As Tiana directed her little boat through the bayou, and narrowed her eyes as she peered into the swampy brush, she questioned why she was there at all.
Well, she knew why, actually: Mama Odie had asked.
But really, the more time went by without a lick of activity from her supposed quarry, the more the young woman wondered why she’d agreed to go. The voodoo lady had claimed there was a “great beastie” out in the bayou, and that it apparently required the attention of Tiana, and Tiana only. No one else could go, apparently, even though there were so many other people who weren’t busy running a restaurant. It was a good thing Naveen had caught on quickly, and they’d been successful enough to hire plenty of help around the Palace.
Tiana sighed, and huffed at some frizzy curls that had squirreled their way out of her bun and into her eyes.
Why I agreed to find a swamp dragon for Mama Odie, I’ll never understand…
Mama Odie hadn’t even made it seem like the dragon was a problem or anything. Tiana had made sure to ask, worried that the beast was a danger to the wildlife or the city. But no, apparently not, not according to the voodoo woman who lived in a tree. Though, she wouldn’t tell Tiana why she needed to find the dragon either. Tiana frowned as she relaxed more into the boat’s seat, and glanced around the bayou. If she was being honest with herself, it was entirely likely that Odie had told her why…and the poor chef simply couldn’t understand her phrasing.
Something about “a big ol’ babby who just be needin’ a bit of yo kinda sugah, dearie!”
My kind of sugar…what could sh—
A loud splash thundered out of nowhere, and Tiana nearly jumped out of her seat. As it was, her boat rocked and bit, and she quickly reached out for the edges and held still till it calmed. Once it did, she sighed in relief, only to squeak in terror when waves hit the boat and shook it once more. Though it was difficult, Tiana managed to keep her balance in the boat, and keep it mostly upright since the waves weren’t too violent. The splashing din off in the distance only grew louder, and her breath caught in her chest as she heard it; vicious hissing and growling, like an alligator but so much deeper, and it reverberated strangely.
Tiana sighed, her lips pursed as she looked towards where the sound had come from.
I have to go towards that, don’t I…?
She shook her head, even as she grabbed a hold of her oars again and turned the boat towards the rancorous din. She made slow progress, on purpose for the sake of stealth. Tiana wasn’t sure what exactly awaited her up ahead, and feared the worst. Either the dragon was in the middle of killing prey, or maybe attacking some boat or another. She prayed it wasn’t the latter, that would make…whatever she was supposed to do quite difficult. The waves finally started to calm, though the hissing and growling didn’t quiet. If anything, they seemed to change; became less fearsome, and more…
Tiana frowned, a strong wave of concern taking over.
As she pulled the oars into the boat, and let the vessel slowly coast closer, Tiana carefully leaned forward to get a better look. There was a lot of brush and swamp tree before her, but the young woman could just make out a dark shape. It was large…awfully large, larger than any animal she’d seen before. Even though Tiana knew the water to have fair depth here, the form still extended several feet into the air above the water’s surface. Once her boat finally drifted around the brush to an opening, Tiana narrowed her eyes at the large shape.
Only for her eyes to go wide as she beheld the beast.
Its large, trunk-like shoulders sat high above the water’s surface, and its thick, muscled arms disappeared into the murky swamp. As it growled and shook, Tiana saw the enormous wings on its back, almost like huge fins that seemed trapped against it. The young woman blinked as she noticed a large chain-net all over the beast’s body, that kept its wings trapped. She almost fell back in her seat when, with a rising growl, the beast struggled to stand. As it did, Tiana saw only one of its mighty legs was free, the other being pinned to its huge barrel chest by the net. For a moment, she lost herself to the moment, her fists clenched as she silently rooted for the beast to rise.
But just as he was about manage to stand, Tiana saw his leg begin to tremble, until it finally shook too much and he felt into the water.
The growl rose in several octaves as the beast lifted his head, which looked like some amalgamation of tiger and frog, and he roared out into the swamp. Tiana immediately covered her ears with her hands, the sound was so near and loud. As his lips curled back during his roar, gold around his nose and green along his jaw, rows of teeth that would make an alligator flee revealed themselves. Even as intimidating and fearful as the display was, Tiana had lost her fear and animosity for the poor beast.
Without another moment of hesitation, Tiana quickly gathered her oars and propelled herself forward. She made sure not to go too fast; she wasn’t a fool, after all. But she couldn’t delay any longer, especially with the risk of whatever hunter owned this net coming for his quarry. As her boat drifted closer, the great beast shifted and turned his head to look at her. He kept his great head partially submerged, his mouth hidden beneath the water, only his nose, cheeks, and keen brown eyes locked right on her own.
Tiana refused to back down, and kept her eyes on his in return as she pulled the oars back in.
She quietly let her boat drift closer as she rested her hands in her lap. The young woman maintained her calm, silent air as she grew ever nearer to the beast, who held perfectly still as well. He never so much as blinked, didn’t even twitch, but Tiana knew perfectly well that this powerful beast could very well harm her at any moment. He was trapped in the grasp of a net that constricted his movements, but as she got closer she now realized how truly large he was. Either the water wasn’t very deep here, or the beast was just that big, as even his back rose over her head.
This standoff lasted until her boat gently bumped to a stop against his cat-like nose. He sniffled at the contact, but otherwise kept his stillness and narrowed his eyes at her. A light growl rumbled from him, a warning, but not exactly a threat. Tiana took a deep breath and slowly lifted her hands from her lap; the growl rose a single octave, but that was the only change.
“Can you understand me…?” She tentatively asked of the beast.
For several moments, he remained unmoving, even as the growl stopped. His eyes widened back to normal as he seemed to relax, and he blinked slowly at her. Startled as she was by the purposefulness of his actions, Tiana had no reason now to doubt his intelligence. The movements he’d made were all but a verbal yes.
“All right…I’m not here to hurt you, I promise. I just want to help you, okay?”
He seemed to almost search her eyes for several moments, and then he blinked slowly again. He then hummed, a deep, thrumming sound that actually made the water around his form ripple from the force of it. Despite the strength behind the noise, Tiana could sense the gentle tone to it, and sighed in relief. She slowly reached out for the dragon’s face, and gently laid her hands on his snout. His skin was smooth and slimy to the touch…Tiana smiled—no, mucus-y to the touch. She could feel the vibrations of his thrumming in her hands now, and it felt good as it went up her arms. The dragon closed his eyes at the contact and thrummed harder for a beat, before he quieted a little.
The great beast pacified for now, she gently pulled herself and her boat along his side, using his strong form as leverage. As she pulled herself around to the side of his head, Tiana felt something bump into the bottom of the boat. She panicked for a brief moment, before she realized it was just the dragon. He’d raised his free arm up underneath her boat, like a makeshift dock to hold it steady. Tiana looked to the dragon, who had one eye peeking over at her, and she gave him a bright smile.
With her boat now secure, Tiana reached out for the net and pulled herself onto the dragon’s large form. It was mostly metal in makeup, with very few fibrous materials to avoid any decay or animal interference while the hunters let the traps set. She smirked proudly, however, as she pulled a small, single-handed pair of bolt cutters from her pocket. Tiana had never been happier to be wearing pants than now, for both the maneuverability and the easily accessed pockets.
It took several minutes, as Tiana carefully clambered over the dragon’s body, and snipped at the important junctions of the net that kept the beast trapped. It was tricky, as the dragon’s mucus-coated hide made it tricky for her to not slip about him. But luckily for her, he was a large one, and there was plenty of him to hold onto. The humidity of the bayou only got to Tiana the more she worked, as the physical exertion only made her sweat, and she pulled a little at her vest. She panted lightly, and had to pause every now and again to run a sleeved arm over her face, but she persisted regardless.
Finally, the net loosened about the beast’s form, and he stretched his once trapped left arm out.
The dragon slowly stood, his limbs now all free as rose to his full height. Tiana dropped to her knees for more stability, and held onto his hide. Her poor boat, no longer docked on the beast’s leg, fell back into the swamp and was buffeted away by the small waves his rising had caused. He stretched out his wings, which Tiana now noticed didn’t look like standard dragon wings; they had no bat-like fingers, they were simply vast canvases of hide held aloft by two long, strong appendages. The dragon flapped them tentatively, methodically, as he stretched them out and caused gusts of wind that only made more waves.
The dragon craned his great head back to look at Tiana, and blinked at her again. When she didn’t move, and merely stared back at him, he grunted and swung his head. Tiana frowned, it almost looked like he gestured her to come to his head. She slowly crawled her way up his back, closer to his big frog-ish mug, and he merely wiggled excitedly and nodded. The young woman rolled her eyes at the giddy approval that radiated from the beast, but had an affectionate smirk on her face.
Once she reached his head, the dragon steadied himself on his legs…and then vigorously shook himself.
Tiana now understood, as she yelped and clung to the beast’s great head, why he’d prodded her there. He seemed to purposefully shake his head less than the rest of his body, though it still wiggled from the force of his shake. After a few moments of readjustment after being freed of the net, he finally stilled and let out a cooing howl into the air. The deep sound gently echoed through the bayou, and Tiana could swear the swamp quieted to listen to his call. As the last of the dulcet tones dissipated in the humid air, the dragon ended it with a vigorous growl.
Before Tiana could make any comment on the dragon’s triumphant return to freedom, the beast started walking. She could only squeak in surprise and hold fast to his head, lest she simply fall into the swamp water about his elbows. The young woman glanced behind her, across the great beast’s back and at where her boat drifted aimlessly in the bayou. She sighed and shook her head as it grew more distant, with every heavy step the dragon took through the water. It was a cheap boat, anyhow, a simple little canoe she’d purchased on the spot for this little foray. Nothing Tiana was attached to, or couldn’t easily replace; it was merely a minor annoyance to watch it disappear in the brush.
For the first few minutes of the dragon’s trek, Tiana had simply resigned herself to the situation. But as the trip went on, and on and on, and the sun dipped ever lower in the sky, she began to worry. She didn’t recognize the bayou around them, but in her defense, she’d never been out here other than that fateful event but a few months ago. Everything just looked and felt the same to her, just mossy trees and lively waters. Every so often, Tiana could swear she saw a gator or two; but every time it became clear there was an alligator, the dragon simply had to grunt and nod towards them, and they would just float away.
So the big guy has authority around here, does he? Good to know, good to know…
Tiana allowed the trip to go on for a little while longer, before her concern grew too great. She didn’t know where the dragon was taking her, and it wasn’t as if he could simply tell her. He might understand her, but she couldn’t necessarily understand him. She shook her head as she leaned over the dragon’s head, who blinked up at her before he looked forward again.
“Excuse me, big guy, but…if you’re doing all right now, I need to be getting back home.”
The dragon didn’t respond, didn’t even blink up at her, and simply kept walking.
“…hello? H-hello, mister dragon, did you catch that? Because I really do need to be going home now.”
Still no response…the dragon snorted and licked its lips, but otherwise continued its course. Tiana frowned and pursed her lips as she sat back, and lightly glared at the back of the dragon’s head. She didn’t much care for being ignored by the beast, especially when her life was more or less in its paws. The dragon did owe her, after all; if she hadn’t freed it from that net, its roars and cries would’ve attracted whatever trappers laid it in the first place. But Tiana wasn’t sure as to the extent of the dragon’s intelligence, and whether or not it fully understood the predicament it had been in, or what she’d done for it.
As her patience grew thinner, she finally sighed and glared at the back of his head.
“If you don’t give me some sort of response, I will slap the back of your big ole skull, do you hear me?”
If the dragon heard her, he didn’t believe her, as he just sniffed with a hiss and kept walking. Tiana raised her eyebrows in tandem with her hand, narrowed her eyes and waited a beat, then gave the back of his head a hearty smack. The dragon yelped and halted midstride, before it turned its head around to look at her. The beast actually lifted an eyebrow-like bony ridge, and gave her an expression that easily read as: “Really?” Tiana simply crossed her arms and glared back at him.
“Well, you weren’t listening to me, were you?”
The dragon snorted and ducked his head as he lowered the brow, and seemed to wait.
Pleased that he was listening now, Tiana continued, “As I was trying to tell you before, big guy, if you’re feeling better then I need to be going home. You left my boat behind, and I am very effectively lost, so can you please help me?”
She shrugged and gestured to the angry bits of hide that had been chaffed by the netting. “I don’t know if you noticed, but I helped you out earlier…”
The dragon stared at her for a moment, before he actually sighed and shook his head and kept walking. Tiana frowned and crossed her arms as she did her best to burn a hole into the back of the dragon’s head. He didn’t act aware of affected by her glare, but she kept it up anyway, because it felt good to do so. This impasse of theirs went on for several minutes, as the dragon continued to meander his way through the bayou. Tiana, having gotten nowhere with the dragon, distracted herself with examining the beast’s form.
Though his overall body was green, with a lighter green for his underbelly, he was not entirely naturally colored. Stretches of purple covered parts of his form here and there; the most notable being on a mask-like strip over his eyes, that had little wings that came back long his head, and forward where it met at the top of his dark green nose. A strip of golden yellow covered the bridge of his nose, between his eyes and the purple mask-like marking over it. There was also gold underneath the mask, on either side nose over his mouth, almost like the whites of a tiger’s snout. More of this fascinating green-purple-gold pattern continued and varied about the rest of him, but Tiana didn’t want to give the dragon the credit of her appreciating his mighty form.
Finally, after a few more minutes of monotonous walking through the bayou—which had found Tiana reclining against the dragon’s neck—she looked up to see something out of place. As she leaned up to look a little harder, her eyes widened as she actually recognized the enormous tree ahead of them. A soft yellow light glowed from its top, where a shabby little boat-turned-shack sat nestled in its boughs. Though Tiana was hard-pressed to remember most of the bayou she’d travelled through with the boys, this place she remembered just fine.
“Mama Odie’s?! You…you took us here?”
The dragon smiled back at her, but it wasn’t smug or ornery like she’d expected. It was kind and beaming, like he was proud of himself. It made Tiana hesitate for a moment, surprised as she was to see the expression. Before she could make any sort of comment, the dragon turned his head back forward and waded through the waters up to the tree. Tiana had expected the beast to let her off at the stairs, and either leave or find his own way up. But to her surprise, he stood up on his hind legs and rested his paws against the bark of the great tree. Tiana was just able to get a good grip on his head as she watched sharp claws emerge from his digits. She couldn’t help her gasp, shocked as she was to watch the frog-like paws suddenly unsheathe dangerous claws.
Between his natural stickiness from his frog-like anatomy, and the sharp claws he’d unsheathed, the dragon made his way up the tree’s side. Even from her position just behind his head, Tiana could still feel gravity strengthen its grip on the beast as he pulled himself out of the water. But his strength outmatched his weight, as the dragon began to crawl his way up the tree and reach Mama Odie’s boathouse. Once he reached the top, where the tree spread out and made a bowl in which the boathouse settled, he rested his arms and chest at the top and stopped. He raised his canvas-like wings onto the tree, as well, to further assist with his balance.
The dragon half-lounged there as he hung from the tree, and lowered his head to let Tiana down. She gently made her way down, and slid off his neck onto the tree. Tiana walked around to his head and rested her hands on either side of his dark green nose. The dragon blinked at her a couple times and, to her great surprise, actually smiled.
“Oooh, you back already, dearie?!”
Tiana spun around to see Mama Odie shuffle energetically out of her house, and made a beeline for the dragon. The young woman simply backed away as the short voodoo lady waddled up to the beast’s head.
“You big ol’ slimy baby, did Tiana finally find ya?” Mama Odie smiled her wide toothless smile at the dragon as she blindly patted at his snout. The dragon, to his credit, hardly blinked and merely smiled down at the little woman. “Aww, you quiet lug, I know you’re there! I’d recognize the creak of my tree when ya climb your way up here anywhere! Now where that girl be at, boy? Ya didn’t leave her behin’ in that there bayou, did you?”
Tiana smiled and rolled her eyes as she carefully walked closer to Mama Odie. “I’m right here, Mama Odie, the big guy didn’t leave me back there.” She smiled over at him and patted his big cat-like nose. “He was nice enough to give me a ride.”
Mama Odie cackled happily as the clapped her hands. “Oh ho ho! I knew you two would be getting’ along! This big baby don’t normally like meetin’ new people, but I knew that he’d be likin’ you!”
As the voodoo lady continued to triumphantly cackle and even start to dance a little, Tiana and the dragon merely glanced at each other with matching raised eyebrows. The young woman pursed her lips and shrugged, and the dragon sighed and glanced back at Mama Odie. They were both somewhat amused, but mostly flabbergasted by the dancing woman. It took a few moments before the little voodoo lady had calmed down enough to speak again.
“All righty, dearies, you two should be headin’ back to your little restaurant!”
In almost perfect unison, the dragon reared back his head and mewled in confusion, just as Tiana’s threw up her hands and stared in shock.
“I’m sorry, what? Mama Odie, hold on, you’re not expecting me to take him into the city, are you?”
Mama Odie just smiled at her…or, well, two feet to her right, but close enough. “But o’course, dearie! The two o’ you gotta stick together! Most people don’t take too well to him, ya know; kinda like your pal Louis! You gotta keep an eye on him, Tia dearie, and he’ll be keeping an eye on you too!”
Tiana frowned and crossed her arms, and tried to think of a way out of this. Mama Odie tended to be very…adamant when she told you what you needed to do. Sure, she’d been right before; the voodoo lady had accurately surmised that “digging a little deeper” and getting her restaurant wasn’t what Tiana had truly needed. But the more Tiana thought about it, the less likely she saw her having a dragon for a companion would be a good idea.
Amidst Tiana’s musings, a sigh broke her concentration, and she looked up to see Mama Odie with her hands on her hips. “I don’t be needin’ to see to know you be doubtin’ me again, dearie.”
She smiled kindly at Tiana, and to the young woman’s surprise, was actually aimed at her. “The two o’ you be needin’ each other, trust me. He’s been alone for too long now, he needs a pal to keep him company and to be keepin’ him outta trouble! And you,” Mama Odie’s grin grew as she pointed a bony finger at Tiana. “You’re the only person who can handle this big fella! The pair of ya are more alike than ya know, and this’ll do ya both good!”
The short woman then approached Tiana and insistently pushed her towards the dragon. “Now you two be headin’ off, now! Tia dear, you gotta be getting’ home before your prince starts to worry!” As Tiana finally acquiesced and climbed onto the dragon’s neck, Mama Odie smiled up at her. “Now don’t be lettin’ this baby here be seen. Da rest of town isn’t quite as ready for him.”
Tiana frowned as she looked down at the dragon’s head, who simply looked back at her and blinked.
“How could I possibly hide him? He’s enormous, not to mention he’s got bright purple and gold markings! He looks like a living Mardi Gras float!”
The dragon smiled wide, his pearly white teeth shining in the firelight of Mama Odie’s house, and Tiana raised an eyebrow at him. He blinked innocently, then closed his eyes and shuddered intensely. Tiana gasped as the beast disappeared beneath her in a wave, his hide shimmering for a moment before it blended in with the environment. After his disappearing act, when it seemed clear to Tiana that she wouldn’t fall, she stared in awe at the “empty” space beneath her.
“You…you can camouflage! That’s incredible!”
In another shudder and shimmer, the dragon reappeared beneath her and opened his eyes. He glanced back at her and smiled once more, clearly proud of himself. Mama Odie cackled to the side as she walked back into her boathouse.
“Bye bye, dearies, you two be safe now!”
The pair left then, and the dragon carefully climbed his way back down before he dropped into the waters below. Tiana decided to simply relax as the beast waded through the bayou, though she doubted anyone would believe her if she told them. A frog dragon in a bayou? Far more believable than even the mere concept of Tiana relaxing. But relax she did, as she laid back in the space between his shoulders, sheltered by his wings as he kept them half raised. The rocking motion from this spot quickly and easily lulled her to sleep.
Strangely enough, as she slept on the dragon’s back, Tiana dreamt of her father. She dreamed of his hugs, of how he used to hold her when she was little and sing her to sleep. The dream was odd, however, and not quite right to her memories; her father in the dream was stronger than she remembered, and didn’t sing out loud. Instead he hummed, a deep and comforting sound that vibrated deep to her core. Tiana didn’t argue with this odd skew the dream caused, and simply enjoyed the moment. It wasn’t until she awoke from her sleep, and heard the humming from her dreams aloud, that she understood.
Her father in her dream had been influenced by and mixed with the dragon she’d napped on.
Tiana sighed and shook her head as she sat up.
That’s the subconscious for you, I suppose.
Her waking ended up being perfectly timed, as the dragon had just arrived at the edge of the bayou where it met the city limits. He rose out of the water, and flapped his wings lightly to flick off the water from them before he folded them along his back. Tiana could almost feel the dragon’s muscles tense as gravity pulled on his heavy form, but she smiled when it was clear he was too strong to collapse under his weight. The dragon shook himself to remove the rest of the water that still clung to his form, but as always, not hard enough that Tiana lost her grip.
Tiana looked up to scan the city, and sighed with relief when it was clear New Orleans was asleep. Though there were plenty of people who enjoyed being out in the night, most of their activities were inside. It would be easy for the dragon to sneak his way through, so long as he wasn’t too indiscreet. But just as Tiana leaned forward, and was about to instruct the dragon on where to go, his head reared up and she fell back. He sniffed the air persistently, and seemed oddly excited. The beast quickly sauntered forward, and Tiana could only cringe and hold on to his neck.
As the dragon swiftly but stealthily traveled the back streets of the city, Tiana frowned and scanned the area, confused. She knew exactly where they were going, she knew this place better than her own restaurant: home. Or, at least, her childhood home she’d spent all her life until she’d finally gotten her restaurant. She and Naveen had gotten their own place, but Tiana would never forget this part of town. The dragon crouched low as he neared the rows of small houses. He sniffed some more, then excitedly made a bark-like sound as he stood taller and looked over the houses. Eventually, he zeroed in on one house, and howled softly as he intently stared at it.
Tiana followed his gaze to the house he was locked onto, and gasped as she recognized it.
That’s…that’s my old house…
The dragon stared at her old house for a while, then sat back on his haunches and made a keening whine. It sounded sad, almost mournful, as the dragon stared; Tiana stood up a bit to get a better look at his face. Her heart broke a little at his expression, which was truly sorrowful; his bottom lip jutted out in a pout, and the dark green, bony ridges that resembled eyebrows furrowed. Even his nose crinkled up almost adorably, and she heard that whine continue to faintly echo from him.
Tiana carefully slid her way down so she could stand on the ground beside the dragon, and walked up to his front. At first, he didn’t react to her movement, but blinked when she whistled softly and looked down. She waved him closer, and he hesitated for a moment as he blinked, then leaned his head down to her level. Tiana caressed his jaw once he was in reach, and smiled as the dragon closed his eyes and hummed appreciatively. She did this for a while to comfort him, then slid her hands to his chin and squeezed it gently. When she remained quiet and still, he opened his eyes to inspect her, and blinked curiously.
“Hey, big boy, what’s wrong? Do you know this place?”
His bottom lip stuck out again as his pout returned, and he snorted. The dragon glanced up at the house, then blinked down back at her. Tiana never expected an answer, but to her great shock, the beast opened his mouth…and spoke.
Tiana gasped and her eyes widened, and she leaned back to look the dragon in the eye. He seemed nonplussed by her reaction, and by his speaking, and simply blinked at her. For her part, she recovered fairly quickly, and glanced back at her old house. How did the dragon know it, and well enough that he not only knew its generally location, but could pick it out from a slew of matching houses? Tiana took a moment to ponder the strangeness, and she trembled at the ramifications of one particular theory that shone bright in her mind.
She slowly reached into a pocket on the inside of her vest, and pulled out a pocket watch. Tiana pressed the button, and it popped open to reveal the watch face inside. On the inside of the cap, however, was a photo; an old picture of her father, James. She gulped and pursed her lips as she lost herself in the picture, and felt the familiar echo of sadness that always accompanied remembering her father. Tiana took a deep breath to suppress the grief, and looked up at the dragon as she held it up for the dragon to see.
“Does…does this man look familiar to you?”
The dragon narrowed his eyes as he leaned closer, and peered closely at the picture. It took a few seconds, during which the beast even tilted his head and hummed curiously; but eventually, the dragon’s eyes widened as he pulled his head back and smiled wide. He all but danced in place as he bobbed his head excitedly, and hummed some more.
“Yes! Man is James! James helped when pup, took home and healed, kept safe!”
Then the dragon plopped his rear down and pouted. “Then James said to leave, that pup needed to stay in swamp. Sad, pup wanted to meet James pup.”
The English was broken, and implied a less than stellar intelligence. But she knew better, this dragon was not dull; he just didn’t know how to speak well, was all. Besides, it was what he said that truly mattered, not that he could speak at all Tiana, awe struck as she was by the thought of her father nursing a young dragon, blinked up at the beast in surprise from his last statement.
“J-James pup? What do you mean?”
The dragon shook itself and blinked at her. “James pup! His pup, little James pup. Wanted to meet, but James say pup too small, so had to go back to swamp.”
The pout returned as the dragon slumped, and looked genuinely grieved, which touched Tiana. “But James no return, Mama Odie say he go away and get hurt, not come back. Never get to meet James pup, even though James promise could later.”
The dragon hadn’t even finished speaking, and already tears had snuck their way past Tiana’s guard. She felt a sob build in her chest, and put a hand to it, as if to hold it back. But the reveal from the dragon, the knowledge that her father had hoped to one day introduce her to a frog dragon he’d saved as a pup, struck her more than she expected it to. Despite her efforts, a sniffle escaped Tiana, quickly followed by a sob as she tried to wipe the tears away. She felt the large nose of the dragon nudge her, and when she heard the concerned whine, instinctively reached out and hugged the beast’s nose.
“Why nice lady cry? Is okay?”
Tiana chuckled and smiled, and took a moment to nod as she pulled back to look the dragon in his big brown eyes.
“I am very okay, big guy. Do you want to know why?”
The dragon pouted and nodded, but didn’t pull away from the hug. Tiana smiled and gave his snout a squeeze, before she drew back and retreated a step. The young woman beamed up at the dragon, as he stared curiously at her, and waited for her to do something. She took a deep breath, then outstretched her arms and shrugged.
“My name is Tiana, and I am James pup; he was my father.”
A beat of silence passed, as Tiana stood there before the dragon, and he blinked once. Twice. Thrice…then he smiled so big and wide, he even further resembled a frog; save for the rows of sharp, croc-like teeth. But that overjoyed sparkle in the beast’s big brown eyes was too pure, and rendered his expression almost cartoonishly sweet and adorable. His stillness didn’t last long, however; as his excitement grew, he began to bob up and down. He danced for a while longer, and Tiana could tell he struggled to keep it quiet and discreet; he was clearly and oh so very happy at her revelation, but the need to keep secret thankfully remained in his mind.
Tiana could only watch the adorable spectacle as the dragon danced on his toes for a spell, before he fell into a crouch and nuzzled her with his nose. She giggled and hugged the big green mug marked with purple and gold. He happily hummed and closed his eyes as he snuggled, and the sound rose and fell with his excitement.
“So happy to see Tiana!” He opened his eyes and pouted. “Wanted to meet when both were pups, sorry for long wait.”
Tiana smirked at him and rubbed his jowls. “No need to apologize, sweetie. Daddy was right to send you back; the rest of the city wouldn’t have been too keen on you hanging around, not as keen as I would’ve been. It was safer for you out there, hunters or no hunters; the city is no place for a dragon.”
The beast’s pout intensified at her words, and he all but wilted as he ducked his head, his shoulders rose up in a hunch, and he sighed. Tiana cupped his chin in her hands, and when he resisted her gentle pull, she shook her head and gave it a scratch. He hummed involuntarily in response, and when she drew him up again, he relented and met her eyes. Tiana smiled gently to him as she stroked his chin.
“But…there is absolutely a place for you with me.”
That quickly rid the dragon of his melancholy, and he beamed at her again as he kneaded the ground with his paws.
“Good! Make happy, will follow Tiana!”
Tiana chuckled, then paused for a beat and frowned. “You know…you could use a name, big guy. I need something to call you.”
The dragon blinked and tilted his head. “Name? Never have name, Odie and James never gave name. Never choose own name. What name from Tiana?”
Tiana took a couple of steps back from the dragon, and narrowed her eyes at him as she held her chin in one hand, and used the other to hold her elbow. The dragon seemed to all but pose before her, as he sat back like a swamp tiger, his chest puffed out and his head held high. He smiled, too, and kept his wings folded against his back. Tiana couldn’t help a mild chuckle at his posing, but scratched her cheek as she continued to think.
So, Mama Odie never gave the big guy a name? I suppose if she knew about our connection the whole time, she wanted me to have the honor. Sounds about right for her…I am surprised that daddy didn’t give him a na—
Tiana’s eyes widened as she gasped, and a bright smile lit her face. The dragon blinked and tilted his head at her sudden gasp, but she could hardly bring herself to speak. She clasped her hands together before her face, and struggled to keep herself from tearing up. It was so obvious now, so clear; of course her father would’ve had a name for the beast, but as always, he would’ve left it up to her. She had the name…
At her continued inactivity, the dragon laid down and gently nudged her with his nose.
“Tiana? What is it? Have name?”
Tiana nodded, still beaming her bright smile, and hugged the dragon’s head. “Daddy did name you, big guy, he just wanted me to give it to you. I know your name.”
The beast didn’t move, but his eyes widened a bit before he blinked.
“You, my sweet dragon…you are Paxton.”
Naveen paced about the riverside seating area of the restaurant, a pensive frown on his face as he ran a hand through his hair—for the hundredth time, it felt like. Tiana had assured him she would be back after a short while, that whatever task Mama Odie had of her shouldn’t take too long. But it had been a couple of hours now, and he was getting worried. He didn’t even know what it was his wife was doing; Mama Odie hadn’t felt the need to inform him, and Tiana herself didn’t know until she’d gotten out there. The poor prince was left to simply wait for his princess to return, and though he trusted her completely, it was only sensible for him to worry.
It wasn’t something you usually wanted your significant other to do, after all; venturing alone into a bayou at the behest of an old voodoo lady.
Naveen was just about to lose his patience, and head for Mama Odie’s house to ask after his wife, when a sudden loud roar of water sounded behind him. He spun around to face the river, and he expected to see either Louis, or some other aquatic beast. But to his great surprise, all he saw was Tiana with a big cheeky smile on her face. Naveen scurried her way and wrapped her in a hug, one she’d anticipated and quickly returned. He held her close, and as she squeezed back, they simply stood there together for a while. Once he was satisfied, Naveen gently pulled away, and sighed in relief at the (still cheeky) smile she gave him.
“Oh, Tiana, I was starting to get worried! It felt like you were gone forever, darling!”
Tiana giggled as she brought her hands up to caress his cheeks. “I’m sorry it took longer than I meant it to, Naveen. There was a…development, that required my full attention.”
Naveen raised an eyebrow at her, but smirked. “Oh really? And what, pray tell, was so important that it occupied your time for so long? It must be quite the story!”
Tiana’s smile, if it was possible, got even cheekier. “Why tell you, when I could show you?”
Naveen frowned, but before he could even open his mouth to voice his confusion, his wife had pulled away from the hug. She took one of his hands in hers, and smile still firmly in place, tugged him with her to the canal’s edge. Once there, she leaned her arms on the railing and looked over the edge. Naveen eyed her curiously for a moment, then peaked down into the river.
His eyes widened so hard, so quickly, it’s a wonder they didn’t pop right out.
A huge head, mostly green, but marked with gold along the nose and purple across the eyes and cheeks like a mask, smiled up at him from the water. As it began to rise, Naveen made to back away, only to feel Tiana’s hand on his back to keep him in place. Unable to retreat, he merely watched in equal parts awe and terror as an enormous beast rose up from the water. It was just tall enough to stand with its upper half out of the water, and rested its massive paws on the edge. The beast smiled wide at them, and Naveen balked at its sharp, crocodile teeth.
“Easy now, Naveen, he’s not gonna hurt you.”
Naveen swung his head around to stare aghast at his wife, then back up to balk at the beast that continued to smile at them both.
“Are you quite sure about that, Tia?! He looks like he thinks I’m delicious!”
The beast had the gall to laugh, a strange, guttural sound not unlike the seals they’d heard tale of from zoos. But just as Naveen was about to protest, he heard muffled tittering to his side, and turned to look at his wife. Tiana was, indeed, giggling to herself and tried to cover the sound with her hands. Naveen crossed his arms and pouted at her, and when she finally saw his look, she sighed and shook her head.
“Paxton would never hurt you, Naveen, he’s far too sweet.”
Naveen dropped the pout as his eyes widened, and he tilted his head at her. “Paxton? You named him?”
Tiana smiled sweetly at him, then looked up at the beast. Naveen watched her for a moment, and took in how happy and…almost at peace she looked. She hadn’t looked so relaxed since they married, since they built and opened the restaurant. In fact, he could almost swear she looked even more serene than he’d seen her be before. Something about this dragon helped Tiana, and as he looked up at the dorky adoring smile Paxton sent her, Naveen had a sneaking suspicion that she helped him too.
Naveen smiled and sighed. “So…what instrument can he play?”
The matching perplexed, flabbergasted expressions they both sent him at once made the poor man all but fall over laughing.