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to you, who bears my name

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Aqw ctg oa hcxqtkvg rgtuqo, cpf aqw yknn pgxgt mpqy kv.


0, 3

 

When Dipper Pines is born, he comes out into the world holding onto his sister’s hand. The little baby girl gurgles with laughter as soon as she is out, but her brother behind her cries out as soon as she lets go of his hand.

“Shh, shh,” whispers the midwife, trying to soothe the crying babe, but he only finds comfort in the vicinity of his sister, and they both find their way into their sweating mother's arms.

“Shh, shh,” says their mother, and this time they both quiet down to contentment. “It's alright now, Mabel, Alexander.”

The midwife sidles up to the woman, to wipe off some of the sweat and to stare adoringly at the beautiful children. “Are those the names you chose for them?” she asks.

“Yes,” sighs the woman, overwhelmed with love for her children. “We actually thought that we might have girls, I mean, twin girls, and I was going to name them Mabel and Alexis. We didn't get an ultrasound. I thought fraternal twins were rare. So we assumed - but now that little Alexander is here, I wouldn't trade him for a million girls.”

“They're beautiful,” whispers the midwife, gently brushing her fingers over the boy's wrinkled forehead. Any child she delivers always feels like her own, but none moreso that these brown-haired little angels. She stops, noticing a discoloration on his creamy skin. “Miss, I think your little boy was born with a birthmark.”

“Oh, where?” asks the mother. “I've always found birthmarks fascinating.”

“Miss, his birthmark is amazing ,” says the midwife, peering closer and seeing the imprint clearly. “It's a bunch of dots, and there are lines connecting them. Like a drawing. Or like those patterns you see in the stars; I forget.”

“Constellations?” supplies the older woman, shifting her son’s face to get a better look. She brushes wispy strands of brown hair away, and sees the rose-colored marks on his skin. A series of seven perfect dots, connected by thin lines, marring the otherwise white skin. “Oh, my,” breathes the woman, because she does not know what to say. “The Big Dipper.”

“The big what, Miss?”

“The Big Dipper,” says the woman, gently tracing the lines of her son's birthmark. “Arguably one of the most famous constellations… this is quite remarkable. I…”

“Miss?”

She appears to think hard for a minute, seeming lost in thought. Finally, she turns to the midwife. “What do you think of me naming him Dipper?” asks the woman. “Instead of Alexander, I mean. Dipper and Mabel Pines.”

“Dipper,” repeats the midwife. She looks at the little boy, who holds on tightly to his sister's hand. She isn't quite so sure if the name Dipper really suits the baby, but she is sure that the name Alexander doesn't suit the adorable little face. Besides, the names Dipper and Mabel sound good together in her ears. “I think Dipper is a grand name, Miss,” she says enthusiastically. “It's certainly unique.”

“Dipper,” says the woman happily, and her smile widens when the boy seems to respond to the name, gurgling and smiling toothlessly. “Do you like your name, Dipper?”

“Look, he's happy,” points out the midwife. She looks at the mother, who still seems quite occupied with her twins. “Miss, shouldn't you be checking their, um, their wrists?”

“Oh, goodness,” she says. “I quite forgot. Would you be so kind as to call my husband and mother? I'm sure they would want to see it with me as well.”

“Yes, of course,” says the midwife, hurrying out of the room. She returns shortly afterward with the anxious father and grandmother trailing after her. “Honey,” breathes out the tall man, face wrinkled in concern for his wife. He stops in his tracks when he sees the two bundles of joy in his wife's arms.

“Oh, honey.” He rushes to her side and kneels by the bedside, staring at his-- their --children. He peeks at the girl, who smiles at him as if she knows right away that he is her father. “Hello there, Alexis -or are you Mabel?”

“That's Mabel,” supplies his wife. She waves at her mother to come on over. “We have boy-and-girl twins. Can you believe it?”

“They're perfect,” says her mother. “So if the girl is Mabel, then the boy-”

“His name is Dipper ,” finishes the woman.

Dipper ?” repeats her husband. “Where the heck did that name come from?”

“Look at his forehead, darling,” says the woman, scolding, and angles her son so that the man can get a better look. “He has the most amazing birthmark I've ever seen.”

“Forehead…” says the man. “So it's not. It's not, uh, not his Mark.”

“No, I haven't checked their wrists yet,” says the woman gently. “He has the Big Dipper on his forehead. Isn't it just grand? I've never seen anyone who has a constellation for a birthmark, or one that's so clear. And… I don't know, he just doesn't look like an Alex .”

“Dipper,” repeats the man, testing the name out while looking at his son. The little boy seems to look up when he hears the word, as if he already knows that this is his name. “It's a good name. It does suit him.”

“It does, doesn't it?” says the woman happily. Her smile fades slowly, and then she beckons her aging mother over. “Let's look at their wrists, shall we?” she says softly. “I waited for you guys before checking them.”

Her husband and mother both nod, and the elderly woman sighs. “Your father would've loved to see this,” she says wistfully. “He was always fascinated by Marks. Especially ours,” she finishes, tracing the lettering apparent on her wrist even after all these years.

The woman smiles, and carefully turns her children's wrists over to expose them to the light.

 


3, 6

 

“Mama, why are you crying?” asks Mabel. Mabel is the kind one. Mabel is the sensitive one. Mabel is the one who cares to ask what is wrong, the one who know exactly what to do to cheer their parents up when they're in one of their “moods.”

Dipper is the smart one. He's the one who knows why they're crying.

“It's nothing, Mabel,” says their mother. “Just… just. Sometimes your mommy gets sad.” The woman looks over the two of them, so small and sweet, and it looks like she might cry more.  “Why don't you sing a song for me, sweetie? That always helps me feel better.”

“Okay!” says Mabel. She pulls at Dipper, who, predictably, is poring over books, boring ones that don't even have any pictures. “Help me sing to Mama, Dipper. Your eyes’re gonna fall out of your face if you read too much.”

“No they won't,” retorts Dipper, shaking himself free from her grip. “ You sing to Mama. I sang last time.”

“But we're gonna sing together ,” whines Mabel childishly, or maybe not really, because she's three years old and she's supposed to act that way. “Why do you read so much, bro-bro? You don't gotta read. We're only three years old!” she finishes, holding up five fingers for emphasis.

“And you're speaking so well,” says their mother, smiling, but her smile is sad, almost terribly so. “You two are only three years old but you speak in full sentences, and you read so well. You can-”  she falters, “-you can play. You don't need to read all the time, Dipper. You should play.”

“Yeah, bro-bro!” says Mabel, completely oblivious. “We're the best, so we don't have to be better.”

“We have to be the best, Mabel,” says Dipper, ignoring her completely. He turns his back on her and continues reading, missing but knowing the way their mother's lips begin to tremble.

He isn't supposed to know, but somehow or another, he does. Neither of them are supposed to know, to be aware of the fate that was handed to them by the names on their wrists.

On Mabel’s wrist, written in perfect, golden calligraphy, is the name Pacifica Northwest . Presumably, the name Mabel Pines is inscribed on that person's wrist, too, probably in a goofy, rainbow-colored hue. That doesn't really matter, anyway. What matters is that Mabel's soulmate is a Northwest , a blue blood, a member of one of the oldest noble families in the world, and Mabel is, well, a Pines. They aren't poor by any means, are quite well-off in fact, but the world of the Northwests, with their platinum and gold and deep history is something far above their heads.

It isn't like Dipper has it any better.

Printed neatly on Dipper’s wrist, like it was put there by a typewriter, is a sequence of jumbled, nonsensical letters: XKOPNGTKRZSQE . They don't really know what it means, have tried to figure it out but perhaps not hard enough. Anyways, the meaning is also irrelevant. As with Mabel, what matters more is what his soulmate is rather than who it is. The mere fact that a puzzle is placed on Dipper’s skin means that his soulmate is a Cipher - and if the Northwests were the nobility of the world, then the Ciphers were something akin to the gods.

The Cipher lineage runs everything in the world, from top to toe. Being the oldest magical family in history, as well as the richest, can help. The beginning of the Cipher dynasty is too far back to recall, but no one seems to be able to foresee an end anytime soon, either.

At the age of  three, maybe Dipper knows that he is the soulmate of a Cipher, even though he isn't supposed to know it.

He definitely shouldn't know the magnitude of that fact. But he knows that, too.

He wants to know everything .


7, 10

 

...happy birthday to you! Happy birthday, happy birthday, happy birthday to you !”

Mabel is bouncing on her toes, full of excitement for the song to end. Blowing all the candles out is her favorite part, and has always been. Dipper stands beside her, ready to pretend that he's blowing them out with her, when actually all he does is pucker his lips awkwardly and hope nobody sees how much he hates being here.

“Dip-Dip, come on, come on!” yells Mabel, tugging on his shoulder. “Let's blow out the candles!”

He sighs, which sounds wrong coming from his little lips, and resigns himself to his task. He moves over to stand with his twin, by now the only person he would willingly do anything for.

Well, and whoever the Cipher is that his wrist has shackled him to.

Whoever they are, they're the reason why their seventh birthday is especially bleak for Dipper. Cipher tradition dictates that anybody who is a Cipher soulmate is required to present themselves at the royal palace once they turn seven years old. The Northwests have no such tradition. Pacifica’s parents have already contacted theirs and stated that Mabel and Pacifica are to meet when they are both sixteen years old. Once that came up, all pressure was basically lifted from Mabel's shoulders. She now has all the time in the world to be groomed for her soulmate, and would be none the wiser.

It would be a lie if Dipper is to say that he isn't bitter about it at all. But it would also be a lie if he were to say that it bothers him all that much.

He looks at his twin, who is wearing an oversized pink sweater covered in glitters, a gift from their sixth birthday. There is icing smeared on her mouth, a party hat sitting askew on her messy brown hair, precisely the same shade as Dipper’s hair and eyes. Her eyes mirror his own, and he hopes she does not see the emptiness in his irises, but he is certain that she just chooses to ignore it.

Mabel blows out the candles on her own, probably making a wish that she and her soulmate would get along great. (She had confessed to Dipper on their fourth birthday that every year on their birthday she would wish for a different thing regarding her soulmate. Last year she had wished that her soulmate would like pop tarts as much as she does, so that they wouldn't have to fight about it.) Once again, Dipper makes to pretend, knowing that even if he does try and blow he'll probably end up spraying spit all over the rainbow-colored cake. But even so, this time, Dipper tries something different.

He tries closing his eyes and making a wish.

He finds it's harder than it looks, that even as he closes his eyes, it feels as if there’s nothing popping up in his head and at the same time there's too much. In the end, he goes along with what Mabel had told him she wished for on their third birthday.

I wish my soulmate is nice .

Then the cameras go off, as the moment is lovingly documented by their immediate family. Mabel laps all the attention up, flashing her smile with the two missing front teeth, while Dipper tries to make his lips form anything but a frown. He tugs at his sweater, blue to Mabel's pink, and thinks that despite being made of wool and being covered in patterns of sequins, it is the nicest thing he has ever worn.

“You okay there, Dipsauce?” asks Mabel, using one of those nicknames he always claims to hate. “You closed your eyes real tight for a moment there.”

“I'm alright, Mabes,” Dipper says, smiling slightly, just small enough that Mabel would know it's genuine. “I just… I, uh, I tried making a wish.”

Her brown eyes go wide. “Dipsauce, you didn't!” she gasps. She shoves him back, not hard enough to hurt. “You made a wish! You really, really did?”

“Yeah,” he mumbles sheepishly.

“Bro-bro, that's awesome!” she says. Their parents choose that moment to approach them with gifts, and his sister immediately turns to them, her eyes alight with excitement. “Mama! Papa! Dipper made a wish!”

Their mother's eyes widen in the same way as Mabel's, and she looks at her son, who is clearly uncomfortable with the attention. “Sweetie, that's great! I'm sure your wish will come true.”

“Yeah, Dipper,” follows up their father. “They always grant the first wish.”

Dipper says, “Who is ‘they?’” at the same time that Mabel exclaims, “They do ?”, but deep inside he wonders why his father's statement bothers him. They always grant the first wish .

But this isn't my first wish, he wants to say, but it catches in his throat. This isn't my first wish at all.

If this is his first wish, then what about the time he wished for a new science encyclopedia because his old one was outdated? What about the time he wished that his knees wouldn't scar when he tripped and fell while chasing Mabel, because he didn’t want anything on his skin besides his Mark? What about the time he wished he could understand the puzzle on his wrist, for a hint, a clue, anything?

What was my first wish? Dipper thinks, and he is worried because he thinks that if it was something stupid then he may have wasted his one and only shot at getting something he really wants.

His mother kneels beside him, a newly-wrapped gift in her hands (obviously the model telescope he has been hankering after ever since he saw it in a science catalogue). “Sweetie?” she says softly, and he can still hear her over the din of the party-goers, with their children whose names Dipper doesn't even care to learn. “Do you want to open your gifts now, or... ”

He takes her wrist in response, where their father's name is printed in his scratchy handwriting, but it is her silver watch that interests him, not her Mark. It is twenty minutes past ten. They are supposed to be at the Cipher palace before twelve.

“Later,” he decides, and he isn't sure if he is disappointed or not.

Their mother brings him back to the room he shares with his sister, while their father stays downstairs to entertain the guests with Mabel. The blue sweater is shed, and replaced with a tailored suit made specially for him. They spend nearly fifteen minutes just trying to flatten his unruly hair before his mother gives it up as a bad job and decides he looks good enough. “Ready, honey?” she asks, and he nods because he is ready, has spent every waking moment since he could walk making sure he would be ready.

Downstairs, the aunts coo over his appearance. Mabel wrinkles her nose at the perfectly-fitting little suit. “It's too…” she begins, her brows furrowed. She waves her hand around him and frowns. “You're too nice,” she decides, and Dipper just barely keeps from teasing her about not keeping up with vocabulary lessons as much as he does. He doesn't even know why the thought crosses his mind, and he is worried that he might be going to meet the Cipher family in a horrible mood. “I'm supposed to look nice,” he retorts instead, and is rewarded with a laugh from Mabel and an overwhelming sense of relief.

“Wish your brother luck, Mabel,” says their father, cake smeared all over his chin from an earlier scuffle with one of the baby cousins. He pats Dipper’s padded shoulders. “You ready, tiger?” he says encouragingly.

“Mmm-hmm,” he answers, not trusting himself to answer.

“Good luck , Dippingsauce!” Mabel cries out, hugging Dipper and nearly ruining his suit in the process. She whispers quietly in his ear, only meant for him: “I'm sure your soulmate will be as nice as… as… as rainbow sprinkles on caramel ice cream,” she says earnestly.

Dipper laughs in spite of himself. He whispers back, “Thanks, Mabes.”

“And I'm sure they'll know just how hard you work everyday, and they'll think you're perfect, too,” she adds, holding him even tighter.

That hits him in a place he doesn't even know could feel that way, and he finds his grip on Mabel getting tighter, too. “Thank you, Mabel,” he murmurs, and then he lets go, and their mother is fussing over his wrinkled dress shirt, and Mabel is being lifted in the air by their father. “ Good luck Dipper! ” Mabel yells, waving her new unicorn plushie around in the air, her eyes still mirroring Dipper’s own. Their mother quickly thanks everybody who attended the party, excuses themselves, and leads Dipper to the garage.

“Are you nervous at all, sweetie?” asks his mother, trying hard to be supportive. And Dipper appreciates it, but his mother isn't Mabel. “Are you excited? You should be excited, Dipper. You're about to meet your soulmate! Almost nobody meets their soulmate this early.”

“I know,” he says simply. “I guess I'm kind of looking forward to it.”

“And you'll finally know what those letters on your wrist mean,” she adds, correctly guessing that he'd find that more appealing than anything else.

“Yeah,” says Dipper, and when it's clear that he won't say anything beyond that, his mother sighs fondly and turns on the engine, switching the radio on as she pulls out of the driveway. He takes it as a signal for him to change the station, and he quickly finds the classical music station that he's been listening to for the past few weeks.

It takes about an hour to get from their upstate home in one of the more exclusive neighborhoods to the royal court of the Ciphers. Their estate is less a property and more a good-sized city - with the palace as something of a town hall, and living quarters for all the servants mimicking the form of a little town. Not every Cipher lives in the castle, so there are even huge housing complexes in site. Dipper has pored over maps of every detail, and he has committed the entire property to memory, an activity that at least helped him pass two whole afternoons. He remembers the greenhouses in one corner, the gardens in another, and most of all the gigantic library which he knows like the back of his hand, even though he has never been inside of it.

He hums when Chopin’s Waltz in E Minor comes on the radio. It's one of his favorite songs, and sometimes he regrets choosing to study violin for his first instrument when he hears it. He's only taken one summer violin class at the local conservatory, which consisted of fifteen sessions, and although he tells himself to be reasonable, he can't help but be disappointed at his progress. By everyone's standards, he has done really, extraordinarily well - he is one of the fastest learners, after all - but he himself feels it is not enough, like he should be able to play Paganini by now, and not be stuck at composers he doesn't even recognize. He wants to be good at violin so he can start on piano, and he wants to be good at piano because he wants to be - good .

Good enough.

Dipper is silent on the trip, but his mother thankfully joins him in silence, tapping her fingers on the steering wheel in time with the music. He thinks of Mabel and thinks how much he misses her even though it has barely been twenty minutes since they saw each other last, and wonders how having a soulmate would ever compare to how much he needs his twin. He knows that being separated from your soulmate, once you've met them, can become painful after too long, and he thinks that if this is how he feels when he's separated from Mabel, who isn't even his soulmate, he might become a nervous wreck once this distance is between him and his soulmate again.

“Penny for your thoughts?” asks his mother suddenly, noting his pensive expression. “You're looking very thoughtful today, sweetie. Even more than usual.”

Dipper almost blurts out that he's fine, that he's just staring off into space, but instead he asks, “Mom, what does it feel like when you have to go away from Dad?”

Her brow quirks up, but she seems glad that he's actually talking. “I don't know, honey,” she says. “It's kind of like… well, you know how it feels when you're scared or something? Like maybe when you're nervous to get onstage, or anxious because the horror movie's building up the tension? You know that weird, cold feeling you get in your chest?”

“Yes,” says Dipper, because he's feeling it right now. He hopes Mabel feels it too, or is at least aware of it.

“It's like that, but all over your body,” she says. “Like a clammy feeling that you get because you know something's wrong, like you forgot something important.”

“How do you feel now?” Dipper asks.

“Well, they say separation gets easier after being married a long time,” she says. “That once your souls are officially bonded, they don't feel as uneasy when they're far apart. It still feels a bit… wrong to be this far away from your dad, but we've learned to get used to it over the years.”

“Huh,” says Dipper. It kind of fits with the medical studies on soulmates that he's been reading in his spare time. He thinks that the Ciphers are being unnecessarily cruel for introducing someone to their soulmate at the age of seven, only to separate them directly thereafter. Except, of course, in some special cases, but Dipper isn't even going to think about that .

A few broken symphonies later, and they are pulling up in front of the gigantic golden gate the marks the beginning of the Cipher estate. “Here we are, Dipper,” says his mother, a bit unnecessarily. She turns off the ignition.

Ten guards stand before it, dressed in elegant black uniforms. They carry obvious weaponry, but Dipper’s heart gives a jolt when he realizes that they aren't ordinary guns, but the enchanted, magical weapons that the Cipher family is so famous for. He recognizes the sharp, curved shape of the saecula , remembering from all the books he has read on magic that these are among the deadliest weapons in history, and the favored arms of the Ciphers as if to emphasize their sadistic undertones. Dipper remembers, shuddering, how the saecula takes targets down: a single bullet, and the target’s internal organs would immediately rupture, including the special vein in every person that is responsible for their magical capabilities, while horrendously preserving the state of the vital organs. The victim would lie there, bleeding internally, their magical nerve cut off from use, sometimes even lasting an hour before they finally die. Dipper remembers regretting reading that particular account, even being shocked at that particular aspect of the family he was to marry into (because he also knows that is endgame), but the more he reads about Cipher, the less shocking the brutal details become.

Amongst the guard, there is a tall young man with shockingly white hair, dressed in the black, white, and gold colors of the Cipher family. He looks like an unpleasant man trying very hard to look pleasant, but failing spectacularly. He perks up slightly at the sight of their car, straightening himself up, his bulky limbs straining against his luxurious clothing.

“Madame Pines,” he says pompously, once Dipper and his mother walk up to him. He eyes Dipper critically, then appears to mentally approve of him,  addressing him as, “Master Pines.”

“Please, just call me-” his mother begins, but the tall man interrupts. “I am Gideon, and I have been assigned as your escort today,” he says, as if reciting from a book. His voice has a slight, suppressed Southern twang. “The Cipher estate is a very confusing estate, not to mention a dangerously magical one, so I would ask for both of you to keep close and not wander off, for we would all hate for either of you to get lost-”

“But I wouldn't get lost,” Dipper cuts in. He immediately regrets it, though, and claps his hands over his mouth.

“Pardon?” says Gideon, looking down at him (in all senses of the phrase). His mother places her hand on his shoulder, cautioning him.

Dipper decides the only way out of the hole is to dig deeper, and he reluctantly presses on. “I mean, um, I don't think I would get lost in the estate. I've spent a lot of time studying it through maps and books. I… I've, um, I’ve memorized the layout of the entire property.”

Gideon’s eyebrows hike up, threatening to disappear into his hairline. “Really,” he says. He appears to mentally size Dipper up, and when Dipper sees the momentary, almost imperceptible golden glint in his ice blue eyes, he wonders if the man is looking at him with magic.

Gideon halts his examination. “Alright then, Master Pines,” he says finally. “I would like you to lead us to the palace.”

“By myself?” Dipper suddenly feels very, very cold.

“Yes,” says Gideon matter-of-factly. “Of course, you may ask assistance from me, if you so require, but I would like to see for myself if you truly know the lay of the land.”

Dipper’s mother clutches his hand. He expects her to scold him and apologize to the strange man, but instead she gives him a reassuring squeeze and smiles kindly down at him. “You think you got this, sweetie?” she asks him.

“Yes,” he says, thinking of the lost afternoons. He nods, thinking of Mabel and how she would tell him not to back down if she were here. “I can do it.”

“Wonderful!” says Gideon, clapping his thick hands together. “Well, lead the way, Master Pines.”

They stand there, unmoving. Gideon looks at Dipper. “Well?”

“You haven't disabled the wards on the gate yet,” Dipper points out. “If someone who isn't a Cipher or a servant of the estate tries to cross, they get petrified.” He falters suddenly. “I mean, unless you've updated the magical security system here - that account I read about the defenses was written seven years ago, so it's not exactly the latest version.”

“No,” says Gideon. “You are exactly right, Master Pines.” His face breaks into the first genuine smile Dipper has seen on the man, although it still doesn't do much to offset his unpleasant aura. “I purposely didn't mention it, to see if you would notice. You did not disappoint. Allow me.”

Dipper's mother squeezes him tightly as Gideon waves his hands over the imposing door of the gates. A faint golden glimmer shines out, then fades away just as quickly. He steps back. “Well, I have disabled the wards,” says Gideon, smiling hugely.

“You haven't cast the Spell of Acceptance on us,” says Dipper, ducking his head shyly. “Even if the gate allows us in, the estate will reject us.”

“Right again,” says Gideon, his smile fading a bit, but his pleased expression does not falter. “I'm sure Lord Cipher will be delighted to meet such a learned young individual as yourself.”

Lord Cipher , thought Dipper, and he supposes that Gideon is referring to Eragon Cipher, the enigmatic head of the Cipher family. For a moment, he considers asking about his soulmate - if they know who it is, what they are like, if they know about Dipper or not. But then Gideon waves his hands over them, mutters Latin (not loud enough to hear, disappointingly, because Dipper is starting Latin, and he would have liked to show off a little more), steps back once again, and this time truly waves them through the gate.

“Master and Madame Pines,” he says, smirking. “With your leave.”

The guards thump their saeculas on the ground in acknowledgement, and it kind of scares Dipper, expecting them to go off. They don't, and the gate finally opens for them.

The first thought that Dipper has, when he finally walks into the estate he has read and thought about for so long, is that none of the books he has read do justice to the sheer, indescribable beauty of the grounds.

The gate leads out onto a terrace, with marble railings in front of them, and similar steps leading down on either side. A huge expanse of green lawn is encircled by a cobblestone path leading from the steps, but that is just the first thing that greets the eye. As Dipper eyes the scenery, he spots more and more details he recognizes from the books - the tall, distant tower of the library, barely visible, he only spots it because he knows it's supposed to be there; the path that leads to the servants’ quarters; the beautiful, curved glass dome of what he knows to be the training arena, the most recent addition to the estate. It is his second favorite edifice to read about, but mostly because of the architecture and the modern art that went into building it, choosing to skip reading about the gruesome arts that Cipher children practice in there as initiation.

“How do you like it, Master Pines?” Gideon asks, snapping Dipper out of his reverie. “I've seen many an outsider like yourself stand speechless before the estate.”

Outsider . The word sticks in the back of Dipper's throat and makes it hard to swallow. Not for long , he thinks grimly. “It's great,” he says flatly. “It's everything that I expected and more. The books don't really prepare you for this.”

“Your son is very intelligent, Madame,” says Gideon. Dipper wishes he had the nerve to roll his eyes. How many times has he heard that remark after he says something even remotely intellectual? He wasn't even really being smart, he had just spoken his thoughts.

“Thank you,” says his mother, beaming. “I never imagined I would ever be here, at the Cipher palace.”

“Few people do, Madame Pines,” Gideon says. “Precious few people do. Well, Master Pines, if you are ready, might you lead the way? There are more sights to see along the way, as you well know.”

“Sure,” Dipper replies, not trusting that anything else he would say wouldn't come out as a squeak. He turns right and heads down the stairs, and off they go.

It feels surreal, seeing the buildings and landmarks he had read about so many times. At one point, Dipper actually pinches himself surreptitiously, unsure if he is dreaming the whole thing after falling asleep with his books again. He passes by so many places he wishes he could visit - the gigantic art gallery, filled with busts and paintings and other records of Cipher history; the underground bunker, marked only by a small building guarding the steps leading down into the most fortified and secretive scientific and magical laboratory in the world; and they do pass by the training arena. He can see inside the glass as they walk past it - he sees young men and women inside, training. They are all like sunshine, with hair like spun gold and sun-kissed skin that practically glowed, and the few that Dipper can see up close are beautiful, frighteningly so. He stares at them, wondering if his soulmate looks like them, when suddenly a man in chains is dragged screaming into the arena by a group of guards. He is thrashing about, trying to get loose, and it seems as if the Ciphers inside the arena perk up when they see him.

A practice dummy, Dipper thinks. He has read about this. Ciphers use convicts who have a death sentence as training targets for their initiates. Death by Ciphers, he knows, is the worst possible sentence in the world. You would be dead a thousand times over before you actually died. Dipper recalls, shivering, that they don't always use convicts. He doesn't really want to know what this man is.

The man sees Dipper, fear mirrored in each other's eyes, and yells, “Get out, boy! Get out !” His crazed eyes bug out and he yells and struggles until the guards finally force him inside.

Dipper tries not to show how bothered he is. Gideon barely notices the spectacle, although he does seem to be eyeing Dipper critically. His mother grips his hand tightly, squeezing gently, and pulls him away from the arena. “Come along now, Dipper,” she says.

He sneaks a glance behind him once they walk away. Is it just his eyes, or do the glass panels of the arena look cloudy? He can no longer see inside. The moment the man was brought into the building, his voice was swallowed up by the soundproofing spells cast on the structure. Dipper wonders momentarily what torture method they will practice on the man. He knows most of their practices, having read of these things behind his parents’ back. He is terrified that after time, he will get desensitized to these gruesome occurrences. Maybe even by the end of this trip.

Get out, boy! Get out!

Outsider.

Not for long , Dipper thinks again. I'm in too deep.

After about fifteen minutes, they finally arrive in front of the grand palace. His mother, trying to lighten the mood, talks and talks and wonders out loud why she hasn't gotten tired after all that walking. Dipper knows - built-in stamina spells enchanting the paths in the estate that prevent anyone from getting weary - but does not answer.

“I am impressed, Master Pines,” Gideon says. “Never in all my time here have I met someone from outside who knew this place so well. Even some of our staff get lost here.”

“Oh, how long have you worked here?” Dipper's mother asks.

“About three hundred years,” Gideon shrugs. He looks at Dipper as he says it, looking away almost as quickly as he had done so, which makes the boy wonder at the almost imperceptible but meaningful glance at him. “Give or take a few decades or so.”

His mother laughs nervously but Dipper knows the pale man isn't kidding. That's another thing that sets the Ciphers apart from the rest of the world - their longevity. They do die, after a very, very long time, and they aren't invincible, but Ciphers are notoriously hard to kill. Sometimes, they enchant their more loyal servants and give them a lesser amount of their longevity. Dipper knows that once a Cipher marries their soulmate, their soulmate receives that same immortality through a ritualistic ceremony. Dipper also knows that sometimes, for very special cases, they would enchant the soulmate’s family as well, and Dipper's hoping his soulmate is someone high up, because he can't imagine life without Mabel, or his parents. Mostly Mabel.

The level of security in the palace is ostentatiously higher than anywhere else in the estate. Dipper counts thirty black-clad, saecula -wielding guards before he gives up and lets his eyes wander along the lines. They look like statues. They don't even blink, and it doesn't seem like they breathe, either. Dipper feels no life from them, instead feeling the oppressive aura of the wickedly glinting saeculas . It fills him with unease, so he looks away and stares at the gigantic castle.

The palace is huge, looking like it was carved out of a mountain. The walls are polished white stone, with white-gold embellishments, intricate archways and columns adding to the luxurious air of the edifice. The marble stairs leading to the front door look like they would be two stories in a building, forcing Dipper look up to even see a peek of the grand platinum doors. Dozens of towers rise up into the sky, the tallest ones disappearing into the clouds above. The arched windows sparkle, and he gapes as he realizes he can't see anything but stars behind the windows. This must be the special spell he has read about - a special, security enchantment for the privacy of the people inside. A small, infinitesimal representation of the universe slowly rotates behind the glass, revealing nothing about what is happening inside. He didn't know that the Cipher estate uses it as well, but he should have. His heart starts pounding, unreasonably and inexplicably, and he starts to wonder what else he doesn't know.

“The greatest building in the world,” Gideon says. There is pride in his voice, but also hard fact. There can be no doubt that the Cipher palace is the most impressive structure in the whole world. “Magically maintained, virtually invincible, and no structure could possibly be as compelling. But you would know that, wouldn't you, Master Dipper?”

“Of course,” Dipper says, something akin to reverence in his voice. “Especially now.”

Gideon stares at the castle, lost in thought. Then he seemingly snaps out of his reverie, shaking his head. “Come on then, Master Pines, Madame Pines,” he says, starting his ascent of the stairs. Dipper and his mother hurry to follow.

As the palace approaches, Dipper feels strangely calm. The nearer he gets, the better he feels. Maybe his soulmate is inside - maybe they can sense him, too. They stop in front of the grand platinum doors, and look at Gideon for direction. The tall man stands well away from the doors, which Dipper doesn't understand.

“It has been a pleasure meeting you, Master Pines, Madame Pines,” Gideon says, bowing low. “Giffany will accompany you inside. I am not permitted inside the castle.”

“You're not? But why?” Dipper asks, genuinely confused. He doesn't know anything about servants of any type being banned from the castle, aside from the regular fact of servants only congregating where they are assigned.

“Punishment,” says Gideon. He smiles sadly, and this time it works. The miserable smile on his face turns him into someone Dipper wishes he knew. The way Gideon looks at him once more afterwards strikes Dipper - it is as if the man is looking at him as an acquaintance, as someone he has met before. Dipper wonders uneasily if perhaps he might resemble someone Gideon had known before.

“Thank you, Gideon,” Dipper’s mother says, missing his expression, and the large man turns to go, but before he can leave, Dipper reaches out and clutches at his dress shirt. “Wait!”

Gideon is surprised, freezing in his steps. “What is it, Master Pines?” he asks.

Dipper is shocked by his own audacity, but once again, he digs his hole deeper. “I, um, I wanted to ask earlier, but I couldn't… but, um, do you know who my soulmate is?” he asks, breaking off in his nervousness.

The pale man softens. “No, Master Pines, I'm afraid I don't,” he says. “As of yet, nobody knows who your soulmate is. All of that will be revealed shortly, once you are in the audience of Lord Cipher.”

“O-oh,” Dipper says. He is disappointed not to know, but he simultaneously feels excited by the fact that he will learn who his soulmate is at the same time his soulmate does. He wonders if he will see them on sight and recognize them; if he will recognize them before anyone declares them to be soulmates. “Thank you,” he says, wondering how often Gideon hears those words.

“You're welcome,” Gideon replies. “Godspeed, Master Pines. I wish you well. We will meet again - of that, I am certain.” This time, he truly does leave, and Dipper wonders what he will do, where he will go. He supposes he would meet the man again - when, not if, Dipper would return to the estate.

“He is certainly a character,” says his mother, once he is gone. She smiles down at him, and he feels emboldened by the fact that she looks even more nervous than he feels. “Honey, are you alright? Nervous?” she asks him.

Dipper shakes his head, then nods. “I guess,” he says finally.

“I'm worried that maybe, ah…” she trails off, frowning. “Maybe you saw a little too much today, sweetie.”

Of course his mother is worried about him. He can bet securely that she's asking him also partly because she's scared witless by the things they have seen. Dipper, while shaken, isn't as affected - he's read about all of it. He also knows his mother is worried that he is affected, and she doesn't know how to console him if he is. That job falls to Mabel and always has, and he knows their parents sometimes - no, always - feel bad that they can't communicate with either of them as well as they do with each other.

“I'm fine, Mom,” he says. “I'm not scared at all.”

This makes her sad. “Alright, sweetie, whatever you say,” she says. “Gideon said something about someone picking us up, right? I can't remember the name he said, Tiffany, or Brittany, or…”

“Giffany!” A high-pitched voice interrupts them, and they turn around to see the gilded front doors opening. Behind them, a teenage girl with hot pink hair and a ridiculous outfit in the Cipher colors stands looking at them, a wide smile on her pretty face. She's wearing some sort of school uniform - a design Dipper recognizes from those anime shows Mabel enjoys watching so much. He watches her, wondering why she seems… different.

He is answered when her form flickers, some parts dissolving into pixels like a glitchy interface. He yelps in surprise, clutching at his mother's sleeve, and the girl laughs delightedly. “Don't be scared! My name's Giffany,” she says, holding out a hand for Dipper to shake. When he just looks at her hand, she chuckles. “Don't worry, dumb-dumb, I'm corporeal,” she says. “I just flicker in and out of this plane sometimes, but I'm just as real as you.”

“O-oh,” Dipper says, sheepishly. “I'm sorry.” He takes her hand and shakes, surprised to feel warmth, and a hint of static. His mother shakes her hand, too, clearly bemused by all the things she has seen today.

“Dipper Pines, am I correct?” she says, and without waiting for confirmation presses on, “Of course I'm correct! Happy birthday, Master Pines! This must have been a really amazing day for you so far!”

“Very,” Dipper says. “Uh, if you don't mind my asking… what are you?”

“Pardon?” Giffany tilts her head to one side.

“Sorry, I - I just wanted to know, are you a familiar? Or a human under enchantments?” he asks, twisting the hem of his dress shirt in his hands.

“Oh, you silly boy,” she says, giggling. “I'm a sentient AI. I take care of all the technical stuff that happens in the estate. I don't always have a physical form, because I usually inhabit the main supercomputer in the lab, but sometimes I like to leave and help around a bit here in the castle. I can actually split my consciousness and leave most of my coding in the lab to keep it all running, so I can pretty much do what I want.”

Awesome ,” breathes Dipper, and Giffany flickers in delight. Only Ciphers would think of enchanting computer programs. He's never read of anything like this, considering that people usually consider technology and magic as separate fields, and he's amazed by the ingenuity that went into creating her. “Can you inhabit anything else, apart from computers?”

“Of course!” she says. She turns to his mother. “Madam, do you have a smartphone with you?”

Dipper's mother startles. “Wh-why, yes, yes I do.” She rummages in her purse, then pulls out a sleek black model.

“Right,” says Giffany brightly, and suddenly there is a flash, and her whole body bursts into pixels. Dipper jumps back, yelping, and so does his mother. For a moment, they stand there, until the sound of giggling starts coming from the phone in his mother's hand.

“Hi!” Giffany waves from the screen. Behind her is the regular home screen, and it looks as if she is trapped inside the phone. “I can inhabit pretty much anything electrical,” she says. She eventually fades away from the screen, and with another flash, appears in front of them again. “Of course, I can only show up if there's a screen. Otherwise, I just take over the wiring. Oh, and Madame Pines,” she says, turning to Dipper's mother. “Your phone was crawling with viruses. Don't click those ads on the internet that say you've won the lottery or something like that.”

Dipper's mother reddens. He looks up at her, frowning. “It was one time,” she defends herself.

“You also shouldn't download too many recipe files, your phone isn't able to handle too much load on the memory,” Giffany adds. “Don't worry, I got rid of the viruses. I also installed the best anti-virus program in the world: me! I left some of my coding in there, so you should be a-okay.”

“That is so cool,” Dipper gushes. “Mom, we should bring the laptops here next time. We really need to update their operating systems.”

“I can do anything related to coding,” Giffany brags. She looks around, then leans in closer to Dipper to whisper, “even pirate movies online.”

Dipper laughs out loud at that, and his mother, after staring at him in surprise, joins him. Giffany giggles, which makes her flicker. “Oh, gosh, I've kept you all here for so long,” she says suddenly, stopping. “Lord Cipher awaits all of you, and we shouldn't keep him waiting.”

The laughter drains away, and once again Dipper is taken hold of by unease, but this time, it's a good kind of anticipation. This is it. This is the moment he has been working towards since he could form a coherent thought. “We should go then,” Dipper's mother says.

“Right,” says Giffany. “Let me just disable the security wards for you, and you can step right in. I handle most of the security spells in the castle; Gideon handles the ones for beyond.”

So that's why Gideon is the one to greet them when they arrived. Dipper wonders if it's part of his “punishment.” Giffany snaps her fingers, flickering, then smiles. “Okay! You can come in now!”

Dipper gladly does so, fighting to keep from running into the place. He expects a grand welcoming hall, with plush carpets and diamond chandeliers, but he is surprised when he sees a dark, circular room, with stone walls, ceilings, and floors. The only light comes from a torch hovering near the center of the low ceiling, shimmering bright white flame that somehow doesn't fully light up the room.

“What the-” he says, confused. He didn't know what to expect before he came here, because he hasn't been able to find any references on the insides of the Cipher palace. Regardless, he had expected it to be a vision of grandeur, with luxurious decorations. The outside has only contributed to that image. He stands there, waiting for someone to explain.

“Not what you were expecting, huh?” Giffany pipes up, voicing his exact thoughts. She giggles. “Look again.”

Dipper does, still bewildered, and almost jumps out of his skin when he sees that several doors have appeared, surrounding them. He also gets uneasy when he realizes the front doors have disappeared, replaced by white, columned doors. As with the windows, nothing could be seen behind the gaping entrances but a small revolving galaxy. Each door has a different hue, and Dipper stares in wonder as a silent, beautiful supernova begins to explode behind one of them.

“Welcome to the Hall of Doors!” Giffany says brightly. “It was named that a very long time ago, hence the stupid and very redundant title. In the Cipher palace, which is too ridiculously huge to navigate comfortably, we use these doors to teleport to the wing or hall we want to go. There are lots of these doors all over the building, so you can go anywhere from anywhere. Think of it like a train station; it might be that none of these doors lead directly to your stop, so you may have to take a few before you actually arrive.” Like Gideon, she recites this all as if she had memorized it from a book.

“Where does that one lead?” Dipper asks, pointing to the door with the ongoing supernova.

“Oh, that leads to the music wing,” Giffany says, shrugging. “Piano room, violin room, flute room, you get it. They had to construct a room for each instrument because all the Ciphers can play, most of the time more than one instrument. They didn't want violin to overlap with the guitar in one room, or piano with whatever, so they separated the rooms according to one instrument.”

“There's a violin room?” Dipper asks, excited at the prospect of being able to show off a bit of his skills.

“There's a room for every instrument,” Giffany clarifies. “But when it goes beyond the regular, well-known instruments, we just sort them according to origin. Like we have a room for Indian instruments, and one for Japanese instruments.”

“Awesome,” Dipper breathes out. He's itching to explore the music wing, but maybe he would be allowed to do that later. “Which one are we going through?”

“That one,” Giffany says, pointing to an especially ornate door. The galaxy behind it is eerily quiet, just black with a few stars swirling around. “That leads directly to outside the Hall of Mystery.”

Dipper sucks in a breath. He hasn't been able to find many references about the insides of the Cipher palace, due to security being too tight, but there is a plethora of lore on the Hall of Mystery. There isn't a lot on its structure or layout per se, but a lot of legends circle it. The Hall of Mystery is where all Ciphers have their coming of age ceremonies. They also hold Cipher assemblies there, probably meetings about establishing their dominance over the world forever or something ridiculous like that.

The Hall of Mystery is also the place where every Cipher meets their soulmate.

“Let's go!” says Giffany, skipping over to the door. “The path to the Hall of Mystery isn't usually so straightforward, but it's always made easier when a Cipher soulmate is to be presented. All you have to do is step in. Should I go first, or do you want to - ”

“I'll go!” says Dipper, stumbling forward. He catches himself just in time before he trips. “I'll go. You just step right in, right?” He can do that much without messing it up. Or maybe not, considering how he has botched up just stepping forward.

“Yeah,” says Giffany. “I'll actually be waiting for you on the other side anyways, because I can't use these doors. They mess up my coding. I have to go through there,” she says, pointing to a little USB port beside the door. There is one beside each door. “They have these for all the doors. They had to build them in specially for me. It's still the same kind of teleportation magic as the doors, but on a plane I can interact with.”

“Why aren't there teleportation doors in the estate?” Dipper asks. He's never read about anything like that on any part of the estate.

“There are,” Giffany explains. “Some are even connected to the castle. But they're only one-way. You can only enter them through doors in the castle, but you can't access the castle through them. It's for security purposes. The ones in the grounds are recent additions, unlike the ones in the castle which were built into it, so there are no mentions of them in older maps of the estate.”

“Oh,” says Dipper. That makes sense.

“I'll be waiting on the other side,” Giffany says, saluting him and his mother. She touches her finger to the USB port, and with a flash, disappears.

Dipper's mother grips his hand. “Sweetie, are you sure you're fine?” she asks him. Which means she isn't fine. “You can tell me if anything is too much for you.”

“Mom, I'm fine,” he insists. He squeezes her hand. “Are you fine?”

She seems startled by his concern, but it makes her smile. “As long as you're okay, sweetie,” she says, and she leaves it at that. “Should we step in together?”

He would much rather try and step in by himself, but he allows it for the sake of his mother. “Sure.”

They grip each other's hand tightly, and with a deep breath, take one step forward.

Dipper expects to feel a sucking sensation, or to feel constricted. He expects to be pulled forward and then magically appear on the other side. He shuts his eyes tightly, waiting - but nothing happens.

After a few moments, he cautiously opens his eyes. They are standing in a void, black space surrounding them, and millions of stars revolve around them. He stands there, awed, then looks down at his feet. They seem to be standing on nothing but empty space, but when he stomps his feet gently, it feels solid.

He looks up eagerly at his mother, whose eyes are still screwed shut. “Mom, open your eyes,” he whispers, tugging at her hand.

She slowly does so, and the same awestruck expression dawns on her face. She steps carefully around her like he just did, and almost simultaneously they turn around to check the door behind them. The door they just stepped through is still there, seemingly hovering in the empty space, the dim room they just came from still visible through the frame.

“Magical,” she breathes out, then turns down to look at Dipper. “Isn't this amazing, sweetie?”

He nods emphatically, then fleetingly thinks about Mabel. How would she react if she was the one here? She'd probably ooh and aah over every little thing. Dipper thinks that she and Giffany would probably get along great -

He realizes with a start that this is the first time he's really thought about his twin since he's entered the estate. He also notices that the cold, clammy feeling he'd had since leaving their home is mostly, if not completely gone. He isn't sure how to feel about it, how little he seems to need Mabel right now, but it's hard to feel sad when he's so oddly at ease. He shakes his head to clear his thoughts, then determinedly tugs at his mother's hand to move forward. He's way too close to have doubts now.

In front of them is a similar door, floating in space as well, and through it they can somewhat make out a dark outline of a girl, surrounded by light. They hear Giffany call out for them, and after a deep breath, they step forward to follow.

Making it to the other side is as easy as it had been stepping in, and soon Dipper find himself standing before the grandest, largest, most imposing set of doors he could have ever imagined. Carved out of pure black stone, it was covered in carvings of elaborate scenes from Cipher history illuminated by the multi-colored torches hovering around it. Dipper tries not to look to closely at some of the more graphic images, averting his eyes from a gruesome scene of a Cipher ripping a screaming man apart, clearly covered in entrails. Instead, he looks to Giffany, who is standing near the base of the door.

“This is the entrance to the Hall of Mystery,” Giffany says, her voice quiet. “Lord Cipher and the unbonded Ciphers are inside, waiting.”

“Unbonded?” Dipper questions. He hasn't come across that term.

“Oh,” says Giffany. “Right. Of course you wouldn't know. See, all Ciphers are born with a blank wrist. They don't get their Mark until later.”

“They don't?” A few of Dipper's questions get answered. He has wondered before how the Ciphers couldn't possibly know who their soulmate is, considering all their knowledge and resources. The fact that their wrists are born blank explains a lot.

“They don't,” confirms Giffany. “Except for a very rare occurrence in which a Cipher’s soulmate is another Cipher. In that case, whoever is born later gets a code printed on their wrist, and as soon as they turn seven, they also have to be presented in the Hall of Mystery.”

“That's one more thing I don't understand,” says Dipper. “Why do we have to be presented in the Hall of Mystery?”

“It's somewhat of a rite of passage for all Ciphers, meeting their soulmates,” Giffany explains. She lifts up her feet and sits cross-legged, hovering in the air. “You, for example, will be presented in the Hall of Mystery, and your Mark will be seen by all. The unbonded Ciphers must try and solve your code, see if it spells out their name. If they can correctly solve your Mark and confirm that it is their name, then as a sort of verification, your name will appear on their wrist. If they get it wrong, well, nothing really happens. That's why every Cipher soulmate is born with a puzzle as their Mark, and why all of you are born after your Cipher counterpart. This is all born of very old, very powerful magic, the kind of magic with which the rules of the universe are written. It’s the kind of magic no one fully understands or should tamper with,” she says, her last words sounding a bit ominous.

“Oh,” says Dipper, his voice small and his brow furrowed. He thinks for a moment, then cautiously asks, “Why aren't there any records of this? I've never read of that particular tradition. Or is it recent?”

“It's the oldest Cipher tradition,” Giffany says, shaking her head. “And one of their best kept secrets. I don't quite get the reasoning behind it, as they haven't seen fit to tell me, but I think one of the reasons is that you might try to solve it yourself, thus rendering the whole ceremony pointless. This way, even if someone did try to solve it, they wouldn't know what they're looking for, so it'd be a lot harder. Of course, it wouldn't actually be possible - there's a powerful magic written into your Mark that prevents anyone but a Cipher from fully understanding the code. If anyone else tried, they'd keep losing their train of thought, hampered by the effects of the magic.”

Dipper nods. This makes sense. It also explains why he couldn't solve the puzzle himself, why he gave up sooner than was characteristic of him. His mother pats his shoulder, then kneels down to his level and looks him in the eye. “Sweetie, are you ready?” she asks him, her voice careful.

“I'm sorry to say you can't accompany him inside, Madame Pines,” Giffany says regretfully. “Neither can I. This is a step he must take alone.”

His mother looks up at the AI. “But… but, Dipper, he’s…” she begins, faltering.

“I'll be fine, Mom,” he says, placing his hands over hers. “This is what I've been preparing for, right?”

She looks at him, for quite some time, then presses her lips to his forehead. “You always forget that you're still a child, Dipper,” she sighs, smiling sadly. “I'm proud of you, no matter what, okay? Good luck out there.”

“Thanks, Mom,” Dipper says, then hugs her. She returns his embrace, and for a moment, the only sound is quiet static as Giffany flickers. Then his mother lets go, leans back and fixes his outfit one last time, and finally stands up.

“I'll be waiting here with your mother,” Giffany says. “Once you enter, all you have to do is walk straight. You'll enter a large, round room, and you have to walk to the middle. There will be a chair, and a magical camera attached to it. Once you're given the go signal, you have to put your Mark under the camera so that it can be shown on the screens around. That's all you'll have to do. The unbonded Ciphers will take it from there.” She puts down her feet, then crouches in front of him. “You're an extraordinary boy, Dipper Pines,” she says softly. “I have no doubt your soulmate, whoever they are, will be amazing as well.”

Dipper can only manage a nod, not trusting himself to speak. “And another thing,” Giffany adds, standing up. “You'll be in the audience of Lord Eragon Cipher himself.”

“W-what?” Dipper starts. He has been expecting to encounter the Cipher patriarch at some point but hasn't thought it would be this soon.

“Traditionally, the Cipher lord officiates the soulmate bonding ceremony, but Lord Eragon is a busy man, so his higher officials usually take over. Today, however, Lord Eragon appears to have decided to fulfill this duty. I probably don't have to tell you this, but have grace and manners before him. He's a gracious master, but politeness is never undue.”

“Right,” Dipper mumbles out. Anticipation is building up in his body, doubling his anxiety. This is it. This is genuinely the moment. He is about to meet his soulmate. He watches tensely as Giffany waves the gigantic doors open, then forces his feet to walk forward into the path behind.

He enters a dark hall, illuminated by similar, multi-colored torches. His heart starts beating quicker and then jumps into overdrive when he hears the doors shut quietly behind him. He forces himself not to look back, then starts breathing in and out, clenching and unclenching his hands. When he feels calm enough, he exhales one last time and starts stepping forward.

He sees a faint light ahead of him, getting bigger and bigger the closer he gets to it. His head hurts with confusion, not knowing how to feel - he drowns it out with the sound of his footsteps, echoing one after the other in the brightening chamber.

When he finally steps into the Hall of Mystery, it's like he's watching everything go in slow motion. He feels he can hear and count each beat of his heart, measure and count the seconds it takes for him to exhale. The room is large, and round, with a domed ceiling. A large triangle with an eye rests in the middle of the ceiling, the well-known seal of the Cipher family, surrounded by a circle of other symbols. Dipper knows about the triangle with the eye, but he's never seen the round pattern of symbols around it. He wishes very briefly that he could study it, but his eyes already drift down and start observing the gigantic room around him.

The room is similar to a court room, with raised seats surrounding him, separating him from the others by a tall barrier. Steps from where he is standing lead up to the first of many rows of seats, all occupied by immaculate, golden-haired children. In the center, where a judge's stand would be, is an ostentatious balcony made of platinum, perched on an equally high foundation, and seated behind it is a man with ink-black hair. His face is ageless - he could be twenty or fifty. Despite the discrepancy between his hair and that of the other Ciphers, his eyes’ golden gleam flashes the brightest. Dipper knows he is looking at Eragon Cipher, even though he has never seen a single picture if the man, and it's all he can do not to fall to his knees, reverent in his awe for the man.

“Dipper Pines,” says Eragon. His deep, melodious voice reverberates around the wide room, and it's as if multiple people are speaking at once. The Cipher children are silent, all blonde and beautiful, all critically staring at Dipper. He stares at his feet, afraid to meet any of their eyes. He doesn't think he could bear seeing disappointed expressions in their faces, knowing one of them is his soulmate. “Welcome.”

“M-m-m-my lord,” Dipper stammers out, unable to form a coherent thought. Panic suddenly seizes him, and it takes a herculean effort not to lose it and start crying.

Eragon seems slightly sympathetic, smiling kindly down at Dipper. He is wearing golden robes, and Dipper thinks they are the most beautiful things he has ever seen. He realizes with a start that the robe is alive - the golden embroidery on the fabric is constantly shifting and changing, snaking around Eragon’s limbs like some sort of metallic serpent. The Cipher patriarch entwines his hands together before continuing. “Today you will be a part of history, dear child. No one who has ever been bonded to a Cipher failed to become great in life. Regardless of who your Mark binds you to, we all expect great things from you.”

Dipper miraculously manages to nod, almost forgetting to breathe. His mind and heart are in hyperspeed - a million thoughts racing a minute in his head. He thinks frantically of Mabel, her name looping in his head, trying to regain some semblance of calm. He can't back down or lose it now. Not now.

Eragon seems to notice his distress. “Keep calm, child,” he says, chuckling kindly. “You are to be bonded with a Cipher . You may not know it yet, but you are destined for great things, some to come soon - sooner than you might expect.” Here, he pauses to look at Dipper knowingly, and once again Dipper wonders if he resembles some person in the past. He hopes he doesn't. It's awful enough trying to live up to the Cipher (his future) name, let alone the legacy of some faceless person the Cipher patriarch seemed to hold in high regard.

Eragon resumes speaking. “Destined for greatness, indeed. Your Mark has made sure of that. Now, come, sit at the chair, and place your wrist under the lens. We have other guests to welcome today.”

It is as if he is pulled forward by some great, unknown force, forcing his feet to shuffle forward one by one. He reaches the chair, which is a nondescript, wooden chair, a small camera hovering beside it. Dipper sits down, takes a deep breath, and shakily moves his Mark under the lens of the camera, presenting it for scrutiny by all.

XKOPNGTKRZSQE

It feels strange and oddly intrusive to have this many people looking at something he considers deeply personal - the moment his Mark flashes on the numerous screens around the room, every golden pair of irises lifts up to study them, quiet and emotionless, but at the same time burning with curiosity. Nobody makes a sound as hundreds of young minds work furiously to decode Dipper's Mark, seeing if it spells out their name or not -

“It's my name.”

Dipper's head snaps up, searching for the source of the voice. It is decidedly male - even as hundreds of golden heads whip back and forth searching for who has spoken out, no other sound is made until a young boy stands up from the seats.

Dipper realizes with a start that this boy had been sitting almost directly behind Eragon, if a little to the right. He had occupied a lesser version of the Cipher lord’s ornate golden seat, almost as if he was  -

“Prince Cipher,” Eragon says softly, his eyes twinkling. “Are you certain? Barely any time has elapsed since we showed the boy's Mark.”

“I am certain, Father,” the boy insists, and Dipper's eyes widen, his heart jumping into overdrive. Father ? This boy is the son of the Cipher patriarch, heir to the Cipher dynasty? The boy stands coolly, and even if he is merely Eragon’s son, or perhaps because he is Eragon’s son, his voice rings with the same truth and authority as his father.

“Well,” Eragon says, his golden eyes crinkling at the corners. “Enlighten us, then.”

Prince Cipher steps forward to stand directly beside his father in the podium. For a moment, he locks eyes with Dipper, who has been watching everything from down below.

Golden irises meet chocolate ones, and for a moment, all Dipper can see is the boy's face - honey skin, like sunshine trapped in amber; thin, dark lips curved in a slight, knowing smile; features that look as if they are carved by Michaelangelo himself, every part of his face perfect, and more than that, purposeful - as if every part of him is made to order, with the goal of making an angelic face in mind. The moment is brief, barely there, and Dipper stares down at the floor, his eyes burning. Is that boy his soulmate? Is this what you're supposed to feel when you meet your soulmate for the first time? He can't bring himself to look up, instead listens intently as Prince Cipher begins.

“That is my name,” the boy starts, brushing his cornsilk hair from his eyes. “William Cipher. Since I knew what I was looking for, it was easy.”

His voice sounds magically magnified, and as he waves his hand, the image of Dipper's Mark is brought into clearer focus on the numerous screens.

“It's a very simple code,” he continues, sounding almost… miffed? His name is William , Dipper thinks, and he almost laughs at how stereotypically aristocratic it sounds. “The first letter is X , which is one letter forward from W . The second letter is K , which is two letters from I . The letter’s place in the sequence determines how many letters forward you have to change it to. Following that rather... simplistic pattern, his code spells out my name, William Cipher.”

Dipper's face burns hotter. He can't believe how irrationally embarrassed he feels. It's hardly his fault that his Mark is apparently so easy to solve. The way William describes it only adds fuel to the fire, as if it's almost insulting to him how easy the puzzle had been.

Eragon watches everything with the same amused twinkle in his golden eyes. “There is only one way to find out for sure then, Prince Cipher,” he says. “Go down and take Dipper Pines’ hand and see if fate has indeed Marked the two of you for each other.”

William bows slightly in front of his father, then turns once again to meet Dipper's eyes. Is it just Dipper, or are the prince's eyes actually glowing? He slowly makes his way down the steps leading to the enclosure, each movement careful and dignified. Like Dipper, none of the other children can look away from the Cipher heir - his every move is magnetic.

When William reaches Dipper's chair, the other boy is forced to look up to meet the golden irises. He rises slowly as William offers his hand, and he carefully takes it, his breath hitching when the prince laces their fingers together.

“Your Highness,” Dipper says, because he isn't sure what to say.

“Please,” the prince murmurs, “call me Bill. ” And if that isn't romantic.

He looks down at their linked hands. Dipper's eyes are pulled down when he feels a burning sensation in his fingers, as if they had been dipped into molten gold.

William's - no , Bill’s wrist glows from within, illuminating the letters that are tracing themselves on his skin.

Bill's wrist glows from within.

In a clean, neat, and simple writing, the name Dipper Pines appears on the Cipher heir’s wrist, and all of a sudden Dipper feels like his world has turned right side up.

Bill breathes out slowly as the burning sensation fades, and the room gives way to polite applause. Dipper barely hears Eragon's words of congratulations over the thundering of his brain, unable to compute.

Even so, he manages to catch what Bill says, quietly, like a secret. The first, Dipper thinks, of their many secrets.

“I hoped it would be me.”

"I hoped it would be me"

Chapter Text

12, 16

 

The summer before Dipper and Mabel turn thirteen, their parents send them to some secluded town they've never heard of in Oregon. They're to stay with two kooky old men they've never met in their life and are probably only barely related to. Not to mention they would be living in an honest-to-goodness tourist trap, a shady management that drew people in with genuine fake attractions. Needless to say, Dipper is not overly thrilled about this, and he's the only one hiding frowns when his parents see the two of them off on the long bus ride.

A big contributor to his lackluster enthusiasm is the glaring transparency of the whole thing - it's so obviously a ruse orchestrated by his parents that he wonders they even bothered pretending. Dipper can and will readily admit he's become a little obsessive with his studies ( A little , Mabel scoffs), but he doesn't think it necessitates being sent off to the middle of nowhere (without a single book, or even his violin for Pete's sake).

It turns out to be the most insane summer of his life.

Within two minutes of meeting their “Grunkle” Stan and “Grunkle” Ford, Dipper's predictions are smashed into pieces. Stanley Pines definitely lives up to the kooky old man persona, if a bit darker than the standard due to his conman ways. He is crazy enough for two people, which is fine, because his twin brother (Dipper almost couldn't believe it when he first found out that they were twins), Stan ford Pines is anything but crazy.

Well, crazy in the physical, behavioral way. In a psychological sense… Dipper doesn't really understand the gleam he sees in the quieter man's eyes, but they suggest a little bit of mania too. Staring into those onyx pools, Dipper sees, but does not recognize, ego, ambition, and terrifying intellect - and a hint of tension between him and his brother, which Dipper picks up on but cannot comprehend.

The Mystery Shack, in all its tourist trap glory, proves to be something of a haven for the two of them, especially Dipper, who finds heaven in the pages of three journals he finds not a day after they arrive. These three journals, bound in aged, musty red leather and featuring a six-fingered hand on the covers, promise Dipper a whole summer of supernatural enlightenment. The six-fingered hand confuses him for a bit, until he unwittingly notices that his Grunkle Ford’s grip seemed a little… off. The man easily consents to lending them to Dipper, who jumps at the promise of unique, singular information. The worn pages of the journals regale him with the knowledge they contain, transforming the forest surrounding the Shack into an endless wonderland for the twins.

At first, they spend their days practically living in the woods, whether serving as a guide to the hapless tourists Stan would manage to lure in, or simply exploring. Dipper and Mabel go everywhere together, armed with a detailed guide to the magical creatures in the woods, courtesy of the journals. Dipper doesn't understand why Stan would bother dreaming up fake attractions when the real deal is right in the woods, but when a wyvern almost carries Mabel off at one point, he starts writing ideas for safer oddities that won't potentially kill anyone. (Mabel got off easy, with just a few scratches from being dropped unceremoniously by the shrieking creature.) After the incident, Dipper says she doesn't have to come with him all the time, and chooses to ignore the relief in her eyes and how easy it had been to convince her.

In contrast, Stan and Ford prefer to spend their time apart whenever possible, being as discreet about it as they can. Mabel, normally so sensitive to the conflict of others, seems to actively block this out, preferring to enjoy her now free time with her new found friends and with the sudden abundance of boys in the town. Gravity Falls isn't a big town, but it's more than they have ever known, coming from a closed-off, elitist neighborhood. Dipper, content to be a wallflower and pore over books every night, takes the role of the silent peacemaker, and he tries to bridge Stan and Ford whenever he can.

There are so many things to deal with that for the first time in almost six years, the dull throb in his chest is forgotten. He is forgotten, but apparently it is all too good to last.

Dipper is sharply reminded of him when he meets Wendy Corduroy. She is tall, beautiful, amazing - full of little imperfections that make her all the better. He knows his wrist doesn't bear her name nor does hers bear his, but sometimes he daydreams about what it might be like if they had. What would it be like, being born and seeing the name Wendy Corduroy etched onto his wrist, the rustic, rugged name suggesting a fresh future rather than a life sentence? What would it have felt like to see the name Dipper Pines on her wrist as he meets her, in what would probably become one of the greatest chance encounters? What would it be like to see your soulmate everyday, instead of one lousy time in your one lousy life, a meeting that couldn't even be considered a real meeting because you had to be ushered out before you could even have a decent conversation -

Okay, so Dipper feels a bit strongly about the separation. He can't help it. It's biologically impossible not to miss your soulmate when you're apart from them (this is what he tells himself at night, trying to ease and justify the ache he can't control). But for Pete's sake, not hearing from the Ciphers in almost six years? Dipper drowns away images of blonde hair and golden eyes by confronting phoenixes and sirens and everything he can find in the woods, his reckless behavior drawing hearty approval from Stan and quiet contemplation from Ford. Mabel - Mabel is always just “over there,” talking to Robbie or Gabe or flipping Mermando. Dipper doesn't want to admit it, but he resents her, because she went and found new friends, and always expects Dipper to be okay with going off alone. He is, but it is the principle that matters to him. Regardless of who your friends are, you don't just leave your brother. He looks at Stan and Ford and wonders if this is what happened to them as well, morose when he considers the possibility of him and Mabel ending up like them.

When he gets fed up with Stan and Ford's silences and tired of leading tours on his own because Mabel is off somewhere, doing something else with someone else, he goes out to the backyard at night and practices magic. When it comes to theory, he is practically flawless - ever since he left the Cipher estate, it had left him burning with curiosity and eagerness to learn more about spellcraft. He knows every recorded text about magic that he could get his hands on, and has spent practically the last five years reading them nonstop. He could do little things - light a candle, lift something light with telekinesis, and summon a soft breeze. His skills have expanded exponentially under Ford, who seemed eager to impart all his expertise on a willing apprentice. On the nights that Dipper gets sick of being a pacifist and of being left behind, gets sick of the dull throb in his chest, he lets loose with his spells. He takes a quiet satisfaction in knowing that very few twelve-year-olds could do what he does, watching as he speeds up time for a small plant, letting it shrink into a seed and then grow into a sapling in seconds. It's highly forbidden magic, the art of time manipulation, but Ford doesn't seem to sweat the little stuff, and Dipper would be lying if he were to say he cared as well.

One night, near the end of summer, Dipper sits in the woods, levitating a few gnomes for fun. The little guys don't mind it, especially since all the creatures in the woods know and respect Dipper, like he is some sort of monster whisperer or messed up Snow White. The gnomes laugh at each other when Dipper spins them gently around, and in the quiet peace, he is able to soothe the ache inside of him and breathe deeply.

He hears footsteps behind him, fast and heavy, and carefully he rises to his feet, uttering a brief spell and erecting an invisible barrier around him. He gently sets the gnomes down, whispering for them to leave, and as they scurry away, he faces the source of the sound. When he sees it is Mabel, he relaxes, but does not disable his barrier, wary due to not knowing what it is that Mabel’s running from.

“Dipper!” she shouts when she sees him, breathless. Her face is streaked with tears and her fluffy hair is even messier than usual, flying all over the place. “Come quick! Hurry!”

“What is it?” Dipper asks, having half a mind to erect a shield around Mabel as well.

“It's Grunkle Ford!” she yells, stomping her feet in utter frustration and trying in vain to brush her hair away. “He was in the basement, a-a-and Grunkle Stan, and -”

“We don't have a basement,” says Dipper, his mind getting agitated at seeing how distressed his twin is.

It doesn't matter !” she screams, and she reaches out for his arm (he destroys his barrier just in the nick of time, narrowly avoiding mangling her arm had she made contact with it), and drags him through the woods and back to the house. “Hurry! We have to help them!”

Dipper expects fire and smoke when he reaches the Mystery Shack, but the scene is oddly calm. “Where's Soos?” he asks, as Mabel wrenches the door open.

“Not here,” she says, shaking her head wildly. When they get inside, she pulls him to a metal door he's never seen before and heads down flights of stairs, nearly tripping and falling in the process. He hears a muffled noise, somewhat like a generator, getting louder and louder as they approach the bottom.

When they do reach it, the scene he encounters is pure, utter chaos .

The moment they enter the door at the foot of the stairs, he is blinded by a sharp glare of bright blue light. He stops in his tracks, hissing, trying to shield his eyes from the light, until Mabel pulls his arm forward again, rushing through the deafening sounds of something huge, something mechanical, something going very, very, wrong .

“Mabel!” Dipper shouts, in vain, as his twin continues to pull him towards the source of the light. His eyes have adjusted somewhat to the blinding light, and he spots the source. In the middle of the room is a huge, metal machine shaped like a ring, light pouring out of it. As they approach it, Dipper feels a pull, as if the center of gravity has somehow shifted to the depths of the machine, and that's when he knows, his blood running cold - this is a portal .

“Mabel, stop!” he screams, digging his feet into the concrete floor in an attempt to halt his sister in her tracks. It works - they fall to the ground, the temporary imbalance causing Dipper to panic as the pull becomes stronger.

“Kids?” he hears someone yell, and he lifts his head up, straining to see who it is. Suddenly, he's pulled up by his arm, and his hold on his sister tightens as he rises uneasily to his feet.

“Dipper!” the person yells, and it's Grunkle Stan, glasses askew and fez nowhere to be found. “Get out of here! I told your sister - get down!

He tackles the both of them, falling back to the floor, just in time to narrowly avoid getting hit by a chunk of metal zipping over their heads, drawn helplessly to the portal. Dipper could barely focus over the incredible adrenaline rushing through him, over the deafening groans of the strange contraption - over them, Grunkle Stan trembles.

“My idiot brother,” the old man mutters, his voice full of suppressed anguish. “My stupid, stupid brother.”

He yanks them to their feet and pushes them in the direction they came from. “Get out of here! Get as far away as you can! I don't know how long this'll last!”

“Where's Grunkle Ford?” Dipper yells, struggling to resist the pull of the portal. He grips Mabel like a lifeline, partly to ground himself, partly to keep her from being pulled away.

“In the portal!” Grunkle Stan yells back, his voice cracking. “It's not safe here! Get out while you still - ”

BOOM!

A huge explosion rocks the room, sending bits of shrapnel flying from the portal, sweeping the three of them off of their feet. In the ensuing chaos, Grunkle Stan somehow manages to wrap himself around the kids, cushioning their fall and taking the brunt of the impact. The fall knocks the wind out of Dipper's lungs, though, and as he lies there, struggling to get air, he feels his Grunkle breathe heavily, body becoming sluggish.

“Grunkle - Stan,” Dipper wheezes. A trickle of blood makes its way down the side of the old man's head.

Mabel starts to shake their Grunkle, eyes wide and frantic. “Grunkle Stan!” she screams. Dipper carefully feels around Stan’s back, and winces when he feels something cutting his fingers - bits of glass and metal have embedded themselves through Stan’s worn suit.

Gulping down air, Dipper somehow manages to push the heavy man off of them, despite Mabel's protests. With her help, he finds a relatively clear space on the floor to sit Grunkle Stan on. The old man is breathing shallowly, clearly in pain.

“Mabel,” Dipper says loudly, straining to be heard over the continued groan of the machine. Despite the huge explosion, the portal still appears to be functional. Behind the faces of his injured Grunkle and his terrified twin, he sees things swirling just behind the surface. Whatever dimension that portal is connected to, it's inhabited. And the things inside are about to come out.

“Mabel, listen to me,” he says urgently. His sister's eyes widen at his tone, but she nods, hands protectively supporting Stan. “I'm going to try and heal Grunkle Stan,” he begins. “And then I'm going to build a barrier around the two of you. You are going to be safe. Whatever happens, don't go out of the barrier .”

“What are you going to do, Dipper?” Mabel asks, newfound panic entering her eyes.

I'm going in the portal . It catches in his throat. He can't say it. Regardless of what had happened over the summer, he's never left her behind. Amidst thoughts and doubts and morbid voices floating in his head, his wrist tingles.

“I'm going to try and help Grunkle Ford out,” he says carefully. They don't have much time. He looks over to Grunkle Stan, ignoring Mabel's follow-up questions. He sets his hand on the man's forehead and whispers a healing incantation. The crease in Stan’s eyebrows fades and his eyes open slowly. “Kid,” he croaks out. He touches the blood on his forehead and winces, the wound still just newly healed.

“Stay here,” he says firmly, and, placing his hands on the ground, erects a barrier around the two of them. It works - a sharp piece of metal bounces off the invisible shield and just barely misses Dipper. Mabel starts pounding at the barrier, shouting at Dipper, but he's done the job well - the barrier holds. “Dipper!” Mabel screams.

“You have to take care of Grunkle Stan!” Dipper yells back, eyes set in what he hopes is a steely expression. In truth, he's so terrified that he can hardly stand. “I'll be fine, Mabel!”

Her yelling ceases and she looks at him, distraught. He's feeling a bit of guilt, trying to worm its way up, but he squashes it and resolutely gets to his feet. Mabel doesn't try to stop him this time, probably knowing as well as he does that it would be futile. Instead, she stares at him as he walks away, and Dipper swears he can hear her praying, just as he feels her eyes boring into him.

The pull feels strange, close up - Dipper can feel it both drawing him in and repulsing him. Just as metal and bits of wreckage from the room are sucked in, odds and ends are being projected out of the portal. Dry leaves, soil, and ragged pieces of cloth fly through - at one point, a dirt-covered pig comes squealing out of the portal, hurriedly rising on its hooves and scurrying as far away as possible. Dipper approaches carefully, paying little heed to the bizarre things the portal produces save for dodging them.

He has no plan - he is about to leap into the portal when something beats him to the punch, leaping out of the portal and in front of him.

Dipper sneaks away to hide, caution his primary instinct. He warily studies the figure silhouetted by the blinding blue light. At first, he hopes it's Grunkle Ford, but the figure is much too small. He makes out pale, pudgy arms sticking out of ragged clothing - a shock of white hair, flying all around the person's head.

When he sees icy blue eyes, the world seems to slow down.

This - this is Gideon.

Younger, wilder, fiercer - but it is unmistakably Gideon .

“Where are y'all hiding?” he screams out, blue eyes full of rage. This Gideon couldn't be more than ten years old, if not younger. His Southern accent is in full force, making him even harder to understand coupled with the anguish in his voice. “Pines! Where are you ?”

Dipper freezes - Pines? Is Gideon specifically calling him out? It could be Mabel, or Grunkle Stan, but - Dipper doubts it. He is being called forward.

And more than that, he knows that he needs to be the one to stop this. This Gideon may be young, but he certainly had no good intentions. And if he was able to connect his time and dimension to the portal here, then he is dangerous as well. Dipper can't allow him to get any further. Mabel can't stop this. Grunkle Stan can't stop this. Grunkle Ford is in the portal, helpless.

This - this is his fight.

Carefully, he runs over his memory, thinking on all that he has learned on portals. He watches as Gideon gets increasingly agitated, screaming and waving his hands around. He doesn't stray far from the portal, which Dipper carefully takes note of.

He notices that each time Gideon yells, the light of the portal pulses slightly red. With each frustrated move of the boy, the light seems to sway in the same direction. “Pines!” he screams, and the room is bathed in blood red light.

The portal is linked to Gideon, Dipper realizes. Cut off the link, and the portal goes. His only chance is to numb the magical vein in Gideon, because otherwise, he wouldn't dare to take him on. And the only way he could see to do it is by surprise.

Suddenly thankful for his instinct to hide, panic builds up when he starts grasping at a plan of attack. ( What spell numbs the vein? Dipper wonders. What spell will keep him from noticing, from turning his power against me? )

All his thinking is rendered moot when Gideon roars , bloodred light exploding from the portal and sweeping everything in the room right off.

( Mabel , Dipper thinks blindly, as he rapidly casts a protective sphere to surround him. Thank God he had thought to cast that barrier around them.)

The barrier keeps shrapnel from cutting his body into a million pieces, but does little to make his landing softer. He groans, his breathing getting cut off for the second time. Adrenaline helps him regain it quicker, and as soon as he is able, he gets right back up.

Which turns out to be a mistake, because Gideon sees him immediately.

“Pines,” the boy snarls, and his tone turns the name into something hateful. His eyes glow red, reflecting the same blood hue the portal exudes.

(Irrationally, Dipper’s brain chooses this moment to remember how the older Gideon's eyes had flashed gold instead of red.)

“G-Gideon,” Dipper chokes out. Gideon does not ask why Dipper knows his name.

The white-haired boy eyes his beaten form. “A barrier,” Gideon spits distastefully. “I didn't think you'd use magic.”

Dipper can't even think of what to respond to that, but it doesn't matter. He thanks whatever deity is listening that he took the time to practice non-verbal spells as he begins to search for Gideon’s magical vein.

“Where's my Grunkle?” Dipper demands. It's little more than stalling, as his own magic creeps, slowly, sneakily, extending itself towards the other boy.

“What the devil is a Grunkle?” Gideon snarls. “If you're talking about that fool fellow who fell through the rift, he's somewhere back there.” He jabs his thumb behind him, pointing to the portal.

“Anyway, none of that matters, Pines,” Gideon says next, cutting himself off. (Barely visible tendrils of smoke start winding themselves around Gideon’s legs.) “You're going to do exactly as I say, or else this whole place goes.”

“What do you want?” Dipper asks. (He feels the feelers examining Gideon’s psyche, looking for the magical vein.)

The white-haired boy smiles nastily, flicking out a rusty switchblade. “Your soulmate's the Cipher prince, isn't he?” he asks. “You know what happens when someone's soulmate gets hurt, right? Or God forbid, killed?”

The answer, memorized from some long-forgotten encyclopedia, falls from Dipper's lips before he can process its implication. “They feel it,” he says. “Like a flare signal.” (Where is the vein?)

“Right,” Gideon affirms. (A smoky tendril inches towards his head.) “And too bad for you, but I need your soulmate here. Don't worry your pretty little head - I'll try not to kill you.”

Found it .

A large figure comes crashing out of the portal, tackling Gideon to the ground just as Dipper shuts off his magical vein. Gideon screams as he falls down, and the switchblade flies out of his hand and onto the floor, where Dipper quickly picks it up and keeps it out of reach.

“Damn!” Gideon curses. The portal begins to waver, the traces of Gideon’s magic already starting to seep away.

The figure kneels off of the boy, keeping his knee firmly on Gideon’s back. Dipper can't believe his eyes.

Grunkle Ford! ” he yells.

The man looks up, adjusting his glasses. “Dipper,” he says gruffly, hair blowing around his head as the portal's pull becomes more and more erratic.

“You - ” Dipper begins, but Grunkle Ford cuts him off. “No time! We have to get out of here. Construct a barrier around the Shack - when this thing blows, it might take out the whole town.”

He's right, Dipper realizes, and without thinking he produces bindings to wrap around Gideon, who suffers it but none too quietly. Quickly, they run out, passing by Mabel and Grunkle Stan, who seems to have regained some strength.

“This is some crazy bullshit even I can't wrap my head around,” Grunkle Stan mutters, groaning as Grunkle Ford helps him up. Beside them, Gideon hovers, fuming. Dipper keeps him up so as to make things easier, and he wishes he could do that - he wishes he could simply fly out of here. To safety. To home.

But instead, they run, as fast as their feet can carry them. As soon as they spill out into the lawn, Grunkle Ford wastes no time pulling Dipper up from where he fell to his knees.

“Barrier,” he says gruffly.

Dipper nods.

With two of them working on it, the barrier takes almost no time to complete, which is just as well - as soon as the barrier shimmers, the Shack explodes.

It's silent, due to the soundproofing of the barrier, but the flash blinds Dipper - instinctively, he looks away. Grunkle Stan’s jaw is set tightly. This cannot be easy for him, losing his home - Dipper realizes with a start that it isn't easy for any of them.

“I hope you're happy, you little bastard,” Grunkle Stan grunts, kicking Gideon lightly in the side where he sits on the ground. “You ruined a perfectly good tourist trap.”

Gideon sits silently. In the face of the burning building, the light makes his face look truly young. His odd clothing registers - though they are ragged, Dipper recognizes them from an older era, possibly -

Just about three hundred years ago.

“It don't matter,” Gideon mumbles. “House, stuff, none of those really matter.”

Grunkle Stan raises an eyebrow at that, but he's too beat up to really care. He turns away, leaning on Mabel when his feet seem to wobble. Dipper is left, standing beside a forlorn child.

“They're going to kill me,” Gideon says quietly. It isn't angry, sad, or anything, a far cry from the earlier anguish his voice had carried. “If they weren't going to kill me then, they're going to kill me now.”

Dipper figures that the bindings are secure enough. He sits down beside Gideon, who flinches slightly, then scowls at him.

“You mean the Ciphers,” Dipper says.

Gideon bristles at the mention of the name, his eyes going almost feral. “They killed my family,” he says. “My mother, my father, and - ” he stops.

“And?”

“Why should I tell you?” Gideon says, and Dipper swears that the boy is sulking. “You're going to hand me over to those devils anyway.”

“Actually, I planned on returning you to your time,” Dipper says matter-of-factly.

Gideon stares at him. “You're fibbing,” he decides, but he quiets down, and Dipper watches the boy, seeing how small he is, and how vulnerable.

This boy had been prepared to use a switchblade on Dipper. Before that, he had been prepared to blow the whole thing up, taking himself with it.

Who else had the Cipher family killed? His mother, his father, and someone else. Who could it be that Gideon wouldn't even mention them, that they would travel through time and space to get revenge?

Dipper looks at the boy again. They had bound his wrists together, and as Gideon sits, watching the last of the burning edifice fall apart, the white-haired boy unconsciously rubs his fingers over a scarred wrist.

Oh .

Oh.

“What was their name?” Dipper asks quietly.

Gideon tenses. Then he breathes out. “It don't matter,” he says. “They killed her, and that's that.”

“I… guess so. How old are you?” Dipper asks then. He feels the tiredness in his body starting to catch up. Grunkle Ford is approaching the Shack, ready to assess damage, while Mabel examines a protesting Grunkle Stan for injuries.

“We playing twenty questions?” Gideon snorts. “I almost killed you, Pines.”

“And how do you know my name?” That is what had caught Dipper's attention the most.

“Same way I knew you were the Cipher bastard’s soulmate,” Gideon says, wearily. “Magic.”

Dipper almost laughs.

“Dipper,” Grunkle Ford calls, beckoning him over. “Let's start damage control.”

“Okay!” he calls back, rising unsteadily to his feet.

“No need.”

Strong fingers grip Dipper's wrist, brushing over the letters of his Mark. It tingles. The hand pulls him up.

Grunkle Stan and Mabel turn around, shock etched across their faces. Grunkle Ford stares. Gideon freezes, not daring to turn around.

“Dipper,” says a voice, and it is melodious, strong, calm, and oh , how sweet it is to hear.

Behind them, Dipper can hear feet approaching. He turns around, and inadvertently runs into the person holding his wrist.

He almost cries in relief, the ache in his body pulsing and pounding in harmony with his heart.

Bill ,” he breathes out in turn, and the Cipher prince smiles.

 


 

 

E ven if the Cipher emperor and his heir are in his newly-restored kitchen (including a multitude of guards besides), Grunkle Stan does absolutely nothing to make them comfortable.

“Thanks for fixing the house,” he says gruffly, still wincing slightly. He had refused treatment from the mage accompanying the Cipher party, insisting that the healing Dipper had given him was perfectly enough. Dipper himself disagrees - but he can't help the rush of pride when Grunkle Stan sneaks a grin at him.

Gideon is in the middle of the room, still bound (“Excellent use of tethering spells, Dipper,” Eragon says, and the compliment, as well as the fact that he remembers his name, sends Dipper over the moon), but placid. The house had been restored completely with practically just a wave of Eragon's hand. Dipper almost couldn't believe it.

“If y'all are gonna kill me, then just get on with it,” Gideon interrupts, sounding tired. “I was going to kill your son.”

“You couldn't have, even if you tried,” Bill says, perfectly calm, and the surrealism of the scene threatens to break Dipper, a laugh trying to force itself out of his mouth. Just a few minutes ago, he had thought that he was going to die. Now, Eragon and Bill Cipher are in the house, treating Gideon like a child - a murderous, dangerous child, but a child nonetheless. It's like something straight out of a sitcom. A bad one.

“Gideon… ah, Gleeful, if I'm correct?” Eragon begins.

Despite his tough words, Gideon jumps and looks afraid. He is, after all, barely even ten years old.

“We're going to send you back to your time,” Eragon says, looking mildly disinterested in the conversation. Both he and Bill are dressed rather casually for aristocrats, he in a simple black three-piece suit, and Bill in - dare he believe it? - casual teenage clothing. A black leather jacket over a yellow shirt and dark jeans. Granted, all of it is probably worth more than the house (and everything in it. Not to mention the land it stood on), but still…

Gideon looks as if he can't believe it. “That's it ?” he says, incredulous. “No punishment? No torture? No killing ?”

“If I didn't know better, it's almost if you're disappointed,” Bill says, examining an immaculate nail. Gideon clams up immediately.

“I didn't say there wouldn't be any punishment,” Eragon clarifies. “But I will not be the one to handle it. Oh, heavens - ” he groans, breaking off. “Actually I will be the one to handle it, but it will be my past self. The Ciphers of the past are more than equipped to deal with your, ah, transgression.” He rubs his temples. “This is why I hate time travel.”

Gideon pales. Dipper wants so badly to tell him that it will be alright - that he had met the present Gideon, and he had seemed happy enough. But before entering the newly rebuilt Shack, Bill had briefly pulled Dipper aside.

“Don't tell Gideon what he turns out to be,” he had warned Dipper. He had been so much taller. ( Duh , Dipper thinks, he's sixteen .) (He's taller than Wendy.) ( Duh , he thinks again, Wendy's fifteen .)

“Why?”

“Time continuity and all that,” Bill had said, rolling his eyes. Then, in a moment of terrifying adorableness, he held a finger to his lips. “It's a secret. I'll tell you more later.”

(Dipper won't admit that it's the later that gets him the most.)

“I daresay I wasn't too harsh when I punished you then,” Eragon says, musing. “I remember it like it was only yesterday… although, back then, you would only be punished tomorrow, so - never mind. I do abhor time travel.”

If Gideon hadn't been afraid then, he is definitely terrified now. Dipper can tell that the Cipher patriarch is clearly having fun with the whole thing, at the boy's expense - the smiling countenance of the emperor makes Dipper wonder, for the tenth time, just how and why they could've killed Gideon's parents, and his soulmate.

“Take him outside,” Eragon says to the guards. They are all dressed in the same black uniform Dipper had seen them in when he was in the estate. “The mages will take care of sending him back to his time.”

Without so much as a nod, two guards reach out and pull Gideon up. The boy allows it without a single peep, but as they approach the doorway, Eragon stops them. “Wait.”

Dutifully, the guards halt, turning around.

“Gideon,” Eragon begins, his golden eyes kind and soft. “I daresay that you'll be seeing Giffany and your parents soon enough.”

Dipper's mind blanks - wait, Giffany?

Gideon's eyes widen, but before he can say anything, Eragon dismisses him and the soldiers with a wave of his hand, and the three of them march away, Dipper's eyes following the head of white hair.

As soon as they are out, the Cipher emperor sighs. “At least that's taken care of,” he says, rubbing his temples lightly. He turns to some of the remaining soldiers. “Now, can one of you bring Gideon in here? Oh, you know who I mean - our Gideon.”

“Already here,” says a familiar voice, and Dipper nearly jumps out of his skin when he realizes that Gideon - the present Gideon - has materialized beside him. Instead, he falls to the ground from his perch on the sofa.

“Master Pines,” says the tall man, raising an eyebrow. “You should know better than to act as such in the audience of Lord Eragon.”

Dipper is too flabbergasted to pick himself up off from the ground. It's too much - the portal, Gideon, Bill, Eragon, and now this Gideon.

“Gideon, I know you're fond of dramatic appearances - clearly have been since you were a child,” Bill sighs. “But please keep from scaring my soulmate too much.”

( He called me his soulmate! Dipper thinks, then mentally berates his simplistic happiness.)

“Apologies, young master,” Gideon concedes with a graceful incline of his head. Seeing the older Gideon, his growth from his younger self is staggering. The Gideon of the past had been angry, afraid, and stout - this Gideon is tall, calm, and quite frankly, mildly intimidating, with the same unapproachable air Dipper had noted in the Cipher estate. He moves with the confident grace of someone who has lived to become comfortable with himself, a far cry from the frightened boy he had once been.

“Well then,” Eragon says, clearing his throat. “Can the rest of the Pines family gather around?”

Mabel, who up to that point had been staying quietly in a corner, comes up to stand beside Dipper just as soon as he stands up. “You okay, Dip-Dot?” she asks.

“Mhm. You?” he asks in return.

“Fine,” she says. “Scared. A bit.”

He nods. Grunkle Stan and Ford come over to stand protectively behind the two of them, and as Ford's six-fingered hand comes to rest on Dipper's shoulder, something registers in his brain. Earlier in the day, Ford had been wearing a dark blue sweater and slacks under his usual tattered coat. Ford is still wearing his coat, but underneath, a dirty black shirt and overalls. He couldn't have had time to change in the short period of time, unless he had changed earlier in the day before the portal incident? But even so, Dipper is certain that Ford doesn't own a single  pair of overalls…

He doesn't have time to wonder at this fact before Eragon leans forward in his seat, placing his elbows on his knees and his chin over his interlocked hands. “First of all, I would like to commend all of you for the admirable way you handled this situation. Especially Dipper and Mr. Ford - your timely response has mitigated any possible damage, structural or otherwise.”

Ford nods cautiously, and Dipper mumbles out a quick “thank you.” Bill smiles at him, which threatens to send his heart jumping straight out of his chest.

“And now, I would like to clarify a few things about this situation,” Eragon says. “Dipper, I know you must have been quite distressed at seeing the young Gideon go, thinking that he is to be punished. I assure you, he will not be harmed nor detained, not really.”

“It's true,” Gideon says. “They were shockingly lenient.”

“And you may have heard this, but I mentioned Giffany to the young Gideon earlier,” Eragon continues. “And I'm assuming you met her when you came to the estate a few years ago.”

Dipper nods, recalling the cheerful, pink-haired AI that had greeted them at the Cipher estate.

“She is my soulmate,” Gideon says. “And the main reason I acted as such all those many years ago.”

His matter-of-fact voice mitigates the impact of his statement, and it takes a while for it to sink in. When it does, it hits hard. “Wait, what? But she told me she's a sentient AI!” Dipper says, blown away.

“She is,” Eragon affirms. “But her original body has been lost to time. Her consciousness lives on in the form of software, and she shares the responsibility of protecting the estate with Gideon.”

“She has always been an intelligent girl, even before she became an AI,” Gideon says, musing.

“Wait, wait, wait,” Dipper says, waving his hands around. “I'm sorry, but there's so much I still don't understand. Why did Gideon think his parents and Giffany were dead? And why isn't Gideon allowed in the castle if that's where Giffany lives?”

Eragon pauses, almost as if thinking how to answer the question. Dipper feels that he may have overstepped a boundary, but darn it, he deserves to know after everything he's gone through this evening.

Eventually, Eragon just turns to Gideon. The pale man nods in response, and fixes Dipper with an even look.

“Part of my punishment is not being allowed within the castle, precisely because Giffany mostly resides in there,” he begins. “I’m only allowed to see her once every seventy-five years, for three hours. It seemed a punishment to me then, but now, looking back, it’s quite a blessing. For you to understand everything, I must start at the beginning.” Dipper nods.

“When I was a boy,” Gideon begins, measuring his words carefully. Beside Dipper, Mabel finds his hand and grips it reassuringly. “There was a plague in this country. Many people died. The Cipher family had a hard time identifying the cause and origin, and it was even harder to begin creating a cure.”

“However, a select few people seemed to be immune to the disease. Among those were my parents, Giffany, and myself.”

Dipper's brow furrows. “Wait, including you?”

Gideon nods. “Yes, including me. However, at the time that they came to see if it was true, I was coming down with a fever. It was not the plague, but the symptoms were similar, so when they came, they assumed I had caught the plague as well. They only took my parents and Giffany, and, assuming that I was on my deathbed anyways, they left me.”

Eragon looks sombre, as if recalling the past events. His timeless face often makes it hard for Dipper to remember that he is hundreds of years old as well, maybe even more than a thousand.

“I thought the Ciphers had come to execute my family on suspicions of being the instigators of the plague,” Gideon continues. “We were the only ones unaffected by the disease. At the time, that was the only conclusion I could draw.”

“Gideon's family had a unique gene that made them immune to the disease,” Eragon cuts in. Gideon gracefully allows the interruption. “We wished to derive an antidote from the anti-bodies in their system.”

It sounds almost as if the Cipher patriarch is trying to justify their actions. Beside him, Bill looks vacant, deeply invested in the story. “What about Giffany?” Dipper asks.

Gideon frowns slightly. “Giffany… she was a special case. She was an aria. I'm assuming you know what that is?”

“Yes,” Dipper nods, at the same time that beside him, Mabel's brow furrows, looking confused. “An aria was a special race of humans,” he explains. “They don't really exist anymore, but they had ethereal bodies. It's hard for them to exist on this plane and to interact with physical objects, so they had relatively short lifespans. They're like spirits, or ghosts, except they can interact slightly with objects.”

“But no less real than any of us,” Gideon says, eyes twinkling.

“Yes,” Dipper says firmly.

“Well, since you know what arias are, you would also know that because of their ethereal bodies, they are immune to most, if not all, diseases,” Gideon says. “Giffany was the sole aria left in the country. Even if their bodies were immune to diseases, they were extremely vulnerable to physical harm. Most arias at the point had either died of stress or had been killed by villagers who were angry at their immunity. We sheltered Giffany, because… well, you know.”

“Okay,” Dipper says, thinking. “So, your parents and Giffany were taken by the estate to work out a cure. And you, thinking that they were dead, orchestrated that attack.”

Gideon nods.

“You were going to kill - or at least harm me,” Dipper says, quickly amending his words. “And the past you told me that he was going to do that because he needed to call Bill - William , over here.”

“That was my goal, yes,” Gideon says.

“Why?” Dipper asks. “Why target William?”

Bill doesn't look up, but Dipper can tell he's listening more intently now. Eragon tactfully avoids looking at Gideon.

“I thought the Ciphers had killed my family,” Gideon says. He keeps his face devoid of emotion. Dipper has to keep reminding himself that all of this, technically, happened hundreds of years ago. “I knew I had no shot at directly harming the Cipher emperor, but I didn't really want that in the first place. What I wanted was to hurt his family like I thought he had hurt mine. He had no children at the time, nor any known immediate family, so I looked into the future to see if he would have a child. That is when I saw Master William, and decided to target him.”

“My magic allows me to do many things, but it is most inclined towards time,” Gideon continues. “Allowing me to see into the future or the past as well as to travel between both. However, I can't open a rift through time on my own - what I do is find an existing rip in the dimensions, whether sealed or open, and pass through it to go to the time I wish to visit. In this case, seeing, as I wanted to target you , Master Pines, it was laughably easy - a gigantic rip sat in the very basement of where you stayed.”

“I knew that I would never be able to break into the Cipher estate, so my only chance was to lure Master William out - by triggering a signal when I harmed his soulmate,” Gideon says. “That is why I went for you back then.”

“So, wait, wait, wait wait,” Dipper interjects. Something is bugging him. “You looked into the future and saw that I was William’s soulmate.”

“That is correct.”

“Then why did you tell me you didn’t know who my soulmate was?” Dipper asks. “Because you clearly recognized me when I first came to the estate?”

"That is simple,” Gideon says. “I lied.”

Dipper doesn’t know whether to laugh or cry. Instead, he gapes at him. “Well… I… guess that makes sense?” he concedes. Gideon smiles, amused.

“I needed to preserve the natural order of time,” says Gideon. “And there is no reason to believe that anyone, aside from myself and Lord Eragon, knew from the beginning that you and Master William were soulmates. If you would like to know, Master William also didn’t know beforehand that you were his soulmate. He solved your Cipher entirely on his own.”

“Of course I did,” sniffs Bill delicately. “It was simple.”

“I would also like to thank you, Master Dipper, for the way you spoke to my young self,” continues Gideon. “Your kind handling stuck with me, and I remembered you quite fondly all those years. I’m certain my young, foolish self quite appreciated it.”

“Not so foolish if you were able to think up a plot like that,” Grunkle Ford says gruffly. “Your work was high-calibre dimensional manipulation. It's hard to believe you were able to do that at such a young age.”

Gideon acknowledges the praise with a nod. “True. But your kind words are amiss, Mr. Pines. You yourself have been able to do the same thing as I.”

“What?” Grunkle Stan interrupts. “When has Sixer ever gone around travelling through time?”

“Why, this very night,” Eragon says. “I gather he hasn't cared to elaborate quite yet.”

All eyes turn to Ford, who returns their gazes, shrugging. “It was unimportant compared to everything else that happened. I did, after all, fall into the portal and into the young Gideon's timeline.”

“So you went to the past?” Dipper asks.

“Yes, and I spent close to a month in there,” Ford says.

“A month ?” Dipper, Mabel, and Grunkle Stan repeat in unison. “How is that possible?”

“In theory, I shouldn't have been there for so long,” Ford muses, looking as if he's talking about the weather, not revealing  incredibly mind-blowing information. “I fell into Gideon's base, just where he had opened the portal. However, time portals are tricky stuff, and I was taken to a point in his timeline wherein more than a month had passed since the little incident. By that time, the whole area was just wreckage - and behind me, the portal disappeared.”

“How did you get back?” Mabel asks, eyes wide.

“I reopened the portal,” Ford says simply. It's clear from their expressions that his statement doesn't quite suffice, so he sighs and explains. “Well, I actually spent a month trying to re-open the portal, because time magic isn't really my forte. I constructed a little shack in the woods near the portal and hunted deer for food, and at one point I took some meat to a town to trade for clothes - ” he gestures to his new outfit, which Dipper now understands - “and basically kept trying to open the portal until it landed at the correct timeline. It was pure happenstance that it opened at the exact moment that Gideon was about to make a move - I was worried I wouldn't be able to get it close enough to the correct time period.”

Dipper, Mabel, and Stan look at him incredulously. “And you kept this to yourself?” Stanley asks, eyes filled with a manic mixture of frustration and a grudging sort of admiration.

Ford shrugs. “As I've said, it didn't seem as important as everything else that's happened.”

“You could have approached a Cipher official, and we would have taken you back to your proper time,” Eragon interjects, having stayed quiet for the entirety of the conversation. “We have a division dedicated specifically to fixing time anomalies.”

“That never even crossed my mind,” Ford admits gruffly. “But then again, I didn't think I'd spend a month in there, so I didn't consider seeking help.”

“You idiot!” Stan bursts suddenly. Dipper and Mabel swivel around in their places to look at Stan, who's glaring at his brother beside him. “What if you couldn't get out of there, huh? What if you'd been stuck in there forever all because you're too proud to ask for help?”

Ford bristles slightly at that. “I hardly imagine that my presence would be missed here,” he says quietly, with an edge that Dipper's never heard before.

“You - ” Stan breaks off, sighing aggravatedly. “You're such a drama queen, you goddamned Sixer. What makes you think that no one would miss you?”

Dipper is suddenly aware of Bill turning his head around, almost in sync with his father. Both appear to be trying not to laugh. Even Gideon and the guards seem uncomfortable, trying hard not to seem like they're listening in.

“Well - I'm socially inept, but I'm not blind, Stanley,” Ford awkwardly manages to say. “I can tell that we don't exactly have the best… relationship.”

Dipper wants to hide his face in shame. He does - his face is getting red from the embarrassment. While he does agree that his grunkles need to work some things out, in front of the Cipher emperor hardly seems like the right time or place to do so.

Stan sighs again, a deep sound that speaks of unfathomable exasperation. He puts his hand on his face, and it's clear that both of them are aware that yes, this probably isn't the time to be doing this. “You know why we don't have a good relationship, Sixer?” he asks, clearly against his will. “Because you're an idiot . You may be a genius, but you're an idiot, and I'm pretty sure Ma messed up when she was pregnant with us - you got all the brains, but I got all the common sense.”

Despite everything, Dipper wants to laugh. Even Bill seems to be holding back a slight chuckle. “Ever since you moved in here from whatever dimension you've been gallivanting through, you keep getting into corner after corner all because you're too proud to admit you need help. You're a reckless idiot who thinks he knows better than everyone else just because he knows Peter Gram’s theory,” Stan continues, building up steam.

Theorem ,” Ford corrects almost automatically. “It's the Pythagorean theorem .”

See ?” Stan accuses. “You can be a real smartass when you want to.”

Dipper can't help it - he has to laugh. It's all too much. The portal, Gideon, Bill, and now this. His emotions are too out of control to put a leash on, and when mirth bubbles up through his throat, he can't bring himself to stop it.

Everybody stares at him at first. Then, Mabel starts to giggle, and surprisingly, Bill follows - eventually even Eragon and Gideon have to smile, and then everybody is chuckling, and the mood lightens despite everything that has happened. Stan grimaces but takes it good-naturedly, and Ford looks as if he wants to disappear on the spot.

(Embarrassment is a good look on Ford, Dipper decides. It makes him look human, much more than his regular intellectual facade.)

“Grunkle Ford would have died a lot of times this summer if it hadn't been for Grunkle Stan,” Dipper points out, still chuckling.

“Everybody has somebody to balance them out,” Eragon says. “You were given a twin for a reason, Stanford Pines, and it would do you good to heed his counsel from time to time.”

“I would listen to his advice, if he didn't always treat it like a shady sales pitch,” Ford protests.

“That's because you're the hardest customer in the world!” Stan retorts.

“I'm not a customer, I'm your brother!” Ford returns with equal intensity. At this point, Dipper feels as though he is watching a tennis match - his head whips back and forth, watching his grunkles trade responses.

“Yeah, and I'm not just your brother, I'm also your twin,” Grunkle Stan answers, sighing in frustration. He seems to have forgotten their audience, only focused on getting his point across to his brother. “Look, point is, Sixer, we need each other, like it or not. I'm not saying that you're incompetent, even though you kind of are sometimes - ” he ignores Ford's noise of protest, “ - and I'm not saying I'm the smartest guy around, even though I'm definitely the best salesman around. What I'm saying is…” here, he pauses, sheepishly scratching his cheek. “...we kinda do balance each other out, and we're going to have to lean on each other more if we want to make this work.”

Ford coughs awkwardly, and for a long moment is unable to say anything. Dipper and Mabel wait with bated breath, and even Bill and Gideon, tactful though they're trying to be, can't help but look interested in the two men's conversation.

Finally, Ford gives up and stares at the floor. “Noted,” he mumbles, and Dipper knows his grunkles well enough to know that this is the most they'll be able to get out of him, and that it is enough. Of course, Stan knows this as well, because he's Stan and this is Ford , so he understands what a big deal this small acquiescence is. He smiles slightly, then immediately covers his face with a rough hand. “Idiot Sixer,” he mutters amiably.

Dipper feels a strange and sudden urge to cheer, or clap, or just basically any method of expressing the elation he is feeling right now, but nothing seems proper, not when it's in front of the Cipher emperor and his heir. However, Mabel solves his dilemma, immediately dissolving into a big, teary, “ Awwwww!

Everybody laughs at Mabel's outburst, even Ford, who chuckles quietly along with the others. Eragon smiles benignly, his golden eyes flashing.

Finally, the laughter dies down, and the Cipher emperor sighs regretfully. “I'm sorry to spoil the lovely mood, but I'm afraid that I will have to leave soon,” he said. “We have only come tonight in anticipation of Gideon's actions, and now that he is taken care of, we are no longer needed here. So, well - congratulations on your newfound bond, Stanley and Stanford,” - the two men nod, unable to look at each other - “but I really must be going.”

Dipper’s smile fades and his spirits sink, settling into a pit of disappointment hovering over his stomach. Of course the Ciphers can't stay long. They are royalty , after all, and if they had seen fit not to contact Dipper for six years, then one event certainly isn't about to change that.

It's just - Dipper had been hoping that maybe , just maybe, they could have been persuaded to stay even for just a few more days. After all, in a few days’ time, it would be -

“Father,” Bill clears his throat pointedly, catching Eragon's eye.

The Cipher emperor pauses briefly, then smiles as he seems to recall something. “Ah, of course. I nearly forgot,” he says, clapping his hands together. “Dipper and Mabel, your birthday is just five days away, correct?”

Both Dipper and Mabel jump, surprised that Eragon knows. ( Of course he would , Dipper thinks, his son met his soulmate on that day .) ( I'm his soulmate .) (Dipper tries not to blush.)

“In light of that fact, my son has made a rare request,” Eragon continues. He turns to Grunkles Stan and Ford, who have not abandoned their positions behind the twins. “I'm terribly sorry about any inconvenience it may cause, but could I trouble you to house my son for the next few days? He would very much like to stay for Dipper’s birthday.”

Beside Dipper, Mabel lets out a squeak of surprise and excitement. Dipper himself doesn't dare to make a sound or look up, because if he catches Bill's eye now, he isn't sure he's going to be able to keep his composure.

Bill? Stay? Here ? Dipper doesn't want to raise his hopes too high for fear that it might not be true, but the buzz in his wrist and the pounding of his heart seem to feel otherwise.

“I don't see why not,” Stan says gruffly. “Seeing as you fixed up the Shack and all.”

“They're also royalty , Grunkle Stan,” Mabel reminds him, scolding him. “It is your patriotic duty as a citizen of this great nation to fulfill the requests of your great emperor!” She builds up a loud, hammy voice, then turns to Eragon with a big smile. “Of course he can stay, your Majesty! Dipsauce would be so happy!”

“Dipsauce?” Bill repeats wryly, amusement in his voice. (Dipper risks a quick glance at his eyes and notes that the Cipher heir looks far too pleased with the circumstances.)

“Yeah!” Mabel pipes up. “Dipsauce, or Dippingsauce, or Dip-Dot, or Dipster, or even - ”

“Mabel!” Dipper hisses, clapping his hand over his twin’s mouth. Mabel retaliates by biting the soft skin on his palm, and he releases her quickly, groaning.

“Wonderful!” Eragon says, clapping his hands together again. “Then, William can stay here with Gideon. I don't think it would be wise to leave palace guards in a small town like this, but I of course cannot leave my son unguarded.”

Grunkle Stan frowns, apparently trying to figure out the logistics of where the two guests would stay. “So, there'll be two guests, and they'll need beds, so - ”

“Please do not trouble yourself over our accommodations,” Gideon interjects. He reaches inside a small pocket on his suit jacket and pulls out a tiny, crystalline cube. “This is a containment cube,” he explains, when he sees their bemused expressions. “It works on the same principle as a portal, except it leads to a specific, contained dimension. This cube in question leads to the inside of a villa similar to the ones on the Cipher estate. All we will have to do is set it up outside, or even inside the house, and then we'll be able to spend the night inside.”

Dipper gapes when he hears the explanation, now seeing the tiny, unassuming cube in a whole new light. Only the Ciphers , he thinks with great admiration. He's read about this kind of magic, the art of dimensional and spatial manipulation, but he never thought he'd ever get to see it in person. He wonders if they would allow him to go inside the cube and explore its confines. He really, really hopes so.

“It has been lovely meeting you all,” Eragon says, rising. He gives a slight nod to the guards, who for the entire time haven't moved even slightly. (Dipper's been watching them - they really don't blink.) They respond with synchronized, uniform salutes, never once breaking formation.

“Thank you, again,” Ford says. Eragon acknowledges him with a smile.

“No, thank you ,” he corrects. “You have done us a great service by containing Gideon's attack. This will not go unrewarded.”

Stan’s eyes glitter at the prospect of a reward, but he mercifully keeps silent on the matter and gives a respectful bow as the emperor and his guard walk out. Eragon pauses beside Dipper and Mabel, placing his hand on Dipper's shoulder.

“Advanced birthday greetings to you and your sister, Dipper,” he says. Dipper's shoulder buzzes from their contact, Eragon's magic almost tangible under his skin. “And might I presume to give you some practical advice?”

“Of course!” Dipper nods eagerly. Advice from the Cipher emperor would be priceless - he wonders if perhaps he will give him tips on magic, on how to master his power, or maybe even a tip on time manipulation -

“My son is quite given to tricks and pranks,” Eragon says, golden eyes flicking over to where his son sits. “It might serve you and the rest of your family well to be on the lookout for his little jokes.”

Dipper stares at him, unable to grasp his meaning at first. Bill? Prone to practical jokes? Mistaking his silence for fear, Gideon cuts in. “Not to worry, Master Pines,” he says reassuringly. “I will do my best to curtail his… comedic tendencies.”

“Good man,” says Eragon, and with a final smile at the group, bids them all farewell. In a moment, only Dipper, Mabel, their grunkles, Gideon, and Bill are left in the room.

Dipper sneaks a look at Bill, and their eyes meet - the Cipher heir is looking far too pleased with himself.

“I hope you're good at making barriers,” is all Bill says, flashing a wide grin that Dipper has never seen before. It promises mischief and a whole lot of trouble - but it also promises a sweet beginning. A fresh start. And although he will only be staying for a week at the most, it promises an endless lifetime together - a lifetime in which they can share.

Dipper, sweet Dipper, laughs.

Duh !” he answers, laughing, and for the first time since six years ago everything just feels right.