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After the War

Chapter Text

Their fight against Bill was over. The night after it was finished, Ford swore he would leave his gun in the basement. But as he stood at the threshold of the elevator, he was suddenly extremely nervous. Bill was crafty. What if it wasn’t really over? What if something happened? In the end, he turned back and grabbed the gun. Better to be safe than sorry.

He kept telling himself that.

Dipper and Mabel left, but Stanley stayed. Turned out, the world had changed a lot in 30 years, and Ford wasn’t sure he could handle it. So he let Stanley stay. Just until he got back on his feet, Ford had said.

He kept telling himself that.

But though Ford had made a cursory attempt at reintegrating early on, now he spent all his time in the basement and tried not to think about the future. There were much more important things to worry about: dismantling the portal, securing his other experiments, recreating the journals. Those were important, much more so than anything else.

He kept telling himself that.

In retrospect, the symptoms were obvious. No one would be normal after going through what he’d been through. But trying to see that from inside the haze of paranoia was impossible. Even a genius could miss the forest for the trees. It became painfully obvious one late September evening.

They were eating dinner. They never talked much, for which Ford was thankful; after 30 years, he was - to put it mildly - somewhat out of touch with the intricacies of human conversation, and the last person he wanted to make small talk with was his twin brother. That made what Stanley said that evening all the more unusual.

“Ford, we need to talk.”

Ford immediately didn’t like the tone of his brother’s voice. Stanley was almost never serious, and Ford couldn’t even imagine what had got him so worried. He cleared his throat and glanced up at Stan, trying to gauge his brother's intentions, but looked back down at his plate before they made eye contact. “About what?” he chanced, trying to keep the nervousness out of his voice.

“About you.”

Ford barely managed to keep from choking on his food. He chewed slowly, deliberately, hoping to force Stan to continue before he swallowed.

“You’ve been acting weird lately.”

“How so?” Ford continued to feign ignorance, and he could almost feel Stan's eyes narrow.

“You hardly ever come out of the basement anymore-”

Ford was silently thankful. He’d already anticipated that question. “That’s because I have very important work to do, Stanley. Just because Bill’s been defeated doesn’t mean there aren’t still dangerously unsecured experiments down there. I don’t have time to-”

“Would ya let me finish, Poindexter?” That shut Ford up. He seemed stunned. “And when you do come up, you’re always carrying your gun.” Ford winced. How did Stanley know about that? He thought he'd been careful to conceal the gun. “And don’t try to play dumb. I lived on the street for 10 years; I can tell when someone’s packing heat.”

Ford couldn’t speak. All his excuses seem to have slipped away. But after a few painful moments, he swallowed the lump in his throat and mumbled, “I-I need it. In case something happens.”

It was an extraordinarily stupid thing to say. Stanley’s retort was obvious. “In case what happens, Ford? That triangle guy is gone, but you’re still down in the basement from before I wake up until after I go to sleep, and I have to practically drag you out of there just for dinner! If something dangerous is going on down there, I have a right to know. This is my house too!”

Ford felt relief wash over him. Stanley didn’t know. He thought it was just another one of Ford’s experiments, and he could easily talk his way out of that. “Like I said, Stan, it’s just a precaution-”

“Against what? You still won’t tell me!” Stan stood up. His voice was raised, and for a second, Ford flinched, sure they were about to get into another fight. But then there was a sigh - a great, heaving sigh - and Ford looked up to see Stan turned slightly away, pinching the bridge of his nose and rubbing the corners of his eyes with his thumb and forefinger. “You know, you don’t have to do this alone, Ford. It doesn’t have to be like this. Not again.”

For a moment, Ford believed him. Memories came flooding back, visions of 30 years ago, of a scene he’d played over and over and over in his head ever since, of how if he’d just had the strength to say what he meant, to tell the truth, things wouldn’t have turned out like they did. Maybe it wouldn’t be so bad. Maybe Stan would understand. He took a deep breath. "Stanley... Maybe you're right."

Stan grinned. "Who woulda thought? Stanley Pines, right about something. Does this mean you were wrong for once?" He sat down, punching Ford playfully on the shoulder as he did.

Ford laughed. "Well, you don't have to rub it in."

"Course I do, Sixer. So come on, what's got you so spooked? I'm sure it's nothing we can't handle after all that Weirdmaggedon nonsense, but whatever it is, it's been driving you crazy."

And just like that, it all came tumbling down.

It had been the one thing Ford had desperately avoided thinking about. He was anxious, sure, and restless and irritable. He wasn't able to sleep through the night, and often woke from nightmares drenched in sweat. He was even willing to admit he was being a bit paranoid. But the one thing he definitely was not, was crazy. A small voice had been nagging him relentlessly - this wasn't normal, he wasn't okay, he needed help - but a louder, prouder voice had drowned it out, insisted he was fine, he just needed time, if he didn't dwell on it it would go away. Crazy meant he was losing his mind, which after 30 years of hell was the only thing he had left. He wasn't crazy. He wasn't crazy.

“I’M NOT CRAZY!” It came out much louder than Ford meant it to. Before he knew it, he’d shot up, slamming his fists on the flimsy table so hard it almost broke. “I’m not crazy.” Much quieter this time, as if he was still trying to convince himself. Stan had thrown his arms up defensively at the sound of Ford screaming, but now stood frozen, mouth hanging open stupidly. It couldn’t have been more than a minute before Stanley finally spoke, but with the way Ford’s heart and head raced, it felt like hours.

“Stanford…”

No, no, he couldn’t do this. It was exactly as bad as he had imagined. That awful mixture of fear and pity in Stanley’s eyes was the last thing he needed right now. Ford ran to the basement, feeling the beginnings of tears prickling behind his eyes.

Chapter Text

Ford fled downstairs and threw himself into his work. He decided to continue his deconstruction of the portal. Even though it was inoperable without more fuel, it was still too dangerous to leave standing. It was strenuous work, and, without the journals, slow going as well. He didn’t want to risk making a mistake, and dismantling an interdimensional portal wasn’t as simple as yanking out all the wires. It didn’t help that the portal wasn’t quite as he remembered it; Stanley had made a number of… adjustments, mostly for convenience's sake, and though most of them were dangerously unstable, Ford couldn’t help but admire Stan’s inventiveness.

Tonight, however, Ford worked furiously, perhaps more quickly than he should have. He started by unbolting some of the outside plates and dragging each piece to the back of the room, making sure to keep all the engraved ones together so that he could wash them with acid later. Inside were pipes and wires and more steel plates with awful inscriptions. Before he cut a single strand of wire or broke a line of pipe Ford had to know exactly where it went, from beginning to end. Sometimes he would realize he needed to work on the exact opposite side of the portal, and then it was back to the wrench and screwdriver. Other times he would need to squeeze into seemingly impossible spaces, but he always managed to fit, though often with a great deal of pain. He didn’t mind. He’d built up quite the pain tolerance in the other dimensions, and besides that, it provided him a nice distraction from his own thoughts.

It was his shoulder that finally forced him to stop. While hauling a particularly large piece of the outer frame, the pain suddenly flared up. Ford dropped the steel plate in shock, and almost didn’t jump back in time to avoid crushing his feet. He bit his tongue so hard it bled, but didn’t scream. He had long since taught himself never to scream. He gripped his shoulder tightly, clenching the scratchy fabric of his turtleneck so hard his knuckles were white. But the pain wasn’t subsiding. When it acted up, sometimes it was like that. A pain that was simultaneously burning and throbbing which lingered for hours. Ford lowered himself to a sitting position on the floor, taking deep, shaky breaths. He pulled his shirt over his head, dimly noticing that it was drenched with sweat. Hesitantly, he looked at his shoulder.

It was one of the first major injuries Ford had sustained in the multiverse, and still his biggest scar. The dimension in which he found himself was in the middle of a brutal war, and as he explored the ruins of an exploded building, his shoulder had gotten wet. He thought it had been water at first - odorless, colorless, roughly the same viscosity - but it had actually been the flammable secretions of an undetonated bomb. Extremely flammable. That and an errant spark from some exposed wires was all it took. He was on fire for seconds but it felt like years, and even after all this time he couldn’t quite get used to the smell of roasted meat.

Ford still wasn’t sure how he had survived with such a large third-degree burn. It hadn’t hurt at first, but when the skin and muscle began to grow back it was excruciatingly painful. It had come back darker, leathery, mostly scar tissue. For months, he’d had to make do with one functional arm, and it was years before he had something resembling a complete range of motion again, though there were still angles he was sure he couldn’t reach. Over time he had learned to ignore to near-constant itching, but now he couldn’t help but scratch it. It was enough to distract him from the pain for a time, at least.

Of course, the pain didn’t go away that easily. Ford had a feeling he would be dealing with it all night. He stood up with a grunt and pulled his shirt back on. This was as good a reason as any to stop working. As he shuffled towards the elevator, he glanced at the clock. 3:26 A.M. Stanley was probably asleep by now, so at least he wouldn’t have to deal with that. He would shower, see what Stan had in the way of pain medicine, and go to sleep - or try to, anyway. Tonight might be better. Physical exhaustion usually helped keep the nightmares at bay. The elevator rumbled loudly as it ascended. Ford desperately hoped it wouldn’t wake Stan.

Chapter Text

Stan couldn’t shake the feeling that he should have expected this. He kept trying to tell himself otherwise - Ford hardly talked to him; how was he supposed to know what went on inside his head? - but it didn’t really make him feel any less guilty. Whatever was on the other side of the portal obviously wasn’t pretty. A glimpse was enough to drive Old Man McGucket insane, and Ford had lived there for 30 years. Stan had thought Ford was being so distant out of spite, and maybe that was true too; it wasn’t like they had even tried to reconcile since Ford’s return. Stan had merely been relieved when, shortly before the twins left, Ford had mentioned he could stay. He hadn’t wanted to press the issue, especially not with the kids around. He thought that this, at least, was progress. They’d figure out the rest later.

But even now, a month after their greatest adversary had been defeated, Ford hadn’t changed much. If anything, without Dipper or Mabel to pester him, he seemed to have become more reclusive. He only ever seemed to work and eat; Stan wasn’t even sure if he slept at all. He’d woken up before Ford once in four weeks, and when he’d glanced in Ford’s room it looked more like his brother had passed out on the couch rather than gone to bed. Ford spent the vast majority of his time in the basement, only occasionally going out to work in the forest, though he was always sure to leave early and return late so he wouldn’t run into anyone. “Too many questions,” he’d said, as though that explained everything. At first, Stan had been willing to chalk all of it up to the pressing nature of Ford’s work; even though he’d managed to reconstruct the portal, Stan still only understood about a quarter of what his brother actually did. And if Ford thought his work was important enough to require all of his time, then Stan wasn’t really in a position to argue.
Everything changed when Stan noticed the gun. That had been just two days ago, but now that he thought back on it, he couldn’t be sure how long Ford had been carrying it. He had to admit, Ford was good at concealing his weapon. A normal person definitely wouldn’t have noticed it, but over his homeless years, being able to spot a gun had saved Stan’s life more times than he was comfortable admitting.

He was angry at first, of course, and had half a mind to barge into the basement and give Ford a piece of his mind about not telling him - if there was a reason he should be armed in his own house, he sure as hell wanted to know about it. Not that he could: Ford had changed the code to the vending machine elevator almost immediately upon his return. So Stan had had some time to think it over, and he knew that shouting at Ford wasn’t likely to get him anywhere. The last time they’d fought, he’d spent 30 years trying to make up for it. Besides, he knew how oblivious Ford could be. Maybe he hadn’t thought to mention it. He’d give Ford a chance to explain himself, and they’d work it out. It hadn’t occurred to Stan then that the demons his brother was now fighting might not be the kind he was used to.

Stan would be lying if he said he knew what to do now. He’d been sitting in the living room for 8 hours now, thinking about what he should say to Ford when he finally came back up, but nothing seemed right. Around midnight he’d begun to doubt himself, wondering if he should just give up and go to bed. But a feeling in his gut kept insisting that saying something was better than saying nothing, and so he stayed up, trying and failing to find the right words.

Stan felt his eyelids getting heavy. Anything worth watching on TV had ended an hour ago, and now it was only hokey infomercials and static. Without the adrenaline of a life-or-death situation coursing through him, he was rapidly losing the will to stay awake. He didn’t want to go upstairs without talking to Ford again, but he really didn’t want to fall asleep in the armchair; his back would be killing him in the morning, and dammit he was getting too old for this. 10 minutes, he told himself, 10 minutes and I’ll go upstairs. He sat up and rubbed his eyes, trying to focus on an advertisement for a hair growth formula for men. It was then that he heard the sound of the vending machine sliding across the floor.