The citizens of Pure Heart Valley were busier than usual, and the town far more decorated as well.
Multi Colored- and shaped, baubles dipped between the roads’ streetlights. Wreaths of pinecones, berries, red flowers, and glitter, adorned doors. Unlit candles sat on tables, and between opposite buildings was the tightly wound back and forth of fairy light that had yet to be turned on.
Mao Mao and company took very quick notice of these developments, and only one seemed to know what the occasion was. Adorabat squealed in excitement, making Mao’s ears curl slightly inward. The bat dashed back and forth in the air in that excited little manner she does and- once her companions had enough, was caught by Badgerclops’ robotic reflexes.
“Calm down, dude. What’s the decor for?” Badgerclops asked, getting a good eyeful of the surrounding merriment.
“Tonight’s the winter festival!” adorabat exclaimed, joy vibrating her out of the badger’s grip. “We’ve been so busy, I totally forgot!
“Winter festival?” Mao asked, “what’s there to celebrate, being cold?”
“No!” Adorabat whined, “it’s just like… a way to have fun, and you know- winter is so pretty, and- it’s just fun!”
“Uh-huh,” Mao sighed, “who’s in charge of this thing?”
“The king, obviously!” adorabat squealed.
“Right, let’s go see what’s going on. Come on badgerclops.”
Mao adjusted his cloak as he walked, enclosing himself in it like he often did his cape. He switched it out recently for something with a bit more warmth to it- this one was thicker and had fur on it’s trim, and was very good at keeping out the cold.
Behind him, Adorabat talked badgerclops’ ear off, listing off all the fun things they did during the celebration: eating, dancing, gift giving, and finally the fireworks display.
“Woah, fireworks, are you sure that’s a good idea, man” badgerclops asked her.
“What’s wrong with fireworks? We do it every year.”
“Yeah, but things are kinda- ya know, different now, the big heart thing isn’t exactly keeping all that noise in anymore.”
“I agree,” Mao said from up front. “Fireworks are too much of a risk, the town should do something less exciting. Especially if it’s gonna be bright enough as it is.” not as many monsters had been attacking these last two months. , maybe the cold season inspired them to go elsewhere or into hibernation at least. Still, it was better to be safe.
They found the king eventually, sitting in a fine chaise elevated by guards, and eating grapes while pointing here and there at townspeople asking where certain things went.
“Your majesty,” Mao called, and the king looked down to see the trio of protectors.
“Oh, Mao Mao, my dear sheriff, getting into the seasonal spirit I trust?”
“Not exactly your highness, I - would you mind coming down for a minute?”
The king clapped his paws, and the guards let him down. “Now, what would you like to discuss?” he asked, beaming at the black cat.
“The celebration. Don’t you think the lights are a bit much, not to mention the fireworks you want to have-”
While Mao Mao and the king talked about a change in midnight plans, Adorabat got antsy in her spot on Badgerclops’ shoulder, which her carrier noticed.
“You alright, Adorabat?”
The bat snapped to attention, and looked like she was trying to find out what to say without telling him what she was thinking, her big eyes glancing everywhere.
“Come on, little dude, you can tell me. What is it?” badgerclops encouraged, but she remained tight lipped.
“Alright,” he gave in. “ you don’t have to say it.” Adorabat looked relieved to be in the clear, she really wasn’t good at secrets.
They were both called to attention by Mao finalizing the final plans for the night to a very bothered king.
“Lanterns are easy to make. And they won’t be nearly as bright as the village, or as loud as fireworks. And they’d be heading away from us.”
“I don’t know,” the lion whinged, “I don’t think we have enough time to make so many to be a proper end to the festivities. Why, we’d need every sweetie pie to help.”
“Sorry, man,” badgerclops interrupted, “but don’t you think lanterns are kinda a hazard too. It’s pretty windy, if those fires get into the trees, we’re gonna have a bigger problem than just monsters.”
Mao Mao tapped his chin in thought, then snapped his fingers with an idea. ”We’ll tie them to boards, then float them over the water. We used to do it when I was young- well, my village did at least.”
The king thought it over. It was either this or nothing as far as he could see. And the less trouble that came to the kingdom the better.
“Oh alright,” the king agreed, “but like I said, we’d need everyone to help. I imagine you two will be busy with your own preparations, so how about… you,” the king pointed to Adorabat, who pointed to herself, '' How would you like to help us make lanterns?” Seeing an opportunity he added “we can have a booth during the festival for painting them.”
The girl thought it over for a minute, then like she realized something else, quickly agreed and flew over. Mao put a hand out to block her.
“We’ll need Adorabat on patrol with us, I don’t think she’ll be able to help with the decorations, your majesty.”
Adorabat looked like she wanted to protest, but ultimately decided to stay quiet. Mao was in charge after all.
Badgerclops, on the other hand, had a problem with it. “Aw come one man, that’s later. Plus, we can set up defenses ourselves, let her have some fun before the party starts.”
Mao didn’t say anything, he looked at Adorabat, disappointment inching on the corners of her mouth and eyes. He didn’t like that look.
“Alright fine, you can go decorate some lanterns.” immediately, she squealed, hugging mao as best she could through his thick cloak. “But be back at HQ at least an hour before the festival. Now go on.”
Adorabat and the king made off to tell the other sweeties of the change in plans, and from the jumping and laughter, they seemed to like it. Mao remembers how excited he was to make his own lantern as a kid. Unlike him however, Adorabat would get to.
“Alright, badgerclops, let’s go see about securing some perimeters.”
“Right behind you, dude.”
Sunset came quickly, and as instructed, Adorabat was back home before the party began. She had a bag with her, but Mao assumed it was art supplies the others let her take back. Together they went over plans and procedures, and once everyone knew their roles in case of a monster attack, they set off.
The aerocycle was revved when Adorabat rushed back into the house and came back with the same bag she brought in. they asked what it was for, and quickly she answered “treats”. With that, they finally left.
The festival was surprisingly calm. Mao Mao expected a lot of noise, but everyone seemed to be only talking and walking around the brightly lit square. He wondered why they even bothered to decorate the rest of the village.
A breeze chilled him, and he tightened his cloak, the fur tickling his neck.
Badgerclops and Adorabat seemed to be enjoying themselves. Patrol order had long been abandoned when they saw how fun all the games and activities were, so now Mao Mao was the only one securing the surrounding walls. Not that he minded much, there was no harm in them enjoying themselves, it was a festival after all. He couldn’t remember ever actually going to one himself. His village always threw them, but at most he could watch the lanterns when they flew over the fields, or floated down the river.
He was so into his own thoughts that he didn’t hear or see his deputies coming back, only noticing them when they were already right beside him and talking.
“Dude, have you been patrolling this whole time? Why don’t you take a break for a while.” Mao sighed, preparing to say what he always said in response to his friend’s efforts to get him to take it easy. “I know, I know, you got that whole ‘hero’s duty’ thing, but come on, man! Besides, there’s no monsters right now, and I know you didn’t eat before we got here.”
Badgerclops was right, he didn’t eat, nor did he bring something to sustain himself while working. He felt the hunger twist his stomach- a punishment for ignoring it for so long.
“Fine,” Mao conceded, “but only to get something to eat, then it’s right back to patrol.”
He let the others lead him through the crowd of sweetie pies, the risk of being separated mended greatly by the fact that most of them barely came up to Mao’s chest. They reached a small restaurant that pulled all it’s tables outside, heart shaped lights overhead glittering in different shades of pink, coloring the tables. Badgerclops ordered for them while Mao Mao scanned the area in justified paranoia. He felt more than distracted from his duty sitting here, he never did like “breaks” .
Suddenly, something delicious filled Mao’s nose, and he turned around to a pipsqueak of a sweetie pie dumping a platter of steaming pockets on their table. His mouth watered, and his stomach growled embarrassingly loud. His friends didn’t seem to care, choosing to dig in instead.
He grabbed a pocket from the stack, and sniffed. It smelled sweet, but it wasn’t a desert. He bit into it, and was delighted by hot cheese and spiced meat, the pocket was stuffed, and sprinkled with vegetables- that’s where the sweet smell was from, and before he knew it he was reaching for another, and another.
With three people wolfing down, the pile of food quickly diminished to nothing. Mao was well full, and couldn’t help a small belch that came out. Embarrassed- and doubly so, because Badgerclops called it cute, he tried to quickly relieve himself of the situation. He finished eating, and so his break was over. He needed to go back to his route. Adorabat and badgerclops glanced at each other for a split second, and both rushed out of their seats.
“Uh, wait, Mao Mao!” Adorabat rushed him, blocking him from leaving. “I haven’t painted my lantern yet, I don’t want you to leave before you see me make it. Please?” if at all possible, her eyes seemed to get bigger, and she used them to full effect against the sheriff.
Mao seemed taken aback. “Ah, sorry Adorabat, but someone needs to keep watch for trouble. Why don’t you ask badgerclops to take you?” he offered, but Adorabat only pleaded harder.
“Pleeeease?” she begged. “It won’t take too long, I promise! I just want you to be there…” her last words trailed off into a murmur, like she was ready to cry if he said no, but he had to.
“Come on, man,” Badgerclops threw in, “she just wants you to see her paint it, it won’t take too long.”
Mao really needed to get back. But Adorabat wanted him there with her, she wanted him to watch her paint.
Mao Mao sighed. “Alright, Adorabat,I’ll go. But then I have to get back to watching the town. okay?” Without warning, the little bat hugged him, squeezing as tight as she could before flying in the direction of the booth, her teammates following.
The booth was actually pretty big, and with good reason. There were sweetie pies and their kids all over it, all painting pretty designs like flowers, hearts, the kingdom, and the night sky. The popularity of his idea made Mao Mao’s chest swell with silent pride. Some pink dusting his cheeks.
Adorabat plopped herself down in an open seat, making “gimme” hands to the man behind the counter, who gave her a simple square one.
“What are you gonna paint?” Badgerclops asked the girl what was on Mao’s mind.
Adorabat swatted him away, telling them both it was a surprise for when she was done with it. Whatever it was, she was taking her time with it. Usually, Mao applauded quality over speed, but when he had something to do, it was irksome.
A few sweetie pies got up and left, their lanterns complete, even badgerclops sat down to make one because of course he did. Mao just stood there trying not to look at Adorabat’s before she wanted him to, which was even harder when there was nothing interesting going on anywhere else.
“Would you like to paint a lantern, sheriff?”
“We’ve got plenty,” said the blue crocodile manning the stand. “Why don’t you paint one with your friends here.
Mao Mao was put off, and for a moment didn’t know how to respond. He stumbled over his words when he finally spoke.
“Ah- no, no, I’m only waiting for my deputies to finish, then I’m going back to-”
“Ah, why not!” the crocodile cut him off. “You’re not doing anything right now, com on and paint a lantern sheriff.”
He supposed he wasn’t doing anything. True. Mao took an empty seat beside badgerclops, the crocodile handing him a lanter, this one a cylinder.
He’d never painted a lantern before. He didn’t know what to paint. Digging through his memories, he tried to think of what young Mao Mao would have wanted. Some trees? His village? Him as a great hero? A family portrait of his sisters and father? No, none of that. It would be juvenile, and embarrassing. He looked to his left, at badgerclops and Adorabat beside him. The brush twitched in his fingers, but he decided against that idea too.
With no idea, he simply put “Mao Mao”, and couldn’t help that tiny part of him that was disappointed in his lack of creativity. So many years of wanting this, and the best he could do was his name.
“Done!’ adorabat yelled, and it startled him, badgerclops as well, who complained about messing up his art. “Wanna see? Huh? Huh?" She pressed, and Mao chuckled.
“Adorabat, the whole reason I’m here is to see your picture. What is it?”
The girl giggled, and spun her lantern around for the others to see. It was the three of them. Mao Mao with a big grin, geraldine in hand, badgerclops’ head kind of looked like a butt, and little Adorabat with them, ready for combat. It was really good.
“That’s really nice, Adorabat,” Mao said, clearing his voice from a tickle in his throat.
She beamed at the compliment, and turned to her fellow deputy. “What did you make, badgerclops?”
The badger turned around for both to see, it was also a picture of the three of them, riding the aerocycle over pure heart valley, tiny citizens waving up at them, though they were little more than dots. It was nice. Adorabat was loving it, going on and on, making Badgerclops blush, his cheeks pink and his smile big. Mao Mao had to look away.
They both remembered he was there, and turned expectant gazes on him.
“What?” he asked, defensive.
“What’d you make, man, we wanna see,” badgerclops laughed.
Suddenly Mao’s face went pink, and he looked down to his lantern. At the unexciting name written on it, whereas his companions made art.
“Uh,” he mumbled, turning it around for them, face on fire. “I- couldn’t think of anything.”
he should have drawn a stupid tree.
“Yo it’s nice. Simple. real minimalist.” badgerclops liked it.
“Yeah, it’s really cool.” Adorabat liked it.
They liked it. Mao turned back around to see genuine smiles on their faces, no sign of a pity vote anywhere on them. That little disappointed part of himself felt far away now.
Painting done, the sweetie pie behind the stand collected their work and they left the booth. They walked together, going all over the square, playing games, and winning prizes- Mao Mao had strong armed pinky into giving him his fairly won stuffed animal. Adorabat spotted some candy apples nearby, and Mao was more than happy to buy her some, badgerclops too. Oddly, she never filled the bag she brought for candy with candy. But Mao thought nothing of it, especially since she ate it all the second she got it.
It was fun. The most fun Mao had in a long time. Longer than he cared to linger on.
Time passed quicker than they were keeping track of apparently because midnight came upon them without anyone realizing. The king came out, and announced it was time to release the lanterns into the water, and for everyone to gather at the lake. Like a parade, the whole town marched through beautifully lit streets, twinkling lights shining on them, coloring the villagers an array of different colors. Adorabat settled on Mao’s head, resting her legs from all the walking she did. Badgerclops carried her large stuffed panda, as well as other prizes. He was quite good at the strength dependent games.
Altogether the sweetie pies converged by the water. Some sat at blankets, others standing, all waiting with baited breath. Mao Mao most of all to see if the payoff to his idea really was what they were hoping for and more.
Wagons trailed after one another, sweetie pies lighting them one by one and handing them off to those at the front of the herd who let them go over calm water. Row after row of lanterns floated away from the shore, the current leading them to the river. It was beautiful. The sweetie pies, always so vocal and jubilous of their joy in things, were respectfully silent, some sighed, but most were as awestruck as their sheriff. For them it was the discovery of a new tradition, for Mao it was a long forgotten dream he could only have from his window.
“I think I see mine!” adorabat shouted, and she jumped from Mao’s head to Badgerclops’ for a better view. “It is mine! Mao Mao look, it’s so pretty!” and it was. In the sea of lanterns Mao Mao could clearly see her handiwork. The smiling sheriff’s department floating down the river together.
“Oh look there’s mine!” badgerclops couldn’t help his excitement, especially if Adorabat had started it. “Yo, Mao, I don’t see yours- oh no, there it is! You see it, dude?’
Mao Mao couldn’t see it. The sweetie pies, small as they were, were kind of in the way, especially since some of the taller ones had gathered in various spots in front of him. Without warning, he was hoisted in the air, an undignified squeak escaping him. Badgerclops had sat him on his shoulder, and the demeaning position made Mao’s cheeks burn. He would have protested, but somewhere in all the fun, his inhibition must have gotten lost, and he found some enjoyment in being carried by his larger friend. He could, at least, see his lantern from here.
Adorabat, deciding she wanted an even higher position, climbed back onto Mao Mao’s head, and had fun pointing to all the ones she liked, but reminded Mao Mao that his was the best of all. He smiled, and pet her fluffy little head, thanking her. His other hand was distracted, rubbing circles into the fur on the back of badgerclops’ neck. If he minded, he didn’t say.
Cold wind blew at him, but he didn’t feel it. His cloak was too thick.
A pleasant feeling came over Mao like a wave. Contentment, he decided, and let it sweep him up in its strong pull.
But nothing good lasts. Realization sets in and it drags old pain with it.
The fur under both his hands was suddenly too soft, and it began to itch his dampening palms. The vertigo from being so high off the ground set in, and looking down made his head hurt.
Adorabat was saying something. He couldn’t really make out what, but he looked at her, she was holding her bag, and from it she pulled two small boxes, handing one to him, the other to Badgerclops. His body moved on autopilot, he took the gift, and gathering as much air as he could, opened it.
He pulled out a clay necklace, small and in the shape of a heart, painted blue. On it was the name “Mao Mao”.
“I totally forgot today was the festival, and didn’t make you anything, I’m sorry guys!” she was apologizing. “But then you let me go make some lanterns, and when I was done, I went to the arts and crafts store and made you these. Turn it around!”
He did. On the other side it said “my hero”, below it was “love Adorabat”. The paint was smooth. Soft. Too soft. Suddenly it was all too much. He couldn’t breathe.
He must not have been saying anything, jusging from Adorabat tapping him on the arm. She sounded far away. He couldn’t feel his fingers either, and his grip on the necklace loosened. It slipped from his fingers, and went further till it landed in Badgerclops’ quick ones.
Mao could only half listen to what was being said to him, the noises badgerclops was making sounded smothered and far, getting further.
He couldn’t breathe. The pleasant wave that swept him up came barreling back down with greater force, tossing him around like he was a ragdoll, he clawed at the water and broke the surface. He breathed, heard someone speaking, but the voice was too familiar, too warm, and he dove back in rather than be warm.
Back in, the water swallowed him. Back out, he was spit, like a disgusting dinner. He needed to get out, needed to find shore. Someone was talking, a great booming voice that was familiar, but didn’t carry the warmth that scared him. He looked out of the water to see someone above him.
The disappointment he felt earlier- small and weak was nothing compared to what he saw over those waters. This disappointment was a great looming shadow, ginormous, and intimidating. There was many of them, and they all had ears like his. They peered down at him with familiar, cold, green eyes.
Everything hurt and he couldn’t move. The water filled his lungs. He was going to be sick.
“Mao? Mao what’s wrong!?” outside, Badgerclops was looking into petrified eyes, glazed over and dilated with fear he couldn’t fend off from out here. A crowd was gathering around them, the sweetie pies concerned for their sheriff, lanterns long forgotten down the river.
Mao came to, and jittery slits stared panicky back at Badgerclops. Like a jackrabbit, Mao Mao slipped from his hold, and ran.
It was much later when Badgerclops and Adorabat finally came home. From the front lawn they could see Mao Mao on the veranda, training. Adorabat wanted to check on him, but was instructed against it. She was worn out, and Badgerclops knew she needed rest, whatever came after, she was too young to understand.
Once in the room, Adorabat roosted herself from the beam, and shut her eyes. Badgerclops set her prizes on he ved, and waited a few minutes before leaving, thinking she was finally asleep.
“Badgerclops…” she mumbled to him, trying her best to fight off sleep. “Did I do something wrong?”
It hurt to hear, and he couldn’t imagine how much it hurt to think it.
“No, Adorabat. You didn’t do anything,” he reassured. “I think… I think I'm the one who messed up. But none of it’s your fault. Go to sleep. We’ll see you in the morning.”
And she did. She went out like a light. The burning question she asked seemed to be the only thing keeping her awake. She needed to know. But he wasn’t lying. None of it was her fault.
Mao Mao had hangups, and he could be pushy, inconsiderate even. If anyone needed to apologize right now it was him.
He walked out of the room, depositing the necklaces Adorabat made on the dresser. He could hear Mao outside, but couldn’t go out quite yet. He walked into the kitchen and took a seat, light still off. He wasn’t hungry, he just wanted to think. Unfortunately, a sick smell of meat and sweets coming from the can wouldn’t let him. He took it as a sign to leave.
He walked outside and stepped on something soft. He looked down and picked up Mao’s cloak- the warm one with soft fur trim, then back up to a fully dressed Mao running back and forth striking targets with more force than necessary, some breaking under the impact.
Mao ignored his presence, and kept training. Clapping for more sets of weaponry to come down on him. Every second he held still he would shiver. He was pushing himself too hard, and Badgerclops couldn’t understand why he needed to.
But he stayed. And he would stay as long as Mao Mao would. Till the sun came up and his limbs ached. Till he would crash on the couch from exhaustion, and Badgerclops would carry him back to the bunk.
He was exhausted, but sleep could wait.
He would wait.