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The Idiot Parade

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---

Bill woke up on the floor of the living room of the Mystery Shack, feeling warm.

He blinked heavy eyelids open, then remembered where he was and how he’d gotten there.

Bill grumbled a little and shifted in place slightly on the sleeping bag he was lying on, pretty much ignoring the arm slung over his shoulder, attached to the six-fingered hand that was covering his mouth, and similarly ignoring the other arm that was tucked under his side, and the other six-fingered hand attached to it that was loosely wrapped around and holding both of his wrists together.

He let his eyes slide closed again as he felt a sleepy huff of breath at the back of his head.

He probably shouldn’t have let Stanley talk him into this, but it had been the closest thing to a working compromise that any one of them had been able to come up with under the circumstances. Stanford had needed to sleep. Bill had also wanted to sleep. Stanford was not going to be able to fall asleep so long as he was worried about Bill communicating things to anyone -- including himself -- while he was awake or asleep, no matter what anyone said to him. Conversely, Bill had been cold and unable to safely drink anything for at least an hour or two while his throat was still recovering somewhat from the initial damage that Stanford had unnecessarily inflicted upon him.

So Bill and Stanford had ended up curled up next to each other, on top of a sleeping bag on the floor in the living room of the Shack, front to back and with about an inch of space between them, with Stanley sitting in his couch-chair to stay up and awake while overseeing this insane brainchild madness of his. Bill had gotten a living space heater that kept him warm while he was asleep, one that didn’t feel quite as bad as blankets did and… kept him at least twice as warm -- yeesh, did he actually have a reason to keep this Stanford around now that involved him actually being useful in some way? While Stanford had gotten to ‘restrain’ Bill in such a way that Bill theoretically couldn’t use verbal communication or spacer hand-talk without waking this Stanford up, or this Stanford otherwise being able to stop or muffle him almost-immediately.

And restrain was a very loose definition, there. Bill wouldn’t have put up with it if was actually putting any real pressure on his stupid human-ish body, or if the way he was being ‘held’ (read: encircled) was actually constraining his movements. Stanford didn’t really have any proper leverage on him right now, what with the way he was being held. If Bill wanted to get away from him, all he’d have to do is twist in place towards Stanford and then kick out at him, to break his hold. And Bill doubted that this Stanford had realized that when he’d hazily agreed to things and fallen asleep; of course Stanley sure hadn’t pointed it out to him at the time, though, and neither had Bill -- they weren’t idiots.

Bill frowned slightly as he heard low-level chatter in the room, and realized that hearing that must’ve woken him up. He was still getting used to the whole ‘dreaming again’ thing. Before that night, he’d either been awake or asleep, and the mechanisms for when he woke up again hadn’t seemed to be dictated by anything going on around him. It had been a bit dangerous -- and at least half the reason that he’d gone along with only falling asleep in that bedroom with Stanley there, and not trying to leave the Shack to fall asleep elsewhere. The last thing Bill needed was to fall asleep in the middle of the woods here, and wake up some indeterminate period of time later while getting chewed on by something out there. ...or never wake up again at all because he didn’t wake up while getting chewed on by something out there.

So, there was a positive to getting his personal ‘Dreamscape’ back!

--Anyway, Shooting Star and Pine Tree were up and in the kitchen, it seemed. And from the sounds of things like metal banging on metal and water going, it was probable that Stanley was up and moving about in there, along with them.

So, with the general noise level in the Shack increasing, Bill figured that he wouldn’t have to wait for very long before this Stanford woke up behind him, and they’d all see what happened after that.

Bill didn’t bother trying to get Stanley’s attention, though. He didn’t need Stanley standing over them, lying in wait and ready to intervene. Bill wasn’t worried about Stanford trying to kill him, not in the least. (--What was the worst that could happen? That Stanford would forget what a bad idea he thought it was to try and kill him, and he’d finally get reincarnated properly by the Axolotl this time?!) And Stanford had made it clear that ‘it wasn’t being killed by Bill that he was worried about’ -- which Bill was perfectly happy to hear, because he’d been pretty sure that this Stanford had been sleep-deprived enough at that point to have missed that one entirely... but apparently not? HA.

Bill heard something metallic clang onto the stove, and Bill didn’t get much warning between when Stanford woke up and when he apparently decided it was a good idea to shove himself away from Bill so hard that Bill ended up half-turned over on his stomach on the sleeping bag.

“--ha,” Bill rasped out, as he pushed himself to a seated posture and faced him. “Good--” morning to you, too, idiot, was was what he had been about to say with a great deal of sarcasm to this Stanford, but he was cut off before he could finish by a hand slapped across the front of his mouth, and frowned when another hand went grabbing up his wrists again -- much more firmly than the night before.

Bill narrowed his eyes as he looked up at a gasping bleary-blinking wide-awake Stanford Pines, and debated whether he wanted to trying licking Stanford’s palm to get him to let go of his mouth, or biting him instead.

Neither, actually, since he had no idea where this Stanford had been putting his hands lately, or how long it had been since he’d washed them last -- but this Stanford didn’t need to know that! And this Stanford did have a bit of a thing about the possibility of potentially losing any fingers, too, didn’t he? So Bill leaned forward hard into Stanford’s palm, and let his widening eyes do his angry smiling for him.

Stan-leyyyyyy??!” Stanford called out to his sibling, sounding delightfully freaked out as he stared down at Bill, wide-eyed.

“Ford,” Stanley called out calmly, walking over from the kitchen area. “Hey.” Stanford didn’t look up at him as he approached. “How much you remember from last night?”

“I--” Stanford stopped, and actually seemed to actually expend some brain-effort thinking for a bit, and then…

Stanford let go of and pulled away from him very quickly, and then looked up at Stanley in something like pure horror. “Stanley, I--”

“I’m fine; the kids are fine. Don’t worry about us,” Stanley told him. “I’m more worried about you.”

Well, Bill wasn’t surprised about that. After Pine Tree had stopped looking like he was trying to pull off a halfway-decent ‘little Time-Police recruit-in-training’ act in how he’d been ‘policing’ him around the gift shop, and he’d been able to give a proper response to Stanley’s demand to know what in the heck was going on with Stanford...

With how pale Stanley had gotten after Bill had mimed pulling back the arming string on a crossbow, and then pulling down the lower lids of both his eyes with one hand, then waving at them with an imaginary penlight with the other... apparently Stanley had understood the “he’s sleep-deprived” warning message Bill had tried to give him properly the second time around, at least.

The quiet “Oh,” Stanley had given him had summed up Stanley’s remedied realization of the situation quite nicely, Bill felt.

So had the muttered-under-his-breath curse that had followed shortly thereafter, as he had turned back to his brother, and the breathed out and despairing “Ford, you idiot,” to top it off and close it all out.

“You still seeing halos around everything, or are you actually okay now?” Stanley continued on, and Bill let out a raspy laugh.

“I’m fine, Stanley,” Stanford said, sounding almost petulant about it.

“So that’s a ‘no, you’re not fine’, then,” Stanley said, frowning down at his sibling.

“HA,” Bill rasped out, because were these two being serious? When the two of them looked over at him, Stanford with trepidation and Stanley with a frown as Bill opened his mouth to…

“--Ford, you remember what me and Dipper talked Bill into not talking about last night, right?” Stanley said smoothly but fairly quickly.

Bill sure did. Stanley had actually helped Pine Tree craft the terms, and Bill himself had offered up a suggestion or two to close several of the GAPING LOOPHOLES the kid had almost left in. Yeesh. How stupid did they think he was? --Not stupid enough, apparently. The things he put up with in the name of the agreement they had…

‘No talking about anything that happened in or had to do with any dimension this Stanford has visited -- except this one, Dimension 46’\ -- for the duration of that dimension’s timeline when he was there, including one year before and after that time period... unless Stanley or Pine Tree says otherwise or this Stanford is dead, whichever happens first. And if this Stanford talks about something that happened in a particular dimension for a particular visit first, then talking about anything that happened during that specific and otherwise talking-restricted time period is no longer considered off-limits.’

Bill had demanded the last two, because (a) he didn’t like deals, or anything deal-like, that he was supposed to hold to that didn’t have severe time-duration restrictions on them, and because (b) this Stanford was a lying-liar and Bill wanted to be able to call him out on it whenever he next decided to try and lie about something that had happened in another dimension. Otherwise, this Stanford might get it into his head to talk about something on the other side of the portal, slide in a few lies, and… Bill would then technically be considered to be breaking the no-talking thing if he ever spoke up and said, ‘Ha, that’s not what happened!’ And Bill wasn’t putting up with that.

“I-- Yes, but…” Stanford didn’t look any less fearful, which Bill was enjoying muchly. Scared enough that he didn’t even correct his brother’s grammar, no less! HA!

“You don’t gotta trust him,” ‘him’ being Bill, “You’ve just gotta trust me and the kids on this, okay? --If Bill starts talking on stuff like that, we’ll either tell him to stop, not listen, or shut him up for you, okay? The kid listens to me, Mabel has her grappling hook gun, and Dipper has your electric gun now. Right?”

Stanford didn’t look particularly happy with this pronouncement, but he didn’t combat it, either.

“Okay.” Stanley turned back to Bill. “Kid, you were saying?”

Bill tilted his head up at Stanley. “I was saying... ‘What, that’s not how things are supposed to look for humans?’” he rasped out at them with forced cheerfulness. Because he was pretty sure that all those mind-controlling chemicals that the lizardmen kept dumping into the water supply were supposed to have that visual side-effect! Or was that the other way around?

Stanford looked speechless, which was a first.

Stanley rubbed a hand over his face, then dropped his hand and said, “Kid?”

“Hrm?” Bill replied.

“Remember that thing we talked about last night? Before you fell asleep the first time?”

“...Which thing?” Bill rasped out, eyeing him.

“The one that involves you going outside and doing that thing we talked about you maybe doing, to help make you feel better,” Stanley told him, and-- oh, right, THAT thing! “The rain’s let up. Why don’t you go outside and try doing that now, yeah?”

“Mm,” Bill hummed back gratingly, easily enough, and got to his feet.

---

“Stanley…” Ford said quietly, watching Bill walk his way towards the nearest door out of the Shack, and Stan turned his head to look down at his brother.

“Ford, relax. Just let him go. --Bill, put some shoes on, first!” he called out, which had the kid grumbling and stopping for a moment to do just that.

“Stan,” Ford said, looking even more tense. “You’re just letting him--

“We’re in here, the kids are in here. It’s fine,” he told his brother, watching him carefully.

Ford looked up at him, getting to his feet. And he didn’t look any less unhappy with him as Bill exited the house. “We can’t see what he’s doing, and we aren’t going to be able to stop him from--!”

“Don’t need to stop him,” Stan told him. “And you can see him,” he pointed out to his brother, gesturing at the open doorway, which the ex-triangle had left open on purpose, probably to help with that. Kid wasn’t stupid.

“He could cast a spell to blow up the entire Shack from out there!” Ford protested, voice sounding strained.

“Ford,” Stan looked at him in exasperation, because how sleep-deprived was he? “Your voodoo barrier’s still up.”

“That didn’t stop him before!” Ford said, shifting his weight from foot to foot and looking back and forth between him here and Bill out there with more and more agitation.

Stan reached out a hand and put it on his brother’s shoulder, trying to will him to just relax. “Ford, what are you talking about?”

His brother whipped his head around towards him. “Stanley, he pulled his wrists out of those restraints I made like they weren’t even there! He did that under two layers of magical suppression! The barrier isn’t stopping him from doing anything!

Stan gave Ford a long look. “You maybe want to think about what you just said there, Ford?”

“What?”

Stan sighed, because it wasn’t obvious? “Ford, your voodoo barrier is magic.” His brother stared at him all but blankly. Geez, Ford. “You said those restraints were ‘anti-magic’, didn’t ya?” Still nothing. How much sleep was his twin gonna need before his brain started working again? “That barrier suppresses all kinds’a stuff. The restraints cancel out magic, and nothing else, right? --The restraints stopped the magic voodoo barrier from working on him, ‘cause that voodoo barrier is magic, so Bill just used some kinda weird-mystic-energy stuff to get himself outta those restraints that were only stopping magic, instead.”

His brother blinked at him owlishly, then his eyebrows went up and he looked all kinds of startled.

“I-- oh,” said Ford. Stan watched his brother wince. “I-- I didn’t think about the possible interactions between the two--” he said quietly, stopped talking for a moment, to grab at his left arm with his right hand self-consciously. “I was only thinking about-- outside--” and Ford almost flinched away from him.

Stan rubbed his hand back and forth on Ford’s shoulder.

“Breathe, Ford,” he told his brother with a small smile.

Ford looked about to protest, then actually tried pulling in a deep breath and then letting it out again. And then Ford gave him a rueful smile back, after he realized that it had helped him relax a bit.

“Okay?” Stan said, shaking his shoulder a bit.

“I… no,” Ford admitted quietly, looking away from him, looking both doubtful and sorry.

Stan sighed.

“You’re gonna be,” he told his brother, moving around him, to push at him a bit, steering him towards the kitchen. “Once you get some food in you, and some more sleep.”

...Well, not really. Not completely. ‘Gonna be’ was still gonna be a ways off even after that, Stan knew, because Stan wasn’t an idiot, and he knew his brother. Ford was still acting about as jumpy as a tailless cat locked in a room full of rocking chairs, right then. Like he’d lost a tail in that room before, and was more than a little worried about losing any more limbs to the place by malice or neglect -- not if he could help it, and maybe he couldn’t -- because he couldn’t get out on his own, and he knew that, which didn’t help either. Not scared enough (again... after managing to fall asleep in that place despite everything) to try to fight or run yet (again), but really not wanting to be in that place.

Things usually looked a lot less scary in the daylight, Stan knew, with all the creeping shadows gone for at least a little while, but he also knew that that wasn’t going to be enough either. Not for this. Not after Ford had almost shot him last night, thinking Stan was on Bill Cipher’s ‘side’. No point in trying to convince his brother that nobody was sitting in any of those scary-looking rocking chairs, out to get him, when Ford swore that there were and they were; maybe even less point to it when Ford thought Stan might be one of ‘them’.

Not like Ford not believing him wasn’t normal -- Stan could tell him stuff ‘till he was blue in the face, and it was never enough. Maybe his brother would listen, but Ford would always have to check for himself. Always. Stan wasn’t sure if his ‘observations’ were never good enough because Ford just wanted to see everything for himself, no matter what, or if it was really because of what Ford said: that ‘as a scientist’ he couldn’t trust him to be thorough enough to not miss something when it came to his science junk. Stan had never known any differently when they were kids; Ford always checked stuff, it was normal for nerds to check things, he was a nerd and Stan wasn’t, that was how things were. Stan had gotten used to it again on the boat; wasn’t a big deal, except when it was, ‘cause sometimes it got Ford into trouble with those monsters of his, but...

Stan couldn't help that, though. All he could do was make sure that Ford got enough food and sleep now (and kept on feeling safe enough to keep doing those two things) that his body was fueled up enough and his brain kept cooled down enough that he’d be back to firing on all cylinders again. So that he was in good enough shape again that he could go prowling off investigating things himself, and actually see what was right in front of his face when he did it. Nobody was sitting in those rocking chairs, and Stan wasn’t planning on letting Bill into that space to ‘play’ with Ford’s head.

So once he did that, maybe Ford would do his thing and decide that, never mind, he didn’t actually want to shoot or punch his brother in the face. Or not. ...Hey, a guy could hope. Stan wasn’t gonna hold his breath, though. Not yet. The thing about shadows was that they came back. Daily. And Ford wasn’t acting any less tense now, really. Sure, Ford was up and talking, but the fact that Ford hadn’t gotten the ‘no magic’ thing when even Stan had just clinched it -- something was going on.

Stan knew that he couldn’t really help his brother work out whatever was going on inside his head. He could listen sure, and tell him stuff, yeah, and maybe even poke him in the brain once in awhile, but… Ford thought what Ford thought. And it had always been that way. Stan couldn’t change that. All Stan figured he could really do was make sure that food and more sleep were not just an option, but a thing that his brother actually did, until everything inside his head got worked out. --And he’d use the kids to blackmail him into it every time, if he had to.

So, yeah. Food, then more sleep, for his brother, in that order. So it was off to the kitchen for the both of them. Stan wasn’t about to let Ford run off on him without making sure that he’d at least eaten something, and at least tried to get him to lie down again. Wasn't holding his breath on the second one. He was pretty sure he'd barely pulled it off the first time, and only because Ford's thinking had been so off from no-sleep. Eh, maybe this time he could enlist the kids' help somehow...

Ford let him steer him, which was good, but the second wince at the ‘more sleep’ wasn’t. Neither was the way his brother kept looking back through the open doorway to the porch, out into the yard.

“Stan,” Ford said quietly, subdued. “You know that Bill could still--”

“Do all kinds of awful, terrible things to us all?” Stan prompted him. “Bury the Shack in chopped-up trees? Explode us the second we try to go outside? Decide he wants to burn down the town, start the apocalypse all over again? --Yeah, Ford, I know,” he told his brother. “Believe me, I know. Everything I’m tryin’ to do with him is all about getting him to not want to do that. And it’s been working so far.”

His brother gave him a disbelieving look.

“Shack’s still standing.” His brother’s look didn’t shift one iota. “We’re all still breathing.” Nothin’. “--What? C’mon Ford, I’m not an idiot. The only way we’re really gonna get anywhere with the kid is to have him bein’ the one not wanting to do all those things on his own.” He gave Ford a long look. “I’m pretty sure that the only way we could really stop the kid from doing something that he really wants to do is by killing him dead.”

“You’ve been stopping him, Grunkle Stan,” Dipper said, looking up from his journal as Stan pushed Ford down into a chair at the table, next to Mabel and across from him.

“Eh,” Stan shrugged, moving around the side of the table and back towards the stove. “Kid wouldn’t let me distract him so easily if it was something he really wanted done.”

Stan didn’t see the knowing looks exchanged between Dipper and Mabel behind his back at this, but Ford didn’t miss them.

“And you’d know all this already, Ford,” Stan continued, as he checked the pancake pan and grimaced, “If you hadn’t been missing practically every mealtime since Bill showed up.” Eh, maybe he could feed this one to the kid. Kid went for burned stuff, almost exclusively, so far. Stan turned the heat back up on the pan.

“What?” Ford said. “He’s been--” And he sounded so confused that Stan turned around to stare at him.

And then Stanley really realized why Ford didn’t know: Ford hadn’t been around, and no-one had told him because no-one had seen him.

Ford had stopped coming up for regular meals around day four, when he’d first prodded the kid out of the room for lunchtime instead of letting him continue to half-starve himself on just a handful of crackers and water every day. And Ford had spent almost no time in the upstairs of the Shack with them, at all, ever since, let alone when the ex-triangle was out-and-about… at least, he hadn’t up until yesterday. Stan hadn’t realized he’d been spending all of it down in the basement, though. He’d thought Ford had been out-and-about at least some of the time, out in the town and the surrounding forest, looking for cultists.

“Ford,” he said slowly. “Those first couple days, the kid was sleeping something like eight hours outta every ten. I was bringing food to him, instead of draggin’ him out here to eat with the rest of us, because I was pretty sure that the kid was working on a concussion -- especially after what happened the second day, the kids told you about that, right? -- and I didn’t want him throwing up or passing out out here with the rest of us, makin’ himself dizzy from moving around too much.”

“He’s been--” His brother looked like he was having a real hard time believing something about what he was saying. “He’s actually been sleeping?” Ford asked.

“Yeah, Ford.” Stan frowned at his brother, because was that really a problem? “Was more like sleeping like the dead up until last night, but yeah. He’s been sleeping. --Fell asleep next to you last night, didn’t he?” he told his brother with a frown, who conceded the point and looked away. “...Seriously, Ford,” he said to his brother. “What did you think I was doing with him, chaining him to the radiator and beating him with a rubber hose three times a day? Don’t even have a radiator in there,” he grumbled out at him.

“I…” Ford let out a startled soft and shaky laugh, but at least that was something.

“Where would I even put one in there? Hafta move all the furniture around. --Too much work,” Stan added, tossing out a bit of hammy dark humor a bit, just because he could.

Stanley…” he heard Ford say tiredly, but at least he’d gotten a smile out of him, even if it was tired and threadbare-worn.

Stan tossed the thoroughly-burnt Stancake on a plate and shoved it off to the side, then poured a new dollop of batter into the pan.

“Look, Ford, I don’t know what you’re wanting me to say,” Stan told him. “What’s actually going to help you sleep this afternoon, after you’re finished eating something?” he asked his brother.

Ford was quiet for a long moment, and then he said, “You said you were helping Bill.”

Stan pulled in a breath, and then let it out again. Okay. Apparently this really was a thing. He hadn’t realized exactly how long a line of credit his brother had been lending him this morning from late last night, when he’d calmed him down enough to ask him, ‘Geez, Ford, can you just do us both a favor and try to trust me until I give you a reason not to? To give me a chance to explain until you’re sure I’m really bein’ the bad guy, here?’

“Yeah, I did,” Stan said slowly, turning the flame off, and then turning around to face his brother, because this one felt like one of those face-to-face-type conversations. “I said it to the kid out on the porch, that first morning.” He pulled in a breath. “Is there a reason why this is suddenly such a bad thing now?” Stan asked his brother, trying to feel the problem out, because he really didn’t understand what was going wrong here. “‘Cause I don’t remember you complaining about it at the time. Not before last night.”

“I…” Ford looked as frustrated as Stan felt, and a hell of a lot more nervous. “Stan,” he said, “What are you helping him do?

“Helping him do?” Stan repeated, crossing his arms and leaning back against the stove behind him, because that was a puzzler, and the way Ford had put that just felt off to him. “Ford, I don’t know what you think I’m doing, but I’m just trying to teach the kid how to stay alive,” he told his brother, who looked flabbergasted. “Ford, if I’d let the kid wander off into the woods on his own that second day, trying with anything else what he tried to pull with me out in the Shack’s backyard, he’d’ve gotten himself flat-out killed,” he told his brother. “He needs looking after. --This is a problem?” he asked him, because… “I thought you were all for not killin’ Bill because he might come back way worse next time, with another army of demons, or something?”

“Only because you refuse to--!” Ford seemed to catch himself, clacking his jaw shut and slowly lowering himself back down into his chair, which he’d just shoved himself out of.

Stan watched his brother breathe in, and then breathe out again, and he realized that maybe he’d better level with him on something that he’d thought his much-smarter-than-him brother would’ve figured out on his own by now, that he hadn’t really wanted to get into last night. Not with Bill listening in on it, because it definitely would’ve set the kid off big time, and he’d already had his hands full with Ford practically jumping off of a cliff right in front of him.

“Ford,” Stan said slowly. “I need you to listen to me very carefully right now, okay?” he said slowly, while wondering with a sinking feeling if his brother was gonna try and kill him over this all again, before he got through all of it. ...Well, maybe not. He’d nearly shot him way earlier than this, last night, well before either of them had gotten this far, and now he’d had a lot more sleep. So hey, that was progress, right?

“You listening?” Stan asked his brother carefully, and his brother didn’t look very happy with him, but he nodded tersely. “Okay.” Stan took in a deep breath. “Ford, I don’t think trying the circle is a good idea at all. --Ever. For any reason.”

Stan saw Ford tense up like he wanted to spring at him. He also saw his brother struggle immensely with himself, and force himself to stay in place at the table.

Stan gave him the time he needed to put himself back together.

“...May I ask why?” his brother said finally, staring at him levelly in a way that would’ve been making Stan nervous, except he had an actual reason to back him up. Several.

“You don’t know what that thing does,” Stan told him. “Neither do I. But I’d bet my last nickel that the kid sure does. And when the kid was still a triangle, he burned up that circle that you drew on his floor,” Stan told him, “But he didn’t burn the rest of us along with it. He coulda done it,” he told his brother. “Saw some actual small flames on a couple of the town kids that must’ve gotten away from him.” He looked his brother right in the eye. “Do you know why he didn’t?”

“No,” Ford said quietly, and hey, at least Stan had his attention now, for better or for worse. Had the kids’ attention, too.

Stan nodded once. “Thing is, I’ve noticed something about the kid the last couple of days, Ford. I know the kids have, too. Maybe you already know this?” He sighed, wishing he’d been able to get a bit more sleep last night, but he’d needed to stay up so that Ford could feel like he could fall asleep. He hoped he was being understandable, here. “Anyway, far as I can tell, Bill doesn’t do anything without a reason. --It may not be a good reason, and it may not even make a lot of sense if you ask him to explain it, ‘cause the kid is insane. --Hell, sometimes it’s even just ‘hey, I’m bored, and I think this will make me feel less bored!’,” he told his brother with a soft laugh. “Eh, maybe most of the time,” he admitted to him, a little more seriously. “But the kid does stuff for a reason -- and the way the kid does it is for a reason, too. And when the kid doesn’t have a reason to do something? He just doesn’t do anything at all,” he told his brother. “Flat out collapses on the floor, doesn’t move around, staring up at the ceiling, spends all his time thinking, doing nothing,” he told his brother, spreading his arms out in front of him.

“Thinking isn’t doing nothing, Stan,” Ford told him quietly.

Stan scratched at his cheek. “Well, no,” he said. “I mean, it’s thinking, not doing.” He frowned at his brother. “Thinking’s the thing you do before you do a thing. Right?”

His brother let out a long, tired sigh, and rubbed a hand against his forehead.

“Yes, Stanley, I get your meaning,” his brother said. “Please continue.”

“Uh, right,” said Stan, feeling like maybe he’d just missed some brainiac thing. ...Well, whatever. “Anyway, kid’s a thinker. Yeah? So when the kid isn’t doing something, it’s because he’s thinking about stuff, usually, because he doesn’t have a reason to be doing anything right then,” Stan told him, “or because he hasn’t figured out how to do the thing he wants to do, yet. Like magic.”

“Stanley, Bill knows how to perform magic,” Ford told him with no small consternation.

“Well, yeah,” Stan told him. “But that’s kind of the problem. There’s too many of them,” he told Ford.

“Too many... magics?” Ford repeated.

“Well, yeah,” Stan said. “--He’s gotta pick one that’ll work for what he’s wanting to do. And he was screwing that up a lot that second afternoon,” Stan told him. “Everything was too slow and easy for me to mess up on him. Kid spent a bunch of days after that just lying around, thinking and figuring out the best ways to do stuff that would actually work. Fast and efficient,” he told his brother.

Efficient,” Ford echoed, sounding a little hysterical, like he wanted to laugh.

And Stan realized that maybe now was not the best time to bring up exactly how many times that word had figured in the kid’s vocabulary over the past week-and-a-half, and how consistent the meaning had been whenever he was using it. ...And yeah, Stan had actually checked by straight-up asking him.

Instead, he just settled on telling his brother, “Most of the showboaty stuff takes too long to cast when it’s magic, instead of him just bein’ weird.” That was his understanding of it, anyway.

“Right,” his brother said faintly.

“Yeah,” said Stan. “Uh, anyway...”

“--Wait,” Dipper cut in. “Bill’s been spending time figuring out magic?”

“Yeah,” Stan told him. That had been a question he’d had for him, too. “He didn’t need to use magic before,” he told Dipper. “He did stuff some other weird way, instead. So he’d seen a bunch of stuff, but mostly just paid attention to all the flashy big things, and then found ways to do the same kinds of things, only, uh, weirdly, not magically.” He shrugged a little. “Kid said that this time, he was focusing more on the smaller, practical stuff, and trying to figure out how it was all done. And once he thought for awhile, and remembered a couple ways of doing stuff that he liked, he made up a bunch of new spells for a couple of those kinds of magics, that’d do things that were like some of the old ideas he’d used to do weirdly--”

“Stanley,” Ford cut in. “Did Bill actually talk about magical theory with you at any point?”

“Uh, no?” Stan said. All the kid had really told him was that one of the easiest ways he’d found to do stuff was to visualize some big diagram in his head, and say only one or two ‘keywords’ out loud to set it off. ...And then Stan had told him that that sounded like it’d take a lot of concentration and energy? And when Bill had said ‘yes’, Stan had told Bill that maybe he should come up with another way of doing stuff that might be slower, and maybe a bit more sneaky, that didn’t need words and that he wouldn’t have to concentrate on -- because what if the kid got hurt so bad that he couldn’t think all too well? -- but that would also get the job done without tiring him out too much. Not as a replacement, but as a just-in-case, to cover all his bases, kinda.

The kid hadn’t seemed too thrilled about it at the time. But, sure enough, three days later and the kid had been grinning at him ear-to-ear, sitting in the bed across from him in the bedroom and talking his ear off animatedly about something he’d figured out with stones and etching patterns and ambient energy…

“Not really,” he said to Ford, because it wasn’t like talking with the kid and letting the kid talk at him on the stuff made him some kinda expert on magic or anything. It wasn’t like he could cast any of this stuff at all...

Ford sighed. “Stan, could we perhaps get back to the point, for whatever point you’re trying to make?”

“Yeah, sure,” Stan said, then paused. “Uh…” he said as he realized... “I forgot where I was going with this.”

Ford sighed again. “Types of magic?” he tried. “Showboating. Efficiency. --Too many magics? ...How Bill’s trying to do things like magic, the ‘how’ being important? The circle--”

“--Oh, right,” said Stan, finally remembering where he’d been going with things, and what he’d been trying to get at. He hadn’t meant to get that off-track. That was kind of what happened when you tried talking with brainiacs, though; things always ended up just going kind of all over the place. “Anyway, like I was saying, when the kid is doing something, and there’s something he wants to have happen? There’s usually something he doesn’t want to have happen, too. Maybe a bunch of somethings. So if he’s doing something and something doesn’t happen, when it probably would’ve been easier to just let it happen? Then if that thing didn’t happen then it was probably because he didn’t want that thing to happen, and he made sure that it wouldn’t happen,” Stan told his brother. “So, since he was burning up the circle with all those flames, and it probably would’ve been a lot easier to just burn all of us along with it, and only a few flames got away from him... then the reason that none of us burned along with the circle was probably because Bill was only wanting to burn the circle, and not the rest of us,” Stan told his brother. “Uh, but I don’t know why he was maybe trying not to do that. --Yet. Was kinda planning on working up to asking him that one,” he told Ford.

Ford stared at him for awhile, then let out another deep, tired sigh.

“Stanley,” he said slowly. “Are you seriously telling me that the reason that you don’t want to try and perform the circle with us, is because you think that Bill maybe wasn’t trying to kill us all right away in the Fearamid when he first floated in on all of us, for some reason that you don’t know?”

“Uh, no,” Stan said. “Not really. I mean, maybe. --Kinda? It’s more like...” Stan frowned a little, scratching at his neck. “The triangle didn’t seem worried that we were trying to pull it off, you know? And none of us know what it does. So...”

“Stanley, what are you trying to say, here?” Ford said with no small exasperation at him.

“I don’t know,” Stan said. He’d actually been hoping that maybe his brother did. “I just don’t like surprises, is all.” And he’d had a feeling from the start that that just might have been one of those bad ones.

“So, to be clear,” Ford said, sounding very done with this conversation, “You don’t want to help perform the circle with Bill to get rid of him once and for all…” Ford paused for a long moment. “...because you don’t like surprises,” Ford ground out at him.

“Well, that was the first reason,” Stan said, feeling kind of stupid now, what with Ford putting it like that. “Kinda figured I’d try and start out with the hard one.”

“What’s the other reason,” Ford said flatly.

“You’d drive yourself nuts afterwards,” Stan told him succinctly.

Ford stared at him like he was out of his flipping mind.

“What?” Stan said. “You would. --You thought Bill was gone forever before,” Stan told him. “And he isn’t.”

“It wasn’t the--”

“--circle, yeah, I know,” Stan said, and he was really getting sick of Ford always going on and on about the stupid thing. Because something that sounded too good to be true? Usually was. “Don’t tell me that you didn’t think he was actually gone for good. You were worried for awhile, but there was nothin’, and then you weren’t worried anymore. We do this thing, though,” he told his brother, “And it’s gonna be the opposite.”

“Why would you even think that--?!” Ford began.

“--Because I know you,” Stan told him. “And Bill’s already come back once. What’s gonna keep him from coming back again? --No,” he pointed at his brother. “I mean it, Ford. Actually stop and think about it for a minute,” he told his brother. “Do it now,” he warned him, “Because I know you’d be doing a lot of it later, if we ever went through with it.”

“Why wouldn’t we--” Ford stopped himself. “Stanley,” he began again. “You’ve clearly thought a lot about this…” he tried, and Ford was clearly reaching for patience as he said it.

“Not really,” Stan admitted. “I figured this one was kind of obvious. --Let’s say we go through with the circle,” he told his brother. “Right now. Today. Whatever happens, happens, and maybe there’s some huge magical something-or-another that happens,” instead of everything going horribly wrong, “and it looks like Bill is gone. Great. Wonderful.” He stared his brother directly in the eye. “You don’t know what the circle’s supposed to do. You don’t know how it works. How are you gonna know if it worked, Ford.” Stan frowned down at his brother. “What, because it would be just oh-so-obvious that it did? Because it looked like it worked? --We did that already, Ford. With the memory gun, and my head, and one good punch. And everybody saw the Rift close itself up, and the pyramid fall down, and the town go back to normal.” As normal as it ever got, anyway... “And Bill came back. How do you know he’s not gonna come back again?” he asked his brother, and he saw the moment that Ford finally got it.

“It’ll drive you nuts,” Stan told him. “Not knowing. Not for sure. And he might still come back.”

And Stan stopped himself right there. He firmly kept his mouth shut on what he knew was a bad idea to say next: that if they knew the cultists had summoned Bill once already, this time, and they knew how to summon Bill because Ford had already done it once before, a long time ago… then if there was ever any doubt about whether Bill might be able to come back or not, about whether he was already back… The easiest way to tell if he was not completely dead for good and still summonable would be for one of them to actually try and summon Bill again, and… that was a really bad idea.

It was, in fact, exactly the same kind of bad idea that Stan was pretty sure had gotten Ford in trouble with the triangle in the first place.

There was silence in the kitchen for a moment, the kids looking between them.

Ford slowly folded his hands on the table in front of him. And he said, quite calmly, looking Stan right in the eye, “I’d rather try than not.”

“Yeah?” Stan said. “Well, I’d rather not bet all our lives on a roll of the dice,” he told his brother. “I’d rather bet on the sure thing, instead.”

Ford stared at him.

“What I’m doing is working, Ford,” he told him. “I swear to you, it is. But if we pull the trigger on the circle now, and we kill him? If he comes back again, he’ll be back madder than ever before. He won’t be listening to any of us anymore. I won’t be able to try this again.”

Ford looked up at him, frowning, and adjusted his glasses at his temple. “Stanley, what exactly are you trying to do?” his brother asked him.

Stan blinked at him. “Right. I, uh.” He’d never actually said it straight-out, had he? The whole master plan? “I’m tryin’ to get the kid on our side.”

Ford stared at him.

“I’m pretty sure I can do it,” Stan told him. “I’ve already got the kid halfway there.”

“You… I don’t…” Ford was staring at him like… “Stanley, have you lost your mind?!

Stanley blinked at him again. “No.”

Stan,” Ford said, “Bill Cipher is an insane dream demon who has enslaved countless civilizations and, directly and indirectly, killed an untold number of people. Why would you want to be on what you ostensibly call his side?

“Not his side,” Stan repeated patiently. “Our side.”

Ford took in a deep breath and let it out again. “Stanley. Why, in the name of all that is rational and good in this universe, would we want Bill Cipher to be on our side.”

What, that wasn’t obvious? “Who wouldn’t want the insane dream demon on their side?”

Ford let out a pained wheezing sound and held his head in his hands.

“Um, Grunkle Stan,” Mabel said. “Maybe Grunkle Ford wants to ask… why would Bill want to be on our side?” she smiled up at him tentatively.

Well, that was an easy one. “Who doesn’t want to be on the winning side?” Stan asked her. “And hey, he can’t beat us, so why not join us. Amiright?” Stan grinned down at her.

Ford let out another groan from where he was sitting, head-down.

Mabel and Dipper exchanged a glance. “But Bill doesn’t think that he lost,” Dipper pointed out. “He said that out on the porch.”

Stan smiled, feeling all kinds of relaxed, because that one was easy. “‘Not losing’ isn’t the same thing as winning, Dipper,” he told him. “Kid knows he didn’t win, and the kid doesn’t like to lose. --Doesn’t mean he won’t,” Stan told them. “He just needs a reason to want to lose, is all. And I’m giving him one.”

“You’re giving him a reason to lose,” Dipper said slowly.

“Yeah.” Stan nodded, because if there was one thing he knew… “It’s like gambling. Lose small to win big. Can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em. Nobody ever wins against the house,” he shrugged. “And the kid’s not gonna walk away from the table now,” he told them. “He’s already in too deep. I made sure of that,” Stan grinned, because now? Now all he had to do was wait for the kid to call or to fold, and either way...? --He was the house, and the house always won.

Ford slowly raised his head. And he quietly said, “...What?”

“But you said it yourself,” Dipper said to Stan. “Bill doesn’t like losing. He’s going to want to win.”

“Hah, no.” Stan was smiling, because he knew he was right about this. “Kid would rather lose than win on this one. He just doesn’t want to admit it yet. Trust me.”

“No, wait,” Ford said. “Stan, wait. --What do you mean, he’s already in too deep?

Stan blinked at him. Then frowned.

“I mean, he’s in too deep, Ford. He’s already in too deep,” he told Ford. “He’s mine. I’ve already got him. ...I’m just working on getting him the rest of the way there,” he told his brother. “That’s all.”

Ford was staring at him weirdly, like… “Stan, I have no idea what you are talking about. What do you mean, he’s in too deep?”

Ah, geez. Ford wasn’t getting it? Seriously? ...Okay, well, maybe he just needed to back it up a bit. “Ford, uh. You remember when I said I’d take care of the kid, right? Well, I’m taking care of the kid. And he’s kinda letting me do it. Yeah?”

“Stanley, what does that have to do with anything?” Ford said in tones of exasperation, and Stan couldn’t help but stare at him, because--

“Ford,” Stanley replied, with just as much exasperation as his brother seemed to have felt. “It has everything to do with everything.”

Ford stared at him blankly. “What??”

“Ford, Bill’s a kid now,” he told his brother. “A seventeen-year-old kid.” How could his brother not be getting this? “He is a seventeen-year-old kid, who has no friends, no support, no resources, no fallback plan, nothing,” he told Ford, “And he just managed to exile himself from his own home, maybe for good. Right?”

Ford straightened in his seat rigidly and looked alarmed, of all things.

“...So you sympathize with him,” Ford said slowly.

Stan looked his brother right in the eye.

“No, Ford,” he told his brother. “What I am telling you is that I know exactly what he is going through right now,” he told Ford evenly. “Which means I know exactly how to use that against him, to twist him up inside in the worst ways possible, to the point that there is no way in hell that he will ever tell me ‘no’. And I am doing that to him.”

Stan saw his brother go pale and shiver slightly in place.

The kids were staring at him, too.

“When I got kicked out of the house,” he told his brother in the same calm, even tones -- because he really was long past being angry at his brother about that, and he didn’t want Ford to think otherwise -- “I had a lot more than he did when he showed up in our woods. I had the Stanleymobile and a few cents in my pocket and a bag of clothes and a full tank of gas. And even with all that going for me, I would have literally killed for even a fraction of what I am offering and giving to him now,” he told his brother, as gently as he could.

He kept eye contact with his brother as he said, “And from talking with the kid -- and I’ve been doing that a lot since he’s come back -- he’s either never had anything like what I’m giving him before, or it’s been so long since he has had it that it might as well have been a pipe dream for him at some point. He literally does not know what to do with himself, because it’s too late for him; he’s already had a taste of what things can be like, here and now, for him, and he does not want to give that up.” And things would only get better from there, if Stan had any say in the matter -- and he did. “And all I’m asking from him for it is for him to not hurt or kill people,” and Stan couldn’t help but smile, “when they aren’t trying to do it to him first... right then,” and his smile widened just a little bit -- because he really was proud of himself, how easily he’d pulled that one off, convincing the kid of that, and then setting up the framework for the rest of it, it was all gonna fall into place so neatly -- “and things can go on like this indefinitely for him. And all he’s gotta do is...” Stan paused, and it really took all that he had not to laugh in glee at this one, “back off a little and be willing to play nice sometimes,” he said as he spread his arms out from his sides, palms up, tada, look at the old con-man go! --Mr. Negotiator, back in action once again!

Because literally everything with the kid was negotiable.

That was the craziest thing about the whole thing. If you didn’t want to take the kid at face value... it was like he’d let you reshuffle the deck and let you take out a whole new hand of cards, as many as you wanted. --And it wasn’t even like the kid was playing poker, Stan swore it felt more like go-fish. The kid wanted what he wanted, unless maybe you could offer him something better. And if you did… the kid practically leapt for it. Once Stan had realized that… --Well, it wasn’t like he hadn’t already won before he’d realized it.

“That’s insane,” Ford breathed out numbly, staring up at him.

“Kid’s insane,” Stanley told him, matter-of-factly, dropping his arms -- and also the smile, because this part was serious. “Completely, utterly insane,” he noted, confirming it to his brother that yes, he knew. He wasn’t stupid. He knew exactly what he was doing and dealing with, here. “And he’s mine,” he told his brother.

And his brother looked about to say something, but Stan wasn’t done yet.

So he just rolled right over him easily, saying, “Ford, he nearly beat his skull in on a porch post yesterday afternoon, caught between a deal with you that was like a wall inside his head that he couldn’t get around or out of on his own… and a verbal promise with a con-man that he wanted to keep. And he almost went with… me,” Stanley ended, leaning back against the stovetop and smiling at his brother, and Ford looked a little sick. ...Well, maybe he should feel that way a little bit. Did his brother have any idea at all how much easier it had gotten for him to talk to the kid now, now that that crazy deal of his was over and done with, whatever it had been? Ford had really messed with the kid’s head somehow. “But maybe you didn’t notice that at the time,” Stan ended smoothly, turning around and turning the burners to the stove back on. He probably should’ve tried cooking breakfast still while they were talking, but he was tired and needed to concentrate on whatever he was doing until he got some actual sleep under his belt, later that night again sometime. Splitting his attention, even on a good day, would’ve been liable to end with half of everyone’s breakfast being burnt.

“Stanley…” he heard his brother say faintly. “You can’t…” and he heard Ford trail off, but it took him awhile to realize that Ford wasn’t gonna finish his sentence.

Watch me,” Stan told his brother with a challenging grunt, followed by a long drawn-out sigh, shaking his head, because he was really getting tired of this. “--Don’t believe me? Watch me, Ford. You just watch,” he told him.

“You watch, Ford,” he told his brother. “You watch while I handle things, like I told you I would, and you just forget about ever getting him back.” And Ford stared at him, completely taken aback, while Stan looked over his shoulder at him, giving him an entirely serious look as he informed him, “--Yeah, that’s right. You heard me right. You don’t want him? --Fine,” because it was fine; better than fine, even! “You don’t want him; he’s mine now -- no takebacks,” he told his brother, and to hell with Ford if he thought he couldn’t handle the triangle, because he could. He did. He already had. And he’d keep on doing it, no matter what Ford said.

“He isn’t yours,” he heard Ford say slowly.

“No, Ford,” Stanley told him. “Maybe you haven’t been paying attention, what with you spending all of your time downstairs in the basement the last week-and-a-half, driving yourself up a wall while getting next-to-no sleep,” he pointed out to his brother, flicking his spatula through the air at him, “But the kid kind of is. And that isn’t gonna change.” He turned back around and used said spatula to flip the slowly-cooking Stancake over in the pan right in front of him on the stove. “I made him a promise, a whole set of ‘em, and I’ve got an agreement with him, and I’m gonna hold to it, and hold him to it.” He set the spatula down, and picked up the kettle next to him to start filling it with water; the kid was gonna want his tea, and hey, the kid might even be able to drink it once he was done and back inside. “Somebody has to. Might as well be me.”

“You… promised him?” Ford asked him, his voice sounding tight and strained. “Promised him what?

Stanley looked back over his shoulder at him.

“I promised I’d take care of him, Ford,” he said, looking back at his brother, and feeling almost sad. Because did his brother really not get it? “He’s a kid, and I’m taking care of him.” He didn’t know what else he could say to try and get through to him. “He’s a kid.”

“I don’t understand,” Ford said, both quiet and dark, and he really didn’t get it, did he.

“...I know you don’t understand, Ford. That’s why I’m handling it,” Stanley told him with a sigh, turning away from him again.

“Stanley, what are you trying to do with Bill?” he heard Ford say in a terribly urgent voice, while also somehow managing to sound completely lost at the same time.

“He’s trying to teach me how to ‘human’,” Stan heard, then the clatter of a chair -- and that was the kid, back inside again. And, well, he’d expected it to maybe take awhile, but...

“Yeah, that’s about right,” Stan said good-naturedly with a smile, because, heh, that sure was one hell of a way to put it. ...And actually pretty accurate, even.

How long have you been stand-ing... there…” Stan heard Ford say, starting out freaked-out sounding, and ending up sounding... Uh. Stan wasn’t exactly sure how Ford had sounded, actually.

Stan turned in place, already wondering how worried he should be at what he was going to see, and then blinked. Because Ford was up on his feet, his chair on the floor, and...

“What,” said the kid, looking around at all of them. “Is hair length really that important? Really?” he asked almost petulantly, and starting to frown at some of the reactions he was getting.

Mabel immediately went from staring to… well, Stan figured that saying ‘her eyes lit up’ would probably cover that level of excitement pretty well, right?

“--Yes,” Mabel said. “Hair length is very important. Your hair should be long! Very long. --Longer.” She started making grabby hands at him.

“Uh,” said Bill, looking down at her, and clearly the kid had not been prepared at all for that kind of reaction. He seemed to recover pretty quickly, though, going straight from a long expressionless stare to a grinning... “HAHA! --Really, Shooting Star?” The kid leaned forward in a half-bow to bring his head down a little closer to her. “How long is ‘longer’?”

“Welllllll--” Mabel began, and welp, that was it. Time to step in and rescue the kid before he got himself in even more trouble.

“You’re hair’s fine, kid,” Stan told him reassuringly.

“Aw, Grunkle Stannnnn,” Mabel complained, recognizing the veto on her mischievousness for what it was.

Stan pretended he didn’t hear it. “You want somethin’ to pull that back up with?” he asked the kid instead, and at the kid’s nod, he turned and pulled open one of the ‘junk’ drawers in the kitchen, and pulled out a length of string.

He elbowed the drawer shut, then held the string out for him and the kid came around the side of the table, taking it from him.

He watched as the kid pulled his ponytail-length hair back neatly, and wrapped that string up and around it just as easily, tying it back like a pro. It made Stan wonder where and when the kid had learned that.

“You-- you--” Dipper stammered, wide-eyed and staring, until he finally got out, “You’re a girl!

Bill let out a laugh. “Pine Tree, I’m a guy!” he told the kid, turning towards him with a big, highly-amused grin. “Thought you knew that!”

Dipper stared up at him like he’d just seen the face of true horror.

“I, ah, I believe that perhaps...” Ford began, then stopped and cleared his throat while looking at least as uncomfortable as Dipper, though in a very different way. “Dipper might be trying to ask, for all of us… whyyyy do you look female right-now?” Ford’s voice went up as the kid turned to look directly at him, and ended on a note that was at least an octave higher than where he’d started. At least.

Bill gave him a long look. “Ha. Maybe because this body I’m currently in is female right now?” The kid eyed Ford like he was being immensely stupid just then. “You ever think of that?”

Ford stared back at Bill, looking like his brain had gone completely out-of-commision now.

Mabel was looking up at him with her eyes shining like stars, hands clasped in front of her while she was grinning up a storm.

Why are you a girl??” Dipper all but wailed out, the poor kid’s brain clearly going into some sort of teenaged meltdown. It had Stan sighing, because honestly, the kid was from southern California. People did this sort of thing all the time down there, didn’t they? Really, on a scale of ‘one’ to ‘I’ve got an interdimensional portal in my basement and gnomes that would be trying to eat the jam straight outta my cupboards if not for that pesky old goat out in my yard -- by the way, welcome to Gravity Falls’? This one didn’t even rate.

...Well, okay. Maybe it usually took longer than thirty minutes to go from being male to being female, for people doing the whole… ‘surgery thing’. But still. Stan was pretty sure he’d seen stranger things in his coffee in the morning, than this.

“Not a girl; guy,” the kid corrected Dipper again. “Pine Tree, really -- how is this hard?”

Stan sighed. He hated to be the one to rain on the kid’s parade, but... “Kid, I thought you said you were only gonna do small changes.” Hadn’t the kid been worried that something might get messed up with that anchor of his on his back if he didn’t keep things with that body mostly the same?

Bill blinked at him.

“What are you talking about? Changing genders isn’t a big change, it’s a bunch of really small ones. Tiny. Miniscule.” The kid frowned up at him. “It’s not like I changed species, or added a bunch of extra appendages, or anything. Or even added a third eye! --I kept it small!” he protested. “Male to female, and longer hair! That’s it!”

Stan considered that for a moment.

“Yeah, okay,” he told the kid. “As long as you’re happy with it.” Actually, maybe he really ought to ask for the rest of them, while he could. “But hey, since I’m already asking -- why’d you decide to change over to being female now?

And Bill gave him the most beatific smile.

“What, it’s not obvious?” said the kid. “Sixer over there’s practically allergic to human females. Never touches ‘em; not once, not ever. --Figure if I’m human-female-looking, then your idiot brother just might keep his hands off of ME, TOO,” Bill informed him. And then he turned his head slightly to the side and gave Ford a large, dark, and very evil grin.

“Well, that’s a reason,” Stan said noncommittally. Not exactly the greatest, in his opinion, but hey, if it worked... it worked?

Ford finally shook himself free of whatever thought must have been freezing up his entire brain.

That is not a good reason, Bill,” Ford said firmly, and looking kind of angry for some reason.

“It’s fine, Ford,” Stan told him breezily, turning back to the stove. “Bill, you can change that body back to its original gender if you need or want to, right?” Stan asked of him, since they really hadn’t confirmed whether that really was Bill’s own original body or not.

“Once I’m back outside the barrier again, sure,” Bill told him. “Easy.”

“Well, there ya go, Ford. Like the kid said, easy-peasy,” he told his brother. “And it shouldn’t really matter, right? Because hey,” he added, shooting Ford a long look, “It wasn’t like you were were planning on grabbing or hitting the kid again anytime soon. Right?

Ford looked utterly sick. ...Well, good. Maybe his brother would keep his hands off the kid from now on, then. Would make his life a hell of a lot easier with the kid, that was for sure. Speaking of which...

“--And hey,” he told the kid, “It looks like the other thing worked out all right, after all. --Good job, kid,” he praised him, giving him a smile.

And that was really all it took. Acknowledgment of something the kid had done, and a little bit of flattering praise, and the kid practically lit up like a fireworks display on the fourth of July, right in front of him. Just like every other time that he’d done it to the kid. Every. Single. Time. It almost made Stan feel a little sad.

Positive reinforcement was actually a thing, and it was working on him. Scarily so.

And somebody must’ve done it in the past with the kid at some point, because Stan hadn’t been starting from completely nothing with him, either.

But it just as clearly hadn’t been his brother who had been the one who’d been doing it.

“HAHA!” the kid laughed out, and he was practically glowing with accomplishment. “IT DID! I did it! BEHOLD, my MAGICAL POWERS of RECUPERATION AND RECOVERY!” And he gave a little giggle in glee.

It was about that point that Ford did a double-take, finally realized that the kid was completely healed up from everything that had happened to him the night and afternoon before then, and then some, and ended up looking absolutely shocked.

“--You know spells for healing?!?!?!” Ford blurted out to Bill. And Stan carefully kept a neutral expression on his own face at this, because, yeah, he’d had a similar question yesterday afternoon, before they’d fallen asleep and the kid had woken up again for him and Ford to get into all that trouble, sure. And the kid had warned Stan when he’d asked it that that sort of thing was apparently a big deal across all the dimensions -- and liable to ruin his reputation as a big bad demon completely if rumors started circulating, true or not, that he knew how to heal other people -- but...

“Eh?” said the kid, turning towards Ford, looking the picture-perfect definition of confusion, and then shock. “--What, seriously?” Stan watched him tell Ford, with horrible offense written across his face. “No, Stanford, I don’t have ‘spells for healing’. Those are dumb, and are A WASTE OF MY TIME. I have spells for self-recovery. For ME AND ONLY ME! ...Like I’d spend any of my time figuring out how to heal other people, HA! ...Yeesh, who do you think I am, Stanford. --I’m BILL CIPHER, you idiot, not freaking ‘Jhezzie-the-seven-eyed-wonder’ herself,” Bill ended on a grumbling, thoroughly annoyed-sounding note.

Ford’s mouth was opening and closing during most of Bill’s pronouncement like a startled fish. At least, it had been every time that Stan had snuck a glance at him over his shoulder, anyway. Finally towards the end, though, Ford clamped his jaw shut, and eventually settled on looking annoyed.

“Oh, of course,” Ford scoffed. “Perfectly selfish, of course.”

Stan bit the inside corner of his cheek, guessing he’d have to wait until later to hear from the kid exactly which spells he’d used, and how well they’d worked or hadn’t worked. ...But hey, at least a couple of them had obviously worked out for him, so that was good.

“Hot water for tea should be done by now,” he told Bill casually, passing off the kettle from the stove, which got him another lit-up and thoroughly-pleased smile from the kid.

"HA! Awful tea for me!" the kid enthused, taking the tea kettle from him with a "MINE! ALL MINE!", and Ford let out another scoffing sound.

Honestly, Stan loved his brother. He really did. But sometimes, Ford could be just so dense...

Stan sighed and got back to his Stancake-making.

---