Chapter 1: Inciting Incident
The entire thing started with cereal. Or, really, just the realization that they had run out of Stan's favorite cereal.
"Urrrgh," Stan declared melodramatically. His head thunked against the table as he dropped the empty box to the ground, and moaned like he'd suffered too grievous a wound so early in the morning for him to be able to cope with the rest of the day.
Ford, sitting at the table with a notepad, raised his head from scribbling notes to look at his brother for a moment. Upon taking stock of his condition and concluding that no, Stan was not going to die that very moment, despite the agonized sounds indicating otherwise, Ford returned to jotting down notes and nibbling on toast.
"Grauntie Mabel said we'll go shopping later this week," Ford informed his brother. Said grauntie would have probably told Stanley as much herself, had she been at breakfast, but she had stormed out early in the morning, quoting some sort of old lady emergency. Knowing Mabel, that probably meant one of her friends had some kind of interpersonal problem that Mabel decided she was the only one qualified to solve. Ford suspected the only reason Grauntie Mabel pretended to be a psychic on TV was because she wanted an excuse to meddle with people's relationships. Certainly it wasn't the fact that she'd been married seven times that qualified her to give advice to every forlorn soul that called in to her show.
"But I wanted cereal now!" Stan protested. He crossed his arms on the table, cradling his head and pulling a sad face at Ford, trying to convey how utterly dejected he was that his planned early-morning sugar rush wasn't going to happen.
Ford straightened his glasses, his expression turning thoughtful the way it did when he was deep into problem-solving mode, and after a few moments of consideration, he offered a solution.
"I think I saw some boxes in Mabel's pantry," Ford said. "She might have cereal."
Stan perked up almost instantly, grinning widely at his brother--and perhaps also at the prospect of rifling through the old lady's pantry. Grauntie Mabel had some amazing stuff lying around the house, and even if nothing was going to be as interesting as the basement they stumbled into during their first week in Gravity Falls, sometimes they'd still find something fun for the day among Mabel's discarded possessions.
The pantry in question ended up having a bevy of unusual and dubiously-edible goods. Ford posited that the hard candy that old people were always handing out to children manifested of its own accord once people reached a certain age, and the huge bowl of the stuff they found on one of the higher shelves seemed to confirm it. But they mostly stumbled across a great deal of canned, Cold War-era goods, which the twins proceeded to stack into a fortress in the kitchen.
Stan was so taken with this task, he nearly forgot he hadn't had breakfast, until Ford emerged from the very back of the pantry with a dusty old cardboard box.
"I found this old cereal, but I can't seem to find the expiration date anywhere," Ford was saying, before Stan snatched the box and ripped it open anyway.
Stan upended the box over his mouth, and a great deal of cereal poured into his mouth, but an even greater deal poured all around him, falling to the wooden floor with a patter.
"'s still gooh," Stan said as he chewed with his mouth open, and Ford scrunched his nose at the mess. Unable to cope with the sight of his brother gorging himself on dry cereal like an unhinged hamster, he inspected the now empty box.
The cereal--called Schmebu-Luck-E-Os for reasons Ford couldn't discern--had the picture of a cross-eyed gnome on the front, giving thumbs up to a bowl of the eponymous cereal while grinning. Ford had no idea why anyone would choose gnomes as a mascot for cereal, though when he flipped the box over to see where it was produced, he noticed the cereal packing plant's address was Gravity Falls, Oregon.
This intrigued Ford. Locally produced? Could the gnomes have some significance? Were gnomes even real? He would have to go to the basement and see if he could find any tape that made mention of gnomes or cereal. Surely if there was something significant about either of these things, the Guide to the Unexplained would have something on it.
He had scarcely watched even a fraction of the videotheque's contents, and had taken to writing up notes and an index to document its contents, but sometimes the labels on the tapes were less than elucidating. Some were straightforward, especially the earlier ones marked things like 'Fairies' or 'The Woodpecker Code', but it seemed over time that the Filmmaker had become increasingly careless--by the point where the labels became sloppy, nigh-illegible scrawls, titles like 'Bad tuesday' or 'that thing' had started cropping up. The very last tape, mostly static and unconnected, flickering images, was labeled only 'BEWARE', though the way it was written it looked more like 'BEWARB'.
And then there were the empty gaps in the shelves, where tapes had obviously been removed--
Ford was interrupted from this train of thought by Stanley coughing loudly and punching his own chest as he choked.
"I'll get you something to drink," Ford said, jumping to his feet.
But Stan shook his head and grabbed Ford's hand to stop him, and then, just like a cat presenting its owner with a hairball, Stan spat out something large and metallic, that clunked against the ground.
Ford stared for a moment at the object, before crouching down to take a closer look.
Unless he was missing his guess, it was a decoder ring.
"Hold on," Ford said, turning over the cereal box to where he'd spotted a curious detail.
Printed on the back, squashed between the ingredients list and the cereal packing plant's address, was a string of seemingly-nonsensical letters that Ford had initially dismissed as a printing error.
"It's a code!" Ford declared breathlessly, picking up the decoder ring, and using Stanely's own shirt to wipe off the drool before taking a closer look at it.
Stan tolerated this treatment with only minor grumbling, and then crowded close as well to look at the ring.
"Whoa," Stan said, then picked up an entire handful of cereal from the floor and stuffed it in his mouth.
If the entire thing had also ended with cereal, it would have provided a satisfying bookend to the entire adventure.
They would have followed the clues to the closed down cereal factory, unraveled the mystery of the sentient cereal monster which still roamed the defunct building, and gone home a bit bruised, a bit battered, and resigned to Grauntie Mabel's glitter pancakes for breakfast for the rest of the summer, because there was no way even Stanley was ever going to touch another bowl of cereal for as long as he lived.
But then Ford found the tape, tucked in the former supervisor's office at the cereal factory.
It was one of the Guide to the Unexplained tapes--it had to be. The handwriting on the label matched that of the Filmmaker, and though each character was clear and distinct, the title was just as opaque as the latter entries in the series.
It seemed to say 46'/.
And that was probably the point where everything went just a bit sideways.
Chapter 2: Enter, Stage Left
The lingering impression of falling up--of floating up as the implacable draw of the dimensional rift ripped him off the ground--melted into the very real feeling of falling down, which was the conventional direction to be falling, but not in any way more desirable when Ford glimpsed the precise height he would be falling from.
He was thankful for the nearby treebranch in the split second as he reached for it and grabbed on tight, though he was maybe marginally less thankful as his shoulders wrenched painfully under the momentum of his own weight. Which was to say, it hurt a lot. But at least he didn't splat against the ground.
Ford glanced down only long enough to verify the distance to the forest floor was more manageable, and dropped down onto the grass, woozy and confused.
He reached into his coat and took out his glasses, thankful they'd been tucked safely in his inside pocket as he'd fallen through the strange rift. A quick glance around, and he located the other pair he'd been wearing.
The 3D glasses were now crumpled and sad. They'd been cardboard and foil to begin with, and despite the potency of their magic, it was apparent that they were not any more resilient than the cheap materials they were made of. Ford picked up the pair anyway, straightening out the cardboard; the red lens was missing, and he couldn't spot it anywhere in the grass.
Ford swallowed, pretending his mouth hadn't gone completely dry with terror, though the way his hands shook at that moment was not helping him pretend very well.
Stanley had been right, using the 3D glasses was a huge mistake. They'd nearly been killed the first time they used the stupid glasses, and that had just been to go into a stupid adventure movie for kids. Why did Ford think it would be any safer to go into one of the Filmmaker's tapes?
Oh no, Stanley--!
Ford whipped around, looking all around for Stanley or any sign of him. He couldn't clearly remember if Stan had been pulled in as well--the last impression Ford had was of Stan trying to grip tighter and tighter as Ford's hand slipped away, that last brush of fingers as Ford was yanked through the rift--but the forest clearing around him was empty and quiet, and not altogether different from the way the forest looked around Grauntie Mabel's house.
Well, except for... whatever that weird thing was.
Ford walked up to the statue, half-buried and lichen-covered, and wondered what had possessed someone to place a statue of a triangle in a top hat in the middle of a forest. Perhaps it was from some old movie set, but when Ford knocked on the statue, it felt like solid stone. If it had been part of a set, he would have sooner expected plaster and cardboard.
Well, unless this dimension had feral sculptors roaming the woods, setting up art installations willy-nilly.
Assuming he was even in a different dimension.
Ford took a deep breath and stuffed the remains of the 3D glasses in a pocket, careless now that they were mostly destroyed anyway. Without a video tape of a corresponding dimensional rift to take him home, they would be useless anyway.
He took out his notebook instead, its very weight in his hands calming, and looked to his unassuming surroundings. Perhaps he had merely been flung out of the tape and landed some ways away from the house. An unintended effect of reaching the limitations of the magic in the 3D glasses.
There was maybe a quick way to check, and he approached the nearest tree, raising his knuckles to tap a tattoo against the wood.
He waited for a moment, to see if any answering tap would follow, but it if the woodpeckers in this dimension were sentient and had their own kind of code, at the very least they did not recognize Ford in order to answer.
This did not prove anything conclusively, of course. He would have to collect additional data to prove his hypothesis.
But brief apprehension warred with a sort of giddy elation about being in a completely different dimension, and Ford's concern about being stranded couldn't quite measure up against his proportionately larger excitement about exploring such a place.
Stanley would be worried, not to mention Grauntie Mabel, but... as Ford's fingers wrapped around the broken 3D glasses in his pocket, he concluded his only real option was seeking out an alternate means of returning home.
The eerie familiarity of the woods was starting to fill Ford with doubt, especially once he came out onto the trail that in his own dimension would have led to Grauntie Mabel's house. But once he started running across the signs advertising something called the 'Mystery Shack', he had to admit that this had to be a divergence. There was no Mystery Shack in Gravity Falls, and even if there were, he was certain he never would have missed the abundance of signs nailed everywhere, advertising this location.
If nothing else, he was certain Mabel would have sued for copyright infringement on Mystery Studios.
At any rate, the way that the signs pointed him down was increasingly familiar to Ford, until he finally emerged out of the treeline to the Mystery Shack itself.
The differences were not as striking as the similarities, when Ford took account of them. The building itself was identical in its overall shape, though the silhouette seemed strangely bare without the looming antenna tower or the satellite dish that Grauntie Mabel had to duct-tape back in place again each time it fell off the roof.
The sign on the roof--it said Mystery Shack, just as advertised--had a loose S hanging off precariously instead, an alternate victim for the laws of gravity to single out in this dimension.
Who lived here? Would Ford walk in to meet some alternate version of Grauntie Mabel, who decided to open a tourist trap instead of becoming a TV psychic-slash-agony aunt? Would he run into some alternate set of himself and his brother, a parallel pair of Pines Twins spending the summer here?
Ford could barely contain himself as he reached for his notepad and jotted down some quick observations.
He kept to the underbrush, out of sight of anyone who might spot him from the house. He had to crouch a bit lower in the grass as the back door banged open, and two people--an adult in a dramatic trench coat and a boy in a fur hat--walked purposefully out, passing by Ford's hiding spot to disappear off into the woods. Luckily, they didn't spot him, though perhaps that was because they were not paying much attention in the first place. The boy was chattering in an excited pitch about some anomaly, but Ford didn't catch enough to be able to discern what it might be. Ford briefly debated following the two, but before he could decide, they were already out of sight.
No matter. He had to go closer to the Mystery Shack. Luckily, a tour bus was parked in front of the building, and with the milling crowd of tourists, Ford knew he could easily slip under anyone's notice and walk straight up inside without being stopped.
He didn't have a precise plan yet, but... if the Filmmaker existed in this dimension, and had left his tapes in the basement too... It was a long shot. But he had to try something.
He skimmed along the treeline and slipped into the next crowd waiting for a tour easily. He didn't jostle too hard for a good view, counting on the bulk of strangers to hide him from the sight of anyone who might know his alternate self from this dimension, but as a man in a suit stepped forward to lead the tour, Ford began to wonder if the caution was even necessary.
"Step this way, doods," the tour guide invited with a gesture of his eight-ball cane. He didn't look like anyone from Ford's home dimension, except something about the guy's manner reminded Ford of Old Man Ramirez, the weird handyman from town. The ages didn't quite match, though, but the resemblance was strong enough that Ford made a note and scribbled a question mark next to the observation. A family member, perhaps?
The tour itself led the group through a gallery of half-baked imaginary creatures that Ford was fairly sure were not genuine.
He had become adequately able to distinguish between props and the real thing since coming to Gravity Falls--or at least the Gravity Falls of his own dimension, which had been the national capital of low budget sci-fi and horror B-movies since the late fifties. Everyone else in town--up to and including Grauntie Mabel--might have been willing to dismiss anything weird they ever saw as special effects and 'movie magic', but if anything ever since the summer started, Ford and his brother had stumbled into a surprising number of genuine anomalies and paranormal activities.
Which was to say, Ford was looking straight at one of the taxidermy specimens when its head fell off and revealed a slathering of cheap glue. The tour guide made a grand sweeping gesture with one hand, pointing the group towards a large off-brand Sasquatch, while he used his other hand to surreptitiously cram the fallen head back onto the stuffed creature it had been poorly attached to.
Ford jotted down a few things that looked like they might have been plausibly genuine, but his attention shifted focus over the course of the tour. He still couldn't shake off the strange afterimage of Old Man Ramirez, so he began keeping track of the floor plan instead. It was roughly analogous to Mabel's house, save for the fact that the parts of the Mystery Shack that were the gallery would have been the set for Mabel's show back home. The basement door would be through the next door, if it was placed the same.
They emerged at the end of the tour to a gift shop, filled with more tacky souvenirs than Ford could shake a stick at. He stopped in his tracks next to a row of bobbleheads, and poked one to see its head nod up and down. The bobblehead's stand declared 'Mr Mystery', but it did not resemble the tour guide at all. It was of an older guy in the same get-up. Must have been the original Mister Mystery that the tour guide had gushed about at a few points.
Ford passed the bobbleheads and looked around the room, but he couldn't spot the basement door immediately, and he took a moment to orient himself, only to realize that the basement door would have been behind the vending machine along one of the walls.
This presented two possibilities to Ford. Either this was a dimensional divergence, and the door to the basement was somewhere else or simply did not exist... or the door did exist and it was hidden behind the vending machine.
The first, more mundane explanation was the more likely one. Not every building necessarily had a basement, and even if it did, having the point of access in a gift shop, where tourists were always trampling through, might have simply been a hazard.
But the second possibility called to Ford, and he approached the vending machine with a very suspicious eye. It seemed a fairly common model, but when he went to the side tried to look behind it, he noticed the vending machine was pushed right up against the wall--even recessed a bit into it--right where the door to the basement would have been.
And Ford had had enough adventures in Gravity Falls to recognize a darn secret door when he was faced with it.
Which really just brought up all the more baffling questions. What could they possibly be hiding in the basement? Grauntie Mabel had used hers as a storage space at most, piled high with props and costumes and recordings that seemed to have been collected from a dozen different productions having nothing to do with her show, and though he and Stanley hadn't been allowed down there at first, she relented once she made sure they were careful. But what on earth could possibly warrant hiding the basement in this dimension? Especially going to such lengths as creating a secret entrance?
Ford suddenly began seeing this dimension in a far more suspicious light. 'What is the Mystery Shack?', the stickers on the wall asked, and Ford was starting to see this as a very good question indeed.
He looked around the gift shop, to the clumps of tourists buying knick-knacks, and concluded he was not going to find his answer here.
But if he rounded the shack and looked along the foundation, maybe he would find the same window to the basement as in his own dimension.
He was so intent on this plan, that he completely lost track of the reason he'd wanted to go down into the basement in the first place. Now, he had a mystery to unravel.
Chapter 3: Very Good Questions
New summer, new adventures, and there was nothing Dipper had been looking forward to more than more quality time with Grunkle Ford. So it made him puff up his chest quite a bit when he was Ford's go-to for investigating some anomaly his equipment had signaled in the woods.
Not that there was anyone else he could have taken along, Dipper supposed. Stan had gotten his fill of punching sea monsters over the course of the year, and had declared he was using the summer to kick back and relax before they went off again in the fall, and Mabel might have tagged along if she wasn't so deep into her scrapbooking that morning, but she didn't really get the same fun out of seeking out Gravity Falls' weirdness as Dipper and Ford seemed to.
But Dipper was really going to impress Ford that summer, he decided. The paltry few weeks he'd had last summer to get to know his new great-uncle hadn't felt sufficient, despite the fact that he had somehow managed to impress the man regardless. But this year Dipper was really going to go full-out, really hunker down and do the work, and he was going to start with getting to the bottom of this-- uh---
"Great-Uncle Ford, what are we looking for, precisely?" Dipper asked, as he realized he had no idea what the beeping and ticking coming from Ford's measuring device really meant. Three gauges and several LED lights on the thing seemed to be conveying some kind of meaning to Ford, though.
"Excellent question, Dipper," Ford said, not taking his eye off the readings. "Following the events last year, I've taken to keeping track of any unusual readings which might indicate inter-dimensional activity around Gravity Falls."
"Makes sense," Dipper said, before the meaning of the words sank in completely. "Wait, does that mean--"
Ford nodded grimly.
"This morning, my instruments indicated a breach in one of the weak spots in the fabric of reality that I've been keeping track of. It's reasonable to assume that something--" Ford filled that last word with dramatic flourish, "--came through."
Dipper straightened up immediately, to show he understood the gravity of the situation.
"Or," Ford shrugged, punching buttons on the instrument in his hand, "maybe this thing needs new batteries. Either way, we'll know shortly!"
By the time they reached the petrified form of Bill Cipher, half-buried into the ground, Dipper managed to verbalize the nagging fear on his mind.
"Grunkle Ford, you don't think that what came through was... I don't know, one of Bill's old pals? Or something super dangerous?" He scratched the back of his neck nervously.
"Unlikely," Ford said, his tone too business-like to be just an attempt at reassurance. "Multiverse travelers are surprisingly abundant, despite the fact that, on a cosmic scale, they represent a negligent percentage of the population. I, myself, would pass through numerous dimensions on my travels, and I always strove to minimize my impact on the local population."
"Grunkle Stan says you were a wanted criminal in the multiverse," Dipper pointed out.
Ford sputtered momentarily.
"Yes, well--I would say, the best policy is hope for the best, and prepare for the worst." Ford patted the ray gun on his hip. "Now, let's look around for signs of--"
Ford was interrupted by a sudden flurry of ticking of beeping emitting from his instrument, combining into a tinny shriek that echoed through the trees. He scarcely had time to give the device a bewildered look, before there was a flash of light at the corner of his eye, and a shriek of a different origin.
Ford whipped around instantly, but even as his hand went to his gun, he assessed the situation and concluded this was not going to help the current predicament--namely that a young boy had appeared out of nowhere and fallen right on top of Dipper, sending them both to the ground in a panicked tornado of flailing limbs. If anyone in that writhing mass was getting any hits in, it was by happenstance, but still, this seemed like the kind of thing he ought to be breaking up.
"Boys, that's enough," Ford said, grabbing each by an arm and pulling them up to their feet, and then apart. Dipper stopped struggling as soon as he was out of range of his would-be attacker, but the other boy continued swinging, managing a surprisingly heavy punch to Ford's gut that had him gasping in surprise, if not outright pain.
The boy ripped his arm free and hopped a few steps back, putting up his fists defensively.
"You wanna go?" the boy yelled in challenge. "I can take ya! I can take both of ya! See if I don't!"
Dipper and Ford both gaped, and then looked at one another, and again at the boy.
Dipper had become familiar with that face last summer, when they'd put all of Ford and Stan's old childhood photos in an album. The small stack of photographs had previously been gathering dust at the bottom of a drawer, tied together with a rubber band and tucked out of sight, but after Weirdmageddon, Stan didn't quite feel the same pangs looking at them, and Mabel persuaded him a photo album was more appropriate. With Stan's memory going in and out sometimes, it had proven handy over the past year. They'd even made a family activity out of putting the album together, Ford and Stan regaling the children with the stories behind every photo as they tucked each precious memory behind the protective foil.
So, even Dipper, who unlike Ford had not grown alongside that very same face for the first seventeen years of his life, the resemblance was uncanny and unmistakable.
"Is that--" Dipper started asking.
"Stanley!" Ford said.
This only made the boy's shoulders rise up, going almost up to his ears. Ford thought perhaps his tone had been a bit too harsh--a note too similar to their father's voice when the old man hollered over some mischief he'd discovered--and inwardly cringed at the similarity in this Stanley's reaction to it.
"How do you know my name?" the young Stanley Pines demanded. "Who told you--was it Ford? Is he here?"
He cast a desperate glance around the clearing, which was devoid of any corresponding young Stanford, but the very much adult Ford stepped forward instead, raising his hands appeasingly and spreading his fingers.
"In a manner of speaking," Ford said, keeping his voice even.
Stan looked to Ford suspiciously, before his gaze zeroed in on Ford's hands. One could almost see confusion settling in as the boy counted Ford's fingers, first on one hand, then the other. He looked up into Ford's face next, his hostility wavering into uncertainty instead.
"Sixer?" Stan asked, sounding entirely too vulnerable.
Ford moved slowly, offering one of his hands, which Stan latched onto with disbelief with both his hands--they were a bit sticky and hot, but smooth with youth and so very small compared to Ford's, that Ford was having a hard time believing he himself had once been this same size. Stan looked from Ford's hands to his face with a roiling panic just under the surface of his apparent calm.
"But-- what-- what's going on?" Stan asked. "How are you so old?"
"How come you're so young?" Dipper asked instead, blurting the question out so suddenly that it startled both Stan and Ford.
Both were very good questions.
"An excellent opportunity to get to the bottom of this," Ford said, taking out a small pocket light. He knelt and flashed the light into Stan's eyes, who allowed this purely out of surprise. "How old are you, Stanley?"
"Twelve?" Stan blinked, his face scrunching up against the glare of the light, but his pupils were perfectly normal in shape and size. Well, better safe than sorry, Ford thought.
"And what year is it?" Ford continued.
"2013," Stanley answered, before his eyes widened in alarm. "I mean, I think it is? Did I travel to the future? Is it actually the 22nd century?" He gasped, amazed by the notion, and grabbed Ford's face to knead at it, like he was trying to work out the wrinkled. "Is that why you're so old?! Do they have hovercars now?"
"Wh-- no!" Ford answered emphatically, waving off Stan's hands. "How old do you think I am?" Stan opened his mouth slowly like he was going to answer, but Ford could already see the answer was not going to be very flattering, so he shook his head. "Never mind."
"It's 2013 here, too," Dipper answered instead. "You're... kind of in a different dimension. I think." His eyes darted to Ford nervously, but Ford only nodded in agreement. There were few other conclusions to draw.
"Oh." Stan seemed a bit disappointed at the notion, and returned to his previous question. "But then why are you old?"
"The simple answer is that I'm not your Stanford. I'm an alternate version of your brother, and this is my home dimension, where my brother Stanley and I were born... quite some time earlier than you and your version of Stanford."
This seemed to distress Stanley anew.
"Wait, then where's my Ford?" he asked.
"We'll find out, I promise," Ford said, putting a hand on Stanley's shoulder, and squeezing in assurance.
Stanley was surprisingly small, now that Ford noticed. He'd always been used to thinking of his brother as wider, bigger, heftier than himself. Larger than life in both personality and body. But at twelve, Ford realized they had both been skinny and awkward as any preteen, and Stanley's belligerence towards bullies had been a function of his personality, more than his size.
It was... making him feel a surge of protectiveness towards the young boy that Ford didn't quite know how to process yet, and so he cut off that train of thought and focused on the present.
Stanley, at least, looked reassured.
"Okay, I trust you, old Ford," Stan said, matching his solemnity. But then he ruined it by leaning in closer and pointing furtively to Dipper as he asked, "But who's the sweaty nerd?"
Chapter 4: A Well-Intentioned Kidnapping
Updates are going to slow down after this chapter, but I hope you guys continue to enjoy the story!
Ford thought he was doing quite well. Slipping away from the tour was actually not that complicated, especially since the tour guide didn't seem like the most situationally aware individual. He managed to dodge out of sight and go around the house in a way that was maybe even a bit furtive, especially since he didn't give in to the impulse of humming out loud the spy music he was hearing in his head as he did so.
In fact, by the time he rounded the shack, the only thing he bumped into was a goat, sedately chewing on a clump of grass as it watched Ford sneak around.
Ford made a 'shush' gesture to the goat regardless, and was immediately punished for his whimsy when the goat leaned forward and chomped down on the spare pencil he always kept behind one ear, crunching it between its teeth with surprising aplomb.
"Hey!" Ford hissed, trying to keep his voice low.
Unfortunately, puberty decided to bear down mercilessly just that very moment, so his voice cracked into a whiny falsetto that carried much farther than he intended. The goat, either offended by his terrible mouth noises, or just possessed by the same evil spirit that goats naturally seemed to share, reacted by trying to chew on the collar of his coat next.
"No! Bad!" Ford pushed the goat's muzzle away, trying to be firm, even as he noticed goat noses were surprisingly soft. Petting the goat at that moment seemed like it would be reinforcing the wrong behavior, though.
"Aw, Gompers likes you!"
Ford almost jumped out of his skin at the voice, and whipped around instantly only to be faced with a girl grinning at him through a mouth full of braces.
"Uh..." Ford's mind stuttered through a series of excuses and explanations as the girl stared him down, and his concentration was not helped by the goat behind him now sticking its entire head under his coat and mouthing at the back of his shirt. He pushed the goat away awkwardly with an elbow.
The girl didn't seem very threatening by herself, and in fact she might well have been another tourist, though Ford discarded that possibility because a tourist probably wouldn't know the goat's name, and Ford was certain he would have noticed someone with a neon pink cat sweater and an even sheen of glitter on the tour. But as she looked at him, her smile started to slip off slowly, her expression turning into something that Ford didn't know how to interpret.
"I... gotta go," Ford said, inching his way back as he brought his hands up in appeasement.
This proved to be a mistake, because the girl's attention now snapped to his hands instead, and Ford felt a spike of apprehension at this.
She gasped, and Ford reflexively hid his hands behind his back, cringing.
Whatever reaction he expected, though, it wasn't for the girl to grab his face, squishing his cheeks with her palms as she pulled him closer to peer at him intently.
"Grunkle Ford, what happened! You're teeny-tiny!" the girl demanded, wide-eyed and completely dead-serious in such a sudden shift that Ford was thrown for a loop. "Did you and Dipper stumble into some sci-fi just and get baby-fied? Did Dipper get reverse aged out of existence?"
Oh wow, this was... more physical contact than Ford was comfortable with from a stranger. Girls didn't tend to put their hands all over his face like this. The ones in Jersey were always just kind of mean, or scared of him, or embarrassed to be seen around him, all of which tended to translate into them keeping their distance. The ones in Gravity Falls were friendly enough, but tended towards weird as a whole.
And... well, this girl was definitely Gravity Falls weird, but this still didn't explain all the touching. Nothing had equipped Ford for dealing with this scenario, and that was not even covering the fact that he didn't understand a word she was saying.
"I don't know what you're talking about," he said, muffled a bit by how she was still pawing at his cheeks like she expected his face to come off.
She released him so abruptly, that Ford teetered on his feet a bit, kept upright only by the goat still butting its head against his back.
"But you're Stanford Pines, right?" the girl asked slowly.
"Yeah...? How do you know that?" Ford asked, dreading the answer. She knew his counterpart in this dimension, most likely. He'd messed up running into this girl.
"Pfft, I'm psychic, obviously!" she replied, rolling her eyes as a grin stretched across her face again.
"No, you're not," Ford said automatically, because that's how he always responded when Grauntie Mabel played the 'I'm psychic' card. "...How do you really know my name?"
"Okay, okay, serious face, putting on serious face," the girl muttered, taking a deep breath and gesturing in front of her face like she was drawing down a curtain. Her expression was a lot more sober after that, though she was biting her lip hard like she was trying not to burst into laughter. "I'm sorry, Grunkle Ford, you're just so freakin' adorable at this age."
Then she actually reached out and pinched his cheek. The offended sound Ford made was apparently hilarious, because she really did burst into laughter then, and Ford realized with a sense of deja vu that bordered on dread that Grauntie Mabel had done this exact same thing on their first day in Gravity Falls, when she met Ford and Stanley at the bus station.
It was strange, coming from a girl who couldn't be that much older than him. Or, he assumed she was older. She was a bit taller, at any rate.
What was up with her, anyway?
"No, but seriously now, don't worry, we'll fix this," she said, grabbing his wrist and pulling him along.
"Fix what?" Ford asked, now alarmed. The girl had a grip like a rusty bear trap, though, and he couldn't manage to tug loose. "Listen, I think there's been a misunderstanding!"
He found himself getting pulled along, and while he was tempted to dig his heels in, he suspected that would only end with him falling on his face, so he followed, however reluctantly, as she dragged him up the porch and through the back door.
"Grunkle Stan!" the girl hollered as soon as she was inside. "Boy, have I got a doozy for you!"
Ford managed to take in the decor only briefly, and note how it differed from Grauntie Mabel's house--far fewer doilies and cat hair on everything--before the name 'Stan' sprang to the forefront of his attention. Stanley...?
His forced march ended in a living room, where an old man was watching TV while drinking soda in his underwear. Wow, this was definitely not the look of a guy ready to receive guests, and Ford felt weird for imposing now.
"What's all the yelling about--" the old man started, and then actually did a double-take as he noticed Ford. He rapidly cycled from surprise, to amusement, to annoyance. "Ford, what the heck did you do to yourself?" he asked, settling on exasperated.
"I didn't--! I mean, I'm not--" Ford looked wildly around the room, trying to figure out what precisely the divergence was in this dimension that made everyone ask him things like this. "I think you have me confused! I'm not even from this dimension!"
The girl turned around to him, mouth falling open. Ford was already trying to think of how to explain himself further, but it turned out that was not necessary, because she poked him in the ribs playfully.
"No way, did you fall through a portal too?" she asked.
"Wh-- no, it was more like a dimensional rift," Ford said, his eyes darting to the old man, who was now frowning at him. "I didn't even think it was real! I was kinda inside a tape at a time. It's... a long story."
"Aww!" The girl tackled him in a sidehug tight enough to squeeze the air out of Ford with an embarrassing wheeze. "Grunkle Stan, can we keep mini-Ford? Please? I promise we'll feed and take him for walks!"
"Kid, he's not a pet, and even if he was, you already got Waddles," the old man chided, and when he turned his attention to Ford, the boy stiffened, even though he definitely agreed with the sentiment expressed. It was one thing for Ford to be trapped in an alternate dimension, but he wasn't that enthused by the concept of being 'kept', whatever that entailed. But the old man's expression softened. "Don't worry, I'll put the brainiac to work getting you back home. Get you back to your brother. ...He's not with you, is he?"
"I don't know," Ford admitted, deciding not to question how they all knew about Stanley. Obviously their Ford also had a twin, but this raised the question of where this dimension's Pines Twins were.
Ford's lips pressed together. Maybe he should have searched more carefully for Stanley. He didn't know for sure his brother hadn't fallen in as well.
"I didn't get to see what happened to him," Ford said, with an unexpected twinge of misery. The girl's arms tightened around him even more, and under the circumstances, he appreciated the support. The pressure was grounding him a bit.
Best case scenario... Ford hoped Stanley had the good sense to jump out of the tape and get an adult. Run to Mabel or Shermie and tell them what happened. But the more he thought about it, the more Ford had to admit that the most likely course of events was that Stanley would have tried to punch the rift, or something similar. Stanley put a lot of stock into punching.
"Hey." The old man rose from his seat to shuffle closer and pat Ford's shoulder awkwardly. "You'll be fine, you'll see."
"Okay," Ford said, sniffing surreptitiously. "Just, uh... Who are you people?"
Chapter 5: Family Meeting
"Whoa, looks just like Grauntie Mabel's house," Stan remarked as the Mystery Shack came into view. He stopped in his tracks just at the tree line to take in the house, and Dipper and Ford stopped as well. "Except tackier," Stan added.
"That's never gonna stop sounding weird," Dipper muttered, and then raised his hands to make air-quotes as he repeated, "'Grauntie Mabel'."
"Haha, yeah, I didn't even know 'grauntie' was a real word," Stan agreed, not quite catching Dipper's actual meaning.
Stan had filled in Ford and Dipper on his home dimension a bit on the way, though his passing mention of family members--Mabel, their great-aunt, who lived in Gravity Falls, and Shermie, their older brother, who was spending his last summer before college with them--had detoured a bit into detailing some of their summer adventures.
Which stories, if Dipper were honest, he and Ford had been a bit too sidetracked by. But the other Gravity Falls sounded just different enough to be enticing to a couple of people who had always made Gravity Falls' weirdness their business, and anyway, they could get more information from Stan once they got to the house. Though Dipper did have some pressing questions.
"I don't suppose... uh. I don't suppose your Grauntie Mabel ever mentioned m-me?" Dipper asked, nervously rubbing the back of his neck.
"Nope, never mentioned any Dipper," Stan replied, unphased.
"Come on, really?" Dipper tried to chuckle, but it was forced and died in his throat. "I mean, I'm her brother!"
"Only brother she had was our Grampa Mason, and he went crazy and vanished mysteriously decades ago!" Stan said. "Good thing that wasn't you, huh?" He laughed and playfully elbowed Dipper before starting to walk towards the Shack.
Dipper laughed nervously in response, and didn't quite know how to process this information. 'Vanished mysteriously' sounded really bad. He hoped this didn't mean he'd been the Ford in that dimension. Not that there was anything wrong with Ford, but the dynamic that led to his particular situation wasn't something Dipper ever wanted to replicate with Mabel, even hypothetically in a different world.
Before he could spiral into darker thoughts, Dipper felt the warm weight of his great-uncle's hand pressed against the back of his neck, anchoring him against the undertow of anxiety.
Ford looked on Dipper kindly, but pressed him forward, and Dipper's feet moved automatically. There was a wordless promise of a talk later.
"Man, you've got a nice set-up here!" Stan was declaring, as he trundled up the porch stairs. "Grauntie Mabel has a swing, though. That's way cooler than a couch."
Stan, at least, seemed oblivious to Dipper and Ford's interplay behind him, and he opened the door to dash inside like he was perfectly at home.
"Ford!" came Stan's yell from inside, so sudden and sharp that Dipper was startled.
Grunkle Ford's hand went to his holster, and he dashed in after Stan, but as Dipper followed on his great-uncle's heels, they both stopped in the kitchen's threshold to discover young Stan's yell had not been in alarm, or for the older Ford.
"'Bout time you two nerds got back," Grunkle Stan was muttering over the rim of a Pitt Soda, as he leaned against the kitchen counter.
His younger counterpart was punching young Ford's arm in greeting.
"Awesome, now we got the complete mini-grunk set!" Mabel declared, hopping down from her seat at the table to tackle the two boys, throwing an arm around each one's neck and drawing them close before they could get their bearings. "Dipper, get a camera!"
Dipper actually had a disposable camera inside his vest at that very moment, and would have whipped it out if Grunkle Ford hadn't cleared his throat and gotten everyone's attention.
"First things first," Grunkle Ford said seriously, "we need to have an emergency family meeting about this situation."
"Aw," Mabel pouted, releasing her captives. "Scrapbookorturnity postponed," she said, and added in a more ominous tone, "for now!"
"Is that-- Grauntie Mabel?" the younger Stan whispered to his brother.
"Yep," Ford confirmed. Having had more time to grow inured to Mabel's presence, he could take it in stride, but he certainly knew how Stan felt. Grauntie Mabel could be energetic for an old woman, and prone to whimsy, but apparently the child version of her was like an unstoppable glitter hurricane.
The children arranged themselves at the kitchen table, Ford and Stan sitting together in the middle, while Mabel seated herself at Stan's side and Dipper at Ford's.
The elder Pines twins remained standing, Grunkle Stan still sipping his soda by the counter, while Grunkle Ford stood with his hands behind his back. The impression that he was a classroom teacher waiting for schoolchildren to come to order was not helped by the median age of his audience.
It was having an inhibiting effect on the newcomer set of Pines twins, who didn't know how to interpret Ford's serious demeanor, but Mabel and Dipper seemed unconcerned as they jostled for their seats, and that served to put Stan and Ford at ease, as well.
"I assume everyone here is aware of the situation, at least in brief?" Grunkle Ford asked as the children settled, his eyes sweeping over the table.
He was met with a scattered chorus of affirmatives.
"Very well," Grunkle Ford said, "let us review the facts of the situation."
If Grunkle Ford realized how much more like a summer school teacher this made him look, he gave no sign.
The 'emergency family meeting' broke off eventually, with Grunkle Stan declaring he had a 'hot date with the TV'--which Dipper was pretty sure meant he was going to watch those weird Spanish soap operas with Soos' grandma. At any rate, by that point, everything had been hashed out, and Grunkle Ford departed for his laboratory to work on some temporary fixes while the alternate universe Pines twins were here.
Apparently--and Dipper tried not to think about this too much, because yikes--if either Stan or Ford touched the alternate versions of themselves, they risked the universe exploding.
Meanwhile, with the adults off, Mabel snatched one of Dipper's disposable cameras to snap a few selfies with the younger Stan and Ford. They blinked owlishly as the flash took them by surprise, but recovered quickly enough for Ford to offer a smile, and Stan to put two fingers up over Mabel's head.
Ford retreated from photography range, leaving Mabel and Stan to make increasingly ridiculous faces as they took photos of themselves. He instead wandered over to Dipper.
"We didn't get to meet," Ford said, "officially I mean. I'm, uh-- Ford. You know that." He offered a hand, but now looked embarrassed about it.
Dipper took Ford's hand quickly, before he could snatch it back, and gave a hearty, if somewhat sweaty, shake.
"Hi! Yeah, I'm Dipper," he said. "Mabel's twin."
Ford was momentarily puzzled, but then the information apparently slotted into place somewhere in his brain, because realization bloomed over his face.
"No way. You're Grampa Mason?" Ford said, apparently more to himself.
"Well-- I mean-- I'm not anyone's grampa--" Dipper rubbed the back of his neck. "And I don't really go by Mason much. But yeah, I guess-- yeah, I am." He tried to sound confident as he spoke. "You can just call me Dipper."
But the conversation apparently managed to penetrate through Mabel's giggling, because Stan, previously busy pulling his face into increasingly funny shapes as Mabel snapped quick pictures, turned to Ford and Dipper.
"What the heck! Grampa Mason was Mabel's twin?" Stan asked. He grabbed Dipper's arm and shook him, like answers were going to fall out. "How come she never said!"
"I-- don't-- know!" Dipper replied, extricating himself from Stan's grip. "I, uh... don't suppose you guys had, say, an interdimensional portal in the basement?"
"Uh, no," Ford said, looking perplexed. He ad Stan exchanged a confused look. "If we did, it would probably make returning easier. Mostly the basement's full of old props and stuff from Grauntie Mabel's movie days."
"Well then... there goes my theory for where your grampa disappeared to," Dipper said, frowning.
"Why would you think we had a portal in the basement though?" Ford asked. "Do you have a portal in the basement?"
"We kinda did," Dipper confirmed.
"Kinda, nothing, we had a whole apocalypse over it," Mabel corrected, having finished the film in the camera, and wandering over. "It was kind of a huge deal." She punched Dipper in the arm, exasperated over his underselling the whole thing, then brightened as she realized the opportunity presented to her. "I have the perfect scrapbook to tell you all about it!" she declared, and turned on her heel to run up the stairs, taking two steps at a time.
"Oh no, I thought scrapbooking was a weird old lady thing," Stan said, looking after Mabel in concern. "She does it too?"
"Yep," Dipper replied, amused at the mental image of old lady Mabel holding Stan and Ford captive to relay whatever strange things she got to at her age. Probably hitting on people at the nursing home. "My advice is just go with it. It'll be over sooner."
"I want to hear more about this portal," Ford said, following up the stairs, albeit at a more sedate pace than Mabel.
"Well... okay, yeah," Stan muttered, and followed. "It's gotta be more interesting than pictures of all the old folks Grauntie Mabel hits on at the nursing home. There was something about an apocalypse, right?"
Chapter 6: Meanwhile, In a Parallel Dimension...
"Shermie, what am I holding here?" Mabel asked, holding up the item in question.
"Well, not to wildly speculate, auntie, but that looks like a VHS tape," Shermie replied.
"I know it's a VHS tape, Shermie! I thought you removed anything too dangerous from the collection!" Mabel waved it around.
"I did!" Shermie said, bringing his hands up in an emphatic shrug. "This wasn't in Grampa Mason's video library! I don't even know where they could have gotten it!"
"Ugh." Mabel ran a hand down her face. "That stupid nerd left his junk all over Gravity Falls. Shoulda known this was gonna happen eventually, no matter how careful we were."
"I really did think we got them all," Shermie said, voice low.
Mabel shook her head, and threw an arm around Shermie to pull him into a hug. Since he was a lot taller than her, the entire thing made Shermie feel like a tube of toothpaste getting squeezed from the middle. He awkwardly jostled his arm so he could put it around Grauntie Mabel's shoulders.
"It's okay, kiddo, I think this one's on both of us," she said. "Shoulda known something was up when they were sneaking down here with those stupid toy glasses like they were on a secret mission."
"That, uh... Do you mean the 3D glasses they got from that Claymore kid?"
"I 'unno, who's that?"
"The-- you know him. Harry Claymore. With the black magic," Shermie said, only to be met with a blank stare from his great-aunt. "The one who hosts that Saturday morning kids' show?"
"Oh, him!" Mabel burst out, now fully activated as she remembered her personal grievance with him. "That punk who keeps telling everyone I'm not really psychic!"
"Mabel... you're really not," Shermie pointed out.
"Doesn't matter, Sherm!" Mabel replied, wagging her finger at him. "It's the principle of the thing! Respect the olds'n'whatnot!"
Shermie would have said that that was rich coming from Mabel, who for several decades had been insisting she was 'only 36', but that was straying away from the subject. Stan and Ford were missing, and Shermie had a horrible feeling that he knew exactly what had happened.
"Anyway," Mabel continued, "what's that Claymore brat got to do with anything?"
"Well, a few weeks ago he gave the boys a couple of magical 3D glasses and tricked them into getting sucked into that pirate movie they were all gung-ho about seeing."
"As you do," Mabel said, nodding.
"I shouldn't've let them keep the glasses," Shermie said, regret creeping in. Mabel gave him another reassuring squeeze.
"Pro'lly not, but what's done is done. You think they got sucked into the tape, too?"
"Well... I can't find the glasses," Shermie said, "I can't find the boys. Came in to see spooky static playing on the TV with a tape I haven't seen before on the VHS--yeah, I'm kinda putting two and two together here."
"Okay, so, seems to me like what we need is our own pairs of those magic glasses!" Mabel surmised. She handed the tape to Sharmie, and slammed a fist into her open palm. "Time to beat up and rob a kid!"
"Or we could just ask him," Shermie suggested.
"Threaten, beat up, and rob a kid!" Mabel said with rising confidence.
"Offer to purchase a couple of pairs, maybe?" Shermie continued to suggest.
"Where'd I put my shotgun?" Mabel asked, turning around and taking the steps out of the basement two at a time.
Shermie sighed and took a look at the tape again, flipping it in his hands so he could inspect the label again. Forty-six-apostrophe-backslash. On the tape, Grampa Mason claimed it was the designation of the dimension on the other side, but there was no mention of what that dimension might have been like.
Shermie could only hope it wasn't the kind of place that was going to chew up and spit out a couple of twelve-year-olds.
This was supposed to be their summer. Shermie had been to Gravity Falls the previous summer, the first one to reach out to Great-Auntie Mabel after Grandma died and nobody could remember what the two old broads had been feuding about in the first place. But he was going to college in the fall, in California, and knowing he wouldn't be home to run interference between Filbrick and the twins, he just wanted to give the boys a summer away from their father. A few months of peace before they were thrown in the deep end again, this time without Shermie as a buffer.
A guilty, nagging voice in Shermie's head insisted that maybe he was selfish to want to be so far away from the family. But Shermie was five years older than the twins, and that meant he'd had five more years under Filbrick Pines' roof, and by the time his brothers got to his age, he was sure they were going to have had their fill of living in that house as well, and would understand Shermie's choices all the better.
For now, what the twins needed was a rescue party, and Shermie knew it was the least he could do. It was the least he had to do, as the older brother.
By the time they reached the last page of the scrapbook, with the final Polaroid pictures surrounded by glittery letters and vibrant stickers, all four of the children had lapsed into a pensive silence.
The story of Mabel and Dipper's previous summer had been told at an excited clip and high volume, with disbelieving interjections and amazed questions by Stan and Ford. One bizarre anecdote had followed into another, and Weirdmaggedon alone had taken up the bulk of the explanations. The journals, the strangeness of Gravity Falls, the portal, Bill Cipher, Grunkle Ford's return, and a long backtrack into Grunkle Stan's story up to the present had all been relayed in loosely chronological order, clarified even better when Dipper had jumped to his corkboard and scribbled out a timeline on pieces of paper connected by yarn.
It took most of the afternoon, and now the children's energy finally flagged, their voices raw from speaking, their moods variably nostalgic or low, depending on which side of the storytelling they'd been on.
Dipper could almost imagine what Stan and Ford might've been feeling, hearing how their elder counterparts had made a hash of their relationship and then rebuilt it again. He did, after all, have the specter of his alternate self's disappearance haunting him now. But he didn't know what to do about it, precisely, and when he looked to Mabel, he couldn't catch her eye.
Instead she was taking out a new scrapbook, one she'd started after leaving Gravity Falls last year. She flipped it open to photos of the grunkles on their sea voyage, and family holidays spent together, and even a few snaps from the beginning of summer, though the summer itself was being documented in yet another separate scrapbook.
Stan and Ford took in these new images more quietly, and though their mouths had been slanted along frowns of concern at the end of one story, the corners of their lips quirked up at this vision of their alternate selves reunited.
"Oh, man, Ford," Stan started very seriously, "promise me we don't grow up to be complete knuckleheads like these other guys."
"Definitely promise," Ford declared with conviction.
Mabel and Dipper exchanged conspiratorial grins, recalling that they'd promised each other much the same thing.
A knock came at the door, and Grunkle Stan's voice could be heard from the other side.
"Hey, kids, you still up?" he asked.
"Grunkle Stan, it's like seven!" Mabel rolled her eyes after checking the time on her phone. "And summer!"
"Eh, it's getting pretty late," Grunkle Stan said, poking his head in through the door. He glanced around the attic room, his gaze settling momentarily on the younger Stanley, maybe because he recalled the warning about not touching one's alternate self lest the universe be destroyed, but then again, perhaps it was also because of how bizarre the situation was. "If you wanna eat something, we can sort out sleeping arrangements after that."
A stomach growled loudly at the mention of food.
"You can't prove that was me," Mabel said unprompted.
"Food sounds great, Grunkle Stan," Dipper said, jumping to his feet.
The younger Stan and Ford muttered agreement as well, and followed Mabel and Dipper downstairs to the kitchen.
Grunkle Stan had gone ahead, keeping careful distance from his young counterpart, but as the children trundled down the stairs, Grunkle Ford was waiting at the bottom, brandishing two metallic bracelets with an impressively sci-fi-ish array of LED lights.
"Before you continue," Grunkle Ford declared, "I've built a little something to cut down on the risk of cosmic implosion a great deal." He passed the items to Dipper, who was closest. "I'll ask that Stanley and Stanford put these on, please."
Dipper passed on the bracelets to their intended recipients, and Stan and Ford exchanged a look before putting them on, the latches clicking closed at the same time.
"Whoa," Stan declared, tapping at the lights. "I don't feel any different, though."
"There shouldn't be any side effects," Grunkle Ford said. "Though if you happen to experience any strange lights or inexplicable sounds, make sure to inform me at once. But no, their sole purpose is to prevent the disastrous side-effects of contact between alternate versions of oneself."
To demonstrate, Grunkle Ford ruffled the hair of the younger Ford, whose eyes widened in surprise at the contact--at first in mild alarm, then in amazement as nothing happened. He gave an impressed look to his bracelet.
"I can explain the technical details behind the device, of course," Grunkle Ford offered.
"I'd love that--" the younger Ford began, but he found himself jostled forward by Mabel and Stan, who were more hungry than curious.
"Thanks, Grunkle Ford!" Dipper said, as he dashed after them.
"Yes! Thank you!" Ford shot over his shoulder, towards his older self, before disappearing into the kitchen.
Grunkle Ford remained in the hallway, his hands clasped behind his back, but he watched them depart with a fond smile. Hard to believe he had ever been so young, and so small, and with so much to still learn and discover.
Meal times in the Pines family always entailed a certain amount of contained chaos. Other than the way each of them could ruthlessly vie for food when they were hungry, no shared meal was ever free of a certain amount of mutual ribbing and bantering.
Now, more than ever, the kitchen seemed to froth with activity. Grunkle Stan was rifling through the fridge, while Dipper and Mabel had gone off to find extra chairs. Ford and Stanley had therefore been relegated to getting the plates and cutlery out of the cabinets, a task made easier by the fact that everything was arranged just the same as in Grauntie Mabel's kitchen.
The crowded feeling of the kitchen, however, was not helped by the fact that they were subsequently joined by Soos, the man who'd been leading the Mystery Tours, a blonde woman who was introduced as Soos' new wife Melody. There was also an old lady who was apparently Soos' grandma, and she was cooking something that smelled very nice, filling the kitchen with delicious smells.
All of this was not necessarily bad--there was an easy comfort that spoke to very close ties, even between these nominal strangers (though Ford was now quite sure that Soos was the same as Old Man Ramirez, the handyman from town in his home dimension).
But the clamor and the noise and the smell and all the people talking at once was starting to overwhelm Ford, and as he stood with his back to a wall, trying to gather himself, the older Stan came up and asked a question.
Ford blinked, trying to replay the question in his mind, but his brain was not quite cooperating at the moment, and he couldn't process the words as anything more than noise--all his brain seemed taken up by sifting through too much sensory input at the moment. There was still a corner of his mind that spiked with alarm when the older Stan frowned at him, and then took him by the shoulder, pushing him gently towards the back door.
In wasn't until he was outside, standing on the porch and inhaling deeply of the cooling evening air, that Ford finally felt better. The day was fading into a forgiving twilight, and the only smell outside was of pine, sharp and pleasant. The hum of activity was muffled through the door, no louder than the insect chirps outdoors. As the world around him pared back the level of input, his brain seemed to catch up again, and Ford found himself present in the forefront of his mind again.
"Y'okay, there, kid?" the older Stan asked, putting a hand to his shoulder, like a solid weight. It was better than a pat, or a light touch, which Ford finally realized Stan would know because of his own brother.
Ford nodded wordlessly, but Stan didn't seem to be waiting for a verbal acknowledgment anyway.
"You can sit out here until dinner's set," Stan suggested.
"Thanks," Ford said, miserable as he flopped down on the steps. "Sorry about that."
"Ah, kid, that's not something you need to apologize for," Stan said, and after a moment of hesitation, he shuffled over to the battered old couch, and sat down as well. "There were way too many people in that kitchen, we're doing everyone a favor getting outta the way."
"I guess," Ford shrugged.
Grauntie Mabel would have said something similar, Ford was sure. But it rankled a bit to hear it in this strange situation.
"Why'd you think the old wrinkly version of you isn't in there, either?" Stan added.
Ford actually craned his head back around to look at Stan, who was giving him a conspiratorial smile.
"Um. I suppose it's because he never learned to handle crowds either," Ford said, with a pang of misery. He supposed this meant he would never learn either, and he would always be oversensitive and weak.
"Pfft, Mr. Fantastic? Nah, he learned," Stan dismissed. "He's just old enough that he knows he doesn't need to. You get better at dealing with stuff as you get older, but you get a lot less patient about putting up with it too, lemme tell ya. Don't force yourself into stuff that comes easy to other people just because you think it should come easy to you, that ain't how it works."
Ford turned his head back around to look forward, staring off into the woods before him. He wasn't completely sure about this, but the older Stanley may have said something genuinely wise. He was... being an adult. He was an adult.
"Did you..." the older Stan started saying, then trailed off uncomfortably. "I mean. Uh."
Now Ford turned around, curious to know what he would say next, but the old man only rubbed the back of his neck as he stared at the ground, the way his Stanley would do when he was trying to broach an awkward subject.
"Back in our day, I mean, when me'n'Ford were small, kids didn't really get, y'know, diagnosed and stuff." He paused awkwardly again, and Ford didn't realize Stan was waiting for him to say something in response until Stan continued, "I mean, they would sometimes, but the way it was done back then, it was better for you if you weren't, y'know? I think my brother had enough trouble already without getting branded, the way he saw it. So he just learned how to cope with everything by himself. But you... uh... don't take this the wrong way... did you ever see a professional and...?"
"Get diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder?" Ford said, his voice very even.
Stan nodded stiffly, caught between relief and a new sort of tension.
"Pa wouldn't like that," Ford said very quietly. All the school counselors who'd ever suggested a test had gotten the brunt of Pa's anger, but these days, there were tests on the internet, and checklists of symptoms, and Ford felt like he'd gone through all of them twice over, and still thought that perhaps he was faking even to himself, and he was merely a weirdo, like the schoolyard taunts suggested.
Stan blinked, before his brows came down in a frown. His expression was thunderous, the way Filbrick Pines' face would turn when he was displeased, and Ford felt anxious all of a sudden at the resemblance.
"I see," Stan said, and shook his head. "I'm not angry at you, Poindexter, you don't gotta look so spooked. Your Pa has his head up his ass."
Ford made a sound in his throat.
"Don't tell your Grauntie I said a swear," Stan said quickly, looking concerned about the possibility of her finding out. "Anyway. Just... You're a good kid. You can figure things out. You'll get the hang of it, you'll see. And until then, just... don't let anyone fool you into thinking you're a burden. Pines aren't suckers, got that?"
"Thanks," Ford said. Then, unsure if he should bring this up, but wanting to reciprocate in some way, he added very quietly, "I'm sorry he kicked you out."
Stan was quiet for a long time, but eventually, he huffed to himself, and they sat quietly together until Mabel banged open the door and yelled at them to come in and eat.
This wasn't where I was planning to take the chapter, but I was sort of blocked and once I started writing it, it's where it went naturally. Anyway, I subscribe to the headcanon that Ford is autistic, because I'm also autistic so I may be projecting a bit. But I have had sensory overloads during family gatherings, so I drew a bit from personal experience here.