Life contains but two tragedies. One is not to get your heart's desire; the other is to get it.
It was a good couple of minutes before Tiana could stop herself from trembling with fear and actually attempt to move.
He was gone. The shadow man was gone and wouldn't bother her, or Naveen, or anyone again, but seeing him get dragged into… dragged into hell was far from comforting. In fact, it had the exact opposite effect on the frog; she stood staring at the tomb, her breathing ragged and irregular, unable to do anything but shake.
And then, finally, it began to dawn on her.
It's over. It's over. All that's left now is for Naveen to kiss a princess, and then everything will be back to normal—everything will be RIGHT…
Slowly at first, the sight of the shadow man's fate still etched firmly in her mind, but soon her hopping became more urgent, more focused, more sure, as she bounded out of the cemetery and back onto Bourbon Street, the Mardi Gras partiers still out and about, paying no notice to the frog on a mission in their midst. Tiana almost called out for Naveen and Lottie, but stopped herself just in time—no sense in scaring everyone with a talking frog, she knew firsthand how disconcerting that was—
Suddenly she tumbled forward, her landing that time less than graceful. A man wearing a mask turned and saw her, offering his hand to help her up.
"You alright, miss? And wow, that's quite the frog mask you've got on!"
"It's not a mask, it's—" But Tiana cut herself short when, after climbing to her feet with the help of the Mardi Gras partier, realized that she was at eye level with him. With a human.
She looked down at her hand and gasped. It was brown, not green. Five fingers, not four. She touched her face, discovering a jeweled mask covering most of it. Pulling it off, she found that it was, indeed, a frog mask.
"I… I'm human!" she gasped, touching her skin, her hair, the green flapper dress decorated with purple and yellow beads and feathers that had somehow appeared on her—
"Well, of course you're human!" said the man with a confused laugh. "I mean, your frog themed outfit is quite a sight, but—"
"If I'm human, then that means—NAVEEN! LOTTIE!" Tiana raced down the street on her own two human legs, running not hopping, without giving the confused man another thought.
He had done it. Naveen had kissed Charlotte before midnight and now they were both humans. And now, if what Ray said was true, Naveen wasn't going to marry Charlotte, the rich girl, the girl he had come to New Orleans to find and marry in the first place. He was going to marry her. Tiana. The grumpy waitress who had forced him to actually do something on his own for once in his life. And he was devil-may-care and irresponsible and arrogant and every single quality that she loathed in a man.
And yet, in this particular case, she loved the end result.
She turned a corner, nearly tripping and falling thanks to the ridiculous high heel shoes that had for some reason appeared on her body the moment she transformed, finding the St. Louis cathedral just in front of her, and—
"Tia Tia Tia Tia Tia!" A whirling flash of pink seized her and spun her around in excitement. "You'll never guess what just happened! Well, alright, maybe you would—what with you being a frog and all before this, but now you're human and Prince Naveen's human and he and I are gonna get married and you're gonna get your restaurant and our dreams are finally finally coming true!"
"Slow down, Lottie, I can't… what?" Tiana drew in her breath sharply as Charlotte's words suddenly sank in.
"I'm gonna be a princess!" Charlotte spun Tiana around again in ecstasy. "And you're getting your restaurant, all the money you need to buy it all in one go! And all thanks to Naveen here." Charlotte instantly let go of Tiana and pulled Naveen to her side, taking no notice of his less-than-beaming expression. "He agreed to marry me only if I'd help you get your restaurant, isn't he a darling! And he's all mine!"
"Yes… yes, I suppose he is," Tiana murmured, looking at Naveen and biting her lip, hoping that that would mask the heartbreak suddenly mounting in her heart.
The church bells chimed twelve o'clock.
Naveen looked back at Tiana, seemingly oblivious to Charlotte smoothing him with kisses and affection, and his own unmasked emotions showed so clearly on his face that Tiana had to bite her lip even harder to keep herself from crying.
He was so beautiful. Yes, when all the buzz that a handsome prince from a far-off land would be visiting New Orleans, Tiana couldn't avoid seeing his picture plastered on every newspaper and yes, she conceded, he was fairly handsome. And? That wasn't enough to get her heart racing at all. Besides, her first encounter with him in person, it was only after she had rolled her eyes and he had shrugged and walked away that she belatedly realized that the man who had just so completely and utterly failed to impress her was in fact Prince Naveen. She had smirked about that as she stepped back into the diner, feeling a bit of satisfaction at the fact that she had rolled her eyes at a prince, a prince she almost didn't recognize because, in person, he was far less spectacular than his photos made him out to be.
Now, however, she was thinking the exact opposite. Pictures didn't do this man justice. He was the most beautiful thing she had ever seen. Because now, mixed in with the handsomeness and his complete and utter knowledge of said handsomeness, she could also see his soul. And behind that cocky, aggravating ne'er-do-well personality that the whole world saw, Tiana had seen a tender, sincere, and even slightly awkward person begin to shine through. A person that she found herself caring for deeply. A person she found herself not only wanting to spend the rest of her life with, but finding the prospect of living without him inconceivably heartbreaking and empty.
She swallowed and held her chin up high. What a load of nonsense. She had gotten along just fine without him up till now, so there was no reason why she should completely fall apart when he left. Besides… if what he had said was true, she wasn't the first girl to feel this way about him. In fact, he probably gave that "I've dated thousands of girls but you're different" line to every single one of them. All the better to get her to be putty in his arms, right? What a fool she'd been… to actually believe that… that he was really a caring, vulnerable man… that he was actually capable of commitment… that he was really in love with her…
She turned her head away, because his facial expression was doing nothing to further convince her of his deceit. If anything, his sad, longing gaze at her was only further driving home the point that he had been sincere—a point that his current actions were completely contradicting—leave a string of broken hearts behind him indeed—
They both turned towards the familiar voice… as did Charlotte, who duly let out a scream of fright upon seeing the source of it.
"Sweet Jesus mercy it's an alligator!"
"Lottie, Lottie, it's alright, Louis is a friend," Tiana quickly said.
"What is it, Louis?" Naveen asked.
Louis looked just as shaken as Tiana was sure she did, but he still took a moment to look at his friends with a surprised expression. "Tiana? Naveen? Is that really you?"
Naveen shrugged and flashed a small, yet still charming and pearly-white, smile. "Like I said, we are not frogs… we are humans."
"Louis, what's the matter?" Tiana asked, noting the way his limbs were trembling… and how he seemed to be delicately carrying something in his hand.
Louis lowered his arms, revealing a tiny, dim light just barely glowing. "The shadow man laid Ray low…"
"Oh no," Tiana whispered, quickly making her way to peer into Louis's hands at the weakened, crushed firefly, Naveen close behind her.
Ray managed to turn his tiny head up towards Tiana. "'Dat you, cher?" he murmured weakly, although the smile that appeared on his face showed instant recognition of her human form anyway.
"Yes, Ray, it's me," said Tiana, reaching down and touching him as gently as she could with her now relatively huge human hands. "Naveen and I are human again."
"Miss Charlotte LaBouff kissed me and broke the spell," said Naveen, "and so I will marry her because… that was part of the deal… and then I will get Tiana her restaurant, because that is what I promised her…"
Ray's smile faded. "Well then… guess y'all are gettin' just what ya wanted…" He closed his eyes.
And then, with one last flicker, his light slowly diminished and went out.
Tiana drew in her breath. "No," she whispered, shaking her head. "No, no, no, no…"
She felt a hand touch her shoulder, both awkwardly and comfortingly. "It's alright, Tiana," Naveen said softly, "…well, no, it isn't alright, what I mean to say is…"
Tiana felt everything inside of her crumble down into little tiny pieces. The tears finally came gushing out.
"Oh, Naveen," she sobbed, her face so twisted up in pain and tears that it was actually hurting her to cry—and yet she couldn't hold them in any longer. Now she suddenly had a reason to cry that didn't need hiding or masking. "That poor, brave little bug… if it weren't for him I wouldn't have stopped the shadow man…Oh Naveen, he can't be gone, he was so sweet, so brave…" Tiana couldn't talk anymore; the tears were becoming too great, and Naveen's arms around her and one hand stroking her hair were both comforting her and creating a whole new set of tears to take the others' place.
"He can't be gone, he just can't," she murmured, burrowing her face into his shoulder.
There was silence for a few moments, and then Tiana heard Naveen say, in an awe-struck voice, "But he isn't…"
Tiana lifted her face from his shoulder and followed his gaze up towards the night sky. And there, shining right next to the evening star—Evangeline—was a new star. A new star seeming to reach out and touch Evangeline, gently, tenderly, lovingly—
Tiana's face broke into a tear-stained smile. "He's with his Evangeline," she breathed.
Naveen said nothing to that, simply clutching Tiana closer to him.
Charlotte took a timid step up to the two of them and Louis. "Tia, honey, I'm so sorry," she said, also putting her arm around her shoulders comfortingly. "I can tell how much that li'l bug meant to you. You gonna be alright?"
"I… I…" Tiana found that she couldn't answer, because she wasn't sure if she was going to be alright.
"You poor dear. These last couple of days must have been absolutely crazy for you. Come on." Charlotte gently took Tiana's hand and pulled her away from Naveen. "I'll take you home. BIG DADDY, WHERE ARE YOU? You look exhausted, like death warmed over! You can come back to my place with Naveen and me—your gator friend can come too, I suppose—"
"No, no, no, Lottie," Tiana suddenly said, pulling away from her, "I need to go back home to Mama. She must be worried sick about me."
"You sure?" Charlotte asked. "Because I can put you up at my place if you'd like…"
"Positive," Tiana muttered, looking down at the ground. "I just wanna go home."
"Alright," said Charlotte. "Daddy! There you are!" She immediately made her way towards him and started barking out demands, Big Daddy's face showing its usual mild bewilderment at his daughter's forcefulness. "I need you to take me and Prince Naveen—the real Prince Naveen—back home, but before that we've gotta drop off Tiana and her gator friend at her house. Then Naveen and I can start planning our wedding—oh, and one more thing!" She deftly snatched his wallet from his pocket and ran back to Tiana.
Big Daddy realized only too late what she'd done. "Not again," he moaned.
Charlotte pulled a wad of bills from the wallet and held them out to Tiana. "Here, should this be enough to get you your restaurant?"
Tiana recoiled slightly in both surprise and confusion. "It's—it's—no, Lottie, put that back. You know I don't accept free handouts."
"Tia," said Charlotte sternly, "I promised Prince Naveen that I'd get you the money. I made a deal and I'm gonna keep it. Besides, I want to help you."
Tiana shook her head, pushing Charlotte's hand away. "I can't accept that, Lottie, you know I can't. I want everything that I get to come from my own work."
"But it is," Naveen chimed in. "Don't you remember? You agreed to kiss me in exchange for money for your restaurant, and—"
"But that didn't work!" Tiana retaliated. "I didn't help you at all, so don't think you're obligated—"
"You did help me," Naveen insisted. "I promised you for a second time that I'd get you your restaurant if you helped me out of the swamp, and you did that. So… so please let me keep up my end of the bargain like you kept up yours." He sighed, almost helplessly. "I want to see your dream come true, and this is the only way."
Tiana wished he hadn't looked at her like that.
"Alright," she mumbled.
Charlotte placed the money in one of Tiana's hands, and held her other one gently. "Come on, Tia honey, let's get you home."
It took a lot of convincing Eudora that the reason Tiana had been missing for the past few days was because she was a frog trapped in a voodoo curse, but the presence of the Prince of Maldonia and a friendly alligator was enough to make her at least almost willing to believe it… for a second or two. However, unfortunately, it only took a second or two for Big Daddy to whisk Charlotte and Naveen back to his mansion, Charlotte only having just enough time to shout out, "Bye Tiana, I'll come over tomorrow sometime!" before they were gone.
When the rumble of the Packard finally faded into nothingness, Eudora finally took a good long look at Louis. "And where exactly are we going to keep an alligator?" she asked.
"Oh, you don't have to keep me," Louis said quickly. "In fact, I'll just go back to the swamp—"
"Louis, at least spend the night here," Tiana interrupted. "I can find some blankets for you to sleep on."
"He can't fit in the house!" Eudora exclaimed.
"That's alright, Mrs… uh…"
"Wilcox," Tiana prompted.
"Mrs. Wilcox," Louis finished. "I can sleep outside. That's what I always do!"
"Well… alright…" Eudora managed a smile. "Guess I don't have to worry about burglars tonight…"
"And I'm beat…" Louis yawned and stretched by the steps up to the porch, curling up into a rather large ball.
"You look beat too, honey," said Eudora to Tiana gently.
"I'm comin'…" Tiana finally felt a wave of exhaustion hit her body that was even stronger than her bewilderment and heartbreak. "But first… I wanna go talk to Daddy."
Eudora smiled in understanding. "Just don't be out too late."
Tiana nodded, walking away from the house and down the narrow street…
Louis opened his eyes, watching Tiana depart… watching only for a few moments before abruptly jumping up and following her.
"Where you goin'?" he asked her, easily catching up to her. "Ain't it a little late to be taking a stroll?"
"I ain't taking a stroll, Louis," Tiana snapped. "I'm goin' to…" She sighed. "I'm goin' to the graveyard just down the road. It's where my daddy and siblings are buried."
"Oh…" Louis's voice grew soft.
"Thanks for staying with me," said Tiana with a soft, sad smile. "I guess I could use a little companionship right now."
And then she stopped. The graveyard wasn't all that far away from her house, sitting just on the edge of her neighborhood, with small, simple tombstones poking out from the overgrown lawn.
"Which one is…?" Louis asked.
Tiana pointed to two markers right underneath a wilting tree. One was larger, a white tall rectangle with the words "JAMES WILCOX, US ARMY, 8 SEPTEMBER 1875-23 MARCH 1918" etched on the front. The other, smaller tombstone wasn't as polished or rounded, with the words "HARRIET, JAMES, FELICIA, ADA WILCOX" etched apparently with less care and detail than the other and not as deeply, with no dates to go along with them.
"Daddy was eager to go fight for his country," Tiana murmured to Louis. "He was always proud of how far he was able to come, despite all the hardships he faced. He used to tell me how amazing and forward thinking our country was, how fast change could come, how his father had been born a slave and now he was a free man and able to vote. He never let our struggles get him down. He just compared them to the past and saw how quickly we were moving forward and how much better things would get. Some people think of bein' black as a setback, but not Daddy… he always thought of it as an opportunity to dream even bigger, and succeed even bigger."
She and Louis gazed reverently at the tombstone for a few moments.
"What about them?" Louis finally asked, pointing at the other, smaller tombstone. "What were they like?"
"I don't know," admitted Tiana. "They died before I was even born. There was a measles epidemic that hit the neighborhood, and they just went one right after the other. Mama and Daddy could hardly even afford one tombstone, let alone pay for the writing on it… somehow they managed to scrape enough together to get the names on, at least."
Louis said nothing to that.
"I can't even imagine," Tiana murmured. "One day you have four children, and then four days later you don't have any at all. It… it almost got my mama too."
Tiana fell silent, too. It was a story she had heard many times before from her parents, how after the deaths of eight-year-old Harriet, six-year-old Jimmy, three-year-old Felicia, and little Ada who was barely even a year old, Eudora was on the brink of death herself. How somehow she had survived, despite the sickness coupled with the emotional blow of the deaths of all her children. "You're gonna be just fine, Mrs. Wilcox… and so is the baby," the doctor had said to her when she pulled through.
"The what?" Eudora had asked in shock.
Tiana wrapped her arms around her body, trying to keep in her body heat against the cold night air. She had been a surprise. A joyful surprise in the midst of all the pain and despair. She made it past her second birthday; her fourth; her seventh; her ninth; and with each passing year she felt the presence of the siblings she had never met weigh heavier and heavier upon her. The dreams her parents had cultivated and spread across four children were now all falling on her shoulders.
She often wondered how different things would have been had they been alive. Harriet would probably be married with two or three kids of her own by now, but still making time to warn her younger sisters to beware the wiles of men. Jimmy would be strong, protective, but gentle; the spitting image of his father and the man of the family. Felicia would be busy planning her wedding to her fiancé, a stalwart, hardworking man who worked on the docks, quite the opposite of her bubbly, flighty personality. Ada and Tiana, so close in age, would laugh about this, laugh about their parents, their friends, the men in their lives…
"Whenever I look at their grave," Tiana finally said to Louis, "all I can do is think about all that I've missed out on with them gone."
"Like what?" Louis asked.
"Just… having siblings in general," Tiana murmured. "Do you have siblings?"
"Hot dog," said Tiana in surprise. "I guess you do know what it's like then."
"There ain't nothing special 'bout having siblings," said Louis with a shrug. "Just a lot of people to fight with… but I am sorry that you never even got to know yours."
Tiana shrugged. "It's stupid of me to stand here and think about what I'm missing… I can't change the reality that they're dead. Kind of stupid of me to come here in the first place, actually." She abruptly turned around and started heading back towards the house.
"I don't think it's stupid," Louis said, awkwardly running to catch up with her. "It's alright to miss them."
"How can I miss them when I didn't even know them?" Tiana retorted. "Sure, I miss my daddy… but still, it's stupid to mope about the fact that he's gone. I need to make his dreams become a reality… and I'm about to." She pulled the money from Charlotte out of her cleavage (the only place she had found to keep the money, there being no pockets in her magically obtained Mardi Gras outfit) and made herself smile. "Tomorrow my dream's finally comin' true. I'm almost there. Tomorrow I will be there. So there's nothing to be sad about."
And yet, as soon as she said the words, her smile disappeared.
Why was it that she was so close to finally attaining everything she'd ever wanted, she still felt like crying?