"I can't believe I'm really here. We're really getting married!"
Ahiru grinned at her friend, though she very nearly quacked when she was caught suddenly in Hermia's ecstatic embrace. "Thank you so much for being my maid of honor! It's really all because of you!"
Ahiru froze. "M-me? What-what did I do?" Did Hermia really know she was Princess Tutu?
"That day that you found me by the river… you made me realize that I couldn't neglect my own feelings. To let them go unsaid… would be tragedy… Thankfully Lysander felt the same!" Hermia said to the mirror as Ahiru ducked behind her to button her dress.
Ahiru smiled sadly, knowing Hermia could not see the expression. Hermia was no different, then. No one remembered their time with Princess Tutu. It had been part of Fakir's bargaining with his powers to change her back.
"And you? Did your own love ever work out? I've been meaning to ask you since I got back. The feeling of love is even more clearly written on you than it was before…"
"Qu—!" Ahiru let go of the dress and clapped her hands over her mouth, terrified for a moment that Hermia had read her thoughts, before blushing and peeking out from behind her very tall friend.
Since she had woken one morning to find herself human again, Ahiru had been forced to acknowledge that past the connection she and Fakir shared, from being part of the story, she cared for him deeply. Love. While she had never allowed herself to think the word, when Hermia said it, everything fell into place and made her heart beat faster. Out of breath, she looked up in astonishment at her soon-to-be-married friend.
Hermia smiled benevolently at Ahiru, seeing her horrified expression. "You didn't think my ability to perceive people's feelings had faded away after I dealt with my own, did you?"
"N-no!" Ahiru assured her, "It's just that… I… I can't tell him…"
Hermia's face fell into light sadness. "Yes, that's what you said before… why?"
Ahiru's eyes widened. She remembered. "I… well… that's because I was in love with Mytho…" She almost flinched, expecting to disappear. It was the first time she had spoken aloud those old feelings, even to herself. They felt strange to her now. Somehow speaking about these feelings made her realize how long ago it truly was that she fell in love with Fakir. It was long before Mytho went back to the world of the story. Her face fell as she began to feel a twinge of guilt. Was that what had stopped her from giving him... but he was happy. And that was what she had set out to do in the beginning…
"Oh no…" Hermia took Ahiru's hands in comfort.
"What?" Ahiru was jolted back to reality, "No, no! It's not like that, either… I… I love someone else, now…"
Hermia's expression prompted her to continue.
"Well, I mean, I might have loved him even then, but I just didn't know it. I don't know. And now we're really good friends and I—"
"Who is it?" Hermia prompted.
"I… I love… Fa—fakir…" Ahiru blushed as red as a tomato as she saw her friend's eyes widen and a look of excitement take over her features.
"But that's wonderful! So that's why you asked him to dance with you!"
Ahiru had been asked to dance at the wedding, a pas de deux. She had approached Fakir about the matter, and he had said yes. They were going to do the Titania and Oberon pas de deux from Midsummer Night's Dream. Ahiru gulped in anxiety, heightened in light of her new discovery.
"But why can't you tell him?" Hermia pressed.
"Because… because I'm afraid he doesn't love me back, and we're good friends and even if he doesn't love me I don't want to lose him as a friend, so don't you think it's better just to not mention it?" Ahiru put on a twisted grin of embarrassment and false conviction.
Hermia looked at Ahiru very strangely for a moment, before bursting into the loudest laughter that Ahiru had ever heard from her.
"What?" she asked.
"Don't you see? That's just what I said to you, all those years ago! You gave me the courage to confess my love, now please let me return the favor."
"I was frightened, too, but my courage has given me all I've ever wanted. I couldn't be happier. I know you will be, too!"
"How do you know?" Ahiru blurted, rather more sharply than she had intended, "Can you read Fakir's feelings, too?"
"Ahiru, I haven't been here long enough to see him, and I won't see him until your dance. But you just look like you have love that is returned."
"And what if it's not?"
"How will you know if you don't try?"
The ceremony was long, as usual, and even more stressful for the maid of honor, it seemed, than the bride herself. Ahiru kept stealing glances towards the audience, to where Fakir was sitting in the front row, full costume on, not scowling as much as he used to.
How could she ever tell him? He would… and he was the only one she could really talk to… Ahiru stood reviewing her time as a human, both the first and the second time, trying to find some clue as to whether he loved her, too. But every time she thought of a tender moment they had shared, she could also think of a moment when they had fought, or he had pushed her away, or he had been mad at her for what seemed like no reason, or any number of things.
By the time she and Fakir were supposed to dance, Ahiru was so tense she felt she would burst.
The opening chords of the song were played by a man who looked uncannily like the penguin pianist they had had in the practice room during the time of the story, and they moved to their opening positions. Ahiru shook. When Fakir took her hand to lead her through the opening promenade, he whispered, "Relax, moron. You look like you're going to faint. I'm not going to drop you."
Strangely comforted by the quirky address, she arabesqued, steady for once in the position. A few of her old classmates gasped. She couldn't blame them. She was better than they had ever seen her before. And Fakir… Anyone could see that he was gentler with Ahiru than he was with any other girl he'd been partnered with before she had mysteriously been assigned to him.
Ahiru found herself supported by the strong hands of the one she truly trusted, and she moved through the steps as her thoughts raced through her mind. Gently, Fakir took her waist and spun her around. The step was repeated as Ahiru realized how gentle those hands also were. She leaned back into his arms and extended her toe to the front, following it momentarily, as she thought of the first time they had danced. He had been so rough with her then. His only concern was protecting Mytho. She knew he extended a hand to her behind her back before she turned to approach him again. Their second dance had not been as violent as their first. Memories of that dance under the lake, where he had given her the strength to fight her last battle as Princess Tutu overtook her as she closed her eyes and let Fakir lift her for the first time in this particular piece. He set her down carefully to arabesque again. The beginning step was repeated as she remembered how happy she had been when she woke up to find herself human again, after over two years, three years ago. She had run down the stairs of their little cottage by the lake, and embraced him. She had cried.
Remembered tears were in her eyes as she opened them to pirouette, finally facing her partner as they linked arms and leaned away from each other. Fakir had the smallest hint of a smile on his face, which reminded her, as he spun her again and they backed away from each other, of their argument that had sent her out of the house in tears that morning. She had almost been frightened he wouldn't come. His variation started, and he used her to spot as she watched him dance. He was there. And he was such a wonderful dancer. She often wondered why he had chosen her as his partner in class. True, she had vastly improved, but she was nowhere near as good, she thought, as some of the other girls. In the past she had come to the conclusion that she was the only one who knew how to deal with him, without making him angry, but that was not true at all. They fought more than any other pair in the class.
Ahiru twirled her skirt and, at a nod from her partner, proceeded into the part of the dance she most feared. She had to arabesque across the floor towards him, and sometimes, even in the last rehearsals, she had fallen.
Ahiru made it through two perfect arabesques before she overbalanced herself and started falling, only to find herself caught before she could stumble, with Fakir's hands guiding her through the next few steps, making the transition seamless, escorting her away until he moved into his own part again. She looked at him gratefully and repeated her arabesques, this time not falling, so happy was she that he had caught her.
Next was the part which they truly had to dance together, at the same speed, the same height, the same posture, but, she realized, this had always been the easiest part for them, even in the beginning. Fakir was a good leader, and he knew her. They did a small hop and transitioned easily into an arabesque turn, Fakir supporting Ahiru easily by holding her hands tightly until they fell into another position and the quick lifts began. She jumped, flying for a moment, then positioned and flew into the next lift, coming back down again.
Ahiru hardly noticed that she executed more arabesques, several turns and had not tripped when she pattered across the stage in the small steps of pointe shoes, nor that she had arrived intact at the part where the partners mirrored their stances from across the stage, and there came another gasp from the crowd when these positions were in perfect harmony, though Fakir and Ahiru could not see each other. They came together and Ahiru forgot how much she had worried, and how mad at each other she and Fakir had been that morning when they kept eye contact for another set of turns, as he circled around her, holding her waist.
For the last time, she could hear the patter of her pointe shoes as she tip-toed away from him, and this time, he held out his hands for her, which she took willingly. There was another arabesque, while she beamed at him, and then she let herself fall into his arms, into a low dip, which traveled until two more arabesques, another turn, and Ahiru faced the audience, not seeing a single face, being lowered to glide across the floor and lifted. Another turn, another dip, another glide, another lift. Three more quick arabesques. Two long, twirling dips which Ahiru felt totally secure in, a hand at her waist and another at her thigh, holding her safely in place. A dip backwards, over Fakir's knee, he touched her face, a dip forwards so he could lift her up into the position they walked from, in sync, arms around each other. Then came the long, advanced lift that was Ahiru's favorite part – no one had told her, especially not Fakir, that the lift should not have been done by a dancer at her level, according to Mr. Cat (a grey-haired human now, given to using cat-like noises in his ballet direction).
There was a gasp from the audience that Ahiru did not hear, she was so engrossed in flying like she could never fly as a duck. This was a different kind of flying. Wings were not awkwardly feathered, but gracefully placed at her waist, and she extended her human limbs ecstatically. She forgot everything but the moment she was in as Fakir spun her easily and carefully, until their last arabesque, where his arms conformed to the shape of hers without touching, and they did a final set of convoluted yet beautiful turns, ending in a low dip, back over his knee, her arm around his neck, his around her waist, and looking into each others eyes.
They were awakened by thunderous applause, headed by the newlywed couple, and that was when Ahiru realized that she had forgotten to remember. When they were dancing, it was like it was just them. She wondered if that was the dance… or if it was really them, but she was gently led into a curtsy by her partner, the only point in which she finally did stumble and almost fall. Fakir caught her easily, pretending not to notice.
He knows me so well, she thought. Better than I know myself sometimes. Ahiru turned to look at Fakir, to see if she could see something that would give her a hint, a sign, something to tell her that he loved her, too, but he was already being congratulated by a few of the guests.
Before Ahiru could approach him, though, admittedly, it had only been a half-hearted attempt, she was being swept up in the congratulations of her friends.
"You were so good!" Pike exclaimed, "That was the best you've ever danced!"
"And you didn't trip until the end!" added Lilie, "You must have been trying so hard you just couldn't hold it in anymore. You can take the girl out of the klutz, but you can't take the klutz out of the girl!"
Ahiru smiled weakly and thought better of responding, but suddenly her chatty friends stopped talking and stared over her shoulder at something behind her.
Ahiru spun and stumbled into a standing position as Mr. Cat stared her down. "Meow, that was a wonderful performance, Miss Ahiru. I have never seen such excellence from you. I shall expect you and Fakir to perform this in the next recital we have."
Ahiru's eyes widened. "Thank you, Mr. Cat," she said, surprised and overjoyed.
Her teacher made a sound like a half-meow half-growl as he disappeared back into the crowd. She turned back to face her friends, but they were gone as well, making way for Hermia, who hugged her tightly and gushed about her performance.
Caught up in the excitement, Ahiru thanked her friend, and remembered to ask her what she had seen on Fakir's back only at the precise moment Lysander gave a small smile and led Hermia away.
Ahiru was left alone again, without an answer, and feeling very much lost. She knew that what Hermia said was true – she would have to tell Fakir eventually. It already felt like she would burst if she didn't tell him.
She sank down into a chair in the front row and sighed, staring gloomily at the makeshift altar, back to her montage of memories.
"What's wrong, moron?" The voice startled her and she clapped her hands over her mouth before turning to see Fakir sitting down next to her. "We were good. We didn't screw up…" She loved how he said "we" instead of "you."
"It's not that," she said, managing a smile.
"Then what is it?" His voice was soft, concerned this time.
"It's just…" Ahiru tried to force the words out of her mouth, unsuccessfully.
"It's just…" he prompted, smiling softly at her.
"I…" she tried again.
"You…" he tried again as well
"Well, I… Fakir, I…" There. That was farther than she'd gotten last time, wasn't it?
"Yes?" he said.
"I… Well, I… Fakir, I… It's just that… I love you, that's all."
Ahiru clapped her hands over her mouth and blushed bright red in the moment she realized she had spit it out. She nervously looked around. Everyone had probably heard it, and Pike and Lilie would really see her being rejected, and she would lose Fakir, and why had she ever listened to Hermia, and it wasn't the same with her and Fakir as it was with Hermia and Lysander, and—
Ahiru's train of thought petered out quietly. What was she supposed to say? Did he want her to say "no?"
"Yes," she said, meaning to say "no." She winced and threw a tentative look at Fakir.
Before she could try to explain herself, she found herself swung up and around in the air. As she was recovering from the impromptu lift, she found her lips altogether occupied. For a moment she was stunned, but then it dawned on her that Fakir was kissing her.
She had just begun to enjoy it when he broke away and looked into her questioning eyes.
"I love you, too, Ahiru," he said, as if just as surprised as she was at what had come over their tongues without their conscious consent.
Ahiru's train of thought started chugging again, very slowly.
"Yes." Without another word, he kissed her again, and when they separated, they spent a long time simply staring at each other in complete confusion mixed with rapture.
"What was it we were fighting about this morning?" Fakir asked, breaking the silence.
"I can't remember…" They smiled at each other.
"Look out!" someone called after a while, and before Ahiru knew it, she found herself sitting on the ground in the middle of the aisle, in an unladylike position, with Hermia's wedding bouquet in her lap.
She looked toward the origin of the offending article, and saw Hermia wink.