The only thing that belongs to me is the interpretation of the movie, Fredrick von Gikkingen, and Louise's personality. The rest belongs to Studio Ghibli ( I wouldn't complain about owning Baron though…)

Chapter One: A Chance Encounter

"It is important, however, to ensure that the crease is fine, so that the napkin does not stick up funny." The pale man had been droning on for roughly twenty five minutes, and Haru was two seconds away from dumping her herbal tea all over his multiple napkin demonstrations and then the man.

What on earth had possessed Hiromi, to think that she, Haru, could possibly have a chance for a relationship with Napkin Boy? Twirling her long chocolate-colored hair between her fingers, her matching eyes gazed at the sky once more. She suddenly noticed the black clouds now enveloping the sky.

"Uh, Taro, I think we'd best cut the date short. A storm's coming." At last, a polite excuse.

"Huh?" Napkin Boy suddenly looked up, and started shaking at the sight. "I, uh, think you're right, Haru. Feel up to a movie tomorrow night?"

Haru sighed inwardly. "To tell you the truth, Taro, I don't think this is going to work." Honesty is the best policy, her mother had drilled into her since she was little. It will save you and others a great deal of heartbreak. Taro had seemed confused at her answer.

"But… Hiromi said you were desperate." He was, however, already standing up and had one foot pointed away.

"No, Hiromi's desperate to find a date for her maid of honor." Haru was also standing up and straightening her jacket. The fact that she was five inches taller than her companion, who was an average height, was not lost on either of them. "You're a nice guy, Taro. Just not my guy."

Taro smiled thinly. "I feel the same way about you. Except, you know, for the guy part." Haru smiled a little at that.

"Take care Taro."

"You too Haru."

It wasn't two minutes later that rain started coming down in sheets. Although Haru was grateful that she had picked her longer coat when she had left her apartment that morning, it wasn't quite enough to keep her dry. Spotting a shop that hadn't closed down yet, she ran eagerly toward it. The old man behind the counter looked up from his paper in alarm when the door opened, but he saw it was a young woman.

"Can I help you, Miss?"

"I'll just look around, but thank you." He left for a mop and pail, since the girl was dripping rain water all over the floor.

Haru soaked in the warmth of being inside for a moment, and then started looking at some of the merchandise. It was an old antique shop, she realized. Judging from the plaque hanging behind the counter, it had been around for about eighty-five years. But she couldn't tell the age from looking at the freshly dusted shelves and carefully polished knick-knacks. Spying a small group of porcelain sheep in the middle shelf facing the window, Haru's eyes became as clouded as the sky outside. She happened to be a very successful painter, but no inspiration had hit her since she finished her last piece a few months before.

Receiving nothing from the figurines lining the shelves, she looked away in disgust. Suddenly a flash of green caught her eye. Following the intriguing spark, the brunette walked up to a dusty old table in the corner, with a single object occupying it. The gray fluff was so thick on the thing that she could only guess that it was a doll.

Gently picking it up, the young woman took her handkerchief from her coat pocket and started the long process of wiping away the filth. A few swipes to the head revealed that it was actually an orange cat figurine, and a few more along its body revealed the doll to be wearing a white suit. The outfit was complete with a top hat, a dark red vest, and blue bow tie. He had one arm behind his back and another across the front, holding a cane. The only thing that seemed to speak of how old the doll was, the whiskers. They seemed to be made with real hair, which had become crinkled. Once Haru wiped of the majority of the dust off, the figurine seemed to give off the air of a gentleman. She half-expected him to take off its-his-top hat and thank her politely for cleaning him up.

The last part she wiped clean was his eyes, which were a beautiful yellow green. Haru stared into those eyes for a moment, slowly forgetting that the intense color came from paint. They looked alive. Those eyes seemed to be staring right back at her, as full of intelligence, or even more so, then most people Haru knew.

"Wow," Haru whispered. She then noticed a small tag hanging from the arm with the cane. Turning the card so she could see how much this strange doll would cost her, she read aloud,

"Baron Humbert von Gikkingen."

"Excuse me miss." Haru wheeled around to face the shopkeeper, who had finished mopping up Haru's entry puddle and had worked his way up to where she was now standing. "Have you found something to your liking?" Haru turned herself to face him, still holding the doll.

"Yes. How much is this?" She held up the cat figurine for his inspection, and he looked at it for a moment with a bit of confusion on his face.

"I don't recall ever seeing this in here before. And as you can see-" he added, sweeping his arm toward the rest of the store, "-we generally keep our merchandise in better care than that." He sniffed, staring pointedly at the still-dusty doll and filthy handkerchief in Haru's hands.

"If you think he looks bad now, you should have seen him before I cleaned him up. And the table-" Haru had stopped in mid-sentence, now noticing that the table that she had found the doll on had vanished. Strange Place.

"It was right…oh, never mind. How much do you want for him?"

The shopkeeper looked at the doll a bit more. "I'd say a dollar would be fair."

Haru stared at him in shock, which the shopkeeper misinterpreted as delight at a good bargain. But that wasn't it at all. Haru looked at the doll in her hands. Was it her imagination, or was there a glimmer of sadness in those eyes. Could the shopkeeper not tell that if the statue was clean, it would easily be worth hundreds, maybe thousands of dollars, not just one? This was no mass-produced piece of factory garbage; it could have only been the work of a master, who had loved his work. What would he say if he heard that this doll was worth only a dollar?

That thought prompted her to gently place the figurine on a nearby shelf and fish out her wallet. But instead of pulling out a one, she pressed a fifty into the shopkeeper's hands.

"I think that this would be a bit closer to his worth. Have a nice day, sir."

And with that, Haru gently took the doll off the shelf, wrapped him inside her coat, and braved the storm once again. The shopkeeper stared at her slowly disappearing form, the money forgotten in his fist.

It was late afternoon when Haru arrived home with her treasure, and she was really glad to finally see the door to her apartment. She was barely able to unlock the door, due to the fact that she was holding a doll close to her body to keep it dry with one hand, and her other hand was shaking really badly from chills. She barely even noticed her living room was littered with crumpled paper balls from misconceived ideas and paint supplies. Haru only had eyes for the chair in her kitchen, which she gratefully sank into with a slight squelching noise.

She pulled the doll out of her coat, impressed that she had managed to keep it dry. The young woman gently set it on the table and stared at it for a few minutes.

"Why was I so willing to spend that much on you?" She whispered. His eyes, any hint of the previous sadness gone, now seemed gently surprised at her.

"I don't care what that man said, you obviously had been there for years. Possibly decades to collect that much dust." This line of thought reminded Haru of the clinging remains of the shroud that had once covered the doll and the state that she was in. She left the table, and then returned a half hour later, freshly showered and wearing a thick red sweater and flannel pants. Haru was also carrying a small handful of cotton swabs which she quickly but gently used to rid her doll of the last specks of dust that had been clinging to him.

"That looks much better." Haru grinned at him as she carefully slipped off the name tag that was hanging from his arm. She read it again.

"Baron Humbert von Gikkingen." The brunette looked at him. The full name seemed to suit him fine, but it was a bit big for her to call him that. "Mr. Gikkingen is a bit formal, too," she uttered softly. A small smile lit her face.

"I know it's probably just a title, but I think I'll just call you Baron. I don't think I could call you Humbert everyday with a straight face, no offense meant." That jarred something else in her, and she smacked her forehead against her palm.

"Did my manners leave on vacation without telling me again?" She smiled at Baron. "In case you were wondering who I am, I'm Haru Yoshioka." With a half-smile on her face as she studied what she could see of her living room.

"As you might have guessed from the state of my living room, I'm a painter. Fantasy's my specialty. Or at least it was." Haru's head fell a bit as she stood up again to start collecting the papers strewn about the room. "It's been a few months since I finished my last painting, and I haven't had a solid idea for the next one." She gave a quiet sigh as she dumped the papers into her wastebasket in the kitchen. Then she grabbed a can decorated with painted lilies. She started sweeping her various art supplies into the can.

"I always want my work to say something more than 'look at me, I match your drapes.' Like my last piece, Ashen Sorrow, depicted Cinderella's misery before the ball. I made sure that there was a glimmer of hope in her eye, like she knew that her luck would soon change if she could just be patient enough for it to happen." The young lady again looked over at Baron and gave a half-smile. "Maybe that's why I brought you home. You didn't look too happy making sure that the table didn't fly out from underneath you or whatever." Haru twitched at that thought, remembering that the table did pull a disappearing trick after she removed Baron. It was funny, how easy it was for that name to stick to the cat doll.

"I wouldn't be half as worried about my artist's block if I didn't have another art gala to worry about in two months. I need to have something there, or I may have to find another organization to take me in. Which they probably would, but it's still a pain in the neck to start over again."

Haru had finished cleaning her living room of the last of the art supplies, and was crossing the room to deposit the can in her studio, a spare bedroom, when a red book in a shelf caught her eye. Since that seemed to be a lucky thing today, she quickly turned and removed the book to read the title. Pride and Prejudice. She gave a small laugh.

"This is a book I can very easily see you reading, Baron." He seemed like he was the type to enjoy a good classic like this. Haru's mind gave a shudder, and seemed to fly as open as a door. She could see Baron quite clearly in her mind, sitting in one of those high-back velvet chairs next to a fire, a book in one hand and a lowered cup of tea in the other. She gave a small gasp as her eyes shifted slowly to Baron, her vision starting to fade through tears. It could have been her imagination again, but now Baron's eyes were filled with confused concern, like he couldn't figure out her strange mood swings.

"Baron." Haru half-whispered, her eyes now overflowing with tears of happiness. "You just broke my artist's block!" With that, she ran to her studio door, crashing against it while trying to operate the doorknob. Door out of the way, Haru seemed to melt into the darkness, since she was in too much of a hurry to turn on the light. A crash could be plainly heard from the studio, along with a surprised cry.

A few seconds later, Haru emerged panting from her lair, arms wrapped around a large sketching pad and a handful of pencils. Tears were still streaming down her face, though it was hard to tell if they were from happiness or the fall. She took a few seconds to catch her breath and wipe away her tears with her sweater sleeve before addressing Baron again.

"Hey, uh, Baron…I know you probably won't mind, but is it all right if I paint your portrait for my next piece? I promise that you'll be the first to see it."

It was after one when Haru had finally called it quits for the day, with only enough energy to grab an apple on the way to her bedroom. She had left Baron on the couch she had propped him up in, with Pride and Prejudice resting to his right. As the clock on the wall slowly clicked its way to two o'clock, Baron slowly blinked, and flexed his knuckles. He tried to sit up, but could manage no more than a slight bow. After so long of standing in that one position, his body did not wish to fully cooperate with him as he wished it to.

His eyes flashed with irritation, but the look softened as his gaze fell upon the door the brown-eyed girl had departed through.

Just who is that girl, he wondered. How did she see me when I've been invisible for so long? His eyes lowered to the state of his clothes, which were now sparkling clean, thanks to Miss Haru's efforts. He used the last of his energy to shift back into his former position and make a weak smile. Ashen Sorrow indeed. His luck did appear to be changing, and he had been waiting more than long enough. At least Miss Haru was more interesting than the last female he had known, and his mind darkened again at the memories. She would never have used a long handled paintbrush to pin her hair from her face the way his new owner did. Nothing less than real hairpins, preferably pretty ones, would have done for her.

Whoever Miss Haru is, I'm grateful to have met her. She has what I need.