When stars wink into existence, opening like eyes all around him, Ford realizes that he must have fallen asleep at his desk with his notes half-finished.
Bill floats into his field of vision with a tip of his hat and a “How’s tricks, Fordsy?” He circles Ford slowly. “Why the frown, friend? Is the work slowing down? The Geodites not biting? You have a fight with that corn-fed assistant of yours?”
Ford shakes his head. “Forgive me, Bill,” he says. “It’s wonderful to see you. The work is going as well as ever, and my assistant… well, we haven’t fought, exactly…”
“Uh-oh! Do I smell trouble in paradise? Since we’re such good pals, I gotta be honest with you: I still have my doubts about his commitment to finishing our portal.”
“His commitment remains the same,” Ford insists, although sometimes he wonders. “That said… and I hope that this won’t be too awkward…”
“Hey, you can tell me anything,” Bill assures him, reaching out and patting his cheek.
Ford trembles ecstatically at the contact. It almost distracts him from the memory of the tremor in Fiddleford’s hands, and the shadows underneath his eyes. “Fiddleford has been having nightmares about a one-eyed triangle,” he explains, “and they’ve distressed him enough that he’s mentioned them to me.”
“Are you asking if I had anything to do with it?”
“I’m sure that you would have had a good reason,” Ford says quickly.
“Oh, if you ever doubted that, I would know,” Bill promises, his voice deepening just for a moment. “Suppose, hypothetically, that I took a little peek. You told me how smart he is, and you know how much I love a brilliant mind.” His eye narrows. “You wouldn’t be jealous, would you?”
Is it possible to blush in the mindscape? “I try not to indulge in such emotions,” Ford says carefully. It’s never occurred to him to feel that particular emotion toward his old classmate. Their skills and ambitions complement each other too well for that. They’ve built the kind of partnership that he thought he’d never be able to form again.
And yet, what if he misjudged what each of them could contribute to this project? One mind in every century, he thinks, and I’ve already been chosen… but if Bill was the one to make that rule, can’t he change it, and choose somebody else instead?
“That’s not a yes or a no,” Bill points out. “Still, if you’re looking for a way to prove that you’re more devoted to me than anybody…”
“Just tell me what it is,” Ford breathes. “You know that I’d do anything.”
“You sure know how to make a muse feel wanted,” Bill says. “First things first: are you going to tell me what you said to Fiddlesticks?”
“I told him that there are images of one-eyed triangles throughout the house, and they could easily have found their way into his subconscious,” Ford replies. “And that whatever he saw in his dreams, it can’t hurt him.”
The first time that he said those words, he fully believed that they were true.
Ford claps a hand over his right eye as the world returns. In the mindscape, he feels neither the concentrated pain, nor the fatigue in his bones (quite the opposite, in fact), but when he comes back to himself, it hits him all at once.
He’s sitting in a circle of prisms and candles, and he feels his assistant’s hands on his shoulders, holding him upright. “Fiddleford? Why did you interrupt me?”
Fiddleford lifts one hand to his own head and tugs, hard, on a lock of hair. “’Cause you scared the tar out of me!”
“There’s no need to start in on your hair again,” Ford says firmly. His disorientation, and the soreness in his eye, are already starting to fade. “Calm yourself. “
“Who were you talking to? Why were you covering your eyes?”
How much did he hear? What did he see? “It’s just a headache,” Ford says. “I’ll recover, and it won’t interfere with our work, so I would recommend that you forget about it.”
Fiddleford’s shoulders slump, and his hand falls to his side. “Yeah. That seems like a darn good idea.” He straightens. “Stanford… you know that there’s no shame in accepting help.”
“Thank you, Fidds.” How long will Ford have to wait before Bill’s presence fills him again, lighting him up from the inside, making everything in his mind hum and turn and shift faster than he’d ever thought possible? “I promise that I have all the help I need.”
Only once, when they were young, did Ford’s brother get drunk enough to black out. He remembers asking Stanley, afterward, “How do you feel?” and the answer was just detailed enough to make Ford cringe.
Now, thirteen years later, he understands it even more intimately.
The floor is cold beneath his cheek. His mind and his tongue feel fuzzy. The pain in his right eye is so intense that at first he barely notices whether anything else hurts.
With a groan, he sits up. He was sprawled beside the front door, as if he stumbled inside and then collapsed, which would be alarming even if he could remember leaving the house. Even before the portal was tested and Bill’s true nature was revealed, Ford lost slivers of time here and there, but never as much time as this.
Every movement is an agonizing effort, and when he stumbles into his bedroom to change his clothes, he sees the unfamiliar symbols etched into the skin of his arms: love notes from his “blessed muse.”
The next time he ventures into town, he will try to find out if Bill used his body to harm anybody who didn’t deserve it.
At first, Ford sees reminders of his home dimension in nearly every world that he visits. The games of chance that are ubiquitous in Lottocron Nine recall the games that his brother bested on the boardwalk of their youth. A gladiatorial match between two robots, each the size of a skyscraper, reminds him of Fiddleford. For countless sleepless nights, as predators or bounty hunters prowl at the edge of his hiding places, and the threat of Bill’s mental interference prowls at the edge of his consciousness, Ford thinks about what he might do or say if he has the chance see either Fiddleford or Stan again.
Years pass, and become decades, and the patterns that Bill once sliced into his skin fade into nearly imperceptible scars.
As the skies of Dimension 52 swirl above a mountaintop temple, Jheselbraum the Unswerving traces those scars with one impossibly long finger, an unreadable expression on her seven-eyed face. If she knows what the symbols mean, or where they came from, she doesn’t say so, but it wouldn’t surprise Ford in the slightest.
Thanks to Jheselbraum, his mind is fortified against any further meddling by his enemy, and after they part ways, Ford has plenty to think about besides the world he left behind. He’s so busy developing his plan to rid the multiverse of Bill Cipher, that even an enticing parallel world doesn’t fully distract him from his mission. He hasn’t given much thought to a future beyond the demon’s demise, even assuming that he himself manages to survive it.
When Ford's mind conjured scenarios of a reactivated portal and a return to Gravity Falls, he never once imagined being greeted, not only by his irresponsible twin, but also by a young grandniece and grandnephew, who are just as surprised by his existence as he is by theirs.
He shines a light into Dipper’s eyes (just as he did to Stan, thirty years ago, on a much colder night than this one), and then instructs him to hold out his arm. “I’m just going to take your pulse,” he says, when the boy starts wheezing again. “No reason to be alarmed.” Well, there isn’t any reason yet, unless he’s been affected by inter-dimensional radiation.
Dipper does as he asks, and just before Ford releases the (disturbingly thin) wrist, his eye falls on a series of small, round scars, marching in rows of four along one forearm. “Are those recent?” he asks.
Dipper lowers his head again and mutters something about being caught off guard by a monster.
“Truly?” Ford raises his eyebrows. “Perhaps you could describe…” He catches himself mid-sentence.
As much as he wants to find out just how much weirder this town has become, it will be better for everybody if he keeps his distance from the children. Historically, such entanglements have done more harm than good. Besides, they seem perfectly capable of running into trouble whether he’s involved or not.
Ford hears a slice of the twins’ conversation before he sees them. “…but with our help,” Mabel is saying, “maybe they can talk it out! And then Grunkle Ford can heal McGucket’s broken mind through the power of love!”
Dipper groans. “Just because that worked when Xyler and his girlfriend…”
“You said you slept through that whole movie!” Mabel crows. She sees Ford waiting at the bottom of the stairs, and squeaks out, “Oh, hi!”
“We weren’t talking about anything!” Dipper blurts out.
“Have you seen the Dream Boy High movies?” Mabel demands. “I know you missed most of the ’80s, but they’re an important cultural artifact! We can watch them right now, if you want! I’ll make the marshmallow popcorn with sprinkles!”
“Er… no, thank you,” Ford says. He’s not entirely sure of what he’s declining, but in any case… “I should return to the lab. Those old files aren’t going to sort themselves!” In the old days, before Ford destroyed their partnership forever, Fiddleford would have considered those words a challenge to build a new and useful machine.
“Do you think I could…” Dipper fidgets, hunching his shoulders. “I mean, do you want some company?”
Ford is surprised to find himself nodding. “I’m afraid that it won’t be as exciting as squaring off against evil math wizards.”
“I can live with that.”
“Very well, then,” Ford says. “You can tell me more about that dinosaur colony that you found.” What were the children saying about Fiddleford, before they knew that their uncle was listening? He suspects that if he wanted to, he could get that information out of Dipper, who trusts and admires him more every day. My boy, it would mean a lot to me if you were honest…
Ford remembers how powerful, and how fragile, that kind of trust and admiration can be.
He turns toward the entrance to the basement. When he glances back, Mabel is gone.
When Ford finds out that Dipper and Mabel have faced Bill in the past, he isn’t sure whether to be proud or deeply troubled.
Do they still have nightmares? Has Bill meddled with their dreams or memories, without their knowledge? How would Dipper respond to questions, or to an offer of a sympathetic ear, from someone who knows what it’s like to be possessed? Ford isn’t even sure, at first, what kind of bargain Dipper made, but, judging from the boy’s curiosity about the paranormal, it’s not difficult to make an educated guess.
Whatever the details of their encounter, it was enough to convince his nephew that Bill could be lurking anywhere, even within the mind and body of somebody that Dipper cares about. Even as Ford tries to talk him down, he can hardly blame Dipper for those fears.
On the one hand, the rest of the family are all alive, coherent, and don’t appear to have become permanent vessels for a being of chaos. On the other, Bill knows how to hold a grudge, especially against those who have gotten the better of him, and not all of the marks that he leaves are obvious.
Stan leans against the doorway. “Mabel said you wanted to talk to me.”
“Yes,” Ford says, “I was hoping to have a brief word.”
“Like any of your words are brief,” Stan grumbles. “Look, if this is about the truck full of pugs, that was a business transaction. I don’t poke my nose into your work, so you should leave mine alone, you hear?”
You mean, the business transactions that you’re carrying out under my name? “This time, my work is exactly where your nose belongs. This information concerns your safety, and the children’s.”
“What happened?” Stan actually looks as if he’s listening. “Are they…?”
“They’re fine,” Ford says quickly. Well, Dipper is still a little bit jumpy, but having a problem to untangle has helped him to regain some of his equilibrium. “We’ve spent the day magically fortifying the Shack – er, I mean, the house – against a demon that can take over his victims’ minds.” He holds up the drawing of Bill, watching Stan’s face carefully. “I believe that you two have met?”
“Apparently, but I slept through it. So, you’re gonna put us all on house arrest, is that it?”
“Of course not. I know that you’ve been planning a road trip, and you should still pursue that. Outside, your dreams will still be vulnerable, but Bill Cipher’s power is limited unless you shake his hand and make a… Stanley, are you listening?”
“Sure am.” Stan waves a hand. “Magic, dreams, no taking candy from strange triangles. You want to quiz me?”
“I want you to take this seriously. This isn’t a threat that you can just punch into submission. If Bill appears in your dreams, no matter what he offers or threatens, you can’t trust him.”
“The kids know about this, right?”
“They certainly do.” Ford waits for Stan to get into a snit about being left out of the loop, and has to hide his surprise when it doesn’t come.
“Well, if they’re a little safer, that ain’t a bad thing you did.” Stan shifts his cane from one hand to the other. “I hope you know what you’re talking about, Poindexter.”
“Believe me,” Ford says to his brother’s retreating back. “I know all too well.”
Mabel appears and tugs at his sleeve. “Did you tell him?”
Ford nods. “You were right to suggest that I do so.”
“Are you going to be okay, while we’re gone?”
“I think I will be.” He runs a hand over her hair. “You and Dipper should be fine, too. If Bill tries to make trouble for either of you, I know that you’ll be strong.”
“Of course we will!” Mabel grins. “No matter what happens, the Mystery Twins face everything together!”
Ford can’t quite smile back. He’s heard similar words before, experienced another near-inseparable sibling bond, and it led to an undeniable disaster. He can still offer Dipper a chance to avoid those mistakes and chart his own course, and now that the end of the summer is in sight, he doesn’t have too many more chances to make that offer.
If his family had been captured, or killed, Ford would know.
He holds that certainty tightly inside his mind, deeper than the information that his enemy wants so desperately, as the chains scrape his wrists and ankles and throat. Stan, Dipper, and Mabel must be hiding out somewhere in the surreal wreckage of their town. They must still be free. If they weren’t, Bill wouldn’t be able to resist gloating about it, perhaps parading them – or whatever was left of them – through the Fearamid for all to see.
The agony from the latest round of electric shocks has ebbed, and Bill floats back down to eye level. “I can tell that body of yours isn’t what it used to be,” he remarks. “And I got to know it pretty well.”
Ford glares at him.
“Want to know how much time it took for Pine Tree to bounce back? It’s a shame I didn’t get to stay in him longer!”
“Because he and Mabel threw you out!” Ford snaps. Just talking summons a wave of queasiness, but he’s angry enough to push it aside. “Like a piece of disgusting garbage. How did that feel?”
“The kid’s nightmares were worth it. Did the two of you have a nice heart-to-heart about what big, bad Bill did to both of you? Oops, I’m sorry, Fordsy,” he croons suddenly, taking Ford’s face between his hands. “I forgot how jealous you can get when I decide to play with someone else. I guess nobody likes being traded in for a newer model.”
Disgusted by the touch, Ford grits his teeth against another outpouring of rage. He isn’t even sure what he’d say: shut up or how dare you or you’re wrong.
“Or maybe you’re jealous that he has other people who care about him,” Bill continues. “Maybe you’d prefer it if he only had you, just like you only had me!”
“As if I’m going to believe a single thing you say,” Ford snarls, hoping that Dipper never hears a word of this, or, if he does, that he’ll know that it’s a lie. Isn’t it?
“And now here we are, and I’m giving you all my attention again. How does that feel?” Bill’s eye flares red. “You’re going to long for the good old days before we’re done here!”
The electricity slams into Ford again, and when he can form coherent thoughts, he wonders if the next jolt will end his life. He suspected, in the past, that he would someday die in a confrontation with his former muse. He has made his peace with that possibility, and has even looked forward to taking the demon down with him, if he can.
About this, like so many other things, he is wrong.
“Grunkle Ford?” Mabel raps hesitantly at his door. “I finished working on your sweater.”
Ford accepts the knitted bundle from his niece. “Thank you. It looks terrific.”
“I couldn’t find the exact shade of red, like, anywhere, so you can kind of see where the colors don’t match up. But I did my best to fix it.” She glances at the burn marks on his neck and wrists (he’ll have to decide on whether, and how, to conceal them), and turns her face away.
He remembers holding her hands, two nights ago, as she told him about the moments that led to Weirdmageddon, sobbing that it was her fault the town was wrecked and that Stan’s memory was damaged. Even though she knows that she was manipulated into it, she’ll have to live with that for a long time to come.
Ford bends down to give her a hug. “That’s all that any of us can do.” He’ll do everything he can to make sure that her mistakes don’t eat her alive.
She clings to him for another minute, and then scampers out of the room, and he follows.
Stan and Dipper sit on the couch in the living room, with Mabel’s scrapbook open across their laps. She promptly curls up on Stan’s other side. “Hey, pumpkin, we sure showed those zombies a thing or two, didn’t we?” he asks her.
Mabel launches into the chorus of “Taking Over Midnight,” a song that Ford recognizes from the times that she’s belted it out while washing the dishes. Stan joins her for the last two lines, and then swings his gaze toward the doorway. “Hey, Sixer,” he calls, “why are you looking at us like we’re one of your experiments? Get over here.”
Dipper scoots over so that Ford can sit between him and Stan.
Mabel turns another page, identifying the people in each photo. Ford can see Fiddleford McGucket standing at the edge of one of the frames. Now that they’re all putting themselves back together, he and his old friend are due for a long, perhaps difficult, but necessary conversation.
“Ooh, this is my favorite picture of Candy and Grenda!” Mabel squeals.
“I thought the Summerween picture was your favorite,” Dipper says.
“Maybe they’re all my favorites, genius.” Mabel blows a raspberry at him, and Ford thinks, once again, that his offer of an apprenticeship that would separate those two may have been just one more misguided decision.
Stan prods the picture. “What were you putting together, some kind of puppet show?”
Dipper tenses. “You could say that.”
Stan stares over both their heads. “You two were wrestling on the stage,” he says slowly. “It looked like you wanted to kill each other. Even I couldn’t have come up with a spectacle like that.” He notices the look on Mabel’s face, and kisses the top of her head. “We don’t have to talk about this now, sweetie. Or ever.”
Mabel looks at her brother and tilts her head in a silent inquiry, and Dipper nods. “It’s okay,” he says, rubbing the tiny rows of scars that Bill left on his arm. His voice only cracks a little bit, but he leans closer to Ford, who wraps an arm around his shoulders. “Isn’t it?”
“Bill can’t hurt us anymore,” Ford says. He will tell his family this, as many times as he needs to, and sometimes, perhaps, he will fully believe that it’s true.