Princess Tutu

The Only Light Left to Shine

By Lucky_Ladybug

Notes: The characters are not mine and the story is. It was written for the prompt The Edge at 10 Prompts on Livejournal. I've felt I needed to explore a plot where Ahiru is the one hurt, and hence, I've been working on this off and on for several weeks. This is post-series, Ahiru is human, and she and Autor have become close friends. Some previous stories of mine are referenced, but I don't feel they have to be read first to understand this.

Autor never did understand exactly how it happened.

Even though the people of Kinkan preferred to keep their town engrained in the old ways, and some were leery of modern devices after the time spent in Drosselmeyer's Story, recent inventions had come into the town now and then. Others were not especially recent, but had been seen scarcely nevertheless.

The night he and Ahiru accidentally stumbled across the robbery of a hapless man's carriage was the first time either of them had seen gunshot wounds.

The sounds of angry yelling were the first indication that something was not right. Ahiru came to attention, looking ahead to where a carriage was stopped at the side of the road. A man was standing next to it, his right arm raised.

"I wonder what's going on there," she said aloud. Out of habit she walked further up the street, curious.

Autor was not really interested, particularly since horses were involved. "I wouldn't know," he said as he hurried after her. "Probably a dispute over something petty." He reached for her arm, wanting to pull her back and get far away before the horses could get frightened from the noise of the yells.

But instead Ahiru grabbed at his arm. "Wait a minute!" she protested, stopping in the road again. "The driver sounds really upset."

"I would be too, if someone kept bothering me like that man is bothering . . ." But Autor trailed off. The nearby streetlight was glinting off something dark and shiny in the pestering man's hand. His eyes widened in alarmed realization.

"That isn't a petty argument!" he exclaimed. "He has a gun!"

Ahiru gasped. "What?" She stared closer at the scene. "What are we going to do? We can't just walk away!"

"We'll find a nearby phone and call the police," Autor said. Panic began to well in his heart as he grabbed Ahiru's shoulders and began to steer her away. They were not that far down the road. The robber was already starting to turn, having heard them talking.

The thief was not a man at all, but a teen not much older than them, and their sudden appearance on the scene caused him to panic. With a cry he fired the weapon in their direction as he whirled.

The gunshot rang through the night. Autor froze, rocking back from the feel of the impact. Had he been shot? He was not feeling any pain, but . . .

The anguished wail from Ahiru chilled his blood. He turned to her, his eyes wide in horror. She was clutching her chest, breathing in heavy gasps as she fell backwards. Autor reached to catch her, trembling violently as her weight collapsed in his arms. Under the light from the streetlamp, he could see red oozing from between her fingers.

"Ahiru?" he cried. "Ahiru, can you speak to me?" He lowered her to the ground, kneeling beside her at the same moment.

She gasped, staring up at nothing with glazed eyes. "It hurts," she rasped. "It hurts so much. Autor . . ."

But she could say no more as her eyes fluttered and closed. Autor went sheet white.

"Ahiru? Ahiru!" He reached over, feeling gently on her neck for a pulse.

The shooter did not even wait to see if she was alive. Panic-stricken, he turned and fled. The driver of the carriage stared after him, unable to give chase. His horses had been spooked by the sound of the bullet and Ahiru's scream. It was all he could do to keep them from bolting.

"How bad off is she, lad?" he exclaimed, trying and failing to look over his shoulder.

"I don't know!" Autor cried. "She's still breathing, but . . ." Shaking more, he struggled to pry her hands away from her chest. He nearly retched when he saw the blood everywhere and the visible wound from which it was spilling.

"Get help!" he ordered. "Call the medics! And call the blacksmith's shop. Fakir and Charon have to know!" He tore off his scarf, pressing it against the bullet hole. There was no pool of crimson underneath Ahiru's body, so the wretched lead must still be inside.

The driver shook his head. "I can't do a thing until the horses calm down!" he said in sorrow and regret. "I have to stay right here with them and try to keep them from running off with the whole carriage!"

Autor tried to force himself to stop trembling. Horses again, he thought, unable to keep the bitterness out of his mind. They were always causing trouble for him and the people he cared about. He had been thrown off of them, killed by them, and now they were interfering with his dearest friend receiving the help she so desperately needed.

She looked so frail and helpless, lying here in the road. And his scarf was already soaked with blood. He did not dare remove it, but what did he have that he could place over it without taking both of his hands away to find? There was really nothing.

"Oh God, please help me save her," he whispered under his breath. "Please don't let her die."

If her life ended, he doubted Fakir would forgive him. He certainly would never forgive himself. He worked unceasingly, desperate and driven to save the sweet girl who had never given up on reaching out to him in friendship. Sometimes her endless chatter frustrated him and made him edgy and nervous. Now all he wanted was to hear her ramble about some pointless thing or another.

"Ahiru, speak to me," he said without hope.

She did not answer. Her breathing was labored and pained, her skin chalk white. Autor pressed on the wound, frantic to make it stop emitting the life-giving fluid.

"What happened?" cried a voice from somewhere behind him.

"I got robbed!" the carriage driver called back. "Some poor girl and her friend stumbled on us and the thief shot her!"

The new voice gasped. "Is there anything I can do?"

"Please, call the medics," the driver implored. "I can't leave these horses!"

The sound of retreating footsteps filled the air. Autor only heard them, and the prior conversation, through a fog in his mind.

"Ahiru, you have to hold on," he said, trying to rout the quaver out of his voice. "You made a promise when I finally accepted your offer of friendship. You said you would be around for a long time. You aren't going to break that, are you?"

Of course, if the wound was too serious, Ahiru would not be able to help dying. But he hoped that if she could hear him at all, she would take heart from his plea and fight all the harder to live.

He did not even notice the paramedics' presence until one of them brought a heavy hand on his shoulder. "We'll take it from here," the man told him.

Autor jumped a mile. He looked up, shaking, as the medics knelt around Ahiru's wounded body. Then, convinced she was in good hands, he moved back.

"Will she live?" he cried urgently.

"It's too soon to tell," one of the men told him. "But it doesn't look good." They worked on the bullet hole, slowing the bleeding before gently lifting her onto a stretcher.

Autor blankly reached to push his glasses up on his face. But he stopped halfway, staring at the red on his hands. He could barely see the natural flesh color at all. The blood was everywhere—Ahiru's blood.

And there, kneeling in the street, the quiet and generally calm boy screamed.

xxxx

The pain was stabbing, driving more deeply than she had imagined possible. It had already filled her consciousness until she had not been able to stand it. But even as she had sunk into the darkness, she had heard and felt somewhere in her mind.

The pain was still there. For a while Autor had been at her side, pressing against her chest and making it hurt more. But he had been trying to help her; she remembered him telling her about her promise. She had wanted to answer him, to tell him that she would do her best, but she had not been able to say a word.

Now there were other people around her. They were talking, though she could not make out the words. One of them was pressing on her chest too. Then they were lifting her onto some soft thing. That was alright, but when the straps were suddenly being put around her body, she wanted to cry out in protest.

The sudden, familiar scream tore through her weak awareness and into her heart and soul. "Autor?" she cried. "Autor, what's wrong? Are you hurt too? AUTOR!"

But no matter how she called out, her words never had a voice outside of her mind. She fell further into the darkness, her strength spent.

xxxx

Fakir arrived at the hospital as fast as his faithful horse could carry him. He burst through the doors, his heart pounding as he scanned the waiting room.

He had not felt such an acute fear and terror in some time. But when the police officer had knocked on the door of the antique shop and had informed him that Ahiru had been shot and was in serious condition, his blood had run cold. In the next instant he had run past the officer and out to the stable to get his horse.

Charon was out of town, so they were on their own. Fakir vaguely recalled telling the officer that he would let Charon know what had happened, but at the moment that was at the back of his thoughts. First of all, he wanted to know what had happened.

The confused and panicked and even angry thoughts had passed through his mind on the way to the hospital. How had it happened? Autor had been with her, hadn't he? Why hadn't he been able to stop it? Logically he knew that such things could not always be prevented, but he was not in a logical state of mind.

Autor was standing over by the window, not facing the waiting room doors. Fakir frowned. His reflection should be visible in the glass. Was Autor not paying attention? Or was he deliberately ignoring Fakir?

The Story-Spinner went over, forcing himself not to run. "What happened?" he demanded. "How is she?"

Autor gave a violent start. Clearly, he had not been aware of Fakir's arrival at all. Pushing up his glasses, he turned to face Fakir.

"There was a thief," he said. His voice was even at first but then trembled slightly. "A coward. He shot Ahiru and fled for his life." He drew a shaking breath. "She's still in surgery."

Fakir's nerves stretched taut, only accentuated by Autor's maddeningly calm tone. He did not hear the tremor or see how Autor's hand shook as he reached to adjust his glasses. "I trusted you," he could not stop himself from saying. "You were supposed to keep her safe!"

Autor flinched. "If I hadn't been there, she might be dead!" he retorted. But inwardly he was in turmoil. I was there and I couldn't stop it from happening in the first place, he thought in bitter anguish.

Fakir grabbed Autor's blazer, only realizing now that his cravat was missing. "The police officer said the bullet could have hit her heart if she'd been facing the robber just a little bit more!" he snarled. "Do you care at all?"

The stricken look in Autor's eyes made him snap back to himself and instantly regret his thoughtless words. But it was too late to call them back.

"How dare you," Autor said now, wrenching his jacket out of Fakir's grip. His eyes had turned cold. "You aren't the only one affected by this."

Fakir took a step back. "I . . . I didn't mean that," he stammered. "I'm sorry."

Now, as he surveyed Autor standing before him, he caught sight of how damp the cuffs of Autor's blazer and his shirt were. He frowned in confusion. "Why are your clothes all wet?" he asked.

"It doesn't matter," Autor responded. "If you'll excuse me." He moved to walk past Fakir, who stiffened.

"Hey," he said, reaching for Autor's arm. "Don't leave like this. I . . ." He gritted his teeth. Both he and Autor were proud people. It was difficult for either of them to admit to making a mistake. But he was trying.

"Fakir." Autor pulled away, but did turn to look at him. "This isn't about what you said. Nevertheless, I doubt we can stand each other's company at the moment. I'll be back before long." With that he resumed his pace, exiting the waiting room as he entered the hospital corridor.

Fakir was left to stare after him, stunned and unsure of what to think. At last he growled, sinking into a chair and leaning forward.

He's probably right, he thought to himself, digging his hands into his hair.

He and Autor were strange friends, generally bantering and mocking and keeping each other at arm's length. But they were there for each other in times of trouble. Or at least, Fakir had thought so. Yet tonight he had promptly taken out his own worries and fears on Autor. The look in Autor's eyes for that brief moment was going to keep haunting him. He knew that.

Why on earth had he said such a thing? Was it a reflection of his anger over not having been there himself to try to stop Ahiru from being shot?

Not that he could have done so, either.

He lapsed into silence, staring at the floor. Idly he wondered where Autor had gone, but it was not really important, he supposed. Autor would be back, after they each had a chance to calm down. And maybe it was a good thing to be by themselves for a while. Clearly, he was in no state to be trying to talk with anyone, especially Autor.

He cursed himself, the accident, and the thief, calling them all several choice words in his head. The robber had better be praying that it would be the police who would catch him. If anything worse happened to Ahiru, Fakir doubted he would be able to restrain himself from going after the lowlife on his own.

And he would be in no mood to be merciful.

xxxx

The door of the small hospital chapel creaked open. Autor peered inside, noting with approval that it was empty. He slipped in, letting the door shut quietly behind him. With a weary and pained sigh he sank into the last pew.

The room was only dimly lit, mainly by lights shining through the stained glass windows that cast the chapel in a variety of hues. It was meant to be a pleasant, worshipful, and comforting atmosphere. At the moment, it suited Autor's mood far more than the bright hospital waiting room.

He held up his arm, staring blankly at the damp sleeve. He had still been in an overwrought state upon first arriving at the hospital. Instead of going to the waiting room then he had immediately sought out the restroom, where he had proceeded to scrub at his hands in desperation. He had gazed at the red water running down the drain, shaking and dizzy, still trying to fully wrap his mind over what had happened.

Ahiru's blood had been all over his hands and wrists and even his clothes. He had scoured his jacket and his shirt until it was all off, but he still felt stained.

I tried to save her, he thought bitterly. I didn't want this to happen!

He removed his glasses, running a hand over his aching eyes as he leaned back against the bench.

He had prayed for Ahiru while he had struggled to help her in the road. Part of him wanted to do so again now. But in one way, he did not see the point. If she was going to be blessed to get well, God would surely hear the first prayer and others would not be necessary. It could even be seen as pestering God were he to keep praying for her. At the moment he was not sure what to do. He felt helpless, just as he had felt seeing her lying bleeding in his arms and in the street.

A couple of years ago, a chapel was the last place he would have imagined he would visit. Angry and hurting, he had determined years earlier that he did not want to believe in God, that it was a foolish crutch for the weak, that logic and facts were the only things one could put faith in.

And yet, he wondered if deep down he had always believed in God anyway.

He had started idly looking through the Bible and other religious materials after the end of Drosselmeyer's Story. He did not really know why; he had seen his mother's Bible on the shelf one day and had taken it out on a whim. He had glanced through it, decided that was it, and had replaced it. Even so, he had gone back to it several times over the succeeding weeks—reading certain chapters, discovering verses his mother had marked, pondering over what she had liked about those particular lines. . . .

It had not been long after that when he had discovered his powers through the medium of music. All thoughts of anything religious had been abandoned then, with the power he had craved for so long right in his grasp. And yet he remembered that when he had finally broke free of the madness that had clouded his mind for months, he had cried out to God in horror over what he had done.

He replaced his glasses and sat up straighter, bowing his head as he whispered a prayer for Ahiru. She did not deserve death, though neither did so many others who perished. How could he really have faith and hope that she would live? He had prayed for both of his parents too, and they had still died. Praying was certainly not a guarantee of recovery.

He started and looked up as the heavy door opened. Fakir stood silhouetted in the light from the corridor before entering and allowing the door to close behind him. He started to advance, then stopped and looked towards the last pew in surprise.

"Autor," he said by way of greeting.

Autor sniffed. "So you've found your way here as well," he said. "That's interesting; I don't think I've ever heard you talk about matters of religion."

Fakir sank wearily onto the bench next to him. "That doesn't mean I don't believe," he grunted. "Or that I don't want to."

"True," Autor conceded.

He sighed, also weary. "It's strange," he mused. "I don't believe anymore. I've been to the afterlife; I know God exists. It would be blasphemous for me to deny it now. But my insistence on logic and realism won't let me fully embrace the thought that Ahiru will recover. She should live. Yet that doesn't mean she will."

Fakir felt a prick at those last words. "I know that," he snapped.

But then his shoulders slumped. Autor was expressing his own fears, not trying to make Fakir's worse. He gave Autor a sideways glance. "You've never talked much about what happened to you back then," he said.

"I've never felt the need or the desire," Autor returned. "Especially when my being gone hurt you and Ahiru so much.

"Well . . . there are things I wouldn't mind sharing . . ." For a moment something akin to awe flickered through his eyes and Fakir saw a glimpse of the Autor from days gone by, the Autor who had held Drosselmeyer in the highest, reverential esteem—though Fakir realized that this time Autor was not thinking of Drosselmeyer in the least.

". . . But the last thing I would want would be to make it sound like I was having an amazing experience, feeling nothing but joy while you were both grieving over me."

Fakir grunted. "Even though you really were," he said.

"That's not true." Autor looked over at him. "Yes, Heaven is a beautiful, awe-inspiring place, and I was fascinated and happy there, but I couldn't fully be at peace. Not while I knew you and Ahiru were in agony back here." His voice lowered. "And I wanted to come back. . . ."

Fakir was silent. After a moment Autor glanced over at him, frowning. He had spoken about some of these things with Ahiru some time back, but he and Fakir had never before had a chance to discuss the matter. It had still been a sore topic for Fakir even ages after Autor's return from the dead. Now Fakir was staring at the floor, seeming deep in thought.

"I know how much you care about Ahiru," he said, "but . . ."

Autor crossed his arms. "You think I wouldn't care about you too?" he said. The mocking tone was back in his voice now.

Fakir straightened, narrowing his eyes. Autor looked sneering and smug, as though challenging Fakir to answer that question in the positive.

"Idiot," he muttered, looking away. He wanted to add that he knew Autor cared, but the words were stuck on his tongue. But that was just because of his frustrating pride, wasn't it? Surely he did not still have doubts. Especially not after what Autor had done to save him when he had lost all of his memories.

"I know you care," he said.

"Was that so hard to say?" Autor smirked.

Fakir half-shrugged. "You don't make it easy," he said, though he knew he himself was just as much of an obstacle, if not more. "I don't know how I ever ended up with a guy like you."

"Sometimes I wonder that myself," Autor said, his voice dripping irony. "Your writing style is still in serious need of improvement and guidance. And you're really much too short-tempered. Yet we've made quite a team, haven't we?"

Fakir looked at the other boy for a moment, his eyes searching to make certain he was not being led into a verbal trap. But Autor seemed sincere.

"Yeah," he said, "we have. And Ahiru's part of that team too."

Autor sobered, at last giving a slow nod. "She is," he said.

Fakir stared at his hands. ". . . I saw the guy who got robbed," he said. "He showed up here because he was worried about Ahiru . . . and you."

Autor stiffened uncomfortably. "There hasn't been any news, has there?" he queried, albeit he doubted it—which was why he had not asked before.

"No," Fakir said.

He shifted. "Your scarf's missing," he said at last.

"I can assure you, I am fully aware of that," Autor said. "I shouldn't have any trouble replacing it."

Fakir fell silent, thinking back on what he had heard from the carriage driver. The look in Autor's eyes after his thoughtless and biting words had driven a sword into his heart. He had not thought anything else could affect him as profoundly as that sight, but the driver's descriptions of the scene had still added to the weighty guilt he was currently feeling.

Autor had gone into action seconds after Ahiru had been shot. And even with his mounting hysteria and panic over the situation, he had forced himself to stay calm and efficient. Ahiru likely could have died if not for him. She still could, but Autor had given her a fighting chance.

"Are you sure he's alright, lad?" the driver had asked Fakir in concern. "He was trying so hard to be strong. He didn't crack until the paramedics had her and he realized her blood was all over him." Grimly, he had shaken his head. "I daresay I haven't ever heard such a heart-rending scream in all my life."

Fakir would never mention that aloud. Of course Autor did not want to talk about it. He would never want Fakir to even know about it. But it pierced Fakir nevertheless. Autor had probably only barely managed to compose himself moments before Fakir had arrived at the hospital. And if Fakir had paid attention to the warning signals—or for Heaven's sake, had he been thinking at all—he would have known Autor was devastated.

Autor loved Ahiru. Not in a romantic sense, but just as powerful and enduring. For her to be hurt while he was right there must have been a horrible blow, akin to how Fakir had felt when Ahiru had been injured by the wandering ghost knight. Fakir had not rubbed salt in the wound; he had emptied an entire shaker.

"Ahiru couldn't have been with anyone more capable," he said then.

Autor started and looked to him with a suspicious frown. "That isn't what you said before," he said.

Fakir met his gaze. "I was angry," he said. "All I could think about was that Ahiru had been hurt—while she had been with you, no less. I was mad that you hadn't been able to protect her. I was mad that I hadn't been able to protect her. And it all kind of came out."

"I realize that," Autor said. "But I hope you're not saying this solely out of guilt, feeling a need to make amends."

"I'm not," Fakir said. "I know it's true. If . . ." He drew a shaking breath. "If she dies, it isn't because of you."

Autor's eyes flickered with a mix of unrecognizable emotions. "I couldn't stop the bullet from hitting her," he said, bitterness slipping into his voice.

"Maybe no one could have," Fakir said.

"It happened so fast," Autor said, his tone hushed now. "The thief turned, fired, and Ahiru cried out. . . ."

Fakir's stomach twisted. It was a horrible image.

"I've seen her in emotional and mental anguish, which I know by principle can be worse, but to see her lying in the street, blood staining her heaving chest and her clothes . . ." Autor shuddered. "And to know that no matter what you do, she might still die anyway. . . ."

"Ahiru's not supposed to be hurt," Fakir muttered. "She's supposed to be cheerful and happy."

Autor nodded. "And keeping up an endless chatter."

The door opened again, bringing both boys sharply to attention. As they turned, Autor's eyes widened in recognition. It was the doctor who had taken Ahiru when they had first arrived.

"What is it?" he demanded, getting to his feet.

The man gave a tired, weary smile. "She doesn't want to die," he said. "Even when it looked bad for her, she held on tight." He nodded, half to himself. "She made it through the surgery. She needed a blood transfusion, but it looks like she'll be fine."

Relief swept over them both. "I want to see her," Fakir said. Despite the doctor's words, he would not be able to fully believe until he saw Ahiru himself and could be reassured.

"I'll take you to her room," the physician told them.

They followed him out of the chapel and down the hall, where he finally led them to a room at the end. As he started to push open the door, Fakir went past him, pushing it open further. Autor was right on his heels. The doctor started in surprise, then nodded his approval. Quietly, he slipped back into the corridor.

Ahiru, dressed in a simple nightgown, looked peaceful in the bed. Fakir went over, gripping the railing as he gazed down at her. She looked more asleep than unconscious. But her skin was pale, a quiet reminder that she had been hurt.

He could have lost her tonight. And if that had happened, would he have lost Autor, too? Would Autor have recovered from losing her when he had tried so hard to save her? Would Fakir have fallen into grief and started blaming him again?

Autor went to the other side of the bed, both wanting his space and wanting to give room to Fakir. Ahiru did look serene, he decided. Yes, she would be alright. Thanksgiving filled his heart.

Fakir sat down in a chair next to the bed. He was going to stay until she woke up. He did not care if someone came in and tried to make him go because of some stupid visiting hours policy. Ahiru would not want to wake up alone, and he would not want her to.

Autor glanced to him, but was not surprised. He intended to stay as well.

For a long moment Fakir was silent, staring first at Ahiru and then at the tiled floor. Autor watched him, also in silence. Clearly, he had something on his mind. But whether it was a continuation of their previous discussions, Ahiru's fate, or an entirely different subject was uncertain.

"I've wondered something," Autor spoke at last.

Fakir glanced over at him. "What is it?" he grunted.

"I've seen you become tense, even jealous, when Ahiru speaks to some of the other male students at the academy or others around town," Autor said. "Yet you have never seemed to have a problem with me in that regard. Why is that?"

Fakir's expression registered surprise. He straightened, giving Autor his full attention. "She doesn't think of you like a crush or a boyfriend or anything like that," he said.

"And how would you know?" Autor returned. "If you so irrationally believe that strangers she takes an interest in are a possible threat, why am I exempt?"

Fakir found himself at a loss. At last he shook his head. "I don't know," he muttered.

"Do you think I couldn't be capable of falling in love with her?" Autor said. He crossed his arms over his chest. "Or am I someone who would only want a more serious, worldly girl?"

Fakir opened his mouth to reply but then closed it again.

"While it's true that Ahiru certainly doesn't have the grace or the allure of someone such as Rue, she has a unique charm all her own. She is beautiful." Autor glanced down at her senseless form. "You recognize that, Fakir. There's no reason someone else couldn't as well."

"Are you trying to tell me something?" Fakir shot back now.

Autor smirked at him. "Now you're concerned?" he said, pushing up his glasses.

Fakir narrowed his eyes. Autor had been slipping back into his usual behavior. Usually Fakir had the patience to deal with the other boy's playful mocking, but tonight he did not. After having known Autor as long as he had, however, he was quite sure that Autor would realize that it was still too soon to pick up their banter.

So it was not a great surprise when the bookish recluse sobered. "No," he said. "I'm not trying to tell you something, at least not if we're using 'something' as a codeword for 'I have fallen hopelessly in love with the girl you hope to marry someday.'"

Fakir went red. Autor could not resist a bit of amusement at that, though he did not comment.

"Ahiru is someone very special to me," Autor said now, "but I don't love her in any way that's a threat to you. Nor does she feel such a way about me. But we've gotten off the subject, Fakir. The question was, Why aren't you worried that it could happen?"

Fakir looked at his friend. He really was not sure of the answer, when he thought about it. He had briefly feared the nature of Ahiru's attraction to Autor at the beginning, but when Ahiru had said that they should both be friends with him Fakir's concerns had vanished. And, perhaps oddly enough, he could not recall them ever resurfacing.

"Maybe I trust you not to betray me like that," he said. "And Ahiru. Maybe I've just always seen that there's something different with the two of you. I don't know. It's something I haven't really thought about."

"If you truly trust Ahiru, then you shouldn't get so stiff when she addresses another male," Autor said. "You should know by now that she's only being friendly and platonically interested."

"Yeah," Fakir said, looking away. "That's just the way she is."

He hesitated. "Though, if I'm honest, maybe part of the reason I was so angry at first was because it was you with Ahiru and not me." He clenched a fist. "I wanted to think I could have saved her if I'd been there. But not just that; if it had to happen, I wanted to be the one with her, trying to save her life. I didn't want it to be anyone else, even you."

"I suspected as much," Autor said. "That's a human reaction." But that did not mean Fakir's words had not hurt. He sighed, studying his hands.

"I'm sorry anyway," Fakir muttered.

"I know," Autor said.

xxxx

The hours dragged on without much of anything else notable taking place. Ahiru breathed steadily, while her two guardians watched over her and eventually, unwillingly, dozed off and on. But when she finally began to regain consciousness, they were both at attention.

"Ahiru?" Fakir demanded, leaning over the railing as her eyelids fluttered.

Autor watched intently but did not move. She could be merely stirring before falling deeper into sleep.

Instead her eyes opened halfway. "Fakir?" she rasped, her voice barely more than a faint whisper.

"Yeah," Fakir said, as relief and joy washed over him. "How are you feeling?"

"Okay," Ahiru mumbled.

Fakir shook his head. "You're still doped up on pain medication," he said. "You won't feel 'okay' later. Do you remember what happened?"

For a moment Ahiru looked confused. But then her eyes widened with understanding. "I was going home with Autor," she said. "I got shot. . . ." She glanced around, seeming confused and worried.

Autor stood, coming to the railing on the other side of the bed. "I'm here as well," he said, suddenly unable to hide his own emotions. He gazed down at the girl they had almost lost, his throat and voice constricting. They might have never heard her talk to them again, nor seen those innocent blue eyes looking up. He forced back a burst of anger and hatred directed towards the shooter. That would not help anything.

Ahiru looked up at him. "Autor . . ." She managed a weak smile. "I remember you helped me. Thank you." Weakly she raised her right hand, the fingers brushing against Autor's hand on the railing. He went red.

"You don't need to thank me," he said. "You're . . ." He swallowed hard. "You're dear to me. I didn't want to lose you."

"You won't, Autor," Ahiru assured him. She looked to Fakir. "I'm going to get better, right?"

"Idiot," Fakir said, allowing a fond smile. "Of course you'll get better."

"And I'll have both of you to help me all along the way," Ahiru said.

Fakir glanced to Autor, who looked back. They would definitely be there for Ahiru, and hopefully for each other as well. They were all friends, but more than that, they had become a surrogate family of sorts. Whether Autor was biologically related to Fakir did not have any bearing on that fact.

"Yeah," Fakir agreed. "We'll be here for you."

Ahiru smiled, settling into the pillow. "Good," she said. "I'm glad."

But then she stiffened, remembrance flashing through her eyes. "Autor, are you okay now?"

He looked at her, bewildered. "Am I okay?" He frowned. "You're the one who was hurt."

She shook her head. "I heard you scream. . . ." Tears pricked her eyes. "I tried to call and ask what was wrong, but I couldn't say anything."

Now Autor was surprised. He had not expected Ahiru would have heard anything from that point, although he had hoped she had heard his words to her. His consternation overshadowed even his dismay that now Fakir would know of his outburst.

"I'm alright now," he said.

Ahiru searched his eyes, as if trying to determine if that was true, but then seemed satisfied.

"You were trying to move me away," she said softly. "If I'd been quicker, maybe I wouldn't have got hurt and you and Fakir wouldn't have had to worry. But . . ." She managed a weak smile. "If you hadn't been as quick as you were, maybe I would have been hurt even worse."

Both Autor and Fakir stared at her, stunned by her insight. But at last Autor leaned back, overwhelmed by the thoughts filling his mind. Perhaps that was true. He had been told that the bullet would likely have struck her heart if she had been facing the scene head-on. And if he had not been trying to steer her away, she would have been.

He had wanted to believe that he had actually helped save her life and had told that to Fakir. But deep in his heart he had not known what to think at all. This angle, that he had not previously considered, somehow gave him the added confirmation that he had still felt he needed.

"Thank you," he managed to choke out.

Ahiru looked bewildered now. "You're thanking me? Why?"

Autor recovered quickly. "For not dying," he said, his voice smooth.

Fakir crossed his arms. He knew what Autor had actually meant. And guilt was pricking his heart again. He had already come to realize that Ahiru very likely could have died without Autor there. Now it seemed that it was almost certainly true. Autor had been loyal and responsible throughout the experience.

I shouldn't have lost my temper, he thought to himself.

Suddenly he became aware that Ahiru was looking to him now. "Fakir?" she asked, concern in her eyes. "What is it? Did something happen?"

Fakir started. He opened his mouth, half-tempted to tell her the truth.

"Nothing happened," Autor cut in. "That is, nothing that wouldn't be expected when two people are highly worried about someone whom they care about."

Fakir looked to Autor in surprise, but the other boy only calmly returned the look. There was no point in telling Ahiru they had been arguing. She would likely figure that out herself anyway, when she was feeling better.

Albeit she looked like she might be figuring it out right then, from her concentrated and suspicious expression as she glanced back and forth between her best friends.

"Everything's okay now, right?" she said.

Fakir hesitated. Was it? Again he looked to Autor.

Autor smiled, only briefly looking to Fakir before returning his attention to Ahiru's question. Ahiru would recover. And he could have the peace of mind that he had done everything for her that he could. He would not let himself continue to feel hurt and bitter over words that had been spoken in anger and never meant.

"Yes," he said, and fully meant it. "Everything's alright."