A/N: I've been receiving so many sweet and supportive reviews and messages even as this story has remained suspended in fanfiction limbo for months. I'm immensely flattered, you all are so sweet.
As for myself, I apologize for being so inactive for so long. A dead laptop battery and the rapid course of life does that to ya. Please, continue to nag me to continue writing, because that seems to be the only thing to curb my laziness and unmotivation. :P
Thank you to the ones still sticking by me! I appreciate your devotion to the story and to my terrible updating schedule. Hugs, kisses, and much love.
Light footsteps pattered along the crusty rug, leaving faint tracks in their wake. The trickle of raindrops hitting strategically-placed pans muted the noise of creaking floorboards. A newborn's wail rang out from somewhere within the ancient wreck of a home, the latest addition and current obsession of the caretakers. Thunder rumbled, shaking the walls, moving the house as if rousing it from a fitful sleep.
A child dressed in weathered clothes, lacking shoes, her bare feet colored black from dirt and soot, led the way through the sleepy halls. The stink of mildew and cheap candles permeated the air, swirling with that of stale rain and rat droppings. The rug underneath, a deep purple color her brother compared to something called "wine", dug into her soles and occasionally introduced the squelch of a wet spot from a pot knocked off-kilter under its leak. The child held no complaints, since nothing could be done about it anyway.
Winter was the harshest season and took considerable time to get used to. The twins found themselves the quickest to adjust. The slowness in their fingers, the goosebumps across their arms, and the iciness of their beds became as constant as the stale air in their lungs.
Doors fled by as blurs in the darkness as the girl picked up speed. Her brother's steps quickened behind her, and they effortlessly fell into a seamless rhythm. Her left foot stepped to his right, and they merged into shifting shadows the grimy windows cast against the peeling wallpaper. They'd long ago memorized the route to the kitchen, but it'd been a handful of weeks since they'd had to implement their memory. The newest addition ensured this mission as a necessity. Their stomachs gnawed with hunger, and the boy twin had endless tremors for the past three days from malnutrition.
Normally, the brother took position as main leader for their heists. However, he fared best during day with its abundant light and hiding took priority. Nighttime tripped him up immensely. The darkness impeded him, appearing to scare him, and his sister grasped the reins for nighttime heists. She proved to be his polar opposite; she'd achieved better results in the darkness than in anything else.
The sister twin took pride in her leadership role, but the fatigue and strain of the job shone through her movements. Jerky and nearly unfocused, she leapt at the smallest slip and shushed at any offhand creak whether her brother had caused it or not. Despite this, he still followed her faithfully. The grandfather clock at the end of the house tolled two bells, and the twins ran. The resonating noise masked the sound of their heels hitting the floor, and they reached the kitchen door quicker than normal.
The girl twin studied the intricate metal door before stepping swiftly to the side, giving up her spot to her brother's prowess. He revealed a crudely carved key from his pocket, sticking it into the lock as the girl surveyed the hall behind them. The door creaked open, introducing a gaping maw of utter darkness. The twins wasted no time; they dove forward, scavenging the cabinets and lifting shaky hands to shapes on the counter. They procured bruised fruit and crusty bread, the leftover bits their caretakers would have a harder time noticing. The girl twin pawed through the trash, lifting out what appeared to old pastry wrappers. When exactly three minutes passed, the twins disappeared as quick as they had come; the boy shut the door behind him, and they padded down the hall with food down their shirts and mouths full of juice.
No one noticed the evidence of theft in the kitchen the next day. The twins refined their facade in the morning, complaining of hunger pangs and lifting gaunt faces up for instruction. For anyone listening closely that night, amidst the sound of swirling rain and relentless wind, they could've faintly caught the muffled laughs of thieving children somewhere in the house.
Akin to her old habits, Mabel left her shoes by the door, bracing herself against the bitter chill of nighttime without so much as a sock. She braced herself against the nearest wall, shaking fingers digging into wooden panels as she attempted to study unfamiliar ground. The colored panes of the nearby window cast an onimous shadow across the landing, something deep in her chest feeling extremely unnerved.
The sound of her steps alone chipped at her confidence, but stubborn determination failed to give way to the feel of the empty air behind her. She'd dove into the unknown by herself a handful of times before, but this would be her first time doing so at night. In retrospect, it was an advantage; the darkness offered protection and momentary comfort much in the same way as Dipper's presence did. She latched onto the feeling, gripping onto any form of partnership to help her through the mission as she found herself moving down the steps.
Mabel expected constant noise from the ever-settling house, but it sat completely quiet, as if time had frozen everything around her and left her to wander a silent wasteland. Her bare foot slipped off the last step, and she paused at the entrance of the living room. A multi-colored glow cast a strike of light across her path, and Mabel peered in hesitantly. No matter how many times she studied the house, crazy and miniscule details evaded her. The axolotl tank and the battered box television, the culprits of the glowing light, finally offered faint noise to cut through the silence.
The caretaker's form slumped in the raggedy couch across from the TV, his bulky form reminding Mabel of photos of hibernating bear in the library's geographic magazines. His white wife-beater revealed itself through an unbuttoned suit top, a golden chain glistening on his chest. A ratty green afghan half hid his bulky shape amongst the TV's flickering. Deep rumbling snores convinced Mabel she hadn't been hearing white noise in her ears after all. She watched him for any indication he was awake, her eyes lifting to the silky red fez sitting precariously atop his head. He remained still, as still as a ridiculously snoring bear could be.
Mabel shifted her attention to the kitchen in front of her, gazing into a similar form of darkness all kitchens appeared to possess. She stumbled as she moved, pitching her hands forward and crouching onto cold linoleum as she pressed herself into the darkest shadow by the doorway.
The kitchen, once tastefully old-fashioned, now lay in a jumbled and mismatched mess like its brethren room next door. Knick-knacks adorned the counters alongside dented pots and pans, food wrappers and Pit Cola cans littering every visible surface. The peeling wallpaper had turned a hideous grimy color, contrasting against lacey curtains covering a dusty window. One tile in the middle of the kitchen was missing, and a table leg was propped up with a book so massive, even Dipper's nerdy face wouldn't want to be shoved into it. Mabel clenched her jaw at the sight of the mess, seeking out a multitude of hiding places before moving directly into the chaos.
She counted off the necessities on her fingers. A rag to cover her twin's wound, some water both to drink and wash the injury, and something to disinfect it. The first-aid kit they'd kept on them constantly had been one of the first things confiscated before they were shipped off, but they'd memorized the components they'd used most often. They boiled it down to three major objects they could find just about anywhere.
Mabel crept around the kitchen, digging through cabinets and drawers in quick, but efficiently thorough manners. She let the cabinet doors slam shut on her hands to avoid slamming, and her fingers screamed in protest once she'd pulled a relatively clean rag from the bottom drawer.
One drawer held nothing but old dirty utensils and bent straws. Another held a small array of knives and Mabel shut it quickly. A cabinet stored a variety of canned food and she picked off one of peaches from the overflowing pile before moving on. Finally, she managed to spot an old empty water bottle laying by the humming refrigerator, missing its cap. She clambered over the sink, silently turning on the tap and filling it to the top before balancing it on the counter.
The pile of plastic bags on the tabletop had been the first things to catch her attention, and she found her eyes pulled in its direction again. But she'd vowed to deliberately avoid them, ignoring the reflective surface and blazing store logo. Until Dipper finished logging Stan's style of living, she had to pick off things that wouldn't be noticed missing at first glance, and something as small as a store receipt would identify her as a thief in no time. Her eyes moved to the cabinets above the counter, far above her reach.
Mabel threw the rag over her shoulder, climbing up the nearest chair and anchoring her hands against the counter. With a quiet heave and a harsh puff of air through her nose, she pulled herself onto its surface. She stood tentatively, carefully straightening herself up to her feet as her hands traced along the cabinets until they found the handles. One by one, she began her search all over again.
A long snore, punctuated by ragged breaths, boomed from the living room and startled her for a split second. She tossed a quick look over her shoulder, but the caretaker remained in his comfy chair without so much as a shift of his hand. Adrenaline resurfaced, coursing through Mabel's veins as she pulled open the first set of cabinets. The rows of empty and dusted shotglasses greeted her, and she wrinkled her nose in distaste. The second set produced nothing but old mugs and a model replica of what looked to be a boat. The last set proved different than the others; an old, rusted lock dangled from one handle, its owner apparently having unlocked it after one too many uses and lacking the care to replace it.
With throbbing fingers, Mabel lifted it into her palm and studied it for a second before moving to the handles and throwing the cabinet doors open. Light bounced against glass, the stale smell of alcohol hit her in a wave of familiarity, and Mabel blinked at the hidden liquor stash in front of her.
The panicky sense in her gut urged her to immediately dig forward, but inexperience rightfully held her back. Dipper had only ever been the one to steal alcohol. Teenagers in a past household had utilized him as their deliveryboy, trading used cigarettes and food scraps to send him on dangerous expeditions that he never failed to carry out. Dipper's reputation held strong when he swiped a can of beer right under his foster father's nose, and another child nearby had consequently taken the blame. Mabel had had her fair share of liquor (and she absolutely loathed the taste), but stealing it became an entirely different matter. It was a whole other ballpark she'd never even considered stepping foot in, allowing her brother to run all the bases he liked as she watched.
One wrong bottle missing, and Mabel would've even have time to fathom their impending death.
It had to be done. She pushed down tremors attempting to take over her hands as she reached forward, wrapping her fingers over the neck of a random bottle. Completely empty; he set it by her foot to reach for a different one behind it.
She pulled out a uniquely shaped bottle of bourbon next, its glass sparkling with miniscule bits and bursts of color; not sufficient. Their caretaker would miss it almost immediately. Mabel spent a few seconds marveling at the material that shimmered under her thumb, the glasswork a spectacle even under the dim light of the kitchen. Reluctantly, she set it down next to the empty bottle, now lifting herself on her toes to dig through the cabinet.
Her hand closed around a smaller-sized bottle, its tiny form tucked away discreetly, and she knew this would be it. She pitched it forward, her arm wobbling a bit at the weight. It was completely full, but topping it off with water for the time being could at least hide the contents used. However, as the bottle dropped off the edge of the cabinet, Mabel realized too late she'd underestimated the weight; the bottle nearly plunged and slipped from her fingers, and she shifted her feet to catch it in her arms.
Her foot slipped a few inches too far. The bourbon bottle tipped off the counter as if trapped in slow motion, and Mabel had no choice but to watch as everything crashed to the ground in a flurry of sound. The water bottle dropped with a quiet thunk, an anticlimatic beginning that became immediately outmatched as the bourbon exploded across the linoleum. The empty bottle shattered into millions of crystalline pieces. Mabel screamed, finding herself losing balance within seconds, plummeting towards the floor.
Split-second instincts took over. Clutching the bottle to her chest, she yanked herself to the side with such a quick leg movement that it sent a spasm of pain up her thigh. She landed to the left of the mess into a mixture of bourbon and water, a thick shard of glass centimeters from her shoulder. A high-pitched noise sliced through her eardrum, the cacophony swelling and causing terror to bloom in her chest until she'd realized the noise was coming from her.
Everything blurred together, her head hurt, and for a handful of seconds, she felt she could see stars scattered across the darkness underfoot and she was floating in the midst of it in a cold chilled embrace.
It snapped back as quick as it happened. Instead of stars, she was surrounded by glass, and the chill was only the bourbon and water seeping through the back of her shirt. She somehow felt the movement in the next room, and her body screamed at her to hide. Movement returned to her limbs, jerking them like robotic parts of a clunky machine as she subconsciously dove behind the fridge. Stabs of pain shot through the undersides of her feet, her big toe bleeding and her fingers throbbing in time with her rapid heartbeat. She crouched in the shadows without really understanding how she even got there, and suddenly light flooded the kitchen, blinding her, seizing her limbs with such gripping paralyzing terror, all she could do was sit and wait.
At first, Stan wasn't sure why he'd woken up so suddenly.
His common routine mainly consisted of sleeping dead through the night until either Soos or Wendy (mostly Soos) took the required ten minutes to shake him awake in time to open the shop and get the day begrudgingly started. But this time, a weird sixth sense forced him out of slumber and the pleasant dream of overtaking a casino with massive winnings. Needless to say, grumpiness replaced Stan's confusion once he'd blinked himself awake.
He opened his eyes to the ending credits of Duck-tective and a deep harsh feeling that he wasn't alone. Stan inwardly groaned, knocking his head back against the sofa. Goddamn gnomes again, I swear t-
He jerked forward at the startling remembrance he was harboring kids in his home now just as an ear-piercing crash came from the kitchen. Someone shrieked, almost animalistic, and Stan immediately thought of a creature from the woods breaking through the kitchen window again. Adrenaline flooded through his chest as he snatched his rifle from the hidden compartment beneath the aquarium and entered the kitchen in what felt like two strides.
He snapped the light on, loading the gun as he took in the sight before him. Shattered multicolored glass glittered the floor, twinkling in the light. A puddle of liquid leisurely rolled towards his feet. A cabinet door hung gently on its hinges and Stan glowered at the sight of the liqour. other than that, whatever had broken in left everything else unharmed, and Stan momentarily glanced at the unshattered window in confusion. "Ay!" He barked, lifting the gun. "Where're ya at?! Come out!"
No answer. Stan moved forward, the crude sound still ringing in his ears. A beat of silence followed, then Stan noted that someone sat crouched behind the fridge. A turn of his head immediately produced a response: a child's head poppedout, and Stan saw the girl twin staring at him from the shadows. Her cheek speckled with blood, an entire pint of liqour in her arms, she lifted a trembling finger in his direction and screamed out something unintelligable.
Stan had no chance to decipher her message before something slammed into his back with surprising brute force, a sharp sensation exploding in his thigh. A strangled cry escaped his lips as he yanked a dagger from his skin, lifting the butt of his rifle and slamming it behind him. He saw a flurry of motion in his peripheral vision as the attacker dodged, and suddenly the boy twin collapsed in an unbalanced heap by Stan's leg. "Ah, shit!" Stan hissed before a bottle of liquor flew through the air and crashed into bits inches from his head. Sounds blended into a cacophony of wails and cries and things exploding into mind-numbing sensations before Stan raised his gun and shot a bullet straight into the ceiling.
The sound resonated, covering and silencing every other noise. The twins screamed garbled cries in unison, slapping hands over their ears and dropping for cover. The room instantly quieted save for the ringing in all of their ears, drywall crumbling and sprinkling over Stan's feet.
The boy laid near Stan's feet, unmoving, and for a split horrifying second, Stan wondered if he'd accidentally killed the kid. Instead, the boy lifted his head, unscathed, and shot Stan an ugly look. The rush of the girl's breath catching echoed in the silence, her small form curled into a defensive ball with hands still firmly clapped over her ears.
"...Okay." Stan slowly lowered the gun, pointing it towards the floor as the kids turned in his direction. The anger Stan had felt bubbling up in his chest died off at the sight of the kids, nearly savage-looking and pitiful. The girl sat in nothing but a tattered skirt and shirt riddled with holes, her shivering form scrunched down the more Stan scrutinized her. The boy blinked in the light, a sheen of sweat glistening upon his forehead and a look of disdain settled across his face. "...okay," Stan repeated, noting he now held both of their attention. "...can we agree to never do that again?"
The girl squeaked in what Stan took as affirmation.
For a second, Stan debated which twin to speak to first. Finally, he settled on the girl, locking eyes on her immediately withdrawing form as he pushed the rifle onto the already crowded counter. "The hell were you doing? You realize I coulda shot you, right?!"
The girl (Madison? Mary? No, Mabel. Her name was Mabel.) went rigid, muscles defined on bruised arms as she physically braced herself. Her chest heaved, but she didn't hyperventilate, training watery eyes onto her brother across from her.
"S'not her fault," the boy (Dipper, Stan finally recalled) spoke up, attempting to sit himself up to his elbows. He struggled, and Stan noted the curling tendrils of hair stuck to the nape of his neck and the rings around his eyes that could've made a raccoon jealous. Shivers began to wrack the kid's body as the energy that fueled him down the steps died down. "I...I told her to!"
"No! No, he didn't!" Mabel snapped her gaze to Stan, her voice trapped in a panicky tone as she glanced at the gun for a split second. Dipper huffed as he attempted to sit up again. "Mabel! I told you, it's my fault! You wouldn't do this on your own and-"
"Well, I did! And now, I will!" Mabel moved forward in a split instant, grabbing her brother's head, pushing him down so fast, the boy collapsed in response. "I can't keep this going, Dip! You're going to kill yourself before anyone else does at this rate! I'm not gonna let this happen, I can't..."
"Okay, both of you, calm down!" Stan snapped, and Mabel jerked in surprise and threw an arm protectively over her brother's chest. Stan paused, completely lost on what to say next. Nurturing was probably the way to go with this, wasn't it? The sting in Stan's side made him feel much farther otherwise, but he pushed down any rage that wanted to make itself known. Anger was the last thing these kids needed. "Look...look out that window."
Mabel followed Stan's finger to the dusty panes, still covered by the faded floral curtain. Brow wrinkling in slight confusion, she looked back at Stan with watery eyes.
"What's out there, kid?"
"And what kinda creatures are in the woods?"
The girl blinked. "...dogs?"
Stan paused, looking down at the boy and asking the same question. Dipper only blinked, staring back stoically and giving a nearly imperceptible shake of his head. Finally, Stan answered it for them. "Monsters," He stated, before quickly rebounding. "Wolves. Bears. Things that could maul ya in a second if it felt the initiative."
Dipper grimaced in agreement. Stan swiped a hand across his bloodied thigh as the other landed on the rifle. "This thing here is my protection against those damn creatures out there. If I had immediately thought ya to be a prowling creature in the darkness, kid, I coulda blown a bullet through your skull before either of us realized it!"
Fear filled Mabel's expression within seconds. She shrank back, hands reaching up to her faceas Dipper reacted almost instantly. In one almost fluid motion, he raised himself to his elbows, knees, and finally on one shaking foot. One hand guided Mabel behind him as his eyes locked onto Stan with immeasurable animosity. "Don't talk to her like that."
Stan set his jaw. He'd been clueless on how to discuss the topic with the kids at all, but Dipper's glare stated whatever Stan had tried, it was the wrong method. "...are you both okay?"
Dipper looked to Mabel. She nodded wearily, and Dipper nodded along.
"Good. Ok. That's one thing out of the way." Stan rubbed a hand across his face, letting himself lean against the counter. "I'm sorry. That shouldn't have happened. But you need to be more careful around this, ok? The forest is..." He paused, letting the words hang for a millisecond before continuing. "...unpredictable."
The kids exchanged a look. They hadn't missed the pause. Something heavy hung in the air, and Stan noted the resolute expression on the children's faces.
"...will you make it quick?" Dipper questioned softly. Stan looked towards the boy with a tense expression. "Make what quick?"
Wordlessly, Dipper motioned to the rifle sitting atop the counter. Mabel hiccuped from behind him, digging her fingers against her brother's side and burying her face in his back. Stan realized with as much horror as Mabel did, but Dipper continued to stand in stony silence.
"I'm not gonna kill you!" Stan bellowed, appalled at the idea.
"Well, you sure shoot the thing quick." Dipper looked straight against Stan's gaze and for an instant, Stan could've sworn he'd seen a glint of something he couldn't make out. Despite the heavy feeling of wanting to turn and just leave the children where they were, to forget the whole incident and push it behind, something made him stay put.
"There's kids in the house now." Stan murmured, his tone defeated. The counter supported him completely now, the pain in his thigh blossoming into full on throbs. "Somethin' I gotta protect now. Shouldn't've let myself almost destroy what I meant to protect."
Dipper continued staring, unwavering, gauging the truth behind Stan's words. After a minute, he looked back to Mabel and pointed towards the stairs in a curt motion, expected to be immediately obeyed. "Go back to the room, Mabel."
"No," Mabel bluntly snapped, her resolve not quite formed, but the slight shaking of her shoulders were easily masked by the aggressive shivers of her brother. She hesitated before arguing, "Dipper, I'm not leaving you alone in this-"
"Look, I'm not stupid." Mabel's voice dipped low, hardly enough to qualify as a whisper. "Dipper, you're sick. Worse than I thought you were."
"Mabel." Dipper turned, licking his lips as if thirst threatened to crack his words. "Please let me handle this."
Mabel stood, her face a mask of hidden emotions as she seemed to weigh the balance of his words. She wiped at a stray tear with the palm of her hand before lifting her chin in steely resolve. "I handle the next one."
"Dipper, we're gonna be fair about it. So I handle the next one."
Dipper's nose scrunched, thoughts seemingly flipping through his mind, but he finally conceded, swinging an arm over Mabel's neck and propping himself on her small form. She easily supported his weight, as Dipper mustered all of his to directly face Stan. Wordlessly, Mabel lifted a rag that'd been thrown over her shoulder and passed it to Stan.
Stan pressed it to his thigh, purposefully lifting himself away from the counter despite the instant burning it caused. "Alright, lemme hear it, kid."
"It's not Mabel's fault," Dipper intoned, nearly robotically. "I told her to come down here."
Mabel grimaced, an argument lingering on her tongue and threatening to shoot out at her brother again. Stan didn't answer, eyes sweeping down towards Dipper's foot and he found a chance to change the subject. "What's with your foot?" He pointed it out, as Mabel's eyebrows lifted at the question and the anger leaked out of her face.
"S'not my foot," Dipper responded smoothly.
"Well, you look like hell." There was a beat of silence, as neither twin tried to argue the fact. Dipper appeared to weigh the idea as Mabel appeared to whole-heartedly agree. "Are you runnin' a fever? Is that why your sister came down?"
Dipper's eyes betrayed him, glinting with a small call for help before it was extinguished almost as fast as it'd appeared. The kid looked away, turning his gaze to the clock on the wall. "I'm fine. Don't blame Mabel for sneaking in tonight. We won't disturb you again, sir, I'll accept all the punishments you offer."
"You were too sick to do this yourself." Stan gazed at the mess in his kitchen, knowing in his gut he wouldn't have woken to it if the roles had been switched between twins. "You usually dig through the dirty work, but your sister stepped up to the role."
"But it's my fault-"
"If you'd done it, ya woulda collapsed before ya reached the threshhold. You look ready to make friends with the floor as it is, kid." Stan shifted his tone, pressing as much contempt into it as he could. "You sent your sister, sure. But this falls on her, dontcha think?"
"No!" Dipper's patience began to wear thin, stretching an impossible length under Stan's remark. "No, it doesn't! My sister, she, she's strong and...and she could've done this, but..."
"She couldn't handle it, could she?" Stan punctuated the question with a sardonic smile, and it was all it took.
Dipper stumbled forward, breaking from Mabel's grip so quick, she shifted along with him. Dipper lifted his hands to Stan's chest, every ounce of strength poured into keeping himself upright. The shove was relatively muted compared to the prior shove Stan had felt with the gun in his hands only minutes before, but the anger in Dipper's face exploded spontaneously like gasoline poured on a campfire. The boy's mouth twisted into a snarl, but Stan only stared down at the kid with a stoic expression and the smallest of smirks. Unlike his sister, Dipper didn't appear to brace as evidently, and he lifted his chin as if awaiting the back of Stan's hand across his jaw.
Stan didn't move. Instead, he watched as the boy's feet slipped out from under him. Dipper landed hard on a mixture of bourbon and blood, the harsh thud of his fall no doubtedly ground-shaking to him and masked instantly by Mabel's frantic shrieks. Stan moved forward, intent on lifting the kid himself, but Mabel beat him to it as she flipped her brother over and laid him in her lap. The kid fainted dead away; his ragged breaths huffed out against Mabel's pale forearm as she cradled his head.
"I'm not goin' to do anythin' t' you." Stan assured, but Mabel didn't appear to be listening. "Kid, whatever you and your brother went through, I'm not letting that continue."
"Dipper! Dipper, wake up!" Mabel begged, but Dipper's head lolled against her elbow. Mabel's voice raised in pitch as she shook her brother harder. "Dipper, wake up!"
"Kid, you don't need him to talk t' me!"
"Yes, I do!" The words tumbled out of her mouth almost by habit, but Stan caught the flicker of the self-doubt in her eyes.
"You can't depend on each other forever!" A harsh feeling cut through his chest as if the kid had sunk the dagger in there himself. "Speak up, kid."
"I don't want to trust anyone else!" Mabel spat, bloodshot eyes finally lifting, her voice lilting in panic. "Because...because when we do, they stab us in the back. I can only trust Dipper...he's my twin! We've been together forever and it's going to stay like that!" Her voice caught as she set her trembling hands over his, now sobbing fresh tears. Something rushed in Stan's ears, and he wasn't sure if it was the building anger ot the adrenaline catching up to him.
"We're a pair," Mabel continued. "We know everything about each other, sir. And he's always protected me and...and I need to protect him too, sir! If you punish him, you punish me, sir!"
"Yeesh, kid, I'm not gonna punish you!" Frustrated, Stan found himself looming over the kids, and Mabel clasped onto her brother. "You two did nothing wrong, ok? This was all an unfortunate accident and that's my fault for not seeing it. But obviously, you're both hidin' things from me I should rightfully know about since I'm your guardian. So, I'll be as damn blunt as I can...you tell me everything, so I can fix it, and we won't have these problems!"
Mabel froze, her eyes locked on his. It was as if his words had caused her to shut down, flipping an unseen off switch; she didn't seem to process the meaning. She glanced back at her twin's face, tense and agony-ridden even in sleep, before bowing her head against his.
"How sick is he?" Stan knew not to push the matter. Not when the boiling point was so close and he couldn't chance blowing up at the kid so soon.
Mabel considered for a second, then raised her hand, bringing it to Dipper's forehead. Stan frowned as she did, her fingers lifting his bangs and revealing an oddly-shaped mark on the kid's skin. Despite not recognizing the shape, Stan could catch the injury in a second. "...that's a burn
Mabel looked fear-stricken for a second, as if she'd uncovered a terrible secret. "...the Devil did it."
"...kid." Stan let the exasperated tone slip, but Mabel only lifted her chin and glanced back with a similar level of exasperation in her gaze.
"The Devil is what we call my dad," She informed solemnly. "Dipper and I were playing with a stove when we were five and..."
"Your dad did that?" Stan let his gaze drop back to the kid's forehead, noting the speckled marks connecting together in what nearly looked like a constellation.
"Dipper hated it," Mabel muttered, letting the bangs droop back over the mark, her thumb smoothing it down to hide it further. "Dad said it's what'll happen when we fiddle around with something we don't understand. He said it looked a lot like the Big Dipper constellation, and the name just kinda stuck, I guess."
Stan moved closer, studying what little of the mark he could make out under frayed hair. He could see why.
"Dad called him that. I mean it affectionately though!"
"...is he ok with being called that?" Stan asked, fighting to keep his tone level. "He's got a real name, don't he?"
Mabel bent her head back down, finally breaking eye contact. "No. He's fine. It's the only name Dad used that wasn't degrading." She paused. "It was the last thing he gave us."
"Ya sure, kid?"
"...yeah." There was something in Mabel's voice Stan couldn't quite catch. Guilt maybe. Shame of sorts. He couldn't sort through the emotions flitting through her face, but he could catch the remnants of something he related to.
"...is he ashamed of it?"
Mabel's look could've melted steel. Stan held a up a hand apologetically. "Hey, s'alright. Ya...don't gotta answer if you don't want to." He scratched his chin, considering something heavily, weighing the option in his mind. Figuring he had nothing to lose anyway, he sighed. "I wanna show you something."
Mabel visibly winced, but she straightened up, the rigidity of her stance translating into a preparation for a blow. "Oh...kay."
Stan paused for a second, before silently lifting the bloodied rag from his thigh and turning around, presenting his back to the kid. He lowered a sleeve of his suit, pulling back the grimy fabric of his wife-beater, presenting the blueish brand directly situated on his shoulder blade.
Mabel's breath hitched, momentary surprise, and when Stan covered it back up and turned to face her, her hand was back on Dipper's forehead as if to shield it from existence.
"I guess I can relate to your brother there," Stan stated, fighting to keep his voice steady. "I got in a nasty fight with my brother. This...this is kinda the painful reminder."
"Forever." Mabel's look became replaced by a thousand-yard stare, her gaze locked behind Stan on something he couldn't see. "...a forever reminder."
"Yeah. Indefinite, kid. Burns do that." Stan subconsciously reached behind to rub at the mark. "Nasty thing, huh?"
"Mm." Mabel hummed, her only acknowledgement of his question as she gathered Dipper in her arms. "...can you..." She stopped, eyes trained on the linoleum as if she were battling with her thoughts, fighting for the next words. "...can you help me?"
"Yeah." Stan moved through the kitchen, sorting through cupboards and tossing unwanted objects onto the mess on the floor before he pulled out a first-aid kit, its cover only slightly dented. "Here. I've got a lot o' these lyin' around the house. Tourists are dumb, so..."
Mabel stared at it, appearing to wait to see if the sentiment was a joke or not. After a few seconds, she tentatively took it, hooking the strap over her shoulder. Stan watched as she carefully wound her arms under Dipper's back and legs, shifting her twin close to her chest. Momentarily, Mabel brought her brother's head to her neck, burying her chin in his hair and shutting her eyes for a second. Then she opened her eyes, took a breath, and hoisted her brother up effortlessly.
"Stronger than ya look," Stan muttered. "And I know it, kid. Don't take what I said earlier seriously."
Mabel weighed his words, and settled on not answering.
"...take care of yourself too, kid," Stan added, but the girl twin was already past the threshold. She disappeared up the steps, a silent angel to her twin, small glittering bits of glass twinkling across her clothes like stars in a clear sky. Stan regretted not helping her clean them off, or at the very least, offering her more supplies to tend to the small scrapes she herself had sustained.
He ran a hand numbly over his face, fingers scraping past day-old stubble. His thigh ached, burning now and the warmth of fresh blood trickling past his hand and down his foot. He remembered the days too. He recalled lifting Ford from the kitchen floor, blood dripping from his nose and trickling down Ford's forehead, his father's yells echoing in his ears as if it were only yesterday they'd both been screamed at and beaten for dropping a glass. It was a terrifying and eerie resemblance, the twins Stan harbored now, and for a second he wondered if he'd be able to handle it.
Bullshit. Of course you can.
If he'd done it before, he could do it again. He could make it different this time. These kids wouldn't face the same consequences he and Ford had all those years ago, and Stan swore to it in the grim silence of that mess of a kitchen.
He dug out another first aid kit from the nearest cabinet, and limped back to the couch, dripping blood all the way.
End Chapter 3