This plot bunny hit me as I was watching Cat Returns for the umpteenth time. It didn't turn out quite how I wanted it to, but then, when does it ever?

I urged that kings were dangerous. He said, then have cats. He was sure that a royal family of cats would answer every purpose. They would be as useful as any other royal family, they would know as much, they would have the same virtues and the same treacheries, the same disposition to get up shindies with other royal cats, they would be laughably vain and absurd and never know it, they would be wholly inexpensive, finally, they would have as sound a divine right as any other royal house...

-Mark Twain, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court

"Cat, not a cushion," Haru commented automatically when she sensed someone pause by her usual table at the Crossroads. Then her brain caught up with her and she realized that it could not possibly be Hiromi, who had bailed on her to take care of a rather sick Tsuge. She looked up, blushing in embarrassment, to meet the confused gaze of a foreign boy.

"Er…Japanese…not understand," he said clumsily, self-consciously flattening his bangs.

"Do you speak English?" she asked, ignoring Muta who had lifted his head and was snickering at her.

"Yes," he practically gasped, his face awash with relief.

Haru set down her pen and moved her college work aside. "Have a seat," she said, motioning to the third chair at the table as she took in his appearance. He was small and slender, probably just beginning high school, with messy black hair and bright green rarely found in Japan. He had dark circles under his eyes, as if he hadn't been sleeping well, and he carried a well-worn bag slung over his shoulder. Haru wondered if he was a backpacker as he hesitantly took a seat across from her.

"I'm Harry," he said after an awkward pause.

"Oh, please excuse my bad manners. My name is Haru," she replied. And he looked so lost, and perhaps a little desperate, that he reminded Haru of herself when she needed the help of the Cat Bureau, and Baron in particular.


Haru shook her head a little to clear it and then addressed the boy with a friendly smile. "I'm so sorry about earlier. It's a private joke between myself and a friend, although I don't know why I thought you were her since she isn't even in the area today."

He seemed to relax a little, and Haru received a tentative grin in return. "Um…just out of curiosity, what was it that you said? The first time, I mean."

Haru lips twisted into a wry smile. "It was just a warning that Muta over there is a cat, not a cushion."

Harry blinked a little at the currently offended cat and chuckled.

"I made the mistake of sitting on him once," Haru added ruefully, and Harry burst out laughing.

"I assume he wasn't too pleased with that," Harry commented. He could only imagine what Hermione's beast, Crookshanks, might have done if put in the same position.

You bet it wasn't, Muta grumbled as he shifted position. You're pretty heavy yourself, Chicky.

Haru scowled and flicked his ear. "Just for that comment, Harry gets your cake."

What?! Muta shot into a sitting position, his tail swishing irritably. You wouldn't be so cruel.

"Try me," she said defiantly, before pushing the slice of angel food cake towards the foreigner. "Besides, he looks like he needs it a lot more than you, Moo-ta."

Harry watched the interaction with bemusement as the large cat emitted a yowling, whining sort of sound. It was almost like the two could understand each other. He wondered briefly if she were a witch, but spotted no place she could hide her wand. It was a hot summer day after all.

Then he recalled what she had said about the cake and interrupted the mewling to protest. "Oh no, I'm fine, really." His stomach chose that moment to betray him with an audible growl and he flushed. "I mean, I can always go get my own."

Harry and Haru turned to look at the bakery, which was full to overflowing with the lunch crowd.

"Please, I insist," Haru said firmly. "Eat."

Unable to find a polite way to refuse and recalling that he had skipped breakfast, Harry uncertainly complied, shifting a little under the intense and disapproving gaze of Muta. "Thank you," he said quietly. He took a small bite, mind racing. Surely Voldemort didn't have agents all the way across the world in Japan. And Haru didn't seem to recognize his face or name. The cake was quite good, he thought distractedly as he struggled to find any hint of a plot here.

No. He pushed those thoughts away. This was his vacation until the Order managed to catch him. He trusted his instincts, and his instincts trusted this kind, compassionate woman and her strangely aware cat. He'd needed to be on his own, but now he needed someone who didn't know about him or pity him, someone who would listen and not judge. It was easy to talk to her, Harry thought with a trace of awe. She'd even made him laugh; he couldn't really remember the last time he had really laughed. And she didn't mind speaking out loud to a cat in a public place as if it understood; the Dursleys would have been affronted at such an action.

But he wasn't thinking about his so-called family either.

"So where are you from Harry?" Haru asked curiously, bringing him gently from his thoughts. She propped her chin on a hand with a glance at the pouting Muta.

He swallowed a mouthful of cake and replied, "I grew up in England, but I attend a boarding school in Scotland."

"Really?" she said, eyes sparkling. "I've never been outside of Japan. "What's it like?"

"Cold," Harry replied after some deliberation. "And wet. Even in the summer sometimes, although we did have a drought a few years ago."

"What brought you to Japan?" Harry asked, and frowned slightly, exchanging a glance with Muta as her companion's eyes darkened.

"I wasn't really aiming for Japan specifically, but I do like it. All the temples and a surprising number of people who speak English." Harry smiled but it didn't reach his eyes. "I just needed to get away."

"What happened?" Haru asked softly, resting a reassuring hand on Harry's arm. He looked slightly startled by the action but didn't protest.

"It's just…" He shrugged, using his fork to toy with the crumbs on his plate. "Too many responsibilities, too high expectations. Too many bad memories and no one I could talk to. I needed a break. I'm actually surprised no one has caught up with me to drag me home yet."

Haru bit her lip. Ever since she had returned from the Cat Kingdom, so comfortable in her own skin, she seemed to elicit these kinds of confidences. Each time she did her best to give them what they needed, always asking herself, 'What would Baron do?'

"Harry," she said hesitantly, and he looked up, seemingly embarrassed at what he had disclosed. "You seem like a good person. Be true to yourself and I'm sure things will work out. Everyone needs a break sometimes, or we'd all break down."

"I appreciate what you're saying," he said quietly, and his gaze seemed so old, "but I'd be willing to bet I'm in a lot of trouble."

"Harry," Haru said again, and looked at him intently. "Did you need this vacation? Really, truly need it?"

"Yes," he whispered, dropping his gaze. "I felt like I'd die if I couldn't get away."

Haru was slightly taken aback, but she merely squeezed his free hand and settled back in her chair. "Then you did what was right for you. The people who care for you may understand or not, but ultimately this is your life, not theirs. You're old enough to decide what's best for you."

Harry smiled a little tremulously, and Haru was content to let him think over her words.

She frowned when she noticed a tabby cat perched on a stone wall across the street. She knew cats probably better than any human alive, and this one set off alarm bells in her head. She was fairly sure it had nothing to do with the former Cat King. From what she heard, King Lune was doing an excellent job ruling over the Kingdom. Although his father was not hated, per say, the cats had been relieved to see him retire.

But this was something different.

"Does that cat seem strange to you?" Haru asked quietly. Her words were directed at Muta, but Harry could not have known that and turned to look.

"They've found me," Harry sighed morosely, but still turned his head to glance curiously in Haru's direction.

Haru raised an eyebrow at his response, keeping one eye on the cat, who gave the table a long look before slinking away. "Do you want me to misdirect them if they come along?" she asked, still curious about the significance of the cat to Harry.

"No, that's alright," he said, hefting his backpack thoughtfully. "I won't run." Harry's eyes suddenly gained a glimmer of mischief. "Still, I won't make it too easy for them. And I owe you – or maybe Muta – a slice of cake. The bakery's still crowded enough that they shouldn't see me right away."

Muta had abandoned his aloof attitude and purred loudly at the mention of cake. Harry chuckled and stroked his fur before turning to face Haru. "In case I'm spirited away before I can say anything, thank you. Thank you so much for helping me see that it's alright to do something for myself every once in a while."

"I didn't do anything really," Haru protested, blushing.

But Harry disagreed.

I expect you to procure a cane any minute now, Muta commented with a snicker as soon as Harry left the table.

"Oh, hush," Haru muttered, her face growing even redder.

Keep this up and we might have a new branch of the Cat Bureau, the large white feline said in a backhanded sort of compliment.

Haru changed the subject. "Did you notice anything strange about that striped cat?"

Muta hesitated and then said, I don't think that was a cat, Haru.

The young woman blinked, completely bewildered. "How could that be? It wasn't a Creation, was it?"

No. I've only heard of this in passing, mind you, but there are witches and wizards who are able to turn into animals.

Haru opened and closed her mouth twice before she found her voice. "Witches and wizards?" she squeaked. "Are you pulling my leg, Muta?"

Not about this, he replied seriously. The Cat Bureau doesn't really pay attention to them, but birds and cats are rather popular companions, so we hear a few tales from both the Cat Kingdom and Birdbrain's friends.

Haru shook her head in disbelief. "That stuff really exists," she murmured. "And Harry must be one if they're looking out for him."

Her companion eyed her suspiciously. And are you feeling the need to explore this new information?

"No, no," Haru protested, flipping through the pages of her textbook absently, as if to ground herself in reality. "No. One hidden magical kingdom is enough for me. I barely escaped marriage to an insane Cat King. Who knows what will happen among witches and wizards?"

A brown ear twitched and Muta looked somewhere behind Haru, making her eye him apprehensively. Well brace yourself, Chicky, because here comes what appears to be a fully-trained wizard.

Haru exhaled silently, but did not turn to look. She simply stared at her homework as she waited to see if he would approach her.

She felt him before he made himself known. He had such presence, it was hard not to. A soft, well-spoken voice murmured, "Excuse me," and she looked up into the bluest eyes she had ever seen. Combined with brilliant silver waist-length beard and hair, it was obvious he was not Japanese. She didn't understand why no one else seemed to notice him, as it was all she could do to keep from staring.

For a moment Haru toyed with the idea of replying in Japanese, just to stall him further and see how he would react, but he obviously knew she had spoken with Harry, who knew her native language not at all. "May I help you?" she asked politely.

Muta was so distracting with his commentary on the man's strange appearance that she lightly kicked his chair, ignoring both his indignant hiss and the faintly puzzled expression that flitted across the wizard's features.

"I am Albus Dumbledore," he said and bowed as naturally as any native Japanese.

Haru pushed back her chair and stood. "Haru Yoshioka. Pleased to meet you." She bowed in return.

"If it is not too much of an imposition, may I join you for a moment?" he queried.

Haru nodded. "Of course," she said and retook her seat as the wizard did Harry's.

"I'm looking for a boy," Dumbledore said without preamble. Those who knew him well would have known it meant that he was very worried. "His name is Harry, and he has short, messy black hair, green eyes, and round spectacles. He's nearly 16 years old and a somewhat small for his age."

"Why would you think I would know where he was going?" Haru asked cautiously. "We are practically strangers after all."

"Surely you must have seen which direction he headed. Any hint at all, please." His voice almost broke on the last word, and he was forced to take a moment to compose himself. The last two weeks had worn him to a frazzle, trying desperately to locate his missing charge before Voldemort discovered him. He was so close now, and this young woman could help if she could be convinced.

He seemed sincere enough, but…. "How do I know you don't mean him harm?" she asked.

"You cannot know for certain, I suppose," he conceded. "And I will not deny that I have hurt him in the past, though unintentionally. Your concern on behalf of someone you have just met is commendable, but I swear to you, I care for him as if he were my own."

Your concern for others is what gets you in trouble, Muta grumbled without heat.

Haru's gaze shifted to him, who had sat up and concentrated intensely on the older man. She couldn't really argue with him there, at least in regard to saving Lune. But she couldn't just stand by and let him be run over. And besides, she had gained wonderful friends from her concern for others.

He seems sincere enough, Muta said at last. And he must be pretty desperate to say those things to a complete stranger.

"Yes, probably," Haru murmured under her breath in agreement.

Apparently Albus Dumbledore had the ears of a cat, as he said in a politely puzzled tone, "I beg your problem?"

"Oh, um…nothing, never mind," she replied, slightly flustered.

Dumbledore let it pass and returned the topic to his student. "And Harry?"

She studied him for a long moment and sighed. "Why not simply let him have his vacation and return in his own time? He seemed responsible and independent to me, and planned to return to England soon."

He leaned forward, his demeanor serious. "It is too dangerous for him to be unprotected. There are some very bad people after him, Miss Yoshioka."

"Oh," she murmured in surprise. Who would be after Harry, and why? He seemed like a nice person. And what exactly did he mean by 'bad people?'

Before either could continue, a flurry of black feathers alighted on Haru's shoulder, causing her to jump. "Toto?" she said disbelievingly as the crow's dark eyes laughed at her. "What are you doing here?"

She would, unfortunately, have to wait until she was alone for a full explanation. Creations spoke aloud as any human did, and as unusual as it was for a crow to learn to mimic a few words, it was even more unusual for on to hold an intelligent conversation.

"Fatso, Fatso," he squawked at Muta in a fair imitation of a bird who was merely repeating what it had often heard.

"Oh dear," Haru mumbled, covering her face with her hands.

Muta leapt onto the table. What did you call me, Birdbrain?

Toto cawed his laughter and ruffled his wings. "Fatso!"

Come over here and say that to my face, you chicken, Muta hissed, flexing his claws.

Toto merely turned around and flipped his tail feathers in an eloquent gesture. "You have four wizards watching. Seem friendly," he whispered, pretending to preen Haru's brown hair.

C'mere, Muta interrupted. The kid stole my cake, but I'll be satisfied with some bird.

Toto flapped and dive-bombed the large cat as Muta tried to bat him away.

Haru groaned. "Would you stop baiting each other? You get to go on as long as you want at Baron's, can't you behave in public? Please?"

Toto responded by perching on top of a nearby lightpost where he could keep watch. Muta, however, looked as though he would continue.

"Muta, if you do not behave you will not be getting any cake," Haru informed him.

You're a cruel girl, he grumbled, subsiding.

Dumbledore watched with undisguised curiosity and some amusement. "Are they your pets?" he asked.

"Oh, no," Haru replied. "They're very good friends, but I can't claim to own them." She noticed with some relief that Harry was approaching at last. He paused upon seeing who had joined her, and she wondered if perhaps the older wizard was not as well-meaning as he claimed, when Harry continued on his course. Perhaps he was just surprised then.

"Does – Toto, was it? – carry mail?" Dumbledore was so intent on subtly discovering whether or not Haru was a witch that he failed to notice the approach of his charge.

Haru stared at him blankly. "Um, like a homing pigeon? I suppose he could if he really needed to," she said uncertainly. "But really, I just use the post office."

"Sorry it took so long," Harry said, catching what his Headmaster had last said and eyeing Haru speculatively. He avoided looking at Dumbledore, who had turned sharply at the sound of his voice and was now studying him intently, searching him over for any sign of injuries. "The line was almost to the door." He set down two plates, a slice of angel food cake on one and chocolate pound cake on the other.

"Harry, you didn't have to get one, much less two," Haru protested.

"I just wanted to say thank you," he said with an awkward shrug. "And if I was going to get Muta something, then I should certainly get you something."

He's a good kid, Muta declared.

The four of them glanced up at the harsh caw of laughter.

Shut up, Birdbrain!

"Is that your bird?" Harry asked.

"He's a friend," Haru answered.

At last, unable to avoid it anymore, Harry turned to face Dumbledore, whose gaze had barely left him. "Hello Professor," he said quietly.

"Harry, my boy," he breathed and stood to draw him into a hug. "We will be speaking when we get back. But I am so glad you're safe."

Harry nodded, not looking forward to the talk at all. "Yes, sir."

They turned to Haru, who was concentrating on Muta so as to give the wizards some privacy.

"I thought angel food was your favorite," Haru was murmuring.

It is, but Baron was making some yesterday and his is always so much better. Besides, this gives me some more variety.

"I'll have to take your word for it, as I've never tasted that particular specialty of his." She grinned mischievously. "You're such a piggy, Muta."

Oi, enough with the insults. Who was it that saved you from marrying a cat?

"Doesn't change the fact that they carved into stone – "

Yes, yes, Muta said hastily. No need to go into that.

"Hmmm." Haru took a bite of her treat and sighed. Then she realized that the other side of the table was conspicuously quiet.

Dumbledore was watching her with unnerving intensity, Harry with open curiosity.

Oh dear, she thought.

"Miss Yoshioka," he said thoughtfully, "have you heard of Voldemort?"

She looked at Muta, who gave her a feline shrug. "No, I haven't," she said.

Dumbledore was inclined to believe her, not only because he could usually tell when he was being lied to, but also because she had not reacted at all to the name.

"But then how can you – Can you? Speak to…" Harry blurted.

Dumbledore stopped him with a gentle hand on his shoulder. "I believe it is time to return to England, Harry. Thank you very much for your hospitality." Haru was sure it was not her imagination that his bow seemed to include both her and Muta.

"And thank you for listening," Harry said, looking at the ground a touch bashfully.

"It was no problem," Haru replied with a smile.

Only a few moments after the pair disappeared into the crowd, Toto glided down to alight on the table. "The wizards have all gone."

"Thank you for watching out for me, Toto," Haru said with a fond smile. "Give my regards to Baron?"

"Of course, Haru," he said and flapped off.

Finally, Muta grumbled. Peace and quiet at last.

"Yes, it was a rather active afternoon, wasn't it?" She sighed as she opened her textbook.

The kid will be fine, Chicky, Muta said encouragingly, licking up the last of his crumbs.

"Yes," Haru said. "I'm sure you're right."

And they sat in their usual companionable silence for the rest of the afternoon.

For I shall learn from flower and leaf
That color every drop they hold,
To change the lifeless wine of grief
To living gold.
-Sara Teasdale, "Alchemy"