This is a quick oneshot I did in one day for czarownicykot's contest on YouTube. You could use any pairing she created and they had to be the main characters. (Whether they be lovers, relatives, enemies, etc.) You'll all see who I chose pretty soon, but just a short random Disney/NonDisney crossover that's only T for touching touchy subjects. Enjoy. It was a fun exercise.
Also, a few videos inspired me, so if you add these to the end of YouTube(dot)com, you should get the videos:
Yay for musical inspirations! Last note, this is my second time trying to write in first person, so critics are always welcomed. Thanks, enjoy.
- Our New Orleans
We were young when we met. She was curled into a ball, sitting on the edge of her front porch. It was a humid summer night deep in New Orleans, with stars glimmering from the sky illuminating her quivering body. The quiet sobs I heard racking her body is what drew me to help her; to find out what was wrong.
I wasn't even supposed to be there. My family lived downtown. It wasn't the white neighborhood filled with gleaming pearl manors – no, we couldn't afford that, but we lived in a nice area with kind people and a house that was in one piece with four walls and a hearth. I had been playing on the floor with my baby brother, trying to teach him to roll over, unsuccessfully. Without warning I heard a crack rock through the skies.
My mouth split into a grin as my father jumped up, tousling my hair before I darted out the front door heart hammering in my chest. I ran ahead, quickly in the town square as the fireworks exploded in the air above me, the many colors pouring down around me as their gunshot bang rang through the wind.
For hours I stood in the crowd of spectators watching the fireworks explode as music began to play, rising with the excitement of the light show. By the time the climax rained above us the bands were out, blaring their music and catching up the crowd in an unannounced celebration.
I let myself get caught up in the excitement and was soon caught up, moving with the crowd. By the time the music began to die and the crowd started to part, I realized that I had been dropped in what my parents had always described as "the black neighborhood." Having never been there before I stopped, glancing around at the houses and the unfamiliar faces staring back at me, faces still alight with the excitement of the evening.
The neighborhood, frankly, wasn't black. Sure, most of the houses were a bit small and I could see more than one wall falling in on itself, not to mention many broken shutters, but to call the neighborhood black didn't work. I didn't quite understand at the time, but I do recall re-labeling the area the "dull" neighborhood. I would soon learn how vibrant it's inhabitants were compared to their housing.
It was then I was drawn in, hearing the sniffles. Baffling how someone could cry after such a celebration. Naturally, I was drawn to her, crawling into the seat next to her on the porch. I guess I'd dealt with Milo and Jim enough that I was getting the older brother vibe with other people, but it just felt natural to make her feel better.
Quietly, I edged closer until I could see the corner of her face, a corner not covered by the quaking arms that were wrapped tightly around her knees. I smiled, noticing how silent her sobs were compared to the strong shaking through her bones. "Hey, what's the matter?"
Her head whipped up at the question, obviously not expecting to be noticed. Her milky skin matched her deep brown eyes and darker, frazzled hair. Even I could tell that despite the bow in her hair and her pretty green dress she was a tomboy and not used to crying. Even more unused to being caught.
Without warning, her chin jutted out and her eyes hardened, sorrow gone, masked by stubbornness and strength. "Whattda you care?" she shot back, voice cracking from her tears while fighting through her natural boy-slur.
I was taken aback, but also raised in a house of boys, so I stuck my chin right back out. "Me's who! Sorry for being worried, I can see there's no point as you're all better now." Not the most polite response but in my defense, I was trying to come to her aid.
That bottom lip never quivered in sorrow, remaining strong, but her eyes swirled back into her sadness. "'course you don't care. You people never do."
Really, I had no idea what to do with that. My brain jumped to the wrong track and I furrowed my eyebrows in anger. "Hey, just cuz I'm a boy doesn't mean I don't care if you're sad or not," I nearly yelled back into her face. Thankfully I didn't, because it actually made her laugh. I was completely confused by why, but her tear-stained face began to glow as her lips split into laughter and a fit of giggles. No, I didn't know what happened, but she wasn't crying anymore and I soon found myself laughing right along.
We laughed for quite a while. Being a kid, I had no idea of just how long, but it was awhile before we fell into a relaxed silence. Bugs chirped in the silence and there was still noise behind us from the few families still up celebrating. Laughter, cheering, and the occasional instrument broke the quiet. New Orleans, the city of music.
She finally broke the silence. "Thanks for the laugh. I needed it." Her head tilted slightly towards me. Her legs were still folded up but in a more comfortable position, tears wiped from her face.
"Sure, anytime." It was a little cheeky, but it pulled a few more giggles out of her. The more the mood relaxed the easier it was to just laugh along. Soon I was leaning back with her, arms behind me supporting my weight as we just talked.
She was an only child with a sweet mother and a father who could cook the meanest bowl of gumbo this side of the Mississippi. Her mother was a seamstress who often made princess dresses for the mayor's daughter while her father had a simple but hard job with many of the other men in the neighborhood. Apparently, he was a hard worker, and her idol, always telling her to do her best and put her mind, body, and soul into everything she did.
After her, my story sounded lame. I'm the oldest of three, Jimmy being the youngest and still in diapers at the time, while Milo was four years younger and practically a genius at the age of three. For some reason this girl seemed to think siblings sounded like fun. It was obvious she'd never dealt with one.
I moved on to my parents, a father who captained boats up and down the Mississippi with cargo and a mother who helped make ends meet by renting out some extra rooms while my father was away. Once more, she seemed more interested in my family than I was. I suggested we swap for a week and she nodded somewhat sadly. I wasn't sure why, but it seemed I touched a nerve. Therefore, I switched the topic in the subtlest way I could think of. "I'm Dimitri, by the way!" I practically shouted the declaration at her, jutting my hand out so fast I nearly had my fingers in her nose.
Although startled at first, she laughed at my odd behavior and accepted the switch, grasping my hand in hers. "I'm Tiana. Nice to meet you." We nodded, very adult like, sagely nodding to one another as our hands bobbed up and down before releasing. "It's kind of late. Are you sure your parents won't be mad you've been out so long?" she asked shyly, pulling her knees back to her chin.
I glanced at the sky, only just realizing how high the moon was in the sky. "E-heh, heh," I muttered, scratching the back of my neck. "Yeah, my dad's gonna throw a fit when I get home, and Mom'll be even worse." I jumped up, brushing the dirt and grass off my trouser legs before facing Tiana again. "I gotta go, but we should hang out again. You're real nice!"
She smiled at the compliment and nodded, though I don't think she really believed I'd look for her again. I ran off, waving as I did. Before I passed the corner, I saw a large man who took up the entire doorway lean out of the house behind Tiana. Based on the way they seemed to talk to each other, that was her dad. He was huge.
Only now did I get a little frightened, racing back home to have my mom lecture me, and my father threaten to tan my hide. As big as he was, he was smaller than Tiana's dad and that took away a layer of the fear I held towards my father's threat. Still, I bobbed my head in apology, slipped off my shoes and jacket, and hopped up to my room, jumping into my pajamas and rolling into my bed. Before I went to bed, I found myself planning tomorrow's visit to Tiana's.
Tiana was at home the next day, and we did play together that day, and many days after. I quickly learned how strong and independent she was and she changed me for the better. I would not be beat out by a girl two years younger than me, and soon she beat the laziness out of me, and I would find myself at her house often helping her with chores or helping Mr. James prepare dinner for the family.
For nearly a year I would go to her house to visit - often going straight after school - before I found her trailing me to my house. I thought nothing of it, eagerly introducing her to the family. She soon realized why I found my brothers to be a drag, though she always found them cute and often helped my mom take care of them when my father was out working.
She never really warmed up to my father, but I just assumed it was because he was so big and daunting and since he was gone all the time she never really got the chance to really meet him. Turns out it was a little more complicated than that, but I soon didn't care.
Not long after I turned ten my father left and never returned. He'd joined a skip that was leaving out of the New Orleans port and bound for South America. I had always known he was attached to the sea and I respected that connection, but when I saw my mother in the kitchen curled up on the makeshift bench, I lost any respect for him. I inched up next to her burrowing my head into her lap as she wrapped herself around me. Both of us just sat there, her trembling softening and slowing as she stroked my head.
By the time Jimmy and Milo came down for breakfast Mom had pulled herself together, but even they could tell something was wrong. Milo was smart enough to keep quiet, but Jim was a concerned four-year-old and asked her what was wrong.
I cooked breakfast while Mom took a nap.
I grew up that day. At first, I found myself pushing Tiana away and ordering Jimmy and Milo around like I was their father. I grew cold, stiff, and overly mature quickly, no longer allowing myself to feel anything as I tried to keep everyone together through our first, harsh winter alone.
Thankfully, Tiana saved me that spring. By the time the flowers had begun to sprout again, Mom managed to use the last of our savings to buy a modest inn. It was still more than difficult to raise three boys, but she managed, especially with the occasional help from the many friends she had made over the years. They told friends and family of the inn for when they visited and soon business was moving, though we still had to move out of our old house and into one of the smaller rooms in the building. It was difficult, but Milo and Jim learned to play outside and not to bother Mom with too many demands. The ends were difficult to keep together, but Mom kept us afloat.
With the inn open and moving, I spent most days at home helping Mom out with chores and responsibilities. When I wasn't at school I came home and mopped floors and made beds to help out anyway I could. It had been months since I'd last played with Tiana, but she still liked to visit on slow days, usually staying in a corner or up in recently used rooms helping me clean.
It had been rocky, getting back into the swing of being a kid, but Tiana helped me. She showed me I could still be strong and support my mom while laughing and playing with the other kids in town. It still took time to play with the other children, but two months after my father left Tiana nosed her way back into my life and wouldn't let me push her away, and I still owe her to this day.
However, it was the middle of May that had been the hardest. It was then that I realized why Tiana only felt comfortable home in the black neighborhood or at my old house – which still took her time to start visiting on a regular basis. Our new house met many travelers coming in and out, though usually they were friends or family of the other people in the community and many were black. But that May we had a white merchant from Mississippi who was passing through. I made sure he never came back.
I remember him clearly. He walked in on a Saturday, strutting and touting a heavy looking leather briefcase in one hand, another travel sack still in the buggy outside. I ran to pick his second bag up while my mother gave him the rundown of the town including many of the famous sights and events. He was obviously uninterested, but nodded politely while he chewed on his cigar and pushed back his straw hat.
I found myself entranced by the many rings that lined his knuckles and even the single ring pierced through his ear. When the rings swung forward, I realized my mother had finished and he was moving to go to his room. I dashed around him and offered to show him the way, heading up the stairs to the door down the hall. I dropped his bag on his bed and told him lunch was between twelve and two and dinner was between four and seven.
He grunted and I took that as my sign to leave, so I gave him a nod and rushed out of the room slightly disgruntled. I didn't know what it was at the time, but even then I knew there was something about him that bothered me.
Downstairs I helped Mom prepare lunch and was refilling the napkins on the tables when Tiana came in through the front door, immediately taking a handful of napkins to help with the refilling. I grinned and thanked her. She always came around lunchtime on Saturdays. Saturday was chore day at her house. I used to go there to help her, now she came here to help me.
The problem began when I ducked into the kitchen to check on my mom and begin bringing dishes out to the buffet. I heard loud feet slapping down the stairs and knew one of our customers had smelled their meal. This was common, people coming down early to reserve a seat. However, the outburst that followed was not.
The voice belonged to the merchant and the word he used, I didn't understand at the time. I do now.
Even without understanding why he was angry I could tell something was wrong and dashed into the dinner, leaving the food in the kitchen. I swung around the corner to see the merchant frozen on the staircase, glaring at the corner. With a turn of my head it became clear he was glaring at Tiana. I wasn't sure what he had called her, but the fear in her eyes and the tears pricking in the corners told me it didn't matter. I began yelling at him, telling him to have more class than to make a girl cry. He sneered back at me, spitting in my face about having her in the inn at all.
The fight escalated until my mother came in to find out what had happened. She also stiffened when she heard what he referred to Tiana as. Instantly, she threw him out and I felt my gut drop. I was mad at him, but I also knew we needed every customer we could get. As he stormed to his room I tried to apologize to Mom, thinking it was my fault.
Turns out it wasn't. She explained what the merchant had been raving about, and I suddenly didn't care if we went bankrupt by turning him out.
Worried about Tiana I ran back out into the dinner, glancing around to see she had already disappeared. Concerned, I left my brothers to help Mom as I raced to her house, assuming that's where she'd gone. To safety.
Turning the corner to her neighborhood, I did see her seated on her front porch, just as she had been when we first met. She wasn't crying but she was curled back up, her chin resting on the dip created when her knees came together. "You okay?" I asked timidly, inching my way to her side. "That man had no right to say what he did."
She turned and her eyes to meet mine, her chin shifting so her right cheek sat daintily on her knee. "You know, when we first met I was crying?" I nodded mutely. "I had a similar run-in that afternoon. He was so big, and there was so much hatred in his eyes…I hadn't even done anything but exist." Once more she looked on the verge of tears before taking a deep breath, calming her breathing. "Back then, you cheered me up and reminded me that not everyone hates my people."
I smiled. I still wasn't sure of the extent of this hatred, but just being able to comfort her made me feel better. "I'm still here for you." Scooting closer to her, our bodies were flush against each other and I wrapped an arm around her shoulders. "You okay?"
"Yeah," she murmured, leaning against me and staring out at the fields of flowers in front of us. "You know, when my mom goes to the mayor's house she sometimes brings me and I play with Lottie?" I grimaced a little. I'd never actually spoken to Charlotte, but everyone in town had seen her as her father bounced her around, toting his perfect child for the world to see. It had gotten old fast.
"Don't glower!" she admonished, laughing a bit as I made another disgusted face. "Well, when we're there, Lottie likes to have Momma read princess books while she makes Lottie's dresses." While not sure where this was going, I nodded along. "Dimitri…sometimes I wish I was a princess. Then nobody would hate me."
I smiled sadly, rubbing my hand around her shoulder comfortingly before leaping off the porch and into the flowers. "Well, let's see here, then…" I immediately began digging through the wild flowers, plucking the prettiest ones and knotting them together as Ms. Eudora had taught me years ago. At the time it seemed very girly, but now I was glad Tiana's mom taught me anyway.
"Here we go." I lifted the crown with pleasure, leaping back over to Tiana holding the crown of flowers above her head. She giggled happily, dipping her head down to make it easier to drop the crown on her head. Once in place she stood tall, dropping her hand so I could reach up and guide her from the ground. "I think we've got the prettiest princess right here," I declared.
She laughed again as I guided her down the porch until she reached the end. I spun around the corner of the wood and caught her as she hopped down. Unfortunately, I wasn't strong enough at the time to support her so we both fell to the ground in a heap of fabric and laughter, but the crown stayed perfectly in her hair.
As we crawled to our feet, cheeks rosy and happy, a jazz tune struck up in the town square and we raced in to dance together to the heavy beat and pounding music. No matter how hard we bounced or how much we jumped, my flower ring stayed perfectly crowned in Tiana's hair.
When Tiana was twelve, her father died unexpectedly during the fall. It was hard on her and she almost curled back up into the shell I'd been pulling her out of since our run-in with the merchant. Thankfully, business was booming as farmers and merchants ran around during the crop season staying at the inn, and now with Milo and Jim being big enough to help out, I could spend my free time with Tiana, distracting her from her father's death and being there when she needed a shoulder to cry on.
Once she'd had a few weeks to grieve, she thankfully began to pull herself around searching for jobs to keep herself and her mother afloat. With her father's income gone they began to struggle financially, but she managed to get a job downtown at the café run by Mr. Colth. The hours were long, and I often found myself visiting her instead of the other way around. For years she had come to our place to visit, but now I had more free time.
It was obvious that her new job wore her out, but she was stubborn and kept going. The more she worked the more she seemed to get used to the long hours, but it was still obvious that just seeing each other brightened her day and gave her more energy. For that reason I made sure to visit every day. I didn't have the money to buy anything and the owner often got mad that I distracted Tiana, but I still came over at every chance.
Still, at this point in life both of us were still so busy with work, we rarely saw each other except on Sundays when she was given the day off. I grew more confused when I heard she'd gotten another job, despite being so stretched thin with one. The second one had fewer hours, but left her with long days. She was at work by six every morning and only made it home by nine at night.
For weeks, I never even saw her as she took Sundays to recover from her tiring weeks. By the time I realized how much she was working it had been almost two months. I took one of my Sundays off to visit her, after not hearing a word in so long.
I went down to the black neighborhood, waving to many of Tiana's neighbors, only seeing two I didn't recognize. New inhabitants no doubt. I knocked on the door to Tiana's house, only to have her mother answer. "Um, hi Ms. Eudora," I greeted awkwardly. I hadn't seen her in months. Since Mr. James had died. "You seem to be doing well…"
She smiled kindly and I instantly felt less stupid. "Come inside, it's cold out there." I nodded and stepped into the house that had been my second home as a child. "I'm sure you were worried about Tiana, right?"
"Yeah," I murmured, ducking my head in embarrassment. "It's just…I hadn't heard from her in awhile, and I wanted to make sure she was okay."
"I'll go get her." I nodded, leaning against the wall as Ms. Eudora left the room. I hadn't been in the house since Mr. James died, but it hadn't really changed. The only thing that seemed missing was his booming voice and his gumbo, simmering on the stove.
My hands buried themselves in my pockets as my shoulders curved in, hunched. Just as this house had always been my second home, Mr. James had always been like a second father to me, especially after my father left. I hadn't really thought about him as Tiana had needed some support, but it began to sink in that he was dead. Gone forever. Like my own father.
I was grateful when Ms. Eudora brought a sleepy Tiana from her room into the kitchen, leaving as her daughter tried to wipe the sleepiness from her eyes. "Hey, Dimitri. Sorry I haven't seen you in forever," she apologized, eyes still glazed in tiredness as she sat on the kitchen counter.
I stayed slumped against the wall, gazing at her and taking in her disheveled appearance. "You doing alright?" I asked, noting her frazzled hair and the work clothes she'd obviously not taken off the night before.
"Um, hmm…" she murmured, yawning one last time as she fully woke up. "I just took another job at the restaurant down by the city square, Duke's Cafe. They're open later at night due to the jazz bands so I've been pulling longer hours. I should have told you, but I've been using my Sundays to sleep lately."
Grunting, a smile crept onto the corners of my lips. "Yeah, I can see why." Expression darkening, I looked into her large brown eyes seriously. "It's not healthy for you. 'sides, I thought you were doing just fine with one job. Why is it you're taking two?" I knew she was strong headed. I knew she was stubborn and worked her hardest all the time, but she knew her limits and always made sure she didn't overwork herself. I was baffled.
She sighed, rolling her head to one side to stare at the wall. I could see pictures of her father and different poems and stories he had written for her as a child posted on the wall. I had seen them all before and they were obviously posted in his memory, but there was a new one I'd never seen before. It was a clipping from a magazine of the interior of a restaurant, and at the top 'Tiana's Place' was written in blue crayon. I pushed myself off the wall, taking a few steps to place myself in front of the clipping. "I've never seen this…"
"Daddy wrote it." I had expected as much. Tiana's handwriting wasn't that nice and her mother tended to curl her letters into a half cursive look. "It was our dream to build a restaurant, and his gumbo would be the main attraction." She smiled, her face showing how deep she was in her memories. There were no tears, even peeking at the corners of her eyes, so I just smiled along.
"I took the extra job to start saving for the restaurant. It's a way to deal with Dad's death."
I understood, but still. "Are you sure reaching for your dream is helping and you're not just wearing yourself out so you can't think of him?"
She sent me one of her looks. The one that just shouted, 'Say that again and I'll knock your teeth out.' I grinned and threw my hands up in a placating gesture. "All right, all right, I get it. If you have the energy to glare at me like that I can't worry about you wearing yourself out, can I?"
A smile was sent back my way as I leaned back against the wall, returning to my original spot. We stayed that way for some time. Just talking. She complained a bit about her new boss and I pulled out some new stories from all the odd travelers we'd had. Quiet a few weird ones had popped through, and it seemed Tiana had even served a few at her various jobs.
We had a few more laughs before Tiana insisted she needed to get some more sleep for the upcoming week. I nodded and left, leaving a simple, "Don't be a stranger." She smiled and we parted ways.
For the next few years our meetings were sporadic and few. Our longest meeting wasn't until just before I left New Orleans. At thirteen – turning fourteen that summer – Milo was a rising senior with a full-ride scholarship to some prestigious engineering-science college. He'd skipped so many grades he was just on my heels, but I did graduate that year. Jim wasn't even in high school at the time, but at twelve, I was confident that he had the brains and maturity to help Mom out on his own.
So I took off. I didn't have a solid destination, just work. I promised Mom I wouldn't be gone too long and I would send letters when I had the time, but I needed to make some money. Mom couldn't afford to send me to college, I knew that, but Milo was smart enough to go on his own and Jim was smart enough to get a scholarship if someone could keep him in line. Therefore, I had decided to travel around picking up skills and earning my way until I could help Mom instead of being another mouth to feed.
It seems someone told Tiana. While I was packing, the day before I was to hop on my boat and travel up the Mississippi, she came to visit me during her lunch break.
The conversation was rocky and we yelled back and forth for a while. She called me a pig-headed man and I called her a nosey, know-it-all girl. It was a fight that I would spend years regretting. I was going to be leaving, potentially forever, and all I could do was yell at the one person who had known me for years.
She hadn't wanted me to leave. I hadn't wanted to go.
No matter how much she argued that there was work in New Orleans, there was a part of me that wanted to see the vastness of America and learn all the secrets she held. Still, I understood her. I wanted to stay and live life here, seeing her on Sundays and dropping in during her lunch hour as we had for years. But she had her dreams and I had mine.
We yelled and screamed until she left, leaving me to roughly cram the rest of my supplies into my suitcase until it was full. I slammed the thing shut and threw it into a wall before flopping onto my bed, angrily mulling over the argument in my mind over and over until I heard Mom call the guests for dinner.
Grudgingly, I went down for a final dinner with the family. I paid careful attention to every detail in the way they ate and talked. Milo sectioned his food out to different sides of his plate, everything perfectly proportioned before he began eating the meal alphabetically, all of his concentration on the food in front of him. The preciseness made me smile a bit. I'd never noticed it before.
In contrast, I turned my head to see Jim just slam all of his food into one big pile of globiness as he shoveled in random mouthfuls, barely looking at his plate and nearly spilling his food over the edges of the plate's rim. His attention was focused on the book he had open next to it. Some library book on motors and engines. I smiled a little more. Jimmy had always liked anything with a motor, and a tendency to ignore things he didn't care about. In this case, his meal.
My throat was still caught with emotions, but watching my little brothers eating side by side made me feel just a little bit better. I turned to my mom with a small, sad smile, raising my fork laden with dinner, to show my appreciation for the meal. She smiled back, raising her own fork almost in a cheer.
As the meal slowed to a finish, Mom told me to get one last look at the town before I left, leaving her and the boys to do the dishes. I thanked her, kissing her on the cheek as I left for a final stroll around the town.
The city of music struck up a chorus as the summer sun fell. The heat of the day began to drag away as the cool night wrapped chilly winds around me, wind tousling my bangs across my eyesight. I rolled the sleeves of my shirt down, trying to protect my forearms from the bite of night as I strolled through the crowds of people dancing to the music, beating one way and then another. I smiled as I saw childhood friends bouncing around together, dancing, and – in some cases – kissing.
The grin across my face dropped a little as I thought of how Tiana had left earlier. With the sun going down, that meant she would soon be off work. I headed over to Duke's Café to try and catch her before she left for home.
Luckily, I caught her as she was dropping her apron off in the back and saying her goodbyes. I stood sheepishly by the front door catching her eye once she was halfway across the café. I shot her a half smile only to get a glare as a response. She stormed the rest of the way to the front door, nearly catching my nose as she smashed it open. "What do you want?" she spat in my face, startling the few customers left in the café.
"Look, I'm sorry 'bout earlier, but…" I suddenly noticed all the eyes trained on us as Tiana stayed rooted in the doorway. "Look, can we…Shouldn't we do this somewhere else?" The only response I received was crossed arms and an arched eyebrow. I sighed, ready to grovel. "Look, I should have told you earlier and made sure we'd be okay, but…I mean, it was sort of a rash decision…" I muttered, trailing and getting the feeling this wasn't working. "Let's dance," I finally settled, jerking a thumb at the square of people.
Tiana looked at me oddly, trying to figure out what I was up to, but even I didn't know. "C'mon," I urged, wrapping a light hand around hers. She finally gave in and followed me out to the square as the music slowed. I wrapped a light hand in hers and placed my other hand on her waist. She hesitated before grasping my hand back, placing her free hand on my shoulder.
Though we started further apart at the beginning of the song, by the time I found my voice Tiana was practically nose-to-nose with me. "I'm sorry." Finally, an apology. "I should have talked to you about this ages ago. Gotten your blessing."
For the first time today, her angry expression scrunched up. It wasn't a smile, but disapproving lips beneath approving eyes. "Hey, I shouldn't have gotten so angry earlier. You're right, your life is yours and mine is mine. You should feel free to do what you want," she murmured, and I could see her eyes grow sad.
She wouldn't cry, I knew she wouldn't, but I did. Tears built up at the corners of my eyes for the first time since my father left. I'd always worried about being strong and picking up the slack he'd dropped in the family, and for the first time, I thought of my own worries and concerns. I didn't want to leave New Orleans, and I didn't want to leave Tiana, but I was set. I was going to go out and make a living on my own. "Hey, I'll be all right. You've put a little worker in me that won't let me get lazy. No worries, right?" I took a few deep breaths to dry the tears from the corners of my eyes.
Tiana suddenly let go of my hand and wrapped her arms around my neck, eyes shut tight as her head knocked the bottom of my chin. It took me a moment to get past my surprise before wrapping both of my arms lightly around her waist.
"I'm going to miss you," she murmured into my collar.
"Me too," I muttered back.
She pulled back out of arm's reach, taking deep breathes before her face set in a cheeky grin. "You'd better not get too worldly out there," she warned, wagging a finger in my face as I laughed. "I don't want you coming back with one of those silly English accents, you got it?"
Nodding and laughing I agreed, pulling her into a tight hug. I was going to miss her and her attitude. "Now, before you go," she ordered, pulling back once more, "you need this." She pulled a chain up from around her neck, unclasping it and holding it up to me. There was no pendant or locket or anything hanging from the chain, it was merely a chain, silver and glistening in the moonlight. "It's not much, but it's a bit of New Orleans to take with you on your travels."
I grinned back, taking the chain from her hands and locking it around my neck. "I'll make sure not to lose it."
"You'd better not," she warned before laughing. She leaned in and pecked my lips.
I blinked in surprise and was stuttering, trying to ask her what that had been about when she pulled me back into the crowd as the music bounced back to life and a swinging jig played. I pushed the kiss to the back of my mind and allowed myself to be taken up by the music, while I sang off key and danced for hours under the moon with Tiana. Grown up, Tiana.
It was late when I finally dragged her home, and I knew she would be tired from work, but I was glad to be leaving on a good, joyful note. As I led her to the door, I instinctively pulled her in for a kiss before she shoved me away with a smile, heading in for a few hours of sleep before work.
I returned home soon after so filled with excitement I could hardly entertain the idea of sleeping, though I found myself falling asleep seconds after hitting the sheets, a large smile on my face as I dreamed through the night.
Five years passed. Not quickly, but faster than I had expected five years to pass. I traveled up the Mississippi as planned and was dropped off on the east bank, catching a ride to Chicago. I spent a few months there doing odd jobs until I met Vladimir. Vladdy told me he used to work for the old president before being kicked out when the new one came in two years ago. Since, he'd turned into a bit of a con artist. I helped him turn around and with my charisma and his brains, we turned into quite the team.
As I'd hoped, we ran across the country together, working jobs here and there. Solving crimes in one city and painting houses in another. Vlad taught me about business and numbers while I taught him of music and dance. They were some of the greatest years of my life.
After a little over two years, we met a runaway girl who called herself Anya. It took a few weeks, but we eventually learned her name was Anastasia and she was the daughter of a rich man we had done odd jobs for three towns back. It seemed she had followed us and refused to go. I fell in love with her and nearly let her runaway with us. After three months, I nearly proposed to her, but something pulled me back.
We tried to drop her off, but once she talked with her father and came to an understanding, we were a team once more, this time with her dog, Pooka, in tow. However, this time I didn't fall the same way. We were still close, but anytime I tried to think about her as anything more than a friend the back of my mind tugged back at me.
I soon realized my heart was aching for New Orleans again. I wanted to go home, but with all the travel I hadn't built up enough money to return home, head held high. It would be another two and a half years before I did go back, and in that time Vlad, Anya, and Pooka became my best friends and my family.
The more time passed, the longer the breaks were between the letters I sent home, but I always sent an extra little insert for my mother to give to Tiana. I could only hope everything got to her, as corny as some of the letters got.
Still, after five years away from home, I was twenty-three and returning home during the winter season, just after my birthday. Vlad and Anya joined me and we took a boat down the Mississippi from Missouri. Once on the outskirts of town, I toted my bag off of the boat and onto a buggy. Even after all my traveling, everything I owned could fit into two, easy for travel, suitcases.
Adjusting the coat around my shoulders and tightening the cap around my head, I told the cabby to take me to my mother's inn. He didn't seem to recognize me, but I recognized 'Old Man Willings' as he urged the horses forward. The farther in we went, the more motors made themselves prevalent, and I found myself growing in anticipation.
It had been five years since I left. Milo would be nineteen, and potentially even home from college for the winter break. At this point, Jim would be seventeen, and with his brain, might even be in his last year of high school, or college.
And Tiana. Tiana was twenty-one. She was all grown up. She might even have her restaurant by now. I began to realize how much I might have missed during that buggy ride. Already I could see the town was bigger than when I had left it. There were more citizens and more travelers pacing the streets, and even from here I could hear three different bands playing in the streets during the winter.
Granted, after the winters I'd spent up north, forty or fifty degrees was a comfortable temperature, but these were southerners. I began to wonder how booming and loud the town would be in the summer.
With a lurch, the buggy stopped in front of the inn and I stepped out, staring up in awe. Mother had spent the years sprucing the place up and throwing in additions. There were even a few mechanical additions I could bet Jim and Milo added to the house.
Grinning, I grabbed my bags and left Vlad and Anya to follow me as I leapt inside, letting the door swing behind me. "I'm home!" I called through the building, my voice sounding deeper than the last time I had shouted through the building.
"Dimitri?" I heard my mother call back through the rafters. "Dimitri, honey, is that you?"
"Mom!" I dropped my bags by the front door, and leapt up a few of the steps as my mom raced down the top steps. I wrapped my arms tight around her waist as she held me, arms around my shoulders and head resting against mine. "I've missed you," I admitted, holding her as I had when I was young. "You and Jim and Milo. I've missed you all."
Mom just smiled and held me closer as two more sets of feet pounded their way over to me. One from below, one from above. Once Mom moved, Milo gave me a hug while Jim came up from behind, giving me a quick, awkward hug. I ruffled his hair and he relaxed, giving me a lazy grin. "Great, we're getting you back now, huh?"
"Don't get cheeky yet, kid," I muttered back, stifling sniffles as I began to tear up. A few deep breaths and I was as pulled together as I would get, only then noticing Vlad and Anya standing in the doorway. "Oh, right!" I felt a little stupid, hopping down the few stairs I'd jumped up. "Guys, this is Vlad, this is Anya, and this is Pooka," I introduced, Pooka barking at the sound of his name. "I met them on the road."
Quickly, introductions were made on my family's side as well and Mom arranged free rooms for Vlad and Anya, sending Milo with Vlad's bags and Jim with Anya's. "So, I get my old room back?" I asked Mom, grinning.
"Of course," she said with a small smile, pecking me on the cheek. I turned to pick up my bag, only for her to stop me. "I'll have Ben take them up."
"Ben?" I knew that running the inn had been hard, but I hadn't actually expected Mom to hire help. "Who's Ben?"
I jumped at the excited hello that came from behind me, blinking as a mechanical machine guttered and creaked on and on. It sounded like it was talking, but I couldn't even make out what it was attempting to say. "Dimitri, meet Ben. He's a robot Milo and Jim have been working on together. He's still got some bugs, but he's very helpful."
With nothing better to do, I just nodded as Ben picked up my bags and began taking them up the stairs, jerking back and forth with the weight. "Helpful," I muttered sarcastically.
I turned to follow Ben until Mom placed a hand on my shoulder. "You know, Tiana's working at Duke's Café this time of day."
"Wha-?" I was taken aback by Mom's lack of tact. I knew what she was hinting at, but I covered my blush by rolling back and pulling out a dress I'd bought her. It managed to distract her for only a minute or two before she was back to edging me towards Duke's Café.
"I'll have Jim and Milo take your friends around the town to see the sights. Go say hello to Tiana, she's been waiting for you."
I fingered the simple metal chain around my neck. "Still working at Duke's Café, huh?" I smiled and gave my mom a quick hug and kiss on the cheek. "I'll be back soon." I walked out the front door, heart pounding in my chest as my fingers dropped into my pocket.
Taking a few deep breaths I entered the city square, immediately locating the door to the café. I ducked my head in, swinging the door open and dropping into a booth as my heart pounded in my ears and my cheeks flamed. I hadn't seen Tiana in years, but this pounding confirmed my decision.
The waitress came by, asking for my order. I stuck with a simple coffee. "Such a snazzy outfit and you just want a coffee? Okay then, sir," she replied, throwing me a silly salute.
My eyes leapt up, catching the back of her head as she sent the order back to her unruly chef. I could feel my jaw clamp together as I watched the sassy hips swing back and forth while she moved from customer to customer.
I pulled myself together and took off my coat, heat from the boiler beginning to get to me. Standing, I left it on the café's coat rack before returning to my seat. It was only when Tiana set my coffee down that I remembered to drag my hat off. As I stared down at my coffee, I could see her shoes out of the corner of my eye, unmoving. I turned my head up, meeting her eyes. "Dimitri?" she sounded more excited than surprised.
"Hey," I answered lamely, jumping to my feet as she wrapped around my waist. I returned the favor by wrapping my arms around her shoulders. "How ya bin?"
My answer was her head snapping back, eyes glaring at me. "You're gone five years and that's all you've got to say?" She pulled tighter, burying her head in my chest as I set my cheek in her hair, smelling her springy shampoo. "I've been alright," she muttered into my shirt.
"How's the restaurant going?"
"I've bought a place," she murmured as we stood there, ignoring every person around us. "But I don't have enough money to clean it up yet."
"I can help," I assured her.
"I don't need your help," she replied, stubborn as usual.
I could only smile into her hair. "I've still got your chain." I pulled it out from under my shirt, revealing the simple silver. "And I've got a return present of my own." I pulled back slightly to reach a hand down into my pocket, pulling out the small black box I'd bought after Anya officially joined the group. "Marry me?" I asked, not bothering to drop to a knee. The tradition would have bothered Tiana. Too old fashion.
"What, you busted a knee in five years?" I blinked, truly surprised. Tiana was more avant-garde than most, yet…She smiled at my surprised face. "Of course, Dimitri. Do you have to ask?"
I smiled back. "I have another surprise. I made enough money for a nice wedding, and enough to start Tiana's Place."
She grinned, rewrapping her arms around my neck before pulling my head down for our first, real kiss. It had taken sixteen years for us to know each other, and five years without her for me to realize how much I needed her.
"Happy Late Birthday," she whispered, pulling me back for another kiss.
"Thanks, Princess," I whispered back while picking her up, swirling us around to the music outside.