The barrier fell, and for the first time in two decades, Facilier walked as a free man.
In the madness that followed, his children ran right to him: Celia leaping into his arms, wrapping her arms around his neck tight, as if she was worried he’d disappear; Freddie coming up from the side, pressing her head against his shoulder, gripping tight at the back of his jacket. He just sighed and held them both close. It was so bright and clean in Auradon.
“… Let’s go home, girls.”
Things hadn’t really changed much, but when had New Orleans ever changed much – no, sorry, the Bayou d’Orleans, now that they’re all under the jackboots of those damned beastly royals… He walked the streets, his streets, with great familiarity, and though the faces were slightly different, the looks people gave him when he passed by, those were familiar… And any pleasure he got from their venom, their fearful glares, was snuffed out the first time Celia cringed against him, hiding her face, hiding from them.
(Freddie walked tall, walked proud, her nose held high and her chin in the air – but she had told him what had happened to her the last time she was there, and, oh, that was a man who did not want to cross his path…)
The sign was long gone, and the door was boarded up with wood and nails – but, it was his, it had always been his, and being dragged out of Hell by fell fairy powers was sure enough to revive any deeds death had made moot. “I know it don’t look like much,” he said, tearing down the rain-rotted boards with his hands while his girls sat on the cobblestones, looking on curiously, “but, as long as these… damned savages didn’t do too much damage… It’ll suit us just fine until that check King Whelp said he’ll send us clears…”
“It already looks nicer than home,” Celia said with a shrug.
Freddie rolled her eyes and bopped Celia on the head. “This is our home, Celie,” she said. “It’s always been… Dad, are you ever gonna call Ben by his real name?”
“Not a chance.” The last board fell, and he stepped aside, bowing deeply, gesturing his hands dramatically. “Rentré, mô prinsès.”
The inside, thankfully, was still mostly intact, and all his personal objects seemed to be there; maybe people assumed stealing from a bokor would bring down all kinds of curses, or maybe the new regime throwing all the criminal sorts on an island to die made people skittish of even petty theft. There was, however, twenty long years of dust, and dirt, and all manner of filth. But, he thought, as he rustled up a broom for Freddie and a cloth for Celia and a mop for himself, at least when they cleaned up this place, it would stay clean, wouldn’t just get choked back down under the miasma of grime that had been a constant in their lives.
They found various magical artifacts as they cleaned, and Facilier took a pause from working to explain each one to them. He’d taught them the best he could with the resources he had. They were both good at reading tarot and palms, at performing sleight of hand and distracting with words and movement, all things you could do without any access to greater powers – now, though, that was all different. He would be able to revive his connections with the loa, introduce the girls to the possibility of becoming a caplata, return to his old ways… But, his older ways, not how he’d lived in the city. The Isle was gone, but death was still a specter, waiting to take him from his girls; who knew how much that place had taken from all their lifespans? There wasn’t time for grudges and schemes. Not if he wanted to be there for them. And he wanted that more than anything.
Freddie and Celia had pooled their money together on his old séance table, all the crumpled, brightly colored bills that passed for legal tender in Auradonian lands, what they hadn’t bribed old Hook with to drop them off as he sailed on with his brood to Neverland. Facilier counted it with furrowed brows; hell if he knew what the value of a dollar was anymore. He’d spent the past twenty-odd years taking smoked herring as currency, and now they wanted him to just figure it all out on his own. He wondered how many Isle folk would end up behind bars within a week, giving up and just going back to the old ways of stealing…
Well, that was one thing the Faciliers were not gonna do. Not anymore.
He placed the stack of bills in Celia’s bag. “Now, you go on out there and ask the first local you see what’s the best place to get crawfish etouffee around here nowadays. Get as much as that’ll buy you, and run on back here. Have the first dinner in our home be a special one.”
Celia, grinning widely, gave him a small salute and ran off. Freddie watched her go, visibly worried. “She’ll be fine, cher,” he said as she sat across from him at the table, in the same seat so many willing marks had found themselves in so very long ago. “She’s quick enough to avoid trouble. You know that.”
She sighed, crossed her arms on the table, leaned her head down on them. “If anybody even tries to hurt her,” she said, “I’ll burn this whole beautiful city to cinders.”
One day, he was going to find the man who put fear into his fearless little girl, and there wouldn’t be enough left behind for his own mother to recognize him.
“Freddie, I’d light the damn match.”
When Celia arrived back an hour later, fraying her sister’s nerves to splinters, she was not alone. There was a girl, about Freddie’s age but close to twice her size, helping her to carry the plastic bags, heavy with styrofoam takeaway containers. She was dressed in fine green silk and lace, but also had on a white apron that was clearly more functional than decorative.
He frowned when Celia handed him her bag, still full of cash. “I didn’t steal it!” she said, plaintive. “Here, I’ll explain – Daddy, Freddie, this is my new friend, Evangeline!”
The girl, Evangeline, smiled at them and gave a small wave, not an ounce of fear. “Oh, please do call me Eva,” she said, her voice gracious as any Southern belle. “Everyone does.”
“When I asked her where’s the best place to find your ay-two-fay, she took me to her own restaurant!” The way she said it heavily implied that this was the most impressive thing she had ever seen in all her twelve years of life. “And then she said I could take whatever I’d like, and then! She wouldn’t take any money! She said she wanted to welcome us to town!”
He cocked an eyebrow, doubtful about such uncharacteristic generosity from such a high-class girl. “Mighty kind of you,” he said.
“What’s the catch?” Freddie asked, trying to sound skeptical despite the fact that she had literally begun to salivate when Evangeline opened up a container of dirty rice. There was far more than etouffee in those boxes: gumbo, hush puppies, fried catfish, beignets… More food than he’d seen in one place for a very, very long time.
She shook her head; there were little decorations in her long braids, shiny silver stars that caught the dim lantern light. “No catch. Being neighborly is always more important than anything else,” she said, like someone who had always had everything. “My mama taught me that.”
For a moment, he was sure Freddie was preparing some snappy comeback, but she was actually just trying to force as much maque choux into her mouth as humanly possible.
They ate together, at the table, Celia running off to find a chair for her new friend – “M’sieu, do I really look like the kinda girl that’d turn down an invitation to eat?”– and, Lord, as pained as he was to admit a rich person could do anything, there was no denying that girl had earned her apron. Even Freddie began to open up, plied by good food and polite conversation, though they kept all the details vague. Apparently, they all went to the same school, though Eva and Freddie both swore they’d never seen each other; but, that was explained easily enough by it being an awfully big school, and not because most of the classes Freddie took were not the sort Auradonian kids had to take.
“You know,” Eva said eventually, “I could probably find somebody to give you good rates on a hotel, ‘til you find your own place. It’s the busy season, but I do have connections… There’s no need to squat in this old place.”
“No need for any of that.” He speared a shrimp on his fork; had they grown larger since he’d been gone, or was he just too used to the mealy ones the sea witches managed to rustle up? “This is our own place. Own it and everything.”
“Really? I hadn’t heard of the bank selling it… Not that they ever even tried! Nobody would want to buy, of course.” She laughed, twinkling like starlight. “Your accent, m’sieu, you must have grown up around here – don’t you know the history of this place? Don’t you know about the Shadow Man?”
He managed to school his reaction into a slight grin. “Better than most,” he said.
“I can’t imagine why you’d deign to stay here, then!” She didn’t seem to notice anything, didn’t seem to catch how Celia’s eyebrows knit together, how Freddie’s grip on her fork tightened. “You can just feel the evil energy of this place. So many awful things happened here, so much suffering and pain, all from one awful man…”
“Must be a pretty strong energy,” Freddie said through grit teeth, “to linger so long. It’s been twenty-odd years since they took him to the Isle.”
“And the time before that, when he was… Well. If you know that much, I’m sure you’re aware of the rest.” She puffed up, proudly. “My parents were the ones to take him down, you know. My mother killed him, even, in a courageous final battle! And when the Auradonians came to our shores and told us we needed a royal leader, why, there was simply no better option! That’s how they became king and queen.”
“Didn’t think Queen Tiana would be a liar.”
They all stared at Celia with varying levels of shock, but she merely shrugged, eyes wide, like butter wouldn’t melt in her mouth, kicking out her legs as she spoke. “After all, she wasn’t the one to really do it; she just broke the amulet. The loa were the ones who really killed you, to settle your debts.” She cocked her head to the side. “Right, Daddy?”
Princess Evangeline, heir to the throne of the Bayou d’Orleans, screamed loud enough to wake the dead and knocked the table clean over in her frantic haste to escape the Faciliers, who merely continued to sit in silence, as he tried to figure out if he had enough power left in him to hold off a battalion of royal guards while the girls escaped…
The first to move was Freddie, who, with a steely glint of determination in her eyes, dropped to the floor and immediately began continuing to eat the fallen food.
He could hear the sound of a big car on cobblestones, of a jazz trumpet playing fanfare, of heavy footsteps down the alley and into the courtyard. He shuffled Freddie and Celia behind the table, pushing their heads down below the line of sight. “Don’t you come out of there ‘til I get back,” he said. “No matter what you hear, don’t you make a sound.”
Freddie nodded, silent. Celia looked skeptical, but held onto her sister’s arm.
He dusted himself off, straightened his hat, checked his reflection in the mirror. Took a deep breath. And stepped out of his shop.
He’d thought they’d bring the whole royal guard down on him. It was a true surprise that only three souls stood across from him.
It had been a solid twenty years since he’d last seen the former frogs, when the newly crowned King and Queen of the newly christened Bayou d’Orleans watched with impassive faces as Fairy Godmother’s magic dragged him back from the clutches of the loa, as Aurdonian soldiers clapped him, dazed and confused, in irons and shoved him onto a boat with a bunch of other unfortunate souls. They still looked rather the same; Naveen still pretty, his hair clearly kept up with dye, while Tiana looked more like her sainted mother than ever, thick strands of grey in the dark hair pouring from her tiara.
The gator was still there, too, dressed in livery, the claws clutching his trumpet revealing just how scared he really was.
He bowed low, taking off his hat with a flourish. “Your majesties,” he said. “To what do I owe this unimaginable honor?”
“You have a lot of nerve, showing your face back here.” Tiana’s voice was low and dangerous. “How did you escape the Isle?”
“Hasn’t the news reached the bayou yet? Young King Ben freed all us Isle folk. Full-on pardons of all our wicked deeds.”
Naveen scowled. “He can’t do that!” he said, accent thick as ever. “His parents, they promised us justice with their island – what justice has a murderer walk free?”
“I assume all your scared little subjects went a’runnin’ to you the moment they saw me arrive,” he said, “or did you only take it serious when your belle Evangeline caught sight of me?”
The gator growled fiercely. “You keep her name outta your mouth, Shadow Man!”
“Louis. Please.” Her face softened for a moment as she placed a gentle hand on her old friend’s arm, urging calm – but, it turned back to stone the moment she turned back to him. “You are not welcome in this kingdom. If any other will take you, they can have you; but you will not be staying in New Orleans.”
Change did come so slow… “I have every right to be here. This is my property, and this is my city, just as much as it’s yours.
“We will not allow you to stay in our kingdom and bring misery to our people!”
He sighed, buffing his nails on his lapel. “Wasn’t planning on doing anything like that,” he said lightly.
That seemed to legitimately throw him off his game. “… Then… What were you planning?” he asked.
“Lay low. Swindle tourists for cash, to get by. Nothing too bad.” He shrugged. “Wouldn’t mind just bein’ left alone, for the most part. If it’s not too much to ask.”
Naveen spat. “Tiana, he lies! I told you he would only lie!” He took her gloved hand in his, gripping it tightly. “We will call the guards, and have him arrested immediately! If this King Ben refuses to uphold his justice, we will have our own justice—“
A weight against his back shoved him forward slightly, and he felt thin, shaking arms wrapped around his middle. Freddie was close behind, leaning forward onto her knees. “Sorry, Dad, I really did try to hold her back,” she said, breathless. “But, Celie thought eavesdropping was a wicked idea, and then when he brought up arrest… She bit me!”
“Please don’t arrest my daddy,” said a muffled, pathetic voice.
There were quite a few things going on, and instinct made his brain focus on the most manageable and familiar of the problems. As if they didn’t even have an audience, he lifted Celia up by the scruff of her jacket and placed her on the ground. “Cecelia Facilier, did you bite your sister?”
Celia was little more than a pile of sullen misery at that point, so Freddie stepped forward, looking sheepish. “To be fair, I did put my hand over her mouth. You’re practically obligated to bite when somebody tries that.”
“Fair point.” After all, it wouldn’t be right to punish them for something he’d taught them.
Oh, right. Almost forgot about them.
“Children… They are yours? How?”
“Same way you did,” Freddie said with a venomous little smirk.
“My Freddie is about the same age as your girl,” he said, “but while you reared yours in whatever ol’ manor house you commandeered for your royal palace, with the help of all your friends, I scraped what life I could for them from the dead rock.”
Tiana let out a long, shaky breath. “There… There were never supposed to be innocents in that awful place,” she said. She looked stricken; there was a fire burning in her eyes that was very familiar to him, a righteous fury kindled into a roaring flame. “News is slow to travel here, and the other royals so rarely… If we had known, if I had…”
“Maybe y’all should’ve looked a bit harder into what those shiny folks were really up to.” The part of him that wanted to scoff at her was tempered by the part of him that remembered what it felt like to have that noble anger aimed at you; Beauty and her creature wouldn’t stand a chance, if she decided to put her mind to it. “Would’ve learned all sorts of interesting things.”
Naveen held onto Tiana’s arm; it seemed to be one of the few things keeping him upright, as the horrific implications made themselves known to even someone as unintuitive as him. After a moment’s silence, unable to bear more than that, he managed to speak, “Your daughters… They are very lovely.”
Freddie had moved to his side, quiet as a shadow; he put his hand on her shoulder, pressing a kiss into her hair. “… They’re all I’ll ever need,” he said.
They left, after that, the men visibly shaken – but, Tiana lingered, staring at the girls, taking them in, almost… inspecting them with her steady, penetrating gaze. Eventually, she knelt, all her finery on the dirt of the courtyard, in front of Celia, who looked at her with an appropriate amount of wariness. “I have a message from Evangeline; didn’t really know what it meant, until now… She wants you to know that just because she ran, doesn’t mean she doesn’t still want to be friends.”
Celia sniffed lightly, an affected sort of nonchalance. “I’m not sure I wanna be friends with somebody who runs away from my daddy,” she said.
“I can understand that. I just hope you can be kind enough to give her a second chance.” She glanced, however briefly, at Facilier. “People can be full of surprises, if you care enough to check.”
The shop was a relic from his time as a childless bachelor, so the sleeping arrangements were a little lacking: there was an old mattress he’d set up in a back room, to collapse on after exhausting himself with rituals, and while it had held up rather well… well, that was it. There was a stab of guilt in his gut, for not scamming a hotel room out of that little princess before they scared her off,
But, both girls collapsed onto the mattress, too tuckered out from traveling, cleaning, and heavy emotions to care too much – though, they did have the energy to gripe at him when he made to sleep slumped against the opposing wall, loudly complaining until he gave in and slotted himself between them, letting them use him as a pillow. He waited, listening until their breaths settled into the deep slowness of sleep, before he allowed himself to finally close his eyes…
And either five minutes or five hours later, he awoke to something hard and round jabbing him square in the forehead.
It happened again.
There were two figures in the darkness above him, one squat and one lean.
“Heard you was back in town, boy.”
Oh. No. Why.
“How long did you think you was gonna keep my grandbabies from me?”
“Mama, it’s late, why the hell—“ His head was smacked down onto the mattress again. It was a wooden cane; either Juju had finally died, or she’d decided to spare him the trip into town. “Ow! Mama!”
“Thirty-something years you haven’t even written to your poor ol’ mama, and you think I’m just gonna accept your potty mouth?” She clucked her tongue loudly. “You got some nerve, young man!”
“Mama, I spent half that time locked in a damn prison—Ow!”
“You think you’d know better.” There’s a light, and for a moment, he thinks it’s magic – but, no, the lean woman had merely lit a lantern with a match, which she extinguished with the tip of her finger. She was young, barely older than Freddie.
“Didn’t know you had an apprentice,” he said dryly. He could feel the girls stir next to him; they could sleep through most anything, but his mother was an expert in disturbing sleep.
“There’s a lot you don’t know about, boy,” Mama Odie said with a grin. “Like how this ain’t no apprentice at all.”
“Hi, Opal,” Freddie said sleepily, her voice still dreamy and vague as she squinted up at the light. “Why’re you and your mom here?”
The horror crept into him slowly, like ice forming in his veins, and at first, his brain simply refused to accept it, simply forgot the meaning of every applicable word in the English language, in a desperate attempt to protect him from that awful knowledge. But, it caught up to him. Nothing the Auradonians had ever done to him compared to this.
“Francois, you better be nice to your baby sister! Ooh, and you must be Celia…”
“How… Why… Mama!”
“All this time, all Mama could say is what a smooth-talker you always were,” Opal said, a hint of a smirk on her lips. “Frankly, I don’t see it.”
Mama Odie immediately set to fussing over Celia, who seemed to have decided everything happening was some sort of weird dream and accepted it entirely. Freddie was still rubbing the sleep out of her eyes, staring up at Opal. “… Say, why didn’t you tell me you were my aunt when we met before?” she asked.
Opal glanced at Facilier, who had fallen back onto the mattress and was staring, dead-eyed, at the ceiling. “Mama thought it’d be funnier if he learned about me now,” she said, “and she didn’t want you to ruin the surprise.”