Wordcount: 1785 words
Summary: There's a saying in Japan that kitsune make the best oden. Zitao and his father Lu Han are foxes who make magical oden for yokai who wander by.
Author's notes: Any food/historical/cultural errors are mine.
The dashi is simmering in the oden pots, the smell comforting to Zitao as he sniffs with his little nose, his ears perking up through his black hair. He watches his father stir the dashi carefully, taste it with a spoon, before he adds a little more usukuchi and then a dash more mirin.
"Do you want to put the octopus on skewers?" Lu Han asks, and Zitao nods eagerly, reaching up with small hands, carefully taking the reddish pink octopus arms and threading them carefully onto the bamboo skewers while his father knots the kombu after rinsing it. He watches as Lu Han's nimble hands wield the sharp knife to peel the round of daikon and cuts off the edges before slipping them to simmer in rice water to take out the bitterness.
"It's like magic water!" Zitao says, bouncing on his toes in his little red boots he loves so much, and Lu Han smiles down at him.
"Our magic is doing simple things well," he says, and Zitao nods, waiting for the next part of Lu Han's sentence, "and a little bit of fox magic to with it." Zitao laughs, as delighted as ever, as Lu Han's eyes sparkle.
Everyone knows that fox oden is the very tastiest oden in the whole world, and the knowledge is like a warm glow in Zitao's chest as he looks up at his father, finishing the oden preparations and making the mochi bags as he lets Zitao chop up the konnyaku and even bring it to a boil. Zitao smiles proudly.
"I'm going to learn to how to make the best oden," he announces, puffing his little chest proudly. "Just like you." Lu Han reaches over to ruffle his hair and pat his ears and Zitao closes his eyes, humming happily as the wonderful smell of oden drifts towards his nose.
There are some guests who come to the shop regularly, like Sooyoung the Ame-Warashi with her blue umbrella and her frown that always turned to smiles when she get the first bite of magical oden, dipping it in the shoyu she always asks for , as the rain patters past the cheerful red and white awning and Zitao sits on a stool, minding the dashi pots.
"Is it going to rain tomorrow, Ame Warashi?" he asks, swinging his feet and admiring the flashing red of his little leather boots. She takes another bite of octopus, slurping the trailing tentacle between her lips before she looks consideringly at the sky, the evening clouds full of rain, and then at her folded blue umbrella.
"Only a bit in the morning," she says, and Zitao smiles happily.
"How is Yerim?" he inquires politely, as the Zashiki Warashi and Sooyoung's friend hasn't come along today, even though he knows she loved oden just as much as Sooyoung does.
"She's in bed with a cold," Sooyoung says, frowning. "She was playing in the rain again, even when I told her not to." She clicks her tongue, and Zitao can image her scolding Yerim out of worry.
"Take this with you," Lu Han says, when Sooyoung is preparing to leave, unfurling her umbrella. It's a large lacquer box, a delicate pattern of autumn leaves peering out through the silk of the furoshiki. "Oden is good for colds." Sooyoung smiles, nodding her head once before she and her blue umbrella disappear into the evening rain.
There's a small box of pink and green mochi waiting with the empty lacquer box in the morning, and Zitao dances around, flapping his arms in the brief shower, sweetness in his mouth and tummy as the clouds roll back and the sun peeps her head out to illuminate the day.
Sometimes Lu Han makes miso oden in hatcho-miso broth, Nagoya-style, and Zitao loves taking sips of the sweeter soup, watching the autumn leaves falling as the sunset paints the sky red and orange. Sometimes, when the autumn wind is particularly biting, Taekwoon comes soaring in on black tengu wings, shaking his head when he lands. He's quiet, but after a few cups of warm sake in his favourite green guinomi, warm miso oden sweetening his tongue, he tells Zitao stories of all the places he's flown over, as Lu Han minds the broth and Zitao nibbles on umeboshi in honey.
"What's your favourite place?" Zitao asks, and Taewoon ruffles his feathers and looks out at the starts twinkling overhead.
"I don't know," he says, and takes another sip of sake, as Lu Han reaches over to fill it again, the familiar smell of warm sake blooming under the awning to mix with the miso. "I think that people are more important than places." Zitao nods, his small fingers reaching over to slip into his father's hand. Taekwoon drains the guinomi, tipping his head back and letting it hang for a moment before he sighs, slipping away from the oden stand to fling himself into the wind again.
"Why does Taekwoon always come when we make miso oden?" Zitao asks, curious, as he sips more soup. Lu Han looks thoughtful.
"I think it reminds him of Nagoya," Lu Han says, and Zitao thinks about his history lessons, Oda Nobunaga and Tokugawa Ieyasu and the unification of Japan.
"Why doesn't he just go to Nagoya then?" he asks, watching as his father shakes his head.
"Sometimes it's too hard to go back," Lu Han says, and Zitao doesn't quite understand but maybe he's just too young. Maybe he'll understand when he's older. Lu Han reaches a finger over to smooth his little furrowed brow and and hands him a mochi bag to nibble on, steaming in a bowl of broth.
"Can we go to Nagoya sometime?" he asks instead, when the bowl is empty and his tummy is full. Lu Han smiles at him.
Zitao's favourite, though, is the Shizuka oden with beef broth, partly because of the aonori and katsuobushi and partly because he gets to put all the different things on skewers, carefully threading on the surimi, kaikon, konjac and boiled eggs, feeling so grown up as he helps Lu Han with everything.
Kyungsoo the tanuki will pop by, fingers drumming lightly on the table as he nibbles on kaikon and surimi and asks for mochi, playing a little song for Zitao when he asks.
"Play another one!" Zitao will request when the last drum beat has fallen, but Kyungsoo will only shake his head and bow politely before leaving.
Not long after, Minseok the mujina will appear, singing songs and sipping tea from a brown yunomi, asking for more water until the tea is more hot water than tea.
"Did Kyungsoo pass by?" he'll ask. Zitao will nod and Minseok will sigh, complaining that he's missed his friend again, and they'll both laugh, popping boiled eggs into their mouths.
Qian the hebi might slip by on the darker nights, shivering slightly as she wraps her tasseled shawl more tightly around her narrow shoulders, and huddles closer to the broth pots for warmth. Lu Han will hand her a yunomi of hot sea right away, and she'll slowly thaw out as she sits, sipping tea and nibbling on senbei before she asks for a bowl of oden. Zitao watches her with something like awe, the pale curve of her neck, her long black hair cascading down her back, and Lu Han will have to nudge him lightly, reminding him that it's not polite to stare, though Qian doesn't mind, smiling softly as she hands Zitao her empty oden bowl and disappears once more into the mist, pulling her shawl closer about her.
Zitao's favourite, though, is the dream seller who appears shortly before dawn. It doesn't matter what the oden is, or what the weather is, or if the leaves are drifting or the flowers are budding or the rain is lightly falling.
"Zhou Mi!" Zitao will always shout, bouncing up and down in his excitement, he's been known to have fallen off his chair once or twice, and Lu Han will rescue him by lifting his off his stood and sending him over to the tall figure with the floating lanterns, swaying in the breeze. The lanterns aren't on threads or anything, and the candle light inside them never seems to burn out, but they're dream lanterns and dream lanterns are special.
"Have you been a good boy?" Zhou Mi will asks, patting Zitao on the head, and Zitao will nod his head eagerly, his eyes darting over the colours of the lanterns swaying gently in the pre-dawn breeze, the morning star twinkling beyond.
"How is the oden stand?" Zhou Mi will ask Lu Han, walking over slowly, the lanterns dancing along behind him like they're his children, and maybe they are, Zitao thinks, as he slips up onto to stool to perch next to the dream seller.
"Business as usual," Lu Han will smile, handing the dream seller an ochoko of sake and starting to pile a bowl of oden for him, the skewers like a fence sticking out along the sides.
Zhou Mi and Lu Han will chat a bit, about the weather and the yokai and the way the seasons are passing, and Zitao will sit next to them and wait patiently.
Finally, when the sun is just peering her head above the horizon, the sky soft pinks and blues, Zhou Mi will rise to his feet, stretching his arms up into the air and letting his neck crack back into place before he looks over at Zitao.
This is the part Zitao will have been waiting for, oh so patiently.
"Would you like to pick a lantern?" Zhou Mi will asks, and Zitao will nod so excitedly that his head will bob on his small neck, as he dances this way and that, admiring the pretty colours and the flickering fire, before he'll settle on one that seems to call his name the loudest.
"See you next time, Mr. Dreamseller!" Zitao will call after Zhou Mi, waving goodbye as his father comes out from under the awning to wave the dreamseller off on his peregrinations across the night landscapes, following the dawn.
That morning, Zitao will lie down in his little bed, the lantern on the night table next to him, and he'll dream adventure or travel or stories or a myriad of different possibilities, whatever this particular dream lantern has in store for him. When he'll wake in the morning, the magic fire in the lantern will be gone, and Zitao will pass his father the now ordinary lantern to hang on the oden stand, as the nights continue to get brighter.