By Laura Schiller
Based on the movie The Cat Returns
Copyright: Studio Ghibli
"I got some news that you'll be really excited about," chattered Hiromi as she walked down the busy city street with her best friend Haru. "Machida broke up with his girlfriend!"
She grinned, anticipating a blush, a gasp of half-ashamed happiness, a barrage of questions – when, why, etc. Haru could be so cute sometimes in her awkwardness; Hiromi found hanging out with her an entertaining occupation. Not to mention that she was kind-hearted, loyal, and very obliging when it came to sharing chores.
However, to her surprise, Haru frowned. "Aw...that's too bad," she said quietly.
Hiromi was thrown. This was not the Haru she knew! "What do you mean?"
Haru paused and lifted her head, letting the warm spring breeze play with her neatly bobbed hair. When Hiromi had asked her about the new hairstyle, Haru had simply shrugged and said it was 'time for a change'. It made her look older, bringing the bone structure of her face into clear relief.
"It doesn't matter anymore," said Haru softly, with a wistful glance at the clouds. Hiromi had a strange feeling of being shut out, as if Haru was seeing or remembering something up there which had nothing to do with her companion. There was something else...was it sadness? Loneliness?
Hiromi peered closely into Haru's face. "Hey – are you okay?" she asked, with a mix of irritation and concern, trying to bring her back to earth.
"I'm fine." Haru's eyes snapped into focus; she put on a smile that was just a little too wide.
"No, really, I'm better than ever. So anyway, what's going on with you and Tsuge?"
The name was enough to throw Hiromi into her usual state of burning enthusiasm; it was not until much later that she realized how neatly Haru had managed to change the subject.
And the something in her eyes, whatever it was, did not go away.
One day, Hiromi found herself sitting in one of the elegant white chairs of the familiar café where Haru had talked to the cat the other day. Worrying about her friend was exhausting, especially since the brunette had taken to shrouding herself in mystery. How can you try to help someone if they won't even tell you what your problem is?
"Haru, c'mon," she coaxed over the cell phone. "It'll be fun. Seiji's a nice guy, you'll see."
"I do not need setting up for a double date, Hiromi," came her friend's wry voice.
"Well, I don't wanna go alone. What if Tsuge and I have nothing to talk about? I'll die of awkwardness. C'mon, Haru, please?"
"Thank you for the offer, but no." Since when had Haru gotten so assertive? Counting back, Hiromi knew it was ever since that day someone had played those bizarre pranks on her – lacrosse sticks in the corridor, mice in her locker, catnip in her pockets. Of all the strange things!
"I thought you were over Machida," said Hiromi, taking a shot in the dark to account for Haru's unaccountable new avoidance of the male sex.
"I am. This is … it's nothing. I just don't … "
"So if it's not Machida, who or what is it?" Hiromi sighed. "Please, Haru … I thought we tell each other everything." She didn't mean to sound so sad, but she did. As positive as some of Haru's changes were, sometimes Hiromi felt as if her best friend had been replaced by a stranger.
"Whatever it is," she added softly, "I'd like to help."
"For pity's sake, Hiromi … " The sound Haru made over the phone was something between a giggle and a sigh. "Okay. Yes, there is someone else. No, you don't know him, and yes, I will get over it if you just give me some time ... "
Hiromi, delighted by the hint, launched into an investigation - what was his name? What did he look like? Was he even worth the trouble? She was so intent on Haru's answers that she did not notice the same fat white fluffball Haru had talked to that day, waddling up to her and surveyed her with wary yellow eyes. At least, not until he snatched the purse lying at her feet.
"Hey, you big fatso!" She shouted. "Give that back! Sorry, Haru, gotta go!"
He scampered away with surprising speed; thankful that she hadn't ordered yet – how would she pay otherwise – Hiromi jumped up, oversetting her chair, and gave chase.
Over rooftops, down stairs, through narrow alleys; she had a hard time keeping up with him, and briefly regretted calling him 'fatso' – it was almost as if he were deliberately showing her his superior physical fitness. But whenever she saw her white Hello Kitty purse dangling from his mouth, with her interac card, metro card, house keys and cell phone inside – not to mention Tsuge's yearbook picture in her wallet – she found herself inventing worse and worse names for the cat the farther she went.
To her great relief, the cat stopped. They were inside a little stone square (which was actually a circle), ringed with tiny, brightly painted, European-looking houses no taller than Hiromi herself. She felt as if she had wandered into an amusement-park replica of some picturesque German or English village, and for a moment, she was so awed by the magical, quirky quaintness of it that she completely forgot to grab the cat.
He, of course, disappeared right into one of the houses.
On a stone pillar in the middle was a black statue of a bird...no...not a statue, because it suddenly flapped its wings, turned its head, and stared at Hiromi with bright, glittering black eyes.
"Hello there," he said calmly. "Are you okay?"
"Wha - ? I – um, yes. I mean, no! That cat stole my purse and I want it back!"
The crow ruffled its wings contemptuously and shook his head.
"Muta, you really are a barbarian," he called. "Couldn't you have fetched her some other way?"
The door banged open and the cat, Muta, came trudging out balanced on his hind legs. He tossed the purse at Hiromi's feet as if it were something dirty.
"What else was I supposed to do, Birdbrain?" he snarled. "Had to get her attention somehow. Anyway, it's not like I was gonna keep it. Polyester - pah!"
He spat to the side, as if to rid himself of the taste of the bag he'd carried.
Hiromi picked up the bag and looked inside – her money and posessions were untouched.
"Uh, thanks," she said reluctantly. "But...why did you take it in the first place? And – why am I here?"
"An excellent question."
She jumped. The speaker was another male cat, much smaller and slenderer than Muta. He had orange marmalade fur and green eyes, wore a white suit and top hat, and carried a cane, like an English gentleman from the Victorian era. He sounded like one too, she noted.
"Allow me to introduce us – I am Baron Humbert von Gikkingen, but you may call me Baron. These are my associates, Toto and Muta."
"I'm Hiromi," she said, dipping her head in an awkward little bow. "Uh, nice to meet you."
"Likewise, I'm sure." The Baron's bow was a great improvement. "We are known as the Cat Bureau, and we make it our business to help all people who are troubled by something mysterious or a problem which is hard to solve. Muta has observed that you seem troubled; now, what seems to be the problem?"
While he was speaking, the surreality of the situation sunk in. Hiromi's head was spinning; here were three talking animals, one of whom had ben a stone statue only moments earlier, and they wanted to help her.
This just has to be a dream.
"That's not all," Muta interjected, snickering. "The truth is, we're friends of Haru's and the Baron wants to know why she won't come visit us."
The Baron cleared his throat, took off his hat and began twirling it around; in a less elegant being, such a motion would have been a sign of embarrassment.
Hiromi gasped. "Wait, what? You know Haru? So that's why..."
"Why what?" Toto interrupted.
"You see, that's my problem. Haru's been acting weird, and I think she's upset about something. But if it has to do with you guys, no wonder she didn't tell me." She smiled crookedly. "I'd have thought she was crazy."
Muta snorted; Toto chuckled behind his wing.
"Why don't you come inside," said the Baron, motioning towards his office, "Have a seat and tell us everything?"
Soon Hiromi found herself perched on a table in a tiny Victorian-style living room, with mahogany furniture and green-and-yellow wallpaper. It reminded Hiromi of the dollhouse Haru used to have, right down to the doll-sized tea service; she could just imagine her friend falling in love with the Baron's home.
"That's my own personal blend of tea, by the way," said the Baron. "It's – "
" – a little different every time," Hiromi finished, her eyes widening. "Oh my gosh! So here's where she picked it up from?"
The Baron looked almost as surprised as she was. "Picked up what?"
"The idea for making tea blends! She gave me a package of tea for my birthday – to help me relax, she said, because I'm so hyper. I don't know what she put in there – chamomile, I think, maybe mint – but it really works and it tastes great."
The Baron smiled; it was hard to read that feline face, but she thought she saw a hint of affectionate pride. "She's a remarkable young lady," he said.
Hiromi sighed; for a moment, she wished that someone would describe her that way. She cast that thought aside, however, and went on talking about her friend.
"She is, eh? But it's been three weeks now since she started acting strange. It's not the tea that worries me or the way her grades have picked up – those are really good things and I'm proud of her. But she doesn't laugh or make jokes as much as she used to, and she's gotten so secretive – it's like there's a wall around her. And the other thing – she's in love."
Muta and Toto both glanced over at the Baron, whose face was completely unreadable.
"I know the symptoms. She's quiet, mopey, doesn't have much of an appetite, and spends hours watching romantic movies. Plus she turns down every boy who asks her out. But getting her to talk about the guy is like pulling teeth – all I know is that he's got green eyes, red hair, and is like Westley from The Princess Bride, only nicer. And that he has this weird foreign name that I keep forgetting. I don't know where they met, or why he's making her so miserable, or...hang on..."
She had been looking at the Baron while she spoke, and it suddenly occurred to her that the description points applied to him perfectly.
"Er...what did you say your full name was, Baron?" she asked.
"Humbert von Gikkingen. Why?"
Hiromi jumped up, knocked her head on the ceiling, and abruptly sat back down again. "Omigawd! I can't believe it! My best friend's in love with a cat doll?"
The Baron's reaction astonished her. He actually flinched, making the teacup in his pawlike hands rattle, then set it down with a hasty, careless gesture quite out of keeping with the polished manners of a few moments before. His ears twitched. He refused to meet Hiromi's eyes.
"Told ya so, Baron," Muta snorted. "You should've tracked her down weeks ago. See, she's just as nuts about you as you – "
"Shut up." Toto cuffed the fat cat over the head with one wing.
If Hiromi didn't know better, she'd swear both cat and bird were smiling.
"Miss Hiromi … " began the Baron, finally looking up at her with intense green eyes. "May I … ask a favor?"
"Sure," Hiromi said dazedly, still trying to wrap her mind around the idea. Once she had, however, the first coherent thought that entered her head was this:
"Wait, wait, wait … let me guess … you want me to take you to her place."
"If you don't mind."
"Well, yeah. I do mind. You got some nerve, Baron Whatever-your-name-is!" She slammed her teacup back onto the table (not that it made much of a slam, but it was the thought that counted. "You mean you haven't come to see her all this time? Letting her miss you like that without even trying to find her?"
The Baron's eyes flashed with unmistakable hurt, as if she had slapped him; but a moment later, he drew himself and glared right back. "I thought it would be best to give her a clean break," he said, struggling to keep his voice even. "Look at me, Miss Hiromi. You said it yourself: a cat doll is hardly an appropriate suitor for her. She could pick me up with one hand, for goodness' sake!"
"Well, hello! Can't you wave a wand or use a magic potion or something?" Hiromi threw up her hands. "I mean, this is obviously a fantasy world, right? What's the use of magic it it can't give you what you want?"
Toto and Muta rolled their eyes at each other, animosity forgotten.
"That's not all, kid. He thinks he has to stay single for the job," Muta growled. "Stupid idea, if you ask me."
"Leading the Cat Bureau is a dangerous occupation," the Baron protested, "If anything were to happen to me – "
" – Haru would suffer regardless," Toto interrupted. "But if she knew you love her, at least she wouldn't be forever asking, what if?"
He pointed his beak meaningfully at a portrait on the wall which Hiromi hadn't noticed before: a white cat with blue eyes, dressed in a feathered hat and elaborate purple gown which was a feminine counterpart to the Baron's suit. The Baron followed his gesture, stared at the picture for a long moment, and sighed.
"Confound it, you two," looking from one associate to the next as he picked up his hat and cane. "Must you stick your noses into my problems?"
"We learned from the best," said Toto smugly.
Hiromi bounced up and down a little on Haru's doorstep, bubbling over with anticipation. It must have been visible in her face, because as soon as Haru opened the door, she frowned and tilted her head.
"Wow, Hiromi. D'you win the lottery or something?"
"Nope." Hiromi grinned. "But you might. Can I come in?"
Haru stepped back to wave her friend through the hallway, shutting the door behind her; movements they had made hundreds of times before, for study sessions and movie nights on the Yoshioka's couch. On any other day, Hiromi would have plumped herself down on said couch, grabbed a pillow and put her feet on the coffee table (providing Mrs. Yoshioka wasn't around, of course). But today was different. Hiromi sat down at the dining room table, placed her purse on it, and waited expectantly for Haru, who was rummaging in the kitchen for snacks.
"Pocky?" she called, sticking her head through the doorway and rattling the half-empty carton.
"Actually, how about one of your personal tea blends? I could really go for that one with the rosehips."
"Sure," said Haru, a little taken aback. "I'll make a pot."
She disappeared again, came back a moment later, sat down opposite Haru and propped her chin on her hands, surveying her closely with wide brown eyes.
"Now why don't you tell me what this is all about?" she asked.
"I think I'll just show you." Hiromi zipped open her purse and placed it on its side. "You okay in there, Baron? Got enough air?"
"I don't need to breathe," said an aristocratic voice, "But thank you for asking, Miss Hiromi."
And the Baron walked out.
Haru blushed like a blooming rose, speechless, holding on to the sides of the table as if she might fall. The Baron slowly crossed the table, took off his hat, placed it over his heart, and bowed.
"Haru … "
That was all, and it was enough. Never had Hiromi heard a woman's name spoken with more reverence and love.
"Hi, Baron," said Haru, with a shaky little smile. Ever so gently, she reached out to touch his cheek with one finger.
Hiromi decided that now might be the best time to make herself scarce. By the look of them, they wouldn't have noticed the roof falling in around them. Hiromi picked up her purse and tiptoed into the kitchen in her sock feet, to lean against the counter and fish out her cell phone. She had Tsuge's number from tutoring him in chemistry, but had only used it once before.
"Hey," she said, trying for nonchalance but coming out rather squeaky. "It's Hiromi … yeah, so I was thinking, I know you don't need a tutor anymore, but … there's this great coffee place I know about, and – "
"Is this you asking me out?" There was a smile in Tsuge's rough voice that warmed her to her toes.
She laughed. "Uh, yeah! Yes, it is. How did you guess?"
"I don't know. Wishful thinking?"
She pumped her fist in the air silently, thankful for a vent to her feelings that wasn't visible over the phone.
"I'm not so good with words, you know," Tsuge continued, sounding endearingly uncertain for the brash, confident ping-pong champion she had known. "But … I do like you, Hiromi. I'd be happy to take you anywhere."
In his voice, she recognized the same sincerity she had heard in the Baron's voice when speaking of Haru. She didn't need her suitor to wear top hats or use the diction of a previous century to fall in love. She wanted exactly what she had: a boy with strong arms and kind eyes, who was proud of his athletic skills but not too proud to ask for help. How often had she dreamed about Tsuge long into the night, put on her makeup with extra care in the morning, palmed off her chores on poor Haru just to cheer for him at the games? It had all been worth it. Every moment.
Once Hiromi was finished with the call, still glowing, she peeked in on the living room again and was well satisfied with what she saw. Haru was curled up on the couch next to a tall young man in his early twenties, a red-haired, green-eyed, very human man in a grey suit, talking softly; his arm around her shoulders. The moment the two of them caught sight of Hiromi standing in the doorway, they smiled. Haru jumped up and ran to hug her.
"He told me everything," she said, her eyes overflowing with happy tears. "Oh, Hiromi, thank you so much. You're the best."
"You've been helping me as long as I've known you," Hiromi countered. "The least I could do is give something back. What the heck happened, anyway? You're all … un-felined."
"True love's kiss," explained the Baron, stepping forward as Haru moved away. "The oldest and best form of magic in existence, and without you, we might never have known it. Thank you, Miss Hiromi."
He took off his right glove to shake her hand, sealing their friendship and welcoming her once and for all into the circle of the Cat Bureau.