The first thing Muta said when he saw her again was, "In trouble again? The last time was very troublesome, you know!" Then he pointedly got up and turned his back on her.
Haru made a small face at him. "I'm not in trouble at all! I was just passing by," she said, which was the truth. She'd almost forgotten about the cafe, until this afternoon when she had to make a detour to the post office on her way home from school. Then she'd looked across the small pedestrian street to see a large white cat sprawled on a cafe chair in the sun, and before she'd thought about it, found herself crossing the road to it.
Muta flicked a suspicious look at her over his shoulder, and didn't condescend to turn. Haru huffed at him, but Muta was Muta, and she couldn't even feel that annoyed, really.
"Wait here," she said, not that she thought he was going to go anywhere (and she was pretty sure he was too lazy to leave to spite her). Then she ducked under the cafe's yellow awning and through the glass door with "Café Du Chat" painted across it in curling gold letters. The inside of the cafe was dim and quiet, a little too old-fashioned to be trendy, and the young man behind the counter straightened too late for her to miss the bored expression on his face.
"Good afternoon. Can I help you?" he asked, in not particularly helpful tones.
Haru scanned the chalkboard menu beside him, and examined their cake selection. At least they weren't very expensive. "Ah... can I have the rose and earl grey tea, and a slice of this?" she said, pointing.
Five minutes later, tray balanced in hand, she nudged the door open with her foot, and back in the sun, set the tray on Muta's table.
"Here," she said, and pushed the plate of chiffon cake over.
Muta's eyes slid from her to fix dangerously on the cake.
"Hmph," he said. Then, in what Haru could have sworn was a blink, he swarmed onto the table and set to, ignoring her giggle as she watched him push cake and cream into his mouth.
Sitting in the chair beside him, she stirred a teaspoon of sugar and a generous helping of milk into her tea, and waited for it to cool a little. She liked the scent of her mother's coffee that filled the house in the morning, but really, she always prefered tea herself.
"How's the Baron and Toto?" she asked, propping her chin in her hand.
Muta savoured his last mouthful of cake and swallowed in a huge gulp. "What'd you expect? As annoying as ever."
"You can't be that busy if you have time to sleep here," Haru said, teasing, though she didn't mean it, of course. If Muta hadn't been sleeping here for her to find, then she'd probably still be trapped in the Cat Kingdom even now, with no way of coming back. "Do a lot of people ask the Baron for help?" she asked, curious.
"Pah! What d'you know about it? And that Baron can't turn down a pretty face, especially not if it comes crying to him. It's troublesome."
Haru drank her tea, trying to hide the flush she could feel growing in her cheeks. "Oh... I'm sure he... it's because he likes to help people, right? Like he helped me. He's a gentleman like that."
Muta grumbled. "He let that little human brat sit on me and I had to carry him across half the city before we found his family. Gentleman, my foot. And that tabby with those kittens! They ate everything in the pantry!"
Haru had never been able to imagine what kind of people the Baron helped, though she'd sometimes wondered - after all, how many people could be in danger of being catnapped by the Cat Kingdom anyway? (None, she hoped, if Yuki's handsome prince was in charge now.) "Eeeh, it sounds like you get all kinds."
Having cleared the last crumbs from the plate with a good, thorough lick, Muta climbed back into his chair and settled himself. "Their strawberry cheesecake's better," he said. "They can't beat the Baron's chiffon."
Haru blinked. "So you don't mind if I drop by?" she asked.
Muta eyed her. "I guess it's not too bad if you buy cake," he said, his nose in the air. "Just don't come to me again if you're in trouble!"
She laughed. "I'll get the strawberry next time then," she said.
The girl spent a minute looking around the cafe, from the white-painted walls to the checked tablecloths, to even staring at the floor, before finally turning to the counter where Kenji had been watching her with growing skepticism.
"Do you have a cat?" she asked.
Kenji stared. "What?"
"Oh! I mean the cafe. Because of the name," she said, pointing at the door.
Kenji had been working on the afternoon shift here for almost a year now, and no one had ever bothered to wonder about the cafe's name. Come to think, Kenji himself hadn't thought about it, beyond that it was French and he didn't remember what it meant. "The name...?"
"It means 'Cat's Cafe', right? I looked it up. So I wondered if the cafe had a cat..."
"Oh. Um." He rubbed the back of his neck and felt vaguely embarrassed for no good reason. "No, we don't have a cat. I don't know why it's called that. Maybe the owner used to have one, I never asked."
The girl looked thoughtful. "I guess so. I'm sorry to bother you, it was a silly question," she said, smiling, and gave him her order.
He watched her carefully maneuver her way through the door with the tray before realising that he'd seen her before. She wasn't one of the regulars, but she'd been here just - maybe last week? Despite the tables and chairs set outside, most customers preferred sitting in the air-conditioned shade, unless they smoked, and he remembered being surprised when she'd chosen to sit outdoors the other time. It looked like she planned to make a habit of it.
Through the glass window, he saw her seat herself at one of the tables, beside a fat white cat. Kenji knew the cat - it came often enough during the warmer months, turning up to bask in the afternoons and vanishing come sunset. He was pretty sure it was a stray of some sort, but it didn't make trouble, and so he left it alone. Now, the girl looked like she might even be talking to it.
What a strange person, he thought.
Haru set her two parcels, neatly wrapped in waxed paper, on the table.
"Muta, could you help give these to Baron and Toto?" she asked.
The white cat looked up from the remains of his cake long enough to glance at the parcels, recognised that they didn't contain anything edible, and promptly lost interest. "What's this?" he said. "I'm not a postal service, you know."
"They're just some small presents, to say thank you for the help," Haru said. "I know it's kind of late, but I didn't know if I'd see any of you again. And then I didn't know what to get, and..."
She'd probably spent more time than she should have racking her brains over them - but what could you give to a talking cat and raven who did things like eat cake and drink tea? She'd finally settled on embroidering a small white handkerchief with the Baron's initials and a small cat's paw crest, and a thin silver chain Toto could wear around his neck.
Muta hmphed. "What, and no thanks to me?"
"I'm getting you cake, aren't I?" Haru said. "I thought of baking something for all of you, but you'd eat the whole thing yourself, and then they'd never see it!"
The aspersion on his character seemed to amuse him - or maybe it was just the thought of having a whole cake to steal for himself. Muta chuckled for a moment, then nudged the parcels with a paw. "Don't make a habit of this," he warned, and took them in his mouth.
Haru smiled. "Thank you."
Watching him run down the street and vanish into the nearest alley, she gave a small sigh. If she followed him, would she be able to find the little street again? She'd thought of going back before, but... maybe a small part of her thought the magic would only work once?
She was being silly, she told herself. After all, she talked to Muta all the time now, and he still told her news about the Baron (usually while grumbling). They were busy, and she didn't want to get in the way when he was helping people who needed him. She hoped he liked the gift, even if it wasn't much.
Picking up her bag, she went home.
The next time she saw Muta, she'd barely come to a stop by his chair when he got up. "About time," he told her, and dropped to the ground.
Haru blinked. "Eh? Where are you going?"
"Where do you think? Don't just stand there gawking, come on!"
Haru couldn't really remember most of the route they'd taken the last time, but she was pretty sure Muta was taking a different road today. "I... Muta, I'm sorry, but I don't think I can climb that!" she had to say when he started making his way up a pipe. Muta twitched an irritated ginger ear at her, then took her through someone's back garden full of laundry instead, across a bridge over a tiny stream, and rattling over a rusty tin roof.
Finally, he vanished down a passageway so narrow Haru was surprised he hadn't gotten stuck in it himself, never mind her - but this part, at least, she knew. By the time she'd crabwalked out of the passageway into the next street, Muta had already reached the little arch that marked the square, and was standing upright. As she watched, he stretched, long and lazily and meandered through. Sprinting after him, Haru followed.
Everything looked exactly as she remembered it - the quaint, colourful little houses, three sizes smaller than the rest of the town, the cobblestone square, and of course, Toto's pillar.
Muta looked at the growing length of the evening shadows. "We're early," he said. Sprawling in the chair outside Baron's house, he yawned.
Apart from the two of them, the little square was empty and quiet. After admiring each house with the interest she'd been too worried and surprised to feel before, she sat herself next to Muta, on the street itself. This brought her to about eye level for the second storey windows of the yellow house beside it, and out of the corner of her eye, she saw that the windows had blue flowered curtains.
"Who lives here?" she asked out loud. "Are they cats too?" Baron had something about artworks like him and Toto, hadn't he? She didn't really know what he meant though.
Muta shrugged. "I don't know, ask Baron."
It'd be rude to peer in the windows, Haru decided with a little regret. She watched for the moment when the setting sun struck the windows in a blinding flash of gold and felt her breath catch in her throat again.
When twilight's shadows fell on the square, and the lamps by the Cat's Bureau glowed to life, Muta reached back and rapped on the window behind him. "Oi, Baron, she's here. Hurry up, we've been waiting."
On cue, the front door swung open and Baron's small, white-suited figure appeared. "Haru! I'm glad you could join us today," he said warmly, and swept a small bow.
Haru smiled. "Thank you for asking me," she said. "Did Muta give you your presents? I hope they were suitable!"
"He did. Your gift has been most useful," Baron said, reaching into his jacket pocket and drawing it out. "And I believe Toto would like to tell you himself how much he liked his."
A caw from the pillar behind them made Haru turn. Toto stretched his wings, and she saw the glitter around his neck. "Haru!" he said. "Thanks for your gift, it's great!"
"It's nothing! It's just a small thanks for helping me with the Cat Kingdom," Haru said. Behind her, Muta said something jeering about magpies with gaudy taste and Toto swooped down on him.
Baron ignored the ruckus of feathers and fur as it raged around the square. "Now, I believe there was some talk of tea and chiffon cake the last time you visited... Come in, Haru. I trust we won't be as rudely interrupted this time," he said.
Haru laughed weakly. "I hope not!" she said, and followed him in.
The tea did taste different - contrary to Muta's prediction, it was even better. And the chiffon cake was indeed delicious.
Three months after Haru's adventure, she came to the Cat's Bureau to find not just Baron and the gang, but King Lune and Queen Yuki there too. They'd brought with them their first litter of kittens, half black, half white and all, Haru assured them, adorable.
"We wanted to ask you to visit, but after what happened the first time, we thought it might make things difficult," Yuki said apologetically. "Fortunately, the Baron has been a great help."
"Ah... don't feel bad about that! It wasn't your fault, that was the King..." Haru said, and stroked a tiny white kitten with a finger as she purred in her arms.
Lune smiled. "Lady Haru is too kind. We have come today to ask for a favour as well - would you care to take one of our children into your keeping? They will be ready to leave us soon, and make their own way in the world. If it's in your care, I know we will have nothing to worry about."
Haru blinked. "Oh! But... aren't they your princes and princesses? Is it okay to let me keep one?"
The king chuckled. "We can't keep them in the palace forever, you know. I believe my father's madness came about because he'd forgotten what the world outside was like for other people. And they can always return to visit, when it suits them. Baron's already said that they're welcome to help at the Bureau, if they want."
Haru beamed. "That sounds like it'll be interesting. I don't think they'll find it as exciting with me, but if my mother says yes, I'll love to have one of them!"
In a quiet suburb much like any other neighbourhood in the city, down a bustling street lined in pretty boutiques and stationery shops and a post office, right at the junction where it meets another tree-lined street, a visitor might find a cafe.
A yellow awning shades the front, and gold painted letters across the glass door tell all and sundry that it is named "Café Du Chat". It is an ordinary enough place, decorated in the Continental style that looks a little old fashioned, but it is not lacking in a certain unassuming charm. Contrary to its name, the cafe does not possess a cat - perhaps it did once, but if so, that was a long time ago.
But on certain sunny afternoons, passers-by could be forgiven for thinking the place aptly named, for they might find a large white cat fast asleep on one of the chairs set outside, warm and comfortable in the summer heat. And on these afternoons, they might even find a girl beside it, sharing a pot of tea and a slice of cake between them, while a lively young kitten clambers over their chairs. She, like the cafe, is ordinary enough, brown-haired and lanky in her school uniform, but there's a cheerful calm to her that is pleasant to watch.
And if you were to linger, watching them, you might see the girl laugh, as brightly as if she were sharing the world's best joke with her companions. How strange, you might think to yourself, it's almost as if she thought her cats could speak! Wandering away, you'll forget the sight soon enough.
But oh, if only you could hear the things they speak of!