The Disappearance of Haru Yoshioka
A/N: This was originally a request by fanlovedlt for a prompt inspired by Doctor Who's episode: Turn Left. Unbeknown to them, I had already half an idea formed from the episode, so it was all the permission I needed to go merrily careening off into the sunset with this plot concept. A month later, I had 13 parts spread across 13K words, so I've decided to post it as a two-parter for Hallowe'en, for ease of reading.
While this is being posted for Hallowe'en, it's more suspense than horror, so no ghost or ghoulies inhabit this story :)
Part 1: The Lost
Baron doesn't know exactly when she disappeared.
Maybe it was after she missed their monthly catch-up dinner - but, then again, the Bureau had been running late and it wouldn't have been the first time she had to admit defeat to her regular life.
Or perhaps it was when she didn't drop by with her weekly cake offerings for Muta - which was less about the cake nowadays and more about the excuse of a visit - but maybe they had missed her. The Bureau's doors were always open to her, but its inhabitants kept irregular home hours.
Or possibly it was around the same time they had that freak hurricane and she didn't detour by the next day to check in on them.
He makes excuses, reasons for not knowing, for not sensing that something vital - that someone - was missing from his life the moment she vanished, but in the end the only truth he has left is that by the time he realises, he's too late.
The shock comes one early March day. The daffodils are just beginning to flower in their plant boxes and the realisation that spring is on the way brings about thoughts of Haru and birthdays.
"The problem with spring birthdays," he jovially announces to the rest of the Bureau, "is that they follow too soon after Christmas. The perfect gift takes time to find, and few measly months is hardly enough."
Toto pauses grooming his feathers with the expression of one suddenly afraid they have forgotten an important date. "Spring birthdays?" he echoes. "Whose are we celebrating?"
"Whoever it is, I ain't shopping for them," Muta grumbles from the sofa. "I remember the last time yer dragged me into a spirit market. Thanks, but no thanks."
"Really, Muta; just because she didn't bring a cake last week is no reason to ignore her birthday," Baron scolds lightly.
"Whose birthday, Baron?"
It is then that the first sliver of something akin to dread freezes through Baron's veins. He turns to Toto, appraising his oldest friend's face - looking for the telltale smirk, the crinkling of the eyes that betray a joke - and finds only sincerity. "Why, Haru's, of course."
"It's probably just a client or someone," Muta calls, only half-listening. "I can never keep track of all the waifs and strays yer insist on helping."
"You're part of the Bureau too, hairball," Toto reminds him. "You're meant to help as well."
"Yeah, but I draw the line at buying presents for them all. The Christmas card list is already too long as it is."
"Haru," Baron repeats. "Haru Yoshioka." His gloved hands curl in on his desk and the dread pools into his stomach. "The human who has been visiting the Bureau for the past decade. If this is a joke, then it's in exceptionally poor taste."
Muta cackles. "Haru who? Aren't you a little too old for imaginary friends, Baron?"
"Haru Yoshioka," Baron says again, and he rounds on Muta. "She brings you cake every week and learnt to bake angel food cake, just for you. She helps you with your newspaper puzzles, and calls you Buta when you steal the last cake slice. She snuck you into the cinema last month to see an action film you couldn't wait for the DVD of, and once rigged up a projector in the Sanctuary for a movie night."
"Baron, are you feeling..." Toto begins.
Baron turns to the crow, pleading. "Toto, she helped you move your favourite mulberry tree when the new road was due to destroy it. She stole out into the night and it took her until 3am to shift it somewhere safe. When one of your friends broke their wing, she took him in and looked after him until he healed. She plays chess with you regularly, even though you win nine tenths of the time, and she still finds it funny to call the rooks 'ravens' on your side. So don't ask me if I'm feeling okay, Toto, because I am fine, but something else is very, very wrong."
A silence lingers in the Bureau.
"Baron," Toto says, "there's never been a Haru in the Bureau."
An uncharacteristic growl curdles in Baron's throat and he snatches up his cane. "She buys me a new cane every year - ever since my old one buckled during her case with us - how do you explain this without her?"
Toto looks with pitying eyes on his friend. "Baron, that's the same cane you've had for decades."
And now Baron feels the difference in the wood - in the nicks and scars the old stick bears from years of use - and the cane he holds is foreign to him.
"You always said you were going to replace it," Toto says gently, "but you never got round to it."
He tears through his case records, barely noting the mess he leaves in his wake, but there is no sign, not a single word or whisper of that Cat Kingdom case from all those years ago.
All the while, that cane lies mocking to one side.
Eventually, he sits in the remains of his destruction, surrounded by paperwork and files that tell the same story, a story everyone but he seems to remember, and for the first time in his long life he feels truly lost.
The clatter of talons pick their way across the papered floor, and a wing curls around him. "I'll get my friends to keep an eye out for this... Haru Yoshioka," Toto offers gently. "You said she lived near one of the Sanctuary's openings?"
"One of the Japanese archways," Baron says. He picks his head up, trying to sort through the mental haze that clouds his thoughts. "Muta, you and I will visit the Cat Kingdom; even if Lune and Yuki don't recall Haru, they may still be willing to help find her."
Muta snorts. "The Cat Kingdom? Yeah, I'm gonna give that one a miss, but thanks for thinking of me."
"What's the matter, Muta? I thought you enjoyed their catnip jelly."
"Not enough to get captured over it, but you can bring back a doggie bag if you like. Good luck finding any though."
"What do you mean? I was under the impression King Lune pardoned your crimes years ago."
There is a pause.
"Baron," Toto informs him softly, "there is no King Lune. There was a Prince Lune, but he died years ago."
"How?" Baron asks hoarsely, although he fears he already knows the answer.
"He was hit by a speeding truck in the Human World. The death of the crown prince changed the Cat King; he spiralled and when he eventually died from grief without an heir, the nobility fought for the throne. The Cat Kingdom has been in chaos ever since."
This is wrong.
All of this is wrong.
The house where she grew up is changed; the name on the gateway is no longer Yoshioka, but that of another family, and the garden is clear of the cattails that had plagued the house since the Cat Kingdom's interference.
He runs his fingers over the gate's carved inscription and feels where the stonemason has worn the plate down to make room for the new name.
This was his last hope, the last known home of Haru's, and it - like her flat and her previous apartment - has yielded only emptiness.
"Maybe it's because there's no Haru," Toto murmurs later. His voice is low, laden with the guilt of suggesting such a thing when Baron has thrown himself body and soul into this search. "Maybe the reason you can't find her is because she doesn't exist."
"She does," Baron growls. "I remember her, even if you don't."
Toto looks on his oldest friend and finds no answer that won't break the Creation's heart further.
"Lune was in the Human World."
Toto looks up at Baron's sudden announcement. The cat Creation has gleamed little sleep in the passing weeks - not that Creations need much, but the consequences are beginning to catch up with him. Baron's movements have slowed, the light in his eyes dimmed, but he has brushed off all Toto's remarks, if not his worry.
"What was that?"
"Lune was in the Human World at exactly the same time in my timeline," Baron reiterates. He has taken to referring to 'his' timeline and 'this' timeline, desperately clinging onto the truths that only he remembers. "He must have been in order to get hit by the same truck." He scrabbles through his notes. His once orderly system has been shredded to pieces, dominated by the absent Haru, but eventually he finds what he is looking for. "The only reason Lune was out in the Human World at that exact place and time was because he was picking up fish crackers for Yuki."
"The Cat Queen from yer world?" Muta asks, trying to keep track of this alternative timeline that Baron is so insistent on. "You mean that Yuki?"
"Yes. Haru saved Yuki's life when they were both young - I had forgotten because it was in the original case file notes which I don't have, but Yuki would have died without Haru's help."
"So if Lune was fetching something for this Yuki..." Muta says.
"Then Haru exists. We just need to find her."
"Existed," Toto later amends. "It means Haru existed."
Baron doesn't look up from the portal preparations. His movements are still slowed - he has yet to sleep - but now there is a purpose to his actions. He is focused, directed like an arrow with no way to go but forward. Wherever forward may lead.
"Baron," Toto prompts, "I said-"
"I know what it means," Baron growls. "Do you think I haven't considered it?"
"I think that you're running straight into the Cat Kingdom on the off-chance of finding this alleged 'Yuki' in hopes she will know where this 'Haru' is," Toto says. He hops down to the cobbled ground, moving between Baron and the archway. "Baron, please listen to me. I'm only saying this because I care about you and I cannot watch you throw yourself into unreasonable danger."
"You wouldn't call it unreasonable if you remembered Haru."
Toto's gaze narrows. "No," he replies. "I probably wouldn't. But I don't. So you'll have to excuse me if I care more about my oldest friend than this mythical human I have no recollection of."
"What do you think, Toto?" Baron snaps. "Do you think I made her up? Do you think I imagined her?"
"I think you believe she's real," Toto says, "but we've all seen the effects of memory magic. Who's to say this isn't a trick? Or a side effect from some rogue magic we've encountered on a case? All I'm asking is that you consider all possibilities before running headfirst into a war-torn world."
Baron finishes the portal preparations, and a blue curtain fills the archway. "You'll be too conspicuous in the Cat Kingdom, so just Muta and I will go. You'll need to watch this side of the portal and make sure nothing untoward finds its way into the Sanctuary."
Toto's expression tightens, but he nods. "Come back safe, Baron."
The eternal noon sunshine still shines over the Cat Kingdom, but it is a very different world from the quiet cattail meadows Baron remembers. Without an heir in line, the throne has been thrown up for the first cat to claim it, and there are many felines who are willing to fight for that prize.
Baron moves through the abandoned palace, pausing only in the ballroom where the stained glass dome has been shattered and now lies in painted teardrops across the floor. Muta gives him a strange look as he lingers by a table filled with a forgotten feast, gloved hands trailing along the frayed cloth.
But there is no Yuki to be found here, and so they widen their search.
He finds her.
Their search is slow, hampered by the civil war that scars the kingdom, and it is a month - maybe? time is so fickle in the sun-soaked world - before their questions finally bring them to a small white cat.
She doesn't have the red ribbon that Baron remembers - was it red? maybe it was pink - and her fur is dull from the life she has lead. At first she has nothing to say to the strange ginger tabby with his gloved hands and huge companion, but when Haru's name crosses Baron's lips, she hesitates.
"I haven't heard that name in a long time," she says. "Not since I was a kitten."
"Is she still alive?" Baron presses.
"Maybe," Yuki answers. "I used to keep an eye on her, but I lost track of her when..." and she gestures loosely to the world about her. "I think she moved away from her childhood home about six years back. Why? Is something wrong?"
"I don't know," he says, "but I intend to find out."
The moon has waxed and waned a full cycle by the time Baron and Muta reappear through the portal. Baron looks like he has continued to forgo sleep during their excursion, but there is an electric energy to his movements. The first true smile in months breaks across his face, and Toto sees that the corners of his mouth are becoming wooden from his sleepless days.
"She's alive," he whispers, and his legs give way.
Toto thinks much in the ensuing week.
Finally Baron has reached a point where even he cannot argue against his fatigue and, even if he did, he does not have the strength to fight against Toto's ordered bed rest. But Toto knows that when Baron awakens, he will be just as driven - if not more so - in his quest.
Toto has known Baron for the majority of the cat Creation's life, and yet this new fervour unnerves him. He has seen Baron in many moods, has seen him drive himself to distraction, but never like this. Never to the point of destruction.
And he will.
Toto sees that now. He had feared as much during his month guarding the portal, knowing that Baron would not return until he found an answer one way or another, but a small, practical part of him wishes the answer had been different.
He does not wish ill on this Haru, whoever she may be. But he does not know her. She may be real, she may not, but his responsibilities are to those he does know. To those who are real, who are here and now, and who he is watching tear themselves apart right before him.
He sleeps an uneasy slumber, knowing the days ahead will be fraught.
Hope burns brightly in Baron when he awakes, but Toto is all too aware that fire and wood have never matched in wood's favour.
"She's alive - or she was six years ago," Baron rambles at his desk, pulling notes and files together with a frenzied speed, as if all too afraid Haru will slip from him a second time. "Which is imperative, because that's after Lune died. Whatever changed, it occurred while Haruhi was still accounted for."
"Haru," Toto says.
"You said Haruhi. While Haruhi was still accounted for."
"You meant Haru, right?"
"I... yes. I think so."
Haru. Her name is Haruhi.
The human world is large. Large enough for humans, and larger still for the handful of cats and Creations. Still, the Bureau searches - Baron searches - and the Bureau's doors are shut more often than they are open now. They hit dead end after dead end, a merry-go-round of goose chases, and every day Baron feels his memory of Haruhi slipping away.
"Maybe it's like grief," Muta offers gruffly, in a rare moment of seriousness. They have returned to the Sanctuary, and Baron is marking off another corner of the map where she is not. "Yer mind starts to forget, outta kindness."
"I'm not grieving," Baron replies. He marks up another area - by the coast. Haru had always said she liked the sea. (Didn't she?) "Because she's not dead. She's still out there; I just need to find her."
She is not by the coast.
She is not in the seaside village, and she is not in the mountain town, and she is not in the cherry blossom city. Maybe. The world is so busy, so full of people that it would be all too easy to miss her by moments. Maybe she ducked into an alley the exact moment Toto flew over the streets. Maybe she was sleeping in while Muta roamed the cafes. Maybe this Haruhi is different enough from his that they're looking in all the wrong places.
But he has to hope not.
He has no photo - why would he? This Bureau never met her - and by the time he realises he has forgotten her face, it is too late.
In desperation, he takes to paper. His art is satisfactory - nothing special, but he doesn't need it to be special. He just needs it to be her. And in the end it is not his passing pencilwork skills that hinder him, but his own memory.
He stares at the featureless face sketched before him, the eyes blank, the smile absent, and crushes it before rising back to the search. He will know her when he sees her again.
He has to.
Haru. Her name is Haruhi.
Baron returns from a particularly harrowing case - the client had arrived on the Sanctuary's doorstep a week ago, a human looking for a river spirit - to find his desk in disarray. Files smother the surface, scattered without rhyme or reason around a map scarred with inked notations.
He starts to call for Toto or Muta, to ask them for an explanation for this chaos, when he realises the writing is his.
He recognises the curl of the letters and the loop of the vowels, but there is a desperation in the slash of the words that is foreign to him. The ink is splotched with a hurried, harried haste, and the strokes are sharp. There are places where the pen has nearly buried through the paper.
At the centre of the map is a loose sheet, pinned to a heavily crossed off section.
It reads: Her name is Haru Yoshioka.
Muta watches Baron change in the ensuing weeks.
He has learnt to adapt to this strange new Baron, this Creation fixated on a single purpose, a lone unending plight, and has come to terms with it. He does not worry the way that Toto does - but, then again, Toto always worries. Instead he has adapted, allowing the current of this obsession carry him along with little protest.
Because maybe this Haru does exist. Maybe she doesn't. But either way, this case will end eventually and life will return to normal. He has been dragged along on too many strange and esoteric adventures to baulk at stories of magically vanishing humans and swiss cheese memories.
But it is the recent changes that unnerve Muta more.
For he has come to accept this new, driven Baron. True, it is strange, but he is a walking, talking cat figurine. Strange is a given. The sudden shift was jarring, but at least it has been consistent.
Up until now.
When the old Baron begins to slip back in at odd, opportune moments.
It starts with a laugh, and Muta realises he has not seen the Creation truly smile since this all began. A client tells a story during a quiet moment of a case and instead of his attention waning off onto Haruhi topics, Baron is there and present, and the story's finale brings a chuckle. His eyes are bright and attentive, and there is a freedom to his movements.
It doesn't last long though. A stray comment brings him back to Haru, and Muta watches as that pained reserve slams back into place.
And so it continues. Round and round, alternating between old and new, faster and faster, and every time the new Baron returns, the fear in his gaze heightens.
It must be the strain, Muta decides. For there are limits even Baron's mind can reach.
Haruhi. Her name is Haruko.
It is during the last throes of summer when the memories slip too far, if only for a moment.
Toto hops into the Bureau, expecting to find Baron tearing through a fresh page of desperately composed notes, to instead find his oldest friend alarmingly still.
Baron sits at his desk, his head cradled in his hands, and when he looks up, Toto sees he is visibly shaken. The surface before him is partially cleared, the months of chasing ghosts swept up and an empty case file prepared to box it away.
"I forgot," Baron whispers. "I read over the notes and I just... didn't care. It was simply another unfinished case to be tidied away. I'm losing her, Toto. For good."
Maybe it's no bad thing, Toto considers. Maybe this is the saving grace that Baron needs, to pull him out of this obsession before it consumes him any further.
Maybe he should just let Baron forget.
But in the end it is their decades of friendship that wins out and, against his better judgement, Toto tracks down an old acquaintance who has such experience with shifting realities.
"Of course you're forgetting her," the old spirit tells Baron. "You should never have known her in the first place. This is just the world's way of setting things right."
"But this reality is wrong," Baron persists, fighting against the tide that wants to pull him into this Haru-less reality. And he knows that if the current claims him, he will never find his way back.
The spirit smiles, but it is a thing bittersweet and pitying. "There is no wrong or right reality," she says. "Only the one that we have. Sometimes they shift, sometimes they change, but that is just the way it is. You don't argue with a clock for the passing of time, do you?"
"Then why do I still remember her?"
"There are always remnants. Anomalies. The likeliest explanation is that you possessed something of hers when the shift occurred. Something that tied you to her."
Baron grips the old new cane. He tries to ignore how its nicks and scars are becoming more familiar each day, how it becomes harder to cling onto the tactile memory of how the cane lovingly carved by Haruhi fitted into his hand.
"Do you want my advice?" the spirit asks. "Allow yourself to forget her. The road you seek will only bring you heartache."
Before he leaves, the spirit pulls Toto aside. "You know this to be a mistake," she says. "Nothing good can come from trying to change what is. The other Creation is too young, but you... you I had thought to understand such things. So why do you fight it?"
Toto glances back. He has sensed the conflict raging inside Baron, as the old and the new fights for him, and every day the new gains a little more ground.
It would be easy, too easy, to let the universe have its way. How ironic, Toto thinks, that the one time the right choice is the easy one, and yet he cannot take it.
"Because he is my friend," he answers.
The spirit nods wearily, understanding and yet no happier with the result. "Then, out of respect for the years we've known one another, I will give you this much. There are few beings who can alter reality so seamlessly, and fewer still with the inclination to do so on the scale of a single mortal."
"And you know where such individuals may be found?"
"I do." The spirit offers a silver compass, but lingers before it passes from paw to wing. "Be warned. You may not like the answers you find."
Toto takes the compass. "I can't sit back and do nothing."
The saddened smile the spirit gives betrays that that is exactly what Toto should do.
It is easier than Toto would have liked to slip away from the Bureau.
Once upon a time, before all this began, Baron would have noticed within a heartbeat how Toto's attention and presence was divided, but now the cat Creation is distracted. Toto finds that his reappearance after a day's absence is met with mild confusion, as if Toto is a hat that Baron had misplaced and only in the finding realised he'd lost it at all.
Of course, Toto's search would go quicker if he recruited the use of either Bureau companion, but such a thing would be to admit he has a lead - to admit to Baron that there is hope - and he has no desire to add flames to that particular fire.
And so he searches for the spirit, being, creature that is responsible for this reality shift and each time he returns empty-handed, the new reality has claimed a little more of Baron. Each time, the notes for this Haru are a little fewer, the fresh cases a little more prominent, the weight in his gaze a little lighter.
"Maybe yer should just let it go," Muta says to him one evening. They haven't bickered as much as usual - and in part that is due to Toto's absences, but there is a sharper reason in the toll the last half-year has taken on them both.
"Let what go?" Toto asks.
"Whatever secret thing yer up to help Baron." Muta raises an eyebrow as Toto startles. "Baron may have the attention span of a fruit fly right now, but I don't. Whatever yer up to, it's making you look almost as bad as Baron did at the start."
There is a bitter irony in that, Toto feels.
"So why not just let things take their course?" Muta continues. "After all, give 'im another month and he won't even remember that he was looking for this Haruko in the first place." He snorts as he collects up the dirty dishes on the table. "It's almost every day he starts to tidy up his desk before he remembers."
"Then why don't you?" Toto asks. "I'm not the only one being caught up in this ghost hunt."
Muta shrugs. "He hasn't forgotten fully yet. So I might as well help if he wants it."
"Do you think he'll find her?"
Muta doesn't answer that.
Eventually, after many false leads and wrong doors, the silver compass brings Toto to a tree's hollow that opens up into another world, and there he finds the spirit responsible.
It is a small thing, a winged mouse creature with a long golden tail that curls about it, and the barked walls encompassing the world tremble as it lays eyes on the newcomer. Toto takes a perch on a twisting root. "Good," he says. "So you recognise me."
"I have never seen you before in my life," the spirit hisses.
"Not in this reality, maybe," Toto replies. "But what about the one before?"
The spirit pauses, and Toto knows that at last - at last - he is one step closer.
"What about a human by the name of Haru Yoshioka?" he presses.
"What do you know of Haru?" the spirit demands.
"Only that she has vanished."
The spirit laughs, a wheezing, creaking noise that sounds more floral than fauna. "She has not vanished," it amends. "She is exactly where she should be."
"And where is that?"
"Living her life."
"In the Human World."
"Not telling. Not telling."
"Because you will ruin everything!" the spirit spits. "You and the rest of your little Creation office. You will drag her back into your world of magic and other realms and she will lose her grip on humanity. Again."
"Again?" Toto echoes. "What do you mean 'again'?"
"She is happy!" it continues. "She is happy and if you care you will let her be!"
The world creaks around him and when Toto suddenly finds himself outside the spirit's home, the tree is closed and the compass is broken.
Toto does not find the spirit again. He tries, but the way back is closed and part of him knows there is nothing more he will learn from it. It doesn't matter anyway.
By the time he returns to the Bureau, the desk is bare.
The last dredges of Baron's memory has dissolved away, and only the fragmented notes remain, now neatly filed upon a shelf alongside a dozen other cases. In time, Toto knows, it will gather dust and - maybe not in the next spring cleaning but one nonetheless - it will be removed to make room for newer cases.
He isn't sure why he and Muta still remember. Maybe it's because they only recall this reality's version, while Baron fought to retain both old and new and lost both in the fallout. When asked - carefully by Toto; he has no desire to reawaken the beast that has finally slumbered - Baron only takes a confused stance and quotes no memory of the case. Memory is fickle and all too hasty to blur; the missing months are only a droplet in the decades of his immortal life.
"Do you remember what you ate for dinner last Tuesday?" Baron asks back with a smile. (And how Toto has missed that smile.) "How about the case we finished two months ago? Or the guest we entertained the week before last? Life is busy, Toto, and we are not made to retain the entirety of it."
Baron doesn't realise the weight of that which he has lost, and Toto does not burden him again.
But in the end, the choice is taken from Toto, and it is a wayward comment from a client that opens that door once more.
It is a relatively simple case - should have been, should have been no more than a footnote in their adventures - but at the end the client lingers at the Sanctuary's archway, a bemused smile upon their face, and goes, "I'm sorry, but I just can't get over how much you look like him."
Baron quirks a smile back, surprised and naturally as curious as a cat. "Like who?"
"Just this... manga character." They stare a moment longer, that same expression as if trying to determine the flavour of a mystery tea. "From a story called The Cat's Repayment. You... you don't know anything about it, do you?"
"Not before now, no."
"Maybe a previous client took inspiration," Toto offers. "It wouldn't be the first time."
"Kinda rude for them not to tell you though," Muta adds.
Baron chuckles. "They say imitation is the truest form of flattery, Muta."
"Yeah, but they could've at least cut yer in on the royalties."
In the end, all the client can offer is the manga title and a name.
It may not be the same Haru.
Toto's not even sure Haru was the name of this missing human. Baron's memory blurred so badly towards the end that he cannot recall if it was Haru. Or Haruhi. Haruko? He has no reason to assume this is a cruel joke by the universe, to tease out this lost human just as they had begun to move on in their lives, but he still accompanies Baron and Muta to the library in the dead of night to find this manga.
The story is told in three chapters, and it is only in the middle one that Baron's fictional counterpart makes his first appearance. True, the ears are sharper, the face almost mousy, and the bowtie bears polka dots that scar Baron's fashion sensibilities, but the resemblance is there, and by a name of Duke van Jikkingen there can be no doubt that Baron has played a part in the character's creation.
"Is that me?" Muta asks, squinting at a round white blob with the smug expression of a cat that had just finished eating an entire turkey just as their human arrived home. "Why'd they make me look so shifty? Hey, birdbrain, looks like you're here too - as a magpie. The mangaka must've known all it takes is something shiny to distract you."
"That happened once," Toto mutters, but good-naturedly. The humour fades when he sees the story it tells.
The details - like Baron's name, like Toto's species - are not quite right. But the little details don't matter. What matters is that the story he reads is one of Cat Kingdoms and saved Cat Princes and a Cat Bureau coming to the rescue of a young human embroiled in the misplaced gratitude of a feline monarch.
What matters is that it is the same tale Baron had clung onto for so long.
What matters is that somewhere, somehow, someone else remembered it too.
What matters is that her name is Haru.
So when Baron closes the manga and announces that it is high time to make a visit to this mystery artist, Toto's heart plummets. There is even a glimmer of unease from Muta, but Baron's eyes are still clear and focused, with no sign of the displacement his old memories used to impart on him.
It may not be the same Haru.
But Toto can't bring himself to believe that.
There is more than just one manga, they discover.
They vary in plot, but not in theme - in so many, it is of the ordinary discovering the extraordinary and fighting to get back home. A girl unlucky in love who trades her face for a feline mask and almost loses her humanity in the process. A young writer who stumbles into a cat library looking for inspiration and forgets herself. A boyfriend who tries on borrowed wings and becomes trapped in an avian form he cannot shed.
Birds and cats and Creations. And always, always on the edge of forgetting. The tales spin round and round as if trying to describe a half-remembered dream that is never quite correct.
Sometimes Duke is there.
He navigates this fictional realm on the edge of normality, skirting the shoreline with uncanny ease and pulling people back from the line they won't be able to return from. Baron seems to be flattered by the interpretation, for whenever Duke appears, the reader can be sure that all will be well.
He doesn't see the way that Duke only ever appears just as the human has wondered nearly too far, stayed almost too long, strayed just to the edge of no return. He doesn't see the way that Duke heralds danger just as much as he promises safety.
But Toto does.
The worlds that the manga show are ones of wonder and delight and beauty, but they are also ones of warning. Of the danger of forgetting oneself or running from your life instead of facing it. They are testaments that the spirit world is many things, but for humans is not one of them.
And Duke is as much a part of that as anything else in the worlds.
So Toto does not know what to expect when they track down this Haru Ikewaki.
Certainly he does not expect the beautiful little house on the edge of a quiet town, paired with a small garden filled with wildflowers. He does not expect the air of contentness that infuses the home, set to the tune of birdsong and gentle humming. He does not expect everything to feel so right.
He lands on the low branches of a cherry tree, and Baron slides off his back. Further down, Muta scrabbles along the branch Toto had dropped him onto. From their vantage point, they can see a slim silhouette moving through the kitchen.
"Is that her?" Muta grunts. "She seems so... ordinary."
And Toto can't bring himself to disagree. Even as she moves into the light, he finds himself almost... disappointed that there isn't even a spark of recognition in him. The woman before him is in her mid-thirties, her brown hair tied back into a messy ponytail and a pencil tucked behind an ear. Maybe he was right. Maybe this isn't the same Haru.
And that's when Baron drops his cane.
Baron remembers and the memories come flooding back in an ugly torrent of images and emotions and moments and he barely notices the cane as it slips from his grasp.
He remembers their first meeting, and he remembers the hours they spent together reading in happy silence. He remembers the visits to other worlds, showing her the dancing stars of one realm and the underwater rainbows of another. He remembers her disappearance and the months he spent tearing himself apart to find her again.
He remembers forgetting her.
"It's her," he whispers, and he looks to Toto. The expression he finds is one of pity and... something else? He doesn't have time to deconstruct it, because Haru is there, she is alive and well and right before him.
Toto places a wing before him before he can sweep into action. "She may not remember you," he warns softly. "And you may not be able to change that."
"I know," he says, although in his heart he does not want to believe it. "But at least let me try."
Toto watches him for a heartbeat longer, his eyes weary in that moment, and then nods and retracts his wing. "Just don't get your hopes up too high," he murmurs.
Baron only smiles back and drops down onto the windowsill.
He's unsure how to announce his presence - whether to knock or to call out to her - but he hesitates too long and the choice is taken from him when she looks up from the coffee she's making and sees him.
They both freeze, Baron with one hand raised to the glass and her with the teaspoon of coffee in midair.
She is the first to move. The coffee is lowered and she leans across the sink to hesitantly unlock the window latch. There is surprise in her eyes, confusion too - no recognition, but there is not quite the right amount of shock for someone who has never seen him before. "You," she breathes, and her voice is the same as he remembers. "You're real?"
He tips his hat in a motion he has done for her so many times before. "Indeed. My name is Baron Humbert von Gikkingen, and I believe I am a frequent visitor in your lovely stories."
"Well, yes, but... I didn't think you were... that is to say, I wasn't aware..." She sits, suddenly, into a nearby chair. "I don't understand how this can be, unless..."
"This isn't a dream."
She laughs, sharply, as if being told an unexpected in-joke. "No, that I know. I know what my dreams are like and this... this is not one of them." She leans forward, her eyes glittering in the sun and he wonders how he could have ever forgotten how they shine like gemstones. "Did I somehow write you into existence? Is this one of those 'stories come alive' kind of scenarios?"
Baron smiles. "Not exactly." It seems Toto is right, that he alone carries the memories still - but there has to have been something once for her to tell stories of him so. Maybe he can bring them back. "Miss Haru, are you aware of us having met before?"
She shakes her head. "No. I... I always just thought you were a character I had made up. If I had known there was actually a... actually someone like you, I would have asked before using your likeness."
"Indeed. It is quite the uncanny likeness."
"Have we met before?"
He looks at her. Yes, he wants to say. Yes, and I'm sorry I ever made the mistake of letting you go. I'm sorry I forgot. I'm sorry it took so long for me to find you again.
But he also sees the warm and loving house she sits in - a far cry from the small flat she rented when she worked as a librarian. He sees the framed covers of her successful manga. He sees the healthy glow of her skin and the brightness in her eyes that tiredness and long hours had stolen away from her in his timeline.
And then he sees the slim gold ring on her left hand and he realises that he may have had a part in her life before, but it is no longer that reality.
"No," he says.
She is happy.
And who is he to mess with that?