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More Than a Mentor

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I didn't think I'd find you here.

*

"Incredible!" you exclaimed in awe, dropping your pack to the ground in front of where you were kneeling to rummage through it. You found your tape measure in a side pocket of your backpack and extended the tape with an excited grin, holding it up to measure the fascinating creature in front of you. Its height was just above twelve inches, and you retracted the tape measure to scribble hurriedly in your notebook. You looked back up at the small being, the smile never leaving your face. "May I get your name again, little guy?"

"Shmebulock," the gnome garbled through a mouthful of candy. His little hands clutched the wrapper of the king sized chocolate bar you'd lured him in with. "Senior."

It was a beautiful sunny morning, and you couldn't be more eager to spend the rest of the summer in this little town. You'd spent the last few decades wandering the globe for your research of the unknown, myths becoming realities and incredible adventures taking up a significant portion of your time. It was always fun to move from place to place, not quite ready to settle down anywhere yet when there were so many sights to see. You made many new friends on your travels, but it was never too hard to part ways with a small promise of keeping in touch. Being around friends wasn't what you were interested in.

At least, not until you showed up here.

Gravity Falls was a hub of tourist activity, so you fit right in. Your studies have led you here, to this very town. There was a fixed point of strange occurrences and creatures seeming to originate from this area, and that alone was enough to make you curious. As with all places you've been to, you scoped out the town and the areas surrounding it in hopes of a small sample of what you could discover during the time you'd be there.

And a sizeable sample did you get. Only few hours in the woods at night, and you'd already come face-to-face with the supernatural. Floating eyeballs, giant bats, mysterious echoes of quiet bluegrass music in the distance. Not even a day since your arrival and you already had a solid several pages of the anomalies you've encountered throughout the night and early morning. This place was a goldmine of weird!

You had camped out in the woods that first evening of your arrival, mainly because you had nowhere else to stay so soon after showing up unnanounced. You really didn't mind, as wandering around a lot often left you without means of living space besides dinky motels. You woke up at dawn after a very pleasant dream and walked around the woods a bit more, meeting a gnome barely twenty minutes into your morning exploring. After a very confusing but exciting spelling lesson, as well as a promise to bring your gnome friend more candy sometime, you had everything packed up again and had wandered back into the town of Gravity Falls.

Not many people were out since it was far too early to wake on a summer weekend when you'd left the woods, and so the town was under a blanket of serene silence. It was nice, but you wanted to start getting to know people. In the meantime, you had decided to start familiarizing yourself with the areas you didn't get to see before nightfall. You had expected a place with this many unnatural occurrences to be lowkey and unfriendly, but everyone you saw trickling out of their homes in the more manageable part of the morning were the complete opposite.

Each person seemed to have their own strange quirks, besides one man in a button-up who didn't seem the least bit strange. Having this many welcoming people greeting you and each other got you in a pretty good mood, but walking around for those few hours without any sort of breakfast did have you hungry. Your morning snack had been fed to a gnome, after all. You had doubled back once you reached the end of a strip of closed stores, turning a few corners to find the cute diner you'd seen earlier.

Currently, a small bell above the door chimed as you entered, and there were a few people you already recognized who must have been on their way to eat when you met them on the sidewalk. A few patrons glanced up at the door at the quiet tinkle of the bell, but were otherwise too busy with their breakfast to pay you any mind. You understood, looking around the interior of the diner rather than try to greet those you'd met on the sidewalk. You were pretty eager to get some food yourself.

You bid a good morning towards the first employee you saw, a woman with a lazy eye, and she merrily introduced herself once confirming you were a traveler. This town seemed to be a tight-knit community in which everyone knew everyone, and it wasn’t hard to spot people from out of town. You knew you’d stick out like a sore thumb once the current round of tourists left and you remained, but hopefully you’d get to know the locals a bit more personally when they realized you planned to stay for a good amount of time. Camping was practically second nature to you, but in these woods, you felt like you should have a proper shelter. To get a place to stay on such short notice, you'd have to make quick friends.

"I know you'll enjoy your stay, mysterious stranger!" Lazy Susan exclaimed, grabbing a half-empty mug from the nearest table and pouring coffee into it. She grinned at you, not bothering to look down at the mug. You would’ve been impressed if coffee hadn’t spilled over the rim a few times, splattering onto the tiled floor. "There's plenty to do in Gravity Falls, and Greasy's Diner has the best grub in town! Try our pies as soon as you get the chance, okay?"

The coffee eventually overfilled the mug, sloshing onto the table to the great dismay of the customer it belonged to. It spread over the table, dripping slowly over the edge to add to the puddles on the floor. Some of the hot coffee spread towards the person in the booth, threatening to spill onto them. They didn't quite look surprised, and just glanced at Lazy Susan in exasperation. You felt kind of bad for them.

"I sure will, I promise. They all look amazing," you admitted honestly, looking away from the customer. Your eyes settled on the display case of pies as Lazy Susan hustled you over, insisting for you to take a seat wherever while she went to grab a menu. She had nudged you playfully a few times and you had to grip the strap buckle of your book bag as you followed her further into the diner, playing into her friendly chat along the way. Your leather bag was so old and worn, the strap came undone when it was jostled too roughly. Breakfast hour had just been ending, so there were plenty of available seats. You sure worked up an appetite with all the walking you did earlier. "Thanks a whole bunch, Susan, I'm just about starving."

"Being a wanderer will do that to ya. Maybe you oughta settle down here! We sure could use the extra business. Wink!" She lifted her lazy eyelid and moved it back down in a strange wink, then laughed to herself and turned to go behind the counter at the very same time a teenage girl you didn’t recognize bounced past you towards the exit. You chuckled at the friendly exchange, paying no mind to the enthusiastic girl, and took another step forward to find yourself a booth somewhere. Preferably near a window so you could look out at the town while eating.

Just then, a sturdy force collided with you, and you gasped as you took a startled step back. The strap of your book bag shifted just enough that it came totally undone, and the flap of the bag snapped open to let your journals and loose notes scatter on the floor pathetically. Luckily, nothing had slipped into the coffee on the floor that had yet to be cleaned. You sighed at that small relief, just glad nothing of yours was dirtied or ruined. That would have been a small pain.

The person you’d run into hastily apologized as you kneeled to start collecting your papers, trying to organize them as fast as possible so you wouldn’t have to stay squatted down for long. The diner wasn’t too wide, and you always hated being the person to block walkways. Luckily, no one else seemed to be out of their seat. In fact, the other customers either didn’t notice what had happened or were just very content to mind their own business. You didn't know whether that was thoughtful of them or not in this particular situation.

"Oh goodness, I'm so sorry! I was just getting up to follow my niece and must have let my mind wander, I’m sorry," they said quickly, alarmed. Then they were dropping to the floor as well to gather what they could, much more frantic than you were. You shook your head, lips quirking in an amused smile at their fretting, and starting to stuff things back into your book bag. With all the years you’d spent traveling, you knew that accidents happen. Sometimes, things just weren’t anyone’s fault. Other times, they were everyone's fault. You'd left behind the habit of blame a long time ago.

"No, no, it's alright. I should've paid more attention to where I was going, too. There's no harm done.” You quickly fixed the strap of the bag, tugging the buckle to make sure it didn't come undone again and then grabbing everything else closest to you. At one point, the two of you almost touched hands before they quickly yanked back to let you grab it. It seemed to be a flustered reaction rather than a disgusted one, so you paid it no mind. You and the stranger stood up and they offered a neat stack of your things with both hands once the both of you decided you’d grabbed everything. "Thank you for helping me pick all this up. I really appreciate it."

"Of course. I was lost in my own head just now, it’s the very least I could do." You took the stack with one hand, ready to assure them they weren't at fault again, when you noticed something that made you falter. You had noticed their hands. This person had six fingers on each one, both wrapped around your stack of books. That sparked something familiar in you, and you had some sense of nostalgia.

A beat of silence passed.

They must have realized what you were looking at, because then their hands made a hasty retreat and they folded their arms behind their back in another familiar fashion. Huh.

"W-Well, uh, sorry again. My niece is waiting, if-if you could please excuse me." Their voice was deep, you noticed, and even more nervous than before. They sounded extremely embarrassed, and were already moving to rush away from you. You looked down at the small stack of your supplies dumbly, taking a moment to process. What are the odds this was a stranger? You definitely know someone with six fingers. And that habit of hiding them. And that deep voice.

That voice.

The stranger hastily brushed past you and you whipped around to look at them, surprised. Their back was towards you, hands now folded in front of them to keep their fingers hidden from your gaze. The teenage girl that had passed you earlier was in the open doorway of the diner, staring at you quizzically, like she was just about to leave before hearing the commotion. This must have been the stranger's company to breakfast. A child of theirs, maybe?

Your eyes flickered to the back of the person's head as they walked away from you, and the girl looked up at them curiously. You stared intently at the person, taking in their build and their brisk way of walking. The high arch of their shoulders as they hunched in on themself, like they meant to quietly slip out of your notice. Almost on instinct, you took a startled step forward.

"Do I know you from somewhere?" you blurted out, your free hand floating in front of you as if to reach out to this person. You already knew the answer to your question, you were positive, but it did well to get their attention. They shook their head, glancing over their shoulder at you for just a moment before doing a double-take. He paused. He turned, his flustered hunch receding slowly so he was standing tall. You looked at his face, watching it slowly light up with recognition as he looked at you. "Stanford?"

*

“Mr. Pines?” you asked, holding a textbook to your chest as you leaned down to address the student in his seat. The man in question looked up from the small stacks of books and notebooks around him, that of which were absolutely cluttering the large table he sat at. You recognized his face from the identification the counselor had showed you and introduced yourself with a smile. You held out a hand, making sure to keep your voice at a reasonable level even though you two were the only people in the room. Even the Backupsmore University librarian was a slacker, it seemed. “I’m the student you were asked to tutor. It’s very lovely to meet you.”

He glanced at your face to your outstretched hand, almost weary. When he hesitated to respond, you started to draw your hand back. He reached up before you could and took it into his own, giving you a firm handshake. You were taken aback by how his hand enveloped yours easily, feeling bigger than you usually noticed hands to be. Before you could think about it too much, the man withdrew from the contact and folded his hands together, resting them on the table in front of him.

“Stanford will do. And, er, likewise.” His voice was deep and pleasant to the ear, and you found you didn't mind listening to it at all, even with the nervous undertone. This was a relief. You'd have to listen to this voice for as long as Stanford Pines was your tutor. Another brief silence passed and he cleared his throat awkwardly, standing up to move some of the stacks of books aside to clear as much space on the table as possible for you. There was a chair opposite his and he gestured to it quickly, seeming to grow just a bit more nervous. The hand he wasn’t gesturing with came up to rub the back of his neck. “Please, have a seat.”

“Thank you. I’m really looking forward to working with you, Stanford,” you said honestly, pulling the chair out and slinging the strap of your leather book bag over the back before sitting down. His name rolled off your tongue smoothly, as if you’d said it a million times over before coming here to meet up with him. That probably wasn’t too off, as you had practiced introducing yourself alone in your dorm room the day prior. It wasn’t often you had to meet new people, and you couldn’t bring yourself to socialize when you were having this much trouble with your studies. Rather, what you wanted to study.

“Likewise.” Stanford seemed to realize he’d already said that just earlier, stumbling over his words a bit. You refrained from raising a brow at him in your slight amusement. So far, this guy was far worse at socializing than you were, which was another small comfort. This was awkward for both of you. “Ah, I mean—Yes, yes, as do I. Look forward to working with you, that is. I admit I-I was reluctant to accept a tutoring position, especially so suddenly. After reading a few of your essays, however, I believe we should be able to accomplish your goal. The counselor told me you were, ah… lost, as you put it?”

You had scheduled a meeting with one of Backupsmore University’s head counselors last week to explain you had no idea what you wanted to do after graduating. You’d hoped to find a major you were interested in once you got accepted by a university, but years later, you still didn’t know what to do. The counselor truly wanted to help you, and pointed you out to Stanford Pines, a man around your age who was already breezing through the school curriculum and probably close to earning his doctorate already despite being years away from such an achievement.

The counselor had met with him a few days after you, and he was definitely not looking to be a tutor. Stanford was very focused on his studies and thought being a mentor would be more of a setback. He didn’t work much with people, either, and was wary of having to associate with someone who needed a tutor in such a low-ranked college. It took some convincing to have him sign up for one-on-one sessions modeled the way he wanted. He only accepted the program after considering the fact that doing this would build his resume and other applications.

“That’s probably the most accurate way to put it, yes,” you agreed, a bit bashful. You calmly paraphrased your situation, but looking such an attentive man in the eye and seeing all the independent research he was doing was intimidating to you. It was hard to get your goals in order, and even harder to bring yourself to ask for help from someone your age who was probably going to graduate with an early master’s degree before you even managed to land a bachelor’s. It was incredibly embarrassing, even though Stanford didn't strike you as the type to tease about your worries.

“Alright,” he hummed once you were finished explaining your situation. He briefly glanced around at everything on the table, then leaned over to one stack of a few big books and shuffled through them patiently. You watched as he grabbed one and held it up with one hand, letting you read the title of the textbook. At the advanced subject, you leaned back a little in shock. Stanford's focused expression was completely unchanged, save for a miniscule furrow in his brow. “We’ll start with quantum physics.”

You’ve known him for less than ten minutes, and he wanted to start your tutoring sessions with quantum physics? You gaped at the man, who stared at you unwaveringly in return. You didn’t even consider going into a field of that science, surely he would know that. You knew the counselor had shown him your classes. There was no way he was serious about teaching this to you. Unless…

Was he trying to figure out if you were serious about him teaching you?

The idea was a bit patronizing at first, but the more you thought about it, the more you understood. You were complete strangers. This was Backupsmore University. He didn’t know you at all. For all he knew, you could be some C- highschool graduate who wasn’t willing to put in the effort to get yourself a decent career. He wanted to make sure you were serious about getting tutored, that you wouldn’t just waste his time and flake out after a week of half-assed effort under lessons he didn't even want to teach in the first place. This was just a huge chunk out of his schedule to him. You were just extra work he had to do on top of everything else he had going on. And judging by the clutter of the table you sat at, he had a lot going on.

Your mouth had opened slightly in surprise, but just a moment later, you’d readily composed yourself. You pursed your lips and swung your book bag onto your lap to quickly find an empty notebook and a pen you hadn't used much before, bringing them in front of you. Stanford raised his brows in your peripheral, and you set your supplies on the desk before looking back up at him with a determined expression. You clicked your pen so the writing tip was out, the mild sound being extremely prominent in the silence.

“We'll start with quantum physics,” you echoed firmly, nodding. The man stared a bit longer, as if he was expecting you to take it back. You kept eye contact until something in his expression grew less tense, and he nodded as well. Your new tutor opened the textbook and turned it around towards you, sliding it smoothly in your direction. Stanford flattened out the glossy pages with both hands as he recited the title of the first section, and you opened your notebook and dutifully brought your pen to paper.

*

Stanford Pines was a deer in headlights, frozen to his feet as he took a moment to study you. Another moment passed, in which you couldn't believe who you were seeing. Those wide eyes, that unruly hair, those crooked glasses, those hands that now hung at his sides. He stammered out your name after a few seconds, unsure. The smooth familiarity of it did wonders to oppose the awkward tension.

You laughed in disbelief and practically lunged forward to bring your arms around your old mentor and friend in a hug. Ford’s body stiffened briefly before his shoulders untensed and his arms came around you to return the embrace. He held you close as he laughed softly, somehow sounding more shocked than you did.

“You’re here!” you exclaimed in happy confusion, feeling like a college undergrad all over again. He said your name again, excited and full of mirth. You missed people saying your name like Ford did, like they genuinely knew you and actually appreciated your company.

“I’m here!” Ford said, his tone equally as confused and elated as yours was. He broke the hug to put his hands on your shoulders and just looked into your eyes with an incredibly charming expression, his face alight with a brilliant smile. You returned it with a remarkably easy familiarity, your own hands coming up to hold his forearms as if to make sure he was really in front of you.

You had just arrived in Gravity Falls, but you already knew you wouldn't regret coming here.

Chapter Text

"We'll see each other again soon."

*

“Gosh, how long has it been? Thirty, forty years?”

“Too long. Far too long.”

“We're so old,” you chuckled, slicing a big hunk of your pancakes with a butterknife. Stanford sighed, an unreadable smile on his face as you shoved the huge forkful into your mouth without much grace. Susan was right; wandering around so much did make you super hungry. You picked up the syrup pitcher again and dribbled a bit more over your pancakes, mostly to watch the amber liquid slowly trickle down as you chewed.

“I need to hang out with my friends more. The ones my age,” Mabel hummed jokingly, lighting up when you laughed through your food. The teenager was incredibly energetic and friendly, and didn't hesitate to introduce herself as Stanford's great-niece once your hug with him had come to end. It was nice to have such an enthusiastic person around you and you could already tell she'd do wonders to your attitude throughout your trip. In such a small town, you had no doubts you'd be seeing these two often.

Ford had graciously offered to leave you alone to your breakfast, but Mabel convinced him it was alright to stay and talk to you even though they probably had somewhere to go. The teen was snacking on a grilled cheese and mostly listening in on your conversation with wide, curious eyes. You felt like she was planning to recite every detail to others later, which you supposed saved you the trouble of repeating yourself to… whoever she wanted to tell.

It had been a while since you've seen Stanford, but it seemed like he didn't change much. He was still a bit wary of socializing and his posture was perfect, but guarded, like he'd either flee or shrink in on himself if he saw something he didn't want to stick around for. Just earlier, he’d tried to flee after you’d noticed his unusual amount of fingers. You let your mind drift a little to a time you’d seen him do that before. You snapped out of your thoughts when he called your name and you looked up from your plate to meet his warm, familiar gaze.

“What have you been up to?” Stanford asked curiously, eyes shining with interest as he leaned forward. You almost laughed again at the resemblance between him and his niece, both of them staring at you with the same innocently curious expression.

“What do you think, nerd?” You teased, slicing another huge bite from the stack on your plate. “I’ve been following through on my anomalous phenomena studies. I've been all over, Stanford, it's a dream come true! New Zealand, India, Brazil, Iceland. There's so much to see and even more to discover on my own. I have all my work with me, if you'd like to take a look?”

The man lit up and you laughed again as you took your next bite. He looked like he really did want to indulge, but glanced at Mabel and shook his head. He had his hands folded in the table in front of him and started wringing them together in thought.

“I would love to, but we'll have to take a rain check if you’ve done as much research as you say. Mabel insisted on breakfast here and Stanley is the only other person who could accompany her. He's spending some time at the Mystery Shack, though, so that left me in charge,” he explained, a small smile on his lips like he enjoyed the responsibility. You couldn't help but give a small smile in return, but tilted your head slightly.

“Stanley?” The question made him pause for a second, and the smile fell into something a bit more melancholy, then perked into excitement pretty quickly. You leaned forward in interest and Mabel grinned, answering for her uncle with such great enthusiasm that you felt bad for not including her in the conversation sooner.

A solid half hour passed as you caught up with one of your old friends and his energetic niece, hearing all about Stanford's twin, the family tourist trap they used to run called The Mystery Shack, and the current escapades of the old twins on crashing waves and salty waters. By then, your coffee had been filled to overflowing and the plates on the table had been cleared away. You'd usually feel bad about hanging around in a restaurant for so long after paying the bill, but there were barely any customers as it were. No one else seemed to mind, so your nerves were calmed very quickly before you glanced at the watch on your wrist and then looked out the window.

"The sun's risen a bit higher," you observed during a slight lull in conversation. Your companions turned to look out the small pane of glass as well, but only Ford gave you a nod of understanding. You reached out without looking to trace a finger across the edge of the table, itching to get back to work.

"Back to your studies, I take it?" he asked, watching you as you started to put some notebooks back into your bag. You'd been showing him and Mabel some of your scribbles and sketches, and they'd given you a bunch of positive feedback, enough that you were more eager to go out and explore than ever.

"So it seems." You adjusted your bag's faulty strap and stood with a smile, the pair of Pines following suit. The three of you bid goodbye to Lazy Susan and you tried not to feel too bad about making her wave at you as she poured another overflowing mug of coffee. Once you were all outside, you looked to the woods nearby with an excited grin. "Well," you turned back to the Pines, "it was a pleasure seeing you again, Stanford. It was very nice to meet you, Mabel."

"Likewise," your friend nodded. His niece seemed a bit more reluctant to see you go, but she perked up quickly in the way one does when they get an "Aha!" moment. A small thought of Stanford having the same moments in college fluttered in the back of your head.

"We should meet up again!" she squealed, and in a swift motion, she had shoved her phone into your hands. It was already open to a new contact, and you raised a brow at her forwardness. You typed your name in and glanced at Stanford, returning his sheepish smile with your own. "Give me your number so we can make plans later, okay? You and grunkle Ford can catch up sometime!"

"If you aren't too busy," Stanford cut in, his hands folded behind his back. He had his chest puffed out at you in confidence, but there was a tinge of pink to his ears. You decided to pretend you didn't notice and dismissed his words with a friendly wave.

"You're welcome to join us at any time me and Stanford ever decide to meet up, Mabel," you said honestly, plugging in the rest of your information quickly. The teen accepted her phone when you handed it back to her and beamed up at you, as bright as can be. You could already tell this girl was going to be fun to be around if you were to see her and Stanford again.

"I know," she replied happily, making you chuckle. Then you were off, sharing the last "see you later!" with the Pines and wandering away from the diner to prepare for your work. You had a few errands to tend to before really getting into your explorations, and you were glad that Lazy Susan's coffee was strong enough to chew.

*

You navigated over grassy hills and rocky creeks, finding old and new creatures as you went. You felt young again. With a few plastic gold coins in your pocket and a whole lot of excited scribbles in your most current journal, you had been happy to decide your exhibitions for the day were thoroughly productive. Before coming into the forest, you had had the pleasure of skimming through the town's library and catching up on the folklore of Gravity Falls. It was your job to prove and disprove these stories, after all, so you were happy to spend a few hours gathering intel in the quiet building.

After another few hours of being out and about, you'd found a very small clearing around ten feet in diameter a good ways away from the town according to the map you were marking up as you went. It was a large piece of paper the size of a movie poster, 24 by 36 inches, but the town of Gravity Falls took up around an eighth of the paper and the woods filled most of the remaining space. With the rate you were going at, you’d have to attach extra pieces of paper sooner than you thought. You made a mental note to do it when you settled down for the evening, as the sun was already starting to get low in the sky.

Just as you were finished sketching out the clearing, you felt a slight displacement of air, like someone had just passed you quickly. You looked up from the map and looked around, but nothing seemed out of the ordinary. You stayed silent for a moment, not daring to breathe. Then you heard a rustle of leaves at your five o'clock and whipped around, barely catching a glimmer of movement in your peripheral. You didn't dare to look away as you carefully folded up your map, stuffing the square and pencil into the breast pocket of your hiker's vest.

For another few seconds, nothing moved. You wondered if it was just your imagination, but quickly dismissed the thought; you'd seen too many paranormal creatures to ignore anything now. Maybe you had guessed wrong as to where you heard whatever-it-was move? You peeled your eyes away from the tree to skim over the surrounding areas when—there!

Your eyes snapped to a spindly shadow rushing away from the tree you had been looking at, and your dominant hand flew to the waist of your pants as you locked your gaze onto its new position. Your fingertips grazed the smooth metal of your concentrated light blaster, ready to grab it and pull it out at a moment's notice. You realized the sound you heard wasn't leaves rustling at all. It had been coming from what you couldn't see, a quiet "tch-tch-tch-tch" not unlike the sound of a maraca (funnily enough).

"Who's there?" you asked, making your voice as authoritative and clear as possible. "Show yourself!" When there was no movement, you started approaching the thin tree. Logically, you thought, no human would be able to fit behind such a thin trunk. It was half a foot wide. You were dealing with a creature you hadn't directly encountered before, and the thought of it made you grin before remembering yourself and clearing your throat to settle your smile back into a frown.

"I know you're not a human being," you started, something in the back of your mind wondering if this creature could understand you. "You're too fast, and too good at hiding. You can't be a bird, or a fairy, or any creature I've seen that plays music when they approach." Your eyes narrowed as you went through individual creatures in your head, only a few catching your attention for more than a few seconds. A teasing tree nymph, maybe? You hadn't heard any accompanying human-like noises, so you ruled that out. Since the shadow you'd seen had been unnaturally quick, you didn't linger on the thought of a human-sized stick bug, either, though those seemed to be popular in another part of the forest you had yet to venture into. One other creature stood out to you, though.

"The Hide-Behind," you said aloud, your voice holding more awe than you meant for it to. The lumberjack legend, the creature that was always watching watching, but nowhere to be seen. "You're the creature the townsfolk have never laid their eyes on." That sound rang out again, a staccato of scratchy hisses, but there was no movement. Something about the timing of that sound piqued your interest. "Are you… Do you understand what I'm saying?" No sound. "That's a no then. But you know I'm talking to you?"

You hesitated for a second, but stood up straight, lowering your hand from your blaster. You couldn't recall any stories of the Hide-Behind attacking anyone, so you had no reason to believe it were hostile. Then again, you'd made that mistake considering a friendly-looking elf in the streets of Germany, so you quickly turned your blaster to its temporary paralysis setting, just in case, before holding both palms out in front of you placatingly.

"Hide-Behind," you called, coming closer to the tree now. "I'm not going to hurt you, I promise. Can you please come out so I can—ack!" The series of rattling noises came from the tree just a few feet in front of you and the shadow flew past you to another tree further away. Your eyes were wide in surprise, but you collected yourself. The shadow wasn't a shadow, but the Hide-Behind itself! You considered your options for a moment before deciding to sit down on the grass where you were, crisscrossing your legs.

"Okay, you're scared," you said calmly, as if you were talking to a shy child. If the creature couldn't understand what you were saying, you'd have to rely on the sound of your voice. "I understand. But I would really like to see you, so I'll be staying here until you want to come out, okay?" Silence. You kept your eye on the tree it had moved to before looking away, reaching into your bag to pull out some snacks. You nibbled at a protein bar and swung your traveling pack off your shoulders to rest it beside you. You had a feeling you'd be waiting there for a while.

*

You were right. Sunset came and went, and your backside was starting to ache from how long you'd been sitting down. It had been just under an hour, but you were used to wandering and running through the forest rather than sitting for this long. In order to make yourself more comfortable, you'd scooted backwards until your back hit the bark of the tree and leaned on it. When the first twenty minutes had passed after you sat, you'd decided to do some work. It would do no good just waiting without having anything to do, and maybe Herb (you'd decided to call them Herbert, the only name you could think of off the top of your head with the letters H and B in that order. Herb for short, of course) would feel more comfortable around you if you weren't just staring them down.

And they did! As you ate a protein bar and skimmed over notes you'd written in haste earlier, you noticed the occasional rattling sound and Herb moving to different trees around the clearing. Over time, they had started to get slower as well, like they didn't bother using so much of their energy now that you knew they were there. At one point, you had looked up to see a head quickly duck behind the trunk of a tree, as if Herb had been observing you. You decided to let them stare without looking up at them so they could take in the sight of you before confrontation.

You were in the middle of rewriting a note about an interesting hawk you had seen earlier today, an untouched granola bar of fruit and nuts in your non-dominant hand, when you heard the rattling come from extremely close. You jumped slightly, looking up to see Herb had gotten much closer to you without you realizing. So close, in fact, you were face-to-face with yellow glowing eyes and a head with the resemblance of dark tree bark. You felt the urge to jump away, but forced your reflex down in order to avoid scaring the being away. For a second, you both stared at each other curiously, then Herb made another rattling sound and spun to dart behind the tree right behind it. You hair had moved slightly from the displacement of air, and you set your things down to brush the few strands back to where they were.

"Hey there," you said very softly, trying to sound as non-threatening as possible. You didn't dare move. "Do you want to meet me as much as I want to meet you?" No response, but you saw an eerily large hand of the same bark material come from behind the trunk, grabbing it as Herb poked their head out to look at you. You stared back, your lips pulled up in a kind smile as you introduced yourself by name. Herb's head moved a bit further into your line of sight. "Do you have a name? I think I'll call you Herb for now, if you don't mind." Ever so slowly, you closed your notebook and reached your hand out. Herb didn't move or look away from your face.

"It's nice to meet you, Herb," you said genuinely, keeping still once your arm was outstretched. Herb stared at your smiling face for another few seconds before stepping out from behind the tree, and you couldn't help but gasp. You hadn't had the chance to notice their sheer height when they were right in front of you, but they had grown to eight feet tall once they were out from behind the tree. Their shoulders were broad, carrying two long branches you realized were their arms. Their hands were almost twice the size of your head and hung at their knees. Their torso had tapered down into small hips, not unlike the pelvic bone of a human male, and their legs were as thin as their arms. Even down to their feet, Herb's body was made of rough tree bark, dark, ashy brown in color. They were almost intimidating.

Almost. It was hard to be intimidated by a creature, even at eight feet tall, when they were poking and prodding at your hand curiously. Herb made their rattling noise at you when your fingers twitched as they poked at your palm with their rough fingers, and you laughed to yourself in return. They were bent at the waist to study your hand, their glowing, golden eyes unblinking and unwavering. Their head snapped up to look at you when you laughed, tilted in curiosity.

"It's called a handshake, buddy," you say, nodding to your hand so they'd look back at it. Herb stared as you slowly moved, the creature jumping in surprise when you went to hold their own hand. They looked ready to rush away, but they paused when you did. You waited a few seconds. "You do it when you meet a new friend," you continued calmly, slowly moving their hand up and down in yours with a barely-there grip. "Like this. See?"

Herb rattled in response and you were about to let go of them when, to your utter amazement, they started shaking your hand as well! They did it with the same caution and gentle grip as you, as if they were as afraid of hurting you as you were of hurting them. Your heart melted at their gentle touch and you beamed in delight, nodding eagerly.

"Yes, like that! Good job, Herb!" At your encouragement, Herb shook your hand for another few seconds before you let go and they did the same. They didn't let their hand fall like you did, though. Instead, Herb poked and gently grabbed at your arm, releasing and grabbing again, as if studying the feeling of your squishy human self beneath their fingers. That little interaction seemed to have convinced them you were friendly, or fragile enough that you weren't a threat, at the very least.

You tried not to look alarmed at them curiously examining you, and they grew enough confidence to take your arm in both large hands and lift it to their face to look at your skin up close. They gently let it bend and poked at your elbow, then held your forearm with one hand to move your arm as the other felt the your moving rotator cuff. Herb kept going, laying their rough palm against the whole side of your head as you laughed. They perked up at that, recognizing the sound, and you only leaned away when they tried to poke at your mouth and eyes. Luckily, Herb knew what boundaries were and didn't bother trying to poke at your face again besides your soft cheeks. After a few minutes of this, you reached out your other hand and they paused their prodding.

"May I?" you asked, still smiling at them. Herb looked at your face, then at the arm in their hands. Carefully, they let go and sat still. Just as you thought they might run away, they reached an arm out to you in invitation. Ecstatic, you gently took their arm into your grip and started to study them. You had to stand to properly lift and move their arm. "Incredible! You have a very human body structure!" They rattled in response. "Yes, I'm a human. Look, our arms bend the same way and everything." You showed them this by bending one arm the same way you carefully bent theirs, and Herb looked at both of your arms in interest. They rattled, looking at you, and you nodded happily as if you could understand them.

"We have similar hands, too." You held their wrist with a soft grip and brought their hand up next to yours, wiggling your fingers. "You have four fingers, though, and I have five, see?" Herb took a moment to watch, then wiggled their fingers like you were doing. For the next half hour, you showed Herb your similarities and differences. They liked to copy you, and you used that to your learning advantage by showing them how you'd hide behind a tree. You weren't very good at it, but they followed suit. This time, they let you see how their body bent, how their legs and arms came up to match the shape of whatever object they were hiding behind.

You started taking notes somewhere during the process, flicking an electric lantern on when you realized it was almost too dark to see. Herb was nervous by the thing at first, but soon grew interested in the glowing light. You were able to get them to stand up straight and stay still as you climbed one of the thicker trees in the clearing to measure their height. Herb was an outstanding eight feet and seven inches, and you let them measure your height as well. It was a habit of yours to explain what you were doing and saying your findings out loud. Herb had taken to rattling after you spoke for a particularly long time, and you always answered them in a tone similar to when you'd answer a question or reply to a comment depending on whether they tilted their head or not.

You got hungry during all this, and picked up your fruit and nut granola bar from the grass at the base of your bag as you plopped onto the grass ungracefully. Herb stared down at you for a second before following suit, making an audible thud as they sat in front of you. You made a mental note to try to weigh them at some point in the future. You unwrapped it and took a bite as you examined Herb's bark-like skin and wrote notes to describe it along with a small sketch at the corner of your paper. A thought occurred to you while you were drawing and you looked up at them, swallowing your bite.

"Hey, Herb, what do you eat? How do you sustain yourself?" you wondered. They didn't have any leaves as far as you could see, so no photosynthesis; nor did they have any visible roots, so they didn't absorb water. You jot down that their appearance had probably evolved to look similar to a tree for camouflage purposes, then look up again. The both of you were sitting down across from each other, you leaning against a tree again and Herb sitting with their legs crisscrossed like yours, hunching over to look at the movements of your hand as you wrote. "Do you have a mouth?" They looked at you, rattling in query.

"You know, your mouth." You set your pencil down again to point at your mouth as you opened it, making exaggerated opening and closing motions with your jaw. You were sure you looked silly, but you knew Herb wouldn't mind. You closed your mouth and gestured to them. A moment passed as they stared at you, and you waited patiently. For as quick as Herb moved and adjusted to their next hiding spot, they were slow to process anything that wasn't hiding. They were like a meek animal of sorts, or a shy little kid.

Another beat of stillness passed before what you could only assume was Herb's jaw twitched. You perked up as the bark of their face lightly scratched together, their jaw dropping slowly, further and further to reveal what you assumed was their mouth. From it came the same golden glow as their eyes, and you leaned forward in interest. From what you could see of your own nose, the glow was bright enough to cast some light on your face. The bark around Herb's mouth resembled teeth, but there was no tongue or uvula. The inside of their mouth matched the rest of them, but you couldn't find a source of the light.

"Man, that's cool," you stated, impressed. When you leaned back again, Herb's mouth stayed open. "What do you eat with that? I don't suppose you could actually use your bark as teeth." They rattled at you, and the sound came a bit clearer with their mouth open. "I know you eat because all living things need to eat. Like I do! Look." You bit off another small piece of your granola bar, chewing and swallowing it. You held it up to Herb's mouth. "Fruits and nuts maybe? Like from trees? You're certainly tall enough to reach them." Without closing their mouth, Herb leaned away from the unfamiliar treat and you took it back.

"Yeah, I didn't think so. Uh, hold on." You reached over to your bag to find a small pouch of trail mix and opened it, emptying some into your palm. You held it there so Herb would copy you, then poured some of the mix into his hand as well. You tilted your head back and ate it, chewing for a few seconds before Herb tilted his head back as well. Only, he didn't close his mouth to chew. Instead, he tilted his head forward to let the food fall out before looking at you again. "No nuts or fruit, huh? Not even the M&Ms?" Herb rattled loudly, voicing his dissent, and you hummed in thought.

When you poured some water into your mouth, then Herb's, they just tilted their head forward and let it pour out of their mouth. You picked the M&Ms out of the trail mix for them to eat, which you didn't expect to work, and managed to catch them all when they tipped the candy out of their mouth. Absentmindedly, you ate the colorful pieces as you made notes. When you showed Herb how to gnaw at the granola bar, they were very gentle with it and barely dented the thing. They didn't chew then, nor did they drink. You made note of that, you scribbling taking up most of a page, and then looked at your watch.

"Oh, shoot! It's gotten late. I need to go," you said, starting to pack your things. Herb rattled at you, their mouth closing as slow as it had opened. They tilted their head at you when you had all your stuff packed up. "Sorry, bud, I should really be in town tonight. I don't have actual food with me after I ate the last of my rations yesterday," you apologized, swinging your pack over your shoulder as you stood up. You could meet Herb's eye when he was still sitting down, but he rose to his feet a second after you did, his gangly hands swinging slightly at his knees as you tilted your head far back to look at their face.

"I'll probably be back tomorrow, or the day after," you promised. "Though I don't know where to find you, so maybe even later than that. But when you find me, we can hang out again! Maybe you can help me figure out how you eat. Does that sound good to you, Herb?" They rattled, and you grinned. "Me, too, bud."

It was kind of disappointing to only have spent two hours with such a fascinating creature and an even more fascinating friend, but you wanted to start making your way back before the local restaurants closed. You raised a hand and took a step back. Herb didn't follow, as if they knew you were about to leave. You waved your raised hand side to side, your smile softening.

"Goodbye for now, Herb! Until next time, okay?" Herb raised their own hand, mirroring you, and waved slowly. Their whole body swayed to lean back for a second as they let out an unnatural howl, surprising you a little. You would have been unnerved if they didn't just look at you again to continue waving and rattling without hostility. You kept your hand up as well, waving while taking more steps back, and Herb rattled once more before lowering their hand and slinking into the trees behind them to exit the clearing.

You turned as well, still smiling happily to yourself as you took your map and pencil out. You labeled the clearing with a number two and circled it, turning your paper over to make a short footnote about your newfound friend. Once that was done, you tucked the pencil away and started your journey back to town.

2. Clearing, NW of GF. Meeting place of one of my first new friends in Gravity Falls. Herb's bark is worse than his bite—he has no bite at all.

Chapter Text

You greeted me with welcome arms, and I couldn't be more grateful.

*

There weren't many restaurants in Gravity Falls, but you managed to nab yourself a cheap dinner somewhere before finding a room at a motel for the night. Your legs and arms were a bit sore from the journey you've had, but you took the time to search for bedbugs and carefully lay your sleeping bag over the sheets just as an added precaution.

The old TV worked as background noise and you pored over your notes for an hour as you ate. You had labeled the clearing you met Herb in and wrote about your experience with them before starting to tape more blank paper to your map in order to expand it. Somewhere between nine and ten in the evening, though, your phone buzzed. You had to search through your bag for a minute before finding it and opening up the new text.

[Unknown: hey hey! mabel here!]

The message was followed by a string of emojis, some of which had been translated into empty rectangles on your older phone. You had to laugh at such a cute, casual text from an exuberant teenager after the night you just had, but it was a nice breath of fresh air. You changed the contact name and started typing a message back as Mabel kept typing.

[Mabel Pines: just wanted to make sure u had my number lol]

[Mabel Pines: grunkle ford wanted to ask if u were free tmrw so I passed ur digits over to him I hope that's ok]

[Mabel Pines: don't tell him I told u tho he wanted to ask u himself when he gets over his nerves]

You smiled at that, unable to ignore the warmth in your chest at the thought. Stanford, his eyes probably darting from a tree to a cloud to a pebble on the ground in order to avoid eye contact as he talks to his niece about wanting to see you again. For a second, you drifted into thought about being able to catch up without trying to keep a third person included in conversation. You could tell Mabel was great company to have, but you were eager to talk to Stanford alone to share that long-forgotten feeling of camaraderie.

[You: Hi, Mabel! Of course it's okay! I haven't gotten any other texts yet but I'm really looking forward to his :)]

[Mabel Pines: oh I know ;^)]

[Mabel Pines: great! I'll tell him u said that]

[Mabel Pines: I won't keep u up late but where are u staying? u should get grnkle ford out of the house! he's turning into a hermit crab lol. only figuratively this time tho]

[Mabel Pines: I can tell a really pretty lady like urself has experience bringing him out of his shell and he's suuuuper into it fyi ahahaha wink!]

You raised a brow at the screen. Was this kid hitting on you? For her great uncle? You took a moment to consider as you quickly finished tidying the mess of notebooks and loose paper around you. Your bookbag was laying on one of the bedside tables next to you and you'd turned off the ceiling light between Mabel's texts. The only sources of light in your room were the television, playing some goofy ad for some goofier series, and your phone's texting app. You had some back and forth with the teen for a few minutes before telling Mabel the name of the motel you were staying in.

[Mabel Pines: WHAT]

[You: What?]

When Mabel hadn't even read your text in the minutes following, you decided to shower and change into comfortable clothing for the night. Twenty minutes later, when there was still no reply from the teenage girl, you figured she fell asleep. Without mulling over it too much, you shimmied into your sleeping bag and dozed off with the television still on.

*

The next morning, you were standing in front of a massive building. It looked old, but well taken care of. The manor was grand enough that you kept rechecking the address Mabel had sent you over text. You'd had to wave down a cab and asked the driver if he knew where he was going a few times before he grumpily dropped you off at the front gate to the property, a long ways up a large hill overlooking the town. Stanford was never one to dress up when you last saw him thirty years ago and Mabel was in a sweater when you last saw her, but you couldn’t help but feel underdressed in your hiking gear.

You scratched the back of your head, your mouth in a crooked frown, before pulling your phone out of your pocket and starting a call. Maybe you were at the wrong house after all—if you could even call this place a house. Mabel answered the call on the first ring and you didn't even get to say hello before her high-pitched voice squealed your name out of your phone's speaker.

"Good morning! Come in!" The call ended with a click and you stared down at it for a second before a loud sound drew your attention. The gates in front of you opened slowly, like something out of a movie. You guessed you were at the right place, then. The gates stayed open behind you when you pocketed your phone and started to walk down the cobblestone path. You glanced into the crystal clear waters of a large fountain as you walked around it, then looked up to see the double doors of the mansion open.

Mabel called your name again, all five-foot, three inches of her bounding towards you at the speed of light. Without slowing, she rushed at you before greeting you with a hug that almost knocked you off your feet. Luckily, you stayed upright and managed to hug her back before she took your hand and started leading you to the entrance of the mansion.

"I'm so glad you're here! I talked with grunkle Stan for so long last night telling them about you, even when he fell asleep! This is the Northwest Mansion, but grunkle McGucket bought it with all his science money after they had to sell it and he was really happy to have you come over this morning! I haven't told grunkle Ford yet, though, so it'll be a like a surprise!"

She kept glancing back at your face every few seconds as if to make sure you knew she was talking, that thousand-watt smile still shining up at you. You were so caught up in trying to match her pace and listen at the same time, you were already halfway inside the house when you registered what she said. Your interest was piqued at the names she mentioned, but one especially stood out to you.

"’Grunkle McGucket’?" you questioned, barely managing to stop Mabel for the briefest of moments to pull the doors shut behind the two of you. Mabel all but dragged you into a room to the side, where morning cartoons were playing on a shiny TV. The impressive furniture sure matched the grandeur of the mansion. You looked down at Mabel’s casual sweater, a different one from the sweater she’d been wearing yesterday, and tried not to feel like you should have worn nice jeans or something.

"Mabel! I'm trying to focus!" a boy scolded from his seat on the floor, not even looking up from the paper he had on the table in front of him. It looked like a crossword cut out of a newspaper. "What's a six letter word for, 'result of a particularly overwhelming or violent situation’?" Without looking away from the television, a bored man answered in perfect deadpan from a large recliner chair.

"Murder." The boy counted the letters on his fingers and started to fill in the letters. He stopped suddenly and looked up at the man with furrowed brows. You eyed the two curiously. Dipper looked an awful lot like the girl at your side, while the older man looked like your old friend. Stanford never really wore beanies, though, aside from a two-day phase in college, so you safely assumed this was his brother. (Of course, there was also the chin, the posture, the casual clothes, the soda so early in the morning; you could keep going.)

"Dipper! Grunkle Stan!" Mabel called, getting the two males' attention. She raised your hand up in a forced wave the same time you raised your free hand to wave, so you had both hands waving in tandem like a socially-rusty pendulum of pity. "This is the person I told you about! Grunkle Ford's friend from yesterday." You introduced yourself with a smile, dropping your hands as Mabel let go of you.

"Oh, hey! Uh, I'm Dipper Pines. Mabel’s twin," the boy greeted, dropping the pencil onto the coffee table he sat at and scrambling up to shake your hand. This was a family of twins, then. Stanford’s brother stared at you and took a long sip from his can of cola, then pointed at you in a way that made you feel like you should be a little offended.

"I think I know your face. Have we met?" he asked gruffly. You studied him right back, but for the most part, you thought he was just familiar because he had the same face as Stanford. Even then, you were sure any mindful person wouldn’t have much trouble telling them apart. Without delving too deep into it, you shook your head.

"I don't think so. I guess I just have one of those faces. You must be Stanford's brother, though! Stanley, right?" You reached out with a pleasant smile, bending down somewhat, and Stan had enough manners to pop the chair up straight before shaking your hand. You took the opportunity to study him for a second; he had Stanford's eyes, only a bit brighter brown. They had a different sort of character there, too, unique to Stan, but you didn't dwell. Instead, you stood up straight and blinked to break eye contact first, which he seemed to be proud of. “It’s a pleasure to meet you both.”

Dipper shared the sentiment before turning around and catching Mabel messing with his crossword. He make an indignant noise, trying to reach the paper while she laughed at him. They were sweet kids. You had a small smile on your face as you watched them, then noticed Stan watching you. His eyes were squinted—not in a glare, more in a studying way—and kind of unfocused, like he was thinking really hard. When he realized you noticed, he made a noise like a huff and a cough as he looked away. Before you could dwell on it, Mabel called your name, grabbed your hand again, and started leading you out of the room.

“We should go down to the basement to find the other two,” she said happily. You looked over your shoulder at Stanley, who was watching the television again. You had the feeling you’d have a lot of chances to speak to him again, so you tried to ignore wanting to stay for a few more minutes. Dipper made an indignant noise and hastily folded up his crossword to stuff the paper and pen into his blue vest, hurriedly following you two.

“Mabel, they might be busy,” he said, glancing up at you. You realized he knew as much as you did considering the reason you were here; that is, nothing. You could also make out a bit of suspicion on his part, but you couldn’t think of anything you did to warrant any caution. Maybe that was just in his nature. Mabel waved her free hand dismissively.

“Psh, they’re not!” she said in a tone that said they were. The three of you went down a hall and made a few turns you could barely keep track of, but the twins didn’t seem too focused on which direction they were taking you in. You wondered how long they've been staying here. Summer had barely begun. “Besides, I go down there all the time to roast s’mores over their little mini blow torches. It’s fine!”

“You what?” Dipper sounded alarmed, and you raised a brow at how dangerous Dipper thought this basement was to elicit the (kind of amusing) look on his face. Mabel let go of you again when you arrived at a door that looked exactly like all the others, save for the faux gold plaque screwed into the wood at an imperfect angle. It had the word “LAB” boldly written on it in pink marker. “You break into the lab to use their bunsen burners for s’mores?”

“Mini blow torches. I can't reach the shelf where they keep the bunsen burners.” Mabel didn’t grace either of you with further elaboration. You noticed a cheap-looking plastic number pad to the right of the door as she lifted a hand to it. Without pause, she entered a seemingly meaningless sequence of symbols. Nothing happened for a second. You glanced down at the twins, then to the door.

Then you jumped back slightly as the door to the basement (lab?) started to rise upwards, into the wall above you. Metal dividers parted to allow entry to an elevator with a single yellow light, which the twins stepped into. You looked at it in awe, following them only when Mabel beckoned you to.

“This is… huh. I can’t imagine this came with the mansion,” you half-joked as the dividers came back in and the door slid back down slowly. Mabel pressed a button and grinned up at you as the elevator began its descent with that same feeling in your gut that elevators always caused.

“Our grunkles made it themselves! McGucket’s real handy.” It sounded like she was bragging a little, and your chest grew warm at the girl’s sincerity. Without really thinking about it, you leaned down a bit as you kept speaking to her. For a second, you thought about how you could relate to Herb now.

“Speaking of, I noticed you mentioned him before. McGucket, is he—” You were cut off by the elevator dinging, and the new door in front of you slid up to reveal a really interesting sight. It was machines galore. A dimly-lit hallway, filled with blinking lights and twitching gauges and, strangely, a faint scent of pine. You looked up at the doorway to where a green pine car freshener, the kind shaped like a tree, swung idly in a breeze you couldn’t quite feel. It vaguely reminded you of something.

“C’mon!” Mabel squealed as she skipped out of the elevator and down the hallway. Dipper rushed after her, reminding her not to touch anything as they looked for their great uncles. You tapped the car freshener in amusement, watching it spin as you stepped out as well. You were immediately hit with the strong smell of steel. The door didn’t close behind you until you were a few steps away, but you didn’t look back at it. Instead, you scanned the equipment lining the hall, following the voices of the young twins.

Some machines were spouting vapor, others beeped and flashed lights. You made a wide arc around a machine with its temperature gauge just over 400 degrees fahrenheit and resisted the urge to poke at another that read below -20. The machinery led you to a wider room just ahead with brighter lighting, and your steps quickened with your desire to build some distance between you and such dangerous equipment before you decided to mess with one. You could hear Mabel and Dipper, as well as a third voice, then the fainting footsteps of someone leaving the room.

“Can I eat that?” Mabel asked. You walked even faster, though you figured Dipper wouldn’t let his sister do anything that would be detrimental to her health. It wasn’t him that answered, though, and the Southern drawl that pierced the air made you stop in your tracks. Your hand came up to your chest at a sudden pang of nostalgia.

“Watch out! That's a toxic carbon compound concentrated so intensely, yer hair'll turn to oil and yer fingernails'll melt clean off with just a touch!” someone replied in a panic, the thick accent much like an old tune you couldn’t get out of your head. An anxious silence followed and the person laughed with a muffled clap, like they just slapped their knee. “I'm just pullin' yer leg. It's caramel. Help yerself!"

You turned a corner in time to see Mabel eagerly scooping caramel from a small container with her finger. She was sitting in a metal stool at a metal desk. Dipper wasn’t in the room, but a short man was hunched over a machine a few feet away from her. He had the posture of someone who had poor posture for a while, and a black welding mask over his face from what you could see from behind. You looked away from the flying sparks and immediately noticed Mabel was turned away as well. You were glad she knew how to avoid being blinded by such work.

“Oh!” The girl noticed you when she shoved a big glob of amber syrup into her mouth. She said your name through the sticky caramel, speaking loud enough to be heard over the welding iron. “McGucket, this is the new friend I was telling you about! Look!”

You stood a bit straighter in anticipation, staring as the man stopped his work and turned to look over his shoulder. He put his welding torch down and reached up to take his mask off, and it felt like time had slowed down. He stared at you with wide, surprised eyes, and you felt like your face looked similaIntelligent eyes, a brilliant smile, thick hazel hair, loud gut laughter, nonsense exclamations, folded arms, raised voices, blown pupils, accusing jabs, harsh whispers, whispers, whispers whispers whispers whispers you couldn't stop hearing whispeYou stared at Fiddleford McGucket and he stared back, shrinking slightly with the stretch of silence between you.

Then a grin grew on your face and your instinct took the reigns. You took a large step forward, arms barely open for a hug when he lit up and started to hobble over to you in his shoes that looked brand new. He took a few steps at first, then picked up speed until he was running across the room. You rushed forward to meet him in a tight embrace, managing to lift him up with a gleeful laugh and spinning around once before setting him back on the ground.

“Well, I never!” he hollered, his piercing voice doing nothing to reflect how much skinnier he seemed to have gotten. You laughed as he patted your back a few times, then pulled away to look at you, saying your name in a way that reminded you of soft strums of a well-loved banjo and warm biscuits fresh out the oven. “If it ain’t my old assistant!” You laughed again at that, your hands on his shoulders as his hands proudly went to his hips as if allowing you to observe him.

“You’re the assistant, you sap! Goodness, look at you,” you gasped, leaning this way and that as if to see him from different angles. Fiddleford’s white beard was wildly outgrown, but the ends looked like they’d been trimmed recently. He had uneven patches of hair on his head like it was growing back different areas at a time and goofy glasses with thick green lenses that made his eyes look huge. He looked so silly. You thought it was endearingly fitting. Your hands moved to cup Fiddleford's face, a few strands of white beard hair poking out from between your fingers. Having your old friend's face in your hands, his eyes shining with mirth and looking up at you, made your heart melt straight into the floor. You cooed, “Oh, Fidds, we’re so old!”

“Woah, woah, wait! Hold the phone.” Mabel brought her hand to her cheek, her thumb and pinky outwards to symbolize a cellphone. The two of you looked over at the same time, and you felt kind of bad for forgetting she was there for a moment. She dutifully kept her hand phone there as she continued, looking happy in a confused sort of way, “You two know each other? McGucket, why didn’t you tell me?!”

“We were really close friends in Backupsmore,” you explained cheerily, letting go of Fiddleford only to lean your elbow on his shoulder. He didn’t complain, so you crossed your ankles and pointed a thumb at him, ignoring the ache in your face from grinning for so long. “This guy, me, and Stanford made quite the trio! Say, where’s that great uncle of yours, anyway?”

Right on cue, your name was called questioningly by a deep voice. You looked up from Mabel, who had respectfully put down the fake phone, to Stanford and Dipper as they entered the room from around a corner. Just how big was this basement? Stanford looked surprised to see you, but the surprise melted into fondness as he looked between you and your old friend. There was silence for a few seconds as you could only bring yourself to smile back, and Dipper cleared his throat.

“Mabel, come over here to talk about nothing,” he said, sidestepping a few times to plant his hands on his sister’s back and push her out of the room.

“Wha—Hey, watch the caramel, watch the caramel!” she protested, but she let Dipper shove her out of earshot anyway.

When the twins were out of the room, you stood up straight and slung your arm around Fiddleford, feeling him throw an arm around your waist in return. He seemed so much smaller in stature now. The silence filled the space between you and Stanford this time. He looked nostalgic, and you could definitely say you felt the same. Without thinking, you reached your free hand out to him and your smile turned a bit lopsided as the weight of the situation sunk in.

“How do we look, old man?” you joked, though it fell a little flat as your throat tightened a bit. Stanford took a step closer to the two of you, and the happiness in your chest gave way to a grim reminder of sleepless nights and lonely midnight walks that felt so very far away. You fought to keep yourself as optimistic as you'd been for the past few decades of your life. “Like we’re ready for an all-nighter? Planning an afternoon in the school library?”

“Like we’ve been apart far too long,” Stanford replied. Your smile fell at his sincerity. Emotion welled up in you, both warm and cold, and you couldn't come up with a reply as Stanford came close enough to take your hand. Without saying anything more, both you and Stanford’s hands moved in tandem to lock your fingers together. His six digits interlaced with yours in a way you'd been craving for ever since seeing him at the diner, and you felt that all-too familair sting in your nose that came about when your body wanted to cry by your brain screamed for it not to. You looked up at your friend for a second, his eyes soft and his smile weighed in a way that made your gut twist.

Then you pulled him suddenly, making him lose his footing. Stanford fell into you with a surprised grunt as you nudged Fiddleford over, and then you had your arms wrapped tightly around your two best friends. They had been away for so long, and now they were—all of you were here. Together. Your eyes were clenched tightly as you gripped onto them, and it felt like the past years of wandering were finally catching up to you. You had been everywhere, meeting everyone, and yet...

You had been so alone. You had been so, so alone.

The two of them were stunned for less than a second before their arms were around you as well, the smell of electrical wiring, bitter coffee, and old books bringing you comfort you didn’t know you needed until you had it. You took a shaky breath in, then exhaled, squeezing Fiddleford’s shoulder as Stanford rested his chin on your head. You clung to the security of your friends, finally feeling surrounded by relieving warmth after being in the cold for longer than you could comprehend.

The three of you didn’t part for a while, even when you decided to rub your face in Stanford’s turtleneck to rid of a tear. That brought a small protest from him and a soft laugh from you and Fiddleford. The three of you were making up for lost time, you supposed, and you hugged them even closer at the thought. None of you wanted to break the hug, but you were ultimately the one to gather yourself and pull away enough to cheekily grin up at them with a flushed nose and cheeks.

"You two owe me forty years of hugs."

*

"Please, please, put the cursed thing down," Stanford said desperately, hands clasped together and brows furrowed painfully.

"No," Fiddleford replied immediately, not even sparing him a glance and looking way too proud of himself.

"Why not?!"

"I'm havin' fun, Stanford."

"That isn’t an excuse at all!"

The three of you were in the library one evening, which was completely empty save for your group. It never saw much use from Backupsmore students, especially not after dark. You and Stanford had met the student librarian and engineering major Fiddleford McGucket just weeks ago. You had caught them arguing over the checkout policy after Fidds had to deny him borrowing too many books at once. You two had become fast friends, and after some supposed bonding in Hyper-Advanced Engineering, Stanford had taken an interest in him as well. (Engineering definitely wasn't your thing. You could barely operate a screwdriver.)

Not only was the guy really smart, he was super sweet. That was the reason you'd become friends with him, after all. He often let you hold his arm when you were walking together, especially in the crowded cafeteria or campus center. You could always count on him to help you with an assignment when Stanford was busy or offer you two company when you conveniently made dinner for three instead of two. Fiddleford had a big heart and a bigger smile, but… well, that didn't mean he hated to irritate Stanford every once in a while.

Right now, he was happily playing the banjo as your tutor pleaded with him to shut up. Stanford was very rude the first time, and Fiddleford had made the executive decision to play a little faster, louder, his hands expertly moving along the neck and strumming and plucking all with an innocent smile on his face. He was very talented, and when you'd complimented him so, he'd thanked you with a short, gentle fingerpicking of a sweet melody before going back to the banjo chaos.

"I just want quiet. Two minutes of quiet. Please be quiet."

"Quiet? I dunno nothin' 'bout no quiet, Stanford. I only know banjo."

"Fidds, he looks like he's going to either rush out or rush you. Take a little break," you said, trying not to laugh at Stanford's expense. Your tutor looked at you gratefully at the same time Fiddleford quieted down a little to consider you with an amused smile.

"Well," he drawled, his Southern accent draping over his words heavily, "alright. Anythin' for you, darlin', since ya asked so nicely. Unlike someone else I know." He looked back at Stanford, expression turning a little smug for a few seconds.

"Thank you, Fidds," you chirped, not minding the nickname of endearment. One thing you noticed after becoming friends with Fiddleford is that he had an apt use for every sweet nickname in the book. Darling, pumpkin, sugar, honey—all with the same Southern charm to it that had, on more than one occasion, made you flush. He meant it as nothing more than platonic towards everyone, though, so you'd quickly cooled down and started to take his pet names in stride.

"Yes. Thanks." Stanford's tone was clipped and his eyes narrowed at Fiddleford for a fraction of a second before he turned to one of the many textbooks on the table in front of him. Out of the three of you, he was the only one who hadn't stopped studying an hour or so ago.

"Stanford, you take a break, too," you scolded lightly, but one glance at the analog clock on the library wall had you making a face. "Geez. Actually, I think we should be heading to our dorms by now. It's getting a little late, even for the astronomy majors." Your two friends looked at the time and agreed to leave, though one took more pestering than the other to start packing his things. Fiddleford locked up the library for the night after Stanford somehow managed to shove his excessive amount of books into his bag.

The women's dorms were a few minutes away from the men's on foot, and both were fifteen minutes from the college library. Your friends always walked the extra few minutes to get you to your dorm safe, though, even when it wasn't dark by the time you all parted ways. Tonight's walk back was filled with only the occasional small talk and comments about certain courses or exams. You were more interested in looking up at the stars over the dark campus, glittering and gleaming down at you.

"Here ya are, hun." Fiddleford called your attention when he saw you were only half paying attention to where you were going. You tore your gaze away from the night sky as the three of you came to a slow stop at the women's dormitory entrance.

"Thank you for walking me," you said habitually, turning around to smile at your friends. Fiddleford nodded at you and Stanford followed suit, but his stare was kind of off, as if he were thinking of something. He got lost in his own head sometimes, especially after studying for a while, so you paid it no mind. "I had fun studying with you guys. Have a good night, okay?"

"Shucks, every night's good if you're there to wish it on us," Fiddleford grinned, the playfulness in his tone making you laugh a little to ignore the creeping flush on your neck. "You have a good night, too, darlin’, y'hear?" With another nod and a little wave, Fiddleford turned and nodded at Stanford, a nonverbal note that he could catch up soon. By now, he knew Stanford seemed to take an extra minute or two to say his parting words and did better at it when you two were alone. When the engineer was out of sight with one last exuberant wave, you looked at your tutor.

Stanford said your name, taking a breath as if to speak, but then paused and closed his mouth. You tilted your head forward to let him know you were listening, expecting the usual reminder of coursework and meeting time, but the man just sort of… stared at you for a second. Like he had something important to say, but needed the best way to go about saying it. You were very patient when it came to him, but when there were another few beats of silence, you spoke up.

"Stanford?" Your quiet, curious voice seemed to snap him out of his reverie, and you only just noticed he'd taken a step closer to you. He cleared his throat with one six-fingered fist at his mouth, his brown eyes darting away from you and instead looking everywhere else. You leaned forward, but couldn't quite catch his eye. "Is something wrong?"

"No, no, it's—nothing is wrong," he assured you. You went to ask what the matter was, then, but Stanford just reached out to tuck a stray few pieces of hair behind your ear, still avoiding direct eye-contact. That rendered you speechless, and your breath hitched in your throat. He seemed to notice, his gaze snapping over to your face, which made you flush in embarrassment. He continued, softer this time, "I just…"

You stared up at Stanford, who kept eye contact even when you didn't say anything. For a second, a sweet moment passed when there was only the silence of the night to fill the gap between you two. He had leaned down a little, too, still returning your curious stare. He had this look on his face like—like—

"It's nothing," he said suddenly, reminding you where you were. You broke the stare first, glancing away for a few seconds to blink several times as he let his hand fall from your hair. When you looked up, Stanford was standing tall, his hands behind his back. He still fixed you with an unreadable stare, but you were more focused on catching your breath than analyzing how he was looking at you. "Have a good night, my dear."

"Y-Yeah," you stuttered, coughing a little into the back of your hand when you noticed it. "Uh, you, too, Stanford. I'll see you tomorrow, okay?" He nodded, and for a second you could see the ghost of a satisfied smile on his face before he turned away from you and started walking to catch up with your other friend. There were a few plucks of a banjo in the distance, right on cue, and Stanford started walking a little quicker.

You chuckled at the shrinking silhouette of the man, his shadow following him under the dim campus lights lining the path. You turned to fish your dorm key out of your bookbag, entering the building and making sure the door shut behind you before heading up to your room. It was only after you had taken a quick shower and got into bed that you thought over your strange parting conversation with Stanford. He had acted totally weird, right? That wasn't just you? With a soft sigh, you dismissed it, about to drift off, when—

"Have a good night, my dear."

"Woah." You said aloud, your eyes snapping open. You looked straight up, eyebrow raised at the bare ceiling of your room as you thought. What was that supposed to mean? Why would he say that? Surely, he slipped up. Or he was trying to copy Fiddleford for some reason. You rolled over slightly, kicking the blanket away from you when you suddenly felt overheated, and shut your eyes tight.

It was nothing, you were sure. The two of your were only friends, and that came a short while after he'd become your tutor. You tried to sleep on that note, but you couldn't when his deep, gravelly voice repeated those words over and over in your head. Especially when that got you thinking of your tutor's face, how he seemed to soften when you smiled at him, how the tenseness in his shoulders dropped a little with your laughter, how your chest did this weird flippy thing when he lent you a pencil and your hands touched for a fleeting moment.

How he stole glances at you when he thought you weren't watching him in your peripheral, how he looked down at you less than half an hour ago with shining affection in his gaze, how his deep brown eyes reflected the glimmering stars above, and nope, this was not happening tonight. You had a quiz tomorrow. With a huff, you rolled onto your side and tugged the blanket up to your shin harshly before shutting your eyes.

The next morning, you got a low B on your quiz. It was only because you hadn't studied as much as you should have; definitely not because you were daydreaming, or anything goofy like that. Your voice cracks when you first greet Stanford in the library that afternoon and you pretend not to notice Fiddleford raising a brow from the library's front counter.

Chapter Text

I look forward to seeing you every day.

*

"Do you ever wonder how many people are doing the exact same thing as us?" you murmured, refusing to move from your position. The small television in front of you cast soft blue light onto you and your friend's face, blinking and turning different colors with the mind-numbing ad onscreen.

"Doing what?" Stanford hummed, clearly only half listening to you. He didn't move either, aside from the hand continuing to curl locks of your hair around his finger. "Being twenty something-or-other and watching cartoons, ignoring our coursework?"

"Relaxing." You huffed out a laugh and finally dragged your gaze from the screen to your friend's face, having to move your head a bit to do so. You were laying your head in Stanford's lap as he sat up, the both of you sprawled over your bed. Your little television played across from you two, set up on wiry little legs that looked like they’d break any day now.

Luckily, you had been one of the Backupsmore students to have their roommate drop out before graduating. You had your own room to yourself, and Stanford wasn't bothering anyone whenever he came over to help you study. Right now though, you had convinced him to take a break from his String Theory homework (“It’s not nerdy, it’s cool!”) and just hang out with you. You two were over an hour into mindless TV time, and it was starting to get dark out.

"But seriously," you continued, your gaze off to the side somewhere even though you were facing Stanford. "There are so many coincidences going on in the world, right? At least, we can safely assume. Don't you ever wonder if you're doing something at the same time as, y'know, some guy named… I don’t know, Alexander? From, like, California?"

"Alexander from California?" Stanford echoed, amused. You noticed his digit twirling in your hair had paused and you tried to ignore the disappointment you felt. Instead, you snorted in laughter and waved a hand in the air.

"No, no, forget I said that. I'm trying to be dreamy or whatever! You know, like… imagine looking up at the moon. Or a specific constellation. Actually, since it's happening soon, imagine watching this evening's sunset." You gestured vaguely towards the window of your dorm room, too relaxed to even fathom moving from your position.

"I can imagine, yes," he humored you. You looked back at him to see he hadn’t looked at the window at all, but was still staring down at you. You gave him a little grin and tried not to acknowledge the way your heart paused for a second when he returned it.

"And then someone else. Maybe in another country, watching the sunrise. Maybe just in another state, watching the sunset with you." You paused, thinking for a second. "Okay, I guess sunsets are more likely to be stared at than sunrises on a daily basis. But you know what I'm saying, right?” Stanford looked at the window then, and you continued.

“Every time you're doing something, every time you think you're having a special little moment or a special little day, someone else you don't know is probably experiencing the exact same thing. Someone you might not ever meet or haven’t seen in a long time is watching the same sunrise or the same moon with you. Isn't that insane?"

He didn't reply to you right away. When a solid minute passed, you figured he wouldn't answer you at all. His eyes were still looking out your window, though he looked more focused on his own thoughts than the sunset. Staring at him like this, with the early evening light pouring through your window, you could see every little detail in Stanford’s face. A freckle on his cheek, a crease near his eye, an eyelash just slightly out of place.

You never got to watch him think much, but right now, as he thought about watching the same setting sun as another person who wasn’t in this room with the two of you…

He looked a little sad. Like someone who had done something another lifetime ago that they couldn’t quite come to terms with; or, rather, someone who had watched something happen another lifetime ago and didn’t feel as satisfied with their inaction as they might have thought they were.

You looked back at the TV just as he took a breath in, trying to maintain a neutral expression on your face. On the television, a new cartoon was playing. The music was quiet, but far too energetic for the tone of your friend’s voice when he spoke up next.

"Sharing an experience with someone you'll never see again is an interesting thought, yes. One that I… Well. I would be lying if I hadn’t thought of it once or twice," he admitted, and you nodded from where your head sat on his thighs just above his knees. You opened your mouth to say something before Stanford looked down at you then, his finger twirling and his smile kind, and you couldn’t form words anymore. Your mouth quickly shut. His brown eyes stayed on you and you couldn’t bring yourself to look away. He continued.

"But I'd much rather think about watching the same sunset with you, for now. If that's alright." You stared at him for a second, lips parting as heat crept up your face. After a few seconds of your gawking, you laughed flusteredly and looked away, a goofy grin on your face. All at once, the wonder and silent concern dissipated from your mind. Stanford was here, right now, with his hand in your hair and the sunset carefully painting his face with its colors. You wanted to focus on that.

"You're such a nerd," you said. Stanford looked a bit taken aback, but you let yourself glance up at him again with a grin. Against your better judgement, you reached up with one hand to skim your fingertips over the freckle on his cheek. When you caught yourself, you adjusted his glasses for him.

He flushed, the color seeping over his cheeks and ears, and you looked out the window to spare him your gaze. You couldn't see the sunset from where you lay, but you could see the pinks and oranges and yellows blooming across the sky as you said, "I think that's a much nicer thought than what I came up with. Let's do that."

Out of the corner of your eye, you could see Stanford watch you for another few moments before he looked up at the window as well. He hummed in agreement, the sound low in his chest, and you couldn't help but sneak a few glances at his thoughtful expression and strong jaw every now and then. The two of you didn't speak up further until after dark, the music from the evening cartoon serving as more than adequate background noise.

*

“You can stay in this guest room for however long you'd like,” Stanford said once you’d left all your equipment into your room. You noted that it was the last door, furthest from the staircase you two had just gone up. When you looked back at your friend, he was smiling at you kindly. “Mostly everyone’s else’s rooms are on this floor as well. The kids have signs on theirs down the hall, and Stanley’s is the last door on the other end. The room right next to yours is technically mine, but, ah, if you want to find me at any point, I’m usually working with Fiddleford in the lab. That, or my study on the first floor, which Mabel has labeled.”

“That’s a clever way of saying you sleep in the lab most of the time,” you teased lightly. His face grew a little pink and he quickly looked away, rubbing the back of his neck. He fumbled to change the subject as you leaned against the doorframe, amused.

“Y-Yes, well, Fiddleford has no use for most of the living space here, so I’m sure he wouldn’t mind you redecorating or anything like that. It may be a bit stuffy in there, since he hasn’t quite put any of the rooms to use besides the lab and his room near my study.” You hummed in acknowledgement, glad the windows in the room were so large. You’d opened up all of them, and the warm afternoon breeze was already getting rid of the stale air behind you. Still, you were a little worried.

“Stanford, are you sure it’s alright with everyone if I stayed with you all?" you asked finally, gaining his attention again. "Fiddleford seemed very adamant and I know Mabel was the one to invite me, but I don’t want to make you or the other two put-off by me being here most nights.” Your friend looked a bit confused for a moment, but shook his head.

“I assure you, they won’t mind. I certainly don’t. Dipper will warm up to you in no time, and Stanley should be the same. If he doesn’t, he has no grounds to kick you out himself,” Stanford said matter-of-factly. You forgot how blunt he could be, but you supposed that was one of the reasons you liked him so much. Back in college, that is. With the assurance, you stepped out of the doorway and turned to close the bedroom door. “If my brother gives you any trouble, don’t hesitate to let me know. I’ll knock some sense into him.”

“I appreciate the sentiment,” you said honestly, though you knew he wouldn’t do that to his brother. Hopefully. Stanford gestured to the hall and the two of you started walking down the long corridor. “Well, whether he enjoys my company or not, I won’t be in the house much anyway. There’s so much forest to explore. I was actually planning on going out again today.”

"Ah, yes. About that." You perked up at Stanford's quick response and turned to look at him. He had his hands folded behind his back, though his arms moved in a way that made it obvious he was fidgeting. He said your name, continuing, "I was hoping to… Well, I was—Would it be forward of me to ask… er…" You raised a brow at his stumbling for a second before understanding what he meant to say. The thought of it made excitement swell up in you and you stepped forward with a grin.

"Stanford," you said excitedly, holding your hands out in front of you without thinking about it. The man's gaze snapped up to yours like a deer in headlights, and after a moment, he placed his hands in your own. You moved yours to lace your fingers together, internally fawning over the familiar motion. "Would you like to help me with my research in the field?"

Your friend's face lit up to match your expression, as bright at the sunlight pouring through the hallway windows, and you leaned forward in anticipation. He squeezed your hands, and the excited little grin on his face definitely didn't make your heart skip a beat. Not in the slightest. Not even when he leaned forward less than an inch and said your name in an equally happy tone.

"I would be honored!" Stanford accepted, and you laughed only because you couldn't come up with another reaction. For some reason, words seemed to fail you. He suddenly seemed to realize how close you were and when his eyebrows shot up comically, you pretended to notice at the same time. The two of you released each other and he folded his hands behind his back again, clearing his throat. You awkwardly clasped your hands in front of you. "Y-Yes, well, if the invitation applies to today, I would certainly like to join you. Are you sure I won't be a distraction to your studies?"

"Not more than you usually are." The words slipped out of your mouth without thinking, but you quickly reached out to gently poke at your friend's chest to look like you were just teasing him. You quickly changed the subject before Stanford could properly register that sentence. "I was planning on getting myself some brunch before going out. Have you guys eaten?" He looked a little thrown-off, but the mention of food derailed his train of thought.

"Ah, well, I haven't. Neither has Fiddleford, I'm afraid." Stanford scratched at the side of his cheek in thought before the two of you continued down the hallway. He reached out when you got to the stairs, looking like he might offer an arm, but thought better of it. Instead of mentioning it, you kept walking. "I'm sure we have some food stocked, though I can't say I know my way around the kitchen."

"You never have," you hummed, this time not having to pretend you were teasing. When Stanford showed you to the kitchen, you immediately set him to the task of asking whether anyone else wanted breakfast as you took inventory of the food in the mansion. There wasn’t much.

The place had a large kitchen, definitely made to be staffed by actual chefs and servers. For the general size and the fact that there was a walk-in fridge, though, there weren't many groceries on hand; an empty carton of eggs, an almost-empty carton of milk that smelled sour (you tossed those out), and the occasional sugary cereal and instant food. There was an abundance of TV dinners in the walk-in freezer, which was probably the closest you'd get to finding actual meals. It was kind of unnerving.

Mabel was the first to bounce into the kitchen, just in time to catch you in the middle of dumping some instant pancake mix into a large mixing bowl at one of the kitchen counters. You had found a few boxes of the stuff, and had them all out in front of you. You looked up at her entrance and grinned at her enthusiasm, greeting her.

"Has great uncle Ford shown you your room? Do you like it?" she asked immediately, launching herself onto a barstool that looked far too worn and rickety to have come with a place like this. The stool tipped at her sudden weight, and you effortlessly reached out to catch and balance it again before it could lean too far. Mabel either didn't notice or didn't mind, because she just smiled up at you from her seat.

"He has. I think it's way more comfortable than any other place I've stayed at," you replied honestly, shaking more mix into the bowl and then deciding to pour the whole box in. Just then, Dipper entered the kitchen, followed by Stanford. You noted that the scientist glanced around the room curiously, like he'd never actually been in the kitchen before. Then you noted you should really stop staring at the guy every time he came into the room. "Hey, guys. You hungry?"

"Always!" Mabel shouted, pumping her fists into the air and precariously leaning forward in her seat. You smoothly reached out again to keep her stool from falling. When she was steady, you started to open another box of mix. "Oh man, I haven't had pancakes in days!”

“Yes you did.” Dipper stood next to where his sister sat, seemingly aware of the need to prepare for catching her. You found a whisk in a utensil drawer and set it on the counter as the boy continued, “You had, like, a whole stack yesterday.”

“Greasy’s stacks are only a few!”

“You ate my stack in the four minutes it took me to use the bathroom.”

“You snooze, you lose, Dip Dop.”

"I certainly hope you guys haven’t been solely eating pancakes. I can make other breakfast meals if we get more ingredients," you said, taking the bowl to the kitchen sink. You inspected the tap water for a moment before starting to add it to the mix. "I noticed the kitchen is huge, but you guys don't have much to eat in here. Who does the grocery shopping?" As you watched the water fill up the bowl, you were met with a concerning amount of silence. You stopped the running water and turned around.

"Uh, Stan does," Dipper said after a fake cough. He had his arms crossed and an awkward expression on his face, looking anywhere but you. "He just hasn't had the chance yet. We've only been here a few days." A beat passed, and no one said anything. Mabel's smile looked a little dim and Stanford stared down at the counter with an oddly troubled look on his face. Dipper glanced at them and noticed this as well, quickly straightening his posture and trying to seem nonchalant. "We like to get takeout from town, or have food delivered! Our diets aren't as bad as it looks. Besides Mabel's."

"I keep telling you, as long as you run around afterwards, you're allowed to eat whatever you want!" the girl spoke up quickly. Dipper looked exasperated, like they'd had this conversation before. You returned to the counter and started to whisk the pancake batter together.

"Running in a circle every time you eat a handful of sugar isn't healthy, Mabel!"

"It cancels out! Pemdas, Dipper!"

The room's previous, energetic atmosphere was restored, but you couldn't help but dwell a little on what you just heard. Before you could start asking questions, though, Stanford answered them for you. You looked at him as he spoke, but he kept his eyes on the kids.

"Stanley isn't too familiar with most of the townsfolk anymore," he admits quietly, leaning on the counter beside you. "They know him, but after spending so much time overseas, we’re afraid he doesn't quite recall who everyone is. He does plan to go out soon besides helping with the Mystery Shack, but we don't want to overwhelm him all at once. Mabel is doing an exemplary job of reminding him who everyone is before then."

Something about that didn't really feel right. The way Stanford said it made you think there was a lot of information tucked away behind those few sentences. Though, after staring at his unreadable expression for a moment, you tried to ignore it. What Stan could and couldn't remember was none of your concern—you had the occasional memory slip, too, and you certainly wouldn't want a stranger dwelling on them. You nodded in understanding.

"Maybe we can all go grocery shopping someday," you offered instead of asking any questions. The Pines had their own business, and you would respect that. However, that didn't mean you couldn't help them eat a little better. You smiled at the kids when they both looked at you. "If we all go as a group, or ask everyone for a list, we can get some stuff that everybody wants. If you guys are up for it, of course."

The three of them voiced their assent and you asked Dipper to find you a frying pan. They didn't have any butter left, but Mabel, for some reason, kept a stash of maple syrup in her room and rushed away for a minute to retrieve an unopened bottle. Dipper found some vegetable oil and the two of you decided it would be better than nothing to keep the pancakes from sticking. You left Stanford to do his own thing in case he had to leave at some point midway through, and tried not to think about him following you around and peeking over your shoulder whenever you moved.

"Does this batter look thick enough?" you asked no one in particular, whisking through it a few times. It looked a little thin. "Maybe not. Stanford, can you grab another box of mix for me, please?"

"Of course," he replied, reaching over to slide one to you. Without looking, you took it and easily tore it open. "Here you are, my dear."

"Thanks." You poured some powder in before registering the nickname and suddenly pausing. My dear. There was definitely some heat on your face, but you refused to change your facial expression to acknowledge it. After a second, you realized you'd just poured a big, powdery mountain into your large bowl and quickly set the mix down. "Shoot, my bad. Uh, let me get by you for a second, Stanford."

You grabbed the bowl, trying and somewhat-succeeding to keep in the strangled sound you made as you came face-to-face with Stanford's chest. Luckily, years of chasing, fleeing, and dodging granted you the instinctive movement of spinning immediately to duck away from the man so you wouldn't pour batter all over his sweater. You hadn’t even realized you’d done it until you caught his look of surprise. Truly, this was the peak of your international travels.

"Well, um, how many pancakes can you guys eat?" You looked over your shoulder as you added some more tap water, only to whip your head right back to the bowl again when Mabel was waggling her eyebrows at you.

"As many as it takes for you and grunkle Ford to get stackin'! Heyo!" Mabel whooped, and you fumbled to turn off the tap. Dipper let out a shocked laugh, but tried to cover it up with aggressively clearing his throat with his fist at his mouth. He failed. You grabbed the bowl, whisking it more vigorously than you needed to as you returned to the counter beside the stove.

"I'm gonna need a few numbers, kids, in case we need to use the rest of the mix," you said awkwardly. The smile on your face felt kind of lopsided with how flustered you were, but you were glad the kids were comfortable enough around you to crack jokes (even if they were at your expense.) "You, too, Stanford. Did your brother and Fidds want some breakfast? We certainly have enough batter for them." When you looked back at the man, he was fake coughing into his fist, trying to cover his flush with his hand. The Pines family really had some glaring similarities.

"Uh, yes, they do. I suppose we'll all have a late breakfast today," he huffed, mindfully stepping a respectful distance away from you so you wouldn't have to maneuver yourself out of his way again. You appreciated the elbow space and pushed your sleeves up as Dipper handed you a ladle for the batter. You thanked him and made sure there was some oil in the heated pan before pouring your first pancake.

"A late breakfast is better than no breakfast, especially if we're going to be outside for long. Think you can handle a whole day away from your lab, old man?" You glanced at him with a small grin, and he straightened a little at your gaze, huffing out a small chuckle. You looked away and grabbed a spatula Dipper found, offering it to the kids once you got their attention. "Can one of you flip this thing while I find a plate?"

Mabel took the spatula eagerly before Dipper could reach for it, promptly planting her hand on his face when he tried to take it out of her grasp. You smiled at their antics even as you walked away to find a cupboard with the plates. As you took down a few at a time, you wondered just how much money this place had cost for it to come fully-furnished. Downstairs, Fiddleford told you his grant money was enough to pay for everything he needed for a long while. It warmed your heart to know your friend was getting so much reward for all his hard work. Last you'd seen him, he'd been working on personalized computers. It was a shame he didn't get to perfect those things before—

Stanford called your name suddenly, over and over like he’d been doing it for longer than you could have noticed, and you came to the abrupt realization that you had just dropped a plate onto the counter. Luckily, it hadn’t fallen off or chipped, but the sound must have been enough to call attention to it.

When you turned around, the foggy daze in your head lifted just as you noticed it was there. You lifted a hand to the back of your head, feeling… something. Nothing? You dropped your hand, only to hold your palms up in front of you a second later in an attempt to placate Stanford. The man had already started to fuss over you.

"Are you okay? Are you hurt? You dropped a plate and then you wouldn't reply to any of us," he said hurriedly, taking your hands in his and looking them over before eyeing your arms for, you guessed, some kind of injury. Of course, there was nothing there. His hands grazed your shoulders, then continued upwards.

"No, no, I'm fine!" You glanced at the kids, frowning a little when you saw the worry on their faces. Stanford's hands cupped both sides of your face, then, and your attention went back to him. Vaguely, you noted that his palms took up an awful lot of space around your head. You wiggled your head back to slide out of his gentle touch, reaching up to grab his wrists and lead them away from you. "Stanford, I'm fine," you insisted.

"But you…" You gave him a look and he trailed off, staring at you for another few seconds, before sighing. You released his wrists and he backed away from you. You hadn't notice it before, but he had practically cornered you against the counter. You fixed your hair where it had gotten a bit frazzled at the sides. "Okay. If you say so. You just... had this look in your eye."

"I was just spacing out. I must have lost my grip," you dismissed, turning around to grab the plates and walking past Stanford to place the stack on the counter carefully. You offered a smile to Dipper and Mabel, who seemed to be having a wordless conversation through meaningful glances. "It was nothing, kids, I promise. I can't even remember what I was thinking about. I'll just grab some water and I'll be fine."

"Are you sure?" Mabel asked, her voice concerned. It was a stark contrast to how carefree you’d always seen her be, and you felt bad for freaking them out. You nodded, though, and she and Dipper seemed relieved. The silent conversation between them ended, and their shoulders slowly untensed.

"I'll find myself a glass—I actually haven't had anything to drink in an hour. That's why staying hydrated is important!" You gave the twins a more genuine grin and a thumbs-up, and they seemed to perk up at that. Dipper agreed wholeheartedly and Mabel returned the gesture with a toothy smile. You looked at Stanford and he stared at you for a second before releasing a small sigh and nodding with a smile. It was obvious he was still a little tense, but he seemed to let it go for the most part.

"You can get some water right over here. Come." He waved a hand to lead you, grabbing a few glasses from the cupboard and then pouring the four of you a drink of cool water from one of the fridges. You thanked him for the drink as you followed him back to the stove where Mabel was trying to bet on whether she could flip the pancake using only the pan, but you couldn't help but let your mind wander again.

You had given Mabel the spatula, then gone to get the plates… You racked your brain for what happened next, what you must have heard or thought of to make you drop the plate, but you came up with nothing. Before you reached the kids again, you discreetly shook your head and took a long sip of water. You had just lost your train of thought and spaced out, is all. It couldn't have been that important, anyway, if it was so easily forgettable.

"Dipper, can you do me a favor and take batter-pouring duty?" you asked, stirring the batter a little and then offering him the ladle. Mabel begrudgingly used the spatula to flip the pancake, then made a noise of accomplishment when it turned out looking good.

“Oh, yeah, sure!” Dipper said, accepting the utensil with a grin of someone who liked contributing. Mabel lifted the pan to turn the pancake onto a plate with a happy “Boom! One!”

"Thanks, champ." You leaned against the counter and took another sip of water. As you drank, you couldn’t help but glance at Stanford over the rim of your cup.

He was looking over the kids fondly, smiling a little when Mabel made fun of Dipper for something and earned a smear of batter on her face. She laughed and tried to return the favor, but Dipper kept ducking out of her reach with a smile on his face. You chuckled at them, the strange emptiness in your mind fading to the back of your thoughts.

*

Breakfast was nice. You'd forgotten what it felt like to eat with a bunch of friendly people, the jokes and chatter drifting over the food in a unique way that could never really happen in a restaurant or food court. Mabel flinging a piece of pancake at Stan when he became too focused to pay attention, Dipper trying to decide whether to cut his pancakes into squares or wedges, Stanford and Fiddleford absentmindedly passing the syrup back and forth as they ate.

You had to remind yourself to keep eating once or twice when you realized you were just bathing in the camaraderie. You had participated in the small talk a few times when you were addressed, but there was something starting to… do something at the back of your mind. Your brows furrowed as you chewed, but when your name was called, you quickly neutralized your expression and looked up. You were a little surprised when you realized Stan had been the one to call you.

"So what are you doin' here anyways? Gravity Falls, I mean," he asked almost suspiciously, and Stanford must have noticed this tone as well because he said his brother's name in a scolding sort of voice. "What? I'm just askin', cool your jets." You waved at your friend to dismiss his worry and smiled at Stan where he sat a few seats down the long dining table.

"I study the paranormal. Your brother kind of got me into it in college, and I managed to get my own grant to study anomalies across the world. I hadn't been in the states for a while, so I thought I'd drop by here for a few months. Gravity Falls is the hotspot in all of North America for this stuff,” you said, a tinge of excitement making its way into your voice even at the mere thought of it.

"Yeah, figures," Stan said, huffing like there was some joke there you didn't get. You tilted your head, but Dipper spoke up as he started to cut his pancakes into equal wedges.

"So you record stuff you've seen and researched all over the world?" he asked, obviously very interested. You nodded, a feeling of pride making you sit up a bit taller.

"You got it. I have a different journal for each place I visit, and most of them are pretty full! I have to say, though, my journal for Gravity Falls is probably the quickest one to get crowded. I'll probably have to start a few more for this town alone, at this rate." You looked down at your plate, starting to cut another piece of pancake for yourself. You didn't notice the second of silence that swept over the table, or the glances the Pines shared with each other. "It's a lot of fun to explore here, really. The locals are super nice."

"Speaking of exploring," Stanford spoke up, breaking the silent spell you weren’t aware of, "let me know when you want to head out. I trust you'll be fully prepared?" You looked up at him, noticing he was almost done with breakfast, and grinned.

"Of course I am." You thought you'd already made great progress with your studies so far, and exploring with Stanford was sure to help you greatly with finding your way through the forest. Mabel looked between you two, her eyes shining with glee.

"Heading out? Like on a date?" She drew out the last word, planting her hands flat on the table with a large grin. Dipper made a face as the syrup on her fork trailed onto the table and started to drip onto the floor.

"Me and Stanford are just exploring," you explained, keeping the embarrassment out of your smile. The whole family was looking at you now, besides Fiddleford. He was pouring more syrup on his pancakes, and upon glancing at Stanford's plate, poured a little on there, too. Stanford noticed this and thanked him, grabbing at his butterknife again to cut himself another piece. "I thought it would be nice to walk around with someone familiar with the area. Plus, it might be a good chance for us to catch up when we take a break."

"Like a date," Stan said with his mouth full, pointing at you and his brother with a fork.

"Not a date," Stanford corrected. "Don't talk with your mouth full."

"How 'bout you don't talk, period," came the slightly garbled response. Stanford’s mouth twisted up. The brothers started to bicker and you pursed your lips to avoid laughing at them. They looked just like Dipper and Mabel.

"Hey," Dipper addressed you again, looking a little excited. Though when you looked at him, he broke eye contact quickly and looked a little sheepish. "Can I come? You know, for your—for your research?"

"Oh! Yeah, if you really want to, then—"

"No!"

You and Dipper looked over at Mabel, who had very quickly interjected. She seemed to deflate a little at your surprised gaze, then looked at Dipper and pointed at the kitchen door.

"Dipper, a word?" The teen looked at you, then his sister, and sighed before sliding out of his seat. Mabel hopped out of her chair and smiled innocently at you. "Excuse us." You raised a brow, but shrugged a little and just waved.

When the door closed behind them, effectively giving the twins some privacy, Mabel immediately turned to her brother with her hands on her hips. She frowned at him like he did something wrong.

"What?" Dipper asked, visibly confused.

"What do you mean, 'what?' Dipper, you can't go along with her! At least not today!" Mabel said as if this were very obvious information.

"Why not?" He blinked cluelessly. The girl pinched the bridge of her nose before clapping her hands together and pointing them at her brother.

"She's going with grunkle Ford today," she insisted. "This is their moment! They're bonding! They'll be alone together in the woods, holding hands and sitting in a tree, K-I-S-S-I-N-G! You'll be the third wheel and they won't even know it!" Dipper finally understood what this was about.

"Mabel, are you still trying to get them together? I told you last night, they—"

"But you didn't meet her last night! Now you have! Look me in the eyes and tell me they don't have chemistry, Dipper. Look me in the eyes!" She gripped his shoulders, shaking him a little before reaching up to pull her eyelids up with both hands.

"Ugh, stop that," Dipper swatted at her hands, perturbed. He thought of how the two had interacted earlier. You had practically lit up when Ford came into the room, and even a small pet name he didn't even seem to notice using got you to flush. "Okay, maybe they have a little chemistry. But still, won't your meddling be, like… I dunno, a little counterproductive? They might get a little freaked out if you keep trying to nudge them together."

"Duh, that's why I won't be." Mabel folded her arms, grinning in pride. "We'll do it in secret! No nudging allowed!"

"Still, if you—Wait, we?"

"Me, you, and everyone else, silly!"

"Everyone else? Mabel—"

"I will be taking no further comments!" Mabel cheered, pumping her fists in the air. Before Dipper could ask any more questions, Mabel burst through the kitchen door again. You almost jumped at the teen's dramatic entrance, your empty plate and utensils in hand.

"Oh, hey there, Mabel," you chirped, gathering a napkin you'd used and your empty cup of water. "You and your brother finished talking? I was about to clean up, but I didn’t want to interrupt you two."

"We’re finished, but don't ask what we were talking about!" You saw Dipper exit the kitchen behind her as she bounded back to her chair. "It was twin bonding. It's not like it was about you or anything." Her too-casual laugh and little hand wave made you doubt that somewhat, but you nodded nonetheless.

"If you say so! Let me know when you're done and I'll clear your plates for you. Thank you both for helping out so much.” Stanford stood up, seemingly done with his breakfast as well. He gathered his dishes, moving the platter of extra pancakes closer to Fiddleford when the mechanic started to reach for it.

"I'll help you," he stated, his tone leaving no room for argument. He cut you off when you were about to deny his help. "It's the least I can do for breakfast. Come along, now, we'll only need to load the dishwasher and then we can prepare to leave." You huffed, but held the door to the kitchen open for him with a grateful smile.

When it closed behind you two, Mabel turned to Dipper with a syrupy grin, her cheeks puffed out with pancakes. He rolled his eyes at her, uninterested in whatever schemes she had in mind, but curiously glanced at the closed kitchen door when he heard your soft laughter come from behind it.

Chapter Text

"And this here would be the Carnivorous Mushroom," Stanford said, pointing at a curiously deep red fungi near the base of the log you two were studying. There were a lot of them in this area, crowding in shady spots and poking out through thin blankets of moss all along logs and tree trunks. You wrote the name in your notebook, glancing up at the mushroom every few seconds and starting to sketch the marbled pattern on its bulbous cap.

"Carnivorous? Does its hyphae specifically break down meat proteins in decaying organisms?" you asked, the scratching of your pencil against the paper proving as background noise for Stanford's hum.

"Not quite! My research shows that this mushroom holds the same nutrients you just can't find in plants, but doesn't have any fat and thus does not increase cholesterol levels like red meat does. A while ago, I started a study that seemed to prove it can substitute for meat entirely." You made a noise in interest, writing quickly. "They produce very quick as well, and in crowded populations."

"That's incredible! A vegan meat substitute with all the same benefits," you commented, grinning down at your journal. "How did you find all this out, Stanford?"

"I tried it myself. Makes a mean burger." You looked up to raise a brow at him, amused. He looked at you when you spoke up, a smile on your face.

"Do you usually eat random mushrooms you find in the forest, or is that after you lick radioactive tree sap?" He huffed out a laugh and you rolled your eyes in good nature. When Stanford turned away and spotted another plant to ramble about, you reached into your boot and flicked open the small switchblade you kept there.

Carefully, you cut the smallest mushroom you could find and rummaged through your pack to grab a small plastic baggie. You tucked the mushroom into it and placed it into your vest for safekeeping. When you got back to the manor, you'd… run some tests. You definitely weren't going to eat it later. That would be dumb! (You were definitely going to eat it later.)

You two were in the woods northeast of the town, and Stanford had suggested you start another journal for the plant life you find. You’d brought along some botany notes from other places to compare later on. So far, you had done a good job of observing most curious flowers, vines, and fruit, but Stanford was a great help in identifying certain plants you couldn't quite figure out the effects or use of. He saved you a lot of time and sample space, and you were happy to have his help.

The day was bright and warm, and without having to carry the many things that were pulling you down, you felt much more light and capable of maneuvering yourself. Stanford was a great help in that sense too, guiding you over especially tricky tree roots and concerningly deep ditches that were shaped suspiciously like a large foot. You'd been hoping to find some interesting insects while you were at it, but you couldn’t seem to spot any the deeper you traversed into the woods. In fact, at some point, you'd stopped seeing any wildlife.

A while later, you were in the middle of taking notes on a fern, that giggled when you touched it. It was like the opposite of similar-looking ferns that closed when you touched them. From somewhere to your right, you heard a soft rustle and whisper in the woods. You didn’t acknowledge it at first, thinking it might have been the wind, but there was another soft whisper just a moment after. Without looking up from your notes, you called out,

"Sorry, Stanford, what did you say?" you asked. The trees’ leaves brushed together in a light breeze that passed. After a second, your friend answered you from a distance away, just barely overpowering the sound of your scribbling.

"What? Did you say something?" You paused. Stanford had answered you from the opposite direction of where you heard the noise. With a blink, you looked up in his general direction. He was crouching down near a mass of closely entangled tree roots a little ways away after insisting they looked like entwined hands. They looked more like an ordinary jumble of roots to you.

"Uh, no? Did you say something?" He looked over his shoulder to shake his head at you and you stared for a second before shrugging. You glanced at the direction of the original noise. When you saw nothing out of the ordinary, you looked back at your notes, continuing to write. "Well, I think I'm just about finished with the Ticklish Fern. You still poking at the trees, or do you think you're ready to leave them alone now?"

The two of you continued like that for a while, with Stanford showing you interesting plant specimens and you reminding him that he should be certain he knew how to get away from dangerous plants before showing you their very effective trapping mechanisms.

More than once, he had stayed quiet for a concerning amount of time before having an “Aha!” moment and, for example, removing his arm from a giant venus flytrap that had actual teeth. He assured you he could sew up his coat on his own, but you made a mental note to ask if he needed help later on.

Every now and then, you'd hear more whispers. A few times, you'd thought you'd heard breathy twinkles of bells before realizing they were sounds more akin to being giggles. Not only that, but you thought you could hear much more frequent rustling of leaves even without the wind. Stanford didn't seem to notice, too focused on showing you what he could identify in the woods. It almost felt like he was bragging, but he sounded like that so often back in the day that you weren't sure he knew he was doing it.

Eventually, though, your curiosity and wariness got the better of you. Stanford was currently trying to get his foot out from what was essentially a human-sized mousetrap in the sense that the sap he'd purposely stepped into was nearly impossible to step out of.

He had considered having you go back to his lab to bring back some liquid nitrogen and freeze it off, but through some laughter, you convinced him that leaving his sock behind wouldn't be much of a hassle and you could definitely get it back for him later without risk of giving him frostbite. While he tied his boot laces tightly around his bare left foot, the whispers started again, and you spoke up.

"Stanford," you started casually, noting that the whispering had come to an abrupt pause once you did. He hummed to acknowledge you, pulling his laces tight. You glanced around without moving your head much, trying to stay subtle. "Have you noticed anything... weird around us recently?"

"Hm. Yes. The entirety of Gravity Falls is Weird. I'm afraid you'll have to be more specific," he replied, standing up straight and resting his fists on his hips. You tried not to think about how your thoughts totally blanked when Stanford tilted his head at you, looking like you might say the most interesting thing he's ever heard. You looked at the spot between his eyes to avoid eye contact, ignoring the heat rising to your face at the expression.

"Uh, I mean… It kind of feels like we're…" you trailed off suddenly. You wanted to tell him you thought the two of you were being followed, but usually when being found out, stalkers didn't stick around for very long. You wanted to get to the bottom of whoever was distracting you from having such a fun time with your friend. “Nevermind. I’m sure it’s the wind. That, or the Tickling Fern got me thinking too much.”

Before he could ask you to explain or do something that gave away the fact that you noticed the whispers, you stepped forward and hooked your arm around his. Stanford’s mouth shut at the sudden contact with an audible click, cutting off whatever he had to say. You started leading him away from the area, minding the sticky sap.

"Let's go this way," you said without waiting for an answer. He didn't have any protests as you walked, keeping close contact with your friend even when you brought your journal out to write something down. The longer you were holding onto his arm, the more he got comfortable with it—at least, that was what you would have noticed had you been paying more attention to him.

Instead, you were intent on keeping an ear out for the whispers. They would start up again at seemingly random times and you always noticed when they did, but you couldn’t make out any words. Sometimes, you’d mistake the voices for the rustling of leaves or buzzing of nearby insects, but you still hadn’t caught sight of any bugs. The more you listened, the more you thought those noises sounded... familiar, somehow. Stanford didn’t seem to have the same suspicions as you did, but you didn’t mention it.

After nearly an hour of being followed, you were starting to grow a little confused, which only made you a little more tense. When the whispers didn’t start up again after a while, you tried not to let your mild paranoia show on your face. The two of you ended up in an area more saturated with trees, as well as a scattering of neat plants along the forest floor. There were shrubs and large flowers of different varieties, almost all of them different colors and shapes.

"Now, this vine is very interesting. It naturally curls around one it comes into contact with, see? Very useful for swinging from trees," Stanford was telling you, grinning as he let a long, green vine form around his wrist in little spirals. Your lips curled up in amusement at his pride.

“You speak like you’ve had experience,” you muse. There was a light dusting of pink on his cheeks, but he just raised his free hand in a teeter totter motion. You laughed lightly and looked down to start a new page in your journal. “That’s pretty cool! How do you get them off?” You set about sketching the vines. They were about an inch in diameter with visible fibers, you thought, which would lend to the strength Stanford vouched for...

“Ah, well, it’s quite easy! You just—Y-You… just…” Stanford seemed to trail off and you glanced up at him before returning to your sketch. Then you did a double-take, snapping your head up to look at him and springing to your feet. “Oh, dear…” It wasn’t there just a second ago, but a yellow cloud of many small particles had appeared in front of Stanford’s face. They were so fine, you could see how his breath moved them around.

You reached out to him, then yanked your hand back. You didn’t know what that stuff was, and you knew you shouldn’t breathe it in and possibly incapacitate yourself. You had to be able to help. Instead, you stepped back, shoving your journal and pencil into your vest. When you looked around, you noticed a few large flowers at Stanford's feet had the same yellow particles settling on their stamens. It was a pollen of some sort.

“Stanford? What is that? Are you okay?” you asked hastily, looking up and watching as the cloud around your friend's face dispersed. Stanford grunted in response, bringing his free hand to his head and swaying. His eyes were shut tight and you could only watch as he nearly fell over, if not for the vine keeping him up by his wrist. You tensed. Was the vine pulling itself up?

When the cloud had settled, you rushed to his side and pulled his arm around you so the vine couldn’t move. Stanford’s swaying had calmed considerably, but his weight was still distributed unevenly and his eyes were still screwed shut. You grabbed his shoulder and shook it a few times to get his attention, repeating his name and wincing at the concern in your voice.

“Are you okay? What’s happening to you?”

“Ugh….”

“Hey, open your eyes!” you said, shifting the man to get him to lean on you for support. “C’mon, bud, we gotta go. How do we get this vine off of you?” Now that you were holding down Stanford’s arm, you could feel your earlier thought had been correct; the vine was trying to pull upwards, bringing your friend’s arm with it. When you glanced up, you couldn’t quite see the sun through the crowded treetops, but you saw a few more Grappling Vines descending. Your gaze snapped to Stanford when he said your name lazily, though his eyes were still closed.

“Stanford, we have to—” Before you could say anything more, countless Grappling Vines suddenly shot down and circled Stanford easily. One harmlessly jabbed at your ribs and you impulsively jumped back in surprise, only to regret it when you realized your friend was now completely trapped. You cried out in alarm when the vines lifted him, the fronts of his boots barely skimming the forest floor, and started to drag him away. “No, no, stop! Give him back!”

You followed after him, reaching out and barely grazing the tight cage of vines before they tugged Stanford right out of your reach. When the vines stretched to their limits, others would descend and curl around him as the taught ones let go, all of them working together to swap your friend between their grasps. When you grew too close, some would poke at your ribs, your face, and your ankles to get you to trip or slow down. Even then, you kept on moving.

The vines brought Stanford to an even tighter area of trees and the same types of plants you saw earlier. The treetops almost completely blocked the sun from above you, and the temperature was drastically different from the rest of the forest. It was completely silent here, which might have been unnerving; you were more focused on the fact that the vines had passed your friend out of sight.

“Hey! Where are you taking him?!” When you had caught up, you almost fell straight into a wide hole in the ground. “What the…” It was a few feet wide and surrounded by large, green leaves you recognized as elephant ears, which were bigger than your head. Hesitantly, you looked over the edge to see more of the leaves, which seemed to grow darker as they went down. From what you could tell, the pit was considerably deep. Between the sheer depth, the large elephant ears surrounding it, and your own aged eyesight, you couldn’t see any sunlight down there.

Suddenly, the ground rumbled beneath your feet, making you startle backwards. Thick roots started growing at an incredible speed, slowly creeping over the edges of the hole. You stumbled somewhat as they moved the ground under you, steadily blocking the entrance to the intimidatingly dark cavern below. You thought of Stanford down there, trapped, confused, and dazed, and you barely gave it a thought before deciding to jump.

Above you, the roots grew closer and closer together, and you were engulfed in darkness.

*

“How vile, vile! I cannot fathom why this vile creature has been brought to us!”

“It is a human man, you see? Do you not remember what they look like?”

“Ah, well, it has been quite some time. Though, now I certainly, certainly remember what they smell like.”

“Quiet, you two. We know they all smell the same, after all.”

You groaned quietly, rubbing the area near your temple. The fall had been a little deeper than you thought. Your left ankle ached a little and you’d barely managed to slow your fall by grabbing some roots along the way before you hit the ground. Even then, you’d hit your head somewhere along the fall. Luckily, a thick layer of elephant ears softened your impact, and you didn’t suffer anything more than some aching and a few scratches.

“What do we do with it? Do the others know?”

“We keep it here until told. We cannot do much, after all.”

“Same as always, then. How boring, boring!”

You kept your eyes closed, as you took in the mild pain, but they quickly snapped open when you felt something soft against your cheek. You froze when you saw pure white awfully close to your face, and slowly pushed yourself up, mind racing with the possibility of something dangerous so close to you. A poisonous fungus? A venomous caterpillar? Your heart pounded as you sat up almost fully, bracing yourself for—Oh. When you realized what you were looking at, your panic turned to confusion, then to wonder.

It was a rabbit. It was fairly large, and looked up at you with beady eyes. It shifted a little when you moved, but it seemed just as curious as you were. Your gaze traveled upwards, following brown stalks coming out of its head. They branched upwards, and virtually doubled the white rabbit’s height. They looked like deer antlers. You gasped in surprise and excitement. It was a jackalope! Well, jacka...deer. Jackadeer? You started to reach out to touch it, but the animal quickly caught on to your movement and turned, rushing away through a hole in the wall you hadn’t noticed before.

It took your eyes a few seconds to adjust after you watched it run off, but you blinked a few times to take in your surroundings. You were certainly in the bottom of the pit, no doubt. It was kind of cramped, being only several feet wider than the entrance had been. There was no sign of the vines, or Stanford. You looked forward curiously, peering at the hole the jackadeer had hopped through. You looked up to see only a few pinpricks of light peering through the roots above. You weren’t sure they’d open up for you.

“Do you think we will get to keep it this time?”

“We should. The surface kept the last one, after all.”

Your brows furrowed at the noises coming from the hole in the wall. The sounds were similar to harsh whispers, occasionally harsh enough to sound like buzzing or soft enough to mimic a light breeze. You recognized them as the whispers you’d heard in the forest. Slowly, you crawled towards the hole and kept your breathing soft to hear it.

“As I said, it has been a long time. They may be greedy, greedy.”

It sounded like a conversation between three beings. Something about it seemed familiar. With a jolt, you reached into your vest to find the notes you’d brought along with you. You found one journal from your travels in the Foloi Oak Forest in Greece a few years ago, and flipped through the first few pages to find an entry you’d written:

Foloi Forest’s more elegant creatures, including mischievous fairies and plotting nymphs, speak in a language similar to the natural sounds of the forest.

After months befriending many and be-flirting few, they have taught me their exotic language to the point of fluency! (Dv zhoo dv d ihz sdvwlphv wkdw duh, vxusulvlqjob, qrw vr harwlf.) I have decided to dub this language “Nymph-Speak.”

Note: Come up with a better name. I told this to As and they laughed at me. I deserve that.

These beings were nymphs, then, or something similar. You skimmed the rest of the paragraph before finding the short translation key to jog your memory, then shut your eyes. The words came slow at first, but the more you half-murmured, half-mouthed to yourself, the more you could remember. You opened your eyes to glance over the few translations again.

“Even if they were, there will be more to come. It is,” you didn’t recognize this word and briefly glanced over your notes, “after all.” They must have meant summer. You scribbled on the page, noting the difference. It seems certain pronunciations were a bit sharper in this part of the woods. You noted this language’s different inflections and altered pronunciations. You expected as much, seeing as you were in a completely different continent, but the change was easy enough to recognize.

“Human men are so stupid in summer, summer.”

“Are human men not stupid no matter the season?”

Your Nymph-Speak was a little rusty, but it would come back to you as you spoke. You'd spent a while in Greece, aftre all, You tucked away your notebook and crawled through the hole in the wall. It was more of a short tunnel, about three feet in length, and it was tall enough that you had plenty of room to move when you were on your hands and knees. A pale blue illuminated the area in front of you, and you hesitated for only a moment before peeking out. You had to bring the back of your hand to your mouth to stop your gasp.

The short tunnel had opened up to a large space, a room thrice as big as your bedroom in the manor. It was absolutely teeming with life, including a few jackadeer that retreated behind some plants when you’d entered and a few interesting bugs buzzing around near the dirt floor. The pale blue glow lit up the entire space, creeping up the textured dirt walls that rounded into a tall, dome-like ceiling. It was around two stories tall, and you could see tree roots at the top, as if for structural support.

The light itself came from glowing mushrooms all around the area, some even sprouting from the walls. They shone onto large, white leaves with green veins and edges, which seemed to reflect the light and make the cavern even brighter than it would have been. It was much like having many dim lamps in an otherwise pitch-black room. You thought you could hear rushing water nearby, but there wasn't any in sight.

The domed cavern branched out into a few paths, and you quickly took your map out. If you could remember correctly, the vines had led you on a chase further into the northeast forest, so you would be about… You lightly marked an area of your map and quickly drew the entrance and cavern, taking into account its size. You paused in your scribbling to listen closely, trying not to get distracted by the few jackadeer starting to hop into sight when you hadn’t moved in a minute.

“Oh, it is breathing, breathing! Order the vines to kill it, kill it!”

“Can we, Neg? Can we kill it already?”

“No, Li. Leader Gold will wish to see it, after all.”

You crept down the leftmost tunnel near its wall, careful not to step on any glowing mushrooms. You wondered how many others might have seen this place and desperately wanted to document everything here, but you had to save your best friend first. Right now, Stanford’s safety took priority. You noticed a lightning bug idly buzzing past you and tried not ot stare at the soft, blue light it emitted.

“Will they bother to let us kill it?”

“I'm sure they will, will!”

The voices were getting louder now, and you paused at the end of the tunnel. It seemed to open up to another large, domed room, just as big as the first. Carefully, you peeked around the corner, then quickly moved back. There! He was there! Stanford was still wrapped up to the point of immobility in the vines, his head tilted down in a way that suggested he had lost consciousness. He was held up against a wall a few feet off the ground, and his fluffy hair seemed a bit disheveled by the earlier chase.

You managed another glimpse. Surrounding your friend were three figures, dark enough for you to mistake as silhouettes before you realized they were just unnaturally-colored. You had never seen these people in your life, though you quickly remembered they weren’t people at all.

The tallest and broadest nymph was around six feet tall, with skin the color of deep wine. Their black hair was pulled back, only it wasn't actual hair. Instead, it looked like black leaves and stems were brought into a ponytail, then puffed out in a stunning bunch of bottlebrush with small, white flowers all along each stalk. You couldn’t see their face very well, but lips the same white shade as the flowers were pressed into a hard line. They had no separate whites or pupils to their eyes, same as the nymphs you knew in Greece, and only had creamy-white eyes staring straight ahead.

“Maybe. We deserve it, after all,” that nymph said. Their voice was gruff and low, though mostly indifferent.

“We do? Are you sure, Neg?” the next one asked, their voice a little higher in tone but having an especially sharp edge to it. It was like they were just waiting for the opportunity to fight.

This nymph was a bit shorter, and they were only a little lighter in color. You assumed this one was named Li. Instead of a ponytail, Li’s hair was completely made of the white bottlebrush and hung down to their shoulders. Even without pupils, you could tell this being was scanning the room cautiously. They had a broad frame as well, but if this one was muscular, the tallest could probably rip you in half with just a glower. You glanced at the tallest again, appraising them for a second before moving on.

“Of course, of course! Oh, it will be so much fun, fun!” the last nymph squealed, nodding over and over. The others huffed and tilted their head in agreement, respectfully, and you recognized the manner of speaking. This one must be Gee, then, meaning the tallest was named Neg.

Gee was significantly smaller than their counterparts and a good several inches shorter than yourself. Their overall tone was more emerald green than the others, with only a little dark purple creeping into their hair. It was made out of serrated foliage, sticking up in all directions and layered in a sort of messy pixie-cut aside from two bottlebrush stalks. The bottlebrush was pointed straight down where their ears would be, like long earrings. Rather than stand straight and face one way like the other two, Gee rocked back and forth on their heels and occasionally gave a glance to the man behind them.

A low groan caught your attention, and your breath hitched. Stanford was waking up. You nearly jumped out from your cover right then and there, but forced yourself to stay put. You were no good to him if you put yourself in danger without coming up with a plan to help, first. You carefully slunk down to a kneel so you’d be less likely to be seen as you peeked out of the tunnel again.

“Ugh, what—Oh dear,” he said, alarm taking over his voice in less than a second. Even if you weren’t staring straight at him, you would have known his eyes would go wide and he would puff up his chest in that odd defense mechanism he has. “Who’s there? Who are you?”

“Vile, vile! Kill it!” Gee recoiled from him the same way one would curl away from a garbage bin, but stood their ground like the others even though they looked like a stepstool compared to the other two. The tallest, Neg, didn’t even twitch.

“Leave it be for now. We will get our chance to kill it soon enough, after all,” Neg spoke calmly, though their gravelly voice atop their unchanging expression and bulky figure made them sound awfully intimidating.

“What in the world?” Stanford gaped, which was an appropriate response to the unique hisses and buzzes of Nymph-Speak. Then you watched as he started to take in his surroundings with a growing sense of awe, which was not an appropriate response to being tied up in an unfamiliar area. “Where am I?”

“Is it not awful how they always ask questions?” Li, the medium-sized nymph, sounded a little unnerved. Their face mostly mostly conveyed annoyance. “May we cover its mouth to keep it from asking questions? Will you do it, Gee?”

To your horror, the shortest nymph giggled gleefully as they clapped twice. The vines, which you realized had to be sentient, curled up to Stanford’s head. He protested, shaking his head vigorously, but the vines ultimately wrapped around his jaw and gagged his mouth. You followed to where they lead, noticing they seemed to grow from the tree roots at the domed ceiling.

“That is much better, better!” The short one was grinning as they looked over their shoulder at Stanford, but frowned when he started to make muffled cries of indignation. Li rolled their eyes beside them. “Ah. Even without words, it still manages to be annoying, annoying.”

You had to get their attention somehow, then rush over to save your friend. You looked around for something that might help you get the guards to leave their post. At the very least, get Li to stop looking around the place. If you could get them to go somewhere else, or look the other way…

“Neg, when do you think they will arrive?”

“Soon, Li. There is not much else they need attend, after all.”

There was a big rock near the edge of the tunnel wall. You grabbed it quickly, testing the heft of it on your hand. Once you figured the guards weren’t looking, you scoped out the tunnels branching out of their room. There were a few more rocks in sight of the nearest tunnel to yours. Hopefully your swing was still good.

“I am incredibly bored, bored,” Gee whined, bouncing a little and causing the leaves on their head to rustle. You reared your hand back, pursing your lips. Neg gave a noncommittal grunt in response. You swung.

The rock flew across the room, though you were off to the side enough that the guards didn’t see where it had come from. Gee made a shriek of surprise at the sudden clatter of the stones as they knocked against one another, their white bottlebrush earrings swaying with their movement. The short nymph spun to hide behind Li, who didn’t seem to appreciate it.

“Where did that come from? Who is there?” Li shouted, holding out their hand. To your amazement, a large spear seemed to grow right in their grip. It resembled a thin, six foot thorn. You pressed your back to the dirt tunnel, holding your breath. There was silence for a few moments, before Li spoke up again. “Shall I look?”

“Please do. We would not want any unwelcome visitors, after all.” You heard footsteps and soon saw Li approaching the tunnel. When you peeked again, Gee was warily looking out from behind Neg’s broad form. Li was near the entrance of the tunnel, holding the pointed end of their spear in front of them. You looked at Stanford, your heart jumping in surprise a little when the two of you made eye contact.

Quickly, you brought your index finger to your lips and glanced at the guards. He nodded to the best of his ability, but looked simultaneously relieved and concerned. Your friend pointedly looked at the two nymphs near him, then to you, trailing from your tunnel, then moving upwards until his gaze was set straight above him. You had to shuffled out from your cover a bit more to see what he was looking at.

Just a few feet from where you crouched, a wall of vines started. They led up the domed walls, where they started to mingle with tree roots that grew progressively thicker. You followed the roots to the vines’ bases, noting they were directly above where the guards stood. Those vines were the ones to lead to Stanford. You glanced at your friend, who was now looking at you, and nodded at him before you ducked back to cover.

The other two nymphs were looking at Li, who was still looking around where the rock had gone. If you hurried, you could probably rush over to the vine wall and start climbing up. Then, once you were above Stanford, you’d have the chance to cut the vines, get the jump on the guards, and escape. Nymphs were quick, though, and you weren’t sure you could outrun them. You didn’t feel too good about hurting them, either, but you figured you’d cross that bridge when you got to it.

While Neg and Gee were watching their companion, you rushed out of your tunnel and made a beeline to the vines, keeping your crouch. You paused for a second to reach into your right boot, where you kept a small switchblade. It would probably be enough to cut the vines and set your friend free. When the nymphs didn’t seem to notice you, you grabbed hold of the thickest vines you could see and planted your feet in the dirt to start your ascent.

“I hope it is nothing, nothing,” Gee said, slowly starting to come out from behind the tallest guard. Li swept the entrance of the tunnel, keeping their spear raised. You scrambled up the vines with upper body strength you really needed to work on, until you were at the tree roots. “If it was nothing, we should return to our positions, positions.”

You managed to slip your legs between a particularly thick roots and the dirt ceiling and hung upside-down to give your arms a break. Stanford was glancing up at you, trying not to seem too obvious, but the nymphs didn’t look at him anyway. With a swift movement, you took the switchblade from your boot and flicked it open. You brought it to the vines and—

A spear whizzed past your head and landed in the dirt ceiling inches from your legs. A muffled shout came from Stanford below, and you happened to match it with your own scream as a vine whipped up to curl around the tree root you hung on. It pulled harshly, bending the root and forcing your legs over it.

Dirt flew onto your face as you fell, barely managing to flail before you landed on the ground, and you were a little irritated at falling a great distance twice in the last quarter hour. You had the wind knocked out of you at the impact, and wheezed slightly as you hit the ground.

Only, the ground didn’t cradle you beneath your legs and back. You blinked your eyes open, trying to catch your breath, and you screamed again when you found yourself looking into the creamy white eyes of the burliest nymph in the room.

“What is she doing here? When did she get here?” Li asked, another spear growing in their grip. Now far too close to them, you could see their white lips parted to reveal sharp teeth whenever they spoke. They twirled their spear around once before pointing the sharp end of it at your throat, the bottlebrush hair shifting like normal hair would. You decided to keep your mouth shut in favor of avoiding annoying them.

“Oh my, a pretty human woman, woman!” Gee squealed, hopping excitedly and gushing over you. You were strangely flattered. “Can we keep her, keep her?”

“No. We do not know of her intentions, after all,” Neg said, seemingly unfazed by having you in their arms. You realized one of their hands curled over your ribs as they carried you, their grip surprisingly careful. You pretended your heart didn’t skip a beat.

“Then shall we speak to her in human common to find out?” Li asked, their eyes narrowed at you. Your brain suddenly booted up again and you jolted slightly as your mind raced. Your movements didn’t affect Neg in the slightest. They were like a brick wall, except you didn’t usually appreciate the firm stature of brick walls.

“Uh, no need!” The two shorter nymphs had proper expressions of surprise. Neg blinked slowly, which you assumed was the equivalent. “I can speak your language. I am out of practice, however.”

“Oh? How convenient, is it not?” Li straightened themselves again, jabbing their oversized thorn a bit closer to you. You tried to scramble back, but your legs just kind of flailed a little. “Why are you here, human?”

“For my friend!” you said quickly, trying to lean away from the dangerous object and only succeeding in making Li follow you with the sharp point. “I came for my friend, w-we will go home! Just, please let us go!”

“The cute woman came for her friend, friend,” Gee repeated, perking up. They reached over with a dainty hand and placed a finger next to Li’s spear. Gently, they moved it away from you. You sighed in relief, relaxing a little. “Human, tell us who your friend is. We will help you, help you.”

“The man, just over there,” you said without thinking. Li’s glare deepened and Gee’s white lips made a little “O” shape. The short nymph placed their finger on the spear again and moved it back to point at your neck. “No, no, wait! He is very, very, close to me, and I cannot go home without him. Please let him go!”

“Why should we?” To your disappointment, Li seemed pleased with having their weapon pointed at you again. To your surprise, Neg shifted you to one arm and pushed away the spear.

“Be calm, Li,” they replied in an earthquake of a voice. Each syllable made their chest rumble, and holding you in one arm made you very aware of the large bicep providing you with excellent lumbar support. You were basically cradled in the crook of their elbow. It was kind of romantic. How did nymphs get muscles? “We have rules, after all.”

“Oh, no fun.” Gee pouted, which was very unromantic. Still, Neg’s words struck relief into your chest. The nymphs’ rules you’d learned about in Greece seemed to bear the same as the ones here, too. “I forgot about the rules, rules.”

“Ah, the rules? A shame, is it not?” Li seemed just as disappointed in not getting to jab a thorn into places you needed to stay intact to live, but they pointed their weapon outwards. It shrunk even quicker than their first thorn had grown. They held their palm up to the dirt ceiling and your gaze followed to see that spear disappear in the same fashion.

“Surely, you know our rules, human,” Neg said, drawing your attention to them again. The way their eyes and lips contrasted with the rest of their form was lovely. While you stared at their mouth, the corner of their lips raised a little and you realized they knew you were staring. Quickly, you turned your head away to stare at their shoulder. “You know our language, after all.”

Actually, looking at them up close without the distraction of a threat towards your life gave you room to notice something; Neg wore no actual articles of clothing, nor did the two others. They didn't even have skin. Their bodies were made of dark leaves closely compacted together to act as a solid mass in a vaguely-human form, and it wasn’t like nymphs usually had primary or secondary sex characteristics. They were plants. You wondered why men decided to sexualize plants.

The nymphs in Foloi had skin, plus they wore clothing: Greek chitons and ivy headdresses and all. You had always wondered why, but now you realized they were probably just being dramatic. Even then, they didn’t have any “private parts” until they wanted to form themselves to have them.

Speaking of dramatic… You tried to sit up a bit more to peek over Neg’s broad shoulder, looking at Stanford. He seemed very confused and concerned, but you smiled at him and hoped your uncertainty didn’t show through. His gaze softened at you and you gave him a thumbs up.

“I do,” you replied to the nymph, leaning back and asking to be placed down. Neg complied, setting you on the ground carefully, and you tried to ignore your flush when their hand lingered on your back for an extra second. “And I will gladly follow them. Any human man captured by, um… nature spirits—He may be spared if he is a companion to a human woman, correct?"

"And so you claim to be its human companion?" Li interjected, obviously unimpressed. A blank look from Neg had them pointedly look away with a huff. The tallest nymph looked back at you, nodding patiently, and you continued,

"Yes, in fact. Please, spirits, release him. We will not encroach on your territory again." You briefly dusted off your pants before standing up straight. The top of your head only reached Neg's collarbone.

"Human," Neg said firmly, and you felt a shiver run down your spine, "we accept your claim. However, you must wait for the ultimate decision by West of North's second." That was new.

"Second? Second-in-command? Who would that be?" As if on cue, you heard a pair of light footsteps approaching from behind you. Li and Gee quickly zipped to their positions and stood tall, folding their arms behind their backs. Neg didn't move from their spot in front of you, but adopted the same pose just as fast.

"That would be me, darling," a low voice said. You whipped around to see another nymph, and you had to tilt your head up somewhat to look at their face even though they were still approaching. Neg was large in all senses of the word, but this nymph was utterly ethereal.

They were just under eight feet tall, and they were made of green leaves with a considerable amount of eye-catching gold flecks on each one. Their hair branched out in all directions but grew to equal length all around, vaguely reminding you of a lovely gold leaf afro.

“W-Who are you?” you stammered, uneased by the sudden appearance. You glanced over your shoulder to the guards, who had their heads raised high and were diligently staring straight ahead. When you looked back at the new nymph, you were met with gold-spattered leaves inches from your face. Slowly, you craned your neck until you could see into their purely golden eyes.

“In your common, I would be called Mr. Goldstrike,” they started, their voice the tone of a refreshing breeze on a warm summer’s day. As if to relax your neck, they leaned down, coming a bit closer to you. Behind you, the guards spoke in unison.

“Welcome, Leader Gold.” Their three loud voices saturated the entire room with mighty authority, sending shivers down your spine. “Leader Gold” stared at you for a few more seconds, as if reading you somehow, before standing at their full height and stepping away. Right before your eyes, their form’s leaves rustled and started changing from the bottom-up.

The heels of their feet raised, becoming wrapped in intricate gold patterns that wove together to become five-inch golden heels. It looked like the countless number of leaves making up their form connected and overlapped, melding into one another to create a texture similar to human skin at a steady pace. At the same time, above the nymph’s bust, leaves shot out and downwards in an instant. They resembled a shimmering, golden dress that clung to the new solid shape of their body and flared out at the knees in a train to rest delicately on the ground.

The nymph held their arms up slightly to form the skin there, creating long fingers and a woven gold ring around each one. Their leaves formed their neck, then their face, and suddenly the two golden eyes became human-like with a single blink. The only thing to stay the same was their hair, adding considerably to their height and framing their face in a halo of green and gold leaves.

With a soft, contented sigh, the nymph’s transformation was complete. They relaxed, letting their arms fall to their sides and shifting their weight a little. You watched, breathless, as they rolled their head around once to stretch their newly-formed neck and then peered down at you with shining gold irises.

“But you may call me Strike,” the nymph stated smoothly, parting their golden lips to reveal a stunning, yet deadly smile. You tensed up under their piercing gaze, which felt just as intense as it had without the pupils. “And it seems I have arrived just in time to invite you to dinner. How do you feel about your friend being the main course?”