Part 2: The Found
Haru Ikewaki is happy.
She has been happy for a long time, a pool of contentness simmering in her lungs and beating in her heart in a way that she knows is real and solid. When she sees her beautiful home and the sunrise breaks over the distant mountains, she knows this. When she receives yet another letter from a fan telling her what a difference her manga have made to their lives, she knows this.
And when her doting husband kisses her to distraction, she know this. When he makes her laugh so hard she splashes the washing up everywhere, when he brings her coffee in the morning, when he draws her into dancing while waiting for the rice to cook, she knows this.
Haru Ikewaki is happy.
And yet she dreams.
She dreams of worlds where she doesn't quite belong, of worlds that threaten to swallow her up, and sometimes they do. Sometimes she sees herself in a reflection but it is not her. Flakes of humanity fall from her until she is trapped in a form that is not her own, falling from her until the last sliver dissolves and she is someone - something - else.
But other times there is someone dear, someone close to lead her back. She takes his hand and lets him guide her through the maze of temptations and dead ends until her feet land on solid pavement and she is home. She looks back to her companion, but he is already vanishing.
She wants to reach out, to hold onto this friend for a little longer, but something instinctive always makes her pause. For the silhouette she sees is not quite human. Between glove and sleeve there is a sliver of ginger fur, the same fur that covers the sharp ears, and angular, feline eyes glimmer into hers. And she knows that she is as much in danger of losing herself to this companion as she is to the worlds that lure her in.
She lets him go.
For years she has woken to these strange dreams, and for years she has dealt by loosening the sense of otherworldly loss and danger onto her stories.
She never quite gets it right, but she keeps trying.
But now the stranger, companion, friend who leads her out has a face. She supposes she had already given a face to him in her art, but that had been akin to sketching a relative who had passed when she was only a toddler. It had never felt quite right, but now his face is clear and sharp, and every time she finds it harder to release him.
Until one dream, she doesn't.
She wakes that hazy summer morning and knows what she has to do.
She doesn't know how to find him - he gave no directions, no way back to him - but there is a stubbornness in her bones borne from years of sensing that there is something more just beyond her reach. Only now she has proof. She has a mystery.
And she follows it.
The irony is that her stories clutter up her search. If there were ever any evidence for a Baron von Gikkingen, it has long been buried beneath the fiction of her Duke van Jikkingen, and at first she curses the misdirection she herself has planted. But then she realises that maybe they aren't misdirection at all.
Maybe it's the way.
For her depiction of Baron wasn't quite right - but it was close enough. It was close enough to bring him to her door in search of answers for the woman who had captured him in fiction despite never laying waking eyes on him. And maybe the rest of her narrative held some truth, if not all.
So she picks up her earliest manga - the one that had been closest to her first dreams - and follows it. She journeys back to her hometown - the place she had always pictured when she drew - and starts from the Crossroads. There is no Muta to be seen, but it's only a starting point anyway. She ducks down a side alley, pausing only for a moment when she finds her way blocked by a rise of low roofs, and scales them with a reassuring ease of muscle memory. Across a tin roof and over an iron railing fence, down another alley so narrow that she has to twist to ease through, and then she comes to the final opening.
"Why are you searching for him?"
The figure before her isn't Baron. It isn't even the white cat or crow that sometimes accompanied him in her stories. What she sees instead is a tiny golden harvest mouse with furred wings curving over its back. Its voice is strange; not a squeak or a flutter, but a thing of creaks and splinters. "I'm sorry?" she asks.
"Why?" it repeats. "Why do you follow him still?"
"Still?" she echoes.
"You are happy!" it snaps. "Happier than you ever were before! So why are you here? If you keep chasing after him, it will only bring you suffering!"
She looks at the creature. "I rather think I get to be the judge of that, do you?" she asks, and steps up through the archway.
Across the threshold, the air is somehow different. Strange, but not in a way that unnerves her. She inhales, and it settles her in a way she has only felt in the corners of her dreams.
"Miss Haru?" Caught up in the moment, she had not noticed the double doors of one of the smaller houses open, but now she sees him standing in the entrance. He blinks suddenly. "I apologise. Mrs Haru, I believe? To what do I owe the pleasure?"
"Tell me," she says. "Tell me who you are."
He tilts his head in a way that is maddingly familiar. "As you wish. I am Baron Humbert von-"
"No," she says. "Tell me who you are to me."
And so he tells her.
He tells her of the origins of their friendship; of the schoolgirl who came to his doorstep with tales of rescued princes and kings overeager in their gratitude. He tells her of how she found her way back to the Bureau years later, not as a client but as a visitor. A companion. A friend. He tells her of the hours, days, years they spent in each other's company, until suddenly she was gone.
There are things he doesn't share, of that she's sure. There is a grief in his gaze that makes her wonder whether their friendship stayed strictly within the boundaries of platonic, but it's not her place to ask. There's the sense that no matter how much she learns, she can never bring things back to the way they once were.
That even in the finding, something vital has been lost.
"Well then," she says. "Let's go find some answers."
Haru doesn't know what she had expected from the Bureau.
For years, echoes of their personalities have resounded through her stories, fictional do-gooders with hearts of gold and a surety of step, but the reality is something far... messier.
She trusts them - she knows it is irrational, a childhood fantasy, and yet she cannot help it - but it doesn't render her blind to their faults. To their foibles. To how uncannily human they are. If not on the outside, then on the inner. They are not the infallible heroes of her stories, but they are something far realer.
And so she steps up into their world.
Just one adventure, she promises herself, unaware of how she had made - and broken - the very same promise in another lifetime. Just to find out why this is happening. Why I don't remember.
At first the Bureau are hesitant around her. Muta and Toto watch her as if she is a ghost, a half-figment of the imagination, but Baron looks at her as if she is liable to vanish at any moment.
She is not sure which unnerves her more.
But in time - and it does take time; they have been searching for answers for months already, and her sudden presence does less than they had hoped - the barriers crumble. After all, there are only so many adventures they can share before a sense of companionship springs up.
It is during one such adventure - another dead end - that Haru finds herself alone with Toto. Muta and Baron have gone rushing off on
"Why don't you like me?" she asks, and he turns to her with that grieving gaze that still lingers in the recesses of his eyes.
"I don't dislike you, Haru," he says.
"Then why do you look at me like that?"
She smiles sadly. "Like I've broken your heart."
He stares at her for a long moment then, and she is almost sure he is going to brush her question away when he ducks his head, those sorrow-laden eyes finding solace in the branch beneath his talons. "It was easier before," he murmurs.
"Before I knew you. Before when you were a faceless ghost that Baron was wasting away in pursuit of."
"Before?" she prompts again.
"Before I cared."
A silence passes between them.
"You didn't see Baron before," Toto eventually continues. "He's always had a habit of pushing himself too far; of forgetting to look after himself when others are relying on him, and when he lost you... I thought that was going to be the line that pushed him over the edge. He was going to destroy himself searching for you, and in those moments I wished that he would just forget you."
"Your friend was hurting," Haru says. "You wanted to protect him."
Haru sighs, her misty breath spiralling up around her. "I understand."
"I didn't know you, Haru. I wasn't even sure you existed."
"And now? Do you still think I'm a ghost? She grins. "Should I be worried you're about to go full Ghostbuster on me?"
"Now you're a friend, Haru," he answers, no smile cracking at her loose humour. "I care about you."
"Aw, thanks, Toto-"
"And that's why I think you should leave."
Her next breath catches in her throat. "What?"
"You should go back to your human life, Haru. It's where you belong."
"Not before I find out what happened to me."
"What happened to you is that you've lived a very happy life," Toto replies, his beetle-black eyes suddenly stony. "Are you really willing to throw that away in pursuit of some asinine answers?"
"I'm not... I'm not throwing anything away-"
"Really? Then when as the last time you spent an evening at home?" he asks. "How is progress on your newest manga going? Were you even aware that last month was your wedding anniversary?"
"I can't remember what your life was like before things changed, but there's a reason Baron made the decision to walk away the first time he reunited with you. Even he, as caught up in the pursuit as he was, could see that you were happier in your life now than the one he remembers."
"Then why did he let me return?" Haru asks.
"Honestly? I don't think he has it in him to leave you a second time. But you do. You have the ability to go back to your life before you lose it."
"I can go back any time I like."
"Then why don't you?" The smile Toto gives does not reach his eyes; instead, a bittersweet glaze falls across his gaze. "I think I understand what the spirit told me now. If we hadn't found you, you would still be living happily in your human life." He looks out across the hostile mountain terrain. "But instead you are here."
"Here is no bad thing."
"No, but when the time comes - when we find our answers and have the chance to put things back to the way they once were - will you? Will you walk away from this world of magic and monsters? Or will you abandon the life you have built to run with us for a little longer?"
"I'm not abandoning anything," Haru retorts.
"You can't live in both our world and the human one, Haru. So, when the time comes, which will you choose?"
She is silent for a moment. "At least I'll have the choice," she replies. Her brow furrows with words she had previously overlooked. "What spirit? Who told you I'd be still living happily if you hadn't found me?"
"What do you know that you're not telling us, Toto?"
And he looks at her with that same grief she has come to know so well. "I may know the way to someone with answers."
"Why didn't you bring this up before now?"
"I didn't because you still had the chance to walk away. Because you still have time to forget and be happy again."
"I still will."
His gaze is pitying. "Are you sure about that?"
"No. But at least let me choose. In the end, this is my life, not yours."
He doesn't answer immediately. His attention flickers to the mountainous horizon, where the first hesitant tendrils of sunlight rise above the peaks. Then he nods. "Very well. I will show the way. But have you considered, Haru, that maybe what happened to you was a kindness, not a cruelty?"
The world Toto brings them to is one of bark and wood and, despite his warnings that the way back had been locked to him, they find their through with easy access. The world curls up around them like the inside of a tree, pockmarked with moss-green light that filters through. Haru recognises nothing, save for the sole occupant that flies down to greet them.
"You," Haru breathes. "You're the one who did this?"
The winged mouse spirit hisses.
"Do you recognise this spirit?" Baron asks.
"I... Not really," Haru says. "We met, briefly, just before I arrived at the Bureau."
"And I warned you then that you should turn back," the spirit says. "I warned you that chasing after him would only bring suffering." And it nods to Baron with disgust as it speaks.
"And I told you that I was the one who gets to make that decision," Haru says.
"It's too late for that!"
She scowls. "So everyone keeps telling me."
"You are the one who changed reality then?" Baron asks. "Why?"
The spirit flits, and as it comes close Haru can see that the joints of its limbs are cut like wooden moving dolls. "Because she helped me before. In the other life," it answers. "I wanted to repay that."
"By changing the whole of reality?" Toto asks.
"No, not the whole of reality," it skitters. "Just a... tweak, here and there. I don't have the power to alter much, but so much of her life hinged on a single choice. All I had to do was stop her for a moment."
"Lune," Baron murmurs.
The spirit nods and hovers before Haru. "The Cat Prince. You ruined your life because you saved a single cat, but I undid it. I made your life better!"
"Better?" she echoes.
"I looked into your life and I saw the sadness you carried. The regrets that haunted you. The opportunities wasted. You threw away your chance for an ordinary life because you were too busy chasing after a world that would never accept you. Chasing after the Creation who would never love you."
Haru hears Baron's breath hitch in his throat, but she doesn't look to him. She doesn't want to see if it is truth or grief that lies in him. "So you took the choice away from me," she says instead.
"Because you made a bad choice!" the spirit retorts back, and the wooden world around them seems to darken and creak. "You were able to be so much more - look at what you are now! At what you have! At what I have given you!"
"What you have given me?"
"Yes. Why don't you ask the cat Creation what your life was like before?"
Haru glances to Baron, and in all her recent time with the Bureau, she is unprepared for the shadow that smothers his eyes. "Baron?"
"You were a librarian," he murmurs. "Underpaid. Understaffed. You rented a small flat that your salary only barely covered. You tried to balance your time with us equally with your human life, but some parts of your life had to be sacrificed for that. You were..." He hesitates. "I thought you were happy, but it was a very different life from the one you now lead." Another hesitation. "You never married."
Haru twists the wedding ring around her finger and tries to imagine life without her wonderful, loving husband. Without the hiking days and the popcorn fights and the impromptu karaoke kitchen sessions.
Without the man she vowed to spend her life with.
"Never?" she asks.
"As I said," he echoes, "some parts of your human life had to be sacrificed to balance your Bureau side. You found it... difficult to become involved with someone when half your life was a secret."
"Do you understand now?" the spirit asks. "Do you realise what you lost when you rescued the Cat Prince? Do you understand why I did what I did?"
"I... do," Haru says.
"So do you see why you need to walk away from this again?"
She looks at the spirit. "It should still have been my choice."
"It was once. You chose wrongly."
"Then let me try again." She approaches the spirit and allows it to come to a rest in her open hands. "Let me try again, this time knowing the consequences."
It looks up at her with dark, starred eyes. "What if you make the same mistake?"
"Then I will do so with eyes wide open," she says. "I know where both paths lead now. Please, if you want to do me a kindness, let me be the one to take those steps unhindered."
Moments pass, and she can feel something akin to a heartbeat shiver through the spirit's tiny form.
"Now you know the consequences," it echoes, and vanishes.
As it does so, the world also shifts around Haru, and when she blinks again she stands alone in a vast empty void with nothing but a mirror's reflection before her.
Not a mirror.
A woman, almost identical to her, smiles and bows.
"Hello. I'm Haru Yoshioka. I believe we have a lot to talk about."
Haru's voice sudden dries, and the words that peel themselves from her lips are cracked and hoarse.
"Are you... me?"
The other woman - the other Haru - gives a smile. "In a fashion."
Unbidden, Haru's gaze runs over the uncanny valley stranger, her eyes quick to note the dissimilarities that set them apart. For while this woman bears the same body, the history carved into her bones is alien to Haru. Her eyes are the same colour, but they are wearier, the bags beneath them weighted from long shifts and tight budgets. Her skin is duller, paled from too many hours spent indoors, and instead of a wedding ring there is a scar running along her left hand.
"You're... the Haru from the other reality," she says.
The other Haru gives the same half-nod, and Haru realises it is the same motion Toto gives so often. "I'm more like... an echo. There is a part of you that still remembers the life you lost, but it is distant. This is all that remains."
"Can you return my memories?"
The other Haru shakes her head. "No. The only way you'll be able to regain your memories is if you choose to go back down that path."
"But how am I meant to decide if I can't remember what my life used to be like?"
"Well... I guess that's where I come in."
She sees Haru's curious gaze, and laughs loosely and runs her palm over the scarred hand. "I always told the Bureau that I would never get involved in any of their cases, but the cases didn't always afford me the same courtesy. Being an associate of a Bureau that likes to stick its nose in other people's business comes with its own risk."
"It looks like it took its toll," Haru hazards, but she only receives a light laugh for her cautioned comment.
"Life does that."
Less for me than you, Haru thinks, but does not say it. Evidently she doesn't hide it as well as she'd hoped, for there is that same echoing laugh.
"Oh, what's the matter, Ikewaki? You don't like how your other option looks?"
"Is this when I make my choice?" Haru asks, pushing onwards. There is a smile in the other woman's voice as she calls Haru by her married name; a strangely impersonal address from an echo of another life.
"No. You'll know when the time comes, but for now... I guess this is a waiting room." The other Haru wrinkles her nose, as if twitching whiskers as she thinks. "Or perhaps an interview room. Regardless, when you feel ready, the choice will open."
Apparently her other self had picked up a flair for the dramatics. Probably from Baron, Haru decides. Well, if this is indeed a place for questions, she can oblige. "Is there a right answer?"
The other Haru - Yoshioka, Haru can't help but think of her - shrugs. "Well, my reality does pan out better for the Cat Kingdom, but... I don't think that's what you're really asking, is it?"
Haru reddens, uneasy with being seen through so easily. It is difficult to think in terms of people she has never met, whom she cared for in another life, but in her reality she has a different family. She has a husband and friends and a life she has nourished and cherished. "Is it true what the spirit said?" she asks. "Am I happier now?"
Yoshioka gives a Muta-like snort. "There are ways your life is quantifiably better than mine. Financially. Vocationally. Romantically. For that, I will not argue, but on the concept of who was happier... I could not say."
"You were working a dead-end job in a tiny flat."
Yoshioka smiles. "True. But have you ever seen the diamond horizon of the midnight world? Or spoken with giant lionturtles? Have you heard the first songs of the sky whales? There are ways in which my life was richer than yours, just as yours has its."
"I won't lie to you; the life I made wasn't glamorous or comfortable." Yoshioka chuckles. "I did my fair bit of running from monsters, however much I tried to stay out of it, and there were opportunities I missed because I was too busy wrapped up in the Bureau's world but... every life has its trade-offs. There is more than one way to find happiness."
Her fingers brush almost tenderly over the scar that mars her left hand, tracing the raised skin and circling where it ends, and now Haru sees what she had missed the first time around. There is a steadiness in the other Haru's gaze, an easy confidence in the slope of her shoulders, and she realises the scars are not a sign of a near-failure, but of something survived. Something she was stronger than. Something she lived through to learn for another day.
Again, Yoshioka follows Haru's gaze, and her fingers slow. That same easy chuckle rises in the back of her throat. "Oh, I know. A little bit Humpty Dumpty, isn't it? Turns out humans get damaged a lot easier than cats and Creations."
"Do they... hurt?"
"There's always a few aches and pains." She motions to her knee. "The scar there always itches just before a storm which has its uses, sometimes." A laugh. "And they hurt like hell upon the receiving, but..." and she gives a soft smile, "the Bureau always puts me back together again."
Haru can't find it in herself to return the smile. She tries to imagine living the life Yoshioka has done - to imagine choosing that life when a kinder one is taking - and finds she cannot. They are more than simply two variations on a person; they are different people, shaped by the choices they have made.
"Would you...?" Haru falters. "If I choose to keep my life, what happens to you?"
"If you choose to stand back, I think your reality will return once more and what's left of the old reality will disappear for good."
"Including me." Yoshioka smiles sympathetically. "Oh, don't look so sad. I am merely the echo of a life that once was; you'll forget me along with all the other remnants of what once was. If you choose your current life, everything will go back to how it was before Baron turned up at your window." Another smile, bittersweet this time. "I think even Baron will forget this time around. I'm glad. It will be a kindness on him to have the last few years erased."
Haru hesitates. "Do I have to? Forget, that is?"
"I'm afraid you'll have no choice. You cannot truly live the life of this reality with the past shadowing you. You will be happier not knowing what you might have had."
Maybe so, Haru thinks, but despite everything - despite the chaos, despite the stress, despite the difficulty of balancing everything - she finds she does not want it to simply vanish. "I think I understand you a little better," she says. She looks up into the other Haru's eyes, and sees behind the tiredness lies a boldness that she had missed before. "You didn't just stay for the adventure, did you?"
"Is it that obvious?"
"You stayed because of the Bureau. Because of... of Baron."
The faintest blush colours Yoshioka's cheeks. "Yes."
"You love him, don't you?"
"Yes. And maybe the spirit was right. Maybe that's why I kept making stupid decisions, clinging on to a world I don't belong to, just to stay with him a little longer."
"Do you regret it?"
"No. Baron is..." and her other self pauses, but not from doubt. The smile that crosses her lips is achingly familiar; it is the same smile Haru gives her husband in their small quiet moments. It is a smile of surety of where she belongs. "He's reckless and dramatic and flawed and many other things; things you've come to know well enough in your time with him, I'm sure. But he is also kind and determined and brave. The way he sees life - not as an end goal to success or productivity, but as a chance to help others - it changes you. It helps you see the little things, to understand even the smallest choices can make the biggest differences." She inhales curtly, giving the ghost of an amused snort. "But I guess I don't have to tell you about that, do I?"
"I guess you don't."
There is a click from behind Haru, and Yoshioka glances past her. The smile that flits across her lips cannot hide the sadness. "I guess that means you're ready to go. Any last questions before you make your choice?"
"Only one. If you were in my shoes, would you do it all over again?"
"Yes. In a heartbeat, yes." Yoshioka's gaze softens. "But, in the end, it's your choice. It has to be yours."
"Thank you." Haru turns, and there is an old wooden door behind her. She reaches out and finds the handle unlocked, the door already gently ajar.
She lingers. "Yes?"
"Whichever path you take, you will be happy." Although Haru isn't looking back, she can hear the affectionate smile in Yoshioka's voice. "In the end, the only question is what kind of happiness do you want?"
"I think I know now," Haru answers, and she steps through the door.
"Machida's not that cool anyway. My Tsuge is much cooler and... Haru? Are you okay?"
Haru halts midway through a step she does not remember taking and nearly drops the lacrosse stick raised over one shoulder. The face of her childhood friend stares into hers, concern and confusion creasing her brow.
Haru lowers the lacrosse stick. She doesn't remember the shift from the limbo realm to here, although she knows there must have been a transition. She glances down at herself, and is greeted with the blue and white of her old school uniform. If she casts her mind back, her memory supplies her with images of running late to class and boring lessons and daydreaming on the school roof during lunch.
She gingerly raises a hand to the back of her head and finds a bruise rising from a stray football that had caught her during break.
Hiromi skips in front of her, head tilted to one side. "Okay, now you're freaking me out. Don't tell me you're still sulking because Machida laughed at you. You can do so much better than him anyway."
"I..." Vaguely, she remembers a boy from her class, dark hair and dark eyes and a smile that had made her 16-year-old self weak at the knees. She grins lopsidedly, amused as she recalls the drama of her teen years. "No, it's fine. It's just..." Something brushes past her legs and she falters as a purple-grey feline passes her by.
'This is it," she thinks. 'This is where everything changed.'
Hiromi's gaze follows, although not for the same reason Haru's does. Her attention wanders over the cat's golden collar and the gift box it delicately carries in its jaws. It's funny, Haru muses, that such details don't even phase her anymore. "What in the heck is that?"
"Cat burglar?" Haru offers automatically.
The girls watch as the cat trots up to the side of the road, carefully noting the idling traffic at the red lights before setting across.
"Where does he think he's going?" Hiromi wonders. She cups her hands to her mouth. "Hey, dumb cat! You'll get killed!"
The pedestrians finish crossing.
The lights turn green.
Hiromi turns away, seeing the situation cut and dried and beyond her reach. "Oh well, it's just a cat."
In another life, Haru turned away too. Even now, she feels the echoes of that choice reverberate through her bones, calling her to follow in its footsteps, but she stays. "This doesn't look so good," rises up onto her lips instead and she lets the words spill out.
She feels, rather than sees, Hiromi pause. "Huh?"
The cat drops the gift box and it fumbles to reclaim it. It does not see the lorry that thunders towards it, nor feel the road rumble from the oncoming wheels. It does not hear Hiromi's sharp intake of breath, or the belated warning she cries.
Haru, however, feels all of these things and more. The beat of her heart. The thud of her bag slipping from her shoulder. The hand caught around her elbow.
The last one is foreign, even in both her memories, and she finds herself pulled to a halt. She spins round to face Hiromi and the world is silent. The people that pace the street behind are frozen. Even Hiromi is strangely still, and her eyes have shifted from their usual greyish-green to an illuminated golden hue.
"Don't do this," Hiromi begs. Her voice is still hers, but there is the whistling wooden creak of the mouse spirit whispering between the words. "You don't know what you're giving up."
"I know exactly what I'm giving up," Haru says, but not unkindly. She offers a small smile. "You saw to that."
"I..." and Haru hesitates. The life she remembers, the life she has lived courtesy of the spirit, has been a happy one. If the two choices were but buttons she could press, she is not sure she wouldn't repeat the passing years in a heartbeat.
But right now, there is someone who needs her and that overrides everything else.
She looks back to the frozen cat, caught in the same moment of time as the rest of the world, and smiles. "Because I can help."
"If you choose to stay, you will forget this," the spirit implores. "You will never know that you walked away, so don't fear the guilt."
She looks to Hiromi, to the spirit, and shakes her head. "You don't get it, do you? I thought I could do that, convince myself that because I wouldn't remember, it wouldn't matter to me that I walked away. But this is who I am. This is who I chose to be, and you took that from me."
"But, you were unhappy-"
"I probably was sometimes," Haru agrees. "And other times I probably wasn't; that's kind of how life works. But I don't believe my previous self regretted saving this cat for even a moment."
The golden eyes fade a little. "I just wanted to thank you for helping me. I wanted to repay your kindness."
Haru curls her hand around the fingers that keep her in place and gently holds them. "And you did. You gave me the chance to re-examine my life and decide where I want to take it. Just because it is not the path you imagined does not mean it's the wrong one."
"Are you sure?"
"I'm sure that this is what I want to do."
"And if you come to regret it?"
"Then I will have regrets." She places a kiss on Hiromi's cheek. "Just like everybody else. Now, I think it's time this story came to a close, don't you? You did what you set out to do; you helped. Now it's time to let me go."
Hiromi's hand loosens. "I'm sorry. I only wanted to thank you."
"And you did."
"Even if you're choosing for everything to go back to the way they were before?"
Haru smiles. "My past, maybe. But my future is all my own."
The spirit sees something in her expression, and its golden gaze softens. "Then run."
It releases her.
And Haru does run.
The world roars back into life all in an instant, a crashing thunder of sound and colour and chaos, and Haru feels each footfall jolt through her as she runs out into the path of the speeding lorry. She will make it, she's going to make it, and she laughs out loud as she scoops the cat up into the net of her lacrosse stick, the laughter still echoing through her as she trips over the pavement and is sent tumbling through a bush.
She sprawls on the path beyond and the world is still tumbling around her.
"I did it," she wheezes. "I chose."
"That you did."
She tilts her head back, and walking between the haze comes the crystal clear image of the other Haru. As she approaches, the background behind her blurs yet further, and Haru starts to realise that maybe it's not the world, but the reality that's slipping from her.
The other Haru kneels down beside her, her smile gentle and her gaze gentler. "Thank you."
"Someone needed help," Haru says. "I couldn't walk away."
"I guess you do."
And the world changes all over again.
When it reforms, Haru Yoshioka is standing before the Bureau and everything has changed.
"You," she says to Baron. "We need to talk."
Haru Yoshioka sits in the café and watches a stranger order coffee from the waitress.
She has never met the man, not in this reality, but in her mind are the shadows of the memories of a life spent with him. There is something akin to recognition in the way he runs a hand through his hair, and she feels like she would guess the end to his jokes before he reached them, but she does not know him.
"Do you wish you had chosen him instead?"
She tears her gaze away from the almost-stranger and to the man sitting across from her instead. There is the faintest ripple of illusion magic across his face, and if she squints she can nearly see the ruffle of ginger fur in place of skin. "No," she says. "I just... I just wanted to see him."
"It is him, then?"
The stranger heads for a table, coffee cup in a hand that he raises above the children that scoot by him. He passes a good-humoured comment to the harried parents that are attempting in vain to herd their offspring and is met with a returning laugh. When he finally secures a table, it is with a book in hand that he settles down.
Haru's heart aches in a way she was not prepared for.
She does not remember much about the life that did not happen, nothing concrete that she can describe, but sometimes the memories come in flashes. Emotions and moments and heartbeats. Knowing something without words. And, in that moment, she knows she was happy with this stranger.
Baron's hand curls around hers and she holds it tight.
"Are you okay?"
"Fine," she says, and she is shocked by the way her voice wavers.
"You can still choose again," Baron murmurs, and when Haru looks to him, she sees his gaze is locked on their joined hands. "The past is fixed, but the future is always open."
Unbidden, her eyes are drawn back to the man who had once been her husband, but she does not release Baron. There is a realness, a solid sureness about the stranger. He is like a rock in a storm, an anchor, steady; everything that reckless, heart-led Baron is not.
She has stared too long, and the stranger feels her eyes on him. He looks up and they lock gazes. His eyes crinkle with a small smile and Haru wonders if he knows it too, if only for a heartbeat, what had once been.
The moment passes and they look away simultaneously.
"Haru, if you wish..."
Baron's hand loosens, but Haru does not let him go. Instead she bridges the gap between them and kisses him. In the space she leaves between them when she breaks away, she whispers, "Don't you get it yet, Baron? I chose you."
He leans his forehead against hers, and the breath he releases is laboured with relief. "When you asked to find him, I thought-"
"I needed to shut the final door on that life," she says. "I needed the closure. To walk away from it in this reality too." She reaches up with her free hand and caresses his cheek, finding reassuring in the feel of the real Baron beneath the illusion. "As someone once told me, there is more than one way to find happiness. And I chose this way."
For a second, the illusion ripples and Haru sees a flicker of Baron's uncanny gemstone-eyes shimmering with emotion before the human façade returns. She kisses him again and pulls him to his feet.
"Come on. Let's get out of here before Muta and Toto can worry that I've eloped with my mysterious other-life husband," she whispers.
Most things have stayed the same in her return. Her life is hectic, juggling her librarian human life alongside her Bureau one with about the same finesse as before, and she still fights through long work shifts and haphazard sleeping schedules to the disapproval of her mother.
But some things have changed.
On their return to the Bureau, they come to a street musician and Baron twirls her as they pass by. She spins in his arms, drawing close enough to feel the rich tenor laugh reverberate through him and she plants another quick kiss on his cheek before she spins back out.
Yes, some things have changed.
And Haru Yoshioka is happy.