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Lighting Candles

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Bright, white-hot pain. A deafening roar, his own screaming. Blinding light all around him, the smell of soot and ash and hot metal. Every sense clogged with too much information. Tears evaporating as they fell.

In the midst of it, words.

Silent, no voice. Would have been lost in the rest of the noise, otherwise. Words forming in his mind like thoughts – not his voice.

“You'll do.”

The vague impression that someone, somewhere, might be smiling.

Nothing.

It was like the beginning of a nightmare.

Sometimes, when he was dreaming, his eyes would be closed. Not just from sleep – in the dream itself, his eyes would be tightly shut, and no amount of effort would open them. It was kind of like that now. His vision was dark, his ears plugged and muted, his limbs stiff and frozen as if suspended in concrete.

A stray thought slipped in and out of his mind. If I don't breathe soon, I'll suffocate.

He tried to move his mouth, crack open his jaws, feel air pass over his dry tongue, but every millimeter of movement drained him. Desperate, he forced his last dregs of energy into his jaws, only to regret it. Filth filled his mouth, something bitter and gritty like rusted iron and old cigarettes. He shut his mouth with a snap, and his sharp teeth crunched around a mouthful of it. A gagging cough forced itself out of him. He still hadn't breathed yet.

I'm going to die.

The thought rang in his mind with a note of familiarity that made him shudder all the way to the tips of his claws. He couldn't die, not yet. He had to go home. There was something important, something –

A memory danced in his mind, flickering in and out. He reached for it desperately, and it darted away. What was it? He needed to get out. He needed to stop. He needed to think, act, sleep, move, breathe, live, for – for –

The noise that slipped from his jaws could barely be classified as speech. With empty lungs and grit filling his mouth, words were impossible. Fight this , he thought. Live. You have to – you have to.

His body was like stone, but with a savage effort he moved it all the same. Around him, his prison shifted – not concrete as he had thought, but dirt or something like it. Whatever was in his mouth was also all around him, trapping him, holding him as still as stone. As still as death.

Which way was up?

He writhed, choking on his panic. His jaws opened again, spilling more of the grit onto his lolling tongue. Had he breathed yet? In a moment of panic, he tried, and only succeeded in nearly swallowing the mouthful. He gagged again, forcing filth and spit out of his mouth. There might have been bile, too, but he couldn't be sure.

It was liquid, though. That was important. Because he could feel it dripping from his tongue to the corner of his mouth, spilling onto his cheek.

Liquid drips down. He was on his back.

He kicked out with all fours, clawing savagely at the trapping weight. With each passing second, he felt his prison loosen. His eyes almost cracked open, but he kept them shut.

It was like trying to swim through wet cement. After a few seconds of straining, he gave up on trying to sit up. He tried to breathe on instinct, only to choke on another mouthful of grit. Blindly he twisted and writhed, fighting to turn over. Minutes may have passed, or hours, before he gathered up the moisture in his mouth and tried spitting again. It dripped down – away from his face, this time. He was on his belly.

He bared his teeth in a snarl of effort and shoved all fours downward. Against his back, the loosened weight shifted. Something jabbed into his side, a distant pain. He kept at it, clawing and digging and pushing himself upward through his prison, panting and whining and snarling in his exhaustion, until finally, finally –

Cold air swept over his back. A strangled sob forced its way from his aching throat, and he kicked, clawed, and crawled his way to freedom. There was fresh air on his face, and he drank it in greedily with starved gasps. The strength fled his aching limbs, and he sank to the ground again. Grit scraped against his cheek, and he refused to care. His ears rang with a distant noise, somewhere between a howl and a whistle.

He opened his eyes. It was still dark, but it was a manageable sort of dark. He could make out shapes of things, the lumpy ground beneath him (what was that? Dirt? Mud? Rocks?) and above him, a cloudy night sky. For a few moments, he let the world pass while he took a moment to breathe and live. Through half closed eyes, he watched the world lighten as his eyes adjusted and the clouds overhead moved. Soft, silvery light shone down on him – the moon was out.

The memory danced within reach, as if teasing him while he was exhausted. Instead of chasing it, he let it come. Closer and closer it came, until he could reach out and touch it.

Dry, cracked lips parted. His jaws opened again, and cool night air passed over flat, gritty teeth. He spoke.

Hiro.”

The sound of the name, his own voice in his own ears, woke him further. He shifted, feeling himself sink back into the softened, lumpy ground. His bones creaked and ached like an old man's, but after a moment he managed to heave himself into something approaching a sitting position. In bits and pieces he came back into himself – a battered, exhausted young man with a soot-blackened blazer and hair that was stiff with dirt and dried sweat.

Around him, the distant ringing hadn't stopped. He blinked blearily at the room around him. Was it even a room? There was no ceiling, but there were certainly walls – he thought. Tables? The remains of tables? Burnt-out, melted machinery? Everything around him was black, but he was starting to realize that it wasn't the dark. He lifted his hand, reaching toward the nearest surface, and found the same blackness on his own skin. A careful sniff brought him the answer.

Ashes.

He had been buried in debris and ashes. What the hell happened? Where was he?

And what in God's name was that obnoxious ringing?

He turned his head, searching for the source, but something blocked his view. More soot-covered walls, fallen beams, the remains of the roof that had buried him. Narrowing his eyes, he fought to see.

There it was. Lights, reflecting off the dull black. Red, blue – emergency lights. Sirens. He was hearing sirens.

Fallen roof. Sirens. Soot. The taste of ashes, the stench of burning.

Fire.

His pulse rocketed, and a sudden explosion of light startled him into motion. With a cry, he flung himself backward and away from it, eyes fixed on the dancing orange brightness. Fire. Fire. There was a fire. There is a fire.

He breathed in small, quick gasps as he forced himself to calm down. It was a small one. Tiny. Smaller than your average respectable campfire. It couldn't hurt him. It hadn't hurt him, as far as he could tell.

With each breath, he calmed down. The little fire died down as well, which helped. Once his mind was still again, he gathered himself. This situation, not unlike science, started with questions. He needed answers. But first, he decided to give standing a try.

The uneven ground did nothing to help his balance, but he grabbed the remains of a table or display to steady himself. With his free hand, he combed his fingers through his stiff hair and let his mind do its work.

Where am I? What's going on?

Bit by bit, it came back to him. Hiro's name had been the first to come back, and the rest trailed after it. Hiro had been excited – but why had he been excited? What excited Hiro? Bot-fights, usually – no, Hiro had stopped bot-fighting. He had to, with the project keeping him busy.

The project.

Microbots. Genius invention. The neuro-cranial transmitter was truly inspired. Smart kid. He was so excited for the showcase. The showcase!

It had gone well, open fly notwithstanding. He'd been planning to let Hiro know about that – brother's prerogative. Callaghan had handed Hiro an acceptance letter himself.

Callaghan. Professor Callaghan's still—

The thought ended when it had barely started. Tadashi didn't bother chasing it – he could do that later.

The showcase. Hiro's presentation. Applause, Krei, Callaghan, letter, and then –

And then?

It was like a mental brick wall, and no amount of shoving would get him past it. He was ready to give up when he remembered a handy little piece of advice. His own advice, his own words. Look from another angle.

He glanced around, still bleary-eyed. This was as good an angle as any. There was a fire, it had destroyed this building, and all this machinery and display tables had burned into a misshapen mess.

Display tables. Melted remains of technology. Was that a stage over there, half-buried in the remains of the ceiling's ashes?

He was still at the auditorium.

The auditorium had burned.

“Hiro!” It was a pathetic attempt at a shout. It came out thin and weak, and his voice cracked “Hiro?” He took a step and nearly tripped and fell all over again. Stumbling, he made his way through and over the rubble of the auditorium. “Hiro, it's me. It's... it's Tadashi. Hello?”

There was no answer but the continued wail of sirens. Tadashi almost smacked himself. Emergency services, of course! He had to let them know he was all right – they must have missed him when they searched for survivors. Maybe they found Hiro.

His stomach twisted at the thought. No, no, maybe Hiro made it out. Maybe he was nowhere near the fire.

Maybe he was at home, with no idea where Tadashi was.

The panic rose up again, but he forced it down and continued his clumsy, shambling journey through the rubble, out to where the light was. He froze at the front entrance, staring in wide-eyed alarm. The glass was no longer there, and the metal frames were melted and twisted beyond recognition. Whatever had happened here, he was lucky to be alive, and probably needed medical attention.

That could wait, though. Find Hiro first, seek medical attention later.

Tadashi had excellent priorities.

He tried to shrink himself as he staggered down the steps. He missed the last one, pitched forward with a cry, and nearly split his chin open on the concrete. In the corner of his eye, light flared up again. Someone yelled out in alarm as a bit of debris burst back into flame.

“It's fine,” a rough male voice said. “Just sparks flaring up. I got it.”

Tadashi was immediately drenched with firehose water and scrambled to get out of the way as the fireman took care of the flame. “H-hey!” he yelled. “You could've waited til I got out of the way!”

No answer. Tadashi scowled, looked up, and took in the scene before him.

There were only two ambulances there – the rest were fire trucks and police cruisers, all blinking lights. The wail was coming from the police sirens. In fact, most of the people there were firefighters and cops. A few paramedics, but they were clustered around people sitting in the ambulances. Hugging himself slightly, Tadashi made his way over.

“Um, excuse me?” he called out. “I just – I just came out of the building. I feel okay, but I thought you might want to check. Maybe a ride to the hospital, I think I inhaled-”

He stopped talking. No one was listening. Not the paramedics, and not the few victims left being treated. Tadashi stepped closer to one of the EMTs who wasn't busy with a patient, frowning. “Hey! I need help!” The woman turned away from him rudely. “Look, could you at least tell me if you've seen someone? A fourteen-year-old boy, messy hair? Hiro Hamada?” No use – they were all ignoring him. Irritated, he stepped forward to put his hand on her shoulder. “Hey, come on, I just-”

The woman turned abruptly as if about to address him, but instead of speaking she simply walked forward.

Before Tadashi had time to get out of her way, she was already walking through him.

He flinched back, gasping with shock. Behind him, the woman continued unaware. Slowly, he turned around, stepped after her, and gingerly reached for her shoulder.

His fingers passed right through her, as if he were made of air.

Panic crept up again, but the woman's voice cut him off. “That all of them? Anyone seriously hurt?”

One of the other paramedics, a tired-looking man, answered her. “Nope. At least no one we pulled out so far. Mostly a few burns. There was one kid – fourteen year old boy – showing signs of a concussion, but he went to the hospital hours ago. Beyond that...” His voice trailed off.

Tadashi Hamada was already off and running.

Minutes bled together. He knew these streets well, and his footsteps matched his pounding heartbeat. People passed him, passed by him, passed through him – he flinched and shut his eyes each time it happened. Don't think about it now. Later. Right now, find Hiro.

The hospital. He slipped onto a bus, not bothering to pay the fare for the first time in his life. The driver didn't appear to notice, and Tadashi tried not to throw up. Could he even throw up now—?

No. Not now. Think later.

He arrived at the hospital when the moon was high and he still had no idea what time it was. His momentum slammed him into the front doors with a grunt, and he had to slow down for a moment to open them properly.

Emergency ward. Would Hiro still be there? No – not after hours. For a concussion, they might keep him overnight or send him home, depending on how bad it was – and no one was answering him. How was he supposed to find him?

And then someone passed through him again. On moment there were footsteps behind him, and the next he was staring at the back of someone's head. A very familiar someone.

“Honey!”

She didn't hear him. She was hunched, walking quickly, her face in her hand and her phone against her ear. Tadashi ran to keep up.

“Honey Lemon. Honey, please answer me. Honey!” He tried to stop her, but his hand passed through her arm. “Honey, I'm right here, please, you have to tell me what's going on! Where's Hiro?”

“Second floor.” For one wild, cruel moment, Tadashi thought she had answered him. “I'm on my way there now. N-no, no, Fred, he's all right. They're just keeping him under observation. F-Fred – no Fred, don't – the firefighters are there, they'll-” She halted suddenly in the hallway, her words choked off. For a few seconds she stood shaking, composing herself. “They'll find him, Fred. Th-ey have to, he went in, he can't just-” A sob. “He wouldn't just disappear, they'll find him. They'll... I have to go.” She put her phone away, tucked herself into a corner out of the way, and sobbed into her hands.

Standing before her, reaching out futilely, Tadashi had never felt so utterly useless. “Honey? Honey, it's okay. I... I'm okay, I have to be okay , I'm standing right here!” Ghosts aren't real. “I... I have to go find Hiro. Second floor, right?”

He didn't wait for an answer that he knew wasn't coming.

It was Room 231. He knew because he found Wasabi standing in the doorway. His friend was motionless, silent, gazing at the wall with a thousand-yard stare. He was also blocking the door.

“Wasabi?” He didn't want to do this. Not on purpose. If he did it on purpose, after thinking about it, it meant it was real. “Buddy, I need to get through. Is Hiro in there?”

No reply. He bit his lip, wincing when a sharp tooth broke skin, and walked forward. One step at a time. One, then two, then three, and he was past Wasabi and through the door, tense and shuddering from the sensation of having walked through someone like they were a mirage.

No.

He was the mirage here, wasn't he?

Tadashi stepped into the hospital room.

Aunt Cass sat by the bed, silent. She clutched Hiro's hand with both of hers. A few times she looked up as if ready to speak, only to look down again and stay quiet. And Hiro...

Hiro's eyes were open, but like Wasabi he was staring at the opposite wall and past it. His hair was as messy as usual, if not more so. There was a bandage on the arm that Aunt Cass was holding on to. In his other hand, he clutched a familiar baseball cap. His baseball cap.

Tadashi's feet took him around the bed as if of their own accord. “H-Hiro.” He took the other chair, because he wasn't sure how long his legs could keep holding him up. “Hiro, look at me.”

His little brother's eyes remained fixed on the wall. With his last drop of hope, Tadashi reached out to take Hiro's hand. And of course, he couldn't.

There was no panic, not this time. Panic was too much effort. Tadashi's breath caught in his throat, and he folded in on himself, desperately trying again and again to hold his brother's hand. His own hand curled into a fist around the sheet (and why could he touch that and not his brother?) and his eyes burned like the fire that had consumed the auditorium.

Flames licking at him, searing him. White-hot pain.

The sheet warmed beneath his touch, and he released it to find the sterile blue fabric blackened. His vision blurred, and he ducked his head.

“Hiro. I'm sorry.” His voice shook with sobs. “I don't know what I did. But I'm sorry. I never meant – I never meant to-”

No answer.

 

Chapter Text

 Tadashi stayed for hours. Fred wandered in at one point with a lost look on his face, and for once in the years Tadashi had known him he never said a word. Honey crept in quietly to whisper something to Aunt Cass, but Tadashi was past listening and from the looks of it so was Aunt Cass herself. Gogo never made an appearance. Eventually visiting hours ended, and Wasabi and Honey left with Fred trailing behind them. Aunt Cass drifted off in her chair, and Hiro followed soon after. With it came a small mercy; once his little brother's eyes closed and his breathing evened out, Tadashi's hand solidified over his. Desperately grateful, he clasped Hiro's hand as warmly as he dared – he might wake him up and not be able to touch him again. Tadashi's hand took the place of the hat in Hiro's grasp, and he moved to settle it into the crook of his brother's arm.

The hospital was quiet. Any voices were distant and muffled. Tadashi was alone. With a quiet sigh, he leaned on the bed, still clutching his brother's hand.

So. He was dead. He was a ghost. What now?

In movies, ghosts usually stuck around because they had unfinished business. Did he have any unfinished business?

Stupid question, he realized with a pang as he looked at Hiro's face. Of course he did. Hiro was only fourteen, and now...

And now he was alone.

Tears came without warning, spilling hot down his face. He hid his face in the blankets, pressing Hiro's hand against his forehead. In the space of one evening, he had broken the heaviest promise he had ever made. He was supposed to be there for him. He had sworn to be, whispered it over their parents' graves that no matter what happened, Hiro would always – always – come first. Their parents were gone and Aunt Cass did the best she could, but Tadashi had thrown himself into the position of Most Important Person in Hiro's life. He had taken the role, lived it and breathed it.

And now, because of him, Aunt Cass was all the family Hiro had left.

Tadashi sniffled against the hospital blanket. He had failed, at the one thing he was never, ever supposed to get wrong. And Hiro was the one paying for it.

I'm sorry,” he whispered. Maybe if he could touch Hiro while he was asleep, then Hiro could hear him, too.

He sat for a while in the darkened hospital room, breathing in and out and trying to exist without thinking for a while. It was difficult, and then it was impossible when the hairs on the back of his neck stood on end. It wasn't a fear thing, just... awareness. Like something in the room had changed.

Tadashi sat up, blinking, and nearly started out of his chair. The room was no longer dark; soft golden light had filtered in, but where-?

He turned toward the window, and his grip on Hiro's hand tightened. The window was still shut, but something had come in straight through the glass panel. It looked like the trailing end of a long golden ribbon, stretching outside and off into the distance, but as it drifted through the air toward him, he could see that it wasn't quite solid. When it was within reach, he stretched out a hand to touch it. It scattered at his fingertip like fine sand before the trailing end moved past him to settle on Hiro.

He tensed, confused, but his brother's breathing didn't change. If it was hurting him, it gave no sign of it. Tadashi frowned, trying to scatter the ribbon again with his hand, but every time he did, it simply settled in its shape again.

Tadashi stood up, his brother's hand slipping from his grasp. The ribbon of sand led out the window, curving around and out of sight. It had to lead somewhere. Maybe if he followed it, it could lead him to answers.

He turned back to Hiro, who slept on unaware. With a gentle hand, he brushed Hiro's messy bangs out of his face. “I'll be right back,” he whispered, and moved away from the bed.

If he was a ghost, then he obviously wasn't a very good one, because he had to open the window to see farther out. His mouth dropped open.

There had to be thousands. Golden ribbons stretched out all over the city, leading in and out of houses and windows, twisting and curling around each other like entangled strands of hair. It reminded him of those little kiddie puzzles where you had to follow a curving line through a tangle to find the other end and from the looks of it, he was going to have to do exactly that. Could he even do that from the ground?

Tadashi leaned out the window, stretching as far as he could. Were they all leading back somewhere? They were all so hopelessly snarled that it was almost impossible to tell. He put his knee up on the sill (what did safety matter when he was already dead), squinted, and searched.

Without warning, eyes. First there was a half-decent view of the city, and then there were eyes and a face staring at him from inches away. With a yell, Tadashi lost his balance and pitched out of the window.

Before he could wonder if the fall would hurt him, he had already landed. But instead of concrete and cement like he had expected, he found himself sprawling on a platform of sand – the same golden dust that made up all those thousands of strings. It was soft and firm as a mattress beneath him, and his only injury was a badly bitten lip.

“Ow. What-” Before he had recovered, he felt hands on his upper arm, tugging him gently upright. Tadashi rose to his knees, looked up, and found himself staring at the strangest-looking man he had ever seen.

Wide gold-brown eyes stared at him, equal parts concerned and apologetic. Impossibly spiky hair, the same color as the sand, framed a round face. Were his clothes made of the stuff, too? For a few tense, bewildered moments, the two of them stared at each other.

“Um,” Tadashi said eloquently. He wiped his bleeding lip on the back of his hand (why am I bleeding when I'm dead). “H-hi?”

The little man blinked and beamed at him. A handful of sand swirled over his head into the shape of a question mark, and he held a thumbs up with an inquisitive look.

It took a moment for Tadashi to realize what he was trying to say. “What? Oh, uh, yeah. I'm fine. Thanks for... wow, we're flying. On sand. How does that work?” With a pang, he was reminded of Hiro's microbots. “I mean... this can't just be sand, can it?” He had never seen machinery so intricate as to fit flight, bonding, and elaborate movement into the space of a grain of sand.

At this the little man nodded vigorously.

“You're kidding. Who – who are you?”

His new acquaintance looked thoughtful for a moment, then helped up two fingers.

Tadashi frowned, confused. “Two – wait, is this charades? Two words?”

More nodding.

“...Okay, then, I'll do my best.”

The man held out a small hand, and the golden specks swirled over it in a shifting cloud. He pointed to it.

That one was easy, at least. “Sand.”

Nod nod nod. The sand shifted and took another shape, this time the figure of a person.

“A doll? Person?” Tadashi gestured vaguely, wondering where this was going. “Man?” He was rewarded with more energetic nodding. “Sand, ma – Sandman. You're the – the Sandman? As in, the guy who goes around putting people to sleep?”

The man bounced on his feet eagerly and gave him a double thumbs-up.

Tadashi tried to struggle up, but the sand shifted beneath his feet and threw his balance. Before he could fall, another stream of sand flew up to catch and steady him. “Wait a minute, that's – that's impossible. The Sandman's just an old kid's story! Do you really expect me to believe that you're-”

The Sandman beamed at him and nodded.

Tadashi gaped at him. “Unbelievable.”

The Sandman proceeded to give him one of the most impressive eyerolls he had ever witnessed, and he had a little brother, so that was saying something.

His brother. “Oh geez, Hiro! Listen, this sand stuff – it doesn't hurt him, does it?”

With a bewildered look, the Sandman shook his head and formed glowing gold Z shapes in the air. He pantomimed sleep for good measure, pressing his hands together and tilting his head to the side to rest it against them. Tadashi watched in a sort of baffled amusement until the Sandman blinked, eyes open and alert. He raised his head again with a wondering frown and leaned forward, staring at a spot just behind Tadashi. The sand formed a question mark again.

A confused Tadashi followed his gaze, but aside from more sand, there wasn't anything to see. “What is it?”

When he looked forward again, the Sandman was regarding him with a hesitant sort of curiosity. Tadashi was about to repeat himself when the Sandman stiffened again, eyes widening. Confused, Tadashi watched a frown cross the Sandman's face and deepen into a wary scowl. The little man turned around and glared up at the window – the open one that Tadashi had fallen out of.

“What is it?” When the Sandman didn't respond, Tadashi nudged him a little more roughly than was probably polite. “Hey. My brother's in there, what's going on?”

There was a brief flash of surprise from the Sandman, and then the platform beneath them rose. Tadashi went down on one knee for balance's sake until they halted level with the window, staring at the thread of sand that reached through it to the boy inside.

At the end, where the ribbon met Hiro's chest, the sand had turned black. The Sandman was through the window in a flash, with Tadashi scrambling after him. He knocked the window loose in his haste, and it fell shut again, catching on –

He glanced back. The window hadn't closed on anything. So why had it felt like-

No time for that.

At Hiro's bedside, the Sandman glared at the blackened thread. Darkness spread along the length of the ribbon, as if the sand was rotting. At its end, Hiro tensed under the blanket and curled in on himself.

“What's happening? Hey!” Tadashi jostled the man's shoulder. “What's going on? Why is it black? What's wrong with him?”

The sand above the man's head formed shapes again – a moon and a horse.

“Night... mare?” He let himself relax a little. Nightmares he could deal with.

Frowning in response, the Sandman touched the blackness with his finger. Nothing happened, and judging by the way the Sandman's face creased in a scowl, something should have.

Hiro whimpered in his sleep, stirring without waking. It was familiar to Tadashi – way too familiar. Briskly he brushed past the Sandman, sat on the bed as close to Hiro as he could, and ran his fingers through his brother's mussed, knotted hair. “Hiro. Can you hear me, kiddo?” With a wordless whimper, his brother flinched away from his hand. For a moment Tadashi put the previous day out of his mind and fell into an old, half-forgotten routine. “No, hey. Hiro. It's okay, it's just a dream. Just a bad dream, that's all.” He kept an eye on the stream of sand. His hand was in Hiro's hair again, stroking slowly and softly in a regular rhythm. “Just a bad dream. I'm here. I'm right here.” The frightened noises died down, and Hiro slowly uncurled. Tadashi looked to the thread. Under the Sandman's touch, the black gave way to gold again. Hiro relaxed in his sleep as Tadashi continued stroking his hair. He could feel the Sandman's eyes on him, watching.

“I used to do this all the time,” he whispered. “When he was little. Just... wake him up from nightmares.” He looked up, meeting the Sandman's eyes. “If I wake him up, will he be able to see me?”

Golden brown eyes gazed back sadly. It was all the answer that Tadashi needed.

“So,” he went on. “You're the Sandman. You... what, you bring sleep? Dreams?”

The Sandman nodded once.

Tadashi felt his stomach twist, and for a moment he let himself feel afraid. “I don't understand,” he said quietly. “This doesn't... none of it makes sense. I'm – look, I know science inside and out. Robotics and coding, and... this isn't...” His voice trailed off. “I died, didn't I?”

A nod. It was the final confirmation.

“But I'm still here. Walking through people like a ghost. Ghosts aren't real.” He laughed bitterly at that. If he didn't laugh, he'd probably cry. “Nothing makes sense. I don't... I don't understand.” He bit his lip against the threat of tears. “I don't understand.”

The Sandman leaned in and hugged him.

At his height he could only reach Tadashi's waist, but he did it all the same. Tadashi froze in shock, long enough for the Sandman to let go again and turn away from the bed.

“H-hey, wait!”

The Sandman turned back, holding his hands out in a placating gesture. Stay put, the little man said without words. He offered a reassuring smile, and the sand formed a clock with hands that spun rapidly. With that, he was out the window again and flying away on a carpet of gold.

Alone once more, Tadashi resumed his vigil by Hiro's bed. No more nightmares troubled him for the rest of the night.


The sand swept its master through the night sky, over cities and mountains, hills and valleys. He sped along with a determined look on his face, not sure whether to frown or smile. He cast a glance upward to the ever watchful moon, and gave his guide a respectful nod. The Man in the Moon had not sent him to the west coast on a mere whim, after all. His little trip had borne fruit, which was good. But it was not without its problems.

Once, the Guardians had made a mistake. Well, not just once. They had made one mistake over a long period of time, gradually over decades spanning to centuries. The mistake was ignorance – not on purpose, of course. But they had kept themselves busy in their own spheres, their separate tasks and domains, and in doing so they had failed to look outside and recognize problems when they began. It had almost cost them a Guardian, and had almost cost the children of the world everything.

It had, for a time, cost the Sandman his life.

No, that was not a mistake they would be making again, not if the Guardian of Dreams or the Man in the Moon had anything to say about it. They would learn from past mistakes.

After all, children were not the only ones who needed the help of Guardians.

The Moon was still high when the Sandman dove deep into the depths of the Grand Canyon. It was a long way down. At the bottom, he knew, would be the mouth of a tunnel. There were a few of these around the world – ever since the Incident, they were a little more open to communication amongst themselves. It was getting to be near spring, though – the Sandman hoped his visit would not come at a bad time.

He reached the mouth of the hole in a matter of seconds. It was tucked away at the base of the canyon wall, far away from any hiking trails that would bring prying eyes close enough to find it. It had to be that way – this was the one tunnel that the Guardian of Hope left open.

It was easy to find if you knew what you were looking for. Amid barren rock and dry, cracked earth, there was one patch of lush, soft green. It spread like a carpet over the canyon floor and up the wall beside it – green grass, thick moss, and a scattering of wildflowers. Nestled in the center was the entrance to the tunnel. With an eager smile, the Sandman hurtled down into it.

The tunnel whirled and spun him down into the depths of the earth, into a veritable honeycomb of burrows. Before long the narrow space opened before him, and the Guardian of Dreams stepped into the Warren.

The Easter Rabbit was keeping busy, it seemed. All around, stone golems shambled about and half-painted eggs marched along on tiny legs in orderly ranks and lines. Clouds of bright and pastel colors filled the air, driving the Sandman upward to keep from getting painted along with them. The Warren was alive with color, with bright sand adding gold to the mix.

“Oh, what do you want now?” With his standard greeting, Bunnymund emerged from the greenery with a sour look on his face. His blue-gray fur was lightly dusted with paint colors, his paws stained vividly with dyes. “Spring's on the way, Sandy, it's been weeks since Groundhog saw his shadow and I've got a lot on my plate.” With a light hop, he scaled one of the golems to stand eye to eye with the dream weaver. The stone creature stood still to let him. “Look, dunno if you noticed, but I don't have a lot of space to entertain visitors. So somebody better be dying.”

The Sandman shrugged.

“Wait, did someone actually die?” The dour look faded to hesitant concern. “Everything all right? I've been swamped lately, I'm a bit short on news.”

The Sandman's face lit up with excitement, and the magical sand flew into action over his head. First a candle formed, with a wisp of sand dancing in the shape of a flame. The flame vanished briefly before lighting again.

With a frown, Bunnymund watched the shifting shape. He wasn't quite as fluent in the dream sand language as North was, but he could get the gist of it. “New spirit?” he asked. “Someone died and came back again, did they?”

Vigorous nodding, with a sand-crafted thumbs-up for good measure.

“New Guardian, you think?”

A shrug.

“D'you know what they do yet?”

He looked thoughtful for a moment, before blinking and shrugging. A sand-clock appeared.

“What d'you mean it's too early to tell? Jack was icing tree trunks the minute he woke up, don't you remember.”

Another shrug.

“Well, whatever.” The Easter Bunny crossed his arms. “What's this got to do with me, anyway? I'm a little busy. Not a lot of time for welcoming the newbie, y'know?”

The sand formed an egg, and a single calendar page beneath it. Beside it was the Sandman's own symbol, and below it the clock's hands spun around and around.

“I know it's only one day of the year, but it's kind of a big day!” Bunnymund retorted. “Go bother North about it. Or how about Jack, he's always got free time!”

The Sandman raised an eyebrow without even bothering with sand shapes.

Sighing, the rabbit let his paw meet his forehead. “Right. West coast. No snow. Look, what do you even want me for?”

With a shrug, the Sandman formed a little envelope and let it dance and whirl around them. The rabbit frowned for a moment before understanding.

“Yeah, getting the message around, good, that's fine. Well, you keep doing that. I've got a lot on right now, yeah? Let North know, if he doesn't already.” He blew out an annoyed breath through his twitching nostrils. “Look. Easter's coming up. I'll be out and about for a while before then, scouting out the best hiding places. I'll hit up the city he's in first, and look in on things. Happy?”

The Sandman beamed at him. With a disgruntled snort, the rabbit leapt down from the top of the golem and returned to his work.

His message delivered, the Sandman showed himself out again. Different route this time – this one took him up north. Bunnymund was right – North would be the least busy of all of them. Bunnymund's day was coming up, Tooth worked nights the same as the Sandman himself did, and Jack was technically always active even though he was never really “working.” He'd be keeping close to North's territory around this time of year, where it wasn't odd to find frost on the windows.

Eagerly, the Sandman found the right tunnel and rushed off to spread the news.


Tadashi fidgeted through the night.

No matter what he did, he could not find a comfortable position on the chair. It felt like the chair was too small or he was sitting on something, but whenever he looked back, there was never anything in the way.

He let go of Hiro's hand a few times, but never for very long. At one point he got up and left the room briefly, just to have a look around, only to come back and find that the sand in the air had darkened again. It paled to gold when he returned and stayed that way when he kept close. He didn't leave again It was almost five in the morning when he finally got up from the chair again with a grunt of aggravation. He paced, worried and aggravated and wrestling with a tumble of confused thoughts.

He was dead. Even after hours of turning it end over end in his head, the thought still made his stomach churn and the hairs on the back of his neck stand on end. He was dead. He didn't even remember it happening. Oh, he could make an extremely educated guess, after crawling out of the ashes of the auditorium. But his memory only went as far as standing with Hiro on the bridge, breathless and glowing with pride, before darkness lengthened between that and the moment of his awakening.

Educated guesses aside, it still left him with one burning (haha) question – why was he still here?

Was he a ghost, or was this what death was – wandering around forever, unseen by anyone but childhood legends? What if he was stuck here for good – hell, what if he was the only one?

“God, what am I doing?” If he carried on like this, he would work himself into a panic. Restlessly he paced the room, trying to get his head on straight. The how and why were hard questions – too hard and too complicated for the first day. One thing at a time. Look from a different angle. Easy stuff first.

How did I die?

Intellectually, the answer was obvious, but it didn't mean he remembered any of it. And that was a problem, because maybe his death had held some kind of clue. It wasn't just the death that was missing – there was still plenty of time for something to happen between the bridge and the burning auditorium, unless someone had doused him in gasoline and lit a match right then and there.

If that was what happened, it would mean Hiro saw it. He forced the thought away, shuddering. No, don't think about that.

It still crept up on him. How much had Hiro seen?

Tadashi shut his eyes and thought back to the veil in his memory. Somewhere in that space, the auditorium had burned, and he had burned with it.

Flames blinding-hot around him. Pouring sweat, soot-blackened. Drenched one moment, burning the next. It hurts more than anything, more than the roaring in his ears and his raw, screaming throat.

He forced himself back into the present with a hoarse gasp and a little bit of a whimper. Light flickered in the corner of his vision, and for a moment he thought that the memory of fire had followed him into the real world.

But no, it was no memory. With a jolt, Tadashi saw that the brochure left on the table near the foot of the bed had caught fire.

He moved without thinking, slapping his hands down over the flame to extinguish it. It was out in a matter of seconds. The paper was scorched; someone was going to find that and be very confused the next day. Luckily, his hands were unburnt – he hadn't even felt the heat from it. Which made sense, seeing as how he was dead.

“How'd that happen?” he murmured, inspecting his hands to make doubly sure he hadn't hurt himself. There was literally no reason why that paper should have caught fire – it was the only thing on the table. All the lights were out. Even the sand, which Tadashi was still getting used to, was nowhere near the thing. The only thing anywhere near it had been Tadashi himself-

Numbly, he stared down at his hands again, then at the burnt paper. Did... did I do that?

That was impossible. But then, so were ghosts and the Sandman.

And it wasn't the only time he had seen fire that night, even without counting the one that must have killed him. The first had been in the middle of the rubble, when fire had danced in the recesses of his memory before lighting outside of it. The second had been just outside, disoriented from slamming his forehead in the ground hard enough to knock a few more flashes loose. But that had been at the burn site. Just leftover sparks flaring up when the wind fed them, nothing more.

Right?

Tadashi wiped his now sweaty palms on his blazer and only succeeded in streaking them black. At least for tonight, it was time to give up. He settled back into the chair and continued to sit vigil over his little brother.

They always said your troubles were over when you died.  

Chapter Text

Tadashi had taken touching his brother for granted.

It was so easy to give comfort when he could brush those messy bangs out of Hiro's face, or swab antiseptic on his cuts and scrapes, or ruffle his hair into an even worse tangle than before. There were days when all he wanted was to take a break from the big bad world to hold his little brother in his arms and shield him from everything life threw at them. It had always been for Hiro – always. Shaking him awake from a nightmare, putting band-aids on his cuts, hugging him – doing everything in his power to make sure Hiro grew up happy.

What Hiro had never realized, what even Tadashi sometimes forgot, was that it was just as much for his benefit as Hiro's. Older, younger, it didn't matter; there was nothing like a hug from your brother on the bad days when you missed your parents.

And now, as Tadashi stood in the empty cafe with his arms wrapped around himself in a useless imitation of a hug and watched Hiro finish crying into Honey's shoulder, he had never felt more alone.

He wasn't sure what he had done to deserve a friend like Honey Lemon, but whatever it was, it must have been amazing. His friends were wonderful, every single one of them, but none of the others were quite what Hiro needed. Wasabi warded off sadness by keeping himself and everyone in reach busy. Fred reacted to it by being so irreverent that you couldn't help but laugh. Gogo's brand of comfort was a punch in the shoulder and a “Buck up.” But Honey?

She had shown up unannounced at the cafe less than a half hour after they had returned home, Cass with her arm around Hiro's shoulders and Tadashi trailing behind them like a stray. There was no phone call ahead, just an unheeded 'Closed' sign and a polite knock at the door before Honey walked in just to wrap Hiro in a hug. They stood that way in the empty cafe, and Honey Lemon murmured as many words and platitudes as it took before the frozen blankness cracked and the sadness leaked out hot and wet into her shoulder. It only lasted a few seconds. Not much, but it was a start.

Tadashi wanted to hug her for it. He couldn't, though not for lack of trying. Hiro was silent through the whole thing, even the tears. With a jolt, Tadashi realized that he had not heard Hiro's voice once since the bridge. He wracked his brain, clawing for the last words he could remember his brother saying, and was far too grateful when they came back to him.

Thanks for not giving up on me.

His stomach twisted at the memory. His palms felt hot and dry and itchy – remembering the burnt paper, he curled them into fists and shoved them into his pockets.

Of course he hadn't given up on Hiro. He never would – it was his job to believe in him. But it didn't really matter now, did it?

No amount of scratching could do anything about the itch. Tadashi still wasn't sure that the fires were coming from him – too much circumstantial evidence, not enough real experimentation – but with Hiro in the room looking fragile as blown glass, Aunt Cass half dead on her feet, and Honey with that brave look on her face, he had no intentions of taking chances.

He went out the back. They were still in view of the front door, and the last thing he wanted to do was spook them by opening it. The back door let him out into the narrow alley behind the cafe where the dumpsters were. He went straight to the metal containers and peeked in – right one was for regular trash, the left for recyclables. It had rained a little the previous night, and water still puddled on the ground. Perfect.

Well – not perfect. It was no lab, and conditions here were far from optimal. But he had three small fires and an itch in his hands telling him that this problem couldn't afford to wait until he found one. He chose a piece of flattened cardboard and crouched down over the largest puddle he could find.

Once there, he realized belatedly that he had no idea how to go about doing this. The past three times, it had just sort of happened. He squinted at the cardboard, glaring at it, but it refused to light.

If I can stick with one robot for eighty-four tries, then I can figure this out.

The itch was building, and it was only a matter of time before it came out. Tadashi closed his eyes and thought of fire.

Deaf, blind, and trapped. Might as well be mute, for all the good his screaming was doing

Tadashi wrenched himself out of the memory to find half the cardboard piece aflame. With a yelp, he plunged it into the puddle and extinguished it. He let go with trembling hands, staring at the blackened, soggy trash floating in the dirty water.

Well. One question confirmed – he was definitely starting fires. With his mind.

“Unbelievable,” he murmured.

“Well with that attitude, you'll never get very far.”

Tadashi sprang up with a yell of shock, half-spinning around at the voice. He stood wide-eyed and panting a little, scanning the empty alley.

A snort of amusement rang out. Tadashi frowned. It sounded like it was coming from somewhere below him. “Don't give yourself a heart attack, mate.” Yeah, it was definitely from somewhere under him. And... was that accent Australian? “Relax, just here to talk.”

“Just where to talk?” Tadashi asked.

There was movement toward the dead end at the back of the alley. Squinting, Tadashi spotted a hole in the pavement, perfectly round and about twice as wide as his shoulders. That couldn't be right – he'd taken the trash out countless times over the years, and he had never seen it before. Had it even been there when he walked out? Cautiously, he crept closer to it and craned his neck to see inside.

Nothing could have prepared him for what he found. He was less than five paces from the edge of the hole when a giant rabbit popped out like a whack-a-mole with a smirk and a “G'day!”

He would later deny the high-pitched shriek that rang out as he sprang back and lost his balance, though he would take responsibility for the stream of absolutely filthy Japanese that rushed out after it.

“Ow!” The – yes, that was definitely a rabbit, or at least some kind of deformed kangaroo – emerged halfway out of the hole in a sudden fury. Tadashi was on the ground where he had fallen, propping himself up with his hands planted behind him and staring as the creature swatted at the tip of its ear, which was on fire. “Watch it with the bloody flames, will you!”

Tadashi stared slackjawed, too shocked to even apologize. The creature batted the flame out and fixed him with an absolutely venomous glare. “Uh.”

“What's the matter?” the creature challenged him. “Never seen a rabbit before?”

“I'll be honest, I'm not sure how to answer that.” The words were out before Tadashi even realized he was speaking. The rabbit's glare hardened. “Um. S-sorry. About the fire. I'm... still not sure how that happens. Um.” He continued to gape. “Is this normal? Like a ghost thing? Talking to giant rabbits? I'm a little new at this.”

To his relief, the anger faded a little as the rabbit cocked its head at him. “Huh. You're really clueless, aren't you.”

Tadashi blinked. “Yes.”

“Oh, hell.” The rabbit looked disgusted – and God, that face was awfully expressive for a rabbit. Without warning the disgust gave way to mild surprise. The huge creature squinted at him, and Tadashi shifted uncomfortably under the scrutinizing stare. Though, surprisingly, the rabbit seemed to be focused on something behind him. Tadashi followed his gaze, but there was nothing particularly interesting to see.

“Um...?”

“What was that?” the creature demanded.

Tadashi whipped his head back around to look at him again. “What was what?”

“You didn't see it?”

“Didn't see what?”

The rabbit continued to glare at him, looking caught between confusion, curiosity, and mild suspicion. “Typical,” he said at length, shaking his head.

Tadashi remembered the Sandman's confusion from the previous night. “No, really, what was it? You're actually not the first person to ask me that.”

But the rabbit was already making as if to drop down the hole again. “Ohhh, no. I am the last Guardian you want handling this sort of thing. Look, I just stopped by to have a look. I'll tell you the same thing I told Sandy – I've got a lot on right now, with Easter coming up, and I haven't the time to babysit the newbie spirit.”

“Easter,” Tadashi said faintly. “Of course.”

The rabbit glared at him again. “Well what else would I be doing?” he demanded. “Look, bit of advice. Get your power under control.” A wry look crossed his face. “Last spirit to pop up like this picked it up like nothing, and fire does a lot more damage than ice.” Whatever that was supposed to mean. It felt like a joke that Tadashi wasn't in on. The rabbit must have seen the confusion on his face, because he shrugged. “You'll find out later, probably. Just try not to burn anything important. Spring's on the way, and plants and fire do not mix.” He punctuated the words with another hard glare. “I've got my eye on you. One slip-up, and I'll bury you in leaf loam, got it?”

Tadashi could only nod.

With a skeptical hmph, the rabbit dropped back down into the hole. Tadashi rushed forward to see, but the earth closed up before he reached it, leaving a small clump of wildflowers spilling out of a crack in the pavement.

He was shaking. Could anyone blame him? It wasn't every day you came face to face with a giant rabbit that ordered you to take control of your sudden, unexplained magical powers.

Speaking of, the itch in his hands was back and oh no, no, he did not need this right now. Tadashi sat forward, lifted his hands, and took a few deep breaths to calm down. It was no use – his skin felt hot and uncomfortable, like the fire was filling him to the brim until it leaked out of his pores. He tried running his fingers through his hair to get a grip on himself, but if anything that made it worse. He licked his lips, and his teeth felt sharp.

Okay... okay. He looked down at his hands again, breathing shallowly with fear. If he was careful, maybe he could do this. He glanced at the cafe behind him, swallowed his fear, and got up. He might as well do it somewhere away from his family.

The wharf was within reasonable walking distance from the cafe. Tadashi ran, unhindered by the crowd when all he had to do was go right through them. It still shook him when he did that. He flinched and shut his eyes, and the itch got worse. By the time he broke free of the main streets and pelted for the dock, he felt ready to burst with fire.

Tadashi slowed as he reached the end of the dock, breathing hard. Water lapped against concrete just a few feet below him. The sound calmed him.

His lip was bleeding. He didn't remember biting it, but he tasted iron when he ran his tongue over his teeth. For a split second, his canines almost felt too big for his mouth.

Another oddity for another time. For now, heat still pulsed at his fingertips like a heartbeat. He lifted his hands and stared at his palms with no small amount of trepidation.

Okay. With a deep, shaky breath, Tadashi let go.

He shut his eyes instinctively and thus didn't see how it happened, but when he opened them again he had fire cupped in either hand. It took every ounce of self control he had to keep from yelping and leaping back, but he managed it.

“All right,” he said out loud, a little breathlessly. “So... this is happening.” The flames crept past his hands, spreading over his arms. He flinched back and shut his eyes on instinct, before cracking one eyelid open. The fire burned merrily, but it had a pleasant sort of warmth to it rather than pain.

There was fire flaring in his memory, too – proper fire that burned and roared and ate – but Tadashi forced it to the back of his mind. He had an annoying habit of losing control whenever he thought about it, and it was hard enough figuring this out without that.

How am I supposed to turn it off? He tried closing his hands, waving them around, but the flames burned on stubbornly. In a fit of desperation, he hopped off the dock and drowned them that way. He surfaced spitting seawater, and after a bit of a struggle he managed to heave himself back onto dry land. “Wow,” he said, spitting at the taste of salt. “Probably should've thought that through.” He sat down and looked at his dripping hands. “Least the fire's gone.” It wasn't a practical solution. He couldn't go running to the nearest fountain every time this flared up. Especially if these were the only clothes he had.

He shifted, grimacing. He was soaked down to his underwear, and even with the sun out it was cold. Tadashi hugged himself, shivering and dripping and quietly miserable. He shut his eyes and tried to imagine being warm.

It took a few seconds for him to realize that the thought had crept free of his head. The darkness behind his eyelids flared with a sudden red, and he opened his eyes to flames again. Before he had the chance to panic, the fire had gone out and the water that dripped down him in rivulets was gone. His skin was as dry as it had been before, and his clothes had warmed around him, chasing off the leftover chills. He ran his hands through his hair experimentally – it was dry down to the roots. Blinking, he stood up and turned in a little circle. The dock was still wet, but he was dry and warm again. “Huh. That's useful.”

Heartened, he held his hand up and tried again. The uncomfortable itch was gone, but the fire still came to him. He couldn't help jumping again when it flared up around his palm – just looking at it made his stomach turn. Suddenly, his clothes weren't the only thing to dry out – his tongue felt like sandpaper. His hand shook beneath the flame, but he forced it still. With something as volatile as fire, he didn't want to make a mistake.

your mistake

Tadashi yelped when the fire blazed upward – again, without burning him beyond a mild, manageable heat. Without thinking, he made a violent swiping motion with his hand and mentally screamed, STOP. To his utter relief, the fire went out.

“What the hell was that?” His voice cracked and his heart thudded in his chest.

It was as if the itch had moved from his hands to his brain. With a shaking huff of breath, he paced the dock and ran his fingers forcefully through his hair. This missing piece in his memory was causing him some serious problems. And it wasn't because of what he couldn't remember, but what he did. It seemed like fires would start every time he got even the briefest flash.

“Oh my God,” he breathed, and his voice sounded muffled. “If I remember the whole thing, I'll probably burn down the whole city.” A deep, violent shudder ran through him from head to toe.

He couldn't go on like this, chasing after memories that did nothing but hurt him or risk hurting others. If all the memories brought was uncontrollable fire, then Tadashi could do without them. What was there to remember, anyway? Burning to death? Thanks but no thanks – whatever kind of life or afterlife this was, Tadashi could live it perfectly happily without memories like that. What he had already was bad enough.

The memory of fire and smoke and choking on screams threatened to overtake him again, and he sank to the ground and keened quietly. Bottling it up like this was no good. He needed relief, some kind of distraction or release that didn't burn everything around him.

It wouldn't have been so bad if everyone he'd met so far hadn't been maddeningly unhelpful. Even the Sandman, who'd been nice to him at least, had rushed off before Tadashi could ask any questions.

At this point, he didn't even need questions answered yet, so much as he needed someone to just... talk to him. Listen to him. He needed...

He needed...

Another memory dragged him down into its depths like sucking mud and quicksand. No fire in this one, though – this one were safe. He recognized it, welcomed it, dove into it in a desperate attempt at escape. It was something else to think about, something warm and safe and reassuring, like walking into the heated cafe out of a rainstorm.

Footfalls through a hallway. Two sets – one measured and calm, the other uneven and half-tripping on every other step.

“There's something you need to know about me, Mr. Hamada.”

He was a freshman, wide-eyed and nervous and still weeks away from his eighteenth birthday. Not to mention completely overwhelmed. Could you blame him? He was studying under Robert freaking Callaghan, who had written enough laws of robotics to fill a constitution. “Y-yes sir?” His voice cracked. Why did his voice have to crack? He wasn't thirteen anymore.

His professor's face creased in a smile. “Oh, I was afraid of this. So before I go on with the welcome wagon, I'm going to need a favor from you.” He lowered his voice as if sharing a secret. “I need you to pretend, just for a moment, that I'm just some dry old college professor with chalk dust on his sweater vest. Can you do that for me?”

Tadashi couldn't help laughing, because there really was an obvious dusting of chalk on his clothes. “Uh, heh, yeah, shouldn't be too hard.”

Professor Callaghan chuckled, and Tadashi felt his mingled awe and nervousness melt a little. “Appreciate it. Now – I value my students, Mr. Hamada. Each and every one of them. I live to create. And as wonderful as it is to create something like a new AI or a program that lets a robot tie a sheepshank, it's nothing compared to, well, teaching. Guiding someone to their full potential.” His smile turned fond, and Tadashi tried not to squirm self-consciously. “It's only a different kind of creation, you know. You get to help someone create themselves. You'll understand when you're older.”

Tadashi grinned, thinking back to a cobbled-together flying machine, a first test flight in the backyard, and then the band-aids and no regrets that followed. “No, I, uh... heh, I think I get it.” Nervous energy made him run his fingers through his hair, nearly dislodging his new baseball cap.

Callaghan raised an eyebrow at him.“Goodness, I'm sensing a story behind that. But the point is, your growth here is important to me. And your well-being, both physical and mental, facilitates that growth.” Pausing in the hallway, he fixed Tadashi with an earnest look. “So, with that in mind, just know that talking a lot and throwing pop quizzes at you isn't all I'm here for. You need anything – doesn't matter if it's an extra scantron or a sympathetic ear – don't hesitate to come to me.” He looked Tadashi in the eye with another warm smile, and Tadashi let it chase away the last of his nervousness. “And I have a policy: as long as you're not hurting anyone, no one's hurting you, and you're not hurting yourself, I take it to the grave. Sound good?”

It took all his self-control to keep from fidgeting shyly. “Yeah. I'll keep that in mind, thanks.”

“Great. Now for the fun part – let me show you the lab you'll be using while you're here.”

“Aw, sweet!”

With a deep breath, Tadashi eased out of the memory. The itch was gone, his frantic heartbeat eased. He let out a sigh of relief.

Professor Callaghan. Tadashi wondered how his mentor was taking this. Once he had everything else squared away, he was going to have to pay him a visit, too. For now, however, he had things to figure out, starting with the fire in him.

Tadashi stood up straight, settled himself into a more balanced stance, and called it out again.

 

Chapter Text

 

It was noon by the time he let himself stop. By then he could put out his own flames consistently enough to trust himself around Hiro again. Thanks for the advice, giant rabbit. He winced and squashed the thought. Don't think about the giant rabbit. Sound advice.

He was crossing the street when a bike almost hit him. Or rather, it did hit him, but it went right through him, so no harm done. It was still a bad scare, but his alarm vanished when he looked for the offending vehicle and found himself staring at the back of a familiar, rapidly disappearing black jacket and helmet.

“Gogo!”

He hadn't seen her since the showcase. Wasabi, Honey, and Fred had all been at the hospital, but Gogo? This was the first he had seen or heard from her since... well, since he was alive.

Tadashi bit his lip. He really had been away from Hiro too long for his liking. But...

He just had to check on her. Really quick.

He chased after her for about half a block before he realized how stupid it was. Even without her experimental mag-lev bike, Gogo was fast. Fred didn't pick nicknames for nothing, after all. When Gogo had places to be, she was not fettered by such inhibiting factors as “traffic laws” or “safety precautions.” She ran red lights and plowed through every gap in traffic and pedestrians she could find. Tadashi spared a moment to be thankful she was only on a bicycle, because he never would have been able to keep track of her if her wheels had any kind of motor behind them. In fact, in the brief moments that he could catch a proper glimpse of it, he thought he recognized it as her old one from high school, the one she kept around as her absolute-last-resort backup bike in case her others were out of commission.

Once he realized that Gogo was leaving him in the dust, he turned off the sidewalk and took every shortcut he could find. Cutting through side streets, alleys, and at one point a crowded sushi bar, Tadashi raced full-pelt to keep pace with her. Every time he emerged back onto the main street, he just barely missed the vanishing rusted rims on his friend's bike.

He was also getting used to running through people. After less than a day, he should have been way more bothered by it, but he pushed it back – another habit he had been picking up.

Before long, he found himself in familiar streets. The familiarity, however, was anything but comforting. San Fransokyo was a beautiful city, but with every side street and alley he cut through, the general upkeep steadily plummeted. The smell of cheap alcohol and weed smoke reached him, and Tadashi felt his stomach turn. Gogo was leading him into the seedier parts of town. How long had it been since he had sped through these run-down streets on his moped, following the trackers in Hiro's jacket? Weeks? What was Gogo doing here now, riding at unsafe speeds on an old, battered bike?

Finally, mercifully, she slowed down and stopped on the side of the street. She was cursing as he caught up to her, and once he was close enough he could see why. The chain had slipped off the gears, forcing her to coast to a halt to avoid falling.

“Stupid goddamn useless piece of crap,” she was snarling as she removed her helmet and dismounted. Tadashi couldn't help gasping a little. It was poorly masked with what looked like a half-hearted attempt with concealer, but Gogo's left eye was blackened and swollen. That wasn't all, though – he could see a large band-aid through her bangs, and a dark bruise peeking out from beneath the concealer over the bridge of her nose. Besides that were two cracks in her lip and bruised, scraped knuckles that her biker gloves left uncovered.

Tadashi took all of this in with worry gnawing at his heart. She'd taken a beating, but why? Who had done this to her?

Carelessly, Gogo grabbed the bike frame, heaved it over, and let it clatter to the pavement upside down. “Fucking ninety-nine dollar pile of shit.” People walking by were staring, but Gogo never cared about that. She slipped the chain back into place with practiced ease, before kicking the bike onto its side. Tadashi couldn't help but wince. “Asshole.

Growling, she dragged her repaired but abused bike to the nearest locking station, just a few yards down the block. She locked both the frame and the front wheel to it, to make absolutely sure it couldn't be stolen. Then she pocketed her keys and paused. As Tadashi watched, she rubbed her uninjured eye and sniffed a little.

His heart sank. “Gogo...” She was already walking away.

He still had no idea what she was doing here, so with a worried sigh he followed her. She walked aimlessly, never turning off the street, but never looking up from the sidewalk, either.

Before long, he wasn't the only one following her. Tadashi was, sadly, not surprised. There were a lot of jerks out there, and they liked to go out in public and flaunt it like there was some kind of jerk contest going on that no one had told him about. In any case, they had barely gone two blocks before a young man loitering outside of a corner store peeled himself away from the wall to flank her. Tadashi glared at him, for all the good it did.

The man walked in step with her halfway to the corner before looking at her with a smile and saying, “Nice shiner, sweetheart. I wouldn't worry about your face, though. I'm an ass man, myself. I wouldn't mind you sitting on my-”

He didn't get further than that. Tadashi tried not to be too satisfied when Gogo's fist ended up in his mouth. Her biker gloves kept her from gouging her knuckles open on his teeth. With a shocked cry, he staggered back before rounding on her furiously.

“What the fuck?” He had about a foot of height on her, and he put it to use looming over her. “What's the matter, bitch, can't you take a compliment?”

She answered him with a knee to the lower stomach. This time he swung back, catching her in the side of her face with his fist. It was the only hit she let him have. Tadashi could only watch in slack-jawed shock as his friend gave him another knee to the stomach that drove the wind out of his lungs. The man dropped to one knee, gasping, and made no move to get up again. Gogo stood over him, lip curling contemptuously.

“What's the matter bitch, can't you take a hit? You punch like a two-year-old, by the way.”

She left him crouched and gasping on the sidewalk.

“Oh, no,” Tadashi half-whispered. He stumbled after her, skirting the man she had just dropped. “Gogo, no. Don't.” He stared pleadingly at the back of her head. “Please don't do this. Not over me.”

She turned onto a narrower side street, out of the way of the main road. Alone, with no one around for witnesses, it was like she was asking to get mugged.

Except, Tadashi realized as he followed her, that was exactly what she was doing. He raced ahead of her to the other end of the of the narrow street. Sure enough, a pair of men loitered between two ancient-looking brick buildings, tucked away with a loaded dumpster for cover as they watched the streets around them hungrily. He could swear he recognized their faces from the last bot fight he'd pulled Hiro out of – maybe they'd lost a bet or three recently and were looking to make up the lost cash. Hurriedly he backed away.

Gogo was still steadily making her way closer to them with a dark look on her face and her hands shoved in her pockets. Tadashi came to a halt directly in her path.

“Gogo, stop.” It was useless, he knew, because there was no way she could hear him, but he had to try. “Look, it's not even that I don't think you can take them, because I'm sure you can, but you don't have to do this.” With each word she came closer, and his voice rose pleadingly. “I get that you're mad, okay? But you can't just pick fights with strangers every time something goes wrong!” He was close enough to see the tinge of red in the whites of her eyes. “I want to fix this, okay? I want that more than anything. But I can't. And this isn't going to fix it, either.” Step, step, step. “Gogo, please!” She walked through him, and he flinched with a strangled whimper before turning around with a hopeless last effort. “I don't want this!”

The two men stepped out to meet her, closing in like wild animals. Gogo took her hands out of her pockets and flung herself into the fight.

The brief exchange out on the larger street had been brief and decisive. This one was nothing short of vicious. One of the would-be muggers' teeth reopened her knuckles, but the spray of blood from his mouth still rewarded her. His friend grabbed her from behind to pin her arms, but she simply lifted her feet off the ground, forced him to hold up her weight, and used her position for leverage to kick the other one wherever she could reach.

Tadashi looked on, feeling equal parts frantic and completely useless. How was he supposed to stop a fight if no one could see, hear, or touch him? He fought the urge to shout at Gogo to run – she would never back down from a fight, even if she could hear him. And from the looks of it, neither of the other two would have let her anyway.

With a quick twist, Gogo slipped out of the man's hold and spun to face him, just in time to catch a full punch to the side of her jaw. Tadashi cried out, afraid the blow might have knocked her out completely, but she was still on her feet. Emboldened, the other man came at her from behind. She saw him coming and swung her heel up into his crotch (Tadashi didn't feel sorry for him). The man in front of her came within reach again, and she lunged forward and headbutted him in the stomach. When he doubled over in pain, she straightened up and slammed his chin with the back of her head. From his strangled cry, he must have bitten his tongue.

That was when the man behind her recovered from her kick. Tadashi cried out uselessly, but the man grabbed her and shoved her headfirst into the side of the dumpster. Dazed, she slid into a crouch. They stepped closer, and she glared up at them with a wordless challenge.

Tadashi moved without thinking. Before either of them could take another step toward her, he was standing between them. Pressure and heat built behind his eyes, and power pulsed at his fingertips.

“That's enough.” His tongue flicked against his teeth as he spoke, and he felt the strange sharpness again. His nails dug painfully into his palms like claws. The dumpster was behind him, and he reached for it instinctively. With a faint roar, the trash inside burst into flame.

The men flinched back, yelling with alarm, as the fire leapt high over their heads. Gogo flinched back without a sound. Beside her Tadashi stood unseen, baring his sharp teeth in a snarl. His own voice sounded almost alien to him as he growled at them.

Get. Out.

Gogo herself had probably taken a lot of the fight out of them before he had intervened. The fire was a tipping point – both men lost their nerve and fled.

Tadashi could feel his heartbeat in his ears as he turned around again – and wasn't that strange, that he could feel a heartbeat. His hands shook, and he was breathing hard. He avoided looking at the flames – looking at them brought thoughts of another fire, one he hadn't made himself. It took him a few tries to put it all out. When he did, he saw Gogo flinch again. She was picking herself up slowly, gingerly, watching the smoldering trash with wide eyes.

His nails felt like normal fingernails again when he uncurled his fists and stepped closer to her. She looked at the faintly smoking dumpster, not him, and he knew – he knew – that she couldn't hear him, but he spoke anyway.

Go home, Ethel.” His voice trembled with – what was he feeling? Anger? Fear? Sadness? “Get out of here. Text Honey. Punch a pillow. Punch the wall, I don't care.” His eyes burned again, this time with the threat of tears. “Go talk to Fred and punch him for saying something irreverent about me dying, because you know he would. I don't care what you do, just don't do this. This isn't how I want you dealing with my death, and you damn well know it.” The itch in his hands was back, distant when the mess of feeling was in the forefront of his mind.

Whether she heard him or not, in the next moment she was reaching into her pocket and pulling out her phone. Tadashi watched her dial – she wasn't calling Honey.

It didn't take long for their friend to pick up. “Wasabi.” Gogo's voice was shaking. “I need a favor. N-no, I'm fine. I'm fine. Bad connection. I-” She shut her eyes and pressed the heel of her hand against the bruised one. It took a few seconds for her to compose herself, and no more. “I need a ride, can you pick me up? Yeah, um. Thanks. I'll text you where I am.” With that Gogo hung up, sent the promised text, and put her phone away to press both of her hands to her face. She breathed curses out into her palms. He caught the words.

“God damn it, Tadashi. God damn it.

Once she had composed herself again, he walked with her out to the main street. She didn't bother retrieving the old bicycle. It took less than ten minutes for Wasabi's van to pull up.

As Tadashi watched them go, something caught his eye in the reflection on the van (Wasabi polished that old thing until it was as close to shining as it ever came). It was, to his surprise, himself – he still had a reflection, apparently. Curious, he turned to the nearest shop window and, for the first time since dying, took in his own appearance.

Most of the soot from the ordeal was gone from his clothes, especially after his unexpected dip in the bay. His clothes still looked frayed and blackened, especially around the edges. The blazer that he always kept neat was riddled with scorch marks and tears. His jeans were no better, and his shoes were a battered, dirty mess. Tadashi raised his eyes to look at his own face, and froze. For a moment he stopped breathing.

He had brown eyes. He had always had brown eyes. Both his parents had them, Aunt Cass had them, Hiro had them, and it had been that way since the day he was born. But now, the hollow, tired eyes that stared back at him from the glare on the store window were sharp, bright yellow. Tadashi stepped closer, trying to inspect them further, but the reflection was not a clear one. He would need a proper mirror to study them closer. But there was no doubt about it – he had yellow eyes, like a cat or an owl or...

The discovery did nothing to help the itch in his palms, the threat of more fire. Unnerved, he stepped away from his reflection. He had been away from Hiro far longer than he liked. Gogo... Gogo would be fine. Gogo was always fine, she was...

“She's fine,” Honey had assured him. “Not even worth a hospital visit. I'm pretty sure Wasabi's worse off, actually. So just – keep your cool, I guess? Plausible deniability.”

Easier said than done, especially when he was currently on the losing end of a very stern staring contest. He shifted uncomfortably in his chair. “Um. Yes, Professor Callaghan?”

“Mr. Hamada.” Crossed arms and a raised eyebrow – Tadashi hadn't been here that long, but it was long enough to know that was a bad sign. “I think you ought to know that this registers outside of the parameters I set on your first day.”

Right. Aiding and abetting a dangerous stunt that ended in a sprained shoulder and an almost-concussion probably fell under “hurting someone.” Not that he was going to say that out loud. What he did say was, “What registers outside your parameters?”

He hadn't realized it was possible for that eyebrow to go any higher, but somehow his professor managed it. “You do realize it's technically against university regulations to ride an unregistered experimental vehicle on campus, much less to vault from one rooftop to another without proper safety clearance.”

“Absolutely,” Tadashi replied, straight-faced.

His professor sighed, shaking his head. “Any particular reason why I shouldn't suggest an appointment with Student Judicial Affairs?”

Tadashi stared, half-horrified, wondering and hoping that Callaghan was bluffing. There was nothing else for it, though.

“Well we wrote down our results,” he said with a bland, wide-eyed innocence that put Hiro to shame.

Callaghan's face registered shock for a split second before he let loose the most earnest belly laugh that Tadashi had ever seen.

He never did have that talk with SJA, either.

He was back in the present, and the itch was gone. So were Wasabi and Gogo.

Tadashi took a step to cross the street, and stopped as if he had run into a wall of glass. His breath caught painfully in his throat like thorns, and the sting in his eyes worsened.

In the privacy of invisibility, Tadashi stood on a cracked, dirty sidewalk and sobbed quietly into his hands.


The first night after the car crash that had claimed his parents, Tadashi had not slept. He had tossed and turned, quietly panicking because he had read about how vital sleep was and how unhealthy it was to have too little of it. He had only dropped off to sleep around six in the following morning, and Aunt Cass had let him sleep in as much as he had needed to, but he had still only slept around three hours in all. He hadn't gone to school that day, and the following night hadn't been much better.

On the third night he had fought vainly to keep still, desperate for sleep. It had been useless – every time he found a comfortable spot, he would get tired of it and shift again. Around midnight he felt giddy with exhaustion, floating just out of reach of real, REM sleep. At the time, he had wondered if this was a way you could die.

And then, like an answer to a plea, Hiro had crept out of his toddler bed. Tadashi had been close to praying for sleep when a tug on his blankets turned his head, followed by a small but insistent demand of “Lemme up.”

And of course Tadashi could do nothing but lean over, lift him up, and settle him under the covers. Curled up beside him, Hiro had forced him to keep still until his warm weight and steady, high-pitched breathing had finally lulled Tadashi to sleep.

Now, as 2:30 shone in red letters on Hiro's bedside clock, Tadashi dozed lightly beside his brother and watched the golden ribbon of sand. It was a narrow, uncomfortable fit for him – both of them were a lot bigger then they had been eleven years before, after all.

He had finally put aside the question of what now. After what happened with Gogo, he had finally settled upon something approaching certainty. Maybe this was what he was supposed to do – keep watch over the people he had left behind. As afterlives went, there were worse things he could do with his time.

He wondered, vaguely, if he could still sleep. If he could still dream. Maybe he would ask the Sandman, if he ever saw him again.

For a brief, strange moment he thought he had slipped into a dream, because where else would that tapping noise come from? The window was three floors up, and there were no trees outside close enough for their branches to reach. He considered ignoring it, but the tapping came again. Warily, he sat up halfway and twisted around to the window above Hiro's bed. Parting the blinds, he peered outside.

Nothing.

Tap tap tap.

Wrong window. He whipped around to face forward again, frowning at his side of the room. Cautiously he slid off the bed and crept across, past the divider and around his own cold, neatly made bed. He stubbed his toe on Baymax's case by accident, and nearly had a heart attack when the “Ow” slipped out. For a moment he tensed, before remembering that for one thing, he was a ghost, and for another, he had switched Baymax off the last time he'd brought him home from the lab.

Thank God for invisibility and foresight.

This time, he pulled the blinds up to see outside. He was not disappointed.

A small, fluttering shape caught his attention toward the bottom of the window. Darting in midair, it tapped the glass again with its beak. Tadashi crouched down, lowering himself to eye level with the little – was it a hummingbird?

It certainly looked like one, bright green and feathered with a long, thin beak. But on a second glance, it had arms and legs, and its wings were translucent and paper-thin, like insect wings. Furthermore, was that a beak or a nose?

The moment he made eye contact, the little creature's activity increased. Now it waved its arms at him, bouncing and bobbing like a cork in water.

I must be crazy. Not that that was much worse than being dead. With a quick glance back to Hiro, just to make sure he was still asleep, Tadashi opened the window.

The little creature made a tiny squeaking noise as it darted inside. Tadashi ducked back with a gasp when it zipped right up into his face. Its little head tilted from side to side, and it inspected him with wide-eyed curiosity. It – (she? It looked kind of like a girl) – lit up with a bright smile.

Hesitantly, Tadashi raised his hand to her, which she perched upon like a bird. “What are you, a... a fairy?” Another sunbeam smile. Before Tadashi knew what was happening, she took to the air again and gave the hem of his sleeve a small but insistent tug. “What-?” She darted out of the window again, waving to him to follow her. Tadashi hesitated, looking back at Hiro. To his relief, the sand was still golden. He couldn't be sure it would stay that way if he left.

This time, she returned to tug at his hair. “Ow! Hey-” He glared at her, and she scowled impatiently with crossed arms. “Look, I can't just follow you out the window. I can't fly.”

She pointed downward and zipped out the window again.

“You've got to be kidding,” Tadashi muttered, shutting the window and lowering the blinds again. Part of him was tempted to ignore the fairy and stay with Hiro, but...

Well, there were still a lot of things he didn't know. Things the Sandman couldn't tell him and the Easter Rabbit (unbelievable) wouldn't.

He tugged the blankets more snugly around Hiro's shoulders and crept downstairs to follow the fairy.

 

Chapter Text

 

Tadashi let himself out into the back alley again. The front was too risky – Aunt Cass had been alternating all day between pacing, eating, and having the phone glued to her ear. She was still sitting at one of the cafe tables, fast asleep over a to-do list and half a cup of stone-cold cocoa.

He came around to the front to find the fairy zipping from side to side, looking for him. Upon seeing him, she raced through the air and hovered inches away from his face to study him again. She circled around him a few times as if searching for something, flew up to sit on his head for a second, and took to the air again. Tadashi stood still to let her finish, and she finally came around to his front and tugged insistently at his lapel.

“Okay, okay, I get it.” He made shooing motions, careful not to hit her by accident. “Calm down, I'm coming. Lead the way.”

Squeaking softly to him, she fluttered off into the streets of San Fransokyo. He trotted to keep up, and she paused every now and then to make sure he was still following her. He was a little glad for that – it was dark, in spite of the lights from street lamps and businesses that were still open, so her frequent stops made it easier to keep her in view. At one point they were joined by a second fairy, but only briefly. As Tadashi watched, fascinated, the little pair stopped to confer with each other in squeaks, chirps, and meaningful looks (at least half of which were directed at him) before the second fairy flew off again. Tadashi's guide watched her go for a moment before turning back to him with an eager, knowing smile.

He was getting a little tired of all the tight-lipped people who knew more about the situation than he did.

The fairy led him in a distracted, confusing pattern through the crisscrossed streets, but before long he began to recognize the route she was taking him on. For one thing, the direction and the smell told him they were headed toward the bay, and for another, he had visited this place many times before. San Fransokyo had plenty of parks to its name, and as they came out toward the waterfront he spotted the familiar wide grassy fields of Fort Mason. Further down the waterline would be the Maritime National Historical Park, and then Fisherman's Wharf beyond that. This place had a great view of the Golden Gate Bridge, too.

Memories bubbled to the surface, of summer days and picnics and homemade model airplane tests. Suppressing them was impossible; all he could do was take a breath and try not to choke on them.

Another squeak broke him out of his brief reverie. The fairy was fluttering next to his face again, poking worriedly at his forehead.

“What? I'm fine. I'm fine...” He followed her again, and she took him toward the nearest line of trees.

It was too late for a lot of people to be out and about, and too overcast to see stars. Moonlight poked through gaps in the cloud cover, but the silence and darkness left the world feeling a little muted. Once his guide halted in the darkness under the trees, he stopped and crossed his arms.

“So what happens now?” he asked.

Rather than answer him, the fairy bobbed upward and sat on his head again.

He raised an eyebrow, mystified but curious. “All right, I'll wait.”

As it turned out, he did not have to wait long. He had barely counted to twenty when he heard fluttering again. But this time it wasn't the delicate buzzing of fairy wings – it was louder, bigger, like the kind of noise you'd expect a late-Jurassic dragonfly to make. He turned around.

“Well hello, there!”

He had assumed, after running into the giant talking Australian rabbit, that nothing was going to surprise him anymore.

He had assumed wrong.

She had the appearance of the little fairy that had brought him here, only bigger – much bigger. About as big as he was, in fact. She was like a cross between a tropical parrot, a hummingbird, and a woman, but her shoulders bristled with many pairs of gossamer wings. Even in the dim moonlight, she shimmered with color from the feathery crest on her head to the tips of her wings. Bright purple eyes blinked and gleamed eagerly at him beneath lashes that were probably long enough to sustain flight on their own, and her smile showed off shining white teeth. Tadashi realized belatedly that his mouth was hanging open.

“It's so nice to meet you!” She grabbed his hand and shook it enthusiastically. “Oh – thank you, Baby Tooth.” He was confused for a moment, before the fairy on his head chirruped in response. Before he had the chance to wonder at a name as weird as “Baby Tooth,” he found himself on the receiving end of yet another in-his-face inspection, this time from a face as big as his.

“Hmm.” Her brows were knitted together thoughtfully. Tadashi leaned back, unnerved, before she took to the air with a cry of excitement. “I remember now! Bottom right, second molar with the blue ligature!”

Tadashi's mouth opened, closed and opened again. “...What?”

She clapped her hands with a chime-like laugh. “Oh, I never forget a set of teeth that well cared for!” she told him. “But the second molar on the bottom right – it was wiggly when you had braces, remember? They had to cut the wire to let it fall out, but they left the brace on.” She winked at him. “Earned you an extra dollar, do you remember that?”

There was no way – he had been nine at the time, and the only person he had told was Hiro. “I do, but how...” His mind made the connection, and he stared at her with new-found wonder. “No way. You're...?”

She beamed at him. “That's right, I'm the Tooth Fairy! You know, you flossed very diligently for a boy your age, did anyone ever tell you that?”

“...Unbelievable.”

The Tooth Fairy giggled. “Sandy told me you might say that.”

“The Sandman told you about me?”

“Of course he did,” she replied. “He's been spreading the news as far as the North Pole.”

“The North Pole,” Tadashi said faintly. “Of course. I – I don't get it.” He ran his hand through his hair, nearly dislodging the fairy. “Sorry. I just... why am I getting all these visits? I mean – you're the Tooth Fairy, don't you have, I dunno, teeth to collect?” That was rude, he realized belatedly. “I-I mean, not that I'm not... um, honored?”

She regarded him with amusement. “You're taking this awfully well.”

Tadashi shrugged helplessly. “Look, I'm a ghost and I'm talking to the Tooth Fairy. None of my prior knowledge applies, so all I can do at this point is just sort of... go with it.”

Her smile slowly widened. “Oh, I think you'll do just fine, with that attitude.”

“Really? That's not what the Easter Bunny said – God, I can't believe I just said that.”

“Oh, don't mind Bunny, he's like that with everyone,” she assured him. “Especially with his day coming up. I'm a little surprised he found the time to visit you at all.”

“I don't even understand why any of you are visiting me,” Tadashi repeated. “I mean, I'm just... I'm just some dead guy, why are you bothering?”

“Some dead guy?” the fairy echoed, sounding shocked. “You certainly aren't just anyone. You wouldn't be here if you were.”

Tadashi opened his mouth to reply, but stopped.

He wouldn't –

“W-wait. Really?” He glanced down at himself, at his battered clothes and scorched shoes. “I mean, me still being here – that's not normal?”

“It really isn't.” Her hand came to rest on his shoulder, and he raised his head to look her in the eye again. “Listen. You're a new spirit. Do you know what that means?” When he didn't answer, she smiled warmly and gave his shoulder a reassuring squeeze. “It means that there is something very, very special inside you.”

“Oh, no, no way.” Tadashi shook his head. “Are you kidding? I'm... look, I'm not the special one. If anyone's special, it's my brother, but he's alive and if I have a say in it, he's going to stay that way for a very very long time.”

“'Not the special one,' he says.” The fairy cast a glance up at the smaller one still seated on Tadashi's head. “I like him already. I mean, just look at the...” She looked down again, and her voice trailed off. “Hm.” She tilted her head quizzically to the side, staring past him.

Tadashi whipped his head around but, once again, there was nothing to see. “What?”

“Well.” The Tooth Fairy stifled another giggle behind her free hand. “That's certainly interesting, isn't it?”

“No, seriously, what is it?” Tadashi asked. “Why does everyone keep looking behind me? Do I have something on my back? A kick-me sign? A future-altering Time Beetle, what is it?”

“Calm down.” She had both hands on his shoulders now, placating him. “It's nothing to be frightened of, I promise. It'll come to you when you're ready – don't feel like you need to force it. Sometimes, these things take time.”

Frustrated, Tadashi let some of the tension out in a sigh. “I wish someone would just tell me what it is.”

“This is something you have to find out for yourself, I'm afraid.” She released his shoulders. “But not everything – which is part of why I'm here. You've met – who, Sandy and Bunny? I'd imagine you still have questions.”

His eyes locked with hers. “So many.”

She laughed. “Fair enough, then I'll do my best for you. But first-” She held out her hand. “Good evening. Call me Tooth. It is a pleasure to meet you.”

He took her hand. “Tadashi. And the pleasure's all mine.”

Beaming, she shook it. “So. What do you want to know first?”

Relief set in at the same time as a buzzing excitement. Answers. At long last, some solid answers. “Okay. So, me. I mean, this thing that happened to me. It's not normal.”

“Well, it's not common,” Tooth corrected him. “Goodness knows, the world would be overrun with spirits if it was. But it's normal in the sense that it's how spirits like us are born.” For a moment her smile turned distant. “I used to be human, myself. So was Sandy. Bunny... well, he's a Pooka. But he was mortal, once.”

“But the point is, this is rare, right?” Tadashi pressed.

“Very.”

“Then why me? Why am I still here?” Tadashi moved to card his fingers through his hair again, but stopped when he remembered the fairy. “What am I supposed to be doing? Even if there is something magically special about me that – that lets me come back from the dead and shoot fire out of my hands, so what? I can't talk to anyone, I can't touch anyone. What am I supposed to do with it?” His voice had risen by accident. He saw the Tooth Fairy's face fall with each question, and stopped himself short. “I'm sorry. I didn't mean to – I'm just frustrated, that's all.”

“It's all right.” She rested her hand on his shoulder again. “You're not alone in this, Tadashi. We've all had those doubts. And... I'm afraid there really is no easy answer, because there's no one answer that fits everyone. We all have our roles to play. For you, at least at this point, it may still be too early to tell. But don't worry. There is definitely a reason you're here.”

“Easy for you to say,” Tadashi muttered. “I mean, you already have something to do. Collecting teeth, right? You and... wait a minute, you keep saying 'we'. Do you mean just spirits like us in general, or is there a specific 'we' you're talking about?”

“Sandy didn't tell you?” He shook his head, and she sighed. “I might've guessed. I know Bunny definitely wouldn't have. Anyway, this I can answer.” Her wings buzzed, lifting her a few feet off the ground. “There's a group of spirits in this world, a very small one – there are five of us, six if you count our leader – with a very special purpose. We're Guardians – the Guardians of Childhood.”

Tadashi listened intently. “Go on...?”

“Childhood is a sacred thing, Tadashi. It's part of what keeps magic alive in this world. And we Guardians are tasked with protecting it, all over the world. There are...” Her mouth twisted. “...dark things in this world. Children are sensitive, so they're in the most danger. We stand between them and that darkness. We make sure that children can grow up happy, that they can enjoy that magic for as long as possible before they outgrow it.”

“That's... wow.” Tadashi tried to think of something else to say about it, but no words would come. “...Wow. Big job, for five or six people.” Understatement of the year, there.

“Oh, it is. But we cope.” She grinned. “It's not all gloom and doom – in fact, very little of it is. Our purpose is to spread happiness, after all.”

“Who decides?”

“Decides what? Who decides who becomes a Guardian?”

“I mean, I guess?” Tadashi shrugged. “It'd be nice to know who decided I got to stick around, though.”

“It's the same answer, in any case.” Tooth pointed upward. “Up there, see? He's still watching.”

Tadashi couldn't help but start a little at that, before he looked up and followed her pointing finger. Perplexed, he raised an eyebrow. “The moon?”

“Well, the Man in the Moon.”

“Right. Of course.” Just roll with it.

“He's our leader. Our guiding light, if you will. He chooses us, though... well, I don't know a single one of us who quite understands why, or how he knows what's best. But he's never steered us wrong. Aside from one, I don't think I've ever seen him make a mistake.”

“It's always the one, though,” Tadashi remarked, staring up at the cloud-dimmed moon. “What happened then?”

“We were all mistaken, I think. Negligent.” She turned back to him with a reassuring smile. “But we're learning from it now.”

“How do you know?”

“Well, I'm talking to you now, aren't I? The Man in the Moon made sure we knew about you this time – he sent Sandy in that first night, to check on you and spread the word among us.” She turned away again, her smile fading to something like regret. “I'm glad. The last time we left a new spirit on its own, it didn't turn out so well at first. We had a lot of mending to do. We're not making the same mistake with you.”

A painful lump formed in his throat, and the pit of his stomach felt heavy. “Am I...” he began. His voice trailed off.

“What?”

“Never mind,” he said a little too quickly. The thought that had drifted into his mind was... well, it was a bit much. Ridiculous, frankly. Best not to mention it, and better still not to think about it. He had enough to worry about without a laughable notion like that. “So – okay, this is more my own curiosity than anything I need to know, but what exactly do you do, as Guardians? I mean specifically. Is there a process, or...?”

“Our roles as legends are usually good enough,” the Tooth Fairy replied. “For me, trading gifts for baby teeth. The Sandman's dreams. Bunny's egg hunts, Jack's snow days, and so on. Treasured parts of childhood, wouldn't you think?”

“Well we don't get many snow days around here,” Tadashi said dryly.

Tooth laughed. “No, I suppose not. But they're fun anyway.” She raised her eyes to the moon again. “Beyond that, well... sometimes, there are spirits and things that aren't as friendly as we are. So when that happens, we guard the children of the world as protector spirits.”

There was something in the way she worded it that reminded Tadashi of old stories he used to hear as a child. “Kind of like the zenko,” he murmured.

She glanced at him, blinking. “What was that?”

He was being silly. “Oh, nothing. Just a story, that's all. Never mind.”

The Tooth Fairy gave him a broad grin. “I wouldn't sell it short. After all, so am I.”

“Uh, heh, yeah. I guess so.” He let himself fall silent again, taking in all he had learned so far. It was a lot to take in, to say the least – protector spirits, Guardians of Childhood, a strange all-knowing figure apparently watching him from the moon... It was, well, unbelievable.

That was his life now, or whatever this was. It hadn't been believable since the moment he crawled out of the ashes.

“Anything else you need to ask?”

Tadashi was about to say no, thank you for all this information, it's way more than I had before and I can't think of anything else I need. For the first few seconds, he believed that it was true. But the words caught in his throat before he could form them, and he realized that no, he actually did have one more question.

“Why can't they see us?” No, he worded that wrong. Tadashi tried again. “I mean, what makes us invisible? Is – is that an ability, like the fire thing? Can I turn that off? Because I would – I really want to.”

When the fairy looked at him again, there was nothing but sympathy on her face. Tadashi's heart sank before she even answered him. “I'm so sorry, Tadashi.”

“Is there a way?”

“Tadashi, it's not that simple–”

Is there a way.” The words scraped out on the second time. The Tooth Fairy averted her eyes.

“Seeing is believing,” she said quietly. “And it goes both ways. The children of the world can see the Guardians because they believe in us. Because they believe we're here. If they don't believe, then they can't see us, or hear us, or touch us.”

The truth dug into his skin like claws. “But that's – how's anyone supposed to believe I'm here if they never see me?” he demanded. “I can't win, it'd be like – like opening a safe when the key's inside.”

“Didn't you believe in me, when you traded a molar with a brace on it for two dollars? You never saw me, I promise you that. But you believed.”

“But I was just–”

“A child?” she finished for him. “Yes. That's... sort of how it works.”

Tadashi looked at the ground. He reminded himself that he had never had any hope in the first place. He had never once thought there might be a way to get rid of his invisibility. But the Tooth Fairy's explanation had taken that hope anyway, left him with even less than he'd had before. Less than nothing.

He could never touch Hiro again, not without him being asleep. He would never talk to him, guide him through nerd school, work on projects... he would never look at Hiro and see him looking back.

A hug from the Tooth Fairy was more substantial than the hug from the Sandman, and no less appreciated. Seeing as he was running out of people he could hug, Tadashi wasn't about to get picky. The wings made it hard to hug back, but he managed it anyway.

“Thanks,” he said over her shoulder.

“I'm sorry I can't give you the answers you want,” she whispered close to his ear. “But I promise you don't have to be alone in this. We'll do our best.”

“Thanks.” He could see himself hating that word. There was something useless and shallow about it, almost as bad as “I'm sorry.” “I think I'm gonna go now,” he said, pulling back out of the feathery embrace. “I need to think.”

“Take your time, Tadashi,” the Tooth Fairy said. “You have all the time in the world.”


 

By the time he found himself back at the Lucky Cat Cafe, he could see the first hint of sunlight peeking out over the horizon. He'd been gone the whole night.

His pulse quickened with anxiety – was Hiro all right? He hadn't been able to watch over the dream sand. As quickly as he could he raced upstairs to check on him.

The ribbon shimmered softly gold, and Tadashi let himself breathe again. He really needed to stop freaking out like this. As much as he might want to, he wasn't going to be able to hover over Hiro constantly, especially if he got distracted by Gogo, or some other spirit paying a visit. He couldn't be in two places at once, after all.

Only one thing for it, then.

Tadashi crossed to his side of the bedroom, skirting his still untouched bed. The bright red case sat waiting for him on the other side, switched off for convenience's sake. He crouched, shifting when something brushed behind him, and flicked the switch upward.

Baymax would still be deactivated, but now he was simply dormant rather than turned off. One noise of distress from Hiro, and his project would be all over it.

With a slight smile, he rested his hand against the case. This... was sort of what he'd built Baymax for. To watch out for Hiro when Tadashi couldn't.

He had never imagined that this would be the reason he'd have to use him.

Chapter Text

Toothiana would forever be grateful for two aspects of her job. One, it took her all over the world (and who didn't love career travel benefits?) and two, she could delegate. The combination of both made communication so much easier.

It took longer than she would have liked to find another window of freedom in her busy schedule. As soon as she had, she left her palace once more to assist in the field work up north. That was the excuse she gave herself, anyway. The moment she had a chance, she was flitting through the air to the North Pole. It was cold enough to snow here all year round, but the chill in the air only lent more energy to her body. Her wings buzzed, her teeth chattered, and she flew on. Thank goodness she had feathers to keep her warm, at least. She wasn't alone, either – Baby Tooth fluttered bravely alongside her, taking shelter near her when she needed it.

The wind made it impossible for them to fly in a straight line. Tooth was strong enough in the air, but her wings were of the thin, diaphanous sort rather than the proper strong feathered variety. Powering through the weather was not an option. She was constantly darting about, seeking out the path of least resistance through the icy gusts. It was tiring, as well as demanding of her full concentration, which was why she did not see her friend until he was almost on top of her.

The first thing she saw of him was a whirling blur of white, brown, and blue as he somersaulted past her. “Hey, Tooth!”

“Jack!” she cried, delighted. Baby Tooth flew squeaking from the shelter of her wings, only for the wind to nearly whisk her away.

The spirit of winter and fun righted himself with a lopsided grin, twitching his staff. The wind eased off, allowing them to fly more freely. Jack laughed when Baby Tooth darted up to him and flew circles around his head. “Hello to you, too.” She settled in his cupped hands, chirruping affectionately “You two are pretty far up north. What's going on?”

“Has Sandy spoken with you?” she asked. “Or the Man in the Moon, for that matter?”

“Sandman's a no.” Jack swung his staff up to rest across the back of his neck and shoulders. “Man in the Moon... haven't really been paying attention.”

Tooth couldn't help smiling as she crossed her arms, shaking her head. “Jack...”

He grinned, shrugging with mock carelessness. “Hey, it's almost Easter! I gotta get my kicks in down south before Crocodile Bunny steals all my thunder.”

She rolled her eyes. Boys and their competitions. “Well, we have a new spirit on our hands,” Tooth informed him.

Jack was instantly alert, eyes wide with eagerness. “Wait, really? There's a new guy? What's he do? What's he like?” As Tooth moved past him, laughing, he flew after her. “Come on, wait a second! This is the first new spirit since I became a Guardian!”

Tooth's merriment rang out over the snow. She waved for him to follow. “Come on, Jack, I'll tell you on the way.”

The doors of North's workshop were always open to his fellow Guardians, which was great for Jack. No need for attempted burglary anymore. Not that he didn't still do it every now and then – why go through the front door when you could surprise them by coming through a window they forgot to lock? This time he did the polite thing, if only because Tooth's news was still holding his attention.

The yetis received them with eager vocalizations, and the two Guardians flew to the heart of Nicholas North's domain. They found him watching the Globe.

“Tooth! Jack! Little one!” Santa Claus gave a roar of booming laughter and swept both of them into a bone-crushing hug. Baby Tooth managed to tangle herself in his beard by accident. He was careful of fragile wings and staff, thankfully, but Tooth was still left breathless when he released them and gently freed the smaller fairy. “Welcome, welcome. What brings you?”

“News, of course,” Tooth replied. “Jack I understand, but you can't possibly tell me the Sandman hasn't stopped by to tell you.”

“Of course, new spirit.” North crossed his heavily tattooed arms, and a thoughtful look crossed his face. “We do this different, yes? Especially after our friend Frost.”

Jack cocked his head. “Different how?”

The Guardian of Wonder gave him a pat on the back that nearly knocked him out of the air. “It means we're not leaving him three hundred years wondering which end is up. You speak with him, Tooth?”

“I have. He had a few questions that Sandy couldn't answer and Bunny apparently didn't. His memory seems to be intact, though.”

“Lucky guy,” Jack muttered.

“Not so much.” Tooth frowned. “It means he remembers who he left behind. It must be hard for him.”

“I wouldn't know,” he said with an offhand shrug.

“You are worried,” North said bluntly, watching Tooth with sharp blue eyes.

“Does it show?” Tooth forced a smile. “It's wonderful to have a new spirit among us, but... I'm wondering what it means.”

“It didn't mean anything when I came out of that pond,” Jack pointed out. “It took three hundred years for it to mean something, didn't it?”

“I know, but... it's been years since we last heard from Pitch.” The room seemed to darken at the mention of the name.

North's eyes narrowed thoughtfully. “If we have new spirit, it could mean he is returning. That is your thought?” Tooth nodded.

“Whoa, whoa, whoa.” Jack held up his hands. “Let's not put the sleigh before the reindeer, here. It's just a new spirit. I mean, that's big and it doesn't happen a lot, but it's not like we're inducting a new Guardian.”

“Jack makes good point,” North said. “But how long since he rose, this new spirit? Few days?” He shook his head. “Too early to tell.”

“So what do we do, then?” Jack asked. “I mean, do we have a process for this, or what?” He paused. “Okay, obviously you don't, or I would've heard about it centuries ago.”

“All we can do is wait, and help him where we can,” Tooth said softly.

“Hmm.” North stroked his beard thoughtfully. “We are spread. Bunny is busy with Easter. Sandy and you, Tooth, busy every night. Spirit of ice and snow has no place in California. I am here in my workshop. Preparations for Christmas happen year-round. Still. One of us ought to keep an eye on him, yes?”

“Already covered,” Tooth assured him. She smiled winningly. “If there's one thing I can do, it's delegate.” She turned to her little helper. “Think you're up for it, Baby Tooth?”

The tiny fairy threw a smart salute.


Attending one's own funeral was one of those great unknowns of the world. It was the kind of thing people wondered about, or rambled about when they were high, or wrote pretentious short stories about. So many questions – would anything go wrong? Would they cremate me or bury me? How many people would show up? What would they say about me? It was one of life's great mysteries.

Tadashi found himself somewhat underwhelmed as he watched his own wake. It wasn't mysterious, it was just sort of... depressing, really.

Luckily, Aunt Cass – bless her heart – had kept it small. His family was there, and his handful of school friends, and no one else. Part of him dreaded the thought of watching Hiro stand up and stumble through a speech about him, but his little brother never moved from his seat. Hiro sat hunched and staring at the ground, barely paying attention to the ceremony in front of him. He never made a noise, and his eyes stayed dry from start to finish.

Tadashi didn't find that hurtful, or surprising. Hiro did his crying at night, with no one for company but a dormant robot and a brother he couldn't even see.

The funeral was symbolic, anyway. The coffin was empty – the auditorium had burned so thoroughly that there was nothing left to bury, and any ashes he might have left were scattered with the ashes of the building. As Tadashi watched his aunt haltingly give a eulogy, he folded his arms tightly over his chest and felt his own solidness. None of these people knew, but he did – there was no body because he'd dragged it out of the ashes himself and was still currently using it. He ground his teeth and felt their sharpness as they slid against each other. Flames flashed in the back of his mind, phantom pains licked at him, and his lungs burned with the memory of smoke. His palms tingled, and he forced the half-memories back.

His friends paid their respects, each in their own way, unaware that Tadashi stood in the back watching. Gogo gave hers off the cuff with her hands shoved in her pockets and her eyes fixed on the podium. It was as mushy as Gogo ever got, short and to the point, and it would have been monosyllabic if it weren't for the fact that his name had three. Wasabi, on the other hand, read his word for word from a neatly typed sheet of paper. It was a full page, single spaced, which was impressive in itself. Wasabi's least favorite parts of the curriculum were filling out grant requests and writing essays for GE classes. Stringing words together was not what he did best, but there he was.

It was Honey Lemon who had to stop twice to cry a little. “You can do it,” Tadashi called over. “It's all right. One word at a time, Honey.” She finished, whether his words made a difference or not.

Fred surprised him. In a good way, of course. Fred was a liberal arts major with a loose tongue and the general demeanor of the slightly stoned, but as it turned out, he could throw together a prose poem like nobody's business. It left Tadashi feeling surprisingly touched. They all had, but that was a nice way to round it out.

If I had solid arms, I would hug all of you right now.

Hiro only sank lower and lower in his seat until it was over.

It rained in the cemetery, of course. These things always happened in the rain. If he hadn't been distracted by his little brother staring at his shoes like he was about to throw up on them, he would have been annoyed by the cliché. He was glad when that part was over – something about his own empty coffin slowly lowering into the ground made him feel sick.

His mind took him back to his prison of ash and rubble, the choking darkness that held him in place like concrete. He remembered wondering which end was up, swallowing ash every time he tried to breathe, until finally crawling his way to air and freedom.

Tadashi shuddered, and was quietly and morbidly thankful that the coffin was empty.

He walked beside Hiro on the way out of the cemetery, but he could hear his friends whispering behind him. Slowing his pace, he allowed them to come within hearing range before walking again.

“I'm so glad this was small.” It was Honey Lemon, her voice rough and quiet from crying. “I don't know if I could've gone up there with a lot of people watching me. I almost didn't finish as it was.”

“You did fine,” Wasabi assured her.

“Can you imagine if it hadn't been?” Gogo asked. “All the teachers falling all over each other to rave about his work ethic?” Tadashi grinned at the image.

“Man, he would've hated that,” Fred muttered.

A silence settled over his friends before Wasabi spoke again. “Speaking of...” There was a collective sigh, and Tadashi glanced over his shoulder to see the four of them exchanging grim looks. “Are you guys going?” Wasabi asked.

“I dunno... maybe.” Gogo's voice dropped close to a whisper. “Everyone's going to that one.”

Tadashi frowned, confused, and listened more closely. What else was there to go to? There was one more gathering back at home, but something told him they weren't talking about that.

“That's 'cause it's more public.” Fred said. “I mean, he was famous and stuff. I'm going, I kind of... have to. For reasons.”

“Oh, I hate this.” Honey Lemon's voice squeaked out in a frustrated, teary whisper. “I really, really hate this.

Wasabi hushed her, putting an arm around her shoulders. She turned her face, and his suit jacket caught her tears. “We know, Honey.”

“One funeral's bad enough, but-” She stopped, taking a deep, slow breath to calm herself. “I don't know if I can take two.”

A chill crawled up Tadashi's spine. Two funerals? Who else had died? Whose funeral would be public – what famous person would...?

Unless...

Oh, no. No, please no.

“You don't have to,” Gogo said quietly. “You weren't one of Callaghan's students, and even if you were...” She nudged Honey gently. “He'd understand.”

Tadashi stopped dead.

Callaghan.

Professor Callaghan's still in there.

He heard the words in his head, but he didn't recognize the voice. But that didn't matter, that was the last thing on his mind, because Callaghan – my teacher my mentor my friend my – Professor Callaghan was dead.

“Oh God.” For the first time, people were passing through him and he barely even felt them. “No, no... oh my God, no.” There were tears on his face, his chest shook and heaved with each breath, and it was like watching Wasabi drive Gogo out of downtown SF with a busted up face. He couldn't hold it in. It was his own funeral, within two stones' throws of his own tombstone, and Tadashi had to stop and cry like a child because Callaghan was dead and he hadn't even known. Callaghan had burned and the fire was still there, blazing in the back of his mind where he'd pushed and shoved so he didn't have to look at it, but it was different now because he knew – he knew that he wasn't the only one lost to that fire.

Phantom smoke choked him, but the rain continued to fall and chill the flames. Memories dragged at him again, taking him back to a different rainy day.

It was his own fault for working late. Weather forecasts had been blaring all week about a downpour. He'd been burning the midnight oil and had forgotten that his moped was in for repairs, Wasabi was cramming for a physics final, and he might actually need bus fare to get home. But by the time he was wandering groggily out of the lab, he realized that the sky had opened up overhead and it looked like he was going to be walking home through that.

For a single ridiculous moment in time, he was honestly about to cry. But he stood at the edge of the downpour, just underneath the last of the cover that the institute's outer eaves provided, imagined Gogo lightly smacking the back of his head and telling him to woman up, and got a hold of himself. It was just water, after all, and home was only about three miles away. He could manage it.

Three miles, and he would be at home, in the warmth of the cafe with a cup of cocoa and a change of clothes.

He had barely made it farther than a quarter of a mile through the streets of San Fransokyo before he was completely drenched. At the very least he'd put on a waterproof jacket before leaving the house. Unfortunately, said jacket had no hood and he didn't have an umbrella, either. He would have been worried about getting mugged if it weren't for the fact that he had absolutely nothing of value on him. Which was a shame, because he was a lot hungrier than he had thought because oh yeah, he'd forgotten to eat, too.

At the next gas station he reached, Tadashi went inside. He couldn't buy anything, but at the very least he could loiter for as long as social convention allowed. At least steel himself to go back out into the rain.

His shoes squeaked noisily on the floor as he stepped in, and he winced a little.

“Well you're out late, Mr. Ha – goodness, don't tell me you walked here from the university.” Tadashi almost jumped when he saw Professor Callaghan standing in line for the cash register with a diet Coke in hand.

After a moment of embarrassment, he felt warmer already. “Uh, heh, well... funny story...”

His professor sighed, shaking his head with unmistakeable fondness. “Lost track of time, did you?”

Tadashi shrugged, and the floor drew his eyes. He couldn't help grinning a little. “I may or may not have lost track of... everything.”

“Believe me, I know the feeling. Not something I can teach out of you, though – you've got to learn your limits on your own.” Callaghan raised an eyebrow. “Or at least remember an umbrella.”

“Yeah, no, I got that,” Tadashi said sheepishly. “Lesson learned.”

Callaghan laughed. “Oh, you say that now.” He moved forward with the line. “But what I can do is at least offer a snack and a ride home.”

“Oh, you don't have to-” Tadashi began instinctively, but Callaghan waved him off.

“It's no trouble, I promise. You're soaked and half-starved. For heaven's sake, at least have a bag of chips on me. I wasn't fibbing when I said all those things about your well-being.”

Tadashi ducked his head, grinning shyly. “Well, all right, if you insist.”

He compromised with himself by picking out a bag of gummy bears. He'd have a few and give the rest to Hiro.

In the safety of Callaghan's car, his professor turned the heater up and waved off Tadashi's apology for all the water on the passenger seat. They talked on the way, Tadashi only pausing to give directions, before Callaghan pulled up in front of the cafe.

“You could come in,” Tadashi offered as he opened the door. “My aunt would probably bury you in free pastries.”

Callaghan laughed aloud at this. “Some other time, Mr. Hamada. You have a good evening, you hear?”

“You too, Professor. Thanks so much for the ride.”

By the time Tadashi shook off the memory, he was alone and soaking in the downpour. His face was wet – with rain or tears or both, Tadashi didn't bother wondering. He wasn't going to get a ride home this time.

It wasn't fair. None of this was fair. It was bad enough that he was dead, but Professor Callaghan, too?

God, the world was just a little bit smaller without him.

And Tadashi would regret, for almost as long as he would his own absence, that Hiro would never know what it was like to learn under him.

The Man in the Moon had picked wrong. If anyone deserved to come back, it was Robert Callaghan.

As the rain fell over him, slowly drenching him more and more with each passing second, a thought passed through his mind.

Did he go in after me?

The flames blazed in their dark corner of his memory. Sick with fear, he buried them deeper and deeper in the dark.

 

Chapter Text

He lost track of time as he stood on the graveyard grass and and got steadily, thoroughly soaked. It was partly by design – maybe if he got himself drenched, he'd have less of a chance of setting something on fire by accident. He'd take catching cold over burning something any day. Provided he could still catch cold, when he was... dead? Ever since his conversation with the Tooth Fairy, Tadashi was becoming less and less sure that “dead” was really an accurate description for what he was.

In any case, he had that drying-off trick figured out, so it was a nonconcern anyway.

Something small, fast, and brightly colored dropped out of the sky into his line of vision, scaring him halfway to a second death. He ducked back, only to recognize the tiny, bobbing, very soggy fairy hovering like a hummingbird a few inches from his face. At least, he thought he recognized her. He'd seen two of them so far, and they seemed pretty much identical.

The fairy bobbed up to tug gently at his soaked hair.

“...Baby Tooth?”

She beamed at him. All the water on her made her look several shades darker and even a bit thinner with her feathers plastered to her. She shivered a little, and he couldn't help the tiny eep that escaped him when she ducked under his chin for shelter from the rain.

Tadashi glanced up, blinking against the drops falling into his eyes. “You're probably right,” he murmured. “I should get back, I guess...” He took her chirp as a sign of agreement. “Are you coming with me?”

She settled on his shoulder and held onto his blazer's lapel for balance. It was as clear an answer as he would ever get. Tadashi left the cemetery and caught the first bus he could find. It was nearly empty, not that it would have mattered much to him. There were only about four other people riding, and none of them saw or heard him.

Tadashi stood against one of the metal bars, shifting uncomfortably in his saturated clothes. “Um, you might want to back up a little,” he warned his tiny rider. “I don't know if this hurts other people or not.” When the fairy took to the air again, he saw confusion on her face. Closing his eyes, he repeated the drying-off trick that he had learned on his first day. Relief was immediate, and judging by the lack of a reaction from the other bus riders, the trick was just as invisible as the rest of him.

Baby Tooth stared at him, pausing only to rub her eyes before gaping some more. A look of delight crossed her face, and she bounced up and down in midair pointing to herself.

“I don't think that's a good idea,” he said. “Like I said, I don't know if it hurts other people.” The fairy gave him an utterly dejected look. Guilt gnawed at him, and he looked away. “I'm sorry. I just... don't really trust myself with testing fire right now.”

She cocked her head at him from side to side, looking less crushed and more worried. When Tadashi was silent for a few moments too long, she tugged gently on his bangs again.

“You're awfully worried.” Tadashi forced a smile. “Did your boss send you to check on me?” He was half joking, but the tiny fairy nodded vigorously at him. “Oh wow, she did – nice of her, I guess.” At least someone was looking out for him, apparently.

The fairy seated herself on his shoulder again, stretching up to pat his face and only reaching his jawline. When he didn't respond, she repeated the gesture insistently.

“What is it?” She hovered at eye level again, her expression equal parts curious and concerned. “I'm fine, really, just... okay, no, I'm not fine. I just... got some bad news. Again.” He smiled wryly. “You'd think I was used to bad news by now, but... man, this really hit me hard. Someone... important to me died.” He clenched his teeth for a moment against the twisting pain in his chest. Saying it out loud made it real. “The normal for-good kind of dying, not like me. And... he didn't deserve it, you know?” His voice broke a little, and his eyes watered, but he wiped away the tears before they fell. “I mean, I can't really say anyone deserves to die, but he... he was good. He was really, really good. I guess it's not just that he didn't deserve to die, but the world didn't deserve to lose him so soon.”

He felt a tiny hand rest against his forehead, just above his right eye, and gave his new friend a sad smile. “Thanks. It's nice to... talk to someone again. Feels like I haven't been doing that enough.” The fairy sat on his head, and he didn't mind the water in her feathers dampening his hair all over again.

They rode the bus back into downtown San Fransokyo. It wasn't quite the right line, and the stop nearest the cafe was still a ways away. Luckily, the rain had eased to a sprinkle by the time Tadashi stepped off with the much drier fairy hovering by his right ear.

“You don't have to stick around,” he said. “It's gonna be kind of boring. And depressing. I'm still figuring stuff out, so while I do I'm just sort of drifting.”

Baby Tooth chirped at him and followed, and he shrugged and went with it. He wasn't the Tooth Fairy, so he wasn't about to tell her what to do.

Navigating the rainy streets was a step by step process of hopping from shelter to shelter, whether it was a bus shelter or the awning over a storefront. He was a lot less wet than he could have been, and the fairy following him seemed to treat it like a game. If he were completely honest, the sight of her racing ahead and dodging raindrops did raise his spirits ever so slightly.

Their game finally got him to the front of the Lucky Cat Cafe. He paused outside the door to dry himself off again and let the fairy light down on his shoulder. Then he ventured inside to see how the mourners were faring.

It was a mistake, and he realized it the moment he was among them. He was met with a sea of dark clothes and even darker looks. It had all the gray, depressing fog of the funeral, and none of the romanticism of the concept. Intangible or not, Tadashi kept out of everyone's way. It was hard to look at anyone's face for very long. Baby Tooth kept a tight grip on his lapel.

He moved through the gathering like... well, like a ghost. Honey Lemon and Wasabi were with Aunt Cass, Honey with her hand on his aunt's shoulder. Fred joined them after a moment, looking utterly out of character in his neat dress shirt and tie. Gogo had wandered off to stand near the refreshment table and glare at anyone who looked like they might be about to talk to her. And Hiro...

Hiro was missing, at least until Tadashi went upstairs and found him sitting by himself at the top of the steps. With a sigh, Tadashi sat down beside him. There wasn't a lot of room, since Hiro didn't know to scoot over. He tried not to fidget, but it was difficult – again, it felt like he was sitting on something, but there was never anything he could move out of the way to get more comfortable.

Not that he would have been really comfortable even if he had.

“Can't say I blame you,” Tadashi muttered. “This is... really depressing. I'd probably hide too, if I were you. Hell, I'm me and I'm still hiding. That's how funerals are. I hope you don't remember Mom and Dad's. It was just as bad as this.” He frowned, wishing Hiro could hear him. “You know what really sucked about it, though? Being alone. I still had you, and I had Aunt Cass, and in case you don't remember, I was just... obnoxiously clingy. God knows I wish I could be now, but... I'm invisible.” Vaguely he registered Baby Tooth squeaking softly to him. “No one knows I'm here. And the only people who do are strangers and too busy to stick around. I'm by myself and I don't think I can do anything about it.” Tadashi raised his hand up to the fairy on his shoulder to acknowledge her, to make sure she knew he wasn't discounting her. When he was satisfied that she wasn't hurt, he looked to Hiro, and his heart sank in his chest. His little brother stared at the floor, hiding his face even though he wouldn't know there was anyone there to see it. “You, though. You have a choice. You don't have to be alone.” His voice caught in his throat. “I don't count anymore.”

Minutes ticked by, and Tadashi watched his brother for any change. Finally, without a word, Hiro got up, turned around, and climbed the last two steps. Wasabi came around the corner just in time to see Hiro disappear into their room.

Coming here had been less than useless. All he'd managed to accomplish by coming here was choking on more sadness. “C'mon,” Tadashi murmured to the fairy. Mind made up, he stood up and went back downstairs, past his gathered friends and family, down to the empty cafe, and back out into the drizzle.

He walked to clear his head. There was no itch of fire this time, just a leaden weight that dragged at his limbs and the pit of his stomach. He cupped his hand over Baby Tooth to shield her from the rain, and she shivered wetly against the side of his neck and chirped. When he didn't answer, she left the shelter he provided and hovered in front of his face again. As soon as she had his attention, she pantomimed smiling.

In spite of himself, he grinned. She was trying to cheer him up. “Thanks, I'm just... well, I just watched my own funeral and I found out my – my teacher died.”

Chirp? She settled on his shoulder again, but by the sound of it she was still listening to him.

“He was... a good man.” That didn't even cover it. “Whatever happened, he didn't deserve it. He just... he was behind me from year one, you know? There was this one time, in my second semester – I was having a bad day, for... reasons.” It wasn't hard to recall. As he spoke, he felt the rest of the memory come back to him.

He hadn't known at the time why Callaghan had decided to talk to him over lunch. He hadn't thought to ask, either – Callaghan was his main professor and adviser, after all. But instead of bringing up his major, or his grades in the classes that he taught, Callaghan opened with,“Abigail tells me you've been doing well in your Aerospace Engineering course.”

Sheepishly he recalled the minor heart attack he'd had upon realizing that his TA was none other than Robert Callaghan's only daughter. “It's mostly thanks to her being my TA. I'm good with coding, but a lot of this stuff is new to me. Flying's... not really my specialty.”

Callaghan raised an eyebrow. “It's not a mandatory course for your emphasis – there are alternatives to fulfilling the requirement.”

Tadashi shrugged. “I know, but...”

“What?”

He ducked his head, grinning. “My little brother thought it'd be cool.”

“Ah.” Callaghan grinned back. “How old, if I may ask?”

“Just turned twelve. And...” he added with a hint of pride, “He's in high school.”

“Impressive. Does he share your enthusiasm for robotics?”

“Well he strapped homemade rocket boots to the cat last month.”

Callaghan laughed. “Reminds me of Abby at that age. He sounds like a handful.”

At this, a frown crossed Tadashi's face before he could stop it. “Yeah, a little, I guess.”

His professor was silent for a moment, chewing at a mouthful of salad. “Has something been bothering you lately?”

This time he had the presence of mind to control his face. “Uh, no.”

Callaghan looked at him with concern. “I apologize, I don't mean to pry, you've just been... troubled lately. I was wondering if something was wrong.”

“It's nothing, really. I can handle it, it'll pass, just...” Something about the earnest way his professor looked at him made it easier and less awkward to explain. “My dad's birthday's coming up. I always get like this, I just worry about stupid stuff like whether or not I'm doing okay.”

“I see.” Callaghan nodded. “But I wouldn't call it stupid. It's entirely understandable.”

“It's been years, though. You'd think I would've-” He cut himself off, reddening.

“Stopped missing them?” Callaghan shook his head. “Not how it works, I'm afraid. All you can do is keep walking forward. Which you're doing, just fine if I'm any judge. But... try not to dismiss yourself that way. Your feelings are valid. Remember that.”

Tadashi nodded. “I'll try.”

Tadashi paused under the cover of a bus shelter. “I just... I miss him. And now I'll never see him again.”

Baby Tooth chirped softly, and the two of them watched the rain fall around them.

Chapter Text

 

He had to leave the house again weeks later. He needed a break, just to clear his head.

Hiro was in stasis, barely emerging from his room, only eating as much as he needed to keep breathing. The first day of the semester had come and gone, then the first week, then another, and Hiro still hadn't registered for school.

Maybe it made him a coward, but by the time evening rolled around Tadashi needed fresh air. He realized it in part because of Baby Tooth – the fairy, apparently fed up with the lack of activity and surplus of moping, sat on his head and chirruped obnoxiously until he agreed to get up and leave the house for a while.

He hadn't set foot on his college campus since the night of his death. And since he was so anxious to see Hiro get up and go to class for once, he might as well have a look at the atmosphere. So, with his little fairy friend sitting on his shoulder, he stepped outside and made his way to SFIT. He walked up the front steps of the Ito Ishioka building, pausing only when he saw the well-kept memorial that stood in the center. It was small – something told him it had been bigger in past weeks – but there were still fresh flowers around it, cards and messages and a couple of balloons, unlit candles, and two picture frames at its heart. He tried to ignore the twinge of pain in his chest when he saw Callaghan's photo smiling in one of them. Baby Tooth gave a questioning chirrup.

“Yeah,” he said simply. “That's him.”

Shaking his head, he continued up the steps to the tech lab. His tech lab, once upon a time, but those days were over. Once he was certain that no one was around to see the door move, he pushed his way through.

Stepping inside was like breathing in fresh air. For a moment he let himself imagine that the previous month had never happened. He was back in familiar territory – his lab would be just down the hall, his friends would be working on their projects there, and Professor Callaghan would be in his office with a cup of coffee and a sympathetic ear. Because right now, it looked no different from when it did then. The world could end, and the Ito Ishioka Robotics Lab would be the same.

Of course, then he stepped into his own lab and found it empty. Desks cleared, boards blank, old plans and schematics taken down, even Fred's off-color sticky note messages had been cleared away. No familiar red case in the corner. Nothing. They hadn't even set up a new student in here yet. It was a far cry from his own room above the cafe, with every solitary object left untouched until dust gathered.

He ventured back out into the main lab. Students everywhere were running experiments, recording tests, scribbling down results and revisions as they always had been. Even Wasabi was there, squinting through protective goggles as he fine-tuned his lasers. Honey and Gogo seemed to have gone home for the day, and even Fred was missing. But Wasabi was always working, frowning, perfecting each separate detail until he was satisfied.

Tadashi plucked the fairy out of the air when she ventured a bit too close to the lasers for his liking. “I... wouldn't do that,” he said nervously. Before he could explain further, Wasabi tossed through what looked like a shotput from the Phys Ed department. Slices of metal, rice-paper-thin, scattered on the other side. The fairy squeaked in alarm and hid behind his shoulder. “Yeah, that's why.”

Feeling puckish, he wandered over to Wasabi's meticulously-organized worktable and nudged his friend's car keys out of its outline. A little mean, maybe, but Wasabi's irritated grumbling when he eventually noticed was a nice little reminder that Tadashi still existed.

He lost track of time in the lab – some things never changed – and stepped outside to find that evening had fallen and it had started raining lightly. Baby Tooth twittered her annoyance, but followed Tadashi for the three miles home. They played at hopping from one shelter to the next, and Tadashi reveled in the distraction.

They were less than four blocks away when Baby Tooth abruptly stopped trying to race him to the next bit of cover. Tadashi splashed a puddle accidentally on the way to the awning in front of a Starbucks, sloshing water over his shoes. He looked up to make sure the fairy wasn't laughing at him, and had to look around to find her. She hovered out in the open, staring off to the distance with another curious look on her face.

“Baby Tooth?” The fairy didn't move to reply, nor did she even seem to notice that he was there. A frown spread across her face, furrowing her little brow. Without warning she took wing and raced off into the drizzle, away from the Lucky Cat. “Hey, come back!”

He thought about following her, but... well, he wasn't the boss of her, was he? If she saw something that interested her, then that was her business. Shrugging, he abandoned the rain shelter game and jogged the rest of the way to the cafe to wait for her.

Tadashi waited for a quarter of an hour before he got worried, and a half hour before the worry became too much.

She had left his side before, but never for very long. And she'd stuck around long enough that he sort of felt responsible for her, especially since her boss had been the most help so far. So with Hiro in bed early and Aunt Cass taking care of the last customers of the day, he went out to look for her. The back door shut behind him (again closing on something behind him that always, always wasn't there). It was still evening, but night had come early thanks to the heavy cloud cover. In the settling darkness he found his way back to the awning where the fairy had left, and cast about for any sign of the tiny, bright little shape.

Something was wrong.

The finer hairs on the back of his neck stood on end. He had felt something like this before – not quite fear, but a sudden awareness. This feeling had crept up on him the first night in the darkened hospital room, and he had turned around to find the Sandman's work creeping through a window. It was different now – colder, somehow, and it wasn't just from the rain.

He turned in a small circle, scanning for any sign of the golden sand, but he found none. The feeling only intensified, and Tadashi narrowed his eyes. He searched for anything, any movement that was out of the ordinary... there.

Further down the street, sand floated in the air in a thin wisp before all but vanishing. It was no wonder that he hadn't seen it before, because it wasn't gold; it was soot-black. As dark as it was, he might not have seen it without the help of street lights.

His hackles rose at the sight of it, and his palms tingled – not quite an itch, but getting there.

“Nightmare,” he murmured. “Out here? This early?” The Sandman hadn't even gotten there yet. The fact that sand – black sand, for that matter – was floating around without the Sandman watching it set him on edge. At a run, he reached the spot where the sand had vanished, just in time to spot more of it vanishing even farther away. Warily, Tadashi followed the dark traces again. There was no telling what he would find, or for that matter why he wanted to find it at all. But curiosity had him in its grip, urging him on.

As he ran unseen on the trail of the nightmare, something changed. Whatever it was, it was beyond him – beyond Tadashi Hamada the robotics engineer, the student, the young prodigy's elder brother. Too old for him to understand, too strong for him to resist, and too deep and buried and alien for him to consciously feel the beginnings of a shift. His senses sharpened, narrowed, and the vanishing traces of nightmare-darkness called to him like a homing beacon. He had to find it – needed to find it. As he ran, he followed the prickling chills along his spine and the steadily growing itch in his palms that meant, fire. He pressed his tongue against his teeth and found them sharp again.

The trail took him deeper and deeper into downtown San Fransokyo, but this time he paid little mind to the danger. He was not following a grieving friend and worrying for her safety. This time, it was only him and a Nightmare that he knew deep, deep down was not supposed to be there. As Tadashi ran through the crisscrossed streets and avenues, his sense of the darkness he was after only heightened.

It's close.

He slowed, feeling his pulse leap as high as his throat. Every step took him closer to, for all he knew, the threat of dying all over again. And yet here he was, chasing after it like a dog. Why was he doing this? Why was it drawing him in this way? Why was he here at all? Why had he, out of every other dead person in the world, been given the chance to come back? Why, why, why?

He was tired of “Why”s. He was tired of waiting around for someone to drop in and explain things to him.

A breeze swept by him, carrying rain into his face and noises to his ears. Tadashi cocked his head, listening intently. The sound was high-pitched enough to carry, and once it reached him it was unmistakeable. Squeaking, chirruping alarm calls.

The fairy.

He hesitated only a moment. The Tooth Fairy had sent her to watch out for him, but in doing so, whether she meant to or not, she had placed her in Tadashi's care, too. And as far as he knew, there was no one else in these dark, dirty alleys who was able or willing to help her.

There was only him. He was ragged, lost, and wet from his long run through the rain, but he was all there was.

Someone has to help.

Tadashi ran flat-out for the source of the noise. He rounded a corner, plunged headlong into the narrow alley, and skidded to a halt just a few yards in.

Baby Tooth was at the very back of the alley, cornered against the wall that blocked it off. She was chirping in distress, her wings fluttering without carrying her upward. It was easy to see why.

Above her, a creature reared up on its hind legs, striking out with powerful forelimbs. As Tadashi took in its distinct, powerful shape, he realized that it was some kind of great dark horse. Every inch of it was made of ink-black sand, from its shifting, waving mane and tail to the tips of its hooves. Nightmare, he thought absently. That's... obvious.

Snorting, the Nightmare brought both hooves down. They pounded the pavement where the fairy had cowered just seconds before. Only her speed had saved her from being crushed.

Tadashi didn't think. He just moved.

The change that had begun at the start of the chase – that old, powerful, deep, strange shift – fell into place.

One moment he was standing on his own two feet, tense and frightened behind the rearing Nightmare, and the next he crouched between the dark creature and its intended prey. Fire blossomed beneath him, hot and blinding and hissing in the rain. But it was different now – he was different.

Everything familiar was gone, replaced with something new and bright. No hands, no feet – four black paws planted on the wet pavement and glowing brightly with fire. A long, whiskered muzzle, lips pulled back from two rows of fangs. Yellow eyes, pupils narrowed to thin vertical slits. Wide, sharp ears turned back flat against his head. And behind him, raised like a banner, a plumed tail curled.

The Nightmare drew back, its glowing eyes wide and rolling in alarm. The flames burned brighter, casting light on the black sand swirling at its hooves. Tadashi opened his mouth, bared his sharp, white carnivore teeth, and snarled .

And then he realized what he was doing – what the flying hell was he doing – and he slammed back into himself with the force of a freight train. The fire went out, and he was crouching over the tiny fairy on his hands and knees, with a flat human face and flatter human teeth and a Nightmare in front of him that looked ready to try again.

Before it could, there was an explosion of yellow. Dazzled, Tadashi shut his eyes briefly. When he opened them, the last traces of black were vanishing from the horse's form, which now glowed gold. Seated on the horse's back was the Sandman.

“About time you got here,” Tadashi blurted.

The Sandman dismounted, and the horse went cantering away into the night. Golden threads of dream sand traced across the sky – not the busy tangle that Tadashi saw every night, but the beginnings of one. The Sandman helped him up, boosting his own diminutive height with a floating platform. Tadashi rose shakily to his feet.

At eye level, the Sandman was staring at him in a mixture of shock, delight, and enthusiasm. He was still polite enough to silently ask if he was all right, but there was no mistaking the look of bewildered excitement on his face. Tadashi turned back to Baby Tooth, who was cautiously taking to the air again. She flew up to his face, staring as if studying him. With one tiny hand she prodded his forehead experimentally. She looked awestruck .

“So, uh...” Awkwardly he looked from one wide-eyed face to the other. “Anyone want to tell me what just happened?”

The Sandman tugged at his sleeve to get his full attention. The Guardian was bouncing a little on his feet, grinning with uncontrollable glee. The sand swirled above his head again, taking the shape of a small, slim animal with pointed ears, a narrow face, and a plume-like tail. Cheerfully the Sandman pointed to it, and then to Tadashi.

“No, I got that, I...” Tadashi was reduced to stammering again. “I-I mean I was there, I felt it, a-and... I was a fox. I turned into a fox , like I'm some kind of... of...”

All at once he remembered his conversation with the Tooth Fairy, the only really good, really informative conversation he'd had since waking up buried in ash. A stray thought had come to him, brought on by the way her words had sounded in his head. He had brushed it aside, then.

Just a story, that's all. Never mind.

I wouldn't sell it short. After all, so am I .

The Sandman pointed again, to a spot just behind him. He turned and looked.

And there it was. Curling like a plume, red-gold and tipped with white, a soft brush of a tail hung from the base of his spine. He reached out and touched it, feeling silky fur on his fingertips and pressure on the unfamiliar appendage.

“Holy hell, I'm a kitsune.”

Chapter Text

 

The moon was full an entire week before it was time, shining a signal to the Guardians. Nearby in the night sky, the star Polaris blazed like a beacon. The message was clear: meet in the North .

The Sandman was the first to arrive in the North Pole, blazing in on a biplane of golden sand. North's doors were open, as always, and the Sandman came blazing up the runway tunnel in the opposite direction that it was meant to be used. He burst in, the plane exploding into glowing yellow fireworks as he landed gracefully on his own two feet. Elves scattered, yetis bellowed in surprise, and above the noise North's booming laughter rang out.

“Sandy! Always knowing how to make entrance!”

The Sandman bounded up, waving his arms in irrepressible excitement. Shapes formed over his head in a blur, appearing and vanishing before they could be identified. It was the closest the silent Guardian ever came to babbling.

Bozhe moi , Sandy, what is all the rush?”

Before the Sandman could slow down properly, the Tooth Fairy came zipping in with a squeal of glee. For a moment, she and the Sandman locked eyes, coming to a silent understanding in the space of two seconds. Once the moment had passed, they met in the middle and shared their excitement by fidgeting, hopping and hovering, and grinning like a pair of loons.

If anyone could interpret the Sandman's rapid-fire charades, it was the Tooth Fairy. The words out of her mouth barely qualified as half the conversation. “Baby Tooth told me – so you – and – I know , right? He – yes! Ohhh, I'm so excited I can't even – you're kidding! He finally saw it? Oh this is wonderful! ” Tooth clapped.

“I am missing something, I see,” North said dryly.

“We're always telling you you need to get out more,” Tooth teased. “I mean, year round. But anyway, I think we know what this meeting is gonna be abo-out.” She sing-songed on the last word, before sharing another excited grin with the Sandman. They high-fived at least four times in a row.

The three of them did not have long to wait before the room filled with the howl of wind and the patter of running footsteps. Jack burst into the room riding on a powerful gust, with Bunny sprinting on all fours beside him. The rabbit skidded to a halt with a triumphant whoop. At the same time, Jack landed and slapped the ground.

“First!”

The Easter Bunny blew melted snow from his whiskers. “Yelling it doesn't make it true, you prancing ice pixie, I was first!”

“You tied again, boys,” Tooth announced.

Jack stuck out his tongue. “Bleh. One day, bunny boy.”

“In your bloody dreams. No offense, Sandy.”

“One day you will knock down whole workshop with your games,” North said dryly. “And then, you will make me new one.” He gestured toward the sky, where the moon still shone bright enough to blot out the stars around it. “But that is later. For now, Manny has business.”

“I'm just thankful he waited til after Easter this time,” Bunny muttered. “Courteous of him.”

Jack shoved his hands in his pockets. “Yeah, but what for? I mean, I haven't seen any trouble lately. Any of you?”

“I have not,” North admitted.

“Aside from the new spirit, neither have I,” Tooth added. “And that was a month ago.” She paused, frowning a little to herself. “If the Man in the Moon called us here for what I think he called us here for, I'm mainly wondering why.”

The Sandman tugged at her wrist with a worried frown. Above his head, a moon and a horse took shape.

“Oh.” Tooth's eyes widened. “Oh, that's right.” To the others she explained. “There was a Nightmare loose the other day, before Sandy came in to make his rounds. Baby Tooth was there, and she told me all about it.”

For once, even Jack looked worried. “She okay?”

“A little shaken up, but still determined.” Tooth looked to the Sandman. “But – nightmares still exist with or without Pitch's control, don't they? It happens – sometimes children have bad dreams, right? It doesn't have to mean anything.”

Shrugging, the Sandman pointed up to the moon again. Apparently , his expression said, it did .

The moon blazed again, shining down upon the gathered Guardians like a searchlight. Tooth gasped, Bunny swore quietly, the Sandman drew back, and North muttered something in Russian.

Jack frowned, shading his eyes. “Wait, what? What is this? Guys, what's going on? What's he doing?”

“This'll be a first for you,” Bunny said grimly. “Just watch.”

The beam of light swept across the floor of the Globe Room before settling upon one of the many intricately carved panels. It was perfectly round, about twice in width as the Tooth Fairy's height, divided into five sections around a smaller circle at the center. Jack recognized it – it was the symbol of the Guardians, with one section representing each of them. Fascinated, he lighted down at his section, while the others took their own places around the circle. As they watched, the center circle glowed with moonlight, sank into the floor with a rattle, and opened. A pedestal rose up from beneath, carrying a large, translucent crystal.

“Whoa,” Jack breathed. “So is this...?”

“He's choosing a new Guardian,” Tooth whispered.

“But why? ” Bunny muttered. North hushed them.

Above the crystal, moonlight swirled like silver mist before settling into an iridescent figure. A young man with battered clothes and – strangely enough – the tail of a fox.

“This guy?” Bunny blurted. “This makes even less sense than Jack!”

Jack whipped his head around to glare at him. “Excuse you? Hey, let me remind you that I turned out just fi – wait.” He looked back at the shimmering image. “He has a tail?”

“Knew it!” Tooth whooped, punching the air.

There was a smug look on the Sandman's face as the sand formed a telephone above his head. The respective Guardians of Dreams and Memories shared a triumphant fist bump.

“No, seriously,” Jack broke in. “No one told me he had a tail. What's with the tail?”

“Kitsune,” Tooth whispered excitedly. “I told him.”

“But why? ” Bunny nearly roared. “What's going on? What brought this on? Look – I'm sure he's a nice guy and all, but the last time we got a new Guardian, it was because Pitch was trying to take over the world! And now Tooth and Sandy say there are nightmares running loose in the streets – so should we be worried?”

The five of them turned back to the moon. The beam of light seemed to hesitate, but before long, shadows took shape on the floor. A horse, rearing up on its hind legs, and below it a clock with hands that ticked slowly.

“Well that's cryptic,” Bunny muttered, sounding disgusted.

“Anyone care to translate?” Jack looked to Sandy, who looked to North.

“Nightmares,” North said decisively. “Is clear, that much. Nightmares, but... not Pitch? And... time. Is not happening yet. Only beginning. We have time.”

The shadows changed. One took the shape of the new Guardian, while the others fled to the sides and formed the figures of people. They surrounded him at a distance, never coming close.

“Oh.” The sound came from, of all people, Jack. He half-whispered it, watching the shadows with a thoughtful frown. “ Oh . No that makes sense. He's alone. I get it.”

“Care to share with the class?” Bunny said dryly.

Jack looked around at them, his hands in his pockets and curling into fists. “It's not just about fighting Nightmares or helping the children. I mean, that's part of it, but...” His eyebrows furrowed as he looked back at the shadow shapes on the floor. “There's two steps to it. He's supposed to help us, but first we're supposed to help him.” His mouth twisted into a wry little grin. “Basically, give him more of a prep course than I got.”

At this, North nodded. “I am thinking, is why Man in Moon chose early. Will give us time to answer questions, calm fears.”

“Still awfully quick, if you ask me,” Bunny remarked. “Poor mug just woke up a month ago, and all that. Least you got three hundred years to figure things out.”

“Pfft,” Jack snorted. “More like three hundred years to mess around, resent my lot in life, and figure out all the reasons why I didn't want to be a Guardian.”

“We've been doing better, this time,” Tooth said quietly. “What happened with you was a mistake, Jack. And we won't be making it again with him.”

“Oh, speaking of mistakes that you shouldn't repeat?” Jack pulled a wry face. “How about when we bring him in here, we skip the for-he's-a-jolly-good-fellow fanfare part, okay? Something tells me he's... not really gonna be in the mood.”

Bunny threw his paws up in the air. “Finally someone else said it. I've been telling you lot since the Dark Ages, it's awkward.”

North pouted. “If you insist. Maybe I could-”

“I don't think we're going to need to throw him in a sack, either,” Jack interrupted him dryly.

Santa Claus sighed deeply. “For Guardian of Fun, always you suck joy from everything. Fine.”

“By the way, anyone actually catch his name?” Bunny asked. “Because I didn't.”

Tooth's smile, as always, was pearl-white. “Tadashi.”


“Okay. Here goes.”

Tadashi wished he could use a video camera again. There was just something comforting about recording his process. He could just imagine it. I'm Tadashi Hamada, and this the twenty-eighth test of my magical fire powers. Mentally, he added, and the fox thing.

He stood on the wharf with a dishcloth he had stolen from Aunt Cass's kitchen and a tiny tooth-collecting hummingbird fairy hovering above his shoulder. Lowering himself to the ground, he reached down and dipped the cloth in the bay. He swirled it around to soak it thoroughly, before rising to his feet again with the dripping towel in hand. Baby Tooth inspected it curiously, cocking her head from side to side in confusion.

“Look, I know it's not flashy, but I have to figure this part out.” Tadashi wrung out the cloth. “It's just like robotics. Most robots aren't just built for strength – control is important, too. It's the same thing here. I can burn things, but it's finnicky. It's really important that at the very least I can restrain it. I've used the fire to dry myself off, but never anyone or anything else. So, like I said. Here goes.”

He held up the wet cloth, took a deep breath, and tried the drying trick again. This time, he kept his eyes open. Because of that, he saw the corners catch fire.

“Whoops!” Back into the bay it went, while Baby Tooth chirped in amusement. “Okay, let's try that again. Stop laughing.”

It took about five more tries before he finally managed to dry the towel without seeing fire, and another hour passed before he stopped blackening the edges. By the time he put the towel down, he was impatient and frustrated, and Baby Tooth was beginning to look bored. With a sigh, he slumped to the ground. Immediately he yelped and rolled onto his knees – he'd landed funny and sat on his tail again.

His tail.

As happy as he was that he could finally see what had been appearing and disappearing behind him since the night he died, it was a tail. A bushy, orange, white-tipped tail. It still disappeared and reappeared depending on his mood or whether or not he was thinking about it, but it was there and it was as real as anything else he'd come across. It had taken a bit of practice, since it was an entirely new body part with muscles he didn't recognize, but he'd figured out how to move it at will.

He hadn't yet gathered the nerve to try the full-body change again. Baby steps.

“God this is so weird,” he complained to the fairy who now seated herself on his head again. “Coming back from the dead wasn't bad enough, shooting flames out of my hands wasn't bad enough, and now... this. What is my life? Do I even call this my life? I died!”

Baby Tooth chirped sympathetically from her perch in a nest of his hair. He felt her pat him.

The sympathetic chirps turned to a sudden excited trill, and the feather weight of the fairy left his head as she took flight. “Huh? What is it?” Tadashi got to his feet with a frown. She sounded excited, not scared, so it probably wasn't another nightmare, but one never knew. He turned in a small circle, scanning intently for any sign of... well, anything.

He was looking out across the water when, just behind him, he heard a faint pop. He turned, tense and hesitant and just beginning to feel the tingle of fire in his palms.

One can never really get used to the sudden unexpected arrival of a giant, armed rabbit. As soon as the Easter Bunny leaped out of the freshly-conjured hole in the concrete wharf, the fight or flight response was instantaneous. Tadashi, choosing flight, yelled out, sprang back on instinct, and realized his mistake too late. His jump took him over the edge of the wharf, and he plunged into the cold, salty water.

He surfaced to the sound of snickering, muffled through the water in his ears. Irritated and embarrassed, he reached for the edge of the wharf to pull himself up.

Instead of his hand, he saw a slim black foreleg stretch up to paw at the concrete. He tried to spit out water, but a fox's snout wasn't the right shape for it. He didn't have cheeks anymore.

Oh, perfect.

His soaked tail dragged at him like a dead weight, and his legs were too short to reach over the wharf. Opening his jaws, he managed a watery yip.

The Easter Bunny's head emerged over the side, first the long ears and then the wide-eyed, shocked face. Baby Tooth was hovering beside him, scolding and batting at his ears. Kicking his weird hind legs to stay afloat, Tadashi did his best to glare at him.

The rabbit lost it. He was laughing so hard that Tadashi was afraid he might fall in after him. Still, the rabbit reached down with one furry gray paw to grab the scruff of his neck and haul him back up to dry land. Tadashi crouched, his soaked fur clinging to him, and tried to stop shivering. The Easter Bunny went back to clutching his stomach and laughing helplessly.

Tadashi marched up to him, as close as he could get without touching him, and shook himself off.

Ackpth – hey stop! Stop it!” It stopped the laughing, which Tadashi was grateful for. Emboldened, he tried the drying-off trick again. It worked – the water vanished from his fur, leaving him comfortably dry again. The Easter Bunny saw this and scowled. “You're kidding me. You can dry off with a blink, but you shook it off on me first?”

Tadashi sneezed.

“So, uh... love to chat, but I'm actually here on business. I'm here to – I... look, is there anyway you could change back? There are reasons I'm... not really...” He pulled a face, nose twitching. “...comfortable with this.”

Confused, Tadashi cocked his head. Not comfortable with this? If anyone should be uncomfortable about this, it was the one who kept turning into an animal by accident. Besides, that was rich coming from the giant rabbit.

Giant rabbit. A giant rabbit who was currently talking to a fox.

It was only a hypothesis, but it would only take a quick test. Tadashi grinned. Well, “grin” was a bad term for it. A fox's mouth weren't really made for smiles, but at the very least he could pull his lips back and show his teeth in a vague imitation of one.

The rabbit froze, staring fixedly at him. “All right, knock it off. Stop that, you're doing it on purpose. I'm serious!” Tadashi took pity and put his teeth away. “Thank you. Look, I came here to find you. There's people who want to have a chat, myself and Sandy and Tooth included. It's really bloody important and we've wasted enough time as it is, so just – change back and follow me, all right?”

That was easier said than done. For all the times he had changed shape like this – all two of them – he had done so without thinking about it. He hadn't made it happen, it'd just happened, so if there was a process to it, he had no idea. That time with the nightmare must have been a breakthrough, though. Ever since that first change, he'd been able to see the tail, he'd even gotten marginally less jumpy with the fire. It could mean he had more of a handle on it now. So maybe if he tried...

Tadashi concentrated for a few seconds, before he realized that he had absolutely no idea what he was doing. Changing shape? He had absolutely no frame of reference for that. What was it supposed to feel like? Was there a process for this? Did he have to be standing a certain way, or...?

Self-consciously he looked at the rabbit again, and – well of course he looked amused. “Havin' a bit of trouble there?”

Tadashi bared his teeth again.

“All right, all right, no need to get testy.” The rabbit crouched by him. “Look. Thing you need to know about this is, it's not a mind thing. It's no puzzle. There's no step one, step two, profit. Half of it's instinct and the rest is makin' things up as you go.” Tadashi stared at him, surprised. This was the most help the rabbit had given him – well, ever. Maybe it helped that Easter had been over for weeks. “What's more,” the rabbit went on, “whatever powers you have, they aren't separate. It all comes from the same place. Now I've heard you've been practicing with the fire thing – good on you, there – so wherever that comes from, so does this.” He paused, looking thoughtful for a moment. “Does help if you're in the right frame of mind. I dunno, think happy thoughts or something. 'S your power, so figure it out.”

Yeah that's what I've been trying to do. Tadashi tried again, with Baby Tooth chirping encouragement. He thought about fire, but that only succeeded in making the dish towel burst into flame. The rabbit almost dove down his hole again before Tadashi quickly put it out. He tried again. Right frame of mind, right frame of mind. What was the frame of mind he wanted if he was trying to be human?

He almost snorted. Well. Finally he had a question with an obvious answer.

Tadashi closed his eyes and thought of Hiro. His little brother's face was burned into his memory – wide eyes, messy hair that hadn't seen a comb or a pair of scissors in too long, and a wide, gap-toothed smile. I wouldn't have made it this far if it weren't for you. So... thanks for not giving up on me. He opened his eyes, looked down, and saw two hands.

The Easter Bunny looked smug. “See? Easy.”

“Yeah, uh, thanks for that.” Tadashi stood up, wavering as he found his balance on two legs again. “That's probably the first time anyone's given me real advice on how to use all this.”

“Hmph.” The rabbit smirked at him. “Helps that you didn't set my ears on fire again.”

Tadashi winced. “Sorry about that. Um... do you have a name?”

“Just call me Bunny.”

“Right. So... Bunny, you said someone wanted to talk to me?” He glanced around. “Are we meeting somewhere, or what?”

“You could say that.” The rabbit reached into a pouch attached to his belt and pulled out a small, glowing blue ball.

Tadashi eyed it warily. “What's that?”

“Our ride. I've always wanted to do this.” With a twist of his paw, Bunny tossed it on the ground, where it promptly exploded. This time, Tadashi resisted the urge to jump back – no need to risk ending up in the drink again. Besides, there was nothing to fear. At its tallest height, the explosion froze in place, and Tadashi saw that it was not an explosion, but a glowing doorway.

“Now you're thinking with portals,” he muttered.

“What?”

“Nothing. So, I just walk through?”

“Now you're getting it. C'mon, they're all waiting.” The rabbit snickered. “You're gonna love this, trust me.”

Weeks ago, he would have had trouble with that. But after the rabbit's helpful advice, Tadashi was feeling a bit more open-minded. “Will it take long?”

The rabbit raised a furry eyebrow at him. “You got somewhere to be?”

He'd left Hiro to come down and practice. But if trends continued, well... Hiro wasn't going anywhere.

At all.

Maybe they can help. He was only half knowledgeable of who “they” were. But by the looks of things, he didn't have a lot of options.

Swallowing his nervousness, Tadashi followed him through.

Chapter Text

Stepping through the portal was... strange. The color and shimmery quality reminded him a little of Wasabi's plasma blades – and God forbid anyone walk into those – but that was where the similarities ended. Wasn't as terrifying as it would have seemed. Sort of... buzzy.

His feet touched on solid, smooth floor on the other side. Spots of color blotted out his vision, leaving him half-blind and blinking for a moment before the world around him materialized.

Tadashi could almost hear the faint thud of his jaw hitting the floor.

It was... well, to be completely honest it was either like nothing he had ever seen, or a bit like several somethings he had seen before combined into something new and beautiful. It reminded him of an ancient, freshly restored temple at the same time as it brought to mind a library, a throne room, and some kind of ceremonial hall. The entire room took up two floors, connected by polished wooden staircases and lined with bookshelves stretching high above his head. Pillars towered over him, reaching to a ceiling of polished wood and glass. All around, glowing little spheres floated through the air to light up the entire room. A few steps took him off the smooth stone floor and onto a plush, brightly colored carpet that led to the centerpiece of the place: a massive roaring hearth, and above it a tapestry.

“Unbelievable.” The word left him in a breath.

Behind him, the rabbit laughed. “Turn around, kid, you haven't seen the half of it.”

Tadashi obeyed, turning to find that the portal that had brought him here was gone. His breath caught in his throat – he'd been wrong. The fireplace and tapestry were not the centerpiece of the room.

No, not even close.

A few yards directly behind him, the floor ended in a balcony and the room beyond opened out. It was a little reminiscent of those observatories with the massive telescopes at the center, except there was no telescope at the center, but a massive globe sprinkled liberally with tiny lights. Beyond the balcony it stretched just as far downward as it did up, if not farther. He could see endless levels below, each one alive with activity. Some of the figures were small, too small to see well, while others were bulky and shaggy. It was too far to see what they were doing.

Bunny was standing at the balcony, alongside two others. They were both faces he recognized – the Sandman and the Tooth Fairy, who were watching him with broad grins. Baby Tooth hovered close to her leader.

“Where – um.” His voice cracked, and he cleared his throat. “So where are we?”

Tooth opened her mouth to reply, but Bunny held a paw in front of her face, cutting her off. “Wait a sec. He hasn't met him yet.” The rabbit smirked. “I want to see this.”

“See what?” was all Tadashi managed to say before he was promptly embraced from behind by someone with at least a foot and several dozen pounds on him. It was a little like a hug from Baymax, if you added solid bone structure, a few layers of fat and muscle, and a slight disregard for the limits of the human ribcage. The breath left his lungs with a faint squeak.

“This is him then!” a voice boomed. “Welcome! Is wonderful to finally meet you! Thank you for bringing him, Bunny.”

The rabbit threw a straight-faced salute.

“I think he needs to breathe, North,” Tooth said dryly.

Tadashi tried not to sigh too loudly with relief when he was released from the bear hug. Cautiously he turned around and took in the rosy cheeks, long white beard, and round stomach of the man before him, and realized that this was a face he recognized, too. Suddenly the architecture didn't seem so impressive.

Joudan ja nai yo,” he blurted.

“That's a new one,” he heard the rabbit say.

Towering over him, jolly old Saint Nicholas winked broadly at him and replied, with a polite nod and a heavy Russian accent, “Irasshai.

“You're Santa Claus,” he half-whispered, awestruck.

“Is true.” Father Christmas gave him a clap on the shoulder that almost knocked him flat. “And you are Tadashi Hamada.” With that the jolly old elf stepped past him toward where the other three waited. “Very interesting letters I receive from you. Years ago, maybe you forget. But I do not forget child so memorable.”

Tadashi's mind was still floundering a little. Forget about Robert Callaghan, this was the most star-struck he'd ever been in his life. “Uh, what?”

“Later, later I tell you. For now, business.” Kris Kringle turned around and held out a large hand. “Other three you have met. I am Santa Claus – or Nicholas North. You may call me North.”

Tadashi shook his hand, still struggling out of his daze. “Um. Hi.”

“Is good to meet you – where is Jack?” North released his hand and glanced around, frowning slightly.

“Seriously?” Bunny groaned. “He knew this was coming, where'd he run off to this time?”

Tooth zipped around in a small circle. “That's funny, he was just here a few minutes ago.”

Before Tadashi could ask who Jack was, the Sandman waved his arms for attention and fashioned an upward pointing arrow. The others, Tadashi included, followed the arrow to an opening in the roof, high above the globe.

Bunny shook his head. “Went off for to fly about again, did he?”

“Has no patience,” Santa Claus remarked. “Short attention span. Like... squirrel.”

“Well, you know Jack, always active,” Tooth said with a touch of fondness. “I think he'll be back in about – right now, actually. Here he comes.”

Sure enough, Tadashi could see a rapidly growing shape beyond the opening in the roof. Something – or someone – plummeted straight through, only to pull out of the nose-bleeding dive, shoot over their heads, and skid to a halt just short of a carpet.

“Typical,” the rabbit snorted. “You spend the bloody night, and you still manage to be late.”

The newcomer straightened up, standing barefoot and leaning slightly on a tall, hooked staff. “Well you know, Bunny, I gotta be me.” Chirruping in delight, Baby Tooth raced through the air to him and zipped around his head with a squeaky, musical greeting. “Baby Tooth! How've you been? Oh hey, he got here.” Frowning, he leaned to the side, craned his neck, and stared at the space just behind Tadashi. “Wait, wasn't he supposed to have a tail?”

Tadashi was immediately struck by how young he was – or at least how young he looked. He couldn't have been much older than Hiro, and he certainly looked years younger than Tadashi. In spite of that, his hair was stark white. His skin was pale, his eyes bright blue.

The Easter Bunny stepped forward with his hands – paws – on his hips. “Look, Jack, I know you wanted to skip the pomp and circumstance, but you didn't have to go and be late just for him.” The rabbit's voice dripped sarcasm.

The boy dusted powder snow out of his hair. “Deal, bunny boy, this is how I roll out the welcome wagon.” He turned to Tadashi with a grin and a wave. “Jack Frost. How's it going?”

“Um.”

“Yeah, I figured.” He turned to North. “So, you guys tell him yet?”

Finally, Tadashi found his voice again. “Tell me what?” They were all looking at him now, and the initial awe was starting to wear off and turn into nervousness. “I mean, why am I here? Are you...?” He looked to the Tooth Fairy. “Are you the, uh, Guardians?”

“Glad Tooth filled you in,” Bunny replied brusquely. “Guardians of Childhood, that's us.”

“Um, okay.” That kind of made sense. From what Tooth had told him about the Guardians, it didn't surprise him that Santa Claus would be a part of it. “So... what do you guys need from me?”

North stepped forward. “Is extraordinary news,” he said, a bit grandly. He spread his arms. “All this – is a lot to take in, yes?”

Tadashi could only nod.

“Would not have called you here if not important,” North went on. “Is not every day I let someone new into Workshop, and–”

Jack Frost stepped in front of him, his face innocently blank. “You're here 'cause you're in, newbie.”

WHAT?” Tadashi hoped he was imagining the two octaves his voice jumped.

“Oh hey,” Jack said, glancing behind him again. “There's the tail.”

North let his arms drop to his sides. Wordlessly, he turned and looked at Jack. The latter smiled back with a vague sort of innocence. For a moment, Santa Claus looked almost injured. “I had speech prepared.”

Jack stuck out his tongue. “Bleh. No speeches. Speeches are boring.”

Excuse me.” Tadashi broke in. Stares from the whole room made him shrink back again. He felt the tail – his tail – brush against his leg. Overwhelmed, he covered his face with his hands and tried to remember what breathing felt like. “I mean, um. W-what do you mean, 'I'm in'? Like...”

With a long suffering sigh, Bunny stepped in to help. “What the prancy winter pixie means is exactly what you think he means.”

“You're a Guardian!” Tooth burst out, beaming. “You're one of us now!”

“Since when?”

Jack shrugged. “Since the guy upstairs decided we needed you.”

Who?!

“He's talking about the Man in the Moon,” Tooth said soothingly. “It's daytime still, so he won't be out yet.” Tadashi let his hands slide down his face, and she flew closer with an encouraging smile. “But don't worry! He's very wise – he hasn't steered us wrong yet, I promise.”

“Yeah but-” Tadashi's voice was muffled by his hands, so he dropped them to his sides. “Look, I don't – I was alive weeks ago. I barely know what you guys are. I mean, I can't–” His voice caught in his throat. “Don't I get any say in this?”

“Look, we aren't saddling you with responsibilities up front,” Bunny spoke up, bluntly reassuring. “Don't worry, we learned a while ago that's a bad idea. But you've been picked, mate. You're needed, so you're in. That's how it works.”

“Needed?” Tadashi echoed. “Look, I – I'm sorry, it's just, whatever you need, I don't think I can help you. I mean come on.” He stepped back. “It's – it's you guys. Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy and everyone. There's not a kid in America who doesn't know who you guys are. Okay, maybe not Jack Frost, that's more of a European thing–”

“Thanks,” Jack said dryly.

“Look, the point is, I'm just – not what you're looking for. Trust me.” Oh God, that was pity. The Tooth Fairy was staring at him, and that was definitely pity on her face, no thank you. Tadashi looked away. “I know robotics. Coding stuff. I know science. And ever since I died, nothing makes sense to me anymore. I'm still figuring out what I can do, but – what?” He spread his hands. “It's pretty much nothing. I can't send entire cities to sleep, or visit every house in the entire world to leave presents in one night. Sorry, but you're mistaken.”

The silence that followed was deafening. The floor drew Tadashi's eyes and he kept them glued there, too afraid to look up. He wasn't sure what would have frightened him more – seeing them agree, or seeing them disagree.

It was the Tooth Fairy who broke the silence. “North,” she said. “Didn't you say you remembered something about him?” Tadashi looked up, startled. The fairy smiled brightly at her fellow Guardian. “Something about letters?”

North laughed. It was just as jolly and booming as legends would have one believe. “Years ago, but I remember like yesterday. Week before Christmas, I get letter – 'Dear Santa, I can't think of what I want for Christmas. What do you want for Christmas?'” Tadashi tried to stammer out an embarrassed explanation, but North slung a massive arm around his shoulders and swept him closer to the others. “You know how many children ask what I want for Christmas? Is not a lot. Then year after, you write and tell me give all your presents to little brother.” North jostled his shoulders. “And that is when you are child only.”

Wow.” Jack crossed his arms. “Perpetual Nice-Lister, then?”

“Top of list. If he believe just one more year, he would have broken record.”

Jack whistled, staring at Tadashi. “I might actually have to hate you on principle.”

The Tooth Fairy elbowed him none too gently. “Jack. Be nice.”

“I'm a Naughty List repeat offender, Tooth. That's a lot harder than you make it sound.”

Tadashi squirmed, embarrassed. “So I was a weird kid. What does that prove?”

“It proves you have at least one thing in common with the rest of us,” Tooth replied. “It's not much, I know, but it's a start.” She hovered closer. “You asked me once why you were still here. What you were supposed to be doing. Well, this is your answer.”

Tadashi tried not to sigh with relief when North finally released him. His palms were itching, the heat under his skin flaring with anxiety. “I'll be honest, now I have like fifty questions instead of just the one.”

“As long as we're being honest,” Jack broke in. “Can I just say – man, it is great to not be the new guy anymore. I mean, really great.” He turned his now slightly manic grin upward. “Finally, someone I can lord it over. Thank you.”

“Hello to you too, senpai,” Tadashi said dryly.

“I have no idea what that means!” Jack said brightly, and patted him on the shoulder. There was a faint sizzling noise, the smile vanished, and he shot upward with a yelp.

“Sorry! What?” Tadashi jumped back a little, staring up as Jack Frost perched on the second floor banister and shook out his hand. “What is it?”

“Ow, ow, that was really hot.” The Guardian nursed his hand and glared at the others. “No one told me he was actually made of fire, geez!”

“That's 'cause you're always dancing around in the snow, ya mug!” Bunny yelled up. “No one tells you anything! You're like the Rudolph of real life!”

North raised a bushy eyebrow. “Bunny, there is Rudolph in real life.”

“Look, I'm really sorry,” Tadashi called up to him. One thing at a time. Any more and my head will spin. “I'm still kind of figuring this stuff out. Also I'm... pretty sure I'm not actually made of fire? I'm just kind of nervous, and it comes out on its own when that happens, but I'll try not to let it happen again.” He cringed a little. “Anyway, sorry again.”

Halfway across the room, he spotted the Sandman nudging the Tooth Fairy and flipping through a series of sand charades too quick for him to pick up. The fairy nodded ruefully in response. “Yes, I was a little afraid of this, too.”

Tadashi felt his face heat – with embarrassment, not fire. “What? Why?”

“He's Jack Frost, mate,” Bunny explained, jerking his thumb upward to the sulking spirit in question. “Spirit of winter and all that. He's ice, you're fire, we kind of figured you'd butt heads.” He looked thoughtful. “Should've bet money on it. Ahh, wasted chance.”

Tadashi tried not to splutter. “Wh – no, I'm not butting anyone's head, I swear.” He looked up again. “Really, I'm sorry. I didn't mean to burn you.”

“Will you quit apologizing?” Jack snorted. “That's four times now, I counted. Look, you messed up – whatever. Do you brown-nose this much to everyone?”

“Jack!” Tooth glared at him.

“What? He is!”

Still tense from the barrage of revelations, Tadashi bristled at the scoff in Jack's voice. He couldn't help it – he had years of experience with wrangling one mouthy kid, and habit wasn't about to let him cave to another. He gave him a withering look. “Yeah, well, last I checked, being civil doesn't cost me anything. So, deal with it.”

Jack rolled his eyes heavenward. “Maybe I'm a hypocrite for asking, but is this guy real?”

“What d'you think, North?” Bunny asked cheerfully. “Popcorn?” There was a long-suffering look on the Sandman's face, and the sand above his head formed a waving flag. “Not sure that works unless it's white, Sandy.”

In the meantime, Tadashi took a moment to struggle with the frustration threatening to bubble to the surface. Calm down, he thought, irritated with himself. He's just mouthing off, it's nothing. You've gotten worse lip from Gogo on your birthday, so nut up. Or better yet, woman up. He imagined the words from Gogo's mouth, along with the friendly smirk she'd give him and the snap of bubble gum. His annoyance faded, much to his relief – the last thing he needed was to lose his temper and his control of the fire.

Uggh,” Tooth growled, and immediately flew between him and Jack. “Can we stop this now? We didn't bring him in to argue. You know that, Jack.”

Jack averted his head, scowling with what looked like embarrassment. Tadashi fidgeted guiltily. “Sorry about that.” Eager to change the subject, he turned back to North. “So, uh – look, I still say I'm not cut to be... what you're looking for. But on the off-chance that I am, what now?”

“Hmm.” North furrowed his brow thoughtfully. “Is good question.”

“You don't know the answer?” Tadashi asked, dismayed.

“Well-”

“Pretty much no,” Jack broke in. He was sitting on the bannister now, swinging his legs idly. “Bad news is, we're all clueless. Good news is, we're clueless together.” He ticked things off on his fingers. “Right now you've got no believers, no legends about you, no holiday, no traditions, and no turf. You're pretty much starting from scratch.”

“Well-” Tadashi began, and paused.

Bunny's ear twitched. “Well what?”

“Maybe not... completely from scratch,” he said hesitantly. “I might have a legend. Might.”

“Oh?” North looked interested. “Do tell.”

Tadashi felt his tail whisk behind him. “I think I might be a kitsune. Or at least something like it.”

Bunny, on the other hand, looked bemused. “What's a kitsune?”

“Japanese fox spirit,” the fairy whispered to him. “Explains the tail.”

“There are different types,” Tadashi went on. “Depends on what their power is. There's a fire type, so that's me. They're also split into zenko and nogitsune, but – I dunno, that's weird because you bring in celestial power and the god Inari and I don't think that really applies to me. I just control fire and turn into a fox.”

“Wait, he does?” Jack stage-whispered.

Bunny grinned knowingly. “Oh yeah. He definitely does.” The Sandman nodded vigorously.

“It's not a perfect explanation, though,” Tadashi went on. “Kitsune are supposed to have this thing – it's called a hoshi no tama, it's like their soul or something, but it's a little pearl or jewel that they carry around. And I don't seem to have one, so... I don't know. Maybe I don't have anything to do with yōkai at all.”

“English!” Jack called down. Tooth zipped up to the second floor to whisper an explanation in his ear before returning to the others.

“Doesn't have to fit a hundred percent,” Bunny assured him. “I mean, look at me. I'm a Pooka. Do I look like an Irish horse? That's the thing about legends, see? It's like that game Telephone. They get told so many times that they end up all twisted, so you start off with something like 'Pass the salt' and you end with 'Your mum's a turnip.' That's how stories work.”

“In any case, it's a start,” Tooth pointed out. “Besides, none of us instantly knew what we were meant for, either. We'll help you, Tadashi. It'll be okay.”

With the Tooth Fairy smiling at him, it was impossible not to smile back in spite of his gnawing uncertainty. “Thanks. Um... mind if I change the subject?”

“Yes?” she said hopefully.

Tadashi turned on his heel and pointed at the massive globe. “What's that thing? It looks like some kind of tracking device.”

“Of sorts,” North replied. “Come, come closer.” Curious, Tadashi stepped to the balcony railing. The globe rotated slowly, and from the angle he couldn't tell if it was suspended from anything. Almost every land mass was dotted with lights. In the larger continents, the lights were so clustered together that Tadashi could barely see the individual ones. “Every light is child who believes.”

“Believes – in you?” Tadashi looked at him. “Tooth said they could only see you if they believed in you.”

North nodded. “Is true. If they stop, light goes out. If new child comes, hears stories, believes, then new light appears.”

“That's... that's a lot,” Tadashi murmured. “Um... just speaking hypothetically, what would happen if every light went out?”

A grave look crossed North's face. Movement from the Sandman caught Tadashi's attention, and he looked. The sand formed several figures, one in the shape of each Guardian. Slowly, the images dissolved into formless sand again.

“It's not just a matter of being seen, for us,” Tooth explained. “We'd lose our powers, too.”

“Is catch to becoming Guardian,” North added. “If Guardian, then power depends on belief. Lose belief, then lose power. Become... like ghost.”

Tadashi laughed nervously. “Not – not much of a loss for me. That's... pretty much what square one was, actually. The fire's kind of an unwanted bonus.”

“Unwanted?” Jack echoed. “What do you mean 'unwanted?'”

“I mean I was perfectly happy without it.” Tadashi's voice came out more terse than he intended.

Jack slipped off the bannister to hover in midair, his staff balanced in the crook of his arm. “Beats being a ghost floating around, doesn't it? I mean – come on, you shoot fire out of your hands.”

“Yeah, exactly,” Tadashi retorted. “I shoot fire out of my hands. That is every level of unsafe.”

“Yeah, but it could be fun.”

“But it's unsafe!” Deja vu crept on him – he'd had a discussion very much like this, many times before. The last time, he'd shouted it over his shoulder on the back of a speeding moped.

Jack's flippant attitude didn't help. “So's pretty much everything that's not, y'know, boring.” He shrugged carelessly.

It was too familiar not to wear at Tadashi's patience. “I'm pretty sure jumping off a bridge isn't boring, either,” he said testily. “Do you tell kids to do that?”

A flash of temper on Jack's face told him he'd struck a nerve. “Excuse me?”

“Look, it's unsettling. Kind of like the rest of... pretty much everything now. No offense,” he added, glancing to the others.

“None taken,” North said cheerily. Bunny shrugged, Sandman held up a thumb's up, and Tooth... looked worried.

Jack, on the other hand, looked incredulous. “Seriously? Look, I get being weird about the whole 'surprise, you're a Guardian' thing, and I mean that – no one gets that better than me. But everything? Come on – you're immortal now and you have magic powers. What more could you want?”

Tadashi bristled. “I can think of a lot of things I could want, and I'm never going to get any of them. Have you forgotten that I literally died to get here?”

“Came back, didn't you?” Jack pointed out.

“I had a life!” Tadashi stepped forward, temper rising, but stopped himself. This was devolving into an argument – scratch that, it had already devolved, and now he was needlessly stretching it out. He pulled himself back a little, shut his mouth, and tried to calm himself down. He registered the itch in his palms again, and balled his hands into fists to keep it back. “I need to think. About this.” He glanced at North. “Can I go back? I need to check on things and just... think.”

North sighed. “Yes. I understand. Is much to take in, perhaps is better if you do elsewhere.” From his pocket he produced another sphere, identical to the one the Easter Bunny had used. He threw it down, creating another doorway. “One more thing.” He pulled out a second sphere and held it out. “When you are ready, throw snow globe. Will lead you back here. We'll keep an eye out.”

Tadashi took it. It felt cool in his hands, and up close it looked like a faintly glowing snowglobe. “I will. Thanks.” He glanced to each of them in turn. “Everyone.”

He stepped through, and found himself alone in San Fransokyo again.


Once Jack was within reach, Bunny cuffed him on the back of the head. “Nice going, deadhead.”

Jack scowled. “He started it.”

“Could have gone better,” North muttered.

“Seriously.” Bunnie swatted him again. “Whatever happened to 'he's alone, let's help him' then, eh? Instead you practically jump down his bloody throat.”

“I can't explain it, okay? Something about him just...” Jack scowled. “I dunno, he pushes buttons without even trying.”

“I thought he was very pleasant,” Tooth said.

“Exactly! He's too pleasant! Every other word's sorry and he's nothing but gloom and doom and 'ugghhh why am I here?' It's annoying!” Jack snapped his fingers. “I've got it. He's a killjoy. Doesn't know how to have fun. Maybe he'll be the Guardian of Snore. Oh wait, we've got one already.”

Sandy gave him a withering look.

“If my experience is anything to go by, he'll grow on you,” Bunny said, in an over-cheerful voice. “Like that gross moss that gets everywhere. That's what you did.”

“So what now?” Tooth asked, brightly enough to drown out the bickering.

“Now, we wait,” North sighed. “And hope he does not take long.”

 

Chapter Text

It was the day after Tadashi's unexpected trip to the North Pole that it finally happened.

At first, it was just another day – for Hiro, at least. Nothing but drifting aimlessly around the room, ignoring the food that Aunt Cass brought, and going another day without registering for class. He was in stasis, not necessarily worsening, but not improving, either. Tadashi, for his part, had his own problems. He could remember the night that he had first spoken to the Tooth Fairy, and for one fleeting moment after she had explained the Guardians to him, he had wondered, what if? What if that was why he was here? What if he was supposed to be one of them?

He had dismissed it as ridiculous at the time. It still seemed a little ridiculous now. And to make matters worse, the meeting had gone sour, partially thanks to him. He had neither expected nor wanted to butt heads with any of them, and then he'd gone and done exactly that. As if he didn't have enough problems without making enemies of the people who were there to help him.

But all that aside, the scene before him pretty much summed up all of his troubles.

“I can't even protect you,” he said out loud, watching his brother stare listlessly at the ceiling. “So how am I supposed to protect every child in the entire world?”

He hadn't felt like this much of a failure since... well, since he was nine years old.

And then it happened. Hiro picked up his fighting bot, the bonded segments disconnected, and half of the thing landed on his foot. Tadashi winced sympathetically.

Finally, at long last, an honest to God “ow” came out of his mouth, and Baymax activated and inflated on the other side of the room. Tadashi watched, amused, as Baymax struggled to get around the bed – he really should have moved the case earlier – and waddled to his little brother's side.

Their interactions were charming at first, but his heart clenched a little when Baymax asked for him. The way “He's dead, Baymax,” sounded in Hiro's voice made him feel sick.

“Tadashi is here.”

He almost had a heart attack right then and there. Baymax was looking at him. Baymax was looking right at him. What the hell. Hiro, of course, took it as some kind of metaphorical statement. Tadashi watched Baymax carefully. Was the robot really looking at him, or was he imagining it? It wasn't like he could just ask him – what would Hiro think if Baymax suddenly started talking to him?

He let himself laugh a little at his brother tripping around the room and grappling in vain with Baymax. It was partly Hiro's own fault anyway – Tadashi had told him the deactivation phrase, and Baymax had repeated it just now, so there was no excuse for thinking that wrestling with Baymax was going to make him go away. Besides, it was the most active Hiro had been in weeks.

His amusement faded when Hiro crawled under his bed and emerged with a twitching, whirring microbot grasped in his fingers. Tadashi's breath caught a little in his throat. He remembered that. He remembered, and instinctive anger rose in the back of his throat – Alistair Krei had tried to steal from his little brother. Just thinking about the smarmy look on the man's face made him bristle. Krei was bad news – he had always been bad news, even before...

Before...

“Hey, Professor, I just wanted to let you know I finished all my...” He looked up from the academic transcript in his hand as he stepped into Callaghan's office, and his voice trailed off. “...GE requirements... Professor? What's the matter?”

His mentor sat at his desk with his head in his hands. He was silent for a long while, as Tadashi stood awkwardly in the doorway. Finally, he sighed deeply and put his hands down.

“This was a bad idea.”

“What's a bad idea?” Tadashi frowned in confusion as Callaghan pushed himself back from the desk and stood up. “Professor, what's going on?”

“I thought coming to work would be a welcome distraction, but I was wrong. Could you do me a favor, Mr. Hamada?”

“Anything. What is it?” Tadashi moved to let him pass, and then followed him down the hallway.

“If Alistair Krei ever makes you an offer, turn it down,” Callaghan said flatly.

“K-Krei, as in, KreiTech?” Tadashi stammered. “I-I'm pretty sure I don't have to worry about that, I mean that's the largest tech company in the country, and-” He laughed nervously, remembering his genius Aerospace TA. “I'm no Abigail.”

Callaghan flinched as if he had taken a swing at him. The movement was so sudden that it stopped Tadashi in his tracks.

“Professor?” But Callaghan was already walking again. “Professor, what – did something happen to Abigail? Is she all right?”

“She's dead, Mr. Hamada,” he said flatly. “Krei got her killed. One more favor? Let's not have a repeat of Miss Kim's rooftop stunt from your freshman year. Safety standards are in place for a reason.” He looked back, meeting Tadashi's eyes with a blank, haunted look. “Can you do that for me?”

“O-of course.”

His professor left him standing in the middle of the hallway, frozen with shock and horror.

Thank God Hiro was smart. Something as genius as the microbots, in Alistair Krei's hands? As far as Tadashi was concerned, that was the stuff of nightmares. He shuddered to think of what would have happened if he hadn't stopped Krei from leaving with a microbot in his pocket. Even without his disregard for safety procedures, he could've gotten away with stealing Hiro's invention – his little brother's creation, something Hiro had made with his own two hands and his big, brilliant brain – and producing and selling his own. It made his palms itch with fire just thinking about it.

This particular microbot seemed extremely insistent, even after Hiro trapped it in a petri dish. Tadashi leaned in for a closer look. If it were really malfunctioning, he would have expected its behavior to be a bit more erratic. But it was stuck to one edge of the petri dish as if by a magnet, and it rattled and clinked in an attempt to break free.

It was like Hiro said, though; it didn't make sense. The only reason it would be doing this was if it was attracted to the others. And they had all burned in the fire. Intricate, delicate, and ingenious they were – fire-resistant they were not.

So where was this one going?

Tadashi was almost glad when his little brother accidentally set Baymax on a wild goose chase. He himself was burning with curiosity, and he wasn't sure he could have swiped it himself without Hiro noticing it. Furthermore, it gave him a chance to consider his own creation, and the infrequent looks the robot kept shooting him whenever Hiro wasn't looking.

So when Baymax waddled off, following the microbot like a compass, Tadashi went with him. It wasn't until they were safely outside the cafe that he took a deep breath and spoke.

Here goes. “Hey, Baymax.”

“Hello, Tadashi.”

Oh my God oh my God. He had to pause for a moment for another deep breath. “So you can see me?”

Cars screeched to a halt to let them pass through the streets. Horns honked wildly. “It is strange.” Baymax turned his head in Tadashi's direction, but never stopped following the microbot. “I can see and hear you, but my sensors are not detecting your vital signs. Furthermore, your death has been verbally entered into my databanks. I believe I may be malfunctioning and require maintenance.”

“No, it's... I think you're fine,” Tadashi answered. Dimly he registered Hiro's voice, somewhere far behind. He hoped Hiro wouldn't catch up too soon. “Consider it an anomaly.”

Baymax turned his head back to the trapped microbot. “I will note the anomaly. But first I require clarity.”

“On what?”

“Your current medical status.” They reached a tram stop. Baymax got on only seconds before the car began to move, heedless of the bewildered stares and whispering. Tadashi joined him.

“Well... I'm okay,” he said uncomfortably. “Medically, at least. My heart rate's normal – I've been timing it. Haven't checked my temperature lately, but I'm not sure if a thermometer will register it. No pain. No fatigue. No weakness. I feel fine.” The tram took a turn away from the microbot's path, and Baymax stepped off while it was still moving. Tadashi bit back a yelp of surprise, and after a moment's hesitation he jumped after him. By some miracle he managed to keep from falling. When he recovered his balance, he found that Baymax was staring at him again.

“Are you dead, Tadashi?”

“Well, I-” Tadashi stopped. “Um.”

That was the million-dollar question, wasn't it? What was a Guardian? What was a spirit? Was it a living organism? Some kind of metaphysical being?

“I don't know,” he said honestly. “That's something I need clarity on, too.”

“Hiro said that you died in a fire,” Baymax said, moving on. They entered a small, crowded square. Tadashi could still hear, faintly, his little brother yelling somewhere behind them. “Is he wrong?”

“No,” Tadashi replied. “That definitely happened.”

“And yet you are here,” Baymax said. “Audiovisually, you appear to be alive. I do not understand.”

“I'm working on it,” Tadashi said. “Figuring it out.”

“I told Hiro that you were still here,” Baymax went on. They were moving away from crowds now. Most of the buildings here were either abandoned or otherwise empty – warehouses, storage facilities, and the like. “I do not believe he understood, either.”

“I know.”

“If he knew that you were here and understood, would that improve his emotional state? The database that I downloaded does not account for these circumstances.”

“Whatever I am,” Tadashi said. “Whatever's happening right now... I don't think there's any database that covers it.”

“That is a shame. If you find out, I would like to enter it into my databanks. It seems like useful information for Hiro's healing process.”

“Okay.” Tadashi nodded. “But until then... don't tell him, okay? I'm not sure he'll understand, and... if I can, I'd like to tell him myself, if I can.”

“Hiro wants me to deactivate. Do you agree?”

“No,” Tadashi said firmly. “Keep doing what you're doing, okay? Keep... taking care of him. The way I am, I'm not sure if I can anymore – hey.”

They stood in front of a warehouse. The microbot rattled away in its prison, more frantic than ever to get out. They were close. Scratch that, they were here. And boy, didn't this place look charming and safe? Inwardly, he cursed himself. This kind of place was the last place he wanted Hiro to be.

“Stay close to him, okay, buddy?” Tadashi said, as the patter of Hiro's footsteps came closer and closer. “I'll be right behind you, keeping watch. If there's trouble, take him and get out. Home, police, whatever. Keep him safe. I'll... well, I'll see what I can do.”

He wished, desperately, that Hiro hadn't noticed Baymax's absence quickly enough to follow. Just a few minutes more, and Hiro would't have been able to track them here. The bedroom window had been open – maybe if he'd shut it, Hiro wouldn't have heard the car horns. But no, he'd been so preoccupied with Baymax being aware of him that he hadn't stopped to think about Hiro.

“Pretend I'm not here,” he muttered to Baymax. “Just watch out for him.”

Watching Hiro struggle to reach the second-floor window while balanced on Baymax's head was a harrowing experience, to say the least. Not that Baymax couldn't have caught him safely. Still, he sighed with relief when Hiro caught the windowsill and pulled himself up. The moment Hiro's feet left Baymax's head, Tadashi climbed up after him. Grasping at the old, rough brick, he felt claws at his fingertips. With them he gained purchase and pulled himself up. Hiro waited just ahead, squinting out into the dark warehouse. Tadashi's eyes narrowed, and he listened carefully.

There was... something. It was too far away for him to identify it, but the warehouse was not as silent as it seemed. Tadashi focused, straining his ears, but all he could make out was a faint humming. It couldn't just be ventilation – there was something on top of it, something more irregular. Machinery?

Baymax's clumsy arrival broke his concentration. The robot made it through the window all right, in spite of Hiro's poorly-contained panic. Tadashi tried not to look too frustrated when deflating and inflating took more time than he liked. It was hardly Baymax's fault, after all. How was Tadashi supposed to know that his nurse robot would end up in this kind of situation? Oh God, I should have given him better mobility.

No time to think of that now. They were already on the move, making their way down to the ground floor. Silently, Tadashi slipped after them.

Both Hiro and Baymax were following their microbot compass, but to Tadashi's ears, the noises in the warehouse were getting louder with each step. The prickle of fear rippled up his arms, over his shoulders, down his spine and past it to the tip of his tail – his tail was back. The fur on it bristled like a bottle-brush.

The place was dark, but not as dark as it could have been. Tadashi found himself drifting away from the other two from time to time. It wasn't distraction, just closer investigation. Checking corners, keeping watch over the shadows in case he spotted any movement that wasn't from Hiro or Baymax.

“I don't like this,” he said softly. He hoped Baymax's audio receptors picked it up. “I hear something.”

It was louder now, enough that he could pick it apart into different sounds. Whirring and clanking of machinery, over a steady hum and rattle. It could be any number of things – a single robot, a running motor vehicle, an automated assembly line –

They were almost to the source. Tadashi darted ahead, ears pricked for the sound of voices. If there was running machinery here, then there was a good chance there were people. But try as he might, craning his neck and cocking his head, he couldn't hear any. There was, however, light.

Just around the corner from Hiro and Baymax, a small section of the warehouse was walled off with what looked like heavy tarps. Light shone from within, casting shadows and shapes of whatever lay inside. Tadashi tensed, but didn't panic. As far as he could see, there were only boxy shapes and what looked like the shadow of a robotic arm. No people – yet.

“Careful,” he hissed to Baymax as the pair caught up with him. “See if you can convince him to – oh for the love of God.” Hiro was already venturing forward, armed with a broom. “Hiro you're gonna get yourself-” He stopped there. If he wasn't careful, Baymax might take him literally. Swallowing his fear, he followed Hiro past the tarp.

He froze for a moment, mouth open wide with shock. He'd struck the nail on the head when he thought of the automated assembly line, because that was exactly what was hiding beyond the canvas wall. It was a hastily-rigged conveyor belt, carrying freshly-made microbots as automated robotic arms added final touches to the delicate machines. Tail bristling, Tadashi followed the belt to the very end, where each microbot spilled into a barrel that was almost packed with them.

“What the hell,” he whispered. He looked up, shaking slightly. The tarp was open at this end, and the rest of the warehouse was visible.

So were the rest of the barrels.

“No,” he breathed. “No, no, no, no...” Behind him, he could hear Hiro coming to the same conclusion. He went to each barrel, but they were all the same. Each one brimmed with microbots.

They had made – what, maybe ten plastic bins' worth? Now he tried working out the rows and columns, but he kept losing count.

He heard Baymax coming, but Hiro apparently did not. Tadashi almost turned around when Hiro yelped in surprise, but something distracted him. It was in the shadows on the far side of the barrels – movement in the dark. Safe in his own invisibility, Tadashi picked his way through the barrels for a closer look.

What little light was in the warehouse reflected on something pale white and bright red – a mask. The figure seemed to materialize out of the darkness, wraithlike.

“Baymax!” he yelled. “Get Hiro out of here, now!”

“Oh no,” he heard the robot intone, just seconds before microbots exploded from the barrels. He was already pelting between them, nearly knocking over a few in his haste, but at this point he didn't really care about stealth anymore. Just ahead, Hiro grabbed Baymax's hand and yanked him back the way they had come. Microbots boiled after them like an oncoming tidal wave, and Hiro dragged at Baymax and screamed.

The scream dug deep, driving itself into Tadashi's core like iron nails. His skin burned, and his pulse pounded hot in his chest. He looked back, and for a moment the darkness of the warehouse receded.

A tall figure dressed in black, a flowing coat with a hem long enough to reach. Below his knees, its legs wrapped in something like bandaging. And upon its face, a white mask streaked with scarlet, every curve and ridge shaped to instill fear.

His little brother's fear set his blood boiling in his veins. It was going to take more than a cheap mask to chill it.

Tadashi's lip curled, baring sharp teeth better suited for a vulpine mouth than a human one. Without missing a step, he swerved, changed direction with a pivot, and faced his brother's attacker. The wave of microbots kept coming.

死ね,” he snarled, and flung himself forward.

He went through the figure, which answered his first question – whoever it was, it was human. But Baymax had taught him a very important lesson: robots could see him. And if they could see him, then he could touch them.

Fire blossomed at his fingertips, blazing uncomfortably in his vision as he plunged his flinching hands into the roiling wave. The fire spread.

It was a weakness they had discovered by accident, when messing around and experimenting with the bots for fun. A high enough temperature could disrupt the bonding. He couldn't keep the whole wave back – didn't want to risk trying, not with Hiro in the building – but he could fend off a lot of them. If he was lucky, it'd be enough to buy Hiro some more time. He could make up for Baymax's lack of speed, if nothing else.

He chased after the masked man, clawing and burning at microbots wherever he could reach. He saw a wave of bots follow Hiro and Baymax into the vents, and only the knowledge that it was useless kept him from throwing himself at the man's back with fire in his hands. The masked one sent another wave after them, and this one flung them both bodily through the air. Tadashi screamed with fury, even when he saw them land safely on the catwalk above. He rode the microbots up, clinging with clawed, burning hands. At the end of the catwalk, his little brother was at the window again. He was struggling – Baymax wouldn't fit through the opening, and there was no time to deflate. Desperately he threw himself forward with leaps and bounds, fighting to get ahead of the microbots.

He touched down on the metal catwalk on four paws, claws catching on the grate. With his tail streaming behind him he raced to the window, flung himself forward, and cannoned through Hiro and straight into Baymax, shoving the robot out of the narrow space. Hiro was dragged after him, screaming. Two stories up, he thought, but Baymax was programmed for that – he'd coded it in himself. Baymax made for a soft landing, and Hiro would be fine.

The microbots surged forward. This time, Tadashi didn't slam back into humanity at a crucial moment. The air still felt thick with Hiro's fear, choking him with protective fury. He snarled, and behind him the window glass melted. His buried memories roiled in his mind as every remotely flammable substance – everything that wasn't made of metal – burst into flame. The metal window frames glowed red with heat.

This stopped the man short. Tadashi watched, satisfied, as the masked face turned this way and that, as if confused. He tensed, ready to burn more than that if he needed to.

After a tense moment, the microbots receded. Silently, the masked man retreated back into the darkness of the warehouse.

Tadashi considered following him. It was a tempting thought – maybe he ought to test if his flames were as intangible to people as the rest of him was.

He shook himself. What was he thinking? He had done enough thoughtless leaping today. If he waited any longer, Hiro would beat him home.

At this size, he could easily fit through the window that had given Baymax so much trouble. He balked at the drop, but when he made the leap, he landed as lightly as a cat. He shook himself again, and found himself human-shaped once more.

He caught up with Hiro just outside the police station, and sagged with relief. At least Hiro was smart enough to come straight here. Tadashi had to wonder, however, how plausible the police would find a story like this.

Wearily, he headed home to wait for Hiro. He swept upstairs, dislodging Mochi by accident (he wasn't completely sure if the cat could see him or not, mainly because of Mochi's penchant for ignoring people) and half-stumbled into their room. Once there, he paced.

Microbots. Someone had engineered a lifetime supply of microbots in a disused warehouse downtown. Some crazy idiot in a mask had attacked his little brother with his own creation – just the thought made his teeth sharpen again.

But how? The microbots had been destroyed in the fire. They hadn't shared the designs with anyone outside of his close-knit group of friends, and even then they had only shown them. All designs, plans, and blueprints were safe in the garage, under lock and key – a certain incident his freshman year involving Brian Schlacter and some early Baymax designs had taught him a certain level of paranoia.

Of course, Tadashi realized with a jolt, they had left the microbots in the auditorium, in a bunch of plastic bins, unguarded. It would have been the easiest thing in the world to grab a handful on the way out.

Or at least, it would have been, if they hadn't kept a careful count of the things when they were making them. That was pretty standard for the SFIT showcase – students were showing off their best work, brand-new creations that hadn't seen the light of day beforehand. Theft was a huge fear, especially for something with so many individual moving parts. Anyone at that showcase would have known that, and it was only because of the fire that they got away with it at all.

Only because of the fire.

A very convenient fire that spread to an entire building within minutes and completely destroyed everything (and everyone) inside.

Oh my God.”

Slowly Tadashi sank to the floor by his bed. His fingers tangled in his hair and yanked at the roots, the pain grounding him.

He wasn't sure how long he sat like that before Hiro and Baymax returned, Baymax stumbling and dragging from a low battery. As Tadashi watched, hollow-eyed, Hiro – his brilliant, genius little brother – came to the exact same conclusion.

Unfortunately, as Hiro always did, he took it one step too far. “We've gotta catch that guy.”

Tadashi was on his feet in an instant. “No. No way. Baymax, tell him no.”

The robot blinked as if considering it. “Will apprehending him improve your mental state?”

The stubborn set of Hiro's jaw was all too familiar, all too hopeless. “You bet it will.”

“Hiro, you can't!” It was useless. Hiro couldn't hear him, and Baymax's priorities were programmed in. Tadashi had done the coding himself, after all – mental and physical health of the patient were paramount. Other people's hurt feelings came second.

So there was no one to blame but himself for the fact that he only had one option.

Tadashi left the room, took the stairs two steps at at time, and slipped outside. In the privacy of the back alley, he smashed the snowglobe and stepped through the portal.

“North.”

None of the other Guardians seemed to be present, which was fine by him – the fewer objections he had to deal with, the better. There must have been something in the look on his face, because North looked instantly worried the moment he turned and saw him. “Something is wrong. What?”

“I'll do it.”

North blinked, and the worry in his eyes gave way to a wary sort of hope. “Yes?”

“I'll be a Guardian.” Tadashi felt his palms tingle and struggled to keep his fire leashed. “But... there's something I need to do.”

One bushy eyebrow went up. “What is it?”

“Someone killed me,” Tadashi said grimly. “I need to help find them.”

It was the wrong thing to say. Alarm registered on North's face, and he stepped forward. “You cannot.” One huge hand descended upon Tadashi's shoulder to grip it. “If you are Guardian, that is what you must do. You cannot seek revenge for your old life.”

“This isn't about revenge. Not for me.” Tadashi met his eyes pleadingly. “There's someone else doing this, and I need – I need to keep him safe. If I can't protect him, then I can't protect anyone.” He searched North's face, praying that he would understand. “I don't want payback. But I need to do this.”

North's eyebrows knitted together, and Tadashi almost lost his nerve at the stern frown. He held his ground, mouth dry, until the Guardian's face seemed to settle. “You will do no harm, unless to protect.” It was neither a request nor a question.

Tadashi nodded, his face set. “I know. I'll... I'll have questions.”

“We can answer.” North returned the nod. “About powers. About Guardians. But this...” For a moment he looked thoughtful. “Maybe... is first task. Maybe you need. If that is so, then is yours alone.” Into Tadashi's hand he pressed another snow globe. “Good luck, Guardian.”

Tadashi gripped the sphere, turned, and went back through the shimmering doorway.

 

Chapter Text

 

When Tadashi returned home to find Hiro teaching karate to his robotics project, half of him wanted to laugh and the other half wanted to burst into tears.If he hadn't known the reason why Hiro was doing this – the reason why maybe, just maybe, this was a necessity – he would have taken a moment to marvel at the speed. This was the kind of coding that would have taken Tadashi at least a week to perfect, and Hiro was throwing it together in the space of half a day. By the speed he was going, he would be done by nightfall.

But then, Tadashi thought miserably, it wasn't like Hiro didn't know what he was doing. He had plenty of practice under his belt, didn't he, with taking something unassuming and nonthreatening and making it destructive? And it wasn't like the awkwardly-built Megabot, with a clumsy walk cycle and many detachable, independent parts. No, Tadashi had provided him with a more or less humanoid-shaped model to work with. He'd built a robotic nurse, and in doing so he'd practically gift-wrapped Hiro the template for a brand-new fighting bot.

But then he had died, and in doing so he'd forfeited any control he'd ever had. So now he sat on the battered sofa in the garage workshop, knees drawn up, quietly stewing in resentment as he watched Hiro design carbon-fiber armor plating.

“This isn't what I wanted.” Only Baymax could hear him, but Baymax would have to be enough. “Not for either of you.” His creation turned to look at him, blinking slowly. “I wish you'd let it go.”

But Hiro wouldn't, and as long as that was true, Baymax wouldn't either.

Wasn't it necessary, though? In the state Tadashi was in, he was in no position to help Hiro by himself, wasn't that true? For all he knew, the man in the mask was still after them. That little operation in the warehouse didn't look like something he'd want people knowing about, and that made Hiro was a liability to him. If that was true, and if the masked one found a way to track Hiro down, wouldn't a robot with self-defense programming be good to have around?

Of course, self-defense wasn't Hiro's aim, here. He was going full offense, or at least trying to. And for all intents and purposes, he was doing it on his own. Tadashi, invisible and intangible with powers that were unpredictable at best, didn't count. Baymax, chained to his programming, didn't count either.

This wouldn't do at all.

And so, while Hiro struggled with the 3-D printer and the massive armor plates it produced for him, Tadashi sidled up to Baymax. “You can't possibly think this is a good idea,” he murmured. Truth be told, he didn't need to lower his voice, but it made him feel better all the same. “Emotional state aside, you can't tell me you think going after a crazy man in a mask, alone, is beneficial to his health.”

“Hiro will not be alone,” Baymax replied quietly. Across the room, the 3-D printer spat out a helmet with the dimensions flipped, and Hiro cursed loudly and took no notice of Baymax's voice.

Tadashi raised an eyebrow as high as it would go. “Look, Baymax... I don't know if you've noticed, but... extra perks aside, I'm a ghost and your design was inspired by the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man. Besides, you saw what we're up against, same as I did – what's a roundhouse kick going to do against a flood of microbots? Forgive my skepticism, but I'm not sure there's a whole lot we can do, between us, if push comes to shove.”

Baymax blinked. “You are forgiven.”

Tadashi's palm met his forehead. “That's not what I – look, Baymax, we're both gonna do whatever we can, right?”

“That is correct.”

“I'm just not sure it's going to be enough.”

“I see.” Baymax looked downward. “I believe I must rephrase my earlier point. We will not be alone.”

Tadashi opened his mouth to reply, and hesitated. “...What?”

“During the grieving period, it is important to surround oneself with friends and loved ones.” The robot glanced down again, and a circle of familiar speed-dial contacts appeared on his chest.

“You-” Tadashi stared at him, open-mouthed.

“Hey, Baymax!” Hiro marched over, sagging under the weight of a massive carbon fiber gauntlet. “Time to get you all dressed up. Then one more test, and we're off.”

“You are a genius,” Tadashi mouthed to Baymax as Hiro struggled to fit the armor over Baymax's round form. Once the robot was suited up, Tadashi examined it with a jaundiced eye. He had next to no experience with botfighting or designing battle-oriented robots, but even he could see a number of imperfections. Mostly it seemed to be the result of a rush job – genius or not, Hiro had given himself less than a day to get it together, and the armor seemed to be almost an afterthought next to the fighting chip.

Hearing Baymax voice misgivings about these alterations to his “nonthreatening, huggable design” gave him a sense of vindication, because at least someone could voice his thoughts for him.

Night had fallen by the time Hiro deemed Baymax ready. Tadashi took in the sight of his creation and laughed. He looked like a rubber sumo wrestler cosplaying as the world's most fashion-impaired samurai.

“Okay.” Hiro squared his shoulders, his hands planted firmly on his hips. It might have been a more impressive stance with at least six more inches. “I think we're ready.”

Tadashi snorted. “For what, Comic Con?”

And maybe he shouldn't have been so cynical – carbon-fiber-reinforced polymer was nothing to be sneezed at, after all. Baymax could probably take a hit broadside from a semi-truck without scratching his vinyl. But it was still a rushed job, and Tadashi was still deeply, deeply skeptical of the advantage of karate over millions upon millions of microbots obeying the mental whims of a masked arsonist.

Which was why, once Hiro's back was turned, Tadashi grinned as he watched four speed-dial contacts light up on Baymax's chest again. With a little luck, they might just catch up with Hiro in time to steer him in a less death-defying direction. On top of that, Tadashi was seriously tired of Hiro's self-imposed isolation. Having his space was fine and all, but it was high time for him to get subjected to Fred's bad jokes and Wasabi and Honey's cooking already.

Gogo... well, if there was anyone in that group who was capable of keeping him physically safe from whatever he was hurling himself after, it was her.

Not that they wouldn't need a little help, which Tadashi was completely happy to give them. He left the garage and raced upstairs to their room, making a beeline for his desk in the back. Had any of his things been moved? He only had so much time, and with a little luck, maybe he would find what he was looking for where he'd left it... there!

Tadashi pushed aside a few discarded textbooks and picked up a handheld device about the size of a cell phone. This little thing was the secret to his success as an older brother: the locator for all those tracking chips he'd sewn into Hiro's jackets. Grabbing it, he raced back down to the garage just in time to see Hiro closing the garage door behind him.

With a sweep of his hand he cleared away some of the clutter on the desk and set the locator down. Wasabi would notice it for sure, and...

Tadashi hesitated.

He had to protect Hiro. Right now that was his top priority, if not his only priority. But he was limited, and Baymax was also limited, and they both knew they couldn't keep Hiro safe by themselves. After Hiro's failure to convince the police to get involved, this was his only other option, wasn't it? What else was there to do, drag Aunt Cass in?

But these were his friends. Was it right to drag them into this, to knowingly send them after Hiro, straight into danger? The last thing he wanted was for them to get hurt.

But Hiro was alone.

Tadashi didn't count anymore.

And if there was anyone he trusted with his little brother's safety, with his happiness, it was them.

Even if... even if they had no idea what they were getting into. What he was getting them into. No idea at all.

It was then that Tadashi took a risk. A big one – bigger even than when he'd faced down a rearing nightmare, or plunged his burning hands into a wave of microbots. But it was a risk he had to take.

Before he slipped out after Hiro and left the garage door ajar, Tadashi found a scrap of paper, grabbed a pen, and left a note.


When Heathcliff drove him to the Lucky Cat Cafe, Fred had him stop around the corner.

“It's nothing about you, dude,” he said awkwardly. “It's just – y'know, this is kind of a nice car, and you're a butler, and they don't know yet, so it'd be really awkward.”

“No need for explanations, Master Frederick.”

“Thanks, man you're the best.” Fred slugged him lightly in the shoulder. “I might end up staying over, but if not, I'll text you, and if I do, just pick me up at the usual spot, okay?”

“Of course, suh. Have fun.”

“Will do!” With a quick goodbye fist-bump, Fred hopped out of the car, did a quick 360-check to make sure no one who would recognize him was around, and strolled his way around to the garage door. A quick glance told him that the cafe was dark, as were the windows upstairs. Miss Hamada must have been asleep – made sense, since it was pretty late.

But text messages never lie, and Fred had a sacred brofriend duty to fulfill. Luck was with him – the garage door was cracked open, enough for him to slip his hand in and pull it the rest of the way. It was a clear 'welcome' signal, and he bounced a little on the balls of his feet. He couldn't help it – after a month of radio silence, Hiro was finally emerging from his little ball. And not a moment too soon; Fred had been just a day away from kidnapping him for a Saturday out on the town.

“Hiro!” he greeted with grinning, shining enthusiasm, and found himself shouting into an empty garage. “...Oh.”

Fred pouted. The message that had summoned him had been worded like a mass text, and as certain as he was that he oozed best-brofriend material out of every orifice, he was pretty sure Hiro wouldn't have called him here without calling the others, too. So, with that in mind, had he come late? Had they gone off to do best brofriend things without him? Not cool, guys, not cool at all.

He pulled out his phone, and realized to his chagrin that he'd somehow managed to shut it off by sitting on it. When he turned it on again, he found that Honey had been blowing up his phone around the time he and Heathcliff had left the house.

fred!!!!

fred r u there???

so help me fred answer ur messages!! >:(

fres i s2g answer

i got a message from hiro!!!

did u get it????

gg and wsb say they got it!!

fred fred fred fred fred fred

answer ur phone poopdick!!!!

Embarrassed, he hastily keyed in a reply. Sorry! I turned off my phone by accident. Yes, I got it. I'm at the cafe. Do you know if anyone else got here yet?

He didn't have to wait long for her to answer back. finally!! no im not there yet, dont know abt gg or wsb, ill ask them.

Fred sent out the question to both of them, and received matching answers to the negative. He breathed a sigh of relief, and sent out a quick update to all three of them.

So anyway I'm at the cafe right now, and the garage door was open a little, but nobody's here.

that's weird Gogo replied after a moment. you check upstairs or what cause he might be in his room

Gogo, I'm not gonna try to break into a house where two robot prodigies live, Fred told her, and then winced when he realize that the statement was sort of past-tense now. I bet they have a killer security system.

If she noticed his slip-up, she didn't comment on it. fair enough

bringing the car Wasabi announced. we might need it.

Fred put his phone away, this time making sure it stayed on. He might as well have a look around before the others got here – see what he could find. Maybe there was some kind of clue to why Hiro had called them all, or where he was now.

Stepping inside felt uncomfortably like walking into his father's study – cold, forbidding, two words he never would have associated with the Hamadas in a million years. He made his way around the room, trying to calm himself down. Nervous energy pushed him to meaningless, repetitive actions – pushing a chair in, running his hands over familiar equipment, picking up notebooks and putting them down without opening them. Everything he touched felt like a shag carpet full of static electricity, only instead of painful sparks, it just gave him that weird pukey feeling in his stomach. Fred may not have set foot in this garage for weeks, but he had spent a lot of happy afternoons here, watching the Hamadas work, helping out (wherever an English major could offer help, anyway), ordering pizza and snacks on the down-low and feigning innocence when they arrived, napping and laughing and rough-housing and

Memories bubbled up, so suddenly that they almost felt solid and substantial enough to cut off his air. Fred paused, clenching his hands, and tried to breathe. In, out. In, out.

Just memories, Freddy. That's all. They won't kill you.

It didn't stop it from hurting. Especially here, standing in the same spot where he'd faceplanted in a large chicken supreme pizza, just a few yards away from where he'd practically tackled Tadashi for eating the last cinnamon stick.

Funny how that was what stuck in his mind. Just... the little stuff.

A faint tone broke him out of his thoughts, turning his focus to the desk. There was something there – had Hiro left his cell phone?

No, that wasn't it. It was too blocky to be a phone. Curious, Fred picked it up and examined the screen. It showed a small portion of a map of San Fransokyo, focusing on a moving red dot. It chimed again, and the dot changed direction at one of the map's intersections. “GPS?” he muttered. “But what-”

There – a slip of paper on the desk. He hadn't seen it before because the device had been on top of it, but there it was. Fred took it from the desk, hopeful for some kind of clue. But all he found were three words written on it in impeccably neat handwriting.

Please be careful.

Please be careful? What was that supposed to mean? Fred moved to put it down, but his hand froze. He lifted it closer to his face again, eyes narrowed.

Something wasn't right. He couldn't put his finger on it, but... Finger.

There was a finger print. Not a full one, just a smudge, but it was there. It was grayish-black, and he'd thought it was just a graphite smear, but why would there be graphite on a note written in ink? And wasn't graphite lighter than that? This was blacker than most pencils he'd ever used, almost like...

Like soot or something.

“No,” he muttered. “No, no, no, stop it. This is stupid – it's just the room and the memories and you being dumb and sad.” Sighing noisily, he pressed his knuckles against his head until it was painful. “Stop it, brain, you're being an idiot.”

But his brain refused to, because that handwriting was awfully neat and familiar, wasn't it?

Fuck, I'm losing it.”

“Hey, Fred.”

Fred shrieked. The screen flew out his hands, and he flailed to catch it before it hit the ground. “Jesus Christ!”

“Calm down, loser,” Gogo scoffed from the door, snapping her gum between her teeth. “What'd you find?”

“Well, I...” Fred's voice caught in his throat. “Um.”

“We're here! We're here!” Honey Lemon darted in with Wasabi close behind her. “Wasabi gave me a ride. Fred, did you find anything?”

“Uh, yeah, this.” Fred held out the screen. “I dunno, it's like a tracker or something?” Gogo, who was closest, took it from him. “And then there was this note...” The note. He looked around, faintly alarmed. Where was the note?

“Oh hey, I recognize that.” Wasabi took the device out of Gogo's hands. “It's... well, it's Tadashi's.” Fred would have had a stroke right then and there if he hadn't been busy checking the floor for where he'd dropped the note.

“Oh.” Gogo sounded subdued. “Well... what's it for?”

“Okay, well...” Wasabi pursed his lips. “Tadashi was giving me sewing tips this one time, and when I asked him how he knew so much about it, he mentioned that he would sew trackers into Hiro's jackets. I think that's how he always found him when Hiro snuck out.”

“Smart,” Gogo remarked. “So... what's it doing here?”

“Maybe Hiro wanted us to meet him somewhere?” Honey suggested. “We could at least follow it, you know? See where he's going this late at night.”

“Plenty of room in the van,” Wasabi said. “Fred, you coming – Fred?”

Fred leaned back against the desk, feeling dazed. He couldn't find the note. Had he just imagined the note? Had he made up an entire two minutes of his life? Maybe he was losing his mind – it wouldn't be the first time the possibility crossed his mind, but-

“Fred!” Gogo barked. “Focus, man, what's going on?”

“I think I just had a psychotic episode.” He scratched his head. “But yeah, totally, let's find Hiro. But... maybe we should be a little careful, in the process? Just in case?”

Wasabi stared at him. “Careful – Fred, what exactly do you think Hiro's doing?”

Fred raised an eyebrow and stared right back. “It's after midnight, the 3-D printer is still warm, and we're talking about an emotionally compromised teenager with a history of hustling criminals. And that's on his good days. What do you think he's doing?”

There was a moment of stunned silence.

Wasabi sighed. “Get in the car.”


Tadashi stood at the wharf – the very same wharf he had used for fire practice – and did his best to muffle the faint, high-pitched eeee that escaped him, like air squeezed from a paper bag. It wasn't his fault. There was something about witnessing the man that had just tried to murder your brother pass overhead balanced on microbots with a piece of equipment several times his size that made him want to tuck his tail between his legs.

And seeing as he now had a literal tail...

Thankfully, Hiro seemed to have the good sense to get the hell out of the way and take cover behind one of the massive shipping containers. Cementing his relief – or subtracting from it, he couldn't be sure – was the arrival of his four friends.

“Baymax, get them to leave.” They weren't getting it, they weren't getting it hadn't any of them read the note – He could hear the creaking and groaning of metal just beyond their scant shelter, the whir and click of microbots forming and reforming structures. “Baymax!”

And then everything promptly went to hell.

His robot caught the shipping container before it landed on them – he'd done a good day's work, fixing his structural strength to support upwards of a thousand pounds. They'd all be dead, otherwise. As the others fled to the car, dragging a protesting Hiro, Tadashi kept his eyes on their pursuer. The wave towered over him, blocking out the nearest lights around the wharf. At the very top stood the man in the mask, coat flapping faintly in the wind to an almost wraithlike effect. He loomed in the night, dark and menacing as a yōkai stepping out of its legend.

But that was fine. Because as terrifying as it was to be like a yōkai, Tadashi was one, period. Besides, he had met legends face to face already. He could handle one more.

The others were already in the van when Baymax took a head-on blow from the microbots. The robot came flying back over Tadashi's head and landed heavily on the roof of the van. Or rather, through it. The tires actually as the van peeled out, and the microbots and their masked commander – Yokai, he'd call him Yokai – surged after them. Tadashi hurled himself onto the wave and rode with it.

It wasn't like the escape from the warehouse. They were outside, and these streets were mostly empty at this time of night, so there was nothing to hinder the pursuit and no vents and catwalks to offer small, convenient escape routes. Furthermore, they were going at the automobile speeds, so there was no way Tadashi could keep up by running. Clinging to the microbot wave, blunt fingers clawing and grasping for purchase in the ever-shifting structure, Tadashi couldn't help but feel slow and clumsy.

Yokai was gaining on the van – oh for God's sake, was he stopping at a light? The street was empty and Wasabi was stopping at a red light. Well, nothing for it, Tadashi thought grimly. I can't believe I'm doing this.

He blinked, and when he opened his eyes he found himself much closer to the microbots than he had been before, his snouted face almost pressed against the shifting metal. He could feel wind and vibrations in – were those his whiskers he was feeling? – and his tail streamed out behind him. But most important were the four sets of claws caught between the linked microbots, keeping his paws from slipping. In spite of himself, Tadashi bared his teeth in an approximation of a grin.

Up ahead, Baymax deflected a battering ram of microbots with one hit. Not too shabby, little brother.

But why let Baymax do all the work?

White-hot flames burst into light beneath him, heating the microbots in a matter of seconds. He felt flames licking him – heat but no pain, and it was the no pain he had to focus on because dwelling on the heat and light brought the flames in the dark back corner of his mind roaring back to life. He smelled ashes, which was stupid because there were no ashes, not yet, burned metal didn't leave ashes – he shook himself violently. Later. Later. Better yet, never. His paws shifted and sank as the heat disrupted the bonds and loosened the tightly-linked robots. Not nearly enough to stop Yokai, but he didn't need to stop him. All he needed to do was slow him down.

With fire in his paws, Tadashi crept over the wave and sent heat and light as far down as it would go. Not a moment too soon – the microbots had grasped a truck, only to fall away when Yokai tried to lift it. Tadashi let out a bark of triumph, only to shriek when the microbots sent a smaller but no less destructive car hurtling at the van instead. It missed them, but Tadashi's heart was in his throat and the fire was sputtering and his paws were slipping through the loosened microbots as if he were struggling to climb a sand dune.

Oh thank God no one was in that car thank God the streets are empty thank God Wasabi's speeding up and running red lights and – wait no that's wrong that's not how Wasabi drives that' s how Gogo drives Wasabi's not going to be happy about that.

But if anyone could put some distance between the van and this beast, it was Gogo. With renewed vigor, Tadashi clawed his way up the wave of microbots, burning indiscriminately as he went. Yokai sent another battering ram, forcing the van into a swerve. One of the van's doors went flying, and Tadashi crested a small rise in the robots just in time to see Hiro tumble out of the passenger's seat. Another battering ram took shape, and something between panic and rage bubbled up in his chest and sent him leaping for it when it was only half-formed. Flames ate at the bonds, and the battering ram crumbled to uselessness beneath him. Half-blind with fear, he forced himself to look up again. He almost fainted with relief when he saw Baymax buckling his brother back in.

The chase went on. Tadashi kept him slow – slower than Gogo's driving, anyway, which was a lot easier to maintain than slower than Wasabi's driving. And it definitely was Gogo – there was no doubt about it, not when the van pulled the sickest stunt jump Tadashi had ever witnessed and landed on all four tires not only in another road, but on another level entirely. He would have been impressed if he hadn't been caught between slowing the microbots and mentally chewing his nails to nubs because oh God oh God Hiro's in that car and there's no door between him and instant death.

Undeterred, Yokai continued to pursue them, herding them back toward the waterfront. Tadashi wanted to scream. He was completely, utterly helpless. There were so many more microbots now than there had been before, with so much more room to play and just a single bulky target. Tadashi shied away from his own fire, sick with fear and frustration, as the microbots gradually surrounded the speeding van. There were enough of the damned things to crush the van three times over. At Yokai's command, a funnel formed, ready to trap the vehicle and destroy it with one squeeze of his fist. From the outside, Tadashi could see the way the entire structure shifted – like a giant metal muscle tensing, ready to contract.

More fire, he thought desperately, and the thought alone made him want to shrink back, but he couldn't afford to, not with the van speeding through a rapidly collapsing tunnel, not with a masked man poised to kill his baby brother and the best friends he had ever known.

He felt sick enough to vomit as he forced more flames into being, more fire than he had ever created, and he flinched back at the explosion of light beneath him. As he flinched, he felt the force of his own flames slam him off of his perch. The microbot structure reformed, the scant damage he'd done repaired itself in an instant, and he opened his mouth to scream again, but then the end of the tunnel exploded outward. The van hurtled free, heading straight for the water. Tadashi tumbled to the hard, unforgiving concrete, and his last thought before the impact drove the wind from his lungs was It's a good thing I programmed all those emergency procedures into Baymax.

His strength was gone. Utterly gone. He was still a fox, but when he tried to make the shift, nothing happened. Above him, Yokai and his wave of microbots paused, waiting, before retreating. Tadashi watched through half-closed eyes, unable or unwilling to chase after him.

Don't need to. Just Hiro. Just protect Hiro.

Hiro!

Tadashi forced himself back to his feet, all four limbs trembling, and staggered to the water's edge just in time to see Baymax break the surface with all five of them clinging to him. Shivering, sopping wet, and frightened, but alive and unharmed, every one of them.

I could do them one better, Tadashi thought as he followed on unsteady limbs. He could – with his power, he could warm them, take the water away. But the thought of fire made him feel physically ill, and he cursed his own cowardice and the memories licking at the back of his mind.


Barely an hour later he stood on two human legs in Fred's bedroom and tried not to sob when the words “Tadashi Hamada was our best friend,” flew freely from Gogo's mouth. Baymax turned to glance at him as he pressed the heel of his hand to his eyes against the warmth rising in his chest. Not fire-warmth, but something like it.

From where he stood, he could see the smile on Hiro's face, the very smile that had preceded the invention of homemade self-lighting fireworks and many an afternoon of driving Aunt Cass to temporary alcoholism. Plans took shape behind those sharp, bright brown eyes, ideas burst forth, and well-oiled gears turned. He had plans. He had plans, and most of all, he was not alone. If knowledge was a weapon, then Hiro was going into this battle armed to the teeth.

I should too.

Sharp canine teeth worried at his lip. What help could he be if his own power could fail him when he needed it or toss him around like a rag doll? What kind of Guardian could he be if, even after weeks of practicing, he still couldn't quite control his power?

Hiro had a big project on his hands. That was good. It meant there was time for Tadashi to get himself ready, too.

Chapter Text

The snow globe brought him back to the North Pole by a flash of light and another glowing doorway. He expected to see North in the massive Globe Room again when he stepped through, but instead he found himself staring in awkward bewilderment at a large yeti.

After a brief staring contest, the yeti blinked and waved in greeting.

Well okay then. “Did I know about you?” he asked. North might have mentioned something about yetis, but he'd been preoccupied at the time. The yeti cocked its head and stared back – was that a milk mustache, or did its fur just look like that? “Well, uh... I'm looking for North?” His voice rose into a question.

Before the yeti had a chance to respond, Tadashi felt many sets of small fingers latch onto his ankles. With a yelp of alarm, he looked down to find a small crowd of elves gathered at his feet, staring curiously up at him. A particularly bold one of them clambered on top of its neighbor's head and tried to climb up his leg, but he stepped out of the reach of its stubby arms. He almost tripped backward – more of them were crowding behind his feet. A growl of annoyance almost escaped him, but he bit it back. He didn't have time for this, with Hiro and the others already getting themselves started.

“Oh what fresh hell is this.” He swiped at the ones behind him with his tail, shooing them away so that he could regain his balance.

Muffled snickering drew his attention upward, and he was not quite so surprised to see Jack Frost lounging in the rafters, one bare foot hanging over the side and swinging. “Having a little trouble there?”

“Santa's elves?” Tadashi forced his voice even. “Are they always this friendly, or do they just like dogs?”

Jack snorted. “There's a reason why I'm all the way up here.”

“Mind giving me a hand down here?”

“Mmm...” The winter spirit tapped his staff against his chin thoughtfully. “Nah. Let's call it a rite of passage.”

Frustration bubbled over. His nerves were still in high gear, his palms itching, the hair on his tail and the back of his neck bristling. In his mind he tried to ignore his treacherous brain's mental replays of the evening, the roiling wave of microbots beneath his feet, the masked Yokai hurling them after his friends in an honest-to-God attempt to kill them, the thunder of the van hitting the water, the smell of the bay clinging to Hiro's clothes as they shivered their way to safety. It was still there, and it wouldn't go away – it hadn't gone away all evening, and all it had done was kick up dust in his brain and fan the flames of the half-remembered auditorium fire.

“I don't have time for this.” Fire burst into light around his hands – when had he clenched them into fists? He didn't remember doing that. The elves scattered, tripping and bumping into each other to escape. “Look, I have things to do and I need to talk to North.”

Jack leaned his head back in a leisurely manner, arching an eyebrow at him. “Well, aren't we important?”

“Is there anyone else here I can talk to?”

“'Fraid not, fluffykins.”

Tadashi wondered if he could actually make steam come out of his ears. “Where is everyone?”

Pillowing his arms behind his head, Jack took his time answering. “Well, Sandman said he had something to look into, the Easter kangaroo went with him, and Tooth's... I dunno, she's having a conference with some of her mini-me's. North's in his office-workshop thing, I'm here, you're there, and Jeff's been drinking all the eggnog.”

“Who's Jeff?”

“That guy.” Jack pointed to the yeti, who smiled widely.

“Look, could you at least point me in the direction of that workshop?” Tadashi tail-swiped at another elf that wandered too close. “I need to talk to North. I have a lot on my plate right now, and as charming and witty as you are, I probably don't have a lot of time.”

The eyebrow shot upward again, but Jack finally slid from his perch and hovered lower. “Don't know if you noticed, but you're kind of immortal now. You literally have all the time.”

Tadashi managed to suppress a shudder into a single twitch. “Wow. Okay. That's nice. I'm... gonna not think about that right now.” Mentally he shook himself. “I still have a time frame. For the third time, where's North's office?”

“Follow the sound of his gut shaking like a bowl full of jelly, you can't miss it.”

“I'm serious!” Tadashi snapped.

Jack touched down on the floor with a disdainful pout on his face. “Yeah. I can tell. It was a joke, relax.”

“Well I don't have time for jokes. Can you take me to North already?”

Scowling, Jack shouldered past him. “Yeah, yeah.” He dropped his voice to a mutter that was still loud enough to be heard. “Just my luck, the new guy's Captain Killjoy.”

“Just my luck the only guy around right now is apparently five years old,” Tadashi shot back.

Jack glared a challenge at him, but Tadashi didn't rise to the bait. So he hadn't endeared himself to one of these Guardians, but that was whatever – he was here to help Hiro, not make friends. Though it didn't speak very well of the Guardian selection process, if someone like Jack got in. How was someone who couldn't take anything seriously supposed to protect every kid in the entire world?

His negative thoughts faded as Jack took him deeper into the workshop. If the Globe Room was near the top, then Tadashi imagined that they were heading closer to the heart of the place. A few hallways and a flight of stairs took them down to one of the lower levels, and finally Tadashi was close enough to see what was going on.

It was like the world's most colorful factory, if a factory had been designed jointly by Rube Goldberg and J.K. Rowling, and then staffed with tiny elves and hulking yetis. In spite of himself, Tadashi found himself staring. Here and there were yetis painting toys and setting them out to dry, or elves hitching rides on the shiniest, most elaborate conveyor system he'd ever seen. Tadashi was reminded of those sculptures where you rolled ping pong balls through a complex obstacle course. The track was silvery, threadlike, and unmistakeably magical. Toys and wrapped presents tumbled and slid over it from place to place, heedless of gravity and physics. Groups of elves gathered around prototype toys, apparently testing them for safety. The whole place was alive with moving parts, like an intricate machine powered by magic instead of science and physics. It was enough to make any self-respecting engineer salivate with envy.

His chest hurt to look at it. It was so alien, so magical... but so familiar.

The breath left him with an audible “Wow.”

“Hey, didn't you have a schedule to keep?” Jack called back dryly. Tadashi had paused just to stare at his surroundings, allowing the Guardian to get farther ahead of him.

“Calm down, I'm coming,” Tadashi said absently. “Just... it's a lot to take in.”

“Yup. Very shiny.” Jack nodded knowingly. “Top level security, too – I was trying to break in for decades before they brought me into the fold.”

“Security is top level thanks to you.” North came strolling out through the flurry of activity, elves scattering at his feet to make way for him. “Was entire yeti task force for keeping you out. Was like game, good practice for real threats.”

Jack shrugged. “What can I say? I'm an entertainer.”

“Indeed. So, our newest Guardian.” Arms akimbo, North turned to Tadashi. “What do you think of 'Santa's secret workshop in North Pole'?”

Tadashi allowed himself a moment to look around again, eyes wide as if that would let him take in even more of it at once. “It's... I don't want to say 'amazing', because that word gets thrown around a lot, but-”

North smiled warmly. “Is fine. 'Amazing' is good word. So. Have more questions?”

“I don't have any specific questions,” Tadashi admitted. “Just... concerns.”

Nodding, North jerked his head. “Come with me. Have office – you might like. Not as big, but – well, you'll see. Jack, you coming?”

“Meh, I've got nothing better to do.” Jack shrugged, in that way that teenagers always have when they're pretending they aren't excited about something. In spite of himself, Tadashi turned away to hide a smirk.

Following North, they slipped out of the flurry of noise and action and into somewhat quieter halls. “Is very busy, more or less... all year round,” North explained as they went. “Easter Bunny? Easy job, eggs walk themselves, rabbit tunnels stretch all over world. And eggs only! Me? Toys being made every year – different toys, some girls want dolls and some boys want trains, some girls want swords or chemistry sets, some boys want easy baking ovens. And then, visiting every house in one night. Year-round preparations! Thankful I have all the help.”

Tadashi did his best to contain himself – he really did. Thoughts of Yokai still had him tense, and the itch of fire in his palms had died down but not wholly gone away, but he couldn't help it. He had to know. “Can you satisfy my curiosity?”

“You are wondering how one old man visits every house in one night?” North regarded him with amusement.

“Well...” Tadashi reddened slightly. “I mean, even with those snow globes, it's still billions of houses...”

“That is one secret. Other secret is, you know how long night lasts?”

Tadashi pursed his lips thoughtfully. “Well, in winter it gets dark around six or seven, and sunrise isn't until seven in the morning, so... twelve, thirteen hours? Still not a lot of time.” He'd pulled enough all-nighters to figure that out.

“Wrong. You are forgetting the earth moves.”

“Oh.” Tadashi's eyes widened. “Ohhh.”

“Night moves around world. I move with night. Is good system, very helpful. Here we are.”

They had reached a fairly unassuming door, which opened at North's touch. A faint whirring noise reached him, and he could see movement and light inside. Mystified, he followed North through the door.

Two paces inside, he slammed on the breaks so hard that Jack ran into him from behind.

North's “office” was like all the activity in the rest of the workshop, scaled down and condensed into this single room. Crooked, cluttered shelves held more toys, gadgets, and inventions than Tadashi could count, and each one seemed to be made of polished, blue-white ice. A few of them, toy planes and helicopters and even a translucent ice bird flew and hovered through the air as if on strings. Every other surface was covered in paper drawings, scribbled notes, designs, and more than a few envelopes and letters. Books were stacked halfway to the ceiling and then used as more space for holding papers and objects of ice. At the back was a large desk with enough clutter to send Wasabi to an emergency room, and a window through which sunlight shone from outside.

All around, the air rang with gentle whirring and the tinkle of glass and music boxes.

Tadashi caught his breath as Jack sidled around him. He tried to say something intelligent about it, but all that came out was a high-pitched wheeze.

“You like it?” North's eyes glinted with amusement. “Is my more personal workshop. I design toys, plan what child gets what. So.” He folded his arms, which, Tadashi noticed for the first time, were heavily tattooed with the words “Naughty” and “Nice.” “What is trouble?”

“I- um.” Tadashi had to mentally shake himself again to get back on track. Just the sight of the place had lifted his mood entirely out of the gutter it had been in. His head felt clearer, if a bit distracted by all the gleam and moving parts surrounding him. “Well, a lot of things. But as far as what I can control – er, well, I can't control it, and that's the problem.” He was rambling. “I mean, my power. The fire. I keep practicing, and every time I think I have it down, something goes wrong and I can't bring out enough fire or I bring out too much and it blows up in my face.” He glanced at Jack briefly. “This is sort of a question for both of you. How'd you get your power to listen to you?” Hopeful, he looked from one face to the other. But with North looking concerned and Jack staring at him in a mixture of pity and vague bafflement, his heart sank.

“My magic, eh... cannot translate,” North replied. “Is functional. Things move, I manipulate like... like machinery. But you, you control fire. Fire is wild, is unpredictable – is force of nature. Jack, what do you say?”

The winter spirit shrugged. “Dunno what to tell you. Mine always came naturally to me.” Tadashi's skepticism must have shown on his face, because he added, “I mean it took some time to get used to it and figure out my limits, but I never, I dunno, summoned a snowstorm by accident. It's just my magic. It's what I do.”

Crestfallen, Tadashi curled his fingers into fists and felt the unusual warmth in his skin. This was supposed to come naturally to him? How was it supposed to come naturally when every other flicker of fire reminded him of the glaring dark hole in his memory?

“I have guess,” North said, leaning back against the desk. “You remember too much. Have great knowledge, yes?”

Tadashi ducked his head. “Well, not great.” In the corner of his vision, he saw Jack roll his eyes.

“You know what I mean.” North flapped his hand as if shooing away his modesty. “You know – science. Logic. 'Real' world. Yes?”

“Uh-huh?”

“Too much is new.” North gestured to the other Guardian. “Jack? No memory after waking. All blank slate. Power of ice and snow was new, but everything was new. You have too much of what is new, fighting with what you already have. You remember how you died – maybe uncomfortable with fire, yes?”

Tadashi nodded, embarrassed. “Uncomfortable, yeah, that's the word for it.” He felt his tail pressing against his hand and ran one fingernail through the fur. “Do you know how I can fix it?”

“Maybe, maybe.” North looked thoughtful. “I think-”

“Just cut to the chase and show him the matryoshka doll already,” Jack broke in.

“The what?” Tadashi blinked.

“Is one part of being Guardian,” North went on, as if Jack had not interrupted at all. “Do you ever wonder, how we protect children of the world?”

“Yeah, that's one of the things I asked the Tooth Fairy.” Tadashi ran his hand through his hair thoughtfully. “That was weeks ago. She said something about letting them see the magic in the world before they outgrew it, but at the time I didn't think to ask further than that.”

“Yes, but – more than that.” North nodded. “Is different for all of us. We each have something inside us, one part of childhood to protect.”

“Our center,” Jack chipped in.

North nodded. “Yes. Tell me, Tadashi, when you walked in this room, what did you feel?”

“Well, I...” Tadashi thought, wracked his brain for proper words, but they wouldn't quite come. He laughed a little, embarrassed. “Homesick, for one, but it was more than that, it was... I don't think I have the words to describe it. I mean, this place...” He looked around, taking in the ice and magic all over again, and let his words end there.

North gave him another knowing grin. “Loss for words?”

“My friend Fred's the English major, he's better with words than I am.” Tadashi laughed sheepishly again. He let his fingers catch in his hair and gave his surroundings another wide-eyed scan. “But... this place is incredible. If I wasn't seeing it right in front of my face, I would never believe it.”

“And you see me, you ask questions. How do I visit all houses in one night? It makes you curious, yes?” He raised his eyebrows. “Gives you sense of... what is word?”

Tadashi let his eyes trace over the workshop again, and finally it came to him. “Wonder.”

“Second try, not bad,” Jack remarked.

North laughed aloud, clapping his hands thunderously. “Yes! Exactly. Wonder. The excitement for something new. Beauty, in big things you never see before, or little things you see every day. That is my center, what I protect, what I bring to the children. It is what I am: Guardian of Wonder.”

“So, all of you have one of those? Like a specific responsibility as a Guardian?” Tadashi glanced at Jack. “What's yours?”

“Fun,” was the blunt reply. “You should try it sometime.”

“Is important part of childhood,” North said. “To laugh, play, cast off little responsibilities, little worries. To have joy.”

That. Explains. Everything. “What about the others?” Tadashi pressed. “I mean, the Easter Bunny basically does what you do, so does that mean you have the same center, or what?”

“No.” North shook his head. “Bunny brings spring. New beginnings. He is Guardian of Hope. As for others, Sandman is Guardian of Dreams, Tooth is Guardian of Memories.”

“Wait, what do memories have to do with teeth?” Tadashi asked.

“That's what baby teeth are for, turns out,” Jack answered. “Holding your memories. It's how I got mine back, actually.”

It was all Tadashi could do to keep from letting his mental about-face show on his face. Missing memories. Jack got his from Tooth. Could I...?

Did he even need to? Half the time he could swear that the memories were already there, waiting for him to just reach out and touch them. Hell, sometimes it was all he could do just to keep them back. Almost like if he wasn't careful, or if he was too loose with his flames, it would flare up again like a bad temper. He would remember the blinding heat and the acrid sting of smoke in his lungs, and he would lose control again.

No, he certainly didn't need that.

“Tadashi?” North's voice brought him back to reality. “Something wrong?”

“A lot of things wrong,” he managed to answer. “But... this helps. Do you think if I figure out what my center is, I'll get a better handle on my fire?”

“Is possible. Maybe even probable.” The hulking Guardian shrugged. “Often is different for every spirit. For now... well, if you need more practice, is always snowing outside. No chance of burning down something important.”

“Huh.” He looked out the window, into the bright sunlight that glinted off the white blanket outside. Leaping into a snowdrift certainly sounded miles better than diving into the bay. “I'll keep that in mind. Thanks.”

Jack perked up almost immediately. “Hey, if you're you doing that now, can I watch?”

“Um...” Tadashi side-eyed him a little. He'd had enough of a time in high school to know what it usually meant when someone who had it in for you started trying to hang out with you. “I'm, uh. Not doing that yet. North, is it okay if I kind of... go back and forth between here and home? I need to keep an eye on things there, but I'll still take you up on the snow thing.”

Jack rolled his eyes. “Geez, just give him a lifetime supply of snowglobes, why don't you? It'd probably be faster.”

“One at a time,” North said. “Easier to keep track.”

“Yeah, I don't have a lot of pocket space.” Tadashi slid his hands into his pants pockets as if proving his point. “I'll keep checking in, though. And, the others – they're not sticking around because of me, are they? Because I bet they have their own work to do, and...”

“Don't worry,” North assured him. “We are not abandoning duties. Sandy is the fastest of all of us, and dreams do not need so much watching, especially since... well. Story for other day. And spring is full in bloom, so Bunny has time on paws. Tooth has her many fairies, and the journey to her home is not so great with help from magic. I am home here, I can do my work. Jack... Jack has never done day of work in his life, he's fine.”

“Hey!”

Tadashi tried to hold back the snicker. It didn't work.

“You are in better mood than when you arrived?” North asked.

“A... a little,” he admitted. “But I'm not done yet. I'm barely just starting. Thanks... for your help.”

With a fresh snow globe in hand, Tadashi returned to San Fransokyo to find his little brother designing weapons in the garage.

His throat tightened as he fought back a wave of nausea.

 

Chapter Text

 Tadashi went back and forth many times between his home in San Fransokyo and North's workshop on the other side of the world. It was a frustrating process for him. At home, surrounded by Hiro's new projects and his friends' well-meaning encouragement of said projects, he longed for an escape back to the ice, snow, and enchanted workshop. Whenever he did allow himself that escape, he had to sit on his hands to keep him from chewing his nails down to nothing from all the worrying.

At home, they had a game plan. Hiro had one, anyway – as always. “The neurotransmitter must be in his mask,” Hiro had said as he studied a hologram of the device and rotated it for the benefit of the others. “We get the mask, and he can't control the bots. Game over.” In spite of the nail-biting anxiety, Tadashi reveled in his swell of pride. That was what Hiro did best – observe, analyze, use that big brain to look for weaknesses and structure his attack plan accordingly. He'd done it for squirt gun battles, chess matches, and botfighting, and now it was coming in handy up against a supervillain.

And it would have been satisfying to watch this plan come together, if it hadn't been for the nights.

It wasn't nightmares. Nightmares would have meant that Hiro was sleeping. Hell, nightmares would have meant that Hiro was actually trying to sleep at all. Tadashi knew how to deal with nightmares. But instead, the problem before him was raw wakefulness, fingers shaking with ignored exhaustion, slow shuffling but stubborn steps, and bloodshot eyes that streamed from staring at bright screens for hours on end.

His friends noticed, bless them all. It was impossible not to, and they did their best. Honey and Wasabi stocked the garage with tea. Fred, subtle as he was, left blanket piles where everyone could trip on them (“Hey, maybe he'll trip and knock himself out, that counts as sleeping, right?”) Gogo, of course, encouraged him in her own way with thinly-veiled threats. (“Hell, Fred, I'm this close to knocking him out myself.”) Baymax nagged and hugged, for all the good it did. Tadashi wished he hadn't died before he'd had the chance to give him a built-in sedative dispenser to go with his Neosporin finger. Anesthesia was a tricky business, and he hadn't wanted to risk it.

Tadashi did what he could. If one of the blanket piles shifted far enough to tangle in Hiro's feet as he stumbled from the 3D printer to the computer screens, forcing him to sit down and increase his chances of dozing off, then who's to say it hadn't always been there? Or if he happened to lure Mochi onto Hiro's lap by robbing the treat box in the kitchen and laying a trail, well it wasn't his fault if cat purrs were hypnotic enough to knock you out.

Not four nights into the project, Hiro was still up at half past five in the following morning. He was slaving over Gogo's upgrade, trying to miniaturize her experimental mag-lev bike wheels into a pair of skates instead. The only times he paused were to wipe his eyes, and he put his tools down exactly three times over the course of the night to go to the bathroom. Enough was enough.

It wasn't too hard to do; the process was a delicate one, and exhaustion made Hiro's hands clumsier than they would have been otherwise. It was the easiest thing in the world to slip in invisible and, well, mess it up a little.

Nothing too destructive. Just a little bit of sabotage, maybe to frustrate him into taking a break. It worked – a little too well.

Tadashi expected the frustrated yell. He even expected the spanner flung into the wall. But the tears were an unwelcome surprise.

Before him, Hiro shoved the half finished project away and curled in on himself with a strangled scream of frustration. When his lungs had emptied, his first breath shook and hitched violently on the way in.

Oh no oh no oh no that's not what I wanted.

But it was too late. Hiro folded in on himself, buried his face in his arms to muffle the noise, and sobbed brokenly in the quiet garage.

The shock struck him so viciously that for one golden moment, Tadashi forgot that he was a ghost. The moment ended when his arms passed through Hiro uselessly – he'd messed it up, and he couldn't even hug him. Panicked, he turned and yelled for the only one who could help.

“Baymax!” The robot was already heading over, his vinyl skin squeaking with each waddling step. Without a word, he bent over Hiro's shaking form and enfolded him in a hug. It was all Tadashi could do to keep from screaming his frustration, too.

“Make sure he sleeps.” His voice shook as he addressed Baymax. “He needs to sleep. Stay with him, okay?”

It wasn't until Hiro was fast asleep, curled against Baymax's soft, warm belly, that Tadashi finally let himself flee back to the North Pole with his tail literally between his legs.

The door to North's office was open to him when he arrived, the Guardian inside among his notes and lists and plans. Tadashi had taken the walk through the workshop several times now and had memorized the route, and North seemed to be used to his casual drop-ins, so he didn't feel too shy to step inside.

North noticed that he was upset – it would have been impossible not to, when it dragged at his limbs and showed on his face. But rather than question him, North greeted him in that usual jolly-old-St.-Nick way of his and continued to tinker.

For a while, Tadashi contented himself with watching. Santa Claus' hands were quick and deft, manipulating ice as if it were clay, forming recognizable shapes from anything as simple as blocks to more complicated moving machinery. There was something wonderfully direct about it, something up close and personal that a computer and a 3D printer couldn't quite match. It made his fingers itch just watching – not with fire, but with a sort of restless nostalgia. How long had it been since he had made something, since he had sat down and tinkered and coded something into being?

The microbots, sort of – Hiro had done all the work, and he had poked a few pieces of advice into it. But no, the last honest hands-on project he'd worked on was Baymax.

And now, the microbots were being used as a murder weapon by the person who had caused his death, and Baymax was being modified into a counter-weapon. Hiro was as busy as ever to arm himself and all his friends.

Hadn't he wanted Hiro to get out of his room and be active again?

Sardonic thoughts poured into his mind in a steady stream. Maybe I should have dropped him hints to start botfighting again, it'd probably be less dangerous than this. He shuddered.

It caught North's attention. “What troubles you?”

“My little brother's a glutton for punishment, and I'm not in a position to stop him,” Tadashi said bluntly. “I can't come rolling in on a moped to bail him out anymore. All I can do is just... follow him around.”

“Ah.” The Guardian didn't turn, but kept his eyes on his work as he spoke. “This is not first time, then? Is... repeated problem?”

“Hiro had... hobbies.” Tadashi cast his eyes downward. “Dangerous hobbies. I was trying to pull him away from them. And I thought I did, but then...” A lump formed in his throat. “Then I died, and it's just pushed him into something even worse.”

North hummed sympathetically. “Worldly dangers. Darkness, fear, bad magic, things that go bump in night, that is what we fight. Dangerous mortal people – is where it gets... fuzzy. We guide, help in little, indirect ways. Keep spirits up.”

“I've been doing what I can, but it just doesn't feel like enough.”

“What have you done?” North asked.

Immediately he thought of turning on Baymax, contacting his friends, leaving a note and a tracking device so that they could find him. “Well, I made sure he wasn't by himself-”

“Good start.”

“I get him to sleep, sort of.” He winced guiltily. “Doesn't always work out the way I want it.”

“Yes, but that is important.”

Tadashi fidgeted. “He's been attacked a couple of times and I've... helped, I guess? I don't know... All I can do is slow the guy down, if that.” He wrung his hands a little, staring down at them in his lap. “It's why I need to get a handle on my power. I can't help him properly if I'm always worrying that I won't have enough fire, or I'll have too much.”

North hummed again. “Direct action is not always best. Are you sure fire is what you need?”

“Well it'll help.”

“True, true.” At his fingertips, a lump of ice began to form into a whirring helicopter. “I have question for you. You said you helped before you died, stopped his – what did you say – dangerous hobbies. How?”

“I... I showed him something better that he could do with his talents,” Tadashi answered. “I can't do it so well if he can't see or hear me, or if – if I'm the reason why he's jumping into danger in the first place. Besides, even then, it... wasn't so easy.”

“Oh?”

He liked North. That had never been in question – the man was Santa Claus, after all – but there was something about him in particular that calmed his fears. North's was a face you could trust. Easy to talk to, calm, reassuring. It was familiar, touching upon safer memories than the flashes of burning that Tadashi still pushed to the back of his mind.

“Professor?” Anxiety gnawed at him with blunt little teeth. He hung back at the doorway, wringing his hands to try to dispel the shaking. It didn't feel right, doing this. It was barely more than three months since Abigail's accident, and Callaghan probably had enough to worry about without Tadashi dragging in his own problems. The floor drew his eyes for a moment before he forced himself to look up again.

“Good evening, Mr. Ha – Tadashi, what happened?” His professor was out of his seat in a flash, crossing the room for a closer look at Tadashi's bruised face.

“Um...” Several excuses crowded his mind. I fell off my moped. I ran into a door. My project malfunctioned again, but don't worry it's only the seventy-ninth try, I'll get it eventually. But Cass Hamada did not raise her nephews to lie for no good reason. He had been hoping to ease into this, practicing and planning what to say before he arrived, but of course Callaghan had zeroed in on his black eye. It wasn't every day that there was actually something noticeable about him, after all. “I... I think I need help. You have a minute?”

The next thing he knew, he was seated with a towel-wrapped ice pack against his sore face and a very concerned professor sitting in front of him. “Now. Care to tell me what happened?”

“Got in a fight,” Tadashi admitted. His throat ached, which made talking about this even more difficult than it already was.

“That doesn't sound like you.”

“I didn't have much of a choice.” Tadashi paused, in case Callaghan was about to comment again. But his professor simply watched his face, focused on him and wound up with worry. Tadashi looked him in the eye, and all prior planning fell to the wayside. It came out in a stumbling rush – Hiro sneaking out in the dead of night alone, breaking the law, playing games with criminals and street thugs with hard minds and long memories. His little brother, using his big, wonderful brain to put himself in danger for a cheap thrill and a handful of cash.

“He just turned fourteen.” His throat was raw, his voice hoarse, one eye iced and swelling, the other glued to the floor because he could do nothing but fail again and again. “I can't get through to him. I cut it closer and closer every time, and I keep thinking – what if I'm not fast enough?” His eyes burned with held-back tears. “All it'll take is one time, one time I – I get there too slow, or I miss a turn, or I don't get him out fast enough. And...” He couldn't go further. He couldn't voice it out loud.

Callaghan's hand fell warm and comforting upon his shoulder. “You're afraid for him.” It was stated softly, a simple uncomplicated fact.

“I'm terrified.

Tadashi shook his head to clear away the memory. “I had help. A-and I still have help, with... well, you guys. But it's different. It was hard enough to get through to him when I could actually talk to him.”

“You have tools.” North let the helicopter hover away into the air, weaving in and out of the toy birds and airplanes and – were those toy versions of the koi turbines that flew above the San Fransokyo skyline? “There are tools you have and tools you do not have. You cannot speak, he cannot see you – those are tools you do not have. But, you are not unarmed.”

“But you said the fire might not help me,” Tadashi pointed out.

North chuckled. “One, you have not mastered it. Two, is not your only tool. You must gather the others.”

“Do you-” Tadashi's throat tightened. “Do you think I have more powers I haven't discovered yet?”

“Tadashi...” North shook his head, smiling. “You have been spirit only more than a month, Guardian even shorter than that. I know you have powers you have not discovered. May be good for you to find them.”

“...Oh.” His stomach turned at that. It was difficult enough, between the transforming and the fire. He could barely wrap his head around the possibility of there being any more, much less how to find them or use them. No thank you, I have more than enough already.

North sighed lightly. “But, even without those – you know your brother Hiro, yes?”

“Well, yeah...”

“And people helping them – you know them also?”

“Yeah, they're my friends, but-”

“There are things you can do – moving things, leaving hints, keeping eye on big picture – yes? Then those are tools. What you must do, is find way to use them.” North shook his head. “Do not worry about him seeing you – no point. Can't change that easily. Use what you have. If that means mastering fire, then do that. Is for you to decide.”

“But what if I decide something and I'm wrong?”

“Then you have made mistake and learned, and you do not make same mistake again.”

Tadashi shook his head. “I can't afford to make mistakes.”

“Pah. Thinking like that is what you cannot afford. Just know – if it does not work, is good idea to try something new.” Suddenly North's hand was on Tadashi's shoulder – massive enough to dwarf one of Tadashi's own, but no less soft and comforting. “You are new. But you would not have been chosen if you were not best one for job.”

“I...” I just don't believe that. “I'll keep that in mind.” He forced a smile. “Thanks. I'm gonna go outside now, so...”

“Good! Watch out for Bunny, he is reinforcing old tunnels beneath snow. Jack likes to play jokes – if you hear shouting, is fine. Is how they bond.”

“Hm.” Tadashi tried not to pull a face.

He avoided Jack, whenever he could manage it. It was excruciatingly difficult to hold a conversation with him without it devolving into exchanging potshots. It was enough to raise his blood pressure, especially when his tail fluffed up in irritation and sent Jack into gales of laughter.

Not the kind of mindset he wanted when he was a fire hazard waiting to happen.

Tadashi ventured outside and stepped out into the snow. The cold hit him briefly, needle-sharp against his skin, but he paused to let it pass. It always did – after a few seconds of shock, the bite in the air died down and he felt, not warm, but normal at least. He'd felt worse chills from the wind off the bay during his life than here in the middle of the North Pole. Another advantage to the fire powers, apparently.

Tadashi took a deep breath and let it out, watching his breath form clouds in the air. He was reminded of Hiro, back when he was tiny and cute, breathing steam clouds in the winter months and pretending to be a dragon. I wonder if I can breathe fire.

Maybe he'd figure that out later. For now, he was still trying to put a rein on the flames that came from his hands.

Firelight reflected off the clear white snow as he practiced. It was bright enough to blind him if he wasn't careful, but he was mostly too focused on the flames to care much. He could produce it with passable consistency, move it through the air, and put it out, but it took one hell of a lot of concentration. Sweat beaded on his brow as he focused on producing a sizable flame in midair, holding it, and moving it around.

JACK!

Tadashi yelped out loud and jumped, heart pounding. The fire flared briefly in his face before sputtering out. Exasperated, he whipped around to find Bunny struggling out of the snow and yelling up at Jack Frost, who hovered overhead cackling.

“Quit blocking all the tunnels with ice plugs, you prancing mug!” the rabbit roared. “These are my primary mode of transportation! Not everyone can fly about like a bloody snow fairy!”

Jack was laughing too hard to respond for a few moments. When it died down and he seemed ready to answer, he lighted down on the ground, noticed Tadashi standing ankle-deep in slush with his hair blown back from losing control of his flames, and started laughing all over again.

“Come on!” Tadashi called over, trying to drown out Jack's laughter. “The entire point of me doing this in the snow is to prevent this from happening!”

“Great job so far!” Jack yelled back.

Rolling his eyes, Tadashi sloshed his way to more solid ground. His feet were soaked up to his shins, and if he tried to dry them off, he'd only melt the snow around him all over again.

Except...

What if he could send that heat further? It'd be good practice for his control, wouldn't it? And Jack, for once, had both feet on the ground. Tadashi observed him carefully out of the corner of his eye, marking the distance between the winter spirit and the rabbit. Jack was still laughing, Bunny was smirking a bit but that was all right, he was only a bystander. No need to retaliate.

The snow beneath him heated, and he sank into the meltwater again. Then, narrowing his eyes, he sent his power further.

Heat melted a swift path through the snow between Tadashi and Jack. In a matter of moments, Tadashi was rewarded by Jack's laughter abruptly turning to surprised yelling when the spirit squelched into knee-deep slush. “Hey!

His feet were still wet, but it was completely worth it. Tadashi turned his head with the most wide-eyed, innocent look he could manage. “Oops.”

Jack moved before Tadashi had the chance to see what he was doing.


Feeling his face heat with embarrassment was not a pleasant experience for a spirit of ice and snow, especially when Bunny wouldn't stop sniggering at him. Glaring at him, Jack kicked his way out of the slush, took to the air, and landed on firmer snow.

Well, this changed things, didn't it? He never would have guessed that Mr. Chronic Nice-Lister had a prankster streak.

Two could play that game.

Bunny's eyes widened when he saw the snowball form with a familiar blue sparkle to it. “Do it,” the Guardian of Hope half-whispered. “Do it or you're a pansy.”

Jack didn't need to be told twice.


The snowball struck the side of Tadashi's head. Something sparked in the corner of his vision, and for a moment he wondered if Jack had thrown it hard enough to make him see stars. He whipped around, mentally preparing himself to yell.

Snow slopped off his head, rolling down his jaw and melting as it went. Tadashi found himself staring at Jack, one side of his face encrusted with snow. Jack was staring back, blue eyes wide and glinting with mischief, mouth tight to hold back his laughter.

Tadashi's mouth twitched. I must look ridiculous.

Laughter bubbled up from his chest before he could stop it. He ducked his head quickly, hiding his snickering with the pretense of dusting snow out of his hair. Crap, crap, don't let him know you found that funny, he thought furiously, but it was easier thought than done because he was squelching around in half-melted snow after getting smacked upside the head with a snowball, and no matter how you sliced it that was really, really funny.

When was the last time he'd laughed? As in genuine, honest-to-God laughter? He'd done plenty of nervous half-hysterical giggling and bitterly sarcastic half-laughing, but those didn't count. He hadn't found anything honestly funny since he'd rose from the dead spitting out ashes; he hadn't wanted to find anything funny. Laughing didn't feel right when he was a ghost and Hiro was dead-eyed and silent.

But now? Now it felt right. It was cathartic, being able to laugh at himself, to find something funny about his situation.

He looked up again once he was more in control of himself, regarding Jack curiously. Maybe there was something more to this smart-aleck spirit kid than he'd realized. He'd have to find it out, once he was done with his current task and Hiro was okay. More of a motivator to get it done, then.

Tadashi gestured behind him vaguely. “I'm gonna get out of your way, then. See you guys later, I guess.”

He found, to his delight, that it was much easier to walk without sinking into the snow if he was fox-shaped.


Jack gaped after the retreating fox. “Did... did that actually not work?

Beside him, Bunny winced in mock sympathy. “Ooh, tough crowd, mate.”

“No, seriously!” Jack gestured wildly in the direction the newest Guardian had taken. “Did you see that? I nailed him with a snowball. I mean – A Snowball. You saw that! And all he did was dust himself off and walk away! Why didn't that work? It worked on you!

The rabbit shrugged. “Don't ask me, I'm Hope, not Fun. That's your area.” He raised an eyebrow. “Gotta ask, though – why do you keep needling him like that?”

“Same reason I needle you – I can't stand serious people.” Jack wrinkled his nose. “Guy needs to loosen up. I mean look at him, no wonder he's having trouble – he's always jumping around like a wet cat. Plus he's going about the whole practicing thing-” He wiggled his fingers for emphasis. “-like it's a huge chore he's trying to get out of the way. Bleh. Plus, have you been watching him? He has this habit of asking for advice, listening to it, and then saying 'kay thanks' and going right back to what he was doing before.” Jack wrinkled his nose, as if smelling something particularly unpleasant. “It's annoying.”

“Fair enough.” The rabbit nodded. “Ever occur to you to maybe tell him this?”

Jack sniffed. “Nah, he's getting all his advice from North.” He shrugged, his annoyance falling a little. “Forget about him. Anyway, so you've been checking stuff out with the Sandman, right? How's that been going?”

With a sigh, Bunny scratched behind one ear. “Well, it's like we thought. There's definitely a lot of Nightmare activity going on under Sandy's radar. Far as we can tell, they ain't coming from where they used to – they must be free-floating, wandering around with nowhere to go back to.”

“Man in the Moon was right, then?” Jack pressed. “Pitch isn't in the equation?”

“If he is, he's being bloody quiet about it.”

“Have you checked his lair?”

The rabbit looked grim. “I've a feeling we'll be doing that eventually. Tooth'll be coming back up soon – she's been at home checking recent memories for him.”

“Hm.” Jack frowned. “Any more Nightmare attacks on the fairies?”

“Nah.” Bunny grinned. “They're fine. Meantime, I have to work on these tunnels. Now will you shift that ice, or am I gonna have to ask the new guy to melt it for me?”

“Pfft, please. Step aside.”

Chapter Text

 

The next time Tadashi fled to the North Pole, it was for a much less somber reason. Hiro had started work on putting together Fred's upgrade, and... well...

It was probably more productive to work out his own “upgrade” then to sit around trying not to laugh too hard at the powered monster costume. Fred was finally getting his wish – not a transformation formula, but probably as close as he would realistically get.

Though, given recent events, the boundaries of “realistic” had shifted in Tadashi's eyes. In any case, Fred was getting the firepower he wanted, and it wouldn't do to fall behind.

And so he found himself out in the snow again, again with an audience. Jack was hanging around, as usual, which Tadashi had... mixed feelings about. As nice as it had been to laugh again thanks to Jack, it didn't change the fact that he was completely obnoxious the other eighty-five percent of the time. The Tooth Fairy was back, along with a few mini-fairies from her entourage. The moment he had arrived out in the North Pole snow field, Baby Tooth had launched herself from her perch on Jack's head, straight to Tadashi's to give his face an enthusiastic, twittering hug.

“Good to see you, too.” Gently he detached the fairy and held her in his cupped hands. She beamed up at him. “Staying safe?”

Nodnodnod. The fairy took to the air again and returned to Tooth's side.

“Don't let us distract you!” the Guardian of Memories said cheerfully. “I wanted to pop in and see how you were doing.”

Tadashi shrugged. “Progress has been pretty slow. I feel like there's a wall I have to get past, but I can't figure out how.”

“Big surprise there,” Jack said dryly. Tadashi politely ignored him.

It was harder to focus with people watching, even faces as friendly as Tooth and her subordinate fairies. It was especially difficult with Jack watching. With one, it felt like he was disappointing their hopes, and with the other, it felt like he was being silently judged and maybe mocked a little, too.

Nevertheless, it went all right for a while. Then the fire sputtered in his hands, and he muttered curses in English, Japanese, and a little bit of Spanish. The old frustration was quick to come flooding back, and he had to bite his lip to keep from cursing more loudly.

“Baby Tooth says you've gotten a lot better!” Tooth called from her vantage point. The smaller fairies chirruped and squeaked encouragingly.

“I can see his problem,” Jack said dryly from where he lounged on a snow-cushioned tree limb. “Maybe you can too, but you're being polite.”

His smug tone chased away any warm feelings Tadashi might have had for the other spirit. “Care to share your thoughts?” he shot back in the same deadpan tone.

“Just one thought,” Jack leaned his head back and regarded him lazily. “You're being a weenie.”

A flash of temper showed through in the spurt of fire around Tadashi's hands. “Oh, thank you,” he said, his chest tight with frustration. “That's so very helpful of you, may I have another?”

“I can elaborate, if you want.”

“Please do!”

“Maybe a little nicer?” Tooth suggested. Her fairies looked worried.

“Just look at yourself,” Jack went on. “I've been watching your face this whole time – whenever you use your fire, you look like you're constipated.”

“I'm trying to think.”

“Yeah, well knock it off.” Jack leapt lightly down from the tree and crossed the snow barefoot without sinking an inch. Like a Tolkien elf, Tadashi thought.

“Stop thinking?” he said sarcastically. “That's your advice?”

“Pretty much.” Jack shrugged. “You've probably been told this already two or three times, but here it is again, if it makes any difference: there's no how-to. There's no mechanical process. It's just magic. You don't think it, you feel it and then you make it happen. Don't think. Just do it.”

Don't think just do it. Tadashi tensed without quite knowing why. For some reason, the words gnawed in his mind, dangerously close to the darkened part of his memory. “Yeah that sounds like a bad idea.”

“It's not the only part of the problem!” Jack went on. “You're not just thinking too hard – you hate this. You don't want it.”

“I don't...” Tadashi's voice trailed off. It wasn't true, but neither was the opposite. “Look, it's more complicated than that.”

“You're scared of it.”

“It's... well...” Tadashi averted his eyes. The pale spirit looked a little too self-satisfied at the moment for his liking. “Yeah.”

“Look, fox boy, you have a lot less to be scared about than I did. You've got your kickass powers, you have the full support of the Guardians behind you literally right off the bat, and you have me dispensing useful advice for free. Not everybody's that lucky. You even remember everything!”

“Not everything.” A shortened, frayed temper forced the words out through clenched teeth.

Jack jerked his head up. “What?”

くそ. “Nothing. Never mind.”

“Wait, no,” Tooth pressed. “What did you say, just now?”

Tadashi shrugged, regretting his loose tongue. “Look, forget I said anything. It's nothing, just one fuzzy spot in my memory, that's all.”

“Well why didn't you say so?” Jack demanded, rolling his eyes. “Yeesh, this could've been over ages ago. Tooth, could you help him out with that?”

“It's possible that I-”

No.” Tadashi's voice cracked on the way out, and he found himself staring down two curious pairs of eyes. He stepped back, fists clenching and unclenching. “It's nothing I need, trust me.”

Jack snorted quietly. “Yeah, forgive me if I don't take your word for that.”

“It's just one night!” Tadashi insisted. His throat tightened with something that felt suspiciously like fear. “And not even the whole night. I remember most of it, just not the part where I died. But I don't need to, because I know how I died already, because I'm not an idiot.”

“Could've fooled me,” Jack muttered.

Tooth shot him a brief warning glare before turning back to Tadashi. “It could be worth looking into, anyway,” she said. “I mean, what's the harm?”

“What's the harm?” The laugh that came out of him was nothing but bitter. “You're joking. How about the fact that every time I remember more than two seconds of it, something catches on fire? At the rate I was at last time, I would've burned the whole damn city if I remembered the whole thing!”

“We're standing in snow, genius,” Jack reminded him. “And you're literally talking to the spirit of winter here. I think I can handle anything you throw at me.”

Panic, thick and stifling, rose like bile in his throat. “The answer is no.” He stared pleadingly at Tooth. “Look, I don't need it and I don't want it.”

Jack's eyebrows snapped together in a frown, and his eyes sparked. “Yeah, that's where you're wrong.”

Tadashi blinked at Jack, taken aback by the sudden anger in his voice. Jack was a lot of things – dry, sarcastic, jeering at times – but he'd never seen him angry before. “What?”

“Look, Smokey,” Jack stuck his staff into the snow as if planting a flag, and crossed his arms. “I only know what I know. And in my experience, if there's something you can't remember, something so strong that one sniff of it is enough to throw you off your game, chances are it's pretty damn important. Did you ever think that maybe, just maybe, the details of how you died might have something to do with, well, everything?” He threw his hands out. “Because let me tell you, it sure did for me!”

“I... have to agree,” Tooth said apologetically. “I wasn't there, but Baby Tooth was. Regaining his memories was a big turning point for Jack.” She looked Tadashi in the eye. “It could be the same for you. I won't force it on you – it's your mind, your memories, so it's your choice. But if you want, I can look into it.”

“I don't,” Tadashi said hoarsely. “I really... really don't.”

“Oh cut the crap,” Jack scoffed. “You're already chasing after the guy that started the fire. You think that's not gonna wake up a few things anyway?”

Tadashi froze with his mouth open, ready to retort. No words would come, not to his mouth nor to his mind.

He honestly hadn't thought of that.

He hadn't thought of it at all.

“I really don't get you.” Jack shook his head, scowling. “I mean, you're here to ask us for help, but all you do is ignore it and keep up the same running-in-circles routine you had before you came. We're literally offering you answers on a silver platter, and you're falling all over yourself just to turn and run the other way! You're already after the guy that caused your death, so you obviously want to know something.”

That's not why I'm doing it!” Tadashi's frayed temper snapped. Beneath his feet, the snow melted to slush, and his frustration finally boiled over into the open. “God, you're good at one thing and you act like it makes you the only smart, competent one on earth! You talk like all anyone else can do is tell you stuff you already know! Do you have any idea how obnoxious that is?”

For once, Jack actually looked taken aback. “I-”

Well, sorry, but you're wrong!” Flames surrounded his fists, but he barely noticed them. “You don't know anything about me, and I really don't appreciate you being flippant about things that are important to me! Stop acting like everything that applies to you automatically applies to everyone else!”

Tadashi almost continued his tirade, but he couldn't think of anything else to say. The entire blanket of snow around his feet was now half-melted slush, and freezing water was seeping into his shoes. Tooth was staring at him. Embarrassment made his face heat even further, and the fire in his hands sputtered and died. “Sorry,” he said quietly. “Lost my temper, but I didn't...” He couldn't say he didn't mean it, because he had.

“There you go again.” There was less bite to Jack's words than there ever had been before. “Apologizing again.” He averted his eyes. “Y'know, you haven't really been open about it.”

Tadashi shrugged. “You didn't ask.”

A worried Tooth Fairy fluttered between them. “Why don't you check on your brother?” she suggested. “You can try again when everyone's calmed down.”

Jack blinked, staring at him in faint bewilderment. “Wait, your-?”

“I'll tell you later,” Tadashi interrupted. “I'm just... I'm done for today. I'm going home. See you later.” He trudged back to the warmth of the workshop, where a trio of elves left off festooning a yeti in fairy lights to herd him back to North's workroom. The Guardian obliged him with a portal home.

It was hours past midnight in San Fransokyo, and the bedroom was empty when he checked. Not surprising – Hiro was pretty focused on his project.

Tadashi crept into the garage to an unwelcome site. Fred was sprawled on a rumpled blanket on the floor at the foot of the couch, snoring, but Hiro was asleep at the desk. His pencil had fallen from his flinching fingers, and his brow furrowed as if he were in pain. A high whimper reached Tadashi's ears, and he took in the sight of the thread of dream-sand. Gold had darkened to black.

“No,” Hiro murmured. “Go 'way. I can't. Can't.”

“Shh.” He had to be careful, touching him. The last thing Tadashi wanted to do was wake him up. But the sand refused to brighten again, and no amount of whispering and hair-stroking would fix it. He could tell the nightmare had been going on for a while – tear tracks had already dried on Hiro's face.

This was a terrible place to sleep, anyway. Hiro had done it more than once during the microbots project, and it always left him bemoaning a stiff spine the following morning.

With as much care as he could manage, Tadashi lifted his brother out of the chair. He could not afford to wake him by accident, not while carrying him – if he did, he would drop him for sure. Hiro fought him a little without waking up. Tadashi hushed him, and his voice barely reached as loud as a whisper. His steps were feline-smooth as he crossed the garage and lay Hiro down on the couch. His brother never woke, but the problem was far from solved. The only blanket in the room was currently between Fred and the floor, and the nightmare blackness in the sand made leaving the room unthinkable to him.

With nothing left to do, Tadashi changed shape.

He was taking a leaf from Mochi's book by doing this, but the cat wasn't around to do it for him. Fox-formed, he heaved himself up to the couch cushion, curled up behind his little brother's head, and nestled as closely as he could manage. His tail he wrapped around Hiro's neck like a warm scarf. Then, resting his chin in his little brother's nest of hair, he reached out to touch the thread of sand with the tip of his paw. As he watched, the sand lightened to gold again. He shut his eyes with a sigh of relief, and settled down to wait out the night

His ear twitched. Either it had just arrived, or he had just noticed now that he was no longer worried about the sand. But there was a chill in the room, like a draft. He opened his eyes again.

Blue eyes and a pale face stared back from halfway across the room, immediately registering alarm.

It was cold enough down here without him helping. Tadashi's ears went back, and he gave Jack what he hoped was a withering look. It was hard to tell when he was a fox – different facial structure and everything.

The winter spirit stepped back. “Sorry. I didn't mean to – well I kind of did, but...” Tadashi continued to glare at him until his voice trailed off. “Um.”

With utmost care, Tadashi uncurled himself from around his brother. The sand behaved itself by staying light and gold, so he allowed himself to turn his attention to dealing with... whatever this was. Brushing his tail lightly over Hiro's shoulder, he leapt silently to the floor, over Fred's sleeping form, and padded to the door with a jerk of his head at Jack. He only changed back so that he could reach the doorknob and turn it. Without a word, the Guardian followed him.

Tadashi led the way through the cafe, up the stairs, and into the empty bedroom at the very top. He hesitated on the last step. There was something – sacred, about this room. It was his, and it was Hiro's, and even Aunt Cass only ever came in briefly. After the accident she had let her boys have their space, and the habit had formed, and soon it was an unspoken rule.

Tadashi hoped that Hiro would forgive him for bringing someone else here. He compromised, at least in his own mind, by keeping to his own part of the room, in the back past the sliding wall. Tiredly, he sank to the floor at the foot of the bed, leaning against the comforter. Jack sat beside him a little hesitantly, as if he wasn't sure he was allowed. He rested his staff against the wall.

The pair were quiet for a while. Tadashi didn't have much to say, not after his earlier outburst. Besides, Jack was the one who'd come here, so obviously he had something to-

“I had a sister.”

...Oh.

Tadashi looked at him, unable to hide his surprise. The other spirit stared straight ahead, a faraway look in his eyes.

“She was littler than me. Followed me everywhere, even when I was doing something stupid. Which was... most of the time.” His brow furrowed. “But I didn't think much of it back then. Nothing ever went wrong. We got in trouble a lot – okay, well, I got in trouble and she chased me right into it – but we always came out okay. And then I almost got her killed.”

For a moment he fell silent, and he finally looked to Tadashi for a response. Tadashi couldn't even think of interrupting.

“It was winter,” Jack went on at length. “Early winter, though. I told her I'd teach her how to ice skate as soon as the pond was frozen. Our mother kept us away from it, said it wasn't cold enough, the ice wasn't thick enough.” A dry, humorless laugh left him. “But I was stubborn, and I finally bothered her enough, so... she let us go early. Said stay away from the reeds, because the ice is always thinner where there's plants. And we tried. We really did try, but... my sister was still learning, and...” He shook his head, as if clearing it. “She went too close, and the ice cracked under her. So I...” Jack stopped gnawing his lip. He ran his fingers through his white hair, and Tadashi heard him let out a breath.

“Take your time,” he said softly.

“I didn't mean for it to happen,” Jack went on, once he'd composed himself. “I had my staff, and I just meant to knock her back onto the thicker ice. But when I did that, I threw off my weight, and my balance, and... I went under.” He almost sounded relieved, as if finishing the story was the end of a hated chore. “I think I drowned first before I froze to death.”

“That's...” Any words he might have thought of withered in his throat before he could voice them. “I didn't realize,” he finished lamely.

“I've been stupid,” Jack went on, as if not hearing him. “With you, I mean. You're right. I forgot that... I dunno, maybe if I remembered drowning in a frozen pond, I wouldn't have been so happy with my own powers, at first.”

“You're right, too, though,” Tadashi admitted. “I've been going in circles a lot, and I've been keeping a lot of this close to my chest. You're just the only one who hasn't been patient with me. Well – except maybe the bunny.”

Jack snickered suddenly. “Oh man, tell me about it. Don't feel too bad, though, I'm pretty sure he thinks you're cool. Did you know he used to hate me?”

“I thought he still did,” Tadashi retorted. There was no sharpness behind it, only teasing. “But, seriously, I think you're right.” His mouth twisted. “I have a hole in my memory, and it's been fighting me to fill itself since the night I woke up. And maybe...” He shut his eyes briefly, feeling sharp teeth scrape the inside of his cheek. “Maybe whatever's in that hole is what I need to, to beat this. Maybe all I have to do is just remember, and all my problems will be solved. But...” His throat stuck, the words caught fast before they could reach his mouth. “But I...”

“You're scared,” Jack said bluntly.

Tadashi turned to look him in the eye. “I'm terrified.

“Of what, though?”

Sitting back, Tadashi tilted his head to rest against the bed. “Mainly? I'm scared that remembering what it feels like to burn to death isn't the worst thing I'm going to find. What if-” His voice caught again. “What if Hiro saw?

“Your brother?”

Tadashi could only nod.

He could almost hear the gears turning in Jack's mind. “He's the reason why you're trying to find who started the fire.”

“Hiro found out it wasn't an accident,” Tadashi half-whispered. “He's almost been killed twice since then. And now he's – I don't know, it's like he's obsessed with finding this guy. I can't just sit back and let him, I have to go with him. I need to. If – if I can protect him through this, then I can be a Guardian.” He wiped at his eyes. “But I wish he'd just let it go.”

“Would you?” Jack asked.

“Huh?”

“If your places were switched,” the spirit said. “If he was the one to die in that fire, and you found out someone started it on purpose. Would you let it go?”

And Tadashi thought about it. He thought of sitting in a pew in a funeral home, watching friends and family members offer up weak platitudes in a sad attempt to pay respects to a dead teenager. He thought of standing in the rain and watching them lower a small, empty coffin into the ground. He thought of waking up to silence, of coming home to an empty room, of sitting in his corner and watching dust gather on the cluttered shelves and the unmade bed. He thought of a world where he was alive and his little brother wasn't, his promise over his parents' graves well and truly broken.

He thought of a world where all of that was true, and on top of it all it was murder.

“No,” he said finally, and the words came out as crackling-dry as flames. “I don't think I would.”

Beside him, Jack nodded. “For the record?” he said at length. “Considering that it took me hundreds of years to get where you are, I think you're doing fine. But... if it's already coming back to you, it's only gonna get loose.” He shook his head. “You can't trap a storm, Tadashi. Believe me – I've tried.”

Tadashi sat forward with a sigh. “I'm still stuck, though. I'm too scared to dig into that memory, and I think that means I'm too scared to get a handle on my power, but I don't know what else to do. North said I should find my center, but I don't know where to start looking. If there's something I can offer, I don't know what it is.” He looked to Jack for a response, and found the other Guardian staring at him with a thoughtful look on his face. “What?”

Jack stood up and grabbed his staff. “Transform.”

“Huh?”

“Go on, turn into a fox,” he urged.

Bewildered, Tadashi struggled to his feet. “What for?”

“Because we're gonna take a trip, and I need you to be smaller than me.” Frost-white teeth showed in a grin. “C'mon, there's someone I want you to meet.”

Chapter Text

 

It was almost a full minute before Jack actually picked him up. The minute mostly consisted of the Guardian poking him lightly to make sure he wouldn't get burned the way he had on the first day. Once he judged that Tadashi was cool enough to touch, Jack scooped him up like an oversized cat, tucked him under one arm, and took to the air.

Tadashi had never flown before. Not like this, outside of a protective metal tube, with the ground too close to be quietly ignored and wind rushing past him and no barrier between his feet and the drop. And Jack – of course – wasn't exactly going easy. Tadashi's stomach was doing Olympic gymnastics as the spirit of winter took him on a meandering, whirling path through the sky. It was like a roller coaster, except the only thing keeping him from falling to his death was Jack's arm around his middle and what little grip he could get without the luxury of opposable thumbs.

“Calm down, will you?” Jack shifted his hold.

Tadashi glared at him silently, his claws catching in the fabric of Jack's sweater.

“I'm not gonna drop you. And even if I do, I'll just grab you again before you hit the ground.”

Oh that's comforting.

There was nothing he could do about it, in any case. With a defeated sigh, Tadashi tried to distract himself by watching the landscape pass beneath them. Stretches of multicolored light passed beneath them where cities were, far below. Between those heavy patches of civilization was only darkness and moonlight – and there was moonlight.

Tadashi's breath caught. Outside of cities, away from the light that polluted the sky and the neon signs and street lamps that stole all the thunder, moonlight actually meant something. It was enough to cast shadows, to illuminate treetops and hills and the odd solitary roof. Glancing up, he could see Jack's face – actually see it, enough to recognize it by the curve and shape.

He'd been camping a few times in his life, often when it was the only vacation they could afford. How had he never noticed how bright the moon was before?

He turned his eyes upward to the source of light. Somewhere, sitting on that massive silver ball, someone had seen him die and decided he deserved another go at it.

Tadashi lost track of time as rural farmland turned to mountains, then flatland again, then another wide stretch of mountains – the Rockies, if his mental U.S. atlas could be trusted. Somewhere down the line, he had gotten used to the height, and even to Jack's... rather erratic flight pattern. His ride seemed to be in his own world, taking whatever turns and swoops he pleased without warning or commenting on anything. Even Tadashi began to get bored after a while, but Jack apparently didn't. Maybe it was like driving a car – more interesting to drive than to ride.

For a moment, Tadashi wondered what it was like to fly without help.

Finally, he could see morning peeking out in the distance when Jack began one final descent. They were flying over a town – small, modestly lit, certainly no bustling metropolis the way San Fransokyo was. His stomach leapt a little as Jack dropped, slowed, and finally touched down with bare feet on an asphalt street.

Jack stooped to deposit him safely on the ground. “We're here.”

After a moment of waffling, Tadashi was human again – thank heavens turning off the fox form was somewhat easier than turning off the fire. The tail stayed, but that was fine. “Where is here?”

Jack leaned his staff on his shoulder and shoved his free hand in his pocket. “Welcome to Burgess.”

Well that told him absolutely nothing. “Uh-huh. What's in Burgess?”

The winter spirit beckoned with a jerk of his head. “Sort of a home base, for me. Plus a friend of mine. C'mon.”

Tadashi followed him through the streets. The sun was rising slowly, turning the tops of houses to orange; Tadashi would have guessed that it was around seven, maybe seven-thirty. “Home base?”

“Sure. North's got the North Pole, Bunny has the Warren, Tooth has her Tooth Palace-”

Tadashi blinked, half convinced that Jack was pulling his leg. “Tooth... Palace?”

“Well, yeah.” Jack shrugged. “Where do you think she keeps all of them? Anyway, they've all got their places, Sandman's sort of everywhere all the time, and I have Burgess. Nothing fancy about it, just a place I keep coming back to. Kind of like you and San Fransokyo, except this wasn't where I grew up.” He led Tadashi through the streets of Burgess, through pedestrians and between commuters' cars. It had that peaceful small-town feel – a lot of one-story houses with basketball hoops and child-sized bikes parked outside. The kind of place where you half-expected to see a kid riding by on a paper route.

“Anything special about it?” Tadashi asked.

Jack looked back to grin at him. “It's where I got my first believer.” With another jerk of his head, he picked up his pace. “C'mon, we're almost there.”

“There”, as it turned out, was a glass-fronted bookstore. It stood just short of the street corner, tucked between a coffee shop and a sporting goods store. It was closed, but the lights were on inside and in the windows on the floor above it. As Tadashi stepped closer, he heard a dog bark upstairs. The sudden noise made him jump, and he stayed tense as the dog continued to howl. Snickering, Jack flew up to the window, tapped on it with his staff, waved to someone inside, and dropped down to the ground again.

“Door's open,” he announced. “Usually is, I just wanted to make sure.” Sure enough, the door opened easily, the bell above jingling merrily, and Tadashi followed him inside.

The unmistakeable smell of new books washed over him, clean paper and glue mingling with air freshener. Brand-new books lined the shelves, and posters of foreign countries, wildlife, astronomy, and dinosaurs lined the walls. A few of the lights were still off.

Footsteps drew his attention to the back of the room, where he could see the bottom of a staircase just beyond an open doorway. The barking grew louder, and a slender greyhound raced out in a flurry of paws and tail. A man stepped out only seconds behind it and called it back. Confused, the animal padded around in circles, sniffed, whined, and barked more. Tadashi found himself pressed back against the door again, tail bristling.

If Jack noticed, he didn't show it. With a burst of laughter, he hurled himself across the room and nearly bowled the man over with a hug. Before Tadashi's shocked eyes, the man caught him, laughed, and returned the hug enthusiastically. The dog split its attention between this development and the door where Tadashi was standing, barking in confused excitement.

The man was tall and middle-aged, a little younger than Professor Callaghan had been. His brown hair was liberally streaked with gray, and the lines and creases on his face suggested that he spent most of his time smiling. Tadashi found himself liking the man, for all that he was entirely baffled. Weren't children the only ones who were supposed to see spirits and Guardians?

If that was a rule, no one had bothered to tell this man. “Hey, Jack! It's been too long – how've you been?”

Jack slipped out of the hug and hovered several feet off the ground, grinning. “Hey, Jamie. I've been... well, pretty much the same. So, still awesome. How's the store?”

With a chuckle, Jamie brushed his hair out of his face. “Opening at eight, as always, so be prepared to be flooded with children if you stay that long. Oh, and you missed this year's Easter egg hunt – now come on, don't make that face.” Jack only stuck his tongue out farther. “So, what's the occasion?”

Jack put his tongue away and cracked another grin. “I brought a friend. New spirit, in fact, which is why Daisy's losing her mind.” The greyhound turned her full attention back to Tadashi, and the pitch of her barking jumped an octave.

Tadashi's tail was beginning to resemble an orange and white cloud. “Help me,” he hissed.

“Daisy, no! Go lie down.” Jamie snapped his fingers twice. Cowed, the dog reluctantly padded back to obey. “New spirit – you mean another Guardian?” Jamie looked in Tadashi's direction, but he could tell that the man was looking through him, not at him. After weeks of seeing that, Tadashi could tell the difference. “And he's here right now?”

“He's right at the spot Daisy was just barking at,” Jack said with a nod.

“Ah.” Jamie blinked, and offered a smile in Tadashi's direction. “I apologize, I can't quite see you yet.”

Tadashi stepped away from the door, encouraged. Even if he was still invisible, it was nice to be acknowledged by someone living and non-robotic for once.

“Hey, do the thing.” Jack waved in his direction. “He'll see your power even if he can't see you. Trust me, it worked for me.”

“I'm not going to start a fire in a bookstore, Jack,” Tadashi said flatly.

“Ice powers, remember? C'mon, I trust you.”

The words rang comfortingly in his mind. Tadashi hesitated. Just one little flame, I can handle that. Just in case, he backed to the door again and shouldered it open a few inches. Then, cupping his hands, he called a small, sputtering little ember into being. Timidly, not quite daring to hope, he raised his eyes to Jamie to look for a reaction.

The effect was gradual. Tadashi could see it slowly unfold on the man's face. First surprise at the appearance of fire, then a careful, thoughtful concentration, then finally blinking, realization, and a slow smile spreading across his face.

For the first time in almost two months, a living, breathing person looked at Tadashi and saw him.

“Ah,” said Jamie. “There you are. Hello there.”

His concentration went out the window, and the flame in his hands snuffed itself out. “H-hi.” He dropped his hands to his sides and let the door close behind him.

The next thing he knew, he was sitting in the small kitchen behind the bookstore – the man lived with his business the same way Aunt Cass did – with a cup of hot chocolate in his hands, a smiling bookstore owner, and a winter spirit who looked way too pleased with himself.

Jamie Bennett leaned back against the counter, his palms pressed to the countertop behind him. “So, you're a kitsune.”

Fidgeting, Tadashi arranged his tail in a more comfortable position. “Heh, what gave it away?”

“Legends have been a hobby of mine since I was a boy,” Jamie replied. “They're easy to find, if you know what to look for. Though I have to admit, I haven't met a kitsune before.”

“Maybe you still haven't,” Tadashi admitted. “I still wonder if that's really what I am. Besides the fox thing, I don't seem to have a whole lot in common with them. I don't even have a hoshi no tama.” He paused, sipping sheepishly at his mug. “Might be a good thing, though. Something that small would be easy lose track of.” Tapping his finger against his mug, he regarded Jamie curiously. “So... how'd you get mixed up in all this magic stuff?”

Jamie's voice was matter-of-fact as he answered. “When I was eight, my sister Sophie got lost in the Easter Rabbit's Warren, and I accidentally became the Guardians' last hope for victory against darkness and fear.” He blinked, grinning lopsidedly. “It was an interesting year for me.”

“It... yeah, it sounds like.” Where to even begin with a statement like that? “I mean, I'm still really new and figuring things out as I go, so...”

“Not so different from Jack when I first met him, then.”

“Watch it,” Jack teased. To Tadashi he added, “Getting Jamie to see me was another big turning point for me. I figured I might try it with you, too.” He squinted one eye. “Not quite the same, since one, he's not a kid anymore, and two, he was the first person to see me in three hundred years instead of a month or so, but it was worth a shot.”

“Thanks,” Tadashi said, and meant it. “I'm just confused...”

“What's a man about to hit fifty doing chatting with characters from children's stories?” There was a note of humor in Jamie's voice.

Tadashi reddened slightly. “Well... yeah. I was sort of under the impression that kids stop seeing them... us? ...when they grow up.”

“Well, there's your answer then,” Jamie said with a shrug. “I grew older, but somewhere down the line I forgot to grow up. Most people don't realize they can skip that step. I never stopped believing in them, Tadashi, so I never stopped seeing them.”

Tadashi's shoulders stiffened, and his fingertips whitened around his cup as a rush of hope overtook him. “You mean – there's no age limit, to believing? Anyone could see us?”

“Anyone has the potential, I think,” Jamie replied. “Whether or not they continue to believe is really up to them.”

“The answer's yes,” Jack broke in bluntly. “It's totally possible for your little brother to see you.”

Not just Hiro, Tadashi thought, staring down at his cup. All of them. Honey, Gogo, Wasabi, and Fred. Maybe even Aunt Cass. They could see me, too. They could talk to me again.

Jamie's voice brought him back to the present. “You have a brother?”

“Yeah.” Tadashi fidgeted again. “He's fourteen. I died over a month ago. He... hasn't taken it well.” In as few words as he could manage, he offered a quick rundown of events, from Hiro's discovery in the warehouse to the chase through downtown and his friends' current project to arm themselves and take down the unknown arsonist. “It's maddening,” he finished. “I can see it all happen, but I can hardly do anything to help him. By rights I should be able to, shouldn't I? I'm his brother, I have a second chance at life, and I have these abilities that I can't even begin to understand, but... all I can do is flounder and drop hints.”

“From what you've said, you're doing plenty with what you have,” Jamie pointed out. “Dealing with forces like these requires a different kind of thinking. It's less about what you know, and more about what you feel.”

“Which is the worst thing to say to a STEM major,” Tadashi grumbled. “Well. Former STEM major. I don't think I'm gonna get my degree.”

“You have to start listening to your gut feelings,” Jamie went on, smiling a little. “Trust me. They tell the truth. The answers aren't always clear.”

Frustration boiled over before he could hold it back. “That's what everyone keeps saying,” he hissed. “That I have to figure things out for myself, listen to my feelings or my heart or whatever, keep an open mind because the answers aren't always clear. But the answers have never been clear, not once since I crawled out of those damn ashes.” His hot chocolate bubbled slightly, and he put the cup down, wringing his hands to stop them from shaking. “I've had nothing but questions, ever since this happened. The others – they've been great. But the one thing no one's been able to answer is why.” His eyes stung as he glanced from Jamie's face to Jack's. “Why me? What am I for? What can I do that – that Santa Claus and the Sandman can't do?”

“Shoot fire out of your hands?” Jack suggested.

“But that isn't me.” Tadashi fought to keep his voice under control. “It's just – I didn't do anything, I just died and woke up like that. And that's not – that's not something I can do, it's just something that was given to me. Does that make sense?” He ran his hand through his hair forcefully, fingers clawing through the tangles, grounding himself with the pain in his scalp. “Everyone keeps saying that I wouldn't be here if I wasn't the 'best one for the job', but I don't believe that. All I have is a power I can barely control and a little brother who might get himself killed, and I don't know how to reconcile the two. I'm not like North or Jack or Tooth – hell, I'm not even like you.” He looked to Jamie again. “I'm not the special one. I never have been.”

He fell silent, mortified. Both of the others were giving him their full attention, and it felt like the walls were still ringing with his frustrated outburst. His palms tingled, and he shoved them into his pockets.

“Well,” Jamie said, so abruptly and matter-of-factly that Tadashi almost jumped. “There's your problem, then. You're trying to measure up.”

“But-”

“That's a bad habit,” Jack added dryly. “If I did that, I'd never get anything done.”

“Do you always judge your own worth by comparing yourself to the people around you?” Jamie asked. “I'm not criticizing you – I'm just curious.”

“I-” Tadashi stopped short. He had been about to say No, of course not, but... was that the truth? “I mean... maybe? I don't think I do.”

“I think,” Jamie went on, “that you're understating your own accomplishments. And like Jack says, that's a bad habit.”

“Okay, well, maybe,” Tadashi admitted. “It... kinda comes with the territory when you have a brother who's a genius.”

“Everyone is a genius,” Jamie replied. “But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree...”

“...It will live its whole life believing that it is stupid,” Tadashi finished at the same time. In spite of himself, he grinned. “Albert Einstein.”

“Well, he was right.” Jamie nodded. “And you are, too. You're not like Santa Claus, or Jack, or any of them. And you aren't supposed to be.”

“Seriously, North's great, but do you think he's the end-all be-all?” Jack broke in. “He may be sort of leader-ish, but at the end of the day he's a Guardian just like the rest of us. We're all just... pieces to a puzzle? I guess? I'm bad with analogies.”

“The point is that you all have different roles to play,” Jamie went on. “No one is supposed to be 'like' anyone else. Stop worrying about being as good as them, and focus on being as good as you. And remember, most importantly–” Jamie shot a quick, warm smile toward Jack, as if sharing in an inside joke. “There's a little Guardian in all of us. You don't have to be special to be important.”

In that moment, the tingle in his palms died away. Carefully Tadashi took his hands from his pockets again and stared down at them, at fingers still callused from working with tools, now darkened by tanning or leftover soot stains. The words rang in his mind with a note of truth, of familiarity, that drove back the threatening memories still half-hidden in some dark corner. A different memory slipped free instead.

“I'm terrified.” The words slipped from his mouth with the slightest hint of a crack in his voice. His eye was sore (Eyesore, that was what they used to call his little brother in the schoolyard, when the teachers weren't around) as he shifted his gaze between his lap and the professor in front of him. He saw neither – all he saw was his little brother, on the ground bruised and bleeding again (but these weren't grade-school bullies this time, who stomped and shouted but ran at the sight of an older boy, these were grown men who could do damage that iodine and a red lollipop couldn't fix).

The ice pack chilled the side of his face to numbness, and with his unblocked eye he watched his professor's face. Guilt tasted sour in his mouth – there was a reason he had come to Callaghan with this problem, and Callaghan knew it and and knew what the reason was. But that topic had been No Man's Land since the accident at Krei Tech that Tadashi still knew nothing about, because he could count on less than half a hand the number of times Callaghan had brought her up since then, and 'Abigail' might as well have been the worst curse word you could speak in his presence. He couldn't look this man in the eye and say, “You've been here before. How did you stop her? What did you say to her to fix it?” So he kept his lips pursed together and pressed his pleading out through his eyes, praying with all he had that his professor could give him the answers he needed, like he always did.

A sigh left his mentor's lips with a slump of the shoulders and a furrowing of his eyebrows. “It's a thrill,” he said at length. “For a boy who graduated at thirteen, there won't be an awful lot like it – to prove how smart and special he is.”

Tadashi's eye throbbed again when he shifted the ice pack. “What can I do?”

“He needs a challenge.”

“I keep telling him to try to apply here. I know he can get in – if I could get in, then it'll be no problem for him. But he won't listen when I tell him. He won't believe me.”

“That's your trouble, then – you're telling him.” Callaghan offered him a smile, the small kind that you'd have to be a statue to resist smiling back. “Ever taken a creative writing course, Mr. Hamada?”

“I – can't say I have.”

“Well, any writer worth their salt will tell you about the merits of showing, rather than telling.” He reached forward to rest a comforting hand on Tadashi's shoulder. “Bring him by the lab sometime. If you can't convince him, let me have a try.”

“You-” He almost started out of the chair. “You'd do that? You'd talk to him for me?”

“Give him a proper tour, show him what you and your friends have been working on, and maybe I won't have to.” The smile turned wry, and Callaghan sat back. “And let's have less of that 'if I could get in, it'll be easy for him' nonsense. If I didn't know better, I'd think you didn't believe you earned your place here fair and square.”

Tadashi shrank a little in his chair. “I feel like I work every day to earn it,” he admitted. “This kind of thing comes easy to Hiro, though.”

“He sounds like a bright young man.”

“You don't know the half of it.” It was all he could do to keep from gushing – he'd been reliably informed (by Gogo) that it was annoying when he did that. “I just – he hasn't had any drive since he graduated. But when he does? There's no stopping him. You'd love teaching him.”

Callaghan laughed. “If he's anything at all like his older brother, I think you may be right.”

“Oh, he'll outshine me. He always does.”

“Amazing,” Callaghan murmured.

Tadashi blinked, lowering the ice pack to give his arm a rest. “What is?”

“You act like you forget your own accomplishments whenever you talk about your brother.”

“Well...” Sheepishly, Tadashi tried to backtrack. “It's not that I forget anything, it's just... well, it's true. Hiro's the amazing one. He's... he's gonna do great things.”

“Says the young man in the process of making a breakthrough in the healthcare industry.”

And he's going to do way better, Tadashi thought. He didn't say it out loud – it was starting to get embarrassing.

But Callaghan was still staring, searching his face until Tadashi couldn't help but avert his eyes. “It's almost as if...” his mentor murmured. “Hm.”

Tadashi chanced another look at him, and found his mentor tilting his head slightly with an absolutely unreadable expression. “What?”

“You don't think you're important,” Callaghan said, as if it were the most extraordinary thing he had ever seen.

“I do! I do, it's just...” Hiro's more important. He's the most important part of my life, more than school, more than inventing, more than Baymax. He bit his lip, glancing at the floor again.

“It isn't true,” Callaghan said simply, matter-of-factly. “Not in the slightest. There's no such thing.”

“No such thing – as what?”

“People are a lot like engineering, in a way – every part has a purpose, and every component is vital to the function. And you-” Callaghan's hand was on his shoulder again, urging him to look up and look him in the eye again. “You have a gift, whether or not they call you 'gifted.' And even if you didn't, it wouldn't make you any less important.” Callaghan smiled, warm and proud, and Tadashi was reminded that this man – this shining genius of a man – had looked at him years before and seen something. Something good, something worthwhile. “Mr. Hamada, in all my years of building, learning, teaching – and believe me, that is a lot of years – I've never met anyone who wasn't important before.”

He did it on a whim. Blinking the memory away, he found himself looking at the back of his own right hand, knuckles roughened, nails sharp. On a mere whim, he turned it over, palm up –

It was as natural as letting out a breath, as easy and right as opening his eyes. A flame burned on the surface of his hand, no smaller or larger than he wished it to be. It flickered calmly in his palm, before – at nothing more than a thought and the curling of his fingers – it went out.

Part of him wanted to shriek and dance the way he had on the eighty-eighth test, to grab someone in a wild hug and laugh into the sunset.

Of course, then Jack opened his mouth. “Wow, you actually got through to him.” He beamed. “I'm a genius!

“Heh.” Jamie checked his watch. “You two want to stick around for when I open?” He looked at Tadashi in particular. “The kids already know Jack, but... I could try introducing you around. See if any of them can spot you.”

“Er, thanks, but... maybe some other time?” Tadashi grinned and wrung his hand again – not anxiety this time, but reveling in the warmth of his own fire for once. “I want to figure out what I'm about first, before I start doing meet-and-greets with kids.”

Jamie Bennett returned the smile. “My door's always open to Guardians. When you find your center, come back. Bring some stories I can tell the kids.”

Tadashi opened his mouth to reply when Daisy the greyhound, fed up with staying quiet in her corner, whuffed at him. His tail bristled, and the quiet bark turned into yet another loud, indignant racket.

Tadashi wasn't sure how he ended up fox-shaped on top of Jamie's fridge, and frankly he didn't care as long as the dog couldn't reach him. Jack was almost laughing too hard to grab him, say his goodbyes to Jamie, and lug him outside and out of the greyhound's reach. Once outside, Tadashi wriggled free and turned human again in a vain attempt to regain some of his dignity. It might have been a touch more effective if Jack had found it in himself to stop laughing, but there was no swaying him.

Finally, Tadashi sighed. “Jack?”

“Yeah?”

“Thanks for that.”

“Hey, no problem.” Jack gave a carefree shrug. “You look like you're on track again.”

Tadashi rolled his eyes. “'Again' implies I was ever on track in the first place.”

“Hm,” the winter spirit sounded satisfied. “So what happens now?”

“Can you get me back to San Fransokyo?” He tried the fire again and found that it still responded easily to him. “This happened just in time, you know. My brother and my friends have been wrapping things up. They're almost done. From there... well, that's up to them, but something tells me Hiro's not gonna let them wait around.” He ground his teeth nervously. “Maybe this time I'll be able to help them properly.”

“Only one way to find out.” Jack placed his hands on his hip, tucking his staff into the crook of his arm. “Hurry up and transform. If I rush, I can make it by midmorning.”

Chapter Text

 

“Oh for the love of God, Hiro, why are your shins exposed?”

Three days after his trip to Burgess, Tadashi stood in Fred's extensive backyard and cast a critical eye on his little brother's completed suit. Not bad, he had to admit. Built-in computer and hacking capabilities, a communicator in the helmet that connected with the other suits, and a solid material and design for shock absorption.

“Are those sneakers? ” Tadashi raised an eyebrow at the shoes in question. “Those are sneakers. Why does your suit have sneakers? And why does the suit stop at your shins? Literally what is the point of that?” No response, of course, but at least Hiro seemed excited about it. And he should be, seeing as Baymax's new duds were a huge step up from his last attempt at armor.

Bare shins notwithstanding, Hiro had done good work. Honey's set-up was a purse (she must have loved that) that was also an easy-to-use miniature chemistry set. Push a few buttons to program in a specific compound, and she had her own nonlethal projectiles. Wasabi's was the most dangerous – his plasma cutters were now at a manageable size for combat, but just as lethally sharp as they had ever been. Wasabi was meticulous and cautious, though – better that they'd be in his hands than, say, Fred's. And speaking of Fred...

He couldn't decide whether to be proud of his brother or dismayed that Fred had finally gotten what he'd wanted. It was no formula, but it was... well, it was something.

“I don't get the tail,” he said out loud. “Does the tail even have a function, or does he just have a tail for the sake of having a tail?”

It didn't seem to hamper the suit's jumping capabilities, or Fred's natural nimbleness, so maybe he was being too quick to judge. He flinched back when Fred let loose the built-in flamethrower (and man, that butler was a trooper) and felt his teeth sharpen eagerly. This was good – if Fred was going to throw fire around, then it'd be a lot easier to blend in himself. No more worrying about freaking them out with apparently spontaneous combustion.

And finally, Gogo's was pretty damn cool. Instead of a mag-lev bike, she had mag-lev skates, with two more disks at her wrists for shields or projectiles.

Tadashi felt himself swell with secondhand satisfaction. Every one of these systems was designed for nonlethal combat. The only one that wasn't was managed by Wasabi, who was trained in precision and shrieked at the sight of blood. This is good work, Hiro.

And then Baymax, in all his red-armored, barrel-chested glory, came into view.

Oh, baby brother, look what you've done with my honors thesis. It was... well, objectively it was pretty awesome. He looked like an shiny action figure scaled up to six-foot-five and chasing butterflies. Tadashi snickered at this. Hiro could slap on armor plating and karate moves, but at least he couldn't mess the programming. Baymax was still Baymax, just... with extra moving parts, now.

One final test. Tadashi held his breath and inched closer to Baymax, just in case.

Armor, check.

Magnetic handholds, check.

Rocket fist... one destroyed garden statue later, check. Tadashi cringed and hoped Fred's parents weren't too attached to that sculpture.

And then, finally, last but certainly not least... “Wings,” Hiro called, and the appendages deployed immediately. Tadashi winced when he called for the rockets, because rockets are hot and what if they're not contained what if they melt the vinyl or roast the unprotected inches on Hiro's legs

The rockets lifted Baymax and Hiro off the ground about a foot before the heavy armor overbalanced them, throwing Baymax face first to the ground with a thud. Tadashi had been standing too close – one of the robot's flailing armored limbs knocked him flat and half trapped him underneath. Yelling curses, he clawed at it, searching with sharp nails for any crack or joint in the armor for purchase so he could wriggle free.

With a vibrating thrum, the rockets came to life again. Tadashi's back rose off the ground, and his grip instinctively tightened, claws catching in one of the armor's leg joints. When the rockets roared and propelled Baymax into the air at breakneck speeds, Tadashi went with him with a shriek that only the robot could hear.

Wind and rockets roared in Tadashi's ears, drowning out his own screaming. He now clung to Baymax's leg like a four-limbed squid as the flight flung him every which way until finally steadying out. The speed swept his hair flat against his head and the wind snatched the voice out of his mouth, but his stomach stopped in the middle of its Cirque du Soleil tumbling act and finally he ventured to open his eyes.

Oh. Okay, well... they were pretty high up. That was a long way to fall, and at the speed they were going, he could just about count how many buildings and skyscrapers they passed. But unsteadiness notwithstanding, Hiro was at least attempting to keep an even path, which was more than Jack Frost could say. Tadashi took a deep breath to calm his thundering heart, and hoped he wouldn't swallow a bug by accident.

Excited whooping drew his eyes forward to where Hiro clung, secured by the magnetic restraints on the palms and knees of his suit. Tadashi couldn't see his face, but he could see the way his younger brother crouched in place, shoulders squared as if he was ready to leap from Baymax's back and fly under his own power. Wind whipped from all sides as they flew through the city and toward the waterfront, where stronger winds swept in from across the bay. If Baymax or Hiro were saying anything, Tadashi couldn't hear, but he could hear his brother screaming with joy as they flew.

His heart swelled with the sound, chasing the fear from the pit of his stomach.

High over the Golden Gate Bridge, Baymax's flight slowed, bounced alarmingly, and finally settled the three of them at the top of nearest tower. Tadashi let out a shaky breath, not quite trusting his trembling limbs enough to let go of Baymax's leg. Dimly he was aware of Hiro and Baymax's voices, but with the ringing in the ears he couldn't make out the words.

What he could make out was the sudden alarm in Hiro's voice, and the way Baymax suddenly tipped over.

Tadashi started, shaking his grip on Baymax as the bridge and water far below suddenly swung closer. “Wait-what? Baymax no don't-!” Wind stole the words from his mouth again, his grip on Baymax's leg slipped, and the three of them dropped straight down.

What happened next was the sort of thing that the phrase “It was the damnedest thing” had been coined for. One moment Tadashi was on the verge of panic as he lost his grip on Baymax, and the next he was plummeting headfirst, eyes shut tight as a strange sort of calm settled over him. Wind howled, deafening him from the outside, but from the inside, a stray thought floated free of the eerie stillness in his mind.

Kitsune can fly.

His eyes opened. Baymax plummeted just a few feet away, rockets glowing slightly as they prepared to deploy again. The wind that had swept his hair flat now ran through red-gold fur and a bright, waving tail. Tadashi opened his jaws and let cool, salty air pass over his sharp canine teeth.

When Baymax pulled up, just short of the cars on the bridge, Tadashi did the same. His tail whirled, he set himself alongside the armored robot that carried his little brother, and he flew.

Whatever he had imagined it to be, just nights before as Jack had flown him over cities and mountains, it couldn't have been close. He'd felt like a dead weight then, clinging to Jack and hoping he wasn't heavy enough to drop by accident. Now, with nothing between his feet and the ground but wind and empty space, he felt weightless. He was a bird – no, less than that, he was a cloud, a puff of mist, maybe he was the wind itself. He darted through the air alongside Baymax, keeping pace with the robot as they dove over the bridge and flew just feet above the surface of the bay. Baymax's thrusters flung up a wake of salty mist, and Tadashi felt his paws skim the spray as if he were running upon it.

For the first time since he had stood beside his brother on a bridge outside of the SFIT student showcase, he felt breathlessly, dizzyingly happy.

He heard Hiro scream with delight on Baymax's back as they soared back over the mainland, through towering buildings and bright, shimmering neon lights, high up to the wind turbines.

Tadashi tumbled to a halt in human form on the solid, brightly colored surface. His heart thudded in his chest, his pulse was pure energy and warmth in his veins. The turbine beneath him was cool against his cheek as he rolled onto his back and laughed until the air in his lungs was gone and his chest felt swollen with joy.

The odd little trio, one of them all too unaware of the presence of another, perched on the flying turbine on the top of the world until the sky glowed with the gold of sunlight on clouds, and for a moment Tadashi let himself imagine that this – this would be enough, that the joy of flying, the light of the sun from this height, and Baymax's odd, awkward humor would be enough to chase the last of the darkness out of his brother.

Of course, it could never last. Hiro could never let it.

Tadashi sat up, trying to ignore the pit reforming in his stomach as Baymax scanned the city for the masked man's vital signs. Part of him prayed that he would find nothing, but after less than a minute – Hiro did good work – Baymax pointed to an island out in the bay.

Akuma Island. That was what maps called, it anyway. No one lived there or visited, aside from the odd helicopter that had stopped showing up over a year ago. Ferries never went near it. Nothing there but squirrels and pigeons and, apparently, one masked supervillain.

The trip back to Fred's mansion was much different from the trip out. Hiro was silent, serious. The path was as straight as skyscrapers and stray birds allowed – no loops, dives, or acrobatic aerial spins. Just Point A to Point B, all business.

It was almost amazing, how quickly he could go from the top of the world to rock bottom. But Hiro was grim, and when the others heard the news, the darkness spread from face to face. They were ready – or at least they felt that they were. Tadashi lit fires at his hands again and again, just to make sure he hadn't lost his newfound ease. He hoped he was ready, too.

Baymax flew them to the island – Hiro, Gogo, and Honey on his back, Fred and Wasabi at either arm. Tadashi followed just beneath them, watching as the island grew closer and closer.

His feet touched solid ground just moments before Baymax landed and the others disembarked. It was eerily quiet – even birdsong sounded muted. Tadashi narrowed his eyes, scanning for any sign of the microbots or the one controlling them, but there was none – yet.

“Baymax, which way?” he said.

The robot turned his head to look at him – too small a movement for anyone to notice anything amiss. He raised a pointing finger toward the path that led farther into the cracked asphalt and rusted-over chain link fences “My scanner indicates that the vital signs are coming from that direction.”

Tadashi nodded and slipped to the front of the group. “I'll go ahead. If I see any trouble, I'll yell. You do whatever you need to do to warn them.” Without waiting for a response, he plunged ahead.

The place was downright creepy. It was like a cross between an apocalypse bunker and a scene from Jurassic Park – everything was green with overgrown vegetation, broken only by the stark gray and white of concrete, steel, and man-made structures. Everything remotely metal was rusted, broken, or blackened.

He didn't find any trouble, but he did find a door, a huge circular monstrosity that was most certainly locked and, if it was anything like the rest of this place, likely stuck fast from well over a year of neglect. Except... if Yokai had gone this way, then he had to have opened it first, hadn't he? Unless there was another way in...

It was a nonconcern, in the end. The others caught up, and after a brief scare from a pigeon, Wasabi's blades made short work of the obstacle. Tadashi's tail bristled as he slipped inside ahead of them. He couldn't see anything, or hear, smell, or even sense anything, but just stepping in was enough to set his teeth on edge.

The others were already inside, going in blind – of course, of course this damn place would block Baymax's sensor. Typical. Tense with fear, every sense on high alert, Tadashi crept along with them.

He hadn't forgotten the very valid point that Jack had raised. If this man – Krei, if Fred's judgment was to be believed – had been the one to start the fire, if this man had been the one to kill him, directly or otherwise, then for all he knew, a confrontation might bring back a few things. Fan the flames, as it were. He might see something he didn't like – something he had already shied away from multiple times before.

His eyes fell upon Hiro again. If everything went well and they brought this man to justice, then it meant closure for his little brother. It meant his peace of mind. It might even mean an end to the nightmares.

For that, a few unpleasant reminders were well worth it.

Fred sang to himself as they walked, and Tadashi was grateful for the ease in tension that it brought. Even if the others weren't as appreciative, he was thankful for it – especially when Honey finally made a discovery.

The others rushed forward too quickly for Tadashi to enter the room first. Palms tingling, he passed through a few of them just to get a better look. His mouth dropped open.

It was a test chamber, clear as day. Run-down, broken, and disused it definitely was, but it was unmistakeable. There was an observation room at the back, overlooking a massive, half-empty chamber. Its purpose was anyone's guess – most of the machinery was either smashed to pieces or completely unrecognizable. All Tadashi could tell was that it was massive, and that it was expensive.

It certainly lent more credence to Fred's theory, in any case.

The group made their way up to the observation room, forced their way in, and found themselves staring at a plethora of dark, dusty screens. What was more, they still worked.

“There you are, Krei,” he murmured as he watched. Color him impressed – Krei had managed to come up with an experimental teleportation device, massive thing – no wonder he'd needed a chamber this huge and expensive. He ground his teeth as the grainy video unfolded. There hadn't been people on this island in over a year, and the time stamp confirmed that. But why...?

Oh.

Oh.

“Oh my God.” His voice came out dry and shaking. “Oh my God, Abigail.”

He knew her. He hadn't seen her since she'd taken a job testing Krei Tech prototypes, but he would know her face and voice anywhere. She'd been a TA to him more than once, more like a tutor half the time – he hadn't known her as well as he'd known her father, but she'd been a friendly face and he'd felt the gut punch when Callaghan told him about her death.

...Which had happened just over a year ago, hadn't it?

In the video, the pod drew closer to the teleportation ring. Tadashi looked out the window to the abandoned mess of the test chamber, and realized exactly what it was he was watching.

The prototype malfunctioned, and Tadashi chose cowardice. He turned away from the screen, unable to watch. He could still hear the recorded voices, the military general shouting for Krei to shut the thing down.

Through the fresh hurt, he could only wonder – why? Why this? Why now?

With Callaghan gone, he thought suddenly. Is there anyone who'll really put up a fight if he goes for a second try with this?

His back was to the others, and he faced the wide observation window. Through his wondering, movement outside caught his eye. He looked up, and found himself staring down a masked man, a horde of microbots, and a massive piece of rubble.

Baymax!

“Oh, no,” the robot intoned, and a mass of concrete crashed through the window.

Tadashi sprang back, making himself small on instinct. He huddled, fox-formed, behind Baymax as the robot caught the projectile. Anger made him bare his teeth. That was twice, now, that this match-happy lunatic had used lethal force against his friends – the third time against Hiro. He darted out, perching on the concrete on four paws, all bristling fur and bared fangs that no one else could see.

His friends sprang into action. No chase this time. No more running.

The microbots churned, and Tadashi fell upon them with fire in his paws. It was all different now, he realized with a rush of hope. His power was under control, no longer sputtering or flaring without permission. What was more, he wasn't there to protect – he was there to help. His friends were armed, his brother had the protection of a severely upgraded health care robot, and all he had to do was keep disrupting Yokai's attacks. He looked up in time to see Gogo land a solid hit with a disk right to that masked face, and would have cheered if he still had a human throat to do so.

It wasn't perfect, of course – it couldn't have been. Yokai had weeks of practice commanding those microbots, and his friends were counterattacking with brand-new equipment in an unfamiliar environment, with virtually no experience. Tadashi winced when he saw Honey take friendly fire from Gogo, and again when Gogo and Fred stumbled into one of Honey's chemical traps.

He couldn't stop moving, though, not even for a few short seconds. In the next moment he was sending fire into a battering ram of microbots aimed at Wasabi, forcing it off course, only for another to hit home shortly afterward. Where was Hiro?

His answer came when Baymax exploded through the rubble with Hiro clinging to his back. Nothing screamed “primary powerhouse” quite like a massive red-armored robot punching through concrete, and Yokai seemed to know it. With the others momentarily out of the fight, he sent everything he had at the two left in the air. It was all Tadashi could do to keep up, and all Baymax could do to dodge.

There was a familiar yell of effort, and Tadashi's heart leapt to his throat when he saw Hiro dive off Baymax's back and cannon straight into the enemy's chest, knocking him clear off his perch. Thrown off, Tadashi stumbled to the ground and howled shrilly at his brother as the two of them hit the ground and rolled clear of each other. The mask clattered to the side, and the microbots fell uselessly to the floor.

Yes! If he'd been alive and human he would have yelled at his brother for being an idiot until his voice was hoarse, but it had worked. It had worked and Hiro was the first on his feet, snatching up the mask and calling a challenge to Krei. Wild hope and painful relief swelled within him as his chest heaved. It's over, we've won, at long last

Wait

Wait that's not

that'snotKrei

Yokai stepped closer, hooded but unmasked, and Tadashi backed away. Back arched, fur standing on end, ears flat against his head, he crouched low to the ground and stared upward with wide eyes. His flaring tail wrapped around one leg, and he shrank back and trembled until he wasn't sure he could stay standing.

He never would have guessed that finding out that his professor was dead would hurt less than finding out that he was alive.

But here he was. Here he was, in the flesh, dressed in Yokai's coat and Yokai's gloves and reaching for Yokai's mask, stepping closer to Hiro, towering over him, speaking with a voice as hard and cold as ice.

Callaghan survived the fire Callaghan started the fire Callaghan stole from your baby brother and chased him twice in the dark and tried to crush him drown him make him bleed kill him silence him

The flames burned where they always had, in their dark corner in the back of his mind, never fading, waiting for a breath of fresh air.

His little brother's voice sent twisting pains through his heart, his cold numb unbeating heart because he was dead, he'd died in the fire, he crawled out of the ashes but that didn't take away the fire in his mind and the empty bed and the dust gathering on his untouched shelves. “But... Tadashi... You just let him die!”

“Give me the mask, Hiro.” Step, step, closer to Hiro, reaching don't touch him don't touch him but why, why, why, I don't understand and you're supposed to have answers you're my teacher my mentor my friend my

Hiro's voice broke, and so did a piece of Tadashi's heart. “He went in there to save you!”

He... what? Tadashi froze, his head reeling. He'd gone in... after Callaghan? He couldn't have, he didn't remember that, it must have happened in that hole and hadn't Jack warned him that this would happen? Hadn't Jack warned him the chase would break the peace? He came to help and found only fire, fire, the auditorium is on fire and I can't hear any sirens yet and Callaghan's still in there and someone has to help

Cold eyes, he'd seen them cold once after Abigail died but these eyes were colder still.

“That was his mistake!”

His mistake.

Your mistake.

This was your mistake.

The words fell upon the flames he had hidden in that dark corner in the back of his mind. Like spilled oil they dropped, hissing and roaring as the flames thundered up and brought harsh, unforgiving light to comforting darkness. In the next moment he was no longer a fox, no longer a kitsune but human, thin and battered and crouching in fear on a dirty floor. His eyes stung with smoke, his skin burned, the palms of his hands itched and tingled with flames just beneath the surface but they wouldn't stay there for long

Your mistake.

Hiro stood before him, dark and still and quiet with rage. Ice-cold. Wintry. As the flames spread through his mind, he could only envy his little brother for the cold. He watched as Hiro opened Baymax's access port and there was the chip – the green chip, his chip, everything that made Baymax Baymax, the one he made with his own two hands, staying up until late became early and his vision blurred and his mind floundered in weariness. Hiro ripped it out as if he imagined it to be Callaghan's heart but it wasn't –

Tadashi gasped for breath, but the air would not come. Hands, frozen fingers wrapping around his heart, squeezing until his vision dimmed –

Hiro let the chip fall to the floor.

The memories rose up eagerly, and for the second time, Tadashi burned.

Chapter Text

“Thanks for not giving up on me.”

Wide brown eyes gleamed at him in the darkness of evening. Tadashi leaned against the railing of the bridge and felt his heart swell with pride. Hiro had done it. And there had never been any doubt, not in Tadashi's mind, that he could do it – that he would do it. But it was one thing to see it coming and another to see it with his own eyes, to hear cheers and applause and watch his mentor deliver an acceptance letter straight into Hiro's hands. And – all right, one little hiccup with Krei, but that was handled, Hiro had been smart enough to turn him down, and he'd been quick enough to catch Krei before he could make off with a microbot.

And then the ringing reached him.

Tadashi started, looking around for the source of the noise. The hairs on the back of his neck stood on end – there was no mistaking a sound like that. He looked to Hiro, and the two of them exchanged a single wordless agreement through just one glance. That was a fire alarm, and it was coming from the auditorium.

They ran.

Tadashi wasn't sure what came to him first – the sight of the hazy orange glow, or the sound of low roaring. Either way, the breath caught in his throat as his frantic steps carried him to the stretch of courtyard before where the auditorium stood.

He'd only ever seen fire like this in movies, or photographs of wildfires, or painted depictions of Hell. Smoke reached him from the building, stinging his eyes just as much as the blinding yellow glare. How was this possible? They had only just left the place, not five minutes before. How did a building go up that fast, and that completely?

He saw people fleeing the scene, heard the screams of terror, and his heart twisted painfully. A woman nearby staggered, and he ran forward just in time to catch her before she fell to the ground.

“Are you all right?”

“I'm fine.” Her voice was choked, raw from breathing in too much smoke. “But Professor Callaghan's still in there!”

Buffeted by heat from the fire, Tadashi froze. The woman struggled up and kept running, but he barely noticed. His eyes were fixed on the doors of the burning auditorium until they streamed and stung, searching desperately. Any sign of more people escaping, of the familiar figure of his professor emerging from the light and heat.

Nothing.

He wasn't coming out.

The fire had gone up so fast – and how long would it take emergency services to get here?

Callaghan's still in there.

He's going to die.

A scream of protest built in his lungs.

No.

I don't want you to die.

This isn't right.

It wasn't complicated. In that moment it was the easiest decision he ever made, to hurtle forward and run full out for the steps, straight at the building. Only a hand gripping his arm and a familiar cry of protest stopped him from running straight up the stairs.

“Tadashi, you can't!”

He looked back and – oh, right, Hiro was there. His brother was there, clutching at his arm with desperate hands and wide, pleading eyes. Hiro was there. He couldn't leave Hiro. There was – something – an old promise he'd made to the dead.

The fire drew his gaze again, because Callaghan's still in there , Callaghan his professor, Callaghan his teacher his mentor his friend his – his –

He's going to die.

He's going to die, just like them.

Tadashi was a child, nine and tiny, helpless, frightened and far away, not even there to see it happen or scream and rage against it. He had done nothing because there had been nothing a child could do to stop it.

But now

but now

(Mom is dead, never made it to the hospital, Dad held on but slipped away, Dad's gone and he's been gone for over ten years and Callaghan's not him he's never been him he'll never be him

but he's as close as the scared nine-year-old in Tadashi will ever have

And he's going to die.

Tadashi's not a child anymore.)

He turned back to Hiro with reddened eyes that watered from the heat and smoke. “Callaghan's still in there.” There wasn't time – he couldn't explain it, not in a way Hiro would understand. “Someone has to help.”

It was all too easy to yank his arm free and shut his ears to his brother's desperate cries as he took the steps three at a time – no time to take them one by one. Hot air blasted him from the fire. The hat flew from his head, but there was no time. The handle burned him, but there was no time.

Fire deafened him when he stepped inside, and the heat struck his face like a physical blow that drove the wind from his lungs. He forgot to breathe, but there was a path through the flames that he could see and who knew when the fire would change its course and block it? Tadashi plunged ahead. He pulled his jacket over his face, for all the good that did. Smoke and blistering air burned on the way down. Eyes streaming, black spots forming from the brightness, he was half-blind in the flames but kept going. He opened his mouth to call for his mentor.

Behind him, something exploded.

It was loud, so loud that Tadashi didn't hear it when it happened. It was beyond sound, a silent burst of power that rattled him to the marrow of his bones. The force of it knocked him flat, and he cried out in pain when the floor scorched his hands. He struggled up, trembling and starting to reconsider his options.

He shook himself. Callaghan – he had to find Callaghan. Teeth gritted, ignoring the pain in his burned hands, he pressed onward.

“Professor Callaghan!” His first attempt was lost in the roar, and he tried again until his ears rang and the heat dried the inside of his mouth. Tadashi broke off, coughing, and forced his eyes open again. He found paths through the fire, gaps where flames hadn't reached yet, though they licked at him hungrily as he plunged through.

In the distance, he saw – the shape of a person, a familiar figure hunched up ahead, rushing through the flames clutching something. Tadashi's heart leapt – Callaghan, he was still alive, he was... going the wrong way...

He screamed his teacher's name again, breaking into a run through the flames. The figure of his professor paused, turned to see him, and registered shock on his face.

Tadashi almost sobbed with relief as he caught hold of his teacher's arm. “Wrong way!” he yelled, pointing back the way he'd come, toward the doors. “This way, come on!” But when he pulled, Callaghan did not follow. Why wouldn't he come? Was he in shock?

“You weren't supposed to be here.” Callaghan stared at him. Flames threw shadows wildly across him, deepening and shifting the lines on his shocked face.

Tadashi gaped at him. They were in the middle of a fire, and he was going to waste time criticizing Tadashi for being there? That was so... completely reasonable, actually, but now really wasn't the time. “We have to get out of here!” he yelled, pitching his voice above the growl of the fire. “Now!” Callaghan jerked back, but Tadashi held on doggedly. Confusion swam in his mind, clashing with barely held-back panic. He opened his mouth to urge him again, but the words died when he saw his mentor's face.

Shock and dismay mingled in Callaghan's wide eyes. “This wasn't supposed to happen. You weren't...” He pulled back again. “You weren't supposed to run in!”

“Look, I'm sorry, but we have to get out of here now!” His throat was raw and his burned hands stung as he tightened his grip. The fire was spreading, he could barely breathe, and Callaghan was staring at him with something very close to horror.

“Get out. If you die, it was your mistake, not mine.”

“What are you-”

“Get out!” Callaghan's hand came down on his shoulder. But there was no gentleness now – no consolation, no warmth, no encouragement. Just a hard hand gripping his shoulder painfully, holding him in place, tearing his arm from Tadashi's grasp, and shoving him away at the same time as Callaghan sprang back.

As Tadashi lost his balance, he spotted a familiar ring of metal grasped in the hand of the arm he'd been holding. He hit the blazing ground with a cry of pain, and through the brief blur of tears that dried as quickly as they were shed, he saw Callaghan place the transmitter on his head.

An ear-splitting tearing noise rent its way through the din of fire, drawing their eyes upward. In the midst of the suffocating heat, he felt his blood freeze. That was the ceiling. The ceiling was breaking – the ceiling was coming down on him – he scrabbled for purchase on the blistering floor and looked back to Callaghan, ready to cry out to him again. His professor stared back at him, and the dismay on his face faded to a look like stone.

The tearing stopped, and the ceiling came down. Tadashi dragged himself backward over broken glass and twisted, half-melted metal, and all that accomplished was keeping the falling ceiling from killing him instantly. It came crashing down over him, crushing as it burned, and Tadashi screamed. His hands were points of white-hot pain as he planted them on the floor to keep himself from falling flat on his back. Through streaming eyes he searched for his teacher, and by some miracle he found him through the haze of pain and tears. His breath caught on hot smoke and shaking sobs as he screamed for him desperately. Their eyes met through the fire, and Tadashi watched his mentor close his eyes, turn away, and disappear beneath a protective shield of microbots.

Tadashi's arms gave out, and he fell back into the fire, choking on poisonous air. Above him, the ceiling was open to the night sky, but from where he lay within the blaze, the stars looked dim. Words formed in his mind like thoughts, but the voice was not his own.

You'll do.

He died there on the auditorium floor, half blind and trapped beneath burning rubble, just a few feet away from where Callaghan stole away with his little brother's creation. He died screaming for his teacher, for his parents, for his aunt, for his brother.

He died with ash and smoke in his lungs and tears evaporating on his face, and as pain and fire blazed and the world faded, the last thing,

the very last thing

he saw

was

the

Moon


Wakefulness hit him like a slap in the face, and he slammed back into the Now as if he'd been thrown violently against a wall. It took him a few moments to realize that he had, in fact, been thrown into a wall, and now hung there immobilized as he screamed his throat raw. Power pulsed with his heartbeat, and he could feel the flames blazing just underneath his skin, but at the same time he had never felt so cold in his life. Ice stung and hissed on his bare skin – even the tears streaming down his face felt like meltwater.

Someone was shouting at him – dimly, through the sound of his own hoarse crying and the pounding of his heartbeat in his ears, he recognized the voice, and his name.

“Tadashi! Tadashi, snap out of it!

Another blast of cold, and finally the fire in his veins cooled enough for the world to come back to him – the present, the here and now.

The island.

His scream died down to a rasping sob, and he went limp against the ice that froze him to the wall. For a moment it was all he could do to breathe in and out, just to keep air moving through his lungs and focus on something that wasn't... everything.

The ice receded, releasing him, and he slumped to the floor as limply as a wet kitten. He kept breathing.

An ice-cold hand touched his shoulder, then jerked back. The familiar voice yelped with pain, and Jack Frost kept his hands to himself but didn't move away.

“Tadashi, what the hell happened. I came in and three of these rooms were on fire.” The Guardian's voice was tense but even. Tadashi could count on one hand the times he'd ever heard Jack sound serious.

“I told you,” It hurt to talk, and he almost couldn't recognize the voice that scraped its way out of his aching throat. “I told you it'd happen, I told you, I told you-”

What happened?”

Tadashi stared at Jack's blurry face, half-blind with tears. “I remembered.” His next breath shuddered on the way in.

“What did you remember?” Jack pressed.

Everything.”

Dying.

He remembered what it was like to die.

He remembered the stolen headset in Callaghan's hand.

He remembered his professor turning away and leaving him dying on the floor.

It would never be enough to say simply that it hurt.

But oh, how it hurt.

“The others,” he rasped. “The others, where – where are they?” Hiro. “Where's my brother?”

“He the little one in purple? I saw him fly out as I was coming in. Scary guy in the mask went first, though, and I don't know where. The others went outside when the building started to go up in flames. They've probably left by now.”

Gone... gone. They were gone. He'd lost them. Where were they?

Home – they would have gone back to the garage, to repair, regroup. But how long? How long would they take, and how long had he wasted time here?

He wiped his eyes, clearing them. His vision sharpened, and he rose to his feet with one hand against the wall. Jack was still staring at him, looking worried.

“I have to go.” His voice was low, rough.

“Are you sure that's a good idea?”

“Nope. Thanks for your help.” Tadashi dashed past him, changing from human to fox in mid-step, and raced out. The room was scorched black, the place in ruins – some of those support beams looked smashed rather than burned – and the scorch marks stretched through halls and over windows and ceilings. How far had the fire spread? Jack had said three rooms, but...

Useless to think about. Yokai – Callaghan – was still loose.

A snarl built in the back of his throat as he burst out into the sunlight. He took to the air, darting over the bay, past a whirring helicopter, toward the mainland and the heart of the city.

Callaghan was Yokai.

Callaghan started the fire.

And as much as that hurt, as much as the memory of dying dug and tore into him like claws and knives, it didn't hurt the most. No, that honor went to the feeling of tearing his arm from Hiro's grasp and ignoring his brother's screams as he ran to his own death.

He lost altitude, almost hurtling to the streets below before he pulled himself back up. He couldn't think about that, he couldn't afford to think about that with so much at stake, but his old mantra of Later, Later, Push it back and set it aside, did nothing to drive back the guilt.

A Guardian. What a joke.

He landed stumbling on four paws, then his hands and knees, scraping his palms and scuffing his jeans on the asphalt outside of the garage. Guardian of Childhood? He couldn't even be the guardian of one teenager, the single most important person in his life. Worthless. Less than worthless. He hadn't even failed – he'd turned his back and abandoned his one job. He'd died breaking a promise, his last promise to his parents.

Feeling sick, he rose shaking to his feet and stumbled in through the half-open garage door. No wonder he didn't have a center, no wonder it had taken him so long to figure out his power – he had nothing to offer, and he wasn't good enough. He didn't deserve this.

He stepped inside to the sound of his own voice.

Hey.”

Tadashi stopped in his tracks, eyes wide.

The place was dark – the lights were off, and the only light in the entire room was from a single screen.

I'm not giving up on you.”

Baymax stood in the center of the room, Hiro huddled in front of him and staring at the screen lit up on his chest. Tadashi saw his own face staring back.

You don't know it yet, but you're gonna help a lot of people.

His hands went to his ears. Eyes stinging with the threat of more tears, he shook his head. Those weren't his words – not anymore. The Tadashi Hamada that had spoken them had been alive and happy, staring toward a bright future, with a brother he loved and a teacher who gave enough a damn about him to tell him he was worth something.

That Tadashi Hamada was gone, dead and buried in the ashes of the auditorium. And what was so great about him, anyway? He'd abandoned the brother for the sake of the teacher, and maybe the teacher who gave a damn had never existed in the first place. Or maybe he had, but he'd been left to die in that fire, too.

He watched his own face light up with the pride of success, he watched himself dance with joy, and his eyes blurred with tears.

Wait til my brother sees you.”

He's never going to see me. He's never going to believe in me. What's there to believe in?

You're gonna help so many people, buddy. So many.

He couldn't even help the one person that meant the most to him.

One deactivation phrase later, the video ended. In front of him, Hiro wiped away his tears and stood straighter. Behind him, the others arrived. Wasabi passed through him like a hologram, and Gogo stepped forward to wrap Hiro in a hug. They gathered together, sharing news – the knowledge that Abigail was Callaghan's daughter, for one thing. Tadashi hung back and tuned them out. A glance to the side told him that Baymax was looking at him.

“Don't tell him I'm here.” Tadashi's voice was a hoarse whisper. “Don't ever tell him. It isn't – it's not important. All of you? You can take care of him better than I ever did. I'm dead, Baymax. I'm dead and it's my own fault.” His voice broke. “It's my fault he was alone and in pain. I did this.”

Carefully, so as not to alert the others, Baymax wrapped him in a warm one-armed hug. Tadashi leaned into it. It was over all too soon when the others mobilized, and Baymax released him to join them. He felt his heart seize when Hiro clambered onto Baymax again, and he hung back as they all took off to meet Callaghan one last time.

He hesitated, curling and uncurling his fists, the itch of fire piercing his palms.

This had been a fool's errand from the start. He couldn't protect them.

And yet...

Callaghan had chased his little brother in the dark, and again through the streets of San Fransokyo in the dead of night. He'd tried to crush him, break him, drown him – and now they were flying off and Callaghan was going to get another chance to try again.

He felt his teeth sharpen in his mouth.

He couldn't protect them. He'd forfeited his right to try.

But maybe he could still help, and if he landed a few burns on Callaghan in the process, well...

He'd do his best not to enjoy it.

 

Chapter Text

 

Tadashi supposed that not even Krei deserved this.

Standing on the roof overlooking Krei's freshly-unveiled and now crumbling building, Tadashi eyed the circular portal that balanced overhead on towering stacks of microbots. It was just as ferociously unstable as it had been in the video, the day Abigail died. And now, held together by more stolen technology, it was slowly dragging the entire area into it piece by piece. Even from this distance he could feel a pull from the rumbling machine, and the power that hummed in the air.

All Callaghan had to do was loosen his hold on Krei, and the man would die by falling up. If any of them weren't careful enough, they might share the same fate.

He stood beside Hiro as his brother stepped forward with his helmet off and a face and voice that were earnest and fearless – nothing like the cold rage Tadashi had seen back on the island. He watched his brother reason with Callaghan, so proud that it hurt, and then turned to his former teacher to watch his reaction.

Callaghan was cold. Colder than Tadashi had ever seen him, even the day that he'd first found out about Abigail's death. He was a murderer by accident – because Tadashi, for all the rage and pain, would never believe that Callaghan had meant for him to die – but now he stood ready to do it for real. The building was breaking around him, rubble flying up to be lost in whatever void was on the other side of that portal, and once it was gone he would let Krei go, too.

And here was his brother in the midst of it all, offering an olive branch and an open palm. It was so much more than Callaghan deserved, so much more than Tadashi would have offered in his place.

He remembered a question from a winter spirit in the dead of night - If your places were switched, would you let it go?

If Hiro died that way, would he let it go?

Over the past two months, he had come within inches of facing that reality head-on. All because of one old man's selfish grudge.

I told you, professor. I told you my brother was better than me, and I was right. Tadashi ground his sharp teeth together and let the flames burn ready at his fingertips, and for a moment he tasted blood and tears and ashes on his tongue. Because if our places had been switched, if my brother was dead and you told me to my face that it was his own fault, you wouldn't get any second chances before I burned you to ashes, too.

He could have pinpointed the exact moment that Callaghan made up his mind, that he turned, hurtled head-first off the slippery slope, and plunged through the event horizon. He saw it in the hardening of Callaghan's eyes, in the set of his jaw, in the way that feeble wisp of the old warmth vanished as if he'd ground it out beneath his heel.

When his brother and his friends charged in to attack, Tadashi ran alongside them for the second time. On his last step he hooked his toes over the edge of the roof, bunched his muscles, and hurtled forward in flight.

The microbots lashed out, but with Callaghan aiming for everyone but him, it was easy for Tadashi to dodge around them. Without gravity restricting him, he planted his feet against one of the pillars of robots and launched himself forward again. Claws curved at the ends of his fingertips, and his lip curled against sharp carnivore teeth. He hurtled toward Callaghan, and then through him as he knew he would. Raking claws turned to mist and air against Callaghan, and flying through him didn't even slow him down. Undaunted, he spun around in midair and charged again.

He grabbed for the mask, but his fingers passed through it – as long as Callaghan wore it, as long as it was part of him, Tadashi couldn't touch it. Rage boiled over in his veins and he clawed and pummeled uselessly at Callaghan, desperate to be seen, to be known, to tear and kick and bite and make him feel something. He wanted to scream in the man's ear until he heard him, until he ruptured his damned eardrum and made his words stick.

I am here. It was my mistake but you still left me to die. I trusted you and I am still here and you did this to me.

Burning with frustration, he made one more useless swipe for the mask before turning away and plunging down again. Stupid. This wasn't what he was here for. Angling himself into a dive, he summoned flames to his hands and hurtled straight through a battering ram of microbots right as it was forming, smashing and burning it to uselessness before Callaghan could send it at Baymax and Hiro. He flew upward again with bared teeth and a bristling tail, and forced his attention to the microbots again.

Out here, out in the open, the pull from the portal was so much stronger. He could feel it dragging at his hair and his loose clothes. If he stopped in midair, he could feel himself drift upward. It existed above him like a pulsing beacon of power, drumming in his skull as if reminding him that yes, it was still there, and yes, it could swallow him up as easily as it could Krei, or Hiro, or any of the others. If he wasn't careful, if he didn't keep his head, he could go out the same way Abigail had.

The others were handling themselves – as far as he could tell, they were holding their own. Satisfied that no one needed his immediate help, he turned his attention on the part of Callaghan he could touch – the tower of microbots he was standing on. Maybe, if he took out enough of them before they could reform, he could unseat Callaghan and give someone else an opening to swoop in and grab the mask.

Weeks ago, part of him would have balked. It was far to fall, and the chance might have been high that someone would notice something amiss – too much fire to just be coming from Fred, too much damage done without a visible cause, microbots blocked and blasted away apparently by thin air.

But now, now –

There was a portal in the sky tearing apart the surrounding area, dust clouds turning the air to fog, rubble flying upward from every which way. He had a smokescreen, and he had fire burning under his skin, and he had the memory of seeing this man look away while he died and later throw his brother and his friends into the bay to drown. And that was enough to make anyone dangerous.

He hit the tower of microbots with every drop of force he could muster, tearing at the bonded robots with hands that blazed. They fought him – for every handful that he gouged out, more appeared to take their place. The entire structure rippled and reformed as the microbots linked together to keep Callaghan in the air. Tadashi gritted his teeth, throwing himself backward for another flying start. A piece of a window frame struck him in the shoulder, and he gritted his sharp teeth and shook off the pain. Recovering himself, he flew at the tower again.

This time he flew spirals down its length, trailing a snake of fire around and around as he went. Dark metal glowed yellow-orange, and when he pulled back again near the bottom he could see the structure wavering as the bonds failed in the blistering heat. With barely a moment's hesitation, he charged and crashed straight into it, forcing himself through the glowing metal.

He emerged on the other side to find Callaghan struggling to recover, calling microbots back from his surroundings to shore up the damaged structure. In spite of himself, Tadashi pulled the corners of his mouth back in a grin that showed all his teeth.

It was gone in the next moment.

A fight could turn at any time, for any reason, whether it was fair or not. One moment Hiro and Baymax were in the air and the others were holding their own while Callaghan struggled with Tadashi's sabotage. The next, everything changed. Callaghan got one good hit in, but one good hit was all he needed to knock Baymax out of the sky and trap him in a roiling pile of microbots. He could see his creation struggle, but his eyes were on Hiro. His brother had been flung straight through the broken windows of the rapidly-disappearing building.

Directly underneath the unstable portal.

No!” The shriek went unheard – in the roar of chaos, it would have gone unheard even if it were coming from his living throat. In the span of a second, he cast about desperately for the others, praying that one of them had seen. It didn't matter, in the end – they were all failing. He saw Gogo go down last, encased in a similar trap to the one that held Baymax fast.

Tadashi had never moved so swiftly – neither in life nor in death. He shot upward like an arrow from a bow, straight through the same destroyed window where he had seen Hiro disappear. The tug of the portal dragged at him, but he gritted his teeth and spotted his brother amid the debris, scrabbling for purchase until the portal's field dragged him into the air. Desperately, Tadashi flew forward and grabbed at him, but his grasping hands passed through his brother uselessly.

Panic set in until he spotted one last hope – a loose length of cable trailing from one of the many broken walls. Tadashi ripped it free and flew straight upward, flinging the cord out and letting the portal drag the end within Hiro's reach.

The cable went taut when Hiro gripped it, and Tadashi caught hold of one of the few parts of the destroyed institute that was still firmly attached. His hand nearly slipped, but he forced himself downward, wrapped his free arm and his entire body around the crumbling island, and held on to the cable.

So much dust – would Hiro be able to see that the cable wasn't attached to anything? Not that it mattered when all he wanted to do was pull him back down to safety. But this high up, this close to the portal and directly beneath it, Tadashi could feel the pull like hooks in him, dragging him upward with enough force to hurt. His arm screamed in its socket, but he held on grimly.

Above him, Hiro's hand went to his helmet. Tadashi watched him, wide-eyed – if anyone could think of a way out of this, it was Hiro. Turning his head, he strained to hear his brother's voice over the clamor. He caught the words like raindrops as they fell.

“Use those big brains of yours to think your way around the problem!” Oh you glorious little troll, you are not quoting me in your moment of crisis. “Look for a new angle!” That's ballsy even for you, little brother.

Something clicked in his mind, though he didn't know what it was. His grip tightened on the cable as, in the midst of all the noise and chaos, his heart swelled with pride. He had none for himself; all of it was for Hiro, for the shock of hearing his words from his brother's mouth. A strange sort of calm settled over him. He had no rational reason to think it, but something told him – somehow he knew – that help was on the way. It was going to be okay. He just had to...

There!

Hiro let go of the cable, but there was no accompanying jolt of panic in Tadashi's heart, because he knew – he knew – that Baymax was there to catch him.

And he was.

Tadashi let the cable fly into the portal, turned toward the ground again, and pushed himself off with all four limbs.

Below him, his friends were free. They were attacking again – but not Callaghan, not this time. Microbots flew past him, mingling with the rubble flying into the portal, and he laughed aloud at the sight. Callaghan's own damn murder weapon was going to suck up his trump cards like marbles down a vacuum cleaner. The phrase Hoist by his own petard passed through his mind, though he couldn't remember where he'd heard it.

He plunged burning into the microbots on the ground, striking like a comet. Heat rippled through them in a wave, sending them scattering into the air.

When there were none left on the ground, the inevitable happened. Tadashi laughed again at the sight of Callaghan balanced precariously on microbot stilts and screaming when Baymax's fist halted inches from his face. Rub it in, little brother, he thought, with no small amount of glee. Make him squirm.

The microbots holding up Callaghan failed. Those holding up the portal were soon to follow.

Ohhh, no. He sprang back, tail bristling, halting near where Krei was struggling free of his own prison. The others were fleeing – and well they should, judging by the words coming out of Krei's mouth.

Something tugged him back toward the portal.

Again, he would have been at a loss explain it. It wasn't like the pull of the portal's unstable field, or the physical pull of gravity. It was simply a sudden need – get back to the portal.

Tadashi turned, and saw Baymax standing motionless before it with Hiro close behind. Fear rose thick in his throat, and he ran back to join them. As he skirted and vaulted over rubble, he knew.

He heard it in Baymax's words as he drew near, but he also just knew.

Someone was alive in there.

Not just someone – Abigail.

Hiro climbed onto Baymax's back, and Tadashi felt as if he could have died a second time. He reached out futilely for Hiro's arm, knowing that he couldn't have touched him anyway. Anything to keep him here. Anything to hold him back.

Hiro looked back, and his face was resolute. He wasn't looking at Tadashi, but in that moment it felt like he was. As Tadashi stared into his brother's steady eyes, Hiro spoke.

“She's still alive in there. Someone has to help.”

Tadashi stopped breathing for a moment.

Oh, Hiro. He forced air into his lungs. The breath shook on the way in. You felt this, didn't you. The last time you ever saw me, right before I died. Before him, his brother and his robot took to the air. Right before I abandoned you. They flew straight for the portal, never slowing, never turning. Tadashi's eyes narrowed to yellow slits. Never again.

He ran flat out with his tail streaming behind him. His feet left the ground, and he dove through the portal after them.

Freezing cold struck him like a blow, and his vision exploded with color. For a moment he thought he'd hit his head on something – brightness left stars and spots winking in his vision, but they cleared and he found himself floating in technicolor clouds.

He wasn't flying, not under his own power – the world beyond the portal had no gravity, no ground or sky, no up or down. Tadashi's brain swam, disoriented by the change, and he shook his head to clear it.

They weren't clouds, he realized as he drifted. Clouds were random, just clusters of hanging water droplets that formed any which way, thick in one spot and wispy in another. But here in this pastel pink and purple fog was a strange, elaborate sort of order, as if someone had injected mathematics and food coloring into miso soup.

He shook his head again. Hiro and Baymax were getting ahead of him. With a flick of his tail, he dodged through the floating debris and dove after them.

It wasn't easy. His flight failed him – one moment he was speeding along steadily, the next he was clawing his way through thin air as if trying to swim. Only pushing off from the drifting rubble kept him moving along at a steady pace. Once he was within reach, he caught hold of one of Baymax's wing tips and let the robot pull him along.

He tried to call up a flame, and it took five tries to get a spark. He tried a sixth time and almost roasted off his own eyebrows. Gritting his teeth, he gave up and held on.

Baymax wove through the maze of rubble, narrowly missing more than one collision. Several times Tadashi was forced to let go if the wing he was holding carved too close to a chunk of concrete or broken pane of glass. Letting go was a harrowing experience – the world beyond the portal was playing merry hell on his powers, and his control of his own flight was dicey. With some effort, he managed to shift to his smaller, more manageable fox form. In that shape, it was easier to dart along, alternating between bounding through debris like stepping stones in the sky, and calling up what little flight ability he could control. Even Hiro, to Tadashi's momentary alarm, was forced to leap from Baymax's back and run along a huge pane of glass to keep from getting crushed.

Finally, they found it.

In the midst of geometric lavender clouds and broken, crumbling rubble, a single intact pod floated through the pastel world. In a fit of boldness, Tadashi launched himself from Baymax's wing and landed with all four paws against the pod's surface. It was cold to the touch, but he felt it warm beneath his feet. Hiro leaned in to wipe condensation from the glass window, and Tadashi's throat seized when he caught sight of a familiar sleeping face.

She was alive. She was alive, and Tadashi had died in a plot to avenge her.

No time to think about that. They only had so much time before the portal went and they were stuck here for good. Tadashi perched beside Hiro on the pod as Baymax set massive armored hands against it and steered it through the asteroid field that floated between them and the glow of daylight.

He saw the mass of concrete flying toward them before Hiro did – he wasn't sure if he saw it before Baymax, but either way he turned human again, shouted a warning, shoved himself out of the way, and watched the robot enfold his brother in a protective embrace. The crash reverberated oddly in his ears, and he clawed his way through empty space to see what damage had been done. Finally his blunt fingertips found purchase on the pod, and he clung to the side and found himself staring up at Hiro and Baymax.

Most of the robot's armor was gone, aside from a gauntlet and a few pieces on his lower half. Dread filled him – he didn't need to see Baymax struggle to know that the rockets were smashed to uselessness.

He set his shoulder against the pod and pushed, calling up every drop of flight he could find. It came in fits and starts, and if the pod moved he wasn't sure if it was being pushed or just drifting. He bared his teeth desperately – he could do this, he could get them all out, he could save his brother and his former TA and he could even save his school project, if this damned world would just stop messing with him.

With a desperate yell, he slammed himself against the pod again, jarring his shoulder. His eyes watered when he fixed them on the bright spot of light that was their only exit. It was close, so close, but it might as well have been miles away.

The pod shook slightly as Baymax set his armored fist against the surface. Tadashi whipped around to look at him, eyes wide. The robot's camera eyes were fixed on Hiro's face.

“I cannot deactivate until you say you are satisfied with your care.”

Tadashi threw himself against the pod again to push. “Nope! Not acceptable.” If he generated enough fire, could he turn himself into a makeshift rocket booster? He tried it, but the flames sputtered and flared erratically. What else could he do?

Beside him, Baymax spoke with eerie, robotic calm. Hiro was arguing, protesting hotly, his voice raw and desperate as Tadashi heaved and cursed. It was the same song and dance all over again – he was trying and it wasn't working, but all he could do was keep going through the same useless motions again and again, as if magically they'd start working on the eighty-eighth try.

Please!” Hiro's desperation pierced him to the core, forcing hot tears down his face. His brother was crying, pleading in a voice like shattered glass, “I can't lose you, too.”

Never again. Never again. Tadashi thrust his fists against the pod, again and again until they bled, until they were paws and the tears on his face carved damp paths through fur.

“Hiro. I will always be with you.” And where did that come from? When had he ever programmed that? Was it the grief counseling database Baymax had downloaded, telling him that sometimes, a comforting white lie was good for the soul?

His hands were hands again, flickering with slow-burning flames, as he slammed them one more time against the pod. His knuckles were bloodied, bruised, and sore, they were no closer, and Hiro was hugging the robot with tears streaking down his face. Too soon he was forcing himself back, rasping out as if the words were knives scraping his throat, “I am satisfied with my care.”

The rockets powering the gauntlet lit up like flames burning the auditorium, and Hiro held on to the pod as he was abandoned yet again.

Never again, never again, never again- the phrase repeated like a mantra, like something scribbled on the walls of a dark room in paint and blood and fingernail gouges. Because Hiro was right – he couldn't lose someone else, because he'd latched on to Tadashi and lost him, and then latched on to Baymax and Tadashi couldn't let that go.

The pod was already moving as Tadashi wracked his brain, dug into his big brain to think around the problem look for another angle

Baymax was falling away, propelled down into the lavender fog by the force of the rocket fist, and –

It wasn't a lightbulb coming on, but a room full of candles lighting in his tired brain. His eyes widened. Tadashi planted his feet against the half-frozen pod, kicked off, and dove downward.

He landed against Baymax with both hands planted on stained white vinyl, clawing for purchase with dull human fingertips until he reached the robot's chest. His bloodied fist pounded, one last time, on the small circular access port. It opened, and he ripped both chips out – no way was he risking leaving Baymax stuck here conscious. He looked up and found that daylight was so much farther away now but he had to get out he had to save him he had to save them

He launched himself from Baymax's body, hands clutching the chips, and he saw the portal bloom with light as his upward flight slowed and slowed and

Before he had the chance to panic, the chip in his right hand blazed. He reoriented himself, his balance lurched back into place and suddenly he could fly, his tail was streaming behind him like a banner and the chip in his hand felt like a hot coal, and he shot upward and plunged through the exit, back into daylight.

Gravity slammed him into the ground, and with heavy limbs he dragged himself forward and away from the collapsing portal. Then bright light, an explosion too loud to register as sound, and it was over.

Tadashi lay in rubble, battered and exhausted and feeling like someone had grabbed him by the ankles and used him as a flail. His bones felt like glass, and even with his face pressed to gritty concrete he couldn't bring himself to move at first. The phantom taste of ashes was bitter on his tongue, but this wasn't the night he'd died, and this wasn't the burned-out SFIT auditorium. The sun was high overhead, and the chip was warm in his fingers.

He moved slowly, joint by joint. From one end of his body to the other he checked himself, one muscle and bone at a time. When he turned his head carefully and his neck didn't shatter like glass, he finally let himself open his eyes and – very slowly – roll over onto his back. Grunting with pain at the soreness in his limbs, he got his elbows underneath him and lifted himself up into a sitting position. Dust and bits of debris fell from his hair, scratching against his face on the way down. Bringing his hands to his lap, he turned his palms up and stared down at them.

In his left hand, the red chip that Hiro had made had melted into a useless, misshapen mass of metal and plastic. Tadashi tilted his hand and let it slide from his palm. In his right hand was the green chip – his chip, with the smiling drawn face and his name written neatly in black sharpie.

He blinked, and the chip was gone. In its place, nestled in the smudged palm of his hand, a sphere glowed a gentle yellow. It was like a pearl the size of a ping pong ball, perfectly round and flickering like a ghost light. Pale flame surrounded it, warm to the touch but not hot. As Tadashi watched, wide-eyed, the little light rose from his palm and floated in the air beside him. He leaned back, and the ball bobbed as it followed him.

The words left him in a whisper of breath. “Hoshi no tama.” He held his hand out to catch the ball, and once his fingers grasped it, it was a green chip again. “So that's where it was... this whole time.” His eyes stung, and he glanced up at the dead portal, remembering his robot's words. Tadashi is here.

He'd been there, the whole time, in more ways than just the one.

Slowly, Tadashi got to his feet. His legs shook and ached, and he still felt battered to pieces, but he turned back to the others.

Hiro had left the pod. He stood at the edge of the roof, alongside his friends, and watched the activity of the emergency services below. They left a space for Baymax.

Shakily, Tadashi limped to the pod. It was empty, its battered sides torn open, its lone passenger extracted and taken to safety. Krei was gone. Callaghan was gone. All that was left was a battered red gauntlet, still curled into a fist as it rested against the pod.

Tadashi glanced down at the chip in his hand, watching it turn from green rectangle to flickering golden hoshi no tama.

He was holding his soul in his hand. It was small, fragile, easily lost – he had come so perilously close to losing it in the portal along with Baymax's body. What would have happened, if he hadn't gone back for it? That didn't bear thinking about.

But what did bear thinking about were stories. Old stories of people who won wishes from kitsune by stealing the star ball, and earning good fortune and luck for their cleverness.

Fortune, luck... or a lifelong protector.

Never again.

Tadashi knelt beside the battered gauntlet and slipped his soul into the curl of its fingers.

Chapter Text

Callaghan had been bundled away into a police cruiser and carted off long before Tadashi ventured from the roof. The group had made their quick escape before they could be swamped by police officers, news reporters, or general prying eyes. He slunk off unseen, making himself as small as possible.

As a fox, he crept through San Fransokyo with his head down. A dog barked at him at one point, and he hurried along his way but kept himself low to the ground. Finally, his feet took him to the harbor. At the sight of the water's edge, exhaustion hit him like a wave. He seated himself at the edge of where the concrete met the bay and stared dully at the dark surface. His reflection stared back, clearer than he'd ever seen it before – a thin, ragged fox with hollow yellow eyes and dirty, tangled fur.

His head swam – between the sight of Callaghan's face, the memory of the auditorium fire, and the final desperate flight through the portal, it was a lot to take in. Too much, in fact – so his brain stopped trying, and he sank into a listless fog.

Had he been paying attention, he might have heard the flutter of wings ahead of time. As it was, he didn't notice that he was no longer alone until a familiar quick, small shape darted in front of him. Wide, doe-like purple eyes stared at him from a tiny face and a hummingbird body.

Behind him, a familiar voice spoke up dryly. “Wow. You look like hell.”

Tadashi looked over his shoulder to find Jack Frost standing behind him, staff resting against his shoulder. With a sigh, he turned back to the water and changed form again, before rearranging himself to sit with his feet dangling over the edge of the concrete.

“Quick favor,” Jack went on, stepping closer. “Don't ever dive into an exploding science portal again, okay? If you die on my watch, North'll kill me. And I, y'know, respect him and stuff. It'd be awkward.”

“Oh no, how horrible,” Tadashi said acidly. It was like the winter spirit had some kind of talent for finding exactly the worst thing to say at the worst time.

“Hey, c'mon, you're doing that tight-lipped thing again.” Jack stepped forward and crouched beside him. “It's really annoying, knock it off. What's going on?” From the corner of his eye, Tadashi could see Jack frowning at him. “You were really freaking out when I found you.”

“How'd you find me?” Tadashi asked, purposely shifting the subject.

“I didn't. Baby Tooth did. I was just in the area. More daylight Nightmare activity.” Jack pulled a face. “They're getting bolder and we will be having a talk about that now that I assume you're done with this whole thing. But – seriously, knock it off and spill. What's the verdict? What'd you remember?”

“I remember running into the fire, and dying in it.” Tadashi's throat felt tight. “It wasn't an accident – I ran in.” Baby Tooth was flitting about anxiously, so he lifted his hand and let her light down on the side of his index finger. “Someone I... cared about... was inside. And I tried to save him.” Baby Tooth's eyes widened as she realized what he was talking about.

“You... couldn't save him?” Jack asked cautiously, as if he were walking on thin ice all over again.

“He started the fire.” Tadashi had to force the words out. “He was never in danger to begin with, he started it so he could steal something, and when I found him-” He stopped when the pain in his chest heaved upward. Baby Tooth flew twittering from his hand to his shoulder. “The ceiling fell. He looked me in the eye, and just – left. He left me there, and I died.” Finally he turned to look Jack in the eye, searching for some level of understanding and finding only confusion and sympathy. He didn't want sympathy, he wanted Jack to know what the hell he was talking about. “Look, you don't get it, it's like...” His ragged tail bristled against the ground. “What if you found out North was the one who broke the ice out from under you? Try and imagine that – that someone you looked up to, someone you wanted to be like, looked you in the eye while you were drowning, and just walked away. Can you?”

Jack stared at him, blue eyes wide. “I... don't think I can.”

“Didn't think so.” Tadashi looked away again, in case Jack could see the way his eyes stung with tears that weren't quite there yet.

“To hell with him, then,” Jack said bluntly. “That's on him, not you.”

“It was my mistake-”

“Maybe, but – look, you went in there to save him.” Jack nudged him. “You have to admit, that's pretty awesome.”

Tadashi tensed and drew in his shoulders. “It's awesome to run into a burning building and die?”

“No, but, just – forget about your jerk teacher for a second, and look at it this way.” Jack nudged him again. “You died trying to save someone. You know my story already, so, sound familiar? It kind of makes you a badass. And you have to agree it also makes you Guardian material-”

Baby Tooth took flight a split second before Tadashi whipped around with a furious glare, teeth sharpening to fangs in his mouth. “Don't you get it?” he snarled. “I'm not like you, Jack! I didn't die saving my brother! I abandoned him! He had me by the hand, begging me not to go in, and I pulled away and left him alone!” He was glad he was sitting – he was shaking too violently to stand. As it was, the fur on his tail bristled, his claws scraped blackened lines on the concrete, and one sharpened canine tooth drew blood from his bottom lip. He couldn't keep looking Jack in the eye, couldn't even turn his head to acknowledge the tiny fairy hovering nearby. All he could do was sit and wrestle with the hurt in his chest until the wave of fury washed over him, leaving him drained with a dry throat and scorch marks beneath his hands. “I just left him.”

“Okay, yeah, that was dumb,” Jack admitted. “But – you haven't left him. You've been helicoptering him this entire time.”

“I know, I know.” Tadashi gritted his teeth. “It's just – it's not the same. It doesn't count as being there for him if he can't even see me.”

“Wow. That's kind of insulting.” Tadashi heard the butt of Jack's staff clack against the concrete. “I mean, you think every child in the entire world believes in us? 'Cause they don't. It doesn't mean they don't fall under our protection. They're still our responsibility, just like your brother.”

“That's rich, you talking about responsibility,” Tadashi snapped.

“I'm gonna ignore that.”

Tadashi ran his hands roughly through his hair, yanking at it to ground himself. “I'm just... frustrated. I left my brother, I feel like – like I forfeited any right I had to be in his life. But on the other hand, if I give up, I'm just leaving him all over again. What am I supposed to do with this?”

“It was a dumb mistake you made,” Jack said flatly. “Not nearly as catastrophic as the dumb mistake I made, starting out. Bunny lost all his believers once because of me – I'll tell you about it sometime. You got picked-”

“By someone I've never talked to, met, or seen,” Tadashi interrupted.

“Point. On the other hand, I don't know how many times we have to knock it into your thick skull that none of us are perfect.”

“That's great and all,” Tadashi said flatly. “And super comforting, really. But I still have no idea where I'm supposed to go from here. If there's anywhere to go. How am I supposed to be a good Guardian if I can't even be a good brother?”

Jack sighed noisily, and Tadashi finally looked at him. The Guardian was irritated, glaring at him over crossed arms until Baby Tooth zipped in to hover by his head. Jack glanced at her irately.

“Was I this bad?” he asked. “Please tell me I wasn't this whiny. Was I this whiny?”

Baby Tooth blinked, cocked her head with birdlike pondering, and nodded vigorously. Exhaling through his nostrils, Jack pinched the bridge of his nose. “Okay, fine. But I'm out of ideas. It's like talking to a brick wall here.”

The fairy orbited his head like a tiny feathered satellite, wings buzzing away as she fluttered in her aerial pacing. Tadashi watched her wordlessly, contemplating the politest way he could ask the two of them to please go away and leave him alone. Of course, after all his frustrated ranting, he had to wonder if there was any point to worrying about politeness anymore. Maybe as a balance, at least. He definitely owed them an apology once he was feeling a little less terrible about himself; it was hardly their fault he'd found all of this out.

I should've let myself remember it earlier, he thought bitterly. Maybe then I could've avoided wasting everyone's time.

His thoughts were interrupted by Baby Tooth, who suddenly shot up a few inches in the air with a chirrup of excitement. Jack leaned back a little as she flew into his face, twittering urgently.

“Wait, what?” Jack stared at her, bewildered, as she bobbed in the air and chirped at him. A thoughtful look crossed his face. “Wait, you think...?”

She nodded vigorously.

“Look, guys...” Tadashi sighed. “Whatever it is, I appreciate it, but I don't think-”

“Okay, okay, fine.” Jack held up his hand in a surrender. “I get it, you're done, just... small favor?”

Tadashi eyed him suspiciously. “What?”

“Well, I could use your help getting Baby Tooth home,” Jack said with a nonchalance that had Tadashi instantly suspicious. “What with all the free-floating Nightmares wandering in broad daylight, there's safety in numbers, right?”

Tadashi narrowed his eyes. “How far is it?”

“It may or may not be on the other side of the world,” Jack admitted, shrugging a little. “We can take a shortcut through the rabbit's Warren, though. Magic tunnels, faster, y'know how it is.”

“Really.” By now Tadashi was frowning so hard he was almost squinting at him. “And if you're going through these tunnels, why do you need extra 'numbers' against Nightmares?”

The casual facade dropped a little. “Uh. Well... wouldn't be the first time they got in,” he muttered. “Look, at least see the Tooth Palace so I can prove I wasn't just pulling your leg.”

Tadashi made the mistake of looking at Baby Tooth. The small fairy had floated closer and was gazing up at him with the largest, most quivery eyes he had ever seen. A thousand wet kittens couldn't melt hearts that fast. “Well...”

“Trust me on this.”

His resistance cracked, and he heaved a defeated sigh. “All right, fine. How do we get into the tunnels?”


The answer, as it turned out, was tucked away in the Conservatory of Flowers.

“Kinda public, for the entrance to a Guardian HQ,” Tadashi remarked dryly. They made their way along the stretch of lawns and flowerbeds that led up to the domed, glass-paneled building. “I'm guessing it's hidden the same way we are?”

“Sort of,” Jack answered. “Also kind of a hidden-in-plain-sight kinda thing. What can I say, the rabbit likes sunshine and flowers. That's okay, I guess. Nobody's perfect.”

The walk through Golden Gate Park had lifted Tadashi's mood – somewhat, anyway. It was a bit like when he'd visited Fort Mason, the night that he had met the Tooth Fairy. It was nice to wander around a place that held pleasant memories –the ones he shared with his little crowd of school friends, with Hiro and Aunt Cass, and with his parents. It was sort of a go-to place for an afternoon, the kind that you didn't have to plan. Passing by the Tea Garden, he'd almost wandered away from Jack just to have a look around the place again. The sight of the Academy of Sciences, now that had brought back memories – how long had it been since they'd been there? It had to be years since Hiro had stopped finding the place interesting.

It was nice to surround himself in memories that didn't involve Callaghan. Like a breath of fresh air (and he'd wanted fresh air, with all the smoke in his lungs)

Staring at the greenery and brightness of cultivated flowerbeds drove back the hurt a little. Just a little, but a little went a long way.

“Hey, you coming?”

Jack's voice snapped him out of his reverie. Tadashi looked up to find that Jack was already waiting at the door. “Uh, yeah. Sorry. Just thinking.”

“You've been here before, I take it.”

Tadashi shrugged, following him inside. “Once or twice. So where's the tunnel?”

Jack led him through the conservatory to a particularly thick island of vegetation, but it was Baby Tooth who flew in closer. After circling a few times, she settled upon one emerald-bright patch of ferns, pointing eagerly. Jack hovered closer, careful not to step on any plants, and prodded the patch with the butt of his staff. The ferns parted to the side to reveal a perfectly round hole, half again as wide as Tadashi was at the shoulder.

“Buckle up,” Jack advised, snickering like it was some kind of inside joke, and leapt through with Baby Tooth clinging to his shoulder. Tadashi dithered for a moment, and plunged in after him.


Jack had to drag him through the Warren in the end. Whatever glory the Botanical gardens, the Conservatory, and the Tea Garden held, the Easter Bunny's domain was on another level entirely. They flew over fields, meadows, and miniature rolling hills, everything below them a soft shade of green. Just looking at it chipped away at Tadashi's despondence, though it also drew him into stopping to stare every few seconds. Only by grabbing his arm and towing him along could Jack get him to the next tunnel.

“Look, it's great and all, but you can stare at it later,” the winter spirit griped. “Seriously, c'mon, if he finds out you were staring at his place as much as you stared at North's, he'll be unbearable.”

Tadashi raised an eyebrow as Jack led him to one of the exit tunnels. “'Hello, kettle, it's pot. News flash, you're black.'”

“Oh shut up, weren't you depressed ten minutes ago?”

“Still am.” Tadashi admitted. “If I don't laugh at someone, I'll probably start crying.”

A faintly panicked look crossed Jack's face. “Guess I'll take one for the team, then.”

“Yeah, that'd be good of you.”

After a while they emerged from the tunnel, into what could only be the inside of a mountain. The tunnel's mouth was a perfect circle in one vast wall of stone, and the trio flew out into open air within a massive cavern. Further dry words fled from Tadashi's mind as he bit his lip against a soft gasp – the sight before him had his eyes watering.

“Palace” was a good name for it. Everywhere Tadashi looked were towers and spires, except flipped. Instead of rising from the ground they hung suspended in the air like ornate stalactites, or Christmas ornaments the size of small skyscrapers. Shining bridges and staircases joined them together, and they shone with soft, shimmering colors – gold and green and rose pink – every bit as vivid and shining as the Tooth Fairy herself.

A lump formed in Tadashi's throat as he took in the breathtaking sight. It was incredible – beyond words, really – but if only he wasn't seeing it for the first time in circumstances like these. His eyes watered, and it wasn't just the beauty this time.

(At least Callaghan hadn't ruined the North Pole for him.)

He took in a breath, sniffling a little. “Well?”

Jack hadn't moved from his side. Tadashi wasn't looking at him, but he could feel the other spirit grinning at him. “Well what?”

“Obviously you two brought me out here to show me something.” Tadashi gave his eyes a secretive rub and cleared his throat. “So, what is it?”

“Someone's impatient.” The words had barely left Jack's mouth when Baby Tooth took off. Like a feathery green bullet she zipped off toward the palace, and within seconds Tadashi could no longer see her.

“Well, she's home now,” Tadashi said dryly, as words and wits returned to him. “Technically that was all I agreed to do, so-”

“Come on.” Jack's voice was nearly a whine.

Tadashi responded with a huff of breath that almost qualified as a laugh. “I'm coming, I'm coming.”

Jack led him through the air, straight into the midst of the palace's hanging spires. It was similar to the North Pole, Tadashi realized as they flew closer. The place was alive with movement and activity, though in this place, all of it was airborne. Tiny hummingbird fairies, all of them nearly identical to Baby Tooth, flew about them by the flock. About half of them shimmered and glinted oddly in the light, and a closer look revealed the source of the glimmer to be polished coins hanging from tiny belts around their waists. All the others clutched teeth in their hands; these ones buzzed around the spires to... store them, maybe. It was too far to see.

It sort of reminded him of a post office.

The comparison was just crossing his mind when a familiar purple and blue-green sheen caught his eye. He and Jack stopped short in midair as Tooth hove into view with Baby Tooth fluttering at her shoulder.

“Tadashi! Welcome – oh my stars, you're flying!” The new development seemed to distract her. “Baby Tooth mentioned that, but it's another thing entirely to see it.” She smiled at him. “Welcome to the Palace. Do you like it?”

Tadashi forced a smile. “Uh, yeah, it's... I mean...”

Jack cleared his throat.

“Oh!” Tooth's face fell a little. “Sorry.” She reached out to cup her hand beneath the smaller fairy at her side. “Baby Tooth told me what happened. Well, a summary, anyway.” Violet eyes gazed at him sorrowfully. “I am so sorry, Tadashi.”

“Thanks.” Tadashi tried to swallow the lump in his throat, but it stayed. He opened his mouth to explain himself further, and closed it. He'd vented his feelings at the waterfront already. He was in no mood to repeat himself.

“He seems to think,” Jack broke in, “that accidentally leaving his little brother unattended means he's not qualified for the job.”

Tadashi glared daggers at him, lip curling against his teeth.

“And yet, here you are,” Tooth pointed out kindly. “Flying as easily as breathing, with yellow eyes and a tail. Didn't Bunny tell you that our powers are part of who we are? That alone should be proof.”

Frustration welled up in him again. “I want to believe that, I really do.” It was a struggle to keep his voice under control. “I mean, everything I've seen of what you do – it's amazing. North's workshop, and, and this.” He gestured to the palace around them with a sweep of his hand. “And we passed through the Warren on our way here. All of this? I want to be part of it. I want to be part of what you do.” He stopped, letting his hand fall back to his side. “It's what I did that's the problem. And trust me, you're not gonna find a solution in my teeth.”

When he looked up again, Baby Tooth was whispering in her mistress's ear. Tadashi stared at them curiously, and an odd little smile flitted across Tooth's face. “No,” she said softly. “I suppose we aren't.” She did an about-face turn in midair and buzzed her wings. “But that doesn't mean we stop looking, does it? Follow me.” Her own pearly-whites flashed in a grin. “Baby Tooth was right – there is something I can show you.”

Tadashi thought about declining, only to turn and find Jack glaring at him meaningfully. With an inward sigh, he followed the winged Guardian toward one of the colorful hanging towers.

She approached the surface of one, as flocks of smaller fairies parted to let her pass. Tadashi felt their curious stares and drew his shoulders in. When he caught up to her, she was easing something from one of the many slots in the tower – a small, golden cylinder that she held as delicately as she would an egg.

Tadashi stared down at the little object. It was just as ornate as everything else around here, with a flat surface decorated with colors and shapes – little diamonds in dark blue and violet. Okay, he thought. I'll bite. “What is that?”

“We're looking for what you did, aren't we?” Tooth replied. “No better place to find it.” Gently she smiled at him again. “This is where I keep them, you know. These little boxes. They can't be opened, except by me, one of my fairies, or the owner.” She held up the capsule. “Each of them holds a single child's teeth. The most important memories of childhood, the most precious moments.”

Tadashi looked away, sensing where this is going. “Look, I appreciate what you're trying to do,” he said. “But I'm not – I'm not like Jack. I already remember everything, and, well... that's the whole problem.”

“What is?” Tooth prompted.

“My brother needed me,” Tadashi said bluntly. “And I left him alone. I was supposed to protect him, to prove I could do this, that's what I told North, but-”

“And?” Tooth broke in gently. “Haven't you?”

“He wouldn't have been in danger at all if I hadn't died.” Tadashi murmured.

“But you were there,” she pointed out simply.

Tadashi shook his head. “How is poking through my memories going to prove anything?”

“Oh I don't know that it will,” Tooth said with a shrug. And there it was again, that odd little smile. “On the other hand, I never said this box held your teeth, now did I?” The capsule opened at her touch, and she turned it so that he could see its flat circular base. Painted neatly on the surface was Hiro's face.

Tadashi jerked his head up to stare at her. “I don't-”

She shushed him. “You seem to have decided that you aren't good enough,” she said gently. “That you aren't worth believing in. That your little brother deserved better than you. That's all very well for you, but why don't we see what he has to say about it?”

Light shone from within, and – hardly for the first time – Tadashi found himself plunging into the past.


This tooth held a nightmare. Or at least, it held the end of one. The details of the dream weren't important, weren't precious. The memory began with a whimper and a gasp, cut short by a high-pitched sob, a flash of terror, then shaking and darkness and tears soaking into his pillow. It ended with a hand in his hair, with crawling blindly through the dark into the warmth and promise of a hug, with thin arms wrapping around him, pressing him close and cuddling him back to sleep. The dreams won't come back if he's here.

Another held lights and speakers, the view of a stage from a catwalk. It held the fading ache in his arms from pulling himself through a window, short silent breaths and a heart pounding with excitement at the tech exhibition below. He shivered in the drafts from the open window, high up and away from the auditorium's heating, but he pressed close to the warmth at his side, held there by an arm around his shoulders. It's cold up here but it's not that cold.

In this one, tiny hands grasped the railing around a terrarium. Thin arms were wrapped around him again, holding him firmly around the waist, boosting him up so he could peer over the railing and watch an albino alligator float like a pale log in the water. It's big and scary but I'm safe and he won't drop me.

This one held four cobbled-together rocket boots strapped to a cat's paws, pride and excitement and alarm, wide gleeful grins exchanged, and Aunt Cass's scolding. It doesn't matter if we get in trouble, it worked and we did it.

This tooth held the memory of its last day. It had already been loose before he lost it to the shoe that slammed into his mouth. The shoe's owner danced away just as quickly, and he curled up and hid his face as his mouth filled with salt and copper. His ears rang with dizziness and shrill, shouting voices, and he waited. Another voice rang out, pitching itself above the clamor. The next blow never came, and he raised his head with blood and tears running down his chin and finally he's here finally he found me finally I'm safe

In this tooth he shrieked and made a fuss, eyes watering over iodine swabs and antibacterial spray stinging on cuts and scrapes. A hand grasped his arm, firm but gentle, patiently applying antibiotics and sticking plasters in place. He cried, but he got a lollipop and a hug anyway. It's okay to cry if it's just him.

Another tooth brought back a shopping cart transformed into a hovercraft, a roller coaster ride through the city streets down hills past buildings, the world a blur, fear and joy battling in his mind, but his hands gripped a pair of shoulders in front of him. He pressed close, forcing his eyes to stay open because I won't fall, I won't fall because he won't let me.

This tooth – he was left alone with dissembled parts long enough for him to put them together again while no one was looking, and he finished just in time to look up and see shock and pride mixing on a face that he trusted. I did it, he likes it.

Another – he stepped into a classroom trailing at his heels, clinging to his leg and looking up with wide eyes for one more reassuring smile before he left but it's going to be okay, he'll be back, he'll always be back.

This tooth brought sneers and snide remarks (“Kindergarten's that way,”) a clamor in his ears until he opened the door to safety, and a frosty glare that silenced the bullies. I don't have friends I can't make friends but that's okay because I have him.

With this tooth came a card, handmade because he wasn't going to find the right one in a store. “Happy Brother's Day.” “...Today's Father's Day, Hiro.” “Well I don't have one, so it's Brother's Day now. Deal with it.” That made him smile, he totally cried too, that was worth it. And why shouldn't there be a day for that, anyway?

This tooth was a step-by-step lesson. Low-five first – slap palms together, then the backs of their hands, then make a fist, then bring them together, then bring them apart again. The explosion noise was mandatory. This is ours.

This tooth was Christmas Eve. He was too old for Santa, but he was old enough to stay up late until he couldn't hold up his eyelids anymore. He drifted off at midnight with a lap for a pillow and a hand in his hair lulling him to sleep. Who needs Santa anyway.

Another one – thunderstorms weren't scary, they really weren't. They were just loud and annoying and that was why he couldn't sleep, that was all, no other reason. It helped to go on the computer and read about it, though. Thunder's just a result of lighting heating the air. Lightning's hotter than the surface of the sun, isn't that cool – Yeah Tadashi it's pretty cool I think I can go to bed now.

Another tooth and home was far away – it had to be, with this much snow on the ground. They'd never seen snow up close but there was Aunt Cass getting started on a snowman, didn't that look fun – but before he could move there was snow down his coat and his voice was jumping several octaves and my brother is a huge jerk.

The next tooth showed him designs and schematics drawn on scratch paper with small hands and a stump of a pencil, but it was as much of a masterpiece as a seven-year-old could manage. It was his pride and joy, and one day it would be a robot, his very own robot that he was going to make with his own two hands. Look, Tadashi, isn't it cool? It's going to be so cool.

Aunt Cass was in the next one, and her face was serious and her eyes were looking straight into his so he knew that what she was about to say was absolutely important. She worried so much when they squabbled and this time it must have gotten really bad because she was brushing his hair out of his face and saying you mustn't say things like that, be good to your brother, one day he may be all you have. He already is.

This tooth came with failure, with broken parts and useless metal scattered on the floor, with tears. It didn't work, it was supposed to work but it didn't, wasn't he supposed to be smart and a genius, wasn't that why he had to sit in classrooms where everyone was big and hated him? What was the point if he couldn't get one stupid robot to work? But arms around him and a bony chin resting on his head told him otherwise, they told him things like “try again” and “there are no dead ends” and “I believe in you.” I believe in you too.

The next tooth wasn't like that at all, it came with a hard-won victory and a rush of pride and the forming of a bad habit. The sidewalk was cold and dirty underneath him, but his robot was victorious and its opponent was now so much scrap metal on the ground. He looked up with wide, grinning eyes, but the man didn't smile back. He was standing now, he was coming closer, he looked angry, but the pride and joy were too much for a sore loser to dampen. But there were more of them than there were of him and they all looked angry and scary maybe, just maybe, he should leave. The motor of a moped brought his rescuer, and he felt relief but not surprise. Of course he's here he's always here and he'll always be here.

The last tooth was an old one, maybe it was the oldest. It was dark again but he wasn't scared (well maybe a little because Mom and Dad were gone and he didn't understand why they weren't coming back). It was someone else scared, someone else hiding and crying in the dark, and he crawled out of his bed and made his careful way to the one at the other side of the room. He grasped the blanket for balance and tugged, and tugged again before wet brown eyes peeked over the edge and met his. You're crying, lemme up and he did, and he was lifted up on a much larger bed and cuddled close under the covers. Go to sleep. Please don't cry. I need you. I love you. I don't want you to go away too.


Tadashi lost altitude when he came back into himself – Jack and Tooth steadied him by either shoulder, and he took a moment to shake off the feeling of being in Hiro's head. The palace around him blurred, and he blinked against the tears welling up in his eyes before he turned to Tooth.

“You just,” he stopped, at a loss. “That was-”

“I told you, didn't I?” Tooth squeezed his shoulder gently. “I protect the memories of childhood, and that includes your brother's. I thought I may as well show you – I think your brother is one of the few people whose input we haven't heard.”

Tadashi drew in a slow, shuddering breath, and his hand went to his mouth as if muffling it would make a difference. He turned his head, averting his eyes as the tears spilled over, and it was several moments before he could uncover his mouth and speak.

“I wish I hadn't run into that fucking fire.”

Jack rested his staff behind his shoulders. “Hasn't changed much, from what I can tell,” he remarked.

“These aren't just random memories,” Tooth reminded him. “Those teeth hold only the most precious ones your brother has. They're treasured. It makes them powerful.” Through a haze of tears, Tadashi could see her smiling at him. “And Tadashi, you're in all of them. Every single one.”

“But – is that enough?” He had to force the words out. “Is it enough to make up for taking that away?”

The fairy tilted her head. “Have you?”

Before he could reply, Jack nudged him. The winter spirit's face held a knowing little smirk. “So, question – you ever find out about your – what'd you call it? – your hoshi no tama?”

Tadashi started at the question. When Tooth glanced at him, interested, he fidgeted in midair. “I – yeah, I found it, but I...” his voice trailed off. “I left it... for Hiro to find...”

“You know,” Tooth said, with a note of gentle teasing. “Most kitsune, you actually have to steal it first before they help you.”

“I couldn't just...” Tadashi stared at her, and for the first time since seeing Callaghan's face behind the mask, he felt something well up within that felt painfully, dangerously close to hope. “Whatever happened, I couldn't just leave him again.”

Tooth clasped his hand warmly. “And that, I think, might be the clue you're looking for. I've watched a child's memories of you, and I saw a Guardian in them. Maybe you can't, but a child-” She held up the golden capsule. “This child could see it. This child believed in you before you ever had any powers to your name. And from what I can tell, you earned it.”

Tadashi could only stare at her, at a loss for words. When he finally found his voice again, all he could think to say was, “But... my center...”

“The answer's still there.” Jack tapped the cylinder with his staff. “In all those little snippets, what's the one thing in common?” He raised a pale eyebrow. “What were you to him?”

“I was just... there,” Tadashi answered. “Whenever he needed me.”

“You were a comfort,” Tooth said. “A constant in his life.”

“Every kid needs that, don't they?” Tadashi kept his eyes fixed on the cylinder, as if it could offer more answers than it already had. For a moment he was back in a bookstore in Burgess, feeling things fall into place like puzzle pieces, only slower. “Someplace safe. It's like...” He furrowed his brow as he tried to put thoughts to words. “It's like when someone tells you that no matter how bad things are, no matter how dark and frightening the world is, everything's gonna be all right. Even if it isn't true, you just...”

Tooth nodded solemnly. “They need that, Tadashi. And I think that's why they need you. They need someone to be their light in the dark. Someone to..." She paused, frowning thoughtfully as she searched for the right word.

It came to him like the first shift when he'd thrown himself between a Nightmare and a fairy, like being reminded that he was important, like glancing down and watching the chip he'd made turn into the glowing pearl of his soul.

“Someone to Trust.”

Chapter Text

Tooth must have sent word ahead somehow – maybe fairies, maybe something else – because Tadashi had barely set foot in the North Pole when he was treated to yet another back-breaking Santa Claus bear hug.

“Is wonderful news!” North crowed. “My congratulations, Guardian!”

Tadashi's feet had left the ground and his tail was bristling to twice its normal size.By the time he realized that his inability to breathe might be a bit of a problem, the Easter Bunny was tapping North on the shoulder.

“Wanna put the poor mug down, mate?” the rabbit asked dryly. “Squeeze his ribs any harder and he'll lose his lunch.”

North laughed aloud at this, but complied. “My apologies, Tadashi.”

“It's cool,” Tadashi wheezed, and was immediately pulled into the Sandman's enthusiastic handshake. The dream Guardian pumped his arm until his teeth rattled, and finally Tooth took pity and rescued him.

“All right, all right, that's enough. Goodness, give him some space, will you?” The fairy scolded them, placing herself in front of Tadashi while he caught his breath and smoothed out his tail again.

“Can you blame us, Tooth?” North spread his tattooed arms wide. “Is good news for the children of the world, is it not?”

“I just can't believe Jack of all people helped get through to him,” Bunny said dryly.

“Seriously?” Jack drew himself up to hover at eye level and glare at the rabbit. “After all the trouble I went through figuring out my Guardian stuff, you think I can't pass it along to someone else?”

The rabbit shrugged, smirking at him. “Not saying you're not competent, mate, but just a few days ago you two looked ready to strangle each other.”

Jack shrugged. “So we worked through some stuff. Sue me.”

Tadashi had recovered himself in the meantime, and North was the first to notice. “So,” he said, towering over him again with a smile. “How do you feel?”

“Um...” Tadashi hesitated, rubbing his neck thoughtfully. “Well, earth-shattering personal discoveries aside... sort of the same. Still dead, still kind of confused, still a fox. But like Jack said, I'm working through it.”

The Sandman poked his head into the middle of things, shapes forming above his head as he looked at Tadashi eagerly. A circle with a dot in the center, and a question mark beside it. Tadashi blinked for a moment before he realized what the Sandman was asking him.

“Oh, yeah, that-” He ducked out of the way as Tooth zipped around behind him and placed both hands on his shoulders.

“Say hello to the Guardian of Trust,” she announced, wings buzzing in excitement.

“Which, considering how I died, is extremely ironic,” Tadashi muttered.

“Join the club,” Jack muttered back. “And I thought mine was bad.”

“Eh, well, it is what it is.” Tadashi shrugged. Raising his voice again, he addressed all of them. “So... what happens now?”

It was either exactly the wrong thing to say, or exactly the right thing. The faces of the other Guardians sobered – even the cheerful Sandman looked grim, which was a weird look for someone with hair like that.

“Now,” North replied. “Our work begins.”

“Time we tackled that problem,” the Easter Bunny added.

A strange tightness settled in Tadashi's stomach. It wasn't quite fear, though that was part of it – it was the kind of tension that took over right before he had to give an oral presentation, or right before revving his moped into the middle of an escalating fight. He moistened his lips nervously. “What kind of problem?”

“Well, it's... more or less the reason why you're here,” Tooth replied.

His tail was bristling again. “Me?”

“Well, not just you specifically,” Jack said quickly. “I mean, not necessarily.” At Tadashi's confused look he went on. “Look, the Man in the Moon doesn't just go around picking Guardians when the mood strikes him. Something's coming, something to do with those free-floating nightmares we've been talking about, and it's why he decided we needed another Guardian in the first place. Same thing happened with me, because of Pitch.”

Tadashi blinked. “Who's Pitch?”

An awkward hush fell over the group almost instantly. Tadashi glanced around, unnerved. The alarmed looks they were exchanging certainly weren't helpful, though the fact that Jack looked almost as confused as he was sort of did.

The rabbit was the first to break the silence. “Did... any of you actually tell him about Pitch?”

“Were we supposed to?” Jack piped up. “I thought we were, y'know, waiting.”

Bunny covered his face with both paws, his ears drooping. “Bloody hell, we are so bad at this.”

“It's not as if we were given a handbook,” Tooth muttered to him. “We're all playing this by ear, too.”

“Seriously?” Tadashi blurted, unable to contain himself. “This is – from the sound of it, this is fate-of-the-world stuff. And you're telling me you don't know what you're supposed to do? What about the Man in the Moon? Isn't he – I dunno, your leader or something?” He glanced upward. It wasn't quite nighttime yet. The sky was darkening, but no moon was yet visible over the Globe Room. “He seems to know what's going on, doesn't he?”

“He's tight-lipped,” the rabbit admitted, somewhat waspishly. “But he hasn't steered us wrong so far.”

I beg to differ. Tadashi held his tongue, but resolved to bring the matter up at a later time. “All right, then,” he conceded. “So what can you tell me? About Nightmares, about this Pitch guy? Does he have anything to do with what's happening now?”

The Sandman shook his head, replying with the shape of a moon and a speech bubble.

“That's one of the things the Man in the Moon told us right off,” Tooth explained. “Whatever's going on with the Nightmares, Pitch isn't behind it. But... I think it's a good idea to tell you about him anyway. About... well, what happened last time.”

“Is long story,” North sighed.

“Well, I have it on good authority that we're immortal,” Tadashi said dryly. “So I think we have some time.”

North gave a wry chuckle. “Perhaps we should sit down, yes?”


Jail cells were cold.

He was in jail, not prison – jail was where you waited for a trial, prison was where you went afterward, provided they could pin you with a guilty verdict.

And if there was one thing of which Robert was absolutely certain, he wasn't getting out of this without a guilty verdict. Hell, at this point he wasn't even sure he wanted to.

Robert Callaghan had never harbored any illusions. When he had first started on this path, he had known how this would end – an expensive trial, and eventually the dark solitude of a prison cell. What he hadn't known was how hard he would fail.

He hadn't known what would happen in between.

Tadashi Hamada. And oh, wasn't that a nail in Robert Callaghan's coffin? One child snatched from his grasp, another bartered away like a token from his own hand.

Hiro Hamada. The boy was a mirror. A miniaturized mirror that caught his rage like blinding light and reflected it back to burn him.

Abby. His baby girl. She had been alive the whole time, and now she was rescued. She was back. She was alive.

(Robert held on to that.)

No. He hadn't planned for any of that. Now, though? Now, he had a plan. It was a simple one, the simplest he could think of.

Plead guilty.

Deny nothing.

Accept sentence.

From there? All there was left to do was simply live himself to death. He was an old man, tired but patient. He could wait himself out.

With a sigh, he let himself sit back against the hard, unforgiving wall. Through half-closed eyes, he watched the ceiling.

It had been so easy at the time, breathing in heat and ash and closing his hand around the transmitter headset, filled with glorious purpose. The easiest thing in the world, to pull his arm free of Tadashi's grasp and push him back. To turn and hide in the heat of the moment, to look the other way and let the fire and microbots deafen him to the screams. He had fled from the fire, and after that, he had never stopped running. To stop was to let it catch him up. He had worked, through pain and rage and exhaustion, manufacturing his arsenal, hiding behind shadows and dark clothes and a bright mask to keep himself hidden, to stay one step ahead of it.

But here... here, alone in the dark, there was nowhere to run. No distraction, nothing to blind and deafen himself into safety. Nothing but four cold walls, darkness, and whatever demons might come creeping out of his own head.

Robert drew back, feeling his breath quicken. The darkness crept in on him, grasping him like invisible fingers, as if Tadashi's ghost come to drag him down to Hell like something out of an opera.

He dismissed the thought. What would a boy like Tadashi be doing in Hell?

You ought to know, he thought. Wherever he is, you sent him there.

He drew in a sharp breath, hearing the terror in his own hushed voice. “No,” he whispered, though he didn't know what he was denying, or to whom he was denying it.

All he knew was the silent, drowning terror of cold and dark and the monsters he had made with his own two hands.

Though...

He couldn't have known that not all of them were his own.

It was impossible to see, without light to tell the difference.

The bars on his cell door were wide enough to let it through.

It came like smoke, like mist and fog that clung to the floor, only dead black instead of bone-pale. It was black like soot, like charred bones mixed so thoroughly with the ashes of an auditorium that there was nothing left to find, nothing left to bury.

It tasted an old man's terror, a fear born of guilt, from the death of hope. One taste was enough.

You'll do, it thought, if such things can be said to have thoughts. You'll do.


He'd left a comic book in the garage.

It was as simple as that. They'd been hanging out up in the cafe, he'd been halfway through the best chocolate-strawberry-mashup milkshake he had ever tasted, and he'd abruptly remembered leaving a comic on one of his visits to the garage/workshop/mad scientist lab.

Standing in the empty garage, Fred couldn't remember exactly when or how he'd come to be reading the twelfth issue of Sentinels of the Sundered Veil in Hiro's garage, but that was apparently what had happened. It was a good issue, too, with Alleycat in mid-transformation on the cover and Trigger jumping in guns blazing. Awesome stuff. Now where was it?

He cast about with a frown, checking the desk surfaces and the sofa – no, it wasn't there. Had he left it on one of the shelves by accident?

As Fred wandered around searching, he yelped as he nearly tripped over something tangling between his feet. Stumbling, he caught the edge of the sofa and recovered himself before he could fall. A glance downward told him that the the thing that had nearly caused his premature death was Mochi.

Sighing, he stooped to give the cat a scratch behind the ears. “Did you follow me down here, kitty?” Mochi purred, then apparently lost interest and wandered off again. “Okay, whatever to you, too. Now where's that comic?” He only had so much time – his milkshake was probably melting.
After a few more minutes of poking around the garage, he went back to the couch to have a look under the cushions. He had no idea why it might be under the cushions, but it never hurt to look, did it?

...And no, it wasn't there.

Frustrated, Fred dropped flat on his stomach to check underneath. If it had fallen on the floor, it might have gotten shoved under by accident. He angled his head to the side for a better view, squinted, and poked his fingers around in the space between couch and floor.

His yell came for two reasons: first his fingertips brushed against a thin stack of pages, and then Mochi decided to attack his head. After a bit of scrambling he managed to raise himself up on his elbows and pull the comic out from under the couch. Sure enough, there it was – issue twelve, with a dynamic illustration on the cover of a guy in the process of turning into a big puma cat thing, and a girl dual-wielding sawn-off shotguns. This was the one where they were teaming up on a rescue mission to save Chimera and Fire Rainbow from the forces of darkness. So. Awesome.

Sitting up, he tucked the comic under his arm and turned to glare at Mochi, but the cat had lost interest in him again. “Yeah, you too,” he grumbled, watching the cat wander over to the desk.

Was Mochi trying to squash himself under it? Cats sure were weird – Fred resolved to acquire one. “What're you doing, kitty?” Fred asked, scooting over to follow him. “Is there food under there?”

There was something, anyway. After a few moments of squirming, Mochi managed to pull it out. Fred nudged the cat aside to find a small scrap of paper lying on the floor.

“Seriously? That's it?” Mochi raced off. “Crazy cat...”

Rolling his eyes, Fred picked up the paper and turned it over.

At the last second, he managed to shove his fist in his mouth before he actually screamed. The paper slipped from his fingers, but he slammed his hand down on it, trapping it on the ground. No way was he losing it again. Not a chance.

Wide eyed, comic book forgotten as it slipped from his arm to the floor, he picked up the paper again and gaped at it.

It was exactly the way it had been before, on the night he and the others had first followed Hiro out to the docks. Black smears, too dark to be pencil smudges, surrounded a message written in ink pen and impeccably neat handwriting.

Please be careful.

When he found his voice, it shook and cracked on the way out. “Oh my God.


Hiro had to wonder if jumping into the world beyond the collapsing portal had... well... done something to him.

He hoped desperately that it hadn't. This wasn't exactly something he could wander into a doctor's office and ask about. But the fact was that ever since he'd made it home, dragging that heavy box with Baymax's gauntlet in it, he'd been on his toes. It wasn't something he could explain in scientific terms. It was the feeling of seeing something out of the corner of his eye, only to turn around and see absolutely nothing. For days it had been bugging him, like sparks flying in his peripherals.

At least today had shown him a silver lining.

It had been a sad little joke, something to make the hurt recede at least for a moment – bumping his fist against the clenched gauntlet, just like old times. That one little tap had loosened the gauntlet's curled digits, freeing the familiar green chip from its hiding place. Hiro had snatched it up, and his empty attic bedroom had been host to a one-man victory dance.

And then, for only the second time in months, Hiro had ventured past the partition and into Tadashi's side of the room.

After all, Baymax's chip was only that – a chip. If he was going to bring back the rest of him, he needed a place to start. And the best place to start was in Tadashi's notes. They didn't take long to find – of course they didn't. Tadashi had all his stuff squared away, always had.

(He let himself pause to cry a little as he went through drawers and bookshelves. Around evening, when he had found almost everything he was looking for, he'd crept downstairs and let Aunt Cass bury him in a hug for a few minutes. Just until he could breathe again.)

By the time he had finished combing through the fifth notebook filled with Tadashi's clean (if a little smudged) handwriting and sketches, it was well after midnight and he could barely heave himself off his desk chair and into bed. It was a Herculean effort, but his hand closed around the little green chip and somehow he managed it. His eyelids felt crusty, with sleep or old tears, he wasn't sure. He was seeing things in the corner of his vision again, flashes of gold that were gone when he tried to focus on them.

It was stupid, but no one was around to call him on it, so he did it anyway. When he collapsed into bed, too bone-weary to change or brush his teeth, he slipped the chip under his pillow. He curled up on his side, pulling the blanket up to his chin. Blinking, he quietly marveled at flickers of light that persisted, little threads of gold like dust motes in sunlight, like sand. Maybe he ought to ask someone about that. But who? Krei, maybe – the guy did kind of owe him a favor or three. With that thought, Hiro shut his eyes and slept.

The nightmares came again.

They were never clear. They were always tangled and confused, one image leading to the next without any rhyme or reason. And now he dreamed in sound and darkness and bright flashes of fire, brown eyes wide and desperate as someone has to help burned in his ears and Tadashi's sleeve slipped from his grasp. His mouth opened, but no sound came out except Baymax destroy and then darkness again. The mask came in the dark, his body seized in the freezing cold, and he choked on smoke and pale-colored clouds and the water in the bay. Terror wound around his heart, squeezing until it pulsed and pounded to free itself and he was sure it would burst -

A hand in his hair.

Not a hard hand, like Callaghan's reaching fingers, curved like claws as he moved waves of microbots. It was soft, gentle, pushing back the dark and the fear the same way you'd brush dust off of a shelf. The death-grip on his heart eased, and Hiro breathed the way he'd breathed when Baymax had broken the surface of the bay. He felt his eyelids flutter and open halfway.

The gold was back, soft warm light in the darkness of his room, and there was a hand in his hair. Half asleep, Hiro's eyes slid back, following it to an arm and then a face, a familiar face framed in black hair, smiling down at him. There was gold in his vision, from the threads floating free in the air, to the glow in strange yellow eyes, to the light flickering like a candle flame cupped in the hand that wasn't busy stroking his hair.

“I'm here,” Tadashi's voice whispered, and Hiro's eyes drifted shut again.

This would be gone in the morning. All the best dreams were. But at least for now, light and words drifted through the darkness like gold dust in the corner of his vision

Go to sleep. Please don't cry. I love you too. I'm not going anywhere.


To be continued.