The sniffles weren't too far away. Tadashi paused to listen again, allowing all other noises drown away. The fun type were children laughed, adults conversed in groups, and the teenagers amassed, broke apart then swarmed together again oohhing and ahhing over the different booths.
And each other. Tadashi sighed. Okay, maybe his concentration needed a little more work. He'd forgotten how hard this age was. Thirteen. The lack of focus, the hormones all over the place, and why did his hair have to grown in like that by his crotch this time around? No, not what he was supposed to be worrying about. Not even close.
Dag had run off. That was why Tadashi needed to focus on the sniffles. He knew that quiet crying anywhere, or more specifically, whom it belonged to.
The young boy he'd chosen to protect now that Per had grown up. His duty. His old persona had reached a ripe old age and it had been time to retire even before Dag had been born. The how's were a little more complicated than they used to be. Humans. They lived so long now. They also had too many means in which to document everything.
However, they had managed to put in place his brother Etsou and his wife, Hikaru, had a child but a sickly one. She traveled to Europe to get their kid treatment while Etsou stayed at the temple with periodic visits to her. The plan gave them all leeway to keep a facade while Tadashi passed on.
His end of the bargain was to stay out of sight. Not always the easiest thing, but they managed. Tadashi spent more time as his fox than human for six years. The freedom of the temple responsibilities had been nice, and he took more than one trip around the globe. But the mountain was home. Always would be now.
It felt good to be young again, like he'd been reborn. Maybe he had. So much had happened in the last century, so many wounds accumulated, so much life lived Tadashi welcomed the challenges of growing up again.
If I had only known what I was getting in for. Tadashi might've come up with a different plan. One that entailed the Mizuno's moving away then coming back. Staring over at five? Pretending to learn all over again? Only two things kept Tadashi from leaving. His son, Kou, and Dag. His little squirrel who preferred home and the strong, resilient young boy who brought laughter into life.
So to have Dag's eyes well with unshed tears, to see him cry out and stomp, then to turn and run away, it broke Tadashi's heart. He wanted Dag's exuberant smile back. To do that, he'd have to find him first.
Which is... Tadashi tilted his head to the left. The temple. Somewhere in the temple. Only Dag. Tadashi looked up. The sky had gotten quite dark. The fireworks would be beginning soon. They had some neat ones this year he didn't want Dag to miss.
Tadashi took off at a trot, weaving in and out of the flow of bodies. Friends called out to him, their excited voices asking where Dag was and whether or not to save some of the good seats for them.
"Maybe! If you can!" Tadashi called back, still pushing through the crowd. Going upstream was never easy.
The closer he got to the temple, the faster he could run without worrying about toppling someone over. People smiled at him, some asked for Etsou and Hikaru, while a few grumpy old timers told him to slow down. But he refused to go any slower. He wanted Dag to see the fireworks with him.
The thump of the tiles resounded in his ears as he made for the temple, zeroed in on Dag's hiccups and stuttered breaths. Tadashi zigzagged through a few stragglers before shooting up the temple steps and inside the main room. Out of breath, and a little frazzled, Tadashi took a moment to gather himself.
Partially because he needed to, and partially because the overflowing emotions he was desperate to hold in check. Stupid teenage hormones.
Obon never ceased to amaze him. The crowds. The energy. The love of community. The love of small town with mostly Scandinavian background had for his customs. The small pinprick of pride flowed through him. They helped him make the town feel like a safe place for Japanese citizens to resettle after... well, after Berg had him reopen the temple. They even had a museum dedicated to survivors of the internment camps down in town.
However, seeing the festival through these eyes, fresh ones, really hit him in the feels. Tadashi had been so focused on his birthright and paying homage to his ancestors, he had forgotten how much fun Obon could be. This year even more so, he was finally getting back to an age where people didn't question him running around all by himself.
Then there was Dag and their friends. Because of Dag, Tadashi always had people around him, kids wanting to play and enjoy the day instead of worrying about everything else.
How long had it been since he really let go and celebrated? Too long.
Except Dag wasn't there to celebrate. He'd run off, crying. His green eyes full of tears, Tadashi stunned into silence and wondering what had caused the outburst. All right. Time to find his friend.
Tadashi looked up and scanned the main room. He dipped his head when his gaze fell upon Inari, but continued his search for Dag. He could've sworn the sounds had been from here. If it had been any of the other rooms, the chances were Tadashi might not have heard them.
Disgruntled and surprised he was a little pissed at missing the fireworks, Tadashi turned to leave when color caught his eye. Color where there shouldn't be any. Bright red converse stuck out from behind Inari.
Ambling over to the statue, Tadashi decided it would be better to not give Dag a chance to run. He went around the opposite side and hoped for the best. What he found broke his heart.
Dag leaned heavily against the statue. His head pressed against the top of the base. The defensive position in which he had curled into was awkward and telling. One gangly leg stuck out—the one that had given him away—while his other one had been pulled up against his chest. One long thin arm held it close while the other lay by his side, Dag's hand turned up on the ground.
A puppy. Too big for its own body. Thirteen and Dag was already a head over most of their friends. Gangly to the point where someone could count his ribs without much effort. Someday he'd grow into himself, but first, Dag would have to survive the teen years.
Tadashi crouched down next to his young ward and friend. Dag didn't even notice. His eyes were closed, cheeks stained red from the tears.
"Hey." Tadashi shoulder bumped Dag.
"What?" Dag started, turning a wide-eyed gaze on him. "Tada? What?"
Dag tried to untangle himself but only managed tripping himself up instead. Tadashi caught him, only to have Dag pull away. The move hurt, but Tadashi managed to put on a brave face. At least, he hoped he did.
"I'm sorry. Why did you run away?"
Unfortunately, the response only created more tears. Tadashi looked up to Inari wishing for a little help.
A garbled, hiccupped reply from Dag came instead. "You forgot. How could"–hiccup–"you forget? Anyone else."
"Dag, I need you to stop crying. I can't understand you."
More hiccups followed by more tears came. Tadashi had to remind himself once again how young Dag really was. Just because he'd gotten bigger didn't mean he suddenly grew up on the inside too. The first loud boom went off outside.
"No one." More hiccups. More booms. "I could've handled any"–hiccup–"one else forgetting. Just not you."
Whatever Tadashi had forgotten certainly had to be a big deal. He reached out tentatively and put a hand on Dag's shoulders. More loud pops and booms went off overhead. A shudder rippled through Dag, his mournful green gaze turning on Tadashi.
"All day I waited." He sniffled, snot running down to his lip. "All the excitement. I kept waiting when the surprise would be."
Surprise? Tadashi struggled to keep up with the jumbled words.
"I love you," Dag said with another hiccup. "And you don't even care. You just forgot me."
"I haven't forgotten you!" Tadashi protested, confused but sure he hadn't done anything wrong. Dag kept on going as if he'd never heard Tadashi.
"No cake." Another hiccup. "No present."
Oh gods no. Tadashi had indeed forgotten something incredibly important. His chest tightened and the pit of his stomach clenched. He had to do something. Quick.
"I kept waiting and waiting," Dag continued, tears and hiccups galore. "But nothing."
Tadashi grabbed Dag's shoulders and shook him. "Wrong. You're wrong."
Dag's forlorn gaze rose. He swiped his hand across his runny nose. His shoulders were still slumped but Dag had stopped crying. No more tears stained his cheeks. Tadashi saw the raw need radiating off him.
"I just wanted to wait," Tadashi said, only a tiny bit of guilt about the lie. Sometimes it really was kinder. "Because I didn't want the others to get jealous."
"Over what?" A flare of hope shined in Dag's eyes.
"What I got you."
Tadashi nodded. "In my... Meditation room."
"What?" Dag's expression darkened.
"I wanted to keep it a surprise." But before Dag could question him further, Tadashi pulled him up and dragged him out from behind Inari. He ran, a startled Dag tripping after him.
They were out of the temple and off across the empty courtyard while Tadashi tried to think of what to give Dag. Overhead the fireworks display burst above them. Blue, gold, white and red li the sky above, cheers and claps following each burst. But the lights were of no importance anymore. The only thing Tadashi wanted was to make Dag understand how important he was. However, there were only a few items he kept in his shack. One of the drawers in the dresser had Kou's tidbits. There were shirts, mediation stuff, his pictures, and... And... Well, yes, that might work.
The problem with that was its size. Tadashi looked over his shoulder with a critical eye on Dag. He was still growing, but could he really excuse the improper fit because of that? Although... If he gave one of his own... Yes. Problem solved.
Tadashi led them into the shack, pushing away the wave of sadness he encountered every time he visited this place. He turned on the light, focusing on the dresser and ignoring the paintings on the walls. It would only hurt more to look at them.
Not only had he not been here to pay respects recently, Tadashi had failed Berg by hurting Dag. It hadn't been intended, being too busy wasn't an excuse, and Dag really hadn't cared if the festival trumped his birthday before, but it obviously mattered this time.
"Sit down," Tadashi said, pointing to the couch. Dag went, head straight, his eyes following Tadashi. "Just give me a minute."
The dresser wasn't completely empty. Certain items with deep meaning were kept here. When Tadashi needed to escape, or remember, or to breathe, this was where he always came. The place where his life restarted. The place where Berg brought him, healed him, and fought for him. Those gunshots decades ago should've killed him, but Berg wanted him alive, so Tadashi fought. Clung to that need. That hope. It taught him to breathe again.
Tadashi opened the top drawer. Four boxes were inside it. He touched he purple one, thinking hard. It had been his once upon a time, but Tadashi had never worn it. The occasion slipping away from him the moment Berg died in his arms. After that, he couldn't bring himself to wear it. Maybe it's time to let go. A little bit. Out of the corner of his eye, Dag sat rigid on the couch, anticipation vibrating off him. Maybe if it were Dag wearing the yukata it wouldn't hurt anymore.
With a smile, Tadashi pulled the box out and turned to Dag. "For you."
"It's not wrapped."
"Too pretty of a box to wrap it up." It was true after all. A kitsune adorned the box, standing tall by Inari's side. Fitting if Tadashi thought about it. "Open it."
Dag took the box and flipped the lid, eyes wide.
"Happy Birthday, Dag. May the next year be even better."
"You don't like it?"
"It's just—" Dag shook his head. "A yukata? One like this?"
Tadashi turned away, not wanting to show his disappointment. He should've known Dag would balk. He hadn't been made with him in mind after all.
"Are you sure it's okay?" Dag asked. "It must've been... Expensive."
Tadashi didn't answer.
"It's beautiful. I think it would suit you better."
"It's too big for me." Give him about five years or so, then Tadashi would be the right size again. "If you don't like it—"
"No! I want it!"
Tadashi turned back, and sure enough, Dag had the yukata clutched to his chest.
"You said it's mine, right?
"Will you help me put it on?"
Dag stood, carefully putting the box on the couch, then stripped down to his boxer briefs. Tadashi smiled, his heart squeezing tight. To see Dag putting on his yukata did strange things. Things he was better of not thinking on—not to mention the guilt weighing him down.
"Is this the way it goes?" Dag turned in a circle, frowning.
"No, here, let me." Tadashi adjusted the obi. "The left goes over the right. Right over left is for the dead."
Something he hoped Dag wouldn't be for a long time.
"Then the obi goes like this." Tadashi ducked to wrap it around Dag's waist. A hand pressed against his shoulder. An inquiring glance up found Dag staring intently down at him. "What?"
"Thank you." The words were small, quiet, barely perceptible, but they meant the world to him.
"You're welcome. Now let's see."
Dag turned around, holding his hands up. "Does it suit me?"
No, but Tadashi felt a little better knowing his yukata would be there to help protect Dag. "Yes."
The blue bottom grew into a dark purple the near black at the top. Instead of the more popular geometric pattern men's yukatas had these days, stars adorned the fabric will a lone sliver of the moon. Flowers dotted the bottom—definitely not the style of today—while a kitsune watch from afar on the back.
Please, Inari, Dag asked. Look over this boy as he makes his first steps into manhood. Let me be there always when he needs me.
The smile Dag wore reminded Tadashi of the ones Berg used to give him. Honest. Open. Loving. Sometime in the future Dag would probably remind Tadashi more of his grandfather Berg than he wanted. When he filled out.
The thought niggled on something in Tadashi's head but he pushed it away. "You ready to join the celebration again?"
"Yeah, and Tada?"
"Thank you." Dag petted the yukata. "It's like they move when I do, like the stars are dancing on the yukata."
Tadashi just smiled in return.
"I'll wear it forever," Dag declared, and took Tadashi by the hand. "This really means a lot to me."
"Well, you mean a lot to me."
"Ready for the fireworks?"
Dag titled his head, smiling sadly. "Sounds like they're almost done."
Tadashi pulled Dag outside, the two of them huddled close together in the courtyard, watching the explosions above. Shoulder to shoulder their eyes fixated on the shapes and colors above them. Dag's fingers brushed Tadashi's, and he almost drew back. Except Dag gave him that heart-attack inducing smile again.
"No, I mean it. Thanks for not forgetting me."
"What are best friends for?"
Dag laughed. "To drive us crazy?"
"Maybe," Tadashi agreed. "But I like to think we're there to help pick the other person up."
"Sounds nice." Dag pushed closer to Tadashi.
He agreed and turned to the sky. Thirteen wasn't so bad, and he was excited to see what kind of man Dag was going to become. Halfway there, but still so short. Nevertheless, someday, they'd be out here, under the stars dancing away. Until then, Tadashi would watch over Dag best he could.
A brilliant smile lit up Dag's face the exact same moment the sky exploded with the grand finale, fireworks bursting every which way, floating down toward them like stars coming to rest. Music poured out from the speakers. Dag grabbed Tadashi's hand and pulled him close.
And together, side-by-side, they watched as the lights danced overhead. Tadashi pressed in a little closer and sighed. The night really couldn't get more perfect.
"Happy birthday, Dag. I hope that you get everything you wished for."
I tend to be a little squirrelly, but my friends still love me anyway. ;)