It's gonna take a lot to drag me away from you
There's nothing that a hundred men or more could ever do
I bless the rains down in Africa
Gonna take some time to do the things we never had…
"Charlotte, dear girl, why didn't you see Tiana off?"
Charlotte, sitting in a lounge chair in one of the guest bedrooms that she had moved into for the time being, looked up from the newspaper she was reading upon hearing Queen Avani's question. "But I did see her off, Avani," she insisted. "Right before she left the palace I gave her a hug goodbye. And besides, she'll be back soon!"
"You haven't left the palace since you've returned," Avani said, raising an eyebrow. "What are you hiding from?"
Sighing unhappily, Charlotte gestured towards the newspaper she was holding. "Them. I can't take those pushy reporters anymore! I think they still think I'm out of the country, and I want them to keep on thinking that for as long as possible." She harrumphed and tossed the paper on the ground.
Avani sighed as she leaned down and picked the paper back up. "You can't avoid the press forever, Charlotte, especially when they discover that you and Naveen are no longer married."
"That we were never actually married," Charlotte corrected.
"You see? That is what you have to do. If you say nothing, they will assume the worst. You have to assure them of the circumstances. For Tiana's sake every bit as much as your own."
Charlotte's eyes wildly darted to the newspaper, then back to Avani. "Jiminy crickets, Avani, I know, but… every time I open my mouth they've already twisted my words! I don't know how to talk to them and have them respect and realize what I'm actually saying!" Her eyes brightened. "The press likes you, though! How do you do it?"
"It is simple," smiled Avani. "I merely anticipate what they will ask me, and I think about what I will say before actually saying it."
"But they never give me time to think! Cheese and crackers!"
"You must communicate to the people of Maldonia somehow," Avani said, handing the paper back to Charlotte and looking her in the eye firmly. "And given time to think, I believe that you will be able to say something that will make the wonderful young woman you are shine through in a way that no one will be able to twist it into something you're not. But that has to reach a wide audience, and the newspaper is the best way to reach a wide audience. However… you do not need to be interviewed to be heard via a newspaper." Avani smiled at Charlotte. "Have you considered writing a letter to the people of Maldonia?"
"Wr… writing?" Charlotte's eyes grew wide with surprise and confusion. "Do you really think I can write a letter like that?"
"I think you can. And I know you can try. You don't seem to realize it, but you have quite a way with words." And with that and one more comforting smile, Avani left the room.
Left alone, Charlotte's eyes darted back to the paper… and then to the writing desk in the other corner of the room.
Avani was right; the Maldonian public needed to know just why Charlotte and Naveen so suddenly parted ways, and they needed to know why it was alright that Naveen could go and get married again like he was, and… they needed to know from Charlotte, who was in the middle of it all and thus was the most qualified to explain. To give her okay. To apologize for what she had done, not only to Tiana and Naveen, but also to the country, and to herself.
And yes. She definitely owed this to Tiana. If Charlotte said nothing, it would look as though she was bitter and angry about her former husband so quickly marrying another woman, her best friend no less, and that wasn't the case at all—but how could she let the public know the truth of how much she actually supported this union? She was forever being scrutinized, forever having what she said be twisted into meaning something else, although… that was partly her fault; she spoke faster than she thought sometimes, and…
She looked again at the desk. A short stack of stationary was on it, expectedly, as if calling out to her.
"Well," Charlotte said with a resolute grin, "at least when I'm writin' there's plenty of time for me to think about what I'm sayin'!"
Tiana looked like death warmed over when she pushed open the door to Duke's Diner, but she didn't really care. Given how many times she had been on a boat the past few months, she had every right to look a little green and seasick. At any rate, she was still smiling resolutely as she stepped in the restaurant.
It was a slow day, apparently. Buford looked up from the counter, reading a newspaper someone had left behind. "You again," he snorted. "I suppose you'll be wanting me to completely turn around everyone else's hours and work you back in the schedule as much as you were before?"
"No, I don't expect you to make that kind of allowance for my absence," Tiana replied diplomatically. "I'm actually here to tell you that I quit."
Buford stared at Tiana incredulously.
"You got any beignets ready? I'd like to order one." Tiana placed a nickel on the bar countertop.
"I just fixed up a fresh batch," Maddy said, moving in and taking over for Buford, who was still slack-jawed with utter shock. She scooped one up, placed it on a plate, and handed the plate to Tiana. "Did… did you get another job or something?"
Tiana laughed helplessly. How crazy she must be appearing right at this moment… "No. And I'm quittin' Cal's, too."
"Tiana, don't take this the wrong way, but… have you lost your mind?"
"I think I have. I really think I have." Tiana took a bite of the beignet and looked at Maddy, still unable to stop laughing at the craziness of it all. "I'm going to sell the sugar mill and buy a restaurant in Maldonia instead."
"Wait… you're gonna move to Maldonia? Why?"
"My fiancé lives there." Tiana barked out another laugh, sending bits of beignet flying out of her mouth, Maddy only just barely dodging them. "I really have lost my mind. I'm moving away and opening up a restaurant in a country where I don't speak the language and I'm getting married… and it feels wonderful. I should have lost my mind ages ago."
"Well… congratulations, Tiana!"
"Congratulations on losing my mind?"
"No, I mean on your engagement! You're engaged! That's wonderful!"
"Yes. Yes it is." Tiana laughed yet again, taking only a brief moment to attempt to stop to be able to swallow the rest of the beignet. "And it's also the craziest, craziest thing I could have done. But, at the same time, if I'da said 'no' it woulda been the stupidest thing I'd ever done in my life. Oh dear God. I'm getting married." Tiana moaned and pressed her hands against her face. "I really have lost my mind…" And then she started laughing again.
Maddy looked utterly baffled.
"Sorry, Maddy," Tiana said, finishing the beignet and standing up. "I'm just… this still hasn't sunk in yet. And there's still so much I need to do… and right now, I need to sell that building of mine so I can go back to Maldonia and buy the other building… Lordy, will I be glad to stay on dry land for more than a month at a time… Do you know of anyone looking to buy a big ol' abandoned sugar mill? Or a real estate agent who could take it off my hands? 'Cause I sure as heck ain't sellin' it back to the men who sold it to me…"
Maddy's eyes suddenly lit up. "I bet Harry would take it!"
"My boyfriend. He has a—well, actually, it's his dad's real estate business, but Harry's been learning the ropes and will probably become his official partner pretty soon, but I'm sure he'd love to take a look, at the very least! They're a small operation, and they probably can't offer you the money for it that some others could, but…"
"Maddy, all that I care about is their business policies. And as long as they won't be condescending towards any potential buyer just because she's a poor black girl…"
Maddy smirked at that. "If they do, lemme tell you, this poor black girl will give them a talking to they won't soon forget!"
Tiana smiled gratefully. "Well, I'm sure they won't! I'd love to meet with them and work something out. Where's their office?"
"You know, I can take you to them myself in about fifteen minutes, when Emily comes and takes over my shift for me. I'd kinda like to see the place, anyway. Maybe… maybe I might like to do something with it someday."
"Like what?" Tiana asked.
Maddy shrugged, noncommittally. "Oh, I've just thought sometimes it would be kinda fun to open up a dance club someday. I mean we're talking years from now, obviously, right now I ain't hardly got two pennies to rub together, but once I get a little more money, and… settle down with Harry, I'm sure we will someday, then maybe…"
Tiana grinned. "Just promise me, Maddy, that you'll never lose sight of what's important."
Two days later, Tiana stood in her familiar spot in the neighborhood graveyard, the far-off clatter of streetcars and hurried pedestrians only just barely reaching her ears. Holding her arms around her body tightly, she looked at her father's grave, her eyes cloudy with thought and emotion, her mind aimlessly wandering like it often did when making her pilgrimage to this spot.
"Am I doing alright, Daddy?" she finally asked softly.
The tomb gave no answer.
"I know that I have your blessing on what I'm about to do…" She smiled. "What I've already done." Yesterday she had sold the sugar mill. The sugar mill that she had worked so hard to earn. The sugar mill that her daddy had always dreamt of. Like Maddy had said, Harry hadn't been able to give her a huge sum of money for the building, but it was still a bit more than what she paid for it. And besides, as she had shown them the building, the work she had put into it, and watched Maddy's eyes light up with ideas and possibilities that she rattled off to Harry in a manner that reminded her of a slightly younger version of herself, and in turn seeing Harry regard Maddy's enthusiasm with an expression that reminded Tiana of the way Naveen looked at her when she rattled off her ideas for the building in Maldonia… she felt a calming peace of mind settle through her body. She had done the right thing. She wasn't sure how she knew, or why she knew, or even why it was the right thing… it just was. The very next day Harry had bought the property from her. And Tiana immediately took the check to the bank and cashed it. Now all that was left was to stop by the house to check in on it (Eudora and Louis had stayed in Maldonia for the time being, it seeming pointless for them to come back with her if they were going to be in Maldonia for the wedding anyway, which they were) and pick up her few personal belongings to take to her new home.
"I guess all that's left now is knowing that you're proud of me." Tiana looked up at the gloomy, cloudy sky. "Look at me. I'm standin' here talking to myself, asking for approval from someone who's been dead nearly ten years… but I guess that shows how important it is to me, Daddy." She sighed and wrapped her arms around herself tighter. "So are you proud of me?"
She turned her gaze to the shared grave of her siblings. "Have I done enough for five?" she murmured.
Only the streetcars' rumbling answered her.
"I guess I won't be able to talk to you like this very often from now on." Tiana looked back at her father's grave and bit her lip. "Not here at your grave, anyway… but that don't matter. I can talk to you anytime. I know you're always with me. I don't need to come here for that." She smiled softly, chuckling a bit to herself. "All these years I've thought you were here… and I guess you are here physically, but… y'all are dead and buried… literally." She gulped. "And all these years I've come here, trying to live your lives for you… but maybe it's time I lived my own life."
Getting down on her knees, she ran her fingers in the grooves of where her father's name was carved in his tombstone, looking up at the sky again. "And that's what you want for me, ain't it?"
Again, the muted sounds of traffic were her only answer. But Tiana smiled, feeling her father's affirmative answer ringing in her heart.
Tiana set foot back in Maldonia ten days later… and was immediately overwhelmed by a slew of reporters, yammering away in Maldonian at her, Tiana understanding none of it.
"Uh, uh, sen, pardon me, but would you let me through, please?" she asked as diplomatically as possible through her confusion, a suitcase under one arm and her trunk being dragged behind her by her other, filled with practically everything she owned.
The reporters continued their verbal onslaught, their words becoming so jumbled with each other that she couldn't even tell anymore what language they were speaking.
Except when one question reached her ears quite clearly.
"Miss Wilcox, is it true that you are going to marry Prince Naveen?"
"What?" Tiana gasped in surprise. "I mean—I mean, yes, it's true, we're engaged, but how did you know—"
"Tia! You're back!" Charlotte had barreled her way through the crowd and happily and enthusiastically grabbed Tiana's suitcase from under her arm. "Gang way, dearies. Give the poor girl some breathing room, she only just got here!"
"Lottie, what's with all the…?" Tiana gestured to the eager reporters, still shouting out questions.
Charlotte sighed. "Get used to them, sugar," she said while leading her away from the mob. "They'll be watching you like a hawk once you're a princess. Come on, I've got a cab waiting. And I'll explain the reporters. Actually, on that note, there's something I need to show you…"
Charlotte shrugged apologetically at Tiana, who regarded the blonde questioningly while peeking above the newspaper, the two sitting in the back of a cab taking them back to the palace. "It was Avani's idea. I'm sorry I couldn't'a given you advance warning about it, but you know, I needed to say something. Otherwise the public's gonna think my marriage crumbled and either I'm a complete shrew or you're a home wrecker or Naveen's a philanderer—well, okay, that last one's true—but anyway—I had to let the citizens of Maldonia know the truth! That it's okay what's happening, that it's the right thing—but I didn't want to be interviewed for it. I can't stand having all those questions thrown in my face! So Avani suggested I write a letter to the people of Maldonia…" Charlotte's voice quieted a bit, and she gestured to the newspaper in Tiana's hands. "It's on pages six and seven. Six is in English, and seven is in Maldonian. Avani translated it for me. It just got published two days ago… I'd like you to read it, Tia." Her voice had grown uncharacteristically soft.
With one more questioning yet compliant glance at Charlotte, Tiana opened the paper to pages six and seven.
TO THE CITIZENS OF MALDONIA:
I owe all of you this letter, and I've owed it to you for a long time now, but I still don't exactly know how to say it. I've started it about five or six times but every time it felt too stiff and formal, and it didn't sound like me. So this time I'll go for informal but believable, one that actually sounds like my own words. Because more than anything else, I want you all to believe me. I NEED you all to believe me.
First and foremost, I'm sorry. I'm sorry for dragging you all through my childhood fantasies.
As you all probably know (since I've mentioned it about five times every time I'm interviewed!), my lifelong goal has been to be a princess. Like most little girls, I was obsessed with princesses, but I took my obsession to a crazy level. I've never grown out of loving the splendor, glamour, and romance that filled the lives of all the princesses in the fairytales I'd read. And I wanted all that for myself. So much that I always, deep down, wanted to marry a prince. Not just any boy would do for me, no siree, I needed actual royalty!
I'm sorry that I had to inflict that desire on your country. I never realized that I already had almost everything the princesses in my fairytales had back at home until I got married, and I found that I'd given up everything that made me happy just for a title. The princess life I'd always envisioned? Heck, I was living it more in New Orleans than I've lived it here. And I'm ashamed of the fact that it took me actually BECOMING a bonafide princess to realize that.
I married Naveen for one reason, and he married me for one reason. My reason was completely wrong. I saw him as a passport to royalty. He was all I needed to become a princess, and I snatched up that offer like THAT. And again, I'm absolutely ashamed that it took me as long as it did to realize that what I was drawn to so much in my princess stories and their relationships with their princes was the ROMANCE. It wouldn't have mattered in those stories if they had been royalty or peasants, it was their love for each other that was so beautiful, not their station in life. And would I have married Naveen if he had been just a peasant? Heck no! Like I said, it was a prince or nothing for me.
Naveen and I aren't married anymore. We never were legally.
I put that in its own paragraph to make sure you didn't miss it. If there's only three important things you take out of this, that's the first one. To get married in Maldonia you have to be a Maldonian citizen, and I'm not. Both of us couldn't be more relieved. We found a perfect loophole to get out of our marriage without having to actually get divorced!
I mentioned earlier that Naveen had one reason for marrying me, too. His reason was more on-track than mine was. He married me for love. But it wasn't love for me.
And now I have to tell you about my very dear friend, Tiana Wilcox. We've been best friends since we were little girls, even though we're both so different. Like me, she's always had a dream and a goal in life too, but hers was never hinged on such silly notions on what made a girl regal and beautiful. Hers was to open up a restaurant. Now, I didn't know this at the time, but apparently around the time Naveen arrived in New Orleans, Tiana was about to lose the building she'd always had her sights on, despite how long and hard she'd worked for it (unlike me, since I just sat around primping and waiting for my prince to plop right in my lap!). Naveen met her, got to know her, and learned of her predicament.
Naveen agreed to marry me if and only if I in return gave Tiana the money she needed to buy her restaurant. I didn't think much of that at the time, actually, besides being surprised at Tiana's circumstances and wanting to help her myself.
Golly. I'm tearing up here. I owe apologies to Tiana and Naveen every bit as much as I owe apologies to you, citizens of Maldonia. I was so caught up in making my wish of becoming a princess come true that I was completely blind to the real-life fairytale romance that was right before my eyes. So blind, in fact, that I barged right between it and tore it up and separated it across an entire ocean.
Number two of the three points you need to take from this: Naveen and Tiana are going to get married. And number three: I couldn't be happier for them.
I just know that a lot of you sensationalist folks out there (and I'm one too, so I completely understand the way your minds work!) are going to read the first two facts (Naveen and I weren't ever really married; and Naveen's now engaged to my best friend) and immediately weave it into some huge scandal: "Oh, poor Charlotte, her best friend snatching away her man from her like that!" And to that I say: if anyone's the bad guy here, it's me. Naveen was never really mine, and I was the one who so blindly and cruelly snatched him away from Tiana. I wish more than anything that I had realized their feelings for each other sooner. Heck, if I'd have known way back when Naveen first agreed to marry me, I never would have said yes.
Tiana never dreamt of being a princess in the manner that I had… but believe me when I tell you that she's already ten times the princess I ever was. She's smart, she's driven, and she's going to do a lot of good for your country, in between filling your bellies at the restaurant she's going to open once she becomes a citizen and marries Naveen! She's still got her dreams and is still pursuing them, and she's not letting the glitz of the princess life distract her! She's going to be an amazing princess, and you are all very lucky to be getting her!
My happiness at their engagement is lessened only by my regrets that I stood in the way of it for so long, and that it took me so long to figure out what it was I truly wanted… and that I had to trample all over your country to do it. So again, to everyone reading this, I ask you to forgive me. I'm sorry I never really knew what I was doing and that I had to sort it out while making a mess of things here. And I assure you that your next Princess of Maldonia won't make the mistakes that I did, because she DOES know what she's doing and where she's going, and she's in fact almost there!
Love, hugs, and apologies,
Tiana lowered the paper and stared at Charlotte, wide-eyed.
"Well?" Charlotte asked worriedly. "What do you—the public seems to like it, but what do you—"
Tiana dropped the paper on the seat between them and wrapped Charlotte up in an all-encompassing hug. "Lottie," she laughed, gratefully and affectionately, yet still with a playful jab, "how on Earth am I gonna live up to the impossible expectations you set out for me there? I don't know nothing about being a princess!"
"You're on the right track to knowing more than I do!" Charlotte laughed, returning the hug before pulling away still looking not completely assured. "So you think it was alright?"
"It was more than alright. Lottie, why ain't you writin' full-time?"
Charlotte's eyes widened in shock, not having a ready answer to that. "Well, I… oh come on, Tia, you know I can't write!"
"Well, what do you call this, because this sure seems like writing to me! You oughta have your own column in a newspaper."
"Oh lordy, no! I don't wanna turn into one of those blood-sucking reporters!"
"You could show them how to be a nice reporter. Besides, you could write stories or articles instead of interviews."
"I could… write stories…" Charlotte's eyes grew even wider, if that were possible. "Do you really think… maybe I could! Maybe I could write books for children—Asher always loves my stories! If he does, other little ones probably would too!"
Tiana grinned. "I wouldn't be surprised!"
"And I think I know what the first story I'm gonna write will be!" Charlotte continued, giving Tiana a sly smile. "I'm gonna write a twist on the Frog Prince story where instead of the kiss turning the frog back into a prince, it turns the princess into a frog!"
Tiana laughed. "Come on, Lottie… no one's gonna be able to take that story seriously."
Becoming a Maldonian citizen was a surprisingly easy process—one only needed to reside in Maldonia for at least six months, and then give an oath of citizenship and sign legal papers in the presence of a judge.
Six months seemed, to Tiana, to be plenty of time to get her restaurant going. And the process was going much smoother than it had in New Orleans. As soon as Tiana had converted her dollars into rublinas and paid the rest of the amount on her building, she had taken the money left over, rented an apartment in the center of town, and began the process of ordering supplies for her restaurant, using money she made by having informal bake sales on the streets of Cruce Sagraldi (which doubled as advertising for her upcoming restaurant). Oh, and Naveen chipped in to order supplies too. In fact, when push came to shove, Naveen was providing the bulk of the money there, a fact that bothered Tiana a bit. Hadn't she spent her whole life proving that she could get exactly what she'd always dreamt of without any free handouts?
"But they aren't handouts," Naveen had finally objected. "We are going to be married, remember? And don't married couples share things? Besides, compared to all the hard work you have done up to now, this is nothing."
Tiana hated and yet loved how he was able to break down her stubborn resolve like that.
And as Naveen helped her, both physically and financially, with getting the restaurant ready, he also helped her learn Maldonian. He proved to be a patient and encouraging, if a little distracting, teacher; and Tiana often marveled at the end of the day, preparing herself for bed in her cozy, tidy little apartment, at both how fast she was picking up the language and that she was somehow still holding on to her virginity. Because, oh, were her desires rising with each and every day, and he was doing absolutely nothing to stop that.
But giving into them right now would be just one more thing to deal with, and she had enough on her plate as it was. On top of learning another language and getting the restaurant ready for its swiftly approaching opening date, she also had to plan for her wedding with its equally rapidly approaching date. With Charlotte and Eudora's help, of course. Charlotte perhaps being a little too helpful. For every time Tiana had to stress yet again that she wanted a small, simple ceremony, Charlotte had to go and plan something that made it that much more of a big, grand event. Okay, sure, she was marrying royalty and a large, grand wedding was to be expected. But why go overboard?
Bleary-eyed and exhausted, Tiana rubbed her temple with one hand and sighed while looking at the floral order form one balmy July evening, sitting in her office at the restaurant, now lit-up and decorated and stocked with food and staffed and hopefully completely ready for its grand opening the next day. Having been so busy making sure everything was in order for her first day of business for the past week or so, Tiana had left the wedding preparations in Charlotte's hands for the time being… a decision she was already regretting.
"How many flowers do we need, Lottie?" she muttered, looking at the copy of the order form Charlotte had forwarded to her.
"Enough to drown in, of course!"
Tiana jerked around in surprise at Naveen's voice, surprised he was still there. She had known he and Louis had come earlier to practice with the other jazz musicians for tomorrow, but they had all left hours ago, she thought. "Naveen, what are you doing here?"
Naveen pretended to look deeply hurt. "What, you have not noticed that I unpacked all the menus and shelved them by the maître d's podium, or that all the dishes have been washed and dried, or that the tablecloths have been smoothed out… or did you just assume a little fairy did it all instead?" He stood behind her and leaned down so that his cheek was pressed up next to hers, wrapping his arms around her shoulders. "I certainly wasn't going to leave you here alone, anyway. What are you still doing here?"
"Just double checking everything for tomorrow," Tiana sighed, setting down the papers she was holding and tilting her head so that she was leaning in closer to him.
"Double? I think you're on at least check number five by now." Naveen also tiled his head slightly, touching his lips to her cheek in a soft kiss. "Everything will be fine. And you're far too tired to stay here anymore." He hadn't moved his head, his lips still pressed against her as he spoke, and Tiana shivered at the sensation despite the heat of the night air. "Please come home with me," Naveen murmured, one hand sliding down slightly and resting on her breast.
"We ain't married yet," said Tiana, although not moving or making any attempt to push him away.
"But we will be soon."
"And I'll come home with you every single night when we are. But if I wanna be a citizen, I have to live in that apartment for six—"
"You know, you could very easily become a citizen after living in the palace for six—"
"I'd be just a royal guest then. Not a resident." Tiana brought her left arm off the desk and to her right side and Naveen's right hand resting on it, entwining her fingers in his. "I want to show everyone I'm serious about this. That I'm not going to take any easy ways out. That I'm going to do things the right way."
"Well, I want to show people I am serious about this too, but it can hardly seem as if I am truly caring about my fiancée if I hardly ever see her." He softly and deliberately brought his lips to her again, although this time to the corner of her mouth. Tiana inhaled deeply and let out her breath with a sigh that cut through the knotted-up nerves of stress that had been shooting through her body all day.
"I want do to this the right way to show I'm serious about you," she murmured softly, closing her eyes. "I love you."
"Ah, mio lombra, t'lomzi apo, t'lomzi maden rigashi fra de umdro."
Tiana grinned, both at his words and the fact that she actually understood what he was saying. Yes, Naveen was an excellent teacher… although, of course, Naveen being Naveen, a large part of her lessons turned into phrases of affection and adoration like those. "Lordy. Here I am thinking I'm getting really good at Maldonian, and now I realize that all I really understand are things like that. I'm sure the customers tomorrow are gonna love me making romantic passes at them."
Naveen laughed. "But you make them so well. And you have the cutest American accent when you speak Maldonian."
"I do not have an accent!" Tiana objected. "I copy your pronunciation exactly!"
"No, you have an accent. But it is a very charming one. You know, confidentially…" Naveen smirked at her. "If you were to tell me how much you love me in Maldonian, you would sound so adorable and irresistible that I would do anything you asked of me."
Tiana smirked back at him. "You already do," she said, lightly kissing him.
Naveen sighed in resignation. "Alright, you win."
Tiana giggled. "Esso veshalni, mio pruto. O t'lomzi mamarla."
Naveen sighed again, but this time it was breathier and completely blissful. "Oh, Tiana, your voice…"
"I hope you like it just as much in English," Tiana countered. "Because as good as I might get in Maldonian someday, I don't think I'll ever feel as comfortable with it as I do with English. …You don't expect me to speak Maldonian at you all the time, right?"
"If you feel more comfortable speaking English, then that is what we will speak," said Naveen, wrapping his arms around her tighter and lightly squeezing her breast.
"What about you, though? You're probably more comfortable with Maldonian than you are with English…"
Naveen shrugged. "Maldonian, English, French, German, Italian… I am equally comfortable in all of them. Besides, I got to know you and fell in love with you in English. So I am quite happy to continue that."
"How do you keep all those languages straight? I'm having enough trouble with just two!"
"I have had English, French, German, Italian, and Latin lessons since I was very young. And Maldonian is what we speak around the palace. When you learn them when you're young, they come naturally." Naveen hummed thoughtfully, his cheek still pressed against Tiana's, as the two of them continued to gaze at their conjoined hands. "Of course, I do not actually speak Latin very well, I can only read it…"
"What language do you think in?" Tiana asked softly.
"What language do I think in?" Naveen seemed surprised by the question. "Well… I guess I have never really paid attention before. It depends on what I am thinking of, I suppose. When I think of you, I think in English." He squeezed her again, but using his other hand, the one that was entwined in hers.
"Not in French? French is a pretty language."
"Well then." Naveen smiled and kissed Tiana again. "I will try to think of you in French from now on, mon chére."
Tiana smiled, twisting her head enough so that Naveen could kiss her full on the lips this time, a cue which he gladly took… but in moving her head upwards, Tiana caught a glimpse of the papers on her desk, and cut the kiss short by pulling away and groaning. "Damn it, Naveen, why do you always have to distract me when I'm working?"
"I only distract you when you're working and you shouldn't be." Naveen released his hold on her and stood up. "Besides, you distract me as well, so fair is fair, right?" He smiled at her and extended his hand. "Now then, Miss Wilcox, if you will allow me to escort you home—seeing as you refused my generous offer to put you up at my place of dwelling for the night—"
"Don't even," laughed Tiana, taking his hand and standing up out of her chair. "Alright, you can take me home. My home, not yours."
"Soon those will be the same place," grinned Naveen.
Tiana returned the smile, leading him to the door of her office and pushing it open. The light from the streetlamps filtered through the windows, illuminating sections of tables at even intervals against the dark backdrop.
She stood and stared at it for a moment, the reality sinking in in the silence far more than it had ever had before now. "Almost there…" she murmured. Then she turned and looked at Naveen, incredulously. "I can't believe I'm really almost there…"
"I can," said Naveen in earnest. "After all you've gone through, plus the faith you've always had in your dream… did you ever really think you wouldn't get here?"
"Oh, many, many times," sighed Tiana. "After all the obstacles, all the things and people standing in my way…" She smiled resolutely. "But that don't matter. I faced them all and here I am. Here… here we are."
"As I said… I would not leave you here alone."
Tiana looked at him, her hand still in his and stroking it absent-mindedly, feeling a sense of wholeness with him there, him and her restaurant dream finally coming true and again that happiness that she had never known she could feel to such an extent and…
"I wouldn't even be here without you," she murmured with a soft, loving smile. Someday she'd find a way to make it up to him for all he'd done for her. Someday she'd at least find the words to be able to thank him, when right now all she could do was look at him and smile. "Thank you, sweetheart, thank you…"
They pulled each other close and kissed in the darkness.
"Are you sure," Naveen finally asked, pulling away only just enough to speak, "that you do not want to come back home with me tonight?"
"I need to get my rest," Tiana answered. Naveen could only just see the playful, knowing smile on her face through the darkness. "If I went home with you I wouldn't get any. And I have a big day ahead of me tomorrow."
Naveen laughed good-naturedly. "Of course. I will escort you home, Miss Wilcox."