Notes: This chapter has certainly been stubborn in getting written. And I've been having the most dreadful time figuring out how to portray Piké in this situation. I don't particularly like her, but I want her to be in character.

Chapter Four

Charon gave a sad sigh as he looked down at his adopted son. Fakir had not so much as moved one bit since he had been laid in his bed. Save for his steady breathing, he might be mistaken for dead.

Yet he was clearly alive. And the doctors had not been able to find anything wrong with him other than a minor bump on his head. Why had he not awakened? Why could the physicians not even wake him? It was a deeply troubling and worrying issue.

The waiting was agonizing. Charon knew he needed to sleep, but he could not bring himself to move. He would have to get up every thirty minutes anyway, as per the doctors' instructions. And if he lay down he would likely never doze off, but instead lay in bed in despair, wondering what was wrong with the boy and how to correct it.

He looked up with a start when the door opened downstairs. Was Ahiru back at last? He had found it strange anyway when she had insisted she needed to leave for a while. But when he had questioned her, she had expressed worry for Autor. The feelings had been laid bare in her eyes, so he had agreed.

What continued to nag at him was, Would Autor really feel so terrible that Ahiru would need to stay with him this long? Autor could be so stiff and aloof. And he was very considerate of Ahiru. He would not want her to worry about him. He would not show his distress to her if he could help it.

"Charon? How's Fakir?"

He turned to the doorway. Ahiru was standing there, wringing her hands. The worry and sorrow glistened in her eyes. She could clearly see that Fakir was not better, yet she still hoped maybe now he was only sleeping.

"He hasn't woke up," Charon said.

Then his eyes widened. Ahiru was not alone; Autor had suddenly appeared behind her.

"I'm sorry it's so late," Autor said, looking to him.

"That's alright," Charon said. The suspicious "but" in his tone lingered in the air.

Ahiru pretended not to notice. She hurried to Fakir's side and sank into the chair by the bed. "I'm back, Fakir," she said softly, laying her hand over his. "Do you know I'm here at all?" She was unable to keep the sadness out of her voice.

Autor sighed, pushing up his glasses. There was nothing he could do here. The situation had not changed at all.

"I should go," he said. He did not feel comfortable trying to speak to Fakir when he was unconscious—especially not when he would have an audience. He would rather hurry home and see if he could do any research that might help Fakir more in the long-run.

Charon nodded. "Thank you for bringing Ahiru back," he said.

Ahiru looked up. "Yeah," she agreed. "I'll see you tomorrow, Autor. Okay?"

He nodded as well. "I'll come by before school," he said as he turned away. "Goodnight."

Charon sighed as he watched Autor vanish from sight. Autor was an unusual boy, generally aloof and serious—though he was capable of becoming excited and enthused over his theories and research. Charon had never interacted with him a great deal, but due to his friendships with the ones Charon looked after as a legal guardian it was inevitable that their paths would cross sometimes.

Autor had been an orphan for years now, and had struggled to manage his family's estate for years before that. He, not unlike Fakir, had been forced to grow up much too fast.

Charon was fond of him, he supposed, as he was fond of the other teens he had observed for so long. Autor always tried to present himself as strong and unbreakable around Charon—and most everyone else—but it was those who tried so hard to keep themselves distant who were often among the number with the kindest hearts. Charon had seen evidence of that in Autor's past actions, and even in the way the boy looked at Ahiru, but Autor himself would likely, staunchly deny it in favor of his logic and numbers.

Or he would have in the past. Charon had watched Autor gradually open up to the others, as he had also watched Fakir and Ahiru grow closer to him. Perhaps, though Autor was still insistent on being practical, he was no longer denying that at least some of his actions were fueled by his love for his friends.

"Were you able to help him?" he spoke, glancing to Ahiru.

The girl flushed, staring down at Fakir's still form. "Well, I . . . I guess I wasn't really able to do that much," she said. "But I tried my best."

"He seemed to be alright just now," Charon noted.

"Of course he'd come off that way!" Ahiru said hurriedly. "You know how he is. I mean . . ."

Charon fixed her with a firm stare. "Yes, I do," he said. "And I know he would try to get you to come back to Fakir before all this time went by.

"What were you really doing tonight?"

Ahiru went rigid. "I really was telling the truth!" she blurted. "I was worried about Autor, so I went to see him. And then I was trying to help him and . . ."

"But you weren't trying to help him feel better," Charon said. "You were off on some wild adventure, weren't you."

"It's not like that!" Ahiru exclaimed. She looked to her foster father in desperation. "We're both so worried about Fakir and we're trying to figure out what could be wrong with him and how to help him wake up!"

Charon frowned, searching her pleading blue eyes. She did not want to be questioned further. If she was, she knew she would end up telling the rest of the story, the part that she and Autor were trying to keep secret.

And part of him wanted to demand to know those answers, to forbid her from doing anything else dangerous. He did not want to look up in another day or two and see Autor carrying her limp body up the stairs, or worse—to be told that both of them had been found dead Heaven knew where.

Even though Ahiru and Fakir and Autor had risked their lives more than once to save Kinkan, and essentially, the world by extension, they were still mere teenagers. More to the point, they were Charon's children. Well, Autor was not, but Charon still felt some sort of paternal concern for him. He could not bear the thought of anything more happening to bring harm to any of them. They had suffered enough.

At last he sighed in resignation. "Do as you feel you must," he said.

Ahiru smiled, relieved. "Thank you, Charon," she said.

"But please be careful," Charon implored. "Fakir being hurt is far too much."

Ahiru sobered, looking down at Fakir's motionless form. "I know," she said, her voice cracking. "I really know."

xxxx

Ahiru kept vigil over Fakir before at last falling asleep in the chair and slumping against the bed's headboard. Charon then carried her back to her room without her waking up. She slept peacefully through the night until a knock on the door started her awake.

"Ahiru?" came Charon's voice. "Autor is here."

"Eh?" Ahiru exclaimed, sitting straight up in bed. "It's that late already?" She flew off the mattress, unaware that the quilt had wrapped around her ankle. In the next moment she slammed on the floor with a pained cry.

Charon winced. "He's in with Fakir," he said. "Are you alright?"

Ahiru sprang up again, not even hearing the question. "Is Fakir awake?" she demanded.

"No," Charon said. Deciding she was probably not too much the worse for wear after the spill he added, "If you feel able to go to school, you should hurry."

Down the hall, Autor cringed as he heard Ahiru run out of her room and to the bathroom, hitting the door in the process.

"She's her usual self," he commented aloud.

He sighed, looking back to Fakir. "You've gotten yourself into quite a predicament," he said matter-of-factly. "I can't find anything, in all of my books, that will help you."

It was tempting to stay home, away from the googly eyes and gossiping whispers, and keep searching. The only progress he had made was finding several news articles about nearby jewel thefts. Some of the purloined gems looked strikingly similar to the ones he had seen in the bag. He wanted to see what else he could find.

But playing hooky would only make him look guiltier in the other students' eyes. And the last thing he needed was more trouble. Anyway, the library had a bigger selection than he did. He might have more success looking through books and microfilm there.

"I'm not giving up," he said now, "but it would make things so much easier if you could come to on your own. Then again, you never have been one for making things easy, have you?"

If Fakir was capable of responding, he probably would have grunted and given Autor a deadpan look. As it was, he remained silent and motionless.

A skidding sound brought Autor's attention sharply upright. Ahiru had stumbled to the doorway, nearly falling over but catching herself in time—which caused her to slam hard into the wooden door.

"I'm ready!" she exclaimed. But, sobering, she added, "There hasn't been any change, has there?"

Autor shook his head. "Nothing," he said.

Ahiru stared forlornly at Fakir. "What are we going to do?" she whispered.

"I don't know," Autor admitted. "I haven't had much success." He stood. "However, we should talk on the way if we're planning to go."

Ahiru glanced at the clock. "Yeah, I guess so," she said. Sheepishly she rubbed the back of her head. "Actually, leaving now would be early for me."

"I suspected as much," Autor said.

Ahiru scurried over to the bed. "Fakir? I'm so sorry, we have to go now to get to school," she said. "I really don't want to go, but . . ." She trailed off, her voice catching in her throat. "I guess maybe I should."

"You don't have to go," Autor said, not unkindly. "If it's too much for you right now, don't worry about it."

"I want to go!" Ahiru broke in, clenching her fists. "Maybe we can learn something about helping Fakir. There has to be something somewhere!"

She sighed. "But if it wasn't for that, I guess I really wouldn't want to go," she said. "I know I'm going to be spacing even more than usual in all my classes. And . . . I don't know, I guess it's silly, but . . ." She looked down, wringing her hands. "I wonder if Fakir somehow knows I haven't been around too much but he doesn't understand why and he feels hurt."

Autor regarded her in surprise. "If he's able to understand enough to know you haven't been around as much as you would like, he should have some semblance of realization that you're trying to determine how to help him," he said.

"Yeah, I guess." But she frowned. "What if he doesn't, though? I mean, being so hurt and everything maybe makes it hard to think straight."

"Sometimes your trains of thought amaze me," Autor commented. He walked past, pushing up his glasses.

Ahiru looked after him, her brow furrowed. "Is that a good thing or a bad thing?" she wondered.

"You could interpret it either way," Autor said over his shoulder. Once he was in the hall, he half-turned back. "You come up with some of the strangest ramblings I have ever heard. But then you counter them with deep insights."

Ahiru had been glowering at him, but she blinked and straightened at his last words. "Really?" she said. "So that's good then."

"Yes," Autor relented.

Ahiru smiled. Looking back to Fakir she said, "Fakir, I'm going now because I want to help Autor figure out how to help you wake up. I hope you know that, if you know we're here. . . ." Her voice dropped with the latter part of her sentence. "I'll try to be back as soon as I can, okay? And if you can wake up in the meantime, that would be really great!"

She hesitated, then gently touched his shoulder before turning and hurrying to where Autor was waiting in the hall. "Let's go," she said. "Maybe I can help you by looking up things in the library instead of going to class. At least the really boring ones."

"That will only give you worse marks," Autor said as they headed down the stairs. "You have enough strikes against you as it is."

Ahiru let out a big sigh. "You're right," she mumbled. "But then, what can I do to help?"

"Come to the library during your study period," Autor said.

Ahiru perked up. "I can do that!" she said. "And I could skip lunch too!"

As if on cue, her stomach rumbled in complaint. Her cheeks went red in her embarrassment.

"Come to think of it, you haven't had breakfast," Autor realized. "I doubt Charon will be satisfied with that."

"You probably go without food a lot," Ahiru said.

"That doesn't mean I would recommend it for you," Autor said.

And Charon was certainly not about to let Ahiru leave the house without eating something. When they arrived downstairs, he was arranging bread and butter and assorted fruit on the table.

Ahiru's eyes lit up. "This looks great!" she exclaimed. Hurrying to the table, she grabbed a plate and began loading it with strawberries.

Both Charon and Autor were amused. "Take all that you want," Charon said. Looking to Autor he said, "You're welcome to eat with us."

"Thank you," Autor said, "but I had something to eat before I came." Nevertheless, he sat at the table with them, and before the meal was over he had enjoyed some of the fruit and a slice of bread.

"It's nice that you're walking with Ahiru to school today," Charon said.

Uncomfortable, Autor pushed up his glasses. "I knew she would be lonely," he said, glancing at Ahiru as he spoke.

"Friends walk places together," Ahiru chirped as she finished off the food on her plate.

"Yes, I suppose that's true," Autor said.

He leaned back, pondering. Ahiru was still deeply worried about Fakir, but her happiness over Autor's presence was very much genuine. It was a nice feeling, one he had only rarely experienced before he had met her. He had lost faith in friendship, but she had restored it and increased it. And he had to admit that it was much more pleasant than being bitter and sneering at the very thought of platonic relations.

Ahiru hopped up. "I'm done!" she announced. "Thank you, Charon! I guess we'd better hurry and go."

Autor and Charon stood as well. "Thank you," Autor agreed. "You've been very hospitable." He crossed to the door and Ahiru scampered after him.

Charon watched in a bit of amusement. "Will you be coming back right after school ends?" he asked.

Ahiru stiffened. "Well, uh . . . I'll probably have to clean," she mumbled. "And Autor and me are still trying to figure out how to help Fakir."

Autor frowned, giving her a strange look. How much had she told?

Charon merely let out a heavy sigh. "I wish you could," he said. "I'm at a loss."

Autor nodded. "So are we," he said as he ushered Ahiru outside and then followed. As he reached to pull the door shut he said, "I'll try to bring Ahiru home before it's late."

Ahiru watched him, then waved to Charon and started off down the street. She could sense Autor catching up with her a moment later, though she did not turn to look.

"That's pretty much all I told him," she said. "I feel bad keeping things from Charon." She frowned. "He's been so good to us. And of course he's just worried."

"What did he say?" Autor asked.

"He said we should 'do what we must,'" Ahiru said. "But he hoped we weren't going to get into anything dangerous."

"It would be better if we didn't," Autor said. "Although with malevolent spirits it's probably inevitable."

Ahiru sighed. "Probably," she said.

Then she perked up. "What about your powers?" she suggested. "Maybe you could compose Fakir waking up!"

Autor stiffened. "Maybe," he said. "But when there are other forces at work that we don't understand, I might only make it worse. In the past, when I tried to restore Fakir's memories, I at least knew something about the enemy beforehand. Although it wasn't much," he added in a lower voice.

Ahiru looked down. "And you almost died too," she said. "Maybe we'd better keep trying other things first."

Autor nodded. "If it turns out that there is no other way, however, then I'll consider it," he said.

Ahiru sighed. "I wish there would be another way, that wouldn't put you in danger too," she said. "I'm so tired of everyone being in trouble. I'm afraid that one of these days we . . . we won't all come out of it." She swallowed the lump in her throat, but it returned.

"That's possible," Autor said, feeling uncomfortable again.

"We just can't be okay every time." Ahiru blinked away the forming tears. "I just hope now isn't going to be that time. I'm not ready for it at all." She looked up at Autor. "Or . . . can you never really be ready?" she said softly.

"You can believe you are," Autor said. "Maybe sometimes you actually are. But if you aren't, and you've made yourself believe opposite to that, it will only be worse for you when you realize the truth."

"I guess so," Ahiru said. She bit her lip. Was that what had happened to Autor when his parents had died? Part of her wanted to ask, but it was such a sensitive subject. She did not want to pry. And Autor was not offering anything further, so she determined to stay quiet.

The academy was dawning before she was really ready for it, either. She stared up at the large blue-gray building, clutching her books to her chest. What would happen when they went inside? Would the students be gossiping and saying mean things again? And what if Lysander had ended up telling others about them being in the music building last night after all?

"When we walk through the gate together, it's going to look worse for us."

She stiffened at Autor's words. "I know," she mumbled. Straightening up and trying to smile, she said, "I'm ready."

Autor allowed a slight smile. "Alright then."

They passed through the gate and up the stairs to the main building. As they walked beyond the paneled glass doors, the students mingling inside gasped and began to whisper.

Ahiru gripped her books tighter. "I hate this," she said.

Autor was not particularly fond of it either. And he could only imagine how something so simple would be blown out of proportion within the hour.

"I'll see you in the library later," he said in her ear as they stepped through the back doors and to the courtyard.

"Okay," Ahiru agreed with a nod. "Good luck."

He hmphed. "I don't believe in luck."

"I really don't either," Ahiru said.

She came to a halt and watched him turn left to the music building. Then, sighing, she kept on towards the ballet building.

"Ahiru!"

She jumped a mile at the chorusing voices, even though she had expected to hear them. In the next moment she was being mobbed by Piké and Lilie.

"How could you, Ahiru?" Lilie exclaimed, pulling her close in a sudden glomp.

"Deserting the wonderful Fakir like this!" Piké added. "That isn't like you at all!"

"I didn't desert him!" Ahiru cried.

"Some of the students are saying you and the music student planned to make the wonderful Fakir fall!" Lilie said, still hugging her. "Of course, that's not true, is it? Is it? It would be so delightfully tragic if it is!"

Ahiru pulled away. "It's not true!" she retorted. "Autor hasn't done anything wrong! And I don't think I have, either!"

Lilie rocked back, momentarily surprised by the outburst. Piké frowned.

"Maybe we were too harsh," she said. "But it does look bad, Ahiru! Especially showing up here like that, with Autor."

"We're friends!" Ahiru said. "There's nothing wrong with it."

"A boy and a girl can't be just friends!" Lilie exclaimed. She stared happily into the sky, her hands clasped. "They'll start to fall in love with each other! And then there'll be a terrible love triangle. Oh, how wonderful!"

"There's no love triangle!" Ahiru shot back.

"Of course you'd deny it!" Lilie said. "But there's no need to pretend with us, Ahiru! You can tell us everything. We want every little detail!"

Ahiru really wanted to scream by this point. She had been long-suffering with Lilie for ages, until at last her patience had begun to wear thin after Lilie's insensitivity to Autor's death. And now, with the stress of Fakir being hurt and she and Autor being accused of conspiring against him, she could not take any more.

Taking a deep breath, she chose to simply run past. "There aren't any details!" she called over her shoulder. "And I'm going to be late!"

Piké sighed. "We should go too or we'll be late," she said, frowning at Lilie.

"I hope we see the teacher getting angry at Ahiru," Lilie cooed as she hastened towards the ballet building. "Not only will she be late, but she's causing such a stir all over the school. It's so exciting! There hasn't been an incident like this for so long!"

"I think it's awful," Piké retorted as they slipped inside. "And when the wonderful Fakir gets better, he'll come back to all this!"

"I can hardly wait," Lilie said. "Maybe he'll get into a terrible argument with Ahiru! They might even fall to ruin over it!"

Piké had to admit it was a possibility. And as they entered the girls' locker room, it seemed that the great majority of the ballet students thought so as well. The room was abuzz with conversation. But Ahiru was nowhere to be seen.

"Oh? Did she already change and go out?" Lilie wondered.

Piké would not be surprised if she had; Ahiru had always been uncomfortable with gossip in general. And it was even worse when she was the subject of it.

Her expression turned serious as she changed for class. She had never especially liked Autor, when she took notice of him at all, but she knew how much he meant to Ahiru. And she did not like to believe that he had pushed Fakir, though she still did not think Fakir had fallen by himself, either.

And now with the new day, the gossip had increased tenfold. For the most part in the past, Ahiru had been liked around the campus for her cheery, friendly personality. Today it looked like that might change. Piké did not like that possibility at all.

As the students filed into the ballet room, they found Ahiru already there, practicing diligently at the barre. Lilie hurried over, with Piké not far behind.

"We were wondering where you disappeared to so fast, Ahiru!" Lilie said. "I thought maybe you were so ashamed by all the gossip that you had to run away!"

"Oh no, it wasn't anything like that," Ahiru said weakly. How could I be ashamed of it when I know it's not even true? she thought to herself.

Lilie leaned in closer. "You and that music student are going to be together later, aren't you?" she said in a stage whisper.

Ahiru stiffened. She could not deny it; they would be seen in the library during study period.

"You are!" Piké exclaimed. "Ahiru, some of the students might start treating you the way they've been treating him!"

"They're seeing each other in secret!" Lilie said. "That's why the wonderful Fakir was pushed. And maybe now they're even planning to run away together! Oh how romantic." She patted Ahiru on the head. "But of course you know it can't last. You and he will both be dragged off to jail for attempted murder and you probably won't get out for years and you'll be old and bitter and . . ."

"Stop it!"

The entire room went deathly still. Ahiru was standing up straight, her fists clenched at her sides.

"Autor didn't push Fakir!" she cried. "He's feeling horrible about Fakir falling. And there isn't any conspiracy with him and me! We both really care about Fakir. And Autor and me are friends, even if that's too hard for everyone to believe! There's nothing wrong with us walking together and doing stuff together!"

She looked to Lilie and Piké, struggling to hold back the tears that were threatening to rise to the surface. "And Autor's not 'the music student'! He has a name!"

Lilie just looked stunned by Ahiru's outburst, but a bit of guilt flashed in Piké's eyes. Before either of them could respond, however, the ballet instructor entered the room. Instantly all of the students came to attention.

The stern woman frowned, her sharp gaze traveling over the frozen girls. "Did I hear yelling in here?" she asked.

Ahiru's shoulders slumped. "Yes, Mme. Nolette," she mumbled.

Mme. Nolette frowned. "You, Miss Ahiru?" she said. "Your mind wanders, but you rarely raise your voice."

"I was upset," Ahiru said. "I'm sorry." She stared at the floor.

For a moment there was silence. Then a voice spoke from the other side of the room. "Mme. Nolette, I think Ahiru has a right to be upset."

Once again everyone was surprised, Ahiru most of all. She turned, seeking out her defender. It was the blonde girl from the special class. Her eyes widened. She had not thought anyone in the special class cared what happened with her.

Mme. Nolette seemed to be of the same mind. "Oh?" she said. "And why is that?"

"Because there's a lot of gossip going around the school right now about her and her friend," the girl said.

Now Mme. Nolette frowned. "I see. And of course the gossip was being passed around in here. Is that correct?"

A few students nodded, looking guilty or apprehensive.

"That will not be tolerated," Mme. Nolette said. "Most gossip has no basis in truth. And regardless of whether it does, it's none of our business."

"But Mme. Nolette!" another girl cried. "What if Ahiru and her friend really did have a plan to push the wonderful Fakir?"

"Ridiculous!" Mme. Nolette retorted. "There will not be any more of that sort of talk in this class. Is that understood?"

The students nodded again, though now they looked reluctant.

Ahiru breathed a sigh of relief as Mme. Nolette began to direct the ballerinas in their first warm-ups. Maybe it would not be a long reprieve, but it was something at least. And with her frayed and cracking nerves it was something to be grateful for.

Study period could not come soon enough.