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The Trouble With Portals

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            “-can’t be serious.”

            “Shut up, Sixer! She can hear you.”

            “Hello?”

           You blink, dazed. The afterburn of strange light glows under your eyelids, making you see double. There’s a man in front of you – no, wait. Two men. You glance around the room to make sure. Yep - one of everything. You aren’t seeing double.

            “Can you hear me?” the closer of the two men asks, slowly waving a hand in front of your face. You blink again, frowning. Is there something wrong with your eyes? “How many fingers am I holding up?”

            “Um...” You clear your throat. Trick question? “Six?”

            He nods, seeming satisfied with your answer. “Can you walk to the sofa, or shall I help you?”

            You look over to the sofa. It's more of a chair, really, the centerpiece of a quintessential log-cabin living room. The upholstery looks well-used and inviting. But, it seems far away. You're dizzy, and your ears are ringing. Maybe you're going to vomit.

            “I...”

            “I’m going to place my hand on your arm.”

            You tense. His hand feels warm; realer than real. Colors are too bright, too vivid. You close your eyes for a long second before opening them again. The room reminds you of every television mystery you've seen. The yellow lamp casts a soft, easy glow on the wooden walls. The man is patient, and you wobble slowly to the easy chair, stumbling once or twice. He guides you to the worn yellow cushion, even softer than you'd expected. He lets go of your arm and sits on the arm beside you.

            “What’s your name?” he asks. “Where are you from?”

            You tell him, and he nods.

            “Where... am I?” you ask, a bit embarrassed – but you have to know. You have absolutely no idea where you are. Both men raise an eyebrow, expressions mirroring one another. Are they twins? The one across the room unfolds his arms.

            “My name is Stanford Pines,” the one next to you says. “You’re in a town called Gravity Falls. Do you know how you got here?” His glasses flash as they catch the light from the overhead lamp. The right lens is cracked. You wonder if he notices. You realize you trust him. You’re not sure why, but this person – Stanford? – seems like he can help you.

            You shake your head. “There was a flash, like from a camera... and now I’m...”

            With no warning, nausea grips you. You jump up, determined not to vomit all over this nice man and his comfortable chair. You make it as far as the rug, back seizing as you retch. Not much comes up, but it leaves a mess.

            “Yeesh,” says the other man in the doorway. “Way to make an entrance.”

            “Stanley, this girl has stepped through a portal, possibly for the first time. Let her be.”

            Portal? You take another shaky breath, sitting back on your heels. Even the ancient shag carpet feels softer than it should be. It occurs to you that you’re not scared – you just feel sick. Weak.

            “Portal?” the man in the door echoes your thoughts.

            “She’s exhibiting all the classic symptoms. Nausea, dizziness, confusion – and, and you saw that light, Stanley! What else could it have-“

            “All right, all right. Calm down, Sixer.” He locks eyes with you. “Did you mean to come through that portal?”

            You shake your head, maintaining eye contact.

            “Hoo boy. All right.” He drags a hand down his face, deciding what to do. “Okay, Sixer. You take her to your lab, do your science mumbo jumbo – get her out of here. I’ll clean this up.”

            “Sorry,” you offer weakly. “About the carpet.”

            He regards you with a shrug. “Not your fault. Probably.”

            “It isn’t,” Stanford says, at your side once more. He looks ready to start a fight. The two of them share a long look. There’s a lot of... something, in that look. You’re not sure. Anger?

            “If you say so,” Stan says placatingly. “But I want her gone before the kids get home, you hear me? No more portals.” He walks back through the doorway. His receding footsteps tap out and away.

            “Ignore him, he doesn’t mean anything by it,” Stanford tries to reassure you, placing one hand on your back, taking your wrist with the other. His fingers expertly find your pulse.

            “Are you a doctor?” you ask, since it’s easier than the portal question.

            “Yes. Well. Not that kind of doctor,” he says with a half-smile. “But I think I know what happened to you.”

            “What?”

            “Let me show you. Can you walk?”

            You’re not sure you can, come to think of it. You shake your head. Just the thought of standing makes the room spin. Understanding dawns on Stanford.

            “Right, sorry – I always forget about the nausea, it’s been so long since I-“ he talks to himself, rummaging through his coat pockets. It’s an impressive coat, and there are a lot of them. He pulls a small tube from the inner lining, removes the cap and shakes the contents into his hand. He offers you a small white pill. “Here. Take this.”

            You tense, hesitating. Don’t accept a pill from a stranger!

            “Don’t worry,” he tells you gently, pressing it into the palm of your hand. He holds up the bottle for you to read. “See? Dramamine. Anti-nausea.”

            “You just... have that on you? What are you, some, some kind of boy scout?”

            He laughs. “In another lifetime.”

            You smile. You find yourself liking this strange man despite yourself.

            “Is there, um, any water?”

            “Ah, of course, sorry, let me just-“ He stands and leaves the room for a long moment. You close your eyes, listening to the sounds of the household, glasses clinking and water running. You don’t let yourself think about how you got here. Or worse: why you can't remember. You can’t afford that anxiety yet.

            Stanford returns a few moments later, a glass in each hand. One has ice.

            “I wasn’t sure if you wanted ice or not, so I brought one of each,” he explains. How absurd. You laugh, and his brow furrows. “What?”

            “Nothing, that’s- that’s really kind of you.” You accept a glass. “Thank you.”

            The pill goes down hard, but the water soothes your throat. You think you remember something about Dramamine making you sleepy – it’s been so long since you’ve ever needed it. You give it a minute to kick in. Stanford gulps down the other glass of water, mumbles, "stay hydrated," and places the two cups on the coffee table beside the sofa when he’s finished.

            “Is that table a dinosaur skull?” you ask.

            “Oh, probably.” He waves a hand dismissively. “Are you feeling any better?”

            “I... think so.”

            “Can you stand?”

            “Yeah, I... probably.” You place a hand underneath you, lifting your body from the floor. You’re still shaking, but you do feel better. “Where are we going?”

            “My bedroom,” Stanford says. Your eyes widen, and he goes beet red. “Oh! Ah, not- not like that! Believe me, I’m not- I have no intention of-“

            “It’s okay,” you interrupt him. “I trust you.”

            And you do. The edges of consciousness are a little fuzzy, but you still get the feeling that this man is okay, that the pill really was just Dramamine. He looks relieved.

            “I just thought you could use some sleep,” he offers sheepishly.

            “Sleep sounds amazing, Dr. Pines.”

            “Just- Ford,” he stammers. “Just call me Ford.”

            “Thanks... Ford,” you say with a smile. “Lead the way.”

            “Right,” he says, unsure of himself, as if registering for the first time that you’ve never been here before. His hand hovers over your arm. “Do you need me to-“

            “I should be fine,” you say, managing to take two steps before stumbling. He lunges forward to catch you. “Uh...”

            “Please, allow me...” His arm loops around your back. His other hand comes up to meet yours. He’s very gentle as he leads you, almost afraid to hurt you. In a way, you’re grateful. You can feel the taut, wiry muscle of his forearm against your spine. There’s a lot of hidden strength in that touch. You shiver. Stanford Pines could snap you in half – but he doesn’t. He guides you down a short hallway, entering a room and flicking on a light. He sits beside you on the edge of the bed.

            “You should rest.”

            “What about your... ‘science mumbo jumbo?’” you ask, making air quotes with your fingers. He smirks.

            “Stanley will get over it. You need sleep. Portal jumping isn’t easy.”

            “You say that like you’ve tried it.”

            He says nothing, regarding you with those deep brown eyes.

            “Is that man... Stanley... your brother?” you ask. He nods.

            “Yes.”

            “He looks just like you.”

            “We’re twins.”

            “Huh.” You stifle a yawn with your hand. “And... portals...”

            “They’re real.”

            “Really.”

            “They’re real,” he repeats. “Lie down. Please. I’m sure you’ll have a hundred more questions when you wake up.”

            “You’ll still be here?”

            “I will.”

            “Okay.” You lie back, shoes, clothes, and all. The bed is soft – everything here is so soft. It feels unreal. Stanford’s leathery scent surrounds the pillow. You get the feeling he sleeps in that coat a lot.

            Ford says your name, sounding very far away.

            “Hm?”

            “Would you like a blanket?”

            “Yeah,” you mumble. Probably.

            Something warm and heavy covers your shoulders. You’re asleep before you can thank him.

 


 

            Somewhere nearby, children are laughing. It smells like someone is baking. It reminds you of your childhood home, and for a while, you forget where you are. A smile creeps onto your lips as you slowly return to consciousness. Your body feels amazing. This is the softest mattress you’ve slept on in your life.

            “Good morning,” a deep baritone greets you.

            You freeze, eyes snapping open as you sit up. Who is that? A large tan coat slides off your shoulders. Coat? You glance down at it.

            “What-“

            “Well, afternoon, anyway. It’s just me,” the man says, a few feet away. He stands beside your bed, hands in the air like you caught him committing a crime. “It's me, Ford. Do you remember?”

            “Ford...” You breathe in through your nostrils, letting yesterday’s memories wash over you. “Yeah, I think...”

            “You slept a long time.”

            “How long?”

            “Almost twelve hours.”

            “Oh gosh, I’m... I’m sorry.”

            “It’s okay. I’ve been up all night – I think I found a solution to your problem!” He smiles at you, half-crazed. He does look like he’s been awake for some time.

            “The-” Oh, god, you’re afraid to say it now; it sounds so stupid. “The... portal?”

            “Yes!”

            Well, at least you aren’t the craziest one in the room.

            Ford reaches down and takes his coat from where it lays crumpled beside you. Your forehead creases – had he really given you his coat to sleep with? A total stranger? You search his face, but can’t decipher any sort of motive. Maybe he’s just a really nice person?

            “You didn’t have to stay up all night on my account,” you say, a little embarrassed.

            “Are you kidding? This is the most interesting puzzle I’ve had in weeks!” He grins, shrugging the coat on. Oh god, maybe he’s actually enjoying this. You laugh nervously. He hands you something folded, soft like everything else in this strange world. It's a shirt. “Put this on – we’ll need to go downstairs to get the machine calibrated to your body. Sorry I don’t have anything your size,” he adds, a little guiltily.

            The black shirt he gives you is about five sizes too large, but it’s clean, and it’s definitely better than keeping your own dirty clothes on. Ford lets you use his shower. You’re starting to smell like him. Secretly, you don’t mind – it’s a nice scent, rugged and outdoorsy. He nods appraisingly as you exit the bathroom. You sneak a glance at his arms, remembering his touch from yesterday. If he was about twenty years younger, he’d be... hot. You blush.

            “Everything all right?” he asks, head cocked to one side.

            “Yes!” You respond too quickly. He looks at you as if you’re some kind of calculus equation. “Yes. Thanks for the shower.”

            “Of course,” he says mildly. “Come with me.”

            The two of you sneak down the hall, which turns into a gift shop. His house is some kind of tourist trap, question marks everywhere, and you’re out in the open. The displays stare blindly as you pass, fantastic disasters in botched taxidermy. You wonder who set this all up - Ford or his twin? There’s no sign of Ford’s brother. Ford stops at a vending machine.

            “Hungry?” he asks conspiratorially.

            “Um, I guess-“

            He punches a few numbers into the keypad and the façade of the vending machine swings off the wall. Your eyes go wide and you take a step back, expecting the fog machine to kick in any second. He laughs.

            “I love showing people that one,” he asks.

            “You have a vending machine trap door?”

            He grins, offering you his hand. His voice drops a few notches.

            “You ain’t seen nothing yet,” he jokes.

            You descend a staircase, dimly illuminated by old fluorescent tubes. His hand is warm, and he drags you along behind him like a kid leading his parent through a candy store. When you reach the bottom, your heart stops.

            “Oh my god,” you manage.

            “Do you...” he falters, just for a second. “Do you like it?”

            “What is it?”

            “My lab,” he says with a proud smile.

            “Did you build all this?” you ask wonderingly, admiring the intricate tangle of machinery. Black wires as thick as your arm snake through the space, and the air smells like metal. Most of it looks old – really old. The computers are massive. A mess of green code scrolls up one wall toward the ceiling. For the first time, you feel a sense of unease. A secret lab? 

            “Most of it,” he replies with a grin.

            “It’s very Star Trek.”

            “What’s Star Trek?”

            “What?” You laugh a little crazily. Has this man been living under a rock? You take a second to reevaluate the computers, how much time it probably took to build them – yes. Yes he has. “You’ve never heard of Star Trek?”

            “No. Is that a movie?”

            “It’s a TV show,” you explain. “Sci-fi. It’s... not important.”

            “I love sci-fi,” he says sheepishly, rubbing the back of his neck.

            “Really?”

            “Yeah... Dungeons, Dungeons & More Dungeons is my favorite game,” he admits.

            “You mean Dungeons & Dragons?”

            He stares at you blankly. Well... it doesn’t matter. You shrug. He blinks, clears his throat. He gestures to a machine. It looks suspiciously like a Tesla coil, something you saw in a museum once. Two metal calipers hang limply on black wires from the top of one tower. You wonder what it does.

            “This machine,” he says, pointing as if to emphasize its grandeur, “is a teleportation device.”

            Ah. So he’s just insane. Well... at least you got a good night’s sleep out of it.

            “Hah,” you huff, forcing the laugh. “Really.”

            How can you get out of this one without hurting his feelings?

            “You don’t believe me.”

            “Well, I-“

            “Watch.” He taps his nose with a wink. He slips on a glove and grabs one of the two calipers, which you’re fairly certain had been scavenged from a set of automobile jumper cables, and holds it over his desk. He touches the end to a pen. The pen vanishes. You jolt back, looking at Ford. He simply points to a spot on the other side of the room. A few seconds later, the pen materializes in midair with a crackle and clatters to the ground.

            “See?” Ford says with a huge grin, picking up the pen and holding it out to show you. “Perfectly unharmed.”

            “How did you-“ you gape. It has to be a trick. It can’t be real. Can it? “Is there a second pen? Did you palm the first one?”

            Ford looks amused.

            “Teleportation!” he exclaims, as if this explains everything. “I just set the coordinates to a location in your hometown, and snap! You’re safely back where you belong.”

            You look at him incredulously. The Tesla coil sparks and sputters - the room is starting to smell like ozone. You wonder if it’s safe to be in here at all. That thing might electrocute you at any moment.

            “Is it safe?”

            “Probably!”

            “That’s... not reassuring.”

            “Why not?” he seems confused.

            “Look, I appreciate the thought, but...” You try to be gentle. “I’m not sure you can just mad-scientist me home, you know? I’m still not even sure how I got here in the first place.”

            Not to mention the fact that you really don’t feel like dying of electrocution today.

            “Do you want me to demonstrate on myself?” he asks, unfazed by your concern. "I can prove it's safe!" 

            “What?”  

            “Here, I’ll show you.” He removes the glove, dangling the caliper over his opposite wrist.

            Oh god, he’s about to touch his own skin with that electrified metal.

            “Ford, no!” You reach forward to stop him, but it’s too late. There’s a metallic zap, and Ford vanishes. He's just... gone. The calipers drop to the floor, sparking weakly. You breathe heavily. That – that – was real. There's no way...

            A few seconds later, in the spot where the pen materialized, Ford zaps back into existence. He hits the ground hard on his knees and winces. His hair spikes out in every direction, the tips blackened and smoking. His sideburns are singed.  

            “Ford! Are you-“

            “I’m fine, I’m fine,” he says with what’s supposed to be a reassuring smile. “It could use a bit of tweaking, I’ll admit.” You help him up and he dusts himself off. There’s a tear in the knee of his pants where he fell.

            “Was that... real?” you ask nervously. “Where did you go?”

            “I teleported,” he says again, grinning. “A short distance. Though with that much kick, I probably should spend some more time refining it... where did you say you were from again?”

            You stare at him blankly. Who is this man?

            There is a sound from the corner of the room.

            “Holy Moses, Sixer,” a voice growls from the base of the staircase. “What did you do?”

            It’s Ford’s brother – Stanley, you remind yourself.

            “Teleportation!” Ford explains again, almost in a whine. “I don’t see why it’s so hard for everyone to understand-“

            “Did you teleport yourself?”

            “Yes,” he says petulantly. “Yes, I did.”

            “Why?”

            Yes, why? you wonder.  Why is Stanley taking at this value? Ford can’t really have teleported. Can he? And is everyone in this bizarre household in on his whole basement-secret-lab plot? How do you know these old men aren’t going to kill you?

            “Look,” you hear yourself blurt out in a small voice. “This is... really nice of you both, letting me stay here and all, but I don’t even know where I am...” You feel tears welling up at the back of your throat, unbidden. You swallow them down. “I just want to go home. I can probably catch a bus...”

            “All the way back?” Ford asks incredulously. “You’re in Oregon.”

            “I know, I just... I just need to go home...” The words aren’t your own anymore. They leave your throat as if drawn up on fishing hooks. Your voice is rusty and catches painfully on every other syllable. Ford looks at you worriedly. “They’ll wonder where I am... if I... if I-“

            “Jesus Christ Ford, you made her cry,” Stanley says, a bizarre horrified look plastered on his face. He almost looks... like he cares? Even after everything he said yesterday, he looks like he doesn’t want you to be upset. You’re so confused.

            “I didn’t- I didn’t mean to!” Ford tries to defend himself. He says your name, hovering his hand hesitatingly over your shoulder. He looks like he’s been struck by lightning. “Come on... it’s all right. I promise it’s okay.”

            You hiccup, body betraying you. Even after a full night’s sleep, you feel tired and heavy. You shake your head.

            “I’m sorry,” you sob. “It-it’s just a lot.”

            Ford’s face scrunches up in concern. He pats your arm.

            “I know,” he whispers. You look up – the level of empathy in his voice is surprising, and a little overwhelming. “I want to help you,” he admits.

            You sniff, wiping your nose on your arm. Ford’s black shirt billows around your frame like a dress. You look up at him for a long time.

            “I know.”

            “Will you let me help you?” he says, almost in a whisper.

            “Do I have a choice?” you ask brokenly.

            “Of course,” he says, palms up in a gesture of peace. “You always have a choice. But I think you’ll find it easier to let us help you.”

            That’s probably true. You’d searched your pockets this morning before your shower – you only have a couple dollars, your ID, and a cell phone with a dead battery. If you’re really in Oregon, like Ford says you are, you have no way of getting home – and no way of navigating yourself out of here with that dead phone. You're stuck trusting these mysterious twins, at least for now.

            Stanley, surprisingly, intervenes on Ford’s behalf.

            “Look,” he tells you. “I gotta admit, when you just showed up like that, I wasn’t sure I trusted you. We had... a lot of weird stuff happen this summer.”

            Ford hums in agreement. There’s some weight in that sound. You wonder, briefly, what happened.

            “But now...” Stanley continues. “after seeing you with Ford, well. I don’t think you mean us any harm. And I can’t stand unhappy in my house.” He bristles, adjusting his fez. A fez? Who wears a fez? Despite yourself, you smile – just a little. He returns the expression, a big, goofy old-man grin. “There, that’s not so bad, see?”

            “We’ll help you get home,” Ford promises, his voice gentle. “Do you trust us?”

            Every rational thought in your head screams not to trust these strangers. You’ve only known them a couple of hours. But... your gut tells you that just maybe, Stanley and Stanford Pines (god, are their names really Stanley and Stanford?) might be okay after all. You sniff, nodding.

            “Great!” Stanley says, chucking you under the chin. “Meantime, want to see... the Mystery Shack?” He says it with a gravity suggesting this is a well-rehearsed question, waggling his fingers at you like a two-bit magician. You giggle, trying to quell your sniffling. Ford nods at you encouragingly.

            “Okay,” you agree. “Are... are you sure you can get that thing working?” you ask Ford, a little worried.

            He actually puffs out his chest.

            “I don’t have twelve PhD’s for nothing!”

            “Yeah, yeah, Brainiac,” Stan dismisses him with a wave of his hand. “One for each finger. Don’t get yourself killed showing off.”

            Ford deflates. Stanley addresses you by name.

            “You ready, kid?”

            You nod, glancing back one last time at Stanford as he dons his gloves once more. They’re black, customized to fit his polydactyl hands. His face is turned away – you can’t tell what he’s thinking.

            Stanley leads you back up the stairs, through the vending machine, down the hallway, through the gift shop, and into the body of what turns out to actually be called, amusingly, the Mystery Shack. You pass elegant exhibits like the ‘Sascrotch,’ among other contrived taxidermical nightmares.

            “Stanley,” you start as he turns a corner.

            “Just Stan, kiddo.” He winks. Somehow, it’s not creepy.

            “Stan.” You give him a half smile. “Do you, um. Do you believe what Ford says? About portals?”

            “What does he say about ‘em?”

            “That... they’re real? That they exist?”

            Stan gives a sad smile. “I wish I didn’t.”

            “Ah.” That’s... troubling, to say the least.

            “Here. Sit down.” He leads you to a bench, kneeling in front of you. His eyes are kind. “Look. I don’t know how you got here, but you can trust us. You can trust Ford. He’s...” he hesitates, but only for a second. “He’s a really great guy.”

            “You’re twins, right?” you ask.

            He nods, brightening. “Been annoying the heck out of me since before we were born.” You giggle, marveling at Stan’s ability to make you laugh this much in the face of everything that’s happened. It all seems so... unlikely.

            “You’ve got ten fingers...” you say, unsure of how to voice your question.

            “Not all twins are identical,” Stan says with another wink.

            “Huh.” Well, you might as well grill him now, while you have his undivided attention. You swallow. “Do you really think he can get me home with some metal and a couple wires?”

            “Ford’s a genius. Truly. Certifiable,” Stan chuckles. “If anyone can figure out how to get you home, it’s him. I know he seems crazy, but that’s just... well, it’s because he hasn’t been around people for a long time.”

            You blink. “How long is a long time?”

            “Eh... thirty years,” Stan replies, looking a little guilty.

            “My god. What was he doing? Was he in the military?”

            “Something like that.” Stan’s tone tells you you’re not going to get a better explanation. “But before you write him off, I just want you to know that he is. A great guy. Really.”

            Unsure of how to respond, you nod. He wrings his hands, squeezing his fingers tightly, as if willing you to believe his words. You regard Stan for a long moment – if nothing else, he really does care about his brother. That much is glaringly obvious.

            “You really love him, don’t you?”

            “Yeah. I do.” He frowns. “Even when he can’t see what’s right in front of him.”

            “Twelve PhD’s?” you ask with a small smile.

            “Yeah. Nerd, am I right?”

            “Seriously? Twelve? I thought you were joking.”

            “Nope. Twelve of ‘em.”

            “Wow. He’s persistent, I’ll give him that.”

            If what Stan says is true.

            “More than you know.” Stan looks wistful. He stands, wincing as his hips pop in tandem. “Come on. You hungry?”

            You are – you realize you haven’t eaten since you arrived in this strange place. You nod gratefully.

            “Thank you.”

            His eyes twinkle.

            “No problem."

Chapter Text


            “Grunkle Stan!” You’re greeted by a shrill screech as you enter the kitchen, a few paces behind Stanley. You jump. “Did you get a girlfriend?”

            What?

            You’re not even sure what expression you’re making, but you’re sure it mirrors Stan’s: confused, embarrassed, trying to laugh it off. Searching your memory, you vaguely recall Stan saying something about “the kids” yesterday. Is this presumptuous brown-haired girl his child? You sneak another look at Stan. She can’t be more than what, thirteen? His granddaughter, maybe.

            You glance down at yourself. Stanford’s black shirt trails to your mid-thigh, and your hair is a mess. It does look like you’ve spent the night. You blush even harder. You did spend the night, you think – just not in the way this girl is imagining.

            “Mabel,” Stanley chides her. “Don’t make assumptions like that! Besides...” his eyes gleam mischievously. “That’s Ford’s shirt.”

            Oh, no.

            “Grunkle Ford has a girlfriend?!” the girl shrieks.

            Oh, here we go. You’re positive your face is a violent shade of crimson.

            “I didn’t know you had a kid,” you mutter vaguely in Stan’s direction, not quite able to look at him. He’s laughing, an honest, full-throated laugh. Despite your embarrassment, you can’t help but smile.

            “This is my niece, Mabel,” he introduces her.

            “Great-niece,” she corrects him with a grin.

            “Pretty-okay-niece,” Stan amends, ruffling her hair. She giggles. “Her brother is around here someplace. Dipper!”

            A boy’s head peeks through the doorway.

            “What’s up, Grunkle Stan?”

            “Oh,” you say, in lieu of anything intelligent. Two kids.

            “How did you meet Ford?” the girl gushes at you, a conversational freight train. “What do you think of him? What does he think of you? Do you like strawberries? How did you-“

            “Okay, okay, geez,” Stan laughs. “Mabel. Please. I was kidding.”

            Thank god for that, you think. Even if Ford is hot, you’d only met the man yesterday.

            Stan introduces you by your first name, and explains how you got here. The boy, Dipper, stares wide-eyed at you from the opposite end of the room. He seems captivated by your story. He pulls out a journal – is he actually taking notes? The girl, Mabel, is bouncing off the walls. Her face is crestfallen when you explain that, no, you aren’t Ford’s girlfriend, or Stan’s girlfriend, or anyone’s girlfriend for that matter, and that you’re just trying to get home – but she brightens up again when Stan offers you dinner.

            “Yes, please stay for dinner! Please please please!”

            You smile, swallowing your gut reaction – I’m not going anywhere anytime soon.

            Stan gives you a gentle smile, firing up the stove for pancakes. You sit at the kitchen table with Dipper and Mabel. It turns out they’re twins as well. It must run in this family. What are the odds?

            “What do you remember from before the portal?” Dipper interrogates. He looks every bit like Ford, if you took away his glasses and made him fifty years younger. His expression is earnest, and you smile.

            “Everything,” you say truthfully, in case Stan is listening. “My whole life. It’s after the portal I don’t remember. Everything gets a little fuzzy around the edges.”

            You can’t believe you’re this calm, talking about portals over the table like regular dinner conversation. Afternoon sunlight streams through the window, and the comforting breakfast-for-dinner smell of pancakes and bacon wafts through the cozy room. Stan is liveried in an apron and oven mitt, humming an easy tune to himself. You glimpse the slow sway of tree branches through the window. Everything is... homey.

            “And do you remember arriving here?” The boy chews the end of his pen, scratching shorthand notes on a pocket-sized notepad. It feels like an interview.

            “Yeah. Well, not the exact moment. I just kind of... woke up, in the living room.” You glance at Stan. “Ford made sure I was okay.”

            He doesn’t say anything or turn to face you, but his shoulders grow tense. You imagine he feels guilty for assuming you were out to harm him. You can understand where he’s coming from. What would you think if a stranger appeared from thin air in your living room? Stan was just protecting his family.

            “Who wants Stancakes?” he asks with a forced smile, turning around.

            “Me!” the younger twins shout in unison.

            “Me,” echoes a deeper voice from the doorway.

            “Great Uncle Ford!” Dipper leaps out of his seat, scampering across the kitchen, journal in hand. “I took notes! What do you think about the isolated amnesia? Do you think she’ll remember?”

            Ford pulls his black gloves off, one finger at a time, and stuffs them into a pocket.

            “I think we should give our guest a chance to fully recover before asking any more questions. Don’t you?” He meets your eyes, and you mouth a silent ‘thank you.’ He nods, pulls out a chair, and sits beside you.

            You sneak a look at him. He’s larger than you remember, even sitting down – all hardened muscle and wide shoulders. He picks up a fork, and you marvel at how delicate he is with it, how small it is in his hand.

            He catches you looking and arches one eyebrow. You flush. 

            “Um, were you able to get your machine to work?” you ask, hastily covering your tracks.

            “It always worked,” he says, spearing a bit of pancake on the tip of his fork. He places it in his mouth, talking and chewing simultaneously. “It just isn’t strong enough for the long-distance operation we’re trying to perform.”

            “Are you trying to teleport her home?” Dipper asks, eyes glowing. Christ, is the kid in on it too?

            “Yes,” Ford says, swallowing. “But we have to make sure the machine is safe. It... might take a couple of days,” he says, a little guiltily, scanning your face for a reaction.

            “A couple of days?” you parrot.

            Everyone stops eating, and four pairs of curious eyes settle on you.

            “I...” you trail off, not sure what to say. Your mind races. What will your boss say if you don’t show up to work for a couple of days? You’re probably in hot water already for not calling out this morning. What about your family? Not to mention that it would be incredibly rude to impose upon the Pines household for another few days. How will you pay for a hotel? You don't have cash. Where will you sleep? 

            “Um. Can I use your phone?” you ask.

            “Of course,” Ford says. “Kids?”

            Dipper wordlessly pulls a cell phone from his pocket, handing it to you.

            “Grunkle Ford doesn’t have a cell phone,” Mabel stage-whispers to you. “He’s old.”

            “I heard that,” Ford says mildly, taking another bite of pancake.

            You excuse yourself from the table and exit into the hallway, heart thudding. Now that you have a chance to explain what’s happened – how will you do it? What will you say? Your fingers hesitate, hovering over the keypad. You decide to call your mom. She’ll understand.

            Or she would, if you could get any service.

            The line doesn’t even ring. You hit send, and the speaker goes straight to static. You try a second time with the same result. Well, maybe she’s out of range. You try your boss – nothing. Straight to static. Your heart sinks. Maybe Dipper’s phone is broken? Out of curiosity, you scroll through his contacts, choosing one at random. Wendy. Here goes nothing. You hit send, and the line rings twice before a female voice answers.

            You hang up quickly, and try your mom again.

            Static.

            Your heave a shaky breath.

            “Are you all right?” Ford asks, closing the door to the kitchen behind him. “You’ve been out here for a while.”

            “Uh... fine,” you hear yourself say. “It’s just... the phone...”

            “No service?”

            “It just goes to static.” Your voice sounds far away to your own ears.

            “Static?” Ford’s brow furrows. “Let me see.”

            Wordlessly, you type in your mom's number again, offering the cell phone to Ford. Your fingers brush against his. They’re softer than you imagined, like everything else in this strange new world. Like the fork, the phone is remarkably small in his hand. He holds it to his ear, listening. He frowns.

            “Strange,” he remarks. “An issue with the operator’s switchboard, perhaps?”

            “I... tried another number,” you admit. “In the phone’s contacts. That one worked. Wendy?”

            “Really?” He presses a couple of buttons, looking confused, then embarrassed. He looks at you with a strange expression, holding the phone toward you. “How, um, do you access the contacts?”

            Geez, how old is this guy? How does he not know how to use a cell phone, after building those magnificent computers in the basement? You take the phone, scroll to the bottom of the contacts menu, find Wendy’s number again, and hit dial. It rings once and the same voice answers.

            You put it on speaker.

            “Dipper, I know it’s you. You gotta get over this silly crush, man-“

            “Wendy, this is Ford. Can you hear me?”

            “Oh, hey, Doctor P! Why are you calling from Dipper’s phone?”

            “Just making sure it works!”

            “Uh... it does?”

            “Great!”

            Wendy laughs. “Have a good one, Doctor Pines. I’ll see you at work in a couple hours.”

            She hangs up. You look at Ford a little helplessly.

            “I see,” he says, in a way suggesting that he doesn’t see at all. He turns the small device over in his hands a few times, as if by staring at the hard plastic long enough he can somehow decipher its secrets.

            “Why can’t I call anyone back home?” you ask in a small voice.

            “Did you try any other numbers?”

            “My mom and my boss. Unless-” You take the phone back from him, hastily punching in your dad’s number. You put it on speaker, exchanging glances with Ford as the line rings.

            Nothing but static.

            “I have a hunch,” Ford says, removing his glasses and pinching the bridge of his nose. “But you’re not going to like it.”

 


  

            He draws a small blood sample, and his hands are gentle and warm, steady and sure. The needle goes in perfectly on the first try. He holds your arm a fraction of a second longer than necessary, but it’s not uncomfortable. The touch is nice.

            “Are you sure you’re not a doctor?” you ask as Ford smooths a bandage onto your skin. You flex your elbow a few times. Needles don’t make you queasy, but you’re always a little squeamish about losing blood.

            “I have medical experience,” he halfway explains. He looks pointedly at your arm. “Scared of blood?”

            “No, I just don’t like my insides becoming my outsides.”

            He huffs a small laugh. “Fair enough.”

            The underground laboratory is slightly more welcoming the second time. Ford has produced an office swivel chair, which you sit on, and he’s put away some of the scarier looking exposed wires. The Tesla coil – you refuse to believe that it’s an actual teleportation device, even after seeing it in action – is blessedly covered by an old sheet.

            “I’m just going to run a quick test on this sample,” he says, thinking out loud. “If I’m wrong, the test should come back negative.”

            “What test?”

            “To determine whether or not you’re from another dimension.”

            The world lurches. You blink.

            “Sorry?”

            “Another dimension. You have to admit... it would explain some things.”

            “Ah,” you say a little helplessly.

            Ford is insane. Kind – but insane.

            At least, you think privately, this will make a good story when you get home. The crazy old scientist and his secret underground lab, the Mystery Shack, the double pair of twins... but no one will believe you. Maybe it’s a good thing you can’t get cell service. You sigh, deciding to roll with it. It’s like you always tell yourself - you either get a good time, or a good story.

            “I’m serious!” he says, seeing your incredulous expression. His passion for explanation lights up his face, and his eyes get a little bigger. “Think about it. Your phone doesn’t work because you’re from a different plane of existence – a small computer like that has no hope of broadcasting across the multiverse.”

            “Take me to your leader,” you joke, a little uneasy.

            “What?” Ford sighs. “You still don’t think this is real?”

            “No, Ford, I... I don’t. I’m sorry.” He looks so beaten, just for one second. His eyes close and open. You’ve hurt his feelings, and you feel terrible. You hastily amend, “Maybe if there was more proof?”

            “Proof?” he muses. “Well...”

            He places the blood sample into a centrifuge, one of those Gravitron-type machines that relies on centrifugal force to smash the cells against one side of the tube. Who says you never pay attention in science class? He closes it, and switches it on.

            When he turns back to you, he says your name.

            “Have you ever been hiking?” he asks.

 


 

            “Oh, my god,” you breathe.

            This was a terrible idea.

            “Not much further!” Ford calls down to you.

            It’s not that you’re out of shape per se – it’s just that your current shape is a little bit round at the edges. You huff an ‘O.K.,’ jamming your feet into the stony footholds, lifting yourself further up the path. Your muscles ache, and you’re going to feel this one tomorrow for sure. It’s more climb than hike, up a sheer path that leads to an opening at the top of a surprisingly tall mountain. You’ve been going for maybe two hours.

            “What did you say is up here again?” you call up to Ford. It’s windy. You can barely hear each other.

            “Friend of mine!” he calls back down.

            “Some friend,” you marvel under your breath.

            The friend had better be some mystical bearded yogi for the effort you’ve put into hiking this mountain, you think as you clamber over the last jutting boulder. Ford reaches a hand down to help you over the lip. Your legs are shaking from exertion, and you accept his help. You smile at him gratefully, noting that he hasn’t even broken a sweat. Show-off. You make a mental note to start exercising as soon as you get home.

            The cave is a cave. It’s dark, a little chilly, but at least it’s out of the wind. The rocks are jagged under your feet, and you wish you’d worn something with a little more meat on its bones than your jeans and Ford’s old shirt.

            “Your friend lives in a cave?” you ask, shivering.

            “Well...” Ford tries to explain, scratching the back of his neck. “He’s a bear.”

            “Your friend is a bear?”

            “A lot of bears, actually!” he says, brightening. “Ah, I think that’s him now!”

            An unmistakable roar emanates from the back of the cave. Oh, god.

            Bears.

            Ford is going to get you killed.

            You take a step back, stumbling on one of the loose pieces of volcanic rock that lines the floor of the cave. Ford catches you seamlessly, on auto-pilot.

            “Careful,” he says.

            “But-“

            “Who enters the Multi-Bear’s cave?” a deep voice booms over the roaring din.

            “Multi-Bear?” you whisper.  

            “Just me!” Ford replies. He smiles reassuringly at you. “Nothing to be afraid of.”

            “Stanford Pines?” the rumbling voice queries.

            “The very same! And I brought a friend!”

            The growl quiets, and an absolutely terrifying creature stalks out from the shadowed back of the cave. It might be a bear, if you looked at it from an airplane. The body parts of perhaps ten individual bears have all been stacked haphazardly atop one another. And it’s watching you.

            You freeze. You don’t scream, or run. You just... freeze.

            “Bear!” Ford greets it, and it runs toward him – you do scream, then – but he seems unfazed. The bear lunges at him-

            -and Ford claps a friendly hand on the creature’s back. Or front? Did it have a back?

            “It’s good to see you, my friend,” the Multi-Bear rumbles.

            “And you,” Ford acknowledges with a grin. “Any luck on the tape player upgrade?”

            “You’re just the man I wanted to see – I can’t seem to find the right wire, and the townsfolk don’t like it when I go into the electronics store. But I see you’ve brought a friend! Who is this?”

            You can’t seem to move your mouth. A talking bear? Is a bear really talking to you? About... tape players?

            “Go on,” Ford encourages gently, placing a hand on your shoulder. “He’s friendly.”

            “Uh...” you say. Twenty eyes blink at you as the creature waits. “I’m, uh...”

            After a few tries, you manage to spit out your name.

            “It’s an honor!” the Multi-Bear exclaims with... a smile? “Any friend of Stanford Pines is a friend of mine.”

            “Am I in Narnia?” you ask after a few seconds.

            “Narnia?” Ford questions.

            “Oh, come on. Star Trek? Narnia?” Ford and the bear look lost. You shake your head. “You know what... nevermind.”

            “Another pop culture reference?” Ford asks with a knowing look. You nod. It’s still easier to talk about than... whatever this hulking creature is.

            “It’s not one I’ve heard of, but I’d love to learn more,” the bear says, courteously.

            “You know,” Ford muses, rubbing his chin between forefinger and thumb. It could almost be cute if your current situation wasn’t so horrifying. “Forgive me if I’m stating an obvious question, but... if you were from this dimension, don’t you think we’d understand your pop culture references?”

            And here you are, getting red-faced and embarrassed in front of a talking bear.You can’t help it – you laugh, a crazed, high-pitched laugh. This is absurd.

            “Or you’re just part of a different generation,” you retort bitterly. “Didn’t Stan say you were gone for thirty years?”

            Ford looks hurt, but he ignores your dig.

            “You think she’s from another dimension?” the Multi-Bear asks. For some reason, this hypothesis doesn’t seem to strike the creature as odd in any way. It regards you curiously.

            “I have my theories,” Ford says. “I wanted to show her that, in our dimension at least, magical creatures do exist. She... doesn’t seem to believe me.”

            You look at the bear’s teeth. It must have hundreds.

            “Oh, I believe you,” you breathe. You’ll humor him when he’s got a terrifying creature staring you down, that’s for sure.

            “There, see?” Ford says, a hopeful gleam in his eye. “It’s real.”

            “Yep,” you agree breathlessly.

            “So, about that wire,” Ford says, turning to the bear.

            You back up against the wall of the cave as they chat. There’s nothing to sit down on, and you’re definitely feeling the need to sit. You’ve never even heard of a Multi-Bear, but it certainly meets all your prerequisites for a magical creature. You’re still a little nervous that it’s going to eat Ford, but he’s so relaxed – like Steve Irwin. You wonder if he knows who Steve Irwin is. You’re afraid to ask.

            The two of them chatter on about the relative merits of cassette tapes versus compact discs, and you sink to the floor, placing your head between your knees. You take a few deep stabilizing breaths. You’re just going to wait it out. A few minutes later, you realize your companion has stopped talking. The cave is quiet. You hope the Multi-Bear hasn’t eaten him. You don’t want to look up to find out.

            When he touches you, Ford’s hand is ultra-real. It’s warm and solid against your collarbone, and it makes you want to lean into it and cry. He kneels beside you, frowning with  worry.

            “None of this is happening,” you moan into your arms.

            “It’s all right,” Ford whispers. He rubs your shoulder once.

            “Ford,” you sob.

            “You know,” he says, sliding down the wall to sit down at your side. “I recall feeling the same way when I traveled through my first portal. I was thirty.”

            “What?” You look up at him, face wet with fresh tears.

            His eyes are kind.

            “It’s why I understood your symptoms,” he explains sheepishly, rubbing the back of his neck. “I... built a portal to another dimension. I spent thirty years trying to get home.”

            Somehow, this isn’t surprising.

            “This must be a different dimension,” you say, half-jokingly, “because no one in their right mind would choose to teleport. And meet talking bears. And walk through portals-“

            “I didn’t choose it.” Ford stiffens. “I was pushed.”

            “Oh,” you hiccup.

            He removes his glasses, polishing them self-consciously on the hem of his sleeve. He looks uncomfortable.

            “Hey,” you say, sniffing. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean-“

            “You didn’t know,” he says, cutting you off. “How could you possibly? It’s fine.”

            The smile he gives you is the saddest, most haunted smile you’ve ever seen. That smile, more than anything else you’ve seen today, makes you think that maybe this is a different dimension after all – no one makes a face like that unless they’ve been through something real. You frown.

            “Ford-“

            “Would you look at the time?” He stands, dusting off his knees. He extends a hand to help you up, which you accept. “We’d best make our way home. Multi-Bear? A pleasure, as always.”

            “Likewise,” the bear says, inclining his head. He looks you square in the eyes, addressing you by name. “And if you’d ever care to return under happier circumstances, you’ll be welcomed with open arms. I dislike the term ‘bear hug’ on principle, but have you ever tried one? They can be quite soothing.”

 


 

 

            Stanley greets you as you walk through the door. He looks you over once, taking in your red eyes and shaking knees, which you haven’t been able to quell despite the long hike back.

            “Everything okay, toots?”

            “She’s in shock, Stanley,” Ford says. “Be kind.”

            He places his jacket over your shoulders – that’s the second time you’ve been given his coat in as many days – and guides you to the upholstered yellow chair. He straightens up, facing his brother but lingering a few inches from the arm of your seat. His hand remains a comforting weight on your shoulder.

            “What did you do to her, Poindexter?” Stan asks, crossing his arms.

            Ford grimaces.

            “I took her to see the Multi-Bear. And... I told her about my time in Bill’s dimension,” he says frankly. The room grows quiet. Ford bristles as Stan stares at him. His hand tightens on your shoulder. “I find myself in the unique position of being able to relate.”

            “Wow,” Stan says, stunned. He uncrosses his arms. A pang crosses his face, quickly replaced by his usual neutral expression. “Uh, are you sure you want to be sharing that with strangers? Not, y’know... your brother?”

            Ford heaves a frustrated sigh. Seems like the portal is a well-worn topic between them.

            “She knows and understands what I’ve been through. At least partially. And look at her.”

            You normally don’t appreciate being talked about as if you aren’t in the room, but in this instance, you find you don’t mind. Ford seems to really care about you for some reason, and while it’s a little weird, it feels... nice. He’s sweet, in a strange way. And his coat is just as warm as you remember. Your shivering has almost stopped.

            “Stan,” you croak around the lump in your throat, finding your voice. “He’s helping me.”

            Ford glances at you, surprised.

            “Um, yes,” he agrees. “I am. Or I’m trying to, anyway.”

            Stan’s gaze flickers between you. He sighs.

            “Fine,” Stan tells Ford. “Just don’t turn her into one of your ‘projects,’ you hear me? She’s a real person.” He emphasizes ‘projects’ with finger quotes.

            You glance up at Ford as Stan leaves the room – his expression is nothing short of affronted. His glasses catch the light, and his jaw is set.

            “Hey,” you say softly.

            “Yes?” Ford asks.

            “I believe you. About the portals.”

            “Really?” His eyes light up.

            “Really.”

            He gives you a half-smile, mouth turning up at one corner. It’s endearing.

            “You have a really nice smile,” you say, not thinking about the words before they leave your mouth.

            “Oh,” Ford says. “Um.”

            You blush. You hadn't meant to say it out loud. Well - no taking back a compliment.  

            “I mean it," you bulldoze forward. "You’re so passionate about your theories and your work... it’s refreshing.”

            He rubs the back of his neck, another endearing habit of his that you’re beginning to take comfort in. You know this feeling. Oh, lord.

            “Thank you,” he says, with that wonderful smile. He addresses you by name. “You know... you’re not. A project. I hope you know that.”

            “I know,” you say with a smile of your own. “I trust you.”

            He squeezes your shoulder again. You sigh at the contact.

            Oh, no. How are you going to live this down?

            You’ve got a crush on Stanford Pines.

Chapter Text

 


 

          “Ford?” you whisper.

            His basement lab is always the same temperature – cool, but not cold. The earth insulates the concrete, and the concrete insulates everything else. It reminds you of the Multi-Bear’s cave, only more high-tech.

            Stanford is curled up in his chair, hunched over his desk and breathing deeply. You watch the curvature of his spine as his back arches and deflates. That posture can’t possibly be comfortable. Is he asleep? He looks... smaller. He is kind of cute, you think idly.

            You say his name again. He lets out a prim snore. Definitely asleep.

            “Ford,” you repeat, a little louder.

            “What dares-“ he yells, jolting up in an instant.

            Before you truly register what’s going on, Ford is leaping to his feet, drawing himself to his full height. A few loose sheets of paper detach themselves from his face. His glasses have ridden up past his forehead, perched atop his head like a rectangular tiara. It would be funny if you didn’t suddenly find a large gun pointed at your person. You didn’t even realize he kept a gun under that coat. You suck in a long breath.

            A gun.

            A gun is pointed at you.  

            “What... Ford- wait- it’s me-“

            He blinks, confused. After a few seconds, he re-holsters his weapon. His coat billows behind him, and for the first time, you fully register the thick black belt strapped diagonally across his broad chest like a sash at a pageant. The gun clicks back into place.

            You let out a breath. Your knees are shaking.

            “My apologies,” Ford breathes, exhaling your name.

            “I-it’s fine,” you stammer.

            He blinks rapidly, stretching his arms in front of him like a blind man.

            “No, no, I’m sorry-“

            He takes your hands into his own. His fingers are soft, you think idly, as your body shakes, heart hammering. This close, you observe that the pages have imprinted their letters onto his cheek. His face is like an open book. His eyes are pleading.

            “I-it’s fine, Ford.”

            “No, I scared you... I’m so sorry... my god... where are my glasses...”

            He blinks a couple more times, the myopia of the sleep-deprived. He shakes his head, scanning the room for the missing lenses. You note that he does not let go of your hands, as if by maintaining contact, he can sift out the adrenaline. His skin is so warm.

            “They’re, uh, on your head,” you whisper. Your chest feels so tight. “Here, let me-“

            You pull your hands free, reaching up to gently pull the wayward glasses back down from his hair onto the bridge of his nose. He inhales, blinking as he adjusts them - a nervous tic. The letters dance across his cheek, like a student who fell asleep on his homework.

            Despite yourself, you laugh. It comes out a little hysterical.

            “Do you shoot everyone who wakes you up?” you ask, half joking.

            “I try not to, actually,” he replies soberly.

            You study his eyes, and there is something coldly alien there. His knee-jerk reaction lends some credence to his portal story, and you wonder, not for the first time, if what he says might actually be true. Maybe he did spend three decades fighting for survival in a parallel dimension. Maybe he’s got some weird portal-PTSD. How would you know? Especially in this world where they don’t even know about Star Trek, for god’s sake. All this runs through your head in less than an instant, and Ford nudges you out of your thoughts with a gentle mention of your name.

            He says your name so calmly, as if after three days of living with a parasite, the host had finally come to accept its fate. You grimace. Ford repeats your name, this time with a touch of concern.

            “Are you all right? Truly. You can tell me. I... I did almost kill you." 

            You laugh brokenly.

            “I’m fine. Fine.”

            “If you say so...” He wrings his hands nervously in front of his chest.

            “Actually I just came down here to ask about your progress,” you manage to spit out. “On your machine. Your... teleportation device.”

            “Ah,” he says, brightening. “The good news is, the machine is in fine working order!”

            The knot in your stomach grows.

            “And the bad news?”

            “Well...” he rubs his hand sheepishly on the back of his neck. He’s quiet for a long time, considering his answer. His eyes dart around the lab, a strangely quiet place for being filled with so much exotic machinery. Even the beeps and whirs of supercomputers can’t drown out the racket of your own brain.

            Ford sighs.

            “The bad news, my dear, is that I can’t reopen the portal.”

            “Oh,” you squeak as your brain recalculates.

            “I promise I’ve tried,” Ford says softly. “I’ve... been up for days, trying to think of a solution. I... I am sorry.”

            You don’t say anything for a long moment.  

            He called you my dear.

            For some reason, thats the headline of your frontal lobe. My dear! That’s one point for Matchmaker Mabel, maybe even two. If you keep it up, perhaps you can get away with this flirting game after all. Your chest feels like a hot air balloon. My dear. You could get used to that phrase.

            Never mind that according to Ford, you’re trapped here.

            Forever.  

            Your hands begin to shake.

            “Oh.”

            When it reaches your ears, your own voice sounds tinny and far away. The concrete floor feels cold when you sit on it, your knees suddenly too weak to support your own weight. Ford keeps repeating your name amid a series of are-you-okay’s, and you’re nodding like a bobblehead.

            You’re still shaking, and you tell yourself it’s only stress. You’re just stressed! When you get home, you can tell your mom all about what’s happened – this crazy old scientist portaled you home! Maybe you can even get his phone number. Your mom can call Ford, and verify what’s happened. You won’t be in trouble for disappearing. You can just return home, and everything will go back to normal.

            If you can get the phone to work through all the static.

            If you ever see your mother again.

            “Mom...” you hear a raspy voice croak. It can’t possibly be your own.

            Ford sits beside you on the floor. Dimly, you register warmth as his arms wrap around your shoulders. You heave a sob into the outdoorsy-smelling fabric of his coat. He tucks you against his sternum, those large hands spanning the entire width of your shoulders. My dear.

            “I’m sorry,” Ford whispers into your hair.

            “No,” you whimper.

            “I’m so sorry.” He almost sounds like he’s crying, too.

            “No, no,” you shush him. “Please don’t. I-it’s okay, I’m just... I dunno. I just-”

            “May I hold you?” he asks quietly. You feel the words vibrate against you, resonating deeply in his chest. So simple and forward.

            You nod, unable to quell the oncoming tears even if you wanted to. You don’t point out that Ford is holding you already – you suppose its easier to ask forgiveness than permission. This cry is a few days in the making, and it bulldozes over you, ripping sobs from your lungs.

            You probably smell. It’s the second day you’ve spent in Ford’s hand-me-down black shirt, and day three in your jeans. Fortunately, he doesn’t seem to notice. Or if he does, at least he doesn’t say anything. You wish you had money to buy new clothes. You wish you had your own clothes. You have perfectly good clothes! They’re just... not here. Nothing is here.

            You want to go home.

            He’s incredibly gentle. Stanford is impressively muscular despite his age, and you suspect he could easily crush you if he tightens his grip. But he doesn’t – he simply holds you. He doesn’t move at all. The only perceptible motion is the steady rise and fall of his chest. He is an anchor, and you moor yourself to him, gripping the fabric of his shirt tightly in your hands.

            “I don’t have anywhere to go,” you whisper.

            “Of course you’ll have a place to stay,” he’s murmuring against your hair. “We’ll take care of you. I couldn’t bear to subject you to the same uncertainty I faced... when I... I’m sorry...”

            “Stop,” you hear yourself saying. You swallow thickly.

            “Sorry?”

            “Stop apologizing. Please.”

            “You’re not angry?”

            “No, Ford.” You sniff, vigorously rubbing your eyes with the heels of your hands. His hands remain a steady weight on your upper back. “You’re a-actually trying to help me. A-and that’s good.”

            “Oh...”

            “I r-read somewhere once that people only cry when they’re o-overwhelmed. Not sad, or a-angry. Just overwhelmed.”

            Ford nods, recalculating.

            “A plausible hypothesis. And you’re feeling overwhelmed?”

            “I miss my phone. And my family. I miss my mom,” you say, voice notching up an octave by the last word.

            “Ah,” Ford says helplessly. “I’m sor-“

            “Don’t.”

            “But-“

            “Don’t. Just...”

            “Just what?”

            “I don’t know,” you admit with a sniff. “I don’t know, Ford.”

            “I’m sorry,” he whispers again, almost too quiet to hear.

            This time, you don’t correct him.

 


 

 

            “He has nightmares,” Mabel says around a mouthful of cereal.

            The sun is up, and you’re helping Stan unpack a fresh load of groceries. He muscles the bags into the kitchen, six at a time, and you attempt to organize food into cabinets, taking your best guess as to whether spaghetti sauce actually lives next to spaghetti, or whether he keeps it in the fridge. You frown at the sealed jar.

            “Sorry?”

            “Grunkle Ford,” Mabel says, swallowing another sugary mouthful. “He has nightmares. That’s why he won’t sleep.”

            You glance toward the door. Stan is blessedly out of earshot, presumably grabbing more groceries from the car.

            “Ford? Why do you say that?” you ask the twelve-year-old.

            Did she witness your breakdown in the lab? She couldn’t have.

            “I just don’t want you to get the wrong idea about him,” Mabel says casually, swinging her legs under the table. “He acts all mysterious and macho. But he’s just a regular guy. Honestly, he’s kind of sweet. He just doesn’t sleep a lot, that’s all.”

            You place the spaghetti sauce in the fridge. Better to keep it cool.

            “Why are you telling me this? Don’t you think that’s a bit personal?”

            “Because you need to know for when you get married!”

            Stan, of course, chooses this precise moment to enter the room. Plastic bags swing from his bulky forearms. Your face, you’re positive, is the exact color of the fez hanging jauntily from the back of his head.

            “Eh?” he asks. “What’s this about marriage?”

            Mabel shrieks your name and Ford’s, smooshing her cheeks between the palms of her hands. She resembles a fish. The bowl of cereal lays discarded beside her, temporarily forgotten.

            “They have to get married! Don’t you see, Grunkle Stan? They’re perfect for each other! The portals, and the science, and you’ve seen the way he looks at her. She spends all her time in his secret lab. With my expert matchmaking skills, I predict success within a year!”

            Well, at least it doesn’t seem like Mabel walked in on you crying. You look to Stan for some help here. He chuckles, depositing the rest of the bags on the counter.

            “Mabel, sweetie, she’s only been here two days. Don’t you think that’s a little soon for matchmaking?”

            “Not if you believe in love at first sight!” She winks, saying your name around another too-large bite of cereal. “C’mon. Has he kissed you yet?”

            You didn’t think your face could get any redder. It does.

            “Mabel, I met him two days ago,” you agree, falling back on Stan’s support.

            “But you want him to, right?”

            There’s no right answer.

            “I...”

            “C’mon! He’s really nice, I promise. Also I have a bet with Dipper.”

            “O-kay,” Stan chortles, nudging her elbow toward the bowl of cereal. “That’s enough of that. Finish your breakfast, pumpkin.”

            Mabel groans, but obligingly crunches another mouthful of cereal between her teeth. Your mouth opens and closes a few times as you flounder, unsure of an appropriate response.

            “Kids, amirite?” Stan chuckles, right hand tucked neatly behind his neck. His face, funnily enough, is flushed – as if the very mention of someone kissing his brother is too much for him. He flashes a salesman smile.

            “Look, thanks for helping put away the groceries. I’ve got it from here. Maybe Ford needs some help with his science machine?”

            You draw in a long breath.

            “He can’t get me home, Stan.”

            Mabel stops eating, the clink of spoon against bowl abruptly silenced. The kitchen goes still. You feel numb. You hadn’t really meant to say it, not so soon – but if Ford hasn’t already told him, how is he supposed to find out?  

            “What?” Stan wheezes.

            “I talked to him earlier.” The image of Ford’s gun flashes across your conscience. My dear. You swallow. “He says he tried everything to get me home, but... there’s some portal he can’t reopen.”

            “You mean...” Stan trails off.

            Mabel gasps, both hands covering her mouth, as if she’s some character on a TV show. As if this is some cartoon. You steel yourself.

            “He says I’m stuck here. Probably forever.”

            You’re doing a remarkable job of not bursting into tears again.

            “Forever?” Stan parrots weakly.

            “This... is... perfect!” Mabel shrieks, leaping up from the breakfast table. The remains of her cereal lay forgotten in her wake. “Don’t you guys see? If she stays, Ford is like a kajillion times more likely to marry her!”

            “Uh, sweetie-“ Stan tries.

            “Come onnn,” she whines, taking your hand into her much smaller one. She holds it up for Stan to see. “Look how pretty she is. And she’s so nice! Please can she live with us, Grunkle Stan? Please please please plea-“

            “Mabel!” Stan almost yells. “Give it a rest. A guy needs his coffee before he can take this much excitement, eh?”

            Mabel shrinks into your side. She looks slightly hurt – her uncle yelling at her must be a rare occurrence. You give her hand a squeeze.

            “It’s a nice thought,” you offer, attempting to console her.

            “I just want Grunkle Ford to be happy,” she sniffs.

            Stan sighs, massaging the bridge of his nose.

            Happy? You guess Ford isn’t the cheeriest presence in the house. He’s too intense, maybe, too focused. But he is sweet. He shows affection by doing things, rather than saying them. He performs acts of kindness. And he has a very nice smile. You wonder how often Stan and Mabel are allowed to see it.

            “Look,” Stan says to the kitchen in general. “She can stay for now. Seeing how she’s got no place to go. But I’m making no commitments here, you got me?”

            You’re stunned. Stan loves his niece so much that he can be talked into letting a complete stranger live in his house? You revise your initial assumptions about this grumpy old man. Maybe he does care.

            “Thank you,” you exhale.

            “Yay!” Mabel exclaims. Yay indeed. “I have to get my camera! This is an important day in Pines Family History! I have to document everything!”

            She detaches herself from you and races out of the room, leaving a trail of small crumbs and glitter in her wake. How can anyone have that much energy? You shake your head.

            The kitchen is quiet. Stan studies you for some time, and you feel like a specimen under a microscope. You see the relation between Stan and Ford again – Ford the man of science, and Stan the man of the people. He can read you like an open book.

            “Where is my brother, anyway?” Stan asks. “He’s usually up for breakfast.”

            “Uh...” you blush. The Pines family must think your natural skin tone is crimson. “He’s in his lab. He... felt bad, about the whole thing.”  

            “Is he sleeping?”

            “Well, he was. I woke him up. Accidentally.”

            Understanding flashes across Stan’s face. He offers a half smile.

            “Heh. How’d that go over?”

            “He pulled a gun on me,” you answer truthfully.

            Stan cackles.

            “Welcome to the club, kid.”

            “This is a regular occurrence?”

            “Look,” he says with a sigh, walking to the coffee machine and pressing a button. “My brother... I don’t really know what happened to him, in that portal. But it changed him.”

            “Maybe this is a personal question,” you start, hesitating. “But does he have PTSD?”

            “Who’s Peety Esty?”

            “P-T-S-D. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.”

            “Never heard of him,” Stan shrugs, a little gruff. He frowns. “There’s nothing wrong with Stanford. You hear me?”

            “I know, Stan,” you reply, placating him. “I just... feel like I owe him something, for helping me. If it is PTSD, there are ways to treat that. We can help him with his nightmares.”

            Stan sighs, poking the coffee machine again. It beeps, and he lifts the carafe, pouring himself a mug. He gestures with his elbow to the machine.

            “I made too much. Want?”

            “Thank you,” you say, lifting a mug from the counter. He fills it, the warm scent of coffee filling your nose. It’s comforting – it reminds you of home. You take a sip even though it’s still too hot to drink.

            “I love my brother,” he says simply. “And if you think there’s a way to help him recover, I’m open to it. But if you think for one second that you can take advantage of him...” he trails off, the unspoken threat hanging heavily in the air. You shiver.

            “I would never,” you say simply. “He’s... so nice. I couldn’t.”

            “Exactly,” Stan agrees.

            He takes a long sip from his mug. You stare at each other for a long moment, the dynamic shifting between you. His eyes drift toward Ford’s shirt.

            “Well, if you’re staying,” he says appraisingly. “I guess we better get you some clothes.”

Chapter Text


 

            “Great Uncle Ford says you’re from another dimension?” Dipper asks, apropos of nothing. All his statements seem to end in question marks. “And you might live with us? For the next couple weeks?”

            “I guess so.” You shrug.

            To your dismay, you don’t recognize a single storefront name.

            Build A Beaver, Meat Cute, Overalls Are Cool Now – you wonder, not for the first time, if you’ve materialized in some cartoon. The names are too outlandish to be real. Whatever happened to regular shops, like J.C. Penney or Hot Topic? Dipper seems unfazed – he gazes forlornly at “Edgy On Purpose,” as if he wants nothing more than to be able to pull off the cliché-goth outfit the window mannequin is modeling.

            The leaves are turning in Gravity Falls, and you pick out some nice fall clothes – nothing too flashy, and certainly not edgy on purpose. You select three outfits, being conservative with the money Stan has given you, and at the insistence of Dipper, a winter coat. It’s supposed to get cold soon, he says.

            Stan practically shoved both of you out the front door this morning, thrusting sixty dollars into your hand with an admonition to ‘get my nephew out of the house for a couple hours.’ Dipper had been shy at first, but quickly overcame his nervousness upon realizing that a trip to the mall could be the perfect opportunity to grill you for information.

            And grill you he does. Dipper tags along beside you, faithfully guiding you through Gravity Malls like a seeing-eye dog. Of course the mall is called Gravity Malls – the tired punchline of some long, shaggy-dog wordplay. He’s brought his notepad along, too. You marvel as he jots down observations as he walks. How can that handwriting possibly be legible? You’re grateful for his assistance, though. You’d never know what stores to enter otherwise. This new world is so strange, and you’re not brave enough to stray into the neon-lit maze of commerce on your own.

            “Wow! So... do you remember any more? From the portal?”

            You shake your head.  

            “I wish I did. It might help get me home faster.”

            “Faster?” Dipper looks up from his notes, looking slightly hurt for some reason you can’t fathom. “You mean you don’t like Gravity Falls?”

            You stop in your tracks. Dipper gives you his best puppy dog eyes, as if Gravity Falls is the best place a person could find themselves portaled to, and you ought to consider yourself lucky just to be here. You sigh.

            “I do like Gravity Falls,” you explain. “I just... miss my home.”

            “I see,” Dipper says, making a note in his journal. You smile. He’s like a tiny Ford.

            “Do you like Gravity Falls?” you ask, already knowing the answer.

            “I love Gravity Falls!” he exclaims. “I wasn’t sure I’d like it at first, but ever since I started studying Ford’s journals-“ he cuts himself off, blushing.

            “You really admire your uncle, don’t you?”

            “He’s amazing! He started studying the mysteries of this town back in the seventies – without modern technology or anything. All his illustrations are done by hand!”

            “Illustrations?”

            “In the journals! Here, look-“

            He rummages in a deep vest pocket for a few seconds, pulling out a much larger journal embossed with a golden, six-fingered hand on the cover. A large number ‘3’ adorns the palm. It looks old. Dipper thrusts it into your hand.

            “He wrote three of these by hand! He hasn’t showed you yet?”

            “No,” you breathe.

            The red fabric of the cover is soft, torn in a few places. The book is heavier than it looks – you wonder how many pages it holds. As you thumb through it, you realize that Dipper is right – the illustrations are drawn by hand, and they’re very, very detailed. Photorealistic representations of mythological creatures, some you recognize and some you don’t, adorn nearly every page. The Multi-Bear stares back at you, captured mid-roar. You close the book.

            “I can’t believe he hasn’t showed you his journals! They’re amazing!”

            You suspect that between trying to teleport you home and sleeping, Ford hasn’t had much time to think about anything else.

            “I didn’t realize he was such an amazing artist,” you say.

            “He’s an amazing everything,” Dipper gushes.

            That’s the problem, you think.

            Stanford Pines is too good to be true.

            “Hey, I’ve got a couple dollars left,” you tell Dipper. Not wanting to subject this kid to any more of your inner turmoil, you ask, “Want to grab some ice cream?”

            His eyes brighten, and he pockets the journal – for now.  

         


 

            “That looks nice,” Ford remarks, gesturing to your new sweater.

            “Thanks,” you reply with a grin, face flushing. “Dipper helped pick it out.”

            The sweater is modest and warm. It fits your form nicely, and without Ford’s large tee shirt billowing around your curves, you feel presentable – even attractive. Ford nods approvingly, and you’re suddenly grateful for Dipper’s advice.

            “He’s got a good eye. Mabel loves giving makeovers, but Dipper has taste,” he quips, smiling. You share a laugh. “Thank you for spending time with my nephew. He’s been cooped up in the house for a couple of days, and I want him to have a little fun before the kids go back to California next week.”

            “Of course! It was no trouble. And he really was a huge help.”

            Ford’s eyes twinkle with pride, even at that small compliment. You wonder how Ford knows when Dipper is home or not, having spent the majority of his week in the lab. You’re finding that he really does care about his family – even if he’s not very good at interacting with them.

            The Tesla coil teleporter is covered by a sheet, looking a little sad in the corner. Ford has attached neat labels to the tiny tubes of blood he drew from your arm yesterday. They sit in a row beside you, a scrawled-upon notepad splayed at their feet. Ford’s lab is starting to feel cozier. You’re beginning to notice all his little idiosyncrasies; the way he keeps his notes piled up in a friendly manner. He’s making an honest effort not to scare you with all the machinery in his lab, and the thought is sweet.

            “Dipper also showed me something,” you tell him. “A journal you wrote?”

            Ford goes beet red.

            “Oh... that old thing...”

            “Your drawings are gorgeous, Ford.”

            “You really think so?” he asks nervously.

            “The picture of the Multi-Bear was terrifyingly realistic.”

            “I’m so glad you liked it!” The corners of Ford’s mouth turn up in an unbridled smile. You wonder how many – or how few – people have complimented his work. You suspect the number is low.

            Possibly just Dipper.

            “My nephew reads them all the time, but I can’t seem to get the entries published in any science journals. Any of the reputable ones, anyway.”

            Definitely just Dipper.

            “Well, I think they’re fantastic. I’d love to see more?”

            “Oh! Sure,” he says, rubbing the back of his neck. “Maybe this evening?”

            “Sounds great.” And it does. You give him a warm smile.

            “Are you feeling any better?” he asks earnestly.

            How can you say no to that face?

            “Yeah,” you chuckle. “A bit.”

            “Good!” He brightens. “I was worried. I’m glad you’re feeling better.”

            “Thanks,” you say, and mean it. “I’m lucky to have such a kind family taking care of me.”

            “Yes, well...” Ford trails off with a half-smile. “Oh! I made you something.”

            “You made me something?”

            What on earth could Ford have made for you? You’ve only been at the mall a few hours. It can’t possibly be some new invention. Can it? Ford’s definitely an invention kind of guy. You swallow back the painful hope that it might be the teleporter, willing yourself not to glance back at the machine. You’re stuck here, and you know it.

            Don’t get your hopes up.

            He turns to his desk, picking up what looks like... a gift basket?

            When did he have time to put that together? He places it into your outstretched hands, and the woven wood basket is heavier than it looks. Ford clasps his hands behind his back.

            “It’s not much, but I’m hoping it will make your transition smoother. It’s the little things, you know? Small comforts you never notice are missing, in a new dimension.”

            The gift basket is filled with pretty regular stuff – shampoo, deodorant, toothpaste, a hairbrush, socks. There isn’t any kind of wrapping or decoration, yet you can tell a lot of thought has gone into the basket’s contents. Ford flushes when you pull out a modest pair of cotton underwear, tags still attached. He looks at his feet, rubbing the back of his neck.

            “I, um, wasn’t sure what size to get. I left the receipt in the basket, in case you need to exchange anything.”

            “Ford,” you breathe. He’s right – it hadn’t even occurred to you to purchase these items at the mall. Not like you had the money, anyway. Stan’s allowance had been enough for a few outfits and not much else.

            Inexplicably, you feel like crying again.

            “Ford, this is... really sweet.”

            “I hope I haven’t overstepped my bounds-“

            You cut him off by throwing your arms over his shoulders, pulling him into a tight hug. After a few seconds, he returns the favor. He’s taller than you, but not by much. Your chin rests comfortably on his shoulder and you inhale his scent a little too readily.

            “Thank you,” you whisper.

            His hands flutter over your shoulder blades, unsure of whether or not to settle there. He clears his throat and pats your back awkwardly. When you pull away, his face is still flushed.

            “I’ve also, um, taken the liberty of setting up your room.”

            “My what?”

            “Your room. I thought you’d like the guest bedroom on the main floor. It’s impractical for us to continue sharing my bed. Though of course I don’t mind sharing. I mean- wait, not like that. I-“

            “I know what you meant,” you assure him with a laugh. “But you didn’t have to go to all this trouble-“

            “Of course I did.” He silences you with a shake of his head. His jaw is set. “It’s the least I can do.”

            You search his eyes. He looks guilty, like a Catholic at confession. You meet his gaze for a long moment. He looks away first.

            “I told you to stop apologizing,” you say quietly. “This feels like an apology.”

            “What else am I to do?” He clenches his fingers in agitation – that touched an unexpected nerve. “I can’t send you home. You’re trapped here. I made you a promise I can’t keep-“

            “Stanford.”

            You take his hands into your own, smoothing the pad of your thumb over his knuckles to ease out some of the tension. He’s at least sixty, but his skin doesn’t feel old. He’s warm, and his hands are sturdy like the rest of him. He looks up at you, surprised. Your face feels warm, but you don’t let go.

            “Yes?” he asks weakly.

            “You’ve already done so much.”

            “Let me show you your room,” he breathes, casting his eyes to the floor. “Please.”

            “Okay.”

            His hands slip through your fingers, and you suddenly feel a lot colder.

 


 

            The room is simple.

            Like the gift basket, Ford has filled it with small comforts – a bed, sheets and blankets, a bedside table, a reading lamp. Late afternoon sunlight drifts in through dual sets of curtains at both windows. Warm wooden paneling along the walls gives the room a homey feel. A mountain of pillows, unreasonably high, towers near the headboard. A small pile of textbooks (Ford’s) is neatly stacked on the table beside the lamp, and a plush narwhal (Mabel’s) adorns the bed. A handwritten note beside the narwhal reads: ‘For poking holes in nightmares! Sleep tight -M.’

            “When did you have time for all this?” you ask wonderingly. Ford laughs as he sets the gift basket down at the foot of the bed, a gentle christening.

            “I brought in an expert.” He gestures to Mabel’s stuffed narwhal with a grin.

            You laugh. The narwhal is soft, and you lift it carefully as if it’s made of glass. The horn is iridescent, stuffed like the body. It bends easily at your touch. You tuck the creature close to your chest.

            “Well? What do you think?” Ford’s face is full of concern, as if he’s afraid you’ll find fault in his work. He shifts his weight from one foot to the other, awaiting judgment.

            He cares so much.

            That’s what catches you off guard. He’s gone to such great lengths to make you feel welcome – a complete stranger whose first act was to vomit in his living room. He’s been nothing but courteous to you this whole time, and you’ve repaid him... how, exactly? You’re amazed the Pines family hasn’t ejected you from their home.

            You remind yourself that Ford went through the same thing, thirty years ago – a refugee from an unheard-of dimension with no money, no map, no way to call home. But it doesn’t negate the significance of his actions.

            “Ford,” you manage. Your eyes well up, and Ford looks alarmed.

            “If you don’t like it, we can try something else-“

            “I love it,” you say truthfully, hiccupping. “Ford, th-this is so kind.”

            “It’s nothing, really.” His lopsided smile at the compliment, accented by the fading sunlight, is heartbreaking. It fades before you have a chance to really appreciate it.

            “What’s wrong?” he asks in a low voice.

            You sniff, wiping your nose on your sleeve. The new sweater still smells like the mall. You miss the settled-in scent of Ford’s shirt, and your chest aches for something – anything – familiar.

            “Nothing.” You hide your face with a sniff.

            God, this is embarrassing. Stanford Pines has been nothing but kind to you, and all you can do in his presence is cry? He must be completely sick of you by now; a one-trick pony with nothing up your sleeve but saltwater. You blink harshly.

            “It’s p-perfect,” you pronounce, voice shaking only slightly.  

            There is no judgment as he scoops you close to his chest. You feel his heart beating through the soft red fabric of his turtleneck, and perhaps it’s just your imagination, but the rhythm seems quicker than normal. Maybe he’s nervous. He smooths his hands over your shoulders and takes one or two deep breaths. 

            “Are these helpful?” he asks doubtfully. “These embraces? Touch can be quite beneficial, but I’ve read that socially acceptable physical boundaries have changed in recent years.”

            “Yes,” you whisper brokenly. “Yes. It helps. Sorry I’m s-such a mess.”

            “Not at all,” he’s quick to reassure you, smoothing the fabric of your new sweater. “I just wish...”

            “What?”

            “Nothing.” He shakes his head.

            “What is it?”

            “I...”

            He’s like a little boy under your gaze. His eyes flit to every corner of the room, avoiding your gaze. He inhales deeply, squeezing his eyelids shut for a long moment before speaking.

            “I want to make your transition easy. It took me years before I found a place to sleep more than three consecutive hours in that dimension. But I suppose nothing is easy as wishing.”

            “Ford,” you hiccup.

            “Do you want to know something absurd?” he asks suddenly, barking a laugh. His arms tighten a fraction around your ribcage.

            “What’s that?” you ask warily.

            “Stanley thinks I predicted you. That I had some kind of vision, just before you arrived.”

            “Really?” you ask wetly.

            He inhales through his nose.

            “Stan and the kids are... rather insistent that I find a romantic partner.”

            “So I’ve heard,” you laugh, dragging your sleeve under your nose. Mabel's grin flashes across your mind. 

            “Right before you appeared, Stanley was attempting to convince me to go into town with him, to the local bar. To... flirt with women.” He looks so lost.

            You can’t help it – you laugh. Flirt with women. How hopelessly outdated.

            “I’m sorry,” you tell him, struggling against giggles. “I’m sorry for laughing. So what, Stan’s going to be your wingman?”

            “Something like that.”

            “Okay, okay.” You take a deep breath to compose yourself. “So what happened? Did you go with him?”

            “When he suggested it, I said to him, ‘Stanley, women don’t just fall out of the sky.’”

            “No way.”

            “And that’s when the portal opened,” he finishes sheepishly.

            “No. Way.” You chortle. “That’s hilarious.”

            “It is, isn’t it?” he asks, chuckling.

            “So that’s why Mabel has been so eager to set us up.” The stuffed narwhal stares blankly at you from the bed, its black beaded eyes revealing nothing.

            “That’s why,” Ford agrees.

            He lets go of you, awkwardly wringing his hands. You take a step back, wiping your eyes, wet from both laughing and crying. A warm feeling spreads through your chest. Ford has been holding you for quite a while.

            My dear.

            “Anyway,” he continues, clearing his throat. “I hope my actions haven’t come across as too forward. I know you’ve only known me for a few days. I just felt so bad about the portal...”

            “It’s okay.” You give him a gentle smile.

            “And!” He’s blushing again. “And I’m not- not trying to flirt with you! Nothing of the kind-“

            “It’s okay, Ford,” you laugh. “I get it.”

            “I just...” his face matches the color of his turtleneck. “I just wondered if... perhaps... I could buy you a coffee?”

            No way.

            You grin, unable to form words.

            A muffled shriek sounds from behind the door in the hallway.

            “You owe me five dollars, Dipper!”

Chapter Text

            You wear your nicest sweater.

            Of course, you only possess three sweaters – but it’s the nicest one. Stan lets you run a quick load of laundry this afternoon, so at the very least, you no longer smell like the mall. That’s a plus. A huge, conspiratorial grin is plastered across his face the whole time.

            “No problem, toots,” he tells you with a wink when you thank him for letting you use the machine. You’re never going to live this down, you think, folding your new clothes. The dresser in your room – your room – is big, and the garments barely fill half a drawer.

            You’re not nervous. Maybe you should be – if this date goes badly, what will happen? You have no place to go. Literally the only reason you’re not homeless right now is due to the kindness of this man. You feel slimy, like you’re taking advantage of something precious. But you think of Ford, of the way he touches you without judgment, the way he looks at you, and you’re reassured. He wants this too.

            Ford, too, has changed. He tugs nervously at the collar of a sweater you haven’t seen before – sweater weather, you think, idly wondering what his body looks like underneath all that thick fabric. His tan coat is neatly folded over his arm, and he’s done away with the gun holster, for which you’re thankful. His blue cable-knit top, to your disappointment, is a turtleneck just like the last one, covering every possible inch of skin. You wonder what he has to hide. Tattoos?

            “Greetings,” he says bashfully, automatically clasping his hands behind his back. That’s another thing he does – hiding his hands. You hope you’re wrong, but you suspect he was teased about his extra digits as a child.

            “Hey,” you say with a small smile.

            “Um, how are you?” he asks after a few seconds, utterly unsure of what to say. You laugh.

            “I’ve been good. The past hour and a half have been fine.”

            “Oh... I suppose it feels like it’s been longer,” Ford chuckles sheepishly.

            He’s unbearably cute.

            “So. Coffee?” you prompt.

            “Aha! Yes,” he agrees, clearing his throat. “Coffee. I thought we could go to Greasy’s? The local diner?”

            “That sounds perfect,” you agree. “I love diners.”

            You’re going on a date to Greasy’s. Fantastic.

            “And,” Ford adds in a soft voice, “it lowers our chances of being eavesdropped upon.”  

            “You don’t have to tell me twice.”

            He smiles, reaching into his pocket to retrieve a set of car keys, dangling them before your eyes with two fingers. He places a finger over his lips.

            “I’ve been entrusted with the Stanleymobile for the evening,” he announces grandly. “I’m led to believe our meeting holds some significance for my brother.”

            “The Stanleymobile?”

            “That’s what’s on the plates,” Ford shrugs.

            The car is a red El Diablo convertible. Fancy. The leather seats are worn but serviceable, and the engine starts on the first try. True to Ford’s words, the license plates – front and back, from New Jersey, of all places – proclaim the car to be the STNLYMBL. The interior smells exactly how you expect, like old cigarettes and leather.

            “You have to understand. Stanley neverlets anyone drive this car,” Ford explains, shifting into reverse like he’s afraid of breaking the transmission.

            “I can see why. This thing is a relic,” you observe, admiring the way Ford’s fingers curl around the wheel.

            “He’s had it since ’73,” Ford laughs wonderingly. “Frankly, I’m amazed it still runs.”         

            Ford smiles like a kid, the Diablo purring under his fingertips. You imagine him wanting to borrow this car as a teenager.

            The long gravel driveway melts away behind you, bordered on either side by forest. A few deciduous trees are interspersed throughout the pines, and with autumn quickly approaching, the mixed yellows, reds, and greens are breathtaking. Gravity Falls is beautiful.

            You realize that this is the first time you’ve really, truly been alone with Ford, outside the Mystery Shack with no one listening in on your conversation. An electric thrill courses through you. Anything can happen. Ford could take you anywhere. But you trust him, you realize. He’s eccentric, he’s insane – but he’s trustworthy. Ford is smiling that same easy, beautiful smile he has when he thinks no one is watching.

            Ford drives carefully, like he’s out of practice. He uses the turn signal judiciously as you cruise through town, careful to maintain the speed limit. There’s one main road – the same road you’d walked with Dipper to get to the mall. A few pedestrians wave, recognizing the car.

            “Small town,” you marvel.

            “They’re good people,” Ford reassures you. He puts on his blinker, turning into the parking lot. The diner’s exterior is a great redwood tree trunk stuck haphazardly onto the chassis of an old railroad car. You climb a set of metal steps to reach the door.

            “Greasy’s Diner: We Have Food,” you read aloud from the sign.

            “Accurate,” Ford agrees. He holds the door open for you.

            “Thanks,” you say quietly.

            You’re barely inside when the bell jingles. A woman’s voice greets you.

            “Well, hello strangers! It's good to see you, Stanford! Hang on. Are you Stanford?” 

            The woman holds open one eyelid, squinting at him with her good eye.

            “I’m Stanford,” Ford confirms with a small smile. “It’s good to see you too, Susan.”

            “You look just like your brother! You and your girlfriend sit anywhere you like, Stanford, anywhere you like!” She turns to the coffee machine, leaving Ford floundering, failing to formulate a response.

            “Girlfriend?” he sputters.

            You laugh, touching his arm and motioning to a well-lit booth near the window. He nods gratefully, sitting across from you and shedding his coat onto the seat beside him. He frowns, wringing his hands under the table.

            “I’m sorry, I didn’t realize she would assume-“

            “It’s fine, Ford,” you reassure him. “This is a date. Isn’t it?”

            “Oh,” he says, blushing. “Ah.”

            “Isn’t it?”

            He’s about to respond when Susan approaches the table, carafe in hand.

            “Coffee?” she offers. You both nod.

            “Thank you,” you say.

            “Stanford, dear, how’s life treating you? Hang on – are you the Stanford who runs that old Mystery Shack up the hill, or are you the Stanford who disappeared thirty years ago? I just have such a hard time telling you apart!”

            “Oh, good heavens,” Ford breathes, dropping his head into one hand.

            “He’s the one who disappeared,” you supply helpfully. The coffee smells amazing.

            “Got it,” Susan says, pulling a notepad from her apron. “Now, what can I get started for you?”

            “Just the coffee, Susan,” Ford groans.

            “You got it, sweetcheeks,” she says, using two fingers to lift her lazy eyelid up and back down in a parody of a wink. She disappears back behind the counter, allowing the two of you a few moments of peace.

            Ford rubs the bridge of his nose.

            “Sorry, I thought we’d be able to talk privately here.“

            “Ford,” you stop him. “It’s okay. Even if it is just coffee. Promise.”

            He nods, lifting his coffee and blowing steam across the top of it. He takes a long sip, closing his eyes appreciatively.

            “Thirty years without coffee,” he explains. “There’s nothing like it in any dimension.”

            “I bet,” you agree, hiding your face behind your mug. He’s quiet for an uncomfortably long moment as you try to swallow your disappointment.

            Of course this isn’t a date! What a reckless assumption. He’s only known you a few days. You sip your coffee, letting the hot liquid scald the back of your throat without really tasting it. Ford fidgets in his seat. You avoid his gaze.

            Finally, Ford says your name.

            “Do you, um, want it to be a date?” he asks, as if the thought just occurred to him.

            You think about it, taking a deep breath.

            Take your time. Don’t want to seem too eager.

            You return the question.

            “Do you?”

            Ford blushes, going back to his drink.

            “I mean- that is to say, I would- um-“

            “I’d like that,” you interrupt him quietly, gazing at the table. “A date.”

            “Oh,” Ford says, surprised.

            “I thought it was, to be honest.”

            “I see,” he says helplessly. He fiddles with the collar of his blue sweater.

            “Do you want that too?” You hold your breath.

            “Yes,” he admits, glancing up, searching for approval. “Um. Yes, please.”

            You laugh, taking another long sip of coffee. This time, you savor the dark, complex flavor, letting it sit on your tongue. Diner coffee, thick enough to chew. In this strange new world, it’s a familiar comfort. The warmth of the beverage spreads pleasantly through your chest.

            “So polite.”

            “Heh,” he chuckles, unsure of what to do with his hands. He fiddles with the hems of his sleeves. “You know... I’ve never been on a date before.”

            “Really.”

            “Really. I... tried to ask someone to dance, once. At my high school prom. It ended with a glass of punch thrown over my head. Completely ruined my suit.”  

            “Sorry.” You wince sympathetically.

            “So, um, please forgive me if I’m a little... out of practice.”

            “I promise I won’t throw my punch at you.” You wink.

            He laughs gratefully, meeting your gaze. You smile.

            “Might I ask one thing?” he hazards.

            “Sure.”

            His brow furrows.

            “Why the interest? In me, I mean. I’m an old man, much older than you. I’m just confused...”

            “Stanford,” you whisper, taking his hands into your own from across the table. They’re as warm and sturdy as you remember. You’re suddenly nervous, but the words come all on their own.

            “You’re... beautiful, Ford. You’re something really special.”

            “Oh.” The tips of his ears are redder than his face. You could do this for hours, tracing every feature with your eyes, committing each part of his body to your memory. He’s gorgeous. You swallow, forcing yourself to look away.

            He says your name. You love the way your name sounds in his rough baritone, the silky way it flows off his tongue. He pronounces your name differently than Mabel’s, or Dipper’s, or even Stanley’s. There’s a quiet reverence in that tone, wholly unexpected from someone who has known you such a short period of time.

            He wants you to like him.

            “Did you mean what you said earlier? About my journals?” he asks shyly. “About wanting to see my other work?”

            “I sure did,” you affirm with a smile.

            “I brought one with me,” he confesses. “If you want to see it. If- if it’s a good time.”

            You laugh outright.

            “Ford, we’re on a date. At Greasy’s.

            “Oh...” You can see the cogs turning in his mind, trying to work out your meaning. He’s not sure whether to be disappointed or not.

            “It can wait, if you’d rather look at them this evening-”

            “Please show me your journals,” you tell him with a grin.

 


 

 

            The sun is setting as the two of you finally pull back down the long stretch of driveway, royal crimson streaks stretching clouded fingertips across the sky. You’ve been out for hours – not doing anything in particular, just thumbing through Ford’s journal, enjoying the company of one another. You end up drinking a pot of coffee between you, and you’re buzzing with caffeine – or perhaps excitement.

            You notice Ford stops hiding his hands around you – not that you think he hid his hands on purpose to begin with. You assume it’s just the muscle memory of a lifetime of teasing, of long, unshielded stares. He’s just cautious.

            But not around you. The more he talks to you, the more he opens up. His extra digits are swept into his gestures, as much as any other part of his hands. His twelve fingers are elegant, ornate. You could watch his hands for hours. He grows animated, pointing to various drawings in his journal, trying to explain the gravity of the “Weirdmageddon” that had, apparently, taken place in the small town over the summer.

            And the funny thing is? You believe him.

            After the portal, and the Multi-Bear, and the teleportation device, you’re starting to take his observations at face value. You hope you never see an eye-bat, or a gnome, or a zombie – but you wouldn’t put it past this strange world for such a creature to make an appearance.

            The Diablo’s tires crunch on gravel as you come to a halt. Ford’s hand hesitates over the ignition. He says your name, like he’s willing this moment to continue, stretching this comfortable companionship out a few seconds longer.

            “I... had a really nice time today,” he confesses, meeting your eyes.

            “Me too, Ford.” This time, you’re the first to look away. Since when are you the bashful type?

            “I was thinking... perhaps... we could continue our discussion later this evening? Unless you’ve got other plans-”

            You laugh. It sounds a little hollow.

            “Ford, I don’t know anyone here but you.”

            “Oh. Right.” He kills the ignition. “Well-“

            “I would like that,” you assure him. “A lot.”

            He grins, fiddling with the keys.

            “So, how’d your first date go?” you ask teasingly.

            “I’d say it went well. Though of course it’s a two-way transaction.”

            You chuckle, holding his gaze for a long minute. He smiles easily, with the trust of a child.

            “Stan’s going to get suspicious if we stay out here.”

            “Ah, right-“

            Ford scrambles to exit the vehicle, jogging around to your side of the car. You’re halfway out of your seatbelt when he pulls open the door, offering his hand to help you up.

            “Chivalry lives,” you snicker, accepting his hand. He shuts the door behind you, and you’re suddenly inches from his chest.

            It’s different from the other times he’s embraced you. Before, he was just... someone helping you out of a tough situation. But now? Skin tinted pink, by the setting sun or by nervousness – he’s so close. You can feel his breath, cool against your chin. Your noses almost touch.

            “Ford,” you whisper, suddenly shy.

            He whispers your name back, and it’s a question. Is this all right?

            Your eyes meet, and he tucks his hand under your chin, only hesitating a moment before your lips meet. It’s not a real kiss – just a short peck, as if he’d read in a book that kissing is how dates are supposed to end, and he’s merely following protocol. Your chest swells, and you take a step back, feeling very hot all of a sudden.

            Ford shuts the car door behind you, grinning like a little kid.

            “Come on,” he tells you. “Stanley’s probably got dinner on the stove.”

            You follow him mutely into the house, unable to form any sort of coherent thought.

            Ford Pines kissed you.

            Now what?

Chapter Text

            That night, moonlight streams through the wispy thin curtains of your room, bathing your bed in a silver wash. Everything smells clean. You toss and turn, unable to lie still long enough to fall asleep. The small digital clock on the bedside table reads midnight.

            What happened today?

            You groan, tossing the blankets from you in one hasty move. Mabel’s narwhal regards you silently, staring across the bed at you with beady, neutral eyes. You turn it around, so it’s facing the wall.  

            Despite your (pretty obvious) crush on him, your date with Ford moved a little faster than you’d have liked. You’ve only known the man a few days, after all. What’s going to happen when he comes to his senses tomorrow? He’s going to realize the gravity of that kiss. He’s going to kick you out.

            “Shut up,” you whisper in the narwhal’s direction.

            Your toes touch the cold, bare wood floor. It’s chilly, and you shiver, drawing a blanket around your shoulders. Ford’s old black tee shirt hangs loosely from your shoulders – it’s the closest thing to pajamas you own. The fabric is beginning to smell less like Ford and more like you.

            You sigh, making your way to the kitchen. Maybe a cup of tea will calm you down.

            The old house is quiet, creaking under your feet as you tiptoe down the hall. Stan sleeps upstairs, and the kids sleep in the attic, so you’re not particularly concerned about waking them. You find an old box of tea at the back of a cabinet – something citrusy, definitely expired.

            It’ll do. The microwave beeps in a friendly way, letting out a puff of steam as you retrieve your mug of hot water. You plop a teabag into the cup, setting it on the table to steep.

            A thin rectangle of light crosses the floor as the kitchen door swings open.

            Someone says your name. It’s a question.

            Shoot.

            You were confident you’d be quiet enough not to wake Stan. He must be a light sleeper. You whip around, squinting into the dark doorframe, ready to apologize – but it’s not Stan.

            It’s Ford.

            He says your name again. You blink. What’s he doing up here? He usually spends the night in his lab, despite having a bedroom on the main floor. Did your footsteps wake him?

            “Sorry for waking you-“ you start, but he hushes you.

            “Not at all, not at all.” He gestures to your mug of tea. “Can’t sleep?”

            “Not really,” you admit.

            “Welcome to the club,” he says with a wry grin. “May I join you?”

            “Uh, sure,” you say, automatically reaching for a second mug.

            “Please, let me-“ he says, awkwardly lunging toward the sink. His knuckles brush against your fingers as he takes the cup from you.

            You’re shaking. Not a lot, but it’s there. You quickly clasp your hands in an attempt to hide your nervousness. Ford asks your name curiously.

            “Are you all right?”

            You laugh breathlessly.

            “Yeah, yeah, I’m...” You trail off, waving a hand through the air. “You know.”

            “I don’t, actually.”

            “Ford,” you groan.

            “Yes?”

            “I just...” You take a deep breath, squarely meeting his gaze.

            Better snip this one off at the head.

            “Look. I like you.”

            “I like you too,” he replies bashfully.

            “I just feel like we’re taking this a little fast? You know?”

            “Oh,” he says, biting his lip. “Are we?”

            “Are we?” you parrot.

            He sighs. When he opens his eyes, they’re dark, hard and calculating. His voice is robotic.

            “You’re unsure whether your feelings are genuine, or you’re merely reciprocating my advances out of self-preservation,” he states clinically, turning the faucet to fill his mug. He deposits his mug into the microwave, punching a number into the machine’s face. “I will admit, I was afraid of this.”

            “Um... what do you mean?” Sometimes you forget you’re dealing with a genius. His expression hardens, all thought and no feeling. It scares you, just a little. He says your name.

            “You’re experiencing a perfectly normal psychological function, gravitating toward a person who shows you kindness in an unfamiliar situation. You’re subconsciously fighting the urge to attach yourself to him, fearing he might suddenly realize your presence is not beneficial to him. He’ll push you away without warning.” The microwave beeps. “Am I close?”

            “Uh-“

            “I apologize for kissing you without your consent,” he whispers, back toward you as he dunks a teabag into his drink. His spine is tense.

            “Ford... Ford.” You reach forward to pat his shoulder, fingers clenching and unclenching as you contemplate your action. Your blanket flaps around you, tickling the bare skin of your legs.

            “I merely thought- rather I hoped- that maybe-“

            “Stanford.” His shoulder is warm under your palm. He shivers. “Stanford, don’t apologize for that.”

            “You’re implying there is something else I should apologize for?”

            “What? No- Ford.”

            “I am sorry if I’ve made you uncomfortable in any way-“

            “Ford! Jesus.”

            “What?” he asks helplessly.

            “I liked it,” you say firmly. Your voice sounds confident – even if your emotions don’t quite match. “I liked it. I promise.”

            “You... did?”

            “World’s dumbest genius,” growls a tired voice from the doorway.

            “Stanley!” Ford yelps.

            “Go to bed,” Stan says firmly. He sports an old wifebeater, socks, and boxers, showing off his hairy legs. Gross. You glance modestly at the ceiling.

            “I didn’t realize you were up-“

            “It’s midnight. You’ll wake the kids. At least take it outside. Or somethin’.”

            “Ah, right-“ Ford says bashfully. His fingers tighten around the mug.

            “Sorry, Stan,” you say guiltily.

            “No worries, toots. I should be the one apologizing for my idiot brother here.”

            Ford grimaces. You chuckle – it’s plain to see which of them is the head of house. Stan wields some unspoken power over Ford. You don’t quite understand it, since Ford built the place, but it’s glaringly obvious. The Mystery Shack belongs to Stan.

            “Stanley, I haven’t done a thing-“

            “You kissed her?” Stan hisses.

            “Yes.” Ford looks affronted.

            “You’ve known her two days, moron. You don’t even know where she came from!” Stan glances apologetically at you. “No offense.”

            “None taken,” you reply, sipping your tea.

            “How do you know she doesn’t have some... some portal disease?”

            “There is no such thing as ‘portal disease,’ ” Ford replies coolly.

            “How do you know she’s not Bill?”

            The room is silent. You’re not part of this conversation any longer. You don’t know who Bill is, and certainly you can’t imagine being called such a strange name – but the word seems to trigger something deep within both brothers. They’ll have to hash this out between themselves.

            Ford’s gaze is like ice.

            “Bill?” you ask, not expecting an answer and not receiving one.

            “She is not Bill.”

            “You don’t know that.”

            “She is not Bill.”

            “Um...” you interject.

            You say your full name.

            “What?”

            You repeat your name – first, middle, last.

            “That’s my name. I don’t know who Bill is, or what he did. But that’s my name.”

            Stan blinks. Ford remains indignant.

            “You see?” Ford points forcefully at you. “She has no idea. If this is a ruse, it’s an elaborate one.”

            Stan sighs.

            “I just don’t like it. So soon after that weird-whatever? Makes me nervous.”

            “Bill is gone, Stanley.”

            “But what if he’s not?”

            “Who is Bill?” you ask again.

            Ford sighs, rubbing the back of his neck.

            “No one to concern yourself with, my dear.”

            “I still don’t like it,” Stan says, shaking his head.

            “Look, if I’ve overstayed my welcome, I can go,” you offer. The prospect of sleeping outside scares you. You aren’t accustomed to the outdoors, and there’s no way you’ll survive a week in the woods. But if Stan doesn’t want you here, what other option do you have?

            “Absolutely not,” Ford says, deliberately placing himself between you and Stanley, hands curling into fists.

            As if he anticipates the need to physically defend you from his own brother.

            “Ford,” you say gently, reaching out to him.

            “I’m a man of my word,” Stan says, palms up in a gesture of peace. “For pete’s sake, I’m not kicking her out, poindexter. I’m just saying we oughta be careful-“

            “You think I’m not being careful? That I haven’t run all the prerequisite tests, that I haven’t stayed up for three nights trying to determine a way to get her home?” His voice is dangerously soft, keenly aware of the children sleeping upstairs.

            “Hey, easy, Sixer-“

            Ford whips a small vial out of his pocket. You recognize it – it’s one of the tubes of your own blood Ford had used for testing. He shakes it at his brother’s face.

            “I spent thirty years – thirty years –trapped in a portal with that demon, Stanley! I know Bill, and this – this! – is not Bill.”

            “Holy Moses Sixer, is that blood?”

            “This is a perfectly normal human being, albeit from a different dimension, who has lost her way home and needs our help! I just need- she needs help, Stanley. She just...”

            His shoulders lock defensively as he trails off, losing his words. The kitchen grows quiet. Ford’s hands are still fists. You touch his wrist gently, not saying a word. Stan regards him, head cocked at an angle.

            “He really hurt you in there, didn’t he?” Stan asks.

            Ford makes a noise.

            “I’m... fuck. I’m sorry.”

            It’s the first time you’ve heard Stan curse. You look up, surprised to see him removing his glasses to rub his eyes. Is he crying?

            “I’m sorry, Sixer.”

            “Stan?” you ask softly.

            Ford is immovable, a boulder. You give his wrist a gentle squeeze, stepping around him to regard his brother.

            Without his suit, Stan looks somehow smaller. You take one of his hands.

            “Are you okay?”

            “He pushed me,” Ford whispers behind you, a quiet rasp. “He pushed me into the portal.”

            It’s an admission of guilt, a betrayal. You suddenly picture the two of them as children, reporting misbehavior to their parents. He pushed me. Tears stream freely down Stan’s face. Ford remains tense, frozen.

            The puzzle pieces click into place. This makes a lot more sense. All the hidden anger between these two brothers, finally brought to the surface. And you have no clue how to help.

            “Hey,” you say softly. With your free hand, you take hold of Ford’s fingers, forming a chain between the three of you. You squeeze the hands of both men. “Ford’s back now, right? You’re back. You’re safe.”

            Stan keens a quiet sob. Ford’s eyes are glued shut.

            You imagine they haven’t had a real heart-to-heart in a long time.

            “It’s okay,” you whisper, pulling them close. Cautiously, you place Stan’s hand atop Ford’s. Then you remove your own. “It’s okay.”

            “Stanley-“

            “Ford!”

            Stan bear hugs his brother, keeping their hands linked. He threads their fingers together, sobbing into Ford’s collarbone. Ford’s eyes are screwed shut, but he inhales sharply, turning his face toward his brother. They embrace like they haven’t seen each other in decades.

            It’s sweet.

            You smile sadly, rubbing your arms. You should probably give them some privacy.

            You take your tea from the table and exit the kitchen as quietly as possible, shutting the door behind you. Your hands are steady as you sit on the living room sofa, prepared to keep vigil through the night.

            When you wake the next morning, Ford’s coat is draped over your shoulders.

            Stan’s fez sits on the arm of the sofa.

Chapter Text

            Ford is chopping onions.

            He greets you by name as you enter the kitchen, liveried in an apron (“My other oven is a Bunsen”) and his usual modest red turtleneck. Again, you catch yourself wondering what his body must look like under all that fabric. What is he hiding?

            “Good morning,” he says with a nod, pleasantly enough. “I thought I’d make a scramble for breakfast. Did you sleep all right?”

            “I did,” you say with a yawn. You fold his coat neatly over the back of a chair, returning it to him by way of patting it. “That smells amazing.”

            “Thank you.”

            “You know, if you keep giving me your coat to sleep with, you’re going to get cold.”

            “It’s no trouble,” he says, slicing away. The knife snicks neatly against the cutting board.

            He smiles in your direction, glancing up, chopping without looking.

            The knife slips, clattering on the counter.

            “Ah- blast-“ Ford yelps as he grasps his thumb between the fingers of his opposite hand. You jog to his side.

            “Are you okay? Did you cut yourself?” you ask. “Here, let me see.”

            “Oh, ah-“ He blushes, more embarrassed than hurt.

            His fingers are as soft as ever, and his hand uncurls at your touch. A bead of red leaks from the tip of his thumb. You lead him to the faucet, running cold water from the tap. You rinse the wound, careful to keep your eyes trained on your work. He’s so close that each breath he takes brushes the hair against your neck. Your face heats at the proximity.

            You find a paper towel and press it to the injury.

            “Don’t let that get infected,” you hear yourself say. You sound like your mother. “Do you have bandages?”

            “I’ll be fine,” Ford says. “I’ve had worse.”

            “Ford-“

            “I’ll be fine.”

            He pulls his hand back. You catch a glimpse of something under his sleeve, a patch of iridescent skin. Without thinking, you catch his wrist.

            “What are you doing?” he asks, a hint of danger in his voice.

            You finger the hem of his sleeve, pushing the fabric back an inch. Mottled, raised scars cover most of the area. Most are old. Some look recent.

            Scars. That’s what he’s been hiding.

            “Ford,” you breathe.

            He skitters backward, tugging the sleeve back into place. Light reflects from the lenses of his glasses, flashing angrily in your direction. His apron twists against his torso, pulled along by the harsh tug at his sleeve.

            Neither of you say anything for a long moment.

            “Ford-“ you try again.

            “I’ll be fine.” He turns his back to you, holding the paper towel under his thumb as he goes back to chopping his onion.

            “But-“

            “Mornin’ toots,” Stan greets you, stumbling into the kitchen with a yawn. “Whatcha makin’, Poindexter?”

            “Breakfast,” Ford grunts without looking up.

            “Raw onion?” Stan teases, elbowing his side.

            Before you can blink, Ford has Stan pinned against the counter, knife pressed to his Adam’s apple. Stan gulps heavily. Your gaze flickers between the twins, locked together like predator and prey. You’ve seen this before.

            “Whoa, uh, easy there Sixer.”

            “I- wait- Stanley-“

            Ford lifts the knife away, hand shaking as he comes to his senses. He stumbles backward, dropping the blade. It falls to the linoleum floor with a metallic clatter. The color drains from his face and he retreats hastily, slamming the door shut on his way out.

            Stan takes a few deep breaths, frozen where Ford had pinned him. He rubs his neck.

            “Yeesh,” he breathes after a few seconds, staring at you like you’d been the one holding the knife. “What’d you do?”

            “I think I broke him,” you remark.

            “No kidding.”

 


 

 

            “Ford?” you ask softly, tapping the doorframe with your knuckles. “Can I come in?”

            There’s no answer. You cautiously push open the creaky metal door, glancing around. Machinery hums softly behind you. The failed teleportation device looms hungrily under its sheet, like a monster waiting to be fed. You take a deep breath, bravely crossing the threshold from Ford’s lab to the adjacent study.

            Ford is hunched in his chair, one hand covering his face. His glasses lay beside him on the desk. He looks like he’s in pain.

            For an instant, you flash back to the moment you woke him up – the barrel of his gun staring you down. You blink a few times, willing the panic away. This is Ford. He’s safe.

            Right?

            “Ford,” you whisper.

            He shakes his head.

            “You shouldn’t be here,” he says, voice cracking on the last word.

            “Hey. It’s all right. Stan’s not mad at you.”  

            “You’re not safe. None of you are safe from me. I’m... I’m a monster.” The end of the word trails upward, like a question. Your heart breaks.

            “Hey. Shh,” you whisper, kneeling beside his chair. “You’re not a monster.”

            “But I am,” he proclaims, jerking backward. “I almost hurt you. I almost hurt Stanley...”

            He inhales sharply, blinking hard.

            “Ford. You saved me. Remember that?”

            “I almost killed you!” He roars your name, suddenly terrifying. “I would have shot you! Had you arrived days earlier, when I first emerged from that portal... I would have shot you without a second thought.”

            You don’t doubt it.

            “Ford, you were traumatized,” you say, keeping your voice as even as possible. “You had a knee-jerk reaction. I’d say that makes you pretty human.”

            He bites back a sob, stuffing a knuckle between his teeth.

            “I don’t deserve you. O-or Stanley. Or the kids...”

            “Hey...”

            You take his hands. The right has small red indents from where he’s bitten his own skin. You gently rub the area with the pads of your fingers, smoothing away the ridges. A terrible thought occurs to you.

            “Ford, how long ago was the portal? When did Stan bring you back?”

            “Three w-weeks ago.”

            “God, Ford...”

            He’s still adjusting.

            It literally hasn’t even occurred to you that he might not have been back in his own world for very long. He’s spent decades away from home. Here he is, trying to readjust to life with his family, a veteran back from the war.

            And here you are, sabotaging the whole thing with your stupid crush.

            Three weeks. He swallows sobs, face turned away from you.

            “S-sorry,” he croaks. “I can’t seem t-to stop...”

            “Ford...”

            You stand, gently pulling him out of his chair. You wrap your arms around his middle. He cradles your head between his neck and collarbone, six fingers cupped at the back of your head. He makes a low noise into your hair and you feel a sudden pinprick of dampness on your scalp.

            Poor thing.

            “Can I hold you?” you breathe, parroting his question from yesterday.

            He doesn’t answer. He squeezes you tighter – almost too tight.

            He’s strong.

            “Please don’t leave me,” he mumbles into your hair.

            “I couldn’t if I tried,” you chuckle, inhaling his scent.

            “Please, I need...”

            “Shh. Hey. I’m not going anywhere.”

            You let him cry it out, closing your eyes as you trail your fingers up and down his spine. His grip on you doesn’t loosen – but you find you don’t mind. It’s not uncomfortable. Being pressed against him like this feels right somehow, like you’ve found a you-shaped hole to fill. You belong here.

            You hum, something tuneless and slow, lips vibrating against Ford’s chest. It seems to help. He stills after a few minutes, fingers curling into your hair.

            “I... apologize,” he whispers after some time, unable to release you.

            “It’s okay,” you reassure him quietly.

            “I don’t know what’s gotten into me...”

            “When was the last time you saw another human?”

            He thinks about it. 

            “Stanley,” he says, finally.

            “I don’t mean today, I mean-“

            “I know what you mean. It was Stanley,” he says with a sigh. “Thirty years ago.”

            “My god, Ford...”

            “That’s not to say I haven’t seen other intelligent life! Just not...” he trails off. “You know. People.”

            “Ford, that’s like solitary confinement!” you exclaim, holding him tightly.

            “I know,” he breathes.

            “It’s no wonder...”

            “No wonder that what?”

            “That you’d be spooked.”

            “I don’t get spooked-“

            “Come on.”

            “I wasn’t spooked!”

            “You were totally spooked!”

            He laughs brokenly, breath hot against your scalp. He mumbles your name.

            “Thank you,” he says. “Thank you for not being scared away.”

            “It’s okay, Ford.”

            He inhales deeply, then pulls away. You immediately miss his warmth. You cross your arms in front of your chest, trying hard not to feel so attached to this man. This man you’ve known for a few days. This stranger.

            He closes his eyes for a long moment, as if contemplating something.

            Then he sighs, using one hand to pull back his sleeve. Under the fluorescent light, his scars are even more pronounced than before. You’ve never seen so many on one person.

            “They’re not self-inflicted,” he explains. “If that’s what you were thinking.”

            You study the criss-cross pattern of scars quietly, shocked into silence by his openness. He shifts his weight uncomfortably from foot to foot. You take his wrist into your hand, almost afraid to touch the broken skin for fear of hurting him.

            “You won’t hurt me,” he says, as if reading your thoughts. You look up sharply, meeting his eyes. “Most of them are old.”

            Your gaze flicks back to the cellophane skin. You trace each one with the tips of your fingers, feeling each ridge, each imperfection. They crinkle under your fingers, each one more fragile than the last. How did he get them all? How can there possibly be so many? His six fingers curl into a loose fist under your touch, but he doesn’t pull away.

            You find the hem of his sleeve with your fingertips, glancing up at him, searching for permission. He nods. You push the red knit fabric up over his elbow.

            The scars continue all the way up his arm.

            “Ford,” you breathe. A knot forms in your throat.

            “My whole body is afflicted,” he states clinically. “I felt you ought to know. Seeing as you exhibit romantic attraction toward me...”

            “What, is my crush on you that obvious?” You chuckle breathlessly.

            He smiles, just a little, and nods. Warmth spreads through your chest.

            “You think scars are a dealbreaker?” you ask him, deflecting.

            “Well, I...”

            “You’re beautiful,” you whisper, bringing his wrist close to your face.

            Slowly, making eye contact, you press your lips to the inside of his wrist. His pulse beats frantically against your mouth and his fingers twitch. You see him fight panic, and, slowly as before, you lower his hand.

            “I’m... beautiful?” he asks hoarsely.

            “Yes,” you affirm with a nod.

            “Oh...”

            If this were a fairytale, he’d sweep you into his arms and kiss you. But it’s not, and Ford stands there awkwardly, face red as a beet, brain fried. The clock on his desk ticks loudly. You feel blood rush to your face.

            You huff a laugh to fill the silence, feeling like a fool as you stare at the ground.

            “Do you really mean that?” he asks softly, studying you like a refrigerator manual.

            “I really do,” you say with a sniff.

            “But I’m old,” he says. “And.. my scars, my... my hands...”

            You laugh for real. He’s like a machine. Does not compute.

            “You’re unique. Unique is beautiful,” you say simply. You press your palm against his, matching your digits to the five spaces between his six fingers. You thread your hands together.

            “I see,” he says quietly. “I find great beauty in you as well.”

            He squeezes your hand gently.

            “As a courtesy, I want to wait until you’re ready before continuing to explore our relationship. However... I feel an overwhelming urge to kiss you at this moment.”

            You laugh. What a dork.

            “Then kiss me, Ford,” you whisper.

            He does.