked calmly.

"Let me guess, this is another one of Auradon's pitiful attempts to make amends with us," Desiree, Drizella's oldest daughter questioned.

You haven't seen half of Auradon's amends, Mal thought to herself.

"I wouldn't get Auradon involved in this," Mal rolled her eyes.

"Yeah, don't tell me," Doretta, Desiree's sister piped in, for once agreeing with Desiree. "First they send you and the food and now they have somehow convinced you to let us inside the castle? What for? To steal from us? Guess what, Mal, I doubt that we have anything Auradon would be interested in having."

"Well, though I must confess your deduction skills do exist, you are wrong," Mal deadpanned. "Having Bargain Castle transformed into a community dining room was a direct order from Auradon, but offering it for a shelter? They have no idea I'm doing it. They didn't order me to do it and they couldn't care less about what I do with the castle."

"Then why would you-"

"Because, Yzla, unlike Auradonians, I know this place," Mal cut her rapidly. "I'm offering a room right here, were your parents can't reach you. Take it or leave it, maybe I won't feel so generous tomorrow."

"And you expect us to believe in something like this, so out of nowhere, when you've never-"

"I'll do it," Ginny stood up, cutting off Anthony Tremaine's reply with nothing more than a glare of her green eyes.

"Pardon me?" the daughter of Maleficent questioned, turning around to face the other girl.

"It's your lucky day, Mal," Ginny snickered. "I volunteer as your guinea pig, in case your generous offer is still standing."

Mal didn't say that it wasn't her lucky day, from the look of the thin bruises around Ginny's neck, barely a hue of yellow now.

"Good," Mal nodded with a shrug. "Anyone else that wants to test my patience today?"

There were a few seconds of static silence, as her interlocutors turned to look at each other with something that was almost shyness. Finally, Ginny spoke up again.

"Claudine will stay too," she said, her hand going to the wrist of Frollo's daughter in an iron grip so she could pull the girl up.

"What?" Claudine hissed, staring back at Ginny in both rage and disbelief. Mal raised an eyebrow in query, but decided against asking why Ginny was suddenly making Claudine's decisions.

Surprisingly, the rest of the dining room did the same and stared back in silence for what had to be the first time in their lives. One could only handle so many strange things before even you started acting different, Mal supposed.

Ignoring them, Ginny gave Claudine a threatening look and, from what Mal could see, tightened her grip around the other's wrist before hissing something under her breath. Whatever Ginny said was lost in her low voice and the big hallway, but the truth was that Claudine's reaction was immediate―upon Ginny's words, Claudine turned her head down and gave a small nod, almost ashamed. Ginny huffed.

"Claudine will stay," Ginny said once more, icy eyes fixed upon Mal's.

"Good," Mal shrugged, turning on her heels to abandon the dining room. "Anyone else who wants to question me about my intentions is welcomed to do so."

Two days later, Yzla moved in with them as well.

Mal knew Ginny slept with a dagger under her pillow, and she was more than aware that Yzla still waited for the others to start eating before she so much as touched the fork she'd been given. Quite honestly, Mal hadn't been expecting anything less from them―she was still, after all, tempted to throw a blow at a petty princess from time to time and she couldn't count the times she'd refrained the urge to slam a spoon on the table when Evie tried to explain to her why there were more than one item that looked exactly the same albeit a little smaller.

She could live with it, with the distrust with which Anthony stared back at her, with the skepticism in Desiree's smirk. She could do so knowing that the day they wouldn't be able to do that anymore was coming closer.

—*—*—

When she finally announced the real reason behind her return to the Isle, Mal received all kinds of reactions―first disbelief, then confusion. Finally, the explosion.

Later, Mal would recall things thrown her way, disgruntled screams and sarcastic laughs, but at that moment, all she had focused on was the blood pulsing in her jugular, the breaths she forced to come out evenly, the words she was about to say.

"You have twenty-four hours starting right now to sort out your things," she declared with a stoic face. "I want all of you at the dock tomorrow at eleven o'clock in the morning."

"What if we're not tempted to visit Auradon?" someone hissed.

"Then I still want you at the dock because this is not a question and no one cares about your opinion," she smirked, the gesture cold and forced. "And don't worry, if you happen to forget about our departure I will personally see that you are reminded of it."

A round of growls and more screams followed, but no one dared say anything loud enough for Mal to understand, so she continued.

"Pack wisely, you're not coming back," she concluded, before turning on her heels to leave the room, the slamming of the door resounding through the walls.

It was almost done, she told herself. Almost done.

—*—*—

The next day, Mal was up so early Evie would have been proud of her, although she had little time to think about what the blue princess would have told her. It didn't matter―after all, her voluntary absence was soon to finish and Evie would be able to tell her whatever came to her mind face-to-face soon enough.

The first thing Mal made sure to put in order was her own luggage. Weirdly enough, Mal had three suitcases now, instead of the solitary one she'd arrived with. The reason was perhaps too obvious―back when she had left the Isle for the first time, she'd thought there was no need to pack more than a few jeans and an equal number of shirts. They would go back to the Isle soon, after all, once their parents owned the world and the barrier didn't exist.

Now, after realizing she didn't want her mother to hold any power, not only in Auradon, but in the Isle either, it was clear as could be that she had no desire to ever return to the Isle of the Lost.

No, this was the last time she would ever set foot in her old bedroom, the last time she'd sleep on that mattress that dripped dampness. The last time she would open the windows and then think better of it once the soiled air hit her nose.

She was going away for good.

Which meant that, this time, she had to pack all she actually wanted to keep, from clothes, old drawing notebooks and her mother's dusty magic books. Hence her multiplied number of bags.

She decided to wait for the children to eat breakfast, remembering ―much like she did every morning― the argument she'd had with Ginny during the first few days the dining room had actually worked. It all started because, until then, Mal had opted for leaving the kids to their own devices as she moved away to her bedroom, thinking ―not without reason― that they felt intimidated by her and would find themselves more at ease if she wasn't there. To Mal, it made sense.

Not so for Ginny, apparently, who thought she was enjoying a much better meal than the one she had served to them and only disappeared to try to cover it up. The truth was, Mal had been living on granola bars and canned food just as much as they had, but she couldn't do anything other than roll her eyes at a fuming Ginny.

So she had agreed to start eating with them, the dining room falling silent the first time she had appeared there, a simple, gray tray in her hand with the same frugal amount of food she was offering them placed on it.

Seriously, she was getting tired of this, she thought absently as she opened her red fruits bar, the weight of thirty pairs of eyes heavy on her shoulders.

"Look who decided to appear," Harriet said, taking a seat in front of her, blocking the perfect view Mal had of the whole dining room.

"I could say the same for yourself," she replied, and right then, she had felt it, the pressure of being watched decreased a little. Harriet's kids, she decided, after tilting her head to take a look at the ―once again― boisterous room.

Soon enough, not only Harriet's crew had decided that she meant no threat, but everyone else had gone back to their own business as well, and though she didn't speak much with Hook's daughter, she found herself relaxing in her presence.

After that, she had made a point of eating with them, even if just to prove Ginny wrong.

The morning of their departure, breakfast was tense, the air heavy with an unspoken question. As she handed out trays of magically-heated noodles, her head pounding, Mal was perfectly aware of the amount of dirty looks thrown her way.

"Allow me to remind you," she said, interrupting a good number of small conversations, but not having to actually raise her voice to be heard like she had the previous days. "The ship is leaving today. I expect all of you, with your bags, today at the dock."

"Was this what you were doing all along?" Yzla raised her voice. "Lulling us until you could order us around and make us follow you to Auradon?"

"For the record, I don't need Auradon's permission to order you around," Mal hissed. "I was doing it long before I even left the Isle in the first place, in case you've forgotten."

"We don't want to leave," Harriet shot back, standing up.

"Well, what a shame, because the decision is not up to you."

"What do they want us for?" Claudine seconded. "To work for them? Cheap manpower? That's not happening."

"They want you for the exact same thing they wanted me," she spat, forcing her eyes clean of any trace of magic. "They want to take you out of here, that's it."

"What, are there enough sweet princes out there for us too, is that it?" CJ, Harriet's younger sister, crackled a laugh. "Do you think we're that idiotic?"

"Trust me, there are things more interesting than a prince," Mal rolled her eyes. "Running water, for example. Refrigerators, signal, soap," Mal listed, her breathing becoming more labored. "Though I wouldn't count on you to know any of this because you've never heard of something like that."

There was a moment of stillness, though Mal wouldn't have called it silence or peacefulness, as she could hear shushed conversations in the edge of the room.

"Listen up, you all know Freddie, Facilier's daughter. She has a wicked character and she fitted perfectly in this place, yet she hasn't come back and she has no plans or whatsoever of doing it. She left by her own feet," Mal spoke up again.

"She did so because she's always been an idiot," someone said, and though Mal knew it had been a male, she had no way of being sure of who it had been, so she settled for sending a glare in a general direction.

"You fought against Jay, most of you did," she continued. "He isn't coming back any more than Freddie is."

"Evie hasn't come back either," a small voice said to Mal's right. Upon turning, the daughter of Maleficent recognized Dizzy, another one of Drizella's daughters.

"Evie wouldn't come back even if they paid her," she said, her eyes hardened. "I couldn't care less about whether or not you trust my word, but you know all about facts, so, by plain logic, there must be something in Auradon that makes all of them want to stay."

"I think that's called kidnapping," one of Gaston's sons said, laughing loudly. Mal was ready to tell him to fuck off.

"You came back," Ginny pointed out flatly, in low voice.

"Only because I had things to do here," she retaliated.

"Are you saying that if Auradon hadn't sent you back you would have never returned?" Ginny questioned.

"There is no way to assert that, especially not now that I'm already here," Mal shot back, the rise and fall of her chest the only movement of her impassible features. "But I seem to remember that a fair number of you wanted to leave this filthy place before I announced Auradon's willingness to receive you there. Why the sudden change of mind?"

At her question, asked to no one in particular, the murmurs shushed.

"This is all we know," Harriet finally said, her voice so low Mal was tempted to think her words had only been meant for her.

"Which is exactly my point," Mal conceded. "You do know that if you stay here your crew will never sail, don't you?"

"What do you mean?"

"What do you think I mean?" Mal rolled her eyes before raising her voice again. "This is not a petition and this is not a suggestion―it's an order. You will leave the Isle today. I suggest you start getting ready."

That was enough. With fisted hands, Harriet turned away from her. She knew what Mal meant.

And with that, she left the room, unhearing to the protests her words had provoked.

After that, the day passed in a blur. Mal emptied the kitchen, made sure that all of the windows were closed, she went through the house three more times until she was positive that she wasn't forgetting something important.

In the end, it turned out there was extra food and, unwilling to take it back to Auradon, Mal decided to divide it and give it away to the goblins. Useless, she could almost hear the voice of her mother say. Never treat these idiots like you would an ally. Never give them any reason to think that they are more than disposable goods.

Her mother's thoughts on the matter only made her want to do so more strongly.

Despotes was the one who would have to deliver the newly divided packages, as she had no time to lose now that her watch marked twenty to eleven. The goblins had been allowed to keep their dungeons. Mal supposed it was a good exchange, after all―they would have to protect Bargain Castle, as it was their only hideout left.

Mal was in the wharf ten minutes before the established time, her suitcases already inside the Pharaoh, with Despotes and Servus by her side. This was it, she told herself. This was it.

When her watch marked eleven o'clock the only one that arrived was Yen Sid, whom Mal had convinced to come with them. There would be no need for him to remain in the Isle now that there were no kids to teach to. He was only holding a small backpack. 'Not much that I want to keep from this place,' he shrugged off when Mal questioned him.

It was nearly fifteen minutes later that Anastasia arrived, her waxy countenance stoic as she was escorted by her son, her left arm entwined with his right, while she held Dulcie, the youngest daughter of Drizella, with her right hip. Behind them, more accurately, dancing weirdly around them, came Dizzy. Anastasia's black eyes were void of anything that she might have sported a few days in the past when she had appeared in Mal's office.

It took Mal a moment to realize that, trailing behind them, came a third child, another one of Drizella's kids. Darling, she thought she was called, something like that. No, it was Daryn, she was sure. And from the look in her face, she had been forced to leave the sweet comforts of the Isle to board a ship to the unknown.

"Is this why you said Evie wasn't coming back?" Dizzy questioned as soon as she had caught up with Mal, distracting her. "Because you were taking us out?"

"In part," she nodded. "I'm sure you'll like it were we're going. Say goodbye to your aunt."

Through their short dialogue, Mal felt Anastasia's strong glare on her, but decided to ignore her. It was far too early to begin an argument.

"I was under the impression that Drizella had more than three kids," Mal said instead.

"They will come," the woman echoed, and only then did Mal notice a dark bruise on her left cheekbone.

"Well, alright," Mal shrugged, fumbling with her folder. "Until then I am supposed to hand out these badges, just to be a little in control."

The identifications were a terrible idea, Mal sighed. She had argued so more than five times, but the Fairy Godmother had insisted. 'It's normal,' she'd said. 'This is just so we can recognize them more easily once they're here.'

Of course, Fayanna had no idea that, in the Isle, when you wanted to be 'recognized' you made a name for yourself. You made it so that the mere thought of you made your adversary watch over their shoulder and shiver. No one ever wore name tags around their neck, especially not ones with their forenames, age and picture.

"I have one myself, everyone will be wearing one," Mal reassured under Anastasia's critic eyes as she opened her jacket to reveal her own identification badge.

"I hate you," Daryn muttered, sending a piercing glare in her aunt's direction. As an answer, Anastasia merely closed her eyes and sighed.

"Daryn, don't talk like that," Anthony hissed.

"It's true," the girl said, stomping her right foot on the ground. "I hate her and all of you."

"Give us the identifications," Anastasia instructed then in a weak attempt to change the topic.

Silently, Mal complied, deciding that she could deal with a nine-year-old's rejection. It didn't help that the already somber atmosphere was now accompanied by Dizzy's forlorn expression and Anastasia's resignation.

Instead of continuing her thrilling conversation with the Tremaine family, Mal was soon pulled away when Ginny arrived to the dock, a single handbag with her.

"It is true, then," she said.

"I may be a lot of things, Ginny, but I am not a liar. I thought you knew that," Mal shrugged, handing her identification. Thankfully, the daughter of Gothel didn't protest.

"You did tell your mother you would get that wand for her," Ginny offered, unconvinced.

"I do believe I had no other option than telling her what she wanted to hear," Mal offered dully.

It was probably good the anchorage was still empty, Mal reflected on later. That way she had just enough time to prove herself all over again before each of the islanders boarded the ship. It would also make this whole ordeal all the more tedious.

"Get your things ready, we'll leave soon enough," she ordered.

"I'll be back there's something... something I'm missing."

"You do you. This thing sets sail at twelve," Mal replied flatly. In true, at twelve she would send for the ones who were not in the ship already, so there was a good chance they would not leave before one in the afternoon. Good thing she wasn't overly-concerned with schedules.

People started to arrive at something like eleven forty, and from that moment on, everything was madness. Behind her, Mal could hear the goblins ―of which there were now five or six― loading the ship with suitcases and directing the children to the deck, exactly like Mal had instructed.

It was almost twelve o'clock when Harriet finally arrived. Alone.

"If something happens to them, if something so much as goes wrong―"

"There'll be hell to pay, I'm aware," Mal cut her, handing Harriet not only her own identification, but also the ones for the kids she knew were part of her crew. "Keep in mind that if I screw up you won't be the only one wanting my head. Trust me, I'm working so that nothing goes wrong."

"Good," Harriet nodded, turning away from Mal to whistle. In no time, the children of Hook's old crew, along with several others were perfectly lined up in front of Harriet.

It was just past twelve when Ginny returned, her left hand tightly wrapped around Claudine's wrist. The movement of Ginny's other hand was hard to follow, her fingers becoming fists before pointing at something and fisting again as the girls whispered furiously between each other.

Deciding that was not her problem, Mal turned her attention on the things she could actually fix. Fortunately, that day it seemed there was enough work around her to busy herself with.

Morgana arrived not long after Claudine and Ginny, with Melvin and Mayra holding tightly to her hands, each with a small suitcase. Amused, Mal realized that Mayra was clutching a stuffed octopus to her chest.

"Mom said we're leaving with you!" Mayra announced, letting go of Morgana's hand to cling to Mal's arm, forcing the daughter of Maleficent to focus on her. As soon as Mal turned to her, Mayra stepped back, smiling up at her.

"That's true," Mal shrugged. "I hope you like where we're going."

"Mom said we should obey you now," Melvin seconded, gripping with more strength to his mother as he gave Mal a dirty look.

"I'd say that's up to you," Mal offered, fixing her eyes on Morgana's emaciated features instead of on her boy. "You don't have to obey me, but if you do you will be safer and your mother won't be as worried, so I suppose it's more about if you dislike me more than you care about your mother."

Eyes still piercing, Melvin clutched his mother's hand with more closely. He didn't say anything, at least, but he didn't have to. Mal didn't need him to voice his despise when he was staring at her as if she ate puppies for breakfast.

Probably without knowing, Mayra chose that exact moment to ask something to Mal, breaking down the tension.

"What was that, Mayra?" Mal asked, turning back to the girl.

"That big pole, what's its name? Does it have a name or do you just call it big stick?" she repeated, pointing back to the mast of the ship, same that Mal had honestly never cared enough about to wonder whether or not if it had a name. Before Mal could come up with an alternative name to digress Mayra's attention or confess her ignorance, Harriet answered.

"We called the big one the main mast, but there's also the foremast and the mizzen, you see?" she explained, gesturing for Melvin to near her so she could point them out for him as well. Albeit reluctantly, Melvin approached her.

"And that part, with the pretty lady, what do you call it? Does the lady have a name?" Mayra attacked again.

"That is the figurehead, but as for the lady... Mal, did you call your mermaid something?"

"Alhambra," Mal let out automatically, before she refrained a sigh at her own stupidity.

"Interesting name," Harriet snickered, turning back to the children.

"Can I... can I speak with you?" Mal heard Morgana say, barely a feeble whisper.

"I suppose so," Mal shrugged her shoulders.

"Alone," she requested, tilting her head the tiniest bit to point at the spot where Harriet was squatting with her children. As all answer, Mal nodded heavily.

"Melvin, Mayra, say goodbye to your mother, we're leaving soon," the daughter of Maleficent ordered.

"Mal, mom said we're not coming back," Mayra let out, momentarily distracted from the helm of the vessel.

"Your mom's right," Mal conceded. "That's why you must say goodbye to her."

"But... but she will come to visit, right? To Auradon?"

"Mayra," Morgana murmured, her voice too pained to be considered a hiss. "We've talked about this."

"But you said we should ask if we had any questions!" the girl protested. "I want to know if you will come to see us!"

For a moment, Mal caught her hands gripping her folder tightly, the breath frozen in her throat. Of all the comments she'd planned, of all the burning despise that weighted down her tongue, there was not a single word that she had considered to say in the odd case that one of the kids genuinely wanted to remain in contact with his parents.

"We'll... we'll see about that," she replied, the lie throbbing on her tongue like poison. "But I'm sure your mother would very much like that, wouldn't you, Morgana?"

"Certainly," Ursula's sister let out, short from a whisper.

"Harriet," Mal called after a short silence. "Why don't you show them the inside of the ship?"

There was an undeniable stillness around them as Morgana leaned down to kiss her children for the last time, an icy stiffness in Harriet's movements. And there was, as well, a questionable guilt in Mal's chest when she saw Morgana's haunted expression.

This would soon be over, Mal forced herself to think, unable to pinpoint why she suddenly felt remorseful when she was doing a favor to those kids.

A few days in the past Mal had found herself walking through the boisterous dining room, mainly in an attempt to make sure the kids were behaving and no one would be injured. Coincidently, she had found a piece of chocolate in her right pocket, part of a complete bag of treats that Carlos had somehow sneaked into her suitcase.

Mayra had called her then, asking something about the name of a fruit she had not known until then. It had been a strawberry.

Perhaps it was the stupid nostalgia that kept sending her memories back to Auradon, perhaps it was Ben's voice echoing in her head. Whichever happened, Mal found herself pulling two more chocolate pieces from her pocket and offering them to the kids.

Later that day Mayra had asked her to give her one more chocolate before leaving Bargain Castle. 'For her mother', she'd said. Mal had complied, thinking that the girl only wanted to have another candy, which Mal couldn't blame her for. Big was her surprise, however, when, as soon as she saw Morgana, Mayra ran over to her and, like she had promised, handed over the brightly wrapped sweet.

"Morgana," Harriet said then, snapping Mal out of her thoughts. "You once helped my family. Do not think we have forgotten. We intend to repay our debt."

Morgana nodded stiffly, her grayish hands wrapping around herself. And just like that, they were gone, Harriet Hook putting her vast knowledge about ships to a good use now that she had finally someone to share it with.

"They will be looked after," Mal offered to the awkward silence, not sure of what had moved her to do so.

"I hope so. Either way it will be better than being here, right?" Morgana let out in a small voice. "Listen, Mal, I... I wanted to thank you. For all of this. For returning."

"I haven't done anything. I am simply an envoy of Auradon."

"I don't believe that. Auradon hasn't raised a finger to help us in twenty years," the woman denied. "It would be very odd to think that they suddenly decided to add these modifications, unless there was someone willing to carry them out."

"I am merely carrying out with my duty," Mal shrugged once more, her eyes unwilling to meet Morgana's.

"Is it selfish, Mal, if I wish for them to forget this place, but not to forget me?"

"Pardon me?"

"It's just a question, you can answer whatever you want," Morgana let out in a thin voice.

"Why would you even care?" Mal nearly laughed.

"You know, we're not all as bad as Auradon makes us look," Ursula's sister offered. "You do not spend twenty years trapped in a place like this and remain the same. No, you must change―for worse or for better."

"That is extremely hard to believe, Morgana, I hope you are aware of that."

"You mother may be different, but I assure you that some of the inhabitants of this place have come to genuinely care about their children," Morgana explained slowly, heavy intakes of breath marking her rhythm. "I never spoke much to your mother, she thought I was too weak, too insignificant. I don't blame her. She preferred my sister, like everyone else."

"She preferred herself in the mirror. That's the only thing she ever liked," Mal snorted.

"Perhaps," the woman conceded. "I... I can show you how to tell them apart, the ones who care from the ones who don't. This is all I can give."

"I sincerely don't think any―"

"You're taking them out of here," Morgana said. "And I already owe you more than I can pay back. This is all I can give you."

"You owe me nothing because I only came here to carry on with my duty," Mal tried to stop her, before Morgana counterattacked.

"Then take my words to Auradon, to someone who can put them to a good use," the woman offered with something akin to a smile in her thin lips. "The ones who want you to get their children out, those are the ones who love them. And the ones who want to keep them here, regardless of the... of the obvious lacks of this place... those are monsters."

"Why would you tell me this?"

"Because you think no one here cares for their kids, but I do," Morgana answered without missing a beat. "I want to know what comes of them, now that I... now that I won't be able to see them anymore."

"Why would I―?"

"Take care of my kids," she cut her. "They're good children. That's all I'm asking from you."

"I'll treat them like I would anyone else aboard that ship," Mal replied sternly. For a brief moment, neither of them dared to add anything, much less to move. Finally, after a few seconds, Morgana gave a stiff nod, her lips firmly pursed.

"That's more than enough," the woman said at last, before she turned on her heels and disappeared into the crowd.

After Morgana left, Mal took a moment to steady her breathing, her head pounding like it had ever since the new barrier ordeal. She wanted to think Morgana had lost her mind. The woman had never been very stable, from what Mal had heard, and she could only guess what twenty years in the Isle had done to her reasoning abilities.

Yet, try as she might, whenever she attempted to brush away Morgana's emaciated countenance of her mind she was instantly brought back to the feeling of Anastasia's icy fingers clutching at her wrist.

"Are you supposed to be staring at nothing in particular or...?"

"You see, after having waited for you to appear for almost an hour, I grew tired, you know?" Mal quickly reacted, turning back to face Doretta, the second of Dizzy's sisters.

"You've handled sixteen years here. I'm sure that a few more minutes won't do much of a difference," she smirked, her eyebrows raised unamused-ly.

Before Mal could answer, she caught a glimpse of blue in the corner of her eye. Great. Wonderful moment for Hades to reappear.

"Get on the ship and shut up," the daughter of Maleficent growled instead, which only enlarged Doretta's cat-like sneer.

According to her list, there were at least fifteen more kids missing. And now she had to deal with Hades. They hadn't even left the Isle yet, and Mal was ready to growl out in frustration.

For a moment, Mal thought Doretta would argue with her, but the daughter of Drizella merely studied her for a second, shoulders hunched, as was easy to see given the sleeveless crop top she was wearing. At last, Doretta let out something similar to a sigh and fidgeted with the handles of her bag.

"I'll get on the ship, but I don't promise anything about shutting up," she offered cheekily, winking charmingly eye at Mal.

"Then get going," Mal grumbled, only half-listening to Doretta.

As soon as the young girl was in the wooden staircase of the ship, Mal turned her full attention to Hades and Ginny, walking over to them with a clear goal―getting rid of Hades as soon as possible.

"You're not allowed to be here," she said, clenching her fists when she was within Hades' earshot.

"Is that so? Or do you just feel a strong dislike for me in particular?" the god questioned, almost pouting at her. "Though I find that extremely hard to believe because, Maleficent, we're good friends, aren't we?"

"You and I are acquaintances, at best," Mal grumbled.

"What a terrible character you have," Hades deadpanned. "Gin here is nicer, you could afford to learn from her."

"Yeah? The pot calling the kettle black," Mal scoffed. "Get out of here."

"Not so soon, sweet pie!" Hades laughed manically. "Remember I had put a seat on layaway?"

"And I told you you weren't going anywhere, remember that?"

"Oh, don't make this personal!" the god crackled. "I'm not talking about me."

Mal wanted to say that she did not believe her eyes. Had someone approached her to tell her that the following would happen, she would have huffed in annoyance. However, it was hard not to believe oneself when she not only saw what was happening, but also felt it.

With a wicked smile, Hades snapped his fingers. For an instant, time stopped, the tingling in Mal's skin confirming he was using magic, more magic than Mal had been able to wield since rearranging the barrier. She was so caught up in her relief at the sensation that Mal didn't notice the ground had started shaking until she heard Ginny's shriek. Behind them, the waves of the sea became restless.

"What are you doing?" Mal hissed, her eyes trained on Hades'.

"You see, sweet pie, it occurred to me that a little... display would ease your worries about my honesty," he laughed. "At least now you know I can perform magic here."

Mal knew she shouldn't have done it, not after the pain her magic ―or her lack of it, thereof― had been giving her. Something was true, regardless―Mal had never been someone to shy away from a challenge.

If Hades wanted to play with magic, Mal had magic of her own to seize with his.

With a deep in-take of breath, Mal summoned her own power, raising her right hand in front of her. She started with her fingers stretched out, until she slowly began to close her hand, a wave of raw puissance burning in her chest as she did so.

By the time her hand was completely fisted, Mal's breathing was ragged, her vision turning blurry at moments. The shaking of the ground had almost stilled. The small earthquake didn't seem to be causing Hades much of an inconvenience, Mal noted. Instead, his smirk only turned a tad more sinister.

"You never know when to stop, do you, Maleficent?" he crackled.

"Stop?" Mal panted. "We're just getting started here."

"Allow me, I think we're done," the god said, before proving Mal wrong once more as he incremented the power he was stamping into his movements.

Hades' magic was raw strength. Untamed and millenary, Mal could do little to nothing against it.

The change was immediate―as soon as the words had left the god's lips, the shaking of the floor under their feet was reassumed. The magic Mal had contained until then returned to full strength now that it was backed off.

For as long as she'd been in Auradon, Mal had been trying to get used to her own magic, to a limp that she hadn't know she possessed until mere months in the past. She had read about magic, she had heard Evie rant about magic, she had breathed and manipulated magic until the foreign strength in her hands was second nature.

Yet, when Hades' force hit her, there was no way she could have battled against it. Instead, Mal felt her own magic shifting in an instinctive reflection. She couldn't compete against Hades, and now that said statement was a fact, Mal's magic reacted turning into a shield around her, deciding to protect its host rather than continuing a fruitless attack.

Hades' magic was wild, so unlike the soft sparkles of the Fairy Godmother that it was hard to believe they were the same thing. Hades' magic was vigorous, unyielding, yet playful, instead of Maleficent's angry waves of power, tentacles of dark power that wanted to destroy. Yes, Maleficent had strategy, she had never been one to braise for a fight without being sure she'd win, but she didn't have much else.

Maleficent's magic was simple when compared to Hades'―she was predictable. The only thing Maleficent wanted was to rescind, to set ablaze everything around her until the very same people who had underestimated her were begging for an inexistent mercy. With Hades, Mal didn't know what to expect.

"Like I said, Maleficent, I think we're done here," the god spoke up again, before one final wave of magic hit the ground under their feet. Mal was so tired that she let him do, planting her feet firmly on the floor so that Hades' power wouldn't make her fall instead of attempting a counterattack. Behind her, Ginny did trip.

And through it all, Mal knew that Hades was holding back. He was being mischievous, letting reckless magic play around him. Mal supposed he was only having fun, after having bottled the remnants of his Olympian magic for so long.

There was an instant of buzzing noise in her ear after Hades' magic receded. Breathing heavily, Mal let down a shaking hand to rest by her side. It took a moment for her sight to clear.

"You could have saved yourself a lot of trouble if you had accepted your defeat from the beginning," Hades offered, running a blue hand through his ablaze hair. "Enough of this already. Maleficent, Gin, allow me to introduce you to my daughter, Haidee."

Mal, who was still trying to catch her breath, raised her gaze to meet Hades. Her left hand was pinching at the bridge of her nose, and perhaps that was why it took so long for her eyes to focus.

When she finally did, Mal almost wished she had remained ignorant―standing next to Hades, with her head bowed down stood a girl. She looked young, not older than fourteen, with light-violet skin and a thin tunic that, unlike Hades', was a shiny white. Absently, Mal thought that it didn't look like hand-down clothes. In fact, Hades' tunic looked fairly new as well.

Mal presumed the girl had long hair, or at least very thick locks, as she had tied it into a complicated bun, placing a single white flower in the middle of her hair-do.

"You weren't lying," she let out, her most expressive thought.

"Really, child, you're such a fan of making things more complicated!" Hades dramatically rolled his eyes. "A simple phone call to Sephie would have earned you all of this trouble."

"Dad, there was no need to break a crack in the ground just to bring me here," the girl argued, her voice sounding like wind whistling through the branches of a tree. "You could have saved yourself a lot of energy too if you had let me walk."

"But you needed a memorable entrance, darling, we've talked about this," Hades brushed off, turning back to Ginny and Mal.

"Am I to assume your wife is this Sephie person you're talking about?" Mal questioned, too tired to even wonder about the crevasse in the ground. This was the Isle, and a split in its shore wasn't her problem. "The goddess of death?"

"Persephone is also the goddess of spring, you know? It's hard to get rid of old habits," Hades explained lazily. "Worry not, you mortals rarely get the chance to see us in your miserable lives. I am sure you won't even meet Sephie."

"I'll keep that in mind," Mal shrugged. It wouldn't be worth it arguing against Hades, she decided at last, especially not after seeing how easily he had defeated her even in his weakened state.

"Good. Now, Maleficent," Hades continued. "I am trusting you with my daughter's safe arrival to her family."

"Family is not word you hear in this place," Ginny said, staring intently at Hades now that she was standing up again.

"Well, they say there's a first time for everything, don't they?" the god counterattacked. "Besides, you are going to a place where it's widely common, so I'd suggest you get used to it."

"I'll have to say he's actually right on this one," Mal sighed.

There was a moment of silence in which Hades merely smirked at them, his left eyebrow raised as if he were expecting something from them. Finally, Mal realized he was waiting for her to say something.

With another sigh, Mal hefted her options. She could refuse to take Haidee with her and risk Hades' wrath. She could comply and do what the god was asking from her, although she didn't feel very attracted to that possibility.

On the other hand, neither did she feel like disobeying her orders and straightforwardly ignoring that girl plainly because her father had been a little indiscreet. To be fair, Hades, unlike a good number of the other villains, had never been disrespectful to her. Sure, Hades was extra and a bit overwhelming, but, until then, he hadn't lied to her or approached her with ulterior intentions.

In the end, what made her decision was a sense of duty that she was still trying to get used to―it made no sense to preach Auradon wanted to improve the children's life conditions and then reject someone based on their parentage. It would be stupid for her to refuse Haidee a place in her ship because she had argued with her father and then expect Auradonians to be welcoming towards the children, all thought of their parents forgotten.

"Get on the ship, Haidee. If nothing else happens we should be on our way soon" she rolled her eyes gesturing to the anchorage.

"Thank you, sweet pie. I knew you'd be understanding," Hades laughed, his left hand firmly placed on his daughter's shoulder. "My wife will take care of her, worry not about finding her a surrogate family."

Worry not, Mal grumbled, turning down to her watch. Worry not.

In the end, it turned out that being on Hades' good side wasn't a misguided decision after all, as he resulted unexpectedly helpful when it came to directing Mal to the children that hadn't arrived to the dock on their own. He also seemed strangely eager to withhold Hans, former prince of the Southern Isles, when Mal forced him to hand over his young son, Henry. And a little magic was certainly useful when Mal forced Desiree and Shui to leave their houses.

Mal handed her last badge a little before two thirty. They were two hours late, but she couldn't have cared less―the fifty three kids who would be her responsibility until they reached Auradon were on her ship, bags in their hands, knowing where they were going.

This was it. No more beating around the bush, no more postponing or avoiding issues. Before long, all of them would be seeing the Fairy-Tale-Land with their own eyes.

This was it, Mal sighed. The hard part of her job was done.

She couldn't have been more wrong.

Chapter Text

Tales of a Very Long Day

Of all the things Mal had thought she would do that day, establishing an alliance with Harriet Hook was not one of them. To be fair, though, nothing had really been going her way for at least a month.

Harriet had never been someone Mal rubbed shoulders with. True, she was a good fighter and a person you didn't want to have as an enemy, but unlike Jay, Mal had never been interested in holding friendly quarrels with her fellow islanders. Until then, they had lived politely ignoring each other.

There was no ignoring now, Mal knew that. Ever since she had arrived in Auradon, Mal's days going by unnoticed had ended. In the Isle, people had feared her, true, but no one had felt a morbid satisfaction in watching her, no one had dared to stare at her for too long.

It was different in Auradon. People felt curiosity, awe, not only because of her parentage, but because of her attire, of her looks, of the way she talked.

Perhaps that was why her return to the Isle had shocked her so much. She should have felt as if she were returning home, regardless of the bad memories she had of the place. Instead, she felt like a guinea pig taking part in an experiment―each one of her movements being closely watched by those in Auradon, and, now that she was back at the Isle, the only place she had believed she'd be able to melt into a well-known crowd, the very same people she had attended school with turned over their shoulders to inspect her, as if she were an exotic animal.

Before, people in Auradon had either watched her in fascination or distrust, the first desiring to see how different the islanders were from those who lived in the Fairy-Tale-Land, she supposed. The latter, because of her mother's deeds and her own bad attitude.

Three weeks in the past, as she left Auradon under the critical eyes of hundreds of Auradonians, Mal had felt she was under a different kind of attention. Some people still glared at her in distrust, but, mostly, there was expectation. Things wouldn't be the same after Ben's decree, no matter what came out of this... experiment.

So, in the end, it all boiled down to the fact that each of her movements was being closely followed and promptly judged now, both at Auradon and at the Isle.

For the islanders, who had never trusted her much in the first place, the change could probably be explained because now she looked more like an Auradonian than like someone born and raised in the Isle of the Lost. They couldn't be more wrong.

Harriet, despite not being someone who backed down from a fight or who hesitated to start one, seemed more approachable than a good number of the other kids the daughter of Maleficent was evacuating. If Mal had stopped long enough to actually ask herself why she had been so indifferent to the daughter of Hook before leaving for Auradon, she would have realized that her rejection towards Harriet was probably rooted in the fact that, before, she had not understood why she acted like she did.

More than once, Mal had watched Harriet enter a fight, sometimes barely winning, to defend a member of her crew. In return, those kids were ridiculously loyal to her, so Mal supposed that was some kind of retribution.

It still made no sense.

Harriet didn't need them, she could have been just as fine ―probably even better― without any kind of arrangement with her crew members. It was strange. Harriet couldn't be getting anything from those punks. Anything. Yet, the daughter of Hook had never complained.

She enjoyed being Captain Harriet, that much Mal knew for a fact. Still, Mal saw no logic in an alliance that brought more problems than it did advantages. Harriet's kids had to be the most similar to an Auradonian than Mal had seen in the Isle―they smiled and they trusted one another and they rushed to the defense of their equals when something happened.

Mal hadn't understood until she had found herself in Auradon with Evie and the boys. Before, as they were still at the Isle, Mal had learned to appreciate Evie's gentle voice and soft gestures, she had learned to admire Carlos' wit and quick mind. Before, she had already known the perks of having an alliance with Jay.

However, as they arrived to Auradon, Mal had felt a fierce fire ignite within herself every time someone questioned Evie about her parentage. She had felt defensive of Carlos every time someone so much as sent him a glare. She had changed so much that, one day, Mal found herself determined to not let Jay cross the campus on his own. Jay, who was strong and capable, just in case something went wrong.

She wasn't getting anything in return, no jewels and no favors, no rotten food or stolen goods. She wasn't receiving anything that she could have later sold at the bazaar, yet, Mal treasured it even more. For once in her life, Mal had people who were genuinely glad to see her alive, people who asked her opinion out of sincere interest, people who cared for her and who she remunerated by caring for them as well.

At the moment, Mal couldn't say that she understood Harriet's train of thought completely, but she was closer to doing it now. So much so, that Mal was actually considering starting an alliance with Harriet Hook.

That was why Mal wasn't surprised when she heard Harriet approach her from behind.

"You have no crew," the pseudo-pirate said nonchalantly.

"I have something better than that," Mal shrugged, summoning her magic to weigh anchors. Immediately, a wave of nausea hit her and blurred her vision.

"You expect magic to get you to Auradon?" Harriet accused.

"It was enough to bring me here, was it not?"

"I wouldn't call it reliable," Harriet huffed.

Instead of pointing out that Harriet's view of magic was biased due to her father's hatred towards it and the lack of it in her daily life, Mal raised a tired eyebrow.

"What do you want, Harriet?" she inquired.

"Me? I want nothing," the pirate said. "I'm just saying that magic will never be as reliable as a well-trained crew."

"And you would know about that," Mal rolled her eyes playfully. "Are you offering a solution or did you just come to criticize my work?"

"Well, if you wanted a crew... I mean, why wouldn't you? But, if you wanted to fix your obvious mistake... You have a capable crew aboard this ship."

"You mean a bunch of kids can actually get me to Auradon?"

"Hey! I trust my kids with my life," Harriet protested. "Here, how long did it take your fairy dust to bring you here?"

"When I came? Two hours, maybe," Mal shrugged.

"I'll get us to Auradon in an hour," the pirate decided.

Sighing, Mal weighed her options. She could let her pride get the best of her and refuse Harriet's help, which would force her to use her own magic to move the ship. Ever since the barrier's modifications, she hadn't been at her best, and the little show she'd played with Hades had only worsened the throbbing in her temples.

On the other hand, Mal could accept Harriet's offer and let her lead the way. Let her win a small battle so she realized Mal trusted her and that they were both on the same page.

"You have an hour and a half to impress me," Mal said at last. "Just get us to Auradon in one piece and it'll be enough."

"I said I'd do it in an hour," Harriet huffed, taking her right hand to her lips so she could whistle loudly.

Soon, the promised crew was running from one side to the other of the deck as Harriet barked orders at them.

"Sawyer, hoist the sails!" Mal heard the Harriet say. "Jamie, the crow's nest!"

This would be fun to watch, Mal decided, her eyes locked with the small island they were leaving behind for good.

–*–*–

In the end, it took them an hour and fifteen minutes to arrive to Auradon. Good time, Mal had to admit.

Unfortunately, she had no time to enjoy their small victory. Before they even touched shore at Auradon, music began to play, loud, boisterous and unexpected. Mal's hands gripped the ship's railing. This sounded like a terrible idea already.

It was too late for regrets, she mentally scolded herself. It was too late to send yet another letter or call Fayanna to remind her that, when she'd said a big crowd to welcome them was too much she hadn't been lying.

Resigned, Mal willed her breathing to come out evenly again. It was just a little music, she told herself, nothing she couldn't handle. Regrettably, in her life experience, things never changed for the better.

"What are you saying now, pixie?" Harriet said next to her. "You still think your silly magic is better than my boys?"

"I do," Mal brushed off nonchalantly. "But I'll admit you were... efficient."

"Land ho, land ho!" she heard Jamie shout from the crow's nest, a disregarded spyglass held to his right eye. Mal had never paid much attention to Harriet's younger brother, but Jamie Hook was a vivid illustration of his father, with jet-black strands of hair and a red jacket. Except that, instead of his father's trademark hook, Jamie had opted for wearing a black eyepatch on his left eye.

Land ho indeed, Mal smirked. They still had a few minutes before they official arrived, but Auradon's shore was perfectly visible now. You couldn't hide a 260-foot tall palace, after all. Neither could someone overlook the boisterous mob that had formed in front of the wharf.

Surprised that Harriet hadn't responded to Jamie, Mal turned over her shoulder, only to find Harriet's eyes glued to the landscape. Her right hand had moved to the hilt of a barely concealed sword on her side, but her fingers merely ghosted over the bronze-red piece.

"If you don't close that mouth you're gonna start catching flies," Mal reprimanded, trying to gulp down the lump in her throat. She couldn't blame the pirate for her bewilderment. The mainland was a sight worth admiring even when at the Isle. Being able to see it from up-close was breathtaking.

Shaking away the thoughts that had flooded her own mind when she'd first set eyes on the perfectly cleaned streets and pristine constructions, Mal walked away from the pirate, who didn't seem to have come out of her astonishment yet. Walking over to the helm so she could see the whole deck at the same time, Mal smirked.

"Everyone, be welcomed to the United States of Auradon," she announced calmly. "King Benjamin will aboard the ship to give you an announcement as soon as we touch shore. He will answer any questions you may have, and explain the reason for his decree to you. That is all I can tell you for the time being."

She hated speaking in public, Mal thought absently once the last of the words had left her lips. She detested knowing she was the center of attention because she was actively seeking for it, instead of being politely ignored or recognized for something she'd done. Mostly, she disliked the fact that she could never prepare herself for the reaction her listeners would have.

Sometimes, she could make a guess. She could, if she tried hard enough, get an idea of what they would think of her. That worked better with the islanders, as she understood their train of thought better. It didn't seem to be useful when it came to Auradonians. By happy chance, it seemed that the passengers of the Pharaoh were still too astonished with the view to even pay attention to her. That was alright, as Mal supposed it made her job easier.

From that moment on, everything started happening very fast. Harriet, now composed, barked something to Anthony and Sawyer about the sails, and CJ took Jamie's place in the helm.

Ashore, the hundreds of face-less people that had gathered to welcome the ship started to become recognizable at last. Heading the crowd, Mal distinguished Ben, pure golden locks of hair glimmering under the summer sun and a smile clear on his face. Next to him, with a bunch of binders in her hands, stood Evie. Knowing that she wouldn't be the only one in charge soon enough, Mal let go of a sigh she hadn't even realized she'd been holding.

Behind Ben, Mal caught a glimpse of Belle and Adam, the personification of a formal greeting, their heads raised high in the air and a gentle smile in their lips. Fayanna, with her hands entwined, stood next to the former sovereigns. Then… there was the one thing Mal could honestly say she recognized―over the music and the clapping, Mal heard a wolf whistle. Silly her, she had almost forgotten Jay and Carlos would be there too.

Now that she stopped to think about it, it was ridiculous that she hadn't noticed them before. Beaming and waving besides the royal family with their hands over their heads, they were the opposite of the perfect propriety the surrounding princes and princesses were exhibiting. Mal had to do a double take when her eyes glanced at the son of Jafar. At first, she had thought he was only wearing loose-fitting pants, like she'd seen him do before. However, when a sudden, albeit gentle, rush of wind fanned the piece of clothing and blew it uniformly Mal realized he was wearing the skirt Evie had promised to make barely two months in the past.

Her eyes narrowed and she almost burst out laughing. Evie had done a wonderful job allowing the sarong to seem normal. The red fabric was a perfect example of Jay's usual attire, a golden cobra sewn with sequins on the right side. It almost gave the impression of the animal slidding on Jay's leg. It didn't help that, apart from insinuating he was perfectly comfortable with it, Jay even looked good with the damn thing on.

In all honesty, Mal had never stopped to think how her return ―their arrival― to Auradon would be. She had known all along that it would happen, she'd held the marked date in the calendar close to her heart. For weeks, Mal had counted the days until she went back to the pastel curtains and pompous dresses, but she hadn't reflected on what she would feel once that happened.

She hadn't expected to feel relief once the silhouette of the palaces became something more than a distant part of the view. She hadn't counted with how her shoulders slumped, losing a part of their tension, as soon as Evie's fidgety figure came into view. Hell, she was even glad to see Jay and Carlos.

Ben's boarding to the vessel was calmer than Mal had predicted. There were still some screams of disapproval and a couple of impolite comments, but, for the most part, it seemed that the islanders were still too out of their element to represent a real threat. Perhaps it was more a matter of strategy than anything else―it would have been stupid to act right then when they hadn't even touched Auradonian land.

Nevertheless, at the moment Mal had been busying herself with worry too stubbornly to consider what had motivated her peers to not boycott the whole project right then and there. It also helped that Yen Sid, always a calming presence, was right there to tell his former students to cool down.

"Good afternoon," Ben began, taking the place Mal had also used next to the helm. "In representation of the United States of Auradon I want to welcome all of you to the mainland. As I'm sure that you have a lot of questions, I'll try to answer what I think will be the most important ones. In case I do not cover your concerns, please feel free to ask them at the end of this announcement. You're also welcomed to approach me or Mal if something is not made clear or if you would like to know more about it."

He made a pause, perhaps expecting someone to raise a hand and question him. Surprisingly, the ship remained silent, and apart from a few glares in his direction, none of the islanders made an attempt to communicate with the king.

Mal stood to Ben's right now, the identification hanging heavily from her neck, but visible, so that the islanders could see it. In the lapel of her jacket she had placed the Dragon of the Kingdom badge, after having safely kept it away during her stay at the Isle. Evie, who had boarded the ship with the king and hadn't had enough time to welcome her friend back, took the place to Ben's left side.

Before it had been difficult to notice, but now that Mal stood next to Ben and Evie, it was clear as a bell―Mal's clothes, a mix of pitch black and purple-dyed leather had not been manufactured at Auradon. She had chosen to wear her own clothes, the ones that she'd left at the Isle instead of wearing any of the outfits she'd gotten from Auradon. Perhaps the message wasn't clear for their fellow islanders, but Evie thought Auradonians would find Mal's statement to be quite bold―she belonged to the Isle, and no amount of glitter would change that.

"As you already know," Mal pipped in, deciding that that it would be better that they heard her talk rather than Ben. "Benjamin's first decree as king was to make it so that anyone born at the Isle would have the right to come to Auradon and live here."

"Six months ago, the first part of this project began," Ben relieved her. "With the arrival of four of the Isle children to Auradon. However, we decided that, given the current circumstances, we needed a more extensive approach. Therefore, instead of bringing you to the mainland in small groups, we have now brought all of you at the same time."

"This change also required that we did some modifications to the original plan, hence the creation of a new title, the Ambassador of the Isle of the Lost," Evie pipped in with her sweet voice, a desperate attempt to catch her peers' attention and prevent an outburst. "Last month, as you already know, Mal's designation as the Dragon of the Kingdom took place and the arrangements to bring all of you to Auradon began."

"Auradon is deeply honored to be part of a movement that will bring equality and change to our land," Ben began in a deep voice, his eyes slowly moving from one side of the ship to the other, trying to make everyone feel included. "We humbly invite each of you to take this opportunity of unification and use it to strengthen the bonds between the mainland and the Isle of the Lost. We need not view each other as foes, for we are all leaves of the same tree."

"In the pursuit of this objective," Evie cut him off in her gentlest voice. "We decided to precipitance the original plan. Now, why don't we let our Ambassador tell us more about this project and how it will be developed?"

Mechanically, their audience turned around to focus on Mal, raised eyebrows and impassive faces. She knew at that very moment that nothing she said would have made them agree with her.

"Right, the project..." she began, nervous eyes scanning the faces in front of her. "Last time... Given the obvious differences between the Isle and Auradon, the first attempt at this project included a subject that was supposed to teach the... Isle children what living in Auradon meant."

"So Auradon's arrogance went as far as for them to give you a lecture on it?" came the kids' first effort to establish a contact with them.

"Several ones, actually," Evie giggled apprehensively, gesturing for Ben to remain quiet.

"It didn't work," Mal summarized, taking a deep breath. "But I'm not sure you will like the... solution we came up with either."

"What?" she heard several people hiss. Before all Hell broke loose, Yen Sid stepped forward and raised both hands above his head, the message clear―focus on me.

"Children, why don't we let them finish?" he said simply, not even raising his voice. "I'm sure you'll be free to ask your questions at the end." With that, all eyes were back on Mal.

"Right," she nodded, clearing her throat. "First let me tell you that you've arrived only a week before schools here close over for summer vacations, as did Dragon Hall and Witch School back at the Isle. Therefore, you couldn't be assigned a tutor from the school, which is why your... em... tutors had to come from outside."

"Tutors? What are you talking about now?" came one of the Gastons' voice, raspy and taunting.

"Children," Yen Sid scolded, his voice no more than a whisper.

"Each of you will be assigned with a family of heroes so you can learn how things work here," Mal finally exclaimed. As soon as the words had left her lips, silence fell on the deck, like the calm before the storm.

Pursing her lips, Mal barely had time to brace herself for the explosion of complaints and surprised noises. Based on Ben's grimace, Mal could safely assume that there had also been some insults, though she hadn't been paying enough attention to actually pick on that.

"Enough!" she called, raising her left hand above her head. "This is not subjected to your approval, it is not a suggestion!"

"This was not part of the plan!" Ginny accused, straightened from the rail of the ship she had been leaning on until then. "You never said you would pair us up with―"

"I told you I would get you out of the Isle and I did. I told you I would feed you and I did. When did I lie to you, Genevieve?" Mal shot back without missing a beat, piercing eyes focused on Gothel's daughter.

"You weren't honest, either," Doretta spoke up from the back.

"We're suddenly speaking about honesty?" Mal growled through gritted teeth. "I'm not asking your opinion, get used to that. This is not a matter of whether or not if you agree with the steps we're taking. The decision is out of your hand."

"And it was placed in yours because..." Anthony hinted, arms crossed over his chest.

"Funny that you ask," the daughter of Maleficent replied. "Because I didn't want any of this to become my business. However," she cut them with a glare before they could interrupt her again. "I figured that if Auradonians wanted to go through all of the nonsense of creating an ambassador, at least it could be someone from the Isle and not a princess. Would you want it that way, because we can arrange it."

"Is that supposed to be a threat?" Shui, Shan Yu's daughter spoke for the first time, her eyes seeming more interested in examining her nails than in her interlocutor.

"This was a warning," Mal scoffed. "When I threaten you, you will know."

"Guys, let's be reasonable," Evie, always the voice of patience, spoke up. "You've just arrived, we don't want to make you feel unwelcomed. This is meant to be a day to celebrate, not to fight. Please let Mal finish. I promise you that not everything she has to say is bad news."

Slowly and with more than a few groans of disagreement, they shifted their weights and nodded. Taking the lack of spoken complaints as a good sign, Mal cleared her throat.

"Now, as I was saying, each of you has been assigned a family of heroes," she repeated. "In a month from now we have scheduled a meeting. Both the heroes and us will gather, in separate rooms, and... and compare what being here has been for each of us."

"Will we eat cakes and sing in unison?" Desiree, the oldest of Drizella's daughters taunted, rearranging the bow in her head.

"You wouldn't know what a cake tastes like," Mal snapped, feeling her impatience grow. "Also, I expect that, since you won't be starved nearly to death your first priority won't be to be fed."

Her words, an unwelcomed reminder of what they had just left behind were enough to bring sour expressions to their faces and, finally, silence them.

"Now, it is mandatory that you stay with the tutor you were assigned for a week. After that, you are free to approach any of us and inform us if something with said hero doesn't seem to be coming through," the daughter of Maleficent continued with a deep breath. "It is possible to change tutors. Sending you back to the Isle will not be, under any circumstance, an option."

"What?" Claudine hissed like a hurt animal. "I didn't even want to come here! I shouldn't have boarded the ship!"

"Miss Frollo," Ben spoke up for the first time since hell had broken loose. Immediately, Ginny stepped forward, blue eyes glaring at the king. Claudine tensed, her jaw set firmly. "Please don't say that. We are trying our best to improve the conditions in the―"

"You don't get a say in this," Ginny snarled. "If it weren't for you and your daddy there wouldn't be anything to improve." Hums of agreement echoed through the ship.

"Please don't talk, Ben," Evie let out in an undertone. "Please."

"Going back is not an option, that's final. And, in case your amnesia is kicking in again, I am fairly sure I did mention this was a one-way ticket trip when I told you to pack your bags."

"You did," Mayra nodded simply, as if she had begun to pay attention the discussion right then. "You said to pack widely."

"Wisely," Mal corrected, feeling a wave of relief now that one of them was on her side. "I told you to choose your luggage carefully because you were not going back. Any other stupid questions or can I move on?"

"This is an outrage!" Claudine cried once more, her chest coming up and down heavily with frustration. No one seconded her and she remained silent after that.

For what seemed to be the millionth time that day, Mal took a deep breath and braced herself to continue.

"To recapitulate―you will be placed with a family of heroes, with whom it is mandatory that you remain for at least a week, after which you will be able to change tutors," she repeated in a rushed breath. "You do not get to choose said tutors, you can give suggestions and complain all you want, but the final word is left to us. Any questions up to here?"

"What difference does it make?" one of the step-granddaughters scoffed, rearranging a hideous choker around her neck.

Biting the insides of her right cheek, Mal stopped herself from rolling her eyes.

"Good," she deadpanned. "Also, in a month from now we are set to meet again and discuss the tutors part and any questions or complaints you may have. Until then, you are to follow instructions. Now, since your return to the Isle is not an option, come September you will start attending classes in an Auradonian school. With that said, we will start calling you so you can receive your Auradonian passport, your acceptance letter to your new school and another sheet displaying the information of a diagnosis test you will have to take."

"Excuse me?" Yzla cried, brow furrowed.

"It is only natural that they'll need an evaluation," Yen Sid agreed calmly. "In case you need any help, I'll gladly give you any counseling you need."

"Thank you," Mal offered wholeheartedly, a simple nod of her head directed to the former teacher before she turned back to face the crowd in front of her. "I will not tell you that the heroes you're placed with were randomly selected or that they were raffled. However, you were placed with that who we think will be the most beneficious match for you at the moment. Any questions?"

Silence, heavy and pregnant with uneasiness was all the answer she received, thus she continued.

"Among the papers you will also receive a way to contact us, in case something goes wro―"

"To contact who, exactly?" Daryn inquired in a high-pitched voice.

"Mal or I, no Auradonian politics involved," Evie supplied quickly.

"So you're trying to bring the Isle to Auradon," the other one of Gaston's son affirmed flatly.

"Absolutely not," Mal rolled her eyes. "What we are trying to do ―intention that I haven't even been discreet about― is to bring you to Auradon. And if you know what's good for you, you will shut up and start cooperating."

Before the impression of Mal's menace wore off, Harriet stepped to the front, until she was only three feet away from them, her blue dress a brutal contrast to her sister's red cape. Mal had always thought she wore blue to make the differences between CJ and her impossible to miss. Regardless, both CJ and Sawyer, Smee and Le Fou's older son, now stood to Harriet's sides, braced for a fight.

"What's the catch, Mal?" Harriet questioned simply, loud enough to be heard by everyone even when she had barely raised her voice.

"Excuse me?"

"What's the catch, Mal?" she repeated, exaggerating her gestures. "What are you hiding from us?"

"What makes you think I would do such a thing?" the daughter of Maleficent deadpanned.

"Maybe the fact that you have done so before!" Harriet roared. "You come back, after six months of absence, months during which you didn't try to establish any kind of contact with anyone from the Isle, months during which we all saw you in your pastel dresses, all smiles and courtesies, what makes you think that we―"

"Miss Hook, please maybe we can―"

"That was not directed to you, prince," Harriet snapped, not looking away from Mal for a second. "I'm talking to pixie here."

"Ben, please don't say anything," Evie pipped in nervously.

"But―"

"Let us handle this, we know what to do," the daughter of the Evil Queen offered gently. "Please."

"Answer me, Mal, what makes you think we would put our lives in your hands?"

"Alright, everyone, listen up," the daughter of Maleficent began tiredly, raising her voice for the first time. "If I wanted you dead, I would have killed you already. I could have poisoned you, which we had already established, is not my style. Look, you know me better than this. I'm very capable of killing you with my own two hands. You are still here, therefore I don't want you dead."

"Mal, please―"

"We'll handle this, Ben, everything is just dandy."

"Why are you doing this, Mal?" Harriet shot back, nervous eyes critically following every small twitch in her interlocutor's muscles.

"Listen, we've been planning this for months, we have carefully matched each of you to a hero, working around the clock to be ready on time," Mal offered honestly. "You don't get to tell me that I've been lying all along."

"Is that so?" Ginny bellowed. "You left for six months and then came back, with your mouth full of promises and fantasies and you expect us to believe you? You were never someone charitable, why would you be now?"

For a moment, Mal closed her eyes and tried to get rid of the tension in her back muscles, just above the shoulder blade. She had expected this day to be chaotic, but this was getting out of hand.

"You learn things, and you unlearn as well," she let out in an undertone. "I haven't spent the last six months smiling at some idiot to take pictures of me like you seem to believe I did. This goes without saying, Auradon is different from the Isle. This is not what you are used to. I'm just trying to make this change more manageable."

"That still doesn't answer my question, Maleficent!" Harriet snapped. "Why are you doing this?"

"Enough!" Mal thundered, taking a step forward to match Harriet. "You've had weeks to question me and my intentions, and I have answered the same damn thing over and over because it's true! You're asking the wrong questions and to the wrong people."

"Is that so?" CJ inquired. "Then what should we be asking?"

"Change your victim, for once," Mal replied simply. "Ask Evie why she agrees with this. Get off this fucking ship and question Freddie and Jay, ask them why they didn't want to go back. Better yet, why don't you ask Benjamin how he even came up with this insane idea? Ask him why he decided to risk the trust of his people just to bring you here!"

"Mal, don't say that…" the king tried once more.

"Am I wrong?"

"No, nothing you said was inaccurate," Ben conceded with a defeated sigh.

"Good, that's all I need to know," Mal scoffed, returning her attention to the daughter of Hook. "I'm not lying, Harriet."

"Mom said we could trust you," Mayra offered in a soft voice that somehow managed to be heard now that they all seemed to be holding their breaths. Besides her, Melvin huffed, maybe confirming the girl's words while stating his disagreement.

"Thank you, Mayra. First good thing that's happened to me today," Mal sighed.

"My dad said the same thing," a new voice spoke, gently, not quite used to be heard.

"And you are?" Desiree questioned flatly, as everyone's head left Mal alone and turned to where the voice had come from. Overwhelmed at the sudden attention, the girl focused her eyes on the floor, hands transformed into small fists.

"Haidee, Hades' daughter," Ginny informed rapidly, before Mal had time to process the question. The affirmation, coming from someone who was on their side rather than from Mal seemed to please the children, and soon their attention had returned to the daughter of Maleficent.

"Thank you as well," Mal offered. "Both your parents are quickly becoming my favorite people."

Trying to dissolve the heavy atmosphere around them, Evie took the floor once more.

"Guys, please, get off this ship and try it. We are just arguing with each other, when that's not going to take us anywhere," she explained with a charming smile. "We have to work together."

"You wanted out and you got it," Mal seconded. "Don't tell me this is not what you wanted, you're here already! Away from your parents and away from the Isle!"

The silence, more surprised than a sign of agreement, lasted only a few seconds.

"What an opportunity!" someone snickered in a raspy voice. "Let's get off this fucking ship already and let's enjoy it!"

"Yeah, Shui, that's... exactly what I've been trying to make you understand," Mal offered, unsure of Shan Yu's intentions as the Hun stepped forward, making the other passengers part to make space for her.

"Well, then, get me those damn papers and let's get this over with," she laughed again, standing closer to Mal than Harriet.

"Evie, get me the... the folder," the daughter of Maleficent instructed, confused by the sudden change of opinion from the Hun. Out of the corner of her eye, Mal caught Desiree nodding at one of the Gastons. Instantly, her guard was up.

With a quick gesture of agreement, Evie searched the folders in her hands until she found the ones corresponding to Shan Yu's spawn. Raising her left hand to her ear she activated a small microphone.

"Jordan? Yeah, get me the Li family please," she said, handing the papers over to Mal.

"Very well, it seems you will be the first one to disembark," the daughter of Maleficent decided, offering them their respective binders. "Shui and Shun Yu, son and daughter of Shan Yu, welcome to Auradon."

"You will be staying with Li Shang and Li Mulan," Evie smiled excitedly.

Shui, tall for her age, had a devious smirk in place when she received the papers. She had her father's eyes―filled with spite and mockery. For what Mal knew, she was the head of the Hun new generation. They said she was a worthy enemy, though Mal had never feared her much; neither had she crossed swords with her. The Huns lived in the east side of the Isle and they mostly kept to themselves. They had their own bazaar and solved their dealings on their own. No one was particularly excited to earn their hatred, and no one knew much about them either.

Shun, a year or two older than Shui, was Shan Yu's disgrace. He had the body of a fighter, broad muscles and quick reflexes, but it was rumored he wasn't as gifted when it came to an actual combat. Furthermore, he didn't like fighting and he wasn't coy about his opinion. Therefore, instead of his father gifting him with an army of brand new Huns, Shan Yu had decided Shui would be his successor. The girl enjoyed the title much more than her brother would ever do.

"Alright," Mal cleared her throat as soon as the siblings had left the ship, being received by Jordan and Jay in Auradon. If everything went according to the plan, they would direct them to their surrogate family, all of which had been waiting for their arrival since one in the afternoon.

"This proves nothing," Claudine was soon to inform. "You still owe us several explanations.

"Like what?" Mal conceded.

"What comes after leaving the ship, for instance," Doretta seconded.

"After this, Auradon," Evie answered quickly. "Saying anything else would ruin the surprise, don't you think?"

"I'm not lying, Harriet," Mal repeated, uncaring to whatever Evie was telling Doretta and Ginny. "You want them safe, I want the same thing."

"You're gonna need a lot more to buy my vote, Mal," the pirate spat.

"All of the siblings stay together," Mal offered, deciding honesty would be the only thing to win her trust. "I tried to keep your guys close enough for them to visit each other. That's all I can give you."

Slowly, Harriet weighed her options, nervous eyes turning minutely at Ben. She threw her shoulders back and sighed.

"We're not going back, are we?" she asked, defeat barely audible in her voice.

"We're not," Mal confirmed. "C'mon, Harriet, they trust you to look after them, I've seen you. You wouldn't let them leave your ship unless they had a partner. You've fought against the Gastons over them so much as glaring at your crewmembers."

"They're minions, nothing else," Harriet forced herself to say nonchalantly. "They can't work for me if they get themselves killed."

"They're not minions," the daughter of Maleficent replied. "They're your family. They have been for more than a generation, given the fact that most of them are the children of your father's crew."

"My father never―"

"Six months ago I would have gone after them just to break you," Mal noted, not a hint of shame in her voice. "I didn't do so because I was never overly-fond of my mother's ideas."

"Debatable," Harriet rolled her eyes.

"Listen, I didn't understand. Now I do," she continued. "We both want the same thing, Harriet. You want to keep them safe, I can give you that. Just cut me some slack."

"I don't think we're after the same thing, Mal. I don't think so."

"You've done a good job caring for them until now. Let me lend you a hand."

"You're all promises and no results. I'm not risking them," Harriet denied, her jaw set tight.

"Give me a week to prove myself and if things are not working we'll figure something else out," the daughter of Maleficent answered quickly, almost desperate.

"A week?"

"Not a day more," Mal agreed. "They trust you, set an example. That's all I'm asking from you."

For a moment, Harriet didn't say anything. Her black eyes scanning Mal up and down, calculating Finally, she sighed.

"If the next time I see them they so much as―"

"You will come after my head, I get it," Mal agreed. There was no way she would let something in this do wrong.

"Everyone, listen up!" Harriet called, turning away from Mal. "We'll do it."

"What? Harriet, are you out of your mind?" CJ demanded, taking a step forward to catch up with her sister. "What in the name of the Seven Seas are you―"

"We'll do it," Harriet spat, silencing her sister.

"Wonderful," Mal let out surprisedly. "In that case, Harriet, CJ and James Hook, you will be placed with―"

"No," the pirate cut her. "I'm not leaving this ship until the last of my kids is out."

Of course, Mal thought, repressing a smile.

"Be my guest," she said, gesturing to the spot to her right. Turning to Evie, Mal have a small nod.

"Okay, now... let me see..." she began after fiddling with the folders in her hands, she finally found the two she'd been looking for and handed them over to Mal. "Jordan, get me Jane. No, not Tarzan's Jane. Yeah, that one. Thank you."

"Samuel and Sawyer, sons of Le Fou and Mister Smee," the daughter of Maleficent announced, locking eyes with Harriet. When the pirate nodded her agreement, Mal continued. "You are to stay with Jane Rees*."

"Wendy's daughter?" CJ exclaimed.

"Yes, is there a problem?" Ben questioned, another ignored attempt to become part of the conversation.

"You don't expect them to be with her, do you?" CJ continued with a growl.

"On the contrary, I do."

"We would never―"

"That's why it's them staying at Jane's and not you and your siblings."

"This is outrageous!" Hook's second daughter claimed. "Of all the terrible ideas you've had―!"

"Knock it off," Harriet ordered. "We're doing things their way for now."

"Captain, are you sure?" Sawyer asked, focusing solely on Harriet.

"I am," she nodded. "For the time being, blend in, do what they tell you to. If my orders change I'll let you know."

Almost negligibly, the boy nodded, and received the papers in Mal's hands. That was all it took, a simple gesture of agreement from Harriet and things started flowing quite nicely.

For the next fifteen or twenty minutes, they called Harriet's crew. One by one, handing out their papers just after Harriet had confirmed her instructions.

They began with Francis, Freddie's younger brother, then Sadie, the daughter of Starkey, then Cecco's twins, Calynda and Cappi. Halfway through it, Mal was surprised with the fact that none of the kids protested. Not even Bill Junkes' children Bruce, Brad and Brent, who were at least two foot taller than Harriet, dared question her decision. By the time they finished, the last of the kids being Everett, Ed Teynte's son, Mal was ready to call it a day and just go home.

Unfortunately, that was not an option.

"Alright, I think we are done," Evie offered chirped, turning to Harriet. "Now you can go down and meet with―"

"Not yet," Harriet denied simply. "Morgana's kids are still here."

"Are they yours now?" Mal raised an eyebrow. Harriet shrugged. "Very well, then."

When Mal called them, Mayra walked over to them with a smile, for a change, and Mal let out a relieved sigh. Melvin was another story, as he hadn't stopped glaring at her throughout the introductions.

"Will you tell mom that we arrived?" Mayra asked, leaning closer into Mal.

"Sure thing," she nodded with an unexpected smile. "What about you, Melvin? Do you want me to tell her something?"

Refusing to give a straight answer, the boy merely shook his head, dull green eyes turned to the ground. It didn't take much of Mal to recognize that neither of Morgana's children were sure of what to expect now that they had actually arrived to Auradon and everything that their mother had been able to tell them wasn't useful anymore.

Stupid Auradonian policies, Mal allowed herself to think for a moment, before sighing. She squatted down.

"Here, I have a surprise for you," she offered, taking the hand Mayra been clutching the stuffed octopus with into hers. Conscious of the effort it would take of her, Mal closed her eyes before she summoned the familiar tingling of magic to her palm. Opening up her hand, she offered a bright wrapping to the girl.

"Chocolate!" Mayra squealed in delight, remembering the identical candy Mal had given her all those days in the past.

"Indeed," she nodded, unable to hold back a smirk that, somehow, didn't seem a mockery. Mentally rolling her eyes, Mal then gestured for Melvin to approach her. "Here, you too," she offered an exact copy of the sweet she had given Mayra. "Are you sure there's nothing you want me to tell your mother?"

"No," Melvin replied this time, though he actually reached out and took the candy.

"Good, listen, you are going to be staying with Ariel and Eric, do you know who they are?"

"Yep," the girl said, nibbling the piece of chocolate. Melvin only nodded.

"Alright," she nodded. "Now, they are nice people, okay? But if there's a problem or if you don't like anything about them I want you to call me and tell me, understood?"

"Even if they smell weird?"

"Yeah, even that," Mal nodded. "Now, what did your mom tell you to do?"

"She said that she wanted us to be good," Mayra informed solicitously. Her brother grunted in response.

"Then do just that and everything will be fine," Mal concluded, standing up again. "Follow Ben, he will take you with Ariel and Eric."

Ben, relieved to be finally taken into account, happily obliged. He took both of the kids' folders from Evie and then offered his right hand to Mayra, who took it without second thoughts. Melvin settled for only following him.

They had decided that, in the cases of kids younger than twelve years old, who had no older siblings, the papers should be delivered directly to the tutors, to ensure that they weren't lost. As a preventive measure, either Evie or Ben were also accompanying the kids as they descended from the ship.

"Is that what I thought it was?" Harriet snickered behind her. "You just gave Morgana's kid a sweet?"

"I'm half fairy. You know changelings are a thing, don't you?" she rolled her eyes.

"That must be it," the pirate brushed away.

"Does it matter?" the daughter of Maleficent question. "Who are we missing?"

"Anthony and Dizzy."

"Anthony? As in Tremaine, Anastasia's son?" Mal questioned quickly, turning over her shoulder to fully face Harriet instead of only keeping an eye on the pirate with her peripheral vision.

"Yeah. Got a problem with it?" Harriet spat.

"He doesn't give me the pirate vibe," Mal justified. For all answer, Harriet scoffed. "Never mind, call him."

When Anthony Tremaine approached them, Mal's first surprise was the fact that Dizzy followed him closely, a bright smile in her lips. With his right hand, Anthony was supporting Dulcie on his right hip. Her second shock was how Harriet's shoulders lost part of their stiffness.

"Evie!" Dizzy cried, throwing her arms around Grimhilde's daughter.

"There you are!" Evie laughed, returning the sudden embrace.

"I'm so glad that we're here!" the daughter of Drizella.

"It's good to see you too," Evie agreed. "I'm sure you'll like this place. There's so much I want to show you. For example, the―"

"That will have to wait for when they are settled," Mal cut her with an apologetic smile.

"Right. I'll have to show you around my workshop as soon as you get comfortable," Evie nodded, sending Dizzy a charming smile to rival her own.

"Either way, Anthony, you are going to be staying with Cinderella and her husband, King Charles."

"Good," he shrugged. "So, are you going to give me the girl's papers and we all―"

"No, I think you misunderstood," Mal denied quickly, catching Anastasia's son's nervous glance towards his cousins. "You are the only one who will be staying at Bourgogne. Drizella's daughters were matched with someone else."

"Pardon me?" he breathed out, truly flabbergasted.

"You are the only one who will be staying with Cinderella," Mal explained quickly. "Drizella's kids are going to be staying at the Fairy Godmother's."

"That... that is not what you said a moment ago, you said that families―"

"I said that siblings remained together. You're their cousin. They are sisters, that's why they'll all be sent with Fayanna," the daughter of Maleficent argued. Anthony's arms tightened around Dulcie.

"They will be looked after, Anthony," Evie pipped in, once again coming to Mal's rescue. Her arms were still placed around Dizzy. "I promise you."

"Send Desiree and Doretta away, but Dulcie and the others shouldn't―"

"I can't do that," the daughter of Maleficent denied. "You were placed close enough to visit them. Auradon city is only half an hour away from Bourgogne."

"No," Anthony answered quickly. "You can't―"

"Anthony," Harriet hissed. "Calm down."

"What? You agree with this baloney?"

"Indeed," she replied through gritted teeth. "For the moment."

"This is the single worst thing that could have occurred to you!" Anthony cried.

"Anthony," the pirate cut him again.

"Harriet," he shot back, jaw set tight in a plea.

"Trust me on this one," she let out in an undertone. "If something happens to them I will personally hold whoever is responsible accountable for it. Don't start firing cannons when you have no ammunition."

"Harriet, don't―"

"It's final, Anthony," she interrupted. "Please."

"Fine," he spat venomously. When he finally broke the eye-contact with Harriet, Mal caught the pirate biting her lower lip in worry.

Slowly, Anthony leaned down to place Dulcie on the floor. He gave a half-hearted gesture to Dizzy, who disentangled herself from Evie's embrace and approached him. She had attentively followed the conversation, losing the enthusiasm in her smile as she saw her cousin's reaction.

"We will be okay," she forced in a strangled voice. Anthony brushed her words away.

"Take care of your sister," he instructed, gently pushing Dulcie towards Dizzy. "Behave."

"I'll make sure that they are fine," Evie offered timidly. "I promise you that―"

"It's not you I don't trust," Anastasia's son grunted, eyeing Ben with throbbing spite. With that, he was gone.

"Harriet, I'm sorry if―"

"Call the girls," the daughter of Hook barked, instantly silencing an amused Mal. "Let's get this over with."

Instead of calling them each by her name, Mal settled for saying 'Drizella's daughters', as she doubted she could list them by memory. Besides, it would have been too tedious.

"One, two, three, four―"

"You're missing Desiree," Doretta informed flatly with a roll of her eyes.

"Right," Mal nodded. Point proven―she couldn't remember all of them.

Desiree, the oldest of the clan, was probably the one Mal had spoken the less to. She wasn't an approachable person, exactly, and while that wasn't a surprise, the fact that she wasn't a leader made her even less interesting.

From what Mal had learned during her brief stay at the Isle, she was one of Shui's followers. That in itself was strange―the Huns were distrustful people, they didn't appreciate it when others mingled with their things. It made Mal's skin crawl to think that there was a reason Shui had an interest in someone like Desiree.

When the oldest daughter of Drizella finally arrived, she did with an unamused stare towards Mal and an exaggerated a giggle. She limped, but made up for it with ice-cold eyes and a strenuous laugh. They had amputated her left leg five or six years in the past, after a bad run in with Gaston.

In all honesty, Mal didn't know exactly what had happened, but she had heard that Desiree had simply been in the wrong place at the wrong time. Whatever had happened, ever since the incident, Desiree had only worn long dresses, pompous, to cover up the fact that there was a missing part in her body.

"Heard you were calling me," she winked an eye at Ben. The poor king looked more surprised by the fact that one of them was actually talking to him than by Desiree's actions.

"Then you're not hearing very well because that was ten minutes ago," Mal spat before she could stop herself. Desiree returned a fuming glare.

"Don't fight," Evie instructed rapidly. "Here. You will be staying with Fay, also known as the Fairy Godmother. Do you have any questions?"

"Only if that is close to you, prince," Desiree laughed, showing off her graciousness, or lack of it.

"He is a king," Mal pointed out before Ben had time to react. "And, yes, Auradon City is exactly where the King of Auradon lives. Are you ready to get going?"

Her answers were a number of grumbles, therefore she assumed there were no more questions. For a reason that she would later be unable to explain, Mal decided to hand the younger girl's papers to Doretta and not Desiree. So far, Doretta hadn't argued with her.

"It will be alright," she heard Evie whisper as she leaned down to hug Dizzy. "Just... if something goes wrong, you know where to find me, okay?" Dizzy nodded repeatedly.

"What now?" Mal said once the girls were gone.

"My crew is out," Harriet replied. "Give me the papers so my siblings and I can get going."

Harriet, Jessamine ―CJ's full name, Mal wasn't surprised she went by a pseudonym― and James Hook Jr. would be staying with Mrs. Potts, as Mal hadn't been keen on sending them to Never Land.

Given Desiree's response, Mal supposed that Shui's tribe wouldn't be much of a problem. They only had thirty more kids to sort out. For at least forty more minutes, they called Shui's gang. They were more manageable than Mal had expected they would be, given the Huns' reputation.

Once both Shui's and Harriet's crews had come off the ship, they faced the real challenges. To avoid problems, Mal decided to call Haidee first. It proved to be an intelligent move, as Haidee didn't argue against her and simply gathered her things and went ashore.

As it turned out, Persephone was a tall woman, with golden-blonde hair she had pulled up in a high ponytail. Her skin, a light pink became even more noticeable as it contrasted with the pure white of her tunic. Placed right next to her hair-tie, Persephone sported an exact copy of the narcissus her daughter wore in her own hair.

Upon seeing Haidee, Persephone threw her arms around the young girl immediately, the daughter of Hades was engaged in a conversation, between Persephone and two other women that wore similar attires. To Mal, it seemed Persephone was doing most of the talking and the others simply nodded.

After her, Mal decided to continue with Ginny. She had been arguably one of the least problematic children, and though she was remarkably distrusting, she had only expressed her caution in loud accusations.

Unfortunately, Genevieve wasn't very pleased when she found out that her legal guardian henceforward would be Rapunzel, the same woman Gothel had kidnapped and raised in a tower. It was a trap, Ginny argued, they had been brought to Auradon with the false promise of a place where they could escape their parents. According to her, this was a fucking despicable

This was getting rather boring, Mal sighed. Again, she explained that the decision was final, that Ginny would have to live with Rapunzel and Eugene for at least a week before Mal could move her strings and actually change her surrogate family. To herself, Mal thought that it made no sense―Rapunzel had lived with Gothel for longer than Ginny, she had been raised by the woman that had flunked her own daughter in Selfishness 101 simply because Ginny had grown bored and started taking pictures of the waves at the shore instead of focusing in her own attributes and turning in a box filled with selfies. To Mal it had logic―if anyone in Auradon understood what being brought up by someone like Gothel was, that would be Rapunzel.

Regardless, Ginny was fuming as she gathered her things and exited the ship. Things didn't improve when Mal called Claudine.

Without Ginny, Claudine seemed even more anxious and not an ounce more cooperative. She didn't want to disembark the ship and argued, yet again, that she'd never had the intention of leaving the Isle. She demanded that she was sent back, which Ben gently informed wasn't possible.

Claudine had a feral look in her eyes, Mal mused absently. Lips pressed together so tightly that her skin, already pale, turned a waxy gray. Her nostrils flared and though Mal knew the bell-ringer wasn't a fighter, every stiff muscle in Claudine's body seemed braced for combat.

And if Mal thought that was bad already, she was quick to discover that things could still take another wrong turn before the day was over.

As soon as Evie had the audacity to mention that Esmeralda had been chosen Claudine's guardian, the daughter of Frollo turned completely still. For a moment, Mal dared hope Claudine would silently gather her things and disembark, before the sickly white of Claudine's face turned crimson with fury.

"You shall regret this barbarism!" she condemned in a furious whisper. "Sending me, the daughter of a man who courageously fought against the proliferation of filthy gypsies to live with them!"

"Claudine, there's no need to use such a strong language, perhaps―"

"Don't talk to me, witch," Claudine spat venomously, sending Evie forceful look. "You are just as bad as the gypsies."

Surprisingly, Claudine seemed to compose herself once Ben took a step forward and repeated the exact same thing Mal had just told her. No, she couldn't be returned to the Isle. No, there was no changing her tutors, not until she had at least stayed with them for a week. Yes, he understood she was outraged that she had been placed with a family of gypsies, but there was nothing he could do for the moment. She would have to trust the Divine Providence and wait.

Once Ben had spoken with her, Claudine calmed down and agreed to obey. Frollo had always been a man who respected the law and yielded to it, they had no reason to believe that he'd brought up his daughter any differently.

Before leaving the ship, Claudine turned to send a fuming glare towards both Evie and Mal. She added that they would pay for their perversions in their dying beds. The Lord condemned easy women and witchcraft with hellfire and eternal damnation. According to her, at least.

Fortunately, Mal thought, faeries lived remarkably long lives. She wouldn't have to worry about eternal damnation for a while. Unless Queen Snow White and King Edward from Andalasia had it their way and had her demoted. Mal didn't say any of it as Claudine Frollo disappeared from her sight, with her long-sleeved black dress and a limping right leg.

As soon as Ginny and Claudine were out of the picture, Yzla proved to be all bark and no bite. She had been quick to second Ginny's strong opposition, but once she was alone in the deck, she didn't argue against either the tutors or the school plan. Anything to be sent away from her mother, Mal supposed. No more than ten minutes after Claudine had disembarked the ship, so did Yzla, headed to Chicha's and Pacha's home.

Hilda Sinclair, the daughter of the woman who had once participated in an expedition meant to steal Atlantis' power, wasn't as reluctant to leave. She was young, maybe Freddie's age, with ashy blonde hair that accentuated her dark eyes. She looked bored, even more so than Mal herself. Most than anything, she looked... stoic, impassive, as her eyes scanned the gentle waves that crashed against the side of the ship. It was as if they hadn't spent the last two hours discussing what would become of all of them, as if she didn't care.

When Mal called Hilda, she simply turned her face to the fairy, something in her expression akin to the relief Mal felt whenever Ben told her that a meeting was over. Uncaring, Hilda separated herself from the mast she'd been leaning against and walked over unhurriedly.

"You will be staying with Queen Kidagakash and King Milo, from Atlantis," Evie informed with a smile.

"As was to be expected," Hilda replied flatly. To be honest, Mal didn't like the nonchalant attitude with which Hilda was approaching what could very well be the most daunting change in her life.

After her, came the Gastons, who seemed both bored and unfazed. Theoretically, they should have been placed with Belle and Beast, but the royal family of Auradon had already taken in Mal herself, Evie and the boys, so instead they had agreed to change the rules and send Gaston's kids to someone else. As a filter, Jay had advised that they didn't consider anyone who wasn't strong enough to fight and win against both brothers, in case things turned nastier than they had anticipated.

At the time, Ben had been scandalized, and argued that such thing wouldn't be necessary. Thankfully, they hadn't paid much attention to the king and had quickly added Jay's suggestions to an ever-growing list of restrictions. Currently, Mal saw Jay's point more than ever―neither of the Gastons could be called the sharpest tool in the box, but they were both well-built and prone to anger.

Supposedly, Hercules would be the one to take them in. He was sturdy, athletic. Most of all, he was half god, a couple of brawny punks wouldn't be able to even connect him a proper blow before they were on the floor.

Oddly, when Evie asked Jordan to send Hercules to the pier, Jordan answered that the son of Zeus wasn't in the crowd. Puzzled, Evie asked her to call him again. He had to be there, perhaps he'd only been unable to hear his name being called over the cheers of the crowd.

Hercules didn't appear, not even after Jordan had announced his name for the fifth time, not even after Belle herself asked him to walk over to the ship. Finally, after five expectant ―and futile― minutes, a slim woman stepped forward and boarded the wooden ladder that connected land with the ship. She was the first Auradonian to have straightforwardly walked into their territory. The dark hue under her eyes made her look disinterested, donned in a purple tunic. Mal recognized her as Greek when she noticed her attire, a thin peplos that hung loosely around her waist and shoulders. She had seen her standing next to Persephone.

"Hercules couldn't make it," she informed hoarsely.

"Um... are you sure?" Evie stuttered.

"'Course I am," she scoffed, absentmindedly playing with the auburn locks that had escaped from her pony-tail. "That man could never keep his word, what makes it different now?"

"Megara," Ben pipped in. "Did he... call you to say he wouldn't be here?"

"No," the woman replied with an eye roll. "I just knew."

"Well, we hadn't... anticipated something like this to happen, perhaps we can―"

"No need to change anything," Megara off-handly interrupted Evie. "I talked to him a week ago and we agreed to share the custody of these two gentlemen, like we do our sons."

"Pardon me?" Mal started to say, carefully eyeing Megara's willowy figure. As if knowing what Mal was thinking, Megara snickered. "I'm not sure that will be possible."

Later, Ben would explain that Megara and Hercules had divorced a few years in the past. Apparently, Megara had found Hercules was cheating on her and hadn't wanted anything to do with him ever since. Lamentably for her, during their brief marriage they had managed to have three children―Hesperos, Madora and Mikolas. Over the years, Megara had come to be civil around Hercules, at best, but there were rumors of the son of Zeus still trying to win her back.

"I've lived with gods, I think I'll handle mortals alright," she declared. Then, noticing Mal's unconvinced stare, she crackled a humorless laugh. "Don't worry, kiddo, I'm a big, tough girl. I tie my own sandals and everything."

"Yeah, I can see that," one of the Gastons sneered. "Perhaps you should stick to your sandals and your hair."

"Watch it, boy," the woman replied, unamused. "The same hands that work the loom can find their way around a thick neck."

"Meg, I don't think―"

"With all due respect, king," she said, softening her voice only an ounce. "I don't think making hollow promises about what this place is the solution you want to reach with your ruling. Let them know what they're facing from the beginning."

"Very well, Meg," Ben conceded after a sole moment. "You may be right."

Unsure, the daughter of Maleficent turned to raise an eyebrow at Evie and Ben. Grimhilde's daughter had caught her lower lip with her teeth, but Ben looked perfectly calm, an unblemished smile placed upon her lips and a relaxed posture.

"Well, given the circumstances... perhaps some changes are due," Ben suggested radiantly. Evie shrugged―if it was okay with Ben, then it couldn't be that bad.

"Fair enough," Mal sighed, snapping her fingers to change the registered tutor in both her files and Auradon Prep's school admission. If Megara wanted to walk into the lion's den, it was her problem.

Once the Gastons and Megara were gone, Mal finally dropped herself in the stairs, leaning down into the base of the helm.

"Please tell me we are done," she mumbled, closing her eyes.

"Well, I'd say yes, because I don't see anyone else in the ship, but I still have a folder..." Evie mused, puzzled.

"Check the name, it has to say who we're missing there," Ben pipped in, as calmly as he'd remained throughout the whole ordeal.

"Right," Evie chirped. "Umm... it says that we're missing Henry from the Southern Isles."

Mal groaned, opening her eyes again to focus them on Grimhilde's daughter. "Henry what?"

"From the Southern Isles," she repeated. "Umm... Hans' son."

"Oh," escaped Mal's vermillion lips. So much had happened since one in the afternoon that it all came back to her in a whirl of tumbling thoughts. She had actually seen that kid, she mused, looking down at the picture Evie had pasted to the school admission letter. Oddly enough, she had forgotten Hans even had a son until Hades pointed out his absence from the dock. He was not very memorable, if Mal had forgotten him again. "Right."

Taking pity in her friend, Evie did the calling. By the time Henry finally appeared, she had announced his name three times.

Groaning again, Mal raised to her feet in time to see the boy stand up from the wooden floor and walk over to them. Apparently, he'd been sitting in the side of the prow all along, but he hadn't attempted to approach them at any time. He hadn't said anything either.

"Hi there!" Evie greeted with an easy smile, noticing he had stopped walking towards them as soon as they had turned to him. Henry stared blankly at her. "Do you understand what's going on?" Instead of verbally answering, the kid only nodded, green eyes flying to Evie for only a millisecond before they were focused back on the wooden floor.

"You will be staying with Queen Elsa from Arrendelle," Ben pipped in, squatting down to try to look at him in the eye. "Is that okay with you?"

Instead of answering, Hans' son shrugged, unconvinced. The gesture in itself seemed louder than any words he could have said―he hadn't agreed to board the ship, but, if given the chance, he wouldn't have returned to the Isle either. He pulled at the pleased cuff of his once-white shirt and refused to say anything else.

"Well, in that case, let's... get going," Evie instructed, before the silence became too awkward. "Just let me call Jordan and Lonnie to―"

"No need," Mal cut her. "Since he's the last one we can all get off the ship together."

"Good idea," the king conceded, raising up once it became obvious that Henry had no intention of talking to him.

"Um... Henry, don't you want to gather your things?" the daughter of Grimhilde inquired, noticing that he wasn't carrying any bag. Mal grimaced―that was another long story she would have to explain to Evie once they were alone. Perhaps it would be better if Evie never even found out how Hades had had to hold Hans down while she ushered his kid out of their shack. The ones who want you to get their children out, those are the ones who love them. And the ones who want to keep them here, regardless of the of the obvious lacks of this place... Those are monsters.

Instead of answering, Mal rapidly denied with her head, signaling Evie to play the matter down. Again, Hans' son didn't say anything. In fact, it would have seemed he hadn't even heard her words, if not for the increased tension in his shoulders.

When they finally made off the ship, Mal allowed relief to wash over her. She had made it back home, back to the rose bushes and marbled palaces. It was ridiculous she felt her heart race when her boot made contact with the oh-so golden sand of Auradon City's pier―that reasoning didn't stop her from letting out a content sigh. She was back.

"You look tired," Ben said softly, wrapping his arms around Mal's waist. She huffed.

"I look tired?" Mal questioned, giving him a not-so gentle nudge.

"Fine, wrong wording!" the king laughed easily. "But I'll make sure you rest now that you're here. Knowing you, you tried to do everything at once."

"It's not my fault there's so much to do at the Isle, is it?" she counterattacked, her tone not quite as playful as the shape of her mouth wanted it to be. Reasonably, Ben didn't say anything after that.

In the wharf, the boisterous mob had slowly dissolved until there were only a handful of people scattered here and there. Mal supposed that after five hours the novelty of a new arrival all but disappeared.

Jordan and Lonnie, for example, had only stayed because Jordan had decided that recording the whole thing would be a good idea. Honestly, Mal didn't think that watching the children of their worst enemies arrive to the mainland was something Auradonians would find pleasure in watching, but when she'd pointed that out, Jordan had simply said she wasn't a visionary.

In truth, Snow White had refused to cover the event or even attend it. Snow White's program, 'Living Happily Ever After' was the most watched show in Auradon and, usually, it covered anything and everything that would keep their rating over the clouds. She invited anyone who had something interesting to say as guests, and in her pinkish lounge topics like royal weddings, makeovers and dressing trends were often discussed. Needless to say, Mal wasn't a fan. It didn't help that Snow White's show was available even at the Isle.

Grimhilde had blatantly prohibited her daughter of watching it, but Mal knew for a fact that Evie had disobeyed her mother in the pursuit of keeping up with Auradon's lifestyle and preparing herself for when she finally lived there. Jordan, a small host that worked part-time as DJ for Auradon Prep could only dream with the kind of fame Snow White had.

So, Jordan had seen her chance and she'd taken it. In the end it had worked well for both parties―Jordan had gotten an exclusive interview with both Evie and Ben, in which she had asked everything, from Ben's reasoning that had concluded in his decision to bring over the villain kids, to Evie's opinion of the matter. She had also tried to get Mal to appear in her show, but the daughter of Maleficent had quickly informed that such a thing was out of the table. The most Jordan had gotten was a ten-minute long phone call during which she had asked Mal what she thought the surrogate families should do to get ready for the children's arrival.

In return, Jordan had made herself useful―she had helped Evie sort out the families, she had spread information about program and tried to get Auradon to approve of it. Mostly, she had saved them trouble by installing a full fifteen-feet tall sound room in the middle of the dock. Mal supposed that even without Jordan's assistance they wouldn't have ended up using megaphones to call the heroes―they were working with the king of Auradon, after all. It was still nice, however, to see someone other than Ben believe in the project so strongly as to think it would raise their rating higher than Snow White's.

Kindly, Lonnie had agreed to serve as staff, though Mal suspected her agreement was motivated by Ben's insistence. They had also managed to drag Alice with them. Jane and the Fairy Godmother, who were initially supposed to stay there until Ben and Mal disembarked, had left with Drizella's daughters. Mal didn't blame them―those five girls were a handful. She didn't doubt they would have a whole new set of problems related to them as soon as school started.

Besides the staff Jordan had recruited and a tired-looking Belle and Adam, there were no Auradonians left in the harbor. Except, clearly, for Queen Elsa.

"My apologies, your majesty," Ben excused them, taking the hand Elsa offered to kiss it.

"Nothing to forgive," she said, giving them a small curtsy that Evie hurried to mirror. With a barely concealed eye-roll, Mal followed her friend's example. "I've seen you running up and down in the deck. If anything, it is me who has to apologize, for contributing to all the trouble this has caused you."

Elsa of Arrendelle was a tall woman that rarely smiled while she was working. She had pulled her blonde hair back in a tight bun and looked down at them impassively. For what Mal had heard, the queen was ridiculously fond of wearing capes, even when the weather didn't call for it. At the time, Elsa was wearing a long-sleeved gown that Evie would later rant about―the color, a sprouce blue at the long tail discretely transmuted into teal at the shoulders. If Elsa so much as nodded, the amount of glimmer the dress produced was nearly blinding.

Mal also knew several people called Arrendelle's sovereign by a not-very-flattering sobriquet. Ever since she'd heard someone referring to Elsa of Arrendelle as 'The Snow Queen', Mal had simply assumed the name was related to the woman's magical powers. At the moment, however, she got a very different impression―the nickname matched Elsa's creamy skin and icy stare like a glove.

Chances were the queen was well-aware of what they called her and hadn't moved a finger to correct it. It certainly didn't help that Elsa was so fond of displaying her powers. Ben had told Mal that everyone at Auradon knew she was still using her magic, despite the strong policy that prohibited it. However, Elsa was also a very clever woman and they had been unable to prove she was breaking the law. Her people were also ridiculously protective of her and any attempt to make them confess they'd seen her using her powers had been fruitless.

"Queen Elsa, this is Henry from the Southern Isles, son of Hans," Ben introduced before the silence became awkward. "He will be staying with you."

"So this is Hans' kid, huh?" Elsa muttered, her voice so low she was probably talking to herself.

"Pardon me, your majesty?"

"Nothing, dear king," was her reply as the ghost of a smile crossed her features. "It is only that, after having watched the boys that came off the ship with Meg I was expecting something very different. I am not complaining, however."

Of all the Auradonians Mal had met, Megara and Elsa were the only two that weren't sporting an overly-sweet smile during their introduction. Auradonians' megawatt smiles, often forced when directed to her, had always made Mal's skin crawl with something akin to revulsion. It was as if, by not smiling herself, she was inadequate here, even more out of place than her attire and her vocabulary already made her be.

Megara, perhaps due to her commoner upbringing, had never cared much about etiquette or grandiloquence. She was scathing, straightforward and often came out as biting to people who had been trained to eat with a set of five forks. On the other hand, Elsa was a born and raised queen, pompous greetings and gracious courtesies had been carved into her core. She still refused to be more obliging than was necessary.

From what Ben had told Mal, every sovereign in Auradon respected Elsa, despite not necessarily agreeing with her unorthodox ways. The same couldn't be said for Megara. It almost made her feel at ease, to find someone in the Fairy-Tale-Land that looked a tiny bit closer to the Isle.

"Contrary to popular belief," Mal pointed out. "Most of the inhabitants of the Isle are children under fifteen years of age. At nineteen, the Gastons, the ones who left with Megara, are the oldest of the kids that were born at the Isle."

"Interesting," Elsa muttered, pensive. "You are very true―I never stopped to wonder how old they would be. I assumed they would be teenagers rather than actual children."

"Well, it's good to see this project has already begun to change the presuppositions we've made about the Isle," Ben offered kindly.

"Perhaps you're right, your majesty," the queen nodded again, studiously. "Very well, if that is all, I suggest we all leave. These kind ladies and you will surely be in need of a let-up."

"It's been a rough day, I won't deny it," Ben chuckled, honey eyes beaming with genuineness.

"In that case, Henry, are you ready to leave?" Elsa questioned, fully turning to face the son of the man who had almost destroyed her family for the first time. The name sounded odd in her lips, as if her tongue didn't wish to pronounce it but she forced herself to carry on and say it. "Where are your things?"

"He didn't bring anything with him," Evie hurried to explain. Elsa's eyebrows twitched for a moment, frowning and then raising, as if she couldn't decide what to do. Finally, the queen composed herself and smoothed out the frown in her brow.

"We'll figure something out," she said at last. "Now, we should get going," she continued, turning to Ben once more. "It's a long and cold way to Arrendelle."

"Take care, your majesty," Ben bid farewell, kissing Elsa's hand again. "Best regards to your sister and her family."

"Will do," the woman nodded, gesturing for Hans' son to approach her. Given the fact that the boy was still turning to the ground, Elsa's gesticulation became unnoticed.

"Henry," Evie urged. "Go with her."

Again, the boy didn't say anything out loud. He did, however, raise his gaze at Evie's prompting.

"You have to go with Queen Elsa, remember?" Evie continued, flashing the aftermentioned an apologetic smile, as if the boy's slowness was her fault. Tardily, Henry nodded, the motion heavy and tired.

"We'll get going, King Benjamin," Elsa affirmed again as she turned on her heels. "Ladies, you have done a wonderful job so far," she praised, offering them a small inclination of her head.

Henry didn't say anything as he started to follow Elsa towards her carriage. He didn't ask anything to Mal, or even to Evie, not even when Grimhilde's daughter told him it was alright if he wanted to have something explained to him. In fact, Mal hadn't heard Henry speak at all. No wonder was so easy to overlook him

He didn't turn to look at them as Elsa led him away either, unlike what Mayra and even Sammy had done. The last thing Mal saw of him were his eyes―forest green and haunted. He didn't make them a single reproof, he didn't complain or begged to be sent back to the Isle. He simply obeyed.

"Well, now that we're done... you definitely look like you could use a break," Ben said after a few silent seconds.

"I'm fine," Mal rolled her eyes. "You just like to overreact."

"Forgive me, but you do look terribly pale," Evie interrupted, her fingers twitching to reach for her foundation and correct it. "And given your usual skin tone, that's saying something."

"I'm fine!" Mal repeated, though her voice had lost its aplomb.

"When was the last time you ate something?"

"What?"

"Did you even eat anything today?" Evie attacked again.

"I had breakfast."

"At...?" Grimhilde's daughter continued, letting her query hang in the air.

"At seven, but that doesn't prove any―"

"It proves my point, you need to rest!" she scandalized. "Besides, you brought that ship here with your magic, that probably drained you in itself."

"Actually, it wasn't me the one who brought the ship here..."

"What?"

"Harriet wanted to give her old man's knowledge a try. "

"Had Miss Hook ever sailed?" Ben asked tentatively.

"Please don't call her that ever again. In fact, don't call any of the kids who do have a last name by it," Mal promptly corrected. "And no, she had never sailed a real ship."

"Then why would you―" Ben began to say in confusion, before he interrupted himself and sighed. "Never mind."

"Yeah, regardless of your arguably irresponsible decisions, you still have to rest!" Evie fussed, tracking them back to their original conversation.

"Fine," Mal gave in, at last. With a sigh, she leaned down to rest her head in Ben's shoulder.

"Also, remember we have Physics test on Monday," Grimhilde's daughter continued.

"Can't you cut me some slack?" Mal groaned. "I have like thirty-six hours before I have to worry about that!"

"If you keep being so good at calculus you won't have to study much," Ben offered with a fruity laugh.

"Very funny," Mal rolled her eyes. "Hilarious."

She was so tired she was imagining things, Mal concluded, making a mental note to write to Morgana and Anastasia in the morning. Perhaps to Hades, too, if Persephone hadn't contacted him already. She would also have to figure out a way to send the letters once they were written, as, due to the embargo, no ship ever went to the Isle now.

Evie and Ben were right, she decided, pushing an ever growing to-do list away from her mind. It was time to call it a day.

Chapter Text

If there was one thing Genevieve Gothel knew for a fact, it was that she had run out of luck a long time ago. Perhaps it was more accurate to say that she had been born out of it on a whole. Sometimes, she had found tiny specks of some sort of fortune in her days―when she arrived earlier than usual to the Isle's wharf and she was able to actually get a decent amount of food, when she gathered enough make-up from Auradon's leftovers and she managed to convince herself that, once she was pretty enough, Gothel would give her a second glance. Maybe the illusion of her mother's affection wasn't luck, Ginny mused over, but what did she know, anyways?

There was also the fact that she hadn't died yet―although, according to Hades that was far from a coincidence, so probably it didn't count either. However it was, ever since Mal had announced that they were leaving the Isle, Ginny had been convinced that all of her luck ―if she even had any― had been condensed into that one moment. It didn't matter how bad things had been for the last sixteen years of her life, she was finally escaping her prison—soon she would be free.

There was no way to fuck up Auradon. Except there was, because Mal dearest had decided that she was to stay with Rapunzel.

Ginny wouldn't have minded the whole tutoring affair. She wouldn't have cared if she actually had to do homework. As long as she wasn't forced to take a shoe-box worth of selfies, she could manage. Hell, she would have agreed to living under a bridge just to get out of the Isle.

But no, oh no, she couldn't even be granted a moment of peace. No, of the millions of citizens in Auradon, Mal had chosen to place her with Rapunzel, of all people. With sweet, golden-haired Rapunzel. With her pink dress and her sweet-as-honey smile. Of all the fucking people in the world Mal had placed her with the one person Gothel had ever loved.

Ginny was fuming, yet she couldn't help the broken chuckle that escaped her dry lips as she descended the ship. Barely two or three hours before she had been convinced that she was finally getting an ounce of the luck she had been denied for a lifetime. And, when she thought that things would actually start getting better, everything went to crash and burn right before her eyes.

Honestly, why did she even bother being surprised? That was the Isle's motto par excellence. If they even had a flag, someone should have embroidered the words to it. In golden letters, to show Auradon they could have something nicely done as well―Things never get better. They only worsen.

Logically speaking, she knew that the fact that she had gotten away from Gothel should have been enough to keep her blissful for life. This opportunity was way more than she had allowed herself to dream she'd ever get.

She wanted to strangle someone all the same.

What she saw when she dismounted of the ship was the boisterous mob that seemed strangely similar to the bazaar, back at the Isle. Funny, she thought, that Auradonians weren't as different to the islanders as they wanted to believe. Expect, of course, that the people in front of her were properly dressed and wore radiant smiles in their lips. Pathetic.

The crowd was remarkably smaller than when the vessel had first arrived, as Harriet's crew and Shui's tribe had already been dispatched. Her eyes scanned the crowd in the dock, but she couldn't find Rapunzel's willowy figure. After having heard Gothel's description of the Lost Princess so many times, Ginny had been convinced that she would have been able to recognize her immediately.

Try as she might, she couldn't make Rapunzel out of the mass. There were several blonde women, she could see that. However, no one was the right one. There was a petite lady that held the hand of small, blond boy. It couldn't be her. Ginny saw a flash of yellow and sky-blue as another presumed Rapunzel walked hurriedly from one side of the quay to the other, finally standing still once she reached a dark-skinned girl that towered over her. Now that she was something other than a blur, Ginny realized it wasn't Rapunzel―she was just a girl, younger than Ginny herself.

Last, but not least, Ginny saw a tall woman that stood to the right of the dock. She was far enough to be away from the best part of the noise, but she was close enough as not to miss anyone who disembarked or boarded the ship. She wore a blue gown and was about as tall as Ginny had imagined Rapunzel would be. However, the woman's braided hair was platinum blonde, instead of the golden locks Gothel was always talking about. That couldn't be the Queen of Corona.

She was so caught up trying to figure out where Rapunzel was that she didn't notice when, out of the Auradonians, a young man walked over to her.

"Excuse me, miss, are you Ginny Gothel?" he questioned, offering her a gentle smile that, for once, seemed genuine.

"I am," she replied, her voice coming out weaker than she had intended. Contrary to what she expected, at her response the man's smile enlarged.

"My name is Eugene Fitzherbert, I am Rapunzel's husband, perhaps you have―"

"Wait," Ginny cut him, finally taking in his strong jawline and kind honey eyes. "I know you."

"Well, I am Rapunzel of Corona's husband, otherwise I don't think you―"

"No," she interrupted again. "You are the guy from the pier. The one who takes Auradon's leftovers to the Isle."

Instantly, Eugene's eyes filled with compassion―kind, aching and disgusting.

"I get the supplies to the Isle, that would be correct. At least I did before the embargo," he said. "You are a very observant young girl, I didn't think anyone would recognize me."

"Did you expect that?" Ginny snapped, feeling the coals of her fury turn into full-blown blazes again. This man, despite his tender gestures and sincere smile had still married someone like Rapunzel. He knew nothing about the hundreds of days Ginny had stood by the shore, under the scathing sun as she waited for the supplies to arrive. Eugene had no idea that she had attentively watched the waves of the sea in the futile hope that, if she tried hard enough, she would disappear into them. "Are you doing this undercover or something of the sort?"

Instead of anything that logic would have dictated, Eugene let out a fruity laugh.

"Not at all, Ginny, not at all," the man offered, the same calm tone of voice as before. "Corona, along with Bourgogne, Auradon City and some other provinces and separate kingdoms are in charge of taking the supplies to the islanders. We run mostly on donations, and I understand that what we deliver to the Isle is not nearly enough, but... we try our best."

"I suppose you're glad the embargo is here, now that you don't have to―"

"Please don't say that," the king denied. "The embargo is a direct order from the Fairy Godmother. Personally, I think it's not doing any good, but... there's only so much I can do."

"Are you saying you would... lift the embargo if you could?" Ginny couldn't stop herself from saying as she arched her eyebrows.

"This is not the place to discuss such... political decisions," Eugene smiled again. "But I would. Contrary to what you may be thinking, no one forced me to help out. True, most didn't want to have anything to do with the Isle, but I can handle myself with a small vessel, and I can assure you that taking supplies once a month was no trouble."

Knowing for a fact that she couldn't deal with Eugene's kind eyes, Ginny opted for staring back at him in silence. Before the king's smile had time to become strangled, a third voice called him from behind.

"Honey, is that her?" a woman inquired.

"Yeah, Blondie, this is her," Eugene replied, shooting another disarming smile in the newcomer's direction.

"Excuse me?" Ginny questioned, carefully eyeing the woman. She wore a red dress with puffed-out shoulder pads that had a golden sun sewn to them. Her auburn locks fell until they reached her lower back in graceful curls.

"Ginny, this is my wife, Rapunzel," Eugene introduced them calmly. In return, the newcomer's smile enlarged. The woman looked like one of Auradon's commercials.

Ginny's thoughts stopped with a halt. This couldn't be her. This woman, with the faintest trace of crow's feet in the commissures of her eyes and a garnet red gown could not be her mother's beloved child. The queen before her, with dark, short hair was not the joyful girl Gothel had spent years comparing Ginny to.

"Welcome, darling!" the woman said, stepping forward without a trace of shame.

"Don't touch me," Ginny snapped when she realized that the raising of the woman's arms could only mean one thing.

"That's alright, sweetheart," she said, not losing her radiant smile for a second. She stepped back.

For a moment, Ginny merely eyed the people with whom she was to stay henceforth. Bright smiles and calm stares. They didn't even seem offended by her words.

"Very well. Girls, I think it's time to leave," Eugene prompted, taking a small step forward before stopping, as if in a second thought. "Can I help you with your luggage, Ginny?"

"I'll handle it," she replied dryly. She had only taken a handbag with her, what made them think that she would even need help with it?

"Wonderful," the king offered without a trace if mockery. "In that case, let's get going."

"There's a couple of people we'd like you to meet before we get on our way to Corona," the woman ―Rapunzel― added.

When the couple turned on their heels and walked straight into the center of the crowd, Ginny decided that her best shot was to follow them. If living with Gothel had taught her one thing, it was that she had to choose her battles. It would have made no sense that she threw a fit right then and there, barely ten minutes after arriving to Auradon. She didn't know Auradon, she knew nothing of its people or of its geography. If she wanted this to work, she needed to fuse into the crowd and, as much as Eugene's and Rapunzel's bright smiles and laid-back attitude made her skin crawl, at the moment she had no weapons to start an attack. She would have to wait.

With a new resolution, Ginny followed the royal couple through the crowd. She held her head high even when she noticed Auradonians sending glances in her direction. War had begun, but this was a small truce.

Eugene and Rapunzel, ignorant to her inner turmoil, guided her to the edge of the mob. Before long, Ginny recognized the platinum blonde in a blue gown she had noticed while looking for Rapunzel. The woman, a queen, Ginny assumed by the sparkly tiara on top of her head, was now calmly talking to two young girls.

"Um, Ginny…" Rapunzel trailed off with an apologetic smile as soon as the trio noticed them. "This is my cousin, Elsa of Arrendelle."

"And these are our daughters," Eugene continued, voice firmer than his wife's as he pointed towards the young women, each one standing at a side of Elsa. "Rose and Anxellin."

Interrupting her train of thought, Ginny paid attention to the young girls in front of her. The first one, Rose, apparently, had to be at least twenty years old. She had hazel eyes and light brunette hair that surrounded her like a cascade, too straight for Ginny's liking. Next to Rose, Anxellin seemed to be around eighteen or seventeen years of age. Her hair was a shade darker than her sister's, but she had bright, emerald eyes, just like her mother.

As a greeting, Elsa gave a curt nod with her head, piercing blue eyes scanning Ginny up and down. To her right, Rose offered a small smile.

"Welcome," she said in a business-like voice. "It's an honor to have you with us."

If they expected Ginny to believe any of it, they thought she was stupid. In contrast to her stern sister, Anxellin simply offered a shy smile and a small wave of her hand. If Ginny was supposed to do a courtesy or exhibit some kind or royal respect towards them, they had the wrong person.

"We have to go now, Elsa," Rapunzel started to talk again. "I'm sure they'll call you soon."

"Have you seen the deck of that ship?" the queen replied. "I wouldn't have thought there so many children living at the Isle."

Ginny wanted to strangle them right there, to hell with etiquette. She settled for taking a furious intake of breath.

"We can start walking to the carriage, if that's alright with you," Anxellin offered. It took Ginny three solid seconds to realize the princess had been talking to her.

"Excuse me?"

"It's pure tradition," Rose pipped in with a playful roll of her eyes. "Usually, we travel by car. However, when it comes to an important meeting or to something more... serious, royalty is forced to attend in carriages. For the good old days, nothing more."

Right. These two girls, joyful and perfectly groomed were talking to her about royalty and tradition as if owing both a car and carriage was normal. In the Isle, there were two main options move around as well―either you walked, or you were kicked out of the way. For a wonderful, split second, Ginny imagined the look of horror in the princesses' face if she had said that.

Without losing her commercial-worth smile, Anxellin bid farewell to her aunt and took Ginny's right hand. If she noticed the daughter of Gothel's muscles immediately stiffening, she didn't give it away.

"Like I was telling you, it's only tradition. Take Aunt Elsa, for example," Anxellin continued as soon as they were out of earshot. "She arrived in a carriage and she will leave Auradon City in it. However, she's forced to take a plane in order to return to Arrendelle. Oh, that's her kingdom."

Of course. Ginny had forgotten―Auradon had planes as well.

"Fortunately, Corona is not that separated from Auradon City," Rose supplied. "If we get going now we'll get home by eight or nine."

That was roughly five hours of sitting next to them. Five long hours of only staring at the family that Gothel was convinced should have been hers.

"If we get going now?" Anxellin echoed with a laugh, uncaring to Ginny's rage. "Mom's talking to Aunt Elsa, I give it a solid half an hour before they remember we're supposed to get going."

"Fair point," Rose rolled her eyes, as she finally stopped. Anxellin imitated her sister, which forced Ginny to come to a halt as well, as the younger of Rapunzel's daughters was still tightly holding her hand.

"Here we are," Anxellin announced, as she pointed towards two carriages. Both vehicles were painted a light purple, with golden suns, identical to the ones on Rapunzel's dress, painted on the door. Each carriage had four spotless white horses attached to it.

"Four people can be comfortably fit, but, since we didn't know how many guests we were expecting..." Rose continued. "We brought both of them."

"What do you mean 'you didn't know'? They didn't tell you?"

"We didn't know anything," Anxellin supplied. "We didn't know the gender, the age―"

"The parentage―"

"How many," the youngest of Rapunzel's daughters concluded. "Mal ―is that her name?― said that, since you guys had no idea about the tutoring project, it was only fair that we didn't know much about you either."

"Like I was saying," Rose pipped in once more, turning to face Ginny. "Each carriage can comfortably fit four people, would you rather us three went in one and our parents in the other?"

"Or you could go with our parents and―"

"No," Gothel's daughter hissed, a feral look to her eyes.

"If you'd feel more comfortable, perhaps we can all go in one and you can take the other one," Rose supplied in a calm voice, despite the nervous glimmer that crossed her eyes.

"No, that's... fine. Just... not with Rapunzel," Ginny snapped, suddenly feeling her face grow hotter for a split second. If either of the princesses noticed the spiteful tone to her words, they didn't mention it. Instead, Anxellin offered another warm smile, so natural to the royal family, apparently.

"In that case, the three of us can share one of them," and without further ado, Anxellin boarded the carriage, giving a fast greeter to the driver.

"You've heard her," Rose echoed, offering Ginny a small inclination of her head, which the girl took as an invitation to step into the carriage first.

"How far is this place from Paris?" Ginny questioned once the three of them were settled in the vehicle.

"Not that far," Rose replied. "Maybe forty minutes or an hour."

"Now, from Corona..." her sister offered. "Maybe eight hours?"

"Something around that," Rose nodded.

"In carriage?"

"In car," Rose continued. Both of them had the decency to not question the reason behind Ginny's interest.

In the end, it took twenty minutes for Rapunzel and her husband to arrive to the parking lot, but contrary to her expectations, Ginny wasn't bored out of her mind. Corona's princesses were in fact quite entertaining. Most of times, they said things she didn't fully understand, but there was no mockery in her voices. Perhaps it was because she wasn't used to the way people in Auradon taunted the weakest, but Ginny thought that, whether it was in Auradon or at the Isle it couldn't make much of a difference.

Barely half an hour into their voyage, Anxellin was already sleeping, her head supported on the pane. Both princesses had sat across Ginny, which allowed the daughter of Gothel to use the other half of her seat for her handbag.

"Forgive my sister," Rose offered calmly. "She has made a habit of sleeping every chance she gets. Of course it helps that we travel so much, as it enables her to sleep more."

"I... see," Ginny replied, not really sure about what Rose expected her to answer.

"If you would rather take a nap, please go ahead. You're very welcome to do it," the princess continued.

"Would that be etiquette-ly appropriate?"

"Technically, no," she answered, the trace of a laugh in the corner of her lips. "But we're all friends here, correct? Who's gonna say that you both fell asleep in the carriage? I must confess I am guilty of such sin myself."

For a moment, Ginny didn't dare say anything else, and instead let her sight wander out of the window. The landscape was... something else. She had seen the pictures of impossibly blue skies and endless forests. She had let herself wonder what it would be like to be there, to feel so close to the sky that you could touch it just by extending your fingers.

Try as she might, she had never been able to imagine the strong smell of newly cut grass. She had no idea that the mere act of staying under the sunlight was different―in the Isle, it was always cold. You could have stayed in the scorching sun, but it only burnt and didn't warm up.

She was only three or four hours away from the Isle, and she wanted to ask how she had even lived surrounded by nothing other than the smell of rotten fruits.

"Is this still Auradon?" Ginny questioned after a long moment of silence.

"It is Auradon, but it isn't Auradon City anymore," Rose supplied. "We entered Bourgogne's territory like half an hour ago. That's Cinderella's kingdom."

Perhaps Gothel's daughter didn't notice the way her expression fell. Rose, used to read the tiniest change in her interlocutor's countenance, was quick to offer her a reassuring smile.

"Don't worry. There are a lot of names you will be hearing, but there's no need for you to try to learn them all in one go," she said. "I can assure you that most kings and queens only know the names of their immediate family."

"Does that include you?"

"Sometimes," Rose let out a sweet laugh. "If you only pretend to know who you're talking to, they'll believe you. And don't be scared to ask. I think it's better to ask when you have a question than once you've made a mistake."

Ginny didn't say anything. In fact, she didn't even turn to face the princess, her eyes still glued to the window.

"Are you hungry?" Rose offered, reaching for a handbag under her seat.

Ginny was so absorbed in the scenery that it took her three solid seconds to realize the princess had spoken to her. When a blank stare was all the answer Rose received, she tried again.

"I don't want to ruin my mother's surprise for you, but we've still got a long way to go to get home, so..."

Without further ado, Rose dug into her bag. Carefully, she took out a dish and removed the lid. Taking a slice from something that seemed like a juicy fruit, she offered the container to Ginny.

With her mind still trying to make sense of Rose's carefree actions, Ginny accepted the bowl. The smell of the fruit was strong, but not disgusting. Rather, Ginny found herself leaning closer onto the dish in her hands in an attempt to carve that savor into her memory.

"Is this... is this an apple?" she questioned without even thinking.

"Yes, it is," Rose replied, tilting her head. "If you don't like it I also have a pineapple jelly sandwich, I can..."

Ginny stopped listening. How could someone not like something like that? She had seen apples, of course, but never one that smelled so good. In the Isle food always reeked of putrefaction, of decomposition. And, after having eaten the food that arrived to the Isle, Ginny was almost surprised that something she'd tasted a million times and found disgusting suddenly came up as so good.

The slice of fruit was crunchy and sweet, almost to the point where Ginny wanted to stop eating, as she wasn't used to something so syrupy. Except it was also sort of addicting. Yes, it was strong but it was also good. It was so juicy that Ginny didn't notice when drops of the nectar escaped the corner of her lips.

When she came to her senses again, she had eaten almost half of the container. So used to the feeling of an empty stomach, Ginny hadn't stopped to realize she was, in fact, hungry, until Rose had pointed it out.

"I..." she let out, offering the dish back to Rose.

"Keep it," she denied, pulling out a bright wrapper from her purse. Carefully removing the packaging, she revealed a sandwich perfectly cut in half.

Without a second thought ―or so it seemed to Ginny― Rose stretched out to Gothel's daughter.

"Take one," she instructed calmly, seeing Ginny's hesitancy. Ginny obeyed, and Rose continued to munch on the remaining piece of sandwich.

Focusing on the food, Ginny didn't notice that Anxellin was finally stirring.

"Mom told you not to be having snacks, did she not?" she murmured, voice heavy with sleep.

"It's still two hours before we get home, like hell I'm gonna be here going hungry because Mom decided she wanted to be mysterious," Rose concluded, returning her attention to her sandwich. "Besides, you're only jealous that I had the right mind to actually prepare something to eat. Unlike you, who overslept."

"Wait, you prepared this?" Ginny questioned before she could stop herself. "Don't you have, like, servants or something to do that for you?"

"Technically, yes," Rose nodded. "But I didn't want to bother them with something so simple. Besides, Mom gathered the best cooks in Corona and put them in charge of tonight's dinner, so a jelly sandwich wouldn't have been their priority."

"She's only saying that because she goes crazy about jelly sandwiches," Anxellin piped-in, leaning closer to Ginny in a mock attempt at a whisper. "If it were for her, we'd probably only eat that every day."

Quite honestly, Ginny would have taken the jelly sandwiches over anything she'd ever eaten at the Isle too.

"Keep talking and I won't give you the extra sandwich I brought," the eldest of the sisters nagged.

"Oh, you brought one for me!" Anxellin clapped. "How lovely!"

"I brought an extra sandwich for me. And if you continue to make fun of my eating habits I won't give you anything."

"Forgive me, then," Anxellin echoed. "I will henceforth respect the power of the sandwich," laughing care-freely, the princess reached for her sister's handbag and dug into it until she found the other sandwich. Shrugging her shoulders, she took one of the halves and offered the other one to Ginny.

"No, no, I already..."

"Take it," she insisted. "You'll have time to grow sick and tired of them soon enough." Ginny found that extremely hard to believe, but she accepted the food all the same.

After that, the rest of the journey was mostly done in silence. Anxellin and Rose sung a few melodies, to Ginny's great amusement. In fact, Ginny must have fallen asleep at some point too, as the next thing she knew was that Anxellin was tugging at her left knee.

"We're just entering Corona's frontier with Baidenburg," she explained. "In a little over half an hour we'll arrive home."

It seemed so simple for them, Ginny thought. They woke early to fix their breakfasts, however they wanted them. They fell asleep in their own carriages, without a care in the world because they trusted each other not to kill them while they were unconscious. They called a mansion ―no doubt it was a mansion― 'home' and they seemed actually happy to return to it.

Back at the Isle, Ginny had never learned to cook anything, even if it were as simple as coffee or putting a sandwich together. Everything already tasted like crap, trying to season it was just a waste of time. On top of that, she had always spent as much time as possible as far as she could from Gothel. She would have preferred to stay at the bazaar or at the wharf, even at Dragon Hall rather than go back to the shack she shared with her so-called mother.

She supposed she could have escaped at any time. Run away to the woods, hide in the streets, take sanctuary in... in Notre Dame, that would have been an option, too. She never had, because, just like with the edibles, there was no point. Gothel wouldn't have missed her. Chances were she wouldn't have even realized she was gone, but even if Ginny left Gothel behind, what then? She had no chances to escape the Isle, no reason to believe she would even have a shot at a better life. So she stayed.

The princesses before her had never had such problems. They could probably sleep in if they wanted, in their perfect rooms, lit by the warm sun she'd felt for the first time that afternoon. They talked about cooks and feasts as if they were common things―because, to them, they were.

Ginny still wasn't sure of what to make of them; she supposed she would have enough time to figure that out. For the moment, she felt so at ease with them that she almost forgot that they were Rapunzel's daughters.

When they finally arrived to Corona it was almost 8:30 and the sun was already going down. Scratch the mansion, Ginny thought, they lived in a palace.

"We're finally here!" Anxellin announced once the carriage stopped.

Coming out of the vehicle, Ginny had no time to actually take in the magnificence of the building, given that immediately after the three of them were out the carriage, Rapunzel and Eugene caught up with them.

Dark as it was, Ginny hadn't noticed that they'd crossed a bridge before officially entering to Corona's domains. Majestic, a waxing crescent moon was reflected in the calm waters that surrounded the kingdom.

"What would you like to do first?" Rapunzel asked. Ginny wasn't even sure if she'd been talking to her. "We could start eating right away or we could show you to your room, Ginny, would you like that?"

"I... I don't think..."

"We should eat first," Rose rescued her. "It's late already."

"Great idea!" Rapunzel applauded. "I'm starving!"

Ginny rolled her eyes―Rapunzel had no idea of what starving was. Regardless, the daughter of Gothel followed the royal family up the stairway and into the castle.

Ginny recognized rose bushes planted in vast planters at each side of the door. From the height, they guarded the entrance to the palace, proudly. That probably explained the scent of the air.

"Tomorrow we'll give you a tour around the castle first thing in the morning," Eugene stated calmly, offering his hand to Ginny in a motion to help her with her luggage. Like the first time, she refused. "For now let's just get you to the dining room and then we'll accompany you to your chamber."

Before Ginny could reply anything, Rapunzel's overly-sweet voice came into the picture again.

"We have a big surprise for you, girls!" she giggled.

Ginny didn't have the time to say she didn't want anything to do with her. In fact, it all started happening so fast that she even forgot to look disgusted at the luxury of Rapunzel's house.

She had been out of the Isle for less than 24 hours and she was firmly convinced there was already a list of 50 things she would have missed if she found out it had all been a dream after all.

And a dream it had to be, as almost immediately after Rapunzel's upbeat words, Ginny was lead to what had to be the dining room.

The floor, a color halfway between orange and russet, looked pristine. What looked like several windows separated the dining room from a sitting room. Upon closer examination, Ginny realized they were crystal doors, elegantly placed between the white walls. At the same time, the walls were engraved with golden motifs. The roof was embellished with various paintings. With no time to focus on the masterpieces, Ginny only allowed herself a split second to appreciate one of the paintings, placed over one of the glass doors―a flower, blindingly golden with a purple center.

A long table stood proudly in the middle of the room. Going around the room, ten or fifteen round tables displayed various dishes. A single one of those tables bore more food than Ginny had ever seen in one place.

"Take a seat, darling," Rapunzel chirped behind her, breaking the awestruck spell Ginny had fallen in.

When Ginny didn't move ―not because she was consciously trying to get on Rapunzel's nerves, but rather because she did not know how carry out her orders―, Rose gently tapped Ginny's left shoulder. As Ginny turned around to face the princess, Rose pointed to one of the chairs. Thankful that she had a clearer instruction, Ginny walked over to that chair. She didn't realize she'd been holding her breath until Rose took a seat next to her.

Rapunzel took off her coat, once again revealing her garnet dress. Rearranging her hair, she sat at the head of the table, to Rose's right. Eugene took the other head of the table, and Anxellin sat in front of her sister, with an empty space to her left.

"We're still missing Cass, perhaps if we wait a few minutes―"

"I'm here, I'm here, I'm here!" a newcomer announced, cutting Rapunzel off.

"Was about time," Eugene mocked her.

"Well, excuse me if I was running some errands for you, guys," the woman replied, not a hint of real rancor behind her words. Calmly, the woman removed a golden helmet, revealing jet-back hair that barely reached her shoulders. Leaning down, she put the helmet in the floor and then simply pushed it under the empty chair with her foot.

Unamused, Ginny stared back at her.

"So this is her?" the woman questioned.

"Oh, forgive me," Rapunzel laughed, turning to the daughter of Gothel. "Ginny, this is Cassandra, the captain of the Royal Guard."

"A family friend," Anxellin intervened.

"And Cass, this is Ginny, she will be staying with us from now on," Rapunzel continued.

"Only one?" the newcomer asked.

"Only one."

"Well, in that case," Cassandra said, turning to face Gothel's daughter for the first time. "Welcome, Ginny. And why don't we start already? I heard Malinda complain all week about how much work Rapunzel gave them in the kitchen, so better try it before it goes cold."

Unsure of what the woman meant with 'starting already', Ginny decided to remain sitting. To her side, Rose stood up and walked over to one of the tables distributed around the room. When in Rome, do as Romans do, Ginny sighed as she followed Rose's example.

Surprised, Ginny watched as the family began to move around the dining room, plates in their hands. Cassandra and Rapunzel immediately started a conversation, from one side of the room to the other. Every so often they would stop by one of the tables and pick one of the dishes presented in them before moving on.

It was almost surreal. So much food at her reach, no need to shove anyone out of the way, no need to fight tooth and nail for vile scraps of rotten foodstuff.

"Just put whatever fills your eye in your plate," Rose said next to her, mistaking her stunned stillness with confusion. With a nod, Ginny obeyed, though she was much less picky than her companions. She had never tried any of those dishes, and by her rough calculations, chances were she'd never have a chance to do so again. There was no point in even choosing.

When she met the royal family in the table, she had barely taken food from two of the tables, but there was no room for anything else in her plate. She surprised herself feeling grateful that no one commented on how crowded her plate was.

Dinner elapsed in silence. For Gothel's daughter, at least. Rapunzel, Eugene and Cassandra quickly engaged in a conversation about how the day had gone in Corona with their sovereigns gone.

In between bites, Ginny tried to get something of what they were saying, thinking that perhaps it could come in handy to know how the kingdom worked from the inside. She found out that Cassandra had spent the morning training the horses of the Royal Guard, before returning to the castle for supper. Afterwards, she said something about a forest, but Ginny's attention on the matter evaporated as soon as she tasted what seemed to her like meat wrapped in thin, white bread. At least she thought it was bread.

What was more important was the fact that she knew she'd taken it from the second table she'd visited. The taste wasn't even that strong, but there was a rich variety of flavors in a single bite of it. Tiny specks of green and red colored the meat. She couldn't even begin to guess what they were, as she had never seen something similar.

When Ginny finally turned her attention back to the conversation of the family, part of her was wondering, seeing as Cassandra had stood up to have a second helping, if she wanted to actually try any of the food in the other tables or simply have another one of whatever it was she had served herself the first time. From what she did listen, Rose and Anxellin would leave the house on Sunday, as they started exams first thing in Monday morning. Apparently, they spent most of the time at Auradon City, and had only returned to Corona to spend the weekend with their family.

It was well after an hour later that Ginny decided she'd eaten enough for what could very well be the first time of her life. In the end, she did eat another one of the strange wrapped meat, as well as a couple of colorful macaroons, if she remembered correctly. It turned out that you could, in fact, not like something even though it wasn't bad per se. To her, they were the macaroons, as she thought they were too sweet and had no real consistency. She would have still chosen them over anything she'd ever had at the Isle.

With a mischievous smile, Rapunzel sat a little straighter in her chair. "Now comes the real surprise," she said, letting out a childish laugh. Ginny raised an inquisitive eyebrow.

"You mean that this feast was not the surprise you've been talking about?" Rose questioned.

"Your mother has been planning this for months," Cassandra informed.

"We both have been planning this for months," Eugene hurried to remark.

"Yeah, I don't think so," Cassandra laughed, throwing her head back. By the look of the others in the table, this was not an odd scenario, as Rapunzel only rolled her eyes. The girls simply continued a shushed conversation.

"Guys, can't you behave?" the queen of Corona hissed, her lips still in a perfect smile. "We have guests," and with that she tilted her head towards Ginny.

Quite honestly, for all she cared, Eugene and Cassandra could have been sword-fighting fifteen feet away from her and she wouldn't have batted an eyelash. Nevertheless, Eugene and Cassandra decided to cut it down and returned their attention to Rapunzel.

"Now, like I was saying," the queen reassumed. "This was only half of what we've prepared for you, girls," with another of her megawatt smiles, Rapunzel turned to Gothel's daughter. "You've arrived just in time, Ginny."

"Well, are you going to tell us what else you've been working on?" Anxellin asked, no doubt the most excited of them all about Rapunzel's words.

"Not so soon, young lady," Eugene shot his daughter a disarming smile. "First you three must make a decision."

"A decision?" Ginny let out, for the first time feeling she was being part of the general conversation instead of a mere observant.

"Oh, yes!" Rapunzel laughed again. "Okay, so, girls, you three will have to choose your favorite table out of the twelve exhibited around the dining room. Each of them have a number, as you can see, so please go ahead and make your choice."

For the first time that afternoon, Ginny turned her attention to the white tablecloths, only to realize that they were, in fact golden numbers sewn to them. Her favorite tables had been 5 and 6, apparently.

"Oh, mom, c'mon!" Anxellin whined, half laughing and half complaining. "You're not even gonna tell us what we're choosing them for?" at Rapunzel's gesture of zipping her lips, the princess continued. "You're just being conniving!"

"No, don't even think about it!" Rapunzel argued playfully. "You're not going to ruin my surprise for you like you did last year."

"I didn't do anything!" Anxellin replied almost immediately. "It was dad who slip―"

"Whoa, whoa, hang on, that wasn't my fault!" Eugene defended himself, an impish look to his eyes. "Either way, Lin, since you seem so excited to speak, why don't you tell us your favorite table?"

"But, dad!"

"Hey, kiddo, the sooner you chose, the sooner you'll know what all this is about."

"Aunt Cass, you never side up with Dad, c'mon!"

"For the record, I have collaborated with your father. For example that one time we were at the forest and your mother―"

"Why don't we go choose the tables before we start talking about the good old days?" Rapunzel interrupted her friend.

"Fine," Anxellin yielded at last, with a pout that looked more like a smile. "I'll go with table 10."

"Good," Rapunzel smiled, her teeth digging into her lower lip with excitement. "Now, Rose, darling…"

"Table number 3," the princess decided, gently tilting her head.

"Wonderful," Eugene nodded. "Now, Ginny, would you mind?"

"Pardon me?" Gothel's daughter let out, blinking back her surprise.

"Choose a table, darling, please."

Right, Ginny thought to herself. Rapunzel had said ―probably more than once―, that she would ask the three of them to choose one of the tables, but the conversation had passed by as if she'd been only a listener. To have her, Ginny Gothel, sitting at a mahogany table, beautiful, russet floors at her feet, and bright, white walls around her, was surreal. To have a gentle princess like Rose talk to her like she was an equal, to be allowed to witness the playful interaction of a woman who had never had anything snatched away from her with her family was hypnagogic, to say the least. It was as if she were watching the whole thing through a glass―hearing, seeing it all, but not being a part of the scenario.

Ginny was so captivated by the ordeal that she could almost forget this was Rapunzel's family. The woman sitting at the head of the table was the sole reason she didn't even know what being part of something like this felt like. That virago, with her bright eyes and sweet smiles, was the one who had brain-washed Gothel into thinking that there was no perfection other than her golden locks and singing voice. Golden locks, that, for the record, had disappeared.

"Ginny?" Eugene questioned softly.

"Table 5," she blurted out gripping her fork tightly to stop her hand from shaking,

"Are you alright, darling?" Rapunzel asked, leaning forward in the table, her right eyebrow raised with fake concern. It was disgusting.

"I don't need your pity," her breath hitched. To Ginny's left, Rose tilted her head. Ginny saw Cassandra make a gesture to Rapunzel, but she was so caught up in the trapped breath of her throat that she couldn't bring herself to care.

"Alright," Rapunzel reassumed the conversation. "We asked you girls to do this because we've been planning something for you."

"We know that, mom, get to the part where you start telling us what's going on!" Anxellin pressured.

"I'm getting there! I would have already told you if you quit interrupting me!" Rapunzel laughed, still eyeing Ginny with her peripheral vision. "Cass, would you do the honors?"

With a nod, the captain of the Royal Guard stepped up and reached for her pouch attached to her belt.

"Right, girls, your numbers were 10, 3 and 5, right?" she inquired, not a real question, as she didn't wait for their answers before walking over to table number 3 and pulling a small flag from her bag. "That would be… Hakalo!"

"What?"

"You'll find out very soon, dear," Rapunzel replied. "Now, for Anxellin…"

"Table 10 is… Avalor!" Cassandra continued, repeating her previous action, and pulling another small flag to insert it in one of the desserts of the table. Predictably, she then walked to the stand Ginny had chosen. "And number 5 is... Agrabah!"

"Wonderful elections, I have to admit," Eugene chuckled.

"Will you finally tell us what all this is about?" Anxellin insisted.

"Yes! We'll finally tell you!" Rapunzel offered, even though her voice didn't seem quite as upbeat as it had been through the soiree. "Alright, so, we know you girls still have a weeks worth of exams ahead of you, but, we need to think in advance and we also wanted to welcome Ginny―"

"So we decided that we needed a family vacation," Eugene finished. "You girls have just chosen our destinations."

"You mean―?"

"Oh, yes!" Rapunzel cut her youngest daughter off. "You two concentrate in getting good grades and then we'll have a solid month of traveling and relaxation."

"We thought you will also enjoy seeing more of Auradon than only the capital, Ginny," Eugene added.

They thought, Ginny almost hissed. Of course. Here, people thought about what others wanted. Here you were expected to be thoughtful and considerate and kind. Here, people asked what you wanted and listened to what you said.

"Really?" she sneered instead. "How generous of you." If any of the family members noticed the disdain in her voice, they didn't comment on it. She was not going to spell it out for them if they couldn't read between the lines.

"We still have two weeks to plan this out, but… I promise it will be our best family vacation so far!" Rapunzel announced.

More like the first one, Ginny ruminating, finally reciprocating Rapunzel's smile with a dark smirk of her own.

"That sounds wonderful," Rose pointed out. "With the differential calculus exam I'll have on Tuesday, I definitely could use some relaxation."

Rose's voice was so sweet, and her words seemed so genuine that it almost seemed easy to trust her. It was disgusting.

Probably thirty more minutes passed by before the family started to show signs that their small gathering was over. Muffling a yawn with her hand, Rapunzel finally decided to terminate the meeting.

"How about we call it a night?" She said, briefly turning over her shoulder to give a look at a clock. "I'm sure we're all tired after today's events. Especially you, Ginny."

"We can continue all of this in the morning," Eugene seconded, rising to his feet. Soon, the rest of the family followed, and, not knowing what else to do, Ginny decided to obey the implicit order. After leaning down to retrieve her bag, she hung it from her shoulder.

"Have a wonderful night! I'll see you on Monday!" Cassandra called, already giving her farewells to the royal family. "And you, girls, good luck in those exams! If you're anything like your mother, you're gonna nail them."

"I'll have you know I'm very clever myself!" Eugene tried.

"Oh sure, I'm aware. If getting lost at the woods is a sign of it," Cassandra rolled her eyes, before, surprisingly, turning to face Ginny. "It was nice meeting you, kiddo. We'll see each other around."

The daughter of Gothel arched an eyebrow, but by the time she'd returned to her senses, Cassandra had already exited the room.

"Care to follow?" Eugene prompted, his smile too radiant for him to pretend he was bothered by Cassandra's words. With that same gracious gesture, he offered his right arm to her. Talk about being taken aback.

"Go ahead," Anxellin prompted, pushing Ginny forward, almost making her collide with the sovereign in question.

"I… I… Excuse me―"

"Now, it's time to carry out with what we promised, we'll show you to your room," Rapunzel piped in again, squelching Ginny's reverie. "I'm sure Eugene already said this, but tomorrow we'll take you around the castle to show you the gardens and the stables. We all have a big day coming."

"Yes he did," she hissed. 'And it sounded better from him,' she added in her mind.

"We could go downtown," Anxellin supplied, drifting Ginny's attention back to something that wasn't her burning despise for Rapunzel. "Show Ginny around Corona."

"I have it!" Rose announced. "We should go to Adalicia's bakery."

"I was about to suggest that," her sister laughed. "Or maybe the flower-shop, I'm sure we'll find something interesting there."

Unhearing to their conversation, Ginny followed the King of Corona through the castle. Everything in Eugene denoted confidence. He had an easy smile and a proud stance to his shoulders. As if that weren't enough, there was a warmness to him that Ginny was torn between admiring and loathing. Everything he had said to her seemed ridiculously honest, so genuine it was absurd to think such sincere people even existed.

The daughter of Gothel was still trying to figure out what to make of Eugene when the king stopped and turned to face her again.

"Here we are. Are you ready?" Eugene announced, his hand placed in the doorknob of a white threshold.

That probably wasn't the right question to ask, Ginny mused, offering the king a sheepish grin. She had been ready to leave the Isle from the moment she had been able to tell day apart from night. On a less bright note, she had also crossed half a castle without registering her surroundings or possible exits.

Taking her silence as a positive answer, Eugene opened the door. Gently, the king let go of Ginny's arm and stepped back, allowing her to be the first one to walk into the room. She had to be in a fool's paradise, she decided, her eyes immediately drawn to the four-posted bed, ruby canopies carefully held back by a golden ribbon. This single room was at least twice as big as the cottage she'd shared with Gothel. And this time she didn't even have to share, with her so-called mother or otherwise.

"You'll have to forgive that it's a little impersonal," Rapunzel's overly-sweetly voice snatched her back into reality. "We didn't really know how many kids we were expecting."

"We weren't told anything," Eugene seconded. "We had no idea of your gender―"

"Your age―"

"Your likes―"

"Or dislikes, we didn't know anything," Rapunzel concluded. Despite the fact that Rose and Anxellin had already told her all of that, Ginny couldn't help but follow the conversation, if only because she now understood where Rose and Anxellin had gotten the habit of completing each other's sentences―their parents did the same thing all the time. "I hope you don't mind it much, it'll only be an inconvenience for tonight. Tomorrow we'll go shopping and we'll get anything you want."

"So?" the king questioned when a few more seconds went by and Ginny showed no signs of wanting to say something. "Do you like it?"

"I… I don't know what to say," she offered honestly.

"Thank you is a good start," Anxellin supplied. "What? It's true!" she argued when her sister shot her a warning glare.

It was a good start, Ginny had to admit, but it was also a very Auradonian thing to say, therefore she kept her mouth shut. Still, it seemed that Eugene knew exactly what her abashed expression meant, as his smile turned a little warmer, proving it was yet possible.

"I'll leave you to talk about your woman-y things," he said, pressing a kiss to each of his daughter's forehead. He almost took a step to reach for Ginny, but he stopped when he saw her shoulders tense up. "I'll see you in the morning!" he offered instead, still smiling. Ginny was tempted to ask for him to stay.

"Alright, no use crying over spilled milk, right?" Rapunzel continued with her rant. "There's a bathroom right here," she pointed to a second door. "In there you'll find anything that you might need―soap, body lotion, towels, shampoo."

"Warm water is the right handle," Anxellin added.

"Oh, yes, that too," the queen nodded, counting with her fingers. "Of course, there's the tub, feel free to fill it. There's a tray with chocolate and some fruit in case you get hungry," she reassumed, this time pointing to a small dressing table. "And water. We also left water. Is there anything else you can think off the top of your head?"

"There's another comforter in the shelf, but since it's summer I don't think you'll need that," Rose offered simply, still standing at the entrance of the room.

"I think that's all. We'll let you rest, now, I'm sure you're tired, dear," Rapunzel decided, once it became clear that Ginny had no intention of answering. Showing none of her husband's qualms, she threw her arms around Ginny and squeezed her against her body. "I'm so excited to have you here!" she said, a warm rush of breath against Ginny's neck.

The contact was gone before Ginny even had time to push Rapunzel away, as suddenly as it had come. So suddenly in fact, that Ginny was actually able to notice the loss of warmth.

"That's all you'll see of me today, I promise. Good night," the woman said, stepping back to finally exit the room. Waving her hand one last time, Anxellin followed her.

"My room is the one straight across the halfway. Blue door," Rose declared. "If you need anything, don't hesitate to knock. I'm a light sleeper."

Ginny had yet to come up with an answer to the princess' offer when Rose turned on her heels and left, closing the door behind her. Not daring to move, Ginny stood firm for a few minutes, before finally letting go of the breath she'd been holding

Still not quite believing her eyes, Ginny allowed her fingers to ghost over the feather comforter. She took a deep breath and closed her eyes as she took a seat on the cushiony mattress. For the first time that day, there was silence around her. As much as she didn't agree with Rapunzel, she was tired. Still, the misgiving that all she was seeing at the moment was nothing more than the twisted mind trip of her feverish senses forced her to remain awake.

Taking one final deep breath, she rose to her feet. Anyhow, she was already there, even if in nothing more than a mere figment of imagination. She might as well make the best of her stay at her own fool's dream.

Picking out one of the towels Rapunzel had pointed out, Ginny walked over to the bathroom and turned the handle that Anxellin had claimed was the hot water one. It was almost perfect, she thought, stepping into the gush of water once it was warm enough. The temperature, heated up to the point where it almost burnt her, immediately wrapped around the contracture of her right shoulder, melting the tension away. It was almost perfect.

If this was really a dream, she could pretend she believed it, she mused, allowing herself to fall for the stupid lie that the steam around her was warm enough to melt the stiffness of a life-long tension. Maybe the scented soap, with its playful bubbles and creamy consistence would be enough to wash away the aching pattern the Isle of the Lost had etched across her skin.

She laughed humorlessly. It was a nice thought. So, so nice, that Genevieve Gothel almost believed it.

Chapter Text

Trying

For the longest of times Doretta Tremaine had believed that, if the time ever came for her to leave the Isle of the Lost, she would have been thrilled out of her mind. That, of course, had been a long time in the past, when she'd been naïve enough to think that one day in the near future Auradon would look down and remember that the Isle of the Lost, apart from being a floating junkyard, was also home to a handful of people.

At the moment, Doretta wasn't sure if 'naïve' was the word she was looking for. Someone in Auradon had finally turned over their shoulders and remembered the Isle, after all, but she wasn't convinced that such a thing was good anymore.

Certainly, things had gone smoothly ever since Mal had returned to the Isle. Mal was dressed differently, she even held herself distinctively, but she had carried on with what she'd pledged. Still, Mal was Maleficent's daughter, the spawn of one of the wickedest creatures in the Isle of the Lost. It made no sense to trust her, especially because she had returned to her hometown with a tongue that wasn't as sharp and with promises that sounded like Auradon's commercials.

Doretta knew better than to trust someone who acted nicely, she knew better than to fall for a pitiful smile. After all, the times when her mother would call her name gently, the faintest trace of fondness in her voice, were the ones the pain of her slap stung the hardest. The times when a man would approach her with a non-threatening demeanor and no weapons in sight were the ones Doretta knew for a fact that she had to fear for her life.

No, Doretta Tremaine didn't believe in good people, she had no reason to do such an idiotic thing. She was simply convinced that some people were better at hiding their twisted intentions than others. And, if she were honest, that was even worse―the idea, the small, tingling hope that there was even good in the world to start with was so much more destructive than just the raw truth. Honestly, Doretta preferred to be beat up straightforwardly, rather than to be led to believe that there was something better, that someone like her could aspire to become someone better.

There was no use. Pretty thoughts had never put food in her plate or meat in her bones. Therefore, Doretta Tremaine refused to believe there was a pure reason behind Auradon's sudden interest in the effete subjects they'd imprisoned in the Isle of the Lost.

Which was certainly not what her younger sisters thought about the matter. Well, probably. To be honest, Doretta never really knew what Daryn had in mind, so she merely assumed that her younger sister would agree with Desiree. Which, in return, meant that Doretta would loathe whatever those two were up to.

Doretta couldn't remember a time she had gotten along with her eldest sister. Desiree was just... unreasonable. All the time. It was unnerving. And, like all good things, her sister's character had only become even sourer after the incident with Gaston.

They never talked about it, mainly because there was nothing to say. Gaston had beat her senseless, and then he'd continued to hammer her even though Desiree wasn't conscious anymore. The most popularized theory was that the hunter had mistaken her with one of his cheap whores and had been too boozed up to realize his mistake. Either way, he'd left Desiree bleeding in the filthy street, her left leg twisted in an unnatural angle and with a couple of broken ribs.

Doretta was decent enough not to mention the incident. Of course, it helped that they rarely spoke and that neither of them were usually at the Tremaine property. You couldn't bring something like that up if you didn't even speak to the aforementioned.

Dizzy was different. She still showed up at 'Curl Up and Dye' regularly, and she went to Anastasia's house every Sunday. She never got into fights if she could find a way out of them, and most importantly, she hadn't chosen a side when it came to her older sisters, unlike Daryn. She fit into Auradon just fine.

The only other of her sisters who wasn't a pain in the ass was Dulcie, but Doretta had little confidence that it would remain that way for a long time. After all, Dulcie was still a toddler, and if she hadn't tried to break all hell loose it was probably due to the fact that she couldn't even speak properly rather than her intrinsic goodness. She would grow up and realize how fucked up their family was soon enough, so Doretta wasn't very hopeful that she'd still agree to watch after her youngest sister in a few more years.

For the time being, however, it looked like they would have to play a perfect family.

Dizzy, of course, was the first to step in Auradonian soil, holding Dulcie's right hand in hers. Behind them came Doretta, rearranging the handles of her bag after having stuffed the papers Mal had given her into it.

"There you are!" a woman called loudly as soon as they descended from the wooden staircase. "You must be Drizella's daughters, correct?"

With a shy smile, Dizzy nodded.

"Wonderful," the Auradonian said, donned in a pastel pink business suit. "I am Fayanna, the Fairy Godmother, and this is my daughter, Jane," without losing her megawatt smile, the woman pointed to a young girl that Doretta hadn't paid attention to before, as she seemed more interested in counting the pebbles at her feet than in anything else.

Upon hearing her name, the girl ―Jane― flashed up a quick smile, not as large as her mother's, before she returned her focus to the floor. Doretta refrained a snort. That young Auradonian was practically cowering behind her mother. And all they had done was step out of the ship!

"Name's Doretta," Drizella's daughter began, brushing her hair off her shoulder. "Dizzy, Dulcie, my sisters."

"I see," the woman nodded, as she gave a quick look to a bunch of papers she was holding.

"You're missing Desiree and Daryn," she rolled her eyes, pointing to the staircase, as Desiree was incapable of following Doretta's pace and their younger sister was the only one who was willing to walk by her side.

"Very well," Fayanna nodded, sparing the stragglers a quick glance before returning to look at Doretta. "Who would have thought that there were so many of you. Your mother must have been very busy."

"On the contrary, she had nothing to do," Doretta nearly sneered, the lopsided smirk she knew worked so well to charm islanders in her lips.

Immediately, the woman's smile became strained in her lips and she tilted her head, no doubt weighing her options to try to decide what to do. Impassible, Doretta stared back at her with a taunting sneer. Finally, Fayanna shook her head, as if she needed to physically pull herself away from the girl's words. With a small sigh, she recovered her perfect looks and turned to Dizzy and Dulcie.

"And you, pumpkin?" she asked, leaning down so Dulcie could look directly at her. "What do you have to say about your mom?"

For all answer, the girl only made a half-hearted attempt to hide behind her older sister, her hand still in Dizzy's. Contrary to what Fay had expected, she showed no signs of recognizing the word "mom"―she didn't tilt her head or peer up or smile even. Instead, she merely looked back at Fayanna unamused-ly.

"She doesn't speak much," Dizzy offered nervously, stepping to her side so Fay could face her sister again.

"Is that true?" the fairy asked, gesturing for Dulcie to walk over to her. "Don't worry, pumpkin, I'm sure you'll be talking in no time." And with that she picked Dulcie up, wrapping her right arm around her and supporting the girl's weight in her hip. Dulcie didn't make a fuss or started crying, though she didn't seem overly excited with the attention either.

Before there was time for the silence between them to become awkward, Desiree finally caught up with the group.

"Welcome, girls!" the fairy celebrated, turning to the newcomers with Dulcie still secured in her arms. Desiree and Daryn didn't seem to share her excitement. "I'm Fayanna, this is my daughter Jane and we will be looking after you from now on."

"How... thrilling," Desiree sneered, offering Fay what had to be the fakest courtesy Doretta had ever seen. As always, Daryn followed her lead and leaned forward clumsily.

"You're Desiree, is that correct?" Fay confirmed, taking the girl's hand briefly in hers before turning to the younger girl by her side. She tilted her head, recalling the girl's limping, but she decided against commenting anything on it. "And you're Daryn, right?"

"Indeed," Desiree answered simply for both of them.

"Alright, that's good. Now, please forgive me while I go tell Belle that we're leaving," Fay asked. "We were supposed to stay for a little longer, but it's gotten late and I think we should get going now."

"What do you mean by late?" Dizzy questioned, genuinely interested.

"To start with... we didn't believe there were as many children," the fairy offered, slightly pursing her lips.

"It's not like we wanted to be there, trust me," Doretta uttered before she could stop herself.

"Well, the ship was also delayed when it arrived, therefore we had to rearrange the schedule," Fayanna added, feeling the tension grow in the atmosphere after her previous words. That, at least, Doretta could understand—they'd left the Isle almost two hours after the time Mal had said then they would.

"That's true, I guess," she accepted with a roll of her eyes.

"Either way, stay here with my daughter while I go talk to Belle," the woman instructed with a nervous smile. "I'll be back in no time."

And with that, she was gone, taking Dulcie with her and leaving behind her constipated-looking daughter. This already looked like a disaster.

"Of course. Anthony gets to go with a queen and we're left with… this," Doretta scoffed spitefully. "Lucky bastard he is."

"Etta, c'mon," Dizzy half-heartedly attempted to silence her.

"Just saying."

"What schedule is she talking about, anyway?" Desiree inquired, stepping closer to Jane.

"Excuse me?" the girl asked, finally raising her gaze from the floor, surprised Desiree was even talking to her.

"The schedule your mother had to rearrange, what was she even talking about?"

"Um... well, she wanted to show you around Auradon City and em... Auradon Prep, too," she began, once again turning her face to the ground.

"You think I came from so far away to see your school?" Doretta nearly spat.

"I... Well, I don't think you'd necessarily want to but... erm... perhaps it would be useful that you did..." Jane trailed off.

"Oh, c'mon, don't be such a bitch just yet," Desiree giggled over-exaggeratedly, limping over to Jane so she could place her hands on the girl's shoulders.

"Of course not," Doretta huffed. "I guess you'd rather be a backstabber."

"Oh, you're so cruel and inconsiderate," Desiree sneered, a deranged look to her eyes. Next to her, Jane had gone pale. "What a terrible first impression you're giving."

"I sure am," Doretta straightened her back. Her eyes narrowed. "At least I'm not lying, something that can't be said about you."

"You little―"

"Guys, we've just arrived," Dizzy tried weakly. "Can't you not fight for a day?"

Before Daryn or Desiree had time to reply anything, they heard the Fairy Godmother's voice once more. Doretta simply rolled her eyes, both at Dizzy's comment and at Fayanna's words.

"Alright, girls," Fay started cheerfully. "Everything's taken care of and we're ready to leave."

"Wonderful," Desiree snickered. Neither Fay nor Jane seemed to notice the taunt in her voice.

"First things first. We're going to go around Auradon City real quick so you can see some important locations, but we won't stop, right now we have no time," the fairy began. "We'll also see get a quick look at Auradon Prep, as you..." she paused, burrowing her brow briefly. "Dizzy, how old are you?"

"Twelve."

"Good, only two of you will be attending Auradon Prep the next semester, but since all of you will eventually get there... there's no harm in seeing the place now," she informed. "After that, I think we should go home so that you girls can get settled in, what do you think?"

"Anything is better than staying here," Desiree giggled, with that disgustingly over-exaggerated way of hers.

"It's a very good idea," Dizzy offered wholeheartedly in a desperate attempt to focus Fay's attention in her instead of her older sisters.

"I'm glad you like it. Tomorrow we can go check out your school," Fay continued, pointing at Dizzy and Daryn. "And perhaps we could also go shopping."

"What, you don't like the clothes we're wearing now?" Desiree inquired with a raised eyebrow.

Not for the first time that afternoon, Fay looked at them from head to toe. First at Desiree, taking in the lopsided bow in her dark hair and the cheap color on her cheeks. Then she moved to Doretta, pursing her lips awkwardly as her eyes inspected the girl. Finally, her eyes settled in Dizzy and Daryn, who she gave a curt nod to.

"Well... your dress is a little antiquated," she offered, turning back to the eldest of the sisters as she giggled nervously. "And that skirt maybe is a little short," she grimaced, sending an apologetic look to Doretta.

"Leave me out of this," the latter answered immediately.

"Oh, that's what you think?" Desiree hissed, her fake smile still in place. "And whose fault is that?"

"Um... I don't think we should be focusing on searching for culprits now, should we?" Fay offered with a plastic smile of her own. "Things are finally changing, after all."

"Yeah, for whose benefit?" Doretta muttered under her breath.

"Etta, please..." Dizzy tried once again, almost a whisper.

"Let's get going, is that alright?" Fay suggested, ignoring the interaction between the sisters.

As answer, Dizzy offered a coy smile, but other than that, the girls remained silent and, for the most part, impassible. From the crease in her brow, Doretta was willing to bet that the old fairy was ready to cry out in frustration.

"Good, please follow me," Fay instructed, turning on her heels, as if to say it was a closed matter.

Left without a better thing to do, they obeyed. Mainly, however, Doretta thought it was a subject of practicality―none of them knew where they were standing, and they had all learned to be patient at the Isle. Mal could gloat and boast all she wanted. She could smile for the cameras, and hold that boring prince's hand for all Doretta cared. Those two could fill their mouths with promises, Doretta wasn't stupid enough to fall for them.

In the end, it all came down to the fact that she didn't trust them, let alone Fayanna and Benjamin, she didn't trust Mal. That was the daughter of one of the wickedest creatures of all time, for Hell's sake. No one in her right mind would trust her.

The thing with Maleficent was that she was cunning, patient. Unlike villains like Facilier, or Gothel or even her own grandmother, Maleficent wasn't selfish enough as to believe that she could revel in her evil schemes and brood over her glorious days. No, Maleficent was cautious, calculating―and that made her dangerous.

You could always brace yourself for a fight when you heard the enemy approach, footsteps heavy on feeble branches. You could always make the first attack when you knew your rival's train of thought. You couldn't do any of that if your adversary was virtually a stranger.

Lady Tremaine and Gothel had been both idiots, like most people on the Island were. Maleficent was perhaps different, yet she had ended up in that junkyard all the same, depraved of her magic and with nothing more than her icy stares to pinpoint her from the commoners.

Doretta was as uninterested in Maleficent's family relationships as the next person, but if the Mistress of Evil was as observant as she seemed, then she ought to have learned from her mistakes. And if Mal was half as cunning as she pretended to be... this whole relocation project could all be part of a greater scheme to get back at Auradon.

Doretta had seen that prince, all bubbly smiles and warm words. It couldn't be hard to play a puppy-eyed cretin like that. And she would know, after all, she had played her fair share of guys at the Isle. Big-mouthed imbeciles were her favorites, thinking that they could fool her simply because she was younger, because she smiled with ease and faked interest in their words.

It was easier that way, to gain their trust and play with it. Fake the closest to innocence that one could aspire to have at the Isle, to giggle idiot-ly and pretend and wink coquettishly. It was easy to fool them if they thought that she trusted them. Idiots, dying to believe that they had some sort of control over her.

The real secret was that―to pretend. Doretta couldn't remember their names or a single thing they'd told her, but it was enough that they thought she did.

Let Mal do whatever she pleased, Doretta decided, she would do what she knew worked. She would treat Auradon like she did the Isle, lead them to think she was stupid, that she fell for their lies, that she relied on them. Just until she had gathered enough information to attack later on, once she knew enough about the place to firmly stand her ground.

"Etta?" she heard Dizzy call her, the faintest trace of exasperation in her voice.

"What?" Doretta questioned, finally snapping out of her thoughts. Now that she was conscious of her surroundings instead of following her sister out of inertia, she realized that they had left behind the pier a very long time in the past. The crowded wharf had become spacious streets.., and they were now standing in front of what seemed to her like a small castle, golden gates guarding it.

"You weren't listening?" she guessed. The young girl sighed. "I asked you a question."

"Well, I got distracted," her sister shrugged. "Perhaps if you asked again instead of complaining I would answer."

"I asked if you felt happy or excited."

"For what? For being here?" Doretta mocked, rolling her eyes.

"Yes. I think that―"

"You're happy that you finally got here, I get that."

"At least you could pretend you're interested," Dizzy muttered.

"Why?" she questioned. "Because Evie said so?"

"Because it's Auradon!" Dizzy protested, as if it were something obvious. "Nothing can go wrong in Auradon. It's the place where happy endings come true and magic is real."

Before Doretta had time to answer that daydreaming with how perfect Auradon was had never taken them anywhere, the Fairy Godmother decided to step into the conversation again.

"Are you girls interested in magic?" she asked sweetly.

"I wouldn't say so, no," Dizzy offered coyly, no trace of the firmness with which she'd spoken to Doretta mere seconds before.

"It's not like we've even seen a lot of magic to start with," the older of the two replied with a shrug.

"Well, there's the barrier... there's really no way to not see that," Daryn called, proving she'd been listening to the conversation despite having stayed behind due to Desiree's slow pace.

"Does it even count?" Doretta questioned.

"Technically, it should, but I don't think that we―"

"Regardless of those... technicalities," Fay interrupted Dizzy. "I'm glad to hear you haven't got an interest in the practice of magic since, as you may already know, it is forbidden to perform any within Auradon."

"How would we know, with the only two crappy channels we were allowed at the Isle?" Doretta scoffed, only to be nudged by Dizzy.

For a few precious moments, none of them said anything and only walked in silence. Finally, Dizzy decided to speak up again.

"Wait did you say magic was not allowed within Auradon?" she asked, sounding more as if she'd been thinking aloud rather than talking to the others. "That doesn't make sense. You need magic to keep the barrier up, and the Isle is still part of Auradon."

"That was a humongous exception," Fayanna hurried to answer. "As its main objective was to protect Auradon."

"But Evie said―"

"Oh, the Evil Queen's daughter," the fairy stated. "She and Mal did dodge our rules a few times, mainly because they were not aware of them. That's why I'm letting you know straight away that magic will not be tolerated."

Before Dizzy could come up with another witty reply to question Auradon's inner workings, Dulcie began to make a fuss in the fairy's arms.

"Hey, hey, don't cry. Why are you crying?" Fay tried soothing, bouncing the girl, which only made her wail harder.

"Mother, maybe if you would―"

"Can she walk?" Fay asked, turning to Doretta, who only stared back at her in boredom.

"Not too much," Dizzy answered instead.

Squirming in Fay's arms, Dulcie tried to reach for her older sister.

"How old is she again?" the fairy questioned, almost bluntly.

"Three," Dizzy replied, turning away from Fay's strong gaze to focus on the youngest of her siblings. A heartbeat later, she spread out her arms in the toddler's direction.

"She should be running around by now," Fay mused absently, before deciding that she would deal with that later and passing the fussing child to Dizzy. "Regardless, we had to make a stop here anyways."

"So we're sightseeing... this," Desiree pointed skeptically. Fay didn't seem to notice the sarcasm in her voice.

"That's right. Girls, welcome to Auradon Prep!" she exclaimed, pointing at a building that had to be at least twice as big as Dragon Hall, without even counting the gardens. Pristine, white towers rose, almost touching the sky. Even the stairway that lead to the front entrance seemed spotless, freshly washed marble.

Now, of course Doretta was not amazed by big buildings. She lived in Lady Tremaine's old mansion, after all, and she also attended Dragon Hall semi-regularly. No, Doretta had seen her fair share of old castles. What made her hold her breath for a millisecond, however, was the perfection of the construction. There wasn't a single crack in the walls or a door that had come out of its hinges. From what she could see, nothing was out of place, not even a fallen leaf from the trees tainted the perfection. Even the gates that separated them from actually being inside the property held an untouched aura to them. Had Fayanna said they were made of solid gold, she would have believed her.

The place was beautiful, pure―everything that she wasn't. Finally, she snapped out of it when she dwelled on how moronic it was that she was comparing herself with a building.

"And this is a school?" she heard Dizzy ask excitedly. It was until then that Doretta realized Fayanna had kept on talking during her trance.

"The best school in the kingdom," Fay nodded. "Usually, the attendees are people from royal ascendance, but of course we're making an exception due to King Ben's decree."

"So you're saying we'll be taking class with―"

"Why would his decree make a difference?" Doretta cut Dizzy off. Her sister, rather used to being so violently ignored only hunched her shoulders.

"It makes all the difference, dear," Fay continued calmly. "As he was the one who requested that you were placed here instead of in any other institution."

"Sweet," Desiree sneered, exchanging a quick glance with Daryn.

"I'll bring you on Monday so you can see its interior," the Fairy offered kindly. "For now, let's get going. We're almost home."

For another ten minutes, they walked in silence. Well, most of them, at least―Dizzy hooked up a conversation with the Fairy Godmother. This time, Doretta made a conscious decision to focus and pay attention to the turns they took, to the streets and establishments around her. She would have enough time to make introspections once they arrived to Fayanna's house.

"Here we are!" Fay announced soon after, finally coming to a halt in front of a sky blue house. "Home, sweet home."

Without further ado, the fairy introduced her key into the lock and promptly opened the door for them. In fact, she even stepped aside and held the door open for them to walk in.

"As you can see, it's a small place, so I'm afraid you'll have to share a room, but other than that... be welcome to our humble home," the Fairy continued. Small wasn't precisely the word Doretta would have chosen to describe the building.

"Hang on, you mean the four of us will have to..."

"No, no, my dear," Fay smiled back at Desiree. "There's two spare rooms, so two of you can stay in each one and that little pumpkin can come stay with me."

"Nice," Doretta replied. "Sharing a roof with her is far more than I feel like doing."

"You harm me deeply, oh sister mine," Desiree replied, bored.

"Well, girls… what do you think?" Fay continued, seemingly not noticing the strong animosity between the sisters.

"It's nice," Dizzy offered timidly just as Desiree gave an exaggerated courtesy.

"We're honored to be here," the eldest of Drizella's daughters said. Doretta merely shrugged.

"What would you prefer to do?" the fairy asked. "We can either eat right now or we can show you around the house."

"I'm gonna have to say the food sounds more tempting," Desiree giggled, soon receiving Daryn and Dizzy's hummed agreement.

"Wonderful!" Fay clapped, immediately turning on her heels to head to a separate room. "Make yourselves at home, girls, I'll have this ready as soon as possible!"

Home, Doretta nearly huffed. Home.

"Now, Jane, is there anything you want to tell us?" Desiree questioned in an overly-sweet voice.

"Pardon me?" the girl replied, genuinely caught off guard.

"Oh, I don't know," she giggled. "Your mother is a chatterbox, but I don't know what to make of you, it looks like the cat's got your tongue!"

"C'mon, leave her alone," Doretta groaned, turning to Jane. "Forgive my sister's manners. She spends too much time with the Huns and has started to act like them."

"Oh, yeah, and I suppose your back ally dealings are made with very fine people!" Desiree snorted. "Let me have my fun, will you? Just because you're a sour busybody doesn't mean everyone has to be like you."

"Shut the hell up already," Doretta snapped, shooting daggers at her older sister. "We've just arrived and you're already making this poor fool uncomfortable, at least wait a couple of days before you start showing your true colors."

"Yeah? And why's―"

"Girls, I'm… I'm sorry if I did anything that made you think you've bothered me…" Jane tried to interrupt, voice hesitant. "I… um… I was merely surprised that you would want to speak to me like that, I…"

"And why wouldn't we want to talk to you?" Desiree asked, sending the young Auradonian a rapid wink. "We're all friends here, aren't we? Just… ignore her, she's no fun."

"Oh really?" Doretta muttered.

"Besides, isn't that why we were placed with you guys?" the oldest girl continued. "So you could teach us the drill and show us how things are done here in Auradon?"

"Well, yes… I mean, technically," Jane offered. "It's just that I don't… I don't think anything that I could tell you would be any 'fun' either, not for you…"

"And why's that, Jane?" she continued. "Is it because we're evil and wicked and―"

"Oh, no, no!" Jane finally raised her voice, just for a moment as her cheeks turned bright red. "What I meant to say is that… um… that nothing I do would be considered interesting or fun by… erm… anyone, much less you, maybe, but..."

"Much less us?" Daryn let out in amusement. However, she didn't even wait for an answer to her questioned before she turned to the floor under Desiree's sharp scrutiny.

"Yeah… Um… I… kinda remember what Mal and the others did for fun when they'd just arrived, and… I'm pretty sure I've never done anything remotely similar."

"And what makes you think we're anything like her either?" Desiree laughed, bright red lips curled into a mock attempt at a smile.

Before the flabbergasted Auradonian could even wrap her mind around Desiree's words, Fayanna called her from what Doretta assumed was the kitchen.

"Jane, dear!" the woman started. "Show the girls to the dining room and help me place the table."

"Well, um… you heard her," she shrugged. "Follow me."

And damn well they did. Desiree in first place, her puffed-out gown being enough to dissuade any of her sisters of stepping too close to her. Behind her, as always, Daryn followed. At last, Doretta tailed behind Dizzy and Dulcie. Honestly, the furthest she could be from her eldest sister, the better.

"This… em… this is the dining room, as I am sure you can see," Jane smiled minutely, pointing at the six-chaired dinning set. Mahogany, Doretta recognized, Lady Tremaine's favorite. "Feel free to take a seat wherever you want, but I think that…"

"We're missing chairs, aren't we?" Fayanna reappeared, stepping out of the kitchen with a white apron tied around her waist. "We'll fix it in a minute, girls, don't worry."

"Do I…?"

"Yes, Jane, please be a dear and go upstairs to bring the extra chair we have," she instructed, before promptly turning back to her pot. Jane didn't wait to be asked again.

"You'll have to forgive us, girls," the fairy continued. A chatterbox, indeed. "It's only Jane and I here, for the most part. When we have guests… it's only two or three good friends. Besides, Ben and Evie strictly forbade the receiving families to find out anything about the children they were expecting, so we didn't have time to fix this kind of things in advance."

"Why would they do that?"

"Well you see, Dizzy, they said that it wouldn't be fair that we had all that information, while you did not, hence why they didn't tell us anything."

Dizzy nodded, humming her approval so that Fay knew she agreed.

"It still seems weird that they didn't tell you… anything," Doretta offered.

"It was the honest thing to do," the fairy nodded. "Um… would any of you mind handing me a plate?" No sooner had she finished asking than Dizzy was out of her chair, ready to be a piece falling in place in the domestic play Auradon had decided to mount.

"The top cupboard, please," Doretta heard Fayanna instruct. Honestly, if every day henceforth would be so nauseatingly familial…

"Here we go," Jane announced soon after, placing a plastic chair next to the head of the table, seat that Desiree had already claimed as her own.

Soon, and after a few more trips to the kitchen of Dizzy and Fay, the table was served. First, Dizzy brought the promised plates―porcelain, probably, from at least three different sets. So, apparently, they didn't have enough plates to serve them all in an equal set, but they sure as hell could afford three separate Chinese porcelain sets. Nice.

The silverware appeared to be… well, real silver. And the smell, the smell was something else. Hell, Lady Tremaine's train of thought was finally starting to make sense, always reminiscing in the luxurious life she'd led before her exile. Doretta hadn't even tasted the food in the pots placed in front of her, and she was as in for hating on Auradon as any other, but even she had to admit it smelled good.

As they were finally settling down, Fay asked Dizzy to pass Dulcie to her, so she could feed the toddler. Nothing Dizzy said managed to dissuade the fairy from taking the responsibility off her shoulders, so in the end, Dizzy gave in. Which meant that Doretta had ended up seated squeezed between Dizzy and Dulcie, on the right side of the table. Fay had taken the other head of the table, and to her right sat Jane and then Daryn.

"Well, let's begin, girls," Fay instructed. "That first dish is coq au vin, it's chicken in red wine sauce. Then we have baeckeoffe, some more beef, with pork and potatoes. This is quiche Lorraine, you know, eggs and bacon."

"Basically a fancy omelet," Daryn completed.

"More or less, yes, I think you could call it that," the fairy laughed. "Well, why don't you dig into it, please go ahead and fill your plates."

Which was probably not the right thing to say, as Daryn and Dulcie didn't need the instruction to be repeated, immediately wolfing into their plates. Dulcie one could forgive, her motility was not exactly the best, but Daryn and her lack of use of cutlery…

Doretta had to hand it to Desiree, she remembered Lady Tremaine's lessons and calmly began eating with the correct fork. Doretta chose the wrong one on purpose.

That was something else to write down in the ever-growing list of things that hadn't made sense since they'd left the Isle.

First, the fact that she almost felt like she hadn't wanted to leave in the first place, which was absolutely bizarre because she loathed that place with a passion. Then, Fayanna's megawatt smile. Jane's cowering she understood, but the fairy's shinny approach seemed… off, honestly. And then, Desiree's charming persona. Bullshit, that's what it was―bullshit. Desiree was two years older than her, and Doretta was pretty sure that from the first moment she'd breathed in the Isle's putrid air, Desiree had despised her.

It made a bit of sense, maybe―their mother hadn't cared about Desiree when she'd been an only child, it was just natural that Desiree had somehow reached the conclusion that, now that she had a sister, she would be getting even less attention from their dear mother. Doretta had no idea why Desiree thought that would even mean anything. Their mother loved her as much as she loved Desiree―nothing.

To be completely honest, Doretta preferred the days her mother forgot about her. The days Drizella remembered she existed, she mostly ended beat up.

Still, Desiree probably felt like she deserved more attention. She was the first-born, the oldest, according to her she was the prettiest... bullshit, as well, but there was no point in arguing. It was useless, too, because neither the order they had been born in nor their looks seemed to be of importance to Drizella―she despised the five of them, deeply. In their mother's words, they had 'Robbed her of her beauty and class'.

"Etta?"

"What?" she hissed, head whipping to her left side.

"You're gonna start catching flies," Dizzy whispered back, a concerned look to her eyes.

"Excuse me?"

"You spaced out again. Second time this day, I believe," her sister explained. "What I mean is that you should start eating and... maybe focus."

The intonation of her words left enough room for them to be a question, but Doretta simply rolled her eyes and decided against answering. If anything, Dizzy was right. For once in her life she got a shot at a warm, decent meal and she was wasting her opportunity by thinking about how much she despised Desiree. Like she hadn't done that enough already.

"And we saved the best for the end," Fay announced.

"Mom..." Jane tried to intervene, only to be brushed away.

"Oh, you know it's true," the fairy replied before turning to Dizzy, the only one of her guests who seemed to be paying attention to her. "Jane is a very good cook and she made a little surprise for you."

"Well, in that case... we can't let it go to waste, can we?" Desiree winked an eye.

With an over-exaggerated sigh, Jane rose to her feet and walked over to the kitchen.

"You'll see, she's a little shy but she's very good at what she does," Fay continued rambling. "The former rulers of Auradon, Belle and Adam…"

"We know who they are," Daryn replied, immediately whipping her head to Desiree, lips pressed into a tight line. Doretta almost snorted. Desiree had kicked her under the table, no doubt. Another of the many reasons why she had sat as far as humanly possible from the eldest of the clan―Desiree was unpredictable. Fay, however, didn't seem to mind and continued without acknowledging the interruption.

"They even invited Jane over a couple of times to help with the dessert."

"Mom, just because I'm friends with Ben and that they're kind enough to…"

"Oh, to each their own, sweetie, you're good at what you do," the fairy said, deciding the argument was over as she changed the topic. "Now hurry up so they can see I'm not lying."

"Sure thing," Jane sighed again, reappearing in the kitchen's entrance, a plate in each of her hands. She walked over to the table and placed then in the center before returning to the kitchen in the search of small plates to serve the dessert.

"Besides, you can't lie, can you?" Daryn spoke up. "I mean, you're a fairy… you're not supposed to lie."

"Very true, dear," Fay laughed. "Which is why you can be sure that my daughter's culinary skills are excelling."

Blushing furiously, Jane started to hand over the served plates. "Umm… I didn't know what you liked, so I… um… I made two things. These are madeleines, they're basically a cookie," she explained, pointing to an oval-like pastry. "And these are chocolate profiteroles, it's… um... hot chocolate sauce on a choux pastry filled with vanilla ice cream. I… hope you like them."

"Eh… Jane, your mother said you're friends with Ben, so I… suppose you're friends with Evie too…" Dizzy trailed off, again letting the ending of her sentence hang in the air in the form of a question.

"Here we go…" Doretta muttered under her breath.

"Well, yes…" Jane grimaced. "I think you could say so. We take a couple of classes together and she's tutored me in Chemistry a couple of times."

For a few seconds, Dizzy's eyes remained focused on Jane, probably expecting her to add something, but the young Auradonian seemed done with the topic.

"They're actually very good," Desiree commenting, almost in a passing.

"Of course they are!" Fay replied, straightening in her chair. "And wait until you try her Paris-Brest, she makes the best one I've ever tasted."

"Mom…"

"Well, it's true!"

"Your mother can't lie, so… I'll take her word for it," Desiree giggled, the smallest glint of mischief in her eyes.

"Thank you," Jane finally offered, her face turned to her lap.

"Also, didn't Anastasia marry a baker?" Fay questioned after a few silent seconds. "It was Anastasia, right? You're mother isn't married…"

"Oh, no, whatever it is, it wasn't our mother. She despises compromise, you have no idea," Desiree said with a plastic smile.

"Aunt Anastasia married Trystam, a baker," Dizzy nodded, once again trying to cover up for her sisters' indiscreet comments.

"And she swears he's Anthony's father, but…"

"It's not a happy marriage," Doretta interrupted Daryn. Honestly, to have them spilling their family's secrets like this… "Let's leave it at that."

"Alright, if that's what you want we won't talk about it anymore," Fayanna accepted.

"However, I'll tell you this," Desiree took the floor again. "Nothing he ever cooked tasted this good."

For once, Doretta had to agree with her oldest sister.

It had been probably more than half an hour later that Fay announced it was time to show them the house. It was getting late, she said, and it was better to get them installed as soon as possible. They had a big day coming―they still had to see Auradon! Just remembering her exaggerated enthusiasm was enough to make Doretta feel nauseated.

"Alright, this is our first guest room," Fay pointed out after they'd climbed the stairs. "You can see the street from the window. It gets a lot of sun in the morning."

Calmly, the fairy stepped away from the doorway so they could catch a glimpse of the room. First, Doretta noticed the window―bigger than necessary, although it didn't seem out of place. To each of its sides there was a small bed with purple comforters. Finally, in one of the corners stood a small dressing table.

"Etta, can we…" Dizzy tried to get her attention.

"You haven't even seen the other one," Doretta rolled her eyes, but her younger sister only gave a half-hearted shrug. She sighed. "Fayanna, do you think we could stay here?"

"Sure thing, dear, if that's alright with your sisters," the fairy smiled. Oh, like hell Desiree was going to allow―

"Of course it is," the eldest of Drizella's daughters replied. "What room we're staying in doesn't make a difference."

Or maybe she would shut her mouth up for the first time in her life, that worked too.

"In that case, Doretta, Dizzy, make yourselves at home," Fay instructed, before turning on her heels to guide Daryn and Desiree. Jane stayed behind, with Dulcie safely secured in her right hip. "Now, girls, the other room is more like a studio, but it's also been adapted and has a bed and a sofa-bed, so there's no need to worry…" she continued explaining as she lead the remaining two girls away.

"Umm… there's a bathroom here," Jane pointed to a light purple door after a few silent seconds. "Warm water is the right handle."

"Why now, we're not savages. We know how to take a bath, thank you," Doretta sneered, only to see Jane stop dead in her tracks and blink back at her in something that was half fear and half surprise.

"Etta, c'mon…" Dizzy tried. "Jane, please don't mind her, I'm sure she'll remember her manners soon, since she's not a savage," she gave her older sister a pointed look. Doretta giggled.

"She's right. I'm sorry, Jane, I'll try to behave myself," she offered with a charming smile, like the one she used to fool others into thinking she was just an ignorant young girl.

"It's… it's alright, don't worry," Jane tried to smile back. The crease in her brow, however, seemed anything but calm. "Now, if you follow me I'll show you the rest of the house."

Wonderful, Doretta thought to herself, making a conscious effort to stop herself from saying it aloud. She managed to catch the words in the corner of her lips. Jane didn't notice it, the poor fool probably thought she was just smiling, but Dizzy huffed in annoyance at her before following the Auradonian out of the room.

It was a little under an hour later before they finally called it a night and each retired to their respective bedrooms.

If someone had cared enough about her opinion as to ask her what amazed her the most of this place, Doretta's answer would have been that the fact that even at 6:30 in the afternoon the hallways were still filled with light was a welcomed surprised.

It was maybe foolish, but Doretta had spent half of her time ―the one she didn't spend roaming the streets of the bazaar― in a mansion that was even more spacious than Fayanna's house. Sure, the Tremaine mansion showed clear signs of decay, there were rooms that hadn't been cleaned in lustrums, some of the windows were broken, but still. It was very strange for her to agree with anyone in her family, but Lady Tremaine was right when it came to this―when something had quality, you could see it even through its emaciated figure.

Maybe the Tremaine mansion was old and dirty, yet its floors were still marble, and its furniture, albeit termite-eaten, had been made of the most expensive mahogany. Fayanna was going to need more than a fancy buildings to buy her vote.

Doretta knew about class, of course, Lady Tremaine had made sure that they all did. Her grandmother was weird like that―first, she insisted that they were all bastards, a shame for the family. Afterwards, however, she proclaimed that they were still her granddaughters, and they would have had to kill her before she let them humiliate her even more than they already did with their mere existence. Doretta had to admit, she had been tempted to finish the old hag. That way, the shouting matches would stop, at last.

Though, maybe it would have been better if she killed her mother. Lady Tremaine already had one foot in the grave, after all, it was only a matter of time before she died of old age. Or a heart-attack, that might have been good too.

At least Anastasia had married before she had a kid, even if it was to an imbecille like Trystam.

What Doretta had to admit, at least to herself, was that it was nice to not raise a dark cloud of dust each time she placed her foot on the floor. It felt good to smell rose bushes rather than rotten vegetables. It was too soon to make a decision and she sure as hell didn't trust Fayanna or her clumsy daughter, but she was not complaining, not yet.

On the bright side, nevertheless, the day was finally over. After their small tour through the brick house, Doretta had returned to the room to take a quick shower and change into a more comfortable outfit. At the moment, she was brushing her hair by the dressing table, as she waited for Dizzy to come out of the bathroom so they could turn the lights off.

"You could at least pretend to be nice, you know," Dizzy said behind her, encircling her hair with a bright yellow towel.

"What are you talking about now?"

"I mean the whole day! You said it youself—at least way a few days before you start whowing your true colors!" her younger sister insisted, making a fuss with her hands. "You know they're already doing more than enough by letting us stay with them, right?"

"All we needed them to do was to get us out of the Isle," Doretta argued with a smirk. "I mean, what's the worst that can happen? That they kick us out and we have to fend for ourselves in the streets of Auradon? Jeez, you'd think that we never did that back at the Isle."

"Well, worst case scenario they send us back to the Isle," Dizzy hissed. At least she tried, poor thing, her attempt at glaring was hilarious.

"Didn't you hear Mal? Sending us back is not an option," Doretta scoffed, returning to inspecting her reflection. "I thought you were all about believing their pure intentions, huh? Besides, Mal's like Evie's best friend, shouldn't you trust her by association or some shit of the sort?"

"I do trust them," Dizzy replied almost bluntly. "It's you who seems to have a problem with them."

"And why shouldn't I? I don't have a death wish," she snorted, combing the thick locks of her hair, her back turned to Dizzy, though she could see her sister's image in the mirror. "All I'm saying is that you shouldn't have high hopes on this, in case it backfires. From where you're standing, the blast is gonna reach you square in the face."

"Listen, just because you're miserable doesn't mean that you have the right to go making everyone else around you miserable too," she replied, her nostrils flaring with fury.

"So you've decided I'm miserable now? Oh, what gave me away?" Doretta laughed bitterly. "Look, for once I'm doing something nice for you, at least listen to what I have to say. You're signing yourself in for heartbreak."

"Well, maybe it's time to take a chance," Dizzy removed the towel from her hair and tossed it on the floor. "Whatever lets you sleep at night, but I wouldn't have such low hopes either."

Without saying anything else, Dizzy walked over to the switch and turned the light off. Even through the darkness, Doretta could tell her younger sister was fuming. Good, she must have really pissed her off.

For once, Doretta didn't roll her eyes, there was no point in doing so now that there was no one there to see her doing it. Instead, she gave a small sigh and tied a blue ribbon around her hair, to keep it in place during the night. Dizzy could be as foolish and naïve as she wanted, she had tried to warn her.

She had tried, she chuckled. That was a good summary of the last fifteen years of her life. She had tried.

Chapter Text

A Test of Patience

Claudine Frollo was a modest person. She knew near to nothing about greed —it was hard to, with the fact that everything in the Isle were hand-me-downs— and little about envy—she was thankful for what she had and didn't wish for anything that was not her right to receive.

On the contrary, Claudine Frollo knew that the scarcities she had to endure in her terrestrial life would be reciprocated beyond her expectations once she entered the Lord's domains. She accepted her fate silently, with a bowed-down head and docile eyes, for He knew better.

She also liked to think that she was hardworking—she was up at the crack of dawn, by 4:30 she had already taken a bath, icy water still dripping from her hair, and started fixing a frugal breakfast for her father. That she had little to cook with was an understatement, but what was worse was that even fewer of the things that arrived to the Isle were worthy of her father, so mornings were always a matter of creativity and imagination.

It was a good thing that there was always coffee available at the Isle, even if it was bitter and tasteless. Her father had never really praised her for her work or said he'd liked anything. On the contrary, he always complained that it was in need of more salt or that it was burnt, that it was insipid. Claudine could only do so much, but she didn't reply with anything. Her father was the Minister of Justice, and for that he deserved the best that could be managed at the Isle. He did seem less prone to throwing the food in Claudine's direction when he'd had coffee first, therefore she was always careful to have it boiling and ready when her father walked out of his room.

Claudine never ate breakfast with her father. She rarely ate breakfast altogether.

Once her father's food had been taken care of, Claudine moved to the side chapel of the cathedral and began scrubbing the floors. The benches she cleaned only on Mondays, or if by any chance someone had decided to visit the old cathedral. She then returned to the small dining room and began tidying up the place. First, she washed and dried the dishes so she could store them away. With that done, she got on her way to Dragon Hall.

Truth be told, her father had never been very supportive of her attending the Isle's school, for several reasons. First of all, there was the fact that it was full of commoners. Then, of course, there were the wronged ideas that were taught as the undeniable truth.

Dragon Hall was not a Christian school, of course not. They taught Biology and Physics and Chemistry, as if the Lord's greater scheme was something that could be explained merely by numbers and equations. Fools, that's what they were.

Regardless, it was mandatory that every child under 18 years of age attended school, even at the Isle. Sure, King Adam couldn't afford to send spices, but he threatened to punish the parents that didn't comply. As if, Claudine thought, Auradon cared what happened to them.

Supposedly, Yen Sid was the one in charge of checking that they were all enrolled and attended their schools semi-regularly. No one really knew what would happen if someone didn't, but most of the parents paid no mind to what their children did.

Still, her father had never been someone who defied the law, therefore he had agreed to have her attend. He had put some conditions. First of all, Claudine was not to slack in her chores with the excuse of schoolwork. And, of course, he'd been adamant that she did not set one foot on the Witch School. Of course, that went without saying—Claudine had no magic.

Unlike Maire, Madame Mim's daughter, or Morgana's children, Claudine did not possess an ounce of magic in her blood. And while magic was not necessarily something hereditary, she was not interested in learning it either. First of all, it was pointless—why did they have not only a class, but a whole school dedicated solely to teaching the use of something that none of them had ever seen? More importantly, why would she even want to learn about magic, when her father had restlessly combated the proliferation of such low creatures as magicians and scammers?

Decidedly, magic did not exist, especially not in the Isle. What did exist, however, were liars, charlatans and swindlers, people capable of making you doubt yourself and your senses. Her father, too close to the Lord's teachings to be fooled, had always been able to see through the gypsies' deceit and tricks, and for that he had been punished, exiled along with miscreants that would surely be damned on the Day of Judgment.

So Claudine attended Dragon Hall daily, listening to lectures about Science with skeptic ears and a stoic demeanor. Although her father had never cared much about her performance at the sewer of a school, she didn't have bad grades. She was above average, though barely, and had only ever failed Vanity 101.

She didn't necessarily enjoy her time spent in Dragon Hall, but it was a welcome break from her chores. What she did take pleasure in was the view she had from the bell tower. The school didn't need a bell-ringer, not in actuality. However, this was a position that her father seemed to despise with a passion, and accepting it was as far as Claudine was willing to go when it came to challenging him.

Besides, the view was breathtaking. The only places higher than Dragon Hall were probably Notre Dame and Bargain Castle, so not only could one see the whole length of the Isle of the Lost when standing there; one could even see a little more clearly the golden castles of Auradon.

Claudine didn't wish to leave the Isle so she could stay at one of those marbled constructions. She knew that her immortal home would be richer and more prosperous than anything the Auradonian sinners who had put her father in the Isle could ever dream of. The sight was awe-striking still, and though Claudine wouldn't have said it aloud, she was not about to deny that when she stood above it all she wondered what it was to be free, to be truly free instead of being subjected to petty barriers and human laws.

On her boldest days, she even dared wonder if this was what the Lord felt like every day—looking down upon them as they lead their terrestrial lives. Maybe He even found their pains and hazards... preposterous, insignificant, for He knew His plan and He had placed each of them where they were in the construction of a greater scheme.

No, Claudine Frollo dared not argue she didn't deserve the life she'd lived until then. She knew her earthly pains were nothing but a small sacrifice she had to pay in advance for the eternal salvation of her soul. After all, the Lord had sent His own son, blood of His blood, to Earth and sacrificed him for humanity's redemption. Wasn't that the biggest oblation, in comparison to her merely fasting or making sure that the only church in the Isle was spotless?

Claudine thought so, therefore she had always accepted her fate with a bowed-down head and shut lips. She would bear her sacrifice, endure the weight the Lord had placed upon her shoulders so that she could take her part in the great scheme.

She was, however, having a hard time believing this was part of the Lord's plan and not something orchestrated by the Devil.

She shouldn't have listened to Ginny. She should have stayed at the cathedral, with her father. She should have obeyed. What was she thinking, following the advice of a harlot like her? Crimson lips in a provoking dress, it was only natural that a person of her breed would harbor discord.

Yet, there she was, standing in the wooden stairs of a wharf she had never seen. Never from up close, at least. There she was, the plastic bag Ginny had practically forced her to pack in her left hand and sheets of paper she had no use for in her right.

There she was, away from the cathedral and her father, away from everything she knew and so close to the flawless, impeccable little world she'd despised her whole life. So close to the sinning that had been masked as perfectness, to these people who lead a life of vanity and luxury.

Perhaps, had the situation been any different, Claudine would have thought that her mission was to share the Lord's teachings with these sinners. However, not only had she been uprooted from the Isle and sent to Auradon, someone, presumably Maleficent's spawn, another witch that would burn in hellfire, had decided that she was to live with Esmeralda de Châteaupers*.

It was disgusting enough that they thought she —the daughter of the Minister of Justice— could be send to live with a commoner altogether. But to send her with a gypsy? To have her live shoulder to shoulder with a filthy witch like Esmeralda?

That harlot was the reason her father had been dismissed in the first place. She had tricked her father, manipulating his perception of reality until he'd fallen in love with a Devil's spawn of her kind.

How could anyone bend something as pure as the love the Lord graced them with and turn it into the plain lust that creatures like the gypsies felt was beyond Claudine. She wasn't even sure that she could call 'love' to what her father had felt towards that witch. After all, he'd been under a spell, no doubt.

"Claudine? Is that you?" a black-haired woman questioned, waving like a possessed at the end of the stairs. Claudine's fingers bawled into fists.

"And I suppose you're Esmeralda," she replied hoarsely. Claudine had half a mind to stuff the papers she'd been given into her plastic bag, mainly so that her left hand was free and she could apply pressure on her right side.

"Yes, indeed," the newcomer smiled. "I'm so glad to finally meet you."

Clearly, Claudine didn't share the sentiment. With pursed lips and an unimpressed stare, she weighed her options. Trying to run away would only backfire—the gypsy would think that the power of God trembled before her dark magic, and Claudine would not allow something like that to happen.

Furthermore, Claudine could not 'run away', not figuratively, much less literally. Her right hip was painfully bruised purple and green. It had been more than three weeks since the... incident with her father, but the hematomas had barely faded. The worst was when she tried to stand straight, dividing her weight correspondingly between her legs.

The excruciating pain had lessened the previous days, until it was more an inconvenience than anything else. Something that didn't go away but that she had grown almost used to by then. However, as soon as Claudine tried to walk or even when she turned around too carelessly... then a sharp severe ache would pierce through her, from the tip of her toes until it reached her hip.

Regrettably, she could not only praise her arguable recovery in her own body, created in the image and likeness of God, but in a very human remedy. Out of all the Islanders, the Tremaine family were part of the scant group that visited the cathedral somewhat regularly. Lady Tremaine and Anastasia assisted every Sunday without fail. Most of times, two of Drizella's daughters and Anastasia's own son, Anthony, accompanied them. As for Drizella herself, not many kind things could be said about her. She was obviously a harlot, a follower of Jezebel who had sired five daughters out of wedlock and had never been concerned with the salvation of her soul.

Claudine had no doubt, her offspring would be quick to follow her footsteps, therefore she avoided them. Of course it helped that other than Desideria and the youngest, Dulcie, were the only ones who actually attended Notre Dame. The other three girls usually kept to their own devices. Except, of course, when they had an ulterior motive to arrive at the disregarded cathedral.

Which had been the case two weeks ago, when Desiree had approached her while she endeavored in polishing the Pieta sculpture at the altar. As rumors would have it, after Desiree's run in with Gaston and the loss of her leg, she had found a way to use her aunt's dried flowers to numb the pain. Claudine had no time to be a busybody, but it was an open secret that Desiree was willing to sell her product for the right price.

Claudine was not foolish enough to not admit that the injury in her hip was being… a little troublesome, but she would only do that to herself. Aloud, she knew better than to let on the piercing ache that climbed her leg whenever she moved too carelessly. It served her well, after all, a righteous punishment for her actions. She had learned not to ask for alleviation of her pain whenever her father disciplined her, for she knew the amercement her father placed upon her was well-deserved. This time was no different, albeit it was more painful than she was used to.

Somehow, Desiree had found out about Claudine's recent limp and had decided her services were needed. Usually, Claudine would have kicked her out, but in her current state she was not much more agile than Desiree in her prosthetic leg. Accordingly, Desiree had laughed at her, claimed she was as useless as she was now.

Claudine had to admit, the limp was a hitch in her chores. She hadn't been able to clean the bells, could barely even make it to the bell tower. She knew she deserved the pain she was in, but it would be no good that she slacked in her chores because of it. So she had accepted a deal with Desiree and traded a rose-shaped locket, the only item Claudine owned that held any value for a container of pills Desiree swore would ease the pain in her side.

And, to be fair, she had not been lying.

Conversely, and way less helpfully, Ginny had suggested that she use a cane, she had even offered to carve one. She practically lived in the woods now, after the incident with her mother and the Notre Dame fiasco. According to her, using rowan wood was good luck.

Naturally, Claudine had refused. Whatever a cheap whore like Genevieve suggested could only mean witchcraft and tricks. Genevieve's mother, at the very least, knew about magic, and she insisted that she could recover her shallow beauty with it.

Still, Ginny gifted her with a rowan cane. According to her, she felt responsible for what had happened to Claudine's leg, which was a euphemism to say she was a harlot who had attempted to bring her sinful ways into Notre Dame.

Claudine had accepted the present, and she admitted to have used it a few times. In honor of the truth, the item had proved quite useful, especially when she had needed to climb the stairs of Hell Hall. She had left it at the Isle all the same.

"Why don't we start moving?" Esmeralda suggested. "My husband is waiting for us a couple of blocks away."

"The traitor, you mean," Claudine offered, her voice tainted with disdain.

"My husband?" the woman inquired, no doubt taken aback by Claudine's words. For all answer Frollo's daughter crossed her arms over her chest and refrained a snort. It took her a moment, but finally, the corner of Esmeralda's moth twisted upward with something that vaguely resembled scorn. "Am I to assume, then, that your father talked to you about us?"

"Indeed," Claudine nodded, her lips pursed in disgust. "My father had reasons to feel proud for what he did for this city. Rightfully, he spoke to me of his valiant deeds."

Esmeralda blinked once, twice, trying to find words for what she wanted to say. Finally, she let out a sigh.

"I see how it's going to be," she decided at last, her teeth biting her lower lip. "Let's not have such a bad beginning. Follow me, please. I promise when we get home we will have time to talk about your father's deeds," she almost spat the last words, her chest going up and down rather raggedly.

Claudine knew she had no option other than to follow the gypsy. King Benjamin had assured her this would only be a temporary arrangement. She had to be patient, and trust the Lord's commands.

With pursed lips, Claudine accepted her fate and gathered enough resolution to walk over to the woman. Noticing her limp, she felt Esmeralda tilt her head in query, but the woman was decent enough not to mention it aloud.

"Like I was saying, my husband awaits for us in the carriage," Esmeralda continued, her voice almost flat, a mask of calmness in the midst of the turmoil of the wharf. "Unlike other families, we live only two hours away, in Paris. But I'm sure you already know that."

Claudine didn't answer, not as much out of spite as it was out of indifference. Her mind was busy, carefully inspecting the pavement so she could plan where to place her feet in each of her steps. Undeniably, it was easier to walk here than it was in the Isle. The street was perfectly even and spotless. Back home, even without a broken hip, one had to pay mind to where you stepped.

It was only a few minutes before they finally made it to the parking lot. Vehicles of all kinds aligned in the space, perfectly organized, like toys. There were several carriages, with muscular horses ready to pull them and cars that Claudine recognized only from having seen Cruella riding her own bright red car. So different were the means of transportation in front of them that their appearances clashed. Had it been at the Isle, something like that wouldn't have called Claudine's attention. Mismatched clothes were all one could get at the bazaar. Unrelated buildings, from distant countries and even disparate ages, were stacked, jumbled into the same tight space. In the Isle, this oddity was normality, but in Auradon… the discordance was impossible to ignore.

"This one, to the right," Esmeralda called, cutting off the girl's musings. Calmly, the gypsy pointed to a simple wooden wagon, a single gray horse reined to it. The nag looked tired, but its owner was endeavored in brushing its mane. Claudine wasn't sure, though from the looks of it, they had also caught the man in the middle of an argument with his animal.

At the sound of Esmeralda's voice, he turned around. Under the afternoon sun, the armor that covered his body shimmered with golden rays. A blue cape rested on his shoulders, emphasizing the navy blue of his eyes. With a smile that rivaled the glimmer of his armor, he put away the brush and walked over to them.

"Claudine, allow me to introduce you to my husband, Captain Phoebus de Châteaupers," Esmeralda said, catching up with him so that she could take his hand.

"The traitor," the islander answered flatly.

"Pardon me, mademoiselle*?"

"And, Phoebus, this is Claudine. She's Frollo's daughter," the woman continued with a strained voice. "She will be staying with us."

At the mention of her surname, the smile in Phoebus' lips froze. As if a cloud had crossed his pristine sky, the captain's brow furrowed and his eyes darkened.

"Very well," he nodded, stepping back to clear the way for them. "Let's get home and hope things start making sense."

"Forgive the inconveniences, captain," Claudine hissed, her back straightened even though the movement sent an excruciating sting through her leg. "Nevertheless, I would have you know that I want for this to happen much less than you do."

"There will be time to discuss this long and hard once we get home," Esmeralda piped in. "Let's get out of this place before everyone has the same idea and the exit gets too crowded."

Swallowing a sigh, Phoebus returned his attention to the horse.

"You heard the lady, buddy, c'mon," he patted its neck and quickly jumped on the seat behind the animal.

"Take the covered seat," Esmeralda offered calmly. "I'll keep Phoebus and Achilles company," She stood still for a moment, her head tilted to the right. Expecting an answer, Claudine presumed. She gave her none.

Instead, Frollo's daughter raised an eyebrow at the woman, her shoulders pulled back contemptuously and her lips pressed together until they formed a tight line. Once it became clear that she had no intention of replying in any way, Esmeralda turned on her heels and walked the short distance that separated her from the cart. Left without any other option to do, Claudine settled for following her in silence.

"Let me help you," Esmeralda said, extending her left hand to Claudine, when they finally found themselves standing next to the wagon.

"I do not need the help of a filthy gypsy," she growled, not even turning to look at the hand Esmeralda was offering.

"I would not speak like that to the people who are offering me their house to stay at, kiddo," Phoebus advised from the front of the cart.

"Lamentably, neither of us were given options, were we?" she hissed. "Believe me when I say I would not be here otherwise." Without crossing another word with the Auradonians or even allowing her eyes to meet Esmeralda's, Claudine placed her left foot on the step of the wagon and leaned into one of the tubes that held the white bonnet in place. Not for the first time that day, she regretted her decision to not bring the rowan cane with her.

With a muffled sigh and a quick prayer, Claudine made herself step into the wagon. Her right leg hit the wooden floor limply. Immediately, a searing pain cut through her flesh, forcing her to bite the inside of her cheek in an attempt to swallow a scream. A small grunt escaped her lips nonetheless. She was vaguely conscious of Esmeralda's presence behind her, an unwelcomed reminder that she was only halfway done. She would rest in a moment, once she was out of the gypsy's inquisitorial sight.

'Oh Lord, you know how much I can endure. I submit my body before you and ask that Your will be done upon me,' she breathed out, a rushed murmur in her lips before she gathered the fortitude to apply her full weight on her right leg. She didn't allow herself to think before she numbly dragged herself to the wooden seat of the cart and dropped herself on it.

The effort had covered her forehead in a thin layer of sweat and her right side throbbed with a piercing ache. She knew her lips trembled, she could feel her ragged breathing thumping on her jugular. However, with the same clarity she felt Esmeralda's biting gaze on her. Unmoving. Waiting.

"Let's get going," the gypsy announced at last, closing the wagon's door with a loud slam. From inside the carriage, Claudine heard Esmeralda exchange a few fast phrases with her husband, before she, too, climbed on to the driver's seat. Finally on her own, Claudine's lips parted to let out a shaking sigh.

Regrettably, she was only granted a few minutes of peace before she stumbled into another mishap. Soon, the whistle of a whip cut through the air and the old nag started moving in a constant trot. Despite the horse's even pace, with each bump on the road, a searing pain hit her. Unable the handle the ceaseless burn, Claudine reached for the bag Genevieve had forcibly packed for her. After searching its contents for a few seconds, she managed to fish out the plastic bottle Desiree Tremaine had given her after the incident with her leg.

With trembling hands, she opened the lid and dug out two or three pills she chugged down without another thought. Soon, she would be too numb to feel the pebbles of the pavement, tiny in comparison to the ones of the Isle. In a matter of minutes, the calming effects of the medicine took possession of her body. Dazed and lethargic, she rested her head on the timbered seat and allowed herself to close her eyes.

She woke up probably an hour later to the still moving wagon, disoriented and nearly unfeeling. Raising a hand, she massaged her temple and groaned. There was no use in laying down, as she knew she would be unable to fall asleep again. Esmeralda had said they were only a couple of hours away from Paris, and although Claudine did not trust her, she hoped that the gypsy hadn't mislead her and that they would arrive before the effects of her medicine wore off.

Carefully, she arose, feeling the beginning of a headache in the back of her skull. A minor inconvenience, worsened by the brightness of the sun that entered through the small opening in the bonnet, a sort of makeshift window above the wooden door.

There was not much to see, only the vast extension of what Claudine assumed were plantations of wheat and a solitary tree every few miles. And the sun, proud and more radiant than what Claudine had ever seen in the Isle. The wind hit her face, freeing strands of hair from her bun. Despite the minor annoyance the breeze represented, the air was clean, polluted only by the dust that arose from the road, a luxury that would have been unimaginable at the Isle.

Every once in a while, they would cross paths with another carriage, sometimes even a car that, unlike the automobiles Claudine had seen back at the Isle, was more than a jalopy and followed the road without leaving a cloud of gray smoke behind. Claudine sighed, reminding herself that this whole ordeal was nothing more than a proof of her loyalty to the Lord and her father. She needed none of the extravagances and sumptuousness Auradon had to offer. Notre Dame back at the Isle was more than she could ask for, and she was fortunate to call the House of God her own home.

This was a test the Lord had sent her way, an opportunity for Claudine to prove her obedience to His teachings. Every luxury she would encounter in the Fairy-Tale-Land, every smile Auradonians gave her, were nothing but the Devil's temptations. It would be very easy to become dazzled by the material things, by the pomposity of the palaces and the spotlessness of the roadways.

Her father had taught her better. Like the serpent had seduced Eve, making her feeble resolution crumble and ignore God's warnings, the faultlessness of a place created by the hand of the men attempted to appear equally as tempting to her. Such was the Devil's scheme.

It mattered not, as Claudine knew his intentions. She would wait, expectantly, and when the Devil tried to catch up with her, she would be ready to reject his offers. After all, a person's possessions in the earthly life were worthless. One could not take a castle to the grave, the puffed out dresses would not fit in a casket. It was only one's actions, one's devotedness to the Lord that held any meaning.

Soon, she prayed, once the Lord was pleased with her performance, she would be back home, at the Isle. Until then, she would focus on strengthening her own determination. With a deep intake of breath, she pressed her hands together and closed her eyes. In the name of God I go on this journey. May God the Father be with me, God the Son protect me, and God the Holy Ghost be by my side. Amen, escaped her dry lips.

Soon, she would be back home.

Around an hour later, they finally left behind the road to enter a city. Claudine supposed the totality of the Isle could fit just in this place. Even from this distance, an imposing bridge called her attention. The cerulean waters of the river sparkled under the sun's rays. It must have been around six o'clock, and the sapphire sky had been tainted with tangerine and punch rose. There were people swimming in streamflows, laughing. For the first time, Claudine leaned closer to the window, trying to get a better look of the view.

It had to be the Seine. This had to be the river her father was always gloating about, the river in which her father's men had come close to killing Phoebus after his betrayal. And if this was the river, then… Frantically, her eyes scanned the landscape, until she found the dignified construction she had been raised in. Taller than any of the other buildings, the Cathedral of Notre Dame stood partially concealed by the arches of Pont Neuf. A gasp escaped her mouth at the sight. It wasn't that for the smallest fraction of a split second she believed she was back at the Isle, it wasn't that this ordeal had turned out to be nothing more than a delusion that had ended soon enough.

No, it was still too early for her to feel homesick. However, Auradon's Notre Dame had a different aura to it than the one in the Isle. So dissimilar in fact were the two constructions that they almost did not seem like the same edifice. This couldn't be the building she cleaned after, those ivory towers could not be the ones which steps she climbed daily to ring the bells.

In a way, Claudine supposed that they weren't the same. The church she'd grown up was nothing more than a carbon-copy of the one currently before her. A sketch that had deteriorated rapidly away from Paris, absorbing the foul smells of the bazaar, and trading the alabaster of its walls for a cloudy gray.

This cathedral held something undeniably regal. It wasn't merely another disregarded residence surrounded by piles of rubble. This was a building meant to make one realize its diminutiveness, the brevity of life itself when compared to the ubiquity of the Lord. It was a sight meant to take your breath away, a place to be admired and worshiped. Instead, the Notre Dame of the Isle had been tossed away, the shadow of magnificence still ghosting upon it.

Like her father, she thought to herself. The people at the Isle knew nothing of the awe-inspiring building they passed by every day. Likewise, France had not understood the greatness of her father's sacrifice and work. The day would come when they both realized their mistakes, she knew it. Until then, endurance.

It took them less than fifteen minutes to reach their final destination, a small pastel-blue house with a half-timbered façade. Claudine had to admit, this was not the kind of place she had pictured someone like Esmeralda living in.

As calmly as the horse had trotted during the whole ride, Achilles came to a halt as they reached the strip of grass in front of the door. Not long after the cart had stopped, she heard Esmeralda and Phoebus descend from the driver's seat.

"Here we are!" Esmeralda announced proudly as she opened the door of the wagon. "Welcome, Claudine."

On his side, Phoebus had started tending to the old nag, freeing it from the bridle. Apathetically, Claudine heard the captain start talking to the animal.

"I'll take him to the stables and meet you inside," he declared.

"Sure, we'll be there shortly," his wife nodded, barely tilting her head in Phoebus' direction before returning her full attention to Claudine. With a mask of calmness, she extended her hand in Claudine's direction, much like she had before their departure from Auradon City.

Indifferent to the gypsy's open demeanor, Claudine took her time rising to her feet. Nearly dragging her right leg behind her, she walked to the entrance of the cart and descended from it in the same way she had entered—refusing to accept or even acknowledge Esmeralda's assistance. Carefully, she leaned into the bonnet's tube and tried to minimize the impact of her leg when it hit the ground.

"Claudine, don't do this," the woman let out. "Please, let us start over. Let me show you that things are not how you've been told they are."

"Are you calling my father a liar?"

"No," Esmeralda replied heavily. "I can see you are very close to Frollo, I don't intend to come between you two. What I am saying is that he was not an open-minded person, and people with narrow mentalities condemn those who are different from them."

"I have nothing to discuss with you," the islander replied flatly, not even deigning herself to look at her interlocutor.

"Fine, let's do it your way," the gypsy concluded, turning on her heels to face her home. "Please follow me."

Unfortunately, there were no many other options to choose from, and Claudine forced herself to comply. In utter silence, they crossed the distance that separated them from the entrance. Before entering, Esmeralda turned one last time to face her guest.

"Claudine, regardless of what you may think of me… of us, I want you to know that Phoebus and I welcome you wholeheartedly to our home, humble as it is," she began to say, fiddling with her skirt until she found her pocket and pulled out a set of keys. "You've made it clear that you do not have a good impression of us. Of me, in particular, I fear, but I believe this is an experience we can both learn from, if we allow ourselves to—"

"There will be no need to do such a thing," Claudine cut her off. "In a week, I shall be gone."

Unable to fill the silence with another word, and knowing far more than she would have liked that saying anything would only make the situation worse, Esmeralda focused on opening the door for them.

"Go ahead," she offered, stepping to the side so the entrance was clear enough for Claudine to step inside first.

"And give you my back? I don't think so," Frollo's daughter sneered. Esmeralda's eyes narrowed.

"As you wish," she shrugged, turning to be the first one to enter. Briefly afterwards, she turned on a few switches and illuminated the insides, revealing a white-walled living room. A colorful rug covered part of the wooden floor, and mismatched loveseats of various colors surrounded the mat in a strange circle. At the back, Claudine saw an unlit chimney.

It was strange, she thought. The house seemed tidy enough to not belong to a gypsy. From what her father had told her, a part of her had been expecting to arrive to a shack at the least, a camp of tents. This appeared to be a perfectly normal house.

Once she stepped inside, Claudine was able to see the hallway that opened up to reveal a simple yet polished dining room set. Separating both rooms, she caught a glance of the wooden stairs that lead to the second floor.

Giving her guest a brief last glance, Esmeralda headed to what Claudine assumed was the kitchen, as she crossed the dining room in rapid strides and entered another room. Her absence gave Frollo's daughter enough privacy to get a closer look at the ornamentation of the rooms. From the half-timbered walls hung several portraits, most of them, paintings. For the second time that day, Claudine got to see the Cathedral of Notre Dame as it was meant to be admired—in all the magnificence it held, its towers raising high enough that they approached the sky, an alabaster staircase to Heaven.

Between the stairs and the passage to the dining room, a small bureau called her attention. Neatly placed on top of it, several picture frames gave testimony of the life that Phoebus had lead. A treasonist, who'd betrayed everything her father had fought so hard for, bewitched by the spell of a disgusting gypsy.

In one of the photographs, Esmeralda was laughing, her head thrown back and her eyes closed, completely carefree. Next to her, a blonde man who couldn't be older than twenty-two smiled at her. Her son, Claudine supposed. Her father had not lived to see the product of the sinful union that had brought his downfall, but he knew from Sarousch that Esmeralda had borne a son, Sapphire, she believed, or something equally as nauseating. It served him well, with the cerulean eyes and golden hair he had.

According to Sarousch, his own adopted daughter, and ungrateful thief, had also betrayed him to elope with Quasimodo. It was outrageous, scandalous, what the Devil's magic could do.

Her musings were interrupted when the front door was opened again, giving way to Phoebus. Before the captain could step into his house, a flash of gray cut his way and hurried to the kitchen. With her back turned to the door, Claudine only heard the hooves of a small animal race on the wooden floor.

"Djali, I've told you. You can't come in here!" she heard Esmeralda scold the newcomer; in spite of her words, laughter was obvious in her voice. "Phoebus, you were supposed to keep him out!"

"I've been trying to do that for the last twenty-five years, what makes you think it will work now?"

"That's not an excuse," the gypsy said, emerging from the kitchen with a gray-furred goat in her arms. She wasted no time in dropping the animal into her husband's arms. Now that it had greeted its owner, Djali finally turned to give a curious look to Claudine. Its interest, however, died quickly, and the goat turned back to nibble on Phoebus' cape.

"Really?" he huffed, rearranging his hold on the animal so it head was as far from him as humanly possible.

"Honey, why don't you take our guest to her room," Esmeralda suggested. "I'll work my way in the kitchen and call you in a moment."

"As you wish."

"And this time, make sure you keep Djali out of my workplace!" she ordered, turning on her heels to cross the dining room again. The action granted her a loud bleat from the goat, although it didn't try to escape Phoebus' grasp.

"'Keep him out of the kitchen', she says. As if it were that easy," Phoebus protested in a mumble before he returned his attention to Claudine. "Anyways, you've heard her," he shrugged. "I can see there are places you'd rather be. But for now, we have to make this work."

Uninterested, the daughter of Frollo merely stared ahead at him. It was clear she had heard his words, but she gave no indications of it, and she especially didn't seem keen on answering.

"Follow me," the traitor said, pointing to the stairs. The stairs, of course. For the first time since they had entered the house, Claudine's features tainted with something that was not revulsion. Instead, her lower lip trembled minutely and her fingers curled in apprehension.

It was just two floors, she told herself, there was no way that there were more stairs in this building than in Notre Dame. She had already climbed the stairs leading to the bell tower, therefore she had to be able to follow Phoebus' to the second floor. And with every step, with every throbbing pulse to her side, she would apologize for her wrong-doing. She would, with a lowered head, accept the earthly punishment for her mistakes.

"Are you alright?" Phoebus questioned, seeing her hesitancy to step closer. "Can I help you with something?"

"I don't need anything from you," Claudine answered flatly. That settled it, with a frown albeit without another word, Phoebus began ascending. Claudine followed him a few steps behind, her lips pressed tightly.

Each step caused a biting ache to escalate her flank. She stopped her mind from thinking of the treads that were yet to come, and instead she focused only on the one right in front of her. She would worry about the upcoming anguish once it came her time to face it.

By the time they finally reached the upper floor, her forehead was covered in sweat and her right hand was pressed against her hip, trying to minimize the pain. Blinking away dark spots from her sight, she noticed the stairs lead to a broad sitting room.

"The green door to the right is the bathroom," Phoebus declared right away, placing the goat on the floor. Immediately, the small beast raced downstairs, to meet Esmeralda in the kitchen, Claudine presumed. "That room at the end is where my wife and I sleep. We prepared the guest room for your arrival, turn to the left here."

Following his instructions Claudine entered a lilac-walled room. It was a simple yet tasteful chamber, she had to admit. Next to an extensive window stood a double bed with a white canopy held in place by four carved pillars. There was a small dressing table placed directly in front of the bed. A circular bureau with a table lamp also stood guard by the right side of the bed and a cream-colored armchair. Other than that, there was not much to see.

"I'll leave you now," the captain offered, still standing in the doorway. "Please meet us downstairs, I'm pretty sure Meera baked baeckeoffe*. You should try it. She's the best cook I've met."

"I don't want anything from you, much less from her," she nearly spat at him.

"Listen, kiddo, we may have started with the wrong foot here," he began to say, his hands raised in the most inoffensive manner he could muster. "I worked for your father, I—"

"I know you did. You're a treasonist."

"I wouldn't say that."

"You had the honor of working for the most courageous man Paris has ever seen. And you turned your back on this opportunity. For what? To lay with a prostitute who—"

"I will not let you speak like that of my wife," he cut her off. His features had gone from expectant to frigid. When Claudine raised her eyes to meet his, his nostrils flared and he´d taken a step forward.

"Or what?" she insisted. "I trust King Benjamin to be a man of his word. That is the only reason I am here tonight. In a week, I will be away from you and that witch."

"Kid, watch your tongue. You have no idea of what you're talking about. Your father was a killer who—"

"My father was an honorable man."

"Your father was a killer who showed no qualms in murdering innocents. I don't know what he told you, but that's why he wanted my head," Phoebus denied, taking another step towards her. His fingers had curled to become fists, and his lips trembled when he spoke. "He wanted me to be his goon, to stab my blade into the throats of children. Ask anyone in Paris. Your father was the man who was willing to burn our city to its foundations only because they would not bow before him."

"They should have obeyed, and their lives would have been pardoned," Claudine straightened her back, she even dared apply a portion of her weight on her right leg. "It was the filthy scum you chose over my father, the thieves and the prostitutes, who made this city as blameworthy as Sodom and Gomorrah, you—"

"That's enough!" the captain nearly spat. "Child, you don't know what you're talking about. I will be forgiving this one time, because you are tired and out of your element. I won't hold what you've just said against you, but let me tell you something—you have no idea of the amount of nonsense that has just poured out of your mouth. Though you will know, kid, you will. Paris has not forgotten. Paris will remember what your father did, and we will show you."

"Paris should be thankful."

"Listen, you'll stay for a week at the very least, forcibly, or however you want to call it," Phoebus tried once more, running a hand through his disheveled hair. "You may not want this to work, but Esmeralda and I do. And we're going to give it our all. It would be wise that at some point this week you tried shut your mouth up for a moment and learn something."

"What could I possibly aspire to learn from you?" she hissed.

"Some manners, perhaps," the captain suggested through gritted teeth. "All I'm saying is that you could afford to hear the other half of the story."

"I have no interest in the way you want to defamate my father," she sneered.

"Then you should see with your own eyes the people you are slandering before you open your mouth again," Phoebus advised, his face a mask of calmness that had his jaw set too tightly. "We will still be expecting you downstairs in case you want to join us."

Without another word, and without waiting for an answer either, the captain turned to leave the room. Before Claudine could come up with a reply, the white door had already been closed. Soon, she heard Phoebus' footfalls on the stairs.

Knowing she was on her own at last, Claudine let her plastic bag fall to the floor. If there was one truth in the words Phoebus had spoken, it was that she was tired. She knew she shouldn't let her guard down so fast, but her good leg was only minutes away from buckling under her weight.

Too weary to fight the exhaustion back, she decided she should get ready for bed. Forcing herself to walk to the door, Claudine made sure that it was closed and pressed the lock in the doorknob. She supposed Esmeralda and Phoebus had a key and could open the door, lock or not, but it was the best she could muster at the moment. She was too tired to try to push the dressing table or even the armchair to hold the door in place. To be completely honest, she didn't think she would be able of doing such a thing at the time, with the state her leg was in.

Resigned, she then turned to the dressing table and began to loosen her hairdo, releasing the tie and the barrette that held her bun in place. She massaged her scalp, feeling the back of her head throbbing. Another sigh escaped her dry lips as she began to unbutton her dress. She should have had the mind to at least bring a bottle of water with her, she mused.

It was no use now, she supposed. She could handle it. Perhaps, such was the surrender the Lord was asking from her. She could do that, overpass her own earthly needs in His name. Absently, she massaged her right hip, her fingers barely ghosting over the bruised skin. This was a nothing more than a test, she reminded herself as she slipped into her cotton nightgown.

It was her duty to prove herself worthy in the eyes of the Creator by complying to His desires. The Lord knew why He had sent her straight into the snakes' nest. It was a trial, a test of patience and perseverance, an opportunity to prove to Him how unshakeable her faith was. In the same way God had allowed the wealth and offspring of Job to slip between his fingers, she was being tempted to choose an easy life of luxury over one of hardships.

Perchance, she should have held her tongue better that afternoon, when speaking to Esmeralda and Phoebus. These people had suckled sin from their mother's breasts, they knew nothing of the righteous vision her father had held so dear. Instead of answering like she had, maybe she should have controlled her deserving fury and turned her other cheek, she reasoned, combing her fingers through blonde strands of hair to braid them. Through the way these people tried to slander her father, she should keep her indignation under control. She knew the truth, she understood her father's deeds. That was all that mattered.

This was a test of endurance, she repeated to herself once more. A test of patience she had to undergo, for God was full of compassion and mercy. Only He knew how this ordeal fit into His greater scheme.

Until then, she would wait.

Chapter Text


There were many ways a woman such as Elsa Danica of Arrendelle and Vistborg could spend her day. Waiting in an overcrowded wharf was certainly not an option she would have thought of, much less chosen. However, that prospective became an even less satisfying alternative when the sole purpose of her journey was to pick up the child —or children, as that important information had been withheld from her— of the man who had tried to take over her kingdom and murder her younger sister.

To her, at least, this was glaringly a bad idea. That was it—put simply, retrieving the descendants of their worst enemies was the most questionable decision the current Head King of Auradon had made. It made absolutely no sense and, worst of all, it was dangerous.

In fact, Elsa did not approve of a number of things the previous Head King, Adam, had done either. To begin, the Isle of the Lost as a whole. She knew their adversaries could not be mended or rehabilitated. To expect something like that was incongruous, and, dare she say it, idiotic. Therefore, she could see why the Islanders should not be trusted to live within their society. She was not defending their right to freedom.

The thing was, neither could she understand why Adam and Belle had determined that a giant island be brought from the sea. She could not understand why Adam and Belle had decided that their aggressors, who had already been executed and exterminated, should be brought back to life. It was taking an unnecessary risk.

Hans Westergaard of the Southern Isles, the thirteenth son of late King Fridtjof had never been dead. Even after Elsa had frozen and thawed the fjords of Arrendelle, Hans had only left Arrendelle with a black eye, which was Anna's courtesy, not even Elsa's. For three years, before the Crown Kings of Auradon had developed the idea of the Isle of the Lost, Hans had been kept in a dungeon under Rolskrod Palace, what could have been his castle if he had not been so eager to take over someone else's throne. Not even shackled like Elsa had been in her own kingdom, not even sent to jail to be surrounded by common thieves in a congested cell. No, privileged even as a prisoner, Hans Westergaard of the Southern Isles had only been kept in an oubliette for three years and two months, not that Elsa had been counting.

Then, Elsa was still struggling to comprehend exactly how, Adam and Belle had announced their new plan. The creation of a considerable extension of land, brought from the bottom of the sea to its surface through magic. At the time, the magic prohibition hadn't been as strong as it was now. In fact, the hearsay and rumors of Fayanna's idea to regulate and possibly eliminate the usage of magic in everyday life had barely begun, a rotten apple in a fruit bowl that would blemish everything that came in contact with it.

Somehow, the ludicrous idea had been approved by the council. Fayanna, the most trusted advisor of the Head Kings, was named the coordinator of the project a few weeks after the announcement. They wasted no time in beginning the arrangements to transform their absurd plan something tangible. Immediately, they began recovering the remains of the deceased villains, drawing maps to decide where to put what they started to call 'the Isle' with something that already sounded like dread. They summoned villains such as Anastasia Tremaine and Hans Westergaard himself, the ones who had been leading a relatively normal life and the ones who had been kept isolated in jail, to inform them of the plans to relocate them.

Elsa knew she would not get a chance to punish Hans the way she wanted to, she knew there were laws and political logistics that stopped her from being able to unleash her wrath on the runt of the Southern Isles dynasty. And, in the same matter-of-fact, concise, precise way, she knew someone like him, so unsympathetic and indifferent would be incapable of changing. Elsa was convinced that all of them, who had already attempted to murder and sabotage everything others held dear would not change and, therefore, they should be kept away.

Elsa absolutely comprehended the need for a prison that kept the villains away from the good, hard-working part of the population. It made sense and it was in such a way that society had operated for centuries. You had to trim the weak branches of a rose bush for the plant to stay healthy and bloom. She could understand that.

What was beyond her discernment was the fact that Belle and Adam had decided to put all of those villains together, in the same place, which would either allow them to annihilate each other or to create alliances that made them more perilous than they had been the first time they had attacked. For years, each nation had kept their own villains imprisoned, they had each been responsible for punishing the offenders that they produced and preventing the story to repeat itself. However, now that more kingdoms were joining the United States of Auradon, the Head Kings claimed it would be better to create a new confinement to hold them all. It lacked every possible ounce of reason and coherence there was, if you asked the Queen of Arrendelle, and she had been quick to voice her opinions.

To be entirely honest, Elsa had never concurred with the ideology that Fayanna had drilled into Adam. The king was slightly older than Elsa, that was true, but he had also spent much of his youth deprived of human contact and mistreating his serfdom. The Queen of Arrendelle was in no position to judge what he had done while transformed into a beast. She knew that she had, too, committed despicable actions while she was too concentrated on keeping her powers a secret to wholeheartedly care about her people like she should have. However, that did not give Adam the right to have such a strong say in what other rulers did as he seemed to think he had.

Nevertheless, it wasn't long before smaller provinces like Prydain and Maldonia decided to accept the tempting offer of joining Adam's more powerful kingdom. According to Adam, he had the dream of a united kingdom, ruled by a head king that would make sure that all the other smaller sovereigns followed certain regulations. United they would be stronger, he claimed. United they would preserve peace and worship loyalty.

In theory, it sounded fair and good and tempting. By becoming one single humongous kingdom, they would share resources, eliminate the competition and considerably reduce the number of possible future wars. They would have laws and a higher power in charge of preventing disagreements from escalating to military combats. In theory, it sounded adequate, unobjectionably safer.

What Elsa was not keen on, however, was the idea of an almighty power who would be on her back, reading her reports and monitoring her. Adam had suggested an aristocratic democracy then. Yes, royal families still had significant privileges when compared to their subjects, but it was only because a prince or a duke had been trained to care for their people from a tender age. The bearer of such great power should also possess enough knowledge and responsibility to know how to properly use it, and members of the nobility were expected to know how to fulfill that role.

Adam had then gone on to be democratically elected as the first Head King of the United States of Auradon. He had sold the idea of an egalitarian, peaceable kingdom to small provinces that were in a competitive disadvantage. And they had hungrily bought it. Nonetheless, it had only been a matter of time before bigger and more recognizable kingdoms began to sign treaties and agreements, until most of the European kingdoms joined Adam in the search of his 'dream'.

Elsa signed the treaty for Arrendelle to become part of Auradon barely six months after Corona, her cousin's kingdom. It would only take Adam a year and a half more to get the Chinese empress, Ching Shih, to sign as well. With that, the United States of Auradon as they knew it was finally formed.

Some small provinces were still independent. Motunui, for example had blatantly refused to join Auradon, and mostly kept for themselves. Neverland, too, was not considered a part of the kingdom, although they were much more open to commerce and tourism than Motunui. Wonderland was out of the table as well, and though the inhabitants made an exception about their 'no visit' policy for Alice and her family, even she rarely visited.

It was shortly after the merging of their country that Adam began making decisions that seemed... nonsensical, to say the least. There were two proposals that Elsa had both loathed and feared from the first time she had heard the words leave Adam's mouth. One was the creation of Isle of the Lost. The other was the prohibition of magic.

Despite the fact that not every sovereign the United States of Auradon had approved of either of those propositions, the majority of them had. Therefore, Adam and Fayanna's little experiment carried on. After an odd —and, she said it with fear of being accused of treason, an obscure— agreement with Hades, the deceased villains were brought back to life and confined to an island. The Isle of the Lost, they called it now, with pride, with dread, with arrogance. The Isle of the Lost, a living reminder that their enemies still lived, waiting to retaliate against them.

The ones who had never been dead to start with were sent to join them soon after. To close with a flourish —and, supposedly, to prevent any outbreaks—, it had been decreed that a barrier be put around the island. Nothing could get in and, they swore, nothing could come out.

Fayanna recruited a vast number of adjutants, as her proposition was incredibly dangerous and impossible to do for a single person. Merlin, Tinker Bell, the Genie, even Zeus, the almighty King of Olympus, had assisted in the creation and maintenance of the barrier. Elsa's magical powers did not suit the undertaking, and therefore she had not been contacted or asked to participate. She wanted to believe that she would have refused to participate in the creation of the barrier even if she could have been able to help them.

Regardless of how, or who had supported such ludicrous idea, the Isle of the Lost had come to exist. Soon, both the formerly deceased villains and the perfectly alive ones were living in their new imprisonment. In a way, it helped Auradonians ―a gentilic Elsa was still trying to get used to―, in the laborious and often arduous task of forgetting. They didn't mention the island that was so close to Auradon's capital city that it could literally be seen from Auradon Castle's windows. They never mentioned the names of the sorcerers and witches that had once terrorized their people, not when the inscrutable veil of night covered their lips, not when the golden rays of sunshine bathed the marble of their castles. They pretended not to remember why Cinderella did not fit in during royal parties, why Aurora referred to three fairies as her 'aunts', why, out of the thirteen princes Fridtjof had fathered, only ten had still lived in the Southern Isles when the United States of Auradon became a glorious nation. They pretended and, even after all those years, their performance was dreary and extremely apathetic.

Likewise, Elsa had long ago learned the dialogues of the character she had been assigned to play. She smiled and she curtsied, she read letters and she signed commerce treaties with a languid hand, going through monotonous days in a haze. She kissed her sister's cheek and she threw her arms around her nieces and nephew with remorse, knowing that there were words that she held concealed under her tongue, adamant in her refusal to pronounce them.

It had been probably thirteen years since the last time anyone in her family had dared mention the disappearance of her cousin, Rapunzel of Corona. They met regularly, they celebrated their birthdays and they sent letters back and forth during the whole year. They always made it a point to spend both Christmas and New Year's Eve together, be it at Corona or at Arrendelle. Yet, they failed to talk about the eighteen years worth of memories and laughter that they had lost.

Elsa knew it made it easier, because Anna and she didn't talk about the years they had spent barely speaking to each other, about the searing pain that still burnt in their chests, too tangible and too recent. Anna, in her kindness and unconditional love for her never brought back how cruel she had been to her, she never mentioned a single one of the thousands of days she had spent, numbly knocking on the wooden door of an unhearing sister. They had learned —they had been forced to learn— to live in the moment and to embrace what they had because they could just as easily lose it, because they hadn't had it before and they wanted to make the most of it now that they did.

Thereby, Elsa could not blame them for tucking every agonizing reminder of their past lives under Persian rugs. If the memories of what had happened to other heroes aggrieved them as much as it still made her insides turn, if guilt and ache still blazed their eyes whenever they could not force themselves to forget, then she could understand their reasons. She had come so close to losing Anna, so close to feeling the remaining pieces of her family slip between her fingers… it only made sense that the other heroes yearned for this numbing relief.

For all that they didn't talk about it, the insistent, constant query of what would have happened if Hans' murderous plan had succeeded was a shadow that accompanied Elsa's steps both in the death of night and in the warmth of the morning. It wondered aloud, unrelenting, unstoppable, what would have happened if Anna had actually died, what if Hans' sword had impeccably severed the Queen of Arrendelle's neck, what if Hans had sat at the throne of a kingdom that was not his to claim. The thought never failed to make a striking pang of guilt and ache pierce her chest.

If anything, waking up every morning to the love of her people and to the sight of her family at the breakfast table only made the burning remorse blaze higher. It made her wonder what would have happened if she had failed to protect all of it, if her own fear had been greater than her resolution. It forced her to ask herself what would have been of Anna's unrestricted laughter, of the way Kristoff played "the Ballad of Flemmingrad" during Christmas Eve, his wonderful, sincere eyes locked with his wife's.

And every time, every single time that that thought, unwelcomed, shattering and irrepressible assaulted her, the Queen of Arrendelle found herself unable to move, unable to breathe. Elsa could understand the need to forget. She felt that pulsing desire often. She, too, wished she could take a long, exhausting walk in the woods, dig a hole under a centenary Betula alba and extract the incessant questions that plagued her mind to bury them, never to be heard of again.

Forgetting was the feeling of a warm, knit quilt for the traveler that had been surprised by a snowstorm on the road. Forgetting was the simple joy of meeting with an old friend you hadn't seen in a terribly long while and having the chance to talk to them carefree for hours that elongated indefinitely. Elsa knew that.

However, she knew that, in the same way that pouring her pain-stricken memories into a hypothetical grave was impossible and hoping to do so was fruitless, dumping all of their villains into a magical, faraway island, would not heal the wounds that were still open and festering within their silk robes. She had learned, the hard way, ones would call it, that not speaking about the shadows that haunted the high towers of their castles would only bring desolation. There was no way, no way that putting all the demons and the ghosts of a kingdom as big as Auradon in the same place could be a good idea.

Adam and Fayanna clearly did not share her belief. Neither did most of the inhabitants of Auradon. The Isle of the Lost gave them a solution, the answer to never once feeling your pulse raise in fear again. They would trim the weak branches of their perfect rose bush, they would focus on teaching the new generation about the mistakes that they should not repeat. How they would do that without mentioning the hard-learned lessons that Elsa's generation had endured, she had no idea, but they would find an answer along the way. They built new schools, they wrote books about the real-life love stories of their sovereigns, they widened the commerce among their provinces, they tightened the bonds that united their people.

They promised, time and time again, that this would be a bright, new beginning. The renaissance, they said, of a strong, fearless kingdom.

—*—*—

Regrettably, forgetting was not an easy deed to achieve. Especially not if the source of your agonizing memories was a living, breathing individual. Such a thing became glaringly obvious once the villains that had been casted aside, supposedly never to be thought of again, began to sire children, much in the same way that the inhabitants of Auradon did.

Life could not be tossed under a rug, no matter how much will power you put in trying to turn a blind eye to that fact. Life found a way to push, to crawl back from the depths of the blazing inferno you built to annihilate it. A way to be remembered. That was what happened at the Isle of the Lost.

As soon as the word that there were babies being born in the island spread, the extinct embers of the uncertainty some people had felt towards the project fired up all again. Esmeralda de Châteaupers, who had never agreed with the scheme to send the villains to a completely different land, began advocating even more relentlessly to make her voice heard. To an extent, Elsa supposed she had succeeded. Everyone in Auradon had heard of Esmeralda. She was the face of the victims of Claude Frollo, the representative of the gypsy community in France. She became part of the Council of Sidekicks. Even more, she was the official spokesperson of the council. Parallel to that, by marrying Captain Phoebus de Châteaupers she had managed to refine her social status, which had allowed her to voice her opinions even more loudly.

Elsa knew a good number of members of the royalty who found Esmeralda unbearable, insufferable. After all, kings and queens whose bloodlines went back centuries in the past refused to let other kings order them around. It was only natural that they became fuming when it was someone with a social status so low as a gypsy's the one who dared suggest they were doing something wrong. And that proved Esmeralda's point bright and clear—none of them were focusing their energies on solving the scarcities of Auradon, the shadows of inequality that still roamed around the corners of the castles and the tents of gypsies' camps, because they were too busy criticizing Esmeralda's attire and lack of prestige.

Some called Esmeralda an activist, a gentle woman with the heart of a warrior. Elsa didn't eulogize her as much. She didn't dare despise Esmeralda due to her poor upbringing, although she was not about to admire or support her causes either. Simply, Elsa thought that she was a strong woman who felt no trace of fear for what the others thought of her, and for that, gypsy or not, she deserved recognition.

To the long list of problematics she withstood on a daily basis, Esmeralda augmented the injustice of leaving the children of the Isle of the Lost in a prison. She claimed it was inexcusable, unethical, unjustifiable. She claimed that it would backfire, that the time would come when they were children no more, but creatures who festered on the fear and decay that seemed to constitute the main columns of their rotten society. She said, over and over again during the council meetings, that making children pay for the mistakes of their parents was as low as someone could get, that it spoke great lengths that their 'strong, fearless kingdom' had to be upheld in the aching shoulders of children.

Cinderella and a number of other royal personalities agreed with her. Still, Adam and Fayanna turned a deaf ear to their pleas and refused to move a finger to fix the situation. After two or three years, Esmeralda received the help of Corona, and they were granted Auradon's permission to send supplies to the Isle. They were hand-me-down clothes and nearly-spoiled food, but it was better than nothing.

Truthfully, Elsa considered Esmeralda's words to be an exaggeration. Esmeralda was too passionate, too quick to grant her unwavering support to a cause she did not fully comprehend. And, to be entirely honest, Elsa was a firm believer that there was no reason for her to be concerned with the conditions of the Isle of the Lost, when she had never even agreed with the creation of such thing. There was no reason for her to divert the resources of her people to try to fix the situation of the ones who had tried to destroy her kingdom and her family.

Eugene, who had concurred with Esmeralda as soon she said that no child should be allowed to grow in fear and indifference, had been assigned to get the supplies to the Isle. Every once in a while, Eugene and Rapunzel convinced Anna to donate a ship worth of food or of clothes, and Elsa allowed it. Nonetheless, the queen of Arrendelle had refused to listen to Esmeralda during the meetings, she had adamantly rejected each of the gypsy's attempt to make her consider the injustice that the Isle of the Lost represented on itself.

That was how things had been for the last seventeen years. Now, when Adam finally decided to step down from the throne, it turned out that his own son would be the one to 'democratically' succeed him. The Queen of Arrendelle was well-acquainted with young Benjamin. She had practically watched him grow, as both of them belonged to the royal families of Auradon. She knew the boy had a kind heart, and she was certain that everything he'd done until then was only fueled by good intentions and a utopic imagination. However, he was simply too inexperienced to handle the pressure of becoming the Head King of a territory as big and tumultuous as the United States of Auradon.

It seemed that Benjamin also questioned the decisions Adam had made during his reign, howbeit he did so for a different reason than the one the Queen of Arrendelle had to oppose the former king. Benjamin, who had only ever seen the good in the world, was incapable of comprehending how dangerous allowing the children of the villains into their domains was. He was part of Auradon's next generation, the one who had read the real-life love stories of their provinces' sovereigns in school textbooks, the one who had never feared the second the sun went down and ghosts roamed their palaces freely, the one that had only ever worn silk dresses and walked on marble castles.

Youth had blessed him with naiveness, and naiveness had cursed him with ingenuousness. Elsa knew with icy certainty that it was only a matter of time before the young prince's reverie caught fire in the flames of the villains' spite and turned into a nightmarish sight.

However, youth had also made Benjamin passionate, determined in a way that Elsa had to admire. If not for nothing else, she did so with sageness. That was the boy who would soon rule over them, they needed to redirect the fierce resolve of which he spoke about the children of the Isle of the Lost. Nonetheless, if he maintained it as the Head King of Auradon, he would be vehement and uncontainable. Notwithstanding the fact that Elsa praised a sovereign with such characteristic, she was far from blind. There would be no time for Benjamin to become a well-loved, wise monarch if his kingdom burnt to the ground mere days after his coronation. Still, the boy was set on his verdict, and there was no power on earth that could stop him from making his first decree as king a resolution to free the children of the Isle.

That time, for once, Elsa had wholeheartedly concurred with Adam. The Isle of the Lost had not been a good plan, not even at the beginning, but now that they had it, it was better to simply continue as they had until then. If anything, they could send more than leftovers, perhaps repair their old, crumbling bazaar and clean the rubbish obstructing the streets, but that was as far as Elsa was willing to go for the Islanders.

Benjamin, however, had not been dissuaded. He had refused to listen the life-hardened words of his advisors, he had ignored the, admittedly, more experienced opinions of older sovereigns, he had declined even the guidance of his parents. His outrageous project had been put into operation without losing a second of precious time. In mere months, the first four children of the Isle of the Lost were brought to live among them, in Auradon. And of course, being the idealistic boy he was, Benjamin had decided that the children of that most dangerous villains be the first ones to be relocated.

Contrary to what Elsa had feared, the first stage of his decree had not been a complete failure. In fact, the first scandal the Isle children had been involved with was when Mal, the only known daughter of Maleficent, began to fool around the no-magic rule. She was testing the limits, of that Elsa was certain. The queen had to admit it, she was amused, and she could hardly look down at Mal with scorn or qualm, for she firmly discouraged that prohibition herself. In fact, she considered the no-magic rule more a suggestion than an actual commandment.

It was simply ridiculous, to say the least. The fact that Fayanna, a magical being herself, a fairy who felt magic thump on her jugular and tickle the tips of her fingers, could even fathom over the idea that revoking their right to use the magic that was naturally, rightfully theirs was risible, absurd. Even worse, it was alarming and threatening.

The official reason for this new rule was 'to teach the new generation of Auradonians that magic was not a panacea, but a tool that had to be used scarcely. It was only their wit and creativity that would accompany them, their ability to do good that would forge the road for them to follow.' In summary, it was now seen as unfair that children born with the power to wield magic received the same education as children who were incapable of doing it. And, to promote equality, it had been decided that they should take away the 'advantage' of magic-natural children. Elsa huffed. Clearly, forbidding magical children to use their powers was fair. Clearly, they should take away their birth-right instead of offering non-magical children the possibility to learn magic in order for them to become sorcerers and witches.

Elsa had spent enough time denying the magic that coursed through her veins to simply accept Fayanna's outrageous rule. It had taken enough of her and her people to learn to live with her magic and accept the fact that her powers would not go away because they were part of her. If Fayanna thought she could simply come and order them to stop the use of their powers merely because she was the most beloved advisor of the Head King, she was dead-wrong.

Thereby, when the daughter of Maleficent began using her magic at Auradon Prep, Elsa was not counted in the number of people who felt their distrust towards the Isle children grow. If anything, she was amused. God knew how a girl who had been raised without the vaguest knowledge of magic had learnt how to wield it so rapidly. That, at least, was an admirable skill, and the Queen of Arrendelle had always praised when praise was due. Howbeit, whatever empathy-induced closeness she could feel for the daughter of Maleficent was not nearly enough to make her forget the Isle that girl had grown up in.

Surprisingly, it was not the children of the Isle of the Lost who had broken havoc during Benjamin's coronation. Jane, the very daughter of Fayanna, was the one who snatched one of the most powerful magical items from the hand of her own mother. Even more exceptional was it that the Isle children were the ones to stop Maleficent from utterly tearing apart Auradon Cathedral.

Perhaps, Elsa had caught herself thinking, Rapunzel was inerrant. Maybe Benjamin, with his naive cerulean eyes and the innocence of his youth, could see something that she had grown too hawkish to notice anymore. For a moment, she even allowed her mind to wrap around the conception that, perchance, Benjamin's decree was not as preposterous as it sounded.

Said resolution lasted less than three months, for it was after that time that Benjamin insisted that only the first stage of his decree had been carried out. It was time for the rest of the Isle children to be brought to Auradon, he insisted. That prospect was not appealing to the Queen of Arrendelle in the least.

They agreed on the need to send someone to the Isle of the Lost. To Elsa, it seemed they were testing the ground, making sure that the thin layer of ice that the recent snowstorm had formed on the surface of the lake was sturdy enough to step on it with their full weight. Without further ado, they designated the very daughter of Maleficent as the Ambassador of the United States of Auradon in the Isle of the Lost.

Rumors spread, vehement like wildfires, of the possibility of new children arriving from the Isle at the beginning of the next school year. Some of the Auradonians Elsa had spoken to had even began making theories about whose children would me the next to be brought to Auradon. Rapunzel, for example, had received notice that Gothel had sired a daughter, and she awaited the moment she would be able to meet the young girl with both dread and impatience

Then, seemingly out of nowhere, Benjamin gave a press conference urging the hero families to 'Open their hearts and homes to the winds of change by enrolling themselves as tutors for one of the children of the Isle'. At the moment, Elsa had snickered. It was an outrageous proposition. To think, even for a second, that they would risk their families and kingdoms to welcome the offspring of their worst enemies was simply ridiculous. To ask from them that they put every ounce of normality and security it had taken decades to reconstruct on the line to receive the spawns of the ones who had tried to destroy their kingdoms was... unimaginable. Contumelious.

Notwithstanding, for a reason that the queen could not seem explain, it appeared that she was the only one seeing things that way. People like Esmeralda and Phoebus, who had been waiting for a sign that someone from the royalty had heard their appeal for years, immediately offered themselves to tutor even more than one child, if it were necessary. Rapunzel and Cinderella, along with their respective partners, were quick to follow their leads.

Soon, Benjamin's overture was not the only thing that had surprised the Queen of Arrendelle. In a matter of weeks, more Auradonian families than she would have thought agreed with such a ridiculous proposition were signing up to become the legal guardians of the Isle children. Even then, Elsa had clung on to hope that she would be able to escape this altruistic nonsense and keep her kingdom and family as far as possible from the Isle of the Lost and its inhabitants.

Said feeble faith came to an abrupt end one bright morning of spring, when Anna entered her office without even knocking, decision written on her features. She said she was putting her foot down, that they could not sit back while heroes of all the other kingdoms and provinces contributed to such an important change. She made it a point to insist that it had taken Auradon long enough to recognize the mistake the Isle of the Lost was, Arrendelle could not stay behind and be indifferent about this project.

When all of that failed to dissuade her sister, Anna added in an undertone, almost as if she were telling a secret, that Eugene had informed her that Hans had managed to have a son. Out of pure rage, Elsa had laughed. If Hans had a son, then that kid also had ten direct uncles who could look after him and receive him in the Southern Isles. The fact that Hans had spawned one, or two, or even ten children meant nothing to Elsa.

They had argued that morning, because they had both inherited their mother's stubbornness. When Anna's attempts to convince Elsa of pitying the children of the Isle failed, the princess' features became stern, distant and frigid in the same way marble statues were adamant and cutting. With precise words, she had reminded the queen of Arrendelle of the terrified, young girl that had been forced to remain incarcerated inside her room as the prisoner of a power she could not control. A prisoner, she said, as captive were the children of the Isle, expiating a crime they had not committed.

Anna knew her too well, Elsa was aware of it. It was usually of no concern to her, given the fact that she trusted her younger sister completely. She relied on Anna in the same way she knew a new morning would come after the sundown. To doubt Anna's loyalty was unthinkable.

On the other hand, there was no denying that Anna knew very well how to strike a low-blow when she felt the occasion called for it. Not whispering anymore, she dropped the one question that had haunted the queen of Arrendelle since she could remember—What are you so afraid of?

The vehemence of her words made Elsa step back and gasp for breath. Her hands shook when she answered that she feared not. It was a white lie, the tone of the virgin snow that crowned the mountains of their fjords, but it was the only answer Elsa could ever imagine herself giving. Admitting fear, even for a moment, was doubting her own ability to stop any damage from unfolding and harming her family. It was a weakness she could not allow herself to have.

Regrettably, Anna knew Elsa well-enough to not need the queen to voice the real reason behind her adamant negative. As soon as she noticed the profound impact her words had had on her sister, Anna's features softened. 'There is nothing to be afraid of', she had said. Elsa agreed, there was not—as long as they didn't take any unnecessary, reckless risks.

The only problem was that 'reckless' seemed to be Anna's middle name. Taking her sister's hands in hers, Anna had smiled at the queen of Arrendelle. She'd reiterated that it was not just to let children pay for mistakes they had not made. She decided to pressure Elsa further by asking her to not think of the children of the Isle as the offspring of their enemies, but as if they were only children, like any other in Auradon. Of course, Anna went a step further by mentioning her own son, Karl, and asking Elsa to imagine her little boy living under the conditions the children of the Isle were forced to survive in. Those had been her words. Not live, but survive in.

And, like Anna knew she would, Elsa had yielded. Her resolution had crumbled when faced with Anna's fiery resolve. The princess of Arrendelle was relentless, obstinate like no other, and she had never been one to take a 'no' for an answer. Added to that, she knew her sister thoroughly, she could interpret the thin line of Elsa's lips, a subtle sigh or a reluctant nod. Anna was not the kind of person to give up easily, and thus, she had insisted, pushing Elsa further and further until she knew it would be impossible for the queen to deny her request.

In honor of the truth, Anna had offered to be the one to travel all the way to France, so that she could pick up their new protégé, but Elsa had refused. After all, her sister was six months pregnant, and asking her to voyage in that state was not something Elsa felt comfortable with. They had not even been informed of how many children they were expecting or of whose descendants would henceforth be living with them, thereby, Elsa refused to endanger her sister like that.

The next safe option that would have lifted the burden off Elsa's shoulders would have been Kristoff. Given the fact that they were walking in a completely unknown territory, oblivious to the number of children they were expecting, to their ages and their parentage, asking her brother-by-marriage to pick up the child or children that had been assigned to them would have made things easier.

Certainly, a part of Elsa would have rested more easily, had Kristoff been in her place. After all, he was strong, steadfast, and could overpower a skilled, trained enemy. It was glaringly obvious that one, or even two teenagers, like the ones she had seen in the deck of the ship would be no match for him.

However, summer was approaching, being the number one purveyor of ice in Auradon, Kristoff's days had been increasingly hectic. Naturally, it would have been unthinkable and counterproductive to ask him to put his own responsibilities aside and board a plane to travel to a whole different country in order to pick up the offspring of their enemies. Then again, if they had bothered to ask Elsa her opinion, she would have answered that this whole project was poorly planned and loosely designed.

In the end, it all came down to the fact that Elsa could pass down her obligations to Anna, who would then stay safe at Arrendelle Palace. Conversely, Kristoff could not do so with his chores and leave for someone else to carry them on. That was why Elsa Danica of Arrendelle and Vistborg was standing in an overcrowded wharf.

In anticipation of this 'big day' ―that to her sounded more like a 'huge disaster'―, Anna had shipped their family carriage to Corona nearly a week earlier. Then, Elsa had boarded a plane, set to arrive at her cousin's kingdom, the day before. She had spent the night in the company of Rapunzel and her family, and, come morning, both of them had climbed on their own carriages and traveled from Corona to Auradon City. Elsa had to admit, Rapunzel had thought this whole project more thoroughly than she had, going as far as to take two carriages to Auradon City, in case one was not enough to take the children back to Corona. Of course, the queen of Arrendelle supposed that it only made sense. After all, Rapunzel had impatiently counted the days in her calendar for her to meet her new foster child—or children, the queen reminded herself. That hypothetical plural was too important to ignore. Elsa had, instead, dreaded the day and prayed to the Lord that He would change the minds of everyone involved in the relocation of the Isle children before it arrived.

The plan was that, after receiving their new protégé, they would travel by carriage to Denmark, where they would climb on a plane in order to return to Arrendelle. Rapunzel, always hospitable, had offered for Elsa to return to Corona with her and Eugene, so that they could leave the next morning, well-rested and refreshed, but Elsa had declined. Rapunzel and her family would have to deal with a villain child —or children— of their own, and Elsa simply wanted to return home as soon as possible.

'Soon', however, was a word that Elsa had not heard since arriving to Auradon City. The whole day had been hectic with Fayanna, Benjamin and the former kings giving announcements with big, unceremonious megaphones and handing out leaflets in land. Meanwhile, Maleficent's daughter ran from one side of the deck of the ship to the other, attempting to organize several dozens of teenagers with what seemed to be little success.

The children finally began to descend from the vessel nearly three hours after the scheduled time. The first ones to step on Auradonian land were probably Huns, judging by the way they were dressed. Afterwards came a flock of children that varied between the ages of four and eighteen, at least that's what it seemed to her. She recognized the Hook children. More correctly, she assumed they were the offspring of James Hook, given the fact that they were dressed in a poor attempt to imitate the pirate fashion and that Jane Rees was called to pick some of them up.

Not long after, the loudspeakers called her own cousin, Rapunzel. Elsa stayed at the plaza with Rose and Anxellin while Rapunzel and Eugene ventured to find their foster daughter. When they returned, they were accompanied by a black-haired girl. She wore a faded dress that had once been green, and the worn fabric clung to her bony frame, proving it was at least three sizes too big for her. Despite Rapunzel's upbeat attitude and Eugene's unfaltering smile, the girl that tailed behind them appeared uninterested and apathetic.

Unamused, Elsa simply raised an inquisitive eyebrow when Rapunzel introduced her as Ginny Gothel, her former captor's only daughter. At the mention of her mother, the girl simply huffed, although neither of the sovereigns of Corona seemed to pay any mind to it.

Soon after, Rose and Anxellin took matters into their own hands and offered to take Ginny to the carriages. It was a welcomed change of scenery, apparently, and the girl didn't argue against the proposition. Once they had left, Rapunzel insisted it would be a short while before they called Elsa, too, and she had to approach the wharf to meet her new protégé. The queen of Arrendelle, however, wasn't as convinced. They had never discussed the number of children that would be incorporated into Auradonian households, but she had certainly never imagined that it would ascend to more than fifty. She had been wrong, it was more than apparent.

It was at least two more hours, long after her cousin's family had left to begin their return to Corona, long after the time that Benjamin had promised, that Elsa's name was finally called. The pier had slowly emptied through the afternoon, as the children descended from the ship, and by the time the queen of Arrendelle was called, there were barely any people still at the wharf.

It seemed she had been granted the arguable honor of being the last of the heroes called to meet her protégé, she noted absently. Her theory was proven when, instead of simply guiding the islander down, Benjamin and Grimhilde's daughter descended of the ship first. The daughter of Maleficent followed, and the last member of the party was a young boy.

Soon, Elsa was introduced to the son of Hans, a sick-looking boy with milky skin and freckles dusted on his nose and cheeks. He did not seem to be paying much attention to his surroundings, and he barely lifted his eyes from the ground when Grimhilde's daughter said his name. To be entirely honest, it was… disappointing, to an extent. Lame, almost. He had none of the raw fierceness Elsa had seen in Rapunzel's foster child or the bulky muscles and broad shoulders of the teenagers that had just left the dock in Megara's company.

Instead, the kid paled in comparison as he tailed behind the daughters of two of the most feared villains. He limped as he walked, and the dull sheen of his gaze seemed more resigned than defiant. He was considerably young, as well, probably not older than six. The only vague similarity Elsa could find between that boy and the young woman that Rapunzel had taken under her care was the extreme skinniness, which made the worn-away clothes hang loosely on their bodies.

All things considered, this was not what Elsa had expected to encounter. Yet, the resemblance this boy had with Hans was undeniable. He had the same deep green eyes and reddish hair, an identical, turned-up nose and thin lips, ready to spit out lies and deceive and betray. It should have been no surprise, Elsa supposed.

After all, Hans had never been the typical kind of villain either. He had none of Jafar's sinister eyes and dark magic, none of Ursula's maniacal laughter or power. Hans was a charming young prince, with lips that dripped honey and innocent eyes that enamored foolish girls. If Elsa had learned something out of this whole ordeal, it was that one could not trust appearances. And if that boy was anything like his father, then the guiltlessness in his gaze was nothing other than deception.

Nonetheless, Anna had somehow talked her into entering this insane project, and Elsa valued her word of honor too much to step back now. She sighed deeply and closed her eyes for a moment. It was too late to refuse taking the child with her. If anything, she should be thankful that she didn't have to deal with a fully-grown teenager.

Endure, there was no other possible solution. Endurance and patience.

With a sigh that mixed both resignation and discomfiture, Elsa nodded her defeat and called Han's offspring over to her. If anything in this mishap was truth, that was the fact that Maleficent's daughter looked exhausted. It was no surprise, after she had been running around the wharf for the best part of the day. Elsa could at least recognize her effort and empathize with it, even if she was still against her charity project.

It seemed, however, that the kid was having second thoughts as well. With his eyes stubbornly glued to the floor beneath them and small fists clenched around the pleased cuffs of his shirt, he offered no answer to the queen when she called his name. In fact, he hardly seemed to be there at all, and neither did he reply in any way when both Grimhilde and Maleficent's daughters spoke to him. It was amusing, Elsa had to admit, that he did not seem an ounce more excited about the position they had found themselves in than she was.

Yet, duty was duty, and neither of them could refuse their luck. The kid seemed to understand that much, for he followed Elsa's lead without so much as a weary nod. He did not let out a single word, not even when Elsa inquired about his lack of luggage or when Grimhilde's daughter insisted that he was welcomed to ask any questions he might have.

The fact that this kid had been dropped under her care with, quite literally, nothing but the clothes he had on was a worry for when they got to Auradon. At least that was what Elsa thought, in her very honest opinion. For now, she would consider it a success if they managed to get to the carriage without any other incidents.

For the first time that day, it seemed that the God above had listened to her prayers. The pier was mostly empty, as was the parking lot. That fortunate happening was at least a comforting thought, if nothing else.

When they finally reached Arrendelle's royal carriage, Elsa allowed herself to internally claim a small victory over that deed. As soon as he saw them approach, Sigurd, Arrendelle's chauffeur, raised from his seat and hurried to hold the carriage door open for them.

"Thank you, Sigurd," the queen offered, flashing her loyal serf a brief smile that quickly dissolved into a strained gesture. "Now, allow me to introduce you to Henry. He is the son of former Admiral Hans Westergaard, the thirteenth son of late King Fridtjof," she recounted, feeling her tongue curl uncomfortably with the bitter stung of the words in her mouth. Perplexed, the driver started to part his lips as a response, but Elsa made a conclusive movement of her hand to let Sigurd know that it was not time to question about the boy's parentage. "And, Henry," she continued. "This is Sigurd, a beloved family friend and a versed server."

Again, the kid hardly bothered to lift his gaze from the floor to look in Sigurd's general direction. However, for the first time that day, his lips moved rapidly as he offered a timid reply. "A pleasure to meet you," he said, hurried and barely audible.

"My, you can speak," Elsa noted out loud before she could stop herself. As soon as she pronounced the words, she saw the boy minutely hunch his shoulders, almost as if an inaudible sigh had left his lips. "Forgive me, child, that was inappropriate," she immediately added. In a desperate attempt to change the topic, she stepped to the side of the carriage so that Han's son could step inside and gestured for him to climb into the vehicle.

Instead of answering, he reverted to simply denying with his head.

"No?" Elsa inquired. "What do you mean?"

"No, Your Majesty," he insisted. "I cannot board before you."

Elsa would have been lying, had she said his response did not throw her aback. Her eyebrows quirked upwards, and it took her a quarter of a millisecond longer than she would have liked to admit to collect her thoughts once again.

"I appreciate it, child, but I must insist," the queen reiterated. "I have to call someone before we leave, and I think you'll need a moment to settle in. By all means, go ahead."

This time, he dared not go against her direct instruction. He climbed into the vehicle after a moment of indecision. Elsa had not lied. She had, in fact, promised to call Anna as soon as she had news of who their new protégé would be. For what seemed to be the thousandth time that day, Elsa let out a tired sigh and then dialed the number she had long ago committed to memory. Anna picked up the phone almost immediately and welcomed her sister with a very unladylike shriek.

"Oh, goodness, Elsa! Where had you been? I tried calling you like ten times. I spoke with Zellie, what? Three hours ago? She said they were already leaving!"

"Indeed. Rapunzel left a while ago," the queen asseverated. "You just know my luck. I was literally the last person called to pick up the kid."

"Kid?" Anna questioned a heartbeat later. "I assume, then, it was only one child?"

"Only one," Elsa nodded. "And you won't believe who it is," before Anna even had time to guess who their foster child could be, the queen continued. "We were assigned Han's son."

"The little boy?"

"You're more informed than I am, it seems."

"Eugene has just mentioned some things," Anna brushed off. "You would know, too, if you paid attention to him when he speaks of the Isle instead of zoning out."

"I stand by what I have been telling you for months," Elsa insisted, adamant. "It is of no concern of mine who in the Isle of the Lost has spawned children or what has come of their offspring."

"Don't be like this, Elsa, you know better than anyone—"

"I just called to let you know we are on our way home. We should arrive tomorrow afternoon," she cut her off. "I'll let you know when we get to Denmark," she added as a second thought. Without letting Anna so much as gather her thoughts, Elsa hung up.

She would regret her actions later, she knew, once the coals of the fury that blazed inside her had cooled off. She would feel especially awful the following evening, once she got home and she stood face to face in front of Anna. Her sister had that quality, Elsa was more than aware of it. She knew her far too well and she could get her point across to Elsa with nothing other than a quirked eyebrow.

If anything, Anna wouldn't be resentful or upset at her for having reacted the way she had—she would be disappointed. And that burning knowledge was somehow worse than the prospect of a shouting match with her younger sister.

That was a problem for later, she reminded herself as she stepped into her carriage. She could not make plans of sailing overseas when she did not even have a ship to sail in. She would face the problems one at the time. And, in that precise moment, she needed to focus her energy on figuring out what to make of the boy that would be sitting right across from her for the next several hours.

She had told Benjamin that it would be a long and cold way to Auradon. The cold had never been an issue for her, but as for her first affirmation...

"Let's get going, Sigurd," she instructed, taking a seat on the unoccupied bench.

"Yes, ma'am," he nodded, with the reigns of the Norwegian Fjords* already prepared in his hands.

Elsa reminded herself to look at it from the positive side. Each of her steps was a step closer to returning home. With the comfort, however small, that that thought could provide her with, she slammed the carriage door closed. It might have been her imagination, but she thought she'd seen the kid flinch at the sound. She was more inclined to think it had been a product of her weary mind, because, when she consciously turned her eyes to the boy, he seemed frozen in place.

The first ten minutes of their journey scurried away in an awkward silence. Under regular circumstances, muteness or stillness were not things that bothered the queen of Arrendelle. After all, she had spent the best part of her teenage years living in loneliness. She was more than used to silence and solitude.

Yet, this time, there was something off about that quietness. According to the papers Maleficent's daughter had given her, the boy in front of her was only two years older than Anna's own son, Karl. However, she would not have guessed that the age gap between them was that small, considering how... unobtrusive Han's son was, for lack of a better word.

Karl, as Anna herself, was a chatterbox. He'd learned to speak way before his first birthday, and getting him to remain quiet and still was a challenge. God forgave you were traveling with him, for, in case you were misfortunate enough to be within hearing range from him, it'd be a long and seemingly never ending whining of 'Are we there yet? And now, and now? When are we going to arrive?'

His nephew was the only child Elsa frequently came in contact with, which indicated that perchance he was not a good parameter to measure every other child she encountered. However, there was something unnatural in the way Han's son carried himself. Whether it was because something was indeed out of place or merely because this boy was unfamiliar with his surroundings, Elsa might not know for a while. At least not until Henry trusted her and her family. What she knew with absolute certainty, however, was that this perfect stillness was making her uneasy. Perhaps that was why she took it upon herself to break the silence.

"This is your first time outside the Isle, aren't you excited?" She asked, giving further proof that she was not someone to be trusted when it came to social interaction.

The boy shrugged, weak and uninterested. "Scared," was his reply.

"Scared, huh?" She questioned, slightly amused. "There's nothing to be afraid of."

Funny, she thought to herself, that she had echoed the exact same words Anna had used when she tried to convince Elsa to join this insane project. Even funnier it was that she was not an inch closer to believing those words than she had been when Anna had said them the first time. At the moment, with the water up to her neck, she reluctantly admitted that it most likely made no difference.

"Listen," Elsa announced a few minutes later. "We will get to Denmark tonight. We left Auradon City extremely late, as you can see, which, as a consequence, means that we will arrive to Denmark at some time in the wee hours of the morning."

She was aware that there was no reason why she should share such information with the boy. If anything, withdrawing such instruction could have proven beneficial to her, in case the son of Hans intended to retaliate against her for the rather humiliating banishment of his father. Under any other circumstances, she might have strongly advised against enlightening him with the knowledge of their appointed schedule.

On the other hand, it seemed to her extremely unlikely that the boy seating in front of her could be plotting anything like that. It could have been nothing but a tactic to deceive her, that possibility did not escape her mind. However, instead of a vicious vindicator, he only appeared to her as what he had described—scared. Curled up in his seat, as far as humanly possible from Elsa, his green eyes riveted to the queen, attentively watching each of her moves, he seemed lost, meager and afraid.

With that in mind, she figured that giving him a handful of solid datum to cling on to in the midst of the chaos could hardly be considered an important threat. In addition to that, even if he planned on attacking her, it would have been a terrible move to begin an assault when he possessed virtually no knowledge of the land he was standing on or the people he had been sent to fight against.

"And tomorrow," she continued, "at the crack of dawn, we are to board a plane to Arrendelle, my kingdom."

The only prove he have of having heard her was a half-hearted nod of his head. After that, the queen decided against adding anything else. They remained in silence for probably thirty more minutes. This time, it was not necessarily uncomfortable, Elsa had to admit. It was expectant, if anything. It was electrified with restlessness, pregnant with apprehension.

That was how her whole trip to Auradon City had been, if she had to be honest. She had scrutinized the dozens of different scenarios that could unfold. She had recapitulated the names of the villains that had plagued the provinces that now conformed the United States of Auradon, in an attempt to envisage who could be the progenitor of their protégé. She had clung to the hope that she would not have to face the offspring of the man who had nearly destroyed her family.

Elsa Danica of Arrendelle and Vistborg had never believed in her good luck. Whatever star she had been born under, it had never blessed her with the bright fortune others seemed to have embossed on their foreheads. Therefore, despite having hoped beyond hope that this ordeal would not conclude with her housing the spawn of Hans, she had always suspected such would be the ending.

However, her lack of fortunateness did not exclude the possibility of unexpected revelations from unfolding. Which demonstrated why the son of Hans she had been introduced to looked nothing like the vicious adolescent she had believed she would encounter.

It was not an optimal time to be having second thoughts, she concluded wearily. Finally blinking herself back into reality, she took her gaze off the open window and turned to face her new protégé.

"Are you hungry?" She inquired, only then remembering the luncheon Rapunzel had packed for them in the morning. For all answer, the boy merely shook his head, his eyes focused on the burgundy carpet of the floor. "You should eat, child. It is late and still a long journey awaits us."

Despite the fact that she did not receive a verbal answer either, Elsa leaned under her seat to reach for the knit handbag Rapunzel had given her that morning. Rapunzel, always a generous hostess, had packed the bag with enough containers to feed probably six or seven people, no doubt deciding it was better to have more to spare in case the number of protégés was higher than they were expecting. So engrossed had Elsa been with the prospect of the day that laid ahead of them, that she had not even opened Rapunzel's package to check what she had sent.

Calmly, the queen of Arrendelle untied the knot her cousin had secured the bag with. She took out six bottles of water and placed them beside her on the cushioned seat. She then proceeded to pull out one of the plastic containers Rapunzel had carefully packed.

"Oh, this girl," she couldn't help but chuckle as she uncapped the dish. Inside, perfectly aligned to make the most out of the space in the bowl, Rapunzel had placed five kjøttkaker meatballs, with brown sauce carefully spread on them and pea purée served to the side.

Out of the three of them, Rapunzel was the only one who could cook to save her life. Anna, bless her heart, sometimes tried to bake a cake or attempted to make cookies, which more often than not concluded with a chaotic kitchen and burnt dough. In Anna's defense, she was perfectly capable of making a sandwich, that much was true.

As for herself, Elsa had never been in the necessity of learning such a skill. Born and raised to rule Arrendelle, her days as a child had been scheduled around memorizing the history of her country and their neighboring provinces, around studying languages from abroad and learning to navigate the shifts of the economic world. It was only natural that her housewife skills had fallen below on her priority list. Especially taking into consideration that there were several years of her childhood that had been lost to isolation and dread.

Rapunzel, however, had spent her teenage years perfecting a wide variety of arts, which included painting, dressmaking and gastronomy. Elsa had to admit, it was a nice highlight to be invited to Corona and enjoy a home-made meal that had been especially prepared by her cousin. It made it all the more significant. Added to that, Rapunzel was extremely thoughtful, and she had a way of always finding out your culinary preferences in favor of surprising you with a plate of whatever delicacy you favored over the rest.

She would have to call Rapunzel and thank her as soon as she was back in Arrendelle. With that in mind, Elsa turned to face the boy before her once again.

"Here," she handed the container over. The boy accepted it silently, barely looking up to her, although he did not meet her eyes. He then waited patiently for Elsa to fish out the cutlery that had slipped to the bottom of the bag. His hands fidgeted with the bowl, and when Elsa handed over a fork and a knife, he stared down at the food for a moment in mystification and hesitancy.

It was when he finally began eating that Elsa noticed he had two teeth missing. A canine and an incisor, both from the right side of his mouth. He was supposed to be seven, she remembered absently, it was not a unique feature.

"This is a courtesy from my cousin Rapunzel, the Queen of Corona. Have you heard of her?" She questioned instead, turning her attention back to Rapunzel's bag.

"No, Your Majesty. Forgive me."

Bewildered, the queen arched an eyebrow. "Well, I suppose there's no reason you should have," she reflected. Even though she was more than certain that Hans was aware of the fact that the Corona family was related to her own, Elsa could not think of a reason why he would consider it information important enough to share with his son.

Still questioning how much knowledge Hans really had about her family, the queen proceeded to take out a similar dish out of the bag. Calmly, she took off the lid and took in the exquisite smell. It was only when she was halfway through her meal that it occurred to her that she could ask the boy how much he knew of another of her family members.

"What about Anna, my sister?" She inquired, startling her companion, who flinched at the sudden sound. "Did your father ever mention her?"

"He sometimes spoke of Princess Anna," he admitted, more concentrated in the purée than in the queen.

"He did?" Elsa couldn't help but inquire. "And what did he say, if I may know?"

"He used to say that she had made a mistake, choosing to remain loyal to you," he finally answered, his fork frozen midair so he could answer, even though he did not lift his gaze from the plate. "He said she was not fit to be queen."

"Am I to assume he said the same thing about me?" She questioned, genuinely intrigued by what the answer may be.

Instead of replying right away, Henry recoiled into his seat. It almost gave Elsa the impression that he wanted to curl into the back of the piece of furniture and disappear.

"Please, child, speak freely," she encouraged, her right eyebrow quirked up with curiosity. "It would be unjust of me to hold your sincerity against you."

"He called you a witch," he finally answered, holding the fork Elsa had given him tightly in his right hand. Parsimoniously, he cut the meatball into small portions, giving Elsa the impression that he was playing with the food rather than thinking of eating it. However, she quickly discovered that it was only a way to keep his fidgety hands busy. "He said that you shouldn't have been made queen."

"I am certain that he did," Elsa sighed, pressing the plastic lid back on her empty container so she could put it back into the bag.

She couldn't have explained the reason behind her next actions. Probably, there was no good explanation as to why her hands moved to her neck and unclasped her necklace. More mystified than before, she pulled the locket from under her dress and opened it.

The necklace, a snowflake-shaped silver jewel had been a gift from her sister. Inside, a picture of her parents on their wedding day, joyous and bathed in glory, smiled back at her from the left side. On the right one, Anna greeted her with a crooked smile. One of her arms was placed around her son's shoulders, while the other one rested on her thigh, supporting her weight as she squatted down.

To Karl's opposite side, Kristoff stood in a similar position, his eyes closed as he smiled widely to the camera. Between his parents, Karl seemed more preoccupied with the piece of cake before him than with the prospect of having his picture taken. His cheeks and chin were covered in blue icing as his tiny hands reached for the sweet treat. They'd taken that picture during Karl's first birthday party, amidst the chaos of Anna insisting that it had to be perfect and her toddler, who was more interested in the shinny-wrapped gifts and yummy food than in posing for pictures. Elsa cherished it even more because of it.

"This is my sister," she introduced, turning the locket over so Hans' son could appreciate Anna's warm smile. "The one your father deemed unfit to rule. You will be distraught to learn that she is still fiercely loyal to me. And this one," she pointed to Kristoff's joyful figure. "Is her husband. They are here with their son, he's slightly younger than you."

As all answer, the boy simply nodded his head. Although he stiffly leaned forward to get a better look at the picture Elsa was showing him. The queen noticed with a slight tinge of curiosity that he made no movement to grab the locket or to come closer to her than was strictly necessary.

The thought assaulted her like a sudden gush of icy wind on a warm summer evening. It was abrupt, rattling and, above everything, unwelcomed. Elsa could not have explained where it came from, only that it appeared in the horizon of her mind like an unanticipated turn in the tracks of her train of thought. Once she noticed the inevitable divarication she was forced to take, it was too late for her to evade the realization that dwelled on her with a sudden swerve.

Had things been a little different, had Anna continued her original plan and married Hans instead of Kristoff, the little boy in the picture of her locket could have been an entirely different one. For a moment, Elsa's vision blurred and the blond of Karl's hair beclouded to become a dark ginger. For a moment, instead of Kristoff's open expression and sincere smile, the sharp features of a man with green eyes and an icy smile stared back at her from her picture. Had things been a little different, and the thought gnawed at her chest with frigid emptiness, the boy leaning closer to get a better look of her pictures could have been her nephew.

"They are all waiting for us in Arrendelle," the queen manage to articulate in a rushed breath. She brusquely pulled the necklace back and clasped it in place once again with trembling fingers.

"Who is she?" Henry questioned quietly, pointing to where the picture of Elsa's parents had been barely a moment ago with a slight tilt of his head.

"Those are my parents, the former rulers of Arrendelle," Elsa replied, her voice a little tighter than she would have liked to admit.

"She is very pretty," he mumbled, sliding back to his seat.

"She... was," the queen conceded in an undertone. She let out a small sigh, her hand tightly wrapped around the silver snowflake. She didn't let go until the sharp ends of the figure bit at her palm. Even then, she only lessened her grip, although her fingers remained firmly placed around the locket.

Silence fell between them with resignation. There was something unnatural about the way the boy before her sat, too still and too quiet; about the way he adamantly refused to look at her in the eye, about the way his hands rested, barely pulling at the loose ends of his pants. There was something in the way he hunched over and kept his lips pressed into a pallid line that made Elsa shift uncomfortably in her seat. There was something, between the way that boy only ever spoke in soft whispers and her own unwelcomed thoughts that made hot, flaring guilt be born in the pit of her stomach. She wanted to call that feeling uneasiness instead, because it was easier to do that than to admit that, for the first time since she had arrived to the wharf in Auradon City, she did not know how to proceed.

"There's more of these, in case you are still hungry," she urged, holding up the knit bag her cousin had given her in the air, a desperate endeavor to change the subject. "Rapunzel cooked for maybe six people, but it is just the two of us here."

"Thank you, Your Highness," he mumbled quietly, in an attempt, Elsa supposed, to not give her testimony that he was in fact still hungry, even though his eyes followed Elsa's hands greedily when she opened the handbag and put away his dish.

"Here," Elsa handed him another of the containers.

"No, Your Majesty, this..."

"You don't have to eat them now if you don't want to," she shrugged. "However, I will warn you, they won't taste as good when they are reheated."

"Thank you," he repeated, barely audible.

"This is a bestowal from Rapunzel, I can't let it go to waste," she remarked. "In fact..." the queen added as a second thought. "She might have included dessert..."

With that prospect to look forward to, the queen returned her attention to the contents of the bag. As was her custom, Rapunzel had packed the healthy, more nutritious food in the top containers, while the sweeter, sugary treats had ended up at the bottom.

"Here we go," she announced, opening the lid of the dish to reveal six carefully presented cardamom rolls. "She made skolebrød, with vanilla."

Delighted, she took one of the sweets and handed over the remaining ones to the boy.

"Your Majesty, this is... enough. More than enough," he immediately tried to brush off, even though there was barely anything left in his plate.

"Feel free to take it," Elsa insisted, carefully wiping the corners of her lips with a folded napkin. "Rapunzel made it for you more than she made it for me. She is very passionate about this whole... project. Which is more than can be said about me."

Following her dry remark, the boy silently took the pastries and continued eating. After that, they both fell into silence once again. Elsa wouldn't have called it grievous or uncomfortable. If anything, it was contemplative, reflective. Elsa was used to silence, she reveled in it. Far from finding it awkward, it made her feel secure and it saved her the trouble of small talk and forced interactions. Therefore, Elsa was not going to complain over the fact that the boy she'd been assigned to watch over was a quiet one.

With that in mind, Elsa took a book out of her purse and began reading. Truthfully, she was re-reading it, a habit she has acquired as a child, as she remained in her room with no company besides her books and piano. That book in particular was a personal favorite, a collection of her compatriot's theatrical plays, Henrik Ibsen. What she enjoyed the most about them was how were genuine, controversial, and straight to the point they were, how raw and unapologetic.

She refused to put her book down until after seven o'clock, once the sun had come down and it was impossible for her to continue reading. With a content sigh, she put her bookmark in place and slowly blinked herself back into reality.

She unseeingly stared out of the open curtains for thirty or forty more minutes, before finally deciding it had gotten too dark and closing them. The temperature had been consistently dropping for the last hours, but it was around eight thirty when the air turned chilly. It was nothing but a mild annoyance to her. However, she was fairly certain that, had Anna been besides her, she would have alternated her time between placing her hands under her thighs and hugging herself, both fruitless attempts to warm herself up.

It was that thought what finally reminded her that she was not traveling alone to some idyllic and unvisited part of the Norwegian forests. Instead, she was trapped in a very long ride with the son of the man who had plotted to kill her. And somehow, she had managed to forget that crucial piece of information.

When she finally turned to face him once again, she found Hans' son still stiffly sitting in place. Unlike what one would have assumed as a result of the calm stillness that had taken over the carriage —something impossible to achieve when one was traveling with children—, he was not asleep. Rather, his eyes attentively watched every one of Elsa's movements. At some point, he'd drawn his knees closer to the rest of his body, until he was now almost kneeling on the seat, careful to keep his shoes out of the cushioned bench.

His eyes were riveted to Elsa like a hawk. Although, upon further inspection, Elsa realized that that analogy was being too generous with him. A hawk, with capable wings and fearless talons, was a bird of prey, a lone owner of the skies, too powerful to fear even the prideful eagle. The son of Hans looked nothing like that. Curled up into his seat, he gave more the impression of a frightened hare, heedful to his surroundings, desperately registering every sound, in fear that the real hawk would find him. Following that analogy, she should be the raptor, Elsa realized with slight amusement. The thought was also slightly disturbing, and she soon decided to brush it away.

He was almost too tense to be sure, and the murkiness of the carriage made it impossible to be entirely certain. However, from the way that he hugged his arms close to his body and the fact that he seemed to be trying to take up as less space as humanly possible, Elsa thought it was safe to assume that he did not share her views when regarding the weather.

"You're cold," she concluded, not a question as much as it was a statement.

"No, Your Majesty. I am fine," he replied, almost immediately.

Is that so, she thought to herself, unable to stop herself from arching an inquisitive eyebrow at him. It probably made no difference, as the penumbras most likely hid her expression.

"Stand up," she instructed, her reaction sudden and unexplainable even to her.

The change was instantaneous. The words had barely left her lips when the steady rise and fall of his chest came to a halt. His hands, which had been loosely wrapped around his elbows, tensed until they were fists.

"Your... Your Highness... I am extremely sorry," he stammered weakly. "It was not my intention to trouble you, I... will not do it again."

"What are you talking about, child? Stand up," she repeated flatly, as she rose to her feet as well.

This time, the boy locked eyes with her for what had to be the first time since she'd picked him up that afternoon. There was something desperate in his gaze, something, dare she say it, pleading. However, it quickly changed into resignation when he saw Elsa stand in front of him.

With a choked whimper, he pulled himself to his feet and stepped closer to Elsa. His movements were so tense that they almost seemed mechanic.

"Your Majesty, I am sorry," he insisted in a brittle voice. "I assure you it won't happen again."

Judging from the way his breathing had sped up, he was on the verge of tears now. His arms were stiffly wrapped around his torso, and although it was hard for Elsa to be certain due to the fact that he had, once again, turned away from her, he seemed to be blinking repeatedly in a desperate attempt to reabsorb the humidity that had begun to pool in his eyes.

"It won't happen again, Your Majesty, I—"

"Hush, child, hush," Elsa finally interrupted him. In silence, she walked closer to him and crouched so she could be at his height. "I have no idea of what you are talking about. You have done nothing wrong."

Yet, she added to herself, even though her tongue curled in distaste at the prospect of saying it aloud. It was simply too cruel to torture the boy further, when it was so glaringly obvious that he was already terrified of her as things were. Pointing out that she expected him to fail soon was not something Anna would have approved. And, on this particular note, she agreed with her sister.

Without adding a word, Elsa's left hand moved to unfasten the button that secured her cape to her left shoulder. Soon, she repeated the motion with her opposite shoulder. Henry missed the movement, as his eyes were squeezed shut, but Elsa carefully slid the piece of clothing behind him.

"Here," she proceeded, placing her cape on Henry's shoulders. She adjusted the item so that it wrapped around his body. There was a third buttonhole on the left side of the neck, in case the queen wanted it to envelope her body instead of having the Aegean blue fabric cascade from the tips of her shoulders to the floor. Of course, the item was much too long for Henry to wear, and its lower part dragged along the carpet of the floor. When Elsa reached for Henry to button the cape, he practically whimpered at the contact. "Calm down," she shushed. "I don't bite, calm down."

He gave her a curt nod as answer, and Elsa decided to take the gesture as the boy's approval for her to continue. With precise hands, and trying to touch him no more than was strictly necessary, she adjusted the clothing item around him, trying to make it so that the soft linen was wrapped around his body. Carefully, she smoothed out the fabric and primped the white mink fur of the borders of the cloth under Henry's neck.

"There we go, child," she nodded. "This should be enough."

"Queen Elsa, what is...? Why?" He stuttered, his voice hurried and wobbly.

"I can't allow you to get sick before we are even standing in Arrendellian soil," she answered, even though the words tasted of deceit on her tongue. While that was true, she knew that it hadn't been the reason why she had stepped forward so munificently.

"I can't accept this, Your Majesty, I—"

"Hush," Elsa repeated once again. With measured movements, she slipped her left hand into the pocket of her gown and pulled out an embroidered silk handkerchief. She extended it towards the boy, and although he hesitated before taking it, he finally did and rubbed at his eyes. Satisfied with his response, Elsa rose to her feet and turned away. "Take your seat, boy. I do not find cold as troublesome as others do. I will be fine."

Once again, Hans' son chose not to reply verbally. Instead, he offered a faltering nod and quietly walked over to the bench he'd been using. Through the murkiness of the carriage, Elsa saw his hands grip around the fabric of her cape to pull it tighter around his body.

"Thank you, Your Majesty," he whispered after several minutes. It was a small sound, tight with something that Elsa did not identify, something that lingered in the space between them and that made Elsa shift in her seat with worriment.

For once, Elsa decided to follow the boy's example and not say anything. Instead, she folded her hands on her lap. She drummed her fingers against the Swarovski crystals of her dress, before finally sighing. She must be imagining things, she decided at last.

"It's still a long way to Arrendelle, child," she announced, turning her eyes to the tarnished window. "Better make yourself comfortable."

Afterwards, neither of them said anything. It only made sense. After all, Elsa had nothing to add, and Henry had made it very clear that he was not the kind of person who easily found his way around interesting conversation topics or awkward silences. Furthermore, they were two strangers who had found themselves sharing a carriage with each other by consequence of ill fortune. They had nothing to say to one another.

When Elsa finally returned her attention to the son of Hans, she found him fast asleep. His legs were tucked under the rest of his body, and his head leaned against the window. Soft exhalations of breath rhythmically misted up the glass. Strangely enough, Elsa noticed that he was sucking on his left thumb, which had to be a worrying behavior.

He almost didn't seem like a threat. Elsa nearly scoffed at the thought. Of course, she thought, he wasn't currently a threat. He was asleep and drained from the day, it was only natural. Likewise, an unconscious, well-trained soldier was completely incapable of inflicting damage.

However, Elsa knew that the fact that he was exhausted was not the reason she'd been assaulted by such thought. That boy, with a wobbly voice and tearful eyes did not seem like a threat even when awake. To practically state it, he was weak. His fight-or-flight instincts seemed to be permanently stuck on freeze, from what she had seen in the course of only a few hours.

Someone like him, someone so quick to obey and to please, someone so deprived of resolution, could definitely not have the upper hand against any of the children that Elsa had seen descend from the Pharaoh that afternoon. Clearly, he could not win against any of the kids that belonged to Miss Hook's crew. The mere thought of Hans' son fighting against, say, the boys that had left with Megara or even the young lady Rapunzel had introduced her to was risible, absurd.

There was an important age gap in her comparisons, Elsa was well-aware of it. However, it was not only size or skill that made the thought so terribly preposterous, it was the attitude of the kids. Were the Gaston boys had carried themselves with overbearingness and conviction, Henry was insecure and weak-willed. Were Miss Gothel had been fierce and oh-so-ready to talk back and to argue against Rapunzel, Henry was eerily quiet for a child his age, unnaturally still through their whole journey.

Careful, she reminded herself. This could very well be what he wants you to think.

It could be, she knew. And it made sense, too, to persuade her into thinking that he was nothing but a terrified young boy. Nothing but an innocent kid, in the same way that her own nephew, Anna's real son, was. Nothing but a child that had been brought up in the worst of conditions, only to be uprooted and thrown into the care of a complete stranger, like Esmeralda de Châteaupers wanted them to believe.

On the other hand... it did not seem to be adding up. Elsa praised herself of being a clever woman, one that could see through the ill intentions of others, one that was rarely taken by surprise. And, if she allowed herself to be honest... to think that the boy that had so completely rendered himself to sleep in front of her, that the boy that had literally jumped in fear at the prospect of her being mildly inconvenienced by him could instead be an egregious attacker waiting to strike seemed quite unlikely to her.

Hans, a wolf in sheep's clothing, a deceiving assassin-to-be, had sounded so secure of himself, he'd carried himself with such earnestness and strong conviction that it was unthinkable to doubt him. He had a seductive smile, he possessed a silky voice and rehearsed compliments curled around the corners of his lips with concealed scorn. It was inconceivable and nearly as absurd as picturing his backboneless son as a Machiavellian vindicator, to think that he expected Henry to become his successor and finish the work he had started at Arrendelle while, at the same time, not even instructing him on his charming qualities.

Careful, careful, she repeated to herself. With a sigh, the queen allowed herself to lean her head on the back of her seat and close her eyes. That morning, she had been certain that it was her duty to diligently stay on guard and protect her family from the arrival of a cold-blooded delinquent. It had been so clear to her, that nothing good could come out of this improvised project.

She wasn't as certain now. There was nothing, not one tiny, insignificant thing that had made her feel she needed to have her guard up. Nothing told her that that boy was plotting to destroy the life she had fought so hard to build. Nothing but the man who had sired him.

If anything, he seemed terrified. And it only made it all the more confusing. She was an expert at concealing her own emotions. She had spent a lifetime perfecting that art, it was only fair that she had become extremely adept at pinpointing someone who was doing the same thing. And, to be completely honest, it did not seem to her that the boy Hans had spawned wanted to take revenge for what had been done to his father.

Anna had asked her to give the Isle children a chance. A chance to prove that they were, in fact, only that—children. That they were scared, hungry and in need of help. A chance to prove that they deserved security and stability, and that they did not intend to follow in their parents' footsteps.

A chance, Anna had insisted until it was impossible for Elsa to refuse. A chance for them to simply be themselves.

"Very well," the queen of Arrendelle announced into the icy darkness of her carriage.

Hawks were patient. They could overfly the extensions of their valleys, eyes scanning the ground below until a single movement of their prey announced their downfall and the hawk, swift and ruthless, descended to grasp them in its claws. If she was a raptor in this unorthodox allegory, patience ran warm in her veins. She would play along, she decided. She would pretend to buy that hare's act and lower her guard.

If nothing else, she would do it out of curiosity, out of genuine desire to see how things unfolded. Only time would tell, she supposed. But if, by any chance, it turned out that Hans had in fact planned to retaliate against her family, then there would be nothing, no stilted analogies or pleas from her sister, no silly royal decrees or tearful apologies, that could prevent her from unleashing her wrath against the ones who had jeopardized her family.

And when the time to strike came, she would not waste time in charming smiles or play pretend for the sake of performance. No, if she was truly a bird of prey, she would shoot to kill, like she had always done. Ruthless, practical, unrelenting.

The first step one took on a freshly frozen lake was always hesitant, dubious. It always held a level of confusion and dread, the first attempt to examine how secure the ice was before applying one's full weight on the glassy material. This was her first step into the waterbody Anna had dragged her to. The water had frozen overnight and she had never been one to trust her good luck, especially not when the weight of her family's and kingdom's welfare ladened her down, heavy as lead shackles. She could be patient and wait until the ice could support her or until it cracked and fissured, drowning Benjamin's outrageous decrees and Anna's naiveness in its icy waters.

That was something she could do. She could wait.