Duck woke to the sound of a couple dozen songbirds chirping outside her window, hoping for their morning seed. It was how she woke up most mornings, except for when she was roused by the chiming of the clock tower or by her new friends Pique and Lillie pounding on the door – Pique – and going on about how adorable her constant lateness was and how they would comfort her in her inevitable failures – Lillie.
“I’m coming, I’m coming,” Duck muttered sleepily to her bird friends, still half-caught in her earlier dream. She had been a duck, a real duck, not just a girl named Duck, floating in a lake by a dock. Up on the dock had been a boy, or maybe a man, or a… a writer! He had been a writer and he had been working on a story that made him happy, but also really sad because, because…
Duck groaned and rolled over, completely forgetting how narrow the bed was until she hit the ground with a painful thump, her blanket fluttering after her. Still not feeling fully awake despite her tumble, Duck draped the blanket over herself like a cloak and shuffled over to open the window. At that point she was knocked to the ground again, this time by a bunch of hungry birds that only let up when Duck placed their bowlful of seed on the sill.
“Good morning everyone. How are you all today?” Duck greeted cheerily. “I’m impressed with how smart you all are; I’ve only been here for…” Duck paused. How long had she been in Gold Crown? Part of her thought she had only just arrived, but another part insisted she had been here for forever. She scratched her head, and finally her muddled brain offered up, “a week and a half. I’ve only been living here for a week and a half you’ve already all figured out this is the best place for a yummy breakfast. That’s pretty smart for birds!” Duck winced, then hastily clarified. “Not that I think birds are dumb; I really like birds. I just mean that birds aren’t as smart as people. Not that there’s anything wrong with that! I’m kind of dumb too sometimes, maybe because my name is Duck so I’m kind of like a bird too. Only not really because I’m a human girl.” Duck trailed off with a few awkward chuckles. A solitary finch looked up and regarded her with a curious tilt of his head before returning to the seed bowl.
Duck was pulled from her embarrassment by a knock on her door. “Duck? We’re going on ahead. Try not to be too late,” Pique called. “You don’t want to be dropped to the probationary class in your first full week.”
“Yes Duck, try your best, even though there’s no way you could ever possibly succeed!” Lillie added.
Duck thought about correcting Pique – it was her second full week, not her first – but then she realized what time it was and she was too busy rushing around to say anything at all. She slammed her books together into a pile and threw on her clothes, slowing down only the slightest bit when adjusting her necklace. The Gold Crown Academy uniforms all had a yellow broach, which for the girls was supposed to clasp the collar of their shirts closed, but Duck preferred to use her necklace instead. It worked almost just as well and besides, she didn’t like the idea of hiding it away under her shirt because the necklace was important because… it just was, was all. So instead she tucked the silver chain in her collar and nestled the bright blue pendant right in the spot where the broach should go.
Wait a second, blue? Wasn’t her necklace red? Duck frowned and stared for a minute, her fingers lightly gracing the smooth surface of the oblong stone. The she shook her head and laughed at herself. Obviously the stone was blue, the exact same shade as her eyes; she could see that for herself right now. And if it was blue now then it must have always been blue. Jewelry didn’t just change color by itself in the middle of the night. She was so silly sometimes.
In less than five minutes, Duck was completely ready. She charged down the stairs of her attic room and after her friends, hoping they hadn’t gotten too far ahead of her.
The rest of the morning passed pretty uneventfully, aside from a brief moment when Duck thought she was going to be made to stay after class to clean, even though she hadn’t even been late! But it turned out that Mr. Katz – who, to Duck’s mortification, she kept calling Mr. Cat – just wanted to tell her he was going to have her to stay late that afternoon so he could run some exercises with her to assess her readiness for pointe shoes.
Lunch found Duck sitting outside on the grass receiving support – Pique – and what were probably supposed to be reassurances – Lillie – about her upcoming pre-pointe lesson. Duck had just managed to successfully divert the conversation to a discussion of Pique and Lillie’s first time wearing pointe shoes when she suddenly felt a prickle of awareness on the back of neck.
Duck turned to look over her shoulder and spotted an upperclassman staring at her from across the courtyard. He looked to be maybe two years older than her, with messy dark hair pulled into a loose ponytail and eyes that were piercing even at this distance. Rather than looking away when she caught him like a normal person would – it was rude to stare! – or glaring at her like Duck was half-expecting him to do, the boy held her gaze for a moment or two longer, then nodded at her and returned his attention to his own lunch.
“Who’s that over there?” Duck asked, interrupting Lillie’s soliloquy about the beautifully exquisite pain of pointe. “That boy with the ponytail eating all by himself.”
“You mean the ever spectacular Fakir?” Pique said, looking over in the direction Duck had indicated.
“I guess?” Duck said. Pique was looked like she was looking at the right person, anyway.
“He’s one of the students in the new writing division. Before he transferred he was in the advanced ballet class,” Pique told her.
“Why Duck, have you developed a hopeless infatuation destined to always be unrequited?” Lillie asked, grasping ahold of Duck’s arm much harder than she needed to and sounding absolutely thrilled at the prospect.
“What? No, I –“
“Hey, don’t sweat it if you have,” Pique said. “Lots of girls have a crush on Fakir. I’m actually a Fakir girl myself. It’s kind of too bad that we don’t get to see him dance any more, but the writing thing makes him seem all brooding and mysterious, you know?”
“No, you guys! I just,” Duck paused. Saying that that she’d caught Fakir staring at her was bound to set the other two off again. “I just noticed him sitting by himself and thought it seemed lonely, is all.”
“What a great and terrible tragedy, to be all alone in the world,” Lillie said with a contented sigh.
“He used to be good friends with another one of the ballet students, but last year they started fighting, and eventually Mytho moved away.”
“Eloped with his girlfriend!”
“And now Fakir is mostly by himself, I guess,” Pique concluded.
“Wait, didn’t he used to have another friend?” Lillie asked uncertainly.
Pique frowned. “Yeah, who was that? Oh! You must be thinking of Autor; he’s another one of the students that transferred to the writing division.” She pointed to a bespectacled boy who was walking up to Fakir. They were too far away to hear anything, of course, but the three girls watched as Autor said something while looking exasperated to Fakir, which Fakir returned with an extremely annoyed glare. The two traded a few comments before they both turned to look in the girl’s direction. The three of them all looked away, Pique and Lillie much more quickly than Duck managed. In fact, Duck was pretty sure that if the boys had shown any signs of coming over here, then by the time Duck had turned back, she would have found herself totally abandoned.
“Of course, I don’t know if I would call Autor Fakir’s friend exactly,” Pique said, resuming the thread of conversation, “but he’s the only one that Fakir ever seems to hang around.”
“That’s kind of sad,” Duck said.
“Such is the tragic life of the brooding writer,” Lillie proclaimed enthusiastically. Something the way she phrased that tugged at a memory at the back of Duck’s mind.
“Huh. I had a dream about a writer last night,” she said musingly, and then Lillie tackled her with a cry of melodramatic glee. Probably Duck should have seen that one coming.
Duck had thought that her pre-pointe class had gone pretty well the day before, so she was a little surprised when Mr. Katz asked her to stay behind again today. Maybe he wanted her to do it again to prove it wasn’t a fluke? Duck knew she wasn’t the best ballet student, and dancing en pointe was really hard, so probably Mr. Katz just wanted to be sure. But when Duck got to the main practice room that day after classes were over, Mr. Katz was waiting for her with a smile and a pair of light pink satin toe shoes.
“While your form is still far from perfect, I think it’s good enough to begin incorporating in some pointe work, and I was very impressed with your enthusiasm. However,” he added with stern look while holding up a single warning finger, “you must continue to prove your diligence to me, Miss Duck, or I will be forced to have you give me these shoes back.”
“Yes sir!” Duck said, practically vibrating with excitement. “I promise to be the most diligent student you’ve ever had!” Mr. Katz looked skeptical of that, and Duck had to admit she wasn’t really a diligent person, mostly. “Or at least, I’m going to do my best!”
Mr. Katz sighed, then smiled at her. “I guess that’s all I can really ask. Now, put those shoes on. Since the rest of your class has started pointe work already I want to get you to where you can do the pointe exercises with them, even if you need to go at your own pace.”
Duck, normally a master of getting changed at lightning speed, took her time putting her new toe shoes on. Partially because she wanted to prove to Mr. Katz that she was being diligent, but mostly just to revel in the shoes themselves. Duck had toe shoes! And in a few minutes she would be en pointe just like a prima ballerina.
Mr. Katz didn’t let her go up en pointe right away, instead having her stand at the barre and do some basic exercises and go on demi pointe, to get used to the different feel of the toe shoes. Finally, just as Duck thought she was going to crack with impatience, Mr. Katz instructed her to go on full pointe. Something in Duck took over and she felt herself smoothly and effortlessly rolling up to the tips of her toes. For a moment she stood there, poised and graceful, with her fingers only lightly brushing against the barre.
The she fell.
Pique and Lillie were right, going en pointe hurt. And she had fallen on her butt, so that hurt now too. Pouting a little and rubbing at her injured backside, Duck looked up at Mr. Katz, who was regarding her with a thoughtful sort of frown.
“Miss Duck.” He paused and frowned at her some more. It wasn’t fair; everyone knew dancing en pointe was hard and Duck thought she had done really well for her first time. “Are you quite certain you’ve never done pointe work before?”
“Never,” Duck confirmed. Although… “I think I dreamed about it once before. Or maybe a couple of times.”
Mr. Katz expelled a quick burst of air out of his nose, looking amused. “Well, keep having dreams like that and we may have a new star student in our class. Now, let’s try again, and this time see if you can’t stay up.”
Duck was halfway from the dorms to the school grounds that morning before she realized that the streets of Gold Crown were really empty, and that the sun was much too low for the time of morning that she had thought it was. Apparently she had miscounted the chimes morning when she had heard the clock going off. At least she hadn’t made it all the way to class without realizing it; that was progress. Not that she had done that before, exactly, but it certainly seemed like the kind of thing that she might do, thus it was progress that she hadn’t. Or something.
But what to do now? She probably had enough time to go crawl back in bed for a little while if she wanted to, but even though she didn’t mind sleeping in if she could, going to sleep after the sun had already come up was just too weird. She could maybe go get some early morning practice in, but – Duck squinted at the distant clock tower – it was still really early. Too much practice probably wasn’t good for you either. Hmm, what to do?
Duck hadn’t had a chance to really check out the town yet. Of course, most of the shops and stuff probably wouldn’t be open so early, but she could maybe look around and find some interesting places to visit later, and still get to school in time to get an extra hour of practice in before class started. Yep, Duck decided as she picked a random direction and started walking, that was a good plan.
A while later, Duck came to the conclusion that maybe ‘let her feet take her wherever they wanted’ wasn’t the best part of her plan. Because now it was time to head back to the school, but Duck had no idea how to get to the school from here or even where here was. She thought she could maybe just go back the way she’d come, and then go to school from the dorms, but she couldn’t remember the where that was anymore either. It should have been easy, because the buildings in Gold Crown weren’t all the same or anything, so she could just look for the ones she recognized and use that to trace her path back. Except, all the buildings looked familiar to her, even though she was sure she’d never been in this part of town before. Huh. Weird.
Duck was so busy trying to puzzle out the way to school or the way back to the dorms, she didn’t hear the door open and close behind her. So she jumped nearly a foot in the air when a voice said, “Duck?”
When she was certain that she wasn’t about to make any weird noises or anything and that her heart was back in the right place in her chest, Duck slowly turned around. Standing behind her, looking both confused and amused, was Fakir. And happy too; it was hard to tell because Fakir seemed like one of those people that always looked kind of grumpy, but Duck thought he was maybe a little happy right now. Maybe he’d had a really good breakfast that morning. “You’re the new transfer student in the ballet division, Duck, right?” he continued. “What are you doing here?”
“Oh, well I accidentally got up really early this morning and so I thought I’d explore around town, since I’m new, but then I wound up here and I wasn’t sure how to get back to the school and I guess I’m kind of lost now,” Duck said, her words tumbling over themselves. “What are you doing here, Senior Fakir?”
“I live here,” he said. “And just Fakir is fine.”
“Really? Why don’t you live in the dorms like everyone else?” Duck asked.
“I used to, but after I had a disagreement with my old roommate, it seemed easier to just stay here,” Fakir told her.
“Was that your old friend, um, Mytho?”
Fakir looked sad now – his expression didn’t really change all that much, but Duck was surprisingly good at reading it. It would be really sad though, to think about a friend you’d gotten into a big fight with and then they moved away. Duck just hoped they’d made up before Mytho left. “Yeah, that was Mytho,” he said. Then he sighed a little and turned and walked off. That was really rude, to leave without saying good-bye, even if Duck had made him sad. It had only been on accident, and he hadn’t even given Duck a chance to apologize before leaving. But after he had only walked a few steps, he looked back over his shoulder at her. “Aren’t you coming?”
Duck scrambled to catch up with him, then fell into step naturally. They had gone about half a block before Duck got up the courage to ask, “So, where are we going?”
“Idiot, why are you following me if you don’t even know where I’m going?” Fakir said.
“But, but, you told me to come with you!” Duck sputtered.
“Would you just follow anyone who told you to?”
“No,” Duck pouted. Fakir looked at her like he didn’t believe her, but it was true! She had only followed Fakir because she knew him from school, sort of, plus he seemed nice. Well, not nice, exactly, but he was a good guy, Duck could tell.
“We’re going to school,” Fakir said after another moment. “You said you were lost, didn’t you?”
See, Duck was right; he was a good guy. “Thank you. And I’m sorry if I made you sad earlier, talking about your friend.”
“It’s fine. It wasn’t your fault.” Well, it wasn’t that Duck thought it was her fault, but still, she didn’t want to make people sad. But Fakir had seemed okay with her apology, so there was no reason to make a big fuss or anything, so Duck just nodded and continued to walk alongside Fakir in silence. It was weird; normally Duck could find all kinds of things to talk about, but she couldn’t think of a single to say to Fakir. Maybe because it was actually kind of nice: everything was all quiet and peaceful and it was just comfortable, being with Fakir.
They had been walking silently for almost ten minutes when suddenly a little white kitten streaked across the street, followed by a purple-grey adult cat. Duck, who had been peeking up at Fakir to see if he was being quiet because he was just anxious to get rid of her, or if he was feeling the same sort of rightness that Duck was feeling, didn’t see the animals in time, and tripped over the grown cat. The cat yowled, and Duck felt herself toppling forward, only to be yanked back upright by Fakir’s grip on her arm. Startled by the suddenness of it all, Duck let out a very loud “QUACK!”
Duck slapped both her hands over her mouth. How embarrassing; it was bad enough to be named Duck, she didn’t have to talk like one too. Slowly, and still covering her mouth to keep any more weird sounds safely locked inside her, Duck turned to look at Fakir. He was probably going to think she was so stupid now, and not want to hang out with her anymore. Maybe he’d even just leave her here to find the school herself. After all, who would want to be friends with a duck, even one who was technically a girl named Duck, not an actual bird.
Fakir was looking at her too, looking nervous. Probably he was worried about what crazy bird thing she’d do next. The two of them locked eyes for a long moment. Then Fakir threw his head back and laughed. It was such a nice, happy laugh that it took Duck a minute to realize he had to be laughing at her.
“Yeah, I know, I’m named Duck and I talk like a duck. You don’t have to make fun of me.”
Fakir looked at her and smiled, and Duck felt her breath catch in her throat. “I’m not making fun of you, I promise.”
“Okay then,” Duck said, her cheeks heating. “Oh, but if you aren’t laughing at me, then what are you laughing at?” Because Fakir had a really nice laugh, and he should do it more often.
Fakir’s eyes dimmed a bit and his smile faltered. “It’s a long story,” he said with a shrug and he started walking again. Duck could tell that he didn’t want to talk about it. That was alright; Duck wasn’t nosy. Well, she was kind of a little bit, or even a lot bit, but she didn’t want to upset him anymore; she liked it when he smiled better. So, something else to talk about…
“Say Fakir, what’s your favorite kind of story?”
“What kind of question is that?” Fakir said.
“Well, you’re a writer, right?” Duck said. “So I was just wondering what kind of story you like best to write. Or read, I guess.”
Fakir still looked like he thought it was a weird question, but he considered it carefully before answering. “Fairy tales.”
“You don’t look like that’s your favorite,” Duck observed, resisting the urge to poke at his scowl. “How do you look when you’re talking about your least favorite kind?”
“Fairy tales are my least favorite,” Fakir told her.
“Wha? But you just said they were your most favorite,” Duck protested.
“They’re both. There’s parts I like, and parts I don’t,” Fakir said.
“Literal metaphors,” Fakir said, but Duck had no idea what that even meant. Her confusion must have shown on her face, because he went on to explain, “Fairy tales allow the author a lot of freedom to do things that wouldn’t be possible in other types of stories. But too much freedom in the wrong hands can work out badly. Plus, fairy tales don’t have sequels.”
“What would you need a sequel for?” Duck asked. “Don’t all fairy tales end with everyone living happily ever after?”
“No, not all fairy tales end with happily ever after,” Fakir said, his tone suggesting that that was a stupid thing to think. But all the ones Duck had read had ended like that. Or at least, all the ones she could remember the endings of, which admittedly wasn’t a lot, but. Still.
“As for the ones that do end with a happily ever after, that’s only for the hero and heroine, not the side characters,” Fakir continued. “Sometimes you can find different stories with the same character type, but it’s not technically the same character, so they never really get their happy ending.”
Oh. Duck had never thought of that before. That was kind of sad, actually. “I think I get it now. You just like happy stories, don’t you?” she said.
“No, I just don’t like unhappy stories,” Fakir corrected.
“Isn’t that what I said?” Duck asked.
“Not exactly,” said Fakir.
Duck was so busy trying to figure out what the difference was that she managed to walk an extra five steps before she noticed that Fakir had stopped. Duck stopped too and looked around, surprised to find that they had reached the school. In fact, they were already in the main courtyard where the two of them would have to go their separate ways to get to their own classrooms.
“This is where we split up, I guess. Thanks for walking me to school,” Duck said. “You know, you’re kind of weird, but I’m glad we’re friends.”
“Who’s calling who weird?” Fakir said, almost to himself, before blinking a few times in surprise. “Friends?”
“Well, yeah,” said Duck. “We’ve been walking together and talking together, so I figured we were already friends now. If you want.” Duck gave him her nicest smile, because she really did hope he would say yes.
“I…” Abruptly, Fakir turned around and started walking away toward the building for the writing division. “Do what you want,” he called back.
Rude! “What I want is for us to be friends, even if you are being a big meanie right now. So there!” Duck said and then she stuck her tongue out at him. Not that Fakir saw, since he didn’t look back at her, just waved one hand in the air in acknowledgment of her words.
So. Huh. Duck was pretty sure she’d just made a new friend. She smiled softly to herself, until the clock tower striking a quarter past the hour startled her out of her thoughts. “My morning practice!”
When Mr. Katz arrived to the practice room that morning, he asked everyone to gather for an announcement, so all the students milling about stopped whatever they were doing to come sit at the front of the room. “As I’m sure you’re all aware, we’re approaching the time to begin preparing for our winter show,” said Mr. Katz, and the room immediately burst into whispers.
Duck looked at her two friends in confusion, and Pique leaned closer to explain in a hushed voice. “We put on a lot of little shows and stuff throughout the year, but we only have two really big ones, one in the summer and one in the winter. Except last summer things got kind of crazy and the performance ended up being cancelled, so this will be our first one in a whole year.”
Duck wanted to ask Pique what she meant about things getting crazy, but Mr. Katz made a sharp call for everyone’s attention, and the two girls turned obediently back to him. “I realize this is going to be our first show since a number of our more accomplished dancers have left, but I have full confidence in all of you.”
“What are we going to be doing?” asked one boy in the back.
“I was just getting to that, Mr. Dylan,” Mr. Katz said dryly. “We will be doing Romeo and Juliet.”
This was met mostly with excitement, but there were a few groans as well, to which one of the girls in the advanced glass called out, “At least it isn’t The Nutcracker.”
“If all of you won’t settle down, then you’ll leave me with no choice but to cancel the show altogether,” Mr. Katz said, and the room fell instantly silent. “Good. Now, I will be holding auditions after school next week, however don’t think that that will be the sole determining factor. I will also be considering your performance in class when assigning roles, as well as how diligent I feel you’ve been in your practice.”
Mr. Katz gaze lingered on Duck for a minute when he said that, but for once Duck didn’t feel like it was because he was warning her especially. In fact he almost looked… proud of her? Oh, maybe he had seen her practicing this morning? She didn’t remember seeing him at all, but she had actually been having a lot fun, so it made sense that she might not have noticed him. Except, oh no, was he going to be expecting her to come in for morning practice every day now? She couldn’t get up that early every day; she didn’t even know how she had managed it today. This was a disaster.
Lillie agreed with her when she shared this thought with her two friends after the group broke apart for warm-ups, but Pique pointed out that instead of coming in early, Duck could just stay late to practice instead.
“Oh, yeah, that’s a good idea,” said Duck. “I mean, I already have to stay late all the time to clean up anyway, so might as well get some practice in too.”
“Haven’t you only had to stay and clean, like, twice?” Pique asked.
Duck furrowed her brow in thought. “Huh. I guess you’re right. It definitely feels like more than that, though.”
“Oh poor Duck, with only the brain of a little bird,” Lillie said, wrapping one arm around Duck’s neck and making a fist with her other hand so she could rub it against Duck’s head.
Duck managed to pull herself away, her own hands clutched against the now sore spot that Lillie had been rubbing. “Ow! That hurt.”
“What? No way!”
“Anyways,” Pique interjected, “you should totally stay after class and practice. That way, if Mr. Katz sees you, he might even give you a role in the ballet.”
“Yes Duck, practice your hardest and get your hopes up unreasonably high. Then when you fail know that I will be here to comfort you,” Lillie said, squeezing Duck so tight that Duck could barely breathe. She almost fainted, until Pique broke them apart. Then Mr. Katz came over to tell them off for goofing around, and he looked disappointed in Duck all over again. Sometimes Duck felt like she couldn’t do anything right.
Oh well. She’d just have to come after class to practice for sure now, and keep doing her best.
Duck had meant to do this yesterday, but she and Pique and Lillie had gotten so excited thinking about the upcoming show that she had forgotten. That was fine, though; Duck would just do it today instead. Then, if it went well she would keep doing it in the future too. And it would go well, because she and Fakir were friends, even if Pique and Lillie thought Duck was being brave because she was a Fakir girl with a big crush on him. She wasn’t and she didn’t. It’s just, they were friends, is all. Fakir had even said so, sort of. Well, he hadn’t disagreed with her when she said it anyway. Which was why this was no big deal. Not even a little bit. Okay. So, just do it.
Her movements a bit mechanical and probably more determined than necessary, Duck crossed the courtyard over to where Fakir was sitting all alone again. “Hi Fakir! Are you eating lunch?” What a stupid question, of course he’s eating lunch! “Is it any good?” Of course it is, that’s why he’s eating it! “Do you mind if I join you?” Oh no, he’s going to say no, because I’m being so stupid!
“Sure,” Fakir said. Duck sat down next to him, mentally berating herself for acting like a moron. Suddenly, Fakir’s fist tapped lightly against her head, and she looked up at him in surprise. “Hey. Stop getting so worked up over nothing. After all, you’re the one who said we were friends now, aren’t you? Idiot.”
Duck grinned at him. Yeah, he had called her an idiot, but the way he said it was kind of nice, like maybe he didn’t mind that she was an idiot sometimes. Plus he had actually they were friends himself. “You’re right. So, hey, did you hear the ballet division is going to have auditions for our big winter show next week?”
“I guess it is about that time of year again. What show are you doing this time?”
“Romeo and Juliet. It’s the first one we’ve done in a whole year because the one last summer got cancelled, apparently,” she told him.
“I know that. I did use to be in the ballet division too,” Fakir said dryly.
“Oh, right. Do you know why it got cancelled then? Pique said that it was because things got crazy, but then Mr. Katz told us to be quiet and I forgot to ask her what she meant by that.”
“The middle of spring rehearsals was happening right at the time that… Mytho and Rue moved away,” Fakir explained, sounding kind of sad and Duck thought that there was maybe more to Mytho moving away than he was telling her. Duck wished he would tell her, a little because she just wanted to know, but mostly because they were friends, and friends shared with each other about things that make them upset. But then, friends also didn’t force each other to talk about things when they didn’t want to, not unless they really needed to, so Duck let it go.
“Who’s Rue?” she asked instead.
“Rue is… Mytho’s girlfriend,” Fakir said, after a moment of casting around for the right way to describe her.
Duck gasped. “You mean Mytho really did run off to elope with his girlfriend? I thought Lillie was joking.”
“What? No, Mytho and Rue didn’t elope,” Fakir said. “Mytho had to go back to where he came from and Rue decided to go with him.”
“That sure sounds like they eloped,” said Duck, doubtful.
“You have to run away from home to elope, not to it,” Fakir disagreed, but that just sounded like nitpicking to her. “Are you planning on auditioning for the show?”
“Definitely!” Duck said. “Even if I know I’m not really good enough to get a part or anything.”
“Don’t,” Fakir said, startling Duck with how harsh he sounded. He cut himself off and took a deep breath in and out, before continuing, sounding calmer. “You shouldn’t talk down about yourself. I’m sure you’re better than you think you are.”
“Well, I’m going to try my best, but I really am the worst in my class,” Duck told him, but there was a warm glow in her that he thought she was a good dancer. Of course he had never seen her dancing before, but it was still nice of him to think it.
“There’s more to ballet than just technical skills. It’s also about making your feeling reach the people watching,” Fakir said. “You just need to focus on what you’re good at.”
Huh. Duck couldn’t ever remember thinking about it like that before, but now that Fakir had said it, it made a lot of sense. She could even imagine herself as a beautiful prima ballerina, dancing to communicate feelings of love and hope and to help other people to understand their own feelings like sorrow and loneliness and affection. “I think that’s something I can do,” she said. “What do you think, Fakir?”
“Idiot. Aren’t I the one who just said that’s what you’d be good at?” Fakir asked.
“Oh yeah, right,” Duck agreed, scratching at the back of her head in embarrassment.
“Don’t think that means you can stop practicing; technical skills are still important. But when you’re actually auditioning, don’t worry about it and just do your best.”
“Thanks, Fakir!” Duck said, grinning up at him. “And you do your best too!”
“At what?” Fakir said, and he looked a little bit like he was laughing at her, but not in a mean way. Because Fakir wasn’t really a mean guy, he just acted that way sometimes because, because… well, Duck didn’t know why he acted that way, just that he didn’t really mean it.
“Didn’t you say you were working on a story?” Duck asked. She thought she remembered him saying something like that, except now that she was thinking about it, she couldn’t actually remember when he would have told her. That was weird.
Fakir gave her a weird look, which was probably fair, because she was being kind of totally weird right now, and after a minute he said, “No, I finished that story.”
“Did it turn out good?”
“Not as good as I could have hoped, but better than I expected,” Fakir told her.
“Oh. Well, I don’t know what that means, but it sounds good, I think,” Duck said. “Do you think I could read your story?” Fakir was probably a really good writer, Duck bet, and even if he wasn’t she still wanted to read it anyway because he was her friend and it was something he wrote and so it sounded really interesting.
“What? Come on, why not?” Duck asked.
“Because I said so,” Fakir replied.
“That’s not a very good reason,” Duck said, frowning at him. “I really want to read it.”
Fakir sighed. “I’ll write a different story you can read instead.”
“Wow, you’d write a story just for me?” Duck said, completely forgetting about his other story in her excitement at the idea of him writing her her own story.
Fakir gave her another weird look, and Duck was really starting to think maybe she was missing something. "Yes, I’d write a story just for you,” he said after a minute. “Now eat your lunch.”
“Okay,” Duck said, taking a big bite out of her sandwich, which was really good because she’d made it with extra tasty bread and tasty bread was her favorite. Then she thought of something else she wanted to say to Fakir, but luckily she remembered to swallow her food first; Fakir would definitely scold her for talking with her mouth full. She could practically hear him saying it already, even! “Hey Fakir?”
“I’m really glad we’re friends now.”
Fakir smiled at her, but it was a weird smile, because it didn’t really look happy or sad. It was kind of both. “Yeah, me too.”
Duck was headed back to the dorms – by herself because she had stayed late today to practice, and Pique and Lillie had gone on ahead – and was daydreaming about nothing in particular, so she really wasn’t expecting it when a boy came out of nowhere and started walking next to her. She did manage to cover her mouth before letting out a startled quack, but it was a close thing.
“Hello, Duck,” the boy said, and that’s when she realized he was the same boy that Pique had pointed out to her a few days ago as being Fakir’s other friend, Autor from the writing division. That’s probably why he wanted to talk to her, because he knew that she and Fakir were friends now too, so he wanted to introduce himself so they could all be friends. That was actually pretty nice of him. “I’m glad to get a chance to speak with you while Fakir isn’t around.” Or maybe not.
Well even if this guy was being a little weird, purposefully trying to talk to her when Fakir wasn’t around and even if there was something about him that put Duck on edge and made her want to puff up and her hair stand on end that was no reason not to be nice. “Hi. You’re Fakir’s friend Autor, right? I’m Duck from the ballet division. But duh, you already knew that, because you just said my name a minute ago. I’m kind of dumb sometimes. My friend Pique says my bird name must have given me a bird brain. Oh! But she’s not saying it to be mean or anything. She’s actually really nice, she’s just teasing me because she’s my friend and it is kind of funny when you think about it. Anyway, it’s nice to meet you!”
Autor gave her a look. “Are you done?”
“Oh, yeah, I’m done. Sorry, I kind of talk a lot sometimes,” Duck said with a nervous laugh.
“Clearly. As for myself, I am Autor, though I wouldn’t say I was Fakir’s friend. I’m more like his editor. Fakir has a certain gift when it comes to writing, but he’s completely hopeless at utilizing it, which is where I come in. Something that he hasn’t told you, I’m assuming.”
Oh, now Duck felt bad. “No, but Fakir and I have only been friends for a couple of days now, so I’m sure he wasn’t avoiding mentioning you or anything, you just never came up. Not that I’m saying you aren’t important enough to come up! It just hasn’t been that long, plus I talk a lot so I’m sure Fakir wanted to tell me all about what a great editor you are, but I was too busy talking and he couldn’t, that’s all.”
“I’m not offended,” Autor said, except he did sound kind of offended. Maybe he was offended that she thought he would be offended? “When I saw the two of you eating lunch together yesterday I had just assumed he’d changed his mind. But of course he hasn’t. If it were me I would…”
“You would what?” Duck asked when it seemed like Autor wasn’t going to finish his sentence.
“It’s not important,” Autor said.
“It sure sounded important.”
“Let me ask you a question instead,” Autor said. “Which do you think is worse: to never be given a real opportunity to get the things you want, or to be afforded every opportunity and squander them through your own good intentions?”
“That’s a hard question,” Duck said, scratching her head thoughtfully.
“It’s not as though I’d be needing your opinion if it were an easy question,” Autor replied.
“Oh yeah, good point,” Duck said. She thought about it for a few minutes before answering, “I think they both sound pretty bad, but I guess it’s worse if a bad thing is happening because it’s your fault. Even if you didn’t mean to hurt anyone” – Duck blinked a few times and felt a tear rolling down her cheek. That’s weird, why was she crying? – “it’s still your fault. And that’s the worst feeling, I think.”
Autor didn’t seem weirded out by her crying, but maybe he just thought she was a weird person, so even if she did do weird things, that wouldn’t actually be weird. “So you think it’s worse to squander a perfectly good opportunity; I’m going to tell Fakir you said that.”
“But you know, I think there’s more to it than that,” Duck said, wiping her eyes dry. “Because looking at it that way is just thinking about everything bad and not the good stuff. If you’re trying your best, but things turn out bad, well then you’ve just got to keep trying; as long as you want to do good things and you keep trying really hard then I think it’ll all work out eventually. Or if you haven’t gotten the opportunity you want yet, then you just have to keep going and I’m sure you’ll get it someday.”
“That’s well and good for you to say, but no matter how much you want them, some things just aren’t possible,” Autor snapped. “No matter how hard a person tries, they’ll never fly under their own power.”
“Wha? You want to be able to fly?” Duck asked. That was a pretty big dream and also kind of amazing. Duck could just imagine how pretty everything would look flying above it like a bird.
“No I don’t want to fly,” Autor said, rolling his eyes. “That was just an example to prove that some things really are impossible.”
“Oh. Well I don’t know what your dream is, and maybe it really is impossible, but I think no matter what you should just keep trying your best and focus on what you can do,” Duck told him. “Like… oh! Maybe you can’t fly all by yourself like a bird or anything, but instead you could learn how to fly an airplane or something like that.”
“You really are hopeless,” Autor commented. “I would say you’re just as bad as he is, but I think you may actually be worse. That’s it, I’ve decided. I’m not going to tell you what Fakir’s been keeping from you after all. You can both muddle through things on your own. I don’t see why I should have to be the keeper for you two idiots anyway.”
“No one asked you to be,” growled a voice and Duck jumped in surprise before she realized it was just Fakir coming out of the building she and Autor had stopped in front of, the library it looked like.
“Is that so?” Autor said looking at Fakir, who had somehow managed to get between Duck and Autor, with raised eyebrows. “Because I remember you asking me for my help.”
“With my story, which is done now,” Fakir said shortly. “I already told you that.”
“Yes, on multiple occasions, but even if you are a direct descendent, I think we both know which of us is the real expert on stories here. And as I keep telling you, this one isn’t done yet.” Autor pushed his glasses up the bridge of his nose and gave Fair a really smug look. “Well, I have more important things to do at the moment. Goodbye Fakir, Tutu.”
“Tutu?” Duck asked, confused enough that she didn’t notice the way Fakir glared at Autor extra hard. What a weird thing to be called, especially because it didn’t feel weird. It felt… not right, her name was definitely Duck and that’s what felt right. But being called Tutu felt kind of normal, like maybe people used to call her that a lot before, before… before what?
“You are in the ballet division, aren’t you?” Autor said, interrupting Duck’s thoughts. And that sort of made sense. There were a lot of other students in the ballet division besides just her, but maybe Duck was the only one he was friends with. If they even were friends. Which Duck thought they should be, because even if he was kind of a jerk, Duck thought it was sad that he couldn’t make his dream come true and she wanted to help if she could, plus they were both already friends with Fakir, thus they should be friends with each other. And now Duck already had a nickname from her new friend.
Duck gave a firm nod, then smiled and waved at Autor. “Okay see you later!”
Autor gave her another look like he thought she was a really weird person, then went down the steps to the library entrance.
“What were you talking to him for?” Fakir demanded, sounding really mean and bossy and Duck didn’t like that at all.
So she puffed up and gave him her best glare. “What do you mean, what was I talking to him for? I can talk to and be friends with whoever I want to. You can’t tell me what to do.”
“Right, sorry,” Fakir said, and he did look pretty sorry, so Duck decided to forgive him. “Sometimes I forget… anyway, I just don’t like that guy.”
“But I thought you were friends,” Duck said.
“Did Autor tell you that?” Fakir asked.
“No he said he was your editor. But Pique and Lillie said you don’t hang out with anybody else, so if he’s not your friend…” Well that would just be too sad.
Fakir flushed a little and looked away. “Idiot. Don’t worry about me so much. Besides, we’re friends now, right?”
“Definitely absolutely! And I’m going to be the best friend ever,” Duck said bouncing on her toes a little. Then she remembered something else, and she dropped back down again. “Oh but, hey Fakir? Autor also said that there was something that you aren’t telling me. And he made it sound like it was something he thought you should tell me.”
“Autor should mind his own business,” Fakir snapped, scowling. “It’s not something you need to worry about.”
“Even if you say that Fakir, if something is bothering you, of course I’m going to worry about it. Because I’m your friend.” But Fakir still didn’t look like he wanted to tell her and Duck was supposed to be not being nosy, so she let out an annoyed breath and said, “Okay, you don’t have to tell me. If you don’t think I need to know, I trust you.”
Fakir looked surprised, then a little bit angry. “Maybe you shouldn’t,” he said under his breath.
Fakir shook his head. “Never mind. Did you need something at the library?” he asked, but he sounded like he doubted it. Which, rude. Duck read, sometimes, a little bit.
“No,” Duck admitted. “I guess I was just walking with Autor and somehow ended up here.”
Fakir raised his eyebrows. “Are you sure you don’t just follow anyone who tells you to?”
Duck sputtered indignantly. “No, I don’t just follow anyone who tells me to. But Autor’s your friend, sort of, and he wanted to talk to me about something, and you’re teasing me right now,” Duck accused, pointing a finger at Fakir. She saw a little smile pass over his face before he turned around and started walking. Duck hurried to catch up.
“I’m walking you back to the dorms,” Fakir said after a minute, looking like he was still teasing her.
“I knew that,” Duck huffed, even though she hadn’t really. She had started following him because he was Fakir and she wanted to. That was all.
“Oof,” Duck said, falling on her butt, again. She should get back up and keep going, but instead she flopped back on the ground and stared up at the ceiling. She knew that her idea for her audition was a good one, but it was turning out to be really hard. Maybe just a little break. Duck had been so good, coming in when they didn’t even have class to get some practice in, so she deserved a break. She would lay down for five minutes, then get right back up and keeping trying again. Yep, just five minutes.
It was definitely more than five minutes later, but probably less than ten which wasn’t too bad, when someone interrupted Duck as she was laying there thinking about nothing. “What are you doing?”
Duck bolted up to a sitting position and started trying to fix her bun back up and straightening out her leotard, embarrassed that Fakir had caught her goofing off, but still happy he was here. She had been worried she wasn’t going to get to see him all weekend, especially since he didn’t live in the dorms like most of the other students. “Hey Fakir. I was just practicing.” It was only a little bit of a lie, because she had been practicing, and she had been planning on starting again, just as soon as she was finished with her break.
Satisfied that she had managed to get herself straightened out from lying on the floor, Duck looked up at Fakir, and blinked in surprise. He wasn’t wearing causal weekend type of clothes, or even the school uniform. Fakir was wearing a black leotard with blue tights under it and a loose blue shirt over it and soft black shoes. Fakir was wearing dance clothes. “What are you doing here?” Duck asked.
Fakir looked amused by her question, which was good because Duck hadn’t realized until after she’d said it that she sounded kind of rude. “All students are welcome to use any of the facilities on campus, including the dance rooms. And I did used to be in the ballet division.”
“Yeah, but I thought you quit when the school started the writing division,” Duck said.
“Just because I changed divisions doesn’t mean I quit dancing altogether. I was never that passionate about ballet, but I still like dancing sometimes. It helps me think,” Fakir told her.
“Did you have something that you needed to think about now? Like maybe that thing you won’t tell me about?” Duck wasn’t being nosy, she was just being a good friend. Friends asked each other about what they were up to and if things were bothering them.
Fakir sort of sighed out his nose, like he was amused still, but also annoyed now. “I told you not to worry about that. What about you, are you practicing for your audition?”
Friends also let friends change the subject when they didn’t want to talk about something, Duck decided. “Yep! I actually had a really good idea for that because of what you told me.”
“What I told you?” Fakir repeated.
“Yeah, you said I should focus on trying to make my feelings reach the people who are watching. When I thought about what the best way to do that was, I had this great idea: I could dance a pas de deux by myself.” Fakir just looked at her when she said that, and Duck didn’t know what his expression was supposed to mean, but it was really intense and he just kept looking at her like that and not saying anything and it was starting to make her nervous. “Don’t you think that’s a good idea, Fakir?”
Fakir gave a slow blink, then his expression went back to his normal kind of grumpy look. “It is a good idea. I was just surprised you came up with it.”
“Hey, what’s that supposed to mean?” Duck objected. “I’m not completely stupid; I can come up with good ideas sometimes.”
Fakir smiled at her then, the same one from that first morning when he walked her to school that made Duck’s breath in her throat, the one that was soft and warm and made her feel like he was smiling just for her. It made her wish he would always smile like that, and made all her irritation vanish. “I know you can,” he said. Fakir walked over to her and offered her his hand to help her up. But even after she was standing he didn’t let go, he just changed his grip on her hand and then pulled her closer to him, like they were dancing.
“Wha?” Duck said. She didn’t mind the idea of dancing with Fakir at all, but it kind of surprised her the way he had just started dancing with her like that. And besides, why would he want to dance with her? Pique and Lillie had said that Fakir was one of the top students in the ballet division before he transferred, and she was just clumsy old Duck.
“I’m helping you practice. Even if you want to do the pas de deux by yourself for the actual audition, it’ll probably be easier if you start by practicing with a partner,” Fakir said. Oh. That made sense. Duck had been falling down a lot earlier when she had been doing it by herself. And Fakir was her friend, so of course he’d be willing to help her.
Fakir wasn’t smiling anymore, exactly, but he was still looking at her the same way that he had been when he was, and how had she not noticed how green his eyes were before? And why did that thought make her heart pound so hard and loud until Duck was sure Fakir had to have noticed it. Although he wasn’t acting like he noticed it because he hadn’t said anything, and Fakir would have said something if he had noticed, like, “What are you getting so worked up for over nothing, idiot?” And then Duck would get really embarrassed because she didn’t know what she was getting so worked up for except his eyes were really green, but that wasn’t something to get worked up about and that was embarrassing. Oh, but maybe that was why he hadn’t said anything, he was pretending not to notice – he had to have noticed; her heart was beating so hard now she thought it was going to break right out of her chest – so he wouldn’t embarrass her, because that’s what friends did. Because Duck and Fakir were friends. Right.
They hadn’t talked about what dance Duck was planning on using for her audition before they started dancing together, and the pas de deux Fakir was leading her though was a different one than the one she’d selected. Duck had been thinking about doing a piece from Swan Lake, but Fakir had picked the dance from Romeo and Juliet, the one where the two lovers part for the last time. It made sense that Fakir would choose something from Romeo and Juliet, since she’d told him that was what show they were putting on, but Duck thought that he would have picked it even if they had been going to do The Nutcracker or whatever. Dancing this dance with Fakir felt exactly right to Duck. Dancing with Fakir felt exactly right to Duck, even if it also made her heart go crazy. Because Fakir was her friend, and he cared about her, and he looked out for her, and he believed in her, and he made her feel safe and stronger and right.
Duck sometimes couldn’t explain why she felt the things she did, but she didn’t think that was that weird, not any weirder than she always was. Feelings were complicated for everyone, and Duck had a bit of a bird brain anyway. If she noticed that it happened a lot more this past week than she could ever remember it happening before, then that was probably just because she had just moved to a new place; that was bound to make things more complicated. It never had worried her before, because even if she didn’t understand why she was feeling a certain way, her feelings had always made sense or something. Like how her heart had been beating so hard just now: she didn’t understand why noticing that his eyes were green would make her feel like that, but she knew it was a good feeling, and she knew that Fakir was a good person and he was her friend, so it made sense that he would make her feel a good feeling. It was still confusing, but not too confusing.
What happened next was nothing like that. At first Duck thought that maybe she was getting so into the piece and she was sort of starting to feel what Juliet did, but that wasn’t right. This feeling welling up deep within her was Duck’s own; it was out of place and it made no sense to her at all, but it was still hers. Right now, after she had had a very good week and was now dancing better than she could ever remember dancing before with her very good friend, Duck was feeling overwhelming sadness. No, not sadness, despair, dark and deep just like her eyes, and Duck didn’t know where that thought had come from, except that maybe it had been hiding in her in the same place the despair had been. Though she didn’t know where that had been hiding either, because the despair just kept growing and growing until it seemed much too big to have ever fit inside her. It pressed down on her until she felt like she couldn’t breathe and filled up inside her until she felt like she would burst with it. It wasn’t until the first fat tear rolled down her cheek that Duck realized that she was utterly terrified.
Somehow through all of it, she kept dancing. But then that actually made sense, it was the only thing that made sense right now. She was filled with despair and terror that had come from nowhere, but Fakir was her friend, and Fakir made her strong, and Duck clung to his arms around her like they were the only things keeping her from flying into pieces.
“Duck?” Fakir said. Her back had been to him since she had started crying, but something must have given her away anyway, and now he gracefully turned her around. The expression of pure concern on his face sent another surge of feeling through her. It wasn’t a bad one this time, but all these powerful emotions she didn’t understand just kept coming and they frightened her, and she took a few stumbling steps backward.
But it turned out she was right about Fakir holding her together, because as soon Duck stepped away from him she started shaking so hard it made her teeth chatter. “What’s wrong?” Fakir asked and he sounded like he was scared too, but scared for her. That made sense, because Duck knew that she was acting scary, just freaking out like this all the sudden. Duck almost flung herself back into his arms and begged him to fix it, but before she could, she recognized the other feeling lurking in his eyes: guilt. He knew. Fakir knew something about why Duck was suddenly feeling all these feelings that didn’t make sense, but he hadn’t told her about it. It was that thing, the thing that Autor had thought she should know, but Fakir had told her not to worry about; it had to be.
Duck shook her head, like she could try and shake the thought right out, but it wouldn’t leave. Fakir had told her that it wasn’t important and that she didn’t need to worry about it. And Duck believed him because he was supposed to be her friend. She trusted him and he lied to her.
Fakir took a step forward, reaching out toward her. Duck turned around and ran.
Duck shivered and hugged her knees a little tighter. She wished she had a jacket or sweater or something, but she had been too focused on getting away earlier to stop for her bag. It hadn’t really been that cold when she left the school earlier anyway, but after the sun went down it had started cooling off really fast, and now the temperature was so low she could see her breathe coming out. Well, not really, but it felt like it was that cold.
She should go back to the dorms. It was really late, sometime past midnight, but before one, since she hadn’t heard the clock tower chime the hour yet. Except, did the clock tower ring out the hours at night? She’d never heard it, but she was normally asleep in the middle of the night so she wouldn’t have heard it anyway unless it had woken her up, which it never had, so did that mean it didn’t? Well if it really didn’t, that only meant it might be even later than she thought it was, which meant she should go back to the dorms even more. There was some food up in her room she could snack on to make up for missing dinner, then she could crawl up into her nice warm bed and go to sleep. Except doing that would mean leaving here, and she wasn’t ready to leave yet. She was waiting for… well, for something anyway.
After she had run out of the practice room, Duck’s only thought had been to get as far away as possible. So she’d kept running and running until she’d come up to one of the big gates in the town walls, and then she’d just stopped. There was no reason she had had to stop there; the gate had been wide open and she could have kept running right out and down the road. Except, it had felt like she couldn’t, like if she had tried she would have ended up right back where she started. She had stood there for a while staring at the land beyond the town’s borders, and then eventually turned back around. She hadn’t wanted to find out if her feeling was right or not, mostly because she wasn’t really sure which possibility scared her more.
Duck had wandered around town for a long time after that, long enough that she should have seen every part of it by now. She was pretty sure she hadn’t though. Gold Crown was huge and there was also a forest and a big pond with a river running through it inside the town walls, which was kind of weird when she thought about it.
Finally she had ended up here, sitting in a little clearing tucked between some buildings and the town wall. In front of her was a great big stone block with two deep grooves in it and a whole bunch of lines like scars crisscrossing over it. She was sitting facing the block so she could keep an eye on it, because she didn’t trust it at all. But that meant she was keeping her back to the grave tucked in between some bushes, which didn’t make a lot of sense, because the grave should have been the thing that was really scary. And it was scary, even if it wasn’t as worrying as the stone block. Duck had never thought about it before, but if she had thought about it, then she would have thought a graveyard would be scarier, because a whole lot of graves had to be scarier than just one grave. But now that she was sitting here with just one grave, she realized that was a lot scarier, because why would this one grave be out here all by itself? She didn’t know, but none of the reasons she could think of were very good.
The stone block was up to no good and the grave was scary, but Duck was sitting here and she didn’t feel worried or scared. Maybe that was because she had been feeling so much of everything today that there was nothing left in her to feel right now. Duck didn’t think that’s what it was though. She wasn’t scared because this clearing was definitely a place where bad things could happen, but it was a place where they wouldn’t, and that meant there was nothing to be scared of. So she’d just sit here and wait for however long it took for whatever it was she was waiting for to happen. Hopefully soon, and hopefully bringing an extra jacket she could borrow with it when it came.
“You shouldn’t be out here, little girl.” Duck’s head snapped over to look at the pathway into her clearing and she saw a bunch of old men wearing robes come filing in. This wasn’t what Duck had been waiting for, she was sure. Actually, it looked a lot like the kind of bad thing that could happen, but wouldn’t. Duck watched as the last man came into her clearing, carrying something though it was so dark out she had to squint to try to see what it was. Suddenly the moonlight caught on a long sharp edge and Duck’s fingers dug into her legs, probably tearing runs into her tights. It wouldn’t happen. It wouldn’t.
“Is this your place? Sorry, I didn’t mean to intrude or anything; I was just thinking,” Duck told them.
“Thinking about what?” the man in the front of the group asked. He said it nice enough, but something about him made Duck uncomfortable and angry. He was no good, she could tell, and she wasn’t going to let herself be tricked just because he was acting like he wasn’t bad.
“I don’t think it’s any of your business what I’m thinking about,” Duck told him tartly.
“Everything to do with Drosselmeyer is our business, including little girls sitting out at his grave in the middle of the night ‘thinking’.”
Duck glared at him. “Well I don’t know who this Drosselmeyer guy was, but what I’m thinking about doesn’t have anything to do with him. Besides, it doesn’t sound like you were friends with him so I don’t think you should get to say who can spend time at his grave anyway.” Which kind of made it sound like Duck wanted to hang out at some guy’s grave which was really creepy sounding, but that wasn’t it or anything. Duck was just here because it was safe and a good place to think and she was waiting.
“She’s lying,” said one of the other guys in the back. “She’s been spending time with the story spinner and with the other too.”
“We should just take care of her,” said one of the other guys, and Duck pulled her legs in tighter again. What did he mean they should “take care of her”?
“Now, now,” said the guy in front. “We shouldn’t be too hasty. She’s still just a little girl.”
“Caution? You urged caution last time and it got us all turned to crows. We can’t let it get out of hand again,” said the guy in the back, hefting his object in the air so Duck could see now it was an axe, and he had an axe; Duck had almost forgotten for a minute, he had an axe.
“If we’re all agreed it’s necessary,” the front guy said slowly, his eyes lingering on the stone in the middle of the clearing. The one that was up to no good, the one covered with chips and lines and scars like maybe it had been hit with an axe a lot.
Duck whimpered. Bad things wouldn’t happen here. They wouldn’t. They wouldn’t. They wouldn’t, they wouldn’t, they wouldn’t.
“Get away from her,” commanded a sharp, hard voice, and Duck relaxed instantly. Fakir was here; bad things wouldn’t happen. But as soon as she relaxed, she tensed up again.
“Fakir, be careful! These guys-”
“Were just leaving,” Fakir finished for her. He strode into the clearing full of confidence and tightly-held anger. The robe guys let him walk by them, but they didn’t look too happy about it. Still, Fakir didn’t look scared of them at all; he didn’t even flinch when he went past the one carrying an axe. Duck was so in awe of that and so grateful that Fakir was even here that she didn’t notice what he was carrying in his arms until he dropped it right on her head.
“You left your jacket back in the practice room. I took the rest of your stuff back to the dorms and dropped it off with your two friends, but you shouldn’t run around in the middle of the night in just your leotard and tights. Idiot.”
Duck quickly pulled the jacket on and almost immediately felt warmer. Fakir had brought her her jacket. He was also going to save her from the crazy guys with the axe, but it was the other thing that really stuck out to her for some reason. Fakir somehow had known she was out here in the cold, and so he had brought her her jacket. “Thanks,” she said, but Fakir didn’t seem to notice, having already turned back around to glare at the robe guys.
“I told you to leave,” Fakir said.
“We are not beholden to you, story spinner. We may have allowed you to continue your work, but it’s still our responsibility to protect reality from those who would change it by writing their stories,” the lead guy said. It sounded like he was saying that Fakir could write stories that could come true, but that was crazy. Except, it didn’t really sound crazy to Duck at all, it just seemed like it should sound crazy. “Our forbearance only lasts so long as you aren’t using your powers for ill ends. But if you decided to take on an apprentice-“
“You think Duck is a story spinner?” Fakir said, his tone one of blatant disbelief.
“Why else would you be spending time with her?”
“That’s none of your business.”
“Don’t try and deny it boy. We may not have the power that you do, but we still have our tricks, and that girl reeks of Drosselmeyer’s magic.”
“Don’t you dare imply-” Fakir snarled, before abruptly cutting himself off and taking a deep breath in and out. “Maybe you’re right that you aren’t beholden to me. But you are beholden to the person who saved this entire town, the one who kept you from spending the rest of your lives as crows.”
“Princess Tutu?” the lead guy asked, his voice almost coming out as a gasp. “You mean to say that this girl is…?”
“Leave. Now,” Fakir said. The robe guys murmured among themselves for a minute, but finally the lead guy gave Fakir a nod and they all exited the little clearing. Duck let out a little sigh of relief. See, she knew nothing bad would happen here.
Fakir slumped a little in relief too and turned back around to face her, and that’s when Duck remembered that, oh yeah, she was really, really mad at him. “Who were those men? And why did they think I have magic powers and why did you tell them that I was someone called Princess Tutu? What are you hiding from me?” she demanded, standing up and glaring at him.
“They call themselves the Book Men, and they think of themselves as the defenders of this town. Really they’re just a bunch of crazy, self-important old men who aren’t any better than the person they were trying to defend it from. They won’t bother you any more, though, so you don’t need to worry about it,” Fakir said.
“No! You always do that Fakir. Well I don’t care what you say, I am worried about it, and you can’t keep keeping secrets from me. We’re supposed to be friends, and friends tell each other the truth, even if you’re worried that it might upset me or something. It upsets me more that you can’t trust me enough to tell me important things.”
“It’s not important,” Fakir said, and he sounded too desperate for it to actually be true. “It’s all in the past now and it’s not important.”
“Yeah well those Book Men still seem to think it was pretty important. And you still haven’t told me who Princess Tutu is,” Duck said.
“Princess Tutu is just an unimportant character from a stupid book; she doesn’t matter. This here and now is the real you, that’s what matters. Just be your real self and don’t worry about the rest of it.”
“I don’t know who my real self is!” The words exploded from Duck’s mouth without a thought, but once they were out there, both she and Fakir froze. Oh. Slowly tears started to trickle out of Duck’s eyes and down her cheeks. “I don’t know who I am.”
She shook her head furiously. Duck couldn’t listen to Fakir right now; this was too important. “Earlier, when we danced, I started having all these feelings. They were my own feelings, I know they were, but they didn’t make any sense. I was so sad and so scared. Why would I be so scared? And so I ran away because I had to get away from those feelings. But I couldn’t. I walked all over Gold Crown today and I kept seeing all these different places that made me feel all sorts of things, and I saw all these people that I recognized, but then I couldn’t remember ever meeting them. All day long I kept feeling everything, but I couldn’t remember any of it. And all of the things I do remember are wrong; I know they’re wrong. Because I can’t picture any of it. I can’t picture the house I grew up in or any of the people from the town where I used to live or my first day in Gold Crown, not any of it. None of the things I remember seem like they’re real until last Monday. None of the things I remember were real until I woke up from a dream about a writer. Until the first day I saw you and you looked at me like...” Duck’s words slowed as all the pieces finally came together. “What kind of story did you write about me, Fakir?”
The tears were streaming down her face now, and she clutched her blue pendant tightly like a security blanket, but she was barely aware of it. Duck didn’t even feel sad anymore, she was just… lost. She gave a little hiccupping sob as she realized exactly why her feet had led her to this spot: Duck was lost, and she was waiting here for Fakir to come and find her.
But Fakir was looking pretty lost too, staring at her hopelessly. “I… I only wanted to give you your happy ending. You deserve a happy ending, more than any of the rest of us, but instead… It’s my fault. I said that said you’d be going back to your real self; I thought that you would be. I should have known better. People can change; we all did. I should have known that making you go back to who you were at the start of the story wasn’t okay. But what choice did we have? ‘May those who accept their fate be granted happiness, may those who defy it be granted glory,’ but no one would have ever been happy if we had accepted the roles the story laid out for us. And glory, what use is glory? That sounds like the kind of thing Drosselmeyer would want, a glorious tragedy, and I never-” The words came slowly at first, but then he picked up speed, growing faster and louder until he was practically ranting as he paced the clearing. And then he froze. Fakir stared at her for a moment, then slumped back until he collapsed onto the stone block. “I never wanted to be like him. I can’t protect you with my pen any more than I could with my sword. I was worthless as a knight and I’m worthless as a writer. I’m just worthless,” Fakir concluded, cradling his head in his hands.
Duck didn’t really know what Fakir had been talking about for most of that. All she knew was it looked like Fakir’s heart was breaking and it hurt. This feeling is real, she thought, and then, I am real. And all of the sudden, none of the rest of that stuff mattered.
Maybe there was a lot of things happening right now that Duck didn’t understand even though she should, and maybe her whole life was just something that Fakir pulled together for her by writing a story, and maybe before last week all she had ever been was an unimportant character from a stupid book who didn’t matter, but she was here now. She was here now watching Fakir hurt and that made her hurt because Fakir was her friend because she decided that’s what she wanted on her own because she liked Fakir just because she liked him because he was Fakir, that was all. Fakir was right: her feelings right now were her own, and who she was right now was the real her. That was what mattered.
“You’re not worthless,” Duck said. Fakir didn’t look up, so she went to stand right in front of him to try to force him to pay attention. “Hey Fakir, listen to me. I said you’re not worthless. You’re my friend.”
Finally Fakir looked up and Duck could see that he’d been crying too. “I just wanted you to be happy,” he said, reaching up to wipe at her tears.
Duck covered his hand with one of her own before he could pull it away. “I am happy,” she told him. “I knew you would find me.”
It was too dark out to see the color of Fakir’s eyes, but Duck could still remember the exact green shade of them and they still made her heart beat faster. Or maybe that was because of the way he was looking at her, like she was the most amazing thing he’d ever seen. Duck found herself leaning into him, closer and closer until her eyes fluttered shut and she gently pressed her lips against his.
Oh. If Duck would have known to guess beforehand, then she would have thought that getting everything back would be like having a dam break, with everything flooding through all at once and overwhelming her. Instead what she felt after she pulled away from their brief kiss was more like a door – not a big fancy door, but like the door to her little attic dorm room – softly swinging open, reveling it all just right there waiting for her.
Duck threw herself at Fakir, and in her eagerness to give him a hug, she knocked him right off the stone block he was sitting on, sending them both tumbling to the ground.
“Fakir!” she said, grinning so hard her cheeks hurt. “Fakir, I remember.”
Epilogue (Day Eight)
“I told you your writing was terrible,” Autor said to Fakir as the two of them walked back to class after the morning break.
“It worked, didn’t it?” Fakir said dismissively.
“It worked, but it was unbearably cliché. I was willing to let the ‘giving her your heart’ slide as a convention of the genre, but curing her amnesia with True Love’s Kiss? That’s just lazy writing.”
Fakir turned away, feeling his cheeks heating up. He hadn’t even told Autor about that part, so who knew how Autor knew, but Fakir didn’t question it anymore. “I didn’t write that part.”
“Of course you didn’t actually write that part, you aren’t nearly bold enough for that.” It had nothing to do with boldness, and everything to do with him not wanting to use his writing to force anyone to do anything, especially not her and especially not that, but Fakir didn’t think it would be worth trying to explain that to Autor. He was better than he used to be before the big battle against the Monster Raven and Drosselmeyer, but he was still pretty bad about some things. “But it’s still your story. That kind of cliché ending only happened because it fit into the story you were writing. It never would have worked in one of Drosselmeyer’s stories.”
“Why would I want my story to have anything in common with that-” Fakir cut himself off, his words failing him in finding an incentive bad enough to adequately describe Drosselmeyer.
“Just because you don’t share his penchant for tragedy doesn’t mean you can’t learn from him. Drosselmeyer was a master writer,” Autor sniffed, and Fakir fought the urge to punch him.
“Drosselmeyer ruined people’s lives. He was–”
He felt his bad mood evaporate almost in an instant. Fakir turned around and spotted Duck running up toward him. “Hey,” he said, ignoring Autor’s pointed little cough.
“I have to get back to class before I’m late, but I wanted to tell you that Mr. Katz said that my audition is going to be after school today,” Duck said, flushed with excitement.
“I’ll be there,” he said.
“Oh, well, you don’t have to…”
“Do you want me to be there?” he asked.
“I guess, yeah, I’d like that,” Duck said, blushing a little.
“Then I’ll be there,” Fakir told her. As far as he was concerned, it was just as simple as that.
“Ok, great. I’ll see you later then.” Duck’s blush deepened and she leaned in to quickly kiss him on the cheek before running off again. “Bye Fakir! Bye Autor!”
There was a moment of silence as Fakir stared after her in wonder, trying to figure out how his life, which had seemed so awful and so hard for so much of it, had suddenly turned around so fast. Then Autor, who Fakir was pretty sure wasn’t happy unless he was annoying someone, spoke. “You really only care that it worked, don’t you?”
Fakir snatched his hand, which had come up unconsciously to touch his cheek, down and scowled at Autor, more out of habit than anger. “Yeah, that’s all I care about.”
Autor gave a deep and long-suffering sigh. “Well. Congratulations.”