The Bureau Files: Series 4

ooOoo

A/N: I'm back! Sorry for the delay, but I am super excited to get on with this story. I've had this plotline planned since the end of series 1, but it was later pushed back to make way for White King story arc. It's gone through a few changes since then, but I am thrilled to finally be able to announce Series 4 of The Bureau Files.

Enjoy.

Cat.

EDIT: Cover art was done by the wonderful Angie, on her Tumblr blog: drawerofdoodles. Please check out her lovely art!

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Episode 1: Ghosts (Part 1)

Hiromi hadn't realised Haru's disappearance.

Not at first.

After all, her flatmate often held odd hours and Hiromi was frequently left out of the loop. While she would have liked to think that they shared an unspoken link from their many years of friendship, the reality was that there was no supernatural shiver running down Hiromi's spine the moment Haru disappeared.

In fact, the day Haru disappeared, Hiromi was more preoccupied with secretly texting her boyfriend while her manager had her back turned. And, in the days that followed, she didn't worry particularly much either. After all, Haru was always disappearing without a moment's notice, sometimes coming back days later with barely an excuse.

But, as the days turned into a week, and then the week into two, Hiromi worried.

A year passed.

ooOoo

"Hey, Michael – thanks for letting me borrow the shop's printer again."

Michael watched Hiromi gather up the posters, lingering even though he still needed to set up the baskets beneath the outdoor canopy. "No problem."

"I wish you'd let me pay for these," she grumbled. "The amount of ink I've used up must be costing you guys a fortune–"

"It really doesn't matter."

Hiromi raised an eyebrow and dropped the wad of paper into her bag. "Fine. If you say so." She fumbled with the bag's latch, becoming steadily more frustrated as it escaped her grasp until eventually she gave up. Her hands slowed at her bag, and she glanced over to Michael. "You don't think she's coming back, do you?"

He looked away, but Hiromi saw his eyes dim. "I think it's important to have hope."

"Then why do you sound like you've already given up?"

Michael was silent.

"Fine." Hiromi huffed and slung the open bag over her shoulder. "Fine," she repeated, snappier. "Don't tell me. But you weren't the only one to lose Haru, you know. I've lost my best friend. I'd want to know if anything had happened to her." She started to the door, but paused as she reached the threshold. "I'm not giving up, you know. Even if I have to search the whole world, I will drag her sorry behind back home."

Michael smiled faintly. "I hope you're right."

"Of course I'm right." She smirked, a little of her familiar bravado trickling into her grin. "I'm always right." But as she turned and left the Paradise Pet Store behind, that façade gave way. She shivered and pushed on in the direction of the Crossroads. She attached the posters to a couple of lampposts along the way and occasionally stopped by shops and cafes to ask them to display a poster or two. Most places refused, but there were always a couple who took pity. And several others had just been worn down by Hiromi's dogged persistence.

As she reached the Crossroads, there was already a healthy dent in her poster stock.

"Chika! How are things?"

An old classmate paused at the café table she was clearing up. She adjusted her large, round glasses to get a better look at the greeter. "Hello, Hiromi. Back again?"

Hiromi grinned and offered a couple of posters. "I'm sorry, but could you…?"

Chika gave a smile that Hiromi had rapidly come to know after Haru's disappearance. It was a mixture of pity and surprise. But mostly pity. "Sure. I'll drop them on a couple of tables. No news then, I take it?"

"No. But I'm feeling lucky this week!" Hiromi forced a grin, but Chika's pity-smile still didn't fade. If anything, it intensified with awkwardness. Hiromi was familiar with that response too. No one knew quite what to say about Haru's disappearance.

Chika dropped her gaze to the posters she now held. On each was a large photo of Haru, with details of her last known location and any other identifying details. At the bottom was Hiromi's phone number. It was, unmistakeably, a Missing Person poster.

"How are you coping?"

Hiromi's smile thinned. In the last six months she had experienced this question more often than in the last five years. "Fine," she said. That was always her response. Now, anyway. It was easier that way. "Hey, thanks for, you know, taking the posters, but I have to go. It's been a long day."

"Sure." There, again – that same look of pity. "Well, you know where I am if you ever want to stop by for a chat."

"Thanks. I'll keep that in mind."

Lie.

"And don't blame yourself. This isn't your fault."

Hiromi's smile dropped away entirely. Why did people think that she felt guilty for Haru's disappearance? "It's not that," she said. "I just want to find my friend." She turned and, in her haste, knocked into a chair.

The seat wobbled, but remained standing thanks to the fat cat weighing it down. The cat in question wasn't so pleased; it spared a withering glare at the human and sank back into slumber.

"Careful, Hiromi." Chika laughed, a little forcefully, and gave the cat a scratch behind the ears. "He's one of our most faithful customers. Aren't you, Moon?"

"Moon?"

The waitress shrugged. "Well, he doesn't have a nametag, so that's just what the other staff call him. I'll see you around, Hiromi."

"Yeah." Hiromi didn't move from her spot, though. Instead, she stared down at the white cat. After a moment's deliberation – and once Chika was out of earshot – she knelt down to the creature's eye-level, a dangerous gleam in her gaze. "It's you. I can't believe it. Now listen up, you fatso, I know you can understand me."

An ear flickered, but there was no other response.

"I remember what happened in Oz, and I remember who you are. I know that Haru's been running off to spend time with you guys, so you must know what happened to her."

This time, no ear flickered, but the cat's form froze at Haru's name.

"Hey, you great piggy-cat. Listen to me. I need to know what happened to Haru. I need to know whether she's… I mean…" A sob caught in her throat when the cat failed to react, and Hiromi collapsed down onto the cobbled square. She ignored the strange looks from passersby. "I've lost it. I've completely lost it. You're probably not even the right cat. I'm sorry."

There was a creak as the cat rose from the chair. He gave an impatient, unsettled huff and jumped down. "Fine."

Hiromi scrabbled back. "What?"

"Fine," the cat snapped. "I'll take you to Baron. He can explain everything, 'cause I ain't. That's what you wanted, right?"

Hiromi pushed herself to her feet. "Really?"

The cat huffed again. "Yeah. Just don't call me 'piggy-cat' again." He started to run across the Crossroads, forcing Hiromi to break into a sprint to keep up.

This was it.

She would finally learn the truth.

ooOoo

The tea sat on Baron's desk, undrunk.

His blends had lost their taste a long time back, and although he still made tea out of some half-hearted sense of tradition, there was no love for the ritual anymore. When clients came – and they did come, for the rest of the world continued to spin even without Haru – Baron would opt for a safe variety. For the generic blends that appealed to most palates.

The clients were a welcome distraction and Baron threw himself into his work. When strangers came walking through the Sanctuary's archway, he would set the windows shimmering with his light show; a trick that had somewhat trickled from use during Haru's time with them. But now the light show was back, and it made up for his own quietness. While the clients were busy watching the magic, they would overlook him.

At first, the Bureau had done everything they could to find Haru. They had contacted Baker and Dawson, Chief Inspector Brody, and even managed to get hold of Akairo, the kitsune. But no one knew anything of Haru's whereabouts.

Brody had been kind, even if his eyes had betrayed the knowledge that this would eventually happen. That, one day, the human in the Cat Bureau would fall behind.

Baker had tried to be kind, but she was blunt about Haru's chances. She knew the risks of running between worlds and the unlikeness of ever returning once being lost between dimensions. Dawson had been apologetic for his companion's frankness, and was subdued by the news. Perhaps he was remembering how dangerous it was to become entangled with spirits and monsters when one was a human.

Still, both promised that they would look for her.

Akairo's powers could not track down Haru, and that was the point where hope began to give.

In weeks, and then months, that followed, the Bureau's efforts dwindled. Life, as it so often does, moved on and a new routine of sorts established itself in the Sanctuary. Even so, the little world felt quieter than before, than even before Haru's arrival into their lives. Even the magic of the Sanctuary felt sluggish and slow.

Or perhaps that was just their grief playing tricks.

Baron drew his eyes away from the case file he was writing up, and his gaze settled on the bookshelf behind him. There were a couple of gaps where Haru had borrowed a book and never had the chance to return them. A set of Robin Hood legends and a copy of Bram Stoker's Dracula – the latter of which she had borrowed after being told that vampires weren't exactly as mythical as expected – were the missing culprits, but Baron couldn't bring himself to retrieve them.

Save for cases, he had stayed out of the Human World.

Multiple footsteps – large footsteps – from outside broke him from his wonderings, and instinctively his light show magic began to rise up in him. Another client, by the sound of things. He got to his feet and glanced through the window. He could see the silhouette of a young woman rooted to the middle of the courtyard.

The windows of the Sanctuary began to glow, but his concentration was interrupted when Muta thudded at the Bureau` doors.

"Hey, cut it out! That ain't gonna work today."

The light faded, and now the glow from the Bureau alone lit up their client's face.

With a misgiving feeling, he realised he recognised her.

Haru's friend.

He opened up the Bureau doors with none of the show he usually rolled out, and stepped out to face the young woman.

A mixture of blame and disbelief filled her eyes. Her mouth opened and closed several times before she could bring herself to speak.

"Oh. You're really real then."

Baron didn't fake the smile that he had become so accustomed to imitating. He knew what she had to be here for; she didn't deserve his lies. Spoken or unspoken. "Miss Hiromi–"

"After all this time, there was part of me that thought that Haru might have been telling the truth. That it was all a dream. I had always hoped that…" She trailed off, subdued hurt catching in her throat. "But you're real. Which means… I was right…"

"Miss Hiromi, my name is Baron Humbert–"

"I remember who you are," Hiromi said.

Muta snorted, somewhat amused at Baron's monologue being cut short. "So how long have ya known, kid?"

"Since Oz."

"Har–" Pain stabbed through him before he could complete the name. "We were under the impression that you no recollection of the events from Oz," he said. "We believed you considered it a dream."

"Well, if Haru wasn't going to tell me the truth, I wasn't going to force it out of her." Hiromi stumbled a little at Haru's name too, but pushed through it with the pain of having said it so many times since her disappearance. "I was hoping that she would eventually tell me herself. And she always came back, so I…. I just let it be." Her shoulders started shaking as she battled against her sobs. "Until she didn't."

Muta glanced to Baron, and then retreated past him into the Bureau. He swung the doors shut behind him, leaving Baron with Hiromi. As he passed Baron, he muttered, so only the Creation caught it, "I brought her here. I'm done. Your turn to deal."

Baron had a fleeting moment of irritation at the cat's abandonment, but it passed as quickly as it had come. He wasn't the only one to have suffered a loss.

Baron slowly approached the woman. "Miss Hiromi–"

"It's your fault!"

The Creation froze. He wanted to spout denial, but the words wouldn't come. He had known, hadn't he? He had been told that he would lose Haru to Louise. And he had done nothing to stop it.

"She shouldn't have been involved with… with all this!" Hiromi gestured angrily at the Bureau. "With whatever you do! What happened?! Where is she?!"

Despite Hiromi's fury, Baron felt no fear of her. Only fear for her and a sorrow that would not recede. "We lost her," he whispered.

"What?"

"We lost her," he repeated, and this time there was loathing in his admission. "You're right; we should have done something, but we didn't. She became entangled with a dangerous individual who trapped her away in a crumbling world. We couldn't reach her, and when that world collapsed on her…" The jury was still out on whether she was drifting between worlds, dead, or dropped in a far-off world entirely. "We lost her."

There was a sob and Hiromi dropped to her knees. All the tears she had been holding back for too long came spilling out. "No…"

"I'm sorry–"

"WHAT GOOD IS THAT?" Hiromi roared, shivering as if to shake off his apology. "MY BEST FRIEND IS GONE AND THAT'S ALL YOU CAN SAY? YOU'RE SORRY?!" She dropped her head into her hands, hiding away the worst of her tears, but unable to hide the sobs. "She can't be gone. She can't just leave me alone in this world. She's always been there for me. And I… I couldn't do the same for her… I knew she was being reckless, but I… I did nothing to stop her… I should have talked her out of this…"

Baron moved his gaze away, suddenly uncomfortable as his own thoughts were aired aloud. "It's not your fault–"

"I'M HER FRIEND!" Her hands dropped away from her face, revealing the same guilt that had dogged Baron's steps since Haru's disappearance. "I'm her friend…" she whispered, "and now she's gone…"

Baron slowly bridged the gap between them and rested a single hand on her shoulder. "You are not to blame," he said, stronger this time. "She was always so independent, so stubborn. She knew what she was taking on when she joined us. I even asked her to consider leaving the Bureau, for her own good, but she refused."

He didn't mention that, just before her disappearance, Haru had changed her mind. Her finale visit to the Bureau was going to be her last while she sorted herself out. But she had never got as far as telling them that; Michael had been the one to impart that news.

If only she had decided that a single case earlier.

"She did, huh?" A weak smile lingered at Hiromi's lips. "That is so Haru. She used to be so unsure when we were at school, but suddenly she picked herself up. And then it became impossible to ever tell her what to do. Yeah, she was stubborn… If she wanted to do something, nothing could stop her." The smile faded as she thought of the useless posters still stashed away in her bag. It looked like she had been exhausting the Paradise Pet Store's ink for nothing… "Michael," she suddenly said, remembering Haru's boyfriend. "He needs to know what happened, he…"

There was a heavy silence from Baron.

Hiromi paused, her face darkening. "He knows, doesn't he?"

"Michael was there when it occurred," Baron muttered. "He did everything he could to help–"

"And all this time he knew," she snarled. "I can't believe it."

"I suspect he felt you would not believe the truth," Baron said, tactfully. "He was not to know that you were already aware of the Bureau's existence. And, for what it's worth, I believe Har- your friend kept the truth from you in order to protect you. She already felt guilty enough for involving you in Oz the first time."

"For some reason, that doesn't surprise me in the least."

"Hey, Baron!"

Baron blinked irritably. Muta always had a habit of interrupting just as Baron was trying to impart profound or important messages. Usually for cake. He half turned back towards the Bureau. "Yes, Muta; go ahead and finish the last of the Victoria sponge."

"It's not that." The fat cat appeared in the doorway, with an expression that would pale if it weren't already hidden behind a layer of white fur. "Your ancient music player is acting up."

"Acting up?" Baron echoed.

"Yeah. It just turned itself on, but it ain't doing much."

"There's a blank vinyl disc," the Creation said, already marching back towards the Bureau. "If we place it onto the record player, it should capture whatever message is being sent."

Hiromi doubtfully watched him retreat, and then carefully followed after. She perched herself on the same chest Haru had upon her first arrival. "What's going on?"

"This is a method in which we receive calls for help," Baron explained. He rounded on the record player and added, "Although it rarely takes this long to respond. The message must be coming from quite a distance, very probably across worlds."

Finally. Another case to keep him occupied.

Eventually, the needle clicked into place, and a voice rose from the machine. A voice, mid-sentence, broke through the silence.

"…and please, gods, protect the village from the dragon's wrath; don't let us lose anyone else this year…"

"No… that can't be…" Muta whispered.

Hiromi half-rose from her seat before abruptly remembering her height in the tiny house. "What–?"

"Haru." Baron stood before the record player, his fingers digging into the edge as if to steady himself while the name too painful to speak slipped past his lips. His shoulders were shaking. "Haru! Where are you? Haru–!"

"What?" The voice on the record player stammered to a halt.

Baron froze. The record player had never allowed a two-way communication. It was too much magic, too unpredictable. And yet…

And yet, the Bureau had somehow taken matters into its own hands. He could feel the room cooling as magic was eaten up by the record player.

"Haru…"

"It's… It's summer here…" the voice offered tentatively. "Not spring. I don't…"

Baron bit back the despair that swelled at that. She didn't recognise the name. It had to be a coincidence. Haru's voice wasn't unique; across all the worlds of all the universes, there was bound to be someone alike. He almost wanted to switch off the record player then and there, but this was still a cry for help.

This was still the Bureau.

"What's your name?" he asked.

"Kushi," the girl answered. "Kushi-inada-hime."

"What a mouthful," Muta muttered.

"Please, are you a god? Can you help? There's a monster terrorising our village!"

"We will help," Baron promised. "But first, where are you? What's the name of your village?"

"Kamiki. At the head of the Hii River. Please help. Tomorrow is the full moon of the sixth month and–"

The connection broke.

"Muta–" and Baron's voice was unnaturally calm, despite the heart hammering away inside "–please fetch Toto and bring him here. We have a case."

"Right…" For once, the fat cat looked flummoxed. "Are we gonna talk about the fact that that sounded just like Chicky, or…?"

"Please. Just find Toto."

Grumbling, Muta ambled out, leaving Hiromi alone with Baron. She glanced over at the Creation, and then back to the record player. "He's right," she murmured. "That did sound like Haru."

"Things can be deceiving here." Baron picked up the needle and set it back.

"What's your name?"

Kushi. Kushi-inada-hime."

Pain filled his eyes, and he set it further back again.

"Haru."

It's… It's summer here… Not spring. I don't…"

"What's your name?"

"Kushi."

He lifted the needle before the name could be repeated.

"You know, no matter how often you do that, I don't think it's going to change anything," Hiromi offered quietly.

He lowered the needle, and this time let it run.

"Kushi-inada-hime."

"A tracking crystal," he said. He turned away, muttering over the record player's voice. He opened up a drawer, where a collection of such stones lay stored away. None had helped find Haru, no matter what type King Lune sent to them. "I've done this before – backtracked the origin of the distress signal to open up a portal…"

The message had finished on the record player; Baron flicked the needle away and held the crystal above the vinyl. Hiromi watched with some bemusement as the air fizzled between rock and record, as if something was being drawn from the latter. Once Baron appeared to deem it complete, he purposely exited the Bureau and marched towards the secondary archway of the Sanctuary.

Hiromi crawled out after him, squeezing through the Bureau doors just as he finished setting up whatever spell he had in mind. "Hey, uh…"

"Baron," he supplied.

"Yeah. Um…" Hiromi uneasily rose to her feet, using the roof of the Bureau as a support. Baron's gaze flickered over his home, and Hiromi gingerly removed her hand from the building. "So what's happening now?"

"We received a distress call. Thus, we are going to Miss Kushi's aid."

"I want to come."

A shadow passed over Baron's face. "Miss Hiromi… I don't think that would be a good idea."

"Look; that sounded just like Haru – if there's any chance that she could be saved or that this is somehow linked to her, then I want to help–"

"No."

"No? Look here, buddy; I'm not the one who lost Haru in the first place–"

"I know. Which is why I cannot endanger you." Baron's voice was calm and collected. Far too calm for the emotions that swirled within his gaze. "I cannot risk losing anyone else." His gaze dropped away, and he added, "And Haru tried so hard to keep you away from the Bureau."

"Well, Haru's not here anymore, so now it's my decision what I do. And I've decided I'm coming."

There was a snort as Muta returned, this time with Toto in tow. "You're coming? Geez, what use would you be? You're just a human."

"And you're just a cat," she pointed out.

Muta shrugged and waddled over to the secondary archway. "Fair enough. So, are we ready to go or what?"

"We shall be departing shortly."

"Hey, Baron; is it true what the furball said? Is it Haru?"

Baron hesitated just as he was about to activate the tracking crystal.

"What's your name?"

"Kushi. Kushi-inada-hime."

"No. No, it's not."

"Only, the giant marshmallow said that–"

"She's called Kushi-inada-hime," Baron said, perhaps harsher than necessary. He registered this a moment too late, and so hesitated before continuing again. "Our client's name is Kushi-inada-hime. The likeness to Haru's voice must simply be a coincidence."

"That said, I'm still coming."

Baron turned to the human still in their midst. "Miss Hiromi, I have already discussed this–"

"And I'm still coming," she retorted. "What? Do you think you can stop me? I don't care if you think this isn't Haru – like I said before, if there's even the slightest chance that this is linked to her, I'm coming." She scowled and knelt down to the Bureau's level. "Frankly, I don't trust you lot with Haru's fate a second time."

"Hey, Baron; just let her come, okay? Otherwise we're gonna be here all day. Let's go save this Kushi-princess."

"Kushi-inada-hime," Baron amended. He shook his head and seemed to come to the conclusion that he wasn't going to win this argument. "All right. Miss Hiromi, you may come with us, but please, be careful. This could be a very dangerous case."

Muta snorted. "Yeah, he says that about every case. Just get the portal up and running, would ya?"

"The client did mention a monster, fatso," Toto reminded him flatly. "Or did your thick ears miss that?"

Baron activated the portal before Muta could snap back a retort, which quickly cut all discussion short as the archway fizzled with magic. Sparks snapped and a wind picked up as a white portal began to unsteadily form.

"That looks even more dangerous than usual," Toto said, flying over to Baron. "Are you sure you set the stone in correctly?"

"I'm sure." Baron eyed the archway uneasily. "White portal," he said. "That means it's across to another world. An unfamiliar world," he added after more crackling, "otherwise it wouldn't be taking this long to make a stable connection."

"I hate portals."

"You hate anything that's not food, pudding-brain."

"That's not true! I hate tea."

"That's not a food, dumbo .That's a drink."

"The link's established," Baron called. "Muta, Toto, please; behave yourselves. This is now officially a Bureau case." He stepped away from the portal, which had finally quietened down, although it was far less stable than he would have liked. "Miss Hiromi, you still have the option to withdraw–"

"Like heck I will. I'm coming." She pushed her way to the archway, only pausing when she came right up to the crackling portal. She swallowed back her nerves. "So… you just walk through it?"

"Yes, but we should go first so – wait!"

Baron leapt forward, but was too late to stop Hiromi from disappearing through the archway. He grabbed hold of his hat and cane and jumped through the portal after her, leaving Toto and Muta behind.

Muta chuckled. "Man, and we thought Haru was a handful."

The portal fizzed.

"Oh, it looks like it's already collapsing. Move, pig!" Toto leapt up into the air, grabbed Muta with his claws, and raced through the portal, just before it gave way.

ooOoo

Teaser: "Right." Hiromi didn't look so convinced. "And, just so we're clear, how do you usually treat a case where the problem is a man-eating demon-snake monster? Oh, please; enlighten me. Tell me how two cats and a crow can take on some sort of mutant dragon." / She slammed into the ground and, for a heart-stopping moment, didn't move. / "Why do you look at me like that?" "Like what, Miss Kushi?" She gave a bittersweet smile. "Like I've broken your heart." / He'd failed her. Again. / Before the Bureau stood a white feline, dressed in a ruffled red dress and a wide-brimmed blue hat. She smiled to the newcomers, a parasol swinging between her gloved fingers. "So, you've found her."