It was a nice, warm day in early September. The sky was a bright blue, the sun was shining, and the clouds were a soft and fluffy white that made them look like sheep bounding off to pasture on the horizon, far from the tall pine trees that rose up like fluffy green spears.
Maria loved this weather, because it meant it was a good day to go berry-picking.
The brown-haired, bright blue-eyed young woman settled a basket as tall as her waist at the bottom of a small tree and looked up at the branches that spread out above her head. The berries that hung from the branches – a blue fruit that had the shape and outside texture of an orange – looked about as big as nectarines. Unusual, but not too unusual for the part of the world Maria happened to be in.
Maria adjusted her orange jacket and red shirt, then started climbing up into the branches. “All right, you little Orans. Let’s see about getting some of you plucked so that I can make that sauce for dinner tonight.”
One of the trees nearby rustled, and Maria felt a tug at her chest as a larger blur of mostly red-gold fur burst past her tree and up another one.
Even after a year of having him nearby, she still hadn’t gotten used to that.
Maria winced, then shook her head as she set to picking more of the berries. “I haven’t gotten to that one yet!”
“Exactly why I’m in it!” came the response – an older man’s voice. Maria saw his head poke out from between the branches: square jaw, gray hair with a lighter stripe around the back of his head, and a pair of triangular, red-gold ears sticking up from the top of his head. He had no human ears to speak of, which made the fact that he was wearing glasses that weren’t hanging onto anything other than his nose rather unusual.
“The gnomes are getting a little greedy – give me a few minutes and I’ll have them out of this one.”
Maria gave him a thumbs-up. “Thanks, Sixer.”
The man nodded, then disappeared back into the tree. Maria could hear muffled shouting from between the branches. “Get out of here, you squirrel-stinking—“
Maria tuned it out with a slight shake of her head and a small smile and went back to plucking berries off branches. As she did, she listened to the indignant squealing of the red-hatted little bearded men as they were sent scrambling back into the woods on all fours.
After the chaos of the end of summer, this kind of day felt like a paradise in Gravity Falls. Almost too good to be true, but at the same time it was.
If only because of what had happened at the end of August.
Maria grabbed a berry almost a little too tightly as the memory of red skies and an ominous black pyramid flashed through the back of her mind. She still wished she had been conscious for Cipher’s final moments. On top of that, Sixer hadn’t gotten the hang of mirages yet, so he couldn’t show her how the invading Cipher had died at his and his family’s hands.
It was annoying, but spoken accounts of how the triangle had been taken down by Sixer and his family were better than nothing.
Maria finished plucking the berries she’d wanted and came down from the tree. “Hey! I’m done with the Oran Berries!”
A small cluster of the little bearded men swarmed the tree immediately while Maria moved onto the next berry tree.
As Maria worked to pull down the heart-shaped fruits from this tree, she heard footsteps approach the base. She didn’t need to look down to see who it was. She could feel his presence by the tugging from her chest.
“They’re getting more impatient,” Sixer called up. “At this rate, you might need a second orchard.”
“Maybe. I’ve certainly got enough berries for it. But I’d rather not have to tend to two when I can just have the one.” Maria kept picking as she talked, filling the basket. She tucked the basket under her jacket and pulled an empty one out of thin air.
Sixer shifted beneath her. “…if that’s your decision.”
His voice had shifted slightly. Gone quieter.
Maria’s brow furrowed and she mentally cursed. Of course his eagerness to move around on his own would run out quickly.
That was the part that she most hated about the arrangement they were in, and the part that she wanted to find a solution for soon.
Maria finished harvesting the ripe berries that she needed and left the last tree to the gnomes. She didn’t look like she was carrying several pounds of fruit rolling around in baskets – every single basket had disappeared under her jacket and vanished from eyesight. It was almost like she was carrying nothing at all.
“Ready to go back?” Maria stopped next to Sixer.
The six red-gold, gray-tipped fluffy tails that were attached to the man flicked at the question. “If you are, I do not see a need to linger.”
Maria’s mouth twitched downward a little, but she nodded and started to head towards the worn dirt path that led out of the clearing.
They didn’t get too much farther before a pair of voices caught their attention.
“Hello! Is anyone there?”
“Axel, keep it down! Do you want to—”
“Cool it, Roxas, I can see people over there. Come on!”
Maria turned at the two voices, her eyes widening as two figures in black robes stepped out of the trees and into the clearing.
“See? What’d I tell ya?” The spiky redhead motioned to Maria and Sixer, grinning. “People! And one of ‘em’s familiar. Long time no see, Maria!”
Maria blinked, relaxing out of the stance she had almost fallen into. “Lea? What are you doing here? Last time I saw you, it was – a long time ago.” She rubbed the back of her head, frowning. Then she blinked. “Wait. Roxas? I didn’t – I thought he was a part of Sora.”
“Not as much as you thought,” the blond replied. “So, you’re Maria, huh? Nice to finally meet you. Axel’s talked about you.”
“He has, has he?” Maria raised an eyebrow at the redhead. “What’s he told you?”
“H-hey, don’t look at me like that, I didn’t say anything bad.” Axel grinned. “So, who’s your friend? He almost looks like he could fit in with Mickey and his kingdom.”
“Mickey?” Sixer repeated. Maria glanced at him and saw his wide-eyed confusion. “Who—”
“He’s talking about the Disney mouse,” Maria said with a knowing expression.
“Dis – Mickey Mouse?” Sixer’s eyes flickered between the two. “I hadn’t been expecting that this morning.” He cleared his throat. “My name is Sixer. It is good to meet others in the multiverse who know Maria.”
“Know her?” Axel laughed. “I helped train her! She didn’t know anything about traveling between worlds or her firepower until she met me!”
“And I’m sure I could kick your butt any day of the week now,” Maria replied with a confident grin. She frowned. “But that doesn’t explain what you’re doing here. We had a problem come through here a couple weeks ago, but it wasn’t anything you guys might worry about.”
“Yeah, we were busy with something at the time….” Axel rubbed the back of his head and exchanged a look with Roxas. “It was kinda big – kinda wonder why Yen Sid didn’t say you should get involved. Or anything about this world.”
“Probably because he knew I was busy with another problem – one this world was involved in.” Maria paused, considering. “Actually…might be a good idea if you followed us to where I’ve been staying for a bit. It’d be safer to talk about what happened there.”
“What do you mean?” Roxas frowned.
“Firstly, the forest creatures have ears. And second, what happened isn’t something the locals like to talk about very much – most of them, anyway.” Maria motioned for the two to follow her. “The people I’m staying with will talk about it freely, though.”
“Why’s that?” Axel moved to follow after them as Sixer fell into step behind Maria.
“Because the people who live there have been more involved in stopping Cipher than anyone else in town.”
Maria knew Axel and Roxas were exchanging confused looks at her words.
“Are you sure it’s wise to tell them?” Sixer asked, keeping his voice low.
“I trust Axel,” Maria replied. “And Roxas is a counterpart to a young man named Sora, who I know is a hero in his own right. They know things dealing with forces of light and darkness, considering that they’ve fought such beings. They might be able to help.”
“Ah.” Sixer paused. “Then…if it doesn’t…how much longer?”
“Soon,” Maria replied. “Within the week, I think. I just have to make sure that the lodge has got enough stuff stockpiled in case they want anything I might make for a meal or something.”
“Ah.” Sixer fell silent again.
The worn path eventually led into another, larger clearing, where a large building took up about half the space. Made of wood and standing at three stories, it was a bit of an unusual sight.
Especially since the Mystery Shack used to be two stories and was much, much shorter in width and length.
Maria and Sixer circled around the back of the Shack and towards the entrance that led into the actual home of the building. Maria could spot a tour bus – probably the last one of the summer – parked on the part of the clearing that served as part-time lawn, part-time parking lot.
Axel whistled as they made their way up to the porch. “This is quite the house. What is it?”
“A tourist trap.” Maria grinned at the two of them while Axel raised an eyebrow. Sixer chuckled next to her.
“This is the safest place?” Roxas frowned.
The door opened, and a man wearing a tan labcoat who looked almost identical to Sixer stepped onto the porch. One could have almost mistaken them for twins – except that this man did not have the fox ears and tails Sixer did.
“It’s safer than anywhere else that demons might have prying eyes on,” he said. “Maria, who—”
“These two are Axel and Roxas,” Maria introduced. “They’re Keyblade Wielders, Stanford.”
Stanford blinked in surprise. “Keyblade Wielders? I thought they were myths.”
“We’re kinda supposed to be.” Roxas gave Maria a pointed look.
“Stanford’s traveled across dimensions himself, don’t give me that.” Maria waved off Roxas’ stare. “Come on. You wanted to know about what happened, right? Stanford and Sixer can help explain better than I could alone.”
“Are you guys related?” Axel followed Maria and Stanford inside. “You almost look like twins or something.”
“Something like that,” Stanford replied. “We are counterparts – alternate versions of each other.”
The group entered the large living room just inside the house. Axel looked over the worn couch and old TV before looking at Stanford and Sixer.
“Counterparts aren’t supposed to be in the same dimension as each other, right?” Axel asked.
“Under normal circumstances, no, but considering what happened here two weeks ago, this dimension has a few exceptions to that.” Stanford moved his hands behind his back while Sixer folded his across his chest.
“What happened two weeks ago?” Roxas frowned.
“The end of the world.”
Axel and Roxas stared at Maria.
Axel snorted. “You can’t be serious. This place looks fine, what kind of an apocalypse passes through and leaves no trace behind?”
“Weirdmageddon,” Stanford and Sixer replied at once. It created a strange unison that got the two visitors to stiffen in surprise.
“…okay.” Axel frowned. “That was a bit…weird.”
“Who or what is Weirdmageddon?” Roxas frowned. “It sounds like something that could have destroyed this world.”
“It nearly did,” Stanford confirmed. “We are fortunate that Maria happened to be here to intervene at the right moment. A demon named Bill Cipher utilized some old enemies of Maria’s to merge together four alternate versions of Gravity Falls, then invaded after he had waited long enough for the dimensions to settle into each other properly.”
Axel winced. “Yeesh. Kinda wonder why we weren’t called in for this – you’d have thought there were Heartless all over the place.”
“Heartless?” Sixer repeated.
“Creatures made of embodied darkness,” Roxas explained. “They usually form because of the darkness in people’s hearts.”
Sixer frowned. “…Cipher was more chaotic than ‘dark’ in any sense of the word. He was a massively destructive force, but he didn’t quite have the temperament to attract creatures like that.”
“You knew him?” Axel guessed.
Sixer met Axel’s gaze for a moment, then looked to Stanford. “Cipher and his counterparts eventually cross paths with our families, usually looking for a way into our dimensions by use of an unstable portal that I and my counterparts have been tricked into making in the past. Weirdmageddon itself came after thirty years of us wandering the multiverse, finding a way to defeat him, but this Weirdmageddon was different. The dimensions that had been merged together had already dealt with their Ciphers, and the one that came at the end of last summer had taken his version of Gravity Falls.”
“Taken? You mean he won on another world.” Roxas frowned.
“And…others besides.” Sixer’s ears drooped.
“Sixer’s dimension was lost to his Cipher long before that demon merged other dimensions together,” Maria explained. “I got here when Sixer and his family were warped here.”
“Were –” Axel looked between Sixer – who averted his gaze – and Maria, who looked grim. “You’re saying Sixer was working for that guy?”
“Not of his own free will, but…yeah.” Maria’s eyebrows came together not in a frown, but in an expression of worry. “Cipher caught up to them before they could stop him in his dimension, and he took Cipher and his family, changing them as he pleased andmaking it so they couldn’t disobey anything he told them to do. I’m lucky I managed to find a way to transfer the connection by force from Cipher to myself and other people. It’s the only reason that I’m still standing here spiritually whole, and the reason this dimension isn’t under an apocalypse right now.”
“Transfer?” Roxas repeated. “You don’t mean—”
“Unfortunately,” Sixer confirmed. His ears drooped further. Maria’s expression and drooping shoulders mimicked his mood.
“What kind of monster does something like that?!” Axel demanded. “And I thought Xehanort was a nightmare, geez!”
“What did he do?” Roxas moved towards Sixer, looking the man over with a guarded expression.
“Cipher…he went straight for the soul.” Maria sighed and shook her head. “He tore out the part of him that represented his willpower, and made that the connecting line. I’ve been trying to think of a solution that could reverse it, but my first option was shot down well before the demon tried to break into this dimension. I’m currently planning on heading out by the end of the week to have a look around at the dimensions I’ve been in. See if there’s anyone who can help.”
Roxas paused. “His – his soul?”
“But that’s something that can’t be touched!” Axel frowned. “Can it?”
“Apparently, it can,” Stanford replied. “Because he did this to not only Sixer, but his twin brother and their niece and nephew. If you two happen to know anything about reversing a problem such as this, it would be greatly appreciated. Especially if – if the myths are to be believed – you two are Keyblade Wielders who know how to access a person’s heart.”
Axel raised his hands. “I’m not a user anymore. I…kinda lost it when we were fighting a big battle.”
“How can you lose a keyblade when it’s a part of you?” Maria frowned at the redhead. “That doesn’t make much sense, Axel.”
“Yeah, well, you weren’t there when Xemnas infected it with darkness and broke it.” Axel slumped into the couch with a huff. “I had to rely on Roxas to get us here when Yen Sid asked us to check this place out.”
“…oh.” Maria blinked in surprise. Her expression softened. “…I see.”
Roxas closed the distance between himself and Sixer, who looked at the blond with a cautious expression. “We may be able to traverse worlds and reach the hearts of others, but this isn’t something that a wielder can heal.” He reached up with a hand and kept it hovering over Sixer’s chest. “We deal with when a person’s heart and body separate, or when the darkness in someone’s heart starts to overtake them.”
“How exactly do you define someone’s ‘heart’?” Stanford asked. “Is it similar to a person’s soul?”
“It’s…similar.” Roxas pulled away from Sixer, who watched the young man cautiously. “A person’s heart is hard to explain. I think a lot of what it and the soul do overlap in some form. If a person’s heart is removed from the body, it releases the darkness in a person as a Heartless, and it causes the shell of a body left behind to become something called a Nobody – a person living on sheer determination alone, but without their original heart.”
“Keyblade Wielders are similar to World Jumpers like Maria, aren’t they?” Sixer asked quietly.
“Yeah. Except we can’t go to all the places Maria can.” Axel motioned to Maria. “We only travel to certain worlds in a part of the multiverse. Maria goes…everywhere else. Sorry we weren’t able to get here to save your world, man. We probably would have saved you a lot of trouble if we had.”
Sixer moved his gaze away from the two of them. “Considering that you spoke of other problems, I can…understand. You were busy with another world-threatening phenomenon.”
Axel’s mouth became a straight line. He ran a hand down his face in a quiet groan. “Yeah. Kinda wish we’d had more time to get things set up before Xehanort had tried to do what he did. Then we could’ve been here to help, and maybe talk to Yen Sid about seeing if he knew anything.”
“At least now that we’re here, we can make sure there aren’t any Heartless lingering in the area,” Roxas pointed out. “And we can still talk to Yen Sid about a possible solution. Stanford, you said his family was involved in this as well? Is it possible for us to meet them?”
“They are in the area, but the kids are in school and Sixer’s brother is helping mine run their tourist trap.” Stanford frowned. “And while Sixer and Maria may be connected, she doesn’t have control over his family. My twin, a counterpart to my niece, and another counterpart of myself managed to rescue them. It might be better if you looked around town first, before you spoke with them in the afternoon.”
“Sounds like a plan.” Roxas nodded. “Maria, would you be willing to show us around town?”
“Sure. It’ll give me some time to get a heads-up to certain people that I’m going to be heading out at the end of the week.” Maria nodded. “Sixer, you don’t have to come along if you don’t feel up to it. We were training a bit earlier before we went and grabbed those berries.”
Sixer shook his head. “I-I’m fine coming along.”
“Are you sure?”
Maria’s mouth tightened, but she nodded. “Okay. Come on, guys – let’s head into town and maybe head towards the mansion, first. We can talk to the survivors from Sixer’s world there, if you want to.”
“Sounds like a good place to start,” Axel replied with a grin. “Let’s get going already!” He rose to his feet.
“All right, all right. No need to burn through town like a wildfire.” Maria chuckled, then moved to the door. Sixer, Axel, and Roxas followed.
“How bad was it?” Roxas stepped onto the porch.
Sixer paused, one hand on the door he was closing behind them. He frowned, then said carefully, “It is not an experience I would like to repeat. He ended my world. And I am very much relieved that he is no longer a problem.”
“But you’re not completely free of what he did,” Roxas said. “If this soul thing is a problem.”
“I am…not free yet, no. But Maria is…better, for me, than Cipher was.” Sixer pulled the door shut, then walked off the porch towards Maria and Axel, who were waiting a short distance away. “She…lets me make more of my own decisions, than he ever did, and any orders she might make are few and far between.”
“When was the last time she outright ordered you to do anything?”
Sixer closed his eyes at the question. “During Cipher’s invasion, she told me to run while she…held off a monster. The thought was that, if she was defeated, I would be in a safe location where someone else could take up the connection if she was forcibly cut off from me.”
“Why not go free? If you’re cut free, then—”
“Then my body slowly gives out, as I have no ability to keep myself going. Without my soul’s willpower in its proper place, I will die of mass organ failure.” Sixer looked at Roxas with a saddened expression. “That is why Maria has not let me go. If we are to find a solution, it must put my willpower back in place.”
“I see.” Roxas’ expression darkened. “When we return to the Tower of Mastery, I’ll talk to Yen Sid about possible solutions. Maybe by working together, we can find the solution you need.”
“That would be…very helpful. Thank you.”
“So, where are you planning on going?” Axel asked as Roxas and Sixer reached him and Maria.
Maria started counting on her fingers. “Not Neo-Earth – as much as I owe Dr. Light for saving my life, they work more with mechanical beings, not the intricacies of a soul. I don’t think that my home dimension would be able to offer any help in this, either, especially considering that I’m technically dead there—“
“Long story short, I’m older than both of you now.” Maria went back to counting. “I don’t think that any Cybertronians would be able to help. Human souls and Cybertronian Sparks are two very different forces, and I’ve heard rumors of how they create more of themselves, so I’m not sure what they’d think of our current scenario. And I haven’t been to Axiom Nexus in decades, but I know that they do stuff with soul resonance, not soul repair. The best they’d do is throw a therapist my direction or something.” She frowned. “And I’ve already knocked Pokémon off the list, and I doubt that Sonic and his friends would be of much help to me, either.”
“And Atlantis?” Roxas raised an eyebrow. “Axel mentioned that was where you two first met.”
Sixer’s ears twitched, and he tilted his head slightly. “The dimension her core is from?”
“Yeah.” Axel reached under his black robe and pulled out what looked like a glowing, bright blue crystal, tied to a leather cord around his neck. “I mean, your soul’s in yours, right? Maybe she can do something about his?”
“…I dunno.” Maria rubbed the back of her head, frowning. “It might be worth a shot. We can at least stop by there and see what they think. I was thinking about stopping by another world, too – at least part of it is under your jurisdiction, I think. Does the name Iron Man ring any bells?”
Axel frowned, then shrugged. “Nope, not really.”
“Well, his dimension is partially under your jurisdiction too, from what I remember. I’m planning on going to see one of his friends to see if he knows anything.”
“That is quite the list of places, Maria,” Roxas said. “I’m guessing that’s the tip of the iceberg.”
“Basically.” Maria made a so-so motion. “I’ve gone back to the same worlds a number of times, and the ones I just listed are the ones I frequent most often. It’s just a matter of whether or not I need to pull back to some of the other places I’ve been to if none of these work.”
Maria looked over at Sixer.
“How long do you think we would need to be at these worlds, in order to determine if they can do what we need?” Sixer asked.
“Probably not very long. I may spend some time just making sure that everything’s okay and nothing dangerous has snuck in, but it really depends.” Maria frowned. “We’ll have to see when we get to the world I pick first.”
“Speaking of worlds, this one’s four of them merged together, right?” Axel asked. “Plus people from Sixer’s world?”
“Yup.” Maria nodded. “And the refugees live in Fiddleford’s mansion, which is where I’m planning on going first. You two ready to see what this place is like?”
“Sure.” Axel grinned. “Let’s see what you’ve been up to.”