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We Talk Just Like Lions (But We Sacrifice Like Lambs)

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There are no stars on the island, but there are paintings. The first time she encounters them, she's barely six years old, green eyes still unhardened and wide, blistered hands still grasping for her mother's praise. She's been following a boy from school for a few blocks now (some part of her is demanding to know if this boy feels the same sharp sting of a palm across the face). It's in his father's dusty, cluttered shop that she finds the painting--nothing special, just a filthy, tattered thing without so much as a wooden frame.

But still.

The work is exquisite, and even without knowing anything of beauty (anything beautiful on the Isle is to be wiped away, crushed into oblivion, forgotten-forgotten-forgotten because it is weak) (because it reminds them of their weakness) it takes her breath away. Careful, messy strokes of acrylic darkness, the twilight silhouette of palaces and cities and things too far away from the island for her to grasp yet; white-gold-silver paint speckled across the top, constellations forming in the dust.

It is the first time she has ever learned of the stars.

Even years later, after the beatings and turf wars and nightmares, after too many cans of paint wasted replicating those same stars onto her ceiling, the stars are still her favorite thing in Auradon. Not the food or the safety, not the lack of villains or the way she is learning not to flinch when she stumbles. Always, always, always, her gaze is upwards, searching for proof of things she cannot hold in places too far away to see by the sunlight.

At night, when her breath crystallizes in the air and she traces the patterns in her mind, murmuring names under her breath, she can almost forget everything that came before.

*

The girl with blue hair is standing to the side, eyes wide and desperate and those pretty, pretty eyelashes glimmering with unshed tears.

"Please, Mal. Don't," she pleads, and the girl who loves stars (who has never seen stars) scoffs.  She doesn't trust this girl. Her mother has taught her since she could breathe that fear and violence and pain are the only ways to get what she wants--has taught her that the truly dangerous ones are those that hide their power behind lipstick and ruffled dresses and pretty curtsies. Evie reminds her of all of those things--pretty, perfect, princess things that don't belong on the Isle, that must be snuffed out.

And yet.

When she and Jay found Evie, she wasn't skulking around the Isle or luring others into her trap or casting anyone into exile. She was kneeling, broken and battered and lips flushed with kisses she had not wanted (kisses her mother had told her to find) in the alley, and for a second, Mal could've sworn she caught a glimpse of the stars in those dark, beautiful eyes.

(She was foolish and shortsighted and selfish but she couldn't let go; she can never let go of beautiful things.)

And now they're here, Jay to one side and Evie to another and Carlos, lost and shattered on the ground beneath them. Her lip curls in distaste at the boy's sobs--hasn't anyone ever taught him not to cry?

But then, of course no one has. Everyone knows about the De Vil boy, about how he is practically a slave to his vicious mother, about how he is imprisoned even within their prison. How there is no one to hear him cry, so of course he never learned not to.

Mal, ten and already stronger and already blood-speckled, kneels down in front of him, offers him a hand. It's just after sunrise, the smog still thick enough to hide them, and she grimaces at how thin his bones feel when he takes hers, staggering to his feet. They march, perfectly in time, to a crumbling old multi-level building that has been claimed as theirs. There's a broken elevator and a city skyline view from the abandoned loft space up top, and they had to chase the last group of gangly kids out but it wasn't hard (she is Maleficent's daughter and that name carries weight, here more than anywhere).

All the way up, she curses herself for her foolishness. She knows what will happen if word of this gets around the Isle, knows what her mother does to those who are weak--knows she could just as easily become one of those corpses, sun-bleached bones that lie forgotten on rotten wood.

She keeps climbing and prays to whatever is out there that no one will see. That just for a few days, for a few hours even, no one will question Carlos's presence while she finds a way to incorporate him into the group. It's a temporary thing, of course. If Carlos is going to be venturing out onto the streets, she's practically obligated to teach him how to survive--otherwise all the sport of taking him down is taken out.

He won't stay. Really.

(She said the same thing about Evie.)

*

He stays.

Two years later, the four of them are as thick as... well, thieves, which they are, she supposes, but still. The point is, the four of them have mastered the art of life on the Isle. Mastered it to the point that they have regular dealings and back-door trades with every major trading post. Mastered it to the point that the sight of them, marching in formation down the alleyways and slipping across rooftops, sends the urchins scattering underfoot.

Mastered it to the point that right now, boots slapping against the concrete, they're on their way to a meeting between the Isle gangs. Carlos jokingly called it a council summit, but it's not.

(Not yet, anyways.)

Uma and the pirate kids are already waiting when they arrive. Yrene, the daughter of Baba Yaga and the ruler of the town outskirts where witches live next to crumbling gardens, slinks in just a few minutes later, and there's still a few kids unaccounted for, but for the most part, this is it. A misplaced, jumbled mass of kids, all wary and thin (too thin, she shouldn't be able to count so many ribs) and bone-weary; looking across the small sea of people ( her people , some part of her has not yet dared to sing-- her people, black and blue and suffering ) she knows all too well that the villains may rule the Isle but it's their kids who run it. She can't remember the last time she saw any adult cleaning or cooking or working--they simply lounge about, snapping orders and delivering beatings and stinking of whatever cheap moonshine they can drown their sorrows in.

(In this, at least, the kids have an advantage. Their parents can drown their pain and later, the kids in Auradon can run from their fear but only an Isle kid knows what it is to be backed into every corner, to face their fear head-on because the only other option is death.)

But anyways, the point is that they're here and they're hungry and they're desperate for someone to lead, and Mal, only twelve but already too grown up, has decided to do something about it for once.

She talked it over with the others first, of course. Jay first (because Jay is always first, her brother in everything but blood always-always-always) and then Evie, because she can't stay away from the girl any more than she can stay away from the intoxicating sound of paint rattling in a spraycan, forming her own constellations. She ran it by Carlos, because even if she hasn't known him quite as long they've already adopted him as a little brother and they already know that someday, somehow, Carlos is going to be the one to change everything. He's too smart not to start a revolution.

Then they all came together, and talked it over one more time and decided how things would be divided (between them first and foremost because maybe Maleficent would beat her black as her own still-growing horns, but this is still the Isle and she still looks out for her own) and then the rest of the island.

And now they’re here, and the speeches are whizzing past in a series of trembling nerves and well-practiced smirks and then everyone is leaving, wandering in different directions and quiet murmurs fluttering lightly on the rusty breeze. Uma wanders up afterward, still small and quiet but fast and dangerous enough to have Mal's respect.

"Nice job, banrion. You might not suck at this after all," she says, giving them a quick salt-crusted smile before turning away.

"What did you call me?" Mal asks, shock shaking away any visage of control she may have had.

Uma glances back, equally confused. "What, banrion? You are our queen, aren't you?"

"No! My mother is the queen on the Isle, not me."

Something that looks suspiciously like understanding (a dark, vicious thing; to be understood is to be threatened) flickers across her face, but she doesn't call Mal out. She just laughs and turns away with a wink, calling back, "Whatever you say, banrion."

And Mal doesn't straighten, she doesn't, because to be banrion is to be sacred; it is to be a ruler, a queen, a goddess. It is the highest position, it is her mother's position and if Maleficent ever hears of this that will be the end of her and everything she's worked toward. She mustn't accept the title, mustn't even remember it was ever bestowed upon her because she has seen the darkness that holds her mother tight and she cannot bear to be another victim.

(She has seen too many bodies, split open and insides missing and brittle bones scattered across the floor to imagine her mother would be merciful. She has seen too many be eaten, by birds or dogs or desperate people and she knows of some on the Isle who crave death but she has seen too many deaths to ever imagine it as something peaceful or quiet; death is just as full of violence and pain as life. The only difference is when you're alive, you can fight back.)

Still. Something deep in her dark veins flares to life, a spark of magic to carry her through.

Banrion , the blood of her ancestors sings. Yes, yes, yes, banrion banrion you were born to be a queen you were born for this --

Something, cold and dark and as Unseelie as the dragon that hasn't yet grown inside her, awakens.

*

Everything is great. (Except when it isn't.) She has the best crew to back her up (except when she doesn't) and they always protect each other (except when they can't). They're ruling the island and it's working , this foolhardy plan is working (mostly).

She's (kind of) having a thing with Uma and it's (sort of) how she always imagined it would feel (except for all the moments when she imagines she's kissing someone else).

The days are hot and the nights are cold and everything is finally balanced, everything is finally perfect.

(Or maybe it isn't. But it's not like there's anyone to guide her through this stuff anyways, and even if they can't always protect everyone from their parents, the gang wars have stopped and Evie and Carlos are teaching kids medicine and Jay opened up his self-defense lessons and Mal watches over every boatload of junk from Auradon and no one is withering away in the streets anymore.)

(It's not perfect, not at all, but it's okay and it's getting better and this is all she's ever wanted.)

*

And then there's a boy who means well and a royal decree and suddenly Mal, banrion and daughter-of-dragon and lady-of-the-Isle and keeper-of-the-children is getting ushered off by her mother. And she's panicking, a little, but she's telling herself everything will be fine because Evie and Carlos and Jay can keep things running for her while she's off in Auradon (and gods, does that not feel real).

But then they're in the limo, too, and by the time she's started to process all this--by the time they're sitting in their room ( holy shit so big so comfortable so much that we need to take back for the others ) and she's realizing she can't breathe --it's too late.

*

Days turn into weeks and the seconds trickle by, eons passing between fleeting glimpses of the Isle. In some ways, she has to admit she loves Auradon. It's easiest at night, when she doesn't sleep and sits on the roof, her stomach blissfully full and the sky full of stars and air that doesn't carry the same island stench of trash and carcasses and rotting. She breaths the sweet wind and enjoys the cool, mild weather and the way that her mother's shadow doesn't follow her (drown her) everywhere she goes. One afternoon, she and Evie and Jay and Carlos wander down to the woods, take in moist soil and tree trunks thick as concrete pillars and the unbelievable green that surrounds them. She can feel her Fae heritage more than ever, magic and fire and things long forgotten swirling just beneath her skin; sparks that flutter at her fingertips and out there, away from people with no one but her crew (her family) she wants to scream with the joy-power-wild that's coursing through her.

But it's Auradon. So she can't.

( Banrion, banrion, banrion , her pulse chants, and it's so precarious, this balance of could-be and should-be and can't.)

(Her magic, her birthright, has never felt so close; it's never been so forbidden.)

Auradon, despite its cotton-candy air and its "goodness class" and its happily-ever-afters, isn't perfect. Mal--the girl who loves stars, the girl who has fought and killed and bled for everything she's ever had, the girl who can't admit that she loves because she feels it so deeply--sees this. She watches Ben, hopeless and foolish and struggling with the weight of a kingdom far too early (Mal is a queen, but she had no choice; his father is a king who did not think before stepping down and there is a difference there, buried in the mistakes). She sees it in Jane's insecurities and the way Lonnie watches wistfully as boys duel, swords flashing in the sun while she stands in her skirt on the sidelines. She sees it in Audrey's perfect curls and cruel smirk, in the way Doug and his brilliant kindness scatters beneath Chad's muscle.

Auradon is not perfect, and the kids who have seen nothing but imperfection all their lives know this all too well.

(Mal hasn't felt the burn of her mother's beatings since she arrived, but that doesn't mean she isn't bruised from countless shoves and kicks and locker-room fights. That doesn't mean she's okay .)

(Being off the Isle and being okay, as it turns out, are two very, very different things.)

*

Parent visitation day is, unsurprisingly, a disaster.

They're all still a little sore from their parents’ message, and Mal's still struggling to pull her focus away from Evie long enough to pretend to like Ben. Really, they're all just one big mess, and they shouldn't go, but they do.

And then they're standing awkwardly on the green, watching as the people who trapped their parents (who trapped them) happily, tearfully embrace their children, and none of them quite know what to do with all this.

("Is this what parents are supposed to be like?" Jay asks at one point, leaning over to whisper in Evie's ear. "I don't know," she says, and they're quiet for a long time.)

Things really go downhill when Audrey's grandmother shows up. It's already been a long day, and Mal can feel the exhaustion scrape-sliding across her bones with every step, and if she has to smile politely at one more of these morons she might snap and kill them all and her magic is close to the surface, too close and it's all too--

"You!" the woman screams, outrage laced into the word. She's going on and on about all the injustices she went through and Ben's stepping in, but she doesn't even care she just wants to be away from it all and back where she belongs--

"Because of your mother, my daughter was raised by fairies!"

And that's the end of her patience, the snapping of this perfect facade. She's barely taken one step forward when the others form rank around her, not bothering to suppress the tension in their bodies for once.

"Your daughter was raised by fairies? Well, I'm so sorry," she says, her voice thick with sarcasm and she knows her eyes are glowing knows she needs to stop but she can't, "Clearly, I should've fixed all your problems before I was even born. None of us had parents at all because of you, but no, really, you're the one that's suffering here."

There's dead silence for a moment, a combination of outrage and discomfort showing on the heroes' faces, and then the yelling starts.

*

They're suspended for a few days, but that's okay, because they gather in her room and use the time to cobble together some rudimentary magic in the hopes they can communicate with Uma and the others. They got the idea from Fairy Godmother and her magical facetime, but it's not perfect and the first few tries almost make Mal pass out.

(They all look concerned, Evie and Jay and Carlos, all gathered around her with wide, worried faces and she reassures them that it's just a little blood, nothing to worry about. She reminds them that they've all had worse. She reminds them that they all will again.)

(She's right and she hates it.)

But the point is, they try endlessly to tug on the worn strands of magic that still linger here in Auradon and it takes too long (so, so long) but they do it and suddenly they're looking at Uma, who's staring back with wide eyes and so much confusion and no one is mentioning the fact that Harry is still kneeling there, his head between her legs.

"We need to talk," Mal says.

It's the first time in weeks that she feels the familiarity of ruling settle onto her, its weight a comfortable burden.

(This is what it is to be banrion--to be a Fae queen, all wild and magic and power; it is to sacrifice everything for your people; it is to know that you had every option and still you stand facing a future that will someday conquer you.)

(It is the hardest thing. It is the most beautiful.)

*

The plan comes together slowly, then suddenly; hushed meetings at twilight slump into days of pretty smiles and half-assed love spells, too weak to hold. There is a balance here, somewhere, and Mal thinks that one day she might look back and think that she learned something here.

She isn't sure what. The lesson isn't over.

But she's standing here, so pretty in the afternoon light and watching Ben fawn over her and thinking of Evie, with her soft smiles and warm hugs, and she has this feeling that everything's coming together. That somehow, somewhere, her ancestors are watching her and smiling.

It's here, in a land of happily-ever-afters, with a king who acts too young and a queen who feels too old, that she first starts to believe it might actually work. That not every villain story has to end the way hers began.

*

Coronation is a mess. There's Ben, with his dopey smile and his naivety, and his parents, so cold under that polite facade, and everyone is watching them, waiting for proof of some inherent evil.

(It's so much easier that way, when they pretend. If the villains' kids are evil, then the truth is simple and everyone fits into the little boxes they so love in Auradon and they were right all along.)

(But they weren't right all along and the truth is so messy and they sentenced a bunch of kids to the most miserable existence they could dream up without so much as a trial and even if Mal can't get revenge, she doesn't think she'll ever be able to forgive them for everything they've done to her people.)

There are long lines of people, drifting every which way, and then the ceremony itself and Jane, grabbing the wand and everything is falling apart--

And then her mother is there, and they're facing off, a girl ( banrion fae queen wild stars ) and a dragon ( so cruel and hollow and broken in the shape that others formed ) and there's a moment somewhere in there, hanging precious and fragile and decisive, where the four look at each other and a choice is made. Suddenly she's announcing that she's good and that she wants this, to be here with them, and it's a load of bullshit but it's a necessary lie.

The others agree, just as loudly and publicly, and just like that, they're holding the nation's heart.

The negotiations come after.

*

It's all behind closed doors, of course. Who would want the public to know that their precious 'reformed' kids want nothing more than to go back? Who would want to imagine that they didn't leave it at 'happily ever after'?

No one, so instead, they meet with Ben, with kings and queens and advisors and they go through all the motions, keeping quiet day and night and never mentioning anything about the moments when they slip away and talk to the flickering images of kids with brightly coloured hair. They are pretty. They are polite. They are goddamn perfect, and it's not enough for these idiots.

There's Evie, smiling pretty with white knuckles and Carlos, flinching when he wakes in the middle of the night, and Jay, his fists deep in pockets because you cannot suppress an urge you've trained since birth (his fingers have been broken too many times to stay still).

There's Mal, always looking up and away or gazing into the distance or focused on her ratty spellbook. There's Mal, who buries her jacket deep in her closet and slams the door shut every time her fingers itch for the protection the leather will bring. There's Mal, who can't stand to look at her reflection because her hair is blonde, now, and the white hurts like no other pain she's ever felt.

(A queen will do anything for her people, even if that means pretending to forget them.)

(A girl will do anything to remember her family, her home, and you can't bleach away sixteen years of pain and fighting and living .)

*

Months pass, and nothing happens--nothing is going to happen. Maybe, if Ben had been king long enough to have some kind of pull. Maybe, if they weren't already the lowest thing on every council members list. But he isn't and they aren't and it's not going to change any time soon.

So they plan. Hours and days and weeks and they use concealer to hide the shadows under their eyes and magic to hide all the supplies they've been funneling away and finally, finally they'll be able to go home. They'll be free in a way they've never been, this past year in Auradon (and gods above does that still knock the breath from her lungs, the thought that it's been a year since she's tasted the salt-crusted rot of the Isle).

Mal leaves first.

They stage it carefully, of course. No reason to undo all the hard work they've spent these months crafting. A teenage girl snaps under sudden pressure--and everyone in Auradon believes it.

(Never mind that she was raised under so much more pressure. Never mind that she has never, not once, fled a challenge and left the others behind to face it.)

(It stings, thinking about leaving them behind. They'll have to pretend that she's betrayed them and that alone feels like a betrayal itself and--)

(She can't think about this right now.)

She nearly cries with relief when she swings off the bike on the Isle. She doesn't, of course, but... it's a close thing. Closer than it should be, really.

She's not the only one, though. There's a small gathering at the docks, and Uma and Harry and Gil are there, dancing around each other like always, and Yrene smiles at her from across the street, and she even gets a nod from Harriet, lurking in the background, and every part of her screams home home home.

Uma's eyes are shining when they embrace, arms clasped tightly, equal parts show of affection and power play. "Welcome back, Mal," she says, and there's something tight in her voice. "Now, what the bloody hell have you done to your hair?"

*

She has important things to be doing. Really, she does. She needs to be double checking the sanitation stations in the Markets, and watching over the food dispersal to make sure it's even, and checking in with the pseudo-healers Yrene is training, seeing if there's anything new she ought to know. She needs to be at the docks, renewing the treaty with Uma and at the forest border, conferring with Yrene and Freddie, seeing if there's some way to rip a hole in the barrier so she can access her magic.

Instead, she's here, sucking in a breath clogged with the heady scent of chemicals. The room is too colorful and cramped and she thinks she might pass out, but it's also the best she's felt in a year.

"Hi, Dizzy," she says, a quiet smile playing across her lips. The younger girl spins around so fast Mal gets whiplash just watching her, a curious mix of excitement and doubt flickering across her face.

"Mal?" she squeaks incredulously.

"Yeah, kiddo. I'm back."

"Why... why are you here?"

The hesitation in the girl's voice makes her heart clench, because this is Dizzy , Evie's little minion and she spent more nights with them than anyone and she's practically theirs and this isn't okay . It's not fair that her mother ripped her away without letting her even say goodbye. It's not fair that Dizzy has lost so much--has suffered for a year here, while she and Evie and the others were off playing princess in Auradon.

She wants to fix this. Wants to make that lingering fear and betrayal vanish. Wants to go back to a time before they all knew too much to step away. Wants to live in a different world, where Dizzy could have the warm house and loving family she deserves, where Jay wouldn't have to steal and Carlos wouldn't still sneak around cleaning up behind them.

She can't, though. She can't have or do any of it.

Instead, she gives a soft smile. "Well, I know Evie's on her way back pretty soon, too, but I was wondering... Do you think you could fix my hair?"

Dizzy's face lights up, and she springs into action. Mal has just enough time to wonder what she's gotten herself into before she's being shoved into a chair and having her hair pulled back.

(She doesn't apologize. Dizzy doesn't have to forgive her. It's probably not the best way of doing things, but it's their way, sacred and rhythmic and everything that she's been missing.)

*

She sees Evie first. They embrace and share a quick, non-verbal conversation about how she didn't mean for her hair to end up pink but Dizzy--Dizzy, Evie agrees--and that's the end of that. Then she's shoving aside the way her muscles feel all relaxed now that she has the blue-haired girl back and wrangling Carlos and Jay into a tight embrace and ranting about how she missed seeing the stars last night and--

*

Oh, shit. Ben is here.

*

The plan dissolves instantly.

Ben is here . Ben is here . No matter how she thinks about it, the sudden knot of anxiety in her stomach won't go away.

He's not supposed to be here. He's supposed to be in Auradon, presenting a contrite face of apology and fake-grieving for a relationship that hasn't existed in months, and she's supposed to have her family back, and they're supposed to be okay now but--

Ben is here.

She glances over at Jay, puts him in charge of watching Ben for a few moments while she and Evie and Carlos peel away. It hurts, the wrongness of letting even one of them out of her sight like sandpaper on her skin, but it's the best solution. Jay can take care of himself (and Ben), and she'll need her tacticians with her to decide what comes next.

They slip into Uma's shack of a restaurant more-or-less undetected, and stage an impromptu meeting with some of the gang leaders that can get there on short notice. Much though Mal would like to quickly get him off the Isle, this is the kind of decision that affects all of them, and she knows all too well what a leader who keeps secrets can fail to see.

(She learned that lesson from her mother, years of flashing green eyes in the night and working so hard to appear effortless and never even considering speaking to someone below her.)

(Maleficent sees power in this but Mal, who was raised on an island prison, who had to claw her way into the friendships that ground her now, sees isolation.)

(She is tired of being lonely.)

They consider faking a kidnapping, for a bit. Uma is a good actress and they could make it work, could make it a power play and stage Mal as the underdog hero, bring a little attention to the rest of the Isle conditions while they're at it. It might even work. (In another world, it might have actually happened that way.)

In the end, they don't. The Isle is many things but least it is honest--even the petty theft and back-alley murders don't try to charade themselves as something they aren't. Auradon is the place of pretty lies and cover-ups, and stripping the Isle of its brutal honesty would be worse than the truth.

Mal and Evie wander out, trying to catch all the minute differences that have happened in the past year, Carlos not far behind. He's fiddling with wires while they swing linked arms, feet perfectly in time, and it feels safe. Normal.

They find Jay at the old hangout, the loft still untouched in the year they'd been gone. If it was anyone else, it would have been desecrated within hours, but this is Mal's territory and this time capsule of an apartment (proof in the utter conviction that the dragon-queen-girl-banrion would return) more than anything else warms her heart.

Ben is sitting in the middle, eyes wide and hair rustled. He looks like he's been through a hurricane.

He might have been, actually, now that she thinks about it.

She steps out of the shadows and watches his face light up with relief, watches him stand hastily and make his way towards her. "Mal," he says, breathes her name like it's a prayer and an answer rolled into one.

"Ben," she acknowledges. "What're you doing here?"

"Jay brought me."

"No, I mean... here. On the Isle."

His face twists with... Confusion? Guilt? She's always had a hard time understanding him. "I came to, y'know, apologize. I didn't mean to put so much pressure on you to act a certain way. When you come back, things will be different, I promise."

She pushes off of the wall she's leaning on, standing fully upright and feeling oddly calm despite the way her heart is pounding against her rib cage. "That's the thing, Ben. I'm not going back."

"Why not?" he askes, and the poor boy looks so bewildered that she almost laughs.

"Look, I know you were doing your best," she says, as gently as she can, "but nothing was happening, and to be honest, I needed to be here. My people needed me; I'm sure you can understand that."

"Your... people? Mal, if this is about the other kids, we can talk. We can bring more over, if that's what you're after."

She actually considers it, for half a second, but... But it's not what she wants, not really. Maybe a year ago she would've, but that was before she'd seen Auradon, had lived there, and something deep in her gut (in her bones) is telling her it'd be no different. If she wants to do this, she has to do it right.

Instead, she shakes her head, lets a wry smile play out across her lips while her eyes drift across walls that detail sixteen years of living here, of growing and laughing and stealing and ruling. "No, Ben. It's not that easy." She pauses, considers how to continue. It's not too late to change her story (except it is and it has been for a long time). "I didn't panic and flee. My leaving Auradon was planned, for a long time actually. You just weren't supposed to follow me."

Ben takes a moment to process this, his brow furrowing, and she wonders how the hell someone so naive is supposed to be a king. "But why? Why would you do that when you had finally escaped?"

She bites her tongue and tastes warm copper and doesn't correct him, doesn't say that it was Auradon she needed to escape from. She just takes in a deep breath and turns to face the grimy window. "I've seen your kingdom, Ben. How would you like to see mine?"

*

Ben is leaning against a crumbling concrete pillar, the remnants of some long-abandoned building, his eyes trained on Auradon's coast in the distance. Jay and Carlos are standing somewhere behind her, and she can feel Evie's solid presence at her side, a faint heat and pressure reminding her she isn't alone.

"I think I get it," he says finally, turning to face her. To face them. He'd come with her while she'd run errands all afternoon, checking in on a couple of the gangs and topping off medical supplies and overseeing another shipment of Auradon crap. He'd seen the orphans in the streets and the bodies in back alleys and the way that there were dubious stains on every surface. He'd seen the prison-turned-school, seen the way the kids on the Isle moved, fast and silent and hiding winces before they happened and ignoring bruises that speckled their faces, their arms, their legs.

He'd seen Carlos, fixing up the power generator and Evie, helping Dizzy sneak out back after another beating and Mal herself, giving away bits of food to the people who needed it. He'd seen how everyone deferred to her. He'd seen why.

She could say something about any one of those things. She could, but she doesn't. "Good. Then you'll keep working to provide aid?"

He nods at her, something vaguely like wisdom--like understanding--in his eyes. It's less desperate teenage boy, more... Something. She has this weird feeling, like she's watching him grow up before her eyes, like she's a witness to history in the making. "You can count on it," he says, and it's a promise between rulers (between equals) more than anything else.

He leaves that evening, slipping away through the barrier and leaving them stranded once more. It's okay, though, because this time she's stuck exactly where she needs to be.

*

Their parents find them, eventually. It was only a matter of time, and they'd made their peace with that when they decided to come back.

They come one at a time, of course, because they're selfish and cruel and don't think they need anyone else. Mal and the others deal with it. It's not pretty, but they deal with it, mostly because they have each other, and it's okay.

Well, it's not okay , because Mal wants to rip each of their throats out with nothing but her teeth (she can feel where fangs should be, like an echo from her ancestors reminding her that she's Fae through and through) and especially Evie's mom, who comes in like a blizzard and leaves Evie behind with nothing but smeared mascara and four cuts on her cheek where her nails had dug in a little too hard. Evie doesn't eat anything for three days afterwards and Mal is this close to giving up their whole peaceful rulers schtick and sending half the Isle after that woman, but Evie wakes up on day four and drags herself out of bed and into the kitchen. She eats a few pieces of toast, wanders away to find a shower that's operational, and comes back clean and dressed, wearing her makeup like a war mask.

They never mention it again.

*

Two weeks later, the ship from Auradon comes with shiny, new technology, fresh food, and enough medical supplies to last them for months, all already neatly labeled and organized.

There's a note from Ben. It says that he wishes her well and that talking the Council into taking down the magic barrier is slow progress, but that he'll get there.

She doesn't cry. She doesn't.

*

Jay drags her out late one night, and she considers murdering him. It's been a long day, and even though they've been back for months, there are still daily complaints about things she could've prevented had she not been stuck away for a year, and Evie was avoiding her all day and she's felt off, like jagged electricity dancing across her skin, and she just wants to fucking sleep, okay?

But it's Jay. So she doesn't.

Instead, she lets herself get dragged to the very edge of the island, where Auradon glitters in the distance and the waves crash against jagged rocks far, far below. He grins, energy crackling in his dark eyes, and tells her to go to the peak.

(If she were a different woman, a different ruler, she would have turned back already. She would think about being alone in the dark on a windswept cliff and realize anyone could attack her and take her place. But she is Mal and it is Jay who leads her, Jay who is closer than blood, and she has earned the loyalty of those on the Island, in a way that is steady and unwavering and makes something inside her preen.)

When she gets to the top--the highest point on the island, with the lights sprawling out below her and a mother's pride beating in her chest--Evie is waiting. Evie is there, beautiful in the darkness, all breath-stealing and blue hair and laugh lines, confident in herself and her surroundings. She's on a picnic blanket, a single basket of strawberries beside her, a smile wide on her lips.

Mal looks at her, at everything so wild and gleaming and possible around them, and says, "Fuck it."

She pulls Evie up, gentle and firm, and yanks her tight to her chest, presses their lips together. It is sweet and warm and right, like the last piece of a puzzle that slots into place. Evie kisses her back, slow and sure, and for the first time in a long time Mal cannot think of a single thing she wants.

They pull away after a moment, and Evie laughs. "What took you so long?"

"I don't know," Mal says, fire in her veins, "I wasn't sure you wanted to."

"That's ridiculous," the other girl replies, "I always want you."

*

It's hours of careful, confused looks before Evie dares to ask. "So, what do you think?"

"Of what?" Mal says, equally confused. There is strawberry juice dripping down her chin but she doesn't untangle their fingers to fix it.

"The stars. What do you think?"

Mal looks up and all the oxygen leaves her lungs. She hadn't noticed. All this time, sitting without paying attention to the way the night was brighter than usual, and she hadn't noticed.

Far above them, shimmering lights speckle the sky. Constellations she knows like the back of her hand gleam, distant and burning and so beautiful that it hurts. The stars, which she has loved since she had found them all those years ago. The stars, which she has only ever seen from Auradon. The stars, which she feels like a tug in her gut, staking their claim on an Island they had never been able to see before.

"Carlos found a way to break the barrier, and once he did, the clouds dissipated. It turns out they were trapped here, just like us. That's where I was all day--when magic came back, a lot of people freaked out. I had to take care of some injuries," Evie's voice is low, hesitant. Mal doesn't even notice--her gaze is still locked far above them. "Do you like them?"

Mal doesn't respond. Not verbally, at least. She just squeezes her hand tighter, quiet tears slipping down her cheeks.

They sit together in the dark for a long time.

*

In the weeks that follow, she has a series of revelations:

  1. Magic is different here. In Auradon, it was calm, subdued, neglected. Here, it reacts with the force of a wildfire--people have been straining for it for years and when the barrier falls it crashes through like a stampede.
  2. Not all people limit the way they use their magic. She should have known this--she did, logically, but it just hadn't quite fit in her mind. Maleficent was many things, but a poor teacher was not one of them. Even without access to her powers, she had taught Mal from the beginning that magic was sacred, was power, was not some frivolous party trick. Magic was not to be used for back-alley brawls. It was to be used to topple kingdoms, to raze civilizations, to scheme and plot and make the world around you rot from the inside out.
  3. That's not all magic is. Maleficent was a good teacher, but her vision was narrowed to only what she wished to achieve. Magic is a tool, to be used for good or bad, and Mal finds herself in the gray areas. Magic can be used to destroy people, but also to heal. It can be used to rip apart cities, but also to protect them. There is no single answer to any magical question.
  4. Everything, from magic to ruling to chores, is easy with Evie by her side.
  5. "Easy" is a relative word. Nothing on the Island is ever actually easy.

*

There's a revolution brewing on the Island.

It starts like this: in the back of a shop that's buried somewhere in a back alley, two adults are drunk. It's not the kind of drunk that maintains even a little bit of dignity, either--it's the kind of drunk that's slobbery and messy and stupid, that leads to grimy one-night stands and violent bursts with broken glass and small, broken limbs.

(It doesn't matter which adults it is. It could be any of them--they all do the same thing, lounging and reminiscing while their children keep them alive.)

One says, "Who the fuck is she anyway? What does she know about being in charge? We're the ones with all the experience."

The other slurs a halfhearted agreement, slumping over onto a cluttered desk. A dense, muggy light is streaming in through the window, turning the small office the same amber color as the liquid in their cups.

Over the next few days, the parents grumble to each other, the gossip- -Maleficent's daughter, I know, what a presumption bitch, we oughta take her down a peg or two --spreading like wildfire. Eventually (for the first time in almost 20 years), they meet. It's loud and chaotic and reeks, like all the worst trash on the island dumped in one place.

It's inefficient, but there's one thing they can all agree on: they need to fix this. They are the adults , dammit, and they have fought and clawed and bled in battles and they will run their own fucking island, thank you very much. Their kids have no right to stake claims like that. They have no right to anything, except maybe their lives, and even that's really only if they're useful.

They march as one, and it's something the Island has never seen before: the parents, unifying under one cause. Kids crouch in the gutters and watch the mob stomp past and the news travels swiftly on small, light feet, that things are changing.

Tell Mal , they whisper. Tell the queen they're coming for her throne.

*

When she finds out, she's on the middle of something more important. She's renegotiating the boundaries between Uma's crew and Yrene's coven, and keeping half an eye on Evie teaching her class and another half on the shipment from Auradon that's being unloaded and trying to keep her magic from bursting out, because it's been rising up like an itch under her skin for weeks , and she doesn't have time for this bullshit, to be honest.

But there's a revolution, and apparently, the adults have picked now to fight for something, and they world doesn't wait for her. She sucks in a deep breath through gritted teeth and marches forwards, already plotting the best place for a showdown--not the docks, because they need those supplies, and not the forest because they've made so much progress and she doesn't want to ruin the medicinal gardens. The center of town, maybe, or the cliff where she and Evie went on their first date. Anywhere that won't cost too much in repairs.

In the end, she decides on her mother's crumbling, desecrated castle. It's a place she hates, yes, but it's one she knows that no one else does. And at the very least, it's expendable.

(There's a part of her, somewhere deep inside, that wants to laugh at the irony that coats her life--she has spent her whole life struggling to escape her mother's footsteps and here she is, a queen ruling the Island about to fight surrounded by those same damn stone walls. It's funny, and it's really, really not.)

She cuts through the woods on her way, leaving with nothing more than a quick kiss goodbye to Evie and a note letting Jay and Carlos know where she's going. Her breath swirls in little eddies, puffing out as she hikes uphill, boots crunching through a thick layer of leaves. She can feel her bones hum, happy to be surrounded by the woods once more, and wonders for a second why her Fae heritage seems so much closer than usual. She can always feel it, like a hand on her back guiding her, but today it feels more like something ancient shaking off the last tendrils of sleep and stretching inside her chest cavity.

Her magic stirs inside her, warm to the touch, sparks that simmer just below her skin, and she shoves it back down.

Later, she promises it. She'll have to come back to experiment, maybe do a bit of reading. It's caught her off guard a couple of times over the past weeks, how little she actually knows about what she is--another item on a long list of things to correct.

Still, there's no time for it now. She reaches the crest of the last hill and looks down on a sprawling stone structure, at the fog that still clings to it like a petulant child. A slow smile works its way across her lips, her tongue pressing against sharp teeth.

It's as good a place as any to make her stand.

*

It's a mob.

She'd known this, of course--that's exactly what Nick had said when the small boy had shown up, panting, in her... home? office? territory? He'd said, "there's a mob coming for you", and then everything had gotten kind of lopsided.

And yet. She hadn't expected this.

There's a crowd below her, roaring their displeasure. There are dozens--maybe hundreds--of them, illuminated in the swaying torchlight. The sun is already slipping down below the horizon, and it casts an unearthly red glow across their mismatched weapons, ranging from pans to rusting spears to bits of broken glass. In the crowd, her wandering gaze picks out Gaston, holding his ridiculously polished hunting rifle.

(For the first time in her life, the adults have gathered under a greater purpose.)

(The greater purpose: destroying her.)

(She isn't sure how she feels about this. She isn't even sure how she's supposed to feel about it, to be honest--angry? hurt? proud?)

She stands silently, waiting for them to look up. Pebbles give way beneath her and it feels like she's teetering on the edge of something bigger, but she doesn't have time to figure out what before they're screaming her name (screaming for her end) (for her death, because that is the only way they know to end things on the Isle).

They are practically rabid, several already stepping forward to rip apart with bare hands the stone beneath her feet. It's time to make this stop.

"Hey!" she shouts, projecting her voice as best she can. "What the hell are you guys doing?"

"You don't get to rule us!" someone calls. It's an aging woman, crooked and short and bent over her cane. She looks vaguely like Yrene, like she could be her mother, except that can't be, because no one has seen Baba Yaga since the Island was created to be a prison.

(This is her effect, and there's a grim pride in it: look at me , some part of her is crowing, I have ruled an island and split the people and lured the Hag out of hiding .)

The mob yells its agreement, and they surge forward once more.

"Stop!" Mal calls, the weight of a queen in her voice. "Who else was ruling the Island? What has changed since I have stepped up? Nothing I've done has affected you; I don't even claim you as my citizens if you don't want to be. All I want is to be able to rule the children of the Isle without having to fight you. Our goals are no different."

The words feel... right, somehow. Powerful and new, like the first frantic heartbeats of an infant star. She could swear she feels Ben behind her, smiling in that oddly puppyish way of his. This feels good . She can be different from her mother, can lead through diplomacy and cooperation rather than fear. This will be a beginning.

Except: they don't listen. They don't stop. They don't hear her words, they just keep climbing, person after person and they have weapons and all she has is her daggers and she feels so small again, like she's barely six and asking about the stars and feeling the sharp pain of a hand across her face and--

She forces in a breath, pushes it out. Then another. Then another. She isn't small anymore, isn't powerless. She feels the magic where it slithers under her skin--where it's been biding its time, hovering just beneath the surface--and pulls .

*

The ground explodes beneath her, and it feels good. Cathartic. They were all climbing up this crumbling ruin anyway, and she can feel the ground beneath her, soft soil and sleeping roots ready to bend to her will, to the Fae blood flowing through her veins. It's about damn time this stone monstrosity got torn down.

Grey shrapnel flies through the air like fine Auradon steel and there is nothing beneath her feet; nothing beneath the misshapen army that had been clawing its way towards her.

Everything falls towards the ground and it's so far away, so much farther than she expected, but she's okay, she'll (probably) make it. Even if she doesn't, there's still Jay and Carlos and Evie and they'll keep things running, she knows they will, knows it with every inch of her too-big heart--

She sees a flicker of blue out of the corner of her eye, and the world stops.

*

Evie is falling.

*

Evie is falling and she doesn't know if she can protect both of them and she wasn't supposed to be there and why was she there and Evie is falling .

Something bright and hot and jagged fuses in her chest, and the sight of the woman she loves (woman, not girl, they haven't been girls in so, so long) plummeting like a raindrop sears something deep into her being.

Protect her. That's Mal's purpose; protect Evie, in any way at any cost. There is nothing else. There's no scream as she falls, no blackout or whiteout or sudden difference in the way the world looks. Just that thought--protect Evie--and the most sudden agony of Mal's entire life.

The pain is fierce and hot, like her muscles being pulled in different directions and her bones snapping out of place. It's the worst growing pains of all time and hell-level cramps and her skin boiling in acid. It's an itch that spreads across her whole body like wildfire; it's a burn in the back of her throat and a pounding like her head is splitting. It's the end of the world, except it isn't, it can't be, because she still needs to save Evie.

She doesn't really process what's happening. All she knows is that Evie's getting closer, that saving her might not be so impossible after all.

*

"You're beautiful," Evie says, all wide smile and light touch and eyes that glimmer with unshed tears. "You're so beautiful, Mal."

"What are you talking about?" Mal askes, her mind still fuzzy with the chaos of magic and pain and so many still bodies behind them.

"Your wings. They suit you."

(Of course. Of course she felt it build and build and build, of course nothing happened until Evie was in danger. Isn’t that always how it goes with her? Her strongest magic, her greatest feats; all of it is about protection.)

Mal feels them then, wide and leathery and every bit the dragon her mother was. She cranes her head to look at where they slope out from her back, where skin turns to scales the color of wild orchids.

It's fitting, she thinks, wild and whole and high on battlelust. Wings and horns, purple hair and scales and eyes the same green as Evie's tonics. She stretches them out, easy as breathing, and uses them to pull her lover close.

*

Ben hears about it. She isn't sure how, exactly, but he does, and a day later he's on the Isle, watching her with cautious, caring eyes and open arms. It's okay, he tells her. It was self-defense, he tells her. Killing them doesn't make you bad, he tells her.

She nods and smiles and accepts his hugs, because not being in love and not loving each other are very different things.

(She doesn't tell him that these aren't the first lives she's taken; that the Isle is already soaked in blood; that she knows what it is to hit and not stop hitting and to feel a neck snap beneath grasping fingers.)

(Death and life are not abstracts to be grappled with on the Island. They are solid, the warmth of flesh and the cold of bone and the thick, cloying smell of rot that covers it all. They are not her first kills. They will not be her last.)

Later, curled into Evie and sheltered by the dark that surrounds them, they talk about it. About all the broken bodies and the stone splinters and the way blood oozed out of so many cooling limbs.

"You did what you had to," Evie says, blunt and harsh and true, so different from Ben because she knows . She was there for the first kill, for the bruised knuckles and white face and for everything that came after. (She was there, of course she was there--she has been there for everything and it’s only right that she’d be there when Mal killed the man who hurt her in the alley so many years ago.) Her hand slides up to cup Mal's cheek, careful and careless in the only way Isle kids know. "They were going to kill you so you killed them first."

"I know," she breathes, and there isn't even a second of hesitation, of regret.

(This is the fate of a queen: they will hate you and they will worship you and they will try to break you down. This is what a banrion does: she rules. She uses diplomacy. If that doesn't work, she goes to war. If the peace doesn’t hold then she uses the blood of a slaughter to seal her kingdom’s cracks.)

*

Time passes... not quickly, exactly, but not slowly, either. They learn. They grow. Occasionally, they even do the right thing.

(And no, they will never ever ever talk about that thing with Jay and the mer-squid ever again. Ever.)

The reality of ruling is messy. It's chaotic, choices and consequences that tumble into each other and it never ends. A couple times, she just wants to set it all ablaze and watch, watch everything she's built come crumbling down. Once, she just leaves. Disappears on a rusting relic of a bike and doesn't come back for three days. When she reappears, Evie finds her, storms crackling in her eyes, and sits her down far away from everything else on the Island; no one knows what was said but Mal never vanishes again, so they don't ever need to ask.

If it was anyone else’s job, they would've left. The task before her is to rule a people that grew up believing that anything went, so long as you were alive at the end of the day; she is trying to raise parentless children and rule with the strength of an adult and there is no real balance to be found, no peace. There is just building and building and building, trying to become something new, something gasping and bleeding and fresh in a world full of stories older than time. Most call it impossible. Some leave.

Every person who stays looks at Mal, glowing with sunlight and power, and thinks banrion. They looks at her wings, at her dark leather and eyes that flicker like sparks and they don't see her mother. They see her, at 8 and 9 and 12 and 16, fighting-bleeding-dying for this Island that stripped her to her bones. They see her at 17, returning with an alliance and ships full of gleaming supplies. They see her at 20 and 27 and 35, peace in one hand and death on a leash and her family, built from dust and ash and grief, that twines around her.

Safety, they think. Peace. Protection.

On an island that grew from fester and rot, there is a dragon who guards her pile of bones with teeth and cunning and fire. She blinks away the dawn that blossoms in her eyes and she rules, side-by-side (equals, at long last) with the boy-king of Auradon turned man.

It is imperfect. It is doomed. It is beautiful.

*

One night (it doesn't matter when) the Isle sleeps. Lights dimmed and bonfires turned to embers and her family, tucked away safely.

Mal looks at it all sprawled beneath her, looks at the stars above her, glossy like a spiderweb in the early morning. She stands on the edge of the world, stone crumbling into sea below her while the night sky she's always reached for sprawls lazily above, and she flys.