Actions

Work Header

Radio Silence

Chapter Text

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.

Chapter Text

The third and final event that solidified Wirt’s paranoia didn’t occur for another three weeks, though throughout those three weeks things weren’t exactly going well. Halloween came and went with little event. He and Greg visited the cemetery and sat on the wall, watching the lake from a distance as they ate the candy they’d collected while trick-or-treating with Wirt’s friends. They’d headed to a party right after and Wirt had been invited along, but being back where it had all began a year later was important to him. His friends had understood, especially Sara, and he’d promised to call her if he needed anything.

After that, the days passed like normal.

The nights on the other hand…

As Thanksgiving approached, Wirt counted the number of hours he’d slept after the first weird nightmare. Within twenty-one days, he should’ve had at least one hundred and forty-seven hours of sleep, if he was getting seven hours a night. Instead he had less than half of that. About sixty. Which meant he was averaging two hours of sleep per night, give or take a few minutes. Some nights were better than others - some nights he managed five and others he didn’t sleep at all - but people couldn’t function on two hours of sleep a night for almost a month, or at least Wirt couldn’t.

While it wasn’t odd for sleep to be one of the first things that was disrupted by his bouts of anxiety, he hadn’t been feeling particularly anxious over anything. Sure, sometimes he had no control over what riled him up, but he knew the signs. None of them had occurred.

It was just those weird nightmares. He had them every night.

They were always the same. Wirt would spy Greg through the mist and shout for him, becoming more and more frantic each time. Greg would wade into the lake until he was completely submerged and Wirt was unable to find him. Sometimes he’d go under himself, to look for him, but he never found him. The grayscale of the dream unnerved him, the mist separating him from Greg thicker each time he was dragged there and the water darker every time he plunged down into it. And he always, always felt like he was being watched. That was the most unnerving part of it all, following him into the waking hours. Watching. Always watching.

From a dream interpretation standpoint, Wirt had initially assumed that this was a new product of his fears of failing Greg as an older brother. Clearly he was afraid of the fact that he could’ve left him alone in the lake to drown, and it was only manifesting now because it had been a year since their near-drowning episode. It made sense, and even Dipper agreed when he explained it to him.

Regardless, after Halloween had passed and the nightmares only amplified his desperation tenfold, Wirt borrowed books on dream interpretation from the library, determined to dissect this whole thing piece by piece. He looked up every component of this dream that he could find. He started with the mist, because he always noticed that first whenever the dream started.

“‘To dream that you are caught in a mist indicates that there is some confusion and uncertainty in your waking life. You need some clarity in a situation,’” he read aloud from one of the books.

His cell phone was on speaker, beside him on the bed as he hunched over the text open in his lap. A call was in progress, Dipper fairly up-to-date on the details of the dream. His brow furrowed, the lines around his eyes deep and dark as he rubbed at them with a groan.

“The only thing I’m confused and uncertain about in my waking life as far as I know is this dream in the first place. Maybe I should try fog instead,” he mused, flipping through the pages from M to F.

In California, Dipper was doing his own research on a laptop. Where Wirt shunned technology, he embraced it with both hands. “Confusion, troubles, scandal, uncertainty, worries. Not seeing the world the way it is. Losing your sense of direction in life. Mystery, secrecy, protection - geez, why aren’t I the one dreaming about fog?”

“Well, just wait until you’re back at Gravity Falls, yeah? Scandals, mystery, and secrecy are sure to be bountiful. But neither of those make sense for me.” Wirt thumbed to another page in the book, clamping his lips shut around a yawn that stretched his jaw, then shook his head. “I mean, yeah, I have worries, but no more than usual. Maybe the mist isn’t important. Maybe it’s that fact that everything’s gray. Let’s see, where are the colors… Okay. ‘Gray indicates fear, fright, depression, ill health, ambivalence and confusion. You may feel emotionally distant, isolated, or detached. Alternatively, the color gray symbolizes your individualism.’ Oh well, I may be emotionally distant and isolated and sick and scared, but at least I’m an individual. That makes me feel so much better.”

“Dream research, man, what else can you expect? It’s either really bad or really good with no in-between.”

Wirt sighed, flopping backwards on the bed and digging his palms into his eyes. “I just want them to stop. This has never happened before. I’ve never had the same exact dream for more than two nights in a row, let alone three weeks. There’s gotta be something I’m doing, subconsciously or- or something I’m seeing that’s causing this, right?” His arms dropped to the bed with a bounce and he stared at the ceiling. “Maybe I’m going crazy. Is this what happens when people start to lose their minds? I mean, that is the definition of insanity, isn’t it? Doing the same thing over and over and over again, but you get the same results every time?”

“That’s one of the definitions, but it kind of sucks. Look, you’re not going crazy. It’s just a recurring nightmare, and there has to be a way to make it stop.” His sigh carried through the speaker. “Since Greg’s the focal point of it, what’s he doing? Is there anything weird going on with him that you’re just picking up on? If that Alex kid or whatever his name is is picking on him again, I’ll make Pacifica let me borrow her jet.”

Wirt huffed out a laugh, rolling onto his side so the book flopped off his lap and he curled toward the phone. “Andy. You were close this time though,” he told him. “Greg hasn’t said anything about getting bullied and I haven’t seen anything when I go to pick him up, so I think he’s fine. He’s had a few playdates, too, and he hasn’t mentioned his imaginary friend since… oh, did I tell you about that? The imaginary friend? I can’t remember.”

“No. Why does Greg have an imaginary friend? Or why did he, I guess, if he hasn’t mentioned it.”

“I don’t know. He didn’t say at the time. I guess it wasn’t a huge deal, but… he kept the same name for a week. That kind of unsettled me a bit… and it was around the same time the heat in our house started acting weird. You know, I thought it might be a ghost or something at first, but since he hasn’t talked about him in a while, I guess it was just me being all paranoid. Jumping at shadows and stuff.” Except something coiled uncertainly in his gut as he brushed it off.

“Okay, hang on, your boyfriend is a freaking paranormal expert, you think there might be a ghost, and you don’t tell your freaking boyfriend?! Wirt!” There was rustling, Dipper shoving his laptop aside and reaching for an old journal. “What do you mean your heat was acting up?”

Wirt rolled his eyes. “Because my boyfriend is a freaking paranormal expert, that’s exactly why I didn’t say anything. I mean, I wanted to be sure. And I sort of asked you for some ghost information and you texted me stuff about levels one through three and the signs didn’t add up, so I thought it was fine.”

He picked up the phone, turning off the speaker so he could cradle it between his ear and shoulder, picking up the dream book once again. “And I dunno, the heater hasn’t been working right all fall. It says it’s in the seventies, but it’s really cold in Greg’s room, and sometimes in the kitchen. Like… I want to say fifties, maybe less. It hasn’t been bothering him, but I did give him a bunch of blankets when Jonathan couldn’t fix it. We do live in an old house though.”

“Not that old. I’ve been in there.” Dipper muttered under his breath, flipping through pages. “Level f- Wait, you said Greg wanted to be a ghost for Halloween and that’s why you wanted to know the levels.”

“Yeah, um… he did, until he changed his mind.” Wirt pursed his lips guiltily, his fingers holding open the page for dreams with hills in them. “I’m sorry. I just wanted to be sure I wasn’t overreacting first before I got you all worried over what was probably nothing.”

He muttered again, too low to be picked up by his phone. “Level four. Increased manipulation of objects, tampering with electric items. Seen by anyone it chooses to be seen by.

“Level five. Electricity drain. Battery drain. Can be seen as shadows, not always able to control its appearance.

“Six. Temperature tampering. Rooms, houses - any space it occupies affected at a moment’s notice. Major fluctuations, presence of shadows, slightly better at controlling its appearance.

“I gave you three levels, Wirt. You’re talking at least a level six if it hasn’t moved on.”

“Shadows?” Wirt blinked, looking up from the passage on traveling down a hill in a dream - regression, setbacks, things not going your way - and stared hard at the single wall of wood paneling across from his bed.

“Maybe I will get Pacifica to loan me her jet. I mean, if your house is haunted and it’s on Greg... Is there anything else? Any other signs you’ve noticed? I mean, level seven starts getting into...” His breath hitched. “Dream manipulation.”

Wirt’s blood chilled and he shuddered, drawing his knees up as he pressed closer to the head of his bed. “Dipper, it’s the middle of the school year and almost Thanksgiving, you can’t…”

Was a ghost seriously getting into his head? Was a ghost preying on his little brother? After all this time of wanting to find and hunt ghosts, had Greg drawn one to himself on accident and were the dreams the ghost’s way of keeping him off-balance? His shoulders stiffened, the unease continuing to churn inside of him. When was the last time he’d felt completely secure in his own house? Not jumping at shadows or dwelling on the goosebumps that prickled his skin.

And Greg… what if Greg really was suffering at this thing’s hands, too, and he’d been too sleep-deprived to even notice?

“Can you tell me what to do? Is there a way I can stop it if my house is haunted?” he pressed.

There was a stretch of silence, Dipper’s stubborn need to keep his loved ones safe and his desire to see his boyfriend having merged. But he was right. He couldn’t just go at the drop of a hat. “You know I will, man. Some sage, holy water, and some incantations should be enough if it’s a level seven. I’ll scan a couple pages for you, walk you through it.”

“Sage… holy water… does it have to be fresh sage? Or does stuff from the pantry work, too?” Wirt jumped off his bed to scribble down those two items on one of the many sheets of paper littering his tabletop.

“At this point, best bet’s a fresh bundle. You’re looking for purity. But you’re in Massachusetts, so it’s not like it’ll be hard to find. And the holy water can’t be stuff you just bottle and cap. Go to a church and ask for some. It has to be given freely or it’s tainted.”

“Okay,” he breathed, hands shaking as he jotted down the names of two grocery stores within biking distance that could have the sage if it wasn’t one of the plants that Jonathan had around the house. “Is it bad that it might’ve been here for more than a month? Will that make it stronger?”

Dipper huffed. “Yeah. Ask Greg if he’s still got the imaginary friend, okay? Let’s find out if the thing’s even around. Still definitely purify the house to keep anything else from showing if it’s gone, but make sure. There’s a difference between exorcising a ghost and warding off future ones.”

Wirt nodded, releasing a heavy breath. “Right, okay. I’ll be right back.”

He set the phone down on the table, then left his bedroom to cross the room to Greg’s. It was open, so Wirt’s knock was only to get his little brother’s attention from tuning his ukulele. He looked up, grinning brightly while Jason Funderburker croaked and hopped over to him.

“Hi, Wirt! Want to be in our band? We could use a good clarinet player!”

“Maybe in a little bit, Greg,” he replied, picking up their frog before sitting cross-legged on the floor next to the younger boy. “I need to ask you something first.”

“Okay.” Greg set down the bright green, sticker-covered instrument and mimicked the way Wirt was sitting. “Ask away, brother o’ mine!”

“Do you still play with your imaginary friend?” He didn’t waste any time fumbling around it, getting straight to the point, his heart pounding when Greg’s eyes simply widened before he looked away. “You’re not in trouble or anything, Greg, I just want to know if you’re still playing with him.”

His fingers trembled a little as he stroked along their frog’s spine as the silence stretched between them. Greg’s cheeks puffed out a bit as he kept his gaze stubbornly on the floor. Wirt could hear his heart beating louder and louder as the quiet continued, his breath hitching as he leaned forward suddenly to grab Greg’s shoulder and force him to look at him.

“Greg! Is your imaginary friend still here?” he pressed. “Answer me!”

His younger brother bit down on his lower lip, his stubborn mask cracking as Wirt’s panic affected him. “I can’t.”

“Why not?”

“He told me not to talk about him anymore,” he whispered.

Wirt swallowed, fighting the urge to grab Greg and run, tell their parents to stay in a hotel or with Greg’s grandparents while they ran straight for Piedmont. He could take care of this. He was the big brother. He was going to take care of Greg and he was going to get rid of this ghost. He rubbed his shoulder to soothe him, exhaling slowly to try and get Greg to relax with him.

“Why did he tell you that?” Wirt asked softly.

Greg shrugged. “I don’t know…”

“Does he tell you to do a lot of things?”

“Sometimes.”

“Like what?” Wirt let their frog go and pulled Greg into his lap. “What does he tell you to do?”

“I don’t know, I don’t remember. I just know he tells me things.” He clung to Wirt’s sweater, fingers gripping the music note patterned gift from Mabel. “He used to be nice, Wirt. He used to be funny.”

“He’s not nice anymore?”

Greg shook his head. “Not always. He says mean things about you, and I don’t like that.”

“He talks about me?” Wirt fought hard not to shiver, hugging him tighter. “What does he say?”

“He says you’re gonna try and make him go away if I talk to you about him,” he replied.

“Well, I am,” Wirt told him firmly.

Greg’s bedroom door slammed shut and both brothers jumped. The usual greens and blues of Greg’s room had faded, their colors washed out and matching the grayscale of his nightmare. His brother’s awed gasp barely registered with him as he picked him up, scrambling to his feet as his gaze darted around in horror. The shadows stretched high along the walls, angling into triangles pointing to the ceiling.

Wirt ran for the door, Greg tucked in with one arm as he grabbed the door handle and tried to turn it. It wouldn’t move. Their bedrooms didn’t lock. Wirt pushed on it harder, twisting it up and down, but it refused to give. He pounded his fist on it.

“Mom! Mom, open the door!” he hollered, glancing over his shoulder at the rest of the room.

The colors were completely gone and there was a ringing sound, a high buzzing that he couldn’t tell if it was just his ears or if there really was something in there with them, making this noise. The temperature dropped and their breath clouded as Wirt angled Greg away and slammed his shoulder into the door.

“Let us out!” he shouted.

He pressed his ear against the door to listen for their mom or Jonathan or anyone. They were home right? They’d been home.

“He’s mad,” Greg murmured, tugging on Wirt’s sweater. “He’s mad and he’s gonna get us, Wirt.”

“No he’s not. We’re gonna be fine, Greg.”

Wirt rubbed his back, attempting to reassure him somehow, but the ringing was getting louder. Dipper was still on the phone, he’d wonder why it was taking so long for him to get back, he’d call the house phone, their mom would answer, she’d come looking for them, they’d be fine. They were going to be fine.

When Greg didn’t say anything else, Wirt glanced down at him. “Greg?”

He was staring at something, but not. Shaking him a little, his heart stopped when it did nothing to get his attention. He wasn’t blinking and something was wrong with his eyes. Wirt rammed into the door harder, his shoulder throbbing as the door stayed shut. The noise was almost unbearable now and the room felt like it was suffocating them. Like they were drowning. They had to get out. Wirt turned to face Greg’s window and hurried over to it. He set his brother down to shove the toys off the top of his bookcase, then undid the latch. Even unlocked, the window didn’t budge.

“Come on!” Wirt banged his fist on the glass, then tried again.

The window shot up so suddenly that he overbalanced and banged his elbows on the window sill. He hissed in pain, but otherwise ignored it and forced all his weight on the screen so it popped out. The white noise was screaming at him, the shadows on the walls pulsing as they reached for him. Nabbing Greg around the waist and Jason Funderburker, too, Wirt tumbled out of the window to land hard on the grass of their backyard.

“Wirt?”

Panting heavily, he opened his eyes to find himself staring at the sky - bright blue and sunny despite the cold and the colors around them thick with autumn golds and browns and deep, deep reds. Wirt sat straight up, head swiveling to face his step-dad, standing a few yards away with two of the patio chairs tucked under his arms. He was staring at them in mild confusion, on his way to the garage to put their backyard furniture away for the winter, most likely.

“What are you boys doing?” he asked.

“Uh…” Wirt looked down to check on Greg, his little brother’s awareness back as he blinked at him, equally stunned. “Spies. We were… we were playing spies. Had to… you know, roll away out the window before uh… before…”

“Before our secret hideout got blown up by the secret bomb planted by the evil Dr. Smorgasbord!” Greg continued. “We barely made it out alive, Dad!”

“I can see that.” Jonathan glanced between them and the window. “You know we’re going to have to fix that screen, right?”

“Yeah, of course. It was just… life or death, you know?” Wirt’s laugh was a little more breathy and panicky than he’d like, but it had literally been life or death.

That got a small smile out of his step-dad as he hiked up the chairs. “I know. I’m pretty familiar with those dastardly, evil doctor types like that Smorgasbord guy.” He nodded towards them. “We can put the screen back in tomorrow. Just keep the window locked, Greg.”

“Okay, Dad,” he answered, getting to his feet and dusting off his pants before helping Wirt up.

His knees were wobbling, the adrenaline rush leaving him feeling just a bit weaker than he’d like as the two of them wandered over to the back door with matching smiles for Greg’s dad. Coupled with the exhaustion his body was still enduring and the complete helplessness he’d felt while trapped in that room, Wirt felt pretty sick to his stomach. He looked down at Greg, squeezing his hand.

“You’re not sleeping in there tonight,” he told him.

Greg nodded. “I don’t want to,” he replied.

Wirt left him in the kitchen with their mom - who hadn’t heard a thing, and was just as confused as Greg’s dad to find them coming in through the backdoor when she’d thought they’d been in their respective rooms. When Wirt inched back down the hall towards his room, his stomach dropped and a chill settled in his gut to see Greg’s door open. It was swinging lazily from the light breeze blowing in through the window.

Wirt ducked into his room and shut the door. Shaking, he sagged against it, his breath coming in short gasps as he took a moment, just a moment, not to be the strong big brother because he was scared and there was something in his house and he didn’t know what to do. He raked his fingers through his hair, gripping the strands and tugging as he doubled over, elbows resting on his knees as he tried to calm down.

Inhale and exhale and inhale and exhale. Oh, his elbows hurt. His shoulder, too, from ramming it against the door. How had their mom not heard him?

A buzz on his desk had him jumping, yelping as he pressed against the door and his eyes darted to his phone. Dipper.

Wirt stumbled over to the table and fumbled with his phone. The call had ended and fifteen unread messages stared at him. Fifteen. Swallowing thickly, Wirt flipped open the phone and checked them all.

Did you hang up on me? You never hang up on me

YOU NEVER HANG UP ON ME WHAT’S GOING ON

WHAT HAPPENED

You said you’d be right back and this is not right back.

If you’re hurt

If Greg’s hurt

I can’t believe you didn’t tell me about this sooner

I can’t believe all I can do right now is send you these useless freaking messages and I have no idea if you’re okay

You had better be okay I love you

You’ve got ten minutes before I catch the first flight out there

I’ll do it. I mean it.

Answer. Me. Call me back

I love you, please be okay

5 minutes and I’m going out there i mean it

omg be okay

Heart pounding, Wirt pressed the call button and held it to his ear as he staggered over to the bed and sank down on the edge of it. It hardly got through one ring before he heard it pick up on the other end.

“Wirt? This had better be you; I’m freaking out. Are you okay?”

“It’s me, yeah.” He nodded, then rubbed his hand over his face because he couldn’t see him. “I’m… no. No, but I will be. I think. Maybe.”

“What happened? Tell me what happened.”

“I don’t… the door wouldn’t open? I was sitting with Greg and we were talking about his friend and- oh, he’s still talking to him by the way, he just told Greg not to tell me that he was talking to him because apparently this thing knows I don’t want it here, which yeah, no surprise there, of course I don’t, but we were talking and then- then the door slammed shut and I went to open it and the room turned- I don’t know. It was so weird and the door wouldn’t open and I pushed and pushed and our doors don’t lock, you know our doors don’t lock, and no one could hear me, so I had to push out the screen and jump out the window and then Greg went back to normal because he zoned out again completely and I need to stop talking because I haven’t taken a breath in a while, hang on.”

“Okay. Okay, just- This is the worst,” Dipper mumbled. “I should be there. What do you mean, he zoned? What did he look like? What did his eyes do? If this thing’s trying to possess him, we’re looking at a nine. A very powerful one if he’s been there more than a month.”

Wirt bit back a small sound of distress at the word “possess.” Possession. His little brother. “They turned-”

The call was disconnected. Wirt pulled the phone away from his ear and stared at it. Full battery, full service. The call had just ended. He hit the speed dial for Dipper immediately, breathing a sigh of relief when it rang a little and picked up.

“Sorry, just lost the connection. I’m still fine- well, not fine, but nothing else happened.”

“You’re going to give me a heart attack,” Dipper muttered. “Did it show itself to you, or is it still just Greg who can see it?”

“I still haven’t seen it. Just… shadows moving, sometimes, but I can’t even tell if they’re really there or if I’m seeing things because I’m so sleep-deprived.” Wirt raked his fingers through his hair, easily imagining the worrying and the pacing and the pen clicking that was mostly likely occurring on the other end. “I’m sorry. I’m really sorry, Dipper.”

“It’s not your fault, man. You should go get the supplies. Take Greg with you, and call me if the thing follows you. Try and get as much information from him as you can. It’s full name, what it looks like - it can all help during a cleansing.”

“My mom and Jonathan haven’t really noticed anything except the temperature being weird. Will they be safe here? Should I make them leave?” he asked, grabbing his list and shoving it in his pocket along with his wallet.

“If it hasn’t bothered them, it probably won’t. If you can figure out a way to get them out before you start burning the sage, you should probably do that unless you want to explain why you’re walking through the house waving smoke and flicking holy water on stuff.”

“If we tell them it’s a game, they won’t question it. Jonathan was literally standing right there when Greg and I went flying out the window. If I tell them it was Greg’s idea, they’ll buy it.” He went to his door, hand outstretched for the handle, but he couldn’t quite bring himself to open it. He didn’t know what could be waiting for him on the other side. “Even if it’s not the truth,” Wirt started, speaking past the lump in his throat, “can you tell me that this is all gonna be okay?”

“It’ll be okay,” was the immediate reply. “That’s a rock fact.”

It startled a laugh out of him, breathless and a little panicky, but relieved by the familiar sentiment regardless. “Thanks. And just so you know, I scrunched my nose just for you, so cherish that. I’ll let you know when we’re on our way back with the sage and holy water.”

“I will cherish that forever, thanks. I’ll text you some of the incantations you can read. Pick whichever one sounds best. Hopefully you can get some decent sleep tonight.”

“Yeah. Oh my gosh, wouldn’t that be nice for a change.” He shook his head, then opened the door and looked into the hall. There was nothing there. “Okay. Talk to you soon. Bye.”

He didn’t want to hang up, but it was best if he just focused on getting to the store and the church and getting the supplies he needed. He could handle this. It wasn’t like he was in this completely alone either. He had his little brother and he had his paranormal investigator boyfriend. They had this covered. Everything would be fine.

“Greg! We’re going for a bike ride!”

 

----

 

Exodus demonus. Spookus scarus. Ain't afraidus noghostus.

Was this some kind of joke?

If it wasn’t actually printed on the journal pages Dipper had scanned and sent him, Wirt wouldn’t have believed it. He would’ve thought Dipper had set him up with some bogus prank chant and he would’ve died because the ghost would’ve killed him and ripped his internal organs out of him or something and then Dipper would feel bad and probably summon his ghost to Piedmont and go, “Man, you weren’t actually supposed to read that one! I thought you knew it was a joke!” and that would be the end of it.

Luckily there were others to choose from - and Wirt would definitely choose one of the ones that didn’t sound like some kind of prank that would get him killed by a ghost - so he ignored that one and went for something that appeared a little more classical, more poetic. It would be easier for him to read it without messing it up.

“Okay, Greg,” Wirt exhaled, handing his little brother the pages he printed out. “Remember the plan?”

“Yes, sir, Captain Wirt!” Greg nodded, tucking the papers under his arm. “I hold the pages for you to read while you wave the plant and sprinkle the holy water!”

“Perfect.” Wirt ruffled his hair. “We’re gonna start in your room.”

He didn’t seem to have any qualms with that, so the brothers left the office to creep back to Greg’s room. Even though it appeared innocent enough, Wirt couldn’t help but shiver as he looked in the bedroom. Phone in one pocket, box of matches in the other, he stepped into the room and waited. When nothing happened, he gestured for Greg to follow him in.

“Okay, here we go. Don’t worry, Greg. This is gonna get rid of that guy for sure.”

“Okay.” Greg sounded a little disappointed, so Wirt glanced up from fiddling with the matches to check on him. “Why did he get so mean? We used to be friends.”

Wirt sighed, then set to work arranging the sprigs of sage. “I don’t know, Greg. I don’t think he ever actually wanted to be your friend. And you shouldn’t have wanted to become his friend either. You know better than to talk to strangers. Even imaginary ones.”

“But he wasn’t a stranger. He said he knew Dipper and Mabel.”

He paused. “He did?”

“Yeah.”

It was possible the ghost had been present while the twins had stayed with them for a month over the summer, but for some reason Wirt had a feeling that wasn’t the case. “Greg… when did you meet him?”

“Right before we left Grunkle Stan’s house. Why?” Greg tilted his head.

Wirt stared at him. “Greg… you met this thing in Oregon…?”

“Uh-huh. He asked if he could come with us. I said it was okay, but we didn’t have a lot of space, and he said that was okay because he doesn’t really exist on the plane of reality and is a being of pure energy that can’t be confined to atoms or matter.”

“Oh my gosh.” Wirt pressed the heel of his palm to his forehead and squeezed his eyes shut. “Okay. That’s okay. It’s fine. We’re getting rid of it now. It’s not gonna bother us anymore after tonight.” He lifted his head to scowl at his brother, pointing a finger at him. “And no more inviting beings of pure energy into our house no matter who they say they know, got it?”

“Got it.” Greg held up his thumb and index finger for the a-okay sign. “I’m sorry, Wirt. Is it Bill’s fault you haven’t been sleeping?”

“Probably,” he huffed. “But it’s fine, Greg. You didn’t know.” Wirt struck a match and lit the sprigs of sage, blowing it out as the smoke wafted up. “Alright. Do you know his full name?”

Greg shook his head. “He just said his name’s Bill.”

“Hopefully 'Bill' is all we’ll need to make this work then.” Wirt waved his hand over the smoke so it would fill the room, his nose scrunching at the smell. “Greg, hold up the pages for me?”

His little brother did so. He skimmed the lines, muttering them under his breath once before inhaling deeply and nodding to himself. It was now or never.

“Bill,” he called out, voice firm and commanding as he took the sage in one hand and dipped the fingers of his other hand in the vial of holy water. “You cannot threaten us in this place. We fight water by water,” with the holy water, he draw a five-pointed star on Greg’s bedroom wall, “and fire by fire.” He moved the sage to trace a similar shape in the air. “We banish your soul into nothingness and remove your powers until the last trace. Evil being, do now flee through time and space. Ite, ite, spiritus malus. Ite, ite, spiritus malus.

A cold breeze ruffled his sweater and hair, blowing in from the door and out through the window. Wide-eyed, Wirt looked to Greg and found his brother looking back at him. Then the wind blew back in, harsh and heavy, intending to close the door on them, but they’d taken a precaution this time and it bounced off the doorstop they’d placed on the floor. The window slammed shut instead.

Wirt went over to it and traced the shape of the star with the holy water over the glass. “Ite, ite, spiritus malus.” Then he waved the smoke over it.

A shadow swept across the floor back to the door. Wirt followed it, motioning for Greg to join him so he could read the text. He made the mark on the bedroom door and over it with the sage.

“Bill, you cannot threaten us in this place. We fight water by water and fire by fire. We banish your soul into nothingness and remove your powers until the last trace. Evil being, do now flee through time and space. Ite, ite, spiritus malus,” he recited again, glaring at the door as if daring it to try anything.

Steadily, the chill and the pulse of frantic, foreboding energy eased. Wirt’s nerves crackled a little less, and the tension in his shoulders drained as the room seemed to brighten. He blinked in awe at the change, gaze falling to Greg.

“I think it’s working,” he told him, nudging open the door. “Come on, let’s do the rest of the house just to be safe.”

“Aye aye, captain!”

Their parents did question what they were doing, but when they told them they were banishing an evil spirit, they accepted it at face value. It was incredible how much the dark mood that had engulfed their house lifted afterwards. Wirt laughed out loud and lifted Greg up to spin him around. It was gone. He could feel it in the air, in his gut. The dread that had been stealing his energy was gone and he felt like he could sleep for a week.

We did it! He’d texted Dipper as soon as he was certain that it was gone. Immediately after that, of course, he’d started setting protection spells that his boyfriend had sent along with the various exorcism chants. He was not going to give anything another chance to come after his little brother. He was not going to give Dipper any reason to worry over their safety from the paranormal while they were a continent apart.

He was not going to be afraid.

That night he slept a solid twelve hours of perfect, dreamless sleep.

Chapter Text

Wirt slept soundly for three nights.

Then on Wednesday night, a week before Thanksgiving, he spent the night curled up in the hall outside his brother’s bedroom, listening as a monster talked to his little brother in his sleep.

The night hadn’t started out that way, of course. He’d started it in his own bed, rolling over for sleep as he set the dream dictionary on his nightstand. Without any dreams to dissect, he actually found it a pretty interesting read.

So when the all-too familiar mist crept into the corners of his mind, Wirt blamed the book at first for reminding him of it and putting it back into his head. “This isn’t real,” he told himself, closing his eyes in the dream. “This isn’t real.”

“You can tell yourself that all you want, buddy, but that’s not going to make it true.”

Wirt’s eyes opened as a chipper voice echoed in the empty space around him. He searched the heavy fog for its source as he took a few steps back until he was pressed up against the cemetery wall. Suddenly a golden glow parted the condensation in the air, and a floating triangle with a cane and top hat and a single eye sidled up to him.

“Of course, ignorance is bliss, so believe what you want if it makes you feel better,” it told him, placing a companionable hand on his shoulder.

At the touch he was immediately flooded with a barrage of feelings centering in his gut and spreading out. Dread and helplessness and cold, fear, desperation, lost, why me- come back- don’t go- where are you- why did you leave me- exist- shouldn’t exist- I wish I didn’t exist. Wirt cried out and flinched away, his hands clutching his chest as he dropped to his knees.

The thing floating above him cackled. “Oh, human suffering. I’m telling you, it’s better than getting butter pumped halfway through a tub of jumbo-sized movie theater popcorn and then smothering it with more on top. Boy, I can just feel it clogging my arteries. Or I would if I had arteries. Here, let’s see how it feels for you and you can let me know how it compares.”

With a snap of his fingers, the triangle demon closed off every one of Wirt’s arteries and all of his veins. His heart struggled against the sudden blockage, trying to pump blood through his body, the valves fluttering helplessly as blood flow effectively ceased. His chest exploded with pain and he gasped soundlessly. He couldn’t breathe. A tingling numbness spread through one side of his body, vision swimming as a wave of dizziness washed over him. His fingers tore into his sweater, gripping the fabric over his chest as he tried to push in with his palms to get his heart beating, to do something, but it was frozen in his chest. Cold, hard, and dying.

Another snap and a wave of fresh blood rushed through him and he wheezed, coughing hard as his heart thundered in his chest. Pale and shaking, Wirt lifted his head only to choke as he found himself eye to eye with the triangle. He tried to jump backwards, but on his knees he could only fall over, banging his head on the wall in his attempt to get away.

“Man, you are hilarious! Has anyone ever told you that you squeak like a writhing mouse when you’re completely petrified? It’s the cutest thing, really. I can see why Pine Tree finds you so adorable.”

Clutching the back of his head, Wirt struggled to sit up again, watching it warily. Pine Tree. An image of the blue emblem of his boyfriend’s cap flickered in his mind’s eye. But he wasn’t a stranger. He said he knew Dipper and Mabel. Greg’s claim from several nights ago echoed in his memory, his heart freezing again, but this time from fear rather than clogged arteries.

This thing knew Dipper. The creature seemed to smile - as best as it could without a mouth as it literally just had one eye - as he read Wirt’s expression, so he pressed his lips together firmly and kept his mouth shut.

“Struck a nerve there, huh?” It poked him with its cane and Wirt’s back arched as one of his nerves was pinched, sending pins and needles of pain along his spine.

He’d seen this thing before. In Dipper’s journals. In the Mystery Shack. In Greg’s bedroom.

“Are you Bill?” Wirt gasped out when the neurons in his brain stopped firing off the frantic it hurts, it hurts, it hurts signals that left him shaking and sweating.

“Congratulations! You have a brain!” Bill cheered and brain matter materialized in front of him before it dropped to the ground with a squelch. “And here I thought you were a complete moron. Sorry about that, Music Note.”

Wirt used the wall to pull himself to his feet, staying as far from the pulsing gunk in front of him as possible. This was insane. He needed to wake up. He needed to wake up right now.

“Ah ah ah, not so fast, Music Note. If you wake up now, you’ll miss out on all the fun.” Bill floated away into the mist and Wirt was filled with both parts hope and fear once he was out of sight.

The fog began to clear and he could see down to the lake again. Greg stood on the bank, just as he had in every other dream. Except this time, Bill hovered in front of him, holding his hand out to his little brother. And Greg was taking it.

“No!” Wirt bellowed, scrambling down the hill, arms pumping as he ran and ran. “Leave him alone! Don’t touch him!”

“Remember, always hold an adult’s hand and look both ways before drowning yourself in a lake,” the triangle told Greg cheerfully as he waded into the water.

“Greg!”

“What are you getting so worked up for, Music Note? Tea Kettle wants to go with me, don’t you kiddo?”

“I want to go with Bill,” Greg agreed, though his voice wasn’t right, it wasn’t right at all and Wirt felt sick to his stomach.

It’s just a dream. It’s just a dream. It’s just a dream. Wirt slid into the mud right in front of the lake. “That’s not really my little brother,” he told himself. “It’s a dream and that’s not really Greg.”

“You really want to take that chance?” The triangle watched him, the water up under Greg’s chin now. “You willing to gamble with this little guy’s life? And I thought you were supposed to be the ‘best big brother ever.’ That’s what I’m-A-Little-Teapot has been assuring me. Over and over again.”

The golden glow flickered and suddenly Greg’s face was projected on his body, smiling out at him. “Wirt’s the best big brother ever! He’s great at keeping secrets, he won’t tell anyone that you’re here, Bill, you can trust him!”

Wirt’s heart clenched, his lip quivering as he watched his little brother just standing there in the water. “Greg…”

“Well, he’s right about one thing. You are great at keeping secrets.” Bill turned back into his typical, golden pyramid shape. “You’ve been keeping secrets from everyone! Your parents, your little brother, and even everybody’s favorite conifer. Why did you lie to him when you started looking into ghosts? Why haven’t you called him since you ‘banished’ me? Why haven’t you told him my name?”

“I…” Wirt gaped at him, panicking as an image of Dipper flashed before him on Bill’s body. “He’s- no, I- Leave him out of this! This doesn’t have anything to do with him!”

But doesn’t it?” The demon’s voice deepened as he grew in size, his bloodshot eye boring down upon him, but then he shrunk back to normal and floated back to Greg. “Nah, I can see why you wouldn’t tell him things. It’s completely understandable. You don’t want to upset him. Our little Pine Tree is oh-so sensitive, after all.”

“Shut up!” Wirt bristled.

“Just imagine how upset he’ll be when he finds out about all this.” Bill gestured with his cane and Wirt glanced to the left, jumping and sloshing through the lake water when he found Dipper glaring at him.

“Your boyfriend is a freaking paranormal expert, you think there might be a ghost, and you don’t tell your freaking boyfriend?! Wirt!” He stormed towards him, red-faced with fury. “You said Greg wanted to be a ghost for Halloween and that’s why you wanted to know the levels!”

Wirt clamped his hands over his ears as he backed away. “That’s not what he sounded like,” he told Bill, averting his eyes.

“I can’t believe it! Was anything you said to me real?”

“He never said that!” Wirt shouted, wincing when this supposed apparition of Dipper fisted his hand in his sweater and yanked him close.

“You can’t even tell me that you love me, so the least you could do is tell me the freaking truth, Wirt!”

Wirt was unable to avoid his gaze now, drowning in the hurt and the betrayal that he found there. “Dipper,” he choked out, the air rushing out of him as his heart clenched.

This cold copy of his boyfriend’s fingers tightened in his sweater. “I trusted you!”

He was shoved back, right into the lake, but he managed to keep from going under and watched in horror as Dipper blinked out of existence. “A little overdramatic, in my opinion, but you gotta admit, it’s a trip watching him flip out like that.” Bill twirled his finger in the air.

“What’s going on?” Wirt whispered to himself, dragging his fingers through his hair. “What’s happening?”

“Wirt?”

He blinked, head turning to where Greg was. He was facing him now, looking about in confusion while he tipped his head back to keep his mouth out of the lake. He waved his arms in the water a bit, trying to make his way back to him.

“Wirt, am I in your dream? It’s pretty gloomy, no wonder you’ve been having so many nightmares lately. You need more rainbows here,” Greg mused, looking around, then his eyes lit up as he spied the triangle. “Bill! You’re in Wirt’s dream, too?”

“Yee-ep. Just thought I’d finally introduce myself to your brother, kid,” he replied casually.

Greg grinned. “Really? See, Bill! I told you that you could trust, Wirt! You don’t have to say mean things about him anymore!”

“Oh yeah. I can definitely trust this guy.”

Wirt reached out to him, just in case this was his brother and dream-walking was a thing that could happen to them now, too. “Greg, come here. Get away from him.”

“How come?”

“Because,” Wirt told him, inching his way closer despite the feeling of the mud trying to suck him under. “Please, I’d feel better if you were over here.”

Greg seemed to accept that and started wading his way over, only to gasp as his foot slipped and his head went under the water. Wirt wheezed and dove for him, sloshing through the lake, but he’d found where the bottom dropped away to the deep. Greg was sinking, being dragged down to drown.

“Greg! Greg! No! Give him back! I’m not going to let you take him!” Wirt whirled on the cackling demon, glare hard and hot.

“Oh, you want him back?”

“Yes!”

“Well, okay.” Bill shrugged. “But somebody’s gotta drown in the this dream. Guess it’ll have to be you.”

Within seconds of each other, Greg popped back up to the surface with a cough for air while Wirt was ripped down, mouth and lungs filling with water as he sank. He fought it, twisted and writhed, but the water was thick and cold and he couldn’t break free. He couldn’t breathe.

Edelwood grew up from the bottom of the lake, drawing him into the trunk of the tree as his head spun and his chest burned. It’s a dream. It’s a dream. The mantra beating in his brain became less sure and more of a scream as the branches tightened around his arms and legs, winding around his neck and pulling taut. He was drowning. His vision spotted, bulging with black blurs as more water poured down his throat instead of air, smothering his blood and his brain. He was dying.

You weren’t supposed to be able to die in dreams.

He stopped fighting, going limp in the water as his screams stopped bubbling and his mind crumbled in on itself. Dread and helplessness and cold, fear, desperation, lost, why me- come back- don’t go- where are you- why did you leave me- exist- shouldn’t exist-

I wish I didn’t exist.

A strangled, choking wheeze woke Wirt up, tangled in the blankets of his bed and drenched in a cold, numbing sweat. His throat was tight and raw and he realized he was the one making that terrified sound. He coughed hard, thrashing against the sheets to throw them off - they were smothering him, he needed them gone. They were dragging him down, growing around him, choking him, killing him. A low whine escaped him as he clawed at the sheets until he was free. As soon as they were piled in a heap at the foot of his bed, Wirt curled in on himself, fingers tangling in his hair as he continued to cough and sob, anything to get air moving through him.

He could hear his pulse, beating hard and fast in his head as he pressed it into the pillow. Adrenaline coursed through him, but he couldn’t move aside from curling up into a tighter ball, both fight and flight not an option as he quaked. Fear had him frozen, lingering well after the clarity of the dream faded and left him with ghost-like memories, wispy and cold, but intangible, unable to be grasped. He didn’t want to though. Even with his mind blank with panic, he knew without a doubt that he didn’t want to remember whatever he’d just endured, imaginary or not.

He stayed in a tight, small ball until the shaking was the only symptom that lingered from his nightmare, aside from the images flashing before his eyes, the phantom pains shooting through him, Dipper’s voice ringing in his ears, laced with betrayal. Wirt’s chest hitched and his blunt fingernails dug into his scalp, fingers clutching at the damp strands of his hair, trying to block that memory from his mind as well. He’d never heard him sound like that, but he knew that was his voice. He knew that was what he would sound like if he’d ever had a reason to say things like that to him.

But didn’t he?

Wirt shivered. He hadn’t told him he loved him yet. After all he’d done for him, when he knew he felt the same and just couldn’t say it. Sometimes he didn’t tell him the whole truth either. Sometimes he didn’t even tell him part of the truth at all, moaning and groaning over what he might think of him. If he’d laugh at him, scorn him, hate him.

But he wouldn’t.

Wirt’s grip on his hair eased. He wouldn’t do any of those things. Not even in his wildest imaginings could he perceive Dipper as acting cruel. Hurt and betrayed and angry, sure, but never cruel. He knew what it was like to be bullied firsthand and would never put someone else through that kind of pain if it was within his power. He selflessly stood between his loved ones and the horrors that plagued the world, determined to shield them with physical and mental strength on his side. He loved the weirdest things like the way someone’s nose scrunched when they laughed.

Dipper loved him and he’d never shove him into a lake, no matter how upset he was with him.

Dipper loved him and he loved him back, and he’d never even told him. But Dipper didn’t hold that against him. Dipper didn’t let that stop him from telling Wirt he loved him as often as possible.

Dipper loved him, and he loved him right back.

Wirt’s heart ached, yearning for him desperately. He uncurled and rolled over, grabbing his phone off the nightstand. He ignored the time, a little after three in the morning for him, and pressed his speed dial number before cradling the phone between his ear and his pillows as he listened to it ring.

It didn’t ring long, Dipper answering mid-yawn. “Wirt, what’re you doing up? You okay?”

Wirt made soft sound in the back of his throat. It was stupid that he’d waited this long. He should’ve told him the second he realized he could. In-person or not.

“I-” He clutched the phone and pictured Dipper’s sleepy warmth wrapped around him in bed, sleeping on the side exposed to the edge to shield him and wanted that more than anything. “I love you.”

“Wait. Wait. Did you just-?” Dipper laughed, bed creaking a little as he rolled onto his side to curl around the phone. “Say it again. I might be dreaming.”

“I love you.” Wirt’s lips trembled as he tried to smile, Dipper’s laugh and complete surprise a balm for the lingering not right sensation his nightmare had inspired. This was right. “Sorry, I know it’s late, I just… I needed to tell you. I love you.”

“No! This is- I love you too! Wow. The one night I try to go to bed early and you do this.”

“All part of my master plan.” Wirt attempted to joke. “Seriously though, I should’ve texted first to see if you were even awake, I don’t know why I didn’t, I just needed to hear you and didn’t really think this through and I’ll stop now so you can go to sleep because you need sleep, sleep’s important.”

“No way! This is way better than sleep! This is... This is better than anything ever. I really want to be annoyed at you for telling me while we’re so far away from each other, but I can’t because you said it, and I just... I just love you.”

It was impossible not to smile this time as he was finally able to say, “I love you, too. But you really should sleep, no matter how much you love me. Why were you trying to go to bed early anyway? Everything okay?”

“Mid-terms tomorrow and Friday. I get the whole next week off for Thanksgiving by taking them early, which is cool, but it’s kind of stressing me out. Tests are basically the worst ways to measure intelligence. And then the guidance counselor’s been nagging me to go full time next semester, and no thanks.

“But why are you up? It’s three in the morning, man.”

Wirt shivered, sitting up so he could grab his sheets from the foot of his bed, letting them pool in his lap for some warmth without having to feel constrained by them. “Guess four nights of uninterrupted, dreamless sleep is my limit now,” he replied. “Don’t worry about it though. It’s probably me finally realizing what actually happened with the ghost thing or what could have happened and it’s… messing with my head. The dream was different.” Worse. “But then I started thinking about you and I realized that I needed to tell you that I loved you. Hear your voice and a bunch of other cheesy stuff that I’ll spare you from so it doesn’t kill your brain cells and you can do well on your mid-terms.”

“You waking me up to tell me you loved me killed them, so it’s hopeless anyway. How was it different, though? Don’t change the subject around.” There was a beat of silence and Dipper huffed. “Trust me.”

His voice from the dream echoed in his head. “I trusted you!”

Wirt swallowed, hunching over his lap. “You were in it. And… this thing. I guess what I perceived as the ghost? It was… taunting me, I guess, and it was the thing taking Greg away and drowning him, but I wouldn’t let it so I… I think I drowned in the dream instead. I woke up before I knew for sure, ‘cause I mean, you can’t die in dreams, but I was stuck under the water and somehow there were Edelwood branches and it got really… real at the end. I dunno.”

“Did it start the same? Like you were just in all the mist and that was it?”

“Yeah. I was by the wall at the top of the hill and everything was gray and misty and then-” “Here, let’s see how it feels for you and you can let me know how it compares.” Wirt gingerly touched his chest, rubbing over his heart in case it could still feel the phantom sensation of having no blood to pump. “Oh my gosh, it felt like my heart was going to explode. Wow. How did I forget that? That was terrifying!”

“Hang on. What?”

“My arteries stopped working? All of them, my whole circulatory system just clogged up and I- I don’t really know how? But it… it felt… oh my gosh, I never want to feel that again. And there were other things. Weird, painful other things that felt so real.” Wirt pressed his palm to his forehead and exhaled shakily. “It was a really messed up dream. Even for my standards.”

There was a long pause. “Wirt... What did this thing look like, in your dream?”

Wirt’s brow furrowed, picturing the fog and the glow and suddenly it was clear. “A triangle. Dipper, it looked like that one-eyed triangle that’s in your journals, like all over the place! And he had a hat and a cane and… Bill. His name’s Bill, the same name of the ghost that Greg befriended. Does that mean something? Dipper? Dipper, are you… are you still there?”

When the phone stayed silent, Wirt pulled it away and quirked an eyebrow at the screen. It was still timing their call. He was about to put it to his ear again, but then the line disconnected and the call ended. Wirt frowned, then tried calling him again. The busy signal answered him.

“Busy? Dipper, we got disconnected, how are you still on the line?” Wirt muttered, trying again, but to no avail. “Fine.”

He texted him. Did your phone die? If it had, he wouldn’t get a response, and the call would’ve just gone to voicemail if it had instead of the busy signal, but it was worth a shot. His phone lit up with a new message, but Wirt’s brow creased when nothing new popped up in his messages with Dipper. Someone else had texted him.

He went to check it, maybe Dipper was using Mabel’s phone because his was failing him. Wirt froze when he saw it was from an unlisted number. A completely blank sender. He opened it just as another message from the same sender came through. Then another.

△△

△△△

△△△△△△△△△△△

△△△△△△△△△△△△△△△△△

△△△△△△△△△△△△△△△△△△△△△△△△△△

△△△△△△△△△△△△△△△△△△△△△△△△△△△△△△△△△△△△△△△△

△△△△△△△△△△△△△△△△△△△△△△△△△△△△△△△△△△△△△△△△△△△△△△△△△△

△△△△△△△△△△△△△△△△△△△△△△△△△△△△△△△△△△△△△△△△△△△△△△△△△△△△△△△△△△△△△△△△△△△△△△△

△△△△△△△△△△△△△△△△△△△△△△△△△△△△△△△△△△△△△△△△△△△△△△△△△△△△△△△△△△△△△△△△△△△△△△△△△△△△△△△△△△△△△△△△△△△△△△△△△△△△△△△△△△△△△△△△△△△△△△△△△△△△△△△△△△△△△△△△△△△△

pine tree doesn’t need to know everything, does he.

The screen went black.

A thud sounded from Greg’s bedroom.

Wirt slowly closed the phone as he watched his door. It was closed - for now - but he kept his eyes on it as he reached for his charger, plugging in his cell phone as he set it on the nightstand. Pine Tree. Bill said that in his dream. And the triangles...

There was another thump-like sound from across the hall, so Wirt got out of bed. He opened his door and looked out into the void-like hallway, the kitchen and living room and dining room swallowed up by the dark. Greg’s bedroom was equally shadowed, his door open a crack in front of him. Wirt quietly padded over to the wall, leaning against it as he went to open the door further. He froze when he heard a voice, Greg’s voice, start speaking.

“I’m glad we can be friends again, Bill. Wirt can be lots of fun, too, you’ll see.”

Taking a deep breath, Wirt peered around the doorframe to try and catch a glimpse of Greg. He was still in bed, his eyes closed and Jason Funderburker in his arms. Had he not heard him just speak, he would’ve assumed he was asleep.

“I don’t doubt that, Tea Kettle,” Greg continued, but even though his voice was the one he heard, Wirt knew it wasn’t him talking. “I don’t doubt that one bit.”

His eyes opened, glinting in the dark, and Wirt pressed his back flush against the wall. He held his breath and closed his eyes tightly. He could hear the triangle cackling in his head. This had been happening since they got back from Oregon. Wirt shivered, the temperature dropping rapidly as he slid down to the floor. Whatever this was, it had been happening since then and it wasn’t going away.

Worst of all, for some reason, it didn’t want Dipper to know it was here.

 

----

 

Dipper went through Thursday more zombie than person. After staying up the entire night, texting Wirt, praying for one - just one - message to get through after the call had been abruptly dropped. He felt sick and helpless, the distance a stab against his entire being as he fretted over his boyfriend’s safety. The ghost wasn’t gone, and he was so very scared that it wasn’t a ghost after all.

There were just so many possibilities. The paranormal, after all, wasn’t relegated to one tiny corner of Oregon. It lived everywhere, and now it was attacking someone he loved more than he could properly put into words. Powerless, Dipper had stared at every single delivery error and tried again and again and again before slipping into a nightmare-wracked sleep an hour before his alarm had gone off.

Thankfully for his grades, his worries over school - which seemed so small now with error messages piling up on his phone - were unfounded. Even on an hour of sleep and the majority of his mind taken by fear, the equations ran through him like water. He was the first done in calculus and then ended up taking his physics exam the same day by telling his professor that something had come up in his family.

It was a lie only because they weren’t related by blood, Dipper unable to consider Wirt anything but his family. His other half. His everything. Why wasn’t he there with him? He had to be there. He had to go.

For the first time, he missed his Literary Club meeting and stole his sister away from her friends when he was dropped off at the high school for the rest of his day. “We have to talk.”

“Sure thing, bro-bro.” She smiled and poked his cheeks, seeing the worry in him. “What’s wrong? Did you not sleep last night?”

“N-no, I-”

“Dipper! You had your exam today!”

“I know. I took them both. Listen-”

“Why did you-?”

He covered her mouth with his palm, silencing her. When he didn’t remove it when she licked his palm, her mutinous expression faded. Only then did he let her go. “Remember when I told you that Wirt and Greg had a ghost?”

“Yeah, but they took care of it, right?” Her eyes widened a little when he didn’t respond. “Right?”

“Wirt called me last night around midnight - our time, not his. His nightmares came back, Mabel, but they were different. The ghost was in the dream this time, and it...” His theory wasn’t one he wanted to be true, so he shook his head. “When he started to tell me what the ghost looked like, the phone died. I tried to call him back - I’ve tried so many times, okay? I’ve tried texting him a million times, and nothing’s going through. His phone is stuck on the busy signal, and it’s not even going to voicemail.”

She reached for her own phone, scrolling through her contacts to call his cell phone. It rang for two beautiful, blessed chimes before the line died. When she tried again, it went to the busy signal. “What about their home phone?” she asked, dialing quickly. “Something could’ve happened to his phone.” When it, too, was busy, her breath began to hitch. “Okay. Okay, um.”

When the frantic texts she sent to Amy and Jonathan came back with errors, she lifted her distraught gaze to her twin. “What do we do?”

“What are we supposed to do, Mabel?! They’re in Massachusetts! I don’t even know if something’s really wrong because I’m too freaking far away!”

She didn’t let his shouts upset her, the fearful exhaustion on her twin’s face enough of a clue as to his mindset. He wasn’t angry at her. “So let’s go to Massachusetts.”

“We can’t, Mabel. It’s the middle of the semester.” He rubbed his hands to his tired face, letting out a frustrated sound. “I know we have next week off, but...”

“We can call Pacifica,” she suggested, not willing to give up yet. Her gaze was on her phone, tapping multiple texts to Wirt and every other number she had of people from Lakeville, people who knew Wirt and Greg and could get a message to them. Nothing, nothing, nothing went through. “Dipper, something’s going on. You know something’s going on.”

He pressed the heels of his palms to his eyes, wrestling with his panic. “I don’t know what. I don’t know how to stop it. What if it’s not a ghost, Mabel? What if it’s- What if it’s a demon?”

Her face went as pale as his, the name of one particular demon running through both of their minds, chased by a desperate hope for it to be anything else. “We... we have to find out,” she insisted, and both stayed on their phones desperate to get messages or calls through to the other side of the continent.

Chapter Text

“Well, well, well! Fancy meeting you again, Music Note. What are the odds of me running into you here? Wait, there aren’t any because this is your mind! Isn’t that a scream?”

When Wirt found himself at the top of the hill, surrounded in mist again, he immediately sat down, curled up and made the decision not to move a muscle for the entire dream. He could beat this. He didn’t have to play this monster’s game.

“Go away,” he muttered, hugging his knees to his chest. “Get out of my head.”

“Sorry, kid. Wrong answer. The answer we were looking for was an actual scream.” Bill jabbed him in the side with his cane and the pain that electrocuted his nerves had him crying out. “That’s better.”

Wirt slumped against the wall, chest heaving as he attempted to catch his breath. “Leave me alone,” he wheezed. “This is my dream and I want you out of it.”

“That would work if this actually was your dream,” Bill replied easily. “This may be your mind, kid, but this is definitely not your dream. We’re playing in my domain now, so let’s have some fun.”

He conjured something, but Wirt didn’t see what. He turned his head away and closed his eyes, determined to wait it out. Whatever it was made a squeaking sound, but he didn’t trust the softness of the weak noise to warrant checking it out. His eyes stayed shut and his back pressed to the stone wall, even when the sounds stopped and silence reigned.

“Well, if you’re so against playing with me, maybe we should invite someone else to this party. And I’ve got just the guy!” Bill snapped his fingers and Wirt flinched.

For a moment nothing happened. The silence stayed, but Wirt was nothing if not stubborn so he, too, stayed right where he was. Then he heard footsteps, soft on the damp grass.

“Hey, man. What’re you doing on the ground?”

Wirt swallowed, refusing to look up. It’s not him. It’s not him. He mentally chanted. He pressed his lips together to keep from making any traitorous sounds.

“Come on, that can’t be comfortable. Your back’s literally pressed against a wall made of rocks.” There was a laugh in his voice, would likely be one in his eyes. It had been so long since they'd seen each other...

Go away. Just go away. Wirt could feel him right in front of him, holding a hand out to help him up. You’re not real. None of this is real.

“Wirt?” His voice was softer, wounded. “Hey, don’t... Don’t ignore me, man. Come on.”

His heart clenched and before he could tell himself no, he opened his eyes and lifted his gaze to find himself face to face with his boyfriend. “Dipper,” he murmured, slowly shaking his head. “No. No, please… you’re not… you’re not you.”

His lips quirked, smile confused and crooked. “What are you talking about?”

Part of him was desperate to keep him talking. He missed his voice, he hadn’t been able to reach him all day, calling him at every free moment he had only to have that wretched busy signal buzzing in his ear. But this wasn’t Dipper. He was incredibly conscious of that with Bill still hovering at his side, observing them without a single tell in his one eye or pyramid face.

“Wirt, come on. Let’s go.” Dipper leaned in closer, hand still proffered for him to take.

Would it feel like him? He couldn’t help but wonder. Or would he phase through him, like the dream he was? Because with that small smile, the mild concern and confusion rippling across his face, he was still a dream for him. Dipper himself could never be nightmarish for him, no matter what a ghost or demon intended.

Still, Wirt didn’t take his hand. “I can’t, I’m staying here,” he told him. “Right here. I’m not… I’m not moving until I wake up.”

“What? Wirt, you can’t just sit there all day. You gotta get up at some point, man.”

“No, I don’t.”

He hunched up more, but then Dipper’s fingers curled around his arm and pulled, not forceful or malicious, just enough to get him to straighten out. His breath hitched on a gasp as his eyes widened. The grip was sure and it had been so long since they’d done something as simple as just grab each other’s arms and why did this feel so real? It was just a dream.

Wirt squeezed his eyes shut when Dipper crouched down, leaning forward towards him. “Please don’t touch me,” he requested, the palm of his hand pressing against his chest to keep him from closing the distance. “You’re not him. Please leave me alone. You’re not-”

Familiar lips brushed the corner of his mouth, effectively silencing him. He tried to close it, but a firmer kiss pushed against his lips and suspended him in a stunned stupor. Dipper’s palms skimmed along his sides, coaxing a shiver out of him. The hand on his chest stopped pushing and grabbed onto his shirt instead, pulling him in. He could feel Dipper’s smile in his next kiss, each one growing bolder. His hands left him to brace himself on the wall, one on either side of Wirt’s head, effectively pinning him.

It sent a pleasant shudder through Wirt, fingers tugging on Dipper’s shirt, anchoring himself with him. He didn’t want him to go away. He didn’t want to be left alone here or at home or anywhere. He needed Dipper, his warmth and touch and firm kisses. With Dipper he was safe. With Dipper he didn’t have to be afraid. Wirt released a soft gasp of a sound as Dipper deepened the kiss and pulled him close, close, closer. His head was swimming with the need to press against him, burrow inside, cocooned in his boyfriend’s-

Love.

Wirt stiffened as Dipper’s teeth caught on his lower lip. Something wasn’t right. His head cleared of his needy fog, just as thick as the one surrounding them. Dipper’s lips moved over his like his boyfriend’s kisses, he tasted like him, moved and sounded like him as he made his own soft, needy sound that tugged at Wirt’s heartstrings.

But it didn’t feel like him.

Love was absent from his kisses, like going through the motions. Like he was a puppet, just doing what was expected of him. Wirt could always count on Dipper’s love. Even when they were miles apart, he could feel Dipper’s love in every text message, every phone call, every silly little photo or video message. These kisses didn’t have any of that. There was hunger and passion and desire, his lips and teeth growing more insistent and firmer, drawing out more helpless sounds from him in his eagerness, but Wirt didn’t feel his love.

Something unpleasant curdled in his gut and he turned his head away, but that only exposed his neck to Dipper and he peppered it with small, nipping kisses. “Stop it.” Wirt’s voice trembled, feeling trapped, closed in, and he just needed a minute to breathe. “Dipper, let me up.”

“You said you didn’t want to get up. Make up your mind, man.” A warm laugh was huffed against his skin and Wirt wished it was him. He missed him so much and he was so scared.

Dipper, what do I do?

“Just relax,” he murmured and Wirt’s breathing became panicked.

He continued mouthing at his neck, teeth catching and pulling only to let his tongue lave over his skin when it started to hurt. They’d made out plenty during the month he and Mabel stayed with them, but this wasn’t like that. Beneath the warmth and the laughter and the familiarity was something dark and demanding and pleased in a way that wasn’t right. His love wasn’t there. It meant nothing if there wasn’t love in it and that scared him.

Dipper bit down harder and Wirt gasped, tilting his head to shield his neck, giving him the opportunity to claim his lips in another bruising kiss. He wanted to get away. He wanted this to stop. Wirt pushed at him, but not-Dipper forced his weight on him and the angle was all wrong with Wirt slumped against the wall. So he did the only other thing he could think of. He knocked the pine tree hat right off the top of his head, sending it rolling down the hill towards the lake, and pushed up his bangs.

That got his attention.

Breathing heavily, Wirt glowered up at him as Dipper leaned back to observe him. In the same calculating manner that Bill was. Suddenly the weight sprawled across his lap was gone, but there was no relief as hands fisted in his sweater and hauled him up to his feet, slamming him into the wall. His head cracked against it, hard enough to make him see stars.

“So, you’re ready to play now?” Dipper’s voice that wasn’t Dipper’s voice taunted him. “Good.”

“I’m not playing anything,” Wirt told Bill, looking past Dipper at the triangle. “I’m done.”

I’m talking to you! Look at me!” Dipper rammed him into the wall again and this time Wirt clawed at the arms that had an iron grip on him.

“You’re not real! None of this is real!” Wirt shouted, but he could taste blood from where he’d bit down on his tongue and his head throbbed and the bite to his neck still stung.

Dipper yanked him close, their noses almost touching. “That doesn’t mean that it can’t hurt you,” he replied, grinning as terror flickered in Wirt’s eyes. “Let’s continue the game you started of throwing things down the hill.”

With that as his only warning, Wirt was spun away from the wall and flung down. He landed hard on the slope with a yelp, immediately rolling down fast and faster and faster. He tried to shield his face with his arms, tried to find purchase in the hard ground, but the water came too quickly. Wirt was submerged instantly.

Unlike the time leading up to The Unknown, Wirt was able to breach the surface of the lake. He shook his head to clear it and started to swim for the bank, but he was pushed down. Held down.

Frantically, Wirt tugged at Dipper’s wrists, staring up at him as he kept him under. “You’re such a burden,” he told him, his voice crystal clear even though he was above the water while Wirt thrashed under it. “Always coming to me with your problems. Always needing to talk to me when you don’t even trust me. Can’t you do anything on your own? Can’t you just leave me alone, Wirt? I don’t want you around. You’d think that being a continent apart would get that through your thick head. Why don’t you get that? Why do you exist?”

With each word he lost more of his fight, the edges of his vision spotting, getting fuzzy as he held his breath. His chest on fire, full and ready to burst from retaining air. His grip on Dipper’s arm went slack as the alien expression on his face vanished into something so normal that he couldn’t help the pained gasp, water flowing in and taking air’s place.

“Sorry, Wirt, but somebody’s gotta drown.” Dipper’s voice echoed around him while everything faded to black.

 

----

 

“Wirt! Wirt, wake up! Wirt, you have to breathe!”

A pillow smacked him in the face and suddenly he was sitting up, nearly conking his head on Greg’s in his haste to be up, up out of the water, away from-

He was in his bed, not the lake- or on his bed, rather. The late afternoon sun poured in through his window, pooling on the floor, making the dusky, orange-red carpet brighter. Like blood. Harsh panting escaped him as he patted himself down. His chest burned, like he really hadn’t been breathing, and his panicked gaze settled on Greg. His little brother was wide-eyed and pale, actual tears in his eyes as he stared at him with a combination of determination and fear.

“Greg?” he croaked.

“You fell asleep right after we got home,” he explained quickly, reading the question from his face alone. “Even though it’s the middle of the day. I didn’t want to bother you ‘cause you’ve been so tired, but then you started screaming, so I came in to wake you up, but then you weren’t screaming anymore, but you weren’t breathing either, so-” Greg broke off to take a deep breath. “So I hit you in the face with a pillow.”

Wirt raked his fingers through his hair, then reached for him and pulled him into his lap. He hadn’t been in his dream this time. Was that because he hadn’t been asleep, too? Or was Bill focusing on Dipper now? He shuddered as he recalled each detail with perfect clarity this time. Greg rubbed his back in an attempt to help, so he pillowed his cheek atop his little brother’s head.

His gaze fell on the textbook he had open on his bed - he’d been doing homework, studying, getting ready for the upcoming break - and the notebook beside it. His history notes stared back at him, a little sloppy from where he’d started falling asleep probably, but then…

Wirt’s eyes narrowed and he shifted Greg so he could hold onto him with one arm as he reached for the notebook. It was his handwriting, but it was messy and harsh and frantic. American History bleeding into go away go away go away go away he’s in me what do I do? what do I do? get out get out get out get out leave me alone help me help me heLP ME HELP ME HELP ME NO ONE’S COMING FOR YOU-

Wirt threw it across the room so it banged against his mirror and fell to the floor, open so the words he didn’t remember writing faced the ceiling. He and Greg stared at it, both clinging to each other, then Wirt reached for his phone.

Nothing had been going through, but he was not giving up.

Let this message through

Please go through

Dipper help

The triangle from your book is here

As each message was denied, a new one from the unnamed sender - from Bill - arrived in it’s place. Filling his phone with triangles. Wirt grit his teeth and kept trying.

I’ll find a way to talk to him!

Just watch!

You can’t block the phones forever!

You said he doesn’t need to know everything so what if I send him gibberish, huh?

“Text him ‘codswallop!’” Greg suggested, watching his fingers mash the buttons of his phone.

“What? Why?” Wirt stared at him.

Greg shrugged. “It’s a funny word.”

“Fair enough.”

Codswallop.

The message went through. “What!” Wirt gaped at the phone, then at the ceiling. “You’re the worst!”

“Try sending him something important now!” Greg cheered, bouncing a little.

Dipper?

It went through. Dipper there’s something wrong! He pressed send, keeping the messages short in the hopes that they’d make it through. His heart sank when only Dipper there’s something managed to make it through whatever filter returned to the phone. Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.

When that went through, Greg just looked at him. “You know, you could’ve done something easier like ‘balderdash.’”

Wirt squinted at him, then shook his head and tried something that made sense. “What era are you from?” he muttered, attempting to send, How do we stop Bill?

Once again, the key element of the sentence was lost. “How do we stop. How do we stop. He’s not going to understand any of this!”

“Why do we have to stop Bill?” Greg asked. “I thought he turned nice again.”

“No, Greg! No, he is absolutely not nice!” he snapped, then jumped when a text came through that finally, finally, wasn’t from Bill.

Get this PLEASE. Been trying all day.

I’M SORRY. I’m sorry yes I got it. I’m here.

Wirt clutched his phone desperately and even Greg held his breath while they waited for the message to send. When it did, they both sagged with relief, then the younger brother looked to Wirt again.

“What do you mean Bill’s not nice? He told me he likes you now.”

“Yeah, like as some kind of plaything that he enjoys murdering every night,” he replied, refusing to tear his gaze away from the screen as he waited for something back. Just to make sure.

I love you.

Will connection fail if you talk about him/it?

Probably. It didn’t go through. That seems to be the case. That was rejected, too. What do you think he is? Wirt pursed his lips, brow creased as his heart drummed loudly in his ears. Bill was toying with them.

I love you too.

For some reason, he let that one through. Wirt sighed, closing the phone and pressing it to his heart. There had to be a way to talk to him where Bill couldn’t interfere. He could always send him a letter, but if Bill could make him fall asleep and write something he didn’t intend to when it was only history notes, he could easily imagine him doing the same if he tried to write a letter for help to Dipper. Plus a letter would take too long. Dipper wouldn’t get it for three days at least.

His phone buzzed against his chest.

So that’s a yes.

Wirt waited, but nothing else followed it. “So that’s it then. That’s all the time I get to talk to my boyfriend after you made him drown me in my dream. That’s fantastic.”

He chewed on the inside of his cheek, then typed out. Don’t worry I’ll find a way. Okay for now. Will send more if/when I can. I love you. It sent, but nothing else came back, so he wasn’t sure if it was any comfort to Dipper or not. He just hated the idea of him worrying and worrying over them with no answers in sight. They were okay for now. Not for long, most likely, but for now.

Still, he needed a way to get a message to him that wasn’t over the phone or a letter. He perked up instantly. Letter. Pen pals. Their lie about being pen pals through email! Maybe Bill could control the phone lines, but he couldn’t control the entire internet could he? Well, he honestly wouldn’t put it past him, but there was only one way to find out.

“Come on, Greg!” Wirt set him down and jumped off the bed, bolting out of his room and down the hall to the office.

“What’s the plan, Captain Wirt?” Greg asked, bounding behind him.

Wirt slid into the computer chair and wiggled the mouse so it would wake up. “Just testing out a potential option.”

He opened a browser and went to his email. He typed up a quick test draft and attempted to send it to Dipper. When that failed, he tried Mabel. “Okay, email’s out.” Wirt frowned as he went to YouTube next. If he’d had a social media account of some kind, he would’ve tried there, but then again, Dipper didn’t keep up with his regularly. He was always notified of comments on his videos though.

“Dipper, what do you know about Bill?” he muttered to himself as he typed it into a comment box. “Come on.” He pressed the enter button repeatedly, but the text merely turned gray and stayed that way. “Okay, great. So he controls the internet, too.”

Wirt slumped in the seat and glared at the screen as the video played above, Dipper setting the premise for whatever mystery monster he was studying for this one. He’d simply clicked on the first video that showed up. When he flashed a small smile to the camera, Wirt ached with missing him and trembled as that same smile had toyed with him in that nightmarish dreamscape. His voice had been exactly right, too. Aside from the part where he had basically turned into a psycho, though, if Dipper ever did become a psycho, that was probably what he would’ve sounded like. But that was neither here nor there.

“So what do we do now?” Greg asked. “I don’t want Bill to keep murdering you. What if you stop breathing again?”

“I don’t know, Greg,” he sighed, regretting letting his little brother in on that bit of information. “I could try and convince Mom and Jonathan to send us to California for Thanksgiving, but- wait a second.”

Wirt sat up straighter and paused the video. He clicked back a bit, trying to rewind it a few seconds, right to a point where Dipper held up one of his journals - one of the three journals - for just a moment. He was pointing to something else for the viewers, but Wirt’s gaze was captivated by the string of numbers scrawled near the margin. They’d talked about them before, briefly. They were codes. Notes written in code to keep them a secret.

Bill let them send gibberish because it wasn’t a threat to him. Maybe, if he didn’t realize what they were sending was a message in disguise…

“I think I have an idea.” He looked at Greg who blinked up at him. “And I’m going to need your help, Greg.”

“You can count on me, Wirt. I won’t let you down,” he promised.

“I know you won’t. But you’re going to have to also promise to not talk to Bill again, if you can help it. Okay?”

“Okay.” Greg nodded, then made an ‘x’ over his heart. “So what do we have to do?”

 

----

 

Studying codes and ciphers was a lot more complicated than he’d anticipated. It didn’t help that every string of codes he’d tried to send so far had come back with error messages, attempting to use the Caesar cipher to try and get messages to Dipper since it was something that Wirt’s drained, weary brain could actually comprehend. Unfortunately, Bill seemed to be well-versed in Caesar ciphers, each one cracked and held hostage by error after error after error.

Wirt yawned for what felt like the seventeen-hundredth time in the past hour alone, a book from the library on code-cracking basics and cryptography open on his desk. He’d forced himself to stay up all night reading up on it, partly for information and partly because he was afraid of what would happen if he closed his eyes. It was also why he decided to go to school as well. It was the Friday before Thanksgiving break, so they had some tests to get out of the way, but Wirt was more worried that if he’d stayed home he would’ve fallen asleep.

He couldn’t sleep. Not with Bill in his dreams. He refused to put himself at the mercy of this- this… dream demon or whatever kind of Freddy Kruger-like, dream-hopping monster this triangle thing was. Masquerading as a ghost one minute, conjuring up hallucinations the next. Sleep was definitely something Wirt was avoiding like the plague. No matter how much his body begged for the sweet reprieve, his mind refused to give in. Partly out of his stubborn nature and partly because he was terrified of what would be waiting for him if he closed his eyes.

While he was still exhausted, he knew he wasn’t in danger of falling asleep at school. He was too conscious of the countless teens and sure-to-be-stares around him. It was enough to keep him anxious and as long as he was anxious, a small amount of energy and adrenaline pulsed through him.

It didn’t keep the words on the page from blurring into undecipherable blobs, however. Wirt sighed, rubbing his weary, bag-laden eyes. Still suffering from his previous bout of sleeplessness, three nights had been nowhere near enough to get him back to one hundred percent.

He’d attracted a large amount of worry and pestering from his mom and Jonathan over the past few weeks. He’d told them it was stress from school, that he wanted to do well this year because junior year was crucial for college. In the beginning, he also dropped the hint that he missed Dipper and that seeing him for part of the winter break would definitely help.

His teachers and friends, too, noticed his pale complexion and sunken eyes. Wirt shuddered when he looked in the mirror that morning. If Dipper could see him now, he’d absolutely freak out.

Now that he was thinking of his boyfriend, he took a break from trying to read and took out his phone. How are you doing? he texted Dipper, pleased to see it go through. While phones weren’t supposed to be out, they had a free period in English and with it the rule on cell phones seemed to have been chucked out the window.

Feeling frustrated. Too far away. Dipper’s text came through loud and clear, followed by a second one. Hang in there. I love you.

He smiled sadly, tracing the words with his thumb. He’d find a way to get him the whole message, and hopefully receive one in return that would tell him what to do. So far, Bill hadn’t revealed to him his full name and all searches had been less than forthcoming on any demons or supernatural entities named Bill, let alone how to deal with them. Though he’d read it cover to cover more than once, Wirt thumbed through his book of spells that Dipper had given him on their Salem date, even if he knew there wasn’t anything in there that looked to be of any help. Or, there might have been, but he didn’t know enough about this Bill to know what would work on him for sure. But he knew Dipper knew about this one. He knew he’d have the answers.

All he had to do was pick a code Dipper would know, translate it, and send it to him either by text or comment, whichever managed to last. Yawning again, he replied with, Love you too, then, You hang in there too, as well before trying to focus on the book again. Nothing was permeating his brain though.

He groaned, dropping his face to his desk and just sat there for a minute. A hand brushed his shoulder and he immediately cringed away. Memories of his worst feelings exploding like small fireworks burst in his brain, throughout his whole body, and he could too easily feel the phantom pain shooting down his spine.

“Whoa, Wirt, hey it’s just me.” Sara. Right, he was at school. So far Bill hadn’t tried to get him at school. “Are you feeling okay? Do you need to go to the nurse?”

He shook his head, keeping it right where it was on the desk. “No.”

“Wirt, you really don’t look so good.” He heard the desk next to him creak and he knew she settled down on top of it. “I think you should go home for the day.”

“No. Sara, I’m fine. Just tired. I’m not sick or anything, I’m just really, really tired.” He lifted his head, forehead sticking a little to the pages of his book before he shook it off, then looked at her and tried to offer her a smile.

She didn’t buy it, her concern only mounting when she could see the weariness in his face up close. “Is this because of Halloween?”

He shook his head again, waving it off. “No. No, that has nothing to do with this, surprisingly.”

“Is… is everything okay with you and Dipper?”

Wirt blinked, mouth falling open a bit in surprise. “What? Yeah. Yeah, everything’s fine with us.” If everything didn’t include the fact that some kind of demon triangle dream monster was keeping them from communicating, that is.

“Are you sure?” she pressed. “You’ve been out of it for a while and you keep looking at your phone like it’s the cause of all your problems, but then you get this sad look and I just want to make sure you’re okay. I’m here for you if you need to talk. I know long-distance relationships can be tough, but if anyone can make it work, it’s the two of you. He’s really in love with you.”

Wirt dropped his gaze to his phone. “I know.”

“You’re such a burden.”

“I know he is. And we’re trying. We’re trying to do the best we can given the distance, but…”

“Always coming to me with your problems. Always needing to talk to me when you don’t even trust me. Can’t you do anything on your own? Can’t you just leave me alone, Wirt? I don’t want you around. You’d think that being a continent apart would get through your thick head. Why don’t you get that? Why do you exist?”

“It’s hard. I want him here so badly, or I want to be there and I don’t know what to do about it.” Wirt raked his fingers through his hair.

Sara placed her hand on his shoulder again and squeezed. “You can do it. Just keep talking to him. Don’t bottle things up. Remember, communication is key.” Oh, was it ever. In more ways than one, in this case. “Are you going to be able to see him for winter break?”

Wirt rubbed at his eyes and nodded. He’d nearly forgotten about that grand master plan. “Yeah. I’m trying to save up from working at the music shop, and Mom said she could pitch in some and it could be part of my Christmas present.”

“Well, that’s something to look forward to at least.”

“Yeah.” If I’m still alive by Christmas.

The thought was a haunting one, chilling him to the core. Because deep down, he feared what was happening to him and Greg wasn’t going to show them any mercy. It wasn’t going to leave them alive.

Chapter Text

Late that night, late enough to be morning, his phone turned off and didn’t turn on again. The fleeting texts he’d been able to send to and receive from Dipper - the only things he could cling to in the dark of the night, fighting sleep in tears while shadows in the waking world crept closer and closer - were stripped from him completely. The last thing he’d sent him was a frantic string of I love you I love you I love you.

In hindsight, it had probably scared him.

In his defense, he hadn’t known it would be the last text he’d get to him. Without that link, without the connection that he’d been so focused on, clinging to the hope that even if he couldn’t tell him what was happening, at least he could talk to him again, he was left alone with books he couldn’t comprehend in his exhaustion and the fear of falling asleep.

He left his door open, left the light on, all things that could usually keep him from sleeping. But then the colors in his bedroom began to bleed and his bedside lamp flickered. He could hear Greg talking in his sleep across the hall, so he clamped his hands over his ears. He didn’t want to hear something speaking through his little brother like some kind of puppet. He didn’t want any of this.

His heart stopped as his bedroom door slowly eased shut, all on its own. It swayed with an eerie creaking that made a whimper bubble out of him unbidden. The click when the door connected with the frame was deafening.

Then the newly gray room went black, pitch black all around him, and when his vision came back he was on the hill, in the mist, and he was screaming and Bill was laughing. “Nice try, Music Note, but we’re not done yet!”

 “I don’t want to be here!” Wirt clawed at his head, tugging hard on his hair. Pain, pain, wake up, wake up, wake up.

“Oh, it’s pain you’re looking for, huh? Well, you’ve come to the right place.” Bill waved his hand in the air, then clenched his fist.

Wirt’s internal organs felt like they were all being squeezed, wrung out and shoved around. He doubled over, exhaling as if he were retching, and collapsed to his knees. In the blink of an eye, the pressure was gone and he sobbed from sheer relief. But the sobs swiftly shifted into despair as the dark thoughts ballooned in his brain, swelling and pushing out everything else. There was the dread and the helplessness. The cold and fear and desperation. Intense self-loathing. Wirt tried to push back, force it out of his head, but it shoved him down to the ground like a weight of no one wants you, you don’t even want you crushing his chest.  

“That’s not true,” he choked, tears spilling over his cheeks.

“Are you kidding? That’s been your whole schtick since you’ve been able to form a coherent thought.” Bill looped his arm around him, literally stretching it out and looping it around and around like a chain until he poked his forehead, making Wirt brace himself for pain, flinching hard, even when nothing happened. “I mean, your own dad didn’t even want you. He actively wished that you didn’t exist! In front of you, no less. How twisted is that?”

“Who cares what he thinks?” Wirt sobbed.

"You do! That’s what’s so hilarious about the whole thing! He couldn’t care less about you, but your whole existence practically revolves around him!” Bill cackled. “To the point where it’s even dictating your relationship with Pine Tree.”

“Wirt, can’t you see I’m busy? Why are you always in the way?” His dad’s voice growled at him from somewhere in front of him and Wirt opened his eyes to see him towering over him, the way he did when he was small. “Leave me alone. I have more important things to be doing than dealing with you. Just stay away. Don’t bother me.”

The tall, dark man vanished and Wirt’s own thoughts seemed to be amplified, echoing around him as he closed his eyes again. What if he’s too busy? I think he’s too busy. I’ll just get in the way, I should leave him alone. He has more important things to do. I don’t want to bother him.

“It’s really pathetic,” Bill told him. “But understandable. Pine Tree’s a busy guy. Why else do you think I’m hanging out here with you and Tea Kettle? I’ve been running out of ways to get his attention. But don’t worry. I’m also in it for you. It’s amazing how you keep getting your hopes up again and again, even though you know, deep down, that I’m just gonna pull the rug out from under you, like so.”

He ripped away the grass of the hill, leaving an empty void beneath Wirt. His stomach dropped as he started falling, the air rushing around him, suffocating him - he was suffocating from air? That sounded impossible, but there was too much of it - and he was deafened by the harsh speed of it all around him and there was nothing to grab onto as he fell. Faster and faster, falling through nothing. Then the hill was back. He landed hard on his shoulder on the railroad tracks and he cried out when something cracked.

“Why do you keep doing this to yourself, Music Note? You know it’s only going to hurt more and more each time the reality of your situation comes crashing down on you.”

“Stop it. Why are you here? Leave me alone,” he moaned, curling into himself, instinct screaming to protect himself from the monster that could manipulate everything around him.

“I told you already. Haven’t you been listening? With Pine Tree and Shooting Star essentially out of my reach, they left me no choice but to turn to the two of you. You and your brother.” Bill loomed over him, lowering his voice to a malicious hiss. “This is all their fault, you know. If it weren’t for them, I wouldn’t be here.” He floated back some, returning to his normal candor. “Though I have to admit, you have been fun. You boys and your daddy issues. Man, nothing gets better than that. You’re so easy to fool! So desperate for some kind of connection that even the two of you don’t understand!”

Wirt lifted his head, staring at him with a quiver to his lips. “I don’t have-”

“Don’t bother denying it. It’s completely obvious to everyone! Even before you blabbed to Pine Tree, I’m sure he knew a kindred spirit when he saw one.”

“Shut up. Stop talking to me.” Wirt looked away.

“You don’t believe me? And even after he confided in you, too. Sympathized with you and all your gross, neglected-child baggage.” Bill gestured at all of him. “Well! I guess it’s up to me to show you what you’ve been missing out on then! Come on, Music Note! Let’s take a trip down memory lane.”

He snapped his fingers and their surroundings warped. Nausea rolled inside him as everything blurred and twisted and coiled, then suddenly snapped into a new setting. A car. Wirt was in the passenger seat of a car. He glanced to the driver’s seat, expecting to see his mom or something normal. Instead it was who he recognized to be Mr. Pines - Michael Pines, Dipper and Mabel’s dad - from photos that he’d been shown. Wirt stared at him, but the man didn’t seem to acknowledge his existence, focusing on the two children in the back seat. Two children.

Wirt turned around and blinked at what was clearly a young Mabel, bouncing and happy and singing a little song to herself about glitter or stickers or both. Then he looked to the other child. The one that was clearly Dipper, but…

His bangs were shorn. The birthmark he kept hidden at all costs was displayed right above eyes that couldn’t seem to focus on the same spot. They flicked out the window, flicked to his sister, flicked to the bag in his lap. He swallowed, knuckles white on his backpack as he held onto it for dear life.

Mabel’s song ended on a giggle and she reached out to poke it. She smiled, teeth a little crooked and just beginning to show the signs of needing braces. Dipper jolted like he’d been burned, twisting in his seat to hide. “Whatcha doin’, Dipper?”

He shook his head, saying nothing, and hid his face away when he sister started poking him and the bag in earnest. “Whatcha doin’? Whatcha got?”

“St-st-stop it, Mabel,” her twin urged, gaze darting up to the rearview mirror. He squeaked a little when he met his dad’s gaze in the reflection and scooted as close to the window as he could to hide away from that knowing stare.

“What’s in your backpack, Dipper?”

“N-nothing.”

“Dipper, if you have what I think you do, so help me-”

Tiny shoulders hunched, fear too old for his pale face shining in his eyes. “It’s nothing!” he shouted, voice cracking because the car was slowing down for a red light.

Dipper shrank back in his seat, palm swiping nervously at his bangs as if it would help them grow, and then he was yelping. His dad twisted in his seat, yanking the backpack easily away from the trembling child. “D-d-dad, give it back!”

“Dipper, I’ve told you a hundred times,” he was grumbling, digging through the school supplies to get the secret tucked away in the very bottom. He withdrew a hat and Dipper flinched as if he’d been smacked when an accusing stare was sent his way. “What is this?”

“D-d-dad, please. Can I please- I just want to wear my h-hat to school. Please.”

With a sharp motion, the frustrated adult zipped the bag back up and returned it to his son. But he kept the hat. “How many times do I have to tell you that this isn’t going to help anything? So you get teased a little at school. Everyone gets teased, Dipper.”

“Mabel doesn’t,” he whispered.

Unhelpfully, she chimed, “Nope!”

“Mabel just has enough sense to know that teasing doesn’t matter. You’ll learn that, too.”

His chest spasmed, eyes flitting from his dad’s face to the hat he still gripped. “Okay, b-but... Can I just... I just want to... I w-won’t wear it, but can I have it back? Please? Dad, give me back my hat! Dad!” he screamed because the window was rolled down and the hat was thrown out just as the light turned green.

Dipper threw himself at the door, yanking helplessly at the handle, held fast by child locks, until his father reached back and smacked his knee. “Enough! That’s enough! I’ve had enough of this with you!” He glared at him via the rearview mirror and the little boy shrank back in his seat. “Stop it! I don’t want to hear about this anymore. A couple of people call you names - that’s not a big deal, Dipper. They’re just names. They’re just words, and they can’t hurt you. Now you stop being ashamed of that birthmark, you hear me? You start being the big boy you say you are, and you deal with it.”

Dipper went back to clinging to his backpack, not responding at all but for soft, distressed hiccups. Mabel reached over and poked his shaking shoulder. When he flinched, she giggled and did it again. “Daddy said stop.”

“Hey, Mabel, stop it!” Wirt reached back, trying to keep her from prodding him again, but he couldn’t do anything, he wasn’t really there.

He couldn’t help the trembling, terrified boy behind him. He looked so alone. He was alone. Even though it couldn’t do anything, Wirt tried to place his hand on his arm. “Dipper-”

But the little boy vanished, then his sister right after him. Wirt recoiled, Bill’s cackling ringing in his ears as the car was next to disappear and he was falling again, falling until he collided with the hard, tile floor of a public bathroom. He groaned, then sat up. He slid back along the floor until he was pressed up against the wall. Nothing could sneak up on him from behind if-

“The laws of physics don’t apply here, Music Note,” Bill reminded him as he made the wall grab him, Edelwood branches sprouting and twining around him, pulling him in, choking him and he struggled against their grip.

They were growing on him, consuming him, turning his flesh to wood and he opened his mouth to call for help and only leaves spilled out-

Then they were gone. It was just the cold hard wall he was slumped against as he wheezed for air. The cackling continued. Bill admired his handiwork.

“That was a fun intermission, but the show’s not over yet. Not even close!”

Before Wirt could question him, he vanished and the bathroom door swung open with a bang, a little boy’s sneakers squeaking on linoleum. There were leaves in his hair, more falling with dirt out of the back of his shirt. His sobs were desperate, keening noises as he passed by Wirt without seeing him and stepped onto one of the stools provided for the shorter kids.

Dipper stared at himself in the mirror, face ashen but for the ugly black lines marring his brow. They were uneven, but it was an obvious tracing of the birthmark he’d been forced to display. More marks marred his clothes, his arms. They’d drawn a blobby star on his cheek. But Dipper’s gaze was on his forehead, the gasping little bleat was for his forehead.

He ripped at paper towels, hitting the soap dispenser again and again, and smacked on the water. It got too hot too fast but it needed to be hot. He’d get rid of it that way. It was like dishes - hot cleaned. He scrubbed and scrubbed at the black lines of a sharpie. He used his hands at first, only smearing the mark a little, and then rubbed with paper towels.

He was sobbing. “Get it off, get it off, get it off, it’s just words, it’s not just words- I want my hat, I want my hat-”

The paper towel tore and he frantically grasped for more as steam rose from the sink, but his skin had already been scrubbed raw and red. He’d burned himself, fingers and brow, yet the heavy lines of sharpie remained. “Get it off!” the boy wailed, drawing blood in his efforts to remove the marker from his head, and still Dipper scrubbed.

“Dipper!” Wirt struggled to his feet, his body, even his dream body, still thrumming with aches and sharp pains. “Dipper, stop! That’s enough!”

His heart was hurting more than any physical wound could - imaginary or not - and he had to stop this desperate, frantic, small version of his boyfriend from causing any more harm to himself. He grabbed his shoulders, trying to hold him in place and hold him together when something flickered in the mirror. Wirt looked up, expecting to see the sobbing child in front of him, but he gasped when he found it was more like a window than a mirror. A window to a school playground and boys surrounding the one that he held.

“Star face, star face!”

There were three of them, pinning him against the ground. One, a fifth grader, covered his mouth, sitting on him as he dragged the black sharpie across his face. Dipper gagged against the smell, against how hard it was to breathe while he was choking on sobs. “Where’s your hat, Little Dipper? I told you we didn’t wanna see it! Dumb face! You’re so dumb!”

His best friend and fellow fifth grader dragged a sharpie down the arm he held down, snickering. “Draw another star on his face!”

“I can’t, he’s crying! Stop crying, star face!” he taunted, and drew a blobby star shape on his teary cheek.

The third boy and only second grader looked a little unsure, but the leader was his brother so he did his part and scribbled on Dipper’s clothes. And then dropped leaves on his face because the wild eyes of the trapped boy scared him some.

The older boy leaned heavily against Dipper, covering both mouth and nose as he traced the birthmark. It was a little sloppy, and he only laughed when the boy he’d nearly smothered gasped for air and started to cry harder.

Satisfied, they shoved him onto his stomach and started pushing leaves and twigs down the back of his shirt. Clumpfuls of dirt were added to the mix because Dipper stopped fighting. He covered his face and stopped fighting, letting them do as they liked.

The second grader stopped first, jumping up and wringing his hands together. “Maybe we should go now before a teacher sees?”

“Yeah, yeah.” The leader chucked his sharpie aside, the tip of it smushed flat from how hard he’d pressed it to Dipper’s skin. The secondary fifth grader kicked him in the side just because he could, just because it seemed like the cool thing to do, and they left Dipper in the grass.

He started to shake immediately, waiting only minutes before getting to his feet and sprinting away to hide, to flee, to scrub the marks away.

And Dipper was still trying to scrub them away, still gasping helplessly as his own blood dripped down his face in his efforts to erase not only the sharpie but the birthmark entirely. He hated it. He didn’t want it. It was ugly! He swayed and stumbled, falling hard onto the linoleum floor, and curled in on himself. He scooted beneath the sinks to hide, yanked at bangs that were too short to hide anything, and sobbed achingly until another boy skipped into the bathroom, saw the shattered second grader on the floor, and skipped right back out to tell a teacher.

Still shaken by what he’d seen, Wirt dropped to his knees in front of him. “Dipper,” he whimpered, aching for this tormented, traumatized child, and tried to follow him, reached out for him. “Dipper, I’m so…”

He wished this could’ve been the last time his brow was traced in something permanent. But while permanent marker wasn’t actually for forever, the scar that a knife had left behind was. Wirt held him while he cried, a storm brewing inside him. He wanted to find those boys, he wanted to stop this from ever happening, he wanted to find his Dipper and hold him and kiss him and help him through the insecurity brought on by cruel children.

Everything around them changed and they weren’t in the bathroom anymore. Wirt warily glanced at their new surroundings, noting that Dipper was now on a chair and was no longer sobbing, but his suffering hadn’t lessened.

There were bandages on Dipper’s forehead and around his hands. Salve had been applied liberally by the nurse, but he still shook as he sat and waited in the principal’s office for his parents to come take him home. Mabel sat quietly on the floor beside his chair, but he didn’t look at her and he jerked away from her when she tried to speak to him.

When it was his dad who eventually arrived, Dipper didn’t see the shock on his face. Dipper didn’t see the apology that crossed his features. He only saw the anger, and couldn’t understand that it was anger at those who had tormented his son, rather than anger directed towards Dipper.

The boy flinched when his dad touched him. “My hat. You took my hat. You threw my hat away. I want my hat,” he mumbled, burned fingers curling into the sides of the chair he was on and not letting up. He couldn’t let go, even when his parent and the principal both urged him to.

His dad had thrown his hat out of a window. His dad had told him it was just words. His dad had told him everyone got teased.

Dipper couldn’t go with him. He refused. Eyes wide and wild and hurt, he whispered, “I hate you. You were wrong, and I hate you.” His thoughts snapped to Wirt’s mind. I can’t trust you.

“Dipper…” Wirt tried to hug him again, but the child and the parent and the principal’s office were whisked away and he found himself sprawled back on the top of the hill. “No. No, bring him back!”

“Oh? You want to see more? I mean, there’s plenty where that came from!” Bill swooped in, and the same broken child materialized before him while images flickered on his face. “A good, old normal guy like this,” he gestured to the image of Mr. Pines projected on himself, “gets saddled with a little freakshow.” He patted Dipper on the head and he flinched while Bill laughed. “It’s a real riot!”

“He’s not! There’s nothing wrong with him!” Wirt snapped, but then the demon merely opened his arms and allowed a different voice to filter through as varying scenes of Dipper through his childhood appeared on Bill’s body.

“Dipper, don’t read that in public,” Mr. Pines reprimanded. “Dipper, that isn’t real. Dipper, no one wants to hear it. Dipper, I told you to stop! Dipper, no one cares about your conspiracies!”

“I could do this all day!” Bill cackled as Wirt shook, watching the child in front of him curl into himself. “Not so far off from all this either, huh?”

Beside the young Dipper, a child version of himself appeared, cowering, head ducked as he wrung his hands together and shuffled his feet while his dad’s voice bellowed and Wirt could still feel the bruising grip around his wrist.

“I told you to stay away from my things, Wirt! Why can’t you listen? Look what you did! Look! You’ve ruined everything! This is why I didn’t want you!”

“I’m sorry!” The child him shuddered, looking up into Wirt’s eyes, wide and frightened and pleading. “I’m sorry, I’ll be better!”

Wirt looked away, covering his face with his hands. He stumbled back a few steps, but as soon as he bumped into the wall, he jumped away. The memory of Edelwood still fresh. He rubbed his arms, shivering as the voices of Dipper’s dad and his dad were warped together and the children didn’t go away.

“See? Daddy issues. Tons of them.” Bill waved his hand in the air. “Too bad the two of you never got to actually talk about them, since the one time Pine Tree tried to bring it up you made it all about you.”

“What? That’s not-!” Wirt looked at him, watching as an image of the two of them on the balcony in Paris appeared on the triangle. “He didn’t… I mean, he said they’d had… but he said they’re okay now! They’re okay now,” he said more to himself as he turned his eyes to the ground. “Don’t listen to him, Wirt. He’s just messing with me. Showing me things to get a reaction. That’s all he wants. Just a reaction.”

“Just because I’m showing you things to get a reaction doesn’t mean that they’re not true,” Bill reminded him.

“Why didn’t you help me?”

Wirt’s gaze shot to the child - Dipper with his bangs still too short and his eyes still too hurt - and he paled as he glowered at him. “Dipper?”

He pointed at him. “Why didn’t you help me? You were there! You were there and you didn’t help me!”

“I’m sorry, I couldn’t-” Wirt choked back a gasp as fresh blood bubbled up from the birthmark on his forehead. Clean, sharp lines.

“I trusted you! You were supposed to help me! You let him hurt me!”

“There was nothing I could- I tried, Dipper, I tried, I’m sorry-!” Wirt closed his eyes as the blood streaked down his face.

“You should’ve tried harder!” His voice had changed, it was the voice he knew now, the one he’d fallen in love with and heard on the phone as often as he possibly could. “I trusted you. That meant something, man! And you just sat by and let him do this to me! How could you let him? How could you let him hurt me? You know what this means to me! Look at it! Look at it, Wirt!”

Dipper grabbed his chin and forced him to face the blood pouring from the cuts to his forehead, ready to scar. Wirt teared up, too easily recalling the way he’d looked at him in the basement of the museum. The small, broken sounds he’d made. They were recreated for him now. He fought Dipper’s grip, but he held him tight.

“You’re useless.”

“No,” Wirt mumbled, closing his eyes against this phantom image of his boyfriend.

“You can’t help anyone. You can’t help your brother.” An image of Greg going under the water and floating lifelessly flashed in his mind. “You can’t help me.” Dipper coming apart at the seams in the basement flicked next. “And you can’t even help yourself.”

He shoved him, sending him down the hill, but Wirt grabbed onto him. For balance, for help. Instead he brought him down with him. They tumbled down the hill together until they crashed into the icy water. Wirt opened his eyes once they were under. Dipper gazed back at him, panicked and pleading for help while at the same time struggling to form a plan, to figure out a way to save them both. The way Dipper normally would.

Wirt reached out for him and Dipper reached back, but something started tugging Wirt down. Down into the dark depths. His fingers tightened around Dipper’s arm. He was screaming at himself to let go of him, to let Dipper get away and not be dragged along with him, but his body wouldn’t listen. He wouldn’t let go. As he went down, he took Dipper with him and he watched him drown.

Even when he’d opened his eyes after only forty minutes of sleep, he could still see the look on Dipper’s face as he gave into the water. Wirt tried to turn on his phone. He tried and tried and tried, but the screen stayed black and he couldn’t get Dipper’s face out of his head. He’d written more in his sleep. Writing on the pages of the journal Dipper gave him for his birthday, writing carved into the surface of the table, writing carved onto his walls. Bill laughed at him. It was all around him, just like in the dreams.

“Wake up, wake up, wake up, wake up,” he whispered to himself, pinching his skin over and over to make his words become reality.

But he was awake. And Bill kept laughing.

 

----   

 

Determined to keep himself holed up in his room until he figured out how to contact Dipper, Wirt found himself in the kitchen late Saturday afternoon, boiling an entire kettle of tea, ten packets of the strongest stuff he had sitting in a pot, ready to steep and then be poured into mug after mug to keep him awake. He was also eating a sandwich. Because just because he wasn’t sleeping didn’t mean that he couldn’t eat. Though, he didn’t have much of an appetite. It was a literal battle in his mouth, forcing his teeth to chew and his throat to swallow and his stomach to digest. Yes, even his stomach was against him.

“Wirt, we need to talk.”

Even though her voice was soft, it still made him jump about three feet. And he dropped his sandwich. Heart racing, Wirt placed his palm over it and tried to calm down.

“Jeez, Mom! You scared me. A little warning next time, maybe? I mean, you and your stealth. Like a- like a ninja or something,” he attempted to play it off, but one look at her face revealed that she was not in the mood for games. “Um… what- what is it?”

She eyed the amount of tea he had waiting on the counter, then stared hard at him while he pinched his lips together and his cheeks puffed innocently. “Wirt, I’ve let this go on for as long as I can,” she sighed, crossing her arms. “Come on. Get your coat, I’m taking you to a doctor.”

“Mom, I’m not sick. I don’t need to go to a doctor.” Our house just has a demon in it that is infiltrating mine and Greg’s dreams, so we should really be getting a priest, but I don’t even know if that will work and I would know if I could talk to Dipper but the demon won’t let me! “I’m fine. It’s just… stress. Having this week off will do me a world of good, I’m telling you.”

“Wirt, don’t lie to me.”

“I’m not-! I’m not,” he protested. “I promise, I’m- I’m fine…”

“Sweetheart, I don’t know what your definition of ‘fine’ is, but I’m fairly certain that it doesn’t come close to matching mine. Or what society generally accepts as ‘fine.’ This isn’t up for discussion. Unless you want to tell me what’s really going on?”

“There’s- there’s nothing going on!” Wirt dragged his fingers through his hair, gaze going to the floor, to the fallen sandwich specifically, so he stooped down and picked it up, ignoring the wave of dizziness that swept over him.

“You haven’t talked to Dipper in a few days.”

“Oh my gosh. You too? Dipper and I are fine. Why does everyone keep asking about that?” he huffed, throwing the sandwich in the garbage.

His mom frowned at him. “Wirt, if other people are asking about your relationship-”

“It’s not other people, it’s just- it was just Sara, but she’s wrong, okay? Nothing is wrong with our relationship, Mom. I’ve talked to him. I’ve talked to him tons,” he lied.

She still appeared suspicious, but she let it go for the moment. “Fine, you’ve talked to him. I’d still like for you to explain to me why you haven’t been sleeping.”

“I have been. Some. When I can,” he muttered.

“Wirt, I was researching sleeplessness with teenagers-”

“Mom, please-”

“-and I came across quite a bit of research that links insomnia with depression, anxiety disorders, and panic disorders-”

“I’m not-”

“Now, I know you’re prone to anxiety attacks and that’s fine, there’s nothing wrong with that. I only want to make sure they aren’t getting worse,” she finished, shoulders sagging and Wirt realized that she looked almost as weary as he did.

The tea kettle whistled, shrill and piercing the lull of silence between them. Wirt hurried to turn off the heat, but hesitated to pour the steaming water into the teapot. He glanced up at his mom.

“They… they’re not.”

“You’ve been having nightmares almost every night for a month.” She searched his gaze. “Wirt, I just want to help you.”

Wirt’s chin quivered as he blinked back tears. “You can’t.” When she inhaled sharply, eyes widening, he scrambled to continue. “This is something I have to figure out, Mom. It’s- I have to do it on my own, okay? I’ll- I’ll be alright. Just don’t make me see a doctor? I can assure you, one hundred percent, that that won’t help.”

She chewed on her lower lip, brow furrowed as she considered him. “Fine. I won’t. But only if you answer my questions honestly.”

“Okay. I’ll try.”

“How many hours of sleep did you get last night?”

“One.”

She nodded to herself, rubbing her brow tiredly. “And the night before that?”

Wirt swallowed thickly, then murmured, “None.”

“Wirt, are you hurting yourself?” she blurted out, hugging herself as she looked at him.

Wirt’s eyes widened. “What-? No! Mom, I wouldn’t- Why would you-?”

“I just- I was doing laundry and one of your notebooks was open and I wasn’t snooping, but… but I glimpsed what was on the page and… Wirt, you’re my son and I worry,” a teary chuckle escaped her. “It’s… it’s where you get it from after all. The worry.”

His gut churned with guilt for making her even consider the worst. “I’m not hurting myself and I don’t plan on hurting myself. Ever. My tolerance for pain is incredibly low, Mom, you know that. I cry when I get a papercut.” That made her smile.

“That’s not true,” she told him. “You stopped doing that when you were twelve.”

He smiled back. “Is there… is there anything else?”

“Does this have anything to do with your relationship?” she asked again, then held up her hand. “And before you get defensive, you know that I love Dipper. I think he’s an amazingly sweet, smart boy and it’s clear to me that he adores you. And anyone who adores my son is immediately in my good graces. I also think he’s good for you, for helping you keep your head on straight. But long-distance relationships can be hard. Especially when you’re both so young. I just worry that you missing him is hurting you. More than the relationship itself is nurturing you. So, I have to ask, does this have anything to do with Dipper?”

Wirt maintained eye contact with her for a while, proud of himself for managing that, but he had to look away. He lifted the kettle and poured the water into the pot, watching the leaves immediately infuse the water. He capped the pot when it was full, then set the kettle back down. Swallowing, he steeled himself to answer her question as honestly as he could.

“Yes, but not in the way you think. Our relationship isn’t... the good things outweigh the bad,” he decided on saying. “He’s worth… all of this. And more. Mom, I love him. I’m in love with him.”

“Oh, Wirt…”

“And I know we’re far apart and I know that it’s not ideal and that most long-distance relationships fail after the first four point five months and that forty percent of them do fail and that teenagers probably account for at least half of that, but I don’t care about any of that, because none of the statistics take into account that Person A is Dipper and Person B is me, and I don’t have to see him every day or week or month to know he loves me even if that would be ideal because I know he does. I know he loves me, Mom, and I-”

His rant paused when tears rolled down his cheeks and he gasped, covering his mouth with his hand as his mom wrapped her arms around him and rocked him gently. He clung to her, let her baby him for this moment because he needed someone to take this burden from him. Just one moment where he didn’t have to fear his little brother becoming possessed or a demon triangle hurting him in his dreams. Just one moment where he didn’t worry about how Dipper and Mabel had to be handling this radio silence. He just wanted to be a little kid, clinging to Mommy as she checked the closet and under the bed with a flashlight and smiled as she told him, “No monsters here,” and he could believe her.

But there were monsters here.

“I miss him, Mom. I miss him so much!”

“Shh… I know, sweetheart. I know,” she murmured. “It’s going to be okay. You’ll make it work. You’ll figure it out. You’re both smart, loving boys. Just remember to take care of yourself. You have to take care of yourself in order to take care of others.”

“I know. I’ll try,” he sniffled. “I’ll try.”

 

----

 

“I can’t think!” Wirt grabbed at his head and flopped sideways onto the floor of his bedroom, the books and printed articles on codes scattered around him. “How am I supposed to learn how to do this when he’s ruining my brain?”

Greg chewed on his lower lip as he watched him, looking over the books and such with him even though it was all a mess of mumbo jumbo to him. “Aw c’mon, Wirt. I know you can do it.”

“I don’t even know what I’m trying to do!” Wirt pressed the heels of his palms into his eyes. “Let’s just go, Greg. Let’s go to Piedmont right now.”

“Okay,” he agreed, no arguments from him.

Wirt sighed, lowering his hands to just stare at his little brother. They couldn’t. Wirt didn’t have the money for a plane ticket, and with his phone refusing to turn on and the house phone refusing to cooperate whenever he tried to call Dipper or Mabel or even the Mystery Shack in the hopes of getting through to them somehow, he had no way of requesting that the twins ask for another favor from Pacifica.

Not to mention he still didn’t have his license so he couldn’t drive across the country to them either, though he was working on that. Or had been before all this. Learning to drive had definitely dropped a couple rungs on his ladder of priorities.

“We can’t, Greg,” he murmured.

“Sure we can, Wirt. We can do anything if we set our minds to it,” Greg quoted faithfully, though even he didn’t sound quite so certain in the tried-and-true sentiment.

Wirt shook his head. “Not this time. Well, not in this case. We can definitely… we can definitely figure out a code though, yeah?” He forced a smile for his little brother. “That’s something we can set our minds to.”

“Yeah.” Greg pouted a little, sitting cross-legged on the floor. “I’d rather go to Piedmont though. I want Dipper and Mabel.”

Wirt closed his eyes and swallowed, hands clenching into fists. He didn’t blame him. He couldn’t handle this at all. His little brother was in danger and he had no idea how much or what to do about it. Not when it was a demon. Bullies at the playground? Oh, he’d take that in a heartbeat. Broken arm? Not his favorite scenario, but he could handle that.

This? He didn’t know what to do with this. He was letting Greg down, he was letting everyone down. He stared hard at the cryptography text, then slammed it shut and chucked it away from him. Who was he kidding? Just because Dipper said he was smart and loved how his mind worked didn’t mean he actually was. It didn’t mean he could crack or create codes. When it came down to it, he was useless.

Why did he even exist?

“I’m sorry, Greg. I’m sorry you’ve got me instead of them. I’m sorry I can’t make any sense of this and that I’m not smart enough to outsmart a demon-”

Greg gasped, eyes widening. “No, Wirt! I didn’t mean I want them instead. I just want them to help you. You’re tired and I just thought you could really use some help. But you’re smart enough, Wirt! I know you can do this! I believe in you!”

“Well I don’t!”

He got to his feet to pace his room, catching sight of the notebook pages on his table. He’d hid his journal from himself to keep from ruining the pages with the insane scrawl since he wanted there to be a day where Dipper could read through it freely without coming across frantic thoughts like the ones filling his spiral notebooks now.

I can’t do this. I can’t do this. Make it stop. I just want it to stop. It hurts. I can’t sleep because it hurts. Don’t let me fall asleep. Don’t. Don’t. It hurts. In my head. He’s in there. Make it stop. Make it stop make it stop it hurts iT HURTS IT HURTS IT HURTS IT HURTS MAKE IT STOP.

There were more. Notes scattered throughout the pages, some from himself and some from Bill. YOU’RE BREAKING MUSIC NOTE. WHEN I’M DONE THERE WILL BE NOTHING LEFT. YOU’RE NOTHING. He flipped it closed. The sight of the front cover had him cringing as well. DIPPER was scratched into the blue, like slash marks, the pencil tip digging into the paper as if he was carving his name into wood rather than writing it down.

“How can you not believe in yourself? You’re Wirt! You’re the Pilgrim!” Greg was still carrying on behind him. “I believe in you and Mabel believes in you and Dipper believes in you-!”

“Well, you’re all wrong!” Wirt snapped.

Greg puffed up his cheeks, crossing his arms. “I might be wrong sometimes, but Mabel and Dipper are never wrong!”

“Oh? Oh, they’re never wrong? Of course they’re never wrong. They’re the Mystery Twins, they eat this stuff for breakfast. Well, then I’m sorry to be the one blemish on their otherwise perfect records because they. Were. Wrong!” Wirt slammed his fist on the surface of the table, the pain shooting up from his wrist to his elbow to his shoulder nothing compared to what came to him in the dreams. “Dipper was wrong to trust me! If I can’t even take care of you and me in our own house, how am I supposed to take care of anyone else?”

“Stop it! Stop getting upset at yourself!” Greg grabbed onto his arm and hugged it. “You’re doing the best you can!”

“It’s not good enough!”

“It is for me!” He squeezed him tighter. “And it is for Dipper! He loves you even if you’re not a mystery solver. He doesn’t expect you to be. I don’t expect you to be. We don’t want you to be, we just want you to be Wirt. That’s all we want. That’s good enough.”

Wirt crumbled in on himself, bracing his weight against the table, his palm spread on the surface as he bowed his head. “It’s not…”

“Yeah it is. You were Wirt when you beat The Beast. You were Wirt when you beat Splinter Man. You were Wirt when you stood up to your dad and even though you cried afterwards, that was okay. Wirt’s definitely good enough to make up a secret code. You’re the Pilgrim. You’re the leader. You’re the captain. And soldiers and corporals and admirals and generals need a captain.”

“I’m so tired, Greg,” Wirt sobbed, exhaustion pulling him down to the ground. “I’m so tired, I can’t…”

“I know you’re tired and I’m sorry.” Greg hugged him, trying to stay sturdy while Wirt slumped against him. “After you get the message to Admiral Dipper and General Mabel, then you won’t have to do this alone anymore. They’ll help, and not ‘cause they think you can’t do it, but ‘cause they don’t want you to have to do it alone. Okay?”

Wirt nodded weakly, clutching at Greg. “Okay… you’re right… I know you’re right, but I just-”

“You’re tired and grumpy, it’s okay. I understand.” Greg gave him a pat on the back. “I’m sure Dipper would, too. He’s seen his captain in the morning.”

“Yeah…” Wirt pressed a kiss to the top of Greg’s head, then went back to hugging him because he needed some kind of comfort and Greg was willing to provide it and- “Wait. Wait a second.”

“What?”

Wirt let him go, scrambling to his bookshelf to peruse what he had. When he didn’t find what he was looking for, he ran to his dresser and tossed aside the books piled up atop there. “Captain. Captain and admiral and Greg you’re a genius! That’s it!”

“What’s it?” he asked, following him to the dresser.

“Aha!” Wirt brandished a book on morse code. “It doesn’t necessarily have to be one of the kinds of codes in Dipper’s journals. It just has to be something that he can figure out. Come on, Greg! Just gotta look up one thing to make sure we get this right!”

Chapter Text

“Alfa, Bravo, Charlie, Delta, Echo,” Greg hummed to himself as he walked in a circle carrying Jason Funderburker in his arms.

Wirt was at the computer in the study, comparing his notes with text on the screen. “You got it all memorized, Greg? We’re going to have to be fast,” he told him, putting the finishing touches on his key.

He kept his hand over it for the most part, much like how elementary school kids shielded their answers from the snooping eyes of cheaters. Whether or not it would do much good, Wirt didn’t know, but he wasn’t going to let just anyone see this key. He nodded to himself. This was it.

“Yeah! I know what I have to do!” Greg sat down in front of their mom’s laptop, both computers necessary in case something went wrong.

Oh god, Wirt hoped nothing went wrong.

They both pulled up YouTube - it made the most sense to use at this point. If Dipper wasn’t paying attention to the internet for some reason, then Mabel or somebody else would notice a bunch of weird messages popping up all over his channel and let him know. The public aspect also scared him a little - what if Bill could mess with it once it was out in the open? - but Wirt tried not to dwell on that. Wirt went to the summer of 2015 archive and opened each video in a different tab. He started with the first one.

“You have your videos open, Greg?” Wirt asked him.

“Yep! Everything from summer of 2012,” he confirmed.

“You remember what you want to say?”

“Yes, sir!”

Wirt nodded. “Alright. Go whenever you feel you’re ready. You can’t stop once you start. You’ll have to keep going until you’re done.” It was a reminder for him as well. They really didn’t have much time.

In the first video, the one the twins posted the day that Wirt and Greg left for their west coast vacation about five months ago, Wirt started typing a series of syllables. dah-di-di-dit di-dit di-dah-di-dit di-dah-di-dit. He pressed enter and the comment posted. He cheered inwardly and kept going. dah di-di-di-dit dit. Enter again. dah di-dah-dit di-dit di-dah dah-dit dah-dah-dit di-dah-di-dit dit.

It continued like that, strings of the same syllables that would form a message if Dipper knew what to look for. He was pretty confident he’d figure it out in a matter of minutes. Wirt managed to get through half of his message before the computer shut down. “No!” He banged his knee on the desk and hissed, hurrying to reboot it. “Come on, come on. Yes. Okay. How’s it going, Greg?”

“See for yourself, brother o’ mine!”

Since he had to wait for the computer to restart, Wirt buried his notes and got up to crouch down by Greg. His little brother clicked through each tab to show him the messages that had already appeared. The first comment said: Hotel echo lima papa. Then they followed as such:

India november

Tango romeo oscar

uniform bravo lima

echo

“Good job, Greg.” Wirt gave his shoulder a squeeze, then got up to type in the password for the computer and get back to what he was doing. “Make sure to mention-”

“I know, I will.”

“Just in case.”

Greg posted another string of comments. Bravo india lima lima. Wirt started work on the rest of the message. It was a little dire sounding, in his opinion, and he hated to have to type it out, but he knew he needed to. For Greg’s sake if nothing else.

di-dah-dah dit di-di-di-dit di-dah di-di-di-dah dit. When he finished his last line of the code and it appeared in the comment section of Dipper’s video, Wirt sighed with relief and sagged in the computer chair. He did all he could, now he just needed to wait for Dipper and Mabel to respond. He checked the time. It was already nine o’clock for them, so it was six in Piedmont. The twins might’ve just been settling down for dinner. Glancing up at his last message, Wirt hesitated. He’d gotten all the important things out there, but still…

He clicked on a new video, the three million subscriber special, and typed out: dit-dit di-dah-di-dit dah-dah-dah di-di-di-dah dit dah-di-dah-dah dah-dah-dah di-di-dah. Wirt pursed his lips and exhaled softly. It might not have had anything to do with what was going on, but it was crucial. He needed to give Dipper something other than bad news.

After all the messages were sent, Wirt worried that maybe they were overreacting. Maybe this wasn’t as bad as he was making it out to be. Sure the dreams were horrifying and Greg was talking in his sleep and Bill was making Wirt write things or Wirt was making himself write things, but was that really a life threatening situation?

He didn’t know for certain, but he did know that he didn’t feel good about it.

In any case, Dipper and Mabel were sure to have some insight now that they had more of the details. Things would be okay now. Wirt was sure of it. At least he tried to be.

But things were going to get a lot worse before they started to get better, he realized later that night, and he received an answer to one of his questions. They didn’t have much longer at all.

----

Greg was in bed by nine-thirty. By ten, he was gone.

It had been only by chance that Wirt had noticed. He’d left his room to grab a soda chock full of caffeine, shaking some when he saw the two cans of Pitt Cola still in his fridge. He couldn’t bring himself to drink them, not because he was actually afraid of choking on the pit, he played that up to annoy Dipper most of the time, but because they were a reminder that he’d been there. That they had a month where nothing went wrong aside from Dipper’s recovery and little blips in their own relationship that they needed to iron out to become better. Wirt grabbed one of the cans along with a Coke.

It was stupid, but maybe if the summer soda was close to him, it would feel like Dipper was, too. Like the answers were closer, like this would all be over soon. Oh, he hoped it would.

He bypassed his room, intending to head to the office and check to see if Dipper and Mabel had responded to any of their codes with a code of their own. He’d almost made it when a loud creak sent shivers down his spine. Turning around, Wirt glimpsed Greg’s door. It eased open very slowly, making a sound that befit a haunted house rather than theirs in suburban Lakeville. Except, technically, their house was haunted, wasn’t it?

Wirt shuffled socked feet against the hardwood. “Greg?” he called out, just in case it was his little brother trying to hide that he was awake.

When he didn’t receive an answer, he retraced his steps and poked his head into the darkened bedroom. The window was open, the screen once again missing and the late November chill filled Greg’s bedroom. His eyes darted to the bed as he flicked on the light. The covers were thrown back, Jason Funderburker croaking with distress from his tank, and Greg was gone. The two unopened soda cans hit the floor. Written in red crayon on the wall above his bed were words that had his heart stop and blood chill in his veins before he bolted out of the room to grab his shoes.

I told you he doesn’t need to know everything.

Lacing up the mismatched shoes - he couldn’t care about that now, that didn’t matter - Wirt scrambled back into Greg’s room and looked out the window. His footprints in the light dusting of snow led away from the side of the house and around to the gate separating the backyard from the front. He hopped out the window to follow the trail.

He had a feeling where Bill was taking him, but maybe he could catch up and cut them off. No, not maybe. He had to. He wasn’t going to let it end like this. Wirt sprinted around the house and down the sidewalk, slipping on a few icy patches thanks to the early snow and late rain warring with each other. He didn’t grab a coat on his way out, but that hardly mattered. Greg was most likely in his pajamas still. Wirt doubted Bill would’ve taken the time to dress him warmly if he planned on drowning him.

“Greg!” he shouted, not sure if it would do any good, but determined to do something to feel useful. “Greg!”

Many of the houses were dark, the only lights from the street lamps glowing through the mist. He felt completely isolated. Alone. No one was out at this hour. No one would be able to see, let alone help, a little boy wandering in the cold alone.

He followed the footprints to the corner. The red of the streetlight soaked the snow, smoky as it floated around him. There weren’t any cars in the street, so ignored the crosswalk and bolted across. His breath only added to the cloud of cold around him. Choking him as he scanned the deserted neighborhood.

“Greg,” he gasped, finally catching sight of his little brother as he turned, spying him at the end of the street. “Greg! Gregory, stop!”

He didn’t. Wirt ran to him and as the distance lessened between them he could see that Greg’s eyes were open and vacant. Wirt stumbled as he passed him, scraping his palms on the pavement and banging his knees as he scrambled to grab Greg by his shoulders.

“Let him go.” Wirt shook him a little. “Let him go, Bill!”

“I don’t think so,” Greg told him, but it wasn’t him. Bill was talking through him again. “I didn’t want to have to do this, but you left me no choice. You brought Pine Tree and Shooting Star into this.”

“Yeah? Well you left me no choice! What else did you expect me to do? You won’t leave us alone! I just want you to leave us alone!” Wirt searched Greg’s face for any sign of awareness, any sign of his little brother. “What did you do to him? What are you doing to him?”

“That’s for me to know and you to find out.”

“Get out of him!”

“You’re making a scene, Music Note.” Greg grabbed his wrist, surprisingly strong as he pried one of his hands off of him. “Let me pass and I won’t have to mutilate your little brother. Don’t think I won’t.”

Wirt grit his teeth. “No way. I’m taking him home. Locking you down- ah!”

His fingers were bent back and Wirt let go of him to cradle his hand. Greg brushed past him, Bill undeterred in his path. He didn’t want to risk hurting his little brother, but he wasn’t going to let him walk off and drown either. Wirt flexed his hand, cringing, then spun around and grabbed him around the waist and hauled him up like normal. He could pretend this was normal and Greg was just fighting him over playing in the park at night, or something silly like that.

Why couldn’t this be something silly?

“He’s going to die. One way or another. You let me go and I’ll drown him. You take me home and you’ll wish I’d drowned him.”

Wirt released a single sob when his brother’s foot made contact with his gut, hard and with the intention to cause pain. But it was the words that hurt more. It was the words that would haunt him.

“Unless… you’d be willing to take his place?”

“Yeah, right,” Wirt gritted out, struggling to keep a hold of Greg as Bill made him fight and squirm in ways he wasn’t used to combatting. “I don’t make deals. I don’t make blood oaths. You can’t trick me!”

“Trick you? What’s the trick? This is as straightforward a scenario as you can get, Music Note. You for your brother.”

Take on the task of lantern bearer or watch your brother perish?

“There’s a catch. There’s always a catch.” Wirt started carrying him home, shivering as the cold started to seep in through his sweater and slacks. “A weakness. A lie. I’ll find out what yours is.”

“I’m not like anything you’ve ever come across before. I’m not like anything Pine Tree’s ever come across before either. He thought he stopped me once, but look. Here I am. I can’t be stopped. I can only be dealt with.”

It was a lie. Dipper would know what to do, he’d figure something out. He and Mabel would get their messages and find a way to help them. He knew they would.

“You really think your butterball of a baby brother is going to be able to last with me in his head? Even if Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum do manage to figure out a way to stop me, who’s to say little Gregory gets out of this in one piece? You know the havoc I can wreak on the mind. Just imagine what I’m doing to him now. You think he’d be able to withstand what I’ve put you through?”

Wirt stopped, eyes squeezed shut against the mental image. No, he didn’t want to imagine that. Greg was strong. Greg was resilient. Greg was brave and loving and he never backed down from a challenge.

But Greg was seven.

Greg was seven and he had fears and moments of weakness and times where he didn’t want to face the challenge ahead of him. He was a little boy and there was a demon in his head. In his body. It was probably killing him. From the inside out.

With a sob, he hugged him tighter. “Greg, I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I should’ve tried harder, I should’ve figured it out faster, I-!”

“Woulda, shoulda, coulda,” Greg drawled with Bill’s emphasis. “Apologies mean nothing now, Music Note. The only thing that’s gonna save your little brother is if you make a deal with me. Otherwise you’ll be burying him six feet deep in the earth and you’ll get to be an only child again, just like you wished for when you were eight and nine and ten and eleven-”

“Shut up!” Wirt bellowed. “Don’t-! You don’t get to-!”

“Oh, so we’re just going to pretend that prior to age fifteen you didn’t exist? Is that what we’re doing? Well, if we’re wiping more than half your life off that map, why not go for all of it? Why do you exist? Why bother when you spend so much of your existence hating yourself?”

“I don’t!”

“Come on, Music Note, don’t lie to me! Pine Tree’s not here, you don’t have to pretend to like yourself for his sake! I’m not gonna tell him.”

“I’m not lying. I’m not pretending.”

“Oh yeah? Then name one thing you like about yourself. Name one trait of yours that you’re proud of!”

He could. Wirt knew he could. There was plenty that he liked about himself, or at least enough so that he could name one thing. One single thing. But whether it was the sleep deprivation or his overwhelming fear for Greg or utter helplessness at the situation stretched before him, he couldn’t answer. He could only walk back to their house, silent. Mind blank of any and all things that he truly cherished about himself.

“Thought so,” Greg hummed, and Wirt wished he’d go back to physically fighting him so this wordplay in his little brother’s voice would stop. “You know, even though you think you’re the scum of the earth with no redeemable features, this little guy still has the utmost faith in you. Even when he’s screaming as I turn him into a tree over and over again, he still believes in you. I believe in you, Wirt. I know you can figure this out. I believe in you. I trust you.”

Tears slipped down his cheeks and left burning trails on his frigid skin. Wirt stopped. Their house just one more block away, but he had to stop. He was so tired. So tired and hopeless and maybe…

Maybe if he traded places with Greg, he could last long enough for Dipper and Mabel to fix this. Wirt rubbed Greg’s back as he held him. He’d already put up with Bill messing around in his head, he could handle him. He could withstand whatever havoc he wanted to wreak upon him or his brother. He was the elder child; it was his burden to bear.

But he wasn’t going to be stupid about it, sleep deprivation or not. “Me for Greg,” he murmured.

“What was that?” Bill made his little brother tilt his head in curiosity.

“You’ll get me for Greg if you adhere to my terms. First, you don’t harm Greg in the slightest. Not physically, not mentally, you don’t get to hurt him or mess with his head anymore. Once you have me, you’re done with him.” Wirt crouched down, lowering Greg to the ground so he could look him in the face. “Second, you can’t hurt my mom or step-dad either. They’re off-limits, they have nothing to do with this. Third, I get to stay in my body. No forcing me out or ripping my soul to shreds or whatever once you’re inside. You can inhabit my mind or body, but I get to stay. I get to see everything you do. I don’t want to be in the dark.” In case Dipper and Mabel were able to fix things, he wanted to be able to come back from this. No, not in case. When.

“Those seem like fair enough terms.” Greg nodded, then held out his hand. “I promise not to harm Tea Kettle or your mom or the man she’s married to and to allow you full access to your body and mind and what I’m doing in exchange for your little brother’s safety. Do we have a deal?”

Wirt stared at the outstretched hand. Every instinct that focused on his self-preservation was screaming at him not to do it. He couldn’t trust Bill. Just like he couldn’t trust The Beast. I’m not gonna wander around the woods for the rest of my life. This was the same kind of thing, wasn’t it? But he’d had leverage. He’d had something The Beast wanted and he hadn’t been so completely alone.

Beatrice wasn’t here. The Woodsman wasn’t here. Technically Greg wasn’t even here. He was alone, and protecting his brother trumped self-preservation by a landslide.

He could handle this. He could handle Bill. Greg believed in him, and Dipper and Mabel, too, so he just needed to believe in himself a little, as well. He could handle Bill.

Swallowing thickly, Wirt straightened and looked through his brother’s eyes to the monster living inside him. “Deal.” He clasped his hand and shook once.

The last thing he remembered actively doing was catching Greg when his body slumped forward. Then everything went to hell.

Wirt was overthrown easily. The surprise and unfamiliarity of the situation stunning him. He pushed back mentally, attempting to drag his way back to the front of his mind. He could still see everything, just like Bill agreed to, but he wasn’t moving his hands. Not when they let go of Greg and let him fall onto the ground. Not when he examined those same hands with a dark chuckle of satisfaction.

That’s when the ice settled in. This was what Bill had wanted. His wants and goals seeped into him and filled his head, making him cry out and a splitting pain seared right through him at all the suffering he wanted to cause. He’d never wanted to be stuck with Greg. Greg was just a means to an end.

Bill had wanted him, and now he had him, right where he wanted him.

“Ready for the ride of your life, kid?”

His own voice spoke and Wirt tried to take it back, but he was once again swatted aside easily, shoved further back into his mind. Bill’s mind. The two of them were colliding, one engulfing the other until Wirt couldn’t tell where he began and where Bill did. Reality was warped and while you couldn’t die in your dreams, Wirt found that you certainly could in daydreams. These strange, horrific versions of daydreams.

Bill chuckled again through Wirt’s mouth and grinned as Greg blinked and shook himself awake. A little disoriented and a lot sleepy, he sat up and rubbed his eyes. It took him a moment, but once the seven-year-old realized where he was, he gasped and looked up.

“Wirt, wait, it’s a-!” His voice died in his throat when his older brother smirked at him. “Wirt?”

“Come on, little brother,” he drawled, casually striding past him towards their house. “Let’s go home. I need some sleep. Gotta recharge, after all.”

Greg stared at his back, the way he carried himself unsettling in more ways than one. He looked and sounded like his brother, but something was wrong. He scrambled to his feet and ran after him, watching his face closely.

“Wirt, are you… are you okay?” he asked, the last dregs of his dream sitting in his head. I want him. I want him. “Did Bill-?”

“I’m fine. Never been better.” He flashed him a smile that was more of a grin, but it didn’t settle Greg’s nerves. “We’ve gotta put you back to bed though. It’s late. Too late.”

Greg shivered, his heart pounding as Wirt led him back through the backyard and into his room through the window. He tucked him in, then glanced at the wall above his bed with that same not quite right smile.

“We’re gonna have to clean that up tomorrow, aren’t we?” he murmured. “But for now, sleep. Goodnight, little brother. Sleep tight.”

Greg watched as he closed his bedroom door all the way. Wirt never closed his door all the way, he knew he didn’t like it. He held his breath and waited a minute, then another one just in case, then hopped out of bed and hurried to the door. He peeked out into the hall. Wirt’s bedroom door was shut, their parents’ was open a little bit and the blue glow from the television flickered from the crack between the frame into the hallway. The office was also a lit with the same glow from the computer.

Swallowing heavily, Greg turned around and grabbed Jason Funderburker from on top of his dresser, then carried him down the hall to the computer. Quiet as he could be, he climbed onto the desk chair and sat up on his knees. The web browser was still open, open to Dipper’s Guide to the Unexplained. Greg clicked through all the videos they left comments on, but Dipper and Mabel hadn’t replied to any of them.

His chin quivered and his breath hitched, but he didn’t cry. Greg clicked on the video Wirt had written his ‘I love you’ code on. It wasn’t in the same sequence as the others, but this had to be the one for important messages. Carefully, Greg typed out the words he’d become so familiar with this afternoon.

“Alfa, Bravo, Charlie… Delta, Echo…” he whispered to himself, hitting enter after each word just in case. Just in case, just in case.

Hotel. Echo. Whiskey. Alfa. November. Tango. Sierra. Whiskey. India. Romeo. Tango.

“Please, help.” Greg hugged Jason Funderburker, refreshing the video again and again while Bill’s cackling seemed to echo in the too-quiet house.

Chapter Text

He’d chewed a hole in the collar of his t-shirt. He tugged his shirt away from himself, staring at it in vague horror. Why hadn’t he been stopped?! His gaze slid to the other person in the room, slumped against the wall on the corner of his bed. Her not stopping him probably stemmed from the fact that she was snoring.

It was understandable, really. Dipper hadn’t gotten a decent night’s sleep in days, and he knew his sister hadn’t either. He closed his eyes on a long, slow blink, and looked down at his phone. The plethora of unsent messages looked back at him and he dutifully tried again.

I love you.

It loaded, swirling, and then a red exclamation point had him groaning and tossing the phone onto his desk. He kicked back, scrubbing his hands over his face hard enough to knock away his hat. It was left on the floor, the heels of his palms pressing into tired eyes.

The distance was killing him. Mentally, it was tearing at him. Nightmares he’d thought beaten had returned full force. New nightmares, conjured by irrational fears, joined them to make what snatches of sleep he did get fitful. They made him feel helpless, and awakening to an empty room and no new messages from his boyfriend only heightened the feeling. Every single unsent message heightened the feeling.

The emails, returned as unsendable, sat in his browser and glared at him, but he leaned forward to refresh the page. He wasn’t surprised when nothing new loaded, but the disappointment was still a harsh blow. Tears welled up to be wrestled away.

“Dipper?”

He looked up at the hesitant voice, staring at his mother. “Yeah?” he croaked, then cleared his throat to try again. “What, mom?”

“Supper’s ready. You and Mabel up for it?”

His stomach churned violently at the mention of food. The last time he’d choked down food, he’d ended up vomiting it back up. The distance was doing its best to kill him physically as well, stress and fear making basic tasks impossible.

“She’s asleep. Maybe later.”

“Okay.” She walked in, laying a hand on his brow to check for a fever. “You’re so pale, honey. Still not sleeping well?”

His shoulders lifted and fell in a weak shrug. “I’m just... He’s too far away for me to help. I can’t fix it if I can’t be there. I didn’t give him enough information, and he couldn’t give me enough before the connection was cut.”

The last string of desperate declarations of love still haunted him. He knew Wirt had been trying to stay awake, but there had been a small lull of error messages before that last one had come through. What was happening to his boyfriend? What was happening to Greg? They were too far away and the uselessness ate at him.

His mother ruffled his hair fondly. “Maybe this week off will help.”

“Mom, can we... Can we just go to Massachusetts? Like, I know it’s Thanksgiving, and I know we’ve got family coming into town, and I know all of that’s important, but-” He could see the answer in her eyes and fought the way he wanted to tremble. “Mom, please!”

“Let’s just give it another day or two, okay? Your phone’ll start working again.” She laid her hands on his shoulders, trying to squeeze the tension out of them. “If you still can’t get through by Tuesday, you can go. But you can’t keep jumping on a plane every time something bad happens to him. You and Mabel both missed school just to see him on his birthday.”

“We have the week off,” he protested. “It’s different. He might be in danger, and I can help and mom!” He tensed when she brushed back his bangs and kissed his forehead, hating himself for flinching when she looked hurt. “Sorry,” he murmured. “I’m sorry. I just-”

“It’s okay.” She stooped down and picked up his hat, securing it neatly atop his head. “You’re tired, Dipper, and you’re overthinking things. Not everything that happens is paranormal activity.”

But this was. He knew it was. It was in Wirt’s dreams. It was in Greg’s waking hours. Who knew how worse it had gotten since their communications had been limited and, now, severed entirely? Dipper looked back at his phone.

I’ll be there soon, he texted and the error message had him biting his lip. He needed to be there to help him, protect him. There was a puzzle to solve, and the pieces were too far to reach.

“I’m not waiting for Tuesday.”

“Dipper-”

“I’m not, mom. I’m just not. I’ll...” He checked the time, biting his lip again. It was late on the east coast and it would only be later by the time they arrived. “I’ll give it until tomorrow,” he compromised. For the first time all weekend, he backed out of the conversation - or lack thereof - with Wirt and tapped someone else’s name.

Need jet tmrw b/c EMERGENCY in Mass, might need 2nite, bad feeling

It went through without a problem, and he received a response within minutes. The ache that wrought started in his heart and pulsed outward. A week before, there had been no problem doing this with Wirt either. He needed that back. He needed him back.

He needed Wirt and Greg to both be okay.

“I’ll talk to your dad,” his mom was saying. “I can’t make any promises, but I’ll talk to him. Your flight-”

lol, sure thing nerd~ its at the airport so w/e you want it. hate coming home for holidays.

Dipper texted Pacifica back, just a simple thanks, and returned to staring at his unsent messages to Wirt. “Took care of it, mom.”

“You can’t keep expecting your friend to-”

“We’re leaving tomorrow.” It was short, and it was rude and awful. He knew that and his lip quivered a little as he stared at his mother and waited.

She caved with a sigh, shoulders sagging a bit. “Alright. But if it is one of your paranormal things, promise me you’ll be careful?”

Of course he’d be careful. He tried to never run into a situation without some sort of plan, some sort of way out in mind, but he also knew that he would die if it became necessary. He’d lay his life on the line. He did that for Gravity Falls every summer, and he would do so to keep the Palmer-Whelan brothers safe without hesitation.

He crossed his legs at the ankle since he couldn’t cross his fingers with her watching him. “Promise.”

“Thank you. Get some sleep tonight, and try to eat. This isn’t good for you, honey.”

He kept his legs crossed. “Okay.”

“Don’t just say okay, Dipper. I’m your mom, and I know when you mean something or when you’re just saying it to appease me. You have to take care of yourself better than this. If something is wrong, how are you going to help him like this?”

“I’m fine!” he argued, voice cracking on the word. He pushed up from the chair to pace, rubbing his hands over pale cheeks to get his blood flowing and to try and push the exhaustion away. “But Wirt’s not! He’s not! They’re not! Something’s wrong, and I’m all the way over here! What good am I over here?! I have to keep them safe, and I can’t!”

He stiffened when arms wrapped around him, halting his pacing. When he realized his cheeks were damp, tears brimming over, he wheezed and sagged against her. “M-mom-”

“I know you don’t always think I do, but I do love you. You’re still my baby. You’re still my Big Dipper.”

He turned around, hugging her back, holding tightly. “Mom-”

“First thing in the morning, okay? You get some decent sleep, come down now and eat with me and your dad, and I’ll take you to the airport first thing in the morning.”

The time, he didn’t flinch when she took off his hat and kissed his brow. She was the reason for his nickname, after all, and he’d once loved the birthmark simply because she had. She’d made it special and not weird. He missed that. He especially missed it now when the only other person who’d managed to make him feel that way was a continent away and probably in trouble. Definitely in trouble.

“Okay. I’ll get Mabel, and- Okay.” He nodded, swallowed hard. “I- I love you, too, mom. I do, seriously. I just...”

“You’re just a sixteen year old boy who’s managed to stress himself out by being overprotective.” She smiled, taking a step back and returning the hat to his head. “How about he and his little brother spend winter break with us, huh? I think it’s his turn to hop on a plane after this.”

Eyes still bright with the tears he was brushing away went wide. He hadn’t thought to ask her about that. Had he, he wouldn’t have bothered to ask, assuming her answer would be no. “Seriously?”

“Seriously.”

His hands grasped for his phone to text him, to tell him, to find out his opinion and start making plans. But the list of unsent messages were a harsh reminder that he couldn’t. He couldn’t even be normal with his boyfriend, and it wasn’t fair. He had to help him so they could go back to being normal again. He missed Wirt’s sassy messages and the silly heart symbols. He missed hearing his voice over the phone. He missed his laugh.

He missed being able to reach out and grab his hand. Kissing him. Waking up beside him. He missed the blushes and the stutters, the adorable nose scrunches and the smiles. Dipper missed all of it, all of Wirt, and was so scared of losing everything to something he didn’t know was there. He couldn’t know.

“I... When this is done a-and everything’s... When everything’s back to normal, I’ll ask him about it.”

----

After dinner, the twins switched places. Dipper curled up in the corner of his bed, knees drawn up to his chest as he stared down at his phone. His eyes kept going unfocused from a need to sleep, but if something came through he couldn’t miss it. It was late in Massachusetts, though, nearly ten now, and he likely could have closed his eyes and missed nothing.

Except Wirt hadn’t been sleeping before the texts had cut off completely. Ten didn’t mean anything. Eleven wouldn’t mean anything. Twelve and one and two wouldn’t mean anything. Wirt said “I love you” the first time at three in the morning, and that meant everything. What if he never heard it again? Dipper’s face hit his his knees and he jerked a bit, blinking himself awake.

Mabel watched him with a quiet sigh. “Take a nap, bro-bro. Just a small one. I’ll watch your phone.”

“No, I’m okay.”

“You promised mom you’d sleep.” He looked up at her, surprised, and she shrugged. “You yelled and it scared me awake, and then I eavesdropped like an adorable criminal.” She poked her own cheeks, trying out a smile that her brother only barely returned before his gaze dropped back to his phone.

Mabel’s smile slipped away, so she rose from his computer chair to climb onto the bed beside him. She mimicked his pose, tugging her newest sweater - a frog playing the clarinet - over her knees. Sighing quietly, she leaned against him and tugged at his shirt to get it out from between his teeth. “Mom’s right, Dipdop. You can’t help him like this.”

“I can be here when he texts me. If he can get through. If I can get through.” He hit a random assortment of letters and numbers, but the gibberish failed like all the rest. “I can sleep on the plane. I mean, we’re leaving in the morning. We’ll see them tomorrow.”

“I know.” And nothing could be more of a relief or more of a fright. She focused on feeling relieved, though, not willing to dwell on what the fright suggested. Too late whispered through her and was shoved aside. She wouldn’t go back there. She wouldn’t go back to the two and a half years she and her brother had spent wondering whether or not the two boys they’d left in The Unknown had made it home alive.

They were fine. Probably not completely, one hundred percent fine, but as fine and as alive as they could be with a ghost or something infiltrating their dreams and decimating their sources of communication.

“You should still get some sleep, Dipper. Just a little bit.”

“When’s the last time you slept?”

“I napped before dinner, remember?”

Dipper grimaced. Dinner had largely consisted of him pushing food around on his plate. Waddles had been pleased by his lack of appetite, though, and was likely still curled up under his chair with a blissfully full belly. He’d tried, really, but after choking down a few bites of chicken, he just hadn’t been able to handle anymore.

“Okay, you barely got twenty minutes there. When’s the last time you slept before that?” When she didn’t respond, he poked her. “See?”

“I know I need to sleep too, but... It’s hard. I know. I know it is. I’m scared, too, but we have to try, Dipper.” She laid her hand over his phone, hating the way his breath hitched. But he was beyond exhausted if he couldn’t fight back tears, and his protest was token at best when she removed the device entirely from his lap.

He slumped, laying his head on her shoulder and didn’t do much more than mumble when she removed his hat and bundled him in a hug. “You think when we get there I can get Wirt to play ‘Potatoes and Molasses’ on his clarinet? I need more sweater music and it’d be the best ringtone,” she gushed softly, feeling more than hearing his laugh.

She started to sing the ridiculous song, her own eyes closing as her twin slumped against her, and exhaustion took them both over.

A solid hour of deep, dreamless sleep was interrupted by Mabel’s phone. It wasn’t the ringtone either twin wanted to hear, but Dipper immediately reached for his phone. His eyes were squinted as he checked, but the notifications - each and every app and number muted but for the Palmer-Whelan numbers - remained distressingly blank.

Rubbing her eyes, Mabel yawned and shuffled over to the desk to get her phone. She answered with another yawn. “Bwuh?”

“Mabel! Mabel, what is Wirt doing?”

Her brow furrowed, becoming more awake at Candy’s frantic voice. “What?”

“Grenda saw- Grenda! Grenda, don’t take my-”

“Mabel, it’s Grenda! We’ve been getting messages like crazy on the facebook page about the comments Wirt left. I thought you said something was going on? Like their house was- ow, Candy, my foot!”

“You said their house was haunted,” Candy finished, “and that you couldn’t reach him. But he left comments on videos. A few of them, and they don’t make any sense.”

Mabel squealed, a burst of energy exploding in her. She whirled towards her twin, flailing at him as he blinked miserably at her, and then spun to his desktop to boot it out of sleep mode. She tucked the phone between her cheek and shoulder, and brought up the browser. “Which videos?”

“Which videos, what? Mabel?” Dipper slid out of bed, scrubbing his heads over his face. He walked over, tried to send another message, and only sighed when it failed. It broke, though, and he choked on it when he saw that Poetic Pilgrim had left a comment on what he considered to be Their Video. The three million subscriber video, footage of their first date. His heart hammered in his chest.

dit-dit di-dah-di-dit dah-dah-dah di-di-di-dah dit dah-di-dah-dah dah-dah-dah di-di-dah

“What is it?” Mabel wondered.

“Morse code,” he recognized, his tiredness swept away as absolute delight overtook him. “Wirt, you freaking genius! Okay. Okay! Let’s get this going. Is that it? That the only one?”

“No, the girls say he’s left comments on at least a dozen videos. And-” She listened for a moment. “Okay. Okay, yes. Yes! Thanks, guys! Okay. Bye, I love you!”

She dropped her phone and clicked quickly to access the two playlists the messages had appeared in. Summers of 2012 and 2015. “They said there’s these things - the Morse code things? - and then just random words.”

Dipper went to one of his whiteboards, erasing the assortment of important school equations. “Tell me timestamps and what each one says. Let’s hope they went in order.”

He ended up splitting the two playlists into two columns. 2015 held the Morse code, 2012 the assortment of words that didn’t seem so random when they were all written down. He recognized them, as Wirt had suspected he would, and grinned. He longed to call him, praise him for thinking of something like this, and kept the grin until he’d spelled out Greg’s message since it was the shorter of the two. His stomach dropped with the marker when he read it.

H e l p

I n

T r o

u b l

e

B i l l

I s

B A D

“Help,” he whispered, “in trouble. Bill is bad.” He looked at his sister. “Bill is bad. Bill! It’s- It can’t be!”

Mabel lifted a hand to her mouth, looking at the board in quiet horror. It couldn’t be, no. No, no, no, not her baby bundle of a best friend/little brother. Not her honorary big brother. No. Anything but Bill. “Maybe it’s something else. Maybe it’s- It can’t be him, Dipper. What’s Wirt’s message say?”

He grabbed the marker again, his flurry of excitement drained. He was paler than he had been, shaking harder, and he stopped breathing after the first few lines.

Bill

The

Triangle

Is Named

Bill

Cut off at the knees, Dipper sank. He hit the floor with a thud, staring up at his whiteboard in sheer horror. He could still feel it. He could feel himself being ripped out of his body, torn away from everything that he was. His eyes unfocused, went glassy, and Mabel was suddenly shaking him awake.

“Dipper! Dipper, wake up! Dipper!”

“It’s Bill Cipher!” he gasped, still dizzy from fainting, but he reached up and grasped his sister’s sweater sleeves anyway. Thick tears were running down her face and he shook her. “It’s Bill! They don’t have protection against Bill! They don’t- I never explained him to them! How did this happen, Mabel? What did we do? What did I do?!”

“Nothing! We didn’t do anything! Finish the code, Dipper!” She grabbed his hands and pushed the marker into one. “I’m going to text Pacifica.”

“We’re leaving now. Right now.”

“We have to pack.”

“Bill Cipher! Oh my god!” Dipper worked quickly, swallowing hard as the words came to light, and he ached for his boyfriend. He knew how bad this was. He knew how terrifying this likely was. He could only imagine the dreams he was being subjected, how they had likely amplified.

He is in

My dreams

He is making

Us do things

Please help

Don’t know

How much

Longer

We have

Long enough, Dipper hoped, for him and Mabel to get there. He rubbed his thigh absently. They knew how to take care of this, and they would. They just had to get there.

“Pacifica said it’ll take a couple of hours to fuel the jet, but they’re starting now. It’s going to pick us up at the Oakland Airport, so we won’t have to drive up state.”

“Okay. So we pack. I need to reread the pages on Bill. Did she say how many hours?”

Seconds of silence passed, stretching like hours. “Three. It has to fuel up and get here. So three hours and we’ll be able to board.”

Three hours. The thought of it had Dipper’s breath hitching. Three hours and that didn’t even count the flight itself. It would be morning before they got there. Sunday freaking morning. Wirt and Greg were going to have to hold out an entire extra night.

“Should we respond?” Mabel asked, wide-eyed gaze on the deciphered code. “To their comments, I mean. Should we tell them we solved it?”

Yes! Yes, of course they needed to tell them. He had to reassure him that they were on their way, that they knew what to do and would be able to save them. But letting them know meant letting Bill know, and who knew what that crazy demon would do in the hours they had ahead of them?

Dipper’s hands curled and uncurled into fists as he stared at the words, the code his smart love had come up with. Don’t know how much longer we have.

“We can’t. We just have to go, Mabel. If we tell them, Bill will know, and we can’t let that happen. Come on. Let’s go grab our suitcases out of the garage and-”

“You forgot one.”

“What?”

Mabel pointed at the first code he’d jotted down at the top of the board, the one from Their Video. “What does that one say?”

Dipper translated it quickly, heart leaping into his throat.

I love you.

“I love you too,” he whispered. “I love you too. It’ll be okay.”

Dipper stumbled back, turning his back on the code. Mabel wrung her hands together and their gazes met, held. Worst case scenario had been realized and now they had to deal. “I’ll get the suitcases,” she offered. “I’ll pack. You read and keep trying to text him. Call the house again. Anything.”

He nodded, feeling numb. Even when she pulled him into a hug, he felt numb. Only after she’d left did feeling start to return to his limbs and he could move again. His journals, the original three, were compiled. But, as he was sitting down, he found himself springing up and crossing the room.

He grabbed one of the few photographs he bothered to frame off the wall, and hugged it to his chest as he read and reread the familiar pages. He glanced down now and then, the pad of his thumb brushing over Wirt’s face, his smile warmed by the fire they cuddled in front of.

It would be okay. The Mystery Twins were on it, so it would be okay. It had to be.

And he was sure of it, completely, until Mabel’s phone chirped. He checked it and frowned at the message from Candy, one from Grenda following on its heels.

3 Million Vid. More comments.

HEY THE THREE MIL ONE HAS MORE.

Okay. If it had more, then they were still able to use it to communicate. That was good news, wasn’t it? He used Mabel’s phone to check the time, frowning slightly. It was late, but that didn’t mean something had happened.

But he could only shake, sinking down into his desk chair as the string of eleven comments haunted him. He didn’t need to write them down to see the message they provided.

HOTEL

ECHO

WHISKEY

ALFA

NOVEMBER

TANGO

SIERRA

WHISKEY

INDIA

ROMEO

TANGO

Dipper wheezed, chest feeling too tight, throat closing. The message spun through him, spiraling wildly. It was from Greg. Seven year old Greg was still awake this late. Weekend or not, he shouldn’t be awake.

Something had happened. Something had to have happened, and he couldn’t breathe. Even when Mabel came in and tried to soothe, he couldn’t stop staring at the screen. “Please, no,” he begged. “Please.”

He wants Wirt.

Chapter Text

They took a shuttle as far as it would take them, then hailed a taxi for the rest of the way. Even as close as they were, messages were still unable to get through. Calls continued to be met with busy signals, and the twins were still exhausted.

Sleep had been an unattainable luxury, each foray met with nightmares on both sides. Mabel hadn’t been taken over, but she’d watched her brother become taken over. She’d watched a thing in her brother’s body torture it, and it wasn’t easy to forget that. It wasn’t easy to forget what had been done to her by Bill in her brother’s body. She knew Dipper’s were worse, though. Part of her still believed that she'd deserved the abuse, so she didn’t fight when he gripped her hand too hard through his nightmares or when he was trying to breathe after them.

Their fears would either be confirmed or dissuaded when they made it to the house, so both stumbled out of the cab and yanked their suitcases out of the back. The snow on the ground, rarely seen by them, couldn’t even be appreciated but for a passing thought by Mabel. When it was over, they’d play some snow games.

She looked up at the window, heart leaping into her throat when she caught a glimpse of Greg. She needed to hold him. She needed to sweep him up and twirl and hold on for a little while. She knew it was tenfold for Dipper, the two of them rushing for the door. Neither wanted to bother knocking, but the door was locked. Dipper wheezed and slammed his fist against it. They needed in. He needed to make sure everything was okay.

“Mabel! Dipper!” Inside, Greg bolted for the door, but was caught about the waist and pulled back against his brother.

Except he wasn’t his brother. Not anymore. Greg bit back a whimper as Wirt crouched down behind him, arms locked around his chest as he placed his chin on his shoulder. The door was right there. Dipper and Mabel were on the other side of the door and it was so close. He shivered when Wirt squeezed him.

“Hush, little tea kettle, don’t say a word,” he murmured against his ear, the sing-song tone nothing like Wirt in the slightest. “Or I’ll break Wirt like the wings off a bird.”

Greg’s chest tightened even as he was released, face pale as the words echoed in his brain. He looked at Wirt and saw his eyes flicker to the demonic yellow, pupils elongated slits as he grinned at him. Then he blinked and he was back to normal - well, appearing normal at least. Greg knew that was still Bill, that his brother was either somewhere trapped inside or…

He bit down hard on his lower lip as Wirt straightened and strode over to the front door. He dusted himself off, straightened the music note sweater Mabel made for him, then plastered such a Wirt-like expression on his face - all worry and concern and frantic energy - and he opened the door. Greg wanted to cry as his brother’s voice sounded so normal.

“Oh my gosh, you actually came!” he breathed, eyes wide as he grabbed at Dipper’s arm. “You’re- you’re actually here!”

Dipper dropped his suitcase, reaching back, yanking at his sweater. He didn’t know who he was looking at. Past experience aside, he didn’t want to believe that he was looking at anything other than Wirt. It sounded like him. It looked like him. Bill would never be able to pull off Wirt.

Except Dipper was also too frantic, exhausted, and terrified to verify anything. He couldn’t think when it had been months since they’d seen one another and days since this ordeal had begun. So he captured Wirt’s lips in a kiss that was too short for him to notice a change in his usual response.

Mabel shoved him out of the way. “Get your suitcase. Let’s go inside. Of course we’re here! Of course we came! Greg! Greg, baby, come here!” She snatched him up, holding him tight against her shooting star sweater and peppering kisses to his cheeks since he was pale and shaking.

Greg stared at Wirt over her shoulder, hesitant in hugging her back. “Mabel…” he started to say, but the only other words that wanted to fly out of his mouth were accusations that Wirt wasn’t Wirt, he was Bill, and he didn’t know where Wirt was or what he’d done to him. He couldn’t say any of that though, because while the thing in his older brother’s body helped Dipper with his suitcase, he shot him a quick glance and dragged his finger over his own neck. Bill would break him. Like a bird. Greg shuddered and hid his face against Mabel’s sweater.

“When you guys didn’t say anything, I didn’t know- I mean, I figured it’d be risky, but I didn’t even know if you’d seen the messages and I-” Wirt’s hands were shaking as he went to lace his fingers with Dipper’s. “I’m so glad you’re here. Dipper.”

“Of course we're here. I love you, man.”

Mabel nodded, rubbing Greg's back to soothe as she turned to smile at them. “Don't worry! We'll take care of everything. Mystery Twins are on it!”

“Okay,” Wirt exhaled shakily, squeezing Dipper’s hand as he looked from Mabel to him. “Okay. I trust you. I lov-”

“Bill started hanging out in my room so we should check there first!” Greg blurted out, effectively interrupting what would’ve been the first time Wirt told Dipper he loved him in-person.

It wouldn’t have been Wirt saying it and he was not going to let that happen. Spirit rekindled, he lifted his chin and furrowed his brow in determination as he looked right at his ex-imaginary friend who glared back at him through the eyes of his brother. He’d find a way to let them know that Bill was hiding in Wirt. He was part of the Mystery Best Friends and he helped Wirt leave the codes on Dipper’s videos. He could find a way to leave clues for Dipper and Mabel. Clues that Bill wouldn’t recognize so he wouldn’t break Wirt into little tiny pieces.

“That’s where he spends the most time,” Greg continued to explain. “You know, when he’s not ruining Wirt’s dreams. Right, Wirt?”

“Yeah. That’s right, Greg.”

Dipper nodded, blowing out a shaky breath. He could wait a little longer to hear it. “Okay. Okay, let's go. How did he even get here?”

Mabel lowered her voice as they followed their brothers. “Ob-waffle?” she whispered, baffled by his interruption.

“Please don’t let him say it,” he whispered back, hunching up when Wirt glanced over his shoulder and flashed him what was supposed to be a reassuring smile.

“Greg? You want to tell them how Bill got here or should I?”

He looked away, curling his fingers into Mabel’s sweater. “I brought him here. From Oregon,” he admitted quietly.

Mabel held him a little tighter, looking from him to Wirt and back again. Her heart stuttered to a stop. He wants Wirt. “That’s okay, baby. It’s okay.”

“Wait, from Oregon?!” Dipper released Wirt’s hand, freeing his to flail a bit. “Wait. So he’s been here- Wait. Wait. He’s been here the whole time. The whole time?! Are you kidding me?”

“Dipper, cut it out. He couldn’t know.” She frowned at her brother, then at Wirt. He couldn’t really be... Could he? “It’s fine. We’re here now, and we’ve dealt with him before. It’ll be okay.”

“I’m sorry! I- He said he was friends with you and he wanted- I didn’t think he was bad!” Greg’s breath hitched as he looked at Dipper, then glanced briefly at Wirt when his reaction was a second slower than it should’ve been.

“Nothing different really happened until the middle of October,” Wirt told him, placing his hand on Dipper’s shoulder, giving it a squeeze. “Remember? Just a little bit before the dreams started. Before that, he was just… biding his time, I guess. Building up Greg’s trust. And- and it’s okay, Greg. It wasn’t your fault. Mabel’s right, you didn’t know.”

“I’m sorry,” he whispered, looking right at Wirt, hoping wherever his big brother was that he heard him, then shifted to Dipper. “Dipper, I’m really sorry. I didn’t think he was bad.”

“No, it’s- I’m sorry, Greg. It’s fine.” Dipper sighed, stopping to rub Greg’s back. Mabel’s grip held no room for him to take the kid entirely, so it was the best he could do. “There’s no way you could’ve known because I didn’t tell you. It’s okay, seriously.”

Greg’s lip quivered. “No, it’s not.”

“Greg…” Wirt took a step toward him and the child prided himself on not flinching. “It will be. Everything will be okay now. That’s a rock fact.”

He huddled closer to Mabel. It wasn’t his brother saying it, so it wasn’t one hundred percent true. It probably wasn’t even fifty percent. It was a lie. A complete and utter lie and Bill knew that Greg knew it was a lie.

The twins exchanged glances, neither too tired to miss Greg’s fear. “We’ll take care of it,” Dipper murmured. “I promise.”

“Don’t worry, baby.” Mabel brushed a kiss to the top of his head. “We’ll take care of everything.”

When they all squeezed into Greg’s room - the crayon from his wall freshly scrubbed away, leaving no trace of it ever being there - he wiggled until Mabel put him down and glanced around for something to leave a clue with. He needed to let them know without Bill knowing, but how? It seemed he knew exactly what he was thinking. Watching his every move.

“What does… what does Bill usually do? I mean, are all these things normal? Are they worse than normal? What do we do?” Wirt asked, pretending to focus on the problem at hand and doing a convincing job of it, Greg found, much to his disappointment. “I tried looking up stuff on… dream demons? And I mostly ended up with stuff on sleep paralysis or Nightmare on Elm Street.”

“I don’t know what all he’s been doing, remember? I mean, he cut us off before you could really tell me anything. Just the dreams and that he was talking to Greg. What else?”

“How did you know he was a demon?” Mabel asked.

“The things he was doing to me in my head? I dunno, demon… demon just seemed to fit.” For a moment Wirt paled and Greg could see the weariness Bill was trying to hide. It lined his eyes, like his body was remembering for him what the triangle put him through. Triangle. Greg glanced down at his pile of blocks and picked up two triangles, a larger one and a smaller one while Wirt continued. “It’s mostly the dreams? He talks through Greg sometimes, in his sleep. And I just feel like he’s watching us. All the time.”

“Yeah. Me too,” Greg chimed in, appeasing the monster in his older brother before he placed the smaller triangle over the inside of the bigger triangle and tapped lightly. He did it a couple of times, making it look like a fidgety thing rather than something very important that the twins needed to pay attention to.

Dipper was rubbing his eyes, trying to get his mind to work, but Mabel took notice of him. She knelt down, splitting the blocks apart to keep Bill from seeing. She could feel him there, the knowledge of his presence creeping along her skin. “Greg,” she whispered, “tell me what’s wrong.”

Greg’s gaze flicked up at her and he shook his head, small enough that it went undetected as Wirt was focusing more on Dipper. He looked at the two triangles again, taking her hands to force them together, putting the little one inside the bigger one deliberately. Wirt had worn a big cone hat once. His cape had given him a triangle-like silhouette. He chewed on his lower lip as he looked at her, hoping she’d remember. Hoping she’d figure it out. Maybe he needed something else, too. He glanced around until he noticed his crayons on his nightstand. He grabbed the yellow one and put it on the ground. Placing his foot over it, he rolled it in Wirt’s direction.

Mabel’s breath caught, backing up into her lungs as she watched. He wants Wirt. But did he have him? She pulled the triangles apart again, trying to breathe normally. He couldn’t possibly have him. He couldn’t!

When she looked across the room, her twin was pacing and Wirt was watching him with a fond, exasperated smile. That was him. It had to be. It couldn’t be anyone else.

But Greg didn’t want ob-waffle. Greg didn’t want to be near his brother. Greg wouldn’t talk to her. She swallowed hard, mind pointing to one possibility but she needed it confirmed. She needed to know why Greg was keeping this secret, and just how much he knew.

“Hey, um, Dipper?”

“Yeah?”

She took a deep breath, reaching out for the boy again to lift him. “I’m going to take Greg outside, okay? We need to get out of here.” Even it was the worst case scenario, which it just couldn’t be, she knew Dipper would be fine. They had the sigil imprinted on their skin. There was nothing Bill could really do to them, and she wouldn’t have to fight Bipper again.

“But Mabel-”

“We won’t be long,” she promised.

“I don’t know...” Wirt hesitated, glancing between Mabel and Greg, then started wringing his hands together. “I’d… I’d really feel better if he was here.”

Mabel laughed, tucking Greg in close. “I know it's been crazy and scary, but you know I won't let anything happen to him.” She carried him over, hating the way the boy tensed in her arms. Still, she lifted to her toes to kiss Wirt's cheek. “It's snowing the week of Thanksgiving! I have to go play in it.”

Wirt’s gaze shifted from her to Greg and lingered on his younger brother for a moment. Neither boy said a word, just observing the other quietly before Wirt sighed and stepped back, nodding. Greg wrapped his arms around Mabel’s neck and looked to Dipper. He didn’t want to leave Dipper alone with him, but maybe he could figure it out if they were talking one-on-one.

“Okay. You guys be careful though,” Wirt was saying.

“We will,” Greg promised, a little flat and not so sincere, but Bill didn’t seem to care.

“Of course we will! Don’t worry, Wirt.” She slung an arm around her brother’s shoulders, keeping Greg cradled in the other. “You either, bro-bro, I know that face.”

“I know, I know. Yell if something happens. Or text me. I have no idea if our texts are going through to each other, though.”

She hadn’t considered that, but also knew that Bill’s full range of powers weren’t available when he was taking over someone’s body. If he’d really taken over Wirt’s. “I guess we’ll find out.” She giggled, not a care in the world as she kissed her brother’s cheek and whispered, “Be careful.”

Greg was twirled as she spun away, looking for all the world as if she was only trying to cheer her little friend up. “Come on, baby, let’s get your gloves and your coat. Are they in the front closet?”

“Yeah.”

He nodded, still clinging to her as he looked over her shoulder for a last glimpse of Wirt before they turned down the hall. As much as he didn’t want to be around Bill when he was in Wirt, he didn’t want to leave his brother alone with the monster either. What if he decided to break Wirt while he was gone even if he didn’t say anything?

At least Dipper was there. Dipper wouldn’t let anything happen to Wirt. He’d figure it out and he’d know how to make Bill leave him alone.

Mabel hummed softly, wary of saying anything just yet. If he was really in Wirt or, she hoped, if he wasn’t, the demon was a crafty one. She was still humming when she bundled Greg up to keep him warm, her own jacket still on over her sweater. The tune kept her mind busy; the busy work kept her hands from shaking.

She took his hand rather than picking him up again because she’d run out of that house if she picked him up, and that wasn’t what she wanted to project just yet. She wasn’t the expert Dipper was, but she’d been around the paranormal just as often. She’d helped defeat Bill twice before, and she would help this time. They would play in the snow before the week was out and not just go out in it to talk.

“You want to head to the park? It’s just far enough.”

“Um…” Greg looked over his shoulder back towards his room. “Is that okay?”

“Sure!” She laughed, then knelt down and pulled out her phone as an idea came to her. Her fingers flew over the keys as she pulled up her messenger and flicked to the non-conversation with Wirt. There was nothing more than a list of the word “testing” so she didn’t think it would frighten him to see. She keyed in another message, but didn’t send it, instead tilting the screen towards Greg. “Let me show you something.”

Dipper will be safe. We have protection. We have to get away so you can tell me about Wirt. Smile at me and say “it’s cute”

Greg’s lips trembled, but he looked up at her and managed a smile. “It’s cute.” He held onto her hand, grip as tight as he could get it to be with gloves on. “Okay. Let’s go to the park now.”

She kissed his cheek, shoving the phone back into her pocket after deleting the message and led the way out. Her free hand stayed in her pocket, gloves something she and her brother had both forgotten in Piedmont. The jackets were only because their mom had remembered as they were leaving that they were going northeast rather than simply east.

She swung their hands carefully, giving the boy only smiles until they were at the end of the street. And then she was sweeping him up to hold on. “It’s okay. We’re far enough away now; we should be. You’re being so brave, baby. I’m so proud of you.”

“I didn’t know any of this would happen, Mabel. I didn’t want it to.” Greg searched her face. He knew she’d said it was okay and that he didn’t know, but he couldn’t help the need to make sure. “I didn’t want Bill to hurt him!”

“Oh, Greg, why would you think a triangle with a top hat would hurt anyone? I promise, it’s okay. This isn’t your fault at all. Don’t think that. Definitely don’t let Bill make you think that.” She tapped a finger to his nose, her smile finally genuine and reassuring. “Dipper was tricked by him when we were younger, too, so I know he’s a crafty guy. Everything will be okay, though. We’ll get you and Wirt the sigil and he won’t be able to bother you again.”

“The sigil? What’s that?” he asked.

She knelt down right on the sidewalk and drew a symbol in the snow with her finger. It was ridiculously cold, but she didn’t have any other option. “That. It’s a symbol that will ward off demons. Sometimes there’s a picture that will work for a whole lot of demons, but some of them need their own symbol. I have Bill’s sigil on my back, and Dipper’s got one on his leg. We all have one, the whole family. Even Grunkle Stan. It keeps us safe. You and Wirt are our family, too, so we’ll keep you safe.”

Greg relaxed exponentially at the explanation and the sight of the sigil in the snow. Something to keep them safe. Something to protect them, that’s what they needed. He nodded, looking up at Mabel. “Will it make Bill go away? If we put it on Wirt?”

“Well...” She bit her lip and set him down, laying her hands on his shoulders so she could study his face. “Where is Bill?”

Greg opened his mouth to explain, but hesitated and glanced around. “He said he’d break Wirt if I told,” he whispered. “He’s not gonna hear us, is he? I don’t want him to… I don’t want him to kill him.”

The words were heavy, too heavy for a seven year old. Mabel’s grip tightened briefly, but she nodded. “We won’t let Wirt break, but we can’t help if we don’t know. Mystery Best Friends, right? Let’s solve this case, detective. Tell me the facts.”

Taking a deep breath, he nodded. He trusted Mabel. And Dipper. They’d keep Wirt safe. “Last night… last night Bill- he made Wirt- He’s inside Wirt. He’s talking through him and I don’t know where Wirt is, but he’s not there! Bill’s just pretending! That’s why I couldn’t let ob-waffle happen because it wouldn’t be Wirt saying it, Mabel!”

Oh, no. Oh, no, it was the worst case scenario. Her shivering had little to do with the cold as she pressed her lips together and let memories play through her mind. She had to be honest with him. “Then we can’t... We can’t put the sigil on Wirt. It would seal him in forever, and we can’t let that happen. We’ll just have to... We have to make Bill leave, and that isn’t going to be easy. But we can do it, okay? We had to get Bill out of Dipper twice.” And the second time had nearly killed them both.

“But when Bill took over Dipper, he was still around. He was still watching. We can’t see him right now, but he just has to take over another body and- Oh my gosh, he’s probably still with Dipper! We have to tell Wirt to just take over another body for right now while we figure out how to get rid of Bill!”

“So- so Wirt’s like a ghost?” he asked, chin quivering. “Will he be okay if he’s in another body? Can we talk to him? I want my brother back, Mabel, I want to make sure he’s okay!”

“He’s sort of like a ghost, yeah, but Dipper said he wasn’t a ghost that could make itself known. He said it was...” The worst experience of his entire life. She reigned that in, focusing on the task at hand. “We’ll need a puppet or a stuffed animal that can move its mouth, but he’ll be able to use it to talk then. And it’ll just be temporary until we can get Bill out and away from Wirt. Then he can get the sigil, and Bill won’t ever get back in. We’ll call Grunkle Ford for the supplies we need to protect the house, too.”

She cupped his little face, pressing a kiss to the tip of his nose. “We’ll get Wirt back, baby. I promise.”

“Okay, Mabel.” He kissed her cheek in return, then threw his arms around her and held on tightly. “Let’s go back now. I’ve got puppets. I’ll give Wirt one of my puppets if it’ll help. I’ll do anything.”

“I know you would, and so does he.” She swung him up, placing him on her shoulders so she could bury her trembling hands into her pockets. Hopefully Amy had a spare pair of gloves for her to use for the remainder of the week.

“You want to hear some fun news?” she asked, aiming to keep their spirits up. Bill fed off of negative energy, enjoyed it immeasurably, and she was going to do everything she could to get Greg smiling again.

“Yeah. I like fun news,” he told her, also eager to be cheered up, especially with the news that they could talk to Wirt again and keep him safe.

“Dipper and I get to stay all week! We get to have Thanksgiving together! I don’t know about you, but I think Thanksgiving pies are the best.”

Greg had to smile at that news. “I love Thanksgiving pies. Mom makes the best pumpkin and apple pies. And sometimes she lets me help if I’ve been on my best behavior. You’re really gonna stay with us for Thanksgiving? And the whole week?”

“The whole week,” she confirmed. “We’re flying out again Sunday. Do you watch the Macy’s parade? We’ll have to watch it, all four of us.”

“Yeah, Wirt and I watched it last year together. There weren't any singing frog floats last year, but maybe there'll be one this year.” Greg snuggled against her. “Will Bill be gone by Thanksgiving?”

“You bet he will, baby.” She lifted her hands out of her pockets to pat his legs. “That’s a one hundred percent true rock fact!”

She almost missed it, caught up in cheering Greg up and thinking about how to tell Dipper that his boyfriend wasn’t his boyfriend, but as they drew near their house a flutter of blue caught her eye. In the snow, lying beneath Wirt’s open - his broken - window, was an all-too familiar pine tree hat.

All happy thoughts of Thanksgiving drained out of her mind, a direct echo to the way blood drained out of her face. Pale and shaking, she could only cling to Greg’s ankles.

Dipper.

----

Watching Dipper pace the length of the child’s bedroom had his lips twisting into a satisfied smirk. He was just as sleep-deprived and paranoid as he hoped he’d be. Messing with their communication had been the best idea, really. These two lovebirds were so dependent on it. It was almost sick if it didn’t work out so well in his favor.

Shifting his expression to be more Wirt-like, sappy and weak and worried, he closed the distance between his favorite conifer and himself. He wrapped his arms around him from behind, Dipper’s back and his chest pressed flush together as he bent his head down, forehead resting on the shoulder in front of him as his body trembled.

“I’m so glad you’re here. I missed you so much,” he made Wirt say, drawing out this moment a little longer. “I didn’t know what to do.” Let Pine Tree think he’s safe. Let his defenses down just enough so this can hurt him all the more when he realizes the person he let touch him isn’t the person he expected.

Meanwhile, the person Dipper truly longed for was screaming inside his head, trapped in a body he couldn’t control and a mind he could control even less. The best part was it didn’t take much to make him scream. It didn’t take much at all.

“It’s okay, man. I mean, you did great. You did fine. The code thing was amazing. I’m-” Dipper sighed, leaning against him. “I’m sorry. We should’ve left sooner, but I never would’ve thought- I don’t know. We just should’ve come sooner.”

Wirt nuzzled him. “It’s not your fault. You didn’t know. It’s not like you can drop everything and come running every time I need you. I get it. You’re a busy guy. At least you’re here now.”

“No, I’m not too busy for you. It wasn’t like that.” He pulled away to resume his pacing, rubbing his tired eyes. “It was just school and parents, you know? I told mom we were coming, no matter what, and she was going to make us wait for later today. But when we got your code-

Ugh. I can’t believe it’s freaking Bill.” He grabbed the third journal from his jacket, flipping straight to one of the pages he’d been scanning nonstop. “At least we’ve dealt with him before. We can get him away from you and Greg.”

“Can you?” Wirt folded his arms across his chest, shoulders hunching as he stepped back to give him room to work.

Dipper stilled, the tone twisting in his heart. He couldn’t look up, keeping his eyes on the journal page. “I know it hasn’t been easy with him around, but you know you can trust me. All you have to do is, just, y’know, don’t make any deals with him. Don’t let him into your mind.”

It was letting his hand show a little early, but he just had to scoff at that. “Yeah. That probably would've been good for him to know... last night. Approximately... ten thirty-seven at night. On the corner right out front before you turn onto this lovely slice of suburbia.” He grinned at Dipper, side-stepping out of Greg's room with a casual swagger Wirt would never have been able to manage. “Music Note would've appreciated the heads up, let me tell you.”

The book hit the floor with a thud. “No,” he whispered. Louder, “No. No, no, no!” He scrambled for the door to follow him, eyes wide and terrified. It couldn’t be.

Wirt practically skipped into the room across the hall, Bill’s eyes flashing for a moment as he laughed. “Did you really think he was gonna last alone with me? Come on, Pine Tree. Use that noggin of yours. He had no protection. What was he gonna do? Recite poetry at me? Please.”

“No!” he said again, latching onto his wrist. “He’s better than this, he’s smarter, what did you do?!”

He used his grip on him to jerk him closer, arm snaking around his waist. “Always so quick to jump to conclusions. Really. Pinning the blame on me when you don’t even know the whole story. Or how weak your little boyfriend really is. Though, I can see why you picked him. That superiority complex of yours, that need to be right and prove to everyone that you’re right, that you’re above them, well, it pairs well with someone who thinks he’s beneath everyone. Probably gives your ego a good stroke every now and then.”

Dipper’s hands flew to his chest, pushing away to fix him with a glare. It faltered just a little, though, because it was Wirt’s face he was glaring at. It was Wirt’s body he was being held against. But it wasn’t Wirt. “Shut up! He’s not weak!”

“Keep telling yourself that.” His lips stayed curled in a sneer. “Whatever helps you sleep at night. Not that you’ve had much of it lately. You look terrible. Practically as bad as this guy feels.” He released Dipper to cross the room and cracked his neck. “It’s great. His threshold for pain is amazingly low, so it doesn’t take much. Yours was easier to work with, I have to say, but there’s something endearing about the spasms and the way he writhes. Have you ever seen it? It’s adorable really. His face even scrunches in that way you like so much.”

His breath hitched, but he rushed forward to grab his wrist again. He had to keep him - his body - safe from the things Bill would do to it. Oh, god, what had already been done? “Don’t you dare hurt him! Just- Just get out! What could you possibly even want with him? He doesn’t have anything you could want! He’s harmless!”

“He has you.” He pried Dipper’s hand off of him and pushed him back. “And me having him is causing you a ton of harm on an emotional level, so I’d say this is a pretty good arrangement for me. And he gets to basically not exist, which is what he wanted, so everyone wins here except you. Which I’m absolutely fine with in case you had any doubts.”

“Not- Of course he wants to exist! Shut up! Stop twisting things!” He grabbed his shoulders instead to shake him. “Give him back his body or I’ll-”

“Or you’ll what?” Bill barked out a laugh. “Anything you do to me, you do to him, Pine Tree. Remember? Don’t you remember how much it hurt coming back to your body after everything I put it through? You want him to know how that feels?”

His face blanched, fingers flexing on his shoulders. They were Wirt’s shoulders. It was his body. He couldn’t hurt him. “I... What do you want? What do you want so you’ll get out of him?”

“Didn’t you get Tea Kettle’s last little message? ‘He wants Wirt.’ I want Wirt and I’ve got him. I’m good.” He ducked out of Dipper’s grasp once his grip loosened, wandering close to the window and stooping to pick up one of the notebooks Wirt had scribbled in. He skimmed it as if it mattered, then chucked it aside to land at Dipper’s feet. “He knew the terms, too. He traded himself for that little butterball, baby brother of his. He knew what was at stake. Man, you two and your love for your siblings. It’s sick, but also easy to profit off of.”

Dipper looked down, heart pounding at the way the poetic words spiraled into panic. He’d written similar notes while Bill had been influencing him, torturing his dreams years before. The author had done the same. Can’t sleep. He’s watching. Can’t sleep. Can’t sleep. Trust no one.

TRUST NO ONE.

“No, there has to be a reason. You don’t want him for him. You want- You already said, didn’t you? You want-” Bill wanted him to suffer. Him, not Wirt. Wirt’s suffering was like a bonus. His gaze lifted again, heart stuttering to a stop.

Wirt - Bill - was smiling too widely. He was holding a knife up, the sharp point digging into the opposing thumb. He was going to kill him. “Don’t! You can’t-” If Wirt died with Bill inside, Bill would die. He knew that. But he also knew that Bill could leave whenever he wanted. As Wirt drew his final breath, Bill could leave. He had to stop him, get him out. “Leave him alone!”

“Whoa, take it down a notch, Pine Tree. Music Note’s a valuable vessel, I’m not done with him yet. Oh, shh. Can you hear that?” He lifted a hand to his ear, letting the knife drag along the side of his other hand so a thin line of blood bubbled to the surface. “I think he’s writing you another poem. Oh, he writes such pretty poems for you. Want to hear this one?”

As he spoke, he rolled up the sleeve of his sweater and the shirt beneath it. Bill softened Wirt’s face, giving Dipper a glimpse at the image of his boyfriend close to normal. A shy smile and a hopeful gleam in his eyes.

“Actually, let me write it down for you so you can remember it forever. Oh, Dipper,” he crooned mockingly as he used the tip of the knife as his pen against the flesh of his exposed arm, carving Dipper’s name into his skin. “How do I love thee. Let me count the ways! One!” He sliced a tick mark on his forearm. “Two!” The knife twisted as he made a deeper one next to it. “Three!”

“Stop it!” Dipper lunged, slamming him hard into the wall. It was harder than it was meant to be, but Wirt wasn’t in his body. A headache when he took himself back over would be nothing in comparison to feeling nothing. He grabbed his wrist, jerking the knife away and throwing it across the room. “Get out of his body now!”

Dipper!” Wirt suddenly crumpled against the wall, weakly fighting his grip to try and curl into himself. To protect himself.

His wild eyes caught sight of the blood running down his arm and his face paled quickly. His head was spinning. Where was he? What was happening? Was this real? He didn’t know. Terrified, Wirt looked to Dipper, searching his face for any sign that this was him - a good him, the real him - or some twisted thing his mind had conjured. He couldn’t tell.

“Dipper- Dipper, please-”

His too tight grip gentled immediately, still firm enough to hold him up, but not enough to hurt. “Wirt? Wirt, it’s-” He couldn’t say it was okay, trembling as he stared back at him. It wasn’t that fast. It was a quick transfer from air to body, but it wasn’t instantaneous. Even if Wirt had been waiting beside him, it wouldn’t have been that fast.

TRUST NO ONE.

There was a catch. There was something he was missing. His exhausted mind spun, but he pushed through. He had to in order to save him. The only explanation he could grasp shook him to the core. “You can’t... You can’t share a body... Can you? This... It’s a trick. It has to be a trick.” But he couldn’t be sure. He couldn’t know. Dipper didn’t know how to protect Wirt, and it was killing him inside. It could kill them both.

“It’s all tricks- everything- none of it’s real, because he’s in my head, but I can’t- it all hurts. I’m sorry, Dipper. I’m sorry, please be real. Please.” Wirt sobbed as he clutched at Dipper’s wrist, then his forearm, his shirt, feeling for the lies. “He’s in my head- I don’t know what to do- I can’t-!”

His head dropped, too heavy for him to hold up when everything was still so dizzy, but when he lifted it again, Bill was smiling at Dipper through the tears.

“Music Note’s feeling a little fragile right now, best we let him rest.”

“No,” he breathed. “No, that’s...” They were both in there. They were both in there. Wirt could probably feel everything. Dipper backed away, horrified. “How?” he choked.

Bill shrugged, dusting himself off as he pushed off from the wall. “It’s not like it’s that difficult. I don’t have to have an empty vessel to possess, it’s just easier that way. But your little boyfriend didn’t put up much of a fight. In fact, it was part of his deal. He asked to stay.” He flashed him a terrible grin. “And I know what you’re thinking, Pine Tree. Can he feel everything? I’m pretty sure the answer’s a strong yes, but let’s test it out, shall we? A little experiment, if you will. You like experiments.”

With that said, he turned and threw himself at the window. The glass shattered and the screen was ripped right out of the grooves as Wirt’s body tumbled out and onto the ground below. Tiny glass shards cut into him, leaving nicks on his face and palms as he rolled.

“Oh, yeah! He felt that!” Bill cackled as he sat up. “By the way, it’s a good thing he’s a lefty! Most of the time. Don’t think he’ll be getting much use outta this wrist any time soon.” He toyed with his right wrist as it bent at an awkward angle.

There wasn’t time to think. There wasn’t time to plan. Dipper vaulted out the broken window, hat flying off as he tackled Bill. If he could feel, than he could hear. He was in there. Wirt was in there. “Wirt! Wirt, please! Fight him! Fight him out, get him out! I love you! Get him out of your head!”

“He can’t hear you, Pine Tree! Not over the sounds of his own screams!” Bill kneed him in the gut, rolling with him in the snow to try and shake him off.

His breath whooshed out, but he held fast, desperate. “Shut up! Shut up, Bill, you don’t matter! He’s better than you! Wirt, please!” he shouted. “Wirt, I’m real. Listen to me, please, I’m real! I love you! Fight him! Fight Bill out! You can do it! Please!”

It wasn’t hard to pry him off - Dipper’s exhaustion giving way to Bill’s relentless clawing and shoving. He kicked him away with a laugh, then stumbled to his feet, grabbing a large piece of glass on his way up. “When I’m through with him, reality will just be an illusion, kid!” With that said, he turned and ran. “Let’s see what other fun ways I can scar up Music Note!”

Dipper hugged his stomach, still gagging from the sharp kick. Tears welled up and fell to the snow, but he couldn’t stay there on his knees. He had to help him. He had to keep him safe. He was failing miserably so far, but not for long.

“Wirt,” he whispered, shakily getting to his feet and sprinting after him. Bill wouldn’t keep him. If Dipper had to slice the sigil from his skin and let Bill take him over instead, he wasn’t keeping Wirt.

With that desperate thought in mind, he gave chase.

Chapter Text

Everything was gray.

Gray meant fear and depression. Ill-health, ambivalence, confusion. Emotionally distant, isolated, detached.

On the upside, it meant he was an individual, but Wirt didn’t have time to look at upsides. He couldn’t see the silver linings here. There weren’t any. They’d all been burned away. Burned by icy, blue heat so hot it was cold- or was it so cold it was hot?

Wirt. Wirt, come here.

“No.” Curled up in as small a ball as he could manage, Wirt tucked his arms and legs under his cape and hid his face against the bump where his knees were. “No, leave me alone.”

We’re not finished yet.

Wirt shuddered. Not finished yet. They’d never be finished. Not until he was dead. Actually dead, not the hallucination-esque deaths he’d been experiencing over and over and over. Sometimes they were his own. Sometimes it was Greg he watched slip away from him over and over again. Sometimes it was Mabel. Sometimes it was Dipper.

He hated when it was Dipper the most.

He hated that he couldn’t save him - that instead of erasing his memory, Gideon pulled the trigger of a real gun and placed a bullet in the center of that bleeding birthmark or instead of grabbing the thirteen-year-old, Wirt just stood by and watched as he was crushed. But those weren’t new dreams. No, he was used to those. What he wasn’t used to was being the one who killed him.

It had happened at least seventeen times. He’d killed Dipper seventeen times and each of them had been an accident. When Bill got bored and decided that normal Dipper wasn’t good enough, he’d send a Dipper that wanted him dead. Wirt would try to talk him out of it, but he’d grab him, pin him down, break his bones, strangle him, make him bleed.

Out of desperation, he’d fight back. Just to get him to stop, to see reason. But then there’d be a knife in his hand or he’d be holding him underwater or he’d be pushing him off a cliff to fall to his death. The scenarios were always different, but the reaction was always the same. Wirt would scream and cry and beg to try again, please not Dipper, please, he’d do anything.

So he’d be pelted with rocks until the world went black or a hoard of bluebirds would tear at his flesh until there was nothing left or he would just die. No reason, no violence, just the knowledge that his heart was stopping and his organs were shutting down slowly, one by one until he fell asleep, never to wake up again.

Except he did. Again and again and again while Bill’s laughter echoed in the vast mindscape he’d created. Deep in a twisted version of The Unknown - as if the place could become any more twisted - Wirt huddled by the Edelwood tree with a tea kettle hanging from one of its branches. The mist and the gray distorted everything, rippled ominously as disembodied voices whispered to him, caressed him like smoke, pretty when it curled and wafted, but ready to choke him the second he breathed it in.

Wirt. Wirt. Wirt. We see you, Wirt. You can’t hide, Wirt. We’ll find you. We’ve already found you. We’ll find you again. And again and again and again and again-

“Stop. Please.”

No.”

“I don’t want to do this anymore!”

No.”

“Leave me alone!”

No.”

“I can’t… I can’t do this anymore…” Wirt’s fingers clawed at his hair, ripping out chunks of it as he struggled to keep himself together. He’d already fallen apart in one scenario. His body parts literally fell away from him in pieces. Strewn about a graveyard.

Come wayward souls, who wander through the darkness,” a deep voice beckoned to him somewhere deeper in the woods. “There’s a light for the lost and the meek...”

If he followed it, he wouldn’t come back from it. It would be over. It would be done. But he wasn’t ready for that yet. Just like he hadn’t been ready in The Unknown, the actual forest and not this shattered, splintering one.

Maybe it worked the same way. “I want to go home.” Wirt lifted his head, tilting it back against the tree trunk. “I want to go home!” he called out, louder, his voice an eerie echo rising through the boughs of the trees.

You are home.”

Wirt glared up at the sky, the empty gray void spiraling above him. It wasn’t like it was overcast, it was just gray. Everything was colorless, life sucked right out of it. The fight sucked right out of it.

He pushed himself up, ripping the thin, brittle roots that twined around his ankles. No, he wasn’t done yet. Running in the opposite direction of the whispers and The Beast’s haunting melody, Wirt weaved between the trees and over brambles that caught on his cape. He fixed his hat, when it was knocked askew by the branches reaching for him, stopping him.

“I’m leaving!” he told them, snapping one in half when it refused to give way to him.

Instead of stepping through more leaves across the hard, unforgiving ground, he slipped and fell right through them, tumbling through blank nothingness until the void of white took pity on him and gave him a place to stand on. Red smeared across the canvas as he struggled to right himself. His arm was bleeding. Wirt clutched at it, squeezing it to stem the blood flow. He hissed through his teeth. He must’ve caught himself on a branch on his way down.

“Did you?”

Wirt snapped his head up to find Dipper standing with him in the middle of the void. Oh no. This was how it always started. Wirt took a few steps back, blood plipping on the ground to create a path between them. Dipper looked at him, tired and weary and a little bit frightened.

“Are you real?” Wirt asked, unsure if he wanted it to be an accurate representation of his boyfriend or not.

“Put down the knife, Wirt,” he told him in reply.

Eyes narrowing, he opened his mouth to ask him what he was talking about when his left hand clenched around a handle. He paled when he looked down to find it trembling in his grasp. A knife. When did he get a knife?

“I’m… I’m not gonna hurt you with it.” Wirt swallowed, searching Dipper’s face for some hope that he’d believe him. “I wouldn’t. I promise.” But he couldn’t promise that. If he stabbed Dipper in the stomach in a few minutes then it wouldn’t be the first time.

“It’s not me I’m afraid that you’ll hurt,” Dipper clarified, gaze dropping to his arm as his face paled and his teeth dragged over his lower lip. “Wirt, please don’t.”

“Don’t what? I’m not doing anything.”

“You’re hurting yourself.”

Wirt’s brow furrowed, but then his arm burned and when he glanced down it was to find himself carving lines into the flesh of his own arm. A horrified gasp was wrung out of him, throat tightening as he watched the knife. He couldn’t stop it. He didn’t have control.

“I can’t-” he choked out, tensing when Dipper’s hand closed around his wrist to try and coax the knife away. Wirt’s grip only tightened and the tip of the blade pushed in deeper.

“Wirt, give me the knife.”

“Are you real?” he blurted out, body refusing to let go as Dipper advanced on him, worried and scared and too close. Too close if he wasn’t real. “Is this you you? I won’t give it to you unless you’re you!” It hurt. It hurt, but he wouldn’t let up the pressure, especially not when Dipper started pulling on his arm.

“Come on, man, just give it to me! Wirt!”

“I can’t! Dipper, stop it! You’re making it worse!”

His head smacked against something hard as he was shoved back. A wall. A wall somewhere in this nothingness place. Dipper had him pinned, desperately trying to pry the knife out of his grasp. His grip around his wrist hurt, it was too tight, and his arm was bleeding too much, soaking his shirt sleeve. Wirt tried to push him away.

“Stop it! Please!” He wanted to let go, he really did, but the more they fought the more his body refused to listen.

“Let go!”

“No!”

“Get out of his body now!” Dipper yanked it free from his hand, only for the blade to plunge right into Wirt’s stomach.

Dipper!”

Pain erupted as something inside him ruptured, spilling out of him as the knife was ripped out and tossed away, hands pressing against the wound frantically. Wirt doubled over, prepared to endure this until his last breath, cringing as Dipper’s apologies and pleading broke him more than anything.

But then the pain was gone. The wound in his stomach sealed, as if it had never been there. Breaths coming in great gasps, color bled into the white void and swam in his vision. His bedroom. Now he was in his bedroom and so dizzy and still bleeding. Still bleeding? Wirt stared at his arm, just as carved up as it had been seconds before. Why had one wound closed and another remained? Why was the color back? Why was he still pinned? Where was he? What was happening? Was this real? He didn’t know. Terrified, Wirt looked to Dipper - still the one pinning him, holding him down.

“Dipper- Dipper, please-” Please let me go. Please be real. Please help me.

His grip gentled and he wanted to sob with relief. He did. “Wirt? Wirt, it’s-” It sounded like him. It felt like him. But it always sounded and felt like him, didn’t it? Though never like this. “You can’t… You can’t share a body… Can you? This… It’s a trick. It has to be a trick.”

He didn’t know what he was talking about, but he didn’t care. He just needed him to keep talking. “It’s all tricks- everything- none of it’s real, because he’s in my head, but I can’t- it all hurts. I’m sorry, Dipper. I’m sorry, please be real. Please.” Wirt sobbed as he clutched at Dipper’s wrist, then his forearm, his shirt, feeling for the lies. “He’s in my head- I don’t know what to do- I can’t-!”

A huge crack split his room. Wirt gasped and recoiled, pulling Dipper close to his chest to protect him from the way the crack splintered, like spider webs breaking up reality. Or was it real? Reality couldn’t do this. Was it all still a dream? Was it all in his head?

“No.” Wirt hugged Dipper tighter. “No, you’re real. You’re real. Please don’t leave. Please don’t go!” Everything around him shattered and then they were falling, both of them because Wirt wouldn’t let go.

The ground rushed up to meet them. The Unknown. Wirt angled his body to take more of the landing, to shield Dipper from the trees and the hard, cold ground. He braced them with his right arm, wrist snapping and he cried out as the sensation swam up his already bleeding arm - though it wasn’t bleeding anymore - and accosted his nerves. It was broken. It had to be.

Safe on the ground, Wirt let go of Dipper to cradle his wrist. “Ow. Ow, ow, oh.” It was already swelling, a grotesque purplish color he’d thought was only for crayons. “Dipper… Dipper, are you okay?”

When he didn’t get an answer, he looked up. He was alone. His heart clenched and his breath hitched, gaze searching the snow and the trees for any sign of him. There were no footprints leading away from him though. There wasn’t a trace of Dipper Pines anywhere.

“No,” he moaned, struggling to stand while keeping his right arm tucked close. “No, no, no- Dipper? Dipper! No! He was real! I had him! He was real, he was real, why? Why is this happening? Why?” He slammed his left fist into the trunk of the nearest tree.

Back where he started. Back where he always started now. Lost in the middle of The Unknown, the wall - the way home - nowhere in sight. It would just keep going again and again and again and it wouldn’t stop. It would never stop.

Wirt! Wirt, please! Fight him!

Somewhere in the forest, Dipper shouted for him.

Wirt shook his head, slumping against the tree. It wasn’t really him. He’d lost him. “I can’t.”

Fight him out, get him out!

“I can’t!” he shouted, voice echoing in the emptiness. The loneliness. The gray and the trees and The Unknown. “Shut up! Just shut up, I can’t! I can’t!” He lifted his hands to clutch at his hair, forgetting about the right one as the sharp pain rippled through him and sent him to the ground.

Useless. Useless. Nothing. You’re nothing. You can’t stop me. You can’t stop me. He couldn’t stop me, what makes you think you can?

Wirt, please!

“I’m sorry, Dipper,” he murmured, drawing himself up into as small a ball he could manage against the trunk of the tree. “I can’t.”

----

“If you had to pick a favorite part about Music Note - physically-speaking, that is - what would you pick? Choose wisely, ‘cause that’s the part I’ll be cutting off.” Overconfident, with every reason to be so as he easily maintained a good distance between himself and Dipper, Bill took to walking backwards and grinned at him with Wirt’s mouth while he let his yellow eyes flash, the pupils elongated and glinting with satisfaction.

He was leading him through town, a specific destination in mind as he dragged Dipper through the maze of the neighborhood. While there was a more direct route, he enjoyed keeping it a surprise, wasting what precious, little energy Dipper had left in his pursuit. Always just out of arm’s reach whenever Pine Tree tried to grab at him.

“Let me guess, it’s his dumb nose, isn’t it?”

His nose, his hands, his lips, his eyes. His everything. “You’re not cutting anything off! Leave him alone!” If he wasn’t so used to running and if he wasn’t so high on panic-fueled adrenaline, he likely would’ve succumbed long before Dipper realized where they were going.

On a desperate noise, he tried to grab him again. His lunge was dodged easily, this time Bill latching onto his shoulder and shoving hard. Dipper’s head hit concrete hard, his own outcry drowned out by the ringing in his ears. “Wirt,” he gasped, getting to his feet to resume the chase. “Wirt, come on! Fight him out, man!”

“Give it a rest, Pine Tree!” Bill ran ahead, crossing the street with little regard for the car speeding right towards him. “Whoa, that was a close call. Probably wouldn’t have survived that!”

Just beyond him stood the gates to the Eternal Garden Cemetery. Spinning on his heel, the puppeteer and puppet crossed the threshold, knowing exactly where to go. The old stone wall in the back. He stopped, right in front of it, then placed his hands on his hips and turned to wait for Dipper to catch up, grin spreading at the reaction.

“Think he’d survive this?” He jerked his head back, nodding towards the wall.

It was too cold. Dipper’s panted breaths came out in visible clouds, his wide gaze flicking from his boyfriend’s face - Bill’s eyes - to the wall and back again. “Don’t. Don’t, please, don’t take him over. Don’t do this to him.”

TRUST NO ONE.

He raked shivering hands through his hair, at an absolute loss of what to do. He had nothing to give Bill. He had no way to stop him. No way to force him out. He had to leave it to Wirt, and he didn’t know if Wirt could... He cut that thought off before it could form, spine straightening. No. No, no, no. He wasn’t going to let Bill do that to him. He wasn’t going to let him steal his faith.

He trusted Wirt.

“Wirt! Wirt, please, just listen to me! Trust me, man! I love you! You can do this! Fight him, just fight him, please!”

“‘Just fight him, please,’ Oh, so helpful, Pine Tree. Why don’t you tell him you love him again? That’s just as helpful.” He rolled his eyes, shifting them back to Wirt’s brown ones as he lifted an eyebrow, arms held out at his sides. “How is he supposed to fight me? What is he supposed to do? Why are you so useless, Pine Tree? Why can’t you be more helpful to your little lovesick boyfriend?”

“Shut up!”

“Did I hit a nerve?” His lips twisted in a cruel smirk as he took a step back, closer to the wall. From his pocket, he pulled the shard of glass he’d taken with him from the window. “Want to watch what Music Note does when I hit one of his?”

“Stop! Stop it! Just-” He raked his hands through his hair again, desperate for some sign. Something that would let him know that his boyfriend was listening. He couldn’t let Bill win. He stepped forward quickly to keep the shard from cutting into him. “Wirt, please! Get him out! You can do it, please!”

“More helpful advice from our little, tiny Pine Tree. And he was so hopeful! Music Note only agreed to this because he knew you would be coming to save the day soon. But what good are you? You’ve got him convinced that you’re some kind of hero, but what has he seen you do? He and Shooting Star had to pick up your slack against the big, bad Splinter Man. Even Tea Kettle got some licks in. What did you do? What did you get?” He jabbed Dipper’s chest with the glass shard and the twin flinched back. “You got saved. That’s all you ever get, Pine Tree. Isn’t it? What good do you ever do, what good have you ever done for anybody? You’re useless.”

“I...” His shoulders sagged. He could be strong for Wirt, but shrank a little when it was himself. “You don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Don’t I? Who’s seen more of you than me? Who knows you better, Pine Tree, than the guy who danced around in your head? We both know you’re not good for much.”

“Stop it! Stop- This isn’t about me!” Dipper couldn’t let it be. He would slip if it became about him. “Get out of his head!”

“Aw, I’d love to, really, but you can’t make a deal with me. You blocked me out.” They'd had to block him out. Dipper shuddered while Bill continued to ramble, struggling to think of a way to help end this. “You and Shooting Star left me no choice, really, but to be here in this little noodle body. This bleeding, little noodle body.”

He admired the glass shard, then let it slide along Wirt’s cheek with a pensive hum. He tapped it against his chin as he observed Dipper, Wirt’s eyes roving over him curiously as blood trickled down to his neck, staining the collar of his shirt. Sliding the glass into his pocket, he shrugged.

“But what’s really wrong here, Pine Tree? What’s wrong with me telling you that you’re useless? Huh? Is it the voice? Maybe you don’t like hearing the truth from Music Note here.”

When arms shot around him, tightly, too tightly, Dipper hated himself for wanting to lean in. It wasn’t Wirt, but it was. He was in there. He was in there and Dipper did feel useless. He was no better off here than he had been in California. What good was he to Wirt like this?

“Maybe it’s not Music Note here who needs to get over himself and his insecurities. Is it, star face?”

“Shut up!” Dipper shouted, jerked back. His reaction to the old taunt was instinctual and violent. One hand fisted in the sweater, the other lifted, curled into a fist, and froze. Just froze.

The thing that wasn’t Wirt laughed and flicked his forehead, right in the middle of the scarred birthmark, and Dipper wheezed. “Go ahead, Pine Tree! Hit him! Hit him right in the face! This is hilarious!”

“I...” Dipper closed his eyes and turned his head, the fist falling to his side as he stepped back and away. “He will fight you. He will. It's still him. It's still his mind.” It was still Wirt's mind.

His heart raced. It was still Wirt’s mind! His hands curled into fists again, but he had what he hoped would help now. What might be the answer, if only Wirt could hear him.

“You can manipulate him just as much as he is you, Wirt! It's your mindscape. It's your rules. You can do anything if you set your mind to it, and you have to set your mind to this. Change the scene he's setting, take it over. Get your mind back, Wirt! You can-”

His breath backed up in his lungs when he looked up because his gaze had to travel up the expanse of the wall. Bill was standing on it. “Don’t!”

“Don’t what? Do this?” Bill lifted one foot off and back, Wirt’s body - still naturally clumsy - wobbled precariously on the edge. “I’m just helping Music Note make all his dreams come true.”

His body nearly toppled back, but his upper body lurched forward and Wirt’s foot planted itself firmly back on the wall. A look of honest surprise crossed Bill’s expression before it twisted into something mutinous. He stopped his arms from waving - the frantic attempt to keep his balance not Bill’s doing at all.

“Ah ah ah.” His eyes flashed yellow and he took a moment to just stand there, taking care of the problem mentally, exerting his control. “It’s not time for your solo yet, Music Note, but don’t worry. You’ll take the stage soon,” he hissed. “You recognize this place. I know it scares you. And it should. No-!” Bill lifted Wirt’s hand and slapped himself hard as he laughed. “Yes! Oh, Pine Tree. You should hear him. He’s terrified, really.” A train whistle cut through the air, catching Bill’s attention. He was positively delighted. “And you can’t do a thing to help him now.” Holding his arms out, he fell back, body dropping beyond the wall.

He was fighting, and Dipper finally felt a bubble of actual hope that was immediately and brutally popped when he went over. It was an image that would haunt him for months. “Wirt!” he shouted.

“Please, please, please,” he whispered, praying to anything and everything that the reckless move hadn’t snapped his neck. That the train hadn’t run him over and- and- Dipper was sobbing when he reached the top, though it took only seconds.

And there Wirt was, laying across the tracks as if lounging on a couch. Laying in bed reading one of his poetry books. But the train’s whistle sounded again, and it wasn’t going to stop. It wasn’t going to see him on the tracks until he was under its wheels.

He swung a leg over the wall. Wirt wasn’t going like this. Or, if he did, he wasn’t going alone. He started to push off, to either join him or drag him to safety - whichever was possible - but-

“Dipper!” He stilled, and looked back. Mabel was sprinting through the cemetery, face pale and terrified, and an equally frightened Greg was cradled to her chest. “Dipper!” she shrieked again, a hand reaching out for him. She could see what he was doing, and both she and Greg had come around to see Wirt fall. She couldn’t stand the thought of him going, too, not alone. Not with Bill.

But the train’s whistle blew again, and there wasn’t time. There wasn’t time for apologies and explanations. There wasn’t time to do anything but act. His choice had already been made.

Without a word, Dipper pushed off and went over the garden wall.

Chapter Text

A dark plume of smoke rose above the cemetery wall, coating the air with ash as the train sped past. It shadowed the already overcast sky, thick and heavy. Like the mist. Wirt shuddered, taking in the scene at the top of the hill.

His fingers gripped Dipper’s wrist tightly, his other hand holding his shoulder. That was the next thing he was aware of. Even before he realized the train actually was there - that it almost hit them - Wirt knew he had Dipper close.

But it lasted only a second, that flicker of control. The train had been coming and they were both on the tracks, but Dipper was on the tracks and he didn’t want another dream shattered by another death so he grabbed him and scrambled off the tracks, pulling him out of the way in the process. Then it was gone. His body not his own and at the top of the hill again.

Not again. Not again. Not again.

He laughed - Wirt heard himself laughing and he wanted to cry as his body shoved Dipper’s away. Not towards the slope, thankfully, but too close to the train for his comfort and peace of mind. Dipper!

“He’s crying for you!” Bill howled over the rattling of the train, taking a few steps back - a few steps too many, Wirt realized.

They were going to fall. Him and Bill because Bill was him, he was inside him, and he didn’t know if this was another dream or reality. All he knew was he couldn’t move, he couldn’t stop this. They were going to fall down the hill into the water. They’d trip or the ground would simply melt away beneath their feet or Dipper would push them.

“He’s afraid of you! You, little Pine Tree. Does that make you feel big? Does that make you feel powerful? Star face.”

“Stop it!” Dipper shouted, the gust of wind from the train rushing behind him flinging his bangs up. He pressed them down with a strangled noise, but got to his feet. He caught him, grabbing a fistful of his sweater to pull him back up, away from the dramatic slope. His sneakers slipped in the snow, but he did his best to balance himself. He couldn’t let Wirt fall into that water.

“Wirt, please,” he begged. “Please keep fighting. It’s your mind, not his. You can do anything with it. Anything. Just get rid of him!”

Wirt flinched on reflex, his hands going to Dipper’s chest, even the swollen, throbbing one. He didn’t know whether to hang on or push him away. Please don’t push me. Please be real. I want you to be real, but you’re not. You can’t be. Not here. I know how this ends. It’s always the same. Again and again and again.

“He can do anything? What is this, a Hallmark original movie? He doesn’t even know if this is real or not! Which I don’t blame him for in the slightest! Want to know how many times I’ve had you push him down this hill? Definitely more than thirty! Let’s tip the scale closer to forty! Will you push him if I do this?” Bill used Wirt’s broken hand to grab Dipper’s hair, yanking his bangs up to expose the birthmark turned scar. “This was his idea! You wouldn’t get off him, so he knocked off your hat and did this! Can you believe it? He knows your greatest weakness and he shamelessly exploited it! Push him!”

His breath caught, choking on a sob as he stumbled back. But he didn’t push him. He held tighter, he pulled Wirt’s body closer. “I-I can’t. I won’t. I’m not playing your games, Bill!” But he wanted to. He wanted to shove Bill away, hide the secret. Pushing Bill, though, meant pushing Wirt. He couldn't do that, so had to bear the shame.

The desperate hand not clutching his sweater lifted, cupping his cheek. “Wirt, I love you. This is real. Please believe me. I know it’s hard, man. He’s been in my head too. I know this is hard, but this is real. I’m real, okay? Give me a chance. Trust me. If you get him out, I’ll make sure he can never get back in. I promise. Please trust- ah!”

His fingers flexed, pain exploding in his gut. He looked down, wheezing as his own blood stained his clothes. It wasn't as deep as it could have gone, the window shard hindered by his jacket, but it still burned. It still made him cry out when it was ripped out and jabbed right back in. He could only dimly hear his twin shouting for him over the rushing between his ears as he was stabbed a third and fourth time, her and Greg trapped on the wall while the train rushed by.

“Push him,” Bill insisted, smile too wide. “Come on, Pine Tree. I don't have all day.”

“N-no. No, I-” His voice broke, tone dissolving into exhausted, hurt tears. “Don’t let him win, Wirt. Don’t let him take you away from me.”

“I think you're worried about the wrong person, Pine Tree.” Bill lifted the shard, raising it to the birthmark.

Before he could even press it to any part of the big dipper, his hand froze. Bill’s smile faltered as Wirt’s hand refused to go any closer. His fingers clenched around the broken bit of window, cutting into his own palm. His arm trembled as Bill attempted to force it, but he didn’t make a single cut.

“You’ll let me stab him in the gut, but you can’t handle a little blood on his forehead?!” His face twisted into a sneer. “You’re pathetic! You both are!”

Wirt’s body twisted away from Dipper and he turned and chucked the glass down the hill. It landed somewhere in the snow. The expression he wore was unreadable as he watched its descent, but it was Bill’s chuckle that passed his lips and Wirt’s tremor that traveled along his spine.

“So we’re back to throwing things down the hill. Well, guess who’s turn it is now, Music Note?” Bill grabbed Dipper by the shoulders as he let his weight fall back, the two of them heading right down the slope.

They rolled and rolled, both helpless to the steep hill. Dipper squeezed his eyes shut as the world spun around him, trying to clutch at his burning stomach as bile rose. He wasn’t ready for the water, sucking it in as they broke through the ice, splitting apart from the force of the crash.

If anything could've shocked the exhaustion dragging at Dipper, it was the freeze that went right down to the bone and clogged his throat.

He struggled to find Wirt as water surrounded them. The lake. They couldn’t be in the lake. Wirt hated being underwater, being submerged. Yet there they were, lake water soaking through his clothes, weighing him down, making his limbs heavy. Desperate, lungs burning, all he could think of was getting out. Getting Wirt out. He couldn't let him drown, wouldn't let him fade. Bill wouldn't keep him.

He had to go down, body protesting every move as he swam for him. Wirt’s eyes were closed, limbs floating bonelessly as if he was already dead. Snatching at his wrist, cringing when he could only reach the swollen one, Dipper pulled him up and close. He spun him to wrap an arm tightly around his waist, and aimed up.

He broke the surface with a gasp, everything hurting as he dragged Wirt's body through the water. He swam backwards, his limp boyfriend dead weight as he fought to keep them both afloat. “Wirt! W-wirt, please!”

When they found purchase, his sneakers slipped in the mud, and he went down. Wirt’s body pushed him beneath the water, keeping him trapped for precious seconds until he was able to burst out again.

“C-come on, man. Come on, Wirt.” Teeth chattered, fingers fumbling to keep hold. His blood tainted the lake, seeping into Wirt's sweater as he held him close, and he couldn't catch his breath for the desperate, coughing sobs which wracked his chest. “St-stay with me, okay?”

Wirt’s arms twitched, then wrapped around Dipper to hold tight to him. He hugged him as he coughed, his breaths just as shallow and weak. But then he was laughing. Bill was laughing as he lifted his head and squeezed Dipper.

“Oh, he’s gone, Pine Tree. He’s completely out of his mind,” he wheezed, the eyes looking at him Wirt’s. “But he can’t leave yet. Oh no. No, not when I’ve got more to show him. I promised him someone would drown. Someone has to drown.”

He pulled him back in the water, further down, both of them slipping in the mud as one fought to get away and the other fought to go deeper into the dark, frigid depths. Once their heads went under, Bill had Wirt’s hands close around Dipper’s throat, wringing the air right out of him.

“Are you watching, Music Note?”

“Stop it. Stop it. Leave me alone.” Wirt shivered, drenched in the lake water, his whole body aching as he hunched over, hands clasped over his ears, tucked into himself.

“But this is the last chance you’ll get to see your little boyfriend. Don’t you want to cherish this moment? Engrave it in your memories forever? You said you wanted to see what was going on. You wanted to be a part of this.” In his mind, Bill hovered over him, the triangle complete with cane and hat.

“This isn’t real!”

“You really want to take that chance?” Bill hummed, spinning the cane. “Suit yourself.”

Wirt waited until he was sure he was gone - not completely gone, never completely gone - then lowered his hands and opened his eyes. He was on the lake. Sitting on the ice. With a shuddering breath, he raked his hands through his hair. Fight him. Fight him. Fight him.

“How? What am I supposed to do?” Wirt whispered, gaze dropping to the dark water below him, the ice keeping him from falling into it.

Please keep fighting. It’s your mind not his. You can do anything with it. Anything. Just get rid of him!

“He has no weakness! He’s insane! I can’t keep up- I can’t-!” Wirt slammed his fist on the ice and watched it splinter. “He’s insane and he’s… he’s making me insane. I can’t keep doing the same things over and over and expecting different results, Dipper! Every time I try someone dies! And I don’t want to see that again! Not anymore. So I’ll just… I’ll…”

I love you.

Wirt cradled his wrist - still broken, why was it still broken - and focused on the words echoing around him. I love you. Bill never had Dipper tell him that. Not once. It was different. Swallowing, he looked down at the ice, past it, into the water. Dipper was drowning.

“I told you somebody’s gotta drown.”

If it was a dream, nothing he could do would change the outcome. But if it wasn’t… Wirt uncurled, shifting onto his hands and knees as he looked into the water. I love you. Keep fighting. Was he going to take that chance?

“If I’m going insane anyway, might as well commit to it,” he murmured, brow furrowing as he took a deep breath and pounded his fist against the ice. The crack grew, letting water through as he kept hitting it, desperation growing as he tried to break through. When it seemed like it wouldn’t ever shatter apart, the ice gave way beneath him and he fell into the water.

He gasped, inhaling water, real, icy water and he felt a flicker of surprise foreign to him as he opened his eyes. Dipper. Wirt immediately let go, his hands flying back away from his throat. His eyes were closing, face ghastly pale and limbs lifeless as he started to sink. Wirt grabbed him, pulling at his jacket until he was in his arms, then kicked for the surface. He had to get him out. He had to save him once. Just this once.

No!

It reverberated in his skull - the thing that didn’t belong in his mind - and Wirt cringed, mentally planting his feet to keep himself from being moved. Not yet. Not when they were almost there. He could see the gray sky, the surface was just there. He tried to push Dipper up and out, getting him closer while he still could.

Bill tore at his mind, trying to rip him away to throw back into the recesses of his nightmares. Wirt kicked harder, a sliver of relief shining between the fear and desperation when Dipper’s head broke the surface first. Wirt followed right after, nudging him towards the bank, struggling to keep his boyfriend’s mouth and nose above the water. Was he breathing? He couldn’t tell.

Shouts cut through the cloudiness of his thoughts, pieces of him falling apart as Bill raged inside him. This wasn’t the plan. This wasn’t the plan. You’re supposed to be useless. You’re supposed to be weak. Is Dipper okay? Please be okay. Blinking the water from his eyes, Wirt could make out two blurs hurrying down the hill towards them.

Mabel and Greg. He knew it, he somehow knew it and he sobbed as Dipper’s body made contact with the ground. Tears mingled with the lake water freezing his face as he pushed him up further, his swollen hand numb to the pain as he dragged them both through the mud. Then his left hand clenched - not of his doing - and aimed for Dipper’s face. Wirt let go of him and rolled away, splashing through the water while his right arm hugged the left to his chest.

Let me kill him!” His own throat was torn as the scream wrenched free of him and Wirt coughed and choked it back.

“No-” Wirt shook his head, a searing, white hot pain splitting right down the center of his head and he cried out, both hands grabbing at his skull. “Get out of me!”

Not until this is finished!”

“I won’t let you hurt him!” Gritting his teeth, eyes squeezed shut, he held his ground and tried to shove him out, but the pain in his head made it difficult to focus. “Get out!”

If you cast me out-”

“Stop it!”

“-then you break our deal and I go right back to your brother! Is that what you want? Pine Tree and Shooting Star haven’t marked him yet! He’s just as vulnerable as you!

Their deal. No. Wirt gasped for air, the dual conversation winding him, and looked towards the hill. One eye burned, was hard to see out of, and he feared what it looked like as he watched Greg hesitate near the edge of the lake. He couldn’t see Mabel, but he could hear her and he hoped she was with Dipper. He hoped he was still alive. From the way Bill was twisted inside him, he believed that he was. He hadn’t killed him.

“Tea Kettle, come here. Your brother has something he wants to give back to you.”

“No! Greg, stay back!” Wirt covered his burning eye and sloshed back further into the lake, mind racing to figure something out. He wasn’t going to last with this war raging on in his head and Bill was building more control. He’d wipe him out completely if he could.

“Greg!” Mabel called, pounding her brother’s still chest to get his heart going. “Get away from the water, baby!” Her gaze flicked briefly to Wirt, watching him thrash and fight with himself. They were both going to need a hospital, but they had to go home first. Bill was right about one thing - they were unmarked and it made them vulnerable.

First and foremost, though, she had to get Dipper breathing again. She didn’t have time to make sure Greg listened to her, needing to keep her CPR rhythm going. “Come on, Dipdop, don’t go. You can’t let Bill win this time.”

After the next round, his pulse still absent and his chest failing to rise and fall on its own, she shouted, “If you’re in The Unknown, you’d better get back here right now! Come home, Dipper! Wake up!” She couldn’t sob, but the tears still fell as she tried again. “Come on,” she pleaded, voice falling back to desperate mumbles.

She heard fresh splashing and her head snapped up. “Greg!” she wailed, hands faltering as Dipper made a noise beneath her. She looked down and scrambled up, only just managing to get him onto his side as he vomited water, nothing else in his empty stomach. She grabbed his wrist, felt the first flutters of pulse, and heard her brother’s soft, gasping breaths, and she was up and off.

Greg hadn’t gone far in, the mud and cold slowing him down, so she snatched him up with only her feet submerged and carried him away. “Stop it! Stop! It’s okay. He’s fighting, baby. It’s going to be okay. You can’t fight this for him.”

“Wirt!” Greg fought to get free, squirming relentlessly in her grasp. “Mabel, put me down! I have to help him! Wirt!”

“It’ll be okay, Greg!” Wirt lied, heart hammering as his gaze followed the two of them, back to Dipper. He was breathing. Coughing up water, but still he was breathing. He was alive. He’d be okay. He had to be. “Mabel, get them out of here!”

“I was going to put you out of your misery at the end of all this to show my gratitude-”

“Shut up!”

“-but now I think I’ll draw it out. Nice and slow, each second filled with agony as you beg for mercy and the sweet release of death, but I won’t give it to you. I’ll savor every scream and spasm and your insides will know what it’s like to be on the outside.”

Wirt’s knees sank in the mud, slipping further. The water was up to his shoulders and his body couldn’t stop shaking even though he couldn’t feel the cold anymore. Bill attempted to make him crawl back out, but even he couldn’t force his body to do something it simply couldn’t. Not without complete control.

But he could get it back. With enough time, Bill would be able to wear him down and get it back. Maybe if he sat in the water long enough, made the conditions difficult for him when he took his body back, maybe that would buy them some time. Maybe he wouldn’t recover and be forced to leave that way.

But then he’d go after Greg. Or find another way to attack Dipper and Mabel and they couldn’t handle that right now. Wirt had to keep him, but not let him take over. Keep him, but not give him control.

“I’m gonna slaughter him, Shooting Star!” Bill shouted at Mabel. “I’ll rip him right from your arms and then I’ll rip him to shreds before I tear into you!”

Wirt choked on the words, biting his own tongue to silence them. “Mabel, call an ambulance and get out of here!” But that wouldn’t work. Whoever came would try to get him out, too. They’d try to help him and put him with Dipper and Mabel and Greg and he couldn’t be near them. Not like this.

What if they couldn’t help him though?

Wirt wheezed, air more difficult to swallow the longer he stayed put. His gaze fixated on Dipper. If you’re in The Unknown. If you’re in The Unknown, you better get back here.

The Unknown was a different plane of existence. A different reality. Could he trap a being of pure energy there? An entity without a body?

It was worth a shot. If it kept Dipper, Mabel, and Greg safe, then it was definitely worth a shot.

“What are you doing?” Wirt slid back a bit more, but his body froze, Bill planting one of his arms in the mud to root him in place. “You can’t be serious! You wouldn’t! You’re bluffing!”

“You really want to take that chance?” Wirt gritted out, mentally latching on to the foreign presence.

“Don’t do that! Let go of me!” Wirt stood quickly, his knees wobbling as he weaved where he stood, part of him struggling to wade through the lake and out while the other part pulled back. “You’re insane! Somebody stop him!”

“Wirt? Wirt, what are you doing?” Greg stopped twisting in Mabel’s grasp to watch. “Mabel, what is he doing?”

She shook her head, sinking into the snow to sit beside her spasming twin. She kept Greg close, aiming to keep him both safe and warm. Her feet were like ice, and she couldn’t imagine how her brothers - both blood and honorary - felt. And one of them was steadily making his way further out. “He’s forcing Bill out,” she murmured.

Greg watched the one yellow eye roll about, wild and frantic. Like a trapped animal. Trying to escape. He gripped Mabel’s arm with both of his hands and shook his head. “I think he’s keeping him.”

“Music Note!”

“You’re the one who’s been telling me someone’s gotta drown. Might as well be you.” Wirt replied, taking more steps back than Bill could forward.

“Killing me in this body kills you, too, genius!”

“Not if I can get back.” It was a terrifying thought, and really the last place he wanted to be, but Bill’s adamant struggle and honest panic was a good enough sign for him that this was the right way to go. “I’ve made it out before. I can do it again. I know the way home.” He stumbled forward suddenly, Bill mentally and physically shoving at him, igniting a flare of anger and frustration and Wirt pushed him aside. “You think I’m scared to die? I know what’s waiting! I know what’s there! I think you’re the one that’s scared. You’re the one replaying it in my head over and over, death, death, death. What happens to a being of pure energy on another plane of existence with no body to crawl back to? Let’s find out!”

Without taking a breath, he dropped beneath the surface as Bill clawed at the inside of his head. He opened his mouth and stubbornly inhaled as much water as he could while keeping Bill chained inside. His body rejected the water, his head tight and throbbing with excruciating pain as the war inside left him feeling as if his brain would be battered and bruised at the end of all this. The demon pulled, fighting to free himself while Wirt fought to keep from fighting. His body didn’t want to drown. He didn’t want to drown.

There was a tear in his consciousness. His body spasmed as it fully became his. No. Wirt scrambled to stop Bill from sliding out of his grasp. No, he wasn’t losing him. He wasn’t letting him escape to hurt the people he loved more than anything.

The world was already beginning to blur, darkening around him, but it wasn’t fast enough. Bill shoved his mind back and split from him. Wirt thrashed in the water, his head spinning from the kickback and the water pulsed away from him on a beat. Bill was gone. His head was empty. Empty, but heavy and he was still drowning and Bill could still go after them. Bill could still get them all.

Wirt righted himself, dizzy in the dark, and swam for the surface before the tendrils of The Unknown drew him down and in like they wanted. The trees beckoning. Air stung the back of his throat as he inhaled sharply, head bobbing above the water as he struggled for the shore. His chest spasmed, taking in air while expelling water at the same time, and he dipped under again while his arms and legs frantically pushed him to shallower water. When he came up again he could stand a little, sliding through the mud while he searched for his balance.

Wirt!” He heard his brother shout for him and he nearly dropped to his knees and cried because he still sounded like him, so he had to be okay even though he let Bill escape. He just had to be.

“Wirt!” Much closer, much shakier, the voice was followed by splashing and then hands grabbing his forearms to keep him up. Dipper couldn’t easily keep his own balance, though, so it was definitely a challenge. “W-wirt? It’s- I think-” His voice was peppered with coughs, throat on fire and stomach still revolving as if seeking something else to purge. “I mean, we saw- It’s you? Be y-you. Please. Wirt, please.”

“It’s me,” he sobbed, hands clinging to Dipper’s jacket instinctively, then letting go because his body had hurt him. His body nearly killed him. “It’s me- I-I’m sorry. I let him go- I lost him- Dipper, I- I’m sorry!”

“Wha- I don’t- You were supposed t-to get him out!” He coughed harshly, the exclamation tearing at his throat, and then he was doubling over, one hand leaving Wirt’s arm to wrap around his stomach.

“Dipper-” Wirt grabbed him then to support him, trying to guide him back to dry land. Snowy, cold land, but essentially dry. “N-no, he’s going to- he’s going to get Greg and-and you and Mabel and I couldn’t-! I couldn’t let him! I can’t let him! W-where is he?”

“H-he’s gone. For now, he’s g-gone. We just- We just have to...” His mind was fracturing, the panic and fear and sheer relief overwhelming him. Dipper rubbed a hand to his brow, smearing the blood from his stomach wound. “I c-c-can’t think.”

On the edge of the bank, Mabel finally set Greg down and unwrapped her scarf. “Come on, guys. Let’s go. We have to get back to your house right now.”

“The sigils-”

“I know, bro-bro. We’ll take care of it.” When he was close enough, the pair of them finally out of the water, she tied the scarf tightly around his middle to staunch the bleeding. She’d meant to do it sooner, but his breathing had taken priority. “Give me your jacket, Dipper. It’s not really helping you right now.”

His fingers shook, but he managed to tug it off and pass it to her. “Mabel-”

“Dipdop, let your brain stop. I’ve got this. Come here, Wirt. Let’s give your wrist some actual support, huh?”

“W-wha-? No, it’s fine. I’ll take c-care of it later. It- it doesn’t even hurt.” There were more important things to consider, like getting Dipper medical attention and getting him safe and warm and hidden from Bill. It was hard to hide from Bill. He was watching, always watching-

He was watching. Wirt could feel it, in the way the air rippled around him and there was that feeling of not right, not right churning in his belly. The wind picked up, the clouds above them darkening while a crackle akin to electricity focused in front of them.

Greg ran to his brother, latching onto his leg as Wirt held his arm out in an attempt to shield the twins. Everything turned gray as the yellow triangle materialized before them.

“‘Fraid I’m not as gone as you thought, Pine Tree.”

Dipper took Wirt’s arm, lowering it to stand in front of him. Even shaking, his breath still more wheeze than anything, he still had more knowledge and more experience with this particular demon. “You’re not making any d-deals here. You m-may as well just go.”

Mabel tossed her hair as if he didn’t matter in the slightest, turning her attentions to Wirt to fashion a sling from Dipper’s jacket. “Don’t fall asleep. You’ll both be fine if you’re awake. No more deals,” she whispered then knelt down to straighten Greg’s jacket and whisper a similar warning.

“But how do we know if we’re awake or asleep?” Greg asked. “He does this all the time and I never know.”

“There is no way to know, Tea Kettle. You could be sleeping right now for all you know and I could be telling you to-”

“Don’t talk to him!” Wirt glared at Bill, standing between him and his brother.

“I can do what I want to the both of you, neither of you are protected against me. I may not be able to make any deals, Pine Tree, but that’s not all I’m limited to. You know that. Don’t tell me your brain’s too water-logged to think straight.” The triangle had his cane appear and leaned casually against it in the air.

Dipper’s fingers curled and uncurled, body shivering from more than just the cold as he struggled to get his mind in gear. Bill was as unpredictable as it got, and he needed to be able to react accordingly. But he was so dizzy from oxygen deprivation, blood loss, and just plain fear. Fear that he wouldn’t be able to keep any of them safe. His looked over his shoulder at them, gaze lingering on Wirt. His spine straightened when his attention went back to Bill. “I’m f-fine.”

“You don’t look it. Music Note really did a number on you, didn’t he?” Bill materialized behind Dipper, arm slinging around Wirt’s shoulder and he flinched, but couldn’t duck away with Greg behind him. “Gotta hand it to you, you surprised me, kid. You’ve got a good grip. Good enough to strangle your boyfriend, just not good enough to drag me with you to our untimely demise. That’s okay. You almost saved everyone.”

“Don’t touch him.” The low voice, smouldering with fury, wasn’t the male twin. Mabel stood slowly, her very rare anger surfacing. “This is enough. You let Wirt scare you out, and you lost your puppet. You lost. Just like last time. You couldn’t kill Dipper then and you were inside him. This? Coming to gloat after you ran scared? This is pathetic.”

Scared? More like smart. He wasn’t kidding and I wasn’t about to spend the rest of eternity in Limbo.” But Bill abandoned Wirt’s side to hover in front of Mabel. His voice was confident but his golden hue flickered with red. She struck a nerve. “I’d keep an eye on him if I were you. And I haven’t lost! We’re just starting, Shooting Star. And what are you going to do to stop me?”

“What am I going to do?” She smiled, and it was mean. “I’m going to give Dipper enough time to give them the protection you don’t think they have.”

There was a click of a pen and Dipper stepped back, though his hand stayed in Wirt’s. He and Greg both had small sigils drawn on their wrists, the best he could do with circumstances being what they were. But they would be effective for now.

Bill’s gaze honed in on the marks. He eased away from Mabel, his eye watching Greg first and then Wirt. Their staring contest lasted a beat, finished only when Bill jabbed his cane in Wirt’s direction, making him stumble back in anticipation of pain. He glowered at him when he recovered.

“Yeah, we’ll see how long those last.” Bill hummed, twirling his cane. “Better take short showers and be careful when you wash your hands. Just because you’re protected doesn’t mean I won’t still be watching.”

He floated away from them and Greg stuck his tongue out at him when his back was turned. When Bill whirled around, Greg ducked behind Dipper and examined the sigil on his wrist quietly. How it protected them exactly, he didn’t know, but if Bill was scared of it and it kept him away, then that was all he needed to know.

“Alright. You kids are resourceful. I’ll give you this round, but don’t think we’re done yet. For now…” He doffed his hat. “Happy Thanksgiving! Enjoy feasting in the name of innocent blood spilt across the land! Smother everything in gravy!”

Dipper’s stomach churned at the thought of it, a day of food. When Bill vanished, he swayed dangerously until Mabel pushed him and laid a hand on his shoulder. “Come on, bro-bro. You can make it to the house.”

“I’m...” He wasn’t fine, but closed his eyes briefly and reigned it in much the same way as Mabel had to reign in her anger. It hadn’t started out as a distraction, but leave it to her twin to turn it into one. There wasn’t room for it now, though, so both twins squared their shoulders and tucked everything behind practicality.

“Come on, boys. Let’s go home now. We’ll dry you off and do something about making those sigils a little more permanent.”

Chapter Text

None of them could rest. Dipper and Wirt’s eyes kept going unfocused and blurry, but they couldn’t sleep. It wasn’t safe yet, for either of them. Even when they were back inside. Mabel set Greg down once they were in the living room and looked around. They’d all catch hypothermia if they didn’t get warmed up.

“Corporal, are you ready for an important mission?”

Greg tore his gaze away from the pair of shivering teens to nod seriously. “Uh-huh,” he confirmed. “What… what is it, General Mabel?”

“First, you need to find your warmest sweater and change.” She pulled off his coat to hang it in the closet. “Then we need blankets on the couch and a permanent marker. Can you handle that?”

“Mabel,” Dipper started, but she shook her head.

“Hush. You two are changing and bundling up. I'm going to make some tea.” She hung her own coat up, nodding to herself. Someone had to take care of her boys until they could get to the hospital. “Well, I’m going to get the first aid kit and then start some tea. And hot chocolate. We need some heat.”

“Okay.” Greg glanced at Wirt and Dipper again before darting down the hall to find a sweater and blankets.

Wirt leaned against the wall, too wet and bloody to sit on the couch. His gaze struggled to follow where Greg had gone, but his eyelids were heavy and couldn’t focus. Head spinning with too many things to do - take care of Dipper, look out for Greg, help Mabel, get warm, fix the window, call their parents - he didn’t even know where to start.

“I-I’ll start the t-tea.” He tried to push off from the wall, but didn’t move much. “And s-set the therm- thermostat.”

“No, you won’t. You’re going to change your clothes and then you’re going to sit on the couch and let me bandage you up. That goes for you too, Dipper.” She hooked an arm around Wirt’s waist, more or less forcing him to lean on her. She took them down the hall, Dipper following mainly because he couldn’t let Wirt out of his sight.

“Mabel, we n-need to call their p-p-parents and get Wirt to a hospital and f-figure out who to call to get the w-window fixed since this is all m-my fault and-”

“Shut up, Dipper,” she ordered, tone mild as she propped Wirt up against his bedroom wall and flitted about to find him some clothes.

“I-I’m fine. Y-you need the hospital,” Wirt told him, hugging himself only to wince when he moved his right wrist. Not to mention his left hand was cut up and the right arm had gashes along it. Had he actually done that to himself? Or had it been Bill? He couldn’t remember, everything sort of blurred together, but he did remember one thing clearly. “I-I s-stabbed you. It’s- it’s not your fault. I-I broke the window, I’ll t-take care of it. You go to the hospital.”

Mabel spoke before her brother could, depositing clothes onto Wirt’s bed. “You’re both going to the hospital, and we’re taking care of the window. Don’t argue with me. Neither of you.” The anger flared again, her fists going to her hips as she pinned them both with a glare. “That wasn’t you. That was Bill. Bill broke it. Bill stabbed Dipper. I don’t want to hear how either of you are at fault for any of this because that’s dumb. You’re both exhausted and hurting and dumb. So shut up!”

Her tone changed, softened. “Now, Wirt, you get changed and then you wait for me to come back. Got it? You’re both frozen to the bone and you’ll set horrible examples for Greg if you get hypothermia because you’re being too dumb to listen to sense.”

“Y-you’re leaving?” Wirt’s eyes widened and he mentally kicked himself. “Right. Y-yeah, I’ll… I’ll be here. Dressed. I’ll g-get dressed and wait here.”

“I’ll stay with you.” Greg squeezed into the bedroom, donning the sweater Mabel had knitted for him and hugging Jason Funderburker in his arms. “I put the blankets on the couch and the marker on the coffee table, Mabel, so can I stay with Wirt? He might need help ‘cause his arms are… not right.”

“That’s perfect, Greg.” She ruffled his hair, then gave Jason Funderburker a pat. Stuck in his tank this whole time, the loyal animal had probably worked himself into a state. “Come on, Dipper. Our suitcases are both in Greg’s room, still, and you need dry clothes.”

He reached up to tug at the bill of his hat, nodding weakly, but froze. He still didn’t have it. A spasm worked its way through him that had nothing to do with the cold and everything to do with Bill in Wirt’s body, shoving his bangs back to carve him with a window shard.

Star face, star face, star face.

He swayed hard, shoulder crashing into the wall as he yanked desperately at his bangs.

“Here,” Mabel said quickly, breaking into the panic attack he hadn’t realized he’d been having, and pushed the cap onto his head. “Greg and I tossed it through the window when we saw it. I didn’t know if we should take it or not, so- Dipper! Dipper, stop crying, shh.”

Both Wirt and Greg took a step towards him, but where the younger brother continued to erase the distance, the older one turned away. He closed his eyes against the image of Dipper tearing at his bangs, only to be reminded of the way his own hands held his hair away, ready to cut along the scar, and remembered the little boy who cried in the bathroom as he rubbed his forehead raw to rid himself of the birthmark permanently etched on his skin. Wirt shuddered and exhaled shakily as tears slipped out and down his cheeks, stinging the cut still open to the air.

He wanted to comfort him. He wanted to fix his cap for him and hold him and just sit with him, be there for him when he needed him. But he had to be the absolute last person he needed right now. Even if wasn’t him that hurt Dipper, it was his body. His face. His touch and his voice. He’d hurt him. He’d dragged Dipper down into the dark, intentional or not.

A small, strangled sound escaped him as he went to the bed, grabbing the dry clothes to give his hands something to twist. He pulled his arm out of the makeshift sling - he’d need to anyway to get dressed after all and it wasn’t like his wrist could get any more broken - and wrung the clean sweater in frustration. It wasn’t fair. It wasn’t fair that this had to happen to Dipper. To both of them. To Greg and to Mabel and it shouldn’t have happened. He should’ve been stronger.

The sweater was tugged out of his grasp. “I’ll get you a new one,” Greg told him quietly, and Wirt realized he’d ruined that one, too. “The dark red one. You like that one. You’ll feel comfy and safe in it. You wore it to the party, remember? The one at the Mystery Shack.”

Wirt watched his little brother babble as he went to the closet to swap sweaters, focused on distracting the person he knew he could take care of while Mabel focused on the other. Wirt wiped at his eyes and tried to calm down. If his seven-year-old brother could push everything aside for now, then he could, too. He had to.

“Thanks, Greg,” he sniffled when he was handed the new sweater. “I’ll try not t-to ruin this one.”

“It’s okay. It’s almost the same color, so if you bleed on it, no one will notice.” It was a morbid but true statement. “Mabel, does Dipper want a red sweater, too? Wirt has another one.”

“Sure, baby. That sounds good.” She’d managed calm Dipper’s sobs to weak whimpers, so pulled him away from the wall. “Come on, Dipper.”

“N-no.”

“Dipper-”

“I d-don’t want to l-leave him alone.”

She sighed, taking the sweater Greg gave her and dragged her stumbling brother towards the door. “He won’t be alone. Greg’s staying with him.” She closed the door behind him, cutting off further protests and got to work.

Several minutes later, she was knocking on Wirt’s bedroom door. “Can I come in, guys? You done in there?”

Greg opened the door and stepped aside to let her in. “He’s decent,” he told her.

With Jason Funderburker in his lap, Wirt sat on the edge of the bed and nodded. He was so tempted to fall back and fall asleep, tired and aching, but there was too much to do still. Even with Mabel in charge, he still had to do his part.

“How’s Dipper?” he asked, voice soft and timid.

“Changed and bandaged and really unhappy since I made him sit on the couch instead of bringing him in here.” Mabel laid a hand on Greg’s head briefly, smile encouraging, before she carried the first aid kit to Wirt and briskly rolled up his sleeve. The cuts were clotting well, but they needed to be cleaned. As with Dipper’s stab wounds, they’d been exposed to lake water and infection was just as unpleasant a thought as hypothermia.

She worked quickly, competently, hating the way Wirt flinched just as she’d hated the way Dipper had. She was glad to wrap the bandages around his skin and roll the sleeve back down. The sling she crafted was sturdier than Dipper’s jacket had been, too, but she’d be glad when an actual doctor could set it. “You’re not shivering as bad. That’s good. I turned the heat up.”

“Think I’m too tired to shiver,” he attempted to joke, but the small quirk to his lips didn’t reach his eyes. Even with the heat on, with his window open all he really noticed was the cold air being allowed to permeate his room in the same way it had lingered in Greg’s for weeks.

“I dried his hair for him with a towel,” Greg piped up, watching Mabel work intently. “I think that helped. What else do you need me to do?”

“You’ve done wonderfully, soldier. Above and beyond. Come on to the living room and I’ll give you sigils that’ll be a little more resilient than pen.” She looped an arm around Wirt’s waist, keeping to his left side to avoid bumping the sling, and helped him up. “You sit on a chair, Greg. We’ll let our waffles share the couch.”

“Okay.” Greg held up the a-okay sign before picking up Jason Funderburker. “Ob-waffle is go again.”

“I’m not… I’m not really in the mood for waffles…” Wirt murmured, stomach churning at the idea of food, despite it being rather empty. Or full of lake water. It was probably the latter.

“I’ll let that slide since you don’t know what you’re saying,” Mabel teased and pressed a kiss to his cheek. “I put the kettle on to start boiling some water, by the way. Some tea, blankets, and Dipper should help keep you warm.

“And once the sigil’s on, you can get some sleep. Safe sleep.” As she spoke, she lead the way out of his room and down the hall. “He won’t be able to take control of you or Greg again, whether you’re awake or dreaming.”

“Really?” Wirt turned his weary gaze on her, but hope struggled through the exhaustion. “The sigil will keep him out for good?”

“Mmhm. Yep! That’s why he can’t touch me and Dipper. I’ll show you.” She let him go, let him lean against the wall, and pulled of her sweater. She turned, pushing her hair out of the way, and right above the fabric of her tank top was a neon pink emblem. “Dipper has one on his leg. It’s not pink since Grunkle Ford let us pick our colors, but the color doesn’t matter. Just the shape keeps us safe.”

Mabel pulled the sweater back on, giving both boys a smile before resuming their walk. “So how do you feel about tattoos, Wirt?”

He paled some. “I think I need to lie down.”

Greg scampered ahead. “Okay, Wirt. The couch is right here. And so’s Dipper. Are you feeling better, Dipper?” he asked, getting out of the way when Mabel brought Wirt over.

He started awake, rubbing his eyes. “Wha-? Yeah. I’m...” He trailed off when he looked up, breath hitching a little when he saw his boyfriend. He lifted a hand, reaching for Wirt as the other hand pushed blankets aside to give him room. “Come here. Come on.”

“Hold your horses, Dipdop.” Mabel eased him down, helping Dipper cover him in blankets since her hands shook less than his and he was too busy trying to pet his sweater and press as close as possible to be much use anyway.

Hesitant to meet his gaze at first, Wirt tried to turn away, but as soon as Dipper was touching him, trembling and stroking and making sure that he was real, he broke. Tired and awed and so, so sorry, he searched his boyfriend’s face for more of that pain. It was the love that stood out the most, though. It was the love that had him sagging against him, desperate to be just as close. He hadn’t talked to him in so long, they hadn’t seen each other, and all of that felt like a lifetime away after dealing with a demon between them.

With them situated, Mabel picked up Greg and the sharpie and settled him in her lap on a chair. She tucked her cold feet beneath her, the thick socks she’d donned only helping so much, and started to draw the sigil onto the back of his hand.

If Dipper had noticed, he would’ve cringed, but Wirt was there and safe. He was shaky and hurt, they both were, but there wasn’t a demon between them now. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry we weren’t here sooner. I’m sorry.” Fingers curling into the fabric of his sweater, Dipper pulled him down and pressed their lips together on a desperate noise.

Wirt’s bandaged arm went around Dipper’s shoulder, wary of pushing on him too much, wary of the injuries to his stomach, but needing to be close. He gasped against his lips, the tears unstoppable. He didn’t think he’d ever get to kiss him like this again. He didn’t think he’d get to be with him like this again. Unable to deepen the kiss for the way his chest kept tightening and hitching, Wirt just kept brushing his lips to Dipper’s, shaking his head a little.

“You’re here. You’re here, you’re real. It’s okay, you’re here.” It didn’t matter that they couldn’t come sooner, there was school and they didn’t know, but now they were here and Bill was gone and Dipper was here.

“I’m here. I’ll keep you safe. I won’t go anywhere. I’m staying.” A hand lifted, cupping his uninjured cheek. He couldn’t soothe, not when his own tears were spilling over, but he could hold on. “I love you. I love you so much, Wirt.”

“I love you, too,” he told him, the words crucial now, more than ever, even while they cried. “I love you so much, and I have for a while and I’m sorry I never said it before and I’m sorry I pushed up your bangs, Dipper. I’m sorry I made a deal, I’m sorry. I love you. I love you.”

“It’s okay. It’s not your fault. It’s-” He broke off, tilting his head back, and everything else tumbled away because he’d said it. In person. They were both utter messes but nothing could be more important than the words he’d been waiting for. “Wirt, you just... I love you. Just- I just want to hear that again. Say it again.”

“I love you,” he sniffled, fingers clutching the sweater Dipper was wearing and he turned his head just enough to press his lips to the palm of his hand. “I love you, Dipper.”

“I love you, too,” he murmured. Since arriving in Lakeville, since first decoding the flurry of code his boyfriend had sent, Dipper felt himself relax. He leaned forward, dropping his brow to Wirt’s shoulder. For the first time since Bill had revealed himself to be in control of Wirt’s body, Dipper felt safe. “We’re here until Sunday. You’ll say it as much as possible, right?”

Wirt nodded, hugging him as tight as he could with one, injured arm. “I’ll say it so much, you’ll get sick of it,” he promised, placing another kiss to his hair. “I love you.”

“I love you, too. I'll never get tired of it,” Dipper assured him, eyes starting to close. Exhaustion spun through him, turning his thoughts sluggish. Wirt was okay. Bill was gone. They would be okay.

When a harsh smell floated over, he jerked in place as if struck and his contentment fled. “Sorry,” he heard Mabel say and lifted his head again. His face paled and the trembling started anew when he saw the source of the smell, the sharpie. He couldn’t stand it.

“I’m sorry,” she repeated. She was. She hated to interrupt them, hated to put fear back into her brother’s eyes, even if it was only fear of a memory he was too tired to block. “Wirt, give me your hand. Let me draw the sigil on you. It’ll stay longer with this.” Dipper hid his face between the bill of his cap and Wirt’s shoulder.

Wirt’s heart broke for him. So it was true, what Bill had showed him in that dream. Or at least something similar had occurred to make him react so strongly to the smell of the marker alone. He’d tried to hold and comfort the sobbing child then, unable to make any difference to that little boy’s trauma, but he could make a difference here. He rocked him gently, keeping his left around Dipper while removing his right from the sling, offering up the broken one to Mabel so he wouldn’t have to let go.

“It’s okay, Dipper. It’s not coming near you, I promise. I won’t let it,” Wirt murmured.

Dipper shook his head, not moving away, not lifting his head. “I’m fine,” he lied.

Mabel rolled up Wirt’s sleeve, not touching the break as she pressed the marking onto his inner forearm. Satisfied with it, she rolled his sleeve back down and helped him get his arm back into the sling. Laying a hand on Wirt’s shoulder, she leaned in to press a kiss to his temple and whisper in his ear, “He hates them because of some stunt some bullies pulled in second grade. I think he’s just too tired to block it like normal, but he’ll be okay.”

She drew back, leaving her twin’s comfort to Wirt as the kettle shrilled in the kitchen. “I’ll go take care of that. You two... Why don’t you go ahead and sleep? You’re both exhausted.”

Wirt shook his head. “No, no. I’ll have some tea and I can stay up. I’ve gotta tell my mom and Jonathan about the window and you guys and… I’ll be fine.”

She frowned at him, but didn’t argue. Dipper’s shaking was easing again, and she knew he could handle it. “Come on, Greg. Let’s go make some hot chocolate.”

When their steps faded, Dipper finally lifted his head but he couldn’t quite meet Wirt’s gaze. His toyed with the fabric of his sweater instead. “Sorry, I... That was stupid. I’m stupid. I’m sorry. Sharpie’s hard to scrub off, so... It's smart. For sigils. For now. The smell just...” He grabbed his hat, twisting the bill. “Sorry.”

“No, don’t be sorry.” Wirt swallowed, then lowered his head to Dipper’s shoulder, weary and drained despite his urge to stay up. “I get it. It’s a pretty… it’s a pretty strong smell…” His voice broke and he wondered how many times the child in the bathroom had to relive that moment just from the smell of sharpies. How many times the boy in his arms had to. “It’s absolutely not stupid.”

It felt stupid. It shouldn’t bother him. Dipper knew he shouldn’t let it bother him. He blamed it on the exhaustion. “I’m- yeah. Can we lay down? I want- I just want to lay down with you. Sitting up hurts, and I just- I missed you. I missed laying down with you.”

“Y-yeah. Yeah, of course. Um.” Wirt shifted, allowing Dipper room to stretch out on the couch and made sure he was sandwiched between the back of the couch and himself for once.

It was terrifying, having his back to the room, but Wirt glimpsed the sigil on his arm and it strengthened the decision to lie on his side facing Dipper. Well, more like squishing him and pressing right up against him since there wasn’t much room on the couch. Tucking his right arm between them, the wrist already an annoyance and hindering what should’ve been basic, comforting things, Wirt draped the left one over Dipper. He’d do the best he could with what he had.

“Is this… this better?” he asked, heart racing and chin quivering as he adjusted Dipper’s hat for him before going back to hugging him. “Just let me know if anything else hurts.”

He tried to nod, but the bill was in the way. He couldn’t bring himself to take the hat off, so twisted it to the side, and then nodded. “Yeah, this...”  It was better, but not quite perfect. It was bizarre, being the one tucked safe between a loved one and a wall, but he let Wirt have it. He was too tired to argue about it and too tired to stop the absolutely childish notion that if they stayed hidden beneath the blankets then nothing could get them.

He threw them over their heads, then gripped the back of Wirt’s sweater to keep him close and at least offer a little bit of protection. “Being my shield again?” he murmured, nudging their noses together.

“Trying to be,” he confirmed, attempting a small smile before concern erased it and worry lined his face. “I… Bill showed me some things. I didn’t know how true they were, if they were at all, and I’m still not entirely sure, but… I want to be there for you, regardless. I’ll stand between you and any monster. Being of pure energy with all sorts of nightmares at his disposal or… or a human with a sharpie. I’ll be there. You don’t have to face any of it alone. I’m sorry you had to this time, but- but I’ll be better. I promise.”

“He showed you...” Dipper’s head ducked, gaze shifting away as he blinked back the tears. He’d shed enough of them for that day over the years, but the hand not clutching Wirt lifted and started to rub. Rub it away. Get it off. Get it off. Get it off. “Of course he did,” he muttered. “Oh my god. He probably didn’t even exaggerate it. It was the- It was the worst day of my entire freaking life, and I still can’t-”

Memories played through his head and the overwhelming sensation of being alone layered over. He’d been alone in class when they’d teased him under their breaths. The teacher couldn’t hear their whispers, and if he spoke up - tattletale, tattletale. He’d been alone in the playground when they’d taken his books and his magazines and pushed his face into the dirt. He’d been alone when they’d held him down and drawn over his skin. Alone in the bathroom when he’d made himself bleed. He’d been alone when Gideon had traced the same lines as bullies with a knife, marking him forever.

Abruptly, a broken noise spilling from him, he shoved away his hat and rubbed his forehead to Wirt’s.

He hadn’t been alone when Bill, in Wirt’s body, had lifted a shard of glass and tried the same thing. He wasn’t alone now, with someone shielding him from something he hadn’t even been around to see firsthand. He wasn’t alone.

“I wasn’t alone. I didn’t face him alone this time. You helped. You were there. I know what it’s like to have him in your head. How do you think he knew what happened to me? How do you think he had my memories? He was in me, and he took them. You don’t have to be better. You’re already the best. I love you. I love you, Wirt.”

Wirt raked his fingers through Dipper’s hair, then stroked down along his cheek. “I love you, too, Dipper. I just wanted- I wanted to help you. I wanted to do something for you, anything, and I…” His eyes searched his, trying to convey all his love and heartache on behalf of him, then tilted his head up to kiss Dipper’s brow. “I love you. You’re beautiful and perfect and you saved me. You didn’t give up on me, you believed in me even when I couldn’t- and you’re so smart. You put everyone before yourself and I- I just love every part of you. Okay? I want to protect all that. I’ll shield you.”

“I know. Knowing you’ll put yourself on the line for me is incredible. It’s amazing that I can rely on you. You can be so anxious about things and you’re so sweet that you seem like... On the surface, you’re harmless. But choosing not to hurt people is totally different from being harmless.” He shifted a bit, capturing his lips. “You’ve got spine when you need it. You’ve got that brilliant brain always. If I need a shield, I’ll take you. I love everything about you, man. I’ll take you.”

“You will?” Too tired to keep the words from really affecting him, after days of feeling nothing but useless, Wirt sniffed and rubbed their foreheads together again as he closed his eyes against their watering. “Good, because we traded, remember? You already have me. You’ll always have me.”

“You’re stuck with me right back,” he sighed, his own eyes drifting shut. Cocooned beneath blankets, wrapped up in and around his boyfriend as much as injuries would allow, he was starting to feel safe again. The sleepless, anxious nights seeped in.

On the cusp of sleep himself, tea forgotten in the warmth of blankets and Dipper, Wirt jolted away from the edge twice. He tried to open his eyes, but he was so tired. His arm tightened around Dipper and held on to the fabric of his sweater to keep from pinching himself awake. Rationally he knew he needed to sleep, knew there was no fighting it, but that didn’t stop his heart from clenching or his breath from hitching.

“No more… no more dreams, right?” he murmured. “I can sleep?”

“I told you if you got him out, I’d keep him out.” Dipper nuzzled sleepily. “Trust me.”

Wirt snuggled closer. “I do.” Despite whatever Bill conjured in his mind, despite how he’d made Dipper appear, that was one thing that had remained unshaken. “I trust you.”

“Then go to sleep. If you dream, they’re yours. Make ‘em good.”

“M’kay. You’ll still be here when I wake up?” he asked, voice slurring with sleep as he relaxed against him and the couch.

“Mmhm. Stayin’ right... right here.” Dipper didn’t know if he managed to get the words out or if they were just in his mind. “Love you.”

He did. And for the first time in weeks, Wirt fell asleep with a smile on his lips. “Love you, too.”

 

----

 

Mabel uncovered their heads, but let them sleep. Greg and Jason Funderburker were set up in front of the TV, wrapped in their own blanket and surrounded by colors and books to fill with them. “You’re in charge, corporal. Let me know if they wake up,” she’d ordered, knowing full well that they wouldn’t. Both were exhausted. Both had pushed themselves to the very limits of what they could handle, physically and emotionally.

And it wasn’t over quite yet. This wasn’t something that could be hidden from their parents. It shouldn’t be. They were nice, good people and deserved to know that their sons had been in danger. They’d overcome it, thankfully, but Amy and Jonathan needed to know about it.

She checked her cellphone for the numbers, but used the home phone to dial. “Hi, Amy. Yeah, it’s me. I- Oh, yeah, Dipper’s here, too, of course. But I-” She pressed her lips together, listening to relief. She hated to ruin it. “Listen, um... Will you come home? Yeah. Now. It’s... Dipper and Wirt need to go to the hospital. No, no, nothing- It’s not- We didn’t need to call 911, exactly, but... Okay. Come home. I’ll explain everything, I promise. Mmhm. They’re asleep. Greg’s watching TV. Mmhm. They’ll be okay, really. See you soon.”

When she hung up, she tilted her head back and let her own weariness flow through her, and expended it on a sigh. She’d sleep later.

While she waited for their parents, she took Dipper’s laptop from his bag and began to look up costs for window replacement and the costs of replacing Dipper’s waterlogged phone. She knew he’d be upset over it later, but he’d been too out of it to care when it had fallen out of his jean pocket when he’d been changing. Hooray warranties.

When she heard a car pull up, she rose from the spot she’d claimed beside Greg on the carpet and set the laptop aside, and met their mother at the door. “Hi. They’re on the couch. Still sleeping.”

Amy nodded as she hurried inside, her gaze locking on Greg first before shooting to the couch. Wirt was asleep. He was actually asleep. She patted her chest over her heart as she exhaled quickly. He was sleeping and he looked peaceful despite the scratches on his face. She swallowed and turned to Mabel.

“I called Jon, he should be here soon. I’m actually surprised he didn’t make it here before me.” The woman waved it away, then glanced out the still open door as the tell-tale sounds of her husband’s van pulling up out front reached them. “You said they need a hospital? I know you said you’d explain everything, but should we get them there now? I’d just hate to wake him. But if he’s hurt- I knew something was wrong, but he said he could handle it.” She ran her fingers through her hair. “I’m sorry, I’m rambling.”

“Well, we know where Wirt gets it from.” Mabel tried a smile, pushing at her hair. “But it’s okay. They really need sleep right now, but we should absolutely wake them up once you guys know what happened. I did bandage them up but, well, Dipper’s going to need stitches. Butterfly bandages only do so much, and Wirt’s definitely going to need a cast.

“And I’m just going to have to repeat all this for Jonathan when he comes in. Do you want to talk in the kitchen, or...?”

Amy looked to Greg as Jon bounded up the walkway to the front porch. “Yes. I think the kitchen would be best. I don’t want to risk waking them yet.”

“Is everything okay?” Jonathan asked in a rush, offering Mabel a small, distracted wave. “Hi, Mabel. Great to see you. What’s going on?”

“Mabel’s just about to explain it,” Amy told him, motioning for him to close the door. “Come on, we’re going to to kitchen.”

“It’s kind of going to be a lot to take in.” Mabel looked over her shoulder, sighing at her boys. “Greg, you staying in here or are you going to come with us?”

Greg blinked up at her, his parents, then looked over his shoulder at Wirt and Dipper. “Yeah.” He decided after a beat, getting to his feet and leaving Jason Funderburker behind. “Keep watch, Jason Funderburker,” he instructed the frog, then darted over to his mom for a hug. “I’m sorry, Mom.”

“Oh, honey.” She picked him up and carried him into the kitchen. “It’s okay. Wirt’s going to be fine, Greg.”

Mabel followed, feeling a little anxious. She made herself sit at the table, though, and considered where to start. “Okay. Um. You’ve seen some of Dipper’s videos, right?”

Jonathan nodded, joining her at the table. “Yes. Greg’s shown us a few of them.”

“Do you believe them? I mean really, seriously believe them. Dipper and I seek out monsters and creatures and unexplainable phenomena every summer. Do you believe that?”

He shared a glance with his wife, the two communicating silently before Amy chanced a small nod. “To an extent,” she clarified. “I believe there are things that exist beyond our understanding. Things of… paranormal origin, I suppose. And I believe that there is a high concentration of these things in Gravity Falls.”

“After seeing gnomes running around in the middle of the night stealing some poor woman’s pie, I don’t see how we couldn’t. And we know something happened while the boys were there with you,” Jon added. “We know something happened to Dipper, specifically.”

“Did something follow them here?” Amy asked.

They were the greatest, really. Relief rippled through her. “Yes. A dream demon who can also possess people under certain circumstances. And he kind of possessed Wirt today? He got him out, obviously, but... Hospital and, well, he and Greg are both going to need protection.”

“Oh my god.” Amy smoothed Greg’s hair back, looking at him for confirmation and he nodded. “I thought he was acting- I just thought it was because he was so sleep-deprived, I didn’t think-”

“Of course they’ll need protection.” Jonathan shook his head. “A dream demon? A dream demon… that explains the nightmares.”

“It explains everything,” she bemoaned. “Oh, Greg, honey… why didn’t you tell us?”

Greg pressed his cheek against her shoulder. “I didn’t think he was bad at first… but then he started being mean to Wirt and… I didn’t mean to, Mom. I didn’t want Wirt to get possessed.”

“I know you didn’t. Greg, I know you didn’t,” she soothed. “It’s okay now.”

Jonathan turned to Mabel. “What can we do to protect them?”

“So this part’s going to be a little difficult, but definitely not impossible.” She gestured at Greg. “Demons have sigils or little drawings, basically, to ward them away. Bill’s is the thing I drew on Greg’s hand and Wirt’s arm. The thing is that drawing’s not enough. It needs to be permanent. Like, y’know, tattoo permanent?”

Both of their eyes widened and Greg lifted his head to check both of their reactions. His parents weren’t opposed to tattoos - his dad had one himself - but it was one thing for adults to have tattoos and another for children. Jon raked his fingers through his hair, watching his wife as she sat down beside him and across from Mabel, keeping Greg in her lap.

“I don’t… that’s the only way?” Amy asked to clarify. “They can’t be blessed or- or…”

“At least we don’t have to make some kind of animal sacrifice.” Jonathan attempted to lighten the mood. “I mean, it could be worse than a tattoo.”

“I know it could be worse, but our son is seven, Jon.”

“I’ll be eight soon,” Greg piped up.

Jon cracked a weak smile. “That’s only ten years away from legally being able to get a tattoo.”

“Oh my god.”

“Dipper and I’ve had ours since we were twelve,” Mabel offered. “I know it’s a big deal. Wirt got all pale and shaky - which was a surprising feat at the time - when I mentioned it to him. But that really is it. He’ll get back into Wirt’s mind if the mark’s not there permanently, and he’ll just keep wreaking havoc on it. He’ll keep getting into Greg’s dreams and...” They’d talked about things, quietly, while their brothers had slept. “He can’t possess Greg fully, but he can get into his dreams and take over his body through them while he sleeps. We have to keep him out. You have to let me and Dipper give them the sigil.”

“Oh my god,” Amy repeated, hiding her face with her hand while Greg patted her shoulder gently.

“It’ll be okay, Mom. Mabel said it’s just like getting a shot and I can handle shots like a champ,” he offered as reassurance.

She exhaled slowly. “I know, baby. I know you’re a trooper and you’ve been very brave through all of this.” She lowered her hand to look to her husband.

As solemn as he’d been the night their boys had been hospitalized from nearly drowning, Jon nodded and took her hand, squeezing it firmly. “We have to. We knew something was wrong and we didn’t know how to fix it, but this is it. This is how we fix it.”

“I know. I know I wanted to find some way to help, but this is so permanent,” she replied.

“Think of it this way… they’ll be permanently protected from whatever’s been hurting Wirt. Killing him. Amelia, you know this thing was killing him.”

He had a point. A permanent mark on their skin for permanent protection seemed a small price to pay to provide her sons with peace of mind and safety. Wirt had been so pale, the bags under his eyes dark and heavy and he jumped at every shadow. His physical and mental health had been suffering and she would not stand by and let it happen again.

“Alright,” Amy breathed, looking to Mabel. “After we take them to the hospital… you and Dipper do what you need to do to keep them safe.”

“We will, I promise. It’s small, or can be.” Mabel rose and took Greg’s hand to show them what she’d already drawn onto his skin. “That’s all it is. Just a few quick lines and some squiggles. It can be any color and placed anywhere. It’s only the shape that matters.”

Both parents examined it carefully. “It’s not a bad symbol to have for a tattoo, all things considered,” Jon noted.

“If it can be small enough, then yes,” Amy agreed, fixing him with a glance. “And a color that doesn’t stand out so much. For you at least, Gregory.”

“Does purple stand out too much?” he asked.

“Yes,” both of them confirmed immediately.

Mabel laughed, glad to be able to. “Don’t worry, baby. You’ll have the best subtle color ever. Alpha Twin has it handled.”

“Alright,” Amy breathed, handing Greg off to Mabel so she could rise from the table. “I’m going to check on the boys. Jon, get the van ready so we can take them to the hospital. And we’ll… we’ll need to come up with some kind of explanation for what happened.”

“They’re teenagers. I’m sure we can come up with something convincing,” he assured her, but he faltered for a moment. “How… how bad are they?”

“Um... Not as bad as they could be, believe me. Wirt’s a little cut up, and his wrist is broken. Dipper’s a little... also cut up and there’s some bruising, um, around his neck.” Mabel rubbed Greg’s back in soothing circles. “Just do what Grunkle Stan does and stick to the first lie you come up with.”

Chapter Text

“I can’t believe you convinced our parents to let you give us tattoos,” Wirt grumbled as he glanced around nervously. “I can’t believe you convinced me to let you give us tattoos!”

The tattoo parlour was dark as Mabel picked at the lock and the streets were empty at this time of night. Was it even still night? Wirt didn’t even know. All he knew was that one minute he’d been sleeping, a rather exhausting and fitful experience now that he wasn’t recovering from the brink of hypothermia and demonic possession, and the next he was being shaken awake by a pair of very determined twins and dragged out of the house with barely enough time to get dressed. Now the four of them were downtown, gathered around a tattoo parlour in the dead of night, breaking and entering and stealing. How had life come to this?

Right, a demon had possessed him and coerced his little brother into letting him live in their house for months. Wirt went to wring his hands together, the nervous gesture a comforting one, but frowned when all he did was bump the cast on his right arm. He huffed and raked his fingers through his hair instead.

Dipper bumped their shoulders together, then quickly ushered them inside. “Don’t think of it as a tattoo, man. It’s just something that’ll keep you and Greg safe.” As safe as they could be until Grunkle Ford sent them the supplies they’d need to ward Bill away from the house at any rate.

“Exactly!” Mabel agreed. “Security cameras?”

“On it. Hooray for sleepy towns and lax security.”

“I can’t believe we’re breaking and entering,” Wirt groaned, now fixated on the actual crime. “Okay. Okay, I get the protection thing, I mean that’s the only reason I’m even standing in the middle of a tattoo parlour right now, but why couldn’t we go during business hours and just show them a picture of the sigil?”

“Because this is way more fun!” Greg hopped onto one of the chairs, kicking his legs excitedly.

Wirt stared at him, the very small body in the very large chair. “Right. Because it’s illegal. Because we’re minors. We’re minors and we’re burglars.”

“Burgling tats!”

“Relax, Wirt.” Dipper made quick work of the door to the back office to find security footage and any signs of an alarm they could be missing, and slipped inside. He was so very relieved to be there, to know that having to refresh the sigil was about to become a thing of the past. No more sharpies. Hallelujah.

Mabel gestured for him to sit while her brother made sure no police would discover their little crime. “Come on. It’s a little thing, so it won’t take long. Do you know where you want yours yet? And colors! Color is obviously the most important part.”

“Can mine be green?” Greg asked.

“No. Remember what Mom and Jonathan said?” Wirt lifted an eyebrow when the child just shook his head. “It has to be as close to your skin tone as possible. That was the rule. When you’re older, if you want it to be green, then we’ll re-do it in green.”

Greg did remember that one stipulation on his parents’ part. “Aw beans.” He wasn’t disappointed for long though, perking up as he looked to his older brother. “What color are you gonna get, Wirt?”

He stiffened, hugging himself as he fidgeted, then sank into the chair next to Greg. “I… I don’t know yet. I’m still thinking about it.”

“Well, you don’t have much longer to think about it,” he pointed out.

“I know, Greg.” Wirt pressed the heel of his left palm against his eye as he sighed.

Mabel laughed, rustling through supplies to find ink and a tattoo machine. A lamp was flicked on rather than the overhead lights as they needed it to be as dark and inconspicuous as possible. It was a good thing the main windows were covered in posters. She pursed her lips, gauging the colors she’d need. It couldn’t blend in perfectly or it would be useless, but she could absolutely understand why it needed to be close. It was for their safety, but Greg was still seven years old.

The pale yellow she settled on would be easy enough to blend with green when he was older, if he did want to alter the color at that point and was a good jab at Bill. Yellow could still be a good color. “We can give Greg his first while you think about it, Wirt. And where you want it.”

“Alright,” Dipper said as he reappeared, “camera’s been setup to loop its footage before we got here. I set it for two hours. We should be long gone by then.”

Wirt nodded, squirming in his seat as he watched Mabel with the yellow ink. “Okay. Um… we should both get them somewhere that isn’t really noticeable. Like… in case we’re in swimsuits or changing in a locker room or something.”

“That’s why mine’s here.” Dipper rubbed his left thigh. “No one’s seeing that unless I want them to.”

Mabel nodded and considered a moment, then reached out and patted Greg’s hip. “How about here?”

“Okay!” Greg agreed amiably, then looked to Wirt for approval.

In lieu of their parents, he had final say. “Yeah. Yeah that should be good.” Wirt glanced at Dipper, gaze darting to his thigh. That was a pretty hidden place, it wasn’t a bad idea. Plus Dipper had good legs. From running after monsters and baseball training, probably.

His cheeks grew hot, thankful for the darkness to hide his flushed face as he dropped his gaze to his lap. Maybe they could just use sharpies forever, or at least until they were older. It wouldn’t be so bad, just part of a morning ritual like brushing teeth or something. Except he couldn’t do that to Dipper. Even if they would be a continent apart after the end of this week, every time they’d see each other it would hang between them. Plus what if he or Greg slipped up and forgot to mark it? That was a risk they couldn’t take.

“Did it- um… did it hurt getting it there?” he asked, nodding at Dipper.

“No. I mean, it hurt some. But it was more like getting a shot, I guess. Grunkle Ford was quick.”

“I will be, too,” Mabel promised. “I need to get some gloves, wash my hands and everything.” She hopped up, leaving the loaded tattoo machine on a tray beside Greg, and went in search of safety measures. She wasn’t going to jab them with a needle and not be clean about it.

Dipper nudged Wirt over, settling into the chair beside him and wrapping his arms around his waist. “If you want to see, I don’t mind showing you.”

Wirt leaned into him. “Maybe. I mean, if you’re really okay with it. It might… I dunno. Help?”

“I bet Dipper will hold your hand while Mabel does it like you’re gonna hold mine,” Greg piped up. “Right, Dipper?”

He laughed, pressing a kiss to his boyfriend’s cheek. It felt good to really laugh again. Between the stress of the hospital - stab wounds, cuts, a broken wrist, and bruises around his neck in the obvious shape of hands squeezing were hard to explain away - and the stress of knowing that if just one part of the sigil was rubbed away, they’d be vulnerable again had gotten to him.

Though they were still physically healing, at least after this he wouldn’t have to worry about anything rubbing away. “You bet, Greg.”

“Good. Maybe that’ll keep Wirt from crying,” Greg continued.

“I’m not going to cry,” he huffed, flustered by the notion - no matter how likely - and his fingers curled in Dipper’s jacket. He tilted his head towards Dipper, avoiding eye contact, but nuzzled him gently anyway. The easy affection and his laughter something to cherish.  “Holding hands is just… it’s nice. And I like holding yours…”

“Good thing I don’t like letting yours go. So here. Let me just show you.” Dipper shifted, rolling onto his right side. His jeans were undone and pushed down just far enough for him to show off the sigil. He had to push his boxers down a bit, too, but the sigil was high enough on his thigh that he didn’t flash anything. Just the blue lines etched onto his skin, the same shade as his pine tree hat. “Your eyes only. Congrats.”

Wirt’s heart thudded heavily in his chest and he had to fight the urge to brush his fingers along that intimate sliver of skin. His eyes only. “You have too many parts of your body no one else can see,” he managed, having to clear his throat. “I’m starting to feel spoiled.”

He snorted, tugging his jeans back up to rewrap his arms around his boyfriend. “Thinking about getting yours in the same place?”

“Well, I want it to be just as hidden. I guess maybe on my right thigh?” Wirt shrugged, going to wring his hands again and huffing at the cast. “Or I dunno… guess it could be on my shoulder or something. It’s not like many people will see me without a shirt.”

Dipper took his hand, rubbing his thumb against the back in soothing circles. “Probably not, you and your sweaters. But it’s up to you, man. Wherever you’re most comfortable with it.”

“Okay, all washed up and ready to go!” Mabel chirped, dropping down onto a stool beside Greg. All gathered materials were arranged briskly on the tray, including a stencil she’d fashioned with the thermal-fax she’d found. Wirt’s was ready, too, but was set aside. She ruffled the boy’s hair fondly, looking between him and their brothers. “Let’s get this done quick and go home, okay?”

“Okay.” Greg nodded, then looked to Wirt.

The older brother shifted in the chair, lifting his hand to press a kiss to the back of his boyfriend’s before letting go of it to offer it to Greg. He latched on immediately, the clammy grip of his fingers revealing that he was more apprehensive than he was letting on. Wirt felt a pang of guilt and squeezed his hand, glancing at the tools on the tray. He should be going first, what was he doing? Greg had never seen anyone get a tattoo before, he didn’t know what to expect. Sure he’d gotten shots, but this was way different from a shot.

“Wait, Mabel, I’ll go first,” he told her before she could get started and Greg’s grip eased. “Just- my thigh. We’ll just do it there.”

The twins exchanged looks, Mabel the first to smile. “Okay. Got that color picked?”

“Navy. Or dark blue. Whatever’s easier or there or… yeah.” Wirt’s pulse skyrocketed and he could see Greg open his mouth out of the corner of his eye, to ask, ‘are you sure?’ undoubtedly, and he was but he wasn’t, so he closed his eyes and nodded firmly. “Don’t ask me if I’m sure.”

Greg was quiet for a second, then changed tactics and said instead, “Navy blue’s a good color for you.”

“Yeah, it is. Switch places while I get the right color mixed.” Relieved that she wouldn’t have to give Greg the tattoo first, Mabel hopped up and darted for the cabinet of ink.

Dipper stood, crossing to them to pick up the youngest member of their group. “She’s going to clean the area - lay down, man - and she’ll put the stencil down and then some ointment that’ll numb the area. It’ll feel weird at first, but it shouldn’t hurt.” A second stool was pushed over and he dropped onto it, keeping Greg held safely in his lap. “Then she’ll clean it again, put a bandage over it, and you’ll be good to go. Ten minutes, tops.”

Sitting up had been easier. Lying down made his heart crawl into his throat. He picked at his cast, gaze focused on the ceiling as he nodded. He could do this. It wouldn’t hurt any more than anything else he’d endured over the past week. It certainly wouldn’t hurt as much as digging a knife into his own arm. It would be fine. He wouldn’t even have to look while Mabel did it, he could just stare at the ceiling. Ten minutes. Yes.

“How long do we have to keep the bandage on?” Greg asked, allowing his brother his silence.

“About four hours. It’s small, so anywhere after two’ll work. But shoot for four. Then you’ll actually be able to take a look at it.”

“Okay.” Greg watched Wirt watch the ceiling, leaning against Dipper as he hummed thoughtfully. Questions didn’t seem to be helping. “Want to make up some poetry, Wirt? That usually helps when you’re all… like a Worry Wirt.”

“Roses are red, violets are blue, I can’t believe I’m getting a tattoo.”

Greg snorted and laughed, unable to help it when it was delivered in such a deadpan, even more so when Wirt’s lips twitched a little. “That’s a good one!”

Mabel giggled, setting her ink cap down and plucking up her tattoo machine to triple-check the needle. She wouldn’t need to change them, thankfully, this mark fairly simple. “You’d better believe it! Now come on. I can’t disinfect and everything through your pants.”

Puffing out his cheeks with a huffy sort of look, Wirt unfastened the button for his pants along with the zipper and inched them down a touch, keeping his gaze locked on the ceiling. He blinked a few times when his eyes started to sting from staring. Poetry usually helps. Poetry.

Oh, Dipper, how do I love thee? Let me count the ways-

No. God, no. He didn’t remember that moment exactly, but his body and brain remembered it enough. He’d go back to the “roses are red” deal. Roses are red, violets are blue, after I’ve drowned you, you will be, too. Nope. Okay. Poetry was ruined. Thanks, Bill.

At least it solidified his resolve to go through with the tattoo. Some silver lining. He tilted his head so he could look at Dipper, eyes drawn to his neck. He could still see the bruises. He’d always be able to see the bruises. He shivered when he felt the disinfectant being swabbed on his skin, but that wasn’t the only reason for it.

“Thinking up more poems in your head, Wirt?” Greg asked him, capturing his attention.

“Yeah. Yeah, more poems.”

“Good, that’ll help!”

“Mmhm.”

Dipper zipped his jacket up to his chin, a bit of a challenge with Greg, but he didn’t want Wirt looking at him like that. The bruises would fade, and he’d lived. They’d all lived, and he wasn’t going to let either of them forget that. He scooted closer, reaching out a hand. “Don’t look at them,” he said quietly. “Look at me. See me.”

“I always see you.” Wirt met his gaze, hardened with guilt. “I always see you and now I just see what my hands did to you, too, and you can say it’s not my fault all you want, but it’s why I’m here. It’s why I’m getting this. So I don’t have to be afraid that my body will hurt you again. Or Greg or Mabel or anyone. I’m trying not to think about it, believe me, but I was inside when he hurt you. I was there.” He woke up to his hands around his boyfriend’s throat, squeezing.

Dipper’s hand faltered, curling into a fist and falling away with his gaze. There was nothing he could say to that, nothing he could offer, because he understood. Bill had commandeered his body twice, and he’d seen things he’d never wanted to see. He’d done things he’d never wanted to do. He’d hurt people, too, and it was all he’d seen for a while. “I... I get it,” he mumbled.

The hardness didn’t last. It shattered as soon as Dipper looked away. Wirt had braced himself for a fight, expected to have to fight him on it and stubbornness had reared it’s head in preparation. Instead he received acceptance. The win.

He didn’t want it.

He already feared so much that Dipper would have to look away from him because he saw Bill, he didn’t want him to look away when he only saw him, too. “I’m sorry,” his voice broke and he made to reach back, but he hesitated, unbroken hand hovering halfway between them. He’d missed his chance. He talked about not wanting to hurt him, then went and did it anyway. “I’m sorry, I won’t look at them. I won’t- I won’t think about them. It. Any of it. I didn’t mean to remind you of when you were… I’m sorry.”

“It’s part of how he wins, Wirt.” Dipper looked up, and his eyes were haunted. “I know how easy it is to blame yourself. Shouldn’t have made the deal, right? Should’ve been faster, stronger, smarter. If you think like that, he wins anyway.” He stared at his hand, leaned forward to take it. “We’re all alive. We’re all here. I still love you. Take the win, man.”

Wirt clutched at his hand. “I’m trying,” he replied, but there was a tremor caught in his throat. “I’m trying, but I still feel like I lost something, Dipper. And I don’t know what it is.”

Suddenly holding his hand wasn’t enough. He looked up at his sister, Mabel pausing and giving him a wave. He set Greg down on the stool and squeezed onto the chair with Wirt and gathered him close. “It gets easier. It does, I promise. I don’t know if you’ll ever get that piece back, but it’ll be okay. You’re okay.”

A sob caught in his chest, Wirt forcing it down so it wouldn’t make him shake and disturb Mabel’s work. But his breathing was strained, tight, as he wrapped his arms around him and burrowed against him. He didn’t want to break. He’d been trying to keep it together because it was his own stupid fault for letting Bill in in the first place when he knew better. He knew better. But the arms around him promised to hold him together, the soft assurance filled his heart to the brim.

Wirt exhaled harshly once, then again as his shoulders trembled. His fingers pressed against Dipper back, feeling his warmth and breathing and tried to match it. He had to calm down. He was okay. They were all safe. They’d won. For now.

“Stay with me? Stay with me, please.” He clutched at Dipper’s jacket, letting pieces of him fall apart. “I don’t want to lose you, too.”

“You’ll never lose me. I love you, Wirt.” He pressed a kiss to the top of his head. “Go ahead and cry. It’s okay. I’m here. I love you.”

It still didn’t feel real sometimes, but that was something he hoped would get easier as well. He didn’t shed any tears, but let out the tension coiled tight in his stomach and chest with gasping breaths as he held onto Dipper and shook. When they were home, not in a tattoo parlour illegally in the middle of the night, he’d push his boyfriend’s jacket from his shoulders and listen to his heartbeat, wrap around him in his bed and feel his breath against his cheek. Feel him there, beside him.

“I love you, too,” he had to reply, unable to keep from telling him as often as possible. He had to know. Now that the words were out there, he wasn’t ever going to keep them from him. “I love you, too.”

Dipper rubbed soothing circles into his side, just holding on for a few seconds before giving Mabel a go-ahead nod. They had to get it done, and they had to go.

Mabel worked quickly, laying the stencil over Wirt’s skin to mark the outline. It had to be perfect. She wouldn’t leave them unprotected. It broke her heart to see him crumble. She rubbed ointment over the bluish-purple stencil, then switched on the machine and dipped the needle in ink. “Ready?”

Wirt nodded, face turned toward Dipper and away from the needle. He did open his eyes when he felt a hand on his knee and found Greg watching him closely, ready to be there as extra support, apology shining in his gaze. Wirt held his breath a moment, to stop his chest from hitching, then offered him a weak smile.

“Yeah. Yeah, I’m ready. Faster this goes, the faster we can go home.” It was more for Greg to hear, forcing his voice to sound as normal as possible while he closed his eyes in preparation. “Do your worst, Mabel.”

She laughed, filling the room with the sound because they just couldn’t be sad. This was it. They would be protected forever after this, and then they could go home and spend the rest of the week normally. They still had Thanksgiving memories to make, and she was looking forward to that.

She watched Dipper nuzzle him, press another kiss to his head, but his lips were curved in a smile. A small one, but a smile nonetheless. “Wirt Palmer getting a tattoo,” she teased and began applying ink to skin. “What is the world coming to?”

His expression contorted into a grimace, relaxing only when he felt Greg squeeze his leg. Right, he’d be going after him and even if he was a brave kid, he had to make this look like nothing. It really wasn’t much worse than getting shots, but who honestly thought getting shots was an enjoyable experience? Wirt certainly didn’t.

“Watch, it’ll be a snowball effect,” he gritted out, keeping the good humor going. “After this, what’s going to stop me from getting more? Next thing you know I’ll be covered in them.”

“What would you get?” Greg sniffled, curiosity piqued even at the ridiculous scenario.

“Music notes. A clarinet. A frog for Jason Funderburker.” Thinking up possibilities actually helped keep his mind off the ink seeping into his skin. “Eiffel Tower. Palais Garnier. St. Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow because it’s colorful and would make a cool tattoo. Bluebird for Beatrice, of course. Dipper’s hat. Knitting things for Mabel. What do you want? Magical tiger or elephant?”

“Magical tiger,” Greg confirmed.

“I’ll get both, I need to fill up the space.”

Dipper laughed, cupping his chin to give him a sound kiss. “What, Greg gets two, but I only get one? What sort of crazy fantasy is this?”

“I wasn’t finished yet.” Wirt’s tight grip on him eased, the tension lining his scrunched up eyes smoothing away as well. “You can have two, too, if it means so much to you. Maybe even three. And they’ll be nice and big, does that make you feel better?”

“Yeah.”

Mabel huffed, but was smiling as she applied more ink to the needle to start working on the side squiggles. “And I still only get one. Nice to know where the honorary sister stands.”

“Oh my gosh. You can have a grappling hook, too, okay? Jeez, you’re all so greedy,” Wirt scoffed, but he was smiling. “I’m not going to have any skin left at this point. It’ll all be ink.”

“That no one will ever see because you’re always in your sweaters.”

“Oh my gosh,” Mabel snickered, switching off the machine and setting it aside to start cleaning the sigil. “Can you even imagine? His friends faces if he goes to the beach or something and ta-da, tattoos everywhere!”

“The surprise would probably last a minute or two, then Sara or Trevor would somehow convince everyone that of course I’d be the closet weirdo that has a secret tattoo obsession. The sweaters were a cover up. Once everyone found out about them I’d change my whole image. Tank tops and ripped shorts with chains and motorcycle boots. What do you think?”

The twins grinned. “Stick with sweaters.”

“Subvert the system!” Mabel added, applying a little bit of witch hazel before leaning back. She studied the lines, absolutely delighted. “All done! Take a look before I put the bandage on.”

Wirt opened his eyes, though he was still facing Dipper. He started to move his head, then hesitated. “Is there blood? I don’t know if I want to see it if there’s blood or if the skin’s swollen or- yeah. Dipper, can you-? How does it look?”

He gave him a squeeze before sitting up, shifting to lean over and look. It probably wasn’t wise that his first reaction to seeing his thigh had him licking his lips, but it couldn’t be helped. His second reaction was the better one, and he patted his boyfriend’s waist fondly. “Not swollen or bloody.”

Mabel’s cheeks puffed. “As if I’d let that happen.”

Greg climbed onto the stool so he could stand on it and get a better look for himself. “It looks good, Wirt! Your best tattoo yet!”

“It’s my only tattoo yet; the others were all hypothetical,” he murmured, lifting his head to catch a quick glance for himself. The shine of the dark ink on his skin was strange, but the shape was right and a relief to see. “Thanks, Mabel.”

“As the resident arts and crafts master, I fully and humbly accept your gratitude and only expect small tokens like flowers or a small musical number in return for my services.”

“Shut up, Mabel.”

She stuck her tongue at her laughing twin, then briskly applied antibacterial ointment and a sterile absorbing pad to the tattoo to keep it safe and clean. “And there we go! All done completely.”

Wirt carefully hiked his pants back up around his hip, mindful of the bandage, then fastened them. He waited for Dipper to ease out of the chair first, then went to follow, but Greg was already climbing into his lap for his turn.

“You got to have someone sit in the chair with you.” He pointed out, cheeks puffing out stubbornly, but there was still some lingering worry in his face, so Wirt couldn’t say no to him.

“Fair enough.”

“We do have to be fair about these things,” Mabel agreed. “The world would fall apart. Dipper, clean his hip for me. I need to change out this needle and the ink cap.”

He dropped down onto the stool she vacated and ruffled Greg’s hair. “If Wirt can handle this, you can too, right?”

Greg flashed him the a-okay sign. “You bet. I’m the brave one, after all.”

Wirt frowned a little and looked down at him. “I can be brave.”

“I didn’t say you couldn’t be. You just get scared way more than me,” the younger brother explained.

He did have to give him that. “Alright.” Wirt dropped his chin atop Greg’s head. “I can see the logic there, I guess.”

“Overcoming fear still ticks the bravery column, so you’re both the brave one,” Dipper put in, plucking up the stencil. He held it close to Greg’s waist, turning it sideways in consideration. “I think this might be better. Easier to hide it than if it was vertical.”

Greg tilted his head to try and see. “Okay, if you say so. I trust your judgment, Admiral Dipper. What do you think, Captain Wirt?”

“I second the admiral’s opinion.”

When General Mabel returned and also approved, she got to work. When both brothers were as protected as they could be from one Bill Cipher, the four cleaned up and slipped back out into the night. Hip sore from the needle, Greg swindled a piggyback ride out of his brother. It was a little tricky with his cast, but he managed to get his brother situated as they headed home.

“You were really brave,” Greg murmured softly, just for him. “I was scared the whole time.”

Wirt fell back a bit. Not too noticeable, but enough for the twins to stay ahead of them, sensing his brother meant for this conversation to be between the two of them alone. “What do you mean? With the tattoos?”

“No.”

“Oh.” Wirt leaned to one side, his left, to hike him up a bit better and Greg helped him to make it easier. “Well, you heard what Dipper said. Overcoming fear still ticks the bravery column. You’re still brave, Greg. And you were brave while everything was happening. You did the right thing by letting Mabel know what was up, too. That was incredibly brave.”

His arms tightened around Wirt’s shoulders. “He said he’d break you like the wings of a bird if I told. Did he? Did he break you? You told Dipper you felt like you lost something and he said it was a piece of you. Did Bill break it off?”

“No. No, Bill didn’t break any part of me- well, aside from my wrist, but you and I both know that’s not what he meant, right?”

“Right.” Greg nodded, though from his tone Wirt could tell that he was still uncertain.

“I’m not broken, Greg,” he assured him. “You did the right thing and we’re all okay.”

“You did the right thing, too. You saved me, and then you saved Dipper, too. So you did the right thing. Please don’t think you didn’t.”

Wirt was glad he couldn’t see his face as he processed his plea. In his case, what was right and what was wrong wasn’t nearly as cut and dry. Even with the protection now permanently inked into their skin, Bill Cipher was still out there. He’d lost the battle, yeah, but his defeat was nowhere near as concrete as The Beast or Splinter Man or Gideon. He was still out there. What if there had been a scenario where the win was clear and his threat had been diminished? What if there had been a better right thing?

A shiver wracked his spine, an unsettling sensation creeping along his neck. The feeling of being watched. Wirt stopped and glanced behind him. The snow-covered streets were empty, only the light from the half-moon and the street lamps illuminating the night. Shadows still and quiet. Nothing was there.

Greg fidgeted in his grasp, watchful as he tried to spy what Wirt did. The older brother swallowed and turned around, hurrying after the twins before their pause was noticed. He fell into step just behind them, gaze flickering between them. The two people Bill had really wanted.

The two people Bill would never have if Wirt had anything to say about it.

“I’m working on that, Greg,” he finally answered his little brother, to soothe the seven-year-old’s worries. “Promise. That’s a rock fact.”

That seemed to appease him for the time being. Wirt felt Greg relax against him while he carried him home, following the path the twins set before them. Just like finding their way out of The Unknown.

“Alfa, Bravo, Charlie,” Greg started to hum when they turned onto their street, the little song he’d come up with to help him remember the words for the alphabet. Glancing up at the sky, clear of mist and sparkling with stars, Wirt joined in quietly, “Delta, Echo…”

On the street they just left behind, one of the street lamps flickered several times in quick and slow successions. Not over, it would’ve spelled out had it been morse code. Then the light went out.

Chapter Text

“He still blames himself, Mabel. He still can’t sleep right. We only have a few days, and there’s just... I can’t do anything.”

It broke her heart, the sadness weighing her twin down. The bags under his eyes darkened with each of Wirt’s restless nights, Dipper determined to stay up with him, to be alert and available when he jerked awake from the nightmares plaguing him. They weren’t directly created by Bill, but Wirt’s natural inclination towards nightmares hadn’t been helped along by this latest turn of events.

They were both tired, both stressed, and it hung over the house like a dark cloud. She couldn’t take it. She couldn’t handle this another minute. Mabel got him to lay down on the couch, disturbed by how simple it was to get him to close his eyes. He wouldn’t sleep well, but at least he would sleep and it gave her enough time to walk down the hall and push open Wirt’s door.

He looked agitated, prowling his bedroom like a caged animal. His new window was closed tightly, blinds drawn to block out the light. She closed the door behind her sharply to gain his attention. “Hi.”

Wirt jerked to attention, tripping over one of the books littering his bedroom floor. He kicked it aside in a rather aggressive manner, then went to rub his arm through his sweater only to grab his cast instead. “Oh, um, hi,” he replied, flustered to have been caught off-guard so easily.

He’d been too deep in his head to hear her come in, too deep to notice the movement out of the corner of his eye, but he should’ve. He had to be more vigilant, more in tune with what was around him. He had to make sure nothing else ever crept into his house undetected and getting lost in his head, stuck in the loop of memories - real and not - was unacceptable.

Wirt scrubbed his left hand over his face since he couldn’t rub or wring his hands together. “Did you need something?” he asked.

“Yes. What are you doing?”

Blinking, he shook his head a little as her brusqueness put him off-balance. “Um. Thinking? I don’t know, just started pacing because it helps sometimes. It’s- I don’t know. I’m not busy if that’s what you’re asking.”

“Okay, good.” She hugged herself. “I just got Dipper to lay down and he went to sleep without arguing with me for the first time in... Well, for the first time ever, I think. He’s so tired, Wirt, and so are you. I can see it. So stop pacing for five minutes and sit down.”

Guilt flashed across his face and he sunk down on the edge of his bed without complaint. “I’m sorry, I don’t mean to keep him up. I told him I’d sleep on the couch if my nightmares kept waking him up, but he...” Wirt exhaled heavily, then gestured for Mabel to sit in the chair at his table if she wanted.

She sank down, arms still wrapped around her own stomach as she studied him. “You know he won’t let you, and he won’t go either. He wants to make you feel better, but I think he’s too ashamed to tell you what he needs to. He hasn’t explained, not really, what happened when we faced Bill in Gravity Falls, has he?”

Wirt pressed his lips together tightly, averting his gaze as he shook his head. “I don’t want to make him,” he told her quietly. “I completely get it if he doesn’t want to explain it. Relive it. Whatever.”

“You’re both so sweet. You never want to pressure each other, but sometimes you just need to. You’ve worn him out, though, so he kind of can’t, and that is your fault. You being dumb. The rest of it, though? Not your fault. What happened when Bill took over your body was not your fault.”

“I know.” He bristled, his arms folding across his stomach defensively. “I know that I had no control over what he did. My head gets that. But it’s- it’s harder to forgive my body. My body betrayed me, Mabel. It did things I would never do and sure it was because someone else was walking around inside of it like it was nothing more than a cheap costume, but… but it was a part of me. I was still in there and I thought that as long as I was there I could stop him if he tried to do anything I wouldn’t do.” A self-deprecating laugh escaped him as he glanced at the scratches on the wood paneling wall. “And you can see how well that worked out. Talk about dumb.”

“How much worse if you hadn’t been in there? Do you think Dipper’s birthmark wouldn’t be more damaged if you hadn’t been in there? Do you think Dipper would be breathing if you hadn’t been in there? You were dealing with a demon, Wirt!”

She snatched the third journal off the table and flipped through it. She didn’t know the pages nearly as well as Dipper, but she knew these. “Did you have this? Did you have the warnings everywhere on these pages about him? ‘Don’t let him in your head. Don’t trust him, can’t sleep. Trust no one.’ Did you have this? No! No, you had no idea. But you still fought him back. Not from everything, but how could you? You gathered your strength when it was most important. That’s what matters.”

Her erratic page-flipping drew his gaze back to her. “Okay,” he murmured, though his eyes were tired, as if he’d had this same debate in his head over and over, and there was little belief or acceptance to be found. “Okay. I did the best I could.”

“Yes, you did. You really did. You...” She pressed her lips together and dropped the journal to the floor. “Gideon summoned him. Soos and I were watching, we saw him make a deal with Gideon, and we knew he was going to get into Grunkle Stan’s head. We used one of the spells to go after him, and we kicked Bill out. Grunkle Stan had no idea Bill was even in there, and there was nothing Bill could do anyway except look at memories. But we knew he was there, and we knew he was evil.

“The second time, Dipper was on his own. I wasn’t...” Her head lowered, and she took a careful breath before looking back up. “I was awful, okay? I was wrapped up in my own problems, and I kept breaking promises to help Dipper with this laptop he was trying to hack into. He just knew it held the key to finding the author and he hadn’t been getting any sleep because... Well, you know him. He drops everything for other people, and he dropped the laptop every time I needed him. He was exhausted when he made the first deal with Bill, and desperate. He told me later that it was his last chance to input the correct password or it would all be lost.

“Dipper didn’t get to stay in his body, though. Bill didn’t let him stay. He pulled him out and left him to float around and just watch. Dipper ended up in the hospital when he finally did get his body back - sleep deprivation, scratches... a sprained wrist. And Dipper had all the warnings. He knew better, and Bill still tricked him.”

Something flickered in his eyes, sympathy for the child and heartache for the boy sleeping on his couch. “He was young, wasn’t he? It was before The Unknown even. You both were young…” It didn’t change the fact that they’d been resourceful at twelve and thirteen, extremely smart and resourceful. “And… the time after?”

“We didn’t get the sigils then because we didn’t tell anyone and, well, I don’t actually think Grunkle Stan would’ve known what to do anyway. That was even before we met Grunkle Ford, and we were used to dealing with crazy things on our own and we hadn’t even disbanded the Society of the Blind Eye and...” Mabel shrugged and began to rock herself, once again hugging her middle. “So we didn’t tell Grunkle Stan that it was a demon. We told him that Dipper had fallen down the stairs - which was true since Bill kind of threw Dipper down the stairs. From the attic to the bottom floor.”

On hand lifted, pushing her hair back to keep herself grounded. She hadn’t been there for that, just for Dipper’s shakily told stories later, and she carried her own guilt for that. “Their deal was that Dipper would be Bill’s puppet. And that’s it. Not how long and not exactly what puppet meant, so Bill started... He didn’t take his body over again, but he started influencing him. He started distracting him. Little things at first, and then they just... They grew.

“Grunkle Stan lied to us, and you know how fragile Dipper’s trust is anyway. And it was a really big, huge lie. The author Dipper had made a deal with Bill over? I don’t know if we’ve ever told you, but that’s Grunkle Stan’s twin. Good ol’ Grunkle Ford.” She tried a smile, but it didn’t come close to reaching haunted eyes. Her usual good cheer had been sapped away. “So we found that out, and I... I picked Grunkle Stan over Dipper. It was the right thing to do. I mean, Grunkle Stan got his brother back and we found the author and it was what Dipper had wanted. For a while, everything was okay. Everything was fine! Grunkle Ford and Dipper really hit it off.

“But...” She couldn’t keep Wirt’s gaze, eyes dropping to the hands she was now wringing in her skirt. “I still teased him a lot and betrayed him pretty much all the time. Constantly when we were younger kids. I told our parents all his secrets, his hiding places. I was no good to him, Wirt, and that just brought it all back for him. I know it did.

“And so did Bill. Bill finds every single weakness he can, and Dipper’s complete need to have someone to trust is his biggest one. We’d all broken it, and Dipper was already under Bill’s influence, so... So it took some time because Dipper’s, you know, Dipper, but... he made another deal.”

She wet her lips, looking back up. “Bill made your body bruise him, but those will fade. Bill made your body stab him, but you heard the doctor. Those won’t leave a scar. You have nothing - nothing - to feel guilty about, Wirt.” She rose and lifted her sweater and the tank top underneath to bare her abdomen.

The scars were deep, jagged and ugly. One, horribly, looked like a child’s handprint. “If Dipper isn’t allowed to feel guilty about this, then you can’t feel guilty about marks that will fade.”

If he could get any paler, he would’ve. Wirt’s breath caught, his red-rimmed eyes wide and he wanted to look away, but he couldn’t. They looked like burns. Scars from burns. “He…” His voice came out a whisper, trapped in his throat as he envisioned just how scars like that would come to be made. The handprint. “He made Dipper… he did that to you? Mabel…”

Somehow he met her gaze, chilled by the haunted look in her eyes. The memories that hovered right in front of her as she relayed them to him. Painted a picture for him to understand. He didn’t want to picture that though. He didn’t want to picture Dipper hovering over Mabel as he tried to burn her, kill her, the way Bill so easily conjured in his mind, in his nightmares. Dipper as someone who could hurt people he loved.

Wirt shook his head. He couldn’t make out her expression as his vision blurred. Blinking rapidly to clear the tears from it, he looked away, chin quivering as he tried to push that image from his mind. It explained a lot, about Bill and about the twins. About what Bill tried to make him do to Dipper and Mabel and probably Greg, too.

It wasn’t so much about marks for him, rather the act itself, the fear that they’d come too close to losing, that the bruises and bandages and bags under his eyes reminded him of. But seeing the scars on Mabel’s stomach... “Does he… does he still feel guilty? Even if he isn’t allowed to?” he managed to force out. “And how did… how did you-?” How did you get past it? How did you forgive him? How was any of it made right? “Were you afraid of him?”

She dropped the cloth back into place, hiding her skin once more, and took Wirt’s hands. “I was never afraid of my brother. Dipper forced his way back in. Bill had his body for days, but I didn’t notice. We all just thought Dipper was... I don't know. He started staying with Soos and Wendy and... He stopped staying at the Shack, but I thought it was because he didn't want to be around me. So one night I went to Candy’s for a sleepover and told her and Grenda how awful I felt for driving my own brother away, and Dipper took over the body of one of her stuffed animals. He was so weak. He was just a spirit at that point, being away from his body exhausting.

“As soon as he told me Bill had him, I went to find him and Bipper-” She laughed a little, choking on the sound. “I called him that. Bill-Dipper, Bipper. He was waiting, and he’d had enough time in Dipper’s body to be able to use some of his powers. And... He was going to either rip my organs out or just freeze them away. It was Dipper’s voice, Dipper’s face, but it wasn’t Dipper. It was Bipper. It was Bill. It wasn’t until Dipper pushed his way back into his own body and fought that it was Dipper again, and he cut off the magic and...

“You and Dipper think alike sometimes. He trapped Bill in his mind and wanted me to draw the sigil on him, seal Bill in, so he could... If the host dies with Bill inside, Bill dies too. That was Dipper. Dipper wasn’t the one trying to rip me to pieces. Dipper was the one ripping himself to pieces.

“Why can’t you see that it’s the same for him with you? It was your face, your body, but it wasn’t you. It was Birt. Would he be sticking with you through all this if he was afraid of you, if he hated you?” Mabel shook her head. “No one understands what you went through better than Dipper. No one else could understand why you feel so guilty, and I don’t know if he still does. I know he’s tried not to. I know he’s always trying not to, and I know that you blaming yourself brings it back. You questioning yourself makes him question himself.”

He didn’t want to think about Dipper carrying this almost unbearable weight on his shoulders. “No, I don’t want- I don’t want to make him feel like-” He squeezed Mabel’s hands, shaking. “I killed him though. In my head. Me. Lots of times and I just- I think about how close it was to actually happening and- and sometimes I wonder if this is just another trick and I’m still trapped, but I don’t- I don’t want to remind him of that. Of what he went through, too. So I don’t talk to him about it.”

Because sometimes when he woke up it wasn’t Dipper being afraid of him that gripped his heart in cold claws, but his own fear. In the dark of his bedroom, pulse racing and panic surging through him, for a second he wondered if the arms that held him and the hands that gripped him were really safe. That killed him more than anything.

“I need him to trust me. I need him to know I trust him. If I talk to him he might think- you just said how important trust is to him. I don’t want him to think I don’t.” Wirt shook his head, voice breaking under the strain. “I’ll be better. I won’t bring it back for him. I’ll- Mom got me some sleeping pills, I’ll- I’ll take those. I won’t burden him with this. I’m sorry, Mabel. I’m sorry I’m hurting him. I’m sorry I’m hurting you.”

“Oh, sweetie, that’s not-”

“You think that won’t hurt more?” Dipper’s voice was as quiet as the way he closed the door behind him. Weariness still lined his features, but he hadn’t been able to sleep long. He’d needed to make sure his boyfriend was okay. He hadn’t expected to see his sister showing him the marks he’d put on her. “I need you to talk to me. I want you to talk to me. You saying nothing brings it back, man. You staring at me like... like you think I’m going to punch you or something brings it back. Just tell me what’s going on in your head.”

See? A traitorous voice whispered in his head. This is what happens when you affect people’s lives. This is what happens when you stop going unnoticed. This is what happens when you get in the way. People get hurt. Wirt closed his eyes drawing his hands back from Mabel’s to hug himself. Shouldn’t ex-

“Shut up,” he whispered, then jolted as he realized he’d said it out loud. “No, not- not you- I was talking to myself, I-” Wirt babbled, chest tight as he looked to Dipper. “I’m-”

He wanted to go to him. He wanted to hold him and bury this whole thing and pretend it never happened. He wanted to burn it from his memories, so he could erase the exhaustion from his boyfriend’s body. His mind. Mabel was right. His fixating on the past few days was what caused this. His guilt and his fear and his silence.

Maybe trying to go unnoticed wasn’t the way to handle this. Pretending it never happened certainly wouldn’t do any good either because it did. It happened. It happened to Dipper and it happened to him. It happened to Mabel and Greg. Exhaling on a shaky wheeze, Wirt tried again. “I don’t know where to start.”

Dipper went to him instead, sinking down beside him and wrapping his arms around him while Mabel made her quiet exit. “Start with the deal. It always starts with the deal.”

“Me for Greg. He said he’d kill Greg.” Wirt shuddered, accepting the embrace as he slumped against him. “If I didn’t make a deal- he said he’d kill him. He was… I think he was making him sleepwalk. I didn’t know- I didn’t know what he could do to him.”

“So a desperate deal made for protection. Okay. Excuse me while I don’t get mad at you for that.” He stroked Wirt’s hair, kissing his temple. “What were the terms?”

“He couldn't hurt Greg or our parents- and I was clear about harming them in any way. Physically, mentally, whatever.” Wirt traced nonsensical lines against Dipper's back, then shifted a bit, drawing his boyfriend with him so they could recline on the bed, propped up against the headboard. “And I didn't know what... what a demon would do with my soul so I asked to stay in my body, not torn apart or... I don't know. I thought it would be like the dreams and I could just... wake up when it got bad. I thought I'd be able to stay in control.”

“That... That might’ve been the smarter move anyway, Wirt. It was... When I had to force myself back in to stop him from killing Mabel, he just... He took out everything. He wiped my entire mind. Every push I made to get in and find him and stop him, he stole pieces of me until I was just floating in this empty white space. I had no idea who I was, where I was, or what was happening. I was just there, and then he pushed every single bad memory I had of her into my head. Every single time she’d let me down, let me hurt. It was all there and... For a second, it was me. For a second, I was the one pushing this icy fire into her chest to rip out her heart.”

He shook his head, then rested his cheek atop Wirt’s on a sigh. “She knows that, and still forgave me. I used to wonder how she managed it. I used to wonder how she was still able to look at me and see me and not what I’d done. I get it now, though.”

Dipper cupped Wirt’s chin, tilting his head so he could rest their foreheads together. “I don’t blame you,” he whispered. “I don’t blame you for making a deal to save your family. I don’t blame you for anything. I love you, Wirt. I see you. I don’t see him. I will never see him in you. Just... I forgive you. Okay?”

There was nothing but honesty in his eyes. Honesty and understanding. Wirt inhaled on a sharp gasp, struck by the impact the words had on him. They were what he'd been trying to get himself to accept, but in the light of this new knowledge about their past with Bill there was no way he could let them be shadowed by his own disdain. Not if it meant condemning Dipper alongside him, and not where the forgiveness soothed the ache inside from the demon's violation like a sweet balm.

Wirt tipped his chin in his hold, closing the distance between them with the brush of their lips. “Okay,” he whispered back. “Okay.”

Dipper shivered, brushing their lips together again because it felt right. It felt like healing. “I’m sorry. I should’ve- I shouldn’t have left it for Mabel to tell you. I just- Everytime I tried, it just got stuck. I didn’t want you to know how stupid I was. I didn’t want you to think I was- I mean, I made bad choices. I made the worst choices, and I thought you’d think I was... less.”

“No. No, how could I...?” Well, he supposed he hadn't set the best precedent considering how he felt about himself the past few days. “I don’t. I’m no stranger to bad choices, Dipper. Or doing things that you’re ashamed of later. You felt alone and scared, right? So did I, when I made my deal. So I get why you couldn’t tell me. I haven’t exactly been receptive.” Wirt glanced away, more embarrassed than guilty over that, but he kept the closeness. “But I don’t think you’re less. I don’t think I ever could. You’re incredibly strong, Dipper. You made bad choices and you… you got past them, somehow.”

“I think you’re strong too. You kept him in your head an entire night. You’ve been dealing with these dreams for weeks. You came up with a code and a way to communicate with me so I could get here. You did so much.” Dipper slid his hand up, cupping his cheek instead, thumb caressing in soothing circles. “So I’m just trying to help you get past this now, but... It’s like you still feel alone and scared even though I’m right here for you, and... And I miss you. You’re right in front of me, but I miss you.”

Wirt pursed his lips, finding his gaze. “I’m sorry. I miss you, too. I’m… I’m just scared to let myself have you. Like… if I let my guard down, you’ll be gone.” He lifted a hand, hesitating before tucking a stray curl under his hat and behind his ear, touch ghosting down his cheek and jaw right back. “I missed you so much, the whole time.”

“I’m not going anywhere. I’m here, Wirt.” He caught Wirt’s hand, pressing his lips to the palm. “Give me a chance. Trust me.”

His heart could beat easier and when Dipper released his hand he wiggled until he could get both arms around him, as difficult as the cast made it. Wirt nuzzled him, the tight coil knotting his stomach and constricting his chest relaxing as they simply laid there together. Breathing, being, stupidly in love.

“I trust you,” he murmured. “Even when I couldn’t talk to you, I never stopped trusting you. If anything it’s reality I don’t necessarily trust, but I think… I think that’ll get better. It already feels better.”

“After... after everything that happened with me, if I thought I was dreaming I held out my hand and just imagined a pitt cola with a backwards label. If it was there, I was dreaming. If it didn’t pop up out of nowhere, it was reality and I could keep going. So... I dunno. I don’t know if something like that would work for you.”

“That… that actually makes a lot of sense.” Wirt took a moment to try it out, nothing happening as he watched his good hand. He let it fall and grip Dipper’s shirt instead. “When I finally… broke free of Bill, I guess, it was because you told me you loved me. In every single dream, even the ones where you sounded and acted like you… I don’t remember him ever having you say it. I know that once you’re gone that won’t- I mean, I’d probably need something like conjuring a soda can when you’re back home, but… I dunno. I just thought you should know. That’s what got me out. That made me try again when all I wanted to do was give up. I wasn’t ready to give up on you.”

“You heard-?” Dipper’s breath caught. “He said it was useless. I mean, I know better than anyone not to listen to a word Bill says, but... He said telling you to fight, telling you I loved you, was useless. That I was just letting you down by not being helpful and just...”

“Why are you so useless, Pine Tree?”

“Could you really hear me?”

Wirt nodded, nestling his face in the crook of his neck and pressing a kiss to the skin there - the voice more important than the fading marks. “Yeah. I even yelled back at you a bit. Really unhelpful stuff like, ‘how the heck am I supposed to fight him?’ but at first I wasn’t sure what was you and what was what I wanted to hear, you know? I heard you though. It was really you. And you kept saying you loved me.”

“I do love you. I wanted you to know that I did, still did even though Bill had taken over. But I didn’t think... I didn’t think it got through, not after what he said and not after... You never said anything, so I thought... I thought he was right.”

“He wasn’t.” His kisses were firmer and his hug a little tighter. “I couldn’t say anything, not until you were already… out of the water, but I heard you. And I wanted to get out so I could tell you I love you, too.”

Dipper squeezed his eyes shut. Of course. Of course he’d been wrong. His head ducked to capture Wirt’s lips. “I know better. I know better than to let him-” His hands swept up Wirt’s sides, cupping his cheeks, brushing through his hair. “I’m so glad you heard me.”

    With a small quiver, Wirt kissed him back as he tangled their legs together, pressing as close as they could. “Me too. I love you. I trust you. I want you, even when I’m acting distant and dumb. I love you.”

“I love you, too, Wirt.” Dipper wrapped his arms around him, holding him as tightly as he could without hurting either of them. “Don’t be distant and dumb anymore, okay? I don’t want to have to miss you unless we’re apart. I want to be with you when we’re together. I miss talking to you. I miss just sitting with you without all the stupid tension between us.”

Wirt burrowed against him, eyes closing as he soaked up every bit of contact. “I miss you, too. I’ll try. I can’t promise that I won’t have my moments because I’m… well, I’m me, but I don’t want to be distant with you. So I’ll try, because you’re- we’re worth it. We deserve this.” He squeezed him lightly, pressing a kiss to his shoulder. “You’re so important to me, Dipper.”

“Trying is good. Trying works.” Dipper kissed the top of his head, his own eyes closing. “We’ll be okay.”

Wirt hummed softly in agreement, and for the first time in a long while, he didn’t fight the way sleep curled around him and clouded his head. Warm and safe and loved, it was like he had nothing to fear as he gave into a long, overdue nap tucked against Dipper.

“Yeah,” he sighed, content in feeling the way his boyfriend’s breaths evened out, in sync with him. “Yeah, we will.”