A small yellow duck hopped out of the water and onto the shoulder of a dark-haired boy, who was currently staring off into the abyss.
He jumped when she did, and tried to hide a blush. It was almost sunset. They would be returning to their little cabin on the side of the lake soon.
Ahiru jumped down again, this time landing on the dock, and looked up at him expectantly.
For a moment, all Fakir could do was stare at her. She was so small and fragile, and yet somehow she was the strongest person he knew. Yes, he still thought of her as the human she had been. Sometimes he could even see Ahiru out of the corner of his eye, in something that the little duck in front of him did. Just an expression, or a movement. It was enough to make his heart stop, and make the disappointment when he realized the impossibility of it nearly unbearable, no matter how many times he told himself it had been foolish to hope in the first place.
But a promise was a promise. They needed to stay who, and what, they truly were. And, despite some feeling of injustice about the whole thing, and the way she still acted so human, and so out of place in feathers—though he supposed she would look clumsy and out of place whatever form she took—this was her. Except that… but no. It was useless. This was her.
A loud, rumbling chuckle startled the both of them into jumping, and Fakir reflexively rose to protect her, his eyes darting around in vain to locate the source of the sound which had suddenly seemed to come from everywhere at once. He firmly resisted the urge to scoop Ahiru into his arms protectively.
"So calm and boring a scene. But do I detect a note of unrest among the ranks?"
The boy and the duck independently blushed but quickly suppressed this reaction, each feeling guilty at their dissatisfaction with their current lives.
The voice descended into loud laughter again, and Fakir thought it sounded familiar. A glance at Ahiru's uneasy stature confirmed Fakir's suspicions.
"Drosselmeyer," he growled.
The disembodied voice fell silent, then, after a moment it seemed to be on the other side of them than it had been, if indeed it had been on a side at all, and it sounded taunting.
"That's right," the dead storyteller replied, adding in mock generosity, "I have come to miss the failed knight and the princess who is really a duck."
Blushes covered their faces now, and they were unable to hide them.
The feeling of a great smile only just out of sight surrounded them then, and tripled their insecurities, deepening their embarrassment to the point that they avoided each other's eyes.
With another chuckle, this time echoing in the air in every direction, the world went misty and vague, and in the moment of deafening silence a new stage flashed into sharp reality.
At the same time, both Fakir and Ahiru twisted around with sudden terror to make sure the other was there. And at the same time, their eyes widened in shock and terror when they saw they were alone.
Fakir stared blankly at the scene which surrounded him. He seemed to be in some sort of castle corridor. He turned slowly around and counted four identical passageways to choose from.
But which one to take?
He turned around again and again, staring down into the darkness, lit only by intermittent torches which threw ominous shadows across the walls.
Where was she?
Where was he?
Suddenly a scream tumbled down one of the corridors. Fakir spun until he was facing the sound. She had never screamed like that before.
The wordless cry came again, longer and louder this time, breaking in a sob at the end, and this time there was no doubt in Fakir's mind who it was. It was Ahiru. And she was in terrible pain.
Almost before he could think he was flying down the corridor, deeper and deeper into the seemingly-never-ending hallway.
But all too soon, he heard the scream again. He stopped dead.
It had been coming from the other direction.
He doubled back twice as fast. The echo must have thrown the sound down this corridor, when it really came from the opposite direction. He had just passed the intersection when it came again, just as blood-curdling as ever.
But this time, it came from one of the side halls.
Fakir was slow to back up this time, and for a moment stared in the direction the last scream came from.
Sure enough, a moment later it came from the opposite direction.
Fakir circled again, trying desperately to find which way to go.
If only there were some way he could tell which scream was real.
As if on cue, another cry rose up, and he stared down the hall from whence it came.
Almost before he could identify it, another came, from one of the other corridors. And another. And another.
The screaming came faster and faster and louder and louder, driving him insane with the need to help Ahiru, and his writer's imagination running away with the situation and forming terrible ideas as to what was happening to her.
Then the screaming came from more than one direction at once, and soon all four hallways were consumed with the sound.
Fakir's breathing was shallow and uneven, his ears straining through the noise, desperately seeking a defining difference in the screams.
But though they were all unique, none of them sounded more like Ahiru than another, and all were equally horrifying.
With a cry of his own, Fakir threw himself down what he thought was the first corridor, though in truth he had lost all sense of direction.
The screaming followed him, all of it, and it got no easier to bear. His teeth ground and sweat beaded his forehead, but all he could do was keep running and hope it was the right way.
Ahiru felt dizzy when she opened her eyes, not realizing that she had closed them in the first place.
She found herself sitting on a cold, stone floor.
No, not stone, she realized, looking down. Glass. A mirror.
Her hands slid over the surface to steady herself. Wait… her… hands? Her breath escaped her and her heart skipped a beat when she saw her human reflection. Had Fakir…?
No. She remembered the world turning misty and finally falling away, looking around, not seeing Fakir, becoming dizzy, and falling, her legs giving way beneath her.
Her limbs still felt wobbly, and she leaned on her arms to support her, finally raising her head, only to cringe away, standing in her attempt to turn around.
The walls were mirrors as well. It seemed like a hundred panels to cover the large room, and in each one was a different reflection.
And every one of the panels had a doorknob on it.
There she was with Fakir. He was holding her as a duck. She twisted around and Pike and Lilie stroked her feathers and gushed over how cute she was as a duck.
But next to them she wore a familiar white and pink tutu, and Prince Mytho held her hands and bent to kiss her.
She yelped and turned away from that picture before he could reach her lips.
And there she was again, chatting and laughing with Rue, who looked happier than Ahiru ever remembered seeing her. They were both wearing academy uniforms.
Beside them Pike and Lilie hung on her human arms, giggling and poking at her.
She stood alone in the next mirror. As a duck. Her features looked to her long-suffering, but a moment later another yellow duck waddled over, followed by a menagerie of smaller ducks. She screamed and fell backwards in her attempt to escape that. She tore her eyes away and to the next panel—the next door. She stood alone there, too, at first. Except she smiled and waved back at herself, back in her school uniform again. She seemed cheerful enough.
And then Mytho and Rue joined her, both in uniforms and holding hands, chatting with her cheerfully. But that couldn't be real. They were gone.
She turned away from that again, and looked into Mytho's eyes. He had his arm around her waist, and they both wore uniforms.
A whimper escaped her lips.
And there she was with Fakir. En Pointe as Princess Tutu, and he bent as a knight to kiss her hand. Her eyes flickered away, to a truly solitary portrait. Princess Tutu smiled benevolently and held out a hand, so genuine that Ahiru almost reached for it.
Then she caught sight of yellow feathers again. She was held by Rue, fast asleep, and Mytho smiled down at her as well.
In another panel, she and Kraehe faced each other, Kraehe glaring daggers into her reflection.
But beside that, Fakir, his eyes softened, held her human chin, and bent to kiss her. Just her, as Ahiru.
Her heart nearly broke as she watched that pantomime, not able to tear her eyes away before he reached her lips, and she threw her arms around his neck.
There was Rue again, alone this time, though she wore the garb of a princess, holding a little duck in the crook of an arm as she walked towards some unknown goal.
Without thinking, Ahiru darted forward and grabbed for the doorknob.
As soon as she touched it, her reflection and Rue's fell down dead to the floor, blood spilling from their hearts.
Ahiru screamed in horror and snatched her hand back, staring between the offending hand and the macabre reflection in overwhelming terror as tears blurred her vision and fell from her cheeks.
Suddenly all the other reflections spoke at once to her, all turning their heads. There were choruses of her own voice, and others, too. Everyone she had ever known, human or not.
"You must choose the reflection that is where you truly belong," they said, and she spun around, suddenly conscious that she was naked again, as if they could all see her.
Her eyes searched low, and found her Duck family. She moved toward them, but an image burned in the back of her eyes, and she looked around until she found it again.
Fakir held her as a duck. Walking home, probably, before all the images had turned to face her.
Yes. That was the one.
She braced herself and strode forward, holding out her hand. In one movement she took a firm grip on the handle.
But then they were dead.
She was dead again, lying on Fakir's chest, her feathery cheek stained dark with his life-blood, and his body was twisted at an unnatural angle.
"No!" she screamed, the tears on her cheeks multiplying and a sob escaping her lips.
"That's it," she managed, "That's where I have to be. It can't be! It can't be!"
"Choose again," came the chorus of voices, though it seemed like they were tinted with dread, now, and Ahiru felt wretched, like she had murdered them.
"But I don't know!" she sobbed out, hardly expecting an answer.
"Choose what's in your heart," they all replied, startling her.
She looked around the room once.
She turned around the other way and moaned.
They couldn't mean that. Her eyes locked with Fakir's, in the picture where he held her waist protectively, lovingly. That was where her heart was.
But that wasn't where she belonged.
She closed her eyes and stepped forward, not knowing what else she could do. She groped for the handle and twisted it, falling blindly across the threshold. As the door slammed shut behind her she lay sobbing on the ground.
There was a mistake, or it was a trick. Any one of the doors might have worked if she could have withstood watching everyone she had ever loved die. It couldn't be right. It just couldn't.