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player three has entered the game

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In his darkest hour, the last person Ford would have ever expected to show up for him is Rick Sanchez.

And yet here he is, standing on the front porch of what used to be Ford’s palace and has now become his prison. Ford doesn’t even recognize him at first— he hasn’t seen sunlight in days and everything is so bright, bright enough to have a frequency, his ears ringing with it— he almost fires the crossbow in total, blind panic at the mere idea of finding someone at the door. Then that unmistakeable voice cuts through the haze.

“Y-y-you gotta be shitting me.”

Maybe it’s because that same voice guided him through so many ill-advised drug trips in college, but somehow it reaches right past the fog and the fear and grabs Ford by the cerebral cortex, yanking him back to awareness. The aim of the crossbow dips down to the floorboards while Ford blinks in amazement.

“Rick?” His own voice sounds tinny and far away. “Rick Sanchez?”

“Yyyyyep.” Rick lowers his raised hands in tandem with the arrow that had been previously pointed at his chest. “Hell of a welcome, Fordy. I-I-I thought we said no hard feelings.”

Could it really be him? Ford squints at the trespasser. Rick’s hair is a bit shorter now, but still slicked back, still that unmistakable silver. No more ripped jeans and combat boots; now he wears a lab coat, the sleeves pushed up, his forearms prickled with goosebumps in the chilly autumn air. Ford didn’t even know how much he needed to see a familiar face until he had one right in front of him. Of course, his own relief is the best possible indication that this must be a trap.

“How did you find me?” he demands, suspicious, his grip tightening on his weapon. “What are you doing here?”

“Uhhhh, okay, first of all? I wasn’t looking for you.” Rick keeps one eye on that crossbow, just in case he has to make a run for it. “A-a-and second of all, half the sensors in my lab blew up with readings for a— a-a-a transdimensional anomaly in the middle of Oregon. So now it’s my turn: what are you doing here?”

And Ford almost bursts out in delirious laughter, because he’s been asking himself that exact same question ever since he shut down the portal. And it doesn’t matter that Rick’s hair is different or his face is a little bit older or his body language a little bit warier— the eyes are the same. They’re not Bill’s eyes, twin slits of black on a yellow field. They’re not McGucket’s eyes, pupils blown wide in unfathomable terror. When Ford looks at Rick, he sees Rick looking back at him, the gaze keen and clever and certain. It’s like a shot of morphine after weeks of screaming himself hoarse with pain. Ford sighs.

“Remember how you always said I was going to end up in over my head?”

Rick clicks his tongue. “Uh oh, Fordy. That doesn’t sound promising. O-o-okay, let’s just— let’s just get this out of the way now.” He clears his throat and then steps forward to jam his pointer finger into Ford’s chest. “I fucking told you so.”

Down in the third sub-basement, Rick gets his first good look at the portal and gives a low whistle of admiration.

“Whoa-ho-ho. That’s a big one.”

Even with the power shut down, Ford still can’t quite bring himself to approach it. Rick has no such issue, and he lopes right up to the base of the structure, fingers skimming expertly along the surface until he finds the rim of a panel and pries it open, peering critically at the circuits within.

“Damn, Fordy,” he mutters, eyes tracing the zig-zag patterns of lights and wires. “Th-th-this is some— this is on another level. I mean re-e-eally advanced shit.” He glances back at Ford. “You were holding out on me.”

Ford rubs the back of his neck and looks away, unable to explain the radical shift in his capabilities to someone who knows those capabilities as thoroughly as Rick does. They used to get high and stay up all night together drawing schematics, the floor around them littered with page after page of theoretical technology, matter transporters and high-speed hovercrafts. Rick may have presented himself as a dropout punk, but he had a brilliant scientific mind, more than Ford’s equal; sometimes even leaps and bounds ahead. Ford breaks out in a guilty sweat. There’s no way Rick doesn’t see another hand at work in this design.

“Soooo,” Rick says casually, snapping the panel back into place. “H-how many dimensions have you checked out so far?”

Ford tries to swallow and finds that his throat has gone tight, strangled with fear.

“One,” he says, hoarse. “Just one.”

Fuck, he’s starting to shake. Must be all those caffeine pills catching up with him. That and the way Rick is looking at him, eyes slightly narrowed, like he’s trying to read him. Maybe Ford doesn’t want to be read. Maybe he’s sick of being picked up and flipped through like a magazine. And oh, God, Rick can tell just by looking at him, he can tell, he can tell, he knows about Bill and he’s just waiting for Ford to confess. Ford takes a step back, groping for balance, suddenly dizzy.

“Rick, I’m— I’m in a lot of trouble here.” All he can see is the portal, the awful triangle shape, the massive eye opening to swallow him whole. “This was a mistake. I never should have built it. I can’t— I can’t—”

He’s shaking his head and stumbling backwards now, suffocating in dread and regret. Rick glances over his shoulder at the portal, then back at Ford’s stricken, staring eyes. Then he places himself dead-center in Ford’s field of vision, anchoring him in the present.

“All right, all right,” he says briskly. “I got the gist of it. L-let’s go back upstairs, huh?”

But Ford doesn’t want to go back up into the shack, either. He wants to go somewhere secure and contained. For a second he actually considers taking them out to his secret bunker in the woods, but in the end he settles for the hidden study in the second sub-basement. It’s safe in there now; the walls are all covered with tacked-up sheets, the idols and crystal pyramids all broken or stashed out of sight. Ford spends most of his time in here these days, fighting off sleep and pouring every waking second into the construction of Project Mentem. It’s the closest thing he has to a sanctuary.

When the lift opens, Ford bolts into the space and immediately starts pacing, his anxious limbs pumped full of adrenaline. Rick follows at a slower tempo, reaching out towards the nearest bookshelf to run his finger along the spines.

“Hey, uh…” he says. “Just— just so you know, I get it.”

Ford rounds on him, heart pounding. “Get what? What do you get?”

Rick shrugs, his head cocked sideways while he scans the book titles. “Eh, y’know. Y-y-you get your first look at the multiverse, it, uh— it can really mess with your head.”

From the way he says it— not to mention the way he refuses to make eye contact— it’s clear that he’s speaking from experience. Suddenly it all makes sense. He wasn’t scrutinizing Ford because he suspects an outside influence. He was trying to figure out if Ford is having a transdimensional existential crisis.

Well, it might not have been the multiverse that did it, but Ford’s head has definitely been messed with. And Rick might not know the true extent of the damage, but right here, right now, he’s the closest thing Ford has to someone who might understand, in a cosmic sense, what he’s going through.

“I feel like I’m going crazy,” Ford whispers.

It’s the first time he’s said it out loud. It echoes all around the room, the last word reverberating like an accusation: crazy, crazy, crazy. Rick just snorts, unimpressed.

“You’re no-eugh-ot going crazy.”

“I thought I knew what I was doing.” Ford’s voice is rising in pitch, in panic. “I thought I could handle it. I thought— I thought—”

“Don’t think about it.”

“I can’t stop thinking about it!”

Ford doesn’t even realize he’s pacing again, not until Rick grabs him by the shoulders to hold him still. He almost jumps out of his skin; it’s the first time anyone has touched him in weeks, and his whole body jolts like he’s been tapped with a cattle prod. Rick jerks back from him reflexively, hands held up in a non-threatening gesture.

“Easy,” he says. “Easy.”

Ford pushes a shaking hand through his hair and exhales, mortified.

“Sorry,” he mumbles. “God, I hate that you’re seeing me like this.”

Rick gives a dismissive wave. “Eh, I’ve seen worse.” He tilts his head. “I-it’s good to see you, Fordy.”

Ford makes a ridiculous sound, half-sob, half-bark of disbelieving laughter. Leave it to Rick to change the subject like this. It’s almost reassuring in its predictability, in how effortlessly it transports Ford back to his university days, laughing and batting away Rick’s efforts to sidetrack his studying. Exhausted, he reaches up under his glasses to rub his knuckles against his watering eyes. He’s never felt so young or so stupid.

“Yeah.” There’s a weak hint of a smile at the corner of his mouth. “You too, Rick.”

Rick takes a step closer, pressing the subject, pressing into his space. “It’s been a while.”

“Only a decade or so.” Ford glances at him from head to foot. “I like the lab coat.”

“Oh, yeah?” Rick snaps his lapels. “We-eugh-ell I gotta say I’m definitely a fan of this, uh, this whole rumpled professor look.” He gestures loosely in Ford’s direction. “It’s a good fit.”

Still smiling, he reaches out to fiddle with the end of Ford’s tie. On impulse Ford takes hold of his wrist, and suddenly there’s a pulse underneath his fingertips, the rush of human contact, and God, he’s been so, so alone. His grip tightens as he and Rick look at each other’s faces in the same moment. Rick’s eyes are dark with scrutiny.

“You’re still thinking about it,” he says, soft. “I told you not to think about it.”

Ford digs all six fingers into Rick’s wrist.

“Distract me,” he begs.

Without hesitation, Rick grabs Ford by the tie and pulls him into a kiss.

Funny how much it’s like their first time, with Ford a nervous wreck and Rick taking control. This time, however, Ford knows exactly what to do with his hands. He throws them around Rick’s neck, clinging to him like a life preserver. He doesn’t resist as Rick steers him backwards, back until he stumbles against the desk chair, which Rick reaches past him to shove out of the way. Then Rick pushes him right up onto the desk, Ford’s ass perched on the blueprints for Project Mentem, his legs spread so Rick can slip into the space between them. Rick’s still got one hand fisted around that tie. Ford can feel the pressure on the back of his neck like a gravitational pull, pinning him in Rick’s orbit. At this point he wouldn’t mind if he burned up in the atmosphere.

“I’m still thinking about it,” he gasps between kisses, clutching at Rick’s back, his shoulders. “I’m still— I’m still thinking—”

“Think about this,” Rick growls.

He drops his free hand down between Ford’s legs and grabs the outline of his cock through his trousers. Ford hisses and arches toward the touch, his teeth clenched against an undignified cry, his whole body aching with need.

“Yes,” he moans. “Ah, God, yes.”

“A-a-atta boy, Fordy,” Rick murmurs in his ear. “Nothing to think about but right here, right now.”

And Ford wants nothing more than for that to be true. He keeps his eyes screwed shut, his hands twined in Rick’s hair, willing himself to be present. He won’t let himself think about the portal. He won’t let himself think about the mistakes he’s made. He focuses on the heat of Rick’s mouth, the sound of Rick’s breathing, the pressure of Rick’s hand against the zipper of his pants.

Don’t think about it. Ford shifts his weight, one foot still half on the floor, the other hooked around the back of Rick’s legs. Don’t think about it. He loses himself in the instinctive motion of his hips, twitching against the desk, shallow thrusts up into the curl of Rick’s fingers. Don’t think about it. Desperate for more stimulation, he steers Rick’s face to the crook of his neck and holds him there until Rick finally bites him, hard.

Endorphins. Adrenaline. White noise. All these weeks it’s been nonstop cacophony in Ford’s skull, and now, at last, nothing but static. He’s so tired. All he wants is one small fragment of peace. He just needs to let go of it all, just for a moment. All he wants is a moment.

A moment is all it takes.

He was so vigilant. All those weeks of caffeine pills and cold showers, anything, anything to keep him focused and aware. He was alert. He was ready. And in just a moment, he’s thrown it all away before he even realizes what’s happening.

He doesn’t even have time to react. There’s a tug at the back of his neck— he thinks it’s just Rick pulling on his tie again— then all at once a white-hot fist wraps around his spinal column and yanks him forward. There’s a roar of light and sound and overstimulation and then— nothing.

He can’t feel anything.

Ford looks at his hands on instinct. They float before him, spectral and translucent, without substance. And when he looks beyond that, he sees those same hands, real and solid, all tangled up in Rick’s silver hair.

“No no no—”

“OH YES YES YES,” a familiar voice answers. “LONG TIME, NO BE, STANFORD!”

A part of Ford can see his own face turning around to laugh at him, the eyes ablaze, twin slits of black on a yellow field. Another part of him can see that same face stay right where it is, the head thrown back, the eyes closed as the puppet moves its body in perfect mimicry. Rick is unaware of their presence. Ford and Bill can speak freely, just the two of them, just like old times.

“You— you can’t be here,” Ford says weakly, his practiced speech dissolving in the awful reality of his total helplessness. “Get out. I— I don’t want you here anymore.”

“NICE TRY, BUT YOU CAN’T TAKE BACK A HANDSHAKE, FORDSIE,” Bill grins at him, teeth bared. “I’VE GOT FREE REIN OF THE PLACE, REMEMBER?”

“That was before,” Ford pants, a shadow without lungs and yet he feels like he’s struggling to breathe. “You lied to me. The deal— the deal is off.”

“HMMMM, WHAT WERE YOUR EXACT WORDS?” Bill’s eyes rattle around in Ford’s skull in mock-ponderation. “OH, YEAH! FROM NOW UNTIL THE END OF TIME. HATE TO BREAK IT TO YOU, FORDSIE, BUT THIS IS ONE OF THOSE TEDIOUS DIMENSIONS WHERE TIME STILL EXISTS. WHAT A BUZZKILL, HUH?”

“I never would have made that deal if I’d known—”

“H-hey, Fordy,” Rick purrs. “Whatcha thinking ‘bout now?”

Ford watches in dawning horror as a slow, slow smile spreads across his own face. It’s like all the color drains out of the room, the world turning to stark black and white as he realizes what Bill Cipher is about to do.

“Bill, please,” Ford chokes out. “Please, not this.”

But Bill doesn’t answer. Instead Ford hears his own voice, thrown into the puppet’s mouth like a ventriloquist dummy.

“I’m thinking about the way you look in my memories. Longer hair. Less clothes.”

Bill must be a on full-tilt rampage right now, tearing through Ford’s mind and yanking open every door he can find with Rick’s name on it, ransacking the past for ammunition. If it happened between them, Bill will be able to use it against him. Rick doesn’t even know the danger he’s in as he gives a clipped bark of amusement.

“Yeah, well, a-a-at least I never wore a sweater vest,” he fires back. “Nerd.”

The puppet chuckles and dips its head; a perfect imitation. Ford can feel himself shrinking. Then Bill finds something especially interesting and the puppet jerks its head up again, the eyes gone wide with curiosity.

“Pierced nipples? Oh, wow. This I gotta see.”

One of those six-fingered hands reaches up to paw at Rick’s chest, thumb scrubbing roughly at the front of his shirt to feel for the twin barbells it’s expecting to find underneath. The expression of glee on the puppet’s face soon fades to disappointment.

“Heyyyy, what is this?”

“Gimme a break,” Rick rolls his eyes. “Took those out when I— when I quit the band.”

“I REALLY WANTED TO SEE THOSE,” a different voice snarls, and for the first time Rick pulls back, his brow furrowed in confusion.

“Geez, Fordy, relax,” he says, a hint of uncertainty creeping into his tone. “I, uh, I didn’t know you liked ‘em that much.”

“Human body modification is so adorable,” the puppet says, and even though it’s got the voice right this time, the words are coming out all wrong. “I always wanted to experience a piercing. Did it hurt?”

Ford can see Rick’s hands beginning a cautious retreat, the one loosening from the tie and the other lifting up out of the puppet’s lap. Of course. Rick’s too fucking smart to fall for something like this. Hope bursts up within Ford like a drowning man breaking the surface, frantic and gasping. If anyone could get out of here, it’s Rick. There’s still time.

“Sh-sure it hurt,” Rick retracts both hands on the pretense of tugging his shirt back into place. “But, y’know, nothing I couldn’t handle.”

“How would you rate the pain?” the puppet presses. “On a scale of DULL to EXCRUCIATING?

That’s when Rick tries to take a step back. The puppet still has one leg hooked around him and it tightens like a boa constrictor, snatching him closer. Rick’s hands drop reflexively to the puppet’s chest, pushing back to maintain the distance between them.

“Watch it, Pines,” he warns, his body bracing for a fight.

He never gets the chance. In the space of a heartbeat, the puppet abandons any pretense at playing its role. When it leans forward to gloat, it’s unmistakably Bill Cipher— the eyes, the laugh, the terrible, ghastly grin. Rick recoils, his expression raw with alarm, but it’s too late, Bill is too close, he’s got him.

“WHOOPS,” Bill cackles. “SO MUCH FOR SUBTLETY.”

Rick, wide-eyed, barely has time to mumble, “F-Ford?”

Then Bill swipes the last remaining crystal pyramid off the desk and smashes it into Rick’s forehead. The skin cracks and bursts with blood while Rick’s eyes roll over in his skull, his body collapsing to the floor in a boneless heap.

“No!” Ford yelps.

Without thinking he dives forward, desperate to intervene. The momentum carries him straight through Bill’s stolen body and out the other side, intangible, his efforts futile. Ford wheels around and can only watch as Bill raises his arms in an exaggerated stretch, cracking his neck and then all twelve knuckles, groaning as he does so.

“UGH, STANFORD, YOU’RE SO TENSE. YOU WORRY TOO MUCH. IT’S BAD FOR YOUR HEALTH.”

Cracking completed, Bill pivots about, still standing over Rick’s crumpled form but now facing the desk so he can rifle through the drawers. Ford doesn’t know what he’s looking for but he knows it can’t be good.

“Bill,” he chokes out. “Don’t. Please don’t. He has nothing to do with this.”

Humming merrily, Bill finds a roll of duct tape and takes a moment to revel in the sensation of spinning it on his index finger. Then he crouches over Rick and gathers up his limp arms, pinning them together with one broad hand and using the other to wind several rotations of duct tape around Rick’s wrists. Ford stifles a groan.

“Please. I’m— I’m begging you.”

“OH, YOU’RE BEGGING ME, HUH?” Bill snips off the tape with his teeth and lobs the roll at Ford’s head. It whizzes right between his eyes. “AS APPEALING AS THAT IS, STANFORD, I’M NOT RUNNING A CHARITY HERE. I ONLY MAKE DEALS.”

“What do you want?” Ford whispers, the question small because he already knows the answer.

“YOU ALREADY KNOW THE ANSWER,” Bill says.

Ford stares down at Rick on the floor, head bloodied, wrists bound. He has to force the words out past the knot in his throat.

“I can’t.”

“SURE YOU CAN. DO IT NOW AND THIS WHOLE SITUATION NEVER HAS TO GO BEYOND THE STANDARD HURT/COMFORT SCENARIO. YOU COULD BE KISSING THE PAIN AWAY IN NO TIME.”

Permanently burned into his memory, Ford sees the portal, the light, the all-consuming eye. It’s become like a scratch on the lens of his glasses, forever fixed in the corner of his vision, every glimpse a reminder of his carelessness. He shakes his head, agonized.

“You know I can’t.”

Bill plants his heel on the floor right in front of Rick’s unconscious face, then leans the sole of his shoe up against the nose, primed to break it. Looking up at Ford’s shadow, he thrusts out a six-fingered hand in offering.

“LAST CHANCE, PAL. JUST OPEN THAT PORTAL FOR ME AND I’LL BE OUT OF YOUR HAIR. AND YOUR SKIN. AND YOUR CIRCULATORY SYSTEM.”

But Ford has already made the vow that he would never shake that hand again. Fists clenched in anguish, he forces himself to turn his back— and when he does he feels something break inside of him, something tender and weak, something that he hadn’t even realized was there until he felt the callus left behind in its place. He stares off into the corner, hollow.

“SUIT YOURSELF, FORDSIE,” the voice behind him tsk-tsks. “JUST REMEMBER: YOU CAN STOP THIS WHENEVER YOU WANT.”

There’s a dull thud. Rick wakes up with a shout of pain. Ford can’t stop himself from turning around again.

He has an absurd moment of relief when he sees that Bill didn’t actually break Rick’s nose. Rather than push down with the ball of his foot, he kicked up with his heel, clipping Rick in the jaw and flipping him over onto his back. Rick is conscious but disoriented, reaching dizzily for the point of impact, the blood smearing under his fingertips. His gaze sharpens when he realizes that his wrists are bound together in front of him. Still on his back, he instinctively pedals his feet against the floor, pushing himself away from Bill’s looming form.

“Son of a bitch,” he pants. “What the fuck is wrong with you?”

“THAT’S A GOOD QUESTION,” Bill remarks cheerfully. “I THINK I’M GONNA GO WITH: ALL OF THE ABOVE!”

Ford can see the confusion all over Rick’s face, the doubt, the dread. Rick knows that something’s wrong but he can’t figure out what it is and he’s really not used to being in the dark. There’s something almost like fear in his eyes, just for an instant; the fear of the unknown.

“...Ford?” he asks, his voice sounding uncharacteristically small in its uncertainty.

“SORRY, SLICK,” Bill grins. “FORD’S NOT AVAILABLE RIGHT NOW. THE NAME’S BILL. BILL CIPHER! AND WE’RE GONNA HAVE SOME FUN!”

He probably intends for it to be terrifying, but the confirmation of his identity has the opposite effect. The fear is gone from Rick’s eyes now, the doubt and the dread flushed out of his system as the situation finally starts to clarify. The pieces are coming together. He keeps moving backwards, tilting to one side so he can use one of his elbows in a reverse army-crawl across the carpet. He won’t risk rolling over and showing Bill his back.

“So, what,” he growls. “Y-you’re a bodysnatcher? A-a-a hivemind? You got Fordy’s brain all wired up to a remote control?”

“BOY YOU REALLY WENT FOR IT WITH THE SCIENCE-FICTION HAT TRICK,” Bill laughs. “TOO BAD YOU’RE WAY OFF ON THE GENRE. THINGS ARE A LITTLE... WEIRDER AROUND HERE.”

When he thinks he’s got enough distance, Rick takes a chance on lunging forward, trying to get his knees under him so he can get up to his feet. Bill lunges forward too, planting his foot against Rick’s chest and slamming him back down to the floor, pinning him with a heel on his sternum.

“Don’t!” Ford blurts out, one hand outstretched before he remembers that it won’t do any good.

Bill ignores him and Rick can’t hear him. They’ve got each other’s undivided attention, Rick’s hands latched reflexively around Bill’s ankle, Bill flirting with the idea of stomping him like a bug. Ford has seen that look on Rick’s face before. It was right before he smashed a bottle over a guy’s head.

“Get the fuck off of me,” Rick hisses.

Bill just smirks in response. “SURE THING, BUDDY!”

Ford cringes in horror. “No, wait—”

But Bill hops off with a spring in his step. The spring comes from bouncing his full weight against the cradle of Rick’s ribcage, cracking two ribs as he goes. Rick howls like a kicked dog and writhes on the floor, clutching at his chest while Bill takes a leisurely stroll over to the nearest wall.

“I GOTTA TELL YA, FORDSIE, I’M NOT A FAN OF THE REDECORATING IN HERE. YOU’VE REALLY LOST TOUCH WITH THE OVERALL THEME OF THE SPACE.”

“Ford?” Rick coughs and looks around. “Wait— wait— Ford is here?

“HE SURE IS, SLICK.” Bill stabs a finger towards the corner where Ford is cowering. “HE’S RIGHT OVER THERE! WHY DON’T YOU SAY HELLO?”

Rick twists his head to follow Bill’s pointing. Ford is paralyzed by the fury in his eyes, the outrage, the betrayal. Over and over Rick scans the empty space. Even invisible, Ford could swear he feels the heat of Rick’s gaze passing over him like a spotlight.

“There’s nothing there,” Rick says, hoarse, like he’s not sure if he’s being lied to or if he’s missing something.

“OH, HE’S THERE, ALL RIGHT,” Bill assures him. “AND I’M— RIGHT— HERE.

He grabs the nearest sheet and yanks down hard; the overlapping corners pull down the surrounding sheets in the process, exposing three massive panels of the study wall. There’s the image of his true form, one-eyed and three-sided, an audience to his own mayhem. Crowing with laughter, Bill joins his thumbs and forefingers together into a triangle shape, framing one eye and closing the other.

“I KNOW WHAT YOU’RE THINKING,” he says. “I LOOK BETTER IN THE PICTURES.” He gestures down the length of his body. “THEN AGAIN, YOU MUST LIKE SOMETHING ABOUT THIS MEATSACK OR YOU WOULDN’T BE HERE.”

Rick has his bound hands pressed to his side, squeezing against the pain. “So you— Cipher— you’re in the meatsack.” He winces as he tosses his chin towards the corner. “A-and Ford is… o-over there.”

“HEY, YOU CATCH ON PRETTY QUICK!” Bill enthuses. “YEAH, ME AND FORDSIE, WE GO WAY BACK. GOT A PRETTY SWEET DEAL GOING ON. I HELPED HIM BUILD HIS PORTAL, AND IN RETURN I GET FREE ACCESS TO THIS BODY WHENEVER I WANT!” He snaps the two middle fingers on both hands. “THAT REMINDS ME— COULD YOU TELL WHEN WE SWITCHED? DO YOU KNOW HOW LONG IT WAS ME? I’LL BET I CAN TELL YOU ONE THING: IT WAS LONGER THAN YOU THINK!”

“Fuck you,” Rick snarls, then pitches his words into the corner. “And fuck you, Pines. I-I-I should’ve known your dipshit ass couldn’t build that portal. You’re pathetic. You— you sold me out? You piece of shit.

“It’s not like that,” Ford moans, despondent. “Rick, I would never— I’m sorry—”

“OH, IT GETS EVEN BETTER,” Bill rubs his hands together with glee. “SEE, IT JUST SO HAPPENS WE’VE HAD A BIT OF A FALLING OUT RECENTLY. APPARENTLY STANFORD HAS BEEN HAVING SECOND THOUGHTS ABOUT TEARING OPEN A HOLE IN THE FABRIC OF THE SPACE-TIME CONTINUUM. WHAT A PARTY POOPER, AM I RIGHT?”

Now there’s a glimmer of recognition on Rick’s face. “He said— he said he never should have built it. That was because of you.”

“AND AFTER ALL I’VE DONE FOR HIM! I HAD BIG PLANS FOR THIS DIMENSION, AND NOW HE’S TRYING TO BACK OUT OF OUR DEAL. I DON’T APPRECIATE THAT. AND I’M SURE YOU APPRECIATE THAT. JUST LIKE I’M SURE YOU APPRECIATE THAT NONE OF THIS IS PERSONAL. YOU’RE JUST A CONVENIENT TOOL FOR ME TO INEXORABLY BEND STANFORD TO MY WILL! NO HARD FEELINGS, HUH?”

Funnily enough, this seems to make Rick angrier than anything else that’s come before.

“Are you kidding me?” he splutters, furious. “You did not just call me a tool you goddamn Illuminati motherfucker.”

He’s so incensed that he lurches into another ill-advised attempt to get to his feet. This time Bill simply reaches down and pops a six-fingered fist against Rick’s ribcage, driving him back down to the floor with a clipped grunt of pain.

“SORRY, SLICK, I JUST CALL ‘EM LIKE I SEE ‘EM.” Bill shrugs good-naturedly. “WHICH COUNTS FOR A LOT, BECAUSE I SEE EVERYTHING!” He leans down to grin right in Rick’s face. “AND RIGHT NOW I SEE A SHINY NEW TOY. MY FAVORITE KIND OF TOY, TOO— SOMEONE ELSE’S! THAT MAKES BREAKING IT TWICE AS FUN!”

He’s still leaning down, mid-taunt, when Rick leans up and bashes his joined hands right into his mouth. Bill rears back like he’s been thrown, uncoordinated in his stolen body, one hand clapped over his face and the other pinwheeling for balance. Finally he catches the edge of the desk, and in the time it takes him to reorient himself, Rick manages to get his knees under him and scramble up to his feet. From there he plants his back against the bookcases, his bound hands up in front of him, flanked on either side by a filing cabinet and the spiral staircase. It’s a cozy little defensive position and Rick knows it, his lip curled in challenge.

“Having fun yet?”

Bill takes his hand away from his mouth and gives an ecstatic whoop when he sees blood on his fingertips. He stares at Rick from across the tight confines of the study, six fingernails dug into the lip of the desk, the knuckles turning white from the strain.

“WELL WELL WELL,” he chortles. “NOW THAT WAS UNEXPECTED. YOU DO REALIZE THAT YOU’RE DAMAGING FORD’S BODY, RIGHT? EVERYTHING YOU DO TO ME, YOU DO TO HIM.”

“No-eugh-ot really my problem right now.” Eyes still locked on Bill, Rick half-turns his head and yells into the corner. “No offense, Fordy, but I-I-I’m about to kick your ass. A-and just so we’re clear— you deserve it.”

Ford hugs his arms to his chest, silent. He deserves worse. Rick gives his full focus back to Bill now, and even though his hands are literally tied, he braces himself in a fighting stance.

“This isn’t gonna go down how you think,” he warns.

Bill rubs his bloody fingertips together like he’s playing the world’s smallest violin.

“YOU’RE RIGHT,” he says. “THIS IS BETTER!”

And how could Rick know that Ford used to wake up covered in bruises, in scratches, in cigarette burns? How, when pressed, Bill would reassure him that his motives were benign, that the stimulation of the endorphins produced a stronger bond between his infinite intellect and the mortal host body. How Ford resolutely turned his head away from the gift horse’s mouth, how he swallowed it whole, hook line and sinker. Rick doesn’t know that Bill is Greek fire; any attempt to douse the flame will only stoke it wilder.

“That’s enough,” Ford says, sharp, and he comes down out of the corner to place himself between them, facing Bill. “You heard him. He’s not going to give you what you want. Neither am I.”

“YOU TALK A BIG TALK,” Bill says, and Ford knows he’s addressing both of them. “BUT WE’LL SEE HOW LONG THAT LASTS. REALLY, I SHOULD BE THANKING YOU.” Now, unmistakably, those slitted pupils shift to lock eyes with Ford. “IT’S BEEN AGES SINCE I TOOK THIS BODY FOR A JOYRIDE.”

Ford holds his stare. It’s all he can do. That and make this pledge, while he’s still calm, while he still can:

“I will never open that portal.”

It’s just as much to remind himself as it is to remind Bill. Then, from behind him, he hears a defiant battle cry.

“Let’s go, bitch!” Rick hollers. “Come on!”

And even though every instinct in Ford’s consciousness urges him to push back, his rational mind knows there’s nothing he can do. Bill launches himself off the desk and rips right through Ford’s useless shade, leaving Ford helpless to do anything but turn about and watch the action unfold.

Bill charges in a bull rush, both hands out to grab, to crush. Rick feints towards Bill’s right, but at the last second he grabs Bill’s left wrist and yanks it diagonally across his body, twisting him sideways. The forward momentum brings them right up against each other, and when they’re side by side Rick delivers a headbutt that sounds like a breaking board; a dull, organic crack that Ford can feel in his phantom teeth. Rick follows it up with a knee to Bill’s stomach, moving with such practiced assurance that Ford can only wonder how many assailants he’s disabled with that exact same combination in the past.

Unfortunately, none of those assailants were Bill Cipher.

“OH, YEAH!” Bill howls. “THIS GUY REALLY KNOWS HOW TO PARTY!

He swings his left arm right back around again, a vicious backhand that nails Rick in the jaw, snapping his head back against the bookshelf. Then Bill grabs him by the shoulders and delivers not one but two brutal headbutts in return, right to center of Rick’s forehead, leaving Bill grinning and Rick reeling and dizzy.

“I’M IMPRESSED, SANCHEZ,” Bill praises, reaching past Rick’s blindly swatting hands to chuck him under the chin. “MOST HUMANS WOULD HAVE HESITATED BEFORE HEADBUTTING A FAMILIAR FACE. YOU DIDN’T EVEN BAT AN EYE. I LIKE IT.”

“Yeah, well,” Rick wheezes. “Maybe I’m pretty fucking pissed at that face right now.”

And the awful truth is, Ford is pretty fucking pissed at that face, too. It’s all his fault. That smug, insufferable prick. Ford can hardly bear to look at him. That’s the face of the idiot who shook hands with Bill Cipher. That’s the face of the man that ruined his life. In that moment, Ford knows he wants Rick to tear him apart.

“Kick his ass, Rick,” he mutters. He knows Rick can’t hear him. He just wants to speak it into existence. Let it be so.

As his vision clears, Rick knots his fingers together and pulls back his doubled-up fists like a club, looking for the right place to swing. Bill laughs, raising both hands up like an old-fashioned boxer, ready to swat away any attempts at his face. He’s so focused on Rick’s hands that it doesn’t even occur to him that humans have two other powerful limbs that are useful in combat— let alone that his own borrowed form has more vulnerable points aside from his eye(s)— not until Rick brings his knee up right into his balls.

No hesitation, no softening the impact; Rick drives up hard, intent on a crippling blow. I may never have children, Ford thinks, and it’s probably for the best. He’s made more than enough mistakes to qualify for removal from the gene pool. Meanwhile Bill lets out a terrible caterwaul, raw and protracted, his stolen human vocal chords incapable of producing the sound of screeching metal and broken glass. He doubles over instantly, involuntarily, the muscles contracting while the mind still tries to process what’s happening.

Rick won’t give him the chance to regain his bearings. He breaks from his defensive position and darts around behind Bill, flinging his arms around his neck and yanking back until his bound wrists become a garrote, cutting off Bill’s oxygen. Bill arches back towards him, hands scrabbling at the duct tape as Rick crushes the air out of him, ruthless. They stagger around the cramped space together, crashing into furniture and knocking books off the shelves. When Ford gets a look at Rick’s face, he sees nothing but stone-cold resolve. He won’t have to last long— just long enough.

Then Bill starts hammering back with his elbows, bashing Rick in his damaged ribcage, the broken bones still ripe for the bruising. Rick gives a bellow of agony but he won’t let go, his hands balled into fists, his arms straining to keep the pressure on Bill’s neck. Bill keeps at it, thud, thud, tearing a ragged yelp out of Rick with every impact.

“Son of a bitch,” Rick hisses, teeth clenched, eyes watering. “You son of a bitch—”

“Hang on, Rick,” Ford pleads with him. “Just hang on.”

He almost makes it. Then Bill lurches his full weight backwards and slams Rick against the curved railing of the spiral staircase with enough force to splinter the wood into hairline fractures. It doesn’t just knock the wind out of him; it ejects the breath from Rick’s lungs, leaving him wide-eyed and gasping for air. With the threat neutralized, Bill takes hold of Rick’s arms and lifts them up over his head with all the cheerful nonchalance of removing a flower lei. Then he makes a big show of clearing his throat, ahem-hem-hemming away all vestiges of strangulation while Rick groans and holds his chest, every desperate gulp of oxygen causing him that much more pain.

“BOY, YOU’RE A REAL TOUGH GUY, HUH?” Bill meticulously straightens out the lapels of his borrowed trenchcoat. “I AM LOVING THIS ENTHUSIASM. THAT KNEE TO THE GROIN? GENIUS! I HOPE MY REACTION WAS ALL RIGHT. I CAN NEVER REMEMBER THE APPROPRIATE HUMAN RESPONSE.” He snaps his fingers, inspired. “HEY, HOW ABOUT YOU GIVE ME A DEMONSTRATION?”

Braying with laughter, he closes in on Rick, who scrambles away from him in a panic. Back against the wall, Rick circles the perimeter of the study while Bill pivots to keep up with him, relentless, still laughing. Determined, Ford swoops down and places himself in the middle, arms out like he’s trying to flag down a car, crowding up as much of Bill’s field of vision as he can. The effort only makes Bill laugh harder.

Rick keeps throwing glances over his shoulder, scanning for anything he might be able to use as a weapon. At last he catches sight of something serviceable, and he chances turning his back on Bill just long enough to reach his joined hands behind him and grab onto a golden idol of the triangle demon himself. In the next instant he swings it back around like he’s going for a home run. Ford automatically dives out of the way as the idol catches Bill mid-charge, whacking him in the ribs, right where his heart should be.

“Nice one, Rick!” Ford cheers. It isn’t clear if he managed to break any bones, but he’s sure that tomorrow will find a bruise there the color of a galaxy.

“HEY!” Bill whines. “YOU’RE HITTING ME WITH MY OWN FACE? RUDE!”

“Blow me,” Rick retorts.

He takes another swing but this time Bill catches his taped wrists overhead, leaving him wide open for Bill’s free hand to deliver a matching set of punches, one quick pop to each eye socket that leaves Rick temporarily blind with pain. Then Bill wrestles the idol out of his hands like a parent taking away a toy from a naughty child. He shakes it under Rick’s nose, scolding him.

“THAT WASN’T VERY NICE. THIS THING IS REALLY HEAVY. LET’S SEE HOW YOU LIKE IT!”

“No!” Ford cries out. “No, no—”

Quick, brutal, Bill wallops the idol against Rick’s side, drawing out a strangled cry as Rick instinctively hugs his arms over his belly for protection. Frantic, Ford dives between them, his hands held out towards Bill in useless supplication.

“Don’t, please! Please!”

But Bill just swings right through him. He keeps bashing the idol at Rick’s shoulder, his hip, willfully deaf to Ford’s pleas to stop it, stop it, battering away at Rick’s attempts to shield himself from further harm. The sounds are the worst part. Ford can hear every excruciating grunt of impact, every wheezing inhale as Rick struggles to keep breathing through the beating, until Bill finally hits him hard enough to drive him to his knees.

There’s nothing Ford can do, but he can’t leave him. He hovers over Rick, wishing he could touch him, even for an instant, just a flicker of comfort.

“I’m sorry,” he whimpers, his voice small, lost. “God, Rick, I’m… I’m so sorry.”

But Rick can’t see him, can’t hear him, doesn’t even know he’s there. As far as Rick is concerned, he’s going through this alone. Gulping for breath, he drops his hands to the carpet to brace himself, then tugs them back up to his chest again, still trying to guard his abdomen. By now his whole body is trembling from the strain.

“Motherfucker,” he pants, flinching in anticipation of a blow to his head. “Go ahead, do it. Do it!”

“Wait!” Ford begs. “Bill, don’t!”

Both hands gripped on the base of the idol, Bill raises it back over his head, ready to bring it down like a hammer. Ford’s just making incoherent noises now, spluttering, hands up, useless, useless. Rick stares up at him, defiant, his bloody lip raised in a sneer.

The idol comes down— only it doesn’t split Rick’s skull open. It misses him completely. Instead of striking a blow, Bill dips the idol almost to the floor, then heaves it gleefully back over his shoulder in a perfect imitation of a bride throwing a bouquet. Huge and heavy, it smashes into the bookshelves and then thuds to the floor in a flurry of loose pages. Bill dusts off his hands with a contented chuckle.

“SO, FORDSIE,” he says. “HOW’S THAT DEAL SOUNDING RIGHT ABOUT NOW?”

It’s every nightmare Ford’s ever had; pinned in a spotlight, drowning in the consequences of his mistakes, incapable of protecting anyone or anything. He clutches reflexively at his trenchcoat only for his hands to pass right through it, unable to comfort even himself. He’s unanchored and nonexistent, adrift in space, paralyzed.

“Oh-h-hhhh, no,” Rick snorts and hacks out a mouthful of blood. “Don’t— don’t you fucking dare, Fordy. You are not making a deal with this prick.”

Ford looks back at him, stricken. Rick’s in bad shape. The head wound is a jagged red stripe on his forehead, his chin split open from that kick and his mouth bloody from the brawling that came after. His eye sockets are already starting to bruise and every breath comes with a hiss of effort. Ford can hardly bear the thought of letting this go on.

Bill interrupts, reading his thoughts.

“YOU THINK HE LOOKS BAD NOW, SIXER? WAIT TILL I START INFLICTING PERMANENT DAMAGE. YOU’LL BE WISHING YOU’D OPENED THAT PORTAL BACK WHEN HE STILL HAD ALL HIS FINGERS AND TOES.”

“Bring it on, asshole!” Rick says. “Y-y-you think I’m gonna go easy? No fucking way.”

“Rick, please,” Ford says without thinking, reaching automatically for Rick’s elbow, ready to steer him away from yet another college bar fight. It’s a dizzying moment when he realizes that they’re almost a decade away from the last time such a thing happened.

“WHOA, SETTLE DOWN THERE, CHAMP,” Bill chuckles. “THE GROWN-UPS ARE TALKING.”

He reaches down to tousle the silver hair. Rick jerks his head away with a snarl.

“Son of a bitch—”

“HE’S REAL CUTE, STANFORD,” Bill talks right over him. “I LIKE HIS SPUNK. I’LL BET YOU DO, TOO. IT’D BE A SHAME IF I HAD TO PUMMEL IT OUT OF HIM!” He rubs his hands together, eager. “HE’LL GO SLOW, SIXER. I CAN TELL.”

“You’re goddamn right I’ll go slow!” Rick rages. “Go ahead and take me apart, you triangle piece of shit, I don’t give a fuck. And Ford?” Rick turns to address thin air. “A-a-are you listening to me, you cocksucker?”

Ford swims into the general direction of Rick’s gaze. Rick keeps his stare locked onto one singular point in the corner, so it’s easy for Ford to find the center and turn to face him.

“I fucking mean it,” Rick hisses, his voice cold and certain. “Don’t you give him shit. I won’t crack. Y-you better not crack, Fordy. Don’t give him shit.

And Ford is ashamed, so ashamed, at how relieved he is to be told what to do.

“I won’t, Rick,” he mumbles, his eyes darting back to Bill’s face. “I won’t give him shit.”

Bill clucks his tongue and shakes his head, grinning.

“THAT’S TOO BAD. STILL, I HAVE TO ADMIT, I WAS SORT OF HOPING YOU’D SAY THAT. NOW I GET TO TRY THIS!

Still grinning, Bill doubles up his fists and sweeps them down in an arc like a golfer teeing off. The brunt of the impact catches Rick in the temple, blowing him off balance and sprawling him out on the floor. Instantly Rick rolls onto his side, curling up to shield his abdomen, a turtle-like defensive posture without the actual benefit of a shell. Bill kicks him right in the small of his back.

Fuck!” Rick yelps, his body jerking instinctively before he gathers himself back into a ball again.

“AWW, IT’S ADORABLE HOW YOU THINK THIS CAN STOP ME!” Bill exults.

He keeps kicking, arms flung out and legs swinging in wide, joyous arcs. It’s just like Gene Kelly, only instead of rain puddles, he’s trouncing Rick’s exposed back; and instead of splashes, he’s drawing out screams. He punts again and again, until Rick finally can’t hold out anymore and has to roll over to protect his spine. That’s when Bill straddles him, coming down hard to pin him to the floor, settling his weight on Rick’s belly. Coughing for air, Rick still fights him, taking furious swipes at his face while Bill cackles and bats away his efforts.

“I’M GONNA LET YOU IN ON A LITTLE SECRET, SLICK,” he says. “OLE FORDSIE HERE ISN’T THE FIRST SUCKER TO GIVE ME THE ALL-ACCESS PASS. I’VE HAD PLENTY OF PUPPETS AND THEY’VE ALL HAD THEIR PERKS. YOU WANNA KNOW WHAT FORD’S PERK IS?”

He grabs Rick’s bound wrists with one hand so he can shove the other in Rick’s face, splaying the six fingers before him.

THESE BABIES!” Bill whoops with delight and waggles the digits. “ALL THESE YEARS AND I’VE NEVER HAD A BODY LIKE THIS. WHAT A FREAK, HUH?”

Ford is riveted in dismay. His hands seem even more unnatural from a distance, ugly and distorted, too big, too many fingers, wrong. He hates how huge and ungainly the thing looks when held up before Rick’s face. It seems impossible that Rick could have ever allowed himself to be touched by something so grotesque.

“NOW I’VE DONE MY SHARE OF STRANGLING OVER THE CENTURIES,” Bill confides. “BUT THIS’LL BE MY FIRST TIME DOING IT WITH SIX FINGERS. GO EASY ON ME!”

And that awful hand darts down like a cobra, latching around Rick’s throat in an iron grip. Rick thrashes against it, his legs kicking, his wrists jerking against Bill’s restraining hold. Bill just lets go so he can move his other hand to Rick’s neck as well, locking him in a double-fisted vise, remorseless. Rick bucks and struggles, arching his back in an attempt to dislodge him— but Bill has the effortless advantage, driving Rick down to the floor whenever he rises, the vise growing tighter every time.

“Stop!” Ford bawls, stupid, futile. “Stop it! Stop it!”

He grabs for Bill even though he’ll never be able to reach him, even though the sight of his own spectral six-fingered hand fills him with loathing. Bill ignores him, bearing down on Rick with a manic grin slashed across his face, his shoulders shaking with laughter. Red vessels start to burst against the white field of Rick’s sclera, his gaze turning raw and bloodshot, his bound hands clawing at everything he can reach— Bill’s jaw, his cheek, his terrible eyes. It will never be enough. Bill has every possible edge, from his weight to his position to his relatively-uninjured status— Rick is scrawny and pinned and already grappling with a set of broken ribs. He doesn’t stand a chance.

“No,” Ford wails, to no effect whatsoever. “No, please, no, no—”

By now Rick’s whole face is flushed red, his tongue lolling out of his mouth, the kicking of his legs growing increasingly sluggish and spasmodic as the oxygen deprivation relentlessly shuts down his efforts to fight back. Even his arms are starting to give out, his hands sagging against Bill’s shoulder, fingernails scratching weakly at his neck. From the way his eyes flutter and roll, it’s clear that he’s clinging to the very cusp of a blackout. All Ford can think about is the portal, the portal, he could stop this, he could, he could, he could

“I can’t!” he howls. “I can’t, I’m sorry, I can’t, I can’t—”

He scrambles backwards, back up into the corner, anything to put distance between himself and this horror he’s created. When he reaches the wall he’s tempted to just keep going, keep phasing through the earth around him and never look back. He wouldn’t even ascend above the level of the basement. He would just pass endlessly through the tectonic plates, adrift forever within the crust of the planet. At this point it’s about all he deserves. At this point it’s all he wants. To look away, to let go— to close the curtains—

It wouldn’t be the first time you turned your back on someone who needed you.

“Goddamn it,” Ford chokes out, his voice thick with shame.

He braces himself and turns back around. It’s not a moment too soon; any more hesitation and he might have missed it. From his vantage point in the corner he can see Rick’s pupils go all the way up and over, his body going slack, the last ounce of fight finally crushed out of him.

The struggling stops. Rick is silent. The whole room is silent— except for Bill’s ongoing chuckle, as constant and inescapable as tinnitus, a permanent ringing in Ford’s ear. He’ll be hearing that laugh on his deathbed.

It’s over, Ford thinks, dazed. At least it’s over.

And so of course Bill, cruel bastard that he is, releases his stranglehold, punctuating it with a bracing slap across Rick’s face.

And of course Rick, stubborn bastard that he is, surges awake with an agonized wheeze, his body wracked with violent coughs.

Ford hates himself for feeling an actual flicker of disappointment. Not over yet.

With a patronizing sigh, Bill shifts forward onto his knees, sitting up and taking his weight off of Rick’s belly to let him catch his breath. Rick jolts and shudders underneath him like a busted carburetor, his bound hands rubbing instinctively at his neck, his eyes darting around the room, seeking an anchor and finding only the image of his attacker on every wall. Finally he just screws his eyes shut tight, his focus turning inward as he concentrates on regulating his oxygen intake. Bill isn’t even paying attention to him right now. He’s looking up at Ford and grinning from ear to ear.

“COME ON, FORDSIE, DID YOU REALLY THINK IT WOULD BE THAT EASY? I’M JUST GETTING WARMED UP. THE ONLY QUESTION IS: WHO’S GONNA BREAK FIRST? IS IT GONNA BE YOU, OR IS IT GONNA BE HIM AND THEN YOU?”

Before Ford even has a chance to answer, Rick doubles up his fists and slams Bill with a sucker punch straight to the balls.

Bill feels it twice as hard this time, the point of impact already swollen and tender, the lesson apparently unlearned. Out comes that hideous screech, his body contorting, crumpling over and allowing Rick the proximity to lean up and bash him with a solid headbutt, evening the score on that count at least. And as Bill reels back from the blow, Rick uses the confusion to twist his way loose, wriggling out from under Bill’s legs and scooting back across the floor until he can sit up and prop his back against the bookcase, his bloody mouth twisted in a smirk of triumph. Bill huddles there on his knees, both hands clamped over his groin, his eyes blinking rapidly at the sensory overload.

“WOW,” he says. “THAT ONE NEVER GETS OLD. PURE, UNADULTERATED PAIN. YOU SURE KNOW HOW TO DELIVER, SLICK.”

“Y-you keep leaving it wide open,” Rick’s voice has a serrated edge, his throat ragged from the assault. “Can’t resist an easy target.”

“EVEN SO,” Bill palpates the injury, maximizing the aftershocks. “THIS IS STILL YOUR OLD PAL FORD’S BODY. I DIDN’T THINK YOU’D BE SO QUICK TO BUST UP YOUR FAVORITE PART OF IT.”

Rick snorts. “Uhhhh, okay, number one, I’ll bust up any piece of him I can get my hands on. A-a-and number two, who ever said that was my favorite?”

“YOU SEEM PRETTY FOND OF IT,” Bill shrugs. “AT LEAST YOU DO IN ALL OF THESE INTIMATE MEMORIES I’VE BEEN VOYEURISTICALLY PERUSING. LOOKS LIKE YOU COULD BARELY KEEP IT OUT OF YOUR MOUTH.”

Ford cringes with embarrassment— but Rick just laughs, his gaze directed slyly into the corner.

“We-e-ell,” he winks. “That was more for Fordy’s benefit.”

“HE SURE DID SEEM TO BE ENJOYING HIMSELF,” Bill also looks up in Ford’s direction, locking eyes with him. “I GOTTA ADMIT, SIXER, MY INTEREST IS PIQUED. I’VE HAD A LOT OF FUN IN THIS MEATSACK, BUT YOU NEVER LET ME TAKE IT ALL THE WAY. I’M STARTING TO THINK IT’S TIME TO POP THIS CHERRY!”

Rick’s not laughing anymore. Now he draws his legs up to his chest, his hands raised in a defensive posture, his teeth bared in warning.

“Don’t even try it,” he snarls. “I’ll clip your dick like a goddamn cigar.”

Bill throws back his head and howls with delight. Then he takes his sweet time clambering back up to his full height, Rick shrinking smaller and smaller against the bookcase as he does so, squeezing himself into as narrow a target as possible. Ford darts in close to Bill’s side, his voice pitched low, as if he’s afraid Rick will somehow overhear.

“For God’s sake, Bill,” he mutters, at a loss to do anything but talk. “This is insane. You can’t— it’s too far, even for you.”

“EVEN FOR ME?” Bill slowly cocks his head over to one side and turns to look at him. “YOU DON’T EVEN KNOW ME, STANFORD.”

The massive truth in those words is almost too much to bear. Everything Ford ever learned about Bill sprang from one simple fact: Bill was his friend. Bill could be trusted. Bill wanted to help him. If that’s not true, then Ford really doesn’t know anything at all— and for him there’s almost nothing worse. All he ever wanted was to know, to learn, to understand. Like a fool, he trusted Bill to guide him. Now he can’t even trust his own body to keep him safe. He can’t trust anyone.

“I wish I’d never met you,” he mumbles, helpless.

“YEAH,” Bill cackles. “I’LL BET RICK DOES, TOO!” He takes a forceful step towards his prey. “HOW ABOUT IT, CHATTERBOX? YOU WANNA SHOW ME WHAT ELSE THAT MOUTH CAN DO?”

Rick bunches back against the wall, flattening away from Bill’s approach.

“Fuck you,” he spits. “Anything you put in my mouth you’re gonna lose. I-I-I’ll fucking do it.”

Bill lurches another step closer. “IS THAT A PROMISE?”

Rick is shaking with rage, desperate to stand up and fight back but too weak and too injured to do anything but cringe against the bookcase, fingers curled like claws. “Th-th-that’s a guarantee, motherfucker! Come on and try me!

The space is so tight that it only takes one more step for Bill to loom up over him, hands held up like a snake charmer approaching a difficult subject. Ford tries to get between them but Bill just waves him away like a cloud of smoke. Rick cants up onto his back, getting his feet off the floor so he can pepper Bill with quick, defensive kicks, aiming for his belly and groin. But Bill’s finally got his number there— he swats away the first few kicks and then manages to snag Rick by the ankle, upending him and dragging him out of his protected corner while Rick thrashes and yells in protest.

When he gets him out into the middle of the room, Bill wrestles Rick over onto his belly, then sits down hard on his tailbone. It’s just easier to restrain him that way; he still wants to see his face, and he flips Rick over again underneath him, pinning him down on his back. Rick’s fingers go straight for Bill’s eyes, intent on tearing at least one of them out of the socket. Bill catches him by the joined wrists, one-handed, effortlessly twisting Rick’s arms out of the way.

“I KNOW YOU HAD SOMETHING ELSE IN MIND,” Bill says. “BUT YOU DID SAY ANYTHING. LET’S SEE IF YOU CAN SNAP OFF SOMETHING WITH A LITTLE MORE SUBSTANCE. A LITTLE MORE BONE!” He throws a glance back over his shoulder. “HEY, FORDSIE! HOW MANY FINGERS DO YOU THINK I CAN FIT IN HIS MOUTH?”

“Don’t,” Ford winces. “Please, don’t.”

“LET’S START WITH TWO!”

With unbridled gusto, Bill takes the first two fingers of his hand and jams them violently into Rick’s mouth. Rick tries to clench his teeth against the intrusion, but Bill forces his way inside and then Rick is biting down on him, incisors scraping at the knuckles, jaw locked like a terrier’s. Within seconds he’s broken the skin, his lips smeared with blood while Bill whoops with pleasure.

“AAAH, YEAH! NOW THAT’S WHAT I CALL PAIN! COME ON, YOU CAN TAKE ANOTHER ONE.”

Bill wedges the next finger into him, then shoves all three so deep that Rick gags on them, his whole body convulsing in distress, his hands jerking against Bill’s grip. The fourth digit follows shortly after, Rick’s mouth distended, his eyes leaking tears as he struggles to breathe through the seizure of his gag reflex. He’s still tearing away with his teeth, mangling everything he can reach, the flesh ripped and ragged from his efforts as Bill laughs and laughs.

“UH OH, SANCHEZ,” he giggles. “I THINK YOU’VE BITTEN OFF MORE THAN YOU CAN CHEW!”

A million miles away from it all, Ford can hardly believe that he’s looking at his own hand doing such damage. It looks so twisted, so foreign; like some awful sentient creature that’s latched onto Rick’s face, each digit its own appendage.

He used to kiss my fingertips, he remembers, dizzy— Sunday mornings in his cramped dormitory bed, Rick’s mouth moving from hand to hand, one dozen kisses before he was done.

“ONLY ONE LEFT,” Bill cheers. “LET’S GO FOR THE GOLD!”

Cranking Rick’s jaw open past all endurance, he forces the fifth finger inside, then splays them out until Rick’s lip actually splits from the strain, his chin streaked with a fresh line of blood. It also pushes his gag reflex beyond the breaking point, and in the next instant a surge of vomit erupts past the barrier of Bill’s hand, spraying all over them both. Bill reacts like he just got splashed on a log flume ride.

“WOOHOO! I SHOULD’VE WORN A PONCHO!”

He twists his fingers and Rick pukes again, thick and messy and streaked with the blood from Bill’s maimed hand. It’s not just coming out of Rick’s mouth, it’s bubbling out of his nose, his lungs spasming and aspirating fluid, suffocating him as surely as a stranglehold. By the time Bill pulls his hand back to shake the mess from his fingers, it’s already too late— pinned on his back, Rick is drowning in his own vomit.

“Bill!” Ford’s voice cracks with urgency. “Bill, he’s choking! He can’t breathe!”

“SURE LOOKS LIKE IT,” Bill muses, rapping his bloody knuckles against Rick’s shuddering ribcage. “THAT’S TOO BAD. GET A LITTLE FLUID IN THE PIPES AND THE WHOLE THING SHUTS DOWN.”

“You have to let him turn over,” Ford’s eyes are locked on Rick, choking and shaking, snapping his head from side to side as he tries to clear his airway. “Please, Bill, turn him over, give him a chance—”

“GOSH, FORDSIE, I’M A LITTLE SURPRISED,” Bill clucks his tongue. “A MINUTE AGO YOU COULDN’T WAIT FOR THIS ALL TO END. NOW YOU WANT ME TO KEEP GOING?”

Ford thinks about Rick dying on his back, helpless and humiliated. It’s too much to bear.

“Not like this,” he mumbles. “Please not like this.”

“AWWWW,” Bill coos. “HOW CAN I SAY NO TO YOU, SIXER?”

Just like that, he reaches down and unceremoniously flips Rick over onto his belly, then stands up with his legs still bracketing the prone form below him. Gasping for air, Rick gets his forearms down on the floor and pulls his knees up under him, bracing himself in a tripod position so he can cough out the worst of it. His back pumps up and down like a cat working out a hairball, each breath a little deeper, each cough a little more productive, until finally he unleashes a third wave of vomit that seems to more or less clear him out. Exhausted, he drops his forehead down to the messy cradle of his forearms, his breath coming in slow, protracted wheezes. Ford can see the agony in every inch of his expression.

“WHAT DID I TELL YOU?” Bill gives Ford a knowing smile. “NICE AND SLOW. HE’S NOT BROKEN YET, STANFORD, BUT YOU CAN BET I’LL GET HIM THERE. I JUST THOUGHT THIS MIGHT BE A NICE OPPORTUNITY TO REMIND YOU THAT OUR DEAL IS STILL ON THE TABLE.”

Ford tears his eyes away from Rick’s anguished face and forces himself to look at his own. It’s eerie how unfamiliar it looks; after a lifetime of only seeing it in a mirror, seeing it from the outside is like looking at a stranger, an imposter with its features subtly reversed. Even without those dreadful eyes, Ford barely recognizes himself.

“I’m not making a deal with you,” he mutters. “No matter what.”

“NOW, NOW,” Bill chides. “I’LL ADMIT THAT NEGOTIATIONS HAVE GOTTEN A BIT… TENSE. BUT IT’S STILL NOT TOO LATE FOR BOTH OF US TO GET WHAT WE WANT.”

“You don’t know what I want.”

“I KNOW EVERYTHING ABOUT YOU, FORDSIE.”

Ford grimaces, his mouth so filled with loathing he can taste it. “Not anymore.”

“OH YEAH? I KNOW YOU WON’T LIKE IT IF I DO THIS.”

Balancing on one foot, Bill lifts the other and places it on the concave of Rick’s back, shoving with all his weight and smashing Rick out of his tripod position, sprawling him out on the floor. Rick rolls onto his side in an effort to huddle into a more defensible posture, his bound hands raised to shield his head and neck. Bill raises his foot for another stomp.

“Don’t—!”

Ford tries to cut himself off but the exclamation is already out. Smirking, Bill pivots on his anchor foot and puts the raised one down on the safety of the carpet, strolling away from Rick’s battered form with his hands clasped idly behind his back.

“AH, SIXER,” he sighs. “YOU’RE MAKING THIS SO MUCH MORE COMPLICATED THAN IT HAS TO BE.” He reaches out to fiddle with the flotsam on the desk, pushing around pencils and papers like so many checker pieces. “I WANT THAT PORTAL OPEN, AND YOU WANT ME TO STOP WRECKING YOUR EX. IT’S NOT ROCKET SCIENCE. YOU DO WANT ME TO STOP, DON’T YOU?”

Ford makes a devastated sound. “Of course I want you to—”

He gets cut off by a furious bout of coughing from the floor.

“No, goddamn it!” Rick is propped up on his elbows, shouting aimlessly into the corners. “This isn’t your call, Pines. I don’t give a fuck what you want. This one’s up to me.”

“But it’s my fault,” Ford groans, so dismayed that he forgets he can’t be heard.

Bill chuckles with amusement, though it’s impossible to tell whether he’s amused by Rick’s defiance, Ford’s despair, or the fact that he’s just finished arranging all the pencils on the desk into the shape of a triangle.

“WELL WELL WELL,” he says. “YOU KNOW, AFTER WATCHING YOUR GREATEST HITS IN FORD’S MEMORY BANK, I WOULDN’T HAVE PEGGED YOU FOR THE NOBLE TYPE, SANCHEZ. NOW HERE YOU ARE, ALL READY TO TAKE ONE FOR THE TEAM! I’M CURIOUS— IS IT TO PROTECT YOUR DIMENSION? OR IS IT TO PROTECT POOR FORDSIE OVER THERE?”

“Man, fuck this dimension,” Rick spits. “And fuck Ford, that gullible piece of shit. Wh-wh-what the— what the hell kind of asshole makes a deal in exchange for knowledge? Really? Ohhhhhh, heyyyyy, l-l-let me just teach you how to do something you don’t even understand, it’s fiii-ii-ine. Lemme guess, the first— the first thing you gave him was a boo-eugh-ook called To Serve Man.

Ford flinches and looks away. No one could ever make him feel like an idiot quite like Rick Sanchez could. Bill, meanwhile, grins and sinks down into a crouch, sitting on his heels so he can better look Rick in the eye. Rick doesn’t cower away from him. He just raises his chin, broken and bleeding and stupidly, magnificently defiant.

“SO,” Bill says. “IF YOU DON’T CARE ABOUT STANFORD AND YOU DON’T CARE ABOUT YOUR DIMENSION, WHY DO YOU KEEP GETTING IN MY WAY? EVERY TIME I GET SIXER ON THE ROPES YOU JUMP IN WITH A PEP TALK. I LIKE YOU, SLICK, BUT YOU’RE CRAMPING MY STYLE. WHAT’S YOUR ANGLE? WHAT DO YOU WANT?”

“That’s easy,” Rick smirks. “A-all I want is to piss you off.”

Bill’s gleeful expression evaporates, his eyes narrowing. “WELL THAT’S NOT A VERY NICE THING TO SAY.”

“Maybe not.” Now it’s Rick’s turn to grin, the cracks of his teeth all filled with red. “But right now I’m the o-o-only one getting exactly what I asked for.”

It’s almost funny how flustered Bill gets in response. It must be quite a shock for him— the idea that he might give someone what they want without making them sell their soul for it first. Now he’s been tricked into giving it away for free, and as the outrage at that starts to manifest on his face, Rick just smiles wider and wider in triumph. That only makes Bill angrier, which only makes it worse.

“Oh ho ho, look at that,” Rick gloats. “Now you’re pissed off because I want you to be pissed off. This is perfect. I-i-it’s like Christmas morning without my parents screaming at each other. I must’ve been re-e-eal good this year.”

And for just a second there, Ford lets himself enjoy it. He’s never seen Bill so discombobulated before, caught up in an infinite feedback loop of Rick’s deliberate design. First he gets angry at Rick for trying to trick him, then he gets angry at the fact that his anger is only fueling Rick’s satisfaction, which leads back to the anger at being tricked in the first place. For just a second there, Bill really is giving Rick exactly what he wants. Ford has never seen anything so gratifying.

Then Bill’s outraged snarl dissolves into a fit of giggles, his chin dropping to his chest as he shakes his head from side to side, thoroughly delighted.

“HOO, BOY,” he chuckles. “YOU ALMOST HAD ME THERE. I WAS GOING FULL OUROBOROS. YOU’RE PRETTY GOOD, SLICK!”

Ford’s spirit sinks, both literally and figuratively, until he ends up with his phantom feet phased halfway into the floor. Of course it couldn’t last. When Bill lifts his head again, he’s back to his usual bright, chipper self. If he’s still angry, he’s hiding it well.

“YOU’RE RIGHT,” he says. “I’M NOT GETTING WHAT I WANT. NOT YET, ANYWAY. GOOD THING I’M SO PATIENT! DO YOU KNOW HOW LONG I HAD TO WAIT FOR STANFORD HERE? I NEEDED SOMEONE SMART ENOUGH TO BUILD THE PORTAL AND DUMB ENOUGH TO DO IT MY WAY.” He turns to give Ford a theatrical wink. “I KNEW THE RIGHT GUY WAS BOUND TO COME ALONG.”

Ford glares back at him, silent. It still hurts like a bitch, and the worst part is, he can’t even argue with it. He was the perfect sucker for the job.

“THE POINT IS,” Bill continues. “I DON’T CARE IF YOU WANT TO DRAG THIS OUT ALL NIGHT. I KNOW I’LL GET WHAT I CAME FOR SOONER OR LATER, AND IN THE MEANTIME I GET TO HAVE ALL THIS FUN! IT’S A WIN-WIN FOR ME! SO GO AHEAD AND KEEP TALKING HIM OUT OF IT, SANCHEZ. WE’LL JUST KEEP GOING UNTIL YOU CAN’T TALK ANYMORE.”

It takes all of Ford’s willpower not to groan out loud in dread. There’s no sense in adding that fuel to Bill’s fire. Rick’s already adding plenty of fuel on his own— in response to Bill’s threat he leans onto his elbows, lifts his bound hands off the floor, and calmly raises both middle fingers in a salute. Bill laughs his approval as he unfolds from his crouch and stretches back up to his full height.

“SO WHAT SHOULD IT BE NEXT?” He makes a rectangle frame with his thumbs and forefingers and scans Rick from one end to the other. “BREAK A FEW MORE BONES? KNOCK OUT SOME TEETH? HEY, IF YOU’VE GOT A LIGHTER ON YOU WE COULD EXPERIMENT WITH BURNS OF VARIOUS DEGREES.” He glances to his audience. “WHAT DO YOU THINK, SIXER?”

Ford doesn’t trust himself to speak. He doesn’t even trust himself to look, but it feels too heartless to turn his back so he just stares at the floor, mute and impotent. Bill said he could drag this out all night. Ford doesn’t know if he can hold out that long.

“Whatever it is, Fordy,” Rick rasps. “Stay out of it. You don’t get to decide how much I can take.”

Bill cocks his head. “YOU KNOW, I HAVE TO ADMIT, YOU DO SEEM TO HAVE AN UNUSUALLY HIGH TOLERANCE FOR PAIN.”

“Nah,” Rick snorts. “Just an extre-e-emely low tolerance for bullshit.”

“I’VE ALWAYS THOUGHT HUMAN PAIN WAS HILARIOUS,” Bill persists. “AND YOU WANNA KNOW THE BEST PART? IT’S ONLY HALF OF THE EQUATION.” He holds up his right hand, the knuckles all scraped and shredded from Rick’s teeth. “HUMAN PAIN.” He holds up his left hand, marred by only a few stray blood splatters. “HUMAN PLEASURE.”

By now he’s wearing a different sort of smile altogether— Ford is reminded of the first time he saw Bill’s eye turn red. Even Rick can sense the shift, his body going tense, the weary muscles coiling in anticipation.

“OF COURSE WE’VE ALREADY HAD SO MUCH FUN WITH THE FORMER,” Bill waggles his chewed-up fingers for effect. “WE OUGHTA BALANCE THE SCALES, DON’T YOU THINK? CAN’T HAVE TOO MUCH OF ONE WITHOUT THE OTHER.”

He waggles the opposite set of fingers before dropping that hand down between his legs. Then he starts to stimulate himself through the front of his pants.

“OOF,” he grins. “IT’S STILL NICE AND TENDER.”

“Y-y-you think I was joking, asshole?” Rick’s shoulders are hunched up like a cat arching its back in warning. “I will snap it right off I don’t give a fuck whose body it belongs to.”

“OH, RICK,” Bill cackles. “WHO SAID ANYTHING ABOUT PUTTING IT IN YOUR MOUTH?”

It’s sickening the way Rick’s face changes— the subtle widening of his eyes, the flare of his nostrils, his jaw clenched with sudden dread. It hits Ford like a kick in the gut.

“Bill,” he moans, unable to hold his tongue any longer. “You can’t. He— he doesn’t deserve this. Please, if you have to hurt someone, hurt me. You can do whatever you want with that body, but please, please not this.”

For the second time he gets the sense that Bill is talking to him and him alone, that Rick is unaware of their conversation.

“YOU DON’T GET IT, DO YOU, FORDSIE? THIS ISN’T JUST FOR KICKS. I MEAN, DON’T GET ME WRONG, I’M HAVING A BLAST! BUT I DIDN’T COME HERE TO HURT SOMEONE. I CAME HERE TO GET THAT PORTAL OPEN. YOU’RE THE ONE WHO’S MAKING ME HURT SOMEONE.”

“You’re asking me for something I can’t give you,” Ford says hoarsely. “The portal is dead, Cipher. It’s off the table.”

“WE WOULDN’T EVEN BE IN THIS MESS IF YOU HADN’T ALTERED THE SCHEMATICS,” Bill scolds. “I COULD HAVE JUST USED THIS MEATSACK TO OPEN IT MYSELF. NOW I GUESS I COULD ALWAYS RIP YOUR MIND TO SHREDS LOOKING FOR THE NEW DESIGNS, BUT FRANKLY THIS WAY IS A LOT MORE ENTERTAINING!”

Rick might not be able to hear their conversation, but he can tell that Bill is distracted. Gathering the last of his strength, he makes a desperate lunge towards his best and only chance at a weapon: the golden idol, lying facedown only a few yards away. Bill and Ford are so caught up in each other that they don’t even notice him moving until he’s halfway there, frantically army-crawling on his elbows and knees, his bound hands outstretched for the rounded base—

“WHOA, WHOA, WHOA!” Bill calls out. “WHERE DO YOU THINK YOU’RE GOING?”

“Goddamn it,” Rick chokes out, and his fingertips just manage to brush against the idol before Bill kicks it out of his reach. “Goddamn it!

He rolls onto his back, his limbs tucked close to his body, hands and feet ready to lash out at anything that comes within range. Bill just leans lazily against the nearest bookcase, his hand back at his groin, coaxing himself to full hardness.

“SO TELL ME, SANCHEZ,” he says. “I KNOW YOU CAN HANDLE PHYSICAL PAIN, BUT I ALSO KNOW THAT HUMANS TEND TO TAKE THIS SORT OF THING A LITTLE MORE... PERSONALLY. DO YOU THINK YOU CAN HANDLE THAT?

“Pain is pain, bitch,” Rick growls. “I can take it.”

“HEH,” Bill licks his teeth. “SOUNDS LIKE A CHALLENGE.”

He gives his cock one last leisurely squeeze before pushing himself off the bookcase and prowling in Rick’s direction. Rick’s breathing gets faster and faster with every step he takes, his body curling tighter and tighter, shrinking away from him while simultaneously preparing to fight like hell. Bill pauses at a certain distance, then jolts into a taunting feint that makes all of Rick’s limbs jerk in convulsive response.

“Motherfucker!” Rick barks, infuriated at his own helplessness.

Bill comes at him sideways, skirting around the frenzied kicks and delivering a kick of his own to Rick’s broken ribs, effectively incapacitating him with one blow. Rick gives a strangled yelp and doubles up in agony, his hands pressed over the point of impact, cringing away from what comes next. Ford never really realized how big he was compared to Rick, not until he could see it from a distance— it takes Bill hardly any effort at all to hoist him up by the collar of his lab coat, slinging his scrawny body up from the floor and over towards the spiral staircase.

Rick catches the banister and tries to keep his feet, tries to brace himself. But he’s too drained and Bill is too strong; Bill just grabs him by the wrists and yanks away his grip, shoving him face first down onto the stairs. Rick’s knees and elbows come down hard only a few steps apart. Before he can even try to get up again, Bill plants his knee in the small of his back and leans forward, pinning Rick to the stairs like a magnet pinning a note to the refrigerator.

“Fuu-u-uck,” Rick wheezes, his already-damaged lungs squeezed that much harder by the weight.

With one foot on the floor and one knee on Rick’s back, Bill is obliged to fasten his left hand on the railing for balance. His right hand he extends in Ford’s direction, riddled with teeth marks, dripping with blood.

“LAST CALL, FORDSIE.”

So this is it, Ford thinks, absurdly calm. This is what hate feels like.

Aloud he says, “Go to hell.”

“YOU’RE NOT THINKING THINGS THROUGH,” Bill admonishes. “YOU DON’T EVEN REALLY KNOW WHAT WILL HAPPEN WHEN YOU OPEN THAT PORTAL. YOU KNOW EXACTLY WHAT WILL HAPPEN IF YOU DON’T.”

“I said,” Ford hisses. “Go to hell.”

Bill flexes his mangled fingers. “GOING ONCE.”

“Go to hell.”

“GOING TWICE.”

Ford holds his stare, unflinching. Bill turns the offered handshake into a shrug.

“SOLD TO THE SUCKER WITH THE SIX FINGERS. BUCKLE UP, FORDSIE— IT’S GONNA BE A WHILE BEFORE I MAKE THAT OFFER AGAIN.”

Firm and decisive, he slams that bloody hand down right between Rick’s shoulder blades, creating a startling red handprint on the white lab coat. Rick struggles but Bill leans his whole weight into it, crushing Rick’s chest against the cruel edge of the next step. At this point it’s all he can do to draw in enough oxygen to keep from passing out. Satisfied that he’s restrained, Bill takes down his knee so he can plant both feet firmly on the floor, pinioning Rick’s legs with his own. Then he reaches down and around with his left hand, slipping it between Rick’s body and the staircase to undo his belt and fly. Rick thrashes against him but there’s nothing he can do.

“Son of a bitch,” he pants. “No— no—”

It’s the first time since this whole ordeal began that he’s cried out in protest, his voice strained and raw with anguish. Ford didn’t even know Rick was capable of producing a sound so harrowing— but then again, he’s never seen Rick in a position like this before. Rick was always the smartest guy in the room, two steps ahead of everyone else, quick and clever and in control. Now he’s been beaten half to death by an enemy he never saw coming, powerless to do anything but curse and swear as Bill yanks his pants and underwear down around his knees.

“THE COAT IS A NICE TOUCH,” Bill observes. “IT MAKES THIS SO MUCH MORE DRAMATIC!”

With vaudevillian flair, he flips the tail of the lab coat off to one side, exposing Rick’s ass and earning another stream of expletives and objections from his victim. After that Rick can only brace himself, unable to see what’s coming, his eyes rolling around in his skull as he listens to the telltale jingle of Bill’s belt buckle, the murmur of his zipper peeling open.

Ford knows he shouldn’t look but he can’t help himself. He watches in dumbstruck horror as Bill shoves down his pants and pulls out his cock, his cock, Ford’s cock, the mirror effect turning it ugly and distorted to Ford’s shocked eyes. Is that really what it looks like? It’s almost as disgusting as his hands. After two solid hits from Rick it’s already showing signs of bruising, the dark swell of arousal darkened further still by the damage. Ford wishes Rick had struck harder. Maybe he could have crippled him. Maybe it would have been permanent.

“NOW,” Bill says casually, switching out his right hand so he can press his whole right forearm across the span of Rick’s shoulders, immobilizing him. “I’VE BEEN SKIMMING THE MEMORY BANKS, AND IT LOOKS LIKE FORDSIE USED TO START WITH HIS FINGERS. SOMETHING ABOUT PREPARATION?” He pauses for a moment before crowing with glee. “PFFT, YEAH, RIGHT! I’M ALREADY PREPARED! LET’S DO THIS!”

Reaching down with his left, he spreads Rick’s ass and lines up his cock at the entrance. Rick spasms reflexively in opposition, then goes still and channels his focus into short, fast breaths through his clenched teeth, determined not to cry out when it happens. With his elbows propped on the step and his bound hands pointed straight up towards heaven, he almost looks like he’s about to pray. Ford knows him better than that.

Bill grabs a spoke of the staircase railing for leverage. Then, in one rough thrust, he shoves himself all the way in, buried up to the hilt with a loud, satisfied sigh. Rick’s eyes go white all the way around the edges, his teeth clamped down so hard on his lower lip that blood leaks from the seam, his breath shuddering out of his nostrils in a reedy whine. He doesn’t scream. At least there’s that.

“OHHH, YEAH,” Bill exults. “IS THIS PAIN? IS THIS PLEASURE? I DON’T EVEN KNOW! HUMAN STIMULATION IS THE BEST! NOW WE GO BACK AND FORTH, RIGHT?”

Stiff and awkward, Bill jerks his hips back and jams them forward again, his own whoop of elation drowning out Rick’s answering grunt of pain. The same action repeated again produces the same effect, and from there Bill starts to find his rhythm, back and forth, just like he said, just like he saw in the memory banks.

But the memory banks are only a visual recording. Bill will never know, can never know what it really feels like— to press into Rick and have Rick press back, eager and affectionate, his voice an endless, stuttered cadence of encouragement intermingled with Ford’s name. Of course Bill can hear the audio, he can see the images; but he’ll never experience the flutter in his chest, the tendrils of relief coiling around his aching mind, the pang of comfort that came with every kiss. Ford was alone for the first time in his life when we went to college, aimless and adrift on a vast, frightening sea. Rick was a star to steer by, if only for a little while. He was something warm to hold on to.

“Shit,” Rick gasps. “Ah— fuck—”

As his control inexorably slips away from him, he buries his face in the cradle of his arms, muffling his cries in the material of his lab coat. Ford watches his hands burrow into his silver hair, seizing twin fistfuls and wrenching hard to anchor himself in the sting. He’s just trying to keep his head down and push through it. From his vantage point Ford can see the fresh blood emerging between them, Bill’s cock smeared with red as he tears Rick open from the inside. Rick’s shoulders are shaking from the strain of containing his screams.

“YOU KNOW,” Bill remarks, pounding merrily away. “THIS MIGHT NOT BE WHAT I WANTED, BUT I THINK IT’S WHAT I REALLY NEEDED. I’VE BEEN UNDER A LOT OF STRESS LATELY. I REALLY JUST NEEDED A CHANCE TO CUT LOOSE AND HAVE A GOOD TIME.”

Rick twists his hands violently, tearing out patches of hair and then scrabbling for more, anything, anything to clutter up his sensory input. There’s an ugly keening sound coming from inside the cage of his arms; when Ford looks through the railings he can see that Rick is biting down on his bicep like a seizure stick, his eyes screwed shut in rage and humiliation. Monster that he is, Bill won’t even let him have that.

“HEY, WHAT’S WRONG, SLICK?” he jeers. “YOU FINALLY RUN OUT OF THINGS TO SAY?”

When he receives no answer he grabs a handful of Rick’s hair and yanks his head up, ripping him away from his makeshift gag and leaving him nowhere to hide. Rick’s eyes go wide and he grits his teeth, refusing to make a sound, his empty hands bunched into fists so he can dig his fingernails into his palms. Undeterred, Bill presses down on Rick’s shoulders with his forearm and keeps pulling back on his hair, drawing his neck into a punishing arch and baring his throat, which by now is mottled all over with six-fingered handprints. Then Bill leans down and nuzzles his mouth right up beside Rick’s ear.

“HAVING FUN YET?”

“Fuck you!” Rick sobs, ragged with fury.

Bill brays with laughter right into his ear canal. On pure instinct Rick tries to reach back and strike him, but the moment he lifts his elbows from the step he almost ends up flattened face-first by the weight on his back. He manages to catch himself, then bellows and bashes his forearms against the lip of the next step in frustration, his hands clawing uselessly at the air. Now that the dam is broken the words come pouring out of him, his cadence staggered to the awful rhythm of Bill’s assault.

“Motherfucker— ugh— y-you piece of shit— fuck— ah fuck— I can take it— you hear me— I-I-I can take— agh— god— goddamn it— hnnnh—”

By now Ford is so delirious with misery that he actually tries to clap his palms over his ears to shield himself from the sound. Of course his hands pass right through the shadow of his skull, futile. He can’t shut it out and he can’t make it stop. All he can do is watch and listen and try in vain not to remember the sounds that Rick used to make for him.

“Ah Fordy— ah-h-h— that’s so good— y-yeah— mmmf— p-put your hands on me— yea-a-ah— God your hands— ugh— Fordy— haah— yeah—”

“OH HO HO, YEAH!” Bill enthuses. “THIS IS GETTING GOOD!”

He’s really in the swing of it now, his hips snapping hard, slamming Rick again and again as the tempo escalates. Rick has dissolved into total incoherency, his stutter so agitated that he can’t even form any curses, reduced instead to unintelligible snarls and whines. Ford drifts up by the ceiling, numb with resignation. He has to be numb. This could go on all night.

“BOY, YOU’VE BEEN HOLDING OUT ON ME, FORDSIE,” Bill grunts, forehead beaded with sweat, damp hair clinging to the back of his neck. “THIS IS WAY BETTER THAN ALL THOSE TIMES YOU LET ME JERK OFF IN THIS MEATSACK. THAT WAS GREAT, BUT THIS— THIS IS INTENSE!”

All at once there’s a stumble in his rhythm, his body shuddering as a wave of stimulation swamps his sensory consumption. He laughs and powers through it, but a few thrusts later it happens again, his muscles automatically contracting as he approaches the point of climax.

“WOW—” he gasps. “OH WOW— THIS IS— AH—”

He lurches forward, chasing after the sensation like a dog chasing a car, his mouth open and panting as the feeling builds and builds within him. It’s turning him clumsy, too muddled to maintain the opposing forces of pushing down on Rick’s shoulders and pulling back on his hair. To compensate he shoves Rick’s head down against the stairs, but that costs him too much leverage and so he reverses his decision, snatching Rick’s head up again and moving his right arm from Rick’s back to his front, hugging Rick against his chest until he’s close enough for Bill to reach every inch of him.

“THIS IS INCREDIBLE!” Bill rubs his face in Rick’s hair, teeth snapping at his ear. “WHAT A RIDE— WHAT A RUSH—”

Of course, by lifting him off the stairs, he’s given Rick the use of his arms again. Rick wastes no time, his expression turning murderous as he reaches back over his shoulder to grope blindly for anywhere he can cause damage. His fingertips manage to hook under the frame of his glasses, ripping them off Bill’s face to tumble away across the floor. He tries to go for Bill’s eyes next, but it’s too difficult to find his target in the dark and he has to go for Bill’s hair instead, grabbing and tearing at everything he can reach. Bill just howls, euphoric, the pain only amplifying his pleasure.

“THAT’S RIGHT,” he urges. “KEEP FIGHTING— KEEP— NNNH— AHH— HERE IT COMES—”

He slams Rick down to the stairs as orgasm rips through him like thunder. It’s instantly clear that it’s so much more than Bill was ready for; his body jolts like it’s about to fly apart, jerking and convulsing beyond his control. Ford can hear the change in his voice, his ecstatic cries turning to dismay and confusion, like someone changing their mind halfway through a rollercoaster, the ride going from thrilling to overwhelming.

“UGH— BODY SPASMS—” Bill chokes out, and as the aftershocks wrack his frame, Ford can suddenly see it: the very corner of an ugly yellow triangle, protruding from between his shoulder blades like the body of a dug-in tick.

Bill can’t hold on to the overloaded nervous system. He’s being shaken loose.

And before Ford even has time to react, Rick reaches behind him and rakes his fingernails across Bill’s stunned, gasping face.

It’s just enough to send him over the edge and break the link. Bill is thrown clear like he’s been ejected through the windshield of a violent car accident, his true form spinning end over end through the air, a coin flip with no victor. The puppet collapses, its strings cut, falling over Rick in a huge, heavy heap. Ford has never moved so fast in his life. He plunges into the body without hesitation.

There’s a roar of light and sound and overstimulation and then— everything.

Dazed and reeling, the first thing Ford becomes aware of is the fact that his softening cock is still inside of Rick. Appalled, he heaves himself backwards, his legs so shaky that he immediately crumples to the floor. He keeps clambering away until he hits a bookshelf and can retreat no farther. He’s abruptly, nauseatingly aware of every inch of his wretched body, the last threads of orgasm still ricocheting through his system like screams echoing in a cave. When he looks down at himself all he can see is a mess of cum and blood. Bile rises in his throat.

“WELL WELL WELL. I GUESS I GOT A LITTLE TOO CARRIED AWAY.”

Ford looks up again and sees Bill Cipher hovering over Rick’s prone form— which doesn’t remain prone for long. As soon as Rick realizes the weight is off of him he scrambles to turn over, not strong enough to stand so he slumps back onto the stairs, barking in pain as he lands on his newest injuries. He’s already got his hands up to defend himself, and there’s a wild, almost feral look in his eyes. The worst part is, he’s not looking at Bill. He’s looking at Ford. Bill, of course, has elected to make himself unseen. He hovers right over Rick’s head, his eye squinched up in a playful smile.

“WHAT A SHAME, HUH? JUST AS I WAS GETTING THE HANG OF IT! HOW DID I DO? WAS MY FORM OKAY? WHAT ABOUT THE TEMPO? COME ON, FORDSIE, BE HONEST.”

“Get out,” Ford says roughly.

Rick recoils, his expression twisted with apprehension. He thinks the words were directed at him.

“AWW, COME ON,” Bill needles. “DON’T YOU WANT ME TO STICK AROUND FOR THE PILLOWTALK?”

Ford doesn’t answer. He’s too busy swallowing back a mouthful of vomit. Bill floats toward him, probing the air with his cane, his eye going narrow with displeasure.

“BOY, YOU’VE REALLY GOT THOSE SHIELDS UP NOW, DON’T YOU? IT’S ALMOST IMPRESSIVE. TOO BAD YOU’RE ONLY SHOWING THIS KIND OF WILLPOWER AFTER IT’S TOO LATE.” That eye becomes the image of the portal, the center of it boiling with energy and light, the forces of chaos just beyond the veil. “THE PORTAL’S ALREADY BEEN BUILT, STANFORD. ONE WAY OR ANOTHER THAT DAM IS GONNA BURST, NO MATTER HOW MANY FINGERS YOU HAVE TO PLUG INTO THE HOLES.” The eye reverts to itself, bowed up in amusement. “AND SPEAKING OF HOLES GETTING PLUGGED, I SHOULD PROBABLY GIVE YOU TWO SOME PRIVACY. HAVE FUN WITH THIS ONE, SIXER, AND REMEMBER: YOU HAVE TO SLEEP SOMETIME! I’LL SEE YOU IN YOUR DREEEEEAMS!”

A terrible scar peels open in the air around them, livid and bleeding out the sounds of nightmares. Bill kisses his hand with his eyelid, then blows that kiss down to Rick Sanchez with a merry laugh. Then he tips his hat to Ford, reaches out with his cane to knock a ceramic bust off the nearest shelf, and zips off into the void. The scar closes up with the sound of ceramic shattering on the floor.

Once again, Ford and Rick are alone in the study.

It’s quiet, so quiet— no thuds of impact, no cries of pain, no cruel, mocking laughter. Ford squints and scans the carpet, distracting himself with the business of finding his glasses and fumbling them back into place. As he hooks them over his ears, his fingertips brush against something warm and sticky on his face; Rick drew blood, a series of shallow gashes torn into Ford’s cheek and jaw when he struck the final blow. Ford also gets his first good look at his mangled right hand, the knuckles slashed with teeth marks, the whole thing throbbing up to the elbow. Just about everything is throbbing, now that he thinks about it. It’s a good deal less than he deserves.

Finally he has no choice but to turn and look at the staircase. Rick glares back at him, breathing hard, his hands raised in anticipation of the next terrible attack. God, he looks awful. As Ford climbs slowly to his feet, Rick flinches and presses himself protectively against the stairs, rigid with alarm.

“S-s-stay away from me,” he hisses. “Don’t— don’t—”

Ford holds out his hands, his voice weak and miserable. “Rick, it’s me. It’s Ford.”

He takes a step forward and Rick jerks away from him, as fierce and furious as a cat backed into a corner.

“Don’t touch me!” he spits, his shoulders bunched up to his ears. “I mean it! I-I-I will rip— I’ll rip your fffffucking eyes out!”

Devastated, Ford steps back, back until he’s right up against that same bookcase, trapped. Unable to meet Rick’s gaze, he turns away from him, belatedly noticing that his pants are still open and slouched around his thighs. He pulls them back up over the mess and struggles to fasten his belt and fly with shaking hands.

“I’m sorry,” he chokes out. “Rick, I’m so sorry. I didn’t— I didn’t mean for you to get—”

A ragged piece of skin on his right index finger gets caught in the zipper and he yanks it away with a curse, reflexively stuffing the digit into his mouth to soothe the sting. Then the taste hits him. It’s not just his own blood— it’s the sour taste of Rick’s vomit, splattered all over that hand while those fingers were being rammed down his throat. Ford jerks the finger out of his mouth but it’s too late, the damage is done. In the next instant he’s crashing to his knees and puking his guts out on the study floor.

The smell is unbelievable. He’s hardly consumed anything other than coffee and caffeine pills for days, his belly empty except for the bile, bright yellow and so acidic that it burns the back of his throat on the way out. He heaves and heaves but it’s not enough, will never be enough; there’s still so much rot and poison inside of him, in his skin and his veins and even his bones, right down to the marrow. This body doesn’t even feel like it belongs to him anymore— every single nerve ending is covered with Bill Cipher’s fingerprints.

Ford keeps throwing up until he’s gagging on empty air, his stomach completely drained of its meager contents. Even then it takes a few more dry retches before the bout finally recedes, leaving him huddled there on his hands and knees, pitifully spitting out drool, his eyes watering and his nose dripping snot.

“Goddamn it,” he pants, his arms shaking. “It’s my fault. It’s all my fault. I never should have let you in the house.”

He stares at the pool of vomit below him and contemplates smashing his forehead straight down into the floor. Then—

“Fordy.”

Ford lifts his head. Rick is watching him from the staircase, his body hugging the central column, his breathing slow and deliberate with effort. His pants are still down around his knees; he won’t risk lowering his bound hands from their defensive position, not even for a second. He tries to limit his exposure with his hunched posture, his legs drawn up and his elbows pressed down to cover his groin. There’s fresh blood on the step where he’s sitting. The pain must be unimaginable.

“You piece of shit,” he rasps. “I-i-if that’s really you then you better stay the fuck down.”

Ford nods, his fingernails digging into the floor. “I’m down. I’m down.”

There’s a million jagged facets to Rick’s expression; confusion, anger, suspicion, dread, fear. His bloodshot eyes scan Ford’s face for some kind of sign, anything, anything that might prove he’s safe. Ford is at a total loss. He wants to say something but can’t think of anything that won’t sound like a trap. He deflects his gaze to the bitter puddle framed between his hands. Yellow. Of course it’s yellow.

“Whatever you need me to do,” he says hoarsely. “Just tell me.”

He doesn’t dare look up again, not even a glance. He keeps his eyes averted, just like you’re supposed to do when you meet a strange dog, so the animal can approach on its own terms. Time slows to a crawl as he studies the clusters of foamy bubbles in his own vomit and listens to the rhythm of Rick’s labored breathing, which is being sucked in and shoved out at a rigid tempo designed to slow his heart rate and feed his oxygen-starved lungs. Ford unintentionally finds himself synchronizing his own respiration to the same cadence. It’s just like the old days— Rick setting the pace and Ford falling in beside him. Sometimes the universe can be exceptionally cruel.

It’s impossible to say how long he stays like that, cowering on his hands and knees, his nostrils filled with the smell of bile. As the adrenaline leaves his system he’s greeted by the pain of every single point of impact, not just his right hand but his head, his belly, his aching groin. He wishes he didn’t know why he hurt so badly.

“Hands.”

Rick’s voice is so unexpected that it takes Ford a second to process that he’s even heard it. He looks up, startled, to see Rick still balled up on the staircase, his stare so unrelentingly intense that Ford knows he’s been watching him the entire time. He’s waiting for an answer. Ford blinks.

“What?”

“Wh-wh-what do you mean, what?” Rick snaps, on the cusp of yelling. “My hands, dipshit. G-gimme something for my hands.

He holds up said hands and gives a demonstrative tug against the duct tape, then draws them back into a protective stance, preparing himself for when Ford starts moving. With all the delicacy he can manage, Ford slowly brings his feet under him, then rises up to his full height while Rick visibly and audibly struggles to stay calm, his breathing accelerating as he compresses himself against the central column of the staircase. As soon as he’s up Ford once again holds out his open palms in a pacifying gesture.

“I’m going to the desk. I’ll— I’ll check the drawers.”

Rick gives a stiff nod of assent and Ford turns his back on him, stumbling the few short steps to his workspace. He almost pukes again when he sees all the pencils still arranged into the shape of a triangle, placed there by his own hand. There’s no eye in the center but he can still feel it laughing at him. Infuriated, he swipes it away with a snarl, the shape dissipating like mist, the pencils scattering all over the floor.

Ford starts pulling drawers open and rifling through the contents. He can only use his left hand, lest he drip blood all over his office supplies as he goes. The first vaguely suitable item he finds is a letter opener, but after a moment of consideration he concludes that it would be ill-suited to the task and continues searching until he finds a pair of scissors. When he turns around again he’s sure to keep the blades pointed down.

As soon as Rick sees the cutting instrument he holds out his hands in expectation. Ford takes an automatic step toward him in answer, only for Rick to jerk his hands back again, his whole body recoiling with the motion.

“Whoa, whoa!” he barks. “Back the fuck up! Just— j-j-just slide ‘em over here.”

“That won’t work,” Ford frowns. “You can’t, you— you won’t be able to use them.”

“Watch me, asshole.”

But Rick already knows he’s right. With his hands bound so tightly, it would be almost impossible for him to manipulate the scissors in a way that could cut them free. After an interminable beat of tension, he grits his teeth in resignation and twitches his head to indicate that Ford should approach. Ford moves like he’s walking on thin ice. Every footstep is a measured calculation. The distance between them shrinks inch by agonizing inch.

It’s obvious that Rick is not ready for Ford to come so close. He’s fighting to keep still, eyes wide and nostrils flared like a horse smelling smoke. Ford would do anything to put his mind even the slightest bit at ease. On a sudden impulse he alters his trajectory so that he approaches in a curve, up towards the dark screen of Project Mentem and then back down again on the far side of the spiral staircase. Rick has to crane his head to watch him, but Ford can see his raised shoulders relax by the smallest margin when he realizes what Ford is doing. They end up with the safety of the wooden railing between them.

“Here,” Ford says quietly, holding up the scissors. “Let me help.”

For a moment Rick just stares at him, silent and uncertain. The whites of his eyes are so crowded with burst blood vessels that they look like the sky at a fireworks show where every display is red. Finally he extends his hands in Ford’s direction, reaching towards him with all the dread and reluctance that Ford deserves. Ford threads his own hands in through two different gaps in the railing, one holding the scissors and the other gingerly taking hold of Rick’s joined wrists to keep him steady. It’s the first time he’s been allowed to touch him. He can feel Rick trembling, though whether from pain or fear or adrenaline he can’t be sure.

“Easy,” he says, using the same word Rick did to try and calm him before. “Easy.”

With all the care he can manage, Ford guides the bottom scissor blade into the channel between Rick’s wrists, sliding it under the sheath of the duct tape until it hits the edge. It’s almost far enough to cut the whole thing in one squeeze of the handles, but he’s still not quite there and has to shift the scissors down and squeeze one more time before the tape finally splits apart.

Ford doesn’t want to press his luck. As soon as his work is done he drops the scissors right to the floor and backs up, giving Rick plenty of space. Rick wastes no time, yanking his arms apart with a nasty tearing sound, his right arm peeling loose while his left arm clings to the rest of the binding. He rips that off in short order, the sticky side of the tape bristling with arm hair and skin cells, the flesh underneath gleaming pink and raw from the tearing. Rick crumples the tape into a wad and throws it to the floor like he’s tossing a grenade.

Then, with a quick look back to make sure Ford is still separated from him by the staircase, he grabs the railing and pulls his weight forward onto his feet, just enough to lift himself off the step and drag his pants back up into place. It’s not a pleasant experience.

“Son of a bitch,” he hisses, but he’d rather be in pain than exposed.

He sinks back down and fastens the button and zipper one-handed, the belt left hanging open as he keeps his other hand locked on the railing for support. Ford stays right where he is, still as a statue except for his chewed-up fingers, which he flexes absently in a futile attempt to ease the sting. The image of Bill Cipher stares down at them from every wall, all-seeing and inescapable, a potent reminder that the real Bill is undoubtedly watching from the other side. Ford refuses to give him the satisfaction of acknowledgment. He’ll stand here in total silence all damn night if that’s what it takes.

Turn out he won’t have to wait that long. Rick still has one hand braced on the banister, and with a sudden surge of effort he uses it to haul himself up to his feet, where he sways unsteadily and touches his broken ribs with a grimace.

“Uuuugh, goddamn it,” he mutters. “I need a drink.”

In that moment he sounds so much like his old self that Ford could almost weep with gratitude.

“I think we could arrange that,” he says weakly.

He starts to move forward and Rick turns on his heel, lightning-quick, still braced on the banister but the other hand raised in a combative fist. Ford retreats instantly, hands up in surrender.

“Sorry,” he blurts out. “Sorry.”

Rick relaxes just a touch at the immediacy of his reaction, though his nerves are still clearly on edge.

“Fuck,” he huffs. “I-I-I mean fuck, Fordy, wh-what the fuck am I supposed to do? You’re a timebomb.”

“I know,” Ford cringes. “I’m… I’m sorry.”

“Oh my God, stop apologizing,” Rick rolls his bloodshot eyes. “It’s embarrassing for you and it’s worthless to me.”

Ford drops his hands, frustrated. “Well what the fuck am I supposed to do? I don’t know what you want me to do.”

Rick considers him for a long while. Then, never breaking eye contact, he shifts his grip from the top of the railing to the end post, sliding his hand down the length as he sinks into an unsteady crouch. Even with the aid of the post he can barely keep his balance, but he doesn’t have to maintain it for long; he’s just down there to grab the scissors. Once he’s got them he reaches up for the railing and drags himself back to his feet with a clipped grunt. Then he wraps his fist around the handles and points the blades in Ford’s direction.

“H-how about this,” he says. “You make one wrong move and I stab you in the neck.”

Ford can’t argue with a precaution like that. He nods his head. “Fair enough.”

The elevator proves to be an interesting puzzle. At first Rick wants to be the first to go up alone, but then hesitates at the idea of leaving Ford unattended in the study. Certainly can’t send Ford up by himself; God knows what kind of trap he might set to greet Rick when he came up after him. They have no choice but to go up together. Rick has Ford get in first, then slinks in with his back hugging the wall, the scissors held in a ready position.

“Okay,” he gestures with the blades towards the control panel. “Take us up.”

It’s not a long ride. Even so, it’s long enough for Rick to cock his head and give Ford a rueful smirk.

“Y’know,” he says. “I really do think you’re Fordy.”

Ford isn’t even sure if he thinks that.

“Oh, yeah?” he frowns. “How can you tell?”

“Easy,” Rick snorts. “I’d know that puking anywhere, y-you fucking lightweight.”

And oh, it feels so good to be seen. On pure instinct Ford leans towards him— but Rick’s got the scissors raised in a flash, his playful expression turning deadly serious in the space of a heartbeat.

“Hey,” he scolds, his voice dangerously light. “Hands where I can see ‘em. Eyes, too.”

Ford shrinks back. “Sor—”

Rick raises his eyebrow. Ford catches the apology in his teeth and sets his jaw hard. Then the elevator door opens and they’re faced with the last flight of stairs up to the main level.

“Ohhh-hh-h, fuck me,” Rick groans, then waves the scissors to indicate that Ford should go first.

Ford waits on the top landing, clutching uselessly at his trenchcoat while Rick limps after him, his hand white-knuckling the railing the whole way. By the time he reaches the summit he’s drenched in sweat and wobbly from the effort— though not so wobbly that he can’t raise the scissors in warning when Ford looks at him with too much pity.

“Drink,” he wheezes. “Now.”

Trusting Rick to follow, Ford leads the way to the kitchen, where he goes straight to the cupboard and retrieves a mismatched pair of drinking glasses. From another cupboard he retrieves the twenty-year-old bottle of scotch that he and Fiddleford chipped in to buy together. It’s unopened. They were saving it to drink a toast to their success. Well, at least now he has an excuse to pop the cork.

He turns from the cupboard to see Rick slumped in the doorway, looking pretty much like he was crouched by the road mid-puke when he was unexpectedly hit by a truck. There’s blood and vomit splattered all over him, his body riddled with bruises of awful, deliberate intention. On second thought, a truck might have been kinder.

Ford holds up the empty glasses like an idiot.

“Ice? No ice?”

Rick stares at him in disbelief. Ford coughs and turns back to the counter, setting down the glasses and filling both to just shy of the brim. Picking them up again, he takes a few awkward sidesteps in Rick’s direction, stretching out his arm to offer his drink from the safest distance he can manage. Rick all but wrenches the glass out of his grip, throwing back his head and gulping down half the contents in one tremendous pull before Ford even has a chance to take his first sip.

“Guuuuh,” Rick groans, deep and guttural, pausing just long enough to take a breath before he goes right ahead and belts back the rest.

Then he jams the empty glass in Ford’s direction for more. When Ford has the audacity to hesitate, glancing in amazement at his own untouched drink, Rick instantly bristles with annoyance.

“I-I-I’m not waiting on you, Fordy! Keep up or shut up!”

Ford grabs the bottle and tips the neck into Rick’s glass, filling it all the way back to the brim. He almost puts the bottle back on the counter when he’s done, then decides to hold onto it and save himself the reach next time. Once again Rick shoots back half of his drink on the first go. Before he can overthink it Ford follows his lead, his bile-scorched throat flooded with fire, his empty belly curdling in protest. He wheezes on his next inhale but keeps the liquor down.

“Tha-a-at’s the spirit,” Rick hoots. “C’mon— c’mon— one-two-three-shoot!

They knock back their drinks in synchronized harmony, and God, it’s college all over again. Ford can still hear the dual slam of shot glasses being triumphantly smacked onto the bar top, can still remember that rush of pride the first time Rick said, “shit, Pines, y-y-you can really hold your liquor.” No need to tell him how he’d been practicing with Ma’s secret vodka stash since he was fifteen. Just let him think he was a natural.

It was Stan who found the vodka first.

Ford goes stock-still, his hand halfway extended for another pour. Funny to think of Stan at a moment like this.

“C’mon, Pines,” Rick waggles his empty glass. “Gettin’ thirsty here.”

Ford snaps out of it and reaches the bottle the rest of the way over. Rick accepts the refill, then gestures impatiently for Ford to fill his own.

“Let’s go, let’s go.”

It doesn’t even occur to Ford to refuse.

“Okay,” Rick says, and there’s a manic edge to his voice, his eyes feverishly bright. “Who-o-ole thing this time. One shot. C’mon.”

“Rick—” Ford starts to object.

Rick’s wild expression turns sour on a dime, his eyes going narrow with disdain.

“Fuck you, then,” he spits.

And he pounds back the whole glass of scotch, three huge gulps and then an obnoxious exhale of satisfaction. Ford is just rattled enough to chase after him, regretting it after his first gulp but too proud to quit until he’s choked down the whole thing. He comes up sputtering like a drowning man, and he barely manages to set the bottle and glass safely on the counter before he doubles over with his hands on his knees, hacking his lungs out. Rick sways and points at him with the scissors.

“Solid effort, Fordy,” he slurs. “At least— at least now we know your balls survived.”

Ford chuckles weakly. There are tears in his eyes. He’s just going to chalk that up to the coughing fit.

He almost has a heart attack when a shattering sound erupts out of nowhere. He looks up sharply and sees that Rick’s glass has slipped out of his shaking hand, bursting apart on the kitchen floor while Rick slouches in the doorframe, his knees buckling under a sudden wave of agony. Staggering, he twists and presses his forehead to the wood to anchor himself, his breath hissing through his teeth as he rides it out. With the way he’s turned to press against the frame, Ford can see the barest hint of a bloodstain seeping into the seat of his white lab coat. He doesn’t want to know how saturated his pants have to be for it to keep soaking through like that.

“Jesus, Rick,” he moans.

He gets about two steps toward him before the scissors come up like a crucifix staving off a vampire.

“Goddamn it!” Rick barks, hoarse with pain. “Back off!”

“But you’re bleeding! You need help!”

“I need another drink.”

Without waiting for a response, Rick shoves himself away from the doorframe and lurches right past Ford to the counter, grabbing the bottle and bringing the whole thing up to his mouth for a swig. Then he swipes his wrist against his lips and heaves the exasperated sigh of a kid who doesn’t want to do his homework.

“Okay,” he says. “I’m gonna need all the cleaning supplies you have.”

Ford starts to move towards the sink. “There’s a first-aid kit under the—”

“Did I say first-aid kit?” Rick interrupts, peevish. “I-I-I could’ve sworn I said cleaning supplies.”

“What the hell do you need cleaning supplies for?”

“Gee, I dunno, Fordy, I thought now might be a super fun time to bleach my asshole.” Rick takes another swig from the bottle and unleashes an enormous belch. “It’s called a chemical cauterizer, dipshit. I-I-I can whip it up with the basics. That is, y’know, if you have anything I can use in this dump.”

Flustered, Ford nonetheless sets about collecting what he can. Between him and Fiddleford they kept the place in pretty good condition, leading to a fair share of cleaning supplies accumulating between them. Ford rounds up a half-dozen spray bottles or so; glass cleaner, toilet cleaner, bathtubs and countertops. He dumps them in a heap on the kitchen table and stands by in impotent silence while Rick studies the labels, assessing his ingredients. The glass scotch bottle, nearly drained between the two of them, now sits forgotten amongst its plastic kin. Rick has been suitably distracted by the task at hand. Ford squirms unhappily.

“Can I help?”

“Sure,” Rick says absently. “You— y-you can shut up.”

But Ford can’t just stand there and do nothing. He ends up getting the first-aid kit for himself, sitting at the opposite end of the kitchen table and taking stock of what he has while Rick rifles through the cupboards, digging up bowls and measuring cups, pulling together an impromptu laboratory set-up. Ford has just started unwrapping a roll of gauze when he hears another excruciating groan, Rick grabbing the edge of the table with both hands, straight-armed and elbows locked to stay on his feet. Without thinking Ford drops the gauze and moves to get up.

“Rick, for God’s sake—”

He flattens himself back into his seat when Rick abruptly punches the tabletop with a bang.

“Motherfucker!” he explodes. “I don’t have time to coddle your sorry ass right now! I-I-I’m— I’m in the middle of— I’m working, Fordy! D-do I look like I need your help? Huh? Am I asking for your help? O-o-or did I specifically fucking tell you to shut the fuck up?

“I’m sorry,” Ford blurts out.

Rick fixes him with a look like a loaded gun. Maybe it’s the scotch or maybe it’s just the shame, but all of a sudden Ford feels like he’s about to throw up again. It hits him hard, bolting up into his throat, his mouth filling and opening before he can stop it— only this time, it’s words that come pouring out.

“Please— I know, I know— you don’t want me to apologize— but I am sorry— I’m so sorry, Rick— you didn’t deserve this— any of this—”

He can see the rage building in Rick’s eyes as the words come flooding out of him but he just can’t seem to stem the tide. Maybe he’s finally reached the limit for how many apologies he can keep bottled up inside of him. There’s already so many. Maybe he just can’t take on any more.

“This is my fault—” he’s practically sobbing now. “It’s all my fault— please, Rick— I’m sorry—”

Quick as a whip, Rick’s hand shoots out and grabs the neck of the scotch bottle in an upside-down grip. Just as quickly Ford reacts, jumping up so fast that he flips his chair over as he bolts back to the doorway, his hands raised in self-defense. For a split-second he really thinks that Rick is about to smash that bottle on the table and come after him.

Then, after an agonizing pause, Rick corrects his grip so he can bring the scotch up for another drink. When he finishes he points at Ford with the hand still holding the bottle.

“All right,” he says. “Get out.”

Ford is still breathing hard from his outburst. “Wh-what?”

“I said get the fuck out, Pines,” Rick hisses. “I can’t deal with this wounded puppy dog bullshit. Not coming from that face. If you can’t shut the fuck up then you need to get the fuck out.”

Ford doesn’t even feel offended that he’s being kicked out of his own house. He’s too busy wishing he could rip his face off the front of his skull.

“Where should I go?” he asks, despondent.

“Tell you what,” Rick sneers. “You wanna help? Y-you wanna feel good about yourself? Go get me some fucking cigarettes.” He gestures dismissively at the door and turns back to his makeshift laboratory. “Don’t hurry back. O-or don’t come back at all. I-I-I don’t really care either way, just go.”

And here Ford had hoped he was done getting kicked in the balls. Mortified, he stays just long enough to grab that roll of gauze before he flees, stumbling through the house and out the front door. He stops when he reaches the porch, blinking owlishly, dumbfounded by the daylight. He’d forgotten that the sun would be shining.

In a daze, he sits on the porch step and awkwardly wraps his right hand with the gauze. It quickly soaks through with red in a Rorschach pattern, some of the stains manifesting as aimless blotches but some of them with the distinct curve of a set of teeth. Ford stuffs the hand in his coat pocket and starts walking towards town. His body’s on autopilot at this point, his mind a million miles away, his gaze set on the middle distance. Rick may have been trying to demean him, but Ford won’t deny that he’s grateful to be given a specific task. It gives him something to focus on. It’s something he can do.

It’s downright surreal to walk into the convenience store, all clean and warm and brightly-lit. There’s a vaguely familiar song playing on the overhead speakers. The place is more or less deserted, save for the elderly couple behind the counter, who smile blithely at him in greeting. It’s not the first time he’s ever been here, but his visits are rare enough that they always greet him as stranger. When he gets closer to the counter he sees a hint of concern in their expressions, only to belatedly remember that he has a highly incriminating set of scratchmarks on his cheek and jaw. He thinks fast and grabs a few cans of cat food on the way. They visibly relax.

As the cans clatter down on the counter, the woman wags her finger teasingly at Ford.

“Looks like somebody got a little too frisky, eh?”

Strange to think that Ford actually saw it happen, Rick’s fingernails raking a path down his own face. He wants to puke all over the countertop but somehow manages to muster a strained chuckle of agreement instead.

“Will that be all, stranger?” she asks cheerfully.

Ford looks up at the wall of cigarette options behind her. He has no idea if Rick has a brand preference, and in his addled state he simply decides to get one of each. The elderly gentleman loads up his purchases into a plastic shopping bag and passes it to him with a friendly smile. Ford tries to smile back, but there’s that look of concern again so he knows he must look a fright. He ducks out of the shop without another word.

On the way back he stops and throws up by the side of the road. It looks, tastes, and smells like scotch.

He stops at the edge of his property and surveys the cabin from a distance. It looks so open, so vulnerable, like anyone or anything could march right up to the front door. He’ll have to fortify his position here. Barbed wire, maybe. Threatening signs. Anything that might give him the illusion of security.

Ford lingers with his hand on the front door knob. He thinks about knocking to alert Rick to his presence, but one of the few fragments of pride left within him refuses to ask permission to enter his own home. He swings the door open and marches inside.

There’s Rick, pointing the crossbow right at his heart.

“Ohh-hh-h, yeah,” he snarls. “I was hoping you’d come back.”

“Shit!” Ford drops his shopping bag, both hands flung up for mercy. “Rick, it’s me! It’s Ford!”

“I know.”

Rick’s aim never wavers. He’s shed his vomit-splattered shirt and lab coat, leaving him in a wifebeater that barely covers the worst of his bruises, threads of black and purple creeping up over the collar and armpit from the epicenter of his broken ribs. The bloody gash on his forehead is gone, along with the cut on his chin. Judging from the way his belt is now properly buckled — not to mention the absence of any sort of limp — Ford can only assume he took care of the rest as well. Too bad he couldn’t get rid of the bloodstains.

There’s murder in his eyes. His finger is locked tight on the trigger. Rick takes an aggressive step forward and Ford slams himself back against the closed door, his spine rigid against the paneling.

“Rick,” he gasps. “Please, don’t.”

“Gimme one good reason,” Rick growls.

“Oh, God,” Ford squeezes his eyes shut. There is no good reason. “Wait— please—”

“You son of a bitch.” Rick takes another step closer, his aim that much more certain. “You knew. You knew about Cipher and you didn’t say shit.”

“I thought I had control,” Ford pants. “I didn’t— I didn’t think—”

“Oh, you didn’t think? Newsflash, Fordy, what you think isn’t worth shit. A-a-apparently you thought it was a good idea to make a deal with a triangle demon and look— look how— we all know how that turned out.”

Ford only has to look at the man standing in front of him to see how that turned out. Even without his open wounds Rick still looks like the human equivalent of a totaled car— bloodshot eyes ringed with bruises, the six-fingered handprints on his throat gone from red to purple to almost black, his whole body canted to an angle that favors his cracked ribcage. The only thing keeping him on his feet at this point is pure rage. Every inch of him reminds Ford of one inescapable fact:

You did this. It was you.

He exhales, and lowers his hands.

“Okay,” he mumbles. “Okay.”

“Okay?” Rick raises the crossbow aim from Ford’s heart to his eye socket. “Wh-what do you mean, okay?

“You’re right.”

Ford takes a step away from the door to stand tall on his own two feet. It’s the calmest he’s felt in weeks.

“You have to kill me.”

Rick is momentarily taken aback by the capitulation. Then his gaze hardens into steel.

“Careful, Fordy. I’ll do it.”

“I know.” Ford swallows hard. “And you should. Just— promise me you’ll dismantle the portal before you leave.”

Now Rick lowers the crossbow, indignant. “Wha-aat? Fuck that! I-I’m not cleaning up your mess, asshole!”

“It’s the only way,” Ford insists. “If you leave it intact, Bill will just find someone else to come down here and finish the job. It has to be taken apart.”

“Pfft, fine, whatever.” The crossbow comes up again. “After I shoot you in the face I’ll blow up your stupid portal. Good fucking riddance.”

“No, you can’t blow it up!” Ford flinches, hoping that Rick won’t fire before he can explain. “Th-the central core is linked directly to a specific point of weakness in the fabric of this dimension. A sudden detonation could destabilize the entire rift! That’s exactly what Bill wants!”

“Aww, c’mon, are you serious?” Rick holds his aim for several long beats, then groans in exasperation. “Uuuugh, goddamn it.” He lets the crossbow fall to his side, his lip curled in disgust. “Congratulations, Fordy, your own dumb ass just saved your life. I-I-I don’t have time for this. You’ll have to deal with your own shit.”

“No!”

Ford lurches forward. Rick has the crossbow trained on him in an instant, but that’s exactly what Ford wants— he plants himself directly in the path of Rick’s aim, his arms flung wide as he offers his chest to the arrow.

“Please,” he begs. “I thought I could stay and guard it myself, but now—” He clutches at his skull. “I can’t keep him out. It’s hopeless. It’s only a matter of time before he takes me again, and then he’ll rip those schematics right out of my head. I can’t stop him.”

Rick considers him from the other end of the crossbow.

“Holy shit,” he mutters. “That triangle’s really got you by the balls, huh.”

“Hate to break it to you, pal,” Ford says grimly. “But he’s got you, too.”

Outrage breaks over Rick’s expression like a thunderclap, his finger going so tight on the trigger that Ford can practically hear the whine of tension on the string, the catch on the very cusp of release.

“He’s got jack shit!” Rick bristles. “I’m not playing any more of his games!”

“Don’t you get it?” Ford almost laughs, manic. “You already are! The game is still going! And there’s only two ways it can end: either Bill gets what he wants or he doesn’t. It’s your move, Rick. You know what you have to do.”

“Yeah, right,” Rick sneers. “Y-you really think I’m gonna put you out of your misery and then go take care of your dirty work? No fucking way.”

“I should have dismantled it when I had the chance.” Ford pushes his left hand through his hair, his right clutched in a throbbing, wounded fist at his side. “I thought if I could complete Project Mentem while I still had control, then I— I wouldn’t have to destroy it.” He scrubs at his exhausted eyes. “But it’s too late for that. I’m finished. I won’t be able to hold him off long enough to take it down on my own.” He gives Rick a desolate look. “If you walk away now then you’re handing him that portal on a silver platter. All of this will have been for nothing.

And there’s the knife that twists the deepest. There’s a flicker in Rick’s furious expression, a glimpse of total despair at the thought of going all the way to hell and back only to wind up playing right into Bill’s hands in the end. Ford can see his frustration mounting as his options slip away from him, his hackles rising with infuriated denial.

“Fuck you,” he fumes. “Dumb-ass deal-making six-fingered motherfucker. I didn’t sign up for this shit. This is on you.

“So finish it.” Ford didn’t even know how badly he wanted this until he asked for it; one arrow to the eye and he’d be free of this meatsack once and for all, free from Bill, free from everything. “It shouldn’t take you more than a day to break down the portal. After that you’re in the clear. Just do it. End it now.”

He’s moving closer and closer to the arrowhead, pressing into Rick’s space, urging him to pull the trigger. Rick’s looking closer and closer to actually doing it, his face twisted with resentment at being forced into a corner. At this point he can either give Ford what he wants or let Bill have his way. Both options are about as appealing as a permanent canker sore. Ford doesn’t see any other alternative.

“Quick,” he pants, teetering on the edge of hysteria. “Quick, you have to hurry, before he comes back— Rick— I can’t let him take me— please— just do it—”

Funny how he can be completely prepared to receive an arrow in the chest and yet completely unprepared for Rick to flip the crossbow around and slam the butt of it into his forehead. Ford’s vision explodes with stars, white-hot and unforgiving, before the whole world goes black.

He comes up to the surface, just briefly, as he’s being dragged across the floor of the house. He groans and stirs his head, but then Rick’s voice commands “stay down, Fordy,” and Ford holds his breath until he slips away again.

He wakes up at the kitchen table.

It’s strange, but the position he finds himself in makes him feel like he’s waking up from a nap. He’s seated in a chair, slumped forward with his chest and head resting on the tabletop, his arms draped off to either side. He might almost think he’d dozed off there, that this whole unbelievable shitstorm was just an exceptionally horrific nightmare— except when he tries to sit up he discovers that his wrists are taped to their respective table legs, his body pinned flat to its surface. When he tries to stand he subsequently discovers that his ankles are taped to the legs of the chair; there’s even a belt of tape around his waist to keep him from lifting his ass out of the seat. He’s well and truly trapped.

Good, he thinks, numb. I can’t hurt anyone this way.

He waits there for what feels like a long time. It could be only a few minutes, it could be hours. He doesn’t really mind. It feels good to be restrained like this. All the responsibility has finally been lifted from his shoulders. Who, me? I’m completely helpless. I’m no use to anyone. He nestles his wounded cheek against the cool plane of the tabletop. It’s so quiet.

It starts with the smell of smoke. Then Rick arrives in the kitchen, hauling an armload of gear from the third sub-basement.

“Oh heeeeey, buddy,” he greets around the cigarette clenched in his teeth. “You’re up. Good. Wouldn’t want you to have any brai-eugh-ain damage.”

He dumps the load of gear on the table. When Ford cranes his head back, he can see that there’s another trip’s worth of equipment and materials already piled up around him. Rick takes the cigarette from his mouth and displays it like a magician revealing a chosen card.

“So,” he says. “Did you just get one of every brand they had?”

“I didn’t know if you had a preference,” Ford mutters.

“Classic Fordy,” Rick taps off the ash. “Always trying too hard.” He sticks the cigarette back in his teeth and rifles through the plastic shopping bag, producing a tin can with a kitten on the label. “And, uh, what the fuck is this?”

“I’ve got scratchmarks all over my face,” Ford huffs. “I didn’t want them to call the cops.”

He doesn’t know why he suddenly feels so small and stupid, but he doesn’t like it. He turns his head to hide the scratches against the table, but then Rick reaches down and takes him by the chin, forcibly turning his head back over again.

“Yeah,” he muses, his thumb rubbing at the nearest gash. “I got you pretty good there, didn’t I?”

Ford doesn’t even try to escape his grip. “Nothing I didn’t deserve.”

Rick curls his fingers around Ford’s jaw, the cherry of his cigarette flaring up bright before he releases a jet of smoke from his mouth.

“You deserve worse, Fordy,” he murmurs. “A hell of a lot worse.”

Still in Rick’s grasp, Ford tosses his head towards the collection of gear. “Are you planning to give it to me?”

“Heh,” Rick scratches his chin lightly. “You wish.”

Out of the blue he nails him with a violent slap, hard enough that Ford’s head bounces off the tabletop with a thud. He’s still reeling when Rick leans down to get in his face, the cigarette dancing on the end of his lip, the burning ember tracing his words on the air.

“Listen up, you little shit. It might seem like I’m about to do you a bi-i-ig fucking favor, but I just want you to know right here, right now, that I’m not.

“What?” Ford shrinks away from him. “What are you going to do?”

“I’m gonna win, baby.” Rick grins and raps his knuckles against Ford’s temple. “I’m gonna wreck Bill’s portal and I’m gonna make yo-oou do all the work. Game, set—” He stubs his cigarette out on the table right in front of Ford’s nose. “—match.”

He leaves the crumpled cigarette butt there like the world’s shittiest altar offering and goes over to grab one of the unopened packs from the shopping bag, fiddling with the shrinkwrap while Ford squirms and tries to follow him with his eyes.

“You can’t untie me,” he protests, as Rick strips off the thin plastic and tosses it to the floor. “It’s not safe. I’m not safe.”

“Noo-o-oo,” Rick gapes at him in mock astonishment. “Really?” He retrieves a single cigarette and bounces the rest of the pack off of Ford’s forehead. “Relax, dip-ass. You’re not going anywhere. Yet.”

Ford loses track of him when Rick goes and sits at the opposite end of the table, moving beyond Ford’s limited range of vision. Twisting his neck to an uncomfortable angle, Ford is able to rest his chin on the flat surface, looking out of the tops of his eyes to see Rick lighting his cigarette from a book of shitty hotel matches that Ford picked up on his road trip to Gravity Falls. It’s almost like lighting a blacksmith’s forge; once the cherry is burning, Rick gets to work, sorting through his equipment with clarity and purpose. He moves so confidently that no one would ever guess he just chugged two-thirds of a bottle of scotch.

“So, uh,” Ford mumbles, his teeth perpetually clenched due to his head resting on his jaw. “What are you going to do?”

“I-i-it’s pretty simple, really.” Rick meticulously lays out his tools like a surgeon’s tray. “Your pal Bill said he likes to break other people’s toys. Well it just so happens that I like to take other people’s toys and dangle ‘em ju-ust out of reach.” He points a soldering iron at Ford. “That’s you, by the way. You-urp-’re the toy. Welcome to the club, asshole.”

“Wait, so, you’re taking me… away from Bill?” Ford is as confused as he is excited. “Is that even possible? How?”

“Eh,” Rick shrugs, weighing a piece of sheet metal in his hands, testing the flexibility. “I-it’s no big deal. I’m just gonna peel back your scalp and bolt this metal plate directly to your skull.”

“Oh.” Ford gulps nervously, his Adam’s apple scraping against the tabletop, tight and uncomfortable. “Is that, uh... is that safe?”

“Probably not.” Rick glances up at him. “Guess we’re gonna find out, huh?” He pauses to flick his cigarette ash to the floor. “Th-the human body is a remarkable thing, Fordy. You wouldn’t belie-e-eve the kind of beating it can take and still keep kicking.”

He holds Ford’s gaze, unflinching, until Ford can’t bear it and twists his head back down again, his cheek pressed to the table. He stares off into the empty kitchen and listens to the clanking and rustling as Rick carries on with his task.

“It won’t work,” he says, dull and defeated. “He’s a demon. A piece of metal won’t stop him.”

“Puh-leeeease,” Rick snorts. “Once I calibrate this bad boy you’re gonna have a full-spectrum block on all cerebral interference. W-w-we’re talking demonic possession, telepathic suggestion, any and all mind-control rays— like to see that weak-ass isosceles motherfucker get through this.

Ford’s eyes prickle up with tears, stinging and sharp, as he allows himself to imagine what it would be like to close his mind to Bill Cipher once and for all. He could sleep again. He just wants to sleep. He won’t even mind the nightmares, just as long as he knows he’ll wake up in his own body.

“You don’t have to do this,” he mutters, choked with guilt. “I don’t deserve your help.”

“No, Fordy,” Rick snaps. “You re-e-eally don’t.”

Ford cranes his head back to look up at him. When they make eye contact, a burst of anger sparks in Rick’s gaze like a muzzle flash, and on a sudden impulse he flicks his lit cigarette at Ford’s face. There’s nowhere for Ford to go— he reflexively tries to jerk backwards, but with his wrists taped to the table legs he has no room to maneuver. The ember glances off his cheek, quick and searing as a bee sting.

“Fuck!” he yelps, and he mashes his face against the table, trying to soothe the burn.

Rick ignores him in favor of grabbing the shopping bag, digging up another unopened pack of smokes and tearing at the shrinkwrap with his fingernails.

“See, that’s your fucking problem, Fordy.” He shreds the plastic film off in strips of cellophane confetti. “You never listen. Now I am gonna repeat myself just one more goddamn time and after that it’s gonna get re-eally ugly.” He jams the newest cigarette between his teeth and stabs his finger at Ford across the table. “This is not for you. Th-this is not about you. This is between me and Cipher, you understand? I-I-I would slit your throat this fucking second if I thought it would piss him off more.” He looks away to fumble with the matchbook, his hands practically shaking with rage. “S-so you can keep your thanks to yourself. I don’t wanna hear it.”

With a decisive scratch, Rick strikes his match and brings it up to his cigarette. When he’s done he seems to contemplate lobbing the lit match at Ford’s face for good measure, but although Ford flinches in anticipation, Rick ultimately decides to just wave out the flame and toss it to the floor.

“Y’know,” he says, as he resumes his tinkering. “There is one thing that I’m just dying to hear. How the fuck did you even meet this prick in the first place? I mean you’re not exactly the type of guy I’d peg for casual demon summoning. Y-you always struck me as the kid at the slumber party who freaks out and starts crying when someone busts out a ouija board.”

“As a matter of fact,” Ford huffs. “I was the kid who busted out the ouija board.”

“Oh, well, la-di-freaking-da, Stanford, I guess you’re a real stone-cold motherfucker.”

Puffing out clouds like an angry smokestack, Rick comes over with a measuring tape and starts taking down the dimensions of Ford’s skull. He chooses the left side of Ford’s head, for no apparent reason other than to force him to leave those scratchmarks turned upwards, exposed for Rick’s viewing pleasure. Ford lets his neck go slack, allowing Rick to turn and maneuver his head as he sees fit. He definitely isn’t gentle about it.

“So,” Rick mutters around his cigarette. “What was it? Ouija board? Crystal ball? Some sort of, I dunno, vision quest?”

Ford smirks ruefully. “Ancient incantations written on a cave wall.”

“Ohhh my God.”

“Complete with warnings not to read them aloud.”

Jeeeeezus, Fordy.”

“My research was at a dead-end. I was desperate.”

“You’re pathetic.”

There’s no affection in the way he says it, no teasing fondness. There’s not even a glimmer of sympathy. You’re pathetic, Rick hisses at him, and Ford feels the truth of it right down to his bones.

Because it is true.

He knows that, now. And after all of Bill’s lies— after all of the flattery and coddling and praise— this brutal slap of honesty is just about the best thing he’s ever heard. It’s a drop of water on his parched tongue, and like any man dying of thirst, his first instinct is to stagger after it, eager for more.

“He told me he was a muse,” he says, looking up at Rick from the corner of his eye. “That he chose one brilliant mind a century to inspire.”

“Ohh-h-h, I’ll bet you just ate that up with a spoon, didn’t ya, Fordy? I-I-I’ll bet you couldn’t spread your legs fast enough.” Rick looks down at him the way someone might look at a piece of dog shit on their shoe. “One brilliant mind a century— and you actually thought it could be yours. What a fucking joke.”

Finished with his measurements, he goes back to his own end of the table and slings himself down into the chair to keep working. Ford doesn’t even bother to lift his head and watch; he just stares straight out at the kitchen, his face pressed to the tabletop, the whole world canted to a ninety-degree angle.

“I was going to change the world. All I had to do was let him into my mind.”

He listens to the sound of Rick’s tools clinking and scraping, the whine of the cold saw as he trims the sheet metal down to size.

“A pick-up line,” Rick scoffs over the noise. “A goddamn demon pick-up line, a-a-and you fucking fell for it. Hey, baby, are you from Tennessee? Because you’re the only person stupid enough to buy this crap that I see. Geez, Fordy, I knew you had a praise kink, but this— thi-eugh-is really takes the cake. Weak, Fordy. You’re weak.”

But Ford already knows he’s weak. He learned that the hard way, right after he left college, when the bottomless well of acclaim and recognition abruptly ran dry for the first time in his life. There were no more term papers marked ‘100,’ no more professors singling out his exceptional work in front of the class, no more semesters with perfect G.P.A.s. Even as he threw himself into his investigation of Gravity Falls, a part of him was forever nagged by the fear that he wasn’t doing it right. Half the time he just wished that someone would show up every night and give him a letter grade for the day. Hell, he would have settled for once a week. He was starved for affirmation.

Then Bill came along and said “HIYA, SMART GUY,” and it was all over.

“He told me I was special,” Ford murmurs.

“But you are special, Fordy!” Rick coos, then drops his voice into a growl. “A-a-a real special kind of idiot. Just— please tell me that the portal was at least your idea to begin with.”

Ford squeezes his eyes shut. “It was Bill’s idea.”

“Goddamn it, Stanford!”

Ford yelps in pain as a socket wrench bounces off his shoulder, thrown with such force that he’s lucky it doesn’t hit his head.

“I’m sorry!” he wails, cringing instinctively away from the next volley.

“Uuuggh,” Rick groans in disgust. “Again with the mea culpas. Wh-wh-what did I fucking say? I don’t have time for that shit.”

Ford tucks his head down against his shoulder, his eyes screwed shut in shame. He hears a crinkle of cellophane and realizes that Rick is tearing into yet another unopened pack of cigarettes for his next smoke. By now it’s clear that he intends to take one from every pack. Ford should have guessed that he wouldn’t have a brand preference; Rick’s always been the kind of guy to take whatever he can get.

“O-on second thought,” Rick remarks, flicking his spent match into the corner. “Maybe I should count this as a plus. I mean, I dunno if Cipher could fake such authentically pitiful sniveling. I-i-it’s a pretty solid indicator that you’re still you— whatever that’s worth.”

Ford keeps his face buried in the collar of his trenchcoat. He doesn’t want to see what’s going on at the other end of the table. By sound alone he can track Rick’s progress; the chirr of the drill as he makes the bolt holes, the muted roar of the blowtorch as he softens the sheet metal into a skull-shaped curve. God, he works fast. It won’t be long now.

All too soon the tools go silent. Then Ford hears the rustling of another cellophane wrapper.

“You still with me, Fordy?” Rick calls idly.

With a sigh, Ford cranes his neck over and props his chin on the table. There’s Rick, leaning back with a fresh cigarette in his mouth, his gaze unreadable. There’s the metal plate, resting on the table before him, upturned like an ornamental dish. It has a surprisingly clean line, considering the fact that Rick just banged it out in about thirty minutes. Rick notices Ford’s wary eye and makes a dismissive gesture.

“Good e-fucking-nough.”

“Considering our alternatives,” Ford grimaces. “I think it’s worth a shot.”

“Shut up, Fordy, I don’t give a fuck what you think.”

Ford shuts up. He expects Rick to go on and explain what comes next, but instead Rick just sits back and takes his sweet time with that cigarette, experimenting with an attempt to blow smoke rings while Ford sweats and stares across the table in mounting dread. With the position he’s in he’s at right about eye level with the metal plate. It’s bigger than he thought it would be. He doesn’t want to think about the incisions Rick will have to make to get it inside of him. He can’t decide if he wants Rick to hurry up and get it over with or just sit there smoking that same cigarette forever. Actually, the cigarette is a useful countdown; Ford gets to watch his fate creep closer and closer as the cherry creeps inexorably down to the filter.

Finally it reaches its limit. Deliberately avoiding any acknowledgment of Ford’s presence, Rick casually stubs the cigarette on the underside of the table and flicks the butt into the corner that has now become his default ashtray. Then, to Ford’s amazement, he grabs up yet another fresh pack of cigarettes and peels it open.

“Uh, Rick,” Ford says, his voice strained.

Rick glances over at him, his eyes lit up by the flame of his match. “Yeeeeees?”

“What are you doing?”

“Wh-what does it look I’m doing, genius? I’m treating myself to a nice, relaxing smoke break before the shit hits the fan.” He exhales a lungful in Ford’s direction. “It’s about to get re-e-eal messy in here.”

Ford licks his lips, dry as parchment. “I’m ready.”

‘Y’know what?” Rick says. “Me too.”

Tucking the cigarette into the corner of his mouth, he stands up and rummages through his collected gear, coming away with the roll of duct tape that he presumably used to strap Ford to the table in the first place. It’s not the same roll from the study; that tape had a silver backing, while this one is black. Must be the roll from the junk drawer. Ford is already bound at the wrists, waist, and ankles— now Rick takes a moment to study the points where his arms hook over the edge of the table on either side. Pulling out a long strip of tape to begin with, he starts at the top of Ford’s elbow and passes the roll under the table, behind the table leg, and then back up over the edge and Ford’s elbow again, effectively locking his arm into place. If he does this with both arms, Ford will be almost completely immobilized. He flexes his fingers anxiously.

“Rick?” He tries not to sound too nervous. “What, uh— what is this?”

Rick winds the tape around and around, the grip tightening like a vise on Ford’s arm.

“This— uurp— this is is your surgery prep, Fordy. Can’t have you flailing around too much.”

Ford’s heart rate seems to double in less than a second. It’s almost impressive how instantaneously the horror floods his entire system.

“F-flailing? Aren’t you going to put me under?”

“Y’know, I’d love to do that,” Rick leans in to tear off the strip with his teeth, flattening the end of it into place. “But I ju-ust can’t guarantee who you’d wake up as. I mean at this point I figure knocking you out is the demonic possession equivalent of laying out the welcome mat.”

“You didn’t have any problem knocking me out before!”

“Uhh-h-h, doy, I wasn’t permanently setting your skull on defcon five before. Last thing I wanna do is lock Bill in there instead of locking him out.”

Rick moves around the table to secure the other arm. Frantic, Ford turns his head over to see that his approach is even more certain the second time, the roll of tape placed at the elbow and then going down and around and up and over, again and again, inescapable. Rick bites off the end and tacks it down. There’s an invisible band around Ford’s chest squeezing the air out of his lungs in panic.

“Please,” he mumbles. “You— you can’t be serious.”

Rick plants his hand on the table and leans down to get right in Ford’s face, his breath reeking of scotch and nicotine.

“What’s a’matter, Fordy?” There’s barely-contained fury in his bruised, bloodshot eyes. “Don’t think you can take it?”

Ford can’t even shrink away from him anymore. He has no choice but to nod his head miserably against the tabletop in resignation.

“You’re right,” he says, his voice meek. “It’s the only way to be sure.”

Rick holds him in his stare for a few more beats before finally breaking off and going to retrieve his equipment. He arranges it all in a halo around Ford’s head, the metal plate placed purposefully right in front of his eyes for maximum effect.

Ford jerks in alarm when he hears a mechanical whir— but it turns out to be the electric shaver that Fiddleford left behind when he fled with little more than the clothes on his back. Rick takes off Ford’s glasses and places a hand in his hair to hold him steady, then shaves the shape of a rectangle onto the left side of his head, two short sides and one long. The last side on top is left intact to be the base of the flap he’s about to carve into Ford’s scalp.

“Don’t sweat it, Fordy,” Rick says, all casual. “Nice, thick hair like that— i-i-it’ll grow back in no time.”

There are terrified tears leaking out of Ford’s eyes. Rick doesn’t even bother to make a comment on the matter. He just sets aside the shaver and picks up the boxcutter that he intends to use as a scalpel.

“Okay,” he announces. “And awa-a-ay we go!”

The first cut doesn’t even register as pain at first. It hits Ford like something scalding hot, his whole body clenched like a fist against the urge to pull away from it, his eyes shooting wide with shock. He grits his teeth and focuses every conscious thought on holding still. After that initial sensory overload the agony starts to filter through, waves and waves of it as Rick drags the boxcutter across the length of his head, all the way along the base of the rectangle and then up again as he completes the outline. Blood trickles down the back of Ford’s neck and down across his face. By the time Rick is done with the cutting Ford is already at his limit, his limbs shaking violently in their restraints, every breath a sob of distress.

“I can’t—” he gasps. “I can’t do it— please stop—”

“Oh, you think that’s bad?” Rick smirks. “Wait till you see what comes next.”

Grabbing the thickest part of the hair in the rectangle, Rick sets in with the slow and steady pull of someone removing a price sticker from a new purchase. Ford doesn’t even try to contain himself. As his scalp starts to peel away from the surface of his skull, he abandons any semblance of control and screams his fucking lungs out. He can feel it in his eyeballs, in his teeth, like someone is ripping his face apart from the inside, his hands spasming wildly at the end of their restraints. Nothing has ever hurt like this before, not even his father’s belt. God, he didn’t think it was possible to experience this much physical pain and survive. He starts to convulse and Rick just uses his free hand to grab a fistful of hair at the crown of his head, pinning him down.

He stops screaming when Rick stops pulling. A plate-sized patch of skull is now exposed to the open air; Ford deliriously imagines that he can feel the wind blowing through his brain, his synapses clutching their coats and shivering against the chill. His pupils roll all the way up and over, almost as if he might be able to see the damage for himself. There’s a warm deep pool of unconsciousness just below him. All he has to do is jump.

“Uh-uh-uh, Fordy. Stay with me.”

Rick jabs his fingers into the small of Ford’s back, yanking his awareness back into his body. Ford lurches and automatically tries to stand up. The tape catches him and holds him down, along with Rick’s hand slamming his face against the table.

“I would re-e-eally advise you to hold still at this point.”

Ford makes an incoherent sound of acknowledgment, his body going rigid with effort, his eyes boiling in their sockets. When Rick takes his hands away, Ford doesn’t move an inch.

“Tha-at’s better,” Rick mutters, and it’s close enough to praise for Ford to cling to for comfort.

He stares, barely comprehending, as Rick picks up the metal plate and spins it between his fingers. Then he swabs it down with something from a mixing bowl on the table; undoubtedly a disinfectant of his own concoction. His voice sounds a million miles away and yet so close to Ford’s eardrum that he can feel it under his skin.

“Moment of truth, Fordy. You still with me?”

Ford manages to squeeze out an affirmative moan. Rick clicks his tongue.

“No-eugh-ot good enough. Y-y-you’re gonna have to say something.”

Ford struggles to draw a deep enough breath to support his voice. His tongue is thick and swollen in his mouth. Out of the corner of his eye he can see the metal plate hovering just above him, huge and monumental. He knows Rick won’t set it down until he knows for sure.

“Wha— what d’you want me t’say?”

“We-e-ell,” Rick considers. “Some pathetic sniveling might help. Cipher’s not the sniveling type. You de-e-efinitely are.”

There’s something hot and wet running all over his face and Ford can’t figure out if it’s blood or tears.

“Please, Rick,” he sobs. “I don’t— I don’t know—”

“Tell me about your brother.”

“Shermie,” Ford pants. “He’s— he’s eleven— his favorite subject is— geography—”

“No, Fordy.” Rick cuts him off. “Your brother.

Ford tries to swallow and almost vomits instead.

“No,” he whimpers, pitiful and reedy.

“See?” Rick says. “That’s more like it. Tell me his name.”

He was never supposed to know. God knows Ford never would have breathed a word— but then Rick found the photograph in his desk, and he made sure to get Ford good and drunk before he asked about it. Drunk enough to spill the whole damn story. They never talked about it again.

Until now.

“Please,” Ford begs. “Please don’t make me.”

“C’mon, Fordy. Lemme know it’s really you. I know exa-actly how you say it.”

It’s true. Ford’s voice cracks every time he allows himself to speak it.

“...Stanley.”

“The-ere we go.” Rick starts to lower the plate, then pauses. “Y-you’re gonna have to keep talking, Fordy. Can’t risk it.”

“Please— I don’t— I can’t—”

“Where is Stanley these days?”

Ford makes a keening noise like a wounded animal. “I don’t know!

The metal plate snaps into place. Ford feels it like an ice-cold fist wrapped around his skull, dense and frozen, so heavy that he fears his cranial structure will collapse under the weight. His back arches up and Rick drives it down again with his elbow, unfazed, his deft fingers maneuvering the plate against the blood-slick surface of the bone, settling it into its proper measurements. Ford’s fingers go rigor mortis-stiff, curled into agonizing claws.

“Stanley!” he bleats, shrill and piteous. “Stanley help me— help me— Stanley plee-eease—”

“Wow, Fordy,” Rick interjects. “Y-y-you’re really going all out on the sniveling. Nice enthusiasm. Also the plate’s on now, so— so maybe you can get a fucking grip already.”

Somehow Ford manages to gulp down the next wave of hysteria, the screams bubbling out as a wet, strangled cough instead, his throat raw from weeping. He watches as Rick places a set of four bolts on the table in front of his watering eyes, making sure that Ford gets a nice, long look before he picks the first one up and fits it to the end of the drill.

“Buckle up, pal,” he says. “It’s about to get bumpy.”

Ford clenches his teeth so hard he’s amazed they don’t splinter apart in his mouth.

He’s not ready.

The pain is indescribable. It’s not just the agony of the bone being penetrated— it’s the roar of the drill filling his entire skull, the vibrations pounding directly into his cerebral cortex, his senses pummeled from within and without. With the rest of his limbs restrained, Ford spasms his knees open and closed, desperate to remind himself that he has a body that extends beyond his neck, that there’s more to him than just this all-consuming thunder.

There’s not even a flicker of relief when the drilling stops. Not when there’s three more bolts on the table. If anything the dread is even worse, now that he knows what’s coming. He makes a garbled sound of despair when Rick picks up bolt number two.

“Oh, shit!” Rick reacts to the noise. “You’re still awake? Man, I would’ve— I thought for sure you would’ve passed out by now.”

“I’m still here,” Ford wheezes. “I’m not going anywhere.”

“Yeah, well, I hope you mean that literally, because you do not want to be wiggling around during this part.”

Here it comes again, louder than before, rattling Ford’s teeth right down to the roots. It’s a hurricane, it’s an avalanche— it’s a million ants crawling over every inch of his skin, cruel and biting. He’s barely aware of the transition from the second bolt to the third, but somehow he opens his eyes again and there’s only one bolt left on the table.

It’s even more daunting than the original set of four. Only one left— but what if this is the one that breaks him? What if he made it all this way only to shatter into a thousand pieces at the finish line? He imagines his skull as a sheet of ice, spider-webbed with countless fissures, ready to burst under the slightest hint of pressure.

“Wait—” he slurs. “Wait—”

The roar of the drill explodes over him like a shockwave. It corkscrews down through his spinal cord with such overwhelming force that his vision blurs, then whites out completely. His limbs seize up like he’s been hit with the full force of an electric chair. He can’t even tell if he’s screaming or not. By the time the torture stops and he regains his senses, he realizes that he’s pissed his pants.

“Aww, yeah,” Rick says, admiring his handiwork. “Rikki Tikki Tavi, bitch.”

Ford huddles against the table, silent. Then he shudders and moans as Rick folds his scalp back down over his brand-new skull plate, every single nerve ending protesting at the foreign presence.

“Yyyyeah,” Rick comments on Ford’s discomfort. “You’re de-efinitely gonna have a headache for… a while. But hey, here’s a perk— no stitches!”

Before Ford even has time to wonder about that last bit, Rick slathers his hyper-sensitive wounds with the chemical cauterizer.

Fuck!” Ford screams, writhing against his restraints. “Ahhhhh fuck— nnngh—”

It’s close enough to his ear that he can actually hear the bubbling and spitting, the flesh knitting back together, the clotted blood dissolving into reconstructive tissue. It’s all the pain of the original injury magnified a thousandfold, the shattered nerve endings forcefully reassembled piece by jagged piece. It makes Ford jerk and struggle with enough violence to rattle all the equipment on the table, his body convulsively straining to escape from the agony.

By the time the chemical reaction sizzles to completion he’s completely wrung out. He collapses, for the second time that day, like a puppet with its strings cut, his body slumped in a heap on the table, his breath coming in huge, shuddering gulps of air.

“Yep,” Rick says, as he lights another cigarette. “Hurts like a bi-i-itch.”

Ford thinks about Rick using the chemical cauterizer on himself and has to shut his eyes against a sudden wave of nausea.

He’s not sure how long he stays like that. All he knows is that he doesn’t open his eyes again until he hears the refrigerator door being yanked open behind him. While his entire skull throbs in objection, he still cranes his neck around to peer over his shoulder, where he sees Rick critically examining a can of soda in his hand.

“Wh-what the hell is this? I-i-it says cola, but there’s— there’s a peach on the label. Is it— what? Cola-flavored? Peach-flavored? It’s just— I don’t— they’re sending me mixed messages, here.”

“It’s Pitt Cola,” Ford says weakly. His mouth is so, so dry. “You never… had Pitt before…?”

Rick cracks the top, takes one sip, and promptly tosses the entire can into the sink.

“Uuugh, Fordy, even your judgment in soft drinks is terrible.”

Too tired to react, Ford just lets his head settle back down onto the tabletop, his eyes glassy with exhaustion. After that relentless barrage of stimulation it’s almost eerie to be in a body gone suddenly silent; he half-heartedly flexes his fingers and toes to make sure he’s still in the body at all. The answering throb of his chewed-up right hand is an immediate confirmation that this is real, he’s here, and it’s over. Ford exhales. It’s over.

A puff of smoke rolls by overhead like a cloudbank. Ford looks up and sees Rick leaning over him, his head cocked at an inquisitive angle.

“How ya feeling there, Fordy?

“Like shit,” Ford croaks, and Rick chuckles in approval.

“A-a-atta boy.”

He grabs up his bloody makeshift scalpel and uses it to slice through the tape around Ford’s wrists and elbows, pulling it apart just enough to allow escape before he unceremoniously dumps the boxcutter on the table for Ford to finish the rest himself. Ford is left to pull against the tape like he’s trying to pull his limbs out of quicksand; a nearly impossible feat, considering his strength is almost gone. He twists his wrists, fumbling for the open seams, his efforts hindered by his weakened state. Rick offers no further assistance.

Finally Ford manages to get his left hand loose. From there he’s able to reach over and pull the rest of the arm restraints off, piece by piece. All of a sudden he’s sitting upright for the first time since Rick knocked him out. The effect is dizzying. Ford slouches back in his chair, reeling, as the world tilts back into place around him. Rick is sitting across the table, holding the empty scotch bottle upside-down over his mouth and licking at the remaining droplets still clinging to the glass. He spares Ford an idle glance.

“No-eugh-ot done yet.”

Ford looks down at the thick black band of tape around his midsection. Then he looks at the blood-stained boxcutter. His instinct not to touch it is only overpowered by his instinct to be free. With a shiver of revulsion he picks up the tool and starts cutting. The middle band splits and he peels it off across the span of his belly, leaving the rest of it dangling off the back of the chair like a tail. He’s still too dizzy to be bending down to free his ankles, but he pushes himself to do it anyway, his guts roiling and his forehead beaded with sweat as he saws away at the restraints. He barely manages to get both ankles loose without puking all over his shoes. Then he sits up too fast and almost pukes anyway. Somehow he manages to hold it all together.

“All ri-ight,” Rick observes. “Motor skills looking good. Hey, Fordy, you want a cigarette?”

Ford looks up at him just as Rick throws a pack of smokes at his head. Clumsy and automatic, Ford jerks up both hands to catch it, pinning it between his palms. A spike of pain erupts in his swollen right hand and he drops the cigarettes with a strangled yelp. Rick doesn’t seem to notice or care.

“Reflexes on point. Can you stand up?”

“Please,” Ford mumbles. “I’m so tired.”

“Oh boo-fucking-hoo, Fordy, you’re killing me. Get the fuck up.”

Ford doesn’t have enough willpower left to argue. Bracing his hands on the table, he hauls himself up to his feet, his legs trembling from the strain. Rick stands up with him, then starts circling Ford like a man inspecting a horse he intends to purchase. Ford stands mute, tracking him with his gaze. He belatedly realizes that Rick has acquired a strange, fuzzy outline. Bewildered, he looks around and sees that everything in the room is smeared at the edges.

“My eyes,” he says, a hint of panic creeping into his voice. “There’s something wrong with my eyes. Everything’s blurry.”

“Uh, yeah, maybe try putting on your glasses, genius.”

There on the tabletop, Ford sees his own familiar glasses sitting there in the midst of all the equipment. He’d completely forgotten he needed them. What a bizarre moment of relief. When he puts them on again he feels that his face is streaked with blood from the surgery, meaning there’s a chance that he actually looks as terrible as he feels. He would have to look pretty fucking awful, though.

Rick finishes his circuit, stopping in front of Ford for one last scan from head to toe and back again. Then he gives a curt nod.

“Welp, you’re all set. Watch out for metal detectors and magnets. Good luck dismantling the portal. And, uh, by the way, fuck you.”

He flips up both middle fingers, then spins on his heel and saunters right out of the kitchen without another word. Ford is so shocked that it takes several seconds before he stirs his aching limbs into motion to follow him. He catches up with him as Rick is coming out of the bathroom, carrying a messy bundle that Ford recognizes as his shirt and blood-stained lab coat. Ford intercepts him on his way to the front door.

“Rick.”

“Don’t.”

“Rick, please—”

“Please what?” Rick rounds on him with a snarl. “Wh-what the fuck do you think you’re gonna say to me? Huh? I’m sorry? I-I-I think I already made it pretty goddamn clear that that’s useless to me. Or maybe did you— did you think we were gonna hold hands and cry about what we’ve been through together? Y’know, I-I-I was gonna say I couldn’t think of anything more pointless than an apology, but now I think— I think that might be it. It’s done, Fordy. The show’s over. Music off, lights on, e-everybody out of the bar.”

Resolved, he makes an attempt to swing wide around Ford to make his exit. Ford sidesteps to block his path. He tries to raise his hands in a placating gesture— but the action only triggers Rick’s fight-or-flight response, his body jerking backwards as he ditches his bundle and hooks up both fists in a defensive stance. Ford instantly recoils, trying to shrink himself into something small and non-threatening while Rick drops his hands and scoffs, clearly mortified by his own jumpiness.

“Please,” Ford says, his gaze averted in remorse. “I just— I wanted to say—”

No. He won’t do this looking at the floor. Ford forces himself to raise his head and look into Rick’s eyes. He shudders at what he sees reflected back at him; the hurt, the hate, the anger. In all their time together, Rick never once looked at him like this, with this awful, undisguised contempt. Rick used to smile when he saw him. Now Ford knows he’ll never smile for him again. Oh, God. He’ll never let me hold him again. In that single instant of eye contact Ford sees everything they ever had go up in flames. The sense of loss is almost too massive to comprehend. His mouth opens, soundless, empty.

It’s over.

What, Fordy?” Rick barks at him.

Ford can barely draw breath through the lump in his throat.

“Thank you.” He touches the shaved outline on the side of his head. “Thank you for this.”

Rick’s expression screws up in displeasure.

“Fuck you, Pines,” he snaps. “That had nothing to do with you. Cipher wants in your head, I want Cipher to suck my dick. That’s it. If you owed him ten bucks I would’ve stolen your wallet. Now a-a-are you done yet or do you have some more bullshit you need to get off your chest?”

A hundred different things bubble to the tip of Ford’s tongue — don’t go, forgive me, you always meant so much to me — but he knows that not a single one of them will matter. He hangs his head and steps aside, clearing Rick’s path. Rick stoops and gathers up his coat and shirt, tucking them under his arm and stalking past Ford without a second glance, marching off through the maze of rooms that will take him back to the front door. Ford meekly trails after him, hugging his trenchcoat and trying not to look at the years of wasted effort that decorate this house like a mausoleum.

“Will you…” his voice trails off, timid. “Do you have a way to get home?”

He can’t stand the thought of Rick just casting himself adrift in this condition, which is almost certainly something that Rick would do. Rick just makes a vague gesture over his shoulder.

“I established a stable portal point in the woods. I don’t need you to call me a cab.”

Ford almost trips over himself in surprise.

“You… you have access to that kind of portal technology?”

“Duh, dipshit, h-how do you think I— were you even listening to me when I got here? I-I-I told you I registered a transdimensional anomaly. What, did you think it showed up on a fricking Geiger counter?”

“Incredible,” Ford marvels, and he means it.

“Whole lotta good it did me in here,” Rick mutters, talking to himself now. “Fucking worthless. If I could— if I could figure out a way to make it portable…”

His hand absently opens and closes at his side, his fingers curled around the trigger of a hypothetical gun. Ford remembers all those late nights spent drawing schematics. He knows if anyone could do it, it would be Rick Sanchez.

They’ve reached the front door. Rick bolts straight up to it and yanks it wide open, sucking in a breath as the fresh air washes over his bruises. Ford is certain he’ll charge off without another word, but instead Rick turns around to glare at him, lingering on the threshold.

“I just want to be re-eal clear, Fordy,” he says. “This, right here? This is me leaving the game. You said it couldn’t end until Cipher got what he wanted or he didn’t. Well guess what? I just gave you a get out of jail free card. That puts the ball square in your court. Whatever comes next is all-ll-ll on you. If you fuck it up, that’s got nothing to do with me. I’m out. We’re done. Are we clear?”

Ford nods his understanding. “We’re clear.” He tries not to let his voice crack. “Take care of yourself, Rick.”

Rick waves away the suggestion. “Ehhhh.”

He’s halfway across the porch when he stops and turns back one last time.

“Oh, a-and just for the record, your dick is no-eugh-ot my favorite body part. I just— y’know— I-I-I don’t want you to get any big ideas. Your dick’s not that great.”

Ford feels something that almost might be a smile tugging at the corner of his mouth. “Okay. Noted.”

Of course, now the unspoken question hovers on the air between them. If not that, then…? After a beat, Rick raises his unencumbered arm and waggles his fingers ruefully in the air.

“Hands, Fordy,” he says, his mouth twisted with bitterness. “It was always the hands.”

Ford’s guts clench into a knot. He wants to say something, anything. Then Rick calmly turns his hand around, all the fingers lowered except one. He shakes his head. Ford says nothing. Stone-faced and silent, Rick pivots on his heel and strolls off the front porch, across the lawn, and into the woods.

And then he’s gone.

For a long time Ford just stands there, staring into the trees. A slight wind makes the branches whisper amongst themselves, the leaves already faded orange and on the verge of letting go. Autumn was always his favorite season. He can’t believe how big and bright and beautiful the world looks. It’s almost like a dream.

Like a dream.

He reaches up reflexively to touch his head. There’s the shaved skin, the dried blood— there’s the faint bumps of the bolts, the smooth, submerged edge of the plate. It’s safe. He’s safe. And yet— and yet—

The beauty of the trees becomes an unbearable taunt. It’s too good, too quiet, too lovely— no no no this can’t be right— oh God and what if it is a dream? What if he’s in the grips of a hallucination even now, his brain short-circuiting as Bill Cipher rips his mind to shreds in search of those schematics? Or worse— worse— what if this is some pleasant diversion meant to tranquilize him? Bill could have already taken what he needed and left Ford here to stare endlessly into the distance, swaddled in a blanket of false security, standing idle even as the portal roared to life three stories below…

Ford can’t breathe. He staggers back into the house, lurching for the door down to the lower levels. His legs are shaking so badly that it’s a miracle he doesn’t fall down the stairs. He wheezes and claws at the elevator controls, practically keening in distress as he waits for the doors to open, hurtling himself inside the moment they do. He punches the button for the third sub-basement and tries not to pass out on the ride down. He’s convinced his heart is about to stop, and in desperation he pounds his fist against his chest, ah, yes, right where Rick struck him with the idol, again, thud, the pain keeping him awake and focused.

It’s too late it’s too late the elevator doors will open and the portal will already be activated it will suck him right out of this little box and into its jaws and there’s nothing he can do nothing nothing nothing—

The doors open. The third sub-basement is as dark and quiet as a grave. The only sound is Ford’s ragged breathing.

He’s alone.

All the adrenaline seems to drain out of him at once. He steps out of the elevator like he’s leaving a submarine, the full pressure of the ocean coming down around him, his limbs sluggish and heavy. He wades through the control room and out into the central chamber, ending at the foot of the portal itself. He rests his right hand on the surface. It feels cool and welcoming to his aching wounds.

This is it. His greatest achievement. After everything he’s done, after everything he’s lost, this is all he has left. I worked so hard. He rubs his thumb against the metal, stroking it like a beloved pet that he knows should be put down.

There has to be another way.

Ford’s hand tightens into a fist, the bloody knuckles twinging in protest. Of course there’s another way. After all, that was his original plan— build Project Mentem to save the portal. Rick just gave him the perfect shortcut.

It’s simple. He’ll have to record the new schematics in case anything happens to him— but he can split the blueprints between all three journals, then separate the set in secure locations. That should give him enough time to take control of the portal for himself. He took so much of Bill’s instructions for granted; if he’s left alone with the device, he’s sure he can reverse-engineer enough of it to figure out how to manipulate it for his own purposes. This portal was created to unlock the secrets of the universe. He can still do it. There’s still time.

He slumps forward, his forehead pressed against the unfeeling machine, his eyes screwed shut in despair.

It has to have been for something.

 

 

 

____________end.