It has been almost a year.
Spring came with sweetgrass and Asgore’s claws buried in the soil; summer brought forth flowers from the seeds he’d sown. Storms rolled down the mountain, cupped in the palms of the valley; Frisk splashed in the muddy puddles and Asriel drank the rain. Autumn sang through the trees; Toriel and Sans often sat on the front stoop, listening to what, last year, had almost seemed a dirge. Some nights, still, by magiclight, they carefully flip through Toriel’s diary, lingering longest on the note pasted on the last blank page. And some nights, still, Frisk sits awake at the kitchen table, Asriel stroking their cheek with his vines while they sip at hot chocolate or eat pie with their hands. But now they don’t wake Sans, who’s warily struck a truce with peace . . .
Winter falls thick as sleep on the valley. Everything is so still and silent that the slightest sound is amplified, echoes and re-echoes playing upon itself, a song. Monster and Human children playing in the snow. Asgore’s deep, rumbling basso and Alphys’ tremulous giggle as Frisk finally teaches them to sled. Undyne’s half-feigned battlecry and Papyrus’ “NYEH HEH HEH!” resound as they lead their teams of ragtag children in an all-out snowball war.
But mostly there is silence, darkness creeping across the Earth earlier and earlier each day until the eyes of houses are all aglow. The small kitchen seems smaller now than ever, with the five of them gathered around it, but it is good, and neither the silence nor the darkness seem to hold a candle to the light and warmth and love.
Until, for the first time in so long, Frisk wakes screaming in the night.
Moonlight pours into the room, refracted upon the snow until the light is nearly as bright as day. Frisk clutches blindly at Asriel’s pot, pressing their face against his pollen-fur, shaking and shaking and shaking until they realize that his glittering vermillion eyes are nothing like—
His name is tangled at their tongue. For a moment, just a moment, they don’t know who he is—and if they call him “Ralsei,” he doesn’t seem to hear.
Vines card through their hair; the softest leaf is pressed against their cheek, trembling, catching in its grooves the sweat and snot and tears. Papyrus has stirred from his racecar bed and a soft knock at the door ushers in Toriel and Sans; hesitantly they crowd around the child’s bed, uncertainty and trepidation scrawled across each face, tendrils of indigo and cyan light whispering from claws, phalanges, playing shadows, sharp.
Frisk raises their head, slowly, loathe to look at them, their friends—their family—recognizing with a writhing of their SOUL that their cry has awakened something in them all, some fear they’d believed buried. Not a one of them has, or will—nor ever could entirely--forget Chara—and well enough Frisk knows that each of them, in their own way, wondered whom they’d find upon answering their cry—
“Just a bad dream,” they whisper softly. “All kids have bad dreams . . .”
“But you’re special to us, child,” Toriel murmurs, kneeling down until her massive head is blotting out the moonlight from the window and the magic-traces from her claws dance against the walls. “We . . . were worried . . .”
Asriel’s vines twist, tiny fangs gleaming in the light of his mother’s love as he fights not to say a word. Because something in him cautions that this conversation, what happened in the dream, is something for Frisk and him alone. Not even Sans—
Reflexively he glances over, finds the skeleton studying them both, intently, beneath the façade of stifling a yawn.
“tori,” Sans says finally, “i think we should let the kid get back to sleep. we’ll all still be here in the morning if they want to talk.”
And the Boss Monster turns to him, eyes wide and pooled in shadows, silent for a moment, saying nothing more, lingering for a moment in the gravity of those words coming from him—he, who for so long, never dared to hope for morning.
“Papyrus.” Asriel holds a leaf to his lips, praying the skeleton gets the point. “Please. Frisk and I . . . we need to talk.”
A plaintive nod. “Shh. I—I’m sorry, but—”
“PRINCE ASRIEL, EVEN I COULD TELL THAT OUR FRISK’S DREAM WAS NOT A PLEASANT ONE.” Another moment’s pause. “IT DID NOT INVOLVE ME, DID IT?”
Gently the child smiles, a reflexive, empty twitch; the implications cast long shadows in their mind and a smile doesn’t seem to fit. “No, P’yrus, it didn’t. It wasn’t about you.”
“GOOD! THEN I SHALL STAND GUARD OUTSIDE THE DOOR TO MAKE SURE NO MORE BAD DREAMS GET IN!”
Despite himself, Asriel manages to stifle a chuckle while Frisk’s eyes widen for a moment, briefly panicked, before gleaming with a fresh idea. “P’yrus, no bad dreams will get past you! But they come through cracks in the window.”
“AH!” The skeleton whirls, grinning, voice surely loud enough now to carry through the old house’s meager walls. “THEN I SHALL STAND GUARD VALIANTLY OUTSIDE TO—”
“Please!” Frisk breathes. “But shhh, Papyrus, Mom and Sans are sleeping . . .”
“YES, OF COURSE, HUMAN—”
For the briefest of moments both children freeze, wondering if Papyrus is going to jump through the window—but no—he slips through the door, closing it with remarkable grace behind him. The room again is dark, save the moonlight, and in hushed tones Frisk begins to piece together what bits of the dream they can remember, with Asriel absently intertwining his vines between their shaking hands.
When they’ve lapsed into miserable silence, they can scarcely look in his direction, so tangible is his disbelief, so great is his hope that it was just a dream—because the alternative . . .
“But Chara’s gone,” he whispers finally.
Wordlessly the Human child nods, doesn’t know how to articulate what it felt like . . . the terror of being torn from the form that wasn’t theirs and flung into a rusted, battered cage and then, and then, that otherworld, the dream-world, was undeniably real—there was no mistaking who looked back at them as helplessly they beat against the bars—
If it weren’t Chara, they’d have found some way to excuse it as an ordinary nightmare . . .
And then something else comes to them, a memory more vague than the dream itself, from almost a year ago . . .
You tell a joke about a kid who slept in the soil . . .
Their last trip to the mountain . . . when, in some sense, they’d been just as much a prisoner as that SOUL had been within the cage . . .
Without quite knowing why, they begin to clamber out of bed, untangling themself from twisted sheets and stumbling towards the closet, fishing for their sweater and clothes warmer than pajamas. Asriel watches them from the depths of shadowed eyes, pollen-furred brow furrowed with apprehension.
Only when they’re dressed does he manage to unstick his tongue.
“I’m going with you.”
The look they cast him withers the halo of petals around his face—it isn’t anger, isn’t sorrow, isn’t even resignation . . . “But you can’t.”
Silence hangs between them, a widening chasm which Frisk so desperately wants to build a bridge across—as if some seismic rift is rumbling beneath their feet and threatens to swallow them. “Please understand,” they whisper finally. “I don’t know what this means. I don’t know why I have to go. But I do. It’s important.”
They cross over to the bed, cradling his pot, smoothing his leaves, his petals, running their fingertips across his tear-tracked face. “Do you trust me, Asriel?”
They feel him shuddering, and realize only too late how those words must sound, even coming from them—
“I’d never doubt you, Frisk.”
They’re still for a moment longer, sweltering in their sweater but loathe to let him go just yet. “I’ll come back soon, I promise. I’ll have my phone. Mom can call me anytime. I’ll be back tomorrow. And she can send Sans after me, if she starts to worry . . .”
He tilts his head back, petals brushing at their face, before once more pressing his face to theirs until their lashes brush. “Just tell me where you’re going,” he whispers finally.
Frisk tilts their head in the direction of the window, and Mt. Ebott beyond, knowing then that he knew the answer all along.
But they don’t know what they’re doing. Feeling their way through the kitchen, wrapping up a slice of pie, a thermos of hot chocolate, they begin to consider just what it is they’re setting out to do, or just what draws them. Something inexorable, it seems—a choice that wasn’t ever a choice at all. Something that everything until this point has brought them to.
Tenderly they coax the front door open, hoping it won’t creak in protest on rusted hinges, coughing as the winter air snaps at their lungs. For a moment they stand blinking in the sudden glare of light—confused—because the porch light had gone out a week ago and no one had picked up lightbulbs yet. It takes a full minute for them to understand, to recognize the dancing, golden glow—effluvient—alluring—piercing the darkness as surely as if it is a star.
They haven’t seen one in so long . . .
Vaguely they consider that SAVE points never showed up unless something dangerous or unpredictable lay beyond it—
Why now? What calls them, after all this time?
. . . Or who?
Frisk steps slowly from the porch, struggling to peer through the darkness of night, blinking away unbidden tears at the light. The house looms behind them, and the memory of it and all that’s happened wells within their mind, tangling with fear—for when was the last time that they had SAVED?
Before all this happened . . .
Even Chara couldn’t take this world from them in the end. They will not let it be destroyed—
And so, unflinchingly, they reach into the light and hold it close, feeling its assurance echoing across their SOUL.
The sky has begun to lift in the east when Frisk finally reaches their destination. Pale, watered light slants across the naked trees, dropping suddenly into the mouth of the abyss. The Human child shivers, although their sweater’s soaked with sweat, for this place harbors only foreboding. Once, perhaps, they’d have been able to come here without fear—once, perhaps, the memory of bringing Asriel home would have drowned out all other memories—but it’s not so now. The dream haunts them, has in some ways followed them up the mountain just as surely as their shadow. And down in the abyss are memories far worse than any dream—for down there is a child’s desecrated grave.
Frisk stares down at their shaking hands.
They hadn’t done it.
But Chara had.
* How were you going to get down?
With a cry Frisk turns, finding no one, pivoting on the spot until they face the crevasse into which, long ago, they fell . . .
Amidst a scrabbling of paws, a small white dog pulls himself up the embankment, emerging from the darkness, his eyes far brighter than they should be in the predawn haze and beneath a pewter sky.
The dog tilts his head, tail wagging gently, smiling in a way that only dogs know how.
* What did you come all this way to find?
“I’ve seen you before,” the child breathes. “The Artifact—”
* Ah. My regrets. But I trust that the Residue was useful.
“And the bomb—and P’yrus’ gauntlet of deadly terror—and all the bones you stole—”
The dog yips, a scattering decrescendo, the hint of a familiar song.
* Sometimes I play my own games.
“What are you doing here?” they finally ask.
The dog tilts his head again.
* Cleaning up a bit. Patching odds and ends. But that makes sense, I think? What Dog wouldn’t keep tinkering with his creation?
“This is yours?”
* Not quite. Everything up here? This life you’ve lived? Your family, and saving Asriel? That’s yours. I never could predict you. But everything down there? The Underground? . . . Yes, I made that.
* But now that I made it, and it exists for others to enjoy . . . it isn’t only mine. Do you understand?
The child shakes their head, sinking down onto a boulder, pulling from their pack the thermos of hot chocolate and Toriel’s pie. The dog watches them with a polite detachment, although his smile broadens when they offer him a piece of the slice of pie.
* Yum! I haven’t had this since you left the RUINS!
Frisk lowers the thermos from their lips, resigning themself to the uncertainty. The dog had always been a source of comic relief, in a banal sort of way, but they hadn’t seen him since the Barrier was broken—and anyway, what was this talk of being a creator? Come to think of it—since when had he talked at all?
When the pie is gone and the thermos is empty, the dog climbs into their lap, curling up with a tiny sigh. Absently Frisk pets him, welcoming the warmth of him against the cold. And yet it’s more than the warmth of a small dog—if they consider it carefully, it’s reminiscent of the dancing star, the SAVE point—
And for some reason, Frisk can’t bring themself to doubt him, although the question’s loosed before they realize it. “Who are you?”
* I am the Dog of this world.
* What brought you here?
Frisk sighs. It’s been several hours; the sun is up and bright, dancing with the last of the clouds that have blown themselves out over the valley. They should be going home—but they were so tired—and perhaps they slept—although they’ve never felt quite so warm or comforted as now. And something, one of the many things they can’t quite discern, assures them that this is not hypothermia that addles them. That they are safe—perhaps, in some ways, safer than they’ve ever been.
(The dog in their lap—the Dog of this world. It all comes down to the Dog.)
“I had a dream,” they whisper finally. “About Chara. And I remember how they destroyed their grave, so I thought they were unhappy. I thought maybe I’d fix it, and they could be . . .” Miserably the words trail off. “Where are they? Do you know?”
The Dog is still for a moment, and they wonder if he’s fallen asleep again. But then he stirs, perking up his head to meet their gaze.
* What has been done in this iteration of the world is more than I know. But I can promise you that how you have lived in this world, and loved this world, is how it will always be . . . unless you change it.
* As for the dream you had . . .
The Dog blinks slowly, seems to be searching a moment, before his smile brightens again.
* There are other worlds. And sadly, what Chara represents exists across those worlds—in each of them—to a greater or lesser extent. The willingness to hurt others, whether from boredom or spite. The choices we make . . . they do matter.
Frisk shivers. “Sometimes I feel like I don’t have a choice.”
* Do any of us?
But the Dog is ever-smiling, and the child doesn’t know if he’s teasing them or not.
* I choose to create. But I also cannot fight the urge to do so. Does that still make it a choice? I think so. We can create good, and we can create evil. We can create with the intent to change the world for the better—or to bring it to destruction. To act with compassion—with MERCY? Or to turn upon others with our own hatred and anger and fear? Those are powerful choices indeed.
The Human child buries their face in his fur, feels the press of his cold nose, the warmth of his tongue as he licks away their tears. “I’m afraid,” they whisper finally, “and I don’t know why. What will happen to this world? It’s bigger than me, isn’t it?”
* It will never be destroyed, the Dog repeats gently, reluctantly sliding from their lap. They stand, stretching, feeling as refreshed as if they’ve slept in their own bed and as warm as if they’re still wrapped up in their blankets. With mingled tenderness and trepidation, they peer into the darkness.
“There’s nothing down there for me, is there?”
* No. The power to create and recreate this world of mine . . . ? I guess. But why do that?
Frisk hugs their arms about themself, aware now with the Dog’s absence of the cold. “I should go home . . . “
They kneel until their eyes are level with the Dog’s, who now sits poised at the edge of the abyss, staring far beyond it with a gaze that holds whole worlds. “Thank you.”
The Dog barks, once, his canines gleaming in the rising sun, as if laughing at a private joke.
* Do you trust the Dog?
Wordlessly they nod, knowing not what else to do—
And are standing once again in the golden light of a dancing star. Beyond them gently breathes the night, whispering sighs on the frost-snapped wind. Behind them is the porch with its burnt-out light; within its creaking walls are Mom and Sans and P’yrus and the Prince, their prince, the prince of pollen and sunshine. For a moment their gaze wanders through the night, unseeing, finding still somehow the mountain . . . and the old fears are there, of course—the nightmare cannot be undone—
But from somewhere deep within their SOUL echoes a voice . . .
* Don’t forget.
And it fills them with . . .
And despite everything, the Dog’s words will stay with them, always. They turn from the cold, nursing open the aching door, where await them warmth and light.