The Bureau Files: Christmas 2018
A/N: So, firstly, apologies for running late on Series 5. It is still in the works, but just taking a wee bit longer than expected. Instead, please enjoy this two-parter Christmas special for The Bureau Files that I definitely didn't procrastinate on in place of TBF5.
Part Two will be posted on New Year's Day.
The Reindeer Riddle (Part 1)
"You told me Santa wasn't real."
Of all the greetings Baron had possibly expected upon answering the Yoshioka home phone, that particular accusation had not been on the list. Baron shifted his stance atop the table and double-checked that the incoming number was from Haru. It was. His confusion didn't lessen.
"Good afternoon to you too, Miss Haru. And I believe my answer was something along the lines of: In all my years of dealing with the strange and supernatural, I have yet to encounter any proof that a jolly magical man in a flying sleigh distributes presents to children of the world once a year." He hesitated. "Why do you ask?"
"Oh, no reason. It's simply that half a dozen reindeer just flew onto the roof of the Ume Shopping Centre. How has your day been?"
"Uh-huh. On the roof." Over the line, it sounded like Haru was trying very hard for nonchalance and failing. "Baron, I'm twenty-eight and I'm having a mid-life crisis over the possible existence of Santa Claus. Give me an explanation for what I'm seeing."
Muta snorted as he passed by the phone. "Ya sure it's not just a publicity stunt, Chicky?"
"I think I know flying reindeer when I see them, Muta."
"Shame it's not flying pigs, or all we'd have to do is give Muta wings and he'd be able to infiltrate them with ease," Toto offered.
"Not in my house! Mum will kill me!"
Baron motioned for the other two to calm before returning to the phone. "Give us five minutes and we'll be there."
"Not a chance. There's like a hundred people filming this; the last thing we need is you getting caught on camera too. Give it an hour, and this will be all over the internet. Heck, give it two minutes."
"Then how can we help?"
There was a pause over the line, filled with the faint sound of approaching sirens. Then Haru said, "I'm… not entirely sure. Explanations, maybe? Right now, I'm just having my whole childhood rewritten. This has to be a trick, doesn't it? A… A Creation?"
"Possibly. Of course, without being able to investigate, this will all be conjecture…"
"How about if just I come?" Toto asked. "I may be a Creation, but I can still pass unnoticed as an ordinary crow. If they are Creations, I will be able to tell."
"That sounds like a plan. So I'll just… chill out here, I guess? Until you turn up. Toto, are you familiar with the parking lot around the shopping centre?"
"I've flown past a few times."
"Meet me down the dead-end alley where the bins are."
As Haru ended the call, the rest of the Bureau exchanged glances.
"Do you really think we're dealing with a Creation?" Toto asked. "One, maybe, but multiple Creations all at once? That would take a lot of magic."
"I honestly don't know," Baron admitted. "But if something magical's amiss, then the Bureau has a case."
Haru flipped her phone shut and returned her attention to the reindeer crowding the roof. A fire engine had arrived, evidently summoned in the same capacity as they would for a stuck cat, and the firefighters were somewhat bewildered as to what exactly they were meant to do about this. Especially since the reindeers were large, antlered, and apparently quite happy where they were.
The unexpected arrivals had garnered quite the audience too. Kids young enough to still believe in Santa Claus were having a field day, while their older brethren were obviously rethinking everything they knew about life. And, of course, a sea of phones were capturing the strange event. Haru considered adding her own phone to the mix, but decided that there was nothing she could add that wasn't already being filmed.
She headed to the designated alley, passing by a busker who was taking full advantage of the situation with an accordion rendition of Rudolf the Red Nose Reindeer, and she dropped a few coins into the hat as she went. It would seem that, even after all these years, she still had a soft spot for accordion music.
There were times when she could barely believe how many years had passed since that fateful day – since that fateful dance – and she wasn't sure if it felt like everything had changed in that time, or nothing. On the one hand, the past year alone had brought chaos and loss, but on the other…
There was Baron.
He had confessed his feelings, finally said those words, and yet she wasn't sure where they went from there. They had been dancing around that particular truth – for different reasons; because of her humanity, his immortality, her normal life – for so long that she wasn't sure how they would break out of that cycle.
A caw overhead broke her from her rambling thoughts, and Toto swooped over Haru. He dropped a clawful of what appeared to be small metal tokens before landing on a fence post. Haru caught the pieces and raised an eyebrow at the bird.
"What are these?" she asked.
"You tell me. I found them on the rooftop with the reindeer. They appear to be game pieces of some type?"
Haru turned them over. There were three in total: a dog, a top hat, and a race car. "They're Monopoly tokens," she said. "Toto, why are we worrying about Monopoly tokens when we have Santa's reindeer parading atop the shopping centre?"
"They may be flying reindeer, but we have no guarantee they're Santa's."
"They're flying reindeer," Haru muttered. "What else are they going to be?"
"As for the pieces, they appear to be imbued with Creation magic – the same as our misplaced friends back there," Toto finished.
"So… they are Creations?"
"No, they're real reindeer, but some sort of Creation magic has changed them."
"Okay, making flying reindeer, I kinda get. It is Christmas after all. But why Monopoly pieces?"
"I have no explanation for why they would be there, which is why I picked them up. Perhaps they've been accidentally tainted with the same magic, in which case we can possibly use them to figure out what kind of Creation magic we're dealing with."
A commotion rose from the crowd, and Haru rushed back out into the parking lot just in time to see the reindeer take off. "Toto–"
"On it." Toto took to the sky and flew after them.
The crowd jostled in the direction of the reindeer, and Haru stood back to let them. When she wasn't in immediate danger of being crushed, she headed towards the firefighters, all who looked like they needed a cup of tea. She started towards the nearest one, a tall lady who had actually managed to track down a drink.
"Hi," Haru said. "Crazy day, huh?"
The firefighter grinned in a manner that indicated she was coping with the madness in the only way she could: seeing the humour in it. "You're telling me. I've seen some weird stuff on this job, but this takes the cake."
"Where do you think they come from? I mean, reindeer? In the middle of Japan?"
"Oh, we know where they came from," the firefighter replied. "The reindeer display in the centre of town. Their owner called up a few minutes before to complain that his reindeer had just up and flown the coop. Course, we thought it was a prank… Guess we were wrong."
"A reindeer display?"
"Sure. They're toured round Japan and it brings all the kids out to town, 'cause, you know, Santa's reindeer and all that. Guess he got more magic than he bargained for." The fire engine's ladder finished winching back down, and the firefighter dropped her now-empty cup into a nearby bin. "Looks like that's enough excitement for one day. Merry Christmas, and all that."
"Merry Christmas," Haru echoed back. The caw of a crow caught her attention, and she retreated back to the previous alleyway. "So. What happened?"
"They flew back to a paddock at the Crossroads," Toto said, "and are currently working their way through a trough of hay and moss."
"That's it? Seems a little anticlimactic."
"If it helps, the man at the paddock seemed very relieved to have them back," Toto added. "Whatever Creation magic was affecting them, it's stopped now. All that's left is traces."
"Well, problem solved then, I guess," Haru said, feeling a little put out that it had cleared up before they had even found any answers. "The weird flying reindeer are no longer flying, but we still don't know what caused it. I don't suppose the owner is an artisan?"
"There's no trace of Creation magic on the man, so no. Whatever caused it, he had no part in it."
"He did call to report them flying away, so I suppose it was unlikely that he was expecting it to happen," Haru murmured. "And there's not going to be any chance for us to talk to him now – he'll be swamped with reporters until this dies down." She rattled the Monopoly pieces in her hand, thinking through their choices. "Well, I guess that leaves us with one option."
"We watch the news like everyone else."
"…they were just there and then they weren't – what else am I meant to say?"
The reporter smiled tiredly at the reindeer's owner, a portly man with a thick accent, and tried again for information. "And, before today, they had never shown any sign of…?"
"Of what? Flying? Do yer think I'd be scooting these beasts from town to town if they could bloody fly?"
"And nothing prompted–"
"Lady, if I knew why they decided to go fer a walk in the clouds, I'd start them up again. But they ain't budging now. It's like they never flew in the firs' place!"
Haru turned the TV off and leant back to look at the rest of the Bureau. "Yeah, I think you were right, Toto. He had nothing to do with it – or if he did, he's the best actor I ever saw. How are the Monopoly pieces coming along?"
"This would be a lot easier if I still had access to the Sanctuary," Baron murmured. He uncrossed his legs and crossed them the other way as he sat atop the living room coffee table, pieces spread out before him. "At the moment, I can't discern anything more than Toto's initial diagnosis. They're tainted with Creation magic, but aren't Creations themselves. If I could track the magic's origin, then that would be something, but I simply don't have the resources…"
"Maybe that was it." Muta paused from where he was rifling through the cupboards, doing as best as he could as at cat-sized in a human-sized kitchen. "Maybe something happened and someone else dealt with it. Why'd it always gotta be us, anyway?"
"He's got a point," Haru said. "Also are you scrounging through my cupboards?"
"I can see you."
"You don't see anything."
"Muta, put that sardine tin back. You don't even have a tin opener."
"Put it back. Anyway," she said, returning to the Creations, "perhaps it's good if… whatever was going on has already been solved. Even if I am really, really curious. My mother's still a little… overprotective after last year. She'd hit the roof if she discovered I was back on another case, especially while she was gone on a quilting convention."
"It is understandable after recent events," Toto said. "You did vanish for a whole year."
"And now I'm back." Haru rose to her feet, stretching out as she did. "Bah humbug. Perhaps the reindeer are just one of those little mysteries that are destined to never be answered. Now, if you all stay there, I'm going to get the Christmas boxes down. I'm going to need some help decorating this house."
"Are you sure you don't need any help bringing the boxes down?"
"No offense, Baron, but I don't think there'll be many boxes suitable for one of your stature."
Halfway out in the hallway, Haru felt the ripple of magic as she pulled the attic ladder down. She raised an eyebrow and didn't think much else of it. "You can't solve everything with magic, Baron," she murmured to no one in particular. She selected a box up in the attic and carefully descended back down, counting her mercies that Christmas ornaments were mostly light, albeit packed up large and bulky. Which was fine, until she miscounted the final step and the box jarred from her hand.
Someone caught it.
Someone in a light-grey suit with a top hat perched on furry orange ears.
Someone who should definitely not be taller than her on a normal day in the Human World.
"I thought you might need an extra hand bringing down the boxes. It's not the easiest task to achieve alone."
"Baron, you're tall."
"Yes. I used the same spell I've used before to alter my height. It's quite simple, really–"
"You're tall," Haru repeated, "in my house. In the Human World."
"Yes, I realise–"
"What if someone sees you?" she hissed. She snatched back the box and dropped it to the floor. "How am I going to explain the giant talking cat in my home?"
"To be fair," Muta said, watching the proceedings from the doorway, "you'd have to explain the talking crow and cat as well."
"People might overlook a cat and crow in my house, especially if they're not over six feet and wearing a suit."
"Miss Haru, are you suggesting I remove the suit?"
Haru opened her mouth, closed her mouth, and then closed her eyes. "I walked right into that one. Baron, please, just go back to your normal size. I know it's weird without the Sanctuary now, having to stay small almost all the time, but if your stay here causes any ruckus, my mother is in real danger of throwing you out."
Baron smiled softly. "Understood, Miss Haru," he said, and Haru felt the air change as he released the magic holding him at her height.
She looked away, trying not to think about the way her heart had leapt at seeing those eyes so close to hers once again. There were many things she missed about the Sanctuary – which had been lost when it closed to keep itself from collapsing – but one of the things that she felt most often was the withdrawal of somewhere that she and Baron could regularly… just be. A place for cups of tea and making plans and sitting together while reading, reassured by the body heat of the person beside them.
And, although Baron had never said it in so many words, she suspected he felt the same.
"But…" Haru said eventually, "it's already dark out and no one's going to come round at this time of evening. Perhaps… if we close all the curtains then you can use that spell. Anyway," she added, picking back up the box and carrying it to the lounge, "you're right about the boxes. I could do with some help bringing them down."
"Did you change the decorations in the hall?" Haru shifted the box of tinsel to one side and examined the red berries placed artfully along the photo frames. Aside, she murmured, "I didn't even know we had holly…"
There was the sound of a hammer missing its mark, quickly followed by a muttered curse and, a moment later, a wreath bouncing across the floor. Baron appeared at the kitchen doorway, gingerly rubbing his hand. "I don't believe so. Why?"
"It's just… I'm sure I put tinsel up earlier." Haru prodded the offending holly and made a face as one of the berries dropped from its stem. "They're real. But… we never buy real holly."
Before she could ponder any longer, her phone went off. She picked up the rogue berry and accepted the incoming call. "Hey, Michael. How's your Christmas decorating going? I seem to be forgetting what I've put up–"
"Turn on the TV."
Haru placed the berry on the coffee table as she entered the living room, and shifted her phone to cradle it between her shoulder and head. "If this is about the reindeer, we've already looked into it–"
"Trust me, you'll want to turn on the TV."
"Okay, sure. And a Merry Christmas to you… too…" She trailed off as the signal kicked in to the TV and she was treated to headline news. "Oh."
"Yeah, I thought you'd want to know. So… this isn't normal, right?"
"I'd say not. I'll get back to you when I have some answers." Haru flipped her phone shut. "Baron! Uh, a moment, please!"
She turned up the volume as the rest of the Bureau arrived.
"…and chaos has arrived at the Crossroads in the form of a figure who appears to be the spritely Jack Frost of folklore…" the reporter was saying, her breath rising in misty spirals. In the background, a small fellow sprang across the crowds that had gathered, flicking the noses of those he passed.
Haru looked to Baron. "I suppose you're going to tell me that Jack Frost isn't real either?"
"Winter spirits definitely are," he said. "But, while I have never met the entity that goes by the name of Jack Frost, from my experience with seasonal spirits, that is generally not the appearance they go by."
"He looks like something out of a book," Muta offered. "Or a cartoon."
"Spirits change appearance," Toto said.
Baron nodded. "True. And the tales do tell of Jack Frost as a somewhat mischievous sprite. If we are dealing with the real Jack Frost, there is a chance we have just found the explanation for the flying reindeer."
"That, or Santa Claus is real," Haru said. "What?" she demanded upon the looks she received. "If Jack Frost is real, why can't Santa Claus be?"
"Regardless, our first port of call should be to try and strike up a conversation with this… Jack Frost." Baron shifted back to his normal size and leapt onto the table. "Toto–"
"Oh, hold on." Haru stood herself between the two Creations and the window. "We still have the same issue as before – what if you get caught on camera?"
"Hey, Chicky; you were never this worried before about attracting attention."
"That's because we're not usually dealing with stuff that's on the news," Haru retorted. "Monsters at sea? Check. Living galleries? Check. Haunted restaurants? Check." She marked them off on one hand as she went. "You know, the quiet, pushed-aside stories that people don't really believe. But this? This is big. We need to be a little bit more careful if we don't want to start raising questions."
"Okay, but we're talking about Jack Frost," Muta said. "We've already gotten weird. What is one fancypants cat gonna add?"
"He does have a point," Baron said.
"Are you just saying that because you want to go investigate Jack Frost?"
"No, I'm simply agreeing that, as levels of strangeness go, I think we've surpassed the Creation mark. Also I do want to investigate this," he quickly added.
Haru groaned, running a hand through her hair. "You know what? Fine. Fine, we'll all go and investigate the winter spirit playing merry havoc in the middle of town. Can't see how that can possibly go wrong. Now, where did I put my coat…?"
Snow was beginning to fall as Haru pushed her way around the choir blocking the street and finally came into view of the cause of today's most recent commotion. The figure was short – only about two feet tall – with pale blue skin and hair like icicles, and perched on a lamppost. He was also in the process of spitting hail at the onlookers.
Haru lowered her head just as one pea-sized hail went flying over. "Well, for a spirit, he certainly doesn't have any manners." She raised her eyes and scanned the nearby rooftops, eventually picking out the familiar silhouette of Toto. The shadow of a top hat bobbed beside him.
Her attention was brought crashing back to Jack Frost as the spirit sprang into action. He bounced before the front row of onlookers, flicking harmless but bitter frost at their faces – no, their noses. Haru started back as ice flecked across her own skin, all cold and frost and… a little bit of magic? She smeared a few specks off with her thumb and rubbed the offending snow between her fingers. Ice. Just ice. It melted down her hand. And then down her sleeve and she regretted it.
There was another cry from the crowd, and Haru looked up just in time to see the sprite jump back onto the lamppost and then onto the rooftops in an impossible, wind-carried leap. Half through intent and half through the fact that the crowd was naturally converging in that direction, Haru found herself pushed after the fast-disappearing spirit. She spotted Toto – and presumably Baron – fly after him with, and she hauled herself and Muta out of the mass' stampede.
She dropped him as soon as they were out of stampeding range. She stared at the disappearing form of Toto. "You know what? I think we'll leave the chasing to them for now, huh?" She looked down. "Muta? Where…?" She spun round until she located him sidling up to a food stand. "Muta…" She started to approach, and then heard the rather fraught conversation the owner was having with a nearby policeman.
The policeman in question was tapping at a notepad, his attention more caught by the fallout from the alleged Jack Frost than the owner's complaint. "And what, precisely, is the issue with your chestnut stand, ma'am?"
"That's just it. It was a popcorn stand ten minutes ago!"
"Are you telling me that your popcorn stand transformed into a chestnut-roasting spit out of… what? Christmas magic?"
"I'm sorry, is this too unbelievable after the flying reindeer and winter spirit jumping around?"
"Okay, ma'am. And what precisely do you want me to do about your magical chestnut stand?"
"I don't know – you're the policeman. What do you suggest I do?"
The policeman eyed it. "Make chestnuts?"
Haru moved away just as the stand owner reached new levels of hysteria, nudging Muta with her before he could attempt to indulge in any of the questionably magic chestnuts. She was just about to suggest heading back and waiting for Toto and Baron to bring back news when she noticed something strange. Something she'd almost overlooked.
The choir and the accordion player.
It seemed odd to have two sources of music playing so close together. The choir dominated the audio scene, filling the air with yuletide carols, while the accordion was barely noticeable. It was a faint whisper in the ear, the tune almost unrecognisable.
She paused then.
Such an odd, archaic phrase to fall back on. Only really found in one Christmas song she could think of.
She took another look around the Crossroads, heart leaping into mouth as she spotted a pattern she'd missed before. A pattern so bizarre, so nonsensical that she hadn't thought to look for it before.
Chestnuts roasting on an open fire.
Jack Frost nipping at people's noses.
Yuletide carols being sung by a choir…
And what was the tune the accordion was playing?
The Christmas Song.
"Holy sugar and spice, Muta I think I've just realised what's going on," she whispered, and she started towards the accordion player.
Some of her intent must have been visible in her gaze or her stride, for the music came to an abrupt halt. The player rose to his feet and very casually began down one of the alleyways leading off the Crossroads.
She upped her pace.
He walked faster.
With Muta at her heels, she calmly broke into a jog.
And the musician ran.
"Toto, faster. We're losing him!"
"Perhaps next time you can fly and I'll do the shouting!" Toto retorted, but he dropped down through the air currents after the sprite. He drew his wings back, talons outstretched and inches away – "Got you" – when Jack Frost…
Toto's talons curled around a frosty breeze.
"Where did he go? Did he transport himself away?"
Toto brought himself back up into a glide and watched the cold world below. His feet tingled with the sensation of loose magic. "No, I don't think so. I think… he's – it's – gone." He flexed his talons but the magic lingered. "Undone. I think we're looking into another case of something manipulated, like the reindeer, but in this case… it was only a cold wind changed into the form of Jack Frost."
"So we're dealing with another symptom, not the cause," Baron murmured. "That means whatever – or whoever – is doing this is still out there."
A scream erupted from an alleyway below – a very familiar scream.
Toto didn't even wait for Baron's instructions.
Haru picked herself up off the ledge and jumped back onto the low roof. Ahead, the accordion player was putting worrying distance between them.
"Haru! Are you okay?"
Haru wobbled as she looked back to the newcomers, and blushed. "Yeah, I'm fine. Just fell off the ledge I was running along – guess I'm still getting kinda used to being back in this body." She pointed to the musician as he scrambled over a low fence. "I think he has something to do with all this."
Baron nodded. "We'll follow him – you should probably sit–"
"There's not a snowball's chance in summer I'm missing this." Haru pushed herself back into a run, hearing Toto fly alongside her as she clambered over the fence. A year ago, she would have had a decent chance of jumping it; now, she wasn't so sure she could risk it.
The musician turned right along another alleyway, and Haru followed suit, her feet skidding a little along raised paving stones
"I know this route," she gasped. "I know this route! Toto – fly ahead and block his left at the end of this alley!"
"On it." Toto rose up into the air and sped ahead, leaving just Haru and Muta to pursue on foot (and paw). Haru watched as the musician slowed, the alleyway thinning at the far end and his accordion not making it easy. She regained some ground, just enough to see him exit the alley, try to turn left, and nearly fall over when he came face-to-face with the two Creations of the Bureau.
She exited out a moment later and leant heavily against the wall. "Geez, I really am out of shape. Please, stop," she appealed. "We just want to talk. What happened there – what you're doing–"
The busker glanced behind himself and saw the dead end they'd blocked him in. Well, it hadn't always been a dead end; at one point it had opened out into the Sanctuary, but that was long gone. Now all that remained was an unyielding wall.
He looked back to his pursuers, and by the way his eyes widened at the Bureau, Haru guessed he wasn't too familiar with the world of magic and Creations. He was past collage age, but not much older. Haru held up her hands in what she hoped would be taken as a placating gesture. "Please, we're not here to harm you. We just want to know what's going on. We can help – we deal with lots of magical stuff."
Her answer came in the wheeze of the accordion – a single line of In the Bleak Midwinter – and the cruel gust of wind that it summoned. It slammed into her and, a moment later, Toto and Baron followed. She smacked into the ground, her arms and legs scraping across the pavement.
"Oh. Grazed knees," she gasped. "That's something I didn't miss in the last year." She rolled to her side to see Toto and Baron picking themselves off the ground. "Everyone okay?"
"It's mine. Mine, you hear me?" There was a growl to the musician's voice – a growl, and something… eerie. A faint echo, like the echo of a melody.
Haru shook her head, and her gaze focused on a pale-grey hat spinning along the ground. It rolled to a stop by the man's foot, and he kicked it away. She could feel Baron bristling over the brazen treatment as the hat tumbled against some loose pavement.
And then the man began to play.
Magic swirled about the hat, frosty winds turning to frosty clouds, and frosty clouds dissolving into snow. The snow whirlwind grew tighter and tighter until the hat was lifting off the ground. One foot. Two feet. Six feet tall, and the hat had grown to fit the smooth, rounded head it now sat on.
Crumbling pavement pulled itself free and spun up and around the forming figure until it came to rest as two black, sooty eyes. They blinked.
"There must have been some magic in that old silk hat they found," Muta hummed under his breath. "For when they placed it on his head, he began to dance around…"
The giant snowman's head slowly turned, and more pavement edge decorated it in the form of a mouth. It curved into a smile.
"Maybe it'll be friendly," Haru whispered.
It roared. Icy spittle flew from jagged black teeth.
Haru scrambled to her feet in a tangle of limbs just in time to avoid a snowy arm lash out. The hand smashed apart upon impact with the ground, but even as Haru grabbed Baron and Toto, it began to reform.
"I'm gonna be killed by Frosty the Snowman," she whimpered.
Teaser: "Frosty's meant to be jolly and – and happy!" Haru wailed. "Not… whatever that monstrosity is!" / "Guys," she called back, "I think we've found it." "How can you be sure?" Haru looked at the pear tree growing out in the apartment block's grassy verge. A very confused looking partridge sat in its branches. "Oh, I don't know. Call it a lucky guess." / "Wait a minute. Drosselmeyer. I've heard that name before."