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Cold Snap

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It's the singing that draws you in. Deeper in the woods than you like to go, you can't resist finding the source of that beautiful baritone, never found a reference in the journal to any kind of wood-dwelling monster that liked to sing. You chase the song through the trees, over fallen logs and off the roads you know, past the grass until snow starts crunching underfoot - and it hasn't snowed in months, you don't know how that's possible - but the song is loud and clear and you think you can ignore the strangeness for one moment more.

The song cuts off suddenly, and the silence that floods the space is more unnerving. You push through the underbrush to a clearing, snow-dusted and perfect in a sunbeam, and you stare at the boy you find standing there. He's older than you, but not by more than a month or two, dressed like a pilgrim. There's a dead look to his eyes, and a large axe in his hand. He doesn't speak.

It's one of the stranger things you've seen, but you would be no kind of explorer if you didn't investigate, and you do your best to smile and look friendly ("What would Mabel do?"), put out a hand and smile. "Hi," you say, "I'm Dipper Pines."

He stares at your hand for a long moment before he takes it, and his palm is rough and calloused and cold. He still doesn't say anything.

It's unnerving, but you aren't getting any weird vibes from him - and after four years in Gravity Falls, you are a true champion at detecting weird vibes - so you ask, "What's your name?"

It's even longer before he answers, and the silences he leaves are strange and awkward. You can see his eyes flicker away as he tries to recall, and if there was any doubt that he was a normal - if reclusive - kid before, that's gone now. "Wirt," he answers eventually, and he repeats it with a little more confidence. "My name is Wirt."

"It's nice to meet you," you try. He doesn't react, and you think even Mabel would have trouble with this. "I liked your singing."

"I wasn't singing," he tells you.

"Oh." You look around; there's no one else, there's only one set of footprints in the snow. "Then who was?"

He doesn't answer, and you're getting used to that. Instead he turns away, back to one of the trees at the edge of the clearing. It's a strange dark colour, the bark warped and distorted, and if you squint at it wrong you think some of the gnarls in the bark almost look like faces. But even with Wirt's odd taciturnity, there's nothing threatening in a sunlit clearing at noon, and you take your chance to get the journal out, scrawl some notes. Snow in June, a teenage woodcutter who struggled to remember his own name, that hat - the hat has to be worth a mention all on its own, surely. You are not much of an artist but you try your best to sketch Wirt so that Mabel can draw him properly later, but he comes out pointy and wonky and you feel oddly disappointed.

You end up staying to watch the whole time he chops at the tree, felling it slowly over the course of hours. One hand axe by someone with a skinnier frame than yours is not designed to bring down a tree fast, and you want to ask why he doesn't upgrade to something like a chainsaw, but you don't think it's worth it. He's dressed kind of colonial, but not in any particular fashion. He's steady with his axe, at least, rhythmic swings that are almost soothing to watch.

Around dusk he brings the tree down, wood groaning as it falls. He's got a hand grinder set aside, and you watch curiously as he works some of the branches through it for oil. "What do you need the oil for?" you ask, expecting no response. "You know you can buy some in town?"

He looks at you again, and you can tell he's surprised that you're still there. "It's the wrong kind," he tells you, and he coughs a little while he's talking, as though he's trying to clear his throat to speak properly. You don't think he's very used to talking. "Only wood from the edelwood trees makes the right kind of oil."

"Edelwood," you repeat, scrawling it down. "Right. So, what do you do now?"

You mean because it's getting dark, but he doesn't seem to understand the question. Or maybe he's not planning on stopping. He kneels beside the fallen tree, keeps hacking at it, breaking off branches and very slowly beginning to break down the trunk. "I'm chopping the tree," he tells you.

"Through the night?"

Again, he stares at you with confusion. "What else would I do?"

You don't really want to spend the whole night in the snow - not while it's getting cold and you were only dressed for a summer's day out. You bid him farewell, and he ignores you totally, and you head back to the Mystery Shack. The singing starts up again when you leave, bold and deep, and you wonder why Wirt would say it wasn't him.

Mabel had a good day of sales, and she's eager to help you polish up your entry on 'the woodcutter' when you tell her about what you saw that day. She spends two full minutes laughing at your attempt to draw Wirt, and when she asks, "Okay, so what does he look like?" you find it a little hard to answer.

"Kind of... handsome?" you say, and try not to turn red when she cackles. "Knock it off, Mabel, he's at least a little bit supernatural, I'm just making factual notes here."

"Sure, sure," she says, and draws out a boy to match your description, surrounding him with sparkles and shoujou roses.

You snatch the book back, mutter something overly-defensive about not matching the original author's style, and you run away upstairs.

The next day you head into the woods with your winter coat, more curious about whether you can find him again than what you'll do if he’s there. But you can't find him; you take the same path as last time - and you are very good at finding your way through the woods by now - but no matter where you search, you can't find the clearing. You can't find the stump, you can't even find snow where you're absolutely sure it was just a day ago, and you have to pick up gnomes for a new exhibit with nothing but frustration.

Mabel's disappointed, too; gnomes make the worst exhibits. They vomit rainbows right onto the customers, and the customers are never delighted.

You look for Wirt a few more times over the next week, but you do have a business to run and you can't waste time hunting phantom woodcutters when you need to track down more magic crystals to show off to the tourists. The best business model for the mystery shack turned out to include some actual magic - nothing inspires a sense of awe like letting visitors shrink and grow the donuts you sell for eight dollars - but it took you a while to accept the nightmare beasts needed to stay in the woods. No one appreciates them like you do.

It's not until months later that you hear singing again in the woods, and you rush for it immediately, delighted by the idea of seeing Wirt again. There was just something so strange about him, and you feel eager to prove he wasn't a phantom. Mabel has taken to saying he's a daydream you made up while bored, irking you to no end. You follow the song through the woods until you find snow on the ground, and continue on bolstered by self-satisfaction. You can pick out the rhythmic swings of the axe under the voice this time, and while the singing stops when you get near, the chopping doesn't slow.

Wirt has made it about halfway through the trunk of the edelwood he's chopping, but he pauses when you break through the treeline, staring at you with a vague look of recognition. "It's you again?"

"Yeah, it's me again," you say, and can't help but grin. "Nice to see you, Wirt."

He frowns a little, but nods, and steps away from the tree, leaving his axe buried in the trunk. "What do you want?"

"Nothing," you say. "Well, maybe to document... this," you wave a hand.

"It's dangerous here," he says, "so deep in the woods, so far from warmth. If you get lost out here, you won't be found again." He says it so seriously, you can't tell if it's advice or a threat.

You really aren't worried either way, so you try to channel your 'pro-social behaviours' and smile, and say, "Thanks for your concerns, but I know these woods pretty well."

"Not these ones," Wirt murmurs. He turns back to his work, pulling the axe free and picking up where he left off.

You sit back on the roots of a tree and watch him work for a while. Every now and then he stops and glances at you, but he seems more to be checking that you're still there than any kind of actual interest in you. You try to make conversation - "What do you need the oil for?" "Aren't you cold?" - but he doesn't answer.

He's thin, but not dangerously so, he looks tired and worn but he's still strong enough to work, and you're glad that whatever he might be, he doesn't seem too unfriendly and he doesn't seem like he's about to suddenly turn on you. He's just a strange feature of the woods, and you sort of like that, that even after four years there are still discoveries to be made. 

You take a picture of him, after asking for permission which he neither gives nor refuses, and you send it to Mabel as proof that he exists. You think it'll be a good shot; his arms raised, his eyes firmly on the horrible tree in front of him, the lantern that's always at his side adding a bit of warm lighting to the picture. But it comes out wrong; it comes out weird, the Wirt on your screen wrapped up in vines like wires. There are tendrils all over him, wrapped around his wrists and neck, coming out of his mouth, suffocating, choking. And behind him -

You shoot up from where you're sitting, but the monster you saw on your phone isn't real, isn't actually behind him, even though it's right there in the picture. There's a flicker of movement in the shadows past the treeline and you start towards them because there's something wrong, there is obviously something very wrong, but Wirt steps in front of you before you can pass him. His axe is still in his hands, his eyes are heavy, tired, deadened. "Don't," he says.

"Don't what? There's a monster, there's something back there, my camera picked it up - and there's something on you, it's doing something to you -" You're trying to explain, and you think you can see two points of lights glowing in the shadows of the trees, there's something there, there's a monster there and Wirt's picture came out so wrong.

Wirt doesn’t look surprised, even in face of your panic. "It's the Beast," he says simply. He doesn't move to let you past, shifts to block you when you try to dodge around him. "It's the Beast. Leave him be."

You give up trying to run around him and stare up at him with exasperation. "What do you mean 'leave him be'?" you ask. "Isn't it a monster?"

"Yes," he says, and he sounds so tired and sad, and he turns back to his chopping again.

You leave early that day, and his singing doesn't follow you home.

The next time you find snow on the ground, there's no song, and you don't go looking for one. You creep carefully through the forest, looking around for any sign of Wirt or the shadow that's - you're not sure – stalking him? Controlling him? Instead you find fresh footsteps in the snow, and you follow those instead. The point of Wirt's ridiculous hat appears at the end of the trail, and you creep along behind him, trying to watch him and see what's actually going on. You don't see anything but him, though occasionally his head turns a little to the side. You think you might be able to hear words, like he's talking to himself, and it takes you an embarrassingly long time to realise you should get your camcorder out.

You set the video to record, and you watch the screen, and you manage not to trip over roots while you juggle everything in your hands. Wirt is bound tight in roots and vines, and beside him, running along the edge of the trees, is 'the Beast'. To your eyes he's almost invisible, just a flicker of shadow every now and again, but the camera picks him up a lot more clearly. The warped faces on his body, the antlers, the hand on Wirt's shoulder. It's a little confusing and a lot frightening, and you have to wonder if Wirt isn't a puppet - if he's being possessed, if he's going through what you did so long ago - and you are so wrapped up in trying to work out what's going on with them that you notice too late that they have both stopped and turned back to stare at you. You don't set the camera down, but when you glance over the screen you see the Beast yourself - wreathed in shadow, but still standing before you in the real world, fingers crawling around Wirt's neck.

"Dipper," he says, and his voice is rich and deep, and you recognise the singer. Wirt stands still beside him, staring at you with a dull look to his eyes. "You've taken an interest in us, haven't you?"

You clear your throat before you speak, because you do not have a great history of dealing with demons but you can do your best to bluff, and you say, "That's right. I'm making a series on, uh, on local mysteries."

"So you're not looking to interfere with Wirt's work?" The Beast asks, and you can't tell what he's thinking at all, there's no inflection beside the vague hint of amusement that all horrible demons seem to have. "If you're harmless, boy, and you stay out of our way, then there’s no need for conflict between us."

You look at Wirt, and on the video screen you can see the bruises on his throat from where the Beast chokes him tight. "You're controlling him," you accuse, and you're not sure what you're going to do if he attacks but your tolerance for demons possessing children is remarkably low.

"We made a deal," the Beast replies, and your blood boils at that word, you start forwards because you need to do something, you can't let this just happen.

"We did," Wirt says suddenly, and he looks a little more human as he meets your eyes. "A fair deal, Dipper. Don't try and fight the Beast."

"But," you start, frustrated, "You don't know what you're saying -"

"I do," he says. "And I knew what I was saying then, too."

You're not sure what you can say in face of that, and when Wirt turns around, the Beast is the one to follow him, not you.

You stay where you are, and you think hard about what you can do, and you go home feeling useless and angry. Mabel isn't sure what to tell you, except to suggest that maybe they're both monsters, but you can't accept that.

You keep going out to the woods. Most days you never find winter, and most days you have to give up your search to do your actual job. Sometimes you'll find the snow, but you'll never hear a song or the sound of the axe, and you'll wander around for so long you start to freeze and have to hurry back to the haven of summer.

But you do still find him sometimes. He seems irritated at first, and you think you maybe said the wrong thing to him - or something very offensive - and you consider that maybe the Beast did not trick him the same way Bill did to you. You scrawl it all down into the journal while you sit near him, and he tolerates your presence. You offer him food, and he eats it, and you talk to him and he doesn't talk back, just chops the trees and grinds them down for oil.

"Why do you need the oil?" you ask, and you have posed that question so many times it is more routine than anything else. "What's so special about it?"

"Only oil from the edelwood trees can keep this lantern lit," Wirt murmurs, so quiet it takes you a second to realise he's speaking. "And it is my task to keep this lantern lit."

You consider this, and write it down quickly. Wirt watches your pen move over the page and asks, "What are you writing?"

"About you," you say, and in case that sounds weird you quickly hold it up to show him. "I'm documenting everything I can about the mysteries in this forest."

He comes over to look, and you let him turn the pages. His hands are dirty from his work and he cleans them on his cloak as best as he can before he touches the journal. You think he might be smiling, just a little. "I used to write," he tells you. "Poetry."

"Oh," you say, trying to let your excitement that he's talking drown out your feelings on poetry. "What kind?"

"Anything I felt," he said. "I don't think it was very good." There's a shadow of a smile on his face, and it looks odd on him, so strange to see him without his mask of exhaustion. But it looks good. "I think it was a long time ago, though."

You put it together, ask, "You were human, once? Before you made a deal with the Beast?"

He stares at you kind of oddly. "Am I not human now?"

You've seen the leaves in his mouth, the sprouts coming up from under his nails. You're not sure.

It takes a few more visits into the woods before you're brave enough to ask, "What was the deal for?"

"Sorry?" he asks, cocking his head. He's been responding more lately, and you like it, the extra layer of humanity to your interactions with him.

"I mean, when you made the deal with the Beast. You seem to be tied to him now, so what did you get?"

He's quiet for a long time, considering. You'd think he was ignoring you if he hadn't stopped swinging his axe. Eventually, haltingly, he says, "I'm not sure... but I feel... it was worth it."

The Beast is in the background - you've learned he is always in the background - and you can hear a hint of his rumbling laugh. Whatever Wirt received was not good enough, you're sure. Oddly, the Beast seems to like you more than Wirt does - the Beast seems to think it's interesting to have you around, so long as you don't get in his way.

Once, he asks for the journal with a courteous, "May I?" and while you could refuse - are extremely tempted to refuse - you hold it up so he can see without letting him touch it. He's legitimately curious, asks a lot of questions, actually fills in a few gaps in your knowledge. You leaf through the book with him, declining to explain the two pages you have taped together, and slowly covering the rest. His own page seems to greatly amuse him.

You begin to ask him more things, and he obliges, apparently happy to talk while the two of you sit and watch Wirt work on felling the edelwood.

"What kind of tree is it?" you ask eventually. "I've never seen it grow anywhere except for this snowy bit of the woods."

"It's a very special kind of tree," the Beast tells you, and again it sounds like he must be smiling in a way that you can't see. You're quite glad he stays back in shadows, so that you don't need to see all the horror of his body staring back at you. He's nothing like Cipher - not to you, anyway - but you can tell he's that kind of indirect liar. He doesn't tell you anything else about the edelwood, and Wirt brings another one down, coaxes the flame of the lantern higher and brighter, and the two of them move off into the night.

You don't see him for a while, and you don't worry about it even though you still go looking - Wirt might not be entirely a monster but he's not entirely a human, and it's clear that he's managing to survive somehow on his own. Mabel teases that he still might be your imaginary boyfriend, and you refuse to speak to her when she does.

You don’t tell her that you managed to coax him into reciting some of his old poetry for you, or that he’s started to smile every time you arrive, or that the last time you saw him, he took a break and sat with you for an hour. The Beast had vanished, and your fingers had twined together with his, felt his callouses, gently brushed the rough skin of his palms. You had not told Mabel about that, but she’d known in the way sisters do and bullied you over your pink cheeks anyway.

But in your heart of hearts, you know that however much you might look forwards to finding snow on the ground in summer, it doesn't matter. Wirt is one of the mysteries of the woods. Despite how much you might like him, you can't forget the dead look to his eyes, the shimmer of vines creeping up out of the corners. Even if he looks, speaks, acts human, there’s some black seed planted in the heart of him. You can’t forget that.

The next time you go looking for him, you don’t even find the snow until the sun is so low in the sky that you really ought to be heading back home. There’s not even a song to guide you. But it’s been days since you’ve last seen Wirt, and you don’t know how long it will take you to find the snow again. It will be fine, you think, if you hurry.

The shadows between the frozen trees make eerie patterns on the ground as you hurry along, trying to listen for an axe or a song. You’re just going to check on him, you think. Mabel’s made some food for you to give him because you doubt he’s getting much to eat, and his conversation’s gotten a lot better since he’s been able to speak with someone other than the Beast. You just want to see him.

You hear the crunch of steps in snow, quiet and out of time with your own, and you start slowly towards the source. The lantern’s light is the first sign you get of Wirt, and it must be swinging in his hand because the light’s shifting around, making the shadows dance back and forth in dizzying motions across the snow.

Years of well-honed mystery senses tell you not to rush out after him. The woods seem dauntingly large in the silence, and you wonder why the Beast isn’t singing, wonder why Wirt’s steps sound so slow and uneven. As carefully as you can, you creep through the trees to the path he’s walking and watch.

His head is down, lantern dangling from one hand and his axe in the other, dragging along the ground. His uneven gait makes him seem tired, each step an effort as he struggles along, getting closer to where you’re watching from the bracken. The Beast’s hands are both on his shoulders, fingers splayed loosely to the base of his neck, and they’ve never been so close when they knew you were watching. In the growing darkness, the Beast’s eyes stand out, bright and luminous – and so do Wirt’s, glowing dully as he stares at the snow ahead.

The Beast whispers something to him that you can’t hear, and Wirt lifts his head a fraction in response. He looks hollow, eyes lifeless and tired and lit up with some eldritch light, and it sends all sorts of alarms spiking through you because you don’t care what he says, he is not alright.

You try to back away from them, but your heel comes down on a twig and the snap reaches them through the empty silence of the woods. Two sets of glowing eyes land on you, and the Beast detaches from Wirt, starts to drift forward, silent as death.

You run. You sprint haphazardly with no direction but away until you reach the edge of the snow, and you don’t stop running until you’re through the woods, back to the shack, falling through the front door with the night empty behind you.

“Does he even know?” you ask Mabel as she pushes a soothing cup of something warm into your hands. “He looked like a shell, like he was completely possessed – but he talks like his deal was fair. There’s no such thing as a fair deal with a demon!”

“Are you going to ask him?” Mabel asks.

“I don’t know if I should even go looking again,” you murmur. “They both saw me tonight, and the Beast looked… well. He has no reason not to hurt me.”

Mabel nods sagely for half a second before she snorts and punches you in the shoulder. “Yeah,” she says, “like you’re going to leave a mystery alone.”

Usually she’s right in that your sense of self-preservation is no match for your curiosity. You can’t bring yourself to tell her how much more personal this one feels. Not solving the mystery would be terrible because not seeing Wirt again would be terrible. And whether or not he knows it, he needs your help. You had Mabel; he can have you.

Even with your mind made up, it takes you a few days to find the snowy thicket again, and whether that’s because you don’t want to find it isn’t something you want to think about. For all that you want to save Wirt, you are afraid; the way the Beast had come for you, gliding like a reaper, it was every warning you’d ignored about his real nature. The fact that you’d relaxed around him because of the way he’d talked to you about the journal of all things sets your skin crawling. He is a monster. You are not going to make that same mistake twice.

But Wirt nods his head to you when you arrive, like you never saw him haunted, and the Beast doesn’t even pause in his song, weaving his words between the strokes of the axe so the tool plays his percussion.

“Hey, Wirt,” you say, and despite everything you’re still gratified that he leaves his axe in the tree trunk and drifts over to you. “How are you?”

“Fine,” he replies, instant and automatic. It doesn’t sound like a lie, just something he never needs to think about. “… And yourself?”

“I’m great,” you say, the words coming out forced despite your best attempts to level them. “Just here to keep working on your page in the journal. Maybe you could help me fill in a few gaps?”

He stares askance, because you and he both know that cryptic non-information is his specialty, but he settles beside you anyway, watching patiently as you open up the journal. The Beast is circling further away, sinking into the shadows of the treeline across the clearing, song getting a little fainter with distance.

You think it’s safe to ask. You try to sound casual, as though that kind of trick could possibly work, and ask Wirt, “So you chop the edelwood to get oil to feed the lantern. But you’ve never said what the lantern is for.”

It would almost be a relief if he answered with the mundane ‘it is dark in the woods at night’. But of course, he has to look away from you, has to concern himself with touching the callouses on his hand. “I just need to keep it burning,” he tells you.

You grimace, and crack your knuckles, underprepared for the conversation you’re determined to start. “What you do,” you say, so carefully, “The way you’re living, Wirt, it’s not right. You’re still at least part human, and you shouldn’t be enslaved to a monster like this. We can find a way to free you.”

“Dipper,” he says, pained, “If you can’t accept that the deal I made with the Beast is fair –“

“It can’t be,” you interrupt. “I’m sure whatever he’s said to you sounds good, sounds convincing, but he’s not human and if he wants something from you, he’ll say whatever he wants to get it.” There are too many thoughts of Cipher in your head, and it’s distracting, you’ll never be able to focus on Wirt if you lose yourself to your old mistakes. “Everything you’re doing, living like this – it’s for him, right? You’re under his control?”

“I agreed to be,” he replies, and his eyes are tight with misery, like he wants you to understand so badly. You don’t think you can. “Whatever you think you know about demons, Dipper, this is different.”

“Have you even seen yourself? What he’s done to you?” you demand. He doesn’t know what you mean, so you show him, pull up all the photos you took on your phone and show him himself. The little creeper vines curled around his throat like a collar, the shoots bending his fingernails out of place, sprouts crawling up from the corners of his eyes, and the Beast always so closely behind. Wirt stares at the photograph and reaches up to his neck, like he’s going to pull the vines away. For half a second, it looks like his fingers are catching on something - and then they fall flat to his skin, because there’s nothing there, not in the reality you can see.

Wirt stays quiet. You can still hear the Beast’s song through the trees, and you pity the wayward soul that follows his call. When Wirt does manage to reply, his voice is quiet. “I know, Dipper. I haven’t seen it, but I can feel it. Sometimes, they pull on me, like wires.”

Like puppet strings, you think, and then the high-functioning part of your mind switches off and you rise to your feet. “It’s the lantern, right?” you say, mind racing as you approach the glass bulb Wirt left defenceless beside his tree, “He wants you to keep this lit, so it’s important to him, so if something happened to this –“

The Beast surges out from the trees like a spectre, but it’s Wirt that slams into you, knocks you away from the lantern so he can snatch it up protectively. “You don’t know what you’re talking about!” he shouts, and his shoulders are shaking, he looks wild and betrayed and so totally helpless before you. “I like serving the Beast.”

It’s only been a year since you stopped studying the pupils of everyone who said says something off, and you check his instinctively. Round and black and normal. “Demons are charming and manipulative,” you start desperately, but Wirt cuts you off.

“He isn’t ‘demons’. He isn’t anything from your journal.” He hasn’t stopped shaking. The Beast is hovering close by him, but maybe he recognises how poorly you’d take it if he touched Wirt now. “I know you think you see something I don’t, but whatever you believe about monsters isn’t true here.”

Enamoured. Misled. His eyes are human and his voice is steady, but you don’t know what the vines on him might be doing, you don’t know how securely the Beast owns his mind. “We’ve got wards at the Shack, we can shelter you. You don’t have to do what he wants!”

“Do you actually care what I want,” Wirt asks you in a very quiet voice, “or are you thinking about something that happened to you?”

“You can live with us,” you say, and your voice breaks a little on the plea. You’re losing him, he’s shrinking back towards the Beast, and you don’t know what else you can say. “With me and Mabel, live like a person, you can write poetry and eat real food and sleep indoors and – and he won’t be able to touch your mind. He’s in your head, that’s why – he’s made you accept this, made you like this.”

At the very least, Wirt doesn’t deny that the Beast has changed him. But his face is set, sad and patient and unchanging. “I wasn’t misled. I don’t have any regret. Whatever you think is happening to me -  it’s nothing to do with you.”

He can’t see it. He won’t see it. You ache with how badly you want to help him, but the Beast finally settles his hands on Wirt’s shoulders, and Wirt reaches up to clasp the wooden fingers of one hand, staring at you in defiance. Even knowing what the monster is doing to his body, he won’t listen to you. You don’t have a photograph of him with his eyes lit up and smothered by the Beast’s influence, but you realise like a drop of acid in your stomach that he probably wouldn’t mind that, either.

You glare betrayal back at him, grit your teeth, and blink away the burning at the corners of your eyes. Mabel might know what to say, but she’s not here, and you don’t think you’re going to get any more chances past what you can say to him now. You try your hardest; “I want to help you, Wirt. If anything happens, you can come to me. I can help you get rid of him. Please know that.”

Even to you, it sounds like defeat.

“I will,” he says, with an audible lack of intention in his voice. His shoulders are steady under the Beast’s hands, and he sounds sincere when he tells you, “I’ve appreciated your friendship.”

“Yeah,” you mutter, tongue thick in your mouth. ‘Friendship’. “Me too.”

They don’t need to tell you you won’t see them again. The crunch of snow as you leave is the last you’re going to hear until winter arrives the traditional way. You take your time walking home, and you try to blame this on Cipher as you have so many other things, but your heart’s not in it. You couldn’t help him, and you hurt, and you sit in the woods for a long couple of hours, breathe deep and settle the worst of your feelings before you head back to Mabel.

She draws him for the journal, even though the entry is painfully incomplete with blanks that you could fill but don’t want to. She draws him from the photos on your phone, with heavy shadows under his eyes and bruises blooding on his throat, the shadow staunch behind him. You stare at it for a long time.

You close the journal, but the ghost of him remains bitterly beside you. You think that you should have dragged him back here despite what he wanted, and you think that maybe whatever happens to him now is your fault for not managing to save him. You press your head against the book and try to focus on breathing. Maybe if you ever do see him again you’ll be stronger.