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A Friend in the Dark

Chapter Text

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.

 

Chapter Text

To all outside observers, it seemed such a sudden thing. Instantaneous. Violent. Straight from zero to a thousand. For all intents and purposes, it might as well have been.

But at its heart, buried deep and swaddled in shadows, Robert Callaghan knew better.

First had come the fear. It was not so difficult for it to gain a foothold on him. Fire and rage, loneliness and sorrow, over the months after Abigail was gone, and then once more after Tadashi was gone, they had eaten into him. Like rot and termites, memory and loss had gnawed holes in him until there was plenty of purchase for the fear to find. With icy grasping claws it had latched on, burrowing deep until he could no more tell where Robert ended and the terror began.

He was no stranger to fear. It had rent at his heart when the portal died and took his daughter with it; in the midst of a fire of his own making, it had driven him to run and run and never stop running and never look back, not even to the sound of screams and desperate tears; and he had been young and tiny once, huddled in the dark under a blanket, wracked with childish terror.

But this was new. This fear moved. It sought, it found, it devoured and called out like a living thing. He felt the fear, and it felt him back. Sometimes it felt like a swarm, other times like a single shapeless mass, a single mind. Was it one, or many, or both? It? Them? He settled for “it”.

Over the course of a few scant weeks It had taken hold of him. Alone in the dark, friendless, weaponless, defenseless, with hardly any will left to put up a fight, Robert had gradually submitted. He had fought It at first, if his halfhearted resistance could really be called “fighting.” But he lacked a name for his enemy, or even the knowledge that there was an enemy at all. He lacked a weapon against it, and so It had slipped past his feeble defenses and burrowed into him like an insect.

There was almost a comfort in it, really. Like the euphoria that came seconds before drowning, Robert had stopped fighting and almost cried with relief. No more struggle against something invisible and intangible. Just close his eyes, let It come. Breathe in and out. If the moving dark was so determined to have him, then fine – let It handle the hard work from now on.

All was not lost, after all. Abigail was alive. He would never see her again, but she was alive and safe. The knowledge hung like a five-watt bulb, a feeble wisp of light in the yawning dark, but it was there. Many times the darkness tried to swallow it the way it had swallowed everything else, but Robert cupped his hand around it, like a candle flame in the wind. That was his. It was all he had, if it was anything at all. He would keep it lit. For Abigail. She had once been the light of his life, but she was no longer a part of his life anymore and he had thrown away the others, so this was the only light he had left. The fear would not take it from him.

It must not take it from him.

The shadows changed.

It had been formless at first, less tangible than mist, but ever since he let his defenses drop the darkness had become... more. Sometimes if he let his hand fall into the shadows, he felt them skittering over his skin like ants and spiders. He curled his fingers and the dark responded, or perhaps his curling fingers were responding to the dark. It was difficult to say.

He felt like a puppet on strings. Existing. Responding. Nothing more. Sometimes he blinked, and it would be three hours later. Others called it depression. It felt more like following.

Once upon a time, he'd had a plan. Steps to take. Now there was nothing but what It wanted to do, what It wanted him to do. Sometimes the two were one and the same.

And then, one day, It wanted him to move.

He stood up in the center of his cell. Or maybe the darkness was holding him up. His eyes were closed, and when he opened them, he could see.

It wasn't that the darkness was gone. Something told him that It was there to stay. But when Robert Callaghan opened his eyes, he realized that not only could he see in the dark, he could see the dark itself. It coated the walls of his cell like tar; It floated in the air like smog. When he breathed in, he could feel It in his lungs. It shifted, swirled, almost dancing, almost beautiful in a way that chilled him to the marrow. As he watched, It took familiar forms. Dancing jet-black flames. The water of the bay where he'd nearly drowned four students and a child. Finally, the tiny, shifting form of microbots. He shuddered, and the darkness seemed to settle on that form.

And then, as if It weren't impossible enough, It moved closer to him, crowding him in the cramped cell, and performed one more unearthly miracle.

It spoke to him.

It wasn't something he could hear with his ears. Hearing its not-voice was visceral, a feeling like his stomach churning and his breath coming in short gasps.

“The walls.

The walls? There certainly were walls. There had been walls ever since the day he'd been taken in.

Break them.”

It took barely a thought. Barely a twitch of his hand, and it was like the microbots all over again, a metal headset on his brow and a swarm of tiny flecks of robots responding to every thought, every gesture.

But he'd been in control, then. He'd been running, always running, running away from the dead portal and the fire and away from Tadashi Hamada's desperate screaming, but he had been in control. Every choice had been his own.

Now?

Could he have made a choice of his own?

Could he have told it no?

No cage. No leash. No King, now he is in a cage.” It whispered to him in a voice that twisted in the pit of his stomach. “Spread. Feed. Make them afraid.”

His hands rose, with darkness shifting around him like a microbot swarm. It ate at the metal bolt and the hinges the same way It had once eaten at him, until, just like him, the door to his cell gave way. It hurtled outward, crashing into an unlucky guard until both it and the unsuspecting man struck the opposite wall.

No, he told himself, as he stepped out of one cage and into another. I don't think I could.


Baymax was almost finished. He was close – so very, very close. The skeleton was complete, the vinyl was complete, and from there, all that was left were finishing touches and last-minute nitpicking at the designs and tinkering to make sure the scanner was up to Hiro's standards. He was close, but he wasn't there yet, and for that reason he was ready to scream with rage when Fred's police scanner burst into life and the report reached the team's ears.

Callaghan was busting his way out of jail.

Not even prison yet, Hiro thought in disgust. The trial had dragged on too long; if they'd finished faster, maybe Callaghan would have been doing life in a maximum security prison and this wouldn't have happened.

He hadn't gone into battle with his friends since they'd taken Callaghan down the first time. Without Baymax, there wasn't a lot that he could do to help in the middle of a fight. In fact, without Baymax, their main mode of transportation was gone, which left them to make their way to crime scenes on foot. That was all very well for Gogo, and even for Fred on good days, but that left the rest of them to make the trip by Wasabi's replaced van.

It also left Hiro to stay in said van, in a vantage point at a safe distance, armed with nothing but Baymax's scanner, a monitor, an earpiece, advanced hacking capabilities, and Baymax's chip tucked into his pocket for good luck.

Of course, it was Hiro – that was as good as being heavily armed.

“I've got access to the security cameras,” he said over the com. “Just gimme a sec, I'm trying to find the camera where he is.”

“Looks like all the action's on the east side of the building,” Wasabi answered.

“I am so there.” Fred's voice shook with excitement.

Baymax's scanner let off a tone, and the results appeared on the monitor over the video feed. “Oh! Scanner's got his location, he's on the third floor on the east side, moving toward the front.” Hiro went from camera to camera, searching for one that would give him an actual view of the action. It shouldn't be this hard to find, he thought. Just follow the mayhem backwards, right?

But it seemed like there was mayhem happening every which way, and judging by the feed, it was spreading fast. Apparently, not only was Callaghan breaking himself out, but he was also busting open the cell doors for his fellow inmates, away from the east side. A few of them stayed in their cells, but for the most part they were taking advantage of the sudden unexpected freedom to add to the chaos. It was a smart move; Hiro had to give him that. With so much happening, guards were spread thin, which probably meant less opposition for him. The fact that he'd killed most of the lights didn't help.

It begged the question, of course – how the hell had Callaghan pulled this off? Hiro stalled in his search to narrow his eyes at the cells. Those doors weren't just open – they looked broken.

“Guys, you need to be careful,” he said over the comm. “Something's not right.”

“Gonna need to be a bit more specific,” Gogo said tightly. “Okay, I'm in the building, east side, I'm making my way up fast.”

“I'm up already!” Fred announced.

“I'm in the building, too,” Honey added. She broke off into a stream of Spanish. “Hold on, subduing some inmates on the first floor. Wasabi, to your right!”

“Remember to keep the fire and the plasma off!” Hiro clenched his jaw. “Guys, these cell doors look busted, they weren't just hacked! Someone's in there with you, and whoever it is, they work fast-”

“Hiro, we need to know where Callaghan is.” Wasabi's voice was tense.

“That's where this started and that's our priority,” Gogo added. “Just tell us where to go. I'm almost to the third floor now.”

“I'm trying, I'm-” Hiro's voice broke off. There was something on the screen. Was that Callaghan?”

He switched the video feed to the camera positioned at the center of one of the east hallways of the third floor, just in time to watch a guard in khaki go flying across the frame. A moment later, Hiro's jaw dropped.

At first he thought it was someone's shadow creeping into the edge of the frame. But no, the next moment he saw how much form it had – how much familiar, shifting, streaming form.

“Guys, he's got microbots.”

What?” Fred's voice jumped several octaves.

“Where did he get those?” Wasabi demanded.

Hiro brought up more camera feeds, security cameras from nearby hallways, and found Gogo joining Fred in one of them. “Gogo, Fred, they're coming your way. Callaghan's almost in frame, but he'll probably come through the hallway intersection halfway down to your left, so get ready.” He went back to the feed showing the microbots, to find Callaghan stepping into view.

It was strangely comical, seeing him dressed in bright orange and walking calmly down the hall with an expression that was almost bored. But the presence of microbots surrounding and following him in an obedient swarm kept Hiro on edge. What was more...

“Where's the transmitter?” Hiro said out loud.

“They're here!” Fred yelled over the comm. One of the camera feeds lit up as he shot a jet of fire at the approaching mass.

“Hiro, what's going on?” Gogo asked.

“I'm looking at Callaghan now, and I don't see a transmitter,” Hiro hissed. “This doesn't make any – Gogo, Fred, he's coming right on you, so unless you plan on going up against him by yourselves you should probably clear out. He's tossing guards around like it's nothing.”

“C'mon, we can take him!” Fred protested.

“Uh-oh.” The quiet noise came from Wasabi.

“Oh, no,” Honey said grimly. “Hiro, you're right, Wasabi and I are seeing microbots too.”

“That must be how Callaghan opened the cell doors,” Hiro kept an eye on the feed. “They may be spread through the building, so watch out.”

Littlelateforthat!” he heard Wasabi shout, before Honey yelled something he couldn't make out and he had to bring up their helmet cameras to make sure they weren't dying. And no, they weren't dying, they were fine, but they were slicing and icing their way through masses of microbots on the second floor while Callaghan was another floor up and how the hell was Callaghan pulling this off

Fred yelled over the comm, and Gogo swore fluently, and Hiro watched helplessly as a battering ram of black struck Fred full in the chest and pinned him against the wall behind him. Gogo spun her disks like circular saws, slicing through them to free him. Fred crumpled, falling to one knee, and didn't stand back up even as Callaghan approached.

“Fred, Gogo, get out of there.” Hiro's ears rang; his own voice sounded far away to him. “Get out of there, now. Regroup with the others.”

“Fine,” Gogo said tersely.

“Fred?” Hiro said when their friend didn't respond. “Fred, are you okay?”

He heard Fred cough over the comm. “Y-yeah,” Fred said faintly. “I just...”

The microbots were rising for another attack. Gogo rolled back, hauled Fred to his feet, and dragged him out of the hallway with the bots racing after them. Hiro reminded himself to breathe.

“Honey? Wasabi? What's going on with you guys?”

“I think the bots are headed somewhere,” Wasabi answered. “We're trying to keep them off the inmates and the guards, but it looks like they're going somewhere.”

“Back toward the ground floor?” Honey suggested.

Hiro wished he had more eyes, because it was getting hard to keep track of all these video feeds. Still, following Honey and Wasabi's words, he found another microbot mass on the first floor and tracked its progress. “You're right – Gogo, Fred, how're you doing?”

“I'm fine,” Gogo gritted out. “Something's up with Fred.”

“'M fine,” Fred mumbled, but he didn't sound fine. “Think we lost him.”

“Well don't lose him!” Wasabi broke in. “We're supposed to do the exact opposite of that, that's what we're here for!”

“Where did he even get this many microbots?” Honey pointed out. “Most of them went through the portal.”

“And Hiro's right, I didn't see the transmitter, either,” Gogo added.

“Baymax broke the transmitter,” Wasabi reminded them.

“Evidence lockers,” Hiro interrupted. “That's where they're headed, but there aren't any cameras inside, so I don't know what they're doing there.” On the screen, he watched as his team regrouped by the stairs on the third floor.

“Did you guys hear that?” Fred asked faintly.

The noise Gogo made would not have sounded out of place coming from an angry wildcat. “Damn it.”

“Hear what?” Hiro asked.

“Glass breaking,” Gogo informed him. “Lots and lots of glass.”

It took Hiro a moment or two of flailing to find the right camera, but when he did, his blood froze. “He's going out the windows. He just punched through the windows.”

“Which ones?” Honey asked.

Hiro was about to reply when movement in the corner of his eye distracted him. He did a double take, half-determined to keep his eyes on the monitor, but the view through the van's windshield grabbed his attention.

Wasabi had parked at what he'd judged to be a safe distance away from the east side of the jail, though not too far that he and the others couldn't reach it quickly. As it was, Hiro had an excellent view of the building's exterior, a sheer wall dotted with nigh-impenetrable windows.

And in spite of the settling darkness of evening, he was close enough to see them being penetrated.

“East side windows,” he answered as he crept toward the front of the van.

“Which ones?” Gogo repeated.

Hiro swallowed. “All of them.” He opened the van's sun roof and hoisted himself up for a better view.

From each and every window on the east side of the building, and a few around the corners, black tendrils emerged. Microbots, Hiro thought. Like winding rivers they met and streamed downward, and if Hiro strained his eyes, he could see a single human figure emerge with them to ride them safely down to the ground.

“Guys, he's out. He is outside. Right now.” Hiro paused, blinking owlishly as the black microbot tendrils coalesced into a single writhing mass at the foot of the building, easily as large as it had been the last time they had faced Callaghan, if not larger. “...Uh, I'm not saying he's definitely heading this way, but... I think he's heading this way. Requesting backup.”

The voices in his earpiece jumped several dozen volume levels as his friends clamored at him to run. Honey's high voice pitched itself above the rest. “Hiro, get out of there now!

Hiro gritted his teeth. “Guys, relax, I'm not gonna try and stop him by myself.”

“We're on our way.” Gogo sounded irritated. “If he comes near you, either lay low or ditch the gear and get out of there.”

“I'm not an idiot, I know that,” Hiro said tersely. “He's got a ways to go before he's anywhere near me and I need to figure out how he's controlling those things.” He squinted into the distance, straining to see Callaghan. “You saw it, right? He was controlling multiple microbot swarms independently of each other, without looking at them.”

“Seriously?” Gogo hissed. “How was he doing that? It's been, what, a month since we saw him?”

“Gogo, we need to focus,” Honey reminded her.

“I'm sorry, I just didn't see the advanced robotics lab these people are apparently hiding in here! Must've missed it when I walked in!”

“Hiro?” Fred spoke up again, sounding nauseous. “You seriously need to watch out, okay? Something's... funny.”

“I'll book it if he comes near me,” Hiro assured him. “Just focus on getting out of there so I can worry about how Callaghan's... doing...” Movement to either side of him caught his attention. His voice trailed off as he turned to see what it was.

It was one thing to see it on the security feed. But now, with Callaghan two soccer fields away from him, seeing microbots suddenly flanking him as if moving independently was like a slap in the face.

“Oh, hell.” Hiro heaved himself out of the sun roof just as the bots began to creep up the sides. Scrambling over the top of the van to face the back, he planted his feet briefly on the edge of the roof and heaved himself off. With one jump he cleared the swarm and hit the ground running. “Ditching the van, guys. Hurry up.”

He chanced a glance over his shoulder. The swarm was on his tail, and Callaghan had already gained ground. In another few seconds the man would clear the abandoned van.

Some sixth sense made him look forward again, and he skidded to a halt just short of running into a waist-high wall of microbots. He flung out his hand on instinct, in case he needed to catch himself, but he snatched it back before his fingertips could brush the barrier. Where were all these damn things coming from?

Hiro looked back. Callaghan was well within view, and even from this smaller distance Hiro couldn't see any sign of a transmitter. All he could see was Callaghan towering over him with blank eyes and a face like stone.

The microbots were surrounding him, cutting off his escape, so he took a risk. With a running jump, he launched himself over the barrier in front of him. As he did, his hand brushed the top of the wall. The microbots were cold – colder than dry ice, so cold that it burned and spread from his hand up his arm to his shoulder. Without thinking he cried out, stumbling when he hit the ground. He turned back again.

This was all wrong. What was he even seeing? Microbots, everywhere, but they weren't microbots. To his eyes they seemed to lose their shape and form and melt into black sand. His mind took him back to those recent evenings spent watching the gold ribbons stretch across the sky, but this was nothing like that. The night lights made him feel warm, safe – watching the simple microbot structure crumble into dust made him feel like throwing up. Hiro raised his eyes.

He couldn't see the orange on Callaghan's clothes anymore, only black. The microbots – or whatever they were – were rising in tendrils to Callaghan's face, and Hiro could see something in them, white things, like shards of pottery.

Or a broken mask.

Before Hiro's eyes, the red and white kabuki mask pieced itself back together over Callaghan's blank face. The cracks remained, and the blackness leaked through like smoke.

The microbots surged forward. Hiro's hand, chilled from touching them, went to his pocket. His numb fingertips brushed the edge of the chip, and the coldness vanished.

Even as he flinched away, he saw the dark swarm curve and arch around him, then draw back without touching him again. Hiro stepped back, astonished, as the microbots made another half-hearted attempt to bum-rush him. Again, they recoiled.

Then, within the darkness, fire flared to life.

Callaghan recoiled. Hiro couldn't see his face, but his body language – tensed shoulders, head whipping from side to side – screamed fear and alarm. Heat buffeted him, and the smell of smoke and hot metal filled his nostrils and chased away the ice in his veins. The glow of flames dazzled him for a moment, and by the time he had blinked the spots from his vision, the microbots were microbots again and receding as Callaghan fled, and his friends were at his side.

His head knocked against Honey's chestplate as she pulled him into a hug. “Honey, let go of him for a sec,” he heard Gogo say. Her voice was tight with held-back rage “C'mon, you and me go after him, see if we can at least find where he goes. Fred's still looking woozy-”

“Hiro, he could have killed you,” Wasabi broke in.

“In my defense-” His own voice sounded far away to him. “I did ditch the van and run for it.”

“We're lucky Fred was quick with the flamethrower,” Gogo went on.

“Yeah,” Fred agreed, his voice barely any stronger than it had been before. “Pretty lucky.”

“Honey, let's go.”

With a sigh, Honey gently pushed Hiro toward Wasabi and went to join Gogo in the chase. Hiro's mind reeled as it slowly put the world back together around him. The first thing he noticed was his own right hand, which was still curled in his pocket.

The chip was warm to the touch.


Ever since getting wall-slammed, Fred had been half sure that Callaghan had given him a gnarly concussion. Standing up straight on solid ground was like trying to balance on a rocking boat, and his nausea came and went, and came again. He shivered with numb fingertips and fog in his brain. He wasn't sure why he was feeling this way – he'd had worse falls than this and walked them off. With his brain this wobbly, he wasn't sure of a lot of things.

One thing he was sure of, though – he hadn't used his flamethrower. Not once since hitting the ground outside the building.

 

Chapter Text

Nozomi woke up in a cold sweat, only she didn't, really.

Her eyes were wide open and her heart was pounding, and she knew that she must have come out of a nightmare but for the life of her she could not remember what it was. The dream was gone now that her eyes were open and she was back in her familiar bedroom, but barely a moment later she realized that the nightmare was far from over.

Her nose itched, but when she tried to scratch it, her arm would not move. She tried again, but her hand lay limply by her side as if it belonged to someone else.

Unnerved, she moved to sit up – or she would have, if she could move at all. Nozomi blinked, hard, and found that she could still blink. She could blink, and she could breathe, and she could move her eyes, but nothing else would listen to the commands from her brain. She lay frozen in bed, like a dead thing.

Her eyes rolled wildly, and fear took hold. She was trapped in her own head, unable to struggle or even cry for help. One call would bring her mother running, but if she could neither move her tongue nor open her mouth, then there was no chance of rescue.

She could not move. But she could see, and that made it all the worse.

Around her, the room was dark. She could see the shapes of things by the light of street lamps outside, but even the brightest spots in her room were still a muted dark gray. In the corners, underneath furniture, tucked in between things, spots and pools of blacker darkness hid throughout the room. Before her wide, rolling eyes, the darker shadows began to move.

Like bugs. Like spiders. Like dark liquid that trickled upward and outward instead of down. The darkness crawled up her walls, over the dresser and the desk and the stuffed animals and the floor, creeping closer to her while she watched. Her breath came in quick, short gasps, and a desperate attempt at a scream emerged as a high whistle of air from her lungs and a noise that could barely be called a whimper. Nozomi strained and fought, but she lay like a corpse as the darkness closed in on her.

Tears pooled, spilling over the corners of her eyes. Someone help me.

In the window, something flashed.

For the space of maybe two seconds, light flared through Nozomi's closed blinds. It fell upon the shadows on the walls and the floor and the ceiling, forcing them back like frightened cockroaches. The light went out, and Nozomi's mouth flew open for her to drag in a hitching, sobbing breath. She sat bolt upright, just in time to see shadows fleeing from her bedspread. Her body tingled, freshly back in her control, and she threw off the covers and hesitated for a moment before lowering herself back to the floor. The image of shadows grabbing her by the ankles and dragging her under the bed flashed through her mind, but she remembered how the light had chased them off and reached over to flick on the reading lamp by her bed.

She stood in her barely-lit room, heart pounding, breathing as if she had just run laps. Teary-eyed, she glared at the spaces between and behind and underneath her things, as if daring the darkness to move again.

Nothing did.

Something had driven them away – had scared them – and curiosity drove Nozomi to her window. As quickly as she could, she grabbed her binoculars from the shelf, parted the blinds, and stared outside.

Aside from street lamps, it was dark out. From the window Nozomi could see the apartment building's fire escape, and the roofs of nearby buildings, and even the street below, but those told her nothing. There were no cars or trucks passing, nothing to clue her into what had poured light into her bedroom to chase away the shadows.

But something had.

Doggedly Nozomi watched the street and the fire escape, and finally she saw it. There was movement on the roof of the next building, another flash of light that flickered orange like fire. Nozomi narrowed her eyes and raised the binoculars to see. There were more shadows – not stuck to walls, but floating like wisps of fog or smoke, almost impossible to see in the dark. Her stomach clenched with fear, but only for a moment.

There was a man on the roof. Nozomi fussed with her binoculars, frustrated – they could only do so much when it was so dark. But she was sure of it – there was a man on the roof.

And it would have scared her, seeing someone up there so late, except that in the next moment he turned, and she saw something move and swish behind him like a tail. Her mouth dropped open.

As she watched, she saw him dart to the side, then shrink down, low to the roof, until the man was gone and something small was in its place. Like small dog or a large cat, or...

Or a fox.

Nozomi's heart quickened, and she watched as the fox chased the shadows from the roof, until they were both lost in the darkness. Once they were out of sight and nothing more stirred in the street below her family's apartment, she put down her binoculars and climbed back into bed, dazed by what she had seen.

Leftover jitters from the nightmare kept her from turning out her light. Instead, she rummaged around for a book to calm her nerves. She wiped away the stickiness on her face from dried tears, and remembered the field trip and her skinned knee.

The fox had come to help her again.


Gogo and Honey would return to base with their heads hanging, having lost Callaghan in the chase. Neither of them would have been able to explain it – it was as if Callaghan had simply melted in with the shadows and vanished.

They were hardly the only ones to feel that frustration.

Tadashi's teeth were curved fangs in his mouth, his nails long and sharp. He breathed in and out as he ran, nostrils flaring as if following a scent. After the brief scuffle on the rooftop he was human-shaped once more, running on two legs instead of four, but he felt like an animal on the hunt.

In a way, he sort of was. This was a Guardian thing, and that meant setting aside the intellect in favor of the instinct. It meant turning back to the senses he had once tapped, months ago, when he had chased these shadows through downtown at night and placed himself between a ghostly horse and a frightened pixie. He had been slow this time. Any slower and he wouldn't have reached Hiro in time to drive the Nightmares away. It hadn't taken much to run them off – he noted with a grim sort of satisfaction that they balked at staying and fighting when he threw fire around.

Finally, under the cover of night, the trail of shadows and wisps of blackness led him to the waterfront. Tadashi's eyes narrowed, and he glared out across the bay in the darkness. His tail prickled.

Akuma Island. Of course. The place he probably would have burned to the ground if Jack hadn't shown up to ice him into submission.

Tadashi poised himself at the edge of the concrete, ready to change shape – flight came more easily when he was a fox, for whatever reason – but stopped himself. For a few precious moments he stood still and breathed in and out, filling his lungs with cool night air.

He had been running on a frantic mixture of adrenaline, rage, and the giddiness of new relief. Since the fight beneath the portal, he had left his brother and friends to their own devices. Between keeping watch for stray shadows or clues to the coming danger, and lending a hand whenever one of the other Guardians found a nightmare infestation to root out, there simply hadn't been time. Besides, he trusted his friends to keep Hiro safe, especially with Hiro carrying around the chip like a good luck charm.

Which, at this point, it kind of was.

Around twilight he had been in the Tea Garden again, which was rapidly becoming his favorite place besides the cafe, when every sense in his body had lit up like a klaxon, from zero to eleven with the force of a wrecking ball. Tadashi had been off and running before he'd even registered consciously where he was supposed to be going. The scene he had come upon was so far past “nightmare” that it wouldn't have been visible through a pair of binoculars.

Once again Callaghan had been towering over him, towering over Hiro – but instead of microbots, he had stood upon a swarm of Nightmares. At least, he had thought they were Nightmares. At this point Tadashi wasn't sure what else to call them.

Seeing those twisting tendrils of shadow shying away from Hiro before he even intervened had been... not quite but almost comforting. It hadn't stopped him from freaking out a little, but it had definitely stopped him from freaking out a lot. He had not panicked, and for the most part he had avoided losing his temper.

What he had done was throw a fireball the size of an tractor at it. Callaghan had seemed thrown, though Tadashi was not sure whether his former teacher had seen him. The Nightmares seemed to have recognized him, in any case, and had fled and taken Callaghan with them.

Or had Callaghan fled, and taken the Nightmares with him?

No matter.

“That where it went?”

Tadashi looked over his shoulder to find the Easter Bunny standing a few yards behind him. Whether the rabbit had arrived on foot or via magic tunnel, he wasn't sure. “Took you long enough.”

The Guardian of Hope looked unimpressed. “Mate, I was in Mongolia.”

Turning back to the bay, Tadashi forced down his burgeoning temper. “Anyone else coming?”

“Sandy'll be on his way – yeah, there he is now.” Sure enough, a flash of dream sand lit up the area, and the Guardian of Dreams came sailing in on a hang glider. As the Sandman coasted to a halt, the glider melted into formless sand again. “Dunno if anyone else can get here quick enough besides North.” The rabbit twitched an ear. “Should we wait for him?”

Impatience flared Tadashi's temper, but he kept it down. “We might lose them,” he pointed out.

“Fair point. Sandy, d'you mind?” Bunny nodded to the water. “Not all of us can fly.”

The Sandman nodded vigorously, lifting his hands. Sand swirled downward from the ribbons already floating in the sky, and formed a wide raft-like platform a few feet above the water. Tadashi stepped out onto it cautiously, and then more quickly when it felt solid enough. It was soft and springy beneath his feet, less like walking on a beach and more like walking on a giant gymnast's mat. Once all three of them were on board, the Sandman gave a signal and the airborne raft began its journey across the bay.

“So, not to set fire to the elephant in the room or anything,” Tadashi began. “But would either of you like to fill me in on what exactly happened?”

The Sandman shrugged and pointed to him. “You saw more than we did,” Bunny pointed out. “We should be the ones asking you.”

“I didn't see that much,” Tadashi admitted. “I got there and Robert Callaghan had... Nightmares swarming around him, I guess. I'm assuming they're Nightmares. He was using them the same way he used the microbots.”

A look of dawning horror crossed the Sandman's expressive face, and Tadashi was sure he wasn't imagining it when the raft picked up speed.

“Okay, guessing that means it's not good,” Tadashi said dryly. “But I still don't know what it means. Why is my professor running around like Sauron in a kabuki mask? What happened to him?”

“It's the Nightmares more than it's him,” Bunny replied grimly. “The whole bloody lot of 'em.” He smacked his paw against his forehead. “Ugh, we're all right twits, that's what they've been doing this whole time. It's why they've changed form – they've been picking a new host!” The Sandman nodded with a wide-eyed frown.

“What, you mean – they're possessing him?” Tadashi's stomach twisted in revulsion. The sand above the Sandman's head was forming images too quickly for him to follow, but a few he did see – something like a bacterium twisting its way into the figure of a man – did not bode well for the situation.

“Something like that, yeah,” the rabbit said grimly. “They've infected him, turned him into... like a copy of what Pitch is. Was. Their host. A living conduit for their power. Arrgh, I'm not explaining it right, Nightmares and dreams ain't my cup of tea.”

Tadashi stared out at the island, hands clenching.”So what you're saying is, my robotics professor is the new Nightmare King.”

“That's about the size of it.” The rabbit broke off when the Sandman nudged him. “Oh, yeah. Well, he's not exactly what Pitch is – I mean, was.”

“Better or worse?” Tadashi asked.

“Dunno yet,” Bunny admitted. “I've a feeling we're about to find out. Thing is, when Pitch was king, he was in total control. An absolute ruler, see? But with this Gallagher bloke-”

“Callaghan.”

“Yeah, him. With him, the Nightmares are in control. He's more like a puppet than a king.” The rabbit shrugged. “Beats me what's worse. Nightmares just want to spread, get everywhere like a bad oil spill. Pitch wanted to take over the world. We'll see who's better at getting what they want.”

The flash of sand from the Sandman was a clear warning – We're here. Sure enough, the sand raft was pulling up to the edge of Akuma Island.

“Great,” the rabbit muttered as they stepped off. “Watch yourself, Sandy. Let's not have a repeat of the last time we took Nightmares on like this.” The little Guardian nodded, his face grim. “Right then. Down to business. Let's see if he – er, they – whatever. Let's see if they're here.”

Above the Sandman's head, a mass of sand divided into three portions before scattering to the winds. Sandman tilted his head questioningly, pointing up at his visual suggestion.

The Easter Rabbit nodded. “Might be a good idea. If we split up, we'll cover more ground.”

The words felt like a death knell to Tadashi, going straight from noise in his ears to a visceral gut reaction that robbed him of speech for a moment. Tadashi opened his mouth to protest, but a wave of instinctive panic rose up to choke him off. He struggled with himself as he saw the others turn to leave, but he managed to find his voice before the rabbit could race off or the Sandman could conjure up another vehicle for himself. “Waitaminute,” he blurted. “I mean, is that really wise? Splitting up? I-I-I know time's of the essence, but we don't know what they're capable of at this point – at least I don't.” His mouth was dry with fear, and he could feel his heartbeat pound as high as his throat. “We should stick together, shouldn't we?”

He half-expected them to brush him off, tell him he was overthinking things again, and be on their merry way, and the thought was mildly terrifying to him. But to his surprise, not only did the rabbit stop in his tracks and turn back to face him, but he looked faintly alarmed, as well.

“You scared of him, Tadashi?” The rabbit sounded, not mocking or impatient as Tadashi had expected, but honestly worried. “What for? Didn't you chase him this far?”

“Well I-” Tadashi stopped short. That was a good question, actually. Callaghan had run off the moment Tadashi had shown up and blown a hole in his Nightmares, and had been on the run since. And now they were far away from the city, away from the threat of getting anyone else hurt, especially Hiro. He had every reason to believe he could take these Nightmares in a fight.

So why did he feel like the only thing standing between him and mortal terror was the fact that the other two hadn't walked away yet?

Pausing, Tadashi steadied himself. “I just feel like we should be cautious, that's all,” he answered once he was sure his voice wouldn't shake. “I've been here before. The place is like a maze – lots of places to hide. Do either of you feel like getting caught out alone?”

The Easter Bunny and the Sandman exchanged glances, and to Tadashi's immense relief, they seemed to agree with him.

“Makes sense,” Bunny admitted. “Let's be quick about it, though.”

Tadashi smirked slightly at him, driving off the fear with a joke. “You mean hop to it?”

“Don't push your luck, broomtail.”


They were being hunted.

There were three who prowled through their hiding place like hunting dogs, with harsh light that burned the darkness and chased it deep into the recesses of the island. And the Nightmares let them – to leave the island as they were might have drawn attention, and so they hid. Humans had left their stones and metal to decay in the darkness, the perfect place for shadows to haunt.

They crept into the cracks, into nooks and crannies, into shadowed corners where they could make themselves small and keep from being noticed. Their host, who could not vanish or change as they could, they spirited down into twisting halls. They cloaked him in Nightmare-sand and shadows, drowning the brightness of his clothes in black. His heart – his frightened, beating human heart – grasped at what little light it had left and cried out for more, and they gave it none.

This was their place now. It was theirs to hide in until the hunters left, their own lonely fortress to inhabit and mold to their will, as they had inhabited and molded a single lonely, frightened human.

And with his help, their reach would spread farther, even farther than the old king had taken them. One day, the Nightmares whispered among themselves, one day they would inhabit and mold the world as their own. There would be no more searing light, no more kings and leashes, no more hiding, no more hunters.

There would only be them, and all the fear they could drag from the world once it was theirs.

 

Chapter Text

  The mood was not high in the North Pole the following day.

North's headquarters had, somewhere down the line, become the semi-official headquarters of the Guardians at large. Considering the presence of the Globe Room among other Guardian-related artifacts (not to mention the virtually impenetrable, Jack-Frost-tested security system), it was the most reasonable place for them to convene.

For good or ill.

The general air in the workshop was one of worry. The Tooth Fairy made no attempt to sit still – well, hover still, in her case. She zipped about, hands clasped, eyes darting, whispering with the small entourage of pixies that had accompanied her. In the air with her was Jack, floating restlessly with his staff gripped in both hands and his teeth grinding behind the thin, tight line of his mouth. North, the central, stabilizing force even now, stood before the Globe with his hands locked behind his back. He looked equal parts thoughtful and grim with his eyebrows furrowed and his lips pursed beneath his beard.

The three who had investigated the island stood more or less grouped together before North, having jointly given a full report. The Sandman was bouncing on the balls of his feet, worry showing on his face in a wide-eyed frown. Beside him the Easter Bunny was scowling deeply, tapping his hind paw with displeasure. Tadashi simply looked sullen.

“You are sure you found nothing,” North said with a quiet sigh.

“Wasn't much chance for it anyway,” the rabbit answered, disgusted. “Place was a bloody maze, too big and twisty to smoke 'em out proper. We turned the place inside out, best we could.” He crossed his arms. “Found no sign of him. Could mean one of two things – either they led us on a lovely dance through the place, hid in the places we'd already looked, and were there the whole bloody time and are still there as we speak, or they gave us the slip while we were poking about, left the island, and could be anywhere on the planet by now.”

The Sandman added his own charades-like commentary. North sighed, shaking his head. “Is no use. Nightmares are weak still – think better to hide and wait than fight three Guardians.”

Frowning, the Sandman let handfuls of gold dust trickle through his fingers.

“Yes,” North agreed. “Even searching island with fine-toothed comb, they slip through teeth.”

“Well maybe we'd have had a few more teeth to catch 'em in if someone hadn't insisted we huddle together like penguins the whole time.” The rabbit shot an irritated look in Tadashi's direction.

Tadashi felt a growl build in the back of his throat, but he couldn't think of a good way to answer, so he kept it in.

“Ughh.” Jack Frost seemed to sag in midair. “Seriously? Did he do that thing where he starts bugging you about safety precautions? I hate it when he does that.”

The floor drew Tadashi's gaze, and he turned his scowl downward. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw the Sandman jab the Easter Bunny sharply.

“Sandy's right,” Tooth piped up, fluttering back into the middle of things. “You can't blame Tadashi. Besides, this is a meeting to discuss our next step, not point fingers.”

“Next step must be pooling knowledge,” North said. “We must know our enemy to defeat our enemy.”

The Sandman raised his hand, along with several sand lumps in the shape of horses.

“Sandy's our main man for Nightmare fun facts,” Jack agreed. “No offense, though, but how much more can he tell us about them?”

The Guardian of Dreams shrugged apologetically.

“I was not thinking of Nightmares,” North went on, shaking his head. “At least not Nightmares themselves. Sandy?”

The Sandman nodded, lifted his hands, and arranged the sand again. A cluster of shapes took form, a crowd of horses with a single figure of a man in the center. From each horse a chain of sand unwound, snaking back until each one connected back to the human figure. The horses grew in size, and as they did so the figure shrank. The Sandman pointed to the figure, then dispersed it with a tap of his finger. The chain of sands fell away, and the horses disintegrated back into dust.

Bunny tilted his head. “So, basically the host is a source of power. We already know that, what else does that tell us?”

“Very important – host concentrates Nightmare power,” North said simply. “Allows them to gather more power from others' fear. Host is keystone. Always was, even Pitch.”

“Only it's different now,” Jack broke in, eyes widening with dawning realization. “Because the new host isn't Pitch, he's just a puppet.”

Tadashi narrowed his eyes, continuing the vein of thought. “He isn't controlling them. He's just a vanilla human, so he doesn't have the kind of power he'd need, and he wouldn't know how even if he did. They're just dragging him along like a car battery.”

A slight smile twitched at Bunny's mouth as he tapped the side of his fist into his paw pad. “He's a weak link now. Long as we can get to him, we can maybe break the connection. Cut 'em off.”

A waving raised hand and a hopskip drew their attention back to the Sandman, who smiled hopefully and reformed his man-and-horses diagram. This time, the human figure in the middle shook a little and wrenched free of the chains by itself.

“Even better.” Jack's eyes lit up. “If they took over him against his will, that means he's fighting it, which gives us an edge.” He glanced at Tadashi. “So? Think he's fighting it? You're the only one who'd know.”

“Exactly,” North spoke up, turning to Tadashi. “What I meant by 'pooling knowledge.' Knowledge of humans is just as vital as knowledge of the magic. And Tadashi, you know this host better than anyone.”

“Uh. Okay.” Tadashi hesitated, closing his mouth and opening it again. “Well... small problem with that.”

“What now?” Bunny griped.

Tadashi swallowed against the sudden uncomfortable tightness in his throat. “Well obviously I didn't know him as well as I thought I did, or I probably wouldn't be here right now.” He pushed on as quickly as he could when he saw their faces fall – the last thing he needed or wanted was another awkward moment of silence for his own death. “I'll do my best, though. What do you need to know?”


Fred awoke with a start.

He found himself half-raised on his elbow, cold and damp with sweat, heart pounding so hard that he could feel it in his throat. Blearily he raised his head further and looked around. His bed was a mess, with his sheets and blankets kicked into a tangle at the foot of the mattress. Every inch of him shook violently, forcing him to sit up before his arm gave out beneath him.

Must have been a nightmare, he thought, raising his hand to his mouth. More fully awake, he could take stock of himself more clearly. His head ached, his jaw especially, and he could taste salt and copper on his sore tongue.

But if he'd had a bad dream, for the life of him he couldn't remember what it was.

Still groggy, Fred slid out of bed and staggered to his feet, reaching up again to wipe what he assumed was spit from the corner of his mouth. His hand came away with a tiny smear of red on the knuckle.

He stumbled along on shaking legs until he reached the bathroom and clicked on the light. It blinded him for a moment, sending another pang through his aching head, but eventually his eyes adjusted and he opened his mouth to inspect it in the mirror.

His gums were bleeding slightly, which lined up with the ache in his jaw – he must have been grinding his teeth like crazy. Wincing, he stuck out his tongue. It was oozing blood on one side, where he must have bitten it.

Fred rinsed his mouth, grimacing when he saw the pinkish tinge of the water he was spitting out. Could be worse, he thought. I could actually have a concussion.

By some miracle, getting thrown into the wall had left his skull sore but intact. They were all fine – a little battered and tossed around, but nothing hospital-worthy. Perfectly fine.

Fred felt like he was falling a little short of perfectly fine. But that was okay – he was okay, and that was good enough.

It would have to be good enough, because they had work to do.

“An early start, Master Frederick?” Heathcliff remarked when he went down to the kitchen.

“Yup, morning, Heathcliff.”

“Normally I would commend you,” his butler went on in the same blasé tone of voice. “But perhaps, after yesterday, more rest is justified?”

“Justified, maybe,” Fred admitted. “Easier said than done, though. I didn't sleep too well.”

“Ah. I'll put on the kettle, then.”

“Thanks.” Fred wandered out to the dining room and sank into his chair, massaging at his temples. Grumbling under his breath, he slumped forward over the placemat with his forehead nestled in his palm. His headache hadn't faded since waking up. If anything, it had gotten worse. Once Heathcliff came in with tea and breakfast, he'd ask for an ibuprofen or something.

And speaking of breakfast...

Fred glanced up, vaguely surprised, when Heathcliff walked in with a full tray, laden with breakfast food and a steaming mug of tea. “That was fast,” he remarked. Hadn't he just been about to start the kettle?

“Thank you, though how you consider twenty minutes 'fast' has mystified me since you were small,” Heathcliff replied dryly.

“Yeah, well...” Fred's voice trailed off, and he slowly registered what Heathcliff had said. Wait... twenty minutes? It had been barely two minutes since he'd left the kitchen.

...Hadn't it?

No, a quick glance at the clock on the wall told him that twenty minutes had indeed passed. That was odd. Well, he had just woken up – he must have dozed off without realizing it, which definitely was not a bad thing. Like Heathcliff said, he could use the rest after the previous day's wall-slamming.

Besides, there was serious business to be done today.


Hiro met the rest of the team at Fred's house, as usual. As they expected, Callaghan's escape was all over every news outlet that could get a word in edgewise about it. That vein of information-gathering had been less productive than they had hoped. Footage of the escape was either too shaky and grainy to show much of use, or it revealed brief half-seconds of clarity before the camera capturing it had malfunctioned and plunged the video into static.

More or less the same question was on the minds of well over half the reporters discussing the incident – would the Big Heroes lend their aid again?

The answer was, of course, yes.

Which brought them to the next step.

Hiro almost considered leaving Fred behind, but in spite of the clear exhaustion on his face, as well as the headache that he was trying to pretend didn't exist, Fred seemed determined. Hiro let it slide, if only because their next move was not a strenuous one.

When the team went out, they left their equipment and armor behind. They went in plain clothes, nothing more than a group of friends out for a day in San Fransokyo. For all intents and purposes, that was sort of what they were. It just so happened that their plans – and Wasabi's van – took them to one particular apartment in a complex located about halfway between the waterfront and the SFIT campus. As a group, they made their way to the appropriate door, and Hiro reached up to rap politely on it. Almost immediately he heard footsteps approaching, and the door opened.

Abigail Callaghan looked almost as tired as Fred did, with slight bags under her eyes and strands of her unbound hair falling in her face. But she smiled ruefully, and did not look at all surprised to see them.

“Hey guys,” she said, standing aside to let them come in. “C'mon in, I went out and got donuts this morning. I thought you might come by.”

Minutes later they were all settled in Abigail's small living room, shoes off, eating donuts. Abigail was quiet for a moment, leaning forward in her seat with a cup of coffee in her hands.

“So...” she began hesitantly. “I guess, to answer your first question, no I don't know where my dad is.” She glanced around the room, as if taking in their mild embarrassment, and offered them a good-natured smile. “I figured this wasn't gonna be a social call.”

“Are you okay?” Honey asked quietly.

“Y... no,” Abigail admitted. “Bad night, for one thing. Couldn't seem to sleep, no matter how hard I tried. Around four a.m. I finally gave up.” She hesitated, not looking at any of them. “I kept imagining I'd hear a knock at the door and find my dad standing there asking me to hide him. No idea what I would've done if that'd happened.” With a sigh, she sat back. “Not to mention I have no clue what this is gonna do to my talks with the SFIT board of directors.”

Hiro cocked his head. “How's that been going?”

“Slow going is still going,” Abigail replied. “I'm gonna need a doctoral degree before they start really listening to me, but for now I'm just... keeping myself on their minds, I guess. After what the last Callaghan pulled, they're not exactly falling all over themselves to put another one on their teaching payroll.” The others collectively shifted uncomfortably, and she shook her head sadly. “Sorry. I know you're not here to talk about that, but I'm not sure how much I can help you.”

“We're kinda running on empty here,” Gogo pointed out, sitting beside her. “So... pretty much anything you can tell us is more than what we're starting out with.”

Abigail nodded, her brow furrowing thoughtfully. “I'll tell you what I can – it's the least I can do.” She paused. “He didn't... I mean, when you tried to stop him... he didn't hurt you, did he?”

“Couple of close calls, but nothing too bad,” Wasabi replied. Fred kept quiet.

“Okay.” Abigail nodded. “Have any of you been in to see him since you stopped him?”

There was a ragged chorus of “no,” accompanied by several shaking heads.

“I thought I might,” Hiro muttered. “Sometime after, for closure or something, but I never did.” He looked up at her again. “But you have?”

“Of course I have.” Abigail's voice cracked a little, and Hiro winced. “It's why I'm just as surprised as you are about what happened last night.”

“What do you mean?” Wasabi asked when she paused.

The cup in Abigail's hand trembled slightly, until Gogo wordlessly took it from her and put it on the coffee table. Shooting a quick grateful glance at her, Abigail brushed a strand of hair behind her ear and sat up a little. “Long story short, my dad hasn't been doing well. He's been... different.”

“How so?” Honey asked.

“Different enough to break out of jail?” Gogo's voice was a bit dry.

“No, that's not what I meant.” Abigail shook her head. “The first time I visited him, he-” Her mouth twisted. “Well, it was bittersweet, I'll give it that. But I recognized him still – he'd made horrible choices and done terrible things, but... he was still my dad.” She passed her hand over her eyes. “But that started to change. He got... quieter. He'd talk less and less, and what he did say was just... strange.” She shook her head. “I can't explain it. He just sounded hopeless.”

“Like he was depressed?” Wasabi said cautiously.

“Maybe? That and... tired. I don't know if he was sleeping, he was practically gray sometimes.” Abigail ran her hand through her hair again. “Sometimes he mentioned nightmares, in passing, and how dark it was in his cell, but when I tried to ask him to tell me more, he'd change the subject or clam up. If I didn't know better, I'd say he was afraid of something.”

“What, like the trial?” Hiro asked. “Was he nervous about the sentencing?”

“No, that was... that was the one thing he never was nervous about.” Abigail frowned. “He had it all planned out, he said. Three steps – plead guilty, accept the sentence, and carry it out. That was it.” Her eyes lingered for a moment on Hiro. “The calmest I ever saw him was when he was talking about that. But something changed.”

“If he was scared of something, maybe that's why he decided to escape,” Wasabi pointed out.

“It wasn't that kind of fear.” Abigail shook her head. “It wasn't the kind of fear where you run away. It was the kind of fear where...” Her breath hitched, and she paused for a moment to collect herself. “...where you give up. Where you... lie down and wait to die.” Her eyes were wide, fixed on the floor. “You know, I was so afraid I was going to get a phone call telling me he'd hung himself. It was that bad. I'm sorry-” She squeezed her eyes shut. “Sorry, that was too much, I-”

“It's fine,” Hiro said quietly. Months before, he might have found the thought darkly satisfying, but now it left him feeling empty. Callaghan killing himself wouldn't be justice, it'd just be one more wasted life.

“I don't know how he could've pulled it off, though,” Abigail went on, somewhat more composed. “I don't think he had help, as far as I know I was the only one visiting him or talking to him. I'm sorry I'm not more helpful.”

“You're plenty helpful,” Honey Lemon assured her, placing her hand on her shoulder. “Can you tell us when he started to change?”

Abigail shook her head. “There was no one moment. It was gradual the whole way through. But he was exhausted, he was afraid, and he was losing hope if he hadn't lost it already. That's all I know.”

Putting her napkin aside, Honey pulled her into a hug.

The visit ended shortly after that. They thanked her, promised to keep her abreast of things as best they could, and slowly filed out. Hiro dawdled at the back of the group, before his memory sparked and he paused. Gogo noticed, glancing back at him curiously, but he motioned for her to go on without him. There was one more thing he needed to ask, and it wasn't for their ears.

“Hey, Abigail,” he began. “I have sort of a weird question – nothing to do with your dad, I promise.”

“What is it?”

Hiro paused, remembering his odd visions and the golden streaks that appeared at night. “Were there any side effects to your time in the portal?”

Abigail looked surprised. “Well, er, yes. My sleep patterns are still a little irregular. I had some memory loss for a while, nothing major. And spending months in hypersleep didn't do my muscles any favors, either.”

“Anything else?” Hiro pressed.

“Did you have something in mind?”

Hiro bit his lip, feeling the gap between his front teeth. “Hallucinations, I guess? Weird lights?”

“No.” Now Abigail looked worried. “Hiro, have you?”

“Nothing serious.” Hiro shook his head vigorously. “I-it's probably unrelated, never mind. Forget I said anything.”

Abigail seemed unconvinced, but she let it slide. “If you're sure.” She saw him to the door. “Be careful, all right? Don't take any... unnecessary risks.”

Pausing at the doorway, Hiro looked her in the eye. “I never take unnecessary risks,” he told her solemnly. “Ever. Thanks for everything, Abigail. Good luck with the board of directors.” With that, he turned and followed his friends back to the car.


Only a week after Nozomi saw the fox outside of her bedroom window, stories were being passed around the playground like candy.

“My brother had a dream that he was being chased,” someone whispered. “He dreamed it bit him, and when he woke up his arm was bleeding.”

“What bit him?”

“I dunno, he didn't say.”

“I see shadows move in my room sometimes,” one boy said. “I have my flashlight, though. That scares them off.”

“My sister saw something outside her window,” a girl murmured. “It had a white face, with blood and smoky stuff all over it.”

“I saw the shadows move, too,” Nozomi piped up. “I woke up and I couldn't move, and I couldn't call for my mom, and they got closer and closer like they were trying to eat me.”

Her best friend Molly was staring at her, wide-eyed. “What happened then?”

“They got chased off,” Nozomi explained. Several children were listening now. “There was a bright light through my window, and they ran away, and then I could move again.”

“Where'd the light come from? What chased them away?” Everett was younger than her, and he looked close to tears from all the ghost stories.

Nozomi hesitated, but the others were clamoring for an answer. Lowering her voice to a secretive tone, she told them. “It was the fox.”

Loud groans rang out from the kids in her grade, and anyone else who had heard about the field trip to Golden Gate Park. “Not the fox again!”

“C'mon, Nozomi, my story actually happened!”

“So did mine!” Nozomi retorted, scowling. “I saw the fox, and it wasn't even just a fox!” Squaring her shoulders, she glared around at the naysayers.

“What was it?” Kayla had believed her, even though she was a year older.

“I looked out my window to see where the light came from,” Nozomi explained. “And I saw, over on the building next to mine, there was a man on the roof. He had a fox tail and he was fighting the shadows. I saw him. He turned into a fox and chased the shadows away!”

More disbelief. The other kids laughed and rolled their eyes, and one of the boys giggled about “stranger danger.” Nozomi wanted to kick him.

Most of the other kids lost interest, not wanting to waste their whole recess listening to stories they didn't even believe, but Molly was her best friend and stayed, and her other friend Kayla stayed, and Everett tagged along with them like he always did. “Did you really see the fox again?” Molly asked. “Was it the same fox?”

“Why wouldn't he be?” Nozomi snapped, still bitter over the other children's disbelief. “He helped me before when I was scared and alone, and he came back when I was scared and alone again.” She smiled, warming to the topic again. “And he's not just any old fox, either. He's a fox that turns into a person.”

Laura Kim from the fifth grade was close enough to overhear. “Better watch out, if he is,” she warned. “That sounds like a kumiho.”

“What's a kumiho?” Everett piped up.

Laura bared her teeth and held her fingers out like claws. “It's a fox spirit,” she told him. “It turns into a human, like a beautiful lady, but it's just a trick so she can eat you. Their favorite food is your liver.”

The girls chorused their “eww”s, but Everett's lip trembled and his face crumpled as he held back tears.

“He's not a kumiho,” Nozomi insisted. “I bet he's a kitsune. They're fox spirits, too, and they like to play tricks, but they can be nice, too. And they don't eat people.”

“Are you sure?” Everett sniffled a little.

“Yeah! He helped me, remember? He came when I was crying, and he chased the shadows away.” Nozomi nodded decisively. “I bet he's a good kitsune.”

“I hope he chases all the shadows away,” Everett whispered. “I don't like scary stories.”

“Don't worry,” Nozomi assured him. “If the shadows ever come, we'll beat 'em up for you.”

The bell rang.

Chapter Text

  Sleep was escaping her again.

Ever since waking up in the hospital after her interdimensional hypersleep nap, Abigail had been chasing after a full night's sleep like the fabled white whale.

At this point, she didn't even mess around anymore. Remedies had come at her from every direction, from various doctors, advice nurses, helpful acquaintances, and Google searches. She had meditated, read, darkened her room, and soaked in the bath. She had drunk her weight in warm milk, hot toddies, and chamomile tea. She had lain quietly in the dark without moving a muscle.

At this point she just downed thirty milliliters of Zzzquil, brushed her teeth, and called it a night. The stuff was the only thing that consistently worked so far.

It wasn't exactly a miracle cure. The worst was when it was sort of working but not quite. She could feel the effects: the drowsiness, the strange fluttery sensation in her head like nothing felt quite real, and the heaviness in her eyelids. But in spite of that, she simply would. Not. Go. To. Sleep. It was the worst feeling, to be so utterly exhausted, yet still incapable of sleeping through the night. At best she would sleep, and then wake up, and repeat the process throughout the night until she was groggy the next morning. At worst... well, at worst she wouldn't be sure if she'd slept at all. (At one point she accidentally made herself nocturnal, and that had been an absolute nightmare to fix.)

The medicine also didn't stop her from having weird dreams. For all she knew, it exacerbated them. Images swirled in her brain every night, anything from that stressful college dream where finals were coming up and she hadn't attended any of her classes, to foggy, disjointed memories of her time in the portal. They weren't nightmares, to be exact, but they were stressful. She couldn't have them without waking up in the wee hours of the night, chilly from sweating and kicking her blankets off. There was no cure for them. Only tolerance.

On this particular night, Abigail's head hit the pillow comfortably, and falling asleep was a relatively painless task. For either a few seconds or a few minutes, she drifted comfortably in that area between waking and sleeping, and her last coherent thought was a hopeful one.

Maybe I'll only wake up once tonight.

She got her wish, and regretted it dearly.

The clock by her bed glowed “2:16” as Abigail found herself dragged unwillingly back into wakefulness. Once upon a time, waking up hours before she had to get up had been a joy; there were few things more satisfying then waking up, checking the clock, and rolling over to go back to sleep. At the moment, with the probability of more sleep uncertain, Abigail found herself rolling over to groan and bash her head against the pillow a few times.

Not that it helped. Thinking about insomnia only made it worse.

She settled herself down, hoping that the sleep medicine hadn't worn off just yet. To her relief she still felt fuzzy, not wide-awake and wired, so before long she felt herself sink into the mattress again, right on the edge of sleep.

Something crawled over her foot.

Abigail twitched awake, irritated. Not that she minded spiders or ants; as long as she was asleep and unaware, they could crawl on her to their heart's content. But for God's sake she was trying to sleep. Muttering darkly without opening her eyes, she scratched her foot with the other and tried to settle down again.

It wasn't fair, how quickly it happened. There was no build-up, no warning beyond that one slight itching sensation against her foot. One moment she was drifting off again, and the next her skin was crawling as if she was covered in fire ants. She opened her mouth to yelp, but something tightened around her throat like rope, cutting off the noise before it could escape her.

In her half-awake state, panic set in almost instantly. Abigail thrashed, choking, and her eyes flew open wide, but she could see nothing. Her room was gone, and the air was heavy with something that was too black to be fog and too thick to be simple darkness.

Some rational side of her mind pointed out that this couldn't be real, and she must be having some kind of godawful dream. Were her eyes really open? They felt open. Abigail wrenched herself from side to side, trying to force herself awake, but none of her usual tactics worked. The dark remained, thick enough to cut with a knife, and the pressure tightened around her throat.

On an impulse she went limp, trying to hold her breath at the same time as she staved off further panic. She could feel her heart pounding in her ribcage, and the stranglehold loosened, if only the tiniest bit.

It was enough for her. Her mouth opened, and she sucked in as much air as she could before it cut off her breath again. Her hands went to her throat again, clawing to free herself, but her grasping fingers felt nothing but the skin on her own neck. Her nails dug in, adding pain to breathlessness. Before her, something white bloomed in the darkness – tunnel vision? Was she dying? No, it wasn't a light; it was a shape. A face? A mask? Yes, it had to be – pale, kabuki style, cracked and broken and pieced back together. Red accents stood out against the stark white surface, and wisps of black leaked from the cracks and danced across it like candle smoke. The painted face leered at her in the pitch-darkness, and Abigail wasted some of her breath on a choked cry.

As if startled by her voice, the invisible noose loosened again, allowing her another desperate half-breath of oxygen. It began to tighten again, and in desperation she lashed out at the mask floating in the darkness. Her hand struck something solid, and the stranglehold loosened enough for her to manage words.

Stop.” It was half a cry and half a wheeze, but she saw the mask recoil. She breathed again. “Let go of me.” No shouting – that would waste too much air.

The mask seemed to hesitate.

“I said let go,” Abigail growled. Her heart was pounding, and she was scared, more scared than she had ever been, but she let it wash over her like a wave and sat up to face the mask anyway. “Let go of me. Now.

The crawling sensation had dulled to a tingle, and though she could feel pressure around her neck, she could breathe freely. She stood up, shaking but firm, and stared straight at the white mask. Her heart pounded in her chest, and her lungs wanted to breathe in short, panicked gasps, but her next breathe was deep and slow even as it shook. Abigail stepped forward, toward the mask.

Around her, the darkness began to melt away. She began to recognize things – her bed, her dresser, the digital clock with glowing numbers. And as the shadows receded, her heart lightened. A draft swept by her, and she looked to the side – the window was open. That must have been how it got in, she thought, forgetting for a moment that it must be a dream.

The thought distracted her, and the darkness surged toward her again.

“No you don't-” She could feel the phantom noose around her neck again, and she let the threat of panic burn low. Three steps forward took her straight into the oncoming dark, into the heart of it, right up to the glowing white and red mask. She flung her hands out into the darkness below it, and was rewarded when her fingertips brushed something solid for once. Curling her fingers into it, she gripped what felt almost like cloth and yanked. The mask responded, and the shadows on her bedroom walls went nuts, but Abigail didn't think of any of that. The open window was on the other side of the bed, and she went for it. For a split second she felt something grip her back, like a hand around her wrist, firm but not painful. With a growl of effort she dragged the thing to the window, dug her feet into the carpet for purchase, and heaved.

The dark, formless, shifting black thing, with the white mask at its heart, went sailing out the window. Abigail looked back, chest heaving furiously, to find her walls spotless and white again, darkened only by nighttime.

“And stay out,” she muttered, closing her window.

The latch clicked shut, and Abigail jumped awake.

She was flat on her back, sprawled out like a starfish with the sheets and blankets kicked into a hopeless tangle at the foot of the bed. Sweat made her cold.

The clock read 3:04. There was no sign of white masks or weird shadows, moving or otherwise.

Abigail shook as she sat up, straightened the covers as best she could, then pulled them back up to her chin and promptly slept more deeply than she ever had since waking up from hypersleep.


The Nightmares were stymied.

Since stealing their host away, they had been weak. A fraction of the power that the old king had once wielded through them. They were stretched thin; a few to feed, a few to guard the host, a few to guard the old king, a few to watch for those that hunted them. Running from Guardians, hiding from the light of day, creeping through the cover of night, they were hungry, and they were weak.

The host had resisted. It had confused them; they had brought him out of a cage, he had nothing, he was a prisoner then and a prisoner still, so why did he pull? He did not fight; no, he had no will for that. Perhaps he had not even realized that he still resisted their commands, that when they pushed too hard he burned to touch.

He did not have nothing, the nightmares had realized. He had one thing. One light. The tiniest point of solace. The host clung to it, kept it close, buried deep and hidden. It kept him warm in the dark, alive instead of just existing.

So of course, the only solution was to find it, and kill it.

The nightmares had resolved to find the source of that light and smother it until only cold gray ashes remained. It should have been easy. It should have made their control absolute. The host barely would have understood what was happening.

The nightmares had not expected her to fight.

Moreover, they had not expected the host to hear her voice and fight, too.

The noose had been around their prey's neck, and they had been close – so close. But they had dropped their guard, their victim had cried out, and the host had come alive. Suddenly, they had been fighting two battles: the struggles of the victim and the host alike. The host had touched her, taking hold of her hand as she fought, and it had only strengthened his resistance. The nightmares could do nothing while their would-be prey had grasped them and thrown them from the window.

And now here they were, hiding again while they fought to get their struggling host under control. They smothered him in darkness, trying to choke him into submission, but it only seemed to further agitate him. Finally, irritated, the nightmares resigned themselves to simply containing him and waiting for him to tire himself out.

The woman was a source of power for the host, and why wouldn't she be? She was his child, after all. The nightmares did not understand things like love, or loyalty, or self-sacrifice. They understood the dark, primal things, like fear and desperation and the will to survive and spread. But they did understand the power of blood, of young – protect the offspring. It was strong. Stronger than fear, even. Of course the host would fight.

And so, though they hid these thoughts from the host, as they shushed him with whispered lies until his struggles weakened, they knew they would try again.

She made him less weak. She made him fight. She had to die.

But first, they must be patient. First they must find fear, and grow strong.


“Okay,” Hiro breathed. “Okay.” He rubbed his eyes in the morning sunlight, wrung his hands a little, and raised his eyes to the side. “Ready?”

Black eyes blinked at him – needlessly, since there were no eyeballs that needed moistening or tear ducts with which to do so. But human behavior was comforting in a robot, and Tadashi had designed Baymax to be comforting. “Scanner is at full capacity. It is good to be back.”

Hiro fidgeted excitedly, feeling a spike of joy with every heartbeat. Baymax was back. He was back, nothing had gone wrong, the chip hadn't been damaged in the portal, and Baymax still remembered everything. He could have danced all day for joy, but there was work to do and little room to dance anyway. The kind of work that took them back up above San Fransokyo, high up on one of the koi-shaped turbines, touching the clouds like they had done months before. He realized, belatedly, that he'd jumped the gun and forgotten to tell the others the good news before throwing rebuilt armor back on the robot and gunning toward the clouds. But it was too late to worry about that now.

“Okay.” Hiro nodded decisively. “Scan the city. Find Callaghan.”

A moment passed. Through the visor of Baymax's helmet, Hiro could see the glow of the scanner working. The robot turned his head this way and that, then his whole body, and Hiro could only breathe shallowly as he waited.

Finally the glow died away, and Baymax turned back to Hiro. “Scan complete. No results found.”

Hiro blinked. “What?”

“There are approximately 840,000 people detected within city limits,” Baymax explained. “But I have not detected any whose vitals match Robert Callaghan.”

“What about the island?” Hiro pressed hopefully.

“Akuma Island falls within the range of my scanner. There are no humans detected. I am sorry, Hiro.”

“That's okay,” Hiro sighed. “You did your best. Scan one more time, though. I want to be sure.”

Baymax did so, with the same outcome. “It is possible that Robert Callaghan is no longer within the city,” he said.

“We'll see.” Hiro climbed on the robot's back again. “Take us home, buddy. Oh, better yet, take us to Fred's.” In spite of the small failure, he grinned. “Call up the others while we're en route. They're gonna freak when they see you.”

They ended up lighting down in Fred's fairly vast backyard, hidden from neighbors' view by the abundance of tall trees. Honey and Gogo were standing there waiting already, with Fred sitting on one of the lawn chairs farther back. Gogo was grinning, Honey was bouncing up and down excitedly as Hiro and Baymax landed. After dismounting, Hiro barely had time to pull off his helmet before Honey was already hugging him.

“You finished him!”

“Yup.” Hiro grinned until his face hurt. “Sorry if I hogged him a little before I told you – I wanted to do a quick scan check first.”

Wasabi arrived by the time they finished getting Baymax's armor off, and both he and Fred were promptly dragged into a group hug. Not that either of them were unwilling, of course.

“Geez, Fred,” Gogo muttered, slightly muffled by Baymax's arm squashing her into the embrace. “Eat a burger or something, you weigh like thirty pounds.”

“I have high metabolism,” Fred groused.

“We missed you so much.” Honey fidgeted as if she could barely contain herself. “It's so greatto have you back, Baymax.”

“It is good to be back.”

Baymax was a robot, and if he couldn't be offended than it was debatable that he could be pleased, but he sounded pleased and there was something about his face and the way he tilted to one side that made him look pleased. It could have been Hiro's imagination, of course.

Eventually, they had to disentangle themselves, and Hiro quickly reported their findings. Or rather, the lack thereof. The others gathered around, except Fred, who slunk back to the lawn chair to listen.

“I don't get it.” Disgusted, Gogo wound up like she was about to fling her phone down, then seemed to think better of it and shoved it into her pocket instead “How does one man take a huge pile of experimental robots, tear up half a jail, and then just vanish?”

“He could've left town,” Wasabi pointed out. “I'm hoping he didn't, because if he did then our job gets harder. We don't have the same kind of pull outside of San Fransokyo.”

“He can't have.” Honey shook her head, frowning. “We've been getting reported sightings of him since he escaped. It's been, what, barely two weeks?”

Gogo shook her head, pacing for a few steps. “The problem is, I don't know what's less believable. That he snuck out of town with those heaps of bots, or that he's hiding out with those heaps of bots.”

“He managed it before just fine,” Wasabi pointed out. “He spent, what, weeks? Months? Just biding his time, making microbots, putting that portal together. Nobody figured it out.”

“Nobody was looking for him,” Gogo reminded him. “Everybody thought he was dead.” A look of grim satisfaction crossed her face. “Lucky for us, he doesn't have that luxury anymore. Slightest screwup, and someone's gonna notice, and it's gonna get back to us eventually.”

“I do not believe that Robert Callaghan would have left San Fransokyo,” Baymax said suddenly.

All eyes were on him. “How come?” Hiro asked.

“If you will recall, the structure of the research facility on Akuma Island hindered my scanner,” the robot explained. “It is possible, or even probable, that his location is blocking my sensor again.”

“Good point.” Hiro frowned thoughtfully. “In fact... he could be on the island again.”

“Would he?” Gogo asked. “I mean, we already smoked him out of there once. Would he really risk going back?”

“It's familiar, though.” Wasabi said. “Maybe it's just me, but there's something comforting about having a routine. Besides, the place was a maze, remember? We only found what we were looking for 'cause Honey was quick.”

“We can go over those sightings again,” Honey suggested. “Maybe there's a pattern we can find.”

Gogo nodded, warming to the idea. “If he's got some kind of base he's operating from, maybe the locations of those sightings will give us a clue where it is. We can mark them on a map with pins and string, crap like that. Fred'll like that.” She looked back to the lawn chair. “Right, Fred?”

Fred answered with a thumbs up. “Sure.”

“Okay, that's our next assignment, then.” Hiro rubbed his hands together. “Let's do this inside, though. I feel kind of exposed out here.” Honey and Gogo exchanged eager grins and moved to follow Hiro, with Wasabi behind and Fred struggling to his feet to join them.

“What if we look at timing, too?” Wasabi suggested. “Maybe if we look at when those sightings happen, we can work out a time frame. See when he's moving, not just where.”

“Good idea.” Hiro shoved his hands into his pockets. “If he's there, and we catch him at a good time, then maybe there's less of a chance he'll get the drop on us. Also, Fred, special job for you.”

There was a pause. “Yeah?” Fred answered, a little belatedly.

Hiro sneaked a worried glance at him, taking in his pallor and the darkened bags under his eyes. “Sleep, man, you look like death warmed over.”

His friend groaned loudly. “Hiro, c'mon. I've been getting that twice over from Heathcliff already.” But Fred didn't bother contradicting him.

Baymax followed them for a few steps, until everyone was inside and the backyard was quiet again. The robot paused, blinked, double-checked with every camera and sensor he had that no one else was around, and shuffled around until he was standing straight and facing away from the back door.

“Hello, Tadashi,” he said.

A broad grin broke out over Tadashi's face, and he stepped forward into his creation's warm hug. “It's good to see you up and running again, Baymax.”

“My functions have improved since I was rebuilt,” Baymax informed him. “My power source is running above my previous maximum efficiency. The design of my skeleton has been modified for smoother movement. The video definition on my camera sensors is improved. Hiro also further upgraded my vitals scanner. Using my previous functions as a baseline, I am running at approximately 124.78 percent.”

Tadashi stepped back, slightly bewildered by this unsolicited information. “And...?”

The robot blinked at him. “I can still see you. Furthermore, my sensors detect what I believe may be your vital signs. I am glad that my perception of your presence is not a result of a malfunction or a design flaw.”

This startled a laugh out of Tadashi. “Thanks for the vote of confidence, buddy.”

“You are welcome. How are you feeling, Tadashi?”

Tadashi smiled, a little ruefully as he remembered the state he'd been in the last time he had spoken to Baymax. “Better than I was, last time we talked.”

“I could not detect your vitals before,” Baymax told him. “I believe I can now, but the results are strange, and inconsistent with normal readings. Therefore, I cannot be certain about your health. But judging by your facial expressions and voice patterns, your emotional state has vastly improved.”

“It has, it really has. I've... figured a few things out.”

“In that case, would you like me to inform them of your presence?”

“No,” Tadashi blurted. “No, I mean...” He paused, his brow furrowing. “I don't know if they'd believe it. I'd like to tell them myself, if I can find a way. I think it's possible for them to see me, so... I have some room to hope.”

“Is there anything you need me to do, Tadashi?”

Tadashi nibbled at his lip, careful to avoid drawing blood with his canine fangs. “I've been busy lately. I just came to check in because – well it's a little hard to explain, but when Hiro put the chip in, I could feel it happen. Basically, my sensory capacities have improved, too. I can see, hear, and feel things that I couldn't before.” He gave Baymax another rueful grin. “I guess you're not the only one who has to adjust. But as for anything I need from you... just keep watching them for me. Something tells me that if they need help and you're there, I'll know about it.”

“I do not quite understand. But I trust your judgment.”

Another broad grin split Tadashi's face. “Good to hear.” The smile faded again. “They're going after Callaghan.”

“That is correct. I have been unable to detect his vital signs within the range of my scanner.”

“Yeah, I've been looking for him too,” Tadashi said grimly. “It's been slow going, but we're working on it. I have friends helping me. Allies. And you should know... it's not like it was before. Whatever Callaghan's in right now, it's not science and microbots and portals. It's... it's more to do with me. What I am, right now. Magic stuff.” He shook his head. “No databases you can download on it, unfortunately. We'll have to pick things up as we go.”

“My programming allows me to be adaptable.”

“Good.” Tadashi smiled again. “I'll try and check in, if I can, but I'd better go.”

“Tadashi.” Baymax stopped him before he could turn to leave. “There is something that you should know, as well.”

“...Yes?”

“Hiro is my patient. Therefore, I regularly scan his vitals to monitor his mental and physical health.”

“Is something wrong with him?” Tadashi asked worriedly.

“I am not certain.”

Tadashi's eyes darted to the side and back again. “What did you find?”

“There are a few irregularities,” Baymax replied. “The most significant anomaly is in his brain chemistry and neural activity.”

“What's wrong with him?”

“I do not know that there is anything wrong. The anomalies do not appear harmful, nor do they match the signs of any mental afflictions in my database.” Baymax tilted his head slightly. “In fact, they are similar to yours.”

That stopped Tadashi short. “M-mine? But – that's not possible, I'm not even...” His voice trailed off.

“The irregularities are closer to typical human brain chemistry than yours are,” Baymax went on. “But there are numerous similarities, nonetheless. I would estimate it to be a sixty-four percent correlation.”

Tadashi whistled. “Sixty-four. That's... nothing to sneer at. I don't know what it means, though. Sorry.” He sighed quietly. “Keep an eye on him. On all of them. If anything goes wrong, I'll try and find a way to help. Especially where Callaghan's concerned – make sure they're careful. I know they beat him once, but he's something different now.”

“I understand. I will perform to the best of my capacity.”

Tadashi patted the robot's vinyl arm fondly. “That's all I can ask. I'm glad I built you, Baymax.”

“As am I. Good luck, Tadashi.”

“Baymax?” Hiro's voice hailed the robot from inside. “C'mon, buddy, what's keeping you?”

Tadashi winked. “Tell him you saw a butterfly or something. I'll be in touch.” With an acknowledging blink, Baymax ambled into the house, and Tadashi turned to leave.

Moments later, a small red fox darted through the vast backyard, leapt the fence nimbly, and vanished.


Nozomi was fuming. It was lunchtime, and her stomach was growling, but thanks to an ill-timed conversation, she was stuck near the back of a long line to the bathroom sinks.

“This is so dumb,” she muttered.

“I should've brought my lunch,” Molly whispered back. “It's gonna take forever to get food.”

“I don't get it,” Nozomi went on grouchily. “Colds and stomach bugs go around all the time, and you never see teachers freaking out like this.”

“But this is really spreading,” Kayla pointed out from where she stood a few spaces forward in line. Nozomi had considered asking to cut, but had decided against it. “Did you know Laura's home sick, too?”

“Serves her right for scaring Everett on purpose,” Nozomi scoffed, hiding the chill of nervousness that went through her. Laura was somebody she knew. It was different from just hearing about the sickness on the playground or from school announcements. It felt closer, now. “What's wrong with her? Is she puking or something?”

“Ew,” Everett muttered. He wasn't waiting in line; he'd already gone to the boy's bathroom to wash his hands, but he was waiting for them to finish.

“I hope not.” Molly wrinkled her nose. “I heard part of it's a sleeping thing. Like you get really tired and you can't stop falling asleep.”

“Oh.” Nozomi relaxed a little. “That doesn't sound so bad. My mom was talking to the neighbors, and they said it's like the flu, but you also stop eating or something, and it messes with your head.” She shook her head. “Everyone says something different.”

“I don't want it to be a sleeping thing,” Everett piped up quietly. His eyes were round with fear, and if Nozomi were older and wiser, she would have recognized the dark circles underneath them right then and there. “I still keep having bad dreams. I don't want to get stuck being asleep.”

“Good thing you washed your hands, then,” Nozomi pointed out.

Everett shook his head vigorously. “That only works if it's germs causing it. What if it's those dark things?”

“Don't be a dummy,” Nozomi scoffed. “Bad dreams are just bad dreams. And I've never heard of monsters that make you sick. Of course it's just germs.” But she felt her stomach turn, and quietly wished that Everett hadn't put that thought in her head. If he wasn't careful, he was going to give her bad dreams, too.

Well. Worse bad dreams, anyway.

The fox couldn't run by her window every night, after all. He'd only met her once, and he couldn't know that the shadows in her room still moved sometimes. It wasn't so bad anyway; he'd stopped them before, when the dream got so bad that she couldn't move or scream. These were bad dreams, but they were normal bad dreams. Once she woke up, she was safe.

She was safe, she told herself. She would go to bed early, wash her hands before she ate, and not share food or germs. It was going to be okay.

Chapter Text

Nozomi went out to recess on Friday, swallowing a yawn. It had been weeks since the fox had run past her window, and the bad dreams were still giving her trouble. Molly trotted to catch up with her, and together they went out to the grassy field.

“That quiz was hard,” Molly sighed. “Is it just me, or did the last question have like two answers?”

“I hope not, 'cause I just put one.” Nozomi side-eyed her nervously. “Would Mrs. Kochar do that? My big brother had her back when he was in third grade, and he never said she was one of those teachers that try to trick you.”

“Just hope for the best,” Kayla advised as she joined them, ponytail swinging. “Teachers usually tell you if there's two answers. It's like a rule or something.”

“Hope you're right,” Nozomi grumbled, and stifled another yawn. “I'm still sleepy.”

“Bad dreams?” Kayla asked.

“I yelled when I woke up,” Nozomi admitted. “My parents didn't hear, but my brother did.”

Kayla hummed sympathetically. “My sister's been having trouble, too. She swears she keeps seeing the shadows move.”

“Everett, cover your ears,” Nozomi said automatically. She paused, then stopped walking and glanced around. “Where's Everett?”

The three girls exchanged glances on the playground, bewildered.

“I didn't see him before school started,” Molly half-whispered. “Did he even come?"

“He could have the flu,” Nozomi suggested, but she had a sour taste in her mouth, and the hairs on the back of her neck were standing on end.

Laura Kim staying home had unsettled her. But Everett being sick?

That set her teeth on edge and sent fear darting up her spine.


Fred woke up with what he thought would be a scream, but all that came out was high, breathy whimper. The blankets were still technically on top of him – he'd only kicked them down to his waist this time – but he was freezing cold, heaving for breath, and utterly blind in the dark. When he woke up he was already half-raised on his elbow, but that didn't last long; he was trembling violently in the cold, teeth chattering, fighting off the sudden uncontrollable feeling of fear. The last moments of the nightmare stuck with him – something about fire, maybe running, his feet had hurt so there must have been running, and God he couldn't breathe, why couldn't he breathe?

Some part of him acknowledged that he was breathing, because he could hear the air hissing in and out from between his chattering teeth, but it just wasn't enough. It was like there was a weight on his chest, crushing his lungs so that no matter how hard he tried, no matter how much he struggled, he was suffocating. Drowning on dry land.

He shivered under the scant cover, trying to coordinate enough to pull the blankets back up over his shoulders, but his grasping hands kept missing. His body wasn't the only thing that was cold – he could feel wet, icy tracks down either side of his face. Helpless, all he could do was curl up into a tighter ball, muffle his own whimpering sobs in his arms and his pillow, and wait for the feeling to go away.

Finally, after what felt like enough time to suffocate three times over, the tremors lessened. Fred uncurled ever so slightly, opened his eyes in the dark, and took in a slow, shuddering breath. It hissed back out through his clenched teeth, in the form of a whisper to no one in particular.

I think there's something wrong with me.

It was weird, saying it out loud, but after this long – two weeks, maybe maybe three – there was really no other conclusion to come to.

He'd assumed it was stress. This had started back when Callaghan had first escaped from prison, after all. He'd assumed his subconscious was just freaking out about the guy being both back on the loose and completely missing. But this? This was just getting ridiculous. He was getting ridiculous.

The nights were the worst – he'd wake up like this, at least once every night without fail, feeling like he was drowning on dry land, freezing to death, and being crushed at the same time like some kind of modern-day Rasputin. This time wasn't even the worst one. Just the other night he'd had to run to the bathroom to throw up, and a few nights before that he'd woken up on the third-floor landing, sitting at the top of the stairs – with absolutely no idea how he'd gotten there.

The worst part? He always woke up with the last few seconds of some horrific nightmare just slipping out of his mind. He always forgot it, no matter what – so he couldn't even use that to figure out what had him so freaked out.

And that was what was so frustrating about this; it was seriously cramping his style, but he had no way of knowing where it was coming from. He wasn't sneezing or coughing up a lung, and aside from a couple instances of stress-puking there was no way to call this a flu. He wasn't even running a fever; chills or no chills, his temperature was fine. He wasn't sick, so why was this happening?

A quick check to the clock revealed that it was ten minutes to six in the morning, so Fred gave up on trying to go back to sleep. Heathcliff was probably up, so maybe he could go down to the kitchen, calm himself down with a cup of tea. Heartened by the idea, Fred slid out of bed, stood on still-shaky legs, and managed to stagger wearily to his bedroom door and open it.

He stepped forward, and stopped.

There was no explaining it. Just like the rest of this stupid, noisy mess, there was no way Fred could justify the sudden spike of pure, unadulterated terror that raced through him at the tiniest thought of stepping outside of his room. No rhyme or reason to it, just something reaching into his head and slamming its hand down on the “Fear” button.

Okay, he thought, staring out into the darkened hallway. This is my life now. I am literally too afraid to leave my room.

Shortly afterward, another thought passed through his head. This is stupid.

There must have been something magical about those three words, because it was ultimately that one thought that made Fred curl his fingers into tight fists and step forward through the doorway, in spite of the heart-pounding fear that dragged at him to stay.

One step.

Two steps.

Two more.

Nothing happened. Nothing to be afraid of. No reason to be afraid.

So why was he still afraid?

Fred shook his head vigorously, trying to clear it, before steeling himself again to make his way downstairs. Just one foot in front of the other, until the feeling goes away. Because this is stupid. This is very stupid, and you are stupid for feeling it. It became something of a mental marching chant, just enough to get him from his room to the kitchen, one step at a time.

“I would advise you to stay in today, Master Frederick.” Fred jumped with a yelp of alarm when his butler greeted him dryly from where he stood by the stove. “Get some re-”

“Do you mind?” Fred blurted, heart still thudding from the shock. “You almost gave me a stroke!”

Heathcliff did not reply, except to raise an eyebrow at him.

“...Sorry.” Fred's shoulders slumped. “I dunno where that came from.”

“Sleep deprivation would be my guess,” Heathcliff replied, returning to the stove – there was already a kettle on, thank God. “Perhaps stress. Overexertion.”

Fred shook his head. “I'm not doing anything huge today,” he assured him. “The, uh... the others have been doing most of the heavy lifting.” For a second the fear backed out in favor of frustration. It was bad enough that this was happening at all; the last thing he wanted was the others noticing. “I'm just there to bounce ideas off of.”

“In your current state, those ideas are liable to leave bruises.”

Fred tried not to roll his eyes. Always the comedian, that Heathcliff. “Don't sweat it, I'll wear a helmet,” he sassed back. “Could I get some tea?”

The answer would always be yes.

Four hours later he was feeling... marginally better. There was something about broad daylight and a room full of friendly faces that made even weird irrational terror back off. Fred sat among his friends, dutifully avoiding the “overexertion” that had Heathcliff so worried, and the fear burned on a much lower register. It was like... white noise, now. He could still hear it, but it wasn't going to deafen him or anything. He could more or less ignore it.

Besides, there were maps and pins and red string to stare at right now. Gogo had been right; there was something about it that made Fred's heart sing with glee.

“So... Gogo and I think we have something else to mark up on the map,” Wasabi ventured cautiously.

“Let's mark this in green,” Gogo said, picking out the appropriately colored pins. On the map of San Fransokyo displayed on the wall before them, Callaghan sightings were marked out with red pins. Over the weeks since his escape, many had cropped up. “So, I dunno if you guys heard about this, but there's a bug going around.”

“You mean like a sickness?' Honey asked. “I... think I have.”

“What's that have to do with Callaghan, though?” Hiro asked.

“Call it a hunch.” Gogo's eyes narrowed. “Wasabi, you got those charts?”

“Yup.” Wasabi held it up. “My mom works at SF General Hospital. She's gonna kill me if she finds out I was using that to sneak pediatrician files, but... this is more important, I think, and these are copies we can shred anyway.”

“I noticed this a little bit after Callaghan escaped,” Gogo went on. “There's this sickness going around, all the schools have been alerted about it 'cause it seems like it's contagious, but... well, we'll see. My cousin Laura came down with it a little over a week ago – I remember freaking out a little because that was just after we heard about that sighting... over... here. This one.” Gogo tapped the red head of one of the pins, jabbed into the map not far from Fisherman's Wharf. “My cousin lives in that neighborhood.”

“She wasn't the only one from that neighborhood, either,” Wasabi added, leafing through his papers. “Looks like... four kids from there came down with it in that time frame.” Gogo jabbed a green pin in next to the red.

The others were paying close attention now. Even Fred managed to sit up straight and lean forward as Gogo and Wasabi conferred with each other over the pilfered charts.

“Here we go – these two neighborhoods by Golden Gate Park both had Callaghan sightings, at different times.” Wasabi indicated them with a tap of his finger. “And it looks like... yup, outbreaks at roughly the same time.” Two more green pins went into the map.

As Fred watched, wide-eyed, Gogo and Wasabi added their green pins to the map, comparing them to the reds. It wasn't perfect; a couple of red pins still stood alone, and a few of the green pins went into seemingly random neighborhoods. But by the time they were done and Wasabi had checked, double-checked, and triple-checked their work, most of the red pins had green pins with them.

“That's... that's correlation, right?” Wasabi said as he dutifully ran the charts through the shredder. “I'm not just imagining it.”

“Correlation, yes,” Honey said cautiously. “Not necessarily causation.”

“Whatever, right?” Fred shrugged. “It's a connection.” He fell silent, trying not to wince. A headache was setting in, and fast.

“But how?” Hiro pointed out. “Are you guys seriously suggesting that Callaghan's going around purposely spreading sickness? Because that's not his MO, like at all.” He shook his head, frowning. “His only goal was taking down Krei, remember? And Krei's been in New York for the past couple of months.”

“What kind of sickness is it?” Honey asked. “It could just be influenza and a coincidence.”

“Doubt it,” Gogo told her. “Doctors are stumped, from what I hear. It's almost not a sickness at all.”

“How so?” Honey pressed.

“Well, for one thing, the way it spreads makes no sense,” Gogo explained. “It'll show up seemingly at random – keep in mind it's only been going on for maybe three weeks, so generalizations are kinda shaky. It'll pop up in one neighborhood, then another in a completely different part of town the next day. Couple of adults have it, but it's mostly just kids from ages six to... fourteen's the oldest, then a couple of outliers. Twenty-five, thirty-two, that kind of thing. But it's mostly kids, and usually through siblings we think.

“Shtriga,” Fred murmured.

Hiro was sitting close enough to hear him. “What?”

Fred blinked. “You guys ever watch Supernatural? The earlier seasons, I mean, before all the shark-jumping and beating dead horses. That was one of the things they fought, it was like this life-force-sucking vampire thing that preyed on kids and...” All eyes were on him, he noticed. Their expressions ranged from bland disinterest to exasperation to impatience, and he felt the words fizzle on his tongue and die. “N... never mind,” he finished, not sure if he was even loud enough to hear. It didn't matter – not like they were listening, anyway.

One day they'll stop listening. It'll be like you aren't even there. It's not like you have anything worth saying, anyway. Fred blinked, bewildered at himself. Where had that come from?

“What are the symptoms, though?” Honey asked. “Is it like a cold, or the flu?”

“Neither,” Wasabi answered, going for his papers again – the non-shredded ones, at least. “Apparently it's mostly psychological and sleep-related. Hang on, there's a list – here we go. Okay, symptoms can either be excessive sleepiness or insomnia, plus increased exhaustion, increased anxiety, chills, night terrors, blackouts, sleepwalking, panic attacks, and in extreme cases, catatonia.”

Fred choked on his tea. Someone reached over and patted him on the back, and he tried not to flinch at the touch.

“That sounds more like a mental disorder than a physical illness,” Honey remarked, and from there Fred stopped listening. It wasn't a conscious decision. Noises faded into the background, except for his own pulse, which pounded in his ears like a drumbeat. Fred noticed then that his hands were shaking, and put his cup down on the nearest table within reach.

He'd been wondering what was wrong with him for weeks, and now Wasabi was standing up there, listing every single one of his problems verbatim. Well – except for the catatonia. He wasn't that bad.

Yet.

Fred shook his head as if that would ward off the thought. He opened his mouth to speak again, to tell them that whatever was going on with those kids might be going on with him, too, and he'd been feeling it ever since Callaghan first broke out, ever since Callaghan slammed him into a wall with a microbot battering ram.

But his tongue locked, frozen to silence by that same nail-biting fear that had been plaguing him all day. It wasn't just white noise anymore.

This is stupid, he thought. I have to tell them. It totally supports Gogo and Wasabi's theory.

Does it? another part of him wondered.

Or are you wrong?

...Again?

Fred's mouth felt dry.

You're usually wrong. They know that. Even if you weren't, would they listen? Would they believe you?

...Probably not.

It was getting difficult to tell the little voices in his head apart, the sensible ones from the irrational-fear ones.

“Fred?”

At Hiro's confused call, Fred blinked. He was no longer sitting on the couch among his friends; he was standing closer to the doorway, and – of course – he couldn't remember either getting up or making the decision to get up. “Y-yeah?”

“Where are you going?”

“Um...” Fred blinked, dithered for a few moments, and gave up. “I don't remember. Probably wasn't that important.” Sheepishly he returned to his seat.

“Are you feeling okay?” Gogo squinted at him from across the table. “You've been acting half-zombified for... a while now. You don't think...”

A sharp pang of fear lanced through him, because they're going to find out they're going to find out, and never mind that it would be a good thing if they did, because that was a rational way of looking at it and this fear was a lot of things but “rational” was not one of them.

“I've just been tired, y'know?” he said, pasting on a grin. “Maybe I need more bananas, am I right?”

Hiro looked confused, but Honey grinned widely enough to dimple while Wasabi smiled and Gogo groaned.

“ Am I missing something?” Hiro asked.

“Inside joke,” Fred explained, leaping on this line of conversation. “It was a, uh... thing Tadashi said, one time.”

“And then one time became a million times,” Gogo muttered, but she sounded fond.

“It was finals week,” Fred explained. “We were all pretty sleep-deprived, and it was making us a little weird.”

“I thought you were high,” Wasabi admitted.

“So yeah, I was lying on a couch in the study lounge, and I wasn't sleeping, but I was like, close,” Fred went on, shifting to a more comfortable position. He felt the painful tightness in his chest loosen, if only slightly. “So Tadashi walked in and asked what was up, which was a dumb question 'cause he was just as out of it as I was. So I said to him 'I'm so tired,' and he looked at me and he was like, 'Try eating a banana. Your mitochondria are probably tired from powerhousing your cells,' and for some reason that was the funniest thing either of us had heard all day.”

“And then he actually brought you a banana from the dining hall,” Honey added. “We were all extremely confused.”

“I ate it, though,” Fred reminded them.

“Suggestively,” Wasabi added.

“Yeah, you were pretty much fellating that thing,” said Gogo.

“Guys!” Honey hissed warningly.

“Wow.” Hiro's voice was utterly deadpan. “Well, that explains why you were friends. You're all huge dorks.

Fred fidgeted a little, relishing the small respite from the buzz of anxiety. “It became a thing, anyway,” he went on. “Every time I complained about being tired, he'd throw a banana at my head. Good times.”

The story had distracted them from the earlier issue, which was what Fred had meant to do. It had the added bonus of actually kind of making him feel better – something about talking about Tadashi, even just a dumb story like that, had loosened that tight ball of fear and anxiety that had been lodged in his chest for way too long.

He settled back, and tried to ignore the feeling of the knot slowly tightening again.


Tadashi quietly marveled at the fact that once upon a time, his life hadn't involved plunging headfirst off the roof of a four-story building in the dead of night. But here he was, hours before dawn on a Saturday morning, doing exactly that without the slightest hint of hesitation. He had been tearing across the building's flat top at top speed, feet barely skimming the concrete, and when there was no more roof to run on he simply launched himself forward and dove.

Since his return from the dead, Tadashi had gradually come to learn that he was made of tougher stuff than before. Whether it was a Guardian thing, or a kitsune thing, or simply that burning to death had given him a thick skin, he couldn't tell. It didn't matter at the moment; all that mattered was landing on a mass of dark, smokelike nightmares in a flash of force and fire that punched through the shadows like a cannonball. The darkness scattered, losing their form as his flames burned them away with heat and harsh light. They fled from him, weakened and scattered into harmless wisps of sand, and he knew that the baleful hissing in his ears was not his imagination.

The hairs on his neck prickled, and he sprang forward and twisted around in midair. Another nightmare, or mass of nightmares, had crept up behind him – ever since the nightmares had abandoned the equine appearance in favor of shifting, formless, distinctly microbot-like masses, it was difficult to tell singular from plural. A shadow whipped out at him like a tentacle, and he sprang back as fire burst from his palms again.

Before either he or the nightmare could attack, it froze. Literally. A familiar blue-white glow lit up the dark street, and ice spread over the black sand. The creature struggled, to no avail. The ice overtook it, freezing it solid.

Tadashi raised his eyes to the figure floating high above the street. “Thanks.”

“Meh.” Jack Frost swooped down to crouch almost catlike on the nightmare-popsicle he'd made. “You would've finished it if I hadn't shown up.”

“Oh. Uh.” That sounded suspiciously like praise to Tadashi. It wasn't that Jack didn't respect people or think them worthy of it, but compliments coming from him were usually couched in such terms that they could easily be mistaken for insults. “Thank you?”

“I'm not complimenting you, I'm just saying you're fine on your own,” Jack said dismissively, and Tadashi would still have considered that to be a compliment. “So you should really stop moaning about staying together all the time. You're a newbie and you're obviously fine, and we've been around for centuries and we're fine, so... seriously. Give it a rest.”

Ah. There it was.

Tadashi gave him an unapologetic shrug. “I work really well in groups,” he tried to explain. “And I'm not used to fighting – not on this level, anyway. There's a difference between chasing off jerks who try to pick on my brother, and battling the literal forces of darkness.”

“Not to us, there's not.” Jack shook his head. “It's all to keep the kids safe, y'know?”

“Let me rephrase that,” Tadashi said flatly. “There's a difference between pouncing on a couple shadow-monsters in the streets of my hometown, and splitting up on a creepy abandoned island to root out an entire nest of the things.”

Jack regarded him for a moment, and Tadashi tried not to fidget while being scrutinized by someone who looked at least three years younger than him. “Nah,” the other Guardian said at length.

“Nah?” he echoed.

“I mean maybe it's that,” Jack said with a shrug. “It sounds pretty logical, I guess. Here's the thing though, I don't really do logic. So... nah. I think it's something else.” He tilted his head thoughtfully. “Something's got you spooked.”

Tadashi felt the prickle up his neck again, and his tail bristled behind him. He tried not to think about the island, and the sudden breath-catching terror at the simple suggestion of splitting up. He had suppressed it, forced his face straight, hidden it from the others. And besides, Jack hadn't been there, so he wouldn't know about that. “Why would you think that?” he asked, feeling detached from his own voice as it came out calmer and more dismissive than he felt. “If it's logical, then it's logical. Unlike you, I do logic.”

“Well, that's magic for you.” Jack said with a shrug. “That's fear for you, come to think of it. They don't really care about logic. It's just how they are.” He frowned at Tadashi, looking honestly serious for once. “But, the reason I'm bringing it up? You might want to figure it out, whatever it is. If, by some horrific twist of fate I'm actually right about something–” (He rolled his eyes.) “'Cause, y'know, that never happens – then as soon as the nightmares get one sniff of it, they can jump right on that and twist it around into a weapon.” Jack's pale blue eyes leveled with Tadashi's for a moment. “I know trust is more your thing than mine, but... trust me. They're good at that.”

Tadashi blinked, remembered what the other Guardians had told him about Jack's dealings with the being called Pitch, and nodded. “I believe you. But... really. Fear may not be rational, but caution is. They're not the same.”

Jack stared at him skeptically for a moment longer, and shrugged. “If you say so.”

“There's no 'if,'” Tadashi insisted. “Did you actually need something, or are you just here to call me a weenie again?”

“Nah, that was a bonus.” Even with the dig, not all of the seriousness left Jack's face. “I got news I thought you should hear, since this is your town and everything.”

“Oh great, like we need another problem to deal with.” Tadashi kicked at the frozen nightmare. “Speaking of which, are you gonna take care of that, or should I?”

Something flashed bright and golden high above, and Jack turned his head upward with a spreading grin. “Ah, no need. Sandy's on his way.”

Tadashi stepped back on instinct, and the Guardian of Dreams burst onto the scene in a miniature fireworks show of glowing sand. Jack almost fell from his perch, barely managing to save his dignity by taking to the air and landing safely on the ground.

“Sheesh, where's the fire?” Tadashi almost spluttered.

Jack smirked at him. “You mean besides y-”

“Don't.”

The Sandman was wide-eyed with excitement, waving his arms as his sand shapes formed. Tadashi caught a few – trees, a crooked bed, and the profile of a figure that Tadashi recognized from their many explanations of Nightmares – the wide forehead, hooked nose, and narrow, pointed chin of the former Nightmare King. On that image, the Sandman stopped and pointed wildly at it.

Tadashi glanced at Jack briefly for confirmation. “Is he saying what I think he's saying?”

“You found where Pitch is hiding?” Jack's eyes were wide.

The Sandman nodded vigorously.

Jack's teeth almost glowed white in the dark when he grinned. “Excellent. What are we waiting for, then? Can you take us there?”

Alarmed, the Sandman threw his hands up in an obvious stop gesture, and the sand above his head formed a skull and crossbones, a hazard symbol, and several other shapes that screamed “danger.”

“This is a Guardian-conference kind of issue, isn't it,” said Tadashi, feeling more than a little anxious. The Sandman nodded, reaching out distractedly for the nightmare that Jack had frozen earlier. His hand brushed it, and the ice glowed faintly and cracked. Sand leaked out, but it paled from black to gold again before whisking off into the sky. Tadashi couldn't help gaping a little at that; he had to run, punch, and burn just to slow the things down, and here was Jack who could freeze them as easy as breathing, and the Sandman who could subdue them and turn them back to dreams again with only a touch.

I have a long way to go, he thought faintly.

Beside him, Jack tensed like he was ready to pounce on something. “This works. I got news the others might as well hear, too.” He gripped his staff eagerly. “Let's get moving, then. If no one's got a snowglobe on hand, I know a shortcut or three.”

 

Chapter Text

“I thought you might be coming,” was the first thing Everett's mother said when she answered the door. “Do your parents know you're here?”

“Yes,” Nozomi answered.

“Uh-huh.” Kayla nodded vigorously.

“My mom knows,” Molly added.

“Well, all right.” Mrs. Graves stood to the side to let the girls in. “He's in his room – now be careful. The last thing he'd want is you catching this from him.”

“We will,” Nozomi promised as they all toed off their shoes on the doormat. She had a tight hold of Molly's hand, and tugged her along to the hallway. Kayla was right behind them, her own hands in her pocket.

They'd been hoping for the best, but it turned out Everett had caught the bug going around after all. Nozomi's mother worried – “You're tired, Nozomi. Not enough sleep lowers your immune system.” But at the moment, Everett being sick trumped her stupid immune system.

Everett's door was closed, and Nozomi tapped it cautiously before opening it. His room was dark and chilly, the blinds were drawn, and Everett was bundled beneath sheets and blankets on his bed. Even the light from the hallway only lit up some of his room – the rest of it was so dark it was practically all the same color. Besides the one rectangle of light that came through the doorway, Nozomi could barely see Everett. For a single terrifying split second, Nozomi couldn't even tell if he was breathing or not. It was only when Molly muttered ow that she realized she was gripping her best friend's hand too hard, and sheepishly let go.

No, he was breathing – again, it was dark, so Nozomi had to step closer just to see the rise and fall of the blankets. As she drew nearer, she saw him squirm under the covers, and a thin wail reached her ears. Something moved in the corner of her eye, and she turned her head, expecting to see Kayla moving closer, but no. Kayla was on her other side. What moved?

“He's having a bad dream,” she heard Kayla whisper, and Nozomi took a chance to reach over and cautiously shake him awake. The wail because a yell of fear as he woke up.

She jumped back, almost crashing into Molly, when Everett's arm pushed out from beneath the covers to swing at her. In the same movement Everett squirmed back, pressing against the wall at the other side of his bed.

“Sorry! Sorry!” Nozomi kept her voice at a loud whisper. She could see the whites of his eyes almost glowing in the dark as he stared at her, and the bed creaked and shook as he trembled.

“It's just us, Everett,” Kayla added softly, stepping closer to Nozomi. “We heard you were sick, and we came to visit you.”

Everett stared back at them, breathing like he'd just run ten laps. In the light from the hallway, Nozomi could see tears on his face.

“Had a bad dream.” His voice was hoarse.

“What was it?” Molly asked.

He shook his head. “Don't remember.” He sniffled, slowly lying back down on his pillow. “I'm scared.”

“You're always scared,” Nozomi pointed out, only for Molly to elbow her in the ribs.

“I know.” Everett sniffled again, wiping his eyes. “But last night I got so scared I threw up. I'm tired but sometimes I can't sleep.”

Nozomi could feel a prickle up her spine, just listening to him talk. Part of her wanted to reach for Molly's hand, but she didn't want to squeeze it too hard again.

“It's just 'cause you're sick,” Molly assured him. She was bold enough to sit down on the edge of his bed, contagious sickness or not. “Just rest up and you'll get better.” But she didn't sound sure – Nozomi couldn't remember if any of the kids in their school that had gotten sick had come back yet. Laura hadn't.

“But I'm scared. ” There was a whine in his voice, but not the annoying kind of whine. It was the kind of whine that made Nozomi's heart twist painfully until she wanted to cover him in blankets and take a baseball bat to anyone or anything that tried to scare him.

The feeling washed over her and made her nails dig crescent-moons into her palms, and she saw movement in the corner of her eye again. Nozomi looked, and she could have sworn she saw a shadow dart across. Not her own, just a patch of darkness on the wall, moving the same way they did sometimes when she was trying to sleep. The prickling feeling on her neck came back.

“What was that?” Molly hissed. Nozomi glanced at her, surprised, to find her staring at the same place she had been.

“You see it too?” Everett's voice was almost too quiet to hear.

“See what?” Kayla asked. She sounded tense.

“The shadows move,” Everett told her. “Mom says it's just a dream. But it's not. They move. ” He burrowed deeper into his blankets, and Nozomi had to creep closer again to hear him. “I saw something. A white face – remember what they said? A white face with red on it, and smoky stuff. It wasn't a dream. I fell asleep, and when I woke up I was sick.” His voice was slurring, like he was overly tired. “I have bad dreams, but I don't remember them. I'm just scared. But I don't know what I'm scared of.”

“You don't have to be scared of anything. ” Nozomi surprised herself with how angry she sounded. “We're gonna fix this.”

“What?” Kayla sounded bewildered.

But Molly was looking at Nozomi funny, and Nozomi was looking back, and between the two of them she could see an idea start to form. “Maybe...” Molly turned to Everett. “Try and sleep, okay? You sound tired. Don't worry about the shadows. We'll...” She looked at Nozomi again, uncertain.

“We'll think of something,” Nozomi promised.

“Kay...” Everett sounded half-asleep already. With hushed goodbyes, the girls left as quietly as they could.

“What'd you tell him that for?” Kayla asked once they were outside on the sidewalk again. “How're we gonna fix this? We're not doctors or anything.”

“Didn't you hear him?” Nozomi shot back. “He was right before. This sickness thing didn't start going around 'til after everyone started seeing stuff like moving shadows and white faces and bad dreams. I think it is the nightmares making it happen.”

“His room was cold,” Molly spoke up quietly. “Did you feel that? The window was closed and the air conditioner wasn't on, but it was cold in there.”

“Okay, fine then.” Kayla still sounded uncertain. “Same question – what're we supposed to do about it?”

“We could get help,” Nozomi replied. She hesitated, nibbling at her bottom lip as she looked from one friend to the other. “Do you guys still believe me about the fox?”

“Yeah,” Molly said readily. “Think he can help?”

“I saw him fighting those shadow things before. If anybody can help, he can.”

“How do we find him?” Kayla asked. “Do you know how to call him or something?”

“No, but...” Nozomi's eyes narrowed. “All the foxes that keep coming into the city. Most of 'em hang around the Tea Garden, remember? I bet you can find him there.”

“So we're gonna look through the whole Tea Garden for one fox?” Kayla looked skeptical, then thoughtful, and finally she shrugged. “Okay. How do we get there?”


“Germany?” Tadashi tilted his head, confused. “That's a little random, isn't it?”

“Not really.” North shook his head, frowning thoughtfully. “He is back in the old country. Well. One of them, anyway.”

“He always did like the Black Forest, even before people started calling it that,” Tooth remarked.

The Easter Bunny rolled his eyes. “Maybe if we'd narrowed it down to places with 'dark' and 'black' and 'night' in their names in the first place, we'd've found him more quickly.”

Tadashi hmm'ed in response. “I'll be honest, I'm still a little confused as to how you lost him in the first place.”

Once again, they were gathered in the safety of the North Pole, in full view of the Globe. As soon as they had all arrived, the Sandman had launched into a rather lengthy report of his findings, which North had helpfully translated to anyone who wasn't quite as fluent in sand-charades (Jack and Tadashi, mainly). Apparently, after a rather exhaustive search, the Guardian of Dreams had located the hiding place of the former Nightmare King, deep in the forests of southwestern Germany.

“There used to be an entrance to his lair in the US,” Jack explained. “But after we, y'know, pretty righteously kicked him in the-”

He was cut off by a furry elbow in his face. “The entrance vanished,” Bunny interrupted, ignoring Jack's indignant flailing. “Bloody hole smack in the middle of the woods, and the next morning it's just gone. We've had our eyes out ever since, but we've not heard a peep 'til recently.”

“Is it really important that we find him, though?” Jack asked. “I mean we've already established that he has nothing to do with this.”

“Not as such.” North shook his head again. “We know he is not behind these Nightmares. But that does not mean he knows nothing.”

“We're short on information,” Tooth said. “I don't like the thought of any of us going near him, but if there's anything else we can learn...” Her voice trailed off, and her wings buzzed nervously, making her bob in midair.

“So... what, we go in and squeeze him for what he knows?” Jack paused, looking thoughtful. “You know what? I like that idea.”

“Man in the Moon would know about this too, wouldn't he?” Tadashi pointed out. “I mean, should we really be going to a former enemy for help instead of, I dunno, the one who's supposed to be in charge?”

“Tadashi...” Tooth sighed.

“It's not that simple,” Bunny grumbled. “Besides, communication's a bit one-way, if you hadn't noticed.”

“I had.” Tadashi felt his tail bristle in annoyance.

“Manny will tell us what we need to know,” North assured them all. “The rest is up to us.”

Not good enough, Tadashi thought, but kept his complaints behind his teeth. “Jack, you mentioned you had something, too, right? Something to do with San Fransokyo?”

“Yup.” Jack nodded vigorously. “I've got a bunch of believers around town, and I've been asking around. It's not good – looks like the old man's spreading the nightmare infestation around like a bad case of chicken pox.”

Tadashi's heart leapt to his throat. “What – you mean it's taking more hosts?”

“Not quite. I mean it's not as bad as Cavanaugh's deal.”

“Callaghan.”

“Whatever. It's less like possession and more like... ticks.” Jack cocked his head thoughtfully. “Latching on just to suck up fear, y'know? Something you might want to look out for.”

“Just great. Like we need another problem to deal with.” Tadashi felt a growl build in the back of his throat.

The Sandman's eyes widened, and he tugged at North's arm to convey another hurried picture message. Tadashi watched North's face, waiting for a translation.

“A mortal host.” The look on Saint Nicholas's face was nothing short of thunderous. “It comes with... benefits. Pitch lost power because he lost belief, do you recall?

“But a human doesn't need to be believed in.” Tooth's voice was hushed with horror. “That means... they could attack anyone, not just children!”

Tadashi fought to keep his temper on a lower register. “The sooner we stop these things, the better.” The growl was audible now.


The answer to Kayla's question, as it turned out, was to beg a short-notice ride from Nozomi's older brother. Nozomi's older brother was a better option than Kayla's older brother, because Jared Tanner was fussy and nosy and liable to watch them like a hawk and ask them what they were doing. Yuuto Takai, on the other hand, had two things going for him: an extremely optimistic impression of the common sense of grade schoolers, and a girlfriend. And so, with the blessing of all their parents, the girls were free to ride to Golden Gate Park, then cluster together as a trio while Yuuto hung back and kept one eye on them and the other on his phone. Truly, it was the perfect plan. The problem was that just getting from point A to point B was the easy part.

“So how do we find it?” Kayla asked. “We can't just wander around the garden until we run into the right fox. Where'd you see it last?”

“Um...” Nozomi paused, frowning uncertainly at the beautifully cultivated flora. “I got separated from the class... after we visited the shrine at the center.”

“We stopped at the fountain thing by the funny-looking tree after that,” Molly said. “That's where we had lunch.”

“But I didn't make it that far, remember? I got lost.” Nozomi furrowed her brow thoughtfully. “I panicked, though, so I don't remember which way I ran.”

“You said you stopped for a while after you fell,” Kayla reminded her. “Where'd you fall?”

“Umm...” Nozomi stopped to think. “Oh! By the moon bridge! That funny bridge, remember it? I went over it and tripped, and that's how I skinned my knee.”

Molly tugged on her arm. “I know where that is. This way!”

Together, the three of them took off down the path. Nozomi chanced a glance over her shoulder to make sure Yuuto was following. Truthfully, a lot of the garden looked the same to her: all of it was pretty and colorful, but besides the waterway, the pagoda roofs that were visible through the trees, and a couple of fountain things every now and then, there wasn't much to tell one place from the other. But Molly seemed sure of herself as she ran from one path to another.

Molly paused at one point, tapping her foot as she looked around. “Okay it was around... there it is!” she pointed, and sure enough the arched drum bridge was in sight – a sharply curved, steep thing that was almost a perfect semicircle. Together, they ran over to inspect it.

“Now what? Do we just sit here and wait?” Kayla glanced back at their chaperone, who had managed to keep up easily in spite of their mad dash, and looked like he hadn't glanced up from his phone once. “I dunno if your brother'll put up with that.”

Nozomi shrugged as she caught her breath. “He's on the phone with his girlfriend, he'll be fine with everything.”

“Still, though.” Molly grabbed the railing and managed to clamber up to the top of the arch, where she perched at one side and looked around, searching. “This is just one place he showed up. Doesn't mean he'll come back. And anyway even if he does come back, we don't know when. We can't just wait here forever, we have to go home and go to school and stuff.”

Rolling her eyes, Nozomi kicked the bridge. “Well what else are we supposed to do?”

“We could go the other way,” Kayla said thoughtfully. “What if instead of us finding him, we get him to come to us? So... what do foxes like?”

“They eat rabbits, don't they?” Molly called down.

“I'm not going to buy a rabbit just to set a fox trap!” Nozomi snapped. “That's mean.

“Is there a way to call a kitsune?” Kayla asked. “They're magical spirits or something, right? Stuff like that always has rules, like... like how you can leave bread and honey out for fairies and stuff. Is there something you can do like that for kitsune?”

“I don't know...” Nozomi wracked her brain for an answer, scowling. Some of the books she read had things like how people could see through kitsune disguises, or how to make them go away, or how to get a wish, but none of them ever said anything about how to call one. What was she supposed to do? Everett was sick and scarred, the shadows weren't going away, and they needed help. The fox had to be able to help her; he had to. He was nice and he chased the shadows away. But how was he supposed to help if she couldn't even find him and ask him? Frustrated, she turned in a small circle and scanned the gardens, as if the fox would jump out of the bushes if she glared at them hard enough.

She stopped. Her eyes fell upon the distinct shape of a wooden gate, half-hidden by the trees. She recognized that place from the field trip.

“Molly!” She pointed. “Molly, over there! The jinja!”

Her best friend's excited “Oh!” rang out, right before Molly came bounding down from the bridge again. “That's it! Kayla, come on!” Both of them seized one of Kayla's hands, and the three of them took off together down the path again.

Nozomi slowed as they neared it, and the three of them approached the gate to the shrine, at the foot of a short set of stone steps. As shrines went it wasn't a very big one, but it had all the parts – the gate, the steps, the place to wash your hands, the stone lanterns, and...

Reaching the top of the steps, Nozomi caught sight of the wooden plaques hanging at the side of the path. She nibbled at her bottom lip as she waited for her friends to catch up. “We can hang an ema,” she said once they were beside her again.

“Will that work?” Molly asked softly. “You hang an ema for prayers and wishes, right? We don't want to ask gods for help, just the kitsune.”

“Yeah, but this shrine? It's for Inari.” New hope fluttered like a tiny bird in Nozomi's chest. “Inari's supposed to be the one in charge of foxes and kitsune. So maybe if we wish for him to come and put it on an ema here, he'll find out about it.”

“You really think it'll work?” Kayla murmured.

“I don't know,” Nozomi admitted. “But it's a better idea than just sitting by the bridge all day waiting for something to happen.”

“One problem,” Molly pointed out. “You have to buy them, and I didn't bring my allowance.”

“Oh. Darn it.” Nozomi frowned. “Okay, I got it. Where'd my brother go-”

“Let me guess.” All three girls jumped. Yuuto was standing behind them, still focused on his stupid phone. “You need money.”

Nozomi glared at him. “How'd you know?”

“I'm magic.” Finally pocketing his phone, Yuuto pulled out his wallet instead. “How much? I can spot you a few bucks.”


“We cannot all go running after Pitch,” North cautioned them. “We are still at war. This is only one small battle.”

“It'd be putting all our eggs in one basket, so to speak,” Bunny agreed. “With all these nightmares creeping around, some of us have got to keep an eye on things while the others question him, yeah?”

“Well, I'm definitely going,” Jack said stubbornly. “I don't have a holiday to worry about, I'm not on call like Tooth or the Sandman, and... well.” His expression darkened. “I know Pitch's tricks. I've dealt with them before.”

“I can't afford to leave things,” Tooth said regretfully. “Children are always losing teeth, and... as much as I'd like to help with Pitch, I can't just leave my fairies.”

The Sandman pouted and raised his hand as well, sand swirling around him.

“You sure you can't go, Sandy?” Jack asked. “You're the dream guy. If anyone can deal with the former Nightmare King, it's you.”

“That's it, though,” Tooth pointed out. “He's our best bet for keeping back the Nightmares while our forces are... well, halved, possibly.”

Tadashi ran his tongue over his teeth, reassured by their sharpness. “Well, I don't know how 'useful' I'll be, but I volunteer,” he said. “I may be new, but that also means Pitch doesn't know anything about me. I'll take any advantage I can get.”

“Just the two of us, then?” Jack asked.

“Absolutely not,” the Easter Bunny said firmly. “Someone's got to keep the pair of you in line or Pitch'll have you at each other's throats in a jiff.” The rabbit scowled. “Easter's months away, so it may as well be me.”

“Are you sure that's a good idea?” Tooth asked. “You remember what happened the last time you left your tunnels unattended.”

“Like I said. Easter's months away. No eggs for them to smash, if they have a mind to.”

“I agree,” North said with a slight smile. “After all, when facing the former ruler of darkness and fear, what better weapons than hope, light, and laughter?”

“Nice,” Jack said, leaning his staff on his shoulder to applaud lightly. “Very poetic. When do we go?”

“We should do this in broad daylight, right?” Tadashi pointed out. “It's around noon in San Fran, so it'd be nighttime in Germany. Not the time I want to be diving into a literal nightmare hole.”

“He's got a point.” Bunny nodded. “Plus, if we go by one of my tunnels, it'd be more toward midnight when we get there. Definitely not the time to go knocking down Pitch's door, even if he is without his old power.”

Jack snorted. “Great. Just what we need. More waiting.”

“You really don't know the meaning of caution, do you?” Tadashi said dryly.

“You call it caution, I call it being a weenie.”

Tadashi rolled his eyes heavenward. “Jack, you really...” His voice trailed off, and he blinked.

After months of being more than human, he really should have been more used to this kind of thing. It had started with better hearing, better vision, even a better sense of smell. The senses beyond that were another story entirely – knowing when other Guardians were near, knowing when nightmares and dark creatures were close by. When Callaghan had menaced Hiro during his jailbreak, he had known. Even when Hiro had put his chip – his hoshi no tama – into Baymax, he had known. Senses like that couldn't be quantified, and sometimes they couldn't even be put into words.

But this was a new one.

It was like an itch he couldn't scratch, or feeling a tug on a loose leash. Tadashi stood still, tail bristling, as the the tug because a gentle continuous pull in one direction. South – but then, from where they were standing, every direction was south. His eyes narrowed as he puzzled over the feeling, trying to recognize it.

“Tadashi?” North's voice broke through his concentration. “What is it?”

“I'm not sure.”

“You've got a nightmare-sense, yeah?” Bunny's voice was tense. “Is it that?”

“No.” The pull was getting stronger – not painful, just... sharper. More focused. “I don't think... I don't think it's bad, it's just...” He could feel it in his teeth, and in the bristling fur on his tail. It was almost like the feeling that had lit up his senses when Hiro was in danger – not a fraction of that intensity, but still too similar to ignore. “I think it's me.”

“What's that supposed to mean?” Jack asked.

Tadashi opened his mouth to ask for silence, when suddenly, clarity. “I have to get back.”

“What is it? What's wrong?” Tooth swooped closer, sounding anxious.

“Don't know yet. I will when I get back.” Tadashi ran his hand through his hair. “North, could I get a quick portal? One day I'll figure out how to travel fast on my own, but until then...”

“Need any backup?” Jack offered.

Tadashi gave a quick shake of his head as North obligingly opened a portal for him. “No. It's not an all-Guardians thing. It's a me thing. I can tell that much.”

“Oi.” Bunny nudged him before he went through. “Once it's midnight there, we'll meet you in the Conservatory, where the tunnel mouth is. Don't be late.”

With a final nod, Tadashi stepped through the portal and was off like a shot, following his senses as easily as being pulled along on a line.

 

Chapter Text

 

North's portal dropped Tadashi near the wharf, and his senses scrambled for a moment as they reoriented with the abrupt relocation. He dithered, staring around in confusion, before the steady tug returned. He took off in the direction of the pull, shifting smoothly from human to fox. Something told him that speed was of the essence, and he was much faster on four legs than two.

It was close, though – he could feel that much. Whatever was lighting up his senses like this, it was within San Fransokyo. It took him inland, away from the bay and through the city – or over it, which turned out to be a little faster. Tadashi skimmed over rooftops, launching himself into flight when there was no more rooftop to step on, scanning the city below for what might be causing this. Finally, four miles in, he reached the sprawling green mass that was Golden Gate Park. His ears pricked forward, interested. What could be here?

Well, no matter, he thought as he touched down among the trees. The Conservatory where he was supposed to meet Jack and Bunny was in the park. All he had to do was check on this, and then make it back.

Hurrying through the park, he found himself running into other foxes – normal, non-magical animals wandering around minding their own business. He couldn't help noticing that they would stop and move aside for him as he passed. That was... okay then. That was a thing that was happening. He wasn't sure what it meant, but... huh.

He wondered briefly if the Easter Bunny experienced the same thing with regular rabbits.

Finally, after about ten minutes of running through the park, he reached the edge of the Tea Garden. Almost immediately he felt the worry loosen in his chest, just a fraction. He liked this place. It was calming and pretty, the treetops offered a nice view of the dream sand after dark, and sometimes he ran into the Easter Bunny nearby. He remembered the history of it as well – it had been built in the 19th century, emptied and left in disrepair all through World War II, and then brought back and further expanded years after the war had ended. One of the additions had been a small but respectable Shinto shrine, which he tended to avoid out of respect these days.

In spite of this habit, he thought as the wooden gate and stone steps came into view, the pull of his instincts seemed to be taking him right to it.

He felt the fur on his shoulders bristle. During his life, he had never really thought about this place from a spiritual perspective. Hamada brothers were many things, but religious wasn't one of them, and he'd always viewed the shrine with the same polite interest as he afforded Christian churches, Buddhist temples, mosques, and the like. But ever since coming back from the dead, as a kitsune no less, he had kept his distance just in case. If Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy were real and drew power from their believers, then why shouldn't the same be said of deities? It was better not to risk trespassing on someone else's ground.

And yet, every instinct in him was telling him to walk up those steps and wander around.

Here goes nothing, he thought, and cautiously climbed the stone stairs.

When he reached the top and was not immediately struck by lightning or confronted by an indignant god, he shook himself and tried to force the fur on his back to lie flat again. He seemed to be fine. He wasn't getting any bad feelings from it; if anything the pull felt stronger from here. Emboldened, he pressed on. He was almost there; he could feel it.

He reached a cluster of hanging ema, and the pull went slack. Odd. Cautiously he crept closer to inspect them. They were small wooden plaques, many of them with decorative pictures, and each had a wish scribbled on them, either in English or kanji. Tadashi took to the air for a closer look. One of them had a picture of a fox.

With a light bat of his paw, he spun it around to read the wish.

Dear Inari, it read. Please send that nice fox who helped me in the Tea Garden. My friends need his help. Thank you.

Realization hit him like a truck. His memory took him back to a sunny Tuesday over a month before. He'd been in the Tea Garden, watching a field trip group from a distance. No luck that day, for the most part – he had approached hopefully, only for the kids to go right through him like a ghost. It would have been another day marked down to disappointment, if one girl hadn't gotten lost and hurt.

A burning building hadn't stopped Tadashi from trying to help, so invisibility certainly wasn't going to. He had only meant to sit with her, to make sure she was all right, and maybe to try and find a way to lead her back if he could.

But she had seen him. She had reached out and touched him. It wasn't someone who knew him – it wasn't Hiro – but it was a start.

And now she was calling for him. With an ema, of all things, as if he had anything to do with gods. But how to find her? It had taken him enough time to get here that she had probably made it home already.

Tadashi prodded the wooden plaque again with his paw, wondering if it might hold some clue. Almost immediately he was rewarded with another light pull – a new one from a different direction. A prickle of excitement went up his spine, and Tadashi took off again, leaving the shrine behind.


“How long can we stay out here?” Molly asked, kicking her feet idly on the swing.

“Longer than we could stay at the Tea Garden,” Kayla pointed out from the other swing. “Probably 'til it gets dark.”

The three girls were spending the rest of their Saturday at the playground in their neighborhood. Being close to home, they had shaken the need for supervision, which was ideal for what they wanted to do. The swing set only had two seats, so Nozomi was sitting at the very highest point of the playground tower. It was a good place to watch for grown-ups, bullies, or in her case, foxes. Squinting, she stretched up on her knees and shaded her eyes. People always shaded their eyes when they were trying to see far away; Nozomi wasn't sure how it helped, but she would try anything. They had to help Everett get better. Laura, too. Maybe all the kids who were sick, if he could do that.

Impatience wore at her, plus no small amount of worry. Maybe the fox would see her message, but wouldn't know where to find her. Maybe leaving an ema wouldn't work. Maybe the fox would find her message, but was too busy fighting shadows to help. Maybe it would take days or even weeks for the fox to find it. Maybe he would never find it at all. Maybe he would come, but he wouldn't be able to help.

Nozomi let her head loll forward and knock lightly against the wooden railing. Maybe this whole thing was pointless.

No. She shook herself, trying to force the thoughts out of her head. Thinking like that was dumb and useless. Both times when she needed it before, he'd helped her, even if he hadn't meant to. He would come. He would help. Nozomi didn't know a lot yet, but she did know that. She just had to be patient.

As if to reward her second wind, there came the scrape of claws on the wood behind her.

Nozomi spun around, biting back a yelp of surprise, and almost leaped to her feet. A few feet behind her, sitting with his tail wrapped around his paws, was a fox.

She hadn't even heard him come up until he was right behind her. But there he was, right when she needed him. Nozomi stepped closer, her heart pounding in her ears, and crouched down for as close a look at the creature as she could get.

The fox took a step back under her wide-eyed stare, looking bewildered, but Nozomi was too excited to care. It was her fox, she was sure of it. He was a little bigger than a cat, bright orange with black paws and ear tips, and white on his chest and the end of his tail. His eyes were yellow, and she thought they looked friendly.

“It's you, isn't it?” Her voice was hushed. She wasn't sure why she was whispering; it just felt right. “From the Tea Garden. You got my note?”

The fox nodded.

“Do you remember me?”

Another nod.

“I think I saw you,” Nozomi went on. “Outside my window, at night. You were on the roof. I saw you chasing shadows. That was you too, wasn't it?”

The fox blinked, his ears twitched forward, and his eyes widened like he was surprised. He nodded again.

“I saw your light through my window,” she told him. “There were shadows in my room. They were coming closer, and I was stuck, so I got scared. But when you came, they ran away. I don't know if you meant to do that. I just thought you should know.” Before she could chicken out, she leaned forward and hugged him. “Thank you.”

He didn't squirm or try to pull away like some dogs did when Nozomi tried to hug them. He held still, and she saw his tail wag. Did wagging tails mean the same thing for foxes as they did for dogs?

“Nozomi?” Molly called up. “Are you still up there?”

“Yeah!” Letting go, Nozomi turned around and poked her head back over the railing. “He's here! He came!” She looked back to the fox, who sat watching her expectantly. “C'mon. We need your help with something.” With that, she raced back down to the bottom with the fox scampering at her heels.

Molly came bounding off the swings, with Kayla close behind her. “That's him? Are you sure?”

“Pretty sure!” Nozomi called back. As she skidded to a halt in the tanbark she felt the fox move behind her. Her two friends stopped short, staring past her with looks of utter amazement on their faces. Confused, Nozomi turned around.

The fox was gone; in his place, a couple yards behind her, was a young man. He was tall, taller than Yuuto or Kayla's brother Jared, and kind of scruffy-looking. His hair was black and kind of messy, and his clothes looked like they used to be nice, like his greenish suit-type jacket. But now they were all raggedy, ripped and scuffed and even burned in some places. It tugged at Nozomi's memory – she'd seen a raggedy man walking away the first time, hadn't she?

His eyes were the same – bright yellow with funny catlike pupils. And just behind him, Nozomi could see his fox tail waving a little in the breeze.

“That was really cool,” she heard Kayla murmur. The kitsune looked shy, but his face broke out in a smile, and Nozomi found herself grinning back. She liked his smile; it made her feel safe.

“Hi,” she said. “My name's Nozomi. This is Molly and Kayla. They're my friends.”

“Nice to meet you.” The kitsune's shy smile widened. “I'm Tadashi.”


Tadashi could barely breathe properly, such was his excitement. Between the upcoming meeting with the former Nightmare King and the recent revelation that the nightmare infection was spreading through San Fransokyo like a cold in a preschool class, part of him felt a little guilty for wanting to find an empty room to victory-dance.

For the longest time, he'd written off the girl in the Tea Garden as a fluke; she'd only seen him because he was a fox. That happened sometimes; people would see the fox but not the person. It made sense, in a weird, mysterious-magic kind of way. People could believe in a fox wandering around, but they couldn't believe in a dead man doing the same.

But no. This skinny little girl with pink barrettes in her hair could see him. Even now, she was staring up at him with shining eyes.

“I knew it.” Nozomi grinned so wide that her face barely seemed to contain it. “I knew you were real. I told the kids at school I saw you, but they didn't believe me.”

The girl with shoulder-length hair and glasses – Molly – looked at her pointedly. “Hey, I believed you.”

“I did too,” Kayla added. She glanced at Tadashi as if appealing to him for support. “I did.”

“I know that.” Tadashi grinned at her, containing his glee. Be cool. First believers, don't freak out now. Stay cool. “You wouldn't be seeing me if you didn't. That's kind of how it works.”

“Nozomi said you were fighting those shadow things,” Molly piped up. “Was that true?”

“The nightmares? Yeah, I was.” Tadashi looked at each of their faces in turn. They were staring up at him hopefully, and – were those dark circles under Nozomi's eyes, or were his eyes playing tricks on him? “Your note said you needed help...?”

There was a tug on his sleeve. “It's our friend Everett,” Nozomi told him. “He's sick, and we think the shadow things are doing it. Do you know about that?”

“Laura has it too,” Kayla added. “A bunch of kids we know are sick, and everyone's been talking about having bad dreams and seeing the darkness move.”

“There's a face people talk about,” Molly half-whispered. “Mostly white, but with red on it and stuff that comes out of it like smoke.”

Tadashi felt his blood run cold. This must be that thing that Jack had told him about – Callaghan, or rather the nightmares controlling him, were going around spreading themselves as wide as possible. Latching on like ticks and leeches and draining children of their fear. The answer was yes, he did know about that – not enough, but he knew about it.

He didn't even have to answer out loud; the look on his face was doing all the talking for him. Nozomi tugged his sleeve. “Do you know how to fix it?”

Ohhh crap. Looking at Nozomi's tired but hopeful face, the last thing Tadashi wanted to do was tell her no. But he'd only just heard about this problem; how was he supposed to come up with a solution now? He had no idea how to cure a sickness caused by dark magic.

But that wasn't what he was about. He was still figuring out what it meant, being the Guardian of Trust, but he did know that Trust didn't mean looking a frightened child in the eye and telling her she was on her own.

“We've been working on it,” he said truthfully. “My friends and I. It's what we do – we solve problems like this. I have to admit, this is new to me.” Before her face could fall, he added earnestly, “But I'll do whatever I can to help.” His eyes softened. “Where's your friend now?”

“It's not too late,” Kayla spoke up. “Not even dinnertime yet. We can go visit Everett again – I don't think Mrs. Graves will mind – it's this way.” She pointed down one direction of the street, and the girls began to lead him toward the sidewalk. “Except, um...” She looked at Tadashi skeptically. “I don't think she'd let you in.”

“He could turn into a fox again,” Molly suggested.

Tadashi shook his head. “Don't worry about that. People can't see me if they don't believe in me.”

Molly's eyes widened. “Really?”

He smiled ruefully. “'Fraid so.”

Nozomi darted around to walk backwards in front of him. “Is that why all those grown-ups gave me funny looks when I pointed to you? You were right there, but they didn't see you?”

“Pretty much.”

“How many other people can see you?” Kayla asked.

“Not counting other people like me...” Tadashi paused, remembering Jamie Bennett over in the town of Burgess. “One.”

Molly looked dismayed. “That sounds so lonely.

Tadashi couldn't help smiling at the long face she was pulling – God, he'd missed talking to people. Living, human people. It wasn't Hiro or Aunt Cass, and it wasn't Honey Lemon or Fred or Gogo or Wasabi, but it was so much more than he'd had before. “Yeah, I guess so,” he admitted. “Getting better, though.”

“How come your clothes are all ripped up and burnt?” Nozomi broke in abruptly. “Is that from fighting shadows?”

“S-some of it, I guess,” Tadashi stammered, jarred by the abrupt change in topic. “It's pretty much always been like this, though.”

“How come?”

“Er...” Was there a child-friendly way of saying “I ran into a fire, burned to death, and crawled out again”? “Well... I made sort of a silly mistake. One that I definitely won't be making again.”

“Did you play with fire?” Kayla asked.

“...Yes.”

“Ohh.” Kayla nodded sagely. “Grown-ups always say don't play with fire.”

“That is good advice and you should definitely follow it.” Was he doing this right? Was there a protocol to talking to little kids who believed in you?

The girls continued to chatter at him as they took him down the street, and Tadashi did his best to answer their questions. Think of it as practice, he told himself. For when Hiro and the others find out about this and throw even harder questions at you.

“Here it is,” Kayla announced finally. “Here's his house. What do we do?”

“Just pretend I'm not here,” Tadashi advised as they led him up the cement walkway. “It'll be fine.”

Kayla looked nervous, but Nozomi was already marching up and knocking on the door. The woman who answered looked tired and frazzled, and worry lines stood out on her forehead.

“Hi, Mrs. Graves,” Nozomi said politely. “Can we see Everett again?”

“I don't know, girls...” The woman hesitated, but apparently the wide-eyed pleading looks on their face were wearing at her fortitude.

“Please?” Molly added. “We'll be quiet. He just looked so lonely before, so we thought...”

Mrs. Graves sighed. “Well... all right. I suppose it can't hurt.” She stood to the side to let them in. Molly was the last of the girls to go in, and Tadashi stayed close behind her so he could slip in before Mrs. Graves closed the door. The woman stepped into his path as she did so, and Tadashi cringed a little as he walked right through her like a ghost.

He saw Nozomi and Kayla staring up at him, wide-eyed, but neither of them commented on it. while Mrs. Graves could hear them. In the hallway, Nozomi ducked closer to him while Kayla whispered what they had seen to Molly.

“Does that feel weird?” Nozomi asked quietly.

“Little bit,” he admitted.

“You looked like a ghost.”

“I know.” He hesitated, swallowing against the lump in his throat. “I guess I kind of am, in a way.”

“Oh.” Nozomi stared up at him solemnly. “Did you die?”

Honestly, it was getting more and more difficult to decide whether or not he should tell the truth.“...Yeah.”

“Oh.” And that was all Nozomi said on the matter.

Everett's room was dark – much darker than it should have been. Tadashi could tell just by looking in through the doorway from the hall. Stepping closer, he could feel his tail prickle with unease. There was no confusion over this feeling; he'd pounced on enough nightmares to know it when he felt it.

The girls were already inside when he stepped up to the doorway. The last time he'd felt like this, he'd been facing down a wall of living shadows. Bracing himself, he went in.

He heard gasps from the girls, and the shadows on the walls and across the light from the hallway promptly went ballistic. The temperature in the room dropped a few noticeable degrees, and his skin crawled as if someone had dumped a bucket of ants over his head. He heard a whimper of fear in an unfamiliar voice, and the cold began to seep beneath his skin.

His lips slid back from his teeth, and he let out a short, quiet warning growl.

The nightmare-darkness leapt back as if startled.

Carefully, Tadashi lit flames in his hands – the lowest he could manage, thin orange embers that covered his skin in a flickering layer. Light cut through the darkness in the room, falling upon the walls and the things that crawled upon them. As soon as the glow touched them they writhed as if in pain and fear, scurrying to escape it. As Tadashi watched and bristled, the nightmares took refuge at the bed against the wall, converging on its single occupant.

“What are they doing?” Kayla hissed. “Is Everett okay?

“They look like roaches,” Molly whispered back. “Like when you turn on the light and they're all in the middle of the floor...”

“And then they run and hide,” Tadashi finished grimly.

“How do you make them go away?” Nozomi asked.

For a moment Tadashi didn't answer. His senses normalized; without the cold bite in the air, he could smell Febreze in the room, drifting clinging to the bedspread. The room was still dark, but he could see better. For example, he could see the ribbon of sand trailing from the drawn blinds of the window to Everett's huddled, blanket-wrapped form. He hadn't seen it before because it was jet-black. On an impulse, he stepped forward and reached out to touch it. The sand closest to his fingertip flashed gold briefly, only to darken when he took his hand away.

He sighed. Of course it wouldn't be that easy.

The little boy was still asleep, his face crumpled with fear and distress, pressed against his pillow with a tight frown and sweat-stiffened curls. Looking at him made Tadashi's chest hurt in ways he thought only Hiro could.

Hypotheses and possibilities and experiments ran through his mind, and he shut his brain up with a little shake of his head. Don't think. That lesson had been pounded into him repeatedly over the past months. Less analysis. More action. Determined, he touched the sand again, this time plunging his hand into it rather than simply brushing it with a fingertip. The fire on his hand went out, its warmth replaced by a creeping chill that made his teeth clench. Shuddering a little, he let the cold wash over him as if he'd just jumped into an unheated pool.

It was an infection, he knew that much – an infection similar to the one Callaghan was suffering from, but nowhere near as severe. He had to figure out how to break the connection. The only thing that could help this boy was to tweeze out the tick.

If he could just – figure out how

All at once, the dim bedroom vanished around him. One moment Nozomi, Kayla, and Molly were watching him with hushed hope, and the next, all three of them were gone. Everett was gone. The bed, the window, the desk and drawers and even the light from the hallway, were all gone. He stood in an empty room, with a bare floor and blank walls and no source of light, not even a bulb or a window. The chill was everywhere now – in the air, in the floor, seeping into his skin. For the first time since Tadashi had woken up from being dead, the world was almost too dark to see.

A high-pitched, frightened cry echoed dimly in his ears, as if he were hearing someone at the bottom of a deep well.

He drew in a sharp breath and wrenched back, startled, and almost immediately he was back in Everett's room, yanking his hand away from the dream sand.

“What?” Nozomi hissed. “What's the matter?”

Tadashi stared at his hand, mind racing. Dream manipulation – that was a kitsune thing, just like flight and changing shape and having a hoshi no tama. He couldn't control dreams, not from the outside the way the Sandman could, but maybe...

Maybe he could tackle this problem from the inside.

Without hesitating, he plunged his fingers into the sand once more, and found himself diving deep into the sleeping boy's nightmares.

Chapter Text

 

The stark room was there to catch him when he landed again. Tadashi stumbled a little, struggling to get his bearings. Everything was bare and nondescript – up, down, left, right, and everything in between. Not scary, by any means – just empty.

He shuddered in the cold and started walking. He only meant to go from one wall to the other, but before he could reach the other side of the room, it simply melted away. Another room – this one perfectly round – replaced it. Tadashi shook his head, confused, and broke into a run. Again, the room vanished, another replaced it, but there was nothing to find, nothing to look at, nothing to give him any clue as to where he was headed or where he should be headed.

Frustration was about to set in when the last room disappeared and what little visibility he had promptly vanished. Tadashi felt the pit of his stomach clench with the sudden sensation of weightlessness, before another floor appeared beneath him. He grimaced with dread when he felt the ground squelch and writhe underfoot. There was something covering it in a thick layer, something soft that shifted and moved, but he couldn't see what it was. It was too dark to see anything in any direction.

There was really only one option. He didn't want to do it, but wandering blindly in pitch-blackness was no use to anyone, least of all the child he was here to help. Fidgeting against the feeling of movement under and around his feet, Tadashi cautiously lit flames in his hands for light. The glow stretched a fair way in all directions, but if there were any walls in this place, then they were too far for the light to reach. Tadashi cast about, squinting in the flickering glow. He was alone.

Steeling himself, he lowered his lights and bent to see what was on the ground.

His stomach twisted in revulsion. He could see the faded green of his shoes, almost lost beneath blackness that crawled over them. It was like standing in an ankle-deep swarm of bugs. One of them slither-crawled around his shin like a centipede.

“Ohhh, yuck.” His voice sounded small even to his own ears, and it echoed oddly in the dark. Without thinking he jerked upward and hovered over the ground, kicking off the crawling things almost frantically. That was gross. Bugs were gross. Nightmares were gross. Nightmares that made themselves look like bugs were the absolute worst. The sudden urge to jerk himself back out of this world struck him, and he took a moment to hover and get himself back under control.

“Okay,” he said out loud. “Okay. It's just a dream. It's not even my dream. It's... oh man, I'm inside someone else's dream.” A nervous laugh escaped him. “This is happening.”

At least he could still use his powers here. Frowning thoughtfully, he tried turning into a fox, and then back again, and found that he could do so with ease.

“Huh. Cool. Right-” He shook himself. He was getting distracted, and he couldn't afford that when he had a sick kid to help and an appointment to make at midnight. “Okay, so I'm inside. Now what?” Talking to himself helped; it made the silence less oppressive. Besides, it was easier to get his thoughts straight when he did his thinking out loud. “So I need to remove the infection, cut off whatever connection the Nightmares have with Everett. I need to get rid of the nightmares.” He glanced down, his nose wrinkling with distaste. “Well that's great, because there are nightmares everywhere.”

There was one solution to that, of course. Tadashi let his flames flare brighter, shook off his revulsion, and dropped back to the ground, this time on all fours. He could feel the crawling on his arms and hands, and he only pushed more into the flames. They spread over the ground, chasing the crawling things away or consuming them with harsh light. After a moment, Tadashi stood up again and let the fire go out, except for one flame he kept cupped in his palm. Cautiously he took a few more steps, and found that the ground was... well, somewhat close to normal, for a dream. There was still a bit of unevenness to it, but at least he wasn't wading through bugs anymore.

“That's better,” he muttered. “Now...” he glanced around, looking for anything like a landmark. “Where's Everett?”

As if in answer, another pitiful cry reached him. It sounded less like a muffled scream than the first one had, and more like quiet crying. Tadashi stared around, pinpointing the direction it was coming from, and took off at a run.

“Everett?” he called. “Everett, is that-?”

He found himself in a hallway. Which was odd, since he'd been in a wide open space before and there hadn't been any doors or walls to indicate a change in scenery. But those were dreams for you, he supposed. He was in a hallway now and that was that.

It was a familiar hallway; Tadashi recognized it as the one he had walked through to get to Everett's room. But that one hadn't been as long, or lined with this many closed doors. Tadashi briefly entertained the idea of the Scooby Doo gang running back and forth through them in directions that defied logic and spatial continuity.

“I'm going to open one,” he decided.

The first was locked, but the second one he tried opened to the top of a flight of wooden stairs. With his hand on the knob, Tadashi took a step through the doorway. The wood creaked appropriately. His light only reached the top three steps or so, and the rest were pitch-dark in a way that any small child would friend frightening. Tadashi squinted, and saw a pair of glowing red eyes staring balefully at him from what he assumed was the bottom.

“Hi,” he called. The eyes blinked. “Is Everett down there?” No answer. Then the sound of crying reached him again, but it wasn't coming from the bottom of the stairs. “Alright, guess not. Never mind.” He stepped back and shut the door, then turned to the next one.

The doors were no help, in the end. One led to a closet, with a back wall that turned out to not actually be there, and the space stretched far back in twists and turns that one could easily get lost in. Another held what looked like an impossibly large version of the space under someone's bed, too dark to see but filled with the sound of rattling and scratching. His favorite was the one that led to a dark room, empty except for a TV in the center with a screen full of static. Tadashi could have sworn he could hear someone's voice within the white noise, but that wasn't as alarming as the stringy-haired ghost woman that began to crawl out of the screen before he shut the door.

“Awesome,” he muttered. He opened another door and found himself face to face with a hairy brown spider roughly the size of a tractor. “Nope!” He slammed the door in its mandibles.

How many nightmares were there in this place? Tadashi ran his hand through his hair, anxious. No wonder these kids were running scared, if this kind of thing was what they had to face every time they went to sleep.

And there it was again, the crying. He was fairly sure that it was only coming from one direction, but he could still be wrong about that.

“Everett?” he called again. At least, he hoped it was Everett and not some nightmare luring him in. That would be typical, wouldn't it?

The crying cut off for a moment before continuing, quieter and muffled now. He could be hiding, Tadashi realized. After all, how was he to know that Tadashi was there to help?

Tadashi reached the end of the hallway and found another intersecting it in a T shape. It was hard to say whether to go right or left, so he cleared his throat and tried a different tack. “I just want to help, Everett.” No answer except for more muted crying. He got the feeling that Everett was still waiting. “Nozomi sent me.”

This time, the muffled sobs cut off with a sniffle. Tadashi waited, listening, before finally –

“Who's there?”

The hallway had been unlit except for the flame in his own hand. Now, Tadashi could see faint light creeping from the right, dim yellow in the darkness. On instinct he stepped closer and let his own flame burn brighter, and the lights met in the middle. Tadashi breathed in, recognizing the Febreze smell from Everett's bedroom. Did that mean this was the right way?

Only one way to find out.

With his own flames lighting the way, Tadashi plunged down the hallway. The cold feeling returned, and the prickle of unease made him dart a glance over his shoulder. Darkness was creeping over the walls and ceiling and floor behind him, like rapidly-spreading mold and rot. Tadashi clenched his teeth and ran on.

The hallway twisted and turned impossibly, but Tadashi kept following the dim yellow glow through the mazelike facsimile of Everett's house. He passed more doors, and he heard rattling and knocking and static from the rooms beyond them, but he ignored them and sped up his pace.

Finally the hallway opened out into a much larger room, and Tadashi skidded to a halt just as the dark rot caught up with him.

The floor was writhing again, and so were the walls. Things hung from the ceiling like vines or snakes, sometimes dropping into the mass on the ground. It was like a nest of nightmares, and at the center of it was a little boy with a pale face and curly hair. He was crouched at the center of the room, surrounded by a faint, ebbing glow – the same color that had led Tadashi here in the first place. His eyes were squeezed shut, and he hugged himself tightly and rocked as he quietly cried. Behind him, a shapeless mass rose up from the twisting darkness and curled around him as he shook and whimpered in terror. One end of it trailed from Everett's chest, the same way the dream sand had in the real world.

It made Tadashi's blood boil just looking at it. He stepped forward, noticing how the nightmares on the ground boiled upward to meet him. The temperature dropped further, sending shivers up his spine, and he responded in kind.

Fire bloomed beneath his feet, sending nightmares hissing and roiling back from the heat and light. The ground felt firm and solid with each step, and he watched with grim satisfaction as the nightmares darted away as if looking at him hurt.

Tadashi turned his attention to the black mass that half-surrounded Everett's huddled form. He could see the flicker of his own fire reflecting off of it oddly – eyes. It was covered in tiny, beady eyes that watched him and watched Everett, squinting and rolling in the only light sources the place had. Tadashi was one. Everett was the other, and Tadashi wasn't sure if it was growing dimmer, or his own fires were making it look weaker in comparison.

Didn't matter.

“Hey.” A snarl curled in his voice. His eyes felt hot, and he wondered for a moment if they were actually glowing. “Get away from him.”

It hissed at him.

At least, he assumed it was hissing. It mostly sounded like someone had mixed the sound of TV static with a lion attempting to purr, and a little bit of Nazgul-screech thrown in to spice it up. Very charming.

Everett opened his eyes and squinted in the firelight, only to widen them again when he spotted Tadashi. He blinked, shrinking at the hideous noise coming from the nightmare behind him.

Tadashi kept walking calmly forward, meeting blackness with yellow-orange and driving it back with each step. The nightmare hissed at him again, half-hiding Everett as Tadashi came closer, like a predator protecting a meal.

Keep back, its stance said. Mine.

“I don't think so,” Tadashi growled. Something hissed behind them, another mass of darkness making itself known. He glanced briefly over his shoulder, just long enough to swat it away with his tail like a bothersome cloud of gnats.

“You're the fox.” Everett's voice was tiny, almost drowned out by the nightmares' low hissing. “Nozomi said – there was a fox.” The nightmare growled at him, and he cringed.

“Yeah, that's me.” Tadashi touched his shoulder, making him look up again. “Hey. I'm here to help, okay? She brought me to help you.”

Everett's wide, wet eyes were fixed on his face. “I'm scared,” he whispered. The nightmare rattled and hissed.

“I know,” Tadashi answered gently. “That's okay. I mean, that thing is pretty scary. But hey – that's what I'm here for. It's gonna be okay, you hear?”

“You promise?” Another grating growl, and Everett broke off and flinched.

“Yup.” With that, Tadashi raised one flaming hand and thrust it straight into the nightmare's mass of eyes.

It was cold to the touch, but when his hand was surrounded by fire, that didn't matter much. The nightmare jerked back, filling the air with an unearthly shriek. Everett's eyes shut again, and his mouth opened, but if he cried out it was lost in the nightmare's enraged screaming. It thrashed, and the entire room roiled in response.

Everett's dreams weren't filled with many nightmares, Tadashi realized. Just one.

Tadashi stood up straight and shoved himself forward again, trying to simultaneously drive the creature back and force himself between it and Everett. It lunged at him, and he flinched but kept at it. Too many eyes were glaring at him at once, and he was half-convinced that teeth and talons would show up to go with them.

“Stop it!” He picked one pair of eyes to focus on, and his flames burned brighter.

Everett's eyes were open again, and he was uncurling from the tight ball he'd been in, twisting around, trying to see what was going on. The nightmare's tendril still hung from the middle of his chest, but it writhed like it was struggling to hold on. Tadashi reached out and curled his blazing fingers around it.

The thing's many eyes rolled at him desperately, and it shrieked and lunged at him again.

“No,” Tadashi gritted out. “Sorry. You don't belong here, and you can't have him. He's one of mine. So back off.”

Everett's eyes shone as he stared up at Tadashi, and he felt the tendril wither and crumble in his hand. Tadashi turned back to Everett, just in time to see his dimming yellow glow flare, until it was almost matching his own flames. The nightmare screamed.

Tadashi's eyes snapped open to the sound of Nozomi's sharp gasp. It was dark again, the fire was gone, and he stood in Everett's bedroom, hand stretched toward the ribbon of sand that had marked the child's dream. The sand was gone now, and Everett was blinking up at him blearily as his mind dragged itself from sleep.

The prickle up the back of his neck came even before Molly squeaked in alarm, and Tadashi whipped around just in time to see a nightmare writhing on the floor, twisting toward the hallway like a frightened snake.

He didn't even think. He just moved. In the next instant he was a fox, pouncing upon the fleeing nightmare and seizing it in his teeth. His tail lashed, and he breathed flames on it until it had burned to harmless wisps.

And then all was quiet.

Tadashi stood on all fours, ears pricked, fur standing on end, and looked around. The room was dark, but it was a normal dark now – the shadows cast by the hallway light stayed still and silent, and he could see without that unnatural blackness clogging up the air.

He stepped back, letting his fur lie flat again, and tried not to shiver with excitement. He turned around, back to the three girls, and saw Everett struggling to sit up in bed. All four were staring at him in a mixture of hope and wonder.

I did it. His tail wagged on its own. I did it.

“Is it over?” Everett's voice was still quiet, with shyness instead of terror.

“Did you do it?” Nozomi added.

Gathering himself again, he changed back so that he could smile and speak properly. “Did it. It's over – for you, anyway, I think.”

“Are you going to do this for all the sick kids?” Kayla asked.

“Don't know,” he admitted. “So far I've been trying to stop these things at the source. But this – this was important.” He looked at each of the three girls in turn. “Thank you. For bringing me.” His eyes settled on Everett, who was watching him with bright, rapt eyes. “How do you feel?”

“Okay.” Everett blinked. “A little tired. But a good tired.”

“Get some rest, then,” Tadashi advised. “You've been very brave.”

“Okay.” Everett paused. “Are you gonna help Laura too?”

They'd mentioned a Laura before, hadn't they? “She's sick too, huh?” He paused thoughtfully. He had plenty of time before midnight, didn't he? “...Yeah. I think I will. Know what street she's on? I can find my own way there, I think.”

“Wait,” Nozomi broke in. “Wait, before you go.” Before Tadashi could reply, she darted over and caught him around the middle in another hug. On cue, Molly and Kayla followed her example, with Everett trailing behind them sleepily.

“Thank you,” he whispered.

“Thanks for coming,” Kayla added.

Tadashi wished he had longer arms, but he returned the hug as best he could. “Hey. You guys helped me, too. I'm gonna help fix this, okay? For good, and for everybody.”

“You can do it,” Nozomi muttered. “I know you can do it.”


Laura Kim was ten years old, terrified and half-feverish and trapped in a nightmare of darkness and crawling things. Another minute and she would have screamed herself awake, if the entire murky dream hadn't literally gone up in flames.

She didn't remember much, only bright light and the feeling of a noose around her heart, before the ropy feeling in her chest fell away, and she finally opened her eyes halfway to the sight of a fox on her bedroom floor. As she watched, half-awake, it pounced on a patch of darkness much like the ones that had been plaguing her every night for weeks.

It didn't make her think of a kumiho. It made her think of Lady and the Tramp, and the rat in the baby's room, and for the first time in too long she felt the fear in the pit of her stomach ease. She put her hand to her chest, half expecting to feel something there, but there was nothing, and the fox was gone but she was still smiling.

This would make a crazy story. Not even her big cousin Ethel would believe her.

Nozomi would, though. She probably owed Nozomi an apology.

That was the last thought in her head before she closed her eyes and slept without a single dream in her head.


The nightmares had returned to the host's light source again. They plagued her nightly from afar, loath to allow her a chance to sleep through the night and gain more strength than they could. The best way to kill prey was to exhaust it first.

Their first attempt had failed, but they had been feeding all the while, gaining strength. And now, as another loathsome day grew late, they felt ready to try again.

The host was hidden but nearby. They waited for the sun to disappear behind the horizon, poised to creep in and stalk their prey while she slept. They could taste her fear – it made them eager.

And then they felt it. Like a spider at the center of a massive web, they felt it – a bond cut, a child freed from their hold.

Confusion set in. They dithered, eyes rolling, teeth gnashing, form rippling and changing as they stretched their senses toward their limits. What was the meaning of this? How was it possible? Who was responsible?

Not the old king, no – he was still locked away.

Not the Dream Guardian – they kept him busy elsewhere.

Before any of their questions could be answered, they felt another bond cut. It stung them when it severed, and again when their own power recoiled into them. It was a bothersome pain, no real harm, but it only threw fuel on their helpless rage.

As the sun set, the nightmares danced in their confusion and madness, turning claws and tendrils on the host to vent their fury. Any madness they did not unleash then and there went racing along the strands of their web, trickling into the unwary minds that they had already conquered – the ones that had not been severed yet.

They were rewarded when a plethora of fear came racing back into their waiting jaws.


Fred was tired.

All he could think about was sleep, even though he did absolute everything in his power to keep it away. Sleep was bad. Sleep meant nightmares meant waking up in tears and a cold sweat meant exhaustion meant more sleep. He caught himself drifting off in chairs and on his feet, blacking out from one end of the house to the other. It was hard to remember things – important things, like what day it was or what time it was or how long it had been since his last drink of water.

(It must have been a while – his lips were starting to crack.)

He felt like all he could do anymore was sleep, and yet Fred was tired.

Being near the others helped. He felt more awake when they were there – focusing was easier, paying attention was easier, and blackouts... well, they still happened, but they were smaller. He would blink and be three steps to the left, instead of down the hall, up two flights of stairs, and half-hanging out an open window.

Had the others noticed? Were they worried? Were they whispering about it behind his back? He could never know; he was barely aware of anything when they weren't in front of him.

He couldn't tell them he was sick; they must never know. If they knew, they would worry. They would shut him out and tell him to rest. They would take care of things without him, and how could he stay awake if they weren't there?

They would make him sleep.

No. He'd been doing enough sleeping lately. If he never slept again for the rest of his life, he'd be all right with that.

It was late at night, and they were all there to put their heads together and figure out the Callaghan problem, when it happened.

One moment Fred was staving off sleep by listening to Gogo and Honey bicker about how one might induce paranoia. The next, he couldn't breathe.

He wasn't choking. There was nothing blocking his windpipe, and his lungs were working just fine. But no matter how much he inhaled and exhaled, no matter how much oxygen he sucked in through his mouth and nose, it wasn't enough. Panic set in, or maybe panic had been the cause; it was the chicken and the egg, and Fred couldn't tell which one had come first.

He was afraid, but of what? Every instinct screamed at him to escape, but from what? Fight-or-flight was in high gear, and he was too exhausted to fight, but there was nothing to run from, so running was useless.

He could hide. He could leave the room, tuck himself somewhere out of the way, and wait for it to stop. If it ever stopped. Would it ever stop?

Fred didn't run. They would notice if he ran. So he slipped out of the room, breathing shallowly, and only sped up when he was in the hall and they were out of sight. He groped his way to a bathroom, closed the door behind him, and sank to the polished floor with a strangled whimper.

Hiding wasn't helping. It wasn't going to stop. He was going to stay like this, all alone, choking on good air and always just a step away from nightmares that he couldn't even remember.

He couldn't even call for help.

He was alone.

And then he wasn't.

Wide, familiar arms wrapped around him, enfolding him in a hug that was too perfect to be human. Gentle heat filtered through his shirt, driving back the chills – he was trembling. He hadn't noticed before, but the arms around him were steady and firm, and it made his own shaking more obvious.

Fred could hear his own hyperventilating – in and out, in and out, until it finally slowed. The violent shivering eased. He opened his mouth, ran his tongue over his chapped lips, and managed a word.

“B-Baymax?”

“It is all right.” Cradled in the robot's gentle hug, Fred felt as if he could hear Baymax's voice with every pore. Warmth poured in, and it reminded Fred of that spooning-a-warm-marshmallow feeling from the first night in the same way the bay reminded him of a puddle on the ground. “You are safe. It is going to be all right.”

Fred's eyes blurred, and he breathed. It shook on the way in. Were any of the others there? Had they noticed him leaving, or Baymax following?

For the first time, it didn't matter. Baymax had peeled him off the floor and pulled him into the warmest hug that Fred could ever remember experiencing, and all he could do was make a cursory attempt to hide his face before he quietly broke down sobbing.

Dimly he could hear Baymax's voice, asking about his pain on a scale of one to ten.

“I think-” How coherent he was speaking was anyone's guess. “I think something's wrong with me. I don't know. I don't know.

“I have scanned you,” Baymax informed him. “You are suffering from dehydration and extreme fatigue, as well as-”

“Just-” Fred choked on a sob, burrowing deeper into the hug as if he could hide from the world if he tried hard enough. His eyes were closed, so he missed the faint glow coming from Baymax's access port. “Don't tell me to sleep. Please – please don't make me go to sleep.”


Tadashi felt it as he approached the Conservatory of Flowers. It was small – nothing like the klaxon-level alarm call that had blown up his senses on the night of Callaghan's escape. It was small, but it was there, and it gnawed at him with a persistence that he couldn't ignore.

He stopped, glancing back the way he had come. It frustrated him, but midnight was almost upon him and he had an appointment to keep. Whatever this was, it wasn't life or death – yet.

“I'll be back,” he murmured. “I'll be back as soon as I can.”

He wasn't sure why, but it felt like one of the most important promises he had ever made. 

Chapter Text

 The Conservatory was dark, but light from the lamps outside streamed in through the windows, touching the colorful flowers as Tadashi slipped noiselessly inside.

“Right on time,” the Easter Bunny observed. He crouched off in one corner, close to the clump of vegetation that hid the mouth of his tunnel. “You find what you were looking for?”

In spite of himself, in spite of the low-level anxiety buzzing under his skin, Tadashi grinned. “I did. Once Jack gets here, I'll fill you guys in on the way.”

“Fill us in on what?” Jack swooped in with his staff balanced across his shoulders. “Did I miss something cool?”

“Let's get moving first.” Bunnymund broke in with a nod toward the tunnel mouth. “Sooner we get this over with, the better, yeah?”

The three of them plunged down the rabbit hole together. Somehow, Tadashi resisted the urge to throw his hands up and say “Whee!” on the way down. Jack, of course, was not so subdued. Tadashi and Bunnymund, ever efficient, let gravity do the work, but of course the Guardian of Fun had to throw in a few extra corkscrews.

Do a barrel roll, Tadashi thought, right before the trio slid out into the Warren. Momentum carried him farther than he'd thought, and he actually somersaulted head over tail before coming to a halt surrounded by flowers. Immediately he popped back to his feet, dusting grass and leaf bits from his hair.

“No fire,” the rabbit groused.

Tadashi glanced around, taking in the bright, healthy green of the place, the splashes of color in every patch of wildflowers, and the hanging blossoms in the trees. “Wouldn't dream of it,” he said, still faintly awed. The place was a step away from being Pandora.

He shook himself. They had a job to do, and he had a story to tell. As the rabbit led them through the Warren to the next appropriate tunnel, Tadashi explained the events that had gone down since he'd last left the North Pole. It was incredibly hard not to sound like he was bragging.

“So. Dream-walking?” Jack gave a low whistle when Tadashi was finished. “Sheesh. Somebody hit the superpower jackpot. I hope Sandy doesn't get territorial on you.”

“Don't think he would,” Bunnymund said. “He ain't the type, and even if he were, it's not like you're controlling the sand or anything.”

“I can, a little,” Tadashi admitted, remembering his experiments from weeks before. “To an extent. I can move it, but that's about it, and not for very long. I dunno, maybe that's like a side effect of this other dream-related thing that I actually can do, you know?”

“Sandy handles 'em from the outside, you from the inside.” Jack tilted his head. “Huh. Is that a Trust thing, or...?”

“I think it's just a kitsune thing.” Tadashi said with a shrug. “It helps, though. Could be useful for making kids feel safe. Or making them be safe, in this case.”

“I'm just glad we have someone else on the team who's good with dreams,” the rabbit muttered. “So far Sandy's been the only one.”

“Well personally, I'm glad you've finally got yourself some believers,” Jack declared, giving Tadashi a pat on the back that nearly knocked him off his balance. “Look at you, Guardianing all over the place.”

“Heh, thanks.”

“This way, you two.” At the rabbit's call, Tadashi looked up to see the stone cliff face before them, blanketed in moss and dotted with tunnel openings. Bunnymund was headed for one of the lower ones. At its mouth, he paused, sniffing. “Yup. This one should take us where we want to go. Bit of a walk once we're above ground, but it's close enough.”

“Heh. Walking.” Jack shouldered his staff. “Let's go, then. We've got a date with an old friend.”

“Never say that again,” Bunnymund said flatly, and led the way into the hole.

Tadashi lost track of time as the three of them navigated through the tunnels. According to Bunnymund, the journey was a little over an hour, maybe two hours at most. Tadashi wondered how he kept track; underground, seconds and minutes ran together.

At last they emerged from the tunnel and found themselves in a deep forest, with daylight peeking through high treetops. It was well into midmorning, but the foliage let in a lot less sunlight than Tadashi would have liked, considering that there were nightmares to deal with. The fact that they had to go underground again for this only made it worse. “Black Forest” was an apt title. It certainly wasn't the worst location for an evil lair.

It wasn't just the darkness, either – Tadashi could feel nightmares close by. His tail bristled, and his fingers itched with suppressed flames. A casual glance to the others told him that he wasn't the only one. Jack was on the ground, shifting from foot to foot as he glared at the forest around them. Bunnymund's entire coat was bristling, and his ears twitched and turned constantly.

“This way,” he said shortly, starting off through the woods. Not that Tadashi really needed that specified; he could feel the hair on his neck standing on end just looking in the direction Bunny was taking, so obviously that was the way they were going. Exchanging a quick dubious look with Jack, Tadashi hurried after the rabbit.

“Alright, listen,” Bunnymund said grimly when the other two had caught up to him. Tadashi brushed aside his other worries and focused again. The rabbit was addressing him.

“I'm listening.”

“We're up against the Nightmare King – or at least, the former Nightmare King.” Bunnymund glanced around with a wary scowl, as if he expected nightmares to swoop in on them at any moment. “He may not be what he used to be, but that doesn't mean a thing. The place was crawling with nightmares when Sandy found it. They're still here, too – you can feel 'em.”

“Wait – he's not in control, but he's still posting guards around his hiding place?” Jack sounded skeptical. “Man in the Moon said Pitch wasn't behind this, but exactly how not-involved is this guy?”

“Gee, that's a good question,” Tadashi said acidly. “Why don't we ask him? Oh wait.”

“Can we bloody focus?” Bunnymund snapped. “We have a job to do, deadheads, and that's to get answers for all these questions. Either way, we're up against nightmares. And not just a pawful like usual – a whole nest of the things. You good, Jack?”

Jack shrugged, the very picture of nonchalance. “I've faced him down before, same as you. I can do it again. It's fluffy-number-two here I'm worried about.”

“I'm ready.” Tadashi tried not to sound too defensive.

“You're new,” Bunnymund said patiently. “You've been doing great fighting nightmares – and I mean that, especially with what you just did for those kids.” The rabbit shook his head. “But we're walking into the lion's den now. There's gonna be more of 'em gathered in one place than we've ever been up against since Pitch's first uprising.”

Tadashi swallowed hard. “Okay... not like there's any pressure or anything. Any advice, then?”

“They'll be sniffing out your weaknesses,” said Jack. “Pitch was the same way, but nightmares are a lot less talky-talky about it. They just go for you.”

“Any chink in the armor,” Bunny said grimly. “So you've got to watch out. And remember, they feed on fear. If you let them scare you, you'll only make them stronger.”

“So... just don't be scared of the things that are entirely composed of the essence of fear.” Tadashi could feel his entire brain screaming. “Great. Cool. Sounds straightforward and not in any way counterproductive.”

“That's the spirit,” Bunnymund chuckled. “Make jokes. Laugh. Might help. Just keep in mind, if you aren't afraid in the first place, you starve them and they've got nothing on you anyway.”

It made sense, but there was still a circular logic to it that Tadashi didn't like. It was a bit like standing on a high rickety bridge and being told not to look down. But he sighed, and tried to funnel his worries away. “I'll do my best.”

“Good,” Jack spoke up again. “Because we're here.”

The trees opened briefly to a small, dark clearing. Even with the openness of the area, foliage from the surrounding trees still blocked sunlight from illuminating the glade. In spite of this, Tadashi could see what sat in the center of the clearing.

It was a bed frame. Ancient-looking, wooden, and broken down, but it was definitely a bed frame. Tadashi had to stop walking for a beat or two because of how absurd it was to find a beat-up wooden bed frame just lying around in the middle of the woods in Germany. Never had he wished so desperately for a smartphone and a Snapchat account.

“It's underneath,” Jack explained. Tadashi blinked at him, bewildered. “The entrance. It's under the bed.”

“...Oh.” Tadashi blinked again, and comprehension dawned. “Oh! Okay. Right, I get it, 'cause he's the... okay. Wow, that's... appropriate. I guess.”

“I'm sure he'll be glad you approve,” Bunnymund said dryly. “Now let's go, shall we? We're burning daylight.”

A rattling hiss made Tadashi turn and bristle. At the edge of the clearing, the shadows were coming alive and rising, rippling through the air like dense smoke. There were nightmares around, just like the Sandman had said. Some of them took vaguely animal forms, while others stayed shapeless. Tadashi's fingers itched, ready to call up fire at any moment.

“Leave 'em,” Bunnymund advised. “We've got a job to do. C'mon.” There was a dark pit beneath the bed. The rabbit led the way down, and Tadashi tried to ignore the shiver up his spine as he turned away and followed.

Bunnymund landed lightly on the ground at the bottom of the pit, but Tadashi followed Jack's example by floating. It was a pretty deep drop, for all that Bunnymund seemed unruffled by it; Tadashi was glad that he could fly.

“This place is even creepier than I remember,” Jack hissed.

This was Tadashi's first time in the place, but he had no trouble believing that. The pit leading down had been fairly narrow, not quite as wide as Tadashi was tall. At the bottom, however, it opened out. Beneath the old bed frame, the former Nightmare King's hiding place stretched into a vast cavern. It was probably even bigger than it looked, but Tadashi's vision only reached so far, and rough stone walls, pillars, and hills blocked him from seeing the entire area. Flights of stairs and stone bridges climbed and stretched across the vast space, reminding Tadashi of fortresses and cities in fantasy stories built within mountains. Most alarming was the presence of hanging cages, either carved stone or wrought metal, but broken and crumbling in disuse.

The lair even had a source of light from somewhere above, gaps in the high ceiling that allowed sunlight to shine through, but that did nothing to lessen the eeriness of the place. If anything, the way the shafts of gray light cut through the cavern only made the darkness blacker by comparison. It shimmered and bent, and Tadashi could see things moving with in it. It was like a dark, twisted version of the Warren or the Tooth Fairy's palace – black and gray instead of brilliant green and bright colors.

And, of course, the shadows moved.

Tadashi shuddered, and then made himself stop. Shivering would probably only encourage them.

“It's... empty,” he heard Jack murmur.

“Only one occupant, aside from the house pets,” Bunnymund pointed out, stepping farther out into the dark cave. “Besides, this place is a honeycomb. Loads of places to hide. Might as well start looking.”

“I will punch whoever suggests we split up,” Tadashi said flatly.

“There you go again with that,” Jack muttered. Tadashi could almost hear his eyes rolling.

“Well, in a place like this he's got a point,” the rabbit said gruffly. “C'mon. We may as well start walking. Tadashi, maybe some light?”

“Oh, right.” Tadashi summoned a small, bright flame in his cupped hand. There didn't seem to be any torches, though, which was a shame. He'd always wanted to carry a torch into a cave.

Oh, well.

“Was it not empty the last time you were here?” he asked Jack as they moved through the dark. His voice was at a whisper. Climbing a flight of steps while surrounded by living shadows and the wisps of nightmares, he couldn't quite bring himself to speak more loudly than that.

“Not exactly,” Jack replied. “Pitch had kidnapped Tooth's fairies. And I mean all of them. Weird to see the cages all broken and empty – definitely good, but still weird. Guess he doesn't really entertain guests anymore.”

“Well, he's going to now,” Bunnymund said grimly.

Tadashi tested his ability to not be afraid, venturing to the edge of the staircase they were on to peer over. “I think I see a few more. Down there.” He pointed – further down were more metallic structures that certainly could have been cages, once upon a time. Now they were twisted and broken as if rusted, fallen from their stands and left to rot in the dark.

“Pitch really let this place go,” Jack muttered. “Tadashi, c'mon, hurry up.”

Tadashi glanced back. The other two were almost at the top of the steps – when had they gotten so far ahead? His pulse jumped like a painful spike in his chest, and he scrambled to catch up. His nerves, already on high alert, were now buzzing with – to his dismay – fear. “I'm coming, I'm coming,” he muttered. His mouth was dry.

“Keep it together,” Jack muttered. “Don't freak out now.”

“Trying,” he said tightly, but his heart was pounding and he was just remembering how to breathe again. Were the shadows moving more closer to him, or was he imagining that? Don't, don't, just think of something else. “So what exactly are we looking for?”

“Jack?” Bunnymund prompted. “You're the one who's been here before.”

“It's not like I did a full survey of this place,” the winter spirit muttered. “But I remember Pitch had his own Globe. Not as big as North's, but enough to do the job. That could've been like the center of his hideout or something.” He looked around, blue eyes narrowed. “No clue where it could be, though. Everything down here looks kind of the same.”

The rabbit nodded. “Just keep moving. We're bound to run into something eventually.”

At least Tadashi had something to keep an eye out for now. North's Globe was pretty eye-catching; surely if there was something like that here, they couldn't miss it. He followed the others and kept an eye on their surroundings, which was not easy to do at the same time. It was simple enough to stay on his guard; every movement of shadow over light caught his eye. Every noise was a potential ambush. They were in a nest of nightmares, supposedly, but where were the nightmares? Tadashi felt stretched taut, like a bowstring with an arrow nocked. At any moment something might set him off and put him on the offensive. Patience was a virtue, but at the moment the suspense was killing him.

He then realized, belatedly, that he had paused again. Frantically he looked up, just in time to see the top of Jack's staff disappearing around a corner. His ears roared, and he broke into a run.

“Wait a minute!” he tried to shout. His treacherous voice came out timid and quavering. “Guys wait, hang on!” He even sounded scared, but at this point he was past caring about that. Screw pride, screw bravado, he just wanted them to stop so he could catch up. Just stop, just wait for me. Tadashi rounded the corner, heart hammering.

He was alone.

“Guys?” His voice cracked, echoing oddly in the chamber. “Jack? Bunny?” He stopped, straining his ears, listening. Nothing. The path twisted before him, and shadows shifted like thick fog, but he couldn't see either of them anywhere. Which way had they gone? He breathed in, searching for the smell of grass and flowers from the Warren, but there was a cold bite to the air. Not one of Jack's nippy breezes, either; this chill gripped his heart like an icy claw.

“This isn't funny!” he yelled, or tried to yell. “This... this really isn't funny...” How had this happened? He'd only stopped for a few seconds, hadn't he? Had it been longer? Why hadn't they noticed? He'd just seen them, but now... now...

They were gone, they'd left him and they were gone and he was alone.

Shadows danced in the colorless shafts of light that streamed from above, making them flicker like flames in the corner of his eye. He was alone. He was surrounded by nightmares on all sides, and he was alone.

They'd left him behind.

Panic set in then. Tadashi turned in a small circle, wide-eyed and searching for any sign of them, but everything was dark and still except for the shadows. And they weren't just rolling and curling like harmless mist anymore.

They moved with purpose now. Toward him.

Some part of him in the back of his mind remembered what the others had said. Don't be afraid. If you aren't afraid, then it's harder for them to hurt you. Tadashi sucked in a gasp, eyes stinging with held-back tears, and he fought against the panic that gripped him. He tried, he really did, but fighting against his own fear only seemed to feed it. He struggled to force it back, to take a deep breath and slow his own racing heart, but his pulse pounded on and the air hitched on its way into his lungs.

By now, he was surrounded on all sides by nightmares. He tried to back away, only to feel frigid air against his back, and the slithering feeling of the nightmares' touch on his back of his neck. He slapped at it, and a strangled whimper escaped him before he could stop it. Something curled around his ankle, and he kicked out against it and bolted.

Blindly he ran through the empty lair, skidding and swerving around corners, taking stone steps two or three at a time, feet pounding the bare ground. He stumbled, slowing, only to feel the creatures hunting him get close again. He sped up again, breath coming in short, frightened gasps.

He was alone. They'd left him. The thoughts chanted in his mind, fueling his terror, and the light at the very edges of his vision still danced like flames.

After all, this wasn't the first time he'd been left behind, was it?

His vision blurred, and his throat squeezed and ached with the threat of tears. No – no crying. If he cried, he wouldn't be able to breathe properly, and he couldn't run.

It didn't matter in the end. Half blind with unshed tears, Tadashi missed a jagged stone jutting up from the floor, tripped, and fell with so much force behind him that he actually rolled before sliding to a halt.

The nightmares were upon him like vultures.

He had thought he'd been scared before, but now terror lanced through him so violently that he was sure his heart would stop. Things crawled on him, walking along his skin with footsteps like icy pinpricks, or clawing and grasping at him to drag him down into the dark where he would never see daylight again. Silent almost-voices whispered in the back of his mind, too soft and indistinct to recognize as words. With a strangled sob Tadashi curled up and covered his head with his arms, trying to block out the hissing and rattling snarls of the creatures tormenting him. He could feel his own bristling tail pressing against his leg. It was a battle just to keep breathing in and out.

He forgot about driving them off with fire. Not that it mattered much – Tadashi probably couldn't have called up flames even if he'd remembered to. He forgot about fire, and flight, and dreamwalking and shape-changing. He forgot about being a kitsune. All that existed were the whispers in his head and the darkness and the tears and the taste of ashes on his tongue.

The whispers grew in the back of his mind, until they became words that he recognized.

You weren't supposed to be here.

Of course he wasn't supposed to be here. Of course he shouldn't have come. He must have been stupid and insane to think he could actually beat this.

Get out.

He wanted to. That was all he wanted, to get out of here and find his way back up to the real world with fresh air and sunlight. But he couldn't – he was trapped here, pinned by shadow creatures and his own terror.

If you die, it's your mistake, not mine.

Tadashi sobbed. He recognized those words. He recognized that voice. It was just a memory, and he's forgotten it for a time but it had come rushing back to him right when he least wanted it. This wasn't the first time he'd been left behind, and if he stayed down here then it would kill him all over again.

He hadn't learned anything from dying, because it was happening again. He was alone, crying and scared and abandoned.

Except...

“No.” The word slipped from his mouth, small and almost whiny, but quietly defiant. “They wouldn't say that. They would never say that.”

The whispers grew again, rattling like a twisted parody of laughter.

Why not? They treat you with such scorn when you tell them to stay together.

Tadashi shut his eyes. If he was going to have to deal with darkness, then he'd deal with his own darkness and not someone else's. His face felt wet, and he dried his tears on his sleeve. “They think – I'm being fussy.” His voice shook, but it still grew stronger. “They don't understand. But that's not their fault, because I never told them.”

More laughter rang in his ears, and in his mind, and even (though maybe he imagined it) in the cavern around him. You think they would help you if you told them you were afraid?

“I...” Would they? They had told him not to be afraid in the first place, but... but he was.

That would only feed their contempt. They battle fear. You're no use to them if you're afraid. It didn't take them very long to leave you behind, did it?

Tadashi mulled it over carefully, shivering at the nightmares' touch, before he finally opened his eyes. “No.”

There was a pause. ...No?

His arms still trembled, but Tadashi planted his hands on the stone floor and shakily pushed himself up. “No. That sounds wrong.”

The nightmares dove at him, and he flinched against the icy claws grasping at him. You have so much faith in them. How stupid you must be. They have already abandoned you in the dark.

Tadashi straightened his back, glaring at the shadows with tear-stained eyes. “If they left me, it's not because they did it on purpose.”

How do you know? How can you be sure?

He hesitated, biting his lip. “Well... I can't, not really,” he admitted. “I-I can't read minds. But I trust them. That's what trusting someone is.” The thought of it calmed him further. Fear still fluttered like a bird trapped in his ribcage, but... well, he could let it. Somewhere in this place, Jack and Bunnymund were probably looking for him. No, they were definitely looking for him. And he'd gone and run around like a headless chicken – probably made their job harder.

Served all of them right for not paying attention.

Tadashi brushed off the nightmares' frantic hissing and whispering, and took a deep, slow breath, counting the seconds as he inhaled, held it, and let it out again. Then another breath, and another. His heart rate eased.

You're a fool. No better than a dog padding blindly after its master –

“Rude,” Tadashi whispered, and coaxed a flame to life between his hands. The nightmares drew back sharply, and Tadashi managed to burn it brighter. “Go on. Shoo. Go... bother someone else. Or – actually no, don't do that.” He thought of the others, wandering around somewhere in this cavern. They probably wouldn't appreciate him advising the nightmares to torment them.

The fear hadn't gone away. It still existed as a dull ache in his stomach, like dread or nausea, but Tadashi had a job to do. He had to find the others, or find Pitch.

Shuddering, he stepped right into the nightmares. His shoes crunched on sand, and the dark creatures drew back away from the firelight. Tadashi made it past them, flinching a little when they hissed and shrieked close to his ear, and opened his eyes to get his bearings.

Jack had been right; everything looked the same here. He would have retraced his steps, but he couldn't remember which direction he had run. Frowning, he stepped back a little to take stock of his surroundings. All of his surroundings.

The cavern was as grim and forbidding as ever, with many walkways and bridges and staircases twisting from every direction. Tadashi swallowed against the lump in his throat, moved to the edge of the one he was standing on, and stepped off.

He took to the air, lighting the way with his flame, until he had gained a little more height. All he needed was a better view; after all, it was easier to solve a maze from above it than from inside it. And now, from high above the ground, he could see. There was a haphazard sort of pattern to it, like with any maze. There was a center to it, from which the twisting paths fanned out. All roads lead to Rome.

And unless his eyes were deceiving him (which, unfortunately, was a very real possibility in a place like this) his panicked flight had taken him very close to Rome.

It was crawling with nightmares, too.

Tadashi overshot the clump of shadows that had trapped him, landing lightly back on the path. His heart was hammering again, his tail bristling like a bottle-brush, but he crept in the direction of what he hoped was the center of the lair. Black sand shifted all around him, sometimes forming recognizable shapes, mostly drawing away and hissing balefully at the light of his fire. The path twisted into a short dark tunnel, which worried him – was he still going the right way?

Before he could lose his nerve, he found himself on another open walkway. A few more steps and the walkway opened out at the foot of a... building? Was that the word for it? If the lair was like an underground fortress inside a mountain, then this was like a keep – a small one, hard to see in the intermittent light from above, but still there.

Near the center of the space was a globe.

Like Jack had said, it was smaller than the one at the North Pole. Its diameter was only a bit longer than Tadashi's height. There were no lights from it; it lay on the ground as if discarded, a few yards away from the broken pedestal that may have once held it up.

The colorless light dimmed, drawing Tadashi's eyes upward. Nightmares were gathering above, blocking the light shafts at their source. Mouth dry, Tadashi kept his own flame burning.

“I'd leave if I were you.”

Tadashi started visibly, springing back toward one of the surrounding walls. The fur on his tail was standing on end, and he looked around for the owner of the voice. It was smooth, refined – vaguely British, if Tadashi was any judge. It echoed oddly in the cavern, simultaneously from one direction and from every direction.

His eyes fell upon one of the high arches that held a bridge far above. At the foot of the arch, someone stood hidden in the growing darkness. Cautiously he stepped forward, and for a moment the glow of firelight almost reached the figure, reflecting for a split second on a pair of yellow eyes. Or maybe it was just the firelight that was yellow. From this distance it was hard to tell.

Tadashi didn't move. Slowly, Pitch Black stepped out into what little light there was.

 

Chapter Text

He was tall. That was the first thing Tadashi noticed. The former Nightmare King was well over six feet tall and rail-thin, covered from neck to floor in a long black coat or robe – at least, Tadashi assumed it was one of those things. It fitted to him perfectly without a single fold or crease, and as Pitch stepped closer he realized it was difficult to tell where the garment ended and skin began. The hem of it touched the floor constantly, and Tadashi couldn't even tell if he had feet. His steps were as smooth as his voice; he seemed to flow rather than walk, like a ghost.

“Ugly” was not the word Tadashi would have used to describe Pitch. “Unsettling,” definitely. His face was pointed and narrow with a wide forehead, almost triangular, and his nose was hooked over a small, thin-lipped mouth. His skin was a dusky gray pallor, with eyes – yes, gleaming yellow eyes – staring balefully at Tadashi from beneath his furrowed brow.

Tadashi had known that this moment was coming. It was what he was here for in the first place. But he'd expected to have Bunnymund and Jack with him when it came.

So much for that.

Tadashi tried to moisten his dry lips with an almost equally dry tongue. He was on his own, unless Jack and Bunnymund happened to find him. But he had found Pitch (and the being in front of him couldn't be anyone else, not after the others' descriptions and the Sandman's carefully-formed likenesses). He had a job to do.

Finally he gathered enough moisture in his mouth to swallow and clear his throat. “Um,” he began. “Hi.”

Pitch Black's eyebrow rose – or maybe it would have, if he had eyebrows. He didn't have eyebrows, and that was a bit off-putting. In any case, it didn't make him look any friendlier, so when he moved closer it was all Tadashi could do to keep from backing away. Then Pitch moved past him, and Tadashi got the distinct feeling that he was being circled. Wisps of black sand swept around the hem of Pitch's robe, adding to the Boogeyman's wraithlike appearance. Tadashi wondered, not for the first time, just how much Pitch could still control nightmares.

That smooth, cultured voice slid out again, slick as black oil. “ The newest Guardian, I presume.”

Tadashi tried not to shudder as he turned in a small circle, keeping Pitch in sight at all times. “Uh, y-yeah, that's me.”

Pitch's eyes flickered about, taking in Tadashi's appearance. An unimpressed sneer flickered across his face. “... This is what my old friend sends after all the terror and shadows born of this world that run rampant and free from anyone's leash.” His voice lilted mockingly, and he spoke like he was taking his time. “An old toymaker, an oversized rodent, a hoarder, a mute, a layabout...” His eyes narrowed at Tadashi, accompanying his smirk. “...and a kicked dog."

Tadashi focused on breathing in and out. “Actually rabbits are lagomorphs-”

“Shut up.”

“I mean considering the hopping and the accent there's probably a marsupial joke to be made, but he's pretty insistent that he's not a kang-”

Shut up. ” Pitch's voice reverberated painfully in Tadashi's ears, and he winced.

“Okay.” Tadashi pressed his lips together briefly, until he was sure the babbling wouldn't continue when he opened them again. “Right, um. You're – you're Pitch Black.”

Pitch showed two rows of not-quite-human teeth in a jack o' lantern grin. “What gave it away?”

Common sense and the hairs on the back of my neck, Tadashi thought absently. “My name's Tadashi.”

“Yes, I know who you are.” Pitch seemed to size him up. “And what you are. The newest Guardian, as I said. A kitsune. A fire-user. And... a rather infuriating thorn, for the nightmares.” Tadashi blinked, and Pitch's smile widened. “Yes, I know all about that. A 'light in the dark,' that's what you are. You worry them.” His eyes narrowed into pale slits. “It only makes them more desperate to destroy you.”

“You say 'them,'” Tadashi broke in. “Like you're not with them. So... you do know things, but you aren't involved in this, then.”

To his slight surprise, Pitch rolled his eyes contemptuously. “Is that why you're here? Is that what you think? Surely your glorious leader, the Man in the Moon, could have seen that, sitting there on high?” He sneered again, lip curling. “I imagine the view from above all the rest of us is lovely .”

“Point,” Tadashi conceded. “And he did. Just thought I'd be sure and ask. Didn't mean anything by it.”

“Hm.” Pitch gave him a thoughtful, considering look. “You're polite. Certainly more civil than Frost.”

“Well, doesn't take much.” In spite of everything, Tadashi found it in himself to shrug and grin, putting his own sharp canine teeth on display. “Besides, Mom always said be nice to your enemies. Nothing pisses them off more.”

Are we enemies?” Pitch asked with a disarming smile.

Tadashi blinked at him, tilting his head. “I don't know. I think that's kind of up to you.”

“Is it, now.” Pitch drifted closer. “What is the price of avoiding your enmity, then?”

Carefully Tadashi paced to the side, keeping Pitch at his front. “Well, seeing as how you're not the one setting nightmares on my hometown, we'll call that a start.” There was a lump in his throat that would not go away, even when he swallowed until there was no moisture left in his mouth. “But... whether or not you're behind this, no one knows nightmares like you do.”

Pitch laughed softly, and this time Tadashi allowed himself a small shudder. “Inarguable, I suppose. Ohh, but what would you pay for what I know? What could you pay for what I know?” Tadashi stepped back on instinct, only for Pitch to move closer. “A favor for a favor, perhaps? Or – how is it that fox spirits usually trade in these matters? A favor from them for the return of their stolen soul?” He quirked a brow in cold amusement. “So perhaps the reverse would be true – if you gave it to me, then I suppose...”

“Ha, ha.” Tadashi poured as much acid into two syllables as he possibly could.

“You think I'm joking.”

Tadashi thought of his hoshi no tama, safe behind Baymax's access port where it belonged, and shrugged with forced nonchalance. “I don't have it on me right now, so you're out of luck anyway. Besides, what would someone like you want with something like that anyway?”

With a glance upward, Pitch gave a long, irritable sigh. “I have spent fifty years under house arrest thanks to your friends.” He spoke in a voice that was thick and hungry. His eyes, yellow and glowing as they turned upon Tadashi again, reminded him uncomfortably of a half-starved wolf. “I have thought of a thousand ways to escape, if I only had the means. With a trinket like that, I could carry out any one of them.” He smiled thinly. “Are you certain we couldn't negotiate?”

“P-pretty sure,” Tadashi answered, imagining the green chip clutched in Pitch's gray hand. He made the mistake of looking Pitch in the eye again, and could almost imagine the same image blooming in the former Nightmare King's mind. The flame in his hands flickered dangerously.

“Pity.” Pitch's eyes sparked with amusement again, and Tadashi tried not to feel like a mouse between a cat's front paws. “Indulge my curiosity, then. What is it you wish to know from me? Nightmares? Their origins, their plans? The secrets to commanding them?”

“Well, obviously I wouldn't ask you about that,” Tadashi blurted.

He was rewarded when Pitch bridled, if “rewarded” was really the word for it. A split second later he was aware of a pressure in his skull, as if he'd suddenly dropped another mile beneath the earth. The air was heavy, with a crushing tension that he could feel in his teeth, reminding him that this was more than just a bad dream he was talking to – more than a person, even. There was something behind those pale eyes, something dark and stirring, old and dormant, but far from extinct.

Pitch recovered well before Tadashi did, serene and composed while Tadashi blinked rapidly to hold back his intense discomfort. Had his voice always been so difficult to listen to? “Or perhaps your aims are elsewhere,” Pitch went on blithely. “Maybe... with their new host?”

It was Tadashi's turn to bristle, and the stones around them echoed with Pitch's laughter. “I see. You know him, do you?” His eyes narrowed, calculating. “...Care about him, perhaps?”

“No,” Tadashi said tightly.

“I see,” Pitch said, in a tone that suggested that he did see – far too much for Tadashi's comfort. He paced idly, more like a bored animal than a caged one. “I'm mistaken, then. Of course your intentions are with the nightmares themselves.” He shot Tadashi a contemptuous look. “You Guardians have such one-track minds – protect the children, defeat the evil, attack the darkness.” With a short bark of laughter, he turned to face Tadashi again. “I suppose you'd like to know the secret to destroying nightmares forever. That answer costs me nothing – I give it freely. You can't.” Tadashi glared, and Pitch simply laughed again. “Young fool. They really have taken you in, haven't they? Guardians of Childhood, protecting children by fighting the forces of darkness. And I imagine you've eaten it up, haven't you?”

“That's not much of an answer,” Tadashi said flatly.

“As long as fear exists, so too do nightmares,” Pitch informed him, as patiently as one would explain vegetables to a child. “And no matter what anyone tells you, Tadashi – you cannot kill fear .”

“I'm not trying to kill fear,” Tadashi retorted. “I'm trying to yank a bunch of nightmares out of my idiot professor so they'll stop spreading like fleas around my hometown.” Gathering his nerve, he squared his shoulders. “You can't stand there and tell me that a bunch of bedridden kids is just the way things are.”

That is the way things are! ” Pitch's voice rose to a booming intensity, and Tadashi's flame went out when he clapped his hands to his ears in sudden pain. With the light gone out, Tadashi could only feel the spray of black sand against his face, and the telltale spider-crawl of nightmares on the back of his neck until he slapped it away. Pitch towered over him, eyes blazing in the sudden roiling darkness, and Tadashi took a few wary steps back. “It is now ,” Pitch snarled, at a slightly less agonizing volume. “Now that they run rampant and do as they please. Tell me, Tadashi, how much do you know about me? I'm afraid I have the advantage – I know what you are, but do you know what I am? Do you know what I used to be?”

Tadashi found his side and shoulder pressed against stone. He was crouched low at the foot of a rough wall like a cornered animal, tail wrapped around his ankles. Pitch stood before him at his full height with black sand swirling around his feet. It took Tadashi all he had to gather up the shreds of his nerves again and reply. “I know what you tried to do,” he said, fighting to keep his voice steady. “You tried to take over. You tried to destroy the Guardians. You were against everything they stood for.”

“You little fool, ” Pitch hissed. “They really have told you nothing .”

Tadashi tried to reply, but words fled from his mind. He thought of conjuring fire again, but the air had gone cold and Pitch's very presence scrambled his thoughts and kept him pressed back until he could gather himself up again. If this was the Nightmare King at a fraction of his former power, than he shuddered to think of what he was like with all the forces of darkness behind him.

Before him, Pitch Black raged on. “ I was a Guardian before there were Guardians! ” His voice boomed in Tadashi's skull – he could feel the reverberations in the roots of his teeth. “ I watched over the children of the world! I kept them close to their hearths and their fires and their mothers' arms, instead of wandering into the dark woods and the clutches of things that would have devoured them! I kept them safe from harm! Mothers spoke my name to teach them, to keep them honest and dutiful and polite and good! They believed in me, and I protected them!

The ache in Tadashi's skull throbbed, and his eyes watered. The others had left that part out, but it rang true in his head. Wasn't that what parents did? Eat your greens or the boogeyman will get you. Tell the truth or the boogeyman will come. Children were afraid of ghosts and monsters in the closet, and it kept them close to their parents, farther from harm. “...Th-then-” He coughed, trying to jar his voice steady again. “Then what went wrong?” he asked.

Pitch drew closer, his face twisted in a dark scowl. When he spoke again, to Tadashi's relief, the painful reverberations had gone. “That wasn't good enough for them. That wasn't good enough for my old friend, sitting in that ivory tower, judging from on high. They had to change me – who I am, what I am.” His voice rose to a higher mocking tone. “Mustn't make it too dark, mustn't frighten the children, mustn't make them cry! Let them be happy! Let them eat sweets and skip through the daisies and never touch fear as long as they Believe! They don't need to be afraid if they're already protected!” The booming tone was back, and even when Tadashi blocked his ears, the words still echoed painfully in his skull. “ They don't need Fear! Thank you for your service, but we're better now! WHAT YOU ARE ISN'T IMPORTANT ANYMORE! ” Tears of pain spilled over from Tadashi's eyes as Pitch's voice died down to a more manageable volume again. “...Well they got their wish now, didn't they? After centuries of struggle, I am... this. ” He lifted his hand, and a wisp of black dust responded to him. Tadashi noted in the back of his mind that on good days even he had better control of dream sand than that.

Tadashi took a deep breath, feeling his heart pound in his ribcage. “That doesn't change what you did,” he said with forced calm. “Trying to destroy all their happiness? Taking everything away except fear?”

“Eye for an eye, fox.” Pitch loomed over him, dark enough to be a silhouette except for the pale yellow glow from his eyes. “I still had my victories, you know. I gave them a taste, just a fraction of what I had suffered. If I'd had my way, they would have starved as I did.” He looked away. “They left me with nothing. Nothing except-”

Pitch stopped talking abruptly, then backed away before freezing in place. A split second later Tadashi's aching ears filled with the telltale rattling hiss of nightmares – and many of them, at that. He looked up, uncovering his head and lowering his arms as the darkness far above churned like thunderclouds.

No ...” The harsh half-whisper came from Pitch. “No, I didn't mean... I wasn't-” The tone sounded strange coming from the former Nightmare King's mouth – neither silky-smooth nor booming with rage and the remnants of dark power. It took Tadashi a moment or two to recognize the creeping fear in Pitch's voice when he heard it.

As Tadashi watched, his heart leapt to his throat when he saw nightmares surge downward from the mass above them. He pressed back, trapped by the wall behind him, only to realize with a jolt that the nightmares diving down from the ceiling were heading for Pitch, not him.

No!” With a cry, Pitch fled for cover, but the attacking nightmares blocked his way from the safety of tunnels or doorways. In the scant light, Tadashi could see his face twisting into a grotesque mask of rage and fear, like a cat cornered by dogs with nothing left to do but hiss and spit. Pitch lunged for the archway where he had stood when Tadashi first saw him. Too little too late – the nightmares were upon him in a wave.

There were flames in Tadashi's hands before he even realized he was lunging forward. Before him the nightmares were chasing their former master, harrying at him from all sides, herding him further into the dark.

“I wasn't finished!” he hissed. He forgot his fear from before and charged in, cutting a swath through them. Nightmares snapped at him, but he bared his teeth right back. “Excuse you, we were talking! ” A particularly nasty-looking one with crumbling teeth and too many eyes lunged at him from the front, and he caught it across the face with a swipe of flames. “So get lost!” Fire spread through the nightmares, scattering and enraging them. Pitch had already made his escape, but Tadashi spotted him disappearing around another bend. Scowling in irritation, he gave chase.

Pitch's path took him around the corner and down another flight of steps, then twisting through a darker passage and back out into another part of the cavern where, briefly, pale light still shone from above. Tadashi wasn't far behind, but it still took him almost a minute of searching before he found Pitch creeping at the very edge of the light. The Boogeyman looked annoyed at his presence, but Tadashi shrugged it off.

“So what was that all about?” he asked, trying to continue the conversation as normal.

“It isn't obvious?” Pitch glared at him with pure venom in his eyes. “I'm a prisoner here. Thanks to you trying my patience, I managed to attract their attention.” He looked away, scowling upward with resentment. “They must have mistaken my temper for another attempt to escape.”

“Oh.” Tadashi paused, not entirely sure how to respond to that. “I mean... sorry?”

“Do you find it amusing?” Pitch asked disdainfully. “That the shadows I once commanded now keep me locked here, trapped by the very fear I used to inspire in others?” A mocking smile crossed his face. “It must be. People do so love ironic fates for their enemies.”

Tadashi stared at him, mulling things over. There it was again, “enemies.” Did they even count as enemies? They'd just met, after all, and aside from making snide comments and scaring the crap out of him upstairs, Pitch hadn't really done anything to him yet. If they were enemies, then it was by association and... not much else, so far.

The ex-king had returned to the tall, straight-backed bearing that he had shown before, as if his flight from his own nightmares hadn't happened. But it wasn't the same; there was a transparency to it that either hadn't been there, or Tadashi simply hadn't noticed. The tips of Pitch's teeth were just barely visible, and there was a hunted, desperate look in his eyes, like a wild animal kept too long in a too-small cage. Animals like that always gave the sense that they might leap and tear out someone's throat given the chance. But Pitch?

Tadashi searched his own head for any sign of hatred, but if there was, he was surprised to find it muted and drowned out by a much stronger sense of pity.

And wasn't that a dangerous thing to have.

Pitch blinked, and his pale eyes glared harshly. “Stop that. What are you doing?”

“Stop what?” Tadashi asked, confused.

“Looking at me like that – stop it!”

Without the thunder and power from before, Tadashi found himself feeling strangely puckish. “Alrighty.” He switched his line of vision to the space at Pitch's left. “Better?”

“You,” Pitch hissed, “are patronizing me.” The venom in his voice sent a shudder through Tadashi again.

“Look,” he said calmly, and then Jack dropped out of the sky and landed beside him. “Oh for God's sake.”

“Tadashi, you found him,” Jack said cheerfully. “We just followed the sound of fire and carnage.”

“You're welcome,” Tadashi said dryly.

“Hiya, Pitch,” Jack went on, waving to the former Nightmare King. “How's retirement?”

“Crowded, at the moment.” Pitch's tone was acidic.

“Well, it's about to get a little more.” Bunnymund stepped out of the shadows behind Tadashi, both boomerangs at the ready. “I see you've met Tadashi. So.” Idly he flipped one of them around his paw. “Anything you'd like to tell us, Pitch?”

The dark hatred was back on Pitch's face when he faced the Guardian of Hope. “I don't know. Have you kept an eye on your tunnels lately? You never know what might find its way in.”

“You dirty, sneaking-” The rabbit's short temper flashed, and he took a step forward. Pitch smiled thinly at him, and the shadows on the wall gathered at his feet again.

Slowly, Tadashi felt the situation beginning to spiral out of control. “Oh my God, can we not? Please?”

“Don't waste your breath on manners, mate,” Bunnymund told him. “They're useless on him.”

“Pot, kettle,” Pitch retorted silkily.

“Look!” Tadashi snapped. “I am done dancing. You know what's going on, Pitch. You know what's at stake. What's the point of helping the things that are you keeping you trapped here?”

Pitch gave a smooth, almost liquid shrug. “Simply put, effort. Offering you any sort of advantage would mean going out of my way. So tell me, what's the point of doing that? Helping them...” He smirked. “All I have to do is sit back and watch things unfold.”

“Oh, sure. I'm sure the view from down here is lovely.” Tadashi forced as much sarcasm into his voice as he could.

Pale eyes locked on his again, and Tadashi froze when he felt a brush of the power that had driven him to cowering against a wall before. Pitch's eyes narrowed, and Tadashi stepped back before his brain had time to tell his feet what to do. “Would you care to find out?”

Immediately the other two Guardians were standing in front of him. Together they blocked Pitch's view of him, and Tadashi tried to recover himself and shake off the feeling of squeezing in his chest. “Hey, leave him alone,” he heard Jack growl. “Your beef is with us – Tadashi's got nothing to do with what happened.”

“My grudge is against Guardians,” Pitch said patiently. “He is one, isn't he? Or has North taken to hiring independent contractors?”

“You're right,” Bunnymund agreed, his voice mockingly cheerful. “He is one of us. Meaning if you mess with him, you get to deal with the rest of us.”

Behind them, Tadashi turned away with a grin.

Pitch sighed deeply. “This is growing tiresome. And it seems they agree.” He gestured vaguely upward, and the three of them followed the motion to the ceiling of the cavern, where more nightmares were gathering to block off light and churn like a growing storm. “You've attracted their attention, I'm afraid. What they do to trespassers is no longer up to me – though you have yourselves to thank for that, I suppose.”

“Pitch,” the rabbit growled. Sensing that the meeting was coming to a close, Tadashi pushed forward again.

“We saw what they almost did to you when we last met,” Jack added. “Would you like us to help them this time?”

Pitch regarded them disdainfully. “You've overstayed your welcome. But... I suppose a hint might make things more interesting...” Tadashi tensed when Pitch's attention returned to him. “That host they found. He's on the edge of despair, and if he falls, then he is theirs, and will never be free again. Right now, a single thread is keeping his mind his own. They mean to cut it. It's why they've been feeding – it takes so much power to take a life. I wouldn't like to be him if they managed it.” He smirked. “I wouldn't like to be you, either.”

Tadashi's mind raced. Callaghan... despair... a single thread...

“Abigail,” he whispered.

Pitch raised his eyes to the nightmares gathering at the ceiling, smiling with amusement. “Better hurry.”

“What's he talking about?” Jack muttered.

“We need to go,” Tadashi hissed.

“But...” Bunnymund turned to argue, saw the look in Tadashi's eyes, and sighed angrily. “Leave him, then. This way.”

The nightmares were beginning their descent. Bunnymund took off in the lead. Jack took to the air. Tadashi cast one last uncertain glance at Pitch's grinning face, then turned and sprang after the rabbit. His fox form lent him more speed as the nightmares came howling after them, and the three of them did not stop until they were back at the entrance. Shifting back, Tadashi grabbed one of Bunnymund's arms, Jack the other, and together they shot upward and back out into daylight with the rabbit hoisted between them.

“Could've gotten out myself,” the rabbit muttered. “Now, what's going on? Tadashi, what'd he mean by that?”

“Abigail,” Tadashi gasped out, breathless from the race out of Pitch's lair. “C-Callaghan's daughter. Has to be, she's – I'm pretty sure she's the only good thing left in his life at this point. Only good thing that came out of his whole mess was her being alive.” He felt cold. “If the nightmares are planning on getting rid of her...”

“Campbell could lose whatever will he has left,” Bunnymund finished. “Of all the bloody-”

“Hey.” Jack nudged Tadashi, who discovered that his legs were shaking when the light bump almost knocked him off balance. “Are you okay? We turned around and you were just gone – how'd you do in there, all alone?”

“Yeah, I just, y'know, didn't expect to meet him by myself, and – and I-” It struck him then, all at once – the full weight of what he had just done, who he had just talked to. A whirlwind of sensations came rushing back through his memory – the thought of his hoshi no tama in Pitch's hand, the fear driven into him like a blunt drill bit, that voice, silky-smooth one moment, ringing with power and rattling his skull the next. Tadashi had to stop and lean over. His hands on his knees kept him standing as his stomach churned dangerously.

“Hey, what-?” Bunnymund sounded alarmed. “What is it?'

Gonnathrowup,” Tadashi dry-heaved a little, and the twisting feeling in his stomach subsided enough for him to breathe in. “No wait, hang on – urgh.” He retched again, but there was nothing behind it. His head swam, almost pitching him forward into the dirt. “Just gotta... power through. Ride it out.” He coughed uncomfortably, feeling Jack pat his back awkwardly. “I'll be fine.”

Bunnymund sighed. “Yeah, Pitch has that effect on people. Soon as you can stand, we're heading back to your city. Something tells me he wasn't giving us much of a head start with that warning of his.”

Somehow, Tadashi managed to stagger up, force down his nausea, and follow them back.

Abigail. They were after Abigail.

 

Chapter Text

Hiro was fuming.

It wasn't Fred that he was unhappy with, contrary to what Fred himself seemed to think. At least, not necessarily. No – as Hiro massaged his temples and carefully processed Baymax's report, it was all he could do to keep from kicking himself as hard as he could. Physically and emotionally.

He was supposed to be a literal genius, so how in all hell did he manage to be this stupid?

How many weeks had it been since that first fight, back when Callaghan first broke out of his prison cell? How many weeks had he spent barely looking at Fred? How many tiny clues, how many warning signs, how many spider-crawls up his spine, had he been ignoring?

Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Fred's face and started a little. A quick glance, and everything looked normal. Well... as normal as Fred could look, as exhausted as he was. A little pale, with dark circles under his eyes, but.. normal. Hiro looked away again, and felt his blood run cold when he watched Fred in the very edge of his vision. He would swear by his parents' graves that Fred was watching him with black, empty pits where his eyes should be. It wasn't just that, either; Fred looked dark around the edges, surrounded by a thin border of black. Like a reverse glow, almost. It was a strange effect.

But when Hiro looked directly at him, it wasn't there. The blackness was gone, and it was just Fred sitting there wrapped in Baymax's hug. Tired, frightened, sick Fred, but still just Fred.

He was glad that Baymax had called him aside – and only him – and that he had left the others talking things over in the mansion's library while they checked on Fred. How would he be able to explain this to them, or convince them not to think much about how he kept jumping at what looked to them like nothing at all?

It reminded Hiro of the lights he saw in the sky, the lights that no one else could see. What would happen if he asked the others to confirm this? Would they agree? Or would they think he was hallucinating? Maybe he was hallucinating. What scared him was that, after Abigail's denial of seeing the lights, he no longer had a possible explanation for why.

And he might have caught this sooner if he'd been paying attention like he should have.

“How long has this been going on?” he asked finally.

Fred wouldn't meet his eyes. For a few seconds, Hiro was half-sure he wouldn't answer at all. But finally Fred shifted in his seat and mumbled, “Since Callaghan.”

“Since he attacked you?” Hiro pressed. “He threw you into a wall?”

“Y-yeah.” Fred nodded vigorously. His throat bobbed. “Even then, I-I felt weird. Thought it was maybe a concussion? But no. And then... stuff started happening.”

“What kind of stuff?”

Fred's hands were shaking. “Um. I started sleeping weird.”

“Weird how?”

“Bad dreams,” Fred answered. “I don't remember them, I just... wake up scared. Like really scared. L-like my heart's either gonna stop or burst out of my chest.” He fidgeted. “Sometimes I wake up and it's so bad I have to puke.” Hiro watched as Fred quickly passed the back of his hand over his eyes. “I hate sleeping, but I'm tired all the time. Gets pretty bad when I'm awake too.”

“Baymax said you were having a panic attack,” Hiro prompted.

Fred nodded. “That doesn't happen that often. Only sometimes. Other times I just... get scared of stuff. Stupid stuff I shouldn't be scared of. O-or there's the blackouts.”

Dread rose in Hiro's throat like bile. “Blackouts?”

“I'll just.. end up in places. And I don't remember how I got there. Sometimes it's small, l-like I'll just end up across the room and I don't remember walking there, but other's it's like... middle of the night, boom, I'm in the backyard. Or I'm on the third floor and my head and shoulders are out the window. Or I'm eating breakfast and then it's three hours later and I'm in the attic.” It all tumbled out of Fred's mouth, as if he was almost relieved to be able to say it.

“Why didn't you say anything?” Hiro blurted. “You're sick, dude. You shouldn't be doing anything-”

Fred seemed to shrink, dwarfed even further in Baymax's arms. “I told you, remember?” he said quietly. “I get scared of stupid stuff. Every time I thought I should tell you, I just... couldn't. I dunno why.”

“Jesus, Fred,” Hiro breathed.

“I'm sorry.”

“No – no, it's not-” Hiro ran his hands through his hair, fingers catching in the tangles. “I'm not mad. Okay? I am... a lot of things, but mad at you isn't one of them.”

Fred stared at him warily, as if he didn't believe him. “What kind of a lot of things?”

Hiro noticed then for the first time that he was grinding his teeth. “Well, I haven't wanted to strangle Callaghan this bad since the mask first came off. So there's that, among other things.”

It was the wrong thing to say. Fred cringed a little as if Hiro had just threatened to strangle him. “Thought you said you weren't mad,” he mumbled.

“I said I'm not mad at you, dummy. Look, Fred-” Hiro sighed, because he was actually the worst person for this kind of thing. “I'll be honest – you're sick, and you've been sick for a while and you've been pretending to be okay so you clearly haven't been taking it easy. You need to take it easy.”

There was more white than iris in Fred's eyes as he stared at him, desperate and pleading. “I can't sleep,” he blurted. “I don't want to sleep.”

“Fine, fine whatever.” Hiro held up his hands. “Listen, you don't have to sleep. You just need to – I dunno, lie down or something. Rest.”

“Don't you get it?” Fred snapped. “I don't have a choice! If I do that, I'll sleep! Look, doing things – being around you guys – it keeps me awake.”

“But-” Hiro's phone rang. He almost ignored it in favor of continuing his argument, but he caved and checked the caller.

Abigail Callaghan.

Hiro frowned. It was the middle of the night. What was Abigail calling him for? “Hang on,” he said to Fred, and answered it.

“Abigail, what's going-”

Help me.” Her voice came in scratchy, broken, as if he was listening to a recording on an antique vinyl record.

Icy calm settled over him as adrenaline kicked in. “Where are you?” he asked.

Noises in the background almost drowned her out completely – voices? If they were voices, Hiro couldn't tell what they were saying. “Bay – island,” was all that Hiro could pick out.

“The island? Akuma Island?” Hiro strained to hear her, but the background murmuring was growing in volume, thrumming and rattling. “Abigail, who's with you? Describe them.”

Oh God...” A noise, either interference or a sob. “Hurry-

A grating scream cut her off, and Hiro yanked the phone away from his ear with a noise of pain. Even with the distance he could hear it – not interference or audio feedback, but a hideous piercing shriek like knives scraping over plates and chalkboards, or an animal getting ripped apart.

And then it went silent.

Hiro brought the phone back to his ear. “Abigail?” He waited. “Abigail, answer me.”

He checked the screen. Call ended.

Frantic, Hiro called her back, and almost screamed in frustration when the call went straight to voicemail. He turned to Fred, who watched him with wide eyes from the safety of Baymax's embrace.

“Fred, I am really, really sorry,” Hiro began, stomach twisting at the growing dismay on Fred's face. “But we're gonna need Baymax. And you need to stay here.”

Fred was shaking so hard it was visible. “Are you gonna tell them about me?”

“They need to know,” Hiro said simply. “Abigail's in trouble and we need Baymax to fly us there. Just – stay here, stay safe.”

Fred's fingers were pressing deep dents into Baymax's arm. The robot blinked his camera eyes slowly. “Hiro. Are you certain there is no way for me to stay?”

“I...” Hiro's teeth clenched, and his brain flicked through a dozen other possibilities and plans, but the numbers didn't add up. He was already wasting precious seconds, and Abigail needed help now. “I wish there was, Baymax, I really do, but we need you to get us there fast. Fred, we'll be back as soon as we can. Okay? First thing, I'll make sure Baymax gets back.”

“Don't want-” Fred rasped as Baymax released him. “I don't want to be alone.”

“You're not alone,” Hiro assured him. “Heathcliff's still here, remember?”

He didn't wait around for Fred's reply; he didn't even wait for Baymax to catch up before dashing back to the library.

Wasabi was the first to look up when he burst in. “Hey, Hiro, what's-”

“We need to suit up, now.” At his tone, Gogo and Honey's heads snapped up as well. “Abigail called – she's in trouble and she needs help, yes I'm sure, no I don't know details, all I know is she's probably on Akuma Island.”

No one needed to be told twice. In minutes the four of them were downstairs, strapping sets of armor in place. When Baymax finally came waddling in, Hiro tossed his helmet to the side to get the robot suited up, as well.

“Where's Fred?” Gogo asked as she secured her skates to her feet.

“Fred's not coming,” Hiro said tightly.

“Why not?” Honey asked.

“He's sick.” He could hear the others go quiet behind him, but he focused on getting Baymax's armor on. Maybe it wasn't wise, springing that on them when they needed to focus on getting to Abigail, but Hiro's mind wasn't in the right place to form a decent lie. “Yes, that kind of sick. He's been sick since Callaghan broke out.”

Gogo swore softly.

“How bad is he?” Honey's voice shook a little, but she straightened up with her chem-purse in place and her helmet under her arm.

“Bad,” Hiro replied.

“Are you sure it's okay to leave him?” Wasabi's gauntlets buzzed as he tested his blades.

“Abigail needs us now,” Hiro insisted. “Look, I didn't record the call and I don't know exactly why, I just... she didn't sound very coherent, that's all.” He adjusted Baymax's helmet in place and stepped back, finished.

“Lead on.” Wasabi sounded reluctant, but dutifully took his normal place at Baymax's right arm. For the sake of balance, Honey took the other arm instead of her usual position, leaving Hiro and Gogo to climb onto his back before the thrusters flared and the robot rocketed into the night sky.

From his perch at Baymax's shoulders, Hiro caught his breath. Golden ribbons stretched across the sky like an aurora, almost illuminating the city in a soft yellow light. It was a beautiful sight, but it only made the prickle up Hiro's spine spread to his arms. Beautiful, yes, but when no one else could see it, it was absolutely terrifying.

As Baymax wove through the San Fransokyo skyline, a particularly large band of gold stretched right across his flight path. With Baymax's current trajectory, they were going to pass right through it. Hiro tensed, clenching his teeth, and willed himself not to flinch.

Twenty yards away, Baymax dipped in flight, passing neatly under it. There were no other obstacles there, no other reason for him to modify his course.

Hiro blinked, shocked, and couldn't help glancing over his shoulder at the sand as they left it behind. He'd never thought to ask Baymax if he could see the lights. But what if...?

“You okay?” Gogo muttered to him, jarring him out of his thoughts.

“I'll be better when we find Abigail,” Hiro answered, inwardly shaking himself. He had to focus. He could worry about the lights when their friend was safe.

They were halfway to the edge of the bay when Hiro tapped Baymax's helmet. “Scan the city, buddy. Make sure we're going the right way.”

“Scan complete,” Baymax said a moment later. “I have located her on Akuma Island.”

“Can you tell if she's hurt?” Gogo asked.

“I am not certain, but her vitals indicate heightened stress levels-” They reached the edge of the city, where land met the bay. The Golden Gate Bridge stretched across the water below them. “Oh no.”

“Oh no?” Honey called up. “What's the matter?”

“My scanner indicates that she has fallen unconscious.” Baymax began his descent as they drew closer to the island. “However, her position is still moving.”

Hiro gritted his teeth. “Whoever it is, we have to get them fast. If they take her down into the facility, Baymax's scanner is useless.”

“It's Callaghan,” Gogo said tersely. “It has to be Callaghan, right?”

“Can't be,” Hiro whispered back. “Why would he hurt her?”

“She is close,” Baymax announced. “Shall I land?

Hiro nodded. “Do it.”

They came down as a unit, Honey and Wasabi released from Baymax's grip and touching down on solid ground, just seconds before Baymax himself landed and Gogo hopped down beside them.

All around them, the island exploded.

It was as if millions of locusts had been there, waiting, covering the ground and the plants and trees and the ruined buildings in a massive layer, until swarming upward the moment their feet touched the ground. In the span of a split second they were completely surrounded, and the air was almost too thick to see through. Hiro could feel them crawling up his spine, pulling at him as he clung desperately to his perch on Baymax's back. He yelped, trying to swat them away, but they pressed at his helmet, trying to get through to his face.

Had his vision been clear, he might have noticed the faint glow on Baymax's chest plate, as if someone had installed a light bulb in his access port.


A misstep had Tadashi stumbling for balance – in midair, no less.

There it was again – his sixth sense or intuition or whatever it was, was blowing up like a fourth of July display, except with a lot less colorful lights and a lot more loud noises, dogs barking, and screaming babies.

“Are you seriously okay?” Jack called back. “Sheesh, whatever Pitch did must've really gotten into your head.”

“I'm fine, this is different,” Tadashi managed to reply. He struggled with himself, trying to breathe through the feeling of danger, Hiro's in danger, they're all in danger. “I just... um... we need to get there fast. I mean really fast.”

“We're almost there,” Bunnymund said tersely. “This tunnel's gonna open right smack dab on that island, just be patient, will you?”

“Y-yeah.” Tadashi's mind raced as they hurried through the rabbit's winding tunnel. When Hiro was in danger, he could feel it – through Baymax's chip. Through Baymax's himself, by extension. What if that connection went both ways?

It was worth a shot. Maybe, just maybe, it could help them stay safe until Tadashi got there to help them in person.

He hurried on, mind still racing as he focused on a single idea.

use light use fire they hate light they hate hate – hate – light it hurts them it burns them they burn USE LIGHT –


Honey shrieked in alarm, ducking closer to Baymax, and Wasabi's blades buzzed to life and cast a blue glow in the middle of the dark cloud.

“Microbots!” Gogo yelled. “It is Callaghan!”

Hiro swatted uselessly at the swarm, staring at her like she was crazy. “Are you kidding? Microbots? Those things aren't microbots!”

“Pretty sure these are microbots!” Wasabi yelled back, swiping his blades through what looked more like smoke and ashes than anything solid. “Hiro, do you see Callaghan?”

“I...” Hiro stared at him, bewildered. He blinked, shaking his head to clear it. What was going on? What was the matter with him? One moment he was seeing the swarm or cloud or whatever it was, and the next....

Microbots. His microbots, rippling into shifting geometric forms, building into towers and battering rams and dark, metallic waves.

He blinked, and he was surrounded by smoke and locust-like swarms again. His vision blurred, and his head swam. No, no, not now, this is not the time for hallucinating.

“Hiro.” Baymax was speaking calmly. “They burn. Use light.”

“What?” That made no sense. Hiro shook himself, trying to ward off more distractions. “We need to get out of the middle of them,” he said. “Baymax, take us back up.” Baymax gunned his rockets dutifully, blasting the things below his feet.

A sound rent the air, the same nails-on-chalkboard shriek that had nearly deafened Hiro over the phone. He grunted in pain, cringing as the sound drew his eyes downward.

Beneath the glow of Baymax's thrusters, the swarm was writhing as if in pain.

“Hiro, what's going on?” Gogo joined him on Baymax's back again. She flung a disc, but it sailed harmlessly through the swarm before coming back to her. “What's wrong?”

“Didn't you hear that?” he snapped.

“Hear what?

Hiro spat out a word that would have made Tadashi yell at him. As if visual hallucinations weren't enough, now he had to add auditory ones to the list? “Never mind, must've been feedback. We need a better vantage point.” With Honey at one hand and Wasabi at the other, Baymax rose back into the air. To Hiro's dismay, the swarm rose up after them.

“Oh no you don't!” Wasabi yelled, sweeping a plasma cutter at one dark tendril. As Hiro watched over Baymax's shoulder, the glowing blue blade sliced through it cleanly, and the section of the swarm closest to Wasabi drew back.

“I'm starting to think Hiro's right!” Honey called out. One of her chem-balls exploded beneath her, spreading a viscous substance over the swarm that barely seemed to faze it. “They look like them, but they're not acting like microbots!”

“Hiro,” Baymax spoke up again. “They hate light.”

The swarms kept away from the rockets, from Wasabi's blades... Hiro gritted his teeth. “Honey, can you light this place up?”

“You mean fire?”

“Maybe, just make sure it's visible light!”

“Coming right up!” A quick formula, and Honey had a new ball in her hand. She flung it, and this one burst into a flood of phosphorescent liquid. The swarm shrieked again, a hideous sound that Hiro felt in his teeth, but they drew away from the glow as if it burned them.

“Baymax is right,” he said grimly. “They hate light.”

Wasabi's voice rose several octaves. “That doesn't even make any sense!”

“Tough!” Hiro tapped on Baymax's helmet. “Baymax, where's Abigail? Take us straight to her.”

“She is close.” the robot arced over the swarm. Honey threw another glow-bomb for good measure, and the burst of light illuminated the scene.

At the entrance to the facility, the swarm was the thickest. A figure loomed over the rest, dark and impossibly tall, and it took a moment for Hiro to realize that it was Callaghan standing on a column of... whatever those things were, because whatever the others were seeing, they sure as hell weren't microbots. They coated him like a dark cloak, and to be honest Hiro couldn't be completely sure that it was Callaghan he was seeing, because there wasn't a single part of him left uncovered. The mask was in place, cracked and leaking darkness like smoke.

At his feet, Abigail lay motionless, trussed up in the dark things like a fly caught in a spiderweb. The swarm was dragging her to the entrance.

If they got her inside, they could lose her. “Honey, stop them!” Hiro yelled.

She needed no second urging. Another formula, and a well-aimed throw exploded thick, rapidly hardening, bright purple matter over the entrance to the building. Another glow-bomb kept the swarm away from it so that she could throw a few more just to shut it securely.

The pale mask turned to them, and the swarm roiled. Dark swirling columns rushed upward like battering rams, and Hiro opened his mouth to tell Baymax to dodge. He'd be slower carrying the others, but they could make it work.

Before he could give the order, the temperature in the air plummeted. The nearest column had almost reached them when it froze.

Literally.

Hiro was at a loss to explain it. A flash of blue-white light, a blur of airborne movement, and instead of a battering ram there was a pillar of ice beneath them. Baymax wheeled out of the way of several more columns, but any that got close were stopped in their tracks. Hiro blinked, bewildered. Something was in the air with them – something bigger than a bird but smaller than Baymax, moving too quickly in the dark for him to make it out. But the frost was spreading in a blue-white glow, even as the swarm wriggled and broke free of its frozen prison to attack again.

Gogo was the first to find her voice. “What.”

 

Chapter Text

“Not bad for a crowd of humans,” Bunnymund remarked. His buck teeth were bared in a grin as he gave the barrier in front of the nightmares' lair an experimental kick. It held firm. “Not bad at all.”

“Honey Lemon,” Tadashi breathed. “The team got here first.”

“Like I said. Not bad.” The rabbit flung egg bombs into the oncoming nightmares, chuckling in satisfaction when they drew back hissing at the colorful explosions. “Might just hold out 'til the others get here. Risky, though. If they aren't careful, these things could infect them just as easy as they did those kids. 'Specially that little one.”

Tadashi snarled softly. “That's my little brother up there. I'd like to see them try.”

“That's the spirit,” Bunnymund laughed.

Another small sphere burst against the hardened barrier, exploding luminescent liquid over the entrance – and both Guardians. The rabbit yelped, leaping clear too late to avoid getting splattered. Tadashi shielded his face with one arm as he dodged, and in spite of himself he laughed out loud. The shadows were recoiling, pained by the light, and Tadashi felt his spirits lift.

The laughter died on his lips a moment later. Baymax swooped too low in a dodge, and another column of black sand cannoned into him from the side. The blow knocked both Wasabi and Honey from his grip and sent the airborne robot spinning with the impact. Tadashi was already streaking forward with Bunnymund at his side when he saw Hiro and Gogo flung from Baymax's back.

Gusts of wind blasted through, nearly buffeting Tadashi off his feet. As he watched, all four of them slowed as they fell, caught on a cushion of air that deposited them on the ground with bumps and bruises where there could have been broken bones.

Tadashi raised his eyes. Jack Frost soared overhead with his staff swinging in his grip, and relief swept through him as easily as one of Jack's winds.

Up ahead, Hiro had recovered first and was helping a dazed Honey up when a nightmare began to gather its form. It grew until it towered over them, taking the shape of something like a spider. Snarling, Tadashi dashed in and burned it before it had the chance to attack.


Hiro hauled Honey to her feet, clenching his teeth as he saw a piece of the swarm grow over their heads. He froze for a moment, staring wide-eyed at the huge, dark, many-legged thing that loomed over them, before an explosion of orange nearly blinded him.

Fire.

“Fred?” he said incredulously, half-expecting to see their missing teammate spraying fire as he super-jumped into the fight. But Fred was nowhere to be seen, and of course he wouldn't be here; he was sick at home and waiting on them to save Abigail without him.

The hallucinations were small but relentless. He could see things, moving in the corner of his eye or flashing briefly in the distance, hazy and indistinct before disappearing. It was like staring at one of those Magic-Eye pictures; he'd start to see something, but then he'd focus and it would vanish.

The fire, however, had been unmistakeable.

“Abigail – where's Abigail?” Beside him, Honey had regained her balance. Wasabi had recovered as well, and was currently slicing and dicing his way through the swarm. As for Gogo...

Gogo had spotted Abigail again, lying still at Callaghan's feet. The barrier to the entrance was working; even with the mask in place Hiro could tell Callaghan was trapped outside and pissed off. Around him the air seemed to darken, the swarm thickening as if he was gathering it close. It flew and buzzed around Gogo like angry wasps, but she shook her head and pushed through. When she was close enough, she sent one of her disks flying toward Callaghan's chest.

At that precise moment – seriously, the timing was perfect and Hiro was enormously disappointed that he was the only one who could see this – a band of golden sand streaked down from the sky like a lightning bolt and struck Callaghan full in the chest, a split second before Gogo's disc did the same. Callaghan went flying from his perch, and the swarm scattered.

“Good shot, Gogo!” Honey yelled. High overhead the sky lit up like a fireworks display and a lightning storm rolled into one, and all Hiro could do was give up and keep his head down.

In the pandemonium, it was easy for Baymax to slip out of sight.


High above the clouds, a portal opened briefly – just long enough and wide enough for a certain miniature sleigh and eight tiny reindeer. At the reins, Nicholas St. North grinned with his droll little mouth until he dimpled, and his fairy-approved teeth flashed in the lights from his sleigh and the glow of his old friend's Moon. The Tooth Fairy perched beside him, poised for action.

“Should we go down and help?” she asked, her voice terse.

“Not yet,” North warned. “But soon. Is not desperate fight yet – nor even a hard one.” His eyes glinted with cunning when Tooth met them. “Better to keep aces up sleeve than to show whole hand, yes?”

“Cheating at cards, North?” Tooth's pearly smile became more of a smirk. “That's not a very Nice thing to do, is it?”

“I see when children are naughty,” North pointed out. “I do not turn my eyes away – I learn. We are reinforceme– eh?”

A bulky shape broke through the top of the cloud cover and soared upward until it was level with the sleigh. North's hand strayed to one of his blades, and Tooth flared her wings readily. As they watched, the hulking figure flew closer, until both Guardians could see moonlight glinting off its bright red armor.

“Hello.” The newcomer raised its right arm in a little round wave. “I am Baymax.” On the left side of its chest, a small circular spot glowed with a faint but familiar warmth.

In that moment, North looked more like a child on Christmas morning than the one delivering the presents. “Oh. Ohhh.

Tooth's eyes widened. “Is that... what Tadashi mentioned...?”

Bozhe moi,” North breathed. “That boy is clever.

“My scanner detected your arrival,” Baymax informed them. “But your readings are more similar to Tadashi's than they are to my human patients. Are you like Tadashi?”

“Yes, we are,” Tooth replied. “He's a friend of ours. I'm the Tooth Fairy – this is North. He's Santa Claus.”

“I have basic knowledge of popular mythology,” Baymax replied. “It is good to meet you. Are you here to assist them?”

“Yes,” North replied. “How goes the battle?”

“No one is significantly injured yet,” Baymax reported. “However, half of the participants are unaware of the existence of the other half, which complicates matters.”

Tooth smacked her forehead lightly with her palm. “North, if we go in guns blazing, we're just going to confuse the humans even more.”

“Then we give them warning. You- Baymax, yes?” North's sharp eyes regarded the robot thoughtfully. “Can you tell them – help is on the way?”

“I can,” Baymax replied. “I must rejoin them now, and I will relay your message.”

The robot dove back to the island.


Hiro stuck close to Honey. Baymax appeared to be missing for the moment, and Honey was the most logical alternative for protection. Wasabi's plasma blades were too much of a risk, and there was no way he was going to be able to keep up with Gogo. But Honey was launching glow-bombs with a vengeance, the swarm was backing away, and all Hiro could do was stay close and try not to feel too useless.

Before he could well and truly panic over Baymax's absence, the robot was diving back among them again, punching through the swarm on the ground just a few feet away from him. Hiro wondered if he was imagining the ground shaking.

“Where did you go?” he asked, breathless.

“Help is on the way,” was Baymax's reply. “In fact, it is already here.”

“W-what? What help? We're all that's here!” But in the back of his mind, he tried to account for the ice, and the brightly-glowing sand, and the flashes of movement fading in and out of the edges of his vision. There were too many things he couldn't explain.

“I cannot explain it,” Baymax replied, unwittingly echoing his thoughts. “But help is on the way.”

“That doesn't make sense.” Even as the words left his mouth, Hiro knew how childish and helpless they sounded. “Look – we need to get to Abigail.”

“Your stress levels are unusually heightened,” Baymax remarked, bending to shield both Hiro and Honey from another onslaught of the swarm. “For all of you. In anyone injured?”

“No. But...” Hiro's throat tightened. “I'm seeing things, Baymax. Everything's making less and less sense. Exactly none of this makes sense.”

Gracias a dios,” he heard Honey say out loud. “It's not just me then.”

“Guys,” Wasabi's voice rang out grimly over the comm. “Look, I... I don't know what's going on, but... these definitely aren't microbots, I don't know what they are, and... I'm getting a little scared?” Just a little?”

“Keep it together!” Gogo barked back, but her voice shook.

“Do not worry, Hiro,” Baymax advised, turning Hiro's attention back to the robot. “I am seeing things as well.”

Before Hiro could ask him what he meant, a sound like hissing and static made him look back to Callaghan. Their enemy was back on his feet, and the shadows were swarming as if every hornet in the world had descended upon this one small island.

When Hiro looked back, Baymax had left his side.

It was getting hard to breathe.


Tadashi saw the sand hit home just seconds before the other half of the Guardians of Childhood winked into being far above, somewhere higher than cloud level. The sensation was a bone-rattling burst of force, as if someone had strummed a power chord on guitar strings tied to his teeth. Staggering, he instinctively flared embers at his fingertips to keep the nightmares back until he recovered. When his ears finally stopped ringing, Tadashi was off like a shot again. With one bound he was airborne, overshooting the nightmares on the ground until he reached Abigail's side.

She was bound from chest to ankle in darkness, like an unlucky insect caught in a web, and Tadashi could see the shadows creeping up her neck. Even with his hands blazing, her bindings felt ice-cold to the touch. Tadashi gritted his teeth and dug his burning fingers in. It was like grasping steel wool and cobwebs, fine tough fibers that were slightly sticky. But they responded to him as he tore and burned.

“C'mon, Abigail,” he muttered desperately, burning as brightly as he could to keep the nightmares back. “C'mon, c'mon, wake up.

“I've got Abigail!” Gogo's voice rang out nearby, and Tadashi almost changed shape on instinct. But Gogo ran past him, her arm swiping through him as she passed. Callaghan was recovering from the blow, and the others – human and Guardian alike – were fighting their way through the vast nightmare swarm. Undaunted, he resumed tearing at the bindings. Gogo retrieved her disc just as Callaghan loomed upright again, and Tadashi opened his mouth to yell for help.

Baymax's rocket fist slammed into Callaghan, driving him back a few steps before the robot called it back. Tadashi's heart was in his throat, but he was making progress on the nightmares binding Abigail. Focused on his task, he felt someone kneel beside him before he saw them, and he recognized the smell of soil and fur.

“Move over.” Bunnymund barely waited for Tadashi to comply before shouldering past him and taking one of his boomerangs to the bindings. The edges were blunt, but still the weapon tore through the shadows like wet cotton, leaving Tadashi to burn it away easily.

Without the bindings, Tadashi could see the rise and fall of Abigail's chest. This time he did look over his shoulder and yell. “Baymax!”

The robot was at his side in an instant, his access port glowing noticeably. “I have informed them that they are being assisted,” he said. “Santa Claus asked me to.”

“Did you come to the island for Abigail?” Tadashi asked.

“Yes.”

“Good.” Tadashi moved aside, letting Baymax gather Abigail up. “Get her – no, get them all out of here.” The robot gunned his rockets and left to comply. “Okay, now Bunnymund-” He looked up, and stopped short.

The rabbit was gone.

He knew it was coming, even before it did. He remembered the journey into Pitch's cave – and then before that, the last time he had set foot on this island. In one, the panic of being left alone, and in the other, the panic at the mere thought of being left alone. No, no, not now, not now –

Hoping and praying were useless. He was alone – Baymax was gone, Bunnymund was gone, Gogo and Jack and the Sandman and everyone else were gone, either too far away to come to him or too human to hear him call.

Fear slammed into him like a juggernaut, almost knocking the wind out of him. Tadashi caught his breath, or tried. Air went in and out of his lungs in quick, useless gasps, and his hands shook. His flames flickered and went out.

They're gone they're gone they're all gone everyone's gone they left

they left

he left

he left me to die

i'm going to die

The nightmares came at him from all sides, gnawing and eager and desperately, excruciatingly hungry. No leash, just like Pitch had said, Pitch who he had met by himself, all alone because they left him alone in the dark and the fear

Tadashi sank to the ground under the weight of panic and the ice-cold touch of nightmares. His eyes were wide but he couldn't see – his vision blurred and darkened (tears and nightmares) and breathing did nothing for him. His fingers curled into fists, nails dragging over dirt and rocks, tail pressed to his leg, everything as cold and dead as an old empty fireplace.

Slowly, he looked up. He didn't know why he chose that moment to look up, but he did.

Callaghan stood over him, looming like a specter with a leaking white face. The mask stared down at him balefully, with Tadashi motionless on his knees.

As Tadashi watched, hollow-eyed, the mask turned ever so slightly and looked past him. Slowly, Tadashi looked over his shoulder to follow its gaze.

Through the haze of darkness and tears and swarming nightmares, he saw. Hiro stood alone, frozen in place and watching the swarm as if hypnotized..

Why was he alone?

The single question burned hotter than any fire he had ever been able to produce, and Tadashi took another breath that felt more like a sob.

In the end he did not beat back the fear, or push it aside, or ignore it. He felt it in every cell of his body, in the chills racing up his spine, in the fog clouding his brain, in his racing heartbeat and bristling tail, and in the churning of his stomach. It hurt, and it dragged at him like a living thing, as if it wanted to pull him back to his knees and crush him to dust on the ground.

He felt it, and he stood up and walked anyway.

One step at a time. One foot in front of the other. There were tears on his face, but he reached his brother's side all the same. Hiro's face was frozen with shock, and Tadashi could see that a tendril of darkness had wormed its way upward from the ground behind him. The end of it led to Hiro's chest, the same way it had for the sick children.

He seized it in one hand and burned it away with a thought.

Tadashi looked around, taking in the scene with a strange sort of clarity. He had thought the nightmares were swarming furiously when he had first arrived, but it was nothing compared to now. He might as well have been standing in the middle of a jet-black sandstorm.

And yet... he could see. Not consistently, and not well, but he could see. The darkness would shift and thin in certain places, briefly, but long enough for him to see through it. Fear pulsed within him still, but instead of fogging his senses, it only sharpened them.

Hiro wasn't alone; or rather, it wasn't just Hiro who was alone. They all were – Wasabi, Honey, and even Gogo. The nightmares had separated and isolated each and every one of them. The Sandman and Jack Frost flew overhead, strafing the nightmares, but they weren't quite breaking through. The rabbit was somewhere within this storm, he knew – flashes of color and movement too quick to follow told him that.

And there was a sleigh, a flying sleigh, the flying sleigh, hovering and shining harsh light upon the nightmares as the Tooth Fairy joined the airborne assault.

All the while, here on the ground were more nightmares reaching for Hiro and Wasabi and Honey lemon and Gogo, and Callaghan stepping closer and closer in a broken white mask and a cloak of shadows.

Well... two could play that game.

Tadashi used everything he had – literally everything, anything that he could add as the proverbial fuel to the fire. Every memory he could conjure up, every tremor in his hands, every thud of his pulse, every feeling of joy and sadness and anger and disgust and yes, fear as well. He certainly had a lot of that to spare. He gathered it up, found the burning in his chest and the itch of fire in his fingers, and he poured his everything on the flames like a bucket of oil.

He stepped toward Callaghan, and everything went white.


Jack had been very glad when North and Tooth joined the party. Bunnymund and Tadashi were the only ones on the ground, and he and Sandy weren't enough to break through to them. The nightmares were thick enough that you'd need a meat cleaver to chop through them, and Jack had been two minutes away from throwing curse words along with his ice when he promptly went blind for about five seconds.

It was his own fault; he'd spotted Tadashi in the mess on the ground, and if he'd been looking anywhere else at the time, he might have been fine. But no, of course he hadn't looked away, not when he'd seen the nightmares' host strolling right up to him, looking all ready to blast him to oblivion.

And then he had lost sight of Tadashi because everything in his vision had been replaced by light. Maybe it was fire, maybe it was something else – either way, it left Jack reeling with dark spots in his eyes.

“Jack!” He heard Tooth's voice before his vision had come back. “Jack – North says we need to retreat. We need to help them get out.”

“What?” He stared at her, blinking hard. “Who?”

When his friend finally faded back into view, she was pointing down. Jack followed her finger, and almost lost altitude in his shock.

The blinding whiteness had died down, but it wasn't gone – not by a long shot. Tadashi was still standing between the nightmare-host and the kid he was protecting – his brother, that was the brother that Tadashi had told him about – and glowing like a freaking angel at the top of a Christmas tree. It was keeping the host back, but nightmares were slipping through, latching onto the kid, feeding off his fear.

There were three other humans on the field, and they weren't doing a whole lot better. Jack might have been worried about them if it hadn't been for the flying robot.

If he hadn't known better, he would have thought the thing was one of North's creations. It had the woman Abigail unconscious in its arms as it zipped through the swarm of nightmares – which seemed to be avoiding it, strangely enough. One by one it picked up each of the humans, before finally turning to go for Tadashi's brother.

The host noticed, or at least the nightmares did and manipulated the host to react – Jack wasn't exactly sure how that worked. In any case, there was a lot of arm waving involved, and the swarm swelled up like it was getting ready to bum-rush the robot all at once.

“That's our cue,” Tooth muttered, and the two of them dove toward the bulge of nightmares. The Guardians minus Tadashi charged all at once, either on the ground or from the air, and Jack wished that the mask hadn't been there because he would have loved to see the look on the guy's face when they did.

They made their move not a moment too soon; Tadashi's light finally died out, and Jack saw him fall back with flames trailing from his fingertips. The boy was falling too, but as Jack watched from the corner of his eye, he saw Bunnymund catch both of them before they hit the ground.

The robot soared free, laden with the unconscious and half-conscious team of fighters. Far from being subdued, the nightmares only seemed enraged, and Jack decided that was probably their cue to get the heck out, too. A snowglobe went sailing out of the sleigh, opening a portal about four feet off the ground, right by where Bunnymund was standing. The light from it drove the nightmares back, but only temporarily; they probably had seconds before the things recovered.

Bunnymund took one look back at the airborne robot, then at the unconscious brothers, and apparently made a snap decision. He leaped through, still clutching both of them. The low-flying sleigh swooped in after him, along with the Sandman on a hastily-constructed flying carpet.

Tooth, on the other hand, flew straight for the robot.

Tooth where are you going?” Jack yelled, flying after her, but she ignored him until the robot was within hearing range.. As Jack drew nearer, he heard her pitching her voice at it.

“It's all right!” she was calling. “We have him, he'll be okay! We'll bring him back safe, I promise, just get them all out of here!”

The robot hesitated for a moment, then turned to do as she said. With that, Tooth turned and rejoined Jack, and the two of them dove for the portal. It shut behind them, leaving the nightmares writhing in helpless rage with neither prisoner nor prey.


Tadashi awoke to find himself lying on his back. Without opening his eyes, he was sure of three things: he was lying on grass, he was cold and achy, and there was a mildly bright light somewhere above him. It wasn't an awful lot to go on.

He opened his eyes, and one of his questions was answered: the light came from the moon, which looked unusually large and bright in the night sky. With a groan, he struggled to sit up and get his bearings.

No, he definitely did not recognize this grassy field. In fact, he was fairly sure the last place he had been was that death trap of an island, but that brought a whole host of worries that he wasn't quite prepared to deal with just yet. What was more, the field seemed to go on forever into the horizon on all sides, unbroken by hills or mountains or anything. The sky stretched above him, studded with stars – more stars than he had ever seen before in his life. No clouds, no pollution – just pinpricks of light, and the blackness of space between them. Oh, and the moon.

Something pressed against his leg, startling him. He looked down, heart thudding, expecting to see nightmares or who knew what else. What he saw was a rabbit.

Not the rabbit. Just a regular rabbit, small and white and standing with its front paws on his leg as it watched him.

“Um.” His voice cracked. “Hello.”

The rabbit cocked its head, ears twitching.

“Are you a, uh... friend of the Easter Bunny's?” Tadashi asked, feeling a little silly. Could it even understand him? “One of his, I dunno... one of his guys?”

The rabbit shook its head. Okay. Yes on the understanding him, then.

“Am I dreaming right now?”

Another nod.

“The others – are they all safe?”

Nod, nod, nod. Tadashi breathed a sigh of relief. The rabbit hopped back and made as if to leave, only to stop and watch him for a few seconds. It repeated the motions, hopping away and then pausing to look back at him.

The message was clear: follow me.

With nothing left to do, Tadashi got up and followed. He wasn't sure what it would accomplish; there was nothing in this field as far as he could tell, but before he could worry himself with that, the moon overhead blazed. Shafts of silvery light cascaded down, touching the grass and shifting and solidifying until Tadashi was looking at a glowing, winding staircase.

A staircase of light, leading straight up to the moon.

The rabbit took to the steps, its paws planted firmly on the moonlight as if it were solid ground. Tadashi stepped carefully after it and found it was every bit as solid as it didn't look.

He followed the rabbit up, up, up – high above the grass and the neverending field, closer and closer to the stars and the moon, which got bigger and bigger with every step. Finally, he stepped off the moonlight path and felt truly solid ground under his feet – white dust.

The moon. He was on the moon. It glowed softly all around, but other than that it looked exactly like the pictures – a whole lot of dust and craters.

But the rabbit was hurrying on, giving him no time for Neil Armstrong antics. Tadashi ran to catch up.

There was a house on the moon. It was tiny, more like a cabin or a cottage, with a curved red roof. A small garden outside. Window boxes with flowers and herbs.

On the moon.

He followed the rabbit right to the door, which stood ajar, and it darted inside. Swallowing hard, Tadashi pushed it open further. He wasn't stupid – he could tell where this was going. He was about to meet the boss, it seemed. Silently he steeled himself and stepped inside.

His eyes fell upon the Man in the Moon, and his mouth dropped open.

Flowing jet-black hair was pinned up elegantly to frame a face as bright and pale as porcelain. The leader of the Guardians sat at a table with two places set, pouring tea from a little earthen teapot into two cups, dressed in silks of bright red and silver and many shades of blue. At first glance he thought it was a kimono, but a second told him otherwise; it was Chinese style, not Japanese.

Tadashi took in the bright flowing silk and the long black hair, the delicate hands clasping the teapot, the pale face and the soft, red-painted smile, and let his shoulders slump a little.

“Man in the Moon, huh?” was all he could think to say.

The woman's smile deepened until she dimpled as she place the teapot to the side. “'Man in the Moon' has been my title for many a long year. But my name is Chang'e.” Her voice was like a breeze through windchimes. She stooped carefully, as graceful and flowing as the silks she wore, and gently stroked the rabbit's long ears. “Please sit, Tadashi,” she said. “It is time we talked.”

 

Chapter Text

Awkwardly, Tadashi sat down across from her and accepted a cup of tea. The feeling of smallness that had crept up on him when standing beneath the enormous night sky had not quite gone away. If anything, sitting before this lovely figure of silk and porcelain when his hair was scruffy and dirty and his clothes were still soot-stained and tattered from his run through a burning building, it had only gotten worse. He would be lying if he said he didn't feel underdressed.

“This isn't what you were expecting, was it?” Her voice shimmered with held-back laughter. The rabbit at her heels darted away to another corner of the room, where a mortar and pestle sat. Tadashi watched, fascinated, as the little creature grasped the pestle in its paws and set about grinding the contents of the little bowl.

“Er... well...” Tadashi bought time by sipping at his teacup. After all the complaining he'd been doing about the “Man in the Moon's” leadership skills, finding himself before a literal goddess made him feel just a tad bit awkward. Part of him longed to take it back. “Guess not,” he said at length. “Was... was I the only one who didn't know?”

“Not at all,” she assured him. “Only one of the Guardians knows.”

“North?” Tadashi guessed.

Chang'e shook her head. “The Sandman. North's sleigh doesn't fly quite high enough to reach me up here, but even I must dream.”

“He have anything to do with this?” Tadashi asked.

“No.” She smiled again. “This visit is under my power... and yours.”

“Mine-” Tadashi glanced around, startled. “How? What power do I have that can put me on the moon?”

“North would have told you about your powers, remember?” she replied, sipping her tea. “You have many of them. You simply have yet to discover them.”

Tadashi leaned forward. “Like what?”

She smiled, and did not answer.

“I... I think I kind of need to know about them,” Tadashi said uncertainly. “Don't I? What happened on the island? Did we win?”

“No,” she said after a moment. “Your efforts were valiant – yours especially. All of you escaped, but the battle was not won.”

“I did something.” Tadashi furrowed his brow, trying to work through his jumbled, fuzzy memories of the moments before he'd blacked out.

“You will find out everything when you awaken,” she told him.

“Why can't you tell me now?”

A delicate dark eyebrow arched at him. “Need I tell you everything?”

Tadashi put his cup down. “Well, you know and I don't, and we're already having a conversation, so why not?”

“You sell yourself short, Tadashi,” she said. “You have handled yourself wonderfully already without my direct interference.”

Tadashi blinked owlishly at her. “...Really. Is that what it looks like, from up here?” If the mild sarcasm in his tone had any effect on her, she didn't show it, so he tried a different tack. “Okay, what about the nightmares, then? There has to be a way to beat them. I mean I know how to get them out of the kids now, but that doesn't mean anything if they can just keep making more kids sick. And...” His voice caught in his throat, and he didn't know why. He found himself staring down into his tea as he spoke. “Besides that, from what the others told me, I don't think we can get the nightmares away from Callaghan the same way they did to Pitch.” He raised his eyes. “You're our leader, so... how do we do it? It's completely different from how it was before.”

“That may be so.” Chang'e nodded. “But I have marked your progress, Tadashi – each and every one of you.” Her dark eyes met Tadashi's and held them. “Don't you see? You already have all of the knowledge you need to succeed.”

“I don't see,” Tadashi told her. “That's why I'm asking you.”

“The answers are waiting for you,” she assured him. “All that is left is for you to reach out and take them.” She sat back, folding her hands around her cup. “And I know that you can, Tadashi. There is a reason I chose you to help them, and ever since I did, you have done nothing but affirm my hopes for you. You have... a unique way of looking at things. It will serve you well.”

Tadashi sat quietly, taking in her words and mulling them over carefully. Seconds stretched into minutes of silence, broken only by the careful rhythmic grinding of the rabbit at its mortar and pestle. He sipped his tea again, thought over her words, re-thought them, and then thought them over a third time. His tea was down to the dregs by now, and he swirled the drops and the shreds of tea leaves at the bottom, wondering idly if they really did offer answers about the future. When he was absolutely certain of his conclusion, he hmmed thoughtfully and put his cup down.

“No,” he said.

Chang'e blinked at him from across the table. “I'm sorry?”

“No,” Tadashi repeated, relishing the word on his tongue. “No no no no, no, no, no-no-no. No.”

“Is something the matter?”

Is something the–” Tadashi stopped himself before he could lose his temper so early in the conversation. He sat up, struggling to keep his voice steady. “How about the fact that this is the first time you've talked to me since I woke up spitting out ashes? 'Chose me', that's rich.” It came out more harshly than he had meant it to, but his momentum was going and he wasn't about to stop himself now. “You know what you did? You dumped me back into the world scared out of my mind, with no idea what I was or why I was here!” Chang'e looked stunned. “And now that I'm finally here, I might as well be a mushroom, because all you're doing is keeping me in the dark and feeding me bullsh-”

“I am giving you only what you need,” Chang'e broke in reproachfully. “As I always have-”

Seriously?” Tadashi demanded. “You're feeding me the same cryptic Nostradamus garbage I've been hearing since I died!”

“Those are the clues you require,” she said, as patiently as if she were explaining a grammar lesson to a difficult child. “The rest is up to you.”

“Clues?” Tadashi echoed. “Are you kidding me? What is this, Dora the Explorer?” He pushed his chair back from the table, voice shaking with indignation. “Do you know what that tells me? It tells me that you already know all the answers, and you just don't want to tell me.”

Chang'e sighed in exasperation. “I cannot always hand you answers on a platter, Tadashi. Some things you simply have to learn.”

“No!” It felt good to say it, even as it echoed sharply in the small space. “No, that's not good enough!” His feelings boiled over without warning, as if he'd left a pot on the stove and forgotten about it. “You can't just – just drop me into a group of strangers who know just as much about what I am and why I'm there as I do, and hope for the best!” His eyes stung as he stared into her pale, stern face. “'Figure it out yourself' is not a way to teach someone!”

She actually spluttered, but Tadashi was too upset to let himself count that as a victory. “The Guardians have defended the children of the world perfectly well with my counsel-”

“Perfectly well? Perfectly well?” If he hadn't been so frustrated, Tadashi might have laughed in her face. “Jack Frost spent three hundred years on his own before you dumped a draft notice in his lap! By then he already resented three of the Guardians, and the fourth resented him right back, and you call that perfectly well?” She watched him with a look of dismay on her face, but he carried on. “The Sandman literally died in a battle against Pitch, and you call that 'perfectly well'?”

This time she visibly flinched. “Tadashi, you are the Guardian of Trust-”

“I know, right?” His voice cracked, but still it rang out harshly in the small room. “So what do you think it says about you when I still can't think of any reason to trust you?”

Silence fell again – by now even the rabbit was still and quiet in its corner. Tadashi's heart thudded in his chest, and he tried to breathe deeply to calm himself down. Chang'e would no longer meet his eyes. As Tadashi took in her appearance again, she seemed different. Not as tall and splendid, not as porcelain-polished as she had been when he first looked at her. For a split second, he caught a glimpse of how ancient she was behind her youthful face.

He didn't regret what he'd said. He'd meant it. Every word.

“I...” His voice cracked again, but he was quiet now. “Look, ever since I became... this... it's like every time I need something, or I need to get something done, I never really know how. All I can do is guess, or play trial and error until something starts to go right, and I just – I barely muddle through. And if you want me to protect children, that can't – I can't do that. I can't work like that.” He shook his head. “I thought it was just me, because I'm new, but it's not. Jack's like that, Bunnymund's like that, I'm pretty sure even North is like that. They trust you anyway, and that's fine for them, but it's not good enough for me.”

“Is that truly how you feel?” she asked.

“I don't know what you want from me.” Tadashi pressed his hands lightly on the surface of the table. “I don't know if you want me to protect children, or if you want me to learn something, or... you know what? No, actually – I don't care what you want. I'm here to protect those kids. I'm here to protect my brother, and my friends, and...” His voice faltered for a moment. “I even want to save my professor, because apparently no, I don't learn.” Quickly he passed his hand over his eyes. “That's what I want. And if it's more important to you that I run around translating vague hints and blind-firing until I trip over the right answer, then I might as well leave now, because there's nothing I need or want from you. I'll take it from here without your help, because I'm not going to keep jumping through your hoops just because you think I'll learn something this way.”

He saw her face tighten, and the queenly porcelain mask cracked further, but at length the lunar Guardian let out the quietest of sighs. Her face fell, slack with resignation – with weariness – and she let her eyelids drift shut.

“Very well, then,” she said softly. “What would you like to know?”

For a moment Tadashi sat in silence, sifting through the many questions he had, trying to decide where he was supposed to start. His mouth twisted a little. “Is it possible to save Callaghan?”

This made her look up and meet his eyes again.“You still want to save him, then?”

Her gaze seemed to scrutinize him, and he fidgeted uncomfortably and averted his eyes. “I thought I was asking the questions.”

She searched his face for a moment more before answering. “It is possible. Difficult, and extremely dangerous, but possible.”

“Okay.” Tadashi nodded. “How? Same way I helped those kids?”

“Somewhat,” she replied. “It will not be as simple. You are young, and you have much growing to do in strength and power. I do not believe that you can do it alone. You must awaken him – the nightmares will have taken advantage of his despair, used it to keep him complacent. But if he fights them with you, it may turn the tide in your favor.”

“Okay.” Tadashi wished he had something to write with. “And if I do that, if I take away their host, then what happens? With the sick kids, for instance?”

“The host allows them to, among other things, concentrate and direct their power,” Chang'e explained. “Should you remove him from their control, it should shake their focus enough to break their hold on those children.” She stopped suddenly.

“I'm... sensing a 'but.'”

“But... the nightmares will then be without a host,” she said quietly.

“I thought taking away their catatonic human puppet would be a good thing, though,” Tadashi pointed out. “Right?”

“Yes, of course,” she agreed. “But if you free him, then there is nothing to stop them from seeking out another.”

Tadashi sighed, slumping back in his chair. “Right. It's a short-term solution and we want long-term. Damn.”

“I have lived for a very, very long time,” Chang'e pointed out. “To me, a short-term solution is not a solution at all, any more than capturing a single piece is winning the game. Defeating the nightmares is not so simple as freeing one man. It is never simple.”

“Straight answers certainly help,” Tadashi said dryly. He shook his head. “I still don't get it – why have you never done this before? Why stick to vague hints or no hints at all? If this whole thing is a big chess game to you, wouldn't it be better if we know where you need us to go?”

“It is not a game to me!” Tadashi jumped, startled by the sudden sharpness in her voice. Chang'e glared reproachfully at him from across the table, fingertips pressed to the wood in a surprising show of held-back temper. “Challenge me for my missteps if you will, but do not accuse me of frivolity, of all things. It has never been a game.”

“R-right.” Tadashi coughed sheepishly. “Sorry. Question still stands, though.”

The anger passed from her face, and Tadashi was reminded of the wind blowing clouds away from the face of the moon. She looked tired and deflated, but she answered him anyway. “I suppose it is because... I have much to fear from being too candid with them.”

“What do you mean?” he asked when she paused again.

“In truth, Tadashi...” Chang'e looked away for a moment. “If the others knew what I was truly trying to accomplish, they would never help me. That, more than my stumblings in leading them, would make them turn from me.”

“W-why?” Nervousness crept up Tadashi's spine and set his tail bristling.

He could see the dread on her face as she answered him reluctantly. “It is like you said – if or when you are victorious against these nightmares, and free their host from his enslavement, it is only a short-term solution. The nightmares cannot be defeated that way. Nor can they be killed.”

“Yeah, because you can't kill fear.” Tadashi nodded thoughtfully, and caught sight of Chang'e's faintly surprised look. “I talked to Pitch,” he explained.

“Yes, I know,” she said carefully. “More to the point, you listened, and that... that is why I feel I can tell you.” She watched his face carefully. “He put questions in your head, I see. I think if I answered them, it may make what I have to say easier to understand.”

Part of him was impatient for her to spill already, but she was right; talking to Pitch made him nosier than he wanted to admit. Leaning forward, Tadashi indulged his burning curiosity. “Do you know what he told me?” It was not a rhetorical question; at this point Tadashi wasn't sure how much she could or could not see.

“No, I do not, though I can guess. Pitch's realm is... blocked to me.”

Another question popped up from that statement, and Tadashi filed it away with the others. “He told me he was a Guardian before there were Guardians, that he protected children through their fear of him, until you made him stop. He implied that you wanted to get rid of fear altogether, but I got the feeling that he might have been a little bit biased.” Tadashi shrugged. “I've heard one side. I'd like to hear the other.”

Chang'e listened with her eyes closed. “What he told you is true, then,” she replied. “And... yes. I did want to rid the children of their fears.”

“That doesn't sound smart.”

“Please try to understand, Tadashi.” Her dark eyes pierced his, pleading and sorrowful. “Protecting the children of the world is of utmost importance to me. I love and care for them as if they were my own. And the Jade Rabbit is wonderful company, but my home is still so very lonely.” She cast a fond glance at the white rabbit in the corner. “But I thrive in the night, when all the children are tucked away, hiding from the dark because they fear what lives within it.” She met his eyes again with a bleak look. “And there were things, Tadashi. Terrible, nameless things. The Nightmare King shielded them from such creatures – their fear of him kept them far away from those that wished them harm. My light shone down on the world at night, to comfort them and keep the monsters at bay.” As she spoke, a determined look stole across her face. “And then I discovered others like us – powerful spirits who loved children as I did, who could do more than simply shield or shine. They could fight them. They could make the darkness truly safe.” She smiled ruefully. “But what use would that be, if the children still feared it?”

Tadashi traced his finger tip around the rim of his empty cup. “So... you drove him out of business because you were lonely?”

Chang'e sighed. “That was not what I wanted, Tadashi. That was never what I wanted. He was my friend. After I arrived here, and before the other Guardians came, he was my only friend besides the Jade Rabbit. I never meant to hurt him.” Her knuckles paled as her fingers tightened around the cup in her hands. “I only wanted the children safe. I only wanted them happy. And I thought, would the world not be a happy place, if children had nothing to fear in it?” For a moment her eyes shone wetly, but she blinked it away. “But you are right to reproach me for it. It was folly; I know that now. I was younger then, and wisdom and hindsight have shown me my foolishness. I tried to force a change on my friend that he did not want. He suffered, and in the end the children suffered as well when he became the very thing he once protected them from.”

The room fell silent again, aside from the Jade Rabbit's grinding, as Tadashi let all of it soak in. It was a lot of history to process, to say the least.“Did you really think that fear wasn't important?” Tadashi asked finally.

She pursed her lips in a bitter smile. “If we could protect them, then why would they need to fear at all?”

“Because you can't,” Tadashi said simply. Her face fell, and Tadashi swallowed against the pain of his own raw memories, but he shrugged. “You can't protect them from everything, no matter how hard you try. There are things you miss, things you can't beat on your own, things that roll right over you like you're nothing. Or maybe you just make a bad judgment call and take yourself out of the game completely.” He looked up. “Even if you could kill every monster that looks at them wrong, what about the non-magic side? What about bullies, or abusers – what about people? We can't protect them from something we can't even touch. They need fear so they can protect themselves.”

“Yes,” Chang'e whispered. “Yes, I know that now.” She glanced at him again. “It was a bitter pill to swallow, but you... you understand that. It is half the reason why I chose you.”

Tadashi raised an eyebrow. “What's the other half?”

“The nightmares cannot be destroyed. If fear exists, then so do they – and if unchecked, then they haunt the world as mindless parasites.” She regarded him with something like fondness in her eyes. “They need their master again. And if I'm not mistaken, Tadashi, you seem to have a strange aversion to giving up on people.”

Tadashi blinked, shifting slightly as her meaning came crashing down upon him. “You want to put Pitch back in power.”

“I want to make amends,” she said. “We never had the chance to heal from our falling out, least of all him. I hurt my friend greatly, and I want to make things right. I want to help him, Tadashi.”

He made a show of mulling it over. “Well,” he said at last. “Finally something we agree on.”

The goddess sighed as if the weight of the world had been lifted from her shoulders. Her relief was palpable. “It eases my heart to hear that. I fear what North would think, if he knew. Or what any of them would think – they are all wise, even Jack in his own way, but wisdom alone cannot heal wounded hearts.” She shook her head, ashamed. “But you were right. I have been too cautious, dancing around the truth with clever little answers and truths-from-a-certain-point-of view. I have spent so much time playing the cryptic guide that I forgot to...” She broke off. “Well, I suppose I forgot to trust.”

Tadashi blinked, not sure how to reply to that. Coughing lightly, he opted for another question. “What's stopping you from, I don't know, just telling Pitch you're sorry?” he asked. “Why not just set up a meeting like this?”

“Meetings like these are complicated,” she said. “Were it not for your own ability to walk in dreams, I do not know that I could manage it.”

“He's the Nightmare King, right?” Tadashi pressed. “Or he was. That's dreams. You could probably figure something out.”

“True, but...” She hesitated. “As I said, his dreams are... blocked from me.”

“Blocked how?”

“Dark things bar the way.” Chang'e looked uncomfortable discussing it. “If I pressed, I might let them up here by accident.” She shuddered at the thought.

“Nightmares,” Tadashi guessed. Wordlessly she nodded. “...You're afraid.”

She met his eyes again grimly. “So should you be.”

“I am.” An echo of the overwhelming terror from before washed over him, and he shook it off. “So's Pitch, I think.” He ran his hand through his hair. “So how long have you been planning this?”

“Quite long,” Chang'e replied. “Though 'planning' is a bit charitable. 'Aspiring' would be more accurate. Too many of my 'plans' have gone wrong.”

“What about his last defeat?”

A dark look crossed her face. “That was a plan that went wrong.” She sat back. “Very wrong. It only deepened the rift between Pitch and the rest of the Guardians. I know where I erred, now. I have tried to do better this time – such as when I sent the Guardians to help you shortly after you awoke.”

Tadashi blinked as he made a connection. “Jack was your last attempt,” he said. “You hoped Jack would...?”

“Be sympathetic to Pitch's plight? Show him another side to his element of fear?” Chang'e looked remorseful. “Yes, I was hoping for that. He had no previous enmity with either the Guardians or Pitch, and I thought he might be able to befriend both sides and mend the rift.”

“Another side-” Another realization struck. “Fun. Jack's center is Fun.”

Chang'e smiled sadly at him. “Halloween always gave me a reason to hope, you know.”

“Then why leave Jack alone for centuries?” Tadashi asked. “Why not just tell him what you wanted?”

“I had a faint idea,” Chang'e said. “That was where my grand plan failed. I thought that Pitch might be the one to find him, that meeting a spirit like himself – alone, friendless, with no direction – would awaken some compassion in him. Some purpose. But that never came to pass.”

Tadashi shook his head. “But still, three hundred years? And then springing Guardian membership on him last-minute?”

“A contingency,” Chang'e admitted. “I saw that my old friend had some terrible plan in motion, and... all I could do was send the others to Jack before Pitch could entice him into his plot, so that they could salvage a short-term victory in the end.”

“It could've gone wrong, easily,” Tadashi pointed out. “Pitch could have talked him around. Jack told me he tried.”

Chang'e closed her eyes and bowed her head. “I know,” she whispered. “I know. So many mistakes. Such a price, all for my past pride.” At length she brusquely sat up. “But my guilt helps no one. Here, and now, I... we... may have another chance.”

“No pressure or anything,” Tadashi said dryly, rubbing his forehead. “Unbelievable.”

“Do you think you can help?” she asked, hesitant.

“Do I think I can help you patch things up with your ancient demigod friend over a spat you had centuries before I was born? God, I don't know.” Tadashi sighed. “You know Pitch better than I do. I've had all of one conversation with him, and he kind of stepped on my brain. Do you have a plan here?”

“Not in the sense that I think you want from me,” Chang'e said. “I am not sure that I trust my plans anymore. If I am cryptic and vague about how to accomplish this, then it is only because I truly don't know.” She looked at him hopefully.

“Well...” Tadashi's brow furrowed in thought. “I'm here to stop the nightmares, so I'll do what I can. It might not be much. I don't know how grudges work for people who've lived for thousands of years. Pitch doesn't exactly strike me as the forgiving type. But if changing his mind is the only way to make this place safe, then... what the hell. I guess that means I'm on board.”

Chang'e sat straighter. “If you succeed, I could not possibly repay you.”

“I'm getting straight answers for once,” Tadashi said with a shrug. “So that's a good start.”

“You are right. Too long have I tried to fight this battle on my own.” She nodded, eyes shining with a new hope. “Perhaps this, my candidness, was the missing piece all along.” For a moment, the ancient goddess of the moon looked sheepish. “I will try to do better from now on, in that regard. I'm sorry, Tadashi. You deserved better from me. All of you deserved better.”

“Thank you.” Tadashi sat for a moment more, then slowly stood up from the table. “I think I need to get back. We'll talk later, then?”

Chang'e stood as well, smiling. “Yes. I believe we will.”

“Oh, and you should really talk to Jack sometime,” Tadashi went on bluntly. “He got shafted way worse than I did. Three hundred years, a cup of tea is the least you can do. If you need help with the dream thing, just ask.”

She stepped around the table to stand before him. “You have a kind heart, Tadashi. Thank you.”

“You're welcome.” Tadashi hesitated, sighing as the full weight of the conversation finally settled on him. “So... this is why I'm here, then. This is really what you picked me for, to help you with Pitch. And you really think I'm the one who can do it?”

“Perhaps. In my younger days, I believed that only great power and extraordinary people who performed extraordinary deeds were capable of protecting the children and keeping evil and darkness at bay.” She smiled and shook her head. “But I was wrong. It is the small things, the simple things, the deeds of ordinary people, that drive back fear. Kindness. Love. Compassion.” Stepping forward, she cupped his head gently between her hands and kissed him on the forehead. “Perhaps I chose you because I am afraid... and you give me courage.”

Coolness spread through Tadashi, easing the doubts and worries that hung heavy in his mind. Slowly the room around him faded, the woman in the moon vanished, and Tadashi felt himself slip away from the dream and the moon, and back down to earth again.

Chapter Text

Hiro had only experienced unconsciousness once or twice before, but once or twice was enough to know that he didn't dream when it happened. He was there, and then he wasn't, and then he was again, with only a vague, fuzzy idea of how it had felt.

It was different now. This time he floated, weightless and waiting, feeling nothing above, below, or around him. He still didn't dream – his eyes were closed, and he didn't try to open them. But he was not alone. There was something... above, or below, or somewhere between – he couldn't be sure. All he knew was that it waited, just out of reach, stirring silently as he drifted in the dark.

He kept his eyes closed, and thought.

There had been so many things that he couldn't explain lately, but this last night took the cake. Slowly, groggily, Hiro went through the anomalies one by one.

The glowing golden sand in the sky – which no one could see except, apparently, Baymax.

The microbots that were not microbots, but seemed to be more sand – black, not golden.

The strange sickness that was spreading through the children in San Fransokyo wherever Callaghan appeared.

Fred's condition, most likely the same condition afflicting those children – and the strange reverse glow effect that Hiro saw out of the corner of his eye.

The light show throughout the past battle – golden sand flying like a weapon, blinding orange fire when Fred was nowhere to be seen, explosions of bright colors too far from Honey to be her doing, lights above the cloud line like a UFO or a low-flying plane, spreading frost that glowed blue-white and made his heart quicken when he felt its chill...

All of it arriving to blast through Callaghan's black sand.

It was all so bizarre, so strange, so... so disgustingly simple. Light equals good, dark equals bad. Almost like...

Like something out of a children's story.

Deep within his mind, something shifted. Like the flick of a switch, or the turn of the right key in a lock, it changed. Or it had already started to change, gradually over the past weeks, and had finally completed the transition. It felt right, somehow, like a puzzle box opening or a candle lighting in a dark room.

His vision flashed as if someone was shining a flashlight in his eyes. The darkness behind his eyelids flared red, but it didn't frighten him. If anything, it felt... warm, like sunlight on his face. He kept his eyes shut, but the cold stirring felt farther away, too far to worry him.

Hiro opened his eyes.

The first thing he saw was a high vaulted ceiling, and he wondered groggily where the cathedral in San Fransokyo was supposed to be, because what the hell. Everything was well lit, but not blindingly so. It was lit the way a library was, or a warm log cabin in the snowy winter, which was a weird thing to compare it to when his first thought had been “cathedral.”

He was lying on a plush couch of what looked like red velvet, covered in a quilt embroidered with pine trees and snowflakes and such – winter and Christmas imagery. His armor was gone, and he was in the T-shirt and shorts he'd been wearing under it. After a few seconds of wriggling to investigate he discovered his shoes waiting for him at the foot of the couch. Cautiously, he sat up and glanced around.

He'd seen pictures of the inside of the Old Faithful Inn in Yellowstone, and it was sort of like that, only even fancier. Everything was painted, carved wood and plush cloth and carpeting, bright and decorated like a winter palace, which was strange when it wasn't winter.

Then Hiro found the nearest window, and – oh. Wow. That was definitely moonlight and snow.

What the hell.

The sound of fluttering wings drew his attention upward, and something small and bright as a hummingbird zipped down to him from a high perch. Hiro ducked on instinct, but instead of divebombing him, the bird simply slowed to a bobbing hover about a foot away from his face. Hiro froze, wide-eyed, and stared at the tiny creature as it fluttered and stared right back.

Definitely not a hummingbird. Its buzzing wings were more insect-like than avian, and it had both arms and legs besides. The beak was more like a nose, because its smiling mouth was right underneath. Hiro's jaw dropped.

That is a fairy, his brain informed him with surprising calm. I am looking at a fairy.

All his mouth had to say to that was, “What.”

Instead of answering, the creature prodded the tip of his nose and tugged lightly on his bangs, like it – she? – wanted him to follow. Hiro blinked owlishly, and the fairy gave him an impatient look and bobbed in midair.

“You... want me to come with you,” he said cautiously. She nodded. Hiro slid off the couch, stood up somewhat unsteadily, and grabbed his shoes. He didn't put them on, because the carpet in this place was nice and he hadn't been raised in a barn.

The fairy led him out of the room, through hallways and up a flight of stairs. Hiro didn't pass anyone on his way, but he heard things, off in the distance. Machinery, footsteps, voices, all somewhere on lower levels of the building. The place must have been mostly subterranean, because the glimpses he had through the windows told him he was only a little above ground level. It gave him the impression that he was walking many floors above an underground factory or something.

He stopped, his head spinning.

Ahead of him, the fairy noticed that he was no longer following, and turned around in midair to chirrup questioningly at him.

“This – this is weird, right?” he said. “I woke up here, it's snowing when it's nowhere near winter, I have no idea where I am, there's a factory underneath us, and I'm talking to a fairy. Please tell me I'm not the only one who sees how weird this is.”

The fairy stared at him like he was the cameraman on an episode of The Office.

“Look, you can't blame me for this,” Hiro argued, trying not to remember that he was talking to a literal fairy. “I'm just – I'm lost, here, okay? I am really, really lost.”

His guide seemed to sigh, then fluttered closer to tug at his bangs again. She chirruped gently, and even though Hiro couldn't understand it or even really classify it as “speech,” he felt oddly comforted all the same. He nibbled at his bottom lip, feeling the gap in his front teeth, and continued to follow.

The hallway opened out again, and... well.

There was a lot to notice at once.

There was the railing they were approaching, which overlooked what looked like the lower subterranean levels that Hiro had guessed about – and there was activity going on, though Hiro couldn't tell what. There was the floor – stone as well as carpet, with intricate designs skillfully carved and painted into the surface. Hiro took care not to step on them. There were the windows above that opened out to the dark blue sky, where the moon hung larger and brighter than Hiro had ever seen it before.

And finally, at the center of the vast room, suspended in the air over the seemingly bottomless pit beyond the railing, was a massive globe. Each continent sparkled with little lights. Hiro paused to stare at it. It was huge and absolutely beautiful, and had to be a tracking device of some kind. Like those maps you always saw in war rooms and stuff. Hiro just wondered what those lights were supposed to keep track of.

To crown it all, there were people there, as well – two figures standing by the railing that overlooked the globe, deep in conversation. And above, them, hovering –

The fairy broke into a twittering fuss, and Hiro stopped short and tried not to bolt when another fairy – this one human-sized and human-faced but otherwise identical to the one he'd been following – swooped closer with a cry of excitement. He ducked back instinctively, but she halted close enough for him to feel the wind off her buzzing wings.

“North, Sandy!” she called over her shoulder. “Baby Tooth brought him up, come say hello!”

The urge to turn tail and run was strong, but Hiro held his ground stubbornly. The other two were more comfortingly human, and they were walking instead of flying, but... still. One was a towering mountain of a man, heavily tattooed and bearded and built like an oak tree. The other was tiny – at least a head shorter than Hiro – with wild blond hair and clothes that seemed to be made entirely out of sand.

“Welcome, welcome,” the bearded man boomed. He sounded Eastern European judging by his accent – Russian, maybe? “It it good you are not hurt. How do you feel?”

Hiro blinked, craning his neck just to look the man in the eye. “My entire brain is a question mark,” he answered. “Where am I and who are you?”

“You're in the North Pole, for starters,” the fairy answered brightly. “I'm the Tooth Fairy. But you can just call me Tooth if you want.” She bobbed excitedly in flight, beaming. “Oh, this is so exciting! We don't get visitors often.”

“The Tooth Fairy,” Hiro said faintly. “Really.” He turned to the other two. “And you guys are...?”

The towering man stooped, lowering his face closer to Hiro's eye level. There was no intimidation to it, though; if anything, it only made Hiro more eager to ask questions. “You do not know me?” he asked, with a touch of humor in his tone. “Then I have advantage – I know you. Is hard to forget you, Hiro Hamada.”

That should have been alarming, but all Hiro felt was an increase in his already burning curiosity. “How do you know-?”

“Your name? Ha!” The man chuckled. “I never forget your name. Always I wonder where to put you – Naughty or Nice? Every year a challenge. And I enjoy a challenge.” He winked.

North Pole, naughty and nice – it clicked. “No way,” Hiro blurted. “There's no way – I disproved you! With math! I still have the calculations somewhere!”

St. Nicholas stood up with a roar of booming laughter. “I know! I was very hurt, at the time. But, I get over it.” He smiled warmly. “Always wanting to learn – full of questions. I like that. What is belief without questions?”

Hiro wasn't sure what to say to that, so he cast another glance at Santa Claus' arms. “Night Before Christmas never mentioned the tattoos,” he remarked.

Bah. Mothers would clutch pearls.” He rolled his eyes, and Hiro surprised himself by laughing. “So... do you believe, or do you just humor an old man?”

“He must believe,” the fairy – the Tooth Fairy – broke in. “Or else he wouldn't see us, would he?”

“True, true... strange, but true.” He paused, considering Hiro for a moment. “He did not believe – has not believed since he was small. Why now?”

“I've got a better question.” Hiro clawed his way through the wonder that was fogging up his brain. “Where are all my friends? And my stuff?”

“Safe,” Kris Kringle assured him. “Safe at home – we only took you because the shadows were closing in and there was no time. But your friends escaped, and you will find your things waiting for you at home.”

“Okay then. Why am I still here? If this is really the 'North Pole.'” The words were barely out of his mouth when a shaggy apelike creature went shuffling past on two tree-trunk legs. Hiro stopped to stare at it. On either foot sat a tiny, squat person with curly shoes and a hat with a bell at the tip. They jingled with each lumbering step. The ape thing paused to throw Santa Claus a salute, then continued on its way as Hiro gaped.

The silence stretched for a bit, before Hiro finally found his voice. “If I see a reindeer with a red nose, I'm going to scream.”

“Don't worry, he is downstairs,” Santa Claus assured him. “But, I am forgetting my manners.” He stuck out a massive hand. “I am Nicholas St. North. North is fine.”

Cautiously Hiro shook it, his own hand dwarfed in North's grip. “Um. Nice to meet you, I guess?”

“Likewise.” North indicated the tiny golden-haired man with a sweep of his other hand. “And this is the Sandman.” As if to demonstrate, the little man held up his hands, and a few handfuls of familiar golden sand went swirling over his head.

Hiro's heart skipped ahead. “That's the stuff!” he blurted. “That's the stuff I've been seeing – at night, in the sky! Nobody else can see it, not even when I take pictures of it!”

“It's nothing to be alarmed about,” the Tooth Fairy assured him. “Just Sandy doing his job – he controls dreams, you see. Just like I collect teeth, and North handles Christmas.”

Hiro stepped back, running both hands through his hair. He felt unsteady on his feet, as if his legs were made of sand and would crumble out from under him at any moment. The full weight of it settled over him – where he was, who he was talking to, and the fact that this was the only explanation he had that came close to covering anything.

“Unbelievable,” he whispered.

“I have heard that somewhere before.” North sounded amused. “Are you all right, Hiro?”

“Magic is real.” Somehow his mouth formed the words. He heard them in his own voice, and yet they still sounded strange. “Magic is real. Is that... is that it?”

“Yes,” North said simply.

Hiro blinked, and his world widened. It was a strange, disorienting feeling – as if he had lived his life in in length, height, and depth, and was now discovering that a fourth spatial dimension had existed under his nose the whole time. “Okay,” he whispered. “...Okay. Why me? Why am I the only one who can see this?”

“You aren't,” the Tooth Fairy said. She pointed to the globe. “See those lights? Every one of those lights is someone who can see. All you have to do is believe – if you don't believe, then you can't see. It's as simple as that.”

“So... like, kids who believe in Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy and the Sandman – they can all see you.” They nodded, and Hiro bit his lip. “But... I didn't believe in you. I just found out you exist because I can see you. It's a paradox – how did I see you before I believed?”

North held up a finger. “That-” He paused, frowning. “That is a good question.”

The Sandman tugged at the Tooth Fairy's hand, and the sand took a series of shapes above his head. After a moment, the Tooth Fairy nodded. “He wants to know how long you've been able to see the sand at night.”

“Um... I'm not really sure?” Hiro hesitated. “It's sorta recent. A few weeks, maybe over a month. I had one theory for why, but it turned out I was wrong.”

Another series of sand pictures, which Hiro realized was some kind of charades-Pictionary way of communicating, and the Tooth Fairy translated again. “So it was after...” her voice trailed off. “Well... we're not sure. But we're going to find out, don't worry!”

That was fine, Hiro decided, because he had plenty of other questions. “What about the black sand?” he asked. “Does all of this stuff have to do with what's happening with Callaghan? What about those kids getting sick? And what just happened on the island?”

North held up his hands. “All right, all right.” He chuckled. “Many questions, and these we can answer. Come.” They led him back to the central railing where they had been standing when he first walked in. The floor was carved stone again, and Hiro got a good look as he walked over it. It formed a wide circle, with a panel at the center that six symbols surrounded like flower petals. Hiro stepped carefully around to look at each one – he recognized the winged fairy, the short figure of the Sandman, and the larger shape of Santa Claus, but there were three others. One slim figure carrying what looked like a hooked staff, one rabbit, and one final figure that would have looked normal if it hadn't been for what was obviously a tail.

“We will answer your questions,” North said, jarring Hiro out of his inspection. “We have decided that you should know. You and your friends are caught in our battle – it is better to have you informed than to try to protect you with ignorance. So-” He leaned lightly against the railing. “We will tell you about the Guardians, and the Nightmares.”


By the time they finished, Hiro was sitting on the floor, mouth agape. The tiny fairy that had led him to the room was sitting in his hair like a bird in a nest, but he'd half-forgotten she was there. “Wow. Wow.

“That's one way of putting it,” the Tooth Fairy said.

“So... Callaghan's not behind this, then,” Hiro said. “He's just a victim, too.”

North nodded. “Is likely, yes.”

“Oh my God.” Hiro sighed, covering his face with both hands. “How am I gonna tell the guys? They're never gonna believe me.” He straightened up stiffly. “Oh God, the guys. My aunt – how long have I been gone? They'll be freaking out!”

“Do not worry,” North said soothingly as the Sandman patted Hiro's shoulder. “Is not quite morning yet. You have time, and I have a quick way of getting you home.”

Hiro stood up, carding his fingers roughly through his hair again. “Okay, good, because-”

Further discussion was cut off by a storm of uproarious laughter from somewhere nearby, though Hiro couldn't tell where. Even in this open area, there were a lot of corners and nooks and doorways that he couldn't see beyond. But the laughter sounded young, and none of his hosts seemed alarmed. Mildly exasperated, maybe, but not alarmed.

“Jack!” North called back. “Care to share joke with the rest of us?”

Moments later, Jack emerged, carrying something limp and reddish-orange in his hands. Much like North and the Sandman had been, he was comfortingly human-looking. It would've been a bit more comforting without the pale skin and snowy white hair and the fact that his feet didn't seem to be touching the ground, but still. At this point Hiro was going to take what he could get.

“This is Jack Frost,” the Tooth Fairy explained. “Maybe you know the name – he's the spirit of winter, you see, and – oh.” She glanced back at Jack, eyes widening. “Oh my. Jack, what is it?”

As Jack Frost came closer, Hiro could see from the look on his face that he was putting a Herculean effort into holding back more laughter, biting his lip and scrunching his eyes, the whole nine yards. “Guys,” he gasped, voice shaking with the effort. “Guys, guys, look.” He held out what he'd been carrying, and Hiro recognized it as the scruffiest, most dejected-looking red fox he had ever seen. Its ears and tail drooped, and it hung from Jack's hands like an extremely disgruntled cat. Hiro wondered what the matter was until Jack added, “He's stuck,” and burst out snickering. The fox wriggled and tried to twist around and bite him.

“What does that mean?” Hiro broke in. The fox seemed to freeze at the sound of his voice, and left off trying to snap at Jack's wrist to stare straight at him. It was unnerving, seeing human-level intelligence on a fox, and Hiro tried not to fidget. “Stuck how? It looks fine to me.”

Apparently Hiro had said something hilarious, judging by the steaming-teakettle noise Jack made. The fox was still staring at him, and Hiro discovered to his mild discomfort that the others were, too.

“...What? What'd I say?”

“Can I tell him?” Jack burst out. He bobbed in midair, grinning gleefully. “Please-please-please can I tell him? Ow!”

This time the fox had been successful – unfortunately, the bite made Jack let go, leaving the hapless animal to drop five feet to the floor. Regaining its footing, it glared up at Jack and barked sharply at him.

Jack pouted at it. “Is that a no? Come on, I want to.”

Another short, angry bark.

“Tell me what?” Hiro asked helplessly. “I don't get it. What's with the fox?”

“Not just any fox,” North said.

“He's a kitsune,” Tooth added, sounding cautious. “He helped you, back on the island, but... it looks like he overreached himself.”

The fox shook itself with a disgruntled snort, then turned to Hiro again. It took a cautious step forward, ears pricked, and glanced questioning at North.

Santa Claus's face creased in a warm smile. “Yes, my friend. He can see you.”

Before Hiro had the chance to react, the fox streaked forward, leaped, and cannoned into Hiro's chest. “Oh my God!” Hiro overbalanced and ended up sitting on the floor again with a lap full of squirming, overjoyed fox. “What's with him? Who is he?”

“He is...” North hesitated. The fox paused and tensed, watching North warningly. “Our newest member. He is very pleased that you are able to see him.”

“Why- oh.” Realization struck. “It's the believing thing, right? If he's new, he doesn't have a lot of believers.”

“No.” North's smile was strange. “That he does not. But truthfully, he only needs one.”

“Okay, but – geez, calm down, what the heck-” Hiro managed to get a firmer grip on the excited fox, enough to hold him at arm's length. “Okay, so, that aside – do you have some kind of plan? For Callaghan, and these... these nightmares?”

Jack had been wandering nearer, and was now close enough to offer a hand to help Hiro up. Hiro carefully placed the fox to the side and took it, suppressing a shudder at Jack's ice-cold hand. “Right now the plan's to free the old guy,” Jack said. “That'll stop 'em – free all those kids, too. Nice to meet ya, by the way.”

“Uh, thanks-” Hiro paused. “The ice, back on the island. That was you, wasn't it?”

Jack buffed his nails on his sweater. “That? Kid's stuff. You should see me on my good days.” The fox at his feet sneezed, and he glanced down to glare at it. “Nobody asked your opinion, fluffy.”

“One way you can help us,” North spoke up. “Tell your friends. Convince them, if you can. So we may work together, when the final battle comes.”

“That... might not be as easy as it sounds,” Hiro said. “Most of us are scientists. Magic isn't exactly their thing.”

“And you have three pages of proof that I do not exist, and that magic is not your thing either,” North reminded him. “Do your best.” From his pocket he produced a small, glowing glass globe, which he tossed lightly on the ground. It broke, and Hiro jumped back in surprise when a circular doorway appeared out of nowhere. If he squinted, he could just make out the shape of buildings. “That will lead you home.”

“You sure?” Hiro laughed nervously. “I don't exactly have the best luck with portals.”

“Science portals, maybe,” North chuckled. “This is magic portal.”

“Need a push?” Jack offered. “I can totally push you – hey!” The fox casually snapped at his ankle, and he dodged.

“Uh... no, it's fine, I'll just...” Hiro hesitated, eyeing the portal suspiciously. To buy time he put his shoes back on.

The fox stepped closer, winding around his ankles like a cat. Hiro felt his nervousness ease, and he glanced down to see the fox pad right up to the portal and sit before it, jerking his head in a beckon.

“Looks like he's gonna go with you.” Jack smirked, like he had access to some secret that Hiro didn't know about. “Figures.”

Hiro blinked. “Why?”

“Sorry, can't tell you.” Jack held up his hands. “That's his business, not mine. I hope I'm there when he tells you, though, 'cause it's gonna be priceless.”

“Um...” Hiro considered pressing the issue, but after the avalanche of revelations he'd just experienced, he decided he was willing to wait a little bit longer for this one, whatever it was. “Okay then. Uh, bye.”

“See you soon!” Tooth said with a cheery wave. “Hopefully the Easter Bunny will be with us next time.”

Hiro's head spun again. “Yeah... great...” Steeling himself, he stepped through the portal.

A blinding light, a tingling under his skin, and Hiro found himself in familiar streets. He took a moment to get his bearings, and sighed with relief. Fred's house was only a few blocks away, and the sun was just peeking over the horizon. It was still early. He didn't have to call his aunt yet – she was under the impression that he was staying with his friends. All he had to do was go reassure them.

For a moment he questioned reality – had that actually happened, or had he imagined the whole thing while stumbling deliriously through the streets of San Fransokyo?

Pressure on his leg made him glance down, and he had his answer. The fox had come with him, and was now balancing on his hind legs with his front paws pressed against the side of Hiro's leg. He stared up at him with bright, unnervingly intelligent yellow eyes.

“You know what would suck?” Hiro said to it. “If this was one of those things where it felt like just a half hour but I've actually been gone for weeks. That would – like that'd be just what I need at this point, you know?”

For a moment the fox looked amused. Then he dropped back to all fours, swatted his shin lightly with his tail, and trotted off in the direction of Fred's house. Startled, Hiro hurried to catch up.

“Sooo... you can understand me, right?” he said, feeling awkward.

The fox nodded.

“And you're a kitsune. So can you fly and walk in dreams and stuff?”

Another nod.

“Prove it.”

The fox's ears drooped again, and he gave a useless hop and shrugged.

Hiro frowned. “The fairy said you, uh, overreached yourself or something. So, you're just tired, then?”

Another nod.

“Aaaand I'm talking to a fox.”

The fox responded with a sneezing noise that Hiro could just barely recognize as a laugh.

“Easy for you to laugh, you're probably use to this stuff. Where I come from, this is weird.” Fred's enormous house was within view, and Hiro felt a pang of fear at the sight of it. “I just hope Fred's okay...” He shook himself and picked up the pace. “I hope everyone's okay.” Breaking into a run, he sped up the walkway to the front door and rang the bell.

He pulled a face, dreading what his friends must be thinking, after he'd been gone for half the night.

This was going to be fun.

 

Chapter Text

Tadashi couldn't feel a drop of power left in his body, but he might as well have been walking on air. His conversation with Chang'e had faded to the back of his mind for now, and it was taking all of his self control not to break into a four-legged victory dance.

Hiro could see him.

Hiro could see him.

Of course it wasn't perfect. He was fox-shaped, and Hiro had no idea who he was, but... fine. It was a start. For now, Hiro could see him, hear him, touch him... and that was miles ahead of where they'd been before.

The others had almost told him. Jack had offered, but every instinct had cried out against it. Maybe it was stupid, maybe it would have been better to tell Hiro already, but something about having the others hold him by the hand (or paw, as the case may be) with his personal problems, and talk for him while he couldn't... it just didn't sit right with him. Did the Sandman ever feel this way?

Besides, he couldn't be sure that Hiro would even believe it. Recognizing magic, seeing distant childhood legends, that was one thing. But Tadashi knew from experience that Hiro didn't tend to respond well to people throwing his name around carelessly, so if a handful of complete strangers tried to convince Hiro he was alive and he didn't believe them... Well, they could kiss any idea of collaboration goodbye, in that case.

Hiro was his brother. This was his problem. He'd handle it. Once he rested up and got his power back, he wouldn't have to worry about telling Hiro, because he could just show him.

The door opened, and Fred's unflappable butler stood in the doorway. “Ah. Welcome back.”

“Where is everyone?” Hiro asked. Tadashi sidled closer and gave Heathcliff's foot an experimental nudge. His paw passed right through.

“Upstairs library, Mr. Hamada.” Heathcliff stood aside to admit him. “You're just in time – they've been out for most of the night, searching for you. I'd hurry – they've been worried sick.”

“Thanks.” Hiro hurried past him, with Tadashi darting at his heels. They ran up a full flight of stairs, down a hallway, and through a door, before Hiro finally reached the library. Honey Lemon, Wasabi, and Gogo were huddled together around Baymax, deep in discussion, only to look up in shock when Hiro burst in and skidded to a halt.

There was a beat of silence, and then they all met in the middle for an enthusiastic group hug. Tadashi hung back, equal parts relieved and amused. Everyone was talking at once, words overlapping in excitement.

He had to wonder, though. Where was Fred in all this? He hadn't seen him the night before, either.

Hiro pitched his voice above the others, distracting Tadashi from his thoughts. “Guys, guys! Okay, I...” He hesitated. “Wow. I don't even really know where to start, so... I guess I'll just start with the fox.”

“What fox?” Wasabi asked.

Hiro pointed. “That one.” Heads turned, and Tadashi stood as tall as he could manage, full of hope. They don't know it's me. They wouldn't believe it was me. But maybe they'll believe there's a fox, just on Hiro's word.

Honey's cry of surprise made him jump. “Oh!” Her eyes widened, and she took a cautious step closer. “Oh my gosh, I didn't even see that!” She crouched low, keeping her distance without taking her eyes off him. “What's it doing in here?”

Excitement made Tadashi dance a little on his paws before he trotted forward. Honey squeaked when he got close enough to touch, and he forced himself to hold back. That's right, he realized. Foxes are wild animals. Even to them, I'm not just some dog that followed him home.

“I'm confused,” Wasabi said. “What fox? I don't see a fox. Honey, what are you doing?”

“How do you not see it?” Honey demanded. “It's right in front of me!”

Gogo sidled closer, mystified. “Are you sure...?”

“I don't know how you guys aren't seeing this,” Honey said. “It's literally right there – look, I'm gonna touch it.” She glanced at Tadashi a little fearfully. “Please don't bite me.”

“He's been friendly so far,” Hiro said. Tadashi stood perfectly still as Honey cautiously brushed her fingers over his ear. The last time he'd touched her was when she hugged him on the night of the showcase.

Dios mio, I'm petting a fox,” Honey whispered.

Behind her, Gogo still looked uncertain. “You guys, I don't...”

“It's there,” Hiro said firmly. “I know it's weird, and I know it's hard to – to believe, but just... if I can't get this through to you, I can't get any of it through to you. I need you guys to trust me on this.”

“Of course I trust you.” Gogo rolled her eyes as if Hiro had just said something incredibly dim. Her eyes slid back to where Honey was still crouching and lightly petting him. “I just don't-” Suddenly she started and flailed a little. “Oh my God where the hell did that come from?

“Where did what come from?” Wasabi was starting to sound faintly panicked.

“It wasn't there!” Gogo spluttered. “It wasn't there, but then it was there, and – what the hell, Hiro?”

“Yeah, see that feeling?” Hiro said, pointing to her. “That feeling has been my entire life for the past, like, hour.”

“You guys,” Wasabi whined.

“So wait,” Gogo said. “You're saying it's been here the whole time?”

Hiro nodded vigorously. “He came in with me. He walked right past Heathcliff, Heathcliff didn't even blink.”

“That... doesn't really prove anything, but okay.” Gogo grumbled to herself and massaged her forehead as if she had a growing headache. “Why couldn't I see it before? And why can't Wasabi see it now?”

At that moment, Tadashi had a brainwave. Standing up, he slipped around Honey, trotted right up to Wasabi, and – making sure the others were watching – swiped at Wasabi's shin. His paw, of course, went right through him.

“What the fff-” Gogo muttered.

For good measure, Tadashi followed it up by walking right through Wasabi's leg.

“Okay now that's weird,” Hiro remarked, as Tadashi came back around to the others. “I didn't see him do that before.”

Wasabi whimpered a little. “Guys...”

“How is that even possible?” Gogo asked. “What, is it a hologram? A mass hallucination?”

“Can't be,” Honey muttered back. “I felt him, the fur and everything.”

Hiro, whose eyebrows had been knitted together in thought, abruptly stood up straight. “I have an idea.” Stooping, he scooped Tadashi up off the floor, walked straight past Wasabi, and held him up to Baymax like baby Simba on Pride Rock. “Baymax, scan.”

“Scanning,” Baymax said dutifully. “Scan complete. That is a male red fox, scientific name Vulpes vulpes., likely of an Asian subspecies, such as Vulpes vulpes schrencki. I am not programmed for nonhuman patients, but he appears to be in excellent health.” Tadashi would have grinned, but fox muzzles weren't really built for that kind of thing.

“Is it possible that something's messing with your systems?” Gogo asked.

“That is unlikely. I am safeguarded against almost all forms of remote hacking and sabotage.”

“W-wait, so...” Wasabi crept closer. “There's a fox? There's really, really a fox?”

“I swear, we wouldn't make this up,” Honey replied.

Wasabi bit his lip. “Maybe... maybe it's just me, then – oh!” His eyes locked on Tadashi and widened. “Oh my God. I see it. Why is there an invisible fox? Why is that a thing?”

Hanging from Hiro's grip, Tadashi could feel his brother sigh with relief. “Okay. So everyone can see him?” Gently he placed Tadashi on the ground, and Tadashi wandered over to lightly headbutt Wasabi in the shin. “Because, um... what I have to tell you kind of goes way beyond magical disappearing reappearing foxes.” He brushed a lock of his bangs behind his ear. “First off, lights in the sky. Like, not stars or UFOs. It's like bands of light – like the aurora borealis, only I see it every night and nobody else can. Except...” He turned back to Baymax. “You can see it too, can't you? When we were flying earlier, I noticed you changed course to avoid one.”

The robot nodded. “My attempts to scan it have been unsuccessful. I can only detect sand, and other substances that I cannot identify.”

“Do you have images?”

“Yes.”

“Okay.” Hiro glanced back at the others. “Do you believe what I'm saying?”

“Of course we do,” Honey told him. “I mean, I've never seen any lights, but...”

“It's super important that you believe me,” Hiro pressed. “That's how it works. If you don't believe in it, you can't see it. It's a stupid rule, because how are people supposed to believe in something they can't see, but... I don't know. It is what it is.” He pointed to Tadashi. “Like with him. You couldn't see him unless you believed he was there, right?”

“Okay, whoa whoa whoa,” Gogo interrupted. “Hiro, this is starting to sound less like what we deal with and more like... I dunno, some Saturday-morning cartoon stuff.”

“I know!” Hiro burst out. “I know, and it's frustrating, but like I said – it is what it is.” He turned to Baymax. “Show them one of those pictures.” An image appeared on the robot's chest, of the night sky in San Fransokyo. Trailing golden streaks stretched across it, which Tadashi recognized immediately as the Sandman's work. “Do you guys... see anything?” Hiro asked cautiously.

Gogo was stepping closer, staring intently at the screen. “Whoa...” Her fingers brushed the image, tracing along one of the ribbons. “That's weird. You guys seeing this?”

“Yeah... you're right, it does look like the Northern Lights,” Wasabi remarked. “Except just yellow.”

“What are those things?” Honey breathed. “You said it was sand, Baymax?”

“It's sand,” Hiro said firmly. “It's definitely sand.” He took a deep breath. “Also, magic is real.” Tadashi watched, brimming with sympathy, as everyone turned to stare at him. “Yeah, I just said that,” Hiro said reluctantly. “Magic is real.”

Tadashi glanced down at his front paws. He had nowhere near the kind of power he needed to change back, but maybe... He raised one paw and focused, trying to produce a flame – or just an ember or a spark. Anything.

“I think you need to back up a little,” Gogo said.

His well of power was almost dry, Tadashi noted with annoyance. But it wasn't completely empty. All he had to do was just focus, and...

Luckily he had the presence of mind to bark for their attention before he managed to tap what little power he had left. A drop of it emerged as a sneeze that produced a cloud of flying sparks. He blinked, shook his head dizzily, and glanced up at the others. They had gone from staring at Hiro to gaping down at him.

“So like I was saying,” Hiro went on hesitantly. “Magic is real.”

“Everybody else saw that, right?” Wasabi said. “That thing just breathed fire. Well. Sneezed fire.”

Wow.” Gogo's eyes were wide. “That was both adorable and awesome.

“Fred's going to be so upset he missed that,” Honey muttered.

Hiro looked up. “Speaking of Fred, how's he doing?”

“He's asleep still,” Wasabi said. “Which is... probably a good thing, considering. We've been up all night, but we've been letting him rest.”

Tadashi's eyes narrowed. What was wrong with Fred?

Unfortunately, the topic shifted back before he could learn anything new. “So this doesn't actually answer the first question we had,” Gogo broke in. “Where've you been? And how'd you get back?”

Tadashi meant to stick around – he really did. Even if he couldn't do much to help Hiro or back up his story, he could at least stay close for moral support. Or maybe so he could bite anyone who refused to believe him.

But he was padding around to return to Hiro's side when he took a step closer to the door and felt his fur prickle.

He froze, and the conversation faded into the background as he glanced back toward the hallway. He'd been focused on Hiro when they first arrived, so he hadn't noticed anything else. But now, it was unmistakeable. He knew that chill down his spine well enough to know it was more than a draft.

Silently he crept out of the room, sniffing. Nightmares didn't have a smell, as far as he could tell, but he could follow the coldness. Breaking into a fast trot, he hurried through the hallway until he reached the door that was coldest to the touch. It took a few tries to open it, but he managed. Coat bristling, he slipped inside.

His memory yanked him back to little Everett's room – far too cold and far too dark to be normal. Tadashi's heart sank as he crept through what could only be Fred's bedroom – almost twice as big as his and Hiro's, and filled with comic book memorabilia and film merch. His night vision was excellent, but even with that, Tadashi could only make out outlines of things through the darkness that hung in the air.

But it all led back to the bed in the middle, and the figure huddled under blankets. With growing dread, Tadashi kept moving until he'd reached Fred's bedside.

A shaft of light from the hallway fell across his friend's face, and Tadashi took a step back, heart twisting. Sleep was when people looked peaceful – when muscles relaxed and worry lines smoothed and they shed their cares for a while. But Fred, lying curled up in his rumpled sheets, looked more exhausted than Tadashi had ever seen him before. The darkness surrounded him, dense around him like a black hole in space absorbing all light.

Tadashi's eyes fell on the ribbon of dream sand, jet black as it trailed from Fred's chest.

Oh, no.

The covers hanging down the side of the bed made climbing easier, and moments later Tadashi stood next to Fred, planted his paws against him, and tried to shake him awake. Fred didn't awaken – not even his breathing changed. Tadashi pawed at his face, first gently, then more roughly, but to no avail. Even a high-pitched bark couldn't wake him.

Nothing for it.

Seating himself, he reached for the black sand, but hesitated at the last moment. Could he do this? He couldn't shapeshift, and he could barely produce fire. Could he enter Fred's dreams and fix things like this?

Chang'e, he remembered. She said she could contact me like that because I could enter dreams. And that was after I wasted myself in that fight. So maybe...

He touched the sand with the pad of his paw, braced himself, and let Fred's tainted dreams pull him in.

He felt ground beneath his feet before he saw it, but it was anything from solid. All four paws sank into it, like sucking mud that crawled with spiders and insects. For a moment panic overtook him, and he reared up to free his forepaws from the mire beneath him. The crawling feeling didn't leave, and he wished desperately that he wasn't so small and low to the ground.

Almost immediately he was on two legs again, wringing his hands and hissing as he breathing shallowly through flat human teeth. The abrupt change in balance nearly tipped him over, but he took a few steps and got his bearings back. His heart pounded, and he imagined it was cold enough to see his breath, if he could see anything at all. He was human again.

“Right,” he said out loud, relishing the ability to speak. He coughed – breathing hard made him inhale something that felt like smoke clogging his lungs. “Right. It's just a dream. I can... do stuff.” He ran his hand through his hair, trying to think of something besides the feeling of tiny crawling things at his feet. “Fred. Gotta find Fred.”

His eyes were adjusting, or maybe the darkness itself was dimming, and he could see trailing shadows hanging from above, like vines or snakes. The air stank of char and burning. Something skittered across his shoulders, and he slapped it away with a grunt of disgust. It was difficult to walk when it felt like the floor was trying to grab him and drag him under, but he managed anyway.

The floor seemed to open beneath him, and then he was falling. He felt like his stomach was trying to force itself out of his mouth, but he fought down the fear. This is a dream. Not my dream, but whatever. If I can transform here then I can fly. His fall slowed to a more gentle descent – not quite flying, but close enough. A few more seconds in the empty darkness, and Tadashi could feel the ground underneath him. Solid, empty ground this time. But still the chills ran up and down his spine, the burning smell persisted, and he felt watched as he put one foot before the other. He couldn't see walls, but he felt them nearby, and he imagined things crawling and slithering on them, watching his every move, tracking his every step. Nowhere safe. Nowhere to hide.

This was so much worse than Everett's nightmares had been. At least then there had been places to breathe. But here, Tadashi had plunged straight into a mire of grasping shadows. There was no guiding light, no rhyme or reason, nothing to clue him in to where he was supposed to go. How long had this gone on? He'd been so busy lately – how long had it been since he'd checked in on his friends? How long had Fred been suffering in this?

His mouth was dry, his throat even drier, but he forced himself to swallow and call out.

“Fred?” His voice came out weak and tremulous. He coughed, forcing steadiness into his second try. “Fred, where are you?”

No answer.

Nothing to do but walk.

Tadashi lost track of how much time passed as he walked. Everything looked the same, felt the same. Too cold. Too dark. Too silent, even with the whispers of the things watching him.

He blinked, and the moon shone down on abandoned streets before him. In spite of himself, he shuddered. Fog rolled in as thick as smoke (it could have been smoke, for all he knew – he still smelled burning), until Tadashi couldn't see clearly beyond three feet in front of him. Any farther, and he could only pick up vague shapes. Buildings, structures, some of them burnt-out husks.

Blood spattered the streets, squishing and sticking under his shoes. He shuddered again, trying not to notice it, trying to imagine it was just water or mud. Sometimes he could see the smears and puddles leading back to some huddled, motionless form in this mist, but he turned his head away and did not investigate. It was only a bad dream.

The sound of footsteps halted him, and he cast about cautiously. He strained his eyes and ears, but the way they echoed in the fog made it impossible to tell where they were coming from. “Fred?” The mist muffled his voice.

Something moved in the distance. Tadashi hesitated, half his instincts telling him to run. It... could be Fred. Maybe. Probably not, but maybe.

It wasn't just one figure, but several – indistinct, vaguely humanoid, not walking but limping and staggering. Each step brought them closer.

Not Fred, Tadashi decided, and turned to run. The eerie light faded, and the dream changed around him.

He blinked, and he was in a cramped room. A doorway stood to his left, though he couldn't see much beyond it. He was standing before a battered old desk and a low-tech screen monitor. Behind the desk, the wall was plastered with posters and old newspaper clippings. The buzz of a small fan filled the air, and the numbers 12:01 glowed red on the little digital clock by the phone.

The answering machine beeped. “Hello, hello?” a grainy voice greeted. “Uh, I wanted to record a message for you to help you get settled in on your first night...”

“No!” he barked, kicking the chair. He paused, breathing shallowly with approaching terror. Was he hearing footsteps beyond the door? “Absolutely not!” he yelled at the darkness beyond it. “No – oh god damn it, Fred, where are you!”

Chimelike music played in his ears – the Toreador tune from Carmen. A large, vaguely bear-shaped outline appeared in the darkness beyond the left door.

Whoops, wrong Fred, he thought, and almost laughed at the absurdity. But he pushed past the panic, forcing his way through to the common sense hiding behind it. This was only a dream, he reminded himself. It wasn't like he had to abide by the rules.

Flames burst from his hands, lighting up the dark, cramped space. The figure darkened to a silhouette, and pain shot through Tadashi's ears as a grating scream rose up from it. The smell of burning plastic and hot metal filled the air, and Tadashi dashed out of the room, shoved past the shrieking nightmare figure and into the hallway beyond.

Not the hallway of a derelict pizzeria, he noted with no small amount of relief. The dream had changed again, though the smoke smell persisted. The hall around him was blank, except for a strange dark mold that spread rapidly over the walls. His footsteps echoed on smooth linoleum.

“Fred!” His voice bounced back at him, but no answer came with it. He skidded to a halt to catch his breath, looking around futilely for a sign, any sign at all.

He wasn't going to get a clue like he did with Everett. He'd have to figure this one out by himself.

“Okay,” he muttered, as the dark mold crept up the walls around him. “Okay, I can do this. This is Fred. I know Fred. Where would Fred be?”

Home? School? If it was school, then which one – SF State or SFIT? And where would he find Fred if he was scared, trapped in a nightmare in his mind?”

He tried to take a deep breath, steady his thoughts, but only succeeded in making himself cough. Where was that stupid smell coming from? He'd been smelling burning since he'd first gotten here, but he hadn't even seen any fire aside from the fire he'd made himself. Besides that, it had only gotten stronger.

Tadashi froze, zeroing in on the dark stain on the walls. He'd assumed it was mold, but...

He stepped closer, cautiously reaching out to wipe some off. It felt fine and gritty when he rubbed it between his thumb and forefinger, and it smelled like ash.

Through the entire nightmare so far, he'd seen and smelled burnt things. So what if...?

He broke into a run. SFIT, he thought. He'll be at SFIT. I need to get to–

He blinked, and he stood in more familiar hallways.

Tadashi caught his breath again, jarred by the burst of recognition. SFIT. The lab. How many mornings, afternoons, and evenings had he spent here? He'd learned. He'd made friends. He'd shaped his life. And now here he was, standing in the middle of it after diving into his friend's nightmares.

“Fred?” He kept his voice as loud as he dared, but still no answer came. Finding his feet again, he walked on through the dark, empty halls. There were doors again, like there had been in Everett's dream, but most of them had no handle. Tadashi tried the few that did, and found them locked. He kept going, making turns on pure instinct – he knew this place. He could navigate these halls, in his sleep. Or in someone else's, in this case.

Finally his footsteps slowed to a stop. Tadashi stood before a single door, hands shaking as he eyed the handle.

If this dream-building was the same as the real one, then this was his lab.

Could it be? Was it that simple?

Tadashi wrung his hand, braced himself, and grasped the handle. It turned, and the door opened.

Immediately he choked on foul air. The room beyond the door was dark – not with shadows but with black, oily smoke. His eyes streamed almost immediately, but through the stinging tears he could see, just faintly, through the thick haze – light.

He stepped through, breathing through clenched teeth as if it would filter out the smoke. The light ebbed, and he clawed his way through the haze until he could start to see.

And there was Fred.

His friend stood near the center of the room, surrounded by a faint, faint light – so faint that a slight breeze might put it out. He hunched over, hiding his face in his hands, but he wasn't alone. The smoke thickened around him, and Tadashi could see, squinting with streaming eyes, the way the smoke twisted and crawled. Not like smoke at all. Nightmare tendrils surrounded Fred, one trailing from his chest as if it had a death grip on his heart. More tendrils curled around his arms, and one of them was coiled tightly around his neck.

Tadashi felt sick.

He took another step forward, ignoring the way the smoke around him roiled in fury. He coughed and struggled to fill his lungs with air clean enough to speak.

“Fred!” His voice cracked on the way out, but it made its across the room, through the thrashing smoke, and to his friend's ears.

He knew it did, because Fred looked up and met his eyes with a pale, haunted look. He saw Fred's eyes widen and his mouth move to form a single word.

No.

Flames erupted from the floor – from everywhere, all at once, the roar swallowing Tadashi's desperate scream. He couldn't see anymore, because instead of smoke there was fire, all around him, and –

No.

No, this wasn't right.

It wasn't supposed to.

It wasn't supposed to hurt anymore.

Tears evaporated from his face as soon as they fell. Tadashi cried out again, not for Fred but for pure, burning pain. This wasn't right. This wasn't supposed to happen.

He'd already burned, hadn't he?

He was already dead.

So why

Why did it hurt this much?

The roar of the flames swallowed his screaming as Tadashi burned for the second time.


He came out of it with a gasp, leaping back until he almost fell off the edge of the bed. He scrabbled for purchase, on four legs instead of two, before finally freezing where he was, back arched, fur bristling, shaking and breathless with terror. He could feel tears on his face, dampening the fur.

Fred slept on, face creased with fear and weariness. The dream sand stayed black.

Tadashi took a deep breath, forced his fur flat again, and gathered himself back together.

I know where he is now, he thought, and plunged back in.

He opened his eyes in the same place where he had left off, and his jaws cracked open for another cry of pain. He may have left off, but the fire had not.

He managed two steps closer to Fred before the agony overtook him. He dropped to his knees, and the fire burned him to ashes and forced him out of the nightmare again.


Getting there, he thought, and reached for the sand a third time.

Only one step this time before he fell.


He didn't want to touch the sand, he didn't want to go back, but he did anyway. Can't give up now. But he could still burn.


And so he did.


Again.


And again.


And again.


But each time


brought him closer


step


by step


until at last,


he was close enough


to reach out


and touch him-


Tadashi slumped to the bedsheets, fur damp with sweat and tears, shaking and heaving with fear and exhaustion. Almost there. Blind with pain and terror, he managed to struggle up again. His lip curled, baring his sharp carnivore teeth, and he plunged back into the dream with a quiet growl.

The pain slammed him, almost driving him back, but he forced his feet to stay where they were. He had earned every bit of ground he'd gained, and like hell was he giving up one inch of it. His hand was already outstretched, and cold satisfaction drove back the burning when his fingers closed on Fred's wrist.

He didn't burn.

He still felt it, but it was distant, like an old pain that he could ignore. The flames roared, but his grip on Fred's wrist anchored him.

Fred pulled at his grasp, and through the deafening fire Tadashi could hear his wheezing, terrified breaths.

“Fred.” His voice was almost as crackling-dry as the flames around them. “Fred, stop.” With his other hand he gripped the dark noose-like tendril around his friend's neck. It squirmed like a snake in his grip, but with a savage yank he tore it away. His hand now free, he grasped Fred's shoulder.

Nonono,” he heard Fred whimper. “Not again – stop.”

“It's okay,” Tadashi whispered.

Not again. That could mean so many things – had this dream happened before? How long had the nightmares had him? How long had he been gone when Fred needed his help?

Tadashi wanted to cry. He wanted to be sick. He wanted to bite someone. “Fred, can you hear me? It's okay. It's...” His voice caught. “It's not real. It's just a dream, Fred.”

“I want it to stop.” Fred shook under his hands. “I just want it to stop.

“I know.” Tears blurred his vision, but that was all right. He didn't need to see. “I know, buddy.” Releasing his shoulder, he reached down and found the tendril of shadow that trailed from Fred's chest. He gripped it, squeezing it in what he hoped felt like a chokehold. “It's just a bad dream, okay? But it's all right. It's going to be all right. I promise.”

Fred shuddered, and Tadashi heard him sob. You like fire? he thought savagely at the nightmare. His hand blazed, and he yanked it like an old weed.

A rattling hiss rose above the the roar of the fire. The flames died, and darkness plunged down on them. Without thinking, Tadashi pulled Fred into a hug.

The cold rushed around them, and Fred gripped his sleeves and shook, but it washed past them as harmlessly as water. Still, Tadashi did not let go. He wasn't sure how long he stood there until he gathered his nerve again. When Tadashi finally opened his eyes a crack, he recognized his lab.

Empty. No fire. No soot. No shadows.

He relaxed, sighing with relief. “It's okay,” he breathed. “Everything's okay.”

“It's not okay,” Fred whispered. “You're still gone.”

Guilt ate at him, and he didn't let go. “No, I'm not,” he said. “I'm right here. Okay? I'm right here. I'm not going anywhere.”

His work was done. He'd have to go back to the real world. But for now, just for a moment...

“I'm right here.”

He didn't want just a moment. He wanted hours. He wanted days. He wanted however long Fred had been suffering and scared for. But he could feel the dream melting around him, he could feel himself slipping away, out of Fred's grasp, back into the real world.

“Tadashi?”

Tadashi struggled to keep the dream together, just a little longer. “I'm still here, okay? Don't forget that. I'm not going anywhere.”

He lost his hold.

His eyes opened, and for a moment his breath caught when shadows still obscured his vision. But it was a spotty, insubstantial darkness, and as it cleared he realized that it was not nightmares darkening his view, but his own exhaustion. He struggled up, limbs shaking, blinking blearily as his eyes cleared. The ribbon of sand had lightened to soft, glowing gold.

The prickle up his spine forced alertness into his tired brain, and he whirled around to stare intently at the floor beyond the bed. Movement caught his attention – something scuttled out from under the bed like a gigantic black spider. With a burst of sinuous speed it made for the open door.

Rage made him feel power that he didn't have. Oh no you don't. A sharp bark stopped it in its tracks, and Tadashi scraped the very bottom of his strength to pounce. With pure murder in his heart, he landed squarely on the vile thing, set his teeth into it, and ripped it to shreds.

For a moment he stood with his head low to the ground, teeth bared, breathing hard as the strength born of fury left him in a rush. Another bleary blink, and he managed to lift his head and stand a little straighter. He swayed, listed to the side, and sat down, front legs shaking. His bones felt like lead.

Slowly, he forced himself to his feet again and walked back to the bed with his head hanging low. He set claws and teeth into the overhanging blanket, dragged himself back up, and finally curled up at the foot of the bed.

No more chills disturbed him, and Tadashi finally closed his eyes and gave in to exhaustion.

 

Chapter Text

Fred awoke feeling refreshed.

He had to take a moment to remember exactly what it was he was feeling, because “refreshed” hadn't been in his feels repertoire for quite some time. No nightmares. No catapulting awake. No clawing his way out of a bad dream, no opening his eyes in a different part of the house from where he'd closed them. No pounding heartbeat. Just...

Morning. Sunlight on his face. Blankets over him that were dry instead of damp with sweat. Plushies arranged at the foot of his bed.

He sat up, his fingers catching as he ran them through his tangled hair. He was tired, but he felt great.

Well. He'd feel better after a shower and breakfast. He hadn't been this hungry in forever.

Yawning, he stretched his arms back until his shoulders popped. Then his eyes fell upon the foot of his bed, and he froze.

That was not a plush.

Plushies didn't breathe. That was not a thing that happened.

Cautiously, Fred slid out of bed and crept out into the hallway.

It was nine-thirty and the house was silent. Was Heathcliff awake? Probably. Were the guys still here? That was a solid maybe. Fred glanced back at the bed, frowning, then closed the door behind him. He'd... he'd deal with that later.

One five-minute shower later, Fred felt like a brand-new human being. He ventured back to his room, to find that the... development at the foot of his bed hadn't changed. For a while he stood and stared at it, nonplussed, then turned on his heel and left again.

He found Heathcliff downstairs, or Heathcliff found him. “Master Frederick,” he remarked. He sounded vaguely surprised, which by Heathcliff standards was about the equivalent of jumping for joy. “You're up and about. Feeling better?”

“Like a million bucks,” Fred said cheerfully. “I'm starving, though.”

“Ah,” Heathcliff mused. “Back to normal, then.”

Only Heathcliff could make that feel like a hug.

“Yup!” Fred beamed, feeling even better by the minute. “By the way, was there, like, a door or a window left open last night?”

“Not to my knowledge.”

“Okay then, just wondering.” One possibility eliminated. If Heathcliff said no doors or windows were left open, then it was as good as gospel.

Heathcliff had set out a full breakfast spread and a stack of clean plates for when the others started arriving. Hiro and Gogo came downstairs around the time Fred was sitting down to eat. Both of them looked dead tired, but when Fred turned and waved, they were immediately wide-awake.

“You're up.” Gogo gaped openly. “Are you okay?'

“I feel awesome! C'mon, guys, Heathcliff made French toast!” Fred proceeded to drown his toast in a modest amount of maple syrup.

“No way.” Hiro looked sideways at him as he pulled a chair out for himself. “Just yesterday you looked like death warmed over – you were scaring the crap out of me before we left.”

Fred faltered for a moment, hastily putting down the syrup before it could slip from his hands. Last night was not something he wanted to think about right now – or ever, if possible. “Oh yeah – how's Abigail?” Fred sat up straighter, eager to change the subject. “She okay?”

“We think so,” Gogo said as she got started on her own food. “She woke up after we got off the island – didn't remember a thing. But she wasn't hurt, so we dropped her off at home and went looking for Hiro. And... well...” She shot a dubious look at Hiro, who sighed deeply with resignation.

“It's a long story,” he mumbled.

“Cool. Before you get into that-” Fred glanced at the door to make sure Heathcliff wasn't coming back. “One quick question.”

Hiro raised an eyebrow. “What?”

“There's a fox sleeping on my bed. What gives?”

The other two exchanged glances. “Oh, that's where he went,” Gogo muttered.

“He followed me home,” Hiro added.

“Well, I'm instantly jealous,” Fred said. “Where'd he come from?”

“Long story,” Hiro grumbled.

Fred rolled his eyes. “Oh, then I guess I don't care after all. Seriously, come at me, bro.”

Reluctantly, Hiro laid it all out for him. Fred got the feeling he was summarizing, like he was embarrassed about the whole thing and wanted to get it out as fast as possible. By the time he finished, Fred was staring at him, appalled.

“Dude.” Fred said flatly. “I don't believe you.”

Hiro shut his eyes. “I know, I know, it's-”

“I don't believe you – you met Santa Claus and you didn't even invite me?” Fred demanded. “Come on! Come on!

Hiro's eyes flew open wide. “Hey, I didn't have much of a choice, and you weren't even there!”

“Still.” Fred shook his head. “Santa Claus. And the Tooth Fairy. I thought we were bros, Hiro. How could you do this to me?”

“Are...” Hiro eyed him suspiciously. “Are you messing with me, or do you actually believe me? It's really hard to tell with you.”

“Dude, I don't know if you've noticed, but I believe in a lot of things.” Fred paused. “Okay, so I was kind of on the fence. But after hearing all that, I am officially off the fence.” He grinned. “This is awesome.”

The relief coming off Hiro was palpable. “I'm still having trouble with it myself,” he admitted. “But I'm still wondering – what happened with you? How'd you just... get better?”

Fred's mouth went dry, but he shoved a forkful of French toast in to buy time, shrugging for good measure. “You got me,” he said when he trusted himself to talk again.

“What happened?” Hiro pressed. “Do you remember anything?”

Fred remembered plenty – just not anything he wanted to discuss with Hiro, or anyone, for that matter. He shrugged again, feeling uncomfortably defensive. “I dunno, all I remember was, like, trippy Stephen-King-level nightmares. And then... just... I dunno.” He focused on his food again. “One second my brain is a Stanley Kubrick hallucination, and the next I'm waking up and I feel fine. Great, even.”

“Huh.” Fred looked over to see Gogo focused on her phone. “Well how about that.”

“How about what?” Hiro asked.

“I just texted my aunt on a hunch,” she said. “My cousin Laura's been sick, but this morning she got up, ate half her weight in Fruit Loops, and now she's playing video games like nothing happened.”

“So... is it turning around, then?” Fred asked cautiously. “Does this mean it's winding down?”

“I don't know what it means,” Hiro sighed. “Sant– um. North told me Nightmares were causing it – latching on like leeches and draining people. But he didn't say anything about why they'd just stop.”

“This is insane,” Gogo muttered. “We're taking advice from Jolly Old Saint Nick. What's next, are we gonna hash out battle plans with the Easter Bunny?”

Hiro hesitated. “Well now that you mention it-”

Gogo swore fluently and stabbed her fork into her food.

“So,” Fred leaned his elbows on the table and rested his chin on his fists. “Hiro. Spill. What were they like? Don't leave anything out.”

“Santa has some serious ink,” Hiro began, which in Fred's opinion was the perfect way to start. “Also I think the North Pole might be in Russia...”

Wasabi and Honey Lemon came down around when Hiro was describing the Tooth Fairy, and he broke off so that Fred could give them a proper good morning. As quickly as they could, they all caught Fred up on the events of the previous night. Fred was thoroughly sorry he'd been sick – he'd missed out on absolutely everything.

“So, my main question is this,” Wasabi said at length. “What now? Where do we go from here?”

“Are we gonna team up with Santa Claus?” Fred asked, half-jokingly. When Hiro didn't laugh it off, he sat a little straighter. “Hey, are we? 'Cause like...” His voice trailed off. “I mean... seriously, guys. Seriously.”

“Welp, we broke Fred all over again,” Gogo said dryly. “Nice going, guys.”

“Maybe the the fox is here to be a go-between?” Honey suggested. “He's supposed to be a kitsune, right? Don't they turn into people?”

“Yeah, y'know, we've been calling him 'he' this whole time,” Wasabi pointed out. “I thought kitsune were supposed to be girls.”

Hiro shrugged. “The others said 'he', so I'm just assuming. Besides, there are some stories where they appear as old men.” He frowned. “And...”

“And what?” Wasabi prompted.

“I dunno, I get the feeling the others didn't plan on him coming back with me.” Hiro shifted in his seat. “You guys should've seen it, the moment he saw me he went nuts.”

“Nuts how?” Gogo asked. “Like a good kind of nuts or a bad kind of nuts?”

“He was ridiculously happy to see me,” Hiro said. “I think if he wasn't a fox, he would've tried to hug me. Apparently he's new and he doesn't have a lot of believers yet. But anyway, it's like they decided to have him go with me on a whim.”

“Did they say anything else about him?” Honey pressed.

Hiro thought for a moment, massaging his forehead as if warding off a headache. “Oh, yeah, they said that he was 'stuck.' They didn't say how, or what that meant. But taking a guess, I think that means he's stuck as a fox, which probably also means he's stuck not talking to us. If... if that's even a thing he can do.”

“Maybe he can write stuff down?” Fred piped up. “I didn't get a good look – you think he could hold a pencil in his little fox hands? Does he have fox thumbs?”

“Fred...” Wasabi said wearily.

“No wait a minute, we have keyboards. He could totally press buttons with his little fox nose.”

“Yes, Fred, sticking 'fox' in front of all your nouns clears things right up,” Gogo said dryly.

“Um, no one's answered my question,” Wasabi said. “Seriously. What now? Where do we even go from here?”

“I sort of have an answer for that,” Hiro said hesitantly. “I don't know details or steps or anything, but I do know that the endgame is to get Callaghan away from those things.”

“Because he's the one powering them,” Gogo said, narrowing her eyes thoughtfully.

“Sort of. I'm not sure exactly how it works – this is magic, not science – but basically, the nightmare things can usually only go after kids, but since they're using Callaghan, they can go after everybody.” Hiro paused for breath. “That's how they got to Fred, I think.”

Fred suppressed a shudder. He wasn't sure how successful he was hiding it. Inwardly he shook himself, and pressed forward. “So it's like movie ghosts then.”

“How so?” Honey blinked at him.

“It's like, in movies about ghosts and demons and stuff it's usually just the kids that figure out something's up, right? And the parents are all 'not now, kiddo, it's just your imagination,' and then it's too late and the house implodes.” Fred paused, mentally groping for his point. “So this is more like the ghost is possessing somebody, and then it doesn't matter if adults can see it, all they have to do is ghost-punch somebody. Uh, nightmare-punch. With their possessed human hands. It's how they, like, function on this plane of existence. Does that make sense? I might still be loopy from being sick.”

“No, that was a normal level of loopy,” Gogo assured him.

Wasabi shook his head despairingly. “That's how I know there's no hope. Fred's starting to make perfect sense.”

“I sort of want to bring the fox in on this,” Honey said cautiously. “I know he can't talk, but he's pretty emotive. He might give us some feedback on this.”

“I dunno, he was kind of dead to the world when I left.” Fred wiped his plate with his last piece of french toast and popped it in his mouth. “I could go check on him again,” he said with his mouth full. For once, Wasabi didn't bother calling him on it.

“Sure,” Hiro answered. “Hurry back, though. We've got a lot to talk about and I want everybody in on it this time.”

The fox was up and about when Fred got back to his room. It was wandering groggily around, maybe exploring, maybe making itself comfortable, maybe a little bit of both. Fred stopped at the door, feeling hesitant. He had no reason whatsoever to think the fox was dangerous; Hiro and the others seemed pretty cool with it, and if the fox had wanted to chew his face off, it could have done that anytime while Fred was asleep. Still, Fred had seen enough movies and read enough comics to know that a mysterious intelligent animal could go really go either way on the scale of Helpful Fluffy Companion to Malevolent Animal Saboteur. Foxes especially. You could never be too careful.

It glanced up when he walked in, and almost immediately trotted over with all the disarming innocence of a friendly puppy. Before Fred could figure out what it wanted, it was getting under his feet and almost tripping him up in its excitement. Fred wobbled, stumbling to regain his balance.

“Whoa, geez – hey, watch it,” he warned. “I've been sick lately, I'm kinda not all here yet.”

At this, the fox backed off and seated itself a few feet away, tail twitching. It still stretched its head forward, studying him with bright, intelligent eyes. There was something familiar about that look, and it nagged at him like an itch in the back of his mind.

“So... uh... we've been talking about you. And stuff.” Fred fidgeted awkwardly, and decided he didn't really have it in him to do this conversation standing up. With a sigh, he crossed to his bed and plunked himself down. It didn't help – sitting on his bed made him think of sleeping, and thinking of sleeping made him think of last night's deranged nightmare fest. He'd been distracted up til now, his dreams fogged up in his memory the way dreams usually were, but now in the quiet of his room there were bits and pieces coming back to him.

He shuddered, and slid down to sit on the floor and press at his forehead with his palms.

These nightmare things fought dirty.

A slight pressure on his ankle made him look up. The fox had approached him again, and was sitting with its front paw resting lightly on Fred's foot. It blinked at him, and Fred could have sworn that the look in the animal's yellow eyes was one of concern.

It tugged at his memory again, in a way that stirred up old hurts that he'd learned to ignore. Fred shook his head to clear it, and gently prodded the fox until it backed off. “I'm fine, it's cool, just...”

The fox looked almost hurt, but before he could take back the gesture, it wandered off to continue exploring his room. Fred let it go and ran his fingers through his hair, trying to settle his brain.

So. Nightmares. The kind of nightmares that burrowed into his brain and made him watch his dead friend burn to death. Multiple times. Getting closer each time, like an angry ghost. Bile rose in his throat at the thought, and he forced himself to think of other things – comic book crossovers, Steven Universe, the True Pacifist ending of Undertale. Happy throughts, Fred. Was this what all those sick kids were dealing with? How many more of them were still stuck like that? And why was he okay now? What was so special about him?

A noise from across the room made him look up, to see the fox sitting on his desk and nosing open one of the drawers. Still slow on the uptake, Fred didn't remember what was in that drawer until the fox was already pawing it out.

“H-hey, wait a sec!” Scrambling up, Fred ran across the room to snatch the slip of paper out from under the fox's paw. “Don't touch that, it's-” He broke off, smoothing out the note. The fox was watching him curiously, ears pricked forward.

Fred had memorized every inch of it. Soot-smudged fingerprints, and the words Please be careful in neat, familiar handwriting. It was impossible, but it existed. It was. And Fred had no idea what it meant.

“It's just...” He looked at the fox, and the wide-eyed, disarming curiosity on its face, and sank down into his desk chair. “I found this months ago. When we first started doing our whole...” He gestured vaguely at his comic collection. “...thing.” Carefully he placed the note back on his desk and pushed it away. “I never told anybody. I lost the note, and then I found it later, but I just... kept it to myself. Was that wrong? Maybe it was wrong. I don't know what I would've said anyway.” Why was he saying this? Was it because the fox couldn't talk, so it had no way of telling the others if it wanted to? No, there was a reason beyond that, he could feel it, but he was at a loss for what that reason was. His throat tightened, making it hard to speak. “There's only one person who could've written that. But it's impossible, because he's dead.” The urge to cry came and went in a matter of seconds, and he shrugged it off as he had for months. “I feel like I'm going crazy, and that was before all this magic stuff happened, you know?”

The fox jumped lightly from the desk to Fred's lap, and sat there with one paw on Fred's arm, staring up at him with something that looked kind of like a smile, but it was hard to tell on an animal face. It... did kind of help, actually. With a sigh, Fred sat back and petted it. He paused, wondering if a magical fox spirit would be offended if he treated it like a pet dog, but the kitsune simply gave him a look that was almost amused.

This was a bit much.

“I am...” Fred tilted his head back. “...really tired. I really shouldn't be, 'cause I've been sleeping for days, but God am I tired.”

A moment later, the fox's weight left his lap. Fred glanced up just in time to see it go pelting out of the room.

He considered going after it, but again, he was tired. Maybe it would come back on its own. Maybe it would go see the others, and they'd call him down to discuss things. For a while he sat, massaging his forehead with the heels of his hands. He lost track of the minutes.

Something plopped into his lap, and he yelped. Startled, he looked around to find the fox sitting before him once more, tail around its paws, watching him with its head tilted to one side. Blinking, Fred looked down to see what the fox had brought him.

There was a banana in his lap.

Fred gaped at it, uncomprehending, and then–

Oh.

Oh.

No. No, it couldn't be...

One of the others must have put it up to this, they all knew about that stupid joke–

Fred squawked when the fox jumped into his lap again, only to use him as a springboard to get back up on the desk. Before Fred's shocked eyes, the fox pressed the slip of paper and pushed it toward him. But that wasn't what Fred noticed.

His eyes were fixed on the desk itself, where the fox's paw had left a little smear of black soot on the wooden surface.

“No,” he whispered. “No, that's not – that's impossible.” He looked the fox in the eye again, and... there it was.

There it was, staring him in the face the same way the fox was. He knew those eyes – he'd seen them before, that very night. It hurt to think about, the dull ache of an old half-healed wound, but it was so clear now, once he stopped fighting it. Just like the note, it was impossible, and yet it was.

The very end of his last nightmare. Yellow eyes, a familiar face, a familiar voice, and a hug.

I'm right here. I'm not going anywhere.

“...Tadashi?”

Foxes couldn't smile, but the look in this one's eyes was so close it hurt. The eyes were yellow, not brown, but Fred recognized those eyes, and he recognized that look, and he recognized the person behind them. This was someone he knew, this was his friend–

The tears came all the way out this time. There was no holding them back, so Fred let them come, and it felt right. For the first time in the past weeks of fear and exhaustion and nightmares, maybe even longer than that, Fred felt right.

He gathered the fox – Tadashi – in his arms and hugged him. He felt paws on his shoulders, a small animal's best effort to return the hug, and managed a watery chuckle.

“Heya, buddy,” he rasped out. “I missed you.”

 

Chapter Text

It was a while before Fred finally let go. The fox – Tadashi – Foxdashi? – was very patient with him through the whole thing. How long had it been? Were the others looking for him? Fred scrubbed at his face, just in case they were. If they saw him crying his eyes out, then they would ask why, and he would have to explain or make up an excuse or...

“They're never gonna believe me,” he blurted.

Tadashi blinked at him.

“I-it's true.” Fred gave his face one last wipe and smiled ruefully at Tadashi. “I'm the guy that jumps to the wrong conclusions. That's kind of my thing. Besides, if I walked in and told them you're Tadashi, Gogo would probably punch me or something, and I dunno if you wanted me to break the news to them but I don't think that's a good idea and... am I overthinking this?”

Tadashi shrugged.

“Maybe it'd be better if they found out from you,” Fred mused. “Like I did. Or if you, I dunno, recharge your power or something and change back. Nice and dramatic. Huge, climactic reveal, you know? That'd be... that'd be cool.” His eyes stung again, threatening to restart the tears. “Is this even fair? You're back and I can't even talk to you. Th-that's gotta be unfair, right? Or am I just being picky?”

With no other way to answer, Tadashi simply crept closer and sat down so that he was leaning against Fred. Without thinking Fred moved to pet him, but pulled his hand back at the last minute.

“Whoa, sorry, i-is that rude? I know you're not a, a pet dog or anything, I just...” It was hard to smile, but he was pretty sure he pulled it off. “I really can't deal with this, man. I really can't. I mean, maybe if I could, i-if I knew how to. But I don't. I'm completely lost.” Tadashi stretched upward and pushed his head into Fred's hand. Fred took that as an invitation to keep petting. “This kind of stuff happens in stories all the time, y'know? 'Specially comics. People come back to life all over the place in comics. I should feel totally prepared for this. But mostly I just feel like I might puke a little. Though that might just be leftover feels from those bad dreams.” He winced as the memory rose up again.

Beside him, Tadashi heaved a sigh.

“Was that you?” Steeling himself, he stopped petting and looked down. Tadashi was staring back with achingly familiar, utterly human eyes. They were yellow and slitted like a cat's, but they weren't so different – Tadashi was a worrywart, the secondary Mom Friend just behind Wasabi; he worried more about other people than he ever did about himself, and it always showed on his face. “What I dreamed last night. Was that real? Were... were you really there?”

Tadashi nodded

Fred's vision blurred without warning, and he barely caught himself before he could start crying again. “Oh,” he whispered. “Wow. I am... really sorry you had to see that.”

There was no verbal answer, of course. Just a forepaw on his lap, and the gentle weight of a fox leaning against his side.

Finally, after some time, he found it in himself to get up again. By that point, Tadashi had all but crawled into his lap, and rather than dump him out again Fred simply gathered him up and carried him out. His friend didn't protest in any way, nor did he seem unhappy about the arrangement. At least, Fred hoped so. Fox body language was still new to him.

When he found his way back to the dining room, the mood had changed. Honey was pacing excitedly, Gogo and Wasabi had sat down in a way that suggested that they really needed to sit down, and Hiro was heading for the door.

“Fred, good timing, I was about to come looking for y-” Hiro stopped short at the sight of him. “Geez, Fred, don't tell me you're sick again.”

It took a moment for Fred to register what he was saying. “Oh. Uh, I'm not.” Tadashi sat in his arms without a fuss, though the extremely humanlike expression of concern on his face was somewhat unsettling.

“Really?” Gogo sounded doubtful. “I mean you seemed fine when I got up, but now you look like you got hit by a train.”

“I'm with Gogo on this one,” Wasabi added. “What's the matter, Fred? And... is there a reason why you're treating the magical creature like a teddy bear?”

Fred glanced down at the fox, then back up at his friends. “My mind is full of why,” he said simply. “So what'd I miss?”

“That.” Hiro pointed back to the table. Spread out between Gogo and Wasabi's seats was an unrolled piece of very fancy paper. Not quite fancy or old-timey enough to be called a scroll, but it was thick and glossy with a message written in shining ink and flourishing handwriting. Fred was pretty sure he wasn't imagining the sparkles coming off of it.

“Huh.” He moved closer, eager for a distraction. Gently he set Tadashi down on the table so that his friend could have a closer look, too. “Where'd it come from?”

“Got delivered less than a minute ago,” Gogo replied.

“By who?”

“This,” Hiro replied. When Fred looked over, Hiro was tugging at the hood of his jacket. A moment later, something bright and quick and no bigger than a hummingbird came zipping out of the hood. It flitted closer with a high-pitched chirrup, stopping a few inches from Fred's face.

“Is... is that a fairy?” Fred almost yelped.

“It's a tooth fairy,” Hiro said. “Um. I think?”

That's the Tooth Fairy?” Wasabi asked incredulously.

“No, just... a fairy,” Hiro said. “Like, there was the Tooth Fairy, and she was the size of a regular person, and then there were these little tiny ones. I dunno, I guess she delegates or something.”

“Well, if you have to collect teeth year-round all over the world, that's pretty efficient,” Honey remarked. “That's not the half of it, though.” Lightly she tapped the page with the tip of her finger.

To our new friends in San Fransokyo-

I hope that by the time this reaches you, Hiro will have had enough time to explain things to you all. The Nightmares grow bolder all over the world, but the epicenter of their activity is your own city, because of the identity of their host. With our combined strength, I believe we can stop them and save both the ailing children and your Professor Callaghan.

Trust the fox. He is familiar with your poor professor. I cannot explain everything without revealing secrets that are not mine to tell, but he knows the man. He witnessed the destruction the professor caused even before the Nightmares took him, and has been fighting to protect your city from the darkness in that man's heart for at least as long as you have. He is young and he is new, but he will do all in his power to help and protect you. You can trust him – that much is plain fact.

For now, we send you a messenger. This fairy's name is Baby Tooth. She will stay with you while we look to the effects of Nightmares in other parts of the world, and alert us if they strike.

A word of warning – you flushed out the Nightmares at the lair they made on Akuma Island, and they were forced to battle all of us. They will most likely try to take over another hiding place. The fox may help you with this, as well. His power is strong against them. They fear him. And yes, Nightmares can feel fear. It makes them dangerous and unpredictable. Please be cautious.

Good luck, my young friends.

-N. North

“You know what?' Wasabi said. “I'm with Fred on this. My mind is also full of why.”

“That part about the fox,” Gogo said. Tadashi twitched. “All that stuff about witnessing Callaghan's destruction, fighting to protect the city... what's that supposed to mean? I didn't see a fox anywhere when we were after the guy. No offense,” she added with a glance at Tadashi.

“We couldn't see him, remember?” Honey pointed out. “He would've been invisible the whole time. We didn't even know he was here until Hiro pointed him out to us. The only person who saw him right away was Fred. Right, Fred?”

Fred was too busy gritting his teeth and trying not to freak out. Knowing what he did, the words in North's note meant so much more to him than it did to the others.

Tadashi saw. He saw Callaghan go supervillain and wreck everything. He was there. He was there the whole time and he saw the whole thing.

The fur on the scruff of Tadashi's neck was bristling.

“Fred?” Honey repeated.

“That... um.” Fred wrung his hands. “I might actually... know why I can see him.” He didn't think he should blurt out Tadashi's identity – not yet. Invisible foxes were one thing, but resurrected friends were another, and he didn't have the mental energy to have that conversation, not when he was still wrapping his own mind around it. But this much, he could tell. “It's because he helped me.”

“Helped you?” Wasabi echoed. “Helped you how?”

“I mean... my whole thing.” Fred gestured vaguely at his own head. “The Nightmares, the sleeping, the whole... everything. He fixed it.”

“Fixed it how?” Gogo asked, staring at the fox.

“The note says the Nightmares fear him,” Honey said quietly.

“Do kitsune have healing powers?” Gogo asked.

“In some stories, yeah,” said Hiro.

“It wasn't like that, though,” Fred went on. “It wasn't really healing, it was just... there were Nightmares in my head, right? Nasty ones.”

Hiro nodded. “That matches up with what North told me. He said they were latching on to people like parasites, giving them bad dreams, and feeding on their fear.”

“Exactly,” Fred said. “And T- er, the fox basically just jumped into my dreams and told them to get lost. And they did.”

“That simple?” Wasabi asked.

Fred shut his eyes, trying not to think of the tail end of the dream, where Tadashi burned in front of him again and again. He wondered if there was a magic spell that could let him un-see that. “It didn't... feel simple.” He shuddered. “Can I just... not talk about it? I don't really want to talk about it.”

“That's all right, Fred,” Honey Lemon assured him.

“Okay, so, this is all great,” Gogo broke in. “But what are we supposed to do? Just wait around until they pop up again? That sucks.”

“We patrol,” Hiro said decidedly. “It won't look out of place if we're out and about. Callaghan is a fugitive, after all. As far as people are concerned, our arch-nemesis is on the loose. They'll be expecting us to poke around for him. You up for this, Fred?”

“Definitely. I've done enough napping for the rest of my life.”

“Good.” Hiro glanced at each of them in turn. “We'll split off in pairs. Me and Baymax, Gogo and Wasabi, Honey and Fred. The fairy and the fox can stay with a pair. I'll see if Baymax's scanner can pick anything up, and I can direct you guys to places that seem likely. We'll keep our comms open, so no matter who finds what, we'll be able to send the fairy to get help from the North Pole.” He paused. “I... can't believe I just said that. Are we good?”

“Finally.” Gogo shoved herself back from the table. “I'm in.”

“Same here,” Honey said.

Wasabi heaved himself to his feet. “Guess it's go time.”

“Good.” Hiro gave a decisive nod. “I'll go get Baymax.”

Tadashi sprang down from the table and made to follow him, and Fred let himself smile. Still the protective big bro, even with four paws and a fluffy tail.

But Hiro paused when he noticed Tadashi tagging along. “You, uh... probably shouldn't follow me on this one.” Tadashi's tail drooped. “Sorry, but me and Baymax are gonna be watching from the sky. You'll probably be better off on the ground where you can, I dunno, sniff around or something. Sorry if that's rude,” he added quickly. “It's just, you'll mostly just be sitting around while we fly in strategic circles. You can come along if you're okay with that, I just figured you'd want to have a look around for yourself.”

Tadashi cocked his head, looking thoughtful. After a moment he nodded, then turned and trotted over to follow Fred.

Fred gritted his teeth until his jaw creaked. The exchange hurt to watch. Part of him longed to shout That's Tadashi! That's your brother, he's not dead, he came back and he's still here with us! But his tongue stuck to his teeth, and every possible explanation sounded absurd and trite in his head.

“Fred?” Honey Lemon tapped his arm gently. She looked down to where Tadashi sat at Fred's feet, waiting. “Are you coming with us, then?” A nod. “All right. We should go, then. You ready, Fred? We might be in for some more surprises.”

“Honey,” Fred said gravely. He overdid the solemnity in his voice, until it went so far past serious that it came around to funny again. “I don't think anything's going to surprise me, ever again.”

She laughed at how comically serious he sounded, but it was true.


By the tail end of the afternoon, Nozomi was absolutely certain – her watch was missing.

It was a nice watch, too. No bright crayon colors, no cartoon characters – it wasn't even digital. It was just a sensible watch with a red wristband and a shiny silver buckle. Her first grown-up watch. It used to be Yuuto's, but he'd given it to her after their parents got him a nicer digital one. Nozomi was half convinced that it was lucky. And now it was gone, but she was fairly sure she knew where she had lost it.

With no school that day and their parents busy, Yuuto had taken her to the movies, and then he had taken her out for pancakes. The children's menu had a coloring page full of puzzles and games, but Nozomi had been too busy eating pancakes and laughing at Yuuto's impressions of the movie characters to do any of it, so she folded it up and put it in her pocket with the red crayon it came with. It wasn't until they were getting into the car to go home that she finally plucked up the nerve to ask him for one more request.

“Can we stop at the Tea Garden?”

He raised an eyebrow at her. “Again?”

She fidgeted guiltily with her seatbelt. “I can't find my watch. I think it slipped off while we were there, and I want to go look for it.”

“We can get you another watch, Nozomi,” he told her.

“I like that watch,” Nozomi mumbled. “It's my favorite.”

Yuuto sighed and started the car, but it wasn't a disappointed sigh or even an annoyed sigh. It was the kind of sigh that said the same thing as a smile and a shaking head and What am I going to do with you, Nozomi? “Ahh, what the hey. We got time.” Nozomi cheered quietly in the backseat, knowing it would make her brother laugh.

They listened to the radio on the way – news, not music. Normally Nozomi tuned it out until Yuuto could hear the traffic report, but this time it was interesting news. The Big Heroes had been seen around town, spread out in pairs. No one knew what they were doing, and everyone thought it was best to stay out of their way.

“Hmm.” Yuuto tapped the wheel thoughtfully. “Wonder if something's going on.”

“Maybe they're looking for something, too,” Nozomi murmured.

“Either way, it might be a better idea for us to postpone this-”

“We can be quick,” Nozomi said. “I don't have to retrace my steps or anything, I can just go to the shrine and see if anyone turned it in. Then we'll go home.”

She watched her brother frown thoughtfully in the review mirror. “Well... I guess if there are superheroes poking around, it'll mean we're that much more safe,” he said finally. “I hope you mean that about being quick, though. Mom and Dad'll chew me out if we stay out too late.”

“We'll be fine.”

True to her word, she tried to be quick. She tried – Yuuto was awfully slow getting out of the car, so she was already heading to the garden path by the time he was locking the car doors. When she heard him calling to her she slowed down to wait, but quickly took off once he had caught up. The thud of his footsteps told her he was jogging to keep up, and he sighed loudly as if that would make her pity him. It wouldn't; he had longer legs than she did, so he wouldn't have any problem following her. Besides, even if she did get far ahead, it wasn't a big deal. She remembered the way, and she knew he would, too. The Tea Garden had plenty of paths, but it wasn't like it was a maze or something. They could both find their way perfectly fine.

A burst of energy had her running again. That happened a lot when she was going somewhere special; sometimes she'd get caught up in a little adventure, bounce off the walls, and then drive Yuuto up the wall. She assumed this sudden energy came from excitement or impatience; if she had paused to think about it, she might have noticed the prickle up her spine, or the queasy feeling in her stomach. But no, this visit was supposed to be quick and simple – go in, look for her watch, and leave.

Besides, she would be safe in the Tea Garden. She knew that much.

Nozomi finally slowed down again when a root tripped her up. A glance at the sky had her frowning. How late was it? It couldn't be that far into the evening already, could it? Her foot snagged again, and she hop-skipped forward and glared down at the offending roots. The path ought to be nicer, shouldn't it? It was a walking path in a man-made garden, so who was careless enough to let roots grow over it?

No one, she realized a moment later. There were no roots at all.

Now she felt the nervousness.

“Yuuto, maybe you were right,” she said. “I didn't know it was so late, but we can come back some other...”

Her voice trailed off when she realized that she was speaking to empty air.

“Yuuto?” She took a step in the direction she had come from. She wasn't afraid yet. She'd probably been running too fast, and it would take him a few moments to catch up.

A few moments passed. And then a few more. Nozomi listened for footsteps, or loud sighs, or her brother's voice calling her name, but the garden was empty and still around her.

This time, a tremor entered her voice. “Yuuto?” she tried again. More silence. “...N-nii-san?”

She shifted her feet on the path, scraping her shoes against the dirt for the sake of making some kind of sound. It was as dark as evening – not too dark to see, but not light enough to make her feel safer.

“This isn't funny,” she called. “I-I'm sorry. We can go home, I promise. Please don't joke like this.” But he wasn't, and she knew he wasn't; Yuuto never joked about things like this. And even with the things he did joke about, he always stopped when she asked.

She turned to face forward again, hands curling into fists. The shrine lay farther ahead. Yuuto knew she was going there, so if he couldn't find her then that was the first place he would look. And... maybe he would be upset with her, but that was fine. The important thing was that he would be able to find her.

And besides, she reminded herself, there was nothing to be afraid of. Not in the Tea Garden. She would be safe in the Tea Garden because this was where she had met Tadashi. Tadashi liked this place. Maybe it was even “his” place. She didn't have to be afraid here. She just had to keep walking, and get to the shrine.

...Where was the shrine, from here?

Her stomach twisted, and she clenched her fists until her nails bit into her palms. No, she thought desperately. Fight this. You know the way. You know the way, and you remember how to get there.

But the way the shadows crept in made the garden look different. Trees and plants that had once been familiar landmarks were now dark and forbidding. Nozomi forced herself forward, eyes as wide as she could manage, as if she could somehow see better that way. She'd been just fine before she tripped. She had remembered the way to go. She knew that. She knew it in her bones. She knew it in her heart.

But her head was what got in the way, and told her that she was–

No.

No, don't even think about it.

She wasn't–

She was not

But I am, a treacherous part of her whispered. She was. Nothing was familiar to her. No possible path looked right.

She was lost.

Her throat seized, eyes burned, and it was all she could do to keep from bursting into tears right then and there. Her pulse jumped ahead, until her chest was tight and she could feel her heartbeat in her ears.

She was lost. Okay. So she was lost. What was it Mom always said to do? Stay in one place. Don't move. Find somewhere to sit if you need to, but don't wander around. Stay in one place, and that way we can find you.

That was fine. She could do that. She could just... stay in the dark, creepy garden all by herself and hope that Yuuto caught up.

No, Plan B, she thought. If I can't go forward, I can go back. I can retrace my steps. Go back to the car and wait. Yuuto's going to yell at me, but I want to get out. I need to get out.

Her decision made, she turned around to go back the way she had come.

The garden stretched before her, even darker than it had been before, almost as dark as night. It felt as if the blackness hit her in the face, and the fear struck her like a punch in the stomach. She didn't scream, and she didn't cry, but she let slip a quiet, high-pitched whimper.

Before her eyes, the shadows moved.

They came alive, like something huge and dark and wriggling. Like some nameless, vast thing that belonged at the bottom of the sea or in a cave deep beneath the earth, and not in a beautiful garden like this. Not in the place where she had first met a kitsune.

Nozomi stood frozen as the darkness came alive and moved toward her in a shifting, writhing mass. When she found the strength to take a step back, something tripped her again. She saw it as she tumbled to the ground – it was not a root. She wasn't sure what it was. All she knew was that it was black and twisting like a tentacle before it vanished back into the rest of the shadows.

They were reaching for her. She could feel them reaching, watching, as if the darkness had millions of invisible eyes, all staring at her as they came closer.

And in the midst of the black, there was one point of white. Desperate for some speck of light, Nozomi looked to the spot as it grew larger. No, not larger – closer. It was coming closer, moving with the shadows.

A white face.

Just like the whispers in the schoolyard said.

A white face, slashed with red. Cracked like a broken mask, with darkness leaking through.

Terror shot through her, and the nightmares roiled. Life flooded back into her limbs, and Nozomi scrambled to her feet and fled from it. Her frenzied steps took her away from the path that would lead out of the garden and back to the parking lot, but that hardly mattered if she couldn't have found it anyway. She ran, heedless of paths and plants and the way she was going, or the way to the shrine, or the way to anything. “To” didn't matter. All that mattered was “from”, and she was running from the nightmares before they could get her like they got Everett and Laura, like they almost got her that one night before the fox came and chased them away.

The fox.

Tadashi – where was Tadashi?

Tears gathered in her eyes, turning her vision blurry as well as dark. She could feel the nightmares at her heels, slithering like snakes and crawling like bugs. Things brushed against her face, and she told herself they were spiderwebs because spiderwebs were the least terrible things they could possibly be. Her lungs burned, and her throat hurt too much to breathe right. Nozomi coughed on a sob and ran until her breath came in noisy, frantic gasps. She tripped again, though this may have been her own clumsy stumbling, without any help from the nightmares. She landed hard, skinning her knee, and waited for the icy touch of nightmares crawling on her. It was only a matter of time before they caught up with her. Curling in on herself, she screamed for her brother until her throat was dry.

She didn't want the nightmares to get her. She didn't want to get sick. She didn't want to fall asleep in a dark room and get trapped in that horrible place where Everett went. She wanted to go home.

H-h-hel...” Her voice came out raspy and quiet. “H-help...” She crouched in the dirt, covering her head as if her arms would shield the rest of her. “Tadashi... help me.” Nozomi tried to take a deep breath, but all she could manage was a sniffle and a sob.

As if in answer, a high-pitched bark reached her ears.

Slowly, gathering her courage, Nozomi opened her eyes.

The nightmares were a cold breath of air against her back, but they did not touch her yet. She could not see the white face anywhere, but she was sure that if she turned around, it would be there, staring at her in the heart of the nightmares. She did not turn around.

Ahead of her, a fox stood on the path. Nozomi's heart lifted, until she wiped her eyes to clear the tears and saw it more clearly in the fading light. Its fur was red in only a few places; mostly it was ashy gray with white underneath. It wasn't Tadashi.

But...

Another bark, this one from farther away, made her look away. It was too dim to see far, but there was still enough light to reflect on a distant pair of eyes peering out from the bushes. Nozomi closed her own and listened. The garden was not quite as silent as she had thought – she could not hear people, but she could hear animals. Rustling in the bushes. Distant, high-pitched baying.

Foxes.

Of course.

That spring had brought foxes to Golden Gate Park. Some said they could mostly be seen in the Tea Garden. Some said they brought good luck. People said lots of things, but no one knew why they had come. But Nozomi?

She had thought before, but now she knew for sure. Tadashi had brought them. Whether he'd meant to or not, he'd brought them.

Nozomi wiped her eyes and rose to her feet. Her knee stung, and her ankle hurt, but it wasn't too bad. She could still run. The gray fox still stood in the path, and she stepped toward it carefully to make sure it didn't run away.

“Take me to the shrine,” she whispered. Behind her, the nightmares swarmed toward her.

But they didn't catch her, because she was already running again. The fox pelted ahead of her, and when Nozomi opened her ears she could hear rustling all around. A glance to the side showed her the flash of reflective eyes amid the darkness of the garden.

Nightmares caught at her ankles, trying to trip her, but she kicked and ran and stumbled, fighting to stay on her feet and keep running. If she tripped, she might lose the fox. If she fell, the nightmares would catch her. Fear rose in her throat, thick and cloying, but she ignored the sting of fresh tears and kept running.

The fox did not slow or halt until it had reached the foot of the stone steps. Nozomi managed a breathless “Thank you,” before hurling herself up them, using her hands to pull herself up with all the speed she could manage.

She felt the change when she entered the shrine's ground. It was the tiniest shift – the ground felt firmer under her feet, and even the darkness seemed to lift, if only a little. Breathing heavily, she turned around.

A man stood at the foot of the steps, staring up at her. At least, Nozomi thought it was a man. He was cloaked in black shadows, and the cracked white mask hid his face. Or maybe the mask was his face. Nozomi wasn't sure.

She sniffled, and the tears spilled over, but she was safe. Trapped, but safe. And now she didn't want Yuuto to find her, because what if the nightmares got Yuuto? What would she do then?

There was only one choice, that she could see. She had to make sure Tadashi found her first. And luckily, she was in the right place to do it.

The shrine was empty of people – was it closed for the day, or had the nightmares driven everyone away? She wasn't sure, and it didn't matter. It meant she couldn't find an ema.

She would have to make do with what she had.

The nightmares wanted in. They couldn't get in, but they wanted to – she could hear it in the way the shadows hissed and whispered. Nozomi didn't want to wait around for them to find a way. Still sniffling, she fumbled the coloring page and the crayon out of her pocket, unfolded it, and turned it over to the blank back. There was no good flat place to write on, and her hand shook with fear and weariness, but she took up the crayon and drew a fox as best she could. Beside the drawing, she wrote her friend a message.

Tadashi I need help. The nightmares are in your garden and I can't find my brother. Please come find me, I'm trying not to be scared. From, Nozomi.

She had no string, but after a quick search she found a piece of grass long enough to serve her. Tearing a small hole in the paper, she threaded the grass through and hung her message alongside the other ema.

“Please work,” she whispered as the nightmares surrounded her sanctuary.


In another part of San Fransokyo, Tadashi stopped short and turned his head in the direction of Golden Gate Park. His fur bristled, and every supernatural sense he possessed went off like a cacophony of alarm bells.

 

Chapter Text

Someone was calling him. He had only felt this way once before, but he wasn't about to forget it in a hurry. The last time this feeling had come upon him, it had led him to new believers and a new power.

It had also led him to Nightmares.

By now Tadashi had turned fully in the direction that the feeling was urging him to go. That was where Golden Gate Park lay, and the Tea Garden where he knew the shrine was.

He looked back, kneading the ground with his paws. Fred and Honey were already moving on. If he slipped away to take care of this, would he be able to find them later? What if they found something and he missed it?

Knucklehead. He could have kicked himself. They were looking for Nightmares too, weren't they? And if this calling was anything like the first one, then it had a good chance of steering him in the right direction. And not only that – he looked down at himself, frustrated – what was he supposed to do when he was like this? He couldn't talk, he could barely use any magic, and even if he could fix things by slipping into someone's dreams, it would probably waste him again.

No, he needed help. He only hoped they could forgive him if he ended up dragging them back and forth across the city.

Tadashi ran after his friends, yipping urgently. He caught the tail of Fred's suit in his teeth, tugging insistently until Fred noticed.

“Huh?” Fred turned around. “What is it?”

Releasing his friend's costume, he turned and followed the pull. He paused and looked back, barking again and jerking his head at them to follow.

“Did you, uh, smell something?” Fred asked. “Nightmares? Timmy stuck in a well?”

“Fred,” Honey chided him gently.

Tadashi growled at them impatiently.

“I'm pretty sure that's fox for 'Follow me,'” Fred said with a shrug. “Let's go.”

“We have no idea where he's going,” Honey pointed out. “And Hiro told us to focus on this part of the town, remember?”

“Welp, change in plans. Now we're following T– uh, the fox.” Fred broke into a jog to catch up. “C'mon. Santa Claus said trust the fox, didn't he?”

“If you're sure,” Honey muttered back.

Satisfied, Tadashi picked up the pace. Before long he was running, glancing back only to make sure that the others were keeping up.

This must have looked so odd to anyone who caught a glimpse of them. It really didn't matter whether they Believed or not. If they didn't, then they would see two of San Fransokyo's beloved heroes running pell-mell through the streets for no apparent reason. If they did, then they would see two of San Fransokyo's beloved heroes chasing a fox through the streets, for no apparent reason. For their sake he kept to quieter streets and less populated areas – places where anyone hanging around were the kind of people who wouldn't risk tangling with a pair of superheroes.

It would be faster if he could just tell them where he was going. They were still a ways away, but the pull was familiar and he knew with bone-deep certainty where it was taking him. The Tea Garden – his safe place. He had met his first believer there.

If he only had some way to tell them–!

As if in answer to his wish, he turned a corner and spotted his solution. It was nothing too elaborate – just a street sign pointing to the various landmarks in San Fransokyo. City Hall was one way, the public library another, and on down the list to the words “Golden Gate Park” with a helpful arrow and distance marker. Too tall to reach, but that didn't matter when there was a perfectly good newspaper box right next to it. With a running start, he managed to leap up and scrabble his way on top of the box.

Honey and Fred caught up with him. “Here? What's here?” Fred's full attention was on him. “Is this where you're trying to get to?”

Tadashi shook his head.

“Then where?” Honey Lemon pressed. “Why did you stop?”

Turning, Tadashi stretched up and braced one paw against the signpost to balance on his hind legs. With his other forepaw, he reached upward and tapped “Golden Gate Park”.

His friends exchanged glances. “I think we can take a few shortcuts, don't you?” said Fred.

“Yup.” Honey Lemon stepped forward briskly and scooped Tadashi off of the newspaper box. “Sorry, foxy, but it'll be faster this way. Here we go!”

They had been brushing up on their parkour, Tadashi noted as he hung from Honey's arms. Fred's suit had the super-jump feature, he knew, but Honey kept up quite well on her own. He could have flown there unimpeded if he hadn't burned himself out on Akuma Island, but this way they were going a lot faster than they had been by just booking it through the streets.

The city passed him by too slowly for his liking. They were still following the pull, but being carried felt like being motionless to Tadashi's impatient mind. When they finally touched down on the grass, Tadashi wasted no time in wriggling out of Honey's arms. Once his paws were on the ground again, he took off like a shot once more.

“Where is he going?” he heard Honey Lemon say as his friends rushed to follow him.

“I don't know,” Fred answered. “But he does, and since he's the one leading the way, that's good enough for me.”

“How're we supposed to trust him when he can't even tell us anything?”

A twinge of guilt struck Tadashi. Not that long ago, he'd been making the same complaint about the Woman in the Moon.

If I could tell you, I would, he thought. If I could just talk to you, I don't think I'd ever stop. I'd tell you everything. He plunged ahead, until he could see the edge of the Tea Garden drawing into view.

An icy claw gripped him as he looked at it, and he stumbled mid-step. His determined pace slowed to a trot, and his ears went back as if they had a life of their own. The fur on his tail bristled

The grass beneath his paws turned to pavement, and he finally slowed to a walk when he entered the parking lot. Cold, familiar fear clutched at his chest, and a cautious growl rose in his throat before he could stop it.

Behind him, his friends had slowed down to match his pace.

“What is it?” Honey asked quietly. “What's the matter?”

“Hey, Honey,” Fred murmured to her. “Does the Tea Garden look... weird, to you?”

Beneath the Garden's trees, darkness had fallen that did not match the gentle shades of evening around them. The air in front of him, wafting from the Garden like spreading mist, seemed colder. Tadashi's ears swiveled this way and that, but all he could detect was a heavy quiet.

There was one car parked in the lot, and that scared him almost as much as the atmosphere of the place. There were Nightmares in the Garden, in his Garden, and as if that wasn't bad enough, there may very well be people in there too.

This is it, he thought, though he was at a loss to why. The three words were stuck in his head, like a persistent tune that wouldn't go away. This is it. This is it. This is it.

“Call Hiro,” he tried to say, but it came out as a high-pitched yip. Desperately he pawed at Fred's leg, fur bristling. He stopped short, and rested his foreleg against his friend's shin.

Beneath the suit, Fred was shaking.

“What is that?” Fred whispered.

“Freddie?” Honey sounded worried. She put her hand on his arm. “Fred, you're shaking. Tell me what's wrong.”

“I-is that-” Fred looked down at Tadashi, lifting the hood of his suit back. “That feeling. That's Nightmares, isn't it?”

Tadashi turned to the darkened Garden before them and growled.

“Y-yeah,” Fred said shakily. “Okay. Thought so.”

“What feeling?” Honey pressed gently.

“It's... I dunno how to describe it.” Fred took a step toward the Garden. “It's just... cold. And I can't – I mean, I can move, but I just... don't want to.” Tadashi pressed against his leg and felt his friend tremble.

“Hiro.” Honey Lemon's voice came out cool and calm. “We're at the Tea Garden, in Golden Gate Park. We – no, I know. The fox led us here, and Fred says he feels something. Possibly Nightmares.” She was quiet a moment more, probably listening to Hiro's reply. “Eight minutes,” she said at length.

The pull turned painful, like a slipknot tied around his heart. Whoever had called him was running out of time. Eight minutes of waiting around was eight minutes too many. Snorting, he sprang forward and headed toward the edge of the Garden.

“H-hey, wait a minute!” The sound of footsteps told him that Fred was following him.

“Both of you, wait!” Honey called. “The others are on the way! We shouldn't go in there alone!”

Tadashi skidded to a halt and turned to face Fred with a sharp warning bark. Startled, Fred skidded to a halt.

“W-whoa, what's up with you?”

Tadashi growled. There was a child in trouble, and their cry for help was pulling him toward the shrine. That was his job now – it didn't mean he needed to drag his two friends along with him. Especially Fred. The thought of him eaten from the inside by a parasitic Nightmare was going to haunt Tadashi for a long time. The last thing he wanted was to lead him straight into what was probably a teeming nest of the things.

Fred took another step forward, only to stop when Tadashi barked at him again. Throwing back his hood, he glared down at Tadashi. “What're you yelling at me for?” he demanded. “If you're going in, we're coming too!”

No, you're not. Tadashi bared his teeth and growled again.

“I'm sorry, the superheroes are who now?” Fred retorted. “You seriously think we're letting you run in there alone? I thought foxes were supposed to be smart.”

He was running out of time. Arguing was wasting the seconds away.

“You go in, we go in,” Fred said firmly. “Take it or leave it.”

The cry for help squeezed at him until he thought his heart would stop. Mind made up, Tadashi turned and plunged into the Garden.

Around him, the temperature plummeted. The chill crawled beneath his fur and sank into his skin until he shivered with each step. He ran on instinct, letting his senses lead him along like a towrope. Outside the garden was early evening, but within it may as well have been night.

The shadows were moving. Creeping close to the ground like sentient mist, they moved closer and curled toward his feet.

Fear rose within him. His first instinct was to force it down, to bottle it up deep inside and ignore it until he could tell himself it wasn't there. It was a struggle, but he ignored the urge. Instead, he simply let the fear come and do as it would, and focused on the pull.

The pull was neither a happy thought nor an unhappy one. It was simply a purpose. It was something that needed to be done. And in the end, that was all he needed, wasn't it? He didn't need to not be afraid; he simply needed to do what had to be done. And when he kept his mind focused on that, he could plunge through the black mist like thin spiderwebs. The Nightmares could hiss and creep around all they wanted, but they couldn't stop him. He wasn't going to let his fear tell him what to do.

The memory of a cold, lilting voice curled in his mind. A rather infuriating thorn, for the Nightmares, Pitch had called him. A light in the dark. You worry them.

Good. They were possessing his teacher, threatening the kids in his city, and skulking around in his Garden like they owned the place. They should be worried.

Forcing himself to slow his pace, he made sure Honey and Fred were close behind him. He snarled deep in his throat, hoping that the threat would be enough to drive the Nightmares back.

His ears twitched at a rustle in the underbrush, and he skidded to a halt with a growl. But instead of a Nightmare, he found himself looking up at a disheveled-looking teenager with a frantic look on his face.

“Oh my God-” the kid spluttered, springing back in alarm. He blinked, staring not at Tadashi but at the two superheroes behind him. “I-it's you. Holy crap. It's actually you. W-what are you – oh God.” His alarm turned to horror. “Oh God, is there something in the Tea Garden?”

“You mean you haven't seen it?” Fred asked.
“N-no! I haven't seen anything, I just...” The poor kid looked near tears. “I was here with my sister – my little sister, we were on our way to the shrine... she was looking for her watch, and I-I don't know what happened, one second I was following her and the next I couldn't see her anywhere! I keep getting turned around, I don't know what's wrong with me-”

“Hey. Hey, it's okay.” Honey steadied him with a hand on his shoulder. “You know who we are. You know we're here to help. We can find your sister for you. What's her name?”

“N-Nozomi. She's eight years old, she has little pink barrettes in her hair-”

Tadashi didn't wait to hear more. He plunged ahead, following the little girl's cry for help.


“Listen to me.” Honey kept her voice even but urgent. Beneath her hand, the civilian was shaking. “It may not be safe here anymore. Do you know the way back to the parking lot?”

“Wh- no!” The kid's voice jumped an octave. “I'm not leaving my sister here alone!”

“He's getting farther ahead,” Fred hissed. “We need to go.”

“Please.” Honey squeezed the teenager's shoulder gently. “I know you're scared, but I promise you, we will bring your sister back safe.” It was hard to say no with the boy's pleading eyes boring into her, but she forced herself to hold firm. “You can't help her if you get hurt, too. Get out of the Garden, and wait in the parking lot. The rest of our team will be here in a few minutes. We'll take care of this. You have my word. Now get yourself out of here.”

The boy stared at her desperately for a moment longer, eyes shining wetly in what little light there was. Finally, he nodded, turned, and ran back out toward the parking lot.

“Let's go,” Honey said.

“Where?” Fred sounded tense with fear. “He ran ahead already!”

“Did you see which way he went?” Honey stared hard into the dark, straining to see any sign of the fox. They couldn't afford to lose him – he was the only one who seemed to know where they were going. “That kid said his sister was heading for the shrine, didn't he? Which way's the shrine?”

“I don't know,” Fred answered. He sounded like his teeth were clenched. “It's been a long time since I was in here last, and it's dark, and it's moving.

“Moving?” she echoed.

“You can't see it?”

Honey looked. At first she wasn't sure what he was talking about – nothing stirred in the garden, not even the wind. But the longer she looked, the more she understood. Shadows shifted even though anything solid enough to cast them was still. Shapes moved in her peripherals, but when she shifted her eyes to look straight on, the movement stopped. “That's... really weird. It may just be our eyes playing tricks on us.”

“It's Nightmares,” Fred murmured. “I know it is. There are Nightmares everywhere.

“Don't lose your head,” she whispered. “There's a little girl counting on us now. Let's just focus on finding her, or the shrine, or the fox. Whichever comes first.”

“R-right.”

“It's okay, Freddie,” she reminded him. “I'm right here with you. And remember, we're in a garden, so don't use your fire unless you absolutely have to.”

He might have nodded. It was hard to tell, with his suit. Then –

“Look there!” Fred pointed. Farther ahead, a small four-legged shape ran out into the path. “Is that him?”

“It has to be, it's a fox...” Honey's voice trailed off. The kitsune was a red fox, wasn't it? Orange fur and black paws, with white on his chest and tail. But as they drew near the one standing in the path, she saw a dusting of gray on its coat. “Wrong fox. The park has been full of them recently, remember?”

“Yeah, but-”

Before Fred could get another word out, the fox yipped and took off down the path. As if responding to a signal, more small shapes moved through the undergrowth. It was hard to count in the dark. All she could make out were lithe, swiftly moving shapes, and the flash of eyeshine in the bushes.

“Foxes,” Honey whispered. “They're all foxes.”

“Follow them?” Fred suggested. Honey stared at him. It was absurd. Fantastical. And yet every instinct was telling her to do exactly that.

Trust.

She wasn't sure why that was the word that came to mind. But it was, and it calmed her even as the Garden grew darker with every step. With a clear head, she nodded her agreement and followed.

By the time they reached the shrine, it may as well have been midnight. Honey stopped short, heart pounding. The moving shadows were no longer restricted to the corners of her vision. The darkness moved like a living thing. She could see where it was thicker around the fringes of the shrine's ground, clumping there as if reluctant to enter.

Reluctant, but not repelled. As they neared it, she could see the way wisps of shadow crept further in.

Fred's hand found her wrist and squeezed. He pointed, and Honey followed the direction of his hand to the foot of the stone steps.

Callaghan stood there, as still and silent as death. The white mask stood out in the darkness, cracked and leaking shadows like oily smoke. He lifted his hands, and the clumped shadows began trickling onto the grounds of the shrine.

A high-pitched wail rose from somewhere within the shrine, cut off as if stifled. Honey knew the sound of a child crying when she heard it.

Neither of them needed words or signals. Honey's hand was already at her purse as they rushed forward. A ball ejected into her hand, and she flung it straight at Callaghan's feet. Luminescent liquid exploded all over his feet, and he sprang back in alarm. The Nightmares exploded into writhing tendrils with an audible hiss.

A cautious spurt of flame from Fred's suit cleared the way for them. “Get past him,” Honey hissed. “Into the shrine – the Nightmares don't want to go in for some reason.”

“Holy ground.” Fred's voice was high with tension. “Safest place is holy ground. Spooky Stuff 101.”

Another glow-bomb drove Callaghan away from the steps, though the mask stared balefully at them as they rushed past. Together they reached the top of the steps, and Honey cast about frantically for the little girl.

There – further back, by the ema that hung from strings. She was sitting in the grass with her back against one of the wooden posts, curled up with her knees hugged to her chest. Nightmares crawled along the ground, and Honey's heart leapt to her throat when she saw a tendril touch the child.

Nozomi shrieked, and the sound of her fear seemed to strengthen her attacker. The Nightmare rose from the ground, growing in mass and volume until it was big enough to envelop her.

Honey and Fred were halfway there when a high-pitched howl rang out. Red-gold fur flashed in the dark, and the fox – their fox – charged straight into the attacking Nightmare. With a ferocious snarl, he tore at the shadows until the dark shape dissipated. As Honey approached, she saw the shadows retreat, fleeing from the little girl and the bristling fox. Nozomi was crying with fear as the fox circled her several times, warning off the Nightmares with snapping fangs.

The fox was nosing her gently when they reached her. She lifted her tear-streaked face, her eyes widened at the sight of him, and she snatched him up in a tight hug. Honey reached forward with a warning at the tip of her tongue, but there was no need. The fox huddled in the little girl's arms, making soft sounds as if to soothe her as she sobbed into his fur.

Relief drove back Honey's near-panic, and she found her voice again. “Nozomi?” The little girl jumped and looked up at her, hugging the fox to her chest like a shield. Her pink barrettes were askew, and her knees were a mess. Honey knelt down so that she wouldn't loom over her. “It's Nozomi, right? We met your brother on the way in.”

“Is he okay?” Nozomi's voice wobbled. “The Nightmares didn't get him?”

“No,” Honey assured her. “He's all right. We sent him out of the Garden to make sure they wouldn't. He'll be waiting for you in the parking lot, and we're going to get you out of here, okay?”

Nozomi nodded, her eyes wide. “I know you. You're the Big Heroes. I didn't know you were coming, too.”

Honey smiled at her. “I hope it's a pleasant surprise.” Something about the way Nozomi said that struck her oddly. “Nozomi, did you know someone was coming?”

The girl nodded vigorously, and cuddled the fox in close. “Yeah. I knew he was coming. He's really good. He came when I called.” Her voice caught.

“When you called?” Honey echoed. She remembered the way the fox had been so insistent that they reach Golden Gate Park with all speed, how he'd led them to the Tea Garden, and to the shrine at its heart. “How did you call him?”

Nozomi pointed. “There was nobody here. I couldn't buy an ema. So I just wrote a note, and hung it with the others. I didn't know if it would work, but it did.”

“Oh.” Rising, Honey went to the hanging wooden plaques. One of them stood out – it was not a wooden plaque at all, but a wrinkled piece of paper tied into place with a long piece of grass. It came loose on his own, and Honey caught it before it could flutter to the ground. Curious, she glanced down at it and red the simple message scribbled on it in red crayon.

All thoughts of Nightmares vanished.

“Nozomi.” She hurried back and crouched down again. “Your note – right here, see? Why did you write this?”

Wiping her eyes, Nozomi followed Honey's pointing finger and frowned. “You mean... he didn't tell you?” She glanced down at the fox. “Why didn't you tell them?”

“He's stuck that way, at least for now.” Honey Lemon shook her head. “He can't talk.”

“He can when he's a person,” Nozomi said.

“What's the matter?” Fred's voice sounded odd – there was a tone in it that Honey couldn't place. “What'd she write?”

She showed him the note, tapping the word that had her stuck. “Look.” The red letters were shaky, but it was clear as day. At the top of the paper, Nozomi had written Tadashi.

“That's his name,” Nozomi said. “He told me.”

“When?” Honey asked.

“W-when he came to help us the first time.” Nozomi blinked, wide-eyed with confusion. The fox was staring at her, stock-still. “M-my friend, Everett. He was sick, and we thought the shadows – I mean, the Nightmares did it. And I saw him chasing shadows one time, so I thought maybe he could help, and he did. He came, and he made Everett better.”

Honey's heart was in her throat. No, no, it couldn't be. It couldn't possibly be. Magic is one thing. Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy and Guardians of Childhood and kitsune... but this? This is impossible. “A-and... when he came to you,” she said quietly. “He was... he was a person?”

Nozomi nodded. “He was a fox first, and then he turned into a person.”

“Nozomi, this is very important,” Honey went on. “What did he look like, as a person? Can you describe him?”

“He's a grown-up,” Nozomi replied. “But not an old grown-up, he's a grown-up like you. His eyes are the same, but he has black hair and he's very tall. He's handsome and he has a nice smile that makes me feel safe.”

Her breath caught in her throat. It fit, but it still wasn't much. It wasn't enough to go on. “Anything else? Did he say anything to you?”

“His clothes were sort of raggy,” Nozomi said. “They look like they used to be nice. He had a green jacket sort of like a suit but not really, but all this clothes were all ripped up and burned-looking.” Honey's eyes stung, and her throat felt like it was closing. “I asked him why, and he said he made a silly mistake, and there was a fire, and... I don't know. He didn't tell me everything but then...” She paused, rubbing her nose. “L-later, I asked him if he was a ghost. And he said he was. And I asked him if he died. And he said he did.”

She couldn't crouch anymore. Her legs gave out beneath her, and she sat down. “No...” she whispered. “No, that's not possible. That's not possible, that's not-”

“Honey...” Fred murmured.

“Are you hearing this, Fred?” Her voice cracked. “This can't – it can't – it's not possible.

“Yes it is.”

At Fred's quiet reply, she whipped around so fast that her neck almost cracked. “Fred, what are you talking about?

“I-I wanted to tell you guys, I swear, I just didn't know how-”

“Tell us what?”

“I saw him,” Fred blurted. “Last night, I was having those Nightmares, and he just...”

Her friend's voice trailed off, and Honey's mind buzzed. “This isn't happening,” she whispered. She ran her fingers through her hair and hung her head, trying to untangle her hopeless snarl of thoughts. “This isn't-”

Something pressed her shoulder. She looked down, and found the kitsune leaning his front paw against her arm. Staring at her. Silently pleading.

She didn't know those eyes, she told herself. They were yellow, not brown. They weren't human. They weren't familiar.

And yet they were.

“This isn't possible,” she repeated, but she wasn't sure she believed herself anymore.

“It's him, Honey,” Fred told her quietly. “It's really him. Please, just... trust me?”

Trust.

Fred was her teammate. Her friend. She was surrounded by magic and darkness, and the only familiar things she had left were Fred by her side and the earnest look in the fox's eyes.

What else could she do but trust them?

 

Chapter Text

Baymax slowed to a hover over the Tea Garden parking lot with a whir of thrusters. Crouched on his back, Hiro squinted through the falling darkness at the greenery below. The minuscule weight of the fairy sat on his shoulder, at a gap where purple armor gave way to the darker undersuit beneath it. Baby Tooth chirruped close to his ear. Someone waved to them down below, and Baymax descended swiftly.

Just as they were touching down, a familiar yellow glow turned Hiro’s head, and he spotted Gogo skating swiftly toward them with Wasabi hurrying behind her.

“-and what were they even doing here?” Wasabi was saying as they drew within earshot. “I thought the plan was for you and me to take this part of town.”

“Well, then let’s count ourselves lucky since it means we got here on time,” Gogo retorted. “Hey, Hiro, Baymax.” She glanced at the tiny form perched on Hiro’s shoulder. “Uh. Guest.”

“W-wow. Oh God.” The one who had waved them down was a bedraggled-looking teenager fidgeting by his car, and looking caught between starstruck and terrified.

“It’s all right,” Hiro assured him. “Can you tell us what happened?”

“I-I’m not sure?” The boy cast a fearful glance at the trees. “Look, I could swear to you there’s something in there. I don’t know what, or who, it’s just...” Wide, frightened eyes turned to each of them in turn. “My sister’s in there. The other two went to find her, but...”

Hiro nodded. “Honey, Fred, come in.”

There was a pause over the radio link, and then Honey’s voice came piping into his ear. “H-Hiro! Um, yes! Are you here? We need you, right now!”

“We’re in the parking lot,” Hiro replied. “Did you find the sister?”

“We’ve got her, and she’s okay. But we need you to come in quick so Baymax can fly her out. O-oh, and… tell the little fairy to go get her friends. We’re gonna need backup.”

“Got it.” Hiro relayed the first part to the boy, who sagged slightly with relief. “Don’t worry, we’ll have her out as soon as possible.”

“Thank you.” The teenager looked close to tears.

“U-um. Hiro?” Honey’s voice came over the link again.

“Yeah, Honey? Anything else we should know before we go in?”

“Um. Um.” Her voice shook. “Ohhh Dios mio. I can’t do this over the radio. Just get in here quick.”

“O...kay…?” Well, if it wasn’t urgent enough to tell him straight out, then it was better not to worry about it. He nodded to Gogo and Wasabi. “You two, hop on.” Hiro tapped Baymax’s helmet. “Take us back up, buddy.”

Laden with the three of them, Baymax rose back up into the night sky. Once the civilian was beyond hearing range, Hiro turned to the fairy on his shoulder. “You’d better go do your thing. I think this may be the big one.”

Baby Tooth buzzed up into the air and hovered briefly to throw a smart salute. With a flutter of diaphanous wings, she vanished into the evening sky.

With his scanner, Baymax needed little guidance to take them straight to the others. So much the better; as Hiro squinted down at the Garden from above, he realized with slow dread that he couldn’t see a thing through the cover of darkness. As he braced himself, Baymax descended once more and touched down in the Tea Garden’s small shrine. His stomach turned as Gogo and Wasabi climbed down to the ground, and he saw why the Garden seemed so dark from above.

There were Nightmares everywhere.

He could swear that he was looking at attacking microbots again. Nightmares swarmed like bugs and billowed like smoke, surrounding them on all sides. The ground of the shrine was the last island of safety, but shadows were beginning to creep up the steps to the entrance.

The flash of orange fur brought his attention to the little girl standing dwarfed by Fred and Honey, who kept close to her like an honor guard. She held the fox in her arms, and she was staring at Hiro with a wide-eyed expression that he couldn’t quite read.

He didn’t dwell on them for long; the rest of his friends were watching the entrance, and he had little choice but to turn and see for himself. His heart sank; Callaghan stood at the top of the steps, draped in black and wearing the cracked, leaking white mask. Hiro’s teeth ground together, and he forced down the creeping dread and turned to the girl.

“Hop on,” he said, forcing the tension out of his voice. “Your brother’s waiting for you.” The girl stared at him with wide eyes, feet rooted to the ground, hugging the fox like a security blanket. Before Hiro had the chance to try again, the fox stretched up to touch his nose to her chin. She looked down at him, hesitated, and finally put him down and hurried to Baymax’s side. Hiro gave her a hand up and kept his arm around her as Baymax rose into the air again.

“Sorry it took so long,” he said as their flight took them over the darkened trees. “It’ll be fine now – we’ll take care of this.”

“I know,” she murmured, almost too quietly to hear. Since climbing onto Baymax’s back, she hadn’t taken her eyes off of him. Maybe this was her first time seeing superheros up close.

“Expecting someone taller?” he asked, trying to joke his way out of his own unease.

The girl watched him in silence for a while. “No,” she said at last. “I think you’re the right size.”

She didn’t say anything else, except a “Thank you,” when they delivered her to her frantic brother. As Baymax rose back up to return to the others, Hiro watched the car drive away. Civilians safe.

A jet of fire blasted through the treetops like a beacon, and Baymax rocketed toward it without any direction from Hiro. Fred, Hiro thought, gritting his teeth. The fight was already starting without them.

“Get ready,” he murmured, and Baymax’s rockets sang.

For a moment, or maybe as long as a few minutes, the shrine and the Garden were plunged into chaos. Shadows swarmed and writhed as they billowed through the entrance, twisting in the light of Wasabi’s blades, Fred’s fire, Gogo’s discs, Honey’s chemical explosions, and Baymax’s rockets. The heroes held their ground, keeping them at bay.

Hiro squinted through the fight, trying to find a way to direct his friends. And where was the fox?

There – he was staying close to Fred. A little too close, with how Fred was throwing fire around. If that fox wasn’t careful, he’d come out of this fight crispier than he had been going in.

“How’re we doing?” he asked over the comm.

“Busy,” Gogo said tersely, sending a disk ripping through a wave of Nightmares. At some point she must have rigged them with LED lights – Hiro wondered when she’d found the time to do that. In any case, it was working; the disk sliced through the shadows like a circular buzzsaw.

“This is really hard!” Tension raised Fred’s voice at least an octave higher than normal. “I’m trying to set them on fire without setting anything else on fire and it’s really hard!

“Where’s Callaghan?” Honey piped up. “These shadows are so thick I lost sight of him!”

“I think they’ve been waiting for this!” Wasabi added. “They’ve been creeping further in ever since we got here!”

Hiro clenched his teeth. This was even worse than Akuma Island; at least then they’d been out in the open, under the moon and stars. But here, all the tree cover blocked the natural light, and the Nightmares were in a frenzy over it.

The thought of we need backup had just crept into his head when the sky above opened up, and another set of lights and rockets lit up the night.

Fred’s whooping almost deafened him over the radio. Hiro raised his eyes, awestruck, as the Guardians swooped down through a rift in the sky, riding a shining, aggressively jingling sleigh. The portal closed behind it, and three figures went soaring off the vehicle to dive into the battle. Hiro’s jaw was slack as he gaped at the wondrous mishmash of magic and tech. He had to wonder why the reindeer were even necessary; the rockets on that thing could have carried him and Baymax to the moon and back. Was it reflecting moonlight, or glowing on its own? It was impossible to tell, and impossible to care when all Hiro really wanted to do was ride that thing.

Over his earpiece, he heard Wasabi whimpering in awe.

“Miniature sleigh my ass,” Gogo muttered.

The first to touch the ground was Jack Frost, landing in their midst in a burst of icy wind. Shadows froze in place, encased in blue-white ice, and Hiro heard more than a few sighs of relief as the single attack offered them breathing room. The Tooth Fairy was next, feathers flashing in the brief bursts of light. Her wings buzzed, and she twisted and spun in midair, slicing through the shadows as if her wings were blades.

Golden light shone overhead, and ribbons of dream sand morphed into familiar shapes. Anything from eagles and dolphins to battleships and dragons went sailing through the sky over the Garden, and Nightmares rose up to meet them. Hiro’s chest clenched with dread until he realized what was happening; the Sandman was bleeding the Nightmares off the ground, spreading the fight to the sky so that he and his friends weren’t so battered on the ground.

The sleigh swooped lower, and two more figures launched themselves into the fight.

Airborne, Hiro couldn’t be sure, but he was willing to bet money that the ground shook when Santa Claus landed. Boisterous, booming laughter rang out, and he watched as Jolly Old Saint Nicholas pulled a pair of curved swords out of nowhere and joined the fray.

He wouldn’t have expected the Easter Bunny to be the most ferociously warlike of the bunch, but at this point Hiro wasn’t really sure how to be surprised anymore.

The sleigh whipped back up into the sky, narrowly missing Baymax and Hiro as they swerved around it. Under Hiro’s direction, Baymax scattered a wave of Nightmares with a single punch that brought them within hearing range of North.

“Who’s driving the sleigh?” Hiro yelled to him.

“I let Jeff steer!” was the bellowed reply. “Do not worry! He has license!”

In spite of himself, in spite of everything, Hiro laughed. Introductions passed between his friends and the Guardians, when any of them had enough room for a “Hello, my name is…” Visors went back, just to make communication easier – the Guardians didn’t have comm links, after all.

But they were strong, and they all had one goal: attack the darkness. Hiro felt his heart flutter in his chest. Maybe, just maybe, the finish line was in sight.


Fred lost track of time before he came to a gradual conclusion that finally hit him fully when a mass of Nightmares hit him like a battering ram, sending him ass over teakettle to the ground, flat on his back. He looked down to find Nightmares crawling on him, creeping along his chest like a horde of spiders. Fear clenched in his stomach – the last time Nightmares had gotten on him like this, he’d ended up with a mind parasite.

Before he had the chance to panic, orange fur flashed in the corner of his eye, and Tadashi landed on his chest with a growl. He attacked the shadows with his bare teeth, ripping them away from Fred and flinging them straight into the path of one of Jack Frost’s ice attacks.

“Th-thanks,” he stuttered, as Tadashi leapt to the side to let him get back up. “Uh, guys? How long have we been at this?”

“Too long,” Gogo growled. “There’s no end to these things!”

“The Nightmares are many,” North called. “Always have been! Work is never over!”

The Easter Bunny flung an egg into the writhing mass, and the resulting explosion of color drove it back for a few moments, only for more Nightmares to take its place. “We can’t keep fighting these things!” he snapped. “Well, we can, but I don’t want to!”
“We’re evenly matched.” Hiro’s voice was tight as Baymax pulled out of a dive to avoid an attack from the shadows. “We just have to outlast them until we find an opening.”

“Or we can, y’know, outlast them until someone decides to stop messing around,” Jack Frost piped up, with a pointed look at the fox.

“Hey, c’mon, leave him alone!” Protective anger made Fred’s mouth even bigger than it usually was. “Weren’t you guys the ones who told us he was tired after Akuma Island?” Distracted, he almost didn’t notice an oncoming rush of Nightmares until it was nearly too late. A spray of flames kept them at bay until Jack Frost swooped in to freeze the bulk of them in place.

“Of course he’s tired,” Jack scoffed. “I’d be tired too, if I was staying away from my own power source on purpose.”

Gogo was close enough to hear. “Wait, now there are power sources?”

“Well yeah!” Jack paused to give his staff a little twirl. “Most of us have ‘em. Take this staff away from me and I couldn’t ice a can of soda – that was not an invitation!” An ice blast burst from the staff, freezing a Nightmare that had crept too close.

“So what’s that have to do with...” Fred’s voice trailed off.

Jack Frost’s eyes snapped to Fred’s face, then flickered upward toward Hiro, and finally lit up with understanding. “Still putting it off, huh.”

“Um...” Fred dithered a little, glancing down at Tadashi for help. He’d never seen a fox look so offended before.

Sighing, Jack scooped him up and held him at eye level by the scruff of his neck, barely batting an eye when sharp fox teeth snapped shut inches from his nose. “Here’s the deal. Okay? Here’s what you need to do. You need to stop being a baby.”

Tadashi growled.

“Don’t give me that.” Jack Frost glared at him, blue eyes flashing with anger. “You know me, fluff. You know what I’d do for the kind of chance you have now.”

“I’m lost,” Gogo said dryly.

“Can you guys focus here?” Wasabi yelped, dicing his way through a Nightmare-fueled battering ram.

Fred toasted the rest of the shadows menacing Wasabi, head spinning. He had wanted to break the news the second Hiro got there, but there hadn’t been time. And now, in the middle of the craziest fight the team had ever seen, the right time seemed like it would never come at all.

“Heads up!” the Easter Bunny roared.

The shadows had begun to coalesce, moving together as one mass instead of a chaotic storm of waves and tendrils. As Fred watched, the Nightmares amassed before them, so dark that they seemed to swallow light like a black hole. Slowly, ominously, they began to rotate.

“Oh, great,” Gogo muttered. “Now what?”

“It’s like a tornado,” Wasabi said softly, as the rotating picked up speed.

“If Callister hasn’t moved yet, then he’s right in the middle of it,” the Easter Bunny said grimly.

“Callaghan,” Honey corrected him quietly.

The spinning column stretched upward, growing taller and narrower at the same time. Bolts of glowing dream sand struck the funnel, only to be lost in the miniature vortex. Fred shot flames into it, only for the spinning shadows to swallow it up and snuff it out. The top of the funnel reached its zenith, then curved over and plunged down toward them.

The temperature dropped. Ice burst forth from Jack Frost – from his staff, or his hands, Fred couldn’t tell. It spread over them, from the ground to the air over their heads, forming a thick, dome-shaped shield. “Take cover!” Jack yelled. Without thinking, Fred scooped up Tadashi and rushed to comply, nearly crashing into Honey and Wasabi in the process. In the blink of an eye he was squashed up against his friends, surrounded by a curving shield wall of ice. Wasabi had deactivated his blades and was sheltering both Gogo and Honey with his arms. The Tooth Fairy had flown under the ice shield with a buzz of wings, and North and the Easter Bunny guarded the opening with their weapons at the ready.

That left-

The Nightmares hit the shield before Fred could finish the thought. The sound of it was less like a sound and more a noiseless physical impact that Fred felt in his teeth. He staggered, almost falling into Wasabi, and all around them Nightmares poured and pounded against Jack’s shield. As the ice groaned with the strain, Tadashi twisted in his arms and screamed.

Fred had heard foxes scream before. But there was a difference between watching Youtube videos and hearing a living, breathing animal that also happened to be his dead best friend howl just inches away from his ear. His arms loosened, and Tadashi slipped free and darted toward the opening in the shield. The Tooth Fairy snagged him by the tail before he could race out into the enveloping darkness.

“Not yet!” she cried out. The fox twisted and snapped at her, but she didn’t let go. “You can’t – I know, Tadashi, I know, just wait-”

Gogo jerked her head up to stare at her. “What did you just call him?”

“They’ll be fine.” Honey gripped Wasabi’s arm as if to ground herself. Her voice was terse. “No one’s better at flying than Hiro and Baymax – they’ll be fine.”

There was an ominous groaning and grating, and thick cracks began to form and spread through the ice. “Won’t hold for long,” Jack gritted out, reinforcing it with another layer of ice. “Can anyone clear the outside of Nightmares?

“You have to ask?” The Easter Bunny bared his buck teeth fiercely.

“I still have loads of fuel,” Fred added.

“Just say the word,” Honey said.

The ice cracked once more. “They’re punching through, clear a path!” Jack yelled.

Fred sent flames straight into the darkness beyond the shield, and was rewarded by a grating shriek from the shadows. He let up just long enough for the others to rush out into the space he’d cleared, and the battle continued. Golden sand rained from above, helping to drive the Nightmares back, Jack’s ice shield finally gave way, and Fred poured flames into the oncoming darkness.

Where were Hiro and Baymax?

Light flashed in the corner of his vision, and Fred turned to see what looked to be a mound of Nightmares just a ten yards off. Only, they couldn’t be – Nighmares didn’t glow from the inside like that, did they?

The glow intensified, sending shadows writhing back. In the pale light, Fred spotted a flash of red amid the blackness, and his stomach lurched. That wasn’t just a mound of Nightmares; that was Baymax under there, and if Baymax was there, then Hiro…

But why was Baymax glowing? Where was that light coming from?

The bright scarlet of Baymax’s armor was shrinking again, rapidly swallowed up as the shadows fought against the glow and swarmed over his back. And right below him, shielded from the Nightmares, was a crumpled little form in bright purple armor.

Fred’s flamethrower lit up as he prepared to blast the Nightmares away from them, but Jack Frost thrust his hand in front of the mouth of his suit, stopping him. “You’ll torch your friends along with them,” Jack warned. Reluctantly Fred turned his flamethrower on the Nightmares swarming the ground instead, clearing the way for the others to spread out and continue the attack. Brightly-colored projectiles burst over Baymax’s darkened form – the Easter Bunny’s eggs and Honey’s chem-balls – and slowly the shadows receded.

Gogo swore loudly, and Tadashi finally yanked free from the Tooth Fairy’s grip. He bolted to Baymax’s side and under him to check on Hiro. Fred followed, clearing Nightmares from the shrine as he went.

Baymax was all right for the moment, but the same couldn’t be said for his armor. The thick carbon-fiber plating was falling apart, the bright red paint eaten away. His helmet seemed to be short- circuiting, at least until Gogo moved in and yanked it off. Pieces of his chest plate crumbled like loose dirt and fell away, exposing the white nylon underneath. The Guardians gathered in front of them, forming a protective semi-circle as they checked on their friends.

“Baymax?” Hiro’s voice was muffled by his helmet as he sat up, distractedly patting the frantically hovering fox. “Baymax are you okay?”

“I do not believe I can continue fighting,” Baymax replied. “I am sorry.”

“It’s okay.” Hiro sounded winded as he pulled his helmet off. “It’s okay, buddy – oh no, your armor-”

“They are getting stronger!” North cursed, cutting an amorphous wave of shadows to pieces. “We must find the host and stop them!”

“It may be advisable for me to deactivate for the time being,” Baymax continued.

“You’re bloody lucky, kid,” the Easter Bunny remarked, hurling an explosive egg into an encroaching wave of Nightmares. “They could’ve crawled right under him and nabbed you.”

“No they couldn’t,” Fred blurted. “There was something… was Baymax glowing? I thought I saw Baymax glowing. It was hurting them.”

“Night light feature,” Hiro said.

“No, this was different-”

“Hey, what’s he doing?” Wasabi yelped. Baymax was struggling with his chest plate, which had warped under the Nightmares’ onslaught. Hiro helped him, struggling with the fastenings until finally the half-disintegrated chunk of armor fell to the ground and cracked in half.

Honey gasped.

“Is that normal?” Gogo asked.

The circular access port on Baymax’s chest was glowing a gentle yellow.

“Baymax, what’s going on?” Hiro’s voice wavered with alarm. “What’s – did something happen when they knocked us out of the air?”

“It is all right,” Baymax said.

The fox whined.

“It is all right,” Baymax repeated. “Everything is going to be all right.”

The fox took a step back and barked.

“We have to,” Baymax said. “They have waited long enough. This is not worth being afraid of.”

“Listen to your robot friend, fluff,” Jack Frost called over in a dry voice. “Now’s not the time to be shy.”

“Incoming!” the Tooth Fairy shouted. Fred looked up, and his eyes widened as another ominous funnel began to form from the shadows.

Baymax opened his access port. The combat chip still sat in its place, but right next to it-

The robot plucked out his own health care chip, ignoring Hiro’s protests. In the dimness of the Garden, it gave off that same soft golden glow.

Baymax held out the chip. “Hiro is my patient,” he said. “But he does not need a nurse. He needs you.” The fox hesitated, yellow eyes wide, and finally reached out and pressed a paw to the chip.

The Nightmares plunged toward them en masse.

Fred was watching Tadashi’s face as his eyes went from yellow to blinding white.

The Nightmares fell like a hammer blow, and a pillar of white-hot fire rose to meet them. They met in the middle, like an intense, magical game of bloody knuckles.

The fire won.

The Nightmares held for a moment more, before the flames punched through and scattered them. The pillar of fire burst apart, sending embers darting through the air, and for just a split second Fred could swear the moon and stars were shining on them again. It might have been the colored spots in his vision, but it was a nice thought.

He blinked, dazzled by the light show, and when his vision cleared, Tadashi Hamada stood in their midst, scruffy and ragged but alive and whole, staring skyward with one hand still stretched up and trailing flames from his fingertips. His other hand rested at his side, clutching the chip in his hand.

It was the kind of moment that should have been dead silent, as Tadashi slowly lowered his hand and stared around at them with bright golden eyes. If it hadn’t been for the hissing Nightmares, you could have heard a pin drop.

“Um,” was the first thing Tadashi said to them after months of being dead. “Hi g-”

Thunk.

Before any of them could react, Jack Frost was there, clouting Tadashi over the head with his staff. Tadashi yelped, shielding his head with his arms as Jack continued to whack at him with a giant stick and berate him.

“You – complete – idiot – jerk!” Jack Frost yelled, punctuating each word with a bonk. “You’re telling me all you had to do was yank a chip out of a robot and you could have helped us this whole time? Here we are, fighting the forces of darkness, and you’re sitting-”

“Ow! Ow – Jack – knock it off! Ow!”

“-on your fat tail-”

Gogo was the first to find her voice. “Oh my God he actually has a tail.”

It was true; Tadashi was every inch as human as he used to be, but he still had a fluffy orange fox tail.

Hiro was on his feet, helmet falling forgotten to the ground, catching the staff to stop Jack from hitting Tadashi again. His eyes were fixed on his brother, and Fred could see his face cycling through shock, disbelief, and faint hope before switching to suspicion.

“This-” Hiro’s breath seemed to catch. Jack wasn’t trying to regain control of his staff, but Hiro still gripped it until his knuckles were white. “This can’t-” He stared at Tadashi’s face, wide-eyed and lost.

“Hiro,” Tadashi whispered, and any lingering doubts Fred may have had vanished when he heard the way Tadashi said his brother’s name.

“You’re a kitsune,” Hiro’s voice cracked. “You’re a kitsune, and they’re shapeshifters – they’re tricksters-”

“I’m sorry.” Tadashi sounded hoarse, like he was trying not to cry. “I’m so sorry, and I never left. I promise. I was with you every step of the way, and I tried to let you know, I swear, but you couldn’t see me-”

“So this is my fault?” Hiro’s voice broke.

“Can we wrap this up?” the Easter Bunny called over. Fred shot him a glare, but he couldn’t be sure if the rabbit saw it. “Look, I know this is difficult, but we’re kind of in the middle of something. Tadashi, are you going to help us or what?”

“Yeah, I...” Tadashi’s voice trailed off. He stared around, at the Garden and the Nightmares and the faces of his friends and his brother. Fred had never seen him look so lost before.

“Oh for the love of-” the rabbit scoffed. “Come on, we’ll drive them back while they get sorted. Can one of us stay with them?”

“Yeah, I can babysit.” Jack rolled his eyes.

“Good to have you back,” North chuckled, and clapped Tadashi on the back before rushing back into the scattered Nightmares with a booming war cry.

“Good luck!” the Tooth Fairy called as she flew after him. The Easter Bunny scoffed and followed them. The dark Garden lit up once more with magic and brightly-colored explosions, and the Nightmares thinned around them as they took the bait. Without his health care chip, Baymax had powered down on his own. The remaining seven of them – five heroes plus an ice spirit plus one friend back from the dead – were left standing and staring at one another, with Tadashi right in the middle of it.

“Guys, it’s him,” Fred said quickly. He looked from Gogo to Wasabi to Hiro and then back again, anxious. Did they believe him? “It’s really him. He helped me, before. He was the one who pulled the Nightmares out of my head. That’s why I got better. It’s him.”

Gogo’s breath left her in a rush. “Holy shit, Tadashi, what the hell?”

“Um. Not in front of my brother?” Tadashi said weakly.

“Sorry.” Her voice shook. “Holy shit, Tadashi, what the heck?”

“You have fire powers?” Wasabi blurted. Gogo, Fred, and Honey gave him matching funny looks. “What? Did nobody else notice?”

“Uh… yeah…” Tadashi shifted from foot to foot. “Irony, right?” He gave them all a helpless look, and his eyes lingered on Hiro the longest. “I’ll explain everything, I promise. Once this is over, I’ll tell you everything.”

Hiro sniffed. He swiped quickly at the corner of his eye and seemed to force his face into a more neutral expression. “Right. What do we do? How do we help you win this?”

“Free the host, and the Nightmares won’t be able to attack us like this,” Jack replied. He glanced at Tadashi. “You can do it, right? Is it any different from freeing those kids from the parasites?”

“It’s… yes,” Tadashi said. “It’s very different. It’s not as simple.”

“But it’s doable, right?”

“Well yeah, but…” Tadashi wrung his hands at his sides.

“But what?” Jack pressed. The other Guardians were occupying the Nightmares, but they couldn’t hold them alone forever. “Can you do it or not?”

“No,” Tadashi blurted. “No, I can’t.”

“Are you serious?” Jack gaped at him. “Why not?”

“Because it won’t solve the real problem.” Tadashi’s wringing hands curled into fists. “We free Callaghan, and nothing’s stopping the Nightmares from finding another host.”

“Okay, so we destroy the Nightmares then,” Gogo suggested.

Jack spread his hands wide. “What she said.”

“We can’t.” Tadashi’s voice cracked.

“Then how are we supposed to win this?”

For a long moment, Tadashi didn’t answer. Fred wished he could have some clue as to what was going on in his friend’s head, but he couldn’t read much in Tadashi’s thoughtful frown. The Nightmares weren’t attacking just yet. It was as if the world was holding its breath.

Then finally-

“Buy me time.”

Jack blinked. “What.”

Tadashi took a deep breath. “I need time. I know exactly how to fix this, but I need to do something first and none of you are going to like it and I need time.”

“Are you gonna tell me what it is?” Jack asked.

“I’d be a hypocrite if I didn’t,” Tadashi replied. “We can’t destroy the Nightmares, and Callaghan’s not controlling them. You and I both know there’s only one person who can.”

Jack Frost was already pale, but Fred could swear he saw the kid go a shade whiter. “You’re not serious.”

“It’s the only way.”

“Bull. Roar.” Jack gripped his staff as if strangling it. “You met him, Tadashi. And that’s when he doesn’t have any power. He’s dangerous.”

“I think there’s a saying somewhere about the devil we know,” Tadashi pointed out.

“You don’t know him!” Jack snapped. “Not like we do! He’s a power-hungry liar and he can’t be trusted and-”

“He can’t be what?” Tadashi interrupted.

Jack blinked. “What?”

“I said, he can’t be what?”

“I said he can’t be… trusted…” Jack’s voice trailed off, and he settled for glaring daggers at Tadashi.

Tadashi held his gaze. “I’ll be the judge of that. Besides, I’m technically under orders.”

“Whose orders?” Jack demanded.

Tadashi pointed upward.

“There’s a God now?” Gogo almost shrieked.

“That’s not what I-” Tadashi began.

“Are you serious?” Jack asked. It sounded less like a challenge or an accusation, and more like an honest question.

“I am.”

Jack’s shoulders sank, and he looked almost sullen. “How come he told you and not the rest of us?”

“When this is over, I’ll see to it you can ask in person,” Tadashi told him. “Just buy me time.”

“I hope you know what you’re doing.”

“Wait,” Hiro broke in. “Wait a minute.” He latched onto Tadashi’s arm. “What do you mean, buy you time?”

“Hiro-”

“You’re not leaving.” Hiro’s voice shook. “You’re not leaving again, not after all this time-”

“I’ll be right back-”

“How am I supposed to believe that?” Hiro demanded.

“Hiro.” Tadashi’s eyes were wide and desperate. “I promise you. I give you my word, I’ll be back.”

Hiro never broke eye contact. “And how,” he rasped, “am I supposed to believe that?”

Instead of answering, Tadashi took hold of Hiro’s hand and began working it free of his arm. For a moment, Fred thought Tadashi was going to make him let go and leave anyway. But then, instead of pulling away completely, Tadashi tugged his arm free and pressed the chip into Hiro’s hand in its place.

Hiro jumped as if the chip had shocked him. “What-”

“Tell me, Hiro,” Tadashi said. “Do you know what a hoshi no tama is?”

The shadows were rising again. Jack held his staff at the ready.

“That’s – it’s–” Hiro stammered. “A kitsune’s…”

“I didn’t realize that was where it was,” Tadashi said. “Until I got it out of Baymax’s first body, in the portal.”

“The...” Hiro blinked, staring down at the chip in his hand and then up at Tadashi face. “In his hand – that was you?”

“Watch,” Tadashi said, and the chip in Hiro’s hand changed. Instead of a green square of plastic, a glowing yellow sphere sat in Hiro’s palm. Hiro’s fingers twitched, and it became a chip again. “See? That’s… it’s me, Hiro. It’s my power. My soul.”

“It’s what makes Baymax… Baymax,” Hiro whispered.

Tadashi took hold of Hiro’s shoulders. “He told you I was here, and I was. Keep that safe for me, until I get back. And when I do, Hiro-” His hands tightened on his brother’s shoulders. “I swear. I will never leave you again.”

Tears trickled down from Hiro’s eyes as he stared at Tadashi’s face and gripped the chip in his hand. “Okay,” he whispered. “Okay. I believe you. I believe you, I-” Tadashi pulled him into a hug, brief and tight, and pulled back again.

Jack Frost leveled his staff as Nightmares began to leak through the Guardians’ defense. “How much time do you need?”

“I’m taking the bunny’s way,” Tadashi answered. “And I got enough power off my star ball to take me to the moon and back. Trust me?”

Jack smiled grimly and iced the shadows where they stood. “Guess we’ll have to.”

Tadashi grinned as he turned back to the team. Fred saw for the first time that his teeth were still sharp. In spite of himself, he felt the hairs on his neck stand on end.

“I’ll be back. I promise.” Tadashi’s eyes looked wet. “I missed you guys.”

Honey offered a watery smile in return. “We missed you too.”

Wasabi looked a little dazed, but he activated his blades again and held them at the ready. “Hurry back, got it?”

“Of course.” In the blink of an eye he was a fox again, but he seemed different now, somehow. There was a glow around his edges that hadn’t been there before, and his eyes seemed to give off their own light, as well. His tail flicked, and Tadashi vanished, leaving only a trail of glowing embers in his wake.

Chapter Text

Tadashi found the rabbit-hole in the Conservatory without having to think, and plunged down beneath the earth.

For the first time since he’d leapt out of the collapsing portal with his hoshi no tama in hand, he felt alive in a way he never had before. Warmth and energy rushed through him like crackling electricity, driving him onward through the dark tunnels. The smell of soil and growing things surrounded him, blanketing him like moss, but beyond that were other smells. Plants and animals, sparking ozone, and the raw buzzing energy of magic. He could feel the air around him, as if his senses stretched from the tips of his fur.

Just holding his soul for a few minutes had brought his magic rushing back, filling him until he could burst. It drove him onward, faster than he had ever traveled before, when he was already taking the rabbit’s magical shortcuts. That was good; he would need all the speed he could muster. Time was not on his side.

He had only been this way once before, following Bunny and Jack to the vast caverns beneath the Black Forest. He had barely spared a moment to wonder if he would remember the way. These were Bunny’s tunnels, after all. Not his. He didn’t know these tunnels.

But he did know Nightmares.

It was an absurd thought, really. His destination was halfway across the world, and there was no reason why he should be able to find it from here. But this was magic he was dealing with, not science or logic or reason. And frankly, he had wasted quite enough time overthinking things. The time for thinking and wondering and worrying was long past, and it was high time that Tadashi let himself Trust.

And so, as he raced through the tunnels, a single fiery beacon in the green darkness, Tadashi breathed in and searched.

The smell of grass and flowers and springtime filled his senses – this was the realm of the Easter Bunny, after all. It was almost overpowering, and yet –

And yet…

There were other smells, beneath the smell of life and Hope and new beginnings. Colder things. Darker things. They were far away, very far away, but Tadashi caught the scent and followed it.

It led him through the tunnels, through the lush green Warren, and back into the dark, and on and on until he found himself moving up, and then out into the familiar forest. Tadashi raced onward, weaving through the trees, until he found the derelict bed frame and dove beneath it. The temperature dropped, the fur along his spine prickled, and Tadashi plunged into the Nightmare King’s lair.

This time, he didn’t bother with walkways and stairs. His paws left the ground, and he darted through the air, over bridges and paths and fallen, rusted birdcages, until he found the courtyard with the fallen globe.

He touched down in the center of the courtyard and dropped his fox form. Standing at his tallest height, he raised his eyes to the ceiling of the cavern, which still writhed with living shadows. Without thinking, he let his power blaze within him and opened his mouth to call out. But before he could quite take a breath, a low, silky voice spoke from behind him.

“Why have you come back?”

In the space of an eye-blink, the air had gotten colder and heavier. Sparks darted from his fingertips as Tadashi carefully turned around.

Pitch stood at the edge of the stone floor, with the backdrop of the rest of the cavern behind him. His form was silhouetted in black, except for the faint glow from his pale eyes.

“Do you always show up behind people?” Tadashi asked. “I mean, do you have to? Is that how your power works, or do you just get a kick out of it?”

Pitch said nothing. With his face shrouded in shadow, Tadashi couldn’t get a read on him; it was hard to tell what someone was feeling when all you could see was their eyes.

But now wasn’t the time for staring contests. He had a job to do, and the others were waiting for him. “I’m here to make an offer,” he said. “We’re fighting the Nightmares, and we all want this to be over.” He took a deep breath, considering his next words. The weight of what he was doing hung over his head – he held a centuries-long conflict in his hands. If he did this right, he’d end it. If he screwed up, he’d tip things out of the Guardians’ favor. “Look, Pitch… you and I both know what happens if I free – if I free their host. They go on and find a new one, and this happens all over again. We can’t keep fighting this same problem over and over again.” He paused, considering it. “Well… I dunno, maybe we can. But I don’t want to.”

“Hmm.” Pitch simply hummed in response, offering nothing.

“The only way to stop this is for someone to control them,” Tadashi said, fighting the urge to look at his feet. “And you’re the only one who can do that. So…” His voice trailed off. He waited, watching Pitch’s shadowed face.

“…Well.” Pitch’s voice caressed the air. “Isn’t this interesting. Aren’t I lucky.” He drifted closer, hands locked behind his back. “And, I don’t suppose it will be nearly that simple, will it? I take back what is mine, the world turns ever on, and we all do as we please?”

“W-well… uh.” Tadashi mentally shook himself. Standing next to Pitch, in the middle of his lair, surrounded by Nightmares fluttering overhead, all felt like holding a candle in the middle of a rainstorm. Like if he wasn’t careful, it would all overwhelm him and snuff out his light. He took another deep breath, and tried not to gag on the cold, stale air. “Obviously there’s conditions. But – wouldn’t it be better to just… I mean, you want your power back, don’t you? So you can command the Nightmares again, instead of fearing them?”

“And how, may I ask, did you convince them to agree to this little plan of yours?” Pitch asked, his voice as smooth as oil and silk. “I can’t imagine that old toymaker leaping for joy at the thought of my return. Or the rabbit, for that matter, if we’re talking of leaping.” He moved forward, and finally the pale light of the lair touched his face. “Indulge my curiosity, fox. What did you say to them, to convince them that this was a good idea?”

“Er.”

“As I thought.” Pitch smiled thinly. “You didn’t. I doubt they even know you’re here. I’m willing to wager, even, that if they had known about your intentions, they would have sooner sealed you in here with me than allow it.”

Tadashi bristled. “You don’t know that.” He fought to keep his voice calm. “Besides, Jack knows.”

“And he was thrilled, I imagine,” Pitch said dryly.

“Look, there’s not a lot of time-”

“My dear, dear little fox, you have offered me nothing.” The very air vibrated as Pitch’s voice dropped. “No assurances, not one. No reason whatsoever to believe that the moment I step into their presence, they won’t smite me to dust and ash where I stand. Much less return my power to me.” His lip curled. “Get out of my sight.”

“No.” Tadashi’s hands balled into fists.

“Determined to try my patience, then.”

“You didn’t let me finish,” Tadashi said tersely. He still had one last card to play. “Because, see, this isn’t actually my idea.”

“Oh no?” Pitch gave him a dubious look. “Not Jack, certainly – he always did know how to hold a grudge. And I doubt North put you up to this.”

Tadashi braced himself. “Think higher.”

He wasn’t sure how the Nightmare King would react to the implication, or if he would even pick up on the implication at all.

Pitch’s eyes blazed. The heaviness in the air doubled, tripled, then built and built and built until Tadashi found himself on his knees, with no memory at all of falling. It took a Herculean effort just to raise his head, and he found himself staring up into the wrathful face of the Nightmare King.

His form had gone inky-black again, as if he were made of the same living shadows he controlled. Gnarled fingers curved into claws, and his eyes – no longer yellow – blazed with the same pale light that lit up the cavern. His mouth had morphed into a jack o’lantern grimace, lit up with the same eerie glow so that it silhouetted two rows of curved fangs.

YOU DARE?

Pressure around his chest made breathing nearly impossible. Tadashi looked down to find himself wrapped in tendrils of darkness that oozed up from the floor. The cavern rumbled with power. High overhead, the Nightmares at the ceiling were writhing, shifting to block the light from above, until the only illumination in the cavern was Pitch’s chilling face and Tadashi’s own rapidly-dimming glow.

Somehow, he found his voice again. “She wants to talk to you.”

SILENCE.

“She was wrong. She knows she was wrong and that’s why-”

YOU WILL BE SILENT !

“Just listen to me!”

No. The apparition before him curled its claws, and the pressure around Tadashi’s lungs and heart tightened until he was gasping. I have nothing to say to that witch, and therefore I have nothing to say to her mewling proxy. Now leave my sight, or I will see to it that you never leave this place again.

“No,” Tadashi gasped out.

You are a child among ancients. You are tiny. You are nothing to us, and you know nothing of us.

“I’m not leaving until you listen to me-” Tadashi broke off, wheezing as the shadows squeezed him again.

You have nothing to say to me, boy.

“She wants to make things right-”

She cannot. What would she have me do – spend the rest of eternity on a leash? Always watched? Always mistrusted? I refuse! What was broken can never be mended, and I will not crawl and beg like a dog for forgiveness from her or any of her patsies!

“She just wants to talk to you!” Tadashi choked out the words.

She already made herself quite clear before – her world has no need of me, and the forces at my will are against hers! Now LEAVE!

“No!”

Pitch’s hand twisted again, and an invisible force yanked Tadashi up and slammed him back into a pillar at the edge of the courtyard. I SAID LEAVE!

“I won’t!”

WHY WON’T YOU JUST LEAVE ME ALONE!

Tadashi gritted his teeth. “I won’t,” he said. “She hasn’t given up on you, Pitch. And neither will I.”

The suffocating pressure vanished, and Tadashi gasped for air. He struggled back to his feet, hands braced against the pillar, and raised his head to look at Pitch again.

The Nightmare King’s form had returned to normal, leaving Pitch standing over Tadashi with a look on his face that could only be described as bewildered. For a single moment the two of them looked at each other, stubborn determination meeting wordless astonishment.

And then, like a cloud of bats, the Nightmares descended upon them.

Tadashi flinched back instinctively, watching as Pitch’s wide eyes went from shock to alarm and finally to nameless terror, before vanishing between the impenetrable darkness of his own Nightmares. He made no sound; the only noises Tadashi could ear were the flutter and hiss of Nightmares, and his own raspy breathing.

His heart thudded in his chest, until he was sure it would burst. Before him, the Nightmares swarmed their former master, hiding him from view in a thick black fog.

Tadashi stood tall, swallowed against the lump in his throat, and stepped forward.

Every inch of him shook as he forced himself to walk, one foot at a time. Instincts that he never even knew he possessed now clamored in his head, screaming at him to turn tail and run. Tadashi didn’t fight the fear, or even try to ignore it. It was impossible to do either; pure pulse-pounding terror filled him from toe to tip, churning his insides to liquid.

Breathe, he thought, and stepped into the dark mist.

The crawling on his skin was not just nerves and goosebumps; he could feel the shadows grasping at him. But he walked, forcing air in and out of his lungs. He walked and he walked, until he found Pitch at the heart of the swarm.

The Nightmare King cowered, head bowed, face hidden. If he knew Tadashi was there, he gave no sign of it even as Tadashi finally halted beside him.

For a moment, fire would not come to him. It took a few tries for Tadashi to call a flame to his hands, a pitiful flickering thing that gave off a feeble wisp of light in the Nightmares’ midst.

This, Pitch seemed to sense. The Nightmare King raised his head, and Tadashi could see where tendrils of shadow curled against his face and neck. Slowly, trying not to fall over on shaking legs, Tadashi knelt beside him.

“I won't tell you not to be afraid.” It came out as a hoarse whisper. Tadashi’s voice shook just as his hands did. “I'd be a hypocrite if I did, because I'm afraid, too. I’m afraid of you.”

Pitch watched him, silent and wary.

“But I will say, I'm not going anywhere.” Tadashi eyed the Nightmares around them, forcing himself to look his own fear straight in the eye. His throat felt tight as he looked back to Pitch. “And I won't leave you alone down here. I promise.”

Pitch spoke then, his voice hoarse and quiet. “Why?”

His mouth was dry. “I think you've been alone long enough.”

“No.” Pitch shook his head, and his eyes never left Tadashi’s face. “Why are you afraid?”

Tadashi blinked. “Because you're scary.”

Another shake of his head, this one disbelieving. “You have eyes. You can see what I am. What I’ve become.” Shame and revulsion mingled on Pitch’s face. “Why bother being afraid of me when I am this?

“Because...” Tadashi’s voice cracked, catching in his bone-dry throat. “You’re… it’s like you said. You’ve been around for centuries. Maybe longer. Even when you’re ‘this’, the only reason why you’re not crushing my mind is because you don’t feel like it. And...” He looked away for a moment. “And here I am trying to fix a problem from hundreds of years before I was born.”

“Then give up.” Pitch’s eyes narrowed. “What’s the worst that can happen if you walk away?”

“I fail,” Tadashi said bluntly. “I fail, and we lose, or we win today but we never solve anything, and… that… that scares me even more than you do.” He pursed his lips, looking down at the tiny light in his hands. “They all trust me. She trusts me to fix this. I can’t let them down.”

“Why not?” The Nightmare King smirked. “Do you think the world will end without you? Without the Guardians? Don’t be a fool, boy. There have always been monsters. Your little club hasn’t changed that. There will always be monsters, no matter how many you fight. Drive them off today, and they’ll be back tomorrow. Their teeth will be just as sharp, and so will their hunger.” He cast a venomous look at the Nightmares surrounding them. “Give up. It makes no difference.”

“And then what?”

Pitch turned to him again, eyes narrowing.

“And then what?” Tadashi repeated. “What am I? How long am I going to live?”

“Ah.” Pitch smiled thinly. “Ah, I see now.”

Tadashi blinked at him. “What?”

“You aren’t afraid of me, boy.” Sharp teeth glinted in the light of the flame. “You aren’t afraid I’ll hurt you. You’re just afraid I’ll say no.”

The lump in his throat was back. He swallowed against it, but it didn’t go away.

“You’re afraid you’ll fail, and they’ll see you for a useless child. Unimportant. You’re afraid they’ll cast you aside and leave you to an eternity alone.”

The ember wavered in Tadashi’s hands.

“That’s a popular one, you know,” Pitch remarked. “Being alone. If that’s your greatest fear, you’ll have to get in line.”

“That won’t happen.” His eyes stung. He fought against the feeling – he would not cry. He would not cry in front of Pitch.

“Won’t it?” Pitch’s brow rose. “They’ve done it to me, the ancient keeper of humanity’s fears. Do you think you hold more weight than me? Do you think they won’t leave you?”

“No.” Tadashi’s voice shook. “I know they won’t. I know they’d never do that.”

“Then why are you afraid?”

“Because I just am!” The fire flared in his trembling hands. “Because of course I am! Of course I’m afraid of being alone! Of course I panic whenever I get left behind! Because the last time someone I trusted left me behind, I died!” He stopped short, biting his lip. “It’s not rational. I know it’s not. I know they wouldn’t do that, but it still scares me. And that’s why I’m here. I’m going to make sure I don’t have to worry about it.” He met Pitch’s eyes again. “Even if it means walking in here, and talking to you. I’m not letting any of them down.”

The light seemed brighter now. Tadashi glanced down to find it burning merrily in his palm. His hands had stilled. He took a deep breath, and it came in and out easily. He raised his head, and realized that he hadn’t looked at or even thought of the Nightmares around them as he spoke. And now, even as he watched the writhing shadows, the heart-clenching fear that usually accompanied them never came.

Tadashi blinked. “Huh.” He looked down again and found Pitch still watching him with narrowed eyes. “Look at that. I think you just helped me.”

Pitch’s eyes flashed. “I beg your pardon?”

“I think… I get it now.” His legs were stiff from kneeling, but Tadashi managed to stand. “That’s… sort of what fear is for. Isn’t it? The more I understand what I’m scared of, the more I understand how to overcome it.” He glanced at Pitch. “Don’t you think?”

“Are you mocking me?” The baleful light had returned to Pitch’s eyes. “Still you talk of how to overcome me. How to beat me. And that, fox, is why what you want is impossible. No matter what you say – no matter what she says – there will be no peace between us as long as you see fear as an evil.”

“But I don’t,” Tadashi replied. “That’s what I just said – I don’t think it’s bad by itself. It’s just bad if there’s too much.”

“What difference does it-”

“Too much of anything is bad,” Tadashi cut him off flatly. “Fun? Too much and people get hurt. Dreams? Focus too much on dreams and you never get anything done. Memories? They can hurt you, or they keep you stuck in the past so you never move forward and grow up. Wonder? Too much and it gets in the way of common sense. Same for hope, because you’re right. Sometimes it’s good to throw in the towel. Now just isn’t one of those times. And trust…” His shoulders slumped ever so slightly, and the burn of unshed tears pressed behind his eyes. “Trust the wrong person, and you can end up dead like me.”

Pitch frowned, but he didn’t reply, and as long as he wasn’t replying, then he wasn’t arguing.

“Look.” Tadashi took a deep breath and let it out in a sigh. “I can’t make any promises. It’s not going to be easy. There’s gonna be trouble, and there are things you’re going to have to answer for. It’s going to be an absolute mess.”

“Very appealing,” Pitch said acidly.

“Yeah, well you know what?” Tadashi scowled. “We’re going to suck it up and do this anyway, because it’s the right thing to do. Because it’s the only thing to do. If the only way to save these kids and get the Nightmares under control is to get you to mend fences, then so help me I will duct-tape hammers to your hands if I have to.” He held out his hand. “They’re waiting for us. Are you coming with me or not?”

Pitch stared at him, then at his outstretched hand, and then back to his face. “You’re assuming I can even be of help to you. The forces you want me to control are the very same creatures who keep me prisoner here.”

“Because you’re afraid of them?”

Pitch bridled.

“I get it.” Tadashi shrugged. “I am too. I just… I know why. I understand them. So maybe… it’s not about not being afraid? Maybe you just have to be scared and do it anyway.” He shrugged again. “That’s how it is for me, anyway.”

“You’re gambling an awful lot on this,” Pitch remarked.

“Yeah, well a lady on the moon served me tea and said pretty please, so I might as well try.”

Pitch blinked, and something very much like amusement flitted across his face. “I didn’t miss your tone when last we spoke. You didn’t trust her. And yet you’d trust me?”

“Hell no,” Tadashi said bluntly. “I’m gonna make you work for it. And step one is come with me and help me fix this mess. From there… we’ll see what happens. I’m feeling curious.”

Pitch laughed.

He didn’t take Tadashi’s hand, but he did stand up. The Nightmares swarmed around him, hissing balefully, and he drew in his shoulders as if on instinct. But, with a glance at Tadashi, he squared them once more and held out his hand to the darkness.

As Tadashi watched, the shadows around them churned. Their whispering grated in his ears. Dark tendrils wrapped around the outstretched hand and lashed out at him like a cornered animal. Pitch’s other hand, the one hanging loose at his side, curled into a fist, though the rest of him stood as still as one of the stone pillars in his lair.

Gradually, the churning shadows calmed. Rather than twisting and writhing, they seemed to slither gently in the air, probing at their former master in a way that was almost curious. A thin smile spread across Pitch’s face, and the shifting Nightmares came together and coalesced into a more recognizable form.

Glowing eyes, like pinpricks of light, opened in the creature’s face, and a broad nose brushed gently at Pitch’s outstretched hand. The Nightmare King smiled, and the jet-black horse before him tossed its mane and whickered.

Pitch turned his pale eyes to Tadashi once more, stroking the Nightmare’s nose. “Well then. Shall we?”

Chapter Text

Hiro had lost track of time. It may as well have been a year since Tadashi had left them in the Tea Garden’s shrine.

Without his armor, Baymax was deactivated, and Hiro crouched by his deflated body as the battle raged on. His friends were around him, holding off the swarm with the help of the Easter Bunny. Beyond them, battling the bulk of the nightmares on the front lines, were the rest of the Guardians.

The rabbit was in a foul temper. Over the din of battle, Hiro could still hear him cursing as he fought, loudly enough that even his exploding eggs couldn’t drown him out. Honey was closest to him, hurling chem balls like their lives depended on it, and even she was giving him a wide berth.

Hiro couldn’t blame him for his mood. “Buy me time” wasn’t a lot to go on, and the Easter Bunny didn’t strike him as the patient type.

He couldn’t help but wonder exactly what Tadashi was planning on doing. His explanation had been frustratingly vague and directed at Jack Frost. Whatever it was, Jack hadn’t been happy about it, nor had he seemed to think the others would be happy about it either. That didn’t bode well for their chances of success.

Without Baymax, Hiro could only sit at the very back of the shrine where the nightmares hadn’t reached, watch the battle, and call out whatever verbal directions and advice he could. Baymax’s chip—the hoshi no tama—his brother’s soul—was warm in his hand and pulsing softly with light. He braced himself, hoping against hope that Tadashi would return.

There came a sound like rolling thunder.

Except it wasn’t thunder, Hiro realized. It was the sound of hooves, dozens if not hundreds of hooves. He raised his head, still clutching the hoshi no tama, and looked around for the source. It was hard to tell.

As the sound rose, there was almost a lull in the fighting. The nightmare swarm slowed and shifted as if surprised. Somewhere at its heart was Professor Callaghan, though Hiro couldn’t be sure what he was thinking, or how much thinking he could even do at this point.

“Is that the cavalry?” Fred asked with weary hope.

“No,” The Easter Bunny pushed past them, a boomerang held in either paw, his eyes narrowed and fixed on the surrounding trees to the left as they faced the direction of the shrine entrance. “Nightmares.”

“What do you mean, Nightmares?” Wasabi groaned. “More of them?”

“They’ve never sounded like that before,” Honey remarked.

The rabbit swore again, and Aunt Cass would have taken Hiro’s video game privileges for a month if he ever used language like that. “He’s back,” he said. “The bastard’s back—damn it, Tadashi, where the blazes are you?”

The swarm roiled, galvanized into action, and seemed to brace itself. A split second later, it rushed forward like an ink-black tsunami. Hiro tensed, squeezing the chip until his fingertips went numb.

The storm of hooves rose in volume, and the dark garden lit up as bright as day, just for a moment. Blinding orange and yellow dazzled Hiro, as a wildfire in the vague shape of a fox appeared out of the night and came racing into the midst of the battle. Flaming jaws stretched wide, showing embers for teeth and a bright tongue of flame, and the blinding creature plunged into the swarm until it writhed and screamed in the painful light.

At the heels of the fox came the horses.

There weren’t dozens of them. Maybe there weren’t even hundreds of them. It seemed to Hiro like there were thousands—dark equine shapes, flowing in the wake of the fox. Their eyes glowed ghostly white, their hooves pounded the ground, and they pranced and reared and galloped into the swarm.

Hiro watched, slackjawed and speechless, as the familiar red-gold shape of a fox—a normal one this time, not the fiery monster from just seconds before—came leaping out of the dark and back into their midst. Behind him, one of the horses broke free of the dark herd and trotted to catch up.

This horse was different from the rest; it had a rider.

The rabbit let loose a thunderous battle cry and sprang forward, eyes fixed on the horse and its rider. But Tadashi sprang in his path, shifting smoothly from fox to human. Hiro’s heart leapt.

“Wait!” Tadashi yelled, holding both hands out in front of him. “Wait-wait-wait! He’s here to help!”

Are you—” The rabbit skidded to a halt in front of him, boomerangs gripped in his paws. “—BLOODY JOKING?!

“No.” Tadashi stood his ground, unflinching. “He’s here for what’s his. You and I both know we can’t kill all these things, and the only one who can control them is him.”

“Control them!” the rabbit roared. “He’ll control them, all right! He’ll control them right around to kill us is what he’ll—”

“We don’t have time for this,” Tadashi interrupted. “The Man in the Moon told me to do this.”

The rabbit had been in the middle of taking a breath, ready to continue his tirade, but the moment Tadashi said those words, he went silent.

Up on the horse, the tall, dark rider snorted with laughter. “So that’s what it takes to shut the rabbit’s mouth, is it?”

Tadashi shot a glare over his shoulder at him.

“Are you taking the piss right now?” the rabbit asked.

“Nope. Pitch, play nice.” Tadashi walked past the Easter Bunny and was immediately hug-tackled from one side by Fred, and from the other by Honey. “Ow.”

“You’re back!” Honey’s voice was slightly muffled. She pulled back. “What happens now?”

“Now, we finish this,” Tadashi replied. “I’m sorry you all got dragged into this, guys.”

That was when Hiro found his voice. “Hey, don’t be sorry,” he said sharply, darting forward to join them. “If we hadn’t gotten dragged into this, we never would’ve found you.”

“He’s got a point,” Wasabi added. His fingers twiddled, and he shot a few nervous glances at the figure on the horse. “So, uh…”

“Wanna tell us about Tall Dark and Creepy over there?” Gogo asked dryly. The figure’s head turned, and yellow eyes flashed in the dark. Gogo glared back.

“That’s… kind of the bogeyman,” Tadashi said awkwardly. “I mean, not kind of. That’s the bogeyman.”

“What,” Gogo said flatly.

“You mean—like, the bogeyman bogeyman?” Wasabi said. “As in, hides under beds, eats kids? Isn’t he like the bad guy?”

“That’s what I said!” the rabbit yelled.

“It’s complicated and involves the goddess of the moon and we really don’t have time to go through all the details,” Tadashi answered, somehow all in one breath. “I promise I’ll explain everything—” He glanced back to look at the rabbit as he said this. “But right now…”

Hiro pressed the chip back into his hand.

As the object passed from Hiro back to Tadashi, it changed again. The golden pearl sat in Tadashi’s palm, and for a moment it looked as if his eyes were glowing even brighter.

“Do what you need to do,” Hiro told him, locking eyes with his brother. “Just make sure you come back, got it?”

Tadashi pulled him into another tight hug. Hiro’s nose filled with the smell of smoke and burning. “Got it.”


With his hoshi no tama in hand, Tadashi walked back to where Pitch sat astride his horse. The rest of the nightmares (night-mares, haha. ha) were galloping through the swarm, hooves flailing as they corralled the rebelling shadows. More than a few of them had turned gold, converted from nightmares to pleasant dreams by the Sandman’s powers. Tadashi wondered if Pitch would be offended, and then stopped wondering when he decided that he didn’t really care.

“I can sense him,” Pitch said, watching the swarm from his perch. “Poor little human, getting caught up in all this. They might eat him when they’re done with him.”

“Can you not,” Tadashi said.

“The thought frightens you. It’s in my nature.” Pitch turned to him and smiled. “Shall we, little fox?”

Tadashi glanced up at him and was struck by the sight. His eyes glowed, and spectral light shone from within his mouth, turning his face to a jack o’lantern. Sitting on a dark horse, surrounded by the thunder of hooves, the Nightmare King reminded Tadashi of stories he had heard, tales from European mythologies about the Wild Hunt. He wondered if the Wild Hunt was real, or if Pitch hadn’t been the one to inspire those stories.

He squeezed the ball in his hand, and the world around him grew as he became a fox again. His tail curled around the ball with a dexterity that normal fox tails probably didn’t have, but it kept his paws and his mouth free.

Fur prickling with tension, he looked back at the Nightmare King and spoke with perfect clarity.

“Let’s,” he said.

In this form, he was small and quick enough to keep pace with Pitch’s horse. The nightmare swarm, still a shapeless, writhing mass of darkness, rose up to meet them. Pitch’s nightmares closed in, herding it from all sides, forcing it into a single path. The path led them straight to Pitch’s outstretched hand.

There was no hesitance this time. There may still have been fear, but Tadashi doubted that Pitch would admit it later. He let fire blaze from his fur as they charged in. The darkness roared around them like some great beast trying to swallow them whole. But instead of prey, the nightmares found a predator and a king.

At Pitch’s touch, the swarm hissed and writhed, fighting against the bridles and reins he was forcing back upon them. But eventually, the swarm began to settle and separate, and more horses joined the herd.

There was a flash of silver in the dark. North came barreling in with a roar, swords flashing as he charged toward Pitch. Whipping in close, Tadashi sprang.

“Wait!” he yelled. He landed front paws first on North’s chest, interrupting his attack long enough for Pitch to swerve his horse around him and continue. “Sorry! I’ll explain later!” He sprang again, clambering swiftly from North’s chest and over his head, before leaping over him and racing onward.

He caught up to Pitch just in time to hear the Tooth Fairy’s battle cry as she flew at the Nightmare King with wings buzzing. This time, there was no need for him to intervene; Jack appeared beside her, blocking her path gently with his staff. Toothiana whirled around, astonished and ready to rail at him, but Tadashi didn’t pause to listen to them argue, and neither did Pitch.

They were almost to the heart of the swarm. Pitch’s nightmares thundered around them, filling the air with ghostly whinnying.

There was a blur of bright gold, too fast and sudden for Tadashi to react. It cannoned into Pitch, knocking him from his horse and bearing him to the ground. Pitch landed with a cry and skidded to a halt on his back. Tadashi whipped around and ran back to them, bristling.

The Sandman stood on Pitch’s chest, the air around him swirling with golden dust. In one hand, the dream sand had coalesced into the form of a glowing sword. With an ease that belied his small size, the Sandman lowered the point to rest beneath Pitch’s chin. As Tadashi crept around to look at his face, he saw the little Guardian’s amber eyes blazing with fury.

Pitch was breathing in short, quiet spurts, keeping as still as he could manage. “You’re making a mistake,” he began, but stopped when the tip of the sword pressed harder against his throat. The Nightmare King twisted his head carefully until his pale eyes found Tadashi’s face. “Well? Care to explain things to him?”

The Sandman looked up, eyes narrowing in confusion. Tadashi paused, about to change back and try to call the Guardian off, but stopped.

He may not have been here when it happened, but he knew what sort of grudge the Sandman would carry. This wasn’t the sort of quarrel Tadashi could fix himself.

It was funny—for all his criticism of the Woman in the Moon, he could sort of understand where she was coming from now—sometimes, telling them the answer defeated the whole point of it. And Tadashi had a very strong feeling, against his better judgment, that if he told Pitch exactly what he needed to do, it would only cheapen it.

So instead, he seated himself, looked back at Pitch, poured as much cold reproof as he could into a single stare, and jerked his head toward the Sandman. Well? We’re waiting, he said without words.

For a moment he wasn’t sure that Pitch would catch his meaning. But then the bogeyman blinked, glared at him, and managed to heave a resigned sigh in spite of the Guardian standing on his torso. He turned away from the fox and stared back up into the face of the Guardian of Dreams.

“We have been enemies for a great many ages,” he said. The Sandman blinked, eyes narrowing in confusion. “We’ve fought over the same domain, we two. Have we not?”

The Sandman glared at him.

“I don’t particularly like you, Sandman,” Pitch went on. “And there are many things I am angry about, and I stand by my own anger. But you were never the cause of any of them. You have never particularly wronged me.” The Sandman blinked again. Pitch’s jaw clenched for a moment before he continued. “I, on the other hand, have wronged you. I killed you less than a lifetime ago. And for whatever it’s worth to you…” Pitch’s mouth tightened, and he shut his eyes. “I’m sorry.”

The Sandman’s sword burst apart. The little Guardian’s eyes widened in astonishment, and he reeled back. Not one to take a chance for granted, Pitch got to his feet again swiftly.

Tadashi stood up again. “There,” he said, hiding his relief. “Was that so hard?”

“Like pulling teeth,” Pitch said acidly. His eyes flickered back to where the Tooth Fairy hovered, watching in speechless shock. “No offense, darling.”

Toothiana ignored him. “Tadashi?” she called. Her sword was lowered to her side but nonetheless at the ready.

“It’s fine if you can’t trust him,” he replied. “I don’t blame you, and you don’t have to yet. For now, just trust me.”

Her mouth tensed, and she nodded. “Okay.” She shot another quick glare at Pitch, and pointed her blade toward him. “You lay a hand on him, and you answer to us, Bogeyman.”

Pitch mounted his horse again. “Noted. Shall we, fox?”

Please.”

They ran on, and reached the entrance to the shrine. Here they slowed, and the shadows grew so thick that it was nearly impossible to see the garden beyond them, except for vague shapes of trees and posts. Pitch brought his mount to a halt and pointed to the heart of the swarm.

“He’ll be in there. How would you like to do this?”

“What’s the safest way?” Tadashi asked.

“That’s an awfully loaded question,” Pitch drawled. “Do you mean the quickest? The easiest?”

“I mean the safest,” Tadashi gritted out.

“For him or for us?”

“For him.” If nothing else, dealing with Pitch was letting him get in some good practice at keeping his patience. He’d let that skill fall somewhat to the wayside since Hiro stopped being able to see him.

“Ah. Well. I suppose one of us would have to go in and convince him to come out.”

Tadashi looked at him sharply. “Would that work?”

“If there’s enough of him left in his head to make that decision, then I suppose so,” Pitch replied. “It’ll be easier to pull him free if he doesn’t hang like a dead weight, is all.”

“What will you be doing?” Tadashi asked.

“Exactly what I came here to do.” Pitch cast a glance at the shadows surrounding them, eyes gleaming. “Taking back what is mine.”

“What happens if this doesn’t work?” Tadashi asked.

“Then we have two choices,” Pitch said. “Either we force him out, which at this point will probably be a great enough shock to kill him, or these nightmares milk him for everything he has, and devour everything they can reach.” He paused. “They go for the weak ones first. How fast do you think you can get back to your brother?”

Tadashi bristled and bared his teeth. “Well all right then,” he muttered. His form flickered, and he stood up on two human legs once more. “Wish me luck.”

“I trust you won’t need it,” Pitch said dryly.

Tadashi didn’t even grace that with a reply before he stepped forward into where the Nightmares were thickest.

After two steps, the ground beneath him disappeared, and he felt himself fall. The world had vanished to darkness, and he plummeted with scarcely an idea of which end was up.

It’s just a dream, he realized before he had the chance to panic. He let himself fall.

He landed in a familiar place—the docks by the waterfront. Microbots raced along in a wave, herding a small blue van along as it swerved and screeched to escape. But it was to no avail—the microbots, and the dark figure controlling them, forced the vehicle over the edge, where it plunged into the water and sank.

Murderer.

They did nothing wrong.

Only children, all of them.

You failed to kill them, but what matters is that you tried.

The world fell away again, and so did Tadashi.

He landed in the testing facility on akuma island, just as Abigail’s pod disappeared and everything went wrong. He watched as the machines malfunctioned, the scientists descended to a panic, the portals dragged in everything within reach, and finally Alistair Krei desperately deactivated them. The portals went dead, with Abigail inside, and Callaghan raged and screamed and clawed at Krei’s eyes, ready to tear him apart with his bare hands.

Gone

Gone

You lost her he killed her she vanished

You are alone

She came back but not to you.

You are alone.

He saw the portals again—not in the testing facility, but out in daylight, pulling Krei’s newly-built facility into oblivion. He saw Callaghan defeated and the building destroyed, he saw Hiro and Baymax fly in and Hiro and Abigail fly out, and the portal went dead once more. All was in ruin. All was silent.

She was alive, you could have saved her.

All for nothing.

It was

all

for

nothing

Tadashi fell into fire again. But it did not blind him anymore. Flames licked him, trying to burn, but they failed. He breathed in smoke and ash and blistering air, and breathed it all out again.

Murderer.

You murdered him.

He called for you, he begged you.

He came to save you.

And you killed him.

He died screaming.

He died crying.

And you left him

all alone.

Just like you.

Tadashi walked. There would be no more falling from here. There were no nightmares deeper than this one. He walked, and the flames parted, and the shadows rose, but he walked on through the fire and heat.

This was his death. He had lived it and died it, he had seen it more times than a single soul should have to. It would try to hurt him again, and perhaps it would succeed. But he could fight back and fail and fight again and keep fighting for as long as he needed.

A scream rent the air, and Tadashi recognized his own voice. Somewhere in his mind, he could feel anger—but it was distant, as dim as a voice shouting from the bottom of a well. He walked, and followed the sound of his own dying cries.

At the center of the inferno, he found himself buried in rubble and screaming as he burned. Beyond, silhouetted in fire, Callaghan stood frozen and still. He was at the epicenter of the nightmare, trapped in fire and darkness and sickly-sweet guilt.

And Tadashi stopped in the flames and whispered, “Enough.”

It did not make sense, for a whisper to drown out a scream, but things rarely make sense in dreams. The screaming stopped, and when Tadashi stepped close enough, his dying self vanished from the vision as if making way for the real thing.

Tadashi stepped forward again, and again, until he stood in front of Callaghan.

His professor stared through him without seeing him, eyes still fixed on the ground where his body had lain. Even when Tadashi reached out to touch him, to lay a hand on his shoulder, he didn’t move. If he got it into his head to attack Callaghan, to wring his neck or push him into the flames, Tadashi doubted he would have resisted.

It was probably a good thing, then, that he wasn’t here for anything like that.

“Callaghan,” he said. His former mentor did not reply, and gave no indication that he had heard him at all. “Professor. This is all a bad dream.” His hand tightened on Callaghan’s shoulder. “It’s time to wake up, Professor. You need to stop this.”

“No.”

The whisper came to him through the roar of flames.

“I can’t,” Callaghan murmured. “This is what I deserve.”

“Maybe so,” Tadashi said. “But no one else does.” He moved closer, forcing himself into Callaghan’s line of vision. “Come with me. You have to fight this. You have to fight them.”

“I can’t.”

“You can.” Tadashi’s voice rose. “I saw those other dreams, Callaghan. You feel guilty for everything you did. For hurting my brother, my friends. And that’s why you need to get out, Callaghan! If you don’t, they’ll use you to hurt them again!” He shook Callaghan lightly by the shoulders. “You remember them, don’t you? Honey Lemon and Gogo? Wasabi? Fred?” Callaghan’s face never changed. “Hiro? Damn it, Callaghan, you’ve already taken so much from him!”

Callaghan met his eyes. “And that is why,” he whispered. “I deserve this. You of all people know that, Tadashi.”

“I’m trying to save you!” Tadashi shouted, and the flames around them roared.

“I don’t want to be saved.”

“Tough!” Would it help to hit him? Tadashi doubted it. “Just wake up! If you want to be punished so bad, then you can go back to jail! But right now, those things are using you to hurt kids! Doesn’t that matter to you?”

“I can’t,” Callaghan whispered. “I can’t fight them. They’ll kill her if I fight. Or maybe they’ll kill her if I don’t fight. I don’t know anymore.”

“They won’t,” Tadashi gritted out through clenched teeth. “I promise, they won’t. We’ll stop them. But I can’t do that if you don’t fight them.”

“I’m not strong enough,” Callaghan told him. “And Tadashi, I’ve lost everything. It’s my fault—it’s my fault. I killed you, and it’s my fault and that’s why I deserve this—”

His eyes stung, and he thought it was the fire until he felt tears trickle down his face. His chest twisted like a wrung-out washcloth, but it wasn’t sadness, and it wasn’t compassion, and it wasn’t fear. He burned with anger beneath his skin, and he released Callaghan’s shoulders to grasp him by the front of his shirt and yank him forward.

“You’re a coward,” he hissed, as tears scalded their way down his face. “You’re a coward! You talk about what you deserve, like you’re doing this to make up for what you did, like—like you think you’re making amends or making things square. Well, you’re not! You’re hiding! You know why the nightmares are eating you? Because you’re too scared to go back to the real world and face what you did, because this—” He nodded to the fire surrounding them. “This is not facing it. This is wallowing in it, and I did not come this far to listen to you moan and whine about how bad you feel! Well you know what? I feel bad too! But I’m trying, damn it! Do you want to face it? Do you want to have any hope of making things right? Then stop clinging to bad dreams and come back to the real world.”

“I can’t—”

You will!” Tadashi’s voice cracked. He could barely see the dream anymore. He could barely even see Callaghan through the haze of tears. “And if you don’t… if you don’t…”

His breath caught in his throat. His fists ached from clinging to Callaghan’s shirt. The tears on his face couldn’t dry when they kept falling and falling with no end in sight.

“Callaghan.” His voice was a wet, broken mess. Callaghan’s eyes were wide as he met them with a glare through the tears. “Don’t make me choose between my brother and you.” His grip tightened. “Because I chose you once. And I will never make that mistake again.”

Just for a moment, through the blur of tears, he saw Callaghan’s eyes shine wetly in the firelight.

“Wake up,” he repeated in his wet, broken voice.

He was in darkness again, with firm ground beneath his feet. The thunder of nightmare hooves filled his ears once more. But there were still tears on his face, and his hands were still curled into fists around bunched fabric.

Tadashi blinked, and his vision cleared just enough to reveal the cracked, leaking white mask inches away from his face. Before his eyes, the cracks split further and fell away. A heavy form slumped forward against him, and Tadashi barely caught Callaghan before he bore them both to the ground.

Something bumped into his back and snorted by his ear. Tadashi turned his head and found himself looking into the glowing eyes of one of Pitch’s nightmares. The beast turned with a toss of its head and began walking. Heaving Callaghan up, Tadashi staggered to follow.

The nightmare led him out of the heart of the swarm, and by the time Tadashi came staggering back out into the normal dark, the swarm itself was beginning to break. Instead of a single amorphous entity, the shadows separated and solidified. Dark horses made of glistening black sand formed from what was left of the swarm, and they swirled and pranced around the tall, slender figure of their king.

The blackness that still clung to Callaghan fell away, revealing a grimy orange prison uniform beneath. Callaghan groaned faintly, but still breathed.

Overhead, the darkness faded until the outline of trees could be seen. Then beyond that a star, and another and another, and finally the face of the moon, blazing silver down upon the earth.

Tadashi raised his head, breathed in, and basked in moonlight.

Chapter Text

“So,” Bunnymund said grimly. “You said you’d explain everything later.” He flipped a boomerang over one paw. “It’s later. So maybe you can explain why we aren’t tearing this one a new arsehole before he gets the drop on us?”

For a moment Tadashi stared blearily at him, still weighed down by his half-conscious professor. “Give me a second.”

“No I won’t give you a bloody second,” the rabbit said sharply. “You breezed in here with that tosser trotting behind you and you expect us to—”

“Give me a second, please,” Tadashi snapped. “Look, I just relived my own death for the… wow, you know what? I can’t actually remember how many times I’ve relived my own death, but I promise you it’s too many, so give me a second.”

“Tadashi!”

He almost sagged with relief as his friends—his original friends—came running, with Hiro not far behind. Callaghan was nearly half conscious, but Tadashi managed to heave him upright. “Hey guys—can you take him real quick? He’s kinda heavy.”

Willing hands lifted Callaghan away from him and helped the old man to the nearest bench to sit. No longer burdened, Tadashi stood up straight and tried to pull his brain back together into something resembling organization.

Things looked… tense. The entire area was crowded, with both nightmares and Sandman’s golden dream horses. Pitch had dismounted from his horse and was pointedly ignoring the others while he patted its dark muzzle. North looked every bit as thunderous as Bunnymund. Toothiana seemed nervous as she glanced from one face to the next. The Sandman was watching Pitch with just as much curiosity as hostility. And Jack was leaning on his staff and looking expectantly to Tadashi.

Tadashi was tired. He was not quite as tired as he had been the day he’d crawled out of a collapsing portal. Or the day he’d crawled out of the wreckage of the SFIT auditorium. But he was far too tired for it to be reasonable to demand things of him.

But he had a job to do, and he’d promised to do it. In a moment of whimsy, he tilted his head back to the silver disc high above. “I’m gonna trust you to back me up on this, all right?” he said.

When he looked down again, he saw that North had followed his gaze to the moon. “This involves the Man in the Moon?” he said, with a glance to Tadashi. His bushy eyebrows came together in a suspicious frown at Pitch. “What sort of plan is this?”

“The sort of plan that involves not flinging swords around,” Tadashi replied. “Or boomerangs. Or… what have you.”

The rabbit scowled. “Sounds like a rubbish plan to me.”

“Honestly, I think she explained it better than I can, but I’ll do my best.” He took a deep breath. “The, eh, Man in the Moon asked me to set Pitch free and help him take the Nightmares back.”

“What?!” Bunnymund barked.

There was a snort of disgust from Pitch. “Oh can we dispense with that ridiculous moniker? Three of us here already know she’s a woman.”

“Come again?” Jack broke in.

“Look, okay,” Tadashi went on. “That’s—okay, fine. I had a talk with her while I was unconscious, and she asked me to do this.”

“Why just you?” Bunnymund demanded. “Something this bloody important, why’d she ask the newbie?”

“Because I’m the only one who didn’t know Pitch that well, so I don’t have a grudge against him,” Tadashi answered. He shot a pointed look at the bogeyman. “Yet.”

Pitch rolled his eyes, but the look on his face was a wary one.

“They used to be friends,” Tadashi went on. “But she… did something selfish. Something that hurt him. And this whole thing, this whole conflict—it’s basically just built off that one grudge. So she figured the best way to get started on solving the fighting was to try to mend fences.” He placed his hands on his hips. “And lucky me, I got appointed to make sure you all don’t kill each other in the process.” He raised his head, looking each one of them in the eye. “Look. I know you guys have been fighting for a long, long time. I know you all have your own grudges. I know he’s hurt you all of you, and you’re not gonna forgive him easily—and at this point in time he doesn’t really deserve it yet.” Pitch snorted contemptuously again. “But I know we’re all in it for the kids—except Pitch, I don’t really know what he’s in it for—and the best way we can help kids is by coexisting.” He paused. “I keep hearing that there are way worse things than nightmares out there, and frankly I’d rather not waste time with shadowy sand horses if we have bigger things to worry about.”

“You are asking an awful lot, Tadashi,” North said severely. He towered over Tadashi, making full use of his height.

“That’s the beauty of it, though,” Tadashi said. “I’m not the only one asking. Look, I hate to name-drop, but at this point I think your best bet is to take it up with the lady upstairs. I’m just here to grease the wheels.” He pointed to Pitch. “And also set him on fire if he acts up.”

North looked as if he wanted to say more, but stopped. He glanced down to find the Sandman placing a placating hand over his. The Guardian of Wonder fell silent with a thoughtful frown.

“What’s this grudge?’ Toothiana spoke up, hovering closer. “What did he—er, she—do to him?” She shot a nervous glance at Pitch, who scowled back.

“She told me that my domain was not important,” the Nightmare King growled. Overhead, the light of the moon seemed to dim. “And she convinced the rest of you that fear has no place in the world.”

“Yeah, ‘cos it doesn’t,” Bunnymund snarled.

“It does, though,” Tadashi said. “It does have a place.”

The Guardians stared at him. Bunnymund looked furious. The Sandman and Tooth Fairy looked confused. Jack and North were… hard to read.

“Like it or not, fear’s just as important to childhood as the rest of us,” he said. “Every child gets scared. That’s what keeps them safe from the things that might hurt them.”

“He’s the one creating the things that frighten them,” Jack said flatly.

“But they’re harmless, by themselves,” Tadashi pointed out. “Nightmares. Bad dreams. Being scared of the dark. Everyone’s been there. I know I have. And as long as there isn’t too much fear, and it isn’t used the wrong way… there’s value to that.”

One of North’s thick eyebrows rose dubiously. “There is value to creating fear?”

“There can be,” Pitch broke in. “If you do it right.” The others turned to stare at him, all with varying levels of suspicion. “My terms are simple: let me have my piece of the world, and I’ll do it right. Simple as that.”

“I don’t see how there’s a right way to give children bad dreams,” Toothiana challenged him. “You’re talking like children need fear to be happy.”

Pitch smiled thinly. “No. Children need fear to be children, and then to be more.”

“With bad dreams?” Toothiana demanded. “Things that go bump in the night? Monsters in closets?”

“It’s practice, you see,” said Pitch. “I understand that now. They start out learning to be afraid of the little horrors.”

“Oh, what, so they can be afraid of the big ones later on?” Bunnymund growled.

“Of course,” the Nightmare King replied. “Loneliness. Failure. Death. Loss. That sort of thing.”

“They’re not the same, Pitch!” Toothiana burst out.

“You think so? Perhaps.” Pitch stroked the nightmare’s nose. “The fears change when they aren’t children anymore. But the fear itself? That remains. Children are smart little things, and they remember. So they learn young—when fear comes, what do you do? Cower and run? Perhaps at first. So isn’t it good that the first things to frighten them are nothing more than bad dreams?”

Toothiana went still, and her bristling feathers began to lie flat again as her eyes widened. “You’re saying…”

“It’s good to be afraid of things that aren’t real,” said Pitch. “How else do you learn to face the things that are?”

Silence fell in the dark garden, broken only by the odd nicker from a spectral horse. A breeze ran through, cool but not chilly. High overhead, the glow of the moon brightened.

“See,” said Jack, breaking the silence. “If you’d pitched that to me, instead of the whole ‘hey-let’s-rule-together-in-an-empire-of-fear’ thing, I might’ve considered it.”

Pitch gave him a baleful stare. “I’ve had a lot of time alone to think recently. Haven’t been able to do much else.” For the briefest instant, his eyes flickered toward Tadashi, and he tipped an almost imperceptible nod.

From off to the side, there came a cough.

All eyes turned to Hiro, who stood battered and dirty not far from where a shell-shocked Callaghan still sat, guarded by the rest of the heroes. He jumped at the sudden attention, fidgeting awkwardly. “Um. Sorry, were you still—? I mean you looked like you sort of reached an agreement, so I thought…”

North gave a sigh. Not a tired one, or an irritated one. Mostly he just sounded amused. “What is it, little Hiro?”

“Is it… is it over?” Hiro glanced around cautiously, mindful of all the shadowy horses gathered around the shrine. “I mean, the whole… nightmare crisis.”

“Hm.” North turned to give Pitch a long, considering look. “Is hard to say. Things like these, can we say they are ever truly ‘over’? But… for now, the danger is past. The children are safe once more.” He turned to Hiro again with a nod and a smile. “You are safe once more. And we thank you for your help.”

Hiro nodded back. “What about Callaghan?”

North sighed again.

“Physically he should be fine,” Pitch spoke up. “A little dehydrated, I’ll wager. Mentally, that’s another story. He’s spent weeks with a supernatural hurricane in his head.”

“Can you help him?” Hiro pressed.

Honey moved forward to stand with him. “Whatever he’s done—” She shot a look at Tadashi. “Whatever he’s done in the past, he didn’t deserve all this. And everything that’s happened… it was the Nightmares that did it, wasn’t it? He’ll be punished for all the things they made him do, like breaking out and attacking all those people and…” She wrung her hands.

“It just doesn’t seem fair,” Hiro finished.

Tadashi saw the Guardians exchange glances.

“Kids have a point,” Bunnymund muttered.

“We don’t usually step in when adults are involved,” Toothiana said.

“Because adults usually aren’t involved,” Jack pointed out.

“I doubt he can return to human society anyway,” Pitch drawled. “After what he’s seen? Adult minds aren’t pliable like the little ones. Children have a way of snapping back—not so much for people like him.” His horse tossed its head. “And besides, the Nightmares probably left his head a mess. He’ll have horrors from all over the realms crawling over him to get an in.”

Tadashi tried not to shudder. It was a valiant effort.

It was North who stepped forward, past Hiro and Honey until he stood before the hunched form of Professor Callaghan. For a long while, he simply stood over the broken man and watched him with a severe look on his face.

Callaghan broke the silence first. “Whatever you see fit,” he said, nearly too quietly to hear.

“Hm.” North gave a thoughtful noise. “You are a maker.”

The old man raised his head to look at him, confused.

“You build. Invent. Create. Mind like sketchbook never runs out of pages. Yes?”

Hesitantly, Callaghan nodded.

The moment he did, North looked up and met Tadashi’s eyes. Tadashi blinked back at him, perplexed, until he realized what the other Guardian was doing. The question was clear on Santa Claus’s face—he was looking to Tadashi for approval. He was looking for permission to deal with Callaghan as he saw fit.

Tadashi gave a nod, and a welcoming motion with one hand.

North turned back to Callaghan with a rumble of laughter. “Good! I have use for you, then. Mind is terrible to waste.” He gave Callaghan a clap on the shoulder—a gentle one, judging by the fact that it didn’t knock Callaghan out of his seat. “You come with me, Callaghan.”

Callaghan bowed his head.

“This is not punishment,” North told him. “You do not need punishment, but healing. This, I can do. Or at least keep you busy.” Reaching down, he helped the old man to his feet. “Come. Where I take you, I think you will like.”

“So… what happens now?” Hiro had moved closer to Tadashi and caught hold of his sleeve. “Are you… I mean…”

“I’m sticking around,” Tadashi assured him. “I meant what I said. I won’t leave you. But…” He looked around at the other Guardians, and Pitch, and the nightmares. “Looks like I’ll be keeping busy, too. But no matter what, I’ll always come back, because this? This is home.” He squeezed his little brother’s shoulder. “My place is near you, buddy.”

“Okay.” Hiro seemed to steel himself. “Okay. I’m gonna hold you to that.”

“Good. Keep me honest.”

“We should be going,” Toothiana said at last. “I think… we all have a lot to talk about.”

“R-right.” Tadashi hesitated. “Um. Could you guys… go on ahead?” He motioned vaguely to his friends. “I just gotta…”

North laughed again, startling everyone. “Very well. You say your hellos. But catch up soon, yes? Help us deal with… your new friend.”

“We aren’t friends,” Pitch said waspishly. He turned away. “I’ll be rebuilding my home. When you’re ready to talk—” He stopped, and cast a glance upward at the shining moon. “Or when she’s ready to talk. Well. You know where to find me.” With that, he swung up onto his horse once more. The dark beast reared, the other horses rallied around it, and Pitch rode off into the night. He was gone in a gust of wind.

“We’ll meet you back at the North Pole?” Toothiana said, looking at Tadashi.

“Yeah, definitely.”

The sleigh coasted down to the ground, and the other Guardians, plus a dazed Robert Callaghan, climbed in. Jack was the last to follow.

“I was worried for a second there,” he said, locking eyes with Tadashi. “Pitch tried to cozy up to me, once. I was wondering if you’d gotten taken in or something.”

“God no, he’s an asshole,” Tadashi said. “I’m doing this because she finally cut the crap and started giving me straight answers.” He pointed upwards. “And she asked nicely.”

“O-oh. Right. Him—I mean, her.” Jack’s face twitched as he fought to suppress a powerful emotion. It looked like many things at once—envy, regret, sorrow. “Good talk, I take it?”

“You can have one too,” Tadashi said.

Jack blinked. “W-what?”

“That was one of my terms, when I agreed to what she said,” Tadashi told him. “I told her it wasn’t fair that she left you alone for three hundred years, so at the very least she owed you a conversation. So… that’s an offer open, if you want it.”

For a moment, Jack stared at him, dumbfounded. His jaw moved, but his mouth failed to form words. At last, he shook his head and punched Tadashi lightly in the shoulder. “God, you’re such a mother hen. I’ll see you at the North Pole, fluff.”

Tadashi grinned. “It was no problem, Jack.”

The sleigh lifted off, leaving the rest of them alone in the Tea Garden.

Tadashi took a deep breath. He turned on his heel. Tears were already gathering in his eyes as he caught Hiro’s shoulder and pulled him along into the waiting arms of his friends.


“So how’re things?” Hiro asked.

Tadashi stepped in through the window and landed lightly on the floor of their attic bedroom. “Busy, like I said. I’m spending most of my time keeping Pitch and Bunny from going for each other’s throats.”

Hiro laughed. “I still can’t believe that a rabbit that goes around handing out chocolate eggs in the springtime is, like, Conan the Barbarian.”

“It surprised me at first, too,” Tadashi admitted. “He didn’t like me much, back then. I guess rabbits just aren’t meant to get along with foxes.”

Hiro nodded, humming thoughtfully. “Hey, Tadashi…” He looked over his shoulder at Baymax’s charging station and case, which lay deactivated in the corner of the room.. “You’re sure you don’t need your… your soul? I mean, we would’ve been in a lot of trouble if Baymax hadn’t yanked it out and given it to you back then.”

“I might, someday,” Tadashi said. “If we ever see something that big and dangerous again. But until then…” He shot Baymax a grin. “It’s like I can be in two places at once, you know?”

“Guess so. Double the mother-hen. Lucky me.” Hiro’s voice was dry, but there was a smirk on his face. Tadashi reached up to mess up his hair. “And how’s… uh… how’s Callaghan?”

Tadashi grinned wryly. “North’s been putting him to work at the workshop. The elves keep pranking him, but I think he gets along okay with the Yetis. And… man, if he was something when he just had science, adding magic into the mix has turned out some wild stuff.”

Hiro hummed softly. “Is he… okay, then?”

“…Yeah. He’s okay.” Tadashi stuffed his hands in his pockets. “I think that’s about the best he can be, after everything that’s happened. He’s somewhere he can do things, and make things, instead of just… languish. He’s still getting used to the magic, though.”

“I don’t blame him.”

For a moment, they lapsed into a thoughtful silence, before Tadashi perked up again. “Oh, speaking of magic. I found out something cool.” Reaching beneath his jacket, he dug out a small folded stack of papers. “So, it turns out Nozomi and her friends have been spreading stories around the schoolyard, and look what I’ve found.” He unfolded the pages, revealing children’s crayon drawings, most of them colorfully simple depictions of foxes. Scrawled beneath the drawings, or on the back, were little notes.

“Are you getting fan mail?” Hiro’s smirk widened. “Like Santa?”

“Not quite. These are more like… ema, almost.” Tadashi shuffled through the pages, admiring them. “The kids who made these wrote wishes and hung them in their windows. So far it’s been stuff like being scared of the dark, or having bad dreams. And when they put them up, I felt it. It was like a string pulling me there. I think they’ve found a way to call me.”

“Cool!” Hiro laughed. “Looks like they’re already making legends about you, bro.”

“Heh, maybe.”

“I gotta ask, though—bad dreams? Doesn’t that kinda pit you against Pitch?”

“Not yet. Mostly it’s been scraps of nightmares that haven’t figured out Pitch is King again.” Tadashi folded up the notes and put them away again. “Maybe it will, someday. I’m okay with a rivalry, though. Doesn’t mean we can’t still get along.”

“You get along with the bogeyman?”

“Sort of.” Tadashi paused. “Well. We don’t not get along. That’s really all I ask at this point. But enough about me—how’s the hero work?”

“Same old, same old, I guess,” Hiro replied. “No archenemies yet. Maybe when I’m older.” He paused. “It’s just… weird, though.”

“What’s weird?”

“What isn’t weird?” Hiro laughed, a little humorlessly. “We both ended up in just… the wildest positions. You know? We’re both heroes. Just… different kinds. You do the magic stuff, I do the science stuff.”

“Not where I thought my life was going, that’s for sure,” Tadashi said softly.

“And… Aunt Cass is still mourning you,” Hiro murmured. “And I wish… I just wish there was a way to tell her, that you’re still here. And not just still-in-her-memory still here, I mean…”

“I know.” Tadashi slung an arm around his shoulders. “I know, and maybe… maybe someday.”

“That’s a pretty big maybe.”

“I know. But it’s not impossible. She could find a way to believe in me, and see me. Maybe we just need to have a little faith.”

“Hm.” Hiro raised an eyebrow. “And trust?”

“Sure. And if I find some pixie dust, I’ll let you know.” Tadashi ruffled his little brother’s hair again. “But for now, I… I’m just really glad you can see me.”

Hiro grinned. “Me too, bro. Oh hey, before you have to fly off again—” He darted toward the corner of the room nearest the stairs. “Sorry, it’s just—you look weird, running around without it.” Reaching up, he plucked the baseball cap from the hat rack and ran back. It was a bit of a stretch to plop it on Tadashi’s head, but he managed it. “I dunno if it fits your whole kitsune ghost mystique thing you have going, but…”

“Heh.” Tadashi reached up and straightened it. “I’ll admit, I have missed this old… thing…” His voice trailed off, and he looked over his shoulder. “Huh. Think I’m feeling it again.”

“Another kid having bad dreams?”

“Something like that.” Tadashi looked back, opening his mouth to say something.

Hiro stepped closer and wrapped him in a hug before he had the chance. Without a word, Tadashi returned it.

There didn’t need to be words. I missed you went without saying, and so did I love you and I’m glad you’re here.

“Well,” Hiro said at last, his voice muffled into his brother’s chest. “Don’t let me hold you up. I’ll talk to you later?”

“Sure thing, little bro.”

Hiro followed him to the window and watched him leap out of it. With his hands braced against the sill, he leaned forward and followed his brother’s path. As he stayed by the window, he watched the little form of a swiftly running fox as it darted out into the night, over and under the golden trails of dream sand beneath a dark, jeweled sky and a steadfast, ever-watchful Moon.