The Bureau Files: Christmas 2018
The Reindeer Riddle (Part 2)
Haru wasn't sure how fast snowmen usually ran – bounced? – but this particular snow creation was going at an unreasonably speedy pace. She swung herself around a corner, hand gripping a lamppost to make her turning sharp, and threw her head back. A moment later, she regretted it.
It should have really been comical. The snowman bounded along in leaps propelled with no visible muscles, like a particularly focused bouncy ball. And it might have been comical, if not for the razor-sharp teeth and gnarled stick fingers stretching out for her. She ducked just in time to avoid being grabbed by her coat.
"Someone tell me we have a plan!" Haru cried. She looked down to the cat and crow still bundled in one arm. "Anyone?"
"If it's powered by the song, then maybe the song might give us a way to stop it," Toto suggested.
"I don't think it much cares for the song. After all, Frosty's meant to be jolly and – and happy!" Haru wailed. "Not… whatever that monstrosity is!"
"What does happen to Frosty in the song?" Baron asked.
"I don't know! I think the sun comes out and he melts. We're in the middle of winter!" Haru snapped, and for emphasis she nodded her head towards the cold grey sky above. "Does it look like melting weather to you?" She rounded another corner and nearly stopped when she came into sight of the busy Crossroads.
Then she carried on running because there was a giant snowman on her heels and, crowds or no crowds, she wasn't about to be killed by something as ridiculous as that.
The only good thing about having a giant snowman on her heels was that people tended to get out of her way very quickly. And those who didn't, well, she wasn't above elbowing the odd person aside.
She slammed into a door and barely slowed as she push herself into the restaurant.
"Miss, there's a queue for seats–" a waitress began.
"Don't worry, I'm not staying long!" Haru cried back, and she turned her head to where she was running just as there was the crash of Frosty entering behind her. The waitress, unsurprisingly, didn't ask him to queue.
"Hey, I'm always for good food," Muta said, "but is this really the time?"
"I've got a plan," Haru insisted, and she slowed just enough to barrel through a door marked "staff only". A wave of heat hit her, and she stopped in the centre of the kitchen.
"Excuse me, miss, but you can't be here," one cook said.
"This'll make sense in a moment," Haru promised. She picked up a pan off an oven hob, empty except for a layer of oil in preparation. "Mind if I borrow this? Thanks."
Then there was a roar and Frosty leapt through the door and directly at her. She swung the pan heavily into the side of its head, and the heat sizzled through the snow skull. It slammed onto the ground, and when it snarled up at her, its head was a half-melted mess. Haru raised the pan for another hit, but it was never needed. The snowman started to push itself back up, but the heat of the kitchen was already taking its toll. Frosty collapsed back down. One coal-black eye dropped to the floor.
Moments passed, and Frosty the Snowman was nothing more than a pile of rapidly-melting snow and a single top hat.
Haru grinned at the startled kitchen workers, and consciously returned the pan to its place. "Thanks."
Suitably warmed up with a cup of tea and a fresh non-snowman-splattered change of clothes, Haru kicked back in the kitchen chair and eyed the evidence before them. Which was mostly just the Monopoly pieces and a few scraps of paper with What They Knew So Far written down. When it was like that, it looked measly little.
Baron stood atop the table at his usual height of one-foot-nothing and, even though he was obviously trying to hide it, he didn't seem too enamoured with the fruits of their research either.
"So," he said, and even that single word sounded heavy, "what do we know?"
"Dude brings songs to life and we almost got our asses handed to us by a snowman."
"Thank you, Muta."
"A snowman, Baron."
"Yes, I heard you the first time." Baron looked to the other two Bureau members. "Any other input?"
"It'd be a wise idea to know whether this music magic is something inherent to the man, or whether it comes from the accordion," Toto said. "If it's the latter, all we need to do is separate him from the instrument."
"All we need to do?" Muta mimicked. "Are ya forgetting what happened the last time we tried to even talk to him? I don't think he's exactly gonna let us just walk off with his magic accordion."
"Also good point."
"He can't just conjure up anything with his magic," Haru said. "At least, I don't think so." When the others looked at her, she shrugged and added, "He used real reindeer for his Rudolph moment, right? And, Baron – your hat was the starting point for Frosty, remember? Like in the song. How is your hat, by the way?"
"Still drying." Baron only looked disgruntled for a moment as he recalled the abuse his top hat had suffered on the head of Frosty, before returning to the matter at hand. "But I think you may be onto something there. This magic he's using isn't omnipotent – it's limited to both the songs he can play and what he has to hand."
"Dude still managed to set a homicidal snowman on us," Muta muttered.
"It does leave him with the upper hand," Baron admitted, "but, nevertheless, we still need to intervene before somebody gets hurt."
"I mean, sure, but I'm gonna complain about it."
"The Monopoly pieces might have enough Creation magic for us to perform a tracking spell, although outside the Sanctuary and with so little magic on them, it's unlikely to be perfect," Baron continued. "But it should give us a direction at least. Haru, can you keep an eye on the news, just in case our musical friend decides to go for an encore?"
"Sure thing." Haru switched her phone onto the local news channels, which were all buzzing about the reindeer, Jack Frost, and now the latest about a sentient snowman, but nothing else. Yet. She found herself humming under her breath while she skimmed.
"Hey, Chicky; cut it out."
"Sorry. It's stuck in my head." She paused, and looked up over her phone. "Huh. I've just realised why we found Monopoly pieces with the reindeer. It's in the song."
"Are ya daft? Where's the Monopoly in Rudolph?"
"All of the other reindeer used to laugh and call him names – like Pinocchio," Haru sang through quickly. "They never let poor Rudolph play in any reindeer games – like Monopoly. It's one of those funny versions."
"Huh. Doesn't seem all that funny to me."
"No offence, Muta, but I don't think you're exactly its target audience." Haru refreshed the news page, and then jumped to social media. Still nothing new. "So, I hate to be the wet towel, but do we actually have a plan for when we do find our musical friend?"
"Make a plan, plan goes to pieces, throw plan out of window, improvise," Toto offered. "In consideration of effort, I suggest we jump straight to improvising."
"Very funny. I was being serious."
"So was I."
The Monopoly pieces were glimmering now. Haru raised her gaze over her phone to watch as the tracking spell took form, the pieces glowing brighter and brighter. Moments passed. Then minutes. Haru couldn't remember tracking spells taking this long before.
She was on the verge of commenting when the light shot up from the game pieces. Tiny dots of light swirling on the spot, like stardust caught in an eddy, and they gathered together to form a floating orb. Within the orb, a street came into view, backed by grey apartment blocks.
"Well that's really helpful," Muta snarked. "A street. Good going. Could be anywhere in town."
"Do you have any better ideas, butterball?"
"Hey, I know those buildings," Haru said, ignoring the fight about to start up. "That's student accommodation. This must be near the university."
The orb fizzled out. "Gentleman," Baron said, "you heard the lady. We have our bearing."
On the plus side, at least they had narrowed it down to just the university quarter.
On the downside, they still had hundreds of student flats to rule out.
"We can't just go knocking on every single door and hope our mystery musician answers," Haru muttered, directing her voice downwards to where Muta was walking beside her. It was getting late, so there weren't many people around. Still, she kept her phone by her ear, just to make it look like she wasn't entirely crazy by talking to a cat. "What if he doesn't answer and we move on to the wrong building?"
"What if he does and he sends another snowman after us?"
"You're really hung up on that, aren't you?"
"Chicky, I've seen a lot of weird stuff with the Bureau, but homicidal snowman take the cake."
"Well, when you put it like that…" Haru slowed her step and tilted her head at a nearby building. "Huh. Muta," she said, "I think we've found it."
"How can you be sure?"
Haru stared at the pear tree growing out of 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."
"Hilarious, I know." Haru squinted at the building. "Still leaves us a lotta flats to check out," she murmured. She glanced up as she approached it. Above, there was the ever familiar shadow of Toto gliding alongside the upper windows before slipping through an opening, leaving her and Muta to find their own way inside. There was the distant melody of a distinctive song drifting down.
Returning her attention to the entrance in front of her, she scowled. A passcode. Of course there was a passcode for the building. And she couldn't exactly just climb in through a window like Toto and Baron had. That tended to get attention – she had done it enough times to know.
"Hey, Muta," she whispered down, "don't suppose your criminal skills include codebreaking now, huh?"
"Did it look like the Cat Kingdom has that level of security to get past?"
"Don't worry, Chicky, I got this. Just follow my lead."
"What lead–?" Haru moved away from the door as a student approached, attempting an innocent smile as if she hadn't just been discussing breaking her way in. The student warily eyed her and then punched in a code for the door, with his shoulder pointedly blocking the panel. She rolled her eyes – typical – and almost missed Muta slipping inside as the student entered.
"Hey – excuse me." Haru caught the door just before it closed. Muta vanished up the stairs. Geez, that cat sure could move when it suited him.
The student glared at her as she elbowed past him.
"Sorry – my cat," was all she managed before she sprinted up after Muta.
She caught up with him on the second floor.
"Oi, weren't you even going to wait for me?"
"Ya made it through, didn't ya?"
"No thanks to you."
"And who distracted the student while you got inside?"
"You can't pretend like that was your grand plan." Haru skidded to a stop on the fourth floor, partly because she was out of breath, partly because Toto and Baron were waiting for them, but mostly because there were three French hens sitting on the windowsill beside them.
Actually, now she thought about it, she wasn't sure they were French. What made a hen French? They could just be ordinary hens. Sitting on a windowsill on the fourth floor of student flats in the middle of urban Japan. Although, she had heard weirder things happening in student accommodation. Still, unlikely to be a coincidence.
Also, she could hear 12 Days of Christmas coming from the nearest apartment door. Accordion style.
She nodded her greeting to the strange assortment cluttered on the window.
"Hey, Baron. Toto. Toto's friends."
"Just because they're birds doesn't mean I know them," Toto said tiredly.
"Do you know them?" she asked.
"Of course not. They're enchanted birds made by a Creation accordion." Toto nodded to the door where 12 Days of Christmas was gradually progressing through the verses. "So what are we doing about our magical Mozart?"
"We could knock, you know, like ordinary people."
"Right, Chicky. And going for a nice chat worked out so well last time."
"Okay, Muta; no need to make me feel quite so stupid for suggesting it." Haru watched the door. The song was currently up to six geese a-laying and she could only imagine the mess that was causing. "You know, if we don't have any better ideas on how to get in, I'm going to have to knock. Unless he's left a convenient window open somewhere in his flat?" she asked hopefully.
"We've already checked," Toto said.
"Shucks." Haru sighed and steeled herself for the inevitable confrontation ahead of her. "Alright. Here goes nothing." She knocked.
The accordion ignored her.
"Huh. That was anticlimactic."
"I'm surprised you know such a long word, butterball."
"Please, not now," Baron said.
"I can't believe none of us know how to lockpick," Haru muttered. She knocked again, this time accompanied by, "Campus security! We've received complaints of strange noises coming from your flat. Open up!"
This time, the accordion paused. It gave one last trill, and then a wheezing sound as it was placed down – much to the Bureau's collective relief.
The door opened, and she came face to face with the musician from the street.
The student stared at her. She stared back. She smiled and gave a little wave. "Hello."
"You're not security," he said.
"I could be."
"I know you… You're that lady from the street. The one who chased me!"
"And you're the boy who set a snowman on us," Haru retorted, dropping the pleasantries. She pushed inside before he could stop her. Much to her surprise, save for the usual student mess, the room was tidy. Or, at least, there were no signs of multiple Christmas birds filling the space. She wouldn't go so far as to call it tidy.
She picked up the accordion, and the student froze in the doorway.
"Neat trick, getting all the song birds to vanish," she said. She watched the rest of the Bureau sneak in after her while the student's attention was diverted. "Does that happen automatically when you finish a song, or do you have to trigger it?"
The student scowled, and for a moment Haru thought he wasn't going to answer her out of sheer stubbornness, but then he said, "They naturally revert a while after I stop playing, but I can make them stop too. Who are you?"
"We're the Cat Bureau."
The student squinted, finally noticing the other three members. Muta sat by Haru's foot, but Baron and Toto were scouting round the room. "But only two of you are cats," he said.
Muta snorted. "Too late to change the name now."
"I'd like to believe we got off on the wrong foot," Haru said, ignoring the student's eyes bugging at Muta's words. "So, let's try proper introductions. I'm Haru. That's Baron, Toto, and the cat who just spoke is Muta. Say hi, Muta."
"Do I have to? Homicidial snowman, remember?"
"He's still annoyed about our last encounter," Haru said. "Admittedly, so am I, but I'm politer. And you are?"
"Do… the others talk?"
The student scowled again, but eyed the accordion Haru still held. "Osamu," he said. "Can I have my instrument back now?"
"Considering that you use it to summon songs… no. No, I think I'll stay here with the upper hand and your accordion so nothing nasty happens. Again." Haru watched out of the side of her eye as Baron and Toto located several feathers scattered around the room.
"I'm sorry about the snowman – but you were chasing me. I panicked."
"Do you normally try to kill people when you panic?"
"I didn't want it to kill you! Just scare you off!"
"And now you've got our attention."
"Mr Osamu, with your music magic, you can only create things if you already have something to base it on, correct?" Baron asked. Evidently, he had concluded his sweep of the room. He held a collection of different feathers in his hand.
Osamu nodded. "I need something to anchor it into."
"But you're not perfect at controlling the outcome," Baron continued. "For instance, when it came to creating three hens, the magic didn't anchor onto the hen feathers you had brought, but onto several wild birds outside."
"I have to concentrate to make sure it does what I want," Osamu muttered, "and sometimes the magic finds something more suitable to anchor onto."
"Understandable. Changing an existing bird into a hen takes far less effort than conjuring a whole hen out of one feather."
Toto landed on Haru's shoulder. He peered down at the instrument in her hands, and Haru could feel the tension running through him. "Baron, you need to take a look at this," he said. "It's a Drosselmeyer."
Baron stilled. "Which one?"
"I don't know. Does it matter?"
"Drosselmeyer?" Haru echoed. "What's a Drosselmeyer?"
"It means we need to get this away as far as possible," Toto said.
Osamu leapt forward and Haru's numb grip – accordions were heavy, good grief – lost it.
The Bureau froze as the musician cradled the accordion into a playing position. The first few notes of 12 Days lingered in the air. "You're not taking it away from me, you understand?" Osamu growled. "It's mine! I found it, I cleaned it up and made it work again! It's mine!"
"Geez, when did he become Gollem?" Muta muttered.
Haru nudged him with her foot.
"Mr Osamu," Baron said calmly, hands raised, "I believe you are a good person. Ordinarily, you would never hurt anyone." He stepped out before the rest of the Bureau, and Haru had to dispel the urge to yank him back. "But the accordion you have there is dangerous. Creations like it have the potential to change people, to twist them. You've always wanted to believe magic is real, am I right? And then this instrument appears in your life and not only is magic real, but you can control it, except, not really, because the songs that harm are so much easier than songs that don't. So when we turned up and you thought you might lose it – the accordion, this world you've discovered – it was far too easy to twist Frosty the Snowman into a monster, to respond with violence. It took your fear of losing this, and twisted it into something malicious. But that accordion will drain you eventually, Osamu, and it will leave you with nothing of yourself. Just a monster."
"And how would you know that?" Osamu growled.
"I've seen it happen before. Please. It doesn't need to happen again."
"Then you're wrong! Because I know exactly what I'm doing!" Sharp, discordant notes fizzled from the instrument, and Haru found herself frozen in place. The notes wove around her heart, pulsing through her veins and commanding her to straighten. Her arms were flung wide and then – inexplicably, ridiculously – she began to dance.
"Oh, holy–" she managed just before she spun.
Nine ladies dancing.
"Osamu, what are you–"
"Now, what was your name?" Osamu asked. "Baron, was it? How fitting."
And, through the haze of her puppet dance, Haru saw Baron sway, and then take a stilted leap.
Ten lords a-leaping.
"Fun fact," Osamu continued, and he sounded different. "In early versions, it wasn't four calling birds, but four colly birds. Colly coming from 'coal black'. So… four black birds…"
Toto froze from where he had just taken off from Haru's shoulder, and then settled down on the table, the music compelling him to sit.
"Yeah?" A blur of white fur cannonballed towards Osamu. "And where do cats come into it?"
The music died abruptly with a squeal, and the spell broke. Haru shook off the remnant magic, although her feet still wanted to tap, and collapsed down. The world continued to spin for several more dizzying moments. She dropped her head to one side to see Baron similarly recovering from his leaping fit.
She caught his eye, and she couldn't help it. She grinned. "Score one for Bureau dignity."
"Getoff, you mangy – gah!"
Haru looked back just in time to see Toto sweeping down and plucking the accordion from Osamu. Toto faltered under the weight, and then dropped it entirely a few feet off. She lunged for it, her hand knuckle-white as it gripped the strap.
Osamu reached it in the same moment.
She went to pull it from him and then – she froze.
It wasn't a voice, exactly.
It was a feeling – a feeling that she could almost have mistaken for her own, only she had been around magic long enough to know when something was amiss.
She should play it, this feeling said. After all, better in her hands than his. She knew how to handle magic and she had seen first-hand the power of this accordion. This Creation. With this, she could stop Osamu entirely. He had barely played two notes, and the whole Bureau had been reduced to ridiculousness, saved only by the absence of a cat in 12 Days. Next time, they might not be so lucky.
But if she played it… she could stop him.
The other part of her – her own thoughts – reminded herself that she didn't know how to play an accordion, even if she wanted to do any such thing.
But this accordion was magic.
All she needed to do was ask.
She could stop the Bureau losing anyone ever again.
She snapped her hand back and Osamu snatched the accordion up. She shuffled back, tried to stand and staggered down again. There was a whoosh of magic behind her, and gloved hands grabbed her shoulders. She was pulled back to her feet, barely registering Baron at human height as he hauled her towards the door.
"Baron – you'll be seen–" Haru started.
"Not our biggest problem right now!" Baron cried just as a gust of snow-cold wind followed them out. Ice crept along her skin, and she felt the coldness seep into her. In the Bleak Midwinter was playing out again, the music seemingly chasing after them.
"What was that about, Chicky? Ya nearly had it!"
Haru missed her footing on the stairwell and stumbled. Baron righted her. "There's something wrong with that accordion!" she snapped at Muta.
"It's a Creation, ain't it? Can't ya just talk sense into it?"
"No! It's–" Haru stumbled again, verbally this time. She wanted to say evil, but stopped herself. Nevertheless, there had been something… off about that accordion that had made her soul crawl. "Baron, what is it?"
Reaching the exit, Haru pulled him back. "I've met lots of Creations before, but never anything like that. Muta's right – Creations, we can reason with. But that… I think it's just maliciousness. It wanted me to use it to hurt Osamu. What… What kind of Creation does that?"
"A Drosselmeyer Creation."
"You keep saying that, but I don't know what that means!" Haru snapped. "I don't even…" She trailed off as a half-faded memory nagged at her. "Wait a minute. Drosselmeyer. I've heard that name before."
"Sure ya have. It's from the Nutcracker."
"No. I mean, I've heard it closer to home." Haru concentrated, and Baron's own silence made her suspect she was along the right lines. The memory cleared. "My father. He went by that name once."
"It was his original name," Baron said, almost gently. "The Drosselmeyer family, a family of sorcerers and artisans, are spread across multiple worlds, usually inherently capable of making extremely powerful Creations."
"But doesn't that make you a Drosselmeyer Creation?"
"Not all Drosselmeyer Creations are like the accordion," Baron said. "My unusual beginnings saw to that. But… enough are to warrant caution. The Drosselmeyer family line had a habit of pushing the boundaries of Creations, often at the expense of the Creation. And those who encountered it."
"Let's just say that Guertena's habit of splitting Creations' souls from their bodies would not have been a surprise to the Drosselmeyer family," Toto said. "And, in this case, giving a Creation the purpose to bring harm."
A blast of cold wind slammed down the stairwell, and Haru cried out in shock. A hard chord echoed across the walls, bouncing and reverberating until it filled the very air, filled her very lungs. She was distantly aware that the others had jolted, even the Creations with their increased endurance.
Osamu stood at the top of the stairs, snowy winds whipping around him and a similar icy gleam in his eyes. He started towards them. Slowly, like he knew he had all the time in the world.
"In the bleak midwinter," he began, his words somehow rising above the accordion's vicious melody, "frosty wind made moan…"
The wind sharpened, cutting across Haru's skin. The cold crept through her, and suddenly it was effort to simply stand against the gale storm.
Osamu took another step down.
"Earth stood hard as iron, water like… a stone."
Something shifted inside Haru at those whispered words and she doubled over, pain monopolising her. Her lungs… Her throat… Her blood… She tried to swallow, but the moisture in her mouth was gravel now. Stone. There was a thud. Someone had collapsed.
She eyed the sideways door.
It had been her.
Water, water, water, she was 70% water, 70% stone, and her body was breaking.
A grey suit fell down beside her. White gloves pushed out against the floor, resisting the call of gravity. Orange fur peeked out between glove and suit. Orange fur, now orange-painted wood. Small now, smaller than before, and wooden. Baron in his wooden form, moving still, trying to negate the magic with his wooden form, but wood had water too, and now gravel ran along his grain.
There was the sound of stone meeting flesh, and the music cut off. The spell's grip loosened, just enough for her to gasp a pained breath. She rolled her head to see Toto – stone gargoyle Toto – pick himself up off the floor after flinging himself at musician and accordion.
His wings grated against each other, his feathers clinking, and he collapsed back down.
She should get up.
But all she could do was lie there, stone still in her veins and gravel in her throat, and when she coughed, tiny pebbles speckled with blood dropped from her mouth. She watched as they dissolved into water droplets.
Osamu moved for the accordion again.
"Stop…" Haru rasped.
He ignored her and brought the instrument back into his arms.
They had been lucky twice – with no cats in 12 Days, and Toto's gargoyle status giving him just enough immunity against Midwinter – but she couldn't deceive herself with the illusion that luck would hold out a third time. She tried to will her limbs to work. A whimper passed through her lips instead.
The first few notes of Midwinter started up again, and she felt her blood begin to freeze over.
Toto didn't move.
This was it.
"Ya better…" There was a gruff cough from behind her – Muta – and he tried again. "Ya better watch out, ya better not cry…"
The accordion faltered, probably more out of disbelief than anything else. If Haru had had the strength, she would have added her disbelieving look to the mix.
Muta continued in a slightly monotone melody. "Ya better not pout, I'm telling ya why. Santa Claus is coming to town."
The accordion faltered again but this time, when it picked up, the melody had shifted. She heard Osamu curse as his tune slipped between Midwinter and Santa Claus Is Coming To Town, torn between the melody he wanted and the melody he could hear.
Another curse, and Osamu shifted the tune entirely to match Muta's.
The cruel wind stilled, but the magic still lingered in the air. Instead of snow, there was the thud of boots – sturdy, heavy boots – descending the stairs, and a shadow, immeasurably large, fell across the hallway.
This time, it was Muta who faltered and the accordion continued.
Haru propped an elbow beneath her, her breath pained but no longer agony. She attempted a note. It was thin and wavered, but it found its mark. The accordion continued.
"I… don't want a lot for Christmas…"
Her voice cut out and she dropped her forehead down against the floor. She closed her eyes. Banished the silly little nerves that played on her and the aches that lingered in her blood.
"There is just one thing I need.
I don't care about the presents,
Underneath the Christmas tree."
Her arm gave way and she dropped down onto one side. She could see Baron recovering, his form settling back into flesh. She caught his eye. Smiled. The next notes tripped softly off her tongue.
"I just want you for my own,
More than you could ever know.
All I want for Christmas is you…"
The accordion's melody drifted and the shadow of Santa Claus flickered just as Haru's breath snagged. The accordion took over though, the magic shifting, trying to find a sharp spin on the new song.
"Have yourself a merry little Christmas…"
Haru tilted her head back to see Toto picking himself slowly up.
"Let your heart be light.
From now on, our troubles will be out of sight,
And have yourself a merry little Christmas tonight…"
There was another curse as Osamu shifted song, easier to change with rather than play against, but never enough time for the magic to take root. Haru eased herself up, and this time there was strength in her limbs. She started unsteadily to her feet.
The magic and music swirled around her, and just as she felt it focus, a clear tenor voice rang out.
"Sleigh bells ring, are you listening?
In the lane, snow is glistening…"
Haru almost faltered then, but not because of any weakness. None by the accordion's doing, anyway. She glanced back and Baron, now back to his feet, met her gaze. His eyes softened.
"A beautiful sight,
We're happy tonight,
Walking in a winter wonderland."
Osamu stepped back, his fingers working frantically to keep tune against Baron's voice.
Haru closed in on him and her hand curled over the accordion's bellows. She felt the accordion attempt to worm its thoughts into hers, but she focused on Baron's melody. "Enough," she said. "You've lost. Release him."
Osamu stared into her eyes, and she wondered if the accordion Creation was looking through him. She hoped so. She hoped it could see the way her eyes were no longer afraid, see the determination in her jaw, see the limit of her patience reached.
"We're not afraid of you anymore," she said. Her hand moved along the accordion and gently peeled Osamu's fingers from the notes. Her voice dropped. "And I know you've seen into my mind if your little thought trick was any indication. You know what lengths I will go to in order to protect those I care for. Do you really want to push me that far?"
Osamu stared a moment longer, and then he blinked and his eyes cleared. He frowned, and suddenly inhaled sharply with horror. "God, what have I…?" He looked down, saw the accordion he still cradled, and tried to shove it away. Haru caught it and quickly bundled it out of his reach.
"I… I'm so sorry for what I did – I never, I don't–"
"No one got hurt," Haru reassured.
There was a snort from across the hallway. "Speak for yourself, Chicky!"
Haru smiled. "We'll recover," she amended. "And, in future, you might want to steer clear of enchanted musical instruments, okay? Magic can seem like fun, but it tends to have a mind of its own."
Osamu nodded. "No fear. And… thank you."
In the warmth of the Yoshioka household, a strange assortment of individuals sat around a kitchen table and eyed the ancient accordion that rested atop it.
"So," Haru said, "what are we going to do with it?"
"If we had the Sanctuary, I would suggest we box it up and leave it in a safe room of the Bureau," Baron said. He was sat beside Haru, expending magic to keep him at a human height. A little luxury, but one she couldn't resent at Christmastime.
"And since we don't have the Sanctuary?" Haru prompted.
"We box it up and place it somewhere in your room where we'll know not to disturb it."
"We're not keeping the murdering accordion Creation in my room," Haru deadpanned.
"Would you rather we left it in the attic, where ya mam might find it?"
"It doesn't have any power without someone to play it," Toto said. "If left alone, it will be as magical as, well, an accordion."
"But it's a Creation–"
"A Drosselmeyer Creation," Baron amended. "And the Drosselmeyer family had a habit of procuring Creations with… peculiar qualities. It appears that in exchange for this Creation to have the ability to alter reality with music alone – a stupendously powerful ability – its trade-off was a dependency on a host. Without someone playing it, it is powerless."
"Still don't like it," Haru muttered, "but I suppose we don't have anywhere else to keep it." She made a face. "I can see that until we find a solution to this, I'm going to end up with a lot of dangerous junk hidden in my room."
"We'll talk to Lune and Yuki about setting up a safe room in the Cat Kingdom," Baron said.
"Great idea. Let's just leave the magical murder instrument in the Cat Kingdom," Muta grunted. "Can't see how that could possibly go wrong." He leapt up onto the table and approached the accordion. As he leant a paw against it, the accordion shrank to a size suitable for him.
Haru could practically sense it begging to be played.
"Muta…" Baron warned.
"Relax. It ain't gonna have enough time to tempt me with anything. I just… wanna try something out." He picked up the accordion, and the others tensed as a few off-key notes strayed from it. Muta scowled at the instrument and fumbled over the keys. "Was a lot easier to play with fingers," he muttered, but eventually the beginning of a tune tumbled out.
Despite all her misgivings, Haru found a small smile rising to her lips. "I didn't know you could play."
"Or sing," Toto added.
"Used to, long time ago. Never saw any need to bring it up 'til now." Muta gave a scheming grin and joined in with the melody that was quickly rising in confidence.
"Snow is falling, all around me.
Children playing, having fun…."
Haru laughed as the tinsel hanging across the ceiling began to shed their glittery foil strips, falling like shining snow.
"We're gonna have a party tonight,
I'm gonna find that girl underneath the mistletoe
We'll kiss by candlelight."
Haru felt a spark of magic above and when she looked up, sure enough, part of the tinsel was weaving itself together. The glitter dissolved away and a sprig of mistletoe bloomed into place above the space between her and Baron.
She side-eyed Muta. "You sneaky cat."
"Well, are ya gonna kiss or aren't ya? It is tradition, after all."
Haru glanced to Baron, and she could feel her face redden. "I mean," she managed, "it is tradition."
"Well, if that's the case, what choice do we have?" Baron replied.
Neither of them moved.
"Hurry up!" Muta demanded.
Haru couldn't help it – she snorted. So much for romantic. She quickly leant in and pecked Baron on the cheek, retreating before she could get too flustered. "Happy?" she asked Muta.
"That sounds about right," she said. "Now put that accordion down before it gets any ideas. Hey, Baron; help me find a suitable home for it, since it was your idea to store it in my house." She grabbed the accordion and started for the stairs, barely waiting to see if Baron was following. Her face was red now; she could feel the blush crawling all the way to her ears and she kept replaying that moment, wondering if she should have taken the chance, if she should have done it differently…
It was as she dropped the accordion down on her bed that she realised Baron had paused at her doorway. She gave one warning look to the instrument – as if it had any plans of escaping – and paced back to the hallway.
"Hey, Baron. Something wrong?" She replayed the quick kiss in her mind and had to fight to stop the blush from intensifying. She focused on the banister rail behind Baron, the speckled wallpaper, anything to keep her from reddening further.
"No, not wrong."
His voice sounded different. It took Haru several belated moments to realise it was because he sounded… bashful? She had never heard him sound like that, so she hadn't recognised it immediately. She focused back on him. His gloved hand brushed absent-mindedly at his cheek.
"It's simply that," he continued, "it is tradition for all individuals under the mistletoe to bestow a kiss, and I believe only one of us did so."
Haru stared. Her heart beat out a funny little rhythm.
Baron wasn't meeting her eyes. He seemed to be staring at her nose. "I'm asking if it would be proper to finish the tradition."
He inhaled sharply beneath his breath, and his eyes closed briefly. "Miss Haru, may I kiss you?"
"Oh." Haru blinked, and then realised Baron was waiting for her to say something. She blinked again, and her heart did that same off-beat rhythm. "Well, you hardly need to call me 'Miss Haru' for that sort of thing."
She watched Baron's mouth undertake a little dance, like he was fighting the urge to laugh. "Miss– I mean, Haru… I'm still waiting for an answer."
"I guess you are." Before her courage – or foolishness, or festive optimism, or whatever it was – could give way, she quickly closed the gap between them. Her arms curled around his shoulders and then, just as suddenly, she leant back. "I… did read the signs right, right? This is what you were asking about, wasn't it?"
Baron laughed gently then. He dropped his head down so their foreheads brushed against one another. "Yes, Haru."
"Good. That would have been very embarrassing otherwise." She leant forward and softly kissed him. "Merry Christmas, Baron."
A/N: Happy New Year, everybody! I hope you enjoyed this festive two-parter, and at some point the next series will be happening. However, I hope to get something non-TBF-related up and posted before that, although which story that is could be anyone's guess.
Here's to a wonderful 2019.