The kitchen of Tiana's Palace was in bedlam. The new chef and his assistant, on a working sabbatical from their restaurant in Paris, were doing God-knows-what to the concept of gumbo on one stovetop, while Tiana was working on her own recipe on the next. The chef was chittering away -- it would have been chittering to anyone else, that is, but Tiana understood him. It was an odd talent, the only remainder of her stint as a frog. And having been a frog, she didn't mind the little chef being in her kitchen. So he was a rat. So what?
It was the princesses she had to watch.
Belle was great at tracking down old cookbooks, but every so often she got it into her mind to build some new kitchen equipment, and Tiana had had to forbid the tinkering out of hand after one of Belle's devices malfunctioned and nearly took out a wall. Pocahontas took to the bayou like someone who'd been schooled in the outdoors all her life -- which, Tiana supposed, she had -- and, between her own efforts and those of the other hunters she'd organized, she brought back the most amazing assortments of fish and game. Pocahontas was concerned about taking too many wild animals, though, so she'd started captive breeding efforts behind the restaurant, and Charlotte had screamed her head off when the snapping turtles got loose. Mulan was a fair hand in the kitchen, and amazing at turning out problem customers, but she preferred trousers to a dress, and that raised eyebrows. And Tiana had to watch Ariel constantly, because Ariel was fascinated with the ovens and would burn herself at the slightest opportunity, or none. She also tended to sniffle when cleaning fish. But Tiana thanked God daily for Jasmine, who had made the worst initial impression -- "where are you getting these spices? they're no good" -- but had taken it upon herself to be sure that the kitchen was supplied with the very best materials the city of New Orleans and, indeed, the world could offer; Jasmine had charmed every merchant in the city to the point that she knew what was coming in, on what ship, from where, before the harbormaster did.
Charlotte, who had been delighted when her lifelong friend had become a princess, was downright beside herself when five more princesses descended upon New Orleans. Between organizing an array of ever-more glamorous balls -- for Tiana, free publicity that did staggeringly wonderful things to the restaurant's bottom line -- Charlotte hung around the restaurant day after day to chatter with everyone. Tiana didn't much mind. Charlotte was a good friend, and she kept Ariel from accidentally setting things on fire.
"Ahem," said a familiar and well-loved voice from behind Tiana.
Tiana glanced over her shoulder at her husband. "Are you looking for something to do?" she said.
Naveen shrugged. "I was wondering," he said, "if there was perhaps a... different contribution I could make?"
"What's the matter?" Tiana said. "Are you all done mincing?"
"All done? Yes. ...no. Almost. But I have moved. I am now beyond mincing."
Tiana raised an eyebrow. "Beyond mincing?"
Naveen was impervious to skepticism. "Perhaps not quite beyond. But I am a prince of Maldonia. I am ready for..." his voice lowered suggestively. "Further responsibilities."
Tiana rolled her eyes. "All right," she said, handing him a long wooden spoon. "See that pot?"
Naveen took the spoon in hand and attacked the pot with a ferocity approaching the heroic. In the scant few seconds Tiana needed to finish the mincing, he had splattered the oven, himself, Jasmine, Ariel, and the small French rat, while somehow leaving the rat's assistant perfectly dry.
Tiana dropped the knife and dived for him. "No, no!" she said. "Stop! Not like that. Slowly. Like this." She moved in slow, deep circles, reaching the very bottom of the pot, turning over all of the ingredients so they tumbled around each other. "See? Try it."
Naveen's fingers brushed hers as he took the spoon again. The tip of his tongue protruded slightly from the corner of his mouth as, deep in concentration, he slowly and awkwardly wobbled the spoon through an experimental arc or two. He frowned, gritted his teeth, and tried the other direction. Sweat beaded on his forehead, and his hair clung to his scalp in damp ringlets. His grip slipped and he nearly lost the spoon; a desperate grab barely saved it from plunging beneath the surface. "I don't understand," he said, his voice just shy of frantic. "There must be a trick to it."
Tiana bit her lip. She could not laugh at him, but it was hard not to; with the hilarity, though, she felt a quiet, warm glow. You knew you loved someone when you were fond of them at their most ridiculous, she thought. "I know you can do this," she said.
"How do you know that?"
Tiana hesitated, then rose onto her toes and whispered into Naveen's ear.
"Eh?" said Naveen. Then he said, "What?" and "Hum!" and also "Ohhhh!" He blinked, then turned to Tiana as she lowered herself and stepped back. "You mean it is -- ahhhhhhh! I see!" He smiled, a broad, delighted smile. He licked his lips, transferred his full attention to the pot. And began to stir. Perfectly. Smoothly. Slowly, but with a building rhythm. His wrist turned fluidly, arcing the long spoon to reach all the bottom corners of the pot, and then brushing back, knocking the little bits of ingredients away from the sides. He went round once, twice, again, then changed direction and brushed all the little corners of the pot again, stirred up everything that had settled to the depths, and stirred, thoroughly and with complete attention to the task. When he finished, he slowly withdrew the spoon and tapped it against the rim of the pot, leaving the spoon clean and only slightly damp.
Tiana brushed a kiss on his cheek. "There you go."
Naveen beamed. "I can stir!"
Tiana realized that there was complete silence in the kitchen.
She looked up. Everyone was staring. The little rat chef, from his perch atop his assistant's head; the assistant himself; Pocahontas and Belle and Ariel and Jasmine and even Mulan in her trousers; and Charlotte, sweet Charlotte, her mouth agape and her eyes wide.
"Yes?" said Naveen. "What?"
The princesses turned away, blushing furiously. Charlotte squealed, threw up her hands, and fled the kitchen. The rat turned back to his pot and, when his assistant didn't immediately follow, chittered something very rude in French and tugged on his assistant's hair.
Naveen, for his part, seemed not to notice the effect of his technique. "It is simple!" he said proudly. "You needed only to make reference to the relevant skill set."
Tiana gritted her teeth. "BRANCH OUT, husband."