Disclaimer: Princess Tutu isn't mine, sadly.

- - - -

He's still not quite sure when, exactly, he fell in love with her, but the fact that she didn't laugh at him might have had something to do with it.

It wasn't a matter of when he first noticed her - he'd noticed her back when she caused Mytho to twist his ankle, and had thought her a waste of space. Later encounters didn't change his first impression at all. She was noisy, and clumsy enough to make Mytho have to endanger himself if she kept infesting the space around him, and ranted loudly about "helping" situations that she didn't understand at all. She was even more of an irritant than Rue, which was saying something. Rue might have viewed Mytho with a greedy affection, but at least she understood that the prince was to be protected from the outside world; she understood that their heartless prince need never grow up. They disliked each other, but they also understood each other.

But this girl, who understood nothing, simply barged in as if she understood everything. Acting as if the prince needed a heart. Causing Mytho to be even harder to protect than he already was. Didn't she see that she couldn't just fling heart shards at the prince and expect everything to be all right? It wasn't too surprising, once he got over his initial shock, to find that she was Princess Tutu; one might have been a loud, clumsy brat, and the other might have been a graceful enemy, but they both shared the same foolish delusion.

And then came that night, when Rue - Kraehe - Rue - it didn't matter, she was still greedy for the prince no matter what outfit she was wearing - shattered his own delusions, taking Mytho from him, and leaving him in the dust. For all his talk, he flinched when the crucial moment came; when the time came to eliminate the raven once and for all, his fear overwhelmed him. In the end, he was helpless to protect the prince; in the end, he was good for nothing but being ripped in two, just as the story said.

And she helped him back to his room. Gave him her hand to help him get up off the ground, and half-carried him back to his room.

And never once laughed at his weakness.

She should have laughed. He'd treated her with nothing but disdain for her own weakness, called her a fool and worse for her sentimentality, done his best to hurt her at every turn, so that she would go away and leave them alone. She should have been delighted to see him defeated like that. She should have gloated over how weak her enemy truly was, and left him on the ground.

She certainly shouldn't have helped him, or wanted his help to save Mytho.

And maybe her foolishness was contagious. Maybe she was contagious, infecting him with hope that the story could be changed, that he could save the prince without having to die in the process. It was the only way to explain how he could have been bruised, and soaked, and nearly sliced to pieces, and still only have been partially responsible for saving the prince in the end - and somehow, somehow, feel lighter than he had in years.

She might have been contagious, but at least she was the kind of disease he didn't mind having. He could live with that.

- - -

It wasn't until he wondered, with a sort of bemused shock, Wait. Why am I jealous? that he realised just how deeply he'd been infected.

It would have been easy to blame Uzura or that other boy, Femur or whatever his name was, but really, the only person to blame was himself. Somehow she'd snuck beneath his skin when he wasn't looking, and he hadn't been vigilant enough to stop her. He didn't really blame her for it; she couldn't help being infectious any more than she could help being clumsy when she wasn't Princess Tutu. No, it was his fault. His fault that he'd let her burrow so deeply into his brain; his fault that he didn't even want to extract her.

It wasn't even so bad, he reflected later. Feeling a vague-but-uncontrollable urge to kill Femur (or whatever) every time that prancing little would-be prince came near her was a drawback, true, and that annoying lighthearted feeling just wouldn't go away no matter how hard he tried to get rid of it. But on the whole, it wasn't so bad to have a reason other than bravely facing his impending doom to get up in the mornings, and he didn't even mind how he occasionally felt the urge to smile for no apparent reason. Much.

But this feeling was a new thing for him, and like most new things, it was difficult to name until it strayed back into familiar territory: Fear.

He already knew what love was, of course. Love was what had caused his parents to be sick enough with terror to get in the way of the flock of ravens that was attacking their son, without regard for their personal safety. Love was what had made Rue so afraid of losing the prince; love was his own fear of seeing Mytho die because of his princely instincts. Love was the deep, unreasoning terror of having a loved one taken away from you. And when he dashed through the fog to find her on the ground, half-dead from her battle with the ghost knight, he suddenly became certain of two things: First, that he couldn't protect her, and second, that his panic at being unable to protect her could only mean one thing.

It took some effort to get her back home and care for her wounds before he started hyperventilating, but then, knights were supposed to be good at that sort of thing.

- - -

And in the end, he was only a supporting character after all. He wrote the story that led her out of Drosselmeyer's world, and he pulled her out of the depths of despair, but in the end, neither of those things succeeded until she wanted them to. He lent her strength in the final battle against the raven, but in the end it was her dance and her ability to hope that made the story end. In the end, his strength alone wasn't enough to protect the prince or make the story end; he could only help her as best he could, and let her help him, and hope that their combined strengths would be enough. In the end, he couldn't protect her; he could only help her protect herself.

In the end, he wasn't a very good knight, and he wasn't a very good writer; the only thing he'd ever truly been good at was devoting himself to whatever he had decided was worthy of his devotion. In the end, he couldn't protect her, but in the end, she'd never truly needed protection in the first place; all she'd ever needed was to not have to save the world by herself.

That much, he could do.