Ahiru watched as the ravens kept coming at him and she screamed at every swing of his sword.
"Fakir!" she called over and over until her voice was hoarse, but he never seemed to hear her.
"It's no use, little duck…" Drosselmeyer's voice came from behind her, and she turned around to have a blanket thrown in her face, made of the same material as the cushions she sat on.
She wrapped it around herself and faced Drosselmeyer.
"Why can't he hear me?" she asked, scared and confused, but not quite angry.
"He can't hear you because he doesn't want to. He is fighting for his life. You don't matter anymore."
"That can't be true…" she protested weakly. It made sense, though… Why would anyone want to spend their life taking care of a duck…? But… it felt all wrong. It felt like maybe… just maybe… he loved her, too.
It was just in the way he held her, and spoke to her, and cared for her, but it was enough and she took courage in it.
"It's not true!" she shouted.
"Really?" Drosselmeyer queried, raising an eyebrow, "Are you willing to stake your life on it?"
"What?" Ahiru grew frightened when the man who had haunted her ever since she could remember chuckled and pointed at the window again.
Ahiru turned her head and caught sight of the fight again. But this time it looked like Fakir was… losing. More and more ravens were closing in on him, and he couldn't fight them all at once.
"No!" she cried, "Herr Drosselmeyer, please stop this!"
"If you truly love him," he accused, turning his pointing hand towards her, "Then save him with your own life. Dance to give him strength, until your life has been poured out of you."
With that the dead man was gone, and it took Ahiru only one moment more of watching to make her decision. Her toes pointed and she began to dance, the blanket falling off of her.
"Fakir," she whispered to no one, "Take what life is within me, if it will keep you alive."
Fakir knew that he was dying. He'd felt it before, and only magic had saved him, then.
But just as he almost fell to the crows, he felt a surge of strength from somewhere, and it warmed his heart. And it gave him direction. He finally saw, out of the mist, his destination. A door, which shouldn't have led anywhere, but he knew it must. And it would bring him to the last test.
Ahiru had danced over to the windows to better watch Fakir's progress, and gritted her teeth. Nothing in the world had ever hurt more. Even crows' beaks pecking at her from every side. This was worse. This was internal. It felt like something was eating her from the inside out.
The release when Fakir fell through the door in the mist and disappeared left her legs to collapse under her.
She fell onto the cushions and gasped for air.
But there was still the gnawing in her chest, which restricted her breathing and made her weaker and weaker.
She could only stare out the window, now, as the mist fell away to reveal Kinkan town.
Mild interest was all she could muster up, though, as her vision tumbled down into the streets and flew past others to the cabin on the edge of the lake, the same one which Fakir had restored from dilapidation and made into a home for the two of them.
But it was different. It looked somehow newer, and as her field of vision entered at the doorway the furnishings were all different.
There was a young couple standing in the middle of the room. The woman held a blanket-wrapped baby, and the man held the woman.
"You can't have her!" the man snarled at someone across the room, and Ahiru managed to flick her eyes far enough to catch sight of who it was.
But that glimpse was enough to frighten her into curling up in fear and shivering. It was Drosselmeyer.
Was this Rue's family? she wondered weakly, before a spasm of pain left her exhausted again and she lay her head back down, fighting to keep her eyes open even to watch.
"We made a deal," the old man said, "You know as well as I that your wife and the child would both be dead were it not for me. Now give me the child!"
This time he grabbed the bundle from the mother's arms, and both started sobbing at the loss of contact.
But the blankets had been jostled and the babe's face was exposed, and Ahiru's eyes widened in involuntary shock when she saw the face. Her own, looking back at her from younger eyes, but unmistakable, and very human.
She understood now. She had been human. A clumsy one, and feathers did not help that, but she was real. It was why she couldn't let go of her human time. Why it caused her so much pain to see the way Fakir looked at her. He seemed so sad, and every time she saw him she wished she had arms to throw around him like her mirror image had.
But it didn't matter now, because she was too weak to move, much less throw her arms around Fakir. He was probably climbing the staircase to find her now. He couldn't have just left her. No.
But he would be too late… No! She mustn't think like that. Even if it was just to say goodbye, she would stay alive for that.
A minute at a time.
There was nothing else, really to do, when faced with the vision he saw before him.
A row of Ahirus were lined up in front of him, each doing something slightly different, and each wearing something different, though a few of them wore nothing at all.
"Which of us is the true Ahiru?" they all asked in chorus, striking slightly different poses.
His eyes raked down the aisle of them, but he couldn't tell any apart, much less pick one out.
And yet… all of them seemed… wrong, somehow.
They all looked like Ahiru, but none of them acted toward him the way she would. At least, not the way he thought she would, after all that they had been through, together.
"None of you…" he murmured almost before the thought had crossed his mind, but evidently they had heard him, for every single one of them adopted the same pose and cocked their heads at him in horror.
For a moment he thought that he had been wrong, but then they all disappeared, revealing a staircase behind them, up which he ran, feeling just as strong as when he had entered this topsy-turvy world.
The thought that Ahiru must be at the top of the staircase kept him going, and he urged himself faster and faster, wrenching the door open when he came to it, and stopping dead.
Across the room, Ahiru lay on the window seat, only her eyes moving, and they were dazedly watching scenes tumbling in and out of vision outside the windows.
Her body was limp and frail-looking.
Ahiru heard the crash of the door as it swung open and immediately shut again, sealing them in the impossible place, and forced herself to turn her head.
Her mouth moved, and it looked like she was trying to produce sound, but her lungs weren't holding enough air to push over her vocal cords.
He rushed to her side, for once not remembering to blush at her naked body. He just gathered her up into his arms, meeting with no resistance.
It seemed like all the life had left her body, except for a thread she still clung to.
Fakir, she tried desperately to make herself heard, but nothing was coming out of her mouth. Her lips could barely form the words.
But I have to say this, she thought tiredly.
With all of her might, she swallowed the pain and took as deep a breath as she could.
"I love you."
It came out as barely a breath of air, but she cracked her eyes open enough to make sure that he had understood.
He had tears in his eyes and was holding her closer than she had thought, his face mere inches away.
It was strange, how natural the words seemed to be after he had spent so long denying them, and she had spent so long forbidden to say them.
He smiled at her, hoping she could see, but his face fell as her neck fell slack and her eyes closed.
"No," he whispered as she exhaled. He could barely see the rise and fall of her bare chest anymore, and he didn't know how long even that hold on life would last her.
"No!" he cried, holding her even closer and not caring that tears ran down his face into her hair, "No, Ahiru! I love you!"
He was yelling to nobody and nothing, and he didn't care. He felt so helpless. He couldn't do anything for her, and he didn't even know what it was that was taking her from him.
All he could do was hold her tightly and stroke her hair, though she was obviously unconscious and barely alive.
And yet the villain had the gall to laugh.
Fakir tucked her head under his chin and snarled.
This sent the old man into a roar of laughter.
"Finally my tragedy is complete," Drosselmeyer said, staring at the two of them.
"Both parties have proved their love, and one of them dies for it, the other too late to save them."
"What did you do to her?" he growled, more animal than man in his voice.
"She gave her life to save you," he replied calmly, "When you were succumbing to the ravens she danced to give you strength. Her life force is still dwindling.
"In fact," he chuckled again, "It looks like your little duck's time is almost up. All you can do now is watch her die."
"No!" His eyes flew back to her face, and her eyelashes flickered once before her shallow breathing stopped completely.
"No!" He brought her face up to his and kissed her eyelids, crying.
"I love you," he whispered, hovering over her lips, before he kissed her, for the first and last time.
For a moment, she was unresponsive. Dead, he thought in despair. But then she opened her lips a little, and Fakir pulled back to stare in surprise.
Her eyes fluttered open and her lips curled in a beaming smile.
"What?! No!" Drosselmeyer yelled at the two and sent the same tumultuous wind that had whirled around the setting of Fakir's first test, but this time he didn't care.
Life was flooding back into her now, and she threw her arms around his neck and kissed him again.
They heard another cry of defeat as they kissed again, but neither cared when that world went misty and the familiar sounds of the forest returned.
When they separated for a moment, they found themselves on the dock, just where they had been, but gone was the little yellow duck, and in her place a human girl.
Fakir found the decency to blush, but did not let her go.
When darkness fell, he carried her to their cottage, and they told their stories, still cuddled together, wrapped in the quilts Raetsel had made for them, and that night, they fell asleep together, Ahiru pressed up against Fakir, and his arm wrapped around her waist.
And that is how they lived. Despite everything, and all Drosselmeyer's attempts at tragedy, happily ever after.