That spring, foxes came to Golden Gate Park.
It started with gray foxes, the local ones dominant and indigenous to the area, but then red foxes gradually began to join them. At first it seemed to be the odd itinerant fox migrating farther west than it should have, but then it simply kept happening.
It made the news, especially when people seemed to realize that the animals were there to stay. Foxes wandering the fields, crossing roads, and venturing out into town became something of a minor attraction. It wasn't without its uproar, of course. Worried parents clutched at pearls over the possibility of children getting bitten. Fish and Wildlife Services made noise about this new development and its implications for the local ecosystem, uncertainty over the cause of the population shift, and of course the threat of diseases. Some worried about the possibility of some kind of sickness driving these foxes into the area, but a few that were caught and tested proved to be in excellent health. Experts kept a close eye on the phenomenon, and city employees put up signs warning against feeding the animals.
For the life of them, no one could figure out how or why it was happening. But thus far the change seemed harmless enough, so no drastic action was taken. By and large, the citizens of San Fransokyo collectively shrugged their shoulders, took pictures, and kept a closer eye on pets and children.
Rumors flew left and right. Most people agreed that you could see the most foxes if you sat in the Tea Garden, kept quiet and still, and waited. Some insisted that at least one of the foxes would bring you good luck if you saw it. Others were convinced that the foxes had escaped from some experimental farm like the one in Russia that domesticated them. A conspiracy theorist or three could often be seen raving on their blogs about hoaxes and government experiments.
And then there was Nozomi Takai.
Nozomi was eight years old and had gotten separated from her group while on a field trip to Golden Gate Park. In her frantic dash through the Tea Garden in search of her class, she had tripped, skinned her knee in the fall, and given in to panic.
She was absolutely insistent that a fox had come up to sit with her. He wasn't a very big fox, but he had orange fur and yellow eyes and a fluffy tail, and he'd let her pet him until she stopped crying. Strangest of all, he had then urged her to her feet and led her back to her frantic chaperone. No one else saw the fox, and even the grown-ups just looked confused when she pointed to him. Then she looked away from him for a moment, and when she looked back, the fox was gone and all she could see was a man in raggy clothes walking away. Very few of her friends believed her.
But somewhere deep in the North Pole, among millions of others on the surface of a massive globe, a tiny light flickered to life.
It was a quarter past ten on a Saturday night, and Tadashi was experimenting.
He'd borrowed an empty notebook from his own bedroom for this – a while ago, he would have balked at moving anything around at home, for fear of startling Hiro, but he had been disappointed, not relieved, when his brother took no notice of one less spiral notebook on his bookshelf. In any case, armed with a stopwatch and writing materials, Tadashi stood out on the roof of an apartment building not far from his aunt's cafe and watched the golden ribbons of dream sand float and drift through the air. Some were as thin as yarn, others nearly half as wide as he was tall. They lit the night sky with soft yellow, forming pictures and images of dreams.
I wonder what they look like if dreams get X-rated , he thought absently, and decided never, ever, to ask the Sandman that. Besides, that wasn't what he was here for.
One of the ribbons floated over this particular roof, as wide as Tadashi's own leg. It hovered at the height of his chin, and he could easily reach out and touch it. It wasn't gritty or scratchy as he would have expected sand to feel, but as soft and fine as flour or sawdust. He turned his hand, fluttering his fingers and watching the sand scatter and swirl.
And then he stepped back, applied just the lightest touch of his will, and swept his hand to the side. A wisp of sand came away at his command, and he started the stopwatch.
He felt his heart skip a beat. Carefully he stepped farther away from the main path of dream sand and focused on the small handful of it that followed him. The golden ribbon swirled around him, and he watched it play about between his hands until it slipped from his control and fled back to the Sandman's.
With hands that trembled a little, Tadashi opened the notebook, flipped past old, half-forgotten designs, and found the page that he had most recently started writing in. It wasn't as exact as he would have liked; he could only eyeball it and judge that the amount was somewhere between three and three and a half tablespoons. And that was only useful information if the sand had a uniform volume, which was up in the air because, well, magic. But what was uniform was time. In this case, it had been sixteen-point-four seconds before he lost focus. There were earthquakes that had brought highways crashing to the ground with less time to work with.
This probably wasn't useful information that would bring him any sort of concrete answers – in fact, it definitely wasn't. He'd had it pounded into his head already that magic wasn't like science, it wasn't something you could analyze and overthink. But still, it felt better to keep track. It made him feel like he was doing something about it.
Tadashi turned around. Like many aspects of his new life, he was hopeless to explain how he knew to turn around. It wasn't like he knew where all of his fellow Guardians were at all times; it was more of an immediate thing, a split-second mental warning before they tapped him on the shoulder. It was a little useful, admittedly. Having a fox's good hearing didn't mean much when the Guardian of Dreams never made a sound.
“Hey, Sandy.” He sounded at least as sheepish as he felt. The Sandman, for his part, looked as friendly as ever, his round face curious. “It's still happening,” Tadashi went on with a glance back at the sand. “I'm definitely not imagining it.” He shook his head. “I dunno, it's like it's... listening to me.”
Sandy's eyes widened a little as he joined Tadashi at his rooftop vantage point. To Tadashi's relief, he didn't look annoyed.
“I don't mean to step on your toes or anything,” he said, just in case. “I mean, Dream stuff is all yours, I'm still figuring out Trust. But it's still happening.”
With a tilt of his head, the Sandman called up a little wave of sand. It responded to him instantly, obeying his commands with ease. It reminded Tadashi of Hiro with his microbots – thoughts translated to action immediately.
It did not remind him of Callaghan, no, the Sandman and Hiro created and all Callaghan did with them was destroy.
Tadashi forced the thought away and found the Sandman looking questioningly at him while the golden dust formed and reformed every form and configuration imaginable, from basic 3D shapes to boats and animals.
“No, nothing like that.” Tadashi shook his head. “I can't make stuff with it, I can just sort of move it. I don't know how much I can move, either – still working that out.”
The Sandman shrugged and let the shapes dissipate and the sand fly back to the ribbons in the sky. He nodded and pointed to the spot directly behind Tadashi.
Tadashi followed his gaze, knowing what he would find. It was still strange, seeing a red-gold fox's tail at the base of his spine. It responded to the wind, fur waving gently in the breeze, and Tadashi couldn't tell whether the color was just that bright, or the tail was actually glowing.
“Probably.” Crossing his arms, Tadashi leaned back on his heels and watched the dream sand. “I mean, dream manipulation is one of the powers that kitsune are supposed to have. Among other things. Like shapeshifting. Possession.” He paused, suppressing a shudder. “Making illusions. Healing – I'm hoping I get that. And... well, North did say I might discover new abilities. Maybe this is one of them?”
The Sandman gave his arm a comforting pat, before gathering the sand into a carpet and hopping on it. When Tadashi looked at him in confusion, the Guardian simply offered him a double thumbs-up.
“Heh, thanks, Sandy. Where are you off to?”
The Sandman pantomimed binoculars at him, and Tadashi felt his heart sink a little.
“Well, good luck, then. Stay safe out there.”
With one last nod, the Guardian of Dreams swept away into the night.
The Sandman was on lookout, of course. Technically, Tadashi was on lookout, too – keeping watch for Nightmares and helping run off crowds of them left a lot less time for checking in on Hiro. They were all busy. Well over a month had passed since they'd filled him in on Pitch, and they still weren't any closer to figuring out what was stirring the things up. Even the so-called King of Nightmares himself was AWOL, apparently.
And speaking of which...
A familiar prickle went up his spine, like a spider walking up the back of his neck. Tadashi darted to the edge of the roof and peered over the side. It was too far and too dark to see, but he could feel it. He had spent enough time as a spirit to trust the hairs on the back of his neck.
This was close to home, and that was what worried him. Only a few minutes of hopping rooftops would bring him to the Lucky Cat Cafe, and Wasabi and Honey Lemon's apartments were within walking distance even for the living. It was the last place he wanted to see these free-floating shadow creatures.
He was a fox by the time his feet pushed off from the edge of the roof. White teeth and red-gold fur flashed in the moonlight as he dove into the darkness to hunt for Nightmares.
It was a bit late for a video conference, but that was what the privacy of the garage was for. Aunt Cass rarely bothered him there, outside of meal times.
The computer was on, the video window split into four sections – one for each of his friends. The volume was up, and the conversation carried on as Hiro went back and forth, busying himself on the same project he had been working on for the past month or so.
“Y'know, feel free to stop anytime you need to,” Wasabi pointed out, bringing up the elephant in the room at last.
Hiro paused, scratching his nose with the same hand that held a spanner. “What, this? Nah, it's cool, I can talk and work at the same time.”
“I know, I'm just...” Wasabi's voice trailed off.
“I don't think I've seen you not working on him,” Honey Lemon said quietly.
Hiro shrugged. “Gotta get him done. It's been long enough, and I've been making some serious progress.”
“One month is long enough?” Gogo said dryly.
“Yup. Would've been shorter if I didn't get distracted so much.”
“C'mon, guys, quit ganging up on him,” Fred piped up. “You're all liars if you try and say you don't want Baymax up and running again.” Hiro stopped again to blink gratefully at him.
“Not if it means the little guy works his fingers to the bone in the process,” Wasabi pointed out.
“You have been resting, haven't you?” Honey asked.
“Of course I have.” Hiro rolled his eyes. “Seriously. I've been sleeping like a log every night.”
“Lucky.” Wasabi sounded wistful.
“You haven't?” Honey asked. “What's the matter?”
Wasabi shrugged, looking at a loss. “I wish I knew. I've been stocking my pantry with sleepy teas, but it's been taking me forever to get to sleep every night.”
“Personally, I think it's our extracurriculars,” Gogo pointed out. “I keep jumping awake and stuff. Like I don't regret us starting out, and I'm glad we're doing it, but of course there's gonna be problems when we spend our weekends punching dangerous jerks in the face. What, it hasn't been happening to you?”
“Oh, I worry a little,” Honey admitted. “Nighttime has that effect. All I have to do is lie awake in bed and all of a sudden my mind just comes up with all the worst what-ifs. I've been sleeping okay, though. Is it really so bad for you, Gogo?”
Gogo shrugged “I mean, I'm not exhausted or anything? But for the past few weeks I've been waking up at least once every night. Dunno what's waking me up, it just happens.”
“Oh, that is the worst ,” Wasabi groaned.
Three faces waited expectantly.
Fred blinked, glancing at each of them from his own computer. “What? Why'd we stop talking?”
“Anything to contribute?” Gogo asked flatly. “Or is Captain Genre Savvy sleeping like a baby, too?”
Spluttering a little, Fred fussed with his stocking cap. “I mean... I guess? Sort of? There's been some stuff on my mind lately, but... y'know, I'm fine and stuff. Why are you guys bugging me? What about Hiro?”
Another brief silence passed. Hiro was only half-visible on his camera feed. He had paused in the middle of working to, apparently, stare off into space.
“...Hiro?” Fred repeated. “You okay, dude?”
Their youngest member phased slowly back into the conversation, his head turning a bit, then his eyes moving to focus on them again. “Huh? What? Sorry, I spaced.”
“Are you sure you're getting enough sleep?” Honey asked skeptically.
Hiro rolled his eyes, because sometimes he felt like he was surrounded by mother hens. “I'm telling you guys, I'm fine .” He spread his hands. “Sleeping like a baby. As soon as my head hits the pillow, I'm out.” He took in their reactions; Gogo flat-out didn't buy it, Honey and Wasabi looked like they were waffling, and Fred... well, at least Fred seemed to believe him.
Which was good, because he was actually telling the truth.
“See, this is part of the reason why I need to get this guy finished,” Hiro went on, gesturing at the endoskeleton he was working on. “Skeleton's almost done, and in about a day, I'll have the vinyl ready, and it'll be the last leg before I can actually activate him. Soon as I do, he can scan me and let you guys know that I'm fine .”
“I believe you,” Fred pointed out.
“ Thank you , Fred.”
“Well, if you're sure...” Honey bit her lip.
“I am sure, why can't you guys see that?” Hiro sat down, frustrated. “I've been sure ever since I found that chip. I just – I don't know, I feel like I have peace of mind for the first time ever since I picked it up. I'm fine. I'm okay. Honest.”
“Look, sorry if we're helicoptering you, dude,” Wasabi spoke up.
“You've been a little weird lately,” Gogo said bluntly. “Like... jumpy. Or like just now, you'll start spacing out on us. I mean, don't blame us if it looks like sleep deprivation.”
Scowling, Hiro looked away. “It's not.”
“But it is something,” Honey pressed gently.
“If it is, then it's something I can handle,” Hiro insisted. He could see that Wasabi was ready to argue, so he glanced to the side. “Whoops, I think I hear my aunt coming. I gotta go, later guys.”
“Bye, Hiro!” Fred managed to say, before Hiro dropped out of the call. In the silence of the garage, he let out a sigh of relief.
Honestly, he wasn't sure how long he could keep this from them. And then tonight he just had to slip up. It was his own fault for leaving the garage door open again.
But really, how could he not?
Hiro got up, put down the spanner, and went to stand in the doorway. Breathing in, he turned his face upward.
It had started small. Just a hint, a glimpse in the corner of his eye every now and then, and only ever at night. But as the days had become weeks, and the month had passed, it had slowly come into focus like a photograph from the ancient Polaroid camera that Aunt Cass kept.
Hiro had seen pictures of the aurora borealis, but that wasn't what this was. The Northern Lights were blue-green, sometimes purple, like a rainbow, and all Hiro ever saw was one color. Bands of gold stretched across the night sky, trailing ribbons and threads that stirred and floated in the dark.
They were close, sometimes close enough to reach for when he went out. Touching them felt like running his fingers through dust, only cleaner. It was really pretty, actually.
Too bad Hiro seemed to be the only one who could see it.
He had taken pictures, but cautious questions to Aunt Cass proved that she couldn't see the threads in photos, either. No, this was only affecting him. None of the others would know that, color aside, the constantly shifting vapors reminded him of the pastel world beyond the portal. Had his leap into that world messed with his brain chemistry somehow?
Hiro didn't feel crazy. If this was a hallucination, then it seemed like a pretty harmless one. He supposed that he probably should have found it unsettling, but he didn't. Whenever he looked at the night lights, all he could feel was calm. Safe. As if he had Baymax's chip clasped firmly in his hand whenever he went out at night and looked up.