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Bridging the Gap

Chapter Text

The Summer Following the Incident

 

            “Hiro, you promised!” Tadashi frowned up at him, folding his arms in irritation, though on his young form it looked like petulance.

            “Yeah, yeah,” Hiro tucked together blueprints and papers, binding them into a single folder. “That was before I remembered that you could just tag along to the meetings, and really, what do we even know about her?”

            Tadashi sighed in exasperation, the six year old kicking his feet back against the chair. He’d thought he’d finally worn Hiro down enough to allow Mari to come over and have her older sister watch them. He knew that any chance of staying home alone was next to zero, and with Aunt Cass gone for the weekend, Hiro had fallen right back in his paranoid state.

            “You know where she lives and her family and her name and that she’s got a little sister my ‘age,’” Tadashi used finger quotes for emphasis, well aware that someone his actual age would never pass Hiro’s approval. “She’s not going to try anything, and Baymax is right there if something happens.”

            “You don’t know that,” Hiro said. There was no need to take unnecessary risks if he could just keep an eye on Tadashi the entire time instead.

            “Hiro.” Tadashi knew it was well-meaning, and after the events of last Fall, it had been okay at first, but Hiro couldn’t possibly keep this up forever… right?

            “Teddy,” Hiro copied back. “Just bring your iPad or something and do whatever you do on it. It won’t be that bad.”

            “It’s not about how boring it will be.” Tadashi stood, walking over to Hiro, glad that he’d grown a little so he wasn’t looking quite so far up to talk to him. There was still quite a distance. “You can’t be with me all the time, and if you can find someone you can trust to do it-“

            Hiro shoved the folders into his bag, nearly tripping over the cord that charged his laptop in his haste. “Why not one of our friends then? They count.”

            “Fred’s with family, Gogo has work, Wasabi has class, Honey Lemon is probably holed up in her lab-“ Tadashi ticked each of them off on his fingers. “You know this.”

            “What’s so bad about just tagging along? Other kids do it… with mild complaining.” Hiro’s smile didn’t quite reach his eyes, but he was trying.

            After nearly losing Tadashi for the second time, Hiro had gone into protective ‘big-brother-but-not-really-because-technically-Tadashi’s-older’ mode. There was almost never an instance where he was out of Hiro’s sight, or in the very least where Hiro could visibly see the only entrances and exits to where he was. At first, it had almost been comforting for Tadashi. The background noise of fear that buzzed in his brain since having his security wrecked by being kidnapped quieted when Hiro did that.

            But then it began to grate on his nerves. He was his own person, 25 technically, and just because he was in a kid’s body didn’t mean he couldn’t take care of himself. Especially after learning how to channel his power correctly, he pitied anyone who tried to touch him now. But Hiro was insistent. If Tadashi was to be with their group of friends, he had to be in their sight at all times, and if they were going to go anywhere, Hiro had to know where and for about how long.

            It was suffocating.

            Tadashi had thought he’d caught a break when Mari and her older sister Angela started visiting the café more often, prompting him to be closer friends with Mari. It was still a little weird, considering his mindset was so different from hers, but he couldn’t exactly go hang out at the college to meet people, and old friends were so busy with their own lives that it was almost impossible to do anything fun with them and still meet all of Hiro’s requirements.

            “I’m not a kid, Hiro.” Tadashi tried to remind him gently, knowing he was worried, with good reason. When someone like Kyouji just comes out of the woodwork and does something like that… and then with the disappearance of Ara… it was hardly any wonder Hiro was suspicious of anyone he hadn’t known for years.

            “You may as well be.” Hiro’s tone meant he’d made up his mind, and he was as stubborn as he was years ago, when he’d earned the nickname ‘knucklehead’… not that Tadashi found much use for it now that things were almost always strained between them. It was difficult to relax and hang out with someone you were pretty much forced to be around constantly. “Anyone who sees you will assume so. And even if you were an adult- uh, sized person… we don’t know enough about the group that took you in the first place.”

            “I told you all I know...”

            Hiro nodded. “But it’s not enough.”

            Doing a once-over of the room to make sure he hadn’t left anything behind, Hiro tossed Tadashi’s special jacket to him, the one that had been designed specifically to withstand the insane temperatures Tadashi could reach without being destroyed.

            “Now come on, I don’t want to be late.”

 


 

            “Sorry, something came up.” Hiro smiled, the bold-faced lie hanging in the air between him and Angela. It was better than outright saying ‘I don’t trust you’, but not by much. He’d sent a text to her the night of, knowing it would be easier to cancel that way than to wait for her to arrive and then explain why Tadashi was going with him instead of staying to hang out with someone his own age.

            “It’s alright, I’m sure they’ll get plenty of chances to hang out.” Angela smiled, even though there had been many cancellations before, and it was beginning to wear on her. But Mari was happy, and if that meant putting up with a flighty person, she would, in a heartbeat.

            “Right...” Hiro’s answer was distracted, as he double checked where Tadashi was sitting, chatting with Mari as she scribbled red dots all over her coloring book, determined to make them into ladybugs later, he was sure.

            That reminded him that Tadashi needed some sort of program to practice his handwriting with, and he’d need to find a way to get him qualified with schooling without drawing attention to them anymore than was absolutely necessary. That meant no skipping grades, being homeschooled, and delivering less than absolutely perfect grades intermittently. But even homeschooled kids had to go to centers for testing at times, and if he couldn’t keep an eye on him there…

            “Earth to space cadet,” Angela joked, waving a hand in front of his vacant stare.

            “Hm? Oh, sorry.” Hiro wondered if she’s said anything important, but hesitated to ask outright. “I was thinking about something else.”

            Angela smiled. “I guessed as much. So are you guys going to the picnic down at the park? I heard there’s going to be free snow cones. Mari’s taking her puppy to get him used to people, and I was thinking—”

            “Um… sorry, but I don’t think we will be.” Hiro didn’t want to be rude, but it would be better to cut her off now. “I’m pretty sure we’ve got something planned that weekend.”

            Hiro made a mental note to plan something that weekend if there wasn’t already, because Angela would remember, and would ask.

            “Oh. Okay then…” Angela tucked a bit of black hair behind her ear, glancing over towards where her sister sat. “I’m sure there will be others. Mari will understand.”

            “Right…” Hiro returned to wiping down the equipment behind the counter, looking for something to do to politely end the conversation. Why was she so persistent? Hiro’s mind logged the information under ‘potential suspicion’ in case it became important later.

            Angela sighed, going over to sit by her sister, showing her again how to make the ladybugs look like they had wings.

Chapter Text

            Hiro looked around the park, having lost the argument with Tadashi and gotten dragged along anyway to the picnic. Apparently, Mari had been so excited to show him her new puppy, and Tadashi had already gotten confirmation from Honey Lemon and Fred that they wanted to tag along before Hiro could tell them they weren’t going. Gogo and Wasabi would have come too, but they had already planned something together, though they mentioned they might pop by later. Everyone was so happy to hear that Hiro was okay with the excursion.

            He wasn’t.

            However, he wasn’t about to tell them that after the six, paragraph long texts from Honey Lemon encouraging him that it would be alright, and that they’d be sure to keep an eye on Tadashi. She was proud of him for beginning to move past his fears, and a mix of pride and guilt kept Hiro from backing out or correcting them in that it had been Tadashi’s doing…

            …that sneaky brat.

            Taking a calming breath, careful not to brush along the form of breathing that could potentially create fire, Hiro picked out Tadashi where he and Mari were entertaining the small golden retriever puppy. ‘Scout’ was his official name, but Buttercup was what Mari insisted on calling him. This wasn’t too bad, and with Honey Lemon grabbing snow cones and sandwiches for all of them, and Fred making friends with every dog they came across, things almost felt… normal.

            Hiro had to be careful. Even with the multiple eyes on Tadashi, all it would take would be one mistake…

            Looking around at the people near them, Hiro attempted to make judgements on what they probably did and made random guesses at their names. It might help later if anything were to happen.

            That was… Jane. She probably taught kids or led an art class with the way she was dressed.

            He was getting named… uh… Mushu. Yeah, like the dragon from that one movie. He sells books for a living.

            And so on. The practice was almost calming, forming these people into things that weren’t dangerous, and yet still getting their faces in his memory… just in case. A group of teenagers with brightly dyed hair were all named after planets, and the old man could be their shared grandfather. Yeah. Hiro chuckled, shaking his head. Maybe this wasn’t so bad.

            Tadashi and Mari rejoined them at the blanket, Scout bouncing along behind them. The dog nipped at a butterfly and Mari scolded him, saying the butterfly was his friend.

            “Having fun?” Hiro asked, weaving two pieces of grass together absentmindedly.

            Tadashi’s grin was answer enough, but Hiro didn’t really know what else to say. Conversation had never been his strong point, at least as far as small talk went.

            Tadashi nodded, petting Scout roughly so that the dog playfully nipped at his hands. “Too bad Mochi doesn’t like it outside. She’d probably run off though…”

            Tadashi looked like he was considering something, turning to look up at Hiro. “Do you think we could get a dog? We’d have to train it not to bark at people or pee in the house, but it can’t be that much harder than Mochi.”

            “Dunno, we’d need to ask Aunt Cass.” The idea wasn’t a bad one, and Hiro figured if they could get a guard dog, all the better. Something to watch the house while Baymax was charging or away… yeah, that might be good.

            Mari bounced in place, nodding fervently, pulling the puppy towards her. “If you did, if you did, they could be best friends, just like us!”

            Best friends? Hiro looked between Mari and Tadashi. He supposed kids tended to exaggerate, but surely they weren’t… She was just someone to hang out with, Tadashi’s real friends were the ones from SFIT. That was all he needed anyway, he’d been happy enough before.

            “Like I said, it’s up to her.” Hiro shrugged, catching the sandwich Fred tossed his way. “Not my house.”

            “Aww… okay.” Mari frowned, taking an unsure answer as a ‘no.’

            Angela joined them, folding her legs underneath her as she pulled the crust off of Mari’s sandwich. “Mari, have you put on sunscreen since we got here?”

            “…no…” Mari folded her hands together, looking down at her lap.

            Sighing at her younger sister’s forgetfulness, Angela dug in her bag, pulling out a tube and applying it generously to the already sun-tinged face. “You’re going to be covered in freckles by the time summer is over.”

            “But they’re my spots!” Mari insisted, scrunching her face. “You’re gonna get it in my eyes…” She whined.

            “I won’t, I’m being careful.” Angela nodded when she finished, turning to Tadashi, but speaking to Hiro. “Does he need some? I have plenty extra.”

            “No, it’s fine.” Hiro answered before thinking. While it was true that Tadashi didn’t need sunscreen anymore, since he couldn’t physically burn, just about everyone else did. Way to draw attention to it, Hiro. “Um, we put on the long lasting stuff before we left. He should be good unless he sweats it off.” Again, which he wouldn’t, anyway. The no-sweating thing was a bit more obvious, but no one had called them on it.

            “Oh, okay.” Angela tucked the sunscreen away, accepting the excuse. “What kind is it? I might look into it, since Mari insists that stopping to reapply is so terrible.”

            “I don’t remember. I don’t pay attention to what it’s called.” Hiro fibbed.

            Angela shrugged. “Do you remember the color of the bottle? I might be able to find it.”

            “Uh… orange.” Hiro had to keep the annoyance out of his voice. She couldn’t just drop it? Why was she making this difficult?

            “Alright, cool.”

            Hiro nodded, looking away. The annoyance was sparking fire in his chest again, and Hiro knew he needed to let it out soon or there could be some dire consequences. There had been a close call in the café back in January, and since then he’d made sure to take care of things before they got out of hand.

Chapter Text

            It wasn’t until later that evening, when Tadashi was safe (or as safe as he got) at home with Aunt Cass and Baymax on standby, that Hiro made his way down to the bay. He knew of a secluded area that was perfect for quite literally blowing off steam.

            Making his way down the rocky front, Hiro gingerly kicked off his shoes at the bottom, wading in the shallow water the rest of the way. The water was still too cold to consider actual swimming, as the early summer sun didn’t heat it very quickly. However, by the end of the day, it wasn’t terrible, and with his own internal heating system, Hiro could maintain a comfortable temperature… or at least one that wouldn’t make him sick.

            Since he’d started changing, he hadn’t so much as come down with the usual seasonal allergies, his sudden immunity enough to make Aunt Cass take notice. It was nice to not have to worry about getting sick, but the voice at the back of his mind suggested that if he did it wouldn’t be good. Honey Lemon attempted to reassure him, saying that it wasn’t necessarily that he would get super sick if he did catch something, but perhaps he was just developing an immunity to most things. She herself hadn’t so much as gotten the sniffles since she had gotten back from England last fall, so maybe it was just a tame year, allergy wise.

            Hiro sighed, rubbing the back of his neck. There was no point in thinking about that right now. He had enough to worry about without dealing with that particular strand of ‘what-ifs’.

            When he reached the hollowed out space, he breathed deeply, preparing himself. Tadashi had suggested that it might not be such a good idea to always draw on negative emotions when fire breathing, and Hiro agreed that he had a point… eventually. He’d started doing a form of meditation before emptying his reserves, and while it was more difficult to create the fire when not upset or angry, it felt… cleaner, almost. Not as toxic. Or perhaps that was just his mindset speaking.

            Standing in front of the water, Hiro closed his eyes, feeling the tide splash against his bare feet and recede. It was extremely difficult to clear his mind, but here it was relatively easier, knowing Tadashi was probably safe, that things were mostly under control—

            “Hey. Are you just going to stand there?”

            At the foreign voice, Hiro’s eyes snapped open.

            He quickly turned around, the voice seeming to come from behind him. He saw no one, and a chill went down his spine. Hiro tensed, preparing for a fight. Worst come to worst, he could probably blast him… or well, whoever had spoken. But then the stranger would know, and Hiro didn’t want to kill him outright. Not if he didn’t have to…

            “Wrong way.”

            Hiro turned again, looking for the source of the voice. It wasn’t until a whistle and a glimpse of movement caught his attention that he finally spotted the person who was talking.

            “There you go. The echo didn’t help, did it?” The voice was understanding, and Hiro would have called it patronizing if not for the tone that seemed to indicate he was nothing but sincere. It was odd.

            Hiro almost couldn’t see him at all, his bleached white hair and fair skin blending into the surf of the waves. Only his head was above the water, and Hiro wondered how he could put up with the feeling Hiro got whenever he swam like that, like he was always on the verge of suffocating. The water was also freezing.

            Hiro frowned, disappointed that his spot had been found by some swimmer. He would have to be more careful, the citizens of San Fransokyo were an eccentric lot, and someone was always doing something unpredictable.

            “Can you speak?” The guy called out, and Hiro could hear the echo, understanding why it had seemed so loud earlier, even though he was clear out there.

            “Yeah, sorry!” Hiro called out. He didn’t know why he was talking to him, he needed to find another place to let out the fire.

            “Why are you apologizing?”

            Hiro had no answer to that. Wasn’t that just what people did? It was a politeness thing, he thought. “I… don’t know?”

            “Okay…” He sounded like he thought Hiro was the one being strange. “So, are you getting in?”

            “Are you kidding? It’s freezing!” Hiro was more careful now about acting like his temperature receptors acted like everybody else’s, though he still made mistakes at times. “Aren’t you cold?”

            “No?” He answered like it was a question, as if he were unsure if his answer was right. “What are you doing out here if you aren’t swimming?”

            “Can you come a little closer so I don’t have to shout?”

            The guy’s head ducked under the water. Hiro waited for longer than he thought was safe, and he was seriously considering going in to check on him when he resurfaced near an outcropping of rocks. It was closer to the shore by quite a bit, but Hiro had sort of meant for him to leave the water.

            “Would it kill you to get out of the water?” Hiro asked, glad that he no longer had to project so much to be heard. The other guy had the advantage, the cliffs amplifying his voice.

            “Maybe…” He looked like he was seriously considering it, and Hiro smirked. “So why are you here?”

            Well, he was certainly direct. Hiro hesitated, wondering if he should just leave. He really didn’t owe him an explanation. But… “I’m just relaxing. It’s nice out here.”

            The guy nodded, and it irked Hiro that he didn’t have something to mentally call him.

            “What’s your name?” It was only after the words left his mouth that Hiro realized he’d have to give his own. …oh well, too late now.

            “My name?”

            “Uh,” Hiro’s brow creased in confusion. Was this guy on something? That could make this easier, and probably more entertaining. “Yeah, you know, the thing people call you? Or your nickname or whatever, I don’t really care.”

            “Oh.” The guy blinked at him, and Hiro was pretty sure now that he wasn’t running on all cylinders, so to speak. Maybe he drank too much salt water. “Rei.”

            Hiro waited for the return question, but it never came. Rei seemed content to just rest there, fingertips peeking out of the water to hold onto one of the rocks.

            “How can you stand it?” Hiro felt the need to break the silence, it weighed on him. “Being that far in the water…”

            “I’ve been swimming for a long time.”

            “You don’t look like it.” Hiro only belatedly realized that was probably rude. Not everyone who swam spent their days out on the beach, there were plenty of indoor pools that might have kept him from getting tan.

            “What does that mean?” Rei didn’t sound offended, just confused.

            “Uh, nevermind.” It was almost like speaking with a child.

            Rei frowned, looking back across the water.

            Hiro kicked a bit of sand, wanting to leave, but not sure if it was safe to leave Rei here while he was… out of it. He didn’t want to see the news the next day that his body had washed up on shore because he’d fallen asleep in the water or something.

            “It’s getting kinda late, maybe you should head back. Or at least get out of the water or something…” Hiro cringed when Rei glared at him. Actually, maybe just leaving him here was a better idea. It wasn’t his responsibility, anyway. Just residual hero instincts, that’s all.

            “No.” Rei’s voice was cold. “I’m not getting out of the water. Not while you are here.”

            Wha…

            Hiro stared at him, before deciding it was probably not personal.

            “Okay… just, um- be safe or something.” And that was the end of his involvement. He picked up his shoes, shaking out the sand as he got ready to leave. “There’ve been too many deaths around here,” Hiro muttered more to himself than anything.

            “I could make you forget.”

            Rei’s voice made him jump, the statement itself odd. There were a lot of things he wished he could forget, but whatever Rei’s messed up mind was referring to probably wasn’t any of them. It almost sounded like some crappy pick-up line.

            “Uh… no thanks. I’m just gonna… go.”

            Hiro shook his head, hurrying back up the slope, even though Rei had said he wasn’t getting out while Hiro was there. Whatever, he’d find somewhere else along the coast to let out the fire, no skin off his back. He frowned, glancing back towards the little cove he’d had to abandon.

            That was one weird dude.

 


 

            It was far more difficult to clear his mind after that, even when Hiro found an abandoned stretch where he could blow fire over the water. He had wasted too much time earlier, and with the sun setting, any brightness could be spotted, and he’d had to find somewhere even more remote than usual. Feeling rushed, Hiro gave up on the meditation, just drawing up the fire within him as he was. Calmness was overrated, anyway.

            Hiro couldn’t damage anything if he aimed above the water. There was nothing to hit, and if he misjudged, the water would douse the flames. It was almost cathartic, like screaming, but instead of noise, flames leapt from his mouth instead.

            Finally, he ran out, two empty ‘clicks’ proving that he really was done. It was taking longer and longer to expel all of it, the sun long gone by the time he had. Hiro wondered if it had anything to do with how he was angry or annoyed more often lately… or was he annoyed more often because of the flames themselves?

            Shrugging, he headed home, deciding he’d make note of it to Baymax. It was proving to be quite handy to have a robot that could store information safely, so he wouldn’t have to worry about encrypting any documents himself. It would be a pain if someone got a hold of the information, as some of it could be used against him… or Tadashi.

            That reminded him, as he crossed the main street, heading through the town towards home. He needed to make sure Tadashi’s own powers weren’t doing something similar to his. If Tadashi needed to vent, he should probably arrange something with Fred, as any amount of height he might need would make the coast unsafe. It’d be far too easy for someone to see.

            Hiro didn’t trust the island anymore. He hadn’t since they’d found that door, but he’d caved to Fred’s insistence that it was safe a couple of times back in the winter. Tadashi had to learn to control his flight, and giving him any tools he might need to get away from someone was alright with Hiro. But…

            Hiro couldn’t shake the gut feeling that something wasn’t right with that place, and he would bear the teasing and poking fun at his paranoia if it meant keeping his brother safe. There had to be some other location that would work.

            Or perhaps it wasn’t necessary. The odd heat surges had vanished after…

            Hiro clenched his teeth, pushing the event itself out of his mind. After he’d gotten him back. The flaming specter remained in his head, and he recalled fearing that that was all that was left of Tadashi. He’d had nightmares that rehashed everything, and all of them ended in disaster. Some of them ended when the roof caved in. In others they made it outside, but when Tadashi deactivated the flames, he vanished. Some replaced his current small form with an older Tadashi, back before the first fire, and he couldn’t stand the temperature like Hiro could. Sometimes Hiro made it out alone, and couldn’t get back in the burning building.

            None of them were conducive to a good night’s sleep.

            But some good had come of it… right? Ever since that day back in November, when Tadashi had been completely alight, the stripes on his back hadn’t overheated, and the rest of his outer temperature remained normal.

            Hiro had worried that maybe he had burned himself out, but Baymax confirmed that Tadashi’s inner temperatures were still molten, just steady. He didn’t have any issues producing or maintaining his wings, and when Hiro had finally agreed to allow him to try to fly, though the mechanics still took practice, they didn’t flicker out or collapse like they had the first time.

            Tadashi had stabilized.

            Once, and only once, Tadashi had taken on the full form again, blazing entirely from his head to his feet. His eyes had burned white, and Hiro couldn’t look at him. It was too much, not because it was too bright, but because the reminder was still too poisonous. Tadashi had quickly returned to normal, apologizing at Hiro’s stricken look. He never did it in his presence again.

Chapter Text

            They were just trying to be helpful.

            Hiro reminded himself of this repeatedly. There was nothing special about your twentieth birthday. Not really. You didn’t get any more rights than you had at 19, and it was just a build up for the twenty first, a stepping stone of sorts...

            But his friends insisted on making it a big thing, though they’d long passed that marker in life. They wanted to celebrate with him, and he appreciated that, but they could go a little… overboard. With their ideas and Fred’s money, they could make just about anything they dreamt up come to life. Still, Hiro was having a hard time looking forward to it.

            Tadashi hadn’t made it to his twentieth. He’d gotten to college early, he’d worked hard, he’d been on his way to a bright future… and then he’d gone after Callaghan. To save the man who’d planned it all, which Hiro still believed, despite what lawyers and even his friends said.

            Hiro hadn’t really thought he’d make it to twenty. He’d not had a plan to die, nor did he really want to. He enjoyed being with his friends, even with the pain of his brother’s death pulling at his heart. His brain just refused to accept the reality that one day he would be older than his brother ever was. It just didn’t feel possible.

            Even with his return, Tadashi was now growing up as a child again, and Hiro didn’t consider him 25, despite that being how long his consciousness had roamed the earth. He had lost his brother that night. He’d gotten him back, eventually, but everything was different and he had lost him. Hiro had spent years dealing with the fact that his brother was gone, and that didn’t change just because he miraculously got another chance at life. He had died.

            And now Hiro was turning twenty in a matter of days.

            It didn’t feel right.

            June 20

            Tomorrow Hiro would be twenty.

            His friends planned to throw a party the day of, a perk to having a summer birthday, but he didn’t know how to explain why he didn’t want to celebrate. Maybe the day after he would feel differently about it…

            He sighed, kicking a rock towards the surf as he thought. Hiro had already expelled all the fire that he could, but it didn’t help, only leaving him feeling empty.

            Hiro shouldn’t feel like this, he knew. He should be grateful he’d made it this far, happy to celebrate with his friends and his returned brother, who he was determined to keep safe this time. But all this thinking didn’t change the mood that crept into his being. He got the feeling that after tomorrow was over, the entire thing would be anti-climactic. He was ready for it to pass.

June 21

            There were so many people. There were too many people.

            How was he supposed to watch out for Tadashi in such a crowd? He could just barely make out Baymax standing guard near Tadashi, a nutrition panel displayed on his stomach as he apparently lectured those approaching the snack table. Oh well, could be worse.

            Hiro knew his friends had only invited people he knew or they knew and trusted, but even that didn’t settle his mind completely, and he was glad for the robot. There was no feasible reason he would need to leave Tadashi’s side.

            He glanced up as someone approached him.

            “Happy Birthday, Hiro!” Angela had stopped by, Mari darting around her legs in excitement, taking in all the sights. “Looks like someone knows how to throw a party.”

            “I take no credit for any of this.” Hiro did admit, it was an amazing setup, and knowing his close group of friends the way he did, he could see their personal touches in the different aspects of the party. The bounce house had Fred written all over it.

            Angela grinned, passing over a wrapped present. An… oddly wrapped present. “Mari was determined to help with the wrapping…” She explained sheepishly.

            “Oh, well thank you.” Hiro smiled over at Mari. “You did a good job.”

            Mari’s entire face lit up like a beacon. “Open it! Open it! I helped pick it out! You’ll love it!”

            “I can’t yet, but I’m sure I will.” Hiro attempted to placate her.

            Aunt Cass had made a family rule that presents were all to be opened at once, if only so that she could keep track of who they needed to send thank you cards to. Hiro knew that his hand would be cramping by the end of the week with all the ones he’d need to write for this party. Still, presents were presents, he wasn’t about to complain. Not too loudly, anyway.

            “Okay…” Mari glanced around. “Where’s Teddy?”

            “He’s by the snack table--“ Hiro had barely gotten the words off when she was off like a shot.

            “You can have one sweet!” Angela called after her younger sister. “And… she probably didn’t hear me. Oh well, maybe her sugar coma nap will be a good chance for me to get caught up on things.”

            Hiro laughed a little, turning the present over in his hands. “Well, we’re going to have leftover desserts for at least a month, so we’ll have our share of those…”

            “Oh, I’m sure.”

            Hiro smiled, and suddenly everything felt awkward. He should… go put the present with the others. But wouldn’t it be rude to leave Angela standing there? He’d never been good at small talk.

            “Er, well I’m just going to put these with the others.” Great going. Hiro brushed the thought off mentally, setting the gift near the others on the table. She was probably used to this by now. If she was going to get offended, she would have a while back.

            That done, Hiro glanced around at those gathered. He was twenty, officially, but he didn’t feel any different. It almost felt like a lie to those celebrating. He wouldn’t feel too bad about it, though. They at least were having a blast.

 


 

            After the party wound down, Hiro opened the multitude of gifts, some funny, others impersonal, but useful or interesting, he supposed. He thanked his friends for getting it set up and headed for the bay while they insisted on doing the clean-up.

            Although he was running on empty as far as fire went, the coast just off the bay had become a vent-zone, and was calming by association. He let his feet carry him where they would, no set destination in mind, since he didn’t need to be careful about his location. Hiro found himself back at the little cove he’d abandoned earlier that summer. It was a shame, really, and maybe unnecessary.

            Hiro quietly traced a hand along the stone upcropping that separated this area from the rest of San Fransokyo, resting palm against it and absorbing the warmth it emanated. It was a sheer drop from the top, and if you squinted, you could almost see where the grass stopped. It worked as a good target too, if Hiro didn’t feel like aiming at open air. It wasn’t like his fire was going to do much damage to the stone.

            The waves splashed behind him, and Hiro turned around, leaning against the rock. He let his gaze sweep over the water, and his eyes widened. Was that—?

            That was definitely Rei. Unless there was another white haired person who thought swimming in super cold water was a good idea… As he approached the shore, Hiro became more certain.

            Well, it looked like he’d survived, after all. Hiro nearly called out to him when he pulled himself out of the surf and onto the shore, tugging a set of clothes from behind a rock.

            …No way.

            Hiro could hardly believe his eyes. He’d known on some level that there were others that were… different, (he pushed the memory of finding out Kyouji’s particular oddity from his head) but to this extent?

            Before it was covered with cloth, Hiro saw a dark, almost black filmy material begin to recede from Rei’s upper back, but it currently still covered all but his uppermost torso. The apparent texture changed about where his hips would be, the film changing to a rougher looking material. Where his legs belonged was a large, single fin, much longer than his legs would have been, and it gave him almost an unbalanced appearance. Dark, smaller fins began to fold back into his pale arms as he rubbed them dry with a towel, before he began to work on what would have been his legs, drying the area painstakingly.

            Hiro knew he wasn’t supposed to see this.

            Even with his own ability, and with those who already knew about it, he did not like to show it off. And he certainly wouldn’t want someone else catching him while he was ‘venting’. This didn’t belong to him, but Hiro was afraid if he moved, he’d alert Rei to his presence. It was way too late now.

            …Surely he’d have to get back in the water sometime, right? After all, Hiro reasoned, it wasn’t like he could exactly walk around with that tail. Even if the muscles worked right, it was way too big…

            And now it was shrinking? The tail was drawing back towards Rei’s torso, and he could easily reach the end with his towel, before it began to split, and—

            Oh.

            Hiro looked away, realizing that he was going to be spotted sooner rather than later. Well, at least this explained why he hadn’t wanted to get out of the water. He would wait until Rei was ready, though. Startling him when he was half… untransformed was probably not a good plan of action. It also might give Hiro a chance to think of what to say.

            Hey, Rei. Didn’t see you there… at all. I didn’t see anything. But supposing I had, would it make it any better if I told you I was the same… but entirely different?

            No, none of that would work. Hiro was pulled from his thoughts when he heard the crunch of sand before it suddenly stopped. Putting on his least judgmental face, or what he figured would pass as uninterested, Hiro looked up.

            Rei stood there, staring at him in fear that was quickly morphing to borderline terror. Hiro looked down, unable to keep eye contact, and found it interesting to note that where Rei’s feet peeked out of his pants, they were the exact skin tone of his arms now. A complete return to normal… or well, ‘normal’, Hiro supposed.

            “Rei…” Hiro didn’t know what to say, but he supposed that was a start. “You—“

            “No.” Rei’s voice was quiet and strained, but grew louder with every word. “No, no, no, you can’t know—“

            There was panic in his eyes, and he quickly approached, stumbling a little as he grew accustomed to moving on land again. He reached out as he approached Hiro, as if to stop him, to grab him.

            Hiro backed up a bit, shocked but trying to calm the guy down before he did something drastic. “Rei, it’s fine, I’m not gonna—“

            “I’m not going back.”

            Before Hiro could ask what he meant, Rei grabbed the back of his neck, tugging him forward. Hiro’s mouth met Rei’s painfully, before his expression blanked and Rei pulled back, looking between his unseeing eyes for something before turning and running away.

 


 

            Hiro felt himself come to awareness at the cove, like snapping out of a daze or daydream. He looked around, trying to orient himself and feeling that nagging thought at the back of his mind that he was forgetting something. Something important…

            Racking his brain, Hiro couldn’t recall what he’d seemed to have forgotten. There was nothing at the party he was supposed to have done, they hadn’t wanted his help with clean-up, and then he’d come down here and… he guessed he must have gotten lost in thought.

            Frowning at his unsatisfying explanation, Hiro licked his lips, the ocean air having dried them. Huh. He thought your skin only got coated in sea salt if you actually went swimming, but the taste was undeniable. Shrugging, Hiro checked the horizon and decided he should probably head back; the sun was almost completely set.

            Hiro scuffed his feet along the sand, pausing when he glanced down and noticed a pair of footprints leading away from where he’d been standing. A chill went down his spine. It was as if a ghost had visited him, leaving only footprints in its wake.

            Glancing around, looking for anyone who might have left them behind, Hiro again got the sense that he was missing something important. There was a measure of fear behind the feeling now, and Hiro quickly made his way back towards the city. He needed to get home. Now.

Chapter Text

            The nagging sensation didn’t leave, and it bothered Hiro enough that Tadashi noticed the difference in his behavior. Hiro waved it off as having a lot on his mind. He wasn’t lying, either.

There was another meeting coming up to showcase his prosthetics, hoping to secure a client that wanted a specific, and highly advanced version of what Hiro was offering. He didn’t have much to worry about, as there currently wasn’t another competitor that could do quite what he did, but he couldn’t focus on what he needed to say.

            He didn’t just forget things like that. Hiro put things off until it was impossible to do in the amount of time he had left, but he didn’t forget. It usually only took a minute or two of thinking to remember what he felt he’d forgotten, but even when he tried not to think about whatever had gone down at the cove, the practice was fruitless.

            “Hiro?” Aunt Cass had made her way into the garage, where he had his entire set up organized and laid out. He’d been staring off into space for the last minute or so that she’d been there. “Is everything alright?”

            “Oh, um…” Hiro returned to the present, smiling up at her. “Yeah, everything is fine. Sorry, did you need something?”

            “Angela and Mari are in the café, they were wondering if you and Tadashi wanted to go with them to walk Scout.” She smiled, hoping they could help pull Hiro out of whatever funk he was in. “The weather is lovely outside, and it would be good for both of you to get some fresh air—“

            “Wait, did you leave Tadashi in the café, alone?” Hiro felt fresh panic grip his throat, and he rushed towards the door.

            “Hiro…” But her nephew was already gone. She sighed, flipping off the light switch and shutting the door behind her. She remembered too well the feeling of the loss of security when Tadashi had been taken. But this… this wasn’t healthy.

            Hiro burst into the café, looking around until he spotted Tadashi, talking with Mari at his usual table in the back. He could breathe again, but he couldn’t shake the thoughts that crowded his brain. What if he hadn’t thought to check? What if he’d been right, and something else had happened? What if—

            He leaned against the counter, trying to calm his racing heart and trembling arms. Hiro needed another method. He couldn’t keep this up without scaring himself to death or messing up. He couldn’t…

            “Oh, there you are, Hiro.”

            Angela’s voice broke through his thoughts as she approached him. “Did your aunt find you? We were all thinking about going out for a bit, and Tadashi said you’d need to tag along, so… how about it?”

            It took a large measure of self restraint to keep himself from saying ‘no’ harshly to her question. There wasn’t anything immediately wrong with them going for a walk, but… if something happened, or if they got lead into a trap or something, Hiro didn’t think he had the firepower stored up to handle it. With the ghost prints from the other day, he felt that it was a sign that he should be more careful. Clearly something was going on, and he didn’t know if he could defend himself or, more importantly, Tadashi, from it.  

            “Maybe another time, I’m pretty busy today, and, um…” Hiro petered off, seeing the disappointment in her eyes before she masked it with a smile.

            “Okay then, don’t let us get in the way of your work.”

            Hiro hesitated, glancing over at Tadashi. He really needed to wait until Aunt Cass got back before leaving, but he’d basically said he didn’t have time to waste, so he couldn’t just stand there. Thankfully, his aunt entered the café just then, and he made a beeline back to the garage. He really needed another project, something he could really pour himself into.

            Hopefully it could help him put this behind him.

 


 

            The meeting had gone well, the client requesting a prosthetic arm that could register touch and move smoothly and quickly, like a flesh arm. It would be a bit of a challenge to meet the requirements, but hopefully it would be just the distraction that Hiro needed. Hiro always overestimated the time required to complete the assignment when citing the time it would take to customers, but this time he wondered if it would be long enough.

            Pulling out the rough sketch he’d been provided, Hiro rolled out a blue sheet along the table, ready to do the first draft of the blueprint. He quickly lost himself in the task, not realizing that time was slipping by until Aunt Cass knocked on the door, asking if he wanted dinner brought to him.

            Cracking his knuckles, Hiro followed her up to the café, satisfied with the progress he had made. The thought that his aunt was leaving Tadashi alone more often than not passed through his mind, and he frowned. He’d definitely need to do something about that if he wanted to keep an eye on him. For his own safety, and also Hiro’s peace of mind.

            “What is it?” Tadashi looked up at Hiro in confusion.

            “It’s two things, actually.” Hiro held up the first, passing it over to Tadashi. “This is basically like a life-alert pendant, but it is on its own frequency, connected directly to this,” Hiro held up the second piece. “It runs off of heat, so you shouldn’t ever have to charge it or anything. It can also send location information, so in case you can’t press the button, I could still know where you are, and—“

            “Hiro…” Tadashi looked a little uneasy. Sure he had done something similar back when Hiro was botfighting by sewing trackers into his jackets, but that was because he was actively seeking danger and still expected a rescue. It had been the only way to adapt. “Don’t you think this is a bit much? I already have my phone, and it’s not like you don’t charge it yourself every night, so I don’t really need this.”

            Hiro frowned, slipping the pendant over Tadashi’s head and pulling the two slipknots towards each other to tighten it so that it couldn’t easily come off. “There, is that such a big deal? It looks just like a regular necklace. Waterproof, too. Should also be able to withstand your temperatures, but I couldn’t test that perfectly. Now I don’t have to worry quite so much if someone is watching you to make sure you are still with us.”

            “But you don’t need to, Hiro. You don’t need to know where I am every blinking minute of the day!” Tadashi’s irritation surfaced. He tugged at the necklace, even though it wasn’t actually tight enough to cut off his air supply, it felt suffocating all the same. “Worst comes, you can just have Baymax search for me. He can actually be used as something other than some whacked out body guard, you know.”

            “No.” Hiro scowled at his brother, not understanding why he couldn’t just accept it and they could move on. “I already know there’s some way to keep him from finding you, I just don’t know what it is. So, until I do and can work on fixing it, this is our next best option.”

            “And what if the same thing that messes up Baymax messes up this, huh?”

            Hiro’s frown deepened. “It shouldn’t. Baymax scans by sending out a wave to unknown locations, that sends one thing to one place, while this,” Hiro held up his receiver, “does the same, just going the other way. Besides, he can’t do a constant scan anyway, it drains too much of his power.”

            Tadashi sighed, looking away from Hiro. He probably wasn’t going to win this one.

            Standing, Hiro headed for the door again. “Whatever, like it or hate it, I’m just trying to help.”

            Tadashi was left standing there, and he had the urge to rip off the item and crush it underfoot. He refrained, but if he tested the true resistance against his fire, who was to say he was wrong for doing so. The metal heated under his hand, but quickly returned to its original state. He frowned, disappointed.

            It looked like he would just have to bear with it for the time being.

Chapter Text

            Jadoku thought his heart was going to jack-hammer its way out of his chest, and was infinitely glad for his ability to see heat signatures in the dark. He had come far too close to becoming a ‘human’ pincushion, and though he was loath to do so, he was seriously considering summoning scales to coat his torso 24/7. If he hadn’t been able to move as quickly as he had (inhumanely fast, Himitsu called it), even being able to see his attacker (would-be killer) wouldn’t have been enough.

            He did feel a twinge of regret as he watched the form on the ground fade from the fluorescent orange light to darkness; it still wasn’t light enough outside to see normally. Spitting the mixed blood out of his mouth, Jadoku switched the light on from his phone and inspected the body, fearing it was someone he had known. He didn’t even recognize this man, well... corpse, so either he had been from out of town or was new on the streets.

            That would also explain why he’d thought it would be a good idea to try to... what had he been trying to do, exactly?

            Slipping his phone in his pocket, Jadoku pushed his red bangs back off of his face as he walked past the body and towards the safe house he had been travelling to when he had been... interrupted. He tried to sort through his thoughts and figure out what exactly had just happened.

            There had been no shouting, no demands, no drunken stumbling... if anything, it just seemed like he had wanted to kill him outright.

            Jadoku shuddered, and not from the early morning air. That was a bit... jarring. The parallel slices on his tongue throbbed in time with his heartbeat, and he strongly opposed the idea of swallowing, letting the blood accumulate in his mouth until it was enough to spit out again. The thought of swallowing any amount of someone else’s blood made him want to throw up.

            His hair-trigger fangs were coming in handy more and more often. The blood they drew from his tongue could be easily injected into a potential opponent by biting, though he tried to avoid it if at all possible. He just didn’t always have time to reach for the laced knives, and sometimes his hands weren’t free when he needed them to be.

            Jadoku rolled his shoulders, feeling the pull of the scales that had covered his upper back when the man had shoved him against the wall. He’d had a fraction of a second to process what was happening and strike before the knife could come down on him. The sound of pierced flesh reverberated in his mind, and he felt bile at the back of his throat as he shuddered again.

            ...better him than me, though.

            Glancing up, he noticed that he had reached his destination, and he pulled a small silver key on a chain from around his neck and unlocked the front door. This was one of the nicer safe houses on the mainland, with actual bedrooms and a stocked kitchen. ‘Perks of being a badass,’ as Himitsu’d called it.

            It was separate from the island, allowing for a bit more freedom of movement, and it would spare him any curious stares that lingered, regardless of the months he’d spent there. A very limited number of people had the specially magnetized keys, so it was one of the better places to crash if you were injured or too tired to sleep lightly enough to defend yourself from another at a moment’s notice.

            Jadoku smirked slightly as he shut the door behind himself and heard the automatic lock click into place.

            Safe... as long as you don’t piss off someone important.

            That was easier said than done, and Jadoku liked to have a bit of insurance by sleeping in the same room as someone who he at least partially trusted... or who needed him alive for their own self-interest. He had his own room... technically... but he was still working on getting a lock on his door that couldn’t be easily picked, similar to the one on the front door.

            “Ne, Jadoku! Back already?” Himitsu greeted him without removing his eyes from the screen. Jadoku flopped down on the couch, listening to the sound of rapidly clicking keys as he glanced at the screen that Himitsu was so focused on. He couldn’t make heads or tails of it, but it looked important.

            “Hmm.” Jadoku felt the pull behind his eyelids, coaxing him to sleep. He’d already gone 28 hours without sleep, and the adrenaline rush and crash from the recent attack left him so tired he didn’t even feel like making it all the way to the bed. He’d certainly slept in worse places. He yawned, wincing and hissing a bit as the cuts on his tongue pulled at the movement. The typing paused.

            Himitsu turned in his chair, giving him a questioning look.

            Jadoku sighed. He just wanted to sleep. “It happened on the way back when some idiot attacked me. I didn’t use them on the job.” This had been a very specifically ‘no kill’ task, like most of the ones he was assigned. He was ironically one of the only field workers that had a kill count below triple digits, and he’d like it to stay that way.

            Himitsu hummed in understanding. “...you okay?”

            “Mhm. Just need sleep...” Jadoku mumbled. He felt exhaustion’s hooks on his mind and hoped that Himitsu wasn’t looking for conversation; he didn’t know how much longer he could force consciousness.

            Himitsu chuckled. “’kay. Night, Jay.”

            “... don’t call me that.” Jadoku wasn’t sure how much of that sentence he managed to get out before he finally slipped into dreamland.

 


 

            Peeling open his eyelids, Jadoku wasn’t even certain what century he was in, and it took him a moment to register the blanket that had been draped over him. He pulled it closer, breathing in the scent that had become so familiar, though he couldn’t place exactly what made it up. Pulling himself up from the couch, Jadoku wrapped the blanket around himself and made his way over to the bed in the corner, before easing his way under the covers and tucking his face into Himitsu’s upper back.

            He wouldn’t have dared to do anything similar to this, even as soon as a few months ago, but things had changed. Near the end of January, Taishou and all of them, his little band of scientists that Jadoku would happily never see again, had successfully discovered a... vaccine of sorts to counteract his blood. Of course, it couldn’t be given to Jadoku without killing him (he suppressed the imagining of all of his blood suddenly fizzling and burning), but since it was contracted from the blood of a universal blood donor

            Now is not the time to think about the kid...

            --it could be distributed to Jadoku’s team members, and naturally to Taishou himself. He had the feeling that that had been his primary purpose for doing so.

Taishou wouldn’t want Jadoku to have the power to quickly and easily end his life, or that of any of the Fujitas... or his second in command. He was still trying to get over the fact that he had known Himitsu for nearly five years and hadn’t really suspected him to be anything more than one of the more successful con artists and a fence/dealer of various... things, until everything that had happened. Himitsu certainly lived up to his name.

            Jadoku lightly shook his head. Whatever the reasons and motives were, he no longer had to be afraid of accidentally killing those he allowed close to him, and it made things... so much easier. But also infinitely more difficult at the same time.

            Jadoku felt the form in front of him stir, before Himitsu turned around and pulled him closer, tucking Jadoku’s head under his chin.

            “Sorry I woke you...” Jadoku muttered.

Jadoku’s sleep schedule was extremely erratic, and the lack of windows made it difficult to determine the time of day without calling on some artificial light. He felt Himitsu shake his head, sighing as one does shortly after waking.

            “’s not a problem.”

            Himitsu’s arms slipped inside the blanket Jadoku had bundled himself up in, and he pushed the tips of his fingers up under the back of his shirt, stroking the small of his back. Jadoku hummed in contentment. Affectionate touch had been practically nonexistent for Jadoku before this had all gone down, and it almost made up for the suffocating guilt that would surprise him by tying his stomach in knots and pulling a dark haze over his mind whenever he remembered the group that had basically taken him in... even though it had been based on a lie.

            They didn’t know what you were.

            Himitsu had tried to warn him, had told him not to get attached, but how could he have avoided it? For once in his life he had been treated like he was normal... though of course it couldn’t last. Though the manhunt had died down, allowing him to fade back into inconspicuousness should he freely venture out into public, it was surprising how fresh things felt in his mind. As if the fallout had been merely the week before—

            “Hey…” Himitsu’s touches became a little firmer as he pushed against the sudden tension that had corded Jadoku’s back when he had followed that train of thought. “Come back to me.” He placed his lips against Jadoku’s forehead, in a motion that was not quite a kiss, but was intimate enough to bring him out of his daze.

            It was a common occurrence for Jadoku to get lost in his thoughts, and considering that they were usually negative, it was good to have someone to pull him out of them before he thought himself into a mood. However, there were times when Jadoku would only be further irritated at an interruption, and that was easy fuel to spark some of their more colorful fights.

            “…I’m okay,” Jadoku mumbled.

            He had to be, really. There weren’t many other options.

Chapter Text

            “He’s not responding well.”

            Nathan ducked his head, knowing where they were placing the blame. The new people not only proved to be worse than Yuma and Arata, but were methodical with their actions. Things went from being uncertain about what each day would bring, to knowing exactly what would happen, none of it good.

            The woman frowned down at him. Nathan had been expected to bring this thing to heel, to make it useful again, but the beast only responded to him, snarling when anyone else came near.

            “You realize what failure means, right?”

            “…yes, ma’am.” Nathan scrambled to recover lost ground. “H-he just doesn’t understand, and he won’t if you don’t-“

            “It understands you well enough, does it not?” She sneered at him as she passed, rapping against the metal bars of the containment area. “Though if all it will respond it is a mutt like you, how much understanding is really going on?”

            “I don’t—“

            “I’m not looking for a pack mentality,” She scolded sharply. “I’m looking for something that will follow orders, real orders. If it doesn’t follow simple commands within the month, we will take what we need and put it down. We don’t need a drain on our resources. Am I clear?

            Nathan flinched, but nodded all the same.

            It wasn’t until she had finally left the room, returning to her duties, that Nathan approached the bars, gripping one with a shaking hand as he tried to control his fear. He rested his head against the cool metal, looking inside at the curled up form. He was docile now, but the handler that had been part of the demonstration would need stitches.

            “You’ve gotta listen to them…” Nathan’s voice was strained, and even he questioned how much his brother could understand at times, and how much was simply inferred from the situation. “You have to…”

            His voice failed, and he allowed himself a moment of weakness. No one would see, and his brother wouldn’t… couldn’t tell. Nathan’s breath came in gasps, and he shook when a ruined hand reached through the bars to rest on his head, a deep whine echoing from the other side.

           


 

            After leaving the beast and the mutt behind, Kouri entered another room, approaching a young woman, who was perched on the table, waiting to be seen.

            “I trust there have been no further complications, Elizabeth?” Kouri asked as she filed away the record of the earlier failure.

            “It’s Eliza.” The redhead scowled over at Kouri. “And nope. Pain’s gone, just like you said.”

            “Yes, well your father was very insistent that this be resolved, so if you would care to demonstrate?”

            Eliza hopped down from the table, bowing irreverently before she began to shrink, fire licking along her skin until it covered her entire form, which shifted, molding into a new one. It seemed the superheating worked to ease the transformation, for after a matter of minutes, a large red fox sat where the woman had stood.

            It stared up at Kouri with intelligent eyes, waiting.

            “And now back?” It would be almost useless if she got stuck that way; they already had one failure.

            The fox tucked her tail around herself, fire branching from her core, allowing the reversal. She stood there unashamed as Kouri handed her the fallen gown. They would need to work on a fabric that could morph with her, but for now…

            “Perfect.”