"Oh, Duck, that's so cute!"
"Yeah, Duck. When you fall in love, you shoot for the stars."
"First Mytho, and now Fakir! You must love all the rejection!"
Pike and Lilie didn't notice Duck's face falling more than usual at their jabs.
Is it so impossible he wouldn't reject me? she thought, tears pricking at the edges of her eyes.
Fakir was thinking. He was so deep in his quiet reflection that he did not even realize that he had returned to Charon's house, where he roomed, and Ahiru did as well, in the room across the hall from him.
Still, he was aware enough of his surroundings to hear a quiet sobbing above the steady patter of rain on the roof of the house. The sound was almost as rhythmic as the rain, and had it been anyone else in the world crying, Fakir would have dismissed it as such. But this crying he had heard before. In the lake of despair. Ahiru was upset, and by God he wanted to know why.
As he rushed up the stairs, Fakir's thoughts abruptly twisted from the familiar inner arguments he had been facing to the girl he was rushing to comfort. The subjects were uncomfortably close.
"Ahiru," Fakir called quietly into the room, gently pushing the door open a little wider. Ahiru was sitting on her bed, cross-legged, her hands limp in her lap and her head down. Every bit of her seemed to shout surrender.
However, upon hearing her name, or perhaps it had simply been his voice, her head snapped up to him, and all her muscles seemed to tense. For a moment, she just looked at him, tears still running down her face, though silently, and something in the way she watched him made him draw back a bit, thinking that she might rather be alone, but then her body fell slack again, except for the resuming tremors of sobs, and he knew he couldn't leave her. She looked so fragile, her slight body shaking uncontrollably.
Before he could check himself, he had slid onto the bed beside her. He hesitated, then, wanting to desperately but not knowing how she would react if he put his arms around her, and one thing he did not want to do was make her more upset.
But in the moment he hesitated, Ahiru threw her arms around him and buried her head in his Academy shirt. This settled the matter in Fakir's mind, and he held her close for a while, feeling more shame by the minute. Ahiru needed comfort, and all Fakir could think about was holding her in his arms, and kissing her.
Finally, he could bear it no longer, and took her shoulders, lifting her up to look at him. Ahiru pressed her lips together, holding in more tears, along with her breath.
"What happened?" Fakir asked as gently as he could.
Ahiru exhaled on a sob, and her breath shuddered. "I… I'm sorry," she said, "It's not really important, I… They didn't mean it, anyway. I shouldn't care so much…"
They? Whoever it was, Fakir would kill them.
"Who, Ahiru?" His voice sounded harsh even to him, and it made her bite her lip and turn away from him.
Fakir swallowed and lifted a hand to her cheek, turning her back to face him.
"Pike and Lilie," she said reluctantly. At his questioning look, she quickly added, "They didn't mean any harm. They say stuff like that all the time. It just got to me, today."
"What did they say?"
Ahiru started, then, and her eyes darted to his for a moment, then dropped down to her lap.
"They said I'm a horrible dancer. And I will never get better. I'm just useless."
"Ahiru, you know that's not-"
"No, Fakir. They're right. I can't do anything. I couldn't save Mytho, in the end. You wrote my story for me. I don't even know if that was my power or your power flowing through me. Mytho didn't ever love me. He never knew what I actually am. I'm just a duck. And after that I returned to being a duck, until you wrote another story for me. You saw me looking longingly and selfishly at the Academy. I owe everything to you. You could have even left me in the lake of despair. And now I can't dance. I never could, it was just more borrowed power, and I… I realized that I didn't even love Mytho. I just wanted so badly to have a part in the human world that I thought I was in love with him. I really l—I… well, I… I…"
Ahiru's explanation was cut short, and Fakir knew it. Something else was bothering her. And it was that which was really making her cry. He could tell by the way she had stopped, and by the way she had seemed to be leading up to something.
She started crying again, and whispered something that Fakir couldn't hear. His arms ached to wrap around her again, and he placed his hands carefully on her waist, before stopping himself, and moving them to her shoulders. But even then, his hand strayed to stroke her cheek, and he checked his movements again.
"You know none of that is true, Ahiru," he used his voice to keep himself from touching her again.
She sobbed once and shook her head, and Fakir lost control for a split second.
His hands cupped her face before moving at his will, reluctantly, down her neck and to her shoulders, down her arms to her waist, and he focused on keeping them there while he spoke.
"You know that was your own power, Ahiru. If it wasn't, I couldn't have turned you back. I don't have that much power. And you did save Mytho. More than that, you saved everyone in the town. I won't try to speak for everyone else, but I know you saved me. You made me see the truth of things, Ahiru. You are the least selfish person I know. Through all that, knowing what you knew, knowing that you were doomed to die, you didn't give up. You suffered for everyone else. Tell me what could be less selfish than that? You deserved to study ballet. That is why I wrote you human again. That and… and I… missed you."
Fakir realized almost too late that he was losing control of his tongue as well. The longer she cried, the more he wanted to do something about it. It was driving him insane that he could do nothing for her.
His hands lightly traced her body, moving from position to position, like a dance, and several times he moved to kiss her, then drew back, frustrated and knowing that that was not what she wanted. He would only upset her more. She didn't need, or want, his love. She simply wanted a friend. Well, if that was all he could be to her, that was what he would be. That was all he would be.
Ahiru whispered something again, and looked up at him.
"What?" Fakir asked, his heart pounding unprovoked.
"Kiss me," she said again, a little louder, but still barely audible.
Her breathing had steadied, but was shallow, and he could feel her muscles tense under his hands. She was ready to run.
So Fakir placed his hand at the back of her neck, and looked in her eyes, surprised but encouraged to see a spark of light at his touch.
This time he let himself follow through before he could think better of it. His lips met hers in a momentary caress, then withdrew in a fit of self-control, and his eyes opened to, he expected, assess the damage.
Ahiru spoke quickly. "Pike and Lilie also saw me watching you today in class. They told me that you could never like a girl like me, much less love me. Even knowing that you promised to stay by my side forever, I started to doubt, and I realized I'm in love with you. I… I'm sorry. If you want to, you can forget I ever said anything. I… I just wanted to know… for a moment…"
With this, Ahiru started to bolt, only to find her wrist caught fast. She turned back, and in that moment, Fakir crashed his lips into hers, his arms wrapping around her to keep her as close to him as he could until they both broke for air.
"They couldn't be more wrong," Fakir said softly, brushing a stray lock of hair out of her face, "I could never love anyone but you, Ahiru."
Without waiting for her answer, Fakir kissed her again, thrilled at each timid response Ahiru offered.
The next day, Fakir paid much more attention to Ahiru during class than he should have, and sure enough, Pike and Lilie started in on her again. It was the hour after classes. The hour to practice individually, and she and Pike and Lilie had been stretching, increasing their flexibility. Fakir caught her eye and she half-smiled at him, as if to say, "I'm ok, now. It doesn't bother me."
But Fakir knew that in some way, the teasing of her friends still bothered her. It was just that she was content not to show it. But that didn't mean Fakir couldn't do something about it.
Fakir waited until the hour was over, then crossed the room to Ahiru, Pike, and Lilie. Pike and Lilie fell silent, for once, certain in the knowledge that he couldn't be coming for Ahiru, so it had to be one of them!
Both of them were sadly disappointed.
"Ahiru," Fakir didn't have to say her name to get her attention, but he wanted nothing about his intentions mistaken. "Ready to go?" he asked as he came up next to her and gave her a hand up.
Ahiru beamed at him and nodded, blushing seven shades of crimson. But Fakir wasn't finished.
With a small smile, he lowered his head to kiss her deeply, his arms holding her close. Judging by the gasps he heard from around the room, Pike and Lilie wouldn't be bothering Ahiru anymore.