Lay Your Head Down, I'm Your Shield
Notes: The characters are not mine and the story is! It started as a random scene, but then I realized it would make a perfect gift for Nuitsongeur for Christmas. And so finally, with that in mind, it has transformed into an actual fic. The title is from a rather depressing song called NYC Winter, but that line is lovely. This is post-series, Ahiru is human again, and she and Autor have developed a very close friendship.
Ahiru snuggled closer to Autor, her eyes sinking half-closed as the cold snow swirled around them. He held her firmly, not wanting her to be overcome. His hands, chilled as well, shook in the frozen air.
"Autor . . ." Ahiru mumbled. "I'm tired."
"I know, but you can't sleep!" Autor retorted. His fear crept too well into his voice. "You have to find some way to stay awake."
He rested his chin on the top of her head. Of all ridiculous and ironic things, the worst blizzard to hit Bavaria in ages had to arrive after he had walked from the town gates with Ahiru to the next town over, accompanying her as she had delivered a message to Piké's aunt, at Piké's request. On their way back, the storm had hit and had never ceased. By now they were hopelessly lost in the swirling white, cold and exhausted.
"I still don't understand why your friend couldn't have simply telephoned," he had objected somewhere along their journey.
"She didn't want to talk about it on the phone," Ahiru had mumbled. "It's about some important family thing. And it would take too long for the letter she wrote to be delivered in the mail. . . ."
"Still, I didn't think she would be the type to inconvenience you like this," Autor had retorted. Lilie was the one he could not stand under any circumstances. Piké he could tolerate in his better moods.
"Lilie volunteered me," Ahiru had admitted. "Piké protested, actually, but I felt bad and said I'd take it, since she really couldn't get away to do it herself."
And Autor had huffed, telling her that Lilie had likely only volunteered her because of knowing that Ahiru would accept and wanting to see her look uncomfortable and think of her being inconvenienced.
Ahiru had fallen silent. Even with how deeply Lilie had crushed her with the way she had behaved about Autor's death some time back, Ahiru did not want to believe that Lilie really did not care. She felt that Lilie did, but in a very twisted way. Although Autor had tried to bring her to understand that such "caring" could only be selfish, he had never fully succeeded. Part of him wondered if Ahiru really knew that deep down, but just could not make herself say it aloud.
And now, Autor thought, thanks to Lilie deliberately playing on Ahiru's weakness for being kind, they were lost in this disaster. He was not even sure they had ever passed back through the town gates. It was that difficult to see anything in front of them.
Ahiru acted like she was dozing right now. Autor's mind raced in his growing worry. What was he to do? How would he help her? He was being affected by the temperature himself. At this point, he was not even sure how long he could make himself stay awake. The idea of sleep was sounding more and more wonderful to him.
Ahiru fought to keep her eyes open as she slumped against his shoulder. "Sing something," she slurred.
That woke Autor up at least somewhat more. "Excuse me?" he exclaimed.
"You know music and stuff. Sing something," Ahiru repeated. "I wanna hear you sing."
Autor felt himself going red. "I . . . I don't . . . that is, I don't sing," he said.
Ahiru peered up at him. "But you can sing, can't you?" she said.
". . . I suppose," Autor said. "But I have no idea what to sing."
"Christmas songs!" Ahiru chirped—at least, as much of a chirp as she could muster. "Sing Christmas songs."
"This is ridiculous," Autor retorted. "In my state, they'll sound horrible. And I don't even know if I'll remember the lyrics."
"What's a lyric?" Ahiru mumbled.
Autor let out another huge sigh. "The words," he said with impatience. Only now did he realize that he actually had revived a bit more. He leaned back with a blink of surprise. Well, maybe this would help him after all. And in turn, if he could help Ahiru . . . well, it would be worth the possible embarrassment.
"Okay. Sing the lyrics!" Ahiru said.
"Of what?" Autor returned. "Do you have any idea how many Christmas songs there are?"
"Pick one you like," Ahiru said. She burrowed ever closer to him, her half-frozen body shuddering in the chill.
"One I . . ." Autor shook his head. "I really don't have any idea what . . ." He stopped himself again. There were one or two that he particularly recalled from his childhood. His mother had sung them to him. She had been responsible for starting his love of music years earlier.
"Alright," he relented. "One song." As he continued to cradle Ahiru's exhausted body he began to sing O Holy Night. His voice was soft and a bit cracked at first, not used to being utilized in this way. But soon his confidence was building and he was singing the entire song.
Ahiru listened with rapt attention. "You're really good," she said at the conclusion.
"That wasn't bad, was it," Autor mused, half in relief, half in unwanted nostalgia.
"It was great!" Ahiru exclaimed. She sobered, frowning a bit. "But you sounded kind of sad. Why?"
Autor sighed. "It's nothing," he said. "It's just . . . my mother used to sing it."
"Oh." Ahiru looked down, guilty for prying. "You really miss her, huh?"
"Yes." Autor stared into the distance. "She always made Christmas the very best she possibly could. She went all out with cooking and cleaning and decorations. She was the one who trimmed the tree, while my father and I waited to be allowed back inside the room."
Ahiru frowned. "Why is it that everyone can't decorate the tree?" she wondered.
Autor blinked, surprised by the sudden question. "I don't know," he said. "That's just the way it's been done for years."
"I heard that in America the whole family decorates a tree!" Ahiru said, pushing herself a bit more upright. "That sounds like a lot of fun."
"Where did you hear that?" Autor asked, looking down at her as his glasses slipped down his nose.
Ahiru shrugged. "I don't know," she said. "Maybe it was something Lilie or Piké said. Or maybe I read it." Before Autor could reply her voice lowered. "Do you . . . still have a tree?" she queried.
Autor was silent for a long moment. "Yes," he admitted at last. "I trim it myself."
Ahiru frowned. "That doesn't sound fun," she said.
"Especially because of the reason why I'm trimming it alone," Autor said. I'm the only one left. He blinked rapidly, wondering why his eyes were abruptly deciding to become moist. He did not cry.
Sometimes he wondered why he kept Christmas at all. Most of the students at the academy likely thought he never would. He was considered the grouch, the Ebenezer Scrooge of the campus. But he still attended the town Christmas parties. He still put up a tree at his house—albeit no one except him and the servant ever saw it. He still celebrated the birth of the Christ child.
The first Christmas after his mother's death he had not wanted to. He had felt bitter and angry towards God because of being left alone. Yet for some reason on Christmas Eve, he had decided to put up a tree after all. It had only been to remember his parents, he had determined, and the good times they had shared, all together. It had not been for any religious convictions or even a desire to participate in the general Christmas festivities. And it had become sort of a routine for him.
Now he was not honestly sure what his reasons were. He had gradually turned back to God, and after his return to life after being dead he had wanted to worship. But he also wanted to remember his parents. He had been happiest at Christmastime, as a child. Perhaps in the end, that had always been his true motivations—he had been struggling to recapture that elusive happiness.
"You should invite Fakir and me over and we'll all decorate it!" Ahiru offered, breaking into his thoughts.
"What?" Autor asked. But then it sank in and he regarded her in some amusement. "You're looking for a way to be able to trim a tree," he said.
"Well . . . yeah, maybe," Ahiru said slowly. "But it's not just that!" she hurried to add. "I . . . I just don't think anyone should have to decorate alone. At least if they're doing it because . . ." She shuddered. "Because there's no one else around," she softly said at last.
Autor was touched. "Maybe it is time I started a new tradition," he said. "After all, so much has changed again . . . this time for the better. Last Christmas was the first I've ever spent with friends, and the first in years that I haven't spent alone. Perhaps this Christmas I should celebrate that. Not that I'm not grateful every day."
Ahiru hugged him. "It'll be great!" she gushed. "We'll have a Christmas party with you, me, and Fakir! And Charon, if you'd like him to come."
"I'd like that," Autor said. "But is it wise to be planning so far ahead? First we need to get out of this snowstorm and to someplace warm."
"If we make plans, then maybe we'll have more strength to get up!" Ahiru said. "At least, I hope so. I'm getting excited now. Maybe I can walk some more."
"I believe I can as well," Autor said. "Let's try, shall we?"
He moved to stand, carefully getting his feet under him before attempting to rise. At the same time he held onto Ahiru, hoping to raise her with him. They both wobbled, but somehow they managed to straighten their legs and spines and stand upright.
"We made it!" Ahiru exclaimed. "Now we just have to walk to a house."
Autor kept an arm around her shoulders, trying to support both her and himself. In turn, she hugged him around the waist with one arm. "We can't let ourselves be separated," he said. "It's still very difficult to see anything ahead of us."
"We'll still get home," Ahiru determined. "I won't let us fail. We'll go home and everything will be okay."
"While I admire your drive, I doubt we'll make it home without at least first stage hypothermia," Autor said.
"We'll get better anyway!" Ahiru said.
Autor smiled a bit. "Alright," he conceded. "I should hope we would."
He hesitated, mulling over something in his mind. Ahiru noticed; she looked up at him as they stumbled through the heavy snowdrifts. "Autor, what is it?" she asked.
He ran his tongue over his cold lips. "I'm not sure I've ever told you this, Ahiru," he said. "I know I've told you and Fakir that I don't love you in a way that should make Fakir feel threatened, and that's true, but . . ." Some semblance of color was coming into his cheeks. He held her a bit closer. "I don't think I've ever actually said that I . . ."
He paused again, running the words through his mind. But no matter how he tried to phrase it to himself, when he spoke again the truth came out plainly and simply—as it had when he had told Rue of his unrequited feelings for her.
"Ahiru, I love you."
Ahiru stopped walking, looking up at him in surprise. "Autor . . ." A slow, happy smile stretched over her features. "I love you too." Rather than try to jump up to hug him around the neck, she settled for hugging him around his waist.
Autor smiled, drawing his arms around her. How strange it was, he reflected. He was professing the deep feelings he carried for Ahiru, the duck-turned-girl he had found so frustrating and exasperating in the past. She had thought the same about him. And yet, some time ago they had begun to love each other. Those feelings would not diminish. On the contrary, Autor was certain they would only grow stronger through the years.
"And now we should keep going," he said.
Ahiru nodded. "Yeah. Let's." She pulled back, taking a shaking step forward.
Autor followed suit. That was the key, really—just one step at a time instead of thinking of the big picture. Finally one would find that a destination had been reached.
He could feel her happiness somehow, as they walked. She was likely still somewhat dazzled by Autor's announcement. Perhaps it had not fully sunk in, even though she had reciprocated. Yet even if that were so, she was happy anyway.
And so was he.
He was not sure how long they walked after that. Both their determination and the snow increased, making the attempt at getting home a true battle of wills. And though the fight persisted for some time, he was afraid they were losing.
He and Ahiru had continued to hold onto each other, not wanting to become separated—which would have been all too easy in the madness. The further they trudged, the more Ahiru sank against him. Eventually it became apparent that he was the only thing holding her up. Her legs were still moving in a mechanical sort of way, but the strength in her upper body was gone. He supported her as best as he could, although with his own energy nearly spent it was an almost impossible task. He was afraid that before long he would crash into her, unable to keep his own balance. When that happened, they would both be done for, unless by some slim chance a search party had been dispatched and would find them in time.
"Autor . . ."
He strained to hear Ahiru's weak voice over the howling winds. She was slumped almost entirely against him. And to his alarm, her grip around his waist was loosening.
"I wanna sleep now." She let go at the same moment her legs buckled. It was all Autor could do to keep holding onto her. And as she collapsed into the snow, his own equilibrium failed. He dropped to his knees.
"Ahiru, no!" he cried. He gripped her shoulders, trying to raise her from the frozen blanket. But it was no use. She would not or could not move, and his arms were too cold and numb to have the strength necessary to pick her up.
"Curse that Lilie!" he spat in helplessness.
With no other choice that he could see, he lay down next to Ahiru and slid his arms around her limp body. In her feeble awareness she burrowed against him, desperate for warmth.
"It'll be okay," she mumbled. "We'll be found."
Autor wanted to retort Yes, but in time? Yet somehow the words were stilled on his tongue. Ahiru's simple belief touched him. He wanted to believe too. Perhaps now he had to believe. It was all they had left.
He whispered a sincere plea for Help as his eyes began to fall shut.
He was started back to whatever threads of consciousness he had left. Ahiru was not moving, but he could feel her breathing. If at all possible he had to keep her awake. It was more vital now than it had even been before.
This time he did not protest. He just sang, as best as he could under the circumstances. He searched for the lyrics in his mind, desperate for anything that would help him to remain in control of his senses. He sang every Christmas song he could think of, though in his altered state it was not a great many. Somewhere in his thoughts he wondered if he was mixing up the words to several different carols, but right now it did not seem important. He sang until his voice was absolutely exhausted and he knew he could go no further.
It was then when he seemed to feel that he and Ahiru were gently being pulled away from each other and lifted up. He was too muddled to even wonder if they were dying and being taken to Heaven. Somehow it felt like everything would be alright now, whatever was happening. So he slumped into the strong arms, letting the darkness cover him.
"Why isn't he awake by now?"
"Idiot, you've only been awake a few minutes."
"It feels like a lot longer!
"Autor? Can you hear me? Please, say something!"
The voices were far away, but the feel of Ahiru's hands around his was close and warm. He tried to gather the strength to move, to speak, to do anything other than lie there, but his body did not seem capable of comprehending his commands.
It was sorely tempting to just give in to the exhaustion and go back to sleep—save for one factor. Ahiru must be alright, to be pleading for him to revive. And he wanted to pull himself back to consciousness to see her and make certain she was well, and so that she would not worry about him.
Ahiru reached up, brushing his falling bangs away from his eyes. "You and Fakir are always helping me," she whispered. "I heard Charon saying that I probably wouldn't have lasted out there if you hadn't come with me. I . . . I wish sometime I could really do something for you, Autor."
Oh Ahiru. You've done so much. I've told you that.
Autor finally managed to exert enough control to twitch his fingers. Ahiru stiffened, then cried out for joy.
"Autor! He's waking up! I know he is; he moved his hand!"
Fakir leaned over, hopeful yet cautiously so. "Autor?" Concern tinged his voice.
Finally Autor managed to force open his eyes. The scene blurred, not clearing enough for him to really make sense of it. But when he focused enough attention he was able to discern the gist of it.
A wood-burning stove was in front of him, warm almost to the point of feeling hot. That must be a good sign, he thought. He was no longer cold.
Ahiru was sitting beside him, holding his hand. Fakir was behind him, bending over with the flames casting odd shadows on his face. Another person (Charon?) was sitting at the far side of the room, watching them.
"Thank goodness," Ahiru whispered, her voice cracking. "Autor, we've been so worried!"
"Ahiru . . ." He looked at her, suddenly aware that his cheeks had gone red. "How . . . ?"
"Charon and Fakir found us," Ahiru said. "They said they heard something that sounded like singing and followed it. They'd been looking for ages! Piké even called up really upset and wanted to help look, but the dorm mother wouldn't let her out of the building because of the storm. . . ."
"They heard . . . singing?" Autor repeated. He frowned, trying to remember. Had there been singing? Then his eyes widened. Ahiru's request. He had been the one singing. That left him with mixed emotions. In his nearly delirious state, his voice had surely left something to be desired. He did not know that he liked having been heard by an audience. On the other hand, if it had helped him and Ahiru to be located, then it had been a good thing.
Ahiru gave an emphatic nod. "I remember you singing," she said, her voice lowering. "I stayed awake a long time because of that. Thank you, Autor. For that, and everything." She leaned down, giving him a quick and impulsive hug before pulling back. "How are you feeling?"
"I believe I would feel better if I could see," Autor said, blushing all the more.
"Right. Here." Fakir held out Autor's glasses, having retrieved them from off the table.
Autor took them and slipped them on, relieved as everything became clearer. "This isn't my house," he noted.
"Ours was closer," Charon said as he stood and came over to the teens. He shook his head. "When Fakir and I found the two of you, we weren't sure how bad off you both were. You're lucky that neither of you have any frostbite."
"That's a miracle," Autor said as he slowly pushed himself up.
Ahiru nodded enthusiastically. "It's probably because we were keeping each other warm," she said. "And oh! Charon, Autor and me decided something!"
Charon raised an eyebrow. "What's that?" he asked, choosing to ignore the terrible grammar.
"We're going to have a Christmas get-together thing at Autor's house and all four of us are going to decorate Autor's tree!" Ahiru beamed.
Autor's eyebrows shot up. "You remember that conversation?"
"Of course!" Ahiru looked hopefully to Fakir and Charon. "What do you think?"
Fakir grunted. "What brought this on?" he wondered.
Ahiru shrugged. "We were just talking about stuff and it came up," she said. "I don't think Autor should have to decorate alone."
Fakir looked to Autor. "You decorate?" he said in surprise.
"Yes, actually," Autor said. He allowed a bit of a smirk at Fakir's amazement.
Ahiru looked from Fakir to Charon, who seemed to be deep in thought. "Well?" she asked in impatience. "Will you come, Charon?"
"Well . . ." Charon leaned back, crossing his arms. "This whole idea is against tradition. But . . ." A smile came over his worn features. "In some ways we haven't been much for tradition around here in a long time."
Ahiru whooped in excitement. "It'll be great!" she exclaimed. "Autor, this is going to be a Christmas you'll never forget!"
It was slightly overwhelming to listen to Ahiru chatter on about the decorations and the music and every other aspect of the event, especially after having just woke up from what had surely been a bad case of hypothermia. But when Autor thought of how cold and taciturn Ahiru had been in the snow, he did not want to tell her to slow down enough so that he could gather his wits about him.
At least not for a few minutes, anyway.