The Bureau Files: Series 4

ooOoo

Episode 14: Katzen Blut (Part 2)

Haru groaned and sank down onto a banquette seat running along the restaurant wall. After tweaking with the safety light, Muta had coaxed it back to life and now the place was lit with a sickly green glow. The creatures had crept back into the shadows, and if Muta was at all perturbed by their lingering presence then he showed no sign of it. "Parallel worlds," Haru grumbled. "All these parallel worlds, and still I'm no closer to home or finding my Baron." She eyed the giant cat warily. "Please tell me we're not romantically involved."

Muta snorted. "Nope. Try more like a niece. A busybody niece who kept sticking her nose in other people's business."

Haru sighed. "Thank goodness. I guess some things never change." She was swept up into a bearhug a moment later. "Or perhaps they do. Gee, Muta; I didn't think you were the hugging type."

Muta released her, and she subtly massaged her aching ribs. "Where have you been, Chicky? I thought I'd lost ya."

Haru's heart sank. "Muta, I'm not …"

"You've been gone for ten years! Yer could give an old cat a heart attack, turning out of the blue like that."

"Muta…"

"Couldn't ya have at least sent a postcard? I mean, ten years…" Muta's expression shifted from confused delight to the beginnings of unease. "Ten years… and you don't look like you've aged a day… Where have you been, Chicky?"

"I… Muta…"

His face dropped. "Why do I get the feeling I'm not gonna like where this is heading?"

"Muta, I'm sorry, but I'm not your Haru. It's like I said before, I'm from a parallel world… I think. What was ten years ago for you has only just happened for me. In my world, Baron – my Baron – managed to return my memories, but something went wrong and I seem to have been… shunted along to a parallel world. I'm not the Haru you lost."

What little hope had remained in Muta's eyes died. He patted Haru's back, nearly bowling her over, unsteady as her feet still were. "Hey, I get to see you again, didn't I? Even a parallel version of you. It's good to know at least one Bureau didn't fail." His gaze turned to the uneasy human by her side. "So I'm guessing this is your Baron? Looks a lot like ours."

"Oh. No, he's, um… well, I think I dragged him along from one of the neighbouring parallel worlds. I'm not entirely sure what to do about that." She was trying not to worry too much about it just yet. The man in question didn't seem too worried at the moment either – but then again, his attention was mostly taken up with the cracked sky. Haru followed suit. "Muta, what's up with the sky? When did that happen?"

"Ten years ago. I s'pose it hasn't happened for you yet, but here the Sanctuary collapsed."

"In the last world, it released its magic in the Human World and woke all kinds of creatures," Haru said.

"That all?" Muta snorted. He patrolled towards the kitchen, and for a while Haru and Baron were graced only with Muta's voice as he rummaged through the cupboards. "Lucky them. When the Sanctuary collapsed here, it didn't just dump a whole load of magic on the Human World; it ripped the veil between worlds too. It opened the doors for lots of nasty heartless to come bleedin' through."

"Heartless?" Baron echoed.

"If you'll believe the stories, they're meant to be attracted to the darkness of people's hearts." Muta made a face and started into one of the tins with a tin opener. "More importantly, they're overrunning the place and causing chaos. Brute force seems to do the trick, but they keep coming back."

"And what about you?" Haru asked. "How are you still here? I thought the Sanctuary was the only thing keeping your lifespan longer than a cat's."

"Yeah, apparently so, but I ain't a cat anymore."

"Strange," Baron said. "You look very feline to me."

"That's ironic," Haru muttered. At Baron's strange look, she added, "You still haven't explained to me why you're human."

"He's human 'cause he gave up being a Creation." Muta reappeared, a couple of tins in his paws, and tapped at one of the strip lights as he passed it by. An uneasy green glow unfurled along the glass. "At least, that's what happened here; I dunno much about any other worlds."

Haru returned Baron's strange look. "You can do that?"

"Only if we exchange places with another being," Baron said. He looked vaguely uncomfortable with the conversation suddenly moving onto him. "I wanted an ordinary life; I exchanged my Creation magic with that of a human."

"Not here, ya didn't," Muta amended.

"So who did he exchange his magic with?" Haru asked.

"Yer looking at the lucky cat."

"You're a Creation?"

Muta smirked. "Why the stumped face, Chicky? You said so yourself – how else would I still be around without the Sanctuary's magic?" His attention turned to Baron. "Yer didn't know if it would work; yer kept going on about how it was just theory, but I think yer felt sorry after what happened with the old birdbrain."

"What happened with Toto?" Haru demanded.

"He kinda… shut down."

A memory sparked at the back of Haru's mind. "I think the Baron from my world did something similar when he lost Louise. He described it as breaking."

"Yeah. Apparently it's some sort of Creation breakdown. After what happened with losing the Sanctuary and you… I dunno. He kept saying he should've done a better job protecting everyone. And then when it turned out I was dying too 'cause of losing the Sanctuary, it must've been the last straw. He's been stone for nearly ten years now."

"Muta… I'm sorry…"

He snorted and turned away, his face dropping into shadow. "What for? That stupid birdbrain drove me crazy anyway. At least I ain't gotta listen to his crowing anymore."

"And so you're alone too."

"Yeah, but that's what cats do, Chicky. We like our space."

"Which, of course, explains why you were so indifferent when you saw Miss Haru," Baron countered.

Muta glowered and paced back to them "I'm only here 'cause there was an SOS coming from this area, and then five minutes back there was a sudden spike of magic. Was that you?"

"The sudden spike of magic, probably," Haru admitted, "but we didn't send out any SOS. Is that what you do now? Track down distress signals from monster-ridden towns?"

"Ain't that the kind of thing the Cat Bureau was made for? Even if it is just the one cat now. But if the SOS wasn't you…"

"Then that means there's someone else out here," Haru finished.

There was a scream from outside, and an unsettlingly familiar one at that. Haru looked to the window just in time to see a figure in a top hat run past.

A moment later, a heartless the size of a small building followed in hot pursuit.

"Figures," Haru muttered. She hopped to her feet and looked back expectantly to her companions. "Well? Someone needs to go save his sorry hide."

"Is that–?" Baron started.

"Yes."

"Are you sure that meeting an alternative version of myself won't disrupt reality?"

Personally, Haru didn't think there was much reality left to disrupt anymore. But she thought back to her previous dealings with parallel Barons, and came to the conclusion that if reality could cope with three Barons squashed in the Bureau and squabbling over tea, then it could probably cope with two Barons running round after creatures of darkness. "Pretty sure."

There was another roar from the beast, followed by what sounded suspiciously like a wall being knocked down.

"We really should do something," she prompted.

"Eh, he sounds like he's handling it."

Another scream, this time somewhat hysterical, ripped through the air.

"Oh, yeah; really sounds like he's on top of things," Haru retorted. She grabbed Muta's tail and Baron's collar. "Come on, you two. We're the Cat Bureau, remember?"

"Technically, I'm not," Baron protested, but Haru ignored it in favour of hauling them both into the road. Once outside, they saw the full range of destruction left in the monstrous heartless's wake. Claw marks ran along the buildings, dents pockmarked along the street, and at least one unfortunate shop had had its front wall knocked in. Haru felt her heart go cold.

"Muta, tell me we have some way of dealing that thing."

"Oh, sure. Run far. Run fast."

"Muta!"

The Cat Creation sighed and passed the chainsaw across to Haru. She nearly staggered under the sudden weight. "Okay, okay. Man, I'd forgotten how stubborn you could be. I'll go save fancypants."

"With a chainsaw?" Baron asked. "It may have worked with the smaller heartless, but we're talking about a significantly larger specimen this time around."

"Chicky's the one with the chainsaw." Muta smirked and rolled his shoulders. "I'm talking about good old-fashioned fists."

"Do fists work?"

"Depends how hard you hit."

"Alright." Haru halted at an empty crossroads and stared down the street. "Do fists work on that?"

Her companions paused at the opening. They had found their monster.

"Well?" she prompted.

"I'm gonna need some bigger fists."

The creature was, as Haru had initially summarised, as large as a two-storey building. It was even standing beside one for convenient comparison. What she had missed with her fleeting glance was the sense of wrongness it emitted. From its wholly-blackened body to the heart-shaped hole in its chest, it prompted a primal urge in Haru to run.

Unfortunately, she didn't have that choice.

It swayed where it stood, an inky, ominous blot on the urban landscape. And cornered by it, looking pitifully small in relation, was Baron.

A Baron, Haru reminded herself. It seemed she was collecting them like bizarre souvenirs of her roundtrip through the parallel worlds. And still there was no sign of her Baron. At least, not unless her Baron had not only turned human, but had also traded in his cane for a key.

She blinked, but the other Baron's weapon of choice didn't change. He was definitely wielding what appeared to be a giant key. She blinked again for good measure. "Um, is everyone else seeing this?"

The creature twisted away and its tiny glowing eyes found the newcomers.

"I'm seeing that!" Muta grunted, and he snatched the chainsaw off Haru just in time to swing it at the giant hand that slammed towards them. The chainsaw ripped a good two feet into the heartless's wrist, and then jammed.

The stalemate lasted only a second, and then the giant hand twisted back and the chainsaw was wrenched from Muta's grip. The hand slammed back into them and took Muta off his feet.

"Muta!" Haru screamed.

He bounced several times and smacked into a wall. He didn't get up.

"MUTA!"

The monster's beady eyes turned back to them, but now the other Baron had taken its inattention to his advantage. He leapt at the creature's back, ran along its spine, and flipped over its head while delivering a cutting blow to its face. He landed silently before Haru and the visiting Baron.

He glanced at his lookalike and then Haru, the latter of whom was doing her best not to look too awestruck.

"Cool…"

"I could do that," the first Baron mumbled, somewhat disgruntled.

"Yeah, but you didn't," Haru whispered back. The newcomer was definitely Baron, albeit as human as the first one by her side.

The second Baron bowed and kissed Haru's unresisting hand. "A pleasure to meet you, Miss."

"Oh, look; parallel future Baron has finally figured out how to flirt," she replied weakly to no one in particular. "It only took a decade and multiple worlds. Hi."

"Good evening."

"I hate to break up this charming conversation," said the first Baron, not sounding sorry in the least, "but we still have a slightly more pressing issue at hand." For emphasis, he pointed to the lumbering monster before him. "Remember?"

"It's all under control."

"Ah, that would explain the hysterical screaming earlier," Haru replied.

"I was… appraising the situation."

"What are you even doing here?" the first Baron asked. "By the sound of things, this place is crawling with heartless."

"I came here to drink tea and kick butt." He threw the key-weapon behind him without even looking, where it shot through the monster's head and stopped the beast in its tracks. "And I'm all out of tea."

There was a pause as the other two watched the giant heartless dissolve into dust.

"Okay," Haru said when the long moment had passed, "but what are you really doing here, putting aside the incredibly hammy, but kinda cool one-liner?"

The first Baron raised an eyebrow at Haru, who graced the unspoken judgement with a slight blush.

"Don't judge me. My Baron has been dancing round his feelings for nearly four years now. Can't I feel flattered by at least one version of you blatantly showing off again for my sake? Anyway, it's usually Muta who calls you out on– aw, sugar. Muta!" She turned and ran over to the fallen form of Muta, who was just starting to get back to his feet.

"What'd I miss?" he mumbled.

"Just the end of the fight." Haru pulled him the rest of the way to his feet.

"Did we win?"

"Your continued existence would suggest so."

Muta's gaze flickered to the man who had spoken, and then to his lookalike. "Oh, bloody hell; there really is two of you. One is bad enough. I'm guessing yer were the one with the distress call. What are yer doing out here?"

For a moment, the second Baron looked like he was going to repeat his earlier statement, but decided against it at the last second. He stretched out his hand and the thrown key materialised in his palm. "Recovering this."

"What happened? Did yer cane break? Decided to find another equally dramatic weapon to make up for it? Whose key did yer have to steal and magick to make that hunk of junk?"

"That 'hunk of junk' just defeated the heartless," Haru said.

"It's called a keyblade, according to the records," Baron said. "It's a relic that fell through one of the same portals that the Heartless came through, allegedly imbued with purifying qualities that can defeat the heartless. For good. I heard rumours that it had been abandoned in one of the overrun heartless cities."

Muta was staring closely at the weapon and didn't seem too impressed with the verdict. "And yer sure this is it?"

"I didn't see your chainsaw take that heartless down," the second Baron answered.

"I didn't get a chance!"

"Well then," Baron said, and with a flourish of his hand the keyblade vanished, "next time I shall be sure to leave some heartless for you."

"And I thought it was bad enough when Muta and Toto fought," Haru muttered. To the bickering duo in question, she said, "Hey, not to derail this fun conversation, but we need your help."

"In that case, I'm sure the Cat Bureau would be more than happy to oblige," the second Baron said, "seeing as it obviously doesn't need my assistance."

"Heavens, when did you learn to hold grudges?" Haru grouched. She grabbed his elbow before he could walk off. "Come on; I know you two can work together, so get your butts in gear. One of you must know a way to get us home."

"No. No, let him finish," Muta ordered. There was a dangerous glint in his eyes; the type that usually preceded a fight. "Go on, Baron. I believe you were cracking a joke at the Bureau you single-handedly destroyed."

"It was a tad more complex than that–"

"Do I look like I give a rat's arse over complexities?"

"Guys, now is really not the time for this," Haru said. She tugged at Baron's arm again, harder this time. "You have a heartless infestation and we–"

Suddenly she was no longer holding his elbow to stop him leaving. Suddenly, all too real and all too abruptly, she was holding on to stop her own legs giving way. Her hand curled painfully around his elbow. Enough to give even him pause.

"Miss Haru?"

"Please," she gasped. The world was spinning around her, like she was on her own private merry-go-round. She wanted to puke. "Please," she repeated. "I'm tired, I'm lost, I've died a bunch of times, and I just want to go home."

"You've died?" Muta echoed.

"Lots," she managed. At Muta's ensuing expression, she added, "I've had a really weird year."

"Yeah. Sounds like it."

The world tilted around her again, and her legs really did give way this time. There was the sound of someone hitting pavement and it took her far too long to realise that it wasn't her. Caught in the arms of one Baron, she looked back to see that the other had collapsed.

"It's happening," she croaked.

"What?" Muta demanded. "What's happening?"

"It's happening again. Baron…" She twisted around to get a better look at the first Baron. His form was blurring at the edges. That same translucent sheen stealing over his skin. And, if the muffled cries of the other two were anything to go by, the same was happening to her.

Ignoring the warnings, she pushed herself out of the arms holding her – and the action was almost too easy. She seemed to almost fall through his hands – and she staggered over to the Baron she'd brought with her. Her hand curled around his shoulder, and the contact was wonderfully real. A lone rock in a shifting world.

"Sorry," she whispered, and once more they fell through the worlds.

ooOoo

If this was death, it was significantly wetter than she had expected.

Perhaps that should have been her first hint that she was, in fact, still alive despite – or maybe in conjunction – with the pain thrumming through her. Being dead shouldn't hurt nearly so much.

She shuddered and opened her eyes to a dark grey sky. The clouds were so thick that it was nearly as dark as night and somewhere – hidden among shadowy shapes that she hoped were trees – were faint lights that were almost entirely engulfed by the rain.

Fresh shivers ran down her and this time it was nothing to do with world-hopping fatigue.

"Baron?"

The name vanished into the rain.

She dragged in a shuddering breath and dropped her head back against the tree trunk she was leaning against. It was an unfamiliar, bristly affair, and she could feel the scaly bark even through her coat. She swallowed and tried her voice again. "Baron!"

Had she failed to bring him through? Perhaps he had returned to his own world, but if that were the case then where was she? And where was her Baron? She still needed to find him. After everything he'd done to bring her back, she wasn't going without him.

The tree twitched, and Haru jolted back from it, her foot catching on something at the base of the tree and nearly tripping her up. She staggered several halting steps before catching her balance.

The first thing she noted about the tree was its strange base. Instead of a steady trunk burying roots into the ground, it had three gnarly stumps – like very short, fat stool legs – and from there its roots visibly delved into the shadow it stood over.

From the depths of the shadowy form, a single feature sprawled beyond the tree's hold. The thing that Haru had caught her foot on.

It was a hand.

The scream buckled through her with a raw primeval horror. It died a moment later, but the taste of that shock remained bitter in her mouth while her mind reeled through the realisations. A body. A human body. Dead. From the pallor of the hand, there could be no question about that, but anything more specific was veiled beneath the tree.

"B…Baron?"

The name came out barely more than a whisper, but her breathing was accelerating again, building up into another cry.

"B–"

Hands lunged out of the rain-induced darkness and clasped around her mouth. She started. The heel of her palm was thrown upwards into the man's face.

It was only after she'd nearly broken his nose that she registered the white gloves and green eyes.

"Baron? Baron, oh, thank… I'm sorry – I just–"

"Please. Be quiet."

Haru snapped her mouth shut. Baron was massaging his jaw and giving her a look that gave the impression he was abruptly reappraising her. She stared at him, her heart hammering away. She wanted to throw her arms around him, but for starters this wasn't her Baron, and secondly he seemed more preoccupied with something behind her. She watched the alarm flicker across his eyes, and her stomach dropped.

"What is it?" she whispered back.

"Step… slowly away from the tree…"

"Baron, there's a body – a human body–"

His face paled in response, but other than that he only motioned for her to quieten and, as he took her wrist in hand, guided her carefully away from the tree and the body it stood guard over. Haru allowed herself to be led, staring up as she realised that almost all the trees about her were the same strange variety as the one before. Really, it was hard to call them trees at all in hindsight; their rough trunks didn't give way to branches and leaves, but instead wove upwards into a stem that formed the neck of what she could only liken to a pitcher plant. Some of the pattering noise that she had taken to be caused by rain was coming from three stick-like protrusions near the base that rattled against the trunk. The plants twitched as the two humans snuck by.

"What's going on?" Haru whispered. She drew closer to him and now noticed an angry welt running along his shoulder. "What did you do to your shoulder? Where are we going? Wait – are you the same Baron I pulled into this world or just the local one?"

"Yes, I'm the same Baron," he replied. "No, I don't know what's going on and no, I don't know where I'm going, except to get away from these dratted plants."

"They don't seem too bad."

"And to answer your other question: My shoulder disagrees."

"They did that to you? How?"

He turned to answer and Haru was only treated to a millisecond's warning before he grabbed her shoulder and threw them both down into a duck. Something whipped through the space her head had just been occupying.

"Holy–"

Baron slammed a hand over her mouth again.

The plants' pattering had grown louder now, and Haru's heartbeat along with it. This time she had front-row seats as a vine-like protrusion snapped out of the creature's head – mouth? – and cracked again at head height. She just caught sight of the wicked stinger adorning the tip.

"That's…" she started, as best she could round Baron's hand.

"I know," he breathed.

Still ducking down, he began to shuffle them carefully through the forest of lethal plants, and from this angle Haru was aware that her feet weren't finding purchase on a muddied woodland floor, but the solid surface of an overgrown pavement. They passed by a uniform pole, and she realised the faint lights she'd noticed earlier were actually street lamps, triggered into action by the perpetual twilight cast by the storm and trees.

And then there was the person.

It was a person. It had to be. In her short time in this arboreal realm, she hadn't seen another living thing – save for the long shadows of the hungry plants – and so the movement was as startling as it was heartening. But it was real. It was human.

Almost.

As she tugged Baron towards it, the silhouette shifted and Haru caught sight of more than just the outline of the wide-brimmed hat and ruffled skirts. Suddenly, she spotted the slitted eyes and rippled – furred? – skin. She halted, and Baron wasn't far behind in following suit.

The figure looked their way and took far too long to react. They couldn't have been easy to miss though; both their clothes – even Baron's light grey suit – were an abrupt contrast to the greens and browns of the forest. And yet… and yet, the figure nearly looked on.

That was, until a stray branch blew across Baron's injured shoulder and he yelped.

The person's head snapped back to them. Haru caught a glimpse of blue eyes and then a column of light flew at her. She screamed. Tried to push Baron aside.

The light sailed over their heads and collided into a stinger that had shot their way.

As the plant reeled in shock, the person leapt towards them. They fumbled for Haru and Baron's arms, as if unsure where their hands lay, and dragged the both of them between the trees and along the remains of a path. The hold was strange, and Haru couldn't pin down why except that it didn't seem right. She didn't have time to properly consider this before the stranger hauled them up old stone steps and through a thick set of double doors.

Faint light shimmered from lights set along the walls, bringing a soft glow to the thousands of books lining the room. Signs of inhabitation beyond the simple reader lay about the place – a blanket here, a can or two of soup, the slight murmur of emotionally exhausted voices – and there was the sense of life clinging on in these ancient stone walls.

And in the battered library that housed the remains of a city, Louise turned to them.

She stood in the golden glow of the lights, and her movements were marred by the creaking joints that stood in place of elbows and knuckles. Skin that Haru had initially taken to be soft fur was only wood, painted a mottled white to give merely the impression of fur. Louise shivered, and the wooden façade trembled and slipped away.

The only feature that seemed to resist the change back to flesh were her eyes. Instead of the gem-like quality that Baron's eyes had always possessed, Louise's eyes remained glazed. Dull. Almost painted. Her gaze drifted to the newcomers, but it did not sit easily.

"Are you hurt? Did the Triffids get you?"

"No – well, one of those things caught Baron's shoulder–"

"I'm fine," the injured party in question protested.

"Your shoulder looks like a tomato, Baron," Haru retorted. "It's not fine."

"It could have been a lot worse."

"That doesn't make it hurt any less!"

Haru was about to add more when Louise's hand clenched painfully tightly around her wrist. She looked back to the cat Creation, whose unfocused eyes were fighting to find their mark on Haru's face. Louise drew closer and the faintest whisper of a smile caught at her lips.

"I would recognise that voice anywhere," she breathed. "Haru?"

Haru grinned back. "Yeah. Wait, wait – I'm getting quite good at this, so let me guess. Ten years ago I was lost and the Sanctuary collapsed and now everything's falling to pieces – which explains the killer plants out there – and we were probably like sisters or something."

Louise gave a laugh, and the sound echoed around the library like the place hadn't heard laughter in a long time. "Indeed, all right, except for the last part."

"Were we friends?"

"We were a little bit closer than that."

"Oh." Haru's mind translated the implication a moment later. "Oh."

"You sound surprised. I take it this comes as a shock?"

"Actually, I'm just thinking that I have a thing for Creations." She paused again. "I think I'm still more shocked about the Toto one though."

"What are you doing here? I thought–"

"I'm not the same Haru." How many times would she have to say that? To disappoint strangers with familiar faces until she could finally return to her real home? "I'm from a parallel world. In mine, Baron managed to return my memories after I was lost between worlds, but now I can't get back and, to make matters worse, I've lost my Baron in the process." She shrugged apologetically to the Baron by her side. "No offence."

"None taken."

Louise tilted her head and Haru wondered if it was to get a better look at the Baron by her side until the cat Creation inhaled a purposeful breath. After a moment, she said, "I thought this was the Baron from your world."

"What? No. No, mine is considerably… uh, less human."

"He carries a magic scent of multiple worlds, but there is certainly a trace – more than a trace, indeed – of the same tenor of magic that resides in you."

Haru exchanged a look with Baron, and then back to Louise. "And that means…?"

"Different parallel worlds have different, well, let's call them frequencies of magic. The Baron from your world would carry the same frequency of magic as you." Louise hesitated, and Haru wasn't sure that it wasn't just for dramatic effect. "As this Baron does."

"That's not my Baron."

"How many worlds have you jumped?"

"What?" The question seemed insultingly irrelevant when Baron – her Baron – was being discussed. But Haru reined in her impatience and answered. "Uh, this would be the third one, I think."

"And you said this world has a ten-year difference from yours? I'm guessing all three worlds have been vastly different from the one you knew also."

"Well… yes…"

"That is certainly quite a jump between parallel worlds."

"It's happened before," Haru said. She almost smiled at the responding memory. "We had three Barons squashed in the Sanctuary once. Nearly caused a tea uprising."

"And that was a single jump between neighbouring worlds, I take it."

"Well, I don't know about that…" And yet, all three worlds had been running on pretty much the same tracks, hadn't they? Just some further along the story than others. Certainly, it had been similar enough to not only drag up ghosts from the past, but reveal her own upcoming fate as well. "I guess so? We didn't exactly ask them for directions."

Louise smiled again, and this time it was a simpler, more tired smile than before. She turned and Haru didn't miss the way her gloved hand brushed aimlessly through the air before coming into contact with the railing along the wall's side. She started down a set of steps that seemed to lead to the library's basement.

"The mind is not made for trips between the worlds, Haru. Yours, with all its portal magic, is the anomaly, but for many – even Creations – travelling to and from parallel worlds is not without its risks. Short, neighbouring worlds are one thing, but to take the leap that you have unwillingly dragged your Baron along has done its fair share of chaos. And you'll keep falling between worlds until you find your own world again." She paused and turned her head back to them. Her glazed eyes eventually found them. "Well? Are you coming?"

"Coming where?" Haru asked.

"You need a way home, don't you?"

Haru hastily followed after Louise, and – after a moment's hesitation – Baron did so too.

"What do you mean about it doing chaos?" she demanded. "Can I get my Baron back? And how am I going to get this Baron back to his world? I can't control which world I fall into otherwise I'd be home by now."

"You ask a lot of questions, don't you?"

"I'm very confused," Haru retorted.

"Understandable. Well then, let me put your mind at ease with the reassurance that that is indeed your Baron–"

"But–"

"When you took your initial far jump to the first parallel world, the change was too great for his magic – and, in a knock-on effect, his memories and mind – to take. The world he landed in dropped him into the body of the Baron that existed in that world, for that was the space his soul naturally inhabited. When you jumped to the next world, you brought him along with you – but because the leap was smaller, this time between more similar worlds, he didn't jump into the body of the resident Baron. Instead, he took on a physical form, albeit one that still appeared like the Barons of these worlds. Do you understand thus far?"

"Not really," Haru admitted. "But let's say that I do and get to the point where my Baron and I are able to get back home."

Haru saw a sadness creep across Louise's shoulders, and she began to feel guilty for her dismissal. "I'm sorry," Haru said. "It's just… I'm tired. I've been away for too long; fighting for too long. I just want to go home."

"I understand that feeling, truly I do," Louise replied. "And I will do everything in my power to bring you back to where you belong. If my theory is correct, then if you two return to your world – or at least, a world within your parallel set – then the matching frequencies of magic will revert your Baron back to the person he once was."

"And we do that… how?"

Louise pushed open a door and revealed a room housing the strangest bookcases Haru had ever seen. They were tall and metal, with revolving contraptions at their ends, and only a few had enough space between their neighbours to allow perusal of the treasure within. Louise trailed a gloved hand along the metal bookshelves, feeling along the numbers indented on their sides. When she came to one marked "17", she felt her way to the wheel built into the bookcase, and twisted.

It creaked, and then the wheels replacing normal bookcase legs started to turn. It pushed to the left and then, once it came to the blockage of its neighbour, carried on pushing until the whole row of metal bookcases slid several feet to the side and a narrow corridor was established along number 17.

Haru and Baron exchanged glances, and stayed out in the main walkway while Louise purposefully felt her way into the newly-made corridor.

"Baron, say something," Haru murmured.

He blinked. "Anything in particular?" he asked.

"Well, Louise is saying you're my Baron – someone completely different from the memories and past you've told me – and you don't have anything to say about it? Surely it must be uncomfortable, or at least odd, to be told that everything you think is a lie?" She watched his expression, and then looked away. "That's how I would react, anyway. Did react, even."

"I'm not sure." His first words were cautious, as if trying out emotions for the first time. "It is odd, certainly, but there is a general sense of… right in what she's saying." He smiled and, human or not, Haru knew that smile. "It's hard to explain. It's like being told a story you've already read a long time ago; you don't know why, but the words bring a comfort."

Haru was saved from fumbling for a reply with the return of Louise, who retreated from the metal bookcases with a small wooden box in hand.

"Here it is."

"What is it?"

Louise opened it. "Your way home."

Inside the box was a dimpled cushion, the kind of cushion usually reserved for expensive jewellery, and seated within was a plain golden ring.

Baron leant over Haru's shoulder and appraised the item with a bemused air. After a heavy moment, he managed, "I fail to see how a proposal of marriage solves any such problem."

"It's not a wedding ring," Haru snorted, partly too embarrassed to admit that for a split second her mind had jumped to similar conclusions. But once the initial shock had passed, there was no mistaking that familiar vein of magic thrumming through the otherwise unremarkable ring.

"It's the Wonderland ring," she said. "The one that Absolem gave me to reach the Wood Between Worlds. But how? Duke took it, which must mean that the… the Duchess in this world…"

"It took some effort," Louise admitted, "but it's useless to most; without either the matching ring or portal magic, it's impossible to leave the Wood again. Nonetheless, I couldn't allow it to fall into the wrong hands."

Almost reverently, Haru took the box from Louise. "Would it…? Would it work? Wouldn't it just take me to the parallel version of this universe's Wood Between Worlds?"

"Maybe. But, in theory, I think your own passive portal magic should combat that and bring you to the correct Wood Between Worlds. Even if it doesn't, the inherent frequency of your magic should be enough when you activate the portal ponds. Either way, this is the best option I can think of. A word of warning, however: Due to the mismatch of frequencies between your magic and the ring – which was forged and made for the transportation in this parallel universe – I cannot be sure how it will respond once you are back to your world."

"Okay. But still… you said this might be my only chance to go home. I have to take it."

And yet, Haru's hand hesitated above the ring. She looked to Louise, who was smiling in a way Haru suspected her alternative self would have known well and cherished. As things stood, it was merely a stranger's smile.

"What happened to you? Are you blind?"

The questions – personal, far too personal she realised too late – slipped from Haru, but Louise only smiled in her answer.

"Less so than many others, but still – I am what would have once upon a time been termed blind, but now even the gift of faded sight is a rarity among this world. Colours and shapes are visible, but precious else." Those painted eyes found Haru's, or there about. "Faces are little more than blurs now."

"So is everyone blind?"

"Almost. When the Sanctuary collapsed, one of the things to come through from the other worlds were the Triffids. We didn't notice them at first – after all, there were far worse things than the strange weeds that started to grow between the nettles – and we even found them useful. Their oils were not only good for fuel, but also possessed strong anti-magic properties. Harvesting them helped to drive back the sudden flux of magical threats the Sanctuary's collapse had caused."

"And then?" Haru prompted, for there had to be more. Somehow, the Triffids had moved on from being merely curious crops to a posing threat of their own.

"Then, the Triffid spore season came into effect. Once every four years, so it seems, the plants release spores that not only become seeds for the next Triffid generation, but are also laced with a strong poison that blinds all who encounter it. By that point, there were Triffids across the entire globe. The world was struck blind."

Louise paused, and this time there was no sense of an imposed dramatic effect, only grief.

"As it turns out, people are considerably weaker against a foe they cannot see."

"And you?" Haru said.

Louise cracked a pained smile. "I'm lucky, I guess. I was affected, but I reverted to wood before the poison could fully rot my eyes. I stayed that way – sleeping, I suppose – for weeks until the spores had died and the poison gone from my system. Even so, I must retain a semi-wooden form while out by the Triffids, or they sense living flesh and lash out with the stingers that carry the same blinding poison."

"Is it difficult?"

"Somehow, it's far more tiring than being either fully flesh or fully wood, but there is little to be done about that."

"No, I meant…" and here Haru abruptly found the words escaping from her. "I meant being here. With the Triffids, and a world that's fallen apart, and… and just… everything you've lost in the last ten years."

Louise blinked; the action seemed like an instinctive response from a bygone era. "Of course it's difficult," she said, "but that doesn't mean I have to give up. Anyway, it's not all bad. What you knew as society may have gone, but people are still people. As long as we remember that, there's still hope." A smile flashed across her face and she seemed to light up. "And I got to see you today, didn't I? Fate must have smiled down on me."

"Louise–"

"You remember how to use the ring, I take it? Then I'll let you leave in peace."

"Louise…"

The Creation waved a careless hand back at them as she felt her way back to the stairs. "I never was any good at goodbyes, my dear. But it has been a pleasure to talk with you once more."

Haru continued to cup the box in her hand, and still made no motion to reach for the ring inside. After several belaboured moments, Baron stepped up to her side. "Miss Haru…?"

"The Louise from my world had been so torn and twisted by the war," she said, "that I never imagined I'd ever meet a version that was the Creation her artisan had wanted her to be. It's… strange…"

"Stranger than Toto?"

Haru bit back a laugh; the humour felt inappropriate after that goodbye. "Well, maybe not quite as strange as that. But still… strange enough." She sighed and shifted her hold on the box. "Well. Time to go home, I think?"

"Only if you're ready."

She smiled to him, and the expression was bittersweet. "I've been away for far too long. It's time we went back."

Baron's hand slipped into hers.

"As you wish."

Haru curled her fingers around the ring.

ooOoo

She woke to sunlight.

She woke to sunlight, and for a brief, beautiful moment, the worries and fears and hurt of her life were forgotten. For a brief, beautiful moment, she was without a care. And then reality came crashing about her and she rocked to her feet.

The fog of the Wood Between Worlds lingered in her head, like cobwebs caught between her ears, and it stayed even as she tried to shake it off. She stumbled to one side, and there he was, standing with the same air of Wood Between Worlds-induced confusion. Baron.

Her Baron.

Relief she wasn't aware she had been holding out for coursed through her, struggling past her defences in the form of a breathless sob. She barrelled into his arms and he caught her. There was only the tiniest moment where he hesitated, and then his arms tightened around her, and it was the same embrace, the same fierce affection that she hadn't been aware she'd been missing all through that strange, jumbled year.

"You're back," she whispered. "You're really back."

There was a light chuckle from her companion. "I think that's my line." He sighed, and his embrace tightened, and Haru could feel just the edge of a tremor running through him. It was only as something cold soaked through the shoulder of her coat did she realise the cause was tears.

"Baron…"

"I'm sorry. I'm sorry I couldn't save you sooner. I'm sorry that you had to go through that. I'm sorry–"

She pulled away from him. "You idiot," she softly berated. "You saved me, right? I'm here, aren't I? How can you ever apologise for that?" She hesitated and, with a smile, prodded him. "Well, I'm still a little mad that you put yourself into such danger with the Duke to do it. But ignoring that, there's no point in apologising. I'm not going to accept it."

The smile he returned lasted only for a moment. Then, "How much do you remember?"

"Enough." A shadow flitted across Haru's face, fast enough for Baron to wonder if he'd only imagined it. The expression passed, however, and the one to replace it wasn't an improvement. "Baron." The shock coloured her words a ragged gasp. "The pond."

He turned.

The Wood was strewn with millions – no; beyond count, beyond imagination – ponds, but his gaze was drawn to one whose waters were usually patterned with a quilt-like quality. The Sanctuary's pond. It was formed so close to the pond back to the Human World that it nearly overlapped, but today it's normally rippling waters were twisted into a furious eddy. As if it held a tempest within itself.

"That…" Baron said, after several moments with only the pond's sickly gurgle to fill the silence, "is certainly different."

"The Sanctuary must be collapsing." Haru dropped down to kneel by the pond's waters, but stayed her hand just in time. Her fingers still hesitated above the pond, as if the desire to fall through the watery portal was only tempered with fragments of reason. She looked back to Baron. "Just like it did in the parallel worlds. Baron, if we don't do something–"

"We could end up in the same situation as them," he finished.

"Or worse."

"But even so," he warned, "we cannot just jump in. The last time we tried that, we were dropped into a different parallel universe entirely. It's too unstable."

Haru almost retorted back, but she could see the sense of his words. She looked back to the pond, and then to its immediate neighbour. "Then we don't return to the Sanctuary," she said. Her hand shifted to the point where the two ponds met. "If I concentrate, I bet I can bring us to just outside the Sanctuary."

"And do what, Haru? How are we going to stop this?"

Her gaze flickered over the ponds and Baron. There was the beginning of an idea settling in her eyes, and it didn't set him at ease.

"Haru?"

"We find a way," she said, and with one hand she grabbed Baron's and the other she dropped into the pond. The portal magic flared up at her touch, and – for far too many times in the last day – she was falling between worlds. But this time she had a destination. This time it was her choice. And this time she landed solidly on cobbled pavement with stronger legs than she'd felt since this whole misadventure had begun.

She released Baron – only briefly noting the cries of surprise and relief from the rest of the Bureau that had retreated to the alleyway beyond the Sanctuary – and made for a run through the archway.

She could feel the difference the moment her feet crossed the Sanctuary's threshold. There was a heaviness to the air that was more than pressure, more than weather; it was the feel of magic saturating the very breeze. It weighed on her lungs, in her mouth, in her very head, until to simply exist was an effort.

How long had Louise's soul been part of the Sanctuary? How much magic had been ripped away when it had released that lone Creation? Enough to destabilise it, it seemed. Enough to render it on the brink of collapse. And she had seen the world that it had left in its wake.

"Sanctuary!"

The world seemed to shimmer at her words. She was vaguely aware that she had only moments before the others dragged her out of this damaged, dangerous world.

"I know you can hear me! Sanctuary!"

"I am here."

Haru turned, and there was the Sanctuary – but barely more than a shadow now. Louise's borrowed form had vanished with the loss of the soul, and nothing but a shifting, smoky outline of a person remained. Haru didn't retreat, she didn't have the time, but neither did she miss the general air of wrongness that the Sanctuary's semi-corporal form now emitted. Whatever personality – whatever individuality – the Sanctuary had shown since revealing itself was now gone.

Almost.

"Please let me be right," Haru murmured, and she thrust her hand out to the Sanctuary's form. "I don't have time to explain what's going to happen if you collapse, so let me show you."

The shadow hesitated, and Haru could now hear her friends coming to retrieve her. This had to work. She couldn't let what happened in the other worlds happen here. If the Duke could read another person's memories through his damaged, incomplete magic, then maybe – just maybe – so could the Sanctuary.

"Please."

She didn't have time for niceties anymore – she grabbed what she guessed was the shadow's arm, and she felt the gaping, draining pull of the damaged magic. It started to absorb her own magic, but she ignored that and pushed the memories of her time in the parallel worlds. Of new Creations running amok and magical creatures gone wild. Of heartless bleeding through rips in the sky and overrunning cities. Of deadly, hungry plants picking off a blinded populace. Of the chaos that would ensue if this world followed the pattern of every other fractured universe.

Of what could not be allowed to happen.

Arms circled about her and she was hauled out of the Sanctuary. Berating, horrified warnings were thrown at her – at her recklessness, at how they'd lost her once already – but she was too busy watching the Sanctuary's shadow. As she passed the threshold, she saw familiar brown eyes – her eyes – shimmer in that silhouetted face, and a wall of magic swept across the archway and became a wall of bricks.

The archway – and the Sanctuary that had once laid beyond it – was gone. Truly gone. Haru could feel it. Wherever it was now, there would be no way to reach it by that gate.

The only sign that anything had ever been there was a slim silver tear running across the bricks, right at the point where Haru and Baron had jumped back from the Wood Between Worlds.

Her thoughts were interrupted by a mountain of hugs, and a cacophony of laughter and tears surrounded her. Her body was aching, even more so after the Sanctuary's drain on her magic, but she found the energy to return the hugs and laughter and tears. They were asking her what had happened, where had she gone, and she was recounting, in incoherent drips and drabs, the worlds they'd seen and the changes between them. She would have time to explain, properly, later, but for now the story wasn't really important. All that mattered – to them, and to her – was that she was back.

She was home.

ooOoo

Inspiration:

The Librarians: The Loom of Fate. (Pretty much fired this entire final case, giving me an excuse to play around with a few other variations. And one crack pairing. Hint: It's not HaruxLouise. You'll have to pry bi-curious-Haru headcanon from my cold dead hands.)

Kingdom Hearts. Published by Square Enix. Directed by Tetsuya Nomura.

Day of the Triffids. Written by John Wyndham. (Knew I'd get it in there somehow. Might bring them back again for a more prominent role. I love the original Triffids' design.)

ooOoo

A/N: Finally, thank you all so much for reading and reviewing and generally helping to keep this series the fun it is to keep writing. Again, sorry for the somewhat harrowing plotline this time around; I am hoping to lighten it up – or at least, have lighter moments – if I do continue. (And I would like to continue! Possible ideas include: Dinosaurs! Cordelia and Lady Elaine! Mysterious masked men terrorising opera houses! Holidays gone awry! And more things I haven't decided yet!)

I don't plan on doing a Behind-The-Scenes chapter this time around, just because I'm tired and I would like to focus on finishing other projects. Talking of which, I'm not sure what will be the next thing I post. It's most likely to be the unnamed Tangled AU, but between working on actual original projects and getting caught up with plot bunnies, I can't promise you that. Regardless, stay posted, and I'm sure I'll be back with more stories in a bit.

And, finally, thank you to all the reviewers: DiamondandPearlStories; Boohead86; Tie-Dyed Broadway; Nanenna; Midnight Redhead; isara-love; Rose. ; hellapeachy; nalua93; Ariza Luca; LetterstoAthens; The Menasaur; xTooxLazyxToxLogxInx; Jay; firedrakegirl; Salemsweetjay; Lisa_Volturi; and of course every anon. Thank you for taking the time to leave a message or two for me. You keep us writers writing!

God bless,

Cat.