The Mirror Without You
Notes: The characters are not mine and the story is! Wow, this thing wanted to get written. I've had the vague plunnie for a while, but after musing over possible plot angles two nights ago, it mushroomed and insisted that I write it immediately, which happened over yesterday morning and today. It is indeed inspired by It's a Wonderful Life, though since we're approaching summer I've left out any Christmas angle, haha. I firmly believe that everyone was important to the final battle against Drosselmeyer's Story, and that if any one of them was taken away, everything would have fallen apart. This takes place post-series and in between my fics Fall From Grace and Think Back on Yesterday, but neither has to be read first. Thanks to Kaze for plot help and the amazing title!
Autor's eyes were narrowed as he stepped into the cold evening, pulling his coat closer around him. It had been a long day, made longer by the fact that people had refused to be quiet in the library, completely ignored him when he had requested them to lower their voices, and jeered him when they had finally left. It certainly was not the first time, and it would not be the last. He had learned long ago that people did not take kindly to him. But then again, he did not take kindly to most people, either. In general he preferred being left alone.
Life in Kinkan went on as normal. Of course, no one other than those directly involved in the fight against Drosselmeyer remembered everything. Even if the whole town knew of the battle, however, he highly doubted that they would pay him any heed. Fakir would be the one to get the credit for writing and Ahiru would get the credit for restoring hope. Mytho would be remembered for destroying the Raven at long last and rescuing Rue, who would naturally be seen as the one who had saved Mytho before that.
Autor had saved Fakir's life, which he was grateful he had been able to do, but overall most would say he had played a minor role in the tale. Drosselmeyer had ignored him altogether, despite Autor's idolization of him. In the end, Autor was likely to be forgotten, while Fakir would be remembered as Drosselmeyer's heir. There were those still watching Fakir, for good or ill, wondering what tales he would write in the future.
Autor pushed up his glasses before shoving his hands back in his pockets. He had yearned to have the role that had become Fakir's, but he had long ago been forced to concede that it would not happen. If he were remembered for anything now, it would be trying to take over the world with the powers that were his through the medium of music. It seemed he really could not win.
Somewhere behind him he could hear vague whispers and giggles. Whichever immature fools were back there, they were speaking just loud enough that Autor could make out the words. They were mocking him for his knowledge and for spending so much time in the library when he was a music student. Did he think he was a librarian? He should leave the silencing of noisy patrons up to them.
If they would do their job right, I wouldn't have to do it for them, Autor thought in annoyance. He tried to ignore the voices as he headed in determination for the school gates.
"And of course, he's leaving," one of the voices said. "He's too good to live here with us common folk."
"Actually, my family is almost as rich as his," a second voice declared. "I used to see his parents at social gatherings. He came too. Even then, he was a prick. All he wanted to do was find a quiet corner and read."
The first voice giggled loudly. "As if that's what parties are for."
I never wanted to attend them, Autor thought. They're a bore.
"And imagine! Now that they're gone he still gets away with living in that house by himself. There's only some servant who checks in now and then." A snort. "I guess he scared all the hired help away. They were probably too loud when he wanted to read."
For some reason, that was apparently hilarious. Both girls broke into raucous laughter.
Autor clenched his teeth. They knew he could hear them. And it was almost impossible to stay silent when all he wanted was to call them out on their asinine behavior. The only thing that stayed his tongue was the fact that he knew they were deliberately trying to goad him. He stepped through the gates and into the street, adjusting the book under his arm as it started to slip.
"Goodbye, Professor Autor!" one of the girls called.
Autor refused to reply or look back. He vanished into the night.
He frowned as he sidestepped a large, frozen puddle of rainwater. Even though it was still technically autumn, the weather had been bizarre the last few days. In the day it rained. At night, temperatures dropped below freezing and then this happened. It made walking home a very inconvenient and dangerous business. But there was no way he would board at the academy and be exposed constantly to ridicule. It was irritating enough to have to deal with it as much as he did.
As a young child he had often been actively teased and tormented by other, unkind children. The mask of confidence bordering on arrogance that he had adopted had ceased the physical attacks, but even while he was now high-school age the verbal assaults continued.
He had once thought that he would have the last laugh in the end. But after he had plunged headlong into power and had only succeeded in losing his mind and emotionally crushing his friends, he doubted he would ever triumph in gaining the recognition he had craved. He had not been able to help wondering if it was his lot in life to fail.
Again the dark thought arose that he had previously pushed back every time it had surfaced. He frowned, this time allowing it to take hold in his mind. Maybe he was not really important. Well no, that was not exactly what he meant. He had friends who loved him. Yet . . . if he had never met them, if the Story had proceeded without him, wouldn't it have gone exactly the same?
No, it couldn't have, he argued. He had taught Fakir how to use his powers. Who would have done so otherwise?
But Fakir's power was immature, the other part of his mind said. Reality just wrote itself through him, didn't it? How had Autor helped him?
Autor stopped. Reaching up and removing his glasses, he half-rubbed, half-ran a hand over his right eye. He went in circles arguing with himself and never came to any conclusion. He hated feeling the way he did, really. It made him feel ungrateful and wretched. But he could not help it. When for so long he had desired to be valuable and important, to have something worth offering to the world, he could not suddenly silence those feelings.
Replacing his glasses, he resumed his pace down the darkened Kinkan streets.
Unfortunately, the lighting in that area was not the best. He did not see the next patch of ice until he was slipping on it and going down. A gasp of surprise left his lips before he struck the ice hard on the right side of his head. Then everything was dark.
"Autor. Wake up, Autor."
A gentle hand reached out, grasping his in its warmth. Something about it and the voice bathed him in light and drew him back to the conscious world. Without quite realizing what he was doing, he sat up and then got to his feet. But as he fully came to and focused on the scene, he stared in shock. Princess Tutu was standing before him, her blue eyes and her smile kind and understanding as always.
"Ahiru?" he said in amazement. "You're Tutu again. How?" He knew she had managed to transform to protect him and Fakir from the Bookmen after he had lost his mind, but since then none of them had been able to figure out why it had been possible. And she had not been able to transform again, no matter how hard she had tried to will it so.
She reached up, pressing a cloth against the right side of his forehead. He blinked in surprise. It was bleeding? He had not realized he had struck the ice so hard.
"I'm not sure," she admitted. "I think . . . I felt your heart in pain. You're confused about something."
Autor drew his hand up, taking hold of the cloth himself. Tutu withdrew her hand, standing in front of him as she waited patiently for his reply.
"I'm confused about a lot of things," he said at last. "I don't know. . . . I've tried hard not to feel as I do, but I can't make those thoughts stop."
Tutu bit her lip. "I'd ask you to dance with me, but you're hurt," she said.
Autor sighed. "I don't know that it would do any good anyway," he said. "I'm terrible at it."
She smiled. "That doesn't matter," she said. "You can dance freely."
"No." Autor sank onto a nearby low wall that framed someone's raised property and grass, abruptly dizzy. "You're right, unfortunately. I'm hurt."
She sat next to him. "Will you tell me what's bothering you?" she asked.
It was strange, how being with her made him feel as if he would, even though he had not wanted to tell anyone. He stared at the ground without seeing it as he spoke.
"I just can't help wondering sometimes if I was much use in ending Drosselmeyer's Story," he said. "It was my dream, even as a child, to do something important and worthwhile. Part of me feels that now it's irrelevant, especially considering what I just recently did when I tried to change the world." He sniffed in derision. "Yet instead the longing is still there, maybe more strongly than ever."
"Oh Autor. . . ." Tutu leaned over, giving him a gentle hug. "I wish I could help you come to be at peace."
Autor watched her for a moment then looked away, uncomfortable. "Sometimes," he admitted, "I can't help thinking that nothing would have really turned out different if I hadn't been there."
She pulled back, staring at him in horror. "No!" she cried. "Autor, of course that's not true. Everyone was important to the outcome of the fight."
He looked to her again. "I've told myself that," he said. "But the thought keeps coming back. I can't make it go away any more than I can make myself stop wanting to do something important."
Tutu gazed at him, clearly at a loss for words. She did not know how to help him any more than he did himself. But wasn't there something she could do, she wondered, something to help him see the truth?
Please, she silently prayed, help me know what to do for Autor.
Her new pendant, a soft white instead of deep red, glowed in response. She blinked in surprise, looking down at it. "What's going on?" she said aloud.
Autor glanced to it as well. "It's never done this before?"
"This is only the second time I've been Tutu lately, and I wasn't paying much attention the first time," she said.
But even as they watched in shocked amazement, the scenery around them began to morph and change. What they saw was astonishing and horrifying beyond measure. Kinkan's buildings and homes were growing cracked and decrepit. The grass and trees turned brown and dead. The very wall they were sitting on split underneath them as pieces of the brick came loose and some fell to the ground.
Autor leaped to his feet, the cloth falling from his hand. "What is this?" he burst out.
Tutu stood as well, her heart racing at the sickening sight all around them. And then she stared, noticing something else. "Autor, you're not bleeding!" she exclaimed. "Your wound is gone!"
His eyes widened. "That's impossible," he objected. But a swift investigation with his fingers proved she was right. He stared at the cloth that had fluttered to the ground. It was completely white, not marred by his blood.
Tutu looked to it, then back at him. "It's as if you were never hurt to begin with," she said.
Autor shook his head. "But that couldn't be," he objected. And then he gaped at her, horrified further by the discovery he was just making. "Ahiru, you're fading!" he cried.
She gasped. "What?" She held up a hand in front of her eyes. Autor was right—she could hardly see herself. The cloth on the ground was vanishing as well.
Autor ran to her, grabbing at her shoulders even as she disappeared before his eyes. "Ahiru!" he yelled, his voice raw in his alarm. "Ahiru, what happened? Where are you?"
But there was no answer to his calls. He stepped back, shaking. How had this happened? How could it have happened? Where was she? She couldn't have turned into a speck of light and vanished forever, could she? Oh, now he was being ridiculous. That was only supposed to happen if she confessed her love to the Prince.
Still . . . where was she?
A loud caw made him jump a mile. He whirled, tense at the sound. "There are still crows in Kinkan?" he muttered to himself. That had sounded much stronger than the sound that would come from a small bird.
And then, out of the night a dark shape charged at him. He dove out of the way, unable to believe what he had just seen. It had looked like . . . but that could not be.
He turned back. It was. A humanoid crow, dressed in a male's shirt and pants, was righting itself and glaring at him.
He stumbled backwards, his heart gathering speed. "This is impossible," he choked out. "There shouldn't be any of these creatures. The Raven was defeated!"
But there was no time to think about it. The massive bird was lunging again, its strong beak snapping at his chest. He gasped, clapping a hand over his heart as he turned and fled.
The bird gave chase, cawing all the while. To Autor's left came an answering caw, and from his right came two more. Three crows suddenly appeared, flying above the housetops to get Autor in sight.
"Give us your heart!" they began to chant in unison as they swooped and soared above him, getting lower with each complete circle. "Give us your heart!"
Autor continued to run, horror and disbelief and numerous other emotions reflected in his eyes and turning over in his mind. "Impossible," he said again. "This is madness. It can't be real!"
Yes, that was it—it was a nightmare brought on by the injury he had sustained in his fall.
Yet, if that was so . . . why could he not wake up?
He cried out as he rounded a corner and lost his balance, tumbling forward to the ground. The crows cawed again, sounding victorious now as they closed the gap between them and him. "Your heart," they crooned in eerily harmonizing voices. "Your heart!"
Autor pushed his palms on the cobblestone walk, forcing himself to his feet. Then he was running again, with the horrific birds continuing to pursue their prey.
He was almost home. He could dash inside and lock the door behind him, then try to call Fakir and find out what was going on. And he had to find Ahiru, too. Why had she vanished?
He came to a standstill when he arrived at his street. The color drained from his face. "What . . ." He could only stare at the vacant, nearly collapsing wreck in front of him. From the looks of it, the large home had not been lived in for years. But that could not be!
He ran forward again, reaching the heavy door just ahead of the crows. It was still in working order. And it was unlocked. He hauled it open and tore through, slamming it shut behind him as he turned the lock. As the crows cawed and rattled the door in displeasure, he sank back, trembling.
"What's happened?" he whispered. "What's become of this town? Why is my house like this?" He would not put it past some of the immature students at the academy to vandalize it, but with humanoid crows suddenly at large, they were the more likely culprits. But neither explanation addressed the reason why it looked vacated. He had only been gone for the day, for Heaven's sake!
Shakily he reached for the light switch. But he glowered when nothing happened. Of course the power would be cut. He dug a small flashlight out of his pocket, switching it on as he advanced into the study.
It clattered to the floor just as suddenly as he had lifted it. Now he knew something was drastically wrong. The room he had used to recreate Drosselmeyer's study was gone. He was staring at the remains of a regular sitting room. The curtains, yellowed with age, were falling away from the windows. The tables and chairs and décor were just as they had been left by the last occupants, now covered in dust and ruined from rain that had leaked through the roof.
Still staring in horror at the scene, Autor bent to retrieve his flashlight. "What is this?" he screamed, straightening up and running into the living room. "What kind of cruel joke is responsible for this desecration?"
The living room was not as he had left it, either. Furniture he did not recognize was set in place throughout, standing in wait for its owner to return and lay claim to it. And as he ran from room to room, he found the same situation in each one. The house had become a stranger to him.
At the door to his bedroom he collapsed to his knees, shaking as he stared at what was left of an upstairs office. "This isn't even my room anymore," he whispered. "Why?"
Again he started, looking up with a jerk at the voice. "Ahiru?" he cried. "Where are you?"
"I'm so sorry, Autor!" Ahiru's voice, still with the grace of Tutu's, answered. "I think I know what happened. My pendant did something. It sent you into a world where . . ." She trailed off, not knowing how to finish.
"Where what?" Autor exclaimed. "What is the meaning of this? Ahiru, my house is in ruins! Someone has taken all of my belongings and replaced them with objects I've never seen in my life!"
"That's just it, Autor!" Tutu returned, sounding like she was about to cry. "In that world, you don't have a life. You never existed!"
The color drained from Autor's face. "That's impossible!" he snapped. "I'm right here. Of course I exist!" Violently trembling, he fished his wallet out of his pocket. But in the next moment he dropped it to the floor as if it had burned him. There was nothing in it. His money, his identification, all of it was gone.
"You wondered how things would have gone if you hadn't been here," Tutu said, quieter now. "I guess the pendant decided to really show you. Autor, I'm so sorry. I'm trying to get you out of there, but I haven't been able to do anything. And I can't seem to talk to you for long. I . . ."
"Ahiru?" He snatched his wallet, getting to his feet as a cold silence filled the room. "Ahiru!" But once again he could hear nothing. He was alone.
He fumbled, shoving the wallet back into his pocket. "I don't exist here?" he said, staring one last time at the room that was no longer his before turning away. "Then what happened to my parents? Did they still die? Did the house fall into disrepair after that because I wasn't here to take care of it?"
He walked through the silent halls and into the lonely rooms, searching more thoroughly for answers. But there were none to be found. At last he trudged downstairs and back to the living room, staring through the cracked glass of the nearest window. He did not see any crows now. Had they given up? Or were they hiding, waiting for him to come out so they could assault him?
He seized a rusted fire poker. He could not stay here. He had to find Fakir and the others. Maybe then he could learn what had happened and why the humanoid crows were back. Crossing to the vestibule in determination, he unlocked and threw open the door.
The night was silent as he stepped outside. But then the peace was shattered as a crow flew down from the roof of his house, its beak open wide.
Autor gasped, sharply thrusting the poker above him in defense.
He had not intended for it to actually fatally pierce the bird. But the weapon plunged into its chest and through its heart as it stiffened in pain. In horror Autor let go of the handle, only able to helplessly stare as the avian crashed to the ground. For a moment it writhed in anguish, then was still.
As its life ebbed away, its true form was revealed. Before Autor's sickened eyes, the feathers became human hair and skin, the beak shriveled into a nose and mouth, and the wings morphed into arms and hands. Autor had never seen the person in his life, and now the unknown man was dead.
He backed away, his vision spinning, his body uncontrollably shaking. He . . . he had killed someone. He had only meant to defend himself against the threat of the crow, not to destroy a life. Even a badly warped life such as that person's had become. Maybe death was a release. But still . . . still . . .
He turned, only barely managing to stagger to the broken fountain before he was violently ill.
Walking through Kinkan was not very enlightening. If anything, it only brought more questions and more horror. Everywhere he looked there was destruction. Carved statues and fountains, houses, places of business . . . nothing had been spared. The sight was not unlike images of post-apocalyptic futures he had seen in pictures or read about in books.
The academy, when he reached it, was not any different. It stood silent and forgotten, no longer an institute of learning but a relic of some long ago time when life had been different and happy. Autor stood at the gate, clutching the old iron in a clenched fist for a drawn-out moment. No one was there, not unless crows had gone there to roost.
Yet even so he found himself passing through the still-open gates. It had only been earlier that night when he had walked by them while students had teased and tormented him. Now they looked cold and abandoned.
The grounds were the same. He cringed when he saw the swan fountain overturned and in pieces. That had not happened from age; the act had been deliberate. He could see large claw marks on what remained.
"What a disgrace," he said, barely loud enough to hear himself.
His footsteps echoed down the halls as he entered the main building. The front office was open with papers strewn about on the desk and even the floor. It looked as though the administration had left in a great hurry. He frowned, passing by and glancing into the classrooms on either side of the corridor.
Desks and chairs were still in place in all of them, albeit some had been violently overturned. In one room he could see faded writing on the chalkboard from the day's lessons. In another, infantile students had been playing what looked like a particularly morbid version of Hangman on the board, giving the poor victim the most agonized expression possible. Hmph. He would not be surprised if that friend of Ahiru's had been responsible for that.
He paused at the ballet practice room. Rue and Ahiru and Fakir and Mytho had all danced in there once. Now it was silent and lifeless. The small pipe organ in the corner was covered in cobwebs.
Autor's lip curled at the sight. He advanced further into the room and over to the instrument, brushing away the signs of neglect. Quietly he pressed one key. It was out of tune, as he had suspected. There was certainly no time to fix it.
He turned back to the spacious room. If he imagined long enough, he could see the ballerinas and danseurs before him, doing their best to rehearse their current steps and dances. He saw Rue performing a pas de deux with Mytho. Ahiru struggling to master the basics. Fakir doing an admittedly impressive jeté.
Where were they all now?
The rest of his journey through the empty buildings was just as discouraging and depressing. The library and the music rooms were all desolate, standing still as silent ghosts to observe him. When he gave up and trudged back outside to leave the grounds, a deep sadness and indignation had settled over him.
Why wasn't anyone doing something about this? Were they all cowering in fear because of the crows and not even trying to stop them?
Fear gripped his heart. Fakir never would have allowed this, not if he was able to do something about it. Likewise, Ahiru and Mytho and Rue would not have stood for it, either. Did that mean something had happened to all of them?
He broke into a run as he fled the gates and continued his trek through the devastated town. Now he was more desperate than ever to escape, to find people, to find out just what had happened here.
His thoughts were tumbling in a fury. He ran as he had never run before, his heart racing, his face drained of color. The Kinkan he was seeing now was in the most lasting of nights. The gate towers and the outer wall were crumbling and abandoned. Bloodstains adorned the streets and houses. No one seemed to notice or care. He had not seen any humans, and these crows were not about to bother caring. Wretched, humanoid crows brought into being by the Raven's blood. Crows who had once been people but now had lost all humanity.
"What is this place?" Autor cried in utter horror. "Kinkan was saved! The Raven was destroyed and the crows were turned back into humans! Yet here . . . it's as if none of that ever happened!"
Tutu's voice echoed in his mind from when she had spoken to him earlier. "In that world, you don't have a life. You never existed!"
Autor slowed to a stop. "I never . . ." He shook his head. It still sounded too preposterous, too horrible to be real. If he did not exist, then what was he? A wandering wraith with nowhere to call home? No, he was alive. His heart was beating; that was what the crows had wanted.
But . . . had his presence really made this much of a difference? It seemed too incomprehensible, that his existence alone could have stopped things from coming to this. How could that be, when so many others had done more than he in the final fight?
He turned, continuing to run. He was going to find Fakir. Then all of this madness had to be solved. Then he would learn the truth.
He slowed again as he reached the antique shop at long last. It had taken much more of his time than it should have, but he had continually needed to stay out of sight of the crows on patrol around town. Some of them had just seemed hungry, but others had definitely behaved as though they were sentries. The birds behaved as though they ruled Kinkan. And from the looks of it, they did.
He frowned, adjusting his glasses as he surveyed the building. It also showed signs of disrepair, but there was no blood anywhere on it. That was encouraging. Surely that meant Fakir was here and keeping things in order.
The grass was no longer green. Wilted and brown, it matched the dead spirit that had permeated throughout Kinkan. But . . . what was that, over in a corner of the yard? Flowers?
Autor took several steps closer. Now he could see the flowers were at the base of a marker, a wooden cross. Again he blanched. "A grave?" he whispered. "Whose?"
Treading over the despondent grass, he made his way to the memorial. There was only one word carved into the wood, but it was enough to send him spiraling into further shock and horror.
Shaking, Autor drew back. "No," he gasped. "No, this can't be right. Ahiru isn't . . . she can't be . . ."
Was that why Ahiru had vanished upon their arrival? Because in this world, she was dead? But . . . she was still alive in the other world, wasn't she? Or was there another world at all? What if this abomination was all that was left?
"Get away from there!"
He leaped a mile into the air. "Fakir?" he realized. The voice was recognizable, but harsh and furious. Autor turned, half-expecting to be met by another crow.
The sight he found was completely unexpected. Fakir was still human, but he resembled a wild man. His eyes were bloodshot, searing and visible despite the bangs flying half-over them. His hair was loose, something Autor had never seen. If it had been combed recently, it had been a disinterested effort.
In his left hand he held Lohengrin's sword, pointing it at Autor even as he shook with fire.
His right arm hung at his side. There was not a hand attached.
Autor's eyes widened in disbelief. "Fakir. . . ." He stared into the eyes, being met without recognition. "What happened to you?"
Fakir's eyes blazed. "How do you know my name?" he demanded.
Autor rocked back. "Fakir, I . . . don't you remember me?" he exclaimed, gesturing in desperation. "I taught you how to write your Stories. I directed you to the oak tree. I . . ."
"Shut up!" Fakir roared. "You're talking nonsense." He stared into Autor's eyes, unwavering. "I've never seen you in my life." He continued to hold the sword pointed at Autor's chest. "Get away from that place. It's sacred."
Autor stumbled, reaching to push up his glasses as he moved away from the solitary grave. "Fakir, how did it happen?" he cried as his thoughts turned over each other and collided in his mind. "How did Ahiru die?"
"Tell me who you are!" Fakir snarled. "How do you know Ahiru?"
"I . . . at first it was because she was always with you," Autor said. "She's Princess Tutu. But more than that, she's my friend. She was with me before I came to this place! I don't understand it, but . . ."
"She was with you?" Fakir peered at him closer. The suspicion was still deep in his eyes, but it had lessened slightly. He removed the distance between the two of them, using the tip of his sword to draw Autor's cravat out from his jacket. "You're wearing the boys' uniform of Kinkan Academy," he noted. "Did you meet her there?"
"At times," Autor said. "Mostly we spoke after school. You were often present as well."
Fakir's eyes darkened. "I would remember someone like you," he said, "if you'd really been there."
"I was!" Autor said in despair. "I . . ."
And then he trailed off, the words striking him hard in the heart. If he had really been there. Tutu had said that he did not exist in this world; it was a world where he had never been born. Somehow, now that he was talking to Fakir and it was proceeding in this vein, those words were hitting him more fiercely than before. Perhaps he was only now beginning to fully process what they actually meant. Suddenly he felt ill. He turned, holding a hand to his forehead.
Fakir frowned. "Don't try to trick me," he said. "I won't fall for it."
"I'm not feeling well," Autor mumbled, backing away from the sword. "Excuse me. . . ."
Instantly Fakir was at Autor's side, the sword pressed to his throat. "Don't try to leave, either," he said. "I'm the only human in this miserable place. I want to know how you survived the Raven's mass destruction. Why aren't you a crow?"
Autor stared blankly at him, all the while feeling the blade cold and sharp against his neck. "You're the only one?" he choked. "That can't be. . . . Everyone else is . . . ?"
"Except for the dead. They're the lucky ones." Fakir narrowed his eyes further. "The Raven kept me human and alive because he wanted one of his old enemies to witness his triumph. I haven't seen another human in two years. Get inside." He pulled the sword back and stepped behind Autor, bringing the tip of the weapon to Autor's shoulder blades.
The other boy stiffened. Without any other choice, and feeling too numb to try to think of one, Autor walked mechanically to the half-open door. Fakir kicked it open the rest of the way as he forced Autor in ahead of him. Entering as well, he pushed the door shut with his foot.
"Who's this zura?"
Autor stared at the unmistakable voice. "Uzura?" he uttered. The small child puppet was running out from Charon's workroom, her blue eyes wide.
Fakir's expression did not lighten. "You know her too?" he said.
"Of course," Autor said. "She was always making too much noise in the library and . . ."
Uzura banged happily on her drum. "It's a person zura!" she exclaimed.
"You disappeared," Autor said in surprise. "I thought you went back to Drosselmeyer because the Story ended."
"I'm here zura!" Uzura said.
"I can see that," Autor said. By now he was growing impatient with the lack of an explanation on anything that had happened, but he forced himself to keep his waning temper in check. It had been a long and horrifying night for him. The horror had lasted much longer for Fakir.
Fakir prodded Autor with the sword. "Sit down," he ordered.
Autor sank into a kitchen chair, overwhelmed. Uzura climbed onto the seat next to him, the curiosity intense on her features. Fakir sat on Autor's other side, keeping the sword bared.
"Let's try this again," he said. "I want to know everything."
Autor looked at the blade with narrowed eyes. "That really isn't necessary," he said. "I'm not any harm to you or the child. And would you actually cut me down in front of her?"
"I don't trust you," Fakir said. "I'll do what I have to. The sword stays." He looked at Autor coldly. "Start talking."
Autor drew a shaking breath. He did not want to believe that this was real. But it was; it was too horrifying to be a product of his imagination. It was a living, waking nightmare. Trying to ignore Uzura's inquisitive yet unknowing stare, he began to speak. He told everything, starting with his identity and his fascination and idolization of Drosselmeyer throughout his life, and continuing with his meetings with and training of Fakir. By the time he had extolled the final battle as he remembered it, Fakir was gripping the hilt of the sword, his hand shaking.
Uzura tugged on Autor's jacket. "So Ahiru was okay zura?" she said in awe. "And Mytho and Rue too zura?"
"Yes," Autor said, looking to her at last. "They were hurt, but they all lived." He swallowed hard. "Drosselmeyer's Story ended and there was hope."
"Drosselmeyer no longer has control here," Fakir said, his voice cracked and rough. "But it's because the Raven grew to be too powerful for even him to handle." Before Autor could reply, Fakir went on, "Otherwise I'd think you were sent here by Drosselmeyer just to torment us." His eyes narrowed. "As it is, I don't understand. If that's how things ended where you came from, how did everything go so wrong here?"
The bile rose in Autor's throat. The truth had finally sunk in. "That," he choked out, "is my own fault. Because I thought I wasn't needed. This world . . . this travesty, exists because of that."
Fakir cursed him. "You think too highly of yourself, if you really think it's because of your absence that this Hell came to be." He stood, crossing to the window with angry footsteps.
Autor flinched. But the fact that Fakir had actually turned his back spoke volumes. He would not have done that if he really thought Autor would do some harm. Slowly Autor moved to sit sideways on the chair, watching the other boy.
"Wouldn't that be hilarious, if someone Drosselmeyer ignored completely was actually the key to victory," Fakir remarked. Now he sounded derisive. After a moment his shoulders shook as he gave a dark laugh. "Actually that would make sense, when I think of it. That battle was a series of ironies. Why not add another?"
Autor swallowed hard. His mouth was cotton.
"There was no one to teach me how to use my powers," Fakir said bitterly. "I never knew about the oak tree. When the rest of Mytho's heart shards were collected and the final battle begun, I struggled to write the Story to lead everyone to a happy ending. But the Bookmen's leader ensured that it never happened."
He gazed out the window, his eyes narrowed. In the vague reflection of the glass, Autor could see acute pain flash through the green orbs.
"He showed up to kill me, just like he did in your world," Fakir said. "I had no choice but to try to fight him off. I eventually killed him with his own axe, but not before he did this." He turned, showing the stump where his right hand had been.
"I'm right-handed," he said, trembling. "I struggled to use my left hand, and then even to write in my own blood like Drosselmeyer did when he was dying, but it was no use. And having been away from the Story so long while I was fighting, it had gone on without me and changed irrevocably."
He stepped closer to Autor, the anguish and horror written in his features. "Ahiru was killed by the crows," he cried. "I could never do anything to help her. I couldn't even save her at the end!"
Autor stared at him, sickened horror in his own eyes. He could not even find the words to speak.
"Mytho tried to kill the Raven to save Rue and avenge Ahiru's death." Fakir's voice was quieter now, but cracking. "He couldn't do it. The Raven took out Mytho's heart and killed him, sending Mytho's body into his stomach where Rue was dancing in the depths of despair. I don't know what happened to her, but I'm sure the sight of Mytho killed her."
He looked back at Autor, his eyes growing wild again. "I bet you are right," he said. "It is because of you that all of this happened." He shoved Autor against the edge of the table before a fight was possible, bringing the tip of the sword to Autor's throat once more. "Mytho and Rue died and the Raven came to power because Ahiru wasn't alive to give hope. Ahiru died because I wasn't able to save her. And I couldn't save her because you weren't there to teach and save me!"
Autor stared at Fakir, struck speechless. The words stabbed him far worse than the sword ever could.
"You'll pay for it," Fakir vowed, his voice growing strangled as it gathered more volume. "I'll kill you with this blade and send you to Ahiru and Mytho! Only you'll never see them. You're not worthy to ever share their afterlife."
Autor gasped. "Fakir, no," he said. He did not dare move. The sword could plunge through his throat if he did the slightest thing. "Killing me won't bring them back. It won't do anything for you!"
And Uzura was crying out too. "Don't hurt him, Fakir zura!" she pleaded. "Please don't hurt him zura!"
For one terrifying moment Fakir stood still, the blade still poised to deliver the fatal strike. But then it clattered to the floor. He backed away, falling to his knees as he dug his one hand and the stump into his hair. He quaked, broken.
Uzura slid down from her chair, hurrying to Fakir's side. Her eyes were wet as she struggled to wrap her short arms around Fakir's waist. He did not even notice her.
Slowly Autor pushed himself away from the table, staring at the pitiful sight before him. "Oh God," he said in utter horror. "Dear God, this is what I've caused? I was this important to the outcome of that battle?"
He looked around wildly. "Ahiru!" he cried. "Where are you? I've seen enough. No, I've seen far too much." He ran to the door, throwing it open and stumbling outside to the walkway. "I understand now! I want to go home." His shoulders shook as he pushed up his glasses, despair taking hold of his heart. Was there still a home to return to? "Please God, I have to get home. I can't let this happen. I can't . . ."
Dizziness began to overwhelm him. He fell to his knees and then on his face in the dead grass. As he slipped in and out of consciousness, something sticky and wet oozed down the side of his forehead.
He groaned, the familiar voice penetrating his senses. "Fakir?" he mumbled. It could not be. Fakir would not have come after him. Not after what had happened.
"Autor, wake up. You're hurt."
Autor froze. He was laying on something hard and cold now, not the relatively soft grass. The accident. . . . The ice. . . . He forced his eyes open. Could it be?
Fakir was bending over him, pressing a cloth to the right side of his head. His eyes were concerned and filled with recognition and knowledge. "Idiot, what happened?" he asked. "Ahiru found you here like this."
"Ahiru?" Autor struggled to look for her, but there was no need. She was right there at his side, joyous tears in her eyes.
"Autor," she said softly. "Thank goodness, you're back. You're okay."
He looked at her in awe. "Ahiru, you're alive," he said. "And Fakir, you have both hands! You haven't gone insane with grief!" He ignored the bewildered look he was getting now. "We defeated Drosselmeyer, didn't we?" He reached up, gripping Fakir's wrist.
The other boy stared at him. "Whatever kind of dream you had, I'm getting a bit concerned," he grunted.
Ahiru laid her hand over Autor's. "Of course we defeated Drosselmeyer," she exclaimed. "Because we were all there, working together to stop him."
Her voice lowered. "I couldn't bring you back, Autor. You had to realize the truth before you could come. You had to know you really are important and that we couldn't have won without you." She blinked back tears. "But I'm so sorry about what you went through. I don't know what you saw, but it must have been horrible."
"It was. But I needed to see it. Don't apologize." Autor wanted to sit up, to exclaim for sheer joy that he was alive and that this world still existed. He had feared that it had been destroyed for good because of his desire that the pendant had granted. He still felt somewhat dizzy, however, so he did not make any sudden moves.
"What are you two talking about?" Fakir frowned, looking from one to the other.
Ahiru froze. "It's a really, really long story," she said. "But I turned into Princess Tutu again."
"What?" Fakir stared at her in shock.
"Let's get Autor out of the cold first," Ahiru said firmly. "Then we'll talk."
Fakir narrowed his eyes but nodded in agreement, reaching to get an arm around Autor's shoulders. "Come on," he said gruffly. "We'll take you home. Unless you think you should be checked out at the hospital instead."
Autor regarded Fakir in disbelief. "And have doctors and nurses poking and prodding me all night? I have a far better chance of recovery in my own home." A home that was truly his again. Everything would be in order there, wouldn't it? The study, the other rooms, his room. . . . All would be as he had left it this morning.
Fakir grunted. "I knew you'd say that. Let's go." He moved to raise Autor into a sitting position.
Ordinarily Autor would have protested and said that he was perfectly fine and could manage on his own. Tonight he just allowed Fakir and Ahiru to help him, rejoicing that they were there and safe.
And that he was there with them.