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Natural Born Actor

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One thing that Cass learns early on is that Hiro is a very good liar.

It’s Tadashi who tells her, tugging on the hem of her shirt to get her attention while she bends over for the fifteenth time to pick up the pacifier poor little Hiro keeps dropping from his high chair.

She’s babysitting the boys for a full evening for the first time ever and her nerves are already through the roof. She doesn’t know anything about children, doesn’t know anything about anything really, except for cooking which she’s pretty boss at, and she’s had the phone in close range all night just in case she has to call emergency services. Hiro’s clumsy little baby hands have been doing nothing to ease her anxiety, just tipping her closer to a panic attack every time his pacifier tumbles onto the surely germ-covered floor.

She goes through the process of picking it up, washing it off, bringing it back to the curiously smiling baby, who drops it the moment her back is turned, and so goes the cycle again.

“He’s doing it on purpose,” Tadashi tells her as she washes it clean. He frowns sternly, making the most serious eye-contact she’s ever seen from a kindergartener, “So you’ll pick it up. It’s a trick.”

Cass stares down at her oldest nephew, then across the kitchen to her youngest. Hiro sits there smiling sweetly, tapping his tiny hands against the tray of his high chair as if growing impatient. She looks to the pacifier in her hand, back up to Tadashi again.

She asks, “Do babies do that?”

Tadashi shrugs, probably not much better versed in the behavior of babies than she is, and says, “Hiro does. Mom says he’s a ‘natural born actor.’”

Cass doesn’t know what to make of that, exactly.

Tadashi takes the pacifier from her hand, brings it back to his brother’s high chair and goes up on his toes to hand it off into a set of eager fingers, “Don’t let him fool you, Aunt Cass,” He says in his small, far-too-serious voice, “’He knows just how to play people.’ That’s what dad says.”

Cass watches Tadashi smile fondly at his baby brother, putting up his hands in a symbol to stop each time Hiro moves to drop his pacifier onto the floor again. She wonders how a kid who’s supposed to just be learning his letters and numbers knows how to handle a baby. She wonders how a baby ever learned to trick frazzled women into picking up things for him.

Hiro laughs a bubbly baby laugh and Cass shrugs it off. Tadashi is projecting, probably. Do kids do that?

She really doesn’t know anything about children. What she does know is how to make killer mac and cheese, which is what’s for dinner.

She hopes Hiro doesn’t want to throw that on the floor too.

 

-

 

Cass doesn’t want to believe it’s true. There’s no way her sweet, innocent nephew is a bona fide con artist. She simply can’t accept it.

There’s a lot of things she can’t quite accept these days, actually.

She can’t accept that her car is falling apart, and that she’ll need to trade it in soon.

She can’t accept that she’s got grey hair coming in more aggressively than ever before, though it has every reason to be there with how she’s been feeling.

She can’t accept that she’s lost two of the people she loved most in the world in the course of one incredibly painful night, though that loss is pushed nearly to the back burner in the face of new challenges.

She can accept, but can’t quite believe, that her nephews are living with her on a permanent basis.

She always had the idea of legal guardianship in the back of her head, a distant concept that only ever came up in the form of being allowed to pick Tadashi up from school, provided she showed ID. She was just Aunt Cass. A minimal responsibility occasional playtime companion, a baby sitter and a present giver, a sometimes visitor.

This, this is different. This is raising children.

The first few weeks feel like the world’s saddest sleepover; a lot of late nights and a lot of junk food and a lot of crying. The next few months only get better slowly, in tiny increments.

She tries not to cry in front of the kids. She tries not to think about sad things at all, actually, so she can keep on being smiley, cheery, fun Aunt Cass.

You’re not supposed to grieve in front of kids, right? Or, should you all share in it? She should probably get a book on loss from the library, but even the thought of checking one out makes her chest ache. The thought of finding her library card in the first place is…well…it’s in the house somewhere, she’s sure.

She sees Tadashi grieve, holds him in her lap up on the couch at night when he should really be in bed but he’s gasping through big, hiccupy sobs for an hour. She makes all his favorite foods and talks about his parents when he says it’s okay to and tries to just be there without being too close.

She definitely gets too close; she hovers, and bless him, he doesn’t mind. He walks right up and hugs her when she least expects it, and at first she thinks it’s because he needs reassuring, but when he presses his cheek to her hip and murmurs that it’s going to be okay, she realizes he’s trying to help her.

She does cry in front of him then, but they cry together, so she hopes it’s alright.

Hiro doesn’t cry much.

He’s three- no, four now. Four. She has to remember things like that. Ages, favorite colors, shoe sizes, social security numbers (she can’t even keep track of her own, for goodness sake.) Hiro is four and in pre-school and doing…okay. He doesn’t get upset over much more than stubbed toes or broken toys. He looks at Cass and Tadashi propping each other up in the wake of a tragedy and seems confused, frustrated.

Early on he asked Tadashi, not her, where their parents went, and the soft-spoken, slightly wet response was taken with a nod, a tiny scowl.

No, Hiro doesn’t cry much. But he’s only four, and he doesn’t really understand. Or, Cass doesn’t think he understands. She doesn’t really know anything about kids.

She tells Hiro’s pre-school teacher this one morning, after a few ignored requests for a chat, and tries to avoid too many details of just how messy and broken and awful things have been over the past year.

The teacher brushes her off a little, tells her it makes sense, then, that Hiro is acting out.

Acting out?

He doesn’t act out at home. He seems like a normal kid at home. He is a normal kid, right? Cass hopes to heaven and back that Hiro is a normal kid. Just a normal, healthy kid that she can raise without screwing anything up too badly.

Curious, that’s what the teacher calls it. Curious, that Hiro is behaved at home. He’s very bright. Very, very bright. And creative.

He built a city out of all the toys in the playroom at school. With, you know, infrastructure. Government. All of it.

Cass thinks that sounds very impressive.

And it was, according to the teacher. Very impressive. Also impressive that he convinced all the other children that as the city’s creator, he was the king of the playroom and therefore they had to serve him.

Very impressive.

Cass drives home in her stuttering sedan, with Hiro strapped into his car seat, pouting with the biggest, saddest eyes he can manage, denying that he did anything wrong. Tadashi is in the seat across from him, meeting Cass’s gaze in the rear-view mirror, slowly shaking his head.

“I was just playing,” Hiro insists, and he’s so small and so sweet and even without the unprompted hugs and story sharing she has with Tadashi, even with no understanding of what to do with a kid so small and so shaken by the world around him, Cass can feel her heart breaking.

“He’s lying,” Tadashi says dryly. He smiles kind of lopsided, another expression too old for his face, and when Cass tries to meet his eyes in the mirror again she instead catches Hiro giving him an absolutely scathing look.

As if his cover is blown.

My nephew is a psychopath, she thinks, a four year old terror.

She grips the steering wheel very tightly and tries not to hyperventilate on the drive home, checking the rearview mirror every minute or so while Tadashi leans across the middle seat to poke his little brother on the nose, speaking almost too low for her to hear.

“You can’t do stuff like that, Hiro,” He says, and though Hiro is still scowling, he is definitely listening, “Just because you’re smarter than everybody else doesn’t mean you get to be mean.”

“I’m not mean,” Hiro says in a horrified whisper, eyes going wide. He grabs for his brother’s hand, refusing to let Tadashi pull away, “I’m not mean!”

His concern eases Cass’s fear, reminds her that Hiro is sweet and small and four years old and probably going through a lot, even if he doesn’t cry. He’s just a baby, still.

Tadashi shrugs, though he doesn’t make any attempt to take his hand away while Cass pulls up to the café, parks outside because the garage is too full of stuff she isn’t sure what to do with yet.

“The other kids will think you’re mean if you boss them around,” Tadashi explains, “You have to play nice and share. Like we do.”

And they are very good about sharing. Except for when Tadashi simply gives Hiro everything he wants without a fight, which is less sharing and more being indulgent. But Cass isn’t about to argue that point with a couple of kids.

She catches Hiro nodding his understanding as she unbuckles her seatbelt. He looks hyper-focused, committing the idea to memory. Tadashi’s word is law, apparently. She can’t remember ever listening to anyone as intently as Hiro listens to his older brother.

As she gets Hiro out of his car seat, Tadashi catches her eye and smiles, shrugs, as if to say, kids, right?

She watches him climb out of the car, not even tall enough to step down onto the street without doing a little step-hop yet, and she’s speechless. Even knowing nothing about kids, she’s positive that Tadashi is no normal child.

So she’s got a genius. One genius and one lying troublemaker.

“At least there’s no psychopaths,” She mutters to herself, taking Hiro into her arms.

“Psychopaths,” He repeats, and she cringes.

 

-

 

Turns out she was wrong. Cass has two geniuses. One just also happens to be a lying troublemaker.

She forgets that fact constantly. When Hiro is acing spelling bees and solving equations that make middle school, even high school teachers, stare at his whiteboard scrawl with open mouths and glazed expressions, she’s just proud, and more than a little amazed. Hiro is an incredible kid, everyone tells her so and she’s eager to agree, to talk him up even more than anyone wants to hear.

He’s also a sneaky little con artist though, and there are plenty of people more than willing to tell her that, too. She apologizes her way through angry phone calls from school staff about the rigged mascot voting debacle, the pinewood derby racing incident, the explosion in the cafeteria kitchen. She’s embarrassed, and sometimes angry, but still amazed. Still proud too, in little ways that are probably classified squarely as bad parenting.

She can’t help but love her little hell raiser. She just has to be more stern with him than she’s used to, which is especially difficult because she’s not really stern at all.

She doesn’t know how to discipline children. She never had to give Tadashi more than a warning look. Hiro though. What can she do with Hiro?  

She’s gotten used to having a genius kid. She’s already smiled and bubbled through parent teacher conferences with Tadashi’s teachers, heard about him scoring highest in the class, about his confidence and ease, about the darling way he looks after the younger kids. Tadashi’s success makes it that much easier for her to balance work and kids, to feel a little less frazzled, more like she’s doing something right.

She’s gotten used to hearing good news, and it’s a great feeling.

Hiro’s news is more…mixed.

She gets report cards with high marks and concerned notes, recommendations to move him on to the next grade, the next, the next, all rubber banded together with a guidance counselor's request for her to come in and talk about Hiro’s emotional state which is...hm.

They still call it acting out, even when he’s out of kid territory and into the pre-teen zone.

It’s a terrifying zone, she knows that much. It was rough when she went through it, and even a little rough to deal with Tadashi during that time. A good kid is a good kid, but hormones sure are hormones too. Pre-teens do strange things.

Teenagers do even stranger things, but thankfully there’s enough of a privacy-oriented distance between her and Tadashi now that she doesn’t have to see most of them.

Hiro is eleven though. Almost twelve. Which is almost thirteen and dear sweet lord she will be living with two teenaged boys and her hair really cannot stand to be any greyer, thank you.

She tries not to think too hard about it. She takes soothing breaths. She pets Mochi for an hour on the couch every night because, as Tadashi keeps telling her, a cat’s purring is scientifically proven to have a lot of health benefits.

She confronts Hiro about the latest call from school while she’s on the couch, Mochi perched in her lap to offer a supposedly-soothing purr. Her blood pressure still feels way, way too high, and all she really wants to do is make a fresh batch of cookies and sit at the kitchen table and ruffle Hiro’s hair and tell him he’s a good kid.

Because he is a good kid. She knows he is. He’s just also a liar. And a thief, apparently, if the school principal has his facts straight.

“They were left over supplies,” Hiro tells her, expression earnest, tone almost pleading, “No one was going to use them. It doesn’t even count as stealing.”

Cass refuses to flinch. Hiro holds eye contact like a champ, pushing his lower lip out just enough to tug at her heartstrings, reminding her of a younger version of himself. But he got into trouble when he was little too. She has to keep reminding herself of that.

She’s seen Hiro sweet talk his way into undeserved tips from her customers, into undeserved treats from her own hands. He’s too good at this. She has Tadashi’s voice playing in her head, so much smaller and higher than it is now, he’s a ‘natural born actor.’

Hiro shrinks at the accusation though, parrots words back at her as if he’s wounded to the core, “Lie? Why would I lie? Aunt Cass, I didn’t mean to do anything wrong. I just figured if no one else wanted the leftover screws and stuff....”

“And the compressor?”

Hiro falters. He’s a natural actor, sure, but he hasn’t perfected the craft. It’s the only thing that helps Cass see through his innocent act. She’s terrified to think of what he might do when he gets better at covering his tracks, at lying through his teeth. He could start sneaking out at night. He could join a gang. He could get arrested, or hurt, or sucked off into space doing some big confusing science…thing.

“I um…,” Hiro says, and slips into a default smile, relying on charm where the lie has failed, “Was just borrowing it?”

Cass puts her head in her hands. Mochi abandons her lap in favor of his food dish, taking all the healing effects of his purr with him. She whines a vague noise, not knowing what to say to her sweet, charming, delinquent nephew, and doesn’t look up till Tadashi’s laugh catches her attention.

“Oh boy,” He says, taking the stairs in near-silent steps, “That’s the look of someone trying to sneak away from a lecture.”

Cass follows his gaze, from her seat on the couch to the place where Hiro stands…stood? Was standing. He’s two feet off from where she saw him last, inching toward the second set of stairs and looking like he might bolt at any second.

He grins at her, caught in the act, and she can’t summon any of the righteous fury she knows she should feel. Thinks she should feel. Do parental figures get to feel righteous fury toward their kids? She seriously needs to get a book on raising criminal masterminds. Or just children.

“Now did I mishear, or did you steal a compressor?” Tadashi asks, strolling up the last two steps to stand in the center of the room between Cass and Hiro, a mediator. He crosses his arms casually, stares his brother down till Hiro has to look away, too embarrassed to keep on smiling. He’s getting to the age where he hates to admit how much his brother’s opinion means.

“I was just borrowing it,” He mutters, and Cass looks back and forth between the two of them, astonished.

And here she’d been sure he was lying about that bit.

“Unbelievable,” Tadashi says, more of a sigh than anything, and adjusts the bag over his shoulder. His backpack is sagging, heavy with all the books it apparently takes to get through advanced placement classes and earn early college credits. Tadashi has goals; a school to get into. He has plans. He’s told Cass about them, a little, more general musing about the future than anything. He wants to help people, and Cass thinks that’s beautiful.

She doesn’t know what Hiro wants to do. She thinks maybe Hiro doesn’t know that himself.

“I really was going to give it back,” Hiro says, and takes a step away, not toward the stairs, to escape, but toward Tadashi. He looks to Cass as if he’s asking permission and she nods, setting him free from her failed attempt at a lecture.

She watches the boys climb the stairs together, Tadashi explaining again how Hiro is not above rules and not indestructible and not someone he wants to have to visit in prison, and Hiro talks over him, dodges around him, excitable, a little closer to finally getting the concepts through his thick skull.

It’ll click one day, Cass hopes. For such a smart kid, Hiro doesn’t always think things through. He’s rushed, reckless.

He’s just a kid, and as Cass tells all her customers, weary, overwhelmed, hoping she won’t get another phone call from the school today, she doesn’t know anything about kids.

 

-

 

Cass doesn’t know what she’d do without Tadashi, honestly. She loves him dearly, of course, and is thankful every day that he’s around just because he’s, well, him.

But she loves him twice over for how well he knows Hiro.

No one gets Hiro like his brother, and if not for that, Cass worries she might actually be in over her head. Tadashi fills in the gaps of information she misses in Hiro’s life, explaining the seemingly unexplainable and making sure she understands where Hiro’s thought process is at.

He almost never makes excuses for him.

He talks when Hiro won’t, notices things Cass never could from her slightly further family orbit. He teaches her how to recognize when Hiro’s smiles are fake, points out all the signs that he’s lying, not just about whatever he might be in trouble for, but about what he’s feeling.

Tadashi catches his brother in a hundred and one little lies and Cass is relieved for every one of them. Hiro just needs prodding to come clean, to speak his mind. He’s so calm, so clever, she’s surprised whenever Tadashi drags an honestly hurt expression out of him, a sincere sentiment. Hiro tries so hard to shrug off his brother’s advice, even Cass can see through the act.

Hiro’s getting to that age; sarcasm central. He retells stories about the people he’s tricked out of their money while Cass cringes, while Tadashi rolls his eyes. He mimics much-older bullies and grumpy security officers, recreates his own kicked puppy expressions and little boy hopefulness, all the faces he pulls to make people think he’s just some innocent kid, and Cass recognizes them as ones he’s shown to her before.

She wants to throttle him, just a little. She settles for extra tight hugs, whenever she can catch him.

A teenaged Hiro is everything Cass feared and then some, but at the same time, so much easier than she thought it’d be.

Hiro is a good kid. He’s a sweet kid. He’s a troublemaker of course, still, and Cass tries to take things one day at a time, to not stress too much.

Tadashi has faith in his little brother, even when he’s going down all kinds of bad roads to test the waters, and so Cass figures she should have faith too.

She makes and eats an entire mocha cake trying to keep up that faith, sure, but she manages.

They navigate Hiro’s early adolescence with as much grace as they can collectively muster. She offers a hug and a comfortable couch to share, plate after plate of food because teenagers can definitely eat (she knows that much for sure.) She’s steady, secure, and she’s pretty sure that’s what kids need most.

Tadashi is steady too, secure to a ridiculous degree, and while Cass is relieved that he’s staying so close for college (heaven help her if he went away and she had to guess at Hiro’s moods on her own,) she feels guilty. She worries that this is too much, that he takes on responsibility that shouldn't be his and that she lets him.

She never wanted him to adopt a parent role, but he seems tailor made to be the protective older sibling. He revels in it, really.

He talks Hiro through an early high school graduation, through a summer of directionless wander, through bot fighting and betting and all manner of mood swings that Hiro tries to shrug off with a smile that Cass is learning is faked.

Tadashi holds her hand, usually figuratively but sometimes literally, while she fights off panic. Is Hiro getting worse? Is there worse than blowing things up? Than getting arrested?

Tadashi says, “Don’t sweat it, Aunt Cass,” and it helps, a little.

She watches him steer Hiro in the right direction, teasing him till he gives up on bad ideas and challenging him to take on good ones, and she’s so, so proud. Of both of them.

That doesn’t mean she won’t tell Hiro when he’s giving her an aneurysm. She reads him the riot act the best she can, never quite meeting the mark for parental disapproval. She sounds too frantic to her own ears, too amazed by him, always.

Hiro tells her once, as she tries in vain to scold him after a brush with the law, that he really doesn’t mean to do anything wrong, it just happens.

“I’m not-” He says, and shrugs vaguely, a defeat, “I’m not trying to be trouble. I’m just not like Tadashi.”

And Tadashi is still at school at the moment, working on something that he hopes will help make the world a better place, and Cass looks at Hiro with his fake little smile and his big, sweet eyes, and she cannot think of what to say to a kid in this situation.

He is like Tadashi, in some ways. And not at all like him in others. But she doesn’t say that. What she does say is, “You aren’t like anyone else in the world, and that’s what I love about you.”

She watches Hiro’s expression change from guilty, unsure, to honest relief, to a slight smugness when he thinks he’s off the hook.

“But being an eccentric and super loveable genius doesn’t mean you can break laws, and you are totally grounded.” She finishes, and turns her back to Hiro before his crestfallen look can affect her.

She tells Tadashi about it later, except for the bit about Hiro comparing himself to his brother, because that seems private and personal and not something that Tadashi needs to hear or worry about anyway, and grins when he quietly applauds her disciplinary action.

“I think you’re finally getting a handle on him,” He teases, but she takes it as the glowing compliment it should be.

Hiro is one heck of a kid to handle.

She loves him though. She loves her family. Gosh does she love her family.

She loves them when they’re giving her stress headaches and when they’re making her want to babble to strangers on the street about just how cool and smart and hilarious they are.

She loves them especially when they’re working together for a goal, some brilliant scheme of Hiro’s that has nothing to do with lying or stealing or bending the rules and everything to do with going to school and using his genius for something good.

She knows for a fact that her boys are so good.

 

-

 

Cass never thought her family could become smaller.

She imagined it bigger, sometimes, because she was sure Tadashi would want to have kids someday. She had almost come to terms with the idea of herself as a great-aunt, grey hair and all.

But life has a funny way of pulling the rug out from under you.

Not funny, actually. Not funny at all. Nothing is funny for weeks after the fire, no matter how hard she tries to smile for customers and friends and for Hiro, who flashes his own fake smiles to make her stop worrying, which only makes her worry more.

Grief isn’t new to her, and the familiar stages play out as they’ve done before. She eventually settles into acceptance, which still feels an awful lot like plain old sadness, and watches Hiro for signs that have become that much harder to read.

Hiro is more frustrated than anything, outright angry, actually, but he hardly shows it. He clenches his fists and Cass watches him do it, thinks of his hands so much smaller, baby hands that dropped a pacifier for her to retrieve again and again.

She wishes she could do something, anything, to make him smile now, smile for real.

“I don’t understand,” He tells her, or tells the room. They’re the only ones left at the end of the day, but Cass can’t tell if Hiro is trying to communicate or just sorting through his thoughts out loud. He does that sometimes, when he’s working on something, planning. She listens, either way.

“Why did he do that?” He asks, whisper quiet, and the silence that follows begs for her to answer, but she can’t do it.

She knows the truth, knows she could say because he was a good person, but it isn’t any kind of answer Hiro will want to hear.

“I wouldn’t-” He starts to say, “He shouldn’t have-” He tries again. All the words seem too harsh in retrospect, ill-fitting to Tadashi’s personality.

Of course he ran into a burning building to try and save a life. Of course he did. They both know why and they shouldn’t have expected anything less, but it’s still a shock and an ache and an unfairness that burns something fierce and angry through Hiro, that settles around Cass’s shoulders in another layer of loss.

She thinks of all the inspirational books written by people whose lives are filled with even more misfortune than hers, than Hiro’s. She should probably try to read one.

She never will.

Instead she reads the list of missed calls that Hiro never picks up while she’s manning the café and can’t answer; a few telemarketers, a few distant relatives, mostly Tadashi’s friends checking up on them, and staff from the school that Hiro so desperately wanted to go to offering condolences and asking if he’ll be registering after all.

She stalls for him, asks him gently, once, twice, then again, if he’s feeling up to leaving the house.

It’s eerie, seeing him so still.

Hiro isn’t acting out. He isn’t acting like much of anything, actually.

He’s quiet, he’s withdrawn. He’s blank-faced and distracted, faking composure when he thinks someone might expect it.

She’d feel better if he cried, but then, he was never much of a crier.

She isn’t crying much this time around either, honestly. She’s gotten better at pushing through. She keeps working, keeps doing her best. She drops off food at least twice a day and asks Hiro how he’s doing and smiles a thin, unsure expression when he swears he’ll be fine.

She catches him looking at his reflection in the screen of his computer, frowning like he doesn’t trust it.

He isn’t fooling her for one second.

 

-

 

Cass knows she shouldn’t trust Hiro’s sudden turnaround, but a good mood is a good mood and even if it all leads to nothing, she’ll be happy to have embraced it.

When Hiro starts leaving the house again, all nervous energy and excitement, with the glow of planning and building and doing in his face, she starts to feel better. His mood lifts hers too, and even without understanding, she’s relieved.

He tells her lies and she believes half of them, fakes it for the other half. She hates to lie to him, actually, but it’s a mutual thing by now, something to keep the peace that started with ‘we’ll be okay’ and has turned into ‘have fun at school.’

Because she’s not entirely convinced that he’s going to school. Or, if he is, it’s not for the reasons he ought to.

Tadashi’s friends come around, checking in on Hiro, picking him up to take him…where? She screws up her face in disbelief when Hiro says it’s Fred’s mansion, but no one else so much as flinches at what she’s sure is a tall-tale, so she has to let it go.

She has to let him go. Whatever he’s doing, even if it isn’t college level work, it’s making him feel better. He’s interacting with people (people who aren’t criminals, even,) and he’s eating again (even if half of it is pure sugar,) and he’s talking to someone in secret who she’s pretty sure is a robot and she’s not sure where it came from or what it’s for but it’s supposed to be a secret so she doesn’t say a thing about it.

He’s coping, and that fact alone has her absolutely over the moon.

She knows with an instinctive sense that is frighteningly close to motherly that Hiro is hiding things from her. Not just the robotics thing either. He’s evasive, rather than outright lying, and when she tries to fill in the missing pieces in his stories, her brain feels like it might fry.

All Hiro will tell her is that he’s working on an old project of Tadashi’s, and that’s enough to make her heart do a stutter-jump, a moment of pain wrapped in the joy of seeing at least one of her baby’s grow, soar.

Hiro can do good things. Hiro can help people too, she’s sure of it. He can do anything he wants to, if he tries.

She watches him sneak around the house with pockets full of candy and a list of convenient lies in mind, but she watches him do it with a smile, and that gives her hope.

He isn’t breaking any laws, at least.

She hopes.

 

-

 

Cass isn’t sure what she expected, but a super hero team definitely isn’t it.

She jokes, as soon as she’s in the mood to joke, about getting a book to read up on the subject, and Fred has to be physically restrained to keep from running off to fetch his full comic collection.

They all get reprimanded, college geniuses and teenaged nephews alike.

Because what were they thinking? Why would they all go along with a dangerous plan? What was Hiro trying to do in the first place? Did he think he could just sneak around being some kind of vigilante hero and she’d be okay with it? That he wouldn’t get hurt? Or worse? Does he think she doesn’t worry about losing him too?

She yells, in that lose, shrieky way she does when she’s afraid and angry at the same time.

She cries all over him and he cries too, just a little, but enough to make her stop and stare, to hold him at arm’s length and study him like an unknown thing.

He tells her the truth, about the fire and the microbots and the robot he’s been talking to, and at that he folds in her arms like he might break. He tells her everything she’s missed, the things he’s lied about, and she hugs him extra tight without wanting to throttle him at all.

She hugs him extra tight every day from then on out, even when he isn’t lying and he really is just going to school. He accepts the affection, returns it more readily than she can remember him doing before, and it feels so good to become okay again.

She watches Hiro ease into semi-normalcy and thinks a lot about the things that they honestly don’t talk much about; the incredible things he did, the people he saved. He’s a good person and a genuine hero and she’s so, so proud.

She’d be proud even if he’d just been going to school the whole time.

Heck, she’d be proud even if he was still sitting in his room with the blinds pulled shut. She’d be worried, but she’d be proud.

And she still is worried, will probably always be, because that’s what you do when you have kids. She thinks.

 

-

 

Cass has flour on her hands, down her shirt, when she hears Hiro come home from class early one day.

He’s moving so quick he nearly falls through the door, and there’s a whole lot of noise behind him that she can’t identify.

While she tries to wipe her hands clean she calls over to him, asks, “What are you doing home? Are you sick? Is something wrong?”

She can’t imagine anything less than an emergency would drag him away from an opportunity to play with professional and very dangerous equipment, so he must be sick, or hurt, or something somewhere is on fire or vanishing into the mist-

“Hiro is in good health,” Comes an answer in the form of a voice that is definitely not her nephew’s, one much more even, soothing. It’s vaguely familiar, and when Cass leans around the doorway to get a look at who’s accompanied Hiro home, she nearly trips on her own feet.

There’s a six foot tall marshmallow thing in her shop, in her house, standing behind her baby and it’s a good thing it’s a nonthreatening marshmallow and Hiro already has his hand up in greeting or else she’d be grabbing something to defend him with.

“Additional hydration is suggested, however,” The voice continues, and the marshmallow thing is looking at Hiro, talking to him even as he waves it off, “Your water intake for today is-” A pause, consideration, “Low.”

Cass lets out a startled laugh and starts to relax, looks to Hiro for an explanation. Thankfully he’s all too eager to explain.

“Aunt Cass,” He says, grinning ear to ear in a smile he can’t possibly fake, “Meet Baymax,” He steps to one side, presenting the robot to her.

“Baymax,” She repeats, and stares up at the big soft white thing, and feels incredibly stupid for not noticing it sneaking around her house for weeks with her equally sneaky nephew prodding it along.

Because this is Baymax; the one he’s been talking to, talking about, the project he took on after Tadashi was gone, the very same Baymax designed to help and to heal and who saved the day and saved Hiro so many times over.

Baymax waves at her. Baymax scans her, and notes that she has high blood pressure. Baymax is warm and soft when she goes in for a grateful hug, steady and secure and humming very slightly while she holds tight to smooth vinyl.

She hugs Baymax and, when Hiro steps close to her, pulls him in too. She holds the both of them as tight as she can and she cries the way she never means to.

Hiro tells her in a rush that it’s okay, that they’re all okay, Baymax is okay so everything will be okay, and she thinks he really means it.

They sit on the floor, because it’s there and convenient and she doesn’t think she can make her legs work at the moment, and Hiro tells her more than she’s really ready to process. He rattles off information about Baymax’s design, about the work Tadashi did, the very different but still good work that he’s doing himself now, and Baymax interjects gently about learning karate, and flying, and most importantly that Hiro is much better now.

There’s an offer to deactivate, if desired, which goes ignored, and eventually they all move upstairs. The three of them fit on the couch together, barely, but it’s a good sort of tight squeeze. Hiro doesn’t stay long though, hops up after barely a moment of rest, paces while he’s lectured. Baymax follows in squeaking, shuffling steps, keeping close to him wherever he goes.

Cass sets rules about superheroing that she knows will get broken, scolds Hiro all over again and tells him fifteen times over how proud she is, how much she loves him. She thanks Baymax and wishes she knew ways to show gratitude other than through food, because she’s pretty sure robots can’t eat.

She listens to Hiro talk till he’s practically run down with exhaustion, worn out from all the excitement, and both she and Baymax are urging him to rest. He’s got so many ideas now that Baymax is back though, and she can tell he’s itching to run out to the garage and start working again.

“Promise me you’ll sleep tonight, at least,” She says, and sighs when Hiro turns his most charming smile on her.

“Promise,” He says, his face the picture of sweet, boyish innocence.

Baymax turns to him then, and says, “Your heart rate elevated briefly as you spoke, though no immediate cardiovascular cause is apparent. This indicates that you could be lying.”

And Hiro stares up at his giant robot friend with the same shocked, slightly betrayed expression Cass remembers him giving Tadashi so many times before. He looks four years old again, caught in a lie, and Cass can’t even be angry when he looks back at her and offers a chagrined smile, a shrug.

“Robots, I swear, they say the craziest things, right?” He talks fast, already on the move, prepared to make his escape, “Anyway- great talk Aunt Cass, sorry about, you know, everything. If you need me I’ll be in the garage okay, cool, later!”

He sidesteps back to the stairs, gesturing for Baymax to follow. The robot lingers for only a moment, long enough to wave goodbye to Cass, long enough for her to say, “Well…welcome to the family.”

She watches Hiro scurry downstairs, Baymax close behind, and even though he tries to keep quiet she can hear him chiding the robot.

“Not cool, Baymax,” He whispers, “You can’t blow my cover like that. Whatever happened to doctor-patient confidentiality anyway?”

“But she is an immediate family member,” Baymax says, not at all in a whisper, “And your records indicate-“

Hiro makes a sound that’s more a string of letters than it is real words, a groan that ends in a muttered, “Unbelievable,” and then he’s out of earshot and Cass is alone on the couch.

She takes a deep breath, because she really needs one, and smiles to herself when Mochi jumps up on the cushion next to her. She pets him from head to tail, listens to his purr, and wonders if there are any healing benefits to gentle robotic humming.

She thinks of Tadashi and doesn’t cry, but laughs. Because of course he would build a robot to look after his brother when he’s not around to do it. And of course he’d build one that can rat him out, too.

He always did know Hiro best.

Cass has made peace with the fact that she doesn’t understand Hiro as well as Tadashi did. No matter how much he grows up, and he has grown up so much, Hiro will always be her kid. And she doesn’t know, probably never will know, anything about children.

She doesn’t know anything about robots either, though she doesn’t think that’ll be a problem.

Eventually she’ll get a handle on it.

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