Actions

Work Header

Two Roads in the Woods

Chapter Text

“Greg! Greg, come on, I have to leave soon!”

Ribbit.

“Shh!” Greg clasped a hand over Jason Funderberker The Frog’s mouth. “Don’t let ‘em hear you!” he hissed, tucking himself and his frog further under the bush on the side of their house.

Some people might say that a nine-year-old was too old to be playing hide-and-seek with his pet frog. They would be dead wrong. However, in this case, it was not a game hide-and-seek that young Gregory was partaking in.

“Greg!”

His elbow was sticking out a little. Greg poked his tongue out as he tried to conceal himself better without making the bush rustle too much. Normally he would’ve picked a tree over a bush, but Wirt knew all of his best hiding places already. Up in the trees was the first place his big brother had looked, he’d seen his feet from under the leaves of the bush and they went straight for the line of trees at the edge of the yard. Greg was a natural tree climber and Wirt knew it. He wasn’t such a dumb little brother that he was going to make it that easy for him.

Of course, clearly he was a very smart little brother and Wirt was the very dumb older brother because he wasn’t even looking anymore. Just shouting his name and knocking things over and making a mess from the sound of it. The kitchen window was right above Greg’s bush, and open, so he could hear whenever Wirt moved from one side of the house to the other.

The front door flew open, then slammed shut. Greg clutched Jason Funderberker tighter so he wouldn’t hop right to Wirt. Jason Funderberker had a rather rude habit of taking his brother’s side at the worst possible moments. The front door opened again, but closed much more gently this time.

“Sweetheart, we’ve really got to go.” It was their mom. Greg frowned, uncurling a bit to try and hear better. She wasn’t yelling like a crazy person the way Wirt was.

Though he wasn’t yelling now. “Mom, I literally can’t find him anywhere.”

“Greg will come out when he’s ready,” she replied.

He frowned. That was the tone she’d used when he’d broken his dad’s trombone and hid all the evidence but she knew he’d done it anyway and was just waiting for him to confess. It was scary how moms knew everything. Well, not everything. If his mom knew everything, then she’d know not to let Wirt go.

“But I need to say goodbye.”

“I understand, Wirt, but we don’t have time. Your orientation starts at noon. We’re going to be late as it is.”

“Then it doesn’t matter if I’m already late. I can be a few minutes later.”

“Wirt, we’ve looked everywhere.” It was his dad now. “Like your mom said, he’ll come out when he’s ready. I’ll make sure he knows how much you wanted to say goodbye and you can talk to him later after you two finish unpacking all that nonsense.”

“What nonsense? These are all important college essentials that the lists told me I needed,” Wirt replied grumpily.

“You really need that broom, kiddo? You gonna be sweeping your dorm room every few weeks?”

“…Maybe.”

The car door slammed and Greg gasped, his hold on Jason Funderberker loosening. No, they wouldn’t actually leave. They were pretending. Wirt pretended all the time to get him to do what he wanted. It was a mean big brother trick. A parent trick, too. Like reverse-psychology or something.

“I’ll see you on Parent Weekend, right?” Wirt asked.

“You bet. Wouldn’t miss it for anything,” Dad answered.

Were they hugging? Greg was pretty sure they were hugging because there was a lot of quiet and then maybe a sniffle – Dad was such an emotional dork, just like Wirt – and then another car door opened and shut and the engine started. No. No, they were still messing with him. Wirt wouldn’t leave without saying goodbye. He wouldn’t. That’s why he’d gotten up early and crawled under this bush. If Wirt never found him, then he could never say goodbye and never leave. Okay, so the logic may have been a bit off, but Greg never claimed to be a logical kind of guy. He’d at least wait and hide until after the first day of school, then Wirt would have to wait a whole ‘nother year before leaving and maybe a ten-year-old Greg would be more ready than a nine-year-old Greg.

Their mom was saying something to his dad, but the engine didn’t turn off and then he heard his dad shout, “Drive safe!” and the car pulled out of the driveway, gravel crunching under the tires of the used car they got for Wirt as a graduation present and the first thing Wirt had done with it was take Greg to get milkshakes and see a movie at the drive-in theatre in the next town over because Greg had always wanted to see a real drive-in movie and now that car was driving away.

“Wait! Oof!” Greg tumbled out of the bush. He scratched his hands a bit, but that didn’t matter as he scrambled to his feet and darted around to the front of the house. “Wait for me!”

The car was already rolling down their street, his dad still standing on the sidewalk and waving. He turned around as Greg shouted and he grabbed him before he went careening into the street right after it. He fought to get his arm loose, but his dad had a strong grip. Greg tried to pry his fingers off while staring after the car crammed full of all Wirt’s stupid college stuff.

“Wirt!” he shouted – maybe the window was still open and they’d hear him and Wirt would make Mom turn around because he couldn’t just leave – but the car turned the corner and disappeared. “Wirt!

“Hey, calm down, buddy. Greg, it’s okay.” Dad had his arms around him, as if a hug would fix everything. Well, it usually did and it was usually Greg convincing everybody that this was true, but not today. Hugs couldn’t fix this. “I’m sorry, Greg, but they couldn’t wait any longer. They had to go.”

“He wasn’t supposed to just leave!” Greg complained. It was more whined really, but he’d been trying not to whine so much because only babies whined and he was nine years old and anything was possible if you set your mind to it. “He has to come back. I didn’t give him his goodbye present yet! Dad, he has to!”

“C’mon, buddy. Let’s go inside and eat some of the leftover cake from last night, huh? Didn’t you say that corner piece has your name on it?” Greg shook his head adamantly and buried his face in his dad’s shirt while he rubbed his back. “Come on. We’ll have some cake, watch some cartoons, and before you know it, Wirt will call and you can talk to him all you want. And we’ll see him in a few weeks. You can give him your present then.”

“Or you can, you know, give it to me now.”

Greg blinked, then spun right out of his dad’s arms to grin at his very stupid, very awesome brother. “I knew you wouldn’t leave!” he declared triumphantly, to which Wirt rolled his eyes.

“I did leave. Mom turned around when we saw you nearly swan dive into the street and she said it would be mean if we didn’t.” He pointed to the car parked on the other side of the street.

Their mom waved from the open driver’s window with a cheerful smile and Greg frowned. He was not impressed. They really did trick him. Turning around was just all part of their plot against him all along.

Wirt poked him in the ribs. “Hey, so where’s that goodbye present?”

“I don’t know if you deserve it now.” Greg crossed his arms, turning his nose up as far as it would go. “Only really amazing brothers get great goodbye presents.”

“I spent all morning destroying the house looking for you- which reminds me, where were you?”

Greg beamed and zipped his lips. “I’ll never tell! But you’re right. It was pretty funny how you went squawking all around the house like a funny chicken, and funny brothers are almost as good as amazing brothers. Wait right here! I’ll go get it!”

“Okay, but if you hide again, I really will leave,” Wirt called after him as he hurried into the house.

Barreling into his room with the renewed energy of sheer relief, Greg dove right for his bed, plucking a small, yellow-wrapped package out of his pillowcase. He’d done it himself, which had been really hard even though it was just a little rectangle, box-like thing. Mom sure made it look easy at Christmas when she hid in her room and wrapped all the presents last minute on Christmas Eve. He was fine with wrapping just the one, thank you. Bounding back down the hall, he nearly crashed right into his dad as he came in the front door.

“Where’s the fire?” he joked, but Greg simply raced outside.

Wirt was just where he’d left him, plus a frog. He was giving Jason Funderberker a pat on the head, pleasing both little brother and the amphibian. He looked up as Greg ran at him and still managed to be caught off balance when the present was thrust into his face.

“Here!” Greg preened. “Happy Going To College Day!”

“Oh. Wow, it’s an actual present.” Wirt genuinely sounded surprised. Greg didn’t know whether this offended him or not. With a super dorky grin, Wirt began to peel off the tape holding the crumpled wrapping paper together.

“Wait! Don’t open it now!” Greg stood on his tiptoes and waved his hands in Wirt’s face, accidently smacking him on the nose a few times.

Wirt raised an eyebrow. “Why not?”

“Because.”

“Really? Just because?”

“Yes really just because!” Greg retorted. “Wait until you get to school and are actually missing me. Then you can open it.”

Wirt hummed and glanced off to the side. “What if I never miss you?”

Greg flapped his arms around, striking different “look at me!” poses until he had his brother’s complete attention. “It’s impossible not to miss me! Look at this face o’ mine!” He poked his cheeks where his dimples would be if he’d had any.

Wirt snorted back a laugh and opened his mouth to reply when their mother called out for them to hurry up. Greg’s heart sank. Right. Wirt still had to leave. He’d hoped giving him his goodbye present and actually saying goodbye would make him feel better about this whole mess. It just made his tummy feel like crying, and he didn’t even think that was a possible feeling to have before today.

I’ll miss you.” Greg reached out and tugged on the hem of Wirt’s sweatshirt. He didn’t have the heart to tell him how silly it was to wear the school’s hoodie on his first day. Especially when it said, “UM” in big blocky letters.

“Hey.”

Wirt got that concerned look in his eyes that became so frequent after their trip over the garden wall. Greg liked it as much as he didn’t like it, which was a weird feeling to experience and he didn’t yet have the words for it. Maybe by the time he went to college he would.

He crouched down and gave his shoulder a squeeze. “You know I’m gonna miss you, too, but it’ll be okay. I promised that I’ll call three times a week, at least, remember? And if you need to talk to me, then you can call me whenever you want. I might be in class, but I’ll call back as soon as I can. And that’s a rock fact.”

Greg frowned. “Rock facts aren’t always one hundred percent, Wirt.”

“Well, my rock facts are.” He ruffled his hair, then pulled him in for a tight squeeze.

It was part of their thing. Wirt was supposed to hug him way too tight and then he’d kick and squirm and pretend to complain about annoying big brothers and their terrible hugs. Just this one time he squeezed back.

Though he did still kick him, just a little. “Don’t cheat and open my present before you get there.”

Wirt chuckled, a warm sound that rumbled from his chest right into Greg’s own. “I won’t. I promise.” He pulled back and flicked his forehead. “Make sure you and Jason Funderberker go on lots of adventures that you can tell me all about.”

“Who? Me?” The brothers blinked at each other, then looked up in the direction of the crackling, croaky voice. Jason Funderberker The Person stood a few feet away from them, walking his Pekinese, Miranda.

“Oh, no. Not you, Jason Funderberker,” Wirt explained, pointing to the frog beside them. “Jason Funderberker, our frog.”

“Ohh… sorry.”

They waited until he’d continued on his way, then Greg pulled Wirt into a more normal hug. Their mom had to threaten to drag Wirt all the way to school by his ear if he didn’t hurry up before he finally scrambled his way back to the car. He tripped on the sidewalk, but recovered with a hop and a skip and a half. Not the best landing, he’d seen, but pretty good. Greg gave it an 8.5 as far as clumsy brothers went.

Oh! He almost forgot.

“Bye, Wirt!” Greg hollered.

“See ya, Greg!” Wirt called back, waving with the hand that clutched his gift before ducking into the passenger seat.

Ribbit. Greg scooped up Jason Funderberker in his arms, then made his little frog hand wave while the car turned around and resumed its journey into the unknown…

Well, not exactly. It was just college. Greg could handle that, and Wirt probably could. Maybe. If they could handle the actual Unknown, then college would be a breeze.

Of course, it wasn’t until he walked passed Wirt’s room and noticed how empty it all was that he worried that it might not be so easy after all. “Ain’t that just the way?” he sighed.

-0-

After eating the cake his dad promised him when he’d been so distraught – “I offered it to calm you down, you’re fine now, no cake before breakfast, young man. What’s with that face? I said no. …fine. But don’t tell your mother.” – Greg found it to be a relatively normal day. He and Jason Funderberker went exploring, just like they usually did when Wirt wasn’t around.

He’d placed Jason in his bike basket that Wirt bought for Jason Funderberker’s first birthday with them and took him to the park. “Greg, we don’t even know how old he is, let alone what day he was born.” Wirt had tried to reason with him. Well, reason wasn’t a very good reason to keep Jason Funderberker from having a birthday party. He needed to know how appreciated he was. So he made Wirt show their appreciation with a bike basket to go along with Greg’s very first two-wheeler bike without training wheels. It was easier to remember Jason’s birthday if it was the same day as his own. Wirt grumbled that it was just an excuse for more presents, but it wasn’t like Greg could sit in the bike basket and let Jason Funderberker ride the bike around town. That’d be silly.

At the park, he and Jason met up with some of the kids he recognized from his old third grade class. They started up a rousing game of Two Old Cat, but they could only find one old cat wandering by the park that day. So Greg made up a new game called One Old Cat. It was a little bit like tag, and a little bit like Monopoly, and a little bit like Candy Land if Candy Land was more like Pick-up Sticks and The Hokey Pokey combined.

It was the best game ever. Greg was sad that he didn’t think to write down the rules because there was no way he was going to remember them all. Wirt usually remembered to do stuff like that for him. By the time everyone left the park to go get ice cream downtown, he’d already forgotten them all. That was okay though, because ice cream was way more important than silly ol’ rules.

He and Jason Funderberker split a cup of rocky road ice cream even though he liked cones better. He couldn’t get a cone with Jason because his tongue always made the ice cream part fall off the cone part and then Wirt had to give his ice cream to Greg even though Greg didn’t ask him to because that was apparently part of the Big Brother Rules. Greg couldn’t complain though. Wirt had excellent taste in ice cream. But since there was no Wirt this time and he only had enough pocket money for one ice cream, he played it safe with going the cup route.

After that he got in trouble with his dad for leaving the park without checking in at home first. Then he got sick because all he’d eaten all day was cake and ice cream. And half a melted Hershey bar that he found at the park, but only the part that was still mostly covered by the wrapper. Greg promised to never ever ever eat something off the ground again when he threw up purple and yellow frosting on his pants. From the cake, not the Hershey bar. Even Greg knew better than to eat a Hershey bar that was purple and yellow.

Even though he was confined to his bed both as punishment for leaving the park and because his tummy hurt, Greg still had a pretty good time playing Go Fish with Jason Funderberker. Wirt had tried to teach them both Poker once, but gave up when Greg decided to sing and act out the Queen of Hearts being in love with King of Diamonds and then it started a war between the Jacks and then it became a game of fifty-two pick-up.

When his punishment was over, Greg and Jason watched TV in the living room. They liked to watch the infomercials and debate what would make the most sense to buy Wirt for his birthday. It was funnier when Wirt was actually around to complain about it though. Most things were funnier when Wirt was around, actually.

Greg frowned as the thought occurred to him. Wirt hadn’t even been gone a day and he’d thought of him in almost everything he’d done. He got up to find a calendar. Their mom had already circled and marked “Parents’ Day” in October, so Greg counted the amount of days left until then.

“Beans! Jason, there’s still thirty-five whole days before we go visit Wirt! And that’s only for one day!” Greg exclaimed, attempting to convey this terrible occurrence to his frog. He looked to the sky – even though it was covered by the ceiling since he was in the house – and spread his arms out. “Is this what life has in store for us, Jason Funderberker? Thirty-five days of night and one of… not-night, a cycle of- umm… stuff that means I don’t get to see Wirt!”

“Leave the poetry to your brother, Greg.” His dad gave him a pat on the head as he passed him to get a glass of water. “You might have a future in acting though. I can really relate to your struggle.”

Greg let his arms fall to his sides and observed him. “Dad? Is Wirt gonna come back home when college is done?”

“In a way,” he hedged. “He’ll come home for breaks. Thanksgiving, Christmas, and summer, but when he’s done with college, he’ll probably want to be on his own. Just like you will when you’re done with school.”

Which couldn’t come soon enough in Greg’s opinion, but that wasn’t the big issue at the moment. “Why would he want to be on his own when he has us?”

His dad laughed. “I know it seems weird now, bud, but trust me. In a few years you won’t want anything to do with us either.”

“I’d never want that,” he gasped, eyes wide as saucers. “We’re family!”

With a warm smile and a pat on the shoulder, his dad went back into the living room to take control of the TV and claim the big, comfy chair. Greg didn’t want the big, comfy chair anyway. It was too big when it was just him and Jason Funderberker. And not nearly as comfy. Greg looked to the calendar again. Did Wirt really leave because he wanted to be by himself? He’d said it was because he wanted to learn more things, but what if he’d been lying to make Greg feel better?

“Pffft. That’s ridiculous,” he laughed. “Wirt went to more school because it’s school! It may be crazy, but that’s just the kind of person he is.” Greg placed his hands on his hips and imagined himself as President Abraham Lincoln giving an important speech, then realized exactly what he said. “Wait. That didn’t come out right.”

Jason croaked at him and blinked several times. Sometimes you just didn’t need words. Greg picked him up and carried him off for the next phase of their adventure.

It ended up being more bed rest because his stomach still hurt.

And all of that was exactly what he relayed to Wirt on the phone that evening when he finally called. Except for the part where he asked his dad about Wirt and college and why he wasn’t going to come back home ever again. That was merely a rock hypothesis. Completely unfounded.

Jason Funderberker was all warm and toasty on his bed in a pair of socks, watching Greg play with a spoon. A bowl of chicken noodle soup had gone cold in his lap as he babbled to his brother, breathlessness the only way Wirt could get a word in edgewise.

“You really shouldn’t ride your bike alone, Greg. What if something had happened to you?” Of course the first words would be worry, Greg grinned. Typical Worry Wirt.

“It was just to the park and then to get ice cream. The park isn’t even that far. I go there by myself a ton of times and nothing’s happened. And dad already punished me for going to get ice cream with the other kids and no adult supervision.” Greg’s stomach grumbled in the non-hungry way, so he rubbed small circles over it. “My tummy punished me, too.”

Wirt snorted over the phone. “Serves you right.”

“How was driving to school? And getting to school? And moving into school?”

“Okay, okay. It was all good. Really good, actually. Remember when we toured the campus a few months ago? Well, it was like that, except better.”

Excitement fluttered in his brother’s voice. Greg listened to it very carefully as he sipped his cold soup. Happy emotions didn’t get as big as the non-happy ones when it came to Wirt, something that still baffled him. It was just so… easy to be happy.

Well, except when he missed Wirt. Huh. Maybe Wirt was so unhappy because he’d been missing Greg for most of his life and still getting used to having him around. That sorta made sense.

“What’d you do when it was just you?” Greg asked, interrupting a description regarding the Neoclassical design of the campus that he hadn’t been paying any attention to.

Wirt didn’t get mad though, it just threw him for a loop. “What?”

“When it was just you, you know, before me, what did you do?” he repeated.

There was a long pause, so Greg used the time to pick individual noodles out of the broth one at a time with his spoon and stuck them to Jason Funderberker’s chin. “I… well, I guess I just read a lot. It was a lot quieter when it was just me, I remember that much.” When Wirt managed to laugh a little, Greg felt better about his question. “I don’t know, Greg. I just did stuff. Normal kid stuff. Kinda like what you do- except no. No, not really. I don’t think I’ve ever done what you do.”

“Yeah, but who did you play with?” Greg pressed.

“I played by myself.”

It was said with such ease, he could actually imagine his brother shrugging it off. He’ll probably want to be on his own. He shivered as his dad’s words came back and he pushed his soup bowl over to Jason Funderberker so he could finish it off. He’d already eaten the noodle beard he’d made for him.

“Greg? Are you still there?”

“Yeah.”

“Oh. Okay.”

“Did you like it?”

“Hm? Like what? Your present? Yeah!” He huffed out a laugh. “I can’t believe you made me a tape! I haven’t listened to it yet, but I will once I’ve unpacked everything. What’s on it?”

“Poetry and clarinet. No, I’m not gonna tell you! You’ll find out when you listen. But that’s not what I meant.”

“What did you mean?”

“Did you like being by yourself?”

“Oh. Uh. I guess? I didn’t really know any different. It was just me and mom for a while and mom worked a lot. Then there was your dad, and then you and then it was all different. From how it was. I don’t know, Greg. It didn’t bother me, no. But if you’re asking if I’d rather be an only child again, I think I’ve made my position on that pretty clear in the past.”

This time the laugh was forced. Beans, he’d gone and made his brother sad. He should’ve just let him ramble on about his architecture.

Wirt coughed and cleared his throat. “Why’re you asking?”

“No reason. I’m just glad I don’t have to be alone like you were. Even when you’re not around, I’ve still got Jason Funderberker! I’ll never be alone!”

“Yeah, well, Jason Funderberker better keep you in line or the two of you are going to wind up in prison.”

Greg scoffed. “Jason Funderberker doesn’t have the complexion for prison! Stripes would make him look washed out and green!”

“Greg. He is green. He’s a frog.”

“I know,” he giggled, grinning when he could feel Wirt’s amusement through the speaker. Like little dust particles squeezing through one end of the phone and popping out the other.

“What? Oh. Okay.” Wirt’s voice was directed away from the phone, then came back. “Gotta go now, Greg. Mom's getting ready to head to the hotel and she wants you to give the phone back to Jonathan so she can talk to him a bit and I’ve got stuff to do here.”

“What kind of stuff?” Greg pressed.

“College stuff. Might be doing some orientation things later tonight. I dunno. I guess I’ll play it by ear.”

“Oh. Have fun?” He still wasn’t really sure what all this orientation stuff was.

“Thanks, you too. Feel better and don’t throw up on any of my things.”

“Aye aye, captain. Thar she will not blow chunks on the captain’s booty. Ar!”

“The captain appreciates it. Good night, Greg.”

“’Night, Wirt.” He stayed on the phone until their mom started cooing at him, then he yelled for Dad to come take the phone. “Guess it’s just you and me again, huh?” He drew Jason Funderberker in for a hug, then tucked him into his blankets despite his frog tank sitting on top of his dresser. “Mom won’t be home ‘til tomorrow because she's taking the train in the morning, so you’re sleeping with me tonight.” Ribbit. “You keep your cold feets to yourself, then I’ll do the same,” he promised.

-0-

Greg didn’t dream about what happened that often. Wirt was the one with the bad dreams. Wirt remembered most of it, probably all of it since he had a pretty good memory, but a lot of things were fuzzy for Greg. Like he couldn’t remember if they’d been to a school teaching pumpkins to dance or an animal village full of friendly skeletons, but he did remember Beatrice and the frog boat. When he dreamed about what happened, he liked to dream of that day on the boat when he was a drum, Jason Funderberker The Frog sang, and Wirt played the bassoon for everybody.

That wasn’t what he dreamed of on Wirt’s first night away though. After he woke up, it took him a while to realize he wasn’t really a tree, and even longer to get the taste of leaves out of his mouth.

Chapter Text

“Ohhhhhhh, we’re going to see Wirt today, it’s been so long I made a song, ‘cause I can’t wait to see his dumb ol’ face a-gain. He’s learning stuff and getting buff, just kidding ‘bout that last part though, but I miss him and I know that he’s missed me too. To Wirt today! To Wirt today! I can’t believe I finally get to say: To Wirt today! To Wirt today! We’re going to see Wirt at school today!”

Greg sang as he skipped around the playground for the elementary school students. So far, being a fourth grader wasn’t all that different from being a third grader, except they had to write longer book reports. Three of his classmates watched him from the monkey bars as he continued in his little circle of song.

“You rhymed today with today,” Melanie Jones pointed out.

He stopped dancing and looked down at his feet. “Well, that’s just the idea. It still needs some work.”

“I thought you weren’t seeing him ‘til tomorrow,” Carrie Myers piped up.

“Mom said that Wirt said it was okay if we drive down tonight and have dinner with him and stay at a hotel and then hang out all day tomorrow if we wanted to!” Greg explained. “But we have to leave right after school, so Mom’s packing all our stuff and is gonna pick me and Dad up and then we’ll go straight there.”

“How far is it?” Daphne Delaney asked.

“Um.” Greg hummed, balancing on one leg. “I think two hours? Pretty far.”

Carrie laughed. “That’s not so far. My sister went to college on the other side of the country. We have to take a plane to visit her now.”

A plane? Wow. That was far. “Why’d she do that?”

“Mm-mm-mm.” She shrugged. “She wanted to.”

“Oh.” Greg glanced up towards the sky, then resumed his remix of the Adelaide Parade song. “To Wirt today! To Wirt today! Jump up and shout hip hip hooray!”

The school bell rang, interrupting the new chorus. The girls picked up their lunchboxes from the tan bark and shuffled back inside while Greg scampered on ahead. He was the first one back in the classroom, beaming at the whiteboard in a way that unnerved the rest of his classmates.

“I didn’t think I’d see a day where Greg was actually excited for lunch to be over,” Daphne told Melanie, taking their seats behind him.

He turned around, fixing what he believed to be a scholarly expression on his face. “The faster we get through the day, the faster I get to see my brother. Lunch is just another odious mountain I have to... to… jump over. And that’s a rock fact!”

He stood up on top of his desk and pulled out a rock from his pants’ pocket. It was smaller than the one he’d stolen from Old Lady Daniels’s garden, but Wirt had found it for him and painted the face on it, so that made it the best. He held it up for the class to see, inspiring a chorus of laughter from the other kids.

“Alright, class, settle down. Gregory, don’t make me tell you again.” Their teacher, Mrs. Wordsworth, tapped her ruler against a ceramic mug on her desk, peering at him from over the spectacles perched on her nose. “I know you’re even more exuberant than usual today, but that’s no excuse for over-the-top shenanigans.”

“Yes, sir, Mrs. Wordsworth!” Greg saluted, renewing the class' laughter, and tucked the rock away, falling right back into his seat. “I’ll try to contain myself.”

His entire fourth grade class had become well-acquainted with his countdown from the beginning of the year. While most of them focused on short-term goals like weekends, Greg hastily ticked off the days on the calendar in his school planner. October 7th had been circled with a bright red marker several times, only recently joined by a happy face and a frog sticker on October 6th when his mom and dad told him the plan.

October 31st was also circled, and not just because it was Halloween. Greg grinned. He couldn’t even be sad that it was on a Tuesday this year! Halloween was just not a time for disappointment in Greg’s book. It was something even his brother agreed on, despite everything. Though it did mean he’d have to wait another twenty-four days before he could see him again, but maybe it would pass by faster the second time around.

-0-

An awful lot of pleading had to be done in order to have Jason Funderberker sitting in his lap as his family made the trek to the college campus. Greg hugged him tightly, forcing a soft, but affectionate croak from him frog. He knew Jason missed Wirt just as much as he had, and it would be absolutely unfair for their frog to be left behind.

“The hotel won’t let him in, though, honey,” his mom had attempted to persuade him. “What will we do with him when it’s time for bed?”

“You just leave that to me and Wirt. We’ll figure something out,” Greg replied with a confidence that came easily. “Wirt always has a plan.”

Jason Funderberker echoed the sentiment. After all, it had been Wirt who convinced their mom and dad/stepdad to keep their frog friend. If he could do that, then figuring out where Jason would sleep would be a piece of pie.

“Mmm… pie…” he murmured, rubbing his tummy.

It had taken them a bit longer to get from Lakeville to Amherst than they’d planned with traffic, so Greg was eager for dinner time when they pulled into the parking lot closest to Wirt’s dorm. All thoughts of hunger fled as he pressed his face to the window, taking in the large, four-story, brick buildings. Even if Greg didn’t get buildings and furniture and stuff the way his brother did, he had to admit that it was a really cool campus. When they went on the tour before Wirt got in, Greg hadn’t been paying much attention to the details. It seemed like a very Wirt-like place though.

Speaking of his brother…

“Wirt!” Greg threw open the door before he’d even unbuckled himself, an oversight that thwarted his attempt to launch himself from the car. “Oof!” He fumbled with the latch, then followed Jason Funderberker’s lead and hopped out of the car.

“Greg! Watch for cars!” He heard his mom shout at him, but there weren’t any cars. Well, it was a parking lot, so of course there were cars, but they were parked cars. Parked cars couldn’t hit him.

He didn’t think about the fact that he could hit the parked cars though. Ohh… that’s what she’d meant, he realized belatedly, warily skirting the SUV he’d clipped his shoulder on. When the alarm didn’t sound, he continued, undeterred. From where he leaned against the trunk of a tree, Wirt watched him with a sideways smile. He was totally trying to seem cool and failing, but Greg would let him know that later. For now there were more pressing things to say.

“Wirt! Jason Funderberker ate an entire jar of mayonnaise yesterday!” Greg blurted once he was close enough.

Wirt’s smile cracked and he cringed. “Greg, why does that have to be the first thing you tell me?”

“Why wouldn’t it be the first thing I tell you?”

Greg went in for a hug, but hesitated as he actually looked at his brother. Thirty-five days was a long time, but he hadn’t expected him to look… well, different. Except not. He still looked like Wirt, he was wearing a red sweater with the collar of his shirt underneath poking out at the neck and gray pants, all very Wirt-like things, but... something just wasn’t right.

“Greg?” That weird concerned look was still the same at least, and shining bright as Wirt waited for him to complete the hug he started, already hunched down at his level to make it easier.

Oh, he was being silly. There wasn’t anything different about him. Greg grinned and latched onto him like a leech, determined to stay glued to him for the entire weekend. Luckily, Wirt seemed to be on the same page.

“I already talked to my roommate about it, and he said it’s fine if Greg sleeps over.” Wirt told their parents over dinner at one of the on-campus eateries.

Apparently it was one of Wirt's favorite places to go for a quick bite to eat between classes and he'd had promised them it was really good. Greg had to agree as he devoured a plate of onion rings, also sneaking some of Wirt’s french fries when he wasn’t looking.

“What about Jason Funderberker?” Greg asked, collecting the fries in his pants to feed to their frog later since he had to wait in the car while they ate.

“Jason Funderberker, too, but we’ll have to be careful. My RA can’t know we’re hiding a frog in my room,” he told him, angling his plate away from Greg to keep him from burgling his fries.

That didn’t stop him though. Nothing could stop the sneakiness of the fry burglar.

"Hey, Wirt! What did the frog order at McDonalds?"

"Do I really want to know the answer?"

"French flies!"

"Oh my gosh, Greg. No."

While Wirt covered his face with his hands, Greg grabbed a handful of his fries and shoved them into his pockets. His dad had to cover his mouth to keep from laughing and their mom kept shaking her head like she couldn't believe it, but as far as he knew he got away with it. Success.

Their mom agreed to let Greg stay with him for the night, though after a bit of needling from both boys. She shared a secret wink with Greg to let him know she was just teasing them. He knew how much she liked it when they got along. She kissed him goodnight when they dropped him and Wirt back at the dorms and his dad did the same. She hugged Wirt tightly, too, with a kiss and promise to pick them up for breakfast in the morning. The brothers and Jason Funderberker waved goodbye as the car pulled out of the parking lot, Greg’s little mini-suitcase at his feet.

“Come on, Greg. I’ll show you my room, then we can explore or whatever it is you want to do.” Wirt lead the way into the Van Meter dormitory.

He paused and gasped, a mischievous grin quick to follow. “Whatever it is I want to do?”

Wirt started to reply, thought better of it, then frowned. “Within reason.”

“Hm…” He pretended to consider this option. “Okay! I think that can be arranged, brother o’ mine.”

When they got inside Greg bolted for the stairs, but apparently his brother’s room was on the first floor. It was a shame, really. Climbing stairs was fun. He wished their house had stairs. He pouted, but shuffled along after his brother, his excitement rising once again when he noticed the decorations on the outside of everyone’s doors.

“What’s on your door, Wirt?” Greg asked. “Is it a dinosaur? I hope it’s a dinosaur.”

Wirt chuckled. “Sorry, Greg. Afraid it’s not a dinosaur. My hall’s theme is literary classics.” When Greg simply stared at him, he sighed. “Books. Old books.”

“Oh.” Well, books weren’t very exciting. They were the complete opposite of exciting. Unless it was an exciting book, like a book about dinosaurs. “Is yours a good book?”

“Well.” He hesitated. “It’s certainly pretty popular as far as classic books go.”

Greg’s face lit up. “Have I heard of it?”

“I don’t think so. Um. Here it is.”

Wirt stopped in front of a door with his name pasted to it beside some other guy’s name. “Chad.” Actually, Wirt’s nametag looked a little weird. Not the picture part – well, actually that was pretty weird but not what had his attention at the moment. It was the actual name part that didn’t seem quite right. Somebody had taped a piece of paper with his name drawn in marker to the image.

Greg pointed at it and Wirt sighed. “They… spelled my name wrong. My friends decided to fix it for me.”

“What? How did they spell it?” Greg laughed. “It sounds just like it looks! Wirrrrttt.”

Jason Funderberker croaked in agreement.

“It wasn’t that they spelled my name wrong, then, I guess. It was more like… the wrong name completely,” he explained, looking sheepish and more like the flustered, embarrassed big brother he knew and loved.

He peeled back a corner of the paper, revealing the name that had previously been there. “Will!” Greg blurted, then grinned. “They thought your name was Will?”

“Yeah, guess they thought it was a typo when they got my housing application.” He shrugged, smoothing the new name tag over so the boldly colored “Wirt” replaced it. “Anyway. This book is part of Dante’s Divine Comedy. It’s a really long book that's separated into three parts. This one is The Inferno. If you take a literary theory class when you’re older, you’ll probably have to read it. Purgatorio and Paradiso are the other two parts, but no one really pays that much attention to them.”

“Hm.”

Greg examined it as if he had a magnifying glass to make the meaning more clear. From the flames and people screaming on the book cover, he didn’t think it looked like a very happy book. The creature in black actually kinda reminded him of The Beast.

“I don’t think I want to have to read this book,” he told Wirt honestly.

“It’s actually not so bad. It’s like one long poem. An epic poem, if you want to get technical.” Wirt fished the key to his dorm out of his pocket and unlocked the door.

“Whoa. I didn’t think poems could be epic.” Greg let Jason Funderberker go into the room first when Wirt held the door open for them.

The posters and papers that used to cover the walls of Wirt’s room at home were pinned up to one side of the room, along with a few new ones that Greg didn’t recognize. He even had all his clocks on the wall. He smiled and hurried over to the familiar images. Wirt’s room didn’t seem the same without them. It felt like just another room. Greg approved of the new posters as he looked them over. There were pictures, too. There was one of their mom and his dad on their wedding and a little kid he recognized as Wirt from before Greg was born. There was also one of Sara. Another picture had Wirt and his group of friends from high school. None of them had ended up going to the same schools, so it was nice to see that there was still something to remember them by. Greg liked Wirt’s friends, they were kind of like his friends, too.

He frowned when he realized that someone was missing from the collection of pictures pasted to Wirt’s wall. A very important someone.

“So this is it! Not much to it, but it’s pretty well-insulated for an old building. The bathroom’s down the hall if you need it. It’s communal, but it’s not so bad once you get used to it.” Wirt looked to Greg for his approval, faltering when he noticed where his attention focused. “Greg?”

“You don’t have any pictures of Jason Funderberker on your wall!” Greg exclaimed, throwing his hands up in the air. “How could you? You’re going to hurt his poor feelings.” He knelt down on the ground and covered the frog’s eyes with his hands while he looked away from his brother. “Don’t look, Jason Funderberker. Don’t scar your poor, froggy heart.”

Wirt tapped him on the shoulder. “Ah, Greg?”

“What?”

Something else tapped his shoulder, a little harder and not at all like something belonging to a person. Greg looked up, right into his own face. It was him and Jason Funderberker and Wirt on Halloween two years before. They were reprising their costumes from the year they went into The Unknown, the tea kettle perched on Greg’s head as he beamed and tried to take up the entire frame, Jason Funderberker cradled in his arms. Behind him and to the left, Wirt had donned his red hat and the dark blue cape, shooting Greg one of his exasperated but fond looks. The ones that made him think Wirt was thinking: I can’t believe I’m related to you, but I’m kinda glad I am.

“I, uh, keep it on my desk.” He told him, setting it back down next to the lamp, two clocks, and cassette player. “Since Sara got me this really nice frame at graduation, I just thought a nice picture should go inside it. So, don’t worry. I’ve got a picture of Jason Funderberker. I mean, he’s our frog, after all.”

It felt like he’d had a huge rock in his chest that had just been whisked away. Greg grinned. “You’re darn right you’ve gotta have a picture of our frog!” he agreed, then set about opening his suitcase. “I brought some stuff to show you! I think you’re really gonna-” A knock on the door interrupted Greg. “A visitor! Can I get it? I’ll get it!”

He bounded over before Wirt could say otherwise and threw open the door. Two girls and a guy were gathered in the hall, all wearing identical surprised expressions as they looked down at him. “Hi!” he greeted.

“Uh. Hello.” A girl with glasses and short brown hair glanced between him and the names on the door. Didn’t she know whose door she wanted to knock on? “We’re looking for Wirt…?”

“I’m right here, guys.” Wirt poked his head around the corner, nudging Greg to the side a bit so he didn’t take up the entire doorway. “What’s up?”

“We’re going to watch a movie in the lounge, want to join us? If you’re not busy, that is,” the second girl piped up, her gaze going to Greg. “Who’s the little guy?”

He was busy trying to figure if her hair was black with orange stripes or orange with black stripes. “Do you like tigers?” he asked her before Wirt could respond, and the other two visitors laughed while she blinked.

“Greg!” Wirt hissed in warning, warming his voice up for the girl. “Sorry, Jenny. He, ah, doesn’t really have a filter.”

“What about Halloween? Do you like Halloween? I like Halloween a lot, but I don’t think I’d make my hair its colors,” Greg continued.

Tiger-Halloween-Girl-Named-Jenny just smiled. “It’s okay, Wirt. And no, I’m actually not a huge fan of Halloween. Not so into the spooky scene. I do like tigers though.”

“I thought so.” Greg nodded decisively, arms folded across his chest.

“Okay, Greg, why don’t you go back to unpacking?” Wirt turned him around and guided him towards the suitcase.

Unpacking did not have the same appeal as it did before. “But I want to see the movie.” Or better yet, play swamp monster in the fountain Greg had spied outside of Wirt’s dorm building. It needed more than two people plus a frog to be the most fun, after all.

“We’re not seeing the movie. We don’t even know what the movie is. It’s probably boring,” he told him, then looked over his shoulder to address the people still at the door. “Sorry guys, but my little brother’s visiting. Maybe next time.”

“Wirt, I didn’t know you had a little brother!” Jenny accused playfully. “You’re holding out on us.”

Greg blinked, turning around completely at the same time as Wirt. This girl had to be crazy and not just because she didn’t like Halloween. How could she not know that he was Wirt’s little brother? Everyone knew he was his brother! He opened his mouth to say something to that effect, but the guy in their group beat him to it.

“He told me. You’re the little half-brother, right?” He grinned holding out his hand for a low high-five from Greg. “Nice to meet you. I’m Norman.”

Half-brother was such a weird word. It made Greg picture himself as split down the middle, left and right halves separated. He high-fived the guy anyway, but didn’t agree that he was a half-brother. He was a whole-brother, thank you very much.

“What movie are you watching?” he asked, still keen on joining them.

“It doesn’t matter, Greg. We’re not watching it,” Wirt reminded him.

“You’re right, Wirt, we should play in the fountain instead.”

“We’re not doing that either.”

“But you said-” He didn’t even get to finish his protest because Wirt had clasped his hand over Greg’s mouth and shushed him. Greg slapped his hand away and shushed him right back.

His friends didn’t seem to be deterred though, and it improved Greg’s opinion of them drastically. “Well, it doesn’t have to be a movie. We can just hang out and study if you’d rather do that.” Never mind. Studying was not on par with playing swamp monster in the fountain. At all.

“Well…” Wirt eyed the younger brother, as if he was actually considering, and Greg’s jaw dropped.

He didn’t want to spend his time with his brother studying! Studying was almost just as bad as school! He wanted to do something fun! Wirt couldn’t possibly do something that mean and horrible to him.

“I was actually thinking of taking Greg to that candy shop down the street in a little bit. You guys could come with, if he doesn’t mind.” He looked to him for approval.

He gazed up at him with stars in his eyes. Oh, how could he mind anything if Wirt promised him candy? Candy was almost better than playing in a fountain. He shook his head immediately and his brother smiled. Wirt’s college friends agreed, heading back to the lounge first to grab someone named Maddie and someone named Samuel who apparently still thought they were going to be watching a movie.

Wirt and Greg went to wait for them at the front of the building. Jason Funderberker, too, of course. That frog of theirs loved his candy!

“I can’t believe you didn’t tell me we were gonna get candy. That’s some sneaky sneaking, you sneak.” Greg grinned at him as he spun in a circle.

“Yeah, well…” Wirt shrugged, sporting his own half smile until it fell as he realized something. “I forgot my wallet. Hang on, Greg, I’ll be right back.”

“Yes sir!” Greg saluted him as he dashed back the way they came, just as the group of Wirt’s friends rounded the corner. “C’mon, Jason Funderberker,” he called, “We gotta make sure you’re presentable for introductions!”

“Uh, guys? There’s some kid over there, should we tell someone?” The guy with short-cropped hair who must’ve been Samuel asked.

“I’m not some kid. I’m Greg!” he told him with a laugh.

Samuel just stared at him. “I don’t know what that’s supposed to mean, kid.”

“He’s Wirt’s brother,” Norman explained.

“Oh. Really?”

It was a bit unsettling being on the receiving end of that revelation twice now. It made sense since he didn’t know who these people were either – though their names kinda rang a bell from his phone talks with Wirt – but he was Wirt’s brother. All of his high school friends had known who he was. They hadn’t needed any explanations. It wasn’t a rock fact that he was Wirt’s little brother, unless it was one of Wirt’s rock facts.

When his brother returned, he quickly introduced Greg to everyone and them to Greg. It was starting to get dark as they walked, Daylight Savings fast approaching, but there were streetlights to guide their way. Greg found out that Maddie, Jenny, and Norman all played instruments like Wirt, while Samuel and Sue – the glasses girl – were in Wirt’s Intro to Poetry class. They all lived in the same building, with Norman and Samuel being just down the hall and the girls all on the third floor of the building. Greg asked if they liked the stairs, but they said no and wished there was an elevator in the building to make it more handicap accessible like the other two buildings by theirs. Greg hadn’t even thought of that.

“Hey, Wirt! If you decide to be an architecture major, then you could make nice buildings that are also accessible for everyone,” Greg pointed out to his still undeclared brother.

“I suppose I could,” Wirt agreed hesitantly, blushing a bit as Maddie and Jenny flanked him on either side, also trying to do their part to encourage him.

Greg pouted as he was pushed aside, but it quickly faded when Jason Funderberker hopped ahead of him. He gave chase, pleased to find out that Sue held an appreciation for the amphibious species, too. Sure, he wanted to walk with Wirt, but he’d never say no to talking with a fellow frog lover while the others debated the pros and cons of architecture versus literature like a well-oiled horse.

His brother had picked this school for the architecture major program because it was so good and had an interior design track, but as he read up on all of his options, he became very interested in the English major that offered an emphasis in Creative Writing where he could take a bunch of classes on poetry. Unable to make a decision right away, Wirt decided to take classes for both majors to find out which one he liked better. Greg had wanted him to major in clarinet, but there hadn’t been a major for that. It was a general music major that Wirt only seemed half-interested in. He did audition for the school’s non-major orchestra though and got in, so that was kinda cool, Greg had just wanted him to major in it since he was so good. It was a shame. Music was one of Wirt’s passions that Greg could relate to and understand. The other two didn’t make as much sense to him.

Wirt’s new friends didn’t make so much sense to him either. They were nice enough, a little bit awkward and spacey, and definitely into the same things as his brother, but it was that same weird feeling that Wirt was different that he’d had before. He spent most of the walk talking to them about things Greg didn’t understand, like he wasn’t even there. All the way to the candy shop and back, it pestered Greg’s brain that something was going wrong. It made him sad, and that kinda scared him. He was with Wirt, how could he be sad? Not to mention that he wasn’t the sad brother, that was Wirt’s role – not that he wanted him to be sad or anything, he wanted him to be happy! But he didn’t want to have to be sad in order for Wirt to be happy, couldn’t they both be happy at the same time?

On the way back, Greg pushed past Samuel and Jenny and grabbed onto his brother’s hand, startling him into stopping. “Greg? What’s wrong?” he asked, leaning down. “You tired?”

He shook his head, but Wirt didn’t seem convinced. He smiled and resumed walking, but left their hands connected. “Don’t worry, we’re almost home.”

No, they weren’t. They were farther from home than they’d ever been before. Including when they’d been in The Unknown. At least there Wirt had been Wirt and he’d been Greg and Jason Funderberker had lots of different names, but it was okay because the frog didn’t seem to mind. Now Wirt was talking easily with complete strangers who didn’t know he had a brother and thought of a place far away from Greg as his home.

He’ll probably want to be on his own.

Well, Greg probably didn’t want him to, at all.

While Wirt said goodbye to his friends for the night in the hallway, Greg sat at his desk and fed Jason Funderberker the cold fries from his pockets. He’d also made Wirt buy his frog some jelly beans at the candy shop, while the brothers opted for peppermint fudge squares and caramel pieces themselves.

He felt a pang of guilt for thinking of their frog as his frog.

Greg looked over the desk clutter, his gaze falling on the picture of the three of them. He smiled and picked it up. At least there was that. He hummed the tune of “Potatoes and Molasses” and set the picture back down, glancing at Wirt’s tape player. Wondering if his present was inside it – because come to think of it, Wirt had never said if he’d liked it or not – Greg popped it open. Instead of seeing a small, orange cassette tape titled “For Wirt! Love Greg!” it was just one of Wirt’s favorite clarinet solos by his favorite musicians.

Well, that didn’t mean anything. It was probably the music Wirt liked to listen to when studying. Yeah. That was a rock fact. He patted the rock still snug in his pocket. One of the true ones. Greg closed the tape player, then glanced at the pile of tapes Wirt had on his desk. Would his be in there with them?

Only one way to find out. He rifled through them, only to be thwarted before he’d even really begun by two hands covering his eyes. Greg gasped, then laughed.

“What’ve I told you about messing with my things?”

“Always do it,” Greg replied.

Wirt hummed thoughtfully. “No. No, I’m afraid that’s not the answer I’m looking for. The correct answer is: don’t do it. Ever. Now you have to give me all your candy and sleep on the floor.”

“No way!”

Giggling, Greg pushed his brother’s hands away, only to be nabbed around the waist and tipped over onto the floor. It resulted in an impromptu battle, turning from wrestling to tickle fight to pillow fight in a matter of seconds, the victor only decided when Wirt’s roommate Chad returned and deemed the little brother the obvious winner. At least someone at this school had some sense, then. Chad obviously knew what was up. He even helped the two of them build a blanket and pillow fort on the floor between the two beds.

For the first time in thirty-five days, Greg slept through the night peacefully, snug in their pillow fort. Comforted by having Jason Funderberker on one side and Wirt on the other there was no way for the nightmares to get in. Just like it was supposed to be.

Chapter Text

Wirt didn’t call as much anymore.

He said it was because of midterms and while a part of Greg believed him, another part – the part he wasn’t used to that was feeling sad and scared and angry – thought it was just an excuse. It didn’t help that their mom told him he could only try to call Wirt if it was an absolute necessity. Didn’t she realize every time he needed to call was an absolute necessity?

“Your brother’s very busy right now, Greg. He needs to focus on his schoolwork. He’ll call when he can,” she explained. “How about you help me with my sewing? I could use an expert button sorter right about now.”

He didn’t want to sort buttons. All he wanted to do was tell his brother that the ocean was the earth’s eyes and the sand on beaches was the crusty stuff that ended up in the corners after sleeping. Because that was a rock fact.

He wanted to make up a song that he could sing while his brother played the clarinet until he couldn’t anymore because he was either laughing too hard or telling Greg he was ridiculous. He wanted to teach Jason Funderberker how to skip rocks in the lake over the garden wall, but Wirt had made him promise never to go over it without him and Wirt also knew the perfect way to skip rocks that Greg just couldn’t mimic. He wanted to see Wirt waiting for him outside the elementary school so he could walk home with him after school even though the high school was closer to home.

He wanted his big brother.

“Can you come home this weekend?” Greg asked him during one of their few phone calls. It was only because Wirt had some time while walking back from class.

He sighed. “I can’t, Greg. I have a paper due at midnight tonight, then another paper due first thing Monday morning, not to mention orchestra practice for the fall concert and I promised Sue I’d help her study for her calculus exam-”

Greg pouted. “I don’t want excuses, young man. I want results!”

“Sorry, but excuses are all you’re gonna get for now.”

“What’s the point of having a car at school if you don’t use it to come home?” he asked.

“I don’t know what to tell you, Greg. At least I’ll be home for Halloween. I’m not missing that for anything. Promise.”

That did cheer him up some. Even with all that was going on in his brother’s new life, they would still have Halloween and no one was taking that from them. But as the days passed – slow and heavy like molasses without potatoes – it became harder and harder to stay positive and his nightmares only got worse and worse. Wirt wasn’t even in them at all anymore. It was just Greg, alone in the snow, looking for him while tree roots curled around his ankles. It was hard to be happy when bad dreams kept knocking on his noggin.

School didn’t help with that either. Mrs. Wordsworth wouldn’t stop comparing him to his brother whenever he “made a ruckus.” It wasn’t like he actively tried to be a disturbance to the class. It just kinda happened. Especially when his classmates kept looking at him like they knew something he didn’t.

“You know, my sister doesn’t call anymore either,” Carrie told him once at recess, in an effort to cheer him up. “It’s just what big brothers and sisters do. It's part of growing up.”

"Plus it gets him away from you. Your wimpy brother's probably tired of having to babysit you all the time," Andy McAllen put in his two cents, only to get shoved off the swings by Carrie. "Hey!"

“I know I’m never gonna call my little brother when I go away to college. He’s annoying and always breaks stuff and then I get in trouble for it,” Daphne added primly. “Not that you’re an annoying little brother, Greg, but your brother probably likes not having to be the responsible one now. Big brothers and sisters live for the day they get to leave.”

Not his. Greg refused to believe it.

He continued to tick off the days until Halloween in his planner. He was supposed to be using it to write down his homework assignments in, but those weren’t the kinds of plans he wanted to make. Instead he wrote songs and jotted down ideas for games and scribbled little drawings on the lined pages. Sometimes they were of Jason Funderberker and sometimes they were of his classmates or people at the park, but most of the time it was what he could remember of The Unknown.

The picture he’d drawn of himself, Wirt, Jason Funderberker – though at the time known as President George Washington – and Beatrice on the frog ferry boat had been what he’d wanted to give Wirt on Parents’ Day, along with a song he’d wrote, but he’d forgotten after their candy adventure and then their blanket fort adventure. Then during the tour of the school the next day, Wirt showed him and Mom and Dad the university's literary magazine that he was thinking of submitting his own poetry to next semester and how his poetry professor had even encouraged him. Greg looked through it with a weird combination of interest and a sinking feeling in his chest. A feeling quite foreign to him gripped his heart tight and made his cheeks tingle. Embarrassment.

He was embarrassed by his drawing and song. Greg almost couldn't believe it. He'd never been embarrassed before! Why was this happening now? He wanted to ignore it, push it aside, but there were so many cool poems and beautiful drawings in the magazine that Wirt gushed over with a personal pride that when Greg glanced at his drawing again, all he saw were silly lines of color that didn’t even resemble them. Well, okay, maybe it resembled them a bit because of their hats, but that was pretty much it. And his song was just silly nonsense like always.

It didn’t capture the feeling of that day at all.

Knowing his brother was an expert on embarrassed feelings, he wanted to ask him what to do, but he didn't know how to bring it up exactly. It didn't help that Wirt hadn’t even realized Greg felt bad either. The tour of the school finished, they had lunch, and then it was time to get back on the road. Greg expected him to pull him aside and ask what was wrong because Wirt always knew when something was up and Greg had never had a problem opening up to his older brother, letting him in on everything that was on his mind. Wirt didn't ask him though. He just waved goodbye while they drove away – back home – and he didn’t say anything. Greg didn't known what to make of it.

He never even said anything about the tape he made him either. He'd probably hated it. So the drawing and song stayed in his suitcase, crumpled at the bottom under his socks.

Greg still had them, he couldn’t bear to throw them away no matter how embarrassed he was, but he decided he wasn’t ever going to show them to Wirt. So far only Jason Funderberker was privy to his drawings. Even though that frog of theirs had excellent taste, he was also a strong, supportive shoulder to lean on and he understood the artist’s struggle.

Still, Greg hadn’t realized his artist’s struggles extended to his schoolwork until he had a test in math and noticed that he didn’t really understand any of it. School had always come second to having fun for him, but he’d never actually had trouble in it. Sure, he had to be told several times a week to stay in his seat and not run around the classroom or cause a disturbance, but that wasn’t the kind of trouble he was referring to.

Oh no. He was going to be in so much trouble when he brought his math test home to show his mom and dad that Wednesday afternoon. Mrs. Wordsworth specifically asked him to get his parents’ signatures on it, to make sure they saw the grade and could talk to him about it. Greg had tried to copy their signatures before, but he wasn’t any good at it. His mom’s handwriting was so loopy and his dad’s was so squiggly, he couldn’t match all the swirls and such letter for letter. Plus, with his dad working at the school, he was bound to find out about it from Mrs. Wordsworth sooner or later. So he showed them – after dessert of course because failing a math test didn’t mean he was dumb – and sat through the worst conversation he’d ever had to sit through ever.

He didn’t like school, but he didn’t like his parents being upset about him not liking school either. He didn’t like them being upset at all.

“Gregory, I don’t understand,” his mom stared at the large, red mark at the top of the page. “You’ve been doing so well. What happened?”

He had the right to remain silent. Greg stared at his feet as he stood before his parents, the pair of them already settled on the couch for their evening TV. Jason Funderberker sat at his side, a solid presence giving him strength and the resolve to take the punishment as best as he could.

When he didn’t say anything, his mom made a distressed sound and his dad cleared his throat to take over. “Gregory, answer your mother.”

Greg flicked his gaze up at them. “I’m sorry,” he told them, and he was. “I didn’t mean to.”

“Didn’t mean to…? Honey, this is an F. You got three questions right out of thirty-five.” His mom flipped through the thin packet of paper, scanning his answers. “Are you having trouble with your homework?”

He stayed quiet, watching as his parents exchanged concerned glances. “It’s alright to admit if you don’t understand something, Greg,” his dad attempted. “You can always come to us for help if you need it. Or Mrs. Wordsworth. I’m sure she’d be more than happy to answer your questions. She used to help Wirt out when he didn’t understand something-”

“Wirt needed help in math?” Greg blinked, his interest piqued.

His dad latched on to that interest. “Yes, he did. He used to stay in for tutoring with her during lunch. Maybe she could do the same for you.”

Absolutely not. He wasn’t giving up his lunches for anything, especially math. “I don’t need help,” he replied.

“Buddy, your test says otherwise.” His dad took the test from his mom, as she’d gone into some pretty deep thoughts when Wirt had been mentioned. “This stuff can get pretty confusing. It’s giving me a headache just looking at it, but it’s important.”

“When am I going to need to know how many oranges Bobby Brown has if Suzie Jones takes eleven apples and twelve bananas?” Greg retorted, despite it being a pretty valid question. He usually loved the weird stories word problems concocted. It was the only example he could think of to throw under the bus. “They don’t even say anything about oranges in the question!”

“You’ve got to reread the question. Look for all the hints they give you. Sometimes things aren’t what they seem on the surface, and that can be applied to real life in a lot of ways, Greg.”

He crossed his arms. “I don’t care.”

“Greg, you have to care. You can’t get into the habit of failing tests.”

“Why not?”

“Because it could be bad for you in the future.”

“I don’t care about the future.”

“Fine. Then because your mother and I say so.”

“Jason Funderberker doesn’t think I have to care. Right, Jason Funderberker?” He looked to the frog for support, but he didn’t seem to want to be caught in the crosshairs. He didn’t blame him.

“Greg?” His mom finally chimed in again. “What’s really going on?”

“Nothing.” He tried to communicate through telepathy with Jason Funderberker, hoping he’d cause some sort of distraction so he could escape.

“Honey, you know Wirt will call when he can-”

“This isn’t about Wirt! I just didn’t feel like taking a math test, so I didn’t try!” he snapped.

His mom stood up. “Don’t raise your voice at me, Gregory. Not when I’m trying to figure out how to help you.”

“I said I don’t need help!”

“Gregory, go to your room,” his dad told him. “Calm yourself down and we’ll continue to talk about this later. For now, no TV until we figure out how to keep these Fs from being a regular occurrence.”

“Fine!” Greg scooped up Jason Funderberker and stomped off towards his room.

“If you keep this behavior up, you won’t be going trick-or-treating either!” he called after him.

Greg only just managed to keep from slamming his bedroom door. No trick-or-treating? Beans, he didn’t mean to push it that far. He and Wirt had to go trick-or-treating, they had to go sit at the wall in the cemetery in the costumes Greg had picked out for them. It was time for just him and Wirt and Jason Funderberker and it was supposed to be special.

The frog wiggled out of his grasp and hopped to the floor. Greg watched him stare up at him with froggy concern until his heart started to hurt, forcing him to look away. He just didn’t want anyone to worry. He honestly didn’t mean to get a bad grade, but how could he like school when it had been what took his brother away from him? It took him away and would just kept on taking more and more of him until he’d turn into a completely different person who didn’t need or want a little brother tagging along. A little half-brother.

Greg flopped onto his bed, hugging his pillow. There were only six days left until Halloween, just six more days before Wirt came home and Greg could have a chance to make sure that he wasn’t being forgotten. Then Wirt would come back for Thanksgiving, which wasn’t so far away from Halloween, and then Christmas which was even less far away from Thanksgiving, and then-

He was going to spend the rest of the next four years just waiting for him to come back? That… that didn’t seem very fun at all. Greg’s eyes welled up with frustrated tears, but he blinked them back and sniffed hard, burying his face into his pillow. It wasn’t fair. He didn’t ask to be left behind.

-0-

When he woke up the next day, it was to a plate of toast with marmalade spread and a banana. He blinked, then checked the clock on his nightstand. Nine in the morning on a Thursday. He was late for school. Grabbing a piece of toast and cramming it into his mouth, he wandered out in search of his mom. He found her sitting at the kitchen table, eating her own breakfast.

“Mom?” he called softly.

She looked up and smiled at him. “Good morning. Enjoying your breakfast?”

He chewed on his toast, then nodded. “Yeah. Um. How come you didn’t wake me for school?”

“Well, I called the office and said that you were sick,” she replied, leaning back in her chair. “I thought we could use the time to continue our talk from last night.”

Oh. He should’ve figured he wasn’t let off the hook that easy. “We already talked about it,” he mumbled. “I’m really sorry. I won’t do it again.”

“Honey, this isn’t just about the test. You’ve been acting… well, not like yourself for the past few weeks. I want to understand why. Is this about your brother?”

Greg shrugged and said nothing, hoping that his feigned look of obliviousness would cover his tracks without having to add to it. It didn’t work. She didn’t appear convinced. In fact, she looked a little scared and that scared him right back.

“I want to help you, Greg. Your father, too. Please let us.”

He backed away, back down the hall. “I told you. I don’t need any help.” With that, he closed himself back in his room.

Ribbit. Jason Funderberker croaked at him and hopped over to him. He’d fallen asleep before he could put him in his tank for the night. Heck, he’d fallen asleep before he’d even changed out of his clothes. Greg picked up the frog and carried him to the bed. They sat together on the edge and nibbled at the rest of his breakfast.

For the rest of the morning and into the afternoon, Greg stayed in his room and tried to do some homework. If anything, it would take his mind off of feeling so bad about his test. He really would do better on the next one so his mom didn’t have to look at him like that. Like she’d gone through this before. He wondered just how bad Wirt’s math problems had been when he was his age, thinking maybe he’d ask him on Halloween when his mom knocked on the door.

Greg sighed and called for her to come in, inserting as much cheer into his voice as he could. He was the happy son. He had to remember that. He was the happy one, even if he was the only one around at the moment.

His mom opened the door, the phone cradled in her free hand. Greg blinked. She held it out to him and nodded for him to take it.

“Your brother wants to talk to you.”

Immediately his face lit up, his whole everything lit up. “Hi, Wirt! I’ve got the perfect plan for our trick-or-treat route this year! Unless you have a better plan, which you definitely do because you always have the best plans-”

“That’s- uh. That’s great, Greg, but can we put Halloween aside for a minute? I’ve got to talk to you about something.”

“Sure thing, brother o’ mine. What’s up?” Greg climbed onto his bed, wiggling around on his stomach until he was comfortable.

“Well… I heard you got an F on your last math test.”

Oh. Greg pouted, chancing a glimpse at the doorway, but their mom was already gone. “That’s nice.”

“Greg.”

“Hey, at least it’s better than a Z!”

“Greg, this is serious.”

Okay.

“Did you study? Did you just not understand it? I know I’m not there so I can’t help you with your homework like I used to, but Mom and Jonathan still can, if you need it,” Wirt babbled, waiting for Greg to interject with something, but he kept his lips pinched tight until his brother sighed heavily. “Greg, you can tell me. I won’t even tell Mom if you don’t want me to.”

“It’s not a big deal,” he finally huffed. “I already told her I didn’t feel like taking the test.”

“You didn’t feel like it? That’s all?” Greg mumbled an affirmative sound, causing Wirt to sigh. “I hate to break it to you, but it doesn’t matter if you feel like it or not. Tests are part of doing well in school, Greg. I mean, it’s only fourth grade now, but you can’t do this sort of thing in high school or college. It’s pretty hard to recover from a bad grade.”

“So? It’s not like I want to go to college,” Greg mumbled.

“You say that now, but you’ll feel different about it when you’re older.”

“No I won’t. Jason Funderberker and I have decided to drop out of school and join the circus. I’m going to juggle pinwheels that are on fire while riding a unicycle and he’s going to walk the tight rope blindfolded.”

“You’re not dropping out of school to join the circus.” He could hear Wirt rolling his eyes over the phone.

“Yes I am.”

“No you’re not. You’re nine.”

“I can do what I want.”

“Yeah? Well…” He could hear Wirt struggling for words. “That’s… that’s too much power, remember? Last time you had that much power, you knocked down a tree.”

Greg snorted. “I failed a math test, but I’m not dumb, Wirt. The Woodsman chopped it down. He was there and you said so yourself.”

“And maybe your power helped knock it down. You know, a little.”

He wanted to stay mad, but his brother was making it awfully hard. “If I was gonna use my power, I’d knock down at least ten trees. Maybe even twenty.”

“Is that so? Hm. I would’ve thought you’d be able to knock fifty down easy.”

“Well, yeah. But only if I’m showing off.”

“Oh, okay. Got it. Thanks for clearing that up for me.”

Greg didn’t want to be smiling, but he was. “You’re welcome.” He rolled onto his back and stared up at the ceiling while Jason Funderberker nestled himself on Greg’s stomach. “I really didn’t mean to get a bad grade, Wirt. I promise. I didn’t remember anything that we’d learned in class and I couldn’t get any of the answers right.”

“Why couldn’t you remember anything? You feeling okay?” Wirt pressed. “Are you getting sick?”

“No. I don’t think so. I guess I’ve just been so excited for Halloween that I got distracted a lot. I’ll do better though. I don’t think Jason Funderberker and I would like the circus life that much. I’d miss my bed and he’d miss his soap operas.”

“Yeah, well, I wouldn’t like it if you joined the circus either. You’d be on the road all the time, traveling, and I’d never see you.” Wirt played along.

Greg bit back the: 'you never see me anyway' and changed the subject to something happier. “So what time are you gonna get here on Tuesday? We need to get a head start on trick-or-treating so we can get the good candy before all the houses run out, so I was thinking we’d have dinner early and then head out at maybe five-thirty, ‘cause we can’t go too early or no one will be ready and-”

“Greg, wait-”

“Yeah, Wirt?” Greg blinked when his brother said nothing else for a minute. What did he go and interrupt him for if he had nothing to say? “Two old cats got your tongue?” he asked, grinning.

It didn’t last long though. Not when the next thing Wirt said made his stomach twist inside him like an angry snake because he hadn’t expected it, but part of him, a tiny part of him, had and knew-

“I’m sorry, Greg.”

“No.” Greg bit down on his lower lip to keep it from trembling.

“I really… I really wanted to. Believe me, you don’t know how much-”

“No.” If he didn’t let Wirt finish, then he could still believe he was coming home.

“It’s just… one of my professors pushed back our exam and it’s Wednesday morning – first thing – and he doesn’t offer make-up tests, Greg, so I don’t… I don’t really have a choice. I can't come home for Halloween.” Wirt took in a shaky breath, then tried to insert a smile into his tone. “But, hey, there’s always next year. I promise I’ll be back for next year.”

“You promised for this year.” Greg balled up his fist in the blankets on his bed. “Wirt, you promised!”

“I know! I know, and you know I’d be there if I could.”

“No, you wouldn’t!” Greg’s weeks of worry spilled out of his mouth before he had a chance to stop them. “You weren’t planning on coming back at all, were you?”

“What? Greg, no I-”

“You just wanted to have Halloween with your new friends!”

“Why would I want to do that?”

“I don’t know. Maybe because you’re trying to get away from me and that’s why you went to college so far away,” Greg accused.

Wirt sounded completely flabbergasted. “Greg, that’s ridiculous. I picked this school because it was closest out of the ones I’d gotten into.”

“Then why don’t you come home more often, huh?" he asked. "Hm? Why not, Wirt? Why?”

“I- I’m- I didn’t expect to be so busy!” he stammered.

“Too busy for Jason Funderberker?” The frog blinked at being addressed, then hopped off his stomach and towards the head of the bed to duck under the pillow. Fine then. He didn't need Jason Funderberker's help. He'd do it on his own. “Too busy for me?”

“Too busy for a lot of things, Greg! You don’t understand. It’s a lot of pressure and I’m alone and sometimes I just need to sit and think and not talk to anyone-”

“Well you can keep doing that, Wirt, ‘cause I don’t want to talk to you either.”

Greg.”

“You know what? Just stay there for Halloween! And Thanksgiving and Christmas-!”

“I’m already staying here for Halloween!”

“Good! I don’t want you to come back anyway. You have fun with your school friends and your fancy-pants architecture and poetry and-and your tests and forget all about me, just like you’ve been doing this whole time!”

“That’s not fair, Greg-!”

You’re not fair! You’ve never been fair! You’re the worst big brother ever! I hate you! Stay at school forever! I hope you never come back!” With that Greg hung up and threw the phone on the floor. Immediately his face paled and he leapt off the bed. “Oh no. Oh, no, no, no.”

Kneeling down beside the phone, his hands hovered over it. It was like the phone and his fingers were opposite magnets, only able to get so close. He couldn’t make himself pick it up. But he had to, he had to redial, he had to say sorry and that it was okay that he couldn’t come home for Halloween and that he understood-

But he didn’t. He was so mad at him still. It wasn’t fair. It wasn’t fair and he didn’t want to be the one that said it was okay when it wasn’t.

Greg clasped his hands together and pushed them between his knees, waiting. He’d answer it if it rang, he promised himself. If it rang- when it rang, he’d answer it and he’d apologize and it would be okay. So he’d wait.

“Just gotta wait,” he sniffled. “Just gotta wait.”

The phone didn’t ring.

-0-

Greg didn’t want to go to school the next day, but he wasn’t sick and he could only have so many freebies. His parents had thought about it, to be fair, when he didn’t say anything throughout dinner and didn’t even beg to stay up to watch TV for just fifteen more minutes. He didn’t even ask for dessert. It was enough to make his parents think he was sick, but his mom checked his temperature and it was normal.

They didn’t ask him what he’d talked about with Wirt, but Greg heard his mom call his brother later than night. He closed his door all the way so he wouldn’t have to overhear whatever they talked about. Wirt had to be really mad at him if he didn’t call him back, and Greg didn’t blame him. He’d said so many mean things.

His parents assumed that he was upset because Wirt wasn’t coming home that weekend after all, which was one hundred percent true, but it was only half of the story. He’d never had a fight with his brother before. Sure, he’d annoyed Wirt to the point of making him storm away from whatever they were playing, but then Greg would just wait a few minutes before finding him and then would ask him to play the clarinet for him or if he could read him a poem and Wirt would stop being angry. It hadn’t always been like that, but as far as Greg remembered it had. Bits and pieces from before The Unknown came back to him sometimes, but he couldn’t remember a time where Wirt wasn’t the best big brother ever. He still was, even if Greg was still a little mad at him for letting school come between them.

Wirt didn’t call all weekend.

Chapter Text

“Hey, buddy, how come you’re not in costume?”

His dad knocked lightly on his open bedroom door, grinning like he was the one who was going to get all the candy. Greg looked up from where he was pretending to do his homework on his bedroom floor. He actually didn’t have any. Even ol’ Mrs. Wordsworth wasn’t that mean to give homework on the night of Halloween.

“I’m not going,” he replied, turning back to the papers scattered around him.

Apparently his dad wasn’t going to take that as an acceptable answer. “What?” he gasped, very over-dramatic. And he said Greg was the actor in the family. “Not go trick-or-treating? On the one night of the year where candy is free?”

“Old Lady Daniels says nothing in this world is free,” he muttered.

His dad crouched down beside him. “Greg, don’t call her old lady. And while she may be right about a lot of things, that’s not the case tonight.” He gave his shoulder a squeeze. “Come on, bud, you love candy! And I think Jason Funderberker really wants to wear that costume you made him.”

Greg eyed his frog suspiciously. Was he committing treason? He certainly hoped not. He and Jason Funderberker were supposed to be united in solidarity against the act of trick-or-treating this year. Jason blinked at him and croaked once. Hmm…

“I’ve got too much homework, Dad. I can’t afford to waste time trick-or-treating. I’ve gotta bring up my math grade. Jason Funderberker understands. He can be a pumpkin next year.”

It had taken a while to make the papier-mâché pumpkin costume for the frog, but it also took him a while to figure out his and Wirt’s costumes for this year and it wasn’t like his brother would be wearing that either. Greg hadn’t even worn his skeleton costume to school that day. He was the only one who hadn’t dressed up.

“Greg, you and I both know you don’t have any homework. Now come on. Mom ordered a pizza so we can grab a quick bite to eat and then head out.”

“I don’t want to. Can I please just stay home? Please, Dad?” Greg lifted his head, pleading with the man. “I don’t want to go.”

His dad sighed, considering his request for a moment. “Then… will you at least just put on your costume? You can hand out candy dressed up.”

“No. I’m not dressing up and I’m not going trick-or-treating.”

He watched as his dad’s brow furrowed, lips twisting to the left, like he did when he was trying to keep a secret. Greg blinked. He was up to something. He was trying to get him to dress up for something specific. His dad noticed when he picked up on the cues, so he sighed heavily and leaned in, cupping his hand around his mouth conspiratorially. Greg couldn’t help but lean in, too.

“Alright. Don’t let your mother know that I told you, but we have a surprise for you,” he confided.

Greg tried his hardest to look unconvinced, but his heart was already jumping with the prospect of a surprise, even if he was mad and sad and scared. “What kind of surprise?”

“I can’t tell you. I’ve been sworn to secrecy.” He glanced around quickly, making Greg do the same before whispering, “But I can promise that you’ll love it. So, do me and your mom a favor and get in your costume, okay buddy?”

It really wasn’t so big a deal to put on the costume, was it? Greg glanced at the clock on his nightstand. It was almost six o’clock. Trick-or-treaters had already started coming and the sun was setting fast. He didn’t want to imagine the surprise, because the only surprise he’d really love would be his brother and that just wasn’t happening. He’d only get his hopes up and be disappointed.

But his dad was so sure…

Ribbit. Jason Funderberker looked up at him with an expression demanding he compromise and put on the costume. If only it was as easy as sticking a tea kettle on his head and calling himself an elephant like it used to be.

Actually… that would work just fine. It counted as a costume. He couldn’t fit into the overalls anymore, having outgrown them before he turned seven, but it wasn’t like he could outgrow a kettle hat. Plus he was already wearing a gray sweater and teal pants, so he was pretty much set.

“Fine. I’ll put on a costume, but that’s it,” he agreed. It made his dad grin brightly, so he had to duck his head so his dad wouldn’t see him smile in return.

“That’s my boy.” His dad gave his shoulder another squeeze, then rose and left the room.

Greg heaved a sigh, then got Jason Funderberker situated in his pumpkin. Just because he wasn’t going with his original costume idea didn’t mean that Jason had to miss out on the fun. At least one of the costumes was getting the attention it deserved. He’d placed Wirt’s costume in his room – a scarecrow outfit to go along with their Pottsfield theme. Greg took a quick peek inside his brother’s room, frowning at the supplies for the costume still sitting on Wirt’s bed. Then, of course, his gaze fell upon the red cone hat sitting on the seat of Wirt’s chair. He stared at it for a minute or two, then closed Wirt’s bedroom door. Wearing the tea kettle this year just wouldn’t be the same.

Jason Funderberker croaked at him in concern and Greg waved it off. He carried the frog into the living room and set him down on the couch. There were trick-or-treaters at the front door, a group of kids no older than six chirping for candy that his dad happily gave out by the handful. Greg eyed them as he slipped into the kitchen. His mom looked up from where she was putting together a salad to go with the pizza and she smiled at him. He offered a small one back, then got down on his hands and knees to rummage through the cabinets. That tea kettle had to be here somewhere.

The phone rang while he banged around amongst the pots and pans, so he tried to quiet himself while his mom answered it with a chipper, “Hello?”

Greg really didn’t understand how his parents had become so cheerful today. The past few days they’d been worried and solemn and now they were smiling like it was their birthdays or something. Weird.

“Yes. This is she.”

Oh, that looked like an elephant trunk. Greg reached in the way, way back of the cupboard, making a few more crashing sounds until he emerged victorious with tea kettle in hand. He held it by the spout and lifted it into the air.

“Yes!” He turned to smile victoriously at his mom, but it died on his face when he looked at her. “Mom?”

Her face had gone gray – not even white – and her mouth hung open in the shape of a dark, half-moon. She stared at nothing, eyes wide and glassy. A voice continued to speak through the phone, but Greg couldn’t hear anything but deep, rumbling, static sounds.

“Oh my god,” she finally croaked, deep and wounded. Her free hand clutched at her shirt, right over where her heart was. “Is he- where did they- what hap- oh my god. I’m sorry. I-”

She couldn’t find her words. Tears were filling her eyes and color flooded her face again, but only because she was nearing hysterics. Greg quickly got to his feet and went to her. He grabbed onto her arm.

“Mom, what’s wrong?”

Her gaze met his. Something changed and her face hardened into a mask, shoving the hysteria behind it. Terror and sorrow still glittered in her eyes, but the rest of her fought for composure as she looked at him. She swallowed thickly.

“Thank you, officer. I’ll be there as soon as I can,” she spoke into the phone, refusing to tear her gaze away from her youngest.

She hung up. Greg watched her set the phone on the counter, her hand shaking. What was going on? Why were the police calling? Why did she look so scared? She was Mom and she never got scared unless a cricket got in the house or unless he and Wirt were in the hospital-

“Amy?” His dad hovered between the kitchen and the living room, watching them with confusion. “What’s going on?”

Her gaze flicked up at him a moment, then dropped back down to meet Greg’s. Her lips were tight and thin and white as she pressed them together. They trembled when she opened them, forming soundless words as she struggled for the right ones to say. Greg had only just realized he didn’t want her to say them by the time she found her voice.

“Honey, there’s- there's been an accident. Your brother...”

An accident? Greg stared at her. An accident, okay. There was an accident. That didn’t mean anything. He pictured his brother, tucked away in his dorm room studying for his big test in the morning, glancing at the picture on his desk and wishing he hadn’t skipped out on their tradition. He pictured Wirt surrounded by his new friends, celebrating Halloween with them and hoping that he’d be home for it next year. He pictured Wirt safe, because he was at school and he was safe at school.

“Your brother- he’s- oh, honey. He’s being taken to the hospital now so it’s going to be okay. Wirt’s going to be okay.”

The tea kettle clanged on the linoleum floor. Wirt was okay, because he was at school. He hadn’t done something stupid like beg his professor to let him take the exam a day early, studying his pants off the whole weekend to make up for the extra day he would’ve had if he hadn’t decided to drive home for Halloween so he wouldn’t be the worst big brother in the world because he wasn’t the worst and he wasn’t that stupid.

His mom abandoned the half-tossed salad, searching for her keys. “I’ve got to go. He’s going to need surgery and they need our insurance and-”

“Do you need me to go with you?” his dad pressed.

She shook her head. “No, stay here with, Greg. He’ll need you-”

“I’m going with you!” Greg blurted, the jingling of his mom’s keys jolting him back into the moment.

His parents looked at him, his mom in tears and his dad looking much older than he actually was. “No, baby. You can’t. You have to stay here,” she told him.

“No, I have to go! Please, Mom? Please, I have to. Please.” Greg latched onto her leg and hung on tightly. “Mom, please.”

“Oh, Greg. It- it’s going to be very hectic. It’s the ER and you’ll have to sit in the waiting room, and it won’t be comfortable-”

“I’ll keep an eye on him.” His dad placed his hand on his mom’s shoulder and squeezed. “We should all be there.”

She sucked in a deep breath, then exhaled shakily. “Alright,” she conceded, combing her fingers through Greg’s hair. “Alright, we’ll all go. But you can’t see Wirt until the doctors and I say you can, is that understood?”

If it meant he got to go, too, then he’d do anything. Greg nodded. His mom grabbed all of their coats while his dad locked up and left the bowl of candy on the front porch with a note to take two each. Greg retrieved Jason Funderberker. That frog of theirs knew something wasn’t right. He kept looking at him like he wanted to say something to cheer him up, but Jason Funderberker couldn’t talk. He hadn’t even sang once since The Unknown.

The family of three plus one frog piled into the car, speeding off into the night. Wirt would’ve been home five minutes after Greg found the tea kettle had the collision not happened. It hadn’t been Wirt’s fault, a police officer told his dad while his mom was whisked away for paperwork, but he had been driving too fast. Witnesses said he could’ve avoided it if he hadn’t been in such a hurry.

Two other cars had been totaled, too, their drivers in the same hospital. One was just as bad as Wirt, but the one who’d caused the accident just needed a few stitches. Greg saw him – getting poked and prodded by doctors, the police staring down at him with eyes full of questions and accusations – before his dad took him out to the waiting room. To wait. Just gotta wait.

“Where’s Wirt?” he heard himself asking and Jason Funderberker echoed the inquiry with a low croak.

His dad rubbed his back. “They’re taking him into surgery, buddy. Your mom’s signing the papers now. He’s going to have a bunch of great doctors taking care of him.”

“Can I see him?”

“Not yet. The doctors will let us know when it’s okay.”

Greg observed the way the toes of his sneakers didn’t quite reach the floor. “It’s my fault, isn’t it?” I should’ve been leading better. I should’ve been happier. Wirt needs me to be the happy one and I let him down. Again.

“No. No, Greg, it’s not your fault. This was a horrible accident. It wasn’t anyone’s fault.”

His dad smoothed down his hair. Usually Greg took comfort in being petted, but this time it just made him feel worse. All twisted and mangled inside like a doughy pretzel.

“But I got mad at him. I told him not to come home. I made him feel bad.” Greg’s eyes started to water. Someone must’ve been cutting onions nearby. Why would anyone want onions at a hospital though? That was weird.

“It still isn’t your fault, Greg. You had every right to be upset, and Wirt understood that.”

He sniffled. “Why wasn’t he at school?”

His dad let out a long breath. “Well, he wanted to surprise you.”

“But his test-”

“He convinced his professor to let him take it this afternoon instead.”

Greg hid his face against Jason Funderberker. “Why?”

“Because he misses you as much as you miss him, buddy. He really wanted to be here.”

He felt his dad’s hand still, then leave his head completely when his mom sat down on his other side. She ruffled his hair. He could feel her trying not to shake. Greg lifted his head. Her eyes were red and glossy, but she still offered him a reassuring smile. He remembered the look from before. Three years ago when she and his dad burst into the hospital room full of teenagers, one six-year-old, and one frog, her face had looked the same. Panicked, scared, demanding answers, until her eyes fell upon them both – Wirt and Greg, Greg and Wirt, her sons – and then everything melted into relief and joy and Greg had just been happy that he had a chance to tell her all about their adventures before he forgot.

He watched her face while she filled out the paperwork on her lap, but the relief and the joy didn’t come.

-0-

Around nine o’clock a doctor came and got them. His dad had gone through three cups of coffee. One every hour on the hour. His mom kept straightening his clothes and asking him if he wanted anything from the vending machines. Greg politely declined each time. Even if they’d all skipped dinner, it didn’t feel like it. No one had an appetite.

When the doctor arrived, all three of them sprang up from their seats. “He’s out of surgery. Everything proceeded as planned and he’s in post-op now. Because of the injury he sustained to the frontal lobe, he’s been placed in a medically induced coma for now, so he is intubated, which may look a bit startling, but the tube can come out as soon as he wakes up.”

“When will that be?” his dad asked before Greg could.

The doctor appeared apologetic. “It’s too early to tell. His body has been through quite a bit of stress, so it could take some time. I can go over the details with you if you’d like,” his gaze flicked to Greg, then back up to his parents, “but you can go in and see him now.”

He led them to a section of rooms with lots of beds with curtains. They were different from the one he and Wirt had shared before. Different from the time he’d broken his arm, too. The doctor stopped in front of a door with a sliding nametag that read: “Palmer, W.” It didn’t look like it belonged there, just like how Wirt’s nametag on his dorm room door had been.

The doctor opened the door and Greg took a step back. There was beeping coming from inside. The sickly green curtain hid the bed holding his brother.

“Go on, honey.” His mom nudged him towards the door. “Try and talk to him for a bit. I’m sure he’d like that.”

Greg glanced over his shoulder. His parents smiled weakly with what was supposed to be encouragement and the doctor nodded. Clearly they weren’t going to say anything else about Wirt’s condition until they figured Greg couldn’t hear. Biting on his lower lip, he ventured into the room with Jason Funderberker in tow. The curtain slid away with a shink shink shink, each metal ringlet bumping into the next as Greg pulled it back.

The first thing he noticed was the tube down his brother’s throat. Greg’s own tightened and he clutched at his neck. The second thing he noticed was the steady up and down of Wirt’s chest. Good, that was good. Even if he couldn’t breathe on his own just yet, at least breathing was happening. The third, fourth, fifth, and all subsequent things that he noticed while looking him over blurred together. There was a bandage over Wirt’s left eye – to cover a cut on his head, not because something had happened to the eye itself – and his wrist was wrapped up because it had been broken. A huge bruise stood out on his forehead. He was pale and there were dark, dark circles under his eyes.

Greg wondered if he’d been sleeping badly.

“Hi, Wirt,” he greeted quietly, his voice almost as croaky as Jason Funderberker’s. “Mom said it’d be good to talk to you, even though you’re sleeping and you usually don’t like that.”

Greg looked at their frog, then set him on the bed by Wirt’s knee. The pumpkin clad frog appeared reassured and made a nest for himself right beside the older brother. At least Jason Funderberker felt better. Greg hugged himself. It didn’t feel right, not having something to hold onto. He grabbed onto Wirt’s not-broken hand and squeezed it.

“Wirt, I’m so sorry,” he confessed wetly. “I didn’t mean for you to end up here. I just missed you. But I shouldn’t have gotten so mad, and I’m sorry. You’re the best big brother. So you gotta wake up, okay? A best big brother wouldn’t just leave his little brother, right? Even if he’s ridiculous all the time and says things he doesn’t mean.”

Greg tried to smile, and thought he did a pretty good job of it, but Wirt didn’t react at all. He stayed quiet aside from the beeping machine and the whoosh of the air that was forced into him with each up and down of his chest. If it weren’t for those things, Greg was pretty sure Wirt would look dead.

There were footsteps behind him. Greg glanced back as a nurse added something to the chart as the foot of Wirt’s bed. She sensed him watching her and looked at him with a small smile.

“That your big brother?” she asked and Greg nodded. “He’s a pretty tough guy, isn’t he?” No, not really. His brother was the greatest, but tough wasn’t a word Greg normally associated with him. He didn’t say that though, waiting to see if the nurse had anything else to add. “He was still awake when he was brought in. He asked about you.”

“He did?” Greg blinked at her, then shifted his stare to Wirt.

“Mmhm. He also had something in his hand that he just wouldn’t let go of. He didn’t want it to get thrown out when they took his car in. A cassette tape, I think, but it was a bit bent. His personal belongings are going to be given to your mom and dad, so it should be with them. Am I right in guessing it was your handwriting on it?”

His tape. Greg nodded again. His eyes still felt wet even though he wasn’t crying. “Yeah. It was a goodbye present. I put all his favorite songs on it, and some that I made up myself. I didn’t think he listened to it. It wasn’t in his tape player or with the tapes on his desk.”

“Must’ve been in his car the whole time then, huh?”

“Is he going to wake up soon?” Greg asked.

The nurse’s smile faded. “I really don’t know. I hope so. Like I said, he’s a tough guy. He’s got a long journey ahead of him, but if he’s got a strong enough will, then I think he’ll find his way back.”

His way back? Journey? A chill rushed up and down his spine as the nurse checked Wirt’s tubes and wires. Did this lady know? About The Unknown? Wide eyes took in Wirt’s appearance once again after she walked away, leaving the brothers and their frog to themselves.

Is that why he didn’t wake up after the surgery? Was he stuck in The Unknown again? He hadn’t gone over the wall in the cemetery, but maybe you didn’t have to in order to get there. After all, he and Wirt and Jason Funderberker had gone over several times since then and nothing happened.

They’d ended up at a hospital the last time. Wirt never answered his questions about it. It was a surefire way to get Wirt to yell at him, asking about how they’d ended up at the hospital. He’d been a tree and then they’d fallen in the water- or was it the other way around? When had they fallen into water? His head ached, spinning ‘round and ‘round.

They’d gotten hurt, went through The Unknown, then went to the hospital. They hadn’t been hurt in The Unknown, though, only after.

“Oh no.” Greg held his hand tighter. “Wirt, you’re not there, right?”

If you had to be hurt to go there, then he could be there. He could be worrying and wandering and looking for directions. Lost and sad and putting roots down.

“Please don’t get lost. Please don’t turn into a tree,” Greg begged. “Wake up. Wirt, wake up. You can do it. You don’t have to be a tree.”

But last time they’d been so lost, and he’d even had Greg there with him to help. If he was there again, he was all alone. Who would find him? Just because Wirt said they’d taken care of The Beast problem didn’t mean that his big brother still couldn’t get lost. It was so easy for Wirt to lose his way.

Greg sniffled. “Come home. Come on, Wirt. Come home. I’m sorry. I’m sorry.”

“Greg?” His dad walked up behind him, his hand fell to his shoulder. “It’s getting late. Time to head home.”

“No.” He shook his head. “I have to make sure he gets back okay.”

“Visiting hours are over, bud. The doctors said only one of us can stay, so Mom’s gonna look after Wirt for us. We need to get home and have some food and try and get some sleep. We’ll see how you’re feeling tomorrow, see if you’re up for school in the morning, and then we’ll figure out when to come back and see him, sound good?” Greg didn’t budge an inch. “He’ll be alright, Greg.”

“Can you promise?” Greg tore his gaze away from Wirt to stare hard at his dad, daring him to try and lie.

His shoulders sagged and he sighed. “No, I can’t. The surgery went as well as it could, though. The doctors did everything right. It’s just up to Wirt now.”

The faith he had in his big brother was fading fast. Memories of him covered in leaves, in the snow, popped up like stubborn weeds and refused to go away no matter how hard Greg tried to pluck them from his mind.

“Can we please stop pretending we’re going to get home?”

Greg had forgotten how he’d sounded. He’d thought it was just Wirt’s poetry voice at the time, but he knew better now. His poetry voice never sounded that… defeated. It wasn’t even the normal, anxious, stressed out babbling he was known for. It was sullen, dry, and broken. The Unknown had broken his brother before. It could do it again.

“It’s not my job to get us home. I’m done. This is all your fault.”

It was, wasn’t it? If he hadn’t gotten so upset, then Wirt wouldn’t have tried so hard to make it up to him and wouldn’t have been driving and wouldn’t have gotten into an accident. If Wirt didn’t come home it was his fault.

Then he was just going to have to do his part to fix it, wasn’t he?

Greg pressed against the bed, leaning in to whisper in Wirt’s ear. “Don’t worry. I’ll be a good leader this time. I’ll get you back safely. I’ll find you.” He reached into his pocket and pulled out his rock, resting it on the pillow by Wirt’s cheek. “And that’s a rock fact.”

-0-

He didn’t know how his dad expected him to go to sleep. After they heated up the cold pizza they’d left sitting out, father and son ate in silence. His dad didn’t even say anything when Greg put some pepperoni in with Jason Funderberker’s frog food. It just reminded him of how Mom wasn’t there to reprimand him because she was with Wirt who still hadn’t woken up because she promised to call the second he did.

That was alright though, because he had a plan.

Greg cleared his plate, brushed his teeth, changed into his pajamas, and let his dad tuck him in for the night. He almost felt bad about his plan when his dad kissed his forehead and told him everything would be okay, but not enough to stop him. It was for the greater good. If he got in trouble for being out after bedtime and riding his bike somewhere without permission but brought Wirt back? Well, it would be worth it. Of course Wirt was worth it.

Greg stayed quiet, waiting until his dad turned off the lights in the living room and locked all the doors. The second the door to his parents’ room clicked shut, he threw off the covers and retrieved Jason Funderberker from his frog tank. It was time for Operation Rescue Wirt From The Unknown. Or RWFTU. That was actually harder to say. He’d think of a better name later.

He pulled on his clothes from earlier, tucked a picture of him and Wirt and Jason Funderberker in the pockets of his pants, and then tiptoed across the hall to Wirt’s room. Despite the empty feeling, it wasn’t actually empty. Boxes of Wirt’s old things still cluttered the floor and some clothes he didn’t have room for at school hung in the closet. Greg made a beeline for the closet. The blue cape with the red lining sat right in the middle of it. Greg yanked it down from its hanger. The red hat was still perched on Wirt’s chair. Greg nabbed that, too.

If he was going on a rescue mission, then he needed to look the part.

The coat cape was long on him, the excess fabric pooling around his feet, but it would have to do. The hat was also a bit too tall. It tipped right off his head several times. Greg nabbed some string from the junk drawer in the kitchen and taped it to the bottom of the hat to make a strap. When he put it on this time and shook his head all about, it didn’t come loose. Greg nodded at his reflection in Wirt’s bedroom mirror.

“Yes.”

At eleven-thirty, Greg and Jason Funderberker slipped out the front door and into the night.

The Eternal Garden Cemetery wasn’t far from their house. If he walked, it would only take twenty minutes, but he didn’t have time for leisurely strolls. Jason Funderberker rode along in the bike basket while Greg pedaled faster than he’d ever pedaled before. He left his bike at the cemetery’s front gates, forgoing locking it since it was late and who would go to a cemetery looking for bikes to steal?

After tonight, Greg would since apparently people like him would just leave them unattended in plain sight.

He crept through the silent graveyard. No witches’ gatherings tonight. If there had been any they were already over. Or maybe they just moved inside. It was really cold out. Greg was thankful for the warmth of his sweater combined with the heavy cape. When he got to the wall, he set Jason Funderberker down and hummed thoughtfully.

While he was a fantastic tree climber, he wasn’t so good when he had to balance Jason Funderberker in one arm. Wirt usually helped him out whenever they went over the wall. Ribbit. Greg looked down at their frog and smiled.

“You’re right, Jason Funderberker. We can do it.” He glanced towards the almost full moon, shining bright despite the layers of clouds moving in. “Sorry for breaking my promise, Wirt, but it’s for a good reason.”

He buttoned the frog into the cape so he was snug against Greg’s chest, then he scaled the tree slowly so it wouldn’t jostle him too much. He swung his legs onto the top of the wall. Mission almost accomplished. They hopped down. Greg tripped over the hem of the cape, stumbling a bit, and Jason Funderberker leapt away from him onto the train tracks.

“Run, run, run, run, run,” Greg whispered as the two of them crossed it without trouble.

Carefully, they made their way down the steep hill to the lake. The water was still and black. The milk white moon directly above them reflected directly below them as well. Greg peered into the dark depths and his reflection stared back. Not quite the hero his brother was, but close enough.

They’d been over here several times and nothing had happened, but it wasn’t like either of them had actually tried that hard before. If he willingly tried to go back there, to The Unknown, then maybe it would work. Wirt had said they could only get there under special circumstances, and this was definitely a special circumstance.

“Ready, Jason Funderberker?” He looked to their frog with determination, but their frog only appeared wary. “It’ll be okay. We’re doing this for Wirt.”

Greg waded into the edge of the lake carefully. It dropped very suddenly, so he didn’t want to lose his balance and end up in the deep part. He held his arms out and looked around.

“I want to go back to The Unknown now!” he called out. “I have to find my brother!”

He listened. Nothing happened.

“I know this is a special Halloween portal! I’ve used it before!” Still nothing. “Please take me there? Pretty please with sugar on top and gummy worms and peanut butter and marshmallow sauce?”

It was getting really cold, the wind picking up. Greg shivered. He couldn’t feel his feet and he was getting Wirt’s coat all wet. But he couldn’t give up yet. Not when his brother needed him.

“Why isn’t it working, Jason Funderberker?” he asked, looking to him for answers.

Their frog croaked.

Greg gasped. “You’re right, Jason Funderberker! Maybe I should try being all the way under the water! Good idea!”

He inched a little bit further into the lake, his feet sticking in the mud. He crouched down. With a deep breath, Greg dunked his head under the water. It was even darker in the lake than it was outside of it. He stayed down for as long as he could hold his breath, then popped out with a gasp. His head swiveled about, eyes scanning for the woods.

“Did we make it?” he breathed, turning about wildly only to spy the garden wall up at the top of the hill. “Oh.” His shoulders sagged. “Guess not.”

While anything was possible if you set your mind to it, Greg was also getting very, very cold standing in the lake. Jason Funderberker looked pretty cold, too, like he was missing his heat lamp back home very much. He made a soft noise, like a frog plea, and Greg sighed.

“Okay. We’ll go home and get warm while I think up another plan,” he acquiesced.

Soggy like old cheerios in milk, Greg and Jason Funderberker trudged back up the hill. Climbing the wall to go back home was always a lot harder since there wasn’t a tree on this side, but the wall had places to grip and hold if he was careful. He set Jason Funderberker on his head under the cone hat and began to climb. His fingers were cold and wet, so it was hard to grip, but he wasn’t an expert tree climber for nothing.

He grabbed onto the top of the wall with one hand. Almost there. Jason Funderberker hopped off his head to land on it, giving him more room to work with. He tipped his head back to smile at the resourceful frog. Greg reached up with his other arm and pushed up with his right foot. It got caught in the cape and he slipped.

His hand lost its grip and his chin bonked right into the stone wall. It felt like his stomach dropped right out of his body, his heart clogging his throat as he gasped soundlessly. His arms flailed, but there was nothing to hold onto as he fell. He fell back and down and down. He saw Jason Funderberker staring down at him, heard him croaking in concern, farther and farther away.

His head cracked on something hard-

-0-

At home, the phone rang.

Chapter Text

It was dawn when Greg realized his feet hurt from walking for so long.

Wait. Walking?

Greg stopped. Trees peppered the path before him, grass overgrown and covering it up the farther it went. That was strange. He didn’t remember going for a walk. He remembered…

“Jason Funderberker?” he called out, scanning the forest for the frog.

No familiar croaking answered him, just the rustling leaves in the autumn colored trees. Greg squinted. He knew these trees. He’d been here before. With Wirt.

Like a drumstick to the face, it all came back to him.

“Wirt?” Greg’s head swiveled about, his body twisting this way and that to try and see everything around him. “Wirt!”

When nothing answered him again it sounded even quieter. His voice echoed off the trunks of the trees, only to be swallowed up by the woods. Greg adjusted Wirt’s cape around his shoulders. He’d made it, that was what was important. He’d made it back to The Unknown and that was step one of his plan. Step two was find Wirt. Of course, in order to achieve step two, he was probably going to need a few more steps since he had absolutely no idea how to begin step two aside from running through the woods calling his brother’s name.

That might actually be a good idea though. He’d file that away for later.

“Take notes, Jason Funderberker. We’ve got a new plan to ma-” he stopped, immediately missing the frog’s constant presence. Why hadn’t he made it into The Unknown with him?

Greg couldn’t remember.

“It’s okay,” he told himself. “I can think of a new plan on my own. I am the leader, after all. So, um… let’s see. If I’m gonna find Wirt, I gotta think like Wirt and go where he’d go. If I were Wirt, I’d probably go… that way.” He pointed to the least scary path, brighter and with less rocks and roots tangled up in it. There were even some pretty flowers, but it wasn’t nearly as exciting as the other one, all dark and spooky and probably full of ghosts…

Yeah, Wirt definitely took the first path.

Greg hurried off in that direction, his silhouette nothing but a draped blanket and a cone hat that was too big for him. It drooped down into his eyes, so he had to keep nudging it towards the back of his head. It was the outfit of a pilgrim though, and that’s what he was: a pilgrim on an epic quest to save his brother.

He hummed to himself as he went – he had to keep his spirits up. Even if he felt really bad about being the reason Wirt was stuck here, he could still fix it. Besides… it brought back memories. Even if Wirt didn’t always like to think about their time here, it was important to both of them. It made them better brothers, somehow.

And he could kinda use the fond memories. Like when he tried to teach Wirt and Beatrice the Adelaide Parade song-

“Beatrice!” Greg shouted gleefully as he came to a sudden halt. “She’ll know where Wirt is for sure! If he’s lost and confused, he’d definitely go to her!” He looked around, in search of anything familiar or reminiscent of the bluebird. “Oh, right. Wirt said he gave her the magic scissors to turn her back into a person, so she wouldn’t be a bird anymore. Hm. Well, I’m sure I’ll recognize her if I see her. She can’t look that different. Huh?”

Something rustled in the brush behind him. Greg turned around to face it, but he couldn’t see anything. He took a step closer.

“Hello?” he asked. “Jason Funderberker?”

Oh no. No, that was definitely not Jason Funderberker. Unless Jason Funderberker had decided to turn into a wolf. He could hardly make out the shape of the creature, but the gleam in her eyes revealed herself to him. At least, he was pretty sure she was a she-wolf, but it was hard to tell with her mostly in the shadows and all. Greg gulped. The wolf stared at him.

“Hi.” Greg waved. “Hope I didn’t startle you. I’m uh… I’m looking for my brother. Wirt. Have you seen him? He’s… kinda tall. Brown hair, brown eyes. Oh! And his nose is way more pointy than mine.” Greg pointed to his own for comparison.

The wolf continued to stare at him.

Greg fidgeted. “Okay. How about a girl named Beatrice? I don’t know what she looks like, but she used to be a bluebird. Still nothing? Oh well, thanks anyway.”

Starting his humming anew, Greg resumed his trek. He didn’t get very far though, as the wolf burst from the bushes and blocked his path. Greg stumbled back in surprise, tripping on Wirt’s cape and falling flat on his butt. Ow. Well, that wasn’t very nice of her, was it?

The wolf’s silver pelt glittered in the early morning light, and would’ve been really pretty if not for the warning in her eyes. She bared her teeth at him. They were very sharp and there were a whole lot of them.

“I’m sorry, I'm not trying to bother you or anything. I’m really just looking for my big brother, that’s it,” he told her.

He stood up and brushed the leaves and dirt from himself. The wolf let him without moving a muscle. Rocking back and forth on his heels, Greg debated his next course of action. He tried going around the wolf, but when she snapped her jaws at him, he backpedaled and decided to just go back the way he came.

So he’d go the way he didn’t think Wirt would travel in. No big deal. Maybe Beatrice lived that way, he thought to himself, so he had no choice but to go the spookier route. Hopefully his big brother didn’t get too scared. He’d just have to find him quicker so he could let him know it was all gonna be okay.

He looked over his shoulder to check on the wolf, but she didn’t give chase. She watched him right back until the distance between them was to her liking, then she disappeared back within the trees. Weird. Oh well, he knew better than to pick a fight with something that could eat his face right off his head.

And hey, maybe that was her way of giving him directions! Maybe she did know Wirt or Beatrice. Pleased by this new idea, Greg dipped and ducked through the woods, keeping an eye out for his brother.

He last saw him wearing a hospital gown, but he doubted that he’d be wandering around The Unknown in just that. No, he was probably wearing the clothes he’d had on before. Greg wasn’t sure what they were, but he knew his brother’s wardrobe pretty well. He was probably wearing a sweater or his college sweatshirt. Wirt loved dressing like an old-timey person, except when it came to his school sweatshirt. That was the only modern thing he’d be fine with wearing.

“Wir-rrt!” he called out as he walked. “Oh, Wirt! Wirt? Beatrice? Hello-o?”

He was pretty sure he was the only one in this part of the woods. No one even told him to keep it down or ask if he was lost. He was a kid, people were supposed to ask if he was lost when he wandered places alone. Except he wasn’t lost. Greg nodded to himself firmly. He knew exactly where he was going and how to get back.

Greg poked his head into a hollowed out tree. “Wirt?” His voice echoed off the bark, only a few black turtles cozied up in the warm autumn hideaway. “Hm. Guess not.”

He gave the tree trunk a pat and went along his way. Should he be leaving a trail? He didn’t have any candy this time, which was probably a good thing since last time it lured a demon dog right to them, but he could use something else. Greg patted himself down. No, all he had on him was Wirt’s cape coat and hat and then his actual clothes underneath it. Oh, and a picture. Greg pulled it out of his pocket. It was a little crumpled, but it would still do the trick. It was the same photo Wirt had of them in his picture frame at school, one of the copies their mom had printed that Greg snuck from the family photo album after Parents’ Day. He could show it to people and they could tell him if they’d seen Wirt. Plus, it was nice to have just because.

Greg smiled at it. “Don’t worry, Wirt. You won’t be lost for much longer. Hey, what’s that?” He cupped his palm around his ear and listened. It sounded like water. “Something’s on the other side of those bushes. Let’s go see.”

Tucking the photo back in his pocket, Greg grabbed onto the hem of the coat and held it tight so it wouldn’t get caught on any of the bristles. He pushed through the branches and popped out on the other side. He was right!

It was a river. The water made a soft trickling noise as it bubbled over and around some fallen branches. This was great! He could follow the river until it led to someone! They always did in the stories. At least he was pretty sure.

“Now, which way should I go?” he hummed, glancing left then right. “I think… downstream. Yeah. That sounds good.”

While he walked, he picked up a stick from the river bank and pretended it was some kind of adventurer’s staff. When that got boring it became a sword and when that got boring, he turned it into a conductor’s stick. Sticks had many practical applications.

Greg started to sing as he waved it in the air.

“Oh, we’re going to the pasture to meet Adelaide and ask her- oh,” he paused in song but not in step. “Probably don’t want to be singing about finding Adelaide. Hm.” Greg tapped his chin with the stick, then brightened as he thought of his Adelaide Parade remix. Perfect! “To Wirt today! To Wirt today! Everybody shout hip hip hooray! To Wirt today! To Wirt to-!”

A thunderous roar sliced through the air. Greg whipped around, stumbling back just in time to avoid being squashed beneath the enormous paws of a lion. He gaped in surprise. He reminded him of Scar from The Lion King, all dark fur and fury in his eyes. The lion snarled, mane sharp and scraggly at the same time. Not at all the fluffy, thick mass of fur Greg imagined lion manes to be.

“Oh!” He tripped on Wirt’s coat and dropped his stick, throwing his arms out to catch his balance. “Hi, kitty.”

The lion growled. One large paw dug into the soft earth by the riverbank as he stepped towards him. Like the wolf, he didn’t seem to have any problem asserting his dominance. Greg quickly skittered back from him.

“You assert yourself all you want, Mr. Kitty. I’ll just be going now. Um. That way.” Greg pointed downstream, hoping that the lion wouldn’t mind.

He did. The lion roared once again, hackles raised and jaws dripping with thick, black saliva. Gross.

“I think there’s something wrong with your teeth,” he started to point out, but the lion snarled and lunged at him.

Greg yelped and ran, fast enough that the cape billowed out and around him so he wouldn’t trip. Run, run, run. Run, run, run. His arms and legs pumped as he sprinted. He tried to keep following the river, but he could hear the lion behind him. He was chasing him, the big paws thumping on the ground, getting closer and closer. He was seriously hunting him down and Greg knew he wasn’t fast enough to outrun a lion!

But where could he go?

“Tree!” Greg gasped.

He took a sharp right, back into the dense forest. Darting in between the first few trees, Greg settled on a tall, thick hickory tree and clambered up, high into the branches. Straddling one of the longer, sturdier branches, he looked down as the lion clawed at the tree. The lion hissed at him, like a snake, and his eyes looked black in the shadow of the woods, just like his mane. Then he began to pace. He was waiting.

Waiting for what? There was no way Greg was coming down, no matter how much the lion paced. Maybe he thought he’d fall? Well, that lion was in for a big surprise because Greg was an expert tree climber and expert tree climbers didn’t fall from-

The lion roared again, like a deep, scathing bellow. Greg trembled. What had he done to make him so angry?

Greg gulped and fidgeted. “I’m sorry if I upset you,” he attempted to reason with the lion. “I’m just looking for-”

The lion reared up and pressed his front paws against the tree trunk. Greg tucked his legs up higher. Lions couldn’t climb trees, could they? He wasn’t sure. The lion took a few steps back, then leapt at the tree. Greg nearly slipped. The whole tree shook, red and gold leaves raining down from high in the canopy and Greg held on tightly with a startled yell.

Hey!”

A rock smacked the lion between the eyes, the beast backing away with an angered snarl. Greg leaned over for a better view of the forest floor, trying to see what was going on and who’d shouted. Another rock went flying and the lion took few more steps back, black eyes quick, searching the woods for his antagonist.

A girl stepped out from behind a tree. She held the skirt of her blue dress up with one hand, cradling even more rocks in the folds, while her other hand clutched another stone. Two brown pouches dangled from around her neck. Her freckled face set in a furious scowl, she grunted as she tossed it at the lion. She didn’t bat an eyelash when it bellowed at her.

“Yeah, yeah, I get it. You’re mad.” She snorted. “That’s your problem, buddy.”

Greg watched from above while the lion and the girl circled each other. When the lion lunged for her, he gasped, but she sidestepped and flung the skirtful of rocks at the lion. He knocked his shoulder into a tree trunk, farther away from Greg’s tree now. The girl grabbed a fallen branch from the ground and brandished it like a baseball bat. She glanced up at Greg, her blue eyes blazing like the red of her hair.

Run-!” Her voice caught in her throat and the fire in her gaze went cold as she stared at him. “What..?”

“Look out!” Greg pointed as the lion prepared to strike her, but she was fast.

She spun around and whacked him in the face, luring him away from Greg’s tree. She snapped one of the pouches off her neck and chucked it at the lion. He hissed again and scrambled away from it.

“What’re you waiting for? I told you to run!” she snapped and Greg didn’t hesitate this time.

He scrambled down from the tree. “What about you?”

“I can handle myself! Just go!”

It certainly seemed that she could handle herself. She was beating a full grown, monster lion with a tree branch and a magic pouch and winning. Greg bolted, tearing through the woods, heedless of the brush and bramble in his way. He ran until he couldn’t hear the lion’s roar anymore, then kept running. He hoped it was because the girl had made him run away, and not because he was now eating the girl for breakfast.

He came across a tree with large roots that twisted and twined above ground. Greg climbed inside the cage it provided, small enough that he could fit with a little effort. Well, he had to take off the hat first, but once he did that, he fit fine. That big lion wouldn’t be able to. No way. His paw would get stuck for sure.

Greg curled up into a small ball. Just like hide-and-seek, that’s what this was. Panting heavily, he clamped his lips shut to keep from making too much noise. The woods stayed quiet.

Wow, that lion had not been anywhere near as nice as the wolf had. Not that she’d been particularly nice either, but at least she didn’t chase him through the woods. He didn’t even know lions could live in the woods! You learn something new every day, he supposed. Still, it had been hard outrunning a lion. And scary.

He hugged Wirt’s hat, wishing he had Jason Funderberker alongside him instead. Or better yet, Wirt himself. Though, Wirt would’ve probably freaked out about the lion thing. He might not have been much help, but at least he would’ve been there. If Wirt was the one freaking out, then Greg could’ve come up with a better solution than hiding in trees.

Though he supposed he was doing a good enough job so far, but if that girl hadn’t found him, he didn’t know what he would’ve done.

He hoped she was okay. It was awfully nice of her to distract the lion so he could get away. She had looked at him funny though. Like she’d seen a ghost. Beans. What if there had been a ghost behind him and he missed it all because of that lion?

Greg puffed out his cheeks in determination. One day he’d see a real ghost. Anything was possible if you set your mind to it. Like finding Wirt. Which he realized he wasn’t exactly doing such a good job of by hiding in the roots of a tree. Greg peered out into the rest of the woods. He didn’t see anything, everything was still quiet.

How long had it been? It felt like a pretty long time, but he couldn’t see where the sun was in the sky. Not that he could tell time by looking at the sun anyway. He knew when it was noon, that was about it. Regardless, he waited for what felt like ten minutes before deciding it was safe enough.

He tossed the hat out first, then shimmied up after it. Strapping it to his chin, he took in more of his surroundings. So much for following the river.

Should he go back and try to find that girl? Part of him wanted to. She was the first person he’d seen here and something felt nice about her, familiar. Probably because she protected him without question, something that Wirt would do. Maybe being nine years old and alone in The Unknown wasn’t the best idea, but what choice did he have? His brother needed him.

What would Wirt do? Greg figured that his big brother would definitely not go back towards the big scary lion, even if there was a person over there as well. Maybe he’d find her again later. The woods couldn’t be that big. He stuck his finger in his mouth and held it to the air. Nothing happened, but he picked a direction and went with it anyway. Too bad he didn’t get a chance to ask that girl if she’d seen Wirt or knew where Beatrice lived while he’d still been with her, but that wasn’t really the kind of conversation you could have while fighting a lion.

Luckily, Greg seemed to have an innate sense of direction. The river was still close, and boy was he thirsty after all that running. He stumbled upon it after a bit of walking. Greg glanced around cautiously before approaching the river this time. Nothing growled or cracked or yelled at him, so he knelt down and stuck his face right in the water to drink it. He used the edge of Wirt’s cape coat to dry off when he finished. The cool tang soothed the dryness in his throat instantly. A few twigs sailed down the river. Greg watched them while he sat for a minute.

He guessed that he was still heading downstream, which was good, because that’s what he wanted to do in the first place.

“So we stick to the plan,” he told himself. “I’ll just follow the river and I’m sure it’ll get me exactly where I need to go. That’s the kind of thing Wirt would do. I think.”

Greg stood up and dusted himself off, then started walking again. Walking through the woods had been more fun when there were two of them. He wished his brother was beside him, like the last time. Except if he was beside him, then they wouldn’t be here in the first place, would they?

“It’d be nice though, wouldn’t it? Just the two of us again. And Jason Funderberker. And Beatrice. Just no college stuff. Wirt wasn’t too busy for me when we were here,” he mumbled, his mood clouding a bit. He shook it off. “When I find him, maybe we can plan something for us to do. Yeah. That’s what we’ll do. Ohh,” he turned to something that would always lift his spirits. Songs. “We’re going to see Wirt today, it’s been so long, I made a song! ‘Cause I can’t wait to see his dumb ol’ face a-gain!”

As Greg followed the river downstream, his voice skipped along the ripples like pebbles on a lake. The sun rose higher in the sky and the shadows started to fade.

Chapter Text

“…what?”

Surely she was hearing wrong. After spending the past two hours watching over her oldest son, who by some miracle survived a car accident and surgery and was now having a machine breathing for him as he slept a deeper sleep than she would like, all Amy Whelan wanted to do was check on her youngest son, who was most likely not sleeping at all after having seen the condition his big brother was in. That’s all she wanted. She’d known her husband wasn’t asleep, not with three cups of coffee in him, no, so she hadn’t felt bad at all calling a few minutes before midnight.

“He’s probably asleep by now, Amy,” Jon had told her. “I don’t want to wake him.”

Amy had simply shaken her head. “If he’s asleep, don’t wake him. Just… just check on him for me, please?” She’d then looked at her oldest, watching the rise and fall of his chest much like his little brother had done not that long ago. “I need to know he’s alright, Jon.”

“Okay, I’ll check on him,” he’d relented, and she could hear him open their bedroom door and then listened to the silence that followed as he walked down the hall.

After that, everything she heard had to be wrong.

“Of course he’s there,” she told her husband over the phone, staring at Wirt’s unconscious form.

“Amy, I’m serious. He’s gone and so’s Jason Funderberker. Greg!” Jonathan hollered, no doubt searching the house for the youngest member of their family. “Gregory!”

Holding onto the cell phone with both hands, she trembled as she waited for him to find their little boy hiding with that frog of his – theirs, he was adamant that Jason was his and Wirt’s frog – under a bed or in a closet or maybe even up a tree, he liked climbing trees. He had to be somewhere. This was just like when he tried to stop Wirt from going to school. He did things like this when he got upset, it was perfectly normal. Everything was fine.

“Check Wirt’s room,” she told Jonathan.

“I already did,” he panted, throwing open another door. “His bike’s gone.”

Amy closed her eyes, willing herself to take deep, even breaths. Okay, okay. His bike was gone. His frog was gone. He was gone, but he wouldn’t go far, not with Wirt in the hospital. The hospital.

“He’s coming back here,” she breathed. “He wants to be here with Wirt, that has to be it.”

“Alright, keep an eye out for him. I’ll check the roads. He could’ve left anywhere between five and twenty minutes ago. Call me if he shows up there.”

She nodded before remembering he couldn’t see her. “Right, of course. Same for you. You call me when you find him. Then, just bring him here. I need to hug him and then give that boy a serious talking to.”

“Roger that. Talk to you soon. I love you.”

Her worry eased a bit. “I love you, too.”

At least she wasn’t alone in this. She didn’t have to be alone in her worry, steeping in the constant fretting that she was doing something wrong. Even before the divorce she’d felt alone. Oh, she couldn’t remember a time where she wasn’t worrying for Wirt, unaware her child could pick up on her stress and channel it in his quiet ways. Unaware that he had so much more of her in him than his father, because somehow in the past three years, he’d taken it upon himself to worry and fret over Gregory in her place.

“I’m so sorry, sweetheart.” She gripped Wirt’s hand tightly. “It wasn’t your job to fix this, it was mine. It was Jonathan’s. What was it you said when we first brought him home?” Her smile didn’t reach her eyes and she knew it. “You didn’t ask for a little brother and shouldn’t have to do anything you don’t want just because we decided to have him.”

Her son’s voice from when he’d been nine, warped from years of hearing it change, rang in her mind. “He’s your kid. You set the example.”

“For someone who didn’t want to be a big brother, you’ve been doing a fantastic job. I promise. And Greg will definitely agree, he’s missed you so much. He would’ve loved the surprise. You didn’t need to worry about that.”

Amy smoothed back his bangs. He’d been having trouble finding a good place to get his hair cut in Amherst. It was getting a bit long. She’d cut them for him before he went back to school, if there was time. Like when he was little.

“I’m going to step out for a minute, sweetheart. I need to check and see if Greg’s here yet. Can you believe that boy? He gets it from Jonathan. You and I know better than to try a stunt like this, don’t we? Those Whelan boys are impossible.” She brushed a kiss to his cheek. “I’ll be back soon. Try and wake up while I’m gone. I know it’s not your favorite thing to do in the mornings, but please just try.”

It took a moment for her to gather enough strength to ease out of the chair she’d pulled up to Wirt’s bedside, then even longer for her to leave the room. It was silly to think that her presence in the room made a difference in Wirt’s recovery, that wasn’t how it worked. He’d recover with or without her there. She exhaled deeply, then headed for the waiting room.

Greg wasn’t there when she arrived, but like Jonathan had said, they had no idea of knowing just when he’d slipped out. On his bike it would take him a while. The hospital was about fifteen minutes from their house by car, so biking would double that for sure. And Greg’s legs were still short, and it was cold out and dark…

Amy shook her head against the mental image of Greg crashing his bike or a car not seeing him in the dark or-

A couple rushed into the waiting room, drenched from head to toe. Amy took a peek out the window, squinting at a streetlamp. It was pouring. Her heart clenched. Of course it had to start raining while her little boy was out biking. She looked to the cell phone she still held tightly. Any second now, Jonathan would call saying he found him and that he was safe and dry and warm in their car. Jason Funderberker, too.

She went up to the front desk, asking them to let her know if the nine-year-old boy happened to come in. As she arrived back at Wirt’s room, barely even over the threshold, her phone rang. Her shoulders sagged with relief as she read her husband’s name on the screen.

Before she could even say a word, Jonathan’s frantic voice scratched through the static. “He’s at the cemetery! I don’t why I didn’t think of that earlier, they always come here on Halloween, but I didn’t think-!”

“Jon, calm down.” She forced her voice to stay level, soothing, like she’d learned to do for Wirt’s babbling fits. “Breathe. You’re at the cemetery? You found Greg?”

“I found Jason Funderberker. He’s on the back wall.”

“How did he get up there?” She’d seen the wall before, it was far too tall for a frog to jump on top of. “Greg’s not with him?”

“No,” Jonathan groaned. “No, and he’s not answering me. But his bike’s here and he wouldn’t leave Jason-” He cut himself off with a pause, and Amy waited for him to continue his thought, because she could hear the wheels turning in the silence. “You don’t think he climbed the wall?”

“Wirt told him not to,” she replied, inserting as much certainty into her tone as possible. “He made him promise not to climb it alone, and you know Greg takes their promises seriously.”

“But it’s their thing. Their Halloween thing.”

Amy thought she could hear Jason Funderberker croaking despite the rain ruining their signal. “He can’t climb while holding Jason.”

“I’m going to check, just in case.”

“You’re not climbing that tree, Jon. When was the last time you climbed a tree?” Amy chewed on the inside of her lip, looking to Wirt, still unconscious through this whole affair.

It was probably for the best that he didn’t know this was going on. He lost sight of Greg for two minutes during their skiing trip last winter and the poor boy had been inconsolable for a good hour after they’d found Greg trying to rent a toboggan with three dollars and twenty-two cents. It was concerning, to say the least. She and Jonathan thought he’d recovered from the trauma of that Halloween night, he’d been so much better.

He’d said he was fine, it had just been the snow and the trees.

She still wasn’t sure what that meant, but Greg had and she supposed that was what mattered.

Her husband grunted into the speaker and she sighed, trying to keep her voice steady. “You’re trying to climb the tree, aren't you?” She knew he was. How he was balancing the phone while doing so was a mystery.

“I just want to see over it, that’s all.”

“It’s dark. How much will you be able to see?” Their boys had been in the lake three Halloweens ago. If Greg was in the lake again, they wouldn’t be able to see him-

“I see him! Greg!”

Her heart sped up, her spine ramrod straight. “Greg?” she murmured, even if he couldn’t hear her call.

“He’s not moving. Amy, tell the hospital! I think he hit his head on the railroad tracks.”

“What?”

“I can barely see him – he’s wearing that red hat Wirt made and I can see the lining of the nurse’s cape – but it looks like he’s just lying there at the base of the wall-” Jonathan cut himself off again, then breathed a sigh of relief. “A police car just pulled up outside the cemetery, I think they see my car and Greg’s bike. I’m gonna see if they can help, but get someone to send an ambulance, Amy, because something’s wrong. Jason Funderberker is really upset.”

She crumpled against the doorframe. “Please get him. Please make sure he’s okay-”

“I will, I’ll get him. Officer! Officer, over here! My son-”

Amy didn’t hear the rest of Jon’s plea to the police officer, instead grabbing hold of the first nurse she found outside of Wirt’s room. “Please send an ambulance to Eternal Garden Cemetery,” she begged. “My son- my other son, my little boy, Greg- he’s hurt. My husband’s there with him, but he can’t get to him-”

“Calm down, Mrs. Whelan, we’ll send someone right away. Eternal Garden Cemetery?”

“Yes, he’s on the other side of the back wall. By the lake. My husband said he’s unconscious.”

“Alright, I’ll pass that information along. Just sit down, Mrs. Whelan, and I’ll let you know when they bring in your son and husband,” the nurse told her, guiding her to the chair in Wirt’s room. “Wait here.”

She let herself be led, slumping into the seat when the nurse released her. “Okay.”

As the woman rushed out of the room, Amy looked to her oldest yet again. So pale and still. Greg's rock with the funny face sat on the pillow beside his head. Hands shaking, she took it, placed it in Wirt's palm, and curled his fingers around it. She squeezed his hand tightly. The machine monitoring his heart buzzed on, the machine forcing air into his lungs whooshed too rhythmically, and his eyes stayed closed. Amy closed hers as well and she waited.

She was pretty sure she hated Halloween.

Chapter Text

Again, Greg wasn’t sure how long he’d been walking for when he came across a dock. The river had steadily grown wider, to the point where he couldn’t see the bank on the opposite side. It could be the ocean for all Greg knew, but there were no waves, no sandy beaches, and the water just kept flowing forward.

The dock was old, the wood graying and splintered. That didn’t stop Greg from walking right onto it though. It was the first human-like thing he’d seen since the actual human. It creaked under his weight and he could feel the wooden planks bend beneath his sneakers. He waited a minute. When it didn’t give out, he walked right up to the edge.

Maybe a dock meant there were people nearby? It was pretty old though. He toed at a splintering piece of it and it disintegrated into dust. Really old. Even if a person had built it, they probably hadn’t used it in a really long time.

Movement near his feet attracted Greg’s attention. A little black turtle crawled across the wooden planks towards him. He watched it. The turtle bumped against his shoe and he smiled.

“Hi, you wanna come with me?” he asked it.

The turtle tried to climb on his shoe, but became disinterested halfway through and crawled away. Greg crouched down to observe it. It crossed the entire dock, towards the edge with the most twigs and leaves stuck in the mud below. Maybe it wanted to build itself a little turtle house.

“Okay, bye.” He waved.

“You just gonna stand there talkin’ to turtles, boy, or are you gonna get on?”

Greg spun around and gasped. At the end of the dock there was a boat moored to one of the posts. A man sat in it, hunched up under a ratty, navy blue overcoat. A graying beard hid his chin and lips and a black captain’s hat sat perched upon his head, hiding whether or not he had any hair. Greg blinked at him while the man stared at him with hard eyes. Cold and unyielding as the stainless steel appliances his mom dreamed of owning someday.

The man opened his mouth, the raspy voice continuing. “I got a schedule to keep. You want a ride or not?”

“Oh! Uh, yes please.” Greg glanced behind him for a quick second, but the turtle was gone.

Oh well, he had said goodbye at least.

He climbed into the little boat. It was old and gray, just like the dock, but it still kept the two of them afloat somehow. And it was better than the boat he and Wirt had made out of an old outhouse that last time. At least this boat had real oars.

“Untie the bow line,” the man ordered.

“Huh? Oh.” Greg reached for the rope and looped it off the post.

As the man began to paddle away from the dock, Greg wondered if this was one of those times where he wasn’t supposed to get in a vehicle with a stranger. Probably. But he was in The Unknown now, and he had a brother to find which would be much faster by boat. Sometimes the rules needed to be bent just a little bit, not that he’d tell Mom or Wirt that.

“Which way you headed?” the old man grunted.

“Well, I’m pretty sure I want to go downstream,” Greg replied.

The man harrumphed. “Good. That’s where I was goin’ regardless of your answer.”

“Why?”

“My fishin’ spot’s that way.”

“You’re a fisherman? Where are all your fish?” Greg looked around the boat. There wasn’t much to look at. There was an old rod at The Fisherman’s feet, a sack of dried beans, and an empty wicker basket, but that was it.

“Haven’t caught any yet.”

“Oh.”

Greg glanced around. He wasn’t sure how he’d missed the man in his boat when he looked around before. He’d had his back turned one second and then poof! He was there waiting for him. Maybe he was a magical, invisible fisherman.

The oars groaned and sloshed through the water. Greg peered over the side of the boat. The water seemed to be getting darker the further along they went. Deeper water probably meant more fish. He wasn’t sure if that meant more people though.

Oh! But he had a person right here who he could ask!

“I’m looking for my brother,” Greg piped up. “He’s lost somewhere in The Unknown and I’ve got to find him. Have you seen him? He looks like-” He went to fish the photo from his pocket, but The Fisherman interrupted him before he could.

“Haven’t seen him. You’re the first person I’ve seen in a while askin’ for a ride,” he replied. “Don’t get too many visitors wantin’ to stand on my dock.”

Greg wilted. “Oh, okay. How come?”

“Mm?”

“How come you don’t get many people asking for rides?” he clarified.

The Fisherman shifted his gaze to the river bank opposite them. Or at least in the direction of it, since Greg still couldn’t see it from the boat. A thick layer of mist shrouded the other side of the river, only the trees managing to poke out high above it. He didn’t remember such a big river from the last time they were here. The frog boat’s river had been much farther away than this one, hadn’t it? And it didn’t have nearly so many sticks bobbing along in the water.

“When people come to a river, it’s to find some way across,” he murmured. “This river isn’t one people are typically hankerin’ to cross right away. No one willin’ to cross, no one standin’ on my dock.”

“So you’re a fisherman and a ferryman?”

“No, boy,” he replied quietly, “Just a fisherman.”

Greg thought that was a missed opportunity. Why not fish and ferry at the same time? Could be lucrative. He glanced around the bare boat. More lucrative than fishing seemed to be, at least.

“Do people only ever want to cross the river?” he asked

The Fisherman snorted. “Well, I don’t find many people wantin’ to sit in it.”

Greg rolled his eyes. “I mean, they don’t want to go up or downstream? Like me?”

“Not usually.” The Fisherman considered this, then looked upon him with a scrutinizing stare. “Why you headin’ downstream, boy?”

“Well, I thought that maybe the river would lead me to some people. Maybe a town or something and they might know where Wirt is,” he explained with a shrug. “Do you know of any towns nearby? Or houses? What about someone named Beatrice?”

“Not any towns you oughtta be visitin’.” The Fisherman shook his head, then jerked it back, gesturing behind them. “There’s an old grist mill not too far from here, stuffed full with a pleasant enough family. Never heard of anyone called Beatrice, I’m afraid.”

Greg swung his legs back and forth, trying not to let his disappointment show. “Oh, that’s okay. Thanks anyway. How come I shouldn’t oughtta visit the town?”

“Next town over is Grayfield,” the man growled. “No one leaves Grayfield the way they arrived.”

“I thought that was Pottsfield.” Greg shook his head, eyebrows furrowed in concentration as he struggled to recall the pumpkin people town.

“Pottsfield?” The Fisherman scoffed. “Pottsfield is a school of minnow compared to the big-mouthed bass that’s Grayfield. Folks there’ll gobble ‘em up in seconds.”

"They eat them?” Greg gasped.

“No, they don’t eat ‘em. I don’t mean gobble literally, boy. It’s a metaphor,” the man replied snidely. “They’re more aggressive, is all I mean. Point is, you go wanderin’ in Grayfield all on your own, you’re gonna find yourself in a heap of trouble.”

“Well, which way is Pottsfield then? I’ve been there before, they might be able to help me out.”

“Pottsfield is at the other end of this river. Upstream. ‘Fraid I can’t take you there. Not on my fishin’ route.” The Fisherman’s eyes narrowed. “You don’t look like the type that’d go to Pottsfield.”

Greg shrugged. “Haven’t found any pumpkins yet, I guess.”

“But you’ve been there before?”

“Oh, yeah! Three years ago me and my brother visited Pottsfield. Jason Funderberker and Beatrice were with us, too.”

“Three years?” His eyes roved over Greg. “You’ve been here three years?”

“Oh, no! We got out a long time ago, but like I said, my brother, Wirt, got lost here and now I have to find him and bring him home again. It’s my burden to bear!” Greg placed his hand over his heart.

The Fisherman’s eyes clouded, a stormy gray set in the dark lines of his face, foreboding and cold. “You shouldn’t have come back.”

Greg blinked. “I… I had to. I need to find my brother-”

“Your brother’s dead, boy!” he snapped. “There’s no bringin’ back what crosses the threshold of The Unknown!”

The boy’s face paled, only the sloshing of the water against the side of the boat and the call of distant birds rang out in the silence of the river. Dead? Wirt wasn’t dead, he was only sleeping. You went to The Unknown during the special kind of sleep, that’s what Wirt said-

Was death the special kind of sleep he’d been talking about? Had they died three years ago?

Greg shivered. He was cold and wet and his fingertips burned and his head ached. Right at the back, throbbing. He touched it gingerly, but then it was gone. He was dry and in the boat and nothing hurt. He shook his head. No, they hadn’t died. They’d been alive and fine. Cold, but no worse for the wear. Wirt wasn’t dead. The doctor and nurse would’ve said something. They wouldn’t have had him hooked up to a machine, keeping him breathing, if he was dead.

No. Wirt wasn’t dead and that was a rock fact.

Greg patted the pocket where his rock facts rock usually sat, the rock that was now busy keeping watch at Wirt’s bedside. The rock Wirt surprised him with after he returned the other one to Old Lady Daniels. “I know it’s not the same face, at all,” his brother had said, cringing as he looked at his work. “I’m not the best artist, but I dunno. Thought you might want it.”

“It’s perfect!” he’d told him, cradling the rock in his palms as if it was a precious gem rather than something dug up from their backyard. “It’s a perfect rock facts rock! Thanks, Wirt!”

With a stern expression on his face, Greg stared hard at The Fisherman. “We’ve been here before and left. We can do it again. Wirt isn’t dead. I know that. He may be lost, but if something’s lost then it can be found and that’s what I’m gonna do.”

The Fisherman’s brow quirked up and the edges of his lips twitched. “You’re bold, boy. Out of your mind, yes, but bold.” He glanced ahead over Greg’s shoulder. “You should still leave while you can. It’s not too late.”

“Not without Wirt.”

With a heavy sigh, he nodded. “So be it. I’ll take you to the crossroads when I’m finished here. There, you can either heed my warnin’ and leave in one piece, or you can set out on a different path. If your brother’s soul is so important that you’d willingly set foot in this place, then you’ll want to head in the direction of the tallest mountain.”

“Mountain?”

“Do not stray towards the valley. One step into the shadows there, then I’m afraid I know of no way to ensure your safe return.”

Greg frowned. “I thought The Unknown was just the woods. We didn’t see a mountain or a valley last time.”

“Then you were better off for it,” The Fisherman replied. “Trust me, boy. Head east, towards the sunrise. There you’ll find the mountain, and hopefully your brother will be on that path.”

The “what if he’s not” stayed clenched behind his teeth as the boat came to a stop. Neither bank could be seen now as the man dropped anchor – the bag of beans – into the swirling depths. Greg watched the man ready his hook. He cast out into the darkest of the waters with a thick layer of branches and twigs floating atop it.

The pair sat in silence for a time before Greg started fidgeting. There wasn’t much room on the boat to move around. He leaned over the side, peering at his reflection. He looked like Wirt, only small. The dingy tinge to the river didn’t highlight the slight differences in their hair or eyes. In the river, Greg’s hair and eyes were just as dark as Wirt’s.

He poked his own nose. Well, maybe not quite like a small Wirt. Even small Wirt had a pointier nose than him. Pointy like the cone hat. Greg adjusted the hat just a bit, not wanting it to fall off into the river, while a group of sticks floated by.

Greg picked up two of them and turned them into drumsticks, tapping out a tune on the side of the boat. The Fisherman grunted at him, reeled in his line, checked the twig stuck to it, then chucked both it and his baitless line back into the river, but he didn’t take that as a request to stop, necessarily. He was bored. How long did he expect a little boy to be able to sit and wait while he fished?

Apparently a long time.

“You’re scarin’ away the fish,” the old man muttered. “Haven’t you ever been fishin’ with your folks?”

“Nope! Dad took me and Wirt camping once, but Dad’s pretty bad at camping. Wirt had to show him how to make a fire and everything!” Greg grinned, on a roll with his drum session.

“Well, someone oughtta take you. It’ll teach you some patience and discipline, now quit that tappin’ of yours and leave the sticks be.”

Greg pouted, but did as The Fisherman asked. It was his boat after all. “How come there are so many sticks in this river?” he asked instead, watching more twigs and things float past.

“How come you can’t keep quiet for more than a minute?” The Fisherman fired back.

“I can, I just prefer not to,” he replied. “Now how come there are all these sticks?”

“Well, they need somewhere to go, don’t they? Why not float down the river?”

That was a good point, actually. Greg looked up and around. There were certainly enough trees towering over the river to allow so many branches to fall into it. He squinted at the sky. Funny, he didn’t remember it being so cloudy.

A raindrop plopped right between his eyes. Greg brushed it off, but more splattered against his skin. The rain poured over them, dancing on the river’s surface and drowning the sticks travelling aimlessly along the river. He had to push his bangs out of his eyes, his hair – and the rest of him – quickly getting soaked.

“Water, water, everywhere, nor any drop to drink.”

Greg looked to The Fisherman, but other than that weird sentence the man paid the rain no mind, as if it was the last thing on earth that could possibly bother him.

Not that it bothered Greg, necessarily, but it was certainly hard not to notice the sudden downpour. Lightning flashed overhead. Was being surrounded by water and trees a good thing or a bad thing in a lightning storm?

Ribbit.

“Huh?” Greg blinked the water from his eyes to search the river. “Jason Funderberker?”

“What’re you goin’ on about now, boy?” The Fisherman finally glanced up from his line to stare at him.

“I thought I heard my frog- our frog,” he explained. “His name’s Jason Funderberker.”

“What kinda fool name is that for a frog?”

Greg puffed up his chest and cheeks, arms crossed. “The perfect frog name. Wirt came up with it.”

“Mm. Your brother, eh?” The Fisherman reeled in his line again, yet another stick attached to the hook. He tossed it back into the river, then recast his line. “How’d he end up in The Unknown? You failed to mention that.”

Greg’s stomach flipped, so he crossed his arms a little tighter to keep it from doing that again. “It was an accident,” he murmured, staring at his feet where a puddle began to form from the rain.

“Your fault?”

“No,” he defended a little too quickly, then his shoulders sagged. “Well… a little. Mom and Dad said it wasn’t, but… I think it was. That’s why I have to find him. I have to tell him I’m sorry.”

The Fisherman’s eyes narrowed. “Sorry doesn’t do much if you don’t mean it.”

Greg reeled back, horrified. “Of course I mean it!”

“Do you?”

The steely, cold glint in the man’s eyes chilled Greg to the core. People didn’t usually look at him like that. He was a kid, he made mistakes. Even Mrs. Wordsworth had some warmth in her eyes when she punished him because she understood that he was a kid.

He was a kid, and he was alone in The Unknown on a strange boat with a strange man and no sign of his brother and there were more and more sticks gathering in the river and the rain was coming down harder, colder. Lightning flared up, and in the sharp flash of light, The Fisherman was encased in the shadow of the trees, only his silvery eyes illuminated in the darkness. Greg felt sick.

“I want to get off now,” he told The Fisherman.

The man blinked out of his icy stare, brow furrowed. “I said I’ll take you to the crossroads after I’m-”

“No, I want to get off now. Please just- just pull over and let me off.” Greg scooted to the far end of the boat quickly, the shift in weight causing the rickety boat to bob.

“Don’t jostle the boat so much, boy, you’ll tip us over!” he shouted.

“Let me off and I won’t have to tip it over!” Greg shouted back, fear choking him. He wanted Wirt. He wanted his brother. He didn’t want to be alone. “Wirt! Wirt! Help!”

“Calm down, I’ll get you to shore!” The Fisherman reeled his line in a third time, then set his rod at his feet.

Greg trembled even as the man took up the oars and rowed towards the bank. He didn’t stop shaking until the boat was close enough to the mud for him to scramble on to.

He sloshed through it, Wirt’s cape coat getting filthy as it was dragged down, but he didn’t stop until solid ground was beneath him.

Panting, he glanced over his shoulder at The Fisherman, still bobbing in his boat. The old man watched him back, all traces of the hostile thing that flickered in his silver eyes gone and replaced by nothing more than grandfatherly concern. Greg still felt an uncomfortable rolling sensation in his gut and didn’t know what to make of it.

“You done now? Will you get back in the boat?” The Fisherman questioned.

Greg shook his head. “I-I’ll walk the rest of the way, thanks.”

“It’s dangerous, boy. Walkin’ will only take you closer to Grayfield than you oughtta be. I promise, no more questions and I’ll get you to the crossroads in one piece. That’s more than can be said if you walk there.”

“I’ll take my chances,” he replied. “Besides, my brother’s probably walking, too. I’ll find him better this way.” And wouldn’t Wirt threaten to kill him if he found out he’d gotten a ride with a stranger? Sure, they’d done it before in The Unknown, but apparently when a fifteen-year-old asked for directions and such, it wasn’t as big a deal. He’d never been scared when it was Wirt getting them the help they needed, not even when Wirt himself was scared.

“So be it,” The Fisherman called to him. “Just remember what I said. Head towards the peak of the tallest mountain. Stay far from the valley. If you don’t find your brother before nightfall, go home without him.”

Greg pretended he didn’t hear that last part. “Alright.”

Somewhere in the midst of his panic the rain had stopped. The wet ground still squelched under his water-logged sneakers, but the sun’s rays poked tiny holes into the overcast sky and lit the way for him. He’d barely gone a foot before he heard a gasp behind him.

Whirling around, he caught sight of The Fisherman’s gaunt, terrified expression before he could conceal it. When Greg blinked, the only trace of it was the nervous twitch of his eyebrow. The rest of him was as calm as the river out of the rain.

“Keep an eye on that shadow of yours,” he told him, “Stay out of the sun at noon.”

Before Greg could question the weirdness of that statement, The Fisherman rowed away, back upstream. Away from his fishing spot and away from Greg.

He glanced down at his shadow. It looked just like any other shadow. He waved his right arm, then his left, then shook himself about and the shadow mimicked each motion. Greg huffed out a sigh and arched an eyebrow at the retreating figure.

“That guy’s nuts.” Greg decided, then turned around to start his walking anew. “Ohhh, we’re going to the pasture to see Adelaide and ask her if she has a way to send us back where we came from-” He paused mid-verse and sighed. “I need a new song.”

Chapter Text

This couldn’t be right.

Greg stared past the wooden sign tacked to the tree trunk with a rusty nail and down a trail paved with brightly colored pebbles and lined with little white flowers with yellow stamens. The sign clearly read: Grayfield 1 Mile, but gray wasn’t the color Greg was seeing. It was almost like how he imagined the Emerald City would look at the end of the yellow brick road, except in this case the road was bright blue and the city more of a ruby than an emerald as it sparkled in the sunlight.

The path leading away from the town, however, was what Greg considered to be gray and rather lifeless. The leaves crumpled and littered the dusty forest floor, barren branches tangling with each other like an attempt for the trees to hold hands. He glanced back towards the town. The trees on the way to Grayfield were still full and flourishing, deep green and swaying in a gentle breeze. Large mulberry bushes also bloomed along the path, laden with bunches of berries.

This was the town that The Fisherman warned him against? This happy, bright town right out of a fairy tale?

“Maybe he meant a different Grayfield,” Greg mused, glancing over his shoulder back the way he came.

He’d been doing that a lot since he abandoned the river for the safety of the trees. It made the weird feeling of being watched a little more bearable when the beady eyes of birds and squirrels fell upon him. Sadly, none of the birds were bluebirds. They didn’t talk either, so he was still no closer to finding Beatrice, which meant he was definitely no closer to finding Wirt either.

What would Wirt do? Greg puffed out his chest and stood on his tiptoes so the hem of the soaked, muddy cape coat didn’t drag so terribly on the ground. Wirt would happily venture into this town for directions. There was even a rainbow over the town skyline. That clinched it for him.

That and, well, the fact that Greg couldn’t get the terrible stare of The Fisherman in the rain out of his head. Could he trust the words of a stranger who didn’t even seem to leave his boat? Oh, making these kinds of decisions on his own was hard. He’d really rather have someone to discuss this with, like Wirt or Jason Funderberker.

He sighed. He really missed that frog of theirs. Greg took out the picture of the three of them from his pocket. Luckily it hadn’t been damaged when he sloshed through the river earlier. He traced their frog’s face with his index finger. Hopefully he wasn’t missing them both too much.

“Don’t worry, Jason Funderberker. I’m closer than ever to finding Wirt. We’ll be back soon,” he promised, folding the picture back into his pocket and striding right past the sign to the blue pebble path.

Even though he could see the town from where he walked, it was still quite a ways down a hill and then up another one. Greg hummed to himself, a little tune that popped into his head. It was no longer The Adelaide Parade or its remix – even he’d gotten a bit weary of singing that the whole way – so a new song for a new adventure was being composed.

“Walking, guess I’m gonna start walking,” he sang, kicking at a stray pebble. It clinked along the others and he smiled. “Walking and talking like someone who knows where they’re going! Hm.”

The smile faded. He wasn’t so sure he liked this tune and where was the song even going? He’d said walking three times already! A bit excessive in his opinion. He’d have to work on it some more once he got some directions from the people in town. And maybe some dry clothes, or at least permission to use someone’s washer and dryer. Wirt would not be impressed that he got so much mud on his cape.

As he entered the town, Greg knew one thing for certain. Grayfield looked nothing like its namesake. In fact, Greg wasn’t sure who picked the name Grayfield for this town because not a speck of gray could be found anywhere. The brightest candy apple red bricks composed the houses, topped off with bronzed roofs. Purples and oranges popped in the window shutters and doors. The little houses were scattered over green hills, reminding him of the exact shade of his Screamin’ Neon Green crayons tucked away in his desk back at school. The fields below the hills were rich with earthy tones, warm and inviting and home to many little worms, Greg noted as he got closer. Silkworms, he was pretty sure.

Grinning, he headed for the center of town. All the houses faced the same direction. The doors were all turned away from the sun, which had started its downward descent a little while ago. Greg guessed it was about two or three in the afternoon, but he wasn’t really sure.

No one came out to greet him, but he couldn’t bring himself to mind. He’d just knock on their doors until someone could give him directions. The yellowest door looked like a good place to start. He tapped out the tune to “shave and a haircut, two bits” on the wood, then rocked back on his heels to wait.

The door eased open with a high creak. Greg tilted his head, smiling expectantly. The door didn’t open any further. He glanced over his shoulder, then around the rest of the road behind him. Empty.

He pushed open the door, making it creak even more. “Hello?” he called out. “Anybody home?”

The brightly colored theme continued into the house. Bold blues and greens with shocks of pink and orange assaulted his eyes. It reminded him of when Dorothy walked out of her house into Oz for the first time and all the browns and grays turned to rainbows. Oh! Maybe he was in Munchkinland! He stepped over the threshold and wandered in. The hallway branched off towards a staircase on one end and a living room at the other.

“We represent the lollipop guild, the lollipop guild, the lollipop guild,” he sang quietly as he journeyed towards the living room of the friendly little house. “We represent the lollipop guild…” Greg trailed off, only to gasp when something crashed behind him. “We welcome you-! To… Munchkinland?”

Whirling around, he looked to the floor as a human skull rolled up to his feet. Oh, was that all? Greg placed a hand over his heart and relaxed. He’d thought it was something to actually be worried about.

Footsteps could be heard around the corner, from the stairs, coming closer. A skeleton, lacking a head, walked around it on very shaky legs. Well, bones, more like. Leg bones. Greg reached down and plucked up the skull, holding it out to the lost body.

“I found your head!” he called out to it, only to have the teeth of the skull sink into his hand. “Hey!”

He dropped it, letting it clunk on the wooden floor. Greg cradled his hand to his chest, watching the head curiously as it rolled on its own until it was propped up and staring up at him. The eye sockets narrowed.

You didn’t find anything!” A woman’s voice snapped at him. “I found you, trespasser!”

“I’m not a trespasser,” he protested. “I knocked on the door and it opened for me!”

“Did anyone say you could waltz right on in like you own the place, mister?”

Greg paused, lowering his hands. “Well, no. But I’ve got a good reason! See, I’m looking for my-”

“No matter. It’s your own fault you’re here now, so whatever happens to you is on your head. Or off it, to be more precise.”

Eyes rounding, Greg took a step back while the skeleton jiggled its – her – way towards him. His gaze darted from the fallen head to the skeleton’s neck and back. He gulped, his hands clutching at his throat.

“You’re gonna cut off my head?” he squeaked.

The skull scoffed as she was picked up and cradled by her own bony hands. “Don’t be ridiculous. I have no use for your head.” Her skull clicked onto her vertebra, then she rolled her neck a couple of times until it popped into place. “It’s your face that I’ll be taking off of your head.”

“Phew.” He relaxed, arms falling lax at his sides before he realized just what she’d said. “Wait, what!”

She lunged for him, bone fingers curled like claws. He didn’t want to find out if they were as sharp as claws, too, so he darted around her and back down the hall. As he stumbled outside, he froze as his gaze fell upon a horde of skeletons watching him. Several skeletons tensed, preparing to give chase, while others stood by dressed with what appeared to be patchwork quilts draped haphazardly over their shoulders. Unlike the rest of the town, their clothes weren’t the slightest bit colorful. Just varying shades of beige and brown…

“Gotcha!” A hand fell on his shoulder, clutching him close. “Not quite the complexion I wanted, but you’ll do. You’re youthful and fresh.”

“Ah!” Greg shouted, squirming in her grasp. “I mean, thank you, that’s very nice to say, but ah!”

His panic mounted when the other skeletons encroached upon them. Even without eyes in them, their eye sockets seemed to stare at him hungrily. Were they gonna eat him, too? The Fisherman said they didn’t eat people, but then again The Fisherman also said his brother was dead and that was a total lie! The arms of the skeleton behind him wrapped themselves around him protectively as she hissed at the others.

“Back off, you lot! This one’s mine!” she rattled.

He didn’t know why he felt safer being dragged back into her house when it really should’ve been the opposite, but he supposed it would be much easier to fight off one skeleton than it would be to fight off twenty. Except several more skeletons followed them into the house, so he didn’t really have a chance. His hat was knocked off his head when she jerked him back. He reached for it, but it was snatched up by another skeleton. The one holding him left the door open and some of the onlookers joined them inside while she dragged Greg to what he could only guess was some kind of sewing room slash kitchen. Sharp knives and scissors hung on long nails driven into the walls and there was a large counter in the middle of the room.

She lifted Greg onto it – rather strong for someone who didn’t have any muscles – and tied him down by the wrists and ankles. He tried to crawl away, but she hissed at him every time he tried and the only two exits were blocked – the window that she stood in front of and the door they’d just come in. He glanced around quickly. There was an old spinning wheel in the corner and a box of needles and thread beside it. More spools of black and brown colored thread were lined up on the window sill. A silver thimble glinted in the sun and somehow appeared just as malicious as the blades on the wall opposite it.

“Why do you need my face?” he asked, craning his neck back to follow her every move.

“Why do you think?” she replied, gesturing to her bone white… bones.

Actually, they weren’t all that white now that Greg was getting a good look at her. They were sort of yellow, browning in some spots. Each step she took sounded brittle and dry, her joints creaking while she gathered her supplies.

“It’s nothing personal, kid.” A deep voice from the hallway crooned.

He tilted his head to address the onlookers. About ten of them were gathered in the small space, as if waiting for some kind of show. A few of them didn’t really look so much like skeletons. Faces that didn’t fit their heads quite right were sewn into a sort of mask, some stretched too tight and others too loose and sagging right off their cheekbones. The one who’d spoken was wearing his hat.

“Yeah,” another one of the face-snatchers chimed in. “If we don’t cover these bones of ours, we dry out in the sun and crumble into dust. We’re just trying to get by in one piece.”

“Why don’t you just use pumpkins and straw like they do in Pottsfield?” he asked, tugging at the binds holding his wrists.

A hushed murmur of Pottsfield sprinkled through the crowd. They seemed soaked in a familiar bitterness that Greg himself could sympathize with, but not enough that he was willing to lose his face for it. He rather liked having a face, thank you very much. The skeleton intent on taking it from him stopped what she was doing and placed her hands on her hips while she faced him.

“Pottsfield,” she sneered. “Why would we want to do anything like Pottsfield?”

“Because they don’t steal the faces off of innocent people?” Greg tried.

“They’re not so good as you make them seem. The only reason they don’t do what we do is because they don’t have to. They don’t know what it’s like to have a barren harvest. Our grass may be green and our flowers may bloom all year round, but do our crops grow from the unyielding ground beneath our feet? No!”

She slammed her fist on the counter, jolting Greg and a sewing basket that reminded him of his mom’s. Skeletons in the hallway hummed their agreements amongst each other. She took a piece of charcoal from the sewing basket and drew a dotted line along the top of his forehead while she continued.

“Our fields refuse to take seeds, turn the water we pour upon it to ash and spit the poison of the bloodroot back at our faces. Not a single fruit or vegetable for us to even try and forge a second skin from. The only thing that does grow here are those useless mulberry bushes and bloodroot. Animals stay far from our cursed ground, unable to graze without risk. So we do what we can. We take from those lost souls who dare wander through our town not because we want to, but because we have no other choice.”

Greg raised an eyebrow, messing up her straight lines. “Why don’t you just move somewhere that’s better for planting pumpkins?”

The horde of skeletons chuckled mirthlessly, the one above him shaking her head. “You think we can just leave? Oh, if it was as simple as that, child, we would’ve fled this cursed land long ago.”

“I don’t think it’s cursed. You guys have the prettiest town I’ve ever seen!”

“We do not need your pity, nor will it save you,” she replied. “As Henry told you before, this is nothing personal. Your skin will save mine. For a short time, at least.”

She lifted a tiny knife to the light filtering in through the window. Greg shuddered as it danced along the walls. He wiggled some more, but the rope binding his wrists didn’t have any give. Then something clicked. The sagging skin, the drooping faces, the bland colors.

“What do you mean for a short time?” he asked quickly, before she could lower the knife. “Won’t… won’t this last?”

She looked at him a moment, then seemed to deem it fair enough to explain. “It is part of our curse as a town. The one solution that we have found to our survival comes at the cost of others’ and it does not last as long as it should. Our skins dry out, just like we do. They wilt and die like the people they came from, forcing us to prey upon more and more lost souls.”

“We are cursed to steal,” the skeleton named Henry spoke again. “We are cursed to hunger for more. We are cursed to dwell amongst a beauty that we can never attain ourselves. We are cursed with a massive infestation of the fowlest of parasites. Maggots constantly worming their way into our homes, destroying our mulberry bushes-”

“Speaking of maggots, there’s one on your windowsill, Agnes,” another skeleton told the one beside Greg.

She turned to face it, smacking it to the floor. “Away, foul creature!”

Greg tilted his head to check if the maggot was okay, only to see a small silkworm wriggling on the floor. “That’s not a maggot, that’s a silkworm,” he piped up.

All the empty skeleton eyes turned to him. “A what?” someone questioned.

“A silkworm,” he repeated.

“Child, that is not a silkworm,” Agnes scoffed. “We do not have silkworms in this part of The Unknown.”

Greg’s brow furrowed. “No, that’s definitely a silkworm. I know what they look like. I had to do a project on them when I was in second grade for science. We learned all about the lifecycle of silkworms up until they’re moths. We kept a couple in little boxes so we could watch them spin their cocoons. Did you know that they’re called silkworms ‘cause that’s what their cocoons are made of when they become moths? That’s a rock fact!” he told them all proudly. It wasn’t often that he knew more things than adults did-

Wait a second.

“You guys have silkworms!” he blurted out, startling the skeletons.

Agnes’s eye sockets narrowed. “Alright, so they’re silkworms. We just told you we have an infestation of the little beasts.”

“Yeah, what’s your point?” The rest of the skeletons questioned, mumbling amongst themselves.

Greg beamed. “No, this is great! Silkworms make silk! You can make clothes with silk! You don’t have to take people’s skin, you can make your own clothes!”

Agnes lowered her knife and looked to the others. No one said anything for a moment, all of them considering what he’d just revealed to them. Some of them examined their skin garments, then shrugged at one another.

“You guys already know how to sew,” Greg continued to point out. “All you have to do now is collect the cocoons the silkworms make and then sew the silk into clothes and masks.”

“He… he might be right,” one skeleton chimed in. “We could try?”

Murmurs of agreement floated through the crowd, some of them leaving to make the suggestion to other skeletons of the town. Agnes and Henry exchanged glances before turning their attention to him once again. Greg smiled as sweetly as he could, given that he was still tied to the counter. Agnes huffed and crossed her arms. He recognized that same gesture as one of Wirt’s for whenever he gave in to Greg’s demands. He was going to keep his face!

“You might be on to something,” Agnes muttered, cutting his binds loose. “But don’t think you’re off the chopping block yet, child. You’ll be staying with us until we decide that this idea of yours is worth it. If the silkworms don’t pan out, then I’ll be wearing your face at the end of all this. Got it?”

“Yes sir, ma’am!” Greg rubbed his freed wrists and grinned, his hat returned to him. “My mom showed me how to sew silk once, so I can show you guys, too!”

-0-

There was still enough light for Greg to lead an expedition to locate as many cocoons as possible. It was important that they only take the empty ones, so that the moths would go on to make more silkworm babies for more silk. The skeletons seemed to see the sense in this and followed Greg’s lead and Agnes and Henry’s instructions. Unlike Pottsfield, there didn’t seem to be an all-important leader, but that could be because no one was as giant as the guy who ran Pottsfield. The skeletons who seemed to have been around the longest, like Henry, seemed to hold the most authority, but ones like Agnes were just firm and stern enough that people listened to her or else.

She barked orders like nobody’s business, but put in twice the amount of work that she demanded of everyone else. She found the most cocoons out of everyone, then spent the rest of the time keeping them in line and checking each one to make sure there wasn’t a silkworm still growing inside. Even though she was only bones, she was strong and tough. But fair.

Greg decided he liked her when she wasn’t trying to steal his face.

Grayfield had a gorgeous sunset. While they collected the cocoons in baskets, Greg found himself glancing at it every now and then. The Fisherman’s words of warning rang in the back of his mind, no matter how hard he tried to shake them away. He couldn’t leave, he still hadn’t found Wirt. Plus, it wasn’t like the people of Grayfield would let him. Not until they had some garments. Besides, he liked helping them, especially if it meant that other people who passed through someday wouldn’t have to fear losing their skin.

When it was too dark to see, they moved inside what appeared to be their town hall. They lit lanterns and candles to continue their work. Big pots were collected, filled with water to boil the cocoons in. Even though Greg had never done this himself, he sort of remembered it from the video on silkworms his class watched in addition to caring for them. Carefully, everyone removed the strands of silk from around the cocoons.

It was late when all the cocoons had been cleaned of their silk. The skeletons retired to their homes for the night, excited with what the next day’s work would bring. Agnes insisted Greg stay in her house for the night. It was probably because if this didn’t work out she still wanted his face, but he liked to think she’d grown attached to him.

She made up a bed for him in the living room, which didn’t involve much since they didn’t have any wool to make blankets with, but it was alright. Greg used Wirt’s cape coat as a blanket and his sweater as a pillow. Sure, the bench was made of wood and lacked cushions, but it was the thought that counted.

“Don’t you try running away,” she reminded him. “I’ve got better hearing than a jack rabbit. I’ll know if you’re trying to escape, mister.”

“I won’t,” Greg assured her, snuggling under the coat.

It was still muddy at the hem, but it had dried out in the sun while he’d worked. He’d already washed his shoes, socks, and pants with the water in Agnes’s kitchen, scrubbing the mud from them before hanging them out to dry overnight. Strangely enough, his sweater and the t-shirt underneath hadn’t gotten wet at all, despite the rain.

The only reason he didn’t wash the cape along with his other clothes was because if he was going to go without pants, then he definitely needed a blanket at least. Still, he’d have to find time to wash it in the morning while they worked on the silk. It was warm though, and felt like a hug. One of Wirt’s hugs. Greg’s stomach churned. He missed Wirt. Sniffling, he wrapped himself in his own cape cocoon and rolled onto his side.

Agnes noticed with a hum. “And here I thought you couldn’t be anything but disgustingly cheerful. What’s on your mind?”

Greg curled up tighter. “It’s nothing,” he murmured.

“You’ve been doing nothing but chatter nonstop all evening and now you want to clam up? Fine. If that’s how you want to be.” Agnes blew out the candle in the room. “I don’t want to hear any crying or whimpering from you tonight. Quiet as a mouse, you got me?”

“I got you,” he replied, then listened to her walk away towards the stairs. “Agnes?”

“Mm?”

“Thanks for not taking my face.”

She snorted. “Don’t thank me yet. This silk thing doesn’t work out, then I’ll be wearing you for the next few months or so. Now pipe down and get some sleep.”

“Goodnight, Agnes.”

“Goodnight, Gregory.”

He smiled a little as the tap tap tap of her footsteps on the stairs faded. It fell a bit when the quiet of the night blanketed him. No Jason Funderberker croaking quietly in his sleep. No sounds from the TV as Dad and Mom watched their late night shows. No Wirt mumbling poetry behind his bedroom door or practicing clarinet knowing full well that Greg could hear him and liked falling asleep to his playing.

Then again, Greg hadn’t heard that in over two months.

Even when he found Wirt, it still wouldn’t be the same like it was. Greg hid his face in the folds of the cape coat. Why did things have to change?

The night passed and morning came, but Greg didn’t sleep.

-0-

“Look!”

“Oh, it’s so soft!”

“Can I dye mine pink?”

“I can make an outfit for every day of the week!”

Greg beamed as the skeletons of Grayfield admired the woven silk threads in awe. Several sheets of silk had been crafted, soaking now in water to prepare for sewing, while everyone took turns weaving the sheets for more clothes. The skeletons tittered happily with each other, some going right up to Greg to pat him on the back or express their gratitude.

“It’s all in a day’s work,” he’d simply replied.

Even Agnes seemed impressed when she found him, having taken it upon herself to wash and dry Wirt’s cape coat for him. It looked as good as new! Greg didn’t waste time draping it over his shoulders and buttoning it like his brother. He’d felt weird without it. He’d felt alone.

“Well, I’ll be… real silk,” she hummed, setting her bone hand on his shoulder. “This changes everything.”

“But it’s a good change,” Greg replied.

She nodded in agreement. “A very good change.”

“Now your clothes can be as bright as your houses!”

Henry and several other skeletons laughed at his exuberance. He stuck around for most of the day, helping the townspeople design their new clothes and start sewing. He made a special sort of bonnet for Agnes, a rich, dark brown that she could use to cover the top of her head to protect it from the sun. She seemed touched, from what Greg could tell, running her bone fingers over the smooth fabric as if she already cherished it.

“Thank you, child. It’s beautiful.”

“Way better than a pumpkin, huh?” He grinned.

She chuckled. “Indeed it is. Perhaps it will be Pottsfield’s turn to envy our good fortune.”

The pair stood off to the side, watching the other skeletons compare their designs and assist each other with sewing. It seemed nice, the sense of community rather than the hostile, competitive nature he’d witnessed when Agnes first claimed him as hers. How many people did these guys fight over just for scraps of clothing? Greg didn’t really want to think about it.

“You are welcome to stay with us, Gregory,” Agnes told him. “You have proven yourself quite worthy, and it would be our honor to give you a home here in Grayfield. You no longer have to wander The Unknown in fear.”

Greg blinked at her in surprise, then at the others as they cheered in agreement. “Yes! Stay with us! We are happy to have you,” Henry’s voice boomed out over the others.

“Thank you, that’s really nice,” he answered, but looked to Agnes with an apologetic smile. “But I can’t stay, I’m sorry.”

The skeletons appeared disappointed, but Agnes nodded in understanding. “How can we express our gratitude to you then? Is there anything you need for your journey?”

Greg’s eyes lit up. “Well, I’m looking for my brother. He’s here somewhere and I need to find him so I can get him home safe. He probably hasn’t passed through here, but have you heard anything about him at all?”

The skeletons exchanged glances, then Henry piped up. “You are the first traveler we’ve seen or heard of in a long time, Gregory. I’m afraid we have no news of your brother, but we will keep an eye out for him.” He pointed to his eye socket and chuckled, inspiring laughter from the rest of the congregation.

“Is he your younger brother?” Agnes asked him.

Greg shook his head and reached into his pocket for his photo. “No, he’s my big brother. His name’s Wirt. Here,” he handed her the picture and pointed, “that’s him there.”

“He looks very kind.” She showed the photo to the others, long enough for them to get a good look at the young man their new friend was searching for. “You look very much like him.”

“Nah. That’s just ‘cause I’m wearing his clothes,” Greg replied sheepishly.

“If he should pass through here, we will let him know that you’re looking for him,” she promised while returning the photo to him. “Is there anything else we can do for you?”

“Do you know a bird named Beatrice? Well, she’s not actually a bird, she’s a girl, but she’s somebody my brother is probably with.”

“A bird who is a girl?” Henry murmured thoughtfully. “You might want to try heading north to the old grist mill, then. I’ve heard talk that there’s a family up there that was once cursed to be bluebirds.”

Greg’s heart leapt up to his throat. “Yeah! Yeah, that’s Beatrice’s family! She and her family were cursed to be bluebirds! That’s what Wirt told me!”

“Well, then that’s where you ought to head next.” Henry pointed towards the tree lined horizon in the distance. “Walk straight that way until nightfall, then use the north star to guide you the rest of the way. It’s the brightest one. Follow that and it should lead you right to the mill where they live.”

“Thanks!” Greg bounced where he stood, ready to run right for Beatrice’s house as soon as possible. “Thank you so much!”

“We hope you find your brother soon, Gregory. Take care, and beware the beasts in the woods. Move swiftly and surely, and they shouldn’t be able to track you down,” Agnes advised him.

Her warning gave Greg pause. “Beasts? No way, my brother and I took care of The Beast the last time we were here.”

A low murmur hushed through the crowd of skeletons while Agnes shook her head. “The Beast was not the only evil that lurks in those woods, child. Be brave and keep your heart pure and strong. They cannot catch you if you refuse to let them, but they will try and trick you. Don’t let them trick you, Gregory.”

If she had eyes, he was certain her stare would be hard and fierce. As it was, it was just empty and black. He nodded all the same, then thought about it and shook his head instead.

“I won’t let them. I’ll be safe.”

“Good boy. Find your brother and get home safely,” she told him.

She walked with him to the edge of town and saw him off. Greg waved over his shoulder at the skeletons. They waved back, brandishing their silks like flags, glistening in the sunlight of midday. He waved until they were tiny splotches of color, then focused his attention forward. Beatrice’s home was just ahead. If anyone knew where Wirt was, it was her. Forget mountains and valleys. He knew his brother and he knew he’d seek someone familiar to help him find his way.

"I’m on my way, Wirt!” he called out to the sky. “I’ll be with you soon!” The tune he’d been working on earlier found its way back into his head. “Walking. Guess I’m gonna start walking. Walking and talking like someone who knows where they’re going-” Nope he still didn’t like how that sounded. “Hm… I don’t have a map. But I’ve got a path! To where you may ask, oh well!” He struck a victorious pose, fist in the air. “On my way-o!”

A squirrel on the tree next to him started tapping an acorn against the bark, creating a new rhythm. Kind of like ba-da ba-da ba-da ba-da…

“On my way… oh!” Greg lit up, inspiration striking him over the head. “On my way-oh. Can you say-oh. I’m on my way into the woods,” he sang, walking in time with the beat in his head. “Will I find-oh, yes I’ll find-oh. Brother o’ mine, we’ll be home soon!”

He ran ahead, pointing at things left and right as he darted through the forest. “Among the trees and all the leaves. I'm looking for you at every turn. Which way did, oh which way did you go? Brother o’ mine, I’ll find you soon!

“On my way-oh! Can you say-oh! I’m on my way into the woods! Be strong, be smart, and know in your heart, brother o’ mine, we’ll be home soon!”

The perfect traveling song.

Chapter Text

“On my way, oh! Can you say, oh! I’m on my way into the woods! La da-da, la da-da-da-da, brother o’ mine…”

Balancing on a log, arms spread wide at his sides, Greg glanced upwards at the steadily pinkening, purpling sky. The sun was well on its way to setting. He’d done just as Henry the skeleton told him, he’d walked straight through the woods, waiting for the north star. With night on the horizon, Greg’s mood couldn’t help but rise.

“Brother o’ mine, we’ll be home soon,” he sang, skipping the length of the log and jumping off at the end.

He’d literally composed the best travel song ever. It was so easy to get stuck in his head, it had just played on a loop for the entire day. He didn’t mind though, it helped to pass the time and it was pretty easy to create new lyrics for the simple tune. Like a game! Plus, he figured if Wirt was somewhere out in the woods with him, he’d hear the song and recognize it as something Greg would make up and be able to find his way to him. It was a beacon for Wirt, which was why he’d titled the song “Brother O’ Mine.”

The wind picked up as darkness drenched the woods. Greg shivered, pulling the cape coat around him tightly. A raindrop plipped on the tip of his nose. He squinted up at the sky, but it was clear. There wasn’t a single cloud. Maybe it had come from the trees, maybe it had rained over here earlier and they were still wet.

In the distance, a wolf howled. Greg recalled the wolf he’d seen when he first arrived to The Unknown. Could it be the same one? He didn’t remember there being a lot of wolves the last time he and Wirt were here. He didn’t remember coming across any wild animals at all, actually. The gorilla didn’t count because he hadn’t actually been a gorilla.

There had been all those black turtles though. Did they count? Greg could spy a couple of them crawling across the forest floor right ahead of him, walking in the same direction he was, but the black turtles weren’t exactly scary.

Beware the beasts in the woods. A dark shape with long, twisted antlers and wide, glowing eyes flickered in his mind’s eye. Did more than one of those creatures stalk the forest in the night? Was there more than one Beast?

Something rustled in the bushes. Something scratched against the trees. Greg hunched up his shoulders and put on his bravest face. He wasn’t scared of the dark. Things went bump in the night? Ha! Greg could handle them.

“On my way, oh, can you say, oh, I’m on my way into the woods,” he sang softly. “Be strong, be smart, and know in your heart, brother o’ mine, we’ll be home soon.”

A twig snapped somewhere ahead of him.

Greg froze, then checked the ground right below him to make absolutely sure it wasn’t his own feet that stepped on a branch. Nope, nothing but leaves and grass were where he stood. Those turtles were too small to snap any branches, too. Above him, the north star twinkled. Was he close to Beatrice’s? How much farther did he have to go? Was he already there? Maybe her house was on the other side of the bushes.

“Beatrice?” he called out, then another twig snapped. “Wirt?”

“Who’s there?”

Nope, definitely not Wirt and definitely not Beatrice. Greg looked around for a weapon, but he still only had leaves and grass at his disposal. He ducked behind the nearest tree instead, peering around it as a tall man walked into his line of sight. He could see him pretty clearly thanks to his big, white fur coat. The almost-full-moon above lit it up in the dark forest. It also helped that the man carried a torch with him.

“Hello?” the man called out, waving the torch in front of him.

Greg stiffened when the light fell over him, the man’s gaze quick to follow. He had long white hair to match his long white coat. His expression was pinched, tight around the nose and mouth with sagging, puffy cheeks. He beckoned for Greg to come out, fingers curled as he coaxed him.

“Come out, boy, I won’t hurt you,” he assured him gently. “Are you lost?”

“No,” Greg replied immediately. “I know where I’m going.”

The man smiled, the corners of his eyes wrinkling. “Well, that’s good. Still, it isn’t safe for a little boy like yourself to wander around the woods alone in the dark. Where are you headed?”

He seemed like a kind enough person, kind of like the old people Old Lady Daniels hung out with, so Greg inched his way out from behind the tree, but maintained the distance between them. “To my friend’s house. Her name’s Beatrice.”

“Ah. A special occasion?”

Greg eyed him warily. “Not really. I think she might know where my brother is, so I’m going to see if she’s seen him.”

“Your brother?” The man’s eyes widened, shining in the light of the torch. “He wouldn’t happen to be your older brother, would he? With a funny sort of name?”

Greg’s heart skipped a beat. “Yeah. Yeah! Have you seen him? Did he look like this?”

He held the photo up, trying to keep it in the light. The man squinted at him, then apologized, saying he couldn’t see at that distance. Greg shuffled closer, beaming when recognition filtered into the man’s gaze.

“That’s him! I saw him not this morning! He wasn’t dressed quite so… elaborately, but that’s him. He mentioned a little brother who was probably worried sick about him. Are you Gregory?”

Wirt had mentioned him. Wirt was worried about him being worried about him! Oh, he should’ve known Wirt was smart enough to figure out that Greg didn’t really hate him! That he was sorry. Maybe he didn’t blame him for this whole mess, after all. Maybe he was doing okay and wasn’t turning into a tree.

Greg clutched the picture to his chest. “Where did you see him? Is he nearby? Please, I have to find him!”

“Well, it was quite a while ago… but he was looking for directions to the nearest town, so I pointed him towards Brims Town. It’s not far from here. He may still be over there. I can guide you, if you like,” he offered.

“Really? You’d do that? Thanks!” Greg held out his hand to shake. “Since you already know my name, what’s yours?”

“I am known as Libbard,” he replied, returning the gesture.

Greg wrinkled his nose and arched his eyebrow. “You know, you’re not really in a position to be saying my brother’s the one with the funny name.”

Libbard chuckled. “I suppose you’re right! Come this way, Gregory. We should move quickly to make sure your brother doesn’t change his course before we reach him.”

Glancing upwards at the sky, Greg hesitated when he noticed they wouldn’t be following the north star, but heading west of it. Still… if Wirt wasn’t with Beatrice, then he didn’t really need to go to her house, did he? And it wasn’t like she was expecting him. Maybe he and Wirt could pop by on their way home and say hi, since they were in the neighborhood and all. Yeah, it could be fun to hang out together for a little while in The Unknown, as long as they weren’t lost. It’d be just like old times, and Wirt wouldn’t have to go back to school right away.

Smiling to himself, he followed Libbard deeper into the woods, relieved that at least he had a torch to light their way. Somewhere else in the forest, the wolf howled again.

-0-

Greg hummed “Brother O’ Mine” for most of their journey, when he wasn’t questioning Libbard about his life. “How come your hair’s so long?”

“Well, I like it this length. I believe it adds a softer quality to my features,” he replied, amused by Greg’s endless questions.

“Did you get that coat to match your hair? Did it come from a polar bear?”

“I am fond of the color white, but no, this did not come from a polar bear.” Libbard smiled secretively, then lifted the coat to show the black spots peppering the underside of it. “It’s from a leopard.”

“Whoa. That’s pretty cool.” Greg blinked, then frowned. “Wait, you didn’t have to kill the leopard, did you? In the movie 101 Dalmatians, Cruella DeVille has to kill the puppies in order to get her fur coats.”

The man shook his head. “Oh, no. I did not kill the leopard,” he assured him. “He is still very much alive.”

“Good.” Greg grinned. “Speaking of cats! Have you seen that really scary lion? He chased me when I first got here. Right up a tree! It would’ve been really funny if it hadn’t been so scary. I’ve never been chased by a lion before.”

Libbard hummed thoughtfully. “I’m impressed that you managed to get away. I have seen that lion before and I can assure you, he’s not a force to be reckoned with. Very few manage to escape him.” He smiled down at him. “You must be incredibly resourceful, Gregory. Not to mention very brave to face such a beast.”

“Yeah, well, I am pretty brave,” he replied, pleased to have an adult notice. “Way braver than my brother, that’s why I have to find him. He gets scared pretty easily. Which I don’t understand because he faced down The Beast the last time we were here just so he could save me. I mean, he’s really great. Probably the best big brother anyone’s ever had ever, but I might be biased.”

Greg’s chest had puffed out with pride, his admiration for the older boy enough to push back the twinges of guilt and anger that his heart sent rushing through his veins. Wirt was the best big brother. He came back on Halloween just for him, took a test early and everything. All of Greg’s frustrations with him from before had to be erased because of that, right?

Sadly, it didn’t seem to work that way, hence the anger and the guilt. He pulled out the picture from his pocket, just to look at it for himself. His big brother loved him. Anyone could see that just by looking at the picture. He… he hadn’t meant to leave him behind or forget about him, right?

And Greg loved him, too. Wirt knew that, didn’t he? Even though it was his first time really getting mad at Wirt, he still loved him.

“Is he your only sibling?” Libbard asked, breaking the sudden silence.

He hastily tucked the photo away. “Yeah. He’s nine years older than me, so he’s eighteen now, but we still get along really well.”

“Eighteen. That’s practically a man.”

Nah. As far as Greg could see, his brother was still a teenager. He didn’t think he could handle it if his brother actually became an adult.

“He’s still in school. I mean, he just went away to college, so I don’t see him as much anymore, but we’re still close,” Greg defended.

“That’s impressive. With such an age difference I imagine it must be quite difficult to stay close. Especially when you do not see him much,” Libbard replied, putting in his two cents.

Greg didn’t especially appreciate it. “Well, we’ve always gotten along. We’re great brothers,” he continued. “And we can do anything when we set our minds to it.”

“He’s very important to you then, isn’t he?” The man looked up at the near circle of the moon.

Following his gaze, Greg’s heart stuttered. He’d seen that same moon reflected above and below him before. When was that? He felt more raindrops, but didn’t see a single one and he stayed completely dry. He rubbed at his nose, turning his gaze towards his feet.

The light of the torch elongated their shadows, moving from tree to tree as if they had companions in the dark forest. Companions like The Beast. Greg’s eyes followed the shadows. He jumped as the shape of his brother walked beside him – tall, triangular, and just a little bit ahead of him. Greg reached out, watching as his brother reached back. It took him a moment to realize it was actually his shadow and not Wirt. He was wearing the hat and cape now. Wirt was still lost.

Somehow, the shadow gave him comfort nonetheless. The cone hat had been forced upon Wirt’s head more times than he could count over the years. Whether it was for going on adventures or just because Greg felt better when he saw the hat atop his brother’s head, Wirt would wear it without complaint. Even around Sara, though he’d blush and stutter the whole time.

Greg smiled to himself. “Yeah. He is.”

-0-

After what seemed like hours of walking, Libbard led Greg to a break in the trees. A path friendlier to their feet than the brush coated floor of the woods greeted them, guiding them the rest of the way to Brims Town, or so the signs said. When the white robed man told him it was just around the corner, Greg sprinted ahead.

Cape coat fluttering about him like night wings, his arms and legs pumped faster and faster. Please be there still, please be there still, he mentally pleaded. Taking the bend a little too quickly Greg skidded on the ends of the coat and almost face-planted on the ground.

He restored his balance, hands on his hips and head held high. Instead of an eyeful of dirt, he was able to get a clear view of what was ahead of him. Or rather, of what wasn’t.

A deep gouge in the earth stretched before him, the woods of The Unknown dragged down into a sort of ravine. It was pitch black down there, deep and endless from where he stood. Greg’s excitement ebbed, confusion wrinkling his brow. Where was the town? He couldn’t even see any lights from houses on the way down. Just darkness.

“Do not stray towards the valley.”

The Fisherman’s words chilled his blood. Greg took several steps back, then yelped when he bumped into someone. Scrambling away to face the person, he found that it was only Libbard, finally caught up with him. Somehow, that knowledge didn’t help him relax at all.

“Where’s Brims Town?” he asked, making sure he was out of the man’s reach.

Libbard seemed to take no offense to Greg’s skittish reaction. “Why, just down at the bottom of the valley. Come, you’ll be able to glimpse the lights of their fires nearer to the edge.”

He beckoned for him to follow, but the boy remained rooted where he was. Sure, The Fisherman had been a weird guy, but what if he was right? About the valley thing? Why wasn’t he supposed to stray towards it? He couldn’t quite remember. He tugged Wirt’s coat around him tighter while Libbard waited for him, mistaking his apprehension for a fear of the dark as he brandished his torch.

“This will light our way down just fine, Gregory,” he assured him. “We should hurry. If your brother has left town, it’s best that we find out which way he went sooner rather than later, don’t you think?”

Wirt. Oh no, what if Wirt had gone into the valley?

Greg straightened his shoulders, chin held high. Wirt could’ve strayed into the valley and could need his help. Or maybe The Fisherman was just a crazy guy and there was no reason to be afraid of this so-called valley. He’d mentioned a mountain, too, and Greg hadn’t seen any sign of any mountain.

Looking down over the edge into the black ravine, Greg felt a cold wind sweep up from its depths, stinging his cheeks. In the distance, he heard voices and saw the tiny lights signaling a small town. So Libbard wasn’t lying. Greg glanced around, using the light of the torch to find where the path began sloping down.

He wasn’t scared of the dark. If his brother was down there, then it was up to him to go and get him. It was up to him to make sure Wirt got home.

Still, he couldn’t help but shiver a little every time he got close to the edge. “You’re sure he’s down there?” he asked, glancing over his shoulder at the man.

“This is where I told him to go.” Libbard nodded. “He seemed very keen on finding a town, a place with people, so I do not doubt that he took my directions. Do not fear, Gregory. Do not abandon all hope. I will be right behind you as we descend.”

Greg blinked at him through the wind. It was getting colder and stronger. With a deep breath, he started down into the valley. He hadn’t gone more than three steps before he heard it.

Greg?

He perked up. “Wirt?”

His brother’s voice. He knew that was Wirt. Greg spun around, because his voice had come from behind him not below, not in the darkness waiting for him. Before he could call for him again, his eyes fell upon a fallen torch, rolling away from four large paws. Each with their own set of very large claws.

A leopard stared at him where Libbard had once stood, the white coat bright in the firelight and the flames reflected in the black spots and blacker eyes. The leopard snarled, face contorting into an ugly, hungry shape. Greg threw himself to the ground when he leapt at him, claws ready to tear into him. He overshot him, giving Greg time to amble back up and into the forest.

Wirt!” he screamed, his voice swallowed by the wind and the trees.

He could hear the leopard’s growl behind him though. He was fast. Leopards could run at seventy miles per hour- or wait, was that cheetahs? Oh, he promised he’d pay more attention to the animal documentaries they watched in science class if he got out of this because clearly you could never tell when you were going to be running for your life against a leopard.

Or a lion.

Greg took a sharp turn, barely missing the snap of the lion’s jaws as he barreled through the woods. The same one from before, he could tell. The black mane and black saliva were hidden well in the darkness, but when he stepped into the moonlight he recognized him. So the girl hadn’t beaten him after all. He wanted to feel sad for her, but didn’t exactly have the time with both a lion and a leopard on his tail.

And no brother in sight or earshot.

“Wirt!” Greg called out again, pushing through branches to create small paths for small guys like himself to slow down the large cats.

Luckily for him, they seemed to be distracted by each other. When Greg risked a glance over his shoulder, he saw the leopard swipe at the lion, paw smacking the creature in the face. Good. Maybe they’d decide to eat each other instead of him.

Nope. Greg yelped as the beasts charged towards him once again, faster. They were racing each other now. Greg ran on blindly, stumbling this way and that. Run, run, run was a constant mantra beating in his brain. The darkness around him reached out for him, branches snagging in the cape coat like fingers trying to grip him and hold him tight. He swatted them away. His breath clouded in the cold air, panting heavily as he pushed himself to run faster because he could feel the hot breath of the lion or the leopard at his back. He didn’t stop to find out which one it was.

Breaking through into another clearing, Greg’s panic rose when he couldn’t spy any places to hide. Empty fields of dry, wheat-colored grass stretched out ahead of him. Lions lived in plains like this, he knew that. This was only giving the cats the advantage.

Greg!”

Wirt again.

Greg’s eyes widened and he took a sharp left in the direction of his voice. “I’m here!” he hollered, voice hoarse and fading fast as he bolted. “Wirt! Help! I’m-!”

His cry was silenced by a mouthful of dirt as the ground sloped dramatically into a steep hill. Greg went careening down it, arms tucked in to shield his face as he rolled. The sky spun above him, the white light of the moon hidden behind a cloud. Suddenly the sky was gone, the ground dropping out from underneath him as he tumbled into a hole in the ground. Half-buried by the dirt, Greg coughed and wheezed, his heart still racing and his flight response urging him to move, to run, run, run because there was a lion and a leopard after him, but he couldn’t move. All he could do was hunker down in the dirt, hoping that they hadn’t seen him fall.

“Hey! You!”

Greg nearly shouted with surprise, but a warm hand clamped itself over his mouth, muffling it.

He couldn’t see them in the dark. “This way, hurry! They’ll smell you if you stay near the entrance!”

Fear rekindled, Greg and the mysterious stranger pushed their way through the dirt into a tunnel carved through the earth. He was grabbed at and tugged on with an urgency that reminded him of something.

“Come on!” Wirt pulled at him, yanking, gripping, begging him to move.

“Coming,” he coughed, struggling to keep up, getting dizzy as the stench of earth filled his nose and clogged his throat. “Wirt, wait…”

His big brother, always worrying. Worry Wirt. Greg slipped, tired and cold and he couldn’t see in the dark. Maybe he closed his eyes along the way. His head hurt. He collapsed somewhere in the ground, the frantic voice of his brother echoing in his ear before nothingness took over.

"Greg! Greg!"

Chapter Text

“Greg, if you sing that song one more time, I will personally hold your lips shut and believe me, you have not known pain until you’ve had tiny bird feet gripping your face. Got it?”

Up ahead a little bluebird glared at him over her shoulder as she flew. It was pretty impressive – being able to fly without seeing where you were going. Greg smiled at her and held up his hand in an a-okay sign.

“Got it, Beatrice,” he replied, then turned around so he was walking backwards.

This way he got to be impressive, too, as well as a good view of Wirt trudging along behind him. His big brother was staring at the ground with one of those thinking looks on his face. Greg looked at the ground, too, but he didn’t think he was thinking thoughts the way Wirt was.

“Seriously, you two? Are you trying for a new world record of slowest possible travelers ever? Let’s get a move on!” Greg felt Beatrice land on top of his elephant head and tried to look up at her, but it only dislodged her and sent her flapping up and around to frown at him in the face. Well at least he could look at her properly now! “Greg, why are you walking backwards?”

“You made it look like fun!” he told her, like it was obvious.

Wirt Jr. croaked in agreement, hopping along at his feet. At least, he was pretty sure their frog was agreeing with him. He didn’t know him that well yet. They were still bonding.

Beatrice groaned and face-palmed herself. Or would it be face-feathered since she didn’t have palms? Greg stared at the ground to think about it better, then tripped and fell flat on his back. Ain’t that just the way?

“Greg, stop messing around.” Oh! Wirt was talking now!

He watched his older brother walk past him, still on the ground. He tilted his head back, his line of sight upside-down so Wirt and the ground were in the sky and the sky was on the ground! Suddenly Wirt Jr.’s big, frog eyes became the only thing he could see when he hopped up to his face. Greg tried to make a frog face of his own, sucking in his cheeks and trying to make his lips really flat and straight.

“Greg!”

“I’m not messing around!” he answered quickly, scrambling to his feet.

He scooped up Wirt Jr. and ran after actual Wirt until he caught up with him. Watching his older brother’s strides, Greg attempted to match them, but it was hard when his legs were so much shorter and couldn’t go as far. They were also pretty tired legs, they’d been walking for a long time.

“Hey, Wirt, want to carry me for a while?” he asked, trying to make it seem like an excellent opportunity for his brother.

Wirt blinked, then frowned. “What? No, you’re too big to be carried, Greg. You can walk.”

“I’m not too big if you carry me piggyback,” he replied.

“I’m not carrying you piggyback through the woods.”

“Okay, will you carry Wirt Jr. for me then?” Greg held up their frog to him.

Wirt snorted. “You found that frog, it’s your job to carry it. And stop calling it Wirt Jr. It’s weird.”

“But it’s his name!”

“Think of a different name,” Wirt told him. “I’m sure you can come up with something better.”

“You really think so?”

“Yeah, it’s not that hard to think up a new name that isn’t Wirt Jr.”

Well, if Wirt thought that Greg could think up a new name for their frog, then that’s what he’d do! Wirt Jr. was Wirt’s frog, too, so if he wasn’t happy with the name, then it clearly had to change. He hummed thoughtfully, looking Wirt Jr. in the eyes to determine the perfect frog name for him for good luck.

“Hey, Wirt! How about-!” Greg glanced up from their frog only to find his big brother wasn’t where he’d left him. “Wirt?”

Lightning flashed above him, the sky dark and cloudy. Rain would be coming soon. It would send them seeking transportation on a hay cart from a banana-nut-duck-bread driver and then right into a tavern full of food and happy singing people.

Wait… but that hadn’t happened yet, had it?

And where did Wirt go?

“Beatrice, did you see where-?” The bluebird was gone, too.

Greg hugged Jason Funderberker tighter. Jason Funderberker, the perfect frog name. But he hadn’t named him that yet. That wasn’t until later. Right? He was getting confused and now it was raining and he didn’t see the cart driver at all.

“Greg!”

There was Wirt! Further on down the road than he remembered him being, but maybe he’d just run on ahead when he wasn’t looking. He also wasn’t wearing his Halloween costume anymore, which was weird. Just the white shirt and gray pants with the suspenders. Maybe he got tired of being… whatever it was he’d dressed up as. A pilgrim, yeah. Greg beamed and Jason Funderberker croaked. Oh, it was good to see that familiar look of panicked concern in his brother’s eyes. The weird, not-caring-at-all expression had been strange. Even if he hadn’t thought it was strange until now.

“There you are, Wirt! Where’d you run off to? Are we playing hide-and-seek with Beatrice?”

“Greg, come on. We have to go.” Wirt tried to walk over to him, but the path they were on was really muddy now thanks to the rain and Wirt’s mismatched shoes got stuck in it.

“To Adelaide’s?” Greg approached him instead, only to find that he was in the exact same predicament.

“No!” Wirt shook his head, alarm lining his eyes as he stretched his arm out as far as it could go. “Greg, grab my hand!”

He stuck his tongue out and tried to reach back, but his arm was much too small and Wirt was still really far away. “I can’t!”

“You have to try!”

“I am trying! You try!” The mud was sucking him down now, like he was trapped in quicksand.

He yelped and Jason Funderberker leapt away from him to sink down into the mud. Gasping, he tried to go after the frog, but he just fell to his knees and sunk even further. Wirt gripped at his hair as he watched, his gaze darting around to find something that could help them since he wasn’t sinking. Wait, why wasn’t he sinking? He was trapped in the same mud as him! That wasn’t very fair.

“Hang on, Greg! I’m coming to get you!” Wirt told him, starting to tug at his legs to free them. “Come on!”

“Wirt, what’s going on?” The mud was up to his chest now, Mom was gonna kill him for ruining his overalls again.

“Don’t be scared, Greg. It’ll be okay,” Wirt attempted to soothe him. “You just have to trust me.”

It was kind of hard not to be just a little bit scared when the ground was eating him. “But Wirt-”

“You have to trust me, Greg!”

“I-!” The mud covered his head and then he was falling.

Falling down a rabbit hole, deeper and deeper into the ground like Alice in Wonderland and he wondered where he was going to pop up on the other side since he was already in The Unknown. Ribbit. Greg looked above him and saw Jason Funderberker staring down at him, getting farther and farther away. He reached for him.

“Wait! Help-!”

But then he was gone and everything went dark.

-0-

“Oh! Oh, oh, I think he’s waking up! Look!”

“Well of course he is now that you’ve made so much noise!”

The two voices belonged to strangers, of that Greg was certain. They also belonged to children, from the sound of it. Groaning quietly, he squinted, expecting the bright light of morning, but it never came. A dark, dirt roof was the first thing he noticed. Candles lit the room, their orange flames flickering in different corners of it – enough to see by, but not blindingly so. He blinked his eyes all the way open and looked around.

A little girl with black hair stood over him, peering at him with an intense look. She grinned when he looked her way, revealing a gap-toothed smile. She was missing her two front teeth, it looked like. An older boy was off to the side, watching the two of them with a look Greg figured must come with being a big brother. They were both dressed like something out of the Thanksgiving section of his history books.

“You’re awake!” the girl chirped.

“Uh huh,” Greg replied, blinking at the rest of the room. “Where am I?”

“Our house! Father let you sleep in the living room after you fell through our roof!”

It was indeed a living room – a living room underground. Other than the fact that the walls were made of tightly packed dirt, it seemed to be an ordinary house. Wooden chairs and end tables were set up to face a fireplace. Greg wasn’t sure how they managed a fireplace underground, but he had more important things to question right now.

“Are you mole people?” Greg asked, glancing between the girl and the boy.

The girl laughed, but the boy bristled and replied, “Do we look like mole people to you?”

Greg shrugged. “I’ve never met mole people, I wouldn’t really know what they look like. But why else would you live underground?”

“Are you a gnome person?” he retorted.

He blinked. “No.”

“Well, why else would you wear a pointy red hat like that?” The boy smirked, pleased with himself.

Greg continued to survey the house. “That’s different. I can take my hat off if I want. You can’t really change a whole house that easily.”

The little girl laughed again while the boy turned the same color Wirt did whenever he got embarrassed and looked away from them. “Whatever. Now that you’re awake you can leave.”

“That’s not what Mother said, Val,” the girl protested.

“Well, she’s not here right now, is she, Camilla?” The boy named Val grumbled.

“I believe she is right here, actually, and you two know better than to quarrel when we have guests.”

A frail woman emerged from the shadows of another tunnel, her face pale and almost sickly. Greg worried that even a small breeze would blow her right over. She smiled kindly at Greg, her dark ringlets framing her face as she tilted her head and opened her arms.

“Welcome to our home,” she began, then approached him. “How are you feeling?”

“Um.” Greg glanced from her to the children – who were still squabbling it seemed – then back at the woman. “Confused mostly.”

“What do you remember?” she inquired.

What did he remember? Greg wracked his brain, stiffening as he recalled running and Libbard and the leopard and the lion and Wirt. “I heard Wirt!” he blurted out, silencing Val and Camilla. “I heard him, and then the leopard was there and the lion and they chased me and I fell… You!” Greg pointed at Camilla. “You said I fell through your roof!”

“Because you did!” she replied, grinning. “Right on top of Father!”

“You could’ve injured him,” Val muttered.

“Hush now, children,” their mother admonished, then turned her attention back to Greg. “You said you heard someone? Was someone else up there with you?”

Greg shook his head. “No… no, I hadn’t found him yet. But I heard him. I know I did.”

“Who is he?”

“My brother. He’s who I’m looking for. I have to find him!” Greg scrambled to his feet, only to find out that his legs weren’t working quite right. “Oof!” He collapsed to the dirt floor, much to the amusement of the two children.

“You won’t be going off finding anybody just yet,” the woman told him, helping him up into a sitting position. “You need food and rest. It’s no easy feat to escape both the leopard and the lion.”

“No, I need to find my brother! He’s lost!” Greg tried to escape her motherly clutches, but it was no use.

Despite how weak she appeared, this woman had an iron grip and was not going to be letting go of him so easily. Plus, Greg was rather hungry. He hadn’t even realized it, but his stomach started growling and churning at the mere mention of food. The woman poked his stomach with a knowing smile.

“See what I mean? Food first, then we can discuss finding your brother. You’ll be no use to him in this state.” She headed back to the tunnel she came out of, gesturing for her son to help him. “Val, bring him to the kitchen.”

“Yes, Mother.” He rolled his eyes, but did as he was told.

He yanked on Greg’s arm roughly, making a show of the fact that he was older and larger than Greg. He still wasn’t as old as Wirt though. This Val guy was barely a teenager, if that. Greg could totally take him – if his limbs didn’t hurt so bad. The little girl – definitely two or three years younger than Greg was – skipped along ahead of them, taking her place at the table in the center of the kitchen cave in the next room.

Camilla patted the wooden stool next to her, smiling brightly at Greg. He smiled back, though it turned into a grimace when he was practically thrown into it by Val. Rubbing his arm, Greg pouted at the older boy while Camilla laughed.

“What’s his problem?” he asked her.

She shrugged. “He always gets like this when we have visitors and Father’s not around. He likes to pretend he’s the man of the house.”

“When Father isn’t here, I am the man of the house,” Val huffed.

“In your dreams, maybe!”

“Where is your dad?” Greg asked.

Val scowled at him. “He’s fixing the new hole in our tunnel thanks to you falling through it.”

Greg frowned. “It’s not like I meant to. I think I tripped and then fell down a hill or something.”

“And thank goodness that he did,” the children’s mother called from the stove. “Otherwise he’d just be another morsel for those monsters to much on.”

We could’ve been a morsel for those monsters, Mother,” Val replied. “What if they’d followed him down here? If Father hadn’t saved him-”

“But Father did save him!” Camilla chimed in.

“Can it, Camilla.”

Greg’s head was spinning. He really wanted a window to look out of, but dirt, dirt, and more dirt was all that surrounded him. Normally, he’d be a-okay with a house made completely out of dirt. He’d tried to make one himself once. But he felt stifled and itchy, and a little sick to his stomach the hungrier he got. It was a weird feeling. Kind of like being carsick only without the motion rattling him. So, like the opposite of carsick, then. He wasn’t moving at all, trapped under layers and layers of dirt and he didn’t even know what time it was or how long he’d been asleep for.

He jumped in his seat when a bowl of what seemed to be stew was set in front of him. The warm aroma of spiced broth and cream wafted up from it, doing its best to inspire hunger rather than the dizzying sickness. “There you go, dear. Plenty of meat and potatoes to fill you right up, courtesy of your Auntie Meg,” the woman told him, then fetched bowls for her children. “When you’re feeling up to it and when my husband returns, maybe you can tell us a little more about yourself.”

“Like what your name is,” Val groused. “You’re eating our food, the least you could do is tell us your name.”

He blinked, the spoonful of stew halfway to his mouth. “Oh, it’s Greg. Short for Gregory.”

“Nice to meet you, Greg! I’m Camilla! My brother’s name is Val. And that’s Diana!” The girl pointed at the arrival of a tall, dark haired woman.

She appeared sturdier than the woman who called herself Auntie Meg, her skin tone richer and she had more muscle in her arms. Her gray eyes roved over him as she passed him by, heading straight for Meg to take the bowls from her. She ushered her to sit down, then gave the children their bowls before fetching another for the frailer woman.

“Don’t bother with me, Diana. I’ll have something later,” she told her when the stew was set in front of her.

“You have to eat,” was all Diana replied before taking it upon herself to clean up the kitchen.

It seemed rather silly to clean a kitchen that was essentially encased in dirt. Greg glanced at his bowl of stew and wondered if dirt ever fell from the ceiling and into the food. He ate it nonetheless, watching the newly arrived woman save the leftover stew in a smaller pot.

“Diana’s our nanny,” Camilla continued. “She looks after me and Val when Father’s working since Mother gets sick a lot.”

“I don’t need a nanny, she’s your nanny,” Val snorted.

Greg heard Camilla kick her brother under the table and it made his heart twist and shout. He missed his brother. Wirt’s voice still sounded to clear to him. He’d been out there, somewhere in the dark forest, calling out for him. If he was looking for him, at least that meant he had some hope, right? He had something to keep him from getting lost and turning into a tree.

A hand rested on his shoulder, startling him. Diana’s silvery eyes stared at him, searching his face for something. He stared back, too jumpy to actually blink. Her eyes reminded him of The Fisherman’s eyes.

She nudged his bowl closer to him. “Eat.”

“Yes sir,” he replied. “I mean, ma’am.”

He swallowed a spoonful of the stew under her watchful eye, relieved when Meg cleared her throat to catch the woman’s attention. “Diana, would you please salt the rest of the pork for the pantry?”

Diana started to nod, but in the other room a door slammed shut, catching all of their attentions. Greg’s earlier question about the dirt falling into the food was answered as little crumbs of it sprinkled from the ceiling to the tabletop. A stocky man in a wide-brimmed hat entered the kitchen, taking in a big whiff of the lingering scent of stew. Greg expected him to grin and declare that something smelled delicious or how hungry he was, but the man didn’t even smile. He shrugged out of his jacket – a doublet, Greg recognized it from learning about the pilgrims in history when he’d tried to tell Mrs. Wordsworth that Wirt was a pilgrim and made the entire class laugh. He handed it to Diana, who took it out of the room. It was covered in dirt, so that was probably a good idea.

The man’s eyes fell upon him, narrowing the longer he studied him. Greg fidgeted. Was there something on his face? He wiped his mouth just in case, the movement jarring the man from his observation. He crossed the room to sit beside Meg and pressed a kiss to the woman’s forehead.

“Did you fix the roof, Father?” Camilla piped up.

The man nodded. “Just finished sealing the last of it.”

She pointed to Greg. “Me and Val looked after him just like you told us to! See?”

Another nod. “Excellent work, Camilla.” He addressed Greg next. “Good to see you up and well, son.”

“His name’s Gregory, Father,” the girl continued.

“Nice to meet you, Gregory.” The man reached out to shake his hand, so Greg took it with a smile. “My name is Virgil. I’m sure my family has already made their acquaintance with you.”

“Mmhm. They’ve been really nice.” He grinned sheepishly. “Sorry about your roof.”

Virgil shook his head. “It’s not the first time we’ve had a cave in, and certainly won’t be the last. Also, a life is far more valuable than a roof.” The man’s eyes narrowed. “You do not know how lucky you are.”

Greg gulped. “No, I’m pretty sure I do know. I mean, I’ve never been chased by a lion or a leopard or both before, but I don’t really want to have to do it again.” Of course, given that this was his second meeting with the lion didn’t exactly give him hope that he was done with them. He sighed. This was why he liked tigers.

“Those are not ordinary creatures of the woods,” Virgil replied. “They seek the souls of those who enter here and devour them, without care or conscious.”

“Souls?”

“The thing that keeps you alive, genius,” Val muttered, only to flinch under the reproachful eye of his father.

Greg hunched in on himself. “I know what a soul is, I just don’t know why they’d want to eat them. They don’t seem very filling.”

“It matters not whether they are filling, it is all those creatures can feed on. After being deprived for so long, they’ve become crazed with hunger,” the man answered him.

With a thoughtful hum, Greg spooned another helping of stew into his mouth. “Are they new?” he asked.

Virgil lifted his brow. “New?”

“I didn’t see them when I was here last time.” Greg shrugged.

“They are as old as the forest itself,” Diana answered, catching the attention of everyone around the table as she returned. “Some say they are the creators of The Unknown, others believe they were placed here as gatekeepers, to make the decision on who can stay and who must go on.”

“Go on?” Greg questioned. “Like, go home?”

“No. Not home.” Her silvery eyes had a faraway look to them, like she was looking at someone else other than him.

Meg took over when the nanny refused to elaborate. “To the mountains, dear boy. Or to the valley. Those are the two options outside of remaining here in the woods. Some are allowed to remain here, as we are now or as a part of the forest in the form of an Edelwood tree. For the rest, if they do not opt to take the roads determined for them, then they are taken by force at the mercy of sharp teeth and plunged into nothingness.”

“Long ago, the creatures had some semblance of control. They would not devour you if you followed your path. Once The Beast appeared, however, they were confined to the very bottom of the valley. The Pit. The very place The Beast emerged from.” Virgil’s gaze locked onto Greg’s, but he couldn’t tell what was behind the man’s eyes.

“So… when my brother and I beat The Beast…”

“They returned. Three senseless, starving creatures who will snap their jaws around the necks of anyone they come across. Even those of us who have found a home within these woods,” he told him.

Silence filled the kitchen. Even Camilla and Val said nothing to remove it from the air. Greg searched the faces of the family for more answers, but all he saw was a general acceptance of the situation. But wait… three?

“Who’s the third one? I’ve only seen the lion and the leopard,” he told them.

Virgil stared at him in confusion while Meg breathed a sigh of relief. “That’s good, Gregory. Make sure you keep it that way.”

“How come?”

“Once all three have spied you, your fate is sealed,” Diana answered him.

“The third one is the wolf.” Val took over, then grinned and made his hand look like a claw as he swiped at his sister. “And she’s the worst of them all.”

Camilla batted his hand away. “Val, quit it!”

“Children, please. Not when we have company,” Meg chided, muffling a cough with her napkin.

Greg was hardly bothered by it though. He didn’t even notice it, not with his mind elsewhere. His heart stuttered in his chest, hard and painful. Because he realized, wiping his now-clammy palms on his pants, that he had seen all three. The wolf hiding in the bushes. Who blocked his path, sent him another way. She’d been the first he’d seen.

Shaking his head, Greg stared into the potatoes and carrots of his stew. It had to be a different wolf. The one he’d seen had hardly been the worst of all. Sure, she growled at him, but she didn’t chase him or even attempt to eat his soul. It was a different wolf. It had to be. There were probably tons of wolves that lived in the woods.

He could feel Diana’s eyes on him again, so he continued to eat. The meat of the stew now chewy and stringy and the vegetables too soft from steeping in the broth for so long, but at least it was still warm.

“Well, he won’t be company for long, Meg.” He heard Virgil telling her.

“That’s right,” he piped up, rejoining the conversation.

Meg and Virgil appeared surprised, while the children had polar opposite reactions. Val looked pleased while Camilla looked utterly disappointed. He couldn’t see Diana from where she worked behind him.

“But we haven’t even played yet,” Camilla whined. “You can’t leave now, Greg.”

He tried to smile at her, the request a familiar one. “I’m sorry, Camilla, but I have to find my brother. He’s still out there somewhere. I have to make sure none of the lions, tigers, and bears get him.”

“Oh my,” Meg breathed, looking to her husband in alarm. “Virgil, you cannot send him out there alone. He’s a child.”

“I’m almost ten.” Double digits were important.

Her face only fell further. Apparently she didn’t think double digits were all that impressive. Neither did Val from his scoff. At least Camilla appeared entranced. At least she was on his side.

Virgil sighed. “Where were you heading, Gregory? Did you have a destination in mind?”

Greg’s heart sank a little. “Well, I was going to a town that this man named Libbard told me he’d sent my brother to, but then he became a leopard and I’m not sure if his directions were right.”

“Most likely not,” Virgil agreed.

“Besides, I heard Wirt before the leopard chased me, so I’m pretty sure he wasn’t in the town. But who knows where he is now. I don’t even know what time it is!”

“Half past noon,” Meg replied.

Greg stared at her in awe. There wasn’t even a clock in this room and no windows to even indicate that it was daytime. Clearly she was magical.

“Do you think he would head towards the mountain?” Virgil asked.

The Fisherman had told him to look for him at the mountain, too, hadn’t he? “Maybe.” Greg shrugged. “But I think he’d go to Beatrice’s before going to a mountain. That’s where I was going before I ran into the leopard man.”

“Beatrice’s?”

“Yeah, she’s mine and Wirt’s friend! She used to be a bluebird, but she’s probably a person now, and Henry in Grayfield told me she and her family live at the old grizzly mill-”

“Grist mill,” Virgil corrected. “The old grist mill, I know where that is and I know the family you speak of. I’ll make sure you get there before the day is out. We will leave once you are finished with your meal.”

“Virgil, you can’t travel all that way this late in the day. Not on your own,” Meg protested.

“I’ve made the journey many times,” he replied, walking over to a basket of bread sitting on the counter. “There shouldn’t be any trouble.”

“That’s what you said last time.” The woman wilted. “And your leg still hasn’t healed properly.”

“Well, you don’t want him to travel alone, Meg. What am I to do?”

“Let him stay the night. You can start out earlier tomorrow morning and make it back before nightfall.”

Greg’s eyes went wide and he shook his head. “I can’t stay, I have to go and find my brother!”

“He’s right, Meg, he has to go,” Virgil agreed.

Val raised his hand, glancing between his parents. “I can go with them, so Father won’t have to travel home alone.”

“Absolutely not!” Meg cried out, then dissolved into a coughing fit.

Virgil and Val moved to help her, but Diana beat them both to it. Her hands braced the woman’s shoulders, rubbing gently to soothe the spell. She looked at Greg for a moment, then turned to Virgil to address him.

“I will accompany you. The children will be able to amuse themselves and be on their very best behavior for the day, won’t you?” She nodded at the both of them.

The color in Val’s cheeks rose and he looked away with a huff, but Camilla beamed eagerly. “Of course we will, Diana! We’ll be very good for Mother.”

With expectant eyes, the family plus nanny stared at Virgil for his decision. Greg tilted his head at him as well. Even though he hadn’t had much luck with people taking him places so far, this man was a dad and couldn’t be all that bad, right? Plus, he didn’t really feel up for going out there alone again with the lion and leopard on the loose. Not that he was scared. No, he just wasn’t stupid. Because it would be real stupid to try and find Beatrice’s alone with them on his tail. Yeah, so not scared.

Virgil sighed, emotion finally entering his eyes as he looked at his sickly wife. “What if you require her care?”

“Val can look after me just fine for one evening, Virgil,” Meg replied and her son perked up at the responsibility.

It probably wasn’t the adventure that he’d wanted, but responsibility was responsibility, and Greg could tell that the older boy craved it. Craved adulthood. Was that a thing older brothers did? Did they all rush to grow up and leave childish things behind like his classmates said? Was that what Wirt was still planning on doing? Sure, he came home for Halloween, but what if it was just because he felt bad and not because he really wanted to?

Greg pushed away the bowl of stew. Decidedly not hungry. He wanted to get back on the road as soon as possible. The sooner he found Wirt, the sooner he could ask him all these questions and find out where his big brother really stood.

“Alright. Diana, fetch your cloak. Are you finished?” Virgil stared down at Greg.

He nodded and scrambled from his seat, despite Meg’s protests. “Yeah. Let’s go.”

Chapter Text

The first part of their journey was through the tunnel. They passed where Greg had fallen, the twists and turns of the underground passageways designed to confuse those who attempted to find them. Bags of salt and herbs lined the tunnel, but when Greg asked about them, all Virgil replied with was that they were for protection.

Greg didn’t think they’d protect against much.

They came upon a wooden door at the end of one of the tunnels. Virgil forced it open, then allowed Greg and Diana to pass through first. Overgrowth hid the door pretty well, Greg noticed. Bushes and branches camouflaged the front door from sight, so unless someone was looking really hard for the door that led to the house under the hill it wouldn’t be found.

Greg took in a deep breath of the fresh air. As cozy as the house had been, he was relieved to be free from the stuffy, stale air. He didn’t understand how it could be good for them to breathe every day.

The air was cold, really cold, as it hit the back of his throat and settled in his lungs and stomach. He was a little disappointed that the sun wasn’t out, but the white cloud cover was still brighter than the candles in the dirt. Greg adjusted Wirt’s hat on his head, glancing around for a new direction.

“This way,” Virgil grunted, heading towards the edge of the open field, back to the cover of the trees.

The man carried with him a sack that he’d packed while Greg thanked Meg and said goodbye to a pleased Val and a despondent Camilla. He also had a lantern at his side, though it remained unlit for now. Greg tilted his head as he stared at it. Lantern… hm. It reminded him of something, but he couldn’t put his finger on it.

“Do not fall behind, Gregory,” Diana chided him softly as she passed him by.

He shook his head, running along to catch up with Virgil. “How far is it to Beatrice’s?”

“We should be there before dark,” was all the man replied.

“Do you think Wirt’s there?”

“I have not met your brother, so I cannot presume to know where he would seek shelter.”

“I think he’s there,” Greg replied. “I mean, why wouldn’t he be there?” When neither Virgil nor Diana replied to him, he continued. “Beatrice helped us out a lot the last time we were here, so it only makes sense that Wirt would go to her. Of course, that’s just because he doesn’t know I’m here- or, well, he might now. I heard him calling for me. But before that he probably didn’t know. Man, I was gonna surprise him by swooping in to save the day!”

“You keep saying the last time you were here,” Virgil murmured. “And you mentioned that you and your brother beat The Beast…”

“Oh, yeah! Do you want to hear the story?” Without waiting for an answer, Greg launched into the tale of his and Wirt’s first trip into The Unknown, segueing into the story of how they’d ended up here a second time and his journey thus far, though he skipped the bit about seeing the wolf. He was pretty sure that would make Virgil’s frown get even deeper than it already had.

Diana seemed intrigued by it, nonetheless. “I still cannot believe that children were able to face down The Beast himself, without fear.” An actual smile appeared on the woman’s face, making her silver eyes seem less strange and almost pretty.

Greg shrugged. “I’m pretty sure we were both a little scared. Well, I was scared for Wirt. I didn’t want him to get stuck here. Not alone. I don’t think he likes to be alone, even if he’s by himself a lot. It’s…” He frowned, trying to uncover the conundrum that was his brother’s personality. “It’s just Wirt. I dunno. I think there’s a difference between being by yourself and being alone. Like how being alone in your room is different from being alone in the whole house. It’s a bigger feeling.”

“It seems Wirt is very lucky to have a devoted brother like you,” Diana told him.

Greg frowned a little. “I don’t know. I wasn’t being very devoted when I yelled at him on the phone. I wanted him to feel as bad as I did.” He sighed sadly. “And that’s a rock fact.”

“Siblings quarrel, Gregory. You’ve seen it yourself with Val and Camilla. Even so, you said what you did out of love.”

“What?” Greg stared at her, incredulous. “I think you have the definition of love backwards, lady.”

“Think about it, Gregory. You were angry with him because you missed him, yes? Well, if you truly despised your brother you wouldn’t care at all if he came home to you or not,” she replied.

He sighed. “Well, yeah, I know that. I just don’t know if he knows.”

“I’m sure he does. He sounds like a very devoted brother as well.”

Greg hoped he was still that. He hoped it with all his might.

-0-

Deep in the woods, after a few hours had gone by, Virgil left them for a moment to scout ahead. Diana took Greg by the hand and led him to a small clearing nearby. She took a seat upon a tree stump after she shooed a black turtle off of it, the setting sun visible behind her as it dropped below the cloud layer. It would set right where she sat.

That ol’ sun’s going right down into this ol’ cup!

Greg shook his head, glancing around at the forest surrounding them. It was familiar. He tried to picture it covered in snow. He shivered.

“Are you cold, Gregory?” Diana asked him.

He tugged Wirt’s coat around him tighter. “No,” he answered, walking away from the edge of the clearing to stand in the center of it. “No, I’m fine.”

She watched him with an amused smile. “Why don’t you sit for a minute and rest?”

“I’d rather stand, thanks.” Greg rocked on his heels. If he kept moving, then the roots couldn’t grow on him.

He spun in a circle, singing his “Brother O’ Mine” song while they waited for Virgil. He tried to think up new lyrics, because if he was thinking of lyrics then he wasn’t thinking about how he’d been here before. He paced and bounced from one side of the clearing to the other, repeating this several times until he tripped.

“Oof!” He sat up and pushed back the cape coat to see what he’d caught his foot on. “Huh?”

It wasn’t a rock, like he’d expected, or even a tree root coming out of the ground. It was a lantern, rusted red and covered in dirt and leaves. Greg brushed it off to get a better look at it. Lantern, lantern… why was it so familiar? This one even more so than the one Virgil carried with him.

“What did you find, Gregory?” Diana called over from the tree stump.

“A lantern,” he replied, picking it up by the handle.

It squeaked with a rusty sort of sound. He moved the handle back and forth to loosen it up some. From behind him, he heard Diana stand and start walking towards him.

“A lantern could be useful,” she said. “We only have the one and it is getting dark.”

“I don’t know, it looks pretty old. I don’t think it’ll work that well.” He held it up for her to see.

“Hm.” She gave it a thorough once-over. “I don’t know about that. I’m sure it will work just fine with a strong enough light.”

Greg really had no idea how lanterns worked, so he shrugged in response and kept a hold of it. Diana helped him up and dusted off his cape coat, her nanny instincts kicking in. Footfalls approached them, then Virgil entered the clearing with a pleased expression – or what passed for pleased on him, since he was a man of little words and of little faces.

“It’s not much further,” he told them. “I recognize the path ahead and it should only be another hour at the most-” His words died on his tongue as his gaze wandered to Greg’s hands, fury kindling in his eyes. “Drop that!”

Greg instantly let go of it. It fell to the ground with a dull sound and a small squeak from the handle. He held his hands up in the air and tried to look as not guilty as possible, even if he didn’t really know what was so bad about holding a lantern. Maybe it was one of those “you don’t know where that’s been!” kinda things.

“I’m sorry?” he told him, holding his hands a little higher when Virgil continued to glare at him. “I didn’t mean to-”

“Don’t you know what that is?” Virgil bellowed.

“A lantern?” He looked to Diana for help, but she seemed just as confused by the man’s reaction as he was.

Virgil pushed down on his hat, glowering at the ground where the lantern now lay. “You say you beat The Beast, yet you don’t recognize his dark lantern of all things?”

“I…” Greg glanced down at it. “I didn’t know! He didn’t have a lantern when I saw him!”

Wirt had the lantern. His face fell. He remembered. It was how he could see his big brother crying even though it was dark. Wirt had been carrying this lantern, shown the light in his eyes to check on him and make sure he wasn’t-

“I didn’t know,” he repeated, eyes wide as he looked to Virgil pleadingly. “I’m sorry. I won’t touch it again.”

The man seemed to calm down, tearing his gaze away from the lantern to observe Greg. “Be sure that you don’t,” he hissed. “Now hurry, you two. I spied tracks not far from here, and I do not wish to linger and find out if any of the creatures are nearby.”

Greg nodded, darting to Virgil’s side. As they left the clearing, he spared a glance over his shoulder at the lantern. He could’ve sworn it glimmered, for just a second, but he blinked and it went dark. Just the sun then, he figured. Just the sun reflected in the glass.

-0-

They arrived at the mill an hour after the sun sank. More clouds blew in, hiding the moon and the stars from sight. Virgil’s lantern lit the way for them, the three travelers sticking close to each other. When the lights of a house twinkled through the trees, Greg hurried forward.

It was the same mill he and Wirt had been taken to by The Woodsman! He recognized it, even if it wasn’t a big mess like it had been when they’d left it. Someone had fixed it up. The dog was still there though. He looked up as they approached and barked at them.

“Hi!” Greg greeted, running up to meet the dog. “Remember me? I gave you all my candy!”

The dog’s tail wagged as he sniffed him all over. He barked again, letting his tongue loll as he accepted Greg’s presence. Greg went to hug him, but the dog bounded out of reach to inspect the other two visitors, sending him sprawling on the ground.

“Ain’t that just the way,” he sighed, dusting himself off.

The front door to the mill opened and a high whistle called the dog back inside. A man with a red mustache stood silhouetted in the doorway, his shadow stretched out like a giant’s on the forest floor. The dog bounded right over to him, receiving a pat on the head before squeezing past the man to enter the warm house.

“Good boy, Jack,” the man praised, then straightened to inspect his visitors. “Virgil? That you? It’s been too long!”

“It has,” Virgil responded warmly, well, warmly for Virgil at any rate, accepting the handshake that the man greeted him with. “I apologize, I do mean to visit more often.”

“No need for apologies,” the mustached man told him, then stepped aside to wave the three of them inside. “Come in! Come in out of the cold. We’ve got dinner warming on the stove and you’re all welcome to join us.” He nodded at Diana and Greg, wearing a smile for them as well.

Greg took in his appearance. The dark red hair, freckled face, cheerful and warm. A crashing sound and yelling caught his attention. Several red-headed children ran through the house, laughing, shrieking, waving around what looked to be wooden swords and brandishing blanket flags. At least six of them were involved in this game, then there were two older kids sitting by the fire, reading. Well, trying to read. Greg knew it was hard for Wirt to read whenever he started jumping on top of him, so imagined it was the same for these kids, too.

“Hey! You guys need to settle down! Dinner’s almost ready and the table better be set by the time it’s done. Arthur, Esther, I’m talking to you.”

Greg’s eyes widened as the girl who’d helped him in the woods came around the corner. Hands on her hips, scowl creasing her forehead, she waved two of the sword wielders into the kitchen. With a collective groan, the kids stopped their game for the moment, their attention quickly captivated by the three visitors, just as Greg was captivated by her.

“You’re okay!” he cried out when her eyes fell on him. “The lion didn’t eat you after all!”

“Oh-!” She covered her mouth, eyes wide as they glossed over. “Oh, Greg.”

She knew his name… She knew his name and she sounded like- “Beatrice! You’re even more beautiful than I thought you’d be!” he exclaimed, rushing over to hug her.

She hugged him back tightly, knocking Wirt’s hat right off his head. “Greg, you idiot, I can’t believe it’s actually you. I thought- in the woods- I saw the hat, but I didn’t really think-”

“I’ve missed you, too, Beatrice!” he laughed.

“I guess introductions aren’t necessarily in order. You’ve met before then?” The man – Beatrice’s father – asked.

Beatrice nodded, pulling away to take in Greg’s appearance. “Yeah. Dad, this is Greg.”

“Ah! The same Greg we’ve heard so much about?” Her dad chuckled, then pointed to the kids who were oohing and ahhing over him. “Let me tell you, we still can’t get that darned Potatoes and Molasses song out of heads.”

Greg grinned. “It’s a good song!”

“Never said it wasn’t.”

“You’ve gotten so big,” Beatrice murmured, her hand resting on his head.

“So’ve you,” he pointed out, using his hands to roughly measure the size of a bird.

“Hey, watch it, smart guy.” She grinned, mussing up his hair.

“Is Wirt here?”

Well, he hadn’t meant to blurt it out quite like that, but he was so caught up on the excitement of seeing Beatrice again. He couldn’t help it. Seeing Wirt was just around the corner, he could almost hear his brother’s voice now, feel the hug he’d give him before lecturing him. Regardless of how Wirt felt about their fight, he was going to get a lecture no matter what.

But Beatrice only blinked at him, a concerned frown etched on her face. “No, Greg. Why would Wirt be here…?” She inhaled quickly. “Why are you here? Are you telling me you’re both lost in The Unknown again? Cheese and crackers, Greg!”

She grabbed Wirt’s hat off the floor and threw it at him. He caught it easily, but stared at her abrupt shift in mood, slowly catching onto the fact that his only lead was drying up faster than a fish out of water. If Wirt wasn’t with Beatrice, then where was he?

“You know, when I saw you up in that tree, for a second I thought you were Wirt because who else would dress like that, but that wasn’t possible since you were clearly way too young. Then I thought, great! He doesn’t need to go through this all over again, but then you go and tell me he is here? Oh, I’m going to have to knock some sense into that conehead of his!”

Beatrice stopped her tirade when Greg didn’t say anything. He couldn’t really tell what his face was doing, but it did something to make Beatrice’s fury fade and the concern came back. She placed her hand on his shoulder.

“What happened, Greg? How did you get here and why aren’t you with Wirt?” she asked.

“I…”

Wirt was supposed to be here. Beatrice was supposed to have the answers. He was no better off than when he’d arrived in the woods a few days ago! Wirt could have turned into a tree by now or worse! He wasn’t sure what was worse than that, but it was probably pretty bad. He opened his mouth to ask what could be worse than turning into a tree, but only a single sob bubbled out. Shocked, his eyes rounded as his chest tightened and his breathing hitched. Before he could stop it all from happening, tears began to slide down his cheeks and he wanted-

He wanted Wirt.

Greg threw himself into Beatrice’s arms and let himself cry, really cry, for the first time since Wirt left for school. For the first time in a long time. She hugged him close – it wasn’t a Wirt hug, but it was the embrace only a big sister could give – and let him.

-0-

While Beatrice’s ten little brothers and sisters – ten! – ate dinner at the table, and on the staircase since there weren’t enough chairs, Beatrice and her parents, Virgil, Diana, and Greg gathered by the fireplace he and Wirt made plans to knock out The Woodsman in front of three years earlier. The adults and Beatrice listened to his tale while they ate, Virgil and Diana remaining patient even though they were hearing it for the second time now. Beatrice’s brow stayed furrowed throughout the whole story, staring at Greg without really seeing him. It was a pretty good listening face. Her parents shared it, too, though they looked more worried.

“Oh, you poor thing,” Beatrice’s mother sighed. “It must be simply dreadful not knowing where your brother is. I’m sorry that we can’t be of more help. Here, have some more dirt.”

She piled on another helping of mashed potatoes to his already full plate. He’d been so busy talking he hadn’t paid any attention to eating. Greg scooped up a spoonful to swallow. Just like Meg’s lunch, their dinner was warm, comforting, and all sorts of things that should’ve made him want to eat, but had a difficult time settling in his belly.

He’d left out some of the fight he’d had with Wirt over the phone, and by some that meant all, but other than that he stayed true to the script. For some reason he didn’t want Beatrice’s judgment hanging over him. He figured she’d help him no matter what, but for the same reason he didn’t tell his parents about the fight right away, his lips stayed sealed on the matter.

All Beatrice really had to know was Wirt had been trying to surprise him and that’s why it was his fault. And now his only lead had dried up and… Greg blinked quickly and he shoveled more potatoes into his mouth. He didn’t want to cry again, crying never solved anyone’s problems.

“Greg?” Beatrice ventured after a minute of thinking. “How much do you remember of last time?”

Grateful for the change in subject, he swallowed quickly. “Not much,” he answered honestly, then smiled. “But I remember you! And some of Jason Funderberker’s frog names before Wirt came up with the perfect one.”

Beatrice’s lips quirked. “So you stuck with that one, huh?”

“Yeah. Like I told Wirt, it’s the perfect frog name.”

“But you don’t remember… do you remember any details? I guess what I’m trying to get at is… do you know why you’re here, Greg?” she pressed.

“To save Wirt,” he replied with zero hesitation.

“No, I mean, what’s the last thing you remember before you got here?”

Greg frowned. “Trying to get here. I remember, I saw Wirt in the hospital and promised to get him home safe, then I went home with Dad and then me and Jason Funderberker snuck out to go to the cemetery and then… then I was here. I found a way here.”

It wasn’t quite right. It was a little fuzzy, like why his frog hadn’t made it with him. Their frog. He was their frog.

Greg shook his head, then fixed Beatrice with an inquisitive look. “Why does it matter how I got here anyway?”

“Because we need to make sure you can get back.” Beatrice stood up, taking her untouched plate with her. “Tomorrow morning, I’m going to take you home.”

His fork clattered to the floor. “What? No. Beatrice, I can’t leave without Wirt.”

“Greg, you’re going to have to,” she told him. “I know you don’t want to, but we don’t even know if Wirt’s here.”

“I do! I know he’s here, I heard him!” Greg stood up to protest, feeling bigger when Beatrice couldn’t tower over him quite so much. “He’s lost. He’s lost and scared and it’s all my fault, Beatrice. You have to help me find him. Please!”

She placed her hands on his shoulders. “It’s not your fault. And I know you want to help him, but the longer you stay here, the less chance there is that you can go home. And you should. You should go home, Greg.”

“He’d stay for me.”

Beatrice scoffed and opened her mouth to say something, but as she met his gaze head-on whatever she planned to say vanished right off the tip of her tongue. Greg straightened his shoulders and back. He tried to make himself look as serious as possible, because he was.

“He’d stay and look for me,” he said again, this time looking at all the adults in the room. “So, I have to keep trying. It’s what a good leader would do, and Wirt’s trusting me.”

He heard Beatrice sigh, then she pulled him against her in a loose hug. “Jeez Louise, you two can’t stay out of trouble for five minutes, can you?” He shook his head and her grip tightened. “Okay, I’ll think about it. I’ll let you know in the morning what the plan is.”

Greg grinned and hugged her back. That was a yes then. They were going on an adventure to find Wirt together.

“Thanks, Beatrice.”

-0-

Virgil and Diana hadn’t planned to stay the night at the grist mill, but a rainstorm blew in over dinner and Beatrice’s family insisted that they stay. Greg could see Virgil was reluctant, but Diana convinced him to accept the invitation nonetheless. The man spent the rest of the evening idly chatting with Beatrice’s father in front of the window, continuously watching the rain as if willing it to end. Greg knew he was worried about his family, but it was a long journey and to do it in the rain late at night would be miserable and probably dangerous.

“Don’t worry, Virgil,” Greg told him before he followed Beatrice upstairs for the night. “Val’s got everything under control. They’re safe and sound in your hill house.”

The man didn’t smile, but he seemed to take some comfort in the words regardless. “Good night, Gregory. Get some rest.”

“You too!”

There were five small bedrooms upstairs. Under less dire circumstances, Greg would’ve had a blast playing on the staircase, but as it were, he just wasn’t feeling it. Virgil and Diana stayed downstairs and camped out in front of the fireplace in the living room while Greg was led to the bedroom reserved for Beatrice’s littler brothers. The first bedroom belonged to Beatrice’s parents, the next one was hers and her oldest little sister. She was quieter than Beatrice and seemed to keep to herself, but she smiled at him and looked like a nice enough person. Then there was the room for the older boys – there were two of them – and then the room for the younger girls – three in that room.

Greg couldn’t believe how many of them there were. They’d all happily introduced themselves to him, eager to meet one of the boys their big sister had told them so much about. There was Laurel who shared Beatrice’s room, then John was the oldest boy, followed by Jeremiah, Mary, Thomas, Geoffrey, then the twins Arthur and Esther, Abigail, and finally little Peter. Only two of her siblings were younger than Greg, Abigail and Peter, and they were the only ones besides the twins that Greg could remember by name. The older kids kind of blurred together, except for Beatrice of course.

Greg was happy to be bunking with the younger boys. Arthur was his age and Peter kept begging him to sing “Potatoes and Molasses” for them. The other two – he was pretty sure one of them was Geoffrey and one of them was Thomas – were interested in talking to him as well, asking all about his adventures so far. They’d never heard of Grayfield, but were in awe of his story about his time there anyway. Even the girls – Abigail, Esther, and Mary – poked their heads in to listen until their mom shooed them off to bed and blew out the lanterns.

Beatrice made a bed for him out of blankets on the floor of the boys’ bedroom. “I know it’s not much,” she told him. “You can take my bed if you want. I don’t mind sleeping on the floor.”

Greg shook his head. “That’s okay, Beatrice. Thanks for letting me stay here, and tell your mom thanks too. She’s really nice.”

“Yeah, she is,” Beatrice murmured, tucking Greg into his makeshift bed absently. “Let me know if you need anything. My room’s the second one from the stairs, remember?” He nodded. “And the bathroom’s right next door, and if that one’s full then there’s the one downstairs and-”

“I think I’ll be okay,” he told her, grinning.

She smiled back. “Yeah, you’re a pretty resourceful kid, huh?” Greg preened and she laughed softly, then pressed her lips to his forehead. “Sleep well, Greg.”

“You too,” he replied, watching her leave the room. “Beatrice?”

“Mmhm?” She paused in the doorway, looking back at him. “What is it?”

“Thank you for deciding to help me find Wirt. I know we can do it together.” He yawned, then rolled over onto his side. “Good night.”

“Yeah,” she whispered, probably so she wouldn’t disturb her brothers. “Good night, Greg.”

She closed the door. Greg closed his eyes and listened to the rain falling outside. He hoped Wirt had found someplace safe and dry for the night. He hummed quietly to himself, under his breath so he wouldn’t disturb Beatrice’s brothers. It was a song Wirt would sing to him whenever he couldn’t sleep. He felt like tonight was going to be one of those nights.

He finished humming, then tipped his head back so he could stare out the window at the stars. Well, he’d stare at the stars if there were any out to stare at. The rainclouds and the droplets on the window pane weren’t a bad substitute though. Greg sighed, snuggling deeper into the blankets, hugging the cape coat and hat to his chest.

“Good night, Wirt.”

Chapter Text

“Age is heavier, it seems, than years alone…
But, I told you things I wouldn’t dream of telling anyone.
Are we drying out, like flowers from a forgotten someone?”

The tape rolled through song after song, the whole thing memorized from side A to side B. With the seat reclined as far as it could go, Wirt stared at the stars through the moon roof in his car and listened as Toad the Damp Sprocket begged someone not to go away. At first listen, Wirt thought that the number of songs from that band was simply because Greg adored their name and decided that they had to be Jason Funderberker’s favorite band. Now he wondered if his little brother was trying to tell him something else entirely.

He sighed heavily, closing his eyes. Their phone conversation from earlier that day reverberated in his skull. His stomach literally felt as if someone had punched him, over and over, with each word that crackled through the static of the phone. Worst big brother ever. Yeah, that pretty much hit the nail on the head.

What really hurt was that Greg didn’t even mean it, and he should’ve. Sure, he didn’t really remember what Wirt was like when Greg was born, when he was one, two, three, or four. It was the worst when he was five, when he was becoming an actual person instead of simply “the baby Mom had with his music teacher” and actually wanted to spend time with Wirt. Greg had no idea that his big brother spun lie after lie to get what he considered to be a nuisance out of his hair. He’d had too many problems already, and he wasn’t about to add a younger half-brother to the mix.

No, Greg didn’t remember that. But Wirt did.

“I hate you!”

“Yeah, sometimes I hate me, too, Greg,” he murmured to the stars.

Raucous laughter from outside the car cut through the music. Wirt pressed himself further into the seat, well aware that he was low enough that he couldn’t be seen unless someone pressed their face right against the window. Thankfully whoever passed his car continued walking. Wirt breathed out a sigh of relief. The last thing he wanted was people questioning why he was lying in his car at night, listening to music and staring at the stars. Even if it sounded like a romantic thing, it certainly looked a little suspicious and maybe even creepy to passerbys.

He was, after all, in the parking lot for his dorm building.

Wirt sighed again. For being completely alone in a brand new place, it was awfully hard to actually be completely alone. Sure, he only had one roommate and he was a pretty social guy at that, but there was no telling when Chad would just pop back into the room and boy was that guy a chatterbox. Not that Wirt didn’t enjoy his roommate’s company, he did, but he could never feel completely at ease in their shared room, never knowing if Chad would return in five minutes or in five hours.

He couldn’t even be alone in the bathroom anymore. He liked to think in the shower or while brushing his teeth, but only because he knew he’d be alone with his thoughts. The bathroom for his hall was never empty. Never. He could never find a place in his entire dorm – in his entire campus – that was guaranteed to get him an hour or two of uninterrupted introspection. There were people in his classrooms and people in the study lounges. People in the library, people walking around campus, people in the cafeteria, people everywhere.

His car was the only place where he could take a minute for himself and just float on the ebb and flow of the ocean of his mind. He could put on Greg’s tape and listen to the entire thing at least once before feeling enough like himself again that he could face the world. It was the second best thing to babbling his worries away to Greg himself.

Now though… now it just made him wonder how he was supposed to face his little brother again.

He remembered being nine, heck, he remembered before that, too. How the phone calls and visits faded into belated birthday cards and then nothing… He’d been trying so hard not to become that, and he thought he’d been doing okay.

He’d thought Greg had been fine. Greg was always fine.

“Except now, clearly,” he mumbled to himself as the next song clicked on. “Oh, potatoes and molasses,” Wirt sang along quietly while Greg’s delighted voice crackled in the speakers. “If you want some, oh just ask us…”

If only something as silly as potatoes and molasses could cheer Greg up like when he was six. Wirt’s heart clenched. He’d worried about this before, of course, how he’d be missing such a large chunk of Greg growing up. There was such a difference between nine and thirteen. Greg would be getting ready for his last year of middle school by the time Wirt graduated, how was he going to know how to cheer him up then? Or talk to him? Would he even know who Greg was after all of this? Would Greg want him to? Or would he just be his nosy big brother always trying to butt in on his business? What if Greg became a delinquent? Fell in with the wrong crowd, like that punk Andy McAllen, and ruined his life forever?

“Ugh. Stop it.” Wirt bonked himself on the head. “That’s not helping, Wirt.”

As “Potatoes and Molasses” came to an end, another song took its place. Wirt’s heart swelled.

“Sleep, sleep all the sleepy town
you are the only one
now only night lights flickering
now all is said and done”

While Wirt wasn’t much of a singer – he really didn’t like to sing in front of anything living, at least – he’d made an exception once or twice for Greg. Sometimes when Greg couldn’t sleep and refused to let Wirt close his eyes for fear of the Edelwood roots, he’d sing that song for him. He wasn’t big on lullabies, his mom had sang soft rock songs when he was little or recited poems in Old English for him, so when he thought to try and sing Greg to sleep, that was what popped into his head.

The fact that Greg put it on his tape for him… it was like his little brother was trying to return the favor. Trying to take care of him, like he always did. Oh, even if he was getting older, now nine instead of six, it didn’t mean he was a different person. He was still Greg, and he’d still be Greg at thirteen or eighteen or twenty-five.

Whether or not Wirt would remain as important to him through those times was up to him, and skipping out on Halloween his first year away just couldn’t sit with him. His brow furrowed in determination. There had to be a way.

But his midterm was such a big part of his grade… and in History of Architecture, no less, and the professor was one he was sure to have again if he continued the Design Studies path for the BFA in Architecture. He wanted- no, needed to make a good impression. On the first day of class, he’d explicitly told them he never offered make-up tests – and by never, he meant that if you were in the hospital then of course you got an extension. If only History of Architecture wasn’t at eight-thirty in the morning on Mondays and Wednesdays. His original plan involved skipping the morning class to spend Halloween night at home and driving back to Amherst in time for his afternoon classes. But with that stupid midterm hanging over his head…

Wirt paused, a light bulb flicking on in his mind’s eye. Sure, his professor didn’t offer make-up tests… but he never said anything about taking tests early. If he could take his midterm ahead of time, and then finish writing his poem before Tuesday, then he still wouldn’t have to be back at school until one o’clock for poetry.

He could go home for Halloween still. He could surprise Greg. He could take him to the wall and they’d be able to talk about what was bothering him, talk about how they could make the separation easier. He could make sure that Greg knew he was not in any way trying to leave him behind.

“Yes!” Wirt cheered to himself, clenching his fist around a rock-

Wait. A rock? Wirt blinked and lifted his hand. Greg’s rock facts rock stared back at him with that weird, googly-eyed smile. Wirt frowned, turning it over in his hand.

“How did you get here?” he asked it, rubbing his thumb over the painted eyes. “Greg never gave you to me.”

“Please- ambulance to Eternal Garden…he’s hurt- can’t get to him-”

Wirt sat up. “Mom?”

“-the other side- the…wall. By the lake… unconscious-”

Her voice was like an echo. Wirt smacked his ear a few times, then cried out when white hot pain flared in his left wrist. He gaped at it, turning it over several times. It was fine. Why had that hurt? Wirt clutched the rock facts rock tighter, looking to it for answers.

“Greg- he’s hurt-”

“Greg?”

Wirt shook his head, his scowl deepening as his breathing picked up. No, Greg was fine. Well, he was upset, but physically he was fine. He’d just talked to him a few hours ago. He was fine. Wirt’s thoughts traveled back to his plan. He was going to talk to his professor during his office hours in the morning, beg to take the exam early, then pull several all-nighters so he could attempt to maintain his B-average. He’d see Greg on Halloween, surprise him. His little brother’s face would absolutely light up the second he saw him, he just knew it.

His stomach tightened – like actually tightened, like his skin and muscles were being pinched, like they were sewn together – and his head throbbed. He’d been stressing too much. Wirt closed his eyes, only to see bright, bright, bright above him, and he heard beeping, and why couldn’t he breathe?

Gasping, he opened them to take in the dark interior of his car and the stars still shining outside of his moon roof. “What?”

Wirt? Wirt!

“Greg?” His brother’s voice was clearer than their mother’s, if not still strange to hear.

Wirt! I’m here!

No, that wasn’t possible, was it? Unless, Greg had somehow convinced their mom to drive him all the way up here to see him…? Wirt looked to the rock again. It certainly seemed like something Greg would do. But his voice wasn’t… He looked out the window and saw nothing but the car next to him. When he heard his little brother’s voice again it sounded even clearer. He could hear the hope, the desperation, the panic.

The fear.

“Wirt! Help!”

“Greg!” Wirt scanned the parking lot quickly and threw open the door of his car. “Greg!”

When his foot hit the ground he was no longer in the parking lot. A dirt path stretched on before him, lined with barren trees, branches clawing at the sky. It was the woods. It was The Unknown.

Wirt pulled his leg back in and slammed the door shut. Breathing heavily, he gaped at the once-again parking lot. Cars were in their parking spaces and his fellow students milled about on their way to and from night classes. His dorm building was in front of him. He was at school.

Hesitantly, he opened the door again. It was still the parking lot. He got out of the car and the asphalt turned to dirt and the cars became the trees and the stars were clearer in the night sky with only the nearly full moon to illuminate the woods. Wait, that couldn’t be right. Wirt squinted at the moon. The moon was only just now approaching the first quarter… he knew because he always paid attention when the moon was in the first quarter because of how long it had been that way while they were in The Unknown. It should’ve been a half moon above him.

The wind picked up and clouds rolled in above, darkening the already dark woods. Trembling, Wirt sat back in the car. No. No, no, this wasn’t happening. He wasn’t dying. This was all just some stress-related hallucination he brought upon himself thanks to his argument with Greg. That was it. That had to be it.

Wirt reclined in his seat once more, taking deep breaths to calm down.

Wirt!”

He closed his eyes against Greg’s screams – because they weren’t real, they weren’t real – and he saw his mom, gripping the sleeve of a woman that looked to be a nurse. Her hair was pulled up in a messy ponytail, frizzy and uneven – like when he’d been a kid and she spent all those hours waitressing at the diner downtown – and her face was streaked with tears, though she didn’t seem to realize she was crying. He wanted to call out for her, but he choked on his words. No, not his words, he was choking on something else. Oh, gosh, what was down his throat?

“Please send an ambulance to Eternal Garden Cemetery,” his mom begged, recapturing his attention before he could properly panic. “My son- my other son, my little boy, Greg- he’s hurt. My husband’s there with him, but he can’t get to him-”

“Calm down, Mrs. Whelan, we’ll send someone right away. Eternal Garden Cemetery?” The nurse clarified, chilling the very blood racing through his veins.

“Yes,” his mom confirmed, trying to compose herself. “He’s on the other side of the back wall. By the lake. My husband said he’s unconscious.”

The lake. The lake? What in the name of William Butler Yeats was Greg doing by the lake! Wirt opened his eyes – wait, was he opening them or closing them? – and he was inside his car. Greg’s tape still playing “Sleepy Town” by The Swerve Pipe. How? It was a fifty second song. It was playing on some kind of weird loop. He remembered it had been playing when the car from two lanes over swerved right into his and crushed the car in front of him. He knew he shouldn’t have been tailgating, but he was in a hurry. It was already six o’clock and Greg needed him-

 “No,” Wirt whispered, tears filling his eyes. “No, no, this isn’t happening. This isn’t happening!”

It wasn’t October 26th anymore. Their fight had been days ago. It was Halloween and the last thing he remembered seeing was the bright red brake lights as they lit up the highway with only two exits to go before he was home. Only two exits to go.

“I’m not dead,” he choked out, fist tightening around the rock facts rock. “I’m not dead yet. I can’t be dead yet!”

A nurse. He’d seen a nurse. When he closed – opened – his eyes, he’d seen a nurse. Wirt opened them again and glanced around. He could only see out of one eye, he hadn’t noticed that before, and everything was sort of fuzzy. His mom and the nurse were still over by the doorway of the small room – a hospital room. He was in a hospital bed, his wrist was wrapped up, there was a tube down his throat forcing his breathing to remain calm and even. He hurt everywhere.

But he was alive. He was alive.

“He’s on the other side of the back wall. By the lake. My husband said he’s unconscious.”

“My son- my other son, my little boy, Greg- he’s hurt.”

He was alive… but where was Greg? He couldn’t hear his brother calling for him here. He could only hear the whirring of the machines monitoring his life. Wirt closed his eyes.

Wirt!

“No.”

He opened his eyes again to the blurry bright lights, the pale green curtain, his mother’s pleas for help. Help for Greg. Greg who was over the garden wall on Halloween, by the lake, on Halloween, unconscious, hurt, unconscious.

That didn’t mean anything did it? It took more than being unconscious to end up in The Unknown didn’t it? Didn’t it?

“Don’t worry. I’ll be a good leader this time. I’ll get you back safely. I’ll find you. And that’s a rock fact.”

When had he said that?

Why would he say that?

Why would he say that?

Wirt closed his eyes.

“No. You didn’t. Greg, you didn’t.” He stared out the window at the parking lot. His brother’s voice faint, but still out there. Somewhere. He glanced down at the rock facts rock. “Greg, you didn’t.”

“Sleep, sleep all the sleepy town
you are the only one”

Please don’t get lost. Please don’t turn into a tree.”

“I’m not lost.” He buried his hand in his hair, tugging on it as he clenched the rock in his fist. “I’m not lost, Greg. That’s a rock fact. That’s a rock fact, I swear, I’m not lost.”

“now only night lights flickering
now all is said and done”

The wind howled outside, whistling through the creases of the window. Everyone left the parking lot. All the cars were gone. Maybe… maybe Greg was fine. Maybe he was unconscious but that didn’t mean anything. It didn’t mean anything at all.

“I’ll be a good leader.”

“sleep, sleep all the sleepy town
you are the only one”

But… what if…

Wirt opened the car door and stepped out.

“all the moments from the rising
to the setting of the sun…”

Side A ended.

Chapter Text

A blanket of snow appeared overnight. At some point the rain had turned to ice and coated the ground completely. The trees outside and the roof of Beatrice’s house looked as if someone had taken a bag of icing and let it explode everywhere.

Greg grinned at the sight of it, as did Beatrice’s younger siblings. The children darted out into the snow as soon as they were dressed, right past the kitchen even, to begin a snowball fight. The teams fought fervently over who would get Greg to side with them, so he decided to be a double agent and work for both sides. Of course, once they found out what he was up to, it became a Beatrice’s family vs. Greg situation that he scrambled to get out of as fast as possible.

Luckily, Beatrice swooped in to the rescue. Again.

“Come on, Greg. You need to have some breakfast before we go. Who knows how long we’ll be walking and you need to keep up your strength,” she told him, dusting the snow off of Wirt’s cape for him. “You know, if you want to find Wirt today.”

Greg adjusted his hat with a grin and nodded. “Right, Beatrice. I can’t expect to find Wirt on an empty stomach!”

He raced past her into the house. Virgil and Diana were already up and eating, chatting with Beatrice’s parents. Immediately Greg was being fussed over, a giant stack of pancakes placed right in front of him at the table. His stomach wanted to growl happily, it really did. He loved pancakes. But even though he knew he needed food for strength, he just wasn’t hungry. Greg ate a few bites to be polite, and because he could feel Virgil watching him with a suspicious sort of stare. The man seemed to be appeased once he finished an entire pancake, so when he looked away, Greg fed the second one to Beatrice’s dog.

Feeding the family’s pet made his heart ache for Jason Funderberker. Oh, their poor frog. He hoped he was okay without him and Wirt. As soon as they got back, he’d be sure to feed him his favorite bugs and give him the biggest hug and let him sleep in his bed for as long as he could get away with before his mom made him put him back in the frog tank.

Greg gave Jack the dog a pat on the head and smiled sadly. Yeah, he really missed Jason Funderberker. His partner in crime. The yin to his yang. The most special frog ever.

“Greg?”

He blinked as Beatrice waved her hand in front of his face. “Sorry, Beatrice,” he replied. “I didn’t hear you.”

“You feeling okay?” she asked, big sister concern written all over her face.

Great, now he was missing Wirt again, too. “Uh-huh.” He nodded, eyes stinging despite the fact that he’d already cried the day before and wasn’t due to cry again for a while. “I was just thinking about Jason Funderberker. That’s all.”

She tried for an understanding smile. “Yeah, you and that frog were pretty much inseparable last time you were here. You know, I bet he’s thinking about you, too, and can’t wait for you to get home.”

“Me and Wirt,” he corrected. “He’s waiting for both of us.”

“Right. You and Wirt.” This time her smile looked a bit more forced. Probably because she missed Wirt, too. “Okay. Well, are you done with breakfast?”

“Yeah!” Greg hopped off of the chair. “Mission time! Beatrice, do you want to be the captain of our mission, or do you want me to be captain? I mean, I told Wirt I’d be the leader, but I’m sure he wouldn’t mind if I took a break to let you be leader-”

“How about we both be leader?” she suggested, herding him towards the front door as if he was more than one kid.

Greg frowned as he considered it. “I don’t think that’s how being leader works.”

Beatrice collected her winter coat, offering Greg one of her brothers’ coats as well, but he declined it. He had Wirt’s cape coat to keep him warm. And Wirt’s hat. He was all set. Beatrice took several leather pouches with her, the same kind that she had when he first saw her fighting off that lion when he first got to The Unknown. He tried to remember to ask her how she got away later, distracted when she handed one to him.

“Don’t lose this, Greg. It’s very important,” she told him as he opened it up.

It was just a bunch of salt and small leaves. “Why?”

“Because it can protect you. The salt and sage are wards against malicious spirits,” she answered, taking it from him so she could retie it. “It will keep the leopard, the lion, and the wolf from hurting you.”

“Oh. Is that how you were able to get away from the lion before?” he asked.

She nodded, a smirk tugging at her lips. “That’s part of it. Let’s just say that guy’s learned not to mess with me if he knows what’s good for him.”

Greg felt a lot better about venturing out into The Unknown with Beatrice the Lion Slayer by his side. Virgil and Diana, too. They knew a lot about the woods and decided to join the two of them for part of the journey since it would take them somewhat in the direction of their home. Beatrice had an idea of where Wirt might’ve gone, so that’s where’d they check first.

So the four of them set out for their journey through the snowy woods. Well, the four of them plus Jack. Beatrice’s dad insisted that she take him with them and she seemed to be glad enough for the dog’s company. If Beatrice was happy, then Greg was happy. And he liked Jack, even if the dog was very fickle with their friendship. Not at all like Jason Funderberker. He was a devoted frog, he didn’t hop around with just anyone.

Jack led the way, bounding through the snow like the excited puppy he was. Virgil trailed after, Diana not far behind, while Beatrice and Greg brought up the rear. They hadn’t gone more than a few feet before Greg’s shoulder was grabbed and he was spun around to face his friend. Her eyes were wide as she looked him over up close, then pushed him away at arm’s length so she could look over his entire body.

He flailed a bit as she turned him around. “What is it?” he asked her. “What’s wrong?”

“Greg, where’s your shadow?” Panic seized her, her voice thick with it.

He looked over his shoulder for it, but saw nothing but the white snow. He didn’t panic though. He checked under his feet as well, since shadows had a tendency to get smaller throughout the day before getting bigger again. Yep! There it was!

“Found it!” he proclaimed proudly, showing Beatrice the small noontime shadow beneath him. “It just wants to be small right now.”

Her face remained pale and tight as she stared at it. When she looked him in the eye her worry still hadn’t faded. If anything it had gotten worse.

“Greg. Your shadow shouldn’t be that small,” she told him. “Not now.”

He blinked, then shrugged. “Why not? Can’t it do what it wants? It’s just a shadow-” He cut himself off, eyes narrowing suspiciously. “Hey, have you been talking to The Fisherman? He got all weird about my shadow, too.”

“The Fisherman?”

“Yeah, the one I told you about in my story. After I ran away from you and the lion, but before I got to Grayfield,” he reminded her. “He told me… something. He said something about my shadow, but I didn’t see anything wrong with it.”

“He told you… Greg, what did he tell you?” she demanded, squeezing his shoulders.

“I- I don’t know! I don’t remember, he said a lot of crazy things!” Greg tensed, wracking his brain for some recollection of what he’d instructed him to do. “He said to keep an eye on it? And something about staying out of the sun, but that’s it. Why is it such a big deal?”

Beatrice released him, her hands fisting at her sides. “It could be nothing,” she murmured to herself, almost too quietly for Greg to hear, then she said a little louder, “There’s this… legend. About how-”

Jack barked and bounded over to them, shaking snow on them both before Beatrice could finish. Greg laughed as the dog ran circles around them, but he quieted when she shot him a serious glare. He stood at attention, ready to not be distracted by the antics of the dog-

“Is everything alright?” Diana asked them, doubling back to check on their half of the travel party.

“Everything’s fine,” Beatrice snapped, apparently tired of the interruptions, aiming her glare at the silver-eyed woman. But then it shifted.

Virgil stood a ways ahead of them, waiting. His eyes were trained on the ground where the three of them stood, specifically where Greg was standing. It made him look down at his feet again as well, while Beatrice narrowed her gaze on the man. Jeez, what was the big deal about his shadow? He needed to hear that legend.

“So, what’s-?” Greg started, but Beatrice brushed past him, making a beeline for Virgil. “Hey!”

He went to follow her, but Diana placed a hand on his shoulder to stop him. He could feel the chill of it through Wirt’s cape. She definitely needed to invest in some gloves. They hadn’t even been outside that long.

Tilting his head, he watched as she shook hers. “Give them a minute, Gregory.”

“But we were talking. She was about to tell me about some legend about shadows. Do you know about the shadow legend?” he inquired.

Her brow furrowed and she shook her head slowly. “I’m afraid I don’t. Such a thing hasn’t been brought to my attention as far as I can recall.”

“But doesn’t Virgil know it? He’s looking at me funny, too.”

Diana’s smiled turned amused. “Virgil is a man of many fears and superstitions. He built his home beneath the ground to hide his family away from the dangers of the world, too cowardly to face them. He looks at you the way he does because he does not trust you, though do not take offense. He trusts no one outside of his family.”

“He trusts you,” Greg pointed out.

“Only because I saved his wife. He believes he owes me much for it, so offers me shelter with his family.”

“So he’s paying you back by making you be the nanny for his kids?” Greg lifted his eyebrow. “That doesn’t sound like much of a reward.”

“No, I take care of the children and Meg because I enjoy helping them. Virgil is still searching for a way to pay me back for what I’ve done for them all,” she replied.

Greg hummed, considering that as he watched Virgil and Beatrice ahead of them. The pair was in a heated discussion, but kept it quiet. Not a single word reached them at this distance.

“What are they talking about?” Greg whined. “I want to know.”

“If they feel the need to share it with you, then I’m sure they will,” Diana assured him, starting to walk forward at a slow pace.

Greg pouted. “What if they’re talking about me?”

“As I said, I’m sure they will let you know if it concerns you. You trust Beatrice, don’t you? She’s your friend.”

“Yeah…” he sighed. “Of course I trust her. I just like to know what’s going on.”

“You shouldn’t be so nosy, Gregory,” Diana told him, her tone light. “Wasn’t it your desire to know everything little thing about your brother what caused your fight in the first place?”

Greg shook his head quickly. “No, it wasn’t that! I didn’t want to know everything. I just… I just wanted him to have time for me. That’s all. I wanted to be important to him. I still do. He’s so important to me and I thought… I thought I was important to him, too. I mean, I am. I am important to him. Obviously. Right?”

“Perhaps. I cannot claim to know your brother’s feelings. I’ve yet to meet him.”

“Well, I think it’s obvious,” he replied confidently, but it failed to keep his shoulders from slumping and his belief didn’t quite reach his eyes. “I mean, I’m pretty sure.”

By the time they caught up with Beatrice and Virgil, the two of them seemed to have settled whatever differences they’d had. With a reassuring smile, Beatrice took Greg’s hand. Whatever she’d been so worried about before had apparently vanished. It was kind of weird though.

But like Diana said, if she felt the need to share her worries with him, then she would.

Right?

-0-

The storm returned in the middle of their journey, twice as cold and twice as violent. Snow hurtled down at them from the sky and kicked up at them from the ground as the wind howled at them, not unlike a lion’s roar. Greg trembled against Beatrice’s side, his face pressed against her coat to keep the snow from stinging his eyes. He’d buttoned up Wirt’s cape with all three buttons to keep it from blowing all over the place, but he still had to hold onto it tightly. That and the hat. It nearly blew away twice, but he’d managed to catch it the first time and Beatrice the second.

He wasn’t sure how long they’d been walking, or how far they’d gone, but he had a feeling that even if they had been walking for hours, they were still no closer to finding Wirt. In this snowstorm, it would be almost impossible to find him. Greg couldn’t see an inch in front of him, and was fairly sure that Beatrice, Virgil, and Diana couldn’t as well. Even Jack had stopped running on ahead of them and kept close to Diana’s side, his head bowed against the wind. His poor paws must’ve been very cold. Greg wished he’d thought to bring an extra pair of socks for him.

Virgil’s lantern didn’t help them at all, the wind kept blowing the flame out. Eventually they lost it to the snowy woods when it fell out of the man’s shaking hands. If they couldn’t even see where they were, how were they supposed to see where Wirt was?

“I think we should find shelter!” Diana called over the howl of the wind. “We will only lose our way if we remain out here!”

“No!” both Beatrice and Greg cried out.

“We c-can’t s-stop!” Greg continued to plea. “I can’t leave W-wirt in the snow! Not again!”

The woman looked at him with pity while Beatrice pulled him closer. “We need to keep moving!” she agreed.

“How much more progress can we expect to make in this weather?” Diana questioned her, then turned her attention to Virgil. “Please see the sense in finding somewhere to wait out the storm?”

Beatrice scoffed. “He of all people knows how important it is to keep moving!”

“Diana’s right,” Virgil interjected, turning to face the three of them. “It’s useless to keep going like this. I don’t even know if we’re still going in the right direction.”

“Th-there is n-no right direction,” Greg protested. “W-wirt could b-be in any direction! We have to keep going!”

Virgil looked him in the eye. “Gregory, if your brother has any sense at all, then he will have done the same as us and has found shelter from the storm.”

His brother had plenty of sense. He didn’t go throwing his pennies into ponds. Greg wanted to laugh at his own play on words, but he was too cold. Finding shelter from a blizzard did seem like something Wirt would do.

As long as he wasn’t sleeping in the snow, shaking as the roots of the Edelwood trees twined around him. Could the Edelwood trees still grow? Even without The Beast? He hadn’t seen any of them while he’d been here so far, but then again, he hadn’t really been paying attention to the trees.

“Do we even have time to stop?” Beatrice asked, bringing Greg back from his thoughts.

Time? He squinted up at her through the snow. Were they running out of time to find Wirt? Was there a specific time limit to how long they could be here before they couldn’t go home anymore?

Virgil stared hard at the both of them, then nodded. “We have time.”

The four huddled together as they united in the common goal to find shelter. Deeper into the woods the wind died down a little, the trees doing their best to protect them from the gusts. The smell of smoke filled Greg’s nose among the pine and cold, but not the dangerous kind. It smelled more like the cooking kind. When the others turned in that same direction, Greg knew he wasn’t imagining it. A building came into view, a dark shadow in the white of winter. They hurried over to it. Greg tripped over his frozen feet several times, Beatrice supporting him as best as she could. It was very hard to walk.

Then the ground wasn’t beneath him anymore. He blinked as Virgil scooped him up in his arms and carried him the rest of the way. Right before they went inside, Greg noticed a wooden sign hanging in front of the door, being knocked about by the wind. He made out the letters “D” and “L” before they closed the door behind them.

“Goodness! What in the name of high heaven are folks like you doing out in this kind of weather?” A woman’s squeaky voice exclaimed.

“Having a picnic,” Beatrice grumbled, brushing the snow from off her shoulders, only to end up with more covering her when Jack shook the snow off his fur beside her. “What does it look like, lady? Trying to get out of it!”

Greg tried to get a good look around as Virgil carried him over to the nearest chair and set him down in it. “Th-thanks,” he told him, still shivering despite the warmth surrounding him.

“No need to be snappy with me, missy. This is my tavern. You want to stay in my tavern, then you put up with a few questions.” Greg looked over at the woman while she spoke to Beatrice, her voice vaguely familiar.

Seeing that Beatrice looked about five seconds away from being snappy again, Greg piped up, “We were looking for my brother, Wirt, before the snowstorm started.”

The Tavern Keeper turned to face him, her eyes rounding as she looked upon him. “Well, dust my doorknobs! It’s The Pilgrim!”

“The Pilgrim?” A chorus of voices rose together.

“Wirt?” Greg immediately scanned the room for his brother, familiar and unfamiliar faces blurring together until- there! Oh, he was here! His brother! “Wirt-!”

No. No, it was only his reflection in the mirror over the bar. Greg’s smile crumpled as he recognized his own face in his brother’s silhouette. Right. The Pilgrim. This was where he’d been named The Pilgrim. Wirt had been wearing these clothes then. Of course.

“That’s not The Pilgrim!” a meaty-armed man – The Butcher, Greg’s memory supplied – pointed out. “It’s The Pilgrim’s companion!”

“No, he’s much too old. The Pilgrim’s companion is only a little boy. With a kettle on his head,” somebody else pointed out. The Baker maybe? Or was it The Candlestick Maker? Oh, no, that was a nursery rhyme.

“I agree with The Midwife.” Oh, so Greg hadn’t been on the right track at all with that one, he realized as The Tavern Keeper continued. “This can’t be The Pilgrim’s companion. But it’s not The Pilgrim either.”

“I’m The Highwayman,” The Highwayman said.

“It is The Pilgrim’s little companion, I’m telling you!” The Butcher stood up to face them all, then pointed to Greg. “He just grew up, is all.”

“Grew up?” The Tavern Keeper scoffed. “Impossible. If anything he’s a changeling! It’s bad luck to have a changeling enter through your door-”

“Oh, not this again,” Beatrice groaned, then stepped in front of Greg protectively. “Don’t you dare smack him in the face with a broom, lady, he’s no changeling.”

“Yeah! And I am The Pilgrim’s companion,” he piped up, the commotion doing a good job of shaking him from the crushing disappointment that Wirt wasn’t here after all.

“Prove it,” The Tavern Keeper demanded of him.

“Um…” Greg wracked his brain for some kind of proof. “Well, The Pilgrim’s my big brother, Wirt. He sang that terrible song the last time we were here, even though he can usually sing better than that. And um… oh! He rode on a horse! I rode it with him! So we could save Beatrice!” He pointed to her as if that would solidify his proof.

The people of the tavern mumbled amongst themselves. “He’s got a point. That song was terrible.”

Greg frowned. Hey, only he was allowed to say things like that about his brother. Even if they were true.

“Alright, so you’re the Pilgrim’s companion,” The Tavern Keeper acquiesced. “But what are you doing here without The Pilgrim? And in his clothes, no less.”

“We’re looking for him,” he replied. “He’s lost in the woods somewhere.”

A collective gasp echoed in the tavern, then a heavy silence overtook them. Greg exchanged glances with Beatrice, Virgil, and Diana, the three of them joining him at the table he’d been sat at. Virgil stared at them with suspicion, while Diana refused to stare at them at all, her silver eyes trained on the snowstorm outside the window.

One man broke the silence. “I’m The Highwayman.”

“Yeah, I know, I heard you the first time,” Greg snapped, the tension getting to him. “And the other times before that.”

The Highwayman looked down at his feet and Greg felt a pang of guilt.

“I’m sorry. You can sing your song if you want,” he told him.

“We’re not here to listen to any songs,” Virgil spoke up before The Highwayman had a chance to start, eyeing the collection of strangers. “From your reactions I garner that none of you have seen or heard of this boy’s brother traveling through The Unknown.”

“We don’t hear much of travelers these days, mister,” The Tavern Keeper replied. “What with those beasts prowling at all hours of the day and night! It’s too dangerous for any one person to wander out there on their own! Pudding pie,” she turned to Greg as she said this, “if your brother’s out there on his own, I’m afraid he doesn’t stand a prayer-”

“Don’t tell him that!” Beatrice exclaimed. “You don’t know what Wirt’s capable of. Keep your opinions to yourself.”

“It’s okay, Beatrice. She’s not the first person to say something like that.” He forced a smile for her, then addressed The Tavern Keeper. “And you’re kinda right. I mean, that’s why I’m here looking for him in the first place. He won’t be any good here on his own. He’s going to need help to get home. So I’m here to save him. I’m going to search these woods top to bottom and I’m not leaving until I’ve done that or found him! It’s my burden to bear!”

“What if he’s already gone?” a sad, crying man asked, burying his face in his hands as he sobbed.

“Get it together, Tailor,” The Tavern Keeper told him.

“Well, I still have to look. Just to make sure. I can’t leave here without knowing if he’s home safe or not. I can’t.”

“Greg,” Beatrice murmured, placing her hand on his shoulder.

He smiled at her. “We’ll find him though, won’t we, Beatrice?”

She smiled back. “Yeah. Yeah, we’ll find him.”

“The storm is settling down,” Diana murmured, though even with her soft voice, she attracted the attention of everyone in the tavern.

They all looked to the window. The wind certainly seemed to die down, but the snow continued to fall heavily. Still, it would be a whole lot easier to travel in the snow without the wind. Greg could handle giant snowflakes, no problem.

He looked to Virgil expectantly, hoping the man would say that it was safe enough to leave. All this talk of finding his brother just made him all the more eager to go back out there and look for him. Virgil seemed to be considering their options while Beatrice fetched a plate of food for them from the bar. She forced a bread roll into Greg’s hand.

“Eat,” she told him.

Greg blinked. “But I’m not hungry-”

“Just a few bites, that’s all. You look a little peaky.” Beatrice leaned back in her chair to observe him, chewing on a roll of her own.

Peaky. That was just a nice way of saying you looked terrible. Greg pouted, making sure to puff up his cheeks. He felt fine. Sure, he was a little tired and a little cold, but they were in the middle of a snowstorm after all, what did she expect? She stared him down with her own stern look, the pair of them involved in a super long staring contest. He could remember her and Wirt doing the same thing when they’d been here before. Of course, she’d been a bird then, but that made it even funnier when Wirt would fume and frown at her.

Wirt would definitely be fuming and frowning if she called him peaky. He’d sputter and flail his arms about and list all the reasons why he wasn’t peaky and that Beatrice was the one who was peaky and great, his eyes were getting all misty again. Greg blinked, both to stop the oncoming tears and to give in to Beatrice’s demands. It wasn’t worth putting up such a fuss. Plus, he liked bread.

Greg tore a huge chunk out of the roll and made a show of chewing it for Beatrice’s satisfaction. She waited patiently until he swallowed it, then turned her attention back to Virgil. Greg did as well, taking a few more bites just because he realized he should.

“So what’s the verdict, Virgil?” Beatrice asked.

He sighed through his nose. “We wait twenty minutes. If the storm does not worsen, then we will set out once more, but only if we can procure transportation of some kind,” he added when he saw his two younger companions light up. “With the snow that thick, we will not get very far on our own two legs. Gregory can barely stand as it is.”

“That’s not true!” he protested, jumping up from his seat. “Look at these legs o’ mine! I’m a regular fish out of water!” He danced around in a circle just to prove it, though afterwards he felt pretty winded. Huh. Must’ve been all that walking he’d been doing. Travelling could really tire a fella out.

“Greg, that’s not what the saying means,” Beatrice told him, amused by his antics. “But we get it. Still, I think Virgil has a point. It would be a lot easier if we could get a lift from someone. And we could cover a lot more ground.”

“And find Wirt faster!” Greg joined in. “Okay, let’s do it.”

“Simmer, boy, we still need to find someone willing to lend us their horse and cart or will take us where we need to go of their own volition,” Virgil reminded him.

“Leave that to me.” He saluted, then hurried over to the stage where the band was gathered, playing some mournful tune. “Let’s spice things up a little, huh guys?”

Greg tapped out a fast-paced beat on the stage until the musicians picked it up, then he clapped out a new one for himself. “On my way-oh, can you say-oh, I’m on my way into the woods! I’m searching high, I’m searching low, for brother o’ mine, out in the snow! He’s wandering lost, there’s beasts about, could any of you please help me out? A horse and cart could do a lot so that brother o’ mine isn’t left to rot!”

Oh, he didn’t like how that last verse came out at all, even if the rhymes were pretty good. Better think up something more uplifting, though the tavern people were clapping along to his song. He just wasn’t so sure how seriously they were taking his request.

“I love my brother, like no other, I promised to never leave him behind. So please, oh please, I’m on my knees,” he certainly did drop to his knees, hands clasped together as he looked out at his audience, “for brother o’ mine, help him and I. Everybody now!”

“On my way-oh, can you say-oh,” He stood up as he conducted, the voices of the tavern people rising with him, “I’m on my way into the woods!”

“Be strong, be smart, and know in your heart, brother o’ mine, we’ll be home soon!” Greg finished with flair, tossing Wirt’s hat into the air as he held his arms out for the big finish.

Everyone clapped, even Beatrice, Virgil, and Diana, so he took his bow, then looked out expectantly into the crowd. “Bravo, Little Pilgrim!” The Butcher called out.

“Now that’s what I call a love song,” The Tailor wept.

Greg fidgeted awkwardly in the face of the odd man’s tears. “Okay, then… um… so do any of you have something that could help us find him?”

Someone tapped him on the shoulder from behind. Greg spun around, then yelped and jumped back when he saw The Highwayman’s face was right up in his own. The man stared at him unblinkingly. Greg waited for him to say something.

“I’m The Highwayman,” he started, and Greg smacked his face with both of his hands, but then he continued. “I make ends meet, just like any man. But sometimes-” Greg perked up, lowering his hands to peer at him. The Highwayman smirked. “Sometimes I end up with a little extra.”

He led the way out to the stables, where once upon a time Fred the Horse had taken shelter. A new, non-talking horse was eating hay in the back, sheltered from the snow, complete with saddle. She was a beautiful chestnut brown color with a black mane and a big white star on her forehead. A two-wheeled, wooden cart that looked like something out of the pioneer section of Greg’s history books sat in the corner.

“Perfect!” Virgil hissed under his breath, hurrying over to inspect it. “A utility cart is just what we need. And there’s room for all of us. Would you be willing to take us in it?”

The four travelers and the dog looked to The Highwayman, but he held his hands up and shook his head. “Take it.”

“But-” Beatrice began to protest, but The Highwayman cut her off.

“I’m The Highwayman. And I make ends meet.” Was all he said, then turned to slink back into the tavern.

“Thank you!” Greg blurted out. “If I had anything to give you in return, I would, but all I have is my picture of me and my brother and our frog, and I don’t think that would help you meet any ends.”

The man looked back at him over his shoulder, said nothing as he nodded, and returned to the warmth of the tavern. Now Greg felt really bad for snapping at him earlier. Oh, it seemed every time he snapped he felt bad about it. He placed his hand over his heart and made a silent vow to never yell at anyone ever again.

It was interrupted by Virgil calling for Diana to help him hitch the horse to the cart. “Oh, beans.” Greg snapped his fingers, because that was a perfectly acceptable form of snapping, then turned to Beatrice. “I didn’t get to ask him what the horse’s name is!”

“It’s Gertrude,” Diana replied, pointing to the stitching on the horse’s saddle.

“Oh!” Greg lit up, then ran over to pet the horse’s nose. “Hello, Gertrude!”

She snorted at him, then pushed her cold nose against his cheek. He took it as a “hello” back. Flinging his arms around her neck, he gave her the biggest hug he possibly could.

“We’re going to be best friends,” he promised her.

You could never have too many best friends, he figured. He was sure Jason Funderberker and Jack wouldn’t mind. Jack seemed to think everyone was his best friend as it was anyway.

“Gregory, stop hugging the horse and help us or get out of the way,” Virgil requested.

Greg did as he asked, but took a moment to cup the horse’s face and stare into her eyes. “I love you,” he whispered seriously, then returned to Beatrice’s side with a grin. "Wait for me, Gertrude!"

She laughed at him, swatting the hat right off his head. “You’re impossible.”

“I try.” He shrugged.

Once Gertrude and the cart were prepared, Virgil’s twenty minute timeline had passed and the wind remained quiet and unassuming. Diana, Beatrice, and Greg piled into the back on the two rows of bench seats, while Virgil sat up front, taking the reins. Jack hopped up to sit beside him, tongue lolling as he panted in his excitement to get to sit. Greg could certainly sympathize.

The people of the tavern came to the doorway to bid them farewell. “Good luck finding your brother, Little Pilgirm!” The Tavern Keeper called out to him. “You’re going to need it!”

“Thank you!” Greg called back, approving of the nickname “Little Pilgrim.” He couldn’t wait to tell Wirt all about it! “Bye!”

He waved until the tavern turned into a black blot against the backdrop of the snowy woods, then settled in his seat and looked ahead. The forest was dark and ominous ahead of them, but Greg had never felt more optimistic. He pulled the photograph out his pocket and smiled at it.

“Brother o’ mine,” he sang softly, “we’ll be home soon.”

Chapter Text

“So, when is it my turn to drive?” Greg asked, hanging over Virgil’s shoulder while the man guided their cart through the woods.

“Never,” Virgil replied gruffly.

“Aw, c’mon, Virgil. You could use the rest. Besides, Gertrude misses me.” Greg held his arms out to the horse leading their cart. “Just let me drive for ten minutes.”

“No.”

“Nine minutes?” Greg negotiated.

“No.”

“Eight minutes.”

“If you aren’t sitting in eight seconds, Gregory, I will make you get out of this cart and walk the rest of the way.” The man glowered.

Greg pouted, but flopped back into his seat regardless. He didn’t feel up to testing Virgil to see if he’d make good on his threat. He was a dad, after all, he probably would. With a sigh, Greg kicked his feet back and forth, head tipped back over the edge of the cart so he could stare at the clouds. Snowflakes dropped onto his cheeks and into his eyelashes, so he opened his mouth wide to try and catch some on his tongue, too.

That got boring real fast though. While getting to ride in a cart seemed like a great idea in theory, in practice it was the most boring part of his journey yet. Besides sitting in The Fisherman’s boat. That had been way more boring only because he hadn’t had company and The Fisherman had been a stranger. These guys were his friends.

“Who wants to play a game?” Greg asked, glancing between Beatrice and Diana. “I know lots of road trip games. Wirt, Jason Funderberker, and me play them whenever we go on trips with Mom and Dad.” He started to count them off on his fingers. “There’s Twenty Questions, The License Plate Game – though Wirt and I play it by trying to find the funniest license plates instead of just doing the alphabet. And then there’s Punch Buggy, but Wirt doesn’t like that one very much because he says I punch too hard. Oh! We’re both the best at Name That Tune! That’s always fun! And the tunnel game where we hold our breath when we go through tunnels or over bridges or-”

“Why don’t we just sit quietly- or, um, keep calling out for Wirt?” Beatrice suggested.

“If we play the games me and Wirt play loud enough, then we wouldn’t have to call out for him and we’d have more fun,” Greg pointed out. “C’mon, Beatrice. Where’s your sense of adventure?”

“Oh darn, guess I forgot to pack that,” she replied dryly.

Virgil snorted out his own serious version of a laugh and Greg frowned at him. Oh, his friends were useless. Even Diana was just staring out into the woods like it was the most interesting thing in the world. It looked the same as it always did. Greg sighed and slumped even further in his seat.

“Fine. I’ll just sing then.” He crossed his arms and directed his voice at the sky. “On our way-oh, can you say-oh, we’re on our way into the woods. Virgil and Beatrice are no fun-”

“Enough with that song.” Virgil’s shoulders tensed and Greg just knew he was glaring daggers without even having to see his face.

Grinning, he continued, “They’re the worst people to bring when you road trip on. They just sit and mope, I can only hope that, brother o’ mine, I’ll find you soon!” He laughed as Beatrice gave him a playful shove.

She tried to scowl at him, but it wasn’t working very well. “Honestly, Greg. Sing something else. Please.”

“Oh, alright.” He straightened Wirt’s hat on his head, counting out the beat silently before shouting at the top of his lungs. “Oh potatoes! And molasses!”

“No!” Beatrice cringed and grabbed him, trying to cover his mouth.

He fought her off, delightedly, used to having to escape the clutches of annoyed older sibling-types. “If you want some, oh just ask us!”

“It’s bad enough that my brothers and sisters won’t stop singing it! I don’t need to hear it from you, too!”

“Shh-”

“They’re warm and soft like puppies and socks!”

“Greg!”

“Quiet-”

“Filled with cream and candy rocks!”

Quiet!” Diana hissed at them, silver eyes alight with her glare.

Beatrice and Greg froze. He was sprawled half on her lap and half on the bench seat, one hand curled around her wrist to keep her from covering his mouth while the other was smushed up against her cheek, pushing her face away. They blinked at the soft-spoken woman, even Virgil pulled on the reins to stop the cart and turned to look at her.

She turned her gaze back to the trees, and Greg realized that she hadn’t just been watching them go by. She was listening. The other three glanced around, keeping an ear out for whatever it was that Diana had heard. The woods were quiet. There was nothing to hear.

Greg relaxed as his brow furrowed. “I don’t hear any-”

Beatrice covered his mouth when a twig snapped just behind them. He immediately perked up and shoved her hand away, scrambling to stand in the center of the cart. She tried to grab him, but he was too quick and went right to the edge.

“Wirt-?” he started to call, when the leopard leapt out from the bushes with a snarl.

Before Greg fully realized what was happening, Gertrude let out a high whinny and started into a gallop. The cart jolted over the uneven path, sending Greg careening forward, right out of the cart. Beatrice and Diana lunged for him, both grabbing him before he could fall and yanked him back in.

The leopard bolted after them, the snow white fur camouflaging almost perfectly with the snow on the ground. His black eyes honed in on Greg, boring right into his very soul almost. He huddled close to Beatrice while she shouted for Virgil to go faster. He snapped the reins and tugged, trying his best to control the frantic horse as she thundered through the trees. With the cart being so large, they couldn’t attempt to shake the leopard off by hiding. Their only hope was to outrun him.

Greg hoped Gertrude could run very, very fast for a very, very long time.

The snow buffeted them once again at this speed. Jack barked from the front seat, hunkered down so that he wouldn’t go flying out as they took a sharp turn. The three in the back toppled over onto the floor of the cart, Greg squished between Diana and Beatrice. Luckily the leopard didn’t take the turn very well either and lost some traction in the snow.

Greg wiggled out from underneath them so he could sit up and see better, squinting in the snow as he watched the black spotted cat pursue them relentlessly. “You can do it, Gertrude!” he called out to the horse. “Good girl! We can lose that dumb ol’ leopard!” He stuck his tongue out at him. “You couldn’t even think up a good fake name when you were pretending to be a person!”

“Greg, don’t antagonize him!” Beatrice yelled, fumbling for one of her leather pouches.

She untied it just a little, then chucked it at the leopard. Her aim was true. It smacked him right in the face and he growled, tripping over his own paws as he tossed his head back and forth, slowing him down even further.

Gertrude put more distance between them and the leopard, her strong horse legs pounding against the wintery ground, kicking up fresh powder in the their wake as the trees and Wirt whirred by and-

Wirt.

Greg stood up and nearly flung himself over the edge as they went flying past him. “Wirt!” he screamed, reaching for him as the wind carried his voice away. It carried his hat away, too, knocking the red cone right off his head to disappear into the swirling white behind them.

It disappeared, right along with Wirt.

“Wirt.” Greg clenched his hands around the edge of the cart, splinters digging into his palms. “Wirt!”

He’d found him. He’d found him and now they were losing him, leaving him behind. They were leaving him.

“Stop!” he pleaded, scrambling to the driver’s seat to yank the reins from Virgil’s hands. “Please, stop! We have to go back!”

“Stop it! Gregory, sit down!” Virgil hollered, fighting to keep control of Gertrude.

“But Wirt’s back there!”

“I didn’t see anything-”

“I did! He’s there! We have to go back for him!” Greg snatched the reins from him and pulled. “Stop, Gertrude! We have to stop!”

“Gregory, no!” Virgil roared, grabbing for them and failing as Gertrude reared up and turned violently, swinging the cart, nearly toppling it on its side.

He immediately let go of the reins as he fell back into the cart, Gertrude’s sharp cry painful to hear. The cart wobbled precariously, slipping on the icy ground.

“Greg!”

He felt Beatrice pull him into her arms, holding him tight as she pushed them both to the floor of the cart. Greg buried his face against her neck as he held on tightly, his heart pounding, ears ringing, they were falling over, he was falling-

A scream shattered through the air. Greg and Beatrice looked up. Diana was gone.

Virgil regained control of Gertrude and the cart miraculously righted itself. Beatrice and Greg scrambled to sit up. Sprawled in the snow behind them, Diana lifted her head to watch as they sped away, unable to get to her feet. Then the leopard was upon her.

Beatrice clapped her hand over Greg’s eyes before he could see anything else, but the damage had been done. Diana, prone in the snow. The leopard, leaping for her. All the while Gertrude continued her mad rampage away from the leopard, away from Wirt, and now away from Diana.

He could feel Beatrice press her face against his hair, unable to let herself look. There was a whimper at his side. Jack had leapt into the back with them and was huddling against the bench seats. Virgil fumbled with the reins with calls of “steady, girl!” to try and calm Gertrude.

Greg could still hear it though. The scream. Diana had screamed, and then she was gone.

“Is everyone alright?” Virgil asked them.

Beatrice clutched Greg tighter, but lowered her hand from his eyes. All he could see was the swirling white and the trees they left behind them. Beside him, Beatrice trembled, but she managed to find her voice quickly.

“Diana’s gone,” she told him, steady and firm.

“What?” He almost craned his neck back to look at them, but his focus was still on easing the horse’s nerves. “What do you-? Hang on-! Is it still behind us?”

“No.”

“Whoa, girl. Easy does it,” he told Gertrude.

It took a minute, but she eventually calmed down enough to slow her gait. They rolled to a stop in the middle of the woods. The air around them silent. Greg felt the cart shift when Virgil hopped down from his seat, then again when Beatrice got out after him, but he didn’t move. Diana was gone.

“What happened?” Virgil demanded, swiveling about as he searched for the woman they’d lost.

“She fell out,” Beatrice replied stiffly. “I don’t know- I didn’t know she’d fallen out until it was… it was too late.” She looked at Virgil with glassy, red-rimmed eyes. “The leopard...”

“No.” Virgil shook his head, his weathered face whitening as he stared at her, then turned to holler, “Diana!”

Beatrice clenched her fists at her side, debating something a moment before hiking up her skirt and following the man’s lead. “Diana!” she called out. “Diana, answer us!”

But she couldn’t. She couldn’t because a leopard ate her. Greg’s hands shook and he didn’t know how to stop it. Petting Jack didn’t even help.

“We cannot linger here,” Virgil bemoaned, eyeing their surroundings. “How far back did she fall?”

“It was when we almost tipped over,” Beatrice replied.

Because of him. He’d pulled on the reins too hard and made Gertrude go the wrong way. He made the cart slip which made Diana fall out. It was his fault.
But… but he just wanted to see his brother again.

Greg choked on the cold air trapped in his throat. He couldn’t breathe. His stomach and chest were too tight because it was his fault that Diana fell out and got eaten by the leopard. This time it really was. No one could say that it was an accident. He hadn’t accidentally yanked on Gertrude’s reins. He’d done it on purpose.

It was all his fault.

Vaguely he heard Beatrice call for Jack, then sent him back a ways to look for her, but Greg could tell by the slump of her shoulders and the way Virgil held his head that they knew it would do no good.

Jack came back alone.

“What should we do?” Beatrice asked.

Virgil turned away from her, the brim of his hat hiding his eyes as he headed back to the driver’s seat. “We must press on.”

“What if she got away?” Hope fluttered in Beatrice’s voice. “What if she got away and she’s hiding? We can’t just leave her here-”

“She is lost to us!” he bellowed, and Greg could see there were tears in the man’s eyes. “We cannot waste time searching for something that cannot be found! There will be nothing left of her. Not even the Edelwood will be able to take root in her remains!”

He and Beatrice glared at each other, shoulders set and stances firm. They didn’t dare look away from the other, not even while Greg shakily got to his feet and slid out of the cart. They didn’t notice when his knees almost gave out in the snow as he stumbled in the direction they’d just came from.

He was so sorry. So sorry, but he couldn’t think about it. He couldn’t let himself think about it right now because Wirt was back there and the least he could do was get to him so that none of this was a waste. He needed to get to him. He needed one of Wirt’s hugs that made him feel like nothing else mattered in the whole world and he needed it to be tight and warm because he was so cold. So cold.

He hadn’t been this cold since-

“…Greg..!”

There he was. He was calling for him. His brother’s voice was far away, but he could get to him. He could get to him if he set his mind to it.

Greg opened his mouth to shout back to him, but nothing came out. His throat was all dried up. Chest hitching, he tugged Wirt’s coat around him tighter. He’d lost Wirt’s hat. It flew right off his head and he’d lost it. Oh, Wirt was going to be so mad. He always got mad when he lost his stuff.

“Greg..!”

Something tripped him and he went sprawling into the snow. For one horrifying moment he felt the root of an Edelwood tree curl around his ankles. Greg screamed. His voice echoed off the trees and right back to Beatrice and Virgil. He kicked and kicked his feet loose, only to realize that it was just the cape. It was just Wirt’s cape coat that he’d tripped on.

His breaths were still harsh and fast, panicked even when Beatrice wrapped her arms around him and cradled him close. “Oh, Greg. Shh, it’s alright. It’s going to be alright,” she murmured to him, then to Virgil she said, “Help me with him.”

The pair of them got him to his feet, then Virgil lifted him into his arms. “No,” Greg protested weakly as they walked back to the cart. “No, Wirt-”

“Sit down a minute and get your breath back,” he told him, setting him on the bench seat. “It’ll do no one any good to work yourself up like this.”

“But it’s my fault. This is all my fault!” Greg hiccupped, pitching forward. “If I hadn’t-!”

“The leopard’s coming back,” Beatrice interrupted, jumping into the driver’s seat. “He found us.”

Without missing a beat, Virgil and Jack climbed into the back of the cart as it took off once again. Despair filled Greg’s eyes as he watched the distance between him and his brother grow wider with each of Gertrude’s gallops. He couldn’t hear him calling for him anymore.

-0-

By the time they’d finally shaken the leopard from their tail, night had fallen and they were no closer to circling back to find Wirt. Beatrice said she believed him when he told her that he’d been there, that he’d seen him, heard him, but he was starting to wonder if she was only saying that so he wouldn’t start crying or freak out again.

If Beatrice really believed that he’d seen Wirt, then they would’ve gone back for him already.

No songs were sung on this leg of the journey. Greg constantly shifted his gaze from watching the trees to watching the place where Diana had been sitting. He tried not to, because he was pretty sure pieces of his heart were breaking off every time he did, but he couldn’t help it. Sure, he hadn’t known her that well, but she’d been nice to him. She listened to him when he talked and had been a nice buffer between him and grumpy ol’ Virgil before they’d arrived at Beatrice’s. He’d even started to feel bad for being so weirded out by her when he first met her back in the house under the hill.

Wrapped up in Wirt’s cape, as well as Virgil’s coat that he’d relinquished to help him through the shock, Greg curled up into as small a ball as he could manage and placed his chin on his knees. When Wirt freaked out or needed to be calmed down, he’d sit like this and sometimes Greg would sit with him so his back was pressed to Wirt’s. He knew how much it made him feel better, even if it wasn’t all that fun to sit still for so long.

Greg wondered how it made him feel better and wished his brother was there to sit against his back so he could find out. With a heavy sigh, he hugged his knees tighter and tried not to shiver as the snow fell faster and heavier, the wind whistling above them. Jack whined softly and nosed his side, but Greg was determined to stay in his ball.

“We should find a place to rest for the night,” Virgil spoke up quietly, hesitant to break the silence that had been present ever since they lost the leopard. The silence had taken the place of the fourth member of their party.

“Right,” Beatrice breathed, and Greg peeked up at her to watch it cloud in the cold. “I’m sorry you have to spend another night away from home-”

“It is what it is,” he sighed. “At the moment, I am not particularly keen on returning home as… a bearer of unfortunate news.”

Beatrice nodded in understanding, while Greg shuddered as he recalled Camilla’s gap-toothed grin and Val’s smug expression. They must have been close with their nanny, he imagined. She lived with them, after all.

“Perhaps I’ll tell them she’s gone on one of her trips,” Virgil mused.

Greg picked at the fraying threads of the man’s coat. Lying to them wouldn’t do any good in the end, but who was he to tell Virgil what to do about his own kids? After all, he was the reason their nanny wouldn’t come home again.

“I see smoke up ahead,” Beatrice piped up, hurrying Gertrude along. Their poor horse friend must’ve been exhausted, Greg realized. “I think it’s coming from a chimney.”

“With any luck, it will be an inn, or at least someplace large enough to afford us some shelter.” Virgil sat up straighter to get a better look at the smoke curling up towards the clouds.

They came to a clearing. Wide, white, empty space stretched out in front of them. The only thing breaking the vastness of it was a little wooden cottage of sorts with a nice, big porch. A few small trees framed the house. Out in front, there was a larger tree stump with an axe embedded in it. There was a well, too. Greg wondered if it was a wishing well.

Lights flickered in the windows, warm and inviting. Beatrice drove Gertrude up to the front gate and eased her to a stop. She whinnied lowly, so Greg stroked her side once he clambered out of the cart after Beatrice and Virgil.

“I’m sorry I pulled on your reins so hard,” he told her quietly. “I’ll never do that again, I promise. Are we still best friends?”

She snorted and tossed her head, but her big brown eyes told him all was forgiven. At least there was that. Greg smiled a little and gave her a tight hug. His attention was torn away from her when the door to the cottage opened, casting a long, yellow light over the pale ground.

“Who’s there?” a gruff voice called out, one that Greg recalled quite quickly.

The Woodsman stood silhouetted in the doorway, peering out at the strangers who’d come across his home. The memories of him were fleeting, but he knew that voice and he knew the hat atop his head. Greg ducked behind Beatrice, peering at him from around her.

With a happy bark, Jack bounded up to him, tail wagging in earnest as he sniffed and circled The Woodsman. Startled, the man took a step back, but recognition took over and he held out his hand to the dog. Jack shoved his head into his palm for a good petting.

“Well, hello there. Didn’t think I’d be seeing you again, did I?” The Woodsman murmured.

“Father? Who is it?” A girl that Greg had never seen before came up from behind him, a candle in her hand as she took a peek at them over his shoulder.

Her eyes immediately fell upon Greg. Her face was kind and soft, welcoming as she smiled for him. He tried to smile back, and he hoped that it worked. Just because he was feeling a bit out of sorts didn’t mean that he had to show that sadness to anyone else.

“We’re travelers in need of some shelter for the night, if you would be so kind to provide it.” Virgil stepped forward when The Woodsman’s attention drifted from the dog to them. “Or at least let us wait for morning on your porch? We have a child with us that shouldn’t be out in the cold for very long.”

Virgil gestured for Greg to step out and show himself, so he did. He wondered if The Woodsman recognized him, too. If he did, he didn’t let anyone else know. He exchanged glances with the girl behind him. She nodded, still smiling.

“We have room, Father. I’ll fetch the extra blankets,” she offered, waiting until he bowed his head, then kissed his cheek and disappeared back into the house.

Out of her line of sight, The Woodsman’s face hardened a little. “Well, you heard my daughter. You’re all welcome to come in. Even you, dog.”

Jack was the first one to slip inside as Beatrice helped Greg up the porch steps. Closer to The Woodsman now, Greg took in his features. Vaguely, he remembered the man’s hands hovering over him, carefully breaking his branches for him as he got colder and colder. He shivered and The Woodsman softened once again.

“Come along, boy. Let’s get you warmed up.” The Woodsman ushered him and Beatrice inside before going out to assist Virgil in tying up Gertrude under the cover of the porch. “Make yourselves comfortable.”

“Thank you very much,” Beatrice replied, leading Greg up to where The Woodsman’s fire crackled and breathed light and warmth into the cozy space. “Here, Greg.”

“I’m not that cold. I’m fine,” he told her, but let her strip him of Virgil’s coat and rub feeling back into his fingers.

“I can make some tea for you, if you’d like?” The Woodsman’s daughter had returned, several thick blankets in her arms.

She placed the pile of them on a stool, then took one and used it to wipe the dampness from Greg’s hair. The care and mothering only reminded him of the nanny who’d been thrown from their cart and the brother he’d left behind, so he yanked his hands out from Beatrice’s grasp and ducked away from both girls. He glared at the floor, counting the whorls and cracks in the wood.

“I’m fine,” he mumbled.

Beatrice frowned at him, he could feel it, but she simply turned to the girl. “Thank you. Some tea would be great. Say thank you, Greg.”

Greg bristled. “I don’t have to say anything.”

“She’s offering you warmth and something to drink, the least you can do is say thank you, now go on,” Beatrice demanded.

“No! You can't tell me what to do! You’re not the boss of me!” he replied, even though that was the last thing he wanted to say to Beatrice. Oh, jeez, what was wrong with him?

Sure he was upset that she wouldn’t turn back for Wirt, but that didn’t mean that he wanted to be mean to her. She was trying to help him, after all. Him and Wirt. And that was a rock fact.

“I’m sorry,” Greg told her, his eyes weary as he met her gaze. “I didn’t mean to say that.”

Beatrice relaxed, her stern look dissipating slightly. She still didn’t look too happy with him, but at least she ruffled his hair. She couldn’t help being an older sister just as much as Greg couldn’t help being a younger brother.

“I think you meant it a little, but it’s fine. I get it.” She placed her hands at the small of her back and leaned from side to side, easing out the kinks from driving Gertrude for so long. “I forget sometimes that you’re used to doing your own thing.”

He wasn’t. Not at all. Well, in some ways yeah, but not in the ways that mattered. He wiped his nose with the corner of Wirt’s cape, the heat from the fire making his ice cold nose run a little. Shaking his head, Greg stared at her sadly.

“I just want Wirt back.”

Beatrice looked at him for a long time, her hands rubbing at her neck now. “He really stepped up, didn’t he?” she murmured.

“What do you mean?” he asked.

“Well, I mean, I wouldn’t have exactly called him brother of the year when I first met you guys,” she replied with a slight shrug. “It’s nice to know that after everything the two of you went through he’s not still like that.”

Greg looked away from her. Wirt already beat himself up enough over something he really couldn’t remember, he didn’t want to hear about it from anyone else. Whatever happened in the past was in the past. Of course, that sentiment meant that all their fun time together was in the past as well, forever changed by the fact that his brother didn’t live with him anymore. Maybe Wirt putting him first was in the past now, too.

He needed to find his brother fast and find out.

The front door opened, Virgil and The Woodsman stomping through it, covered in snow. “It’s coming down harder now. It’s good you found us when you did,” the latter told them as he shook the snow from his hat.

“We appreciate you welcoming us into your home. Ah, thank you,” Virgil murmured as The Woodsman’s daughter handed him a steaming mug, then brought two more for Beatrice and Greg.

Personally Greg didn’t like tea. He’d gone through a phase about a year ago where he wanted to drink it since Wirt did, but despite all the different brands of tea his brother had gone through to try and find something Greg would like, it all tasted like hot water and sugar. Not that hot sugar water wasn’t tasty, it just didn’t make sense for him to drink that when he could have hot chocolate or a glass of juice instead.

Still, the cup warmed his hands nicely and it felt good to hold it right under his chin and breathe in the leafy smell. If Wirt drank enough tea, he’d start to smell like the spiced leaves himself. Greg inhaled deeply, filling his chest with the warmth. Tea always calmed Wirt down when he was stressed, maybe it could calm him down, too.

The image of his brother on the side of the forest path flashed in his mind. It was so fleeting, but he knew that messy hair anywhere. He almost blended in with the snow. His shirt was white and his pants a gray blur. Greg imagined he must’ve been wearing his suspenders as well, though he hadn’t noticed them at the time. They’d flown past him so quickly. All he knew in his heart of hearts was that it had definitely been Wirt and he’d definitely been without a sweater.

Greg fingered the hem of Wirt’s cape. He’d have to give it to him when he found him so he could keep warm. His hat, too-

His hand went to the top of his head, heart sinking as he recalled watching the blur of red rip away from him into the snow. Wirt loved that hat. He loved that hat.

A hand waved in front of his face. Beatrice was frowning at him with concern. He smiled weakly at her.

“Did you know it takes more muscles to frown than it does to smile? That’s a rock fact,” he told her.

She completely ignored his fascinating rock fact. “I think you should get some sleep, Greg. It’s been… well, it’s been a rough day.”

“Okay.” He didn’t want to put up a fight.

And it wasn’t like they’d be going back out to find Wirt until the morning anyway.

“We have a spare bedroom in the back,” The Woodsman’s daughter piped up, then reached for Greg’s hand. “Come, I can show you.”

He let her take it, allowing her to lead him away from Virgil and Beatrice. He glanced back at them over his shoulder, both of their gazes on him. Both were unreadable.

Unlike Beatrice’s house, The Woodsman’s was a one-story. There was one bathroom and three bedrooms from what he could see as the daughter took him to the smallest one. It had one bed, but it was a pretty big bed. Big enough for two. He could probably share it with Beatrice if she didn’t mind.

“There are some spare shirts in the dresser if you’d like to change into something fresh. They’re mine and Father’s, so they’ll be a bit big, but perfectly fine for sleeping,” she offered, pointing to the wooden chest in the far corner of the room. “Let me know if you need anything. I’ll be in the sitting room for a while longer, and my room is the next door over.”

“Thank you.” Greg stood in the middle of the room and waited for her to leave.

Once he was alone, he stared down into his teacup. The water was cooling rapidly. It wasn’t as warm in this room as it was by the fireplace. Greg set his cup on the nightstand beside the bed, then climbed onto it. Oh, it had been a while since he’d gotten to sleep on an actual bed. The only problem was he wasn’t tired.

Well, that wasn’t entirely true. Greg did feel tired, but it wasn’t the kind of tired that would let him sleep. He flopped backwards onto the bed, arms spread out and shoes still on as he stared at the wooden ceiling above him. It was dark in this room, no candles or lanterns lit in here. Some light trickled in from the crack in the bedroom door, but it wasn’t a lot. Greg sat up. He needed more light.

Hopping off the bed, Greg crossed the room and opened the door a bit wider, until a large rectangle of light stretched across the floor like a rug. That was better. He started back towards the bed, but a sharp, sudden shiver had him eyeing the amount of blankets on it. Maybe he’d go swipe one of the ones The Woodsman’s daughter brought into the sitting room.

Wandering back down the hall, he froze right before he turned the corner to rejoin them as The Woodsman’s hushed voice reached him. “How did that boy get here?”

“He’s looking for his brother,” Beatrice answered just as quietly. “Wirt. You met him, too. He was the dork in the red hat.”

“Both of them have returned? So soon?” The Woodsman inquired, then heaved a hefty sigh. “Those boys seem to have a taste for bad luck.”

“Tell me about it,” Beatrice mumbled.

Greg snorted. Well, he happened to think he and Wirt were very lucky. Sort of. Shaking his head, he started to turn the corner, but then The Woodsman continued to talk about them. Curiosity strong, Greg lingered to listen.

“Do you have any idea where the boy could be?”

“Greg says he saw him a while back, but I didn’t see anything,” Beatrice replied.

“Well did you check?” The Woodsman pressed.

Greg heard someone fidget, the scrape of a wooden chair against the floor, then it was Virgil who took over speaking. “At the time we were being pursued by the leopard. We were unable to turn back to see if Gregory’s brother really was there or not.”

“The leopard?” The Woodsman hissed. “So you left the older boy to him?”

“No,” Beatrice told him firmly. “The leopard only chased us. If Wirt was there, then he didn’t go after him.”

But he was out there now. Both of them. His brother and the leopard. And the lion. Greg hugged himself and leaned against the wall, biting hard on his lower lip as he listened to them continue.

“What’s your plan, then?”

“Well, I need to return home to my family as soon as possible. I’ve been gone for too long already, my wife and children need me,” Virgil answered. “But I want to see Gregory home safely first. That has become a priority.”

“Yeah. We’re taking him home first thing in the morning,” Beatrice added.

Greg’s heart stopped and he held his breath for a moment. He… He’d heard wrong. Yes, that had to be it. He’d just heard wrong because he couldn’t go home. Not yet. Beatrice knew that. She knew that better than anyone.

“What about his brother?” The Woodsman’s daughter, who had been silent up until this point, asked.

“I’m going to go back and look for Wirt on my own,” Beatrice explained quietly. “Greg won’t last much longer like this, so I need to make sure he gets home. If he really did see Wirt earlier today, then that must mean he’s alright enough to travel on his own still. I’m going to check there after I send Greg back.”

“And you think he’ll let you?”

“No. He won’t. That’s why we haven’t told him.”

Greg backed away, fists clenched tightly at his sides. She lied. Beatrice lied to him.

“But- I thought we were… friends…”

He clamped his hands over his ears. The vague memory of his brother’s voice echoed as he recalled being tied up in some kind of yarn, not understanding why Wirt was so upset. They’d found Adelaide. Their parade was over. But Wirt wasn’t happy. Wirt felt betrayed.

Beatrice had betrayed them?

Whenever they thought back on their times with their bluebird friend, it was always with fondness and little bit of sadness that they probably wouldn’t get to see her again. Wirt never said anything about betrayal.

And now she was doing it again. She betrayed him – them both – again. Greg ran back to his room and closed the door. Muffling a frustrated shout with his hands, he paced the room. Greg bumped into the corner of the nightstand, then kicked it hard enough so the mug on top wobbled dangerously. He picked it up and chucked it against the wall so it shattered, spilling cold tea onto the floor. Tears blurred his vision as he glared at the broken shards.

He wasn’t going home. They couldn’t make him.

-0-

He waited until the house was asleep. Greg kept his eyes closed and stayed very still when Beatrice came in to check on him, then continued to do so as she settled on the bed to sleep beside him. Virgil remained in the sitting room with Jack, he could hear him fidgeting around in there until all the candles were blown out and The Woodsman and his daughter closed their bedroom doors.

Greg waited.

And waited.

Then he left.

There was a window in the hall beside the spare room. He stood on his tiptoes and nudged it open. It was hard work, climbing out a window, but he didn’t want to risk sneaking past Virgil in order to go out the front door. Greg swung one leg over the edge, then the other and dropped down into the snow. It was a far fall, since the porch didn’t reach this part of the house, but he dusted himself off and quietly crept around into the front yard.

The snowfall had stopped for the time being, the clouds above moving quickly. Patches of the night sky sparkled through the gaps, including the almost-full moon. He stared at it as he treaded lightly.

A snort startled him. It was only Gertrude. She watched him with her big brown eyes, the white star on her forehead shining in the moonlight. Greg sighed with relief, then went to pet her. He stroked from the star to the tip of her nose, smiling when she nuzzled his palm.

“I’m sorry I have to leave you, Gertrude,” he whispered. “But we’re still best friends, okay? You’ve gotta take care of Beatrice and Virgil. I know they lied to me, but… but they’re still my friends, too. Get them home safe, okay?” She snorted again and Greg pressed a kiss to her face. “I’ll miss you. Goodbye.”

He sniffled as he trudged through the snow away from her. He looked back over his shoulder every few minutes, watching the horse and the house grow smaller and smaller in the distance until the trees covered it up. As if there hadn’t even been a house there in the first place. Taking a deep breath, Greg adjusted Wirt’s cape around him and continued on into the night.

Chapter Text

When dawn broke – he never did get why dawn had to break, it wasn’t like the sky shattered when the sun came up in the morning – Greg couldn’t even feel the cold anymore. He knew that probably wasn’t a good thing, but at least it didn’t remind him of the time he’d nearly turned into a tree. He’d been cold the entire time then.

Logically speaking, he should’ve been cold the entire time now, too. His sneakers and pants weren’t meant for the snow, but since he couldn’t feel the cold, it hardly even bothered him. Sometimes the snow came all the way up to his knees and he had to pretend to be a snow plow to push through it, but for the most part he could handle it.

Greg sang to keep his spirits up. “On my way, oh, can you say, oh, I’m on my way into the woods…”

He’d been walking through the woods for so long now.

He wasn’t even sure if he was going the right way anymore, but he told himself he was anyway.

To the best of his recollection, Greg had started in the direction he was pretty sure they’d traveled from the day and night before. He was heading back to where he’d seen Wirt, his biggest clue yet. Of course, that meant he was also heading back in the direction of the leopard, as well as… well, where they’d lost Diana. Greg shivered, but not from the cold.

“Be strong, be smart, and know in your heart…” Greg squinted over the trees at the rising sun poking through the clouds. “We’ll be home soon,” he promised.

He kept his singing quiet. While it was still his beacon for Wirt, he didn’t want it to be a beacon for the leopard or the lion to use to find him as well. Besides, Wirt had to know he was nearby and coming for him. Unless he was already doubting him. Unless he was already too lost-

“Don’t think like that,” Greg told himself firmly. “Wirt’s gonna be fine. I promised, after all. I promised I’d make sure he wouldn’t get too lost. And a promise is a promise. Wirt kept his, so I gotta keep mine.”

He just had to.

As the sun rose higher in the sky, the snow around him became almost unbearably bright and white. Greg squinted, trying to shield his eyes with his hands when the trees couldn’t provide him enough shade. Each time he came to a clearing, his heart would jump as vast, white spaces stretched out before him. No protection. No sign of anyone. He was reminded of just how very alone he was every time he had to shuffle through a clearing. He was also reminded of how very not alone he could be, and not in a good way. With everything so bright and hard to see, he couldn’t exactly keep a look out for the leopard. His white fur could easily blend in with the snow.

With morning upon him, he started covering his tracks, worried that when Beatrice and Virgil woke up the first thing they’d do would be to look for him. He knew they’d be worried themselves, at least Beatrice would be, but he couldn’t let them make him go home. They had to understand that. He was okay. He was strong enough. He wasn’t afraid of getting lost for good.

Because he wasn’t lost. He knew exactly where he was going.

“Wirt,” he called out, too tired to sing anymore. His voice was all scratchy. “Wirt?”

Greg stopped to rest in the shade of a tree, blinking the spots out of his vision. Despite the sun blinding him with the snow, he was very glad that the storm seemed to pass. He could see most of the sky today, the blue peeking through big, fluffy clouds. If the sun was out, maybe it meant that today would be a good day. He could really use a good day.

Taking the photograph from his pocket, Greg managed a small smile as he looked at it. “Today seems like a good day to find each other, doesn’t it, Wirt? It’s a bright, new day. Really bright.”

“Greg?”

He blinked, eyes widening as he stared at the picture. “Whoa. I didn’t know pictures could talk.”

“Greg? Greg, is that you?”

It wasn’t coming from the picture. Greg scrambled to his feet, tripping over the hem of Wirt’s cape coat as he spun in a dizzying circle. Where was his voice coming from? Which direction?

“Wirt?” Oh that wouldn’t do any good, he could shout better than that. “Wirt!”

“Oh my gosh.” Greg could hear his brother’s relief echo in the trees. “Greg! Greg, where are you?”

Greg’s heart swelled. Every trace of fatigue fled as he turned and ran. It was a bright, new day and his brother was calling for him.

“Wirt!” Greg’s face lit up as he sprinted in the direction of his voice. “Wirt! Over here! I’m over here!”

“Where? I don’t see you!” There. He was right on the other side of those trees.

Grinning, he burst out from behind them, ready to leap right into one of Wirt’s hugs. “Wirt, I’m-!”

Greg!”

Greg nearly plunged right down into a rocky ravine. He skidded to a halt, then fell flat on his back inches from the edge. Okay, so maybe he wasn’t ready to leap right into one of Wirt’s hugs just yet.

“Are you okay?” Wirt asked and Greg had never sat up faster.

In front of him, across the ravine, was Wirt. It was Wirt. He found him. Greg could’ve cried right then and there, but he was too busy smiling as if this was the most important smile of his life.

“Yeah!” he exclaimed breathlessly. “Yeah, I’m better than okay!” His stupid big brother grinned right back at him, with his stupid red hat- “Your hat!” Greg laughed, scrambling to his feet. “You found it!”

“More like it found me.” Wirt couldn’t help but join in his mirth, his own slightly hysterical laughter crossing the gap in the ground. Greg didn’t even care that it sounded a bit panicked. It was Wirt. It was Wirt’s laugh.

“I knew I’d find you,” Greg told him. “I knew it.”

“You did. Oh boy, you definitely, definitely did.” Wirt raked his fingers through his hair, disturbing his hat a little as he shook his head and Greg was seized with the sudden urge to hug him and never let go.

Their distance suddenly punched him in the gut. Hard. “What is this thing?” he asked, pointing to the gap between them.

“I don’t know.” Wirt scanned the ravine, rubbing his arms through his thin shirtsleeves. Greg was right, the button-front shirt, suspenders, and pants may have been classic Wirt, but they were doing very little to keep him warm. “It’s too steep for either of us to try and cross here. Even if we made it down in one piece, there’s no way we could climb back up and I don’t think we want to go down there.”

Both of them peered down at the sharp rocks littering the bottom.

“Can you jump across?” Greg asked, hoping that maybe Wirt had become a pole-vaulter while he was away at school. A pole-vaulter could make the jump easy.

Wirt looked as if he was actually considering it. “I… I don’t think so, Greg.”

“Well, we can do anything if we set our minds to it,” Greg reminded him, trying to stay cheerful, but with every passing second it felt as if he hadn’t really found his brother at all. Like he was still worlds away from him. Like this was no different from when he was away at school.

“Yeah.” Wirt nodded, looking all around him for something that could help him get across.

Greg did the same on his side, but there weren’t even any fallen branches that he could string together to build a bridge. Never mind that he didn’t have any string, that was a minor detail. Wirt didn’t seem to have anything on his side either, nothing except for a couple of rocks.

He tugged the cape coat around him tightly. “What do we do, Wirt?”

“It’s okay, Greg,” Wirt attempted to soothe him, but he sounded just as upset over their predicament as he was, if not more so. “I’m sure there’s a way across somewhere. I mean, this thing can’t stretch across the entire Unknown can it? I-I’m sure there’s- there’s gotta be a place where our sides meet up. We were on the same side before, weren’t we?”

“Yeah.” Greg nodded, smiling shakily. “Yeah, we were.”

“Yeah.” Wirt relaxed a little, then scratched at his head. “Okay. Plan. Um.”

“We should walk in the same direction,” Greg piped up. “Splitting up never works out.”

Wirt snorted. “Yeah. No, we’re definitely not splitting up. I swear, I’m not letting you out my sight for a second.” He pointed at him, trying to look stern, but it was hard when he was clearly so happy to see him. “I mean it, Greg.”

“I’m not letting you out of my sight either, Wirt,” he replied. “So we’ll look together! Then we can go home!”

“Yeah, we-” Wirt’s sentence got caught in his throat as his eyes widened, pupils dilating in that way they did when he panicked. “Greg! Get down!”

“Wha-?” he started to ask, then dropped to the ground as a roar sounded behind him.

A large paw swiped at the air where he’d been standing. Without waiting a beat, Greg scrambled to his feet, picked a direction, and ran along the edge of the ravine. He looked out across it. Wirt was running, too.

“Is that a lion?” Wirt cried out, shock and disbelief bleeding through his panic.

“Yeah! It’s a long story!” Greg answered, adrenaline giving him the energy to keep running. “You haven’t been chased by any lions or leopards?”

Wirt turned an ashy gray color. “No!”

Well, that was good at least. “How about a wolf?”

“Greg, focus on running, please! It’s right behind you!”

He glanced back over his shoulder. The lion thundered after him as black saliva dripped from his teeth, staining the snow. Ready to eat his soul, or whatever it was Virgil said they did. Oh, he’d really had enough of this running around and around and around. He just found Wirt. He wasn’t going to let a lion eat his soul when he’d finally found him.

He just wanted to be with his brother.

“Go away!” he shouted at him. “Leave me alone!”

The lion bellowed in response, his roar shaking the snow from the trees. Greg’s legs felt heavy, his chest too hollow, like he couldn’t get enough air. He looked to Wirt again. His brother matched his pace, though his gaze was trained on the lion in horror. Clearly he hadn’t seen anything like it before, which probably crossed the wolf off the list, too. Again, good. Greg glanced behind him. The lion was gaining on him.

Up ahead, the gap separating him from Wirt only seemed to widen. “No,” he breathed, watching it carefully as he ran and ran, but it was. Ever so slightly, the ravine opened up more. He picked the wrong direction.

He lifted his gaze, hoping to meet Wirt’s, but his brother was looking between the lion and the chasm. He was drawing the same conclusion. And he wasn’t taking it nearly as well. Wirt stumbled over himself, scrambling to match Greg’s pace again, but he didn’t have a crazy, demon lion spurring him to go faster.

Greg refused to look away from him though, in case he’d blink and lose him again. Wirt must’ve been able to tell, because Greg could see the exact moment he shoved his own fear aside as he called out to him. “I’m here, Greg! Don’t be scared!”

Wirt’s voice cracked, his brother obviously terrified, but it worked. Greg wasn’t scared. “I’m not-!”

He tripped on the hem of Wirt’s cape coat and went sprawling in the snow. With his brother’s startled shout ringing in his ears, Greg just managed to roll out of the way so the lion overshot him. Panting, Greg sat up, then glanced between the lion and Wirt. He couldn’t keep running, but there was nowhere to hide along the edge of the ravine. He looked over his shoulder, back to the dense forest.

“Greg, go.”

Tears welled up in his eyes as Wirt told him exactly what he was thinking. “But I don’t-!”

The lion roared, turning around to start after him again. Greg stumbled to his feet. He was ready to run, if he had to, but he didn’t want to have to run. Not back into the woods. Not alone.

“Greg, you’ll have a better chance of getting away from that thing in the trees! So go! Now!” Wirt shouted at him.

He shook his head. “I just found you! I don’t want to lose you again!”

“You won’t!”

Greg took in a shaky breath, holding the tears at bay as he blinked at his brother. This was absolutely the last thing that Wirt wanted, he could tell, but what other choice did they have? The lion roared again, ready to pounce, and Greg flinched.

“You won’t lose me, Greg. I promise. I’ll find a way across and then I’ll find you!” Wirt’s eyes suddenly lit up and he reached into his pocket for something. “And that’s a rock fact!”

His rock facts rock. Wirt had it with him. Greg couldn’t help but smile a little. Wirt’s rock facts were one hundred percent true. He took another deep breath, more sure of himself this time and nodded.

“Be strong, be smart, and know in your heart, we’ll be home soon!” Greg told him, shouting his song’s lyrics across the ravine before turning on his heel.

As he fled into the woods, each step heavier than the last the farther he got away from Wirt, he wished he’d thought to tell his brother he loved him.

Zig-zagging through the trees, Greg tried to find a small place to hide. He didn’t want to risk climbing into the trees again. Beatrice wasn’t here to save him this time- oh! But he did have the magic salt pouch she’d given him earlier. He pulled it out of his pocket, then chucked it right over his shoulder. Greg darted behind a tree, then checked to see if it had done anything. The lion had been startled by it for a moment, then resumed stalking the forest. Maybe he was supposed to open the pouch a little bit first. Right, Beatrice had done that before throwing one at the leopard. At least the lion hadn’t noticed what tree he’d hid behind.

Quiet, as stealthy as he’d be when sneaking out into the living room to watch TV after his parents went to sleep, he crept over to where the leather pouch had fallen and opened it up just a little- “Ow!”

The pouch fell to the ground. Greg stared at his hand. A small, red welt appeared on his index finger, stretching towards his wrist. He’d only touched some of the salt inside. How had it burned him?

A snarl brought him back to the present moment. The lion had heard his little outburst. Greg bolted away from him, abandoning the leather pouch in his haste to run. Even though zig-zagging was a good plan in theory, he was getting even more turned around than ever among all the trees. He had to pay more attention to where he was going, or else how would Wirt find him if he didn’t even know where he was himself?

The bushes ahead of him rustled, so Greg stopped, preparing to run a different way should the leopard appear from beyond them. It wasn’t the leopard. It wasn’t particularly reassuring, but at least it wasn’t the leopard.

The gray wolf stared at him. Her ears twitched to attention, but she didn’t look like a monster ready to pounce or gobble him up. Greg whimpered just the same, backing away from her. They both turned as they heard the lion’s rampage closing in on them. The wolf flicked her tail, then captured Greg’s gaze with a toss of her head. She turned her back on him and started walking, then looked at him over her shoulder. Waiting.

“You want me to follow you?” he asked her.

He could’ve sworn she nodded.

Well, this was certainly a predicament. Stay and get eaten by the monster that’s been chasing him from the very beginning, or go with the monster that’s supposedly the worst of them all but hadn’t tried to eat him once.

The lion bellowed for him once more and Greg jumped, not wasting another second before following the wolf.

She weaved between the trees, easily and briskly. He struggled to keep up and somehow managed not to lose sight of her. She’d wait for him, every now and then, before guiding him once more. More and more trees surrounded them. Greg couldn’t help but notice that the further they went, the less leaves they had.

Finally, the wolf stopped at a hollowed out tree. Greg looked it over. Every single branch on it was bare. He hesitated, but the lion was still after them and a hiding place was a hiding place after all. He climbed inside and hunkered down. The wolf didn’t follow him in, instead she dragged snow-covered brush over to the opening, camouflaging it.
Then she left.

He almost called for her to come back, but he could hear the lion’s heavy breathing, so he kept his lips shut tight. Greg shivered tucking his arms and legs inside Wirt’s cape. The lion searched for him, pawing at the trees and snow, growling and hissing under his breath. Greg didn’t make a sound.

The lion approached his tree. Greg closed his eyes and pressed his back against the trunk. He could feel the hot puffs of his breath through the brush, heard the steady dripping of the black goop from his jaws.

Go away. Please, go away. Greg pleaded.

For some reason, the lion listened. Or gave up, that was more accurate. Snorting his displeasure, the lion padded away from the tree to search elsewhere. Greg opened his eyes and listened as he left. Silence filled the woods. He refused to move though, not even to stretch out his legs. He stayed balled up, watching the opening carefully.

It wasn’t comfortable, but it was safe for now. The longer he sat there though, the more he realized just what had happened. He’d found Wirt, after all this time. He’d found him only to lose him all over again. Greg clenched his fists tightly. It wasn’t fair!

A sharp pain in his hand distracted him. He examined the burn mark on his finger. Maybe salt and herbs were better protection than he’d given them credit for. He stuck his finger in his mouth to soothe the pain.

The brush hiding him rustled. Greg gasped, then clamped his hands over his mouth to silence himself. Had the lion returned? He breathed a sigh of relief when the silver wolf poked her head in.

“Hello,” he greeted.

She stared at him, then left. Greg took that to mean the coast was clear. He nearly tripped on several black turtles on his way out, but managed not to hurt any of them. Snow had started to fall again, the sky darkened by a thick layer of clouds. So much for his bright, new day.

He looked around for the wolf, then spied her walking a ways away. “Hey! Wait up!”

When he caught up with her, he fell into step beside her. She didn’t acknowledge that he was there, so he took it to mean that she didn’t mind his presence. Maybe she even expected him to follow.

“Thank you for saving me,” he told her. “Where are we going now?”

She didn’t answer him. Not that he expected her to with words or anything, but she didn’t even look at him. Greg sighed, then glanced around once more. Yeah, nothing looked familiar to him here. Which way would lead him back in the direction Wirt had been? That was probably a good place to start.

“Well, it was nice walking with you, but I’ve got to find my brother now.” Greg stopped following the wolf and decided to turn left, when she growled at him. “What is it?”

She just stared at him. Greg tilted his head and placed his hands on his hips. Well, this wasn’t getting them anywhere. He turned to leave again, but noticed how much darker the forest seemed. Humming, he looked up at the clouds. They were moving fast, darker storm clouds heading right his way.

“Ain’t that just the way?” he sighed, then noticed the wolf has started walking again.

He watched her for a minute, until he realized she stopped. Curious, Greg went after her. He’d almost reached her when she bolted, disappearing into the woods.

“Hey!” he shouted after her, but she was gone.

Oh well, at least she didn’t try to eat him. Greg shook his head, then noticed something on the ground out of the corner of his eye. He went over to investigate.

“Oh,” he breathed, eyes widening.

It was the lantern. The Beast’s lantern from before. Greg recognized the red rust and the oval shape. But how? This wasn’t where he’d left it. Just to be sure, he scanned the trees, but he knew this wasn’t where he’d seen the lantern. This wasn’t where he’d put his roots into the ground.

Maybe it wasn’t the same lantern then? He frowned, then nudged the handle with his foot. It made the same high, squeaky sound.

“Hm.” Greg’s brow furrowed more and his cheeks puffed out. “Well, if you are The Beast’s lantern, then Virgil said not to touch you.”

But Virgil also went along with Beatrice’s lie to try and send him home without Wirt. Or maybe it was Virgil’s lie that Beatrice went along with. Whatever the scenario, Virgil was part of a lying scheme and he’d been staring at him funny pretty much the entire time they’d traveled together.

“Virgil is a man of many fears and superstitions.”

Diana’s words came back to him. Greg shivered, guilt settling in his stomach. He glanced from the lantern to the dark sky, then back to the lantern once more.

“He looks at you the way he does because he does not trust you.”

“He was the one I couldn’t trust,” Greg mumbled. “I didn’t do anything wrong.”

If it was already this dark during the day, he didn’t want to think about how dark it would be once it was night. He’d had the moon and the stars to guide him the night before, but if the clouds stayed this thick, he wouldn’t have any light at all. Greg kicked at the lantern again and it squeaked harmlessly.

“Without The Beast, it’s just a lantern, isn’t it?” Greg convinced himself. “It’s not scary. It’s just something you put light in.” With that said, he picked it up by the handle. “Besides, finders keepers, and it’s not like I’m The Beast. I’m me, so that makes it my lantern.”

He opened the glass window and peered inside. He still had no idea how to light a lantern, but it couldn’t be that hard to figure out, right? There was a little bit of oil, it looked like. It reminded him of the lion’s black saliva and the stuff that oozed from the Edelwood trees. Greg made a face and closed the hatch. Well, maybe he could swap that gross looking stuff for something else to keep the fire going. Once he found something to make a fire with, that is.

The snow fell harder and the wind picked up. The storm had blown in faster than he thought it would. Greg hurried back to the hollowed out tree he’d hid in for protection from the snow and cold. He set the lantern down inside and blocked the opening with the same brush from before. He left a small window though, so he could look out in case Wirt came by. Though he hoped his brother had found some kind of shelter, too.

Greg took off the cape coat and laid it out like a blanket for him to sit on. Encased in the wood of the tree, it wasn’t so cold. He tucked his hands inside the sleeves of his sweater, then hugged his knees. Too bad he didn’t know how to light the lantern. He could use the light and the warmth right about now.

Sleepiness washed over him as he waited, exhaustion settling in his bones. He hadn’t had a decent sleep in a long time. He wasn’t sure if he could count when he fell through Virgil’s roof, so he didn’t, which meant he hadn’t slept at all since he’d gotten to The Unknown. That couldn’t be good.

He yawned, then curled up on the cape coat and closed his eyes. A quick nap wouldn’t hurt. A quick nap would help him get his energy back so he could find Wirt.

The last thing he saw before he gave in to sleep was the dark lantern.

Chapter Text

It was a sunny, blue sky day. The woodsy smell of autumn thick in the air, not too cold yet. It was the kind of fall air he liked best, crisp like an apple. Greg leaned against the trunk of a tree, humming to himself as he weaved together a crown of leaves. He had to be careful, to make sure it would be big enough to fit around the base of the cone hat. Footsteps approached him, ones that he recognized quite well, so he perked up and grinned. Hopping to his feet with his crown in hand, he hurried to meet him.

“Hi, Wirt!” he chirped, then held out his creation to him. “I made this for you! So you can be king of the forest!”

His brother smiled at him, but weary lines curved around his eyes and mouth. While not an unfamiliar look for him, it was still a little discouraging to see. He knew he was exhausted. He worked so hard during the day, and even harder in the night. He never really got a chance to rest, but he always had a smile for him – just for him.

It helped Greg not feel so bad.

“Thanks, Greg,” Wirt replied, setting his axe against a tree so he could hold out one hand to take the crown.

Greg shook his head though, then gestured for him to kneel and lower his head so he could put it on for him. His brother sighed, but did so, allowing Greg to slip the crown of leaves over the pointed tip of his hat and down to rest against Wirt’s hair. He stood back to survey and approve of his work.

“I now pronounce thee, Captain Wirt, King of the Forest!” Greg bowed dramatically, pleased when he heard him chuckle softly.

“Well, if I’m the king of the forest, what does that make you?” he asked him.

“Clearly I’m the Prince of the Forest,” he replied. “I haven’t made my crown yet though. That’s next on my to-do list.” Greg clasped his hands together, hopefulness shining in his round eyes. “Unless you’re done working for today. Are you?”

Wirt glanced over his shoulder. The wood he carried on his back looked heavy, but he shouldered it with a strength Greg hadn’t known he possessed. It looked like enough, more than enough, but he knew that should he say anything the little light left in Wirt’s eyes would go out and he’d tell him, “it will never be enough.”

So Greg said nothing. He knew it was important to keep the light lit. As long as Wirt watched over his, then he’d do his best to watch Wirt’s right back. As if sensing his thoughts, his older brother glanced down at the lantern he clutched in his left hand. It was his dominant hand, although he was ambidextrous and could use his right just as well, but his left was his strongest hand. The light in the lantern gleamed brightly.

Wirt watched it for a while, then lifted his gaze to smile in that tired way once again. “Yeah. I’m done for today. I’m all yours, what would you like to do?”

“Let’s go visit Beatrice, we haven’t seen her in ages!” Greg waited for Wirt to pick up the axe again, hoisting it over his shoulder, then grabbed onto one of his loose suspenders and dragged him through the trees. “Then maybe we can go on an adventure. A kingly adventure! As good rulers, we need to oversee our kingdom, right Wirt?”

“Right, Greg,” he replied, following him obediently, as if he was the king instead.

In a way, he supposed he was.

But a good king would put his kingdom above his own needs. A good king would look after his subjects and see that they were taken care of. A good king would not do what he had done.

That’s why he decided he wasn’t king, Wirt was. Wirt could make all their important decisions. And if Wirt wanted to rest instead of play, then his brother only had to say the word. Greg would let him. Greg would listen, if only Wirt told him to let him rest. But Wirt never did tell him that. Wirt never denied him anything.

Greg felt a pang of… something. In his chest. He glanced up, eager to meet Wirt’s gaze, but his brother wasn’t looking at him. He was distracted by the lantern again. He was always watching the lantern. Greg couldn’t be jealous though. In a way, Wirt was still looking at him. He leaned against Wirt’s side as they walked and sighed in contentment.

But… something felt wrong.

Wait. Greg blinked, glancing down at the loop of his brother’s suspender. Wait a second. Something wasn’t right. He inhaled sharply and the light in the lantern flickered. This wasn’t right.

“Greg?”

This was wrong.

Greg pulled away from Wirt and all the light around them was sucked away, except for the steady glow – the steady pulse of light – locked in the lantern. The sun might as well have vanished right out of the sky. Wirt’s eyes went wide with fear – fear of him – for a second, but confusion was quick to replace it.

“Greg, what’s wrong?” he asked.

That was a good a question, Greg reflected as he looked around in the darkness. He knew this was wrong, but why? And what exactly was wrong? “I don’t…” He shook his head. “I don't know, this just feels…”

He looked to his brother for help, but found that Wirt’s gaze had darted to the lantern again. Greg bristled. The light dimmed, then flared brightly as his dismay rose to panic.

Stop it,” he commanded, but his voice didn’t sound right. That wasn’t what he sounded like, was it? “Stop looking at it like that!”

Wirt lifted his head and stared him in the eyes. “Like what?”

His voice sounded so lifeless and dull. His gaze was flat, too, now that he wasn’t afraid. As a whole, Wirt just seemed… empty. Maybe he was. Maybe Greg had already let his brother’s light die.

“Wirt, what’s wrong with you?” Greg tightened his grip around his suspender and violently wished it was his hand he was holding instead. This… this was like a leash.

Greg released it and watched the loop fall to rest against his brother’s leg. A leash or chain. His eyes wandered to the lantern. A burden. Straightening his shoulders, he met his brother’s tired gaze and held his hand out.

“Give it to me,” he demanded.

Something flashed in Wirt’s eyes – giving him life, giving him purpose – and he took a step back, holding the lantern out of Greg’s reach. “No.”

No? Greg frowned and followed him. “Let me hold it for a while.”

“I said no, Greg!” Wirt snapped.

“Why not? It’s just a dumb lantern!”

“You know why not!” Wirt replied, his burst of anger steadily draining into despair. “You know why…”

He didn’t, but he was hesitant to continue fighting about it if it was going to make Wirt look like the world was crumbling all around him. “I just…” Greg puffed up his cheeks and exhaled quietly, returning the light to the forest. “I just want to hold your hand, that’s all,” he mumbled. "I thought I could carry the lantern. Then you'd have a free one." Not quite a lie, but not quite the truth either.

Wirt relaxed, then glanced between the lantern and the axe before offering the latter to him. “You can carry this,” he told him.

Greg stared at him. “You’ll let me hold an axe, but not a lantern?”

“Do you want it or not?” Wirt pressed, avoiding the question.

With a sigh, Greg took the axe. Right hand now free, Wirt held it out to him and he placed his palm in his. His brother shivered, even though his hand felt quite warm to the touch compared to his own. Funny though, he didn’t feel cold. He eyed the lantern again with a narrowed gaze.

Briefly, he wondered what Wirt would do if he blew it out.

The thought was fleeting though. With the sun back in the sky and daylight shining all around them, they continued their journey and Greg’s unease faded with each step. Soon, he didn’t know why he’d been so worried in the first place.

After all, it was a sunny, blue sky day in their forest.

-0-

The first thing he saw when he woke up was the light in the lantern.

Rubbing his eyes, Greg blinked sluggishly at the brightness of it. “Huh,” he murmured.

The remnants of his dream curled away from him like smoke from a blown out birthday candle as he shook himself awake. He sat up, not sore at all surprisingly, and reached out to grab the lantern. Yeah, there was definitely light coming out of it. It was a funny sort of glow, though. It didn’t look like it was fire. Maybe oil burned differently than wood.

In any case, he was certainly glad he had some light. Looking out at the forest, it seemed as if he’d slept right through the whole day. It was pitch black outside now.

Greg slipped on the cape coat, then pushed the brush out of the way. He crawled out of the tree, lantern in tow, and looked around. It was still snowing, but not nearly as bad, he thought to himself. He could walk around easily in this weather, especially because he felt so much better after his nap. Really he did! Greg grinned to himself as he spun in a circle. He hadn’t realized how tired and achy he’d felt until now. No wonder he’d been so cranky.

Shining the lantern on the trees around him, Greg took in his surroundings. The bare branches looked like gnarled hands clawing at the black sky. Just as he’d suspected, the clouds covered the moon and the stars completely, even if only a little bit of snow was falling. There wasn’t any wind, which was good and bad he supposed. Good in that it didn’t make him feel cold or blow snow in his face, but bad because without wind there’d be nothing to blow the clouds along so the moon could come out and light his way.

Well, at least he had the lantern.

But now what?

With his rekindled energy, Greg was ready to search high and low for Wirt. He was nearby, after all! He’d just seen him! Well, as of a few hours ago when it had still been daylight. Tapping his chin thoughtfully, Greg glanced around. Well, everyone always told him that if he was lost, the best thing to do was stay put so he could be found, but he was a much better seeker than his brother, so wouldn’t the chances of them finding each other increase if Greg was the one doing the searching? He was pretty sure they would.

Plus, it wasn’t like Wirt knew he was in this exact spot. And with the trees looking as spooky as they did, he doubted his big brother would want to come near this part of the woods. It was decided then, Greg nodded to himself. He’d attempt to go back the way he came and-

“Greg? Greg!”

Greg froze. Oh no. It was Beatrice. How did she find him so quickly? Well, technically she hadn’t found him yet, but she was close, following his tracks from when he’d been running from the lion no doubt.

“Gregory!” And apparently Virgil was with her.

Greg puffed out his chest, shoulders set firmly as he stood his ground. He wasn’t going home. Tucking the lantern under his coat, he shrouded the woods in complete darkness. He hugged it to his chest and quietly scurried away from Beatrice and Virgil. While every instinct told him to run, he knew he’d make more noise that way, crunching through the snow.

“Greg, please! Where are you?” Beatrice continued to shout for him. “Please come back!”

He almost stopped. He almost turned around. She sounded so upset, so frantic. It reminded him of Wirt, whenever he’d run off without telling him. She sounded broken and very, very sorry.

It made him sorry, too. “I wish I could, Beatrice,” he murmured. “But I can’t let you send me home. Not yet.”

Greg hurried on into the dark of the woods, but the darkness didn’t bother him in the slightest.

-0-

If Greg had a bad sense of time when he could actually see the sun or the moon, then it was the absolute worst of all his senses when the sky was covered in clouds. He had no idea how long he’d been walking for. It didn’t take very long to lose Beatrice, and he felt safe enough to wander with the lantern out again, using it to check his surroundings for anything familiar, but since then he wasn’t sure if it had been ten minutes, two hours, or the entire night.

Still, since he wasn’t tired at all thanks to his nap, it didn’t really bother him that much. He only hoped Wirt wasn’t getting too worried. If it had been a whole day and night since they’d met by that ravine, then it was very likely his poor brother would be a nervous wreck by now. Especially since the last Wirt had seen of him he’d been busy trying to outrun a lion. So for his sake, he hoped it had only been a few minutes or maybe an hour.

Eventually he found trees that had leaves again. Smiling to himself, Greg skipped through a pile of freshly fallen ones, kicking them up as he went along. Leaves could only mean good things. He wasn’t sure why, but they gave him a good feeling. They still didn’t taste good, but it wasn’t like he planned on eating them. He actually wasn’t hungry at all.

Greg paused, placing one hand over his stomach as he frowned. He wasn’t hungry. Given that he hadn’t exactly eaten much while he’d been here, just like how he hadn’t slept much, he figured hungry would definitely be something he’d feel. He was always hungry, it seemed.

Something made the hairs on the back of his neck stand on end. His gaze flicked to the lantern. To the light inside of it. His brow furrowed as his dream from earlier clicked in his head. The lantern had been in it, hadn’t it? Why? He struggled to remember what it had been about. There’d been the lantern, and the leaves. There’d been Wirt and-

“Hello, Gregory.”

With a gasp, Greg jumped, nearly dropping the lantern as he whirled around. He nearly dropped it again when he saw just who was standing in front of him. His jaw fell open, but it was relief and joy that flooded him rather than shock.

“Diana!” His smile stretched so wide it almost hurt his face. “You’re okay!”

He ran to hug her, throwing his arms around the woman’s waist. She was alive! She hadn’t been eaten! He felt her hands settle atop his head, stroking reassuringly, motherly, before she returned the embrace, albeit stiffly and more formal than Greg’s exuberant one.

“How did you get away?” he asked, tipping his head up so he could meet her gaze. “How did you get away from the leopard?”

Her lips curved into a delicate smile that made her silver eyes glint in the dim light of the lantern. “That creature is not so clever as he’d like to believe,” she replied, amusement ringing in her voice. “It was simple, really. He might be fast, but I was quicker.”

“Oh, good! Good, I’m so happy you’re okay.” Greg squeezed her tighter. “I thought- I thought I’d- oh, I’m so sorry, Diana! I didn’t mean to make you fall out of the cart! I just- I just wanted-!”

“You just wanted to see your brother,” she murmured. “I understand, Gregory. I do not blame you. I must say, I am just as relieved to see that you are alright. Free from the lies Virgil and Beatrice spun for you.”

Greg’s grip went lax. Slowly, he lowered his arms and stepped back. He searched her face, but it gave little away. “You knew?” he asked.

“They never included me in their little scheme, but I had an idea of what they were planning. Of course, I did not agree with them. Finding your brother should have been the priority. They did not have enough faith in you. I knew that your will was strong enough. That you could last.” Her gaze flickered down the lantern so briefly, Greg almost wasn’t sure she’d looked at it at all. “I knew you could.”

Greg frowned, bowing his head so he could stare at the way Wirt’s coat pooled over his feet. “Yeah, well… I think they were just trying to do what’s best for me, but they didn’t know that finding Wirt was what was best. If they sent me back, then I would’ve found a way to get here again. If I needed to.”

“I am certain you would have. You are drawn to this place, Gregory. You’ve put your roots in its soil. It is a part of you, as you are a part of it,” Diana told him.

He blinked and lifted his head. “What?”

“The Unknown, child,” she crooned. “You are connected to it. Can’t you feel it?”

Brow furrowing, Greg shook his head slightly. “I don’t… What do you mean?”

“Do you dream of The Unknown, Gregory? Have you heard it whisper in the night, calling for you to return home?”

Greg took a step back. Away from her. “No,” he told her firmly. “This isn’t my home.”

Diana smiled with teeth for the first time since he’d met her. His stomach dropped to his knees. He’d never seen something so sinister.

“Oh, but it is now, my Beast.”

When she reached out for him, for a second he thought her fingernails curled into claws. He scrambled away, stumbling backwards through the snow until his back pressed against the bark of a tree trunk. She didn’t follow him, her arm falling to her side. But she continued to smile at him. He never thought a smile could be so terrifying.

“What are you talking about?” he managed to ask, his voice shaking only a little. “I’m not The Beast. I’m Greg. Wirt and I beat The Beast.”

“Ah, but he who holds the dark lantern must be The Beast,” she murmured, gesturing towards it. “And are you not holding it now?”

Greg scowled at her. “It’s just a lantern. A name doesn’t make it any scarier than any normal lantern. Besides, other people have held this lantern and it didn't make them The Beast.”

“Ah, but this is so much more than a lantern, Gregory.” Diana shook her head. “It’s special. Not just anyone can light it.” Her silver eyes bored right into his, chilling him to the bone. “Didn’t I tell you it would work with a strong enough light?” Greg trembled as her smile stretched wider, revealing a mouth full of sharp teeth. “And let me tell you, your soul is one of the strongest lights I’ve seen in a long time.”

“Stop it!” he shouted, darting away from his tree to find another one, further away from her. “Diana, what’s wrong with you?”

She did not follow him. In fact, she hardly seemed surprised that he was running away from her. His hands couldn’t stop shaking, making the light cast from the lantern shiver on the snow. She only watched him, teeth bared in that sickening smile. Silver eyes gleaming in the night.

“Stay away from me!” He took a few steps back. “You’re- you’re crazy!”

“Am I?” she murmured, tilting her head to one side. Like a dog. “You dreamt of it. You dreamt of owning these woods, ruling alongside your brother. Your lantern bearer.”

Greg swallowed thickly, the image of his brother with the lantern in hand blinking back into his memory. He had been holding it in his dream, how had she known that? He hugged the lantern protectively, instinctively, then immediately realized what he was doing and held it away from him at arm’s length. It was just a lantern.

“Dreams don’t mean anything,” Greg told her firmly. “Wirt says they’re things that our subconscious makes up from things we’ve seen, things we remember, and things we feel. They’re just stories our brains tell us while we sleep. Just because I dreamt it doesn’t mean it’s true! You’re just trying to mess with me! I bet you’re not even a real nanny!”

“Clever, clever, boy,” she cooed. “You are wrong, though. I am their nanny, but that was not my only purpose there. I told you Virgil owed me for saving his wife, did I not? He was proving difficult for me to connect with, being so set in his ways, but I fed his paranoia. I forced him into hiding. He suspected something, but never me. Of course, the moment I saw you stumbling through my woods, I knew it had to be you.”

“What had to be me? What were you trying to do to Virgil?” he demanded.

Diana inspected her claw-like nails carefully. “Have you not been listening, Gregory? Virgil owed me his soul in exchange for his wife’s. But what was I to do with his soul? Devour it and be done with it? No, that would be pointless. I did not want his soul. I wanted The Unknown back.” Her smile returned. “Luckily for me, there is a way those two go hand in hand, but as I said, once I saw you, I no longer had a need for Virgil. You are perfect. I could smell your avarice and envy the moment you set foot in my woods, not to mention your own ravenous appetite. You are a glutton for attention. You long to be noticed, to mean something. Then when I gazed upon you, I knew you would make the perfect Beast.”

“I told you, you’re crazy. I’m not The Beast, I’d know if I was The Beast! I’d be some spooky, old, tree man!” Greg glanced down at himself just to be sure. He looked the same as he always did. He was himself.

Diana merely hummed with amusement. “Denial suits you, child.”

“Yeah? Well, jumping into an active volcano suits you!” he snapped back. It was a mean thing to say, something he’d picked up from Andy McAllen at school, but he figured that if there was ever a time where it was okay to say something mean, then this was it.

A deep, echoing laugh rumbled from her chest into the night air. He shivered, his bravado failing him as he continued to inch away from her. Her and her silver eyes, her mouth full of teeth, her claws, her bushy hair, gray in the darkness. Wirt. He mentally pleaded, clammy fingers tightening around the handle of the lantern. Wirt, what do I do? What’s the plan? Oh, I wish you were here.

Except if he felt uneasy around this woman, then his big brother would surely be terrified. What would he be able to do? Nothing different than what Greg was doing now, most likely, but at least he would be there. It would be nice not to be alone.

“Come, Gregory. I shall take you to him.” She held her hand out to him.

He shook his head, eyes wide as the light from the lantern flickered. “No way, I’m done following strangers,” he replied.

“But you wish to see your brother and I can take you to him. Follow me.”

“No. I’ll find him myself. I can do it. I can do anything if I set my mind to it!”

She chuckled again. “So be it. Keep a watchful eye on your light while you wander. Make sure it does not go out.” Her demeanor shifted abruptly, darkening, sharpening and her face contorted into a long, narrow snout and her voice thundered with many. “Do not let it go out.

“Shut up!”

Greg turned and ran away from her, only to scream as he nearly collided with her. He looked over his shoulder to where she’d been standing, but the place behind him was empty. Paw prints bridged the distance, wolf prints, leading right to her. He backed away again, shaking his head.

She advanced upon him. “Take care of your soul. You will perish if you let it go out.”

“This isn’t my soul! It’s just a dumb light!”

“Oh?” Diana paused, then glanced at the snow at Greg’s feet. “Tell me, Gregory, where is your shadow?”

He stared at her, then shone the light at his feet. There was nothing there. No, that was impossible, there had to be something, right? It was behind him, yeah. Shadows were behind people all the time. Greg searched over his shoulder, trying to shine the light just right so he could see it, but he couldn’t get a good look in the dark and his hands were shaking too badly.

“It’s too dark,” he told her, glaring at her while she smiled. “You can’t see shadows in the dark. You’re just trying to trick me! That’s what this is. It’s all one big trick. Just like with Libbard. You’re telling lies to get me to do what you want, but that’s not gonna happen! I’m not scared of you!”

“Is that what you truly believe?” she breathed, then Greg blinked and she was gone.

Breathing heavily, he glanced around him, scanning the dark trees for any sign of her. There were only more paw prints on the ground, disappearing into the woods. Greg gulped, then jumped as a wolf’s howl rose high into the night sky, echoing across the snow. He turned and ran. He ran and ran and would keep running until he found Wirt, then they’d run together and get the heck out here.

He didn’t want to stay here a second longer.

Chapter Text

“Wirt? Wirt!” Greg called, sprinting through the woods. “Wirt, where are you?”

Everything around him looked the same. Greg sloshed through creeks, clambered over logs, and wove through the trees as he searched. The snow fell heavy and slow around him. Shadows stretched along the forest floor and high into the branches above him. He squeezed his eyes shut and ran on blindly.

“Wirt! Ah!” He tripped over a tree root and went sprawling on the ground. “Oof!”

Greg spat out the mouthful of snow he’d ended up with, then wiped his mouth with his sleeve before taking hold of the lantern once more. He shone it on the tree, to check if he was caught on the root still, then immediately wished he hadn’t.

Two sagging holes in the tree’s trunk stared at him, like eyes. A larger hollow gaped like a mouth, crying out for help as slick, black oil dripped from it. Greg gasped and scrambled away. It was an Edelwood tree.

Shakily, he got to his feet, unable to look away from it. It had been a person once. Someone’s brother or sister, maybe, before they got too lost and gave up. Took a nap in the snow and never woke up.

“Wirt,” he whimpered, looking all around him. “Wirt, please. I want to go home.”

Only the Edelwood tree was there to keep him company. Greg clenched his fists tightly and took a few deep breaths. He could do this. He just needed to stay calm. He needed to stay brave. He was the brave one, he was the happy one. He was the one who came here to find Wirt, and that’s just what he was going to do.

Greg met the tree’s mournful gaze and placed his hand against its trunk. “I’m sorry,” he told it, because it felt like the right thing to do and it wasn’t the tree’s fault that it was so scary. “I’m really sorry.”

He hoped the trees didn’t feel loneliness as he took his presence and the light of the lantern with him, leaving the Edelwood in the dark. He didn’t run this time. Greg was determined to stay calm and walking helped with that. Besides, it was probably a good idea to save his energy in case the lion, the leopard, or… or the wolf showed up.

Speaking of those three, it was strange that Greg hadn’t seen the first two at all since he’d woken up. They’d seemed so keen on following him and chasing him all around before. If he didn’t know better, he’d think they were avoiding him. No, they probably just didn’t know where he’d gone. Greg hoped that didn’t mean they’d found Wirt though. The way his brother had looked at the lion, he knew he wouldn’t be able to handle it very well if he was the one being chased.

And that wolf… Greg narrowed his eyes. He didn’t think she really knew where Wirt was, but if she happened upon him, then the last thing he wanted was for her to feed his brother her lies. Of course, Wirt didn’t trust people that much. He was always suspicious, always cautious. He wouldn’t believe her lies so easily.

Greg nodded to himself, relieved that his brother would be able to best Diana at any rate, even if he couldn’t beat the lion or leopard. Wirt had his own strengths, even if he didn’t notice them as much as he did his weaknesses. That was why he had Greg though. Greg noticed his strengths for him.

“You’re going to be okay, Wirt. I promise,” he told the air. “And that’s a rock fact. You’re gonna be okay.”

-0-

He felt like he was walking in circles. Greg couldn’t be certain, but all the trees were blurring together into the same trees and didn’t that cluster of rocks look familiar? At least he hadn’t come across the Edelwood tree again, so there was a chance that this was a different pile of rocks.

Oh, this was getting him nowhere. Greg sighed and took a small break next to the rocks. He set the lantern down and picked one up, turning it this way and that. Then he tossed it into the woods, out of the little circle of light the lantern created.

Out of the corner of his eyes, he saw something move. Shifting his gaze from where he’d thrown the rock, he squinted in the darkness. There was nothing there.

Greg frowned. He grabbed the lantern and lifted it to shine the light around and make sure that no one was there. It flickered, and Greg didn’t even question pulling it back to him to check the latch for the glass window. No, it was still closed. Good, he didn’t want the light going out-

Because it was dark and light was helpful. Not because he thought it was his soul or anything. Of course not, that was stupid. His soul was right inside of him, like it always was. It was… it was just nice to have the light to see the woods by.

Greg puffed up his cheeks and blew out a long breath. Right. He held the lantern out again, his hand steady and gentle as he inspected his surroundings. He didn’t see anything. Maybe some snow had fallen from a tree branch or something. Just as Greg lowered the lantern again, he saw it.

It was a flicker of light. A soft, pale glow further on in the forest. A tiny flickering flame, not much different from his own. Greg’s eyes widened and he hid the lantern underneath Wirt’s cape coat, shrouding the woods in an inky black shadow.

He watched the light bobble in the night. It could be Libbard with his torch, or Virgil and Beatrice. Except… Greg hummed thoughtfully. This light was a bluish-greenish color. It wasn’t like the light a fire would make. He blinked as it winked at him, beckoning him towards it. No way. He said he was done following strangers and he meant it. Keeping the lantern hidden, he crawled over to a nearby tree and hid behind it. Even if it wasn’t Libbard, Virgil, or Beatrice, there wasn’t any way he’d let himself be found after all of this. Not by any ol’ leopard and not by his friends and not by anyone with a weird blue-green light.

For several minutes, he waited. Every now and then he’d peer back around the tree, but the light was always right there. Waiting right back.

It was weird. Greg tried to puzzle it out. Whoever it was must have seen the light of his lantern. Why weren’t they getting any closer? Maybe they were scared of him. Maybe they were a lost kid, or maybe…

Maybe it was Wirt. Hesitating, Greg glanced at the light again. It flickered and floated and did little else. It seemed harmless.

“Couldn’t hurt just to check,” he mumbled to himself. “In case it’s someone else who’s lost.”

Greg set the lantern down and covered it with enough leaves so the light didn’t point right to him. Then he took a deep breath and stood up. In case it wasn’t somebody he wanted to run into, it made sense to have the element of surprise on his side. With quiet footsteps, he crept through the trees towards the mysterious light.

Suddenly it blinked out of existence.

“What?” Greg tilted his head. “Weird…”

He started to turn, to head back for his lantern, when the light reappeared, farther away. Greg frowned, then resumed walking, a little faster. It did it again, just as he closed in on it, then again and again. It always danced just out of reach and Greg was starting to wonder if the light was all that was there. That there wasn’t a person who was with it.

“Are you a ghost?” Greg called out to it. “Or a fairy? I mean, you’ve got to be some kind of magical thing, right?”

The light bobbed once, so Greg took that as a nod. He relaxed and smiled with relief. Oh, good! Ghosts and fairies he could definitely deal with.

“Do you need my help?” he asked it.

It floated a little further away from him and flickered. It reminded him of Tinkerbell from Peter Pan, so he felt no doubt now as he followed it. Only hope and trust that this little ball of light knew what it was doing, where it was going, when he had no idea himself.

“Okay, so you want me to follow you,” he continued talking to it. “But where are we going? Are you showing me the way to Wirt?”

A splash startled him and his foot was suddenly soaked. Greg averted his gaze from the light and looked down. He was standing in water. Taking a few steps back so he was on dry land, he noticed that the ground seemed very spongy. Muddy and slick, too, beneath the snow. There weren’t as many trees and he realized that he’d wandered close to a marsh.

Greg looked to the light. It was floating right over the water. It still called for him, without making a single sound. Greg didn’t answer it.

The warm feelings of hope and trust fled him. He was numb to them as he turned around and quickly went back the way he came. He could feel the light watching him, but he didn’t dare glance back over his shoulder. He wasn’t scared, no, but he wasn’t stupid. He wasn’t going to walk right into the middle of a marshy lake.

Right in front of him, a light appeared. Its blue-green glow was sickening to look at up close. It made his stomach churn. Greg backed away slightly, then walked around it. Several more appeared around him, but he kept his head down and kept moving. He walked until the ground got firmer under his feet and the snow.

Now, where had he left his lantern? He hugged himself as he pressed on, his fingers itching to have the security of the lantern’s handle in his grip. The fact that he wanted that feeling of safety more than the light itself made him shiver.

He shook his head and another blue-green light appeared. “Go away,” he told it. “Leave me alone.”

It flickered once, then vanished. All the lights vanished and Greg was very much left alone. He gasped and hugged himself tighter. He was alone.

Until he wasn’t.

“I told you to go away!” he snapped at the new light that burst to life in his periphery, but then he froze.

It wasn’t the same kind of light at all. This was an orange light. It was fire. A lantern or torch. It was a person. A person who was getting closer.
Greg hesitated. He still didn’t want to be found, necessarily, but he wasn’t too keen on revisiting the complete loneliness he’d felt only seconds before. So he hid. There was a bush nearby, so he crouched down and wiggled underneath it until he was certain that whoever was out there wouldn’t be able to see him. He could still see the light though. He watched the flame as it bounced this way and that. It was looking for something, or rather whoever was holding it was looking for something. Greg made himself seem even smaller. He wasn’t sure if he wanted it to be looking for him or not.

“…Greg…?”

He uncurled quickly, the leaves rustling as his head jerked up. It was still far away, but… but maybe… Greg felt his lips tremble, his hopeful smile held back only by a single what if. What if it wasn’t him? It sounded like Wirt, but what if it wasn’t him?

“Greg…!”

“I’m here,” he gasped, untangling himself from the bush as the light changed course and got farther and farther away. “Wait- wait!” he shouted.

He ran, only to be jerked backwards, still caught on the bush. Greg yanked on Wirt’s cape coat to free himself, desperately trying to keep the light in sight as it bobbed and carried his brother’s voice away with it. With one hard tug, he toppled over into the snow.

“Wait! Wirt!” He scurried to his feet and ran. “I’m here! I’m right here, wait!”

“Greg!” The light stopped moving away from him.

A delighted laugh burst from him as it came back for him. He’d done it. He’d found him. They could go home. No carts would carry him away this time. No lion or leopard would force him away from him. No chasm would separate them. This was it! This was the end!

“Wirt!”

Greg stumbled through the trees, bumping into their trunks and tripping over their roots in the dark, but he didn’t care. He could almost hear his brother’s frantic footsteps, running his way. He could hear his smile this time when he called for him.

“Greg! Greg, over here!” Wirt called, finally closer than ever.

Beaming, Greg broke through the trees separating him from the light and there he was. Wirt. His brother. His back was to him, but it was him, silhouetted in the light of the lantern that he carried, holding it up so he could peer into the trees, scanning the shadows for him. He was right there. Close enough to touch. Close enough to hug. Greg laughed and stepped towards him, opening his arms to wrap around Wirt’s waist as he watched him turn to face him.

Relief, hope, happiness – it all fled Wirt’s face like it had never been there. Like a crack of lightening splitting the sky. Fear – no, terror, he was terrified – opened up on his brother’s face as he nearly conked him in the head with his lantern. Greg slipped backwards in an attempt to avoid it, landing on his bottom in the snow.

He stared up at him, his smile still frozen on his face even as it dimmed and didn’t quite reach his eyes anymore. Wirt trembled, from his knees all the way to his elbows, as he backed away from him. Scared. Greg couldn’t even wonder what it was that had his brother so scared because he was looking right at him. Right into his eyes.

“Wirt-” he tried to say, but his voice was caught in his throat like how the cape had been caught in the bush. He swallowed and tried again. “What’s wrong?”

Wirt’s shoulders tensed and he took another step back, but he refused to break his stare. “Greg!” he called out, over his shoulder like he wasn’t sitting there right in front of him. “Greg!”

He was panicking. His breathing was off, he could hear it and see the way his chest rose and fell too quickly. Not at all like how it had been in the hospital. Slow, even breaths. Slowly, Greg got to his feet, but that only seemed to make it worse. Wirt could see him, obviously, but why couldn’t he see- well, him?

“What-?” he started to ask, but the terror in his brother’s eyes lit up suddenly. They lit into a furious fire that his brother rarely ever unleashed and certainly never at him.

Wirt advanced on him and Greg instinctively backpedaled away from him, nearly tripping over himself twice. “Where is he?” Wirt hissed, too angry, too hateful, and Greg didn’t think he could sound so enraged, but then he went and raised his voice to a shout. “What did you do to him?”

“I don’t-!” Greg’s back hit a tree, so he used it to slide away from his brother, still trying to figure out what was going on. “What are you talking about?”

My brother! What did you do to my brother?” Wirt bellowed and Greg froze. “I heard him! That wasn’t a trick, I know I heard him! So where is he? What did you do to him?” He was still shaking as Greg watched him waver between getting in his face again or running as far from him as possible. “You’re not even supposed to be here. You’re- The Woodsman was supposed to- you’re not supposed to be here! We beat you! We got away!”

“I-” Greg gaped at him, the wheels of his mind turning, but he couldn’t quite catch up.

“Never mind, that doesn’t matter. None of that matters. Just-” Wirt shook his head, gaining control over his babbling for a moment and let the cold fury carry his next words.

“What did you do to my brother, Beast?”

Beast. Beast?

But he wasn’t.

Greg looked to his hands. They looked like his hands. They were his hands. He patted himself down. Wirt’s cape coat, his own sweater, his pockets with their picture in it, it was all him.

Wasn’t it?

Now the one with the terrified gaze, Greg stared at his brother. “This isn’t funny,” he told him, voice shaking only a little.

“I couldn’t agree more,” Wirt grit out. “Now answer the question!”

“Here! Right here!” Greg shouted back. “Why can’t you see that? Why-?”

There was a pond, a small pond, a little ways beyond Wirt and to the left. Why couldn’t he see him? Greg pushed away from the cover of the trees and ran for the pond, startling his brother enough that he didn’t give chase right away. When he reached the pond, he looked down-

A second’s glimpse was all he needed before he jerked away, throwing himself to the ground, face turned away from the shimmering surface of the ice-coated pond. A second’s glimpse and he’d seen all he needed to – the slight curve of a black tree branch. Protruding from his head.

“No,” Greg moaned, a sound he didn’t even think he could make as his stomach clenched and his chest ached. “No. I’m not… I can’t be-!”

He slid away from the water’s edge, desperate to get away. It wasn’t real. It was part of Diana’s lie. It wasn’t real, he wasn’t The Beast! He was Greg! Gregory Whelan. He was almost ten and he lived with his mom and dad and his frog, Jason Funderberker, and he had a big brother that he loved more than anything in the whole world.

Greg swiveled about to face him, but Wirt wasn’t looking at him. He was checking the ground for something. Looking for something.

“Where’s your lantern?” Wirt asked once he realized he had his attention.

“My lantern-?”

Greg’s eyes widened in horror. His dream. Wirt held the lantern and held his hand. The Edelwood. He chopped down the Edelwood trees because… Greg shook his head and got to his feet.

“You can’t have it,” he told him, fighting to keep his voice steady.

“If it gets you to tell me what you did with my brother, then I’ll do whatever I want,” Wirt spat.

Had he not been so horrified, so dizzy with disbelief, Greg would’ve been impressed and just a bit in awe of him. “No, you can’t, you really can’t have it,” he pressed, his brother’s name still lodged deep inside him.

“It has to be close,” Wirt murmured to himself, then turned on his heel and pushed through the trees in the direction Greg had come from.

Greg ran after him. “No! Stop!”

The light from Wirt’s lantern went out, and Greg hadn’t realized how much darker the forest could get as it felt like he stole every tiny bit of it. He didn’t know how and he didn’t know why, but he knew he did. He knew it was him that took the light away.

Just like before, he realized. Just like in his dream and just like with the ghost lights. He made them vanish. He took the light away.

And he could still see. That’s why he didn’t think about needing the lantern’s light. He could see without it. He could see Wirt perfectly as his brother flinched and clung to a tree to gather his bearings. He could see the fear hadn’t been completely washed away by the anger. Wirt’s hands shook and his chest heaved with his shallow breaths. Greg took a step forward, his hand outstretched, but Wirt couldn’t see it. It was too dark for him.

“Please,” Wirt whispered, as if all the fight had fled him in a single swoop. “Please, we just want to go home.”

Greg’s throat tightened. “I know,” he murmured, hoping to be of some comfort, but his voice must not have sounded like his voice because it only made Wirt shiver.

“Where is he?” Wirt asked again, voice soft even in his terror.

I’m here! He wanted to scream, but he didn’t say anything. Wirt crumpled more in his silence, his face hidden from him. Greg couldn’t bear it.

He ran away. He gave back the light as he fled, unable to leave his brother alone in the dark. Even though he was unsure just where he was running to, Greg knew it wouldn’t be long before he found what he was looking for. As he got farther away, he heard a cry in the night and it frightened him more than any sound the lion, the leopard, or the wolf could make. It was his name. Just his name. He’d heard it more than a thousand times, but never like that. And he never wanted to hear it sound like that again.

The shadows of the trees watched him, stretched out long and tall, with branches for antlers, almost like a circle of Beasts bore down on him. Claiming him, like one of their own. Greg shook his head and ran on. He didn’t want to be The Beast. He didn’t want this.

“But you did.”

Footing lost, Greg fell to the snowy ground. When he looked up, he saw what he was looking for. Diana stood before him, draped in furs. Furs of the gray wolf. She held the lantern in one hand – his lantern with his soul – and watched the light dance inside.

“You should really be more careful where you leave this,” she admonished, flicking her silver gaze to him. “Wouldn’t want it falling into the wrong hands now, would we?”

“Change me back,” Greg demanded as he stood. “Change me back into me! I don’t want to be The Beast! I want to be with my brother!”

Diana lifted a brow. “Those things are not mutually exclusive, Gregory. You can be The Beast and be with your brother. And wouldn’t that be ideal?”

“What? No, why would that-?”

“Did you not hope to stay here with your brother after you found him?” she asked, sliding a finger along the curved lantern. “Was it not you that thought you could spend a few days here, a few months.” She flicked the lantern and it swung with a rusty creak. “A few years?”

“No.” Greg glared at her. “No, that’s not what I wanted.”

“You did not want him to go back to school. You did not want him to leave you behind. Now how could he? Knowing his little brother, the reason he returned here in the first place, was The Beast?” The light in the lantern flickered at the same time Greg felt a cold something twist in his gut. “Because you cannot leave here, not now. You are a part of the forest and it is a part of you. It will not let you leave.”

Greg’s lower lip trembled and he bit down on it to stop it. He couldn’t be scared in front of her, he couldn’t cry. Crying didn’t get anything done.

“So change me back,” he choked out. “Please.”

“I cannot,” she told him.

“Why not? You’re the one that did this to me!”

“While I may have instigated the change, the transformation was completely of your own doing. Your selfish desire to keep from being left behind, that is the magic behind your metamorphosis. The shadows of your doubts consumed you, chased the light of your soul right from your body.”

“Shadows…?” Greg glanced down into the snow, looking at the absence of his. “The legend Beatrice was talking about… was it…?”

Diana tapped the lantern. “Shadows cannot be cast without a light. Your soul is your light, Gregory. When it leaves you, it takes your shadow with it and leaves you shrouded in darkness. The darkness of The Beast. Indeed, your friend knew of this legend. Virgil as well. They could see the abomination you were becoming. Why do you think they wanted to be rid of you so badly? The last thing they wanted was another Beast roaming the woods. Especially with the shortage of Edelwood trees thanks to my abhorrent cohorts. Consuming souls left and right, making my forest barren. And all thanks to you and your brother. It is only fitting that one of you take up this burden.”

“But… but don’t you eat the souls, too? Why would you want them to become trees?” Greg shook his head, his mind racing, struggling to soak up this new information, to accept it. He couldn’t.

Diana snorted. “Because this is my forest. I feast only when my forest is flourishing with lost souls. When the oils of their despair soak the soil and fuel the life of their caretaker.” Her creepy smile pulled at her lips once again. “Oh, Gregory. Once you’ve come to understand your new power, we’ll be able to banish the lion and leopard once again. We’ll send them back to the bottom of The Pit where they belong. Then you can rule this forest. Reign over it as king.”

“Then maybe we can go on an adventure. A kingly adventure! As good rulers, we need to oversee our kingdom, right Wirt?”

Greg shook his head. “I don’t want that,” he told her, his strong front failing him. “I just want to go home with my brother. I promised I’d get him home. I promised.”

“But don’t you see, Gregory?” Diana reached out and stroked his cheek, almost like a mother would. “You are home.”

Then she was gone. The lantern left on the snowy ground. Greg stared at it for a long moment, tempted to kick it over, blow out the light just to see what would happen. But he couldn’t. Something wouldn’t let him.

Instead he picked it up and looked inside at the light. In the bright, white center, he thought he saw himself. A little him, tea kettle perched atop his head, dancing and waving at him through the glass. Greg sniffled, then rubbed at his eyes with his sweater sleeve.

This… this couldn’t be it, could it? In the stories, there was always a way to fix things like this, wasn’t there? He made a mistake. He was sorry. Wasn’t… wasn’t that enough?

“Greg! Greg!”

He stiffened. Apparently his brother decided to resume his search for him. Or well, him but not him. Greg ran away from Wirt’s voice, hiding the lantern in his brother’s cape as he ducked behind a tree, just as Wirt emerged where he’d been. Greg pressed his lips together, tight, and hugged the lantern close to keep the light from giving him away. He peered around the trunk of the tree, watching his brother with his own lantern – Virgil’s lantern, now that he could get a good look at it. Wirt must have found it after they lost it in the snowstorm.

Wirt held the lantern high over his head, looking to the canopy of the trees for any sign of him. Because he was so good at climbing trees, after all. Greg’s chest hitched, but he didn’t make a sound. Wirt’s hope dwindled and died on his face, crumpling into despair as he lowered the lantern to his side.

“Greg…” he murmured to the ground, then straightened his shoulders and raised his head once again. “Greg, it’s okay. I’m here, you can come out now. The… The Beast is gone! I-I chased him away. I beat him, Greg! So just… just come out, please? Please.” Tears slipped down his brother’s cheeks and Greg felt his own eyes stinging in sympathy. Wirt exhaled loudly, then thumbed them away before cupping his hand around his mouth. “Greg!”

He would stay here for him, wouldn’t he? Greg held his breath as he watched Wirt walk away from him, seeking him out somewhere else. He would stay for him, if he knew what had happened. He would take care of him, like a good big brother. He’d keep the light in the lantern lit.

Greg recalled the weary look in his eyes from his dream. Sure, it was only a dream, but he couldn’t do that to him. Wirt was finally happy. He was at school, making new friends and studying new things. He was going to be somebody great. He already was somebody great. He was Wirt.

The person in his dream, that wasn’t who Wirt was or wanted to be. How could he do that to him? How could he have ever considered that? How could he have ever wanted that?

“I didn’t,” he reminded himself. “Not like this. I didn’t want this.”

He didn’t want to be Wirt’s burden. He just wanted to be his brother.

When he couldn’t see the light from Wirt’s lantern or hear his voice, Greg tried to take a deep breath, but it hitched on a gasp. He just wanted his brother. He wanted to go after him. Scream for him to come back, but he couldn’t. He couldn’t do that to him. Great, gasping sobs escaped him as he slid down the tree trunk to sit in the snow, hunched over as he cried without tears.

He stayed there until the clouds parted and the nearly full moon shone down upon him. Greg stayed there until his breathing slowed. He stayed there until he couldn’t stay still any longer. On shaky legs, he rose. Lantern in hand, he started walking.

He started singing.

“On my way… oh.” His heart clenched and the lantern flickered, but he kept singing. “On my way, oh… I’m on my way into the woods…” He looked up past the tips of the trees at the moon and the speckled stars, a light snowfall drifting from the remaining clouds. “On my own, yes. All alone now…” Greg glanced over his shoulder, in the direction Wirt had gone and sang out, “Brother o’ mine-!” He bit down on his lip and swallowed down the urge to run after him. “Go home. …I’m fine.”

And Greg kept walking.

Chapter Text

Ribbit.

He waited for some sort of reassurance. A laugh. A song. A casual, “Oh, don’t worry about me, Jason Funderberker! I’m fine! See?”

But it didn’t come.

Thunder rumbled in the distance. The frog blinked up at the sky. Dark clouds rolled in, covering the moon that had lit their way back to this place. They were the kind that brought rain. While frogs thrived in the rain, little boys in Halloween costumes did not.

They shouldn’t have come here. He’d told him this was a bad idea. He’d told him, and while his little boy had finally agreed to give up their adventure for the night, it seemed that their adventure hadn’t quite given up on them yet.

He looked down from his perch on the wall for his little boy. Ribbit? Still no answer. A deep sleeper his little boy was not. His older one was. His older boy could sleep through anything short of a pot and pan jamboree in the middle of his bedroom – he’d also tried to tell his little boy that wasn’t a good idea, but when did Greg ever listen to him? He didn’t blame Wirt for locking Greg in the hall closet after that particular stunt. Honestly, he thought it served the little boy right.

He missed mornings like that.

Missed mornings of sugary cereals and bright cartoons, nestled on a couch between two warm, familiar bodies. One gentle and quiet, and one affectionate and loud. One more likely to pat him on the head or scratch right under his chin the way he liked it, and the other more likely to scoop him into his arms and spin him around the room. But both were family. His family. His Wirt and Greg.

Those mornings ended one day, and all he knew really was that he didn’t see his older boy anymore. He remembered the last night before the last morning he woke with Wirt there. Greg had fallen asleep earlier than usual, tired out from all of the people who’d come by the house to eat a lot of food and say a lot of goodbyes and good lucks to his older boy. Nocturnal creature that he was, he stayed up later and watched over his little boy, wondering just why everyone felt the need to say goodbye. Then the bedroom door opened a crack.

It wasn’t the mother and it wasn’t the father, though he didn’t really expect that it would be. Wirt hesitated in the doorway, looking very much like the boy he’d first met, before he’d grown taller and firmer, to resemble more of a man than a boy. He watched his older boy take one step into the room, then two steps out. He tried again, twice more, before something made him straighten his shoulders and he crossed the room in one single motion.

He stopped by Greg’s bedside. For a moment he just looked at him, then released a very long, heavy breath. He fixed the blanket around Greg’s shoulders, then smoothed his hair down. But again, a deep sleeper his little boy was not, and he stirred, kicked out one leg and blinked at his brother in the dark.

“Wirt?” He remembered the sleep-slurred whisper.

“Shh. Go back to sleep, Greg.” He remembered the soft reply.

His little boy huffed and rolled onto his side, but closed his eyes as he mumbled, “You shh,” in return. The frog had smiled as Wirt smiled. Still, his older boy lingered while his little boy slept on, and he had to wonder why. So he asked. Ribbit?

His older boy looked to him, not at all startled by the inquiry. Fondness filled his features and he left the bedside to scoop him up out of his tank. At first he didn’t answer him, just stroked his back in that way he always did while they sat on the edge of Greg’s bed together. Where a cat would purr, he croaked, content to rest on Wirt’s lap.

“You’ll look after him, won’t you?” His older boy whispered, so he looked up to answer with a single blink. Of course he would, didn’t he already? “Make sure he doesn’t get into too much trouble. I know it’s Greg, so trouble’s bound to find him one way or another, but…” His smile turned sad. “Just... just look after him for me. Okay?”

Ribbit. While the request was a ridiculous one, as he looked after both his boys because he’d learned quite quickly during their stint in the woods that somebody had to, he agreed to it. The mother and father did a good enough job, and he commended them for their efforts, but they didn’t see everything the way he did. So of course he’d look after Greg. He’d look after Wirt, too, and made sure to convey that to him as well.

His older boy nodded, but his gaze told him that he didn’t quite hear the second part of his promise. “Good,” he’d murmured. “Good. Thank you.”

They sat in silence for a few minutes more – Wirt was the ideal choice to sit with for the best silences – and then he surprised him. Wirt hugged him. The frog held his breath and waited it out, letting his older boy take all the time he needed, but it was unusual to say the least. He’d carry him, yes, and he’d let him sit in his lap, yes, but hugs were from Greg. That was how it had always been.

He croaked softly, not wanting to startle Greg awake with this new development just yet. Wirt chuckled under his breath, stroked his back, then stood from the bed. He carried him to his tank on the dresser, then laid him back inside it.

“I’m gonna miss you, too, guy,” he told him. “Be good. I’ll… I’ll see you when I see you.”

He blinked after Wirt as he went to his little boy’s bedside for the third and final time that night. He thumbed his messy bangs away from his forehead, then pressed his lips to it. It was brief and after that he took a step back, then another, and several more until he was back at the door, looking in on the little boy in the bed.

“I love you,” he forced out, voice choked and he worried that Wirt was on the verge of tears, but he didn’t have a chance to check on him because then he was gone.

He’d resolved to find out in the morning just what that was all about, but that morning found him being dragged outside by his little boy and stuffed under a bush in a lengthy game of hide-and-seek. So he’d wait and find out in the afternoon instead.

But that afternoon found him alone with Greg on all sorts of adventures – in which he stayed true to his promise to Wirt and at least tried to steer his little boy in the right direction, but again, Greg never listened until it was too late. So he would find out in the evening what was on his older boy’s mind.

But that night Wirt still hadn’t returned. Nor did he the next day, nor the day after that, nor the day after that.

Thirty-five days later, he’d forgotten all about it.

All except his promise.

“You’ll look after him, won’t you?”

His little boy wasn’t moving. Sprawled on the ground at the foot of the wall, limp and dressed like his brother. The brother he’d been missing so terribly lately. The brother he’d left sleeping in the hospital. The brother Greg was convinced was back in the woods. Lost, alone, and afraid.

He wanted to hop down to him, but it was a long drop down. A raindrop plipped on the top of his head and he looked up at the sky again. The rain started to fall.

Ribbit. Ribbit. Ribbit. He called to Greg, urging him to wake up. But his little boy did not stir. He did not kick out a leg or blink sleepily or ask, “What’s wrong, Jason Funderberker?”

“Rorop!” he croaked louder, but it didn’t make a difference.

The frog prepared to jump down, far fall or not, when headlights lit up the cemetery behind him. It was his family’s car. He recognized the putter the engine made in the cold weather. Someone to help. Relief filled his next croak as the father scrambled from the car and ran over to him.

“Greg? Greg! Jason!” he called breathlessly, shortening his name the way he always did as his eyes fell upon him. “Oh, thank god. Greg! Gregory, you answer me this second, young man! I mean it!”

Ribbit. But the man wasn’t looking his way. He checked behind gravestones, calling his little boy’s name all the while. He took out a cell phone and pressed it to his ear as he paced between the head stones. The rain was falling harder now. Ribbit! That caught his attention. He squinted at him through the rain.

“How did you get up there…?” he murmured, then his eyes widened and he spoke into the phone. “He’s at the cemetery!” he blurted out, smacking his palm to his forehead. “I don’t know why I didn’t think of that earlier, they always come here on Halloween but I didn’t think-!”

He cut himself off and the frog croaked impatiently at him. His little boy was cold and wet and not waking up, he needed to get to him. The father looked at him, trying to understand and failing.

“I found Jason Funderberker. He’s on the back wall,” he told whoever he was talking to. “No. No, and he’s not answering me. But his bike’s here and he wouldn’t leave Jason-” His eyes widened as his gaze roved over the stone wall he sat on. “You don’t think he climbed the wall?”

Ribbit. He praised him for his observation skills as he finally caught on. Still, the man hesitated.

“But it’s their thing. Their Halloween thing,” he protested, then straightened his shoulders and eyed the tree Greg had climbed not so long ago. “I’m going to check, just in case.”

The frog glanced down at his little boy again. He looked even paler, even colder, wet from the lake and the rain now. The father grunted and slipped, not the most graceful tree climber, but he got the hang of it on the third try and slowly scaled it, all while keeping the phone tucked between his cheek and shoulder.

“I just want to see over it, that’s all,” he muttered, bracing his hand on top of the wall as he pushed up, craning over it to look down. “I see him! Greg! Greg!”

If his little boy wouldn’t answer him, then he didn’t know why he’d think that he’d answer the father. He’d hoped he would anyway, and his heart beat a little faster when he didn’t.

“He’s not moving. Amy, tell the hospital! I think he hit his head on the railroad tracks. I can barely see him – he’s wearing that red hat Wirt made and I can see the lining of the nurse’s cape – but it looks like he’s just lying there at the base of the wall-” The father’s ramblings were cut short as more headlights joined the family’s car.

The frog squinted in the light as the father lost his grip and slid down the tree. Ribbit! Where was he going? He couldn’t leave his little boy on the other side of the wall all alone.

“A police car just pulled up outside the cemetery, I think they see my car and Greg’s bike. I’m gonna see if they can help, but get someone to send an ambulance, Amy, because something’s wrong. Jason Funderberker is really upset.”

Of course he was. He had every right to be. He looked down the wall again, judging the distance with a keen eye. It was still too far for his comfort, but he had no choice.

Jason Funderberker leapt down from his perch on the wall and landed hard on the sliver of ground between the wall and the railroad tracks. He could hear the father shouting on the other side, “Officer! Officer, over here! My son’s hurt, I think he hit his head!” Hit his head indeed. His little boy’s head was resting on a solid piece of metal, the way he’d rest against a pillow or his brother’s shoulder. Like he was only sleeping.

“Rorop,” he called to him, hopping over to settle on his chest. “Rorop?”

Greg still didn’t move. He nuzzled his face, jumped on his chest, shoved his head under the palm of his hand like he did when he wanted to be pet, but the hand and arm attached fell limp at his side.

Lights bore down on them, illuminating the sickly pallor of Greg’s skin and the blood staining the railroad tracks. He looked up as two policemen with flashlights climbed down on their side of the wall. There was more noise on the other side. The wailing of sirens in the night. Red and blue leaked through the cracks in the wall.

He moved as the men carefully checked his little boy. The first one called out to him, flicked his cheek, placed his ear over his nose and mouth while the other held his wrist. Greg’s hands always felt so capable and sure when they held him, but in the grip of this stranger they looked so small and weak. He watched his little boy’s face, waiting for these men to work their magic and wake him up from this strange sleep.

The man holding his wrist tightened his grip a little, then gently laid his arm down on the ground. “I’m not getting a pulse,” he murmured to his companion.

“He’s not breathing,” the first one added. “There’s a lot of blood here. His skull might be fractured, but it’s hard to tell.”

He lifted Greg’s eyelid and shone the light of the flashlight right into it. “Unresponsive,” the second man affirmed. “I’ll start CPR, you have the first aid kit?”

“Right here.” The first man unzipped a small black pouch.

“Cover the wound, but don’t press too hard if you think it’s a fracture.”

A sheet of gauze was slipped under his head where the bleeding stemmed from. “I know… man, he’s just a little kid. What’s he doing out here?”

“Stabilize his head and neck for me? Okay, good. Hang in there, little guy.” The frog watched as the first man cradled Greg’s head while the second man pressed his hands to his little boy’s chest and pressed down.

Thirty times. Then two breaths. Then thirty more times.

The sirens increased in volume, ringing in his head so that he could still hear them even once they’d stopped. The men with his little boy called out to the people who’d just arrived, but he paid little attention to what they were saying. How could he when whatever these men were doing didn’t seem to be working?

“How is he? How’s my son?”

The father joined them with two others. The energy in the air became frantic as the new people replaced the first two men. The police officers and the EMTs worked together to get Greg up off the ground safely, to get him to an ambulance, to the hospital.

The hospital where Wirt was sleeping deeply, too.

“You’ll look after him, won’t you?”

“I still can’t find a pulse.”

“He’s hypothermic.”

“He’s not breathing.”

Ribbit.

“Oh, don’t worry about me, Jason Funderberker! I’m fine! See?”

But his little boy wasn’t fine.

Greg wasn’t fine at all.

Chapter Text

It was dawn when Greg realized he couldn’t feel tired. At least not from walking. Mentally, emotionally, he was exhausted.

With morning came a gray mist. A low fog nestled between the trees and covered the ground. The hem of Wirt’s cape coat disappeared beneath it, the lantern unable to cut through the mist completely.

Greg walked slowly. Without a destination, without a plan, there was no reason to hurry, was there? He looked up as the sun tried to shine through the fog. He had nowhere to go.

Breathing in deeply, his brow furrowed. For most of the night he’d tried to find a way home because maybe – just maybe – Diana had been lying and if he left The Unknown, then he could go back to being Greg. Because the magic in The Unknown couldn’t exist in their world, Wirt had told him that. Wirt assured him of that.

But home wasn’t so easy to find. Everything looked the same and he didn’t know where he started his journey in the first place. Greg sighed and stopped, then slumped against a tree to sit cross-legged at the base of it. Even if he found the way home, he had to make sure Wirt found his way, too. He knew more than he’d ever known anything that Wirt needed to get out of here as soon as possible.

With or without him.

Knowing his brother, the latter wasn’t going to be very easy to convince him of. “I’m so stupid,” Greg muttered under his breath. “This is all my fault. If I’d just called him back and apologized- no. If I’d never gotten mad at him in the first place, then none of this would’ve happened.”

He bonked the back of his head on the tree trunk. It disturbed a few squirrels that scurried from his tree to another. They spared him one, single glance before they fled in terror. Greg looked down at his hands. They still looked like his hands. His clothes were the same.

Hesitant, fearful, Greg lifted his hand and gingerly touched his head. Slowly, he combed his fingers through his hair as he felt for the branches. He released a loud, shaky breath after a moment. There was nothing there. He couldn’t feel the branches that he’d seen in his reflection, a mirror image of The Beast’s as he remembered them from three years ago. As far as Greg could see and feel, he still looked like himself.

But it was only him who could see that, apparently, if the way Wirt had looked at him was any indication. Greg sniffled and drew his knees up so he could hug them. He’d been so angry…

“And he has every right to be,” Greg reflected, burying his face in his arms. “I let myself become The Beast. I’m angry at me, too.”

The Wirt in his dream hadn’t seemed angry, though. He’d been too tired for it. Greg could clearly see it now. The exhaustion was deeper than anything sleep could cure. The burden of the lantern too great for him.

Greg lifted his head and glared at the lantern sitting beside him in the snow. He uncurled enough to kick it over, but he immediately hurried to right it without a second thought. Instinct. He hated this. He pushed the lantern farther from him, then pointedly looked away.

“If you think that just because I’m The Beast now that I’m going to fill you up with the oil from the Edelwood trees, then you have no idea just how wrong you are,” he told it. “I’m not turning anyone into trees. Not ever.”

He felt a light breeze ruffle his clothes. He felt how cool it was against his cheeks. But it didn’t make him feel cold. It didn’t make him feel anything. He stiffened. Plunging his hands into the snow he sat in, he felt the chill and icy crunch between his fingers, but his fingers didn’t feel cold or go numb or anything. He couldn’t feel anything.

Greg turned around and punched the tree he was leaning against. He couldn’t feel anything. The bark scratched his knuckles, and he felt the contact that he made with the trunk, but it didn’t hurt. He punched it again, then cradled his hand to his chest.

“Sorry, tree.” Greg looked up to its branches. “I’m sorry.”

The branches looming above him seemed innocent enough, but as he watched them bend in the breeze, he couldn’t help but think of the branch antlers again. Shaking his head, Greg leaned back against the tree and closed his eyes. If not feeling things like cold, tired, or pain meant not feeling the branches as well, then maybe he was okay with it. And at least he still felt like himself. That was another good thing. Even if he was The Beast now, he still felt like Gregory.

After a few more minutes of sitting in the snow, Greg got up and took the lantern with him. He still didn’t know where he was going, but he needed to go somewhere. He needed a new plan. Maybe he could build himself a forest house, or live underground like Virgil did.

Virgil. And Beatrice. Greg looked down to watch his steps get swallowed up by the fog. How could he ever face them again? They tried to stop this from happening. They saw what was happening to his shadow and they tried to stop it.

“They should’ve told me what was going on though.” Greg looked into the lantern. “They should’ve told me.” But would he have believed them?

Maybe.

Greg sighed and started humming his song as he walked. He decided to turn, so took a right at the next break in the trees, only to find himself face to face with Wirt. The light in his lantern glowed a little brighter as Greg’s face lit up. Even if it was only for a second, the joy he felt on seeing his brother couldn’t be contained.

But then he remembered, and it was written all over Wirt’s face. His brother couldn’t see him. He only saw The Beast.

Inhaling deeply, puffing out his chest, Greg turned to go the other way. As much as he wanted to, he couldn’t let Wirt find out it was him. He couldn’t let Wirt have the lantern. He’d only managed to take half a step before he heard Wirt’s footsteps behind him.

“Wait!”

Greg froze and so did Wirt. He listened for him, but his brother didn’t make another sound. He turned around, curiosity getting the better of him. Desperation lined Wirt’s face, desperation and anger, as his eyes narrowed and his exhales came in fast, harsh clouds of breath in the cold air. His brother had to be freezing. Greg’s hand went to the buttons of the cape. Maybe he could leave this for him somewhere that he could find, so he could keep warm.

Wirt’s voice broke through his thoughts. “I don’t want to play any games, Beast.”

“Neither do I,” Greg assured him.

Wirt stiffened, his lip quivering as he nodded. “Okay. Okay, good. Then… then just tell me what I need to do to find Greg. I know you know where he is.”

Yeah, right in front of your stupid face. Greg almost told him that. Almost. He opened his mouth, the taunt right on his tongue, but he couldn’t. What would Wirt’s face look like once he believed that he was The Beast? Greg was pretty sure he didn’t ever want to see.

Instead Greg glanced away, into the fog. “Just go home,” he told him. “That’s all you need to do.”

“Just go home?” Wirt snorted. “Right. Of course, I don’t know why I didn’t think of that myself. Of course we can just go on home-”

Greg rolled his eyes. Wirt’s sarcasm wasn’t something he needed right now. “You want to help your brother? Then listen to me and go home. That’s what he wants you to do.”

“Greg wants me to listen to you and go home,” Wirt repeated dryly.

“Yes.”

“Yeah, I’m not buying it.”

“You told me to tell you what you need to do for your brother,” he replied, looking him in the eye. “And I’m telling you. Go home.”

“And I’m telling you that’s not happening!” Wirt fired back.

Greg had to resist the urge to pick up the closest thing he could find on the ground and chuck it at his brother. “You can’t stay here!” he shouted, hoping that raising his voice would make him listen better. “You have to go!”

“Not without Greg!”

“He can’t go with you!” Greg’s voice echoed around them.

At least, Greg heard his voice echoing. From the way Wirt backed away from him, he supposed he didn’t hear him at all. Good. Breathing heavily, he looked away from the fear spreading across his brother’s face.

“He can’t go with you,” he repeated, softer. “It’s… it’s too late. I turned him into an Edelwood tree.”

The lie rolled easily off his tongue, though if Wirt could actually see him, he knew that he wouldn’t believe him. Not with the way he trembled just slightly or the way his eyes grew damp. He knew his brother’s nightmares, he knew what he feared. But how else could he make him leave? If he thought it was too late for him, then maybe he’d give up the search and go home, which was what was better in the long run, right? That was the bigger picture, wasn’t it? Even if it meant having to see Wirt look absolutely devastated.

“No.” He shook his head, his lips pressed together tightly so they whitened as his chin quivered.

“Yes,” Greg replied. “He’s… he’s an Edelwood tree, so there’s nothing here for you anymore. Go home, before I change my mind and turn you into an Edelwood tree, too.”

He turned his back on him and forced himself to start walking again. One step, then another. Just one at a time. Greg held the lantern tightly in his hand, using the feel of the rusty handle against his palm to remind him why he couldn’t turn around and hug Wirt and tell him how sorry he was. He was so sorry.

“You’re lying,” Wirt choked out and Greg stopped.

“No, I’m not.” He waited, feeling his brother’s stare at his back.

Wirt’s voice sounded a bit stronger, a bit firmer as he continued, “Yes, you are. You’re lying! You’re looking for him, too, aren’t you? He got away from you and now you’re trying to find him or- or something. And you’re just trying to make me lose my way.”

Greg stiffened. “That’s not true-”

“You need more oil for your lantern! Don’t you? I mean, look at it, it’s already running low! You’re trying to get Greg and I in one go!” Wirt accused.

The lantern flickered as Greg looked down at it. Was it running low? He couldn’t really tell. It looked fine enough. He shook his head. Wirt was trying to mess with him. Just like he always did as his big brother. Except this time he was trying to mess with what he thought was a forest monster, but it was the same principle. He was trying to get a reaction out of him.

“I’m telling you, he’s an Edelwood tree. You’re never going to see him again, so just go. Go home. Won’t it be easier anyway? You can go and live your own life. You can do whatever you want.” Greg kept walking, faster now.

“I’d never leave my brother!” Wirt hollered at him.

“You already did!” Greg snapped, whirling around to face him. “You left him! That’s what started all of this, isn’t it? You left. It wasn’t so hard the first time, so why should it be any different now? Go home!”

Wirt shook his head slowly, recoiling as if his words actually slapped him. “I didn’t… I didn’t mean to…”

Greg’s eyes went wide and he covered his mouth with his hand. Oh no. No, he didn’t want Wirt to think it was his fault. It wasn’t, but the guilt was already hovering over his brother like a dark cloud, and Greg had put it there himself.

He shivered and backed away. “Just go home,” he told him again. “It’s what your brother would’ve wanted.”

That seemed to clear up the guilt a little, but it was replaced with resentment. He hadn’t been on the receiving end of a look like that for a long time. Greg still held his ground, but Wirt did exactly the same. Why couldn’t his big brother just listen to him?

“I’m not leaving without him. I know he’s not an Edelwood tree yet. I know… so spare your breath, Beast.”

Greg bristled, but the light in his lantern glowed with pride in how much faith his brother had in him. “No, you don’t know anything. If you don’t leave now, I will turn you into a tree!” he threatened.

Wirt spread his arms wide and stared him down. “Then do it!”

Even if he was just calling his bluff, Greg gaped at him in shock. How could he say something like that so easily? Was his brother an idiot?

Seeing his hesitance, Wirt took his chances and lunged for him, tossing his own unlit lantern aside to attempt to grab Greg’s. It was knocked from his hand as he scrambled to keep it away. Panic seized him. He shoved Wirt back, surprising them both with how far he managed to send him, forcing him to the ground. They both stared at each other for a moment, fear heavy in both of their eyes.

“Stay away,” Greg whimpered, then ran for his lantern and bolted away from Wirt.

He heard his brother call for him to wait, fairly certain that he was giving chase, so he darted through the trees and didn’t stop running. Only when the light in the lantern flickered and a wave of exhaustion swept over him did he pause for a moment. The weariness passed quickly, but it had been enough to slow him down and forced him to lean his weight against a tree as he panted. When he checked on the lantern, the light seemed fine and bright. The silhouette of him inside no longer seemed happy, but it was there, looking out at him through the glass.

“Don’t look at me like that,” he told himself, disappointment creeping along his spine. “I tried to get him to go home, it’s not my fault he’s too much of a jerk to listen.”

He forgot sometimes how stubborn his brother could be. Greg waited a minute for the dizziness to pass and for his breathing to return to normal. He listened for Wirt, but it seemed that he’d lost him for now. Who would’ve thought after all this time he’d actually try and want to lose his brother?

Greg shook his head and started walking again. He needed to find a way to get Wirt home, that was clear. If Wirt wasn’t going to listen to him and get himself home, then it was up to him to make sure that happened.

But how?

As he wandered through the rest of the morning and into the afternoon, Greg kept an eye out for anything, any clue or hint or idea that could help him. He also looked for Edelwood trees, so he could take off the cape and leave it there, both for Wirt to find so he could wear it to keep warm and also because maybe that would convince him that there was no hope for Greg and that he should just get on with his life. Then Greg could work on trying to get home himself, because there really had to be a way.

The sound of rushing water perked him up. A river? Greg wandered towards it, interested in seeing something other than bushes and trees and snow for a little while. He stumbled through the brush, eyes widening as he recognized the river in front of him. He’d know those little sticks anywhere. Somehow, he’d found his way back to where he started, or somewhere close enough at any rate.

Greg walked along the edge. Just a few days ago he walked along the very same river bank singing his Adelaide Parade song and conducting an imaginary band with a stick. Greg picked one up in his free hand and waved it around experimentally.

“We’re going to the pasture to meet Adelaide and ask her if she has a way to send us back where we came from…” he sang quietly, then lowered the stick with a sigh. “If only there was someone like that who actually could send us back. But I don’t even know where to look.”

He dropped the stick on the ground and continued walking, watching the river closely. It hadn’t frozen over yet, though there were patches of ice that had started to form. The water still ran easily downstream, carrying the twigs and such with it.

Eventually he came across the old wooden dock. Greg stared at it for a while, then stepped onto it and walked to the edge. He sat down and waited, just to see. There were hardly any clouds in the sky now, so the chances of a thunderstorm rolling in suddenly and spooking him again weren’t very likely.

Greg kicked his feet back and forth as he picked at the hem of Wirt’s cape. He’d wait a little while, but if nothing came of it, then he’d start walking again until another idea struck him. Maybe he could go to Grayfield? Maybe Agnes and Henry and the others would be willing to help him. Or maybe he could find that Auntie Whispers lady and Lorna, maybe they’d know what to do. Or Uncle Endicott and the ghost lady.

With a heavy sigh, Greg stared at his sneakers. Oh, who was he kidding? He looked like The Beast. Who would want to help someone who had tree antlers bursting out from the sides of their head and had giant white holes for eyes? No one would recognize him. No one would know.

“I told you to keep an eye on that shadow of yours, boy…”

Greg lifted his head. Right in front of him, at the end of the dock, The Fisherman’s boat bobbed. Instead of judgment, he found sympathy in the man’s eyes. Sorrow. For him.

“You can see me?” Greg barely dared to hope.

The Fisherman shattered that hope with a simple shake of his head. “I see The Beast on my dock. The same Beast I saw in your shadow when you left my boat.”

Greg blinked slowly. The Fisherman had known this would happen… he’d known even then. As his anger flared, so did the light in the lantern.

“You know, you could’ve been more specific,” he told him, sniffling as he shivered. “You could’ve told me why I needed to watch my shadow. Why didn’t you? Why didn’t you tell me?”

The Fisherman closed his eyes and sighed. “It wasn’t my place.”

“What? But you could tell me my brother was dead?” Greg glared at him as he rose to his feet. “You had no problem deciding it was your place to tell me that! And you know what? He isn’t dead! But it doesn’t even matter anymore because he won’t leave so he might as well be dead now!”

When The Fisherman opened his eyes and only continued to stare at him with that same, sorrowful gaze, Greg had to look away. Everyone he’d met… they’d all thought they knew what was best for him. Every single one of them. But they hadn’t really known. Nobody had.

Not even himself. He hadn’t really known what was best for him either. Greg’s anger drained from him as he hugged himself. All his efforts got him were a lantern and a brother who was even more lost than ever. He’d just been trying to do the right thing, to fix what he’d messed up. All he’d wanted was to tell his brother that he was sorry, that he loved him, and then get him home safe.

“That’s all I wanted,” he murmured. “All of that other stuff Diana said… it wasn’t true. It wasn’t true.”

“So what will you do about it then, boy?”

Greg blinked. “Huh?”

The Fisherman tilted his head. “If you’re so certain that your intentions were pure, then what will you do about it?”

“Do? I… I don’t know what to do.” Greg stared at his feet. “I know I don’t want to be The Beast and I don’t want Wirt to stay here forever, but I don’t know what to do about either of those things.”

He really wasn’t any good at being the leader, was he? He’d failed at it not twice, but three times now. He couldn’t do anything right.

“Then you find someone who does know,” The Fisherman replied. “C’mon now, boy. Don’t tell me you’re afraid to go askin’ people questions, I know you aren’t.”

“But who do I ask? Who’s gonna help me when I look like this?” Greg gestured to himself.

“There are people who can see through shadows and illusions, boy. You are one of them, but you’re not the only one. There are people who may be able to help you still.”

“What?” Greg looked up at him. “What do you mean?”

“I’m tellin’ you to find someone who can help you figure things out. I take it you didn’t listen to me about headin’ to the mountain either or you wouldn’t be lookin’ like you do.” The Fisherman gestured to him.

“Oh… um. No.”

“’Course,” he snorted, shaking his head before looking as stern as possible, wagging a finger at him. “Go. To. The. Mountain. I’m not goin’ to say it again, boy. If anyone can help you outta this mess you’re in, then it’s The Queen of the Clouds. She’ll know what to do.”

Greg’s eyes widened as his jaw dropped. “The Queen of the Clouds? You mean, the Queen of Cloud City?”

The Fisherman narrowed his eyes. “How many queens do you think we got up there? ‘Course I mean the Queen of Cloud City!”

“The Queen of Cloud City, of course,” Greg whispered to himself, smile growing with each passing second. “She granted my wish last time. I saved her city and she granted my wish. She could do it again! I could wish for Wirt to go home!” The light in the lantern flared as he laughed. “But wait, what does the mountain have to do with Cloud City? I didn’t have to go up a mountain to get there last time.”

“Cloud City sits at the very peak of that mountain. Those immediately deemed worthy don’t need to prove themselves by climbin’ to the top of the mountain on their own, but most folks find that’s the only way. Given your state, you don’t really have much of a choice. Climbin’s the only thing you can do,” The Fisherman explained.

“Climb the mountain to get to Cloud City… okay.” Greg nodded, determination shining anew on his face. “I can do that. Thanks, Fisherman!” He grabbed his lantern and ran to the river bank, but paused on the opposite end of the dock. “Um. Which way was the mountain again?” he asked sheepishly.

The Fisherman shook his head, then pointed downstream. “East.”

“East, yeah… which way is east?”

“You see where the sun is travelin’?” He pointed to the sky, Greg’s gaze following the path he traced. “Go the opposite direction of the sun.”

“Opposite of the sun. Right, it rises in the east and sets in the west. Okay, got it.” He flashed him a grin, even though he probably couldn’t see it, then pinched his thumb and index finger together for the “a-okay” sign. “Thanks again!”

“Make sure you go straight to the Queen, boy! Don’t you dare dawdle! There’s not much time left!” The Fisherman called after him.

“Much time left for what?” Greg asked, spinning around to face him, but the boat was gone and The Fisherman with it. “Not again,” he sighed. “Is it really too much to ask to get a straight answer around here?”

The quiet winter air was all the answer he would get for now. Greg hummed thoughtfully, taking The Fisherman’s parting words to heart now. He wasn’t about to shrug this off like he had with the shadow thing.

“Not much time left for what?” he repeated, this time to himself, casting his gaze down to the lantern he held and the flickering light within.

Chapter Text

It didn’t take long for Greg to decide that The Fisherman must have meant that there wasn’t much time left to get Wirt out of The Unknown. Greg vaguely remembered several days passing when they’d been here three years ago, but he wasn’t sure exactly how many had gone by before Wirt gave up and let the roots grow around him. Counting on his hand, Greg was pretty sure this was his sixth day in The Unknown this time around, and he was also pretty sure that was already six days too many for him and his brother. While Wirt didn’t seem like he was about to give up any time soon, he wasn’t about to risk his brother’s life on that.

He was going to the mountain, to Cloud City, and he was going to get his brother home. “A promise is a promise,” he reminded himself as he hurried along.

He followed the river for as long as he could. The half frozen water eventually fed into a large lake, or maybe it was an ocean that stretched out before him. There wasn’t an end to it in sight. Water reached on and on until it met the sky, both gray and melancholy in the mist.

It felt like he was standing at the edge of the world.

He could see some mountains in the distance, to his right, disappearing into the low cloud cover. Greg wondered if any of them were the mountain.

With only one direction to go now other than back the way he came, Greg turned right and continued into the trees. He had to find the crossroads, that’s what The Fisherman had said the last time. He had to go east at the crossroads and that would take him to the mountain, which would take him to Cloud City. It was a good plan. It was a leader’s plan.

“Just gotta hang on a little bit longer, Wirt,” Greg murmured, taking the picture from his pocket. “You’ll be home soon, I promise.”

A loud bark answered him. Greg gasped and nearly dropped the picture, spinning on his heel to face Jack, Beatrice’s dog. His hackles were raised as he growled at him, teeth bared.

“Jack!” Greg called out, relieved that it was only the dog and not the lion, the leopard, or the wolf. “Jack, it’s okay. It’s me!”

He stepped towards him, but the dog snapped at him and barked again. Louder. Greg flinched away from him, observing the way Jack failed to recognize him. So even Jack couldn’t tell it was him. He really did look different to everyone else.

“Jack? Jack, what is it, boy?”

Greg hugged the lantern close. Beatrice was coming. She couldn’t see him like this. He glanced around for somewhere to hide, then ran for the nearest bush, but he tripped on Wirt’s cape and landed hard in the snow. He scrambled to sit up, but it was too late. She emerged from the trees nearest Jack and froze as her gaze fell upon him. Greg could only stare back, pinned by the shock filling her eyes.

It wasn’t long before it gave way to tears. “Oh, Greg…”

She couldn’t see him, he could tell, but like The Fisherman she knew it was him just the same. “Beatrice,” he whimpered, voice quivering. “Beatrice, I…”

She quickly crossed the space between them, dropped to her knees, and dragged him into a hug. “You idiot! How could you run away from us like that? Do you have any idea how worried we were? Cheese and crackers! You can’t do that, Greg!”

The reprimand was a familiar one, not unlike something his brother would say. Greg melted in her embrace, though he didn’t return it. The hand not holding the lantern clung to her dress as he shivered.

“I’m sorry,” he mumbled into her shoulder. “I’m sorry.”

A high whinny startled Greg away from her. Over by Jack, Gertrude had emerged from the woods and reared up, refusing to go a step further even with both Virgil and The Woodsman struggling to keep her calm. She tossed her head and kicked up her hooves with Jack barking and growling all the while.

It pained Greg to hear her sound so upset. “It’s okay, Gertrude! Don’t be scared!” he called out to her, but that only seemed to spook her more. “It’s just me! I’m not gonna hurt you!”

But Gertrude took no comfort in his words. Even Beatrice let go of him and eased away, just a bit. When he looked to her, her gaze was apologetic. She reached out, as if to put her hand on his shoulder, but couldn’t quite manage to follow through with it.

The light in his lantern dimmed a bit, but he smiled to reassure her, even though he wasn’t sure if she could see it. “It’s alright, Beatrice. I know I look and sound pretty scary, huh?”

She stiffened, her eyes darkening. “No. You’re not scary, Greg. Absolutely not. You could never be scary.”

Her steadfast belief in him made his throat tighten and he had to swallow past it. “I don’t know about that,” he choked out. “I’m scared of me.”

Beatrice inhaled sharply. Her fists clenched at her sides, knuckles turning white. She looked like she wanted to punch something, or someone. Greg could definitely relate.

“We’re going to fix this, Greg,” she told him. “I don’t know how, exactly, but we’ll find a way.”

Greg nodded, though he wished he felt as sure as Beatrice sounded.

“Come on,” she said as she got to her feet and started walking back to Virgil and The Woodsman. “We’ll start at Adelaide’s. That crazy old hag had a bunch of magical whatchamacallits and books on weird, creepy stuff. We’ll head there and see if there’s anything on reversing this. If we walk a bit behind Gertrude, maybe she won’t be so scared.”

Greg shook his head, making no move to follow her other than standing. “No, I’ve gotta get to the mountain first.”

“The mountain?” Beatrice faltered.

“Yeah. I’m going to Cloud City so I can wish for Wirt to go home,” he replied. “The Fisherman said The Queen of Cloud City would be able to help me.”

She stared at him for a moment while Virgil joined them, leaving Jack, Gertrude, and the cart with The Woodsman. Greg met his gaze briefly, surprised to see that he’d joined Beatrice and Virgil in their search for him, but The Woodsman immediately looked away with a shudder and turned his back on him, busying himself with the horse. Greg caught a quick glimpse of the ax strapped to his back. Something twisted in his gut as he recognized it. Not only did he vaguely remember it from their first trip here, but he couldn’t help but notice that it was the very same ax that had been in his dream.

It wasn’t coming true, was it? Greg’s grip on the lantern tightened. No. No, he wouldn’t let it. He’d blow out his own light first before he’d let that dream come true. He was not going to be the reason Wirt got stuck here.

“Gregory,” Virgil sighed, recapturing his attention. “We have not seen any sign of your brother during our search for you. Are you absolutely certain that he is here?”

Greg narrowed his eyes. “Yes. I’ve seen him. I’ve seen and talked to him three times! He’s here, but he won’t leave without me and since it’s my fault he’s here in the first place, I have to make sure he goes home before I do anything else. That’s what I have to do. And it’s what I’m going to do no matter what you say.”

“Greg,” Beatrice murmured. “It’s not your fault-”

“Yes it is. I’m the one who yelled at him and told him he was the worst big brother ever. I told him I hated him. Even if there was a time he didn’t like me very much, I don’t remember him ever saying that he hated me. Not once. And I got him stuck here because he drove home too fast. He felt bad that I felt bad and-” Greg blinked back the tears stinging his eyes as he sniffled, the guilt squeezing him, wringing him out. “It’s me. I’m the worst brother ever. It’s all my fault.”

“Gregory,” Virgil started, but couldn’t seem to find anything else to say.

Greg scrubbed at his face with his free hand while Beatrice watched helplessly. “He knows you don’t hate him, Greg,” she told him after a beat. “And I’m sure he doesn’t blame you for any of this.”

“I know he doesn’t. But that just makes it feel worse.”

“Does he know?” Virgil asked, then gestured to him. “What you’ve become?”

Greg shook his head. “I don’t want him to know.”

“Greg…” Beatrice frowned. “You should tell him.”

“No. He can’t know.” Greg gripped the lantern tighter as he looked to the ground. “I don’t want him to know.”

Beatrice exhaled heavily. “Okay. Fine, that’s… that’s fine. It’s your decision.”

She didn’t want to chase him off again. Greg nodded, appreciative of that at least. Even if he didn’t exactly have the best track record with his decisions so far, he was determined to set things right on his own terms. It was what a good leader would do.

“Well, okay. Which way is the mountain then?” Beatrice asked, placing her hands on her hips as she glanced around.

Greg tilted his head. “What?”

“We’re coming with you, genius. We’re seeing this through to the end,” she told him. “Wherever that may take us.”

The light in the lantern flared a bit, and Greg could’ve sworn he felt warm. “Really? You’ll come with me even though I’m- even though I look like…?”

“Of course, Gregory,” Virgil assured him. “How could we abandon you at a time like this?”

He pressed his lips together tightly and nodded again. “Thank you. I don’t… I don’t like being alone.”

Beatrice took a deep breath and strengthened her resolve. She pulled him into another hug and squeezed a little. This time Greg reflected on how strange it felt, like she was hugging something shaped differently than how he actually felt. When he voiced this, Virgil hummed in agreement while Beatrice backed away and rubbed her arms, looking to the man for more information on the matter.

“While your soul has been pulled from you, it does not mean that the connection between you and it has been severed. Your soul is still you at its core, so you feel no different. How much do you know about your… situation, Gregory?” Virgil asked him.

“Well… I know my soul’s in the lantern, I look like The Beast to everyone but me, and I sound different, too. Oh, and Di-” Greg cut himself off, hesitating to reveal the wolf’s identity to Virgil right that second. “Um… the wolf said I couldn’t go home like this, but I don’t know if she’s just messing with me or if that’s true.”

“It is true. As long as your soul is in the lantern, you cannot leave these woods.” The Woodsman approached them, but he froze when he got a good look at Greg and had to turn his head away. “I’m sorry, little one. This… I should have prevented this from happening.”

“What? No, it’s not your fault, Woodsman,” he told him, cringing when The Woodsman flinched from his voice. “You didn’t know this would happen.”

“I should have destroyed the lantern when I had the chance!”

“Greg’s right, you couldn’t have known this would happen,” Beatrice told him. “I mean, it was a legend. None of us actually knows where The Beast came from- well, we didn’t. Though, I’m still not completely sure what happened this time around.”

While she rubbed her temples, Virgil turned his attention to Greg to continue his explanation. “Only the light of your soul can reveal your true appearance, the one underneath the illusion of shadow, and since you have not been corrupted by stealing the energy of innocent souls for your own sake, it is with your soul that you look upon yourself with. Do you understand?”

“Not really.” Greg squinted as he tried to.

“You can see through the illusion, Gregory.” He attempted to clarify. “You can see your true self while the rest of the world sees the shadow of The Beast.”

“Do I look like the last Beast?” Greg asked. “I haven’t- I haven’t really looked at myself yet.” Virgil glanced to The Woodsman who nodded solemnly and Greg smiled weakly. “Oh. Right, I thought so, I just…” His voice broke and he took a deep breath. “So I must look pretty tall, huh?”

“Greg,” Beatrice started, then reconsidered whatever she’d been about to say and also tried for a smile. “Are you kidding? You’re a giant! You’re seven feet tall, at least!”

“Really? Wow!” The false cheer was easy to cling to as he tried to laugh. “That’s so weird ‘cause I’m seeing everything from the height I’ve always been.”

“It’s your perception of yourself. You don’t feel any different, so you do not see things any differently than you normally would,” Virgil mused.

“Once you start to fill your lantern with oil though, that will change,” The Woodsman murmured.

Greg shook his head. “I’m not going to put oil in the lantern.”

The three went silent. A shocked sort of silence. The Woodsman looked almost relieved, but the wrinkles set into his brow let onto the concern and guilt that warred with it. Virgil’s face was shadowed by the wide brim of his hat, while Beatrice’s emotions rang out strongly on hers. Shock turned to anger turned to heartbreak.

“Greg, you can’t just let your light go out,” she told him.

“I won’t,” he reassured her, not wanting her to look so sad on his behalf. “I mean, not without trying really hard to change back. But, Beatrice, I don’t want to be The Beast. If that means not putting oil in the lantern and having the light go out eventually, then that’s what’s gonna have to happen. I don’t want to be a monster.”

She looked like she wanted to argue the point, but she closed her mouth and looked away. “You’re not a monster, Greg,” she muttered.

Maybe not yet, but The Beast he remembered was. The way he acted in his dream was pretty monster-like, too. He trapped his brother with him, made him chop down Edelwood trees and grind them into oil. How could someone who made their brother do that be anything but a monster?

Virgil broke the heavy silence that settled over the four of them. “Gregory, when I first met you, you told me that you had not come in contact with the wolf. I knew you were lying then, as I could see it in your shadow, but at the time I decided that there would be no point in calling you out on it. Now, I must ask: why did you lie?”

Greg glanced down at his feet. “I didn’t mean to… I sort of forgot about the wolf because she didn’t chase me or anything like the lion and leopard did. When I remembered- I don’t know. I don’t know why I didn’t say anything. I was scared, maybe. Of what it meant.” His brow furrowed and he stared sternly at Virgil. “Why didn’t you tell me there was something wrong with my shadow?”

“I wanted to,” Beatrice interjected. “I did, but…”

“We did not want to worry you prematurely,” Virgil added.

“We thought if we could get you out of here quickly enough, then you wouldn’t ever have to know,” she continued, hugging herself. “This shouldn’t have happened to you, Greg. I’m so sorry.”

She really was, he could tell. Still, he couldn’t help but wonder if all of this could’ve been avoided if he’d known. He wasn’t sure. He still wouldn’t have gone home, but would he still have become The Beast?

“We have only ever known of the one Beast. The myth surrounding his existence has been debated for some time, but the most common tale was that he was once a man. An ordinary man who gradually became tainted by the forest,” Virgil explained.

“By the wolf,” Greg piped up, nodding in agreement.

Virgil squinted at him. “Most believe it is contact with all three creatures that led to the transformation.”

Greg shook his head. “No, it’s just the wolf. She made The Beast. At least, that’s what she said.”

“She told you that?” Virgil pressed, his brow creasing in urgency.

“Yeah. And she’s the one who told me I was The Beast in the first place. She said that as soon as she saw me, she thought I’d make a good Beast.” His lip quivered and the light in his lantern flickered. “That’s not true though, right? I’m not a bad person, am I?”

“No, of course not,” Beatrice replied firmly. “You’re a very good person, Greg. One of the best kinds of people there are.”

“How is it possible?” Virgil was murmuring to himself as Beatrice comforted him. “While The Beast is about, the three creatures are not, that’s how it was supposed to be. Why would she create something like that?”

“She said The Beast only keeps the lion and the leopard away, and that he makes it so that she has The Unknown all to herself,” Greg told him. “She was really happy that I was The Beast…” He bit down on his lower lip as he watched the man process this. “Virgil? There’s… there’s something you should know… about the wolf.”

The man’s dark eyes flashed to him, wary and curious. He fidgeted under the intense stare, tugging on Wirt’s cape as if seeking some kind of protection from it. Greg took a deep breath and shuffled his feet a little.

“It’s- well, it’s kind of a funny story- except it isn't very funny at all. It's more like good news and bad news,” Greg started, holding up both hands to gesture with, the lantern swinging back and forth as he did so. “See, the good news is Diana’s alive!” He raised one hand up over his head, trying for a smile. “The bad news is she’s actually the wolf and was in disguise pretending to be a nanny for your family so she could make you The Beast.”

Both Beatrice and Virgil’s eyes popped as they stared at him, while The Woodsman glanced between them, a question in his eyes. Right, he’d never met Diana. She’d already been gone by the time they arrived at The Woodsman’s house. Greg sulked quietly as he recalled how terrible he’d felt after she’d fallen from the cart. She’d done it on purpose though. Everything she’d said to him, it had all been on purpose to get what she wanted from him.

“That’s… that’s not possible, Gregory,” Virgil stammered, blinking slowly as it sank in. “I knew Diana. She saved my wife, she was family. A… a trick. It must have been some kind of trick.”

Greg shook his head as he lowered his arms. “I don’t think so. I’m sorry, Virgil, but everything she said… She might be a liar, but I don’t think she was lying about this. She said that you owed her your life, because she helped you.”

He backed away from him, face pale and stricken. “No.”

“That’s-” Beatrice cut herself off and closed her eyes as she struggled with what to say. “That’s crazy. Greg, I just don’t see it. I don’t see how she of all people could be the wolf.”

“I know, I didn’t really believe it either, but she is,” Greg insisted. “I saw her paw prints in the snow and her teeth are so sharp and it’s how she got away from the leopard. She magically transformed into a wolf and ran away when we weren’t looking! You have to believe me!”

“How could it be? All this time…” Virgil searched Greg’s face, but he found no comfort in what he saw. “She… all the lore… I got it from her. She told me of the leopard, the lion, and the wolf. She told me how to ward them off… the salt and the sage.”

“And you told my dad,” Beatrice breathed. “And we told others…Was she really the first person who told you about any of this?”

“I… yes. Yes, I never spoke with anyone else. Your father the only exception. But I thought- I trusted her. She saved Meg from The Pit. She saved her.” His eyes narrowed and darkened as understanding passed through them. “Only a creature born of such darkness could enter and return from such a place unscathed. I never wanted to believe it, I never questioned it because she brought my wife back, she gave my children back their mother, how could I have questioned it? I owed her my life. She created The Beast?”

“That’s what she said,” Greg replied, voice meek in the face of Virgil’s revelation. “And she was the first one I saw when I got here. She made me go another way.”

“She altered your path… she may have altered your path several times, grooming you to become… this.”

Virgil gestured to him and Greg shuddered, remembering how for a second, The Fisherman’s eyes had flashed silver like Diana’s, scaring him into leaving the boat. Had that been part of her power? Had she forced him away from The Fisherman so he wouldn’t go to the crossroads? He’d heard howling the night he found Libbard. Had that been part of her plan, too? Had she wanted him to end up cornered by the leopard and the lion? So that he’d fall into Virgil’s house and meet her?

She’d been with him the first time he saw the lantern, just the two of them. She almost coaxed him into bringing it along then. Into lighting it. She told him his feelings were justified when he was upset about his brother. She told him Virgil was superstitious and didn’t trust him. She told him so many things.

Maybe this wasn’t entirely his fault then? Maybe she’d lied about that, too. Greg looked into his lantern and watched his soul flicker and glow.

“Well, I don’t want to be this anymore. And I don’t want Wirt to see me like this ever again.” Greg steeled himself and took a deep breath. “Let’s go to Cloud City and send him home, then we’re going to fix me.”

-0-

Beatrice walked beside him for most of their journey. She had to take a break and ride in the cart once or twice, but when that happened Virgil would join him in the trees and let The Woodsman take the reins. The Woodsman never walked with him, but Greg didn’t hold that against him. He’d walked with The Beast hovering over his shoulder long enough.

Virgil was good company though. He didn’t speak much, the man still as quiet and stoic as ever, especially now, but Greg found his presence comforting just the same. Every now and then, the man placed his palm at the nape of Greg’s neck. Every time a lump would grow in his throat and he’d have to blink and swallow a lot. It made him want his dad. His brother. Somebody who could take this burden from his shoulders and hold him and tell him everything would be okay. Even if he wasn’t a baby anymore, he was still a kid. He wanted to go home, too.

“I’m sorry, Gregory,” Virgil murmured. “If I could take your place, I would.”

Greg shook his head. “No. You have a family and they need you.”

“So do you.”

He could too easily imagine how upset his parents would be if he never came home. His dad would cry, his mom would close herself off, and Wirt… well, Wirt already made it pretty clear how he felt about leaving Greg here, but if his parents couldn’t have him back, then the least he could do for them was make sure they had Wirt. The least he could do for Wirt was make sure he was able to live the life he wanted.

Virgil squeezed the back of his neck, then let his hand fall to his side. “We will do what we can to right this, Gregory. I promise you that.”

-0-

They arrived at the crossroads as the sun began to sink beyond the horizon. Greg could see the mountain in the dying light, overlooking The Unknown on one side and the expansive body of water on the other. The road leading westward disappeared into the woods, though Greg knew that if he ventured that way he’d find himself back at the valley. The dark chasm in the ground. Brims Town.

Cloud City was a million times more preferable.

Before they started towards the mountain, Greg looked to Virgil and asked, “Are you sure you don’t want to go back home yet?”

The man’s house under the hill couldn’t have been far. There was a wistful look to his eyes as he watched the western horizon. With a sigh, he shook his head, adjusted his cap, then coaxed Gertrude along to the east. Greg let him put some distance between them before silently following.

Hope swelled inside him the closer they got to the mountain. It was covered from summit to base in a thick blanket of snow, even though the snow had been falling so lightly all day. Before the sunlight faded completely, Greg was able to make out a path that wound up from the bottom of the mountain and disappeared around the side. That was good, even as a supernatural, spooky, tree monster he wasn’t sure if he could climb straight up the side of a mountain so easily. Though, he was an expert tree climber… maybe that translated to being an expert mountain climber, too? He’d have to look into that some other time, when he wasn’t in such a hurry.

Gertrude’s panicked cry caught Greg’s attention, Beatrice’s too, as she was walking quietly by his side. The cart had stopped and he’d gotten too close to it. Greg shuffled back a few steps, hunched up under Wirt’s coat as he squeezed his eyes shut. He hated that sound. He hated that he was the one who made her sound like that. When Jack started barking, he clamped his hands over his ears.

“Why did they stop?” Beatrice muttered, placing her hand on Greg’s shoulder for a moment. “Wait here a second, Greg. I’m going to see what’s going on.”

He opened his eyes and watched her pick up the hem of her skirt to hurry over to the cart. Greg slowly lowered his hands, the lantern along with them, and stole into the trees lining the path. He followed her, passed her so he could get to the cart. He was curious, too, why did they stop?

Making sure to stay out of sight, to avoid scaring Gertrude and Jack further, Greg peered around a tree when he was close enough to hear what Virgil and The Woodsman had to say. He froze when a voice he didn’t expect to hear at all cut through the cold air. Standing in front of the cart, his lantern lit once again, Wirt stared them down.

“Thank you for stopping,” he was saying to Virgil – he hadn’t noticed The Woodsman sitting in the back yet – and bowed his head a little. “I’m looking for my brother. Have- have you seen him? He’s nine- almost ten.” A worn, shaky smile flickered on his face. “Almost double- double digits, you know? He’s wearing… ah… he’s wearing a navy blue cape that’s too big for him and he has brown hair and… and he’s just a little kid and I need to take him home. Please. Have you seen him?”

Greg’s eyes widened, and if he could still feel his heart in his chest he was sure it was clench and he was sure it would ache. He had to look away from the pain on his brother’s face – the way he’d loosened his suspenders so that they looped down past his knees. He had to look away because he remembered grabbing them in his dream and pulling him along like a puppet on a string. His eyes sought out Virgil’s face, internally pleading with him to not say anything. He gasped silently as the stony-faced man’s mouth trembled, just a bit, just enough to let Greg know he would break. He would tell Wirt everything.

Before Greg could make his presence known and try and chase Wirt off again, Beatrice swooped in and saved the day. “Wirt?” she gasped as she came around the cart, finally caught up with them. “Wirt, is that you?”

His older brother squinted at her in the dark, holding up the lantern to see her better. He couldn’t recognize her, not by her appearance anyway, but Greg could see that something sparked in his memory as he looked at her. Lowering the lantern just a touch, he took a step towards her.

“Beatrice?”

She clenched her fists, her chest puffing out as she stared hard at him, taking in his appearance, then charged at him and punched him in the shoulder before grabbing him in a bruising embrace. “You wonderful mistake of nature,” she croaked into his shoulder as he hugged her back. “You don’t have any idea how happy I am to see you!”

“I’m pretty sure I do,” Wirt replied, sounding choked up himself as he squeezed her and Greg squeezed the handle of his lantern to keep him from running out there and demanding one of those hugs for himself. “The scissors- they worked? You turned your family back?”

“No, fool, I’m still a bluebird, can’t you tell?” she laughed, then pulled away to take him all in. “Look at you…”

Wirt rubbed the back of his neck, then adjusted his cone hat. “All grown up, yeah, I know.”

“No, I was gonna say you aged terribly. And what’s with this hat? It wasn’t in style the last time you were here, what makes you think it works now?” She flicked his hat so it tilted to one side with a smirk, but Greg could see the way the edges of it quivered.

Not all that long ago, she’d seen Greg wearing the same hat.

Wirt righted it with a huff. “It’s sentimental. Besides, I found it in the snow… I couldn’t just leave it there…” he mumbled, glancing down at his feet briefly before searching her eyes. “Beatrice, what are you doing out here? Do you live nearby?”

She shook her head slightly. “No, I- well, we…” She looked over her shoulder at Virgil and The Woodsman, the latter of which finally dropped down from the cart and made his presence known.

Wirt’s eyes went wide. “Woodsman?” he breathed, his gaze flickering between him and Beatrice now. “What- what are you doing with him? What’s going on?”

“We’re traveling together,” Beatrice replied quickly. “We’re heading to that mountain, there.”

She pointed behind Wirt and he turned to look at the shadowed cliffs not too far from where they stood. “Why are you going there? Don’t tell me it’s for the skiing.”

For a moment, her gaze darted to the trees and Greg stiffened. She knew he hadn’t waited behind? Well, he really shouldn’t have expected anything less. She was a big sister of ten, she probably knew all the tricks in the book.

Greg breathed a sigh of relief when she lied. “We’re looking for Greg.”

Wirt’s face lit up so fast, Greg almost got whiplash from it. “You’ve seen him?”

Beatrice nodded. “He was with us for a little while, but… he ran off when we tried to take him home. He… he didn’t want to leave without you.”

Well, that part wasn’t a lie, but it worked. Greg watched as his brother’s expression fell, the light gradually fading from his eyes. His stare turned cold, resentful, as he lowered it to the ground. Don’t blame yourself, Greg thought inwardly. Don’t you dare blame yourself.

“You lost him?” Wirt pressed.

Beatrice stiffened, but she said nothing to deny it, though The Woodsman took a step forward. “It’s not as simple as that, boy.”

“You stay out of this!” Wirt snapped at him, the fire back in his eyes. “You- you’re part of this whole mess! You were supposed to deal with The Beast! Thanks to you, he’s still out there stalking my little brother! What happened to your burden, Woodsman? I thought the lantern was your burden to bear!”

Beatrice stepped forward as The Woodsman recoiled. “Don’t talk to him like that! It’s not his fault!”

“No, no, he’s right. In some way it is,” The Woodsman spoke up. “I am so sorry for this. Truly I am.”

“You have nothing to be sorry for,” Beatrice scoffed, waving off his apology to glare at Wirt. “And you don’t get to be jerk just because you’re afraid. I’m sorry that we lost Greg. That’s on me and that’s on Virgil. We accept that. We’ll accept responsibility for that and that’s why we’re out here looking for him. That’s why we’ve spent the past two days looking for him! You’re not the only one who’s worried, Wirt!”

While she weaved together a convincing lie, Greg could hear the bits of truth to her words as she laid it all out for Wirt to see. When Wirt flinched and curled in on himself, Greg fought the protective urge that swelled within him. He couldn’t stand between them to shield his brother from her words, not like this. And not while he needed them in order to buy the lie.

With wounded eyes, Wirt hesitantly met her gaze. “I’m- I’m sorry,” he told her, then looked to The Woodsman as well. “I’m sorry. I just- I just want to make sure he’s safe. I want to make sure he’s okay.”

The tension in Beatrice’s spine eased and she relaxed as she placed her hands on his shoulders. “I know. I do, too.”

“He was so mad at me, Beatrice. And I can’t even blame him because he has every right to be,” Wirt choked out, his eyes filling with tears as he sagged against her. “I mean, I did exactly what my dad did to me and I’ve never forgiven him for it-”

“Shh. He’s not mad at you anymore,” she told him, offering him a small smile. “If anything he’s just as worried as you are. The two of you are pretty hopeless.”

“That’s not the point,” Wirt sniffled. “I shouldn’t have let it get to that point in the first place. I should’ve done something about it!”

“Wirt…” She cupped his cheek gently with one hand. “Listen to me, Wirt. As an older sister myself believe me when I say I know how things like this can eat away at you, but you can’t control how he feels anymore than he can control how you feel. Greg’s growing up. He’s going to get mad. He’s going to hurt and he’s going to lash out, and sometimes it will be your fault. You’re kind of infuriating sometimes. But trust me when I say most of the time it won’t be. Okay?”

He couldn’t meet her gaze, but he nodded just the same. Even though his eyes were damp, he didn’t shed a single tear and Greg was proud of him. He hadn’t managed to hold back his own tears after all. Biting his lower lip, Greg hiccupped as they dripped down his cheeks. How could Wirt think he was anything like his dad? Wirt was amazing, he was kind and generous and always, always there for him when he needed it most. His dad wasn’t any of those things.

How could Greg have made Wirt feel like he was anything like that man?

“I’m sorry, Wirt,” he whispered as he watched Beatrice finish comforting him, then lead him to the cart so he could climb on and sit for a while.

“I’m sure you’ve been running yourself ragged. You look terrible,” she told him and her bluntness made Wirt chuckle a little. “Sit down a minute and rest.”

“You said you’re heading to that mountain to look for Greg?” Wirt inquired as he obediently sat. “Why do you think he’s there?”

Beatrice froze. Apparently her lie didn’t extend that far. Luckily for her, and for Greg, too, Virgil was able to think of one for them.

“We heard from a town a ways back that they saw a little boy matching the description we gave traveling this way,” he answered gruffly. “Thought it wouldn’t hurt to check.”

Wirt blinked over at the man. “Oh. Okay. Um… and who are you exactly?”

“Virgil.”

“Virgil?” Wirt echoed, then looked to Beatrice when he didn’t say anything else on the matter.

She shrugged. “He’s a family friend. He’s the one who brought Greg to my house a few days ago. He looked after him when he didn’t need to, so that puts him in my good graces.”

Virgil snorted, capturing both of their attentions again. “’Course I needed to. Did you expect me to let him loose in the woods willingly? A boy his age? Wouldn’t dream of it.”

Wirt’s suspicions faded, his face softening at the response. “Well, thank you. I’m glad he hasn’t been alone this whole time.”

When Jack hopped into the cart and laid his head on Wirt’s thigh, his older brother’s lips curled into a half-smile as he scratched behind the dog’s ear – the same way he would scratch the top of Jason Funderberker’s head. Resolve spread across Wirt’s face, determination renewed as he lifted his head to look Beatrice in the eyes.

“I’m coming with you. This is the first lead I’ve had since… since I last saw him and I just don’t know where else to keep looking. Let me come with you. Please.”

Beatrice hesitated, but there was really no reason to not let him join them. Well, aside from the fact that they weren’t actually looking for Greg and were travelling with him and Wirt couldn’t know that because Greg was also The Beast at this very moment. That was actually a pretty compelling reason, but – again – Wirt couldn’t know.

“Okay,” she agreed quietly. “Of course you can come with us, yes.”

Wirt smiled, hopeful once more as The Woodsman and Beatrice settled in the cart beside him and Virgil snapped Gertrude back into action. The little cart began rolling towards the mountain. Over her shoulder, Beatrice cast a glance to Greg in the shadows of the trees. He waited and watched until the cart was far enough away that he could safely come out of hiding.

Alone in the snow, again, Greg sighed and looked into his lantern. “Ain’t that just the way?”

-0-

Halfway up the mountain, Greg found the cart had stopped for a break. Silent and slow, he crept up behind them as dawn approached. Gertrude and Jack slumbered deeply, The Woodsman and Virgil sound asleep on the benches of the cart. Up in the driver’s seat, Beatrice slept curled up, head pillowed on her arms. Wirt wasn’t with them.

Worried, Greg glanced around quickly. He checked under the cart, between Virgil and The Woodsman, and behind a small cluster of rocks, but he didn’t see him anywhere. Tempted to call out for him, Greg hurried ahead a few feet, his lantern flickering in time with his panic, his breaths getting shallower with each step.

He found him leaning against the base of a tree. Greg breathed a sigh of relief, then quickly hid his lantern from sight as he eased his way over to him. Sometimes being a shadowy creature of the night had its perks. He tucked himself behind the very same tree his brother had chosen to sit by, sliding down the trunk to mimic the way Wirt was resting. Sure, Greg didn’t need to rest, but he was feeling a bit tired. A bit sluggish. Heavy and fragile at the same time. It was strange, so he figured a quick little break could only be a good thing.

He leaned his head against the trunk and closed his eyes, listening to Wirt’s gentle breathing. Wirt should’ve been sleeping, though who was Greg to call him out on that? He hadn’t been the best sleeper during his time here either. Plus, he was secretly glad he was still awake and that he could sit by him, even if Wirt didn’t know it.

“I’m sorry, Greg,” Wirt whispered.

Greg’s eyes shot open and he bristled. He didn’t dare breathe or move a single muscle as he listened. Had he found out? Was he talking to him? He waited a minute or two, but Wirt said nothing else. Hesitant, Greg shifted so he could catch a glimpse of him on the other side of the tree.

Wirt sat with his knees drawn up to his chest, his arms wrapped around them as he stared at something clenched tight in his hand. His rock facts rock. Greg sagged against the tree, his cheek pressing into the rough, ragged bark. Wirt gently traced the painted lines of the silly face with his thumb as he stared at it.

“I said I’d find you again… I said it was a rock fact… Heh, guess my rock facts aren’t as one hundred percent as we thought.” Wirt smiled weakly at the rock, but it didn’t last as a harsh sob ripped from his chest.

He buried his face against his kneecaps, hunching in on himself as tremors shook his shoulders. From the snow covered ground beneath him, small roots emerged from the soil. They curled around Wirt’s ankles and slithered up his spine as Greg watched in horror. No, not him. Not his brother. Greg willed the Edelwood roots away, but they just kept growing. Sprouting leaves as they sought to cocoon his brother in his anguish. He hoped and commanded and wished them away from his brother with such a ferocity, he felt exhausted by it. Drained. But it was worth it. Even though Wirt stayed curled up tight, despair pouring from him in waves, the roots loosened their grip on him and sank back into the snow.

When he was sure they were gone Greg had to look away, blinking back his own tears as he bit down on his lip. What had he done to his brother? What had he almost done? He hugged the lantern, smothering its light under the cape as he pressed his back firmly to the tree. He thought he could feel Wirt’s trembling through the trunk, right along his spine. He closed his eyes and pushed all of his weight against the tree, willing him to feel it, feel that he was there for him.

But Wirt just kept crying. Greg sat with him for as long as he could, but as the night faded and morning approached on its heels, he had to leave. He had a wish to make.

Chapter Text

“You know what I think, Greg?”

Greg kicked at a rock as he shuffled up the steep incline, watching it bounce up a ways only to roll back down. There was less snow on this side of the mountain. Maybe it had melted some when the sun came up or maybe because this side faced the big ocean – or lake – it didn’t get to have as much snow as the side that faced The Unknown. He didn’t really know. All he knew was that he could see pebbles and he could see dirt and he hadn’t realized how much he’d missed the ground when it wasn’t covered in a blanket of white. Sure, he loved snow, but he loved playing in snow, not walking in it.

A few steps behind him, Beatrice huffed and puffed her way up the mountain. She’d met up with him as the sun came up, The Woodsman, too, the pair of them claiming that they wanted to scout ahead and make sure that the path would be safe for Gertrude and the cart. Even if their true intention had been to check on him, Greg had to admit that it was good that they were getting a glimpse of this part. He didn’t think Gertrude would like this incline all that much. Or all these rocks.

“Greg!”

“What?” he called back, kicking another rock.

“Are you listening to me?” Beatrice asked.

“Yeah,” he answered. “You asked me if I know what you think, and I don’t, but I don’t know that I want to know.”

Beatrice snorted and Greg couldn’t help grinning a little. “Thanks a lot. But seriously, listen. I think you should tell Wirt what’s going on?”

“Yeah, that’s not happening,” he replied breathlessly, his legs shaking a little, but he pressed on.

“He’s a mess, Greg,” she told him. “And the two of you need to talk. You weren’t exactly forthcoming with the amount of baggage the two of you have, jeez. It’s ridiculous. Communication is key, Greg!”

“I’ll talk to him once I’m back to normal.” He paused to look over his shoulder at her, but quickly discovered that was a bad idea when the world spun a little faster than usual. “I can’t let him see me like this. I can’t let him know.”

“It was a dream, Greg,” she sighed. “Dreams aren’t real.”

Greg shook his head and continued walking – or weaving rather – up the mountain. They had to be close, right? “I had this dream before I realized I was The Beast. Before I even was The Beast, I think. It knew. I don’t want to find out what other things it knew would happen and if that means not telling Wirt who I am, then that’s what I gonna do. It’s for his own good.”

“Shouldn’t he be the one to decide that?” she asked, tone dry. “You know, this is sounding an awful lot like how you got upset with Virgil and I for not telling you we were trying to get you home.”

“This is different,” Greg retorted. “You said yourself that he’s a mess. Do you think he can make good decisions for himself right now? I don’t. He needs a nap. Get him to take a nap and I’ll think about it.”

“Little one, she’s right,” The Woodsman called up to him. “You don’t have much time left, don’t waste it on hiding from your brother.”

Greg froze, his gaze automatically going to the lantern. It wasn’t as bright as it used to be, but Greg blamed that on the sun that decided to shine nice and big today. Even so, something told him that there was a reason he felt so exhausted and it wasn’t because he was climbing up a mountain – even if normally that would be a very good reason.

“I can do what I want,” he wheezed, then panicked as it took a moment to catch his breath and he wasn’t even walking. “What do you mean when you say I don’t have much time? The Fisherman told me that, too, and I thought he meant I don’t have much time to send Wirt home before he’s stuck here forever. Is that what he meant? Is that what you mean?”

When Greg looked to him, pleadingly, The Woodsman sighed and shook his head. “I carried that lantern more days than I care to count. I cannot even count them, it’s as if their number rivals that of the stars. I know when that lantern is burning the dregs of its oil and, little one, your oil is running dry.”

Greg tightened his grip on the lantern, then checked the fading light within it yet again – obsessively. He needed to fill it- no. No, he was not putting a single drop of oil from a single Edelwood tree in this thing.

“How much longer will it stay lit?” he asked.

The Woodsman lowered his gaze. “Sunset. Maybe a few hours past, depending on how much energy you spend and how hard you push yourself.”

Beatrice whirled on him. “Greg, stop. You need oil for that thing. There’s no way we can make it to the top of the mountain and back down and find an Edelwood tree and chop it down all before sunset!”

“No! I won’t do it!” Greg turned his back on them, climbing the mountain faster now, determination rekindled.

“You don’t have to turn anybody into a tree,” Beatrice attempted to bargain with him. “Just use one of the ones that have already turned! We saw some while we were looking for you! It’s already too late for them, you might as well use the oil they have to give.”

“I don’t care! I said I wouldn’t take oil from anybody and I mean it. I’m going to the top of this mountain. I’m going to Cloud City and the Queen of Cloud City is going to help me. Who knows, maybe she can turn me back to normal, but if she can’t, then at least I’ll be able to get Wirt home. I know she can do that.”

Without another word, he stormed up the mountain and refused to check to see if Beatrice and The Woodsman followed him or not. Somehow he knew they did. He could still sense them behind him, following as quickly as they were able.

The incline flattened out a bit, trees and rocky ridges clustering together on the gentle slope. A plateau overlooked the sparkling water far below them. Greg paused a moment to take a break, his light flickering frantically as his chest heaved with labored breaths. Glancing over the side, he could see patches of ice clinging to the base of the mountain, breaking off and separating further and further out towards the horizon. It would’ve been pretty, under different circumstance.

He heard Beatrice and The Woodsman approach him, their hushed voices going silent as they came up beside him. They looked over the edge as well. For a moment, no one said anything.

“How far does it go?” Greg asked eventually.

Beatrice shrugged, attention turning to The Woodsman who rubbed the back of his neck. “Some say forever,” he replied. “No one I know of that has attempted to find out has ever returned. If it does lead somewhere, then no one knows what kind of place that may be.”

“So it’s an ocean?”

“Might be,” he affirmed with a nod. “It’s saltwater at the very least.”

“Greg, we need to talk about your lantern,” Beatrice interrupted their conversation, her fiery gaze focusing on him.

He groaned and rolled his eyes. “We did that already. I’m not stopping now. Look how close we are!” He pointed to the peak of the mountain, though the sight of how much further he had to travel had his knees quiver with an invisible ache.

“I’m not asking you to give up, Greg,” she continued. “I’m saying just hear out our plan.”

Greg glanced between the two of them. “Okay, I’m listening.”

“Since it’s pretty obvious that Gertrude and the cart won’t be able to make it much farther than this, we think it would be a good idea for Virgil and The Woodsman to turn around and take it back down the mountain,” she told him. “That’s what we’ll tell Wirt. He and I will continue checking around here for you while the two of them find an Edelwood tree- just in case!” She tacked on when Greg bristled to protest. “Just in case, Greg. Please.”

“But I-!”

“Little one,” The Woodsman murmured. “There is no coming back once your light goes out. There will be nothing for you but eternal darkness.”

Greg shivered, curling in on himself under the cape coat. He was trying not to think about what would happen if the light went out. It was one thing to simply say, “I don’t want to be The Beast, so I’ll let the light go out” and another to wonder, “What will happen to me when the light goes out?”

He could feel their eyes on him, and for once was thankful that all they could see was a shadow monster. “Go on, Woodsman,” Beatrice spoke up quietly. “I’ll stay with Greg for a little bit longer, but go ahead and let Virgil know what the plan is.”

The Woodsman nodded and left the two of them at the edge of the cliff. The wind picked up, puffy white clouds obscuring the sun and dousing the mountain in one large shadow. Beatrice wrapped her arm around Greg’s shoulder and tucked him against her side. Grateful for the contact, he soaked it up and closed his eyes against the blurring edges of the world around him. He was so tired.

“I just want it to be over,” he told her. “I just want us to go home.”

“I know,” Beatrice murmured, stroking her thumb along his shoulder. “I know, Greg.”

They stood together for a moment, and for a second or two Greg could pretend that he could actually feel the sting of the cold, mountain air on his cheeks and that he felt tired because he was tired, not because his light was going out. He could pretend he was standing at the top of a big snowy hill, sled in hand and Jason Funderberker at his side, his faithful frog, while he tried to convince Wirt to join him. It wouldn’t take much, but his brother would certainly put up a fight, just to mess with him.

Greg blinked when he felt Beatrice shiver, and the daydream bled away as he stepped away from her, to give her some space as she rubbed her arms. She smiled apologetically, so he shrugged to let her know it was alright. He checked the lantern while she warmed herself - he supposed all the walking they’d been doing had helped to keep her from feeling cold - and felt her eyes on him.

“You know… I definitely think there’s still a way for you to change back,” she told him. “Sometimes, for a brief second, I can hear your voice when you’re talking. Like, you actually sound like you.”

“Yeah?” He tilted his head, both pleased by the idea and a little wary of it. He always sounded like himself to himself, so if he couldn’t control it, what was to stop him from talking normally around Wirt? “I don’t know. Maybe you just miss the sound of my awesome voice so much that you think you hear it.”

Beatrice shoved him lightly. “If by awesome you mean annoying and squeaky.”

“Hey!” He grinned, pushing her arm away.

“I’m serious though,” she continued. “Sometimes I think you let yourself shine through the illusion, just a little.”

It was a nice thought, he had to admit, and even if it was risky, part of him wished it was true. Maybe it meant he wasn’t a total monster yet. “Well… if I want any part of me to keep shining, then I guess I’ve gotta keep going.”

They both looked up towards the peak of the mountain. “Good luck, Greg. Be safe. Don’t do anything stupid.”

“I can’t make any promises,” he tried to joke, but she didn’t seem to think it was very funny. “Okay, I won’t. Look after Wirt and make sure he doesn’t do anything stupid back.”

Beatrice shook her head. “The two of you, I swear…”

Reluctant to part ways, but even more reluctant to leave Wirt on his own again, Greg waited a minute while Beatrice started back down the mountain before heading back up. He knew she’d do her best to keep Wirt safe and distracted, but close, for as long as possible. It might have been wrong, making so many people lie for him, but if Wirt knew what was really going on, then he’d understand. At least, Greg liked to think that he would.

He supposed if their positions were reversed though, he wouldn’t be all that understanding at all.

“Have your doubts about your importance to your brother been erased yet, Gregory?”

Diana.

Greg hunched up his shoulders, determined not to look at her as he pressed on. One step at a time. He was coming up on another sharp incline, jagged rocks protruding from the side of the mountain and the very path he walked on.

“I should think so,” Diana’s airy voice continued as she fell into step beside him, letting her fur shawl brush against him. “He refuses to abandon you, after all. He misses you so much, lamenting his failures as a brother-”

“Shut up,” Greg told her. “Don’t talk about him.”

“You’ve given me no choice, Gregory. You are not taking care of your lantern. The Woodsman is right. Though sunset is a very generous assumption. I believe that you will run out long before that.”

“Okay,” he huffed. “And what does that have to do with Wirt exactly?”

“Clearly you need someone more responsible, more invested in your existence, to carry your lantern for you. Your brother is the ideal candidate,” she remarked.

“No, he’s not. He’d actually be the worst choice.” Greg fumbled quickly for a lie. “He… he’s afraid of splinters. Yeah. He won’t be able to chop any wood for the lantern because he hates getting splinters. Sorry, lady, you picked the wrong brothers for the job.”

“It is fascinating how easily you trust your brother to keep your lantern lit, but how difficult it is for you to trust him to do what you think is best,” she mused.

Greg’s brow furrowed, but he said nothing as he trekked on. He lost his footing as the path got steeper, his knees sinking into the little snow there was. It took a minute before he could get up again, his gaze wandering to the lantern. The light was pretty dim, definitely dimmer than it had been. He could see the glistening black splotches of oil staining the bottom of the lantern, his small silhouette crumpling in on itself, hoarding the last of his light.

It was only a little bit farther. Just to the top of the mountain, then everything would be okay. Greg rose and kept walking. Diana followed him.

“You’ll never make it,” she told him. “And there is no afterlife for the afterlife, Gregory. Turn back now while you still can.”

“I can do anything if I set my mind to it,” he told her, determination flashing in his eyes as he looked at her. “So just watch me climb to the very top of this ol’ mountain.”

He wasn’t sure if she was watching or not, because when he glanced around for her a few minutes later she was gone. Still, he had a feeling that he wasn’t alone. And not in a reassuring way.

-0-

There were maybe three hours until sunset by the time Greg breached the cloud cover at the peak of the mountain. The pastel array of orangey-pinks and minty greens and blues washed over him. Greg inhaled sharply as he stepped through the marshmallow fluff to a pale green path that had once been lined with colorful cartoon characters and bright music. For as far as he could see, the clouds were all he could find.

This was it, right? Greg picked up his pace, walking frantically along the path. This was Cloud City. It had to be. But where was the marching band? Where were the reception committees? Where was anyone?

“Hello?” Greg called out. “Hello? Cloud City Queen? Crying dog? Hippopotamus? Giraffe? Monkey! Somebody! Anybody!”

His voice echoed in the empty space around him, bouncing off the buoyant clouds right back to him. Greg tugged Wirt’s coat around him tighter as he shivered. There was a hollow ache inside him, deeper than he’d ever felt anything before. It reminded him of being really hungry, but more so. It scared him.

“Please, help me,” he whispered, squeezing his eyes shut as he wished with all his might.

“I’m afraid there is not much I can do for you, Gregory, but I will try and do what I can.” Greg opened his eyes, squinting a little as the brilliant glow surrounding the queen pierced through the soft, muted colors around him. She shimmered and shone, even more glorious than he remembered. He couldn’t help smiling at her and it only grew when she smiled back. She tilted her head kindly and held out her hand to him. He latched on, desperate for some of the warmth she had to offer.

“I… I have a wish, please,” he told her quietly.

The Queen of Cloud City looked upon him with sad eyes. “I know. But I’m afraid I cannot grant it.”

His face fell and the light in the lantern dimmed just a bit more. “Please… please, just listen to it? I came all this way! Please!”

“And I must commend you for your efforts. It is difficult enough for most to find their way to my city, but for you… in this state…” She gestured to him. “You are certainly worthy of a wish, my child, but you are also too far gone for even my magic to help you now.”

Greg swallowed thickly, then shook his head. “What if it’s not for me?” he wheezed, trying not to grieve for himself as something more important weighed heavily on his mind and in his chest. “What if it’s for my brother?”

At this the queen looked intrigued. “Your brother?”

He nodded. “Please send him home. You can do that, right? He’s not too lost and I haven’t claimed him- I’ve kept the Edelwood away from him! Please send him home? Please!” He pressed as she slowly shook her head. “Why not?”

“That is a choice that belongs to him and him alone.” She released his hand and reached out to cup Greg’s cheeks, a gesture so like his mom’s that he teared up at the light touch. “But it is a very noble wish, Gregory. If he returns home, you will not see him again. If ever he should return to The Unknown at his rightful time, too much will have passed for you. The eyes you would see him with would not be the eyes you look upon the world with now. You would know nothing of him. And if he does not recognize you now, then he would not recognize you once you’ve lost yourself to the forest.” She paused and looked him over, stroking her thumb along his cheek as she smiled. “That is very different from the desire that brought you to The Unknown in the first place.”

“I came here to bring him home. That’s what I wanted.” Greg held her gaze with all the seriousness he could muster. “That’s still what I want. That’s all I want.”

The Queen’s smile faded as she read his stare with her own deep, compassionate one. A shadow crossed her glowing features. With a soft hum, she released him and clasped her hands in front of her.

“You intend to let the lantern go out,” she stated simply.

Greg straightened his shoulders and lifted his chin. “I don’t want to be The Beast. I just want to make sure Wirt gets home safe before I let it go out.”

“You don’t trust him to find his way without you?” she inquired.

“No. He’s still looking for me. And he said he’ll keep looking for me, and I know he can’t stay here much longer. He’ll die and I don’t want that!” Greg slumped as his defiance ebbed a little, the fight flooding out of him. “So please. Please can’t you grant my wish? Can’t you change his mind?”

“I’m sorry, Gregory, but I cannot grant a wish that forces your brother to do something against his will. He must come to this decision on his own. I will not manipulate his will. It is stronger than you give it credit for.”

Frustrated tears welled up in his eyes as Greg sniffled. “I know…” he forced out. “I should’ve trusted him. He’s so strong. He doesn’t need me.”

“He may not need you, but he certainly wants to share his strength with you, and share in yours as well,” she told him. “Be strong now, Gregory. I know you’ve been strong for so long already and that you are weary, but do not lose hope. I may not be able to send your brother home, but you still can.”

Greg blinked. “But how?”

Her smile grew. “When the time comes, you’ll know what to do, Gregory.” She looked to his lantern, then looked into his eyes as she tapped him on the chest, over his heart. “Be strong, be smart, and know in your heart that there is hope for you and your brother. You can still be home soon.”

His eyes rounded and his jaw dropped. “You really think so?” He barely dared to breathe.

She nodded. “But you must really think so, too. You must believe in your brother and you must believe in yourself. Do you think you can do that?”

Could he? Before all of this, he wouldn’t have hesitated to agree, but now… He pictured the way Wirt faced him – as The Beast – stubborn and determined. Nothing was going to stand in his way. He also pictured the way he snuck away from Beatrice and Virgil when he found out they planned to send him home alone, stubborn and determined, too. If any two people could face what they were facing, it was the two of them. The Pilgrims.

“Yes,” he told her, nodding firmly. “I think so.”

“Good.” She smoothed down his hair, then bent down to press a kiss to his forehead. “Now hurry, Gregory. There isn’t much time.”

He blinked and she was gone. All of Cloud City was gone. He was knee-deep in the snow, lantern in hand, as fat snowflakes dropped from the clouds above. They must have rolled in while he’d been with the queen. He couldn't see the sun anymore. Breathing heavy, Greg turned around and hurried down the mountain. He wasn’t sure where he was going next, but his gut told him to go down.

Of course, his gut just happened to lead him smack into Beatrice when he rounded the bend.

“Greg!” she hissed, catching him before he crumpled to the ground, though glanced quickly over her shoulder to make sure they were alone. “What are you doing? Why aren’t you further up the mountain?”

“I was,” he choked out, surprised at how quickly he managed to lose his breath again. “I was talking to the queen and then… I guess she- she helped me get back down? I think? I don’t know… but that’s not important right now. Where’s Wirt?”

“Not far,” Beatrice replied, letting go of him once he was steady enough on his feet. “So what did she say? Is she going to change you back?”

Greg shook his head. “No. She can’t. But she said-”

“Beatrice! Get away from him!”

Something flew right past Greg’s head. It didn’t strike him, but it startled him enough that he fell backwards to the snow. He was grateful that it was starting to build up again, cushioning his fall from the sharp rocks. He tilted his head to see Wirt, huddling close to Beatrice with Jack hunkered down behind him, growling menacingly even as he cowered. Wirt dragged Beatrice a couple of steps away from him, both of them eyeing something a little to the left of him.

Greg gasped, then fumbled for his lantern which had tipped over in the snow when he’d fallen. There was a small, broken tree branch lying next to it, probably what Wirt had hurled at him. Lantern snatched up, safe for now, he slowly stood up while the other two talked.

“What were you doing so close to him?” Wirt demanded to know.

“Calm down, I was just trying to see if he knew where Greg was,” she lied effortlessly, her annoyance with him helping the act.

Wirt flung his arm out in his direction. “He’s not gonna tell you!”

“Well, do you have any other bright ideas?” she challenged, shoulders back as she lifted her chin. “In case you haven’t noticed, we’ve been wandering all over this mountain without any sign of him - or any other living person for that matter - so I figured it couldn’t hurt to ask! But you know what? If you want to be the one in charge, fine. Let’s go. We’ll check somewhere else.”

She started to storm away, with the intention of leading him away from Greg so he wouldn’t have to waste time or energy on his ruse. He mentally thanked her for it, because even if the Cloud City Queen said he needed to trust his brother, he needed to figure out what he was supposed to magically know first. Was it a secret spell? An artifact? A task? Oh, why hadn’t she been clearer in her instructions? And why hadn’t he asked?

His head spun a little and he weaved where he stood. He tried to hold his forehead with his free hand to see if that would help, but he was pretty sure that didn’t do anything helpful. Which way was down again?

“Wirt. Come on.” Greg shook off the dizziness to see his brother still watching him and ignoring Beatrice, suspicious and curious as the wheels turned in his head. “Hey, you said you wanted to get away from him, so let’s get away from him!”

“Why aren’t you filling your lantern?” Wirt asked.

It took Greg a minute to realize he was addressing him. “None of your business,” he replied.

Inwardly he cringed. That wasn’t something a monster would say, certainly not a shadow, tree monster of pure darkness. As Wirt narrowed his eyes, Greg searched for a better line.

“I do as I please.” He picked his words carefully, because saying “I can do what I want!” wouldn’t exactly help hide his identity. “When I please. I’ll fill the lantern when it’s time… to fill the lantern…” He was too tired for this. “Now go away.”

“Wirt, let’s go,” Beatrice pressed.

“You might be right, Beatrice,” Wirt murmured. “I mean, asking might not be the way to go, but he could still be our next lead. Our best lead, as it stands.”

“Don’t do anything stupid, Wirt,” Beatrice growled, stomping back over to him to grab his arm. “You don’t know what The Beast is capable of.”

“I don’t think he’s capable of doing anything right now,” he replied and Greg flinched under his cold stare.

He’s not talking about me, he had to remind himself. He doesn’t know it’s me. “Don’t test me,” Greg warned him.

“You’re dying! Your light’s going out and you haven’t filled the lantern yet! It’s almost like you won’t fill the lantern, like you’re refusing to!” he accused.

“Maybe I’m just waiting so I can use your brother for my oil.” The words slipped out before Greg had a chance to even think about them, the light in his lantern flickering sadly, as his eyes widened. “No, wait, I-”

But Wirt had already wrenched his arm free from Beatrice’s grasp and charged at him. Greg tried to run, but he tripped over the hem of Wirt’s coat - it really had not been the best idea for him to wear this, had it? - and suddenly he was face down in the snow and rolling. Falling.

Wirt knocked into him so hard that he sent them tumbling down the slope of the mountain. Greg fought to cling to the lantern as Wirt grappled for it, but he lost it somewhere between watching the sky spin and then the weight on his back and around his middle was gone. Greg slid to a stop when the mountain came to a plateau, bumping into the trunk of a tree as he groaned.

The lantern. He’d lost the lantern. Splayed out, stomach-down in the snow, Greg tried to push himself up, but his limbs refused to listen. They just didn’t work.

“No,” he whimpered, balling up his fists since nothing else would move. “No, I’m not done yet.”

“Yes you are.”

Greg managed to lift his head enough to see Wirt stand shakily. He hadn’t fallen all the way down the way he had, but rolling all that way didn’t do his brother any favors either. Even though his knees almost gave out as he straightened up, Wirt brandished the lantern victoriously, and the little light still left inside died just a bit more.

“I’ll blow it out,” he told him, and Greg shivered, unsure just what would be worse at this point. His brother dousing the light, or feeding the flame.

Since the latter would definitely end with Wirt giving up his life to stay with him, Greg closed his eyes and had to hope that the former wouldn’t hurt too much. “Do it,” he told him quietly.

He watched Wirt hesitate, his brother’s brow furrowing when the answer he received wasn’t the answer he expected. “What?”

“I’m not gonna tell you where Greg is,” he explained. “And you’re not gonna give me back the lantern. It’s going out anyway, you might as well blow it out.”

“That’s…” Wirt’s bravado failed him as his shoulders slumped, his worries and fears creasing the lines of his eyes. “That’s not how it’s supposed to work!”

“Wirt!” Beatrice hurried down to them, her gaze flitting frantically between them as Jack bounded beside her, barking all the while. “Are you okay-?”

She froze as her eyes fell upon the lantern in his grasp. There was a flicker of relief that enveloped her as she realized there was still a small glow coming from it, no matter that it was a really, really small glow. But Wirt noticed it, too. He took a step back while Beatrice stepped forward.

“Wirt…” she started cautiously, quickly catching onto his doubt. “Wirt, put the lantern down.”

“Why?” He held it close defensively, in his left hand.

“Just- you don’t know what blowing out the light will do. It may not do anything or- or it could be something worse than The Beast. I mean, we don’t know.”

“I know.”

Greg shuddered as Diana’s voice floated over to them through the trees, the wolf-woman stepping into the small clearing to make her presence known. No one wanted her here, why couldn’t she just go away? Greg tried to sit up as she walked over to Wirt and Beatrice, taking their attention away from him.

“Diana,” Beatrice hissed.

“You know this lady?” Wirt asked, raising an eyebrow as he looked her over.

“Sort of…” she muttered, then raised her voice. “Get out of here. Nobody asked for your opinion on any of this.”

“Nobody needed to.” Diana smiled, tight-lipped and vacant. “I am only sharing my knowledge of the dark lantern and The Beast with you.”

“Well, we don’t want it and we don’t need it.” Beatrice grabbed onto Wirt’s shoulder. “Come on, Wirt, we need to go find Greg, not deal with this crazy lady. And we can… we can take The Beast with us. For a lead.”

“But she could have valuable information for us,” Wirt protested.

“Yeah, or she could not!”

“If the lantern goes out, then The Beast will perish,” Diana piped up, admiring her claw-like nails. “But for Greg’s sake, I wouldn’t recommend that.”

Both Wirt and Beatrice stared hard at her, but it was Wirt who spoke first. “Why?”

“You want to know where your brother is? I can show you,” Diana crooned, eyeing his brother as if he were nothing more than a piece of meat.

Wirt looked away from her and Greg felt a flutter of hope rise in him as he struggled to his knees. Wirt wouldn’t listen to her. He knew better. Slowly, quietly, he continued to try and sit up while Beatrice voiced his own thoughts for him.

“Don’t listen to her, Wirt, she’s lying,” she told him.

Instead of encouraging him to hold his ground, he just looked at her with an unimpressed gaze. “If that’s the reasoning we’re going by, then I shouldn’t listen to you either,” he replied coolly. “You’ve been lying to me this whole time, Beatrice.”

Greg froze, gaze drifting between the two of them as Beatrice’s shoulders sagged and her eyebrows knit together with regret. “Wirt…”

“I know. I know, you have your reasons,” Wirt sighed, heavy, like the weight of the world was on his shoulders. Tired.

Greg’s gaze went to his lantern, still held loosely in Wirt’s grasp. He could still save his brother. The Queen of Cloud City said there was still hope. “When the time comes, you’ll know what to do, Gregory.” Would he though? How could she be so sure? He didn’t really know much of anything right now.

“Why not hear me out, Wirt?” Diana continued to prod, sidling close to him. “It would not hurt to just listen to what I have to say, would it? Besides, The Beast is regaining strength it seems.”

As she called him out, Greg had only just gotten to his feet. Wirt glared at him and Greg’s knees gave out, sending him back to the ground. Breathing heavily, vision blurring, Greg stared helplessly at him. Pity filled Wirt’s eyes as he looked him over, gaze briefly flitting to the lantern. Don’t, Greg wanted to plead. Don’t look at it.

While the light may have been dim and dull, dying steadily without a single drop of oil left to keep it going, he didn’t doubt that if his brother looked hard enough he’d know whose soul he held in his hands. And he wouldn’t ever let it go again.

Greg knew that’s what Diana was counting on. Why she called Wirt his lantern bearer from the beginning. She knew Greg would be willing to let the light go out, just as she knew that Wirt would be willing to keep it lit. Forever if he needed to. Because he was the elder child. It was his burden to bear.

Thankfully Wirt didn’t seem to see anything unusual in the lantern. He glanced back at Diana while Greg watched Beatrice, hoping she’d try to intervene again. Even if it meant more lying, she knew how important this was.

“You know where Greg is?” Wirt asked to clarify, his voice cold.

“Wirt,” Beatrice pressed, scowling at him when he refused to look at her. “Wirt, anything she says is only gonna mess with you. Let’s just go!”

“If she’s lying, then it shouldn’t matter what she says!” Wirt snapped back. “You’re not afraid of her lying to me, you’re afraid of her telling me the truth! You’re afraid she’ll ruin whatever you’ve been working so hard to keep from me!”

Beatrice clenched her fists and held her head high. “Trust me, Wirt,” she told him evenly. “You don’t want to hear what she has to say.”

“I think I can decide that for myself,” he replied, turning the fire of his gaze on Diana. “Tell me what happened to my brother.”

She smiled as wide as she could with her lips closed. “Look in the lantern,” she told him. “It will tell you all you need to know.”

Wirt blinked at her, then slowly raised the lantern to peer inside at the dying light. It flickered frantically as Greg struggled to his feet once again, desperate to snatch the lantern back from his brother, but he was so tired. So tired.

An enraged hiss startled him. Diana recoiled, her skin steaming from where Beatrice had flung the entire contents of one of her pouches on her. It bubbled, red and angry, as her nails turned to claws and her teeth sharpened. She lashed out at Beatrice, but she avoided it easily, a pleased smirk quirking her lips because it had done the trick. Wirt wasn’t looking at the lantern anymore, but gaping in shock as the woman contorted in front of him.

“What in the-?” he breathed, stumbling away from her to stand beside Beatrice. “What did you do to her?”

“Oh, she’ll be fine.” Beatrice waved off. “She’ll probably try to bite off our heads in a few seconds though, literally, so I recommend running.”

She grabbed Wirt’s hand before he could protest and she dragged him after her, the pair of them running for the trees with Jack on their heels. Greg slumped back in the snow, panting harder as he mentally thanked Beatrice for her quick thinking and bravery. While Diana wouldn’t dare hurt Wirt, not yet anyway and not while he held the lantern, she could still hurt Beatrice. If anyone could handle Diana though, it was Beatrice.

The wolf didn’t tear after them though. Once in control of her form, though still scarred from the salt and sage, she whirled on Greg and snarled at him. He smiled at her, tired and weak, but still a genuine smile.

“You think you can outsmart me?” she howled at him.

He shrugged. “Anything’s possible if you set your mind to it,” he told her quietly, in case Beatrice or Wirt were close enough to hear. “And honestly, lady, you’re not all that smart to begin with, so it’s not like outsmarting you is hard or anything.”

She snarled, then stormed over to him and backhanded him across the face. It didn’t hurt, but he could feel the sting and the force of it knocked his already frail body flat to the ground. His cheek pressed into the hard, snowy ground and he shuddered as it felt like his heart rattled around in his empty chest.

Silence!” Her voice echoed with a thousand more. “You know nothing. You think that when I lose you that I’ve lost the battle? Not even close.” Her clawed hands gripped his cape and hauled him up to meet her silver stare. “He’ll know. When your light goes out, he’ll know. And I’ll be right there, waiting. Just think how easy it will be to steal your brother’s light and put it in the lantern instead. He’ll practically do all the work for me. I will have my Beast, and it will be one of you whether you like it or not.”

Greg’s vision blurred, his head spinning, dizzy from being hauled around by her and his limbs were heavy, leaden, and cold. He did manage to shake his head, just enough for her to see. She bared her teeth at him.

“He won’t,” Greg croaked out. “He’s The Pilgrim.”

Growling more like a wolf than a person, she threw him back down into the snow. Greg grunted softly. Everything blacked out for a moment, a white noise ringing in his ears. Was it dark because he closed his eyes? Maybe he should close his eyes. He finally felt like he could sleep. Maybe he’d close his eyes and sleep for a little bit, with a white noise lullaby whispering in his ear.

“Wirt! Let me see the lantern!”

Greg squinted as his sight came back to him. He could see the bare trees crowded over him, their branches beckoning him to join them as they danced around him in a circle. Greg rolled onto his side and saw Beatrice and Wirt. They were huddled near a tree not too far from him. They came back.

Wirt stared right at him, watching him cautiously as he showed Beatrice the lantern. There was still a little light. It hadn’t gone out yet. She breathed a sigh of relief and Wirt frowned at her.

“He’s still our best lead, right?” she reminded Wirt.

“No, he’s not. He’s been lying to me this entire time, too!” he protested, then pointed to Diana, who used the time to compose herself. “She was our best lead until you burned her face off!”

“I had to! You have no idea what horrible things she’s capable of and I don’t want her dragging you into it, too!” Beatrice defended, crossing her arms over her chest as she tried to tower over him, but they were nearly the same height, with Wirt actually ahead by an inch or two.

“I have no idea because none of you will tell me anything!” Wirt shouted back, the fingers of his free hand tugging at his hair, knocking his hat askew. “Except her! She told me to look in the lantern, but I don’t know what good that’ll-!”

“It won’t do anything!” Greg managed to call out, pushing himself up to his feet. “It’s… it’s useless. The light’s going out anyway, so just give it back to me!” He held his hand out to him, heart breaking a little when Wirt immediately backed away from him despite the distance between them.

Wirt’s brow creased as his eyes darkened. “Never,” he told him, hiding the lantern behind him. “You’re never getting this back, Beast.”

“Wirt, just give it to him,” Beatrice sighed, trying her best to sound exasperated, but Greg heard the fear quivering in her voice.

“You’re insane! All of you!” Wirt edged away from her now, shaking as he held the lantern out away from his body. “Whatever issues you all have, sort it out yourselves, but leave Greg and I out of it!”

“You are right in the middle of it,” Diana pointed out. “As long as you hold the dark lantern and as long as that light stays lit. Give it to me if you don’t wish to be burdened by it any longer.”

“No!” All three of them shouted together.

“Wirt, don’t you dare give it to her!” Beatrice hollered at him.

“No one’s getting this thing!” Wirt raised it even higher, as if it would help, as if he was playing keep away with Greg. “I’m keeping it!”

Greg shook his head, then took a few shaky steps towards Wirt. “Please don’t. It’s my lantern. It’s my-” It’s my burden not yours. It’s my fault. It’s mine. It’s mine. “It’s mine,” he whispered, flinching when Wirt held his free hand out, ready to push him away if he had to. “It’s mine,” he told him again, firmer this time as he watched the lantern swing from side to side. “It’s mine. It’s mine! Give it back! It’s mine!”

“I heard you the first time!” Wirt scrambled away as Greg swiped at it. “Stop it!”

“Wirt, just give it to him!” Beatrice stormed over to try and take it from him herself, but stopped when Greg nearly tripped on the cape, not wanting to accidentally knock him over even though he’d already been knocked around plenty. It wasn’t like a few more times would make a difference. “Wirt!”

“Do not give The Beast the lantern. Do not give him that power back!” Diana fired from the sidelines, content to watch them from where she stood.

“Oh, put a sock in it, you deranged dog!” Beatrice glared at her. “No one cares what you have to say!”

Jack was barking now, running between Wirt and Beatrice as he tried to avoid Greg at the same time. Wirt grabbed the nearest thing to him, a stick, and tried to fend off Greg with it. As tired as he was, he still had enough energy to be annoyed at his brother’s choice of defense. It took a moment, but Greg smacked the stick out of Wirt’s hand.

“Give it back,” he demanded, but Wirt rushed at him, pushing him to the ground as he went around him to put more distance between them. “Give it back!”

“Give it back, Wirt!”

“Do not let go of it, Wirt.”

Wirt tensed up, shoulders hunching up as he curled into himself. “Shut up! Everybody, just-! Just shh!”

“You shh!”

The second he hushed him back, Greg’s hands flew up to clap over his mouth. But it was too late. Eyes wide, he watched as Wirt stopped moving, frozen where he stood. Greg quivered, keeping his palms pressed firmly over his mouth. After everything he’d done to keep Wirt from finding out, this was what gave him away? Shushing him? Wirt slowly uncurled to stare at him, his eyes equally wide with disbelief as he met his gaze. Greg muffled his whimper, but from the way Beatrice inhaled sharply, he figured he sounded like himself again. For a moment, anyway.

Wirt’s lips formed his name, but he didn’t say anything as he gaped at him. The arm holding the lantern lowered as the tension completely fled him, leaving him unsteady on his legs. Unsteady. Mimicking the move his brother just pulled on him, Greg squeezed his eyes shut and charged.

He knocked Wirt down and ripped the lantern from his fingers. His brother fell easily. Greg looked down at him, chest heaving while Wirt took a moment to gain his bearings. Diana growled furiously from over his shoulder and outright anger filled Greg with more fight than he’d had in a while. He turned to glare at her, the shadows rippling around them.

She looked more like the wolf she was, unrestrained as she eyed him warily. She didn’t really have a second plan. She didn’t know for certain if Wirt would put his soul in the lantern. She’d been bluffing.

Greg shifted his gaze to Wirt again. As he did, he could see – just there in the distance – the edge of the mountain. The same edge, if he wasn’t mistaken, that they’d passed on the way up that faced enormous saltwater lake.

The light flickered a little, weakly. He knew what to do. He looked down at Wirt, who was still staring at him with a mixture of confusion, understanding, and dread. He was catching up. He was putting the pieces together.

He wished he wouldn’t.

He didn’t want him to know.

But… he had to trust him. He did trust him.

Greg managed a smile for him. He knew he couldn’t see it, but it made him feel better. A little.

“Hi, Wirt," he started. "I’m sorry. For everything. I wish…” His throat closed around his words, so he swallowed thickly, around the lump that only seemed grow the longer he looked at his brother. “If there was some way, I-”

But this was it. He knew this was what he was supposed to do. And maybe… just maybe…

“It’ll be okay,” Greg managed to say. “You’ll be okay. And that’s-”

He was crying. Tears slipped down his cheeks and he didn’t know what it looked like to Wirt because his brother’s expression finally cracked, broke open into something so miserable, so he imagined it had to look pretty bad. Still, Greg smiled for him, because if this was it… he wanted to give him a smile. He didn’t want the last thing Wirt carried with him to be their last phone call. No, his brother deserved something better.

“You’re gonna be okay, Wirt, and that’s a rock fact!” Greg told him proudly.

Then, with the lantern tucked under his arm, he ran.

Beatrice shouted for him as Diana’s enraged growl ripped into him, even as the air rushing past his ears muted it. It rattled him to the core and he could feel the vibration of her paws hit the snow as she raced after him. He didn’t dare turn around though. Greg kept running for the edge of the trees, the edge of the mountain. He stumbled once. He didn’t have much time. The light was weak.

But he kept going.

Suddenly the wolf dashed past him and whirled to face him, snarling and spitting as she blocked his path. Greg skid to a stop, then darted right. She leapt in front of him, cutting him off. He tried left, then right again, but she blocked him every time as she tried to herd him back with her sharp teeth and raised hackles.

A thunderous roar split the air. Before Greg could blink, the wolf was swatted aside by the lion, his bulk bearing down her as he cleared the way. The lion cleared the way for him. Greg didn’t stop to consider why and just started running again.

Arms and legs pumping furiously, he got closer and closer to the edge. He could still hear Beatrice shouting at him, and Wirt now, too. He couldn’t hear what they were saying, he couldn’t stop to listen because he didn’t have time.

The wolf tried to cut him off again. She recovered from the lion, ready to rip into him this time as she ran alongside him, but then the leopard barreled into her and the two of them toppled into the snow. Greg chanced a quick glance over his shoulder, astounded to see both the lion and the leopard barring the wolf’s path. She snapped at them both, but they held their ground.

He sprinted the last few feet to the edge of the mountain. The cliff overlooked a small, snowy ledge, then beyond that, a straight drop beyond that, was the icy lake. It stretched on forever, the horizon invisible as the gray sky and water met. Panting heavily, Greg cradled the lantern in both hands. He judged the distance between the water and the snowy ledge. Yeah, he could make it. Greg unlatched the lantern’s glass window and opened it.

Behind him the wolf howled. Greg looked back and gasped as he saw the wolf leap over the other two creatures, clearing them easily, then began her rampage anew. She knew what he was going to do.

Without wasting another second, Greg heaved the lantern up in one arm and chucked it into the sky, right over the edge. The rusted, red lantern spun through the air and he watched the exposed embers die and dissolve. Smoke curled from the lantern and the glittering gold of his soul reached out.

A gust of wind blew it away. The wind buffeted him and he wavered where he stood as his shadow stretched out at his feet. For a second, Greg felt cold. He felt cold and every bone in his body ached and he laughed right out at the joy of it because he could feel-

He could feel his body fall forward, gravity claiming his dead weight. He felt Diana rush past him, even though it felt so slow. She leapt right off the edge of the cliff, reaching for the lantern as it continued its descent towards the water below. He watched it crash against the icy surface, pieces of it shattering apart, then it disappeared into the dark depths. He watched Diana disappear, too, falling just out of sight. He watched the snowy ledge weave in front of him, closing in as he fell over completely. He felt himself falling forward and for a second he thought that wasn’t right. He’d fallen backwards when he died.

As the snow rose up to meet him, the last thing he felt was a pair of familiar arms locked around his chest as he was pressed against a familiar body. Wirt. His mind supplied weakly before it, like the smoke from the lantern, curled away from him into nothing.

Chapter Text

Wirt and Greg plummeted over the edge of the cliff. They landed hard in the snow, on the ledge just under it. Wirt’s shoulder took the brunt of the impact as he angled Greg away safely. His arms trembled, locked tight around his body.

His little brother’s body.

Wirt curled inwards, protectively cocooning himself around him with one hand supporting the back of Greg’s head and the other clutching at his waist. “I’ve got you,” he gasped out when he found the words, when his breath came back after the shock of falling wore off, replaced by a new shock altogether. “I’ve got you, Greg. You’re okay. You’re okay.”

“Wirt! Greg!” Beatrice shouted for them, still on the cliff above them, but her worry sloughed off him as he focused completely on his brother.

His brother who wasn’t moving.

His brother who’d been… who’d thrown the lantern… who doused the light-

“It’s okay, Greg. It’s going to be okay now,” Wirt told him, forcing a smile into his voice. “We’re gonna get out of here now. You and me. Like it’s supposed to be, huh?”

He swallowed thickly when a reply didn’t come. Slowly, he rolled on his side and sat up, refusing to uncurl even a little. Greg’s face pressed against his collarbone, his small body tucked in against his chest, safe in his arms. He was safe. He caught him before he fell. He was safe.

So why couldn’t he bring himself to look at him?

Wirt’s fingers tightened in Greg’s hair. “Say something,” he asked of him. “Come on, Greg. Say something. Anything. Tell me another rock fact. That last one- that last one wasn’t- you can do better than that, Greg. Greg? Greg.”

Arms shaking, he lowered them and raised his head just enough to look at him. His insides felt hollow and it was like he was falling over the edge of the cliff all over again. Seeing The Beast, being told his brother was an Edelwood tree, realizing Greg was The Beast and he’d been with his little brother all along, the brake lights lighting up the freeway as he sped right into the collision in front of him… all of that combined couldn’t compete with the horror he faced now.

Greg’s empty stare met his. Lightless. Lifeless. There was nothing there but a dulled version of his brother’s eyes. Empty. Gone.

No. No, that wasn’t true. That wasn’t possible.

“…Greg?” Wirt’s voice cracked as his vision blurred, scanning his cold, pale face for any sign of the life that once filled it. A tiny flicker of hope – or denial – still burned valiantly as Wirt tightened his hold on him. “Greg?”

He shook him lightly, but his head lolled heavily to one side, bumping into his chest. Wirt whined low in his throat, unable to see anything but the empty eyes even when his tears nearly blinded him. He would always be able to see this, for the rest of his life. He’d never be able to erase this from his memory.

“No,” he choked out, shaking Greg a little harder. “No! Greg! Gregory! No!”

He shifted him in his arms, cradling him across his lap as they huddled together in the snow. He pushed Greg’s face close to his neck, feeling for a single breath to assure him this wasn’t real this wasn’t real this couldn’t be real. He waited, but he felt nothing and Greg didn’t move at all.

“No, no, no,” he repeated under his breath, rocking just a little as he ducked his head down, pressing their foreheads together. “Please. Please. Greg, I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.”

His tears burned his cheeks as he closed his eyes against Greg’s stare. He stayed like that for a minute or ten or twenty, until he heard soft footsteps in the snow approaching. He tensed as Beatrice laid her hand on his shoulder, then felt her drop to her knees beside him.

“Oh, Greg,” she whispered brokenly, making Wirt only clutch his brother tighter.

She squeezed his shoulder, then tried to put some space between him and Greg. As much as he didn’t want to move away from him, he let her guide his arms so that Greg’s head was nestled in the crook of his elbow. He stared down at him, still waiting, still hoping, but then Beatrice’s fingers went to Greg’s eyelids and gently lowered them.

As if he was dead.

He was dead.

Wirt’s chest heaved once with a heavy breath, then again on a much shallower one. He shook his head in time with each gasp for air. He died. Greg died. He was dead in his arms.

He’d been too late.

With an anguished shout, Wirt hefted him up, hugging him so his head rested against his shoulder while his arms hung limply at his sides under his cape. Beatrice looked away, hiding her tears with her hand as she shuddered, and let him rage, let him scream.

Let him grieve.

Wirt rocked Greg back and forth – like with nightmares, this was just another nightmare, why couldn’t it be just another nightmare? – carding his fingers through his hair, smoothing it down, hugging him so tight while his outcries faded into breathless sobs.

A lone, golden ember floated down from the sky with the snow. Wirt watched it with bleary, red-rimmed eyes, then hid his face in Greg’s shoulder. How could he? How could he blow out his own light, how could he do that?

More snowflakes fell into their hair, onto their backs. More embers, too, maybe, but what did he care about them now? It was over. He failed Greg. He failed him.

His little brother didn’t ask for much, just for some attention, some reassurance that he still mattered to him, but he couldn’t even provide him with that much. He couldn’t take five minutes to call his nine-year-old brother just to tell him he loved him and missed him.

“I’ll miss you.” He remembered Greg’s rare moment of vulnerability, his heart on his sleeve as he clung to Wirt’s sweatshirt in a childish attempt to keep him from leaving.

Even then Wirt couldn’t tell him straight out, “I’ll miss you, too.”

“I’ve missed you,” he sobbed into his shoulder as he squeezed him, guarding him from the light breeze that ruffled their hair and clothes. “I’ve missed you so much, Greg, I-!”

Something nudged him.

Something kicked him.

Wirt froze. It hardly qualified as a kick, it was so weak, but he knew what kicks felt like because Greg never failed to make a show of just how much he…

How much he hated when Wirt’s hugs were too tight.

He didn’t dare breathe, eyes wide as he felt another tap against his leg where Greg’s foot was, a harder tap, and it was then that he realized at some point Greg’s limp arms had wound around his neck and were squeezing back.

“I’ve missed you, too.” Greg mumbled weakly against his ear. “But, Wirt? Can you maybe squeeze me a little less? I can’t breathe.”

Wirt exhaled on a sharp gasp – unsure if he was laughing or crying and didn’t really care which it was – as he pulled back enough to stare at Greg’s face. His little brother held his head up on his own, looking a little dizzy and delirious, but he was looking at him. His hazel eyes blinked slowly, warming up as his gaze skimmed the lines of Wirt’s face and a tired smile pulled on his lips.

“Looks like your rock facts are still one hundred percent true after all,” he told him.

A new rush of tears overtook him as Wirt really did laugh this time, enveloping Greg in another crushing hug that his little brother eagerly returned.

-0-

Before Greg woke in Wirt’s vice of a hug, it had been dark. Sort of like how he imagined sleeping was like, if he could be conscious while asleep at the same time. There was nothing, not even darkness, but dark was the closest word he could find to describe it. He wasn’t floating, but he wasn’t standing on anything he could see. He just was.

Then he saw a tiny ember.

“That’s me.”

It didn’t look a thing like him, but it was him all the same. A piece of him. Falling from somewhere. It didn’t fall from the sky because there was no sky here. It just appeared and drifted. Drifting, that was what he was doing. He was drifting.

He wanted to drift closer to the little spark. The little glow. Something told him that if he tried hard enough, he could. You can do anything if you set your mind to it.

When he reached the ember – distance and time swallowed up by the nothingness – it was like a breath of fresh air. But he didn’t have lungs. He didn’t have a body. How could he breathe? How could he know what was fresh and what wasn’t when there was nothing to feel or see or taste or smell-

But he could hear. Greg heard Wirt.

“Wirt?”

He spun in the void, searching the nothing for the flicker of something. He found it in the form of another ember, falling close to where he imagined the ground might be. When he caught it, he could smell. He could smell the crisp, blackened-to-the-point-of-burnt scent of oil and dead leaves. Just beyond that, the smell of winter – snow covered trees thick with pine and hickory. He could smell warmth and home. The air freshener that swung on Wirt’s rearview mirror in his car shaped like a bee and scented like honeysuckle.

More embers. He needed to find more of them. They drifted around him, gravitating towards him by some invisible pull. The more he merged with, the more embers he drew in. He could taste – salt and iron and snowflakes on his tongue. He could see – the cloud-covered sky and Wirt’s messy crop of brown hair. He could feel – the tight squeeze pressing in all around him and he’d never felt more loved and wanted in any hug before this so he hugged back, his limbs leaden and loose, but they were his and they were going to do what he wanted. And he wanted a hug.

He could breathe. Except, no, he couldn’t. Well, he could, Greg quickly realized, because he had lungs again and he needed to breathe, but he wasn’t getting any air because his brother didn’t realize his own strength. Not that Greg could complain though. He’d been waiting for a hug like that for too long.

After his brother calmed down, tears and laughter fading, and after Beatrice got her turn to hug him and tell him just how insane he was, Greg really realized that he was sitting in the snow with Wirt and Beatrice and Jack, the trusty dog having followed his owner down to the ledge they were on. He’d done it. He was himself again. And he found Wirt. A double victory.

He threw himself at his big brother again, not even caring if he looked like a baby. He felt and heard Wirt’s chuckle – the perfect combination of amused and panicky – and watched as Beatrice retrieved Wirt’s hat from where it had fallen a ways away from them. She dusted it off, then set it atop his head to cover his atrocious hat hair. Beatrice’s words, not Greg’s, even if he had to agree his brother’s hat hair was the worst.

“Wirt,” he breathed, unable to stop grinning. “Wirt, you’re okay. You’re okay!”

“I’m more than okay. I’m great.” He could feel his brother’s shudder ripple through him as he hugged him tighter. “We’re both great.”

“You’d be even better if the two of you finally sat down and talked this whole thing out.” Beatrice put in her two cents.

“I know, we will. Just- give him a minute, he’s still out of it,” Wirt replied, cradling him with care and adoration that Greg soaked up like a deprived sunflower, relishing in the way it warmed every inch of him despite the fact they were still sitting in the snow.

“Talk,” Beatrice instructed, no-nonsense tone wavering as she tried to fix them with a firm stare, then took a few steps away to give them some privacy. “I mean it!”

Greg watched her turn her back on them, then tucked his face against Wirt’s shoulder. He could feel his warmth against his cheek and the softness of his shirt thanks to being washed so many times. He could feel it all. He could feel again.

He wasn’t The Beast, he was Wirt’s little brother. He was Greg Whelan.

He was still alive and he could go home with his brother because he found him, just like he’d set out to do in the first place. He found him.

“I wanted to find you so badly,” he said into his shirt, the fabric muffling his words some. “I looked and I looked and- and I’m so sorry, Wirt, I should’ve never said those things! I didn’t mean any of it! I-!”

“Shh, I know. I know you didn’t, Greg. It’s okay.”

He could feel him rocking a little, still trembling even though he was alright now. He was whole, he was himself. Greg was wracked with a quaking in his bones, in his gut, in his soul. He was himself. He didn’t know if he wanted to cry or laugh or shout, so he just clung to the one thing he was certain he wanted.

“I love you,” he hiccupped. “I love you, I don’t hate you at all. I just wanted you back. I wanted things to stay the same-”

“I know, Greg. I know, it’s okay. It’s all gonna be okay now. I’ll be better, I promise. I’m going to be there for you no matter what-”

“No.” Greg shook his head, pulling back so he could look Wirt in the eyes, no matter how puffy, red-rimmed, and tearful both of theirs might be. “No, I get it now. Things can’t stay the same. I don’t want them to. I want you to be happy and I want you to have fun at school and I want you to have a life all your own-!” His voice cracked as more tears spilled out and he stubbornly rubbed them away with his arm when Wirt tried to comfort him. “I don’t want to be your burden!”

“You’re not.” Wirt gripped his shoulders tightly and gave him a slight shake so he met his gaze to see just how serious he was. “You are not a burden, Greg.”

“But I could be,” he blurted out. “If I held you back from doing things you want to do, then that’s what I’d be! A burden. Dragging you down. And what kind of brother would I be if I let myself do that to you. I should be helping you up, not bringing you down.”

Wirt loosened his grip on him, letting go with one hand to smooth down Greg’s hair. His eyes closed and he shivered as the familiar sensation warmed him. When he blinked them open again, he found his brother’s expression unreadable. A mix of careful consideration, doubt, fear, but most of all irrevocable fondness and love that made Greg’s heart swell.

“You don’t bring me down, Greg,” he murmured.

“I made you feel like your dad,” Greg whispered brokenly. “That’s the worst thing I could’ve done.”

Wirt’s eyes rounded, comical in their shock as he sputtered. “You heard that?”

Greg hunched his shoulders and shrugged a little. “I was kinda spying… in the trees… when you met up with Beatrice and Virgil and The Woodsman.”

Slumping with the weight of this knowledge, Wirt sighed heavily. “Greg, I didn’t mean…”

“Yes you did. You meant it. You thought you made me feel the way your dad made you feel and you didn’t. I know you love me. I know you’ll always be there for me even if you can’t actually be there. I don’t know why I thought you didn’t! I don’t know why I thought you’d leave me!”

“Because you were scared. And I didn’t get brave enough for you.” Wirt enveloped him in another embrace, resting his cheek against the top of Greg’s head. “And I’m so sorry, Greg. I’m sorry I didn’t see it.”

Greg wound his arms around Wirt’s middle and rubbed his back. “It’s okay,” he mumbled into his shoulder. “We’re just so used to me being the brave one and you being the scared one…”

Wirt huffed out a small laugh. “Yeah, right. I guess we are. But that’s all gonna change now, okay? When we get home, we’re not going to just fall into these roles again. Just like I know I can always come to you when I have a problem, you have to know you can still always come to me. Even if I’m miles away. We’ll find a way, Greg. I promise. That’s a rock fact.”

“Can we go home now?” Greg asked shakily. “I just want to go home.”

“Yeah. Yeah, we’re going home,” Wirt assured.

That’s what you think…

Greg bristled, clinging to Wirt tighter, glancing up over his brother’s shoulder to see Diana lifting herself up over the edge of the ledge they were huddled on. Her face contorted into a snarl, silver eyes glowing with rage and energy. Wirt turned to see what was going on, yelping as he laid eyes on the wild woman. Her hair untamed, her figure constantly rippling in an attempt to hold her human shape as the wolf attempted to burst through.

I will not let you leave my forest!” she barked, and as she raised her arms to the darkening sky she raised roots from the snow along with them.

Greg shouted as a root wound around his thigh, squeezing, but he didn’t have enough coordination to shake it loose. Wirt grabbed him and yanked it away, hastening to his feet to escape his own tendrils that sought to claim him for the trees. Greg quickly found that his legs couldn’t hold him on their own, crashing into the snow as soon as Wirt released his grip on him.

“Greg!”

A tree root snagged his wrist. Greg struggled with it, but he still found all his motions sluggish and out of sync with his mind. This time Beatrice snapped the root that claimed him and helped him up.

“Do you have any more of those magic pouch things?” Wirt asked as he stooped down, letting Beatrice situate Greg on his back.

She shook her head, face pale and eyes wide with worry. “No, I’m all out. Greg, do you still have the one I gave you?”

“No, I dropped it in the woods,” he replied while Wirt hoisted him up, his arms going around his big brother’s shoulders while his legs were tucked in close to his waist.

You cannot escape,” Diana hissed.

“Yeah? Just watch us,” Wirt scoffed, but Greg could tell it was only his bravado again.

Pressed against his back, he could feel every tremor and quake wracking his brother’s body. Although another reason could be that Wirt wasn’t all that strong physically. And Greg wasn’t exactly all that little anymore. When Wirt stumbled a bit, both from the extra weight on his back and to kick away a root snaking up his calf, Greg prodded his side urgently.

“I can walk. Put me down, Wirt.”

“I’ve got this.” Wirt grit out, and sure enough the next few steps he took were steadier.

Still, Greg couldn’t help but worry as the roots tangled around his and Beatrice’s feet. “No. C’mon, Wirt, I’m too big to be carried.”

“No, you’re not. You could never be too big for me to carry you,” he retorted, hiking him up a bit more, then hurried after Beatrice as she led them back to the angled slope that she’d used to get down to them.

Behind them, Diana howled and lightning split the sky. Greg buried his face against Wirt’s back, the sounds she made becoming less human and more like the monster she was. The ledge they were on suddenly shook, the entire cliffside groaning with the tremors. All of them yelped as a giant root, thick as a tree trunk, cracked the ground under their feet and sent Wirt sprawling.

Greg lost his purchase on his back, rolling off into the snow, and barely heard Beatrice’s warning cry before a branch snagged him and dragged him away. He gasped, fingers scrabbling in the snow for something to hold onto as he slid on his back. He kicked at the tree, breaking off enough pieces of it that he could free himself and sit up, scooting backwards away from Diana.

She leapt at him, clawed hands ready to tear into him, but she missed as Wirt intercepted her and Beatrice snagged Greg around the middle to yank him back just in time. But Diana changed courses easily. She pushed Wirt up against the mountainside, her hands around Wirt’s throat, wringing the air right out of him as he pushed against her. Roots crept out of the crevices in the mountain, binding Wirt to it.

Beatrice released him and ran over to help, but Greg knew she couldn’t do it alone. Greg pushed himself up and ran for Diana, grabbing a fistful of her long, bushy hair and tugged hard. She roared, reering back enough so her claws were ripped from around Wirt’s throat and Beatrice could squeeze between them to free him. Losing his grip on her hair, Greg stumbled back as she whirled on him and pounced, tackling him to the ground, close to the edge of the ledge. As she pinned him, she changed. When Greg stared up at her, it was the hot, sharp, dripping maw of a wolf that he was only centimeters away from. She snapped at him and he instinctively lifted his arms to shield his face, hands grabbed at her muzzle to keep her teeth from sinking into him.

Snarling and spitting, she raged on. Her paw pressed down on his stomach, his chest, crushing his ribcage with her bruising weight and he lost all his breath. His fingers kept losing their grip on her and her teeth cut into his hands as they gnashed, going for his face, his throat. Greg squeezed his eyes shut and turned his head away, tucking his chin up to try and protect his neck. The hot, rancid odor of her breath, pungent and burning like the oil from the lantern choked him. Her teeth grazed his cheek, not enough to really hurt, but enough to scare him into screaming.

He fruitlessly kicked at her underbelly, his fight quickly depleting. She was going to eat him. She was going to eat him right up or tear him to pieces or-

Without warning, as suddenly as she’d leapt on him, her weight was gone. Greg gasped for air, blinking as he watched her pitch to the side, tackled by his brother. His arms dug into the fur around her neck, holding tight as she thrashed wildly, sending them closer – too close – to the edge of the ledge. It couldn’t hold their weight. It was crumbling apart beneath them.

He saw the moment Wirt realized what was happening, the fury in his eyes dulling into quiet shock. Greg looked around for Beatrice, but she was caught by the tree roots, several of them holding her down. They tried to hold him down, too. Greg rolled onto his stomach, frantically crawling through the snow towards Wirt as he struggled to get off of the wolf, kicking her away in an attempt to get to safer, steadier ground.

But Diana was already going over the edge. And she wasn’t going alone. Her claws sank into Wirt and dragged him down.

“Wirt!” Greg shouted, throwing his arm out, fingers catching his brother’s sleeve as he reached back for him.

He had him. He had him, he just needed to-

The sleeve slipped out of his grasp, his brother with it, and Greg watched as Wirt’s panic simmered into acceptance. Then he was gone.

“No!”

Clawing at the snow, Greg pushed himself up to his knees and scrambled to the edge. His heart was pounding in his chest, pulse roaring in his ears. The drop was straight and true. There were no other ledges below them to catch his brother. To break his fall.

Greg stared at the water and ice beneath him. The ice that clustered near the base of the mountain had cracked and shattered, revealing the ripples in the black water, like it was only a couple of stones that broke its surface and were now sinking to the bottom. Everything went silent as Greg watched, scanning the water for something, anything. He waited for his brother to break free, to pull himself out.

When the water stilled, Wirt’s red hat was all that bobbed to the surface.

“No.” Greg shook his head, his heart quiet now. “No! Wirt? Wirt!”

“Wirt!” Beatrice fell to her knees at his side, her hand pressing to Greg’s back. “Wirt!”

But there was no answer. Greg’s throat and chest tightened and he couldn’t breathe, his body hitching, pitching forward as he wheezed for air. Beatrice’s hold on him the only thing keeping him from going over, too. She wrapped him up tight in her arms, but he fought her off, his entire body protesting against her hug, rejecting it completely. He shot up to his feet, tripping over himself as he ran along the edge, eyes frantically scanning for a way down.

He needed to get to him. He needed to make sure. The tree roots were rotting as he crushed them beneath his sneakers, crumbling into dust, no longer writhing with a life of their own. He ignored Beatrice’s calls for him, eyes lighting up when he found a steep slope and small, rocky protrusions for him to hold onto, to lower himself down.

Greg ran for it, rushing through his descent. He stumbled and fell several times, but he had to get down. He had to get down to Wirt. Beatrice followed him, whether she had hope for Wirt or just wanted to keep an eye on him, Greg didn’t know. When the fall wouldn’t be too far, no different than dropping down from the garden wall in the cemetery, Greg leapt down and landed hard on his bottom.

“Greg!” He heard Beatrice shout at him, a reprimand for recklessness no doubt, but he pressed on, skidding across the icy patches and hopping over the pools of dark water until he knelt down by where the hat floated.

Gently, he scooped it out of the water. His gaze roved over the soaked fabric, then frantically scanned the expansive ocean and ice wasteland around him. He clenched his fingers into the hat, wringing out the water as he hugged it close.

There was nothing out there.

“Wirt,” Greg whispered, curling up right there on the ice. “Wirt, please…”

Tears blurring his vision, he looked out at Beatrice, hovering near the base of the mountain with Jack. She shook her head slowly, shoulders slumped as her arms curled around her middle. It was done. It was over.

They’d been so close.

Greg sniffled and hid his face against the hat. The string he’d taped to it so it would stay on his head was long gone. Of course it was, Wirt didn’t need it. Wirt was The Pilgrim. Wirt was strong.

Just not strong enough to survive falling into an icy ocean at the mercy of a wolf.

A small splash sounded behind him. Greg’s eyes popped and he whirled around, hand bracing himself on the ice, ignoring the burn of it on his bare skin as he skimmed the surface of the water. There was a tiny ripple, not that far from him. Holding his breath, he watched and waited, trembling with the effort to stay still, but still he hoped-

There was another splash. Something was trying to get to the surface. Someone. Wirt.

“Wirt!” On his feet, clutching the hat in one hand, Greg tore after the sound.

Behind him, Beatrice shouted. She’d seen it, too. Greg slid and stumbled on the ice, losing his footing once and careening backwards right into the water. He kicked and righted himself, gasping as he sought purchase on the ice in front of him, heaving himself out of the water, Wirt’s cape heavy on his shoulders. But still he ran, sprinting for that place, that break in the water where another splash – an arm, his brother’s arm – fought to get out.

Greg dove for him, sliding across a patch of ice on his belly as his fingers closed around Wirt’s wrist and held. With a grunt of effort, Greg got to his knees, then sat back, trying to pull his brother up as their combined weight made the ice dip, sending Greg forward, right back into the water.

But he didn’t let go. Blinking through the dark water, he watched as Wirt floated down, almost lifelessly. His eyes opened a sliver, light from above reflecting just a little in them. Then he smiled. Greg grinned, nice and big for him as he clutched his hand, but then Wirt’s eyes slipped shut and he started to sink. Greg didn’t hesitate to grab him from under the arms as he kicked his way to the surface. His brother’s head lolled to one side, and Greg’s chest burned for breath as he tried to swim harder. Wirt wasn’t too heavy for him. He could carry him. He could.

They broke the surface, inhaling harshly, and Greg struggled to keep Wirt’s head above the water. “Beatrice!”

“Greg! Here!”

Beatrice grabbed at them, right beside them on the ice. Greg handed Wirt off to her, knowing she was more than strong enough to pull his brother out. She grabbed a fistful of his shirt and yanked him onto the ice. Greg kept his hand on Wirt’s side, just in case, but he tried to cling to his arm as something grabbed his ankle, a startled yelp all that escaped as his mouth filled with water and he was dragged down.

Down, down, down in the water, in the dark. The circle of light where he’d just been got further and further away as he reached for it, but the grip around his ankle only tightened. A dark shadow encompassed him and a rippling beast bore down on him, sharp teeth and silver eyes closing in.

It was Diana, but she was coming apart at the seams. The saltwater burning her form away into the corrupted, dark silhouette hovering before him. Her dark tendrils choked him, wound around him as they sank further and further into the ocean.

“If this is the end for me, then this is the end for you.” Her voice echoed all around him as he tried to kick free. “You can’t fight this. This darkness. It’s in you now. It is you. You will never be free of the shadows. You are The Beast.”

Drowning in the dark, encased in ice, Greg went limp in her grasp, gaze drifting past her horrific form to search for the surface. At least he’d gotten Wirt out. At least he’d told him what he wanted to say. His hat was still clutched in his hand. Sluggishly, he looked it over and wondered if he let go of it, would it rise to the surface so Wirt could have it again?

Something else floated in the water with him. Greg squinted as he grabbed it, looking it over. It was his picture. It had come loose from his pocket and was drifting in the water with him and Diana. He reached out for it. They were so happy then. Him and Wirt and Jason Funderberker. They were all happy.

He wasn’t done being happy.

Greg’s brow furrowed and he glared at Diana. She hissed and snarled at him, sinking her teeth right into his shoulder. He punched the side of her face. He wasn’t done being happy. He wasn’t done being alive. He and his brother were going home. Together.

She pulled back to growl at him. “You can’t escape me, boy-!”

Greg wrenched his leg free and kicked her in the snout. As she reeled back, her grip on his other ankle lessened and he kicked her again, pushing off the top of her head to swim for the surface. A wretched cry followed him up, but he didn’t stop swimming. He kicked harder, arms slicing through the cold, thick water, faster and faster because he wasn’t giving up. He was going home.

He was going home.

The icy air burned his cheeks as he burst out from beneath the water, scrabbling at the first patch of ice he could reach. He coughed and sputtered, gagging on the saltwater as he attempted to hoist himself up, picture and hat flung out ahead of him.

“Greg!” Beatrice cried out, and he was so thankful she was close, she was there, grabbing his cape and yanking him out of the water and onto the ice, tucking him into her side as he shivered and gasped. “Greg, you incredible miracle, you. You’re going to give me a heart attack one day, I swear!”

She hugged him tightly with one arm, and he opened his eyes enough to see it was because she had her other arm around Wirt, embracing the both of them fiercely. Wirt’s teeth were chattering, but his eyes were open and he was smiling at just the sight of his face. Greg grinned back, clinging to him and Beatrice as the three of them dissolved into hysterical, breathless laughter.

Across the water, over on the shore, a deep voice called out to them. Virgil and The Woodsman waved to them, the cart and Gertrude at their side while Jack barked and bounced from where he lingered on the ice, closer to the mountain. Greg waved back as Beatrice pressed a firm kiss to the top of his head. He tilted his head up and simply beamed at her, her and Wirt, tucked around him safe and sound.

“Let’s go home.”

Chapter Text

Shortly after climbing into the cart to start their journey home, Greg fell asleep. Nestled between Wirt and Beatrice on one of the bench seats, it had been all too easy to let his heavy lids fall shut as the steady, rickety motion of the cart lulled him to sleep. He pillowed his head on Wirt’s shoulder and listened to his steady breathing, felt the rise and fall of his chest, as his brother tucked him against his side protectively. As he drifted to sleep, he remembered the way Wirt had tackled Diana just to keep him safe and the way he challenged The Beast despite being terrified. His worry Wirt of a brother really was brave. He’d gotten so brave for him.

When the three of them had arrived on the shore, Virgil and The Woodsman were quick to meet them. Both men offered their coats to the sopping wet group, though Wirt had tried to decline, only to fall quiet when Beatrice basically forced the coat upon him with the threat of bodily harm looming overhead. While the two of them had squabbled over the coat, Greg had latched himself onto Gertrude and required Virgil to physically pry him off of the horse and set him in the back of the cart so they could get moving. He was just so glad that his best horse friend wasn’t scared of him anymore.

As he’d settled in the back and Wirt gave The Woodsman directions to set them on the right track for home he caught a glimpse of Beatrice tossing out the Edelwood branches that had accumulated in the back of the cart. Each one was thrown right into the river of sticks and Greg wondered if that’s why they had him so unsettled when he’d been on the boat back on that first day. He hadn’t had much time to ruminate on that, because then Wirt was sitting beside him, sharing the warmth of the coat with him and his eyes couldn’t stay open a second longer, no matter how much he wanted them to.

By the time he opened them again, night had fallen as they continued to trudge along through the woods, The Woodsman at the reins and Virgil sitting on the bench across from the three of them. Greg blinked sleepily at him and squeaked out a yawn, but the man did nothing more than nod slightly to acknowledge his wakefulness.

Much warmer and drier than he had been, Greg snuggled closer to Wirt and tilted his head back to look at him. He stifled a giggle with his palm, smile stretching across his face as easily as ever when he saw his brother’s head bowed forward in sleep. It bobbed a little, jostled by the bumpy road every now and then, but he stayed sound asleep from what Greg could tell. That was good. It was with relief that Greg noted the dark circles that lined Wirt’s eyes had lightened – faded – and he didn’t look quite as pale.

Greg grabbed a hold of his hand, the one that had been clasped around his arm when he’d fallen asleep and now dangled just as his head did. His brother’s fingers were still cold, so Greg laced them with his own and held on tightly. Until they left The Unknown, he wasn’t letting go.

“He’s alright, Greg,” Beatrice whispered from beside him.

He lifted his head to meet her gaze, her smile soft as she watched him. “I know,” he replied just as quietly, squeezing Wirt’s hand a little. “He deserves to get some sleep.”

Beatrice nodded, then brushed the back of her fingers against his forehead. “How are you feeling? You still dizzy?”

Sitting down, he couldn’t quite tell, but he shook his head nonetheless. He felt much better than he had earlier after all. He felt like himself still, a more awake, a more alive version of himself. A shiver picked its way along his spine and Beatrice pressed closer to shield him from the cold, even though that was only part of the problem. He hadn’t realized how more dead than alive he’d been the past two nights until he was more alive than dead once again.

The hand he was holding squeezed back and when Greg looked up it was to see Wirt canting his head towards him. His eyes saw him, the recognition unmistakable. Greg lit up, his eyes and smile bright, brighter still when Wirt smiled back, all softness and care. With a giggle, Greg knocked his shoulder against Wirt’s, laughing harder when he was poked in the side in return.

It rushed out of him in a single breath when a kiss was pressed to the top of his head. His brother was affectionate enough, with his hugs or grabbing his shoulder or ruffling his hair, but he couldn’t recall many times where he kissed him. Wirt preferred hugs to kisses, that was just something that he’d always known.

Brow furrowed, expression fixed in a way he hoped looked stern, Greg tugged on Wirt’s hand. “If you’re trying to get me to do your chores again, it’s not happening.” His voice trembled, betraying him in every way possible, but Wirt laughed a little anyway and turned his head so his cheek was resting against his hair.

“I’m not sucking up to you,” he assured him. “Just felt like it was something I needed to do. I… I don’t think I show or tell you enough.”

“You do.” Greg tapped him on the shoulder until he looked down at him. “And that’s a rock fact.”

“Yours or mine?” Wirt asked with a snort.

Greg lifted his chin, smile small and sneaky. “What do you think?”

“I think it’s one of yours.”

“Well, one in one hundred of my rock facts are true,” he reminded him.

“And you just used one up this afternoon, if I’m not mistaken,” Wirt replied.

Greg rolled his eyes. “That doesn’t count. That was a life or death situation. In life or death situations, all rock facts return to the default setting of being true one hundred percent.”

Beatrice laughed while Wirt scoffed. “What? The default setting is true? I thought the default setting was that they were all lies. I thought my rock facts were special.”

“Nope,” Greg giggled. “Yours are generic.”

“I can’t believe this.” Wirt shook his head, letting go of Greg’s hand to drape his arms along the side of the cart as he pretended to sulk. “Generic. Pfft.”

Grinning at him, Greg mimicked his pose, even crossing his heels at the ankles. It didn’t go unnoticed by his brother, who stopped pouting long enough to grin back. He then ruined it by ruffling his hair too much, making it so Greg had no choice but to bat his hand away. Before he could retaliate by tackling him, Beatrice grabbed onto his arms and pinned him to his seat unfairly. Luckily he still had his legs to fend Wirt off with when his brother poked his sides and stomach. Beatrice couldn’t hold them and his arms at the same time, but then his brother grabbed his ankles and he was pretty much captured.

“A plague on both your houses!” Greg cried out in indignation while the two terrible older siblings laughed.

When Greg glanced across the cart at Virgil again, the man was smiling, the sentiment twinkling in his eyes and Greg’s heart absolutely swelled.

The cart came to a sudden stop. Beatrice gasped, her grip on Greg tightening – becoming more protective than playful. Wirt turned around as Virgil stood up and Greg sat up straighter to see just what was going on. His heart stopped and Wirt threw an arm in front of him, to shield him if he needed to.

The lion and the leopard stood in their path, staring down the cart. They made no move to attack, but they also refused to back down as Gertrude whinnied and pawed at the snow. Their gazes fixated on Greg.

“What do they want?” Wirt hissed under his breath.

“I don’t know,” Beatrice murmured, narrowing her eyes. “They… they usually don’t just wait like this…”

“They’re calm,” Virgil noted.

Greg stayed perfectly still as he stared back at them, his heart pounding as every muscle in his body screamed at him to run. He couldn’t move though, pinned by their eyes. He couldn’t even blink.

The minutes dragged on, but finally the lion blinked and bowed his head, then turned his back on them and disappeared into the trees. The leopard took a moment longer, but his head also dipped before he vanished in the opposite direction from the lion. They’d gone. Just like that.

They’d helped him, earlier, he realized as he sagged against Beatrice. They’d stood in Diana’s way when he’d tried to get to the cliff. To toss the lantern over.

“What was that?” Beatrice questioned.

“I’m not sure,” Virgil mused.

Greg shuddered as he looked into the trees after the leopard. “I don’t really want to stick around and find out.”

The Woodsman nodded and coaxed Gertrude into moving once more. They all watched behind them for some time, all four of the passengers unable to trust that the creatures had really let them pass. When Jack didn’t stir and the snow in the trees stayed silent, their minds were set at ease and the peacefulness seemed less like it was hiding something and more like a reprieve. Greg couldn’t help but wonder if they’d wanted the wolf gone from the forest as much as she’d wanted them gone.

Occasionally The Woodsman requested directions. Wirt knew the way home and was able to guide him successfully, but at some point the path they needed to take veered off from Virgil and The Woodsman’s. Though they offered to take them all the way, the brothers declined.

“It’s not much farther,” Wirt told them.

“You’ve done so much for me and Wirt already,” Greg added. “Your families need you.”

Neither could disagree with that.

As Wirt and Greg got out of the cart, Beatrice and Jack joined them. “I’m seeing this through to the end,” was all Beatrice said when Wirt tried to fight her on it.

Greg was a little bit relieved. As much as he wanted to get home, he didn’t want to say goodbye to Beatrice just yet. Not after all they’d been through.

He stroked Gertrude’s nose, all the way down from the center of the star on her forehead. She nuzzled him back and he just had to throw his arms around her neck. While their friendship had been short, he appreciated all the horse had done for him. He appreciated what everyone had done for him.

Shyly, he approached The Woodsman to say his goodbye. He held his hand out to Greg and shook it firmly, clasping Greg’s much smaller hand in both of his. The smile he gave him was kind, no longer did he flinch away from him as if he was the monster that haunted his dreams.

“You’re a very strong boy. You and your brother both are. Take care of each other,” he told him. “Share your strengths and your weaknesses.”

“We will.” Greg nodded.

As The Woodsman turned away, Greg was sad to see him go, though his stomach churned uneasily when he glimpsed the axe still strapped to his back. He would not be sad to see that go. He’d be nothing but glad to never see another axe again.

“Well, Gregory…” Virgil cleared his throat, the next in line to say farewell. “It has been quite the adventure.”

Greg grinned at him. “Bet you regret me falling through your roof now, huh?”

He looked him right in the eye. “Not in the slightest.”

Lower lip trembling, Greg launched himself at Virgil and hugged the man tightly. While he was certainly surprised, he was quick enough to accept it and returned it, though in a much stiffer way. Stiff and stoic, just the way Virgil ought to be.

“I’m gonna miss you and your grumpiness and the way you always told me to be quiet,” he mumbled into his shoulder.

“I would say that I would miss your chattering and your whimsical songs, but that wouldn’t be true in the slightest,” he replied.

“Hey!” Greg pulled out of the hug and narrowed his eyes at him.

“I will say that I shall miss you as well, though,” he continued and Greg smile. “Stay out of trouble, Gregory. I don’t want to see you around these woods for a long time, if ever again.”

“Okay.” Greg received a firm pat to the shoulder as Virgil looked away from him.

“Get home safely, young lady,” he told Beatrice as he climbed back into the driver’s seat of the cart. “And you, older brother. Take care of yourself. Do not give that child another reason to come sashaying back into The Unknown.”

“Yes, sir.” Wirt nodded while Beatrice rolled her eyes.

“Don’t be a stranger, Virgil,” she called out to him. “Visit us every now and then. Fresh air is your friend. Get out of the dirt once in a while.”

Virgil tipped his hat at her, then flicked the reins. Gertrude trotted along, carting him and The Woodsman further into the woods. Greg, Wirt, and Beatrice watched them go until the only sign they’d ever been there at all were the hoof prints in the snow and the wagon wheel tracks from the cart.

“Come on, guys.” Wirt broke the silence, taking the lead. “We’re almost there.”

“What does the way home look like?” Greg asked, following on his heels. “I don’t remember how we got home last time.”

“You’ll know when you see it.” Wirt smiled down at him.

“I swear, the second you two are out of my hair I’m going to sleep for a year, wake up, eat a good, hot meal, then go right back to sleep again,” Beatrice sighed, stretching her arms above her head.

“Oh come on, Beatrice, you know you’re gonna miss us,” Greg piped up.

“Miss you, maybe. But miss the headaches the two of you cause me on a daily basis? I don’t think so,” she teased.

“Well, at least we’re not literally killing you every second you’re forced to spend with us, right?” Wirt joined in. “You know, since you don’t have the lifespan of a bluebird.”

Beatrice rolled her eyes. “I don’t know about that.”

“I know you’ll miss my songs.” Greg skipped on ahead. “On my way, oh! Can you say, oh-!”

“Greg, don’t even start!” Beatrice laughed, unable to even sound the tiniest bit threatening.

Wirt glanced between them curiously. “What song is that?”

“Yours.” Greg hopped onto a nearby log and balanced on it. “On our way, oh! Can you say, oh! We’re on our way out of the woods! I knew I’d find, yes, I knew I’d find that brother o’ mine! We’ll be home soon!”

“That’s it. That’s the song,” Beatrice informed him, crossing her arms as she fell into step beside Wirt. “He just changes the words, but the tune stays the same.”

“I like it.” Wirt grinned at Greg, holding his arm out for him to grab onto and help balance him as he walked across the log. “How is it mine though?”

“It’s called ‘Brother O’ Mine,’” he explained. “I was singing it while I was looking for you. You know, until I became The Beast and things got all messed up.” Greg clutched Wirt’s wrist as he jumped off and continued to hold it as they walked on.

“Oh.” Wirt’s brow furrowed a little, his head bowing so he stared at the ground as they walked, one of his deep-set thinking expressions fixed to his face. “Greg? We… we should talk about that…”

Greg kicked at the snow. “Just because we should doesn’t mean we have to.”

When he looked up, he found Wirt staring at him with a rather unimpressed look. “Greg.”

“What?” Greg tried to make the same expression, but failed spectacularly because instead of getting Wirt to back off, it only made his brother slump and sigh. “Do we have to talk about it now? Can it wait?”

“Greg, you basically told me that you were dead and that I needed to leave you behind!” Wirt retaliated. “Why would you say that?”

“What else was I supposed to do? You weren’t going to go home on your own if you thought I was alive!”

“What? And you thought I’d leave because you were dead?” Wirt frowned at him.

“I don’t know! Maybe!” Greg let go of Wirt’s hand and pushed on ahead. “I said I didn’t want to talk about this now. I don’t want to fight with you. I want to be happy that we’re together again and I don’t want to think about being-!”

He cut himself off by biting on his lower lip. Hands balled into fists at his sides, tucked under Wirt’s cape, he ducked his head. Couldn’t he just enjoy being himself again? Couldn’t he just enjoy being together with his brother after having been lost for so long?

A sudden stab of fear pierced him and he spun around to check for Wirt. His brother was right behind him, Beatrice too, and both had been lost in thought until he’d stopped like that. Wirt blinked at him in surprise, then understanding lit up his eyes and he reached out for him.

“Hey, I’m not going anywhere,” he told him, assuaging the terror as he held his hand. “And we don’t have to talk about what happened yet. I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have said anything.”

Greg shook his head. “No, I’m sorry, too. I said awful things to you. I knew they were awful and I said them anyway, you should be mad-”

“I’m not mad. I just want to make sure you’re really okay.”

His brother was all seriousness as he looked him in the eyes and Greg believed him. “I am. I’m okay.”

Wirt’s eyes started to water, Greg could tell because they got real shiny and he had to blink a lot. “Good. Good, I’m glad. I was just-” His chin quivered a little. “You scared me, Greg. I thought I lost you. I thought you were gone and I couldn’t-”

“I’m okay,” Greg assured him, returning the grip he had on his hand. “I’m really okay, Wirt. Let’s just go home. I want to go home.”

“Me too,” Wirt agreed, and he had to clear his throat because it went back to squeaking like it used to when he was fifteen.

They walked in silence for some time, with Jack trotting along beside them obediently. Once Wirt had stopped sniffling, Beatrice started to hum. Greg perked up as he recognized the tune he’d just been singing, his song for Wirt, and he couldn’t help but smile when she winked at him.

“On my way, oh! Can you say, oh! I’m on my way into the woods,” he started to sing, delighted when Beatrice joined in. “Will I find, oh, yes I’ll find, oh, brother o’ mine, we’ll be home soon!”

“Among the trees and all the leaves, I’m looking for you at every turn! Which way did, oh, which way did you go? Brother o’ mine, I’ll find you soon!” Greg swung their arms back and forth, pleased when Beatrice and Wirt linked arms as well, even though his brother could only laugh, unable to sing along with them since he didn’t know the words. “On my way, oh! Can you say, oh! I’m on my way into the woods! Be strong, be smart, and know in your heart, brother o’ mine, we’ll be home soon!”

“We are,” Wirt pointed out, letting go of Greg’s hand to show him.

In front of them the forest parted into two distinct paths. Greg’s heart beat a little bit faster. One path led the way to a hill. At the very top of it, a stone wall towered over the forest. The wall from the cemetery. The very wall he’d slipped from when he tried to climb back over, the wall he’d left their beloved frog on. It was the way home.

A joyous laugh bubbled out of him as he raced towards the fork in their path. “We’re almost there!” he shouted, grinning so wide it hurt. “We’re almost home! Wirt, look-!”

His brother wasn’t following him.

Greg stopped hard, fists clenched as he stared over his shoulder at the place where the road diverged into two. Wirt just stood there, his eyes on the other path. Bristling, Greg immediately backtracked. He grabbed onto Wirt’s hand. When his brother shifted his gaze to him he squeezed it tightly.

“Come on, Wirt. We’re almost there,” Greg’s voice wavered. “Be strong, be smart, and know in your heart-!”

“That’s not the way home for me, Greg,” he told him, voice as gentle as his smile.

“But…” Eyes widening, fear filling them as he glanced between the wall, Beatrice, and his brother. “It has to be.”

Wirt cast it a considering look. “It was once,” he murmured. “The first time we were here. I carried you over that wall.”

They both stared at it now. Greg maintained his grip on Wirt’s hand, but his brother didn’t grab back. He didn’t hold onto him back. The fears and doubts that plagued and inspired The Beast crept up in the corners of his mind, whispering their dark words to him, but he shook them away. He loosened his grasp just enough to feel reassured, but not enough to bind his brother to him.

“You… you can go home, right?” Greg whispered, eyes glossing with tears. “You’re not…”

Wirt blinked, then huffed out a quiet laugh. “Don’t worry, Greg. I can go home. My road home is just different from yours. I came here another way.”

He could hardly take comfort in the relief as he swallowed thickly. “Well, then I’ll go with you. I’ll take your road instead.”

“It doesn’t work that way, Greg.” Wirt shook his head, sadness creeping into his eyes and the lines around his mouth. “I wish it did, but…”

“No. No, I don’t want to separate again! Not yet! Wirt, please!” Greg released his hand to band his arms around his waist, burying his face against his chest. “Don’t go! Don’t go a different way!”

Wirt hugged him back fiercely. “Greg, if I don’t, then I don’t know if I can go back home at all. You’re going to have to trust me on this, okay?”

His brother fought against his grip on him as he crouched down, hands going straight to his shoulders. At first Greg couldn’t look at him, gasping for breath and fighting the tears that sprung to his eyes at the thought of losing him again – all over again – but Wirt waited patiently. Blinking tearfully, Greg met his gaze and sniffled, finding the same fears mirrored in Wirt’s eyes.

“You have to trust that I’ll get home okay, Greg,” Wirt repeated. “Just like I’m trusting you to get home. The last thing I want to do is leave you again, but it’s only for a little while. I promise. You need to climb over the wall to get back home, and I need to get back to my car.”

“Your car?” Greg tilted his head as his voice cracked.

Wirt nodded. “Yeah. I don’t know why, but I was in my car when I ended up here. I guess, maybe because of the accident. Do you remember how you got here?”

“Mmhm. I fell off the wall and hit my head,” he mumbled.

Wirt released his shoulder and rubbed the top of his head, raking his fingers through his hair as his palm slipped down to the back. “You’re going to have one heck of a headache. I’m sorry.”

“When I go over the wall, will you be there? In the hospital?” Greg asked.

“I’ll be right where you left me. I mean, if I could I’d be right by your side when you wake up, but somehow I don’t think I’m in the condition to do that.”

“You’re gonna have a headache, too,” he told him. “You have a big a bruise on your forehead and a cut that had to be bandaged up on one side.”

Wirt sighed heavily. “I have a feeling I’m gonna have a lot of aches, Greg. Boy, have I learned my lesson. Never tailgate.”

“I’m sorry, Wirt.”

“I know you are.” He pulled him in for another hug. “I’m sorry, too.”

When they broke the embrace, Wirt removed his cone hat and plopped it down right on top of Greg’s head. It fell into his eyes, so he had to push it up a little and tilt his head back to see him as his brother straightened up. Amusement and fondness colored his face as he looked down at him, the mini him. The Little Pilgrim.

“I expect to get that back.” He pointed at the hat. “And I expect to get you back, too, so don’t take too long getting back over that wall, okay?”

“Okay.” Greg nodded, throat tightening as he realized Wirt was taking very small, slow steps away from him, very casually increasing their distance.

“You trust me, Greg?”

“I do.” His heart was pounding, beating frantically against his ribcage as his brother took his first steps on the road he couldn’t travel on. “I trust you.”

“Okay. I’ll see you soon, Greg. That’s a rock fact.” His gaze left him to wander over his shoulder, to Beatrice. “I guess this is it.”

“It better be.” Beatrice sniffed, her arms folded across her chest. “I’m telling you, I don’t want to see either of you around here for a long, long time. Or never. Maybe never.”

“Will you stay with Greg? Until he gets home?” Wirt asked, and Greg wished he’d thought to ask Beatrice to go with his brother first. He could see his way home, he couldn’t see Wirt’s from here.

When Beatrice nodded Wirt opened his arms and pulled her into a hug that she returned ferociously. “You wonderful mistake of nature,” she murmured into his shoulder. “Go write your poetry and play your clarinet. And don’t get into any more accidents.”

“I’ll try,” he chuckled wetly. “Take care of yourself, Beatrice.”

“Yeah, you too.” She patted him hard on the back, then pulled away and wiped at her eyes. “Goodbye, Wirt.”

“Bye, Beatrice.”

When Wirt turned his back on them, Greg’s knee-jerk reaction was to go running after him. He forced himself to stay still though, trembling under his brother’s cape and in his brother’s hat as he watched him go. He was going home though, this was a good thing. It was a good thing.

His heart felt like it was being squeezed in someone’s fist and he gasped, “Wirt!”

His brother turned around without hesitation, his eyes just as wide, just as terrified, as he looked for him. Every muscle in his body poised to go back to him, taut and trembling as he waited. He was waiting for Greg’s call. If Greg called him back, he’d listen.

Lifting his quivering chin, Greg shook his head just enough for Wirt to see. “I love you,” he told him instead of ‘come back.’

Wirt’s shoulders sagged, though his knees still shook and his face was still lined with worry. “I love you, too, Greg.”

Taking a few deep breaths, he cradled those words close to his heart to soothe it while he turned to face the road leading to the wall. A hand settled on his shoulder. He looked back to see Beatrice standing beside him. He could do this. This wasn’t goodbye for good, or even for long. They’d see each other again. They’d both make it out. He believed they could. They were strong enough.

Greg spared one last glance in Wirt’s direction, his brother still waiting and watching him. Letting him make the first move. He took one solid, firm step, then another.

Then he was running.

The cape flapped behind him as he raced along the path, towards the slope of the snowy hill and the stone wall waiting for him. Run, run, run. Run, run, run. He chanted mentally. The faster he got to the wall, the faster he and Wirt got home. That’s what he told himself. That’s what he believed.

Arms and legs pumping furiously, he started up the hill, remembering the way he and Jason Funderberker had scaled the very same hill on Halloween night, soaking wet from the lake, from trying to get into The Unknown. Breathing heavily, he pushed himself all the way up. His palms smacked against the stones set into the wall. They still felt cold and a little damp against his fingers. Greg stared straight up it, right to the top.

Climbing the wall to go back home was always a lot harder since there wasn’t a tree on this side, but the wall had places to grip and hold if he was careful. He had to be careful. Taking a deep breath, Greg reached up and placed his foot on the wall. He started to climb. His fingers trembled as they curled around each grip. He didn’t dare breathe as he focused, his brow furrowed with intent up until he grasped the top of the wall. Almost there.

Greg reached up with his other arm and pushed up with his right foot. It got caught in the cape and he slipped. His hand lost its grip and-

“Got you.”

Beatrice caught him before he fell. Greg blinked, then glanced down at her. She grinned at him, her hands supporting his waist and back, keeping him flush against the wall, giving him the chance to regain his grip and footing. He beamed at her, then resumed his climb.

One leg swung over the top of the wall so he straddled it, both hands braced on the smooth surface. He looked down at Beatrice as she backed away from the wall, shading her eyes with her hand as the sun began to rise from behind him. From beyond the wall.

“Beatrice-!” Greg felt a pang of regret for not getting one last proper goodbye hug from her now that he was at the top of the wall, but he knew this was it. He couldn’t go back down again. “Thank you!”

“You can thank me by making sure you and your brother don’t pull anymore stunts like this and end up back here,” Beatrice replied.

His chest tightened. He’d never see her again. “I’ll miss you!” he called to her.

She made a soft sound, but she didn’t cry. “I’ll miss you, too.”

“Tell your family I’ll miss them, too, and Jack. I’ll miss you, Jack.” He waved to the dog who wagged and panted at him while Beatrice huffed out a laugh, then straightened her shoulders.

“Keep singing, Greg,” she told him firmly. “Ignore what I’ve said. Don’t let anyone make you to stop. Don’t let anyone stop you from being you, got it?”

He gave her thumbs up and a watery smile. “Got it.”

“Good.” Her voice sounded thick with the tears she was trying not shed as she held a smile for him as well. For his last memory of her.

“Goodbye, Beatrice.”

“Goodbye, Greg.”

With one last look at her and the snow covered woods of The Unknown, Greg brought his other leg over and sat on the edge of the wall. He pushed off, down and-

-0-

-as soon as he realized he was lying on a bed and could hear voices clouding the air around him, Greg opened his eyes. Inhaling on a painful gasp, he sat up straight and his head swiveled about wildly. Hospital. He was in the hospital. His hand flew to the back of his head, a large piece of gauze taped to it. His hat. Where was his brother’s hat?

Glancing around, his eyes fell upon it flopped on a chair beside his bed. Greg immediately jumped down, heedless of the startled shout from a nearby nurse as he snatched up the hat. He set it right upon his head before he took off running, ignoring the cries of ‘stop!’ and ‘come back here!’ and ‘Gregory!’ from doctors and his dad. His dad.

Oh, he really wanted to see his dad, but if he stopped now then they’d never let him see Wirt and that was something he absolutely had to do. He had to make sure he made it back. He had to.

Wet sneakers squeaked on the tile floor as he skid around a corner. Greg darted out of the ER and down the hall for the nearest elevator. He was still wet, still wearing Wirt’s Halloween costume, and his chest hurt a lot, like someone had been pounding on it, but he wasn’t going to let little things like that stop him. Not when he’d faced the entire Unknown on his own for what felt like a whole week.

Greg stopped to press the button for Wirt’s floor, but he didn’t have time to wait as nurses yelled for him and hospital security tore down the hall after him. He abandoned the elevator in favor of the stairs. Taking them two at a time, Greg hiked up Wirt’s cape coat to avoid tripping on it and falling down anything else today.

Bursting through the door for the right floor, Greg took a second to orient himself and catch his breath, then went careening in the direction he knew Wirt’s room to be. He passed plenty of little placards on doors, his eyes scanning them all until the Palmer, W. caught his attention. Greg came to a halt outside of his room and threw the door open without hesitation. Clinging to the door knob with one hand and bracing himself on the frame with the other, he called out for his brother.

“Wirt!”

Lying as still as he’d been when he first saw him – what felt like ages ago now – Wirt was on his back with his eyes closed, the machine by his side still beeping. Greg’s chest tightened as he panted, an overwhelming feeling of dread crashing down on him as his brother lay motionless. He couldn’t bring himself to enter the room any further, his hands still grasping the only things keeping him from crashing to his knees. Distantly, he heard security approaching him. The hospital staff had found him and would take him away and Wirt wasn’t back yet.

He said he’d be here.

There was a rustle and a croak from Wirt’s bed. Greg blinked. Jason Funderberker sat up to look at him, resting easily by his brother’s leg. Their lucky frog nodded towards the head of the bed. When Greg looked again, it was to see Wirt tilting his head towards him, his one visible eye cracked open and watching him.

In an instant Greg realized that he no longer had the breathing tube, the machine wasn’t breathing for him because he could breathe on his own and smile- Wirt was smiling at him even all banged up and bruised and he’d made it. He’d come home.

“What took you so long?” Wirt wheezed.

Greg burst into tears and barreled into the room, throwing himself on Wirt’s bed, careful not to jostle any of the broken bits of him as he wrapped his arms around him. Wirt was able to hug him back with one arm and Greg could feel his rock facts rock still clutched in his good hand. A sound that was sort of like a sob and sort of like a laugh escaped him as he clung to him.

“I slipped,” he blubbered. “Your coat’s too big.”

“You know, you wouldn’t have problems like that if you stopped taking my things.” Wirt’s voice cracked and Greg could feel his tears on his neck. “Oh my gosh. Greg.”

“I know. We’re back. We’re back. I promised we’d be back, didn’t I? I promised.”

“We’re okay, Greg. It’s all okay now.” Wirt hushed against his ear, rubbing his back in slow, jerky motions. “We’re okay.”

“Gregory!”

He sat up, letting go of Wirt only to hold his arms out to a person just as important. “Mom!”

Her arms engulfed him in a hug that completely lifted him off the bed. She pressed a firm kiss to his hairline as he hid his face against her neck. How had they done this three years ago? How had he not missed her? His dad?

“Dad- where’s Dad?” he hiccupped.

His strong, warm hand rested on his back. “Here. I’m right here, Greg.”

Greg pulled back to look at him, look at them both. Their faces were haggard, worn. As if they’d fought a war tonight. With both of their children on the brink, Greg couldn’t really blame them. But beyond the exhaustion and the fretting, there was that relief he remembered from three years ago. That joy.

Because they came back. The fought their way back through The Unknown and were home. They were home.

“Mom, Dad, I’m sorry, but I had to-” he choked out, but his mom just hugged him tighter and shook her head.

“We’ll talk about that later, Greg. Right now we’re just glad you’re alright.”

“Of course, he did run off before we could put in his stitches,” a woman’s voice joined the fray and Greg glanced over his mom’s shoulder to find that it was one of the doctors he’d run from.

Greg reached for the back of his head, turning it slightly. Enough so that his brother could see the gauze back there apparently because he heard his breath hitch as a strangled sort of noise escaped him. “Greg, your head…”

“It looks worse than it is,” the doctor assured him while their mom set Greg down on his feet. “But we really do need to get you back downstairs to the ER so we can stitch you up, Gregory. Then we’re going to get some scans, just to make sure everything’s looking the way it should and we’ll move you to the pediatrics ward for the night if things check out okay.”

“Can’t I stay here?” Greg asked, looking worriedly to Wirt.

“This ward is only for post-op recovery. I’m afraid you can’t stay here,” the doctor answered.

“Isn’t there something we can do?” his dad inquired.

When the doctor merely shook her head, Greg reached for Wirt’s good hand. He’d dropped the rock facts rock in favor of having the freedom to squeeze back. This was just like before, having to take two different roads to recovery.

“Can I hold onto your hat a little longer?” Greg asked quietly.

“You can hold onto it for as long as you need,” Wirt replied. “And Jason Funderberker can go with you. He’ll look after you.”

Greg immediately swept up their frog into his arms, nuzzling him as he welcomed the embrace. “Okay. You can keep my rock facts rock until you’re better, too.”

“Alright, Gregory. Come on now. We really need to make sure you take it easy. Head injuries are not something to take lightly,” the doctor admonished while she led him out of the room, his dad following while his mom remained behind with Wirt.

Greg glanced back at him over his shoulder, Jason Funderberker still cradled in his arms. Wirt was watching him back, then lifted the rock up and gave it a little wave. Greg smiled, flashing him an a-okay sign as he was shepherded down the hall and back downstairs for his stitches.

-0-

Stitches were not fun to get, Greg groused later that night, tucked in a bed in the pediatrics ward. Neither were scans. His wet clothes had been exchanged for warm, dry hospital ones and he’d been given an extra blanket as an extra precaution, but Wirt’s cape coat and hat were right at his bedside still, watching over him. While his head injury had been moderate, no lasting damage aside from a scar that would be permanent at the base of his skull, winding around to the side right behind his ear, the hospital and his parents were still concerned about why his heart stopped for almost two minutes. They attributed it to shock from the fall and the blow to the head.

Greg wondered if that was when his soul was in the lantern instead of in himself, but he didn’t want to think about that right now. Not when he had to lie in his dark hospital room without anyone else. His parents were flitting back and forth between him and Wirt all night. Greg was pretty sure it almost morning at this point, but no one aside from Jason Funderberker had gotten any sleep. Well, maybe Wirt had. Greg didn’t know since he wasn’t allowed to see him yet. His parents were working on that.

He rolled onto his side, curling around their trusty frog as he croaked quietly and bumped his nose to his. “I missed you, too, Jason Funderberker,” he whispered. “I’m sorry I left you behind.”

The ever-forgiving frog accepted his apology and relaxed against him. Greg stroked along his back the way Wirt would, feeling his eyelids grow heavier and heavier. He was tired, but he didn’t want to close his eyes just yet. More than just the fear of Edelwood tree roots lurked behind closed eyelids now.

Now there was emptiness. Nothingness. And worse than that was the slowly dying light housed in a rusted red lantern. Or his brother’s body floating lifelessly in a sea of ice.

Greg hugged Jason Funderberker tightly. Maybe he could try to sneak to Wirt’s room again. He was feeling okay. He’d just need to wait until the coast was clear-

There was a noise in the hall outside his room. Greg blinked and sat up a little. It didn’t sound like one of the nurses. It was more like a pained grunt. His heart fluttered hopefully, only to full out leap for joy when Wirt appeared from around the corner, slumped against the doorframe and wheezing heavily.

“Wirt! What are you doing?” Greg hissed, making to scramble out of bed, but his brother held up his hand so he stopped. “You’re hurt!”

“Yeah, well…” His hand flopped about as he tried to wave it off, cradling his injured wrist close. “I had to see you. Scoot over.”

While he limped over to his bedside, Greg pulled back the covers for him and went right to the edge of his bed to give his brother space. Wirt lowered himself onto it with a whimper, his face shining with a thin sheen of sweat while his chest heaved. Greg hovered over him in concern.

“You just had surgery after being in a car accident!” he reminded him. “Don’t be dumb and get yourself hurt even worse!”

“I didn’t hurt myself worse,” Wirt told him, shooting him an unimpressed look. “After what we’ve been through, can you really blame me?”

No, he couldn’t, especially not when he’d been considering another escape plan of his own. “No,” he replied softly, lying back down next to him, nudging Jason Funderberker between them. “I wanted to see you, too.”

“How are you doing? Is your head okay?” Wirt’s worry shone even in the darkened room and Greg couldn’t help smiling as he curled into him.

“It’s fine. They gave me some medicine so it wouldn’t hurt so much.”

“And you took it?” Wirt feigned shock.

Greg rolled his eyes. “It was a pill so it didn’t taste gross.”

“Mom and Jonathan told me some of the details… about what happened over by the wall.”

He knew what he was fishing for. “My heart’s okay, too,” he assured him. “My chest hurts from when they did CPR, but they said I’d be a little sore from it. That’s normal.”

Wirt placed his good hand over Greg’s heart and left it there. “Good… that’s good.”

They both watched the rise and fall of Greg’s chest, listening and feeling the steady pulse beating inside.

“Wirt?”

“Yeah?”

Greg searched his face, his poor banged up face, and watched as Wirt scanned his in return, his gaze lingering on the way his lower lip trembled. “Do I look and sound like me?” he choked out.

“You do.” Wirt’s voice broke as he scooted closer, securing his arm around him. “You’re you, Greg.”

“I just… before I couldn’t tell, so I wanted to be sure,” he babbled. “And I’m afraid if I close my eyes, it’ll be like the nothingness when I died and-”

“Shh…” Wirt hushed him. “You did it, Greg. You beat The Beast.”

His anxiety eased, washed away for now by a few simple words. “You shh,” he couldn’t help but tack on, lips turning up when Wirt hugged him tighter.

Chapter Text

“Greg! Greg, come on, I have to leave soon!”

“I’m out here!” Greg hollered back, his voice rising in a puff in the cold air as he lay sprawled out on his back in his snow-coated front lawn.

He heard the front door swing open and click shut, followed by footsteps creaking unevenly on the porch. His brother still had a limp, only getting worse as the weather got colder, but his doctor believed that once the weather warmed up he should start to regain his full range of motion. For once, as the unofficial groundhog, Greg did not hope for six more weeks of winter.

Despite that sentiment, there he was lying in the snow, a half-started angel beneath him that he’d given up on in favor of staring at the clouds. Jason Funderberker sat beside him, dressed as warmly as they could get their frog, his own snow frog angel also half-started. He’d been eyeing Greg with a warning sort of look ever since he’d removed his gloves to plunge his bare hands into the snow. He hadn’t been doing it for very long this time, and sometimes he just needed to feel the cold biting into his skin until he couldn’t feel it anymore.

He perked up as he heard his brother’s footfalls in the snow, Wirt coming to a stop beside him. He sat down in the snow, legs stretched out in front of him as he leaned back on his elbows. His gaze wandered up to the clouds as well, to see what had Greg so captivated.

“These aren’t the best clouds for finding shapes,” Wirt remarked, his tone light as he offered him a small smile.

“Yeah,” Greg agreed, though he hadn’t been trying to find any shapes in the clouds. “Are you all packed?”

“Mostly,” he murmured, canting his head upwards again.

It was the middle of January and spring semester was starting in a few days. Wirt’s second semester. His injuries after the accident – plus his carelessness in walking around the hospital in search of Greg’s room that first night – had required him to be hospitalized for some time, then he’d needed supervised rest on top of that. He hadn’t been able to go back to school to finish out the semester that fall.

His school was accommodating enough though. While two of his classes had to be dropped since he couldn’t physically attend them, several of his professors had been understanding and open to the idea of Wirt finishing the courses by completing online assignments. He didn’t end up with all the credits he was supposed to have, but he’d had enough to still be considered a full-time student and had passed his classes from the comfort of his home.

He’d been there from Halloween night through Christmas and into the new year, recuperating and studying his pants off. Greg had sat with him in his room, doing his homework at Wirt’s desk while his brother reclined on his bed and worked on their mom’s laptop, his text books spread out all over the blankets. His pain killers often made him fall asleep covered in books and notes, the laptop humming away on his chest, so Greg would clear off the bed a little to make him more comfortable. It was the least he could do, he felt, since Wirt was missing out on real college because of him.

Wirt denied it forwards and backwards, but Greg knew that a lot of the blame rode on his shoulders. Wirt could tell him all he wanted that it was theirs to share. He still knew that wasn’t the case.

A snowball smacked him in the face. “Hey!” Greg spluttered, taking his hands out of the snow to brush what had ended up on his face.

Wirt laughed at him, up until Greg retaliated with a snowball down the back of his shirt. “W-whoa! Watch it! Greg, that’s cold!”

It was Greg’s turn to laugh as his brother jumped up to pat all the snow out from inside his clothes. “Serves you right. Never mess with the snowball master.”

“Y-yeah? Well, be careful. You don’t want to mess up your present, do you?” he responded with a full-bodied shudder.

The word “present” had Greg perking up in an instant. “What? What present?”

Wirt lifted an eyebrow once he was satisfactorily de-snowed and crossed his arms. “I don’t know if you deserve it now,” he replied. “Only really amazing brothers get great goodbye presents.”

“Hey.” Greg couldn’t help grinning as he sat up, hands going to his hips. “No fair. You can’t use my words against me.”

“Says who?” When Greg stuck his tongue out at him, Wirt stuck his out right back.

He laughed, rocking back into the snow to recline the same way Wirt had before he pushed snow down his back. “Seriously, why am I getting a present? My birthday’s not for another two weeks, and I thought my present was getting to stay with you over the four-day weekend anyway.”

“Well, yeah.” Wirt knocked his fist lightly on top of Greg’s head. “But this isn’t a birthday present. I told you, it’s a goodbye present.”

“But I’m not the one leaving,” he pointed out.

“We’re still saying goodbye for a bit, aren’t we?” His big brother shrugged, then reached into his coat to pull out a slightly crumpled, wrapped package and handed it over. “Happy Going to College Day.”

Greg sat up straighter and took it. It was floppy and soft. His lips quirked up and he gave his brother a suspicious look. Given the hobby he’d taken up during his recovery, he had an idea of what it could be. Jason Funderberker hopped over to inspect the gift to while Wirt sat down cross-legged next to him, watching him with anticipation.

“Well, aren’t you gonna open it?” Wirt pressed and Greg couldn’t help but giggle at how eager he was. “You don’t have to wait until I’m gone to open it, you know.”

“Don’t want me to wait until I’m actually missing you?”

“Greg, seriously. Open it before I open it for you.”

Grinning brightly, Greg tore off the wrapping paper with gusto, throwing the little bits of paper into the air to rain around them like confetti. His present was soft and green – a dark, rich green. When all the wrapping was gone, he held it up to inspect it.

He’d been right. It was a hat. Well, he hadn’t known it would be a hat, but he’d known it would be something that his brother knitted for him. As a way of de-stressing and to pass the time while he recovered from the accident, Wirt had started knitting during his study breaks. He’d sit up in bed and look up tutorials on how to knit, finding a surprising amount of calm in the activity. Even when he could move freely around the house again he kept up with it. Greg knew he’d been working on something in particular that he wouldn’t let him see. This must have been it.

Wirt’s hand settled on the back of his head, his thumb gently caressing the jagged scar stretching across it where the hair would never grow back. “I know you’ve been feeling a bit self-conscious about it,” Wirt murmured. “So I thought I’d make you something that you could wear to… I dunno… help with it, I guess.”

When his brother’s hand went away, Greg instinctively reached back to feel the exposed skin as well. He had mixed feelings about the scar. Sometimes he marched around town bearing it proudly – it was a testament to the lengths he’d go to for his brother, after all – and sometimes he did everything he could to cover it up, only seeing the mess that he’d been the cause of. It didn’t help that the kids in his class had taken to calling him “Scar Face” now that the coolness factor had worn off. It wasn’t even his face that was scarred, so it was a stupid nickname, but it stung nonetheless.

Greg ran his fingers over the soft, green knitting. Wirt had taken the time to make this for him, had learned to knit and everything, so he could give him something that could remind him daily of the lengths he’d go to for him back. Greg swallowed thickly, then beamed at Wirt adoringly.

“It’s perfect. Thanks, Wirt.”

Wirt’s soft smile grew into an eager grin after a few moments and he gestured to him. “Try it on. I want to see if it fits.”

Greg brushed the snow from his hair first before tugging the hat over his head. It was warm, that was first thing he realized, but the second was quick to follow. The band was a little baggy and the hat slipped past his ears and fell into his eyes with room to spare. He didn’t mind, but he heard Wirt’s groan of disappointment clearly even before he pushed the hat up so it wouldn’t cover his ears.

“Gosh, I was way off. I mean, I wanted to make it a little big so you could wear it for a few years or something, but that’s just excessive. Sorry, Greg. I’ll try and make you a new one.” Wirt reached out to take it, but Greg leaned away, holding the hat tight to his head.

“No way, I’m keeping it!”

His brother blinked. “Greg, seriously, it’s no big deal. I’ll make you another one while I’m at school and I’ll give it to you when you come visit.”

“I don’t want another one,” he replied. “I want this one. I’ll grow into it. Someday. Maybe.”

Wirt let his hand drop as his brow furrowed. “You’re sure?”

“Surer than sugar.” Greg nodded. “Besides, I can just roll it up a little at the bottom to make it fit better for now.”

“That’s true. Alright then, it’s yours.” Wirt gave him a pat on the shoulder, then got to his feet, brushing the snow off his pants before scooping up Jason Funderberker. “Come on inside for a second, there’s something else I want to show you that I think you’ll like.”

“Is it another present?”

“Not exactly.”

While Wirt started for the door, Greg got to his feet and began to follow him and their frog. He pulled the hat from his head so he could start rolling the edges up, but froze as he caught a glimpse of what was on the inside of the hat. Words were stitched into the fabric, just above the opening. I’ll follow you into The Unknown and back. I love you very much, and that’s a rock fact.

Greg dug his fingers into the knitting as he clutched it close. That brother o’ his. Greg grinned tearfully at the embroidery, tracing each hand-stitched letter with the tip of his finger. He always knew just what to do.

“Greg? You coming?” Wirt called from the front porch.

He looked up from the hat, beaming at him. “Right behind you, Wirt!” he answered, fixing the hat back atop his head, without rolling up the bottom at all.

They discarded their coats by the front door, though Greg kept his hat on, then they went down the hall to Wirt’s room. Greg honestly couldn’t believe what his brother had wanted to show him. Sitting on his bed, all shiny and brand new, was a laptop. One of his very own. Greg gaped at it, then stared at Wirt uncomprehendingly.

“Who are you and what have you done with Wirt?” he asked him seriously while Wirt scrunched up his nose with a laugh.

“Trust me, I’m very much me.” He gestured to himself with one hand, their frog still tucked under his arm. “I just realized that I couldn’t fight the progression of technology any longer.”

Greg shook his head. “But what about your typewriter?”

“Oh, I’ll still keep that. You know, for old time’s sake.”

“But you hate technology.”

“I don’t hate technology.”

Wirt crossed his room, his things that had found their way back from his dorm in the time between Halloween and New Year’s gone now. Packed up and waiting in Wirt’s car. He set Jason Funderberker down on his bed with a pat on the head, then opened his laptop and waved Greg over to come and look at it. He did, curious enough to see what had tempted his brother into purchasing such a thing.

“I realized that part of my problems at school were really brought on upon myself by me. I mean, I’m still going to need to spend a lot of time in the library and I like studying there anyway, but for all those classes that had online components that I kept stressing over… well, all of that could’ve been avoided if I’d, you know, had a laptop. It’ll make doing homework and studying a lot faster, I’ve gotta admit, and maybe I just won’t feel as completely… overwhelmed with everything.”

Greg nodded, watching him type in his password to log on. “That makes sense,” he replied, smiling a little because the password was “bluebirdrules.”

“Yeah, I thought so.” Wirt grinned at him. “Plus it has a webcam.”

“Oh. That’s cool.” Greg blinked at it, then blinked at Wirt.

His brother just smiled wider, then jerked his head towards the hall. “Go grab Mom’s laptop.”

Greg stared at him for another minute, then did as he was told and went into the office to fetch it. It was already sitting open on the desk, next to the actual desktop computer. It was running an application, too. For video chatting, he realized, tilting his head when a call came through. From The Poetic Pilgrim. Gasping, he quickly accepted the call, laughing when Wirt’s face appeared on the screen.

“You just made up all those other reasons for getting a laptop, didn’t you?” he accused.

Wirt grinned sheepishly and shrugged. “You’ll never convict. You have no proof.”

Greg ended the call, then raced back into Wirt’s room. His brother was already waiting for his hug. He swept him up in his arms as best as he could, still weak from healing and with Greg growing bigger that didn’t exactly help matters, but he managed well enough. He’d never be too big for him to carry, after all.

“The rules are that you use Mom’s account to talk to me,” Wirt told him as he set him down. “And you only talk to me unless you run it by Mom and Jonathan first, got it?”

“Got it.” Greg gave him the a-okay sign.

“Good. There are other rules, but I’m not going to waste time going over them. Mom can handle that.” Wirt waved it off. “There’s something about how you can only be on it at certain times, but you know I’m always up late, so even if you’re not supposed to have it, if you really need to talk to me as face-to-face as possible, then we’ve got this.” He patted his laptop, then closed it, packing it away in his old school satchel. “I know it’s not much, but-”

“Are you kidding? It’s the best,” Greg assured him, slipping his arm around Wirt’s waist. “You’re the best. Thanks, Wirt.”

He tugged on the hem of Wirt’s sweater so he would kneel down, then he planted a kiss on his cheek. His brother’s face colored and he rubbed at it as he straightened. Greg simply puffed out his chest in satisfaction, then plucked up their frog from Wirt’s bed to give him a hug.

“Yeah, well…” Wirt was mumbling, busying himself with grabbing the rest of his stuff that he wanted to take with him. “Only the best for the best little brother ever.”

Greg could definitely sympathize with how his brother must have felt after their first trip to The Unknown, insisting he’d been terrible and awful and striving every day for the past three years to make up for it. There were certainly days where he didn’t feel deserving of the title, but he was trying. And he could do anything if he set his mind to it. What happened during their most recent time in The Unknown was proof enough of that.

“Hey, so I’m working on getting you a cell phone next, but Mom said not until you’re thirteen,” Wirt continued, pausing in his fidgeting about the room to flash him a smirk. “I bet we can negotiate that down to twelve. Maybe even eleven and a half.”

Greg snorted. “What do I need a cell phone for?”

“For texting.” Wirt mimed holding a phone and typing on the keys. “You know, we could text each other.”

“You hate texting. And before you try to deny it, I know for a fact you hate texting because you always whine about how it’s a shame people don’t send each other letters anymore and have lost track of the subtle nuances of the English language.” Greg rolled his eyes.

“I’d do it for you.” Wirt shrugged, glancing away. “It’s an easy and quick way to keep in contact, so… I dunno. Just thought it would be a good idea in the future.”

His heart swelled. “Oh, Wirt.”

He took his brother’s hand and gave it a squeeze, feeling the tremors once he made contact with him. He tugged on his arm, immediately dropping to sit on the eerily clean floor and made Wirt sit as well. Greg set Jason Funderberker down, then turned around so he could press his back against Wirt’s. For a few minutes, they just sat there, back-to-back, hand-in-hand, and relished in the silence as they breathed in time with each other. Greg could feel Wirt steadily relax against him and he leaned heavily into him.

“You don’t have to worry so much,” he told him quietly. “I know you’re not leaving me behind. I know that you’re going to miss me as much as I’ll miss you. I don’t like that you have to leave and that things are going to be different from now on, but… maybe different doesn’t have to be bad. We’re still always gonna look out for each other. We just need to look out for ourselves, too. You take care of you, and I’ll take care of me. And Jason Funderberker.”

Wirt huffed out a small laugh and Greg giggled as he felt it along his spine. “I know, Greg. I do. I just want to make sure that I can be there for you. Whenever you need me.”

“I know you are.” Greg squeezed his hand, his free one going to the hat as he remembered the words inscribed inside it. “I’m always here for you, too. Okay? You don’t have to be brave all the time, isn’t that what you tell me?”

“Yeah.” Wirt turned a little and bumped his shoulder. “No fair. Using my words against me.”

“They’re good words.” Greg tipped his head back to rest it on Wirt’s shoulder, smiling gently at him until he shrieked when his brother grabbed him around the middle and pulled him into his lap to tickle him. “No! I take it back! You’re not the best, you’re the worst!” he protested while laughing, shoving his hands away.

“No, you are,” Wirt chuckled, but stopped so he could wrap his arms around him from behind, the both of them toppling back to lie on the floor.

“No, you are.” Greg grinned.

“Shh.”

“You shh.”

“No, you.”

“No, you!”

“I’ll tickle you again,” Wirt warned.

Greg grabbed onto his hands just in case. “I’ll tickle you.”

“Don’t you ever get tired of being obstinate?”

“Do you?”

Wirt groaned and Greg giggled, his fingers curling around his brother’s. “You’re impossible.”

You’re impossible.” He rolled over to face him, poking one of his puffy, pouty cheeks. “But I love you anyway.”

Their little squabble ended as quickly as it had begun as Wirt’s arms tightened around him and he looked at him as if he was looking somewhere else, far away. Wirt nudged their foreheads together and stared at him for a long moment, just searching his eyes for something. Greg was careful not to blink, knowing how important that was for him. When he seemed satisfied, Greg made a puffy face of his own so Wirt would laugh. As long as he could make sure that his brother was happy, he’d be good. They’d both be good.

“I’ve got to go soon,” Wirt murmured.

“Drive carefully,” Greg told him, completely serious.

It still didn’t stop his brother from giving him an unimpressed look. “I will.”

“Stay at sixty-five miles per hour.”

“I’m not going to drive sixty-five miles an hour the entire way to school, Greg. I’ll never get there. I’ll go seventy-five.”

“Sixty-five.”

“Seventy-five.”

“Sixty-seven.”

“Seventy-two.”

“Sixty-eight.”

“Seventy.”

“Sixty.”

Greg.”

“Okay, seventy,” he laughed, prying Wirt’s arms off him so he could sit up. “Want me to help you with the rest of your things?”

“Sure. If you want to.”

Wirt’s car had been salvageable. Insurance had paid for a lot of it, but the driver that had caused the accident had compensated them some. Just enough to fix it up so it was driveable. Suitcases and boxes were piled in the hatchback trunk and Greg moved them around some to fit the newer items.

“On my way, oh. Can you say, oh? I’m on my way back to school,” Wirt hummed.

“Will you pass or will you fail,” Greg continued cheerfully, “Oh, brother o’ mine-!”

“I’ll see you soon,” Wirt finished, ruffling his hair through his hat.

Their parents came out to say goodbye as well. Their mom handed Wirt a bunch of snacks that she’d prepared for him, plus a box full of food that he could nibble on while studying in his dorm. His dad hugged Wirt hard, rubbing his back firmly before stepping back to let him go.

“Let us know if you’re able to come home for Greg’s birthday,” their mom reminded him, smoothing out his hair and cupping his cheeks. “Take it easy. Don’t stress too much.”

“And have fun,” his dad piped up. “Oh! And let us know when the spring concert is for your school’s orchestra. We’re all going to be there.”

“I will,” Wirt assured him. “I think it’s at the end of April, but I’ll double check.”

“We love you.” Their mom hugged him tightly.

“Love you, too.” When Wirt broke that embrace he exchanged it for another. “I’ll see you on February 16th for sure, and I’m going to try and make it home for your birthday, okay?”

“Okay.” Greg looped his arms around his neck, resting his chin on his shoulder. “It’s okay if you can’t though. We’ll celebrate when I’m with you at school.”

“You bet.” His brother pulled back, pushed up his hat a little, then pressed his lips to his forehead. “Talk to you soon, Greg.”

“Bye, Wirt.” His fingers loosened their grip on his coat so he could ease away and get into his car.

As the engine rumbled to life, Wirt rolled down his window and turned up the music piped through the speakers. He grinned and pointed at the radio while the first song of Greg’s mixtape blared from it. Greg gave him a thumbs up as “Ode to my Family” by The Boysenberries started, then waved as the car backed out of the driveway.

His parents stood beside him, watching Wirt start down the street until he reached the corner and turned, disappearing from sight. Ribbit. Greg scooped up Jason Funderberker, their lucky frog by his side just like always, and his dad gave him a pat on the shoulder before heading inside along with his mom.

“I think Jason Funderberker and I are gonna go to the park,” he called back to them before they closed the door, permission granted before he heard it shut.

Before he left though, he stared after the road Wirt had driven away on for a little while longer. Snow started to fall from the sky as he stood there, making his cheeks tingle pleasantly with the chill. Greg glanced up at the swirl of overcast clouds. He’d see Wirt again soon.

Tucking Jason Funderberker under one arm, Greg turned away from the direction Wirt had gone and started down the sidewalk towards the park. Towards a new adventure. Two brothers diverged for the day, venturing into the unknown…

Nah, not really. After all, it was just college. Greg could handle that, and Wirt could, too.