It's perfect. It's everything he had ever wanted. He couldn't have asked for a more fitting way to spend the last quarter of his life.
It's all wrong.
Or maybe not all of it. Not everything.
But something is certainly wrong.
It takes him a while to notice.
The isolated nightmare here or there, sure - but Stan greets him every morning with a gruff 'hey' and a steaming cup of brackish coffee. Soon the hot sting – with just a splash of whiskey as he likes it – chases away the nightmare. Then it's out to the deck, and creaking rocking wood, sometimes swollen with grey sleet, and sometimes smooth and sweet-smelling under the pinkish-orange sky.
Sometimes they watch the sunrise, arms slung lazily across their shoulders, and sometimes it's straight to business, tugging hard on the sails and fighting the ocean that will always battle them back, the ocean that will meet them might for might, until their hair is slick and dripping and their coats hang on them like wet towels.
There's never time to think, not really. Brief flickers, and reminscents, the casual, 'wonder how ol' Dipper's holding up," and "Mabel'd love to paint that horizon, eh?" and "bet Soos is living it up in the Shack" but the whole journey isn't really about thinking. It's about being. Existing. Surviving. Together. Elbow to elbow, fishing at the rail, or fighting the mast, or slumped in cots after long days.
It's better not to think, really. But pretty soon that becomes impossible.
It happens first one evening, as they're watching the ocean swallow the sun.
"Wouldn't trade this for the world," Stan sighs out. They crack a beer can between them and Stan kicks his legs up on the stern. The ocean beneath them is like gently revolving glass or a mirror of the sunset.
Ford slings him a long glance, fingers numb over the can, bench digging into the bottoms of his thighs. "Not for a million dollars?" he teases, stretching out his aching knees.
Stan snorts. "Not for all the gold money can buy, brother."
He meets Ford's glance, and the world freezes, the ocean goes quiet, everything stops.
"You kept your gold, right, IQ?" Stan's eyes are yellow.
Ford is suddenly on his feet, beer seeping into his shoe, heart slamming against his rib cage. Stan sits there on the bench, face twisted up in confusion, and not the slightest sign of any yellow where there shouldn't be. The waves lap lazily against the hull.
"Whoa whoa," Stan grabs the fallen can and furrows his brow like he's doing some psychological examination; he leans over his knees, "hey, where's the fire?"
Ford wipes his hands on his coat and steadies his breathing. He finds it in him to let out a laugh. "Some trick of the light," he shakes his head. "For a second…" but some kinds of paranoia never leave and the traitorous thought occurs don't let him know you're on to him – he already knows, you idiot! He showed himself! – this can't be right, I'm imagining things; he can't be back, he's gone, he couldn't have gotten in Stan. Ford sits down shakily and takes his can back. "I'm getting senile," he mutters. Good good, pretend like you saw nothing – he already knows – shut up it's not him, I'm –
That's not right. It was just one time. One trick of the light.
"You and me both," Stan says back, and Ford can almost pretend he's not faking it like it's one of his cheap sales. "You know, just this morning, couldn't find the Nescafe. It's in the same spot every day, and I couldn't find it for the life of me." Stan laughs aloud again. "We're old men."
Ford rolls his ankles. His heartbeat slows. Just a trick of the light. "Sure, but you're showing it more," he prods.
"You know, here, and here-" Ford points at Stan's crow's feet, and his bulging belly, and his skinny ankles; Stan makes a disgruntled noise and punches Ford's shoulder.
"Hey, you shut it, old man - I'm a solid ten minutes younger than you and ten times hotter."
"Could have fooled me!"
Their argument degenerates into a lowcore punching fight like they're little kids again, no older than Mabel and Dipper; they end up with more spilled beer and a lot of laughter. By then, twilight has long since fell. They get up on their aching joints and trudge back to the cabin to tuck themselves up in their bunks and get what warmth they can from threadbare scratchy blankets.
"Night, Ford," Stan grunts across the room, and Ford offers his reciprocal 'night.' It's the routine, it's thoughtless and perfect in a way that can't be defined. Ford would like to say he forgot all about what he saw before. He didn't forget; it's there, burrowed away in the back of his brain, but for now he can pretend it isn't, and he pretends well enough that he sleeps the whole night, without a single nightmare.
It's a couple days before he sees Bill's eyes again.
The two of them are trying their luck at catching their next meal; the morning is pale pink and white, just awakening over the horizon. Their shoes are a little damp, and hands a little cold, but they huddle together under their coats and it isn't so bad that way.
"Cruddy little things," Stan mutters to himself as he pinches a worm between his fingers and readies his hook.
"We're nearly out," Ford observes, tapping the can with his shoe.
Stan grunts in reply.
"We could set out the nets and catch some of the smaller fish to use next time," Ford adds thoughtfully, wiggling his own pole in a futile effort to interest the aquatic life.
"Yeah, I-" Stan cuts off sharp.
Ford glances over just in time to see the hook puncture straight through the worm's pink filmy skin, and bury itself into Stan's thumb. Red wells around the thrashing worm.
Ford's eyes travel up; Bill grins. "Uh oh, IQ. Did I make a boo-boo?"
A heartbeat. Silence. Then -
"Shit!" Stan shouts, dropping the can of worms. "Ow-ow!" he touches his mutilated thumb gingerly and winces. "Stupid, clumsy, must've slipped," he grumbles sourly, calloused finger pads trying to pry out the hook and the crucified worm.
"Hey, hey," out of habit or something else, Ford bolts over to his brother and kneels before him, "here, you stop that – stop picking at it! I'll tend to it; you'll only give yourself an infection, or worse."
Stan glumly holds out his hand and lets Ford extracts the hook with surgical precision; the bloody worm he tosses overboard.
"Damn fish get free food. Always patching me up, huh? Not much has changed… Remember when you always had to get splinters outta my knuckles?"
Ford doesn't answer.
Stan shakes his head. "Used to be from all that punching. Nowadays, I think I'm just getting clumsy."
Maybe. Last week he'd tripped over a loose board, nearly impaling his eye on a nail. Last month he got his wrist tangled in the sail wires during a storm, cutting off his circulation and very nearly loosing him the hand. The more Ford thinks of it, the more and more situations he conjures that he had attributed to clumsiness or just bad luck. Sure, they're incidents that could happen to anybody but…
The implication makes Ford's blood run cold. How long how long how long. I thought he was gone, how long. But Ford keeps his expression passive and cool.
Now that he knows there may be a threat, there is no benefit in being afraid.
Stan hisses while Ford presses an alcohol-soaked strip of fabric to the wound.
"The puncture is pretty deep," Ford recites calmly, oh god how long, "I can wrap it with some antibacterial now, but there's still a possibility of infection deep in the wound. I'll bandage it up and apply some oil to protect it from the water, but keep an eye on it for any unusual swelling, heat, or redness."
"All right, all right doctor," Stan rolled his eyes.
Ford smiles wryly. Insincerely. Does he even know Bill's in him? "I do have twelve PhD's, Stan."
"Nerd." Stan rubs his bandaged thumb. "Hey? Thanks, Ford. You know, you're really looking after me."
Ford stands up stiffly. "Take better care of yourself."
That night, Ford can't sleep.
Water splashes with dull hollowness onto the hull. The radio in the corner drones with its ceaseless whine. In another minute, Stan's snores fill the room: rising, falling, rising, falling.
But Ford can't sleep. It feels like someone is wrapping saran wrap around his ribs, tighter, tighter, tighter.
He's gone. You defeated him.
The room is stifling.
He nearly runs out of the cabin and the railing jabs into his gut; his head hangs over the rocking water. Twelve fingers find their way into his hair as he stares down into the ocean depths. You defeated him he's gone.
The alternative is too awful to comprehend. Once upon a time, he could face any paranormal challenge with fearless determination. But this is different.
The shattered trust, the building paranoia and terror, flinching at every shadow, hallucinating his voice, then thirty years of battling in dimensions that were not his own…
Then the final, horrific struggle that ended everything in the huge pyramid of Bill's own devising.
It had been too easy.
It was anything but easy.
But this is Bill we're talking about.
Ford had thought it was all over. He had been ready for it all to be over. All the struggling, the terror. He'd been ready to be done.
There's three little pills in his pocket. Just in case ones, back-up ones, always-with-him ones.
Don't, it's been months –
He swallows them dry and hangs his head over the rail.
It takes a couple minutes, it's always slow, but soon enough water sprays fall like rain on his toes his ankles each drop chilly and penetrating, nailing his feet to the boards and he sways dizzily; the ocean gulps hungrily over the ship's namesake.
He closes his eyes and lets out a sigh that curls around his lips in the chill air and blends with midnight and he feels each muscle unwinding like a coil of rope unknotted letting his spine stretch and each bone separate like tetris blocks collapsing and leaving him relaxed-rhythmic.
The boat's rocking is slower, swaying, and his hands take the rail to keep steady.
Then a dissonant voice warbles over the waves in song, "You always take… the sweetest rose…."
It sounds so sick out of his brother's throat, twisting up vocal cords the way they aren't supposed to be.
"And crush it till… the petals fall…" that voice drops low and purring.
Ford's heart flinches, but his expression remains stoically fixed on the waves.
Much louder, closer, "boy, that sure would be flattering you though, wouldn't it, Sixer? Can't say I'd call you the sweetest rose!"
Fingertips like water droplets go plink plinking down his spine, the base of his neck; they dance over C5-7, and trickle down each thoracic bone, caressing where thoracic becomes lumbar and then Ford counts down dreadfully, L2, L3, L4, L5 – Bill stops there, digging in his thumb.
Ford prides himself for not shivering.
"Yeesh, awful quiet today, aren't you? I know – it's easy to be speechless when I'm around!"
Ford recoils; Bill's chuckle follows him as he lurches away.
"Why are you here?" Ford finally spits out, but he can't look at St- at Bill. He can't see his brother like that, he can't…
The boat sways; Ford grabs the rail. Right. Pills.
Bill's laughing. "You just get more pitiful every year, Sixer! You really thought your stupid plan could kill ME!? I'm six BILLION years older than you, hahaha! And you think a couple humans could bring me down just like that? Wow, you're even more naïve than I remember. You're a real riot!"
A hand slaps between his shoulder blades and he staggers, the floor lurching. "Really, I gotta hand it to you; only you would be stupid and arrogant enough to think you could kill an immortal being!"
"Go away," Ford says weakly.
That voice pierces his eardrums again, "But y'know, that's why I love you humans so much. You think you're so important!"
"We defeated you," Ford growls, still avoiding the sight of his brother.
"Oh, did you? Did you really, IQ? Wow, I sure missed the memo then, didn't I? Because – c'mon, give me a drum roll – TADA! Bill Cipher, in the flesh, dream demon and nightmare extraordinaire! What deal can I make for you today?"
"I will never make another deal with you!"
"Oh?" A heartbeat pause. A headache roots itself just behind Ford's eyes. He longs for just a few more pills. Without questioning how, his searching fingers pull three more from the same pocket, and they disappear down his throat.
"It's a real pity you're not in a gambling mood," Bill preens. "I guess that means you don't want to save your brother after all!"
"Save my…?" Finally, finally, Ford turns to face the monster possessing Stan.
Bill wears Stan with every inch of manic pride, hands on hips, legs firmly squared, eyes glowing a fervent, sickly gold. A grin wider than hyena's splits his face.
Ford starts slowly, his tongue uncooperative and thick behind his teeth. "That night in the pyramid… the deal you made with Stan. That's how you're possessing him, isn't it?"
Bill chuckles. "Now you're asking the interesting questions."
"You were given access to his mind, and the gun didn't erase you."
"Ooo, close, little Fordsey!"
"How?" The end of the word warbles out for a second and Ford blinks to gather himself. "How did you come back?" he tries again.
"Wow, those pills sure aren't treating you well! Y'know, I was gonna be generous and give you some info, but you seem pretty determined to black out. Let's have a chat in your mind instead, whaddaya say?"
"N-no!" Ford sways. His feet are beginning to feel numb. He fights the fog threatening to overtake his mind because now that he really considers it, maybe it wasn't such a great idea to try to drug out his thoughts with a dream demon in residence aboard the ship.
"Ohoh, it's funny that you think you have a say in this."
"You can't enter my mind! The plate-"
"Only protects your waking thoughts." A devious glint appears in Bill's eyes. "But asleep…. Oh boy, you and I will have a BLAST!"
Sometimes, Ford dreams of drowning.
Of waking up in a water-soaked cot, of opening his eyes to a marine world come alive in the cabin, of his lungs opening and thick cold liquid pouring in under his ribs.
Of thrashing. Screaming gone unheard. His throat closing. Vomiting water only to desperately suck it back in again like it would ever help him live. Salt tearing into his lungs.
His dream this time starts out that way.
But in this one, he is saved.
That isn't the right word.
A huge black four-fingered hand tears open the cabin ceiling. Huge waves rush out of the cabin - but before they bear Ford with them, the enormous hand scoops him up out of the brewing sea; Ford takes his first fresh gasp of clean air.
The hand raises him higher; water drips in fat droplets from his hair, his clothes. The monster's grip is such that his back arches vulnerably, his head tilts back. He feels helpless, rising up into the sky, like a doll in the hands of a child. Like a human dangled by a god.
Everything is dark. Everything but the eyes.
Golden yellow, hundreds of them. And one single immense eye, directly above him, composed of billions upon billions of tiny dots that are in constant, nauseating motion.
Ford chokes down the urge to vomit and closes his own eyes, sickened – but even then, he can see Bill's single eye piercing through him.
With absolute, horrifying conviction, Ford knows that Bill is both the beginning and the end, that he is, was and forever will be. He was never gone and he was never back, because eternity did not ever leave or return.
Bill's laughter vibrates the air, weaving louder, then quieter, then louder.
"Wow, IQ! You're really a flatterer!"
The words splinter around Ford's body and he cringes, feeling each word break upon his flesh.
"Go away," he pleads, but his own voice is flat and weak, like a single wavering music note trying to overwhelm a symphony.
"That doesn't sound like fun! How about we make a deal instead?"
Ford struggles, but Bill's grip tightens around him. His ribs sink and bend under the weight of those fingers.
"I mean, you gotta see that I'm unstoppable! No matter what you do, I'll destroy this world eventually! So why not help me out just a little?"
"I'd never help you!" The words feel recited, fake, but Ford knows he must say them, it must go this way.
"Oh, Sixer, Sixer, Sixer. Always so stubborn." The fingers coil tighter around his body and he feels his ribs cracking into his organs, his lungs crushing around his heart. Thick black nails pierce between his ribs. "It always was your most adorable trait."
From the depths below rises a frail voice and it's so familiar, so achingly familiar and echoing around him-
"N-no! Bill, please stop!" Then his voice breaks into a scream and it sends a chill straight into Ford's bones; hoarsely, he whispers,
"No, stop. Stop! Dipper!"
His body contorts wildly within the claws, but no matter how he struggles he can't get free, and he can't twist to look down. "Dipper! Dipper!"
The scream crumples, tapers off, throttles itself, and then it's just silence.
Dizzily Ford gives up his endeavor and meets the revolving eye of Bill. "Let me go. Don't hurt him!"
"Mabel, then?" the darkness says. "Or perhaps your brother."
"I hate you."
"Ohh…. My feelings are so hurt."
Anger rises in his chest but it's so quickly quelled because -
Is there even a point in being angry – It's what Bill wants – it's all part of his game.
The multitude of eyes begin to spin around him, faster, and faster, orbiting the single huge eye. Ford can't look any longer, and he tilts his head to the side, screwing his eyes shut. "Let me rest."
He doesn't just mean sleep.
"Aw, but that's no fun. We used to have all kinds of fun. Why aren't you happy to see me any more? Remember when you decorated your whole house after me? Woo, those were the days!"
Ford is tired. So tired that it seeps into his bones and makes him feel a hundred years old. So tired he doesn't want to move again. So the words come up from his throat, "what do you want?"
He can practically feel Bill's grin.
Then, soft words, "let's talk soon, little Sixer."
Stan finds him in the morning.
It isn't a good awakening.
"The hell is wrong with you, the hell did you do!?" he hears through some kind of tunnel.
I took all the pills I had.
His eyes blink wearily open. The morning sways above his eyes like an orange halo around Stan's wrinkled furious face. "What you were thinking? What did you take?"
"It was just three," Ford says but he thinks it was more, and now he doesn't have the back-up-just-in-case. Not that they helped him in the end.
Stan launches on again, "Why would you pull a stunt like that? Do you want to get yourself killed?"
It takes some time to calm Stan down, and even then, the younger Pines twin doesn't understand. Ford doesn't think he will, though, since understanding means learning that Bill isn't gone. Ford isn't willing to explain that yet, if he ever will be.
There's not really such a thing as being alone on a tiny boat with two people, but Ford ends up near the brow and Stan ends up in the cabin.
Yet again Ford finds himself watching the waves kill themselves upon the hull and bleed down back into the sea.
We'll meet again – don't know where, don't know when – ohh, I know we'll meet again some sunny day…
Ford realizes that he feels older than ever. Not wise, not sage. Just old.
He wants peace. He wants quiet. He wants to sail the world with his brother until they're both too old to lift a finger.
But into his retirement now returns something infinitely older – and yet infinitely younger – than him.
And it wants to start up this whole sick game again.
But Ford doesn't have the energy to continue the battle that had manipulated him and his family from the start. Isn't it someone else's turn to be hero? Hasn't he done his part? Shouldn't he, after everything, deserve retirement with his brother?
Ford tilts his head up and gazes at the stars above him. Gently, gently the waves slosh the boat. It's serene. For a moment, he feels at peace. In his heart he wonders how things would have been, if, from the start, he had agreed to sail the earth with Stan.
If he had never left for Gravity Falls.
The next morning is bright and blue, not a cloud in the sky. Stan rouses him with the warm whiff of motor oil coffee and a gruff, "get your ass up."
The wooden boards of the ship reek thickly with salt, and the wind invades their nostrils.
They shuffle out to admire the morning.
"Look at it!" Stan exclaims, holding out his arms reverentially to behold the sea. "The whole world in our backyard! Now this is living, Ford."
Ford wonders if he should tell Stan. If some responsibility lies on him, to tell his brother, and to stop Bill again. To try to stop Bill. But they've fought him tooth and nail for nearly half a century, and they've done their part. They've done all they can. All they should. All that could ever be expected of one broken family. It hurts, still.
"I wouldn't want it any other way," Ford says, and it's the truth. It's so painfully the truth. He slings his arm over Stan's shoulder. "We should have done this years ago."
Together they sip their bitter coffee, they watch the sun reach its zenith, and there, in a tiny boat perched above the immense chasm of the ocean, they find some peace.
"We should have done this years ago," Ford sighs again.
Then Stan's shoulders tense under his arm. A wicked grin is shot his way. "If you ask nice enough… set the right price…" Bill drawls.
The fear is there. It always is. But so is the exhaustion. "What do you want?" Ford says quietly.
"I always like how straightforward you are, IQ. Here's the dealio – Stan let me into his mind, but I never needed to get in this head – it's your noggin that I wanted!"
"The equation to collapse Gravity Falls' weirdness barrier…"
Stan's gold eyes practically spark. "Oh yeah, Ford!"
"It'll never work even if I give you the equation," Ford snaps. "You'll need a physical body to take down the barrier – and I'll never let you near Gravity Falls!"
"Oh, blah blah blah. I won't be lugging this wrinkly old sack to Gravity Falls, that's for sure. Yeesh, no – my own physical form is stuck back there! And I sure do miss it… If I could get it back, and collapse that barrier… the fun would be unimaginable!"
Bill throws out his hands in a mockery of human emotion. "What can I say…. My body is back there, my mind is here…. Don't you worry, IQ. I can get myself back to Gravity Falls just fine. All I want is for you to gimme that equation so that once I get back to my physical body – it's home free!"
"You'd bring the apocalypse to the entire world."
"Don't think so small, buddy! I'd bring it the whole universe."
"Of course." Ford glances away and rubs the bridge of his nose. Please just let me be anywhere but here.
"Not convinced, huh? Sure, I got that. But… "Bill drawls, "This body isn't very valuable to me, y'know! All boring memories and stupid thoughts. He's a big lump of stupid flesh. With a body this useless, I can get a little careless…." There's a flash of silver and suddenly he's got Ford's little pocket knife.
Something in Ford freezes. Stolidly, "where did you get that?"
"Not on purpose, of course," Bill purrs uninterrupted, "but accidents can happen…" He wedges the blade tip underneath a fingernail and applies pressure.
Bill slowly withdraws the makeshift weapon. "Let me in your mind, Stanford."
Ford hesitates. He'd known, of course – that that would be the request. The purpose of all Bill's rambling. The end goal.
But he hesitates – not because the request is one he would never grant… but because for once his instant response isn't no.
"If I say yes," he begins slowly, "I have terms to set."
Bill curves an eyebrow. "Oh?"
"You'll leave Mabel, Dipper – and any family relation of mine – alone. And… you'll wait until my brother and I are in our graves."
Instantly Bill's got a big grin on his face, and he sticks out his hand to seal it but –
"Ah-ah." Ford holds up a palm. "You wait until we die naturally, Bill. You give us our twenty, thirty years. Just give us that."
The grin turns more sly. "Always watching your back, Fordsey. I gotta say, though – you're giving in a whole lot quicker than I thought you would."
Ford doesn't say anything; he doesn't really have to. Bill wants a rise out of him, he only ever does, but he also knows exactly why Ford is bending, he knows exactly when it was best to approach about this deal.
"Do you agree or not?" Ford demands.
It doesn't take anything more before Bill slides his hand into Ford's.
There's a rush through Ford's spine, up to his brain, like Bill's taking a precursory gander at his soul, worming little fingers into the crevices of his cerebrum and then –
Stan blinks. Then looks around at the ship. "Whoa. How'd I get out here?"
Ford smiles wanly. "Sleepwalking. You were going on about losing your glasses in the Shack."
By noon they're cracking jokes and griping about the weather wearing on their joints. By evening they watch the sunset, shoulder to shoulder, grinning and sipping cruddy beer.
Ford thinks to himself that he did not make the right decision, but that, given the ability to chose again, he wouldn't change a thing.