pinesinthewoods: Well here it is guys, the final chapter, the day right before the finale comes out! This chapter ties up a lot of loose ends in the story, and we hope you like it. More author's notes at the end of the chapter!
notthistimespock: I think my favorite part in Towards the Sun was that moment Stanford put his foot on that first sun-carved step. All throughout this story we've just had him constantly moving downward and descending further and further into madness, but that was the point where it all turned around and he started ascending again, and it's such a powerful moment.
"We have lived in fear, and our fear has betrayed us
But we will overcome the apathy that has made us
Because we are not alone in the dark with our demons
And we have made mistakes
But we've learned from them"
"And the sun, it does not cause us to grow
It is the rain that will strengthen your soul
And it will make you whole"
'I Have Made Mistakes' - The Oh Hello's
A rush of heat immediately soaked up through the sole of Stanford's boot as he moved to the next sun carved step. The warmth was surprisingly intense as it crept across his toes, stretched up his ankles, and further dried his slightly damp socks, a somewhat pleasant contrast to the chilling mist that was seeping up from the cold briny waters several meters below. He stumbled a little on another weightless slab of golden glass, trying to orient his unsteady legs beneath him before sparing a glance up to his destination; the plateau of twisted metal and rubble that lay beneath the portal's eye.
This was strange… all of it, Stanford noted as he paused in his ascent, gingerly shifting his weight to look back out upon the heart of his mindscape. A brackish breeze sweeping up from his right side made his grey hair flash in the sunlight and gently dance across the lenses of his glasses as he attentively scrutinized the landscape.
Things were uncannily still and peaceful; at least compared to how they had been before. The memory of the beach itself now held the same air about it as the tentative, clear dawn after a raging storm, a sigh of relief at the end of a horrifying tempest. Deep, dark blue hues were slowly brightening and stretching themselves out upon the water and sun-crested horizon of the sky. Foam-peaked waves crashed softly against the familiar shoreline as rhythmically as a heartbeat, and rolled languidly across the sand leaving behind shining streaks that reflected back the early morning light like a bright mirror.
Whatever violent trembling and madness had been on the verge of tearing this whole dimension down around them just a short while ago seemed distant. In fact, if it weren't for the deep craters, scars, and bits of burnt boat that marred the cream-colored sand behind him, Stanford might have almost been able to convince himself that none of the previous fight had even happened at all. Almost.
Even this memory, it seemed, had its boundaries.
At a certain point further inland the vibrant light and color that now saturated the beach around him stopped abruptly. It drained to an ever familiar sepia-toned canvas as though it had hit some kind of invisible curtain or barrier. Soft sand and crystal clear skies gave way to spiky tufts of dim bronze grass, shadowy pines that towered eerily over the empty field, and a hazy, smoke-washed skyline. It was a somewhat melancholy sight that filled Stanford with opposing feelings of warm nostalgia and cynical detachment the longer he gazed upon it. He could make out the soft squeaking of a swing set just above the constant roar of water rushing below him, echoing from somewhere in the monochrome wheatfield beyond.
Yes, Stanford mused as his eyes wistfully trailed back down to the shoreline, it was more than a little strange that the center of his brother's mind had been the portal room, his portal room that he himself had originally built and constructed, while his own center was… this. Glass Shard Beach, the embodiment of their shared childhood. If he'd been forced to predict which mindscape had belonged to each of them before this whole mess, Stanford would have guessed the opposite with an almost absolute certainty. And that… bothered him slightly, though at first, he couldn't exactly put his finger on why.
I guess because it just goes to show how little I really understand Stanley. How little I… understand myself.
Stanford winced at that uncomfortable truth. He wasn't a huge fan of self-reflection, of going back over his mistakes and… examining how they'd come about. Usually, he was the sort of person who, if something didn't work out, preferred to just toss it and focus on the next task that lay before him. It had always seemed easy for him to leave the past in the past; to accept failure if it happened, which was a key part of being a scientist and inventor anyways, and to keep moving forward without worrying about what kind of trail he was leaving in his wake.
But this recent string of disasters, from Bill outwitting him, to the rift splitting open, to his own twin brother's desperate sacrifice, had forced him to step more than a little bit outside of his comfort zone. After all, it was his inability to deal with roadblocks, either intellectual or emotional, that had been the deciding cause of nearly all those problems in the first place. How different would things be now if thirty years ago, instead of summoning a triangular muse for aid when he'd hit that dead end in his research, he'd simply gone back over and more thoroughly examined what the warnings, tapestries, and murals were trying to tell him? Stanford could only speculate, but considering how close his current circumstances had brought both himself and his twin to the edge of death, almost anything seemed an improvement.
Actually, now that he thought about it, he supposed that the focus of their respective mindscapes did, at least, make a bit of sense. In a similar fashion to the way Stanley usually presented his true feelings, the center of his twin's mind had been something close and ever-present, yet masked, hiding beneath the surface of much more obvious and benign problems. The impossibly large, hollow, and burnt Stan O' War twisted around Stanford's prophetic secrecy, designs, and machinery: Stanley's despair for a ruined past cloaking an uncertain hope for the future. Meanwhile, the focus of Stanford's own mind been out in the open, but distant and detached from the rest of him. Something that was familiar and brought him comfort, but also haunted him like a well-worn picture frame that had been purposely placed face down. A reminder at the same time that it was a warning. As much an old friend as it was an old wound.
The comparison made something in the center of Stanford's chest squirm, and he allowed himself one more weighty, tired sigh before turning back around and resuming his ascent. He carefully eyed the gap between the next couple of stairs before adding a bit of a hop to his step and landing soundlessly on the next sunlit slab. If it hadn't been for the ordeals he'd just been forced to experience, Stanford mused while gracefully regaining his balance, then he might have actually been able to take some comfort in all of this. But as things were now…
Dark copper eyes trailed upward to the radiant sunrise shining through the center of the portal, obscuring the whole and complete figure that Stanford assumed to be therein. His jaw set into a tight grimace, and he squinted at his destination with all the focused intensity of a runner fixated on the finish line.
Well… maybe he would be able to enjoy it better once he'd confirmed for himself that Stanley was ok. Maybe they both would be able to enjoy it.
The angle of the sun's rays was gradually beginning to change as Stanford ascended, just enough that he could finally make out the basic form of his twin still hanging limply within the portal's inner ring, suspended by several long dark lines that he guessed to be lengths of chain. Light from the sunrise was softly coloring the edges of Stanley's silhouette in a vivid saffron tint, bright enough that it glinted off his messy gray hair and glasses, though it couldn't stretch so far as to illuminate his shadowed chest.
As Stanford focused in more on his brother's condition, his own body staggering slightly as he nearly missed the next step, he was relieved to note that the tell-tale orange glow of the Y shaped gash that had previously marred Stanley was now absent. Even the grisly injuries inflicted upon him by his second fragment were fading away before Stanford's eyes, leaving the areas of his suit where he had been cut hanging loosely from his body.
For a moment Stanford's shoulders sagged in relief at the sight, only to abruptly stiffen again he now began to process the implications of his brother's still slumped forward posture. "Stanley!" He called, his brows furrowing sharply in a mixture of wariness and confusion when he didn't receive a response.
Before he knew it Stanford found himself rushing up the last few steps, only half aware of the movement of his own feet beneath him. He barely stopped to right himself as he stumbled across the place where the top of the sun-carved staircase met the portal's small rubble ledge. Stanford quickly sped across the uneven scrap heap and skid to a halt directly in front of his brother. He spared a second to curse at Stanley's slack and unconscious expression before clumsily weaving his fingers beneath the surprisingly cool chains wrapped around his shoulder, yanking at them sharply.
"What are these still doing here," he breathlessly griped, trying to pull, stretch, and carefully untangle Stanley from the dark restraints till the tips of his fingers were bright red and nearly numb with cold. For a solid three minutes, the most prominent sound in the area was that of clinking metal and increasingly frustrated grunting as he futilely tugged at the bonds.
"Oh come on," Stanford growled, the chains once again slipping from his grip and stubbornly snapping back into place. He took a step back to collect himself while rubbing his stinging hands, jaw set tightly as his eyes raked over his brother's form. What was he doing wrong? What was he missing? It occurred to Stanford after a moment that, this being the mindscape, it would make more sense to just imagine the chains away. He concentrated, giving the restraints a long and hard stare, visualizing the bright rays of the sun burning through the inky bonds in the way that light was usually supposed to cut away at shadows, trying to use the sheer force of his will to remove and erase them.
But nothing happened. The dark chains didn't loosen, or dissipate, or fade. Not even a little.
I-I don't understand. Why isn't this working? Why is are they still- Oh. Stanford's eyes slid back over to his brother's heavily lined and exhausted expression as it finally dawned on him that there was something slightly… off about it. Stanley was clearly out cold, but there was an oddly stony set to the grimace on his face. A look of resignation unsettlingly morphed with determination. The older twin's brows furrowed in surprise and apprehension as his sense of reason managed to sift its way past his frayed nerves and catch up with the rest of his mind. Of course, he wouldn't be able to imagine the restraints away, not if someone else was countering him by willing them to stay there. As unpleasant as this was to conclude, the mindscape was completely empty aside from the two of them, meaning that there was simply no one else who could've been doing it.
Stanford let out an unsteady breath, half in frustration, half in unease. A part of Stanley must have still been fighting to keep the chains shackled around himself, though for what reason, he couldn't even begin to guess. Stanford had thought he'd managed to reach some sort of accord with his brother's second fragment, but if he was still trying to hold them both here in the mindscape then there had obviously been a misunderstanding.
Grabbing onto his brother's shoulders, Stanford began to gently shake him. "Stanley. Stanley, please," he whispered hoarsely, his tone somewhere between begging and commanding. "You're almost there. You're almost there. Please wake up. Things are going to be okay now, Stan. We're going to make them okay."
The ocean below was swelling and tugging at the base of the ruined portal, and Stanford could feel every pulse of the churning surf through his feet as it made the unstable structure tremble. He stared intently at his twin, expression reassuring and hopeful at first, but as the waves continually slammed into rubble again and again, and as the seconds ticked by without Stanley giving any indication that he'd even heard his brother's plea, his tentative smile began to waver. As his eyes traced more thoroughly over the blank lifelessness of Stanley's face, passive and unaware, his own mouth finally twitched down. The weight and dejection behind his grimace felt as though it had aged him a decade.
"I… I don't…" He wasn't sure what he'd been expecting. Maybe for Stanley to laugh, or give a groggy smile while making some snide comment, or even try to argue back at him. Why wasn't he? What was wrong? Hadn't they fixed things yet?
Stanford winced and blinked hard, his musings interrupted by honey-colored rays of morning light beginning to creep back down his forehead and into his eyes. The dawn, it seemed, had somehow caught back up to him, and he was forced to shift his stance more deeply into the shadow cast by the towering wreckage of the portal to avoid being blinded by it.
This was… odd. A few minutes ago he could've sworn that the sun had just reached itself from the shimmering mirror of the ocean below, but now instead of rising any further it appeared to have started sinking again, bleeding reds, purples, and bright golds into the deep blue sky above. Stanford stared past his brother and watched the foreboding spectacle for a moment or two before his eyes trailed down again to his own hand resting on Stanley's shoulder. His fingers weaved through the soft black fabric of his twin's frayed collar, and tightened till his knuckles turned bone white.
"I've bared my own soul to yours…." he murmured, bowing his head and glaring at the twisted metal scrap twinkling in the dying sunlight beneath them. "What else can I possibly do?"
There was no answer to Stanford's query. Aside from his chest softly rising and falling in time to the churning surf below, Stanley remained deathly still. Stanford's eyes began wetting slightly in the corners, though he was loathe to admit it even just to himself, shining with a mixture of anger and dread. The previous peace and quiet of the mindscape was starting to feel suffocating in it's continued silence. There was no way he was going to leave the mindscape alone. There was no way. There was no wa-
"Perhaps you need to accept that there are some things you just can't change."
Stanford's eyes widened as he was caught off guard by a sudden raspy voice, his body jolting so sharply in surprise that he tore off the piece of his brother's collar that he'd been grabbing. Immediately he acted on his first instinct and looked up to see if it had been Stanley who'd spoken, but all it took was a quick glance to confirm that the con man was still quite comatose. It couldn't have been him.
An urgent thrill of awareness ran up Stanford's spine like an ice cold finger tracing itself between the vertebrae of his back. He pivoted sharply around, eyes darting back and forth across the small uneven ledge to try and catch sight of… whatever else was here with them. Aside from himself and Stanley the area appeared to be empty, though that didn't exactly ease his racing heart or paranoia. Sparing one more look back at Stanley just to be sure, Stanford reluctantly left his side and shuffled over to the edge of the rubble platform, intent on looking down to see if there was something perhaps hiding from him in the foaming waves at the base of the structure. A series of splashes rang up from the sea below as he leaned over the edge, knocking loose a few bits of metal scrap in his efforts to be thorough, but he didn't notice anything unusual or out of the ordinary.
"D-didn't someone…" Stanford murmured, bewildered. He turned back around to once more visually sweep over the small platform, beginning to wonder if he'd actually heard a voice, or if his own understandably tired mind had just been playing tricks on him. But… no. No, he was sure that something else was present here with them, regardless of whether or not it was showing itself. The eerie sensation of some foreign presence burning its eyes into the back of his neck, watching him from somewhere unseen, was undeniable.
Unease started spiraling in the center his gut, and Stanford did his best to cover it by boldly addressing the empty air. "Come out. I know you're here." He paused to wait for a reply, but none was given. Still scanning around, he slowly began making his way back to where his brother was hanging, glasses flashing brightly in the sun as he walked from beneath the portal's shadow into the small circle of light its hollow center provided. "Whatever you are," he offered as a final warning, "unless you plan on helping me get my brother down, I suggest you leave."
"He can't hear a word you're saying."
Even suspecting that something else was here with them, Stanford still nearly tripped over his feet as the abrupt voice startled him for a second time. He whipped around, eyes flitting wildly as he once again scanned the length of the platform.
"He's already too far gone; closed off to any other potential fate than what he first chose when he jumped into the rift. You can't reach him."
Stanford couldn't identify where exactly the voice was coming from. It sounded near, almost right on top of him, but despite this, he still couldn't see anyone in his general vicinity. At least now that he'd gotten to hear it a second time he was able to confirm that it definitely didn't belong to either Stanley or himself. The voice had a worn and hoarse quality that fit an older man, but Stanford couldn't say that he really recognized it. Or, at the very least, he couldn't match it to a face. Still, there was something… undeniably familiar about the tired, hopeless tone it possessed, something that tugged slightly at the back of his mind.
"Where are you? Who said that?!"
"At your feet."
Stanford's gaze immediately shot down. He didn't notice anything out of the ordinary at first, simply the shadows cast by both himself and his brother lying side by side, framed by the circle of golden twilight. But… there was something that wasn't quite right about the dark shapes stretched out on the platform; one of them at least. A thrill of goosebumps crawled its way up the base of his neck and shoulders as Stanford stared down at his brother's shadow. Its silhouetted head suddenly twisted, as it turned to face Stanford's own shadow. The older twin hastily stumbled back a few steps, boots scraping noisily over rubble, and he cast a quick glance over his shoulder to confirm that Stanley himself hadn't moved.
But his brother was just as comatose as ever. The shadow had done this independently, and unfortunately, that wasn't the only unsettling thing about it.
"Who-… What are you?" Stanford tried forcing his tone to come across as calm and demanding, but he couldn't quite keep uncertainty from coloring it. While the shade was relatively in the same position that it should have been to be coming from his brother, lying prone with its arms spread-eagle similarly to its hanging counterpart, the dark lines that the chains should have cast along with it were noticeably absent. Stanley's shadow almost looked more like the toppled-over silhouette of a scarecrow than something that was being forcibly bound; a hanging puppet with its strings missing.
Though what perhaps disturbed Stanford more than this was just how different the figure seemed from his own shadow on even a basic level; different than the dark shape made by the portal itself. Somehow it was much more solid, vivid, and intense than any of the other shades, so pitch black that the rough cut of the rubble that should've still been visible beneath was completely buried by the inky darkness his twin cast. It reminded Stanford of how he'd felt when he'd descended into the heart of his brother's mindscape with the first fragment in tow, looking down upon the weak light provided by the elevator. The silhouette of an adult with a child anxiously clinging to his pant leg had been stretched out below, a dim glowing rectangle all that separated them from the unnatural darkness that saturated the rest of the basement. Up to this point, he'd assumed that the one who'd been watching him and his brother's younger counterpart the whole time they were in the lab had simply been the second fragment taunting and trying to unnerve them. But… Was it possible…
Back when he'd first felt that presence in the dark, he'd realized that there had been something unnatural and abstract about it. While the 'scary one' himself was a force to be reckoned with, terrifying in his unrestrained anger, he didn't quite give off the same eerie and unsettling pressure this shadow did. It also hadn't escaped Stanford's notice that the darkness curling itself around that part of Stanley had seemed at times to 'act out' and possess a will of its own.
"You… you're the shadow that was attached to that piece of my brother earlier," Stanford mused aloud, finally voicing his growing suspicions and glaring down at the dark shape below. "Aren't you."
The shadow once again moved independently from Stanley, nodding slightly. "Yes," it rasped. "The darkness that greeted you at the bottom of the basement and brought fear into the heart of the younger one. The shadows that blinded, cloaked, and shielded the part of him that wanted to hate you. The black fire that scorched his soul, and scorched yours as well when you touched him. And now, the chains that bind him here, and keep him distant from you."
"Hm." Stanford raised a brow, repositioning himself so that his own shade was a little further away from his twin's. "I wasn't aware that you were something separate from him. I thought that my brother's soul was only split into three pieces."
"Then what are you?"
The dark shape tilted its head slightly as though thinking Stanford's question over. "A symptom," it responded after a beat. "The fever to the infection."
"And… what exactly does that mean?" He wasn't able to stop his skepticism and distaste for the shade's cryptic answer from leaking into his tone; not that he felt particularly obliged to be polite. The shade, however, didn't seem put off by his bad attitude and explained itself indifferently in it's worn and raspy voice.
"I'm not part of him, but I belong to him, something he created unknowingly deep in his subconscious, like one creates a dream. Hurt, fear, hatred, guilt, despair; collected throughout his life, distilled from his memories, bottled up, and used as a reminder. A written memo etched into the backs of his eyes."
Stanford glanced back at his brother upon hearing this, something like understanding causing his gut to squirm. "A reminder for what," he asked a bit more softly.
The shadow below shrugged as though the answer should have been obvious. "That actions have consequences. That he shouldn't let people get too close to his heart, because they've failed him. That other people have trusted him with their heart's, and that he's failed them. And that when this happens, there's hurt."
The sun was beginning to dip back again into the ocean, darkening the sky above into a deep blue as though it were dusk. Whatever remained of Stanford's patience seemed to be disappearing with the dying light.
"Alright… alright," he sighed, exasperatedly reaching up under his glasses to pinch the bridge of his nose. He didn't even attempt to hide his sardonic sneer before turning back to face the 'thing' on the ground. "So… let me take what you've just told me and see if I can make some sense of it. Basically, from what I'm understanding, you're not actually a part of my brother, but a metaphysical conceptualization of his regret that's been given life and physical form thanks to the seemingly limitless insanity of the mindscape."
"It's more than regret." The shadow insisted dryly, unaffected by the sudden temper of the man standing above him.
"Yes, yes, of course it is," Stanford barked, throwing his hands up and gesturing dramatically. He stalked over to the shade and leaned down to address it more directly, his tone icy and condescending. "Well, whatever you are, if you know what's good for you then I'll tell you what you're going to do; you're going to release my brother, and you're going to do it right now! I've already taken a trip through the hell of the nightmare realm in order to get him back, traversed across the crumbling pocket of the mindscape we were both crammed into, and helped put the pieces of his soul back together after he was split into three. If you really think that after all of that, that I'm just going to give up because some abstract embodiment of my brother's regret is trying to keep him chained up here, then you've got another thing coming. I'm someone who's spent the last thirty years wandering the multiverse! There's next to nothing I could possibly come across that would weird out or surprise me, and I'm certainly not going to be dissuaded by the likes of you!"
The shadow didn't respond immediately to Stanford's rant, and the silence that stretched between them was only broken by the sound of the ocean splashing and churning at the portal's base. "Stubbornness is one of the many traits that the two of you share, but it's hardly the only one," it finally rasped, deliberately swiveling its head so that it once again seemed to be looking directly at Stanford's own shadow. "Neither of you do as good a job of hiding it as you think you do. Perhaps you should fix your own heart before tampering with that of others."
"I'm not hiding anything," Stanford stubbornly asserted, placing his hands behind his back. The dark shape beneath him didn't seem convinced. It didn't even bother looking back at him, simply continuing to stare intently into where his own shadow's eyes would have been.
"It's no surprise that you're able to grasp the concept behind my existence as easily as you do. You can see his shadow clearly because he's not aware enough of himself right now to try and hide it as he normally would. But there's a similar strain of me in you as well."
Stanford gave a small snort of disagreement, "I doubt that." He took a step to the right in an attempt to prevent the entity from staring at his shadow any further. A chill ran up his arms as he left the dim circle of warm orange twilight, and both he and his shade were quickly swallowed up in the darkness cast by the rest of the portal. He wasn't going to stand there and let this 'thing' just examine him under a microscope. "If you're referring to my own shadow, then it seems normal enough right now. And even if it is off in some way, at least it's not currently chaining me up and holding me hostage in the mindscape, now is it."
Undeterred, the shadow's gaze lingered over at where Stanford's own should have been in the gloom, as though it could still see the dark shape. "It's chaining your hands behind your back."
Stanford abruptly stiffened as though he'd been slapped, his mask of calm certainty fracturing for an instant. The shade continued on coolly as though it hadn't really said anything important, or didn't notice his reaction."For you it's shame. Shame of what you are hiding, even from yourself. Shame of an anomaly that has branded you your whole life, either as a prodigy who changed the world, or as a fool who helped bring about its destruction."
Stanford couldn't think of anything to say back to that. He kept his hands behind him, unconsciously tracing his six fingers across the edge of his palm. His posture was stiff and defensive. The indifferent, matter-o-fact way that the insinuation had been delivered tied his tongue better than any cruel or angrily spoken insult could have. At this moment, it was all he could do to be glad that he was standing in the portal's shade so that the sudden rush of heat that crept into his cheeks was hidden.
"Your shadow only looks normal to you because you're used to it." His brother's silhouette finally turned it's head back to face Stanford himself. "He can't see his clearly either, doesn't notice that it's darker than it should be, because for him that's normal. To you, it seems strange that the shadow he casts is so potent in its darkness, like a black fire. But yours… yours is made of stone. If you could step beneath your own shadow, you would marvel that something so intangible could carry so much weight. Yours is a guilty plea in the darkness, a knife across your arm-"
"Enough," Stanford snapped, managing to find his voice again even if it was bit shakier than he would have liked. He brought his hands back out and clenched them tightly at his sides. "Enough! I'm not discussing this with… whatever you are. Just let go of my brother!"
The shade gave its head a patronizing shake as though denying an impatient child, then it twisted its inky wrists to gesture vaguely at itself. "What sense is it to ask the hammer to stop hammering, instead of the person wielding it."
"You should be talking to him, not me," it retorted impassively. "I'm merely the restraints. I don't choose how I'm used, nor do I care."
Stanford snarled, glaring down at his brother's manifested regret with all the icy vehemence he could muster. "I'm not in the mood to play whatever game this is! Release Stanley now, before I imagine something that will eradicate you." He raised his brow. "Perhaps an especially strong ray of sunlight."
"You really think that you can get rid of me like that?"
"I washed you off from part of him once already," he shot back. "I can do it again."
The dark figure below was silent for a beat or two. It was hard to tell with it being a featureless shade, but it almost seemed to Stanford that it was intently watching the sun set into the horizon; waiting for something. The shadows around them, itself included, stretched a little longer as the coppery light waned and dimmed. A rush of goosebumps ominously crawled up Stanford's neck as he pondered the haunting spectacle sprawled at his feet.
"No, you didn't." It eventually shook its silhouetted head, making a small noise of what Stanford could only guess to be amusement. "Not directly at least. You convinced him to loosen his tightly clenched hold around me, but ultimately it was he who let me go. You can't take away the darkness in someone's heart for them, no matter how hard you try. Only they themselves can release it if they choose."
"Well then, why isn't he choosing to release himself," Stanford demanded. "What's holding him back?"
"He used me as a shroud before, something that reminded him to close himself off in order to keep from being hurt by you. But as these chains, my function has been the opposite: to protect you from him."
Dim crimson twilight flashed across Stanford's glasses as he tilted his head, his expression a mixture of puzzled, frustrated, and uncertain. "To… protect me!?"
The shadow nodded. "As the restraints that bind him now, I'm drawn from a very specific set of memories. The expression of despair etched onto your face as you stood in the second story window, and looked down at the pamphlet to the dream school that you would never get into. The sound of your voice frantically screaming for his help as you floated up into the blue light of the portal. The drawing of a sailboat in the third journal crossed out with heavy black strokes. The thirty years worth of disappointment and anger behind the force of the punch you gave him when you first stepped out of the portal."
It paused here for a moment. Despite its lack of eyes, Stanford felt as though the dark shape was staring intently up at him. "Do you understand what these mean," it asked more softly than it had ever spoken before. "It wasn't just coincidence that he tightened the chains around himself every time he was about to do something especially cruel to you."
"I don't…" Stanford could do little more than just stare dumbstruck for a couple of moments. His capability to form coherent sentences seemed to be failing him as he struggled to make sense of what the silhouette was trying to convey. "I-I thought he was just doing that out of self-hatred. Because he didn't want to continue… living as a failure."
"And why do you think he felt himself enough of a failure to be satisfied with his own existence ending," the shade countered. "It's a terrible cycle, isn't it. `All his life he's disappointed and hurt the ones he loved. He's even hurt and disappointed himself. But dead men feel no pain, and neither can they cause pain to others. I am here to prevent him from leaving the mindscape with you, and perhaps stop him from hurting you, himself, or anyone else he cares about in the future."
"You can't just-" Stanford tried, but his brother's shadow quickly cut him off.
"I can," it hissed obstinately. "And now that I have the feeling of your throat under his hands as he just nearly ended both of your lives, it will be impossible to remove me. The need for him to protect you from himself outweighs his need to go home."
Stanford silently gazed down at the shade, his brows furrowing introspectively as he took its statement in. The rubble that the inky black shape was splashed across was scarlet tinged now, lit by the early evening glow shining through the portals eye. It's very appearance implied a certain threat, a menacing energy, but while the figure undeniably held an eerie and unsettling quality to it, Stanford found that it woke in him something more akin to a somber pity than fear. It really was exactly what it had claimed to be in the end. Nothing more than a symptom of a larger problem.
The look of regret and shame on the second fragment's face flashed through Stanford's mind. Then he remembered the first fragment's as well, alight with assurance. That's a gamble I'm willing to take, he had said. Somewhere in his brother's heart, he held the willpower to go home, Stanford was certain of that.
Eyes flashing in a sudden burst of resolute energy, Stanford turned back around to face his twin, and began shaking him roughly. His shouting rang out above the muted thundering of the surf. "Enough of this! Stanley… Stanley, I know you want to live. I know that want to go home and see your family again, and you can do that if you just-…" The words stuck in his throat a little as he watched his twin's head continue to wobble lifelessly back and forth. "If you…. Look, you've forgiven me, but that's not enough. You have to forgive yourself too."
The only response was silence from his brother, and the distant cry of seagulls drifting through the breeze. Stanley's expression in the dim red light was chillingly blank and reserved, and Stanford went quiet as well for a moment, the salty sea wind gently fanning his hair and rippling his trenchcoat out behind him.
Abruptly he snapped again, tone frigid as he lost his temper even further. "Stanley, look. I'm fine, see!" He reached up to yank his turtleneck down and ran his fingers along his neck for emphasis. "No bruises, no blood, it's like we didn't even get into a fight in the first place, and I'm sure that the same is true for you. This is the mindscape, so the damage that was done here was all perception based anyways. It didn't actually h-hurt me."
Stanford's composure faltered as he stumbled slightly on the last words, not quite able to hide the hesitation in his voice. He winced and turned his head away from Stanley, allowing his gaze to fall down to the waters frothing and shimmering brightly in the crimson dusk.
"I guess… it wouldn't make any sense to lie to you like that," he murmured softly after a beat. "You've always been surprisingly perceptive when it comes to whether or not people are telling the truth, and I'm not exactly a master in the art of deception." He worked up the nerve to look up at his brother's face again, an emotion that couldn't quite identify shining in his eyes, and bleeding into his tone. "No, you didn't hurt me physically because there's really no such thing in the mindscape, but that wasn't the only way that you were attempting to cause me pain. Still, punishing yourself for that isn't going to do either of us any good. You know this Stanley, I know that you already know this." Stanford's voice seemed to find its strength again, and his gaze hardened as tightened his grip on his twin. "So stop being such a knucklehead and snap out of it! "
Stanley's shadow offered a retort from over Stanford's shoulder, its raspy weathered voice almost sneering. "Ironic that a man who never listens to his own heart is now advising someone else to listen to theirs. You of all people should be able to appreciate the logic behind cutting yourself off from others to spare them from the burden of your own mistakes. After all, your heavy, heavy shadow tells me that you do this yourself on a regular basis. You would rather take on the role of Atlas and risk getting crushed by carrying the weight of the entire world upon your own shoulders, than count on others to come to your aid. You push them all away, isolate and punish yourself for the damage your actions have wrought. A man who always tries to handle everything on his own, who would readily sacrifice his own life to atone for his sins and prevent a future crisis, has no room to criticize others who would do the same."
"And look just where that's gotten me! And everyone else for that matter," Stanford shot back furiously, eyes flashing brightly as he whipped around and glared at the dark shape. It was now stretched to an unsettling length in the dying light. His breathing was coming out more rapidly than he wanted, desperation and frantic anger tearing at the back of his mind. It didn't make any sense! Why was the sun setting now instead of rising? Why was this 'thing' still here? H-how could he- What could he- Wait. Wait!
Stanford's eyes widened as he suddenly realized where he recognized the shadow's voice from. That… that was it! The world-weary and raspy tone belonged to the old hermit from Stanley's memory, the one he'd stumbled across while hiding from the second fragment. Stanford supposed that explained a few things about the shade. After all, it had essentially told him that it was comprised of negative feelings that his brother associated with certain recollections. It had even gone into detail explaining which ones made up the chains that were currently holding Stanley in place.
Stanford turned back to his twin, an idea suddenly striking him. He couldn't escape the past, could he. Very well then. If it was memories that had gotten them both into this mess, then he was determined that memories were now going to get them out, and he had a particular one in mind to deal with his brother's stubbornness.
Unconsciously Stanford's grim expression melted to something more somber and wistful as he finally let go of his twin's shoulder. He walked over to the edge of the small rubble platform, hands loosely clasped behind his back as his gaze fell to the twilight colored shoreline splayed out below. "Stanley… d-do you remember the summer of second grade," he softly inquired, concentrating on changing something about the beach's landscape. "The day I almost drowned?"
The mindscape responded immediately to the memory that he was calling upon. A small of movement out of the corner of his eye drew Stanford's attention to his left, where much, much younger versions of Stanley and himself appeared to be loitering just a short distance away from the water's edge. Stanley's counterpart had his hands cupped behind his head, a bored yet content expression eased onto his face as he watched his brother fiddle around beside him. Meanwhile, the eight-year-old Stanford was staring upwards into the sky, his arms twisting in a series of odd and almost comical directions as he tried to correct his kite's wayward trajectory.
"We had taken my kite out to the beach," the older Stanford murmured over his shoulder, narrating the recollection playing out below for his brother. "The one I had spent weeks modifying to pick up on radio frequencies that are usually to faint to be registered by regular devices. I had hoped that by flying my makeshift satellite high enough I would find some sort of secret alien message and prove the existence of extraterrestrial life once and for all. That was actually a very foolish way of going about it, looking back."
A small smile made its way onto Stanford's face at this. A child's perception of the world was always a fascinating thing. He wondered how his younger self might have reacted if he'd known that one day he'd come to consider contact with aliens to be mundane.
Down on the beach below his still quite naive and inexperienced counterpart was having a bit of trouble, scowling slightly as gave the kite a particularly hard tug to the right. He made a noise of displeasure as his glasses nearly slipped off his nose from the movement, and a moment later he passed the reel to the boy next to him. "Hey, could you hang onto this for a minute."
Stanley's face broke out into a grin at the offer. He took the spool of kite string and shot his twin a mischievous raise of his eyebrow. "Sure, I'm great at kite flying. Betcha ten bucks I can make it do a flip."
"Stanley, I have sensitive equipment up there. If you start fooling around you're gonna mess up my calibrations. Just hold it steady."
"I remember that I'd given you the kite for a moment so I could fish out my notebook and write down a memo for later,"Stanford continued, brow furrowing slightly as his memory began to get a little fuzzy. "Something about adjusting the receiving dish so that it wouldn't interfere as much with the kite's lift. I'm… not sure what happened after that. I'd been too absorbed in my own work to really pay attention. Either the wind had died down, or you'd fumbled with the reel, or something else to that effect had happened, and my kite was sent crashing into the ocean."
A splash rang up from the sea beyond in conjunction with Stanford's statement. His and Stanley's younger selves stared out at the place where the kite had just taken a nosedive into the water, the former with an expression of slack-jawed horror, the later wincing in sympathy.
"Stanley, what did you do!? My satellite!"
"It had been too heavy," Stanford noted, giving his head a weary shake, "and the line snapped as soon as we tried to pull it back in. It was as good as gone out there in the open waters, but I didn't want to accept that. I'd been so upset after being forced to watch all my hard work go down the drain before even really getting a chance to test it out for myself, and you…" He hesitated, gazing at the unconscious man on the platform with him, and then to the youth trying to placate his own counterpart down on the shoreline below.
"Whelp, that's a bummer." Stanley groused, appearing more annoyed than upset. "Looks like we're not gonna get to have cool space adventures anytime soon. Maybe if I can nick us a couple 'f popsicles on our way back this trip won't have been a total waste." The younger Stanford stared at his twin aghast.
"What about my satellite!?"
Stanley shrugged. "What about it? It's probably already sunk to the bottom of the ocean Poindexter, we're not gonna be able to find it." He waved his hand dismissively, beginning to walk away." You can just start on a new one when we get back home."
The image of his broken perpetual motion machine flashed across Stanford's mind as he observed this small exchange, and it took some effort for him to dismiss it along with the rush of bitterness and dismay that followed. "You'd barely seemed to care," he finished dully, watching the rest of the memory play out.
"Just start a new one!?" His eight-year-old counterpart balked. "Do you have any idea how hard it was to make that, how much allowance I had to save up just to buy the parts?! We have to go in after it."
"It landed all the way over by the buoys," Stanley retorted. "You remember what ma said, we're not supposed to go out that far."
"We'll just have to be careful, and since when have you started caring about following the rules anyways."
"We're not going in after it Ford," his twin firmly insisted, crossing his arms. "It's just a dumb kite. We can alway-."
"You know what, fine!" The younger Stanford cut the other boy off before he could finish, sharply pivoting around and walking towards the ocean."I don't need your help. I'll find it by myself!"
He didn't get very far before he was jerked to a halt by his brother's firm grip on his wrist. "Stanford-" Stanley's voice was a little softer now, but at the time Stanford had barely taken any notice of it. The older man watched morosely as the memory of himself roughly yanked his small arm out from his twin's grasp, and turned to point an accusing finger back at him.
"Let go! This whole situation's your fault in the first place. All I asked you to do was hold the reel for me for a minute and somehow you found a way to mess even that up. Why don't you go take a long walk on the beach and I'll meet back up with you when I'm finished."
Again, his young counterpart started making his way back towards the ocean, and again, it looked as though Stanley was going to reach out and try to pull him back. This time, however, his twin hesitated, arm just hanging awkwardly for a moment in the empty air before falling back to his side as he looked away. Then his small hands clenched into fists at his side. "Fine! But if something goes wrong I ain't helpin' you! It'll be your own fault for swimmin' out there in the first place!" The child Stanford gave a quick glance over his shoulder at this, but otherwise didn't stop or turn around.
"You looked so guilty and hurt after that. I remember watching you walk away, going off somewhere to mope I figured." Stanford glanced almost conspiratorially back to the real Stanley hanging in the portal beside him. He wasn't sure of how aware his brother was of what was going on around him, not very if his still lax expression was anything to go by. His face was lined, shadowed, and very weary looking in the dying light, but Stanford offered him a small smile anyways. "It's kind of funny, actually. For once it seemed that you were being the rational and cautious one, trying to dissuade me from my foolhardy mission.
His younger counterpart again drew Stanford's attention, and he gravely watched as the boy started slipping off his shirt and glasses, arranging them meticulously on the sand before rushing off towards the softly crashing surf. The older man's expression pinched with regret and a knowing anxiety.
"I wish I'd listened to you," he murmured solemnly.
The memory had originally taken place during the middle of the day, but the sun in the mindscape hadn't adjusted itself to suit this. Already it had sunk so low into the ocean that the celestial body had all but disappeared, and the last hints of red light were beginning to completely fade from the horizon. Glass Shard Beach seemed right on the edge of nightfall, it's skyline saturated by deep, dark blue and the telltale silvery-white splattering of stars that were starting to peek through. As horrifying as this memory already was to Stanford, this change in daylight made it a thousand times worse. Even at high noon, the ocean could appear titanic and imposing, and the quickly dimming seascape only emphasized this further by making it dark, enigmatic, and terrifyingly unfathomable. The older man could barely watch as his young counterpart swam out into the open waters, his small arms and legs obviously tiring quite rapidly as he tried to fight against wave after wave.
"It was too far out, " Stanford softly continued, attempting to keep his expression as stoic as possible. He still couldn't help fidgeting his hands slightly behind his stiff back, especially as the sound of his own voice spluttering and choking on saltwater began carrying up from below. "And the force of the undertow was too strong. The distance I'd swam had tired me to the point that I was helpless against the current sucking me down below the waves. No matter how much I struggled, I couldn't seem to get free."
His younger counterpart started panicking, splashing wildly around as his head kept dipping dangerously below the passing waves. The desperate cries of a small child started ringing through the mindscape. "H-help. Sta-S-Stan-….Hel-he-" Another dark blue swell dragged him under, and this time Stanford didn't come back up.
"Everything… started going black then," the older man shakily admitted. "I-I thought I was going to die."
Suddenly Stanford found himself overcome by a feeling of mortal terror despite the fact that he was presently standing on solid ground. It was overpowering, the sensation of saltwater flooding his mouth and nose, pressing down heavily on top of his chest, tugging his limp body around like a rag doll. Perhaps, Stanford mused as he struggled to slow his jolting heart, he shouldn't find it so surprising that he was reacting like this. After all, this was the memory that had gotten him to mistakenly release Stanley back when they'd first fallen into the mindscape. It was dangerous. Stanford had a lot of dangerous memories. Maybe Mcgucket actually had been on to something with his device.
As though in response to his lapse, what small amount of light remained on the horizon finally disappeared, and Glass Shard Beach was abruptly thrown into a pitch black night. Stanford could only barely make out his brother still hanging limply a few feet away, and he completely lost track of where their younger counterparts were as they were swallowed by the inky gloom. The only indication of what was actually going on in the dark ocean below was the occasional sound of water choked gasps and frantic splashing that managed to work its way above the constant thunder of the surf upon the shore.
Then for a tense second, it stopped, all of it stopped, and the whole of the mindscape around them grew deathly quiet. Oddly enough, however, Stanford didn't feel disheartened about this. He knew what was going to happen next because it already had happened, almost half a lifetime ago. Though it couldn't be seen in the darkness, a warm, grateful smile was slowly dawning across the older twin's face.
"I guess I should have known that you would've never allowed something like that to happen to me. Would you, Stanley."
As abruptly as a light fixture flickering on, the sun was ricocheted out from its watery grave on the horizon high up into the light blue sky, and the whole seascape of Glass Shard Beach was thrown into blazing-bright, high noon sunlight. Stanford squinted in surprise as he was half-blinded by it, only just barely managing to catch the moment that both of their younger selves broke the shimmering gold surface of the ocean, gasping, choking, and spluttering as they fought to fill their lungs and keep their waterlogged heads above the waves. After a large amount of splashing and struggling Stanley finally managed to drag his brother up onto on red ringed life preserver he'd brought out with him, making sure that Stanford had a firm grip on it before letting go of his arm and pulling himself up onto the other side.
"F-Ford! Ford, are ya alright," he stuttered, shivering slightly as he brushed his sopping wet bangs out of his eyes. "Stanford!"
"Yeah. F-fine, 'm fine," Stanford's young counterpart managed a shaky lie. "I'm fine."
"Perhaps you'd wandered away initially to just mope and feel guilty," Stanford mused, eyes shining slightly as he smiled down at the scene playing out in the water below, "but it didn't take you long to realize that wasn't going to help the situation. You quickly set aside those feelings to grab a life preserver and come in after me. It's because of this that I'm still here today."
His younger self spat out a mouthful of brine-soaked drool and then gazed back at the boy floating across from him, his grimace torn between relief and shame. "Stanley… yo-you…t-thank you," he managed to choke out.
Stanley's expression was almost an exact mirror of his own before he broke it with a small grin, and from his perspective above Stanford could now tell why people sometimes had such a hard time telling them apart as kids. "Come on," his brother drawled, resting his chin tiredly against the life preserver, "I know I said some stupid things back there, but did ya ever really doubt that I would jump in after ya?"
"I-I.. I was the one being stupid," he berated himself. "I shouldn't have-"
"Hey! What's happened, happened, alright," Stanley interrupted, though not unkindly. "We're both ok, and that's what matters." His brother's expression changed then, to something a little more somber and sincere, and he waited a beat as the waves gently tossed them to and fro before hesitantly starting again. "Listen Ford, I… I'm really sorry about losing your kite. Even though there's not much I can do to get it back for ya, or even help to rebuild it, I promise I'll make it up to you. Heck, I can probably start savin' up my allowance to buy ya the parts you're gonna need. Is… that ok?"
A warm, genuine smile stretched across his younger self's face at this, and Stanley was quick to return it. The pair of boys and the red ring they were clinging to started fading as the memory ended, their small forms gradually being overcome by the blinding glare of the water flashing and shimmering around them. Stanford continued wistfully staring at the spot where they had disappeared for another moment or two before turning back to address the man hanging in the portal. His voice was quiet and introspective.
"I learned something important that day Stanley, something that your first fragment said, so I know it's harbored in your heart somewhere." He hesitated slightly at this. The memory of the Stan O' War sitting stranded in the middle of a dingy wheatfield flashed across his mind's eye, a child's laughter echoing from somewhere on the deck above. Guilt was a heavy stone sitting in the pit of his stomach. "S-Something I wish I had remembered more often throughout the course of my life."
Stanford took a deep breath and stepped out from under the portal's shadow, closing the distance between them, and pulling to a stop half an arm's length away from the listless body of his comatose twin. The radiant light of the sun flashed across his glasses as he fixed Stanley with a steely gaze, and he spoke as lowly and sincerely as he could manage. "When you've messed up and hurt someone, hiding away and beating yourself up over it doesn't do you or anyone else any good. If you're going to feel bad and guilty about it anyways, then you might as well do anything you can to help make up for your mistake, even if it's only a little. You did this for me when you came after me with that life preserver, when you tried to earn back my scholarship money, when you retrieved me from the other side of the portal."
Something in his expression faltered here, a mixture of regret and desperation bleeding through his stoic mask, but Stanford just kept pushing forward. He reached up and gave his brother's shoulder a firm, assuring grasp. "Now I'm asking you to do this for me again, Stanley. Don't protect me, help me. If you really feel bad for the ways that you've hurt me, then don't just punish yourself. Fix it. Come back home with me, and I promise you we'll fix the damage we've done to each other togethe-"
A soft clinking sound drew Stanford's attention to the right, and his heart leapt as he saw several lengths of inky black chain slide off Stanley's arm and fall away to the mess of rubble and steel below. His face broke out into a tentative grin. He could almost imagine the youthful face of the first fragment beaming at him. "Yes, yes, there we go, Stanley…" he encouraged. Not all of the restraints had loosened, and many dark strands were still wrapped and tangled around Stanley's wrists, arms, and shoulders, but it was a start at least. Stanford began fumbling with them himself to try and help free his twin, carefully squeezing his fingers beneath the cold bite of the remaining chains and yanking at them. He tried not to scowl at the fact that they didn't seem to be budging at all.
"Hypocritical for you to be telling him this, when you hide your own afflictions from the light."
Stanford had almost forgotten about the dark shape mirroring his brother on the ground behind him. His hands paused for a moment as he spared a small glance over his shoulder, observing the slightly dimmed shadow splayed out in light shining down through the portal's eye. Then he turned back around and did his best to continue ignoring it. "Come on Stanley," He hissed, giving the restraints another short and frustrated tug. "Stanley, please. Please wake up. Please just let go of this! Let me help you, and… h-help me too…."
"As I said before," the shade rasped at Stanford's back, "perhaps you need to accept that there are some things that you just can't change."
"No!" Stanford whipped around again to face the dark figure at his feet, something wound tightly within him finally snapping back like a rubberband. His trench coat fluttered loudly as he sharply pivoted, and his eyes blazed with a frost-laced fury. "You're wrong. I can change my brother's heart because it's tied to mine as well. Stanley will release these chains, every single one of them. And I know he'll listen to me because all this time we've been in the mindscape, even though I didn't always understand what was being said at first, I've been listening to him too. I noticed the broken swingset, and the boarded up doors. I noticed the burnt Stan O' War, and the portal room in the center of his mind. I've seen his trust, and rage, and love for me. I've felt his hurt and despair through your shadows. We're connected in a way you can't possibly understand, and I will reach him, no matter what!"
With that Stanford turned back and grabbed the sides of his brother's face, perhaps a little rougher than he intended to, fingers threaded through his silvery-grey hair, glaring at his slack expression with all the intensity he could muster. He knew which part of Stanley he would be appealing to. The third fragment may have been the keeper of Stanley's sense of morality, and it was probably in him that Stanley's sense of guilt for the damage he'd caused was primarily rooted. But it seemed as though whatever chains the third and the first fragments had power over had already fallen away thanks to the memory Stanford had summoned before. They weren't the ones, however, who had initially put them there, and neither did the shadows of so many negative feelings feed off from them. No, it was the second fragment who housed Stanley's will to live, it was he who was holding his twin under, and it was he whom Stanford still had to get through to.
"You can't reach him."
Stanford paid no heed to the shadow's ominous warning. "You're not worthless," he began, his voice firm though a softness touched its edges. "You're not useless. You're not a burden. You're not suffocating. And you're not weak either. If anything, I'd say that you're a lot stronger than I am. You have such a big heart, and that's hurt you so badly in life. But it hasn't stopped you from loving, has it? Even with all the pain that you endured by my hand, you never stopped loving me; you never stopped being there for me."
"He's closed off to any other potential fate than what he first chose when he jumped into the rift."
"The truth is…. I need you, Stanley. I always have. And I know… I know you feel as though you're protecting me by keeping yourself here…. but the thought of going back home without you… is… I can hardly bare it. It's unthinkable. I need you with me when we go home…. so we can work things out together. Please, Stan…"
Stanford let out a deep sigh, leaning forward until his forehead was pressed against Stanley's. His brother's skin was cooler than his, a welcome relief compared to the sunlight beating down on the back of his neck.
"….you're unbelievably loyal, almost stupidly so. When I sent you that postcard asking for your help thirty years ago, you didn't even hesitate to come to my aid, did you?"
"He's already too far gone."
Glimmering brown eyes trailed downward, numbly staring at two pairs of dusty old shoes. Black boots were planted firmly on the rubble, and the tips of Stanley's loafers just barely scraped the debris.
"And I-I… I can't even begin to imagine how hard it must have been to keep searching for me after thirty years of dead ends and failures. It must have been so hopeless. But you never gave up on me. Despite everything, you never gave up on me."
Stanford fell silent for another moment, listening to the tide ceaselessly crash onto the shoreline of Glass Shard Beach. His brows pinched together tightly, and the corners of his eyes started watering. When he spoke again his voice was small, almost lost sounding.
"People are always telling me how special I am, how important I am, how innovative and brilliant I am. But to be perfectly honest, I… I feel like such a failure. I wanted to benefit mankind, but I nearly destroyed it. I nearly destroyed you. Heh." A wry smile wormed its way onto his face, and a breathy whisper of a laugh escaped him. His shoulders shook slightly. "The way things are going now, I still might."
"He can't hear a word you're saying."
Stanford closed his eyes, the rays of sunlight warming the side of his face. His weary smile was peaceful and sad.
"People always have such great things to say about me, but I… I think that if there were more people like you in the world, and…." Stanford let out a short bitter laugh. "and less people like me, then this would be a far more pleasant place to live in. If I could redo everything and start over… I would trade my genius for your loyalty in a heartbea-"
"Don't… don't you dare say that… 'bout yourself…" a gruff voice rasped in Stanford's ear, cutting him off.
Something inside Stanford jolted as he felt Stanley stirring against him. His own eyes shot open and he pulled his head back in surprise, carefully watching his brother's face. Stanley's eyes were still closed, his face pinched and drawn, but there was life in it now, undeniable awareness, and consciousness. A short weary breath escaped Stanley before he began to speak in earnest, his voice slightly slurred and drowsy.
"Y-you better not say anything bad 'bout yourself, 'cause I… I-I've always been so jealous of ya. You're not a failure Ford; you're a-amazing! You're… you're so creative, 'nd smart, 'nd talented, 'nd brave, 'nd unlike me, you've always made your dreams into a reality." Stanley coughed weakly, but continued on, his croaking voice growing steadily stronger. "It's-That's why I… it's why I gave up on my dream of sailin' around the world. Once I lost you, I knew that there was no way I could ever pull it off on my own. I'm just… I'm not like you. If there's a failure in this family, it's me, not you. N-not you. I…. I wish… I-I'd give anything to be more like you."
Stanford smiled before replying, warmth flooding his heart and making his eyes a little wetter at the corners. Under normal circumstances, neither of them would have gone within a hundred yards of admittances as openly tender as these, but this string of ordeals had worn them both down the point that they were too tired to really give a damn about pride. Besides, it wasn't like anyone else was here to see it. "I wish I could be more like you."
Stanley's lids fluttered for a moment or two before he slowly opened his glazed-over eyes. He blinked tiredly, trying to focus in on Stanford, and then shot him back a bleak and slightly more sardonic smile. "Liar."
The older twin snickered. "I suppose as someone who makes his living from conning people, you would be able to spot one better than anyone. So look me in the eye Stanley, and tell me: Am I lying?"
Stanley peered at his brother closer, his watery brown eyes studying Stanford's intently. "No," he finally breathed out.
The chains binding Stanley disappeared into wisps of smoke, and he fell limply forward. Stanford lunged, catching him solidly in his arms. He noticed with no small amount of satisfaction that his twin's spectral shadow had faded back to a natural shade as his foot met it on the ground. It seemed to look and behave normally now, following Stanley's movements perfectly as Stanford readjusted his grip on him.
"Whoa. Careful there."
"Mmmm," Stanley grunted vaguely, leaning his full weight on Stanford. His eyes had fluttered closed again, and it seemed to take most of his strength just to keep himself from collapsing right then and there. Stanford carefully eased them both into a sitting position, leaning his side on the metal curve of the portal. He pulled Stanley against his chest, doing his best to support his brother's weakened body. It was a little unnerving that Stanley didn't budge an inch in his arms, that there were no snarky comments or grumbled protests, and Stanford's brow furrowed in concern. Had he already passed out again from fatigue? He gently shook Stanley's shoulder, but froze when he heard a pained hiss as he was jostled. One of his twin's hands flew protectively over his chest, clutching at the torn fabric. His body hunched in on itself, to obscure whatever the injury was from Stanford's view.
"Stanley?" he asked, a bit alarmed at his brother's abrupt action. "What's wrong?" Stanford's eyes darted downward in an attempt to examine where his hand was tightly clenched in a vice-like grip. "Is it your chest? Let me see, Stan."
Stanley didn't answer, and curled up tighter, closing himself off before Stanford's eyes. No, he wouldn't let Stanley do that to himself again.
"Stanley." Stanford spoke his name with a quiet insistence and tenderness, and much to his relief it was enough to get Stanley to raise his head back up. His watery brown eyes gazed back at Stanford in pain.
"Don't do this to yourself. You don't have to be alone anymore." Stanford gave him a small smile. "It's okay now," he assured softly. "Let me see it."
Stanley hesitated for another moment, then uncurled his fist from where it was clamped tightly over his heart. His hand slowly moved away so Stanford could get a better view of the wound. Gingerly, Stanford parted the torn fabric around his chest. The Y-shaped gash that had bled the glowing orange substance had entirely healed over. Well, not entirely, there was now a ragged white scar that marred his brother's skin. The older twin peered closer over the brim of glasses, carefully examining the newly healed injury. His fingers delicately parted the fabric further to gain a better view of it, and his eyes widened with astonishment. It appeared as though the scar itself had something holding it together… stitches. A rather literal representation within the mindscape of his brother's soul becoming whole once again.
"It's no wonder you're a bit sore," he murmured in amazement. "Your soul was torn apart and then stitched together again.
Stanley let out a hoarse laugh, and winced slightly from it."Guess now I know… what those taxidermy attractions in the Shack… felt like."
Stanford could only give a half-hearted chuckle in response to his brother's joke. His eyes still lingered upon the jagged scar on his twin's chest. A testament to the pain he had endured and survived. After a moment, Stanford moved his hand slightly, pressing it gently over the scar. He felt the steadily thumping heartbeat underneath, the slight rise and fall of his brother's chest. It wasn't exactly clear to him why he was doing this, though he supposed it might have been for comfort's sake; to assure himself that his brother was here and alive. That after forty long years of constant miscommunication, separation, and bitter resentment, they were still them, still brothers. They were at peace.
Stanley didn't pull away from him this time, but raised his own calloused hand and settled it on top of his twin's. He sighed, as though reassured of something, and relaxed his head against Stanford's shoulder. They both stayed like that for a long time, listening to the dull roaring of the sea on every side, taking relief in the cool breeze nipping at their cheeks and hands, enjoying the feeling of complete peace in the mindscape around them. But eventually, one of them did break the silence.
"Ford…." Stanford had to struggle slightly to hear what his twin was softly murmuring into his chest. "I don't exactly remember what's happened all that well. I'm not sure how we got into the mindscape, or anythin' else before now really. Could ya… maybe fill me in a little?"
"It… it might be better if we leave that for later," he suggested uncomfortably. "When we're both not so… worse for wear."
He felt Stanley's shoulders give a little twitch as the man snickered. "Yeah, ya do look like shit, and I don't imagine I look much better either, but I feel like this is…." his gruff voice lowered to a more somber note, "kinda important. Something isn't sittin' right with me."
Stanford gazed back out at the ocean wearily, watching the choppy waves shimmer for a beat or two before answering. "I suppose we're not really in a particular rush anymore, and it's been awhile since we've gotten to enjoy Glass Shard Beach together." He sighed, relenting. "Alright. Well, to make a long story short, I pursued you into the nightmare realm, found a doorway into the mindscape but lost you while we were traveling into it, found you again only to discover that your soul had been fractured into numerous parts, got into a bit of an argument with one of those parts-"
"An argument?" Stanley interrupted.
Stanford smiled a bit painfully. "That…may be a bit of an understatement. Um, anyways we eventually resolved our differences, I… appologized to you after realizing how badly I had unintentionally hurt you in the past, and, well, here we are now. "
As Stanford finished his summation his twin finally lifted his head up to look back at him. Stanley was unusually quiet, his gaze introspective as he tried to take his brother's words in. He seemed to be thinking hard about something. "No, there's…. more to it than that, isn't there," he insisted, blinking drowsily, his words slightly slurred by exhaustion. "Ya did apologize to me. I don't remember what ya said 'xactly, but I remember how it… it made me feel. Like putting a hand under cool water after it's been burned…" His gaze softened, as though he were recalling something. Then he abruptly went rigid.
"But… ya sh-shouldn't have." Stanley looked slightly more alarmed now, his face a mask of misery as he stared up at his brother."Ya shouldn't have apologized! I-I'm the one who's been trying to earn your forgiveness, a-and I-I can't help but feel like I've just screwed it up somehow. Everything's still fuzzy, but I know that I hurt you because I can… I c-can still feel your throat under my…" The blood seemed to drain out of Stanley's face. He began to breathe hard, and Stanford felt his heartbeat accelerate under where his hand rested. "What did I do? W-what did I just do!?" Stanley sat straight up, a wild look in his eyes, then winced harshly in pain. Stanford grabbed his arms, attempting to placate him before he hurt himself further.
"Stanley, calm down! It's okay now!"
"I was supposed to protect you! I-I was hurtin' you a-and… oh god. What… what happened? After you… apologized… I c-couldn't… I-I hurt ya, I hurt ya so badly… I had to protect ya and m-make sure I…."
"Shh, It's over now, Stanley it's over!" Stanford had to raise his voice to be heard above Stanley's increasing hysterics. "In the mindscape, this kind of damage is hardly permanent."
Attempting to mirror his own actions earlier while his brother had still been comatose, Stanford pulled down his sweatshirt collar to reveal his healed and unmarred throat. "See, I'm perfectly fine. Of course, I wouldn't have been if you had actually managed to kill me, but-" He quickly cut himself off upon seeing his twin's horrified expression and changed tactics, covering up his slip with an easy grin and nonchalant tone. "Uh, well, it doesn't matter! I've managed to save us both now, haven't I?"
His heart sank when Stanley didn't return his smile, face still forlorn and eyes far away.
"Stanley…." Stanford wrapped an arm around his shoulders, his voice lowering to what he hoped was a soothing tone. "We're both okay now. I'm okay…"
Though Stanley still didn't look entirely convinced, Stanford felt a lot of the tension leave his shoulders, and he didn't seem to be panicking anymore. It was a start at least.
"Maybe… maybe it's a good thing you're here now," Stanley muttered under his breath, his gaze falling away to waters below in a way that made him look slightly out of it. "I can finally tell ya what I-what I've been meaning to say to ya for a while, but never did cause…" He grimaced wryly. "Insert dumb excuse here. It's just… I wanted to say, I'm sorry."
A small reluctant smile began to tug at the corners of Stanford's mouth. He tried brushed off his twin's apology. "Stanley, you don't have to-"
"Let me finish!" Stanley sharply interrupted. There was a certain measure of desperation lighting his eyes like a fever. "Takin' out Bill for ya, I know how much of a thorn he's been in your side, so I thought that by gettin' rid of him I could finally make things up to ya. But somehow I-I screwed up and hurt you again. I don't remember exactly what I said or did to ya, but I got this feelin' that it was horrible. And even before all of this I did some pretty screwed up things that I never formally apologized for, so let me at least say this!"
Stanford wasn't sure how to respond to that. He shrugged his shoulders and turned his head away dismissively. "It's okay, Stanley… honestly…some of the things you said…. I deserved it."
The dull pressure around his arm increased as Stanley squeezed him stubbornly, insistently trying to draw his gaze back. "Don't say that," his twin retorted fiercely. "Ya didn't deserve that from any part of me."
"Stanley, I know you mean well," Stanford started, a heavy sigh escaping him, "but I'm just too… worn down emotionally to deal with this right now."
"That's exactly why I wanna do it right now." His brother retorted with a surprising amount of energy. "Cause if I wait till later when you've gone and collected yourself again, you're just going to clam up and put all those walls around yourself like usual. I don't wanna apologize to Poindexter's head," Stanley poked a finger at Stanford's forehead. "…I wanna apologize to his heart." He lowered his hand and pressed it on his twin's chest, mirroring Stanford's own earlier motion.
Stanford finally turned back to look at his brother. "Stanley-"
"Please. I'm not asking you to forgive me. I don't expect ya to. Just… hear me out."
Stanley's stubborn mask melted into something like relief at his brother's consent, though there was a hint of fear and anxiousness swimming in his eyes as well. He settled back down next to Stanford, leaning slightly on him, his usual gruff tone reserved. "Well uh, first off about your science fair project, I didn't mean to wreck it, h-honestly I didn't." He scratched the back of his neck, nervously looking away. "It's been so long now, I can barely remember what happened anymore, but I know I… I guess it doesn't matter whether or not it was an accident, does it. 'Cause I still really messed things up for ya. Stanford, I… I'm so sorry about that." Stanley forced his eyes back up to meet Stanford's, his expression a mixture of shame and misery. "A-and when you didn't make it into West Coast Tech, I won't lie, I was genuinely happy that you didn't, and I shouldn't've been. I was being selfish and stupid, because that was your dream school, and it was what you wanted to do. B-but I… I was so afraid of losing you. I felt so worthless on my own, like I would never amount to anything good. I didn't want to think I was stifling or suffocating you, but maybe I was. M-maybe I was clinging-just clinging to you so tightly that I was trying to drag you down with me. I… I'm sorry Ford, I'm s-so sorry."
The corners of his brother's eyes were starting to water, but Stanford couldn't bring himself to offer him any relief. Something was coiling tightly in his own chest, squeezing his heart. He looked away, suddenly feeling very hot and uncomfortable.
"When I heard that you'd ended up going to Backupsmore," Stanley continued, sniffing slightly. "t-that…that was the first time it really hit me what I'd done to ya. You could have had the best equipment, and the best teachers, and a big old library, and all that other nerd junk you like…" His voice cracked. Tears started to trail down Stanley's flushed cheeks, and they shined brightly in the sunlight. "and I screwed that up for ya. I, gah, I couldn't even make back the money I lost ya, even given ten years to do it. Y-you probably could have had such an amazing future if I hadn't ruined your life like that."
"Stanley, it's alright," Stanford countered, the tightness of his chest finally relenting somewhat. "Not getting into West Coast Tech was a setback, but it wasn't career ending. It took a little longer and I ended up having to pull off a few more all-nighters, but it wasn't too long before I got my degree and moved on to my dream job." Stanford sighed, suddenly feeling the years weigh upon his shoulders. He gazed out onto the peaceful ocean, and in an almost unconscious manner rubbed small soothing circles into Stanley's back. "It was a lifetime ago…it honestly doesn't seem that important now. You… you spent ten years trying to make up for a stupid mistake, and blamed yourself for so long. Please don't burden yourself with that anymore." Stanley lapsed into shocked silence at his brother's forgiving words, at a loss for how to respond.
"Besides," Stanford attempted to offer a playful tease, though he didn't pull it off well, "even though I didn't get into my dream school, I was able to put my life back together a lot better than you were."
"Yeah, until I reentered your life and ruined it all for ya again," his brother murmured ruefully, only further discouraged. "When you came to me askin' for help with the portal, I-I was bein' so stupid and easily offended. I-I let my anger get the best of me… instead of just tryin' to understand what was goin' on with ya and talk. It shouldn't have mattered if you didn't want to patch things up right away. It was obvious somethin' terrible had happened to you."
Stanford was silent for a moment, his hand continuing the small soothing motions. "Anger getting the best of us seems to be a running theme," he quietly observed.
Stanley shuddered lightly. "And it was because of…. my own anger that I shoved you into the portal. I-I didn't realize th- but… I guess it d-doesn't really matter, huh? The damage was done. When ya called me at the moment you needed me most… I-I betrayed your trust again…"
Stanford swallowed, deciding to speak truthfully. "I… I'm still a little angry at you for that, even knowing it was an accident. A part of me… hated you for pushing me in for a long time. First Bill betrayed me. Then Fiddleford abandoned me. And then you… you were the person I trusted the most, and you failed me when I really needed your help. It took a while for me to place my faith in anyone again after that."
Something in his brother's face broke. "I'm sorry," he whispered, eyes shining with a deep sincerity. Then he sighed heavily, and his jaw set itself in an oddly stubborn fashion. "Stanford, there's something else here that I know ya probably want me to apologize for, but I'm gonna go ahead and tell ya up front that I won't. Ever. Because that would mean I regret my actions, and I don't." He shot Stanford a steely glare before continuing, as though daring him to argue. "Even if I'd fully known 'bout all that dangerous, sci fi mumbo jumbo involved in openin' the portal, that still wouldn't have stopped me from trying to bring ya back home. It's alright if you're angry at me for that, and I don't blame you for punching me in the face when ya first got back either."
Stanley's stern expression softened somewhat, and a small, sad smile began working it's way onto his face as he looked down at the space between them."I know that riskin' the whole universe for the life of one person must seem really selfish to ya, 'nd probably makes me some kinda special brand of idiot, but I…" His voice was thick with emotion. "I couldn't've done anything else. Maybe you just don't think your life has that much value that the universe should be risked for it, but it… it does to me. I've ended up pulling off a lot of 'morally ambiguous' things over the course of my life, and I've regretted a lot of them for the situations I've ended up gettin' myself or the people around me into, but even if ya never forgive me for bringing ya back…" He looked back up at his brother, coppery eyes unflinchingly resolute. "That's somethin' I can't regret."
Stanford smiled wryly, flashing back to his own decision to crack open the doorway to the mindscape, his desperate beating upon the sheer surface of the obsidian black mirror in the nightmare realm. "I'll… try not to hold it against you."
Stanley returned the grin before his face hardened to something more uncharacteristically grave and somber. "But…. there's something else 'bout that situation that I'm more than willing to apologize for, and that's… thir-thir-" His brows pinched as he stumbled on the word. "Thirty years, Stanford. S-Stanford…. I'm so sorry, I'm so sorry for takin' thirty years to bring ya back . I… I'm such a terrible brother. Even while tryin' my hardest, it still took me half our lifetimes just to undo that dumb mistake!" Stanley abruptly squeezed his eyes closed, tears falling onto the grimy rubble below and darkening it in small splotches.
His own eyes were starting to sting slightly, but Stanford did his best to blink back the excess water. "I… I gave up hoping that you'd come for me after the third month," he admitted quietly. "Not that I really wanted you to help me because I knew what that would mean for the universe, but I…I did kind of hope. Sometimes being on the other side of the portal was a paradise, sometimes it was hell, and I have the scars to prove it." Stanford's breath hitched, and his eyes started stinging even harder. "During some of the especially harrowing adventures I'd… I'd dream that you were just about to get me back. That you were finding a way to do it without creating a rift, and that's why you were taking so long. Sometimes just to keep myself going, I-I tried to trick myself into thinking that I would be back home before the end of the solar cycle. But by the time you finally managed to activate the machine, I honestly wasn't expecting it at all. I'd… almost forgotten."
Stanley was silent for a moment. His eyes gazed over the glistening sea, but they were so far away. "I used to get these… dreams. These terrible, really vivid dreams. Sometimes you'd be dead, frozen, and floating' out in space. Other times you'd seem happy and settled, 'nd I was afraid if-when I finally activated the portal, that you wouldn't have wanted to come back, 'nd that I woulda… heh woulda just ended up ruining your life for a third time. And then other times… o-other times somethin' awful would be happenin' to ya. Y-you'd be crying out for me, be angry at me for not coming to get you already, b-beggin' me to come and help you." Tears began to fall from Stanley's eyes in earnest now, his face twisted in despair as he settled his forehead into the crook of his brother's neck. His grip around Stanford tightened almost desperately as his whole body trembled severely, and between this and the fact that he was muttering all of this into Stanford's shoulder, it was very difficult to make out what he was saying. "Ford, Stanford, I… I'm so sorry. I'm so sorry I put ya in that situation. I-I wish so badly that I could have gotten you out sooner. I would've, gah, w-would've given a-anything to have g-gotten you out sooner. I wanted ya back home. I wanted ya safe. You never shoulda had to go through that, but you did! Ya did 'nd it's my fault! It's all my fault. Stanford, I'm sorry, I'm sorry!"
"Stanley…" Stanford soothed, smiling sadly down at his twin's grey mess of hair and squeezing tightly back. "You spent half your life working on a way to bring me home. So please don't blame yourself for not bringing me back sooner than later. I'm here now, that's what matters. You saved me, Stan. Thank you."
Stanley reluctantly brought his head back up stared at his brother, eyes huge and watering. The tense line of his posture eased, and he slumped back, cheek pressed against Stanford's shoulder as though a tremendous weight had been taken off of him. Stanford curled his arm around his brother's back, deciding not to comment on his soft hitching breaths, and gazed out to the sea. An ocean breeze flowed through like an exhaled breath, carrying water droplets that accumulated on Stanford's glasses. After another minute, Stanford continued to speak.
"I can't fully condone your actions, because my life certainly isn't worth more than the entire universe. But… it would be too hypocritical of me to hold a grudge against you for not respecting my wishes to keep the universe safe at the cost of my life, when I didn't respect your sacrifice in the reverse situation. That, and I guess if what Dipper told me about you not discovering my warning in invisible ink is true, you wouldn't have really known what my desire for the portal was. We didn't have much of a chance to discuss things before everything went so… horribly wrong."
"Ha," Stanley barked out a weak laugh. "That stupid invisible ink! I can't believe it took me thirty years to figure that one out. We always used to use that to pass notes to each other when we were kids, and I didn't even think to check the journal for that. Honestly, it should've been one of the first things I tried!" Stanford found himself grinning a bit ruefully at that.
"Well, hindsight being twenty-twenty, I'll admit that I probably wasn't at my most rational when I decided to write the warnings about the device in invisible ink. Three days without sleep and several gallons of coffee can do odd things to you."
"Mmm," Stanley grunted in affirmation. They fell into silence again, Stanley lost in his own reverie.
"And your… your reputation too." He started again slowly after a beat, exhaustion creeping into his tone. "I didn't mean to wreck that, or to change your house up so much. It's just, over time things… happened. Things changed. Just like everythin' I touch, it all kinda went to shit. If… if I'd jus' managed to… managed to rescue ya sooner, or if I never woulda knocked ya back into t-the… then it never would have…" Stanley shrugged weakly. "Heh, I guess I really messed that up too."
"Oh, Stan…" Stanford offered his brother a couple of appreciative pats, expression easy and almost amused. "You did what you had to do, and I of all people should have realized that. I was angry, yes, but stepping back and seeing what you've done… it's truly remarkable. Starting up a business like that from nothing… while also maintaining such a monumental secret and working every night to re-create an interdimensional portal? All to bring me home. I… I honestly don't have the words for it. I didn't stop and think about all of this until after I said I wanted you out of my house…"
Stanley appeared flustered and squirmed somewhat uncomfortably. It was hard to tell with him facing away, but Stanford thought he could almost see a hint of blush coloring his twin's cheeks, which made his own face light up as any sibling's would upon embarrassing the other.
"I… I don't blame ya for that after I screwed things up so royally for ya," Stanley tried to dismiss the compliments. "If I were you, I wouldn't wanna deal with me either."
"I regret those words," Stanford confessed. "I… I'll always regret them. And quite honestly Stanley… I don't blame you either for telling me to stay away from the kids."
"I still shouldn't have said that… it was partly because I thought ya might endanger them, which is pretty silly of me considering all the things I've done with 'em, and part of it was because-" Stanford felt his brother tense slightly. "b-because I was jealous. Everyone always prefers you. Even the kids do. But tha-that's no reason for me to say nasty things about ya and call ya dangerous. I shouldn't have done that."
Stanford was silent for a moment, thinking back over his brother, Fiddleford, a handful of other beings he'd parted ways with on the other side of the portal, the trail of ruined lives left in his wake. His shoulder's slumped, and his voice was rough and quiet. "Stanley I… I am dangerous. Your second fragment pegged me right when he called me a monster."
"My second what?" Stanley questioned, brow raised as he lifted himself to stare back at Stanford. "No, look I'm not done yet! I still haven't gotten to apologize for whatever went on here." He scratched his chin, eyes darting to the right in thought. "I remember…vaguely maybe sayin' somethin' along those lines? But even if I can't remember exactly what I was sayin' at the time, I remember what I felt like when I was sayin' it, and I was feeling some… some pretty dark and scary things. At first it was mostly aimed at myself, but then somehow….s-somehow you became the target for it." He shook his head dismissively, fixing his brother with a firm stare. "Look though, y-you're not… a monster. I was tryin' to hurt you… say somethin' that I knew would cause pain, even if it wasn't true. You're not like Bill. We're not monsters, Ford. Both of us jus'…" A world-weary, frustrated sigh escaped him, and he rested his forehead back on his twin's shoulder in apparent exhaustion and defeat. "..lost our way."
"There was truth to your words," Stanford asserted darkly. His eyes were hot and stinging as tears began to form behind them, no matter how he tried to fight them off. "This whole Weirdmaggedon business was brought upon us because I trusted Bill to build the portal. I ruined Fiddleford's life."
"It's all my fault…" He continued as though his brother hadn't spoken, lost in himself for a moment. His shadow felt heavy. "I was such a fool. I fell for Bill's flattery and games, hook, line, and sinker. Everything that happened because of him… it's my fault. If I had just-"
"Hey, hey. Ford," Stanley interjected in a firm but gentle voice. "Listen to me, okay? It's not your fault. That triangular bastard was manipulatin' you."
Stanford didn't know how to take Stanley's words. On some level, he knew it wasn't his fault… h-he knew it but… but why did his heart now have the old feeling of being made of lead, dragging itself down under the universe's weight? Stanford had never spoken these sentiments to anymore before, he hardly admitted them to himself. Yet whether it was because of his own emotional exhaustion, or the bond of reciprocal trust he now felt with Stanley, he found he couldn't stop speaking the dark thoughts buried within himself for so long.
"It's because of me that Bill was unleashed into our dimension in the first place. I caused all this pain and suffering. I-In some respects, I am just as bad as he is. I-If I was… If I hadn't been so blind, so full of ambition…" Stanford shuddered, and stretched his hand out before him, flexing it. He recalled that feeling of loss of control, of realizing… his body was no longer just his, and that he had been tricked by an entity who could do what it pleased with it. Horror and shame had flooded him when he realized what a mistake he had made, that he had never even questioned Bill's partnership, or his ability to possess Stanford. "I-I let him control my body, Stanley," Stanford choked out. "I let him into my mind. I was his obedient little puppet, doing everything he asked of me. I should have realized…"
"You can't blame yourself for this." Stanley had sat up straighter, trying to look him in the eye. Stanford still had his head turned away, unable to bring himself to return his brother's gaze. Stanford silently blinked back tears, staring out into the deep blue, shimmering swell of the ocean and cloudless sky beyond.
"When I first discovered I had been betrayed by him… I-I nearly lost my mind," he choked out, voice little more than a horse whisper. "W-When I contacted you Stanley, I was in the depths of despair… I-I didn't know who else in the world to trust… except you. I w-would look in the mirror… and wonder who I really was. I was just like him… he… he said that to me. Taunted me. Because sometimes I would see his eyes instead of my own…golden..wrong. At times, I wondered if… he was right." Stanford ran a frustrated hand over his face, his breath hitching slightly. Stanley remained silent and still, it was almost as though he were afraid to breathe or Stanford would close himself off again.
"He… he would play these games. See how long I could stay awake, and I soon as I closed my eyes….. he would take control of me again. T-Throw me down the stairs… stab my hand… t-terrible things… " Stanford could only suppress a shudder at the memories that he had been so keen on repressing. Stanley tightened his grip around him. "I lived in fear of him. But over the last thirty years, I realized that I had to fight back. I've spent… nearly every waking moment trying to fix my mistake of trusting a demon… letting him into my skin. To protect the universe from the harm I've caused…"
"That's why you were so angry…." Stanley murmured, almost to himself. "Ya felt like I had just undone everythin' you've been tryin' hard to prevent for so long… I…I didn't realize Ford…."
Stanford gave a rueful chuckle, followed by a small, tired smile. "There's a lot of things both of us never realized."
Stan growled darkly. "I almost wish that one-eyed demon dorito were here so I could throw him into a trash compactor. I'll make sure he dies nice and slow for what he did to you," Stanford had hardly heard his brothers words, otherwise he would have appreciated the sentiment more. His mind was on dark nights, the clawing exhaustion, opening his eyes to find cuts on his arms, bruises on his body…
"A p-part of me has always wondered if the pain he inflicted on me… the….the nightmares I have from my own foolish mistakes…. th-that perhaps I deserve it. I have tried to make penance… in more ways than one."
Stanford sat up, his heart pounding a little harder than he would have liked. There was a moment of hesitation, as he weighed what he was about to do. He felt the curious gaze of his brother upon him, but Stanley waited, patiently and silently. His brother had put himself on the line for Stanford, again and again. Stanford had once trusted him enough to call upon him when he was in very depths of his own personal hell. And now he could trust him with this part of himself again. The darkened part that he had buried under intellectual thoughts, and hidden so carefully under clothing. The part that Stanley's shadow had called him out on. Stanford wondered what that dark silhouette had seen when it looked into his own shadow.
Steeling himself, Stanford drew in a breath. Then he slowly tugged up the sleeve of his coat and sweater, enough to expose his forearm. Etched into his bare skin, milky white aged scars crisscrossed over his wrist and arm. Stanford swallowed, waiting for a reaction, feeling more vulnerable than he had when he apologized to Stanley's second fragment.
Stanley lightly took Stanford's arm, and examined the scars for a few silent seconds, his dark eyes unreadable. Stanford found himself averting his own gaze again, eyes lowered in shame. Finally, after what was to Stanford an agonizing few moments, Stanley let out a heavy breath.
"Those… " he began, a quiet knowing in his voice. "They weren't all caused by Bill… were they."
Stanford nodded, still unable to look back up at him. "In my darker moments… gripped with insanity and paranoia… I thought perhaps this was a way I could be absolved for all I had done. I-I tried so hard to stop him, to atone for my transgressions against the universe. But… it never seems like enough, Stanley. Despite my efforts, the universe punishes me, and I deserve it. I deserve this pain."
He pulled the sleeve back down, once again hiding the scars from the cool ocean air. One of his hands rubbed over his arm self-consciously, nervously. Stanley gently placed a hand on his forearm, and Stanford stopped his motions, mostly out of surprise.
"I don't know if the universe is punishing you or not… knowin' our luck, it probably is… but…" Stanford kept his eyes fixed on the ocean waves below them. "What I do know is that you're punishing yourself."
The words left Stanford breathless, and his chest constricted with long-buried emotion. Hearing the shadow speak those words was one matter, but to hear the truth come from his twin was something else entirely. Stanley spoke what Stanford could never fully admit to himself, that he desperately tried to bury under layers of rationalization. He tried to form some kind of response, whether denial or agreement he wasn't even sure, but his tongue rested heavily on the bottom of his mouth and he found that he couldn't speak.
"Trying to right the wrongs you did is fine… heck, I spent forty years doin' just that. I know what that's like, wanting so badly to make things right again, to fix your mistakes. But… Ford… it also sounds to me what you're doing to yourself is like… self-flagellation. You're hurting yourself. And maybe I'm not the one to talk, because lord knows I've had my fair share of self-hate. It's just… fixin' mistakes and punishin' yourself can sometimes… overlap." Stanley sighed, the weight of his years evident in his voice. "Poindexter, ya don't… don't have to hurt yourself like this." His hand stroked over Stanford's arm, over where his hidden scars were. "…Or with those thoughts. You don't have t'blame yourself…."
Unexpected tears picked into Stanford's eyes, hot and unyielding. The dual shades of blue from the ocean and sky around them began to swim and blur together through his saline soaked vision. He fiercely squeezed his eyes closed and shook his head.
"I get it," Stanley continued, his voice quivering slightly. "I get never wanting to forgive yourself… you jus' want to punish yourself for everything you've ever done wrong."
The tears that Stanford had been fighting to hold back for so, so long, decades, finally spilled down his cheeks. His shoulders trembled with barely restrained emotion, and he slipped a hand under his glasses and over his eyes as a soft sob escaped him. He didn't have the energy or presence of mind to feel embarrassed about his loss of control. His heart ached, heavy and weighted in his chest, a kaleidoscope of different colored emotions seeping out from between the fractured pieces.
Through his tears, he saw droplets of rain begin to fall from the cloudless sky. They hit the silver metallic surface of the portal with dull plunks, glinting in the golden light of the sun. Stanford's body shook and he was no longer able to hold back his sobs, and the more the emotions welled up and escaped him, the harder the rain fell, now catching on the edges of the circular part of the portal and falling on either side like a watery curtain. Even the immense expanse of the velvety blue ocean beyond was being pelted mercilessly. There still wasn't a single cloud in the sky, but the rainstorm glinted and showered steadily across the mindscape all the same. Stanford turned his face into Stanley's shoulder, and wept softly against his brother.
"Oh, Poindexter," his twin whispered sadly, his eyes bright and wet. "You don't deserve what he did to you. You don't deserve what I said either. You're not a monster…"
Stanley wrapped his arms around him, as though hoping to shelter him from the pain he harbored in his heart. They stayed like that for a long while, rain falling into the sea, and gently showering on the portal; splattering onto their backs and soaking their clothes with a coolness that wasn't quite chilling. And for the first time that Stanford could remember in a long time, he felt truly…safe. Protected. He no longer cared about hiding his tears, he just let them ebb away, let himself cry until his whole face was red and running with various fluids. He was completely spent.
As his tears finally slowed, the rainstorm gradually tapered off and became a soft drizzle. When Stanford was able to speak again, his voice was so small, he could barely recognize himself. "I… w-want to believe you, Stanley. I really do. But…"
"… it's hard to accept." Stanley finished for him. Stanford nodded, his head still rested on Stanley's shoulder.
Stanford took a few deep shuddering breaths, and the last of the rainfall sprinkled into a light mist before fading away, once again leaving a clear ocean, expansive and endless before them. They sat and listened to the gentle roar of waves against their childhood shoreline for a few minutes. Stanley spoke quietly. "Forgivin' yourself… can be the hardest part sometimes."
"…I suppose so." Stanford agreed after a few more moments of contemplation. "Maybe…maybe that could be something we can work on together. When we go back home."
His brother froze almost imperceptibly against him, but Stanford felt it. He finally sat up so he could examine him. Stanley's face was drawn, mouth pressed into a thin line. Stanford wrapped an arm over his shoulder, and squeezed reassuringly. "Stanley… are you ready to go home?" he gently asked.
Stanley was silent for a long while before finally answering. He shrugged and looked down avoidantly. "I don't know. The Shack's been burned to the ground, and even if it wasn't… I'm not sure that I have a home to return to."
"Heh," Stanford snickered and offered a teasing smile. "You really think that I'm going to try and get rid of you after all of this?"
Stanley glanced over at him, and punched him playfully. "Nah… after goin' through the proverbial Nine Levels of Hell for me, I guess I can cut you some slack."
"Gee, thank you Stan. As long as I get to hear your annoying voice when we get back, it'll all have been worth it."
"I am pretty great."
Stanford paused, frowning in confusion. "Then… why do you think you wouldn't have a home?"
Stanley faltered, then gave an uncertain shrug. "It… doesn't make much sense, but… there's gonna be that…. that part of me. That'll tell me that no one wants me around. I know… it ain't rational. But it's always there."
"Mm." Stanford held his brother a little tighter to himself. "I guess that's something we'll also have to work on."
"Yeah," Stanley agreed pointedly, "along with the issues you carried back with ya from the other side of the portal, and from Bill, the bastard cornchip. I know ya still got 'em, don't try and deny it," he added quickly when he saw Stanford open his mouth. "Just know I wanna do everything I can to help ya with them. Just… let me in, alright. If I have to let you in, then it should go both ways." Stanley sighed dramatically, doing a rather poor job of pretending to be annoyed by this prospect. Stanford couldn't help but smile, his heart feeling lighter.
"Thank you, Stanley. We'll get through this together. It shouldn't be too difficult finding a temporary living situation… and I'm sure Soos will be more than happy to help us out. He reminds me a bit of an eager puppy… perhaps a golden retriever," Stanford mused. He hadn't had much time to talk to the young man, but from what he observed he was an extremely loyal employee and friend to his brother.
"Yeah, that guy will always step up to the occasion, let me tell ya. He was almost as devastated as I was when the Shack was destroyed." Stanley smirked fondly before expression became forlorn again. "I…I still can't really believe that happened. My house burned down… jus' like that. Thirty years of livin' in that place, gone."
"I know, Stanley. But take it from someone who has wandered the multiverse for thirty years, home is a lot more about who you're with than where you are."
Stanley hesitated, slightly unsure, before answering. "Yeah."
Stanford held his brother out at arm's length, so they could look directly at each other. Stanley reluctantly met his steely gaze. "Stanley, I'll be there with you when you wake up, and no matter what happens, I won't ever abandon you again. Thirty years ago, you promised that you would save me from the other side of the portal. I'm making a similar promise now. Believe me when I say that I'm just as determined to keep mine now, as you were to keep yours back then."
Stanley's tired eyes searched his twin's face, and after a few seconds, he nodded in acceptance. A soft contented sigh escaped him as he nestled back onto Stanford's shoulder. "So…. how're we gettin' outta of here," he murmured tiredly, his words beginning to slur again. Stanford thought for a moment.
"Well. One way is to imagine a doorway out of the realm itself, which is a subconscious representation of our own awakening state and the end of the REM phase, as well as electrical activity in the thalamus area of the brain…"
"English, Poindexter," Stanley chuckled softly. "My brain is too fried to understand textbook speak right now…"
"Ah, yes. Sorry, Stanley, it's just very fascinating to consider." He tapped his chin deliberately, gears still turning in his head." But aside from imagining some sort of physical exit out… we can simply skip that step and…. fall asleep."
"Aren't we already asleep?"
"Well, yes." Stanford agreed slowly, struggling a little to keep things simple and not go into professor mode. "Falling asleep is simply the opposite of waking up. So if we were to purposely fall asleep here, it would lead our physical bodies to wake up wherever they are in the real world. I guess you can say we will be… falling awake."
Stanley didn't seem to appreciate this explanation any better. "Ughh, my head," he groused dryly. "Okay. Well if all we gotta do is fall asleep, that's my kind of escape plan. Mostly cuz I'm too tired to do anythin' right now."
"In all honesty, so am I."
Stanley's body relaxed against his brother and snuggled a bit closer. "Then…I'll see ya on the other side?" he asked, with a yawn.
"I'll be there when you wake up. I promise."
Stanley closed his eyes, the sunlight reflecting on his weathered face. After a few moments, he drifted off, and his worn expression smoothed over into a peaceful sleep. Ford smiled fondly down at him, affection welling in his chest. He decided it would be best to follow suit. It was time to leave the mindscape.
The utter exhaustion that he had been battling, now slipped over him, pulling his eyelids closed. He listened to the steadily crashing waves below them, the ocean breathing as though it were a living being, and his brother breathing in time with it, soft and steady. And slowly, the noises and senses of the mindscape faded, pulling away from Stanford as though only a distant dream.
There was a strange feeling of being tugged upwards, as though someone had attached a string to the back of his coat and was reeling him in. Then a dim sensation of floating, his entire body felt as light as a soap bubble, and he drifted delicately, suspended in a nothingness. Perhaps he should have felt worry, fear, but his head was too fuzzy to really be bothered, and it honestly wasn't entirely unpleasant. Almost tranquil in a way, a feeling of complete restfulness that Stanford hardly experienced on his normal nights of attempted sleep. Time maybe passed, or froze, he couldn't be sure how long he stayed in that latent state, mind curiously but pleasantly blank.
Then voices, he heard them as though he were immersed underwater. Slowly they gained clarity, volume, and he strained to hear them. Who was… what was going on? His body suddenly felt heavy, as though he had just stepped out of a long voyage in space, and gravity was pinning him back to the earth. He felt the hardness of dirt beneath his slack hands, a warm breeze on his cheek. Pain began to seep into his body, every muscle aching sluggishly. The voices were louder now, more frantic, and they caused his head to pound. Stanford's brow furrowed and he squeezed his eyes tightly closed in displeasure against it. Couldn't they just let him feel completely miserable in peace? But wait a moment… his rational thoughts began to creep back into consciousness. He recognized those voices. Familiar and concerned, they jolted his mind back to reality, back into Gravity Falls.
"Ah doods, what are we gonna do? We've tried everything and they still won't wake up!"
"Do you think any of the local hospitals might be open?" Dipper. That was Dipper's voice. His great-nephew, who he dearly cared for. "I… I don't know if we should wait longer for them to wake up or…." Right. He was waking up. And apparently so was the pain in his body. Maybe Dipper's suggestion about hospitals wasn't a terrible idea. The more the waking world dragged him toward consciousness, the more he felt the soreness of his body, his injuries lighting up, one by one. "I just wish they would open their eyes…. I don't know what to do." His young voice broke slightly in the end, and the concern and fear in it was palpable. Stanford had to wake up and tell him they were okay now, everything would be okay. He tried to force his eyes open but his body was stubbornly uncooperative.
An anxious but practical female voice he identified as Wendy spoke up. "If a hospital's open, then it's probably filled to the brim already with everyone else who was affected by Weirdmageddon, which would be the entire town. We're going to have to take them somewhere further out. I mean, my Dad taught me and my bros first aid, but nothing to treat possible' triangle-demon-osis' or whatever."
"Hey Soos, do you know if your truck's in working condition?" Dipper again. Stanford attempted to get his limbs under control, trying to get his mouth aligned with his brain functioning to tell everyone to calm down, they were fine. Sort of.
"Uhhh. Well, the last place I saw it was-"
Mabel's shriek of excitement and relief interrupted Soos, and caused Stanford's head to give a particularly nasty throb. "Guys look! Grunkle Ford's waking up!"
Stanford gritted his teeth and groaned, finally able to move his arm enough to rub his aching head. He felt as though he had just plummeted down a several story tall building, then hit the ground and bounced right back up to the top. There was a dull pounding behind his eyes, and his body protested angrily when he finally forced himself to sit up. He kept his eyes closed, and his breathing even, waiting for the spinning world to come to a stop.
"Ughh…. since when has waking up from the mindscape ever felt this awful?" He griped miserably, swaying unsteadily in place. Small hands grabbed his arm, and larger ones steadied him.
"Take it easy, Dr. Pines."
"Oh my gosh! Great Uncle Ford, are you alright?" Stanford opened his eyes and blinked sluggishly down at Dipper, who was surveying him as if he were about to spontaneously combust. Stanford felt his heart warm at the sight of the boy, and he smiled down at his nephew, placing a hand on his brown messy hair and giving it an affectionate pat.
"Yes. Fine, fine," he assured pleasantly. Stanford spared a moment to glance around drowsily before a realization abruptly struck him like a cold splash of water to the face. "W-Where's…. where's Stanley?" He questioned, eyes flickering wildly back and forth as his deep voice rose to a frantic pitch. "Where did he go?! I promised him I'd be there when he woke up… I promised him!"
"Woah, dude, it's okay… calm down. You'll pass out again." Soos placed firm hands on his shoulders to keep him still as he tried to twist around in a hectic attempt to spot his brother.
"Yeah, Dr. Pines… he's right next to you." The red-headed teen screwed her face up in concern. "You must have hit your head pretty hard, huh?"
Stanford turned his head so sharply to the right that he nearly gave himself whiplash. His gaze fell to the man on the ground next to him. Stanley's face was slack and unconscious in a way that sent a sudden jolt through his twin's chest. It reminded him far too much of how he'd looked hanging in the portal. Mabel was perched next to Stanley, guarding him with a sort of intensity that reminded Stanford of some of the smaller and fiercer dragons he had come across. Now, she and Dipper watched him with concerned expressions, but he didn't really pay heed to their worry. Stumbling on the charred dirt, he scrambled over to his brother, hardly feeling the aches and pains in his body.
"Stanley?" He kneeled down, collapsed really, next to Stanley's shoulder and grabbed it. Some small part of his mind was surprised at how weak his own grip was, but the rest of him was far more focused on shaking his brother awake. "Stanley! Stanley, wake up!"
Thankfully, his brother didn't have much trouble rousing this time around. Stanley let out a long groan, his expression pinching a little before his eyes flickered open.
"Well, isn't that just my luck," he groused dryly, brow raised. "The first thing I get to see upon waking is your ugly mug."
Stanford couldn't help the grin that broke out onto his face. He laughed a little as he helped Stanley to sit up, shooting back his own remark. "I guess you would know, since you look at it in the mirror every morning."
Mabel 's face lit up, and she squealed in earsplitting delight as she threw herself at her grunkle. "Grunkle Stan, Grunkle Stan, you're ok!" She looked up at Stanley with wide, bright eyes. "We were so worried after what happened with Bill. And then Grunkle Ford disappeared too!"
"Seriously," Wendy chimed in from behind, "you guys nearly gave us a heart attack. We couldn't get Soos to stop crying till we found you."
"I can confirm that to be one hundred percent true." Soos admitted unashamedly.
Stanley chuckled a little at that, trying not to wince from the force of his niece's bone-crushing hug. "Yeah. It's good to see you kids safe too."
"I'm so glad you guys are alright." Dipper piped in as well. Then he surprised Stanford by drawing one of his small arms around his chest, and the other around Stanley's, adding to his sister's hug. His eyes widened even further as he felt something warm press in against his back, and before he knew it Soos and Wendy had followed suit. Stanford blushed in embarrassment as the pair of them were encased in a cozy little hug cocoon. And then he… smiled, something light, and… bubbly fluttering around somewhere between his gut and the bottom of his chest. He couldn't recall feeling this genuinely happy in almost a lifetime. It was an odd realization for him, though not unwelcome.
Stanford's grin faltered slightly as he spared another side glance over to his brother and noticed that Stanley didn't seem to be enjoying this as much as he was. His twin was smiling, but it was weak and seemed a little melancholy. Perhaps that was understandable considering how readily he'd almost given all of this up back in the mindscape…. Stanford's musings trailed off as he followed his twin's forlorn gaze, coming upon the charred, splintered, and blackened remains on the Shack sitting in a heap in front of them. His own heart dipped slightly at the sight.
Or, it could be because of that.
"You know children, and uh, man-child," he addressed the group thoughtfully as they started to break off from the hug. "When we start rebuilding the Mystery Shack we're going to need someone to draw up blueprints for the new layout. Unfortunately, Stanley and I won't be able to pick up on that anytime soon because of all the sailing we're going to have to catch up on." Stanley shot his brother startled look at this, and Stanford offered him a coy grin in return. "So I was wondering, would any of you be willing to help us out with that?"
Mabel's eyes grew as big as saucers and Dipper covered his ears as she let out another high pitched squeal right next to him. "Yes, yes, yes. A thousand times yes! Oh my gosh, you came to the right person Grunkle Ford. I know exactly what we're going to do." Immediately she hopped up and started pacing back and forth, enthusiastically listing things off on her fingers. "Okay. First of all, we're going to make it so that the Shack's like five stories tall, and it will have have a huuuuuge entryway, at least two multibears across, and that entryway is going to be framed by balloon animals, but we'll make them out of Styrofoam so they won't pop! And then, then, " She spun and framed the burnt remains of the Shack dramatically with her fingers. "We'll do neon colors for the outside to draw in customers, pastels for the inside to brighten the place up, and then sparkly red for the sign!"
"We can also set aside a place where we can keep real magical creatures and study them." Dipper added, joining his sister in surveying the area."Kind of like another lab, but on the first floor this time so we can get out quickly if something goes wrong."
"Oh doods," Soos chimed in, raising a hand up, "if we're doing the lab on the first floor then I call dibs for the employee break room on the second floor! Do you think we could put in a waterslide so that we'll be able to get down to the ground like, super, duper fast!?" Wendy nonchalantly shrugged her shoulders at the suggestion.
"Meh. As long as the employee break room has a coffee machine, I think I'll be pretty much good. Oh, and maybe add in better wifi because the reception here SUCKS!"
"…Yes." Stanford agreed a little hesitantly, wondering what on earth he'd just got himself into. "I think those all sound like excellent additions."
He spared another glance back to Stanley, who'd been oddly quiet throughout all of this, and was happy to note that his brother's mood had definitely improved. He still looked exhausted, they probably both did, but his smile was undoubtedly genuine now; as was the hope shining brightly in his eyes as he watched the rest of his family discuss what horrifying additions they were planning to add to the next incarnation of the Mystery Shack. After a minute or so of listening to the increasingly eccentric and dubiously feasible proceedings, Stanley finally noticed his twin's staring.
"What? Do I got something on my face?" Stanley teased, but even then he couldn't seem to stop grinning from ear to ear.
A small argument broke out in the background as Mabel and Dipper debated the practicality of using dinosaurs vs. unicorns as an opening attraction. Above them the sun was warm, the skies a cheery blue, and the forests around a deep, vibrant green sprawl. The air was saturated with such an overpowering scent of pine sap that it made the smell of burnt wood beneath nearly undetectable. Foliage occasionally rustled as some natural or supernatural creature darted between the towering trees. A crisp, piercing mountain breeze, the kind that marked the end of summer and the beginning of autumn, rushed through the small clearing, tangling its fingers in everyone's hair at it passed, and causing the pines around them to creak and sway.
The horrors of the nightmare realm, the crumbling mindscape, and even Weirdmageddon seemed little more than a bad dream, one would soon fade with the early morning sun.
The corners of Stanford's eyes crinkled as he said nothing, and returned Stanley's smile.
Honestly, this has been such an amazing experience for us both, the response to our story has been completely amazing. All the wonderful comments, all the amazing incredible. it's just incredible, we're blown away! It was such a great experience to write this, and we're glad to have shared it with you guys.