I guess it's partly my fault, because of my long silence, but I'd expected more reviews, at least from those who have this story on alert. To quote a favorite Disney character of mine: "After all we've been through together? Ouch." Oh well, here's the next chapter anyways, because I sort of can't stop writing now I've begun again…which is a good thing, right? I estimate that this story should be done by the end of the month, which is DEFINITELY good news, because—well, you'll see why soon enough. Yay!

And I can't believe I almost left this out, what with posting today of all days: HAPPY MARDI GRAS!

-M.R.

XXIV. BLUE SKIES AND SUNSHINE

THE NICE THING ABOUT marrying a frog, Naveen decided, was that there was definitely much less effort to be made in organizing a wedding ceremony.

In former times, Naveen'd been pretty damn terrified of marriage. This was partly due to the concept itself, and partly due to his expectations of a bride. He'd assumed that in due course, his parents would arrange for him to be tied down, not only to some uninteresting, unattractive noblewoman or princess, but also only to her. He'd be expected to be faithful to that woman. Sure, a lot of men didn't obey their marriage vows, but from what Naveen had observed in Maldonia, those vows made one's sexual exploits a lot harder to arrange. Hell, he'd had a hard enough time being sworn to a single doma, a contract not quite as binding as marriage.

But Naveen had, over the course of only about a week, left that spoiled prince behind him. He was in love with Tiana, and that made all the difference in the world. Instead of changing his life for the worse, marrying her would, Naveen was certain, be the final, most important step in the biggest change he'd ever made in his life. And as for staying faithful to Tiana…Naveen's lips curved upwards in a slow smile. That was something he looked forward to.

The thought made him all the more impatient—a characteristic of Naveen's that had not changed. He fidgeted beside Mama Odie, a cousin of Beau's quivering at his throat in lieu of a real tie, surrounded by bayou animals—strangers and friends alike, all come to wish him and Tiana well.

The bayou, which had echoed with conversation, now hushed as Louis swam towards Naveen. As he reached the frog, Tiana alighted from Louis's back. Naveen noticed that she was almost as simply adorned as himself: Butterflies and flowers formed a garland around her head, from which cascaded a veil of spiders' silk. He wondered if Tiana was as grateful for the simplicity as he. Weren't women generally intrigued by the clothing and such that went with a wedding? Not that he'd really be surprised if Tiana was different, Naveen reassured himself, his heart swelling with love and pride as he took her hand.

"We're all here," began Mama Odie, "to get these two froggies hitched!"

Cheers.

"A week ago, Prince Froggy over here got himself turned into a frog by the Shadow Man…"

Hissing.

"…so he got Miss Froggy to kiss him! But then she turned into a frog herse'f! So they came down to me for a fix and found out they just needed love."

"Is this how weddings usually go?" whispered Naveen to Tiana, embarrassed, as Mama Odie went on with her story.

Tiana shrugged. Obviously she'd never been to one before either. At any rate, her face was as red as Naveen's, a shade that warred with the green skin of a frog.

After cracking a few jokes at their expense, Mama Odie finally got down to business. "Prince Froggy, do you take Tiana as your wife? And will you be faithful to her and take care of her and love and obey her?"

"Um," said Naveen, trying to keep up with the deluge of questions. "Yes, yes, yes, yes—obey?" He didn't dare voice his objection, not in front of Mama Odie AND Tiana, but he was pretty sure that wasn't usually part of marriage vows. Naveen glanced at Tiana, who mock-glared at him. It wasn't really helpful. "Um, I will try?" he suggested, squeezing her hand teasingly.

Tiana laughed, and Mama Odie nodded. "That'll do. Now Miss Froggy, do you take Naveen as your husband, and will you appreciate him and take care of him and love and guide him?"

Naveen looked quickly at Tiana, his mouth open to mouth the word guide? in indignation, and saw that her face was lit up as though from within. Her eyes were shining, and her smile was huge as she faced Naveen full on and said decisively, "I will."

They exchanged rings. Mama Odie produced a simple golden band similar to Tiana's—except, of course, without the pearl bead—and Naveen found that the cool metal was not, in fact, the mental equivalent of handcuffs (as he had so often feared). Tiana giggled as he slid her ring onto her finger.

"Is that it?" Naveen asked, surprised, as the animals began cheering, including the moth at his neck, who piped, "Congratulations," and flew away.

"That's it!" Mama Odie agreed. "So by the power vested in me, I now pronounce you frog and wife. Get to it, hopalongs!" she winked, waving a dismissive hand at Naveen. "Give your lovely bride some sugar."

Naveen didn't need to be told twice. He cupped Tiana's head in his free hand, pulling her close.

He'd thought he remembered what it was like to kiss Tiana: the softness of her lips, the smell of her skin (after a week in a swamp, how did she still smell like lavender?), but memory was nothing to reality.

This kiss was nothing like their first. In fact it was nothing like any kiss Naveen'd ever had.

At the touch of Tiana's lips, lights burst in front of Naveen's closed eyes. He felt lightheaded, as if floating; as the kiss deepened, he and Tiana clung to each other as the only solid things in the world. Naveen ignored the whooping and whistling from the crowd, until his breathlessness had more to do with lack of oxygen than with the kiss.

Gently pulling away, Naveen opened his eyes and smiled down at his wife—his wife. He was so wrapped up in the pride and joy that accompanied those two little words. She was so beautiful, and—Naveen did a double take.

Yes, Tiana was still there; yes, she was still his wife; and yes, she was still the most beautiful thing Naveen had ever seen. But instead of looking down at Tiana the frog, he saw Tiana the woman.

Reeling from this discovery, Naveen looked down at their clasped hands. They were actually hands! Not only that, he and Tiana were considerably taller than they'd be seconds ago—and though they were dressed (Tiana in a beautiful ballgown, Naveen in a doublet and trousers) in a green reminiscent of a frog's skin, they were undeniably human.

A hand touched his cheek. Naveen looked back at Tiana. She was, as had only happened a few times before over the course of their time together, genuinely speechless as she held her hand, first to his face, and then to her own cheek, as if making sure they were alive as well as human.

And then, simultaneously, they smiled.

Naveen, although he was overjoyed, just didn't understand what'd happened, exactly. But a voice broke into his thoughts: "Like I told y'all, kissing a princess breaks the spell!" Mama Odie reminded them.

"Once you became my wife," Naveen realized suddenly, "that made you—"

"—a princess!" gasped Tiana. "You just kissed yourself…a princess!"

Naveen chuckled at Tiana's excitement. "And," he said, tilting her chin towards him, "I'm about to do it again."

Tiana lasted about five seconds into the kiss before she started giggling. "That was such a cheesy thing to say!" she sputtered.

"Cheese," Naveen considered. "I don't know about you, Tiana, but I am tired of eating bugs."

"And so am I," joked Tiana. "Whaddya say we head back to New Orleans?"

"How?" Naveen pointed out.

Tiana jumped straight into the knee-deep bayou water, disregarding her dress; but due to some magic, it didn't even get dirty. "We walk." She grinned at Naveen, who at least looked somewhat relieved by the magical cleanliness of their new clothing. "Come on. What're you worried about?"

Stepping into the muddy water, Naveen took her outstretched hand and smiled. "Nothing at all."

Next: EXPLANATIONS, some of which are demanded and some of which are deserved.