Actions

Work Header

Ad Astra

Chapter Text

Dimension ??, Day ??, Year ??

“Today, I am grateful for the sun in the sky.”

“This sun can burn the flesh off your bones.”

I am grateful for the sun in the sky.

Ford chuckled softly at his niece, who was perched on a rock, cross-legged and illuminated by the smothered embers of their campfire. Stars, completely different from the arrangement he grew up with, checkered the sky and their light filtered through the hard glass-like material that created the cave they were camped in. The light warped until there were millions of stars that weren’t in the sky dotting the inside of the cave.

“I am grateful for the sun in the sky,” Ford said, repeating his niece with amusement.

She grinned, her braces-less teeth glinting with the filtered light of stars. “I am grateful for the moose thing we ate.”

“If we’re drawing comparisons, I think it was closer to an elk…”

“I am grateful for the elk thing we ate.”

Ford smiled. “I am grateful for the elk thing we ate.” The meat they didn’t eat dried nicely in the burning sunlight. It would last them two more days if they didn’t find anything else. He was grateful for that.

Mabel waved her arms at her sides, gesturing to the world. Her loose sweater sleeve rode up and flashed the edge of the tattoo on her bicep. “I am grateful for the beautiful view outside!”

Ford glanced at the mouth of their cave. In the starlight, he could see the silhouette of the vast alien world they were in, with massive trees the size of skyscrapers and leaves the size of buses. Their cave sat on a cliff that looked down at this forest, and though they couldn’t see it anymore, colors beyond comprehension speckled the surfaces of the leaves and the iridescent insects that lounged on them.

“I am grateful for the beautiful view outside,” Ford said.

“And!” Mabel stood up from her rock with a yawn, walking around the campfire and flopping unceremoniously next to Ford. “I am grateful for my Grunkle Ford!”

She always ended her little gratitude sessions like that. Ford pet her hair, slowly working his fingers through the knots and tangles leftover from taking down her braids. He would redo them in the morning. She knew how to do it herself, but she liked it when he did it for her. “I am grateful for my grandniece, Mabel,” he said quietly, and that was the end of their evening ritual.

Mabel had been the one to start it when they first found each other. It was a self-soothing mechanism, something to do to cope with the reality of their situation when Ford was utterly useless at tending to a child’s emotional well-being, and she insisted he join her. He maintained that he did it because it helped her, but if he were being completely honest, he felt significantly calmer in general after they started doing it regularly.

He worked through most of her tangles with his fingers. She giggled, murmuring, “It’s a whole finger more tickly.” He shook his head, smiling despite himself, and patted her back. He didn’t deserve her.

“Alright, Mabel. Time to sleep. I’ll keep first watch.”

One yawn, then a nod from the girl told him she was ready to sleep. She didn’t move from her spot next to him before her breathing evened out. She had gotten significantly better at falling asleep in uncomfortable places.

He turned his attention to the mouth of their cave. He didn’t expect anything to come for them, since it seemed the first half of this world’s ‘nighttime’ was used to scour the forests for carrion and beasts that died from exposure during the day. The leaves would provide protection from the sun, but there were always a few unlucky animals that didn’t move when the wind blew or trusted a cloud a little too much. Predators would be in the forest, hunting scavengers, and Ford and Mabel would be able to sleep.

This gave them fourteen hours before the second half of the night came, and certain beasts would come to the glass caves. By then, they should already be moving towards their only break in the vast expanse of forest, a glimmering purple ocean just off the horizon.

Ford’s cheap detector, always tucked in his belt, indicated there was a lot of energy in the direction of that ocean. Lots of energy usually meant there was the chance of a portal forming, and while this place was pretty breathtaking, he didn’t want to stay there for long.

He could study the area on their way. He used to stay in places like these for extended periods of time so he could research, but he had a child to look after now. She was a child more than capable of taking care of herself at this point, but he still didn’t want to put her in extra danger. The risk of death or injury was too great, and the risk of Bill’s agents reaching them across space were greater.

God help him, but his niece was more important than anything now.  

---

Bill’s Realm, July 24, 2012

One day, portals that had been closed opened and he got a sparkly preteen thrown at him.

Ford could feel the electricity tingling in his skin for days, getting stronger and stronger as time went on, making his hair stand on end and his teeth grind. It felt like the air around a forming portal, smelling of sulfur and ozone, but it followed him no matter where he went, and he’d never heard of a moving portal.

When a portal opened up under his feet in the middle of the night and dragged him in, he realized that was exactly what it was: a moving portal. He was the weak spot in the dimension.

And he was dragged straight into Bill Cipher’s realm. It was a horrible place, just beyond the edge of human comprehension that every moment he spent there threatened to tear his mind apart. Two dimensional, up is down, left is right, trees are made of bones and the flying eyes are always watching. The portal had dragged him right to the spot that he had entered thirty years ago from his own world. A new portal was opening. This one would lead to Earth.

Bill and his agents would find him. They would feel the portal. They couldn’t be allowed into Earth. He loaded his gun and waited for them, praying for the portal to abruptly short out and hoping it wouldn’t at the same time.

Faceless beasts were coming, slobbering and gnashing without mouths or teeth, every one of their sharp lines curling away from each other and never touching at the corners, and he shot at them, shooting and shooting as some of them died and some of them wobbled like jelly and some of them were never there in the first place.

The portal sparked. Its heat frosted him. It was getting close to opening. It coughed and sputtered lightning, and the beasts lashed at him with wild sharps and bashes, peeling his mind back further and further as his too-human brain tried to force sense into senseless forms and show him what wasn’t there.

Screams zapped from the portal like colors, and he could taste the sound of children’s fear.

Dipper!” English, shuddering out and in like a diseased lung, the word itself throwing images into the sky-ground of pine forests, filling his nose that wasn’t there anymore with pine needles and and making the skin of the beasts ripple and yowl.

Sparks and color streaked from the portal.

Mab—” The portal exploded, collapsed, but not before a burst of glitter flew into the world. Both Ford and the beasts reeled back, the colors too vivid and the light too bright, smelling like optimism and want, it was bleeding over the world and infecting it with stars. It hurt Ford’s mind, it made him want to scratch his eyes out all the way to the optical nerve, and if it hurt him that much then it must be agony for the beasts.

“Where am I? Where am I?” The glimmering star’s presence was bursting out with no restraint, its fear and confusion piercing Ford’s tongue until his mouth filled with blood, and it wouldn’t be long before Bill felt the star’s presence.

The portal was gone, he was relieved without being relieved, and while the beasts thrashed he dared to touch the star, its brilliance cutting and threatening to burn through his skin and clothes, but he held it tightly and ran.

A star’s cry of confusion painted the ground-sky, peppering the breathing landscape with flashing lights and streaks of color, and he feared it would leave so much of itself spread across the landscape that there would be nothing to run away with.

The world shook as Ford pawed at his energy reader, but he could see its buzzing without taking it from his belt. A great gold eye like the sun opened in the sky ground. “Hey! Long time, no see!

“Is that Bill?” The star said, its light and heat and color flaring as scraps of form and splinters of landscape wobbled around them. The star had so much light he thought he would burn by touching it. “Leave us alone, you pointy demon!”

Edges burst from the light and pierced the all-knowing eye, and the world trembled with the Cipher’s scream. Ford held the star tightly even as its edges cut and burned him and he decided he liked it even if it hurt.

Beasts were coming, galloping, stained in sparkle and light, but Ford knew this world even if no one could know it. The collapse of the portal to Earth would trigger the opening of another portal, and the world tasted like ozone as he ducked between bone trees and brittle plants made of nails. The star left a trail of light where they walked, so he couldn’t hope to lose the beasts.

The air crackled. Another portal was opening.

He had no time to check if it was safe. He tucked the star against his chest, letting it burn and burrow all the way to his beating heart, and jumped into another world.

A star became one with him, and there was a rush of brilliant light that clutched his heart and threatened to stop it completely, but he couldn’t care because the universe was laid out before him and the light was beautiful.

The universe abruptly tore them apart and spat them into another dimension, trembling and cold on a cloud of fiberglass insulation.

It was like all his organs had been torn out and put back wrong. He wanted the light back, wanted to see more of what it could show him, but his heart was back in the dark.

Sense filtered back into the world. Physics sense, body sense, third dimension sense. He wasn’t burned and choked by light, but his palms were burnt and his clothes smoked. Ford wasn’t lying next to a star bleeding light everywhere: he was sitting next to a little girl, a human girl, trying to sit up even though her long hair has gotten tangled in fiberglass. Immediately, he could see she wasn’t meant for interdimensional travel—she had nothing on her but a headband and a sweater.

They were sitting on a giant pink cloud puffed up like cotton candy, but the whole thing was made of fiberglass. Ford remembered this world. The sky was in a seemingly perpetual sunset with bright reds and pinks, and the clouds that floated around them looked like they were cut from a child’s dream. But the clouds would cause terrible rashes, the smell of fresh sawdust lingered on everything somehow, and there was absolutely nothing here except clouds, the void below, and skin problems waiting to happen.

“Don’t move.” The scarf over his mouth muffled his voice, but she seemed to understand well enough because she stopped squirming. She stared at him suspiciously, and he could hardly blame her. Outside of Bill’s dimension, where it was hard to keep track of form, he would look frightening to an average human, all in black with goggles and protective gear. “You’re not dressed for this world. It will be faster if I just carry you. We need to get away as fast as possible.”

The girl—and her humanity, complete with baby fat and chapped lips and smudged nail polish, seemed so underwhelming after witnessing the burn and edges of her presence in Bill’s world—grinned at him, flashing a mouth full of metal. “Well, I’m never saying no to a piggy back ride.”

It only took him a moment to shift his bags and kneel down for her to climb onto his back. Already, he could see her hands and arms becoming red with rash when she hooked them on his shoulders.

“We’re running from Bill, right?” she asked as he started walking. They had already wasted enough time; Bill’s agents would be coming through the portal as soon as they could.

“Exactly.” A ball of dread hardened in his stomach to hear her say the name. The girl hid her face in his hair as they reached the end of the fiberglass cloud. They were so high in the sky that they could look over the edge and see stars, but he knew from experience there was nothing worth finding downward. Nonetheless, the stars hung there, too dim for glory but too bright to be ignored. The world was trapped in twilight.

There were more clouds to walk on, but it would take jumping. “How do you know him?”

“Long story,” the girl mumbled into the back of his neck. Familiar smells clung to her sweater. Earth grass, dirt, maple syrup, gasoline, something else that begged for his attention but he couldn’t name it. His eyes stung from decades-old nostalgia. “He possessed my brother once. I got him out with tickles.”

“Tickling works? I should remember that.” It would be a little pathetic if he went through all the trouble of putting a metal plate in his head and it turned out tickles were all he needed to get rid of Cipher.

At the edge of the fiberglass cloud, Ford judged the distance to the next one carefully in his head. “Hold tightly.”

“I’m not gonna like this.” She tensed up, but she was holding onto him so he took the leap.

The girl squeaked in his ear, shaking against his back as the void of stars stretched under them, but then he hit the glass on the other side, keeping his pace at a trot. “You don’t have to be afraid. I’ve done this before.”

“I trust you,” she said earnestly, so earnestly that it caught him off guard. How could she witness Cipher’s influence and ever trust anyone so easily again? “I just don’t like heights. Also a long story about video games coming to life and trying to get my grunkle over his fear of heights.”

“You have a lot of long stories. I’d love to hear them once we’re safe.” She was from Gravity Falls. She had to be. That was where his portal was, after all. (Why was it still around for a child to play with? Why hadn’t Stan or Fiddleford dismantled it?)

She nodded against his neck, and he turned his focus on jumping from cloud to cloud and getting as far away from the portal to Bill’s realm as possible. The wind in this world was deceptively gentle. Even the slightest breeze moved the clouds into new pathways. Excellent for losing tails, but difficult if one is trying to find their way.

Luckily, portals popped up in this world like kettle corn, blinking in and out as electrical surges traveled through the clouds. A brilliant blue portal flickered into existence on one of their clouds, and as the girl on his back gasped softly at the images came into view—dark water, full of bobbing lights with flickers of wide eyes illuminated in the dark—Ford reached into his pocket and took out a pebble, throwing it into the portal and straining his ears.

After a moment, he heard the clack clack clack of the stone skidding across a solid surface.

“Brace yourself,” he said before he dove into the portal.

This dimension shift was less violent than the last. There was no sense of fatal, burning unity, just of closeness. Their physical forms were inconsequential to their presences, which blurred together until he wasn’t sure who he was anymore. Was this how dimension jumping felt with a partner? He’d never tried it before.

The girl was light and color all around him, and she could hear her laugh in his head. This feels funny.

Light and color bled everywhere, but he didn’t dare reach for it, not knowing what would happen if he did.

They slammed against a solid surface and the light was snatched away again, all wrapped up in the little girl next to him. All light was gone, in fact, except for the bobbing glows all around them.

“Are you okay?” the girl asked, her voice echoing in the dark. She rolled off his back when he tapped her foot, and he sat up to dig through his pockets.

“Fine. We just need…” He pulled a glowstick from his pocket and snapped it. The light shined and flickered like a campfire, showing them the world.

They were in a small bubble on the stone ground that seemed to be connected to many tunnels leading to more small bubbles. Above, there was no sign of the surface, if there even was any—just inky blackness and swimming bright spots. He couldn’t see anything keeping the water from filling the bubbles up, but they stayed perfectly formed and full of breathable air. In the glowstick’s light, he could see the creatures with illuminated bobs—and their massive teeth before they quickly swam away.

“Where are we?” the girl asked.

“Somewhere far enough away from Bill that we’ve given ourselves room to breathe.” Ford sat down on the rocky floor, dropping the glowstick between them. The girl was sitting with her legs splayed, her hands and arms and back of her neck red and swollen as she started to scratch. “Don’t touch the rash.”

She pouted at him. “It’s so itchy, though!”

“This will take care of it.” He pawed through his bag before pulling out a jar of ointment. “A little goes a long way. Put some wherever you’re red.”

“Oooh. Thanks.” She flashed him another metal smile before opening up the jar and dabbing ointment on. Ford took some for himself to smooth over the burns on his palms left from grabbing the girl in Bill’s world (or should he call what he had held a shooting star?).

The silence didn’t last long. “Sooooo… what’s your name?” the girl said, squinting at him.

“Oh. Right.” Ford cleared his throat, suddenly feeling warm under all his gear. “Sorry. I haven’t spoken to another human in…” How long? He couldn’t count human years anymore so far from home. “A really long time. You can call me Ford.”

“Nice to meet you.” Another smile. “I’m Mabel.” She dabbed some of the ointment on her jaw, and he only just noticed the redness there too. How did the fiberglass get there? “Now that we got that out of the way…” she flung her arms out, “what the heck was all that?” She paused a beat and her hands dropped. “And do you mind checking if my back is rashy too? It’s feeling itchy.”

“That was dimension jumping. I don’t know how you got to Bill’s realm, but you’re lucky that the force of our dimension pulled me to the portal’s location, or something terrible could have happened.” He held up a finger and twirled it to get her to turn around, but she didn’t. Her smile disappeared, her eyes narrowing in a squint as one hand went to her greased chin.

“You have six fingers.”

Ford stared at her for a moment.

“Yes. I do.”

She kept squinting at him. “My twin brother has been looking for someone with six fingers.” Her squinting was interrupted by a little laugh. “This isn’t a Princess Bride reference.”

“What’s Princess Bride?”

She ignored him and pressed her hand against his, her hand tiny and soft in comparison. He winced, but he didn’t pull away and neither did she. He hadn’t touched another human’s hand since before he was pushed into another world. It felt wrong and weird, but he didn’t want to stop it.

“Yep, definitely six fingers,” she said with a tone of profundity that rattled a dry chuckle from his chest.

“I’m glad you can count.” He reached up with his free hand and pulled off his goggles and scarf, letting them fall on the ground and giving his neck and face a nice reprieve from the heat. “I doubt I’m the one your brother is looking for. I haven’t been to our world for—”

One look at his face from the girl. Suddenly, she was reeling back, snatching her hand away from his. His fingers curled over the absence of her palm and she was crawling away, her smile gone, her eyes sharp. “Who are you?”

“I…” He sputtered, pulling his hand away from empty air. “I just told you. I’m Ford.”

“That’s not true! You have my grunkle’s face!” She pulled out a grappling hook (where had she been keeping that?) and pointed it at him, stumbling to her feet. “Are you a shapeshifter? Because I already dealt with one and I can deal with another!”

“Now, now, just calm down…” Ford held up his hands. “There’s no need for that. Just think. If I were a shapeshifter, why would I give myself six fingers and draw attention rather than just having five fingers like everyone else?”

The grappling hook was still aimed at his face, but the edge in her gaze began to dull a little. “Why do you look like my Grunkle Stan?”

Stan.

The name made all his muscles lock up like he was attached to strings. The girl jerked her grappling hook and he immediately clenched and unclenched his hands, trying to work the tension out of his body. “How do you know Stanley Pines?”

Wrinkles appeared on her nose. “His name isn’t Stanley. It’s Stanford.” She furrowed her brow. “At least I think it is.”

“You’re kidding.” Stanford wanted very much to punch something. Preferably his useless brother. He had a sinking suspicion he knew exactly how a defenseless child ended up in his portal. He tried to keep his anger from his face, but the girl was getting more tense, so he wasn’t doing too good of a job. “He took my name. Why am I surprised?”

The girl was staring at him. Her grappling hook shook in her hands. Her skin was still red and swollen from fiberglass. He was forced back decades ago, when he was also scared in a new dimension for the first time. He had been a grown man with some context for what he was experiencing, but she was a girl who hadn’t even hit adolescence yet.

Grunkle. She had called Stanley her ‘grunkle.’

He forced his shoulders to loosen and his brow to smooth out. When he spoke, he made himself speak softly. “What does ‘grunkle’ mean?”

Her hands shook on the grip of the grappling hook. He could only see the shadows of her fingers in the glowstick’s light. “Great uncle. He’s my grandpa Shermy’s brother.”

Ford tried to swallow, but his mouth was suddenly too dry. A niece. He had a grandniece, and she was colorful and brave and stabbed Bill in the eye and points grappling guns at strange men she doesn’t trust. She was perfect, in short.

And she had a brother! He had a grandnephew too! For the first time in years, he didn’t think of all the places on Earth he missed—he thought about the people and the lives that went on without him instead.

“Stanley Pines is my twin brother. I’m Stanford.” This time, he didn’t need force his voice to be soft. Maybe it was a trick of the light, but he thought he could maybe see the resemblance now. She had the same thick brown hair and wide dark eyes as all the other Pines. “That means I’m your great uncle too.”

She was slowly lowering the grappling hook. He smiled at her, and it hurt his cheeks, but it was a good hurt.

“Would you like to start over?” Ford held out one hand to her. “Greetings. I’m Stanford Pines.”

Mabel hesitated a moment longer, eyeing the hand, but with trust that Ford only had when he was her age, she let the grappling hook fall limp at her side before she took his hand. His hand was big enough for his fingers to wrap hers up completely. “I’m Mabel Pines, and I have a new grunkle. One I’ve never heard of before. Why is that?”

He patted the ground, inviting her to sit next to him, which she did without question. The company of someone else, of his own niece no less, excited him more than he really wanted to acknowledge. He wanted to push aside her questions and just ask all of his own, ask her about her and her brother, their lives, their parents, and their grandfather. (And Stan? No, he pushed that thought aside.) He wanted to learn all about the things he missed and the people far away who were still his family, even if they had no idea who he was.

But there would be time for that. Right now, there were more immediate concerns. “My brother, Stanley, was estranged from the family before Shermy was old enough to remember him. We didn’t talk about him after that, so it makes sense he wouldn’t talk to his children or grandchildren about him either. Stanley must have stolen my identity when I went through the portal.” Which pissed him off to no end, but he did his best to keep a lid on that. What was important was that he now had the privilege to talk to his niece.

Her face fell as she pulled at her shirt. “Why was Grunkle Stan estranged? What could he do that you wouldn’t talk to him anymore?”

That story stung, but not as much as it used to. After his hair became gray and he had spent a few decades hopping through worlds, it seemed foolish to hold grudges about what college he could have gone to. A degree from West Coast wouldn’t do much more for him in Bill’s realm than a degree from Backupsmore did. No, what he really held a grudge for was pushing him through a portal, but that wasn’t something he needed to focus on at the moment.

“It’s a long story.” Ford gave Mabel a gentle nudge on the shoulder when she started to pout. “I’m more interested to hear how you got here. It’s not exactly as easy as buying a bus ticket.”

“Ugh.” She groaned and flopped against Ford’s side. He flinched, and suddenly he wasn’t sure what to do with his hands. Should he keep them on the ground or put one on her shoulder or her head or what? It had been a while since he’d dealt with humans in general, and even longer since he’d dealt with children. Ignoring his awkwardness, she ploughed forward. “It was an accident. Stan got arrested, and my brother and I found the portal in his basement, and we were going to turn it off because it could destroy the world, but then Grunkle Stan came in and said he needed it on, then everyone was floating and I was the only one who could reach the button anymore. My brother wanted me to shut the portal down, but Grunkle Stan was telling me not to, and I decided to trust Grunkle Stan, but then Dipper—that’s my twin—went to close the portal himself, but he accidentally knocked me when he grabbed at the button, and then I fell in. And he couldn’t stop it from closing.”

She looked up at him, her persistent spirit finally wilting in their dimly lit bubble under an ocean. “How long do you think it will take them to open it again?”

Any joy he felt at getting to meet her fell like lead in his gut. He was getting to finally see a tiny part of his family, but now they were both stuck. The reality of their situation took the moment to punch him in the face.

How was he going to tell her that she was never going back?

And… shit, what was he going to do with her?

“Mabel…” She must have heard the truth in his voice. She started to shake her head, but he forced himself to continue anyway. “Opening that portal enough to bring us back to Earth threatens our whole universe. It would tear a hole in our reality that Bill could use to enter and take over. That kind of power, even if you didn’t let the portal open all the way, would have destroyed most of the portal’s machinery.”

The glowstick and bobbing lights in the water reflected the glassiness coming to her eyes. Ford’s heart ached. He remembered the same feelings she was going through. “We’re not going back home.”

“No.” Her voice trembled. She twisted her hands in her sweater. “Dipper and Grunkle Stan will figure something out. Grunkle Stan got the portal working once! I bet he could do it again!”

Fire crackled in Ford’s gut in a way only Stanley Pines could inspire. “He shouldn’t have opened it this time!” The girl winced at his snapping, but he couldn’t stop himself, all the day’s fuming at his brother spilling out. “I warned him. I wrote it all in my journals—” that caused another wince and owlish blinks, but not of fear, not that he was paying attention “—and told him that it needed to be dismantled, but he couldn’t listen, could he? And now look what he’s done.”

He’d damned not one, but two family members to hopping dimensions for the rest of their lives. If Stanley were there, Stanford would give him some sarcastic applause and a punch in the jaw. What, his twin wasn’t enough, so he had to toss in their niece? Maybe he thought Ford would like some company after a few decades. Hell, with a track record like this, maybe Stan will open up the portal again just to throw in their grandnephew for free. The whole Pines family could get dumped in Bill’s realm and experience the joy of complete banishment from home.

“Stanley was a fool to toy with the portal, and we can only hope for the world’s sake that he’s learned his lesson. What possessed him to do it this time, I’ll never know.”

“You’re here, aren’t you?”

He looked down at his niece and immediately felt guilty. Her eyes were starting to overflow. His fingers twitched on the ground, but he didn’t know what to do with them. “What do you mean?”

“You’re here. You’re his twin, but you’re trapped here.” She moved to wipe her eyes with the reddened heel of her hand, but he grabbed her wrist just before she could. The last thing either of them needed was for her to get fiberglass in her eye. Instead, he wiped the tears away with his own thumb, and that seemed to soothe her. “He said that everything he worked for was for the family. He wanted to save you.” She leaned her head against his side again, her voice getting quieter. “If Dipper was the one who went into the portal, I’d do anything to save him too.”

Her tears dampened his anger more than her words, but he would be lying if he said the words had no effect. There once was a time when the idea of Stanley foregoing all sense to help him would have been obvious. Stanley was reckless at the best of times, but especially for the people he cared about. Now that the girl had said it, it seemed obvious again. Why else would Stanley bother with the portal? He wasn’t interested in the science behind it, and it would probably be worth more as scrap without Stanford or Fiddleford around to operate it. The only reason he’d slog through the copious amounts of reading and steps to even turn it on would be to undo his past mistakes.

Ford wondered when that had stopped being obvious to him.

“I know that Dipper won’t give up on me, and I know that Grunkle Stan won’t give up on either of us. I know we’ll go home.”

Even if his heart wanted it, his brain prayed that she was wrong. He didn’t say so, though. He just sighed softly. “Do you still want me to look at your back?”

“Oh, right.” She turned around and pulled the back of her sweater and shirt up, and when he found a large rash spread across her spine, he started to dab ointment on it.

He wanted to ask questions, but his tongue was too heavy. Instead of talking, he was thinking. Maybe Stanley’s intentions were pure, and maybe it wasn’t completely his fault that their niece was sent into the portal, but that didn’t change the fact that Mabel was here now and Ford had no idea what to do. He barely survived day to day, and he was a grown man. He didn’t know if he could protect her from all the things he had to face.

But protecting her was his only option. Even if she weren’t his niece, he wouldn’t be able to live with himself if he just ditched a little girl to die. Even the more hospitable worlds out there wouldn’t be safe for long; Bill had to be looking for them both now.

“Sooo… you’re the author of the journals?” Mabel said, breaking his spiraling train of thought.

“You’ve read my journals?” He hadn’t thought about the three journals he left behind in a long time. For some reason, despite the dangers between all those pages, he liked the idea of a niece or nephew of his finding them if anyone had to. Maybe it was just a way he could impart some of his legacy to the next generation of Pines, even if they didn’t remember him.

“Yeah, Dipper found number three in the woods, and we had all these crazy adventures because he really wanted to find out who wrote them.” She pulled a lock of hair over her shoulder and started running her fingers through it as he worked on her back. “He’ll be really happy to meet you. He’s a big nerd.”

Ford bit his tongue before he could say I wish I could meet him. Not only was it wrong—or it should be, it really should be, because he knew what would have to happen for him to meet his grandnephew—but it would do nothing more than upset her. He patted her shoulder to let her know he was done fixing her back and started digging through his bag for food. She let her shirt drop back to her hips, but she pulled her sweater off completely.

“Tell me about you both. I’m sorry I couldn’t be a bigger part of your lives until now, but…” He gestured to the bobbing lights and glimmers of teeth swimming above them before pulling out a bag of alien seeds.

“Understandable.” Mabel immediately started popping seeds in her mouth. It took her a moment (and minor choking) to realize she was supposed to de-shell them first. “Weeeeell… Dipper and I are from California.”

Ford listened closely as she talked about their lives. Piedmont, California, not too far from a lake. It didn’t sound like Stanley visited them much, but he was a part of their lives. Stanford smothered a flash of jealousy. Dipper was bright with academics and Mabel was vibrant in art and her social life. They were good kids, smart kids, and he listened about their lives until Mabel began to wind down and yawn.

“You should sleep. It’s been a long day.” He pulled a soft ball from his bag and tossed it at her, which she caught easily between her fingers. “Eat that. It cleans your teeth and supplements for the nutrients the seeds won’t give you.”

As he put the seeds away in his bag, Mabel popped the ball in her mouth. He heard it burst and she immediately gagged. “It also tastes disgusting,” Ford said before quickly swallowing one of his own.

“Ewwww it tastes like moldy sticks,” she said, smacking her mouth as her eyes watered.

“That’s a very specific analogy.”

Even in the dimming glowstick light, he could see her face flush. “…I didn’t try eating sticks once.”

He smiled before resting his arms on his knees. “Go to sleep.”

“Are you sleeping too?”

Soft lights reflecting off the silhouettes of teeth bobbed all around their bubble of air. “I’m going to stay awake a little longer. I’ll sleep soon enough.” He wondered if perhaps he should set up a watch now that there were two of them, but he didn’t have the heart to force her to stay awake while he slept. She was small and exhausted, and he’d survived by sleeping lightly so far.

All he got from her was a squint. “…Okay.” She bunched her sweater up as a pillow as she curled up on the ground. “Just remember that you should rest up for all the super cool adventures we’ll have tomorrow! Dipper will be so jealous when I tell him about it later.”

Gentle corrections stuck in his throat, but he swallowed them. She’d work through the knowledge that she was not likely to see her brother ever again on her own. She didn’t need to accept the reality of their situation right now. “I’ll remember.”

“Okay. Good.” She shut her eyes. “Good.”

The glowstick wasn’t going to last forever, but it gave him time to take out a journal and start to write down the day’s events. He wrote as much as he remembered about the worlds he visited—he had already been in Bill’s Realm many years ago, and he had been in the cloud world as well, but this underwater bubble was new.

He indulged himself and, among his pictures of the glowing bubble, he drew his sleeping niece, curled up around a pink sweater. A part of him was afraid of her dissipating like smoke. It was almost too amazing to be believed, to be dragged to Bill’s realm and come out with something as precious and terrifying as a little girl. The pleasure he felt at having her was nothing short of selfish. She should have stayed on Earth with their family.

After he finished his recounting of the day, he put his journal in the watertight holding pouch within his bag (bigger on the inside; he’d lost track of how many books were in there) and tried to sleep with all the lights staring down at him from above.

---

Earth, July 24th, 2012

The portal sputtered out of existence and crashed to the earth. Gravity smacked the failsafe button against Dipper’s jaw, but he didn’t feel the bruise bloom on his cheek. He saw the empty portal. He saw the broken machinery scattered on the ground.

He saw no Mabel.

“No. No no no no—” He stumbled to the portal, his knees weak from new gravity, and he scrambled into the massive hole in the middle of the inverted triangle, checking over it, searching for a sign of pink or braces or anything. “Mabel? Mabel!”

There was nothing. No sweaters, no squealing, no teasing, nothing. Dipper jumped down from the circle, his knees buckling as he hit the ground and scattered scrap biting into his shins. He staggered to the lever and shoved it.

It wouldn’t move.

It wouldn’t move.

He threw himself at it, covering his ears to block out a horrible noise that started bouncing off the walls, but it just made the noise louder. The lever refused to budge, the noise got louder and louder, and he slowly realized he was the one making it and the lever wasn’t going to move, the portal was broken and Mabel was gone.

There wasn’t any air. His chest was going to explode. Dipper fell back from the lever, struggling to breathe, but his lungs couldn’t inflate. This wasn’t happening. This couldn’t be happening. It was like being ripped from his body all over again, flailing uselessly, soundlessly as the world went on without him. It was a horrible dream. Mabel would wake him up.

He swung around, scrambling for something, anything, he wasn’t sure what. He just saw Soos and Stan. Soos was standing, staring at him, open-mouthed, eyes bugging out, but Stan hadn’t even stood. He sat where he fell with all the other scrap, looking like someone had unscrewed his head and scooped out everything important from his brain and body and reassembled an empty shell.

Dipper wanted to scream. He was screaming. He threw himself at his shell of an uncle and started scratching, punching, anything to break him open. “Give her back!

“I can’t.” Stan’s voice sounded like broken glass. He didn’t fight. It made Dipper’s screams louder, like he could force Stan to hit him and punch out the breathlessness and the choking and the bad dream. “The portal is broken, kid. They’re both trapped.”

“Both?” Dipper’s voice cracked. “What do you mean both?

“Why do you think I was trying to open that thing in the first place?” Stan didn’t even sound angry. He just stared at the empty portal. “I was trying to save my twin brother.”

“You what?” Dipper’s arms were too heavy to lift, and Stan couldn’t be broken any more than he already was. His arms flopped on his grunkle’s chest. “What brother?”

“Stanford Pines.” The world spun. It was a dream, a terrible dream. It felt like Dipper was floating away from his own body. “The author of the journals. The brainiac of the family. The man who built this thing in the first place!” Stan jerked his hand at the portal, like maybe he would curse it, but he didn’t have energy. He was a sock puppet with no hand and Dipper was floating away. “I pushed him in by accident thirty years ago. I tried to fix it. Thirty years and history just repeated itself. How’s that for irony?”

The Author? Twin? Stanford? It had to be a dream. Dipper couldn’t breathe and he was getting dizzy. He braced himself on Stan’s slumped shoulders. Every word his grunkle said sounded like shards of glass, brittle and sharp and awful.

“You’re…” Questions slid down his throat and dissolved in his gut. If the man he was leaning on wasn’t Stanford Pines, who was he? Why had Stan never shared any of this? Why had Stanford made the portal? The identity of the Author—he’d chased it so hard, and now it tasted like nothing. “What about Mabel?

The look in Stan’s eyes made him want to scream again. It was defeat. Utter defeat. “I worked for thirty years to get that portal working, and it didn’t have nearly this damage before.”

“What are you saying?” Dipper’s voice cracked into a thousand jagged pieces, and Stan winced, like he could draw away and not hear. “What are you saying, Grunkle Stan?”

“I’m saying…” Stan’s voice sounded too heavy. Dipper forced eye contact even if the world was blurring—he realized too late he was crying—and Stan’s face looked like someone had pricked it and let all the air out. “I’m saying it will probably take a lot of time to even try getting her back.”

“She might not have that time!”

He had to get up, he had to look at the journals, he had to fix the portal, he had to bring her back, but all he could do was make that horrible, wretched keening noise. Dipper buried his face in his hands, tearing at his bangs, and squeezed his eyes shut in a desperate bid to just wake up. This isn’t real, he couldn’t have pushed her in, he didn’t mean to, he didn’t mean to— “I didn’t mean to…”

Meaty arms wrapped around him and pulled him against Grunkle Stan’s chest, and he just cried like he hadn’t since he was a baby.

Everything was a blur.

“Dudes, I…”

Dipper couldn’t see anything. The tears were too thick.

“Dudes, there are agents upstairs.”

Dipper didn’t care. A big hand pressed on his hair and it was like being cradled by his father after scraping his knee, but the pain was filling him up until there was nothing left and his soul was floating above it all and nothing was safe.

“I’ll just…” Soos was the only one talking. The only one moving like his pieces still fit together. He skittered around them, searching, muttering, but Dipper didn’t listen. Shifting rubble, dragging metal, unzipped bags, useless things tossed on the floor until a familiar click.

“I got this one, dudes.” Soos had the memory gun now. His footsteps trailed away towards the elevator. “I think.”

Dipper couldn’t bring himself to care.

He was the reason Mabel was gone.

He would be the reason she would come back.

Chapter Text

Earth, July 25th, 2012

Tours were canceled. Soos needed to repair the Shack. Stan was already starting his repairs on the portal. Dipper was out, and no one asked him where he was going.

Wendy biked to work, passing by a cluster of confused tourists with suits and government-issue earpieces packed into the bus stop, arguing with each other about whose idea it was to use valuable vacation time to go to 'some bohunk town.' Wendy sprayed dirt on them as she passed.

When she showed up at ten, her bag slung over her shoulder, the gift shop was in tatters, the windows were all broken, and the vending machine had fallen on its side. This wouldn't be weird if it weren't for the fact that there was a stairwell behind the machine that Wendy had never seen before.

"Uh, Soos? Stan?" Wendy plopped her bag on the cracked cashier desk. Splinters fell away with a whoosh and settled on the floor. "Dipper? Mabel? Anyone?"

Silence. Except for the more-groaning-than-usual of the Shack, of course.

"Do I still get paid if everyone died?"

Familiar clomping came down the hall and Soos, carrying two toolboxes along with a tool belt, stuck his head into the gift shop. "Wendy! You're okay!"

"Hell—" she instinctively glanced around for Dipper or Mabel to make sure they didn't hear her swear, "—yeah, I am. Takes more than some whacko gravity to keep me down. Or up, I guess." Wendy picked her way over fallen postcard stands towards the vending machine, and more importantly, the entrance behind it. "Soooo I didn't know that was here. Did you guys go on some spooky basement adventures while I was gone? I bet the bunker was cooler."

"Wendy…"

The name didn't make her look so much as the way he said it. Soos wasn't supposed to be serious. Something in his face chilled her heart. The last time she saw that face on anyone was when her mom died.

"Wow, you look glum." She forced a laugh, but an anxious flutter had infiltrated her chest and it wasn't leaving. "Who died?"

The way Soos' entire demeanor crumpled turned the anxious flutter into a bomb.

"Oh shit." Wendy covered her mouth. "Soos, tell me no one died."

"I…" Soos trailed off and Wendy's heart thundered in her ears. Was it Stan? One of the kids? Oh, please don't be one of the kids. No one would ever recover if it was one of the kids. "I… I dunno."

"How can you not know if someone is dead, Soos?" Her voice was getting higher, her throat trying to strangle every noise, but she didn't care. She couldn't keep up a cool, uncaring persona in this situation. "Is the body breathing or not?"

"I-I dunno! We lost the body!"

"We WHAT?" Oh, this couldn't be happening. Someone was trapped or possibly dead under the rubble. Why weren't emergency vehicles everywhere trying to dig them out? Why was Soos just standing there? Ooooooh man, oh man, this was way above their paygrade—

"Mabel went through a portal!"

First thought: not Mabel.

Second thought: wait.

The fear and horror festering in Wendy was quickly overshadowed by confusion. "What?"

"Mr. Pines isn't Mr. Pines!" Soos blurted out, doing nothing for the confusion. "Except he is, but he's not the Mr. Pines we thought he was, he's that Mr. Pines' twin brother, who took his identity after they got in a fight and one of them was pushed into the portal in the basement, and Mr. Pines spent thirty years trying to fix it, and—" the diatribe was suddenly cut in half when tears gathered in the corners of his eyes, and Wendy didn't know what to do besides stay frozen "—I was supposed to keep the kids from messing with the vending machine, but we went down anyway, and we saw the portal and Mr. Pines didn't have time to explain anything because we were all scared it was going to break the world and then we were all floating everywhere and Mabel wasn't going to push the button so Dipper went to press it instead and—and he knocked her in. And the portal's broken, dude. We can't turn it on and get her back."

Soos pulled his hat off his head, squeezing it in hands already full of tools. "Also, I think I might've given some government agents brain damage."

The horror was back and gnawing on her rib cage. "Oh man. Oh man oh man oh man." Wendy twisted her fingers in her hair, trying to breathe. "This is—Soos, this is crazy. Long lost twins and portals and Mabel is—dude, we gotta do something." Her head was spinning, but she could grasp the important thing: Mabel was in trouble, and there was hope she was still alive out there.

"Mr. Pines is already fixing the portal, but he said that there was less damage before and it still took him thirty years to finish it." Soos waved his toolboxes and squished around. "He told me to fix up the Shack while he works. Dipper ran off and I don't know where he is."

"He needs time." Wendy rolled up her flannel sleeves. "I'll go downstairs and do some heavy lifting for Stan. Let me know if Dipper shows up."

Soos bobbed his head before she went down the stairs to a… elevator? The door was open, so she just let herself in. It automatically went to the third level underground. What was in the second?

The elevator opened up to show… she wasn't sure. A wreck from a sci fi movie? There was a lot of sciencey junk, but if she gave herself a moment to look at it, she could see what probably had been a portal. There were pieces of twisted metal everywhere, some bits taller than she was and some smaller than her toe. Wires dangled from chunks of casing that was still slumped in some inverted triangle shape by the far wall, and it left her with the impression of guts hanging from a corpse. She took a deep, steadying breath as she saw how much work it was going to take.

Stan was working in his wife beater and boxers, dragging twisted shards of shrapnel into different piles. Well, if the old man was going to keep trucking, then Wendy had no excuse.

"Hey, Stan!" Her boss looked up at her as she strolled in. He looked awful. The bags under his eyes were so big, they'd have to be checked at an airport. "I'm here to carry heavy stuff. Show me what to do."

He was quiet for a hair longer than was normal, but then he let out a low huff. "Hell knows you can't be worse at it than manning the register. Get over here. I'm sorting the scrap into what I can reuse and what I can't. Your dad taught you how to tell the difference, right?"

"You can bet on it."

Maybe this wasn't much, but it was something, and a lot of somethings would eventually build into saving Mabel. Wendy could live with working hard for Mabel.

---

Earth, July 25th, 2012

Dipper hadn't slept the night before. He tossed and turned in his bed for about twenty minutes before he couldn't stand to be in his and Mabel's room anymore and he went to the kitchen instead. He leafed through all three of the journals, searching for something, anything that would help his sister, but there was nothing. It was just pages and pages of unhelpful nonsense, and after hours of going through the books, the ink felt like nothing but poison under his fingers.

Great Uncle Stanford. The author, the six-fingered man, the first twin lost to the portal. So many mysteries were solved, but he couldn't be happy. In every scenario he had considered when he thought about the end of his mysteries, Mabel had been by his side.

Stanford might already be dead, but Mabel still had a chance. He didn't care what universe-destroying powers he was dealing with. He had to save his sister.

That was why, before anyone had a chance to ask him where he was going, he left the Shack with journal number three tucked under his arm. He walked with his head down and a stormy face… all the way to the dump.

"Old Man McGucket! I need to talk to you!"

Dipper stood in the middle of piles of rancid scrap and trash, waiting for the telltale scuttling of bare hands and feet before the man he wanted climbed over someone's discarded bathtub. "Dipper! I'm so glad you're alive! The end of the world is coming!"

The old man was shaking, his eyes darting everywhere behind his broken bottle-green spectacles as he scampered closer. "I think we've been given some time, but we gotta—"

"We got to open the portal again."

McGucket froze midway over a gutted washing machine, one hand up like an animal paw, his eyes so wide all the whites showed. "P-portal?"

"You know what I'm talking about. At least you did, once." Dipper took the journal and held it out to show the cover. McGucket started to retreat on all fours, shaking his head like a cornered rat. "You worked with him on it. Stanford Pines. My great uncle."

"No… no… terrible things…" McGucket's eyes were wild. He scrabbled at the trash around his hands like he was going to burrow into it, smearing rust and mold on his bandages. "I said… no more, didn't know what he was thinking…"

"Did you ever care about him? Were you ever friends?" Dipper advanced on the pathetic bundle of growing panic, trying to fight the tears that wanted to come to his eyes again. "Or were you just lab partners?"

"I…" McGucket's digging at the ground stopped, only for him to start digging at his head, pulling at his beard and what little hair was starting to grow back. "No… my friend, my best friend, didn't know where he was getting those ideas, he didn't—"

"Then why did you abandon him?" The tears were coming now, but he couldn't bring himself to be embarrassed by it. There was no one here to witness it besides a broken man.

"No, no, it wasn't that, he was doing a terrible thing!" McGucket tore patches of hair from his head and slammed his filthy fists down. The pile of trash trembled. "I wasn't going to have none of it, nosiree, not anymore, not—"

"He's been trapped in the portal for thirty years," Dipper shouted, his voice cracking. McGucket stopped abruptly, staring down at his hands, flexing his fingers like he were kneading the air. "You never remembered enough to realize?"

Flex. Flex. Flex. Dipper let out a shuddering breath. "Mabel is in there too now. The portal is broken, but you helped build it. You can help us build it again and save them both!"

Flex. Flex. Flex. The old man didn't look up from his fingers. "They're already dead," McGucket finally said.

"No, she's not!" Dipper slammed his foot down so hard the trash trembled and McGucket flinched away from him, instinctively covering his own face. "Mabel hasn't even been in there for a day yet. If we pull out all the stops, then—"

"I saw what was on the other side of that portal!"

Dipper's voice caught in his throat. McGucket turned to look at him, bearing his rotten teeth. "My head was in there for three seconds 'for I knew! I saw the future, boy! My head ain't nothing but flat glass eyes an' I could see the devil, an' he could see me back." McGucket slammed a fist against his temple, throwing his glasses askew, before he started to rock in place, mumbling, "When gravity falls and earth becomes sky, fear the beast with just one eye, when gravity falls and earth becomes sky, fear the beast with just one eye, when gravity falls…"

The journal fell at Dipper's side. It was too heavy to hold up anymore.

"Mabel is in there, McGucket. I've got to find her."

The mumbles paused for McGucket's eyes to slide to Dipper. The boy's face was wet.

"You'll cause the end of the world." McGucket's voice sounded like rust. "And you might not like what comes from the other side."

Dipper hugged the journal to his chest like it was the only thing that could keep him afloat anymore, but it burned his fingers. He could tear out all the pages and rip them to confetti to blow through the dump. He wanted to. The secrets could be lost under the refuse of the town that devoured his family—but he just kept hugging it, because he wasn't sure if he wouldn't be torn apart with it. "If you're there, I know we'll figure out how to do it safely."

A laugh covered in sharp edges was all McGucket gave. "There ain't nothing that could ever be safe about this." McGucket tucked his head between his knees, his beard trailing on the trash heap. "I shoulda tore that thing down thirty years ago."

Silence. Dipper stared as McGucket started to knead his scalp again. With a deep breath, McGucket pulled his head up again and readjusted his spectacles. "If you're set on opening it, I'll help you. Can't have kids paying for our mistakes. But you listen here—I warned ya."

Dipper's knees wobbled with relief. He bowed his head, pressing his dipper mark to the journal. "Thank you."

"Don't thank me." McGucket dragged himself up his trash heap, navigating holds of twisted metal and dead appliances like a rock climber. He worked with bare feet and hands. Dipper could see the calluses and scars from thirty years of it.

He had yelled at McGucket, but the weight of the journal forced another question. How could Stanford Pines leave his friend like this?

Maybe Stanford was going to help McGucket before he went through the portal. Maybe he wasn't. Dipper's stomach clenched.

"I've been running from this for years and I'm going to bring it back." McGucket paced around a nest of rusty screwdrivers and broken power tools before sitting there, cradling his head in his hands. "Don't know where it went wrong. It went so wrong."

He shook so hard the screwdrivers rattled and jabbed his skin red. It was like Dipper was kicking a dog, making McGucket help. It's for Mabel. You have to do it for Mabel.

"How…" On the cover of the journal, the six-fingered hand glimmered, but the shine looked duller than usual. "I'm sorry."

"Don't you apologize neither!" McGucket snapped at him, sounding much younger for a second, like he might have before his mind broke. Dipper winced, biting his tongue, and McGucket went back to cradling his head.

The only noise was the rustle of vermin moving trash around and the rattle of the screwdrivers jabbing McGucket's skin. The stink stuck to Dipper's clothes and in his nose, but while he could force McGucket to help rebuild his nightmare, he couldn't bring himself to just leave him.

Slowly, the rattling became quieter.

Then it stopped.

"He was my friend. I don't know if he was a good man or a bad man anymore, but he was my friend." McGucket was still cradling his head. Dipper didn't know if the man was talking to him or to himself, but it seemed only right that he listen.

(It's what Mabel would have done.)

"He was proud. He was always too proud, from beginning to end. Pride goes before destruction." Slowly, carefully, McGucket uncovered his head, readjusting his glasses again, gently rubbing grime off with the back of his hand. "He fell in with someone bad. I never knew who, but I knew it was bad. He tampered with something he shouldn't have, an' he wouldn't tell me a thing, not after ten years of friendship."

McGucket pushed himself up to sit. Dipper craned his neck to make eye contact despite the old man sitting high on the trash. McGucket stared down at him, eyes clear, mouth grim. Maybe there was a ghost of a younger man there.

"But I shouldn't 'a run like I did. He was proud, but so was I, and a coward to boot. I mighta been able to do something if I didn't get so caught up in forgetting my own mistakes," he said. Dipper hugged the journal, but it didn't provide him any comfort under the heavy gaze of McGucket. "I made my choices then. I'm making my choice now. Maybe it's a mistake, but it's mine. Don't you apologize for the mistakes I make, Dipper."

Finally, McGucket deflated. He hunched over and lay down in the nest, halfway buried in a blanket of rust. His eyelids drooped like thirty years were settling on them. "You get me copies of the designs. I'll get to seeing what I can come up with."

A 'thank you' rose in Dipper's throat, but he swallowed it down. McGucket wouldn't want it. Instead, he quietly decided that maybe he could bring something nice to eat with him when he brought all the portal designs.

"I'll do that. Sleep well, Mr. McGucket."

Dipper retreated from the dump. McGucket didn't say another word.

---

Dimension ?, July 25th, 2012

Ford woke up to a world illuminated only by bobbing glowing lures above him. He blinked, waiting for his eyes to adjust to the dim light. He could still barely see anything, and not for the first time, he wished he was one of those aliens with special night vision.

His spine popped as he sat up and dug in his pocket for a lighter. Another sign of age. Great.

The lighter flared to life and showed him the giant bubble he was inside. The bubble, and a bundle wrapped around a sweater next to a spent glowstick. For a moment, he squinted at the bundle, then yesterday rushed back.

Okay. He had a small child to take care of now.

…Fuck.

Allowing her to sleep for now, Ford turned his attention to his energy detector to map out where the next portal might be. There was no indication of a civilization they could access here, so it would be best not to linger. Mabel would need… things. What did kids need? She'd need protective gear, a bag of her own, and some clothes. She'd also need to do something with her hair. Maybe she'd need toys? He wasn't sure what kind of kid toys there were out there, but if he remembered anything from being a kid himself, it was that kids need something to distract themselves with when the adults weren't paying attention.

What kind of things did Mabel like? From her stories of her life, she liked her brother, Dipper. She also liked crafts. He could work with that. Probably.

He was so out of his depth.

Once he mapped out his idea of where the next portal would form, he was able to calculate when it would form, which was soon. Much sooner than expected. All he could do was hope that the portal would be within one of the bubble tunnels as he reached over to gently touch his niece's back. "Mabel, time to wake up. We need to go."

The girl mumbled and swatted his hand. It was like being batted by a declawed kitten. He held up his lighter while rocking her gently again. "Come along, Mabel."

She swatted at him again, but this time, she seemed to be aiming at his coat. She giggled as she got the coat to move. The kitten analogy seemed to be making more sense. "Morning, Grunkle Ford." She pushed herself into a sitting position and Ford put his goggles and scarf on. "You ready for super cool adventures?"

"Well, there's definitely going to be adventures," he said as he pulled his bag over his shoulders and Mabel pulled on her sweater. "But there is danger around every corner, Mabel. Make sure that you respect…"

He trailed off because Mabel wasn't looking at him anymore. She was looking up. "Grunkle Ford?" She shrank in on herself. "Is the bubble supposed to be getting… smaller?"

Ford looked up. He could see the fight from his lighter reflecting off of thousands of eyes bearing down from the water above. They were bearing down, the bubble becoming smaller and smaller.

Straining.

"Oh no." Ford grabbed Mabel by the back of her sweater. "Run. Run!"

Ford's strides were long, but Mabel was quick. They sprinted to one of the bubble tunnels just as their main bubble popped and water rushed in.

An entire ocean's worth of water and snapping teeth was behind them. Ford struggled to hold up his lighter as they ran, their only light not attached to something that sounded like it wanted to eat them. The portal. He knew where the portal was and that was their only chance, he wasn't going to let them die—

They were almost at another big bubble when the tunnel burst. Water rushed in. Mabel was too small, she was losing her footing in the current, just a little further to the big bubble—

"Grunk—" A wave swept Mabel into a wall of water and lights. Her sweater tore from Ford's grasp.

"NO!" He plunged his hand in the water, grasping in the dark, his lighter showed a net of floating hair dragging away, he grabbed and pulled, sharp pain in his hand and blood.

The blue-faced girl came out, gagging water, but so did something else, something with silvery hair that tore through his skin like tiny scalpels. He grabbed Mabel and ran. Too much time lost, the water was coming, a splash and his lighter was out.

"Shit." They were in the dark. He couldn't see what was air and what was water.

"Follow the dark!" His niece choked out words around gobs of water and hair. "The only lights are in the water!"

She was right. He carried the girl and barreled between walls of light, trying to outrun the water at his feet, but none of the bubbles were popping anymore, not that it would do them much good since the whole thing was still filling up.

Water rushed over his shoes. Something was behind him. He could feel it pulling on his trench coat. Mabel was still coughing. He pulled his coat and counted in his head, trying to find the portal, it had to be here—

Pop pop pop his hair was standing on end and he could see the portal forming, bright and blue, just beyond the water barrier.

Hair floated in front of it. He tucked Mabel under his trench coat. He could feel her thrashing in a coughing fit next to his chest.

"Brace yourself!" He ducked his head down, protecting his face with one arm and holding Mabel tight against his chest with the other, and dove through the hair into the portal.

He couldn't breathe. The portal was mashing them together again, too much light and color and not enough air. He gulped at the universe, waiting to jump out on the other side, but it didn't happen. They were being pulled. The hair was tangled all around them and it was pulling them back.

No no no no no his fear flared out in prongs like static, he couldn't hide it from her here, they were going to drown and be devoured. He tried to tear at the hair, energy flaring out, but he was dexterous, not sharp, and it became tighter, dragging him back, he could feel his feet dunked in water again and something was coming—

NO!

The preteen yowl was so loud in his head that it rattled his fillings, and the color and light burned his skin.

No no NO!

It was like she was pounding her fists against the inside of his skull. Everything burned, blistering and dry and the hair shriveled behind them. Just as something dug its teeth into the steel toe of his boot, Ford kicked, sending them through the portal.

They hit snow a few feet away from each other. Mabel got to shaky hands and knees and vomited seawater all over it.

The portal popped out of existence behind them.

Chapter Text

Earth, July 25th, 2012

Pacifica was in the middle of working on homework from her tutor when one of the family butlers (she always struggled to remember their names) came to her bedroom. He stood straight-backed just before the threshold of the ornately decorated room (which only contained antique furniture and lacked any of the personal touches Pacifica would like to add). "Miss Northwest, you have a guest."

She dropped her pencil on her half-done Mandarin translation and turned in her plush armchair to frown at the servant. "I'm not expecting anyone. Who is it?"

"That would be Master Pines, miss."

"Dipper's here?" Pacifica hopped off her seat onto the Persian rug covering her entire floor, instinctively smoothing out her designer clothes and checking her makeup and earrings in the vanity. The vanity doubled as a desk for her homework, but she could stand to take a break. "Did you let him in?" she said as she quickly applied a new layer of lip gloss.

"Mr. and Mrs. Northwest has forbidden his presence within the manor," the servant said. Pacifica's face fell.

"Well, that's one way to thank him for helping us with our ghost problem." She looked good. Pacifica ducked around the servant. "I don't think Mom and Dad need to know he's here."

"They have requested that I not bother them with trivialities, and I shall not," the butler confirmed without looking down at Pacifica.

Mental note: give that one a nice bonus.

Pacifica kept herself from looking too excited as she navigated the mansion all the way to the front hall. What could Dipper want? She liked to think that they connected during the party the day before yesterday, but she didn't expect him to be coming to visit her any time soon.

She slipped out of the manor, walking at a clipped pace around the grand fountain, past the warbling peacocks to the front gate, where she could see a familiar capped figure leaning against one of the columns just inside of the Northwest property.

"Hi, Dipper. Sorry the butler didn't let you in; Mom and Dad are still mad about the party."

"Yeah, it's fine."

There was something wrong in his voice. He turned to look at her, and there was something wrong with his face, too. There were dark circles under his eyes and his cheeks were drawn in a way they hadn't been just two days ago.

"Hey, is something up?" she asked, concern cutting into her cool girl persona.

"Yes, actually. I, uh…" Dipper ran a hand through his hair nervously, knocking his hat askew. "I need a favor. A big favor. I-I'll do anything you want in return. I'll be your family's ghost exterminator for the rest of my life. I just really need help."

"Okay?" Pacifica crossed her arms, furrowing her brow. "Why don't we hear what's got you so worked up?"

"Mabel's in trouble."

Pacifica's heart sank. "What? How?" Was it drugs? She couldn't imagine Mabel doing drugs, but… maybe that's why she acted so whacky?

"You…" Dipper took a deep breath. "I don't know if you'd believe me."

"Dipper, you do remember that thing where a ghost turned everyone into trees inside my own house, right?" Pacifica forced out a soft laugh. "Try me. Did she get possessed? Orrrrr kidnapped by leprechauns?"

"She got kidnapped by gnomes once, but that's not what I'm worried about." He blew past her attempt at levity, looking a little like a dead body. (Gnomes? Questions to ask later.) "She…" Another deep breath.

Pacifica couldn't bite down her impatience. "Come on, just tell me."

"She's in another dimension. We don't know where, but it's somewhere bad, and the portal she fell through broke."

It took a second for that to process. Well, he said it'd be weird, didn't he? "And where do I come in?" Did he need money or something?

Dipper bowed his head, his cheeks flushing. Yep, he needed money. That was the exact face people had when they were going to her mom or dad for a loan. "I… it's really broken, and some of the pieces need to be totally replaced, but it'll be expensive and we don't have that kind of money…"

If Dipper was stooping to asking her for a loan, she could only imagine what he'd do if she said no. Steal what he needed and go to juvie to rot, probably. It didn't take a genius to see how stupid devoted the Pines twins were to each other.

Pacifica hated it when people asked her for money. Hated it. It was usually kids at school who had been trying to butter her up for a week so they could see if they could get some expensive presents out of her. Given the circumstances? She couldn't be mad this time. This wasn't about Dipper's greed. This was desperation.

"Mom and Dad would never go for it, but I might be able to use my allowance and they don't have to know." Dipper scrunched up his face like most people did when they heard about her allowance, but she breezed past it. "I'm going to need to see this portal and get cost estimates. We can figure out a budget from there."

Dipper's mouth fell open. "Wh—really?"

Pacifica scowled. "You didn't think I'd just leave your sister to die, did you?" She immediately waved her hand and shook her head. "Don't answer that. We'll work out whatever you'll do in return later."

"Oh my gosh, Pacifica." Dipper lunged. She only had time to go rigid before he threw his arms around her. Pacifica's face flushed. "Thank you. I swear, I'll never forget this."

"Okay, okay…" Her face was all red, but it seemed like he hadn't noticed. She patted his back before he pulled away, suddenly a little red himself. There was an awkward silence where they both were forced to silently acknowledge that, yes, that was definitely a hug. Pacifica briefly considered bribing him to keep his mouth shut about it again before forcing her brain back on track. "I just… money isn't magic, okay? And my allowance isn't anywhere near the Northwest fortune. Between budgeting and labor, this might take a while."

"I know." Dipper set his jaw, the red in his cheeks disappearing. "But it will happen. That's all we need."

Dipper adjusted his cap in a way that made him look very official. "Come by the Shack tomorrow. I'll make sure we have cost estimates and you can look at everything. Just make sure you don't tell your parents anything, okay?"

"Are you kidding? I'm not even telling them you came to visit."

"That's the spirit." Dipper's smile made her stomach flip. "I'll see you tomorrow, okay?"

"You bet."

Pacifica was definitely going to need to give that butler a bonus.


Dimension ?, July 25th, 2012

"Day one of super cool adventuring…" Mabel had to pause to retch again, but there was nothing but bile at this point. All the seawater that had been in her lungs and stomach was now melting the snow on the ground, and all she could do was stay on her hands and knees while she heaved, "…not off to a great start."

Ford just stayed in the snow, letting it soothe the burns on his face and hands. Eventually, he forced himself onto his knees to survey the landscape. Silvery hair fell off of him onto the ground. He would have to remember to gather it up as a sample before they left. Everything was washed out with a blue sheen—it looked like this world's sun was a far-off blue dwarf. They were in a rolling tundra, and far off was a field of black crystals jutting from the ice that seemed to suck in the light around them and make the world darker. Behind them, there was a massive ice cave, and that promised either shelter or a predator, but he didn't take the time to think about it yet.

"How do you do that?" he asked as Mabel's retching started to ease, her elbows trembling from the strain. Now that he was looking around, he could see bleeding hairline cuts on his hands, crisscrossed over each other.

"Do what?" She scrunched her face at him, looking perfectly pathetic in her sopping wet sweater as her hair froze, but Ford didn't notice because his eyes were immediately drawn to the growing red spot under her leg.

"Mabel, you're bleeding." As Ford moved to look at her leg, Mabel looked back at it and yelped, almost falling into her own sick.

"I think something bit me," she said. "And it took my shoe instead of my leg."

It did look like something with wide-set teeth had started to bite her around the leg just under her knee. It must have been when Ford was dragging her out of the water because the cuts raked all the way down her shin and calf, getting deeper and deeper until abruptly stopping at the ankle. That must have been where its teeth caught on her shoe and took it away.

"You should be fine. Luckily, we're in a place with copious snow." He wasn't actually sure if she would be fine, but he couldn't waste time thinking about it. He packed the snow around her leg to clean the wound and slow the flow of blood, propping her calf on his knee to elevate it. As he did so, it became painfully clear how poorly dressed Mabel was for this environment. The fact that her clothes were starting to freeze on her skin aside, she had nothing covering her legs except a short summer skirt.

"Is it going to scar?" she asked, her teeth starting to chatter. He glanced at her face as he worked. She hadn't even been with him for a day and yet she already looked sick, bluish, and strained. He paused his work to take off his mostly waterproofed coat.

"Yes. You'll have large scars on your leg," he said as he draped the coat over her shoulders. He could immediately tell that was the wrong thing to say because she slumped and her face fell, even as she wrapped his coat tightly around herself and her shivers eased.

"Oh."

She looked sick. He wasn't sure if that was the blood loss or her hurt vanity. She didn't scream or cry, as he might have expected a little girl to after nearly having her leg bitten off, but her slumped shoulders and sad eyes were still enough to twist up everything in his chest. He struggled to think of something, anything, he could say to make her look less unhappy.

"They will be very interesting scars, and you can tell people whatever you want about how you got them." He said the first thing that came to his mind (the sort of thing that would have made Stanley feel better). He didn't know if the relative coolness of a scar would cheer up a girl like it would a boy, but this was the best he could do. "You can tell them you fought against a rock worm, or saved a town from a creeper infestation, or…"

"…Or battled a sea monster?" she offered, looking a little less sick.

"Or battled a sea monster." Her shoulders perked again and she managed a small smile. Thank God she liked cool scars as much as (Stanley) a little boy would. After the snow cleared grit from the cuts, the blood soaked into his pants. He reached into his bag and pulled out bandages, wrapping them tightly around her leg to maintain pressure. "I'll need to carry you until we find another pair of shoes and more sensible clothing, but I have a feeling we'll find somewhere we can get all that soon. We're overdue for a taste of civilization."

His own hand would need some bandages, but the priority was Mabel's leg, and the best he could do was hope that his own blood didn't carry some alien disease she was sensitive to as he tied off her bandages. She was still bleeding through them, so he reached behind her knee and pressed hard on the artery. Mabel flinched, almost kicking him in the chest. "What're you doing?"

"I'm cutting circulation through your popliteal artery. I'm giving you time to clot." The teeth had been too wide and drove too deep. He wished he could spend more time cleaning and fixing the damage, but they were in a tundra and needed shelter. He would have to settle for stopping the bleeding now and tending to it properly later.

Balancing her leg on his to keep it elevated and dry, Ford continually swept fresh snow beneath it, checking to see if any blood dripped through the bandages and marred it. When finally, the snow stayed white, he sighed in relief and released Mabel's knee. "You're clotting."

She stayed huddled under his jacket, staring at him with the naked trust of a child who didn't know how close she came to dying in the snow. "Now you're going to fix your hand too, right?"

"Oh." He had almost forgotten that his hand was still bleeding. "Of course." The cuts the hair had left were thin, but they were deep, and the burns he had gotten in Bill's Realm had gotten worse in the portal. He would need to start wearing gloves before hopping in portals with Mabel.

He wrapped his hand under Mabel's concerned gaze, then he gathered the silvery hair into a glass bottle. He scooped up his niece, who huddled against his chest and wrapped her frosted arms tightly around his neck, and started walking towards the caves. It would be the best place for shelter, so it was the place they were most likely to find civilization. It was possible that they might even be able to find other dimensional travelers, but Ford had been at this for a while and only run into other travelers a handful of times. The network of dimensions was vast enough and the people ready to put up with the treacherous journeys few enough that they weren't likely to meet.

His boots crunched through the snow, slowing his progress and making him wish he had snowshoes. The cold was starting to penetrate his sweater as well, fern frost growing on the fibers, but he hugged Mabel close and kept walking. Even when she wasn't burning everything she touched, she was a nice source of warmth.

"Grunkle Ford?" Her voice was quiet as he trudged through the snow. If it weren't for the way that the landscape sucked up any ambient sound, he might not have heard her.

"Mmm?" he hummed, adjusting his grip on her. Grunkle Ford. He still had to get used to having someone around to even use his name, let alone with a title like that.

"It's not always like this, right?"

He hesitated, staring at the path ahead of them instead of looking at her face. "There are quiet days and some not so quiet days."

That didn't seem to comfort her much. She rested her head against his chest. "Why don't we find a safe place to stay and wait for them to open the portal again?"

Resisting the urge to tell her that the portal would probably never be open again, he said, "There aren't any safe places. Not for long, at least." The caves were getting closer. Inside, the ice glimmered in uneven patterns. He suspected geodes and shards of glittering stone had frozen with the water and snow. "Bill is constantly hunting me, and now he's likely hunting you as well. Besides, it's illegal in most dimensions for foreigners to stay extended periods of time."

He didn't need to look at her to know she was frowning. "Why?"

"Because we don't belong in their dimensions, and our presence will eventually weaken the fabric between their worlds and others as our world futilely tries to pull us back. It's best we only stay a short while and then move on."

She was quiet again for a while. "Does that mean we never stop moving?"

Ford sighed softly. This life wasn't meant for a child. "I'm afraid so."

"Oh…"

This time, her silence stretched, and Ford wished desperately that things were different.

Inside the ice caves, whispers echoed off the walls and ceiling, and lights flickered dimly through the ice. On a hunch, Ford adjusted position to balance Mabel on his hip instead of holding her with both arms (and he was suddenly reminded of doing the same thing decades ago with a toddler, his little brother Shermy who everyone needed to take turns soothing) and pawed through his pocket before he took out a little metal bud.

He placed it in his ear, wincing as it opened up into a disk that covered the inner lobe and burrowed into the canal, but it was worth it. Suddenly, the whispers made sense. They were the echoes of people talking.

Ford let out a barked laugh, making Mabel jump against him. "We're in luck, Mabel! There's civilization here."

She perked up in his arms, and his heart was lighter for it. "Oooh, I can meet aliens!"

"You bet you can meet aliens!" He pulled another bud from his pocket—older model, too small for him but perfect for her—and held it out. "Put this in your ear. You'll be able to understand what they're saying."

"Oooh, cool." She put it in her ear, and instead of wincing when it dug itself in, she just giggled. "It feels like it's trying to eat my brain."

"That it does." There was a new spring in his step as he walked towards the whispers. The further into the caves they got, the more intelligible they were.

"Ten coins? This isn't even worth two!"

"Then why are you talking to me, furball? Ten or nothing."

"Do you have something lighter than this?"

Ah, haggling. It never changed no matter where he went.

Suddenly, the cave ballooned out. Both Mabel and Ford gasped. There were tunnels and burrows and clusters of cells dug out of the ice all around them. Everywhere, four-legged, four-armed beasts covered in thick fluffy white fur milled around with towering spindly insectoids that looked like they were made of glass. Three hearts beat inside the insects' transparent carapaces as they stepped over their furry neighbors. Wares of all sorts were dangling from stalls carved into the living ice as creatures of both sorts hawked them, and towering crystals stood like trees, creating clear paths through the market.

Mabel couldn't contain her smile. "Dipper is going to be so jealous."


Earth, July 26th, 2012

"Oh wow, you weren't kidding."

Pacifica was staring at a giant, broken inverted triangle, nestled in a nest of torn wire and twisted metal. It felt like she was sitting in the middle of a set for a science fiction movie, except a science fiction movie would have a more impressive cast than an old man, a giant gopher boy, and a ginger teenager rooting around its insides to check for more damaged wiring.

"Yeah, it's… pretty banged up," Dipper said slowly, his knuckles white on the big folder he was holding. He stood with her behind a layer of protective glass, but she wasn't sure how much that would do if something happened and the portal's remains exploded.

"Why is this down here? Who built this?" Of all the things to be beneath a kitschy tourist trap, an interdimensional portal was not what she expected.

Dipper worried his lip, drumming his fingers on the folder. The bags under his eyes were darker than they were yesterday. His eyes were bloodshot, too. It didn't bode well for the management of this whole project, and her father would tell her to walk away from anything she didn't expect a return on, but there would be a return. The return would be Mabel's life. Pacifica wasn't going to be like the other Northwests: she was going to value life.

"A great uncle of mine—not Stan—built this a long time ago. I don't know why." Dipper kept drumming his fingers, like he would pass out if he wasn't constantly moving some part of himself. "All I know is that it has to stay a secret. There's no telling what would happen if it fell into the wrong hands."

"Yeah, yeah, I get it. I'm paying for it. I don't want anyone to take it any more than you do." She held out her hand to him, snapping her fingers. "File."

Dipper immediately handed it over. Pacifica snapped it open, leafing through each page, recalling the way her father and mother would read through similar files while she sat in their lap as a child. Her father would tell her what parts of the pages he was looking at, the way the numbers added together and what made a good investment or not. Her mother would point out the names attached to different projects and taught her the importance of a professional reputation and contacts.

Dipper was more thorough with the paperwork than a lot of her parents' partners. Some of the more exorbitant price tags in the spreadsheet, written out in blocky numbers, were crossed out with more reasonable numbers written in Dipper's neat print next to them. Stanford Pines had a reputation as a crook, but it looked like Dipper was putting his foot down on any attempt to rip her off.

Pacifica did the math in her head, frowning as the numbers added up more and more before flipping to the page listing the people involved in the project. She immediately wrinkled her nose. "The hillbilly is your engineer?"

"He's the best guy for the job," Dipper said quickly, shoving his hands in his pockets and rolling his shoulders. "He was one of the people who built this thing in the first place."

"Seriously?" Pacifica was now much more concerned the portal was going to blow up. "And it works?"

"If it didn't work, we wouldn't be here right now." There was an edge in his voice, and he wouldn't stop fidgeting. "Just—just trust me, Pacifica. He's a brilliant engineer."

"Ugh. This is a disaster." Pacifica rubbed her temples. Questions, so many questions just dangling in the stale air. It was hard to keep track of them all. "So the hillbilly helped build this giant portal with your great uncle and…" She waved ineffectually at the twisted metal and wires.

"There was… I think there was an accident and Old Man McGucket walked out on it. He's been pretty vague."

"Of course he has. Because he's crazy. Why can't we get the other guy who worked on it? Your great uncle?"

If possible, Dipper's face got even closer to looking dead. His cheeks didn't have color, and his eyes looked away from the glass, away from the portal and all the people working on it. "He… we can't reach him. He might be dead."

He said it with the tone of someone who didn't think there was any 'might be' about it. Pacifica winced, partially because it was obvious she'd stumbled into some awkward family matters but mostly because this meant that the only one who was qualified to figure this thing out was Old Man McGucket. Mabel or no Mabel, Pacifica couldn't see working with a crazy hillbilly as ending in anything but disaster.

But Dipper hadn't steered her wrong so far, and she knew for a fact that no matter how much money she sunk into this madness, Dipper had far more stake in it working. If Dipper thought that McGucket was the best guy for the job, well… "Just make sure he doesn't let raccoons in the lab or fill the portal with beer or something."

Dipper grimaced, like he might have already considered that. "Don't worry, that won't be a problem."

She leafed through the pages again, looking for any other red flags. Not that they really mattered, she supposed. She was already breaking every Northwest rule of business by investing in something she expected no money from. Her parents would be furious if they found out, and the thought still made her stomach tie knots, but Mabel needed help and Dipper had asked her himself and so she had to do it.

"How did this activate if it was all shut down years ago?" That was one thing that didn't quite add up. How did Mabel get in there?

"There was…" Without the file to keep his hands occupied, Dipper started adjusting his hat and pulling gently at his hair. He bounced on the balls of his feet. Normally, a constant source of motion like that should give off the feeling of energy, but it felt more like she was watching a wind up toy's last thrashes before it ran out of any drive to move at all. They needed to get Mabel back. "It was an accident. We found it and gravity was weird and—"

His voice was pitching higher. The bouncing got faster. Pacifica waved her hand. "It's fine, it's fine." The motion slowed down again. He didn't need to relive losing his sister right now. "Nothing else I should know about? No big important things about the portal?"

"…No." The motion slowed down until he was almost still. "Nothing."

A crash rattled the ground as a slab of metal fell from the portal. Stan Pines narrowly ducked away before it smashed him.

"Sorry!" yelled the ginger teenager.

Pacifica let out a long, slow breath. "I'm not paying for it if one of you gets crushed."

"Yeeeaaaaah, I figured."

Chapter Text

Dimension ?, July 25th, 2012

Ford and Mabel stuck out like scarecrows on a golf course. They were dark blotches in a market full of transparent or white creatures. Luckily, unlike in some other places Ford had been, none of the people here were alarmed by the difference, though he still cradled Mabel close as he carried her between the crush of people. Eight foot mantis-like creatures that looked like they could be made of glass or ice calmly stepped over them on their way to stalls, crystals and white woolen ornaments tapping against their antennae and arms, and the furry creatures, looking a little like they had the lower body of a polar bear with all the fur, muscle, and fat, walked just close enough for Mabel to try to reach out and touch one.

Ford caught her hand. "Don't touch. You don't know if they'll bite." Literally.

"But they look so sooooooooooft," Mabel whined. Ford folded her arm over her chest again and continued through the market, forcing himself to sidestep and duck around the crush of alien bodies and overwhelming amount of product—cloth, weapons, whole fish, cuts of meat—dangling from stalls and overflowing from countertops. It didn't smell nearly as ripe in this market as in many others, despite the abundance of alien meats that hung from hooks made of crystal. The ice kept everything cool.

"Never start off by touching or talking to the creatures you meet out here. You don't know how they do things, and it might be very different anything you've seen before. You have to observe first."

The girl was pouting, but she was also listening, so Ford would take it. "Look around for me, Mabel. What do you see?"

As Ford walked, Mabel turned her head to squint at the stalls. Her ears perked, her mouth twisting up in concentration, and her face looked so strange that way that he had to bite his tongue to keep from chuckling.

"It's mostly the fuzzy ones that are selling stuff around here. Some of them are selling white fur, even though it looks like they have full coats. And lot of them have done pretty things with their hair, like fancy braids."

"That's good. How do they behave with each other?"

More squinting. He couldn't stop a smile at how serious she looked. "When the furry ones buy from each other, they run their… paws?" She looked at him with a question on her face, but he just shrugged. The bear-like creatures had four arms, but their 'hands' had pads and claws, so he supposed 'paws' worked as a good descriptor. "Through each other's hair. Sounds like they get better prices, too. But they don't touch if they're not both the furry kind."

"Very good. So now we know a part of their etiquette. Do you see anything else? Who looks like they'd give us the lowest prices?"

She let out a giggling snort and pressed her cheek against his chest. "You sound like Grunkle Stan."

Ford winced at the name and sputtered. "What? How?"

"He's always telling me and Dipper to people watch." She puffed up her face and tried to make her voice low and gravely, which sounded more like she had a bad cold instead. "'You gotta pick out the suckers before you play them! Mabel, put on the cute eyes!' Ha, he's so silly."

Ford grimaced, suddenly trying to look anywhere but at his niece. "I wouldn't put it quite that way." He cleared his throat. "But if you could look cute, that would be helpful."

"You got it!" She grinned and snuggled his chest, which while uncomfortable was undeniably cute.

A rebellious thought hovered in the back of his head. Stan didn't used to be preoccupied with manipulating people. He'd cheat on tests and homework, but he didn't typically cheat people. The closest he ever came to it was occasionally shoplifting or pickpocketing when they were small children.

But what did Ford know? He hadn't really talked to Stanley for around forty years now, besides that one… incident. The child in his arms would know his twin brother far better than he would.

He pushed the thought back and firmly denied any thread of discomfort that came with it.

"Foreigners!"

A rumbling and somehow simultaneously squeaky voice called his attention to one of the stalls made of ice bedecked with finely worked leather of all sorts. Mabel gave him a wink before flashing the widest, most beautiful brown eyes at the voice's owner, a tall furry creature with brightly colored crystals dangling in intricate braids around its neck and four wrists, the braids arranged in intricate geometric patterns. She's good, Ford thought, and he was once again reminded how wonderful and perfect his niece was.

"Oh, you're gorgeous." The stall owner held up a padded hand as it started to run three sets of claws through the fur at its waist. The motion chimed all the crystals together. "Give me a moment, I have… ah."

It pulled out an earbud from its fur and slipped it in one tufted ear. As the disk opened up, the merchant set all four paws on the ice-table, covered in various trinkets made of hair, crystal, and bone. "There we go. Come here, come here, I love foreigners."

"And we love locals!" Mabel said before Ford could get a word in. She waved an arm, which looked a little less impressive because she was still wearing his jacket and the sleeve was far too large for her, flopping uselessly while she gestured. "And may I say that you look beautiful today? I love what you've done with your hair!"

"I'm so glad you noticed! Most foreigners don't know what kind of work goes into fur, but your fur is gorgeous."

As Ford approached the stall, two of the merchant's paws went out, dragging claws through Mabel's frozen hair. His hand immediately went to his side where his gun was strapped, but far from being afraid, Mabel giggled and leaned her head back to allow the creature more access to her hair.

Ford frowned but went back to holding Mabel with both hands. It was good in this context, he tried to tell himself. It meant acceptance from the alien species. A part of him still squirmed to see a stranger touching his niece.

The merchant didn't seem to notice his discomfort. It made sense, since no species that wasn't psychic (and there were a few of those out there) could usually parse out another species' body language unless they lived closely together.

"So what brings you here?" the merchant asked. Mabel reached out to the paws running through her hair, digging her fingers into the merchant's fur. She grinned so hard that her braces gleamed.

"We're passing through," Ford said, though he felt a little invisible as his niece and the merchant bonded. Well, it was good that Mabel was taking well to a new species, he thought. It took him forever to build a good rapport with anyone most of the time, alien or human.

"Oh, they're always passing through." The merchant didn't turn its large black eyes from Mabel as they kept playing with each other's hair. "What can I do for you?

Mabel looked up at Ford for guidance. He cleared his throat and adjusted his grip on her. "She needs new shoes, clothes, and gear. We're going to be traversing a wide range of environments, and she needs to be dressed appropriately." Ford looked down at Mabel critically. "We'll need to do something about your hair, too. It's too easy for it to get caught or grabbed this way."

"You wouldn't cut it, would you?" the merchant said, probably looking scandalized. Mabel grabbed a handful of her hair, squinting at Ford warily.

"Do we really need to get rid of it?" Mabel asked, petting her hair like an old friend.

"I didn't say we need to get rid of it." Though it would probably be the smartest thing, he didn't want to make the transition into this life any harder on Mabel than it already was. She could cut off all her hair herself when she was ready to accept she wasn't going to go back home. "We just need to make sure it's out of the way."

"Braid it," the merchant said shortly.

"I have never braided anything in my life." Ford looked down at Mabel. "Do you know how to braid your own hair so it sticks to your head?"

"I could try to figure it out?" she offered.

The merchant threw up all four arms. "You can't leave fur that gorgeous cut or poorly braided. I'll show you how to do it, free of charge. We haggle for everything else after."

"Oooh, I can have braids like yours?" Mabel's eyes gleamed. "That's amazing!"

"Of course it is." The merchant patted the edge of its stall, waiting for Ford to put Mabel down on it.

And that was how Ford ended up spending his time on an ice planet braiding his niece's hair with an alien.

He would have been happy with just doing a simple French braid or a braided bun, but no, the alien insisted on teaching him how to do fancy things like braid a tiara in her hair or arrange it like a flower. Every time he started to try to put a stop to it, he'd see how much Mabel was enjoying herself and he'd swallow his objections. As irritating as it was, Mabel nearly had her leg torn off that morning and he could stand to learn how to make stars in her hair if it made her happy.

Up until he was carding his fingers through her hair to learn another braid and something bit into his fingers.

He jerked his hand back, biting back a curse as his fingers started to bleed.

"Grunkle Ford!" Mabel immediately swung around, her smile disappearing as she saw him holding his hand. "What happened?"

He carefully took a silvery hair between his nails and pulled it off his hand. He grimaced as his own blood dribbled off it. "That stuff from the last dimension must have gotten tangled in your hair."

"What?" The merchant looked at its paws before carding its claws quickly through its fur, coming up with tangled silvery strands as well. It must have picked them up when it was playing with Mabel's hair. "Where did you get this?"

"The previous dimension we visited. It was attached to a sea creature that seemed to use it as netting." He started to dig in his pockets for a bandage. Mabel grabbed the uncut fingers of his wounded hand, looking at the blood in concern.

"I can kiss it better," she said firmly.

A flush rushed to his cheeks and he gently pulled his hand from her grip before wrapping a bandage around the cuts. "That's not necessary."

Hurt flashed over her face before she lowered her eyes. He immediately felt like an ass. He didn't have time to apologize before the merchant said, "This is good for you."

The merchant left the silver hair in a pile on the stall. "It's razor fur. Twist a few strands of this together and it can slice through bone and never break. It can't slice through our fur, though." It paused for a moment to preen its fur. "We can only get it when portals to the water world open and one of those creatures falls through. It's too dangerous to try to take it in the water."

"You're telling us." Mabel pulled her bandaged knee under her chin, hugging her hurt leg and allowing the other to dangle off the side of the stall. "We were in this big bubble and it popped."

"Did you have fire in it?"

Ford and Mabel exchanged looks. The merchant clucked.

"Fire, no matter how little, attracts the fish and bursts the bubbles. They'll re-form with time." The merchant pushed the bundle of razor fur towards Mabel. "I don't work with razor fur, but because I like you, I'll tell you who does. There's a stall made of black crystals further in the cave. Tell them Anise sent you and they'll give you a deal. But first…"

It picked up a swatch of leather. Ford didn't think too hard about where the leather might have come from. "Our deals."

The haggling was tough, but not as fierce as Ford was used to. It was always easier when a merchant liked him, or in this case, his niece. Apparently, shoes in this dimension were usually reserved for the sickly who needed extra help to stay warm, and any clothes would have to be custom made for Mabel. The whole time, Mabel stayed quiet, working on redoing the fancier braids in her hair, but it always came out a little messier than Ford could manage. After they finally agreed on a price, Anise pointed them towards hotel—and by a hotel, it meant a cluster of burrows dug into the ice and lined with fur that one could rent—and they were on their way to the black crystal stall with the razor fur.

Ford had put the extra silvery hair into a jar with the rest, which Mabel examined while he carried her through the market again.

"Grunkle Ford?"

"Mmm?"

"Is it okay if I keep some of the hair?"

He arched an eyebrow at her. "What would you do with it?"

"I got an idea. So can I keep some? Please?"

How could he say no to that face? "Okay. In fact…" He slowly set her down on the ground before pulling a scarf from one of his many pockets and offering it to her. "Put this around your foot."

"Why?" she asked as she took the scarf and started doing as he said.

"It will protect you from cold damage. We might be out here for a while." He picked her up again after she tied off the scarf, balancing her on his hip before digging into one of his many pockets and offering her a soft leather coin purse. "Look around while we walk and let me know if you see something you like."

"Really?" She frowned at him, fingering the purse. "I thought we would be saving money for necessities and stuff."

"You can be frugal and still get nice things sometimes. Think of it as me starting to make up for all the Hanukkahs and birthdays I wasn't around for." He smiled, and she started to smile back.

"I'll make sure to pick something super cool." She flopped against his shoulder and peered at the tangle of people clumped at stalls and elbowing past each other. "A knife? No… A skin? No…"

It wasn't long before she gasped. "Oh my gosh, are those knitting needles?"

She flailed in the general direction of a stall draped in utensils made of bone, manned by a massive glass-like mantis creature. Ford frowned, but he approached anyway, because it was pretty clear that Mabel had her eye on two long pins that looked more like they were meant to crack a carapace than knit a scarf. "I'm not sure if those are—"

"Can I see your knitting needles?" Mabel blurted at the mantis. It was tall and thin with threaded white charms hanging off the edges of its pierced carapace, and it had to bend its legs and lean down as far as possible to look at Mabel.

"I have no knitting needles," it said. Ford searched it for a sign of a universal translator, just to see a custom one attached to its antennae.

"Sure you do!" Mabel pointed to the bone needles on the ice table. "There they are!"

The insectoid folded its 'arms' together and rolled its head side to side. "Those are not knitting. I don't know what knitting is."

The gasp Mabel let out was positively scandalized. "I have to fix this! I need a skein of yarn and the use of your needles."

It was always difficult to read expressions on species Ford hadn't encountered before. This one's antennae twitched, threatening to dislodge the translator before it leaned to the side towards a furry merchant selling swatches of glimmering fish skins. "Do you have fur to borrow?" the insectoid asked.

"Why?" The furry merchant passed out skins to customers, who all pressed them to their fur or carapaces to compare and check ornamentation value.

"The little foreigner wants to show me a trick," the insectoid said.

"Foreigners are weird," the furry merchant said, rearranging the skins for maximum gleam.

"They can understand you."

"So?" But the furry merchant dug under its stall with one arm and pulled out a messily wrapped skein of white yarn that perfectly matched his fur. "Tell me if it does something funny."

"This is going to be great!" Mabel kept wiggling until Ford finally set her down on the stall table. She brandished the needles and her hands blurred as she cast on stitches. "You can make so many great things with a couple sticks and some yarn! You can make sweaters and hats and scarves and little stuffed animals and—"

Stitches bloomed between the blur of sticks and hands. They coiled out from under her as her mouth ran, and the insectoid's antennae vibrated as it lowered itself to watch her. Its neighbor, the furry skin-seller, paused in its rearranging to watch as well.

"And look! You have a hat!" Suddenly, instead of a swath of stitching, she had a bright white hat with a bright white poof on the top. (Ford was pretty sure knitting that in less than five minutes was physically impossible.) She plopped it on the insectoid's head with a bright, "Ta dah! You look gorgeous."

The hat forced the transparent merchant's antennae to bow left and right to accommodate it, but it didn't seem to mind. Instead, it quirked its head towards its neighbor.

"Caraway. I have fur now."

"It doesn't count if you didn't grow it!" the furry merchant grumbled.

"What else can you do, little foreigner?" the insectoid gently tapped Mabel's arm with a claw. "Show me."

"Oh, I can show you plenty!" Mabel was drawing a crowd as she launched into another project. Ford should have probably told her to quit it, that they had more important things to do and it was best to not draw so much attention, but he was too busy marveling at how easily it came to her. People wanted to listen to her. They wanted to watch her demonstrate things, and she could read the crowd even though these were all aliens with body language and social cues that should have been incomprehensible to her.

Ford had no idea how she did it, but it was remarkable to watch.

"And there! You have a sweater now!" Mabel popped a sweater on the insectoid merchant (how in God's name did she knit so fast?) with a huge grin. "You look beautiful."

The insectoid looked down at itself, its hat drooping to one side. "I love it."

"I want to try! Give me needles," an insectoid about the size of Ford declared, slapping down coins on the table.

"Get out of the way, ice skin! Me first!" a polar-bear-like creature said, shoving the insectoid with two of four hands.

"No me!"

"Me!"

Ford warily watched the crowd pressing in, watching their eyes to see what they were focusing on, but they were looking at Mabel's sweater, not Mabel herself. Caraway, the fish skin merchant, slumped at his stall, probably pouting. The insectoid merchant nudged Mabel gently with one claw. "Take the needles. Have extra fur too. No charge for you, little foreigner."

Mabel's grin threatened to split her face. "Why, thank you!"

Ford scooped her up as soon as she got her gifts, still eyeing the crowd. She hummed, petting her new yarn, completely oblivious to the world around her. It was fortunate that Ford was paying attention, because the fish skin merchant was losing customers to the insectoid, and the furry creature was eyeing them in a way that tripped Ford's well-honed instinct to leave. He held Mabel close and ducked between two large white aliens, disappearing from the stalls' view.

"You should be more careful, Mabel. You shouldn't draw so much attention to yourself."

"What?" Her face fell and she clutched her new needles and yarn close, like he might take them away from her. "I thought they liked me."

"It's good that they like you, but it might not be good that they remember you. Bill Cipher has a standing bounty on my head, and now likely yours. If a hunter comes and asks questions about two humans, how many people do you think will now be able to answer?"

Her shoulders slumped. His stomach twisted to see all her cheer extinguished again. He should press his point harder, but she had gotten the message, hadn't she?

"You didn't spend anything in the purse. You can still look around for something else you like," he said. She perked up again, but the shadow hadn't left her face. Ford would take what he could get.

On their way to the stall Anise had told them to go to, Mabel finally settled on a gift, and she allowed Ford to deal with the haggling. It was a simple thing, a pendant that looked like a bullet. One could pull off the 'shell' to reveal a black crystal that sucked the light out from around it, shrouding her and Ford in darkness in the middle of the market.

"It'd be great for hide and seek," Mabel said.

One of the transparent mantis-like creatures manned the stall made of black crystal. It was far less personable than Anise or the needle seller, but more polite, and it had a voice that sounded like wind whistling over glass flutes. Ford did his best not to stare at its beating hearts while they bargained over the silver hair, but Mabel wasn't so discreet. He had to catch her hand more than once before she reached out to touch the shopkeeper.

He kept a generous amount of razor fur for Mabel, though she didn't ask him twice about it, and by the time they made it back to the burrow they were going to stay in, his arms were hurting from carrying her around everywhere.

"How does your leg feel?" Ford said as they slid into a burrow carved into the ice among many similar burrows. Inside, it was all lined with fur, insulating them from the cold.

"Warm," she said as she settled on the ground. Her bandages were red, but they weren't dripping. Even so, 'warm' wasn't a good sign with wounds. Ford frowned.

"We should check your bandages." Ford repositioned himself next to her wounded leg and unwrapped his scarf from her foot. There wasn't quite room enough for him to stand in the burrow.

"Do we have anything to eat for after that?"

Ford hesitated before unbinding her bandages. "Oh, right." Children need to be fed. So do adults, actually. He'd forgotten that. "Of course. I have seeds in my bag. Just check the left topmost compartment."

As she started to eat, he unpeeled her bandages. Both he and Mabel winced when bandaging that had been stuck to her newly formed scabs pulled away, making her bleed again. The skin around the cuts was too red for his liking, and it wasn't from the fresh blood. "I'm going to need to disinfect this. It might sting."

Mabel grimaced, but she nodded. "Okay."

The bag had a whole bottle of diluted hydrogen peroxide, a lot of which he'd probably have to use. Hopefully, he could bargain for more in this world. Peroxide, he'd found, was a pretty universal thing. Even if people didn't use it to disinfect themselves, they would use it for something.

"Deep breath, Mabel," he said before he started pouring it all down her leg.

Mabel drove her teeth into a nut shell, her face turning red as the muscles in her calf tensed. The only noise that escaped was a soft whimper. Ford had to ignore it.

"It will be over soon."

After drenching her whole leg, he let it sit for a short while before patting it dry. Blood spotted the cloth he used, and he pulled a jar from his bag. "I'm going to put this on. It will help your healing."

She whimpered again, and he made sure to be as gentle as possible as he spread a generous amount of ointment on her leg. Her muscles spasmed under his hand and she chewed on the nut shell, working her jaw to keep from yelling. The ointment hurt too, he knew from experience, but it was effective. It was the only way she could hope to heal fast enough for their hectic lifestyle.

"Okay," he said before wrapping her leg in fresh bandages. "It's done."

She panted, curling up in a fetal position and shaking. He had a feeling she wasn't shaking just because of the first aid, but he didn't know what to do to make her stop.

She didn't stop. She kept shaking, kept panting. She looked at him, expecting something, but he didn't know what. Stanford Pines did not know how to deal with children, and he suddenly resented her for needing him, resented Stanley for giving her to him, resented himself for not knowing what to do.

Mabel looked away before he figured out what she wanted, sniffing and scrubbing her face. Shit, she was going to cry. Some uncle Ford was.

"Your leg will heal well," he said. It was the only thing he could think to say. "You just need to try not to strain it." Were she in their own world, she probably would have gotten stitches. Stitches were mostly there to help with healing and keep the scarring from getting too bad, though. In this situation, the ointment was better. It wouldn't help with the scarring at all, but it would keep the wound from reopening too easily and would hurry along the healing. It was better than potentially introducing her to a new source of infection in an unsterilized environment with unprofessional stitches. "If things keep going as well as they have been here, we can stay for a while and let you rest."

She nodded slowly, no closer but no further from crying. He wondered if he could just leave and the problem would sort itself out, but that was the coward's way out.

"How're your hands?" she said softly.

He looked down at his hands, one covered in bandages and the other clearly burnt, though only in the first degree, from their jaunts between the portals. He was immediately reminded of Mabel's burning influence and the way they escaped the sea monster.

"They'll also heal. The lucky thing about extremely sharp things is that, while it's easier to get a cut from them, it's also much easier to heal." He curled his fingers. "How did you do that? In the portal?"

She frowned at him, scrubbing her face with the heels of her hands. "Do what?"

"Destroy the netting. We were being dragged back into the water and you got us loose." He furrowed his brow. "Don't you remember?"

"I…" She wrinkled her nose, and the glassiness in her eyes started to fade. "I remember, but it's all… blurry. I didn't know I was the one who stopped it. I just remember really, really not wanting to go back."

"You burned it," Ford prompted, holding out his unbandaged hand. "You see?"

"I did that?" Mabel looked at her hands, turning them over like she'd see the secret in them. "But I didn't have any fire."

"You were the fire. Or…" Fire wasn't the right word. She wasn't inherently destructive between the portals. Just overwhelming. "You were light."

"What? Get out of here. I'm just a kid. See?" She jabbed a finger into her own cheek. "Boop. Kid. You're the one who looks funny between the portals."

"Really?" Ford took his journal out of his bag. He had a feeling he should take notes on this. "What do I look like to you?"

"Like…" She chewed the inside of her cheek before flopping onto her back, staring at the ceiling of their burrow. "You were like lightning, but you didn't disappear like lightning or change shape. And there were words. A lot of words. They give me a headache." She hesitated before bringing her hands to her temples while Ford wrote furiously in his journal. "Right after the weirdness in Bill's world and before we went to the cloud world, it was like I understood how the whole universe worked, but it was going to explode my head because I'm not supposed to, and I was seeing all the things in it I should be scared of."

Ford's pen paused over the page.

"For me, it felt like I could finally see the universe," he said slowly. "But all I could see was how beautiful it all was, and the light it took to finally see it was going to burn me into nothing." He started writing again. He wondered if these images of each other would be consistent if they were observed by others. Was he always some kind of written lightning, or was that just Mabel's perception of him? "The best way I can describe the way I see you between portals is like a star. You can burn me if I get too close or something goes wrong, but when things are the way they should be, you just…" he trailed off, searching for the words. "There is a lot of warmth, light, and color. That's the best way I can describe it."

"That's… good?" She gave him a tentative smile.

"More than good. It's perfect." And that was the only adjective he could use to describe it. Even if it burned his hands and overwhelmed him with vibrancy he'd never seen in decades of wandering the universe, there was not a single thing he could think to change about it.

Her smile became more genuine. She didn't look like she was ready to cry anymore, so he must have done something right.

Ford maneuvered himself so he could crawl past her towards the entrance, grabbing his coat on the way. "Stay here and rest. I'll go and explore some more and bring back any food that would be edible for humans. If Anise comes by, there's enough cash to pay for all the clothes on the bottom rightmost compartment of my bag."

"Okay." Mabel picked up her bone knitting needles. "I got a project to start anyway."

Ford could hear the clicking of needles as he left the burrow.

Chapter Text

Earth, July 27th, 2012

Stan hadn't had a good night's sleep in forty years. He hadn't had a decent night's sleep in thirty. Now, he could barely cobble together a night's sleep at all. He preferred to just work on the portal until he dropped, but it was coming to the point where he would never drop for long and he was too old to run on nothing but caffeine. Sometimes he would just stay up watching TV and eat popcorn to turn his brain off, but his sides felt empty without children next to him and he would continually come across shows he'd watch with Mabel.

So sometimes, he just had to try to sleep. It required a lot of whiskey to manage anything. Otherwise, he would just obsess over Mabel and rehash the same questions over and over again in his head: is she okay could I have done something what will I tell her parents how will Dipper cope why can't I do anything right why did Stanford have to make that thing in the first place will either of them ever come home why did it have to be Mabel it should have been me

Was it healthy? Probably not, but since when did his health matter, really?

Dipper didn't have the benefit of self-medication. This was the fourth night in a row that Stan could hear the kid pacing in his room instead of sleeping. Enough was enough.

Stan didn't immediately force himself out of bed. Instead, he rolled to his side, staring at the bottle of whiskey that had made its home on his floor.

He pushed it carefully under his mattress and then lumbered upstairs.

Dipper was pacing around mumbling to himself in the middle of his room, surrounded by copies of journal pages and designs for the portal. The floor was littered with Ford's old textbooks, dug up out of storage for McGucket. Many of the old earmarks on them were from Stan, accumulated over thirty long years of learning interdimensional electrical engineering without so much as a GED.

"Kid."

Dipper stopped his pacing and turned his heels to face Stan. The kid looked like a particularly twitchy raccoon.

"You and I are going on the porch." Stan started going downstairs again, bracing himself on the banister. The stairs wobbled under him; clearly, he had drunk just a touch too much.

"Grunkle Stan, it's one in the morning." The kid followed him downstairs anyway.

The night was warm and humid, but not oppressively so. Bugs tended to avoid the place since Stan sprayed everything down with possibly carcinogenic pesticide. The couch creaked under his weight as he settled in, his bones popping about as much as the couch. When did he get old?

"Sit down. We're going to talk man to man."

Dipper didn't sit down immediately. Instead, he stared at Stan, holding his hands close to his chest like a cornered animal. "Are you drunk?"

No hiding anything from this kid, huh? "Nah, just a little buzzed. When I'm drunk, I fall asleep on the floor. Now sit down."

The boy was grimacing, but he sat down next to Stan anyway. His weight barely made a ripple in the couch. "Stan, I really don't think I—"

"You think I don't know exactly how you're feeling right now?"

Dipper fell silent. The crickets were too loud for Stan's tastes. He could hear rustling in the woods, but it was probably just gnomes, retreating now that they saw the humans of the house were awake and likely to stop them from nabbing food.

"I'm not sure if I…" Dipper trailed off, pulling gently at his hair and hunching his shoulders. He always did that when he was nervous. He'd been twitching like a dying chicken ever since that awful night.

"You haven't slept properly in four days, kid. It's time to deal with your pain like a man: avoid eye contact while you talk about your feelings." Stan crossed his arms and settled back in the couch. (More joints popped. At this point, his body was just being spiteful.) "So you might as well get on with it or this will be ten times worse."

Dipper grimaced, hunching and hiding his face in his pajamas. It was a gesture hauntingly like what Mabel did when she wanted to hide in her clothes, except Dipper didn't have the sweater to hide in, so he just folded into his body to block out the world.

The boy was clamming up. Stan sighed, lolling his head backwards so he could stare sightlessly at nothing.

"Well, I'll tell you how I felt. My biggest thought was that it should have been me who fell through the portal."

He felt more than he saw Dipper's ears perking. He kept staring at nothing, because even with whiskey, it was painful as hell to talk about this kind of thing. Admitting to all those feelings felt like admitting weakness, but Dipper was only twelve and he was a sensitive kid and he couldn't be expected to lock up all that awfulness inside him like a grown man. Dipper would destroy himself if he tried, and Stanley couldn't stand the thought of losing his grandnephew too.

"I went through the whole gamut. Wishing that I had been the one who fell in, running through it all in my head to figure out how I could have saved him, hating myself for getting into a fight in the first place—you know, all that stuff."

He waited a beat for Dipper to start talking. Waited for the kid to open up—but Mabel was the open twin, even if Dipper was every bit as sensitive as she was. Even so, Dipper was still listening, so this wasn't a total wash.

Stan allowed himself to look at the sky. Not for the first time, he wondered if Stanford was looking at the same stars. "My brother was like the second coming of Einstein or something. He was supposed to do great things."

Dipper was silent, but he knew the kid was listening intently even if he didn't look at his face. Both his grandniece and grandnephew were painfully expressive and had no idea how to hide their feelings. Just from the shift in the couch, Stan could feel Dipper leaning towards him, like that would somehow help him hear better.

"I didn't want him to go do those things, though. Not without me, at least, but it's not like I coulda helped him on the way. I'm no Einstein." The alcohol eased the sting of truth, but not by much. He was opening up a forty-year-old wound, one that festered and wept and tore at him until he couldn't breathe, but he had to do it. "And our stupid fight messed up everything. He couldn't do all those things, and I couldn't be with him."

He couldn't let Dipper turn out like him.

"Has Mabel ever told you what she wants to be when she grows up?"

Dipper was so quiet that Stan could barely hear them over the crickets. "I think she said something about wanting to be a fairy princess that commanded an army of millions."

"Well, yeah, that's basically it." Dipper didn't unfold from his bubble, but he let one arm dangle over his knees, picking imaginary lint from his pajama pants. For once, he wasn't a thrashing mess of nervous tics. "She wants to be president. The first woman president. I always thought it was kind of unlikely because, you know, politics are dishonest and Mabel isn't. But if anyone could do it honestly, she could."

Dipper gave a weak shrug, not making eye contact. "I'm smart, but… not world-changing smart. She's world-changing. I'm… me."

Feelings that couldn't be articulated but Stan understood completely dangled in the air. The sense of inferiority, of stealing something from his twin and the world at the same time—and being such a poor replacement for the better twin, the more accomplished twin. But neither Mabel nor Dipper were the 'better' or 'worse' twin. There was no gap between them, even if they had respective strengths and weaknesses.

"You're selling yourself way too short." Stan understood why, though. The lost twin always loomed so much larger when they were gone. "You're both good kids, and you'll knock them all dead as adults." The question of whether or not Mabel would actually be there to grow up and knock them dead oozed over the back of his head like poison, but Stan couldn't put it to words. It would be too awful for either of them.

Dipper shrugged again, still picking at the hem of his pajamas, probably drowning in guilt and self-loathing. Stan couldn't save him from that, but he could support him while he got ready to save himself.

"Why did you and your brother fight?" Dipper asked. The question made Stan's gut twist despite the whiskey. He knew it was coming, and he was going to come clean, but he didn't know what that would mean anymore. It had been so long since he'd told the truth.

"That's a long story. It started over ten years before he fell into the portal." His gut hurt like he set it on fire, like telling the story could burn him until there was nothing left. "We had a falling out in high school. I broke a science project of his that could have gotten him a full ride to a fancy college. It was an accident and I thought I fixed it, but honestly, I wanted it to be broken. I wanted us to stay together forever, even if it meant neither of us got degrees. I couldn't imagine my life without him. And just like that, my folks kicked me out and we never talked again for a decade."

Dipper took a sharp breath next to him, pulling him back from the edge before he fell too deep in the memories. This was it, Stan. The day you finally admitted the truth would be the day it swallowed you whole. All your flaws laid out for your nephew, if only so he'd learn what he should not be, even if it meant he hated you.

"Let me tell you, ten years on the street? Not fun. Can't deny it's made me who I am, though. Hard times shape you more than the good ones." Thinking back to all the people in Gravity Falls, from McGucket to Soos to Wendy's entire family, just reinforced that conviction. "Then one day I got a postcard from Gravity Falls. Stanford wanted me to come see him. I dunno what I was expecting, but I was hoping to start mending things. He never stopped being my twin, you know?"

Stan shrugged, like the pain of that day didn't still keep him up at night. "Whoever I met here wasn't the same guy I left in Jersey. He was paranoid. Angry. You wouldn't have known I was his brother and not some old classmate he was calling in. We both lost our tempers, we got into a fistfight, and I pushed him into the portal. Last thing I ever heard was him begging me to do something."

The sky was nice and clear. That was probably part of the reason Stanford made the Shack so far away from the town. He'd always complained about not being able to see stars from the city.

"Grunkle Stan?" Dipper's voice was barely a whisper. Under normal circumstances, Stan would tell him to speak up, teach him to assert himself. He couldn't really bother now. "I'm sorry I didn't trust you."

Stan shook his head, daring to look at the boy, red-faced and shrunken on the couch beside him like a shadow cowering from light. "That's not what this is about, kid. I'm not mad. I wouldn't have trusted me either." He had, as usual, completely messed up by lying to the kids. Sometimes he wondered if he was just doomed to continually fail. "My point is this: I've spent my whole life trying to fix that one mistake. Thirty years gone and I don't know if Stanford is dead or alive. Even if he did walk back out of that portal tomorrow, he won't be the man I remember, and I'm not the man he remembers. I don't want that life for you."

Dipper was staring at his hands now, his cheeks bright red from shame. "Grunkle Stan, I…" He took a deep, shaking breath. On the edge of crying, Stan could tell. Oh well. The kid had earned his right to cry. "I'm… I'm sorry things turned out the way they did for you. Both of you. But… I can't not spend my life on this if that's what it takes. She's in there because of me, Grunkle Stan. She's in there 'cuz…"

The boy crumpled in on himself like a demolished house, leaning until his head was between his knees and his shoulders were shaking. Stan let out a long, slow sigh and rubbed circles into the boy's back.

"I can't go back to California without her," was all Dipper managed with a thin, cracking voice.

Stan supposed he didn't expect anything less.

"If that's so, then we're going to lay down some ground rules." Stan looked away from Dipper again at the sky. It was easier to do this when they weren't looking at each other, though he kept rubbing circles. "One, if this goes past the start of the school year, you go to school. We'll figure out how to register you here in Gravity Falls. Your parents say you've been getting A's, so you should keep getting them. Mabel's not coming home to see you've dropped out because of this."

Dipper didn't look up from his knees, but he nodded, sniffing. God, Stan had no idea how he was going to sell this to Dipper's parents. He still didn't know how he was even going to tell them what happened. If he would tell them what happened.

"Two, you eat and you sleep. I don't care if it tastes like ash and you do nothing but stare at a ceiling all night, but you eat and you sleep."

There was more hesitation, but he got another nod.

"Three, this is not going to become your life." Dipper's hands tightened on his knees, but Stan waved off the coming objection. "I don't care if I have to lock you out of the lab, kid. I'm not saying you can't work on the portal, just that you gotta have a life outside of it. You're going to go outside and talk to kids your age and do whatever nerdy things you liked doing before. I'm old and washed up and I can dedicate all my free time to it instead. Capisce?"

Dipper didn't answer. After a few seconds, Stan decided to take the silence as reluctant acquiescence.

"Four…" Stan heaved a quiet sigh. "Don't let your guilt be what keeps you going."

Dipper peered up at him. The boy's eyes were puffed and blotchy. Mabel probably would have teased him for it. "What?"

"Don't keep going back to how bad you feel about pushing her in when you need a boost. You're going to burn yourself out and become old and miserable that way." Stan crossed his arms over his chest. "Instead, go back to how you feel about her. How much you care and how you'll do anything to get her back home safe and sound. That's what can keep you going without eating you alive."

Dipper stared at him with those wide bloodshot eyes, but then he slowly nodded again. "I'll try."

"Good, because I don't want to deal with you having a breakdown on top of everything else." Stan stood up from the couch, all his joints popping, but instead of letting that be the end of it, he picked the boy up by the scruff and balanced him on a shoulder. Dipper didn't do much more than mumble in protest. "Now you're going to bed."

Dipper didn't try to fight him. The boy leaned against his head and allowed him to carry him all the way to the attic. Stan lay him on his bed, and Dipper immediately rolled so his back was to Mabel's empty side of the room.

"Grunkle Stan?"

"Mmm?"

"Do you mind if I… talk to you sometimes? If I need it?"

Maybe it was the darkness or maybe it was the alcohol, but Stan ruffled the boy's hair and threw the blanket over him. "Any time, kid." He turned to leave. "I'll grab you some allergy medication."

"Ugh, that stuff knocks me out."

"Exactly."

It sounded like the old Dipper, so Stan felt better when he left. He didn't hear any pacing in the attic that night.

(Then again, the Benedryl might have had something to do with that.)


 Dimension ?, July 26th, 2012

Mabel dreamed of home.

She was back in Piedmont in her family's plush household. She and Dipper sat on the floor, playing video games together while the adults sat on the couch. Her parents sat together. Grunkle Stan and Ford sat together too. Her grunkles leaned against each other while they talked, shoulders touching the way hers and Dipper's did when they sat next to each other, the way that said 'I love you' in a non-awkward sibling way. They talked about grown up stuff while she and Dipper just focused on beating each other up in a digital world.

Ford didn't move, but he was suddenly standing next to her. Stan's side looked empty without him.

"Time to go, Mabel," he said.

Mabel's leg hurt. It was bleeding all over the rug. Her dad would be mad about all the stains. "I'm not ready."

"It doesn't matter if you're ready."

Mabel woke up in the dark, surrounded by fur and ice. She was alone.

"Grunkle Ford?" She crawled into the burrow's exit, dragging her bandaged leg behind her, just to see that the ice tunnels were dark and empty. All of the merchants had put big versions of the black crystal in her pocket on their stands, uncovering them to suck in all the light. "Grunkle Ford?"

She crawled back inside, curling around her half-done knitting. She should keep working on it, but her heart was aching too much and her stomach was shriveling on itself because she hadn't had anything to eat in the last day or two except seeds and that awful tooth-cleaning thing Ford had given her.

Try to stay positive. Think of the super cool adventure stuff she'd done today. Grunkle Ford braided her hair, she made friends with lots of aliens, she taught a giant bug how to knit, all that fun stuff. The thoughts rang hollow in her head. It didn't feel right to have adventures without Dipper.

She wasn't stupid. She could see in Ford's eyes every time she talked about Dipper that he didn't think they would ever go home. Sure, the portal could destroy the world and fixing it was way beyond anything Dipper could do on his own, but he and Stan could pool their resources and figure it out, right?

Right?

Mabel pulled the collar of her sweater up over her eyes and started to sob quietly.

The adventures were cool, but she was hungry and her leg hurt and she wanted to go home. She wanted her brother and her Grunkle Stan. She wanted her parents. She didn't want to leave Grunkle Ford, either. He was old and awkward and really serious but he was her grunkle and he deserved to go home too.

She didn't know how long she was crying in Sweater Town before she heard her Grunkle's heavy footsteps approaching the entrance of the burrow. She tried to quiet down her crying, but he wasn't stupid either. She heard him pause midway through crawling into the burrow. Maybe he was thinking about going back outside and doing whatever it was he was doing before.

Instead, he finished crawling into the burrow.

"I found meat we could eat," he offered with that weird tone people get when they don't know what to say. She knew she should stop crying because it just made Grunkle Ford uncomfortable, but she couldn't stop. She kept curling up until her face was hidden by her sweater and her knees.

"That sounds good," Mabel mumbled into her sweater. Ford was quiet before he started rifling through his bag.

"It's hard to eat through your sweater," he said quietly. She peeked over her collar to see that he was offering her something that looked a little like some alien iteration of a sandwich. She didn't really want to leave Sweater Town, but her stomach gurgled and twisted in her gut and she was forced to pull her collar down.

"Thanks, Grunkle Ford." She took the sandwich and immediately started to eat, staying curled up. The 'bread' she was holding didn't feel like bread at all, but like dry meat slabs. There was something that had the texture of cheese curds between the meat, but it tasted… fruity?

Ford leaned back, needing to duck his head so he wasn't really sitting so much as slouching because of the low ceiling. He was frowning at her. She already knew she didn't like it when he frowned at her, because it felt like he was always frowning for some reason and she didn't want to be another reason.

"I'm sorry today has been rough," he said, finally breaking the weird silence where she could only hear herself chewing.

She winced, scrubbing her eyes with the heels of her hand and forcing a smile between bites. "No, it's been a good day! You know, except for the first part. I got to meet aliens and teach them how to knit sweaters and—"

"I admire the brave face, Mabel, but you don't need it right now. I know it's hard."

Mabel's smile fell away. Ford took off his glasses and pulled a soft cloth from one of his million pockets, looking down to start cleaning smudges that weren't there. Stan did the same thing when he didn't want to make eye contact for some reason.

"I…" Ford huffed softly. Mabel wanted to touch him, maybe to give him a hug, but he kept flinching whenever she did, and he never touched her on his own unless he needed to. He just didn't like touching her, it seemed. "I haven't seen another human for a very, very long time. I wasn't very good at dealing with them when I was on Earth, and I've just gotten worse. So…"

He gave a little wave of his hands before pushing his glasses up his nose again. "You're going to need to give me guidance. Tell me what you need and I'll do my best to give it to you. I just need to be told." He clasped his hands together like he was in a business meeting, finally looking at her with that same serious frown he always seemed to have. "So what do you need?"

What did she need?

She needed Dipper. She needed her parents. She needed to go home to her brother and Stan and Waddles and Soos and Wendy and Candy and Grenda.

None of those were things he could give her. She had to think hard about something that could suffice in the meantime, her grip a little too tight on her sandwich as she did so.

"I need…" she straightened up her spine and looked Ford in the eye, puffing out her chest. If he was going to treat this like a business meeting, then so would she. No more weepy little girl. She was mature enough to deal with this. "I need you to tell me if you don't like it when I touch you."

"What?" His eyebrows shot up and he looked a lot like an owl. (More than usual, that was.) He jerked his head back in surprise, then tilted it to the side as he frowned at her, now in confusion, and it didn't help the owl-like appearance. "I, uh… it's not that I don't like it. I'm just not used to it." He blinked at her like she was a big jigsaw puzzle. "But… I'm not used to a lot of things about this. I'll get used to it."

"Okay." Mabel finished off her sandwich. It calmed the pain in her stomach, but not in her chest. "So then… can I have an awkward grunkle hug?"

He jerked his head again in surprise, like hugs were some new-fangled slang the kids came up with in the last thirty years. His frown softened. He spread out his arms just enough for her to crawl into them. "Of course."

Mabel wiped her hands on the fur lining the burrow before wiggling between his arms and pressing her cheek against his shoulder. It was indeed an awkward grunkle hug—his arms stayed looser than she would like, and he remained rigid, but he eventually leaned his head against hers.

"It gets easier," he said softly. "I promise it gets easier."

She stayed curled up against him for a while, and while it was never really a satisfying hug, it was still a hug. It made her feel safe to have him so close, the same way Grunkle Stan could make her feel safe.

Grunkle Stan must be missing them both so much right now.

"What do you do when you miss home?" she asked.

She could feel him shift under her, like he needed to get comfortable. Weird things seemed to make him uncomfortable sometimes, like saying he did things similar to his brother.

"Honestly, I try not to think about home too often. It's hard not to dwell on it if I start."

"Oh." She couldn't imagine a situation where not thinking about home and the family she had there would be the best option. Had Ford spent thirty years pushing all of them out of his head? Was it just that painful to think of the people he loved? (Surely, he must love his family like Mabel did. It didn't occur to her to consider otherwise.)

The idea put a rock in her gut. She wondered if it was painful for him to have her here. The question danced on the end of her tongue, but she didn't want to know the answer.

She couldn't bear to not think about Dipper and all the people back home, so she had to think of something else to feel better. She took a deep breath of her uncle's scent as she thought—leather, salt, the tang of portal energy clinging to his skin, but something familiar under it all.

"It wasn't so awful." She took another deep breath. "This world is really cool, and I get to be one of the only humans to see it. I'm grateful for that." She tucked her hand close, starting to count on her fingers. "And I got to punch Bill in the eye. That was pretty cool."

Ford's huffed laugh brushed against her hair. "That was cool, wasn't it?"

Mabel smiled, part of her preening at her Grunkle's approval, and counted off another finger. "And we got to learn alien braids. That was nice of Anise. I'm grateful for that."

Her mother used to tell her to count her blessings whenever she got caught up in feeling sorry for herself. Maybe she should take her mother's advice.

"Count with me, Grunkle Ford. What's something you're grateful for?"

Ford shifted again, but this time, it was more of a 'thinky' shift than an uncomfortable one. He balanced her on his knees and his arms relaxed around her waist. "I'm grateful to see a new world."

"I already said that," but Mabel was smiling as she relaxed as well against his chest.

"Well, you're counting off good ones, so I might as well count them too." He held up a finger too, beginning to count off on his hand as she did. "I'm grateful we can keep your hair out of the way." Mabel looked up at his face just to see him wink. "And it didn't hurt to get to see my long lost grandniece stab Cipher in the eye."

"You're cheating." Mabel couldn't stop grinning as she started counting again. "I got to teach aliens how to knit sweaters."

"My niece is a natural diplomat." He started to smile too. It made Mabel's heart lighter. "I rephrased it. Does it still count as cheating?"

"Yes." She poked his arm gently. He didn't get rigid, so she took that as a good sign. "But I guess you can cheat until you think of something you're thankful for on your own." She counted her fingers. Four things she was grateful for so far. Her smile softened as she thought of a fifth. "Thank you for saving me from the fish."

His hands twitched, like he wanted to move them but he wasn't sure where. "I'm thankful you're okay."

For number six, she counted out an imaginary sixth finger on her hand to match the real sixth finger on his.

"I'm glad that, if I have to be out here, then that I'm out here with you." And that she could get to know the man long lost to her family, in all his awkward grunkle glory.

His fingers curled in against his burnt and bandaged palms. "Likewise." After a moment went by without another thing to be grateful for, he moved one arm to prop himself up, now only loosely holding her with the other. "Do you feel better?"

"Much." Mabel rolled out of his lap and picked up her half-done knitting. She had some sleeves to finish.

"Good." Ford offered a small smile before taking out a journal—journal number thirty-four according to the cover, which would freak Dipper out to no end—and starting to write in it. "Has Anise come to drop anything off?"

"Not yet. They probably need to get used to making stuff for someone with two arms and legs."

"Hmmm."

The silence that fell between them felt nice. It was peaceful, and eventually Ford fell asleep because he hadn't slept a lot like Mabel had. He snored. Mabel had to resist the urge to giggle. He sounded like Grunkle Stan.

She wondered what Grunkle Stan was up to right now. Probably working hard on the portal with Dipper to save them both. She had faith that neither her grunkle nor her brother would give up on her, even if it took them a while to get the portal to work again.

Before finishing the sleeves of her sweater, she pulled on the white gloves she knit for herself while Ford was gone. Wiggling her fingers to make sure they fit, she dug into Ford's bag and pulled out the glass jar full of shimmering sharp silver hair.

Anise had said offhand that the hair couldn't cut through her fur, so now was the moment of truth. Mabel gingerly reached into the jar, wincing as she closed her fingers around the hair and pulled it out.

And it didn't cut her. The gloves protected her fingers.

Excitement flared in her gut as she twisted strands of the hair together, making it strong before folding it into the yarn cast onto her needles. She was going to knit a ring of the hair around the hems of her sleeves and attach a little knitted button to each sleeve so she could fold them up just enough to keep from accidentally cutting something. Since the sweater was knitted with the white alien fur, the silver hair wouldn't cut her or chop through the protective flap.

Next time a fish tried to eat her, it was going to get smacked with a knife sleeve. That would show it.

When she finished two special white sweaters, she folded them neatly and lay them down next to her just as all sorts of people outside started to put coverings on their black crystals and light was allowed to shimmer through the ice again from the never-setting sun.

Ford was still curled against his bag when Mabel heard scratching outside and a familiar voice that shook the ground saying, "Foreigners!"

Mabel grabbed the coins Ford set aside to pay Anise, letting them clink together as she crawled to the entrance. Anise towered over the burrow, dropping a full leather bag in front of Mabel and snatching the money from her hand without a word, backing up and counting the coins Mabel provided.

"You have to leave now," Anise said curtly.

"What?" Mabel's heart pounded in her ears as she quickly grabbed the bag. She hadn't even had time to get to her feet yet. "Why?"

"Another foreigner came. She's offering money if someone leads her to you, but you paid me first. There are many more portals on the other side of the world. Cross over the crystal field." Anise was already turning to leave. "She's coming for you, little foreigner. It's time to run."

Chapter Text

Earth, July 29th, 2012

"Mr. Pines?"

Stan stretched his back, popping the vertebrae as he hobbled out from behind the vending machine. Soos wiped grease off his hands as he followed, and Wendy wiped her hands on the flannel shirt tied around her hips as she trailed behind.

"Yeah?" Stan grunted and leaned against the register counter. Everything ached. Now that he wasn't working alone, he could see how he was lagging behind the young people. He didn't have another thirty years of work left in him. If it took that long to fix the portal all over again, he might be dead before he…

Best not think on it. Stan had never dwelled too hard on the future before.

"Should we be worried about Dipper?" Soos asked, pointing at the ceiling and hunching his shoulders before pulling at his fingers. "He's been asleep for two days."

"The kid didn't sleep for nearly four days before that. This is normal, trust me," Stan said. There was a package on the counter, something the mailman had handed him earlier that he hadn't had a chance to look at. He now dragged it close, checking the label as Wendy let out a loud teenager-y groan and sat on his counter, right next to the register. He briefly entertained the idea of snapping at her to get off, but it wasn't business hours and he couldn't be bothered.

"Why do I have no problem believing you know what you're talking about?" said Wendy. Stan ignored her. The package was actually meant for Dipper, but since Dipper was asleep and Stan had no respect for other people's things, he tore it open. "Still, I'm pretty worried about him. I mean… he's been through a lot."

Stan could feel his employees' eyes boring into him as he focused on the package. They were a nosey bunch and probably were 'worried' about Stan, too. Well, he didn't need anyone worrying about him. He hadn't had anyone to worry about him in over forty years. Who cared if that damned portal ate a second family member of his? Who cared if Mabel was his responsibility, and that she might still be here if he just were a little more honest? Who cared if the house was unbearably quiet and he'd be ready to kill a man to have just a little more glitter spattered around the Shack?

He clenched and unclenched his hand, clearing his head before pulling the paper off of… a box of Dungeons, Dungeons, and More Dungeons.

"Oh hey, I used to play that game," Soos said, suddenly perking and his fidgeting hands relaxing.

"Yeah? What is it?" Wendy said, leaning to check the box.

"DD&D," Stan said, ignoring the way his employees looked at him like he had turned into a bugman or something. "My brother used to play. Dipper must've ordered it."

The boards above them creaked with little feet. Stan didn't exactly smile, but his face relaxed. "There's the kid now. Told ya he was fine." He'd probably be pretty hungry. Stan thought to his fridge and frowned. He hadn't gone grocery shopping, and the store would be closed by now. Maybe he could order pizza.

After a moment, he noticed Soos and Wendy were being really quiet. They were also staring at him too long. Stan flashed them a scowl. "What, I have something on my face?"

"No, Mr. Pines, not at all…" Soos said, starting to fidget with his hands again.

"It's just you never talk about your brother." Wendy rested her elbows on her knees and frowned at him. "Even after all the… secret stuff came out."

"What, now it's weird if he comes up in conversation?" Stan hunched his shoulders and picked up the box. "He liked a stupid nerd game when we were kids. That's it."

They looked like they were about to ask more questions, but Stan really wasn't feeling like making this a 'make Stan talk about his feelings' night, so he pretended to examine the box art more closely. "Maybe I'll see if Dipper wants to play. It's been over forty years. It can't be as boring and convoluted as I remember."

Soos squinted, but Wendy jumped off the counter, grinning. "Hey, yeah! We could all play DD and whatever it is! What do you say, Soos?"

"I say yes!"

Maybe that'd be a good idea. Dipper could use a game night, though it was already pretty late for Soos and Wendy to be here. Oh well. Stan had sleeping bags to roll out on the floor if they stayed. Maybe they could have pizza too. They'd have to chip in, though.

The little footsteps on the floorboards turned into thumps. Dipper stumbled down the stairs, his hair looking like a warzone and his eyes bugged and wild.

"Grunkle Stan?" Dipper almost tripped down the last step, but he caught himself on the banister. "What time is it?"

"I'll save you the math and say you slept two days." Stan cut Dipper's gaping short by tossing the game box at his head. Dipper just managed to catch it before it took out an eye, but that was with a girly yowl of surprise. "Your nerd game came in. We're playing it. What toppings do you want on your pizza?"

"Oh, we're getting pizza?" Soos said with a grin.

"You two have to chip in if you want to eat it," Stan said, pointing at Wendy and Soos as he made his way to the phone.

Dipper let out an extremely girly squeal as he looked at the box. "It came in!" For the first time in nearly a week, the kid was smiling. Something that had been knotted up in Stan's chest relaxed. Dipper hugged the box, looking at Soos and Wendy with wide, hopeful eyes. "Are you guys going to play too?"

"Pfff." Wendy sidestepped the rows of merchandise to slap Dipper on the back. "Sure thing, my man. Nothing else I'd rather do."

"I'd never pass up playing with all you dudes," Soos said.

"Oh man, oh man, this is the best game! I'll just go get Mabel and—"

Dipper stopped short. His knuckles were white on the box. His smile fell away all at once, his body stilling as if with the expectation of sudden collapse. The air left the room for a moment.

Something squeaked. It was Dipper's breathing. It was getting shorter.

"Hey, dude, I'll help you set up." Soos broke the spell by tapping Dipper's shoulder.

"Yeah, and hand me a rule book, would you? I've never played," Wendy said, brushing against Dipper's side on her way to the den. Before she was gone, she nudged Stan with her elbow, and he grunted, shaking himself before picking up the phone.

The absence of cheerful noise and glitter bit into them all, but Wendy and Soos could keep their heads above water.

Stan got extra pizza since he figured Dipper would be hungry after not eating for two days (and not at all because Soos and Wendy would probably be hungry too after working on the portal through dinner).

With pizza and graph paper scattered around the den, Stan learned two things: one, Dipper really, really liked this dumb game, and two, it was just as boring and convoluted as he remembered.

Wendy's eyes were glazing over. Dipper droned about 'move actions' and 'minor actions' and 'free actions' and Stan longed for death.

But the kid was smiling for the first time since the Incident. While Soos chirped about 'skill checks', Stan and Wendy made eye contact over Dipper's head and nodded to each other grimly. They had an understanding.

They would endure. God help them, they would endure.

(They loved this boy so damn much it was pathetic.)


Dimension ?, July 26th, 2012

It'd been years since Ford had a dream like this. He remembered even here. He rarely dreamed without consciously realizing it was a dream anymore, not since meeting Bill Cipher and learning how to use his dreams like tools… and then later learning how vulnerable he was in them.

He was on a beach. He knew it was meant to be Glass Shard Beach, but it was too dirty even for Jersey. The individual grains of sand were all literal microscopic shards of glass, radioactive moss grew on the rocks, and the seafoam swept in by the poisonous ocean was made of used needles.

Even so, a boy missing his front tooth was working on a moldy shamble of a boat on the shore, his feet bleeding into the glass sand.

Ford sat apart from the scene, just outside of it, like he was looking at a play. Nonetheless, he couldn't help but say, "It's dangerous, Stanley. Give it up."

The boy didn't stop pounding nails into the rotting hull, but he looked up and gave Ford a gap-toothed smile. "Don't be such a sissy. No pain, no gain."

A familiar smoldering fire lit in his gut. "Stanley," he snapped, "there won't be any gain. It will never work, and even if it does, there's nothing out there for you."

"You were always such a liar." Stanley's skin was burning in the too-hot sun, but he paid it no heed as he turned back to their thrice-damned boat. "Even to yourself."

Ford tightened his jaw, trying to remind himself that this was a dream and getting angry would do nothing, but it was hard not to get angry at Stanley. "Have you at least gotten a tetanus shot? Your feet are shredded."

Stanley laughed at him, but when he spoke, it wasn't his voice. It was someone else entirely.

"Grunkle Ford? You have to wake up!"

He snapped awake to his niece shaking his shoulder. The urgency in her eyes had him immediately sitting up and scanning the exit of their burrow. "What's wrong?"

"Anise said someone from another world came here to find us. She told us to find portals on the other side of the world." The leather backpack (white—it was all they had) Ford had ordered for Mabel now sat on the ground, full of the clothes Anise had been commissioned to make. Mabel worried her lip, pulling at her sleeves. "Do you think we could get all the way there?"

"We don't know how big this planet is. Maybe." Ford opened up Mabel's bag and pulled out what she would need—boots, jacket, and pants, all made from the same white leather. Anise swore that the leather was waterproof and would keep Mabel warm and comfortable, and now it was time to put it to the test. "Put these on. You need to be dressed for the snow."

Mabel nodded and took the clothes from him, but she didn't start changing. After a second of her giving him a meaningful look, he remembered she was a pubescent girl and he was an old man.

He cleared his throat. "I'll wait outside." He slid on his own jacket and bag before crawling out of the burrow, wrapping his scarf around his mouth and pulling his goggles on. He had been hoping that they had gotten some breathing room from the destruction of the air bubbles in the dimension that led them here, but he should have known better. Bill Cipher was ready to offer a lot to anyone who could get him Ford, and the bounty hunters ready to try their luck were diverse enough that some would be able to naturally brave the previous dimension without the bubbles.

Normally, he could work with less than twenty-four hours of peace, but Mabel was injured and hadn't had enough time to heal. They would have to leave anyway and hope that his bandages and ointment kept her from bleeding again. If worse comes to worse, he could let her piggyback on him again, but he wasn't sure if that would be feasible all the way to the other side of the planet.

Mabel scurried out of the burrow like she was born in it, securing her bag on her shoulders and now dressed all in white, including a white knitted sweater and white knitted gloves he didn't remember seeing before. He didn't have time to ask questions, though.

"Take my hand and act like it's just any other day. We're just looking through the market for things to resupply," Ford said.

Mabel nodded with a grim turn of her lips and took his offered hand. For a moment, she stared at their fingers lacing together, a thoughtful crease in her brow.

Ford was glad his scarf concealed his expression. "It's okay. I know it feels strange to hold hands with six fingers."

"Strange in a good way," Mabel said immediately. While there was some tension in her eyes, she still managed a smile. "Like all my fingers are getting hugs."

She squeezed his hand gently. For a moment, there was only one thought in his head: no matter what, he had to make sure to keep this girl safe.

"Remember, we're just browsing the market." He kept his hand tight around hers as they started to wander between the stalls, the crush not nearly as bad as the day before. It didn't take long before he saw his niece favoring her injured leg, and all he could do was hope that it would hold out for them. "How do the clothes feel?"

"Like I'm wearing clouds! Except I'm not getting a rash." She still had a note of anxiety in her eyes, but her voice was bright and cheerful as ever as she swerved to avoid bumping into a stall covered in dead semi-transparent fish.

"Good. And what about your leg?" he said, pulling her out of the way of a massive insectoid.

"Oh, it'll be fine." Ford squinted at her suspiciously, but before he could say anything, something awful shrieked far back in the crowd.

"HUMAN!"

The shriek made Ford's bones rattle in their sockets. Damn. Damn damn damn, he knew that voice. Picking up the pace, Ford leaned in to hiss in Mabel's ear. "Do you remember the field of snow we were in when we first got here?"

"I feel you, human!" The crowd was thinning as people hurried to get out of the awful voice's way. Mabel's face was white, but she nodded.

"Go to the field," Ford said, forcing his voice to stay calm. "If I don't meet you in an hour, walk towards the black crystals we saw. Keep walking until you find another portal. I'll catch up."

And if he didn't, he prayed to a god he didn't believe in that she could survive without him.

"Now run." He tapped her back. The crowds were beginning to part, people trying to avoid the subjects of foreign screams, and Mabel wouldn't be able to blend in if she waited. With one painfully reluctant look, she took off, disappearing between alien feet. Ford reached for the gun strapped to his hip and walked in the opposite direction towards the voice. The metal was familiar against his fingers, not too dissimilar to the guns back on Earth. The use of controlled explosions to drive exploding pieces of metal into one's enemies was fairly universal. "If you can feel me, then come face me!" he shouted into the crowd.

Furry merchants gnashed razor teeth at him. "Fight somewhere else, foreigner!" They stomped their feet, causing the insectoids to crawl up the ice walls to avoid the shaking. Ford grinned as the familiar voice shrieked in frustrated confusion and he started running into one of the larger tunnels shooting off from the market, where the crowds thinned to people glaring at him from small burrows and cells peppering the walls of the tunnel like honeycomb. If he remembered right, this tunnel would loop into the snow fields outside, and maybe he was lucky and lost his hunter in the commotion—

But he was never lucky.

"Human!"

Ford looked up to see a familiar tangled black mass of thrashing barbed hairs crawling along the ceiling. Every word from her sounded like it was scraped into the ice, grinded out through vibrations in her hairs.

Immediately, Ford pointed his gun at the bounty hunter and fired. The spines and hairs thrashing all over her caterpillar-like body suddenly came together to catch the bullet between them like some sea urchin from hell. Some spines crunched from the pressure, but the bullet didn't burst like it was supposed to, the impact not being powerful enough, and then the spines were thrashing again and long hairs like antennae skimmed on the ice, the hunter none the worse for wear.

"Haven't you learned by now that it's not worth it to hunt me, Anette?" Ford said, keeping his gun steady even though he knew it would do nothing at this angle.

Anette—that wasn't her real name, but Ford didn't have prehensile hairs, spines, and antennae to pronounce her real name, so it was what he was going with—dropped down from ceiling and hit the ground with a thud, her antennae brushing against the floor to feel his heartbeat and her spines and hairs dragging her forward.

"You escaped once. You're cocky."

It was luck that saved him last time, really. He had been in a hub world in a desert made of fibrous strands of wool. The fibers made it easier for her to move quickly. It also made it harder for her to sense the footsteps and heartbeat of Ford, who was able to make his escape after accidentally causing a riot among the merchants and refugees there. He didn't escape before sustaining serious injuries, though.

But now he knew her weakness.

As she approached, he had to back up. She was aiming to pin him to a wall where she could wrap her hairs around him. He tried to shimmy towards the exit, but Annette snapped down a barbed hair in his path like a whip. "Cipher has increased your bounty. They say you have a little human now."

Ford did his best to keep his poker face, but he couldn't keep his heart from suddenly thundering in his chest. Annette's spines made an awful clicking noise as she vibrated them together.

"Come with me and I won't eat the little one."

Ford fired his gun at the beast, not bothering to watch her catch another bullet with splintering spines before he sprinted towards the mouth of the cave. He barely had time to rip out the knife he kept hidden on his thigh before hairs snapped around his ankles, yanking his feet from under him.

His back slammed into the ice. The hunter was already pulling him in. Ford sat up, slicing the hairs around his ankles just as more started to wrap around him. That wasn't going to get him free.

He slammed his foot into the hunter's body, crunching the spines under his shoe. Annette hissed as more spines moved to compensate, but Ford started to shoot. Spines shifted faster than he could blink to catch the bullets, but the force was crushing them. The hairs loosened around his ankles as the spines thinned, and with one last crushing kick, he was scrambling free, stumbling towards the exit. If he could just get out into the snow, her ability to feel his movements in the ground would be severely hampered, and he stood a chance of getting away.

"HUMAN!"

Hairs snapped around his thighs, barbs digging through his pants and slamming on the ground again. Ford cursed, twisting to face Annette again as she reared up, her spines clicking against each other as her hairs wrapped his legs together.

"That is more than enough—" she didn't have time to finish, because a streak of silver shot from above and hooked into Annette's mass of spines and hair.

"GRAPPLING HOOK!" came a very familiar voice, just as the hook started retracting upwards again, pulling Annette's top half up with it. Annette hissed, thrashing and cursing, but her underbelly was revealed—a fleshy, throbbing distended stomach with a hooked beak.

Ford didn't think. He shot her in the stomach. It burst with the bullet, her innards falling on the ice as Ford cut himself and Mabel's hook loose. Annette lay in a pool of her own alien organs, still and silent.

The hook snapped up into one of the small cells, where he could see the shock of his niece's brown hair and a familiar glass insectoid with a knitted sweater and hat.

"Go on, little foreigner," the insectoid said, tapping Mabel in the back with one leg before she shot her hook to the wall and grappled down.

"This isn't the snow field, Mabel," Ford said, frowning as he caught her in the air. She was grinning at him, but her grin wavered at his expression. He felt like an ass, especially since she had just been so brave, but she had to know that she had to follow his directions.

"I wanted to help." Mabel said, her smile falling away completely. Ford shook his head before putting her down and resting a hand on her shoulder.

"I know, and I appreciate it, but that was very dangerous and I would have been okay on my own." He took her hand again, walking her past the growing pool of blood around Anette. "There are more bounty hunters like her. We need to go."

Mabel looked back at Annette, worrying her lip. "She'll be okay, right?"

Ford's voice caught in his throat. He swallowed the lump down and pulled her into the blue-washed snow outside of the ice caves. "The important thing is that we're okay."

Her face fell. It had been decades since killing in self-defense bothered Ford, but it looked like Mabel was going to be sick.

There was nothing to say, so he laced their fingers together and kept walking.


Earth, July 30th, 2012

"Now, boy, I'm sure it's nothing."

Bud's words rang through Gideon's head as he stormed through the halls of his prison. The plain gray walls trembled and the cell bars rattled with his rage—or at least they did in his head, and he'd try to pound on them as hard as he could with his fist to make them do so in reality as well.

"She's probably just sick in bed."

The guards glanced at him only to smile indulgently before getting back to their work ushering prisoners back from the visiting center. Only the prisoners cared about the storm cloud following him. A man with a burn blotching the entire side of his face from when he set a building on fire bent over to whisper to him. "Gideon, something wrong?"

"No one's seen your girl around for near a week, is all it is. I'm sure I'll have some pictures for you next week."

Gideon brushed off his fellow prisoner before stomping to his cell and yanking out a precious box from under his bed, throwing it on his pillow and tearing the lid off.

Dozens and dozens of pictures, all of his precious Mabel. Some of them had torn or burnt edges where he had removed the image of that wretched Dipper or that thrice-darned Stanford. His father was always good for pictures. He knew how to find them, and he knew people who didn't mind taking them for him. No matter what, there were always pictures. Even if Bud had to pay someone off to pose as a tourist in the Shack, there were always pictures. If there weren't pictures, something was wrong.

"Oh, my sweet Mabel, what'd they do to you?" Gideon sat on the edge of his bed to flip through the pictures, heart bursting with longing as he traced her perfect smile and chocolate eyes with his gaze. "I knew something like this would happen. Dipper and Stanford Pines are menaces. Only I can take care of you."

He slowly stroked one fingertip over the curve of her cheek in an image of her knitting on her porch. He memorized every detail, from the grass stains on her delightful knees to her adorable bare toes to the lovely gleam of sun reflecting off her blessed braces.

"I'll save you from whatever they did," Gideon said to the picture. He laid it in a place of honor right next to his pillow before approaching a cat poster on his wall.

He tore it down, revealing Bill Cipher's insignia, stark in chalk on cement. He bared his teeth, slamming his own cell shut as the other prisoners meandered about their business.

"Bill Cipher! I'm ready to make a deal."

A passing guard gave him an odd look, but laughter rang in Gideon's mind and all color washed away from the world.

Motion halted. Only Gideon's orange suit maintained its hue, and the insignia on the wall burned as the laughter got louder and louder, reaching a crescendo that threatened to split Gideon's skull.

Then the image of Bill on the wall became yellow and the beast himself melted out of the rock. As usual, his appearance was a little underwhelming after all the hype.

"Well, if it isn't my favorite fake psychic!" Bill bobbed around the room, putting his hands on his… hips? Putting his hands on the edges of his triangle form as he swept the prison's sparse accommodations. "I love what you've done with the place! It's so… devoid of personality! Except your stalker box. That has loads of personality!"

"Prison has policies about decoration." Gideon pouted as he crossed his arms. "And I'm stuck here, no thanks to you."

The triangle's eye squinted in some facsimile of a smile as he laughed. "Oh, you're cute. Don't do anything for free, kid! If you want something from me, you gotta make a deal so I can have something in return." Bill descended so he was floating just above Gideon's bed, like he wanted the appearance of sitting without actually doing so. "Is that what you want from me? 'Cuz I can break you outta here in a snap." He wiggled his fingers as they began to burn blue. "Wanna deal?"

"That's not what I want," Gideon said, waving off the burning hand. Bill heaved an impressive sigh for someone without a mouth and wrung his burning hand, extinguishing all the flames.

"Okay, Pentagram. If you don't want to bust out of prison, what's up?"

Gideon stayed standing since it made him feel like he was intimidating Bill while the triangle was sitting. Bill looked thoroughly unintimidated. "I want Mabel Pines."

The singular eye narrowed thoughtfully. Bill scratched the spot on his body that might have been a chin if he were a human. "Oh yeah?"

Clenching his fists, Gideon began to stalk around the room. His mother would cower and his father would be silenced when he was in this sort of mood, and Bill's nonplussed expression wasn't making him any less angry. "She's been missing for a week, but no one's reported she's missing. I know that wretched Pines family did something terrible to her, probably because she realized how much she loved me and they didn't approve!" Gideon beat his fists against his legs as he bent down to shove his face into Bill's. "I want her back!"

Gideon immediately regretted getting his face so close to Bill's eye. Inside of it, images flickered too fast for him to understand, and it tugged at the edges of his brain, like it was letting him know that it could tear him apart in a moment.

"Well, look at that. You're smarter than you look." Instead of cowering, Cipher just poked one finger against Gideon's forehead, forcing him to step back. Gideon tried not to look too relieved when he could no longer see the images in Bill's eye. "You're right. They did something terrible. Pine Tree pushed her into another dimension, and now she's trapped!"

What?

Gideon sucked in a sour lungful. He was right. He knew he had been right all along, but to hear the extent of the crimes from someone else was horrifying. What sort of Cain and Abel story was this?

"Lucky for you!" Bill waved a finger in the air. "I can figure out how to get her back. The trouble is that it'll take a lot of time. Like, possibly thirty years."

"No!" Gideon stomped his foot and glared at Cipher, his fists shaking at his sides. "That's not acceptable!"

"Well! Then you're going to need to help me." Bill steepled his fingers and leaned forward, his single eye narrowing. "There are some things you can do that will make it a lot easier for me to work. I can get her back to Earth. And, of course, if I do this for you, you gotta do something for me."

"Great!" The tension rolled away from Gideon and he tapped his fingers together, grinning at his hands. "When I save Mabel, she'll stay with me forever! I'll do what you need me to, and I will destroy the Pines family so you—"

"Whoa there, Pentagram," Bill held up his hands, his body shaking as if he were shaking his head. "You kill the Pines right now, and you'll make my job a lot harder."

Kill? Killing seemed strong, but a slow smolder began in Gideon's stomach. Didn't they deserve it for harming his beloved Mabel?

"Leave them for now. You can have whatever revenge fantasy you want after Shooting Star is back and we've all gotten what we want."

Gideon grinded his teeth together. He played out various scenarios of Stanford and Dipper Pines' deaths in his head, becoming more and more attached to them. "Agreed." But the moment it looked to him that Bill would fail to provide Mabel in a timely manner, he would avenge her in an appropriate fashion.

Bill raised one hand, blue flames bursting from his palm and licking his fingertips. "Then let's make a deal."

Gideon's gut burned. I'm coming for you, my peach dumpling.

And if he couldn't have her, then he would make sure her family paid for their sins.

"Deal."

Chapter Text

Earth, July 30th, 2012

Grunkle Stan was drinking. Dipper hadn't noticed at first, but that morning, he found empty bottles under the porch, some so fresh he could still smell the alcohol and his great uncle's cheap cologne on them.

Adults drank. That's just what they did. Dipper (and Mabel) never understood it because alcohol was gross, but all adults did it. Dipper was pretty sure not all adults hid a half dozen empty bottles under their house.

Dipper sat in a utility closet—he'd prefer to sit in that than their room—as he painstakingly rewrote all of the notes Old Man McGucket had given him, trying to focus on a problem that he knew how to actually help. McGucket was working too slowly, sometimes coherent and sometimes dissolving into raving. His notes were spattered with images of eyes and splotched halfway missives to 'Ford.'

'Ford do you think this might'

'told you not to rush me Pines'

'do we really have enough safety precautions'

'Dipper be careful to insulate this or it will make it all overheat'

'Ford where are you getting these ideas'

'who are you working for'

Dipper could feel McGucket's grasp on the present bubbling and writhing on the paper. Was he doing the wrong thing? Maybe McGucket wasn't ready to engage with this again. Maybe he needed more time to remember and heal.

Mabel didn't have time, though. McGucket would be fine, Dipper rationalized. Besides, it'd probably be good for him to do deal with his past. Probably.

What had Stanford Pines done? Was he the one to blame for everything? McGucket, Stan, Mabel, everything? Was he the one they all could point to for their pain and the unbearable knot that had tied itself in the Pines family?

A dark part of Dipper wanted to blame him. It'd be easy. It wasn't Grunkle Stan's fault he was drinking. It wasn't McGucket's fault he was crazy. It wasn't Dipper's fault Mabel was gone. It was all Stanford Pines, the author, the bogeyman. He ruined their lives.

Dipper hadn't written a word in nearly a minute. He growled and threw his pen against the wall before slumping over the half-mad notes.

Just because it would be easy to blame Stanford didn't mean it was right. It was Dipper's fault Mabel was gone. Dipper, who hadn't trusted her, Dipper who had wrestled over the button with her, Dipper who had shoved her in the direction of the portal when gravity was weak. Dipper was the reason she was gone and Stan was drinking. Stanford didn't do any of that. Stanford probably wasn't even alive to do any of that.

Dipper covered his eyes with the heels of his palms, taking shaky breath after shaky breath. He didn't know why. There wasn't any light in the leaky closet besides his penlight. He wondered what he would say to his parents the next time he called, but he had no idea.

What was Mabel doing right that moment? It was a question he kept asking himself, and he kept on thinking of different answers. Maybe she was in a dimension made of gummy bears. Maybe there were mountains of ice cream with tons of sprinkles and when it was time for her to go home, she'd beg them for five more minutes to finish eating a sprinkle the size of her head. Maybe she was in a world like old Wild West movies, where she rode horses and saved boys tied to railroads all day.

Maybe she was dead.

Dipper snapped his little notebook shut over McGucket's notes and marched out of the closet. No. No, he wasn't thinking about that. (Already, unwelcome images of his sister's lifeless body flashed through his head.) He wasn't thinking about that. He had to be like Mabel. He had to be positive. He had to believe in both of them: in her ability to survive and his ability to bring her back home.

He couldn't think of Stan. He couldn't think of McGucket. He couldn't think of Mabel. He just had to be positive and focus. Just focus.

The happy murmur of tourists and the cheerful boom of his grunkle's showman voice (it was all a lie; he would be drinking again after he sent Dipper to bed) told Dipper that another tour group was coming through. Dipper weaved through the private halls that skirted the exhibition areas and peeked into the gift shop. It looked like Stan had taken in all the tourists, because it was empty except for Wendy reading a magazine at the register.

Coast was clear.

Dipper hugged his book to his chest and ducked into the gift shop, making a beeline for the vending machine. If he could get to the portal, maybe he could set things up for the work tonight, like clear off some stray debris and lay out the instructions on what had to happen today and—

He reached up to the vending machine to insert the code when Wendy's foot was suddenly shoved in his way. "I don't think so, Dipper."

She had just materialized next to him, crossing her arms and frowning. "You know we're not supposed to go down there when it's work hours."

Dipper sputtered, clutching his book tighter to his chest. "Since when do you care about rules?"

"I don't," she said with a shrug. "But you have to be smart about not getting caught, especially when we're probably breaking a hundred different laws. We gotta keep everything down there on the DL, and you never know when someone might come to the gift shop."

As if by some cosmic rude gesture to Dipper, a family of six crashed in from outside, bringing with them two toddlers and a flurry of noise. Wendy jerked her head towards them as she meandered back to the register. "Case in point. You want to hang with me instead?"

Dipper fiddled with the cover of his notebook. For a moment, he wanted to scream. He wanted to kick out all the stupid tourists and yell at Wendy and throw himself into the lab. Every moment he waited, Mabel was in trouble.

Wendy's brow creased. "Dipper?"

He struggled to breathe, but he only managed a tight, "I'm going outside," before pulling the brim of his cap over his eyes and sprinting past the babbling tourists.

He didn't stop running after he got into the forest. Brambles and branches caught on his clothes and skin as he tore through. Creatures lurking in the brush scurried away before he trampled them. He was floating away from his body but his feet were still going, faster and faster to outrun the horrible sense of impending doom crushing his chest.

A root snagged his ankle. He flipped into the ground, his leg on fire, rocks grinding into his cheek. Dipper pushed himself to his elbows, spitting out dirt and scrabbling for the book of notes in the ferns. He struggled to breathe, but it felt like he was choking. Was he dying? He was twelve, too young to just randomly choke and die.

He hugged the notebook to his chest and curled into a ball, struggling to breathe. The book didn't have the same reassuring weight as the journal. Something childish in him wanted the journal to hug and hold, but everything about it was ruined now.

Dipper wasn't one to pray. He never really thought much about God and angels and things like that, even when his parents dragged him and Mabel to synagogue. He found himself praying anyway, stringing together half-remembered blessings and songs in English and bastardized Hebrew. He fought to breathe and pray at the same time, and the struggle to remember even what few prayers he could muster helped him get his heartbeat down from a mouse's to a jackrabbit's.

Even though God was the one he named—Adonai, Eloheinu, Lord our God—he thought of the author, Stanford Pines, the dead man that had haunted their family for thirty years, and every word was directed to him.

Dipper didn't know if Stanford was alive or dead, or even if he was the kind of man that Dipper would have been proud to call his great uncle, but he prayed to his spirit anyway. Please, please, please, whether Stanford was alive or dead, please let him look out for Mabel.

Dipper had faith in family before any god, and he had to have faith that someone would be there for Mabel when he couldn't be.

The sense of impending doom eased with his heartbeat. Dipper's hair was damp with sweat and the half-blessings trailed off. The world was just as quiet as his head.

He didn't know how long he lay there, shaking and squeezing his notebook, when a familiar shadow fell over him.

"Getting comfortable down there?" Grunkle Stan's voice rolled like thunder that smoked too much. He was still dressed sharp in his Mr. Mystery outfit sans the iconic fez, and he leaned against a tree trunk with his cane resting comfortably between his legs. "I'm going to stay up here if you don't mind. Old bones make it hard to get up and down, you know."

Dipper slid into a sitting position. A part of Dipper wanted to just bury his head in Stan's stomach and cry like he used to do with his mother, but that wasn't the sort of thing that felt right with Stan. "How'd you find me?" he said instead, starting to brush the rocks from his face.

"Kid, you didn't get far." Stan jerked his head to the right, and Dipper could see the Mystery Shack through the trees. Dipper tried not to blush too much. "So what are you up to?"

Dipper considered lying, but Stan could always tell when he lied, even if he didn't call the lie out. Dipper looked down at his book and tried to wipe dirt from the cover, but he just smeared more on. "Praying," he mumbled.

"Praying?" Stan didn't sound as derisive as Dipper expected. "I don't think I've prayed in forty years. Me and the big guy aren't really on speaking terms, but maybe you'll have more luck."

Dipper shrugged, still focusing on ineffectually cleaning his book. "It wasn't really to anyone. I was just praying, I guess."

"Yeah?" Stan rested his arm on his cane, cocking his head at Dipper. "What were you praying for?"

For some reason, it felt wrong that the notebook's cover was just a plain gray. Dipper pressed his hand over it, but he was one finger short. "I was praying that Great Uncle Stanford would look after Mabel."

Stan was hard to read. He was a consummate conman and he was always hard to read when he really wanted to be. He sighed and tapped his fingers against his cane. "You know, my brother didn't know any more about kids than I do, but he'd love you two to bits."

Dipper brought his knees under his chin and hugged them, staring at his hand on his book.

"You're a little like him. You're both complete nerds."

Dipper let out a huff that vaguely resembled a laugh. It was hard to imagine himself being much like the mysterious author, Stanford Pines.

"You laugh now, but it was tragic. You actually have a leg up on him in not being hopeless." A thread of nostalgic cheer made its way into Stan's voice, and Dipper wondered how long it had been since his grunkle had been able to talk to anyone about his twin. "When we were your age, Stanford would get so nervous that he'd forget how to talk whenever we were even near a girl. He didn't get much better in high school, let me tell you."

Stan crouched down to Dipper's level. A rueful smile lined his face even while his knees popped. "The point is, he's a man like any other, and he'd be a total sucker for you and Mabel. I may not have seen him in thirty years, but if I know anything about him, I know this: if he's still out there somewhere, then he'll find Mabel, and he'll protect her with his life."

Gently, Stan rested a hand on Dipper's shoulder, giving it a little squeeze. "And hey, she'd be good for him. Get him to stop taking himself so seriously. I bet he'd be fixing her hair within a day. Two, tops."

Dipper let out another huff. It was the closest thing to a laugh he had right now, but it was something. "I don't think anyone can take themselves seriously with Mabel for long."

"Exactly." Stan nudged Dipper's shoulder again before letting it go. "You want to hang out in the woods forever or do you want to come back to the Shack? I don't want Soos to be doing too many tours."

Dipper's grip loosened a little on his book, but he hesitated. He wanted to talk to Stan about the bottles, about the way that they were both dealing with things, but he couldn't think of how to bring it up. Instead, he said, "Soos is doing tours? I bet he loves that."

"Yeah. He got pretty emotional about it. I should get back." Stan stood up, grunting when all his joints popped again. He held out a hand to Dipper. "We both should."

Dipper hugged his book and nodded before taking his grunkle's hand.


Dimension ?, July 26th, 2012

They were on an ice planet, and so far, Ford had seen no indication that the sun would ever set. It only stood to reason that there was another side of the planet that was far colder and never saw the light of day.

He didn't know how long it would take to get there. His energy detector promised that there was enough energy to indicate several portals over a day's walk away, but he couldn't know if that was the place Anise was talking about.

Mabel was a trooper, as if she hadn't been through this whole ordeal. She was silent as they walked for a couple hours before she started picking up snow and eating it.

"Careful not to have too much at once. You don't want to bring down your body temperature," Ford said to her, but he couldn't argue against hydration and ate some for himself.

Eventually, she wasn't eating the snow anymore. After too many hours passed, she was picking up handfuls of it and sculpting faces.

"This is Snowdy," she said, holding up a disturbingly well-crafted grumpy male snow face. "And this is Elicea," she said, presenting an equally disturbing feminine face. "They're in love, but Snowdy is a prince betrothed to the queen of the frost elves and Elicea is poor."

The empty eyes of the snow faces bore into Ford's soul, but he listened anyway. When was the last time he got to hear an old-fashioned fairytale?

"But Elicea lives in a cemetery, and she was a witch like her mother and her grandmother and her great-grandmother and so on." Mabel shoved her creepy snow faces into Ford's hands, and suddenly he was holding them a foot away from his body as she picked up another handful of snow and started sculpting it. "So Elicea called upon the dark powers that be to summon the dead, and she called a ghost to scare the queen of the frost elves away from Snowdy."

It couldn't be seen through his goggles and scarf, but Ford couldn't help but squint at his niece. He wondered how much of this was influenced by the things she had seen and how much was just from a dark imagination.

"But the ghost she summoned was her long lost childhood friend, Flakelin!" Mabel held up another masculine face, this one looking younger. "Flakelin tragically sacrificed his life to save Elicea from a house fire when they were kids because he was in love, and that love never went away, even in death! Now Elicea wanted him to go scare the queen of frost elves and ruin a dynasty so she could run away with Snowdy, and Flakelin couldn't bear it! So Flakelin went to the queen in secret to plot. The queen could get rid of Elicea, and Flakelin could have her for himself."

Well, she wouldn't be a Pines if she weren't weird.

Ford started to smile, even as the story spiraled into a tale of attempted assassination, necromancy, and witchcraft. She used him to juggle the faces she wasn't using to tell the story, the number of which grew and grew as she got her hands on more snow. Soon, the elf queen's angular features joined the pile, as well as Elicea's witchy mother's heavy eyelids and the human king's lined forehead—"Heavy is the head that wears the crown," Mabel intoned as she packed the king's face around an ice ball—and Ford admired how skilled she was sculpting things during pauses in her narrative.

She spun her yarn and the snow eventually gave way under their feet until they were walking on a massive expanse of multicolored crystal. The crystal was hardened in ripples with tall, sharp spires littering the land. They avoided the black crystals, and under their feet, there was the outline of something big swimming beneath the surface.

There was no snow, but the world had just gotten colder. The further they walked, the more the blue sun sank over the horizon. They were well on their way to 'the other side of the world.'

"And then Elicea seized the throne and the elven race descended into anarchy. The end!" Mabel started to arrange her sculptures, now freezing in the rapidly dropping temperatures, on her shoulders and head.

"And what about the elven prince? What happened to him?" Ford said as he pulled a glowstick from his bag. He had a feeling they would need the illumination soon.

"The ghost of witches past took him away to the spirit world so he could one day return and bring his people back to their former glory!"

She had a big metallic smile, but her movements were getting sluggish. The sun disappeared over the horizon and Ford cracked his glowstick. "Do you make up stories like that on the spot?"

"Sometimes." Mabel rolled her sculpted snow faces up and down her arms before letting them smash to the ground. In Ford's chest, there was the tiniest twinge to see them go. "Sometimes I just use the stories I already made up. Or dreams. The dream stories get weird."

Ford kept his glowstick low so he could watch Mabel. It washed her out even more than the blue sun had. She looked like a ghost straight out of her story. "I liked it," he said, earning a bright grin that didn't make her look any more alive.

They had been walking at a leisurely pace for hours, but they hadn't had breaks and now it was more important than ever to keep moving. Frost was forming on Mabel's exposed eyelashes and hair. Her clothes were meant to withstand the cold, but she was still healing and it was possible for the sunless side of an ice planet to get beyond the temperatures any clothing could save them from.

"How does your leg feel?" Ford had periodically forgotten to actually keep an eye on her leg, and now that he was paying attention again, her limp was getting worse.

"Oh, that? Pfffffff…" Mabel tried to make a dismissive sound, but it wasn't terribly convincing, especially when her teeth started to chatter. She was losing spark the further he pushed her. "I'll be better once we're gone."

He wanted to check, but at these temperatures, any pause would pose more danger of frostbite. With a twinge, he noticed that Mabel's ears and lips had turned blue. He should have thought to buy a scarf from Anise. Excellent caretaking, Ford: not even a week and your niece is already losing pieces.

"Here." He pulled off his own black scarf. The cold bit into his neck and face, tearing at his skin and freezing his blood, but he ignored it and wrapped the fabric around Mabel's neck instead. She made a soft noise in the back of her throat, but she didn't protest as he made sure her mouth and ears were covered up by a scarf far too big for her.

"It's like I have a fuzzy igloo on my head," Mabel said. Her teeth still chattered, but not quite as badly, which was a comfort as Ford's own teeth started to chatter.

He double-checked his energy detector. There were going to be multiple portals cropping up nearby, but not yet. A curse danced on his tongue, but he swallowed it. "Keep your hands in your pockets, Mabel."

Her gloves wouldn't protect her from temperatures this bad. She dutifully shoved her hands in her pockets, but she was wilting in the cold. Back slouching, eyelids drooping, she began to lag behind him.

"Mabel, you need to stay with me." Ford wanted to take her hand, but their hands needed to stay in their pockets. He couldn't afford for them to lose dexterity when they needed to be able to operate the energy detector.

"I'm with you. Where else would I be?" A sleepy giggle told him he couldn't let her stand still. At this point, they were just circling the area the portals were going to form. A part of him wanted to pick her up and zip her in his jacket, but that would just make it easier for her to fall asleep.

"Would you like to hear a story?" Ford was grasping at straws, but Mabel perked, her eyes fluttering as she stumbled next to him. Their pace was slowing to a crawl.

"I like stories," she said.

Ford mentally urged the portals to hurry the hell up. The glowstick was going to dim soon, and he needed to keep Mabel awake. "What kind of story do you want to hear?"

Mabel bumped into his leg. It'd be cute if it weren't for the fact he was pretty sure she didn't mean to. "Maybe something about you and Grunkle Stan when you were little?"

Normally, the mere mention of Stan would clam him up, but Ford couldn't really think beyond needing to keep Mabel awake. He thought back to Glass Shard, to two little boys that got sunburnt on the beach. The memory always felt like a spike slowly going through his ribs—painful, but at the same time, there were times it was the only thing keeping him standing. The picture he kept inside his coat but rarely looked at these days burned against his chest. "I was bullied as a child. I had six fingers and a high IQ, so I was an easy target. My father wanted us both to learn how to box to deal with the bullies ourselves, but Stanley was better at it than I was. He said it was okay because he'd always be there to beat up the bullies for me anyway."

The cold did a good job of numbing the twinge in his heart. Instead of thinking too hard about little Stanley's cocksure smile and protective (possessive) attitude, he concentrated on Mabel and making sure she was still walking with him.

"I told him he could never beat up the bullies all at once, which he decided was a challenge. He decided to trap all the boys together and beat them up for me. I thought this was an incredibly stupid idea, but he somehow talked me into it."

Electricity crackled in the air and Ford's hair stood on end. The portals were gathering, but Mabel was slowing down and Ford's lips were numb.

Mania was bleeding into his voice, forcing energy he didn't have, but he had to keep the girl awake. "We dug a hole in the beach. We heard about soldiers making traps overseas and decided to try doing the same thing. We were going to camouflage the hole and lure bullies into falling into it so we could get them all together."

The ice under their feet groaned. Was something moving under it? He couldn't see with the glowstick.

"The trouble was we forgot where we put the hole. We went looking for it. I managed to fall in and cut my foot on a piece of glass. The moral of the story is don't try to use Vietnam tactics on a beach." Mabel stumbled. Dexterity be damned, he snapped a hand out to catch her by the back of her jacket. "Mabel?" The cold tore into his hand and drilled into his bones.

Mabel sagged from his grip. He gave her a sharp jerk, forcing her lolling head to tilt up again. He licked his lips, trying to force some feeling back into them. "Mabel," he snapped.

The glowstick gleamed in her eyes as they slid open. "How'd you get out of the hole?" she said too softly.

The air crackled. Electric fissures split open around them, washing out the world in flickering blue light and creating spires of shadow painted on the ground. The ice beneath their feet started to groan louder.

Ford sucked in the frigid air, but he had to keep Mabel awake and calm. The portals didn't even show an image of the place they led to yet, so it wouldn't be safe to go through them. He kicked the ground, skittering shards of ice everywhere.

He thought back to a faraway beach, one with a warm sun and normal childlike problems. "Stanley carried me out." The ice shards weren't rocks, but they'd do in a pinch. The ice under them cracked. Something was coming from under it. Heart battering itself against his ribs, he focused on the portals. They were all that mattered. "Our father took out the glass and wrapped my foot. Stanley never suggested trapping bullies again."

Mabel didn't answer. He had to look to see her hanging limp in his hand. She wasn't shivering anymore. "Mabel?"

Images shimmered in the portals. There was a variety of environments, from fire and brimstone to mountaintops made of something wobbling and gel-like. With a crunch, the ice beneath their feet started to splinter and rise.

Stanford hoisted Mabel into his arms and threw a handful of ice chips into any portal that looked habitable.

Just as something began to rise from the ice, he heard noise from one of the portals. He ducked and lunged.

There was an immediate difference between the portals. Instead of frenzied and overwhelming, the color and light he was becoming used to was washed out and floated, motionless. It didn't seek anything out or create anything within itself.

Space stretched. The heart of color was floating away.

No.

Ford grabbed the vivid flares and dragged them closer. It shuddered and flickered and thrashed in his grip, and he could see. The universe was laid out for him in all its breathtaking wonder. Everything burst with potential. The tiniest flower petal was worth awe, and they unfolded all around him with the stars.

Something in his head screamed. The light bucked his grip, and they were on the other side.

Ford stepped out into a dead field with Mabel squirming weakly in his arms. Her eyes fluttered, her skin smoked, then she slumped against his chest, still again.

 

Chapter Text

Earth, August 1st, 2012

Pacifica didn't have much time to herself, especially during the summer. During the summer, she had to get in all the tutoring and extra lessons that couldn't get done during the school year. Luckily, she usually had a say in what she had to learn. Horseback riding, piano, golf, that sort of thing. Sometimes her parents made an executive decision and she had to take classes she'd rather not, like accounting, Mandarin, Japanese, and rhetoric. She was the only child of the Northwest family and she was expected to pick up the business, so her parents were just plying her with all the skills she would need. To meet their goals, she needed to pass a fluency exam in three foreign languages by December. Thus, she was busy.

As the heir, her parents kept a very close eye on her progress, and her father would regularly call her to his side to talk about the business and explain how he was resolving conflicts and keeping things running smoothly. This was the only time she was allowed to take a break from studies before all her work was finished.

Pacifica was on her way to her father's office for such a chat, having been told by a servant that she was summoned, when she heard him erupt into earsplitting laughter.

"Dad?"

Pacifica poked her head into the office, which was decorated with a liberal amount of exotic animal busts her parents shot down together on various safaris. Her father laughed over his cherry wood desk, his face getting red and eyes watering as he slid a page across the desk to Pacifica.

"Pacifica, I think I found a project for you."

Pacifica groaned inwardly but forced a smile and hoped that this wouldn't take away from the time she needed to dedicate to her 'save Mabel from interdimensional portal' project. "What, did a charity ask for a donation again?"

Her father waved a hand as he wiped his eyes, his laughter starting to subside into chuckles. "They might as well have."

Pacifica smoothed the paper before reading it, a habit she picked up from her mother. It was a letter from…

"Bud Gleeful?" She wrinkled her nose. "The used car salesman?" Her father's laughter renewed as she kept reading. My family is interested in purchasing an item from your personal collection. "And he wants Edward Northwest III's mirror." Pacifica frowned at her father as she neatly folded the letter. "He had a mirror we're still keeping?"

"Yes, yes, that old thing." Her father clasped his hands over his desk the same way she always saw him do with his assistants. "It was one of those curiosities he collected. I think it was from an Eskimo tribe or some nonsense."

Evidence of Edward Northwest III was usually kept out of the public eye. Only his curiosities remained in a private collection that Pacifica never bothered perusing too much. He had collected them from different corners of the Earth when his health declined and he wanted to leave a legacy, or so the Northwests told everyone else. In truth, he just lost his mind after his mistress left him, bought a lot of expensive artifacts, and eventually hunted her down and killed them both in a dramatic tabloid-worthy murder suicide. Just another ugly chapter in Northwest history.

"So… you want me to send a letter saying we're not interested in selling?" Pacifica said.

"Almost." Her father waved a finger in her general direction. "I want you to have the artifact appraised, see how much it is worth, then send him a letter telling him exactly how far out of his budget it is." He chuckled to himself, easing back into his plush chair. "A used car salesman, thinking he can afford a piece of Northwest history. The nerve!"

Pacifica swallowed a grimace. "Okay. I'll get right on it." She left her father chuckling in his chair and rifling through a pile of letters on his desk. It was off to Edward Northwest III's curiosity display, then.

It was a nothing project, but it was a sign of things getting back to normal between her and her father. Things had been weird since the party, when she resisted the bell and let the people of Gravity Falls into their home. She couldn't imagine disobeying her parents before, but now she was funding pet projects behind their back and fantasizing about—

No, she wasn't going to think about that. The point was that the way things worked were up in the air now, and her parents were dealing with the problem by pretending it didn't exist. Maybe if Pacifica played along, she could carve out her own freedom to work with once she graduated grad school. Just… fifteen years more to go.

Pacifica swallowed a sigh and weaved through the house to the abandoned (but still regularly dusted) wings where they kept art and artifacts they weren't actively displaying in the more public areas of the manor.

Edward Northwest III had a dedicated room with a painted ceiling and a Persian rug rolled out on the floor, as if those fancy touches would take away from how utterly incoherent the room was otherwise.

The collection was too eclectic to display, but too interesting to discard, with artifacts from all around the world of varying value. A mummy with hieroglyphics painstakingly painted on every strip of wrapping was the centerpiece of the room, lying in a glass case on a golden platform carved and painted with more hieroglyphics. Against the walls were glass cases of the less impressive artifacts, like an ancient Greek vase sealed with wax, fancy candles with a foreign language painted on them, dried holy palm kernels, a mummified black cat, and other weird stuff. The collection was overdue for curating, but it wasn't as if anyone really came to look at it.

Part of the collection was a hand mirror hooked to the wall, finely carved ivory with swirling designs of an eye with feathered wings embracing (or perhaps presenting) the glass and any reflection within it. Every feather was carved to look like they had smaller eyes embedded in the fibers, and over the iris of the main eye was a bottle green lens. Pacifica was sure that it was supposed to look beautiful, but to her, the lens just made the eye look sickly.

"Tacky," Pacifica muttered as she squinted at it. "No wonder the Gleefuls want something like it."

But regardless of snide remarks in an empty room, she couldn't figure out how Gleeful even knew they had the mirror, let alone why he wanted to buy it. It wasn't like the Northwests had a public registry of all the things they had bought or stolen over the centuries. She couldn't imagine some lowly car salesman having the resources to spy on them, but still, she wondered.

Pacifica sighed as she whipped out her phone and wheeled through her parents' contacts until she found one of her mother's favorite appraisers. If she couldn't tell them exactly where the mirror came from, she could refer them to someone who could and give them a ballpark estimate of its worth. That alone would probably be enough to snub the Gleefuls without follow up.

As she shot off an email, the mirror stared. She could swear that the eyeball was judging her.

Pacifica glared at the mirror, grimacing when she saw a slight smudge in her lip gloss. She quickly started dabbing it with her pinky, and the eyeball just looked more judge-y. "Who are you looking at?" she snapped, glare intensifying.

The smudge at her lip grew in her reflection, swallowing her hand and blurring her face until the glass was nothing but smear. Pacifica leaned in, frowning at the glass, when it shimmered and showed her herself again—from above.

She jerked back. The rug slid under her. Thud, she hit the ground, looking wildly at the ceiling. There was nothing. No cameras. Nothing that could be watching her.

She crawled to the mirror to see that it was still showing her from the completely wrong angle, now on the floor and staring at it in horror.

Pull yourself together, Pacifica Northwest! She stumbled to her feet, struggling to mimic the grace with which her mother moved, but her hands trembled. With a huff of breath, she clenched her fists until they stilled. She dealt with that lumberjack ghost after he turned everyone to trees. She could deal with a stupid stalker mirror.

"What are you?" She put her hands on her hips and glowered at the mirror. "I'm not someone you can just push around."

The image stayed the same. An overhead view of her.

Pacifica squinted at the mirror. "Show me… my dad."

The glass flickered, shifting, but stayed indistinct. Pacifica reached out and touched her thumb against its ivory handle, still squinting. "Show me my dad."

Preston Northwest appeared, fuzzy at the edges, leaning over his desk and writing notes in the margins of the real estate portfolios he was pouring over.

Oh sweet Jesus. Did Gleeful know this was a magic mirror?

Pacifica jerked her hand from the mirror and her father melted away. She shot a look at the door, halfway expecting someone to swoop in and smack her for touching a Northwest family artifact.

No one comes here, she tried to reason. No one except the cleaning staff, and today wasn't time for a shift on this wing.

But what if they found her fingerprints on it?

Pacifica's heart pressed against her ribs as she slid on one of her golf gloves, kept in her pocket, and carefully took the mirror from its hook. The eyeball glared at her, like it knew she was doing something wrong.

"Sh…" She had to stop to steady her voice, glancing continuously at the door and straining her ears for the sound of footsteps. "Show me Bud Gleeful."

The glass became cloudy, and there were only shadows moving in the fog. Pacifica clenched her fist harder around the white handle, struggling to call up an image of Bud Gleeful in her head. Had she ever met him? She must have—it was a small town—but she never paid much attention to the common people…

"I asked them if I could buy the mirror, but—"

"You asked?"

Voices piped up, even without distinct image. The younger of the two was far more recognizable. Li'l Gideon, the felonious fake psychic that the Pines family got arrested just a short while ago. Pacifica could imagine his giant hair, his too-pale skin, and the image on the mirror became more defined. Bud Gleeful was hunched over a table across from Gideon, who was dressed in a garish orange suit. Prisoners were sitting with visitors all around them, and no one was listening to what they were saying. No one except Pacifica.

"You idiot!" Gideon pounded a tiny fist on the table. "You can't just ask! It'll be too expensive! You have to steal it!"

Pacifica covered her mouth as Bud stuttered. "W-well, I… you know they're a powerful family boy, and—"

"I don't care! I need that mirror!" Gideon jumped out of his seat, putting his reddened face right up in his father's. "Don't think that just cuz' I'm in here that I can't call my wrath upon thee, father!"

"Now, now, we don't have to get excited…" Bud's forehead shined with sweat. He mopped his brow with a handkerchief, but it did nothing. "Just… why don't we give that paperwork you were talking about a chance? We can just give it to Mr. Northwest. See what happens."

"I need that mirror!" Gideon's too-pale skin flushed until he was fiery red. "It's the only way I can find my Mabel!"

Pacifica fumbled with the mirror. It popped from her grip, spinning toward the ground before she snatched it in the air, breathing so quickly that her knees almost buckled.

The image was gone, but she got everything she wanted.

Mabel. Mabel. The little creep had a crush on her, and… and…

Pacifica clenched the mirror tighter. Of course. She was embarrassed she didn't think of it immediately. The mirror could find Mabel. It wouldn't fix the portal, but it would show them if she was okay. How did Gideon find out she was missing in the first place? Were the townspeople starting to notice?

She shook her head, focusing on Mabel. The tacky hand-knitted sweaters, the metal braces that always gleamed when she smiled (which was always), and the silly earrings she liked to wear. Even if she hadn't fought off tiny golf ball people with her, Mabel was impossible to forget.

"Show me Mabel Pines."

The glass clouded, fog swirling over the surface of the mirror. Pacifica grimaced and thought harder, thought about how Mabel always smelled like pine needles from hanging out in the woods too much (like her brother), how her high-pitched voice always felt like a cheese grater to the ear drums, and how she bounced when she walked, like she was always just halfway to skipping.

The surface of the image shuddered, like ripples in water, and there was a scrap of… something. A sliver of knitted white, Mabel's signature too-big knots on a sweater. Someone was talking. Pacifica leaned in, almost pressing an ear to the mirror and straining. The rumble of a deep voice, not Mabel's, too far away to understand.

Floorboards outside the room creaked. Pacifica jumped, fumbling to hook the mirror back to the wall, fixing it just right and putting her hands to her hips as if she were just examining it. The voice and scrap of white vanished, and the floorboards didn't make any other noise.

Pacifica panted softly, her heart stuttering back to normal after twenty seconds of silence. She couldn't get much out of the mirror. Maybe Mabel was too far away?

But she knew one thing: Mabel had survived.

She let out a slow sigh of relief. Dipper would be so happy to hear that much, but she didn't want to come to him with just that. Mabel could be in trouble. Or possibly playing golf all day in some idyllic dimension, who knew? The mirror might be able to show her if she could just figure out how to use it.

Pacifica took off her golf glove with a snap. She was going to need to dig up Edward Northwest III's notes, and if that didn't work, she had to get some research done herself.

Oh, and warn the security about the possibility of a Gleeful burglary. She had to do that too.

She'd get this stupid mirror working and help Dipper find his sister, so help her God.


 Dimension ?, Day ?, 2012

Everything was achy and gross. It was like when she and Dipper had the flu. Did she have the flu?

Mabel cracked open her eyes and realized that, no, she probably didn't have the flu. She was probably just recovering from hypothermia.

She was naked—save for her underwear, her skirt, and fresh bandages on her leg—under a big pile of blankets. She was lying on the softest fur she'd ever touched, and the air smelled like smoke and roasting meat. All things considered, she felt pretty good despite being achy. Also hungry. She was hungry. But the important thing was that she was super cozy warm and she had never appreciated warmth more before, not even the day she got out of the county jail after they were caught counterfeiting cash for Stan.

Mabel dared to poke her head out of her nice toasty cocoon. Luckily, it was twilight, so the light didn't blind her too badly. What light there was came from a red sun sinking over the horizon, filtering through the sparse trees that surrounded her. 'Trees' was a term used loosely. They were all burnt until it felt more like they were giant sticks of charcoal, and beyond them was just a field of dead and charred grass.

Her clothes were folded neatly for her, and Grunkle Ford was just a few feet away, stooped on a sooty rock, writing in his journal next to a big campfire. Some kind of meat was sizzling on a grill set up over the fire, but Mabel wasn't sure where he would have caught the meat because the landscape looked pretty barren.

The fire cast a lot of shadows and made the lines in Ford's face look deeper. Or maybe he just had more lines than usual. He was scowling at his journal like the grumpy old man he could be sometimes. That always added some lines. He looked too old. He was old, but not that old.

With a wiggle, Mabel got her head completely free of the blankets.

"Morning, Grunkle Ford!"

Ford jumped, fumbling with his journal before catching it, and the jerking popped his glasses askew. Mabel giggled at the way he looked at her.

"You look like an owl," she said as he tried to readjust his glasses. As they settled back on his nose, his mouth curved in a smile and the deepest lines disappeared from his face.

"I've been called worse things." Ford let his journal rest in his lap, and the lack of lines made his whole face look soft. "How are you feeling?"

"Toasty." Mabel reached for her clothes and Ford turned his head away as she dragged them into her cocoon and dressed herself. As she twisted her shoulder to pull on her shirt, pain flared in the joint. Her surprised yelp made Ford jump again, but he didn't turn to look at her.

"Your shoulder?" he asked.

Mabel wiggled out of the blankets just enough to look at her shoulder. It looked like someone had painted crooked branches on her skin, and they spread down her arm and along the side of her chest. "What happened to it?"

"It's a lightning tree." Ford cleared his throat, but he still didn't look at her. "It's a mark left behind when someone's struck by lightning. How painful is it?"

"Not as bad as I would've thought lightning would be." Mabel frowned at her shoulder before slipping on her shirt, this time easing her joint through the motions. "It's just… stiff. Like I slept on it funny. Or maybe pulled something."

Where had she…?

It filtered back through a blurry, cracked lens. She remembered the cold and Ford's story, but things began to get fainter beyond that. They went between worlds again, and Ford was there, like six prongs of lightning covered in letters skimming over everything, and…

"I grabbed you in the portal. I think that might have been when you were struck." Ford cleared his throat again. "I'm sorry."

Mabel didn't have to roll up her sleeve to see the tree on her skin, since it crawled past her t-shirt. She prodded it gently, then flexed her arm. "Look, Grunkle Ford! I can make it look like they're shaking in wind!"

He finally turned his head again so he could frown at her, but like many of his frowns, it softened into something like a smile while she kept flexing her arm.

"Help me draw leaves and flowers on it!" Mabel waved her arm at him before rolling her sleeve to the edge of her collar. "I'm going to have a spring lightning tree!"

"We can't let it stay bare, can we?" Ford was still smiling as he put his journal away and started rifling through his bag. Mabel was starting to think there was some magic in his bag, because he always seemed to have the perfect thing for any time. "I think I have just the thing." Case in point.

He pulled out a box with pretty geometric designs penned in—Mabel had a feeling Ford might have doodled those a while ago—and sat next to her.

"It's called a skin stain. I use it whenever I find myself in a society that uses tattoos. It has the same effect without being permanent." He opened the box up to show paintbrushes and a glass palette of paint. Mabel barely contained a squeal.

It was difficult for Mabel to paint on her own shoulder, but she did her best. Ford made the prettiest leaves and flowers, and she had to keep herself from giggling at the way the paintbrush tickled her skin. "Do lots of aliens like tattoos?" she asked.

"It's common for sapient social creatures to mark themselves somehow." He traced his brush down along a crooked branch, and she bit her lip to keep from shaking too much as giggles bubbled up her throat. His eyes darted briefly to hers, and his smile stretched, warmer than she'd seen from him before. "Sometimes it's with tattoos. Sometimes it's with piercings. Sometimes it's with clothes. Sometimes it's with something else entirely, maybe even something that we humans can't perceive but others can."

Every stroke of the brush curved with her muscle and skin. Mabel scrawled little flowers like she would on a picture, but Ford paid attention to all the details and followed the line of her bicep. "It's an indication that the society has developed a sense of individualism. Individualism is more likely to develop if a society is stable enough to have semi-reliable sustenance and safety, and that the species has thought independent from others of their kind."

"So it's a good sign if I see tattoos?" Mabel asked as she watched a blossom take shape on her arm.

"It's a sign that you'll be able to talk to the natives, and that they are social enough to possibly engage with you emotionally. Species that don't form social groups, even if they're intelligent enough for communication, don't usually have empathy." He swirled a knot into the tree where the 'trunk' of her mark thickened. He was so gentle that it didn't even bother her as he got closer to her achy joint. "You're good with people. You should know how to identify who might respond to you and who won't."

Inwardly, Mabel beamed at the praise. Then her stomach growled loud enough to be heard over the crackling of fire.

"That's our sign to have dinner." Ford blew on her skin, making Mabel laugh again. "We'll finish this after."

"Can you tell me about some of the aliens you've met?" Mabel asked, crawling towards the fire and eyeing the slabs of meat.

"Of course. There was one species I met that I didn't even realize was alive at first. Their bones were thin and most of their bodies were just flaps of skin stretched between limbs, so they looked more like sails that floated in the air than any creature I'd ever seen." Ford took out a switchblade, spearing the meat in the fire. "They would tattoo their entire lives on all the flaps of skin. The older they became, the more a story was told on their bodies. When they died, their skin would dry and the ink would be more vivid, with the chronicles of their lives lasting long after they were gone."

Mabel caught the meat when he tossed it at her, biting into it like an animal. Oh well. Table manners didn't matter when there wasn't a table. "That sounds amazing!"

"I'll show you a picture I made of them after dinner." Ford didn't bother with table manners either, which just made him look more relaxed, tearing into the meat with his teeth instead of wasting utensils.

"What other cool aliens have you seen?" Juice dribbled down Mabel's chin, and she quickly wiped it with the back of her hand.

"It'd take me years to tell you about all of them, but there was a particularly interesting species of mole people I met some time ago…"

Mabel listened to her great uncle's stories—he was just as good at telling them as Stan, though he had a very different style—until their stomachs were full and they rinsed their fingers from a canteen. After that, it didn't take long to finish her lightning tree. Most of the flowers and branches had already been painted. When they were done, Ford blew gently on the stain to make it dry, and that just set her giggling again.

"There we are. One springtime lightning tree," he said as Mabel admired their work.

"Now I can make it look like all the leaves are wobbling in wind." Mabel giggled as she flexed her arm. "Wobble wobble wobble." Ford shook his head at her, but he was definitely still smiling, so score one for Mabel. She let her arm flop in her lap as she grinned at Ford. "Grunkle Ford, you're really good at drawing things."

"Years of practice, Mabel." He put away the brushes and paints carefully, but with practiced ease. Mabel wondered how many times he'd had to paint tattoos on himself. "Being able to draw representations of what you see is very important in cryptozoology."

"Crypto-what?"

"The study of creatures whose existence haven't been proven yet. My area of expertise." Ford stood up, brushing himself off and throwing dampened woodchips into the fire. It sizzled and smoked, the flames starting to flag into embers. "Come over here. I'll teach you how to smoke the leftover meat."

"Oooh, neat." Mabel was still checking out her temporary tree tattoo as she edged towards the fire. "Could you teach me a little about how you draw so well too?"

"If that's what you want to do. I can give you pointers." He looked pretty pleased as he started throwing more chips into the fire. Mabel had a feeling he was the kind of old man who liked teaching people things, which would work out well, considering she had plenty of time to learn now. "But we should do that later, after we've left this world. We have to throw off the bounty hunters. We have time to dry the meat and braid your hair, then we should go."

Mabel wouldn't complain, even if she was tired of moving everywhere. She tried not to think of Annette, and instead focus on listening to Grunkle Ford and thinking about which braid style she would want.

If someone was ready to teach her, she might as well learn.

Chapter Text

Earth, August 1st, 2012

Edward Northwest III had added a few books to the Northwest family library, though not nearly as many as most others in the family. The library was a vast maze at the heart of the mansion, full of glass-covered shelves of first editions and sometimes copies of ancient works thought lost. There was a whole case full of Roman classics from Lucan to Suetonius, and even a copy of Agrippina the Younger's memoir. Another case full of Euripides, Aeschylus, Sophocles, all the way to Menander. There was a grand marble pedestal in the center of the room, covered with intricate carvings and now displaying a 12th century illuminated bible in a glass case. It was technically designed for the Book of Kells. The Northwests had been trying to get that book from Ireland for years.

It took Pacifica a while to find Edward Northwest III's books, but the Northwest family had a long shelf list (kept on hard copy in the front of the library and regularly updated) telling them where their books were in case they wanted to temporarily exchange some with a university or a museum. Pacifica passed bookcase after bookcase covered with curling gold leaf until she got to the glass-covered shelves of notebooks written by Northwests throughout the ages.

Edward Northwest III's notebook, something old enough to warrant the use of gloves to leaf through, was probably the only way she would figure out exactly where the ivory mirror came from.

Pacifica sat on the floor with her back to the shelves, reluctant to read anything the man wrote. It was one thing to know that she had a murderer in the family (multiple, actually, but they all had their own stories), but it was another to read his words. She hoped he didn't describe any plans in here.

Edward Northwest III was a hobby poet and portrait artist. Pacifica hadn't known that before, but the first pages of his notebook were covered with amateur pictures of a woman's face. She had dark curly hair and his pen always zeroed in on her dark eyes, and snippets of bad poetry were shoved in the corners of the pages. The poetry usually went on and on about her 'chocolate orbs' and 'velvet flower', which just made Pacifica cringe, but she didn't really want to focus on the portrait any more than the poetry.

Pacifica wondered if that was the face of the woman he murdered. She shuddered and turned the pages until finally the portraits and poetry were gone.

Now, there was just a list, written with such a heavy hand that the pen had occasionally punched through the paper. Various items on the list had little notes added in red, clearly after they had been originally added.

Holy palm kernels – Africa (Protects females, not likely)

Mummy – Africa (Rituals are complicated)

Black cat – North America (I can't read the bones)

Sealed Pot – Europe (Need a female present, can't do it alone)

Ivory Mirror – North America

And of course, the mirror didn't get a single extra note. Pacifica sighed, checking the next pages just to see an address all the way in Maine written down. After that, nothing.

Pacifica had a list of all the books Edward Northwest III had contributed to the library. All of them came during his period of 'declining health', and all of them dealt with divination and mysticism.

An awful thought lurked in the back of Pacifica's brain. Had he used that mirror to find his ex-mistress? Was that room of artifacts full of tools of divination, discarded and dismissed until he finally found one that he could use?

Pacifica shut the notebook with a shudder. Ugh. Her family history never failed to find new ways to disturb her.

(Was it really possible for her to be good when she came from so much bad?)

With a quick shake, Pacifica pushed herself to her feet and put the notebook away. Alright, it didn't tell her how to use the mirror, but she now had a strong suspicion that the mirror was hunted down specifically for its scrying abilities. Maybe one of the books he gathered would tell her how to use it.

She wasn't sure if it would have any details about looking beyond dimensions, but she had to try.

School was grueling, and her tutors more so, so she knew how to tackle the dusty old tomes of divination. That was with a notebook and a sharp pencil.

To any passerby, it looked like she was working on homework. She kept her gloves on to keep her finger oils from marring the aging pages, and she skimmed through the books, reading the first and last paragraphs of every section to check if they were relevant and taking careful notes if they might be.

After two hours, her notebook stayed depressingly blank.

Two books in, Pacifica massaged the bridge of her nose. Most of this was just… theory. Not even theory that assumed the validity of divination, either. It was just stuffy academics discussing old superstitions and cultural quirks in regional mysticism. She tapped her eraser against the floor and flippe through the pages, looking for something, anything, that mentioned ivory mirrors with weird flying eyeball designs.

Hissing a sigh between her teeth, she flipped to another page, then another, then another… then something caught her eye.

It was the only mark in the whole book. One underlined line in a section about the theory of cultural development.

Of course, in most cultures where it appears, targeted divination and black magic is highly personalized. Many people believe that spells must involve using personal objects of the target, such as clothing or hair.

Pacifica slowly wrote down the line and its page number. Personal objects, huh?

Dipper would have plenty of Mabel's stuff. Pacifica would just need one of those tacky sweaters. Dipper would give her one in a heartbeat if he knew what it was for.

But what if it didn't work?

It was a possibility she was forced to consider. After all, Edward Northwest III hadn't hunted someone down across dimensions. What if the sweater wasn't enough to cover the distance? What if the sweater didn't work at all for the mirror? Dipper would be absolutely heartbroken if he got his hopes up.

No, she should stick to what she already decided. She wasn't going to tell him anything until she either knew the condition his sister was in or she knew the limits of the mirror. She didn't want to be the source of any more pain for him.

But that left the question of how she was going to get something belonging to Mabel.

Pacifica settled back to skim through the rest of the books, just to be sure, but she was due to visit the Mystery Shack soon.


Dimension ?, Day ?, 2012

World hopping could be pretty nice when monsters weren't trying to eat you.

The next time they passed between worlds, Ford did his best not to electrocute Mabel and Mabel did her best to not burn Ford. It was a good system. When they weren't being chased or confused or panicked, it was easier to dance around each other without being all-consuming. Neither of them were scared or worked up, so their presences weren't as intense. The words that skittered over the surface of Ford's six lightning prongs moved slower and didn't give Mabel a headache.

Better? Mabel thought in the wide expanse of space.

Definitely better, thought Ford, even though there was a constant dull roar of his thoughts flicking through data and making theories and taking in his experiences.

The next world was constant pouring rain.

Mabel looked up at the dark sky and held out her hands, letting the rain pool in her palms and soak through her braided hair. The rain made loud pounding on the ground, which seemed to be made of segmented metal tiles, and massive transparent tubes ran all the way from the ground back to the sky, carrying more water to constantly rain down. "This is fine," she said.

"We'll find someplace dry," Ford said as he pulled up his hood. "Or another portal. Whichever comes first."

"Wanna see how big I can make a splash?" Without waiting for a response, Mabel sprang forward and landed on a tile, splashing water everywhere. As her feet hit the metal, it glowed purple. The segment let out a high-pitched lyrical tone. Mabel jumped back in surprise, landing on another tile that glowed orange and let out a high but differently pitched tone. "Oh hey," Mabel giggled, "they're musical!"

"Fascinating." Ford's hands twitched towards his bag, probably to take notes, but he didn't take out his book. Mabel guessed it wasn't waterproof enough. "It looks like either someone built a massive water-powered musical instrument, or—whoa!"

Mabel had grabbed his hand and tugged him, making him stumble on two different tiles that intoned two low pitches. "Dance with me, Grunkle Ford!"

She was jumping in place, making the same tone sing over and over and flash blue like they were in a rave, giving him her best 'please please please' smile. It always worked on Grunkle Stan.

Ford faltered, but she could see his resolve crumble. "I'm not sure if…"

"Oh come on!" Mabel waggled her arm at the wide expanse of tiles. "When is the next time you'll be on a dance floor that sings?"

His shoulders slumped and she had him. "I haven't danced in decades. You'll have to teach me."

She got to teach her Grunkle how to dance. She pumped her fist with a soft, "Yesssssss," before tugging him into what she decided to call a waltz (even though she didn't know the difference between waltzing and any other kind of ballroom dance and was just doing what she saw on TV). The important thing was that they made music with their feet and Grunkle Ford twirled her until she was dizzy.

In the blur of bright colors and random notes and the slow curve of a smile on her grunkle's face, it was easy to forget that anything ever went wrong. Dipper and Stan weren't here, but Ford was, and he was fun and loving in his own way, even if he seemed grumpy and sad a lot of the time because he'd been all alone until now. He didn't need to be lonely anymore, though. Mabel was here.

She stumbled after the final twirl, keeling over to one side, and Ford caught her by her not-painted shoulder with a barked laugh. "I think that's enough."

"Once I can see straight, we're totally doing that again," Mabel giggled, grabbing onto the hem of his jacket to hold herself up.

Her grunkle barked another laugh. "Fine." Quieter, but with no less amusement, he said, "I'm getting soft in my old age."

That just gave Mabel another case of the giggles. "Grunkle Stan always says that."

The moment after she said it, she wondered if she shouldn't have, because talking about Stan always ruined Ford's mood. Instead of snapping shut like the cranky clam he was inside, he just shook his head with a chuckle. "Stanley is a liar. He was always soft." Ford patted her sopping wet head gently. "Especially for cute girls."

Mabel laughed and batted at his hand. "Oh, you." Maybe Ford wasn't a complete cranky clam.

That world was fun, but they couldn't stay there. Mabel's bandages were already soaked through and sagging on her leg. Ford tutted when he kneeled on the wet ground and checked on them.

"These are useless now," he said as he carefully unwrapped the dressing. Mabel focused on the top of his head. She didn't want to see her leg. She could already feel fresh warmth on her shin. Some of the dressing had reopened pieces of her cuts.

"I don't see any signs of infection. That's good." Ford frowned at her leg until she stopped bleeding again. "But we're not out of the woods yet. You've been pushing yourself too hard. If you feel weak, you have to tell me, okay?"

Mabel bit her cheek to hide her disappointment. "So no more dancing?"

He looked up at her face, raindrops peppering his glasses until it was hard to see his eyes. "Put your weight on your good leg and I can twirl you again."

That took the edge off of the disappointment. When she smiled, he smiled back.

After that world, they stepped into a rolling desert with sand made of glass so fine that it felt like silk. Mabel knew because she lay down and rolled in the sand dunes immediately after Ford gave her new bandages.

"Keep an eye out for hostiles, Mabel. And don't get sand in your cuts," Ford mumbled as he wrote in his journal. Mabel rolled down a mountain of sand. Translucent grains stuck to her wet hair and glimmered there, like she was a fairy princess, and as she picked up speed, the world became a blur of blue sky and glimmering white ground.

She landed in a massive shell, over twice her size and curving inwards at all ends. It was bright white with creases in all the right places. What to do was obvious.

"Grunkle Ford! Come sled with me!"

"Hmm?" Ford peered down the dune, then immediately slid down to meet her, adjusting his glasses like a movie scientist before crouching down next to the shell. The sand stuck to their wet clothes fast, but the sun was gently drying them off. "This seems to have been shed from an animal." He started writing in his notes again when Mabel put her fists on her hips.

"And it's big enough to go sledding. Which is totally what we should be doing."

"Yes, yes, give me a moment." He only spared her a glance, but it was enough time to flash him a big pout. He frowned, but it was one of those frowns he kept having, where it was like someone had given him a new puppy without warning and he'd never had a puppy before and didn't know what to do with one.

"Here," he said, pulling another book (although this one was blank, not even with his iconic hand on the front) and a pencil from his bag and offering it to her. "We can use this to practice drawing. You can look over my shoulder to see what I do."

"Oh! Okay." Mabel accepted the book (a little heavy for a sketchbook, but whatever) and flipped through the blank pages before settling next to her grunkle and biting her lip in concentration as he started to draw the shell and the landscape around them. This was a perfectly fine way to spend her time waiting for her grunkle to sled with her.

"Do you only draw things you find and places you see?" Mabel asked as she struggled to get Ford's level of precision.

"No. I'll sometimes draw the people or creatures I see too." Ford could draw amazing things so easily. Ugh, Mabel hoped she could do it like that someday. His frowned deepened all the lines in his face as he focused on getting the perspective right. "I have a few drawings of you in here, actually."

"Really?" Mabel perked, and Ford must have heard the interest in her voice because he was suddenly staring at her warily. "Can I see?"

"…Let me find a good one." Ford finished off the shading he was in the middle of and allowed the ink a moment to dry before flipping through his journal. Mabel got a glimpse of the musical tiles and one of the glassy bug aliens before Ford settled on one page.

It was just her, curled up in the ice planet burrow, hunched over and biting her tongue while she knit. There was something a little different about this picture next to all the others. Ford's art always had an attention to detail, but there was something a little more relaxed about this one. The lines seemed swoop-ier and the light softer.

Next to the picture was mostly commentary and observations on the society they found on the ice planet, but there was a little arrow pointing to Mabel attached to a coded message. Mabel would normally ask Ford what the message said, but she didn't need to. It was one of the easier ciphers he used in his third journal back home, one of the ones she and Dipper had been able to crack. She only needed a bit to decode the message in her head.

Niece still alive despite all odds. Praying she stays that way. No more forgetting to feed her. Also, I think I saw her knit a sweater in under five minutes. Supernatural?

Mabel had to stifle a little giggle. There was just something funny about seeing the almighty author's handwriting taking silly coded notes on her.

"You make me look really nice, Grunkle Ford," Mabel said, leaning against his shoulder. He stayed relaxed, which she decided was a victory, and gave her a small smile.

"I'm glad you think so." He flipped back to the unfinished page. "Now, the sooner we finish drawing this, the sooner we can go sledding." He snorted to himself. "I haven't been sledding in… ah, must be nearly fifty years now."

"Fifty years?" Mabel gaped. Who could go fifty years without sledding? That was longer than she had been alive! "We better finish this quick!"

"Drawing takes time." He was still smiling as he started to draw again. "Let that be my first tip. You need to be patient to get it right."

"Ugh, patience is a boring adult word." Mabel slumped against Ford's back, but he just laughed, and the motion in his shoulders made her bounce up and down.

For lack of anything better to do, Mabel kept drawing with him, and Ford didn't even seem to mind when she used his shoulders to prop up her new sketchbook. She tried to pay attention to the shell like he could, but the shell just got boring after a while. Instead, Mabel drew her grunkle's hands. They were always moving, so her pictures would always be sketchy, but it was better that way. If his hands always moved, then the pictures of his hands should be moving too.

Eventually, he was done shading his picture of the shell and writing notes in the margins, and he shifted just a little to peek at Mabel's page, now full of sketched six-fingered hands. "That doesn't look like a shell."

"It's easier to focus on interesting stuff, not shells."

The corners of his eyes softened a little. They did that whenever she said something about his fingers. Mabel had a feeling that not a lot of people had been nice about them when he was on Earth, but that was dumb. She thought they were super cool, like Dipper's birthmark, and the people who would make fun of either of those things were dumb.

"I think your drawing skills are coming along nicely," Ford said, standing up and giving the shell a gentle kick. "And this is a pretty sturdy sled. What do you say we give it a spin?"

Mabel rubbed her hands together, wiggling in place. "Yes!"

Ford started getting some cold feet when they were sitting in the shell on top of a dune, but Mabel drowned out anything he said by yelling really loudly and kicking them off. That always fixed her problems. Ford held her so tight that she felt like a squeaky toy, but the hot air rushed around them and sand flew in her hair and they were both yelling and it was amazing.

The sled was a great way to deal with dunes, and when they passed between worlds again, Mabel was bubbling with giddiness, and all the bubbles sloshed around between her and Ford in space until she could hear him laughing in her head and he sounded like a kid.

They stopped in a beautiful jungle area. The ground was soft and bouncy, thick with greenery, and the sky was wide and blue, almost completely obscured by a thick leafy canopy. It was almost like they were back on Earth, except Mabel was pretty sure she just saw a two-headed furry stick creature rush into the leaves to disappear.

"All these worlds are so pretty," Mabel said as she flopped on the ground and watched tiny ten-legged insects march over a rotting twig.

"Yes, the multiverse can be a true wonder to behold." Ford took out his journal and wandered around, taking notes and drawing things. The greenery Mabel sat on wasn't exactly grass, but it wasn't exactly any plant she'd seen before, either. It was spongey and shaped like little tubes, but it grew thick and dark. Mabel tore one of the tubes from the ground, and a sickly sweet smell punched her in the face as sticky golden liquid full of half-dissolved insects fell from the inside.

"Ew, gross," Mabel giggled as she watched the liquid drip on the ground.

"Fascinating. It seems to be carnivorous," Ford said as he crouched over the torn stem oozing sap. "I imagine that is digestive fluid, and it lures insects inside with the smell of particularly ripe nectar."

"Cool." Mabel slowly slid her nail up the tuber's surface and split it open so she could see all the dead bugs stuck to the inside. "Why don't the bugs catch on that these are going to eat them?"

"A popular evolutionary trick many carnivorous plants develop is closely mimicking a safer flower that is a staple of the insects' diet." Ford plucked another tube from the ground, letting it bleed half-digested insects. "Some of these might be safe, but the fact that we were able to pick two carnivorous plants at random surprises me."

He started scribbling in his book and mumbling to himself as he paced around like Dipper sometimes would when he was in the middle of one of his big puzzles, so Mabel settled in and started catching bugs to draw. Some had wings and some had pincers and some just had lots of eyes and hair, so she had plenty to work with.

Dipper would like to see all these worlds. Mabel had no doubt that they would destroy the portal as soon as she and Ford were home, though, so he probably never would. She scowled to herself, then started attempting to draw the scenery. Her lines were wobbly and her shading was inconsistent, not nearly as pretty and detailed as Ford's, but she tried, and she added notes about the adventures and worlds of the past few… days? Weeks? (She wasn't sure.)

Dear Dipper,

Surprise! We have a second grunkle. I bet Grunkle Stan explained everything after I was gone, but just in case, this one is Grunkle Stanford and Grunkle Stan is Grunkle Stanley. It sounds like they had a big fight and they stopped talking to each other before Grunkle Ford went into the portal, but don't worry. Mabel is on the case! I'm sure I'll have Ford ready to talk to Stan once we're home, so you have to do the groundwork with Stan.

Writing to Dipper was more fun than just writing out what had happened like Ford did in his journals. Sometimes she wrote little notes addressed to Stan or Candy or Grenda or any other person who came to mind, but her letter to Dipper was the longest, meandering through descriptions of what she had seen and lingering on Ford and how much she thought Dipper would like him. She did her best to draw the lightning tree that Ford had struck on her shoulder between space with all the little leaves and flowers he helped paint on afterwards. If she ever got a tattoo (the idea made her giggle, since her poor mother would have a heart attack at the idea), a cool seasonal lightning tree like that would be neat.

"I'll set up traps for dinner." Ford's voice startled Mabel from her pictures and letters. At some point, he had finished his little nerdy freak out. "Do you want to see if you can do it with me?"

"Traps?" Mabel made a face as she put her journal away. "We're going to be killing animals?"

Ford gave her that weird 'I have a puppy and I don't know what to do with it' look. "That's how one gets meat, yes."

Mabel squirmed, pulling at the hem of her white sweater. She knew that meat came from dead animals, but the idea of killing the animals herself made her stomach turn.

"…I can do the slaughtering myself?" Ford offered, frowning at her. Mabel grimaced, wincing at the word 'slaughter' (it brought her mind to Waddles), but she forced a nod.

"That's probably best."

"Good." Her grunkle's shoulders relaxed. "In that case, how does your leg feel?"

Mabel hiked up her pant leg to show off her bandages, still white as driven snow. "It's doing okay!"

"Then why don't you forage instead? Look for fruits and nuts, but don't strain yourself and don't try to eat any of them. I'll check for edibility once we've made camp."

"Got it. Mabel, forager extraordinaire, is on the case." As long as she could avoid needing to kill animals.

"That's the spirit." Ford gently clapped her on the back. He wasn't touching the shoulder with the lightning tree. "Make sure you put on your gloves, and don't go so far that I can't hear you. Yell if you need me."

Mabel nodded and pulled her gloves on before wandering into the jungle. The tubers made squish-squash noises under her feet as she walked, and it wasn't long before little eyes peered out at her from the underbrush. Mabel gave the unseen wildlife a wave.

Something rustled in the trees. Paws jumped from one branch to another. The vines twisted. Insects crawled over the Mabel's boot. She hummed Sev'ral Timez songs as she climbed over massive, twisting roots covered in spongy tubes, keeping an eye out for anything that looked edible.

"Oh girl, you got me ackin' so cray cray…" Finally, there was a blue peach-shaped fruit hanging low on a tree, about the size of Mabel's fist. She picked through the brush, squinting at the canopy. There were a few speckles of blue, which were probably more fruit that she could get if she climbed the tree. There were plenty.

Her stomach clenched and growled as she approached the fruit. She hadn't eaten since she woke up that morning, and it had been nonstop moving since then. Mabel grimaced, kneading her stomach gently to work out the hunger cramps, but it did nothing. Her tummy kept on trying to clench around food that wasn't there, and it was like it was tying itself into knots until she could get something in it.

She never really knew what it meant to be hungry before falling in with her long lost grunkle, but while she was very tempted to gorge herself on alien food, Ford had warned her to wait for him. What if it was poison? Her stomach growled again, but she clenched her teeth and pinched her thigh to distract herself.

The fruit dangled in front of her face. She plucked it, careful to keep from bruising the skin. It was soft and spongey, and a sweet aroma wafted from it.

She rolled it in her palms. A fine layer of fuzz was on the skin, like a peach. She held it to her ear and shook it, listening for ripeness.

Click slosh click slosh click.

Mabel frowned and shook it again.

Click slosh click slosh click.

That didn't sound like a very fruity noise. Did it have a weird pit? Or maybe metal seeds? She should check before Ford tried to eat it. She didn't want him swallowing bad seeds.

Mabel fumbled to take out her grappling hook, her fingers getting less sure the more her stomach growled, and she dragged the hook lengthwise through the flesh, and yellow juice dripped onto her gloves. She bit her tongue, twisting the two halves and pulling.

Golden syrup burst from the core, pouring over her hand and dripping to the ground.

Washed up on her palm were six half-digested teeth.

 

Chapter Text

Earth, August 2nd, 2012

Dipper kept a log in his notebook. It was all in code, just in case it fell into the wrong hands. He was recording how many bottles appeared under the porch each day. He had a system. He marked the bottles he already found with a tiny dot of ink on the inside of their caps, so he would know which were new and which were old. Then he kept track of the things that happened the night before he checked and saw how that corresponded to the number of new bottles.

It had only been a few days. He didn't have enough data to establish a pattern yet, but he hypothesized that the better the day went, the less bottles Stan would go through.

Today, he had a feeling there would be more bottles.

"We need to talk to them eventually, kid."

Dipper struggled against a burgeoning sense of doom and breathlessness as he clenched and unclenched his hands on the kitchen table. Stan put instant macaroni in front of him, steam curling up and fogging the fork. Dipper's stomach turned at the thought of eating, but Stan sat down across from him and squinted expectantly, so Dipper forced himself to spoon some of the glop into his mouth.

"So what do you want me to tell your parents? Ball's in your court."

The macaroni congealed in his throat and sank slowly to his stomach. It was easy to dodge his parents for now. Heck, it would be easy to dodge them all the way until their birthday. They trusted Stan to keep them updated if something bad happened, and they weren't the type to cling tightly. They wouldn't call until his and Mabel's birthday.

But they would expect Mabel to be sending letters. They would expect him to come home to California. They would expect him to be with Mabel.

Everyone in the Shack spent their entire evening after work dealing with the portal downstairs, including Wendy and Soos. Every time they turned around, they found more damage, and they were the only workers. McGucket couldn't help them with more than the theory, since he started babbling madly when Dipper even suggested coming to the Shack. They couldn't risk bringing more people into the secret, so Dipper had to tell all of Mabel's friends that she had suddenly gotten sick and went back home even when their help could have been useful. (He didn't know if he could ghost Candy and Grenda forever.) They were on their own, and the portal wasn't anywhere near being fixed. It definitely wouldn't be fixed before he had to go back to California.

Stan had that carefully guarded expression on his face that kept Dipper from seeing what was going on in his head, but Dipper could hazard a guess.

Stan knew people better than he did, and even Dipper knew what would happen if his parents found out that Mabel fell through an interdimensional portal on Stan's watch. They wouldn't believe them. They would think that Mabel disappeared or died instead. They would take back Dipper and cut off all contact with Stan. Maybe they would even try to have Stan arrested. Either way, Stan would lose what family he had left (after Dipper cost him the chance to get his twin back), and Dipper wouldn't be able to work on the portal and save Mabel.

"We can't tell them the truth," Dipper said. "We have to convince them Mabel is still here and to let us stay in Gravity Falls."

Stan nodded, his mouth a grim line. Dipper pushed his macaroni around in its Styrofoam bowl, but he could barely stomach the thought of continuing to eat.

"How's your impression of your sister?" Stan said.

"I…" Dipper's throat shriveled, but he forced himself to take a deep breath, pitching his voice high, imagining little bubbles of sparkles and happiness popping in his throat, and smiling like he would die if he didn't. "Who do you think you're talking to, Grunkle Stan? I think it's super!"

The imaginary bubbles exploded and sent shattered glass all over the inside of his neck, and Dipper was left queasy with a dirty taste in his mouth. Stan jerked back, like he had to flee the sudden burst of perkiness that had been sorely absent from the Shack.

"Ugh," Stan shook himself out like he had been touched by a ghost. "Your impression is just fine, kid. Too fine. Yeugh."

Dipper cleared his throat to get rid of Mabel's voice. "Fine enough to fool my parents?"

Stan paused, squinting at Dipper. "Well… I guess we'll find out."

Now that Dipper was paying attention, he could see that Stan's eyes were bloodshot, that spidery broken capillaries stood stark on his too-red nose. If Stan noticed him staring, he didn't let onto it. Instead, he sighed, pulling off his glasses and examining them for smudges. "Are you sure this is the road you want to go down, kid?"

The weight in his voice left Dipper with an awful sense of foreboding. Then again, 'awful sense of foreboding' described most of the things he'd felt in the last week. (He wished Mabel was here to tease him for it.) "What do you mean?"

"I mean that this means living a lie. You lie to your folks, you pretend to be your sister, you don't visit any family, and you don't know when you can do anything else. Take it from the man who's been impersonating his twin for thirty years: it's exhausting."

Stan shook his head as he started cleaning his glasses, looking down at them rather than anything else. Dipper pushed his macaroni around, but he didn't eat anything. Thirty years pretending to be someone he wasn't was beyond his comprehension. Grunkle Stan must have been so lonely, a voice that sounded like Mabel said in his head. "Now Stanford was a hermit and I hadn't spoken to my family in ten years. Pretending to be Mabel will be harder on you, and I don't know how long we can pull the wool over your parents' eyes. Are you sure you want to do this?"

He wondered what that would be like. Living away from his parents, dodging visits, pretending to be Mabel on the phone, forging her letters, lying to all of Gravity Falls about where she went… It would be hard. He could guess that much.

"When you had to pretend to be Stanford, you were alone." If Mabel were here, she would hold Stan's hand or give him a hug or something. But Dipper wasn't Mabel, and he couldn't do that. Instead, he just poured his feelings into his voice, struggling to make eye contact while his grunkle cleaned his glasses. "But I've got you. I've got you, Wendy, Soos… heck, I even have Pacifica and McGucket. You're my family too. We can do this as a team."

Stan looked at Dipper from the corner of his eye, his frown softening. Dipper managed to give him a small smile. "So… you want to help drill me on my Mabel impression?"

"Impression nothing. I'll drill you on how to lie and talk your folks into letting you stay here." Stan waved his hand at the macaroni. "But finish your dinner first. I told you that you gotta eat."

Amusement bubbled gently in Dipper's gut. Not enough to make him laugh, but it made his smile feel less forced. "I don't see you eating."

Stan shrugged, leaning back in his chair. "I'm fat and old. I don't need food."

"No, no, if we're a team, then you have to eat too." Dipper didn't touch his macaroni. Instead, he propped his chin on his hands and smirked. "I'm waiting."

"Ugh, this is why I never go soft on you. You get smug." Stan grumbled as he eased out of his seat and rumbled through the kitchen, grabbing another microwavable macaroni container, and Dipper's next few bites went down easier.

The next morning, Dipper didn't find any new bottles under the porch.


Earth, August 3rd, 2012

"Maybe we should say we're sick and can't make it back to California," Dipper said as he screwed a heating coil to a fixing that would attach to the inside of the portal. He and Stan sat in the kitchen, the pot on the stove set to boil soon while they both brainstormed about their most immediate problem: convincing his parents to let him and 'Mabel' stay in Gravity Falls. Considering it would mean leaving the fancy private school Dipper and Mabel attended in Piedmont, it would require something big.

"Your parents would come to visit you in a heartbeat," Stan grunted as he cut out little paper dolls to glue onto construction paper. When the two of them settled down to work on their separate projects, they both agreed that Stan's copious forgery experience would make him best suited for making a 'letter from Mabel' to send to her and Dipper's parents, and Dipper could proofread it for the appropriate level of Mabelness.

"Uh…" Dipper grinded his teeth in frustration as a screw bowed under the force of his screwdriver. "I don't know why they would let me stay unless there was a huge educational opportunity."

"Then tell them there's a huge educational opportunity. Like say there's a really fancy private school that wants to take you in for free, or maybe some egghead doctor wants to take you on as an apprentice." Stan grimaced at a mangled paper Dipper before tearing it up and tracing another. "Easy."

"What?" Dipper dropped a screw as he sputtered. "But… they'd check up on that! Make phone calls, look it up online, get paperwork!"

"Then you get someone to back you up on those phone calls and fake a website and forms." Stan licked a papercut like he had just suggested Dipper go to the store. "It's called a con, kid."

"But… what if they want to call more people to verify the story?" Dipper's voice cracked. He blushed when Stan smirked.

"Then you get more people to back you up. Forge some letters, grease some palms, no big deal." Stan waved his bleeding finger with a wink. "But the best way to do it is to just convince them they don't have to look it up in the first place." Stan carefully glued the paper Dipper next to a paper Mabel on construction paper drawn with Mabel's forged handwriting, complete with little hearts to dot the I's.

"I…" Dipper swallowed, squeezing his heating coil. "I don't know if I'm a good enough liar to pull that off."

"Liar—" Stan's laugh sounded more like a bark than a laugh. "You don't need to be a good liar. Your parents don't need a good lie, just one outrageous enough that they don't think you'd lie about it."

Stan turned his Mabel letter for Dipper to look at. "Well, what do you think?"

It was childish the way Mabel would make it. Clunky crayon work, round faces, lots of color. It still felt wrong.

"You forgot the glitter."

Stan looked at his letter and frowned. "Darn, you're right. How could I forget that?"

As Stan uncapped a bottle of glitter (which would surely be all over the kitchen for months to come), someone knocked on the front door.

"Go see who it is. If it's the cops, I'm not home," said Stan.

"I know the drill," said Dipper as he reluctantly left his heating coil and slid out of his seat. As he walked out, there was the clatter of a glitter bottle and a made up swear from Stan, and Dipper picked up the pace to avoid getting caught in whatever it was.

"Sorry," Dipper said as he got to the front door. "The Mystery Shack is closed for the—" A familiar girl wrapped in scarves and sunglasses to hide her face greeted him on the porch. "Pacifica?"

"Don't say my name too loudly," she hissed softly before sliding into the Shack. When she passed by, Dipper could smell just enough champagne and floral perfume to remind him how musky the Shack was. "You know I'm not supposed to be here."

"I don't think your parents have spies in the woods," Dipper said as he quickly wiped his hands, blackened with grease and glitter, on his pants and wondered what kind of twelve-year-old girl wore perfume. (Or was it perfume? Maybe she just smelled like champagne and flowers naturally.)

"You never know," Pacifica huffed as she took off her sunglasses. She had eyeshadow on. Why did she always wear so much makeup? She looked completely wrong in the Shack with her perfume and makeup and fancy clothes and Dipper couldn't get his hands clean.

"Why are you here if you're so nervous about it? Is there something you need?" Dipper asked, trying to keep any general irritation out of his voice. Pacifica was doing the entire Pines family a huge favor by funding them, and the least Dipper could do in return was be nice when she came around.

"Nothing I need." Pacifica kept glancing around and shifting in place, like she was struggling to maintain her typical cool girl persona but she didn't know how to deal with her surroundings. Dipper could understand that. The Shack was a wreck compared to Northwest Mansion. Even he and Mabel needed a little time to get used to it. "I'm here to warn you about something."

"Warn us?" The last time Pacifica showed up unannounced at their home, Dipper turned into a tree. Now she was coming in secret to their house to warn them in person about something possibly more dangerous than an angry lumberjack ghost, and he did not need this in his life right now. He fixed his jaw and took a deep breath. "Is someone tapping your phones? Is that why you needed to come in person?"

"What? No." Immediately, she frowned and waved her hand. "Well, actually yes, but it's just my parents. They're always recording my calls to make sure I'm not embarrassing the family or talking to people I shouldn't be. That's not the point."

Dipper furrowed his brow, but Pacifica plowed on.

"It's probably no big deal. You had some problems with that fake psychic, Gideon Gleeful, right?"

"Gideon?"

Dipper wasn't sure what he was expecting, but Gideon wasn't it. He shoved his hands in his pockets (getting his palms clean was a lost cause). "Yeah, he left us homeless, chased us with a giant robot, and we got him arrested. What about him?" Gideon was still in prison, right?

"I got a tip that he's plotting to rob my family." She crossed her arms, thrusting her hip to one side like the idea someone would even bother to try to burgle her was equally amusing and offensive. "He noticed Mabel is missing."

"He… how?" His stomach twisted. Mabel had been gone long enough that everyone was noticing, even Gideon.

"He's in prison, not underground. You can still hear about what's going on there," Pacifica said in a clipped tone that made Dipper want to shake her a little. What would she know about prison, anyway? "Obviously he'll never be able to steal something from the Northwests, but I wanted to give you a heads up. It sounds like he was trying to steal something to help him get to you guys."

"Like break out of prison?" Dipper took a deep breath, doing his best to quell a growing sense of impending doom in his chest. They didn't need this. They didn't need to deal with Gideon. More than anything, Dipper didn't need to deal with one of his attacks of suffocation and floating out of his body when Pacifica was right there.

"I don't know. My tip didn't tell me everything. But I'm going to keep an eye on it and so should you." Her perfectly plucked brow (what kid gets her eyebrows plucked) furrowed. She dug her fingers in her coat sleeve. "Are you okay?"

Damn it. She noticed. "I, uh, could you give me a minute?" He didn't wait before he rushed away, away from Pacifica, away from her stupid makeup and champagne and the news she brought with her.

He ended up in a glitter-covered kitchen. He wanted to go to the forest or the utility closet, but instead, he just grabbed the edge of the sink and started mumbling under his breath. Recitations, pieces of prayers from temple, nubs of poetry he learned in class, scraps of song lyrics. Breathe, recite, think about the next word, the next bit to say.

The chair creaked behind him. Stan. Right, he was here, working on the letter. Dipper had to stop, had to calm down or Stan would need to drink more, but that just made his heart thud faster and the recitations fritz.

A warm, meaty hand rested on his shoulder.

"Baruch atah Adonai, Eloheinu, melekh ha'olam…" Stan's voice rolled over the words like grit. It wasn't a prayer in his mouth, but it was familiar, every bit as mundane to him as gravel under feet.

Dipper squeezed the side of the sink and leaned his head against Stan's side. "Baruch atah Adonai, Eloheinu, melekh ha'olam."

"Got it, kid." Dipper most certainly didn't have it, and he could tell Stan didn't either. Their tongues slid on sounds that should be hard, punched the syllables that should be soft, halfway Anglicized a language mostly foreign to both of them, but the accuracy and meaning and tradition never mattered. What always mattered was that the words were said with family.

"Baruch atah Adonai, Eloheinu, melekh ha'olam. Baruch atah Adonai, Eloheinu, melekh ha'olam." Dipper repeated it with his grunkle over and over until it didn't feel like the world would end and he could pry his hands from the sink.

"There you go. No big deal, right?" His grunkle squeezed his shoulder before letting him go. "Now go explain to your friend that you didn't ditch her."

He briefly considered correcting Stan, telling him that Pacifica wasn't his friend, but it didn't seem worth it. Even when his heart wasn't beating itself against his ribcage, it felt like all his energy had been scooped out, leaving nothing but hollow bones. "Right." He had no idea how long he left Pacifica hanging, but he could take a deep breath and dab sweat from his face before going back to the front hall. "Pacifica?"

Pacifica wasn't there. Maybe she left already? The idea was vaguely disappointing as Dipper stuck his head outside to check the porch. "Pacifica?"

"Hey, Dipper."

Dipper jumped when she talked behind him. When did she get there? She was frowning at him, but it wasn't one of the mean frowns she'd sometimes direct at Mabel or their family when she was acting snotty. It was one of those softer frowns he saw when they were fighting that ghost together.

"Sorry, I just… I was looking for you and I got lost." She started tugging on the finger of her glove, but then she stopped, deliberately putting her hands down at her sides. "Are you…" She shook her head, and that infuriating cool girl persona wavered. "I, uh, I'm trying to get a phone my parents don't know about so I can call people they don't like. If I do, I'll call you up and give you the number, okay?"

Dipper was never quite sure what to do with her like this, when she showed the slivers of personhood underneath her haughty exterior. It was… nice. When she opened up to him at the party and agreed to help Mabel without any questions, it was all nice.

But he didn't know how to deal with it. "So you can keep in touch over Gideon and the portal?"

She smoothed out her skirt. The haughtiness slid over her face just as easily as Mr. Mystery sliding on Stan's. "So we can keep in touch. Or we can talk. Whatever."

Pacifica pushed on her sunglasses and wrapped her hair in her scarf and just like that she was lost again. "I need to go back home before my parents notice I'm gone. Keep me updated."

"Sure." Dipper knew she couldn't stay anyway.

She brushed past him as she left.

Champagne lingered in the air.


Dimension ?, Day ?, 2012

Mabel's scream echoed through the entire jungle. Ford jumped so hard that the trap he was setting snapped over his hand, provoking a curse as he threw it to the ground and started looking around wildly.

"Mabel?"

He raced towards the scream. The sky was turning purple as the sun set, and the jungle was coming alive. Animals of all sorts, from fuzzy to scaly, were rushing through the brush and climbing the trees, crowding on the branches and snapping at each other for space.

There was something wrong. All different species shouldn't have the same behavior.

"MABEL!" He cupped his hand around his mouth as he yelled. "MABEL!"

"Grunkle Ford!"

He shot towards his name, shoving bushes and tangled vines from his face until he could see her. Her gloves were stained gold and she was trying to climb a tree as a veritable river of animals shoved her out of the way, streaming up the bark and through the canopy. She had her hands on the lowest hanging branch, but she couldn't get a foothold on the trunk, the animals running by too quickly.

"Mabel—" Ford caught one of her feet and pushed her up. She pulled herself onto the branch, kicking her feet in the air and narrowly avoiding kicking him in the face as she wiggled up. She didn't even make the animals pause. They started running over her back, scrambling to find space, even when she pulled herself up so she could sit on the bark, still they ran over her lap and legs.

"Grunkle Ford, what's happening?" She looked so scared and that just made the panic beat harder at the back of Ford's throat. He clasped his hands over her knee, trying to soothe her but mostly just reassuring himself that she was still okay.

"I don't know, but something has agitated the entire jungle. It's best if we just do what they do." He grabbed onto the branch himself, but it creaked ominously and Mabel squeaked as she dug her fingers in the bark. Ford immediately let it go. "Mabel, get to the next branch up right now."

"But what about—"

"The sooner you do, the sooner I can try to climb. Now!"

Mabel still had two-headed squirrels running over her lap when she got to her feet. They popped off of her, falling to the spongey jungle floor, and they shrieked before running up another tree. The carnivorous plants under Ford's feet were starting to vibrate. Mabel tried to grab onto the trunk of the tree, but snakes slid over her hands and mice tried to slip under them, and she couldn't get a grip. She shook her hands off and leapt instead.

Ford's stomach dropped. Mabel slammed her face into the next branch, and her braces crunched against the bark, but she had a grip and she was wiggling onto it even as a chinchilla-like thing ran over her head.

The carnivorous tubes were starting to shudder and stretch wide open, and Ford wasn't interested in staying to see what they did. He grasped onto the lowest branch and swung onto it, lizards scrambling out from under him and narrowly avoiding being crushed. The branch creaked and shook, but it didn't bow or break, and Mabel was smiling at him from her higher branch with a bloodied mouth and she was okay.

Golden syrup erupted from the tubes on the ground, filling up the entire jungle floor and releasing an awful sweetness that made Ford's head spin. It turned a richer gold than before, like honey, scent doubling in strength until Ford's eyes watered. The animals were still now, lined up on the branches. (Also, they were lined up in his and Mabel's laps and shoulders. Also head, in the case of one daring two-headed squirrel that made a nest in Mabel's braids.)

Ford leaned his back against the trunk of the tree, struggling to keep his head clear when everything smelled like a two-bit perfume store mixed with a zoo. "Did you get hurt?" he said, looking up at his niece, who wiggled to mirror him and put her back on the trunk, provoking cranky chitters from the animals that sat around her. Unlike him, she was reaching to pet all of them.

"I'm okay." She wiped her mouth on her sleeve before reaching to touch a snake coiled at her knees. The snake hissed, wiggling away from her hands, and that just made her deflate. "Just a little cut, no biggy."

"And your leg?"

She pulled up the leg of her white leather pants, showing him white bandages running up and down her shin and calf. He couldn't see any blood soaking through, so at least they had that. "It's okey-dokey down there."

The leaves above them thrashed. A bird shrieked. The animals around Mabel jumped to attention and ran over her legs and shoulders to get to the trunk.

A beast with eight legs and clawed feet dropped onto her branch, an entire bird snapping into pieces in its snarl of teeth. Its six eyes fixed on Mabel.

Ford tried to scramble to his feet, but his branch swayed and he had to catch himself on the trunk as lizards snapped at his ankles. He grabbed at his holster, pulling out a gun, but they were too close together. He could hit Mabel if he fired. "Mabel!"

Mabel punched the spider beast in the face.

The thing recoiled, hissing and swallowing the bird. There was just enough space between the beast and Mabel. Ford aimed his gun and fired.

Blood spurted from the beast's face and it howled. Mabel screamed and covered her eyes. The thing wobbled on the branch, half its jaw falling on the wood with a clunk as it tore from the rest of its head. One leg slid on the blood, and it fell off the branch into the liquid below.

Ford didn't have time to stare at Mabel before the beast's scream deafened him. They both slapped their hands over their ears as the thing thrashed on the jungle floor, partially submerged in the golden syrup and dissolving. Its skin peeled back and pieces of flesh floated away and into the greedy tubed plants.

"Oh…" Mabel looked green. Ford forced his eyes away from the dying thing.

"Don't look." If she vomited, she could dehydrate herself, and she needed all the water she had. They didn't know how long they would have to be up here.

"I think the whole jungle eats people," she said, trying to look at him instead. She was pressed against the trunk again, sitting on a branch just a mite too thin to be comfortable, and creatures were pouring over her shoulders, chest, and lap to line up on the branch now that the danger was gone. Her eyes were glassy and it looked like she might like a hug, but Ford was too far away. He couldn't give her one. "I found teeth in this tree's fruit."

The screaming of the beast cut off with a whimper and a sticky blub. Ford took a steadying breath. "Keep your eyes on me. As soon as this is over, we're going to find a portal and we're going to leave this place."

"Hmhmm." She forced her mouth in a grim line, but there was strain in the corners of her eyes. Then they overflowed and tears ran down her nose onto the sparkling chinchilla in her lap. The chinchilla didn't seem to mind terribly, but Ford's chest hurt, like someone was sliding a knife through it. Was this heartbreak?

Ford had learned quickly that his niece responded very well to touch and casual affection. He couldn't give it to her right now, and it hurt. What else did she respond to when she was unhappy?

"What are you grateful for?" Ford tried to force a smile. He didn't do too well. "I'm having trouble thinking of much."

She took a deep, shuddering breath, and started to pet the animals around her again as she sniffled. They all avoided her hands, climbing to her back and clinging to the fabric of her clothes to avoid them entirely. She checked her hands, and in the light, her gloves gleamed with the lighter gold the fluid was before. Mabel shuddered, making an unhappy keening noise before wiping her gloves on her pants. The fact that none of her clothes were degrading made him want to go back to the ice planet to thank Anise.

She took a deep breath, more tears tracking her face. Her gloves clean, she reached for the animals again. This time, they didn't run. "Then you're not being very creative. I'm grateful for the animals around me."

A two-headed squirrel settled on Ford's shoulder. He didn't try to pet it. "They're cute in their own way, I suppose. I'm grateful for them too."

"I'm grateful we're still alive."

"Yes," Ford nodded, still trying to force that reassuring smile but knowing in his heart that she wasn't buying it. "That's also worth being thankful. What else?"

"The sun, the moon, the stars," she started to count off on her fingers. The crying had stopped. Ford breathed a slow sigh of relief. "My arms, my legs, my fingers, and my toes…"

"All excellent things to be thankful for." The world still stank of that horrible overwhelming sweetness. In the distance, the screams of dissolving animals peppered the landscape.

"And I'm grateful I'm with you," Mabel said, threading her fingers in a chinchilla's fur. It didn't run away. "I'm grateful that I got to meet you, and that you don't have to be alone anymore."

There went his heart again. When was the last time he'd ever had a companion? Not for a long time, and never someone who followed him across worlds. His niece dangled over a sea of nauseating digestive fluid, petting aliens and thinking about his happiness. Ford was reminded once again of how wonderfully perfect his niece was. He didn't deserve her.

"I'm grateful to be with you too," he said. "And I'm grateful that I had a chance to meet you, but I wish you could have stayed on Earth. This isn't what I wanted for any family of mine."

"It isn't what any family of yours wanted for you either."

Stanley. She was talking about Stanley. For a moment, he thought about that fateful moment he fell through the portal—the panic, the pleading, the look in Stanley's eyes. It was easy to get angry at his twin for the whole thing, but he knew Stanley never wanted him to suffer this.

That didn't mean Stanley hadn't still royally messed up.

Mabel forced a smile for him. He could tell it was fake because he couldn't see her braces. It was better than the crying, he reasoned. "We just have to wait until Dipper and Grunkle Stan fix the portal and then we'll both be home. Until then, we can keep each other company." She winked, which looked a little sad without the cheerful gleam of her braces. "I gotta say, this has been some serious grunkle-niece bonding time, am I right?"

He wanted to laugh, to say 'yes, this has been great bonding time, but let's think of something a little less intense for when I meet your brother', but he couldn't. The portal would be broken beyond Stan's ability to repair it, and even if he could, Stan and Ford would be long dead before it all came together again. "Mabel…"

"If we're going to be up here a while, you want to swap stories?" She spoke over him, and he had a feeling she knew exactly what he was going to say. Neither of them were ever going to see their twins again. They were all each other had.

The fact stuck in his throat, and he saw no reason to force it on Mabel. She had enough to deal with. She would process the truth of their situation in time. "Stories sound wonderful."

"I can tell you about the time me and Dipper tried to trap the Tooth Fairy."

Ford wouldn't tell her about any stories from home. The ones he had were usually not very happy, and definitely not things he wanted to think about at length. He could tell her about the multiverse, though—talk about whimsical worlds where the breeze smelled like sunshine and people bobbed in the air like dandelion seeds.

And she could tell him about the world they left behind and the people he would never meet. Shermy, his nephew, his niece-in-law, and his grandnephew. She didn't bring up Stanley. He was grateful for that. He was also a little sad for it, too.

Once the digestive fluid was gone, he was going to take her to another world to finish off their jerky together and nap somewhere warm. He'd make sure she was okay.

From world to world, he would make sure she was okay.

Chapter Text

Earth, August 5th, 2012

Gleeful still hadn't made a move yet. Pacifica wasn't too worried. He probably saw the increased security and backed off for now.

Dipper was in bad shape. He looked like he was sleeping now, but she could spot a panic attack a mile away and that had definitely been a panic attack. It gave her plenty of time alone to search the house. All that meant was that she really, really had to pull this off.

Her parents never visited the room she discovered with Dipper, hidden behind a painting and full of the Northwests' misdeeds. She sat against an armoire covered in a dusty sheet, a flashlight by her knee. In her lap, a llama hair sweater stretched over her thighs, a llama sewn on the front. It had been in the weird filthy den area in the Mystery Shack, lying on a pile of sweaters like no one had the heart to pick them up. It was definitely Mabel's. Pacifica could recognize one of her old lady sweaters any day of the week.

Pacifica made sure to wear gloves for the mirror now in her hand. Everything she read said that she could scry for a person better if she had something of theirs. She dug her fingers in the llama hair sweater, the eyes of her wretched ancestors staring at her from all around.

"Come on, Mabel. I'm trying to be a good person, so don't go and make this harder." As if Mabel could control how easy she was to find with a mirror, but Pacifica found comfort in sending barbs at someone who wasn't even there.

Pacifica held up the mirror, setting her jaw. The stupid flying eyeball with the even more stupid green lens was staring at her judgmentally again, but she was trying to do a good thing so she didn't know what its problem was.

"Show me Mabel."

The glass fogged. She held the sweater so hard her fingers were digging through the stitches into her palms. Mabel, the girl who'd wear corn chips as earrings and challenge the rich girl at a new town she'd only been in for a month. Mabel, who knit more sweaters than should be possible and wore them in the dead of summer. Mabel, who had a mean swing in golf and fought by her side against ball monsters.

Mabel, who really needed to be alive, because she forgave all of Pacifica's nasty behavior and her brother was lost without her.

The ivory warmed under her glove. The fog parted, and there was light.

It was like a painting. Towering trees, colors more vivid than Pacifica had ever seen, and glimmering, luminescent jellyfish-like creatures swam through the air like it was water. With every contraction that sent them flying forward, the creatures let out sounds that Pacifica had never heard before. It was like music with instruments from another galaxy, and she had to bite her lip to keep from being caught in it.

"Look! I think they're dancing!"

Pacifica almost snapped at Mabel to shut up and let her listen, but then her heart skipped a beat. Mabel?

There she was, on the ground with grass as high as her hips, complete with a white sweater and… did she have stars braided on her head? Pacifica was pretty sure Mabel had stars braided on her head. The braids were so tight that there wasn't any hair that fell past Mabel's ears. It was incredibly tacky but Pacifica was grudgingly impressed. She'd never seen braids done like that before (probably because braids were far out of fashion but still).

"You're not looking!" Mabel cut through the grass, and it was only then Pacifica could see another human was there. It was a man. What was a man doing there?

The man was bent over and writing in a journal, wearing a black trench coat that looked like it was out of an action movie, but while everything around him was distinct and vivid, his head was a gray and pink blur.

Pacifica held her breath, biting her lip as Mabel wandered towards the man. What was wrong with him? Why couldn't she see him? Was he a dangerous alien? Was he going to eat Mabel?

Mabel grabbed his arm, pulling it down and hugging it while he wrote. "You're not looking." Mabel grinned at him, her braces gleaming as bright as ever. Pacifica couldn't see the man's eyes (did he have eyes?), but his shoulders shifted like he was looking down at Mabel. The arm Mabel hugged shifted, sliding out of her grip…

And he gently patted her on the head.

"I'm just finishing this sentence."

Mabel was clearly entranced by the musical jellyfish, and so was Pacifica, hunched over the mirror just so she could hear better. The man put his book away and kept one hand on Mabel's shoulder. He was probably human, or if he wasn't, then he was still safe if Mabel was okay with him. Probably. Mabel would probably be okay with nearly anything.

"You should dance with me," Mabel said, tugging on the man's sleeve. He chuckled, and the noise was warm and definitely human.

"You just want me to twirl you."

"Twirl me in time to music!" She grabbed his hand, tugging him out under the jellyfish.

He laced their fingers together. Something looked wrong about it. Pacifica squinted. Did he have six fingers? That was definitely six fingers.

The man led Mabel into some bastardization of a waltz, but their uncoordinated steps didn't matter, because Mabel was grinning and completely whole.

Pacifica watched them dance a crooked path through the grass, smiling at the way Mabel never failed to be a dork even across universes, before she remembered that there was someone else who needed to see this.

Fumbling with the jacket for a moment, Pacifica pulled out a disposable cell phone she had bought early this morning. She wiggled in place, staring at the mirror as she punched Dipper's number in. It was like she was a spy. The best kind of spy that could reunite a brother and sister (or at least assure one that the other was okay and happy enough to be dancing with a stranger).

"Hello, this is the Mystery Shack." The cheap disposable crackled Dipper's voice, but Pacifica couldn't be bothered by it.

"Dipper, it's Pacifica. You have to come up to the mansion now."

"Pacifica?" He sounded nervous. Maybe she shouldn't have left it so ominous. "Is something wrong? Did Gideon attack?"

"No, no, this is a good thing, I swear." He'd be so happy to see Mabel okay. "It's better if I show you. Just come here as soon as you can and I'll meet you outside of the gate, okay?"

"Okay…"

She hung up on him, still watching the mirror. Mabel danced gracelessly, but she made up for it by making it look really fun. She laughed and the man twirled her over and over as they raked a crooked line through the grass and the jellyfish glimmered above.

"You know, a portal is going to open soon. We're going to need to go through it." The man had that indulgent tone Pacifica's father would get sometimes when Pacifica wanted to get something particularly expensive, like a new horse or helicopter flying lessons.

"You can make me dizzy first!"

He twirled Mabel around and around, laughing. It was like a scene from a Disney movie. Too cute. Oh well, good to see Mabel still had the energy to be her good old saccharine self.

Pacifica lost track of how long she watched them before they suddenly stopped and the entire image crackled, wobbling before becoming distinct again. A blue portal was opening up at the base of a tree.

"Okay, Mabel." The man stopped twirling Mabel, and he managed to catch her before she toppled over. "Time to go."

The man and the girl laced their fingers together before he tossed a rock into the portal. When there was a clatter, they stepped inside.

For a moment, the mirror just showed the jellyfish world without Mabel.

"Hey, I want to see Mabel." Pacifica clenched the mirror tighter. "Don't show me that. Keep showing me M—"

Electricity blew behind her eyes and the dusty room of paintings disappeared. She was surrounded by the universe. Six connected prongs of lightning with blue words all over the surface moved like a golden, sparking six-fingered hand through the void of space, and a shooting star left a trail of brilliant color through the cosmos.

"Mabel?" Pacifica called out, already looking around, trying to clench and unclench her hands to feel the mirror. Where was she what was she doing what happened oh God she was supposed to be in the mansion—

Pacifica?

The voice was too loud, too bright, bouncing around the inside of Pacifica's skull like Mabel wiggling her inexperienced, graceless butt across a dance floor.

You sound like Pacifica, Mabel's stupid internal bouncing said.

Mabel, stay back, a faraway male voice said. The hand crackled. Pacifica could taste metal and the golden fingers were suddenly like bars of a cage, fixed between her and the star. The air popped, Pacifica's hair stood on end, and she lashed out.

"Ruin my hair and I will sue you, old man!"

Oh my gosh it is Pacifica!

Mabel squealed in the weird collective brain thing they had going and Pacifica tried to cover ears that she was having trouble finding. By the way the lightning fingers shuddered, the old man was feeling it too.

Oh my gosh oh my gosh how are you here?

She's from Earth?

All the colors from the star were getting so bright and hot that it gave Pacifica a headache, but that was pretty normal whenever she talked to Mabel. It almost completely overwhelmed the old man, who she only felt as though she were listening to an old radio that cut in and out. Unlike Mabel's flashy, tacky glitz, he was a dull, indistinct roar, thinking so many things at once that Pacifica couldn't pick anything out, but cold dread shot from him like a knife cutting into her, and Mabel's light flickered uneasily.

"I might have stolen one of your sweaters and scryed for you in a magic mirror."

Awww, a wave of warmth swept through the void of space, you do care about me.

"Don't let it go to your head."

Where did you get the mirror? The old man's voice cut in, suddenly closing distance, a signal that wanted to find her. The dread was pricking out of him like spikes, and she was narrowly avoiding getting caught on them all. How are you communicating with us?

"I don't know." Pacifica tried to twist away from the spikes. Space was too wide to feel so claustrophobic. "My family had the mirror, and some freak wanted to buy it. I just wanted to show Dipper that Mabel was okay."

Dipper! Mabel's feelings punched Pacifica's nose so hard she could swear she would be bleeding if she even had a nose right now. All of Mabel rushed around her and for a moment she was drowning, clawing for air in between the hope and longing and love that had burst out of the star. Is Dipper okay? What's he doing? He's rebuilding the portal, right?

Pacifica gagged on all the sweetness that was Mabel, nauseous. Could she throw up in nothingness? "Of course he is. Everyone is in on it. We're going a lot faster than I thought we would. I bet we'll have you home by—"

EVERYONE IS WHAT

The world exploded into lightning. It cracked and split into dozens and dozens of branches, stretching above and below and grasping Pacifica, buzzing over her skin like it wanted to electrify her but couldn't break the barrier formed on her flesh, and its urgency kicked her gut until the tidal wave of before was burned away but she still couldn't breathe.

YOU HAVE TO STOP THEM

Grunkle Ford, no!

Mabel's horror tasted sour, but it was nothing to the lightning.

YOU HAVE TO DESTROY THE PORTAL IT WILL END THE WORLD IF IT IS OPENED AGAIN

"Wait wait what?"

Don't listen to him! Mabel and the old man were too loud. Pacifica could barely find her own thoughts anymore. Please please I want to go home

WE ARE NOT WORTH THAT RISK

Please I want to see Dipper I want to see Grunkle Stan I want Waddles I want my parents I want Mommy

SOMEONE LED YOU TO THE MIRROR HE IS PULLING THE STRINGS BREAK THE MIRROR AND DESTROY THE PORTAL BEFORE IT'S TOO LATE

Please please please save us

SAVE THE WORLD BEWARE YELLOW EYES

Grunkle Ford why are you doing this

TRUST NO ONE

"Oh daughter of mine!"

Pacifica was back in the dusty room, her eyes and nose running down to her chin and the mirror blank.

She sucked in the stale air, putting the mirror down before her shaking hands could break it. A film of sweat on her face threatened what remained of her makeup, and she quickly dabbed her forehead with her handkerchief before wiping her nose and eyes. Presentable, presentable, got to look presentable.

"Come out, come out, wherever you are!"

It was her father, and he was nearing her wing. Quickly, she folded the mirror into Mabel's sweater and stuffed it in her jacket, smoothing out the lump it made as best she could. Fixing a smile on her face the way her parents taught, she stumbled out from behind the painting, brushing dust off her clothes and combing her fingers through her hair to fluff it back to perfection.

"I'm over here, Dad," she called with false cheer. She needed to talk to Dipper. She needed to talk to Dipper yesterday. Whatever her dad wanted, she had to deal with it fast.

Her father poked his head into the hall, giving her a big smile that he hadn't had since before she opened up the gates. Maybe their relationship was healing after all. "There you are. I was looking all over."

She wished she could be happier that he seemed pleased to see her, but her dad had the worst timing. "Do you need something?"

"Yes, actually!" He rolled his wrists. He always did that when he had been writing too long. "I need to see that mirror I told you to check on. Where is it?"

Her heart fluttered in her chest, but she kept smiling. The same frozen smile her parents always had when they lied. "It's in that room with all of Edward Northwest III's other junk."

"Weird," her father's smile stayed in place as he padded towards her, "because it wasn't there."

Pacifica had to keep her composure. No gritting teeth or paling or anything. She pressed her hands to her hips to keep them from shaking. "Are you sure? It was definitely there when I checked yesterday."

"Oh, little girl." Her father laughed and clapped her on the shoulder. "Don't you know it's naughty to lie?"

His hand came down on her face so hard her back slammed into the wall. Pacifica grabbed her cheek with a cry, staring slack-jawed at her father. The sting hit her like a wave, and suddenly he was standing too close for her to run.

"I didn't—"

"Liar." His hand came down again, smacking her lip into her teeth and splitting it wide open. She tried to flinch away, but she could only press harder against the walls, eyes darting for escape that she didn't have. "Maybe if I do something like this—"

His knee crushed her gut. Spots danced in her eyes as the air in her body came out in a rush and she collapsed on the ground. "—you'll… oh, here we go."

The sweater package fell from her jacket with a thud. Preston tugged the sweater loose and the mirror fell out onto the carpet. "See, that wasn't hard, you…" He glanced at the sweater dangling from his hand and let out a guffaw. "You llama! You're the llama! That wasn't so hard, was it, llama?"

Three weeks ago, Pacifica would have cowered and waited for him to stop. This wasn't three weeks ago.

She had to get out.

While her father laughed at the sweater, Pacifica lunged, grabbing the mirror and running as fast as she could.

"HEY!"

He was coming for her. She had to run, she had to get out of the house, she had to—

"GOTCHA!"

A hand grabbed her hair and yanked her back. She skidded, almost falling to the floor except he lifted her by her hair.

"Dad, stop! Why are you doing this?" She tried to scratch his hand, but it didn't hurt him. He was still grinning when he moved his face right up against hers, his breath stinking of mint.

"Humans are hilarious when they're in pain!" Ripples of manic laughter rattled his chest. "But seriously, I want something you have."

Pacifica finally looked at his eyes.

They weren't her father's eyes.

They were yellow with a dark slit.

Beware yellow eyes

"So hand it over, kiddo. If you do, I might just let you keep that pretty head of yours!"

That smile and those eyes were out of a slasher movie. They were wrong on her father's face, like someone had carved them in with a knife. He wanted Mabel, her gut said. Whatever was wearing her father's face was going to find her and do something terrible. Maybe to Dipper, too. Maybe to everyone.

The end of the world.

Pacifica nodded mutely, her bleeding lip trembling. The beast kept grinning and flicked her nose. "I knew you'd come around. Humans always do."

Pacifica offered the mirror in a shaking hand… then slammed it in his face, shattering the glass on his cheek.

He dropped her and reeled back, screaming like a demon from hell as blood spattered on the walls, on the floors, on Pacifica's face. "YOU IDIOT!" She moved to run, but he recovered too fast, faster than any human should, and he grabbed her by the throat and picked her off the ground. Her father's thumbs dug into her esophagus and she scratched and kicked her feet in the air, her face swelling. "DO YOU KNOW WHAT YOU JUST COST ME? YOU WORTHLESS SACK OF MEAT!"

Her grip on the ivory shell of the mirror loosened as his yellow eyes bore down on her and he gnashed his teeth, stained with blood that dripped from the tears in his flesh.

"It's time to take you off the board PERMANENTLY!"

Her last thought was that the old man was right:

Trust no one.

Chapter Text

Dimension ?, Day ?, 2012

The presence, far away and hard to hear, disappeared all at once. Where there was a sense of a tall, irate impression covered in steel wool gilded with gleaming gold, there was nothing, and his star was shooting away.

Pacifica! Come back!

Mabel, don't go out there!

Ford grabbed the tendrils of color, yanking them back, and he didn't realize what he did until she screamed and he could see the universe.

They hit the next world hard. Ford and Mabel slammed on a wooden floor in an empty room illuminated only by a bare bulb dangling from the ceiling. The smell of burnt flesh and hair seared their clothes as Ford's hands blistered and smoke rolled off Mabel's limp body.

"Mabel?" Ford crawled to her, grabbing her sleeve to pull up and check her arm, already spiderwebbed with a lightning tree. "Oh my gosh, I'm so sorry, I forgot I—"

"Stop it!" She shoved his hands off her. He recoiled, heart clenching as his hands grasped at nothing.

She was crying, more than he'd ever seen her cry. Even in the dim light, he could see her face blotching and her eyes swelling as her shoulders shook, one shoulder far more stiff than the other.

Mabel liked hugs, but she didn't want him to touch her, so he was back to not knowing what to do with his hands, trying to lace them calmly but pulling at his coat instead. Touching anything hurt his blistered palms, but not as much as her tears did. "Mabel…"

"Why would you do that?" She wiped her tears with the heel of her right hand, but she didn't try to move her left hand. The smoke came from that shoulder. "Why would you ruin our chance to get out? She's going to stop them now!"

"I told you, Mabel. Opening the portal means the end of the world. We can't risk that!"

He held out his weeping hands, begging her to understand, to see that the world was more important and life didn't have to be so bad and did they really leave behind that much anyway—

"What about my world?"

She jumped to her feet, eyes streaming, hands shaking. He wished she would attack him. It would be less painful than watching her cry.

"What about my friends and my family and all those things I can't live without—what about Dipper?" She threw her hand out, but her left arm hung limp at her side. "I'm supposed to be there to turn thirteen with him soon, but instead, I'm never seeing him again!"

"We're not worth the world," Ford pressed. "I never wanted this for you, but this is where we are and we can't keep dwelling on the past."

"My brother isn't my past!" She stomped her foot and the floor creaked. "Is that what you think? That our whole family is just the past?" She grabbed her hair, getting louder and louder as she went. "Don't you ever think of them? Don't you want to see your brother again?"

He opened his mouth, but nothing came out. He didn't know what to say. She waited for him, but his silence must have been answer enough. Her tears turned to outrage, her hands balling into fists.

"Why are you like this? What happened to make you not care about family at all?"

A wordless protest rose in his throat, but before he could say anything, she was marching towards the only door out of their room.

"We have to stay together," he said as he pushed himself to his feet.

"I never want to be like you!" She marched out and slammed the door in his face. He immediately swung it open again, but she was gone. The door opened out to a massive expanse of what could loosely be termed a city-sized house, full of different doors and coiling staircases of dissonant styles that led up and down and to nowhere and to banks of doors and into the darkness far below him.

"Oh no." He'd seen worlds like this, worlds that seemed to consciously try to lose people inside of them, and he couldn't see Mabel anywhere. "Mabel?"

There was a big banister along the edge of one staircase. As he started to climb, he peeked over the edge, searching for a flash of color but instead only finding more staircases and doors that gradually led to darkness below. "Mabel!"

He couldn't even be sure that she would answer him if she could. She was furious with him, and he wanted to give her a firm shake. Didn't she understand what was at stake? Didn't she understand that they would just put their family in danger if they demanded that they bring them back?

But how could she understand? She was just a little girl who should have never been here in the first place. He should have been firmer with her, more insistent on making her face reality. He just hadn't wanted to make this any harder on her than it had to be. Stupid, stupid, he berated himself as he climbed up spiraling, rattling metal stairs and down stairs made of marble, in and out of doors that just led to more empty rooms and more stairs. He'd gone soft on her and now she was too soft to handle their situation.

He could hear his father berating him now. That's why I made you and your brother toughen up, Filbrick rumbled in his head. You should have learned from me. What do you know about raising kids?

Filbrick had never had to take care of little girls, Ford weakly countered in his own head. Ford might have been able to toughen up a little boy, but it felt wrong with a little girl, especially one who was as gentle and vivacious as Mabel.

When the world is tough, then the kid's gotta be tough, girl or boy, Filbrick scolded him.

Ford stopped at the top of a gray tenement stairwell, yelling in frustration. He had no idea if he was getting closer to Mabel or further away, and she only had enough food in her bag to last her a day away from him. Why hadn't he put her on a leash? Or at least stick her with a tracker?

This was all Stanley's fault, he thought darkly as he stalked across a catwalk to another staircase made of glass. It all came down to Stanley. If he had just done what Stanford said he should do and sailed away with the damned journal, none of them would be in this mess. But no, Stanley had to get huffy, whining about his own life and all the ways he fucked it up his own damned self. Stanley could never take responsibility for anything, not himself, not his work, not anything, so why Stanford thought to trust him with the Journal in the first place was beyond comprehension. But no, no, it wasn't enough for Stanley to fuck up that simple request, he had to go and turn the world-destroying portal on in what had to be the only fit of remorse he'd ever experienced.

Great timing, Stanley, Stanford wanted to yell. The first time you ever decide to make up for one of your copious mistakes and you nearly destroy the world and throw in a little girl for Ford to take care of. Even when Stanley was a universe away, he was still fucking up Ford's life!

"Wow, thirty years and you're still scapegoating me, poindexter."

Stanford stopped dead at the top of a stone staircase. He clenched one burnt hand on the railing before looking towards the voice, gravelly with too many cigarettes. Stanley leaned on the catwalk bannister like a ghost from thirty years past, greasy too-long brown hair hanging limply past his neck and the awful smell of burnt flesh rolling off of his shoulder, turned away from Stanford. He wore that same dirty leather jacket he had on during their fight in front of the portal, had the same bags under his eyes, had the same bitter smile.

"No," Stanford said before turning away and starting to walk down the stairs. "I am not going to engage with someone who's clearly not my real brother." He stopped at the fourth stair. "And it's not scapegoating if it's true!"

"It's true, is it?" The click of a lighter. The smell of cigarettes. Stan had started that habit in high school. Ford never liked it, so Stan put in the effort not to smoke around him, but that smell had always clung to his clothes and linens, infecting their room. "I dunno. From where I'm standing, it looks like you mucked things up pretty well on your own."

"I mucked it up?" Ford wheeled on Stan (the ghost) and marched back up the stairs. "I wasn't the one who pushed me in a portal!"

"Yeah, but who was the one who made that portal?" Stan still leaned on that banister, the end of his cigarette burning evenly, and Ford knew it wasn't him because Stan would not only be older, but he'd be exploding with rage. He was always so quick to get angry in their fights, but the lack of reaction just made Ford's wrath worse. "And you knew for weeks what it could do. Why didn't you take it apart as soon as you knew?"

"I—" His anger caught in his throat, burning his insides.

"It was his life's work. You don't think he would have ever taken it down, do you?" said someone down the stairs, deep in the black.

Ford looked wildly into the dark, looking for the source of the new voice. "Fiddleford?"

"Riiiiight, you were too proud to deal with your world-breaking work being destroyed." Stanley nodded at the dark below them, like he could see Fiddleford even if Ford couldn't. "And that's why you freaked out when I threatened to burn the journal you wanted me to bury for no one to ever find again."

"You had no right to try to destroy that!" Ford should leave. The conversation was making his stomach twist, and these things weren't really Stan or Fiddleford, so it was better to just leave. He couldn't, though. "You always destroy my things! Just like my science project!"

"Oh, we're going back forty years now." Stanley's mouth twisted, but it was just dark, not angry. The cigarette smoke was sinking into their clothes. "You'll never let that go, will you?"

"Do you have any idea how hard I had to work because of it?" The way Stanley stared him down made his gut squirm, and that just intensified his anger. Where did he get off, looking at Ford like that? Ford didn't do anything wrong. He did nothing wrong. "Do you have any comprehension of all the all-nighters I had to pull, the sacrifices I made?"

"Your life sounds really hard, Sixer." It didn't have any of the venom that Stanley's voice should have, but the lilt of mockery slipping like oil into his ears was somehow worse. "Almost as bad as drug dealing and prostituting to survive."

Despite the burns, his hands suddenly felt cold. Ford dug his nails into his palms, tearing open the blisters until they wept. The air tasted sour. "You don't know anything about Stanley's life." He repeated that constantly in his head. "You don't know anything because the only things you could possibly know are what I know, and I don't know anything."

"No, but you could guess. You could always guess, from that first day I was gone." Stanley shrugged his right shoulder, and a horrible cracking sound came from the burn Ford couldn't see but knew was there. The smell of burnt flesh and infection doubled and made his head spin. The cigarette smoke was only a thin layer that couldn't cover it anymore. "You were sitting there resenting me for all-nighters when you didn't know if I was even alive."

Ford felt sick. He shimmied down the stairs, trying to get away from Stanley, wanting nothing more than to just cover his ears. Stanley's gaze burned him more than even Mabel's could. At first it made him angry, but now he just wanted to get away.

"Would that have made you happy, Stanford?" Stanley stayed at the top of the stairs, but Stanford couldn't escape him. "Would you have been happy if I had died?"

"No, for God's sake." His stomach lurched and his nails tore at his palms. "You're my brother!"

"Really? It would have made life easier for you, and it's not like I would have missed much." He was too calm. It was poison, whatever this thing was. Ford kept walking down, but he wanted to tear the thing apart, to punish it for stealing his brother's likeness and voice. "You wouldn't have to put up with your leech brother and I wouldn't waste thirty years of my life trying to save a man who doesn't give a shit if I live or die."

"Shut up," Ford growled, clenching his teeth and struggling to just put one foot in front of the other rather than run back up the stairs and attack his brother's imposter.

"Maybe it would have been better if you were the one who died. You don't care about anyone but yourself, after all," a new voice said. Ford stopped short. At the bottom of the stairs, Fiddleford McGucket leaned on the banister just like Stanley was at the top. Patches of his old friend's hair was missing, like he'd torn them out, and his glasses were cracked. "Or maybe it'd be better to say that you just care so much 'bout changing the world that no one in it matters."

"Fiddleford…"

"You know what I'm talking about, Stanford Pines." Fiddleford's southern drawl was wrong. Too unsteady, like he was constantly distracted. "How many times did I get hurt in your adventures? How much did I give you, just to be left to rot like an old shoe?"

"You were the one who left!" Ford backed up the stairs again, but that just brought him closer to Stanley's judgment. There was nowhere to go.

"I lost everything, Stanford! My wife, my son, my mind—but that never mattered to you. All that mattered was that I keep working like a piece of damn lab equipment!"

"Or maybe it just didn't matter because he didn't get why losing your family would ever be a problem." Stanley was coming down the stairs. Fiddleford was coming up. Ford pressed against the bannister, searching for any escape. "He abandoned his, after all. Never bothered him."

"I am not responsible for either of you!" Ford shouted, heart exploding, shoulders tensing, ready to attack both of them. "You're grown men and you ruined your own lives! I'm not going to be blamed for your mistakes!"

"That's cold, considering all our 'mistakes' were made for you," Stanley snorted.

"Eventually you gotta see that everyone you ever cared about woulda just been better off if they'd never met you, Ford," Fiddleford said, his eyes burning like brands on Ford's skin.

"I would've inherited the pawn shop. Hell, maybe I'd have a family of my own instead of wasting all my time on you." Stanley was closing in. Ford couldn't breathe with the smell of burning flesh.

"I woulda been with my family working on computers. Maybe I'd've given Tate a little sister by now," Fiddleford said.

"And Mabel would be with her family, where she belongs, and nowhere near any portal you weren't around to make."

It was like a knife cut under his ribs. "I'm her family too!" Just because he hadn't heard from her grandfather since Shermy was ten years old, never met her parents, and hadn't even known she existed until she was already twelve didn't mean he was any less her family. Did it? "And I wasn't the one who turned on the portal when there were children in the house! I'm taking care of her!"

"Taking care of her?" Fiddleford scoffed. "You wouldn't know what to do with a child if it came up and bit you!"

"Alright, mister uncle of the year, if you're such a good caretaker…" Stanley leaned in until they were nose to nose. There was nothing in his eyes. Nothing at all. "Where is Mabel?"

A familiar scream tore through the dark below them. "Mabel!" Ford shoved Fiddleford and Stanley out of his way, tearing down the stairs into inky blackness. The screaming didn't stop, leading him to the dark and past door after door, but then it came to a sudden end.

"No! No no no—" Ford slammed through doors, through room after empty room, until he could finally get to Mabel.

He was too late.

In another empty room illuminated only by a bulb, it was like the floor itself had warped to become a spear, and Mabel hung, arms and legs kicking uselessly at the air, dangling as the spear impaled her stomach.

"Oh my God."

Mabel flailed her hand in his direction, choking on her own half-formed words. The spear abruptly pulled back and was swallowed into a smooth floor again. Mabel's body fell. Ford caught her just before she hit the ground.

"Oh my God, Mabel, stay with me, I'll take care of this." They had to get out of this room, just in case it attacked again, but she was bleeding so much, he didn't know a little body could hold so much blood.

He shoved the next door open with his shoulder as he peeled her shirt and sweater back to see her stomach. A hole punched clean through her gut. Organs dangled, torn into pieces.

"Grunkle Ford…"

Mabel's face was completely white. Ford struggled to smile, fumbling inside of his coat for bandages even as his head yelled that there was absolutely nothing he could do. "Mabel?"

She opened her mouth, but all that came out was an awful rattle. Ford sat down next to a wrought iron banister, finally pulling out a roll of bandages, but her eyes were wrong. It was like curtains behind them had closed.

"Mabel?" He patted her cheek before pressing his fingers to her throat. "Sweetheart?"

There was no pulse.

"Mabel?" He shook her, like that would do anything. This couldn't be real. It had to be a trick. Her eyes stared blankly into the distance. "Mabel!"

She's dead, his intellect told him. It's time to go.

For the first time in years, he wanted his intellect to go to hell.

Her blood soaked through his clothes. He carefully nestled her head on his shoulder, cradling her close like a baby. The star braids in her hair were stiff with blood. She had been so eager to have him braid those for her.

She's dead. You have to leave the body and run. They're going to try to kill you too. There's nothing you can do for her.

Ford kissed her cooling temple, only now noticing that his face was wet. "Al molay rachamim, shochayn bam'romim, ham-tzay m'nucha n'chona al kanfay Hash'china, b'ma-alot k'doshim ut-horim k'zo-har haraki-a mazhirim, et nishmat Mabel she-halcha l-olama, ba-avur shenodvu tz'dakah b'ad hazkarat nishmatah."

The darkness was closing in, and he couldn't bring himself to care.

Chapter Text

Earth, August 5th, 2012

"Sir?"

Sweet air came rushing back. Pacifica hit the ground, limp, neck on fire and burning with every gulping breath.

"Oh hey, it's one of you. I can't even tell the difference between you useless lumps of vascular systems, so I'll just call you Jeeves, okay?"

Her vision returned in blurred pockets. One of the butlers, the one who covered for Dipper's first visit, stood with a brush and dust pan. She didn't know butlers could even have expressions, but this one's eyes were wide and his mouth hung open.

"I… I heard glass breaking, sir."

"Well, there's an obvious reason for that!" The thing in her dad's skin turned his head to show the spiderweb of cuts the mirror left behind, stretching and bleeding from temple to jaw. "Glass broke on my face."

She couldn't speak, but she could see and she could breathe. She had to run. Pain didn't slow this thing down, and she couldn't outrun a grown man alone.

Pacifica grabbed the broken mirror.

"So now that you know that, go be a good human and forget what you saw. You know, I know a guy who could probably help with—"

Pacifica slammed the mirror against his knee. It buckled and cut him down like a cursing tree.

"DAMN it, she got me again!"

She sprinted past the butler on wobbling legs. The world teetered side to side, but she had to focus, had to breathe, even if her lungs burned and her throat swelled and even the floor felt unreal.

"Aren't llamas supposed to be easy to kill?"

Out, out—she wasn't safe on the grounds. She couldn't escape her father there, whatever he was now.

"Sir, I'm afraid I cannot allow—"

"Who cares what you allow, Jeeves?"

Pacifica had a head start. She knew the mansion, even if her vision blurred at the edges and every step put her off center. The hallway opened up to the grand entrance, and her heart slammed itself against her bruised throat at the sight of the front doors. She fumbled down the stairs, scrambling to get away, she could hear fighting—then her ankle rolled.

Her legs buckled under her and she toppled, protecting her face with her arms as the steps hammered her ribs, and she fell on the hardwood floor with a crack. She didn't even have the air to scream.

"It's so hard to get good help these days!"

Her father's voice was all wrong, too cheerful. He was coming. Pacifica grit her teeth and pushed herself to her feet, running to the front door and yanking down the lever to open the gates.

"Oh little daughter of mine! You think you can escape me?"

The front doors were huge. She tugged one desperately, her whole chest burning, then she braced herself against the other to give it one hard yank.

Warm summer night air rushed out to meet her. Footsteps were coming down the stairs.

"It's cute to see you try!"

Pacifica darted out the door, leaving the opening too small for a grown man. The front gates were open ahead of her. She was nearly off the property.

She took a sharp right further into the grounds.

"Why do humans even have giant doors? They don't need them!" She had another head start. Her knees were wobbling and she gasped for a full breath of air but she was still running because nothing else mattered.

She ran all the way to the household's stables.

"Peekaboo, little llama!"

His footsteps cracked over the gravel paths. He was laughing. He was just laughing, like they were playing a game of tag, except the loser died.

She ducked into the stables. All the horses were stomping their hooves and throwing back their heads, like they knew. All the way at the back all the way at the back—

"You think you can escape?"

Her father towered at the entrance, smiling as blood dripped down his face and stained his collar.

"All this has already been foretold, little girl. The gears were turning before you were even born. So I don't have the mirror—big deal. I'll just do things the old fashioned way."

Pacifica crawled into Antigone's stall. The black mare tossed her head, showing the whites of her eyes to whatever wore Preston Northwest like a coat.

"I swear, it was a real break for me when Pine Tree shoved his sister into the portal."

Pacifica froze for a moment, her hands on the horse's hide.

"What, you didn't know about that? Well, turns out Pine Tree lies to you a lot." He stepped past the horses, who all started kicking their stalls and shaking the building. "You don't matter enough for the truth. You're not trusted enough. You're not his friend, you're just a means to an end."

Pacifica dug her fingers in Antigone's perfectly coiffed mane.

"But I think you always knew that. You know as well as I do that you've never had any friends, and you definitely never will, because people only ever put up with your obnoxious personality so they can get at your money."

Pacifica braced herself on the stall's wall. Her father laced his fingers, both like a businessman and one of those talk show hosts.

"Maybe I was hasty before. Maybe we could work together. I know you're lonely up there in that house. What if I told you I could make people be your friend? For real. I could even make Pine Tree go soft on you. You'd like that."

Blood was dripping into those constantly smiling teeth. "Why don't we make a de—WHAT!"

Pacifica mounted Antigone, her ribs like knives in her organs, and the mare slammed out of her stall and smashed her shoulder on Pacifica's father, shoving him against the wood and threatening to trample him. Pacifica twisted her hands in the mare's mane as her only method of staying on. She tried to keep her legs tense on the horse's bare sides, but the wild had taken the horse and foam flecked from Antigone's mouth and her eyes were surrounded by white.

A familiar boy was standing at the gate, his hands shoved in his pockets as he tapped his foot impatiently. The tapping immediately stopped and his eyes went wide at the horse.

"Pacifica?"

She opened her mouth to yell, to tell him to get on the horse, but the air only squealed through her throat. It was too bruised. She couldn't speak.

Instead, she just leaned down and grabbed his arm.

He yelled in fear and pain as his shoulder was nearly dislocated. Pacifica would apologize later. The body of her father staggered out of the stable, and his howl of rage could be heard through the grounds. With one last shot of adrenaline, Pacifica yanked Dipper up and he just managed to straddle Antigone's back.

That must have been the last of her adrenaline, because it suddenly felt like her ribs had exploded and she hugged Antigone's neck, the world wobbling as she struggled not to fall.

"Oh my gosh oh my gosh what is happening—oh Pacifica, your face!"

Despite the wobbling world, Pacifica managed to give Dipper a sharp pinch on the leg.

"Ow, what was that for?"

Idiot boys. Pacifica sent him a scathing glare before trying to focus on breathing and steering again. Antigone knew to run, but she didn't know where to run and frankly neither did Pacifica. It was hard to breathe, too hard, especially with her ribs burning with every thunder strike of hooves.

The road was going to be dangerous if the beast decided to follow them by car, so Pacifica jerked Antigone towards the woods. Dipper yelped and wrapped his arms around her ribs. She didn't scream, but that was only because she didn't have the breath to, so she just went momentarily blind from the pain.

The world faded out. Ball was in Dipper's court now.


Earth, August 6th, 2012

They had a horse rambling outside of the Shack, a dubiously conscious rich girl sleeping in Mabel's bed, and probably a kidnapping charge waiting for them if anyone ever found out. If this was what Pacifica had in mind when she called Dipper to the mansion, he'd have to give her a serious talk on what the definition of 'good' was.

Grunkle Stan eventually found them after the horse took them in the middle of the woods and Dipper was trapped on it because it was tall and he didn't trust it not to step on him if he tried to jump off. He carried an unconscious Pacifica to the Shack and cleaned her up. Under all the makeup and blood, she had a split lip, a big bruise on her cheek, bruises on her ribs, and a ring of swollen bruises around her throat.

"Someone tried to kill your friend," Stan had said as he threw out the soiled paper towels they used for her face.

"What?" Dipper had been doing his best to help, but Grunkle Stan clearly had more experience with blood and first aid, so instead he just ended up sitting on the edge of the bed while they took care of her. "Who would do that?"

"I don't know, but you don't get bruises like that when someone grabs your neck for fun." Stan had rested a hand on Dipper's shoulder. "Let's keep this between us for now. You mind if she stays in the room with you?"

Dipper's biggest discomfort was that this was Mabel's bed on Mabel's side of the room, but someone had tried to kill Pacifica, and at least until they figured out what happened, it was best she stayed in a room where someone could keep an eye on her overnight.

Pacifica eased in and out of consciousness. Dipper was pretty sure he heard her mutter 'Hell is so tacky' at some point.

Grunkle Stan was doing tours downstairs and Dipper was transcribing McGucket's notes in his bed when Pacifica finally woke up for real. He knew they had her back because the first thing she did was squint at him and say in the snootiest voice she could, "What are you doing in my room?"

Her voice sounded like rust, and she grimaced. Dipper had to pitch his book higher to cover up the smile on his face. She didn't need to see he was relieved she was awake or anything. "You're in my room, Pacifica."

"I'm what?" She jerked to sit, then she hissed, holding her ribs. Dipper dropped his book on his bed and came towards her.

"Don't do that. Grunkle Stan thinks you cracked some ribs."

"Yeah, I noticed." Pacifica eased herself back into the bed and glared at Dipper when he moved to help. Dipper withdrew his hands, scowling, but he couldn't really bring himself to be angry at her and her dumb pride. "Do you have water or something? This place has sanitary running water, right?"

Good to know her personality wasn't hurt. Dipper rolled his eyes. "Yeah, we have water. I'll get you a glass."

If he were being entirely honest, the haughtiness might have been a tiny bit welcome. Pacifica looked wrong quiet, covered in bruises, and without any of her usual meticulous makeup and hair styling. Her stupid pride and condescension made her feel right no matter how she looked.

By the time he came back with a glass, she was scowling and fixing her hair using what looked like a fancy ivory hand mirror sans the actual mirror. She kept squinting at the ivory, attempting to finger comb her hair despite the fact there was no reflection to look at

"Do you have any makeup in this house?"

She took the glass without thanking him, which he just expected, and somehow managed to look refined while nursing it. "Not much unless you like costume makeup."

Pacifica wrinkled her nose like this was somehow a huge offense to nature, and Dipper had to struggle not to smile.

"How are you feeling?" Dipper said as he sit on the edge of his bed.

"Awful. How do you sleep on these mattresses? I'm so stiff." She huffed and puffed and grumbled while she fluffed her pillow and finger combed her hair. Her voice was coming back the more water she drank, but it was wheezy, like someone was still gently choking her. Dipper didn't like it.

"I dunno. You slept for a while." Dipper frowned at her, and she frowned back. The obvious questions hung in the air, but for some reason, they were hard to ask. Dipper decided to ask one of the easier ones first. "Why did you call me up last night? You didn't say you were in trouble or I would've brought my Grunkle."

"Because I wasn't in trouble." Her face darkened as she turned her attention back to the empty ivory frame, but she wasn't fixing her hair anymore. "At least I wasn't when I called you."

She waved the frame at him, and at first he thought that was her way of shutting down the conversation, but she kept talking. "I wanted to show this to you, but I had to break it on my dad's face."

"Your dad?" Dipper's stomach dropped. His throat dried out. "Your dad did this?"

"No," she said sharply, glaring. "Or… yes. But no. It wasn't him." She dropped the frame onto Mabel's blanket. "My dad would never do something that'd leave a mark other people could see."

What?

Dipper's stomach twisted. The way Pacifica and her parents talked to each other always felt a little weird, but he just thought that was rich people stuff. She kept talking, like she hadn't just dropped a bomb on him, like it was normal.

"Something was… this is going to sound so crazy." Pacifica pressed a hand to her temple. "I think he was possessed. He wanted the mirror, and he never called me by my name. He kept calling me 'daughter' or 'llama.'"

Dipper didn't think anything could possibly overshadow the revelation Pacifica dropped on him. He was wrong. His skin went cold. Who liked to possess people and call everyone weird names?

"Did you see his eyes?"

Pacifica looked at him, a strange shudder going over her face. "Yeah. They were yellow cat eyes."

"Oh no." It felt like a weight was pushing on Dipper's chest. Pacifica's nose flared and her teeth clenched as her voice pitched up.

"Who was it?"

Dipper winced. Her voice was like a knife. "Bill Cipher. He's like this demon triangle that makes deals with people so he can possess them."

"You knew about this thing and you didn't tell me?"

"I-I didn't think he'd target you! He's only ever been a problem because he wanted to destroy the journals or when Gideon…" Dipper grabbed his hair and pulled it down. "Oh my gosh, Gideon! Gideon summoned him before to steal from us!"

"Are you telling me that psycho nearly had me killed over a mirror?" Pacifica's face reddened and she spat venom, but perhaps a little too hard, because she immediately burst into a dry coughing fit. That was the first domino, because every cough made her hiss, and her face got red as each spasm knocked wind out of her chest, and her breathing wheezed and thinned and for a second it looked like she might be dying.

Then with a final wheeze, she lay back on the bed, her lips blue and her breathing soft. Dipper scrambled to refill her water glass. He struggled to keep his hands from shaking too much.

"I'm so sorry, Pacifica, I should have thought of this as soon as you told me Gideon was after you, I just never thought—I'm so sorry!"

She waved her hand at him as she started drinking her water again, somehow projecting strength and confidence despite looking tiny and frail cushioned in the bed. "It doesn't matter now. There's something else I need to tell you."

Her voice was softer, raspier. She was losing it again, so Dipper just sat on the edge of Mabel's bed to listen to her more closely.

"The mirror." Pacifica offered it to him. He picked it up, taking the time to look at it a little more closely. Besides the lack of mirrored glass, it looked like it was in pretty good shape, if creepy. Who would want an eyeball with wings made out of more eyeballs on their mirror? "It's magic that Gideon wanted. I found out I could see anyone in it if I just had something of theirs. I saw Mabel."

"Mabel?" Dipper's hands shook. His breathing thinned. "Is she okay?"

"Yes. More than okay."

Dipper let out a breath he didn't know he was holding, leaning against the wall and holding the mirror like a life raft. The world wavered, like all the tension he had been building up for weeks left him without anything to hold him up without it.

A small hand gingerly rested on his arm. When he didn't shake it off, Pacifica squeezed gently.

"She's okay. I saw her in this weird world with musical jellyfish, and she talked this guy she was with into dancing with her."

Dipper let out a laugh that was a little too breathy to be a laugh. "Yeah, she's fine."

She was fine. She was dancing around an alien world, having fun. Of course she was. Mabel was the strongest person Dipper knew. She was okay, and she would be able to stay okay until he figured the portal out. Maybe he could even repair this mirror somehow, or find some other way to contact her.

Pacifica gave him another squeeze before letting him go again. "Something weird happened with the mirror when Mabel and the guy went through another portal. I was pulled in for a second, like I could talk to them and everything. The man said that we had to tear the portal down. He said it was going to end the world."

Dipper froze.

"We need to…" Pacifica stopped, seeing his expression. "Dipper?"

He avoided eye contact, squeezing the mirror.

"You knew," she said.

That protective layer of haughtiness drained away from her face. All that was left was horror. Betrayal, even.

"It's been turned on three times and it hasn't ended the world!" Dipper said quickly, trying to stop her looking at him like that, but that just made it worse. She drew away from him, staring like he was the one who had choked her. "And McGucket is reworking the designs so it's as safe as possible! It'll be fine, I just didn't want to scare you with that stuff."

"That's not true." There wasn't even any haughtiness in her voice. She just sounded young. Pacifica wasn't supposed to sound like that, not ever. "You just knew I might not help you if you were honest."

"I…" Dipper tried to grab something from the air, anything that could make her stop looking like that, to make this better. "I… she's my sister. I need to save her!"

"Oh my God, he was right." Pacifica covered her bruised face with her hands, her chest shuddering. For a terrifying second, Dipper thought she was about to cry, but then her chest stilled and she uncovered her face again, revealing a carefully cool and distant expression. Somehow, that was even worse. "Thanks for taking care of me, but I'm going to go home now."

"What? But you're still hurt!" The weight on Dipper's chest was getting heavier. "Your dad could still be possessed and waiting for you to come back!"

"Northwests don't accept handouts," Pacifica said coldly as she slowly tried to shimmy herself into a sitting position. She was too deliberately collected to give any indication of whether or not it hurt, but sweat was starting to bead her skin the more she tried to move. "I got my family in this mess through my own carelessness, and I'll get it out."

He winced, less and less able to meet her eye as she moved to stand. "Please, Pacifica, I know that you're upset, and I'm sorry that I lied to you, but please just let us help. I don't want you to get hurt."

"You mean you don't want your money cow to disappear?"

Every word was like a rapier. He wanted to protest, to say that her money didn't matter, but it did. He needed it for the portal. But that wasn't the only thing he cared about, was it? At the end of the day, Grunkle Stan could steal the parts they needed, but only Pacifica could make Dipper feel… he didn't know what to call how she made him feel.

She was trying to stand. Her face was cool, but her hairline was sweating from the effort, and he grabbed her wrist. With an outraged huff, she glared at him, and he talked quickly. "I messed up. I did. I shouldn't have lied to you, and I shouldn't have taken advantage of your trust, but I swear, you could never pay another penny and I'd still want you to stay with us while you get better, okay?"

Her cheeks were flushed with outrage. That was better, downright relieving compared to the coldness. "Why are you touching me?"

Dipper's cheeks burned, but he forced himself to swallow and tilted up his chin. "Because friends do that."

She winced, her glare doubling before she yanked her arm out of his grip. "You're not my friend."

That hurt, but he probably deserved it. "Well, you're my friend." Dipper stared at his knees to avoid eye contact. "You're… probably the only friend my age I have now. And I don't want you to get hurt again."

Her shoulders drooped. She wasn't trying to stand up anymore.

After the silence stretched, Dipper let out a deep breath. It seemed like she wasn't going to try to go home.

"The demon said you were lying to me," she said. Dipper's gut jerked. He hated the way Cipher could tell the truth in the worst way. "But before that, the guy Mabel was with said not to trust anyone."

"Not to trust anyone?" Dipper's brow furrowed. His eyes went to his bed, where the author's journal lay under the mattress. "Who was he? Did you recognize him?"

"Something was blocking the mirror. I couldn't see his face." Pacifica held out a hand, spreading out her fingers in the air. "But he was human. He treated Mabel really well and he had six fingers."

Six fingers.

Was this what miracles felt like? The air rushed into Dipper's lungs, and for a moment, his chest felt light. "Oh my gosh." Stanford Pines was alive. Stanford Pines was alive and taking care of Mabel, just like Dipper had hoped. "Oh my gosh, Pacifica, you're amazing!"

He threw her arms around her shoulders, provoking a yelp. He immediately backed off. "Right, ribs, sorry."

Her cheeks and ears were red. He'd seen her blush before, but it was so much more obvious without any makeup on. He liked it. Despite all the awful revelations of the day, he smiled. "I need to tell my Grunkle about this. He's going to be so happy. Just rest for now, okay? I'll come back with something to eat and explain. Yell if you need anything."

He rushed out without giving her time to answer. It was probably best to let her sit and digest anyway.


"We thank you for your patronage! Now remember, buy lots of merchandise!"

His grunkle's voice rumbled through the whole Shack as he sent off another group of tourists. Now was Dipper's chance. He poked his head into the gift shop—bustling with happy tourists as Wendy looked ready to fall asleep at the register and Stan kept his showman grin on.

"Grunkle Stan?"

The showman grin wavered, but only in the eyes. Stan's eyes were warmer than they ever would be for a tourist when he glanced at Dipper. Dipper waved at him, and with a quick nod to Wendy, Stan left the shop to meet Dipper in the kitchen.

"Pacifica's awake."

Stan let out a slow sigh of relief, his shoulders slumping as he leaned on the counter. It was weird to see him slouch in his Mr. Mystery outfit, but that just meant he was wasn't putting on an act. "Good. I was starting to wonder if we'd need to call a hospital. She say who did this to her?"

Dipper grimaced. He was still digesting all the things he heard, including Pacifica's parents. He would have to talk to Stan about it once he gathered his thoughts. Stan was the only one he could think of who might know what to do.

"Bill Cipher. He possessed her dad."

Stan took a deep breath through his nose. "How long you think the triangle can possess people? Longer than a day?"

Dipper shrugged. "I don't know. As long as their body doesn't give out on him. Pacifica said she broke a mirror on his face so Mr. Northwest will need to pass out eventually."

Stan snorted and looked at the ceiling with a smirk. "Nice. Didn't think she had it in her."

"She's good at hitting things. But that's not the important part!" Dipper bounced in place, and Stan looked at him oddly. It took Dipper a moment to realize he was grinning hard enough to hurt his cheeks. "She can't—she had to break it to escape Bill, but that mirror was magic or something. She was able to see Mabel! She's okay!"

Dipper couldn't contain himself. He grabbed Stan's hand, vibrating in place. Stan's mouth fell open. Dipper wasn't sure who was squeezing whose hand, but the grip was so tight that Dipper could barely feel his fingers anymore, and he couldn't bring himself to mind.

"And that's not all!" Dipper's cheeks hurt so much that his eyes watered. "Grunkle Stan, Stanford was with her! They're together! He's alive!"

There was a frozen moment. Stan just stared down at him, brow creased. Dipper's smile faltered. "He's alive," Dipper said again.

Stan slumped back against the countertop, entire body buckling down, and Dipper suddenly had to hold up some of his weight through his hand. "My God."

Stan pressed a hand over his chest. He looked older than Dipper had ever seen, like all the lines had doubled and he was too heavy for himself to carry.

"Grunkle Stan?"

Stan let out a shaky, forced laugh before patting Dipper's head. "Looks like the big guy did you a solid, am I right?" His voice was weak, and that was entirely wrong. Grunkle Stan was many things, always many things, but never weak.

Dipper wondered how he would feel if he had waited thirty years to hear Mabel was okay.

Dipper took a leaf from Mabel's book, because while she wasn't there, someone needed to. He wrapped his arms around his grunkle's waist and rested his cheek on Stan's gut.

"Hey, kid. No need to go soft on me," Stan said as he wrapped one arm tight around him and continued to gently pat him.

Stan would need to go back to touring soon, but Dipper didn't say that. Instead, he just hugged his grunkle, letting himself be squeezed before Stan managed to force another laugh, but this one was full, closer to his usual bark. "Come on. You're being a sap."

He pushed down the bill of Dipper's cap, signaling the end of the hug. Dipper drew back, smiling as he readjusted the hat.

"I don't suppose your friend heard either of them say anything important," Stan said as he brushed himself off and straightened his bowtie. Dipper's face fell. Stan's readjustments paused so he could squint at Dipper.

"Yeah, actually. She said she talked to them for a second. Stanford told her to tear down the portal."

Stan's jaw tightened. The air got thicker. "That wasn't what he said thirty years ago."

The undercurrent of anger—so many feelings that Dipper couldn't hope to name or understand just focusing down into anger—stuck in Stan's voice. Dipper shrugged, biting his lip, helpless to say anything to fix this. What do you say to someone who's spent thirty years trying to save someone who doesn't want saving?

"Mabel's still in there," Dipper finally said.

That broke the spell. Stan's shoulders relaxed as he sighed through his nose. "He'll take care of her, but that doesn't mean he gets to keep her all to himself." He shrugged, going back to readjusting his bowtie, but his motions were slower, less precise, and his face lost some of the brightness it got when Dipper told him his brother was alive. "We're opening that portal. My brother was always pretty dumb for a genius, anyway."

He straightened his back and adjusted his eyepatch. "Well, back to work." He winked at Dipper as he pushed the boy's cap further on his head. "Now we know that Mabel is okay. If Stanford's lived this long, then I'm sure they'll both be fine while we work on this. I'm sure he's got this in the bag."

The constant anxiety that had knotted in Dipper's heart for the last couple weeks eased.

No matter what crazy stuff he'd learned today and the challenges that were clearly ahead, there was only one thing that mattered: Mabel was okay.

Chapter Text

Dimension ??, Month ??, Day ??

Mabel was not okay.

She flew from door to door, stair to stair, tears blinding her until she just had to feel her path with feet and hands. All the passages and stairs stretched endlessly, but that’s how she wanted it. She had to get as far away from Ford as possible. She wanted to scream and cry and beat her fists against him. How could he do this? How could he be the way he was? How could he be related to the rest of them at all?

The threshold of a fancy wrought iron door caught her foot. It sent her flying, yanking her bad leg and slamming her bad shoulder against the wooden floor.

Grunkle Ford wasn’t there to pet her hair and check if she was okay. She wiped her nose on her sweater sleeve as she sat up, peeling it back to check her shoulder like Ford would.

A massive lightning tree stretched from shoulder to chest and all the way down to her elbow. She grimaced, prodding it gently and wincing. It hurt, like the outside of her skin was tingly and numb, but the inside was hot and stiff and sore.

Ford didn’t mean to strike her, she knew. He was just trying to keep her safe like he always was. That didn’t change the fact it hurt, and she sniffed as she pulled up her pants leg to check on her bite.

It didn’t look like she had torn it open again. It was mostly healed anyway. Healed into an ugly mottled scar that ran streaks up her shin and calf. She threw her pants down to cover it, her gut threatening more wracking sobs if she kept looking. That wasn’t her leg. She wasn’t supposed to have huge scars like that. She didn’t want this life. She didn’t want to never have a soft place to sleep or never have friends her age or nearly die every other day. She wanted Gravity Falls, where adventures ended with watching TV with her family and wrestling with Dipper. She wanted Piedmont, where her dad made the best pancakes and her mom always asked about her newest crush. She wanted home .

She didn’t even get to tell Dipper goodbye.

Mabel pulled her sweater collar over her face and wiggled until she was shoved into the corner of the empty room (that looked like every other room without the stairs or doors). She wanted Dipper. She wanted to see him and talk to him.

Maybe that was the worst part. She drew her knees under her chin, her sobs turning into hiccups under her dirty white sweater. The noises she made just sounded sadder for bouncing around a completely empty room. Those last moments she had with her family weren’t satisfying at all. It was just sound and fury, everything floating everywhere, Stan asking for her trust, Dipper asking for reason.

That’s not how last goodbyes were supposed to go. They were supposed to have hugs and declarations of love and reassurances that they’ll see each other again someday.

(Would they ever see each other again, even in death? Would her and Dipper’s spirits ever find one another worlds away?)

Mabel let out one long wail, digging her fingers into the knots of her sweater and bending over her knees, the sobs renewed. It was like Ford had just stuck his hand into her gut and tore out all her organs. She wanted her brother. She wanted to tell him she loved him and she’d always love him even if they were worlds away and he never stopped being dumb and neurotic. Now she never would, because Pacifica would pick the world over bringing Mabel home and Pacifica had the resources to destroy the whole Mystery Shack if she thought she had to.

Would it have been so much to ask that Mabel at least get to talk to her brother again? Maybe to Grunkle Stan and her parents too? Would it have been too much to ask Pacifica to give Dipper the mirror instead of destroying it?

The sobs began to taper off again. She missed them. She missed them so much. Why wouldn’t Ford miss their family just as much as she did?

She wondered if he got a good last goodbye.

She’d never asked how he came to be in the portal. It was so hard to get him to open up about anything that she had just started dispensing pieces of her own life and waiting for him to give crumbs in return.

She knew he and Stan used to play on a beach in New Jersey. She knew Ford cut his foot on glass during one of their games and Stan carried him to safety. She knew Ford thought Stan was soft, but something had happened and they didn’t talk for years.

He told her once that he made an effort not to think about home. Maybe never talking about it was just part of that. Come to think of it, Stan never talked about his life either. He’d allude to things, but he never talked about them, and Mabel had never thought to ask.

Mabel took a deep, steadying breath. In the quiet of the empty room and the dark of her sweater, her hair stood on end, but it was easy to get lost in thought. She wondered what she would be like, all alone, passing from world to world for thirty years.

Lonely, she decided. She’d be very, very lonely. She’d cry a lot, but no one could cry forever. She’d need to move on and keep going eventually. Maybe Grunkle Ford was a grumpy clam sometimes because it was the only way he could live this long. Maybe he didn’t sound like he cared about their family back home because he cared too much.

Slowly, she pulled the collar of her sweater back down to her chin. She was still so mad about what he did, but she shouldn’t have said what she said.

There was only the two of them now. Grandniece Mabel, Grunkle Ford. Ford had been all alone for thirty years, and now they’d both be all alone for thirty more if Mabel ran away.

Mad or not, Ford was the only family she had now, and she was the only family he had.

The floor creaked when she pushed herself to her feet. She squeezed the ends of her braids, brushing against her earlobes. Ford had twisted them up into stars himself yesterday because she wanted him to, even though there were a ton of easier braids. He didn’t complain. He just said he thought stars were appropriate.

Hopefully, she hadn’t run too far away. She had to go find him again.

Every floorboard groaned louder than before as she opened up the wrought iron door to retrace her steps, but something was wrong. She had run down dirty plastic stairs to get to the room, but now she was on the top of a carved wooden staircase with a worn red carpet running down into darkness.

“Grunkle Ford?” Mabel walked to the banister, peering over it, but she didn’t walk down the stairs yet. Maybe she was remembering wrong? Maybe the plastic stairs were somewhere else.

No one answered.

“Grunkle Ford,” she tried again. “Where are you?”

“Why would he even bother answering?”

Mabel jumped with a yelp and almost fell down the stairs. Dipper was leaning against the banister next to her, the bill of his pine tree cap pulled low over his eyes.

“I mean it, Mabel. Why would he bother?” Dipper propped his chin on his fists, his mouth twisted up in that bitter way it always did when he was mad, and he stared into the darkness. “He’s just like Stan. They’re always lying. All they care about is themselves.”

He moved to pull his cap even further over his face, but Mabel got there first. She snagged the bill of his hat and pulled it right off his head.

“Hey!” Dipper scowled as he grabbed for the hat, but she held it out of his reach. “I’m being serious, Mabel!”

“You always are,” Mabel said as she plopped the hat onto her own head instead.

“Are you even listening?” he snapped, his shoulders tensing up.

“Nope.” She adjusted the cap on her head so the bill bowed to the side. “How do I look?”

“Typical.” He hunched back over the banister, giving her a dark glare. “I don’t understand why I’d ever try to be serious. Everything that’s ever been important to me is just a game to you.”

Mabel knew her brother like she knew her own mind. This wasn’t her brother. The lines around his eyes were too harsh, the turn of his scowl too bitter, the shadows in his cheeks too deep. Without his hat, she could see him close to the way she had her whole life—with a head of fluffy brown hair and bangs that only mostly hid the birthmark on his forehead.

He was still talking, but she didn’t bother listening. Instead, she reached out, gently pressing her hand against his cheek.

Dipper stopped talking. For about a moment. “What are you doing?”

Mabel pushed his bangs back. There was his birthmark. They got that much right.

He was scowling at her, but he still looked like her brother. He still had the birthmark, still had the same jawline as her, the same eyes, the same nose, the same fluffy hair. The lines weren’t right, but the form was.

Tears blurred her vision. She smiled.

“What are you doing?” His voice was pitching up the way Dipper’s always would when he was anxious. She poked his birthmark.

“Seeing you for the last time.”

It wasn’t her brother. She knew it wasn’t. But for now? It would have to be enough.

She threw her arms around him and tugged him close. He yelped, thrashing, but she just hugged him tighter and buried her face in his shoulder. He didn’t smell right. That was okay. She could overlook that.

“I love you, Dip-Dop.”

He heaved, like he was choking. His chest convulsed against hers. An unholy shriek erupted.

Mabel reeled back, slapping her hands over her ears. Her brother’s face morphed, his skin sliding and slipping down his skull, peeling off in wads like silly putty as he screamed.

Under his skin was thousands of screaming faces all over what should have been bone. Human faces, animal faces, alien faces, all kinds knotted together under her brother’s melting flesh, gaping mouths shrieking and crying and yowling now that skin no longer muted them.

The top of Mabel’s head burned, the hat melting into her scalp. With a yelp, she tore it off, her fingers sticking together in the screaming glue-like substance, and she threw wads off the railing and into the darkness below. Oily residue stuck to her braids and fingers. Not even scrubbing her hands furiously on her pants could get rid of the oily feeling that clung to her, and she watched her brother melt.

Dipper’s face slid off entirely and landed with a wet plop on the floor. The thing that pretended to be him was only a surface of writhing faces with brown eyeballs.

Then the eyeballs fell out. Thud, thud, thud, they bounced down the steps. The thing was only screams with gaping eye holes and no mouth.

It collapsed into a pool of its own melt and shrieks, the noise echoing in Mabel’s head even as the pool sunk into the frayed rug covering the stairway and went silent.

Mabel stared, mouth gaping at the new stain on the floor.

“Well,” with a shaky breath, “I’m scarred for life.”

Thank God that wasn’t really Dipper. She could just forcefully remove that last bit of nightmare-inducement through denial and pretend the hug was her goodbye.

The whole world groaned. Like a pair of invisible hands was pushing up, the whole floor around her curved upward, creating a pit for Mabel to stand in as the walls grew higher and higher. “No!” She clawed at the floorboards, at the stair rug, but the wood and cloth and everything wept oil, horrible oil with the twisting screaming faces that got all over her hands and clothes. She leaned her back against one of the rising walls and wedged her feet against the other side, trying to climb out, but the walls peeled away from her, dropping her back into the pit.

The world was trying to kill her.

No.

Mabel clenched her teeth and kicked the wall. Wham, wham, the boards started to creak.

“I’m grateful for the sun in the sky.” Wham. “I’m grateful for the stars.” Wham. “I’m grateful for my family.” Wham, cracking under her feet. “I’m grateful for my brother.” Under her feet, wood splintering. “I’m grateful for my grunkles.” Spider webs of cracks. “And I’m grateful for all the time I have left with Grunkle Ford!”

The wood splintered under her feet like bone, fragments flying in her face, and the world shattered.

Screaming, Mabel was in free fall, dropping below the stairs and wooden rooms and thousands of doors into nothing.

Then she hit the ground.

She groaned softly before pushing herself up to her hands and knees. Ugh, the floor was moist. Floors shouldn’t ever be moist. “Things need to stop trying to kill me.” Between hungry sea monsters, hypothermia, and angry floorboards, she’d had enough near-death experiences for a lifetime, thank you very much.

Then the new floor she was on thumped.

“Nope!” Mabel sprang to her feet and pointed at the ground. “We are not doing this again! You stop moving right now!”

It didn’t stop moving. It thumped again, bouncing under her feet just enough to put her a little off balance, but then it was back to normal. Then it thumped. Then it flattened. Thump. Flatten. Thump. Flatten.

The space was completely dark, or at least she thought it was. Slowly, her eyes adjusted, and she saw that there was absolute nothingness all around her besides darkness above, to the sides, and an uneven pulsing ground. There weren’t any sources of light, so she didn’t know how she could see, but then she noticed she was the source of light.

She looked down at her hands. The few times Ford had told her what she looked like between dimensions or in Bill’s world, he always said she was like colorful light. She’d never seen it, but now she could. Pretty colors shone out of her skin and lit up the darkness, making the dark world look a little like a rave. Raves made everything better.

The ground thumped again. She held her arms out to shine the light on the floor. It was made of muscle, ribbed with veins. It thumped. The ground was beating like a heart.

Mabel took it back. Raves didn’t make everything better.

“Dear Dipper,” Mabel said as she put her hands on her hips. “I hope you still have that memory gun handy, because I’m going to need you to ship that to me ASAP when I get out of here. You think UPS does interdimensional shipping?”

She forced herself to giggle, even if she was screaming internally.

The light from her skin brightened and the heart under her feet shuddered arrhythmically on the next beat. Mabel’s forced smile turned into a grimace.

“Grunkle Ford?” she called out to the dark. She didn’t expect a response, but it was either call for him or just pick a direction and walk. “Grunkle Ford, I’m sorry! I promise not to run away again!”

More silence.

Putting one finger up, Mabel closed her eyes and got ready to spin around to pick a direction, but then crooning drifted through the dark. Grunkle Ford. She could recognize his voice, even if he’d never sung to her before, and he was humming… Hebrew? Definitely Hebrew, but it wasn’t any blessing she knew. It sounded so sad.

“B’Gan Ayden t’hay m’nuchatah; la-chayn Ba-al Harachamim yas-tire-ha b’sayter k’nafav l’olamim…”

She followed his voice into the dark. The ground beat under her feet, but her skin kept her way lit.

At the edge of her light, there were occasional cocoons, the only real indication she was moving at all. They looked like the chrysalises that caterpillars made, except instead of hard exteriors, they looked like they were made of lots of threads twisted and wrapped around them until they were encased.

Carefully picking her way towards one, she saw it was around six feet long and all the threads connected to the ground. Mabel snagged her finger on one thread and tugged it gently.

It was brittle and dusty and snapped, bowing away from the cocoon. It was hollow. It wasn’t a thread, but a tiny tube. The entire cocoon was so dry that any part she touched crumbled to dust.

The Hebrew was fading away. Mabel picked up the pace again. “Grunkle Ford?”

It was gone. Her grunkle’s voice was gone, but she could still feel which way she should go. It tugged her heart forward, and she didn’t see any reason to question it. It wasn’t like she could think of anywhere else to go on a giant dark heart with a bunch of cocoons on it.

Every step on the heart made a soft sucking noise, like it wanted to stick to her but it could never gain traction. She twisted the hem of her sweater in her hands and kept walking. She just had to stay positive.

Ford was out there, and she would find him soon. Then they would go to another world and do fun things like dance and talk to aliens and draw. She’d bug him to do more things while he was making his notes, he would chide her about patience, and it’d be fun.

There are worse things she could do for the rest of her life. There are worse people she could spend the rest of her life with. Ford always seemed to know what to do when things went wrong, so they would be okay even if sometimes they were in danger, and Mabel could make him have fun. So what if she had to put up with things like sea monsters and murderous floorboards and walking on giant organs if she had her grunkle by her side?

The light from her skin was getting brighter. The pull in her heart was more powerful, and in the distance, she could make out a dim light completely separate from herself. The light was far less colorful than hers, but who cared? It was light.

Grinning, Mabel broke into a run, sprinting towards the light, but then she stopped short, almost falling over herself. There was noise. Awful, slithering noise in the dark. Things were coming, and if the day had taught her anything, it was that this world was trying to kill her and anything that wasn’t her grunkle should be avoided at all costs.

She scrambled for a hiding spot as the slithering grew closer. Nothing, nothing, just a wide expanse of veiny beating heart and white cocoons.

Not that it would help her, she realized. She’s light. She’s one of the only sources of light. They’d be able to find her. She pat her arms, trying to extinguish the glow in her skin, but then she remembered—she still had the black crystal from the ice planet.

She shoved her hand in her pocket, pulling out the crystal and uncapping it. Immediately, she was plunged into the dark, but she could still feel the warmth of her light coming from her skin even if she couldn’t see it.

The slithering paused. Mabel held her breath and clutched the crystal until it left imprints in her fingers.

Slithering started again, but it was going towards the other light, the far dimmer one ahead. Mabel inched towards the light, sliding her feet on the throbbing ground and trying to stay as silent as possible, but when she finally got close enough to see what was making the light, she forgot herself and gasped.

Ford. It was Ford, lying unconscious on the ground, his skin letting out a dull glow that dimmed by the minute. Thick tubes stuck from his stomach, his chest, his legs, and his arms, leading back into the ground. Something thick and black that sucked in light leeched through the tubes and poured into the heart, and more tubes were growing from the floor to connect with him too.

Oh God, it was eating him. It was turning him into a cocoon and eating him.

As all the gunk was pumped into the heart, the ground shimmered. Gray, colorless images danced on the squishy, organic surface, and it took Mabel a moment to realize that the images made sense. It was of people.

Wait, no, I can explain; it was a mistake!

Mabel knew that voice—deep and gravelly with too much smoke. A blur of a beefy teenager was thrown on the street. The details were fuzzy, like the way his clothes hung on him or the cars driving behind him, but his face was clear. The frightened, pleading expression on his face was the one pocket of clarity.

All you ever do is lie and cheat right on your brother’s coattails. Well this time you cost our family potential millions! And until you make us a fortune, you aren’t welcome in this household. ” Someone threw a gym bag at him. He was being viewed from above, like from a window. The teenage Stanley (because that was the only person he could possibly be) looked up at whoever was looking at him, desperation burning his face.

Stanford, tell him he’s being crazy!

Whoever was watching him (it was Ford it had to be Ford but Mabel didn’t want it to be Ford) winced and closed the curtains, flopping down at a desk covered in blueprints and textbooks and designs.

Stanford? Don't leave me hanging. High six?

The viewer swept all the designs to the floor as the front door slammed. He didn’t do anything while Stanley raged and drove away.

The surface of the thumping heart beneath Ford became smudged again, but it never gained any kind of color. Different images started forming, but Mabel felt sick already. What had she just seen? Surely, Ford and his parents hadn’t let Stan be homeless. Surely. She couldn’t conceive of Grunkle Ford just abandoning his brother on the street, no matter what he was mad about.

The slithering came closer, distracting her from whatever new thing the heart was going to show. Mabel held her breath, focusing on the dark instead, hoping that whatever was slithering would move on.

I can’t do this anymore, Stanford! After all the cockamamie you’ve put me through—

That was Old Man McGucket. He was young, coherent, and angrier than Mabel had ever heard him.

Fiddleford, don’t be so dramatic. You’d getting paranoid.

I’M the paranoid one?

The slithering stopped. McGucket and Ford kept arguing, very nearly coming to blows, but Mabel wasn’t listening. A long claw, bigger and longer than Mabel herself, peeked into Ford’s light, reaching for him.

It was going to kill him. It was going to kill him and he was utterly defenseless.

Utterly defenseless save for Mabel.

“GET AWAY FROM MY GRUNKLE!”

Mabel launched with a howl.

Her crystal swallowed up Ford’s light too when she leapt at the claw, but she still hit it with a thunk, and then she was dangling from it like a monkey. She kept screaming until she drove her teeth in the claw. Its oily carapace burst.

A howl echoed that rattled Mabel to the bones. Her mouth filled with horrible and bitter bile. Under her clawing hands, the carapace started to melt.

Something knocked against her mouth, trying to force her off. It pulled back, but she was yanked along with it by the teeth. She hit the ground. Her stomach dragged on the heart as the thing started slithering away from her. It was caught on her braces.

She was dragged faster, deeper in the dark. She clawed at whatever hooked her, but it wasn’t yielding under her nails. She had to cut it.

The razor fur. She unfurled the hem of her sleeve and slammed it against her braces.

It sliced through the hook, right through her lip, right through her braces band. Blood poured down her chin as a metal wire sprung free from her mouth and her sleeve scored her incisor, but she hit the ground and she was free.

There was a roar loud enough to shake the ground. Mabel fumbled with her crystal and shoved the cap on.

Her light was back. For a moment, she could see a flash of the beast, long coiling tube-like limbs covered in silently screaming faces, but it wailed and reeled back from her light, its skin bubbling and blistering as it shrieked. The air stank of burning oil as it fled into the dark. Mabel spat out bile and blood in its direction before running back to Ford.

“Grunkle Ford!”

The floor beneath him was showing Stanley again, but older, with a brand on his shoulder and shouting, but Mabel didn’t care. She threw herself down next to Ford, tugging at the biggest tube connected to his stomach, but it was firmly attached. She tugged harder, but his skin was stretching with it, like she’d have to tear off his flesh to get the tubes off too. What if they had burrowed down to his organs?

“Grunkle Ford!” She did the next best thing. She smacked his face. “Wake up!”

He winced. Mabel couldn’t stop a relieved grin, even though it hurt and made her lip bleed more and her eyes sting, because he was alive. “Grunkle Ford!”

His eyes fluttered. Mabel leaned in close to see his eyes open to slits, but they were clouded. She gave his cheek a lighter smack. “C’mon, I need your help. I don’t know how to fix this.”

There was no answer. His eyes only sort of focused on her. He tugged one arm upwards, but it was pinned with tubes sucking the life out of him. Without skipping a beat, he used the other arm instead. She waited for him to do something life-saving, but instead, he just cupped her cheek in his one free hand.

His hand was callused, all roughed up from years of being on the run, but it was so gentle when he touched her that it almost felt like he expected her to shatter. Her lips hurt. She was dripping blood on the floor. He drew one thumb along the corner of her mouth, wiping some of it away.

“Grunkle Ford?”

His chest let out an awful rattle. His eyes fluttered again, drifting off to stare into the dark, but his hand didn’t leave her face.

“No, no, now isn’t the time to—”

The light from his skin brightened, moving up from a glowworm to a candle. Color rushed into the veiny, throbbing surface beneath them, and a completely new scene started to play.

It was quiet. No more shouting or screaming or punching. Mabel glanced at the ground just to see… herself. Just her in full color, sitting on the desert sand, her freckles coming out in the sun as she leaned against Ford’s knee and drew pictures in the book he gave her.

The only sound was the memory of Mabel’s pencil scratching paper.

Why did this appear of all things? Ford’s eyes drifted shut. His hand started to fall, but Mabel caught it and squeezed tightly, lacing their fingers together. “Don’t fall asleep again!”

Something weird was happening to the tubes burrowed in his flesh. They weren’t sucking out sludge anymore, but something that looked like oil mixed with water, spread thin with swirly pools of color. The tubes were getting stiff, like the new stuff was drying them out. The beat of the ground was becoming uneven. Big pumps punctuated by little pumps, and their patch of floor dried and flaked.

The new stuff being sucked out of Ford was hurting the heart. It was hurting everything that touched it. It was hurting just like how her hug hurt not-Dipper, or how her light hurt the slithering monster. All the awfulness in this place was only able to live when things were bad.

Mabel gasped.

Then she immediately flopped down, lying on her side and facing her grunkle.

“Grunkle Ford.” She batted at his face. He winced, drawing away, but she kept batting. “Grunkle Ford, think happy thoughts.”

His eyes cracked open again, and through the clouds and grogginess, he managed to look skeptical.

“Don’t give me that face.” She poked his nose, causing another wince and something that sounded suspiciously like a grumble. “Happy thoughts. Hop to it.”

He squeezed her hand and closed his eyes again.

Mabel’s eyes stung as she prepared to smack him again. He had to wake up. He had to.

Then the floor changed. Now, it showed Mabel knitting her sweater. Then it changed again. Mabel was cuddling his chest. It kept changing, kept showing her playing or making things or even just being near him doing nothing much at all. She was his happy thought.

Mabel’s stinging eyes overflowed as she scooted to be closer to him. She grabbed the tube in his stomach again, trying to pull it free, but it was still resisting too much, even as flakes of it came off into her palm.

“Almost there, Grunkle Ford.” She hugged his arm, pressing her ear against his wrist so she could hear his pulse. “When else have you been happy?”

The memories on the ground rushed backwards in time. As they went back further, the colors became more washed out. Ford was in Gravity Falls, chasing monsters and writing his journals. Ford was working on piles and piles of problem sets while a very young Fiddleford McGucket plucked on a banjo in pastels.

Then the memory was complete grayscale. Ford was on a beach. There was a big moldy boat. He had a small crowbar in his tiny six-fingered hands, and he tried to wedge it under one of the rotted boards on the boat’s side.

Get over here. Let me show you how it’s done.

A boy that looked a lot like Dipper gave Ford a gap-toothed grin before taking the crowbar from him and swinging it like a baseball bat. The boards all splintered under the metal, leaving the wood in pieces on the ground.

You just broke the boat. ” Instead of being serious, Ford was laughing, kicking pieces of splintered wood in the sand.

It was already broken! We have to rebuild it from the ground up, you said. ” There was a flush of sudden color. The boy’s sunburnt skin. He flicked Ford’s glasses, making Ford giggle harder. “ You think too much, Sixer. Sometimes you just need to punch things really hard.

The tubes weren’t dying. There wasn’t enough color and light in the memory. It made him happy, but it was too muddied up with other stuff.

Ford wasn’t happy enough to kill the heart on his own.

Something slithered in the dark, just beyond the edge of Mabel’s light. The monsters were back, waiting for them to lose hope and extinguish their lights.

Mabel bared her bloody teeth at the shadows. “We’ll see who’ll be eating who!” She paused a moment. “That means no one is eating anyone. Because you taste awful.” She grimaced at the way the taste of the oil under that last monster’s carapace lingered in her mouth before looking back down at her grunkle. “It’s probably best if you’re way out of it for this one because I’m about to do something really dumb.”

She grabbed one of the tubes growing out of the heart to feast on her grunkle’s emotional issues. “No time to reconsider questionable decisions!” She shoved the mouth of the tube into her wrist, where it immediately bit down.

Pain shot up her arm like lightning, but she clenched her teeth and thought about her grunkle. Her grunkle, who loved her so much even though he only knew about her for a few weeks. Her grunkle, who really needed her help right now.

Stan, who kept so many secrets but still loved his family so fiercely.

Dipper, who had been with her since birth and would still be in her heart when she died.

The floor exploded in color and light and a flurry of memories. Karaoke with the family. Stan lighting fireworks with them. Tramping through the woods with Dipper. Doing makeovers with Candy and Grenda. Dressing up Waddles. Recording bad rap songs with Wendy and Soos. Making cookies with her parents and brother. Setting up glitter bombs all over the house.

It was like her blood vomited rainbows directly into the heart. Pump pump pump it beat so hard it was like they were on a bouncy castle. The things slithering screamed.

Then the heart burst.

A vein exploded, spraying oily rainbows and bile over everything. Things in the dark wailed and lunged into the light. They were made of screams and claws and teeth—Mabel fumbled with Ford’s belt before finding his gun, yanking it from its holster and squeezing the trigger at the beasts.

The shot blew through a claw. Her ears rang. Recoil slammed into her wrist. The tube connected to her skin dissolved. Another monster—she couldn’t count them, they writhed together like screaming snakes—lunged over the first. Off went the gun and the beast reeled back, bile pouring from the screaming mouths on its body. Mabel’s wrist hurt.

The beasts thrashed in bile and light before dragging themselves back in the darkness. Some of them were back in the dark. Some of them were waiting for a better opportunity. Some of them were dying.

Mabel didn’t have time to think about it. The tubes had mostly dissolved off Ford’s body, but when she brushed off the residue, his black shirt was wet.

“No, no,” she groaned. Anything she said provoked fresh waves of blood to dribble over her chin. She pulled up his shirt, and in a nest of old scars, there was… nothing. At least, nothing that could be making all that blood. There was a bleeding puncture in his gut, the circumference of her thumb, but his skin was smeared with enough blood that it looked like he was dying, and she couldn’t find where it was coming from. Had it all come from that one little stab?

Ford stirred. His eyes opened halfway. A thick layer of confusion still hung over his pupils, but they focused on her. “Mabel?” His voice was slurred like he had just woken up from a thirty year coma.

“Where do you keep your first aid stuff?” Mabel said, hoping against hope that it wasn’t in his bag and she wouldn’t have to waste time trying to figure all those pouches out.

He blinked sluggishly. She groaned and started digging through his pockets again. His hand bumped her arm. Clenched in the fist that had been tied down by tubes was a fresh roll of bandages. Mabel’s grin hurt her lip again and stabbed it against the free wire in her mouth as she grabbed them.

After a moment of staring at the wound in Ford’s gut, Mabel remembered that she had no idea what she was doing.

She did her best to wipe up excess blood and grime with her sleeve—her white sweater was starting to look red and black—before simply stuffing bandages into the puncture. Ford gave a grunt of discomfort, but he didn’t move to stop her, so she was either doing it right or he was too blissed out to care, and either way Mabel was just going to keep doing what she was doing. She hoped she wasn’t pushing bandages into his spleen or something. That couldn’t be good.

She couldn’t think too hard. Think too hard and she’d panic, like Dipper would right about now. Just move and think later.

She tore the bandages with the razors in her sleeve once it felt like she couldn’t push anymore in, then quickly checked all the other tube punctures. None of them were good, but they weren’t life-threatening, so Mabel tugged Ford’s hands. She still didn’t know where all the blood came from, but she hoped it wasn’t his.

“Grunkle Ford—” she barely noticed she made her mouth bleed again, “—you have to get up.”

“Yes, yes,” he mumbled from far away. He started to push himself up, but he moved like a tree struggling to uproot itself.

She tugged and tugged at his hands as his joints popped and creaked like a man twice his age. His palms were all blistered and burned. Did she do that? No time to think. Had to get him up. She pulled his arms as he drew his legs under himself and finally stood, but he didn’t straighten. He stayed bowed like weights were tied to his neck.

Mabel placed one of his blistered hands on her uninjured shoulder, and he wilted in her direction, leaning weight on her like a cane, but he was staying upright so she didn’t care.

Things moved in the dark, waiting for them to give up, but Mabel started pawing Ford’s pockets for the steampunk radar thing he always played with before finding a portal.

Ford’s entire body creaked as he twisted to pat one particular pocket on his side. Mabel dug through it and pulled out the rounded radar, frowning at its blank screen before playing with the knobs and buttons dotting its edges. Eventually, it sputtered to life, showing a big grid with lights of varying intensity peppered through it. She decided to go towards the brightest light and shoved the radar into one of her own pockets.

“We’re going to walk now,” she said, placing one steadying hand on her great uncle’s back as they started moving forward.

With a grunt of assent, he moved. He never complained or tried to stop, but he could only shuffle, never picking his feet too high off the ground. The bile and rainbows sloshed around their boots. The erratic beat of the heart continually pitched him to one side or the other, like it wanted to topple him.

The heart gave a massive pound. Ford tipped forward. Mabel caught the back of his jacket but she didn’t have a chance of pulling him back up.

His knees buckled. Mabel sidestepped in front of him, catching his weight on her back. Her legs strained. He breathed heavily into her hair. She could feel his muscles twisting to make him stand, but he couldn’t. The best he could manage was putting both hands on her uninjured shoulder and pushing himself up partway. All the weight left her unbalanced, but it wasn’t as painful as leaning on her hurt shoulder would be.

“Not too far now, Grunkle Ford!” She had no idea if that was true or not, but she said it anyway and patted his hands as she started to trudge again. He didn’t move with her. Instead, he patted her shoulder gently.

“It’s okay, Mabel.” His voice sounded so far away. “I’m going to take a second. You go ahead.”

Mabel curled her fingers around his before he could try to move his hands. Her blood ran cold and coils of panic unfurled in her tummy. “That’s okay. We’ll walk slowly together.” She grabbed a handful of his jacket in her fist for good measure.

“Sweetheart…” He never called her sweetheart. It was always her name, nothing cute. Ford was too awkward and distant to give her cute names like Stan did. She tightened her grip on him and hobbled forward. When he started to shuffle with her, she let out a breath of relief.

“We’ll walk slowly together,” she said, keeping a firm hold on his hand and clothes.

“You might need to go ahead of me eventually,” he said. The darkness pressed in.

“Not yet,” Mabel said.

The ground was uneven, but Ford didn’t try to talk again and instead focused on not falling over. Mabel’s back hurt from supporting his hands, but everything hurt at that point, so she stopped caring. Their pace slowed like a dying wind up toy’s. Ford’s strides became shorter, sluggish. Mabel fixed her mouth in a grim line.

“I’m grateful for clothes that keep me warm. I’m grateful for the light in our way. I’m grateful for the cool musical aliens we saw. I’m grateful that we got to dance…”

He didn’t repeat anything, but Mabel kept talking and they kept moving. He stumbled on a vein. The weight on her shoulder was starting to strain her muscles, but he didn’t fall down, and they kept going.

Eventually—thank God—a light besides their own burst open. A portal. Inside, the image of an underground cave full of punched holes in the ceiling dripping rainwater down into large pools appeared.

Mabel had been hoping for a city with lots of doctors or something, but she would take what she could get. She did what Ford always did and took a little rock from her pocket and threw it into the portal.

She strained her ears. There was a clatter.

“Come on, Grunkle Ford.”

She pulled him in.

The space between worlds spread out before them. Ford’s six prongs of lightning weren’t crackling like they were supposed to. They weren’t crackling at all. Instead of lightning, he just looked like a golden hand with writing glinting dully on its surface. His thoughts didn’t roar in her head. The best they did was wordlessly hum.

Ford told her that she was a warm light. She kept burning him. Pulling back herself as much as possible, Mabel wrapped herself around the hand, never touching but never letting him drift away.

The next world came too fast. They hit the ground hard enough to echo. The damp chill of the underground cave immediately settled in Mabel’s bones. Ford didn’t move.

“Grunkle Ford?” Blood dribbled down her chin as she got on her knees and shook his arm. “Grunkle Ford, get up!”

Something clicked above her. On the ceiling, white cocoons dangled, and massive gleaming faceted eyes stared down at her.

“My grunkle needs help!”

The clicking got louder. The faceted eyes were coming closer.

“Please help us.”

 

Chapter Text

Dimension ??, Day ??, 2012

The jungle was humid, the air thick with the smell of green, and a fine mist made it difficult to see beyond the knot of trees surrounding them. Ford could feel Filbrick’s gaze boring into his back. He tried to ignore it. He only had eyes for the bassinet he was rocking.

The bassinet was painted with pink and glitter. There was no baby in it, but that hardly seemed to matter.

“What do you think it means to be a father, Stanford?”

Filbrick’s voice was like slabs of concrete grinding together. Ford kept rocking the bassinet. “I haven’t thought about it much,” he confessed. “To make your children happy, maybe?”

“Give a kid candy for breakfast and he’ll be happy. Doesn’t make you a father.”

Sweat beaded Ford’s hairline, and it had nothing to do with the muggy air. He kept his eyes on the empty bassinet. He did everything he could to not look at his father. “What do you think a father’s job is?”

“Make sure that your kids can survive when you’re gone, no matter what.”

Ford ran his hand through his hair, doing his best to memorize the pattern of glitter swirling on the bassinet’s pillow. “She’s small, and the world is dangerous.”

“Then make her dangerous too.” Filbrick’s hand settled like a rock on Ford’s shoulder. “Look at me.”

Ford shuddered, keeping his eyes fixed on the bassinet.

Look at me.

Ford took a shaking breath, then forced his gaze onto his father.

Filbrick didn’t have his sunglasses. His left eye was gouged out so completely that Ford could see the optical nerve in the empty socket.

Ford’s stomach churned. He only ever saw his father’s war wound in the worst of circumstances.

“Do you remember how I lost my eye, Stanford?”

It had been a terrible night that Ford heard that story. Stan and Ford had been five. Stanley had broken his jaw protecting Stanford from some bullies. Stanley was in the hospital, and Filbrick was drinking. It was the only time Ford could remember his father talking about the war.

The foliage creaked under their feet. Ford looked down, grateful for an excuse to avoid his father’s empty eye, but the relief was short-lived. A boy lay under the ferns. A Japanese boy—he looked to be Mabel’s age, but he couldn’t be, he had a military uniform. His leg was mangled, possibly from a bayonet, and he stank of infection, but his eyes were bright and alive.

He whispered in Japanese, low and frightened, and he reached out his hand as if to grasp at the hem of Ford’s jacket. Blood poured down his palm. Someone had cut off his finger. There was only a useless squirming stub.

“His people took his finger to bring home and prove he was dead. They didn’t want to deal with a sick soldier. They left him in the mud to die.”

Filbrick wasn’t Ford’s father anymore. He had both eyes, and his face was still round with baby fat and pockmarked with acne, his fingers nervously drumming the barrel of a gun. Fourteen, lying about his age to get into the military at a time no one asked too many questions. He looked like he could have been Ford’s grandson.

There were shadows growing from the jungle, faceless soldiers that Ford had only vaguely imagined as a child. The Japanese boy turned his head to and fro, eyes rolling like a spooked horse.

“Put him out of his misery, Pines.”

Filbrick hesitated, fingering his gun.

The boy pulled a knife from his boot.

He lunged at one of the shadows. Blood sprayed on the dirt. The wounded shadow’s knees buckled and a gun went off.

The boy’s skull split open with the bullet. Brain matter, blood, and bone splinters spattered the greenery, splashing arcs of red and gray on the bassinet. Filbrick’s gun smoked. He dropped the gun to the ground and staggered away to throw up. Ford almost joined him, stomach heaving at the smell of blood and gunpowder. He’d seen so much violence, but he’d never seen a human being splattered open like that. The boy was nothing but meat.

The scene shifted. The jungle stank of smoke and blood. The shadows grew edges, the world began to crack, shaking in Ford’s imagination.

“We can’t leave him! We’re not like those Jap bastards!”

Ford couldn’t breathe between the smoke and gore. Filbrick was supporting another soldier. Was that Stanley? No, it couldn’t be. A young man with a bandaged leg stinking of infection. The injury from the wounded Japanese boy. Too slow, they were walking too slow, then Japanese shadows dropped from the trees. Ford tried to cover his eyes, but he could see through his own flesh. Bayonets. Screaming. Americans cut down. The jungle watered with blood.

A bayonet caught the bassinet. The wood splintered. It was shards of glittering paint and linen on the ground.

Filbrick screamed, trying to carry his wounded fellow through, but then suddenly the crippled soldier had no head. A shadow jammed a bayonet through Filbrick’s eye. The blade went too deep. No one could survive that.

Filbrick crumpled on the ground. Japanese shadows yanked the bayonet out from his eye and looted American weapons from corpses. The shadows went away. Eventually, Filbrick got up again. None of the other American shadows did.

The mist was thick with blood. Filbrick wiped the remains of his oozing punctured eye from his cheek, sitting on a rock next to Ford. “They died ‘cuz I was too soft, boy. Learn how to cut the dead weight and teach her to survive.”

Ford struggled to not see the bodies, but there was nothing he could do. If he turned away, they were still before him. If he covered his eyes, he saw through his hands. Even his eyelids could never close. “Was Stanley dead weight, Dad?”

“He spent his whole life getting you into trouble, then he destroyed your chances to better yourself and support the family just as we had a new baby to worry about. You tell me.”

Ford ran his fingers through his hair. Blood and brain were still spattered on his front.

“It doesn’t matter what you think of the choices I made. He was tough enough to survive with or without me, and so were you. I did my job.” Filbrick’s empty eye socket still oozed as he stood up and jabbed a bloody finger in Ford’s face. “Now do your job. All the happiness in the world means nothing if she can’t survive.”

Ford nodded, choking on the blood in the air. He couldn’t say anything. All he could do was wait for his father’s horror to melt away.


Earth, August 6th, 2012

Dipper heated up some canned soup for Pacifica and brought it up for her. She, of course, made faces and complained about the flavor, but she ate it anyway, and he told her the story of Stanford Pines and the portal downstairs. No more secrets, he promised. Pacifica had helped and suffered for it, and she earned the truth.

After he was finished with the story and she was finished with the soup, she shoved her dish into his hands and told him she was going to sleep some more now.

She was still mad. Dipper swallowed anything spiteful he might have to say and went downstairs to leave the bowl in the sink. Wendy was sitting on the kitchen table with her feet perched on the back of a chair, and she perked as soon as Dipper came in.

“Hey, Dipper!” She leapt off the table, the whole kitchen shaking when she hit the ground. “Stan filled Soos and me in on the good news. Must be a load off knowing Mabel’s with your other great uncle, right?”

Anything that might have weighed his mood down dissolved. Dipper dropped Pacifica’s bowl into the sink with lighter shoulders. “You have no idea. Honestly, I didn’t even think he was still alive by now.”

“If he’s anything like Stan, then he’s too stubborn to die. He and Mabel will take care of each other. You’ll see.” Wendy slid into a chair, leaning back and crossing her arms. “So… how are you feeling about all the other stuff?”

Dipper slumped in the chair next to her and tried to mirror her pose, but it didn’t feel quite right. Instead, he let his arms dangle and sighed. “I don’t know. It’s a lot to take in. Pacifica’s really mad at me, and I don’t know if she’ll keep helping us. I shouldn’t have kept secrets, but I didn’t know what else to do.”

He waited for Wendy to respond, but she just kept watching him, tilting her chair back just a little.

“And Stanford still thinks we should tear down the portal, even though he’s stuck inside of it.” That meant the threat was real. The world could really end. Stanford was putting the good of the world over him and Mabel, but Dipper couldn’t do the same. Did that make him a bad person? He didn’t know. Wendy wasn’t offering him answers. Resentment burrowed in Dipper’s gut, resentment of Stanford and the fact that he showed Dipper and Stan’s path wasn’t the only one. But what other option did they have? Dipper couldn’t fathom the thought of growing up without Mabel, especially when he could have done something to stop it.

He didn’t want to think about it. Next revelation.

“And… and now we know that Gideon is a violent psycho.” Dipper pressed the heels of his palms to his eyes. “Which… we knew already, but this is worse than before. I don’t even know why he’d have Bill attack Pacifica like that. That doesn’t sound like him. He’s a monster, but I never thought he’d have someone killed.”

“You think he’s going to try to attack again?” Wendy asked, her jaw setting in a grim line.

“I don’t know. Gideon isn’t one to give up, but he gave up on Bill when he failed last time and I don’t know how else he’d attack us while he’s in jail.” But either way, he’d proven to be a threat to take seriously. Dipper thought to Pacifica, upstairs fuming in Mabel’s bed. “We have to do something to keep Bill out. He’s Gideon’s best weapon.”

“I can get behind that. How do you think we should do it?”

Dipper wished he had a pen to chew on, but he didn’t, so he had to drum his fingers on the bill of his cap instead. “I… don’t know. Maybe…” Maybe the journals could help. Maybe… but it felt weird now. It felt weird to look to them for answers now that he knew the ghosts that lingered between the pages. “I’ll try to figure something out. In the meantime, I guess we just all keep an eye out for him and don’t make deals with triangle demons.”

“I dunno, man. That throws a wrench in my weekend plans.” Wendy winked. “But I bet I can figure something else out.”

Dipper smiled at her, but it was weaker than he’d like. Mabel was okay, and he couldn’t be happier about that, but now things were so much more complicated. He should consult the journals about anything that could deter possession and evil spirits, but the thought of doing it right now shot a flutter of anxiety in his heart and he figured it could wait until he digested everything.

It was like the weight of the world was slowly settling on his shoulders. He thought that the weight of Mabel had been enough, but he found himself pulling at his hair, curling it in his fingers, mind wandering to questions he didn’t want to ask himself. Was Stanford right? Should they stop? Did it even matter to Dipper what they should and shouldn’t do? He didn’t think it did.

“Hey.” Wendy tapped the bill of his cap and pushed it over his eyes. “I’m taking my break, so why don’t we get some popsicles and hang out on the roof?”

Dipper’s shoulders relaxed. “That sounds great.”

They climbed out onto the rooftop and watched the tourists come in and out while they talked. Wendy pointed out the people who looked interesting, who dressed in bright colors or had distinct faces or argued with their children as they rolled out of their car. She would make up their life stories and make weird faces and Dipper would laugh and try to do the same. His stories were never as interesting, but she would laugh anyway.

Eventually Wendy had to go and actually work, but then Soos was there to be with Dipper instead.

“Great news about Mabel and the other Mr. Pines, right?” Soos said as he settled Dipper on his shoulders to help him repair a leaky pipe just out of his reach.

“Yeah, great news,” Dipper said.

Soos must have been warned by Wendy or Stan not to pry too deeply, because he started telling Dipper about Melody. That was a safe topic, a pleasant one. Dipper was happier than he could say to learn that Mabel was okay and with someone who could look out for her, but the uncertainty caused by all the other things he learned squeezed his heart in that way that had just gotten infinitely worse without his twin.

Eventually, after popsicles with Wendy and repairs with Soos and a rollercoaster of alternating elation and existential dread, Dipper realized that Pacifica had been really quiet. He winced when he remembered that he had a severely wounded girl in his room and he’d forgotten he was supposed to be making sure she wasn’t dead.

When he went to check on her, it turned out she wasn’t dead, which was a relief. She was sitting on Mabel’s bed, leafing through one of Mabel’s teen romance books with a look of supreme disinterest. (Dipper supposed Pacifica wasn’t a YA novel type.)

She also was dressed in some of Mabel’s more understated pajamas (just colored stripes instead of big patterns or prints), which was probably a good thing. It was weird to see someone else wearing Mabel’s clothes, but it meant that she was well enough to dress herself and walk around a little bit. Dipper had no idea who would have been taking care of her if she couldn’t, because that level of care was way too awkward for him to give her.

“How are you feeling?” he asked. Dipper perched on the edge of his bed. It felt like the room got colder when she shot him a hard look over the pages. For a second, he wondered if she was going to answer or just ignore him.

She gave that haughty huff she used to give Mabel just before she insulted her clothes or earrings, then looked back down at her book. “Better since I hit up your bathroom for pain stuff.”

Dipper winced. “Oh. Sorry. I should have thought to give you some ibuprofen or something.”

“You take that stuff for headaches, not for cracked ribs.” Her voice was still raspier than usual, but it was better since she woke up hours ago. The hand-shaped bruises around her neck were stark in the sun. “There was a whiskey bottle hiding behind the sink. I just had enough to fill a cap.”

There was a whiskey bottle behind the sink? How had Dipper not found it before? “Does everyone use alcohol to deal with problems except me?”

“It’s a painkiller,” she said, as if that made it better, but maybe it did. It wasn’t like they had anything else that could help her lying around, and it wasn’t like it was supposed to be a long term solution. It wasn’t like Stan.

Dipper wondered if maybe he should start looking around for the bottles. If they were hidden, then Stan was probably the one hiding them. Maybe he should throw them all out. He didn’t like the idea of Stan hiding bottles all around the Shack.

“Have you heard anything from my parents?” she asked from behind her book.

Her parents? Dipper hadn’t even thought about that. Mr. Northwest should have passed out by now if Bill hadn’t just left his body when Pacifica escaped, and Mrs. Northwest must have noticed that her daughter was missing if Mr. Northwest didn’t explain what happened.

Despite this, there hadn’t been anything. No phone calls, no AMBER alerts, no searches…

“…No. Nothing.”

“Hmmph.” Pacifica looked back down at her book with the same cool expression she would have if he told her it was going to rain tomorrow, but her knuckles became white. Dipper was starting to learn that Pacifica felt a lot of things most of the time, but she hid them.

Silence stretched between them. Pacifica hid her face behind the book. Dipper’s stomach twisted, but he was having trouble putting words to all the bad things he was feeling. Mabel would be able to help him. She was always better with people than he was. She could tell how they felt and say it in words that made them feel understood. Without her, he had to struggle to unpeel the ball of unpleasantness in his gut to check what it was made of.

One of the big feelings was anger. On Pacifica’s behalf, specifically. There wasn’t any news of violence at the Northwest Manor coming out, so Dipper could only assume that Bill Cipher left her parents alone after she escaped. That made sense. Dipper wouldn’t put it past Bill to hurt a loved one to get at someone he was mad at, but he’d want to do it in front of them and make a big performance of it. If he wasn’t here rubbing it in their faces, then her parents were fine. Why weren’t they reaching out to find her, then? Did they want to keep everything quiet?

The biggest feeling, the feeling that stuck fast to the heavy weight in his stomach, was guilt. A lot of guilt. So much guilt that even looking at it made his heart beat fast and his palms sweat and a ghost of breathlessness begin to squeeze his throat.

Dipper grabbed journal three from under his bed. An old man’s ghost lurked between the pages, but it was better to think of the ghost than to think of the guilt. The memory of Stanford, somehow so much more real now that Dipper knew he was alive, sat over his shoulder as he opened the book. Instead of the unsettling presence he had been before, Stanford now sat in judgment, heavy next to Dipper.

Maybe you’re okay with never seeing your twin again, Dipper wanted to tell him. I’m not.

“That’s your great uncle’s journal?” Pacifica said, peering over the edge of her book again.

“Yeah. Except I didn’t know it was his until a couple weeks ago.” Dipper started to skim over the text, simultaneously curious and too sick to examine the sections where the author described his own experiences with the creatures he encountered. Dipper used to agonize over those sections, searching for clues, because the author always referred to his assistant as ‘F’ and dropped anecdotes that might lead to his identity, but now Dipper knew how all the pieces fit together and he didn’t like the picture they made. “I’m going to see if he wrote anything we could use against Bill Cipher.”

Pacifica wrinkled her nose before slowly easing back on Mabel’s pillow to support her back. “Let me know if you find anything. I want to stick it to him.”

“Sure thing.”

The silence between them wasn’t exactly comfortable, but it didn’t make Dipper feel like he had to get away from the room either. Pacifica hadn’t forgiven him, but he could put up with that.

Surprisingly, Pacifica wasn’t too demanding of a patient. She complained about things like the bed and the food, but she didn’t ask him to do much more than he was already doing. Eventually, the tourists went home and it was time for everyone to go downstairs to work on the portal, and Dipper hadn’t found anything in the third journal. Dipper was worried about everyone being out of shouting distance from Pacifica, but Pacifica just gave him a curt, ‘I’ll be fine’ before returning to Mabel’s teen romance books.

Despite everything, the mood while they worked on the portal was high. Wendy put on some indie music made by bands Dipper had never heard of. Stan complained about music these days until Wendy switched to The Beatles. After that, they caught Stan wiggling to the music more than once.

Progress was made. After they were done and Soos and Wendy said goodbye, Dipper tucked journals one and two under his arm.

“Bedtime, squirt,” Stan said as he pointed to the stairs.

“Uh, actually…” Dipper didn’t want to find more empty bottles under the porch tomorrow morning. “I need to read through these journals, and I can’t have the lights on if Pacifica is there, so I was wondering if I could stay up with you tonight.”

Stan squinted at him from the corner of his eye, already turning off the porch lights. “We had a deal, remember? You sleep.”

Dipper took a steadying breath and puffed his chest out. “Well, we’re both supposed to take care of ourselves, so if you stay up, then I should too.”

Stan scoffed and crossed his arms. “In case you didn’t notice, I have nearly fifty years on you.”

“So?” Dipper kept his chest puffed. “Old men need sleep too.”

Stan kept staring him down. Dipper’s chest threatened to deflate, but he held his breath to keep it up. If he went upstairs, Stan would keep thinking about Stanford and how he didn’t want to be saved after all. He’d start drinking.

Stan sighed through his nose and rolled his eyes. “Yeesh, talk about a mother hen. You’re supposed to leave nagging to the women.” Dipper resisted the urge to tell Stan that they had no women, since Mabel was dimension hopping and Pacifica had cracked ribs, and that Dipper had always been the nagger of them all anyway and Stan knew it. “Fine. You can stay up. Go read your nerd books or something.”

Stan started walking towards the den, but instead of going to the utility closet where it was nice and cozy, Dipper followed him. “I was wondering if we could look through them together.”

“Hmm?” Stan slumped into his favorite chair, giving Dipper a skeptical look that was bellied by the way he kept his knees just together enough to allow Dipper room to squeeze next to him. “Whatever portal stuff you’re looking at, I already know it back to front.”

“It’s not portal stuff this time.” Dipper wiggled onto the seat next to his grunkle. Stan settled a hand on his shoulder, and the world felt better. “I just want to see if there’s anything in here that can protect us against Bill. I’m worried about Pacifica.”

“You mean you feel guilty about her.”

Dipper worried his lip and shrugged. Yes, he did.

“I don’t blame you, kid, but you couldn’t have seen this coming.” Stan took the first journal, weighing it in his hand before letting it fall open on his knee. “You got enough on your mind without beating yourself up for this one.”

Dipper rested his cheek against Stan’s side. He could hear his grunkle’s heartbeat. He thought about Pacifica’s parents. Even without demons, they did bad things to her. Bad enough to make her shudder and go quiet when they rang a bell. He’d seen that before the accident with the portal, but he still didn’t think about it at all before he asked her to go behind their backs to help him.

He thought about McGucket, whose notes were becoming more and more splintered, who had barely started to recover before Dipper asked him to help.

“I’m worried I’m hurting people with this.”

Stan kept his hand heavy and warm on Dipper’s shoulder. “You’re doing what it takes to protect your family. That’s the important thing.”

“But can’t I do that in a way that doesn’t put people in danger?” He wanted something to hug. The second journal dug into his leg, but it was too heavy with the ghost of Stanford. Dipper hugged himself instead. Stan’s arm slid around his shoulders snugly. “Mabel wouldn’t want people getting hurt.”

“Sometimes you can’t avoid it. Sometimes people get hurt.” Stan flipped through the pages of the journal on his knee. “But you can do what you can to stop it. I’ll help you with whatever exorcism mumbo jumbo my brother might have put in here.”

Warding against Bill would be a good start, but Dipper knew that that wouldn’t be enough. “It’s more than just Bill.”

“Hmm?” Stan frowned at him.

Dipper’s stomach twisted. He didn’t know if it was his place to say anything, but he couldn’t deal with this alone. “I think Pacifica’s parents will hurt her if they find out she helped us.”

Stan’s muscles tensed around Dipper. “What makes you say that?”

Anger began to radiate from Stan’s skin. It was easy to feel, even if he wasn’t yelling or anything. “Some stuff she’s said. She was more scared of them than the ghost that was haunting her family. And…” Dipper fingered the corner of the first journal’s cover. Was he betraying Pacifica by saying this? “And she said her dad wouldn’t do anything that left marks someone else could see. Those words.”

The silence weighed down between them. “Yeah.” Stan’s voice was rougher than usual. “That sounds pretty bad to me.”

“Do you think we should call someone?” Dipper dragged the first journal onto his lap, but he didn’t open it. The six-fingered hand stared at him.

“CPS wouldn’t do anything. People that rich are untouchable.” Stan was probably right. Dipper squeezed the journal, needing something to do with his hands, but Stan didn’t stop talking. “Untouchable by the government, at least. You did the right thing saying something. I’ll see what I can do.”

The weight of the world got a little lighter on Dipper. He didn’t know what his grunkle could do, but whatever it was, it was probably illegal. “Thank you, Grunkle Stan.”

Stan shrugged and started leafing through Stanford’s pages again. “I don’t like people who treat their family like that. Now get to reading so we can go to bed soon.”

Dipper kept his head rested against his grunkle’s chest while he flipped through pages, and Stan kept his arm around Dipper. The absence of Mabel was always there lurking on the edge of awareness, but it wasn’t as biting as it had been before.

Mabel would want them to make sure Pacifica didn’t get hurt on her account. She wouldn’t want McGucket to be hurt either, but Dipper had ideas for him. He’d figure it out.

Eventually, Dipper fell asleep cuddled against Stan.


Dimension ??, Day ??, 2012

Awareness came back slowly, like he was pulling himself out of mud. He really didn’t want to keep dreaming, but he didn’t really want to be aware. He couldn’t remember why, so he just trudged to the land of the living while scolding himself for being so self-indulgent as to want to stay away.

Sense of touch filtered in first. Everything hurt, but that was a relatively normal occurrence. He didn’t have his shirt or his jacket on, and that was not a relatively normal occurrence. Normally, waking up without half his clothing was cause for alarm, but bandages were wrapped snuggly all over his body, including his hands. He didn’t quite remember how he got injured, but if someone was taking care of him, they were friendly… or they were the worst kind of unfriendly.

Ford opened his eyes, just to see smears of color. Right. Glasses. The ground was soft and spongey when he pawed around until he found them. Great, whoever had him didn’t leave him completely blind.

He pushed his glasses up his nose. He was in a burrow-like space made of what looked like spider silk. The room was empty, and his neck was stiff with soft but thick bandaging. He looked around instinctively for Mabel, but she wasn’t there.

The memories came rushing back.

Something invisible ripped his heart from his chest. Mabel. The blood, the dead eyes, he remembered her—where was her body? Had someone taken it from him? She deserved a burial, a proper send off, not to be left alone in that awful dark place, he couldn’t just abandon her like he did to Stanley—

He should have been examining his surroundings, checking if he had all his belongings, but he couldn’t breathe. He had to find her. He’d failed her, he’d failed her so badly, those doppelgangers were right, his father was right, everyone he ever cared about had been ruined because of his stupid arrogant mistakes and he had to make sure that she was at least laid to rest properly—

The time between cradling her body and waking up here was smudged and blurred, but he thought he remembered her coming back to him, even saving his life from things that were devouring him as they spoke. He grabbed onto the memory, clung to it as hard as he could even though he also remembered her with a halo of multicolored light and it was more likely she was a dream or a hallucination. It was possible her death was a trick. She might still be alive.

“Mabel?” he said. “Mabel?” He raised his voice as he pushed himself to his knees.

“Grunkle Ford?”

Time stopped, but she was still moving. A familiar face poked through the burrow’s circular entrance.

Mabel was in new clothes. White, airy, semi-translucent shirt and skirt. She had a brace on her wrist. Closely spaced stitches tied together a vertical cut on her upper lip to her lower lip. A dark lightning tree ran from her shoulder down her arm and along her chest. Her braids were completely undone.

“That’s a relief. We’ve been waiting for—whoa!”

He swept her up off her feet and squeezed her close, pressing a quick kiss to her warm temple before resting his face in her hair. “I thought you were dead.” His voice came out too thick, but he couldn’t bring himself to care.

“You did?” She was rigid in his arms. He should have asked before he touched her. She was probably still mad at him. Then his niece relaxed and looped her arms around his neck. “I’m not dead, silly. Would a dead girl be able to do this?” She pulled away just enough to poke his nose. “Boop.”

His laugh was wet and thick and he had to quickly scrub one eye. “No, I don’t think a dead girl could do that.”

Ford would swear to anyone, god or man, that nothing was more beautiful than his niece at that very moment.

“I’m okay, Grunkle Ford.” Her eyes softened and she bumped their foreheads together. “Promise.”

Ford closed his eyes. He had to breathe to get control of himself again. It had been so long since anything could inspire such pain and joy that he didn’t remember how to deal with it. All he wanted was to just never let her go.

Her little fingers curled against his neck. Her breath wavered. “I’m sorry. If I didn’t run away, you wouldn’t have—”

“Don’t. Don’t.” She fell silent, and he focused on her heartbeat against his chest, the heat radiating from her skin.

Another shaky breath and he could work the thickness from his throat and open his eyes again. “What happened?” he said, frowning at the stitches on her lip. “You’re hurt.”

“So are you.” She poked his shoulder, making him wince. It was definitely tender and wrapped up in bandages. “Do you really not remember any of it?”

Ford leaned back against the silk wall, adjusting to sit Mabel down in his lap but not letting her go yet. She didn’t seem to mind. Something in his chest loosened and relaxed when she rested her head against him. “I remember… something. It seems more like a nightmare than anything real, though.” He frowned and squinted down at the top of her head. “Were you glowing at some point?”

“Yep.”

“Ah.” Some of it filtered back. Darkness, all-consuming, the sensation that it was better for him to sleep because he would never have a good day again and it was easier to fade away. Mabel, sweeping in like a beacon of rainbow light more suited for a dance party than a dark place like that. Blood, something lurking in the shadows, yelling, a pop pop— “Did you use my gun?” He carefully took her wrist wrapped tightly in a brace. “Is that how you hurt this?”

“Partly. I also hurt it when I stuck one of the evil tube things into my wrist so I could force the monster eating you to eat my happiness.”

Hardly the weirdest thing he’d ever heard. The important part was that she used his gun to shoot things and she willfully fed herself to a beast devouring a grown man.

“Mabel, that was incredibly—” Stupid, reckless, irresponsible, except not actually. Mabel quirked one skeptical eyebrow, her mouth twisting in expectation of a scolding. She didn’t deserve one, though. He knew she didn’t. “…You did really well thinking on your feet like that.”

The genuine surprise on her face made his heart twinge with guilt. He thought of his dream, too vivid to forget, his father hardly older than her with a gun in his hands. “I haven’t been giving you enough credit.” He smoothed her hair back, grateful that she allowed him to touch her. “If it weren’t for you, I would be dead. You were able to get us both out of a terrible situation intact, and that is amazing.

As much as it pained him to admit it, he had underestimated his niece, and he had done her a great disservice in doing so. They were lucky that she was able to draw on herself to save them, because he certainly hadn’t been teaching her all the skills she’d need to face off against an alien hostile without him around. That had to change.

“I want you to tell me everything that happened,” he said.

The story came slowly. Mabel kept eyeing his face, as if expecting disapproval or distress at various points, so he stayed impassive as much as possible. As she spoke, her hands became animated and the story came to life with them. Slowly, the pieces came together.

Positivity. Her love for Dipper defeated the monster that tried to entrap her the same way they entrapped Ford. After weeks away from her brother, a hug was enough to unravel the illusion, and that love for family protected her.

No wonder it was able to get him so easily, he thought. After thirty years, his first instinct when he saw his brother was to yell at him.

The imposters were right about one thing: he wasn’t a very good brother.

“And when we got through a portal, a bunch of good aliens met us!” Mabel slid off his lap and grabbed his hand. “Come meet them with me!”

He might not be a good brother, but there wasn’t much he could do about that now. What he could do was be a better uncle. He squeezed her hand, giving her a smile before popping a universal translator into his ear and easing to his feet.

She finally grinned at him, one of those big grins full of metal, except there wasn’t much metal anymore. The wires had all been removed from her braces, leaving only the brackets. He would have to help her get rid of those. “They’re really nice people. They made these clothes for me in less than five minutes!”

As she walked him out of the burrow, she waved her arm, letting the gossamer sleeve flutter around her like wings. They were in a cool underground cave with natural holes punching through the stone and dirt ceiling. Moss dangled from the edges of the holes, dripping water down into clear ponds. Dangling from the rocks were giant pods made of the same silk that made Mabel’s clothes.

Out of one pod crawled what was clearly an alien. Its torso and the upper half of its four legs were fleshy and covered in shimmering tattoos, but the lower half of its legs were made of intertwined, twisting needles that skimmed and skittered over the floor. Its head was triangular with faceted eyes and a crown of twisted needles weeping silk threads that it grabbed with its front points and used to reinforce its fibrous pod.

“Spindy! Spindy!” Mabel waved at the alien on the ceiling. “Come meet my grunkle!”

The alien twisted the threads of its pod together and shook excess silk off its head before tapping along the ceiling to the wall.

“His name’s not really Spindy,” Mabel said. “I just don’t know how to pronounce his real name. It’s a bunch of clicking.”

“That happens,” said Ford. “I have named more aliens ‘Molly’ than I care to count.”

“Why Molly?”

Ford could only shrug. “Beats me.”

“You’re the big one.” ‘Spindy’ was on the ground now, approaching them. Up close, he was tall. He managed to be at Ford’s eye level even on all fours. “Your little one was worried about you.”

Ford squeezed Mabel’s hand. “Well, I can’t say I blame her.” Mabel leaned against his leg. Where he would have been uncomfortable a couple weeks ago, the closeness was reassuring. “I suppose I have you to thank for us both being so well taken care of?”

The creature sat back on his haunches, folding his back legs together until it was hard to tell whether the needles were from one leg or another. There was something insect-like about his movement. Ford would love to draw him later.

“We were able to put you both back together.” Spindy tangled the needles of one front leg into the silk coming from his head, pulling out the silk and twisting it between ‘fingers’ to make thicker thread. “Your little one said that your kind’s flesh can be woven if the materials are clean. Our silk will dissolve in your skin once you have healed yourself.”

Ford hadn’t checked under his bandages, so he didn’t know how many stitches he needed, but seeing how well Mabel’s body was responding to the fine stitching on her lips, he had confidence that he would be in okay shape.

“I can’t thank you enough,” Ford said. “I don’t know if there’s any way we can repay you.”

“No repayment. Why repayment?” Spindy clicked his needles together, which made a sound like a sharper tap of fingernails. “We don’t ask for repayment. We give or we take. We give now because we are impressed.”

Spindy slid to all fours again, bumping Ford with one fleshy shoulder covered in a tattoo of hanging moss before clicking towards the nearest pool. “We put guards where the portal appears. The facestealers hunt us if we don’t. They come into our world and lure victims back to theirs to be eaten.”

Ford kept a hold of Mabel’s hand as he started to follow the alien. “Why would they hunt outside of their own world?”

“They devoured everything in theirs, if it’s even theirs.” Spindy sat at the edge of the water. He eased his sharp front points back, staring at the pool, so still that it created a perfect reflection of the world above. “They want to settle ours and make it like their own. We won’t let them.”

He shot his arm into the water. The splash sprayed Ford and Mabel, the latter letting out a surprised whoop. When he drew his front leg out, a completely translucent flat fish flopped, speared on his needles. “They are dangerous because they know how to tell the truth, but we fight by remembering the truth they don’t tell.”

Spindy tossed the fish at Mabel. She caught it with a wet smack. “Ew,” she giggled. “It’s all slimy. Feel how slimy it is!”

“You have a special little one,” Spindy said as though Mabel didn’t speak. “So we will provide for you both until you can move on.” He pointed one needle at the fish Mabel was now making fish kiss faces at. “Eat that. It’s good for you.”

“Grunkle Ford, its fins are still twitching!”

“Thank you,” said Ford as Mabel played around with their dinner. “We appreciate your hospitality.” When he looked down at his niece, she was puppeteering the dead fish by its fins. “Mabel, you’re going to learn how to filet a fish.”

“Cool! What does that mean?”

“You’ll find out in a minute.”

They left Spindy to hunt his own dinner, but Ford still picked a spot near a pool to make a cooking fire. It wouldn’t be good form to fill up their hosts’ cave with smoke nowhere near ventilation.

Even when Mabel figured out what it meant to filet a fish and gave him a skeptical look, he still insisted on teaching her how to properly butcher it. He almost died. He would have died if she hadn’t been so quick to think on her feet. Mabel wasn’t ready to survive on her own because he hadn’t forced her to learn all the things she’d need to know.

She had to learn. If he died, he had to die knowing she would be okay.

“Don’t cut towards yourself.” Ford took Mabel’s thumb off the fish and repositioned it so her palm was flat on it.

“I feel like I’m desecrating a dead body,” Mabel said with a grimace. “Do you think fish have ghosts that come back to haunt you?”

“I doubt it,” Ford said. “But you never know.”

“I bet the sewers have whole cities of ghost fish.” Her filet was absolutely terrible, but they weren’t cooking for food critics here. Her tiny fingers dug into the flesh to pick out the bones, ripping apart the mutilated fish. “They’re all going to come for me, Grunkle Ford.”

“Then we’ll have to figure out how to eat them too.”

She giggled. For a moment, things felt normal.

Ford wanted so badly to just keep up the banter and move on like nothing happened, but he couldn’t. It would only be a matter of time before resentment bubbled up between them again if he buried it. He had ruined many relationships in his life, but he didn’t want to ruin what he had with Mabel.

He led her through setting up the fire and tossing the mutilated fish into a pan. It smelled like roasted rose petals.

“How do you feel?” he said. It was stilted, some pale imitation of the sort of thing his ma would say after Ford had time to cool down from a fight. Mabel flashed him a smile and waved her bound wrist like a carnival toy.

“Healing up just fine!”

Ford focused on the cooking fish, on the needle creatures crawling on the ceiling, on the shimmers of transparent fish in the water. Anything that wasn’t Mabel. “That wasn’t what I meant.”

“Oh.” Her smile withered like a frostbitten flower. She pulled her knees under her chin and hugged them. Ford was a coward. He didn’t look at her.

Silence hung over them like the humidity just before a summer storm. Part of him, a selfish part, wanted to take back his words and go back to the off-kilter but passable intimacy they had moments before.

“I wish…” Mabel’s voice was devoid of cheer. It was all wrong. “…I wish I had gotten to say goodbye to my brother.”

Breath burned Ford’s chest. His hands twisted in his lap, but he wasn’t sure what to do with them. He didn’t know if he was allowed to touch her, and he didn’t know how to ask.

“What happened between you and Grunkle Stan?”

Her knees muffled her voice. Ford ran his fingers through his hair with a sigh, shaking his head. He couldn’t think of something he wanted to talk about less, but maybe she had a right to know. Stan and Ford and their fucked up relationship were the reasons she was here, anyway.

“Honestly? I just don’t know anymore.” One day, there was no one he’d rather be with, and the next, they were sworn to never speak again. It made so much sense at the time.

“The aliens showed Grunkle Stan getting kicked out of the house,” said Mabel. Ford’s stomach clenched until it was nothing but a rock nestled amongst the rest of his organs. Mabel’s eyes were heavy on him. “Why would your parents do that?” And why would you let them?

It had made so much sense at the time. It had felt right. Stanley had betrayed him, betrayed the whole family. He deserved what he got. He would be fine, anyway. He was street smart. The family was better off without him.

All those justifications felt far away, and their ghosts withered in his throat when he dared to look at his niece. No reason was going to be enough for those eyes. Nothing was going to satisfy her. She was waiting for him to do the impossible: to convince her that leaving his brother on the street was right.

“He broke a project of mine.” The story was lead in his mouth. “It was supposed to get me into a premier college and jumpstart my career. Stanley said it was an accident, but we didn’t believe him. I thought he just wanted to sabotage my ability to go anywhere without him. Maybe he did. Maybe it was a little of both. Either way, our father kicked him out and that was the last I saw of him for over ten years.”

For the first time in his life, he wished he had asked his father why. Why was that the solution he jumped to? Had he ever had any regrets? Had he ever considered it before? Did he ever miss Stan? But his father had never been a forthcoming man, and now all Ford had were dreams and memories.

The way Mabel looked at him, like she wanted to cry, made him want to hide his face in shame. It was worse than facing the imposter Stanley. With Stanley, he could always use his own anger and resentment as a shield for anything else he might ever feel (the hurt, the disappointment, the nostalgia, even flickers of guilt he quashed over and over), but with Mabel, there was no shield. He’d let her come too close.

“Didn’t you ever want to see him again? Didn’t you love him?” she asked with a shaky voice that just made it so much worse.

“Of course I loved him. He’s my brother.” The gruff words stumbled out without conscious thought, without permission, and the truth in them shocked him. Of course he loved his brother. He never said it in so many words—no one said that in their family, not even Ma, better to show than to tell—but it was the truth, and the truth was all he had in the face of a niece on the edge of crying. “He was my best friend. Only friend, really. But I had felt suffocated for a while by then. Our whole lives were defined by our relationship to each other. Stanley was happy with that. I was getting tired of it. Then he betrayed me, and I didn’t want to be around him anymore. I thought I could make a better life for myself if I just forgot he was ever there.”

The truth burst from him like he was draining a rancid wound. It oozed out into the world for Mabel’s judgment. He couldn’t stop now.

“I couldn’t forget him. He was always in the back of my head no matter how hard I tried to get rid of it. So instead of forgetting, I just focused on how much I resented him, because it was easier to hate him than miss him.”

More wounds lanced. More truth foaming out like infection and pus and death that had been left to fester for forty years. Mabel’s hands were twisted up in her skirt. Her hands were so little.

“I moved on with my life, but without him to keep me in check, I made the worst mistake of my life. Bill Cipher flattered me and tricked me into building a portal for him. Stanley would have seen him for the con artist he was, but I was taken in because I was too proud and naïve to recognize his manipulations.”

Too much truth. He hadn’t meant to tell her about Cipher. Her cheeks were colorless. Still, he couldn’t stop. He felt sick. All the baggage he had ignored and locked up was going to crush him.

“After I realized what Cipher intended, I contacted Stanley. He was the only one I could trust—only one who could help regardless of trust, really, since I had destroyed any friendships I might have had—but we got into a fight. I seriously injured him and he accidentally pushed me into the portal.”

Ford spread his fingers out in his lap. “That’s why we’re trapped here. I was proud, and Stanley was rash. I’m sorry you and your brother got wrapped up in it.”

And it was all out. He was empty, like the only thing that had ever been holding him up was all the resentment he had for Stan. He didn’t want to look at Mabel. He didn’t want her judgment.

The silence stuck to them, like they had walked through a field of burrs and hadn’t bothered to notice until they were impossible to pull off anymore.

“That story is so sad.”

He laced his fingers together. It was a trick he learned when he was a child. It was harder for people to see something was wrong with his hands when he tangled up the fingers. It was a habit he kept long after there were any humans around to judge them. “It is.”

He couldn’t let himself sink into it, though. She deserved better. He heaved a soft sigh before prying his hands apart and poking at the crisping fish with a spatula. “I always told myself that I did the right thing, that Dad did the right thing. Maybe that’s not as true as I’d like it to be. I’m honestly not sure anymore. ”

Did Stanley ask these questions? For the first time in thirty years, he wondered how it must have felt to be in Stanley’s shoes, to watch his brother fly into the portal and be powerless to stop it. What would Ford have done? Would he have been able to leave the portal closed even if it meant condemning his brother?

The anger and resentment at his brother was long-lived and had deep roots, but he never stopped loving the godforsaken man. Clearly, Stanley had never stopped loving him either, if he was still working on the portal after thirty years. It was weird to think of it that way. Fixing the portal was unfathomably reckless, but Stanley wouldn’t have done it for anyone else.

“Have you ever thought about what you’d say to him if you had the chance?” said Mabel, staring at the ground and speaking softer than someone so lively ever should.

He wanted to tell her something she’d like to hear. He wanted to say that, yes, he’d thought about it, and he’d tell him that bygones should be bygones, but that was the furthest thing from the truth.

“I did at first,” he admitted. “I thought about the way I’d tell him it was all his fault my life was ruined and I’d tell him I was better off when he was gone. The kind of thing you believe when you’re angry.” The kind of thing he’d actually believed before yesterday, but now was reconsidering. Mabel’s shoulders slumped. He knew that she would be unhappy hearing the truth, but he couldn’t stand the thought of giving her anything else. “Then, I suppose… I just let any thought of home be buried. I could go years without thinking about anyone I left behind. It was easier that way.”

“It was easier to just… act like they’d never been there?” she asked, her voice small.

“It was.” He wished he could give her a different answer. “I didn’t realize how much I had let myself forget before you came along.” He forgot Stanley. Of course, he remembered Stanley Pines, the man who came out of the womb with him and pushed him into a portal, but he forgot Stanley , the man who always stuck by his side until a sudden and awful fight, and then who came back over ten years later when Stanford needed him most. He forgot that Stanley liked to pickpocket beachgoers when they were kids, and that he always ended up with sunburns because he hated the feeling of sunscreen on his skin. He forgot that Shermy would have grown up by now, that he’d have a family. He forgot to wonder what on Earth his family would do when he disappeared. He forgot.

“I don’t want to forget them.” Mabel stared at her hands as she pulled at her skirt. It was a wonder how it didn’t tear.

He wished he could touch her, to give her a hug or a pat on the shoulder. He hadn’t touched another human being for thirty years before she came along, but he never wished he could touch one more than in that moment.

“You’re stronger than I am,” was what he said instead. “You don’t have to if you don’t want to.”

She had fewer memories to keep hold of, but maybe that made them more precious. She didn’t have the same bitterness he had had when he arrived. She would take care of her memories rather than let them fade like he did.

But maybe that would just make it harder for her.

“I’m sorry for ruining our chances to go back home like I did.” Now she was the one avoiding eye contact. She stared at the rock, pressing a finger on the floor and tracing imaginary patterns. “But I did it because the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few. I don’t expect you to understand that, and I don’t expect you to forgive me.”

“Pff.” She flipped her hair over so it covered her eyes. “I have to forgive you. You’re family.”

“I think we just settled that family can hold onto grudges too.”

“But you’re all I have now.” She pressed her face into her knees, hugging them like she was trying to wake from a bad dream and keeping her expression hidden in her hair. “You’re the only one here. I won’t see any of the rest of my family or friends ever again.”

It saved the world, but Ford still hated himself for taking her hope of home away from her. “I’m sorry that I am such a poor substitute for them,” he said, looking at the rocky ground.

She peeked from between locks of hair. She offered him a smile that didn’t show her teeth. “There’s nothing poor about you.” Finally, she leaned against his side. The knot in his heart loosened. Resting a hand on her shoulder, his fidgeting ceased. “For what it’s worth, I think you’re a good person, even if you made mistakes.”

If he only had one person with him for the rest of his life, Ford was never going to complain that it was Mabel. “That’s because you make me a better person.” He squeezed her shoulder, using his free hand to poke at the fish. It was a little more awkward to do anything with his non-dominant hand, but he didn’t want to end the contact so soon.

Needle aliens (he had to think of a good name for their species, since they would be here recovering for a while) walked along the ceiling, making intermittent clicking sounds as they settled on their haunches and started weaving pods from silk and little nets around holes leading to the outside world, catching dewdrops and presumably any unfortunate small animal that happened by.

“Once we finish eating, what would you say to drawing one of them?” Ford said.

“I’d say that’s a great idea.”

Chapter Text

Earth, August 7th, 2012

Pacifica's English Literature teacher—Ms. Wendy—was the sort of woman who would go on about philosophy and moral dilemmas when she was talking about whatever Shakespeare or Joyce piece they were reading that week. Pacifica hadn't seen much of a point of it over the school year, but now it felt like her English teacher had reached into her very brain and set up her own personal nightmare. Pacifica would have been ready to scream if she could get the breath to so much as whisper.

A train was coming. Pacifica stood where the railroad split. On the right hand side, Mabel's foot was stuck to the track, and so was a man's with a blurred face. On the left hand side, every single other person Pacifica knew, plus all the others she didn't, stood on the track.

The train was coming. It was set to plow to the right. It was going to crush Mabel's bones to dust and turn her smile into a smear of blood on the tracks.

"You have to change the train track, Pacifica!"

Dipper was screaming from his spot to the left. His feet were glued to the tracks.

"But…" Pacifica's hand was on the lever. The train was coming. Let it crush Mabel and her uncle, or change its path and pray everyone could jump out of the way in time?

"Change the track!" Dipper screamed, voice shattering into a thousand pieces, but Pacifica couldn't hear him over the roar of the train.


Earth, August 7th, 2012

"Hey Pacifica, do you want to go hunting for unicorns?"

That was how Pacifica woke up. No regrets for immediately punching Dipper in the jaw.

He yelped, jumping away, and his socks slid on the floor. His feet came out from under him. Pacifica fully woke up to the sound of him hitting the ground with a yell.

If this was what having a roommate was like, then Pacifica was living alone forever.

"What time is it?" she groaned as she pulled a pillow over her face. It smelled like Mabel, like lingering pine sap, cheap pink preteen perfume, and maple syrup. Pacifica's face was covered in a sheen of sweat, and the smell just made it worse.

"I'm okay, you know," Dipper said from the floor.

"What time is it?" The ever-present ache in her chest and throat was still there, but it had dulled. She dared to peek out from under the pillow to see bright sunlight filtering into the broken down room. (Ugh, boyband posters all over Mabel's side, scary movie and mystery posters all over Dipper's. How tacky can you get? But the mold was the worst. The ceiling might cave in on them.)

"It's almost noon." Dipper scowled as he got to his knees and leaned his elbows against the edge of the mattress. "Do you always sleep this much?"

"No, just when a demon almost killed me two days ago."

That shut him up. His mouth twisted up and his shoulders hunched with guilt. Good. He should feel guilty. She almost died for his lying butt.

The silence didn't last long. "That's why I was asking about the unicorns. I found something in the journal that might be able to keep Bill out."

"Why didn't you just say so?" Pacifica threw her pillow at his face. "Go away. I need to get dressed."

He sprinted out so fast he almost slipped again. She briefly considered telling him he forgot his shoes, but eh.

Getting up was still painful, but Pacifica didn't get anywhere by giving up when things got hard. She'd had to dig around the room herself for essentials yesterday when Dipper ditched her (which she had wanted him to, so it wasn't like it was a big deal, but still. She had cracked ribs. Would some clothes or a baggie of little soaps or something been so much to ask?) so she knew where to get what she needed. Mabel's side of the room was preserved like a monument, and it felt wrong to touch her things, but Dipper only had boy stuff, so Mabel it was.

Cheap makeup that bordered on clownish was tossed haphazardly on Mabel's trunk with a stack of kiddy magazines and pictures of her with her weirdo friends. Pacifica couldn't use any of it or it might make her break out. She hated going without makeup. Her mother and father always pinched her cheeks and talked about how ugly she looked without makeup, and now she looked like a girl straight out of a domestic violence PSA.

Pacifica traced her finger along her lip. It was still busted, but it had scabbed. Her cheeks and jaw were still tender to the touch. She didn't need a mirror to know the outline of her father's hands still ringed her neck.

She wanted it all gone. It was in the middle of summer, but she eased the trunk open—bottles of cheap strawberry perfume fell onto their sides and magazines slid to the floor—and pulled out one of Mabel's turtlenecks. It was like she pulled the ghost of Mabel out with it. Her scent wafted over her, settling on the room, like Mabel had come back to just quietly let her know that Pacifica was just a guest, and it would always be Mabel's space here.

Pacifica didn't want it anyway. A hundred years could pass with the portal destroyed and Mabel would still linger here. Dipper would be stuck with that, but Pacifica didn't want to live with it forever.

For now, she was stuck living with it. The sweater Pacifica pulled out at random had a unicorn sewn onto it. Tacky, but weirdly appropriate, like the ghost of Mabel was picking out her clothes for her.

Pacifica shuddered. That thought was way too creepy to entertain. Besides, it wasn't like Mabel was actually dead, just far away. Impossibly far away.

She didn't wear anything under the sweater. The heat would be unbearable otherwise. She pulled on one of Mabel's skirts, even though it was too tight on her hips. Pacifica grimaced, pinching the fat on her thigh. She knew that it wasn't a matter of weight. Her hips were already filling out and Mabel's weren't. Still, she didn't like wearing clothes that didn't fit. Her parents would say she looked fat. She did look fat. A fat domestic abuse PSA with zero fashion sense.

Someone—she had no idea who—had stocked the ratty, filthy attic bathroom with the basics for her. Clean toothbrush, hairbrush, even an untouched box of tampons shoved in a dark corner under the sink. New things looked out of place in there. The tiles were cracked, mold grew in the shower, and she could reach her hands out and touch opposite walls. She held her breath and brushed her teeth.

The stairs were steep and the edges of the wooden steps were worn smooth by years of fumbling footsteps. Pacifica probably should ask for help, but she couldn't stand the thought of needing help to go down some stupid stairs.

There wasn't a banister, so she leaned against the wall and hoped that would be enough to catch her. The owner of this place had to invest in some basic renovation, she thought darkly. The bathroom need refinishing, Mabel and Dipper's room needed fumigating, the stairs needed safety upgrades, the creepy eye of providence stained glass window in the upstairs storage den space needed to go (why would someone even put that there in the first place was beyond her), and it all really just needed a thorough fix up.

Her heel slid on the edge of a step. She leaned on the wall, grimacing as she fumbled down. Don't fall, don't fall, don't fall—

Ankle rolling the steps hit her ribs like drumbeats hit the ground he's coming

—and she made it down the steps. She let out a breath she didn't know she was holding.

Mabel's pig sat at the foot of the stairs. It raised its head, and Pacifica could swear its ears perked when it saw her sweater, then drooped again when it saw her face. The pig settled its head on its hooves with a huff.

Pacifica grimaced and picked her way around it. That pig should have been turned into someone's breakfast by now, but Mabel was weird and needed a weird pet, she guessed.

Something was burning.

"Is something on fire?" Pacifica said as she followed the meandering doors and ducked into the wrong room on occasion (did someone try to make this building riot-proof or something?) before getting to the kitchen.

"Nah." An old ogre of a man—Mr. Pines, Dipper and Mabel's great uncle, the first man to lose a twin to the portal—sat at the kitchen table without pants or shirt (ew), reading a newspaper and drinking coffee that looked more like sludge than anything edible. "Dipper is just terrible at cooking."

"Hey!" Dipper said from the stove, which was visibly smoking.

The kitchen was in about as terrible condition as the rest of the house, with all the equipment at least thirty years out of date and stains from God knows what rubbed into the cheap table and the floor and ew. Dipper stood on a footstool in front of the old stove, struggling with a smoking pan and a spatula.

"What are you making?" Pacifica said as she slowly eased into one of the kitchen chairs. Something had bitten through the plastic seat and stuffing was spilling out everywhere.

"I'm trying to make pancakes." Dipper grimaced as he slid a charcoal patty into the trash and sprayed way too much cooking oil onto the pan.

"Joke's on him. I said we should just pop one of those instant meals into a microwave." Stan looked over the edge of his paper. "Yeesh. You look like you got hit by a truck. You get the license plate on that?"

Pacifica shot a glare. "Next week, I'm going to look fabulous again. You'll still be an ugly old man."

His barked laugh made her jump. "Nice comeback, kid."

"Hey, I think this one came out okay!" Dipper shoved a plate in front of Pacifica and plopped a pancake on it. Somehow, he'd managed to make the edges burnt and the inside raw, but everything was awful in this place and Pacifica was too hungry to complain.

"Maybe we can make this a regular thing. You cook breakfast in the morning and I eat it," Stan said as he smirked at Dipper, waving his own empty plate at him. Dipper ignored the plate and just poured more batter into the pan.

"You wish."

"So…" Pacifica poured imitation maple syrup onto the sad excuse for a pancake. "Unicorns?"

"Oh, right!" Dipper started waving his spatula as he talked, flicking bits of burnt pancake all over the kitchen. Pacifica hoped none of it got in her hair. "One of the journals had a spell to repel Bill's magic, but it needs unicorn hair. Luckily, it says exactly where to find them, but unluckily, it says unicorns won't give their hair to you unless you're pure of heart or something."

Pacifica glanced between the shirtless ogre and the pancake destroyer. "I don't think we're going to have much luck with that."

"We'll play it by ear," Stan said with a shrug. "You're blonde. That's probably close enough."

"I don't think that's how unicorns work." But what did she know? All she knew about them was from stories. If the stories about needing to be a virgin girl were true, then at least she had that down pat.

"Do you think your ribs are okay for a walk in the woods?" Dipper asked. A wet splat told Pacifica he was trying to flip a pancake, and she forced down a few more swallows of what he'd already given her.

"If it's to kick that stupid demon out, then I'm ready to run a marathon."

"I'll quote that if you start complaining on the way," Stan said.

Breakfast continued to be just as disappointing as that first pancake, but Dipper tried, so Pacifica couldn't complain. Or she could, but that would require giving Dipper more acknowledgement than she really wanted. She didn't know what to make of him. She didn't want to think about it too hard. The demon was right about his lies. He said she was his friend, but she didn't really feel like a friend considering how easy it was to make her accessory to possibly destroying the world without telling her.

The demon was right about his lies. Who's to say he wasn't right about everything else?

She didn't want to think about it, so she didn't. Instead, she focused on unicorns. She wasn't exactly a unicorn kind of girl, but it was still pretty cool to go hunting for them.

After forcing down intermittent gobs of batter and charcoal, Pacifica's stomach turned and she just couldn't take any more. Dipper left the dirty dishes in the sink while his grumbling uncle went to put actual clothes on (thank God). Pacifica avoided looking at Dipper too much. Instead, she stared out the window. Antigone was still out there, eating all the grass from their unkempt lawn.

"Why haven't you tied up my mare?"

Dipper grimaced as he glanced out the window. "She'll attack me if I get too close."

"No she won't. She's a trained mare." Pacifica squinted at him from the corner of her eye. "You exorcise ghosts and you're scared of horses."

"I'm not scared!" His voice cracked. His face went red and Pacifica went back to staring at her loose horse instead of paying attention to him.

It would be fun to tease him more, to pick at the fact that he couldn't bear going near her harmless mare, but she wasn't really in the mood. After a stretch of silence, his shoulders slumped.

"I'm going to go tie her up." Pacifica hobbled out of the shack and away from the sudden heaviness in the air.

Antigone snuffled her clothes for treats as Pacifica led her behind the Shack and found a porch she could tie her to. Pacifica patted her shoulder and kissed her nose, promising water and carrots later. It didn't give her any of the comfort she was used to.

"Get in the car or you're walking!"

Pacifica frowned and looked around the corner of the rickety old house to see Stanley dressed up and waving her to his death trap of a clunker.

"Aren't we going into the woods?" she said as she patted her horse one last time and walked to the car.

"We can drive part of the way. Whenever you have the opportunity to not exercise, take it," Stan Pines said as he flopped into the driver's seat. "Now this thing's seatbelts are broken, so if we're pulled over, take the scarves from behind the seat and pretend those are your belts."

Pacifica would be furious if she survived a homicidal demon just to die in this clunker, so she sat by the window and braced herself.

Dipper sat across from her, one of his great uncle's journals in his lap. He picked at a gaping hole in the upholstery bleeding stuffing all over the floor. The whole place smelled like grease so thickly that it was like a fine layer of it was settling on Pacifica's skin. Her stomach turned.

The clunker rattled to life and rolled down the path, rocking side to side at every pothole and pebble it hit. The shakes sent jolts through her ribs, like the car wanted to turn the cracks into complete breaks.

Like hell was she going to show she was in pain, though. She squeezed her eyes shut, leaning back and holding her chest gently.

"You okay?" Dipper muttered to her. "The suspension is really bad in this car."

"I'm fine," she hissed as she rested her head against the window.

Sweat beaded her neck and hairline. She concentrated on breathing. Despite the summer heat, her skin chilled.

The one good thing about the pain was that it blotted out any kind of thought, and she had been struggling not to think too much in her waking hours since the attack. She didn't want to think about her parents and why they hadn't come to get her yet. She didn't want to think about the demon that tried to kill her. She didn't want to think about Dipper lying to her. She definitely didn't want to think about whether or not Mabel was worth helping with a portal that could destroy the world. She didn't want to think about the train problem.

The pain just shut up her head. There was only the car's crap suspension and the next pothole.

Eventually, there was also the car's sharp stop, too.

"My nerd brother wrote that the unicorns are near here." The old man put the car into park, but Pacifica wasn't sure how necessary that was, since they were literally on grass off the side of the road.

"It shouldn't be a long walk," Dipper said as he slid out of the car. His voice was wavering with concern. Pacifica wanted to pinch him to make him stop sounding like that.

Walking was easier than sitting in that awful car, but it still wasn't the best. Already, she couldn't wait to go back to Mabel's bed, ghosts be damned. She wanted to rest, but not before taking care of protecting them against Cipher.

"Does that journal say anything else about unicorns?" she asked, dragging her shoes through knee-high grass and shrubs. She winced as the plants tickled her bare legs and wondered how long it would take before she got a rash or something. This was why her parents didn't allow her to go into any kind of nature unless she was with an instructor or riding a trail. Everything in nature wanted her dead or disfigured.

One shoe sank into the mud. She grimaced as she yanked it out, only to stub her toe on a root.

"Not much. It says that they have magic hair that they give only to the pure of heart, and they're in a secret glen that you can only get by chanting deeply."

"I got you covered," Stan Pines said as he trampled a tiny sapling and kicked a rock into the bushes.

Were there bugs on Pacifica's legs? It felt like there were bugs on her legs. She shuddered and brushed her knees off, but she couldn't see anything but ferns tickling her skin. It smelled like dirt out here. Dirt and pond water.

"How are you doing, Pacifica?" Dipper said, throwing a glance over his shoulder. His brow was so furrowed that Pacifica half-expected him to be wrinkling.

"I'm fine," she snapped, tearing at the grass in her way and ripping at it until the tips were gone and it bled green, fragrant blood. "Just thinking about how they should spray this whole place for bugs. And maybe get a proper landscaper in here."

Dipper shook his head and rolled his eyes. She wanted to jab him, pinch him, anything to express the anger and resentment boiling in her gut, but she kept her hands to herself.

The trees and ferns gave way to a large grassy clearing before she could reconsider. Once more, the grass was too high and there were bugs everywhere and it was probably muddy. It also had big rocks everywhere with geometric patterns smoothed into them as if by very targeted water or wind, and vividly colored flowers sprouted up everywhere among the grass. The flowers were also probably covered in bugs.

"Does this glen look secret enough for you?" Stan Pines said.

"Sure, I guess it looks secret." Dipper offered his uncle the journal. "Read out the chants and the entrance to the unicorn place should open up."

"What is this?" He pulled off his glasses for a moment to squint at the writing. "That's gibberish."

"It's probably some other language. I don't know. Just try to read it," said Dipper.

Stan grumbled as he pushed his glasses on his nose again and started to grumble out something that sounded more like rocks grinding together than words. A mosquito landed on Pacifica's elbow, and with a growl of disgust, she slapped it dead. Gross, now its guts were all over her hands. She didn't suppose any of these savages brought a towel and hand sanitizer.

Dipper smirked as she wiped her palm gingerly on one of the trees ringing the glen. She only responded with a glare.

The rock grinding noise of Stan Pines' smoker's voice gave way to the sound of actual rocks grinding. The grass under their feet rippled, throwing Pacifica and Dipper off balance. Flailing their arms, they grabbed each other's hands for balance as pillars of rock rose from the ground. A bright pink, sparkly door (it reminded Pacifica of Mabel) burst between the rocks.

"That looks like the kinda thing a unicorn would hang out inside. What do you think, kids?" Stan Pines tucked the journal under his arm and put his hands on his hips. He arched his eyebrow down at them. It took Pacifica a moment to realize he was looking at her and Dipper's hands, still clasped now that the ground was still.

"Uh!" Pacifica and Dipper both jerked back their hands like they were on fire. Pacifica gave Dipper the fiercest glare she could manage, and Dipper sputtered. Stan Pines rolled his eyes so hard they might pop out.

"I'm just going to assume this is where the unicorn is," Stan deadpanned as he shoved the doors open.

A wave of Lisa Frank hit them like a truck. Stan pulled a face. "Is that glitter I'm smelling?"

If glitter had a smell, it was this, so bright and sweet in her sinuses that it burned. A technicolor landscape greeted them with grass so green and water so blue that it felt like Pacifica had just taken some intense drugs (or, at least, that was what she assumed drugs felt like). At the heart of the brilliant artificial color (and that's what it felt like—food dye, not the Disney brilliance Pacifica glimpsede in the mirror with Mabel) was a unicorn straight out of a kid's cartoons or a bad tattoo store.

"It's burning my eyes," Dipper said as he scrubbed his face.

"Glitter feels like pepper spray," said Stan, pulling off his glasses so he could do the same.

Pacifica's eyes started tearing too, but she grimaced and dealt with it. The unicorn, an unrealistically slim white horse with a long horn, blue diamond shapes on its quarters, and bright rainbow sparkly hair, raised its head and turned its horrifying eyes on them. The eyes looked like nothing but sparkles. Did it even have whites?

"Greetings, and welcome to my secret home, humans!" The unicorn kept tossing its head. Pacifica was pretty sure it just wanted to show off its rainbow hair. "I am Celestabellebethabelle! Please step forward! Just take off your shoes. Go on. Shoes off."

Pacifica grimaced at the grass. "You mean we have to walk on dirt with our bare feet?"

The unicorn let out a haughty huff, not unlike the sort of huff Pacifica's casino mogul aunt would make when her home was insulted. "The unicorn grotto is much cleaner than your shoes! And I will keep it that way. Shoes off."

Pacifica grimaced down at her feet. She wasn't sure how well she'd be able to pull them off without hurting her ribs.

"She lives outside. Who makes you take off shoes outside?" Dipper grumbled as he bent down to unlace his sneakers. Pacifica jabbed her elbow into his back to keep balance while she pulled up one foot to start working on. "Hey!"

He kept grumbling, but he didn't try shaking her off. She left her shoes on the ground, grimacing as she inched her feet into the grass. It tickled her toes, unlike any flooring she had walked barefoot on before. It wasn't waxed wood or fine rug or spotless tile. It was… soft and scratchy at the same time.

"I think I'm just going to hang out here," Stan Pines said, holding up his hands and not touching his shoes. "Not like you're gonna have much to say to me anyway. These kids want some of your hair."

"Very well," the unicorn with a weird name said, tossing her head again. "May a pure heart present themselves to me!"

Dipper straightened up, almost throwing off Pacifica, but she had both her shoes off now. He jerked his head towards the unicorn.

"This is so stupid," Pacifica muttered before walking up to the unicorn. The unicorn looked down her nose at her like she was lower than a cockroach. She was a smear of dirt that needed wiping up. It was the same way her parents looked at her when they were angry.

"You?" the unicorn scoffed. "You look like you've been in a bar fight. I've scraped purer things from my hoof."

"Hey, don't talk to her like that!" Dipper said. He sounded offended, like he was the one who was just insulted, but Pacifica just waved him off.

"Yeah, yeah, my family doesn't trade in purity." Too bad that the 'young virgin girl = purity' stories weren't true. That would have made their lives easier. "But you know what we do trade in? Money."

The unicorn squinted. "I'm listening."

Dipper's jaw slackened. Pacifica crossed her arms, looking the unicorn up and down. "We want your hair, but we won't tell you to give it to us for free. What do you say to, let's say… a hundred dollars per handful of clippings?"

"A hundred dollars? Please." The unicorn tossed her nose into the air, but there was a familiar gleam in her eye. Pacifica had reeled in her interest. "Do you know how rare my hair is? My mane is worth millions. Millions, I say!"

"For something so valuable, you don't exactly have a lot of buyers, do you?" Pacifica said as she examined her nails. They were rough around the edges from her struggle with the demon and from not having her regular manicure, but it still left the unicorn huffing from not being the center of her attention. "It looks like I'm the only one offering."

"I don't need to take any offers," the unicorn said with another aunt-like huff. "Five thousand dollars per handful. And no shaving."

"Five thousand?" Pacifica used the same laugh she always reserved for making fun of Mabel, perfectly elegant and condescending. "Don't flatter yourself. Two hundred, and I'm being generous."

"I don't like your tone!" The unicorn scratched her hooves against the rock she stood on, leaving long scratches like Antigone did when she saw animals she didn't like. "I'm being very generous with five thou—"

"HEAD'S UP!" Stanley Pines popped up behind the unicorn and smashed a rock into her temple. She toppled with a crack and sprawled out on the too-bright grass, tongue hanging out and a goose egg forming on her face.

"Oh my gosh!" Dipper slammed his hands onto his cheeks. "Grunkle Stan, what did you do?"

"What does it look like? I knocked her out!" Stan crouched by the unicorn's neck and pulled an electric razor from his pocket, turning it on with a (probably deliberately) menacing laugh. "Why negotiate when you can just rob someone blind?"

"Uh…" Pacifica squinted while Stan whistled as he shaved the unicorn's mane. "This doesn't seem right."

"Kid, she was scamming you." Stan waved his razor in the air, letting strands of rainbow hair fly. "That 'pure of heart' junk? Obviously a bit. There's no such thing as a pure heart, because there's no such thing as a flawless person. She was trying to get rid of you and keep her hair all to herself, and if that didn't work, she wanted to charge you through the nose!" He ran his razor up and down the unicorn's neck, taking off flecks of her neck hair alongside her mane. "Believe me, scammers expect to be robbed every once in a while. It comes with the business. That's why you should always keep your eye on the old man in the back!"

"Oh boy." Dipper pulled at his hair. "Do you think unicorns can curse people?"

"We'll find out soon enough!" Stan Pines said with a big fat grin as he gathered up the unicorn's entire mane into his arms, leaving her neck bare and weird-looking.

"Hey, C-Beth? Did I hear you over here?" a masculine voice among the technicolor trees said as the sound of hooves drew near.

"SCATTER!" Stanley threw something to the ground, and everything was consumed by smoke. Pacifica reeled back, blinking her burning eyes, but Dipper grabbed her hand and they were running, stopping only to snatch their shoes from the ground before fleeing the scene of the crime.

Grass and rocks and the smell of glitter rushed under Pacifica's feet. Her ribs screamed and her head spun, but bubbles of hysterical laughter caught in her throat, and she kept running.


Dimension ?, Day ?, 2012

Ford's journal was full of sketches of their hosts—from the twisting muscles under their tattooed flesh to the knots of needles that seemed ready to sew anything. They clicked across the stone ceiling all while he and Mabel tried to draw them. Mabel did her best to describe the monsters that had attacked them in the previous dimension, and he did his best to draw from her descriptions, but even thinking of them made his skin crawl.

Most of all, he indulged himself and drew her. Human, regular, but unbelievably perfect Mabel. There wasn't much scientific value to drawings of the way she reached out to touch a needle alien when they lowered themselves to the pools below. There wasn't anything researchable in how her eyes looked off into the distance, more melancholy than usual but still with persistent optimism. There wasn't any new scientific knowledge to gain, but it nonetheless made him happy to dedicate a few pages just to her. It wasn't as if anyone else was going to read his journals anyway.

When he was paying such careful attention to her face, he could pick out all the family resemblances. Under the baby fat (which was becoming scarcer the longer they were together), she had the same square jaw as Ford or Stanley. Her dark brown eyes came from every Pines he ever met, from his Safta down to Shermy, who had had massive brown eyes that darted to look at everything from the moment he was born. She didn't have their same large, red noses though. She had a little one, probably from her mother.

Eventually, Mabel tired of drawing before he did (though her understanding of anatomy was getting better). She skipped off to explore the underground cave, ducking her head into nooks and crannies, dodging and struggling to climb stalagmites, splashing into the pools peppering the rocky landscape and laughing as she failed to catch fish with her bare hands.

Ford's careful pictures of his niece gave way to sketches, more motion than detail. How long had it been since he'd just made little half-done sketches? He smiled to himself as he drew out his niece splashing through water. She shook out her wet hair like a dog, splashing any needle aliens above her. Most of them flinched back, smoothing the water off their silk and carefully tattooed skin with the shafts of their needles, but two little ones just shook the water off and wove rope that stuck to the ceiling, climbing down as they wove more and more and they could land on the edge of the pool. One had multicolored bubbles tattooed all over its bony ribs, and on the other one's spine were tattoos of foreign constellations dotting each vertebrae. They crouched next to the pool, swiveling their heads to watch Mabel splash around before the starred alien hooked one needle on the back of Mabel's sopping collar and plucked her from the water.

"You're not good at hunting fish," the bubbled one said.

"I'm not hunting! I'm splashing!" Mabel flicked water at the bubbled one's face, causing it to jerk back and click its needles on the rock ground. "Bap!"

If they could, Ford was sure the aliens would be squinting at her. The bubbled one reached into the water, wetting its needles before holding them over Mabel's head and shaking them. "Bap," it said.

Drops of water dappled Mabel's wet hair as she giggled. "It's like rain."

Mabel was good with people, even aliens. Diplomacy was a skill Ford had never quite mastered, but it came as easily to Mabel as it had come to Stanley. People just naturally came to love her. Ford included, but he was her great uncle, so he was biased.

Despite her various wounds, she was a fount of energy and started teaching the aliens water games. Ford did not have nearly that energy. He was much too old to. His bones ached, and under his bandages, he knew something ugly lurked. It wasn't exaggerating to say that he had been dying before Mabel got him.

Mabel was perfectly happy playing with the aliens, so he dragged himself back to their little silken home. All of his supplies were accounted for, and he could sleep easy knowing that Mabel was safe with people who found her just as impressive as he did.

So he slept. Dreams drifted in and out. He dreamed of being a child again, of sitting with Stanley on the swings they used to love so much and wondering if he should take his hand. Ford never quite screwed up the courage to reach out before the dream would shift into something impossible to remember.

The moment someone crossed the threshold, he snapped awake, jerking to sit up. Mabel, mid-tiptoe, winced before sitting down on the ground. "Sorry, Grunkle Ford. You can go back to sleep."

He grunted, his brain winding down again now that he saw it was only Mabel making the noise. Settling back to the silk-covered ground, he patted the space next to him. She crawled up, lying down and using her hands as a pillow. Her hair pooled out, tangled and rough, tickling his cheek.

Ford twisted his fingers into the snarl. No one had brushed it since the braids were taken out. Once, her hair had smelled like Earth, like cheap fruity shampoo and maple syrup and grass. Now ozone and sweat clung to it. Something underneath it all remained the same, though. Something gentle and sweet.

Mabel pulled a face as his fingers caught in the knots.

"I know I should chop it all off," she said. His fingers stilled in her hair. "It's okay. You can cut it."

Ford's eyes trailed on the hair that spread out on the ground all around them. Despite its unkempt nature, there was something classically beautiful about it, like a Renaissance painting. But listen to him, getting sentimental—hadn't he known in the first place that they would need to get rid of it eventually? Hadn't he told himself he would take their shared survival more seriously than ever, that he would not spare her feelings?

But maybe it wasn't her feelings he was sparing.

"We'll have to cut some. It's dangerous like it is." He carded his fingers through her hair, working out the knots. "Out here, the most important thing is to do what you can do survive. That sometimes means you do things you don't want to."

He paused in his playing with her hair just long enough to drag his jacket close to them, skidding his fingers over the leather pockets before pulling out a smooth black handle with a pearlescent white button.

"Mabel, I need you to listen to me. This is a switchblade." He pressed the button and a black knife flipped out, now erect atop the grip. Mabel's eyes were wide and bright as she admired the way it gleamed. The blade would never dull, and would cut through anything short of solid metal. It was his best knife, but he couldn't think of anyone he'd rather have it more. "I need you to start carrying this wherever you go. It is an invaluable tool and weapon."

Her hand fluttered like a frightened butterfly as she reached for it. He closed her fingers around it for her, pressing her thumb against the button to sheath the blade again. "The multiverse is a treacherous place. I'm going to teach you how to use this, and any other weapons that you can use at your size. You need to learn how to survive, and sometimes, surviving means killing for food or protection."

She winced at the thought, like he had slapped her. He wanted to swaddle her in silk and protect her from the world, but he couldn't. Attempting to would only set her up to die once he was incapacitated.

"I don't want to kill anything else, Grunkle Ford," she said quietly.

Else? His heart lurched, but he didn't pry. Instead, he impulsively pulled her hand to his mouth, kissing the fingers grasping the knife. "I know, sweetheart. But you have to learn."

Her eyes were glassy as she looked at the ground, at all her beautiful tangled hair splayed out, but she didn't protest anymore. Maybe that was the worst part.

"You're right that we have to cut your hair. That's another part of surviving." He let the hand with the knife go, and she pulled it against her chest like a lifeline. She'd take care of the weapon, he was sure, even if she wished she didn't have to. He went back to gently carding his fingers through her hair. "But we don't need to get rid of all of it. We can keep enough for tight braids."

Her smile was rueful. There was a flicker of the useless metal brackets on her teeth. "I know you don't like wasting time on that."

"I just didn't appreciate it for what it was for a while." It was frustrating to look back on the past and remember being irritated by learning how to fix her hair. After so many years of being alone, after so many near-death experiences, why hadn't he understood how wonderful it was that he had a chance to do it at all?

It wasn't like he was ever going to have a daughter of his own whose hair he'd fix. That fact was just made keener the more Mabel showed him the kind of life he might have had. If he had just forgotten the damned portal and focused on settling down like Fiddleford had suggested, he might have been able to have a little girl like Mabel to raise in the safety of an unthreatened Earth. But there was no use dwelling on could have beens.

"I like fixing your hair," he said. The corners of her eyes softened. She seemed to accept that answer. Maybe she could even guess why he liked it. She was far smarter than he'd originally given her credit for, and she understood people like he never would.

"I like it when you fix my hair too," she said.

Ford worked his fingers through the tangles, like he was already combing it. "I'll put it in new braids soon."

She nodded, rolling onto her stomach and pillowing her cheek on her hands. On the shoulder laced with fading lightning marks (Ford's stomach twisted), her arm from her shoulder to her elbow was bandaged.

"When did you hurt your arm?" Ford asked. Had he not noticed that? He could have sworn he had made a mental catalogue of her injuries, and he hadn't drawn bandages there earlier. "Were the aliens rough while you played?" The aliens clearly had no intention to harm them, seeing as they could have easily done so while Ford was too weak to wake up, but it wasn't uncommon for aliens to underestimate how delicate humans were.

"No, Bubbles and Connie were good. They're really careful with their points." She wiggled her hands, pointing her fingers like they were needles for emphasis.

"Connie?" Ford frowned.

"Like constellation, except not nerdy."

"Ah." Ford frowned at the bandages. "So then how did you get hurt?"

"I didn't get hurt." She squeezed her lips together, like she was trying to keep something from escaping her mouth. It reminded him of something Stanley used to do when they were little kids and their teachers interrogated them about how a fight in the hallway started. That was the look of a guilty child.

Ford narrowed his eyes and propped himself onto his elbow. "What did you do, Mabel?"

"I…" Her eyes darted side to side. "I might have gotten a tattoo."

Of all the things he suspected, that wasn't one of them. "You what?"

She flashed him a big grin, the same grin she put on when she was trying to be cute for an alien. Damn, she knew how to manipulate people like Stanley could, too. "A tattoo!"

A headache was coming on. Ford gently massaged his temple. "Why did you get a tattoo?"

"Well…" She chewed her cheek, her grin failing. "I was scared of forgetting."

"Forgetting?"

Mabel pushed her translucent silk sleeve up past her bandaging and carefully unwrapped her bicep. The bandage unspooled in her hair, and the colors now imprinted in her flesh shimmered and smoothly transitioned into her natural skin tone despite any logic of color theory. It was a pine tree with a crooked, jagged trunk—a lightning tree. She'd tattooed in the marks he'd left on her.

The roots ran into the veins of her elbow, until it looked like the roots were her blood and her blood fed the tree. The tree shot out six crooked branches (the same crooked branches of the lightning tree) covered in thick green needles. The bark at the base of the tree rose and twisted until it was knotted into a familiar shape, the shape of the hooked fish on Bill Cipher's zodiac (how did Mabel know about that symbol?). Above the tree, a night sky dusted her shoulder, the big dipper above the tree and a shooting star streaking past Polaris.

"I was thinking about what you said with forgetting things from home, and I don't have as many memories as you do. I was scared I might forget what's important. Now I know I won't."

If Ford was about to get angry, he wasn't now. He settled back down on his side. All the tattooed skin was swollen and tinted red, but that would go away with healing. "I understand the pine tree, but how does the rest help you remember?"

Mabel prodded the knotted base of the tree, wincing as she poked the tender skin. "This is the sign that Grunkle Stan always has on his fez!"

Stanley wore the symbol? Ford frowned.

"And Dipper has a birthmark on his forehead that looks like the big dipper," she said as she tapped the stars above the tree. "That's how I thought of his nickname."

Mabel had been the one to think of her brother's name. Ford thought of the many times Stanley had called him Sixer, turning a point of great insecurity into something to celebrate.

"And the tree has six branches, like your hand."

Ford wanted to say that she wouldn't need a reminder to remember him, but he couldn't guarantee that. He could die any day, and that day may be before she's grown up.

"And you say I'm like a shooting star, so I'm in the sky with Dipper." She poked the shooting star passing just above the constellation. "So all the Pines twins are with the pine tree. I'm never going to forget where I come from." She peeked at Ford from under her eye lashes. She was definitely trying to be cute. "Are you mad?"

"An impulsive tattoo seems like the kind of thing a responsible parent would be mad about." Although he had to admit it was much nicer than most tattoos an impulsive teenager would get, and how could he tell her how to deal with missing home? Ford sighed and started to run his fingers through her hair again. "Good thing I'm an uncle."

Mabel giggled, and her smile warmed as she started to re-wrap her bicep.

"It's a good tattoo. Definitely better than mine," he said, allowing himself to relax again. That stopped as soon as Mabel perked.

"You have a tattoo?"

Ford winced. "I shouldn't have said that."

"I want to see the tattoo."

"I'm trying to set a good example, Mabel."

"Let me see the tattoooooooooo."

"No, Mabel."

"Pleeeeeeeeaaaaaase?" She rolled at him and prodded his copious bandages, giggling as he caught her hands and she wiggled closer to check his sides. "Is it under all the bandages?"

"Mabel."

"Is it on your leg?"

"Mabel, stop." Any sternness he tried to muster was undercut thoroughly by the way laughs were starting to bubble in his chest.

"Is it a tattoo of a wolverine?"

"Mabel, I'm not going to show it to you."

"Is it a tattoo of a microscope?"

He let out a snort, and now she was climbing on him, slipping out of any attempt to grab her so she could poke and prod more skin. "Mabel, this is ridiculous."

"Oh, I know! It's a tattoo of a unicorn, isn't it? Tell me it's a unicorn!"

"Are you going to just keep guessing random things?"

"I've got all day, Mister."

Even as he struggled to tame the slippery girl before she tried unraveling all his bandages, Ford smiled.

He could get used to this.