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On the third day after the barrier shatters, you return once more to the place where you fell down.

The journey back through the underground is much shorter the second time. The ceilings of the caverns loom and press against you, too still and too close when they’re empty. And they’re all empty. Everyone wanted to see the sky, and they took everything with them, too—all their most precious loved ones, laid to rest in their most precious things. You pass dug-up flowerbeds and torn-off signs, felled trees, walls stripped of pictures, gaps in shelves where books used to sit like missing teeth. Even the bowl of monster candy is empty.

You arrive at the cavern full of golden flowers much the same way you passed through in the beginning—scabbed knees, scraped palms, your hair ragged and limp and hanging in your eyes. There is a hole in your sweater and a hole in your left sock. Your right shoe is falling off.

In the patch of flowers you hear a rustling.

“Who-who’s there?” says a small, quivering voice.

You knock against the cave wall a few times. Your battered hand stings. You slip off your worn shoe and use that instead.

“Whoever you are, you should go away! ‘Cause… I’m really tough and mad! And I’m a lot bigger than I sound!”

You walk towards the rustle and the voice, and you find him cowering behind a large stalk with his eyes squeezed closed. “Go away! Don’t look at me!”

You tap your foot against the ground.

“Oh, Frisk! It’s you!” says Asriel, his trowel slipping from his fingers. “What are you doing here? You shouldn’t have come back.”

You shrug, then make a few signs, even though you know he doesn’t understand you.

“Hold on a second. Stay right here. Right here.” He holds his palms up at you, then races off towards the end of the ruins, flowers shivering in his wake. You plop down where you’re standing, your knees folding like wet paper. It was a long walk back up the mountain and a long walk back through the underground.

You crane your neck back to look up at the ceiling. From above, so high above, a single lance of sunlight pierces the golden flowers. It fills you with determination.

Asriel returns, puffing and red-faced beneath his fur, with a crayon in one fist and a stack of torn paper in the other. “Here you go. Now you can talk.”

Hi, you scribble, then hold it up for him to see. “Howdy, Frisk,” he mumbles. “Why would you want to come back here?”

You write, Do you want to hang out? and doodle a little picture of two stick figures holding hands. You give one of them a scrawl of hair and the other a pair of floppy ears.

He takes the scrap of paper and stares at it for a little while with his nose scrunched up. “Don’t you have anything better to do, Frisk?”

No.

“Don’t you have a family to go back to?”

No.

“You don’t have one, or you don’t want to go back?”

No, you say.

“Well, what about my family, then? I bet Mom is worried about you.”

I told her I had some stuff to take care of. I’m going to call her. Later. She understands.

He wraps one arm around himself, worrying his bottom lip with a fang. “Well, it was nice of you to check up on me. But, uh, as you can see, I’m doing fine. Someone has to take care of these flowers.”

I really want to learn how to garden, you say. Teach me how?

His whole face crumples up and for a moment you’re afraid he’s going to cry. “Um… okay. I guess you can stay for a little while, and I can show you. Hold out your hand.”

You do, but before you can close it around the trowel, he cups it between his paws. “But you’re hurt. I’ll fix it.” You hold your breath, squinting, waiting for it to sting. “But, uh… will you close your eyes for a second? I can’t do it with you watching.”

You squeeze your eyes shut tight and your hands tingle and twitch. “All done.” The skin of your palms is soft and smooth and pink. There are no scars. It’s like you’ve never been hurt at all.

Thanks, you sign, touching your lips and folding your hand outward, and you can tell he understands well enough by the way he smiles. It’s a real smile, one that lifts up his cheeks.

You pluck up the trowel and kneel beside him.


 

When you’re finished your row of flowers is crooked and wobbly like a bunch of toppled dominos. Asriel’s marches neat and straight besides yours, occasionally nudging it back it place.

He looks up at the dimming light and wipes his forehead with the back of his paw. “You should go back now. It’s getting late.” You shake your head. “You don’t have to be so nice to me, Frisk.”

You’re not so sure you’re being nice. Maybe it would be kinder to do what he says and just leave. All you know is that for three days you couldn’t stop looking over your shoulder at the mountain, and your chest hurt like there was a big bruise right in the middle. And then you came back.

He tilts his chin back to look up at the dimming light of the sun, as if looking for advice.

“Okay. You can stay. But first you gotta make me a promise.” You nod. “I don’t have a whole lot of time. I can feel it.” He places a hand over his heart. Or the place where his heart ought to be. “When… when I turn back… well, before I do, I’m going to go hide somewhere. When that happens, you can’t follow me. Okay?”

I won’t, you scribble onto your scrap of paper.

“You gotta promise, Frisk.” He holds out his smallest finger. “Like humans do.” (Chara taught him how to do that. You’re sure of that somehow.)

You curl your little finger around his and squeeze. He seems satisfied. “Let’s go home, Frisk,” he says, and you follow him to the house that used to be Toriel’s.


 

He loans you an old sweater to replace the one with the big hole. It smells kind of musty, but in a good way, like it remembers being worn.

You’ve never had a best friend before. You do all the things together that best friends are supposed to do, like climb the big knobby tree outside the house, and crinkle around in the fallen leaves, and make pancakes and eat them in a blanket fort that takes up the whole living room. You wrench your knee leaping from the top of the tree into a leaf pile and Asriel fixes it for you.

(Chara gave him a lot of practice with that. You remember.)

You burn half the pancakes and the rest sluggishly catch fire. Asriel eats five and tries to pretend that they’re not disgusting. And maybe, just for a minute or two, in the moment when he’s leapt from the tree but before he lands, or when he rolls about in a pile, his ears askew, or pulling a silly round-cheeked face eating your charred hunks of pancake, you make him forget. Just for a minute or two.

But you don’t.


 

Afterwards, he asks you to teach him some signs. You don’t think you’re a very good teacher, because you never had anyone to teach you, not really. You snatched up signs whenever you saw them, whenever they were given to you, in fits and starts. You’ve come to depend on writing.

But you show him a few. You slide your pinched fingers back and forth on your cheek for home. You rub your hand in a circle above your heart for please. You make fists and cross your arms across your chest for love.

You finish with friend, linking your index fingers once, then twice, and point at his chest. He makes it back at you. “Thanks for coming back, Frisk,” he says with a smile that sags his whole face. “I hoped you wouldn’t. But I’m glad you did.”


 

The next morning you wake gasping, and kick and tug your way out of the collapsed blanket fort. Asriel offered you his old bed, but it feels too small for you now, so you stayed out in the living room instead. You peek into the bedroom, but there’s only an empty blanket cocoon on a bare mattress. He’s not there.

You check in the kitchen. Some boiling water crackles on the abandoned stove. He’s not there.

You check the basement by the ruins door. It swings back and forth in a chill wind. The snow outside is fresh and unmarked. He’s not there.

You’re breaking your promise, probably, but you can’t stop. Panting, your pulse fluttering in the tips of your fingers, you race outside to the field of flowers. It’s still dark in the world outside. The flowers march on, row after row, silent and faceless.He’s not there.

You sit, curling your knees up to your chest, and fold your head between them. You sit. And sit.

But nobody came.

And now you’ll have to go back up the surface and you won’t ever be able to look Toriel and Asgore in the eye, because you have to lie to them, because you promised, because you promised not to tell, even though it hurts in your chest like a huge purpling bruise, because you failed, because you couldn’t save him, you failed, you’re no good after all, you’re no good, you’re no good--

“Frisk?”

With a gasp you lift your head, and there he is. You must not have looked hard enough. He must have been out here hiding the whole time, squatting amongst the flowers. “Don’t cry, Frisk!” You swipe your snotty nose on the neckline of your sweater and choke back the last of your sniffles. “Wait... your hands.”

Your hands are scraped. Your knees are scabbed. There is a big hole in your purple sweater.

From the ceiling of the cavern, so high above, a single lance of sunlight pierces the patch of golden flowers. The sight of it fills you with determination.

“Frisk, you didn’t.”

You clasp your raw hands together.

“You didn’t LOAD, did you? Did you?”

I didn’t mean to, you sign. When you fold your hands close to your chest it’s like you’re whispering. You dig in your pockets for paper. I promise I didn’t mean to. I freaked out and it just kind of happened.

“I’m not mad or anything. Really, I’m not.” But you wish he was, though, because that would be better. Then you wouldn’t have to look at the crease in his forehead or his sagging ears or the hollows under his eyes. Then he would just yell at you a little bit and you wouldn’t feel good, exactly, but it would be better than this.

He turns away from you for a little bit. You bury your face between your knees again while he squints up at the distant pinprick of light. When you look up his cheeks are wet. “Sorry. I always cry when I see other people cry. Maybe it’s not so bad, having a little extra time.”

He offers you his hand. “Can you swim?”


 

You can’t. You squat near the edge of the water by your discarded sweaters, hugging yourself, goosebumps prickling your arms, and watch Asriel paddle around the shallows of Waterfall.

“Come on, Frisk! Just stand in the water.” He ducks underneath the surface and a trail of bubbles creep towards you until he pops his head back out. “At least you’ll be less cold!”

You eye the glassy surface with a profound distrust, but you stick one toe in, then your whole foot. He’s right, the water is warmer than the air. With a shudder you shove yourself in up to your neck. It’s not so bad.

Until he splashes you in the back of the head. And then you have to return the favor.

When you both get tired he shakes all the water out of his fur like a dog, his soggy ears slapping his cheeks, and you giggle, despite yourself, and you both lay back and watch the crystals in the far-off ceiling blink and flicker.

“Frisk, do real stars look like that? I only ever saw daytime, you know, up on the surface. But I always wanted to see stars.”

Your paper is all damp and wrinkly. Do you want to go look at them? The real ones?

“I… I don’t know.” His gleaming eyes and quirking ears say yes. His wringing hands and drooping muzzle say no.

We could go, if you wanted.

And so the two of you walk. The journey back through the underground is steady and slow. You thought that having a friend by your side would push back those close walls and empty tunnels, but instead the silence between your echoing steps is long and hollow.

Asriel’s hand knocks against your elbow. You grasp it. He startles and you squeeze, and he laces his fingers through yours. You don’t let go, even when your hand gets kind of sweaty and sticky.

He is content to let you lead the way most of the time, and you forge forward, your joined arms swinging between you. Over the docks of waterfall, where the water sucks at the pier like it wants to swallow it, and through the blasting, searing Hotland air that wrings all the damp from your sweater. But sometimes, he’ll tug on your hand and say, “No, look at this,” or, “Over here, Frisk,” and there is a ledge you never saw or a line of rocks through the water you never knew about.

You come to New Home from an unexpected side, but you still have to pass through the golden hallway where you were judged. And then then you’re in Asgore’s courtyard, where the birds don’t sing anymore, and through that last tunnel, and there is the mouth of the caves and the soft, cold light of the distant moon.

He yanks on your hand. “Frisk. I changed my mind. Let’s go back.”

But—

“I changed my mind! Let’s just go back. Please.” He pulls at you again, but you’re planted in the soil with heavy feet, looking over your shoulder at the gape of distant sky. “Frisk, please, come on.”

You take your hand back. It’s not fair, you say. It’s not fair. He stares in confusion, because you haven’t taught him these signs. It’s not fair, you say again, and again, moving through the signs so fast and loose it’s just empty flailing, It’s not fair It’s not fair It’s not fair.

“Whoa, hey. Frisk, it’s okay. I didn’t… I didn’t want to see them that bad anyway.”

It’s not fair, you say, your arms wilting to your sides. He shuffles closer and puts his arms around you and you rest your cheek on his shoulder. It’s all backwards from that first time, the first time you met for real, right here where you’re standing. When you still believed you could save him. When he begged you for more time.

A little more wouldn’t hurt anybody. Everyone has gone free, living their first days out in the sun. Everyone is happy. Maybe it wouldn’t be so bad. Maybe you wouldn’t be so bad.

“Let’s go home,” he mumbles into your shoulder.

You LOAD.


 

You attempt to cook spaghetti. You produce spaghetti, and you leave the counter streaked with ruined tomatoes and the stove flecked with sticky chunks of half-cooked pasta. It is not edible spaghetti. After that Asriel does all the cooking and he hangs a sign up on the kitchen door that reads NO FRISKS.

You make snow sculptures in the fields outside the ruins door. You make a lesser dog with shiny pebble eyes and a shell for a long pink tongue, and he makes a small, round snow person with a thatch of unruly twigs for hair. “It’s you!” he says, and it really does look like you, and when your teeth start to chatter and your hands shake he makes little magic flames for you to hold.

He lets you touch his ear, but only after you swear not to yank on it. (Chara did that when they got mad, sometimes.) You reach out, hesitant, and rub it back and forth between your fingers. It doesn’t feel like a goat’s ear, like you thought, but thicker and softer. And in exchange he gets to pat your hair, and he has time to marvel that it doesn’t feel like Chara’s at all before you burst into giggles, because his hand brushes against the spot on your neck where you’re ticklish.

You LOAD.


 

From above, so high above, a single lance of sunlight pierces the golden flowers. The sight of it fills you with determination.

Your gardening has improved. Your rows of flowers are almost neat now. You get lots of practice because every LOAD Asriel drags you out to the patch. When your arms start to droop like wet noodles you flop over in the grass and rest your head on your arms. Done soon? you sign.

“Yeah. I just want to be sure there’s a nice cushion here, you know? In case anybody else falls through the hole. Like you and Chara.”

You hunch over, making yourself small. Your breath rasps in your ears. You write, in cramped, huddled letters, I didn’t fall.

You push it into his hands and watch specks of pollen drift in and out of the weak sunlight so you don’t have to watch his face while he reads it. It’s the answer to the question he asked you, the first time you came back to this place. Why would anyone ever climb a mountain like that, Frisk?

You’re a pretty good liar. You’ve had a lot of practice. You know how to look right into someone’s eyes when you say, I fell. It was just an accident. I tripped. I fell down.

And no one ever asked you anything like that. Not ever.

“I figured,” he says. His hand twitches towards yours, but then he pulls back and clasps your knee instead. You peel off another piece of paper with shaking fingers and you write and write. Your stomach rolls like you might be sick, but you can’t stop now.

I didn’t care at all when I jumped. I didn’t feel anything at all. And while I was falling, I was really scared. I knew it was going to hurt. But I was also happy. Because I’d gotten what I came looking for.

But then I woke up, and I met you—you scribble out that part and replace you with him. I was so mad, Asriel! I’ve never been that mad before. But then… he attacked me, and it hurt, and I was still really mad, but it because I knew then that wasn’t what I wanted. Not like that.

You hand it over, and then you look away again, up and up to that distant pinch of sun, to the hole you jumped through, and you flinch on instinct when he takes your clammy hand.

Now you’re even. A secret for a secret.


 

You play hide and seek, and he always wins because he knows the underground so much better, and can see you hiding with his “apex boss monster vision.” You stop playing hide and seek, because you get nervous when you can’t find him in time and he can tell.

It turns out that Alphys left a stack of anime behind, apparently rejected for lack of artistic merit. There’s Mew Mew Kissy Cutie 2, with a sticky note reading “SHAMEFUL” and some old action shows labeled “TRASH.” The plastic covers look well-worn, though. You watch them all in one binge that lasts two whole LOADs, and Asriel adores them. Especially Mew Mew Kissy Cutie 2. You keep falling asleep, only to wake up to him shaking your shoulder, because “You’re missing the good part, Frisk! Aww, it’s over. I’ll rewind it for you.”

You LOAD.


 

With your freshly healed hands you alternate doodling on your paper and twisting a chain of golden flowers together. Beside you, Asriel makes his own crown, your elbows nudging every once in a while. From above, so high above, a single lance of sunlight pierces the golden flowers. The sight of it fills you with determination.

“Frisk, you remember, when we fought? And I said I wanted to reset so we could keep playing together forever?”

You nod, absently drawing a little picture of Asriel’s powered-up fighting form in the margins of your scrap paper.  You hold it close to your chest, but he glances at it anyway. He rubs the scruff at the back of his neck, looking at his feet, and says sheepishly “You forgot the horns."

You kind of did forget. You remember flashes of neon light searing through your closed eyelids. The sound of Asriel’s sobs. And you were so tired afterwards. So, so tired it was hard to breathe.

“Well, uh, don’t get me wrong. I’m really glad that you’ve done this for me. You really are the kind of friend I always wished I had. But you can’t keep LOADing forever, Frisk.”

But you could, though. You would. If he asked you to.

There really isn’t a way?

You want to snatch the words back out of his hands, and he’s got that awful crumpled-up look on his face again, and you have to pull yourself back from LOADing right then so you won’t have to look at it anymore. But that wouldn't work anyway.

“Frisk, I tried for a long, long time. All kinds of things. Even... even some really jacked up stuff. Even way worse than what you saw. You gotta believe me when I say if there’s a way, it’s not underground. Because I’ve really tried it all.”

What about the surface? you sign. It’s a big, wide world up there, and there’s so much you don’t know. If I do find a way, can I come back for you?

“I know you’re just trying to make me feel better, but I don’t want to talk about this anymore.” He heaves a deep breath. “It’s like I said before, Frisk. You can’t regret hard choices all your life.” He places his flower crown atop your head. It’s just a little too big, and it slides down over one eye.

Now? you ask. He bends his head so you can crown him, and shreds a leaf between his fingers, and tries to blink away the tears in his eyes.

“Maybe… maybe just one more.”

You LOAD.


 

You stay in and make hot chocolate. Well, Asriel makes hot chocolate, with an insistent gesture at the NO FRISKS sign, and you put so many marshmallows in it that it becomes a sticky, lumpy white mess that leaves a foamy mustache on your upper lip, and you drink it in the new and improved blanket fort you made in the living room, and you both fall asleep in it.

Asriel has dreams, and even though it worries you when he kicks and rolls and mumbles, he says it’s okay, because he missed having dreams, even the bad ones. You don’t have any dreams at all, especially not the bad ones, because you keep waking up when he kicks you in the shin, and that’s okay too.

And you find some old cassette tapes that Toriel kept in her basement. It’s not good dancing music, but you try your best anyway, until you collapse in a sweaty, giggling heap. “I can’t dance,” Asriel protests. “Everybody always laughed at me.” But he lets you grab his hands, and stumbles about blushing as you lead him, and when you start to spin the both of you in circles he actually joins in, baring his fangs in a big grin, and you spin and spin and spin until you lose your grip and fall over, the room drifting around your head, your sides heaving with laughter.

You LOAD. You LOAD. You LOAD.

 


 

From above, so high above, a single lance of dying sunlight pierces the golden flowers. It fills you with determination.

“Frisk, I think I want to try again. To go look at the sky. Would you come?”

And so you go. The journey back through the underworld is slow and ponderous. You drag your feet, he measures his steps. It’s the end. You know that somehow, in your bones or your belly or your heavy, drooping eyes.

You both know all the shortcuts now, but you don’t take any of them. When your legs get wobbly and your breaths wet and rapsy, he holds up the umbrella so you can sit and rest. The false stars in the cavern’s distant ceiling gleam over Asgore’s castle. There are no lights in the windows anymore, the glittering sweep of the hill that had once been the capital now a blank and looming shroud.

You walk through the cave where the barrier had once stood. Moonlight is shining through its mouth. And you come out under the sky.

It’s deep night, but you're still far from the top of the mountain and it’s cloudy and the human city off in the hills is gleaming like a heap of crushed glass. But you can see some stars. A few feeble, distant pinpricks peeking between scraps of cloud. One of them is moving and winking. An airplane, or maybe a satellite. The moon is huge and full, white as salt and bright as a coin. Its light drapes over your sweater like frost and you shiver.

“Frisk,” he says. The cold moonlight gleams on his wet cheeks. “Oh, Frisk. It’s so beautiful.”

You sit, and he sits beside you and rests his chin on your shoulder. You watch the stars pass in and out of cloud, and the moon grow heavy and sink towards the horizon, until your joined hands grow numb and stiff.

He shifts, closing his eyes and leaning into you. “Frisk. You should go down the mountain now.”

You start to shake your heavy head, raise your stiff fingers to protest.

"I don't want to fight about it, okay? Please. I’m sorry.”

He stands up to fumble with his pocket and withdraws something that flashes. “Frisk, I know I said before that I just wanted you to forget me, but I think I’ve changed my mind.” He holds out his old red heart locket, spinning and trembling at the end of its chain. “This is kind of silly, but would you take this? For something to remember me by. Is that okay?”

Yes, you whisper with your hands. You clasp the locket around your neck and slip it under your sweater. It’s still warm from lying against his fur. That’s okay.

“Say hi to Mom for me.”

I will.

“Dad too.”

I will.

“And take care of yourself. Wherever I am, whoever I am, I want that. Okay?”

Okay.

He leans down and bumps his snout against your cheek. “Well. See you around, I guess,” he says. Even though you won’t.

You watch his back as he retreats into the caves, first a shadow, then a scribble, then nothing at all. You sit and sit until the ragged light of dawn draws around the edge of a cloud.

You sit, and you sit.

But nobody came.

You stand up, your knees creaking, and brush off your sweater, and begin to climb back down the mountain.