First up on the 2013 Matchmaking Icon Meme (see my profile for details): Ada Vessalius/Ahiru. Title inspired by the song of the same name from Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer (and by caffeine_buzz's livejournal icon).
There will only be one slight spoiler from Pandora Hearts's twelfth volume ("Retrace XLVI: Persona") regarding Ada and her, ahem, hobbies. That being said, you won't have any problems following this story even if you have never even heard of the manga.
However, this story implies major spoilers for the Princess Tutu anime, so I would strongly advise that you watch all 26 episodes before reading further. (You would be doing yourself a favour anyway: this series is all kinds of amazing.)
Disclaimer: Pandora Hearts was written by Jun Mochizuki and is the property of Square Enix, while Princess Tutu was directed by Jun'ichi Satô from the Hal Film Maker studio.
That Old Black Magic
Ada was halfway through her newly acquired collection of tales when distressed quacking pulled her back to the real world with a jolt.
"Snowdrop!" the young woman shouted when she saw the shrieking ball of yellow feathers her white cat was juggling with. "No, bad kitty! Let it go!"
Ada hurried to pry the terrified bird out of Snowdrop's grasp. The cat let out a plaintive meow, but all interest in her prey was lost when her mistress threw a rolled piece of paper in the opposite direction. Snowdrop's attention was as easy to shift as her namesake.
"Are you alright?" Ada asked the quivering animal nested between her breasts. "Let me look at you… oh dear, you're bleeding! Don't worry, little one, I'll patch you up in no time!"
Her voice broke when the bird suddenly went limp, but Ada willed herself to remain calm. She could feel its tiny heart beating frantically against her own. It had only lost consciousness. The young woman sighed deeply in relief and made her way to the bathroom as fast as she could without waking the bird.
It was a duckling, Ada realized as she bandaged its battered wings. It slept right through the treatment. Ada's moves were gentle and careful, her fingers wise from years spent nursing the injured animals her cats kept bringing. When she was done, Ada checked for a pulse under the fluffy neck, and was glad to find that the duckling's heart had gone back to a steady beat.
'I wonder if its mother lives close by,' Ada thought as she looked over her sleeping protégé. This bird looked a little different from the ducks she had seen down by the lake and in Réveil's fountains…yet strangely familiar.
Puzzled, Ada carried the duckling on a small cushion, intent on finding some bread to give it when it woke up. On her way back from the kitchens, she went to retrieve her book. As soon as she spotted it, the young woman froze. Her gaze went from the heavy volume to the sleeping baby bird.
That was it!
Keeping a careful grip on the cushion with one arm, Ada hung her basket on the other, grabbed the book, and scampered down the spiral stone staircase to her secret hideout. She put the little bird on a low bookcase with its cushion and basketful of bread, and lit a candle. After a dreamy glance over her collection of spot-clean sorcery and torture devices, Ada started to flip through the heavy book's pages.
She was quick to find the illustration she was looking for: a tiny yellow bird drifting across a misty lake with a longing look in its huge blue eyes. Its melancholy looked out of place in such a tiny body, and Ada couldn't help but feel moved by the contrast and the wistfulness of the picture.
But then her eyes found the caption, and immediately lit up at the sight of the word "magic." In a rustle of old paper, Ada moved to the last pages. This specific book had caught her interest because the librarian had told her that the author had written down his own anthology of dark spells to better illustrate his tales, and there had been ominous rumours about him and his stories. Could it be…?
Ada almost screamed in delight when she found what she was looking for. A magic spell, depicted in detail! And this strange little bird that had come to her right after Ada had started to read its story...
So many times had Ada bought counterfeits, but this… this couldn't be mere coincidence, could it?
The young woman whirled, set the heavy book on her reading desk, and hurried to get changed. She had to give it a try.
Ada soon became entirely absorbed in the storyteller's instructions, the heat of the fire and the steam of her two cauldrons. She ran in circles and rummaged through all her shelves in search of the ingredients, repeated the incantations seven times over, steadied her pointy black hat when it tipped over as she leaned too far over her heating potion.
These ingredients were familiar to her: all the authors she had read from so far had been shams, but the recurrence of the themes had to mean something. Maybe, just maybe, Ada had finally found the original these charlatans had all plagiarized.
A loud quack startled her out of her trance. The little bird had just woken, its blue eyes and small beak wide open as it took in its surroundings with growing anguish.
"You're awake!" Ada clapped her hands in glee. "Do you feel better now? Oh, I'm so happy! You have no idea… Oh, where are my manners?" She tried to adopt a more dignified position, but she couldn't help but bounce in excitement, relishing in the merry echo of her boots. "I am Ada Vessalius; nice to meet you, Miss! You are a girl, right? I read it from the story. It doesn't mention your name though, I wish I could speak duck…"
She kept babbling on, unable to stop herself, but the duckling had jumped at the word "story." It turned its head left and right, let out a victorious "quack!", then started hopping and pointing with its bandaged wing at the thick book left open on the reading desk. The small bird punctuated each hop with another "quack" in a desperate attempt to get its message across.
"Yes, I've read the book!" Ada nodded vigorously, her blonde curls flowing from under her hat to her flushed cheeks. "I've been at it for hours, I think I've finally got it! I read this spell through and through, I know it by heart now and… Yes," she double-checked her list, "I think I have all the ingredients… This is bound to work!"
Her words only seemed to increase the bird's panic. It jumped off the cushion, then off the bookcase. Its injured wings failed to carry it, but Ada managed to catch it before it fell on the hard floor and broke its leg.
"Please calm down," she tried to soothe it as she carried the bird to the cauldron she had taken off the fire an hour ago. "Don't worry, I told you, this is definitely going to work! The stone is almost ready now..."
The duck kept flapping its wings and trying to escape, but when its webbed feet finally slipped off Ada's cupped hands, the little bird fell head first in the waiting water of the black cauldron.
"Whoops, careful there," Ada warned the duck when it resurfaced. "I just bandaged your wounds, you should… It's done!"
All worries forgotten, Ada armed herself with iron pliers and rushed to her cauldron's smaller brother as it let out a shrill whistle and a long string of smoke. She used her pliers to search the boiling potion, and fished out an angular red stone, which was as big as her phalanx.
"Now…" Ada turned back to the bird in the big cauldron with a grin. The duck backed away in terror. "That should do it!"
Ada opened the pliers, and the hot stone met the water with a mighty hiss.
Instead of smoke and bubbles, the water and duck were bathed in a strong red glow that soon filled the entire room. Ada had to shut her eyes and shield her face from its bright glare with both arms. She felt a wave of heat on her naked skin, but it was gone as soon as it had appeared, and all she could hear was splashing and a harsh intake of breath.
Ada blinked furiously to reaccustom her eyes to the half-light. Her mouth fell open.
A red-haired teenage girl was standing in the cauldron, looking at her hands in disbelief, very familiar blue eyes widening in wonder above her freckles.
"Oh my God…" she said in a hushed voice, which was very reminiscent of a duck's.
The girl looked from the still hissing water to the gaping young woman in front of her. Ada was unable to speak.
When out of the blue, the cauldron fell over and the girl tackled her.
"Thank you!" the girl caught Ada in a tight hug and beamed up at her. "Thank you so much, Miss Ada, I can't believe it really worked! My name is Ahiru! Thank you for saving me from that cat! And for nursing me, and turning me into a girl again! I owe you so much, I can't wait to tell Fakir… That's right, Fakir!"
The girl suddenly stood up on her knees and started to flap her arms urgently, not realizing that she was still straddling Ada, who couldn't get her mouth to work.
"The book!" Ahiru waved at the reading desk. "I have to bring it to Fakir! You see," she turned back to Ada, her face suddenly serious. "We have to find all of Mister Drosselmeyer's books and make sure his stories are all finished, or they could become dangerous! Err… Well, it's kind of a long story, but the important thing is, a friend of mine really, really needs that book, and I am sorry I have to ask you this after everything you did for me, but I'm sure we can make it up to you somehow, Miss Ada! …Are you okay?"
Ahiru leaned over to inspect Ada's face, only now realizing that the young woman had yet to say a word. Ada was starting to hyperventilate, unable to make a single sound, her face growing a darker shade of red the closer this mysterious girl got to her.
When Ahiru got so close that their noses were almost touching, Ada finally managed to unstick her tongue from her dry palate and let out in a barely audible whimper:
"I…I am sorry Miss Ahiru but could you… uhm…" Her clear eyes seemed the only safe things to look at right now. Ada gulped.
"…clothes," she said lamely.
Ahiru blinked. And blinked. Then looked down at herself and proceeded to turn as red as her impossibly long braid.
There was a horrified "Quack!" followed by a red glow, then Ada found herself face to beak with a mortified duckling. She could have sworn that she saw its blush even through the yellow plumage.
"I… I am so sorry!" Ada blurted out after several seconds of awkward silence. "I didn't mean to startle you! Don't worry, I'm sure we can fix this, let me just get the stone…"
"Quack…" the little duck said timidly.
"…You're right, of course," Ada averted her eyes, easily guessing what Ahiru was trying to get at this time. "Please excuse me, I was foolish. It didn't even occur to me that you would come back without…" she cleared her throat. "Would it be alright if we looked for clothes that would fit you first?"
The duck could only nod.