Princess Tutu

Into the Woods

By Lucky_Ladybug

Notes: The characters are not mine and the story is! It was partially written for the 18coda theme Dolce (Sweet). This is post-series, and though it briefly references a fic I did called Beneath the Cover of a Book, it is not necessary to have read that first. I actually never intended to write a scene of Ahiru becoming human again, as it's been done to death so much I doubted I could come up with an original twist. And I probably haven't, but I ended up feeling the scene was important to have at the beginning. Hopefully later discussions among the characters will explain why. Also, I leave another reminder that I've set the series in modern times, as per some hints in the show itself and my own preference. Thanks to Kaze for plot help!

After the end of Drosselmeyer's Story, life in Kinkan Town went back to normal. No one except those directly involved with fighting against Drosselmeyer remembered the truth, leaving those innocently caught up in the disaster to merrily continue their lives—save for the occasional times when a faint memory not quite able to be grasped tugged at someone's mind before again vanishing, leaving the poor soul bewildered. It always felt important somehow, and yet unable to be reached.

Fakir continued his studies at the academy. He had grown to enjoy ballet after signing up with Mytho years earlier and did not want to stop performing. After school he would gather his writing equipment and journey to the lake to visit with Ahiru and try to determine how to pen the official ending to Drosselmeyer's Story. But the Story that tugged at his mind instead was another, one for Ahiru . . . and for himself as well. In spite of what he had told her at the bottom of the lake, he could not help wanting to see her become a human again.

He tried to ignore the thought; after all, her true self was a duck. She was never meant to be a human, just as he had never been meant to be a knight. If he tried to write her a Story that was not hers to have, what damage would it cause? What if he would end up losing her for good, bringing about her death as he had inadvertently caused his parents' by trying to write himself into a hero?

Still, the Story tormented and bothered him. Every time he tried to work on the other Story, Ahiru's Story crept into his mind and sometimes into his pen. Then he would stop and stare at the words he had started to write on the paper.

"No," he muttered more than once. "This isn't right. This isn't what I should be writing. Why can't I concentrate?!"

And he would wad up the sheet to begin again, while Ahiru stopped her swimming and quacked at him.

She obviously wondered what the problem was. He had never told her what he was thinking of and what he often started to try to write. He did not want to make her feel guilty, especially after assuring her that it was alright to return to being a duck, or to make her long even more to be human again.

Did she long for that? He had thought she did, particularly the few times he had stumbled upon her trying to practice the basics of ballet. Maybe that was why he felt a need to write that Story for her; maybe, just as before, her feelings were spilling out through his pen.

But if that was the reason, should he always hold himself back?

Yes, he told himself. It was not the ending she was meant to have, so he could not risk writing it and causing tragedy to fall upon her.

Still, no matter how often he told himself that, the thoughts would not go away. And after things had proceeded in that vein for some time, he at last went to Autor in frustrated despair, wondering if the boy who had done so much research on Drosselmeyer and his abilities would be able to help him find a way to make the thoughts of the Story stop.

Autor was somewhat surprised to see Fakir on the doorstep; though they had continued to associate after the end of Drosselmeyer's Story, it was not frequent that they would see each other. Fakir was always busy with ballet or writing, and Autor was allergic to birds, so he very rarely ventured to the lake.

As Autor listened to Fakir describe his problems, he sat with crossed arms, his expression impassive at first but increasingly impatient as the tale wore on.

"I don't know what to do," Fakir growled at the conclusion. "How can I write that Story when it might hurt her?"

Autor pushed up his glasses. "And how do you know being turned human isn't the ending she's meant to have?" he said in exasperation.

Fakir blinked. That idea had never even occurred to him. He opened his mouth to protest. "But . . ."

"You only made an assumption—a logical one, I'll give you that—that Ahiru was meant to be a duck," Autor said. "But she doesn't seem satisfied with it, and let's face it, neither are you."

Fakir stiffened, then looked away. "No, I'm not," he mumbled. "I want to hear her voice, to talk to her again . . . even to dance with her, though she's terrible at it when she's not Princess Tutu. And it feels wrong. I should be alright with things being as they are. That's how I thought they were supposed to be."

"After all that she's been through, is she still a duck in her heart?" Autor said. "Actually, from what you told me about her origins, it doesn't seem like she ever was an average bird—or any other kind of animal. How many animals would see a human dancing and want to help him because his eyes looked lonely? Even if they did, how many would be willing to go to the extent Ahiru did?"

Fakir's eyes widened. Autor definitely had a good argument. But . . . could he really trust that this idea was the truth?

"If that is the ending Ahiru is meant to have, and you don't write it," Autor was saying now, "that will hurt her."

And Fakir got to his feet. "I'm going to try it," he said.

Autor stood as well. "Let me know how it turns out," he said.

"You'll soon know if it does," Fakir said, heading for the door.

And when he returned to the lake and started writing, the Story flowed. I want to be a human again, he found himself penning. Yes, Ahiru's feelings were coming to him, just as before. I want to study ballet with everyone, and see my friends, and talk with Fakir . . . even though we'll probably just end up arguing, like always.

His eyes widened slightly. She wanted the same thing he wanted.

And Autor. . . . I never did get the chance to try to make friends with him.

Again Fakir was surprised. She still remembered about that. Well, of course she did, he scoffed as an afterthought. She never forgot anything that was important to her.

He tries to come around sometimes, but I know he can't very much. I haven't been able to thank him for protecting Fakir and helping him write the ending to Drosselmeyer's Story.

And now Fakir's been acting strange. I wonder why? He won't let me see the papers he's crumpling up. Is he having trouble writing? It feels like it's more than that. I want to be human again and ask him what's wrong.

Fakir tried to push back the feelings of guilt. It had been because he had been resisting this Story. Yet he had only resisted thinking it was in her best good. And now . . . what would happen now?

His hand continued to write, guided by an unseen force.

I'm sorry, Fakir. I know I should be okay with being my true self, but . . . even though I try to be happy, deep down I'm not.

"You don't have anything to be sorry for, idiot," Fakir muttered as he wrote.

That was when the little duck heard a voice on the wind, a voice that sounded both familiar and foreign at the same time. "Who is your true self?" the voice asked.

He looked up with a start. The voice had come, just as he had written. And down in the water, Ahiru was searching in surprise for the speaker.

"Miss Edel?!" she called, though she could only speak in quacks.

"Yes," said the voice. "In a way. I am your memories of Edel, the puppet that could not have a heart."

"Oh." The duck was surprised and confused, but then smiled. "I've missed you so much, Miss Edel!" the duck exclaimed. "I'm glad to hear you again, even if it's just like this. But . . . why am I hearing you now?"

"In Drosselmeyer's Story, I tried to answer the questions you had," said the voice of Edel. "You yourself have summoned me because of the deepest question you now hold in your heart. Ahiru, I will now ask you a question. Who do you think you are? Are you a duck? Are you Ahiru, the girl? Are you Princess Tutu?"

The duck who had been a girl thought for a long moment. "They're all me," she said. "They're all part of me. But on the outside, I was meant to be a duck."

"Are you sure? Think carefully. Your true self is what you are, what you have become, in your heart and soul. And it is possible for one to change on the outside to reflect themselves on the inside."

The little duck's eyes widened. Was there any chance, she wondered, that she would receive her true dream? In her heart, she had become far more than a duck. She had experienced humanity. And in spite of all of her best efforts, she could not be fully happy as a duck after that.

"I . . . I don't know!" she said to the voice of Edel. "I want to be Ahiru. I feel like I'm Ahiru, but . . ."

She had no sooner begun to speak when the transformation took place. Her body glowed and rose from the lake. Wings became arms and hands; webbed feet grew and reshaped, gaining human toes. Her beak once again was a nose and mouth. Her long braid flew out behind her as she landed back in the water.

The spray from the lake flew in all directions, including all over Fakir and the paper. But he was already throwing it to the pier and leaping into the water. "Ahiru!" he called, reaching for the girl as she broke the surface with a surprised gasp. She was wearing her turtleneck and shorts, but at the moment was heedless of the fact that they were completely drenched.

"Fakir!" she cried, diving into his arms with a joyous glomp.

And he held her close, joyous as well.

****

Fakir no longer boarded at the academy. Like Autor, he traveled to class every day and then returned home in the evenings. Ahiru had already been living with him and Charon for part of the time when she had been a duck. Charon was surprised to see her human again, but assured her she was always welcome in their home. So she stayed, moving into Raetsel's old room.

She rejoined the academy as well, where Piké and Lilie claimed her as their friend and where she continued to do poorly in ballet class. But she must have made improvements of some sort; when the time came again, this time she was granted toe-shoes.

Autor had not been particularly surprised to see her back. He welcomed her cordially but still clearly was keeping her at arm's length. She was happy for any level of progress, however. And she was quite certain that that there were very few whom Autor would welcome at all.

She and Fakir had argued once she learned he had delayed writing her Story, but it had not lasted that long. It had been hard to stay in the mood to quarrel when she had heard his reason for resisting. What had happened to his parents when the crows had attacked was still heavy on his mind. It was natural that he would be fearful of a repeat incident, especially under the circumstances.

She still loved to walk and run, and whenever possible, she traveled around the town and through the surrounding area. She became particularly fascinated by the woods beyond the lake and would sometimes go there to explore. Fakir always scolded her and warned her not to go in too deep, but she was certain she would not get lost. And she would always be back before dark; as interested as she was in the woods, they were not a place she wanted to be in at night.

Of course, she was also still helpful and kind, wanting to do a good turn wherever possible. And that was how one day, as she was about to leave the academy grounds, she stopped to hear a plaintive meowing. Concerned, she hurried toward the sound. "Hello?" she called. "What's wrong?"

She gasped as she found its source—the gray tomcat, once the ballet instructor Neko-Sensei, was frantically searching everywhere possible for a cat to search—under bushes, the gazebo, and in trees. The white cat he had married was looking too, as were their kittens.

Or wait . . . most of the kittens. Ahiru's gaze traveled over the group. One little gray kitten, who looked strikingly like his father, was not there.

"You're looking for Smokey, aren't you?" Ahiru said in understanding.

The tomcat meowed. Ahiru often came and played with the family in between classes and after school. They trusted her, and well, it was odd, how sometimes he thought he remembered teaching her inside one of the big buildings. . . . Even though of course that could not be possible.

"I'll help look too!" Ahiru vowed.

But a thorough search of the grounds yielded nothing. An hour later Ahiru groaned, slumping onto a stone bench in discouragement and exhaustion. What was she going to do now? Fakir was not here; he had gone to Raetsel's for the day to help her with fixing something while Hans was away on business. So Ahiru was on her own looking for the lost kitten. She could not possibly give up, but she was at a loss. Could it have gone off the grounds?

The sound of footsteps made her look up with a start. "Autor," she said in surprise as the music student approached her.

"They say you've been doing strange things today," Autor commented, pushing up his glasses with his middle finger. "You ascended twelve trees, opened six storage sheds, and knelt down to look under five buildings. Someone even thought he saw you climbing the roof of the music building. Somehow it doesn't surprise me." He took in her bedraggled, weary appearance. "Though I know you must have had a reason for it."

"Autor!" Ahiru exclaimed in desperation. "One of Neko-Sensei's kittens is lost! I can't find him anywhere on the grounds!"

Autor stepped back with a blink. "A kitten?" he repeated.

Ahiru nodded. "Did you see him? It's the gray kitten, the one I've been calling Smokey."

"I haven't kept track of what you christened them all," Autor said, "but I know which one you mean." He glanced over his shoulder. "I think I saw it out by the van that delivered meat for the cafeteria. Maybe it climbed inside."

"What?!" Ahiru cried in horror, leaping to her feet. "Autor, do you know where the meat place is?"

"It's near the town's back gate," Autor said, smirking slightly to think that she did not know. But the smirk vanished as he stopped to actually think. Ahiru was a vegetarian, of course. And considering that she had been born a duck, why on earth would she know—or have previously wanted to know—where the meat plant was? She could have ended up on the menu.

He cringed, looking away.

Ahiru did not notice his changing moods. "Thank you, Autor!" she called over her shoulder as she dashed past him. Her long braid flew out behind her as she ran off the academy grounds.

Autor shook his head, watching her go. "That girl," he muttered.

Why did he have the feeling that she was getting into another potential disaster . . . and that he would end up involved more than he currently was?

He turned away, heading towards the library. She was just going to the meat plant, as a human. What could go wrong?

****

Ahiru found the plant easy enough. But as she looked around the grounds, she gasped to see the van closed. What if Smokey was trapped inside? Didn't they keep those things refrigerated so the meat would stay fresh?

She hurried over, tugging frantically on the handles of the back doors. "Smokey!" she called, struggling in vain with the doors. They were locked. "Smokey, are you in there?!"

"Hey. What are you doing, girl?"

She barely held back a shocked quack at the sudden voice. She whirled, finding herself facing a very unamused man in white coveralls. But, undaunted, she held on to the door handles as her story poured out.

"Please, can you help me get this open?!" she said. "I'm from the Kinkan Academy and one of the kittens on the grounds is missing! A friend of mine thought maybe he climbed in your van and . . ."

"There's no need to look in there," the man growled, pulling Ahiru away with a rough hand.

She jerked away. "Why?!" she cried. Her eyes widened in horror. "Did something happen to Smokey?! Is he hurt? What did you do to him?!"

The man looked stunned, then annoyed at the whirlwind of questions. "Just wait a minute," he said. "Yes, there was a gray kitten in there. It had already chewed on some of the meat and ruined it. We chased it out and it went through the town gate. I think it was heading for the forest by the lake."

Ahiru stared, her alarm only increasing. "But he won't survive in a place like that!" she burst out. "There's things in there that would . . ." She trailed off, unable to finish. "You're horrible!" she said instead, running past the man. It was already late in the afternoon, and Fakir would be upset if she went in there now, but there was no choice. She had to find Smokey!

The woods loomed dark and ominous ahead of her as she went outside the town and around the lake. Narrowing her eyes, she kept running towards the dense trees. She had been calling for Smokey all this time without an answer. He had to be in there; there was no other place he could go except for the lake.

Tears pricked her eyes. She would not even consider that he had fallen in there. No, he was in the forest, still alive, and she had to find him.

"Smokey!" she called again as she passed through the entrance to the forest. There was still no reply. She kept going, her voice growing hoarse as she called for the innocent kitten. Oh where could he be?!

It was not long before she realized she had taken a wrong turn down a path and now was quite hopelessly lost. The more she searched for the correct direction, the deeper into the forest she went. The sun sank lower and lower, until it could only be barely glimpsed through the dense trees and brush.

Ahiru cried out in dismay, slumping onto a log. "What am I going to do? I can't find Smokey anywhere!" she moaned. "And now I'm lost, just like Fakir said would happen. It's going to be dark soon, too."

She froze as her words fully hit her. How was she going to find her way out of this mess? No one even knew where she was. Autor knew only that she was going to the meat plant. Maybe no one would look for her until it was closed and they would not be able to learn from the man that she had gone after Smokey into the forest.

Well, she determined in resolution, she had to keep trying—both to find Smokey and the way out. And neither would happen if she kept staying on the log. With a sigh she pulled herself up and resumed walking.

****

As evening approached without Ahiru returning, Fakir was indeed growing tense. He had returned from Raetsel's only to be told by Charon that she had never come back from school. Now he was waiting in the kitchen, his arms crossed as he leaned against the wall. She could just be taking her time on the walk back, he knew, but she also could have gotten into some crazy predicament. Knowing her, it was the latter. He would have to find her. He pushed himself away from the wall, heading outside.

Soon he was on his horse, steering it towards the academy in the center of town. Maybe he would get lucky and find her there, or find someone who had seen her and knew where she was. But he was so intent on his mission that he did not notice someone attempting to cross the street until it was almost too late to avoid a collision. His stallion neighed loudly in warning and protest, twisting to the side. The person trying to cross the street yelled in disbelief and indignation as he dove out of the way.

Fakir stiffened; the voice was familiar. He pulled on the reins, bringing the animal to a stop at the curb. "Autor?!" he exclaimed, focusing on the scene for the first time.

"If you always ride like that, it's a miracle you haven't run anyone over yet!" Autor shot back.

"Sorry," Fakir grunted. "But I'm looking for Ahiru. She isn't back from school."

Autor raised an eyebrow. "I guess I shouldn't really be surprised," he said. "She was looking for a missing kitten."

Fakir tried to relax. "That's it?"

Autor nodded. "She couldn't find it anywhere on the grounds. She was going to the meat plant in case it sneaked aboard the van that came to the school today," he said. "I saw the kitten out by it."

Fakir's eyes widened. "What?" He glowered in the direction of the plant. "Shouldn't it be closed now?"

"Yes. Fifteen minutes ago, actually," Autor said, glancing at his watch. "She could still be walking back from there."

"But what if she didn't find the kitten?" Fakir said. "Where would she go then?"

Autor frowned. "The plant is at the edge of town," he said. "If the kitten left Kinkan and she chased it, they would probably end up in . . ."

"The forest," Fakir snarled in realization.

Autor stared. "She could get lost in there," he said. Seeing the wheels turning in Fakir's head, he added, "And so could you, especially now. It's going to be dark in not much more than an hour."

"You don't have to tell me that!" Fakir retorted. "If she's in there, I'll stay there until I find her, even if it takes till midnight."

"It's not safe to be in the woods after dark," Autor said.

"If it's not safe for me, it's not safe for her, either," Fakir said. He tugged on the reins, indicating for the horse to go again.

"Wait a minute!" Autor called.

Fakir hesitated, glancing over his shoulder. "What is it?" he asked.

Autor pushed up his glasses. "I'll come with you," he said. "It'll be easier to search with two."

Fakir blinked. "You'll come?" he said, incredulous.

Autor crossed his arms. "Unless you have any serious objection to it," he said with a smirk.

Fakir grunted. "Get on," he directed.

After two failed attempts, Autor managed to hoist himself onto the horse's back. Fakir just shook his head as he snapped the reins. "You've never been on a horse, have you," he said.

"I have," Autor said defensively. "Once." He did not add that it had thrown him off and had made him most uninclined to pursue any further relationship with the animals. He always walked where he needed to go.

As the horse suddenly broke into a gallop, as per Fakir's instructions, Autor gasped. Without thinking he grabbed onto Fakir, not wanting to fall. The Story-Spinner stiffened, then allowed a darkly amused smirk.

"I was starting to wonder if you were afraid of anything," he said.

"I'm not afraid!" Autor answered in indignation. "I just don't intend to die by falling off a horse. And with your reckless directions, it's highly possible!"

"Be glad I don't drive a car," Fakir said.

"At least you're closed into a car," Autor said, gritting his teeth. "Out here, you're completely in the open!"

"We'll slow down when we get closer to the plant," Fakir promised. They would have to, in order to make a thorough search. He was still hoping Ahiru was just walking back from there. But could they really trust that?

"I'm getting off if we have to go into the woods," Autor said. "We'll cover more ground that way."

"And you won't have to worry about falling off," Fakir said.

Autor merely sniffed in derision.

****

Ahiru was still lost as night fell. She wandered helplessly around trees and bushes and large rocks, only able to see from the scant moonlight that made its way through the foliage high above her. Every now and then something would snap behind her and she would jump a mile, only to groan as a small animal bounded out in search of prey.

"Hey," she said when an owl flew out and perched on a low-hanging branch, "I used to be a bird. I guess it's too much to hope that you can understand me. Can you? I need to find a little gray kitten. And I also need to find the way out of here."

But the owl just tilted its head and blinked at her.

Ahiru sighed, her shoulders slumping. "I think I'd be glad to even hear Fakir yelling at me right now," she said.

She had only walked a short distance more when what sounded like a human voice met her ears. She froze, slack-jawed. "Is someone there?" she called.

There was a slight pause. "Ahiru?!" the voice called back, still far away, but close enough that the word was clearly distinguishable.

Ahiru gasped. "I'm here!" she cried, running towards the sound. From here, she could not quite tell who it was, but it did not sound exactly like Fakir. Still, who else would . . .

"Autor?!" she exclaimed, crashing through the brush. "Autor, is it you?!"

And suddenly a lantern was shining in her face. She yelped, rocking back from the glare.

"Ahiru." An exasperated sigh. "Fakir was right, that you'd come in here."

She looked up as the lantern was lowered. "I was looking for Smokey!" she protested. "And . . . Fakir?! Is he here too?" She looked around, both hoping and dreading to see the stern boy.

"Somewhere." Autor glanced over his shoulder. "He's on his horse."

"Oh." Ahiru faced him again. "Have you been here a long time?"

"Since before it was completely dark," Autor said. "We arrived just after the sun set." He looked past Ahiru. "What's back there?"

"Nothing but trees and owls," Ahiru sighed.

"There's another path here," Autor noted, pointing to the right. "Let's take it."

Ahiru nodded. "So," she said as they started down the trail, "how did you end up coming with Fakir?"

"We met each other in town," Autor said. He smirked at her as he held the lantern in front of them. "I came along because I knew the search would be more helpful with two. And I thought it would be good if Fakir had someone calm with him."

"I hate it when you act so smug," Ahiru muttered. But she swallowed her irritation, giving him a genuine smile. "Still, I'm glad to see you. Thank you for coming with Fakir. You're a good friend, Autor!"

Autor stiffened and cleared his throat, looking uncomfortable. "I already told you not to get any wrong ideas, Ahiru," he said. "We're not friends. I'm just helping because . . ."

"Because you don't like people hurt or something," Ahiru said. "I know." She stopped on the road, her hands on her hips. "But I think that when I want to be friends with you, you should at least tell me why you won't!" She glowered at him, her blue eyes highlighted by the glow of the lantern.

Autor paused and blinked, surprised by her sudden mood shift and attitude. But then he narrowed his eyes and regarded her coolly. "I don't owe you an explanation," he said. "Anyway, we shouldn't be wasting time here when . . ."

He trailed off at the sound of the bushes rustling just behind Ahiru. She heard it as well, and swallowed hard as she turned to look. "Smokey?" she asked, with little hope.

A low growl was her answer.

Autor took hold of her shoulder. "Don't make any sudden moves," he warned.

"What are we going to do?!" Ahiru hissed, horrified. Whatever was in there did not act like it would wait for them to make any sudden moves. The brush swayed again.

And suddenly a ravenous wolf leaped out at them, its jaws bared and open. Half-mad with hunger, it was not about to shy away from these humans as it would normally do. Its claws flashed, tearing into Ahiru's skirt as Autor pulled her back. Still clutching the lantern, he released Ahiru and grabbed a nearby stick from the ground.

"Run!" he ordered, stabbing the stick in the direction of the beast. The wolf howled as the sharp end entered its right eye. It fell back, stunned for the moment.

Ahiru looked at it, then to Autor in horror. "What about you?!" she cried.

"I'll be right behind you," Autor said. "Go!" He pushed her several steps forward as the wolf recovered enough to lunge again. Again he jabbed the stick in its direction. This time it was ready. It snapped its jaws over the branch, breaking it in two. Autor was left holding the lower half.

Ahiru whirled back, her heart nearly stopping at the scene. "Autor!" she screamed.

"I said to run!" Autor yelled back at her. The wolf snarled, ready to spring at him.

Ahiru looked around, frantic for some kind of a weapon. She could not just leave Autor in this mess without even trying to help him! At last she saw and grabbed up a rock from the ground, throwing it in desperation. "Leave him alone!" she ordered.

The beast stiffened as the rock hit it on its shoulder. Then it turned, growling at Ahiru. It took a step forward, ready to attack.

Autor jabbed the broken stick hard into the other side of its neck. Running past as it yipped in pain, he grabbed Ahiru's wrist and pulled her down the dirt road with him.

"We'll never make it," he said. Behind them, the wolf was giving chase, kicking up dust as it ran.

"Can wolves climb trees?!" Ahiru exclaimed. They were approaching a large one now. She might be able to reach the lowest branch if Autor could give her a boost.

"They can't," Autor said. He frowned at the tree as they drew closer. The lowest branch looked too thin to hold them both. Did they dare even attempt it?

He glanced behind them. Right now, there was little choice. The wolf was almost upon them.

In one swift move he had his hands around Ahiru's waist and was lifting her as high as he could. "Can you grab it?" he called.

"I think so!" Ahiru said. Her hands scraped the bark as she took hold, but though she winced, she otherwise did not give heed to her injuries. Instead she pulled herself up, kneeling on the trembling branch in horror as Autor leaped, trying to catch hold of it as well. The wolf lunged at him just as he snatched it and pulled himself up, barely missing the horrifying set of teeth.

But it was as he had feared—the branch would not hold them both. And as it bent under their combined weight, he realized something far more alarming.

They were suspended over a steep drop.

"Ahiru, climb to the next branch!" he ordered. The wolf was still below, snarling and leaping at them every few moments. When it jumped to its highest ability, it was nearly able to take hold of the cuff of Autor's pant leg.

The girl nodded, still sick with terror as she reached for the closest branch. The limb they were on bent further as the wolf jumped once more, this time catching Autor's pant leg in its teeth. Autor gritted his own teeth, kicking at the animal and then hitting it over the head with the dimming lantern. It cried out in pain, dazedly falling to the ground.

Even for a moment, however, the added weight of the wolf had been too much for the little branch to handle. It snapped free, taking the two hapless people with it.

Ahiru let out a scream as they fell over the precipice.

****

Fakir was tired, frustrated, and worried. Ever since he and Autor had separated in the forest, he had not found any trace of Ahiru. He urged his horse on, glowering at the dark and twisted trees and the silent bushes. Where could she be?!

"Ahiru!" he called again. His voice echoed throughout the lonely area, then quieted and stopped. Ahiru was still not in hearing range.

Unless . . .

Fakir gripped the lantern tighter. No, he would not accept that she was hurt. Wherever she was, she was fine. Maybe she had even found that kitten.

"First Mytho, now Ahiru," he muttered to himself. It seemed he was always trying to protect people who seemed to feel it their duty to protect small, weak things, no matter what happened to them in the process.

"Ahiru!" he called once more.

A quiet, scared sound answered him.

He frowned, pausing to listen for it again. That was not Ahiru. He shined the flashlight in its direction. Two glowing eyes were beaming from under a bush.

Slowly he climbed down from the horse. "Come out," he called, his voice soft and gentle. "I won't hurt you."

The sound came a second time—a pitiful, but now slightly hopeful mew. Fakir got down on his knees, peering under the bush. A tiny gray kitten was curled up, staring at him.

He reached out, letting it sniff his finger for a moment before taking hold of its small body and lifting it out from its hiding place. "You're what Ahiru's been looking for, aren't you?" he said.

The kitten mewed, looking at Fakir with gratitude. He chuckled as it started to lick his fingers.

"Okay, that's enough," he said, straightening up. "I've found you. Now if I can just find the one who came looking for you in the first place." He stared ahead into the depths of the forest. Where was Ahiru in all of this? Had Autor found her?

He frowned. Hopefully, he would find them together. He did not want to spend hours looking for Autor after finding Ahiru. Autor had come along promising to be useful. Fakir hoped that would prove true.

Gently placing the kitten into his saddlebag, he climbed onto the horse and started off once more.

****

Ahiru groaned as consciousness began to settle over her. Everything hurt. And there was something ticklish right in her face. Her eyes opened halfway, focusing on what looked like dark green feathers.

Feathers? No, it was leaves. The leaves of the branch that had come down with them when they fell. . . .

She gasped, sitting up straight as the memories flooded back. "Autor!" she cried. "Autor!"

She had been lying on the other student's back. Autor lay still as she knelt beside him, reaching to grasp his shoulder. "Autor! Autor, wake up!" she pleaded. Tears pricked her eyes. Was he hurt badly? Or . . . or worse?

But he stirred as she shook his shoulder, his fingers curling around a handful of broken twigs and assorted leaves. "Ahiru?" he mumbled.

"Thank goodness!" Ahiru exclaimed. She helped him onto his back as he tried to turn over. "Are you okay?! You're not hurt bad, are you?! I fell on top of you and . . ."

"I'm alright." Autor adjusted his glasses, which were miraculously not shattered. His breath had been knocked out of him. It felt like he had been kicked hard in the stomach. But nothing seemed to be broken or badly cut.

Ahiru leaned back in relief. "I guess the wolf left us alone too," she said.

From where he was laying, Autor could look up and see the top of the cliff. "It was wise to do so," he said, noting the steep cut-off. It did not look like there were any places for footholds.

Ahiru noticed that too. Her shoulders drooped. "How are we going to get back up?" she moaned.

"Maybe further along there's a place where we can climb," Autor said, breathing heavily from what still felt like a harsh punch to his stomach. Weakly he placed a hand over it. "Do you see the lantern anywhere?"

Ahiru looked through the foliage of the branch until she felt something hard and smooth. "Here it is," she said, bringing it up. But she winced to see the glass cracked and loose.

Autor sighed. "Better it than us," he said. He closed his eyes, resting further against the branch that had broken their fall. "The moon is bright enough here. Give me a moment and then we'll go on."

Ahiru's eyes widened in her alarm. "You are hurt!" she said.

"I said I'm alright," Autor said, flushing a bit at the attention. Being fussed over was a strange and awkward feeling. He opened his eyes, looking at the girl. "Thank you for your concern," he said, though he was certain it sounded stiff and formal.

"Friends worry about each other," Ahiru said. She shifted, looking down. "But you don't want to be friends, I know."

Autor felt something he had not expected—a prick of guilt. "It's not against you personally," he said. "I haven't felt the desire to be friendly with anyone in years."

Ahiru frowned at his wording. "So then . . . you weren't always like this," she said. "You had the desire sometime."

Autor hesitated, then nodded. "When I was a child," he said. "I was always quiet. While the other children were out playing and exploring the town, I let books and music be my windows to other places." He smirked a bit in amusement. "Fakir was impatient even then. Though he also enjoyed to read, he was often outside, pretending to be a knight and saying he would protect everyone."

Ahiru's eyes widened. "You knew Fakir back then?" she said in surprise.

"I knew of him," Autor said. "We only met three times and I'm sure he doesn't remember now."

"Were you friends with him?" Ahiru asked.

Autor shrugged. "Children say childish things that half the time they don't really mean or understand," he said. "I wouldn't call meeting someone three times being friends with him . . . even if the words were spoken."

"It can be meant even then!" Ahiru protested. "I mean, there's a lot of kids who say they're friends when they're really small and they stay friends through the years. It's like saying you're friends is a pact."

"The words aren't what bind friends," Autor said. "Or they shouldn't be." He looked at Ahiru. "I don't think you and Fakir have ever said those words—or others. Yet it's clear how close the two of you are."

Ahiru went red. "Really?" she said. "You think so?"

Autor smirked. "Everyone seems to think so," he said. "But I've seen your interaction more than most."

He sighed and leaned back. "Anyway . . . not everyone who says the words actually means them," he said. "When I was a child, I wanted friends even though I also wanted my books and music." He stared into the distance. "There was a group of older children who came to me one day and said they'd like to be friends with me. I was stunned and in awe that they of all people had noticed me, and that on top of that, they were interested. Of course I said yes. I was too young to realize how they were laughing at me behind my back."

Ahiru stared at him. "Autor . . ."

"I stayed with them and went with them on their adventures," Autor said. "I thought everything was going well. I tried to help whenever any of them needed it. But then a time came when I needed help." The moon reflected off his glasses, hiding his eyes. "And they revealed the truth and abandoned me."

Ahiru gasped. "No! That's horrible!" she cried, leaning forward. "How could they do that?! They were just kids."

"Children can be cruel," Autor said. "Though I haven't seen many on their level. They told me they didn't want to be friends with someone like me; they had made a bet on whether I would be stupid enough to believe their offer of friendship. They thought it was a great joke that I did. They never cared about me, in spite of all the times they had professed to and said that I was a wonderful friend. It was all a game to them, though they also wanted some of the wealth of knowledge I possessed. I was mockingly told that I was better than a dictionary, but that their time of needing me was over. 'When a dictionary outlives its usefulness, we discard it and get a new one.' Those were their leader's exact words."

Ahiru blinked back tears. "How old were you?" she asked.

He shrugged. "I was seven," he said. "They were around twelve, the same age as the boys who tormented you that time."

Ahiru shuddered at the reminder. "Autor, that's so terrible," she said in horror. "What did you do?"

Autor crossed his arms. His stomach was not hurting now; perhaps he would be able to try sitting up in a moment. They really did need to get going.

"I've never really been accepted by my peers," he said. "I'm nothing more than the bookish, reclusive student who detests too much noise. I've learned to accept that." He looked away. "It's alright if no one cares about me. Books and music are much better companions. I decided that years ago."

He would not let Ahiru see whatever pain might be in his eyes, pain still left from his rejection by Rue. He had stayed aloof for years, yet when he had tried to reach out to someone on his own, he had been laughed at again, just as he had been as a child. He was better off alone.

"But . . . that's no way to live," Ahiru said now in sorrowful horror and sadness. "You can't just be alone all the time, Autor. You need other people!"

"Why?" he sneered in challenge, looking back to her. "What have they ever done for me? They can't even stay alive. I've tended to my family's estate all on my own for years, even before my father's illness took his life. I've managed perfectly fine without any help from anyone." But then he stiffened. Why on earth had he blurted that out? He had never told anyone before. Flushing, he looked away.

Ahiru rocked back. "Autor," she whispered. Tears pricked her eyes again. He had dealt with so much responsibility all by himself. She had hoped that at least one of her friends had lived a relatively normal childhood without tragedy or heartache, but Autor had just revealed to her that it was not so.

"Is that why you've never boarded at the academy?" she asked then.

"Partially," Autor said in resignation. "But also because I simply don't care to."

Ahiru wrung her hands in her lap. "Autor," she said at last, "I know I can't know exactly how you've been hurt. I can't know the pain you felt and are still feeling. But I care about you, and I know Fakir does too. If you'll give people one more chance, I promise I'll show you that I'm different than everyone who's left you before. I never make a friend if I don't plan to be true to the friendship."

He turned and looked at her again, his brown eyes searching her blue orbs. "Why am I of such great interest to you?" he asked. "Anyone else would have lost interest by now." He knew there was something different about Ahiru, and that she never would betray someone she loved; he had seen it in the way she and Fakir cared for each other. But that did not mean he wanted to try reaching out to someone another time. Still, she was so persistent. And that persistence stirred a longing in his heart that he had tried to ignore for years.

"I'm not really sure myself," Ahiru told him. "I just don't like seeing people suffering. And . . . the day you helped me when those boys were giving me trouble, and the way you almost died saving Fakir, and tonight too. . . . All those times showed me that you have a beautiful heart—one that was never really given the chance to shine. I want to see that you, Autor. I want to get to know the you you've kept locked away."

Autor was silent for some time, debating his feelings. At last he replied, "I blurted out things I've never told anyone before. I guess that has to mean something. It could just be that my patience finally reached its end. Knowing you, however, you would probably say that subconsciously, I already think of you as a friend or I wouldn't have told those things."

Ahiru looked at him hopefully. "Do you?" she said.

Autor felt awkward again. "I don't know," he said. He hesitated, taking a deep breath as he looked into her earnest blue eyes. "But maybe . . . when it's you, I'm willing to try."

"Really?!" Ahiru brightened. "I'm so glad! Then you think of us as friends, Autor?"

"Yes, I suppose." Autor pushed himself upright. His stomach still hurt a bit; more than likely he would find a bad bruise there when he got home. But he was well enough to stand. The absence of dizziness gave him further confidence as well.

"We should go," he said. "We need to find our way out of here and then look for Fakir and that kitten."

Ahiru nodded. "Are you sure you should?" she said.

"I just needed a few minutes to recover from the spill," Autor said. Grasping part of the branch for balance, and bringing the broken lantern with him, he pulled himself to his feet.

Ahiru got up with him. The moon was higher now, shining brightly over the clearing. She looked about, catching sight of what looked like a climbable slope ahead and to the right.

"I think we can get back up from there!" she said, pointing to it.

Autor looked to where she indicated. "Let's try it," he said.

They made good time, though they walked slow and somewhat stiff from the fall. Ahiru called to Smokey as they went, just in case the little kitten had found his way into the ravine, but the only answer she ever got was the hooting of several owls.

The actual ascent up the incline was a bit more difficult. It was indeed climbable, and most of it was at least somewhat grassy, but it was also very steep. Getting all the way to the top without anything to hold on to was almost impossible.

Ahiru flailed as they neared the middle of the slope. Autor, who was also having difficulty, turned to try to grab her. Instead, her loss of balance caused them both to topple over, colliding back to the bottom. They landed in a sorry heap on the prickly grass.

For a moment they lay dazed. Then Ahiru groaned, burying her face against Autor's shoulder. "That was terrible," she said. Suddenly realizing what she was doing, she turned red and backed away. "I'm sorry!" she exclaimed.

Autor sighed, rising up halfway on his arm. "We'll just have to try again," he said. "Maybe if we're holding onto each other from the start, we'll have a better chance."

Ahiru gave a weak nod.

Again they stood, this time awkwardly grasping each other's hands before starting up the slope. There were still problems, but with each other's support they finally succeeded in reaching the top. Ahiru let out a sigh of relief.

"We made it!" she exclaimed. "Now we just need to find Fakir. . . ."

Autor nodded. "It's going to be difficult without the lantern," he said. "I only have this." He took a thin flashlight out of his pocket and clicked it on. "It's a miracle it wasn't broken too," he commented.

Ahiru examined the small beam. "It's better than nothing!" she said. "Come on, let's go."

"And hope that wolf doesn't come back," Autor muttered, glancing behind Ahiru.

"It's probably gone to look for something else now," Ahiru said as they walked.

"You always try to look at the positive side of things, don't you," Autor said.

"Yep! You know what they say about the power of positive thinking!" Ahiru said, chipper now as she stretched, placing her hands behind her head.

"It suits you," was Autor's sole comment. "And not just because of Princess Tutu."

Ahiru stopped, blinking in surprise. "Really?" she said. It was not something she had expected Autor would say.

He nodded, resolutely looking ahead. "You have a way of persuading people to believe in your words, without even trying," he said. "It comes naturally to you. It's not often that a power such as that is used for good. I've wondered if . . ." He trailed off, his expression masked as he raised a hand to adjust his wandering glasses.

Ahiru leaned forward, peering at him. "What?" she asked.

"I've wondered if that's part of the reason why you were allowed to be human again," Autor admitted. "Everyone who has come in contact with you has been changed, even if they don't realize it or refuse to acknowledge it.

"I've observed Fakir throughout the years, though he never noticed me. I saw how he changed after you came into his life." He smirked a bit. "He's still short-tempered. I doubt anything will alter that; he's hopeless in that respect." He sobered. "But his harsh, cold exterior has melted."

Ahiru's eyes widened. Autor's words were true, she knew, yet they were something else she had not thought she would hear from him.

"And as for me . . . my heart has been softened as well."

She stared at him, trying to see through the glass concealing his eyes. "Autor," she said in surprise.

"You are the only one who could have worn down my resistance to any kind of platonic relationship," he said. "So I expect you to stay around for a long time."

Ahiru broke into a smile. "You don't have to worry, Autor!" she said. "I won't be going anywhere." To his shock, she linked her arm through his. "Let's find Fakir and go home!"

For a moment he looked at her. Then, slowly, he smiled. "Let's," he agreed.

Theirs was a camaraderie the likes of which he had secretly envied but had determined would not be his. He knew Ahiru would be unyieldingly loyal, as would he. And he would move into the future with no regrets.

"By the way," Ahiru frowned, "why were you watching Fakir for years?"

"After I researched and learned that he was Drosselmeyer's direct heir, I wanted to see what he would do," Autor said. "I knew eventually he would learn about his power, if he didn't already know. But I didn't want to approach him until he was ready to know more. So I waited." He paused. "The Bookmen were watching him too."

"Eh?!" Ahiru's eyes went wide. "And he never knew that, either?!"

"They made sure he didn't," Autor said. "But Fakir can be quite oblivious about things." He smirked again. "He never noticed me, either, not even when I made my presence more obvious. I finally had to take a more direct approach to get him to pay attention."

Ahiru pouted. "Don't say mean things about Fakir," she said. Even though she herself had been frustrated and had complained about Fakir many times, she did not like anyone else to do it.

"It's a simple fact," Autor said with a shrug. "It's not unkindness."

"Well, I don't like to hear it," Ahiru muttered.

"I was really mad at you at first," she said louder. "Your training was harsh! And then Fakir almost got taken away by the oak tree. . . ." She shuddered at the memory. "But . . . I don't think we would've beat Drosselmeyer if it hadn't been for you." She looked up at Autor in all earnestness. "You taught Fakir what he needed to know, and when he was trying to end the Story, you saved his life. I was never able to thank you for that."

Autor looked to her. "You don't need to thank me," he said. "Fakir requested my help. I was doing my part to end the Story's madness."

"Yeah, but you didn't have to help him," Ahiru said.

Autor looked away. "No," he said. "I guess not."

****

They had been traveling down the path for some distance before the sound of hoofbeats approached from the right. Both paused, listening to be sure. "It's Fakir!" Ahiru said then. "It must be!" She ran ahead, standing where the roads connected. "Fakir!" she called.

On his horse, Fakir stared in the direction of the voice. "Ahiru," he realized. There was a small beam of light, too. If Ahiru had not had some kind of light source—and Fakir doubted she had—then that meant Autor had found her. He spurred the stallion faster. "Ahiru!" he called.

Ahiru waved in relief. "We're here!" she said. "I'm with Autor."

Autor took hold of her arm, pulling her back from the trail. "Don't stand in the way," he warned.

In a moment Fakir appeared, his lantern held in front of him. He took in the sight of the duo in surprise. "What happened?!" he said, staring at their scratches and torn clothing.

"Autor was trying to protect me from a wolf!" Ahiru said. "And then we climbed a tree, but it broke and we fell . . . but we're okay! And we still haven't found Smokey. . . ." Her shoulders slumped as she spoke.

A ghost of a smile touched Fakir's features. "I found him," he said.

Ahiru brightened. "Really?! Where is he?"

Fakir opened the saddlebag. "Right here."

The kitten peered out with a curious mew. Ahiru squealed in delight, lifting him out and stroking his fur. "You're okay!" she said. "Really, you shouldn't run off like that. Do you know how worried we've all been?!" She looked up at Fakir. "Oh, we need to get him back to Neko-Sensei right away!"

Fakir nodded. "We should all get out of here," he said. "You shouldn't have come in here all alone."

Ahiru glared at him. "Well, I didn't want to take up more time going back to try to find someone to come with me!" she said. "I thought you were still at Raetsel's, and I was hoping I could find Smokey and get out again before it got dark."

Not wanting to stand by while they engaged in another of their infamous arguments, Autor surveyed the situation. "We might have a problem on the ride back," he noted.

Ahiru blinked. "Why?" she asked.

"Somehow, we all have to fit on the horse," Autor said.

Fakir grunted. In all the concern of looking for Ahiru, he had not really stopped to think about that. "You sit in front of me," he directed, looking to Ahiru.

She looked surprised. "Will that work?" she said.

"You're short enough that it should," Fakir said.

Carefully Ahiru placed the kitten back in the saddlebag before reaching to try to climb on the horse. Fakir took her hand, half-helping half-dragging her up.

"Hey!" Ahiru exclaimed. "You could be more gentle."

"You're sturdy," Fakir said.

Autor got on behind Fakir, still awkward, but at least making it up on the second try instead of the third. "And don't guide the horse like a man possessed this time," he said.

"We'll go careful," Fakir said, his voice gruff.

****

The ride back went smoothly, much to everyone's relief. Ahiru returned the gray kitten to the academy grounds, where they were joyously welcomed by Neko-Sensei and the rest of his family. She left with a smile as the mother cat fussed over Smokey, beginning a long bath.

Autor was dropped off at his home, where he insisted again that he was fine when Ahiru asked. But both she and Fakir noticed him absently rubbing at his stomach as he vanished inside.

Fakir sighed once they were alone. "So what actually happened?" he frowned. "You said you and Autor fell."

Ahiru nodded. "I hope he's really okay," she said quietly.

"Are you really okay?" Fakir grunted with a frown.

"Yeah!" Ahiru smiled. She leaned back against Fakir as he snapped the reins. "And Autor and I are friends now."

Fakir raised an eyebrow. "How did you manage that?" he said. Though, he supposed he was actually not that surprised. As always, Ahiru accomplished what she was determined to do, one way or another.

"After we fell, we talked about some stuff," Ahiru said. "I'd tell you, Fakir, but I don't think he'd want me to." She bit her lip, looking down at the road as it seemed to move under them.

"Probably not," Fakir said.

"Oh!" Ahiru jerked up with a start, remembering something. "Autor said he met you when you were kids. Do you remember that, Fakir?"

Fakir froze, stunned. "What the heck?" he said. He most certainly did not remember such a thing. And how could he possibly forget meeting a guy like Autor?

Wait a minute. . . .

A frown crossed his features as vague memories flitted back to him, memories of both when his parents had still been alive and after their tragic deaths. Memories of an arrogant kid who was always adjusting his glasses and carried a book—a kid who had driven him nuts and yet who had found an odd sort of companionship with him.

Memories of being accidentally caught at one of the lowest points of his life, after overhearing a comment by an inconsiderate person about his parents' deaths. He had screamed that it was not true; that it had not happened like the person had said. And he had run. He had run until he had collapsed in his grief and self-hatred and had cried angry, bitter tears. He had thought he was alone in the spot he had found, but instead he had looked up in horror to find that same arrogant kid.

To his surprise, the kid had been somewhat sympathetic. "I overheard what Mrs. Daecher said to you," had been his first comment. "You shouldn't pay any heed to her; she's an old bat."

Fakir had not known what to make of the sudden intrusion. "And what do you want?" he had snapped, his tone defensive.

"Nothing in particular," the kid had answered. For one so young, he had already possessed quite a large vocabulary.

"Why are you here then?" Fakir had retorted.

"You're ill-tempered as always," had been the smirking reply. "But I'll forgive you for it."

"That was Autor?" Fakir said, not even aware he was speaking aloud. Of course it was, he muttered to himself. It couldn't have been anyone else.

"You do remember!" Ahiru exclaimed. She twisted around, looking up at him. "What happened, Fakir?!"

But Fakir merely shook his head. "I'll tell you later," he said.

Ahiru pouted. "Autor finally told me things and now you won't?"

"It took him a while to get used to the idea, didn't it?" Fakir said.

"Yeah, but you should be used to it by now!" Ahiru said.

Fakir grunted. "I said I'd tell you later. I didn't say I wouldn't tell you at all."

Ahiru, who had been preparing for a quarrel, looked at him in surprise. "Really?" she said.

"Yeah." Fakir kept looking ahead. "I'll tell you when we get home, if you're not too tired."

Ahiru relaxed and smiled the rest of the way home. Some things were still the same now that she was human again. Some things were different.

So far, the differences were ones she would be happy to get used to.