Notes: And here is the final segment. I might have waited another day to post it, but I'm very eager to start posting a new mystery story I've been working on. I'm unsure of how the ending will be received, but it's the ending I've really wanted since Akt 1. Thanks to Kaze and Lisa, who helped with this segment, and thanks to everyone who has provided help and/or read and reviewed!

Akt the Sixth

Prompt: #27 – Tight

Autor sank into a chair near the roaring fire, cradling a cup of tea in his hands. He stared into the blaze, watching the flames dancing and lapping without really seeing them.

It had been a strange few weeks—not that things had not been strange ever since Ahiru's demise.

Luckily, he had not had any further encounters with either of Ahiru's female friends. He was perfectly content to not see them any more, and he was certain the pink-haired girl felt the same. Perhaps she was jealous, but regardless, she had never liked him to begin with. And the feeling was quite mutual.

For the most part, all the students had left him alone. The dorm parents had been horrified and sickened to learn of the way he had been treated over the past weeks. After the incident with Piké and Lilie they had grown more attentive and diligent, wanting to make sure that all similar incidents would be prevented. And the students, not wanting word to get back to them that said otherwise, cooperated.

Autor sipped the tea, his mind continuing to wander.

He and Fakir had spoken some the last few days. Fakir knew he needed to try taking up his writing again, but at the same time he did not want to. He had done nothing with it since Ahiru's death, not having the heart or the will since his and Autor's powers had been partially responsible for the explosion.

"When you feel ready, you really should try again," Autor told him. "The more we hone our abilities, the less likelihood there is of something like this happening another time."

"Ahiru's already gone," Fakir said bitterly.

"She would want us both to continue," Autor said. "Like it or not, I doubt that sorcerer will be the last of our enemies. And I, for one, don't want to see a repeat of what happened to Ahiru happen to someone else."

Of course Fakir agreed. But his eyes narrowed as he retorted, "I haven't heard you practicing with your music powers lately."

Autor looked away. "Neither of us should try to force ourselves to use our abilities," he answered, somewhat stiffly. "More than likely, it would only deliver mediocre results." Pushing up his glasses he added, "I did say 'When you feel ready.'"

Fakir grunted in response.

Both of them still wondered if Ahiru's death could have been prevented had they known some other way to handle the problem. And the more time passed, the deeper the wounds seemed to go. Time had not proved a healing balm for them.

Finishing the tea, Autor set the cup and saucer on the table next to the chair. Then he stood, crossing the room to the grand piano and sinking down on the bench. As he touched the keys he found himself playing the piece he had written for Ahiru. It always stirred such a mixture of feelings within his heart—from longing to nostalgia to melancholia.

He wanted to hear Ahiru ramble on about silly, pointless things. He wanted to see her twirl about, bright and cheery, and take his arm to drag him off on some strange adventure. He would not even mind witnessing her and Fakir arguing—much, anyway. At least it would mean she was there to argue with Fakir.

How had everything gone so wrong? He asked himself that question every day, but there were no satisfactory answers. Why hadn't he or Fakir been able to rescue Ahiru in time? And if the magic and not the fall had killed her, would saving her have even been possible?

He was growing more worried about Fakir as the days wore on. Fakir was sinking further into his grief and guilt. Perhaps, if Autor were to examine himself, he would find that he was doing the same thing. He did not like to study his feelings for long, not in a case like this when merely thinking them over was painful. Fakir, he knew, held similar misgivings.

And if the blind lead the blind, they'll both fall in the ditch, he thought to himself. We've both fallen in already of our own doing. How do we even begin to discern the way to climb out?

The soft, almost hesitant knock startled him. He stopped playing, frowning as he looked towards the door. Who would be coming at this hour? And, he noted, they had chosen to come to the front door instead of the door to the study. Had they seen the light or heard the piano? It did not really matter, although he had to wonder what the caller wanted.

He got up, crossing to the door and opening it. "Yes, what is it?" he frowned. "Do you have any idea what time it is?"

But then he caught sight of the girl looking back at him and the world began to spin. He stumbled, slamming into the heavy wooden door. For the first time in his life, he thought he might swoon from shock rather than an illness.

"Autor? Ohmygosh, Autor, are you okay?"

His heart was pounding fast, almost too fast to hear her at all. She was running up to him, touching his shoulder with a warm hand of flesh and blood.

"This isn't real," he managed to say. "It can't be real." He stared into Ahiru's wide blue eyes. "It's some sort of dream or hallucination." He reached out, his own hand trembling as he laid it over hers.

Tears pricked her eyes. "I'm sorry. I'm so sorry, Autor. I . . ." Her lower lip quivered. "I'm alive. That awful sorcerer, he . . . he planned everything! All the magic made the dead me you found. He did it on purpose just to be mean to you and Fakir. I got sent to this creepy place that I couldn't get out of, but sometimes I could see you and Fakir and I couldn't talk to you and I couldn't let you know I was okay and . . ."

Autor stared at her, his heart continuing to hammer in his ears. Was this actually true? What if this was another cruel trick of the sorcerer's, sending a living Ahiru illusion to torment them now? How would he know?

"The sorcerer," he managed to say. "Is he really dead?" He had been so sure, but they had been sure about Ahiru too, and now he was not sure of anything.

"I think so," Ahiru said. "He didn't mean for the magic to backfire on him . . . at least, I don't think he did. . . ." She shifted. "Unless maybe the magic made a fake him too. . . ." Her eyes widened. "What if he's alive too and he's going to come back and cause more trouble?"

"Then we'll handle it," Autor said at last, still reeling. "And we'll be more wise the next time we meet."

It almost felt as though he were reciting lines from a script without actually thinking about their content. He could not process the concept of the sorcerer being alive any more than he could process Ahiru being alive.

Ahiru nodded slowly. "Yeah, I guess that's all we can do," she said. "But I hope he won't come back."

"As do I," Autor said.

"I've been wandering around for ages!" Ahiru declared now. "It was like a whole dimension inside of this one! When I finally got out and I went to see Fakir, he got really pale. Then he started coming over all slow, like he couldn't believe it was me. . . . I could hardly believe I was really out. I . . ."

Autor's grip on her hand tightened. "How do I know you're Ahiru?" he demanded, unable to refrain any longer from asking. "You come here with a story about the deceased Ahiru being fake. In actuality, you could be the fake."

"But I'm not!" Ahiru exclaimed in desperation. "I know you and Fakir have been through so much, Autor, and I know it's probably impossible to believe it, but I'm really me. I'm alive and okay!"

She trembled. "I wanted to talk to you and Fakir so bad, so many times," she said. "I saw Fakir getting upset and hitting things, and you so heart-broken and still trying to go on like usual, and . . ." She looked up at him. "I know how you must have felt," she whispered. "When you were . . . dead, I mean."

Autor searched her eyes for any indication of insincerity or a lack of knowledge in what she professed to be aware of, but he could find none. Slowly he began to let go of her hand.

"I was able to talk to you just once, kind of," she said. "I could see you through one of the weird window things in that place. You looked so sad." She blinked back tears. "You tried to talk to me, and when I answered, you acted like you heard me."

He stiffened. "Yes," he said. "I tried to get you to talk to me more, but for whatever reason the communication had broken."

"It gave me some hope anyway," Ahiru said, her voice hushed. "I'd just about given up by then. But when you heard me I started thinking again that maybe I really could get out and come home."

Autor gazed at her, only now realizing that the last threads of his heart-broken and skeptical doubt were unraveling. If this was real, then Ahiru had indeed been suffering too, though not under the circumstances Autor had imagined. Unlike him, she had been alive. But akin to his own situation, she had not been able to return and had watched her loved ones in agony. Yet also like him, she finally had come back . . . if this was not some sort of cruel dream or illusion.

"Ahiru?" he breathed. His voice had gained a tremor. "It . . . it really is you? It isn't a trick or a delusion?"

Ahiru gave a soft nod. "Yeah," she said. "I know, I can hardly believe it myself, so I know you must be having a really terrible time." Her voice lowered. "I remember how hard it was for Fakir to really believe you'd come back. . . ."

She peered into his conflicted brown eyes. "Is there anything I can say that would help you believe it's really me?" she asked.

He hesitated. "I don't know," he said. "I . . . I don't see how you could really know about what happened the night I heard you, or about Fakir, if you weren't actually Ahiru. And yet I don't know how far that madman could go to craft an illusion."

Ahiru nodded. "Would he know about the times you stayed after playing the piano for class and played it for me while I practiced?" she ventured. "Or about the time we sat up waiting for Fakir to come home and I fell asleep on the couch with you?"

Autor gazed back at her. "No," he said, his voice choked with emotion. "No, I don't see how he could."

And his self-restraint snapped. He reached out, pulling Ahiru close in a tight embrace. "It's you," he declared with reverence. "It actually is you!"

Ahiru was stunned by the act. But then she smiled, throwing her arms around Autor in turn. He rarely ever hugged, and so far it had mostly only been a couple of times when Ahiru had made the first move. For him to hug first showed how deeply he felt.

"I'm so glad to be home," she whispered, burying her face in his shoulder for a brief moment. "I thought I'd never get back."

"I still don't understand how you did," Autor said.

"Me either. But we can talk about that later, right?"

He nodded. "Yes." It seemed irrelevant at the moment, but later he would want to question her thoroughly. This other dimension was something they needed to learn as much about as they could.

"Hey," she said then, looking up at him, "what were you playing? It was pretty. I heard you playing it one other time, and I tried to ask what it was, but . . ." She glanced away. "You couldn't hear me then."

Autor smiled a bit. "I wrote it for you," he said. "It's about you."

"About me?" She looked back up at him with a start.

"I've wanted to write it for so long," Autor said. "I wish I'd done it before . . . any of this." He exhaled sharply. "I wanted to play it for you."

"You can now!" she chirped.

Autor pulled back, looking at her fondly. "I can, can't I," he mused.

Still smiling, he kept an arm around her shoulders as he led her inside. She went with him, hugging him with one arm.

"I'm glad you're home as well," he said, shutting the door behind them.

Two treasured friends, reunited at last.