Hahahah well I'm back earlier than I thought I'd be, mostly because I had a huge craving to work on UF again, specifically to get this angsty little "calm after the storm" chapter out to get arc 9 started! And yeah, I like how this one turned out, its pretty emotionally driven and shows just how much RMD hit our kids hard. Hopefully what happens in here will help... some of them at least. And hey it also features our debut of MABONNVEN so that's fun! Let's get started!

Chapter 81: Theory of Weirdness


Connie was breathless as she raced up the stairs leading to the temple, her heart racing less from exhaustion and more from rising dread above all else. That dread had a very specific source, one that mostly came from uncertainty, from all of the great gaps in a story she'd only received mere bits and pieces of since returning from Japan. From the moment she'd stepped foot off the flight home earlier that day, her focus had been fixated on her phone, on the myriad of texts and voicemails she was only now able to receive with her non-international coverage restored. And from the desperate urgency of all of the many messages Mabel had sent her way, Connie could tell she'd received them all far too late.

She hadn't even bothered to unpack before begging her mother to drive her over to the temple, desperate to know what had happened, what might still be happening for herself. What sparse parts of the chain of events she'd missed were few and far between, leaving her with far too many questions and not enough answers. But what she did know for certain from Mabel's anxious, sometimes even frantic messages were three things: 1. Something bad had happened to Steven and Dipper. 2. Bill was behind it. 3. It was extremely bad that she'd missed any of it at all.

So she rushed up to the temple, not having the faintest idea of what she'd find. She had already braced herself for the worst, for whatever condition two of her closest friends might be in, no matter how bad that condition might be. And she was more than ready to do whatever it took to help them, even if that meant confronting the absolute menace that was Bill Cipher himself. She was ready, prepared, determined, downright unflinching for whatever she was about to face as long as she could have some hand in saving Steven and Dipper somehow.

In fact, the only thing that Connie hadn't been ready for was the inevitability that she had already missed it all.

She thoughtlessly burst through the door to the house, barging into a surprisingly calm scene. None of the Gems were around, and likewise Stan and Ford were absent, leaving only Mabel, and, much to Connie's shock, Steven and Dipper themselves on hand. Steven reclined on the couch, Lion nuzzled right up next to him while Mabel worked on putting together a pitcher of her infamous "Mabel Juice" in the kitchen. Meanwhile, Dipper paced around the far end of the room, still in the middle of a phone call with his girlfriend, one that, at least as far as Connie could hear from her spot at the door, was an intense one.

"No, really, Pacifica, I'm ok," he assured her despite the fact that she was barely giving him a chance to get a word in edgewise on the other end of the line amidst her frantic, fretful rambling. "Yes, really…. O-of course, I remember you now!... Yeah, I know, I'm sorry… I will, I promise… I-"

"Connie!" Mabel gasped, the first of the trio to really notice her abrupt arrival. Steven quickly perked up on the couch, offering her a bright smile of greeting while Dipper rushed to wrap up his phone call.

"Uh, h-hey Pacifica? I'm gonna have to call you back later," he said quickly, only to receive protest on the other end of the line. "Yes, I will… You too… Always… Bye."

"Connie!" Steven grinned as he hurried over to hug his baffled friend. "I'm so glad you're back! How was Japan?"

"Wha-Who cares about that?!" Connie exclaimed, pulling away from Steven as she looked over him in immense concern. "Steven, are you and Dipper ok?! I just got all of Mabel's messages a few hours ago, she said something terrible happened to you two and that Bill was involved and I've been really worried and-"

"OH! I knew I forgot to do something!" Mabel interrupted, facepalming. "I meant to send you a text yesterday after we got back from the Nightmare Realm explaining everything that happened. B-but… between everything else, I guess I got sort of… distracted."

"Wait, Nightmare Realm?" Connie asked, completely confused. "What… happened while I was gone?"

"It's a… really long story…" Dipper spoke up with a tired sigh. "Uh.. it.."

As Dipper trailed off, unsure of even how to start such a daunting, damaging story, Mabel noticed that Steven was just as hesitant to pick up where he'd left off. Understandably so given that both of them were still largely reeling from everything that happened to them over the past several days, to the point that Mabel had largely gone out of her way to avoid talking about it since this new day had begun. But there was no avoiding any of it now, not when Connie was still the only one of them out of the loop of it all.

Which was why Mabel decided to kick off the twisted tale where Steven and Dipper couldn't for themselves. "The… short version of it is that Dipper and Steven got sucked into a portal that led to the Nightmare Realm-that's where Bill lives-and they fused into Stepper to try and fight him, but then…"

"Then… h-he cracked our gem…" Steven muttered fretfully as he rubbed his arm.

"What!?" Connie gasped, appalled and horrified by the very thought.

"And he took our shield journal…" Dipper added, crossing his arms as he glared away with lingering disdain for the dream demon.

"Which… sort of made Stepper forget who Steven and Dipper even were for a bit," Mabel said, her tone tight and diffident.

"What?!" Connie pressed once more, her distress rapidly rising.

"B-but don't worry! We fixed everything!" Mabel quickly reassured. "By… going back to the Nightmare Realm, where the shield journal got ripped in half, Bill burnt Dipper's half of it, Steven went inside his mind to save him, and we all only barely made it back alive, and we might have to deal with portals leading to parallel dimensions or something like that soon, but… the bottom line is, it's all good now."

"W-what?" Connie asked for a third time, struggling to process the very fast delivery of all this information. "No, it's not! Bill… really did all of that to you guys?" she looked between Steven and Dipper, who only offered her a set of solemn, silent nods. For a moment, Connie wasn't really sure what else to ask or how to properly respond to everything she'd missed out on, so instead, she went with the most obvious inquiries first. "So… i-is your gem… fixed now?" she asked Steven in particular.

"Yeah," he pulled up his shirt a bit so she could see it. "Garnet says Mom's fountain fixed it, but… it didn't work until after I got my half of the journal back."

Connie frowned at this, despite the relief filling her as she looked over the unscathed pink gemstone. "And… you both remember who you are?" she asked the pair tentatively, one again receiving only terse nods as an answer, another testament to their hesitancy to discuss what they'd been through. Hesitancy that was showing itself in more ways than one.

"It's just like Mabel said, Connie," Steven said with a small, largely fake smile. "Everything's ok now. You don't need to worry."

"I still am worried, Steven!" Connie professed, absolutely distraught. Not to mention beyond bewildered at just how… oddly casual Steven in particular was being about the disaster he'd just been through. "I left the country just for a week, you guys almost died while I was gone, and I'm only finding out about it now! I-I wasn't even here to help you get your memories back, or fight Bill or anything!"

"B-but that's a good thing!" Steven countered earnestly. "That means you weren't in any danger."

"But you were!" Connie argued intensely, to the point that she was only barely managing to fight back tears. "All of you were! While I was off having the time of my life in Japan, you were all risking your lives against Bill! Even if I had known about what was happening, there would have been nothing I could have done to help or stop any of it or-"

"But there's no way you could have known any of this would have happened before you left, Connie!" Steven insisted, not noticing Dipper and Mabel's very different forms of guilt-driven silence as he did. "It's not your fault!"

"No, it's not," Dipper suddenly spoke up, his tone quite bitter as he averted everyone's gaze. "It's ours."

He didn't bother to elaborate as he passed by the others to leave the house entirely, not sparing a single word or glance back as he did. "Dipper?" Connie ventured, her distress turning to concern even as he left.

"Uh… Y-you might just wanna let him go," Mabel said anxiously. "He… doesn't really like talking about what happened…"

"Who can blame him…?" Steven muttered so softly the girls couldn't hear him.

At the same time, Connie let out a leveling sigh, rubbing her temples as she looked between the remaining pair fretfully. "Look, you guys," she began, her tone and her expression alike conveying guilt she didn't really know how to express in words. "I just… I feel like I-"

She was abruptly interrupted as the temple door suddenly chimed with light, parting to reveal Pearl stepping out, wearing a wide, beaming grin on her face, one that only widened as she spotted the trio of kids before her. "Who wants to go on a missiooooon?" she sang brightly, cheerily even.

The kids exchanged a confused glance at this, all three of them caught completely off guard by such a left-field proposal in light of recent events. "Uh… Pearl?" Steven frowned. "Are you sure this is the best time for this?"

"Oh, of course it is, Steven!" the white Gem proclaimed as she stepped up to the trio. "Especially since Garnet just detected corrupted Gem activity up in the Great North."

"The Great North?" Mabel asked, already immensely intrigued. "It's it like super cold and snowy up there all the time?"

"Precisely," Pearl nodded. "Which is why we'll be heading there tomorrow instead of today to give you kids time to gather additional clothing and gear and food and anything else humans need to survive in a harsh, unforgiving frozen environment."

"Hm… well, I do have a bunch of wilderness survival equipment at home…" Connie mused.

"Excellent!" the white Gem smiled approvingly. "Preparation is always key to success after all. By the way, welcome home from your trip, Connie! We'll be more than happy to have you along for the mission, especially with your refined swordsmanship skills imparted to you by yours truly."

"Uh… speaking of the mission, Pearl," Steven said, still rather apprehensive about the very idea. "I-is it really such a good idea after… you know…?"

Pearl's persistent smile finally faltered at this, almost as if the upbeat mask she'd been trying to maintain had been broken completely. She sighed, glancing down as she finally decided to address the looming elephant in the room. "Listen… I know these past few days have been… stressful, to say the very least, for all of us really. B-but now that we're all back home and… together again, I… thought it would be nice to offer you kids some small way to take your minds off of it all for a bit. And what better way is there than a good old-fashion corrupted Gem hunt, just like we all used to go on back in the good old days?"

"You mean back at the beginning of the summer?" Connie asked.

"...Goodness, it really has only been just a few months, hasn't it?" Pearl muttered, amazed. "It feels like it's been years…. A-anyway, where's Dipper? I'm sure he'll want to come along on the mission tomorrow too."

"He, uh… went back down to the shack, I think," Mabel said stiffly. "I'll tell him all about it later on though."

Even as Pearl thanked her and continued on with the various details of her proposed mission, Mabel was hardly paying much attention, and she had a feeling Steven and Connie weren't either based on their shared downcast manner. Throughout most of the conversation, she continued peering out the nearby window, glancing down the hill toward the shack for any signs of her brother. Her concern for him was palpable; after all, just about a day ago she had thought she'd lost him forever. But even now that they were home and relatively safe from Bill's wrath, things were far from perfect or even ideal. They were all still largely reeling from what had happened in the Nightmare Realm, all in dramatically different ways, but not all of those ways were necessarily healthy or good. For her part, Mabel wanted to do all she could to help both Dipper and Steven alike recover from all they'd been through, in the hopes that she could make up for her relative failure to do so while they'd still been stuck together as Stepper. But even so, she hardly even knew how to take on such a great task, just as she hadn't been able to figure out how to get Stepper to remember who he was, how to keep Bill from burning her brother's memories to ashes, how to keep Steven from nearly sacrificing himself to save Dipper when she should have been the one to do so instead.

Really, it seemed as though Mabel never really knew what to do to help her brother or her best friend when they needed it most. And that was a shortcoming she'd do just about anything to overcome, even if, just like always, she had no idea how.

Most 12, almost 13, year old boys would have been daunted by the mere concept of death, with mortality barely being a passing thought between concerns of school, family, girls, and all of the other mundane fixtures of an average life. Up until this very summer had begun, Dipper had only really carried those simple, normal concerns too, at least until he'd come to Gravity Falls. At least until he'd been unfortunate enough to cross paths with a certain dream demon. At least until he'd almost lost every trace of his very existence to that demon.

Sure enough, his life had once been every bit as mundane and average as any other 12 year old boy's. At least... until it wasn't.

And yet, the loss of his once-normal life hardly bothered him as much as what else he'd lost in the past 24 hours alone. Namely, a chance, a small one, but still a chance all the same, to finally put an end to his persistent nightmare that went by the name Bill Cipher. In the span of time since they'd returned from the Nightmare Realm, Dipper had been torn between quite a few unpleasant thoughts and feelings, but that was by far the thought he lingered on the most. The thought that he couldn't seem to let go of, even as he started to come to terms with everything else. The thought that driving just how angry and upset and distraught and dejected he really was. A thought he couldn't really share with much of anyone; after all, they'd all already told him just how wrong he'd been for even having it in the first place.

And besides, he'd already professed his frustration over the loss of that chance to the only one who really understood more than enough by now. Steven had been at the receiving end of Bill's destructive fury every bit as much as Dipper, and while he wasn't exactly the sort to harbor such incredible hatred and vengeance himself, he had allowed those things to fuel their fusion's power all the same. It should have been enough to finally stop Bill, to finally destroy every trace of him once and for all… but in the end, it hadn't been anywhere close to enough. Bill was still out there, still poised and prepared to barge back into their lives to wreak untold havoc and leave unbearable damage behind in his wake, just as he always seemed to do.

It was a chain of events that kept playing out in his only-recently restored memory, over and over again on loop, like a broken record. Steven had saved him, they'd all fought Bill, Stepper had staked his claim to finish the job… and failed. And they made it home, they faced the severe disapproval and disappointment of their friends and family for their failure, and now… now what? There was nothing really left to do but wait for whatever disaster Bill had in store for them next. When they could have been, should have been celebrating his long-awaited demise instead.

Of course, Dipper said nothing to any of this as he absently ventured into the shack and was met with a somewhat concerned greeting from Stan, asking how he was. In truth, he was just fine physically, but on just about every other account, he felt terrible. He didn't really have it in him to hide it, and fortunately Stan didn't bother probing any further since it was already so plain to see from his expression alone. Unfortunately, on his way up to the attic, he just so happened to run into one of the handful of people he didn't particularly want to see right now; namely, his other, much more curious great uncle.

"Ah! Dipper, there you are!" Ford greeted him with a tight, somewhat uncomfortable smile as he rounded the corner to cross paths with his nephew. "How are you feeling today? You're not experiencing any lapses in memory are you? If you feel like something's off, then we can always perform a diagnostic scan of your mindscape to see if there was any lasting damage from-"

"No," Dipper tersely cut him off, avoiding eye contact with the author as he glared away. "I'm fine."

"Are you sure?" Ford pressed, genuinely concerned. Concern that only served to irritate Dipper even more than he already was as he tried walking down the hall past him. "You did go through quite an… ordeal yesterday; it'd be completely understandable if you weren't feeling entirely-"

"I said," Dipper reiterated as he finally managed to skirt by the author, only narrowly stemming his rising frustration. "I'm fine."

Ford was silent as he watched his nephew head off, changing his previous course from the attic to the gift shop, or more likely, its exit. "I highly doubt that…" the author muttered with a frown. A part of him knew he should just give Dipper the space he needed to properly process and cope with what he'd just been through. But another, louder part of him urged him to follow the boy all the same.

So he did.

He watched from around a corner as Dipper stepped out of the shack, peered out a window as he headed off into the woods, something that immediately set off alarm bells for the author considering how this disaster had supposedly started. Still, Ford kept a safe distance as he watched his nephew wander through the woods, remaining well out of his line of sight as he waited to see what he might do out here all alone so soon after the traumatizing experience he'd just been through.

Eventually, Dipper came to a stop in what he knew was the very same clearing it had all started in, where the portal that had dragged him and Steven into the Nightmare Realm had appeared. He could tell it was the same place from the sense of decay the wormhole had left in its wake; the surrounding trees had lost large handful of leaves, the grass had turned brittle and brown, and even the sun seemed to shine a bit duller here. Almost as if it was a testament to the immense devastation that had kickstarted the very moment that portal had torn itself into existence before the hapless boys who had fallen victim to it.

Even being back here again struck a chord of anger and shame in Dipper; anger for what had happened and shame for what he'd said in the moments leading up to it. His hand twitched for a sword he didn't have, a desire to let his mounting frustrations out somehow, even if it was through brutish destruction alone. But instead, he was left with nothing to use, nothing to say and no one to say it to. The dying trees around him echoed with an aching sort of silence that was practically begging to be filled by something lest his own oppressive thoughts suffocate him completely. And, in the absence of anything else he could really do at the moment, only one form of letting those thoughts stood out, as out of his comfort zone as it might have been.

"Ugh, I can't believe I'm about to do this…" he muttered, his head in his hands. He stole a glance around the area to make sure he was truly alone, only narrowly missing Ford in the process as he carefully ducked behind a large tree to continue observing. But if there was anything the author hadn't been expecting to see his nephew do out here, it was sing.

He started out by humming, trying to get a sense of the melody he wanted to weave as he leaned against one of the surrounding trees. Dipper wasn't much on singing; he'd only really dabbled in it at all recently thanks to Steven and even then his greatest contribution would be only a spare verse or two if he was up for it. But now, a solo strangely felt fitting; after all, if pouring out the most intense of emotions through song worked for Steven and the Gems, then why couldn't it work for him too?

"I know second chances shouldn't be this tough," he began softly, sadly as the words flowed out slow and solemn. "And I know they're all right-" He knew that all too well, that everyone who had scolded Stepper yesterday had been well within their right to call him reckless and thoughtless and even stupid, even if they hadn't used that word exactly. Because what he'd done, what he'd dragged Steven into, had been nothing short of probably the stupidest thing he'd ever tried in his entire life. And yet, for as much as he knew he should have, he still didn't regret it in the slightest. "But it's still pretty rough… 'Cause I gave it my all and my all… just wasn't enough…"

Dipper sighed as he started to move on from the clearing, finding it hard to bear being there any longer. He decided to continue wandering around the woods, not wanting to go back to the shack or the temple or anywhere else where he might have to face someone who might insist on "helping" him. Because as far as he was concerned, the only thing that might have been able to help him now was far out of his reach. "For the second, the future was as bright as a star-" His song went on, more steady this time, but still just as sorrowful. "We got so close, only to fall so far… And now all that's left is a painful scar…"

He noticed a sizable stick lying on the ground as he walked, so he picked it up, pretending it was a sword in place of the one he wasn't armed with. He swung it widely, stabbing it forward into the empty air in front of him as a show of strength he didn't feel like he had much of anymore either. "But I could have done it!" he professed boldly, landing another solid blow on absolutely nothing. "I should have done it…" he swung softer, his confident stance faltering. "Why couldn't I do it…?" The stick fell out of his hand and he ultimately left it behind to continue on the unforged path ahead.

"I know there's no use living in the past-" His pace had quickened, warmth building up behind his eyes that he was trying to fight against even as he was helpless to keep his grief from pouring out through every one of his words. "But I can't stop thinking about what has passed: our chance to stop him, my moment at last!"

A moment, a far too brief and fleeting one that had left him with nothing in the end. Nothing… but the weight of his failure and all that it meant continuing to bear down upon him.

"What I'd give for a chance to have finally won, for this nightmare to end, to finally be done-" He choked up a bit, his hands in tight fists as he stopped short in another clearing, his emotions raw and laid bare to whatever wildlife was listening around him. Or rather, to the great uncle who he had no idea was even listening in at all from the shadows of the sidelines. "But instead all I did… was fly too close to the sun…"

He let his lament hang on the air for a moment or two, a soft, remorseful sob finally slipping out as he repeated its refrain one final time. "What else is new?" he shrugged bitterly, wrapping his arms tightly around himself as he shook his head. "All I ever do is fly… too close… to the sun…"

And with that, the melody was over, the song complete even as the sadness that had spilled out from it continued to linger, both in the one who had sung it at the forest surrounding him. Ford could practically feel that sadness for himself, though more in the form of immense, genuine sympathy as he watched his nephew begin to take the long way back to the shack. He understood all too well how Dipper was feeling; after all, he'd spent the better part of the last 30 years pursuing the very same lofty goal the boy had tried and failed to achieve in the Nightmare Realm. And while he knew Dipper wasn't exactly happy with him at the moment for a number of reasons, Ford found he still wanted to do what he could to set his nephew's plentiful woes to ease somehow, perhaps even patch up what had clearly been damaged between them. And as he stole a brief glance around the dense, eternally mysterious woods around them, and as he happened to pat the place where he had journal 3 safely stored away inside his lab coat, Ford believed he knew how to do exactly that.

"Alright, it's almost time to head out," Pearl announced as she emerged from the temple the next day. "Are you kids almost ready?"

Steven and Connie nodded, both of them putting the last few supplies away into their packs for the mission ahead of them. The pair was aptly dressed for their destination, clad in thick coats, gloves, scarves, and other winter apparel that was well-suited for the notoriously blistering conditions of the Great North. "I think I've got this backpack filled with just about everything we need to survive in the wilderness," Connie said, confidently strapping her pack on alongside her sword.

"And I'm bringing board games," Steven smiled as he finished fitting the last of several games into his cheeseburger backpack. "In case we get bored."

"...Ah, yes, very good," Pearl nodded in halfhearted approval. "Now, where's-"

"Sorry, we're late!" Mabel exclaimed as she burst into the house, fully bundled up in her colorful winter wear. Dipper filed in just a bit after her, carrying his mission clothes instead of wearing them considering the full summer heat they'd just had to walk uphill through. Something Mabel clearly hadn't taken into from how she was painting and sweating under her warm coat and scarf. "W-we… would have… g-gotten here sooner, but it's like… super hot…"

"And Mabel nearly passed out three times on the way up here," Dipper finished, sending his sister a concerned look. "I told you you should have waited to put all that on until we got here."

"C-couldn't help it," Mabel collapsed onto the floor, wiping a heavy layer of sweat from her brow. "I k-knitted a new scarf… just for the mission… h-had to wear it… a-as soon as it was done…"

"Well, it's probably for the best that you'll be starting off a little… overheated, Mabel," Pearl said with a small, amused chuckle. "As far as I understand, human bodies aren't designed to last long in the cold, so-"

"Actually, ma'am," Connie interjected. "Going from extreme heat to extremely cold conditions in a really short amount of time isn't actually good for humans. Sudden changes in body temperature can lead to dry skin, respiratory irritation, muscle pain, and even viral infections if you're not careful."

"Oh my…" Pearl frowned, alarmed by all this. "I always forget just how prone to… complications the human body really is. Still, good on you for knowing so much about it, Connie!"

"Well, I've had a human body my entire life," Connie said as she gladly took in her teacher's adulation. "So I've had plenty of time to learn about it."

"Uh, in that case maybe we should wait a bit before setting out on the mission?" Dipper suggested as he handed Mabel a cup of ice water to help cool her down, one that she easily downed in one gulp.

"Um… actually, Dipper," Pearl said, her tone and expression both hesitant. "You're not… coming with us on the mission."

"...W-what?" Dipper balked, completely caught off guard.

"Yeah, wait a second," Steven spoke up, similarly confused. "I thought you wanted all four of us to go on this mission, Pearl. So why can't Dipper come?"

"Let me guess…" Dipper said with a disgruntled sigh. "It's because of… what happened the other day…?"

Pearl flinched, clearly flustered as she tried to avoid discussing the very thing she hoped to take the kids' minds off of through this mission. "N-no, of course not," she answered honestly. Even so, Dipper didn't fully believe her; after all, it only made sense that she wouldn't want someone as openly 'reckless' as him coming along on an important, decisive corrupted Gem hunt like this. "It's just that-"

"I'd like to take you on a different mission instead."

The kids all turned to see Ford entering the house, his focus largely on Dipper as he offered him an easy, placating smile right off the bat. A smile that Dipper made no effort to return in the slightest.

"No thanks," he said, catching just about everyone present completely off guard with such an odd answer.

"Whaaaaa?" Mabel sat up, baffled. "Did I just hear Dipper turn down a super exciting nerd mission with Grunkle Ford? Man, my ear muffs must be on too tight…"

At the same time, Ford briefly glanced over at Pearl, who really had nothing to say to him outside of offering him a dry, almost condescending look and a shrug. Proof that, just like the other Gems, she was still clearly upset with him. Just like his own nephew seemed to be as well. "A-are you quite certain, Dipper?" he asked, trying to tread as carefully as possible. "I have quite an enlightening outing planned for just the two of us, and I-"

"No, I already have a mission I'm supposed to be going on," Dipper reiterated, turning away from the author as he instead headed toward the warp pad. Along the way though, he didn't even bother putting any of his own winter gear on, largely in focus of maintaining the icy glare he was sending to the floor along the way.

Still, he did stop short as Steven suddenly came to stand in his path. "Dipper…" he said quietly, offering him an earnest frown. "I… think you should go with Mr. Ford."

Dipper reacted about as well as Steven had expected him to at this, with a very obvious, very plaintiff sigh. "Steven, no," he whispered crossly. "I know what he's gonna say if I go with him, and believe me, it's nothing I want to hear right now."

"...But…" Steven sighed, sensing just how upset Dipper was just as easily as he had been able to when they had still been fused. "Look, I know you're mad, a-and I know you really aren't happy about what Lapis did and what Mr. Ford said, but… I think maybe he wants to make it up to you with this mission. You should at least give him a chance, don't you think?"

While he probably wouldn't have for anyone else at the moment, Dipper did ease up just the slightest bit upon meeting the kind, hopeful smile Steven was sending his way. "Fine…" he said with a relenting sigh. "But only because you want me to."

While that wasn't exactly what Steven had wanted to hear, he accepted it all the same as Dipper turned to head back over to the author. "Ah, so you're coming then?" he asked, clearly relieved. "Wonderful! Let's not waste any more time then, we've much to do and to see, my boy!"

Dipper said nothing, instead maintaining a rather dour manner as he began to wearily follow Ford out. Normally, he would have been a bundle of sheer excitement over the mere chance of accompanying the author on a mysterious solo mission, but now, all he could do was bitterly trail behind, wishing that he wasn't going on it at all.

"Best of luck to the rest of you on your own mission!" Ford called to Pearl and the remaining kids as they all gathered on top of the warp pad. The white Gem offered him no response save for a sour reaction quite similar to Dipper's. One that was largely lost on the others as they all waved the pair off as they left the temple.

"Bye, Dipper! Bye Grunkle Ford!" Mabel called after them. "Have fun on your super special nerd mission! A-and be safe!" she added, hoping that the author wouldn't do anything to put her brother in harm's way again so soon. Yet even if they were to encounter trouble, she couldn't help but feel like Ford would be well equipped to help Dipper handle it. After all, she morosely reminded herself as they warped away, just about anyone was far better at helping him than she was.

And yet, as the group warped out of the temple to head to their destination, Mabel couldn't help but spare a brief glance over at Steven. While she knew she wouldn't have much of a chance to make up her failure to assist her brother now, perhaps this mission could be just the opportunity she needed to make it up to the young Gem instead. To prove that she could do more than simply stand on the sidelines and watch as one of the people she cared about most, the boy she liked, perhaps even more than merely liked, tried to trade his life away for her brother's.

To show that she wasn't useless after all.

The Great North was about as far out from human civilization as anyone could get, a vast, untamed wilderness eternally blanketed by a healthy coat of snow. The towering pines that composed the seemingly endless forest were practically overtaken by glistening white frost, the air clear and cold and crisp as it carried the potential for snowfall at any given moment. The calm quiet of the area was broken as the chime of a snow-covered warp pad, snow that was immediately cleared out as Pearl and the kids arrived on the scene.

"Here we are!" the white Gem announced, hopping off of the pad. A massive structure stood behind it, a wailing stone, to be exact, left behind by Homeworld Gems thousands of years ago, just as the warp itself had been.

"Wow! The Great North is so beautiful in person!" Connie exclaimed, absolutely awestruck as she looked around the serene setting.

"And it's officially the best place I've ever seen to make snow angels!" Steven grinned, leaping off the warp pad into a large snow drift. He chuckled as he spread his arms and legs out wide to make a snow angel, only to be met with Mabel standing over him, extending out a mittened hand for him to take.

"Need some help getting up?" she asked with an eager grin.

"Nah, I've got it," Steven said with another small laugh as he sat up. "Thanks though."

"Steven! You need to be more careful!" Connie rushed over, grabbing his hands to pull him to his feet. "This isn't just a snow day; it's really cold out here. It's important to preserve as much body heat as possible, otherwise you could put yourself at risk for frostbite!"

"...You mean like what happens if you leave chicken in the freezer for too long?" Steven ventured, confused

"Exactly," Connie nodded sternly. "You don't want that happening to you do you?"


"Then Connie is absolutely right," Pearl intervened as she began to lead the way onward through the woods. "You all need to exercise extreme caution out here in these conditions. Hopefully, with my careful supervision, we'll find and bubble that corrupted Gem with ease in no time at all."

"So what kind of monster are we looking for this time anyway?" Mabel asked curiously. "How will we know it when we see it?"

Before Pearl could answer, a stark and sudden growl cut through the quiet air, offering a response for her. "T-that's how!" the white Gem pulled out a spear, placing herself between the kids and the nearby treeline as it began to tremor from the thunderous footsteps clamoring through it. "Here it comes!"

No more than a second later, a massive, monstrous teal-colored beast emerged from the woods, clearly a corrupted Gem based on the stone fixed to its chest. The creature let out a mighty roar as it skidded to a stop in the snow before the startled group, towering over them as it reared low with the apparent intent of attacking. Even so, Connie was quick to unsheathe her sword while Steven summoned his shield and Mabel pulled out her grappling hook, all three of them prepared to do their part to battle this beast alongside Pearl.

"Remember, you work together!" she encouraged them, gripping her own staff tightly as she took up a steady stance.

"Are you guys ready for-huh?" Steven stopped short, caught off guard as both Mabel and Connie moved to guard him, seemingly acting on the exact same intention. None of them had any time to actually make a move against the monster, however, as an entirely new corrupted beast stormed out of the very same woods the first one had come from.

"Two of them!?" Pearl exclaimed, aghast as she took in the newly-arrived monster. This beast was nearly identical to its companion in all but color, its body tinted in shades of dull brown and orange instead of bright blue with hints of pink. The two corrupted creatures oddly made no move to attack the group outright, instead exchanging a series of low grunts and growls that almost seemed like some form of communication. But then, their uncertain manner quickly changed as the orange monster charged at them, snow flying out from under its feet as the ground rumbled under its fast, heavy galloping footsteps.

"Steven! Bubble!" Pearl cried in apt alarm at the creature's frantic approach.

Steven wasted no time in doing as she said, calling upon a bubble large enough to safely surround all four of them. And yet, the monster never struck it, instead easily leaping over the group to continue running off into the other edge of the forest. The teal beast rushed past them, leaving a similar trail of destruction in its wake as it ran off in the opposite direction to its companion. A newfound sense of calm settled over the area once they left, though Pearl and the kids hardly felt it as they all stared in the direction the monsters had left in, mutually bewildered.

"They… ran away?" Steven frowned as he dropped his bubble.

"They almost seemed kinda… scared…" Mabel noted, putting her grappling hook away.

"There weren't supposed to be two…" Pearl mused, just as disconcerted.

"Oh! I have an idea!" Connie chimed in, raising her hand. "We could split up. You can go after one of them, Pearl, and Steven, Mabel, and I will go after the other one."

"Connie, you are my pupil, so I know your combat skills are excellent," Pearl began. "But I'm afraid this is too risky. Especially after more… recent events…" she muttered, her concerned expression drifting to Steven in particular.

"B-but we'll be fine as long as we help each other!" Mabel chimed in with a hopeful smile. "You said so yourself before, we do make a pretty good team. Even if we are one short right now…" her smile faded somewhat as she lightly wished Dipper was here to round their team off.

"And look!" Steven added, fishing a set of Cookie Cat themed walkie talkies out of his bag. "I brought these walkie talkies so we can talk to each other in case something happens!"

"B-but I-"

"And," Connie added, holding up a book entitled The Punishment of Nature. "I've read this book front to back at least 20 times!"

Pearl hesitated as she looked between the earnest, determined looks all three of the kids were sending her way. Already the relatively light, simple mission she'd thought she'd be bringing them on had turned into more than any of them had bargained for. The thought of intentionally putting the kids in any sort of danger now, so soon after their last brush with disaster. And yet, that disaster had been far greater, far more openly malicious, than a mere pair of mindless, corrupted Gems. They'd handled far worse than that on several occasions this summer alone; which meant that certainly, as long as they stuck together like they promised to do, then tracking down at least one of those corrupted Gems might not be such a challenge for the three of them after all.

"Well… alright…" the white Gem sighed in defeat as she accepted the walkie talkie Steven handed her. "But as soon as you find the monster, contact me immediately. I don't want you kids fighting this thing alone. Now, one more time, what are you looking for?"

"A monster," the kids replied in dutiful unison.

"What do you do when you find it?"

"Contact you."

"And who's your favorite Gem?"

"Pearl…" Steven groaned with an exasperated pout.

"Why, thank you!" the white Gem smiled, flattered. This was enough to elicit a brief, much needed bout of laughter out of the kids, though as they prepared to set out on their own, they were all quick to get serious about the decisive task that lay ahead of them. "Now, be safe out there!" Pearl called to the kids as she began to set out, following the trail one of the monsters had left behind. "Stay together! And don't forget to stay in touch!"

"Yes, ma'am!" All three kids offered her a solid salute as they headed out together after the other corrupted Gem, a shared sense of bold resolve filling their every step along the way. Resolve that took on a whole new level for both Mabel and Connie as they took Steven's safety into account, both of them knowing that after everything he'd been through recently, that's what had to come first above all else.

Even above themselves, if it came to that.

Dipper knew well by now that Stan wasn't the best or safest driver, but if there was anything he hadn't been expecting from Ford, it was that he was somehow even worse at driving than his brother was. They'd borrowed Stan's car for whatever unknown "mission" the author intended on taking him on, one that was apparently nowhere within walking distance as they set out on an unfamiliar road that cut through the woods. Fortunately, there weren't any other motorists out on the road to contend with Ford's swerving and near-constant stop-and-going, both of which made the ride anything but smooth.

"Great Uncle Ford?" Dipper finally spoke up, glancing over at the author incredulously. He was practically clinging onto his passenger side seatbelt for dear life as Ford tried and failed to properly get the car into the correct gear once more. "W-when was the last time you were behind the wheel of a car?"

"Oh, it's hard to say," Ford mused absently, his brow furrowed as he fiddled with the car's controls. "The car I drove to first come out to Gravity Falls was stolen by a forest giant-tends to happen around here if you're not careful-and I didn't really see much of a need to invest in another one. And since traditional motor vehicles aren't that common in other dimensions (or at least non-sentient ones aren't), I'd say it's… been a few decades since I've driven one, I suppose."

"Yeah, no kidding…" Dipper muttered dryly as he focused his attention out the window instead.

It took awhile, but eventually, Ford managed to get enough control over the car to get it to a steady, but rather slow speed as he steered it down the forested road. As calm quiet finally began to settle through the vehicle, the author couldn't help but spare a brief glance over at his nephew beside him. Dipper was still staring out the window, a hand perched under his chin as he let out a soft, weary sigh. Ford could still easily feel the tension radiating from his nephew, the quiet anger and resentment that seemed to be aimed at several sources, with the author himself being just one of many. Something that he hoped this short trip would resolve in at least some small way.

"So," Ford began, clearing his throat to break the ice. "You must be wondering what this 'mission' is all about, hm?"

"Not really," Dipper replied honestly, still not turning to face him.

Ford faltered at this, though only for a moment as he continued his attempt at stirring up conversation. "Well, I wouldn't exactly say it's a mission in the… traditional sense," he continued. "It's more of an… investigation." He paused for a moment, waiting for a question that never came, one that he still went on to answer anyway. "Dipper, do you remember one of the very first questions you had for me when we first met?"

Dipper finally looked over at his uncle at this, knowing he had a plethora of questions in mind when he'd first met the author, a lengthy list of curious inquiries he'd been keeping mental tabs on ever since he'd first found the third journal. Most of those questions had already been answered and then some by now, either by Ford himself or by merit of his own discovery. And yet, there was still one lasting question, one grand, overarching mystery that he'd always wondered about, but had yet to be truly solved.

"...Why is Gravity Falls so weird?" he ventured, remembering well the first time he'd asked the author that. Back then, Ford had simply told him that the explanation was lengthy, to the point that it would have to be saved for some other time, which, in light of everything else that had been going on at the time, he'd had no choice but to simply accept. But based on the knowing grin his uncle was offering him now, Dipper couldn't help but feel a sense of rising excitement fill him, excitement that was more than enough to take the place of his lingering bitterness. Especially as he realized that great, elusive mystery behind all of the other mysteries was about to be unraveled at long last. "Wait, y-you're finally gonna tell me?"

Ford nodded, returning his sights to the road, or rather the sign they were passing by, one pointed to the border of Gravity Falls just a few short miles away. "Yes, my boy," he said, his smile filled with pride for his nephew's eternally curious spirit. A spirit that reminded the author so much of himself in his younger days, a spirit that couldn't be beaten down and diminished so easily by the likes of Bill Cipher, no matter how hard he might try. "It's time you learn the truth. The truth about just what it is that makes Gravity Falls so strange and special…"

The sun was bright yet hardly warm as it bounced off the snow, making the densely-packed flakes sparkle brightly as the kids trudged through it. Fortunately, they had a clear path left behind by the Gem monster to follow though the snow, its large, round footprints marked out for them over the rolling hills of white. Connie had taken point, remaining on high alert for any incoming threats. At the same time, Mabel kept pace close to Steven, continually checking in to see if there was anything she could do to make the mission easier for him.

"Oh, is it too bright out?" she asked as she noticed him squint up at the sun overhead. "I didn't bring any sunglasses, but uh… I-I could always walk in front of you on my tip-toes! Like a human umbrella!"

"Um… no, that's ok, Mabel," Steven said with a small, somewhat confused smile. "I just won't look up at the sun anymore."

"Oh," Mabel said stiffly before quickly rebounding with a new suggestion. "Well, a-are you cold? 'Cause if you are, I did bring an extra pair of mittens, hand-knitted by me!"

"Well, I actually already have a pair of mittens," Steven held up his hands to reveal his thick pair of gloves, ones that were more than sufficient at keeping his hands warm even in this kind of cold. "But thanks anyway."

"T-that's ok!" Mabel hurriedly reached into her bag, shuffling the supplies she had on hand. "I also brought an extra scarf too! Uh… need socks? I got 'em! A hat? Tissues? Granola bars? Mr. Bunny Flop?" She desperately held up the stuffed bunny she'd brought along, only for Steven to turn that down as well.

"While Mr. Bunny Flop is tempting… I think I'll be ok," he said with a small, warm chuckle before moving on to catch up with Connie. Not even noticing the steadily rising distress behind Mabel's wide, forced smile as he moved without much need for her help.

"Y-yeah…" she mumbled, finally letting out a small, disappointed sigh after he'd turned away. "Ok…"

At the same time, Connie stopped short, scooping up a handful of snow from one of the footprints they were following so she could taste it for herself. "Yeah, these are fresh," she said confidently. "We trail it until it stops to rest."

"Wow, Connie," Steven said, impressed. "You're like a wilderness expert."

"Well, I like to be prepared," Connie explained. "When civilization collapses and this world ends, I need to be ready to build the new one."

"Yeah…" Steven frowned, rubbing his harm. "I guess if Homeworld invades Earth, things could get pretty crazy for humanity."

"Homeworld?" Connie looked to him incredulously at this. "How could you be worried about Homeworld after what Bill did to-" She cut herself off sharply almost as soon as she said the dream demon's name, as soon as she noticed Steven's eyes widen in fear at the mere mention of it. Likewise, Mabel was quick to glance away, her mouth pressed into a thin line as an anxious sort of silence rose up between the trio. A silence that none of them really knew how to break until Pearl, oddly enough, managed to do it for them.

"Kids!" her voice rang out through the walkie-talkie in Steven's pocket. "How are you three doing? Are you hungry? Remember: humans need to eat!"

None of the kids answered this right away, exchanging a somewhat uneven glance until Connie finally let out a small sigh to offer a response. "Y-yes, ma'am," she said over the walkie talkie, seemingly satisfying the white Gem for now. She paused as the other end of the line went silent, looking between Steven and Mabel for a moment before ultimately deciding to press onward down the path they'd been following.

For a while, no one said much of anything after that, instead opting to silently snack on protein and granola bars as they continued walking. Along the way, they happened to bypass further signs of the monster's rampage: more downed trees and clawed-up rocks marking where the corrupted Gem had been. There was an odd sort of chaos to its destruction, however, to the point that a lot of the damage the creature had left behind seemed strangely frantic, something that wasn't really lost on any of the kids as they followed along after this tattered trail.

"Looks like our monster was really out here tearing it up, huh?" Mabel finally spoke up with a worried frown as they passed another cluster of toppled trees. "I wonder what made it so upset…?"

"Well… most of these corrupted Gems are just like wild animals, right?" Connie asked, making sure to steer clear of anything relating to Bill this time. "Just a bundle of flight or fight reflexes and survival instincts."

"Er… they're like that now, but before they were different," Steven interjected thoughtfully. "Like… like Centi was that time I healed her half way, only… healed all the way instead. They had thoughts, feelings, friends… But now… it's like they're sick. They don't remember who they used to be…" The young Gem shuddered, peering a glance down at his stomach, where his gem was securely tucked away under several layers of clothing. Where it had only just been healed from the damage that had been done to both it and his and Dipper's minds alike. "In a way… I guess I know what that feels like now too… Not having a single clue about who you're really supposed to be is… scary…"

"Steven…" Mabel said softly, reaching out a hand to skim his shoulder, though she retracted it at the last second. She knew this should have been her moment, her chance to find some way to help him, even if it was through simply comforting him alone. But once again, she found herself falling short, lacking the words and the courage to properly play the part as Connie picked up the pieces instead.

"Are you ok?" she asked, placing a hand on the shoulder Mabel hadn't touched instead. For a moment, it seemed as though Steven was largely lost in his own thoughts, until he suddenly perked up seemingly out of nowhere.

"Y-yeah, I'm fine!" he said, throwing on a bright, unexpected smile. "I-in fact, I know just what'll cheer me up." With this, the young Gem abruptly face planted right into the snow, rolling down the short hill in front of them and laughing all the while. Though Mabel let out a small, amused laugh at this, Connie gasped in apparent horror, not hesitating to run down the hill after him, catching up just as Steven collided with a soft snow bank at the bottom.

"Steven!" she exclaimed, wasting no time in pulling him out of the snow. "You shouldn't do that! Remember what I said before about frostbite?"

"Oh, right," Steven said, shaking the snow out of his hair. He flinched as he noticed the intense, almost frustrated look Connie was sending his way as she checked him over for any sort of harm. "S-sorry."

"Are you sure you don't need any extra mittens or scarves now?" Mabel chimed in as she arrived at the bottom of the hill, not wasting any time handing them over to Steven before he could even answer. "Y-You don't wanna catch a cold. Or, uh, frostbite, I guess." Steven frowned as he looked at the bundle of clothes in his arms, only for Mabel to start putting them on him, layering what he already had on as she started with wrapping the spare scarf around his neck.

"N-no, really, Mabel, I'm o-" Steven was cut off, his voice ultimately muffled under the second scarf as she eagerly squeezed another mitten over his current pair.

Connie largely approved of Mabel helping Steven bundle up even more, knowing that it certainly couldn't hurt him in chilly conditions such as these. The sun had largely hidden away from sight, and in its place, a light flurry had begun, one that was quickly starting to turn into a steady snowfall. And while that alone was a palpable concern, Connie soon spotted an entirely different one as she stole a glance at the path ahead of them.

"Whoa..." she gasped, diverting Steven and Mabel's attention to what she was looking at. Not only had the monster clearly passed through here, but it had wrecked the surrounding woods, leaving trees and tracks strewn around the area in seemingly every direction. "Now this is a mess. Some of these prints look… humanoid…" she frowned at a set of noticeably smaller footprints in the snow in front of her. "Could Pearl have been here?"

"Didn't Pearl go the other way though?" Mabel pointed out as she finished fitting a second pair of ear-muffs onto Steven's head.

Connie nodded, even more bewildered as she inspected the disorganized display before her. "Monster… humanoid… monster… humanoid…" she muttered, looking between the varied prints in the snow. Prints that almost seemed to depict that some kind of struggle had happened here, though to what extent, she had no idea. "What could it mean…?" She paused, the mystery of the situation largely lost on her as she felt the cold wintery breeze pick up a bit, the snow swelling along with it. "Hm… For now, we should probably take shelter from this blizzard. But first, let's grab some of these pine needles," she picked up a handful off the ground. "We can brew a vitamin C rich tea with them, so we don't get scurvy!"

"Ooo, like a pirate!" Mabel exclaimed as Steven tried to do the same under his somewhat sweltering layers.

Not wanting to waste any more time than necessary, Connie picked up a few more pine needles along the way to the shelter she'd spotted earlier, a sizable opening at the base of a large tree. The trio turned it into something of a makeshift camp, with a tarp covering the opening to contain the warmth that the small cook stove Connie had packed was providing while it brewed their tea. Even if said tea was really just water with pine needles resting at the bottom of the pot.

"Tea's ready!" Connie announced, pouring some out for herself, Steven, and Mabel. "Careful, it's hot."

"Thanks!" Steven grinned, having freed himself of a few layers so he could properly try the tea. However, as soon as both him and Mabel took their first sips, they both couldn't help but wince from how utterly terrible it truly tasted.

"How is it?" Connie asked expectantly.

"...It's… hmm… bad," Steven answered honestly.

"Well, yeah," Connie shrugged, sipping her own tea as she tried ignoring just how awful it was. "It's not about tasting good, Steven. It's about surviving the punishment of nature."

"Oh! But maybe I can make that punishment a little less… blegh," Mabel grinned as she began searching her bag once more. "I've gotta have at least one spare sugar packet in here somewhere…"

"It's ok, Mabel," Steven assured her with a small smile, though he did stick his tongue out a bit as he took another sip of the terrible tea. "I-it's… not that bad… You just gotta… get used to it."

"B-but I can make it better!" Mabel insisted, not noticing the concerned looks Steven and Connie sent her way upon hearing her nearly manic tone. "I-I can help!"

"Mabel, y-you… don't have to-" Steven ventured as he started realizing this might be about more than just the tea.

"Y-yes, I do!" Mabel snapped, her forced smile finally faltering as she dug even more frantically into her bag. "I have to! I know I do!"

"B-but you don't…" Steven slowly began to reach out a hand to touch her shoulder. "It's fine-"

"No, it's NOT!"

Her abrupt, agonized shout came with her hand slamming down onto the ground with a fist right next to her own mug of tea. The force of the impact was enough to knock the cup over entirely, the hot water within it inadvertently splashing out in Steven's direction. Time seemed to slow to a crawl as both Mabel and Connie watched with horror as quite a bit of that scalding water hit Steven in one of the few parts of his body that wasn't fully covered at the moment: his face. The young Gem let out a loud cry of pain as the hot water splashed against his cheek, leaving behind a burn that had only just missed his eye.

"Steven!" Connie cried, horrified as the young Gem pressed his palm against the burn, letting out a soft sob in the process. At the same time, the most Mabel could do was jump to her feet, her eyes wide with fear and guilt as she backed away slowly, realizing what she'd just done. Because in all her efforts to try and help Steven, the last thing she'd ever wanted to do was hurt him instead.

Which was why, if that was all she was actually good at doing, then she figured she might as well not even be around him at all.

"M-Mabel?" Steven gasped, noticing as she suddenly ran out of the tree entirely. At that moment, any sort of concerns he had for himself disappeared as he instantly slipped off one of his mittens and licked his palm, letting his healing spit take care of the damage done to his face in an instant. Connie let out a sigh of relief as she watched this, though she was hardly allayed as she got to her feet next, readying her gear as quickly as she possibly could.

"She shouldn't be out in that storm all by herself, not with that monster on the loose," she said tightly as she strapped her sword to her back before turning back to Steven. "You need to stay here where it's safe. We'll both be back soo-"

"No," Steven countered as he stood as well. "I want to help you find her."

"Steven, no," Connie shook her head, resolute. "It's way too dangerous out there. A-and… you just got hurt, and I-"

"But… I… I healed myself, see?" he pointed to his cheek, which showed not a single trace of the burn it had just sported seconds ago. "I'm ok."

"That's… not what I meant," Connie sighed bitterly as she turned away from him.

"...Oh…" Steven frowned, understanding almost instantly. Yet even so, he didn't back down, not when Mabel was out there all alone. "W-well, I still want to go with you to look for her. Pearl told us to work together. W-we're a team, remember?"

"Steven, you can't come," Connie insisted sternly.

"Why can't I?" Steven pressed, desperate to know why both her and Mabel were so insistent on keeping him so sheltered and safe all of the sudden. Even if he already had a very strong guess as to what was causing their practically suffocating behavior.

"Because you can't."

"Why not?!"

"Because!" Connie shouted, her tone tight with shame as she spun around to face him, tears in her eyes. "I can't protect you!"

Steven stilled upon hearing this, stunned and stricken with newfound guilt as he met her mournful, morose gaze as she continued. "I-I… I couldn't protect you from Bill, I-I wasn't even there to stop him from…" she trailed off with a heavy sob, hardly even able to even work up the nerve to so much as look at him after how she'd failed him. After how she'd been halfway around the world, completely oblivious and unknowing at the moment when he'd nearly lost his memories, his life, his very existence entirely. After how she'd shown up far too late to do really anything that could have mattered to stop any harm from coming to him in the first place.

And even now, she realized, she still couldn't keep one of the people who mattered to her the most safe from harm. Not even when he was standing right in front of her. "I-I… I'm sorry…" Was all she whispered before she turned and ran out of the tree, just as Mabel had done right before her.

"Connie!" Steven cried after her, stepping out of the tree into the now mid-level blizzard raging outside. "Mabel!" His own voice echoed back at him through the storm, the falling snow far too thick for him to even see either of the girls, much less follow their tracks to find them. Still, that didn't mean he wasn't going to try, especially since he knew he was the one inadvertently causing them both so much strife and grief and pain and everything else in between to begin with. "...I'm the one who should be sorry…"

The outskirts of Gravity Falls were just about indistinguishable from the rest of the dense woods that surrounded it, marked only by a few stray, weathered sign posts denoting the town border. The part of the edge Ford had brought them to was a relatively open area, a bit of a scenic overlook that offered a view of a slow incline that led past the border. The author had parked not too far away from it, and Dipper, curious to see what the meaning of this strange trip really was, cautiously followed not too far behind.

"From the very day I first arrived here in Gravity Falls years ago, I had made it my mission to uncover the answer behind your very question, Dipper," Ford began to explain, stopping at the edge of the overlook. "I tried asking the Gems about where the town's strange properties originated from, but even Rose herself didn't know. It was the question that guided my research for years, that pushed me onward to look for the ultimate answer about what exactly made Gravity Falls such a hotspot for unexplainable anomalies. And… when I first met Bill, I thought I'd finally found that answer."

The author paused, noticing the cross anger that started to slip back into his nephew's manner at the mere mention of the dream demon. Even so, he continued. "Bill told me that the town's weirdness leaked in from another dimension," he explained, shaking his head. "But that was a lie. Unsurprising, given how Bill always lies."

"Yeah…" Dipper muttered, rubbing his arm as he remembered the most recent lie from the dream demon both him and Steven had fallen for. A lie that had nearly cost them their memories and so much more beyond that. "He always does…"

"The truth, however," Ford countered, turning to his nephew with a more hopeful smile. "Is a bit stranger than that."

Dipper eased up a bit at this, though he was admittedly confused as he watched the author pull out, of all things, a bag of jellybeans out of his coat pocket. He poured a few of them out into his hand as he began to explain. "I developed a theory not so long after I returned, about exactly what causes Gravity Falls to be so strange. I call it the True Theory of Weirdness."

"And… that theory has to do with… jellybeans?" Dipper ventured, sending his uncle a quizzical look.

Ford chuckled. "Not exactly. But they make for good visual aids. For you see, everything in the universe is like a jelly bean," he held one of the colorful beans up to demonstrate. "Made of the same basic materials, varied in colors and flavors, but all more or less conforming to the same expected pattern. But, every now and then, by chance, there's a bean that comes out… deformed, odd… weird." At this, the author picked out a particularly strange-shaped jellybean, one that looked nothing like it's much more normal, average-looking companions. He didn't explain any further, his smile slightly widening a bit as he took in his nephew's still quite confused expression. And then, he dropped that strange bean, right along with the rest of the bag, to the ground at his feet.

Expectantly, the beans began to steadily tumble downhill past the edge of the overlook, each of them rolling down it at varying speeds. And yet, just as they all passed by the sign at the very edge of the town border, one of them, the deformed bean Ford had pointed out earlier, abruptly changed course. It began to roll right back up the hill, entirely on its own accord, right back toward the border. Right back toward the town itself.

Dipper couldn't suppress a stunned gasp as that strange jellybean came to a stop in the exact place it had started, directly in front of the author. Ford was practically beaming as his nephew looked to him, practically starving for answers at this point. And yet, the hunger for knowledge in his eyes was also filled with dawning understanding too. An understanding the author had already reached some time ago and was more than happy to finally share with someone who would value it just as much as he had.

"Don't you see, my boy?" he said, placing a hand on Dipper's shoulder as they both turned back to face the town behind them. "Gravity Falls is a weirdness magnet. Oddness is strangely, mysteriously drawn to the place, not from some distant, unknown dimension, but from right here on Earth. Or in some cases… a bit… outside of our earth," he smirked, sending his nephew a knowing wink at this playful reference to the Gems.

"W-wait, wait…" Dipper interrupted, beside himself with such an incredible discovery as he came to sit upon a nearby log facing the outlook. "So… Gravity Falls is just… like this? I-it always has been?"

"And it always will be," Ford said with a fond smile. "This place, by its very nature, attracts the bizarre, the unexplainable, the weird, but special things within our world. From misshapen jelly beans, to gnomes and fairies to dinosaurs, to interdimensional tears, clones, crazy ex-presidents, speed demons, sentient extraterrestrial gemstones, half human sentient extraterrestrial gemstones, and…" He took a seat alongside his nephew, pulling his third journal out and pressing it into his hands while letting one of his own rest upon the matching insignia on its cover. "Even men with six fingers and boys with strange birthmarks."

Dipper looked to the author once again at this, wonder mingling with many other untold emotions in his expression. Even so, Ford gave him a reassuring nod, his own hope rising alongside his nephew's that maybe, just maybe, he'd finally found a way to set one of his several wrongs right. "You know, I'm not normally the type to talk of destiny," the author continued, his tone contemplative as he closed his eyes. "But… I feel it in my bones that my arrival in this town, and perhaps yours too, Dipper, was not an accident. It may not be entirely clear at this very moment, but I feel as though the two of us are meant to be part of some great fate the town has in store for us yet."

And just like that, the momentum the author had been building fell apart the moment Dipper's growing smile disappeared into resoundant despair. "Yeah…" he scoffed, gripping his arms as he glanced away. "Some 'great fate' I was a part of the other day when I couldn't even stop the one thing that's been putting this town, the entire world in danger the most!"

Ford sighed. He knew he should have anticipated this was a conversation they'd need to have. The only problem was, he still wasn't quite ready to have it. "Dipper, I already told you," he said, maintaining as patient of a tone as possible. "Defeating Bill isn't supposed to be your job."

"So is it supposed to be yours then?" Dipper shot back, fixing his uncle with a bitter glare.

"Yes-n-no," Ford quickly corrected himself, realizing that the true answer to such a question was far more complicated then a simple yes or no. "I-I… I just-"

"All I wanted to do was finally keep him from hurting me or Steven or Mabel or anyone else ever again!" Dipper continued, finding it hard to keep his true emotions on the matter contained any longer. "I thought I finally had a chance to do it too, but then you said I was wrong for even trying! But wouldn't you have done the exact same thing if you had the same kind of chance?!"

"I… yes… I would have…" Ford admitted, glancing down in shame. "Dipper, the truth is… you should have never had to deal with Bill in the first place. And the only reason that you kids ever had to contend with him at all was… well, because of me. I suppose the Gems were right; I'm the only one who's really ever been truly wrong in any of this…"

Dipper's frustration softened somewhat at this, especially as he caught onto the genuine remorse in the author's tone. An admittance of guilt that seemed so rare to be coming from someone who was as usually prideful and astute as Ford. "B-because of what happened between you and Bill?" Dipper guessed hesitantly.

Ford nodded. "It's all been one long, seemingly endless domino effect. But… if I had known back then what I know now, if I had known just how much harm he'd end up bringing you and Mabel and Steven and the Gems… I would have never even given him the time of day. And even if I had, if I had at least been able to defeat him on my own years ago, maybe then I could have at least spared you kids from his wrath now… If there's anything I've come to regret in my life above all else, then… it's that."

"...Well, that doesn't really do a whole lot to change anything now…" Dipper muttered as he stared down at the journal on his lap.

"No…" Ford sighed, looking out to the vast view of the valley in front of them. "I suppose it doesn't."

A long, solemn silence filled the air between the pair at this, filled in only by the sounds of the late afternoon forest activity around them. If there was anything either of them could really agree on at a moment like this, it was just how unfair it all seemed, that Bill's treachery could continue to survive and thrive for so very long, since before either of them had even been born and, as it currently seemed, until likely long after they were gone. Even more unfair was that every attempt at bringing his tyranny to an end always seemed to result in bitter failure, to the point that it was questionable if it was even worth it to try to stand against someone like him at all. After all, Bill surpassed even the Gems when it came to sheer power, and his knack for planning and scheming was unparalleled. While they had thwarted a handful of his plans before, they'd never really made much progress in the way of stopping him altogether. Which was why, especially now after yet another attempt that had ultimately ended in bitter failure, it certainly seemed as though they might never stop him at all.

"...Do you think… we'll ever actually be able to get rid of Bill for good?" Dipper asked, deciding to voice the question aloud.

"...Only the One Who Watches truly knows…" Ford offered a cryptic response, one that he hadn't heard or really thought about in quite some time.

"The… One Who Watches…?" Dipper frowned, glancing up at his uncle in confusion.

Ford couldn't help but respond to his nephew's curiosity with a soft, almost nostalgic smile. "An old friend of mine once told me about a benevolent celestial being, one that seeks Bill's end just as much as you and I do, if not moreso. I'm still… somewhat skeptical about its actual existence, but… if it is real, I can't help but find some small comfort in the thought that perhaps there's a bit of power in our corner when it comes to standing against Cipher after all…"

"Hmph, would have been nice to see some of that 'power' in action back when we were in the Nightmare Realm…" Dipper said with a disappointed frown. "Maybe then we-I wouldn't have failed as badly as I did…"

"...In all my years of research and interdimensional wandering, if there's one thing I've learned, it's this," Ford said, seeming to go off on a different tangent entirely. Even so, his tone was sincere, brimming with wisdom Dipper knew he'd do well to listen to. "Every success in life comes from failure. That rings true for some of the most important scientific discoveries in history, from Newton to Tesla. What matters most is if you're willing to keep on trying after you fail until you finally find a way to reach that success."

"B-but… what if it never comes?" Dipper pressed fretfully. "What if I never get another chance to stop him? O-or what if I do and I mess that up just like before? I-I know you said stopping Bill isn't my job, but I still want to! I want to keep Mabel and Steven and everyone else safe, I want to keep the world safe! I… I just… I want things to finally be ok for a change…"

"And they will be," Ford assured as he placed a consoling hand on his distraught nephew's shoulder. "You may not have succeeded this time; heck, you might not even succeed upon a second attempt. But I still meant what I said before; this town has a way of attracting not only strangeness to its borders, but specialness too. You're here for a reason, even if that reason isn't entirely clear yet. Gravity Falls itself sensed greatness in you, and so have I." Ford's words flowed with immeasurable pride every bit as his smile reflected as he met the awestruck look his nephew was sending his way. One that was filling up with a sense of rising hope that the author knew he needed above all else after everything he'd been through. "I can tell that you're meant to do something truly spectacular yet, Dipper."

"M-Mason," Dipper said, largely without thinking. Ford's smile faded into confusion at this, bewilderment that only grew as he watched his nephew cover his mouth out of shock over what he'd just said aloud.

"What?" the author asked, curious to know exactly why the boy was so suddenly, strangely shaken.

And though it took Dipper a moment or two to steel his decision, he ultimately repeated it intentionally all the same. "M-my real name is Mason," he said, his cheeks warm with embarrassment as he glanced away. "Dipper is just a nickname Mabel gave me when we were really little. B-but then… everyone got used to it, a-and now it feels too late to tell everyone the truth. I-I mean, Steven did find out on accident the first time we fused, a-and I did tell Lapis before, but… yeah…" he sighed, largely over remorse for how his close bond with the blue Gem had been harmed in all of this too. Still, as he paused, he met Ford's gaze, realizing that the author was staring at him as if he'd just made the most incredible discovery in the world. Which of course, only made Dipper even more flustered as he rushed to find a way to save face somehow. "B-besides, it's kind of a dumb name anyway…" he muttered as he looked away again. "Don't tell anyone. Please."

Much to his surprise, however, the author didn't make any effort to mock or scold him for keeping his true name hidden. Instead, Ford simply reached out to lightly tussle the boy's hair, sending him a kind, fond smile as he did. "Your secret's safe with me, Mason," he said warmly. "And I think it's a great name. The Masons are a famous secret society, you know."

Once again, Ford was caught off guard as Dipper suddenly hugged him, his face buried into the author's sweater as he began to cry. For what was far too long, the author remained silent and still, unsure of what to do or say to comfort his nephew at a moment like this. And yet, he soon found he didn't have too as Dipper glanced up at him, his eyes still wet with tears but a bright, thankful smile on his face. A surefire sign that not only had the icy tension between them finally melted away, but of the solidarity and trust that they shared. Trust that the author valued highly, especially as he realized just how deep it ran.

"G-Great Uncle Ford?" Dipper asked, still smiling as he wiped his tears dry. "Can you drive me somewhere? T-there's… something I need to do."

"Of course," Ford readily agreed, having a strong suspicion as to where his nephew wanted to go. And who he wanted to make amends with as well. "I'd be more than happy to."

The snow squall had fortunately died down a bit, evening out into a more gently flurry. Steven was immensely relieved as it did, allowing his visibility to increase considerably as he wandered through the open woods. Still, he wasn't having much luck at finding either Mabel or Connie out here in the vast white wintery wilderness, to the point that he was on the verge of contacting Pearl in the hopes that she could help. He had nearly pulled the walkie talkie out of his pocket, however, when he suddenly picked up the first hints of a soft-spoken conversation happening under a tree not too far away.

He inched in a bit closer, staying just out of the girls' sight as he tucked himself behind the large tree they were sitting under together. They'd put together a small fire to warm up around as they sat close beside each other, their voices quiet and mutually upset as they discussed what they felt they couldn't have with Steven around.

"I-I… I tried everything I could to help Stepper remember Steven and Dipper," Mabel muttered, the lower half of her face buried into her warm scarf as she pulled her legs close to her chest. "And it still wasn't enough. And the worst part was, even after Stepper got his journal back, I just… stood there and watched when Bill burnt Dipper's half of it. I couldn't stop him, I couldn't save my own brother, Steven had to do that instead! I-I almost lost them both at the same time… all because I couldn't just help them when they needed me to!"

Mabel was unable to hold back a guilt-ridden sob at this, seeking comfort in the soft embrace Connie let her fall into. For her own part, the other girl was fighting back tears herself, though her remorse came from an entirely different source instead. "At least you were actually there…" she muttered morosely. "If we really had lost them… I-I wouldn't have even known until it was way too late…"

"B-but… that's not your fault," Mabel whimpered, sending Connie a worried look. "Like Steven said, there's no way you could have known that this would happen… But, I think if you had been here… maybe things wouldn't have gotten as bad as they did…"

"Exactly!" Connie let out a frustrated huff, not recognizing that Mabel had been trying to console her with that remark. "If I had been here, I could have done something, anything to try to fix this mess! But that's always how it is… I'm never around when it matters most… Not for this or when you guys stopped Pyrite or the Cluster or when the portal opened or when Jasper and Peridot came to Earth or anything important like that! I know we always say we're a team but…" She sighed, a few stray tears finally slipping down her cheeks. "Sometimes it feels like I'm the weakest member of that team…"

"What? No way!" Mabel adamantly disagreed, placing both her hands on Connie's shoulders. "You're so, so strong, Connie! You can fight and you're really smart and really good at surviving out here in the wild. We wouldn't be the Mystery Kids without you! Besides, i-if there's anyone who's the weakest, it's me… "

"Mabel…" Connie shook her head, instantly disagreeing. "You're not weak. You're the one who always raises everyone's spirits when we're at our lowest. I don't think I've ever seen you give up anything, even when the rest of us want to. And you knit a pretty mean sweater to boot."

"Hm, yeah… a lot of good a sweater would have done for Steven and Dipper when I nearly lost them forever…" Mabel sighed sadly as she leaned against the tree. "I just… wish I didn't feel so… so…"

"Useless?" Connie ventured the word at the same moment Mabel said it, both of them echoing just how despondent they both really felt.

A bout of solemn silence passed between the pair, one that was only filled as Steven suddenly stepped out of hiding to speak to it. "Well, for what it's worth," he said, a soft smile on his face, even as he startled the girls somewhat. "I think you guys are anything but useless."

The girls exchanged a bewildered glance at this, neither of them fully willing to allow themselves to accept the young Gem's warm encouragement. "B-but… Neither of us were able to protect you from Bill, Steven…" Connie said, averting his gaze out of guilt.

"And if we can't even do that, then…" Mabel shuddered, noticing that Steven had healed the burn she'd inadvertently caused him. Not that that really made her feel any better at a moment like this. "How are we supposed to help you the next time things go wrong?"

"We'll help each other then!" Steven professed, extending a hand out to both of the girls in hopeful offering. "We're not just a team; we're friends. And that means that it's not about one of us taking charge to protect the others, we should all be protecting each other when we're in trouble. No matter what kind of trouble that is."

"B-but… what happened with Bill, i-it was-"

"It's all over now," Steven countered Mabel's concerns with a steadying smile. A smile that didn't quite meet his eyes. "And the best part is, we all made it out a-ok! We don't have to worry about what might have happened or what could have happened; all that matters is that we're still together. And as long as we are, we'll be ready to face whatever comes our way next."

The girls hesitated for a moment, both of them still holding onto their own lasting shreds of remorse over just how short they'd fallen. But ultimately, they knew they'd have to let that remorse go, largely since Steven was indeed right. Regardless of what could have been if the circumstances had been different, or if they had acted in a different sort of way, the past was in the past. Clinging onto it would do nothing for any of them now; all they could hope to do was strive to make things better moving forward, to be ready whenever the next disaster arose. And whenever it would, then sure enough, they'd strive to be ready to rise to the challenge, to protect each other and face it together, just like the team, just like the friends they truly were.

Connie accepted Steven's outstretched hand first, allowing him to pull her into a comforting embrace. Mabel hesitated, her newfound smile fading somewhat as she watched them, at least until Steven extended his other hand out to her once more with the unspoken invitation for her to join them. It didn't take her long to do so, all three of them bundled together in a fond embrace that felt as warm as the summer sun despite the wintry weather around them. And that warmth only seemed to rise ever higher as a soft, yet sweet glow surrounded the trio, one that served to bring them even closer together than they already were.

When they opened their eyes a moment later, they were surprised to find they were looking through three of them instead of two right off the bat. They gasped, startled as they realized their voice sounded different, as they looked over their now-shared winter attire, as they ran a hair through their now long, flowing dark hair, as they realized exactly what had happened.

"Oh my gosh!" they exclaimed, a wide smile claiming their expression as they spun around to get a better view of themselves. "We're a fusion! All three of us, together! Yeah! It's so awesome!" They chuckled in newfound delight, the joy behind their new formation chasing away any remaining guilt or doubts. "We're just like Dipevebel! Oh, but I should probably come up with a name for just us… Now, let's see here…" The fusion took pause at this, pacing around the small fire as to properly get used to their new towering height as they thought. "Steven… Mabel… Connie… Steconbel? Ehhh no… How about... Maven and Stevonnie, since we are technically them too? So... Maveonnie? Oh, cloose, but not enough Steven in there… Oh wait! I've got it!" They grinned, striking a bold, determined pose as they proclaimed their new name for the empty world around them to hear. "I am the one, the only… Mabonnven!"

They smiled as they heard their name echo around the forest, relishing the sound of it just as much as they were their new existence as a fusion. They didn't get too much time to enjoy it however, as a sudden roar sounded out from somewhere not too far away.

"The monster!" Mabonnven gasped, quickly remembering their primary mission. "I know Pearl said we shouldn't fight it on our own but… I'm not on my own anymore." They grinned, drawing their sword as they called upon Maven's grappling shield. From there, they wasted no time in rushing through the forest, eventually finding exactly what they were looking for.

The monster had essentially cornered itself against a towering stone cliff, letting out a series of practically panicked roars and howls as it tried scratching against its base to climb up it, only to no avail. It hardly even noticed the fusion's arrival as it continued its manic attempt, much to Mabonnven's confusion as they tried to figure out the best way to approach it.

"It seems scared… is it running from us?" they asked themselves, before realizing their voice was a bit too loud for comfort. "Shh!" they whispered intensely. "We don't want it to hear us!"

"Hello! Kids?" Mabonnven jolted as Pearl's voice echoed out from the walkie talkie in one of their several coat pockets. "How's it going? The weather really took a turn for the worse earlier, and while it's finally let up a bit, you should still be careful. I would hate to be responsible for putting any of you in danger."

By now, the monster's attention had fully been garnished as it turned to face the fusion. For their part, Mabonnven panicked, rushing to grab the walkie talkie and turn it out even as Pearl continued obliviously rambling off advice and instructions for them to follow.

"And remember, if you find the monster, don't make any loud, startling noises!"

"Gah! Gotta turn this thing off!" Mabonnven hissed under their breath as the monster began to slowly approach them. Even if all they were really doing with the walkie talkie was fumbling with its controls clumsily. "Stupid… slippery… mittens!"

"Hello? Is anyone there?" Pearl chimed in once more, even as Mabonnven finally tossed the device aside out of frustration. "I'm just going to keep talking until somebody answers."

The monster let out a low, suspicious growl as they continued creeping toward Mabonnven, who, with their added height, realized they stood just a bit shorter than its possible eye level. It was something of a comforting advantage, even if the creature's bulk alone was quite intimidating. The monster only grew more frightening, however, as it noticed the sword the fusion was clutching tightly in one hand, and the grappling shield they were holding in the other. Realizing Mabonnven was a threat, the creature began to attack, roaring fiercely as it charged at the fusion head on.

Even so, Mabonnven was ready for it. They ducked low out of the creature's path as it pounced at them, firing off their grappling shield at its open stomach as it flew overhead. The impact sent the monster flying to the far side of the clearing, though it was far from finished yet. It rampaged once more as Mabonnven scrambled to their feet, swerving just out of the path of their sword as they swung it wide in the hopes of poofing the creature. What they hadn't been anticipating however, was for the monster to immediately spin around and rear high with the intent of slamming its large front legs down on them. Mabonnven summoned a bubble to protect themselves on a knee-jerk reaction, watching with rising fear as the monster continued beating down upon its surface, leaving them with little options to attack it, lest they risk getting crushed in the process.

"W-what do we do? What do we do?" they asked themselves, glancing around frantically for anything that might help. Only to hear exactly what they were looking for half-buried in a snow drift several yards away.

"Steven? Connie? Mabel?" Pearl attempted to reach the trio once again. "Is this because of the 'favorite Gem' thing? Heh, that was just a joke! Don't tell Garnet…"

As the monster rose up to prepare to land another heavy blow against the bubble, Mabonnven took a risky chance. Acting quickly, they let the bubble drop as they deftly rolled out of the monster's path, narrowly avoiding its feet as they crashed down into the snow where they'd just been. The fusion took advantage of the creature's momentary confusion to rush over to retrieve the walkie talkie, quickly dusting the snow off of it to finally answer Pearl's ongoing one-sided conversation.

"Pearl! We found the monster!"

"What?!" Pearl exclaimed, though she stopped short for a brief moment on the other end of the line upon hearing the fusion's unfamiliar voice. "Wait, who is this?"

"I-it's Steven, Mabel, and Connie," Mabonnven quickly told her, narrowly leaping out of the monster's path as it ran for them again. "More or less."

Pearl gasped in surprised realization on the other end of the line. "Did you kids fuse?!" she asked, her delight apparent through her tone alone.

"Uh, yeah, anyway-" Mabonnven let out an exasperated huff as they tried taking another swing at the monster to no avail. "We could really use your help right now!"

"Oh, right, of course!" Pearl exclaimed, quickly remembering the mission at hand. "I'll be right there!"

With this, Mabonnven focused their attention back on the monster, which had taken up an offensive stance on the far end of the clearing. It was obviously preparing another brutish attack, one that the fusion prepared themselves to fend off by replacing the grappling shield with just a shield alone. "Ok… alright…" they said to themselves tensely as they began to circle the monster widely. "Pearl's on her way, but until she gets here, we'll just have to fend this thing off ourselves. Remember, we do this as a team, as friends. As Mabonn-"

Mabonnven didn't get a chance to finish before the monster leapt forward, and though the fusion was ready for it, they weren't the ones to stop its attack. Instead, an entirely new force entered the fray, plowing into the monster's side from completely out of nowhere to knock it back hard. For a moment, the most Mabonnven could do was watch in bewildered shock at this sudden intrusion, though their alarm practically skyrocketed as they realized exactly who had been the one to pin the monster down.

"J-Jasper!" the fusion gasped, holding their shield up higher to protect themselves properly. The orange Gem paid them no mind, however, as she focused on her current target instead. The corrupted Gem thrashed and howled underneath her, clearly just as terrified by her violent presence as Mabonnven had been. Jasper landed several strong punches to keep the creature subdued before she viciously ripped its teal gemstone right out of its chest, destroying its physical form in the process. She took the time to revel in her twisted victory, holding both that gemstone, as well as the one she'd claimed from the other corrupted monster up with a broad, sadistic grin.

"Those footprints…" Mabonnven muttered in dawning, anxious realization. "The monsters were both running from her!"

Jasper finally turned toward the fusion at this, still holding onto her pair of prizes as she looked over them in apparent confusion. "Huh?" she raised an eyebrow crossly. "Who are you supposed to-" She stopped short, an icy scowl overtaking her expression as she spotted the all-too familiar pink shield resting over Mabonnven's arm. "Rose…" she growled hatefully. Fortunately, before she could even try to lash out at the fusion, their backup arrived just in the nick of time.

"Kids?!" Pearl called as she swiftly leapt onto the scene, her eyes wide with wonder as she got her first glimpse of Mabonnven. Even so, she knew there'd be time to be impressed with them later. "W-where's the-" She gasped in apt fear as she spotted the orange Gem, wasting no time in summoning a spear to deal with her if need be. "Jasper!" she cried, panicked that they had to contend with the additional threat the orange Gem posed. Yet even so, Jasper hardly paid her any mind as she kept her sights set on Mabonnven alone.

"Hey Rose," she said with a newfound triumphant smirk as she presented the pair of gemstones she'd just claimed. "Look what I got…"

Mabonnven shook their head, unsure of how to react to this apparent taunt. They were even more bewildered as Jasper abruptly turned and began to walk away, sparing none of them another word as she strangely disappeared into the wintry woods without a trace. And taking both of the downed corrupted gemstones with her to wherever she might be heading next.

Even so, both Pearl and Mabonnven couldn't hold back a shared sigh of relief once she was gone. They let their respective weapons disappear as the fusion sheathed their sword, the ongoing threat finally lifted from the Great North, or at least, so it seemed. "Are you three ok?" Pearl asked, glancing up at the much taller fusion.

"Yeah," they offered her an easy smile. "We're fine."

"More than fine, I'd say," Pearl mused, grinning as she inspected the fusion for herself. "You're incredible! Just look at you! And you managed to fend off that monster and Jasper all on your own too! Excellent work, uh…"

"Mabonnven," they filled her in with a small, amused chuckle.

"Mabonnven," Pearl repeated with a satisfied smile. "It's very nice to meet you. And you know, I can't express how proud I am of all three of you! This mission was a total success!"

"B-but… we didn't defeat the monster… or Jasper…" Mabonnven frowned, confused.

"No, but you did work together," Pearl said warmly. "And in the end, that's what matters most."

"...Yeah…" Mabonnven said, their fond smile returning as they placed their hands close to their heart. "I guess we did…"

"Now, come along, it's time to head home," Pearl began leading the way back to the warp pad. "I'm sure you kids are more than eager to get out of this cold. And we just have to show you to Garnet while you're still fused; she'll be so impressed!"

As the white Gem continued to ramble off adulations for the new fusion, Mabonnven began to follow after her, their spirits high as they decided to stay together for just a bit longer. After all, how could they not? Their fusion had proved to be cathartic, in a way, almost as if they'd come together when they needed it most, to be there for each other in every way possible, to overcome the feelings of remorse, guilt, shame, and grief that had once split them apart. And above all else, they had come together to help each other in the best way they knew how.

By helping each other finally begin to heal.

Even before they'd fully pulled up to the barn, Dipper could spot Lapis sitting high atop its roof alone. Peridot was the one who ran out to greet them as they parked, but it wasn't long before Lapis curiously flew down as well, even if her approach was much more hesitant when she spotted Dipper trailing after Ford.

"Well, well, looks like we finally have some visitors out here!" Peridot began, sending the pair a somewhat goading smile. "Took you long enough to come out here to see what we've done with the place." She nodded back to the barn itself, which seemed to be under some kind of construction based on the mess of random materials strewn about all over the place. "It's a work in progress, but I think it's coming along quite nicely, right Lapis?"

Lapis didn't answer, her focus instead set on Dipper as he returned her rather unreadable gaze a bit sheepishly. After just how harshly he'd reacted to her essentially saving his life the other day, he wasn't sure if she'd even want to speak to him at all. Yet even so, he decided to venture a try all the same. "Uh… h-hey, Lapis?" he said, somewhat uncertain. "C-can… we talk for a sec? Alone?"

Again, Lapis said nothing, instead sending Ford a brief, tentative glance at this. The author reassured her with a small nod and smile, one that seemed to be enough to placate the blue Gem into agreeing with a small, terse nod.

And so Ford and Peridot stood by as Lapis flew Dipper up to her more private spot on top of the barn so they could have their conversation in private. "Please tell me those two are finally going to make up already," Peridot remarked as her and the author watched from their spot afar on the ground. "Ever since we got back here, Lapis won't stop worrying about whether Dipper is still mad at her. I keep trying to tell her that he's not, but she never backs down when it comes to him."

"...It's rather sweet, isn't it?" Ford retorted with a small chuckle. "The bond those two have managed to form in such a short amount of time."

"Sure, if that's what you wanna call it," Peridot crossed her arms. "So is that why you brought him all the way out here in that primitive transportation vessel over there? So they could patch things up?"

"Yes," Ford nodded, letting out a small sigh of relief as he watched Dipper and Lapis finally embrace from atop the barn. No doubt a sign that they'd already managed to make amends with one another after all. "You see, Peridot, I've… made quite a few momentous mistakes recently. Which is why I've decided to make up for those mistakes by fixing whatever problems I can, big or small. I don't know if it'll ever really be enough to make it up to… well, everyone I've ever wronged, but… I hope it's at least some kind of start."

"...Garnet, Amethyst, and Pearl are still angry at you, aren't they?" Peridot guessed flatly.

"What?" Ford looked to the green Gem incredulously at this. "H-how did you-"

"Amethyst told me," she remarked flippantly. "Though strangely, she didn't really explain why. Still, don't worry; they'll come around eventually. They did for me, after all."

Ford couldn't help but smile at this, accepting Peridot's surprisingly comforting assurance in the hopes that it was true. That the Gems really would forgive him someday for just how much damage his own mistakes had done. That their friendship could someone be repaired despite that damage all the same.

They stayed at the barn for another hour or so before bidding a fond farewell to Lapis and Peridot alike. By now, Ford had largely gotten the hang of things behind the wheel, so the drive back toward town was a relatively smooth one as it carried on into the early evening. Along the way, the author noticed that Dipper had nodded off in the passenger seat beside him, clearly tired from such an emotionally taxing day. Ford spared a brief, soft smile at his sleeping nephew as he continued driving back toward the shack, his heart warm as he thought of just how much trust the boy had put in him earlier by revealing his true name. The author had been burned many times by trusting others, namely Bill, but for all those times, he'd also valued the trust he'd shared with those closest to him in the past. Stan, back when they were children, before that trust had ultimately been shattered. Rose, before he'd ruined that treasured bond of trust for himself. Jheselbraum, as he wondered if she still thought about him as much as he thought of her. And now, Dipper, Mason, who was perhaps one of the few people he'd ever managed to repair a broken bond of trust with in his life. One of the few people who had been brave enough to stand up against the threat Bill Cipher posed, just as he strived to do himself. One of the few people he'd ever seen as a genuine kindred spirit, a kid after his own discovery-driven, mystery-loving heart.

Ford could have never imagined he'd come to respect and cherish a child as much as he did his own nephew, but in the relatively short amount of time they'd known each other for, he certainly had. Which was why the author knew it was a shame that in just a few short weeks' time, Dipper would have to leave Gravity Falls at the end of the summer to return home.

Unless, the author thought as an idea began to take form in his mind, one that grew stronger and more solid the more he thought about it, there was a way his nephew wouldn't have to leave so soon after all…

So yeah this chapter was a roller coaster of feels. Gotta say it was fun to write Mabonnven into it, as well as my favorite scene out of journal 3 (I'm a sap for Dipper and Ford bonding, its so wholesome). But this was just an appetizer for what's to come in arc 9... Remember all that talk of parallel dimensional portals? Well next time around, we'll finally get to see one... and it'll be a bit on the... darker side (literally? figuratively? who knoooooows). Anyway with that out of the way don't forget to REVIEW! Until next time! :)