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Break It Down

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---

“Kid, wake up.”

“...”

“Kid.”

“Nngn.”

Kid.

Bill let out a sigh and slowly fought his way back to consciousness.

His reward for this was Stanley’s dour-looking face, only a few few feet above him, right next to him. …Not even looking at him, really. Why was he standing so far up, anyway? For reasons? Just because?

“Well, today just keeps getting better and better,” Bill muttered, slowly levering himself halfway upright by his elbows. He winced at the ache in his head, and the twinge in his neck that the motion caused him. “How long was I out for that time?”

“About thirty minutes, maybe.”

...Well, that would explain why the insides of his stupid human-ish head felt like churned rancid butter. Because, really, he only got thirty minutes? Really? What was he, chop suey? Mix him up, fry his brains, and hope for the best? Ha. As if.

“Why. did. you. wake. me. up. now.” Bill ground out, lifting one hand to rub at the side of his head, none-too-happy with Stanley as he glared up at him.

“We need to go,” Stanley said in response, and that left Bill blinking with mental whiplash.

“Eh?” Bill said. “What, right now?” he added with an eyeroll, thinking the question was rhetorical… at least, he did up until Stanley nodded his head at him. Bill dropped his hand and stared up at him. “Why?”

“Just--”

“Grunkle Stan!” they both heard, and Bill blinked.

He turned his head to look over his shoulder, and saw a Mabel, a Mason, and a Wendy walking out of the woods. ...Well, two of them were walking, anyway.

They clearly weren’t his Zodiac, any more than that Stanford Pines was.

“Hey, Mr. Pines,” the Wendy called out, with a good-natured wave, as the Mabel all-but-ploughed into Stanley’s chest at a flat-out run.

Stanley almost went down, too, like he was weak-kneed all of a sudden. Bill wasn’t really getting it, until he saw how Stanley was both trying to hug, but also not-hug, the kid.

“Grunkle Stan? Is something wrong?” the Mabel asked him, staring up at Stanley woefully, before glancing over at him. “Who’s your friend?” And if Bill ever needed to figure out a way to make Stanley suffer in the future... well! It looked like this particular scene would be a good thing to feature as centerpoint in his nightmares, Bill figured, because the look on his face…

Bill sighed and stood up, about to interject and add some actual reason to this entire annoying debacle...

GET AWAY FROM HIM!!

...but the local Stan yelled at them all from the porch first.

Well, that worked. More or less.

...Except now Stanley was pale and pained as anything, looking like he’d just been shot.

“He meant me, you idiot,” Bill told Stanley, as the Mabel backed away from them both, looking shocked, worried, and confused. The Mason hugged her to him, frowning, while the Wendy, for her part, looked between the two Stanleys, then pulled out her axe. Bill narrowed his eyes at her, assessing the situation, flexing his fingers.

“...Grunkle Stan?” the Mabel said in wavering tones, which had Stanley looking even worse, the local Stanley and Stanford were now running at them from the porch -- ‘no, not just running,’ Bill realized, glancing over at them with eyes narrowing further, because that Stanford had just pushed himself into a full-tilt sprint towards them -- and enough was enough.

Quick as a flash, eyes locked with the Stanford as he did so, Bill thrust his left hand palm-downwards at the ground and snarled out a short two-syllable phrase under his breath, as he visualized the proper associated image of what he wanted to have happen inside of his mind.

Almost immediately, everything went black.

Stanley let out a startled sound in the dark, and Bill rolled his eyes. ...Not that Stanley could see it. But that wasn’t really the point of an eyeroll, as he understood it, and it certainly wasn’t why he’d done it.

Frankly, as far as Bill was concerned, if the Axolotl had some kind of problem with him rolling his eyes at things, it could actually show up and talk at him in-person, making its displeasure known to his face!

...Not that it ever would. Stupid lizard.

He waited a moment, to make sure the barrier really was somewhat solidly in place, then let his hand drop and his wrist go loose, shook out his arm as he raised his other hand to snap his fingers and make a light.

...Well, five little lights of blue flame dancing upwards about an inch away from the ends of each of his fingertips, technically, but hey, it got the job done.

Stanley was staring at him, stunned.

“What did you just do?” Stanley said, glancing around.

“I’m calling a time-out,” Bill told him, as he rotated his left wrist, working out the kinks, keeping his right hand with the flames held steady. “Physical barrier,” he said, with an abbreviated gesture at the closest curved surface -- not that that surface was visible. He only knew where it was because he’d made it. “Blocks all light, sound, air; nothing gets in or out while it’s up. Can’t stay in here long like this -- not without suffocating, anyway.” Bill made a face, because breathing, yuck. So dumb and annoying! “But I figure it’s long enough.”

Stanley pushed a hand forward somewhat blindly, presumably to feel it stop once he’d pressed it against the side of the spherical barrier. He pulled his hand back, then looked over at Bill.

“Long enough for what,” Stanley said, and it both was and wasn’t a question.

Bill looked at him dead-on, about as serious as he ever got.

“For going over the ‘ground rules’ of what to do and NOT do if you want to survive any dimension that looks like your own.”

---

Chapter Text

---

Ford leapt forward -- ‘too late -- too late -- far far too late’ -- and past the niblings, twisting his body around to skid to a stop in front of them and then shove himself backwards, back the way he came, to grab Mabel and Dipper up along the way and carry them both back farther away from what Bill had just cast -- ‘too late -- too late -- too fast -- no!’ -- glancing quickly over his shoulder to try and see which way he needed to jump to avoid the-- terrible... black… barrier?

Ford slowed to a jog, then to a stop, meeting Stanley not quite halfway across the yard from the porch.

“You guys, what just happened?” Wendy said, glancing back at Stan and then over Ford, backing away from the barrier now herself to where they were standing.

“Magic,” Ford managed to get out succinctly, as he put down both the niblings. He shivered hard, then shivered again, because he hadn’t gotten to them before Bill had cast… whatever he’d just cast, and that Bill Cipher could have cast anything, anything, and-- Ford forced himself to pull in a breath, because he hadn’t. That Bill hadn’t cast-- It had just been some kind of barrier, that was all. It was-- it was fine. The niblings were fine.

...except it wasn’t fine, not at all. That Bill’s response time had only been slowed by the time he had taken to assess the situation. If he hadn’t... The actual cast time had taken less than a second, barely a split-second in time, faster than Ford could have drawn his weapon and fired it at him. Ford hadn’t realized it was even possible to cast spellwork that quickly. And if that Bill decided to cast something at them, some form of offensive magic… once he did, they were dead.

They would be dead, and there would be nothing that Ford could do about it. Their survival rested on a verbalized truce that might-or-might not be kept… or the effectiveness of a desperate sneak-attack when Bill wasn’t aware of or looking for it. And the effectiveness of the latter assumed that this Bill, as human as he looked right then, was as vulnerable as a normal baseline human would be. Ford didn’t know how likely or unlikely that might actually be.

“Grunkle Stan? Grunkle Ford?” Mabel called out to them uncertainly, and Ford crouched down to hug her in his arms, seeking comfort and reassuring himself of her survival as he looked back at the black dome that had sprung up around their two interdimensional visitors. Dipper came in close to both his side and hers, and Ford reached out to him, too.

Ford hugged them both to him and shivered in place, as he tried desperately to assess the situation properly, as he tried to think of something -- anything -- else that he might be able to do to increase the odds of their survival.

“Everything’s alright, sweetie,” Stan said, dropping a hand down onto the top of her head, and Ford was still trying to wrap his head around the fact that this Bill had gone defensive, not offensive, except that in doing so-- Bill could be intentionally--

“--He’s isolating him, Stan,” Ford said shakily under his breath up to his brother, as quiet as he could and yet still be heard by him -- because he had no idea if light and sound were being blocked both ways by that barrier, if what he said or did could otherwise be heard and seen by that Bill. When he saw Stan’s jaw firm, and his brother take a step forward, fists clenched, Ford’s eyes went wide. “--No, don’t touch it!!” he yelled out immediately, letting go of the niblings to jump up and reach out a hand to grab at his brother and bodily pull him back. He only began breathing again when he’d gotten a good hold on his brother to stop him in place. Stan turned his head back towards him as Ford tugged him backwards urgently. “We-- we don’t know if that barrier is just a barrier. Just… s-step back.” Stan did so, and Ford was finally able to pull in a slightly deeper breath and hold it a little longer, begin to calm his breathing down a little bit more.

His fingers itched for the grip of his gun, but… for all he knew, that Bill and that Stanley could see him from in there, and drawing his gun now during their truce would be a crystal-clear signal that he had no confidence in their holding to the truce, if not outright malicious intent to break it. Such an act, an immediate precursor to such violent aggression as would outright break their truce, would thus likely cause far more problems than it would solve. ...Ford still had the urge to draw his weapon and fire it at the edges of the barrier until it dissolved, anyway. --He wanted that Stanley out of there and away from that Bill, post-haste!

He shook himself, head and shoulders, trying to disrupt the urge and clear the thought from his head. Because firing at the barrier likely wouldn’t ‘pop’ the bubble, it would only break the truce, and breaking the truce would only leave themselves and the kids completely exposed to a counterattack that Ford feared that he might not be able to meet.

Would they all be safe if they retreated inside their own mystical barrier and the safety of the Shack, perhaps? But Stan had been correct about the mystical barrier’s weakness when Ford had first put it up -- the barrier didn’t keep out purely physical threats. And Stanley could pass through it, himself; he could potentially take it down. Would he? ...Did it even matter if he could? Bill himself had found a way to do so during Weirdmageddon, when fighting the Shacktron.

Ford’s head spun, and he felt his chest constrict in stress all over again. Nowhere safe to run to; could they even hide for long?

No. No. Calm down. They had a truce. Bill was… probably as human’-ish’ as he seemed to be unhappy about being. Stanley hadn’t attacked them. Bill hadn’t attacked them, either. (...yet?)

Overreacting to a potential threat could turn a passive menace into a real threat; Ford knew he had to try and stay calm. This wasn’t their Bill. This Bill was a kid and deferred to Stanley. Bill hadn’t attacked them; Bill had gone on the defensive, instead. ...Just like he had before when Ford had been testing him. At worst, when Ford had run at him before, only after he’d gotten the go-ahead from Stanley, he’d snapped back a little, then settled again. ...And this time, when Ford had run at… Bill and Stanley...

'Ah. That… that might be the difference?' Before, Ford had clearly only been testing Bill. This time, it had likely been unclear who he’d been running towards, and… Bill had been watching him, gauging him as a threat, and likely trying to… figure out just that. And when Ford had gotten within close springing distance -- which Bill knew now because he had learned it from their ‘tussles’ earlier that day -- Bill had put up the barrier. Possibly because he hadn’t been able to determine what Ford’s intent had been, hadn’t wanted to take or directly deal with the risk.

The only question was, had Bill decided that on his own, or had Bill done it at a signal from Stanley that Ford had somehow missed? Had Bill been acting entirely under his own discretion, or had Stanley discussed such measures with him earlier?

...Is Bill taking or receiving direction from Stanley now, rather than being the one giving it?’ Ford thought suddenly, as he began to second-guess his initial worry that he’d related to Stan earlier. This Bill didn’t exactly seem properly… socialized. Was it possible that Stanley was the one isolating this Bill, instead?

...Stanley had quite literally removed this Bill from his own dimension somehow, under an as-yet unknown set of circumstances -- effectively isolating not just himself from his family, but also this Bill. So was the idea really that far-fetched? How likely was it that they’d run into many intelligent species in their travels in-between their home dimension and this one? About as likely as being struck by lightning? Less? Ford himself had gone years without running across any intelligent species in his own travels through the multiverse, and he’d jumped into just about every portal that he’d ever found, trying desperately to get home…

Ford forced himself to try and control his breathing, to slow down and think. (...no matter how hard it was proving to be to do so at the moment. He felt like he was on the verge of a tension headache, almost.) And in doing so, and succeeding at it somewhat, something occurred to him.

...the idea that these two might have been running through the multiverse in the same way that he had been was a false assumption. This Bill must have some way to interact with portals, with the way both this Bill and Stanley discussed trying to get home. They’d ‘missed’ somehow, and ended up here instead, but... The very idea that they’d been aiming somehow and ‘missed’ implied that they had some level of control over where their travels took them. ...But that in turn might just mean that Stanley had been the one to choose their destinations. So the question really was: would Stanley have directed this Bill to take them to dimensions populated, or unpopulated, with intelligent species? Stan was a people-person, but with a dangerous Bill in-tow…

Then again, they had both been headed home… hadn’t they?

Ford managed to pull in a deeper breath and let it out again. It was both reassuring and worrying that this Stanley’s and Bill’s behavior likely hadn’t been all that different from what they’d exhibited prior. He just needed to keep his guard up, in case there were any marked changes, as a warning sign that the truce he and Stan had made with them was about to fail.

...They all just needed to not rush or attack the barrier and instigate a failure of that very truce.

Having come to that conclusion, knowing the reasons that were likely behind the behaviors he’d witnessed their two unexpected interloper-guests take, and having decided upon what course of action was safest for him to take in the interim in return, Ford was finally able to force himself to begin to relax. To calm himself down further from the adrenaline-fueled stress of flight-or-fight mode.

Ford glanced down at Dipper and Mabel, as he slowly let go of his brother.

“So… what are we dealing with, here? Shapeshifter? Magical illusion? Copy-machine double? Something else?” Dipper asked of them practically, adjusting his hat and giving him a smile, and some days Ford truly loved his grand-nephew.

“Oh, oh, are you two really triplets?” was Mabel’s own smiling addition to the list, as Ford crouched down next to her again, this time in a balanced stance that could be used to attack, retreat, defend, or rest neutrally. She petted the side of Ford’s turtleneck sweater, trying to help him calm down and he ducked his head down and shakily breathed in her scent -- reassuring himself that she was alive and safe, that the barrier had really been the only thing cast, with a passive contained effect. “Mystery triplets classic?”

“I sure hope not,” said Wendy, reading his and Stan’s responses and apparently deciding to let her axe hang a little more casually in her grip as a result. “I don’t think Soos could take there being another one of you around that he didn’t know about. --Just sayin’,” she added with a shrug, as the niblings looked back at her.

“I-interdimensional double,” Ford told them a little shakily, “They came here through a portal.” He began breathing even a bit better still once Stan took another step backwards, away from the dome. “We should… back away farther than this,” Ford said uneasily, as he gauged the distances. ‘Just in case.’ They were all about three yards away from it, but the perimeter line of the mystical barrier around the Shack was three times farther away behind them still. He hadn’t realized that they were that far away from the Shack and safety. A little caution under the circumstances wasn’t a bad thing. And someone who had gone on the defensive in an uncertain situation shouldn’t see a little defensiveness as something having gone amiss, should they?

Then Ford rethought his and his brother’s actions in the last few seconds before the black dome had come up, and couldn’t help but grimace. From Stanley’s and Bill’s point of view, and after what Stan had yelled out at them, he really might’ve looked as though he was rushing them, to try and run them off, rather than defensively racing forward to try and get in front of Mabel and Dipper to place himself as a shield in front of the niblings, instead. Bill had been highly focused on him, in particular -- which had contributed a great deal towards his anxiety during his run and after -- and Bill hadn’t exactly seemed scared or worried in any way, but…

“I believe we may have... startled them, just now,” Ford told his brother.

“Ya think?” Stan muttered, as he glared at the black surface.

“Yes. Let’s not crowd them,” Ford told his brother, mind still racing in a way it didn’t usually when he was trying to deal with a potentially physically unsafe situation, though the feeling of an impending tension headache was easing, or at least not quite as bad as it had been before. “You wouldn’t want to be crowded, yourself.” He got a grunt of acknowledgment at that. “A bit farther back should be fine; they can always walk towards us, if they wish,” he said, as he thought of it.

“How long have they been here?” Dipper asked, as they all slowly made their way another three feet back, stepping farther away from the dome.

“Two hours or so,” Stan told them.

Two hours?!? --Why didn’t you call us?” Dipper said, ever bold.

“We did,” Stan said.

“We tried,” Ford amended.

“Next time, maybe don’t go heading back here five hours early before giving us a call first?” Stan told them a little grumpily.

“We thought it’d be a nice surprise,” Mabel said, biting her lip and wilting a bit next to him.

“Under any other circumstances, it would be, I assure you,” Ford told her softly, bumping his nose lightly into her hair, and the side of her head. It got him a smile and a giggle from Mabel, which lightened the mood considerably.

“You three, get behind us, now!” Stan barked out suddenly, and Ford startled, but stood up shoulder to shoulder with his brother and pushed Mabel behind him immediately.

“What? Why?” Dipper asked, as he did as he was told. Wendy moved behind Stan, but slightly to the side, without protest, ever-watchful.

“Because while Stan and I have a truce with them currently,” Ford told them grimly, shivering slightly as he watched the dark shade of the dome lighten significantly, starting to become see-through, “You three do not.”

---

Chapter Text

---

Bill sighed, annoyed, as he waved away the flames from his hand at the same time as the barrier went away -- though of course the barrier took a bit longer, having been anchored rather solidly to the grassy ground beneath their feet, if Bill did say so himself.

He’d been expecting to have to do something drastic when the barrier came down, but he blinked as he realized that the lot of them were actually standing significantly farther away from them now than they had been when he’d put the barrier up in the first place.

“Hm,” Bill muttered, cocking his head at the two older Pines, who were standing shoulder-to-shoulder between him and the three younger kids. A united front of sorts. He flicked his gaze over the lot of them. No weapons raised, though; not even by the kids in the back. The Wendy did still have her axe out, but it wasn’t raised; it seemed to be more an afterthought than an action with any meaning to it. “Interesting.”

“--We want the kids covered by the truce, as well,” the Stanford said quickly.

“Do you,” Bill said evenly. “--Tell me this, then,” he added before the Stanford could respond. “Do we even still have a truce?”

The two older Pines stiffened, as did Stanley next to him. Stanley pulled in a quick breath, but he didn’t say anything though, which only added to Bill’s annoyance. Yes, he’d said he’d take point on this; that didn’t mean he didn’t want Stanley’s input on things from time to time!

“Why wouldn’t we--” the Stanford began, and now he looked pale as well, which was just stupid -- as if any Stanford was intelligent enough to worry about the implications of that, the arrogant jerk!

“Stanley here,” Bill told them casually, tossing a thumb in Stanley’s direction as he overrode the Stanford entirely, talking more to the other Stanley than the Stanford, “wasn’t all that clear on whether we do or not anymore when I asked him about it just now, in trying to figure out why he wanted to leave all of a sudden, and you all rushed us. In that order.” Bill looked between the two older locals, and noted that they both went a bit more rigid still. “Seems there was some kind of an accident on somebody’s part... --But maybe you don’t think so.” He watched the Stanley and Stanford carefully, eyes narrowed. “So. Which do you think it was. An accident? Or on purpose.”

“It wasn’t--” the Stanford began, and Bill’s eyes snapped over to him immediately. But then the Stanford stopped for a moment, and another moment, and then… he said, “Stanley--”

“--Which Stanley,” Bill interjected, because he wasn’t about to be taken for a ride again.

The Stanford grimaced, then physically pointed to Stanley, who was standing next to Bill.

“And?” Bill prompted.

“He didn’t do anything wrong,” the Stanford said, dropping his hand. “And even if he did, it-- it certainly wasn’t on purpose.”

Bill narrowed his eyes at him.

“It was an accident,” the other Stanley said coolly, arms at his sides, his hands curled into half-fists.

Bill had cut his eyes over to the other Stanley when the other Stanley began talking. Bill acknowledged he’d heard him with the slightest of head tilts, once he was finished. Then Bill slid his gaze back over to the Stanford.

The Stanford said nothing.

Bill wasn’t about to let this slide, though. He wasn’t stupid. ‘Not on purpose’ wasn’t the same as ‘an accident’.

Especially when it came to Stanfords and what they thought.

“Accident? Or on purpose,” Bill repeated.

Ford looked at him blankly. “...I-- I just said...”

Accident? Or on purpose,” Bill repeated, again, tilting his head back upright. He tensed his shoulders and flexed his fingers, readying himself.

“...It was ...an accident,” the Stanford said slowly.

Bill paused for a moment and frowned at him. --Not what he’d been expecting to hear, out of those two choices. Bill tilted his head to the side slightly.

“He lying?” Bill asked Stanley under his breath, without looking away from the Stanford.

“Don’t think so,” Stanley told him just as quietly.

“Hm.” Bill thought about this.

...Technically, ‘an accident’ as Stanley had described it to him, almost a month ago now, wasn’t exactly the same concept as what that six-fingered-Stanford brother-of-Stanley’s thought when he heard the phrase used by Stanley. But this was a different Stanford; he wasn’t part of his Zodiac, Bill had never been inside of his head. Wasn’t exactly safe to assume such here.

But given that the Stanford wasn’t screaming about that stupid ‘science fair project’ of his -- or even so much as grinding out such an answer through gritted teeth at them -- and wasn’t acting aggressively in any way in response to what Bill had demanded he clarify, either… and given how the Stanford interacted with this other Stanley, and how this other Stanley seemed to treat the concept of ‘an accident’ the same way as Stanley… it was probable that all three of them had similar ideas of what ‘an accident’ actually meant and implied.

Unlike Stanford. The arrogant jerk.

‘Not on purpose’ didn’t abdicate responsibility, not for any Stanford of any stripe. ‘An accident’, however, did abdicate that responsibility when a Stanford thought it... when it was relayed to a Stanford by anyone other than their Stanley. Under that alternate set of circumstances, ‘an accident’ did match up concept-wise to what Stanley thought it meant. ...And Stanley wasn’t this other Stanley, so that meant that...

...they were all on the same page, of the very same book no less.

Bill shifted his shoulders slightly and said, a bit more loudly, “Fine, then the truce stands. --You want those three behind you included?” he said to the other Stanley, with a nod in the general direction of the kids standing mostly behind him.

“Yes, we want them included,” the Stanford said, and Bill cut his eyes over to him, then back to the other Stanley again.

“Yes, we both want them included,” said the other Stanley.

“Stanley?” Bill asked, without looking at him, still watching the two older locals.

“Yeah,” he said. “I want ‘em covered.”

“Fine,” Bill said, letting out a huff of breath, “I’ll agree to it,” he said straight-out, just to make it official. It wasn’t like he hadn’t expected something like this to happen sooner or later, if the truce held that long -- it’d been half the reason why he’d not wanted to say ‘yes’ to it in the first place. Because… well. He raised his chin slightly and flicked one of his hands to the side in a throwaway gesture. “It’s your funeral,” he told the Stanford and the other Stanley.

“What’s that supposed to mean?” the Mason said, ducking his head around Stanford’s left side, closest to the Wendy.

Bill rolled his eyes. “It means,” he told the kid, looking down at him and crossing his arms, “That between you and that Stanford of yours, odds are pretty high that at least one of you is gonna try to pull something on one of us soon enough, breaking the truce, and then,” Bill gave him a grin, “I’ll be killing you all! --Probably before the day is out,” he said good-naturedly with a shrug, rocking back on his heels.

“In self-defense,” Stanley added, and Bill shrugged again, because that wasn’t self-evident? Of course they’d be trying to kill them; they’d killed their own Bill already, before him, hadn’t they? They’d likely think he was some kind of pushover, that they could take him out, too. He wouldn’t be the one to start the fight, which meant Stanley would ‘object strongly’ to this and get involved in the ensuing fight -- which meant that the locals would then be trying to kill both of them. That Stanley didn’t seem to believe this scenario likely was just stupidity of the highest order -- which made no sense, because Stanley wasn’t an idiot. That said...

“They try to kill either of us, I’m killing them first,” Bill reminded Stanley, with a haphazard wave of one of his hands. That was just common sense. The smart thing to do. “Doesn’t matter to me what they look like.”

“If they really are the equivalent of complete strangers, you don’t actually know the odds of any of them trying to pull something on us,” Stanley said evenly, like he thought he was pointing something out.

“No,” said Bill, correcting him. “You don’t know that. But I sure do. I told you, I’ve watched plenty of different ‘them’s over the years,” he told Stanley while waggling his fingers at said ‘them’s, “of all sorts of different variations, across all sorts of different dimensions. And humans in general, too! I don’t have to know these ones specifically, to know the odds,” he told Stanley flippantly.

“Wait.” Stanley stared at him, looking a bit dumbstruck for some reason. Then he shook his head. “You’re trying to predict what they’ll do, on average?” he said, his voice rising slightly.

Bill frowned at him. “No. Humans are too unpredictable for that, without being able to directly read their minds.” Predicting humans ‘on average’ was just trouble waiting to happen, trouble which would then pounce on you and try to eat you. While you were still alive. Kind of NOT a good thing, in Bill’s experience. “I’m calculating how likely their reactions to things are, given where we are, what’s going on, who’s here when it happens, and how they’ve all been reacting to everything up until now.”

“You’re figuring out what we’re going to do next by cold-reading us,” the other Stanley said slowly, staring at him.

Bill glanced over at him.

“Ha! No,” Bill said, eyeing him. “That would imply that I think that you’re going along with it, and not going to lie to me every chance you get, to try and throw me off.”

The other Stanley started slightly. And then his eyebrows went up.

“Who are you?” the Mason said abruptly. “What are you?”

Bill looked over at him and eyed him. Had the Stanford and other Stanley really not told them, yet? Interesting.

Bill glanced up at the two of them, who both looked like they’d just bitten into something neither of them particularly liked the taste of. But neither of them said anything right away. ...And neither did Stanley.

...Well-well-well. So they hadn’t said anything, and didn’t seem to want to? How far did that go, exactly? ….Well, there was one very easy way to find out!

Bill smiled.

“William Pines,” he told the kid, turning towards him, “very much not at your service,” he concluded, giving him a showily-elaborate straight-backed bow, while maintaining direct eye contact with the kid the entire time.

He heard Stanley sigh heavily at his side.

“And if you’ve got a problem with me introducing myself that way, Stanley,” Bill said smoothly, without even so much as glancing up and over at him as he straightened back up from his sarcastic bow to the kid, “then maybe you shouldn’t have introduced me that way to every last being we met in the last three dimensions we traveled through!” he ended brightly, with a winning smile, and a very sharp edge to his voice. Because that had been beyond annoying, when Stanley had been doing it. At least if he did it himself, he had at least a little control over how it all went down. And it did feel good to get some of his own back, by annoying Stanley at least a little bit in the process in return.

Stanley didn’t say anything one way or the other.

“Anyway!” Bill clapped his hands together. “As for what I am, WELL, Stanley here likes to call me an ‘ancient immortal alien space-wizard’ behind my back!” he told Mason with a smile, as he gestured at Stanley. “And ‘a kid’ to my face,” with less of a smile and more of a frown. “Try explaining that one, why don’t you,” he ended sourly, glancing up at the sky over Mason’s head, off in the distance.

“Eh, you’ve got the body of a seventeen year old human teenager,” Stanley cut in before any of the others could respond. “That makes you a kid.”

Bill’s expression froze in place.

Bill slowly turned his head in Stanley’s direction.

And then Bill gave Stanley the best human-equivalent of a glare-to-end-all-glares that he could possibly manage with the eyes he currently had in his stupid human-ish body.

It wasn’t very effective.

...Probably because he didn’t have innate laser eye-beams in his current physical form, blast it!

Well, there was that whole agreement thing he had going on with the human, though, that he didn’t really want to break right then. So, it was probably a good thing that laser eye-beams were one of those things that he couldn’t do just then. For certain unknown-to-Bill measures of ‘good’. He supposed. Maybe.

“That doesn’t count,” he informed Stanley tersely, instead, because having a human-ish body didn’t count, it wasn’t his outer sides that mattered--!

“Yes, it does,” Stanley said calmly right back.

“No, it doesn--”

“--He’s also a Bill Cipher,” the other Stanley interrupted to add for good measure, frowning at him, and Bill spun in place back towards them all, because FINALLY!!! And how could he possibly ignore an opening like that! HAHA!

“Yes! That, too!” Bill told them all brightly, wide-eyed and grinning, as he tossed his hands straight up into the air at full extension.

And he watched their reactions like a hawk.

“WHAT!!” yelled each and every one of the three of them who apparently really hadn’t been in the know until then -- HAHA, how FUN!!!

(And Bill’s grin widened without him realizing it as he took it all in.)

“Are you kidding me?” Mason yelped out.

“Dude!” the Wendy said, raising her axe and looking at the Stanley in disbelief.

“...You’re a Pines now?” was what the Mabel said, with no small skepticism and curiosity, as she poked her head around Ford’s other side. And that...

Bill stared at her, hands slowly dropping back down closer to his head.

“What?” he said blankly.

The stares the other two were giving her were all-but lost on him.

The Mabel frowned up at him slightly, with an odd sort of smile on her face.

“You just said that you’re a Pines,” she told him authoritatively.

“Haha, what?” Bill stared down at her, and he felt an odd, uneasy sort of feeling in the center of his chest for some reason, almost like something inside him wasn’t quite aligned properly. Then he shook his head at her. “No no no,” he told her with a smile, wagging a finger back and forth at her, because that was just ridiculous! “Stanley is the one who said--”

Bill stopped.

Bill turned his head to look over at Stanley, frowning slightly.

Stanley was standing easy, by his side, arms folded. He was watching him, with a slightly raised eyebrows look.

“Gotta question for me, kid?” Stanley said casually to Bill.

Bill’s frown deepened a bit.

“Grunkle… Stanley?” the Mabel said, then continued on once she was past that speedbump. “Is Bill a Pines?”

“He’s my kid,” Stanley told her with a shrug, and Bill lost whatever that odd feeling was he was having with that statement, to have it replaced with annoyance instead -- which was a lot more comfortable for him to deal with.

So he let out a huff of breath with an eyeroll.

“I’m not a kid,” Bill told Stanley yet again, as all of the locals exchanged looks with each other.

Notably, the Mason was looking even more freaked out at the whole exchange than Bill had expected him to be, muttering something faintly that sounded a little like, ‘how is that even possible?

The Stanford was also a complete outlier from the rest of the locals, in his reaction -- he kept rubbing one of his hands across and in front of his mouth for some reason. Like he was covering something up.

“Nah, you’re definitely my kid,” Stanley said, looking at Bill.

“Bill Cipher,” Bill said tersely, pointing at his own chest. “Not a kid.”

The Stanford made a coughing sound for some reason.

“Yeah, yeah,” Stanley waved off easily. “Don’t remember you ever managing to prove that one yet, kid.”

“--I’ve been busy!” Bill snapped out at him. Because was Stanley really sticking to that!? Still?!? --Besides which, “It’s not my fault that things just. keep. happening! that I have to be the one to deal with!” he ground out, irate, tossing up his hands up in pure irritation at the sides of his head.

Stanley and the Stanford were exchanging a long look, now -- which seemed highly suspect to Bill, because what would a Stanford pick up on, that had to do with his Stanley, that the other Stanley wouldn’t get?

Bill glanced between Stanley and the Stanford suspiciously.

“All right, what?” Bill snarled out at the two of them, glancing between them again and fisting his hands at his sides. “What is it? WHAT?!” Because Bill hated not knowing things, and that was bad enough. But if there was one thing he hated more than anything else out there -- with the sole exception of the Axolotl itself -- it was a Stanford thinking he knew something that Bill himself didn’t!

“Eh, don’t worry about it, kid,” Stanley told him, scratching at his cheek. “It’s a… surprise,” Stanley told him after a moment of deliberation, with a smile, and that just made Bill all the more suspicious.

“How horrible a surprise are we talking here, Stanley,” Bill said, crossing his arms, narrowing his eyes at him, and walking forward to get right up in Stanley’s face, glaring. “This isn’t the kind of, say... memory-gun-to-the-head-along-with-a-punch-in-the-eye-after-tricking-me-into-the-wrong-mind kind of surprise... IS IT?” Because if it was, well, Bill was not going to be pleased with Stanley AT ALL! Not even a little!

There was a moment of dead silence.

“Nah,” said Stanley, looking down at him, eye-to-eye. “Nothing like that, kid.” He smiled down at him slightly. “Not even all that horrible, really.”

Bill glared up at him, unconvinced.

“You’re not lying to me right now, are you?” he demanded, leaning in a little closer, rising up onto the balls of his feet, getting tunnel vision as he tried his hardest to glean every last piece of information he could out of any flicker of emotion that might pass across Stanley’s face.

There were no flickers. “I’m not lying to you, kid.”

Bill watched him for a few moments longer.

He still wasn’t entirely convinced, but he did lean back from him and forced his stupid body to untense at least a little bit.

“You could be lying to me because there are other people around and listening,” Bill put out there, still watching him like a hawk, with his arms still crossed. Because Stanley had only really promised not to lie to him when they were alone, behind closed doors -- and presumably not being overheard when Bill was asking him questions.

“Then just ask me again when they aren’t,” Stanley said reasonably. “But I’ll give you the same answer.”

His expression did not change in the least during any of what he’d just said.

Bill pulled in a breath, then let it out in an annoyed huff.

He looked away from Stanley at the treeline, feeling frustrated. Because that wasn’t fair, or useful -- if it was something important, then he wanted to know what it was for sure right now!

“Does all this ‘Pines family’ stuff even matter?” he rattled out in annoyance, and only somewhat rhetorically. And when he heard several intakes of breath, he swung his head back around towards the locals in half-confusion, because what--?

“--Does it?” Stanley said almost immediately in response, halting Bill’s head-turn and redirecting Bill’s attention to him for just long enough that when Bill finally finished glancing back over at the locals, he knew that he’d missed something important. Because whatever initial reactions they must have had that had gone along with those gasps were now absent entirely. They were all just staring stone-faced at the two of them now.

Bill frowned at the locals, then frowned up at Stanley.

I don’t know,’ was really the truthful response to Stanley’s reverse-query, but… Bill wasn’t about to say that out loud. He was the Master of the Mind! He knew LOTS of things! ...Which wasn’t everything, sure, but humans had certain specific expectations when they heard something like that. And when humans caught on to their go-to sources of information being rather lacking in knowledge of anything that they themselves considered ‘simple’ or ‘easy’ or ‘intuitive’, WELL… Bill was unfortunately very well-acquainted with how quickly it all went downhill from there.

And Bill wasn’t about to do that to himself for no good reason, thank-you-very-much!

So Bill put on his ‘happy’ face instead.

“Haha, I mean, of course it matters to you!” Bill enthused out at Stanley in front of the rest of them, for the recovery, along with a bit of a smirk. “But why should it matter to me?” he said brightly, splaying his hand across his own human-ish chest.

“Eh, I guess that depends,” Stanley told him, with another shrug.

“Oh, yeah?” Bill said, eyeing him doubtfully. “On what?”

“On what family means to you,” the other Stanley interjected coldly, and Bill felt his facial expression freeze into a mask.

He heard Stanley pull in a sharp breath, but not quite visibly flinch, himself. “You don’t have to answer that, kid,” he heard Stanley say, almost warningly, under his breath, in tones of gravel, as Bill felt his mind ticking over. “...Kid?” and it took Bill a moment to pull in a breath again.

And then Bill laughed.

And laughed.

AND LAUGHED.

And when Bill was done laughing, and all the locals had backed up at least another good step or two away from both him and Stanley, Bill turned to face them all and said, “WELL! What does family mean to ME?” Bill half-yelled out, tossing his hands out from his sides. “...HMMMMMM, let’s SEE.” Bill paused for a moment to tap at his chin with his fingers, for dramatic effect. “--Well. I KILLED MY FAMILY, so maybe YOU ALL would like to take a WILD GUESS! HAHAHAHAHAHAHA!” he laughed out at all of them, with a wide, wide grin.

He heard Stanley let out a long and tired sigh next to him, as he watched all the locals, and their various reactions to his pronouncement, wide grin still plastered across his face.

“GO ON!” Bill urged them, making ‘come at me’ motions with his hands. “LET’S HEAR IT! --What, are there no GUESSES from the CROWD on how FUN IT WAS?” he laughed out at them, widening his eyes and his grin even further, deliberately, and they all looked taken aback. Scared, shocked, angry, and everything in-between, and it was HILARIOUS!

“You…” he heard the Mabel start to say, quiet and angry, wavering but strong.

“Oh, do SPEAK UP, KID!” Bill said, leaning forwards a bit and down. “I can’t HEEEAAAAR YOUUUUUU!”

The Mabel actually frowned up at him, looking resolute as pulled in a hard breath and she said, “You’re a monst--

“--Okay, no, that’s it, WE’RE DONE HERE!” Stanley yelled out, drowning out the Mabel entirely while physically shoving himself in-between Bill and the rest of the locals, blocking Bill’s view of them, and Bill startled back a step. Because he hadn’t been expecting that.

But that didn’t mean they were done, not by a long shot.

“Oh, ARE WE, Stanley?” Bill all but chuckled out as he straightened in place again, while grinning just as wide as before, and twice as nasty, right before Stanley turned back towards him. “Because I THINK--”

“--that you wouldn’t be nearly so angry and vicious about it if it didn’t actually mean a hell of a lot to you,” Stanley said firmly down to him, eyes and demeanor hard, and Bill stopped short and stared.

---

Chapter Text

---

It was one of the most horrifying things that Ford had ever seen. With a handful of words, Stanley had left Bill Cipher completely drained of expression. Pale as a sheet. Looking like he’d just been gutted across his stomach with a knife.

When Jheselbraum had rescued him from the Two-Dimensional dimension, she’d told Ford about their Bill. How he’d killed his parents and everyone else in his dimension in his quest for power.

And the way in which she’d said it, so coldly and clinically, had had Ford believing that the reason Bill had done it must have been just as cold and clinical. Calculating. Ruthless. Because why else would the Oracle need to distance herself from the horror of the situation so completely? Clearly he must not have cared, must have sacrificed them in his quest for power along the way either on purpose, or without a thought.

And Ford didn’t doubt that he had been exactly right in his understanding of her. Their Bill hadn’t cared about his family in the slightest.

--But this wasn’t their Bill.

And looking at him now, Ford didn’t doubt for a moment that Stanley had had the right of it.

This Bill had been lying about how he’d really felt about it.

Stanley had called him out on it.

And this Bill didn’t like having been caught out.

What came next turned Ford’s horror into a pure and overwhelming terror that completely froze him in place in an act of pure self-preservation.

Because this Bill… was ANGRY.

---

...Looking back on it later, everything that happened next made a scary sort of sense to Ford. But at the time, he’d literally been incapable of rational, coherent thought in the face of Bill’s rage.

Because that was what it had been. Rage.

Ford’s body and his instincts had known exactly what they were doing, at least in this instance. Freezing in place had been the smartest thing he could have done under the circumstances; his mind shutting down necessary to keep him still.

In retrospect, he realized that if he’d moved at all -- if he’d shifted in place, even so much as breathed in slightly, let alone tried to go for his gun -- the movement would have caught Bill’s attention.

Ford had been able to see Bill, still. And if his motion had caught Bill’s attention, Bill would have looked away from Stanley and seen him, standing off to the side -- Stanley’s body had been blocking Bill’s entire view of his family, but Ford had been standing just far enough away from all the others that Stanley’s body had not been completely blocking Bill’s view of him.

If Bill had looked over at him, he would have been reminded of the fact that Ford and the others were all standing there, just beyond Stanley. And then Bill would have most certainly killed them all on the spot for seeing him like that, Ford was certain of it later -- at the time, Bill had been that enraged.

Instead, Bill had almost killed Stanley.

Bill’s expression, his entire body, had screwed itself up into a rage so great and all-encompassing, Ford didn’t know how it had remained contained inside Bill’s physical form.

Bill had been literally shaking with rage. Hands fisted at his sides and knuckles white. Lips pulled back from teeth that Ford had dizzyingly wished were pointed, not flat, because seeing the expected would have been less scary, he was almost certain. Ford had half-expected Bill’s eyes to go black, and his skin to turn red from nose to fingertips, similar to what would have happened had he still been his old self in his old demonic form. Seeing him look human and enraged to that extent in many ways had been far worse.

There had been no in-between to translate, nothing missing that could be lost in the translation. It had been clear from every last inch of Bill’s body language and the expression upon his fully-featured face: Bill was going to disassemble Stanley’s molecules for his offense, for daring to point out the truth of the matter, and there was nothing any of them could do to stop it.

But Stanley hadn’t backed down, hadn’t looked so much as worried. He’d just stared Bill down, after having finished calmly but firmly calling Bill out on what Bill had just tried to pull over on all of them.

---

And Bill--

---

...Bill had stood there shaking and enraged and glaring, for a full second. Two. ...Three.

Eyes locked with Stanley’s own, until Bill had blinked.

...except it hadn’t been a blink, because Bill hadn’t reopened his eyes. He’d kept them shut.

Bill had been shaking in place, eyes closed, jaw clenched, and... then he’d lowered his chin slightly.

...And Ford wasn’t sure if he’d missed it before or not earlier, but in thinking upon it later, it had become apparent to him that Bill hadn’t been just shaking, he’d seemed to almost be swaying in place slightly. Forward and back, almost as if he was fighting a tug of war against Stanley’s gravity, a tidal effect, except Stanley hadn’t been moving at all. Stanley had been an anchor, planted solid but firmly in place like a tree, motionless but for his breathing.

It had only occurred to him much later that Bill had been fighting with Stanley somehow. Even shortly after Ford’s brain again started handling higher-order processes of thought beyond emotion-driven instinct -- screaming at him how unsafe everything was, because this was Bill Cipher -- it had only seemed at first like an exercise in consequences versus restraint rather than an actual contest of wills. And Bill…

---

--brought up his shoulders closer to his ears, bared his teeth in not-quite-a-snarl, turned on his heel, and stomped off into the forest. Past the tree line, and beyond.

Ford’s heartbeat thundered in his ears for some time after.

...Because Bill wasn’t screaming in rage, or even cursing at them all at any sort of volume, as he stomped off. The most sound that Ford was hearing was his own heartbeat, the breathing of himself and his family, and the snapping and crackling of underbrush that was getting kicked out of the way as Bill… left them all behind.

Ford had fallen into situations like this before, on the other side of the portal. Found himself stuck-hidden-trapped in close proximity to a young challenger, a deadly and dangerous predator, about to take on an older and very experienced predator of an even more dangerous sort. When that happened, the young challenger either backed down or attacked; the older predator never attacked first. When Ford had been caught nearby, in that situation, he’d frozen and let it play out.

He’d had to in order to survive.

If he’d been up at a height in the trees or down on the forest floor behind a cover of brush, once they started fighting he’d unfreeze and make a swift escape while they were occupied in their deadly battle with each other, bolt and run before they could follow, and not stop running until long after he’d lost track of their fight and couldn’t hear them anymore. If they didn’t fight… he’d generally find himself in a fight-to-the-death in short order with the elder predator -- never the younger, who would be too spooked at a second unknown adversary having appeared out of nowhere to do anything but back up and run off. If the younger saw him, the elder would attack him after the younger had run off, and if the elder saw him but the younger didn’t… it would simply wait until the younger had left. Watching and waiting, before getting up, stalking forward, and--

Those fights with elder predators had never ended well. Never.

Ford had never found himself on the ground, standing behind one of those elder predators before, out in plain view. The closest he’d ever had to that happening was only in one sort of situation, one that had happened to him only a very few times before, less and less often over the years as his senses of smell and hearing had improved, and it had always been completely by accident: falling out of the underbrush in front of something that might want to try taking a bite out of him -- but there had been startlement on both sides and he'd always had his choice of cover nearby to jump back into, or climb up, or crawl under, or... It had never been something like this. Never a situation where two predators had known he was there, yet felt completely comfortable in proceeding to absolutely ignore him for the moment because he was so far below their level of predation that a simple swipe of a claw or tooth would take care of--

Ford shuddered.

Bill had left. Stanley was still here. The younger predator had backed down, the older predator was still present.

Ford felt his body slowly unfreeze, his muscles aching with strain, as his instincts ticked him over into another mode of fight-or-flight -- because freezing wouldn’t help him, now. He shifted uneasily on his feet, feeling slightly faint, as he tried to relocate his center of gravity. He felt his own body shaking slightly in reaction as he unfroze, as the adrenaline that had been dumped into his system from his fight-or-flight-or-freeze response had nowhere to go, except--

He wanted to run.

His body and instincts kept trying to scream at him that Stanley -- this other Stanley, who was not Stan -- was a dire threat. That Bill Cipher -- so far up the known threat scale that he broke it -- had turned tail and not quite run from him, not wanting to take him on despite clearly wanting to kill him -- and this was doing bad things to Ford’s anxiety levels, and very bad things to his brain. Because if Bill Cipher himself backed down from taking on this Stanley Pines, then how dangerous was he?!

And in the moment, it all ran through Ford’s brain in a primordial rush of --threat? -- not threat -- Stanley? -- NOT STAN -- predator -- predator-more-dangerous-than-Bill -- predator-more-dangerous-than-Bill?!?!? -- run -- don’t run -- can’t run family here -- protect -- can’t protect -- dangerous -- not-dangerous -- THREAT -- not-going-to-hurt-me-Stan -- NOT STAN -- can’t -- need to run -- not a threat -- not a threat -- feels like a threat -- can’t be a threat -- threat not-a-threat if I don’t challenge… -- don’t challenge -- don’t be a threat -- don’t challenge -- don’t challenge -- don’t DON'T DON'T--

He tried to tense and constrict his muscles in place, to force himself to calm down. Rocking back in forth in place, in a self-comforting motion -- which his instincts were telling him was a terrible idea, because motion drew attention, motion now would draw attention to him -- but intellectually he knew better. Following his instincts was not right when it was other humans he was dealing with.

He had to calm down, he knew this. He had to calm down. He wanted to crouch and run. To hide. To hide until it all went away. The one constant thing about predators that dangerous was that predators moved on. Because they had to move to hunt. To follow the migration patterns of their prey. ...But those were the instinctual behaviors of a non-sapient predator, and Ford’s own instincts were not suited for intelligent predators. He had to calm down.

...and staring at Stanley helped a bit in doing so. Because Stanley was human. Clearly human. Standing upright. Not crouched or hunched over, nor carrying any weapons, and not looking anything like the usual sort of predator Ford was used to seeing and having to respond to. Looking like his brother, Stan. It was the only thing keeping Ford from doing something completely stupid, bolting and running just then; the visual stimuli Ford was forcing himself to stay somewhat-still and take in was completely contradicting everything else his body was trying to tell him, short-circuiting his instincts enough that he could force himself to stay in place and not run.

It was still immensely difficult for him to do. He couldn’t stare at Stanley directly, kept dropping his gaze off to the side to look at Stanley more out of the corners of his eyes than directly head-on, because he was nearly hardwired now to try and avoid direct eye contact if the pred-- if Stanley turned around abruptly. Because that was a stupid mistake to make with something that dangerous, and he knew better. You don’t do that. You avoid the challenge. Do not challenge him. Curve your shoulders, drop your gaze, drop your head, show your side profile, minimize your body size, curl in, submit. A different set of reactions, just above instinct, that he’d rarely used -- ones which had been hard-learned.

Certain classes of predators didn’t generally kill unless they were hungry or sick in the head or outright challenged; humans were one of them.

Ford had survived more than once when he’d been tired and nearly starving, too weak to fight, by going limp and completely docile to a certain type of predator -- showing himself to be a non-threat because he had been one -- and gotten through with nothing more than a score of small bleeding indents left by sharp teeth ringing around an arm, or leg, or his neck. ...And then Ford had waited. And waited. And waited a very very long time until after that predator had gone. ...And then slowly followed that lone predator at a great distance -- not stalking behavior, but rather playing the part of a jackal himself. Scavenging the remains of its kills long after they’d gone. Letting it do the work for him. Slowly building back up his strength.

Sometimes that predator had come for him later, once he was more than a sickly stick-figure of skin stretched over bones with next to no meat on them, and he’d always wondered how intelligent those ones might have been. Letting him fatten himself up for the kill on the leavings that it couldn’t eat? He still had nightmares about those ones sometimes. Nightmares full of glittering, sentient eyes that knew, that waited, that wanted to play...

Ford pulled in a shaky breath, and shuddered again, and barely suppressed a whine. He wanted to hide behind... Stan, his brother, the only true cover in the vast open field he was in, but that wasn’t smart or fair.

“Grunkle Ford?” he heard Mabel quietly say next to him, and something else shifted deep-down inside of him, from alone, alone, must protect self, survive to not alone, no, not alone, must protect them. He immediately crouched down and started running his hands over her shoulders, her hair, bringing her closer in to him, comforting her, comforting himself. She didn’t quite cling to him in return, it was more of a hug, but from the tension he felt in her muscles she was clearly somewhat stressed. ...Well, that was hardly surprising; so was he! Dipper crowded in a bit closer as well. Wendy was watchful above him.

Unable to keep his gaze away from the predator that had scared away Bill for long, Ford looked up and watched Stanley’s back as Stanley… closed his eyes briefly and blew out a long breath, untensing as well, performing a similar procedure by tensing, relaxing, then rolling his shoulders slightly. Ford hadn’t realized how worried Stanley’d been. That wasn’t an animalistic predatory response, that kind of worry.

Stan, his brother at his side, let out a long annoyed breath, and leaned back slightly, shaking out his fists.

Don’t engage, don’t challenge, don’t engage,’ Ford thought in a mantra to himself, but also partially at his brother, whose primary response to any form of aggression down to the lowest level of annoyance was...

“Shouldn’t have done that,” Stanley muttered under his breath, and Ford flinched hard, because he knew what was going to happen next.

“--Yeah, you shouldn’t have,” Stan snorted next to him. “And you think you’ve got that maniac under control?”

Ford stifled another flinch as he saw Stanley spasmodically clench his right fist and his jaw tighten in anger at Stan’s response.

“‘Under control’ ain’t the goal, and no, I don’t,” Stanley ground out, turning to look over his shoulder at them -- no, at Stan specifically. Ford hunched down a little lower, making himself small, curling around Mabel a bit more. ‘Ignore us -- please -- we aren’t a threat to you.

He tried to focus on the conversation, not let the words get away from him. They were talking. Talking was good. Talking but not yelling generally didn’t lead to fighting. No one was yelling.

“Are you serious?” Dipper blurted out next to him, and Ford’s breathing went a little more shaky.

No. No. He could do this. He could crouch here, low, and not bolt. It wasn’t a fight. It wasn’t a physical fight. It wasn’t a fight. No one was going to get hurt. Everyone was fine. Everything was fine. ‘Don’t embarrass yourself further. Prove you’re not just some feral animal. Stay with the kids. Stay with your brother. You can do this. Don’t run.

Stanley glanced down at Dipper, and Ford felt every muscle in his back tense. “Yeah, I’m serious. ‘Under control’ is a bad idea. I’ve got a grand-niece and a grand-nephew back home, a lot like you and your twin sister here, and I don’t plan on outliving them. I’ve got maybe ten years left in me if I’m lucky; twenty at the most.” He glanced away, and Ford tried to force the tension away again. “Even if I manage to do the impossible and get some working reins and chains on that kid, what’s gonna happen once I’m gone? Or if somebody steals ‘em away from me? --You got a Gideon Gleeful here?” Stanley said, glancing back at Dipper. “You just stand there and think about just what might happen if that little jerk ever got control of a ‘tame’--” and Ford heard a sharp intake of breath from Dipper at his side -- and a slight one from Mabel herself within his arms. “...Yeah,” Stanley drawled out, like he was agreeing with whatever the niblings must have been thinking of.

“But you’re…” Mabel began, then stopped as Ford fought the urge to clutch her to him, to quiet her. But she noticed how the tension in him had ratcheted upwards, and he didn’t miss the worried look she gave him.

He felt horrible, like he was letting her down. He was almost certainly letting her down, embarrassing himself and her as well by his bad reactions and incorrect behavioral responses. How she could even stand to let him cower and cringe and curl himself around her like an utter coward jumping at mere shadows of shades of thought was…

But then he felt Mabel’s hand softly press against his head, then her fingers as they ran over his hair, gentle and slow. He heard her whisper to him, “It’s okay, Grunkle Ford,” as she stroked his head carefully again. “It’s okay. Shh.”

Ford drew in a shaky deep breath, and barely caught and strangled the whimper that tried to make it up out of his throat.

Ford turned his head to the side and buried it in Mabel’s hair.

He hated himself more than a little as he did it. Because he didn’t want to be this scared, jumping at shadows for nothing; all Stanley was doing was talking, all any of them were doing was talking above him, and he couldn’t calm himself down. He didn’t want to feel this way. He didn’t want to be so broken and wrong. He didn’t want to be such a burden to his family. He couldn’t even defend them properly! He was too stressed to even talk right now, and he’d just frozen up when--

“You’re not letting him just get away with just anything,” he heard Wendy say outright, a frown apparent in her tone.

“Nah.” He heard the slightest of smiles in Stanley’s tone as he said it, but there was no smile in what he said next. “Kid’s a mess, sure, but he hasn’t tried to pull anything big since he’s been back.”

“...Define ‘big’,” Stan said in descending tones, and it had Ford spasmodically looking up to see Stan crossing his arms and narrowing his eyes at Stanley to almost a glare.

No. Don’t challenge him!!’ Ford wanted to reach up and grab at his brother, pull him away, get him inside where it was safe, but the kids-- Dipper and Mabel--

You define big,” Stanley shot back, and Ford could already tell from his tone that he was not going to answer the question. "I don’t know what the hell happened here, or didn’t, but in our dimension? Bad things went down when he got out.” Ford ducked his head again and watched out of the corner of his eye as Stanley took in a breath. “But you don’t know me, and you sure as crackers don’t know him, and I really don’t care what you think about either of us.” Stanley grimaced and turned away from them, glancing back towards the treeline where his Bill Cipher had gone. “Look, I screwed up just now, that’s nothin’ new there for me -- gonna have to freaking apologize to the kid for that one, which is gonna be just great,” he drawled out, all-gravel. He lifted the back of his hand to rub at his cheek.

Ford wanted to say something now, but he didn’t know what to say, breathing was difficult and his throat had practically closed up on him. Stanley didn’t notice, of course; he just kept going.

“And hey, maybe I’m doing nothing but screwing up, all the time, ever,” Stanley said almost to himself as Ford looked on, “Not like that’s new for me, either,” and Ford felt a very different sort of chill go down his spine. Then Stanley dropped his hand and looked over at Stan with a chilling kind of anger in his eyes that had Ford’s back up immediately, that almost froze him in place again -- because here he was, caught near an imminent battle between two very-dangerous predators again. “But you sure as hell ain’t helping, shooting off your mouth like that, interrupting me when I’m talking with the kid.”

“Yeah?” Stan challenged him. “So what, I’m supposed to be treating the crazy triangle with kid-gloves, now? If your lunatic demon can’t even handle--”

“‘Kid-gloves’, nothing!” Stanley snapped back. “I ain’t some kinda bleeding saint! Next time you want to shoot out something like that, maybe you oughta think about where you’re aiming! --You think I want to be here?!” Ford watched Stanley belt out at volume at Stan, with a growing hard sort of ache in his chest. “You think I wanted to leave the rest of my family?!” Stanley said, his voice nearly cracking, with a great deal of pain in his voice. “I didn’t have a choice! If I hadn’t gone with the kid--” Stanley grimaced and cut himself off, shaking his head angrily.

Then what,” Stan said almost sarcastically.

Stanley sent a full-on glare Stan’s way. “--No. You know what? I don’t have to explain myself to you,” Stanley gritted out. “I don’t like you, you don’t like me; fine,” and Ford was glancing between an identical set of stubborn angry Stan-faces, over and over again, feeling the muscles around his lungs compress under the strain, leaving him with shallow panting breaths, and he tried not to let out a whimper from where he was crouched down below them on the ground. He felt Mabel’s hug deepen and curled his own arms around her a bit more. “That’s fine; you keep your family safe, I’ll deal with the kid; not like we were planning on sticking around here anyway. Kid wants away from here as badly as I do, maybe more,” Stanley said flatly. “So you go back in the Shack and put up one of those voodoo barriers made outta unicorn hair if you don’t have one up already -- you know what I’m talking about?”

“We have one up,” Stan said neutrally, and Ford shivered, because Stan never talked like that.

“Good. Great. You just keep everybody in there and out of the way.” Stanley glanced down at Ford for a moment, then back up at Stan. “We’ll take over your yard for a couple of days, kid’ll figure out whatever stupid thing went wrong and do his thing, and we’ll be out of your hair in maybe a week at most. And then you all can go back to your summer fun, and pretend we never even existed to begin with. --Sound good?” Stanley bit out.

Ford was shaking with stress. He tried to breathe out a ‘no’, because no, that was not good! Predators too close to the house; another-Stan-Stanley living with one of them. No, that was. not. good!

Dipper murmured something under his breath.

“You do that,” Stan said neutrally to Stanley, his arms still crossed across his chest.

Ford felt a soft whimper escape him.

...and Stanley heard him and glanced down at him.

Ford dropped his head, instinctively turned slightly to make his profile as small as possible, and curled down around Mabel protectively as he did so. He wasn’t a threat, wasn’t a threat, neither he nor Mabel were a threat, and he didn’t want to see Stanley look at him like that. He hadn’t wanted to see that Stanley look down at him with concern, and then fight against feeling it. That just made what Ford was feeling just then feel even worse.

Ford didn’t want to see what that concern would almost certainly turn into in short order, either -- disgust, or anger, or…

--he just didn’t.

He could feel Stanley’s gaze on him, like it was a physical thing.

Mabel started stroking his hair again, and he shuddered and another little whimper escaped him.

He hated himself. Feral-bad-wrong. He was too stressed to even get out a single one-syllable word. He could barely follow a conversation in standard American English. He-- he--

He heard Stanley take in a long breath.

“I’m going after the kid,” he heard Stanley say, and Ford shuddered again. Bill was out in the woods, doing who-knew-what where Ford couldn’t see him. “Can’t leave him too long without a reality check; his thinking gets really wrong.” There was a slight pause. “Get ‘em all inside; all of you, get inside,” Ford heard, the last a little louder, as if Stanley had directed it at all of them. “Kid’s got no self-control, and he’s gonna remember you were all here and saw that, sooner or later. Under the barrier means he can’t do anything directly; it’ll stop him long enough that I should be able to talk him around, make him remember that we’re all supposed to have a truce.”

The reminder of danger and imminent threat from Bill had Ford on his feet with Mabel lifted up and cradled in his arms in less than a breath. While doing so, Ford risked a side-glance over at Stanley again.

“But, wait--” said Mabel, and Ford halted his motion, stopping himself in place; he’d been about to cart her off indoors straightaway. It took him a moment to realize that Mabel’s directive-command-order-request hadn’t been made to him. “Grunkle Stanley, he stopped on his own, didn’t he?” Mabel said, sounding a little confused, as she resituated herself in Ford’s arms.

“Stopped, nothing,” Stanley said dourly. “Later he stopped, maybe. Only reason we’re all still standing here in the first place is that he got so mad he forgot he had magic, right from the get-go, and tried reaching for his weirdness powers instead.”

Ford shuddered again.

“He can’t--?” Dipper began, eyebrows going up.

“No, he can’t,” Stanley confirmed, turning away from all of them. “Not right now.”

“...Why not?” Wendy asked for them all, with something a little like caution.

And the last thing they heard from Stanley as he vanished into the woods was: “Because I won’t let him.”

---

They all exchanged looks.

They got themselves inside.

---

Chapter Text

---

“Ain't your problem, Stanley,” Stanley told himself, as he trudged through the broken branches and mashed-underfoot leaves. “Ain’t your callout, to help out that other guy’s brother, with whatever the hell’s going on with him. That idiot-me can just go on doing a lousy job of it; no skin off my nose,” Stanley muttered to himself, but it almost hurt him to say it. Almost. He couldn’t let himself get caught up in things here; that wasn’t his brother, his twin. That wasn’t his Ford that that other-him wasn’t taking good enough care of, hunched down on the ground and looking almost like a beaten dog where he’d crouched. It wasn’t his callout, and wasn’t his problem. He needed to get back home, to make sure that the kids were okay, and that his own twin brother hadn’t died while he was away.

Even if he knew his brother wouldn’t appreciate it. ‘Good riddance,’ yeah.

Stanley let out a huff of breath.

...Please let him still be alive,’ Stanley thought desperately, looking up at the sky and blinking back tears.

Stanley rubbed the side of his cheek, underneath his ear, feeling utterly lousy, and he took in a breath, and let it out again.

Stanley dropped his chin, walked past yet another tree, and almost missed seeing the kid.

But he didn’t miss him.

So he stopped in place and looked. Then stared a bit.

Bill was sitting on the ground, with his knees up to his chest, his head on his knees, and his arms wrapped around up and over his head.

Stanley let out a long breath and slowly picked his way through the underbrush and over to him. Just as slowly, he sat himself down next to him, shoulders not quite touching.

He waited.

“I’m better than this,” he heard the kid say finally, low and offbeat somehow. “I’m better than this,” Bill repeated, voice wavering. “--I’m better than this,” Bill said again, and it finally dawned on Stanley that the kid wasn’t talking to him, he was trying to convince himself that-- “I am. I am.”

“Kid, I’m sorry,” he told the ex-demon, and if anybody had told him a month ago that he’d ever feel like a heel for managing to do something to Bill Cipher that left the mad triangle on the verge of a mental breakdown, he’d have laughed himself sick. “I shouldn’t have said what I did.”

I should be better than this,” the kid said, voice getting even less steady, and had the kid even heard him? Bill was clutching at his head now, and he looked like he was seriously freaking out. What in the world was going on inside the kid’s head--? “I need to be better than this!!” Bill said shakily, his head coming up slightly, his voice rising in tones of sheer stress.

Stanley decided to take a chance; the kid didn’t always react real well to touch. He reached out and swung an arm across Bill’s shoulders.

The moment he touched Bill, the kid let out a low moan. ...And it may have taken a couple minutes, sure, but eventually Bill was nestled right up against his side just like any other upset kid would, who was feeling lousy and needed a parent’s support.

Stanley looked down and saw Bill’s eyes fluttering half-closed, while murmuring the usual sort of ancient alien-wizard language nonsense he did that even the universal translator that was tucked under Stanley’s shoulder still couldn’t parse -- the one that Bill had practically outright stolen from that stall-keeper and then up-modified for him to what Bill considered the gold standard for interdimensional travelers; the one with a wireless connection up to the also-improved-upon hearing aid in his ear. He didn’t know if the kid had left the language out on purpose, or if it really was gibberish that was coming out of the kid’s mouth.

Stanley tried not to sigh in frustration. He really hated it when the kid got too upset or stuck in his own head to talk to him properly. It meant he never knew what to say.

---

Chapter Text

---

He needed to be better.

He needed to be better.

He needed to be better, and he HATED the Axolotl, because it had been RIGHT.

The Axolotl had tossed him back into everything as a human-ish something, with an anchor that kept him weighed down that Stanley could hold. One that had kept him cautious enough of the possible bad outcomes of ignoring it to not try ascending back into a being of pure energy right away and becoming his usual old triangle self again. --Not without getting rid of the anchor first.

And if the Axolotl hadn’t done that, or if Bill had still had innate laser eye-beams in this form, he’d have blasted Stanley to less than atomic paste not five minutes ago.

Not because Bill had wanted to. Just because he’d been too angry to think.

It wasn’t as though Bill had anything against the idea of killing Stanley. He assumed he definitely might have to, eventually. Probably. Maybe. (...Well, the ‘might-probably-maybe-eventually’ part of that was new, but still.)

The problem was losing his temper. AGAIN.

Because the last time he’d lost his temper so badly, he’d…

The last time he’d accidentally laser eye-beamed someone, it had been--

HE NEEDED TO BE BETTER.

He’d thought he had been BETTER. That he’d gotten better. That he had control now!

But he’d been glaring at Stanley and there had been no thoughts there -- just RAGE -- until his eyes went itchy and his vision went black and he realized it was black because he’d blinked and then he’d realized what he’d just been doing. --NOT doing. What he would have been doing if he’d been able to do it, but shouldn’t be. (He didn’t have laser eye-beams.) What he should have been doing, but hadn’t been. (--He hadn’t been THINKING!!)

And then he’d felt the ache behind his eyes, not just in his eyes, and the burning tension all down his back, down his spine, and then he’d realized that he’d been pulling so hard against his anchor the entire time that…

If Stanley hadn’t had the strength of will that he had, Bill would’ve torn down the entire dimension around them, with that much of what he’d been clawing at, trying to reach for to have in-hand, to use -- no, not to use, not just to use -- to lash out with blindly in anger and RAGE and sheer HATE.

The worst part -- even worse than all the rest which was bad enough -- was that HE HADN’T BEEN ABLE TO STOP.

He’d known what he would do if he got his hands on that power, knew what would happen if he did, knew that he didn’t want to do that, didn’t want to tear at the boundaries and destabilize the entire dimension around them, didn’t want to get himself caught inside a decaying dimension ALL OVER AGAIN... and he’d STILL kept on clawing at the anchor, and the connection between them, anyway. Kept trying to grab at and grab back what he was supposed to have. Everything else that was being kept from him, and all the weirdness that was his. He’d tried and tried and tried and tried to not-try and tried again and not-tried again and--

He still wasn’t sure how he’d managed to break away, to break out of that cycle, but once he had he’d turned around and turned away and just kept walking. Walking. Walking. Walking until he’d felt like he’d collapse on his stupid shaky human-ish legs if he kept walking any further -- it hadn’t even been very far, his stupid human-ish body adding insult to injury -- and then he'd found a tree to collapse behind and done that.

He hadn’t been able to stop. If Stanley hadn’t stopped him, and kept on stopping him...

Bill HATED the Axolotl, because it had been right. Because what good was being a triangle again, and having his own dimension back again, and having ultimate power at his disposal…

...if all that would happen now was what had happened before all over again -- except this time only worse. Because now he was supposed to know better. --He was supposed to be BETTER!!!

Bill put his head down on his knees and he felt that stupid feeling that all humans get when they feel like they’re going to cry.

He didn’t cry.

He could manage at least that much.

At least he had that much control.

...Stanley was there after awhile. Stanley was quiet, and warm, and made things a little better. Stanley listened, and talked to him, and was there.

He hadn’t realized how much he needed Stanley before now -- not even when he’d found out that Stanley was one of the ones the Axolotl had prophesied was supposed to be his. Stronger than him. A threat to his power, he’d thought -- and Stanley was, except Stanley wasn’t.

Bill’s own power was the real threat. Because if Bill couldn’t control it, then what good was it? What good was he?

--He wasn’t good. He was a monster.

He didn’t care about that, though. He just wanted his brother back.

He missed Liam so, so much.

He hadn’t meant to kill him.

--He had, but he hadn’t! He’d been mad enough to want him dead again, but he hadn’t actually been trying to KILL HIM!! He hadn’t wanted to kill him! --It didn’t count!! No, it didn’t! It didn’t! It didn’t! --It wasn’t fair!! IT WASN’T HIS FAULT!!!

What good would it do to bring him back again, if he’d just end up killing him AGAIN?!?!

Bill didn’t want to think about that, though.

So he curled up against Stanley’s side, and murmured snippets of Liam’s old stories to himself, and pretended for awhile that everything was okay, even though it wasn’t.

It wasn’t.

It wasn’t, but it could be, but it wasn’t.

It wasn’t, but he could make it okay -- but what if he couldn’t? If he couldn’t control himself--

He could, he would, except maybe he couldn’t--

He could, he would; he couldn’t; he would do it anyway, it was okay; it wasn’t okay.

It wasn’t okay, but he could pretend that it was, for at least a little while.

Once upon a time…

It wasn’t.

---