Chapter 1: Prologue: That Thing About Idle Hands Is Totally True
Man, he was bored.
He’d gotten used to bored. Life on the boat tended to consist of terrifying mayhem interspersed with long hours of nothing much as they navigated from point to point, tracking down whatever fresh weirdness his brother had gotten wind of.
Autumn had blurred into winter and it had gotten way too cold to even kill time fishing. Eventually he’d swiped one of Ford’s spare notebooks and started drawing, badly, just to keep his hands busy during the slow stretches.
They’d managed to make it back to Portland along the Northwest Passage in late spring, dodging minor icebergs and the occasional curious selkie or sea serpent along the way. The Stan O’War II performed valiantly until they made it into port. Then the engine crapped out, diagnosed with a dire need for a couple months of drydock.
Given how hard they’d run the thing and how much trouble they’d gotten into, it wasn’t a shock.
Really he hadn’t minded much. The prospect of blowing the summer in Gravity Falls wasn’t unattractive. Dipper and Mabel’s parents had jumped at the chance to cut the kids loose for school break just like they had last year, and the grand-nibs were eager to get the hell out of Piedmont.
The Mystery Shack, so far as he’d heard, was thriving and Soos was more than happy to host everyone. Free room and board wasn’t anything to sneer at and the place had definitely been classed up under new management.
But with no demons to deal with, no secret project in the basement, no immediate crisis to manage, enduring several weeks of relative normality was beginning to drive him smack out of his mind.
He stirred himself from staring out the office window to take another look at the Stan O’ War supply list he’d been idly working on. Adjusting the glasses, again, didn’t do a thing to make sense out of his own handwriting. Might as well be trying to disentangle one of Ford’s homebrewed ciphers.
Maybe it was time to take a field trip. He could probably slip across the Nevada border without too much trouble. Surely the kids could keep themselves busy in Las Vegas for a day or two.
He was daydreaming scams, always a pleasant way to pass the time, when the faint sound of rattling metal he’d just barely begun to notice suddenly resolved into something very immediate. The entire Shack trembled as something impacted with terrible force.
With a grunt of surprise he shoved back his chair and headed for the nearest outside door.
This is Dodging Disaster the Mr. Mystery Way: Stan Pines’ Guide to Life, Love and Engine Repair, an unauthorized novelization of the free and fantastic Swooning Over Stans: A Gravity Falls Dating Sim, released on 6/21/2018. It’s great. If you haven’t played it you should. Go on, now, I’ll wait.
All credit and all praise to the writers, artists, coders and infinitely patient project managers who created the game, and thanks to each of them for putting something so awesome into the world.
This story is essentially complete, although yes, I am still editing the last couple of chapters. I expect to post chapters throughout the month of July at a rate of two or three a week.
Stan registered three things as he stepped out into the heavy summer sunshine:
First, there was an old square-sided station wagon smashed nose first into the side of the Shack.
Second, Ford had just wrenched open the driver’s door.
Third, the occupant of the wagon, a well-dressed woman, looked up – disoriented but conscious – eyes flicking to his twin, then to him.
Son of a bitch, thought Stan, pushing himself into a jog across the lawn. He hadn’t made it halfway before the woman in the wagon clapped both hands over her startled mouth and burst into tears. Ford winced, backing off with the penlight he’d been waving in her face. Stan put a hand on his brother’s shoulder and drew him back another step, leaning in.
“Hey. Hey, ma’am, you okay in there?”
He got a shaky nod that did nothing to interrupt a series of faint jagged sobs, the kind of tears you got when you were trying your best not to cry. The driver curled in on herself, knees tucked up, a ball of misery he had no idea how to unravel.
Mabel popped out of the nearest door and skidded to a halt in open-mouthed surprise. Stan pointed her way. “Mabel! Pumpkin, go get a box of tissues and a cold washcloth, all right? Ford, what the hell?”
“I have no idea! I heard it just when you did. I was in the lab – “
Stan pinched the bridge of his nose, waiting for the other shoe to drop.
“ – testing the new safety features I just installed on the magnet gun.” Ford looked over his shoulder in dawning horror. “Which must have pulled this victim of circumstance right into the house.” Mabel was already back, dashing to the driver’s side with tissues and washcloth in hand. Her bright voice rang out in greeting and got a muffled response.
“Sweet Moses, Ford, you’ve done it this time.” Stan pulled himself upright with a sigh, doing the mental math and eyeing the damage to the Shack’s shingling. The wagon had definitely gotten the worst of it, he decided with a twinge of relief. He noted a few details – Colorado plates, occupied bike rack, the clutter of an extended road trip jammed into the rear compartment. “Ma’am?”
The woman in the wagon had uncurled a bit, finally, pressing the washcloth to her face. She lowered it to reveal fine, sharp features, grey eyes pink at the edges. “Clary,” she said, thick-voiced, then cleared her throat. “Clary Merrick.”
Mabel was patting Clary’s knee. “She says she’s okay! Clary, these are my grunkles, you’ve met Ford and that’s Stan. Welcome to the Mystery Shack! I’m really sorry about all of this!” Her eyes tracked over to Ford, who was looking guiltier by the second.
“It’s all good, Mabel. Just an accident, right? We’ll get a tow truck out here for this poor unfortunate – “
“I’ll take care of it,” said Ford.
Stan bit back a laugh. “You, fix this mess?”
“I’ve figured out a few alien vehicles in my time – “
“You kiddin’ me?”
Stan turned away from the car, tugging Ford along with him. “You do see what kinda shape this thing is in, right? This was somewhere between vintage and decrepit before it got friendly with the Shack. I can probably get it runnin’ again, but unless you have an engine-repair gun hiding in that lab of yours, that’s gonna take time.”
“Stanley. This is my fault.” The corners of Ford’s eyes crinkled with distress and Stan swore internally.
“Look. Fine. We can let her stay here for the night and I’ll take a look in the mornin’, but you’re gonna modify that magnet gun to iron out body panels or we won’t get too far.” Behind them, a heavy click marked the release of the seat belt.
“A tow truck would be fine. I’d really hate to impose.” Clary stepped unsteadily out of the station wagon, pushing out behind her with a careless hand to close the door with a firm thunk.
The four of them watched as the S from the Shack sign wobbled, skittered with increasing speed down the roof and thudded with a deep crunch square into the center of the crumpled hood. A last hiss of steam welled, faded and died.
Clary laid a hand over her brow, drew a long, steadying breath and turned away. “I’d be happy to take you up on a spare room for the night. Thank you so much.”
Their guest – Stan had to keep reminding himself, guest and not expensive, potentially litigious annoyance – pulled a small overnight bag out of the back seat and trailed after the family to the house, pausing to swap phone contacts with Mabel on the way. Waddles trotted by to check out Clary’s ankles, prompting exclamations and explanations on the way inside. He couldn’t blame the lady. Few people expected to be accosted by a pet pig.
Clary spent five minutes in the washroom and emerged looking…polished. Eyes clear, tear blotching gone, hair tucked smoothly away into its twist. The jaunty little silk neckerchief wrapped snugly twice and knotted at her neck had been set straight. Her glance drifted across Stan’s without really sticking and she offered a careful smile, tagging along with Mabel for what sounded like a house tour.
Stan recruited Dipper as an assistant. Clearing the spare room went fairly quickly, boxes of old merchandise stacked off to one side. He fished out a marker and tagged a few for later discount – some of this stuff had to be six years out of date by now, not quite old enough for a retro sale.
“ – and here is your room! Which is now almost completely clear of terrifying cursed artifacts and where you are guaranteed to have a great night’s sleep!” Mabel burst through the door and tossed a heap of pillows on the almost-inflated air mattress, ignoring Dipper’s hey! of protest as he labored away at the foot pump.
Clary stuck her head in, then leaned through the doorframe just enough to drop off a pile of blankets, linens and a large stuffed blue whale. “The whale’s on loan,” she said, when Stan shot her a flat look of disbelief.
“We’ll make the bed,” Mabel sang. “You two go get acquainted!” She nudged Dipper aside and took over foot-pump duties with enthusiasm.
“Uh – yeah, I guess we’ll see you guys in a couple minutes?” Dipper scooped up the sheets. “We’ve got this.”
Stan found himself ejected into the hallway. Clary blinked up at him, expression softened by maybe a quarter smile. “Mabel is a force of nature.”
“You said it. C’mon, sounds like you already got a pretty good look at the joint.” Stan tipped a thumb over at the connecting door. “I don’t suppose you’ve ever been to the Mystery Shack before?”
“I’ve never been to Oregon before, but I know the name, at least. Saw a bumper sticker – “
“Ha!” Clary rocked back on her heels in surprise. “Hear that, Ford?” Stan yelled in the general direction of the kitchen. “Those bumper stickers were a good investment! And Sixer says they’re too ‘plain’ and ‘graphically simplistic’ and ‘don’t even have an address on them Stanley how is anyone supposed to find the place’ to attract customers.”
“Well, they are graphically simplistic!” Ford leaned over to call back through the kitchen doorway. “I don’t know how she found the place, let alone thought ‘What is the Mystery Shack’ was compelling.”
“No, no, I liked it. Very minimalist. What’s the point of advertising the Mystery Shack if there isn’t a little mystery to solve on the way? Besides,” her voice dropped into a barely-audible rumble, “I’d say it was the magnet gun that was really compelling.”
She’d said that in perfect deadpan, and Stan’s grin went wide. “I like you, Clary. How about I give you a tour sometime tomorrow, regular price.”
That got him a doubtful sidelong frown, and Stan laughed. “We’ll eat in like half an hour. Feel free to unpack or get interrogated by Mabel or whatever. Congratulations, you’re the most interestin’ thing to have happened here all summer.”
Twenty minutes later Ford had managed to pad out dinner with some odds and ends from the freezer. They swiped a kitchen chair to wedge in at the dining table. Clary now sported a Mabel scarf pinned across her chest, anchoring a dishtowel-wrapped bundle of what had to be frozen peas at her left shoulder. Stan reckoned she was anticipating a bruise from the seat belt. Smart. Mabel, bless her, led in with loud enthusiasm about the pleasures of summer in Gravity Falls, and a round of questions followed as he loaded up his plate.
“I’m a lawyer,” Clary said into a still moment. “I specialize in federal tax work.”
He hadn’t been tuned in to the conversation, but that particular combination of phrases was enough to both douse Stan’s nerves in ice water and trigger a regrettable reflex. He set an elbow on the table, leaned in, and said: “What’s the difference between a lady lawyer and a pitbull?”
Clary’s focus snapped to him. Stan raised an eyebrow.
The professional mask didn’t slip, but there was a spark of hot defiance at the back of her eyes. “Lipstick. Why did New Jersey get all the toxic waste and California get all the lawyers?”
Stan almost laughed – apparently there was something human in there after all. “Jersey got to pick first. What’s the difference between a dead skunk in the road and a dead lawyer in the road?”
“Skid marks in front of the skunk. What’s the difference between a lawyer and a boxing referee?” Clary relaxed with an arm draped along the back of her chair, looking at him with her chin cocked the slightest bit in challenge. Mabel had both hands over her mouth, stifling a giggle; Ford and Dipper both looked like they wanted to dive for cover.
“A boxin’ referee doesn’t get paid more for a longer fight.” He’d pinned down the accent now – she sounded like Ford, faint traces of a mid-Atlantic cadence all but buffed off by too much damn education. Not Southern enough for Virginia, so – “You’re a long way from home, Maryland.”
“Could say the same for you, Jersey,” she fired back, lips pursed, aware that she’d had the easier lift. “Long Branch?”
Shit, she had him within thirty miles. Stan rolled with it, slung her a finger-gun and a wink. “Close. Baltimore?”
Clary rolled her eyes in return. “There’s not much else in Maryland, but close enough, hon.”
That took some of the starch out, and the discussion relaxed a little. Clary chatted museums with Mabel and Dipper, displaying all the trademark enthusiasm of a hopeless nerd, which was probably going to make dinner even more exhausting than usual for the next few days.
Stan lobbed an occasional joke at Clary for the rest of the meal. She swatted them back with the easy contempt of a bored tennis pro. He was going to have to do some research, because she definitely knew more lousy lawyer cracks than he did.
They left the dishes for later. Ford perched atop the skull side table, Mabel made herself at home on one arm of Stan’s recliner, and Dipper helped pile up a mountain of pillows for himself and Clary. “Are you all caught up on Ducktective?” he asked as Stan got the TV going and started skimming through channels.
“Never seen it, I’m afraid.”
“You’ve never seen it?! Oh my gosh, there is so much going on this week! Listen up, I’ll explain the basics!” Dipper plopped onto a pillow next to Clary and managed to keep it more or less to a whisper, going squeaky as he got to the really good bits.
The whole room went tense and silent for that week’s reveal, then exploded in groans as Mabel waved a dismissive hand at the screen. “Oh, come on! DipDop called that twist like a month ago.”
Dipper puffed out his bony chest. “Well, Mabel, once you’ve seen real weird, mere fiction gets a lot easier to predict.”
“Uh huh. Those real dishes aren’t gonna do themselves.” Stan headed Dipper off at the pass with a brief glare of warning and hauled himself upright. “Clary, you mind helpin’ me round all that up?”
Ford gently shooed the kids up to bed as Stan and Clary cleared the table and headed for the kitchen. She tossed the bag of peas back into the freezer and headed over to join Stan at the sink, taking up a dishtowel, accepting clean glasses and swiping them dry as he passed them over. “That was an adventure.”
“There’s a ton to catch up on, there. Last season was pretty good. You gotta laptop or somethin’?”
“Mmhm. Not sure how much time I’ll have to spare for binge watching, though. What’s your read on the car?”
“Need to have a look under the hood for that. At least a couple days, and honestly, maybe a little more.” Stan watched her lips compress from the corner of one eye. “That thing’s a classic, if you wanna put it charitably.”
“You’re being charitable. I did have – “ Clary smiled briefly up at Ford as he joined them to start on put-away duty. “I did have some work done on it before I left just to make sure it wouldn’t break down. The plan was for a pretty long trip. Not that it matters much at this point.”
“What’s a girl from Maryland doing out in Oregon with a Colorado license plate?”
“I inherited the car. I’m driving to Seattle to scatter my mother’s ashes in the Pacific.”
And damn, what a way to kill a line of inquiry. She handed a dry plate off to Ford, who put it in the appropriate cupboard, looking a little lost. For a good thirty seconds it was nothing but running water and the clink of china.
“So – does the timin’ matter? We could get you on a bus, hook you up with a rental?” Stan was running the mental math again, and yeah, like it or not this one was going to be on him and his brother. Well, dammit.
“She’s dead, Stan, no one’s in a hurry. Least of all me.” A tiny, bitter twist pulled at one corner of her mouth, but she looked up to Ford and her tone was sincere. “Listen. This was an accident, I get it. A very weird accident. I was already planning to make a sort of travel holiday of this, and I’ve got no issue staying in Gravity Falls for a little while – I’ve got the bike and plenty to read. Can you recommend a hotel? A B&B maybe?”
Yes! thought Stan, then No! as Ford opened his mouth and started playing gracious host, of all things. “I wouldn’t dream of it, Clary. I know it’s crowded, but we already have a room set aside for you, and at the very least I can promise you won’t be bored. You’d be right at the center of activity here! I can suggest some hikes, we have lots of games, there’s the lake and the Shack itself of course. You should be able to reach almost anything with that bicycle.”
Stan did his level best to make please, no, come on already faces at Ford over Clary’s head, which was difficult because she was so damned tall. The twins only had about three inches on her. Ford was either missing the signals or being deliberately oblivious. Stan mentally wagered on the latter.
“I’m tempted,” Clary said carefully.
“Please, just sleep on it. I know it’s been a difficult day, and again, I’m so sorry to have put you in this predicament.” Ford lightly plucked the last glass from her fingers and reached up to set it into its place. “We’ll check on both the car and your shoulder.”
For a moment Clary’s lashes dipped down and her fingers twisted into the dishtowel. “All right. You’re very generous, Ford, Stan, thank you. We can go over it in the morning. I’m afraid you’re right, it’s been one hell of a day and I should get some rest. Good night, gentlemen.”
“Good night, Clary.”
“G’night.” Stan dropped a couple of ice cubes into a glass and lifted it in dismissive salute as she headed out towards the repurposed storage room, then gave Ford his very best ‘What the hell, Sixer’ look. What he got back was wide-eyed mock innocence and a shrug.
“Seriously?” Stan said, letting his brow smack lightly into the freezer door.
“I owe her,” Ford said with as much dignity as he could muster. “And it seems to me that she could use the company.”
Stan tapped his head against the freezer twice more before straightening with a groan.
“You were getting bored anyway.” Ford spared Stan a knowing glance.
“I have not been that bored.”
“You were bored enough to take another shot at Dungeons, Dungeons and More Dungeons last week.”
“Yeah, that ended in flames. Let’s hope this doesn’t.”
“She’s interesting, that’s for certain! Perhaps we can make a few minor upgrades to the engine before we send her out again….”
“Ford. Do not.”
It was too late, of course, it had been too late well before Ford had voiced the idea, and he was already jotting notes in his spare pad as Stan watched him wander down the hallway. He’d be up until two in the morning, as usual.
Stan topped off his glass with water and shuffled off towards his own room. Bored. Pfft.
Clary is talking to the others at the table, and you think you catch something about her doing federal tax law stuff. Yikes.
- Crack a lousy lady driver joke.
- Crack a lousy cryptid joke.
- Crack a lousy lawyer joke.
Chapter 3: Always Take the Nickel Tour
Morning dawned with a pleasant chill. Between Stan, Soos and Ford, they got the old station wagon - a sky-blue Ford Fairlane - rolled away from the house and tucked in at a shallow angle next to the Stanleymobile. The S still leaned forlornly against the dented siding. They’d get it hauled up and nailed back into place later.
Stan swept the road-trip debris off the front passenger seat and cracked the glove compartment. He set aside the age-yellowed manual and the service records, most of them crisp and fragile on ancient transfer paper, one new, extensive and computer-printed.
He then flipped through everything else, scanning with an expert eye for items of interest.
Brand new insurance card in the name of Clara Jane Merrick. A small collection of much older insurance cards in the name of Charles and Caroline Merrick. Vintage pressure gauge, matte black LED flashlight, heavy-framed designer sunglasses, can of pepper spray.
Photograph in a gold-stamped cardboard frame. Stan fished that one out, curious. The photo stock was the old-school linen textured stuff. Three blondes of varying shades grinned back at him, lined up like nesting dolls by age – forties, twenties, preteen – with matching sunhats and huge smiles. The smallest and darkest-haired was instantly recognizable as Clary. She was maybe twelve years old here, a beaky girl still growing into the aquiline nose neither of the others shared. He flexed the frame in one hand, squinting in to read the penned inscription on the photo's back - Carrie, Charlie, Clary.
Stan filed that away for later reference, returned the less-relevant stuff to the glove compartment, then leaned way over along the bench seat to pull the hood release.
The sun had slipped past noon by the time Clary finally emerged from the house, looking far less threadbare than she had the prior night. She was crisply dressed in yesterday’s Bermuda shorts, a fresh button-down shirt and a silk scarf patterned with dragonflies - wrapped twice, snug, knotted off-center at the throat. “Good afternoon, Stan.”
“Hey, Clary. Feelin’ better?” He was elbow-deep in the car’s guts by now, a few unsalvageable bits laid out on an old towel to one side. Grease streaked his forearms. The engine was pretty nice for something near the age of his own wheels, a huge V-8 that had seen very little use. This must have spent most of its life in a garage.
Clary stepped in alongside Stan, peering despondently into the engine compartment. “Sore, but rested, at least. What’s the diagnosis?”
Stan hissed in thought. “Drive belt assembly’s shot, electricals are kind of a mess. Radiator hoses of course. Think the engine block’s okay. The body damage isn’t too bad.”
Clary ran exploring fingers along the battered chrome of the front grill, mouth set in an unhappy line. “Except for the concave hood, I suppose. What can I do to help?”
“Know anythin’ about cars?”
“Repair? Not a thing.”
“It’s gonna be a while.” Stan glanced sidelong to study her profile.
“Ford said it may take weeks.” Clary’s tone was conflicted, teeth catching lightly at her lower lip, brow furrowed.
“Ford doesn’t know what he’s talkin’ about when it comes to cars, but yeah, he’s not wrong. This thing’s old and the parts are gonna be a pain to scavenge up.” Stan straightened and toweled off his hands. “Orderin’ stuff in would take a while and I know from experience that you don’t always get the right widget through the mail. Might have a couple ideas about local sources…we’ll see. You okay?”
That air of pinched distress was tight around her eyes again. She rolled her shoulders back, looking up and out into the forest. An unhurried breeze set thousands of green-velvet branches into whispering motion. “Okay enough. It’s gorgeous here,” almost as an afterthought.
Stan flicked his gaze heavenwards for a weary moment. Yeah, she’d be staying for the duration. What the hell was it with tourists and pines? “Y’get used to it. Check out the Shack yet?”
“Not yet. I was promised an expert guide.” She stepped away, heading around the back of the wagon to unlatch and hoist down the mountain bike from its rack. A faint residue of reddish dust clung to the tire rims. “Maybe when I’m done unpacking the basics? Since I’m going to be here a few days, there are people who need to know my plans have changed.”
“Thought you were on vacation.”
“Money never sleeps, and unfortunately it’s easy to get some things done on the road.”
She trailed back and forth for a while, parking the bike and hauling a larger duffel bag into the house. Stan worked methodically through the last few items on his engine checklist and jotted down an occasional note. By the time she returned he had a more or less complete catalogue of what needed work. He lowered the badly-dented hood into place and latched it. “Fixin’ this is gonna be an adventure.”
“I was afraid you’d say that. Let me know what you need in terms of parts, I can cover whatever – “
Stan ducked his head, stifling the wide flash of his grin behind one hand. “Careful, kid, don’t leave yourself quite that wide open. This is pretty much on Ford anyway so I’ll take most of it out of his hide. C’mon.” Clary paced in his wake, looking up and out across the Shack grounds like she hadn’t bothered before – probably a fair enough assessment after yesterday’s chaos. “So car repair’s not your bag, no shock that. How about arts and crafts? Tall tales? Improv?”
“I’ve had to put on a song-and-dance routine for the IRS a few times. Does that count?”
That startled a laugh out of him. “Depends on whether you pulled it off.”
“I definitely pulled it off. At least no one’s come looking for me yet.”
“Maybe you help me help Soos around the Shack, then, put those tap-dancin’ skills to the test. A favor for a favor.”
Clary frowned at him in puzzlement. “I’m game to try. This is all a bit outside my wheelhouse.”
“Honestly, you could get stuck in way worse places than this. We’ve got tons of stuff for the discernin’ passerby. Merchandise, magic, mystery, uh, mayhem, you get the picture.”
They walked through the house and he held the showroom door open for a moment. Clary peeked through at the flock of tourists trailing after Soos like happy ducklings. “You interested in this kinda stuff?”
“Interested enough to read the bumper sticker. Not enough to actually plan you into my itinerary.”
“Damn shame, that, you’d be missin’ out on the ninth wonder of the world.” He managed to time it in sync with Soos’ patter, the rhythm of the show familiar as breathing, and got a chuckle in return. “They’ll wrap up in a few, we’ll take a quick look at the gift shop until they clear out. Then you get your Founder’s Tour.”
“That’s you, then, not Soos?”
“Got it in one. I built this place from the ground up! Sure, the house was here and the junk was here, but I’m the one who spun it into a wondrous house of mysterious junk.” His hands swept up and out in a marquee arc. Clary gave him that wry, oblique glance he was getting used to.
The gift shop was temporarily abandoned. Stan made himself comfortable leaning against the counter and watched her pace the periphery, trailing careful fingertips over the snow globes. “Take a look around! If you see an impulse buy, make it.”
“I’ll pick out a few things before I go. If I don’t have physical evidence, no one will believe that I was here.” She picked up a snow globe, flipped it over to stir the flakes into motion, then set it down with exaggerated caution and headed for the freezer.
“Just because you’re stayin’ over does not mean you get to sneak in here for an ice pop.” He watched her peer through the glass at their collection of frozen novelties. “This as far out west as you’ve gotten? I mean, we’re off the beaten path and you’re just passin’ through, right? Most folks would’ve taken the main route north of here.”
“This is my fifth state in - “ She frowned, then sighed. “Three days with the overnight, I guess. I’ve been taking it slow and sticking to the state highways, since I’m traveling solo.”
“Long way to drive alone.”
“Yes.” Clary skimmed through the T-shirt rack and plucked out a question mark to hold up against her chest. “You started this place up, then. Can I ask how long you’ve been at it? There’s some history here, I can see that much.”
“Thirty years.” Easier to say now that the long wait was over, that was for sure. He studied her thoughtfully; she was a tough read compared to the usual Gravity Falls crowd. “Can’t say that I ever thought I’d start to enjoy this line of work, originally the idea was just to get the mortgage paid, but go figure. Built a pretty nice business out of tellin’ lies – ‘scuse me, stories.”
A bare sliver of a smile curled along her lips. “You did. I can tell this is a local institution. You’re retired now?”
“More or less. My brother wanted to haul me off on an expedition. Couldn’t say no.” Stan ducked his chin, smiling to himself. “Couldn’t up an’ close the place either, so I left it all to Soos. Been nice to come back and see what he’s made of it, stick my hand in again. You can take the man out of the Mystery Shack, but you can’t take the mystery out of the man, I guess.”
Clary came to rest at the counter next to him, hands empty, he noted. “So I get a rare chance at a tour from the original Mr. Mystery.”
“What, nothin’ here inspires you to drop a wad of cash?”
“I think I’ll make my purchases after I have a functioning car.”
“Fair enough. You’re about to witness a true master in action.” The excited murmur of shopping-primed tourists was beginning to build at the interior door. “We’ve got maybe twenty minutes before the next gaggle rolls through, so you get the short form. Anythin’ specific you want to see?”
They slipped out of the shop as the current group started to trickle in, ducking into the showroom. Stan couldn’t help sweeping an arm out to indicate the entire collection. “Behold, the Mystery Shack!”
Clary appraised the exhibits with cool cynicism. “Which one of these gets the least attention? I’ve always loved the half-hidden displays best.”
She strolled at his side, hands in her pockets, lips twitching now and then as he spun familiar stories. Coaxing a laugh out of her at the right points, a smile here and there, felt like a little victory. There was a customer like this in every tour, the one who’d been dragged along by family or friends. If that one could be won over the rest of the group would be eating out of his hand.
“I have no idea what this is. Must be a Soos addition.” Stan peered at the tiny huts shingled with pine cone scales built into a series of branches suspended from one of the ceilings, glittering with well-concealed LED lights. “All right, the Village of Cannibal Pixies, to whom we’re apparently now rentin’ space in the showroom. They’re out huntin’ their fellow fairies for the rest of the day, but they’ll be back this evenin’ and no doubt throwin’ quite the party, which is just as well, because most of the other fairies ‘round these parts are about as much fun as a root canal….”
She had to bite her lip against a horrified laugh. “I thought these were all your creations?”
“Nah. You’ve gotta keep the mix fresh. Throw in somethin’ new and the tourists will flock through the doors. It’s been almost a year since I got to add a new exhibit, actually.” Stan nudged her in the side with an elbow. “And you are gonna help me put my mark on the place again. Think you’ve soaked up enough inspiration?”
“I’ve soaked up something. Inspiration for what, exactly?” Stan ushered her through another door, one tucked into the shadow of a larger display’s curtain. They wove together through a twisting hallway and he savored her blink of surprise when they emerged a few steps down the hall from the kitchen.
“We’re makin’ another attraction for the showroom.” He’d already laid out most of the basics earlier that morning, with a vague plan towards taking stock and maybe patching some bits and bobs together, but the prospect of testing their new guest’s creative skills – not patience, that’d be rude – was too good to pass up.
The contents of the kitchen table were pauper’s choices, honestly. A handful of pelts, odds and ends left over from birds long since parted out for other projects, a couple of smaller skulls, coils of heavy aluminum wire for armatures. Clary sifted through the remnants with a careful hand and a dubious expression.
“Surprise me.” He dropped off a tack hammer and a few brads on his way past. She made a faint incredulous noise, her head swiveling to follow, and Stan shot her a flat look of challenge: Show me what you’ve got, bean-counter.
Her shoulders stiffened, and she settled cautiously into one of the kitchen chairs. “Pliers?”
“Toolbox under the table.”
The toolbox jangled heavily as she hauled it up into easy reach. He tuned out the low noise of her work for a while. His own projects kept him plenty busy – sprucing up the display cards for a couple of the new oddities Soos had incorporated, reviewing the merch inventory and a couple of new concepts, moving on with a hum of pleasure to update the current supply list for the Stan O’War.
It was the better part of an hour before he heard the chair scrape back. “Tinfoil?” Clary asked.
“Two drawers over from the fridge.”
A few clunks and a crinkle, then he heard her muttering spoon, spoon under her breath, clattering through the silverware drawer. She paced back over to the table and dragged the chair back in with a shallow sigh. Stan glanced over and saw her hunched over an armature, brow creased as she padded out the shape.
“You all right over there?” He was trying not to laugh. This was not the kind of focus he’d been expecting.
“Flashbacks to high school art class, nothing too traumatic, I promise.”
This went on for a while. Stan drifted out of the kitchen to track down one of the Shack ledgers and his last box of spare critter bits, which he set wordlessly at her elbow. She ransacked the contents and didn’t look up when she spoke. “Putty?” He rattled through a drawer and dropped off half a jumbo packet of the plumber’s two-part type on the table, which Clary pulled in and unwrapped.
It was well past five when something mostly complete sat before her. She had come up with a compact little mustelid nightmare, something weaselish in build with elaborate grasping talons pieced together from every sharp claw remaining amid the sorry leftovers he’d dumped out of his dwindling box of tricks. Wings scavenged from a sharp-shinned hawk he’d collected on some roadside ages ago were anchored in half-furled at the shoulders. The mink skull had been carefully if inexpertly re-skinned. Brow ridges and tiny, twisting horns sculpted out of plumber’s putty crowned the toothy head.
The thing was cute in an amateur way. He thought, bemused, that it might make a decent plush toy.
Clary flipped the critter over, features creased in complete concentration as she stitched in the last bits along the belly. “Got any paint?”
Stan folded his arms, trying and failing to suppress a grin. “Y’know, normally I’d just patch together bits from a fish, a squirrel and a chicken, and call it good.”
“Hell with that, we’ve got tourists to impress.” Clary hissed under her breath as she stabbed herself with the needle. When she finally stretched, he heard her neck pop and saw the wince. “What time is it anyway?”
“Half past time to pack it in, kid.”
She sat up straight in surprise, glancing out the window into the saturated deep-golden light of late, late afternoon. “Oh no.”
Stan tilted his thumb her way, letting the grin widen. “So I think you might be on the hook for pizza tonight. Seein’ as how you’ve been dead to the world for hours and we’d be goin’ with cereal otherwise.”
An indignant pause hung in the air as her brows rose sharply. “There’s still plenty of time for me to call my insurance company. I might well have whiplash. Those old-school bench seats with no headrest are infamous for that.”
He slung a dirty look over his shoulder as he retrieved the paintbox from a cupboard. “Ford said you were fine.”
“I don’t think I heard him mention a medical degree in that list he rattled off.”
“All right, fine, we’ll split pizza for the gang.” Her eyes narrowed to calculating slits. “Lady, you drive a hard bargain. Howsabout you tell me what this thing is and then we’ll talk.” Stan opened the paintbox and sorted through half-empty tubes of acrylics. “You know how to drybrush?”
“Nope.” Clary studied her spiky-clawed creation, somewhat at a loss. “Let me mull this over a moment….”
“It helps to have some idea what you’re doin’ before you start stitchin’ things together, y’know.” Stan picked out a dark chocolate brown and laid down a quick basecoat on the horns. “You’ve outfoxed the IRS? Then all you gotta do is think on your feet.”
There was a brief quiet. The weight of her gaze lingered on him as he dipped into a deep purple and started shading along the inner edge of the brow ridge.
“This is the lesser Northwestern horned hawkweasel,” she said at length, adopting the deep, plummy tone of a nature-documentary narrator. “Or the midnight mink. Fierce far out of proportion to their size, these crafty, fearless creatures feed mainly on fish and whatever birds they can catch. Usually solitary, as the moon wanes they gather up in gangs to hunt their favored prey – nightmares. The bigger, the better.”
“Where’s a winged weasel gonna find nightmares in the depths of the Cascades?” Stan plucked out a liner brush and limned the eyes with a perfect pinstripe of metallic teal.
“Everything that can think has dreams. These little fellas like the blackest, bleakest ones they can find, and some of the denizens of these forests have deep and terrible dreams. If not for these guys, some of those denizens might wake up.”
Stan snorted in soft amusement as he laid highlights in along the horns. “Not terrible for a first shot. Soos might dig the idea, and hell, at least Lovecraft’s long since out of copyright, yeah?” He sat back, assessing, then touched on a last few dots of color. “This is about as show-ready as it’s gonna get. Hang on a sec.”
He toted the not-quite-weasel down to the office, setting it on the least cluttered file cabinet for later – it was going to need a story card at the very least – then swung by the deserted gift shop, cracking the vending machine open to fish out a couple of ice-cold Pitts. Clary was packing away tools by the time he returned to the kitchen, and he set a can within easy reach. “Nothin’ like a cold one to finish up the day. Cheers.”
“Cheers.” She picked up her can, popped it, then tapped its edge against his. “I’ve got to wonder.” He eyed her, momentarily wary, as he dropped into his own chair. “What possessed a man from New Jersey to land way out here in the hinterlands of Oregon? It’s certainly pretty, but this is about as close to the absolute middle of nowhere as I’ve ever been.”
“You actually interested in me? Or do you ask everyone these kinda questions?”
“I’m mainly interested in you.”
That was a bit of a surprise. A chuckle snagged in Stan’s chest as he met her frank regard. “Usually the longest I can get people to listen to me is when I’m sellin’ somethin’, and even then it’s tough luck.”
“I don’t buy that for a second.” The faint curve of her smile was half obscured by the rim of her soda can. “No way you kept this place running for so long without knowing how to string an audience along in suspense.”
“It’s, ah, it’s a knack. I’ve been good at it ever since I was a kid.” He cleared his throat and took a lingering sip, buying a moment. Her brows quirked in expectation. “So, you’re serious?”
“How long do you plan on leaving me in suspense?”
“The last time someone started askin’ personal questions, she tried to eat me,” Stan muttered. “Can you imagine? I’m practically skin and bones.”
That bought him a sharp laugh, right on the beat. “Come on. You can’t just leave it there.”
Stan took a long look at her, then drew breath, fired up the cockiest grin in his repertoire, and launched in. “So, y’see, there’s this irresistible thing called ‘revenge’….”
Clary was a good listener and a better interrogator, absorbing whatever outrageous half-truth he had to offer without scoffing, pressing with well-targeted questions at every opportunity. Every time she cut close to the bone he’d flash her something shiny to distract. Verbal sleight-of-hand was so second nature by now that he barely noticed doing it. Stan couldn’t tell how much of it she was buying, which was disconcerting as hell.
In the end he paid for the pizza. She slipped in behind him to press an overgenerous tip into the delivery driver’s hand.
There are plenty of repair records in the glove box, the old manual, and some other potentially interesting odds and ends.
- Just take the repair records and the manual.
- Go through all the personal paperwork.
- Is there any money in there?
Chapter 4: Semi-Legitimate Uses Of Gunpowder
Explosives and light conversation.
The household settled into a comfortable routine over the next few days. Chaos was such an underlying constant in Gravity Falls, particularly with the kids around, that throwing another body into the mix made very little difference.
Clary rose early once she’d recovered from the initial shock. Summer schedules for both kids and adults ran late, which made it easy for her to slip into the kitchen before most everyone else. She’d asked Stan whether she could help cook, he’d offhandedly said sure, and the next thing he knew she was baking things.
The contents of the fridge began to dwindle in interesting ways. Frittatas jammed with too many vegetables materialized on the breakfast table. The sour-cream coffee cake she’d made on Tuesday morning was down to crumbs by Wednesday.
“You’re a guest, not the cook,” Stan argued in exasperation that morning in the crowded kitchen. He dug out a second wedge of egg-potato-and-green-stuff from one of the cast iron skillets.
“If you guys ate anything other than pancakes for breakfast, I’d join you, but I like my eggs. Besides, I don’t see you complaining.” Clary eyed his plate, scrubbing down utensils. Her kerchief for the day – there was always a kerchief for the day, wrapped twice and knotted neatly at her throat, the colors and patterns as varied as Mabel’s sweaters – was a splashy watercolor design of pale yellow daisies. “I’m used to cooking for an army anyway.”
Stan cocked a brow at her in question, and caught the brief flicker of her smile. “My place in Baltimore is this huge brownstone. I’ve got eight bedrooms. I ran a boarding house as a sideline, because what else can you do with eight bedrooms?”
“That sounds exhaustin’.”
“Running tours isn’t? I liked it. Lots of law students, a few graduate accountants.” She chuckled over his groan. “Yes, a very, very nerdy household. We ran DD&MD once a week for years.” Stan saw Dipper perk up from the far side of the kitchen table and started a mental countdown to major geekery. “With that many rules lawyers and number-crunchers around the table things got pretty sidetracked at times.” Clary settled into one of the two free chairs, Mabel leaning over to peep her plate.
“Grunkle Stan? Have you got enough left for one more Stancake? Clary, you have to try one!”
“I don’t usually do pancakes, hon.” Clary begged off gently like she had every morning.
“You don’t get it.” Mabel leaned in, eyes widening. “These are Stancakes. They’re unique. You can’t possibly enjoy the full Pines experience without sampling Stancakes.”
Stan rolled his eyes, took up a rubber spatula and coaxed the last of the batter out of its bowl while Mabel made her pitch. Just enough left for a half-size flapjack, fine, that’d do. He finished that off in the skillet while Clary half-heartedly protested, then slid it onto her plate alongside what was left of her eggs. Mabel applied a river of maple syrup and a scatter of edible glitter before any counter-arguments could be offered.
Clary blinked at the twinkling result for a few blank seconds. “Nothing ventured, nothing gained,” she finally said, and dug in. Mabel stuck out two thumbs up in approval.
Once the Pines clan scattered after breakfast, Clary had been staking out the battered old couch on the porch. Stan had passed her on the way out to the car two mornings in a row now. She wore a wireless earpiece and balanced a laptop on her knees, the picture of professionalism in her summer togs. Sometimes he’d catch bits of what sounded like German as she talked to the air, cajoling or explaining or arguing with whoever was on the far side of the line.
This time he caught her with the computer set to one side, speaking what was definitely German in a soft tone at odds with the usual steel. She spotted him as he tried to slide by and simply relocated her quiet conversation, slipping into the shade of the pines for half an hour before returning to brisk business.
He made a point of keeping an eye on her, and calling out when it was clear she was off the phone. “Hey, Clary!”
“What’s up, Stan?” She leaned back into the cushions as she squinted out at him.
Lawyer humor had turned out to be a rich vein, if a somewhat single-minded one. “What’s the difference between a good lawyer and a bad lawyer?”
She sighed at him in grudging amusement. “A bad lawyer makes your case drag out for years. A good one makes it last even longer. What’s the difference between a good lawyer and a great lawyer?”
“A good lawyer knows the law, a great one knows the judge!” Stan actually chuckled to himself over that one. He straightened, shrugging a shoulder so he could swab off the drop of sweat stubbornly stuck at the tip of his nose.
“You’re not going to outlast me on those, you know.” Clary set aside the computer and strolled over to the wagon, quirking him a momentary grin as she headed around to the back.
“Maybe not. I’m self-taught when it comes to screwing clients over. You’ve got the degree.” Her faint, indignant snort was just audible around the corner. “Whatcha need?” Stan braced his feet and stretched, spine creaking, then came around to see what she was up to.
“The Fourth is tomorrow and I did something a little reckless. I keep forgetting I have these.” She was waist-deep in the wayback, shifting aside a couple of blankets to reveal a flash of brightly-printed color on cheap glossy paper.
“You brought fireworks.” Stan reached past her to hoist the crate. She’d picked out a deluxe assortment of the biggest roadside skyrockets to be had, and he didn’t bother to stifle a twinge of delighted surprise at her audacity.
“Don’t look so shocked. These are legal in Wyoming and there are stands all along the highway at the state borders.”
“All of which have prominent signage sayin’ it’s illegal to transport ‘em across state lines.”
Clary looked fleetingly guilty, then defiant. “You’re right. I read them all and then I ignored them. I’m guessing you know what you’re doing with low-yield explosives. Are you going to help me fire these off or what?”
“You are in luck, Miz Merrick, because I am what passes for the fireworks committee around here, an’ you’ve just bought yourself a ringside seat to this year’s display.” Stan winked and tucked the crate under one arm. “We’re doin’ it on the lake this year. We’re gonna use the old dock and I’ve actually got a permit this time ‘cause the mayor’s a pushover! Which of course just meant it was a little easier to get hold of the good stuff.”
The faint smirk on her lips widened slowly. “Excellent. I was hoping we’d get to blow something up. So we’re going to fire all of these off when the time comes?”
“That we are. Congratulations, you’ve been deputized! Hope you can handle loud noises.”
“I can handle myself just fine, Pines.”
The morning of the Fourth was spent in a frenzy of preparation. Soos, Melody and a grudging but overtime-paid Wendy had the moneymaking end of the venture under control – they would be running concessions at lakeside all evening.
Stan’s job was of course the attractions end of things, which meant explosions, which meant he and Ford were preparing endless mortar racks and crates of mostly-legal fireworks.
Clary, as the spare adult, was recruited into assisting with the munitions. Soos loaned her a paint-spattered canvas work shirt that draped her frame like a tent. Borrowed rubber gloves were cinched in at her wrists with masking tape. Under Ford’s distracted tutelage, she worked patiently on splicing shell fuses into daisy chains.
Stan watched her quick hands for a curious minute. She put as much careful focus into this as she’d put into the hawkweasel thing, perhaps with more concern for potentially blowing off a finger.
They ferried everything down to the lake in relays that afternoon. The oldest, most distant, most splintery of the lake’s docks was where they’d been given permission to set up. The three adults did the bulk of the hauling, dragging setpieces out along the battered planks.
Stan consulted a scrawled-pencil sketch of the layout to keep things more or less in order. Dipper and Mabel were in charge of setting up ‘command central’, which consisted of a few folding chairs, a burn-scarred camp table, and a bulky battery pack for a motley collection of goose-necked lab lamps.
It was after six before they finished most of it. Clary flopped down on the edge of the dock with feet dangling, reading her way through an Oregon fire-safety manual. Mabel and Dipper kicked off their shoes and dashed off down the town beach to mingle with the gathering tourists and locals. Picnics outfitted with grills and beach umbrellas were in full swing by now and the scent of charred hot dogs drifted on the still air.
“Keys, Stanley,” called Ford. Stan tossed them over without bothering to look up. “I’ll be back with the control console in a bit. You’ve got everything you need?”
“We could set all this stuff off by hand, y’know.”
“And leave lengths of fuse lying all over the place? This is so much safer!”
“Not quite as much fun.” Stan waved his brother off, then collected the toolbox and the random bits of picnic stuff they’d hauled down to make the wait until dark more comfortable.
“This is all they’ve got?” Clary muttered, more to herself than to Stan as he hauled over the cooler and set it at her side, elbowing the lid back to fish out a couple of sodas. “This is a twelve-page pamphlet. Most of which consists of ‘do not set up an amateur fireworks display.’” She glanced up to him, accepting a can. “Ford told me that he and the kids actually built a couple of these shells.”
“Chemistry lessons.” Stan shrugged. “Ford knows what he’s doin’, we’ll be fine. We’re gonna hold those until last so that the kiddos can help fire them off. Besides, we’re no amateurs. I’ve been doin’ this for years. Maybe not on this scale.” He looked down the dock along the rows of milk-crate mortar racks, rather pleased with himself. “Usually we’re just firin’ the suckers off from the roof of the Shack for parties.”
“So you’re a pyrotechnician, among your many other titles.” Clary popped her soda can and tapped its edge lightly against his. “Cheers. Nice layout, though I bet it’s just as much fun to improvise.”
“Probably more. This’s a lot of work, but Soos has been layin’ plans since springtime, and what’m I gonna do, say no? If this goes off well he’ll probably pick it up for future years. Not sure if Ford an’ I’ll be here for the next round.”
Stan pivoted and propped himself against the nearest piling, looking out across the lake at the increasing bustle near the main beach. “Though I gotta admit this is a nice way to blow a couple months and we should probably take advantage of the kids’ vacations until they get tired of us.”
“You’ve got just the two grandies, then?” Clary gestured vaguely off down the shoreline. “None of your own?”
“Nah. Too much goin’ on in my life during that stretch.” Way, way too much, he thought. “You?”
“No. Those stars never aligned for me. I’ve got a niece and a nephew, and she’s got two little girls, so I have grand-niblings of my own.”
“Married?” She didn’t sport a ring, but who knew?
Oops. “Sorry ‘bout that.”
“Don’t be. It’s been a long time. You?”
“Married…for six hours. That didn’t end real well.”
She chuckled hollowly into her can. “Neither did mine. Here’s to independence.”
“One older sister. You’ve got Ford, and I guess a brother?”
“Shermie, yeah. He’s what passes for the normal one.”
“Someone’s got to be the white sheep in every family. I can assure you that it wasn’t me in mine.” Watching her relax to this extent was a pleasant surprise. Clary had an elbow propped on a bent knee and the starch had gone out of her smile.
“I don’t believe that for a minute.” Stan made a show of looking her up and down, and she went faintly pink under the scrutiny. As usual she was color coordinated, today’s kerchief mostly red with bits of white and blue, hair clipped back with something glassy and scarlet. “Law-abidin’ lady like yourself? Okay, so maybe you smuggle fireworks every now and then, but who wouldn’t?”
“This is my summer for living dangerously, and believe me I have no idea what I’m doing.” Clary looked off down the shoreline to where Mabel was jumping up and down and waving, then twitched in surprise as her phone started to jangle. “Whoops – I think I’m being summoned. See you when we get closer to dusk?”
“Yep, I’m gonna guard the ordnance, I guess, Wendy’s crew probably has runnin’ bets on whether or not they can swipe a few rockets.” Stan tipped his can back to drain it. “Mind haulin’ over my chair while you’re up?”
“Got it.” Clary levered herself upright, dusted off her backside and jogged down to the pier’s end, returning with a folded lawn chair. “Don’t nod off, now.”
“What, with all this thrillin’ readin’ material? Don’t worry about me, kid.” Stan waved her off, set up the chair and settled down with the safety manual. He was out like a light within ten minutes, dozing comfortably in the late-afternoon sun.
He snapped awake twice as the sunlight shaded into deeper and deeper gold. Each time he winged an empty pop can with terrifying accuracy at overcurious kids, sending them scattering. Wendy’s crew, true to form, showed up as the bluff’s shadow crept across the lake.
Stan pinged Thompson in the head with his last empty. He watched them take off and sat up grumbling to look along the shoreline. The sun was nearly down by now, though it’d be forty minutes yet to full dark. Clary and the kids were making their way back, feet splashing at the water’s edge. Right on time.
Unfortunately the control console and Ford hadn’t shown up yet. That was going to be a problem. Stan checked his watch, huffed in frustration and levered himself upright to start setting manual fuses on the closer fireworks racks.
“Kids!” His voice boomed out across the water. “Need you t’check on Poindexter. Clary, you good to set the trigger wires for the far racks?” He waved an arm vaguely at the end of the dock as the three broke into a jog. Dipper dropped off a paper bag that smelled temptingly of grilled stuff on top of the cooler as he hopped onto the worn planks.
“Got it, Grunkle Stan!” Mabel tapped at her phone as the other two split up. Clary threaded her way between milk crates down to the far end and back again to pay out lengths of trigger wire a few at a time. Dipper rummaged up a roll of masking tape, a marker and Stan’s creased layout sketch, and started labeling wires as he tacked them to the dock.
“Five minutes! Says he found a short!” Mabel ran to help Stan substitute lengths of extra fuse for wires on the closest few racks, her quick fingers making short work of masking-tape splices. “I don’t know why we didn’t just stick to the old fuses. Those worked great last year!”
“Because we nearly burned down the Shack last year.” Dipper accepted the last couple of wires from Clary and tagged them neatly.
“Don’t sweat it, kids, you think I didn’t bring backups?” Stan fished out a battered matchbook, dropped it into his breast pocket for easy access and reached for the paper bag. “Eat up, gremlins, it’s almost showtime.”
Ford finally screeched in as they were all finishing off the last few bites of hot dog. He ran full-tilt up to the dock, gasping out vague apologies about losing track of time. The control console hit the top of the camp table with a thud. Between Ford and Dipper the numbered wires were clipped into the rig at terrifying speed, Mabel angling a gooseneck lamp to illuminate the tags in the near-dark.
“We’re missing two banks – Stanley.” Ford glared as he finished counting wires, and Stan shrugged.
“Didn’t know when you’d be back, set those up with quickfuse. We’ll be fine.” He fished a couple of punks out of the toolbox of backup gear, checked his watch, then looked downshore. “I’m gonna give ‘em fifteen more minutes of desperate anticipation. Then we’ll light ‘em up.”
Clary rocked on her heels in impatience, squinting down along the lake’s edge to the scatter of lights and silhouetted townsfolk at the main beach. Stan leaned over to murmur in her ear. “Your stuff’s all set up on one of the racks we just did fuses for, so I’ll have you touch those off. This’s what we’re usin’….”
He explained the slow-burning punk, basically an incense stick that’d hold just enough of an ember to do the job, and pressed his spare into her palm. “We’ll get that goin’ in a minute. Don’t set anythin’ on fire unless you mean to. Ready?”
Light was scarce, all the color washed out of her profile, but her eyes shone. “Ready.”
“Check the time and cue it up please, Mabel,” Ford said, a little too cheerful as he and Dipper settled in behind the control console with its dozens of little labeled switches.
Mabel tapped a couple of phone buttons and a low, mournful orchestral score started up, tinny through the tiny speakers. The opening bars echoed faintly over the lake from the speakers set up at Soos’ end.
Clary leaned over to peer at Mabel’s phone, brows rising as a baritone voice kicked in. “Tulen Synty? This is Finnish.”
“It’s ‘The Origin of Fire’. Eight and a half minutes. Perfect!” Ford flipped the first couple of switches and a few popping rockets went up from the far end of the dock. Distant whoops of approval drifted across the lake.
Stan tugged out the matches and got both his and Clary’s punks going. “He wanted to choreograph it, the racket will drown most of it out anyhow, and it’s too old for anyone to go after us for royalties. Works for me.”
The display built up slowly, Ford singing absently under his breath as he triggered one batch of mortars after another. It took two minutes of strings and woodwinds for things to get really interesting. Dipper, Mabel and Clary all tilted their heads back to watch while Stan snagged a lamp and angled it at the manual fuses.
At five minutes the men’s choir on the track welled up full-throated. Ford kicked off the first few of the big rockets with precise flicks of fingertips. Half lit from below and chuckling to himself, he looked just a bit unhinged. Might as well get it out of his system.
“Aight – you’re up, Clary, get over here.” She jolted with surprise from the piling she’d been leaning against with Mabel, watching the explosions. “We’re mixin’ in your batch, you get to light these. C’mon, nothin’s gonna bite.” Stan nudged her into place at the right spot. “Right here, just start from the end of this row, there ya go.”
Clary lit four in succession, her grin incandescent in the reflected light of the down-angled lamp. “Good?”
“Good, now step back, kid!” The fuses were hissing fiercely and he half-turned to shield her as the sparks began to fly and the rockets went up, one-two-three-four, screech-flash-bang, chrysanthemum bursts of fractured light reflected in the cool black mirror of the lake. The squeal of delight she produced was nearly as high-pitched as Mabel’s. It was like teenage-girl stereo for a few seconds and Stan laughed, pointing down the line. “Nice! Next batch, go get ‘em!”
They settled into a comfortable rhythm with the last half of the shells. Ford flicked switches with a conductor’s grandiose concentration to fire off his carefully coordinated and ever-escalating barrage. Dipper scrambled up to stand on the cooler, swapping off between three different cameras to get both digital and film exposures.
Stan knelt with the spare punk as the orchestral track soared to its conclusion. With Clary’s help he set off an impressive, noisy and entirely random volley of the leftover rockets to wrap it up.
Once the echoes faded, they all settled back to listen to distant, ragged cheers from the shoreline.
All in all it was definitely one of his better shows.
Stan straightened, hands to hips as he flexed and grunted and felt something shift between his shoulderblades. All that craning to squint up at the sky took it out of a man. “Dipper, Mabel, I’ve got a last batch for you guys to light up, c’mon over. Saved some of the little ones.”
“Little ones?” Mabel was all indignation as Stan dragged over the last couple of racks. Ford unclipped wires by the fistful from the back of his console and jogged off along the dock with a flashlight to check for duds, humming in contentment.
“So maybe I’m a little more wrapped up in safety concerns than I used t’be. Maybe.” Stan made sure Ford’s line of sight was otherwise occupied, then held up a fat, foil-printed skyrocket and waggled it with a wink at Mabel and Dipper. “Let’s fire up this last handful.”
Clary spooled up trigger wire and watched in amusement as Stan handed off the punks and made sure both Mabel and Dipper got to fire off the remainder of the rockets. The two largest he held until last. Those went up with a rising screech and a deep boom, crackling showers of blue and purple sparks cascading down to sputter out before hitting the water.
Both the kids whooped in delight. Ford was startled enough to deliver a brief, stern lecture on safety protocol which Stan waved off. They’d all blown up bigger things than this and seriously Ford had no room to talk.
It was just about midnight when they finished loading the control setup into the El Diablo. The empty racks they left for pickup in the morning, given that everyone was all but swaying on their feet. The five of them draggled up to the car with the last couple of chairs and the cooler.
Clary and the kids packed themselves into the back, chatting sleepily about past Fourths and the best fireworks they’d ever seen. The conversation petered out as Dipper, then Mabel nodded off. Clary turned her tired gaze up to the front seat. “Very impressive, fellas. Never thought I’d get to participate in one of these personally.”
Despite the afternoon nap, Stan was pretty wiped out himself. Ford was still irritatingly alert and chirped up. “Where did you pick up on Sebelius, Clary? I didn’t know you were a fan of the classics.”
Clary settled a careful arm around Mabel, who’d tipped into her side. “I got stranded in Helsinki by a weather reroute last year. There wasn’t much to do at that hour so I just wandered and read everything I could find. Tulen Synty came up in something about the Kalevala.”
“Finland! We have that on the list for next year, perhaps Saimaa if the boat’s up to it. Were you out there for business or pleasure?”
Worn out as he was, Stan picked up on her momentary hesitation. “Some of both, I guess. I have family in Switzerland and I expect to be working in Zurich for a while come fall.”
“That the niece and nephew?” Stan nudged. “And your sister?”
Her eyes tracked to his in the mirror. “That’s the crew. I’ve got a mess of cousins in Alabama, but I can’t say the South ever really agreed with me.”
“Definitely didn’t agree with me. Pretty sure I’m still banned in everythin’ but Mississippi, and that’s because it was never worth my time to get into trouble in Mississippi.” That didn’t quite get a laugh, but he preferred the glimmer of her smile to that look of exhaustion.
Shame Switzerland’s land-locked, he thought absently, and kept her busy with some of the less embarrassing stories about his travels in Dixie until they made it home to the Shack.
She looks guilty, then defiant. “Are you going to help me fire these off or what?”
- No way, she’s a potential liability.
- Maybe she can help out with concessions.
- Hell yes, let’s blow stuff up!
Chapter 5: Advance Planning Is For Sissies
Clary finally started to bust the bicycle out on a regular basis after the excitement of the Fourth. Stan and Dipper helped her swap out the nubby mountain tires for hybrid slicks. She cut a trim, handsome figure in close-fitted shorts, jersey, bandana and helmet when she cruised into town to explore. Stan had overheard Ford giving her a stern albeit somewhat edited lecture on the hazards of Gravity Falls’ woodland trails, and she hadn’t risked the forest yet, which was probably wise.
The bits of conversation he picked up while running his own errands indicated that she was plenty busy as it was, hitting up every farmstand, the museum and Greasy’s within a couple of days. She was already ‘that tourist staying with the Pines’ and the object of bored midsummer curiosity in town.
A tiny aluminum bike trailer had been unearthed from the Fairlane’s wayback. Clary used that to haul all manner of cargo, mostly provisions, as they were mowing through eggs and everything else at a terrifying pace. She’d brought back some odd bits and pieces of costume jewelry and scarves from the thrift store, too, and had promised Mabel a run to the swap meet the next weekend.
Soos had in fact dug the ‘midnight mink’ and was happily working up a new display - ‘Dreaming Denizens,’ or ‘Northwest Nightmares,’ or something else alliterative. Sketches laying out one of the exhibit spaces as a blackout room were scattered across the desk in the office. Stan admitted to himself that it might be fun. Technology had come a long way since the days of glow-in-the-dark paint and twinkle lights.
But what that meant was a new assortment of oddities, and that meant assembly work, and that meant parts, of which the Shack had next to nothing at this point. Stan walked the showroom in late afternoon, taking mental note of what could be repurposed and what they’d need to patch in.
For that matter, he needed parts of another sort for Clary’s station wagon.
“Am I interrupting something important between you and the Goosurkey?” Clary padded up alongside him, hands in pockets. Today’s kerchief was songbirds on pale blue.
“Nope, just thinkin’ ahead. Soos is on a bit of a tear as I’m sure you know.”
“He offered me a job...in case I get stranded here for good. Imaginating Consultant and Staff Accountant.”
Stan half choked before he laughed full-throated. “Thought he had more faith in my repair skills than that.”
“I’m sure he does. He wanted to make sure I felt welcome, that’s all. What are you up to this afternoon? I find myself at loose ends if you could use a spare pair of hands.”
He thought that one over, assessing her through the corner of one eye, piecing together the beginnings of a plan. “…I’ve got a couple errands t’run. You wanna tag along?”
“Depends on what kind of errands you have in mind.”
“The usual weeknight stops. I need a getaway driver and the kids aren’t legal.”
It was her turn to splutter through a laugh. “As if you’d let me lay hands on your precious classic wheels!”
“I don’t know, kid, haven’t you already proven that you’ve got a steady touch?” Watching her go pink with pique was an absolute pleasure. Yeah, this had the potential to be both entertaining and useful. “I’m headin’ out around end of day. Wear black – somethin’ you don’t mind gettin’ dirty.”
To her credit Clary squinted at him with instant suspicion. “You want me to bring extra bobby pins while I’m at it?”
“I’ve got that covered, don’t sweat it.” He winked cheerfully and left her in his wake, mentally plotting out the night’s route.
He’d gathered up all the kit he’d need by the time daylight was winding down into dusk. Stan stepped out onto the porch and nearly tripped over Clary, perched on the top step, tapping who-knew-what into her phone. He yelped, she yelped back and jerked out of the way, and he looked her over critically as he regained his balance. Somewhere in that duffel bag she’d managed to rummage up black jeans, long sleeves and sensible running shoes. The scarves snug at her throat and sleeking back her pinned-up hair were mismatched shades of navy blue, but close enough.
“Wasn’t sure you’d be coming,” he said, though really he’d been pretty sure.
“Once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for a private late-night tour of Gravity Falls with local legend Mr. Mystery? I can’t pass that up.” Clary rose, toggling the phone to silent and slipping it into her back pocket. “What’s on the itinerary?”
“You’ll see.” She rolled eyes at him but tagged along amiably enough, dropping into the passenger side of the El Diablo and draping a lazy arm along the top edge of the seat while he tossed the backpack of tools and a few other oddments into the trunk. They cruised out into the gathering dark with bad 80s pop for a soundtrack and a mutually-appraising silence.
She pointed an idle thumb down towards Gravity Falls proper as they passed the turnoff. “Not a grocery run.”
“How far out?”
“Twenty minutes, maybe.”
Her laugh was low and brief as she studied him. “All right. Hobbies?”
“Really?” Stan smiled a little as he drove, his eyes cutting to hers in the mirror.
“I could start singing, but hair metal is really not my bag. I’ll trade mine for yours.”
“Yours‘re probably boring.”
“Ouch. The least you can do is give me a chance to prove otherwise. Besides, didn’t you bring me along to interrogate me in private?”
He did chuckle at that. “Maybe. So, yeah, I make one-of-a-kind art pieces - “ The fingers at the steering wheel’s edge went up in sketchy air quotes. “Fishin’. Monster huntin’ and general explorin’ with Ford, though that’s more the day job these days, I guess.” The quiet weight of her regard didn’t lift and he shifted in his seat. “Boxin’, long time ago. You?”
“Thought you must have been in some kind of sport as a kid. Me, you’ve seen the bike. I read a lot. Thrift store diving, I like vintage stuff. Museums.” One splayed hand obscured her smile as she turned to look out the windshield at the darkening green blur of rural scenery. “Dance, sometimes. Haven’t had much time the last couple of years.”
The likely reasons for that were fairly obvious so he didn’t pry. “There’s not a ton to do out here in the off-season, y’know, so now and then I used t’host somethin’ for the locals. I’ve been gettin’ pestered for a dance party since I got back. You want in?”
“Absolutely. Let me know if I can help out.”
“Maybe we take a turn in the ring while we’re at it. Dipper asked me to show him a few things, might as well teach you too. You’re tall enough to be a decent sparrin’ partner.” Stan spun the wheel easily with one hand, heading down a familiar long gravel drive. “With Dipper I’ve practically got to be on my knees. And I am not that flexible these days.”
There was a hesitation before she responded. “Sure. Though I’m pretty sure I’m better with my feet than my fists.”
The El Diablo eventually pulled up in a little clearing populated by battered sheds, a well-worn pickup and a trailer home that he knew hadn’t budged in decades. Clary took a wary look around, mouth drawing tight in doubt.
“Supplies,” he rumbled, setting the car in park and unbuckling. “Since it looks like Soos is determined to do an overhaul while he’s got me around to help out. Make yourself comfortable. Won’t be long.” He chuckled at her open apprehension. “Relax, kid. Nothin’s gonna pop out of the woods t’drag you screamin’ out of the car. That only happens on new moon and that’s tomorrow.” Stan tapped his chin in mock rumination. “I think.”
“You’ll be fine, promise, I’ll be right back.” He was still laughing under his breath as he headed up to the front door.
It was a quick exchange - he’d called ahead and so there was a boxload of stuff waiting for him, cash for critter bits, easy enough. Stan struggled a bit with the driver’s side back door and Clary tucked legs under to kneel on the seat, reaching clear across to pop the door latch. She grabbed the edge of the box once it hit the seat and tugged it over into the middle, peering in at the contents under the wan illumination of the dome light. “Ooh. New skulls!”
“Soos is gonna need a few more mink things, yeah. What is it with you and weasels?”
He snorted softly as the car rolled along. “Just how many of those do you know?”
“All of them.” His glance of disbelief was met with her mild smile. “All right, here’s the thing, we tax types are well known as the most humorless beings on the planet. Intimate acquaintance with the IRS, unhealthy obsession with spreadsheets, all that. I figured out pretty early on that people made assumptions. I read up a little. I got to know some of the other folks on the professional circuit in Baltimore...which is a company town, believe me, everyone there is either in government, education or crime….”
“Go on.” He had an inkling where this was going, a slow smile starting to curl.
“I thought I might as well leverage those assumptions.”
“You conned your fellow ambulance chasers.”
“Hey. I am no ambulance chaser and don’t you forget it.” She levelled a fierce glare and an accusing index finger his way. “All I did was win an occasional bar bet by outlasting every loudmouth who thought I was a pushover. If I felt merciful I’d order a glass of the best brandy in the joint and nurse it all night. If I felt less merciful….” Her shoulders rolled in a careless shrug. “There was enough turnover every couple of years that I always had marks.”
“So y’think I can’t keep up?”
“I know for a fact that you’re starting to run out of stuff you can crack in front of the kids.”
Which was true. He coughed into his knuckles as she arched an amused brow at him. “Well,” he said slowly. “Kids aren’t here.”
“Bring it, Pines.”
They batted terrible jokes back and forth for nearly ten minutes as he piloted along the highway to the next destination, dipping into blacker and blacker humor as they went.
“What can a goose do, a duck can’t, and a lawyer should?”
“Stick his bill up his ass. What’s the difference between a lawyer and a rooster?”
“When a rooster wakes up in the mornin’, his primal urge is to cluck defiance! Why do they bury lawyers under twenty feet of dirt?”
“Because deep down, they’re really good people. You know the problem with lawyer jokes?”
This one was so open-ended as to give no clue at all, and Stan cocked his head at her in question.
“Lawyers don’t think they’re funny, and no one else thinks they’re jokes.”
Clary’s smile was a little wry, and he felt an embarrassed flush creep up his neck. “Time for a change of subject, huh?”
“Tell me the best one you’ve got that has nothing to do with lawyers.”
“Oh ho, that’s easy.”
Once they were past the competitive call-and-response - she had definitely won that one, he’d been right on the verge of running dry, but like hell was he admitting to that - they both unspooled longer, loopier jokes, and Stan took real pleasure in coaxing a good laugh out of her. She had a nice laugh, he decided, deep and fearless, growing a little huskier as the drive wore on and she kept talking.
They cruised down one of the more remote county roads, driving nearly on autopilot until they reached the right turnoff. She was still chuckling over his last crack when he pulled over onto the shoulder and killed the engine. Clary frowned over at the tree-screened porch light up the hill. “Wow, okay, this is the middle of nowhere. More parts?”
“Not quite.” Stan drew breath, fingers tapping on the steering wheel as he tried to frame what he wanted to say.
Her eyes narrowed a fraction. “Ah. Is this the morally questionable portion of tonight’s program?”
“Yeah, that’s about the size of it. Listen for a minute?”
Clary settled back, attentive, mouth smoothing into a sober line.
“So I’m a collector. I’ve got a thing. For art.” She nodded and he went on. “This jackass up here nabbed a Gustav Klouneng out from under me at auction, he’s rejected all my completely reasonable offers for the thing, and he’s been rubbin’ my nose in it for years now. Pure spite. I’m out here to, ah.” Stan held out both hands palm up, miming the balancing of scales.
“Pretty much. I’ve been waitin’ on him to leave town for months.”
She mulled it over, then nodded and cracked her door open. “All right. Show me how it’s done.”
Stan felt a corner of his mouth twitch up. “You sure? You can wait here, if you wanna.”
“I knew we’d be getting into trouble the minute you said ‘wear black’, so let’s get into some trouble.”
They both slid out of the car, Stan chuckling to himself, heading back around to the trunk. He reached in to fish out the gear they’d need, then tossed the spare set of gloves at Clary. She caught them against her chest and tugged them on, wriggling fingers in approval. “You’re pretty light-footed, so just point the light where I need it and stay close, got it?”
There was no way in hell they were going to make it up to the house in complete silence and the place was unoccupied anyway, so Stan led her the long way around through underbrush to the basement door at a brisk walk. Clary accepted the heavy little black flashlight and aimed it as directed, leaning in to watch the delicate process of coaxing the lock open.
Having an audience was new, but the lock was child’s play. Stan nudged the door open and ushered her in with a flourish. She quirked him a half-impressed grin as she passed, angling the light into a dusty storage room.
“Wait ‘til you see this,” he murmured, deftly picking the lock on the next door under the light’s beam. Clary stepped in after him, silent on the thick carpet, and he cautiously flicked up the switches.
Stan had been here in person with time to look around only once, on what he thought of sourly as the ‘I’ve got all these great paintings and you don’t, sucker’ tour, but the impact was still the same. Perfect lighting, perfect framing, walls and drapery and paneling fit for a professional gallery. The owner might have been a colossal jerk but he had taste. He took a moment to soak it in with a low sigh of enjoyment, then checked on Clary.
She had an arm folded across her midsection, flashlight loose in her fingers, one hand at her chin, expression neutral save for a faint crease of the brow as her eyes flicked from painting to painting.
“Can you believe this hillbilly chump has a collection like this?”
Her head shook fractionally. “No.”
“Overwhelmed, huh. C’mon, lemme show you the one we’re here to get.” Stan chuckled to himself, padding softly down towards their objective.
Clary’s arms relaxed once she’d taken it all in and she came along after him, voice low. “I will say that these are, beyond a shadow of a doubt, the best clown paintings I have ever seen. This is a very carefully curated collection.”
“One day these’ll all be mine, but this’s what we came for.” He dragged a fingertip along the edge of the carved frame, grinning up into the mournful eyes of his Klouneng, all slate blues and velvet blacks and white splashed red. “What d’you think?”
“This is the best one here,” she said without hesitation, stepping in alongside him. “Brave use of color, intelligent framing. Lovely brushwork. The shapes and lighting are pared down into something elegant and stark, which is nice, sort of playing on the underlying theme of life on the edge of the spotlight...this is an artist on a mission.” Her expression finally eased into a faint, thoughtful smile. “Though I wonder why he’s so sad.”
“Y’really do like it?”
“Not sure I’d be brave enough to hang it over my bed, but I can respect anything created with such passion.”
“Afraid of clowns?” he tossed off in her general direction as he reached up behind the canvas to find the wall anchor.
“Of course not. I’m just a sucker for landscapes.”
Stan worked quickly, coaxing the canvas out of its bulky frame and setting it delicately against the wall. Clary had wandered off to take a closer look at the rest; she’d found the closest thing to a landscape in the place, a shadowed Paris alley with a dejected mime slumped against the wall. She didn’t seem afraid, but he crept up as softly as he could and leaned in close to her ear, hands hovering a moment before seizing her shoulders.
Clary made a strangled, startled noise that wasn’t quite a shout, twisted out of his grip and latched onto his forearm with a downward yank that threw him well off balance. He staggered, she jerked back, then grabbed at him for support as she teetered.
“Stanley, what the hell - “
“Cripes, lady, you tryin’ t’dump me on the floor here - “
They were still trying to disentangle themselves, Clary reddening as she finally let go of his arm and shoved free, when a soft creak from overhead made them both freeze.
Shit, thought Stan, then I know damn well he’s out of town, then time to go. Clary stared at him for a flat second of naked betrayal. They both jolted into motion, Clary flipping down the light switches with a single swipe of her palm, Stan snatching up the Klouneng.
“Who’s down there?”
Yeah, he maybe might’ve miscalculated on the ‘out of town’ bit.
“Pines, if that’s you, I swear to God I’m really gonna shoot you this time.”
The door at the top of the inside stairs slowly swung open, casting a shadow - bathrobe, slippers and a rifle, damn it all - along the wall. Clary’s eyes were saucer-wide as she edged towards the still-ajar gallery door. Stan nudged her out into the dusty basement, half stumbling in haste as he followed. As cautious steps turned into a slapping, hurried stampede downstairs, punctuated by curses, Stan set himself up and at just the right moment kicked the inside door to make hard contact with the owner’s face.
Clary’s fingers hooked into his and she dragged him up the basement steps and outside. They both bolted for the relative shelter of the woods. “Head for the car,” she hissed as they hit the treeline.
Suddenly his hand was free and she took off like a panicked gazelle, dodging shrubs, leaping over roots, waving the flashlight around and generally making an attractive nuisance of herself as she angled off roughly towards the road. She was fast. Apparently all that time on the bike had paid off. Stan bulled straight on through, crashing over a stand of huckleberry. He had the painting jammed protectively under one arm and kept half an eye on the trajectory of the light.
When the gunshot went off Stan nearly went ass-over-teakettle through another clump of underbrush. It wasn’t aimed at him, he could tell that much, but his heart was a lump of ice in his chest as he frantically scanned over in Clary’s general direction. She’d stopped – then he heard a distant hngh! of effort and saw the flashlight go up in a long arc, spinning, the beam slicing at tree trunks until a thwack and an infuriated shout of “Damn you, Pines!” indicated that she’d hit her target.
Clary got there first, silhouette matte black against the vague midnight glint of the El Diablo, diving right through the open passenger window to skid across the front seat and slap the driver’s door open. Stan shoved the painting at her, she pivoted to stash it in the back, and gravel was spitting out from under the tires before she’d even turned around again.
They whipped through a three-point turn that tapped the back bumper against a juvenile pine, setting off a rustle in the forest canopy. Stan nearly floored it all the way back to the county road. Clary was curled up at the far edge of the bench seat, both hands over her face. For a long few minutes there was nothing to listen to but the low drone of the radio and the slowly steadying rhythm of both their breathing.
“Fuck,” she finally gritted through bared teeth, and Stan had to bite his lip near to bleeding not to crack up.
“You all right over there?” By the time he dared to check over to her side of the car she’d uncoiled a little, dragging the seatbelt down and shoving the buckle home with a heavy click.
“Peachy. So, thanks, Stan, that was educational, but I must say my estimation of you as some kind of backwoods Oregon criminal mastermind has taken a total nosedive.” Clary settled back against the seat and draped an arm along the window ledge, eyes half closed. “Holy hell. Never again.”
Stan tried, but this time the laughter won out. He tossed his head back and cackled with glee. She reached across to swat at his shoulder, but her lips were pinched against a grudging smile. “You’d better really love that painting.”
“After all that I swear it’s gonna be the eternal jewel of my collection.”
There wasn’t much to say as the adrenaline slowly ebbed. Stan finally took a moment to latch his own seatbelt as he guided the car back in the general direction of town, humming absently under his breath. The minutes ticked past in companionable silence and occasional, wary checks of the rearview mirror.
Clary’s brows rose as they took the turnoff towards Gleeful’s dealership. “What, we’re not done yet? That wasn’t enough excitement for one night?”
“One last errand...this’s a little one, promise, just need to collect some odds and ends for your vintage rattletrap.”
“You be nice to that car. It was more or less in mint condition before it got intimate with your tourist trap.”
“And it’ll be nice again once we figure out the bodywork, but in the meantime the engine needs help.” Stan pulled up on the roadside forty yards or so down from the dealership, cars and mylar fringe glinting and still under the lot’s lights. He levered himself up and out, stretching muscles that twanged in protest. Clary unfolded herself from the far side and half stumbled, supporting herself on the El Diablo’s hood as she came around to join him.
“I’ve never run that hard in my life. My knees are still jelly.”
“Nice afterburners on you, kid. Nice grip, too.” Stan fished the trimmed end of his most recent cigar out of his breast pocket and raised brows at her in question as she settled against the fender; she nodded and he struck a match, taking his time to wake the tobacco up to a slow burn. Ten minutes left on this one, maybe.
“I had incentive. What’re we here for?” Clary folded arms and looked up to the star-dense sky, her dark figure limned in subtle silver and the sodium gold of the dealership lamps. Stan studied her sharp profile at the edge of his vision.
“Drive belt. Spark plugs. Other bits not worth explainin’.”
“I can pay for the parts, Stan.”
He huffed out a chuckle, angling the smoke away. “Yeah, about that. Gleeful an’ I don’t exactly get along, y’see, he’ll tell you to stuff it purely ‘cause you’re under my roof right now.”
Pfft, she went, eyes closing for a pensive moment. “Nothing else local I imagine.”
“Nope. Portland’s a full day round trip. Bud’s got a nice little assortment of older stuff back there he’s never gonna sell, we nip in, snag what you need, nip out. No one’s even gonna notice. Hour, hour and a half tops. All you’ve gotta do is kill the main power at the office. Fuse box, big switch, cake.” He tipped a thumb over at the cinderblock-and-plate-glass structure that anchored the lot, tucked inside the fence.
“You’re a bad influence, you know that?”
“Been hearin’ it all my life.”
He let her think it over while he worked his way through the last bit of his cigar, smoke dissipating peacefully on the warm night air. Maybe she’d bite, maybe she wouldn’t. Eventually he ground the stub out at his feet and went around to the trunk to retrieve his kit bag. Clary followed, extending a hand, and he dropped a set of pliers into her gloved palm.
“Fine. Your turf, your people, your judgment call. I trust you.” He flinched in surprise at the phrase, covering with the low thunk of the trunk’s closure. “Prove me right.”
The urge to catch her arm and suggest the day trip to Portland instead was sudden and strong - hell, she was decent company and she’d be good for the gas - but it was already too late as she pivoted and jogged off down along the lot line, choosing a badly-lit spot near the office and scaling the fence with scrabbling feet. Less than a minute later the lights went out with a distant clunk.
Stan shouldered his tools and headed in, tamping down vague apprehension as his eyes adjusted to the faint ambient light. He didn’t bring out the spare flashlight until heavy shadow made it risky to go further. The lot was a maze of gleaming hulks, the footing treacherous on thin, irregular gravel. Clary he eventually picked out by the soft crunch of her cautious steps and an occasional ow as she bumped into one car or another, slowly homing in.
“Gonna take this up as a sideline? You got decent instincts for a glorified accountant.”
Clary snorted softly. “Not on your life. I usually deal with a different caliber of crime.”
Stan grinned to himself. “See anythin’ the same make as yours before you killed the lights?”
“There’s a Fairlane sedan at the back. Not in spectacular shape, but it looked like the right vintage.”
“That’ll work. Here y’go, lead on.” He passed off the flashlight. She kept her head and the light’s beam low, creeping along with complete focus, so serious and so careful that the urge to indulge in a cheap startle eventually became irresistible.
Stan caught up with two silent strides and reached out to clasp her low on the ribs. “Gotcha.”
She didn’t even make a sound this time, convulsing in his grip, the flashlight hitting the ground right about as her elbow caught him smack in the face. Stan tucked and hit the dirt more or less completely on reflex, half stunned - there’d been some real force behind that - and she was almost a carlength away before he could even see straight.
The dim fringe of the light gave him just enough of a read on her expression, flickering through fear to fury and finally settling on horrified contrition as he lifted a hand and found himself stemming a tidal rush of blood from his bruised nose. “Holy smokes, kid.”
“Shit.” She hustled back, dropping to her knees beside him, hands hovering uselessly as he rummaged up a handkerchief and jammed it in place to stanch the flow. “I am so sorry.” A pause. “Please never do that again.”
“Not a chance. I want to keep my head on, thanks.” Stan tipped his chin up, sniffling faintly as he waited for the broken blood vessel to calm the hell down. “Quit lookin’ at me like that, I deserved to end up flat on my ass. Nice solid hit, for a girl, with a desk job.” Budding indignation was definitely an improvement over the guilt and concern twisting her features - he didn’t much want to deal with either of those. “I really could show you how t’do somethin’ with that, y’know.”
Clary seemed reassured that he wasn’t going to die on the spot, at least, as she turned and stretched way out to retrieve the flashlight. “Only if next week is a lot more boring than this one has been. You sure you’re all right.”
He pinched his nose with the hanky, wincing as he tested the bridge, then dabbed with a clean corner which stayed clean. “Not broken. I’ve gotten worse beatings than that, believe me.”
The flicker of concern came and went again, but she kept her mouth shut and stood gracefully, extending a hand down to him. “We’d better wrap up.” Clary leaned back to counterbalance his greater weight and pulled him easily to his feet; Stan snagged the backpack and refrained from any further shenanigans as they came up on the car she’d picked out.
It wasn’t pretty - the color some kind of faded bronze that she called “Sauterne Gold” in passing disgust, chrome pitted along the bumper’s lower edge - but the hood came up quietly. The internals were mostly familiar and more importantly intact.
“Hold the flashlight steady for me an’ keep an eye out.” Stan unzipped his pack, the sound muffled by a liberal coating of beeswax on the teeth, and reached in to feel for the right tools in their flannel wraps. Clary bent for a fleeting moment to squint in and hummed in amusement as she straightened up.
“Old PJs of Mabel’s, cut me some slack already. Pliers?” She passed them over, propped her elbow to keep the light roughly aligned, and kept her attention on the road while he set to work. Nothing too complicated. The drive belt was the worst of it, the spark plugs were easy. Clary glanced down at him every now and then as he became absorbed in the process.
He had dumped the tools and miscellaneous bits into the pack and was softly latching the hood when the light cut out and she hissed a warning, dropping into the shelter of the fender as a distant, watery beam raked the lot.
And, inevitably, zeroed in on him. “Hey, what’s going on over there? That you, Bud?”
Blubs. “Pete’s sake,” he spat under his breath, and nudged the backpack with one foot towards Clary’s hiding spot. “Zip that, run for it, toss it over the fence.” Her hand darted out to catch a strap as he half turned. “Uh, yeah?”
“Pines? What the heck happened to your face? And what’re you doin’ here at - Hey, are you stealing parts again?”
“....No?” Clary was inching away deeper into the shadows of the lot. He couldn’t even make her out, but started strolling towards Blubs to cover up the faint crunch of her steps, hands turned out and empty. “You know we got a guest with a busted car, right? Bud an’ I still aren’t speakin’ politely, so I’m here lookin’ for somethin’ trustworthy she can use ‘til she’s fixed.”
“After one in the morning?” Blubs was one to talk; Stan could make out the perpetual sunglasses over the regulation flashlight’s beam.
“D’you really want me crossin’ paths with Bud again?” Somewhere behind him there was a distant rustle of branches, good, then Durland’s voice, far enough off to sound tinny.
“Hey! Where you going, burglar? Yer under arrest - for burglary!”
There was a scuffle, and a sharp, high yelp like a rabbit snatched by an ambitious owl. “Hey!” Stan spun on one heel, and made it about three lengthening steps in the right direction before Blubs full-out tackled him by the knees. One of the car alarms went off, squeep squeep squeep, as he crashed into a door on the way down. “Ah, c’mon, Blubs, I saved the town from an interdimensional demon, gimme a break!”
“Sorry, Stan, we got a job to do.”
Durland herded Clary past him, her back straight, wrists cuffed, expressionless. She caught his eyes for the barest moment - she was pale, a smudge on her cheek, but seemed to be in one piece. Stan let Blubs slap the cuffs on him with an internal groan of resignation. They made a sad little parade out towards the street, the sheriff and his deputy arguing quietly.
“....aw, shoot, Durland, we don’t have the cruiser. Me and my ideas for romantic midnight strolls!”
“Well, why don’t we just commander Stan’s car?”
“Do you mean commandeer?”
“Edwin Durland, you are an absolute delight, and I cherish having you as my life partner.”
At least someone was having a good night. Blubs rummaged the car keys out of Stan’s pocket and stuffed him in behind the driver’s seat. Clary ended up on the passenger side, wedged in next to the box of pelts and bones. The Klouneng stayed precariously jammed between his knee and hers. Stan gritted his teeth as Blubs fiddled with the seat back and finally got the El Diablo going.
She stared out into the night the whole way. He could all but hear the mental gears spinning over there and was loathe to interrupt, but finally spoke up, quiet. “You okay, Clary?”
“I’m fine, Stan.” It was the first unambiguous lie she’d told him, smooth as glass. Stan left it at that, letting his temple rest against the window’s chilly surface while he tried to figure a way out of this one.
The station was a bit of a blur as he trudged in, head down, watching Clary’s feet ahead of him. They ended up uncuffed and unceremoniously dumped in one of the cells together. The door closed with a familiar, heavy clang. “You two better get comfortable. We’ll get your prints in the morning.” Blubs really did do a decent job of being intimidating when you didn’t know him.
Stan flopped onto one of the cots. Clary folded her arms, settling against the wall near the bars, angling herself so that she had half a bead on Durland and Blubs talking at the end of the hall. “How do we get out of here?” she whispered after a minute or two.
“Don’t think we can, kid.” Stan settled back onto the thin mattress with a sigh, propping up a knee. “I think I can convince ‘em that you got hypnotized into comin’ along with me or somethin’. Wouldn’t be the weirdest thing they’ve heard this year or hell even this summer.”
Her mouth twitched faintly. “I knew what I was getting into.”
“I don’t have to tell you that you don’t wanna get in trouble with the law. This isn’t my first night in jail, not by a long shot.” He rolled his head a little, the better to catch her eye. “I’ve been in an’ out of this one so many times the cot’s got a dent to fit my butt.” No laugh, but at least she ducked her head to hide the ghost of a smile. “I’ve done time in worse places than this. Whatever they come up with to throw at me, this’s a cakewalk.”
Her fingers were tapping a soft rhythm against her sleeve. “And if we can get past the lock?”
“Then we slip out a window and they forget this ever happened, most likely.”
Clary’s features went carefully neutral as she fished something out of her back pocket, then leaned against the bars, hands hanging just through. “Excuse me, fellas?” Her voice smoothed out into a warm dark-caramel register that wouldn’t do a damned thing for the sheriff or the deputy but struck a pleasant thrum in Stan’s chest. “You dropped your car keys.”
Durland wandered back after a minute, squinting. “Where’d you get my keepsake key fob? I’ve been lookin’ for that.”
“Sorry, sir, I didn’t even realize I’d picked it up. Thought they were my keys in the dark.”
“Thank you kindly, miss.” She handed the fob off to the deputy, endured a long, scrutinizing stare, then settled back against the wall. Stan stared at the ceiling and listened to the slow retreat of Durland’s feet, settling in for an uncomfortable night.
He could practically hear her eyes rolling. “Hst,” again, softer, and he turned his head to look over. Clary had one palm tilted towards him, a glint carefully contained by silencing fingers - the cell keys, how the fuck - expression equal measures smug and profoundly ashamed. Her hands were shaking.
Stan bounced upright in pure shock, feet hitting the floor with a thud. He slapped a hand over his mouth in time to muffle an involuntary laugh. “Holy - you sure you don’t have experience with this kinda thing?”
“Shh,” Clary hissed. She pressed her brow to the bars for a better angle on the hallway, both hands cradling the keys as though they’d evaporate any second. Her trembling fingers set off tiny clinks as she tried them in succession until one finally clicked. The bolt slid back with a faint thunk that made both of them flinch. Stan hovered at her side as she pulled one shuddering breath, two, then carefully, carefully opened the door.
They slipped out into the hall and crept down to the station office. Blubs snored peacefully, sprawled across the front desk. Clary leaned over and pulled a neat little switch, plucking up the Stanleymobile keys and leaving the cell keys in their place.
“Hold on,” Stan whispered as she inched towards the outside door. She held in place and watched in outraged astonishment as he sidestepped into what passed for the evidence room, then reemerged with the precious Klouneng tucked under one arm.
The El Diablo was right out front. Stan matter-of-factly unlocked the passenger side, opened it for Clary, handed her the painting - she pivoted and stashed it in the back again - then slid into his own seat, adjusted it to the proper position, and pulled out smoothly down the road.
Both of them were all but holding their breath for the better part of ten minutes. Flashing lights and sirens failed to materialize behind them.
“You know where the pack went down?”
“Yes. I counted fenceposts.”
“Let’s grab that, then, don’t know how we can get into more trouble tonight.”
Clary knocked on the dashboard in lieu of anything actually wooden. “Please don’t tempt fate any further.”
Stan pulled into the former Tent of Telepathy lot next to Gleeful’s and angled the headlamps in the general direction Clary indicated, since they were officially out of flashlights. She hopped out and delved into the underbrush. His fingertips were drumming impatiently on the steering wheel’s edge by the time she reemerged, pack slung over one shoulder.
He picked a circuitous route out of town for no real reason other than his own peace of mind.
Clary tucked herself against the passenger door, arms defensively folded. Her expression gradually wound tighter and tighter into a frown. “You know, he got it wrong, that wasn’t even burglary. At least he didn’t know we’d already done that bit.”
“Pffft.” It wasn’t even that funny, but all the same Stan propped his head in one hand, fingers splayed so he could see, and started to laugh quietly. She joined him after a few moments. There was a hysterical edge to her staccato giggles but it was better than dead silence.
“I cannot believe I did that.”
“Oh, you did, kid. Pretty professional too.” It was damned near three in the morning and exhaustion weighed down his limbs. The drive home was mercifully uneventful, the Shack dark and silent under a moonless sky. He scooped up the painting and she collected the backpack from where she’d dumped it in the footwell. Stan didn’t bother to flick on any lights until they made it to the kitchen, feet dragging, and they both had to squeeze dark-adapted eyes shut against the sudden glare of the overhead lamp.
Stan propped the Klouneng up on the table and sank heavily into a kitchen chair. Clary paced the floor, hands to hips, the mental gears spinning again. "That was a wild night. Let's see. Breaking and entering, burglary, trespassing, petty larceny, escaping custody. How much do Klounengs go for?" Stan winced; she blinked, lips parting in dismay, and burst into a fresh round of low incredulous laughter. "Grand larceny."
"He's not gonna report anythin'," Stan said, a little wounded. "Half of what he has on the walls down there is already stolen. There's, ah, kind of a runnin' rivalry among collectors of these things."
"Lost any of yours?" She padded over to the sink, turning the tap and waiting on the water to warm up.
"Hell, no, I have mine better hidden than that. None of ‘em are dumb enough to mess with the Shack."
"So that leaves a couple hundred in car parts, and we didn't leave any real traces there. Except, you know, being in physical custody for under an hour. They didn't even book us." Clary drew a long breath through her cupped hands, then let it go slowly. "Screw it," she murmured. "We got out alive. The rest is just details."
She tucked her gloves into a back pocket and scrubbed both hands and face while Stan glared at his interlaced fingers and stewed. This night had not gone as planned and really, none of that was on her.
“Want a drink?” Clary reached up into a cupboard.
“Water, sure.” She set a glass in front of him, then paused to study him carefully before pacing back to the sink. “You did good, y’know. Nerves of steel for a rookie.”
“Baltimore being Baltimore, you develop those nerves or you move someplace a lot more peaceful.” Clary returned with a damp paper towel and an air of quiet determination. “Your face is still kind of a mess. Hold still a moment, let me clean you up and then I’ll get an ice pack.”
“Don’t need ice, I can take a couple aspirin - “ She tilted her head at him a little, brows rising, and Stan heaved a resigned sigh.
Clary rested a cool palm along his jaw and tipped him up until he was looking into her eyes. She wasn’t looking into his. Instead her focus was tight and worried as she swabbed along his upper lip. “Cannot believe I tagged you this hard. I am so damned sorry.” Tiny corkscrew tendrils of her hair escaped the bandana, ash brown washed out to silvered threads by the light bulb’s corona. “You sure you feel all right?”
“’m fine.” There was a flush rising along his neck and it wasn’t embarrassment this time. Stan couldn’t tear his gaze away. He’d seen that shade of grey in her troubled eyes before, somewhere. Maybe in the glint of a tern’s wing or the glimmer of the sea at the edge of dawn. “Like I said, I deserved that one.”
"I hit you, Stan, that is not okay." With one last pass of the paper towel along the edge of his lower lip she stepped back to survey her handiwork. The grey eyes flicked up to meet his, and she seemed at last to realize how close she’d been as she withdrew. “You don’t deserve that. Just - no more grabbing me from behind, clear?”
She wrapped a familiar bag of frozen peas in a dishtowel and handed it off. A moment’s rifling through a drawer turned up a bottle of ibuprofen, which she opened and set on the table. “Anything else before I go collapse? You guys are wearing me out so completely that I’m sleeping better than I have in years.”
“Why’d you come along?”
He hadn’t meant to ask that - it slipped out unbidden. Stan pressed the improvised icepack to his forehead, peering out at her from under daisy-patterned terrycloth. She looked as surprised as he felt. “I mean - you knew it’d be trouble.”
“I made a promise,” Clary said after a wary pause, “that I’d take some real chances this year. Stick my neck out for other people.”
“How’s that workin’ out for you so far?”
A tiny smile warmed her weary features. “Mixed bag. Right now, from where I’m standing, I think things might be looking up.” Her palm pressed his shoulder in brief reassurance. “Good night, Stan.”
“G’night, Clary.” She shot him a last oblique glance as she headed out into the hall.
Stan washed down three ibuprofen with water, settled back in the chair and let his eyes slip half closed for a thoughtful while, listening to the distant song of crickets.
She hovers uselessly at your side, wide eyes flicking between your bleeding nose and the backpack you dropped. “I am so sorry.”
- Want to learn how to really hit?
- Play for sympathy.
- Get indignant.
Chapter 6: Favors Always Come With Strings Attached
Weirdness and a hasty escape.
For reference: Bend, Oregon is a little town with a funny name and a world reputation for quality bike trails.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
07/08/13 Monday - 07/12/13 Friday
Stan slept nearly until noon the following day. A check in the mirror revealed the shadow of a bruise blossoming below the left eye, nothing major. It’d fade in a day or two. He draggled downstairs – he’d gotten around to getting fully dressed, out of consideration for their guest – to rummage for breakfast leftovers, turning up a wedge of egg-and-vegetables thing and a couple slices of toast.
He wandered down to the living room with his plate, homing in on the only source of conversation in the Shack at the moment, a low but intense exchange between Ford and Clary. They were set up at the dining table, maps overlapping in a scatter of topographical lines and trail markers.
“I just don’t see why you can’t keep to the lake trails.”
“The lake trails are all for foot traffic. I want to take the bicycle out and surely there are some options that aren’t so on the beaten path as it were.”
“Mornin’, you two.” Stan dragged up a chair as Clary tugged a couple maps out of his way. “What’s the problem, Ford?”
Ford gave him that look, the one that said you know perfectly well what the problem is. “It’s dangerous,” he declared flatly, throwing his hands up. “These are deep woods, Clary, certainly there are trails and some of them might even be all right for a skilled rider, but I’m hesitant to suggest that you head out there on your own without a guide.”
A flicker of surprise creased her features. “I do know what I’m doing, Ford, I’ve been up and down most of the major and minor bike routes in Colorado.”
“This isn’t Bend,” said Ford, pitch rising a notch. “Gravity Falls is wild country. There are things in these woods whose path you should not cross.” Clary drew back a little in her chair, jaw tightening by tiny degrees.
“Ford, take it easy.” Stan nudged his plate away as he killed off the last bite of toast. “It’s not like the kids haven’t been all over the woods close to the Shack. She’s an adult, she’s capable.”
“I’m right here,” Clary said with a touch of acid.
Stan waved a flattened palm at her under the table’s edge in what he hoped would pass for the universal ‘relax, I’ve got this’ signal, and she folded her arms and hushed resentfully. “Between you and me and Dipper we can figure out the better stretches for ridin’, right? It’ll be safer if she stays off the most common paths anyway.”
There was a grudging sigh and a crinkled lip, but Ford finally tugged a pencil from his breast pocket and bent over one of the maps. “Can you carry that bicycle?” he asked critically.
“Yes. Please don’t ask me to climb any sheer cliffs with it.”
“I must insist that you carry a tracker and something you can be contacted with. I have something in the works which should be ready in another day or so.”
Clary opened her mouth, then caught herself. “Right. Twelve doctorates. Magnet gun.” Ford clicked his tongue at her in reproach but Stan could see the line of his frown easing.
The pencil loosely outlined a stretch of what Stan knew was the less risky part of the local forest, skirting manotaur territory among other things. “Start here. This trail is relatively level and should have a long slope back down towards town, if I recall correctly. Dipper and I will do some closer review to identify a few other options. Fair?”
“Perfectly. Thank you.”
Ford’s eyes narrowed as he took a truly solid look at Stan for the first time since he’d joined them. “...where the heck were you two last night anyway?”
“Errands,” said Stan and Clary in unison.
Ford blinked at their matching poker faces for a moment, then pushed back from the table with a shake of his head. “I can see that line of inquiry is going nowhere. Clary, do talk to Dipper should the opportunity arise. He knows these woods better than any of us, I believe.”
Clary watched Ford go, and her defensive posture relaxed by degrees. “He’s the older one, isn’t he.”
“And how. Fifteen minutes and he’s lorded it over me ever since.” He eyed his empty plate. “Don’t suppose you can make another one of those coffee cakes?”
“Sure. How’s your face?”
“It’ll be fine by tomorrow, thanks.”
Ford’s objections to the whole exercise eased up somewhat once it turned out that Clary had one of those fancy video action cameras, something she hadn’t even gotten out of the box yet. The two of them spent over an hour going through the instructions and fiddling with the wireless connection, Ford muttering about hooking the whole thing into his remote communications net, or whatever the hell he and McGucket had been playing with since Ford’s return to town.
Stan settled in at the Fairlane, methodically digging into the engine’s guts and incorporating the parts they’d lifted last night. Ford and Clary’s conversation was indistinct but soothing background noise as he worked.
“Hey Grunkle Stan!” Mabel marched over somewhere in the vicinity of lunchtime, dragging a lawn chair and a personal cooler. She reached up to pass him a Pitt so frosty his fingers ached to hold it. “How’s it look in there? Are you going to get her car fixed anytime soon?”
Stan cracked his cola open and tipped his head back to drink about half of it in a series of long grateful gulps. Mabel waited in expectation; he pursed his lips, thought it over, and obligingly burped the first couple bars of the Star-Spangled Banner to her cackling delight. “Not sure, sweetie, I’m fixin’ all the obvious stuff. Won’t really know ‘til we fire it up.”
Mabel whipped out her phone and took a lightning snapshot of him leaning against the Fairlane’s front grill, then perched on the edge of her lawn chair. “So how much of a hurry are you in, exactly?”
“Uh.” Stan frowned in confusion, squinting over to where Ford and Clary were testing out her camera. “She’s got places to go, Mabel. As quick as I can get it done? It’s our fault she’s stuck here and you know about her mom.”
“Are you suuuuure? I mean, it seems to me that she’s having a pretty good time.”
“Well, yeah, I guess at least she’s not bored. I think Ford’s gonna turn her into a field researcher at this rate.”
“She gets along pretty well with Grunkle Ford, but I’m just getting ‘nerd friend’ vibes there. On the other hand, she’s really gone out of her way to spend time with you.” He knew that grin. That grin on Mabel always meant trouble. Her eyes tracked over towards the Shack, then back again.
Stan glanced over to the porch. Clary looked up at the same moment. Their eyes met and she smiled, a quick spontaneous flash that lit up her features. Stan whisked the towel he’d been using to mop up sweat out of his back pocket and swabbed his brow as he turned back to the engine, knowing damn well that he’d just gone bright red.
“I mean, sure, she’s smart and pretty gutsy, but neither one of us is lookin’ for, uh, personal complications, pumpkin. We both got obligations. I’m goin’ back out to sea soon as the boat’s up and runnin’ again.”
Mabel’s wide smile hadn’t budged even a sliver. “Okay,” she replied cheerfully, hopping down and folding her chair. “I’m glad we had this talk, Grunkle Stan! Good luck with the engine!”
“Mabel, don’t - “ He wasn’t sure what she wasn’t supposed to be doing, actually, but it was way too late to slow her down. She bounded off towards the Shack. Clary and Ford were just heading inside, talking with gestures and laughter about who knew what.
Complications, Stan thought glumly, and pressed his face into the towel for a long few moments.
It took a day and a half before Ford was satisfied with his tracking rig. The kids and Stan gathered in the morning to swap out the tires again and check out the results, Clary ready to roll in her biking gear and a sunny orange bandana snug at her throat. Ford fussed over the straps on a sturdy webbing-and-canvas half-vest. The camera was latched in above her sternum, a compact battery pack sporting a couple of antennas at odd angles high on the back.
“For the last time, I’m not letting you mount anything on the helmet.”
“You’ll get better shots,” Ford wheedled, tugging at a tension buckle.
“Come up with a smaller camera and we can talk. Dipper, are you receiving?” Clary pressed a couple of buttons on the camera’s edge, and Dipper tapped at his much-modified laptop.
“Looking good, Clary!” He turned it to show off the screen, which displayed a nice crisp video image of Mabel, Dipper and a slightly cranky Stan cradling his coffee mug side by side on the couch.
“Got your tracking signal?”
Ford plugged a narrow cord into the battery pack and passed up a lightweight headset, which Clary hooked into place over one ear. She flipped down the tiny microphone. “Testing.” Dipper flashed her a thumbs-up and she grinned wide, almost dancing back to straddle her bike. “Ford, are you happy now?”
“You’ve got your map?” Ford paced a half-circle around the bicycle, frowning as he tapped his chin. “You’ll stick to the trail we agreed on?”
“Yes, and yes.” Clary popped on a set of rakish safety glasses and buckled on her helmet. “I am outta here.”
“Fly, Clary! Fly to freedom!” Mabel waved her off from the edge of the porch, Clary waving back over one shoulder as she set feet to the pedals and angled off towards the pines.
“Check in every half hour!” Ford called after her through cupped hands. There was another wave, this one less enthusiastic, as rider and bicycle swerved onto a narrow trail and vanished rustling into the brush. “Good heavens, I hope she’ll be careful.”
“She’s a survivor. She’ll be fine.” Stan threw back the last of his lukewarm coffee with a wince, then rose to stretch and pop his back. “Keep me posted, I guess, though I’m bettin’ it’ll be a drama-free trip. C’mon, gremlins, what’re you up to today?”
The novelty of the whole exercise had worn off by the time Clary made it back to the Shack by mid-afternoon, grubby, winded and glowing with satisfaction. She uploaded a bunch of footage and snapshots for Ford to peruse and demolished two sandwiches. Ford had been happy enough with his tracker’s performance and the call-ins, though crackly, were reasonably clear. He was cranking out new prototypes and more compact ‘uplinks’ for the kids by that evening.
That Clary’s ride the next day was longer, more challenging and subtly deviant from the agreed-upon trail didn’t surprise Stan one bit.
That everything had gone sideways by early afternoon the day after that was a surprise, though really, knowing Gravity Falls, it shouldn’t have been.
“What the hell do you mean the kids are already at home.”
Stan stomped along the trail, dripping sweat in the leaf-filtered sunshine and grateful beyond words that he’d left the jacket back in the car. The earpiece Ford had given him for the trek was uncomfortably slippery. He’d slung the accompanying battery pack at the back of his belt, where it kept jabbing him in the kidney.
“They’d just gone out for the short loop and forgot to take along the uplinks. So they’re safe and sound! Where are you?”
“Just rounded, uh, whatsit, the double waterfall. The one with all the rhododendrons. Might be ninety minutes out? Are you sure there’s even somethin’ we need to rescue them from if they weren’t already home and in one piece?”
“I may have jumped the gun a little.” Even on the sometimes-tenuous voice connection Ford sounded defensive. “But there’s definitely something up in the deep woods. All the wildlife’s been heading down towards the lake. Clary, how far along are you?”
There was a click as she toggled her microphone, words coming in spurts between gasps. “I think I may have passed those same waterfalls ten or fifteen minutes ago. Should I double back?”
“You’re off the track again as it is!”
“I found a really good downslope and got carried away. I’m sorry.” Stan snorted to himself. If she was trying to be contrite she was doing a pretty poor job of it.
“Just keep heading down the trail you’re on. Take the right fork, the one marked with a slashed square….”
Stan tuned them out as he kept on plodding, swabbing at his brow with one sleeve, then paused.
“Clary, you haven’t seen anythin’ glittery today while you’ve been out, have you?”
“That should drop you - wait, Stanley?”
“What do you mean, glittery? There was something shimmering maybe half an hour back but I thought it was just water through the trees.”
Oh, boy. “Because there’s a crater just off the trail here and it’s covered with more pink sparkly crap than a Mabel macaroni original.” Stan worked his way over to the shallow dent in the earth. The grass was blown flat from a center point, ground blasted bare for a good two feet in the middle, everything encrusted in a liberal coating of pinkish crystalline dust.
“Did you remem - “
“Yes, Sixer, I brought the sample jars.” Ugh, even through the faint static he recognized the eager note in Ford’s voice. Stan bent, carefully scraping up a teaspoonful of glitter into a tiny glass jar and capping it off.
“Well, grab a sample and then get the heck out of there! Both of you! I don’t think I’ve ever observed this directly but - “
“Ford?” There was actual concern in Clary’s tone this time. “Ford, there are a couple of...grapefruit-sized pink bubbles floating over the ridge here. I’m getting a quick shot for you, okay?”
“Clary, you should really just get out - “
“I’m fine, this’ll only be - “
The boom! that came through the earpiece was deep, a faint thunderclap arriving like an echo half a second or so later. Stan half-staggered in surprise, catching himself with one hand flat just inside the crater’s edge. Glassy fragments of dust nipped at his fingers and rose in a chalky puff. “Son of a bitch. Clary!”
“Clary!” Ford’s voice tightened, the connection crackling loudly. “Stan, she’s close to you, you’re going to have to go find her - “
“ - fine. I’m fine, I swear, I’m just flat on my back. That’s one heck of a concussion grenade.” Clary’s laugh was high-pitched and shaky through clicks and hiccups of feedback. “Definitely time to get the hell out of Dodge. It’s all downhill from here, Ford, I’m just going to take the most direct route I can find.”
“Stan, you’ve got to get going, too.”
Stan sneezed - his hands were dusted with pink and he’d gotten way too much of a whiff for comfort - and, grim, he levered himself upright and set off down the trail at a steady jog. “Don’t have to tell me twice. Got any bright ideas on what’s happening?”
Years of practice had made Stan an expert in picking out only the most relevant parts of Ford’s stream-of-consciousness rambling when he was turning a problem over in his head. There were better things to worry about at the moment, like the marble-sized bubble that drifted past thirty feet to his left, then detonated with the sharp report of an M-80 and left a silver splatter eight feet high on an adjacent tree trunk. Whatever smaller critters hadn’t had the sense to leave earlier were now rustling the underbrush to both sides as they streamed downhill, squirrels and pikas and rabbits making haste to get out of range.
Ford’s babble was speeding up. “ - must be a many-years-long cycle, reproductive perhaps, fungal? Spores? No references in Dipper’s notes - “
Stan upped his pace even though his nose was beginning to itch something fierce, barely registering any of it until a startled “ - wait, that’s the wrong way - “ plucked at his attention, and Clary swooped up alongside him on her bicycle.
“Sorry, Ford, I got turned around somehow,” she said straight-faced as she dismounted. “Stan, run it out with me.”
“What the hell do you think you’re doing?” Stan half-shouted at her, grabbing the near handlebar and letting the wheels take a bit of his weight. They found a working rhythm with the bike between them as the woods behind them crackled with what sounded increasingly like the rattle of semi-automatic gunfire.
“Like hell was I going to leave you out here,” she snapped back. Having the bike to lean on helped - Stan’s feet were barely skimming the ground as they ran full-tilt, diving into a dense grove of pine that seemed to intercept most of the pursuing bubbles. A branch snagged his earpiece and yanked it and the battery pack away in the rush. They were both out of breath as they bolted out the far side but kept up the pace for another minute before pausing to recover for a gasping moment in a stretch of treeless scrub.
“You are out of your mind, Merrick - “ Stan clapped a hand over his bruised ear, leaning hard on the handlebars’ hub.
“Yes, I know - “ Clary pivoted to look back up the slope. “Oh you have got to be kidding me.”
Stan glanced over one shoulder and didn’t even have the air left to swear. Bubbles. Bowling ball, basketball, beach ball size, drifting placidly out over the tops of the trees far overhead. Distant enough, but tracking slowly in their general direction.
“Get on,” Clary said.
“What.” Stan had to weigh nearly half again what she did.
“Get on. Butt on the seat, feet up, knees in, hold onto me and do not let go.” Clary swung a leg astride and leaned into one of the pedals, head still tipped up as she tracked approaching glittery doom. “Help me push off. It’s all downhill from here but we have to move!”
He hesitated and Clary glared at him. “Do you plan on outrunning those things on foot?” Oh, god no, was his immediate mental response, and he perched warily on the seat with hands at her hips. Together they shoved off, the trail dropping precipitously out from under them.
Stan’s arms latched tight around her waist as they lurched, struggling to maintain his balance, his cheek smashed into the small of her back. She grunted out a startled oof as the bike wobbled. His feet skated along rough ground until they managed to steady.
Downhill or not, she put everything she had into pedaling – solid blocks of muscle shifted every time she punched down with a foot – and they picked up speed until he was happy to just focus on not tangling up the back wheel. The forest blurred as they whipped down the trail, tiny twitches of her gloved fingers on the handgrips guiding the bike. At one point they passed a doe in full sprint. Birds and smaller critters were dashing for cover to both sides.
They burst out into a wide flower-dense meadow and she aimed right for the weathered bulk of a granite outcropping. The bike’s brakes screeched, sending a shudder through the overburdened frame, and she threw her weight to one side as they angled into the lee of the boulders. Most of their momentum had bled off by the time the wheels went out from under them. Stan yelped as his knee hit the grass. They skidded together into the shelter of the stone.
A distant crump-fweeeeee! sounded far behind them, then others, a series of bone-rattling booms. Clary kicked free of the bike and flung herself over Stan, putting her helmet upslope of his head. The shockwave took another moment to hit, pink-and-purplish windborne glitter flattening the meadow all around them.
Blood sang in his ears as he blinked up at clear blue. He couldn’t hear much, couldn’t move really. Clary peeled herself off and flopped flat on her back beside him, tossing aside the helmet and shoving the safety glasses up.
Eventually he could hear again, and realized that she was laughing.
Stan tilted his head just enough to catch a glimpse of Clary. Flushed, damp with the sweat of effort, hair escaping in wild tendrils from its clasp, laughing up at the open sky.
Had he the strength, he would have rolled over and kissed her.
He closed his eyes, trying to remember how to breathe, and heard her indistinct voice as though from a distance through water. Gloved fingers patted his half-numb cheek.
Reflex took over and Stan sneezed, hard enough to hurt. That seemed to be enough to kickstart everything else. He blinked up again, Clary at the edge of his field of vision.
“ - think he’s all right,” he picked out dimly as sound began to fade back in. “Breathing’s good, color’s good. Yes, Ford, I’m in one piece. A little woozy but for all I know that’s the adrenaline talking. What a ride. Yes, good grief, the camera was running the whole time! Yes, I’ll ring back as soon as he’s coherent.”
A faint click marked the closing of the connection and Clary regarded him with blunt concern. “You’ve got about thirty seconds to convince me that you’re actually all right before I call him back and he mobilizes the cavalry.”
“I’m fine.” Stan put effort into it and managed to twitch the fingers of his left hand. “I will be fine. It’s all comin’ back, just kinda tingly. Hot Belgian waffles, what a mess.” He stared skyward with a groan. “So yeah this would be why Ford was frettin’ so hard about this whole ‘let’s go explore the deep woods!’ thing, kid. Gravity Falls is weird.”
“I absolutely get that now. What was that stuff?”
“Who knows? I got samples, you got video, we’ll let Poindexter figure it out when we get back.” Stan tried again, managed to roll half onto his side, then levered himself up to sitting. “Ugh.” Clary offered her water bottle; he accepted and clumsily unscrewed its cap. “Not so bad, just a little numbish. Had worse out in the Arctic, believe me.”
Stan’s aim wasn’t great, lips a little unresponsive as though he were waiting for novocaine to wear off, and he felt water trickle down his chin as he carefully drank. Her eyes flicked down to the damp edge of his shirt, then up, and she was good at maintaining a smooth expression, sure, but not perfect.
“See something you like?” he teased, waggling his brows.
“Are you even serious, Pines.” She’d gone peony pink, sitting prim and straight-backed, looking anywhere but at him. “Of course I do, it’s you. I’ll find something else to admire if you prefer.”
Stan felt his mood lift a little and rumbled a laugh. “Can’t blame you, I’m irresistible. Y’think I’m not used to the attention? I’ve been Town Darlin’ Mr. Mystery for half my life. You’ve just got good taste, that’s all.”
“Are you trying to make me regret ever having met you?” Clary snatched her water bottle back, screwing down the cap with a wry wince. “No more bubbles since that last barrage. I think we can probably make it back if we walk with the bike for support. Hour and a half, maybe, if we just cut straight towards the Shack? You came in from a different trailhead, right?”
“Or we could just sit here and you could bask in the glow a while longer.”
“That’s it, I’m calling your brother. That sparkly junk has clearly puffed your ego up to dangerous proportions.” Stan nearly tipped over into the grass, chuckling, still wobbly. Clary picked herself up and collected the bike, examining it for damage. “I feel pretty steady on my feet. Think you’re game to try standing up?”
“Yeah, yeah, keep your shirt on.” Stan made it to his knees before a brief rush of dizziness made anything else feel like a bad idea. Clary rolled the bike over, and the frame’s crossbar provided enough support to clamber the rest of the way up.
She clipped the water bottle back into place and strapped the helmet down to the rear cargo rack. “Good to go?”
Stan took solid hold of one handlebar, Clary the other. “Won’t know until we try it, I guess.”
Clary clicked the mic button on her headset. “Ford? We’re on our feet and heading back in.”
“Got it,” came the faint crackly reply. “We will be tracking you from here. Let me know immediately if something changes in your condition or Stan’s and we’ll come to meet you, understood?”
“Understood. Over and out.” She huffed out a sigh as she let the connection lapse. “At least I’m not trying to haul you back on my own. That’d be an adventure.”
They started out slowly, Stan finding his feet as they went, Clary’s pace steady as they picked their way down the overgrown trail. She kept glancing back and he could hardly blame her. The woods had gone still again, a few brave snippets of birdsong beginning to trickle in.
“Shouldn’t’ve come back,” he said after a while. “This was risky. You shouldn’t be stickin’ your neck out for me.”
Her shoulders twitched with a bitten-back chuckle. “I’ve already been shot at on this trip, Stan. Bit late to be worrying about my delicate sensibilities or for that matter my safety.”
“What on earth were you thinkin’?”
They were both quiet for a minute or two, both weary. He could barely lift his feet and heard her steps dragging.
“You’re my mechanic,” Clary said at length. “You promised you’d fix my car and no way am I letting you off the hook.” He stole a glimpse at her, and a faint pensive smile lingered on her lips as they walked. They closed in on the Shack through increasingly familiar territory. Every now and then she’d lift a hand to her ear, speak briefly to Ford, then go silent again.
When they passed the first of the weathered signs he’d scattered out along the foot trails years ago, her head came up and she laughed. “Guess we’re in range. Are you as wiped out as I am? I can’t wait to get a nap.”
“Drink first, then I’ve gotta get Soos to run me out to the trailhead where I left the Stanleymobile.”
“No rest for the wicked.” They emerged from the trees, picking their way through the long grasses at the far end of the Shack’s patchy lawn. Late-afternoon sunlight slanted across the peaked roof and the heavy hum of insect song threaded through the air. Grasshoppers escaped their tread in long hops as they pushed the bike along.
“Story of my life, kid.” A blotch of red marked Ford at the side door, and Stan lifted an arm to wave. A squeal of glee heralded Mabel coming around the corner with Dipper at her heels. “Hey! Anythin’ left from lunch? We’re both starved!”
“In a minute, Stanley, we’ve just got to be careful of the house.” Ford had his hands folded behind his back and was wearing that stern expression that usually meant he was up to no good.
“Uh huh.” Stan took a closer look at the kids and noted with rising uneasiness that they were doing a poor job of hiding a couple of buckets behind them.
"Well, we're going to have to hose you off before you come inside. Just in case. I mean, look at you!" Ford waved an arm at Clary, who was standing dumbfounded next to the bike. True, both it and she were dusted with a sugarcoating of pink sparkles.
"Wait just a damn minu - "
"Language!" yelled Dipper, who whipped out a garden nozzle, leveled it at Clary and unleashed a firehose blast. She spluttered, most of the impact punching her in the chest and spraying up into her face. From the sudden panic that flashed over Dipper's expression, she was giving him a lethal look, but then she let the bike drop and spread her arms.
"Give me your worst, junior!" Clary shouted, clarion clear. "But rest assured that there will be vengeance! Stan got it worse than I did, by the way."
Stan was already half bent over in laughter, so the jet of water whacking him between the shoulderblades forced him to drop a hand to the ground in order not to faceplant. ”MABEL!”
"Sorry, Grunkle Stan! Just following orders!"
Clary flipped down her safety glasses and charged at Dipper, who yelped and fled, firing off defensive shots all the while. The buckets turned out to be loaded with water balloons. Clary commandeered one, stood firm in the face of constant spray and splattered Dipper in retaliation as Stan took off in pursuit of Mabel and her hose.
The battle was brief, fierce and resulted in four drenched and shrieking people in short order.
Stan cackled as he lobbed the next-to-last water balloon after Mabel. Clary slid up alongside him, dripping, a stolen hose in her hand. “I think that’s about enough, don’t you? None of us can get any more soaking wet at this point. Except Ford. Who's been hiding in the house like a coward."
"He always was good at dodgin' crossfire." Stan’s glasses were all mist and droplets, but he could see her wide grin. "Don't worry, we'll make sure to get him back while you're still here."
"Thanks. Of course I owe you one, too." She brought the nozzle between them before he could react and hit him, spffft, with a single shot of water right in the chin. Stan snorted in surprise, shaking his head hard enough to hit her with most of the excess. Clary danced away with all haste, taking the hose with her. "All right, I'm satisfied! Don't go escalating!"
He thought about it, weighing the last water balloon in his hand, but he was tired and the smile she threw back at him was so sweet and open that he didn't have the heart. Stan ambled over to the side door and tapped on the glass, wondering how much aspirin he was going to need after the day’s misadventures. "Ford," he roared. "TOWELS."
"Inside the door," came the call back.
"Bring 'em out, for pity's sake!"
Stan rolled his eyes, leaned in far enough to collect the heap of spare towels that someone had thoughtfully provided, thanks a bunch Ford, and hauled them out to pass around. Clary collected the much-abused bicycle and hosed it off carefully before sitting down with a splat on the edge of the porch.
“So what’d you run into out there? I caught a bit from Grunkle Ford but no details.” Dipper perched next to Clary, squeezing water out of his hat.
“Maybe you can figure it out, because heck if I know. Here….” Clary unclipped the camera from its vest mount, tapping buttons and angling the screen so that Dipper could squint over at it, and they got lost quickly in flipping through the more interesting bits of shaky video.
Stan scrubbed a towel through his hair and helped Mabel out of her saturated sweater. “All good, pumpkin? We were worried about you two.”
“We were worried about you! Grunkle Ford said you both had to run for it from something out in the woods! And you were both covered in that sparkly stuff - oh!” Mabel’s eyes went wide and she grabbed his hands, gasping in complete sincerity. “You ran into glitterbombs!”
Stan blinked, then leaned against one of the porch posts, laughing. “You be sure you call ‘em that to Sixer.” He peeked surreptitiously at the others. Dipper had taken over the camera, asking excited questions as he scrolled through a section frame-by-frame. Clary had ditched the half-vest and its battery pack and was awkwardly peeling out of her sopping-wet jersey, leaving her in a close-fitted and distractingly damp sleeveless shirt, answers muffled as she tried to extract her head from the fabric.
Mabel’s eyes tracked along with his, and she radiated smug approval as he quickly turned back. He arched a brow at her in reproach. “Not a word, Mabel.”
She drew pinched fingers along the curve of her grin, zipping her lips, but was giggling anyway as she headed inside. “I think we’ve got chicken salad left. I’ll make sandwiches for you two!”
“Go ahead and dump all that to your laptop. It’ll be quicker with the cord.” Clary waved Dipper off, wringing out her jersey. She smiled wearily up to Stan as he wandered over. “I’ll be lucky to eat anything before I fall flat on my face. Are you feeling all right?”
“Feelin’ fine, thanks.” Stan offered a hand, she accepted, and he hauled her upright. “Might be off the deep-woods ridin’ for a few days I’m afraid.”
“No kidding. I’ll find ways to stay entertained.” Clary tapped the point of his shoulder with a knuckle as she passed, and after a moment he turned, smiling to himself, to follow.
Clary and Ford glare at each other over the maps.
- Crack a lousy lady bicyclist joke to lighten things up.
- She can handle it.
- Ford’s right, it’s too dangerous.
Chapter 7: Sleep With One Eye Open
Late night cards.
07/12/13-07/13/13 Friday - Saturday
There was no rest whatsoever, much less for the wicked, that night.
“Ford. For cryin’ out loud. I feel fine. She feels fine. Just let us go to sleep.” Stan nudged away the glass of water in front of him, chin propped in a cupped hand, supported in turn by the elbow propped on the kitchen table. He and Clary had changed into dry clothes and managed to get down a sandwich apiece, accompanied by fanciful flower-cut carrot slices, before Ford started hovering over them both like a broody hen.
“He’s got a point.” Clary was nursing her own glass of water - caffeine was forbidden for the time being. “There was a shockwave. We might be concussed. I don’t feel concussed, but that doesn’t mean we didn’t sustain some injury.”
“I’ve started analyzing that sample vial you brought, Stanley, and the dust has got at least a minor soporific component. You’re going to have to stay up all night for observation.” Both Stan and Clary groaned in protest, her head dipping to rest on her forearm.
“Can’t you wake us up every two hours?” she pleaded.
“I should take you to the hospital.” More groans. “My upstairs study isn’t too cluttered. We’ll set you two up on the couch, I’ll keep an eye on you for the night, and I can probably allow each of you to nap for an hour or so at a time. That’s the best I can do.”
“You’re not gonna give either of us a moment’s peace otherwise, are you.”
“No.” Ford folded his arms and frowned down at them both. “Go on, go get pillows. You can finish giving me the details about your encounter today.”
Clary shot Stan a fleeting, resigned smile, swallowed a long gulp of water and pushed back from the table. “See you in a few minutes.”
They reconvened at the study, the space cluttered as ever if less dusty. Clary rubbed her eyes as she looked around, tossing pillows and blankets on the couch and taking an armload of books off Ford’s hands. “How’s this going to work?”
“Short naps. I’ll wake you up every hour or so to check the pupils and ask some of the usual questions. Coherence checks, really.”
“Yeah, we might as well stay as awake as we can.” Stan finished locking in the legs of a card table in one corner and hauled up three mismatched chairs, then plunked a battery lantern in the middle. “Sixer, can she crash for a while? She did all the hard work out there today.”
“You’re no lightweight, Stan, but you are the one who got a snootful of glitter.”
“I did not. Just a little dusty.”
Clary dropped the books off at the foot of the filing cabinet, dragged a chair out with her heel and settled into it with a sigh. “Serious question, you two.” She reached out to flick on the lantern, getting little more out of it than a wan circle of pale yellow light on the table’s surface. “Are we going to talk about the fact that we were running for our lives from champagne bubbles of explosive death this afternoon?”
An awkward silence hung on the air. She blinked, sleepy and implacable, at Stan and then at Ford.
“I’m fairly sure it wouldn’t have killed you,” Ford said at length, squaring up a stack of books that Stan knew for certain had been crooked for years. “I’ll know better when I head out tomorrow to document the aftermath. Turned you into shambling crystalline abominations, maybe.” He paused, lifting his head with a faint frown. “Perhaps we should do the cinnamon-and-formaldehyde treatment. Just in case.”
“No,” said Clary and Stan in unison.
“It’s just a thought.”
Stan rummaged a deck of cards out of a drawer. “Like I said. Gravity Falls is weird. S’what got him out here in the first place.” He nodded to Ford as he dropped into the chair opposite Clary and began to absentmindedly shuffle. “If this changes things, offer still stands, we’ll rent you somethin’ to get you to Portland or whatever.” He meant it in all sincerity but let the cards snap together with a tiny bit more vehemence on the next pass. “If you’re gonna stay, though, stayin’ with us is the safest option, no doubt.”
She smiled a little, watching his hands. “Are you warning me that things could get even weirder?”
“‘Course not. Simply statin’ the facts.”
For a little while the soft slap-and-clatter of the deck was the only sound.
“I think,” Clary finally said, “that I’m still all right with staying until the car’s fixed. I want to be included as you’re analyzing that stuff, Ford. And if there’s anything else I ought to know about, I expect to be in the loop.”
“You’re not going to dismiss all of this as hallucinations from heat exhaustion or the like, then?” Ford kept his tone level, but Stan could hear the hopeful note in it.
She laid a hand over her brow and peeked up at Ford through splayed fingers. “I believe in evidence. I’m not so stubborn that I can’t accept what I’ve personally experienced. And I promise you, I was coherent through all of that mayhem.”
A quick, pleased smile plucked at a corner of Ford’s mouth. “Fair enough.” He took the third chair, setting down a notebook, a penlight, one of his favorite pens and Clary’s action camera. “If you’re not going to sleep right away, let’s review your afternoon. I know what your routes looked like, so it won’t be hard to track down the sites...”
Stan dealt himself a hand of solitaire and mostly listened, interjecting now and then when he could clarify a point. Ford had always been a thorough interrogator and Clary was a good witness, offering a clear timeline and careful descriptions which Ford kept cross-checking against her shaky video.
She was yawning more than she was talking by the time he was done. “Eyes,” said Ford, and Clary winced as he checked each pupil. “Sleep. I’ll get you up for another check in an hour or two.”
“Yes, Doctor Pines.” She shuffled over to the couch and stretched out under a blanket. Within two minutes her breathing went deep and even. Ford turned to Stan with bright, undimmed interest, and he gathered up the cards with a sigh.
“Okay, go on, pick my brain, but you’ve already got most of it.”
He lost track of time almost immediately once Ford let him get a quick snooze. The wee hours dragged by with alternating moments of consciousness and too-brief sleep interrupted by stupid questions.
“What’s the capital of South Dakota?” Ford asked somewhere around three-thirty.
Stan squinted up at Ford, rubbing at watering eyes. “Who cares?”
“I’ll take that as a correct answer.” One thumb tilted over towards the couch, where Clary was down for another shift. Ford’s voice lowered. “What’s your take on her?”
That was a more interesting question. Stan leaned back in his chair enough to make it creak. “What d’you mean? She’s sharp, sure, she’s been better company than I thought she’d be.”
“She didn’t panic today, and she’s taking the local weirdness in stride. Which of course might mean she’s a federal agent.”
Stan shook his head fractionally. “Gettin’ your magnet gun to malfunction at just the right moment would’ve been a neat trick. No, there’s a couple things she doesn’t wanna talk about, but not that.” He glanced over to Clary. “She’s still wearin’ her neckerchief.”
“I’m wearing turtlenecks in July. I’m sure she has her reasons. In any event, she’s quite adaptable, and we could use a lawyer - “
“No, no, no - “ Stan flapped a hand at Ford in frustration, struggling to keep his voice down. “What in the hell do we need a lawyer for?”
“You’re still legally dead, Stanley. I wouldn’t mind being able to fly again.”
“She’s a tax specialist!”
“She’s an experienced attorney, and don’t you think trustworthiness should trump everything else?” Stan glared. Ford sat back, fingertips tapping in sequence along the penlight’s barrel. “We’re not going to be out on that boat forever, you know.”
That shut him up, as Ford knew perfectly well it would. Stan tipped his tired head back and gnawed on his lower lip for a while. “When did the world get so damn small?” he muttered, a question that neither of them needed or much wanted an answer for.
Eventually Ford rose, nudging Clary awake with a careful hand on her shoulder to run her through another series of questions. “Pierre or Bismarck,” she murmured blearily, “I can’t remember which. What time is it?”
There were three clocks in immediate eyeshot, all of which read something different. Ford checked his watch. “Five fifteen.”
“Almost morning. Fantastic.” A faint glimmer of pre-dawn light was beginning to tint the sky, the room’s multicolored window marginally less dead-black than it had been. Clary pushed herself upright with a groan and shambled over to the card table. “Deal something out, Stan, we might as well stay up until breakfast.”
“I should keep checking on you until at least noon after that, but I can let you get a few hours in a row. You both seem to be fine.” Ford made himself at home in the third chair. Stan squared the deck, shuffled a couple of times, fished out the two of diamonds and dealt the rest out in three piles.
Stan felt himself fidgeting after two quick and uneventful hands. Sheer fatigue was wearing down his usually uncrackable poker face. The other two were unreadable anyway as the room slowly filled with the faint light of early morning, the lantern’s dim circle overwhelmed until Ford shut it off. Clary scooped up the cards of the current trick and stifled yet another yawn with the back of her hand. “At this rate none of us are gonna manage to come out ahead.”
“Well, we’re more or less evenly matched.” Ford set his fanned cards facedown, checked his watch again and jotted a note. “Eyes, Clary.”
She sighed and obligingly let Ford take her chin in his fingertips, angling her head so he could check each pupil with his penlight. “Of course we’re evenly matched. All three of us have been counting cards.”
Stan snorted in disbelief and slapped his cards on the table. Ford’s laugh was lower and rustier than usual - even he was starting to wear down. “You too? Really, Clary? Really? I expect that kinda crap from my own brother!”
“I majored in math, man, I specialized in statistics and data analysis. Of course I’m counting cards. You’re the one hellbent on cheating at hearts.”
They bickered for most of another hour as the stained glass went translucent and jewel-bright. Stan tried out a half dozen variations, trying to find some way to outfox the others, but anything they couldn’t count cards on he couldn’t count cards on, and he didn’t have the sleeves to hide anything. Clary kicked him in the shin after one particularly egregious attempt, the blow softened by her floppy sock and her low husky laughter. She left her foot resting against his slippered one which was all right he supposed.
Stan was showing off a couple of the simpler card-cutting tricks when the doorknob rattled, then turned, the door creaking open to reveal a startled Dipper and Mabel. All five stared at each other in confused silence.
Mabel clapped both hands to her face. “You had a slumber party and you didn’t tell us?!”
“Not quite a slumber party, I had to make sure they were both all right - “ Ford clambered to his feet, pink with embarrassment. Mabel pointed in accusation at the rumpled blankets and pillows on the couch.
“You three were up all night! Come on, Grunkle Stan, Grunkle Ford, you have to let me host one now.”
That set off a quiet but intense argument. Mabel was doing a fine job of mustering a logical case in favor. Clary set down her cards, rubbed her eyes and curled a tired smile for Dipper at the doorway. “Breakfast?” She nudged Stan’s foot with a toe. “Make me a couple of pancakes, would you? I think I’ve earned those.”
“Deal, kid. Think we both have.”
“Are we going to talk about the explosions?” Clary looks tired, but determined.
- I’m pretty sure we were both seeing things.
- Methane. It’s always methane.
- Gravity Falls really is that weird.
Chapter 8: Think Twice About So-Called Safety Gear
An innocent fishing trip.
Ford claimed the action camera and its vest and disappeared out into the woods off and on for the next couple of days. Clary and the rest of the Shack crew were all firmly admonished not to venture out onto the trails.
That meant she was back to morning sessions on the laptop, doing stuff that looked to be split between actual work and sending updates to family. Early one morning he caught her singing softly into the earpiece - a lullaby, he thought, but couldn’t be sure because she spotted him immediately and slipped away towards the woods again.
Stan kept working on the station wagon in his free hours. The bodywork would still be an issue but he was getting close to a running engine. That left him with mixed feelings - the house and the summer would belong to him and Ford and the kids again. On the other hand she’d be gone.
Clary took their adventures in stride. Even when Ford returned with erratically-focused video of a crystalline stag glinting as it stalked, tinkling, through the darkest and densest of the pine groves way out beyond the edge of town, she held. Went pale, sure. She asked a few calm pointed questions, then filed it away in whatever mental folder allowed people to deal with the kind of perpetual craziness that hung over Gravity Falls.
But she didn’t run, and she made breakfast the next morning, and went out to the swap meet with Mabel as though nothing much had happened. They made a pretty pair on their bicycles, Clary’s mountain bike with the road tires swapped back in and Mabel’s pink banana-seated tassel-handlebarred glitter machine sparkling in the bright sunshine. Hours later they rolled back in with the little bike trailer in tow and loaded to overflowing with bungee-corded bags.
“What’d you find, kids?” Stan called over as they headed into the house, Clary shouldering two-thirds of the loot.
“Stuff!” Mabel yelled back, firing off a deliberate wink as she turned to head up the stairs. Clary’s cheeks were red with more than effort and her smile a bit sheepish as the door banged closed.
Oh, hell, they were conspiring now. Stan caught himself smiling in return well after they’d gone, rubbing at the back of his neck.
The local mayhem level had been about par for Gravity Falls, though Clary had endured more of that nonsense in the last couple of days than any mere tourist should have to. When Mabel suggested a fishing trip Stan immediately agreed. They could all use a peaceful day for once.
The whole process inevitably got more complicated than it should have.
“Mabel, come on.” Stan wasn’t exactly a dab hand with a needle, but he wasn’t bad. Stitching down letters over breakfast with a ten-minute deadline was a bit much though.
“You are going to make her a matching hat and we are going to have a fantastic time at the lake, got it?” She waved a forkful of pancake at him and he dutifully accepted the bite while tacking the R into place. Backwards. Dammit.
“Are you even gonna let her get any breakfast before we go, since y’banished her from the kitchen? Ow - “ He stuck the needle-pricked fingertip in his mouth for a moment, then started in on the Y as she glared at him.
“I sent Dipper out with an egg on toast. She’ll be fine. We’ll be feasting on trout by tonight anyway, right? Right?” Mabel nudged him in the ribs and he sighed, tugging the last knot tight and snapping the thread with his teeth. The fishing hat looked about as haphazard as all his other attempts.
“I don’t know about this, pumpkin. Maybe she doesn’t know how t’fish.”
“Then you can teach her. Come ooooonnnn.” Mabel latched onto his hand and tugged. Stan plopped the four fishing hats on top of the tackle box and managed to stuff the whole assembly under the other arm, allowing himself to be dragged out into daylight. Dipper and Clary leaned against the Stanleymobile, chatting as she finished off the last bite of toast.
“Mornin’, everyone. Ready t’play kings an’ queens of the lake for a day?” Clary looked up, huge sunglasses shading her face. She was buttoned up to the chin and covered past the hips in a voluminous white long-sleeved shirt, he assumed to protect her fishbelly-pale hide. A tote bag was slung over her shoulder. Mabel grabbed her hat and Dipper’s out from the heap jammed under Stan’s arm, then plucked the new one out of the pile and dashed off. “Hey, come on, that’s not finished!”
Mabel pressed the hat into Clary’s hands. Stan headed right to the back of the car and got it open one-handed, dropping the tackle box in, struggling not to be too embarrassed by the whole thing. Clary slipped around the rear fender to stand beside him, reaching into the trunk to rearrange the poles and the rest of the gear so it’d fit more efficiently.
“What’s this?” she asked, low-voiced, tugging the hat out from under her arm.
Stan squared off the tackle box again and refused to look at her. “Mabel wouldn’t let me leave until I made you one. Said it was nicer if we all had matchin’ hats or somethin’.”
At the edge of his field of view he could see her fingers smoothing out the lettering: C L A R Y in bright colors snipped from random scraps of fabric. Clary popped it on her head, grinning in the brim’s shade. “A Mr. Mystery original, straight from the hands of the master himself. A real collector’s piece. Aren’t you supposed to be charging a premium for these?”
“Well - well, yeah, maybe - hey. Hey!” She skipped back out of reach, then dove around the side of the car with a giggle. “At least let me fix the R!”
“No way, Pines, it’s mine now!” She slid into the passenger seat and slammed the door behind her.
Stan thunked his brow against the edge of the trunk lid in pleased mortification, then banged it shut and headed to the driver’s side. Dipper and Mabel were already regaling Clary with tales of Scuttlebutt Island and the local lake monster, which she was taking in with wary almost-belief. Much of the drive down to the lake was occupied with a lively argument about who had encountered the most annoying anomalies in Gravity Falls. Stan had a ready supply of stories that even the kids groaned over.
“And that is why only your grunkle gets to complain,” he concluded with absolute authority to a chorus of cheerful mockery from his passengers. The Stanleymobile glided into one of the more convenient parking spots, he put it in park, and the doors banged open all at once to disgorge the crew. Clary chased down the kids with her bag, applying sunscreen before letting them run ahead to the shoreline.
Stan started hauling stuff out of the car, tossing in his jacket since the day had warmed up, keeping half an eye on the others. Clary paused, stepped out of her sandals and slathered sunscreen from toes to mid-thigh along her sculpted legs, balancing gracefully on one foot and then the other. He had no excuse whatsoever for watching the whole process and did it anyway as he ducked in and out of the trunk.
Dipper and Mabel were only a minute or two into a splashing contest before he heard her yell truce! to check her phone. A few moments later she was running back up the sand, wide-eyed with alarm, her brother trotting along in her wake. “Grunkle Stan, Grunkle Stan, I’ve got an emergency!”
He was about to start the balancing act required to handle a bunch of beach towels, the tackle box and the fishing poles. “What’s the problem? Someone dyin’?”
“Just the opposite - a birthing! Grenda Jr. is is having a baby right now and Grenda needs me there for emotional support! Grunkle Stan, you gotta let me go.” She was pouring it on thick even for Mabel, hands wringing, and Stan looked at her with open skepticism.
“Sweetheart, you planned out this whole trip an’ we just got everyone down here. Can’t she hold it in or somethin’?”
“Please, Grunkle Stan. It’s not every day I get to witness the wonders of iguana childbirth, and she’s been there for me so many times.” There they were, the patented Mabel puppy eyes. Stan heaved a sigh and saw her fleeting glint of victorious satisfaction. They were gonna have to work on expression control one of these days.
“All right. All right, already, you can stop lookin’ at me like the world’s gonna end. Go take care of Grenda an’ her lizard, the rest of us’ll be fine out here.”
“Thankyouthankyouthankyou!” Mabel threw her arms around his waist, squashing him in one of those deceptively-innocent powerful hugs of hers - he went oof, then grinned, ruffling her hair. “And I’m taking Dipper for moral support!”
She snagged her twin’s wrist, to Dipper’s surprise and then sudden horror. “Wait, I didn’t agree to this! Mabel! Mabel!”
Stan watched in bemusement as Mabel hauled her brother off up the lake path at double speed, wondering what in the hell she was up to. Clary made her way back to the car and tossed her tote into the front seat, trying not to laugh and mostly failing. “Did we just get dumped?”
“We one hundred percent just got dumped for a lizard.” The grin lingered as Stan turned to her, then faltered as he had to pause for a long look.
She'd undone all her buttons. White cotton drifted loose around her shoulders. The marine blue high-waisted shorts and halter-neck swimsuit top underneath were so retro that the style was older than either of them. Her kerchief was tiny nautical flags on navy silk fluttering at her throat.
Of all the things he might have expected out of her on a summer’s day, something that showed skin had not been on the list at all.
Clary tilted her head, watching him watch her, and her lips curved gradually. “Need a hand with the poles?”
Stan finally unfroze a little, hauling out the tackle box and leaving the towels. “Sure. I've got the rest of it.”
She shouldered two of the four fishing poles. Stan latched the trunk and they walked together towards the dock. “Aren’t you gonna ask me whether I like what I see?” he asked after a while, not quite sure whether he was offended at being probably-deliberately stranded by Mabel or pleased as hell at the company.
“I’m not going to ask a question I know the answer to.”
He threw his head back and laughed. “Cocky much? Y’look nice.” More than nice, but she knew that.
Stan wrenched his brain around to the task at hand. “So, uh, since it's just us. How are you with boats? Any experience? You can swim, right? Tell me you can swim.”
Clary’s fingers drummed on the haft of one fishing pole. “I'm not great but I promise I'm not going to drown out there. Daddy used to take me out crabbing on the Chesapeake. Never did rod fishing, though. Can you show me some of the basics?”
“Yeah, that I can handle.” They came up on the end of the dock, the Stan O'War moored at its usual spot. Clary looked down at his faithful fishing dinghy and its many dings, then back up at him. Her eyes were unreadable behind the sunglasses but her mouth was quirked in doubt. “Hey, c'mon now, y'can't look at a man's boat like that. She's seen some fierce weather but she holds up just fine.”
“The repairs are your work?”
“'Course they are!”
She smiled faintly. “Then there's nothing to be worried about.”
“Except maybe the local lake monster. Which doesn’t exist, by the way.” Stan stepped down into the little boat, unlocked the storage box bolted down at the back and tossed her Ford's spare life jacket. “Try that on, probably be fine in the chest but we'll have to ratchet in the waist a bit.”
He strapped his own on without any adjustments, the buckles snapping home where they belonged. Clary looked something like an inflated orange sausage in hers at first. Stan helped tighten down the waist straps until it was secure. Damn shame to obscure the view.
“All right. Are you reassured that we're going to survive the day?”
“Y’never know out here. Ready to roll?”
“Show me what you’ve got, Stan.” Clary pressed her right hand into his offered one and stepped down into the centerline of the Stan O'War without even a bobble in the boat’s balance.
“Oh, with absolute pleasure, kid.” An offhand whack or two was enough to get the engine going. The smoke was at a minimum and they chugged out together across the lake’s placid surface. Clary leaned into the modest headwind, hands braced on the rail as he guided the boat in lazy arcs towards his favorite spot.
“There y’go. Peace and quiet, more or less.” There were plenty of other boats out and a few poles, but this was a nice deep bit of the lake, a faint chill radiating off the water providing contrast to the sun’s relentless warmth. “Live or lure?”
Clary hefted the smaller of the two poles. “I have no idea.”
“Congratulations, you get lures today. Less icky an’ less wasted worms while you get used to castin’.” Stan dipped into the tackle box and set her up with a basic lure, no hook, then made her run through a dozen practice casts until he was sure she wouldn’t pierce his ear by mistake in the process. It was clear that she really didn’t know a damned thing about rod fishing, more enthusiastic than efficient, but she caught on quickly.
The fish apparently liked enthusiasm just fine. In the first hour Stan spent more time netting the trout she’d managed to hook than manning his own line. A glow of pleasure lit up her features, shaded with occasional guilt as her catch began to pile up under one of the plank seats. “I guess they like the shinies today.”
“Beginner’s luck, kid, they’re gonna get bored an’ start swarmin’ mine any minute now.”
They didn’t, of course, stupid fickle fish. Eventually he noticed that she’d slowed her pace to something approaching Wendy levels of leisurely. Stan squinted over in suspicion; a corner of her mouth twitched up as she flicked her rod in a long, long cast, reel whirring until the lure finally splashed down. “So how much of town made it out today? I see the local constabulary’s here.”
One of her feet tipped over to indicate the general location of the police patrol boat. There was plenty of lake traffic and the weather had turned out to be perfect, which meant Blubs and Durland were out both to herd this week’s batch of tourists and catch some rays.
Stan glanced that way, then laughed hard enough to rock the boat. “You’re wearin’ a hat and shades. Even if they haven’t chalked it all up to the local gnomes or somethin’ they wouldn’t recognize ya.”
He still wasn’t seeing much action on his side of things, so he started pointing out familiar faces one by one, dropping the name and a bit of background on everyone as he went, buying a quiet laugh here and there. She’d relaxed enough to drape an arm along the rail, legs stretched out with ankles loosely crossed on one of the seats. Uncharacteristic pink daubed her toenails. He wondered idly if that had been Mabel’s doing, then swept Clary over with a single, thoughtful look.
“Y’know,” he said casually into the quiet, dipping into the storage box for a couple bottles of water and tossing her one. She caught it against her chest one-handed. “Can I ask a question?”
Stan tapped the side of his neck. “You’ve got quite a collection of scarves.”
Clary’s attention flicked sharply to him as she braced the pole and opened up her bottle. “I’ve probably got a hundred or so at home and I keep picking them up when I go thrifting. You’re seeing the travel collection, here.”
“So you wear one every day. Heck, y’even slept in one when Ford was draggin’ us along for his all-night concussion marathon.”
“It’s just a scar,” she said, light, patient, practiced. “I’ve had it for years. It’s faded now, but early on I got tired of explaining it to strangers, so I went ahead and made the neckerchief a signature thing. I’m not sure anyone back home would recognize me without one of these, truth be told.”
He cocked a curious brow and she smiled a little wider. “All I can say is that I was young and stupid. You can’t tell me you haven’t picked up a couple in the course of your life.”
That was enough of a brick wall even for Stan. He flashed his left palm, fingers wiggling, then tilted it so the old scar would show a little better. “One or two. This one’s from the grizzly bear I had t’strangle with my bare hands....” Clary bit her lip to stifle a snicker. “What, don’t believe me? Undead hordes, maybe? Manotaur barbecue that got outta hand? Enraged unicorn? C’mon, cut me some slack here.”
She tugged off the sunglasses and abandoned the fishing pole altogether, resting her chin atop folded arms on folded knees. “So what happened? An episode of young and stupid?”
“Eh. Engine. I was figurin’ out how to change the oil on the El Diablo, I was sixteen, and I was tryin’ to do it with the motor runnin’ - not one of my more brilliant schemes.”
“You’ve had it all this time.” She sounded more pensive than surprised. “I wondered. That thing fits you like a glove.”
Stan felt himself coloring a little and picked up his forgotten water bottle, cracking the top open, letting his gaze sweep out across the lake. “I s’pose we’ve both got some road wear. Not like yours, that thing’s practically mint. Or, uh, it was.”
“I was born the year my parents bought the Fairlane. They didn’t get to use it as much as they had planned.” A faint rueful curve lay along her lips. “Half the point of this trip was to put some miles and some memories on it, I guess. Not doing too badly on the memories bit. I don’t mind a couple of dents.”
“Gettin’ pretty close,” he volunteered, half reluctant. “The engine, anyway. Couple-three days, I think, and we’ll test the sucker out.”
“We’ll have to make good use of those couple days, then.” Clary lifted her bottle to him in mock toast, half turning to track across the many boats dotting the water all the way to the shoreline, and stiffened up at about the same moment he did. “Are they supposed to be going that fast - “
“Ah, shit. Get in the middle, get low - “ Too late, as the speedboat buzzed past in a showy arc, carving a sharp wake that was absolutely going to hit at the worst possible angle. She was reaching for his outstretched hand, eyes wide with alarm, when the Stan O’War went up and over in a flip that flung him clean out of the dinghy to splash down flailing in the lake. The life jacket dragged him up before he could fully orient.
Stan broke the surface with a sputter and a curse, paddling off towards the upended hull and spouting a stream of furious invective off after the offending speedboat. Blubs and Durland’s patrol craft was already peeling out in pursuit.
Clary wasn’t up yet. He spotted the shadow of her thrashing legs under the Stan O’War, snapped his mouth shut, and put all his energy into getting there at top speed. Most of a year out on the bigger boat had made him a decent swimmer out of necessity and he cleaved through the water without putting much thought into how.
“Clary? Hey, Clary - you all right?” The damned life jacket made it impossible to just dive under the edge, and when her hand appeared groping around the submerged rail he reached out to clasp it in reassurance. “Can y’get out?”
“Stan! I’m fine.” Her muffled voice was reedy with panic, but clear. “I’ve got air. I’m – “ The water around him roiled as she kicked and struggled and finally shuddered to a stop. “I’m hung up on the oarlock, I think. Got two buckles undone but the third is stuck.”
“Just a sec, kid. Gotta jostle you a bit.” Stan popped the clips on his life jacket in quick succession, threw the thing up on top of the hull, then drew a breath and ducked under to join her. The interior of the dinghy was dim and smelled intensely of fish and feet. Shards of refracted light tinted green by the lake danced on the cramped dome overhead. Clary was jammed up against the gunwale, twisted awkwardly to keep most of her face above water. By some minor miracle she retained her hat.
“Second buckle,” she gasped out, strained.
“Got it.” The fish knife had gone down with the tackle box. Stan latched onto the offending buckle, so tight around her midsection that he could barely get fingers behind the strap. “Breathe out as much as y’can, all right?”
“Okay.” She forced the exhale out through her teeth in shivering increments, giving him just enough room to get a decent grip. The buckle’s tongue had jammed in the mechanism. Stan strained into it, jaw set, and twisted until the plastic cracked, then splintered. With a gasp of relief, Clary squirmed free and dragged herself under, bobbing up on the outside. Stan followed, shoving drenched hair back from his brow as he surfaced, and they both clung to the outer curve of the Stan O’War for a long silent minute.
The hat, still dripping, shadowed her features. He couldn’t make out her expression, but when he laid his hand at the center of her back she was shaking.
“I’m fine, Stan.” Blatant lie, told with little finesse, all but daring him to contradict her. “Is the sheriff coming to fish us out?”
It had been maybe five minutes since they’d capsized. Stan looked out across the lake; Blubs had brought the speedboat to heel and while he couldn’t hear anything, it looked like the offender was getting a thorough public dressing-down. The attention of their fellow boaters was mostly focused on that particular bit of entertainment. “Gonna be a few minutes, sweetpea. What can I do for ya?”
“Just keep talking. Please.”
White muslin clung damply to her skin. He let the weight of his hand rest right there, because she wasn’t arguing and even if she wasn’t deriving any comfort from the contact, he sure as hell was. “Don’t you sweat it. So you should know that Blubs an’ Durland, much as they love hasslin’ me, love hasslin’ out-of-towners even more.”
“I’m an out-of-towner.”
Stan scoffed. “You are not, not the way that idiot in the speedboat is, you’re practically the bonus attraction at the Shack by now. Come an' see Gravity Falls’ one an’ only actual practicin’ attorney! She’s smart, she’s funny, she’ll knock y’dead with a smile at a hundred paces! Hurry up, folks, this is a one-time, limited engagement!”
Clary snorted in soft indignation. Almost a laugh. Better. He leaned in to catch her eye and gave her the widest, most fearless grin he could scrounge up in the moment. “Just let me handle this one. All you gotta do is put on a little show for those two, a little cold, a little scared, poor lost tourist stuck stayin’ with Stan Pines an’ the rest of his motley crew tossed into the lake through no fault of her own. Rest is my problem. Trust me?”
The tremor under his palm had eased a little, and he felt her inhale and exhale once. She cut him a wary glance and lied again but with more bravado. “I trust you.”
Which was great, because the patrol boat was puttering on up right about then. “All right. You good to paddle on over?”
Her spine stiffened a little before she pushed off and swam with a few clumsy strokes to the patrol boat’s ladder. Water cascaded from the tails of her shirt as Clary heaved herself up. Somewhere in the middle of that mess she’d lost her sandals - the rungs left parallel lines on the soles of her bare feet.
“You all right, miss?” Durland draped a blanket over her as she stepped down onto the deck.
“Thank you, officer, I am now.”
He caught the lead line for the Stan O’War, tugged the upended boat along after him and scrambled aboard, venting indignation the whole way - the tackle box, the poles, flipped us both right into the drink the nerve of some people. Clary perched out of the way with the blanket drawn close while the other three managed to get the dinghy righted.
Stan surveyed his poor battered boat, scowling in sheer frustration. The engine was going to have to be taken apart and reassembled again. Ford’s spare life jacket was tangled up in the oarlock, as she’d said, thanks to the extra length of straps flopping around once they’d finished fitting it. Should’ve borrowed Melody’s, he thought bitterly.
Blubs and Durland were as blessedly deficient in the short-term memory department as they’d ever been. There was no mention of last week’s midnight escapade. Clary was on the receiving end of some awkward shoulder-patting and reassurance from Durland that she endured with stiff, mostly silent grace. Stan claimed the seat next to her as soon as he could, kvetching all the while. “You did ticket that idiot, right?”
“Oh, we certainly did!” Blubs looked pleased with himself. “Don’t think he’s going to darken our lake again anytime soon. These tourists just don’t seem to care that we live here. Your little miss going to be all right, Stan?”
Stan blinked at Blubs in surprise, then at Clary, then draped a protective arm around her shoulders. She tensed instantly, a sliver of startled eye visible under the hat’s brim before she ducked her head. “Ah, c’mon, Blubs, this little miss ain’t mine, you know I’m too busy in the treasure-huntin’ business for that kinda thing these days.” He winked for effect and the sheriff chuckled. “But I’m the one took us out there, so I’ve gotta get her home safe. It’ll be gettin’ cold.” The sun had drifted well down, late afternoon’s heat still holding out on the water but already starting to dwindle.
The Stan O’War bumped along in the patrol boat’s wake. Clary turned her head to watch it as they cruised - rather lazily, Stan thought - back towards the main dock. He realized that his arm was still looped around her and twitched a bit, not sure whether he should withdraw, but her cool hand stilled him with a fleeting touch. “Good?” he murmured as softly as he could.
“Fine for now,” she replied, equally quiet. A subtle shift in posture left her leaning into him a little, for warmth maybe. Well, all right. The loose clasp of his arm snugged down a shade and he stayed put while Durland hopped down onto the dock, looping a line around the nearest cleat for a minute’s stability.
“Ride’s over!” said Blubs cheerfully. “You two go get nice and toasty.” Stan couldn’t see her eyes roll but he knew that it was happening regardless. Clary rose, accepting Blubs’ hand and stepping gingerly down to the battered dock. She shook out the blanket, folded it into neat quarters and handed it back up.
“Thank you both so much,” she said, her smile surface-sweet.
“Our pleasure, miss!” Durland hopped back up as Stan passed him and dropped down to the planks with a thud. “Y’all stay safe an’ dry, now!” Sheriff and deputy exchanged conspiratorial grins as Stan loosened the line and tossed it up to Durland.
The patrol boat revved up and swung out for a last round of herding tourists and locals back in. Clary buttoned her shirt up most of the way, fabric still damp and clinging oddly here and there. “Good god,” she murmured. “That really, really shouldn’t have worked. At all.”
“Told ya they wouldn’t recognize you.”
She finally looked up and caught his eye for real, tugging off the hat. “I may just be convinced that this thing has magical powers.”
“Don’t know if I’d go that far, but the magical power of distractin’ chatter is somethin’ I definitely believe in.” Stan reeled in the dinghy, looking down the dock to its usual spot. “I gotta tie this thing up. You mind waitin’ on me while I get that done and fetch the car? Swear I won’t take long.”
“Sure. I’ll be fine.” The sun had finally ducked behind the bluff and a bit of a breeze was beginning to pick up. The lake was nearly empty by now, small boats tied off at the narrow little slips along the town pier, a last few families packing picnic blankets and coolers to trickle up towards the parking lot. Both of them were the object of passing curiosity but she didn’t seem to care. “Listen,” Clary said at length. “Thank you. For all that.”
“Like I said, I’m the one took you out there.” Stan shot for a grin and got something a lot more apologetic than maybe he intended. Clary looked worn, frayed at the professional edges, unruly half-damp curls escaping her pinned-up hair. The smile she lifted to him was the real thing, though, and it warmed him to his pruny toes.
“See you in a few minutes.” Square-shouldered, straight-backed, she strode off towards the shore. Stan headed the other way to secure the Stan O’War and dump the life jackets back into their storage, then jogged out to the nearly empty parking lot.
The El Diablo still held much of the day’s heat. He shrugged into his dry, warm jacket with a faint shudder of appreciation, then paused to survey the remaining cars.
A speedboat-sized trailer yet remained, hitched to a fancy four-wheel-drive weekend-warrior sport-utility with Washington plates. Stan eyed it thoughtfully, then rummaged through the emergency toolbox. He came up with a squarish notch-edged tool, casually strolled over, unscrewed the valve cap on the SUV’s left rear tire, tightened the valve core hard enough to strip the threads then loosened it halfway, and screwed the cap back on in less than half a minute.
The towels got tossed into the front seat. He hummed to himself in absent satisfaction as he rolled the Stanleymobile up as close to the docks as he could get.
Clary leaned against one of the pilings, hugging herself against the gathering chill. She looked weirdly fragile in her outsize shirt and it tugged at him as he walked, steps speeding up a bit until he saw her half buckle over with a shiver that wracked her frame.
Stan’s jacket was off and around her shoulders before it even occurred to him to offer. She pulled herself upright, jaw tensing against a momentary chatter of teeth. “Stan, I’m fine,” she protested, nestling regardless as deep into the still-warm leather as possible and pulling the lapels close.
“You’re practically blue. Lemme, ah – “ Stan juggled the keys, got the passenger side door open, then shook out the kids’ abandoned beach towels and laid them down for her to sit on. “You okay on the gravel?”
“It’s maybe six feet, I’ll live.” She minced over to the car with arms extended for balance and hopped into the seat with obvious relief, brushing grit off her soles. “But I think I’m ready to go home now.”
Stan was happy to oblige. The light of early evening was soft through the trees as he piloted half-automatically back in the general direction of the Shack, glancing occasionally over towards his passenger. Clary had wrapped herself up snug in his jacket. The hat lay against her chest, an idle hand holding it in place.
“So as usual that was a little more of an adventure than it was s’posed to be.”
“I really am all right. Hungry, maybe.”
“All the crap we’ve gotten into the last couple weeks, I was beginnin’ to think nothin’ scared you.” He meant it as a joke, but the words dropped into the car’s interior with an odd weight.
Her level reply took a few beats. “It’s one thing when you can run.”
Quiet reigned for a while after that, Stan’s fingers drumming out idle not-quite-rhythms on the steering wheel’s arc as he brainstormed ways to salvage the evening, and by the time they were cruising down the drive to the Mystery Shack he had at least half a plan.
“So we missed lunch, huh? An’ we were supposed to be stuffin’ ourselves on fresh trout by now - “
“Most of which I caught.” In spite of everything her eyes glinted with amusement.
“Yeah, yeah, you’re a fish magnet, among your many other talents.” With a few casual spins of the steering wheel the Stanleymobile backed into its spot alongside Clary’s wagon. “But seein’ as we’re fishless, how d’you feel about campfires?”
“I like campfires just fine. Why do you ask?”
Stan put the car in park and laid an arm along the back of the bench seat, looking over earnestly in the half-light. “Seein’ as how today went to hell in a handbasket, can y’meet me out on the porch in a bit? You can go change into somethin’ dry. I’ll rummage up dinner and we’ll make the best of the evenin’, if you’re game.”
“None of what went down today was your fault.”
Stan winced; that wasn’t entirely true. “You’re our guest, I’m s’posed to know what I’m doin’ out there and all I did was get you drenched.”
“Since when has a day since I got here gone as planned?”
Light good humor was steady in her tone, but he knew damn well she’d been truly frightened out there in the water, and he just - couldn’t - quite let it go. Stan poked her shoulder with a fingertip through the jacket. “C’mon. Lemme make it up to you.”
“I didn’t say you shouldn’t make it up to me.” Her grin was a quick, welcome flash as she opened the door and slipped out of the car.
Clary disappeared into her room as Stan headed straight for the kitchen, rounding up the tail end of a package of hot dogs and the extra bag of marshmallows he kept stashed way at the back of a high cabinet. Ford stuck his head in, a pencil jammed behind one ear. “Finally! The kids got a lift and are on their way back from Grenda’s. They’ve already had dinner. How was your lake day?”
“Got capsized, lost all the fish, engine’s toast again.” Stan kept collecting. The last four hot dog buns, a squeeze bottle of mustard and the marshmallows went into a large plastic bowl labeled ‘SALAD!’ which usually contained popcorn. A couple of orange pops, the fancy real-sugar ones, turned up at the back of the fridge once he’d moved things around enough.
“Ah - you do have Clary with you, right?”
“Yep, she’s dryin’ out a bit.” Stan tossed the bottles on top of the heap and retrieved a barely-used barbecue fork from the utensil drawer. Ford looked at the accumulating pile in confusion. “Neither one of us got any lunch, so I thought I’d build a fire, she’s probably still freezin’ from the dunk. You want anythin’?”
The confusion vanished, followed by a thoughtful look Stan barely registered. “No, no, I had a sandwich earlier, I’m just fine, thank you. I’m sure you have it all well in hand. I’ve got a last round of analysis to write up, so perhaps I’ll see you two in the morning.”
“Mmhm. Good night, Sixer.” Stan tucked the bowl into the crook of his arm, patted Ford’s shoulder as he passed and headed out towards the far corner of the yard they used for the occasional weenie roast.
The firepit was nothing much, a circle of blackened stones bracketed by a couple of logs that passed for seats. Somewhere along the line he’d gotten into the habit of leaving the rough beginnings of a fire laid out in the center. A couple of matches and a few well-aimed breaths got the kindling going just about as Clary came out looking for him. Unasked, she brought over a few chunks of split pine until he had a nice crackling little campfire.
Stan sat back on his heels and looked up, dusting off one sooty hand before pushing his unruly hair back. She looked dry, at least - fresh clothes, fresh kerchief, spare set of sandals, still wrapped up in his jacket. “Hot dogs okay? There’s marshmallows for dessert.”
“Hot dogs sound fantastic. You need a little help, there?” Clary stood with hands stuffed in the jacket pockets and grinned down at him as he tried to figure his way around to getting up without looking like an idiot, wrenching something in his back, or both. Finally he stuck out a hand and she caught it, leaning back to help get him upright with dignity intact.
“Thanks, I think.” They both settled onto one of the logs, Clary dipping into his improvised picnic basket while he kicked out of his shoes and peeled off still-damp socks. He stretched out his toes towards the fire’s building warmth with a shudder of relief and accepted the barbecue fork and the half-package of hot dogs when she handed them over.
They talked quietly of nothing much as he went to work on grilling dinner. Exhaustion edged her voice, though her eyes were still bright with reflected firelight as she wolfed down her second roasted dog. “Listen, y’do understand that we’ve got a bigger boat, right? The one we go on wild adventures in?”
“Mabel and Dipper gave me an overview between rounds of interrogating me over breakfast.” Stan blinked and she ducked her head with a chuckle. “They are very determined to make sure I’m not some kind of bad influence, you know. Those are good kids.”
“The best.” Stan clinked his half-empty pop bottle to hers. “To family.”
“To clean getaways.” They both drank and Stan handed over the marshmallow bag. She tore it open at a corner while he hunted up a couple of passable toasting sticks. Headlamps over at the parking lot caught his attention. A familiar minivan had pulled in, its side door cracking open to drop off Dipper and Mabel, both silhouetted for a moment by the interior light.
“Bye Grenda!” Mabel yelled, answered by Grenda’s booming ‘Bye!’ as the twins spotted the campfire and came dashing over. “Just in time for dessert, I see,” she crowed, plowing into Stan for a proper hug. “You will not believe the day we’ve had.”
Dipper collapsed onto the log next to Clary, who obligingly handed him a stick and a couple of marshmallows. “I don’t think I believe the day we’ve had.”
Mabel took up position at the opposite side of the campfire and helpfully re-enacted their afternoon’s journey with grand gestures, starting with the mad dash to Grenda’s house - ‘we thought we’d never make it in time, we got stuck behind a parade of plaidypuses!’ - and on through the uncomfortably detailed process of Grenda Jr. Extreme’s arrival in the world. Dipper rubbed the back of his neck in embarrassment all the while.
“And Grenda Jr. Extreme imprinted on Dipper, can you imagine! Little DipDop, a mom!”
“I’m not little, I’m manly - “
Clary turned out to be a champion marshmallow toaster, precise and patient, every single one perfect, golden and gooey. She traded them out for Dipper’s often scorched ones and chuckled her way through Mabel’s stories, then through Stan’s as he started to explain their day on the lake with a few judicious edits.
After a while he noticed, sort of vaguely, that she was leaning into his shoulder. He was too busy balancing Mabel on his knee and describing the dramatic flip of the Stan O’War to pay that much attention.
A while after that, he noticed that the last marshmallow was bobbing into the edge of the waning flames. Stan glanced over in surprise to see Clary’s head pillowed against him, lips parted in a faint regular whistle-snore. “Uh.”
Mabel leaned over for a better look. “Wow, looks like you wore her out.”
She looked up at him, expectant and a little smug. “Sooooo maybe you should get her to bed.”
He didn’t dignify that one with a response, setting Mabel on her feet. “All right. Sleepy time for little niblings. Up, up.” Dipper groaned in protest, chomping down his last char-edged marshmallow. Mabel caught his arm and led him off towards the Shack, all but skipping. She leaned over to whisper something in her brother’s ear, and Dipper’s eew was audible all the way back at the campfire.
Clary stirred just enough to peer blearily after the twins. “C’mon.” Stan nudged her upright, then took her elbow and helped her to stand. “You’re way past bedtime yourself, kid.”
“I can stay up too late if I want to,” she slurred, but shambled agreeably towards the house, leaning into him a little when her tired shuffle got off rhythm. “I’m on vacation.” One hand snagged the jacket’s lapel, tugging it forward to half conceal a jaw-cracking yawn.
“Yeah, but I’m not leavin’ you out there t’sleep with the crickets. There y’go.” Clary’s eyelids were drooping as he guided her down the hall, pausing at her doorway. “All good?”
For a moment she leaned against him to steady herself. She took five steps into the room, bumped a toe into the air mattress, then allowed her knees to fold and pitched sidelong into the pillows. Stan hastily stepped through after, to catch her if necessary, but she’d managed a decent landing for someone half unconscious.
His jacket was rucked up around her shoulders, shadowing her face. Long lashes stroked paintbrush lines against her cheeks; all the tension had bled from her fine, angular features. She looked far younger. She looked, he dared imagine, happy.
Stan picked out a blanket, fluffed it, then snapped it out to drift down over her loosely curled body. He took a moment to coax off her sandals and tuck a few folds in around her feet. “G’night, Clary,” he whispered, and got a faint mmm in reply.
The door closed silently under his hand. He looked up to the top of the stairs, straight into the wide eyes of the kids. Mabel flashed him an enthusiastic thumbs up, Dipper a more hesitant one and a toothy grin. He skewered them both with what he hoped was an appropriately grunkly glare and pointed in the general vicinity of their room. They obeyed, muffled giggles trailing after as they scampered off to bed.
Stan leaned against the wall and nudged the glasses up far enough to rub at his eyes. His head was buzzing with entirely too many thoughts tonight – he wouldn’t be settling down anytime soon.
Hell with it. Wasn’t like he hadn’t worked through until dawn before.
The sleeping house breathed softly all around him.
Stan rolled up his sleeves and set off to gather what he’d need.
Clary steps out of her sandals and snaps the flip-top back on the sunscreen.
- Whistle in appreciation.
- Watch, but subtly.
- My, isn’t this tackle box fascinating.
Chapter 9: If You've Gotta Fight, Fight Dirty
Most of the old tools turned up in Soos’ usual closet, packed away into a not-new but well cared for hinged toolbox. The manual-crank drill and a batch of bits came easily to hand. Tracking down the hardware took a little longer. Staying in motion was automatic, his brain whirring all the while, settled by the steady incremental progress of physical labor.
There were a hundred good reasons not to get involved. He counted them off in the back of his head without much regard for keeping track as he sifted through jars of salvaged bolts and screws.
Stan padded down a few steps to the sublevel at the back, an odd space whose roof was too low and too slanted to be good for much of anything but stuffing boxes into. The great purge of last autumn had cleared out an eccentric pile of junk. Potentially useful odds and ends of machinery and materiel accumulated over decades had been rendered moot overnight. Between Soos and the brothers they’d hauled most of it out over the course of a few sweaty days. There wasn’t much left to clear from the center.
He was living the dream right now. Everything was going well and there was no reason to screw with a good situation.
The hand drill bit into wood in near silence. He routed out holes in each corner beam and mounted heavy screw eyes there, twisting until the steel squeaked. Absent, precise twitches of his fingers braided eye splices into the ends of the heaviest nylon rope he’d been able to find. Those got crossed at the corners of the room, bound and padded with strips of salvaged bubble wrap and triple thicknesses of packing tape.
Baltimore might as well be on the moon relative to the places he’d been in the last year and the places he and Ford were planning to visit next.
Stan looped S-hooks into the ropes’ eyes and set it all up, spanning from corner to corner. By the time he finished it was a bare suggestion of a boxing ring. When he leaned into the lines they stretched and shifted, the screw eyes groaning faintly in protest, but everything held to his satisfaction.
Complicating everything right as it was all going well for once should have been the very last thing on his mind. Fuck’s sake, she was just a tourist.
The background rattle of his thoughts ground to an abrupt halt. Stan sat on one of the crates he’d pushed off alongside the door and plucked off his glasses, laying a hand over aching eyes. He knew lies, he knew perfectly damned well when he was lying to himself, and that right there was a thin lie poorly told.
She hadn’t been just a tourist since she’d stuck her neck out for him the night he’d made some reckless choices regarding car repair and home décor and dragged her along for the ride. Hell, that had pretty much gone out the window the minute she started spitting bad lawyer jokes back at him. Dammit.
The thinking had tired him out more than the improvised engineering but he was, at last, worn down enough to snatch a few black and dreamless hours of sleep well after midnight.
Intensifying sunlight through the curtains kicked him out of bed again earlier than he would have liked. Stan managed to get halfway to respectable before he decided coffee pretty much had to trump everything else and dragged himself down to the kitchen. The kids were already up, empty cereal bowls ignored on the table as they bickered out their plans for the day. “Mornin’, gremlins. Anyone else up yet?”
“I think Grunkle Ford is still passed out in the lab,” Dipper volunteered. “At least no one’s gotten around to making coffee.” Stan set up the coffeemaker with fresh grounds and dumped in a potful of water.
“And Clary was here for a few minutes, then said she was heading down to Greasy’s for breakfast. Craving bacon or something.” Mabel’s chin rested in both her hands, her smile uncharacteristically sly. “How did you sleep, Grunkle Stan?”
“Just fine, sweetheart.” Stan reached way up for a mug. Both niece and nephew looked at him in disbelief. “What?”
“You like her.” Mabel was showing teeth in a wide knowing grin. Dipper tapped fingertips anxiously against each other, but nodded in agreement.
Stan leaned against the counter with a groan - god it was too early for this. “That woman’s been nothin’ but trouble, I’ve caused her nothin’ but grief, and if we’re both lucky I’ve got that junkheap of hers fixed enough that she can get the heck outta here and never look back. We both got places t’go and things t’do, kids.”
“Responsibilities,” Mabel sang, syllables stretching out, and Stan’s eyes narrowed a little. “So I guess you didn’t spend half the night running around to do something nice for her.”
“You two were supposed to be asleep.”
“I might have been working in my journal,” said Dipper. “Mabel might have been a little wired on sugar and getting stuff down in her scrapbook.”
All three of them eyed each other, Stan weighing the possible merits of turning this into a lecture on minding your own damn business and discarding the idea as way more trouble than it’d be worth. “All right,” he grumbled. “Yeah, I’m tryin’ t’do somethin’ nice since yesterday went completely sideways. If you wanna make plans for the day that get you the heck outta the house, then I might overlook your total failure t’go to bed on time.”
“Deal,” they chorused, sweeping up phones and notebooks and vacating the table in an instant.
“Library first, Mabel?”
“Yup! I’ve got a couple of confidential stops to make after that.” Mabel shooed Dipper out ahead of her, spun on her heel in the doorway and winked at him on her way out. “Have a swell day, Grunkle Stan! See you at dinnertime!”
Stan grunted in vague assent, pouring a cup of coffee and tipping in a little sugar. Yeah, that wasn’t ominous at all. He killed time collecting the twins’ breakfast debris, finished off the first cup of coffee, then headed upstairs to scrub his carcass a little closer to presentable.
He was well into the second cup of coffee half an hour later and getting restless when his phone, stuffed into a back pocket and forgotten, buzzed. Startled, he fumbled it out for a text message from Mabel - a contact, he realized after a moment’s confusion - CLARY trailed by a bunch of winged hearts and smooches. After a few false starts he stabbed enough buttons to save the thing to his tiny contacts list. It twinkled there at the top, above DIPPER and FORD and then MABEL.
Indecision made his fingers twitch. Finally he punched the number and jammed the little chunk of a phone, thick in its waterproof case, up between ear and shoulder.
After two rings he got a reply, all cool professional velvet. “C.J. Merrick.”
For a long second that didn’t compute at all. “Uh, Clary?”
A startled pause hung there before she replied, voice warming. “Why, Mr. Pines. To what do I owe the pleasure?”
That voice did things to him. He shoved the thought down. “Listen, I know you’re out but I’ve got a surprise for you back here at the Shack. Can y’wander back in when you’re done with breakfast?”
“Sure. I just got done, actually, let me settle up and I’ll be there in a few minutes.”
“So you know, it’d be worth your while to get out those tennis shoes again. And maybe a t-shirt.”
She chuckled darkly, a low rumble that made his toes want to curl. “If this is another round of errands, I’m out.”
“Absolutely not, we’re stayin’ on house grounds this time.”
“Thank mercy. See you at the Shack, then.”
Stan shoved the phone back into its pocket and paced the kitchen for a minute, knowing he needed something else, trying to remember it and finally settling on a plastic pitcher full of water and all the ice he could scrounge out of the freezer. By the time he rounded up that and a couple of glasses, he’d heard the door and footsteps heading off towards her room. In another minute or two Clary stuck her head in at the doorway. His jacket was draped around her shoulders and she looked amused as hell about something. “Good morning, Stan.”
“G’mornin’, Clary. You doin’ all right? Got some sleep?”
“I did, thanks. I was pretty worn out last night. What’s up?” She shrugged out of the jacket and hung it on the back of a kitchen chair. Today’s kerchief was some kind of patterned yellow. The bike shorts, tennies and faded t-shirt she’d changed into - this one read ‘REAL MEN PLAY GAMES’, right under a crudely rendered 38-sided die - would do fine.
“You’ll see.” Stan handed off the two glasses and led the way back through the house, pitcher heavy in his hand. “How was breakfast? You look like you enjoyed it.”
“I met a man from Washington state,” she said, and he looked away because he didn’t trust himself to keep a straight face. “His name’s Mike, he has a lovely new speedboat, and you wouldn’t believe how glad he was to talk to someone who isn’t a local. His SUV is stuck at Gleeful’s while they fix a flat tire.” There was a tiny wicked smile curling a corner of her lips. “He has been having a little trouble making friends in town.”
“Damn shame, that.” Stan tugged open the storage room door with a flourish and she swanned past him only to come up short against the rope lines a couple feet inside. He eased in after and set the pitcher down on a crate, then plucked the juice glasses from her nerveless fingers to put them alongside. “So I was baskin’ in the glow of my shiny new Klouneng, thinkin’ about last week….”
“You weren’t kidding,” Clary murmured, looking over the sketched-out boxing ring.
“Well, no, of course not! Anyway, you said - uh.” Stan put an awkward hand at the back of his neck, watching her carefully. Her expression had gone flat neutral. “I know a few things about how t’stand and fight, you know? Thought I’d show you how to throw that punch.”
The silence stretched for one or two seconds too long, one of her hands absently flexing. He was beginning to think he’d really stepped in it when she bent and slipped between the ropes. “Let’s do it.”
“All right.” His chuckle was half relief as he scooped up the spare handwraps and the old gloves, ducking in to stand beside her. “Gimme the right one, let’s make sure you don’t go bustin’ a knuckle here.” Clary laid her hand into his, the other tucked behind her back. He started binding across the palm, then between the fingers, with a bit of exaggerated care he couldn’t seem to help. She watched him all the while from behind downtilted lashes. “So this’s all about protectin’ the little bones. Whole thing goes under the gloves. Not that you’re gonna do a lot of hittin’ here, but these are your livin’, so….” The end of the wrap sealed off neatly at her wrist. “Next.”
“I could probably type with a pencil clutched in my teeth if I had to.”
“Let’s make sure y’don’t have to.” The outside fingers of her left hand twitched delicately as she gave it over into his grip and he frowned down in brief confusion. There was a notch in the outer edge of the palm, a long-mended scar from some deep, sharp cut. Stan wrapped her up with the same precise care he’d given the right hand, watching the pinky and ring finger twitch again as he cut between with the wrap. “This gonna be a problem?”
“It hasn’t been. The nerves never quite came back.”
“You’ve seen the handwraps before?”
“I did take self-defense classes for a while. Never boxing.”
“I can tell. You can’t hit worth a damn. I’m just gonna step behind you,” which he did, letting the thump and creak of his steps telegraph his position.
Clary huffed a soft laugh and he felt a bit of the tension ease. “The whole principle was to let gravity and concrete do most of the work, then run like hell. Besides, you were singing a different tune the other night.”
“I was tryin’ to make you feel better about bloodyin’ my nose!”
“Prove it.” Stan tapped Clary at back and hip and wrist with the bare pads of two fingertips, guiding her gently as he explained the stance. She actually had a little understanding of the basics, weight well distributed, pivoting to let force flow all the way from core to knuckles. There was some wiry strength to work with in that square-shouldered frame. A lot more leg than arm, he absently noted, his bicep brushing hers as he reached to straighten her wrist. “Elbows in, that’s it. Snap it back.”
Defense came easy to her. Getting her out of the shell was clearly going to be the problem, so he coaxed and cajoled and got her to take swings at empty air - decent jab, he decided, but hesitant on anything stronger - until she was just bored enough with it to stop thinking so damn much, then reached for the gloves. “Not bad! So now you get to actually hit somethin’.”
Clary’s glance skittered around the mostly-empty room, then back to him, narrowing. “What, you?”
“You can try.” Stan dangled the gloves, read the doubt sketched in broad strokes across her features, and considered. “I’ve had a lot of practice at this, Clary. You just tag me real light - “ He held up a palm, and at the expectant sidelong flick of his eyes, she grudgingly jabbed him there. “Yeah, like that, easy. I can read you like a cheap paperback.“ She snorted, and he laughed, keeping it light. “Okay, okay, you’re a terrifyin’ enigma in all other ways, don’t worry ‘bout that. But you are not gonna hurt me.”
The flicker of her expressions was complex, but after a moment she released a held breath and offered her right hand. “Attagirl. Now, this won’t be so bad, I promise, you’ll learn somethin’. Just think of it as a dance.”
He pulled the laces on the first glove wide and eased it over her fingers. “Sure, with fists. You watch me, I watch you. A shift in weight, a twitch in the shoulder or the eye, you can see where your partner’s goin’ an’ react. Get enough practice an’ it’s reflex, straight from the gut.” The gloves were a little too big, no shock that, and Stan took his time snugging down the laces. Clary flexed the right hand, testing the glove’s give, then offered him the left. “Not that one round of practice is gonna get you the reflexes.”
When he was done he looked her over. She’d been silent the whole while, watching with teeth set lightly into her lower lip and a line drawn between her brows. Stan enfolded her wrist in his hand, a fleeting squeeze of reassurance, and her smile flickered for a bare instant. “I’ve had some practice in taking an opponent’s measure, you know.” Clary stepped back to give him some room. “Go on, Stan. Wrap up. Let’s give this a try.”
“Right, right.” His own wraps took a minute to slap into place, fingerless sparring gloves over those since he wasn’t expecting to hit anything. Relaxing into the familiar half-coiled posture was almost comforting. “Come an’ get me.”
She was stiff as hell at first. Reluctance dragged at her limbs, and it took a good few minutes of him catching or deflecting her tentative strikes before that began to improve. The worry on her features chipped away with each swing, replaced by furrowed focus as sweat began to bead at her temples.
Dusty sunlight tracked along one edge of his improvised ring. By now it must have been close to lunchtime, the room heating up.
“I know you can put a little more force into it than that.” Stan caught another jab. “You don’t have to move quite so much. If you’re gonna run, then run, that’s the right response sometimes an’ you’re fast, but if you gotta stand up an’ fight you’ve gotta commit to it. Conserve your energy, ‘cause you’re gonna need it to hit.” He held up a hand to signal stop and left her standing there while he retrieved cold glasses of water for both of them. “Drink up.”
“Thanks.” Clary clutched the glass between both gloved hands and sucked the water down in long, relieved gulps, dumping the last couple tablespoons over the crown of her head. “I think I’ve got one more round in me before I collapse.”
“Tough bird like you, worn out so soon?”
“Mmhm. How’re you holding up, old man?” She licked her lips and grinned up at him, all brass despite the sweat and her obvious weariness.
Stan plucked the glass out of her awkward grip and dropped it off back on its crate. “Old age an’ treachery will beat youth and enthusiasm every time, kid.”
“I’m not that young.” Clary came at him warily at first, then loosened up - he almost felt it as something clicked behind those grey eyes. Damn it, she was younger and probably a little more fit and she’d finally figured out how to get her legs into it. One solid swing whiffed way too close as she poured her weight in from toes clear up to knuckles. It was an overextension and he had ways to counter that weren’t strictly fair, but she took advantage of his hesitation and followed up with a couple of well-angled jabs that forced him back a step.
They were both breathing in hard gasps at this point. She still had some juice in reserve, not much, but enough to push him back once more. When he caught her next blow it was a sharp, stinging impact, and he grinned to see her satisfaction. “All right,” he got out, catching her other fist as she lunged in to follow through. Momentum nearly smacked her into his chest; she pulled herself up short just in time. “Whoa, easy! Nice work - you could maybe get decent at this if you wanted to.”
“We done for now? Because that’s about all I’ve got.” Clary backed off a bit, which was just as well because cripes she was close, and Stan remembered to let go of her gloves.
“Yeah, we’re done before one of us keels over of heat exhaustion or somethin’.” He beckoned and she gave over the right hand, tugging with her teeth at the laces on the left glove while he worked on the other. Once those and the wraps were off they both collapsed gratefully onto the couple of crates by the door.
“Thanks for taking it easy on me.”
“Didn’t take it that easy. Your instincts aren’t bad.”
“So how’d a - “ He watched her sift through words, lips half-shaping a few options until he chuckled at her struggling to be tactful. She canted a brow at him in reproach. “How’d a showman of your caliber pick up all this expertise in fisticuffs anyway?”
Stan winced, peeling off his handwraps one by one. “You know Jersey. Town didn’t have much goin’ for it other than the boardwalk. Neither one of us fit in real well - I mean, you’ve seen Poindexter in action, an’ he’s always been like that, maybe worse, so focused on whatever that big brain can get goin’ that he loses track of the practical end of things, y’know? So it was my job to protect the both of us. Somebody had to be the tough one, and it’s what I was good at, ‘til Ford an’ I - “
He caught himself, swallowing words that’d just be too much - man, they’d both really worn themselves out, his guard was down - and when he continued it was with more caution. “When I left home I spent a fair few years on the road. I was a worse trouble magnet than you are. Knowin’ how t’fight is what got me through. I mean, it wasn’t all bad - “
Clary watched him with a sort of quiet weight, like maybe understanding, which made no damn sense. He tugged up the shoulder of his damp shirt and dabbed uselessly at his upper lip. “It wasn’t all bad, you stay tough long enough and you kinda forget how not to be - and hell, at least I was in the right place to run into you - “
Stan stiffened in his seat, blinking. “Oh,” he said. “Damn. That’s what I forgot. Towels.” He made to rise and bolt to the kitchen. That’d buy a minute to clear his head, because he really needed to shut it. “I’ll be right - “
Clary pressed something into his hand. Distracted, he stared down at it, registering yellow, then plucked at the fabric. Tawny gold, a soft and heavy weave, patterned with tumbling circus strongmen and their tiny barbells. Her kerchief.
Stan shook it out, patted down his neck, and only then ventured a glance.
Clary sat on the edge of the crate with elbows braced on her knees, hands loosely interlaced. The scar was…not so bad, as clean-cut and faded as the one in her palm, until she turned her head away and a little tension made its twisting length and angle along the left slope of her throat clear. The worst of it stutter-stepped to cut sharp and deep over the sheltered thrum of her carotid artery.
That had probably come close to killing her.
Something protective and furious sparked behind his breastbone.
He tilted his chin to indicate his focus, and saw her eye swivel to track him.
“That of a piece with the hand?”
“No.” Clary straightened where she sat, watching him with subtle apprehension.
“There a face I should be lookin’ to break?” he said at length.
“He’s dead. He’s been dead a long time.”
“Wouldn’t be the first time I punched a dead man.”
Her lips parted. She blinked twice, then dissolved into low shocked laughter. He smoothed the fabric of her kerchief between his fingers and felt his heart lift a little. “What, you don’t believe me?”
“Oh no. I believe you completely.” Her hand slipped into his for a quick squeeze that lingered. “You’re a treasure. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.”
He squeezed back lightly and found he didn’t feel like letting go just yet. “What’cha doin’ after dinner?”
“Didn’t have any plans, really.” A faint tired smile softened the line of her mouth. “Got something in mind?”
His throat was dry, her hand was still linked into his and come on he’d been done with being nervous over this kind of crap when he was like fifteen. “Movie?”
A huff of surprise caught on her teeth and she tipped back until her shoulders hit the wall. “Yes,” after a still moment. “Sure. Please.”
Stan let out a half-held breath, pressed the kerchief into her palm and closed her fingers over it. “G’wan now. That’s enough dancin’ for one day. You should go get a shower, drink as much water as you can stand, get some aspirin because you are gonna be feelin’ it by nightfall, I can tell.” He waved shooing hands at her. “I’ll handle cleanup and it’s someone else’s job to cook tonight, you got it? Go get a nap or read a book or actually make like it’s vacation. I’ve put you through the wringer enough the last couple days.”
She didn’t argue. Clary snapped out the kerchief and tied it loosely around her throat. Habit lent precision to the process - she centered the widest part over the scar, brought the ends around, offset the knot to the left without a hitch. “I can tell I’ll barely be able to move tomorrow.”
“After our fishin’ trip, I’m surprised you got outta bed.”
“Places to go. People to see.” She came to her feet with a sigh and pressed his shoulder in passing. “That nap sounds like a great idea. Thank you, Stan, that was fun and educational.”
Clary doesn’t say a word and doesn’t look back at you, studying her hands, vulnerable with her neck bared.
- At least you got out alive!
- Is there someone I can punch?
- Silent support.
Chapter 10: Catch Your Breath When You Can
Just a movie.
07/17/13 Wednesday evening
Stan was shoulder deep in the Fairlane’s engine compartment when the kids finally made it home late that afternoon. Dipper waved and headed straight inside; Mabel came over to lean casually against the front fender. “So?”
“There’s a meatloaf in the fridge for dinner an’ we’ve got potatoes, and I guess the fixins for salad if you’re into that kinda thing.”
Mabel pressed both hands over her eyes and groaned in protest. “Nooooooo. I mean did you call her? Did you get to do your something nice whatever it was? You’ve gotta be almost done with the car!”
“Yep, almost done.” Stan straightened up with a sigh and latched the hood. “Gonna fire it up in the morning, see where we’re at. Probably a day, day an’ a half to finish up, then she’s free t’go.”
“You’re not just gonna let her walk out of here, right?” She was peeping out at him between fingers now, looking horrified. “I know you’d both regret it.”
Stan pinched his lips against a smile - his poker face was cracking. “Well, I maybe mighta lined up a flick after dinner. So if you could help keep the nerd brigade occupied that’d be great.”
Mabel produced a whistle-shrill hypersonic squeal of delight and flung herself at him for a hug. “I knew you could do it! Consider the nerd brigade well and truly distracted! You report to me on everything, got it?”
“Mabel, c’mon, it’s just a movie.” He was grinning anyway as he swiped down his hands.
The five of them gathered for what proved to be a noisy meal. One tiny nudge from Mabel was enough to derail the conversation into DD&MD worldbuilding. “Clary’s about to leave,” she said firmly, “she hasn’t gotten to play one game and we need to fix that.” Within fifteen minutes the rulebooks were scattered across the crowded kitchen table and both Ford and Dipper were talking scenarios and taking notes.
Clary had spent most of the afternoon napping. She looked crisp and refreshed, a froth of peony pink silk knotted off-center at her throat, tossing an occasional suggestion into the chaos. Mabel vanished for a minute or two as the plates were cleared. When she returned it was with arms full of scrapbooking supplies and an unsubtle jerk of the chin towards the living room.
Stan took the hint and slipped out unnoticed, setting up a dinette chair next to the recliner. He tracked down a couple of pillows and a light blanket to make the whole thing a little more comfortable. Clary showed up a few minutes later, hands in pockets, still smiling to herself. “I’ve been banished,” she murmured over the background conversation from the kitchen. “So they can surprise me in the morning.”
“Damn shame, too bad, movies are under the TV.” He punched the pillows in a mostly-futile effort to fluff them up as she knelt to sort through the cabinet. He’d tracked down the remote and gotten comfortable in the recliner by the time she waved a worn black-and-white cardboard sleeve at him: Captain Of Her Heart.
“Um. It’s mushy.”
“I can handle mushy.”
“I can handle sad and I’m not in the mood for nature documentaries.” Clary slotted in the tape, fiddled with the channels until trailers for twenty-year-old New Releases! began to play, and collected a box of tissues before settling into her seat.
“You a crier?” Stan nudged her tissues with a knuckle and she gave him a dirty look.
“Insurance. Settle down.” Clary stacked pillows against the recliner’s back corner, propped her elbow on the arm near his and made herself at home. He’d seen this one a million times, an obscure classic in his opinion with some really good on-location seaside shooting for its era. Familiarity never seemed to make this one hit any less hard.
He found that it was hitting maybe a little harder than usual. The bookish harbormaster’s daughter and the rough-edged first mate she’d spent the last hour falling improbably in love with walked the shoreline under a spotlight moon, switching to closeup against a painted backdrop for their wrenching scene of farewell.
Stan stole a couple tissues while she wasn’t looking. Clary already had one clutched to her lips, tears welling up at the corners of her eyes in resolute silence. Maybe she was a bit of a crier after all, though she held it together pretty well through the last ten minutes or so.
Once the ship had departed and the harbormaster’s daughter had slipped down to the docks in the night, dressed in a man’s traveling clothes and bound for parts unknown, Clary blew her nose in an undignified honk. He would have teased her if he weren’t busy trying to do the same without her hearing him. At last she settled close to watch the brief credits. When the tape ran out and the screen went to static he grumbled and jabbed at the remote until the TV snapped off.
They rested together in the near-dark. Stan listened as the rhythm of her breathing steadied. “Good flick,” she murmured at length, in no apparent hurry to move.
“One of my favorites,” he admitted, equally quiet. “I did warn ya. If, ah, if it’d help, there’s a sequel...or I could maybe get Soos to write some kinda fix-it, he’s good at that fanfiction stuff….” He felt rather than saw the subtle shake of her head. “What, no?”
“It’d be cheating.”
“C’mon, now, there’s nothin’ wrong with chasin’ a happy ending - “
“They’re hard to catch.” He heard her swallow thickly and felt her shift to turn a little more into him. “Why the heck don’t you have a couch? I don’t want to move yet but this is uncomfortable as hell.” Stan considered bolting to leave her some privacy, then held his breath and wriggled his arm free to lay it lightly around her.
“This a little better?”
Clary drew up her legs and nestled into his side without hesitation. “Much.”
“So - we don’t have a couch because we didn’t need one until everyone was leavin’ at the end of last summer, anyway - “ He was cursing the lack of a couch right now, because the arm of the damned recliner was wedged between them and this would be a very nice post-movie snuggle without it. “I’m not sure Ford an’ I ever really thought we’d be back for more’n a quick visit. Soos hasn’t had time to update the place much.”
“You said you’d been running the Shack for thirty years. Alone?”
Stan hissed softly, dragging his free hand through his hair. “Yep,” he said just before the pause went beyond recovery. “More or less. Kids first visited last summer an’ that changed a whole lot.”
“From what I’ve gathered in town last summer was pretty lively.” He felt her smile against him. “Funny, no one really wants to talk about it.”
“It was, uh.” He groped for the right word and finally said, frustrated, “Weird.” Clary laughed softly. “Listen. I am not the one who should be givin’ pep talks, you get that? But I can promise that sometimes y’catch the happy ending.”
The house had gone quiet around them, the kids retreated to bed, Ford probably downstairs. Stan flinched in surprise as her cool hand covered his at her shoulder. “I’ll take your word for it,” Clary murmured. “And thanks. For today. Not everyone handles - “ She tugged at her silk scarf with a fingertip.
“We both got history, kid, I got no right t’pry.”
“I’ve been preemptively dumped over this, you know.”
“Hah! Just as well. You don’t strike me as the type t’date idiots.”
“No. I’m not.”
A minute or two drifted by like that, comfortable, the warmth of contact something he hadn’t slowed down to enjoy in an eternity. Stan had about found the perfect angle to pillow his cheek against her hair when she stirred. He rumbled in protest before he could stop himself, arm tightening for a second then relaxing as she sat up straight.
The wan wash of light from the hallway gilded the slope of her cheek; her shadowed eyes held a determined glint. “I’m in too good a mood to talk about ancient history, but I’d like to trade stories with you sometime.”
“Sure, but I don’t know when - “ She tilted her head in reproach and any further protest stalled in his throat.
“Stan. You made the fatal mistake of giving me your phone number.” Stan cracked a crooked grin and she went on, low-voiced and all velvet persuasion. “Let me know when you hit a port I can get to. Anywhere in the north Atlantic’s fine. If you end up someplace warm, like say Gibraltar or the Azores, so much the better. Drinks are on me.”
He almost barked out a laugh, a startled little huff like she’d just sucker-punched him. “You askin’ me out? Your treat?”
“Yes.” The practiced look of light amusement on her face faded by degrees into something more apprehensive. “If you’d like. I’d hate to never see you again.”
His brain locked up hard, spinning off into logistics and complications and the overwhelming desire to not fuck up the good thing he had going. Mercifully his mouth got out ahead, as usual. “Yeah. Definitely. I’d - really, really like that.”
She lit up in a split second of unguarded happiness for maybe the first time since they’d met. Clary leaned in too quickly to intercept, her lips grazing the stubble of his cheek as a fleeting whiff of her faded peony perfume curled into his nose. “Great. So would I.”
Stan’s hands twitched once with the sudden impulse to snag her by the waist and drag her into his lap before common sense shut that down. She couldn’t quite look him straight on as she withdrew and this time he laughed in earnest. “Oh, c’mon, counselor, y’can’t make a pitch like that an’ then go all shy on me.”
“Sure I can.” Clary’s fingers tightened in his, then slipped away as she rose. “I’d better go to bed before I say anything else incriminating. See you in the morning.”
“It’s gonna be chilly, want me to drop off a couple extra blankets - “
“I got a sideline in personal furnace services - “
“Oh my god. Don’t make me regret saying anything.” The chuckle she was trying so hard to suppress laid a husky note under the words as she headed for the hallway.
She slipped through the door with a last backward glance. He sat back to think it over, eyes closed, horrified and delighted all at once.
Mostly delighted, he decided, pressing fingers to his cheek where she’d kissed him.
“I’d hate to never see you again.” She looks anxious, jittery with anticipation and a little sad all at once.
- I just can’t.
Chapter 11: Let Someone Else Pick Up The Tab
Right off the damn rails.
The nerd brigade was in full control of the living room by the time Stan was up and about the next day. Graph paper, rulebooks and glitter-spangled character sheets were littered across the carpet. Clary sat enthroned upon the recliner with a bunch of pillows arranged to support her elbows. She leafed gingerly through some arcane tome tricked out with silver ink as Dipper hovered to one side, pointing out paragraphs here and there with a pencil and a note of shrill excitement.
“... so that’s what they did with the clerics in the latest rule update!”
“How are the warlocks looking in this edition?” Clary flipped to the back, then started paging through intently. Today’s kerchief was an improbable shade of star-spattered purple. One of Mabel’s scarves strapped down a towel-wrapped ice pack at the back of her neck. “They’re kind of garbage for one-shots, but if we get something longer-term going online I have a concept...”
“Ah, we - usually avoid warlocks - “ Dipper glanced over at Ford, who’d popped up with a frown from behind a cardboard screen. “But if we end up trying an online campaign we can talk! Today’s just an intro. Some puzzles, some mysteries, perhaps some villains.” He waggled dramatic fingers at Clary, who grinned back with an appreciative ‘ooOOOooo.’
Stan made to slide on by, intent on heading out to the yard and the cars and the testing-out of a happy engine, but Mabel caught sight of him and scuttled out in pursuit. “Grunkle Stan! Help me out for a minute, we need ice pops for these brave adventurers!”
“Hey, sweetheart.” He grinned at Mabel, caught Clary’s eye in passing and absolutely did not blush a little, nope, no way, he was too old and too jaded for that kinda nonsense.
Mabel squinted up at him appraisingly, planted hands at his back and shoved him towards the gift shop. “So?” she hissed between her teeth as they staggered down the hallway. “Gimme the 411.”
All he could manage was a thumbs up. Her eyes went wide and she yanked up the cowlneck of her sweater to muffle a high-pitched squeak of glee. “So, she asked me out, I guess, maybe when we’re in port, since we swapped phone numbers an’ all - “
“Did you kiss her?!”
“You should. She gets all dreamy-eyed - “
“Mabel, she is a classy dame, you don’t rush that kinda thing!”
“There is no dame too classy for my Grunkle Stan.” She hugged him hard around the waist and ran off to the gift shop, leaving him dumbfounded. “I’ll grab you a pineapple one!”
He hauled both the toolbox and a pineapple ice pop out to the yard, late-morning sunshine laying across his shoulders with a warm and soothing weight. The Fairlane’s engine was familiar as the back of his hand after two weeks of tinkering with its insides. Stan propped up the hood and dove in, checking and re-checking his work, reaching in to tweak a connection or two. A low hum of satisfaction rumbled in his chest as he slid into the driver’s seat and shook out the keys.
A good half tank of fuel remained, so no problem on that front. The engine sputtered briefly as he coaxed it into life, then settled into an even cadence that was easy enough on the ears, but Stan cocked his head as he listened. A faint off note in the sound plucked at some distant memory. He leaned on the gas a bit, leaving the car in park.
Then blinked, as the subtle vibration he’d been registering resolved itself into something more rhythmic.
“Shit.” Stan yanked his foot off the pedal and flipped the key back towards him, the thrum of well-regulated combustion rudely interrupted by an earsplitting clatter that echoed off the surrounding trees. The engine took way too long to wind down into silence, something in its guts rattling around hard enough to jostle the suspension. He laid a hand across his brow and swore fervently under his breath.
Twenty seconds passed before the side door banged open and a blur pelted across the yard. Clary smacked into the driver’s side, barely catching herself against the window frame. Winded, she stuck her head into the passenger compartment, frantic eyes flicking across the dash and the dented hood. “That was a piston.”
“That was a piston,” Stan agreed grimly.
“What - what the hell happened? Is the engine dead?” She sagged against the car.
“Well - “ Clary made a strangled noise of protest and he winced. “No. No, no, it’s not dead but things just got more complicated. I swear this isn’t my fault.” His brother and the kids were almost there, trotting across the grass. “Ford, did McGucket get all that heavy equipment shifted up to his new place? We’re gonna need an engine sling at the very least.”
Ford looked a little stricken as he accepted Dipper’s phone. “I thought we’d need to take the wagon up there for the bodywork, but I hoped it’d be under steam by then. Yes, the garage should have everything we’re going to need and then some.” He scrolled through contacts and tapped a number, turning away to engage in low conversation.
Clary straightened, leaning hard on the door for support. “All right,” she whispered. “Fine. Not like it hasn’t been a comedy of errors since I crashed into the town jewel at the peak of the season.” Her hands came together with a sharp clap. “We’d better get the rest of my junk out of the car. May I have some help?”
There wasn’t much left to clear out at this point. Clary opened all the doors and the back gate, letting the kids shuttle the last couple of bags into the house. She handed a skinny box of bottle rockets over to Stan. “Leftovers. I guess we can fire those off when this thing’s finally done.”
Then she collapsed onto the edge of the driver’s side passenger seat, doubled over with her head in her hands. “Good Christ. We just can’t catch a break, can we?”
Ford dropped into a crouch with an ease Stan envied, looking up to her and speaking firmly. “We promised that we’d get you on the road again and we shall. We’ll understand, of course, if you want to cut your losses at this point. The offer of a rental stands, if you want to head up to Seattle and come back to collect your car.”
She was already shaking her head, laughing raggedly. “Come on, Ford. You understand the sunk cost fallacy as well as I do. Thank you, but no.” Clary patted the seat back. “Whatever it takes, it’s got to be this ride. Stan? Can you actually fix it?”
That stung a bit but he couldn’t blame her. “Yeah. I mean, it’s gonna be another week, maybe a little more, and we might be haulin’ McGucket in to help out some.”
Clary drew a careful breath. “Who exactly is McGucket?”
“Best mechanical engineer I’ve ever met,” said Ford.
“Town crank,” said Stan, and got a glare for his trouble. “What? They’re both true!”
Ford sighed and rose. “I’ve been hoping to introduce you to Fiddleford anyway. There might be quite a bit to talk about! Can you adjust your schedule to accommodate another week or so?”
“My next firm commitment is in September. I arranged to leave most of the summer open. I will admit I expected to spend most of it on the road.” Clary’s smile was crooked.
“The McGuckets would be happy to have us as soon as we can arrive. Is it all right to line up a tow truck?”
“Go for it. Thank you, Ford.”
Ford’s smile was the warm, reassuring one he tended to bust out for the customs agent when they’d come skidding into some obscure port with inadequate paperwork. “Shouldn’t take much more than half an hour.”
Stan watched him head back towards the house and sat heavily behind the steering wheel. Clary studied her feet, then pitched backwards with a groan, legs hanging out the door as she sprawled across the back seat. Both hands came up to cover her face. “Aaaaaaauuuuuugh.”
“You all right over there?” He set the fireworks down in the footwell and draped an arm over the backrest, peering down in concern.
“Everything hurts and I want to cry.”
Stan fidgeted. Extending reassurance had never been his strong suit. “Listen...McGucket is definitely a little nuts but he knows his way around a combustion engine like nobody else. Between him an’ me we’ll get it runnin’.”
“This damned car.” She sounded so tired. “I had one job this summer, get this thing from Colorado to the west coast, then back home to Baltimore. I haven’t even made it to the Pacific yet!”
“Pretty roundabout route for gettin’ back to Maryland.”
Her breath hitched. “Yes,” she said. “I suppose it is.” Clary let her arms fall, one drooping to the floor, the other crossed over her abdomen, and stared up at the roof light. “Stan, I’m glad I’m here. I hate that I don’t have any control over being here.”
Stan tried out comforting responses in the back of his head for a couple seconds, words sticking in his throat. “Well, if you’re gonna be here another week, we’re doin’ the dance thing next Friday. You an’ I could actually, y’know. Dance. If you want,” he clarified as her eyes swiveled over to him.
Clary was silent just long enough to make him nervous, but at last the unhappy line of her mouth softened. “I meant what I said. I’m not taking it back. Even if the car still isn’t running.” She lifted a hand and hooked her index finger into his at the seat back, letting the weight of her arm hang. “Let’s dance.”
She was beautiful in her exhaustion. Stan shifted to hide a widening smile against his shoulder and tightened his one-digit clasp in hers. “Great. I’ll see ya there. Gonna be quite the swank party.”
They trailed the tow truck in the El Diablo, Clary tucked into the front seat, Ford in the back with the kids. Dipper narrated choice bits of Northwest family history all the way, none of it flattering. Clary kept glancing back to him in astonishment. “They were really that bad?”
“They used to be, but they don’t have all that dirty money to throw around any more! And, uh. Pacifica’s okay.”
Mabel jabbed him in the ribs with an elbow.
“Ow. Anyway, McGucket ended up buying the place at the end of last summer, so it’s probably changed a bit, but it’s huge! I haven’t been up there since the big party last year. Hey, there it is.”
Clary looked up to the vast lodge-style manor on its hill as they rounded a curve and emerged from the trees. “Stan?”
“This town doesn’t make any sense.”
“Thought you’d figured that out by now.” He swung the car up along the long drive, squinting up at the mansion. “I never did manage to slip into this joint while the Northwests were runnin’ it.”
“It takes a lot of money to be that tacky. Clary, Dipper is definitely taking us on the tour.” Mabel hooked an arm firmly through her brother’s. “We’re gonna let the machine geeks go at it for a while.”
“I don’t know, Mabel....”
“C’mon, you said it wasn’t haunted any more! What’s the harm? I’m sure the Northwests took all their awful family portraits with ‘em....”
The kids bickered all the way up to the garage, which was as oversized as the rest of the place. He could just glimpse a tinkerer’s dream of equipment in there – stuff he recognized, stuff that looked to be custom built, some massive grease-encrusted hunks of machinery that must have come up from the town dump along with McGucket.
The man himself was a lot less grease-encrusted than he used to be. McGucket still sported the overalls and the spectacles, but he was scrubbed, bright-eyed and less stooped, and the missing teeth had been patched in through some kind of dental wizardry. Mabel and Dipper hauled Clary off for introductions while Stan and Ford got the wagon unloaded, oriented and nudged into the open bay.
One thing hadn’t changed at all and that was the language. McGucket’s conversation was as peppered with hick-isms as ever. “What a pleasure to meet ya, miss! Ford’s filled me in on yer situation and I’m real sorry y’got stranded out here, but we’ve got the stuff t’get ya right on the road again! I hear there’s a thrown piston t’fix?” He, the kids and Clary, her eyes widening a little with every twang, took off on a tour of the further corners of the space. An occasional snippet of discussion drifted back Stan’s way as he tried to focus on the immediate necessities.
“Just as well she already knows this place is a little strange.” Ford caught Stan’s jacket as it was tossed over, then shucked his own coat and hung both up on pegs.
“Not sure I’d’ve brought her up here without knowin’ she wouldn’t flip.” Stan got the Fairlane settled into place, set the brake and went looking for a dolly.
“You wouldn’t believe some of the things he’s built! McGucket can do stuff with old cars that’s practically miraculous--!” Dipper was nearly hopping in excitement as the little tour group rounded the far end of the garage. Stan glanced up, caught his nephew’s eye and dragged pinched fingers along his lips: zip it, kid. Dipper blinked, went a little red and reined himself in. “I mean he’s not going to do anything weird to your car. Grunkle Stan will make sure of that.”
“Of course not! Why, it’d be a crime to take apart such a pretty thing.” McGucket caught one of Clary’s hands in both of his and peered up in watery-eyed sincerity. “I promise we’ll take real good care of it. Mabel, honey, y’said you wanted t’take a quick tour? I can send ya up with Tater if y’like.”
Stan hauled up the hood and latched its support into place, listening in. Clary’s polite smile finally loosened up into something genuine and she tightened her grip in McGucket’s. “That’s your son, right? I’d love to see the place. Mabel says it’s something else.”
“Sure is! Left up most of the fancy stuff, gold doorknobs an’ all that claptrap, might have t’swap ‘em out next time we need some for circuit boards or whatever...” McGucket fished a heavily modified cell phone out of a pocket and chattered into it as he led the other three up towards the house.
“Gold what?” Stan asked under his breath as they went out of sight.
“Don’t ask. I’m not sure whether he’s serious and it’s not worth crossing the path of the latest Patrol-O-Bot prototype to find out.” Ford peeled out of his sweater and hung that up next to his coat. “Where do we start?”
It took most of an hour for McGucket to make it back down to the garage, by which time they’d gotten the engine fluids drained and the banged-up hood removed. “Nice dings y’got there! Ford, she said it was that magnet gun o’yours did the deed? Maybe we can set up opposin’ fields, pop that sucker nice an’ flat again?”
Stan rolled his eyes a little and tuned out the dense cloud of nerd words that McGucket and Ford generated every damn time they crossed paths. Gibberish along the lines of ‘get a few more horsepower out of it’ and ‘polymer coatings’ and ‘increased fuel efficiency’ bounced back and forth as he methodically disassembled and labeled everything in the engine compartment.
They were all sweaty and grimy by the time Clary and the grand-nibs reappeared. Clary looked up at the sling-suspended engine with worried eyes, then drew breath and squared her shoulders, jangling a set of keys by their fish-shaped fob. “Guess who’s got a loaner,” she sang. “Tate is spotting me his spare truck. He let me raid the larder up at the manor, too, so I’ve got dinner covered. Anyone mind if I run the kids back down to the ranch?”
“What, all we had t’do for some replacement wheels was wreck the car even worse an’ drag it up here?” Stan grinned over her way and she grinned back, relaxing a shade. “Lookin’ good so far, Clary. Sure, seeya back at the Shack this evenin’.”
“Thank you, fellas. Thank you, Mr. McGucket!” Clary shouldered a canvas bag and headed for the far end of the garage.
“Call me Fiddleford!” came out from somewhere under the Fairlane.
The loaner turned out to be a lightweight pickup with ‘Tate & Backle’s Bait & Tackle’ decaled on the doors. Dipper, Mabel and Clary all loaded themselves in. Clary fired it up with a low roar and with three shouts of ‘wooooooooo!’ they peeled out down the long, curving drive back towards town.
“They’re going to get in trouble, aren’t they?” Ford peered out after them from behind the bulk of the kitbashed machinery he’d been using for cover.
“Less trouble than they’d get in if I were drivin’! C’mon, let’s finish pullin’ these pistons.”
Stan and Ford didn’t head back down until nearly sunset. They’d borrowed one of the manor’s ludicrous excess of bathrooms for showers, and Stan had ‘borrowed’ one of the thick, fluffy, pure-white, gold-logoed bath towels to take home through the simple expedient of folding it up and stuffing it under his arm.
The Stanleymobile’s usual parking spot was a lot emptier without the wagon angled in next to it. Mabel was waiting for them on the couch when they finally pulled in, snapping her scrapbook shut as they ambled wearily towards the house. “Gentlemen! Have we got a meal for you! How’s the car?” She waved them in towards the dinette.
“In pieces,” Ford said dryly. “It’s a good start at least. What did you make?”
“Oh, you’ll see.” Mabel waggled eyebrows at both of them and vanished off down the hallway. “Have a seat! We’re almost done!”
The dining table was dolled up with a tablecloth Stan was pretty sure had been a curtain last week and a candelabra nicked from a Summerween exhibit. He grabbed a chair just in time to dodge Dipper, who scurried in to drop off a plate lined up with neat rows of salami-wrapped mozzarella, olives and tiny pickles. “Appetizers!” he called in passing, doubling back to the kitchen.
Stan exchanged glances with Ford, shrugged and reached for an olive. “This oughta be entertainin’.”
A low argument between the younger twins, just loud enough to be audible, was intercut with sporadic bits of crackling radio. Clary walked through to set a pitcherful of water and a few glasses on the table, then leaned in to speak softly. “The soundtrack was not my idea, got it?” Stan was struggling to stifle laughter by this point; Ford resolutely bit into another pickle.
Eventually the crackle settled down into what sounded like distant cocktail-hour strings. Mabel marched in first and set down a bowl of fancified rice. “For your consideration, tonight’s menu is produced by our executive chef, Miz Clary Merrick!” Dipper and Clary shuttled in serving dishes until the table was loaded down - garlic bread, a couple different green things he didn’t pay much attention to, and chicken in some pale lemony sauce.
Ford’s nose actually twitched. “Where on earth did you find capers?”
“The pantry up at the McGuckets’ place is bigger than my entire kitchen. You wouldn’t believe the weird pickled things in there. Capers were easy.” Clary laid a napkin across her lap and reached for the rice. “Let’s eat.”
The whole spread turned out to be about a dozen steps above meatloaf. Stan demolished a pile of chicken piccata, went for seconds and found himself fork-dueling with Dipper over the last bit. “Settle down, you two.” Clary nudged back from the table. “There’s pie for dessert. Maybe after we’ve digested for a couple of minutes. But first - “ She steepled her fingertips and looked out critically across the empty dishes. “I have a proposal to make.”
Mabel bounced a little in her chair. “We want to throw a picnic!”
Clary glanced heavenward. “My sainted mother,” she said, kicking the nearest leg of Mabel’s chair, “was a terrible cook, but she had a few specialities and one of them was the family fried chicken. We’re going to have the big dance thing next Friday. So, with your permission, Ford, Stan.” Her chin dipped as she looked at them in turn. “I’d like to host a picnic lunch that afternoon for you guys and anyone else you think I should meet before I pack it up and head out.”
Stan conceded the last bite of chicken to Dipper - kid needed all the protein he could get anyway - but stole the serving dish and swabbed out every trace of sauce with a crust of bread. “Is your fried chicken half as good as this stuff?”
Mabel beamed, teeth and braces gleaming, and - too late - Stan sensed the trap. “Fantastic! So we’re gonna need to do a bunch of prep.” Her scrapbook came out onto the table, bang, and she flipped it open to a page festooned with tiny curling streamers. Clary deftly snatched plates out of the way, handing them off to Dipper, who ran them to the kitchen. “We’ve got an invite list started, but Clary and I will need to schedule a couple of meetings. You know, to get everything organized since she’s gonna host. That means we have to get Grenda and Candy and Pacifica over here to help out - we need glamour consultants!”
“This means a slumber party, doesn’t it.” Ford’s eyes narrowed, but Stan didn’t see any way to wiggle out of it this time.
“Since everyone’s scattered all over town, it only makes sense to gather here, doesn't it? We'll have to talk about the menu, the décor, the clothes, the music, there's a lot to do.” Clary plucked the piccata bowl from Stan’s slack fingers. “I’ve been extended an invite which I’m honored to accept, so there’ll be adult supervision. Surely we can host for one night?”
Ford groaned quietly. Stan raised both hands, knowing when he’d been beat. “Fine. Deal. As long as you deliver on dessert.”
“Oh, I’ll deliver. Has everyone got their second wind?”
“Heck yes,” chorused the kids. Clary stacked up the remaining dishware, whisked it away and returned with some kind of lemon curd pie dolloped with whipped cream. It was too tart, too sweet, completely delicious and almost gone by the time they were all too stuffed to eat any more of it.
“I’m glad to be here, Stan. I just hate it that I’m stuck.” She stares up at the dome light with tired eyes.
- You could take a day trip to Bend with the bike.
- We could probably get in another fishing trip.
- So, that dance thing’s coming up on Friday.
Chapter 12: When Opportunity Knocks, Answer
True to form.
Activity around the Shack kicked into overdrive through the next few days. Mabel scheduled her slumber party for Saturday evening, cackling in delight all the while as she took over the shared attic room for a thorough redecoration.
Dipper accepted his exile to the upstairs study with at least a little grace - he set up his laptop and and settled in for hours of journal work and game planning. The abortive DD&MD session was definitely back on for sometime early the following week.
Stan found himself pulled in too many directions at once. He squeezed in one more full day with Ford up at McGucket’s place working on the Fairlane, trying half in vain to dampen their more harebrained schemes. Apparently letting those two share the same space for any length of time resulted in exponential nerdery, or whatever the hell it meant when you got nerdery squared - he wasn’t sure but they made each other worse.
Soos sidled up to him early the following morning. “Hey, Mr. Pines, business is awesome! We’re in great shape to host the dance next week! Here’s the thing, though, I’m really close to having the new Dreaming Denizens darklight exhibit done.” He clasped hands together in anticipatory delight. “We could do a grand opening that night but I can’t find time between tours to work on the critters. Can you maybe help out for a day or so?”
So he’d had to leave the two lunatics unsupervised while he assembled a batch of fierce, hissing, taxidermied flying minks. There was no way to turn down Soos or an opportunity to upsell the dance tickets.
He cornered Ford for a lecture before Tate swung by to pick him up, something like that thing had better still be street legal when I get up there or so help me. Ford made a bunch of almost-certainly-hollow promises that they’d respect the sanctity of Clary’s mom’s precious vintage touring vehicle and that was that.
Stan put the whole thing out of his head for most of the day, focused on patching together the little monsters they’d need for the exhibit, and was washing up in the kitchen when he heard Clary’s level voice spike in surprise.
He stuck his head out into the hallway and found her by the side door, staring in disbelief at her phone. Ford’s voice was just audible on the speaker. " - sure you still want to keep the old paint color? This is a fine opportunity to change it if you'd like!"
She had a hand pressed to one side of her face, fingertips pushing in hard at the temple. "Ford, that was mint-condition factory-original paint when I got here. Arcadian Blue. What happened to the rest of it? You were just supposed to fix the hood!"
"Well, Fiddleford and I thought we'd rechrome everything while we had the opportunity, since we had the windshield out. Then we saw a chance to improve the safety features while we were at it - did you know cars of this vintage are practically death traps? I'll have to take it up with Stanley - " A distant, hollow boom sounded on the phone. Clary's visible eye squeezed tightly closed. "Whoops! I'll get back to you shortly!"
The line went dead.
Clary slumped against the wall for several seconds. “I have made a terrible mistake.”
He bit his lip and patted her shoulder warily. “I’ll, uh. I’ll give him a call an’ make sure they behave themselves. It won’t end up any more of a death trap than it was when y’got here.”
She laughed at that, the same ragged laugh he’d heard when the piston blew up in the first place, then looked up to him with a pinched smile. “You sure you mean that? I get the impression that those two can get a bit out of hand.”
Stan ran a hand through his hair. “Yeah. About that. Maybe I shouldn’t’ve taken a day off, but we’re so close to havin’ the new display done...I’ll get up there an’ have it all under control before things get too weird.”
“Trust me, sweetheart.”
She laughed at that, too, just a little cynical pfft, but her eyes softened in a way he very much liked and she hooked her index finger into his for a fleeting clasp. “I trust you,” Clary murmured. He damned near bent to kiss her right there before the racket of Dipper coming down the stairs set him rocking back two steps and clearing his throat.
Dipper paused before he made the left turn to the outside door, looking them over in scandalized confusion. Clary just smiled. “Good luck with the winged weasels, Stan. See you for dinner.”
By Saturday morning there was a menu tacked to the fridge. Clary’s tidy angular script promised things like ‘baking powder biscuits with honey butter’, ‘brown sugar bourbon baked beans’ and ‘deviled egg red potato salad’. She’d been running all over town with her little borrowed pickup to line up supplies.
At this point Stan was pretty sure anticipation might kill him if the stress of getting everything done on time and keeping the Fairlane project on track didn’t get him first.
He managed to swing by the manor to check on the station wagon - still blue, thank mercy, the hood now snapped back into its original shape and the cracked windshield replaced. Ford showed off the GPS they’d installed and McGucket chattered endlessly about the new frictionless coating they’d applied to the engine cylinders. Half of it went right over Stan’s head and at length he waved hands in frustration. “Just tell me it’s gonna run as well as it did before she got here!”
“Oh, much better!” they replied in tandem.
Stan stopped dead, squinted at their innocent faces in profound suspicion and groaned. “Y’know what. I don’t have time t’ double-check all this right now, you both know that, and so I’m leavin’ it to your tender care. I swear if anythin’ you two do harms a hair on her head, there’ll be hell t’pay. Got it?”
McGucket blinked in rheumy surprise. Ford had that faint thoughtful look Stan was getting really tired of, but he nodded in agreement. “You have my solemn word, nothing but some very minor improvements to safety features and performance. It’ll be more than safe enough to trust the kids in.”
“Fine. Fine. You’re both gonna sit down an’ explain everythin’ before she leaves, though.”
“Of course!” Ford’s most reassuring smile was in full force. Stan didn’t trust it for a second, but it would have to do for now.
There were a few more errands to run as the long afternoon wound down. Stan tacked up posters for ‘Mr. Mystery’s July Jamboree!’ around town as he went. By the time he finally pulled into Greasy’s he’d relaxed, humming an absent tune as he headed in to hang one last poster and pick up a coffee.
“Hey, Susan,” he called as he parked at the counter, swinging a look around the joint and its collection of regulars in for an early dinner. He was the center of attention, because of course he was and no one in this burg was any good at being subtle about it.
“Oh, Stan! It’s so nice to see you, sweetie,” she said in her usual tone of cheerful obliviousness. “How’s it been going this week? I hear the party’s going to be quite the thing!” Susan poured him a cup of familiar potent black sludge. “That tourist lady of yours has been through a couple of times. She’s really nice for an out-of-towner, good tipper and all. Was in the other day for breakfast, you know, wearing your jacket. Went pink as a petunia when I asked her about ya!” Her laugh was surprisingly sweet and she tugged her slack eyelid up, then down. “Wink!”
Stan busied himself with dumping too much sugar into his coffee. “Yeah, I mean, she’s all right I guess. Pretty good company for a hoity-toity type.”
“She came in yesterday asking about supplies.” Susan set her elbow on the counter and leaned in, conspiratorial. “Said she was gonna do a picnic at the Shack next Friday right before your big event.” Her voice dropped to a stage whisper. “Why, she asked if I could bake a couple cherry pies for her! What’re you up to, Stan?”
“Well. Y’know. An exclusive little gatherin’.” Stan settled himself, sat back and sipped slowly for effect. “Just friends an’ family.”
“I’m surprised she’s stuck around this long, nice city girl like that.” Blubs anchored the end of the counter, Durland seated one stool over and working his way through a ham-on-rye. “She has to have seen everything Gravity Falls has to offer by now. The Shack, the mall, the museum, the bottom of the lake….” Both of them chuckled over that one. “Maybe she should just hang up a shingle out there. We could use a lawyer.”
“Well, Stan could use a lawyer,” said Durland to a general rumble of laughter.
“You guys trashed her car, right?” came from one of the far corners. “That weird brother of yours made the brakes cut out or something so now she’s stuck here getting it fixed? We all know you’re too cheap to actually send it up to Portland.”
A prickle of annoyance nudged at the back of his eyeballs. “We offered and she decided she liked my face enough t’let us do the work. Should be done in a couple days. She’s just hangin’ around for the dance party.”
“Oh, I’m sure she likes ya, sugar.” Susan hid a giggle behind one hand.
Blubs tugged down his shades for a direct glance. “You did fish her out of the drink.”
Manly Dan scoffed from the far side of his mountain of meatloaf. “Stan Pines hasn’t managed to keep a lady around for more’n a couple days in all the years he’s been here. I’ll believe it when I see it!”
Stan slugged back a swallow of bitter, bitter coffee in an effort to not spout off, then did it anyway. “What, y’think we kidnapped her or somethin’? She’s here because she wants t’be!”
“Now calm down, all of ya.” Susan looked around the murmuring diner in reproach. “She’s been nothing but sweet to everyone in town. I’m sure it’s gonna be a real nice picnic.”
“Excuse me!” Mayor Cutebiker’s skinny arm went up from a few booths down. “Is that going to be included in the party ticket price? I need to know when I should show up!”
“What?” Stan’s shoulders twitched in surprise. “No, no, the party thing’s only for the dance, people.”
Dan bared teeth in one of his terrifying smiles. “I’d pay just to meet the woman willing to put up with Pines for three weeks.”
“What’s she serving, Stan?”
“Are you two going to dance?”
The whole place got the wrong idea in about three seconds. Stan could barely get a word in edgewise as conversation erupted, people pestering him about prices, about the new exhibit, about who’d be hosting the party that night.
Something snapped in the back of his brain.
“ALL RIGHT,” Stan roared, and the chattering crowd quieted in anticipation. “Listen up, because I’m only gonna say this once: Miz Merrick’s willin’ to make a very limited number of tickets for dinner available. Eighty-five a head. That’ll get you into the dance party and the Dreamin’ Denizens exhibit, too. This is a one-time engagement, folks, the lady’s a class act an’ I’ve seen the menu. It’s gonna be an event for the ages.”
He zeroed in on the nearest pretty face, hit her dead on with the full-headlights smile and the finger-guns, and was gratified to see her half-swoon against her companion. “Whaddaya say? First come, first serve!”
Fistfuls of money appeared as if by magic. Stan leaned over to whisper to Susan. “Sweetheart, lend me that ticket book, would’ja?” Starry-eyed, she handed over both the book and her pencil stub, and he started scribbling out tickets for Clary Merrick’s Chicken Picnic! on two-part carbonless guest checks as fast as he could.
Half an hour later he was driving back up towards the Shack. Almost eighteen hundred bucks was jammed into his back pocket along with a stack of IOUs. He was already puzzling out where to beg, borrow or steal enough chairs and tables to accommodate a crowd this large, and wondering just how much fried chicken Greasy’s could crank out on like four days’ notice.
He was also figuring out how the hell to survive through the end of the day, because Clary was going to kill him.
The whole diner erupts in excited conversation, and everyone in here has got the wrong idea. They want to come to Clary’s picnic! And they’re willing to pay for the privilege!
- Absolutely not!
- Talk up the dance instead.
- Sell tickets!
Chapter 13: Finer Points of Damage Control
Surely we can discuss this like reasonable people.
07/20/13-07/25/13 Saturday - Thursday
Stan didn’t say anything when he got home, because the slumber party crew had arrived and there were people underfoot everywhere. Clary coordinated dishwashing duties in the kitchen, passing silverware off to Candy and lifting plates out of Grenda’s towel as soon as they were dry. “Did you get dinner?” she asked as he stuck his head warily through the door. “We have leftovers.”
“Uh - I’ll wait until you guys’re done, thanks.” Mabel teetered atop a stepstool to put away glasses. She managed a shameless wink over Clary’s head. Pacifica sat at the kitchen table looking bored and vaguely hostile, fingertips busy flicking across her phone’s screen. “If you got a minute later, Clary, could we have a word?”
“You bet, Stan, I’ll come looking for you.”
There was really no time at all to talk. Clary chased after the four girls like a harried mother goose, hopping over Waddles when necessary. Stan could not believe the amount of chatter they generated - commentary on the guest list, the likely menu, Ford’s relative hotness - he winced at that one.
They spent a good hour in the living room huddled around Mabel’s phone, watching videos and arguing over the party soundtrack. Clary was pushing for classic tunes, forties and fifties stuff. “Lowest common denominator. Everyone can dance to that.”
“My grunkle’s got pretty light feet,” Mabel shot back. “Seventies or bust! Let’s give the old man a chance to strut his stuff!”
“Every time Stan struts his stuff, something gets broken.” Pacifica was leaning in, still looking a little bored but at least engaged. “Which might be fun to watch.”
Stan hovered within earshot for a little while, hoping Clary would pull herself free, but he gave up after one too many intense debates over boy bands. He’d have to wait them out. The cash was burning a hole in his pocket anyway. He stomped off to the old office, flicked on a lamp, cleared a space on the desk and buckled down to work.
He couldn’t really enjoy the whole process with the sense of impending doom winding tight in his chest. The old answering machine’s red light blinked angrily from across the room; he threw stuff at it - Gold Chains For Old Men from last April, a Lil’ Gideon promo t-shirt, a ratty coonskin cap he’d never repurposed - until something stuck and covered it up.
By the time he had the guest list and the cash bundled up and packed away in the safe it was well past midnight. Stan crept through the darkened house, reflexively avoiding all the creakiest spots in the floor. Dipper, he knew, was crashing on the study couch downstairs.
Indistinct girlish voices and the steady thump thump thump of muffled bass were still trickling under the kids’ door. The narrow line of light painted onto the floorboards was dim, at least, so things must be winding down by now. Stan paused and raised his hand to knock, then thought better of it and slunk off towards his own room.
He was on the verge of tucking himself in when he heard the soft creak of hinges down the hall. Cracking his door open a sliver revealed a bare glimpse of Clary tiptoeing out and downstairs in pajamas and kerchief. Eventually she returned with the plastic pitcher and a few old tumblers.
Stan just watched. She glanced over as she made to slip back in, spotting his silhouette against the faint light of his room, and with a tiny conspiratorial smile held a finger to her lips.
He closed the door, flopped flat on his back in bed, and stared at the ceiling that was too far away to actually see until he tumbled unwilling into restless sleep.
Come morning the yammering traffic of teenage girls throwing together a full-on Mabel-style breakfast was too much to bear. There wasn’t a chance in hell of extricating Clary from the chaos, so he headed straight for the museum.
Soos had rigged construction curtains across the space they’d blocked out. The ‘Coming Attraction!’ sign sported a cheerful, toothy, horned-and-winged weasel with wide cartoon eyes, probably Melody’s work.
Stan had argued for scaling the whole production down a little, but Soos had been adamant in his laid-back way. By hook or by crook it was going to be a walkthrough with hidden lighting, surround sound and special effects, whatever that meant.
He spent most of his time slathering black paint over the framework that had already gone in. The blackout shell that would eventually enclose it all would at least cover up any number of construction sins. Positioning marks for lights, showpieces and electronics got chalked in according to the elaborate plans he’d been handed.
Morning tours swung past his sheltered corner and Stan listened in pleased bemusement. There was already a snappy line of patter for the new exhibit. Soos had a gift for this - the style had changed but the appreciative giggling and gasps from his audience were familiar.
After all, Stan had fallen into the role. Soos had aspired to it.
It was easy to lose himself in the work for a couple of hours, but eventually his stomach’s vague grumble and the angle of sunlight through the windows warned him that he had other things to worry about. Soos stuck his head in between curtains and tapped at the framework. “Time for lunch, Mr. Pines! The girls have all gone home and I think Miss Clary’s got sandwiches made up.”
“Yeah, yeah, comin’.” Stan rubbed at a few flecks of black paint on his fingers and emerged squinting into the main room. “Sounds like a nice busy mornin’. Everythin’ all right with plans for the dance thing?”
Soos tugged a notepad out of his jacket. “Oh, yeah, we’re selling a ton of tickets! I guess they all saw your posters. Lots of messages came in last night. Took a while to get through them all before we opened up. And we had a bunch of people asking about dinner tickets?” He flipped a couple of pages while Stan cringed internally. “Yup, about fifteen of those. Couple more calls today, too, and a few people asking at the gift shop.”
“Uh. Yeah. About those. Didja get phone numbers an’ names?”
“Oh, sure. Looked like you settled on eighty-five bucks apiece for those, so that’s what we charged.”
“What you - Soos, did you actually sell them tickets?!”
Soos blinked. “Well, sure! I saw the envelope in the safe and that ticket book, so I figured you and Miss Clary worked something out. It’ll be one big party!”
“Sweet Moses.” Stan squeezed his eyes shut, slapped a hand to his brow, and started to pace. Surely there was still a way to contain the damage. “Okay. Okay, you got contact info, all we gotta do is call people - “
He swung around to look out across the exhibit space, spinning possibilities in his mind - reschedule, shift the venue, anything but issuing refunds. His focus flicked blankly from point to point, then settled on the woman standing with arms folded right behind the Sascrotch.
“Stan,” Clary said gently. “May I have a moment of your time, please.” It wasn’t a question.
Stan held out a hand. Soos laid the notebook in his palm and backed away until he was out of her line of sight.
Clary turned and walked with measured strides through the museum and then the house until she’d arrived at the porch. Stan followed with feet dragging as though they were already encased in concrete.
She set hands to her hips and looked out into the distance - he wasn’t sure if she even saw the trees. As the silence drew out he thumbed through Soos’ notebook and mentally counted up tickets, arriving at a number large enough to make his stomach flip in delight and dread.
“The girls and I came up with a guest list of eighteen people,” Clary said at length. “Am I to understand that we are expecting more, now.”
Stan cleared his throat and launched in. “So, funny thing, I stopped off for a coffee down at Greasy’s an’ Susan’s the one who brought it up, since you’ve been lookin’ to get this whole thing organized for the last couple days, said you asked about cherry pie, good choice by the way - “
Not a word. Her fingers were drumming out a restless rhythm against the khaki of her shorts.
“So yeah. Yeah, people were startin’ to get the wrong idea ‘bout dance party tickets so I thought maybe we’d, y’know, sell some dinner tickets since they’re so hot on it, we’ll make enough - more than enough! - t’offset all the expenses an’ then at least we know who’s comin’, we don’t get a buncha people bustin’ in uninvited - “
He had a good head of steam up and had to fumble around for a second. “Uh - what?”
“How many tickets?” She hadn’t raised her voice but there was an edge in it like the wind of a January blizzard and he nearly shivered.
“Looks like about fifty - “
“Fifty!” Clary barked it out and turned to glare at him full on. Her face was pale, a hard spot of angry pink high in each cheek. “Stan, that’s seventy people. I can’t cook for seventy people out of the house, there is no damn way and the minute money’s involved you need a certified commercial kitchen! How in the hell - “
Stan knew he’d gone red in the face and hell if a direct challenge wasn’t making his temper start to flare a little, too. “Well - well, fine, we have Greasy’s make it all! We shuttle it up an’ make sure we have plenty of paper plates, no problem!”
Clary scoffed. “There is no way you didn’t sell this as a home-cooked meal from your very own resident lawyer.”
Okay, so she wasn’t entirely wrong. “No one’s gonna care about the food. They just wanna meet you - “
“So you’re telling me I make a decent roadside attraction?”
The last syllable rose and broke. She clapped a palm over her mouth. Stan looked at her, his jaw gone slack, a sharp little sting lodged in his chest. Tears of fury or frustration had welled up at the corners of her eyes and one made a break for it as she pulled a shaking breath.
“I need a minute,” she said, rough-edged.
“Clary. C’mon.” He reached out, hoping to lay a hand on her shoulder. She twitched away, then slipped past him with fluid ease, making no contact. In three long strides she’d thrown a leg over her bicycle. One foot found a pedal and she took off at speed down the path that’d eventually get her to town. “Oh, come on!”
Both of the kids clattered out onto the porch, standing to either side of him.
“Grunkle Stan?” Mabel looked up to him in wide-eyed concern. “What’s going on? Is she okay?”
“She forgot her helmet.” Dipper folded his hands, thumbs twirling awkward loops. “Uh, so the dinner thing got - bigger?”
Stan set a hand to his chin for a long moment, breathing through his fingers to steady himself.
“Yep,” he said. “She’s headin’ out to work on logistics an’ supplies an’ so on. We’ve only got a couple days to pull it all together, yeah?” Stan scraped up a smile and lightly patted Mabel’s hair. “You know how this town is, things get outta hand pretty quick. We’re all gonna have to pitch in, got it?”
Mabel looked on the verge of tears for a moment, then her back straightened and her jaw set in determination. “I don’t know what the heck just happened but we are gonna fix it. Right, Dipper?”
“Right, Mabel! Come on, we’ll go track her down!”
“Kids. No.” He shook his head when they looked up at him in surprise. “She wants peace an’ quiet, she gets peace an’ quiet.” Mabel looked briefly mulish, Dipper troubled, but he put on the stern look and eventually they nodded.
She didn’t reappear that afternoon. Stan did his best to stay busy with piecing the exhibit together, focused more sharply than usual in service of not thinking about anything else. He was genuinely starting to worry along towards dinnertime when his phone chimed with an incoming one-line message, then more in rapidfire sequence.
Rented out Greasy’s kitchen. Add’l food lined up. Updated menu. Pls send guest list when complete. Still need: tables & chairs, linens, serveware. Suggest asking McGucket. Manor might have garden party supplies.
Hesitant, Stan tapped in: You okay?
The reply was near instant. I’m fine. Will see you at dinner.
He’d about finished off the wiring, packing away tools and electrical tape, when Mabel came dashing in out of breath and yanked aside the construction curtain. “She’s back! C’mon, c’mon, you’ve gotta clean up!”
Ford had been on dinner duty that evening, which meant it was heavy on vegetables and light on anything interesting. Dipper and Mabel were buzzing around Clary. She looked freshly scrubbed, maybe a little drawn, tossing together a salad at the counter. Her head came up as Stan entered; she set down the dressing, marched right over and offered her right hand. “I apologize.”
Stan accepted her clasp immediately and squeezed in what he hoped was reassurance. “Hey. Ah, glad you’re all right, real sorry about the inconvenience an’ all.” Grateful though he was to see her, the smile she wore was surface-slight, her eyes cool.
“I’ve run fundraisers before. It’ll all be under control in a day or two.” Clary’s fingers slipped from his and she pivoted to collect the salad bowl. “All right, you lot! War council time! As you know we’re running the biggest party of the summer here at the Shack and I am going to need help from all of you.”
Ford dished up brown rice and poached salmon. Clary laid out the menu, jotted in several additions and got quite serious with Mabel about desserts, settling on ‘Fireworks Krispy Treats: They’ll Light Up Your Mouth!’ in addition to the cherry pies and lemon bars she’d apparently negotiated with Susan.
“You,” Clary said, pointing her pen at Stan. “Logistics. The exhibit and the seating are yours to manage. Remember that at this rate we may have to set up an outdoor dance floor. You,” indicating Ford, “please keep working on my car. I’m going to need both of you early on the morning of this thing to knock out the chicken.”
Stan watched the whole process with trepidation - she was a monster of efficiency and it was a far cry from the laid-back approach she’d been taking for the last couple days. “Yes ma’am.”
“We’ve got less than a week to knock this out of the park.” Clary took up her fork and saluted the table at large. “Let’s make this legendary.” She tucked briskly into her dinner and finished well before everyone else, dropping off her plate at the sink and ducking out of the kitchen before Stan could catch her.
It went like that for the entire following day. Clary disappeared before anyone was awake, communicating only in an endless series of texts. Most of those hit a broadcast group including Stan, Soos, Ford and the kids, friendly if brisk updates on the state of the picnic.
A few of them came only to Stan, and those were ...terse.
Status on tables etc?
Updates to guest count?
Pls keep any receipts for supplies. Will collect them later.
An argument about who was going to pay for what would be coming down the pike soon, he was sure of that.
Got time in the morning? he tapped in.
Working to clean Greasy’s kitchen up to code. Will probably finish tomorrow. A pause, then: Wouldn’t want to poison half the town.
Clary didn’t even make it back for dinner that night. When he went looking for her the next morning she was already gone, and her phone went unanswered. Stan lasted until just before lunchtime before pure frustration drove him to start working his way through local contacts to track her down.
“Greasy's diner - we have food!” That was Susan for sure, sounding slightly manic.
“Heeey, Susan. Listen, is Miz Merrick down there? She headed out early this mornin' and I was wonderin' where she landed.”
“Oh, gosh yes!” Susan giggled against the background racket of customers. “You should've seen her. She's been hauling stuff out of that old walk-in fridge that I didn't even know existed! We've got some pretty weird specials for lunch, let me tell ya. She’s helping with the rush while she's stocking up all this stuff for the big picnic - ooooh, it's all going to be delicious! I can't wait!”
Stan squinted. “Wait, what, you're comin'?”
“Oh, sure! She traded me a ticket and got me the ingredients for all those pies!” Her cheerful tone dropped a little into rusty affection. “I can't wait to take a spin around the dance floor with you.” He thought that over, then shuddered faintly to himself.
“So, ah, she free to come to the phone? Guess she's set hers on silent or somethin'.”
“Gimme a minute, sweetie, i'll go check.” The rattle of industrial-grade china and indistinct conversation went on as she left the receiver on the counter, calling out towards the back of the place.
Eventually she wandered back. “Sorry, Stan, she's in the middle of juggling like eight trays of biscuits. Says she'll see you back at the Shack tonight.”
Stan propped himself against the wall and managed not to sigh. “All right, Susan, thanks. Glad she's gettin' out ahead of it all.”
“You bet, sugar. See ya in a couple days!”
He'd been too engrossed to notice company in the hallway, and when he glanced up glumly it was right at Mabel perched on the bottom step with Waddles leaning into her side. Stan jerked upright but she was already shaking a finger at him.
"Don't you give me that look, Grunkle Stan. She's too ‘busy’ - “ Biiiiiig air quotes around that one. “- to talk to you, right?"
“Ah - um - “ He juggled a couple of possible deflections, then shoved the phone in his pocket and looked at her in naked desperation. “I swear this is not what I meant to happen!”
Mabel heaved a theatrical sigh. “All right. This is something I can fix. Clary and I have an appointment with Soos' Abuelita tomorrow morning.” She waggled her eyebrows. “A secret appointment. When we get back at around lunchtime you better be ready to shake your moneymaker, got it?"
“Shake my what now?”
“You two are gonna host this thing, so you better dance. And since the spotlight's gonna be on you, you'd better be good! Everyone will be watching!”
Oh boy. He was probably a dead man walking as it was and this wasn’t gonna help.
“And that means,” Mabel said, cheerfully oblivious, “That you two need to practice. Don't worry. Mabel's on the case and I'll make it happen.” She zapped him with the finger-guns and shoved Waddles aside enough to get to her feet. “I'll let you know where you need to be and when. Make sure you’re tidy, okay?”
‘Where’ turned out to be the old storage room he’d converted to a ramshackle boxing ring, the ropes downed and folded up in a corner. ‘When’ was late morning the following day, and ‘what’ - well. That was answered when Mabel came in, dragging the karaoke machine in her wake. Clary stepped in right after, a bandana at her neck and another binding back her hair, bleach spatters dotting her old t-shirt.
Stan stuffed hands in his pockets and rolled his shoulders back, doing his level best to meet her eyes without a twinge of guilt - because, come on, they were going to make a ton of money on this picnic thing - and found himself mostly failing. He was really starting to hate the polished, faint, impenetrable smile she had for him.
Mabel’s voice was a vague buzz through the tangle of his self-justification but he caught the gist of it - dazzle the rubes, make it look easy, inspire swooning jealousy in the audience. “All right,” she wrapped up, as rah-rah as he’d ever heard her. “Let’s you and him dance!”
Clary pinched her lips, unfolded her arms, and stalked out across the floor to join him.
“So,” Stan said.
“Carved some time out of the schedule?”
“Barely. Your young lady over there makes a good argument.”
This was worse than her trying to punch him. Clary settled into the arch of his arm with professional precision, a frosty six inches of space between them, the six inches his mother had lectured him about a billion years ago and that he’d promptly ignored at the first opportunity to get up close and personal.
Stan maintained that six inches like his life depended on it because maybe it did.
“My waltz is all right. My samba’s shaky. Meet in the middle with foxtrot?” Clary looked up to him with clear, fearless eyes, the faintest of curves drawn along her lips. Her fingers were chapped and rough in his.
“Might as well start off easy. Mabel, whatcha got, pumpkin?”
“Got it!” There must have been some consultation beforehand because what came out of Mabel’s hot-pink speakers was honest-to-god big band music. Stan nearly protested and stifled it when Clary looked at him askance.
“Come on now,” she said sweetly. “We should really start with the lowest common denominator, shouldn’t we? If you would.”
He inhaled, flexed his hand at her waist and rocked back for the first step.
Their first pass around the room was dismal. She obviously had some formal training and he could barely remember what the hell went into a foxtrot, it’d been so long since he had done anything more than improvise on a foxtrot theme. There were a few near misses with her feet before she clicked her tongue and murmured. “Slow, slow, quick quick. I can tell you know this.”
One brassy number blended into the next as they paced and whirled, Mabel razzing them or calling encouragement by turns. “Clary, stop looking at him like you want to stab him! Dance is the language of love! You gotta sell it better than that!”
“Maybe I want to stab him.” Clary glared somewhere off over his left shoulder.
“No you don’t. You want to knock the socks off everyone at this party, right? I know you two can do it.”
Stan gritted his teeth and fought to earn back her trust with the respectful press of his palm, honoring whatever distance between them she wanted. By the third pass the six-inch block of ice had softened a little. “Spin?” he suggested, and at her faint nod he tried some fancier footwork.
They were uncoordinated, discordant, his feet clipping the edges of her sandals, frustration building between them as they lurched and wobbled. Mabel’s face was a worried glint in a corner of his eye. When Clary went off balance she caught herself with the awkward combination of a foot jabbed down out of sequence and his hand tightening at her waist in support.
He couldn’t quite look at her, but he hissed out, low as he could, “This is not gonna work if you can’t trust me a little.”
“Should I trust you?” she breathed back at him in a near-subsonic murmur. Her fingernails pricked at his shoulder.
Stan snorted softly. “Hell, no, you shouldn’t.”
There was a little pfft, pure disbelief, and a direct sidelong look of complete exasperation. The music spun to a stop as they stood interlocked and distant, then finally, mercifully, launched into the next tune. Something in her ramrod spine trembled, then snapped; he felt her make herself relax and sway into his grip.
“Fine,” Clary said dryly. “Honesty I can work with.”
This one was easy, a big swinging number with a nice solid four-square beat, nothing but a framework to whirl around the room to. Stan took it slow at first. She’d stopped fighting him so much, still hesitant but at least responsive to the little nudges that offered guidance, and as they moved he felt the tension in the room dissipating. The next time he signaled a spin she took the cue, pivoting neatly through and landing back in the crook of his arm with a quirked brow.
After a couple minutes he chuckled in surprise. “You’re not terrible at this.”
Her heel came down square on his toe, deliberate, he thought. “I suppose you’re not terrible either.”
Mabel relaxed too, flashing him a hasty thumbs up when Clary was looking elsewhere. The next track she cued up was overtly sappy, loaded with layered strings and lyrics dripping with longing. “Mabel,” snapped Clary. “Next please.”
“Sorry, wrong song!” Mabel wasn’t the least bit repentant but she did skip this one.
Time pressure was sort of a foreign thing for Stan - he had no problem putting his head down and plugging away, but was used to more open-ended projects. Possessed by grim determination, assisted by Soos through a couple of late nights, he got the Dreaming Denizens exhibit up and running in the nick of time.
They’d moved the cannibal pixie village over to hang in the rafters above the disguised darkroom. Melody had rigged a couple ragged little bits of LED-centered tulle mounted on wires to flutter around in the shadows. The effect was surprisingly creepy and convincing once they’d tweaked the lighting in that corner.
The ticketed picnic crowd had swelled to nearly seventy before Stan managed to shut it all down. Fortunately the Northwests had abandoned enough folding tables, chairs and lawn tents to handle twice that, easy, in the cavernous manor basement. At Clary’s direction they’d also hauled out enough stainless steel chafing dishes to serve a small army. Of course, they were serving an army.
“You could do weddings,” Stan mused to Soos as they stacked folding chairs in the lee of the Shack. “Bar mitzvahs, birthday parties, hell, just rent this stuff out. Be a shame to just let it molder in storage.”
“Set up a chapel?” Soos wiped his brow and grinned. “Might be fun, Mr. Pines. There’s still plenty to do around here.”
“I’m retired, y’know that. I’m only willin’ to crank out brilliant new merchandisin’ concepts for free because I like ya, kid.” Stan plucked off Soos’ cap and ruffled his hair before pivoting to haul down the next stack of chairs.
Dance practice with Mabel became an urgent matter for the last couple days before the event. Clary and Stan carved out half an hour at a time between projects. Mabel played all kinds of music at them - big band, BABBA, a smattering of 80s stuff, one or two classical waltzes - and they worked to adapt.
All of it was still professional. Polite. The impulse to pull Clary close for the slower bits was ever-present, but like hell was he going to screw things up any further. At least she was starting to pick up a familiar glow of satisfaction as they got the measure of one another. As partners they were really beginning to click. He regretted on some mercenary level that there wasn’t a contest or something around to game.
Thursday of that week was a whirlwind of setup and anticipation. Tents popped up like mushrooms across the summer-bleached lawn, the entire Shack crew bustling to get it laid out with time to spare. Clary was either helping move tables into place or tapping into her phone with a frown of focus, tracking the thousand things that needed to get done.
By late afternoon they were as close as they were going to get - the audio equipment would go up in the morning. Mabel and Dipper had been hovering around the edges of the fracas in anticipation, and as things slowed, they pounced.
“Clary, c’mon, we need to let the others finish up out here. I’ve got a couple of drink concepts in the kitchen I really need you to check out.” Mabel caught Clary’s hand and tugged, heading for the house. Clary was still thumbing through some checklist as she allowed herself to be hauled along.
Dipper waved frantically from the porch. Stan took the hint and headed off at a trot down the Shack’s long drive. By the time Clary was back outside, sipping warily from a tall glass of some sparkling pink concoction, he was rounding the corner in the purring Fairlane wagon.
Clary shrieked. She managed to fumble her glass down to the ground and dashed over to the car, running hands along the freshly rechromed grill, then flopping over to stretch her arms out along the polished hood. “I can’t believe it! Look at this thing, it’s like brand new!”
Stan killed the engine, hip-checked the door closed and held out the key, the finest of the Mystery Shack’s souvenir keychains dangling from its ring. “Ford an’ McGucket finished up late yesterday. I still want t’go over the insides one last time, but she’s runnin’ like a champ now.”
The first unrestrained smile he’d seen on her all week lit up her features. With great delicacy Clary hooked a finger into the keyring and plucked the key from his grip. “Thank you. All of you.”
“Nothin’ left to do but get through this party and then you’re finally on the road, huh?” Stan hooked thumbs through his belt loops and gave her the best of his showman’s grins, papering over the regret twisting hard in his gut with practiced ease. Her eyes flicked to his.
“We’ve still got a ton of work to do.” Clary reached out with a fist and cautiously nudged him in the shoulder with her knuckles. “I’ve got to go finish up a last round of prep at Greasy’s. You and Ford be ready to go at quarter to six, got it?”
“Should I trust you?” You’ve seen midwinter storms friendlier than the icy glint of those eyes.
- Of course you can trust me!
- We said we’d get the car fixed, we’re getting it fixed!
- Honestly? Nope.
Chapter 14: Take 'Em For All They're Worth
Crowd management and awful jokes.
Stan pulled himself together before dawn on Friday, hating every second of it, and shuffled down to the kitchen for an emergency infusion of caffeine. He paused in the doorway.
Clary and Ford were already up. They stood side by side, looking out the window across the misty lawn and the shrouded tents. She was dressed for the day and ready to go, complete with bandana, Ford in flannel pants and a well-worn t-shirt. Clary spotted movement at the door and murmured to Ford as she turned away. “See you in a few. Good morning, Stan. All set?”
“Ask me that after a couple shots of coffee.” They did a little do-si-do in the middle of the kitchen as Stan went for the pot and a mug. He shot a questioning look at his brother as Clary eased out of the room and got a vague shrug in return.
Ford finished off a last mouthful of marshmallow-studded cereal and set his bowl in the sink. “I’ll be right back once I’ve changed. We’ll be taking the truck, I believe, she plans on hauling everything up here in one go.”
“Fantastic.” Stan dumped too much sugar into his coffee, stirred twice with the handle of Ford’s spoon and drank, wincing against the heat.
The kitchen at Greasy’s was scrubbed to a shine when they got there. He knew for a fact that the place usually lived up to the name. Even the sink was empty, shelves groaning under the unaccustomed weight of every clean plate in the joint.
They were early but there was already some activity, the skinny kid who was running the morning shift for the summer glancing up as they arrived. “Morning, Miss Clary!”
“Good morning, James.” Clary plucked aprons off a hook and tossed one each at Ford and Stan before strapping on her own, blotched with faded pink and with a ‘Bobbi’ nametag pinned at the shoulder. “We should be done well before noon but we’ll have to share space. I’m going to help run the tables if it gets lively out front.”
She headed for the dented door of the walk-in fridge, rummaged around inside for a minute, then hauled out a bin stacked high with plucked fryer chickens. “Ten pieces per bird. Drumstick, thigh, wing and we’ll halve the breast. Has either one of you done this before?”
Ford looked slightly appalled. Stan stuck up a hand. “Been a while, but yeah, I can piece one out pretty quick.”
“Show me,” she ordered, and Stan did, while Clary started measuring out flour and spices into a wide bowl. “Looks good. Toss the carcasses and the wingtips into that.” She indicated a giant stockpot on a back burner with a set of tongs. “I’m trading out a chicken-and-dumplings special for part of the kitchen time.”
“So now you’re a short-order cook?” Stan eyed her sidelong and Clary raised a brow at him.
“So far as this shindig is concerned, I’m a four-star chef. Get chopping.”
Ford got a crash course in dredging while Clary fired up a pair of gigantic cast iron Dutch ovens over at the cooktop. The scent of frying chicken gradually filled the air, and Stan had to admit that it smelled good. James kept glancing over with his nose twitching between rounds of flipping flapjacks.
When they were all a bit punch-drunk on divvying up chickens, Clary held one up by the neckbone and waggled it at Ford. “Behold, a man!” Ford doubled over, wheezing with laughter, and had to be left to recuperate in a kitchen chair for a good five minutes for reasons Stan could not even begin to fathom.
There was a wicked glint in Ford’s eye when Clary headed out into the diner to drop off another breakfast order. “If you don’t get around to smoothing this over, I will.”
Stan jolted as though he’d been stung. “Excuse me? I saw her first!”
“If you want to get technical, I did. She really is an interesting woman. Far too interesting to just let her drive off into the sunset, for certain. Why, I’d bet she would make an excellent assistant.”
“You try to pull that ‘assistant’ crap with her and I’m pretty sure she’ll blister your ears clean off.” Stan scowled down at the hapless chicken he’d just split down the middle with a too-vigorous stroke of the cleaver. “I’ll talk to her after tonight’s big thing, long’s she’s still speakin’ to me after dinner with the Gravity Falls elite.”
Ford hummed to himself, deftly dunking chunks of chicken into seasoned flour and dusting them off. “She doesn’t hate you, Stanley,” he said at length, all humor set aside. “She won’t dismiss you out of hand.”
God, I hope not, thought Stan, parting out the bird on his cutting board into neat serving pieces and shoving them along down the assembly line.
Clary stuck her head in over the order counter. “Fellas, how many chickens have we got left? I’ve got half a dozen people out here wanting the chicken-and-waffles special we didn’t plan for.”
They ended up raiding Greasy’s scant backstock of fryers and sending out plates of the ‘special’ at a tidy premium between rounds of finishing off the dinner birds and taking stock of everything that had already been prepared. Tate’s spare pickup truck was packed to the gills with bags of ice, foil-wrapped trays of fried chicken, more buckets of side dishes than Stan could easily identify and the sixteen cherry pies Clary had baked off with Susan yesterday.
By the time they were headed back up towards the Shack, Clary driving with casual precision and an arm draped half out the window, the sun was well up and the sky clear. At least they’d lucked into a perfect picnic day.
Clary trundled the pickup right over to the long table set aside for the buffet. Soos and Melody were working on the speakers; Dipper and Mabel waved from the balcony high up on the side of the Shack. “All right. Everything’s cold right where it is so we’re going to let it stay put for a bit. We’ve got a crew coming in to help set up the food in about an hour.” She shifted into park, shut down the engine and pulled out her phone, skimming through the checklist.
“What, we have servers?” Stan blinked over at her across Ford.
“Mmhm, we need someone to keep the buffet loaded. I think you should both check in with Mabel once you’ve washed up.” Her regard came up, refocusing, an amused little smile plucking at her lips. “We’ve all got outfits.”
“Relax, it’s just a new Hawaiian shirt. We all have to look our best, you know.” Clary slid out of the truck and shouted up to the balcony. “Mabel! How’s it going up there, honeybee?”
Ssssssshhhthunk! A long strand of pastel pennants shot out across the yard, carried by the modified grappling hook and snagging into the branches of a convenient pine. “Looking great, Clary! All the table arrangements are done and if I may say so they look plenty snazzy!”
“Great job! There’s still some work to do but I’ll be ready to change in about an hour!” Clary looked down along the line of gleaming steel chafing dishes with a critical eye and reached out to tweak one more precisely into line. Stan shuffled up alongside her, hands in pockets.
“This, ah. This is kinda a lot, isn’t it.”
“We’ve got a lot of folks to feed. Might as well make it memorable.”
“I didn’t plan for it t’get this big.”
Clary clicked her tongue and gave him a sharp look. “You sold fifty tickets. People are still calling the front office.”
“I swear I had no idea - ”
She threw up her hands, already turning away. “Just - keep doing what you’re doing. We’ll get through. This is going to be a great party. It’ll be fine.”
The cloud of doom hanging over his head didn’t ease up one damn bit, even as he did a quick walk around the tables and found everything in order, even when he helped Soos set up the series of streamer-festooned ice chests they’d be serving soda pop from. He’d been so busy with the station wagon and the exhibit that only now did he really get a feel for the scale of the enterprise.
She was, he thought ruefully, good at this.
When Clary reappeared her carefully pinned-up hair was still damp. The party dress was knee-length and boat-necked, all abstract splashes of petal pink and soft orange with a fluttering silk kerchief to match. She swatted lightly at his shoulder as he hauled down a bucket of baked beans from the pickup. “Go on, you, go get respectable! I think Mabel hung your shirt on your door. We’ve got the rest of this.”
Three young ladies he half recognized as friends of Melody’s from the Meat Cute came trotting over at Clary’s signal, trim and polished in black slacks and crisp white shirts. “Helloooo, Mr. Pines,” they chorused, giggling among themselves as they went straight to work setting up the buffet.
Stan checked his watch. Picnic time at two. Guests were sure to start trickling in any minute. He ducked into the house, scrambled upstairs and groaned at the sight of his new shirt. As usual there was no telling how she’d pulled it off but Mabel had come up with one in summery pink and orange, patterned with tropical drinks, to match Clary. There was no time to argue so he showered and changed as quickly as he could.
Even from upstairs he could hear the rising chatter as people began to gather outside. Stan found a mirror, raked a hand through his still-damp hair, and pulled up the million-dollar smile.
“Still got it, Pines,” he muttered, all too aware of the bitter edge in the sentiment, and headed downstairs.
He’d been handling crowds for a living half his life, but after all the time cooped up on the boat with just Ford for immediate company it was still a bit of a shock to see this many folks assembled in one place. Melody, smiling sweetly at everyone, was collecting tickets and directing traffic.
Most of the usual suspects had managed to finagle invites somehow. The Corduroys were out in force, wearing what he swore was freshly ironed flannel. The Mayor had come up with an eye-searing suit jacket in scarlet and emerald parrots to go with the usual sash.
Ford - in orange, but not pink - had immediately gravitated to McGucket, the two anchoring a table out on the far fringe. They’d actually managed to attract a curious audience. A scatter of ruffled pink dresses dispersing and gathering again through the throng marked Mabel and her gang.
Clary was busy coordinating with the servers. The pickup had long since been unloaded and was well off to the side, parked in a neat line alongside the El Diablo and the Fairlane. People drifted over in the general direction of the buffet table, some tricked out in fancy party clothes, most in casual summer wear. The little Sterno cans under the hot dishes were doing their job and the scent of the bourbon baked beans was reeling them in quick.
Stan slid in alongside Clary. “They’re gonna stampede the buffet,” he said under his breath.
“Then it’s time we got to work. All we have to do is slow them down.” Clary crooked a finger and didn’t wait for him to follow before throwing herself into the fray. He stood back for a moment and just watched; she clasped hands and patted shoulders with the eternal enthusiasm of a born politician.
“Oh my,” she said in the midst of conversation, looking over to him with a glimmer of command in those cool eyes - ‘don’t you dare leave me out here alone,’ was what he read there - “you’re really going to have to ask Stan about that. He and his brother have had all kinds of adventures.”
He grumbled to himself, tacked on the grin and waded in after her to trade pleasantries and tell tall tales about his time at sea. Between the two of them it was easy - Stan tossed bad jokes at Clary, she answered with a slyness that they couldn’t have scripted better. Amidst the general laughter, the lust for lunch was blunted enough to make the line almost orderly, and within a few minutes people were fanning out towards the tables with loaded-down plates.
Eventually Stan went in to sample the spread, looking out across the lawn while savoring messy bites out of a drumstick, and it occurred to him that this was going well. No explosions. No giant robots.
He caught Clary’s eye over a gaggle of guests and flashed her a thumbs up. Her lips twitched in return.
There was only one issue and he didn’t even register it until nearly an hour later - he hadn’t had a chance to spend any time with her at all.
That stayed true as the afternoon wore on. The buffet was increasingly picked over by ravenous locals led by the Corduroys. Clary drifted from group to group, never carrying anything more substantial than a bottle of water, laughing as she gathered names and asked what everyone was doing for the summer.
Shadows were growing long by the time he finally managed to end up next to her in an eddy of relative quiet. Clary tipped back her head and downed half her water in a few gulps, barely glancing over. “Looking good so far,” she murmured, her eyes tracking out across the scattered crowd. “When do we expect the dance crew to start trickling in?”
“Half an hour, maybe. Listen, did you even get lunch?”
“Enough to tide me over. I’d better make sure the leftovers are getting packed up.”
Stan leaned in a little, trying to catch her direct attention. “Can’t you take a bit of a break? I’m sure the girls you brought in are doin’ fine. See, Melody’s already on it. Have you even sat down this afternoon?”
Clary rocked back in response, regard narrowing as she finished off the last of her water. “Since when do you hover like an anxious parent?”
“Since I’ve watched you spend the whole damn week puttin’ this thing together. Aren’t you gonna enjoy yourself?“
“Whose party is it anyway?” Her perfectly pink lips curved in a wry slash. “It’s under control, Stan, no trouble. We actually have enough to feed everybody and then some, and they all seem to be having a swell time.”
“Fine. Yeah. You’ve done a hell of a job with hostin’.” Clary spared him an ironic dip of the chin. “We got a ways to go yet, though, so will you at least do me a favor and let someone else do the cleanup?” Sincerity felt all kinds of weird on his tongue, but she was deflecting like a champ even though he could see the weariness behind the veneer.
The line of her shoulders softened a bit. “No promises. But I’ll try to stay out of the way.”
“Maybe I can sweeten the deal a little.”
“Mmhm. I might be willing to listen.”
He let his voice drop into a low cajoling rumble. “All right, so, once things calm down some - “
“Hey. Stan.” Dammit.
Pacifica cut across the lawn,wearing a determined frown. “Listen, you should know that my parents got themselves dance tickets, so you’re probably going to see them this evening.”
“Wait, really?” Stan looked at her in doubt. “I didn’t think minglin’ with us common folk was ever gonna be on their radar.”
“Yes. Well. This year’s been educational for both of them. Honestly I think they’re kinda bored? And congratulations, you really did manage to throw the biggest party of the summer.” Pacifica nodded to Clary, who blinked in surprise. “I just wanted you to know they’re coming.”
“Is that going to be a problem?” Clary said cautiously.
Pacifica tossed her hair back. “I hope not. Good luck out there. You two look, ah, very well coordinated.” Her assessing eyes raked over them both as she twirled away.
Clary glanced over, mouth twisted in a dubious line. Stan shrugged. “They’ll probably be a pain in the ass, but it’s not like they can do much damage. Hell, we did sell tickets to half of town. I’d bet on them gettin’ one clear look at this crowd and bailin’.”
“Anyone else I should be looking out for?”
“Everythin’s under control. Don’t you worry your pretty head. Just keep pourin’ on the charm.”
She didn’t quite laugh, tugging out her phone to check the time. “Sixty minutes to showtime. I’d better head in for my costume change.”
“Lemme guess, we’re gonna be coordinated again.”
“I don’t really know but I definitely have an outfit.” Clary tipped him a mocking salute as she stepped away. “See you in around an hour for the next act.”
Stan watched her go with a sigh, then jumped as Mabel’s voice piped up just to his left. “You should be fine in your mystery suit, Grunkle Stan. You look plenty sharp in that. Soos had it cleaned and pressed.” She winked, then glided past with an anxious Ford in tow. “He was gonna do an ‘Our Founder’ tribute exhibit but I talked him out of it until the end of the summer, so you’ll just have to be a relic in the flesh for tonight!”
“I’m not encouraged, Mabel!” he yelled after her.
“It’s gonna be great! Trust me!” She vanished inside with Ford, who managed to catch Stan’s eyes in desperation as the door closed. Tough luck, Sixer.
The serving crew had what was left of dinner packed away by now and were dishing out cherry pie, lemon bars and explosive krispy treats to anyone who had the energy for more. For the moment everyone was stunned into somnolence by food. Lucky ticket-holders were draped over the Northwests’ fancy garden party chairs like victims of a weaponized lullaby. Stan snagged a couple of lemon bars on the way past, scarfing them down without regard for the sprinkle of powdered sugar he ended up wearing, and headed into the house.
There was no telling where Ford had ended up. Stan didn’t really want to know, Sixer was a big boy and could take care of himself and Mabel probably wouldn’t cause any permanent damage and he had his own problems to deal with, starting with the suit he found hanging neatly on the inside of his bedroom door.
He ran careful fingers down the sleeve. This had actually been decent when he’d scavenged it up half a decade ago, wool instead of polyester for once. Since he’d last worn it someone had done delicate work with a needle to mend the frayed spots at cuffs and inseam. The scorch marks had been professionally rewoven.
Stan thought he’d shed this particular skin for good. He shoved down misgivings he didn’t have time for, tossed aside the Hawaiian shirt and buckled down to business.
The old suit fit well – better than well, actually, he was a bit slimmer than he’d been at the end of last summer. No hat, of course, that had passed down to Soos. With squared shoulders and all the swagger he could conjure he headed out to the bathroom and the biggest mirror in the house.
He stood looking into his reflection, tweaking his ribbon tie one last time and feeling a bit out of place, when a tap came light at the door. “Yeah, yeah, just a minute.”
“Are you decent? I just need a moment with the mirror.” Crap. Her.
“Sweetheart, never in my life have I been decent. C’mon in.”
Clary drew the door open and stood aside to let him emerge into the hall. Her frank regard swept him from toes to crown. “Looking good, Stanley. The pictures don’t do the real thing justice.”
Words died in his throat as he got a chance to take her in - black sleeveless cocktail dress, wide neckline showing off her collarbones, flared skirt, tightly cinched waist with a tiny rhinestone buckle at the center. Her hair was pulled back in waves to a French twist. The inevitable scarf was a broad, soft band of scarlet silk wrapped twice and pinned to cascade down the center of her back.
“Not bad yourself, Miz Merrick.” Stan managed to swipe the gobsmacked look from his face in less than a second, though he was sure she’d noticed. He caught her hand and bowed over it with a flourish to cover. “You’re gonna break hearts out there.”
“I’m just here to show folks a good time.” Her smile was small and a little tired, her fingers soft though he could still feel the bumps of fresh calluses on her palm. There was a fleeting squeeze as she ducked past him to the mirror, touching up ruby lipstick and clipping more rhinestones at her ears.
“Ready to knock ‘em all dead?”
“Let’s go give the people what they came for.” She looped her hand lightly into the crook of his offered arm.
The house was quiet as they walked through the shadows of gathered twilight. No one had been through to snap on all the lights but both of them were comfortable enough with the internal peculiarities of the place to navigate.
Stan paused at the door which led from the house to the museum proper, where they’d cleared enough space for the dance floor. A faint undercurrent of conversation and music was just audible. He glanced over to her, aware of the tension singing in her spine, and flicked a broad wink when he saw her focus shift in response. “What’s the worst that can happen?” he whispered. “We got this, kid.”
Clary heaved an inaudible sigh and nodded. He set his hand to the doorknob and led her through before either of them could think better of it.
They stepped out into the party space at the dance floor’s edge and someone, somewhere, had been watching.
A musical cue welled up and a spotlight picked them out before they’d made it more than a couple of feet. Clary froze, her fingers going rigid at Stan’s elbow.
“Ladies and gentlemen! Our hosts for this evening, the Mystery Shack’s own Mr. Mystery and Miz Enigma!” Soos’ cheerful tones rang out on the speakers, and dozens of eyes turned their way. A spatter of polite-or-curious applause rippled along the room.
“Oh my god,” Clary hissed through bared teeth. “I didn’t know I was getting promoted.”
“Neither did I,” muttered Stan, making a mental note: Have a serious conversation with Soos about this later. His own grin snapped wide as he waved back at the crowd. “Sorry, doll, guess we’re on the spot. Just look at me,” which she did, terror and indignation in her eyes. “Take a bow,” which she did, dipping in a reflexive curtsy as he stepped back and bent at the waist, showing her off with a flash of his free hand. “An’ hang on tight. We’ve done this a dozen times.”
He swept her into his arms and after one stiff millisecond she followed. Her palm lit at his shoulder, his at her waist. Clary was collected enough to sweep her searchlight smile out across their audience as they took the first few whirling strides across the boards. “Just think about how righteously pissed off you are at me.”
“Rest assured you’re going to pay for this.” Threat or not, she breathed it into his ear in passing and he shuddered despite himself, then spun her out into a pirouette that tugged gasps from startled throats. Oh, yeah, they had this just fine.
Whoever the hell was in charge of the tunes - no way that wasn’t Mabel - had taken pity on them because come on really they’d walked into a total ambush. The song was familiar, his steps and hers were sure and solid, and by the time Stan dipped her nearly upside down the grin she wore was the real thing.
The room exploded with applause. Stan got Clary upright, he bowed, she curtsied, and the crowd closed in on them. Mabel muscled her way right to the front and caught his free hand. “My turn!” she called.
Clary plucked a scarlet-eared Dipper out of the throng. “Come on, Dipper. I promise I’ll make you look good out there.” He stammered as she winked, and the four of them wheeled out across the floor for a few bars before everyone else joined in.
The joint was jammed. Stan had lost track of how many dance tickets they’d sold days ago but ‘half of town’ seemed pretty accurate. They got through three more tunes, both he and Clary trading off partners each time, before the overflow spilled out into the yard. He followed along both to control the stampede a bit and to catch a breath of fresh air. The evening was well into deep twilight by now, a breeze picking up to provide some relief from the heat.
Guests were picking up and moving tables out of the way, clearing most of the space they’d set up for the picnic. Someone had gotten the roof lights going so folks wouldn’t trip unless they really tried to.
He’d long since lost track of Clary as the chaos level ratcheted up, more and more townies and a handful of tourists swirling onto the grounds past Melody’s ticket booth. When the brief squeal of a police siren fired up he nearly jumped out of his skin. The sheriff’s cruiser rolled up to the Shack, Blubs half hanging out of the passenger window, Durland at the wheel.
Stan straightened the suit and headed over, knowing full well that his smile was a little strained. “What’s shakin’, officers? Felt like you were missin’ out? Or is the middle of town just that empty since everyone’s here?”
“Oh, it’s pretty quiet downtown, all right. But this particular gathering looks like it might be getting a bit out of hand.” Blubs tweaked his shades up and smiled placidly at Stan. “Just how many people did the fire department decide you could jam into the Shack again?”
“Well, see, that’s why everyone’s outside, it was gettin’ hot in there anyway. Fresh air, good company, I’m sure everyone’s just gonna settle down an’ chat.” Something was moving around on the roof; he couldn’t quite get a bead on it from the corner of one eye. Hopefully the damn goat.
“I don’t know, Stan. This might be approaching illegal levels of fun.”
Durland snickered cheerfully from his side of the car.
“Don’t you give me that, Blubs, I know Soos got the permits for this thing, this’s just a peaceful family party with a really big extended family - “ Yeah, that was not the goat on the roof, that had to be Soos from the bit of silhouette he was able to catch, shifting something huge and squarish into place at Wendy’s old hangout spot.
Stan looked back over his shoulder just in time to catch a faceful of floodlight. He yelped, dazzled, then managed to resolve the dark shapes up there into Soos with a speaker nearly as tall as he was.
"Hey, Mr. Pines!" Soos shouted from up top. "I thought things might get pretty nuts, so we've got a backup plan!" He jabbed a button and the whole space around the Shack filled with booming music. The party attendees cheered and Stan groaned under his breath. Just as well the grass was more or less blasted to a crisp by this time of year anyway.
“See?” Stan half-yelled over the thump of the bass. “Just a nice mellow gatherin’ that is totally not gonna run into the municipally mandated quiet hours!” Soos was fiddling with the lights up top. Another switch flipped and a mirror ball whirred to life, scattering a million multicolored spangles across the trees, the ground, the guests, the Shack, and the cruiser. Another roar of approval went up.
Blubs shook his head, stepped out of the car and clambered up onto the hood. “Deputy, hit the lights!” Durland obliged. Swaths of red and blue swept out over the crowd, a few people blinking back in surprise.
The sheriff waited a beat until he had the attention of most of the folks outside, then whipped off his duty shirt - sweet Moses, that was a sequined tank top underneath - and shouted, full-throated, “Let’s dance!”
Both Blubs and Durland hurled themselves into the crush of jiving couples.
Stan sagged against the cruiser and wondered how much longer he had to live.
Soos emerged from the Shack in a new suit after a couple minutes. This one had mirror-tile lapels and a matching fez for pity’s sake. He and Melody managed the mayhem like a couple of practiced hands, music and lights shifting to direct the dancers through an eclectic track list that kept everyone’s feet in motion.
Stan was about ready to roll up his sleeves and start plowing through in search of Clary, and for that matter his brother, when both appeared around the further shadowed edge of the yard. Apparently she’d managed to track down both Ford and McGucket; she had an arm from each of them locked up in her own and approached the cruiser at a brisk clip. McGucket cackled with glee all the while.
Stan met them halfway. “You three all right? Sixer, what the heck - ?” Ford was tricked out in a three-piece suit and looked more dapper than he did. “Where’d that thing come from?”
“You didn’t manage to go through all the storage space in the house.”
“The hell I didn’t.” They eyed one another narrowly for half a second until Clary chimed in.
“We’re beating a strategic retreat. I had to rescue these two from a fascinated horde of Gravity Falls’ most eligible ladies.” Ford coughed sheepishly into his sleeve.
“I ain’t had this much fun since last summer!” McGucket patted Clary’s hand and peered up at her. “Why don’t we do this at my place next year? The Hootenanny Hut’s got plenty a’space!”
Pure surprise arched her brows and parted her lips for a bare moment. She flicked a tiny, fleeting glance over to Stan - he wasn’t sure what she was looking for, because he was as startled as she was - then she answered McGucket with a tentative smile. “I guess we can talk about it, Fiddleford. Come on, let’s get something to drink. See you when it all settles down, Stan. If anyone wants a dance with the hostess you know where to send them.”
But I want a dance with the hostess, was what he didn’t say. “Trust me, kid, I’ve seen crazier than this. Soos an’ I can keep it all under control.”
Someone shouted ‘CONGA!’ behind him and he gave Clary the cockiest of grins as cheers rang out from the crowd. “I’d get while the gettin’s good, though.”
She almost said something, then snapped her mouth shut and led her charges up the Shack stairs. Ford looked back over one shoulder with a deepening frown. Stan shrugged and turned, grim-hearted, to make certain the conga line led by the Mayor didn’t wander right off the edge of the Bottomless Pit.
Another forty minutes of thankless idiot-herding elapsed before people finally started to wear out. Some collapsed onto scattered chairs, some shuffled wearily homeward into the night. Stan shook hands, clapped shoulders, smiled until his face ached and got as many of them off his damned property as he could manage.
“An’ don’t come back until you’re ready t’pay for the whole tour,” he muttered after one bedraggled group heading out along the drive. He stretched, wincing as his back creaked in a couple places. “Soos, think you got the rest of it handled?”
“No problem, Mr. Pines! What a night, huh?” Soos’s grin twinkled as brightly as his disco-ball suit. His enthusiasm hadn’t flagged all night. “I think they’re still going over in the museum. Miss Clary’s been dancing with anyone who asks nice. Dipper’s getting really good with the DJ turntable!”
Stan closed his eyes, counted to ten, and looked over to Soos. “Miz Enigma?”
Soos laughed. “Wasn’t that a nice surprise? One night only, exclusively at the Mystery Shack!” His hands traced a broad marquee arc in the air. “You should go on in, Mr. Pines, I bet she’d like to see you.”
Stan felt his joints lock up in hesitation, not feeling nearly as sure about that. Soos laid a steadying hand at his arm. After a second he screwed his courage down and straightened. “Fine. I mean if you insist.” He waggled brows at Soos with a confidence that was all surface luster and headed up the stairs.
The dance floor they'd set up inside the museum was an oasis of relative peace. Plenty of guests were still dancing but there wasn’t anything near the crush that had gotten so out of hand outside. He swept a look across the room - pretty much all people he recognized. Manly Dan was rounding up his sons who'd all but wiped out the snack table in one corner. Lazy Susan and a handful of the Greasy's staff perched on chairs and giggled among themselves.
The music was brassy and bright. Dipper sat behind the turntables chatting with Wendy and flipping through a crateful of old vinyl LPs. Clary’s musical taste had won the day in part, at least.
Many of the dancers had withdrawn to the edges of the room for a better view of Preston Northwest whirling Clary across the boards in a surprisingly expert tango. Apparently he had decided to mingle with the common folks.
Stan's hands tightened into fists on reflex. He stalked up to the border of the dance floor, landing right next to Priscilla. Cold fury radiated off her tense figure.
"Evenin', Mrs. Northwest." He got a glare and a fleeting sneer for that. Preston swept Clary through a turn, a dip and another turn, neither of them missing a beat. "Didn't figure you two would make it."
"We are the founding family," she replied, tone level if frosty. "Since we don't expect to host this year, Pacifica suggested we might gain something from slumming it a little." Even when she turned to look at him it wasn't quite direct, like her eyes wanted to slide right off. "I can't say I understand the appeal."
Stan shrugged. "Good. So, anyway, wanna dance?" Priscilla scoffed in delicate disbelief. "Can't think of a better way to cheese off your husband out there."
He watched that sink in, perfect lips peeling back from perfect teeth in a sort of posh snarl, and when she caught his hand and dragged him out onto the floor he allowed it. She wasn't half bad. Stan handled her with all the respect he’d give a wagonload of dynamite, alert as they traced an arc that would intercept Clary and Preston just before this particular tune ended.
“Excuse me,” Priscilla hissed sweetly just as they came into easy range, “may I cut in?”
Clary immediately raised both hands and took two steps back from a startled Preston. “My word, Priscilla dear, please do.” Stan caught her by the waist and swung her away as the Northwests sized each other up.
He felt her tremor of relief as she half-sagged into his arms, one hand light at the back of his neck as they spun across the floor. “Thanks for the save.”
“Anytime, kid.” Over her shoulder the Northwests had taken their first few steps together, so practiced that their whispered conversation didn’t disrupt them much. Not his problem.
The tune blurred into something softer, the tempo slowed, and for the first time that day there was a moment of shared quiet. Clary relaxed against him, cheek half pillowed at his shoulder. He didn’t dare burst the bubble for a while. Her feet were heavy - she’d been dancing without a break, he figured - and he was more than content to just shuffle along.
“So,” he murmured at length. “Wanna blow this popsicle stand?” Her chuckle vibrated against his chest. “Hop in the car, maybe go find someplace empty?”
“We’re hosting this thing.”
“C’mon. It’s almost midnight an’ it’s startin’ to slow down anyway. We’ll let Soos an’ the cops chase off the stragglers. Go check out the sky from somewhere nice an’ dark.” He had a clear look at her in the soft glow of the party lights, a few tendrils escaping her carefully set hair, pinpoint freckles scattered over her pale shoulders. “Moon should be comin’ up by now.”
“I mean it, Stan. You and I are on the clock until everyone’s gone.” Clary twitched her chin to indicate one side of the room. He followed the gesture, landed on Bud Gleeful happily chatting up Sheriff Blubs, and nearly tripped over her feet. She managed a neat little bit of waltzing jiu-jitsu to keep him upright. “Take it easy! I’ve been keeping him entertained for most of the last hour.”
“What the hell is he doin’ here?” Stan hissed.
“Bought a ticket, like pretty much everyone else.” He didn’t quite break out swearing but she patted his back soothingly anyway. “Mabel and her gang are keeping tabs on Gideon. Everything’s fine. Just play nice.”
Clary’s lips assumed a gentle, calculated curve as the song wound down. She walked fearlessly over to Gleeful with Stan in reluctant tow. “Bud, I know you said it was about time for you to head out? It’s been such a pleasure to have you.”
“My goodness, Miss Merrick, if you ain’t been the most generous hostess.” Gleeful clasped her hand in both of his, smiling past her to Stan. “It’s not often our little town is graced by such a treasure. So kind of you, Stan, to extend everyone the opportunity to enjoy her company.”
Stan folded his arms; it helped suppress the automatic urge to deck the guy. “Gleeful. Nice t’see you made it to the event of the summer. I’m so glad you had a swell time and we’re all so sorry you’ve gotta go.”
“Oh, it’s true, it’s gettin’ late and my sweet wife is about ready to faint.” Mrs. Gleeful was, in fact, spinning blissfully across the far end of the floor in the arms of the most handsome of the town’s firefighters. “But I understand Clara Jane here’ll be leavin’ us soon, so perhaps just one more dance to remember her by?”
Stan gritted his teeth so hard he felt the enamel creak. Clary shaded a pretty smile behind her fanned fingers. “Perhaps I’ll be back one of these days. I had no idea Gravity Falls was full of so many lovely people. Of course, Bud, by all means.” They strolled out past Stan as some mid-tempo number welled up on the sound system, Gleeful sparing him an amused glance on the way.
For a glum moment Stan just watched. A soft clearing of the throat to his left caught his attention, and he turned his head to spot Lazy Susan, dolled up in polka-dotted pink and a hopeful smile.
He heaved a shallow sigh and offered his arm. “C’mon, Susan. I guess I owe ya one.”
The evening finally wound down over the next half hour. Both Stan and Clary spent the whole time busy with goodbyes, last dances and air kisses. Clary pressed business cards into a few select palms and waved a cheerful farewell to the Northwests, who took a good bit of tension with them as they left.
The music ground to a halt as Stan shooed the last couple guests out the door. Dipper was half passed out in his DJ’s chair, cheek pillowed on one turntable. “Are we done, Grunkle Stan?” he yawned, propping himself up just enough to peer blearily over.
“That oughta do it, kid, we’re leavin’ the cleanup for tomorrow. Where’s Clary?”
“Said she was going to get some fresh air, I think.” Dipper straightened and stretched elaborately. “Man, I’m gonna sleep for a week.”
Stan struck out into the night, hunting through darkened garden-party tents, glaring at the handful of lingering partiers until they had the sense to start heading for the exit. The plump quarter-moon cast silvery light over what he knew would look like a disaster zone in the morning.
He found her at the far edge of the yard among a scatter of abandoned tables, a tied-off trash bag at her side. She was flopped into a folding chair with her head tipped back and a cup of what he hoped was water lolling dangerously in one hand.
“Clary. What’d I tell you about cleanin’ up.” Stan dragged up a chair of his own and let himself collapse.
“Not to do it.” Her eyes didn’t open but a slow, satisfied smile curved her red mouth. “Hell of a party. Did I meet the entire town?”
“More’re less everyone that matters. Did you actually dance with Durland?”
“I did! You’re right, they’re not bad guys at all, but I’m not sorry in the least that they’re a little oblivious.”
“That’s enough of that. Feet.”
She straightened just enough to look at him as though he’d sprouted a second head. “I beg your pardon?”
“Ditch the shoes, gimme your feet, you’ve been on ‘em all day and you’re more or less limping.”
Clary sputtered briefly. “...are you suggesting a foot massage?”
Stan braced an elbow on his knee, leaning in with an arched brow. “I am a man of many talents, Miz Merrick. Quit stallin’.”
Clary stared at him for a good long moment before toeing off her strappy sandals. Stan dunked a bar towel into a pitcher full of mostly-melted ice and took up her feet one at a time, scrubbing them down ruthlessly while she yelped and kicked and made a fuss, then started with the left and pressed both thumbs into the center of the arch. She bit off a curse and he glanced up at her over the glasses. “Language.”
“Hot Belgian waffles,” she spat back at him, and “ow!” when something popped in the middle of her foot. He eased up right there, let his palms warm her chilly skin and began to walk thumbs from the base of the toes back towards the heel, feeling the bones shift subtly in his grip. Clary whined in protest but he didn’t relent until the worst of the tension was beginning to unlock.
By the time he’d wrapped both hands around her ankle and begun to work his way up she’d settled down a bit, watching him through drooping lashes.
“Consider this the quick an’ dirty,” Stan muttered, feeling a flush creep up the back of his neck as he traced lines of muscle along her calf and inched his way up to the knee. “We’ll get you a hot soak when we get back to the house.”
“I’d ask where and how you picked this up, but frankly I don’t care.”
“You think I’ve never had a girlfriend who waited tables?” He outlined the curve of her kneecap with solid pressure, rippled his fingers in a caterpillar walk up the soft space framed by tendons at the back, then patted her shin and reached for the other foot.
“You think I’ve never waited tables?”
“Until I saw you in action this mornin’ at Greasy’s, I gotta admit I never thought a well-bred broad like you had waited tables.” Stan started out a little more gently this time, tracing a loose loop along the base of the big toe. “Not the first thing I’ve been wrong about.”
“I find that hard to believe. Stanley Pines is right about pretty much everything.” That was pure sarcasm no matter how deadpan her delivery was. He set to work and wrung a series of little noises out of her, some approving, some pained. “Ow. You were certainly right about everyone wanting to meet me.”
“You sure as hell made time for everyone.”
“That’s the job when you’re hosting, Stan, especially when you’re one of the main attractions.”
“You danced with Gleeful.” Stan was having to actually try not to sound hurt and failing miserably. Clary watched him with shadowed eyes and a crumpled mouth.
“And if all it takes to keep him sweet is a spin around the dance floor and a slice of leftover pie, we’re getting off cheap. You know that.”
“Well, yeah, but it would’ve - I’d’ve liked it, y’know, if - “ He was tripping over his own tongue, he knew it, and so he shut up and went back to sketching circles along her ankle with his fingertips.
Clary growled back at him, husky and tired. “There’s only one man here I really wanted to dance with. But no, you big jerk, you had to sell tickets - ” One toe kept poking him in the shoulder for emphasis. “ – so that half of town shows up and I have to waste time playing coy with Preston Northwest, who is a terrible, selfish dancer, by the way. I just – ugh.” She clapped a hand over her eyes. “I just wanted to do something nice. I wanted to do something nice for Ford and the kids and especially you.”
Yeah. That stung even as it lit a little spark of embarrassed pleasure in his chest. “Things got out of hand.”
She snorted in unvarnished disdain.
Stan swallowed hard, pride sticking bitter in his throat. “Okay, fine, I made things get out of hand. I’m sorry.” She peeped out at him over her fingers, brows screwed tight. “I’m sorry, princess, I mean it. What’ve I gotta do, kiss your feet for a chance to make up for it?”
Clary tilted her head a shade, hand dropping to her mouth. He realized his mistake as she gently tugged her foot from his clasp and presented it, knee flexing, long toes pointed.
Stan huffed out half a laugh as the tension between them shifted from frustrated crackle to uncertain hum. “What, seriously?”
His eyes narrowed, but she looked back at him with imperial calm. Fuck it, he thought, he’d paid higher prices for less, cradling her heel in both hands and dipping his head for a wary kiss, fine bones and fragile skin taut under the fleeting contact. A faint tremor ran through her in response.
She picked up the other foot and delicately extended the leg; he let the press of his lips linger for a moment and skimmed the pad of one thumb along the inner arch. No shiver this time, just a tightening through the calf as he felt her stifle any reaction.
“I’ll plan on leaving Tuesday morning,” Clary murmured after a moment.
That left him the whole weekend. Three days. All right, then. “Thanks, sweetpea. You were amazin’ out there, y’know.”
Her cheek was nestled into a cupped hand, her smile slight and slanted. “So were you.”
“If you don’t get around to smoothing this over, I will.” Ford’s got that look in his eye and you instantly regret every dubious thing you’ve ever done.
- Maybe she’d make a decent research assistant.
- No way. I saw her first!
- You don’t know her like I do.
Chapter 15: When All Else Fails, Make Amends
A little more give than take.
07/27/13-07/28/13 Saturday - Sunday
Good luck with cleanup, was the message that chimed Stan awake in the morning.
Clary had already gone down to Greasy’s by the time there was enough daylight to work by. The usual suspects, minus the kids who were still sacked out upstairs, gathered to bring the Shack’s yard back into something resembling order before the first tours of the day showed up. They settled for getting some of the tables and chairs stacked away into the loaner truck and leaning folded tents against the lee side of the house. Another few trash bags got added to a mountain that would require a special pickup from the town garbage truck.
Stan had gotten a report on the night’s numbers from Soos, though, and that kept his steps light no matter how many discarded party cups he had to pick up.
A chill wind had blown through somewhere in the wee hours which kept the work bearable until the sun finally made it above the treetops. Dipper and Mabel eventually staggered out to collapse on the couch. They’d recovered enough energy to razz the cleanup crew, at least until another text from Clary chimed on all the Pines’ phones at once.
Lunch special is complete! Who wants a full pancake breakfast on me?
“Heck yes!” shouted Mabel. “Come on, people, wrap it up, it’s free pancakes!”
They’d managed the equivalent of sweeping most of the trash under the rug, as it were. Soos waved them off as Stan loaded himself, Ford and the kids into the El Diablo and ran everyone down to the diner.
The Saturday morning crowd was more dense than usual. Someone had written Clary Merrick’s Chicken Dumplings! on the chalkboard at the front door. “Good grief,” Ford muttered.
“Cursed by our own popularity,” Stan agreed as he shouldered the door open and held it for the kids.
Susan met them with a pink-cheeked giggle. “That was some party, huh? Come on, we’ve got a booth reserved for ya.” She shooed the four of them down to the far end and poured coffee. “Server’ll be out in a minute!”
Stan was expecting Clary. When she showed up in a pink uniform and a crisp white apron, pen tucked behind one ear, he cracked up and couldn’t quite stop himself. They’d even slapped a bit of masking tape over her nametag and scrawled in CLARY with a marker. She looked down her nose in wry disdain. “Very funny. I’ve got another forty minutes to go and then I’m done for good, so order up before my employee discount evaporates.”
“You look lovely,” Ford said, valiant as ever. She winked, smile widening, and Stan hit him with a warning kick under the table.
“So.” Mabel’s eyes were gleaming. “We can have anything we want?”
“Anything at all, honeybee.” Clary flipped out a ticket book and readied her pen. “What’s it gonna be?”
Ford and Dipper were relatively straightforward. Mabel’s order rattled on for most of a ticket-book page, Clary making swift notes as she went. Finally she glanced in question at Stan, who smirked. “Anything?”
The corners of her eyes crinkled, though she kept a straight face. “Anything. Keep in mind that I already know you’re a lousy tipper.”
“How exactly d’you expect me to figure a tip on zero dollars?”
“Maybe you should give some consideration to services rendered.” Clary tilted her pen over towards the wall clock. “Thirty minutes.”
“All right, all right.” He made a show of studying the menu, then settled on the best of the club sandwiches - extra turkey, extra bacon, extra pickles, easy on the mayo - with a short stack of pancakes, hash browns, and everything else he figured he could get away with stuffing into a takeaway box. Clary didn’t flinch, mildly taking it all down as the kids’ eyes widened.
She ferried it all out over the next fifteen minutes. The scarred surface of the booth table was jammed near to overflow with pancakes, side dishes and Mabel’s assorted syrups. Stan chomped into his sandwich with gusto. Nothing was quite as delicious as free food. He watched in amusement as Clary waltzed up and down the diner to refill coffee and clear plates.
The clock had about made it to noon when she swung by the Pines table again. “Got everything you need, hon?”
“Doin’ fine for now but I wouldn’t mind seein’ the dessert menu - “
“I’m so sorry, Mr. Pines, but it’s time for my shift change.” Clary straightened, reaching behind to untie her apron. “Hey, Susan?” she called out.
“What’s up, sweetie?”
“I quit!” Clary tossed the apron over the counter and slipped into the booth, Dipper scooting over to make room. She reached across the table and nimbly stole the untouched half of Stan’s sandwich.
“Hey - “
“Who’s paying for this?” she shot back.
Stan must have looked crestfallen, because both the kids were beginning to giggle and Clary was struggling not to join them as she took a bite. “Fine. I’ll consider this my tip. Sorry I missed you all this morning - did cleanup go all right?”
Ford pushed his empty plate to the middle of the table. “I believe we managed to get it all under control. Will you be coming back to pack this afternoon?” Stan settled for the pancakes, still sulking a bit.
“I’ll get started. Looks like I’ll be staying through the weekend, so long as that’s okay. I want to get a decent night’s sleep or two and I still have some unfinished business in town.” Clary settled back with a sigh and accepted a spare napkin from Dipper. “I’m so glad everything went well.”
Mabel squinted down the table from her seat by the window. Her eyes flicked to Stan, who did his best to radiate innocence. “So maybe until Monday?”
“Tuesday, I think.”
“Great.” Mabel clapped hands together smartly and turned her razor focus to Ford. “Grunkle Ford, now that we’ve got all the obligations out of the way, can we make time to head out on that ghost expedition of Dipper’s? I’m pretty sure we could get it done in one overnight hike.”
Dipper blinked in surprise next to Mabel, then flinched - Stan was pretty sure that was a pink Mary Jane tagging him in the ankle. He caught on quick, though, and leaned forward with eager eyes and steepled fingers. “That’s right. I’ve figured out a route that’ll hit everything worth investigating and it’ll be one day out, one day back. If we head out tomorrow morning, we could make it in plenty of time for dinner on Monday!”
Ford tensed up, unused to being the center of both their attention. “...I’d hate to abandon our guest for the last couple of days before she departs.”
“Oh, I’m stayin’. Lots of cleanup t’do, yet.” Stan swabbed up maple syrup with another forkful of pancake.
“I’ll get the truck back to Tate and clear up the last loose ends,” said Clary. “I still owe a few people favors.”
“We can’t go incommunicado - “
“I can show Grunkle Stan how to use the tracking rig, and we can carry your uplinks, right? We’ll be in touch the whole time! Listen, we’ve already sketched out what we know are the safest stretches of the woods after the glitterbomb thing, and we can check on the aftereffects while we’re at it.” Dipper fished out a notepad and started scribbling.
Stan felt his brother’s resistance begin to crack. “Mabel, you want to come along on this - ?”
“You bet. I’ll be your documentarian.” Mabel tugged out her phone, sat back and got a snapshot of the whole table. “We can borrow that action camera thingy and get some video too. Come on, the weather’s going to be perfect for a couple days and we have to get it all done before we start doing birthday planning!”
Ford blanched. “We just finished the biggest party we’ve ever thrown - “
“That’s no reason to rest on our laurels. We’re about to turn fourteen, we’re going to high school in the fall, we’ve got to throw one heck of a bash. What we did over this last week? Nothing but a rehearsal!” Both Stan and Ford inched back a bit in their seats.
“Easy, Mabel. I need some recovery time and they probably do, too.” Clary polished off the last bite and dabbed at her lips with the napkin. “If you’re done, why don’t we pack up and maybe we can figure it out on the way up to the Shack?”
They were still hashing it out when Susan came over with a couple of takeaway boxes. Clary settled up and left too much of a tip, as usual, which wasn’t even going to her. Some of the things that woman did made no sense.
Stan held the door for everyone as they headed out into the sunshine. He turned a palm out behind his back and scored low-fives from both Dipper and Mabel as they passed.
By the time they were back home - Clary had walked that morning, so she joined them in the car - Mabel, Dipper and Ford had negotiated more or less exactly what the kids wanted. The house echoed with voices and footsteps as camping gear, cameras, maps and backpacks were rustled up from various corners.
Stan left them to it and sidled up to Clary. She’d barely made it up the outside steps and simply leaned into the side door’s frame, watching the chaos swirl past. “So?”
“We on for this weekend?”
She shifted enough to catch his eye. “We’re on.”
“Perfect. Looking forward to it.” Clary pushed off from the doorframe, her smile a warm flicker. “See you for dinner. Me, I’m going to go sleep like the dead.”
She was as good as her word, too, disappearing into her storage room for the remainder of the afternoon. Stan gave up almost immediately on keeping up with the kids and sacked out on the couch for a good couple hours.
Dinner came early, thrown together from admittedly excellent leftovers. The conversation consisted mainly of intense discussion about safe trails, the most sheltered spot to set up camp and various anomalies that both Ford and Dipper wanted to catalog on their overnight.
Clary didn’t even blink save to ask a question or two. She was playing it frosty, which meant Stan was too, which meant Mabel was glaring daggers at both of them after half an hour of innocuous discussion and list-making.
“I’ll get the plates,” Mabel declared loudly when they were mostly done. “Grunkle Stan, help me get all this back to the kitchen!”
He obeyed, trailing along after with an armload of dishware, and dropped it off in the sink only to be accosted by Mabel standing on the stepladder and towering over him. “Well?”
“I am not spending two whole days distracting the nerd brigade so that you can finish cleaning up the lawn, mister.” Mabel set hands to her hips and stared him down. “She’s done being mad and that’s great. So what are you going to do about it?”
“Take it easy, pumpkin, I’ve got it all handled.” Stan dragged the stepladder a few inches closer so that she could help dry dishes.
“You’re going to tell her how you feel?”
“I’m gonna tell her I hope I can still see her again after all this.” Because oh boy anything else might be more complicated than he could handle. “An’ then we see what happens, I guess. Don’t worry ‘bout me, sweetie. Your grunkle’s a master at the art of romance.”
He winked and she rolled her eyes. “Don’t you dare let her get away. This one’s a keeper.”
“Uh huh. Pressure much, Mabel?”
The expedition headed out bright and early on Sunday morning after a hearty breakfast. Clary and Stan waved them off from the porch, watching them strike out into the forest with packs and walking sticks. Mabel made a point of spinning on her heel as they hit the treeline, flashing a wink and a double thumbs-up with such enthusiasm that Stan wondered if she’d sprained an eyelid.
Clary's smile was brilliant even behind the cover of her hand. “She’s about as subtle as a sack of sledgehammers.”
“Definitely gets that from my side of the family. Think you can make yourself scarce for an hour or two?”
“I have a few people to visit, a couple bills to pay, and then I’ve got to start packing.” She hooked the car key out of her pocket and gave the miniature Mystery Shack dangling from it a twirl. “Meet you for a late lunch?”
“Anytime before three’s probably fine. You be careful in that thing, all right? I haven’t had time to really go through the guts...drives all right, at least, but with McGucket messin’ with it…”
“I will be careful. Scout’s honor.” She flashed him a three-fingered salute and jogged off to the Fairlane. Stan watched warily as she buckled in, fired it up, and headed out down the long drive, then fished out his phone and started making calls.
He had a productive few hours in her absence, helping Tate load the loaner pickup with the last batch of party chairs. Dipper had left the laptop behind, and after some fiddling Stan managed to get the tracker going. A trio of colored dots marked Ford and the kids on a projected trail map.
Mabel answered first when he toggled the uplink console, her bright voice warbling with distance. “Love Patrol Alpha Summer Expedition Number One, reporting! Is that you, Mystery Base?”
Stan grumbled in resignation. “Yeah, yeah, Heartbreaker, that’s me. Listen, I got the map goin’. You three holdin’ up all right?”
“We’re making great time, and I am documenting everything! Not a single track, not one tiny clue is going to escape our notice while we’re out here. Grunkle Ford says it’s about another two hours until we get to the spot Dipper wanted to look at so badly, and after that we’ll make camp.”
“Uh. Great. Keep us posted, okay? I might be doin’ dinner or somethin’ with Clary so maybe we’ll check back in before bed and then at breakfast time.”
“We’re not going to have any emergencies while we’re out here, come ooooonnnn.” Stan closed his eyes for an exhausted moment, unwilling to lay odds on that. “It’s all under control. You two have a nice time and be ready to tell me everything later, got it?”
There were a few other bits and pieces he wanted to line up for the day and those fell into place easily enough with a quick trip down to Greasy’s. By the time he heard the distinctively smooth, deep note of the Fairlane’s engine as it rolled up around two-thirty, he had a couple of trout butterflied, deboned and laid out on ice. Stan fired up the skillet and had butter sizzling merrily as Clary leaned into the kitchen doorframe.
“All done for now, and what, pray tell, have we got for lunch?”
“Only the good stuff. Fresh this mornin’.” He waggled brows at her as he strapped on an apron, dredged the fish and tossed the first fillet into the pan.
“There is no way you had time to go catch that.” She headed for the fridge, reaching in to pull out a few containers of leftover sides.
“Hey, I delegated. Tate came by to get the pickup and he dropped these off. Guy’s, like, a fish whisperer or somethin’, he walks down lakeside and they jump into his creel, it’s weird.”
They swung around each other comfortably in the confined space. Clary set up the table with plates and glasses, not bothering to do more than pop the lids off a motley assortment of Tupperware. The conversation was relaxed and drifting - the most scenic route to Portland, the best lunch counter on the way to Seattle.
Clary sat back with a sigh once she’d finished off her trout. “That was worth the wait.”
“It’s nice t’have lunch right out of the lake, isn’t it? Saved my bacon a few times the first couple years here.” Stan gathered plates as she scrubbed the serving containers. “So, if you can put off packin’ for a little while - you seen the new exhibit yet?”
“You know, I haven’t? Things were too nuts last week.” She leaned aside to let him drop the plates off in the sink, kept on washing and handed them off one by one once he had a dishtowel.
“Up for a private tour? It’s Sunday, last batch of payin’ customers was like half an hour ago.”
Once they’d stacked away the last of the glassware, Stan offered his arm. She laid a hand lightly at his elbow with a quirked little smile and he led her out through the unaccustomed quiet of the Shack.
“So we’re already gettin’ rave reviews.” The museum was silent save for their footsteps, sunlight pouring in bars of honey gold across the plank floors. “‘Mr. Mystery’s still got it.’ And ‘It’s Air-Conditioned!’ I think Soos is already workin’ up a plush or a keychain or somethin’.”
They ducked through the exhibit’s moss-draped doorway, the interior almost chilly and dark enough to disorient after the main room. Stan laid his hand over hers to keep her close as they wove through the narrow corridor. He and Soos had done a hell of a job here on short notice, he thought, with some nifty projection work and vents set up to blow cold air across the feet of tour-goers.
He’d written most of the spiel and leaned over to half whisper to Clary as they walked slowly through. “Dark things dwell in the far corners of these northwest woods, y’know. Things that slumber under our mountains an’ spread nothin’ but shadow when they wake an’ roam the world.”
“This all sounds suspiciously familiar.” Excitement hummed under her low murmur; she was as thrilled as any tourist.
“‘Course it does - this’s all new to us, missy, but the Shack’s crew of intrepid adventurers just got back from a dangerous trek all the way out into the far reaches - “
They rounded a corner, the sound of tinkling glass drifting up over a tiny hidden speaker, and she actually flinched at the forced-perspective replica of the crystalline stag set up to sparkle ominously at the far end of the space. Stan squeezed her hand in reassurance, trying not to laugh. “Mabel did that one. Nice, eh?”
“This is fantastic.” Clary looked up into the darkness overhead, where he’d set up a scatter of glinting glass eyes picked out by pinlights. “You did all this in like two weeks?”
“Well - not alone. Soos an’ Melody have been crankin’ up the exhibits since they took over the Shack. This’s what kept us all so busy while you were cookin’ for everyone in town. C’mon.” He tugged her down past the Crystalline Abominations display, where the lighting came up by subtle degrees. “Check this out.”
Clary’s original taxidermy critter, tidied up and reworked a bit, perched on a branch in a glass case. The placard read ‘mustela merrickii’, explaining its exotic origins and its favored diet of nightmares, and beside that sat a portrait of ‘Dr. Clara J. Merrick’ in old-timey explorer’s gear rendered in sepia inks.
Stan rocked back a step, utterly pleased with himself, as her eyes popped wide and she clapped both hands over her mouth. “This all okay? Ford did the watercolor over there. Seemed only fair t’name it after you.”
She was quiet for a few seconds too long. He shifted his weight from foot to foot until she turned, splayed fingers only half hiding her sly, delighted grin. “You couldn’t wait to get rid of me when I first got here. This whole routine was designed to creep me out and scare me onto a bus.”
“...yeah, that’s fair. You turned out to have a stronger stomach than I expected.”
“Ha. I’m glad I exceeded expectations.” Clary bumped her shoulder into his. “Thank you for letting me leave a mark here. I must have a copy of that portrait - I had no idea Ford was an artist, too.”
“We may or may not have included a nice rendition in your partin’ gifts.”
She cracked up as they wended past winged weasels tangled in shadowy papier-mache tentacles. “Do I get the home game? Have I scored the grand prize?”
“You’ve got a workin’ car, I guess, but as for the rest of it, what were you hopin’ to take with you?” She pulled the curtain aside at the end of the walkthrough and Stan brushed past, half holding his breath as he stepped out into the light.
Clary looked him up and down, her mouth quirked with something between amusement and regret. “I cut a bulk deal with Soos for snowglobes and a couple bobbleheads, so that’s covered, but I can’t say that’s all I was interested in. What’re you doing tonight?”
“Might have somethin’ in mind. I mean, y’know, if you’re up for it.” He held up both hands as she drew indignant breath. “All I’m sayin’ is that there’s no way you went thrift shoppin’ with Mabel and got out of it without somethin’ glittery, right? Show me the gaudiest thing you’ve got. I’ll make it worth your while.”
"Right around dark? Don't worry about dinner."
She shook her head at him but her eyes were sparkling. "Sounds good. I'll track you down out on the porch."
They split up for the rest of the afternoon. Stan spent half an hour tidying up the car, vacuuming out the random debris that had accumulated through the summer’s errands and adventures. Clary steadily trekked back and forth between the Fairlane and the house. Boxes and bags slowly filled in the wagon’s wayback, more stuff than she’d come in with for sure.
Once the day began to fade, she slipped off to take over the bathroom for a quick shower, then vanished into her storage room. Stan went through after and took some time scrubbing himself to respectability. He shook out the old bronze hustle suit from the back of the closet, the scent of cedar sharp in its synthetic fibers. This thing had never needed an ironing since he’d picked it up years ago and it didn’t need one now, which was great, because he had stuff to do.
He still looked damned good in it. Stan squared himself up in front of the mirror, splashed on a bit of his favorite aftershave to make him extra irresistible, got his hair where he wanted it and strolled out to the yard.
Striking a casual pose against the front fender of the Stanleymobile was fine for like, a minute, but his back was beginning to creak in protest by the time Clary finally stepped out onto the porch. Stan pulled himself upright with a suppressed grunt and headed over to meet her as she came down the steps.
Mabel had delivered, all right. Clary’s outfit was some kind of barely-structured 80s-vintage tunic top over skinny leggings, all steely spangles that managed to both drape and cling distractingly, one shoulder and its black bra strap left bare. The scarf was amethyst silk shot with silver threads, hair twisted up and secured with a couple of borrowed glitter clips to tumble down in waves. Her fancy purple eye makeup was definitely out of Mabel’s makeover kit.
“Not half bad,” he said as off-handedly as he could, and she flashed him a grin.
"Sauterne gold." Clary reached out to straighten his lapels and tapped the heavy medallion at his breastbone. "Don't you embody an entire decade of regrets. You wear it a lot better than that old sedan did."
“It was a good decade! They don’t make ‘em like this any more, am I right?” He swept an arm out in a grand gesture, indicating his own awesomeness as he caught her hand in his. “C’mon, let’s book it, we’ve got the evenin’ to ourselves and I don’t wanna waste a minute.”
'Where are we headed?"
"That's a secret." Her eyes rolled heavenwards but she trailed along at his side, allowing herself to be handed into the car and buckling in as he headed around to slip into his own seat.
“No hints whatsoever?”
The car rumbled reassuringly to life and he piloted out along the drive, fingertips tapping along the window frame. “Only if you close your eyes.”
The sky was darkening rapidly, a smudge of deepening blue through the trees, and her smile was a bare glint in the passenger-side shadows. “We’re going to Greasy’s.”
“There is a lot more to town than Greasy’s!”
“I’ve spent most of the last week at Greasy’s and we are absolutely going there, because you know better than to take me to the local bar.” Clary leaned against the window and obediently closed her eyes.
“There are actually a couple classy joints in this burg, I’ll have you know.” Which of course they weren’t going to. The El Diablo rolled smoothly on down to the diner. Stan glanced over to make sure she hadn’t peeked, then hopped out, scooted around the front of the car and drew her door open. “All right. You good to step out blind?”
“So long as I have you to lean on.” She got her feet on the pavement, her hand latched in at his elbow, and he leaned back a bit to get her upright. Stan managed to kick the door closed behind them and got her up to the front step.
“All right, all right, take a look already before I regret this more than I do.”
She obliged him, lashes fluttering up, and gasped in delight that was at least half manufactured. “Why, Stan! It’s Greasy’s! Only it’s all twinkly!”
“Very funny.” He had managed to get the twinkle lights going with the bribed-and-blackmailed help of a couple of the staff, and the diner glowed against the dark backdrop of late evening. “Look, I thought we’ve had more’n enough big drama for the week, right? So this way we can snag a snack, someone else can cook an’ handle the dishes, it’s Sunday night so it’ll be pretty dead….”
“Do we get to dance?” Clary’s hip grazed his as they stepped inside. The late-night waitress spared a cheery little wave from behind the counter. As he’d hoped the place was pretty much empty since he’d kept his preparations so modest - no sound system and definitely no inviting the locals.
“All taken care of.” He pointed down to the booth at the end, where Mabel’s karaoke machine sat sparkling on the table, a tiny disco party light duct-taped to the top. Stan walked Clary down with solemn dignity even though she was laughing into his shoulder. “Lady’s choice. Anythin’ you want.”
“Anything at all?” she needled, kneeling on the bench seat to flip through the tunes on offer. “You’re leaving yourself wide open there, Stan.”
“Princess, I am at your disposal tonight.”
Clary glanced back at him over her bare shoulder, eyes narrowed. “Ditch that jacket and show me how fancy those feet can get.”
He tossed his jacket onto the unoccupied booth seat, then ducked his head to grin as a familiar disco bassline overlaid with swooping strings welled up on the karaoke speakers. “What, no Glenn Miller? Not gonna wring another couple slow dances outta me?”
“This is no ballroom. We’re going to have to improvise.” Clary crooked a finger at him, pacing backwards onto open floor where the smaller tables had been moved aside. “Come here, loverboy.”
Stan rolled his shoulders, cracked his knuckles and stalked out after her with rising glee.
The world contracted to the circle of his arms and her within it. No paying customers, no expectations, no obligations, nothing but the determined steady thump of the beat and the faint insistent nudge of she’s leaving at the back of his head - he pushed that down and aside.
He had better things to worry about. Balance and counterbalance played out in turns and dips. Clary leaned into his palm at her waist and spun away, strain and flex flowing through his frame according to rhythm and melody and her trust in his grip.
For three tracks there wasn’t a word to say, just an occasional huff of breath or a chuckle. The fourth song was a slow one and he cautiously eased into her space. Clary looked up to him with narrowed, knowing eyes. Her arm slipped around his shoulders and she settled against him - no ice block this time - so he laid his cheek against her hair, their feet light, tracing out overlapping box-steps without a hitch.
He wanted so fiercely to stay there in the bubble of the moment that he had paid no attention to the slow trickle of people who’d wandered into the diner, but a faint cough from a booth somewhere down the line drew his attention. Stan swore under his breath as he counted heads. They’d picked up an audience and at least one idiot was angling a phone down their way.
Clary laughed dryly as a pivot gave her the same view. “Why don’t we take a quick break and let some of them come take over the floor.”
“Long as you’re willin’ to DJ, that sounds fine to me.” She left her arm linked in his as they returned to their booth and swept her professional hostess’ smile across the room. Embarrassed observers picked up menus or sheepishly shuffled down to dance in the space they’d just vacated.
“Chocolate shake? We should split it. Lunch was late.”
“On it, sweetpea.” He left her fiddling with the music queue and caught the waitress in passing to place the order, watching the swirl of traffic up and down Greasy’s center aisle. Apparently word had gotten out that Clary was about to go, and Gravity Falls wasn’t quite done enjoying the novelty of the Shack’s temporary-resident lawyer.
“Oh, I couldn’t possibly,” Clary said gently to Manly Dan as Stan stomped back down to their booth with shake in hand. “My dance card’s full tonight. Perhaps I’ll be back for a visit sometime. I won’t forget!”
Stan skewered Dan with a glare that actually shifted the big fella back on his heels and slid onto the seat alongside Clary, between her and the rest of the crowd. “You’d think they’d move on to somethin’ else by now,” he groused as she unwrapped the straws.
“What can I say? People keep telling me it’s been a dull summer compared to last year.”
They only got through half the shake. Constant interruptions from well-wishers grew more frequent as the place became more packed - no way this was a normal Sunday crowd, people were coming in for a last gander at Miz Enigma - and Stan’s patience was stretched painfully thin by the time Clary finally leaned over to murmur into his ear. “Why don’t you bring the car around to the side. I’ll be right there.”
“About time we skipped,” he gritted out, cutting through to the front door with heavy strides. His last glance caught her perched upon the table’s edge, microphone in hand, thumbing through songs and chatting with a couple of the museum staff.
The El Diablo glided smoothly up alongside the diner. He sat and waited, thumbs tapping an annoyed staccato on the steering wheel, listening to the muffled racket of enthusiastic singing from within.
Fifteen. He was about ready to charge in there and throw her over his shoulder, scandal be damned, when the side door opened a sliver and Clary slipped through with his jacket over one arm. She dropped into the passenger seat and fumbled with the belt in her haste. “I got the sheriff going on a medley. Get us out of here, please.”
The tires were already squealing as he backed up and peeled out along the main drag. “So am I rubbin’ off on you or what? That was pretty slick, though I like a little flash an’ dazzle on the way out.”
Her low chuckle was edged with sharp relief. “Maybe I’ve learned a thing or two. Any chance we can find some peace and quiet?”
Stan took a left, cutting away from town into dark, dense pines. “I know just the place.”
Clary plucks the pen from behind her ear and flips open the ticket book, looking over the table expectantly. “What’s it gonna be?”