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A long-distance relationship really took some getting used to.

Two weeks into September, it became abundantly clear to Wirt and Dipper that they really would not see each other for quite some time. Up until then, two weeks had been the longest they’d been apart while boyfriends, the breaks between Gravity Falls and Lakeville then Lakeville and Paris not really as long as they’d initially seemed when compared with an entire school year. It was finally setting in that they were a continent apart and this would not be changing for some time. Their relationship shifted, the physical aspect that Wirt and Dipper thrived upon was completely stripped away and they had to rely on words, on their emotional connection, achieving intimacy only through texts and phone conversations.

They would manage though. After all they’d been through, being apart was only a bump in the road, especially when technology granted them the ability to reach one another across the divide. Just a few taps to a keypad and Wirt could ask Dipper how his day was, tell him about how a song they’d be playing for orchestra class reminded him of him, or compose a poem to comfort him when he needed a reminder of just how beautiful he was in his eyes. As much as he resisted the fast pace of technology and tended to retreat to the comforts of letters and tape players and VHS tapes, Wirt could easily sing the praises of the internet and unlimited talk and text phone plans when his relationship hinged on its very existence.

September passed by slowly, the start of school dragging its feet. The twins’ sixteenth birthday came and went, complete with presents from Wirt and Greg. They’d had an honorary celebration during the week they spent together in France for Wirt’s birthday after a debacle with his dad, but presents hadn’t yet been purchased.

Mabel’s gift was comprised of a small selection of perfumes from Paris that had been purchased while they were there along with a pink, silk scarf and clay sculptures of the four of them that Wirt had helped Greg make. For Dipper, Wirt had asked Mabel for a list of his favorite songs and made a mixtape of himself playing them on the clarinet, after much fretting and fussing on his part. He also got him an old, leather bound journal he found in the thrift store in town, well-aware that he had his own, but he saw it and thought of him and told him as such in a little note that he penned on the inside of the cover alongside a short poem.

The third and last thing was a rubix cube. Wirt and Greg peeled off the colors from it, replacing them with squares cut out from pictures of them that they’d printed. One was of all four of them on the twins’ last night in Lakeville that their parents took, then there was one of Mabel and Greg, one of Wirt, one of Dipper and Greg, and then two of Wirt and Dipper. Them kissing on the Eiffel Tower and them dancing at the Mystery Shack party. Greg then scrambled up the puzzle so Dipper would have to work to piece the pictures together. Wirt didn’t doubt that his boyfriend would manage to solve it quickly, but he hoped that he’d find the idea sweet and enjoy having the six photographs pieced together on a cube he could keep on his desk or wherever he wanted.

It wasn’t the same as being there for their birthday, not by a long shot, but it would have to do. Wirt and Greg made sure to talk to them both over Skype, needing to see them, and stayed up late in Wirt’s bedroom with their mom’s laptop until both Greg and Mabel had fallen asleep, leaving Dipper and Wirt to whisper to each other until they too began to doze. One day, they’d promised, the four of them would spend all of their birthdays together.

One day they would spend all of their days together.

As they left September behind and entered October, however, things started to change. Time seemed to trickle just as slowly, but it was more than just missing Dipper and Mabel that had Wirt feeling out of sorts. Something was off.

Nothing big. Nothing noticeable. Not at first, anyway. It was in the air, small ripples of a disturbance that Wirt had been too distracted to realize were there right away. It was the kind of something that made the hairs on the back of Wirt’s neck stand on end. It was hearing his name being called when no one was home, in the white noise of his music or the television. It was the feeling of being stared at when he was the only one in a room. It was the feeling that even when he was completely alone, he wasn’t actually alone.

Whispers, warnings, that feeling of being watched when no one was there, and the persistent thought, Look out for him. Look out for him. Look out for him. as a mantra beating in his brain like a pulse. As anxious as he tended to be, even he knew that he was reacting strangely to what seemed to be nothing. Seemed to be, but wasn’t. Nothing didn’t leave a bad taste in one’s mouth or a ringing in their ears or made them jump when there was movement in the mirror. The more he paid attention, the more it happened. The more it happened, the more he paid attention.

Wirt’s first real inkling that something was off didn’t come until they were well into the middle of October though, the anniversary of their trip into The Unknown and first meeting with Dipper and Mabel fast approaching.

It was a Wednesday afternoon, though the dark clouds that had collected outside made it seem much later. Distracted from his homework by writing a poem, Wirt had decided to get a cup of apple spice tea before editing the flow of words that spilled over the pages of his notebook. He wanted this to be one of the ones that Dipper would actually get to hear, he thought with a giddy smile as color pinkened his cheeks. He was even thinking about putting it on a tape, reading it aloud for him, and getting Greg to write a piece for his clarinet that he could play along in the background for him.

Of course, that was him getting ahead of himself. He’d see how the poem turned out first, then-

Greg laughed loudly from his bedroom. While this wasn’t an unusual occurrence - his little brother often giggled to himself and their frog whenever he played little games - but something caught Wirt’s attention. It was the words that followed the laugh.

“Oh, you’re so funny! How do you know so many good jokes?”

Wirt turned around, brow furrowed a little. Who was he talking to? Granted, he could be talking to Jason Funderburker, their frog of course, but it didn’t sound like the way he usually conversed with the amphibian.

Turning away from the kitchen, Wirt crept up to his little brother’s bedroom door and knocked softly before nudging it open further. “Hey, Greg?”

“Oh, hi Wirt!”

Sitting cross-legged on the floor, surrounded by building blocks, Greg waved cheerfully at him. A quick scan of his room revealed that it was only the seven-year-old and the frog in the room, aside from the plethora of stuffed animals piled in the far corner. Wirt rubbed his arm through his sweater, gaze flicking back to his beaming brother.

“Hey, um… who were you talking to just now?” he asked, cutting right to the chase, one of the better methods when trying to get answers out of Greg.

“Huh?” He tilted his head, looking rather perplexed. “What do you mean?”

Wirt’s brow furrowed. “What do you mean, what do I mean? I just heard you laughing in here a few seconds ago. You were talking to someone.”

That seemed to click in Greg’s mind. “Oh! That was just my imaginary friend.”

Warning bells went off in Wirt’s mind. While imaginary friends were not uncommon in kids, Greg had certainly never had one - or mentioned one - before. He was seven now, that just seemed a little old to be just now creating an imaginary friend. And if he felt the need to, well, that made Wirt feel a little queasy. His little brother loved to socialize, but he didn’t have very many close friends and the best of those being Mabel, who lived on the other side of the continent.

Was he feeling… lonely?

Not wanting to put Greg on the defensive, Wirt tried for casually leaning against the doorframe. “I uh… I didn’t know you had an imaginary friend, Greg.”

“Oh yeah. He’s been around for ages,” he replied matter-of-factly.

“Really?” Wirt arched an eyebrow. “How come you’ve never talked about him before?”

Greg shrugged. “Mm-mm-mm. Guess I never thought about it.”

While Wirt hadn’t been the most attentive brother prior to the past year, he was pretty sure he would’ve noticed something having to do with an imaginary friend. He made friends with inanimate objects, like the spatula and sometimes he talked to his rock facts rock, but he’d never made up someone to be his friend before. He’d always just assumed that everyone was his friend. Even the people who weren’t.

Wirt sagged a little. Maybe he was missing Mabel more than he thought. And Dipper. Maybe this was because Wirt had more access to them than he did, having a cell phone and everything. He’d have to call her and let Greg talk to her for a bit, maybe this evening once she and Dipper were home from school, before Greg’s bedtime. Living in different time zones really didn’t make having daily conversations easy when you still had a bedtime.

“What’s your imaginary friend’s name?” he pressed, his concern seeping into his tone.

“Bill,” Greg answered easily.

Bill. Wirt played the name over in his head. They didn’t know anyone named Bill. It must’ve just been a name he’d thought up or heard somewhere. Honestly, the name probably changed every day and just happened to be Bill today.

Wirt tried to play along. “Is it short for William?”

Greg paused in the middle of making his block empire, one of the triangle pieces clutched in his hand as he considered the question. “I don’t know,” he answered honestly. “He just said his name was Bill.”

“Oh…” A chill picked at Wirt’s spine so he crossed his arms and rubbed them a bit more firmly. The heat must’ve turned off. “Okay then. Well, would you and Bill and Jason Funderburker like some hot chocolate? I’m gonna make some tea right now, so I could make some for you, too.”

“Yeah!” Greg hopped up, grabbing Jason Funderburker to bring him along for the ride. “Me and Jason Funderburker definitely want some!”

Wirt stepped aside to let him through the doorway. “Bill doesn’t?”

“Nah. He’s on a different plane of reality and can’t really interact with the physical world.”

His jaw dropped as he stared at his little brother. Sure, Greg spouted off random blips of information that he learned from TV shows that sounded way too advanced for him to know about, but this? A different plane of reality? Interacting with the physical world?

“What… what do you mean, Greg?”

Greg blinked up at him. “Well, he’s imaginary, Wirt. He’s not real, so he can’t do real people things.”

That was a straightforward enough answer, he reflected as Greg led the way to the kitchen. It also made sense, even if it was surprising that he was so aware of the fact that his friend didn’t actually exist. There was no more talk of the imaginary friend as they sipped at their respective beverages, though the warmth didn’t quite quell the chill that still crept under his skin. He noticed Greg shudder a few times as well and figured it had to be the heat.

When he went to the thermostat to raise it, his fingers froze on the display. It was seventy-two degrees. They shouldn’t have been cold.   

 

----

 

His second impression that something wasn’t quite right came nearly a week later. Things had started out normal enough for a Friday afternoon. Wirt was sitting on the edge of his bed in the middle of texting Dipper. Even though his boyfriend was still in class and Wirt didn’t approve of it, he knew how much Dipper liked getting little messages to brighten his day and well, he missed him. Texting a little bit to indulge his boyfriend wouldn’t do any harm.

Paying attention? :) Wirt typed out, lips quirking up into a smile befitting the emoticon when he was promptly replied to.

What do you think?

Wirt’s smile only grew as he mock-scolded him. Pay attention, Dipper!

You’re the one who texted me. How am I supposed to concentrate now that I’m expecting you to reply? Dipper made an excellent point.

Wirt waited five minutes on purpose before responding. Did you start concentrating?

Dipper’s text was immediate. You’re a jerk.

Wirt thought very long and hard on his next message. :D

Dipper wasn’t impressed. No. No smiling.

:(

Wirt’s nose scrunched as he snickered. You wasted a text on ellipses?

You wasted a text on a frowny face! Dipper countered reasonably enough.

So Wirt offered up his own. ;D

Omg. If I didn’t have unlimited texting, I’d freak out.

I’m sorry, I’ll stop. Just wanted to say hi and hope you’re having a good day. Wirt smiled to himself as he quickly typed out a second message: And this: <3

Hi. I’m having a good day except I’m bored because this class is boring. There was a much shorter pause between Dipper’s two texts than Wirt’s. And <3<3<3

Knowledge is power. Sir Francis Bacon said that. Wirt hummed to himself as he texted, shrugging as if Dipper could see him. Or Thomas Hobbes.

There’s nothing powerful about listening to people debate over The Scarlet Letter. We’re two chaps in and the biggest mystery is “who the baby daddy?” Wirt snorted as his boyfriend’s texts came in quick succession. Try one of THE THREE MALES MENTIONED IN THE WHOLE BOOK. It’s the priest. Done. I knew it at the end of the first chap. Like. Come. On. Able to hear Dipper’s tone perfectly as he vented, Wirt laughed and hid his grin with his free hand as he watched the next message pop up. So what’re you doing? Besides being a cute jerk? ;p

Totally not laughing about you freaking out over The Scarlet Letter. Nope. Not doing that at all. Wirt shook his head as he sent that, then added, Except you do know that it’s not supposed to be a mystery book, right? You’re supposed to know who the “baby daddy” is, haha, before continuing to answer his question seriously. Other than that, I’m enjoying being home from school so much. Relaxing. Eating a snack. Reading a book that isn’t required homework. Because it’s the weekend for me. Oh yeah, we still up for talking later tonight?

Apparently Dipper didn’t appreciate his answer.  J. E. R. K. Wirt rolled his eyes, rubbing his thumb over the screen. The <3 that came after made him want to laugh again, but his heart was too busy fluttering. Yeah, absolutely up for talking later. Game in the morning, so I can’t stay up all hours, came the response, followed by a smart little, He says, knowing he will totally stay up all hours for you.

Wirt’s heart was definitely all a-flutter now. Don’t you dare. He sent him, scoffing though his cheeks flushed. You need to be at your best so you can throw a homerun and win the game.

It was a few minutes before Dipper responded. Almost got caught because I snorted in the middle of class. Wirt patted himself on the back for his accomplishment. You hit a homerun (and I never will; my batting average SUCKS) But I’ll try and pitch a perfect game (use google; it’s your friend)

Why would I do that when I’ve got you? ;) Wirt knew he probably looked like some lovestruck idiot, beaming at his flip phone as if it was actually his boyfriend. And see? This is why I don’t text you in class.

You’re texting me in class now, though

Because I felt like surprising you. I thought you’d be able to handle it. There was a short pause between messages, Wirt’s thumb tapping the “send” button several times before actually pushing it. And I kinda missed you. A lot.

Dipper’s reply had him choking on his laugh. I don’t blame you. I’m pretty fantastic. “Now who’s the jerk?” Wirt mumbled, lighting up as Dipper continued with, I miss you too. Also a lot.

It had been about two months since he’d last seen Dipper and he was feeling their separation keenly with the passing of every day. He’d been filling his notebooks with pining and poetry, embarrassed by how needy and desperate a lot of it seemed, so refrained from sharing a majority of it with Dipper, knowing that sharing the more melancholic, lonely ones would only make the distance between them worse. Especially since they didn’t know when exactly they’d be able to see one another again. Wirt pursed his lips as he started to type: Think we’d be able to convince our parents to let us see each other for part of winter break?

“Hey, Wirt? Can you take me and Bill over the wall at the cemetery to look at the lake? He wants to see it.”

Wirt looked up as he flipped the phone shut without sending the message, but kept it clutched in his hand while he turned his attention to Greg.

“What was that, Greg?” he asked, unsure if he’d heard correctly.

“Me and Bill want to go over the wall at the cemetery and visit the lake,” Greg repeated for him. “Can you take us?”

Wirt stiffened, unease bristling his shoulders. There hadn’t been any mention of the spontaneous imaginary friend since Wirt had first discovered him. The fact that he still had the same name even a week later had him swallowing thickly. Greg had a hard time committing to things still, especially names. Why had this one stuck?

“Your… your imaginary friend?” Wirt cleared his throat, smiling weakly.

“Yeah.”

“He’s… he’s still named Bill?”

Greg placed his hands on his hips, smiling as if he was amused by Wirt’s question. “Of course he’s still named Bill. That’s his name!”

Maybe his indecisive phase had passed. Though that couldn’t be true, Wirt reflected, because just the other day it had taken Greg twenty minutes to pick the flavor of ice cream he wanted and stick with it, and even then Wirt had had to buy the other one Greg was considering in case he wanted to try it. The trials of being a good older brother.

Still, he didn’t bring that up and just forced a smile. “Right, of course. How silly of me.”

“So will you take us?”

“Yeah, sure.” He glanced out his window, the sky pretty clear for the time being. With little chance of rain and the fact that it was a Friday, he didn’t see why they couldn’t go outside for a bit. “Go get your coat and scarf and then I’ll meet you in the hall.”

“Aye aye, Captain Wirt!” Greg bounced out of his room and Wirt watched the space he’d been occupying with wide eyes.

He could’ve sworn he saw two shadows.

Unable to tear his gaze away from his doorway, Wirt opened the phone. It took him a minute, but eventually he was able to look down. He started deleting the message he’d been planning to send and typed instead: What were the different levels of ghosts again and what were the signs?

His thumb hesitated over the send button. Maybe he was overreacting. Sure, they had a notebook filled with tips and tricks to protection from the paranormal and facts about the creatures in their state, but there’d been nothing really on ghosts, so Dipper must’ve thought that they wouldn’t be in any danger of being haunted, right? Greg’s fascination with ghosts was still pretty strong and that was probably rubbing off on him, that was all. What were the odds of Greg getting to actually befriend a ghost anyway? Wirt pursed his lips and tapped out a beat on the send button lightly. He could still ask.

No. No, he didn’t want to ask something that could potentially worry Dipper in the middle of class. He hurriedly deleted the line of text, then quickly replied with, Sorry, Greg came in and wants me to take him over the wall to the lake. Probably because the anniversary’s coming up in a few days. He stared at the screen for a second, then added, Also what were the different levels of ghosts and what were the signs? Greg wants to know. He’s thinking about being a ghost for Halloween and wants to be accurate.

It wasn’t really a lie. Greg had mentioned something about wanting to be a ghost, but he’d also thrown out ideas like zombie or superhero or tiger or paranormal investigative journalist. And if he had this information, then Greg would totally appreciate the reminder nonetheless.

He still felt guilty about it though, his stomach rolling uncomfortably, so he sent him a heart afterwards.

“Wirt! Are you coming?” Greg called from by the front door.

“Yeah! Just a second!” he hollered back, watching his phone for a minute before closing it. He’d check it again while they walked to the cemetery.

His phone kept buzzing in his pocket, but Greg had his hand and was telling him a story about how he solved the mystery of the missing class pet and he was so eager and into it that Wirt didn’t really have the heart to ask him to hold on while he checked his texts. He was being a good attentive brother, after all. And if this was one way to get Greg to not think or talk about his imaginary friend, then it was all for the better.

Once they arrived at the cemetery, Wirt started for a familiar grave, but Greg tugged him toward the wall instead, making him trip over himself in his haste to find his balance. “Woah. Hang on a minute, let’s go say hi to Beatrice first.” Wirt blinked at his brother while he was pouted at. “Greg, come on, we always visit Beatrice first..”

“Can we do it after?” he asked. “Bill wants to see over the wall now.”

“Can’t Bill wait for a few minutes?” Wirt lifted an eyebrow.

Greg shook his head, nibbling on his lower lip. “I don’t want to make him wait.”

“Well, maybe he should learn a lesson in patience,” Wirt replied with a snort.

“Wirt, please.” He tugged on his arm again. “I don’t think he wants that lesson today.”

His shoulders sagged a bit, hesitant to refuse when Greg seemed so obviously concerned about it. That was another little red flag. If he’d created this imaginary friend, then why would he make it someone who didn’t value patience or made Greg feel nervous?

He squeezed his hand, then nodded. “Okay. Fine, we’ll go over first.” He mentally apologized to Beatrice, his ritual of sharing a few words with her at her grave put aside for now. He’d make it up to her the next time.

His heart clenched as he and Greg scaled the tree with ease, then hopped over to the railroad tracks. They walked down the steep hill cautiously, both aware of how easy it was to trip and slip and tumble right down, having experienced the sensation several times due to clumsiness or reckless playing. When they made it with no issues, Wirt released Greg’s hand so he could go off and do whatever it was he wanted to do.

“Don’t roll around in the mud,” was all he advised, taking the break to get out his phone and check for Dipper’s responses. Though another warning occurred to him as he was flipping open the screen and he glanced up at his brother. “And don’t jump in the lake either.”

“I won’t!” Greg chirped, in much higher spirits now that he’d gotten his way.

Wirt shook his head, then scanned what Dipper had to say. Geez. Gimme five. Bell’s ringing and I can text it out when I get to my next class. He couldn’t help snorting softly, almost able to hear Dipper’s exasperation through the pixelated words. Well, he supposed he should’ve told him that it could’ve waited until he got home. He glimpsed the next message. Or I can snap pics of the journal pages when I get home for you?

Well, that made a lot of sense. But Dipper had continued to text him when he hadn’t responded, so asking for the journal pages at this point seemed a bit silly, especially when he took the time to write out the information. Levels one through ten. Level one, harmless apparition, may or may not speak, will likely pass along on its own. Usually appears to children.

Level two, basically the same thing. Will definitely speak, needs holy water to move on. Usually appears to children, believers,

Level three, slight manipulation of objects. Holy water still effective. Will appear to basically anyone in its way.

The rest go up from there, but I really can’t text in this class. Guy’ll take my phone for sure. Wirt blinked, the change in tone striking as he went from reading facts to reading his boyfriend’s words. Well, at least he’d made the decision to not text in class. He didn’t want him risking his phone or his grades just to give him some information that Dipper thought was about Halloween costumes. Though, he did appreciate the information, and reread the three texts before that one.

If Greg’s friend wasn’t an imaginary friend and indeed a ghost, then it couldn’t be the first one. He’d told him a joke and asked him to take him over the wall, so talking was clearly an option. While he hadn’t really seen anything, the fact that the second one could appear to children and believers had him uneasy. Maybe they’d stop by the church on the way home and Wirt would flick some holy water on Greg, just in case.

He actually had to roll his eyes at that. Now he was starting to sound like his mom and step-dad. Satisfied with the ghost descriptions for the time being, he realized there was another text ending the string. BE SAFE at the wall. Miss you. Talk later, 100% Love you. <3 <3 <3

Wirt’s heart swelled, fluttering in his chest as his fingers immediately typed out Love you too before hastily deleting the words. He wasn’t going to tell him for the first time over a text message. No way. He was going to do it in-person. He already had a plan for it, providing they actually got to see each other at winter break which reminded him that he needed to ask about that at some point, so he wasn’t going get in his own way and mess it up just because he really wanted to say it.

He really wanted to say it though.

Still in one piece, he texted back instead. Miss you, too. Just call me whenever you’re settled in for the night. And don’t text back to this. Pay attention in class even if it’s boring.

Wirt sent it, a little bit of him wishing that Dipper would ignore his request and text him anyway, but getting caught would definitely not be worth it. He needed his phone so they could talk later that night, and waiting for that would most certainly be worth it. Just as he pocketed his phone though, it buzzed and he couldn’t help the delighted smile as he hurried to read it.

*replies anyway* ;p

A laugh bubbled out of him and he raked his fingers through his hair as he shook his head. Okay, maybe that was worth it. He pocketed the phone though, holding off on saying anything more until later that night - or if Dipper decided to text him when it wasn’t breaking school rules - and refocused his attention on Greg.

The happiness that pulsed through him stuttered as he actually took in what his little brother was doing. He was just standing, right before where the grass became the muddied shore, and staring out at the dark water. It didn’t look like he was actually seeing it though.

“Greg?” Wirt took a step toward him, then a few more when his brother didn’t answer him. “Greg, what are you doing? Greg?”

When his hand landed on Greg’s shoulder, nearly frantic when he forcibly turned him to face him, the boy blinked and stared up at him in surprise. “Wirt? What’s wrong?”

Wirt gaped at him, tightening his grip on him. “You weren’t answering me.”

“Oh. Sorry. I was thinking.” He shrugged as if it was nothing, but the chill in Wirt’s gut and the way goosebumps prickled his arms under his sweater and coat led him to believe that that wasn’t the case.

“What were you thinking about?” he pressed.

“Mm-mm-mm.” Greg shrugged again. “Just stuff. Kinda like when you think and look like you’re somewhere else, I guess.”

Except Greg didn’t get lost in thought the way he did. When Greg thought, he gave it a second before he had to share his brilliant discoveries with the first thing that would listen. He didn’t just sit around and contemplate life around him.

Wirt’s entire body tensed. “Was your imaginary friend talking to you?”

Greg’s brow furrowed and at first he thought his little brother was going to deny it, but then he realized that he honestly didn’t know the answer. “I don’t think so,” he replied. “I was just thinking. Oh, I hope he wasn’t. Then he might think I’m ignoring him!”

“If he’s your friend, he’ll understand,” he murmured, rubbing Greg’s back, reassuring him even as his own worries rose. “My friends understand when I get lost in thought, and so do you, right?”

“Yeah.” Greg nodded, seeming appeased by that for the moment. “I think I’m ready to go home now. I’m hungry.”

“Yeah?” Wirt tried to smile, he really did. “Okay. We’ll go home and see if Mom’s back from work yet, and if she’s not, you and me can bake some cookies. That sound fun?”

In an instant, Greg’s usual bubbly brightness returned and lit up his face. “The most fun!” he exclaimed, then grabbed Wirt’s hand to tug him up the hill.

 

----

 

Nightmares were not uncommon for Wirt, his mind a constant whir of possible what-ifs, but he knew what to expect from them. He knew they’d either be of drowning - unable to break through ice to get to the surface to find Greg - or of The Beast ensnaring him in edelwood or of watching as a cave crumbled atop a thirteen-year-old boy who had somehow become so important in so little time or that same boy at fifteen, bloodied and beaten and tied up to a post, unable to remember his own name. Those were just a few of the regulars that recurred in his mind, usually kept at bay by either a soothing cup of tea before bed, long phone conversations with Dipper, or a warm, snuggly little brother pushing his way into his bed.

The night that he took Greg over the garden wall, wondering about ghosts, he dreamt of something he never had before.

He was standing at the top of the hill, by the railroad tracks, looking down at the lake he and Greg had nearly drowned in. Everything was misty and gray, and he had to squint to see just what was going on. On the lake’s edge, Greg stood staring out at the water, just like he had earlier that day. But unlike earlier that day, he started walking. Right into it. Wirt shouted for him, racing down the hill, heedless of the slope, to get to him before it was too late, but he was disappearing under the water. Engulfed by it. Taken away.

Wirt sloshed through the mud and into the thick, icy lake, plunging his hands down and feeling around, wading out further. He kept shouting, searching for any sign of him, but he was gone. Gone. Gone.

Wirt had woken with a start, drenched in sweat and his hand pressed over his frantic heart. His room was pitch black, only the three a.m. moonlight sifting through the cracks in his blinds, pooling on the floor. Wirt flung his covers off and snatched his phone from the nightstand before stumbling from his bed and across the room. He just had to check. He always had to check if he managed to wake from the nightmares on his own.

A shadow moved across Greg’s room when he opened the door. His blood turned cold and his heart stopped, the chill in the room unmistakably a few degrees less than the rest of the house. Wirt walked fully into the room, phone clutched tightly in his fist as he went right to his brother’s window. There was nothing out there. He swiveled around, scanning the room, grabbing one of Greg’s aluminum, Little League baseball bats from the floor just in case. He’d seen the shadow. There was something here.

Except… there wasn’t. He checked the entire room and he didn’t find a single thing except his little brother, fast asleep, and their slumbering frog. There was nothing there.

Wirt’s shoulders slumped and he pressed the hand holding his cell phone to his forehead as he lowered the bat to the floor. His wide-eyed gaze settled on Greg, sprawled out in bed with his limbs all over, secure enough even in sleep to leave himself exposed to the world. Wirt knelt down at his bedside, his hand shaking as he smoothed back his bangs. Greg shifted, rolling over onto his side so his head was tipped towards him.

The image from his nightmare flickered in his mind. Greg turned away from him, walking away, sinking into the lake where he couldn’t get to him. Wirt bit back a small noise of distress, focusing on the way Greg angled closer to him instead. He wasn’t going to lose him. It was just a dumb dream. He was fine. He was safe.

He was going to keep him safe.

When his knees protested his weight being forced upon them, Wirt turned around and leaned against the side of Greg’s bed, stretching his legs out in front of him. He tipped his head back as he sat there, gaze drawn to the dimmed glow-in-the-dark star stickers peppering the ceiling. He couldn’t bring himself to go back to his room. Not tonight. It was the weekend. It would be fine.

Wirt fidgeted with his cell phone, lips quivering as he’d grabbed it without a second thought. What had once been deemed as a necessary evil along with most of technology had become his constant link to strength and reassurance. He flipped it open, hesitating for a few minutes - because he’d just talked to him not two hours earlier and he had a game in the morning and he needed his sleep - before typing out a quick, Are you still awake? just to check.

Need me? :) came so promptly, his phone surely resting on his desk in easy reach while he studied something or maybe on his bed while he finished up a chapter of a mystery novel. His heart sped up and he was nodding before he realized that Dipper couldn’t even see him. Wirt chanced a glance at Greg then replied with, Yeah. He stared at it for a moment after it sent, wondering how to elaborate, then decided to just keep it simple. Nightmare. But I’m staying in Greg’s room for the rest of the night so don’t worry if you have to go to bed or anything. I’m good. Just wanted to check in. He’d had to think for a minute on how to end it, originally having written, ‘just wanted to talk to you,’ which would only make Dipper feel like he had to stay up and he didn’t want that. Checking in was good, it worked.

It’s barely midnight, man. I’ve got all the time in the world for you. Tell me about it?

Wirt brought his knees up to his chest, shivering as the room remained cold while the warmth Dipper inspired so easily spiraled through him. Maybe it was just Greg’s room that wasn’t getting any heat. He’d have to look into that.

It wasn’t one of the usual ones. Like The Beast or Splinter Man or anything. It was weird. It was more the feeling of it that freaked me out than anything.

Did something happen at the wall that you’re not telling me?

Wirt had to blink at that response, then managed a small smile. Dipper just couldn’t help that protective streak, not to mention his mind was always on the search for answers. Logical, reasonable explanations for shifts in the norm.

Not really? I’m adding the question mark because Greg spaced out for a bit while we were there, but nothing happened. It was different and at the time it made me worry, but I don’t know that it’s really a big deal. That’s kinda what inspired the dream, but could just be me being a typical Worry Wirt.

Kay. If you're still worried tomorrow, we'll get Mabel on it. Of course. Wirt sighed with relief. If there was something bothering Greg that he wouldn’t tell him, then he could count on Mabel to get it out of him. Another message came through right after. Don't sleep on the floor btw. I know you and I mean it. Take him to your room.

Wirt pursed his lips, doing his best not to pout at the phone. He knew better than to say he hadn’t planned on sleeping at all. That rarely went well. How do you know I’m on the floor and not in his bed?

1) I repeat - I know you.

2) You'd rather sit on the floor than "bother him" which is a symptom of good brother disease.

3) this isn't a reason but lists are good

4) I love you and know all. Please go to bed.

5) Also not a reason, but five’s a good number for a list.

6) I’ve gone too far.

7) Are you smiling yet?

I was, but then you ruined it by telling me what to do. Wirt was still smiling, trying hard not to, but it was really quite impossible even with the frustration that had mounted every time he’d tried to text him before the next item in the list got through. Dipper was faster than him though and he kept having to delete his message in order to see what Dipper had sent him until he just gave up and waited for him to be done. It had been worth it, in the end, if the bubble of happiness that swelled in him was anything to go by.

The correct response was “yes, Dipper, you’re right.” But I’ll let it slide because I know you’re smiling and your nose is probably doing the cute scrunch thing I like.

Is not. He rubbed it. It was. Okay, yes, Dipper, you’re right. You know all.

Thank you. Wirt rolled his eyes, then closed his phone as he thought about what to do. He could take Greg back to his room, but he was a light sleeper and carrying him would definitely wake him up. He glanced back at the bed. Rolling him over might have the same effect, but Greg would easily fall back asleep after a few seconds. He rubbed his arms. It was still weirdly cold in here though. They might both be better off in his room. His phone lit up again with another message, Are you going to listen to me, though, or are you going to be your stubborn self and stay on the floor?

I thought you knew all. He shut the phone again and got to his feet. He kept it tucked away in his palm as he scooped Greg up, his brother immediately stirring now that he was in the air being carried out of his room.

“Where we goin’?” he mumbled, rubbing his eyes even though they were still closed.

“We’re having a sleepover in my room tonight,” Wirt replied. “Go back to sleep.”

“Did you have a bad dream? I didn’t hear you.”

Wirt used his heel to nudge his bedroom door shut, then picked his way across his room. “Yeah, but it’s okay now.”

“You sure?” Greg yawned as he was set down on the bed, closer to the wall, while Wirt climbed in beside him.

“Yeah, I’m sure.” He tucked the blanket around them, his little brother squirming around until he got comfortable, one arm flopped over Wirt’s when he stilled on his stomach.

Wirt sighed, acknowledging that that had gone as well as it could’ve, then checked his phone again before setting it back on the nightstand until morning. There were two more messages.

Right now the main thing I know is that I’m too far away to see your nose scrunch and that’s kind of making me sad. Wirt snorted quietly, glancing over at Greg to make sure he’d stayed quiet enough. If he missed it that much, maybe he’d take a picture or something and send it to him. He shook his head and read what he sent after. Right NOW now, your lack of immediate response lets me know that you’re listening to me. Good. Try and sleep. I’ll keep my phone loud if you need me again. Love you. <3

“Love you, too,” he whispered, as he typed, Goodnight <3, and left it at that.

He set the phone on his nightstand, then rolled over onto his side. He wrapped an arm around Greg, then closed his eyes.

But not before he saw a shadow slipping through the blinds.