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can't keep running into spirits of the past

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“We should probably bring a backup camera on the boat,” Ford mused, in a tone that made it impossible to tell whether he was talking to Stan or just to himself. “Maybe even multiple backup cameras. There’s no telling what the Arctic climate could do to their circuitry, and people hardly take cryptid reports seriously even with photographic evidence, never mind with just an eyewitness account and an excuse about a broken camera —”

“Easy, Sixer.” Stan set down his fully-packed suitcase at Ford’s feet, satisfied with its contents. “I’ve got a camcorder up in my room, or maybe in — actually, I can’t remember where I decided to keep it, but it’s probably still in the house somewhere. If I can find it, you can add it to your camera horde.”

Ford zipped open Stan’s suitcase, revealing hand-knitted sweaters and Hawaiian shirts in approximately equal numbers, and sighed. “Some brave wardrobe choices you’re making here. Or have you forgotten that the first beach we’re stopping at is in Alaska?”

“Well, someone’s gotta lead the fashion revolution in the Arctic Circle, and it sure ain’t gonna be you,” Stan called as he headed upstairs, provoking a resigned “hrmph” from Ford.

Stan decided to look for the camcorder in his bedroom first — because while his memory still had some scattered gaps, his gut instincts rarely lead him astray, and checking his room had been his first impulse. Sure enough, he found it sitting on a shelf and covered in slightly less dust than the adjacent stack of magazines, just as he ever-so-vaguely remembered it.

“Better make sure this thing works, before Ford declares it too unreliable for yeti hunts or whatever,” he muttered to himself, leaning back onto his bed and fumbling for the power button. The camcorder blinked to life, presenting an interface that was probably hopelessly outdated — but Stan didn’t care, while Ford would have no way of knowing what modern Earth technology looked like.

What’d I even record on this thing anyway? He selected a random video from June, was greeted with his own voice singing the first line of the Stan Wrong Song, and immediately deleted the recording. With a sigh and silent vow to never let Ford learn of the song’s existence, he moved on to a video from July.

Once again, it was Mabel’s handiwork — heh, no wonder I couldn’t remember what I used this thing for, since the kids were always borrowing it from me — but this time, Stan himself wasn’t in frame, though the craft supplies strewn about the living room were enough to stir dormant memories.

“Dipper! Puppet Dipper! Smile for the camera!”

Dipper yawned, then somewhat half-heartedly mimicked the motion using the sock puppet on his hand. “Puppet Dipper’s not really feeling up to it this morning.”

“Did Puppet Dipper stay up too late trying to solve a mystery? Bwap!” The footage blurred as Mabel nudged Dipper with a sock puppet of her own. “Do I need to make him a little puppet-sized pillow?”

“How about… some puppet-sized sunglasses, for a puppet detective?” Dipper suggested.

“Good idea!” Mabel agreed. “Then no one will notice when Puppet Dipper falls asleep standing up!”

Stan shook his head and smiled.

Man, I wish I’d found this back when my memories were still a mess — Mabel kinda skimmed over the whole puppet saga in her scrapbook. Wonder what else got recorded from that week…

He selected the next video chronologically, noticing that it was also the final recording on the device, and the smile vanished from his face.

“You can’t stop me!” It was Dipper’s voice, yet not Dipper’s voice — all fury and arrogance, and the camcorder’s cheap speaker crackled with static, like the voice was too much, too wrong, too alien to properly record and then replicate. “I’m a being of pure energy with NO weaknesses!”

Without a doubt, Dipper’s body was onscreen, but he was staggering towards Mabel with arms twisted at impossible angles. He lunged for the journal in her hands, eyes glinting the same gold color as the emblem of the six-fingered hand —

Stan hit the power button, rolled over on the bed, and buried his face in his pillow as the wave of memories crashed into him.

Brushing off Dipper’s sorry state as sleep deprivation, until the kid collapsed on the way out of the theater. Seeing the cuts and bruises all over Dipper’s hands as Stan helped him to his feet, and grilling the kids on what happened the whole drive to the hospital. Not getting an answer beyond “sleep deprivation.”

Not being able to give the doctor an answer beyond “sleep deprivation.”

Telling the twins’ parents it was just “sleep deprivation.”

A tense phone call, assuring Mr. and Mrs. Pines that Dipper’s recovery would be swift and tha Gravity Falls was still safe for their children. Stan’s hands shaking as he holds the phone, having no idea if that’s the truth, if he’s doing the right thing.

Mabel crying over a crumpled-up scrap of paper — a note? — she’d found in the car, and refusing to show it to Stan. Half-overheard secrets, whispered between the younger twins when they think Stan isn’t paying attention — apologies, worries, and murmurs too soft to be in any way decipherable.

Dipper, still with bags under his eyes, spending the next few days doing almost nothing but looking over his shoulder and burying his head in the journal. Stan pretending not to notice, but secretly finding it far too familiar for comfort.

Later memories, too — memories of demons, and handshakes, and feeling his body go numb. Memories of a voice, a furiously shrieking voice — both terrified and terrifying, but more than anything, alien.

Now, far too late, Stan recognized it.

***

“We’re calling the kids,” Stan barked, barging back downstairs, and Ford jumped.

“What’s wrong? Are your memories —”

“Better than they’ve ever been, actually.” Stan stormed directly to the living room table, flipping open the laptop on loan from Soos and clicking the video chat app. “Good enough to figure out something that apparently no one thought it might be important to tell me!”

“Are you sure?” Ford put a hand on Stan’s shoulder. “We can still call them, but let’s talk this through first, make sure you’re not missing any gaps —”

Stan paused, cursor an inch away from the call button beneath Dipper and Mabel’s profile picture. “Did Dipper tell you about the time Bill possessed him?”

Ford started to say something, stopped, and tried again. “I… I assumed you knew. I’m sorry.”

“Did you know I ended up taking him to the goddamn hospital afterwards?”

No,” Ford whispered, and Stan felt Ford’s fingers dig into his shoulder. “Call the kids, Stan.”

Mabel must’ve been online, because she picked up almost immediately. The video opened with her sitting in her kitchen in Piedmont, Waddles in her lap. “Grunkle Stan! Grunkle Ford! Guess what I —”

The joy drained out of her smile when she noticed her grunkles’ grave expressions. “What’s going on?”

“Mabel, pumpkin,” Stan murmured, trying to tune out the sound of his heart thumping in his chest, “could you go get your brother?”

“I’m here, I’m here!” Dipper slid into view, almost falling off his chair, and Mabel scooted out of the way so they could both comfortably face the laptop. “Is something wrong?”

“Not anymore,” Ford explained, “but Stan and I wanted to talk about… communication, among other things — Stan? Are you sure you’re alright?”

Stan wiped the sweat from his forehead and shuddered, forcing himself to take a deep breath as he stared at the computer.

Dipper’s back home. Dipper’s safe. They’re both safe, and they’ll never have to worry about Bill again.

“Stanley?” Ford echoed, increasingly distressed. “Please, if —”

“I’ll be alright,” Stan managed, because even he wasn’t a good enough liar to convince anyone he was alright at this exact moment. “Promise. But kids, why didn’t you tell me when Bill hijacked your puppet show?”

Dipper and Mabel exchanged a guilty look.

“Was it because you thought I’d take away the journal?” Stan regretted his ‘only self-defense’ stipulation for the third journal more than almost anything else he’d said that summer, because he’d always known deep down that it wouldn’t stop the kids — and in hindsight, he would’ve much rather known what trouble the kids were getting into, not have them hide it from him with their late nights out in the woods and nonspecific excuses.

“At first,” Dipper replied. “But we ended up worrying a whole lot more about you sending us home early —”

“Your parents almost made that decision for me,” Stan admitted. “They were ready to drive up here and come get you when they heard what happened. I dunno how I convinced them to let you stay —”

He sighed. “And maybe knowing the truth wouldn’t have actually helped me that time — but it would’ve been nice to know how big a lie I was telling when I told them this town was safe for you kids, y’know?”

He regretted voicing that thought immediately, but regretted it even moreso when Dipper looked away from the camera, mumbling: “I’m sorry, Grunkle Stan.”

“Stan’s not trying to guilt you,” Ford spoke up, “but we want you to know you can talk about these things honestly with us — and that goes for both of you, Dipper and Mabel. We’d never want to punish you for something that was obviously… someone else’s fault.”

Thank god one of us has finally learned to think through what we say before we say it, Stan figured.

“I’m sorry too, kids,” he added out loud. “For getting angry at you a minute ago — ‘cause I’m not angry at you, I’m angry at Bill for what he got away with right behind my back, and I… I just…”

He brushed a finger across their digital faces, a gesture that no doubt failed to translate to the video feed Dipper and Mabel were viewing, and smiled. “Thanks for picking up so fast, ‘cause I really needed a reminder that the two of you are safe and sound and all.”

The kids smiled back, visible for just a second before Mabel leaned forward to hug her laptop and the screen went dark.

“Anytime, Grunkle Stan.”

***

“Coffee?” asked Ford, ever the early riser, as Stan trudged into the kitchen the next morning. “You look like you need it.”

“Gee, thanks, Sixer,” Stan groaned, slumping into the seat across from Ford at the kitchen table. “I’ve heard of backhand compliments, but now I’ve gotta live with your backhanded coffee offers too?”

“Sorry. I’m sympathizing, not mocking — I promise, when I woke up today, my eyes were just as bloodshot as yours are now,” Ford replied, sliding Stan a mug of steaming coffee. “How are your memories?”

It was a routine question as of late, but Stan still managed to botch it completely.

“Too good,” he muttered under his breath, and earned a quizzical look from Ford.

“Pardon?”

“…Good enough that I can remember all kinda things to feel shitty about,” Stan reluctantly admitted. “Like not even noticing when Dipper was possessed, for one thing. I spent the whole summer worrying about him, except for when he was actually in danger —”

“Oh, Stanley,” Ford sighed, “that’s not your fault. You know Bill was an expert liar; he scammed too many people to count —”

“Yeah, but I shoulda seen through it!” Stan brought his fist down on the table, and the contents of his mug sloshed precariously close to the top. “Of all people, I should’ve known better —”

“Right.” Ford grimaced. “Right. Because no one else who should’ve known better was ever tricked by a dream demon for a whole lot longer than a few hours —”

“Shit. Ford, I’m so sorry, I didn’t mean it like —”

With a controlled glowering expression and deliberate motions, Ford stood, marching across the kitchen with all the fury and hesitation of a slow-moving thunderstorm.

“I didn’t mean it was your fault! I’d never — ”

“…I know.” Ford came to a halt at the door, bracing one hand against the frame. “But if you can say as much about me, then… then why can’t you just say that about yourself?”

“What?!”

“You would’ve caught on soon enough, if Mabel hadn’t defeated Bill when she did — I wasn’t there, but I’m sure of that because I know you, and I know how well you know Dipper.” Ford shook his head. “I didn’t catch on to Bill’s lies for years. I gave him free reign to hurt people for so much longer than one evening —”

He crossed his arms, and his imposing silhouette in the doorway seemed to shrink.

“So if you’re not blaming me for anything to happen this summer, then you’d better not blame yourself, you — you knucklehead.”

“Are you kidding me?” Stan leapt out of his seat. “It’s no wonder you didn’t see through Bill’s lies, when your whole life, you had me watching your back — and then I wasn’t there for you, when you needed me more than ever —”

“Because I pushed you away!” Ford shouted, whirling back around to face him. “Do you know what I realized while I was trying to fall asleep last night? That if I’d just stood up to Dad when he kicked you out, if I’d just done the right thing for once in my formative years, then the end of the world as we knew it would’ve been averted altogether! No falling for Bill’s flattery, no arguing over the zodiac, no Weirdmageddon! We could’ve had it all, but we just couldn’t live in that better world, all because I convinced myself you were suffocating me —”

“But it sounds like maybe I still am, huh?” Stan growled. “If all I do is just make you furious like this —”

No,” Ford gasped, all the hostility in his voice and his glare immediately melting away. “No, no, absolutely not! I’m not furious at you, Stan, I’m…”

“Furious at yourself,” Stan accused, “for being even worse than me?!”

No! Don’t even say that!”

Before Stan could process what was happening, much less protest it, Ford was hugging him, burying his face in Stan’s shoulder.

“Maybe — maybe I am angry at you, after all,” Ford admitted, “but you’re my hero, Stanley. My inspiration. If am angry with you, it’s — it’s just because you’re too damn stubborn to forgive yourself…”

Stan gingerly placed a hand on Ford’s shoulder. “…Yeah, and you’re one to talk.”

“I won’t deny that,” Ford mumbled. He went quiet for a few seconds, and when he spoke up again, his voice was quieter, yet slightly more composed. “Maybe we need to just… call a truce. Find something positive to agree on. We’re both too stubborn for this argument to end with either of us admitting we were wrong —”

“At least for give-or-take the next forty years,” Stan interrupted, punctuating his words with a bitter laugh.

Ford barked out a laugh of his own, loud and cathartic, and withdrew from the hug, removing his glasses to rub his eyes. “If Dipper and Mabel were here, they would have told us to stop being stubborn old men a while ago. I wish they were here.”

“They’d probably also tell us it’s more Bill’s fault than either of ours,” Stan added. “And… I guess they’d have a point.”

“I can see the logic in that.” Ford smiled faintly. “I’m sorry for making this about me, by the way. You opened up to talk about your own issues, and I —”

“Hey, I made it about you just as much as you did, Brainiac,” Stan reminded him. “…But damn. You think we’ll ever be able to talk about our feelings without shouting our lungs out at each other?”

“We’re still no good at thinking through anything before we say it,” Ford replied, “though I guess we must be getting a little better, since we didn’t even stop speaking to each other this time.”

“Thank god. I’m tired of not talking to you.”

The two of them settled back into their seats at the table, and Stan reached for the morning paper, but Ford spoke up once more.

“I know forgiveness, especially self-forgiveness, can be… complicated,” he told Stan in a low voice, “so maybe I’m biased, speaking as someone who’d rather not grapple with my own personal guilt — but even more important than whether you forgive or blame yourself, I think, is acknowledging that you made mistakes, yet still deserve good things from the universe. And that goes for you and me both.”

Stan took a sip from his mug, pleased to find its contents were still warm. “Good things like coffee, and adventures sailing around the world?”

Ford chuckled. “My priorities exactly.”