Princess Tutu

I Will Follow You and Keep You Strong

By Lucky_Ladybug

Notes: The characters are not mine (save the villain) and the story is! The object sought by the antagonist originated in a story I'm doing for another fandom. And I leave another reminder that I set the series in the present day. This is not done randomly; I feel there are many hints in canon that it is a possibility. Nevertheless, this is the first time any very modern device has played a role in my Tutu fics other than a passing mention or a short scene. This is set post-series, Ahiru is human, and she and Autor are close friends. There are some references to previous stories of mine, but they should not have to be read to understand this. Many thanks to Kaze for plot help!

Ahiru's eyes filled with tears as she held the shuddering body close to her, struggling to offer what little warmth she could. The boy in her arms moaned, his eyes fluttering behind the cold glasses.

His skin was ashen, save for the cruel marks discolored red or blue or purple. His right cheek had been struck by something hard; a bit of blood had dripped and dried there. His left hand, viciously bruised, hung limply on the floor. And who knew what other injuries he had that were concealed by his clothes. It broke Ahiru's heart.

"Oh Autor," she whispered. Gently she took a clean handkerchief from her pocket and stretched up as high as she could, managing to dampen it under the leaking sink's faucet. She pulled back, dabbing the cloth over the blood. It came away, but that was only a small relief.

"You're still here," Autor mumbled.

"Of course I am!" Ahiru exclaimed. "I won't leave you again! Not until we're out of here and you're safe."

"You're dead," Autor said. "You come back off and on to haunt me."

"You're still saying those things?" Ahiru shook her head. "I'm not dead. You saved me, Autor! Don't you even remember?"

"I killed you and the others because of my powerlust." Autor groaned, his eyes closing against his will.

Ahiru sobbed helplessly, cradling his slackening form. "You didn't, Autor!" she cried. "You didn't!"

She gazed up at the ceiling, imploring God in their desolate state. "How did we come to this?" she wailed. "How did everything go so wrong?"

But the only reply was the low hum of the nearby walk-in freezer and the chilled air from its open door.

Ahiru's tears fell like rain as she held her surrogate brother close. She was at the end of her rope.

xxxx

All had been normal earlier that day. The students of Kinkan Academy had attended classes and gossiped about the latest news. Autor had studied in the music building and gone to the library. Ahiru had been kept after the afternoon ballet class to clean. By the time she had trudged out, she was exhausted.

"I'm so tired of having to stay after class," she mumbled. "I just want to go home and sleep."

She stifled a yawn. Fakir had gone to help Raetsel for the day. And Ahiru had long grown apart from Lilie and Piké. She would be walking home alone today. That felt lonely, especially since she would be going across town to the antique shop. It was not like when she had boarded at the academy and home had been five minutes away.

But she was not complaining. She much preferred things as they were. Piké and Lilie were still special to her, but since her best friends were now both boys, the girls' interest in her love life had only increased tenfold. It would be terribly awkward to deal with their questions all evening as well as during school.

"I thought I'd find you here about now."

Ahiru jumped a mile. As she whirled to look, Autor was standing right behind her. He was smirking, one hand on his hip.

Ahiru's eyes shined with surprise and happiness. "Autor!" she exclaimed. "Why are you here so late?"

"I had something to finish for my music class," he said.

"I'm glad you're here, Autor!" Ahiru declared. "I was lonely!" She took his arm. "Are you done?"

He started. "Yes, for today," he said.

"Then walk back to Charon's with me," she chirped.

"And why should I do that?" he returned, giving her a sidelong look.

"Because we're friends!" Ahiru coaxed. She walked forward, tugging him along.

Autor went without stumbling, having long ago figured out how to walk in order to keep up with her. "You're perfectly capable of walking back by yourself," he said.

"But it's more fun with two!" Ahiru said. She looked up at Autor with a bright smile. "You're your usual self."

Autor hmphed. "Did you expect I wouldn't be?"

"Nope," Ahiru said. "It's just nice to see."

Autor shook his head, allowing a slight smile of amusement. "You realize you're not helping to destroy the rumors about us when you attach yourself to my arm like this," he said.

Ahiru colored a bit. "Yeah. . . ." She looked up at him. "Do you want me to let go?"

"The damage is already done," Autor said. "Half the school body thinks you're torn between Fakir and me. The other half couldn't care less, but they spread the gossip all the same."

Ahiru made a face. "I'm sick of gossip," she said. "I don't know why it's so hard to believe that a guy and a girl can just be friends."

"I suppose because, as the story usually goes, they can't be," Autor said. "One or the other, or both, tend to fall in love with the other."

Ahiru blinked up at him in surprise. "But that wouldn't happen to us," she said. She released his arm and skipped slightly ahead of him, twirling on the sidewalk. "Because we're family!"

Autor did not answer. Confused, Ahiru stopped and looked to him. His attention seemed to be divided; his gaze was fixed on a dark car coming down the street in their direction. Ahiru scrambled to his side, staring at the strange vehicle.

"What's that?" she wondered.

Autor looked troubled. "It's a limousine," he said. "I never saw it around town before this week. But on Monday I noticed it a block behind me as I walked to school. It was present again on Tuesday, following me home."

Ahiru was stunned. "It's after you, Autor?" she gasped.

"I don't know," he said. He steered Ahiru away from the scene. "We should go."

Ahiru was perfectly willing to comply.

The people in the car were not. Once they realized the teens were going to find another route, the driver stepped hard on the gas pedal. In a moment the automobile was pulling alongside the duo, the breeze it was generating blowing their hair and clothes.

Autor reached to brush his hair out of his eyes, annoyance written across his features. Ahiru gaped, bewildered. Most of those in Kinkan still used older methods of transportation. Seeing cars was rare. Seeing limousines pursuing specific people was unheard-of.

The back door opened, revealing an older but strong man with graying hair and a matching suit. "Now, there's no need to leave so soon, is there?" he greeted.

Autor frowned. "If you had something to say, you should have said it to me earlier," he said. "You certainly had plenty of opportunity."

"Ah, but we didn't want to see you alone," the man answered. He turned to look at Ahiru, and she shivered under his gray-eyed gaze. "Your little friend here is the perfect final component to our plan."

"Me?" Ahiru squealed, pointing to herself in disbelief. "How?"

"We'll explain on the way," was the reply. "Please get inside."

Autor's eyes narrowed. "I make it a point not to travel with strangers whose business includes stalking and intimidation," he said.

"Oh I don't know," the man said smoothly. "Maybe you just need the right persuasion." With lightning reflexes he reached into his suitcoat, producing a dark revolver. As it clicked, it was pointed at Ahiru's head. "How about this?"

Ahiru's eyes widened in shock and fear. But in the next moment they burned with fire.

"That's really cruel!" she burst out. "What kind of person are you?"

"A shrewd businessman, nothing more," the man said. Looking to Autor he said, "Well? What do you say, Mr. Autor? Come along quietly and she won't be hurt."

Autor gritted his teeth. "Very well," he spat at last.

Ahiru stared at him. "No, you can't go with them, Autor!" she cried. "You don't know what they might do to you!" Inexplicable fear welled in her heart. She could not lose him. She could not.

"They're not giving us much choice," Autor said. He took a step towards the limousine.

The revolver remained pointed at Ahiru. "Both of you," the man said.

Autor stiffened. "What?" Now his eyes were filled with fury. "You can't involve her in this!"

"She became involved when we realized she's your friend," was the answer. "If she had walked home by herself tonight, we would have invited her to join us separately before coming to you. You see, we've been watching you both."

Ahiru glowered, firmly stepping forward. "Then I'm coming," she vowed. "But I would have anyway! You can't just take Autor with you and think I wouldn't come too!"

The man laughed. "I must say, you've amazed me," he said. "You have a lot of spunk. I was certain you'd be a scared little girl."

Now Ahiru was fuming. "I'm not a little girl!" she said hotly. "And the only thing I'm scared of is that you're going to hurt Autor!"

"Wonderful," their host grinned. "Now, kindly get in, please."

Autor gave him a dark look as he climbed into the vehicle. Ahiru scrambled after him, nearly falling on her face as the door shut loudly behind them. As they sank onto the seat, the limousine drove off at a calm and normal pace.

Autor was silent a moment as he gathered his bearings. Then he turned to look at their captor. "We have a right to know why you are doing this," he said.

The man shrugged. "Of course you do." He leaned back and crossed his arms, nonchalant as he held the gun in his right hand. "Basically, Mr. Autor, I have need of your services. I want you to compose a piece of music for me."

Autor frowned. Now he had a sinking suspicion that he knew where this was going. But in case he was wrong, he would play dumb. "Why me, of all people?" he retorted. "There are other, more experienced musicians in town."

"Ah, but none of them can do what you can do," was the smiled answer.

Ahiru gasped and leaned forward. "You know about Autor's powers?" she exclaimed.

A nod. "Yes. I remember well how you turned the town, and nearly the world, upsidedown in the past, Mr. Autor." The man smirked as he turned to fix his gaze on Autor, who glowered.

"Then you should also know I don't make a practice of using my powers," Autor said.

"Which is a true shame. You could say I'm helping you as well as myself by giving you the chance. You have a rare gift that some would kill to use." The man crossed his legs, holding out his hand in a beckoning gesture. "You shouldn't hide it under a bushel, so to speak."

Autor flinched. It was ironic, really. He had wanted power to spin Stories all of his life. But even though he had thought he had known how dangerous it was, he had really had no idea. Not until the discovery of his powers had led him on a course of madness and increasing powerlust.

Since that fiasco and near-tragedy, he had used his abilities only to try to help Fakir when Fakir's Story had turned rogue and harmed him. He had determined not to fear the darkness or his powers, as he had previously done, but he had also decided that he did not have the experience and knowledge necessary to Story-Spin religiously. Fakir was much better suited for that.

Although his writing style still needed work. So Autor had contented himself with serving as Fakir's editor and adviser as Fakir continued to hone his abilities.

"I will thank you to mind your own business," he said now, speaking stiffly as he pushed up his glasses. "I am the only one who will determine how and when to use my powers." His eyes narrowed. "And frankly, kidnapping me and my friend is not the way to make a good impression."

"But it is a way to get what I want." The man smiled in an eerily calm manner. "You see, the girl is along for insurance. Do as I wish and she won't be harmed."

Ahiru paled. "What?" She looked to him, her eyes flashing. "You can't use me like that! That's horrible!" And it would work. Autor would never let anything happen to her. But what kind of Story would a man like this want? Nothing good, she was certain.

Autor regarded their captor in revulsion. "I had the feeling you would say that," he said, his tone dark.

"Then I'm sure you also know I have the power to back up my threats," the man answered.

"Yes." Autor's voice was like ice.

Ahiru's thoughts and heart were racing. How were they going to get out of this? And where were they even going? Her eyes widened as she stared out the tinted windows.

"We just went through the city gate!" she exclaimed.

"I live in the next town over," the man said. "Let's just relax and enjoy the ride, shall we?"

Ahiru glared. "If you'd just take us on a nice ride, it'd be different," she muttered.

Autor remained silent, memorizing the path they were taking. If they managed to escape, they would need to know how to return to Kinkan. But it should not be much trouble finding their way back just from the next town.

The bigger concern he had now was how to keep from writing something that would grant this person his most likely selfish desires and keep Ahiru safe at the same time. He was going to need to think on that for a while. Hopefully the ride would be long enough that he would arrive at a solution.

xxxx

The house at which they finally stopped was a large mansion in a subdivision of the neighboring town. In spite of herself, Ahiru could not help staring in awe as they passed through the iron gates and into the sprawling yard. Trees and shrubbery framed the yard's boundaries and the manor. A light at the end of the driveway turned on as they approached, brightening the path to the front door.

Autor studied the abode. It had been built in a more modern architectural style, rather than that of the traditional German homes found in Kinkan. It was long and low, with three floors and what looked like a basement. And it would be far too easy to get lost in there. He frowned. He would have to memorize every bit of the floor plan over which they would travel.

"Here we are," the man said. "Do you like it?"

"It would be easier to like it if we weren't in danger here!" Ahiru said.

"Oh, there's no danger," was the smooth answer. "Not as long as Mr. Autor fulfills my request." As the chauffeur opened the door their host stepped out, then stood and pointed the gun at them both. "Now, if you please."

Autor glanced briefly at Ahiru before moving to the door and exiting the limo. There was no choice but to play along for now. He would not risk her safety. But he would have to find a way to overcome the man's plot.

Ahiru bit her lip and followed. She recognized the look he had given her. She did not want to play along, not at all. But she supposed he was right and that they had to.

Her heart pounded in her chest as they went up the walkway and to the large porch, the gun at the back of her head. Nevertheless, she could not resist a look around in fascination. Homes in Kinkan did not have porches. This looked like a fun place to sit and watch the sunset or the stars and just talk.

"We'll be joined by some associates of mine," the man smiled as the front door opened. "They will escort the girl to where she will wait while you write."

Autor was not pleased as it was, but he was even less pleased to see half a dozen men in dark suits greet them at the door. He rocked back, stepping closer to Ahiru.

"Why does she have to go anywhere?" he said. "Let her stay with me."

Ahiru nodded, her stomach twisting at the thought of going somewhere with the hard-faced men staring them down. "Yeah!" she said. "You could point the gun at me or something. Anything!"

"But my arm will get tired." The man smirked at them in a self-satisfied way. "Besides, once you see what we have in mind, I'm sure it will only increase your resolve to do as I say."

Autor regarded him in disgust. Whatever it was, he knew already that he would not like it.

With the gun still fixated on Ahiru and the thugs watching them coldly, there was not much choice but to step forward into the spacious entryway. Once they did, the nearest man grabbed Ahiru's arm.

"Hey!" she cried, unable to do anything as she was fiercely pulled forward. The rug under her feet bunched up from the abrupt movements, nearly causing her to trip.

Autor glowered, reaching to pull Ahiru away. "Isn't it enough that we're here?" he said. "We won't try anything foolish with the threats against us. Let go of her!"

The brute only gave him a stony look, while the house's owner merely smiled. "Further insurance," he said. "You really should understand, Mr. Autor."

"I understand that we're being treated unfairly," Autor snapped. He resisted the urge to add that all that was being accomplished was that he was growing very furious. That should be obvious from his tone and his eyes.

The thug continued to hold onto Ahiru's arm as they passed through the corridor and an open doorway that led down the stairs to the well-lit basement. Further angered, Autor could only walk alongside, his teeth clenched behind his lips.

But both he and Ahiru were stunned when they were brought to a room with nothing inside save a sink with an incessantly dripping faucet. A heavy steel door was just to its left, the square window in the top half revealing a lighted room beyond.

"What is this?" Autor demanded.

The man walked to the door and took hold of the handle. As he pulled the thick door open, a blast of frosty air shot out at them.

Ahiru stared at the space, her gaze traveling over the slabs of meat hanging from the ceiling and the boxes covered in ice crystals. "A freezer?" she squeaked. Surely the plan was not to put her inside! She cringed, shrinking away from the walk-in device.

The thug roughly shoved her forward, letting go of her arm. A cry tore from her lips as she fell facedown on the freezer floor.

"Ahiru!" Autor cried in horror and outrage, speaking her name around these wretches for the first time. He ran forward, dropping to his knees by her side.

She was already pushing herself into a kneeling position, one hand over her sore nose. She could not stop the tremor that went through her body. She did not want to be put in here! It was too cold. And it would devastate Autor. He would not let her stay in this predicament. But if he did as this horrible person wanted, what would happen then?

Two henchmen grabbed Autor under his arms, hauling him away from the doorway even as he struggled and fought against them. But there was nothing he could do except yell in protest. Their host pulled the door shut, caring nothing for his cries or Ahiru's sudden shriek of dismay. As the girl appeared in the window a moment later, the man just laughed.

"Take a good look, Mr. Autor," he said. "She's very dear to you, isn't she? Even if she wasn't, your conscience would never let you rest with her trapped in there, her life slowly freezing away. Hypothermia really is a terrible way to die."

Autor was only half-listening. Still held back by the cruel thugs, all he could do was gaze helplessly at Ahiru looking out at him.

"These kinds of freezers are supposed to have a handle on the inside of the door, in case someone gets trapped inside!" he spat at last.

"They're supposed to, yes," the man nodded. "But it won't do her any good as long as the door automatically locks once it's shut. Just a little . . . improvement I made. It can only be opened from the outside."

Autor trembled in his fury, a rare curse escaping his lips. "What is it you want me to write this much?" he said. "What could possibly be worth this price?"

The man smiled at him in a condescending manner, as if he had just been waiting to hear that question. "The Star of Bennu," he announced.

Autor stiffened in disbelief. "I beg your pardon?" he exclaimed.

Their graying host stepped in front of the door, deliberately blocking the teens' view of each other. "You know what it is, don't you, Mr. Autor," he breathed, his eyes gleaming. "I can see it in your eyes."

Autor's stomach twisted. The way the man was suddenly so excited reminded him too much of his own enthusiasm over Drosselmeyer's stories and the Story-Spinning power. It made him physically ill to see someone so excited now, under these circumstances. And unlike himself, having had no knowledge of the suffering people had been going through in Drosselmeyer's living Story, this miscreant knew exactly what sort of torture he was inflicting. He reveled in it.

"It's a very dangerous jewel rumored to exist in Egypt," Autor said, his voice cool. "Supposedly it can be used to control life and death."

"Very good." The homeowner sneered. "Now I would advise you to hurry up and compose that I find what's happened to it before you find yourself in need of it."

"It isn't that simple," Autor retorted. His voice was ice, but he was fighting to keep hold of his temper. "I can't write just anything."

"You'd better try," was the unfeeling reply. "And pray that you succeed; this freezer has been set below the suggested temperature. I don't like to think about how much time the girl has before the temperatures start affecting her."

"I'm quite sure you do like to think about it," Autor retorted.

"You have a sharp tongue," the man said, stabbing the air with his forefinger. "Just like the other Story-Spinner."

"And that's another thing," Autor said. "Why do you want me to write this for you instead of him?"

He received an amused smirk in reply. "I could say it's because you're here and he isn't. But that isn't entirely true." Their host looked to be thoroughly enjoying himself as he stepped away from the freezer door. "Ordinarily I would think that Mr. Fakir would be the one to do anything for the girl while you would try to think of the larger picture and the consequences of writing for me. Not that Mr. Fakir would not, but I feel he would give in anyway to save her."

"And you think I would just let her die," Autor said coldly.

"No, not really." The man's lips twisted into a cruel grin. "Of course, if you prove me wrong I'll have to wait and get hold of Mr. Fakir when he comes back."

"You're repulsive!" Autor snapped, wrenching away from the thugs. "You're doing this partially for your own sick amusement? Ahiru won't be able to withstand the cold for long. She's dressed completely inappropriately for such temperatures!"

Very calmly the man pointed his gun at Autor's head. "Then you had better write," he said. "If you die, it won't help her; I'll leave her there until I can get hold of Mr. Fakir."

Autor's eyes narrowed in his disgust. "Fine," he snapped.

In some ways, Autor realized now, maybe this man was not unlike Drosselmeyer himself. It was a strange revelation, particularly since Autor was not joyous to meet him. But that thought gave him pause. Supposing the man was Drosselmeyer instead, and Autor was meeting him through these same circumstances. Would he be thrilled to speak with his idol, uncaring of the trouble they were in, or would he be as indignant and furious as he was right now?

He adjusted his glasses. He had already met Drosselmeyer, in the man's afterlife of gears and mechanics. The situation then had been quite dire as well. Even then, Autor had felt a certain elation over their meeting. But he had not lost all sense of reason and intelligence. He had previously started to have an understanding of the twisted man Drosselmeyer actually was, and during their rendezvous that understanding had only deepened. He was not the same person who had idolized Drosselmeyer blindly and thought that the Story was not hurting anyone. No, he determined, if Drosselmeyer were to appear and put him and Ahiru in this same situation, he would be just as furious. In fact, perhaps moreso.

He gave a last look at Ahiru, who was looking at him in alarm from the window. There was fear in her eyes, but more than her safety she worried over what he would do and what would happen to him. He tried to silently communicate for her to not worry before the thugs wrenched him around and led him out of the room.

Then he could only pray that he could come up with a plan that would work.

xxxx

Ahiru turned away from the window, her shoulders slumping, as Autor was dragged out of the room. The cold was already starting to get to her; her legs, bare to the knees, were freezing. She shivered, rubbing her hands up and down her arms.

"Don't worry about me, Autor," she whispered, her breath visible in the enclosed space. "A guy like that can't want anything good. You can't give it to him! You can't!"

Woefully she looked at her surroundings. All around her there were meat and boxes and plastic containers, all frozen solid. She shuddered. Didn't this guy care if someone died here with all his food? If it were her freezer, it would all be horribly unappetizing after something like that.

Well, she decided, I guess if he's so mean that he'd do something like this at all, he probably doesn't care what happens because of it.

She rubbed her arms again. She had to keep moving, didn't she? Fakir had taught her that when he had been preparing her for what winter would be like. What she really wanted was to lie down and curl in a ball, trying to warm her legs. But she had better walk around instead. She had to keep going as long as she could and hope and pray for a solution that would help them both. She really did not want to die, and she did not want to hurt Autor and Fakir like that.

There wasn't possibly a way out, was there? Such as through a ventilation grate? She scanned the icy room in desperation but then sighed in despair. Of course there would not be anything. And not only was the door locked, but the guy had left two guards.

She frowned. Was that just to scare her more? Or was he worried that she would figure out how to get out?

She sighed. Maybe it was to keep Autor out if he got away and ran back here.

But as long as she had to keep moving anyway, there was no harm in looking. She would search every corner in case there was a hidden way out.

xxxx

The henchmen refused to release Autor's arms until they forced him to sit at the piano in the music room upstairs. He clenched his teeth as he was pushed hard onto the bench. The only positive side to this was that the bench was cushioned.

The owner, who looked all too amused at Autor's discomfort, leaned his elbow on the smooth black varnish. "Now then," he said. "Compose a beautiful, sweeping piece of music that will bring me victory in my search for the Star of Bennu. I've been looking high and low for that amazing amethyst for years without success."

Autor glared at him. "I can't bring you any guarantee of attainment," he said. "You profess to know so much about Story-Spinners; you surely realize there are no certain gains. The Story-Spinner may become ill, or even die, from the strain of attempting to write fiction into reality."

"Yes, I know," was the cool reply. "But you should think and worry more about your poor friend. If you fail, her demise is almost certain."

Autor's eyes flashed with anger. "I can't work if I'm being crowded in," he said stiffly.

"Of course." The man straightened and backed away. "We will stay in the room, just to make sure you don't try any foolhardy escapes. But we will give you your distance." At a hand signal from him, the thugs stepped aside as well. They moved to various locations around the room, including in front of every window and the door.

Autor breathed a sigh of relief, albeit it was short-lived. He stared down at the piano keys, normally a sight he enjoyed—but now one only filled with dread. How was he going to save Ahiru? How would he escape giving this man an object that would be grievous in the wrong hands? Could his music possibly be their salvation instead of their downfall?

His eyes flickered slightly, almost imperceptibly, at the flash of an idea. He continued to look at the keys, hoping that his sudden, kindling excitement would not be betrayed by his voice. "Do you want something instrumental or lyrical?" he asked.

"It doesn't matter," the man answered with a wave of his hand. "Just as long as it involves me discovering the Star of Bennu."

"Alright then," Autor said. He was not able to completely conceal the smirk tugging at his features. He would play their host for a fool and rescue Ahiru at the same time.

Willing the notes to come to him, he placed his fingers on the keys.

xxxx

Ahiru groaned as she pushed on the inside door handle for the umpteenth time. It was really no use and she knew it; it was firmly locked. And every time she went over to try to get it open, the two guards would sneer and taunt her, making her both self-conscious and angry. The freezer was soundproof, but there was no mistaking the meaning behind some of their gestures. She really wished she was wearing something that would cover the lower half of her legs.

How long had it been since they had taken Autor away? Was he alright? She could only continue to pray and hope he was. Surely nothing would be done to him when the guy wanted that music written.

But if Autor refused to do it, then what would happen? Ahiru trembled in worry and horror. Maybe he would be thrown in here with her while the guy waited for Fakir to come, like he had said. And then they could both die, especially if the freezer was turned even lower than it should go.

She gave a start of surprise when a movement through the window caught her eye. She straightened, standing on tiptoe to peer through the thick glass. The guards, for some unknown reason, were hurrying away with their guns drawn. She gripped the edge of the windowpane in alarm. Was Autor trying to come after all? He would get hurt!

But no one appeared around the corner. And as she leaned more on the door it abruptly gave way, flying open and sending her sprawling into the room with a gasp.

For a moment she lay where she had fallen, dazed by both the sudden freedom and the warmer air that greeted her. Then she leaped to her feet, turning to stare at the door.

"How did that happen?" she cried. "It was locked! I know it was locked; I couldn't make it move at all!"

And from somewhere in the house, music was being played. She paused, tilting her head as the faint strains of an unfamiliar song wafted through the nearby ventilation grate. It was a simple enough piece, but it made her sense so many emotions. Most of all, it was filled with an urgency that made her want to run away, far away, and call for help.

She whirled to look at the grate head-on, her braid whipping out around her. "Autor?" she whispered. Was Autor writing his music for her? Was he trying to help her get away? Had he caused the door to unlock? What if that horrible man realized what he was doing?

She bit her lip. Could she do anything to help Autor get away? Or maybe the best thing she could do for him would be to go call for help, if she could find a telephone. Then, while waiting for the police to come, she could hurry back and try to watch over him and make sure he would be okay. If she left right now, maybe she could be back before anyone would even realize she was gone.

She grabbed the heavy freezer door, pushing it back into place. Leaving everything as it had been before might help trick the guards for a little longer too. Casting one last glance around the room, she turned and fled, Autor's music ringing in her ears.

Maybe it would guide her to the nearest exit.

xxxx

Autor was not sure how long he had been at the piano. He had been in luck tonight; instead of poring over the keys for hours just trying to get out several notes, the melody had flowed from his fingertips. He still had to stop to write down parts of measures and to figure out the best directions for the tune to take next, but overall it was coming easily. The Story-Spinning power was at its zenith. He really wished that there was time to stop and be amazed by its intricacies.

The door burst open without warning, bringing all of the henchmen to abrupt attention. Autor stopped playing, looking over his shoulder in surprise.

"Here now, what's this?" frowned their host. "Shouldn't you be at your post?"

Autor's eyes widened. The men who had just run in had been guarding the freezer.

One of them shook his head, looking both bewildered and worried. "We heard a big sound and thought the boy had got free, so we ran off to nab him," he said. "But he was nowhere around!"

"And when we got back . . ." The second man swallowed hard, sick at heart. "The freezer was empty, sir."

Their boss drew himself to his full height, his eyes flickering with scarcely concealed anger. "And so I'm to understand that because of your stupidity, the girl somehow got out of a locked freezer even though her only resource has been up here all along?" He reached into his jacket, wrapping his fingers around his gun.

"Y-Yes, sir," gulped the first thug. "We thought maybe she was up here looking for the boy, but . . ."

"Oh no, not at all." Now the man's voice was dangerously calm. As he drew his weapon, he spun around and pointed it at Autor's forehead. The boy started, stunned.

"It was you, wasn't it," he was asked. "You set her free."

Autor sneered at him. "I've been sitting here all along, as you noted," he said. "What do you think I could have done?"

The man struck out, hitting Autor on his right cheek with the butt of the gun. The henchmen gaped. Autor rocked back, wincing in pain at the blow. Something warm was already trickling down his face.

"What is the song you've been writing?" the man demanded. "Is it really my song?"

"Look it over yourself to determine that," Autor retorted.

His captor swore. "There are no words!" he cried. "There's no way for me to tell what this piece of music is about." He grabbed hold of Autor's scarf, pulling the boy forward while pressing the cold barrel of the revolver against his temple. "Tell me what you've done!"

Autor stiffened. His heart was pounding in his chest at the sudden, imminent danger. But outwardly he kept calm; any fear in his eyes vanished within the next moment. A satisfied, knowing smirk came over his features.

"You already seem to suspect," he said. "But even if your deductions are true, what can you do about them?"

All traces of calm fled. "Insolent brat!" the man roared. He pulled harder on the scarf, sending Autor toppling off the bench and to the carpeted floor. Before the boy could rise the man was upon him again, pressing the gun against the side of his head.

Autor looked back, his eyes now hard. "You gave the impression that this was partially a test of my character and wit," he said. "And now you're angry by what you've found?"

"You will regret defying me," the man vowed. "So will your precious friend. Guards! Spread out and search the house and the grounds. She can't be far."

The henchmen nodded, still nervous from their employer's outburst. Quickly they ran for the door, barely managing to troop out without crashing into each other. The older man watched them go, then turned his attention back to Autor.

"If they don't find her," the teen was saying, "what happens then?"

His host's lips pulled back in a cruel smile. "Then," he said, "you will be used as bait to trap the other Story-Spinner. And you won't be dealt with kindly. As a matter of fact, both I and my men are feeling vengeful tonight. You're very unlucky."

"That remains to be seen," Autor answered.

Inwardly he prayed that Ahiru would escape. If she could get in touch with the police and they would be coming, they and Fakir might all be able to escape serious injury.

Of course, on the other hand, there was no telling what they might do with him in the meantime. This man might seem amiable, but he was deadly. Autor had seen the murder in his eyes. And in spite of himself he could not help a twinge of fear. He did not want to die. Nor did he want to leave Ahiru and Fakir to mourn over his possibly mutilated corpse.

There was little he could do; he could not hope to make an escape as Ahiru had done while he was being straddled and threatened with a gun. He could only steel himself against whatever fate was to befall him.

And he was likely to learn it before long; already some of the thugs were reporting back that the girl was nowhere in the house or on the grounds. Others were still looking, but it was unlikely that she would be found.

Yes, Autor smirked to himself. Show them that you will not be intimidated, nor will you let them win.

But in the next moment he was once more struck across his face. His attacker's eyes showed no mercy or amusement.

"You will suffer in the most agonizing and slow way possible. But first . . ." The man reached out, taking hold of Autor's glasses as he moved to stand. "First, you will experience the utter humiliation and aggravation of being attacked by something you can't even see to fight."

Autor reached up, snatching at the strong wrist in defense. But his glasses were pulled away from him as the man hit him a third time with the gun. He gasped, dazed as he fell back.

Everything was a hopeless blur of shapes and colors. Still, he could see well enough to recognize that the henchmen were beginning to gather around to close in on him. He scrambled away, feeling for the piano as he pulled himself to his feet. His host did not even try to stop him. Now the wretch sounded amused again, a heartless chuckle welling in his throat.

Autor gave a rare curse in his mind. Then he was running and stumbling, his heart racing as he fought to stay ahead of the growing mass of dark shapes moving towards him.

He had never been able to see well without glasses. He had worn them almost as long as he could remember. And now he was being forced to stagger around without them.

Somehow he managed to run through the door, his arms spread out in front of him in a desperate attempt to keep from crashing into things. The guards were behind him, not intending to let him get far ahead. And if they wanted to give him the illusion that he was far enough from them that he could actually hope to win, it was not working. He knew he could not escape. He was only prolonging the inevitable.

What he did not realize was exactly how the pursuit would end. As he ran, scarcely able to see, the rug bunched up under him. With a cry he went flying across the tiled floor and through an open doorway. He had expected his flight to stop there. Instead he tumbled, rolling over and over the basement stairs until he slammed hard onto the carpet at the bottom. A weak, dazed groan left his lips. He had to get up; he had to make himself move before the guards descended upon him.

But it was no use. They were tromping down the stairs now, laughing among themselves at his ignominious defeat. He gritted his teeth, shamed and angry. With one hand he gripped at the carpet as he tried to push himself into a kneeling position. He had only halfway succeeded before one of the thugs arrived at the bottom and kicked him in the ribs. He went down with a gasp, his left side throbbing.

"You aren't so snarky now, are you?" grinned one of the guards. "It cuts you down to size when you can't see what you're doing."

Autor clenched his teeth. He would not be defeated here, like this. He could still fight even with his poor eyes. And as the guards lunged at him he lunged right back with a yell, tackling the nearest thug into the staircase.

Of course, he would lose. There was no way he alone could take on so many seasoned fighters and hope to win.

But, he thought as he was wrenched away and thrown across the corridor by another guard, at least he would know that he had not given in and allowed them a victory without even trying to fight back.

xxxx

Ahiru's hands were shaking as she dug through the pocket of her skirt for a coin and then slipped it into the slot on the payphone. It had taken far longer to find the booth than she had hoped. But, she supposed, she could not complain about it.

It had been a miracle that she had escaped the mansion and grounds without being seen, especially since the guards had been looking everywhere. And on top of that, she had discovered the kidnapper kept guard dogs. She had only barely managed to hide from them by climbing a tree and then jumping down when she had reached a branch that hung over the wall connecting to the gates in front.

Now she had to make sure that help would be sent for poor Autor. She had hated to leave him back there with those terrible men. Even though their kidnapper had wanted Autor to write, that was no guarantee that all would be well. The sooner the police were told, the better.

And once she had called them, then what?

She bit her lip as she tapped out the number of the police station printed in the booth's phone book. She did not want to just pace around and wait, when Autor could be in trouble. She would have to go back and see if she could help him at all. It was the only thing that felt right and would give her peace of mind.

She rocked impatiently as the phone rang. The wait was agonizing! Wasn't there supposed to be someone right at the front desk to answer the phone? Where was he?

At last there was a click. She barely even heard the man's name as he spoke it. "Hello?" she exclaimed. "I'm calling because my friend and I were kidnapped and we got taken to this town that's next to the town where we live and I got away to get help but he's still trapped there and . . . !"

"Just a minute," the policeman interrupted. "Slow down, Miss. You say you and your friend were kidnapped?"

"Yes!" Ahiru cried. "Please, you have to come and help him! The guy lives in this big mansion that doesn't look like old German houses and he has a lot of guards and some dogs!"

For the next few minutes the officer tried to get Ahiru to calm down enough to tell more of the details of what was going on. Without a name for the man it was difficult, and without a home address it was worse, but she did her best to describe the house and grounds and the policeman felt confident that they would be able to find the property without trouble.

"Help will be sent immediately," he promised. "Just sit tight and don't do anything foolish."

"But Autor," Ahiru protested.

"He wouldn't want you to risk getting yourself in danger when you've just got out," she was told. "The police will be there in a few minutes. I have a pretty good idea of what house you're talking about; there's only a couple like it in town."

Ahiru hung up the phone in a daze, mumbling a thank you to the policeman. He was right, of course; Autor would want her to stay out of trouble. But how could she just do nothing? What if the police had a hard time finding the place? Maybe they would go to the other one in town first! And what would happen to Autor while they were looking?

"Isn't there some way I could go check on him without getting caught?" she wondered as she shuffled out of the phone booth.

Maybe there was. At any rate, she had to try. There was a horrible feeling in the pit of her stomach, and while it could have been brought on by just the general stress and not mean anything, she was afraid that there was more to it and that Autor was in terrible trouble right now.

Steeling herself against what could happen, she turned and ran back towards the house.

xxxx

Autor gave a choked gasp as he was thrown against the wall one final time, striking his head in the process. Against his will he sank to the floor and lay there, helpless and semi-conscious. The thugs gathered around his battered body, smirking in satisfaction.

One was holding a handkerchief over a bleeding nose. Autor had been harder to keep down than they had anticipated. No matter how they had kicked and punched and thrown him, he had struggled up and fought back again. Several others of the henchmen bore bruises and bumps courtesy of the boy's handiwork.

But in the end Autor had been hurt worse than any of his assailants. And now he was not getting up.

The nearest thug sneered in cruel satisfaction. "It looks like he's finally learned his lesson," he said. He kicked the teen in the ribs, receiving only a weak flinch in response.

"About time, the brat," muttered another. "I never would've thought he had it in him."

Their boss's footfalls soon came upon the steps. "Here now," he said as he descended, "what have you done to him?" The mock indignation in his voice was understood by all—including Autor, who was hearing everything through a stagnant mist over his mind.

"Just what you said, sir," smirked one of the thugs. "Are you going to try to contact that other Story-Spinner now?"

"Soon," the man answered. "After something else is tended to. Pull him up."

The henchman closest to Autor reached down and hooked his hands under Autor's arms, dragging the limp body upright. Autor gave a jerk, fighting to tear away, but he did not have the strength.

His abductor smirked down at him. "Don't struggle, Mr. Autor," he said. "It will only make everything worse." Looking to the one holding Autor he instructed, "Throw him in the freezer."

The younger man's eyes widened in surprise. "W-What?" he gasped. "I thought the plan was to beat him and then call the Story-Spinner he taught."

"Mostly, yes," was the reply. "But I say beaten and half-frozen will make an even greater impression on Mr. Fakir. He will come to rescue his friend, but he won't be allowed to do so unless he writes what I want. And he'll have Mr. Autor's life hanging over his head as motivation. Best of all, with Mr. Fakir he won't be able to trick us the way Mr. Autor did." The host's lips were still twisted in a satisfied smirk.

The henchman still hesitated. "We won't let him die, will we?" he asked.

"That's up to Mr. Fakir," the older man said with a shrug. "Don't tell me you're having doubts." He frowned. "You didn't have any problem with getting him into the sorry state he's in now."

"Yeah, but . . . he's just a kid. Sure, we roughed him up a little, but I figured he'd make it. . . ." The thug looked down at the limp form as a shudder passed through Autor's body. His eyes had clouded over, no longer even trying to see the shapes and blurs.

"I'd rather not let him die, it's true," the man mused. "He may be a trickster, but he still has the gift, and that could be useful somehow. But we'll worry about it later. Put him in the freezer and I'll make the call."

At last the henchman nodded. He dragged Autor through the basement and into the room with the freezer, all while the others followed close behind. One of them hauled open the heavy steel door. The thug walked inside, hesitated again, then laid Autor gently on the hard floor. As he straightened and walked out, his employer walked past him and inside.

"Here," he said, the mocking tones back in his voice. With a smirk he bent down, slipping Autor's glasses back on his face. "Now you can see again."

The only indication that Autor was even aware of the action was a slow, pained blink.

The man stood, shaking his head as he studied the wounded boy. "You really should have cooperated with me in the first place," he said. "It would have made things so much easier."

But then he sneered. It was never too late to deliver a final, crushing blow. "And your little friend has abandoned you," he said. "I wonder if she ever really forgave you for what you did when you used your powers for world conquest. Maybe she felt this served you right, hmm?"

The fingers on Autor's right hand weakly curled, gripping at the floor. Pain flickered across his face, something he ordinarily would have tried to hide.

"That's what I like to see," the host smirked as he walked out of the freezer.

The heavy door shut and locked behind him.

"Boss, do you really think the girl just skipped out on him?" the hesitant thug asked in surprise.

The man shrugged. "Probably not, from what I know of her," he said. "And maybe the boy doesn't believe what I said. But in a condition like his, the mind doesn't always work rationally." He smirked again as he walked out of the room. "I only said it to torture him a bit. And I would say it's worked very well.

"Now, we should go back upstairs. I have to find that other boy. But first . . ." He smirked. "Put something extra on the door to emphasize the trouble Mr. Autor is in. It should make a strong impression on Mr. Fakir. Plus, it should keep that girl out if she returns."

xxxx

Autor lay where he was, on his side, his eyes half-open and unfocused. The freezer was cold; the chilled air swirled unmercifully around him, nipping at any and all exposed skin.

He shuddered. He needed to get up. If he could keep the circulation flowing, he would last longer in here, maybe until help arrived. But he could not move. At least not that much. He moved his left hand a centimeter, then grimaced and had to stop. He was not sure how, but it had been badly bruised during the fight. Right now, to move it at all shot pain through his entire arm.

He hissed in frustration. It seemed that Ahiru had gotten away, so she had better have been able to call for help.

And what would she do after that? Surely she would not come back here.

Of course, that was very likely exactly what she would do. It was utter foolishness; how could she possibly hope to get back without being caught and used as bait for Fakir as well?

But at least if she had placed the phone call, maybe they would not have long to wait for rescue even if she did get herself recaptured.

He stiffened. Would she receive the same fate as he? For an agonizing moment, images he instantly longed to ban flashed through his mind. The thought of Ahiru being helplessly thrown about and kicked was too much to stand. But surely, when she was a girl, she would not be treated like that!

The bile rose in his throat. When she was a girl, in the hands of amoral men, her fate might be even worse.

He cursed in his mind, weakly fighting to rise. But it was no use. He crashed back to the floor with a gasp.

He did not particularly want to have to be seen by Ahiru in his current state, either. The thought of being forced to openly display such weakness made him ungodly uncomfortable. To say nothing of the fact that viewing him so hurt would break her innocent heart. And that, he was finding, made him feel immeasurably worse than even his loathing of looking weak. He did not want to hurt Ahiru. Not again, not after everything that had stabbed her so badly when he had lost his mind and tried to dominate the world.

He drew a shaking breath. The best he could hope for was that he could stay alert and aware, not succumbing to the cold.

But the throbbing pain in his head was only going to make that more difficult. Sleep would only sound more wonderful the longer he remained here. And the vague images that were starting to take shape in front of his eyes were striking fear in his heart. Was he hallucinating? How long had he been in this cursed freezer? Or maybe it was the blow to his head causing the visions, not the cold.

At least, perhaps if he studied the forming images, he would stay awake.

There were screams . . . cries. . . . His friends were in pain. Ahiru, Fakir, Rue and Mytho. . . . They were all being restrained by magical whirlwinds, helpless against him.

The maniacal laughter echoed unmercifully all around him and his eyes widened in sickened horror. It was his own voice, his own laughter. He was enjoying their suffering, reveling in it.

"No," he whispered. "No. . . ."

It had not been him. It had been the Story, possessing his body. He was not capable of killing, not even at his worst. Especially his loved ones.

But . . . why was he taking the letter opener and driving it into Rue's heart instead of his own? Why was he sneering at the others, particularly at Ahiru's horror? Why wasn't he coming back to himself?

Another scream pierced the night.

xxxx

Ahiru stayed in the shadows as she approached the still-lit mansion. Her heart was thumping so loudly that she would not be surprised if the guard dogs would hear it and come running to the gate. But they did not appear, and as Ahiru drew closer to the tree from which she had previously jumped, she swallowed hard and stared up at it. She would have to get on the wall and then either leap down or climb into the tree and down that way. Whichever would be least likely to make noise and attract attention.

She stretched her arms above her head, reaching in desperation for the top of the wall. She could only barely touch it if she stood on tiptoe. She could always jump up to it, but if she missed it would make a terrible commotion. Taking a deep breath, she clutched the edge of the wall and strained with all her might to pull herself up.

Somehow she managed to raise her body off the ground just enough that she was able to wrap her arms more fully around the structure. After getting a foothold between the bricks, she succeeded in scrambling up to the top of the wall. She knelt there for a moment, catching her breath, before grabbing onto the nearest tree branch and easing herself onto it. There was still no sign of the guard dogs, but she was not about to take chances. As quietly as she could, she moved to the main trunk of the tree and began to descend.

Moments later she was back on the grass. She crept over the lawn, praying that the dogs were not on patrol to notice. She had exited through a basement window she had found open. Would it still be unlocked so she could re-enter the house through it?

The sudden barking nearly made her jump a mile. "Oh no!" she moaned. There was no point in creeping silently now. She broke into a terrified run. In front of her, the house loomed closer. Behind her, the barking and snarling was growing louder. She flew over a bush and dove at the window, praying it would flip open as it had before.

It did—just as the Doberman's harsh teeth latched onto her skirt. She shrieked, tumbling through the window at the same instant. The skirt tore, leaving a large piece of material in the guard dog's mouth. Before it could follow her through, the window flipped back into position, smacking the animal on the nose. It froze, stunned.

Ahiru, still on an adrenaline rush, straightened and reached up, affixing the lock on the window before the dog could recover and continue the pursuit. Then she sighed, her shoulders slumping.

"I've made a mess of my uniform," she moaned, twisting around to inspect the damage. One jagged section of the plain gray material was missing, leaving part of her right thigh exposed. She flushed in embarrassment.

"Maybe I could tie it?" she wondered. Gathering the torn edges in her hands, she fumbled with the cloth as she attempted to fasten it with one, then two, knots. She frowned as she finished.

"It looks pretty silly," she decided, "but maybe it'll be okay for now?" She would have to hope so. And she would also have to hope the knots would not come undone.

Straightening, she looked anxiously around what seemed to be a large family room. The carpet and walls were white, and there were boxes stacked all around the room and its various sticks of furniture. She shrugged, moving to walk into the hall. The white couch looked really soft, but there was no time to try it out. She had to find Autor.

Her breath caught sharply in her throat as she went to the doorway. The corridor was a mess, most unlike how it had been just earlier that night. There were dark marks on the walls, and the carpet looked like people had been running and skidding on it. But worst of all were the splatters of red on the walls and floor.

Suddenly her knees were weak. "Autor," she choked. Had he been hurt? Was that why everything looked like there had been a big fight?

She turned and ran, her braid flying out behind her as she tore down the hallway. She did not even fully know where she was going. But then again, perhaps she did.

She ground to a stop when she dashed through the doorway leading to the room with the freezer. Her heart was racing wildly again. What was she doing here? Surely Autor would not have been put in that horrible place. But what if . . .

She scurried to the window, gripping the edge as she peered through the thick glass. Everything looked quiet in the freezer from what she could see. But what was visible to her was not the entire thing. There were slabs of meat and boxes in the way.

She moved back, reaching for the door handle. It refused to budge. Blinking, she fully focused on the heavy steel. What looked like a metal equivalent of a two by four had been slid into place on the wall, across the middle of the door, and through the handle.

"Why would they put this here if there's no problem?" she wondered aloud. "It's already supposed to be locked!"

A chill ran up her spine. Autor was in there, wasn't he? They had left him in there and maybe were not even planning to let him out!

Without a second thought Ahiru grabbed the bar and pulled in desperation. It moved along only a centimeter. She gasped, pausing as she breathed heavily from the strain. This was going to take far too long. And the thing was so weighty it would probably make a horrible sound and crash to the floor when she got it loose. Then everyone would be upon her in a matter of moments.

Frowning, she looked to the doorway. She had not taken note before, but instead of a traditional door there was only a strange white panel. She hurried over to it, looking into the quiet hall before carefully pushing it closed. Maybe it would help muffle the sound, at least. And she would try her hardest to put the beam on the floor instead of letting it crash.

Hurrying back to the bar, she pulled again, gritting her teeth against the strain. It was never meant to be moved by a petite thirteen-year-old girl. But Ahiru was insistent. She did not know how long she pulled and tugged and even wrapped her arms around the thing to force it to slide forward. And, ever so slowly, it was moving. Its strength was no match for the girl who had been born a duck, who never gave up on her friends.

When it came free at last Ahiru stumbled with it, nearly toppling to the floor. She shook as she lowered it, almost catching her fingers underneath it as it embraced the carpet. She jerked back, clutching her hands close to her chest. "That was too close," she whispered.

But she did not intend to fuss over narrowly avoiding smashing her fingers. She ran back to the door, pulling and tugging on the handle. The door still refused to move.

"What's wrong?" she wailed, slamming herself against the steel slab. "Why won't it open?"

She pulled away, peering into the slim crack between the edge of the door and the doorframe, but nothing looked unusual. She straightened, grabbing hold of the handle once more.

Please! she cried in her mind. I have to get in here. I have to!

The door still did not want to budge. But at Ahiru's determination it finally weakened. When it pulled free moments later, ice crystals flew in all directions. She stopped and stared, stunned.

"It was frozen shut?" she gasped. How cold would it have to be for that to happen?

She ran inside, immediately assaulted by the subzero air. "Autor!" she called. "Autor, where are you?"

There was no answer. She ducked to the side of the slabs of meat, her heart racing. "Autor!" she cried again. "Answer me!"

She almost tripped over his body before she saw him, lying lifeless on his right side. And even there, in that already-helpless state, it was easy to tell that he had been beaten. Ahiru could not help the wail of anguish as she dropped to her knees next to him.

"Autor!" she pleaded, grabbing his shoulders both gently and firmly. "Autor, wake up! Please!" The tears filled her eyes as he lay unresponsive. Was she too late? Was he . . . gone? No, she could not bear to think it! He was not dead; he was just sleeping!

But . . . Fakir had told her that if you went to sleep in the cold, you'd probably never wake up.

"Autor!" she sobbed. "Say something!"

His eyes flickered, the lids opening halfway. "Ahiru?" he rasped.

Joy and relief swelled in her heart. "Yeah!" she said. "It's me, Autor. I called for help and the police are coming and I came back for you!"

Autor looked at her blankly. But then the dark cloud of agony passed over his features. "I killed you," he said.

Ahiru stiffened, her blood going as cold as the air in the freezer. "What?" she exclaimed. "Autor, what are you talking about? You saved me! I'm okay because of you!"

"I killed you," Autor repeated in grief-stricken anguish. "I killed everyone. All I cared about was having power. You and the others were in the way, so . . . you had to go." He stared up at her, his brown eyes glazed and clearly seeing a different world. "I got my world domination, my empire. An empire of dirt. I found it meant nothing to me. But by then it was too late; everyone was dead."

Now Ahiru was dizzy with horror and alarm. What was wrong with Autor? What was he talking about? It was like when he had been so sick and delirious and had kept crying out from the images only he had seen. Ahiru had never known how to deal with it then. No matter how she had talked and pleaded and begged, Autor had not been able to grasp reality. But at least then, Fakir and Mytho and Rue had been there, and doctors and nurses. This time Ahiru was on her own.

An ice-cold hand grabbed her wrist and she barely refrained from shrieking in surprise. But as she started back to the present, gazing into Autor's desperate, sorrowful eyes, her voice was cut.

"Why are you here?" Autor demanded. "Why are you haunting me? It's too late to change what happened. If I could, I would write myself back in time. I would stop myself from plunging the letter-opener into your heart. I would stop myself from killing Rue and Fakir and Mytho!"

"Stop it!" Ahiru wailed without thinking. But then she trembled, reaching to shakily pull Autor's upper body into her arms. He felt so cold, so limp. And how badly was he hurt from the beating? Was that even what was hurting him more than being in the freezer?

"I have to get you out of here, Autor," she said then. "And maybe then I can get you warm and the police will come and we can go home and . . ." She trailed off, the words catching in her throat. She hiccupped, hugging the injured boy to her for a short moment. Autor was in no condition to stand. Ahiru hated to move him at all, not knowing how much more it would hurt him. But there was no choice.

With care she laid him back on the floor and stumbled to her feet. Then she bent down, grasping his wrists. "I'm so sorry, Autor," she said. "I know this is probably going to hurt. But I don't know how else I can get you out of here!"

Taking a deep breath she stepped backwards, pulling Autor slowly with her. He went without a sound, gazing emptily at the ceiling of the freezer. Forcing back another chill Ahiru kept walking, dragging Autor around the meat and the boxes and into view of the door. She paused, gulping in the air after the strenuous activity, and then steeled herself for the remainder of the journey. She pulled Autor the rest of the way out before slumping to her knees next to him.

"You're so cold," she whispered. And there was very little she could do about it. But she could do something.

In determination she began to shrug out of her jacket. It would certainly not offer much warmth, but it was better than nothing and it was all she had. She drew it around Autor's shoulders before again gently lifting his upper body into her arms.

"We'll be found soon, Autor," she told him softly. "And then everything will be okay."

But he was still delirious, either from the beating or the cold or a combination of both. And Ahiru did not know however to help him. At last, at a complete loss, she reached and pushed the heavy freezer door shut before hugging Autor close to her and resting against the wall.

They would be rescued soon, she hoped and prayed, but would it really be in time?

She sighed, closing her eyes while staying alert for any sudden sounds. But it had been a terribly long and agonizing night, and as she held Autor close to try to give him warmth, the urge to doze was growing too strong. Eventually she rested her cheek against Autor's hair as sleep descended.

xxxx

Autor stirred as consciousness began to return. Before he could even open his eyes, he was all at once assaulted by a myriad of emotions and feelings.

His body ached. Every part of it seemed to be hurting in some way.

But he was warm, somehow. He remembered being cold before, yet now it felt like he was being held close in a loving embrace. He had not felt like this since he had been a small child, comforted by his mother.

Above all, he was safe.

He forced his eyes open. Yes, he was being held. His head was resting on someone's shoulder, and it felt like that person's cheek was against his hair. Something warm was against his back, and when he glanced down, gray sleeves were hanging in front of his chest.

His eyes widened in surprised recognition. "Ahiru?" he gasped. It was the jacket of the female school uniform that had been placed around him. And as the other person mumbled, he knew it was Ahiru's voice. He wanted to rise, but she was holding him so securely that any attempt to sit up would probably aggravate the bruises and bumps he had sustained in the fight.

"Autor," she slurred. "Thank goodness."

He leaned back, trying to process exactly what had happened. The last thing he remembered was being in the freezer. Sometime during that ordeal, his memories had gone blank. And now he and Ahiru were in a room, having apparently been sleeping for who knew how long, and she had been keeping him warm. Color began to spread over his cheeks.

She started awake, shocking them both. "Autor?" she gasped. She pulled back, staring at him in awe and amazement. "Autor, you're awake! Are you really okay? I was so worried!"

"I'm fine," Autor said, going deeper red from her attention and concern. He sat up, wincing as his joints and muscles protested. "What on earth happened?"

"That's what I'd like to know!" Ahiru exclaimed. "I called the police and then I came back to find you, and you were in the freezer all hurt and you were saying weird, awful things and . . ." She trailed off, looking down. "I thought maybe I was too late," she whispered. "I was afraid you were going to . . . to die or something."

Autor frowned. "What was I saying?" he asked.

Ahiru shook her head. "That you'd killed me and everyone else for power," she said. "It was like you were having a really horrible nightmare."

Autor stiffened. Now he vaguely recalled images he had seen while lying in the freezer, depicting a story such as what Ahiru said he had talked about.

"So that was it," he muttered. "I succumbed to the hallucinations. I was that weak."

Ahiru's head shot up. "You weren't weak!" she said. "You saved me! I was able to get away because of your music. And then they hurt you because of that!" Her chin quavered. "You couldn't help what happened, Autor. You tried your best. And look—we're both still here!" She gestured to the room. "You're going to be okay, because you wouldn't give up."

"If I had stayed in the freezer, it wouldn't have mattered how strong my will was," Autor said. "I would have died eventually. I'm going to be okay, because you got me out." He looked at her firmly.

Now Ahiru blushed. "Well . . . I'm just really glad to see you acting like yourself again!" She shuddered. "There's blood all over the walls and the floor. . . ."

"It isn't mine," Autor said. "The only cut I sustained is right here." Gingerly he touched his cheek.

Ahiru nodded. "That was the only blood I found on you, but . . ."

"I punched one of those henchmen in the nose," Autor said. "I wasn't aware that I could hit that hard. He screamed like a child and fell back. Blood went everywhere." He sniffed in distaste.

Ahiru rocked back. "That's where all that blood came from?" she gasped. "His nose?"

"Yes." Autor sighed, glancing around the small room and taking it in. "We should try to get out of here. How have you been getting in and out?"

"Through a window," Ahiru said. "But one of the dogs chased me and I had to lock it. I don't know if they're still around." She sat up straighter. "The police really should've come by now! We've probably been sleeping a long time." She looked to the wall. "I pulled that panel shut and then it didn't look like a door at all. Maybe they came and haven't been able to find us in here."

Autor blinked in surprise. "You could be right," he said. He reached for the wall and began to slowly pull himself to his feet, clenching his teeth at the aches and pains that shot through his body.

Ahiru sprang up as well. "Are you sure you can get up?" she exclaimed.

Autor nodded. "Nothing's broken, miraculously," he said. "And a peaceful sleep outside of the freezer apparently did wonders for my body as well as my mind."

Ahiru smiled. "I'm so glad," she said. "Oh! I haven't even had the chance to thank you for helping me," she realized. "You did write music so I could get out, didn't you?"

"I did," Autor confirmed.

Ahiru looked down. "And that's why you were hurt," she said, her voice softer now.

"I wasn't going to write what he wanted me to write," Autor said. "I hope you're not going to spend time blaming yourself."

She looked up again. "Uh . . . I . . ." She glanced away, knowing she had been caught.

"It wasn't your fault," Autor said. "Even if I had been alone, I would have written something other than what he wanted. And then I still would have been beaten." He cleared his throat. "I likely wouldn't even be alive if not for you. I'm sorry you had to go through this experience, but I'm grateful you were here."

Slowly she turned back to face him. Autor was blushing and looked embarrassed, but he was completely sincere.

Ahiru smiled now. "Then I'm glad too," she said.

Autor studied the blank wall. "Do you remember what the dimensions of the door are?" he frowned, abruptly changing the subject. "There must be an unseen lever that has to be pressed to open it."

Ahiru blinked, tilting her head as she looked over the wall. "Um, it seems like the whole wall was the panel!" she said. "Maybe you press here, or here . . ." She moved her hands across the white surface, pressing everywhere in sight.

"You're giving me a headache," Autor proclaimed. Avoiding her flying hands, he pressed along the wall more methodically, listening for any quiet clicks that might indicate he had found the key.

In the end, neither was sure who managed to find the lever. The wall abruptly swung open, revealing the corridor beyond—as well as several stunned police officers fronted by Fakir.

"What the . . ." one policeman uttered.

Fakir recovered quickest, running over to them. "Where do you think you've been?" he cried. His words were frustrated, even irritated, but the worry was in his eyes. "We've been looking all over for you for hours!"

Ahiru brightened, overjoyed to see him. "Fakir!" she exclaimed. "How did you get here? I was going to call you, but then I didn't because that guy wanted to use us against you and I didn't want to put you in danger and . . ."

"The police called Charon and he called me at Raetsel's," Fakir retorted. "And then that guy called me too." His voice darkened as he looked to Autor. "He said he'd had you beaten and thrown in a freezer, and that you wouldn't get out unless I wrote some Story about him getting an amethyst."

Autor looked uncomfortable to be seen by Fakir in such a state. "That's what happened," he confirmed. "Ahiru got me out of the freezer. We've been in a small room outside of it for some time."

"You're not going to tell me how many minutes and seconds?" Fakir said, only half-sarcastic. He looked the both of them up and down, searching to see how badly injured they seemed to be. He gave a curt nod of approval before turning.

"Let's go," he said.

Ahiru looked to the police officers, then back to Fakir. "Did everyone get arrested?" she wondered.

"Yeah," Fakir said. "Everything's safe now."

Ahiru smiled brightly. "Thank goodness!" she proclaimed.

She looked to Autor. "Are you going to be able to walk okay, Autor?" she asked.

Autor flushed, pushing up his glasses. "Yes, I'll be fine," he said.

"Are you sure?" One of the officers frowned. "There's blood all over the wall out here. . . ."

"I gave one of the men who attacked me a nosebleed," Autor said, his tone matter-of-fact.

The policeman's eyebrows raised. "I see," he said. "But you should still be examined at the hospital."

"It's nothing more rest won't heal," Autor said.

Ahiru's eyes registered concern. "Maybe you should go anyway, Autor," she said. "We'll come with you! And if they say you're okay, we'll take you home! Right, Fakir?"

Fakir glanced back at them. "Sure," he said, crossing his arms.

Autor sighed. He really did not want to, but maybe, just to humor Ahiru, he would. Especially since she had done so much to help him. At last he allowed a slight smile.

"Perhaps," he said.