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Day to Day

Chapter Text

Winter had come and wiped the land clean. The snow here was recent and unmarred, and it made everything uniform – the earth’s contours flattened, every blade of grass buried, the snags of tree roots sleeping deep beneath the white. The only marks were his footprints, deep and even-spaced, stretching from the horizon to this bare wooden park bench under a gaunt and leafless tree. Viewed from a distance, the prints looked like markings on paper – like punctuation, an interminable pause.

It was a strange place to arrange a meeting. But the other children’s families had chosen stranger.

He gathered his coat around him as the wind picked up and bit through all his layers – the coat, his clothes, the pelt underneath. He’d melted the snow around the bench with a clap of his hands so he’d have somewhere to sit, but he set no more fires. If someone were to emerged from that horizon, following his footsteps, and saw him sitting alone and wreathed in flame, it would make a poor first impression. So he suffered the chill, hands on his knees, his hair unkempt in the wind.

On the edge of the wind he thought he could smell tea, sickly sweet. He stared at the footprints he’d left and noted the snowy spaces between them, and how the wind teased the loose snow in eddies and sent it drifting like dust. The flat disc of the sun strained through the clouds overhead like a circle of blank glass. A gale whipped through the tree’s upper reaches and rattled like a pneumoniac’s breath. And as the tree shivered, the splayed fingers of its branches cast their twitching shadows around him, clutching and desperate.

He took all these sensations in stride. He flipped through them like playing cards. He didn’t notice the crunching footfalls behind him, or the leaner shadow that approached and merged with his own. He faced forward and watched the slithering breeze sift powdery snow into his marks he’d left behind. In time it would erase all sign of him, only for new signs to be left and left again.

*             *             *

The flowers had stopped growing.

They still lived, of course, every one, and in the throne room’s borrowed sunlight, the molten gold of their petals was bright enough to hurt the eye. They shuddered and shook in unseen breezes, bending towards the exits, the tea table, and the thrones with a mute, eerie unity. Their citrus-smelling pollen drifted through the sunbeams in specks; already the sheet that covered the throne in the corner was stained by their residue.

But they only reached a certain height and no higher, and though their seeds took to the soil with almost frightening eagerness, the perimeter of their growth only extended so far. The outer tangle of greenery in this garden was unblemished by yellow, as though a warding had been placed over it. King Asgore wasn’t entirely certain how long it would take for them to die. He watered them daily, just to be safe.

He took a breath and raised his hands. The teakettle burst into flame.

It was a nice day today; he’d made a note in his journal. He’d started taking his tea down here now, instead of the house with its empty reading chair and cold unlit hearth. Down here he could hear the birds, and feel the sun, and keep an eye on the flowers – especially the one in the garden’s center, which seemed just a bit taller than the rest, the gold of its petals a touch more rich. He watched it now, as the orange flames licked around kettle. These petals made an acceptable tea, and the flowers grew back in a matter of days.

He shifted in his seat, staring at nothing. The small chair creaked dangerously under his weight.

“Your Majesty?”

His head jerked up, then back to the kettle. Steam was shooting out the spout in a solid white jet and the metal had already acquired a disquieting glow. He quickly waved a hand to douse the flame, and then looked to the throne room’s entrance. A dark silhouette stood in the entryway, wringing its hands; since it was wearing gauntlets, this produced a rusty, scraping whine that made Asgore’s eyes water. The figure noticed his expression and stopped, placing its arms rigidly at his sides.

“Howdy there,” Asgore said, and put a hand to his forehead. “I’m sorry, and you are...?”

“Royal Guard enlistee 05, Your Majesty!” He clanked, saluted, and stiffened even further, to the point where his armor vibrated with the effort. Asgore sighed as he tried, and failed, to place the voice. The Royal Guardsmen had expanded since his decree, and they weren’t easy to tell apart at the best of times – they all wore the same full-body black mail (dredging uncomfortable memories of the war), and they seemed reluctant to refer to themselves or each other by anything other than their enlistment numbers, at least when he was around. This one had curly ram horns emerging from the sides of the helmet like spirographs, and the voice, underneath the echo of his armor, was probably male.

“Be at ease, young...man,” he hazarded. “We’re all friends here.”

“Yes, Your Majesty. Sorry, Your Majesty.” He lowered his arm by inches and the jittering from his mail decreased minutely. “I just came to report something. I probably should have called ahead-”

“It’s all right.” He hastily poured the boiling water into the teapot. “I’m not much good with a phone anyway.” He wasn’t – most of the phones that fell from the surface were too small for his hands, and he spent so much time in the garden that he was seldom around to take a call. It used to cause Toriel no end of frustration.

“Oh, my buddy can relate, trust me, this poor guy can’t even look at one of the things without breaking it in-” 05 seemed to notice that he was becoming unacceptably relaxed, and went rigid again. “Er, what I meant to say was, me and Enlistee 06 hold the Snowdin post. The one outside the Ruins, I mean. And while we were on guard, I thought I heard the doors open, and across the bridge we found-”

Asgore straightened up in his seat, palms flat on the table. “She came back?”

“It’s another human, sire.”

The silence that followed was very loud. Asgore felt a subtle shift in his expression; he was unsure what, exactly, about his face had changed, but it was enough to make 05 take a hasty step back to the safety of the doorway.

He said, “Bring it here.”

“Yes, King Asgore, 06 should arrive with it any minute now. I just wanted to tell you first that-”

“There is nothing else to say.”

He rose, the little chair creaking back into shape. 05 saluted hard enough for the flat of his hand to clang off his helmet, and then ran off. The flowers bent low like an audience.

When 05 returned, Asgore was seated at his throne. In one hand, he held his trident, dark and iridescent red, magically spun from the very air. In the other, he held a flat-bottomed glass jar. One more relic from the war. Its surface shifted like mercury. His face was hard-set and unblinking.

He remembered the night Asriel returned home.

When he and Toriel had found Chara’s sickbed empty, the sheets still darkened by Asriel’s hysterical tears, they’d turned the entire Underground upside-down overnight. Searched everywhere, except the one place they both knew he’d gone – the one place they couldn’t follow. Half the kingdom had been alerted by them desperately calling his name, and that half had gone to tell the other half that their prince was missing, and all of them had searched and searched as Asriel stumbled back through the barrier, in the dead of night, and crumbled with no one there to see.

Asgore still wondered if he should have just stayed by the barrier. At least then he’d have gotten a chance to say goodbye. He’d first thought that after discovering Asriel’s dust in front of the thrones, piled in front of Chara’s body like an offering and staining the cold clay of his flesh. As he’d knelt there with the dust running through his fingers and Toriel standing over him, too shocked even for tears, he’d felt a terrible heat in his chest. And when he’d stepped out of the castle to find the assembled multitudes there, all of them reading the bad news on his face, he’d taken that heat, and let it loose.

He was never one for speeches. Much more suited to small talk. And so he’d kept his words short. They’d been butchered and beaten and locked in the dark, and now it turned out even that wasn’t enough, now two faultless children were dead. It was someone else’s turn to suffer. Humans feared what monsters could become? Then he would become what they feared. Chara had fallen, and he had died, and now every human foolish enough to venture here would follow his example. Their souls would break the barrier and reduce that cruel world above to ash. Asgore’s son was gone; all he had left was time. And in that time, there would be a terrible reckoning for what humanity had done.

He’d felt the anger writhing in those words. And it wasn’t until the last of them had escaped his throat and he’d seen that anger reflected on the crowd’s faces that he’d realized his mistake. Too late to take it back. The thunderous cheers had shook him to the bone; no chance of his voice ever being heard over that din. He’d felt Toriel’s stare on him like a cold wind as he’d turned and retreated back into the vacant, ransacked house.

For a time he’d felt like a sleepwalker. He would go to bed and wake up and retreat to his garden with tools in hand. Sometimes he would water the same patch of earth for hours until it was nothing but drowned and squelching mud. He’d been dimly aware of Toriel’s voice, reasoning with him, then warning, then begging, but he’d just kept his head down until the sound went away and then waited until dark so he could go to sleep and get back up and do it all again. Until he’d come home one day to find the house feeling emptier than usual, and, unsure of his own mind, visited the carved stone coffin in the basement only to find its lid cracked and nothing but darkness inside, the air around it oddly cold.

Fully awake for the first time in days, he’d run out, down the halls, and stopped dead in the castle antechamber, where the Delta Rune was printed in stained glass and silhouette all along the hall and the columns’ shadows cross-hatched the shining floor. Toriel had been there, her back to him, something limp bundled in her arms. The clank of his regalia gave him away; she’d turned her head just enough for one half-lidded eye to lance through him, without anger or pity. She’d stared at him like he wasn’t there. And then he’d seen Chara’s pale arm dangling from her grip, a single loose strip of gauze hanging from one wrist like torn skin.

Even then, it might have been possible to take it back. She had waited for him to speak. But he couldn’t find the words; it was as though his throat had locked itself up in fear of another disastrous speech. As they stood there, mute, an unseen bell had tolled, the sound filling the space between them. And when the resonance of that single chime died away, she had turned, and walked, until the shadows at the far end of the hall consumed her.

That was the last he’d seen of them.

He had her throne safely covered up and put aside; he’d kept her chair and her things as they’d always been. He’d learned to avert his eyes whenever he walked past the childrens’ room. And he’d expanded the Royal Guard, and broadened the reach of their posts, to one spot in particular – outside the Ruins, the furthest away one could possibly go, with that great stone door permanently shut against Snowdin’s freezing winds. So that someone could be there to greet her, when she changed her mind. He was certain that she would eventually change her mind.

Instead, someone else had fallen. That was what the jar was for. Human souls lasted for a remarkably long time even without bodies, as if sustained on their own bare, haunting glow. This shifting glass took that light, reflected it back on the soul, forcing it to consume and recycle its own limitless vitality. If even one of them had been filled during the war, that whole disastrous affair might have turned out very differently. And now it looked like the artifact’s time had come around at last.

He wondered if it was one of the humans who had killed his son, and his grip on the trident tightened.

From outside the door there was a low rumble like rocks rolling down a steep hill. 05 stepped back into the doorway. He appeared to note Asgore’s menacing pose, his grim expression.

“Your Majesty. Presenting Royal Guard Enlistee 06, and, er...the prisoner.”

Footsteps like small earthquakes. The entire doorway went dark. And even Asgore couldn’t help but look surprised at the shape that now hulked in the throne room – the king was on the bulky side, but 06 was at least a head and a half taller than him and quite a bit wider. The guard’s black helm was like an overturned bucket; it was impossible to tell what he was under that armor, other than “gigantic.” Still, he looked almost meek as he ducked into the chamber, carefully keeping the toes of his mammoth sabatons away from the flowers.

Asgore opened his mouth to ask where the human was. And he saw how one of 06’s arms was strangely stiff, and followed that expanse of metal down to the ground, where it terminated at a fist the size of a small boulder. One pinky was extended. And the human held it tight.

She was a tiny heap of contrasting colors. Her jumper sky-blue and the ribbon in her hair thin and red as a capillary. Pale skin and wide eyes so dark they seemed like holes in space, staring owlishly at him. If size was any judge, she was even younger than Chara had been.

Something flashed in the sun. A knife, held at her side.

Asgore managed to say, “It..she has a weapon.”

“It’s a toy, Your Majesty.” 05 tried, and failed, to make that sentence sound professional. “When we first encountered it, we-“

A throaty rumble, high overhead. It took a moment for Asgore to realize that it was coming from 06. A voice so deep he couldn’t even make out the words. But 05 sighed, and corrected himself.

“When we encountered her, she didn’t seem violent. And we, you know, tried to disarm her, but, uh, she started crying, so 06 gave it back.” There was another tectonic mutter from 06. “Okay, fine, I gave it back. I fully accept the consequences for my-”

“It’s all right.” Asgore’s voice sounded like it was coming from far away. “Leave her with me. I’ll do what needs to be done.”

The girl continued to stare. If she’d blinked, Asgore hadn’t seen it. 05 straightened up again.

“Yes, Your Majesty. We’ll be off.” 06 didn’t let go. 05 glanced at him, then sidled over and elbowed him sharply in the back – which, considering the height difference, was closer to 06’s knee. “Come on, man.”

With great reluctance, 06 shook off the girl’s grip. She made one feeble attempt to catch his hand as he turned away, but he pushed her back and left the room, head bowed, 05 hurrying behind. Asgore remained stiff in his seat until the vibrations of 06’s footfalls died away.

The girl kept watching him. Her tiny body shook like the flowers’ stems.

Asgore released his trident and it fell and dissolved in a shower of red sparks. He stood up, leaving the jar behind, and walked over to her. Her head craned up, up, always meeting his gaze, even as he buried her in his shadow. When he knelt down in front of her, she barely came halfway up to his chest. The toy knife shuddered in her grip.

He reached out to her. She cried out and swung the knife.

Asgore hissed air through his teeth and pulled back his hand. There was a deep gash across his palm like a white and toothless mouth, its edges trickling dust. The girl’s knife tempered by her fear. And out of the corner of his vision, he saw the toy fall to the ground, and looked up to see the girl’s hands clapped over her mouth, her eyes gone even wider with horror and shining bright with tears. Her breathing began to hitch and break.

He scooped her up and stood upright and started to pace the room, burying her face in his beard. A practiced movement, almost reflexive; he’d done it often with Asriel.

“Shh. There, there,” he said, as she sobbed into his neck. “It’s all right. Everything is going to be all right.”

He patrolled the chamber until her breath calmed, and then rocked her a while longer, her bones fragile beneath his grip. He held her at arm’s length. He could have nearly enfolded her whole body in the palm of one hand. He tried to smile.

“I am sorry if I scared you. My name is King Asgore,” he said. “I am the ruler of all the people here. What-” is your name, he started to ask, but the words died in his throat. He fell back on an old standby: “Would you like a cup of tea?”

The girl nodded.

“Please, have a seat. It may be a bit cold, but...”

He settled her own in his own chair and poured the tea – it was still warm, no doubt owing to how long he’d kept his flame on the teakettle earlier. He mixed in sugar and honey until the drink became a tarry, cloying slurry, then placed the cup in front of the girl and knelt at the opposite end of the table.

She looked into the cup as if expecting to see an omen there, then slowly raised it to her mouth and sipped. Then she smiled, and drank deeper. Asgore watched silently, his hands gripping the edge of the table so tight the wood threatened to crack. He didn’t even feel his wound anymore.

When she’d had her fill, she set her cup down and crossed her palms in her lap. She still wouldn’t speak. Asgore tried to fill the silence:

“How did someone like you come all the way here?”

She blinked. And then, she said, “I fell.”

Her voice was so small and faint that it seemed to come from the bottom of a well. And that appeared to be the end of her answer. He searched for another question. He found it skulking at the back of his mind.

“Before you met those two – the ones in armor – did you see anyone else? Since you fell?”

She nodded. “I stayed with a nice lady. She looked like you.” Another lengthy pause as she dredged up further speech. “She was nice.”

Asgore fought to keep his expression calm. His chest felt uncomfortably tight. Like his breastplate was crushing him. His ears had started to ring.

He turned and stared at the empty doorway. He deliberately looked away from the girl for as long as possible. But when he turned back, she was still there, the same pose, the same expression. She didn’t even seem to consider running away.

He kept his voice steady. “Did she...say anything about me?”

“She said.” The words escaped in fragments. “She said to be careful. And. She asked me to tell you something.”

“What was it?”

“Um.” For the first time, she looked away, her lips pursed as she tried to remember. Then her face lit up, and she rose her head. “She said, ‘Please do the right thing.’”

Birdsong leaked in from the crags high overhead. The flowers rustled like laughter. This room was so close to the barrier that he thought he could hear its pulse. That ceaseless hum, that bass beat.

“Excuse me,” said the girl. “When can I go home?”

The Royal Guard enlistees’ hesitation. The silent rebuke in his wife’s eye. And then, the despair on his people’s faces. The fierce, furious joy he’d kindled with that promise. The thought of what that joy would become if he tried to take it back.

“I would like to go home, please,” she said.

Here and now. It was just the two of them.

His hands shook against the table. Then, all at once, they stilled. When he spoke, his voice was measured and calm.

“Didn’t you know?” he asked. The girl tilted her head, and Asgore smiled. “You are home. This is all just a bad dream. A city under a mountain? A kingdom full of monsters? And now you’re having tea with their king.” He chuckled. “It’s all a bit silly, isn’t it?”

She bit her lip. “It feels real.”

“Well, you know what that means.” She shook her head. Asgore leaned forward, his voice quiet and conspiratorial. “It means you’re a very good dreamer.”

The girl blushed and smiled again; for a moment, she looked like Chara. Asgore clutched at the table like it was the only thing keeping him upright.

“And since you’re such a good dreamer,” he said, "you must know how to wake up, correct?” Another shake of the head. “Well, it’s quite simple. All you have to do is close your eyes and count backwards from ten. And by the time you finish, you’ll-” His voice cracked. He cleared his throat, and said, “You’ll be home.”

She didn’t hesitate; she trusted him now. Those wide, dark eyes closed, and the girl began to count, silently mouthing each word. The sugar-clotted tea’s aroma was suffocating. The fading sun gleamed on the discarded soul jar, on the knife left in the garden. He hoped that these waves of nausea would overtake him and carry him off into unconsciousness, but he stayed awake. He listened desperately for any visitors, some distant footfall outside the door, but nobody came.

The girl mouthed, “One.”

He took a breath and raised his hands.

*             *             *

(Knock, knock, knock.)

Snowdin.

Impossible to tell day or night here. No cracks in the cavern’s high ceiling to let in the sun; the snow that fell crystallized in overhanging shadow, and as it clung to the earth and the trees it reflected every ray of light a hundredfold, bathing the entire region in a pale, quiet glow. But he’d waited until the last vestige of sun in the garden had died, and made his trek back here. Every house on the way had been shut and darkened. No one had seen him pass through.

(Knock, knock, knock.)

Leading away from the Ruins’ scarred stone door were a pair of footprints so small that they were almost invisible. They continued over the bridge, and met two more pairs – both larger, one unreasonably so. Only the larger prints continued after that. She had gone without a struggle. The guards had carried her away.

(Knock, knock, knock.)

The door insulated the Ruins from sound as well as the chill, and their old home was a fair distance away from this entrance. His knock likely wouldn’t be heard. But he was prepared to continue for as long as it took. The sound traveled amongst the trees and echoed back at him like an accusation.

(Knock, knock, knock.)

His shoulders were hunched, his head bowed. The deep purple of his mantle and the crown perched between his horns shone like aurora in the still night. His wounded hand sent out fresh pangs of pain; he hadn’t bothered to heal it. Beside his foot was a small, wrapped box.

(Knock, knock, knock.)

“Who is there?”

His fist froze; his breath caught in his throat. The voice was hushed and anxious, but unmistakable.

He couldn’t say anything now; there was nothing left to say. But for a moment, he lay his palm and forehead flat against the stone, eyes shut, ignoring the way the door burned cold against his skin. Then, he turned around, and walked away. The door grinded open behind him. He felt someone's gaze on his back.

He treaded over the girls’ footprints and erased them with his own; when the door to the Ruins closed again, the box holding the girl’s ribbon and knife was gone, a small indent in the snow the only evidence it had ever been there. Before long, it snowed again, gentle and slow, but enough to mar the prints and eventually blot them them out completely. Time moved forward, and swept clean all their traces in its wake.

Chapter Text

The flower in the garden’s center was lively as ever. Its petals shivered as he brewed the tea. Two cups, this time.

The kingdom’s celebration had gone on for days after he’d announced that a soul had already been taken. New Home, already comparable in size to the one they’d left behind, had been riotous with joy – now their king’s promise wasn’t just empty words. That jarred blue light, quivering behind the strange glass, was proof of a better future. The monsters had been so distracted by the goings-on that they hardly noticed that Asgore himself had shut himself up in the castle, a fact for which he was dearly grateful.

Royal Guards 05 and 06, too, were hailed as heroes, but seemed to shun the spotlight. They’d become reserved and quiet – or more quiet, in 06’s case – requested a post at the Snowdin/Waterfall border instead of the Ruins entrance, and stood sentinel even as the celebrations became a memory and the gushing praise for their acts slowed to a trickle. They visited the castle, from time to time, if only to report that no further humans had fallen. He always invited them to tea afterwards, but they refused. They seemed reluctant to confide anything in him.

But when 05 once again appeared in his doorway to announce that a human had been captured, Asgore understood why the guard sounded so tired.

It was a nice day; he’d made a note in his journal. But there was no avoiding the way he’d felt at the news – that sudden drop in his gut, the moment of vertigo, as the routine into which he’d immersed himself broke and gave way. But he’d thought ahead this time. That was why he set tea for two, and placed the fresh, empty canister on his throne like a trophy, a conversation piece, in clear view of the little table.

He poured, and added several sugars to his own cup. The ground underfoot trembled as 06 approached.

His actions with the last one had been too hasty, he’d concluded. Unfair. Even if reneging on his promise was unthinkable, the humans who had to be sacrificed at least deserved to know why their deaths were necessary. Already the story of Asriel’s death passed from mouth to mouth across New Home, spreading between the monsters like an infection, but rumor and hearsay were nothing compared to a decent, civil conversation. This time, he’d explain himself frankly. Maybe they would understand. And if not – then they were entitled, at least, to defend themselves. If they had met Toriel like last time, on their way out of the Ruins, Asgore had no doubt she would ensure they knew how.

“Your Majesty.”

05 stood at the garden’s periphery, the sunlight lying on his horns like paint. He was clad head to toe in his mail like usual – Asgore didn’t believe he had ever seen the guardsman out of it – but he was still clearly older than the last time he’d made this announcement. A worn edge to his voice, a stoop to the shoulders, a brief gesture as he tried to surreptitiously work out a fresh kink in his neck. Asgore almost envied that last one; ever since Asriel died, he’d woken up with the exact same stiffness and sore spots every single morning. Even his pains were frozen in place now that his son was gone.

“Howdy, 05,” he said, and drummed a tuneless little rhythm on the table. “Moment of truth, eh? Send them in. I trust they didn’t give you any trouble.”

“No, he-” He regarded the second, empty seat at the tea table, and stopped talking. He glanced out into the corridor. He waved a hand. The ground shook.

06’s massive frame darkened the doorway and squeezed past his comrade. Asgore leaned forward, smiling hopefully, and then felt the smile drain out of his face.

No one was holding 06’s hand this time. Instead, he had one palm cupped close to his chest. A small, limp arm dangled from between his fingers like a broken twig.

05 said, “Put him down.”

Metal creaked as 06 bent over and deposited the child’s body amidst the flowers. Asgore’s chair fell back as he sprang to his feet and ran over, palms held in front of him, his mouth gaping uselessly. 05 continued to speak as Asgore hunched over the human; his words were toneless and low, without a hint of his old, nervous stutter.

“He was attacking people, Your Majesty. The children. In the woods outside Snowdin. Some of them managed to run away, but at least a couple of them, they...” He trailed off. “We confronted him at the Waterfall border. We did what needed to be done.”

06’s quaking mutter shook the air, but this time 05 cut him short.

“Yeah, maybe, but we made our choice. You’re the one who wanted to relocate.” Another rumble, hesitant. “Just shut up, man.”

The boy was gangling and lean, his limbs splayed out like lengths of twisted rope. No visible injuries except for a few minor scorch marks here and there – magic struck at the soul, but left the body mostly unmarred. His hair was dark and cropped close to his head, his skin tanned but waxy in death, the color of petrified wood. Both hands bare, the skin of his right hand strangely mottled, as if it had been drenched in sweat. Thin clothes, worn sneakers, their treads grounded almost flat. Asgore barely heard the guards‘ conversation as he bent low over the body. He realized something was missing.

“The soul,” he said, and both guards fell silent. “Where’s the-”

Then he saw. The boy’s chest, almost imperceptibly, rising and falling.

When Asgore looked up, both 05 and 06 flinched.

“He’s still alive?”

“He. I mean, we.” 05 swallowed and stiffened up. “We didn’t have one of the jars on us, and we didn’t know how long the soul would last if the body...y-you know...so we thought it would be wisest to, to subdue the human and take it back to you, like the last-”

06 spoke again. Harsher than before. 05’s head snapped around and up to meet his visored gaze.

“I said shut up!” he hissed. “He doesn’t need to know that now, you idiot! Where was all this when we were both-”

“Leave. Both of you.”

The guards turned to face him as he rose, one hand in the air. There was a shimmer of red, and his trident materialized; he clasped it in both hands and swung it around, those three points hovering just over the child’s heart.

“If this intruder has killed our own, then there is no need to hesitate.” His hair hung over his eyes; his face was stony and set. “I must answer in kind. After all, this is my duty.”

05 stepped forward. “Your Majesty, I just wanted to say that-”

“Your service,” he said, with finality, “is appreciated.”

05 stopped, slumped, and gave a half-hearted salute. He shuffled out of the throne room without waiting for his companion. 06 stood over the body for a moment longer, and then shook his head, his helmet grinding like a millstone, before stomping away as well.

Asgore’s hands began to shake. He stared down at the body. He seemed unable to blink. The sun sparked off the trident’s points like stars in miniature. On the table behind him, the tea had grown cold.

He took one last look at the boy’s face, and felt his stomach lurch.

The boy’s eyes had been closed before, his lashes lying on his cheeks like streaks of ash, but now they were open, the merest crack, the pupils shining beetle-dark beneath. His breath hoarsened. It sounded like he was trying to speak.

Asgore squeezed his eyes shut and stabbed down.

*             *             *

He found himself outside the city, in front of the cold and lonely memorial.

“Found himself” was the best way to put it – it was as though he’d been hovering outside his own body, time passing through him like wind, and then all at once he’d been jerked out of that moment and into the present, so suddenly that his fangs clicked together in shock. His eyes snapped this way and that, momentarily unsure of where he was, or how he’d arrived here. Then he remembered, and groaned, and held his head in his hands.

After the soul had been contained and the body placed in the basement – he’d have to prepare another coffin later, another macabre errand in a day so suddenly filled with them – he’d left the castle, meaning to see for himself what had happened in Snowdin. At the very least, he thought, he could pay his respects. 05 and 06 were nowhere to be found. Asgore hoped they had just gone home. All of them needed some rest.

Then he had stopped at the memorial outside the city walls, in this high-ceilinged cavern that was bare and gray as a mausoleum. A rough-hewn fountain where water bubbled from an underground spring and pooled at the statue’s feet. The statue itself, horned and slumped and faceless, its carved hands on its knees as if waiting for someone to come. Asriel as he would never be. The water coursed through hidden pockets in the statue’s base and toyed with the gears of a music box concealed there, a melody that Toriel had often hummed and would later adapt as a lullaby, and its notes plinked throughout the chilly darkness like rain. There must have been a draft carried in by the spring, somehow; this cavern was oddly cold, and the air around the statue in particular so frigid that its base was skirted by a thin rime of ice.

He could no longer remember Asriel’s face. His son’s image hadn’t been lost to him completely, of course – Asgore could still recall his hobbies, his posture, his laughter and tears (that last one especially; Asriel had wept constantly, often unprovoked, and he’d only grown more embarrassed of the habit as he grew older), but it was like his face was always seen through a bright glare, making it featureless as this statue. It was a troubling development. He’d stood in front of the memorial, listening to the song and contemplating why his recollections had failed him, and then he had drifted off. Another bad habit that was only becoming worse.

He shook his head, turned, and clanked away, leaving the statue behind. He was sure the memory would return to him in time.

His pace was steady and unbroken as he marched through the sweltering orange expanse of Hotland (still mostly unsettled and undeveloped, too harsh for all but the hardiest monsters, the magma’s glow reflecting off bare arches of stone that snaked through the shimmering air in their private, chaotic architecture), and then across the mud of Waterfall. He thought about paying Gerson a visit, then dismissed the idea; they’d grown somewhat distant since Asgore had made his decree. His feet splashed across the narrow stone path in that colossal central cavern where the rain fell, and his castle gleamed in the distance, ringed by the monsters’ new and half-formed city. The rising structures huddled around the central mass like supplicants.

He remembered the day they left Home.

When the war had ended and humanity had sealed them beneath Mt. Ebott, Asgore, Toriel, and all, they’d fled as far as the underground would allow. The battle had left them demoralized, decimated, convinced that their enemies would soon decide to just follow them in and finish the job. They’d treaded across burning heat and sucking mud and freezing snow just to have more obstacles between themselves and any pursuers, and then constructed the great wall and impassable stone door behind what would soon become their city, a barrier of their own to keep others out, not in. It had not been a hopeful time. But – and even now, Asgore had to smile at the thought of it – they’d overcome, and thrived, to the point where their new environs had started to feel a bit cramped. Talking everyone into leaving their confinement and spreading further through the underground hadn’t been easy, but despite their fear, everyone had agreed to the idea.

Still, the journey had been a hesitant one. It was much easier when they were fleeing towards what they believed was safety, but now, with every step, they’d all felt the barrier and that menacing world beyond loom closer. That pulsing wall was the omen of an uncertain future. Some had elected to simply remain behind in Snowdin, but the rest – caught between their desire for more freedom and their unease at what that freedom might cost – had slowed, and stopped, and needed encouragement.

Toriel was the one who’d shown them the light. As usual. He remembered how they had all huddled right here in Waterfall among the grottos and puddles and pools of black and hungry mud, as their queen stepped up and began to speak. It’s all right to be afraid, she told them. But your king and I will guide the way. If you cannot be brave, then please, let us be brave in your stead.

The false stars’ faint glow died as he left the cavern and continued to Snowdin. 05 and 06’s border post stood empty. A blast of icy air greeted him as he stepped out into the snow and hard white light.

The border between Snowdin and Waterfall consisted of a wide trail beside a sluggish, freezing river. Asgore saw no one in the village beyond. And the snow on the trail itself was scarred, chewed, hurled in every direction by scraping, scrabbling limbs – clear evidence of a struggle. This must have been where 05 and 06 confronted the human.

He gave that zone of blasted snow a wide berth as he continued into the town, and another set of footprints caught his eye – they bore the same faint treads as the shoes the human wore. As he walked, he saw the spacing between the prints grow smaller and smaller, and then stop completely, so that both feet were planted side-by-side; Asgore turned around and peered down the path, playing out the scene in his mind. Here the boy had stood, and seen the Royal Guard standing in his way. He had walked toward them. And then, he’d started to run.

The quiet was unnatural. Either the residents had gone out in search of their dead, or simply shut themselves up in their homes out of fear – the latter was something many of them had learned from the war, a tactic that was almost instinctual and tragically useless. A riot of footprints was in the town square, all shapes and sizes, but only the human’s continued out of it. They were shambling, uncertain. They led into the library. The ones leading back out, and towards Waterfall, were more hurried, almost panicked, the prints marred by his heels skidding across the snow.

Asgore regarded the empty scene, tugging worriedly at his beard. The wind plucked at his ears and mantle, as if coaxing him to get a move on.

“Hello?” he called. “Is anyone here?”

His voice boomed down the street, and its echo made the return trip. No answer. He sighed, scratched his horns, and looked at the library door. It was slightly ajar.

The sign overhead proclaimed that this place was, in fact, the Librarby. Asgore stared at it for some time.

“Really ought to get that fixed,” he muttered, and stepped inside.

The place was cozy, but depressingly spare – for all their virtues, monsters usually lacked the attention spans for serious reading. The single row of bookshelves against the back wall was populated mostly by salvaged books from the humans’ trash, their covers wrinkled and watermarked, or by the monsters’ own half-hearted attempts at writing; these latter works usually consisted of just one or two handwritten pages hastily bound between blank covers, sometimes with amusing doodles in the margins. Over the front door, a scratched and splintery clock ticked in a lurching, uneven tempo.

No one here, either. But along the length of the shelves was a solid trail of criss-crossing footprints, still damp from snowmelt; even in here, the boy apparently hadn’t been able to stand still.

The books themselves were mostly in order, but one had been roughly shoved on top of the others hard enough to crease its cover. Asgore walked over to it, plucked it off the shelf, and read:

Because they are made of magic, monsters’ bodies are attuned to their soul. If a monster doesn’t want to fight, its defenses will weaken. And the crueler the intentions of our enemies, the more their attacks will hurt us. Therefore, if a being with a powerful soul struck with the desire to kill…um, let’s end the chapter here...

“Understandable,” he sighed. He’d experienced enough of that phenomenon himself. He gently slid the book in with its fellows, and then stopped. There was another one, its cover light blue, uncomfortably reminiscent of the last child’s clothes. It had been flung into the far corner of the library, surrounded by scraps of paper that blended in with the carpet’s nap. He picked it up, flipped it open.

While monsters are mostly made of magic, human beings are mostly made of water. Humans, with their physical forms, are far stronger than us. But they will never know the joy of expressing themselves through magic. They’ll never get a bullet-pattern birthday card…

He smiled at that. Asriel had made him one of those, once, but had overdone it on the magic a tad. That, combined with his fondness for light shows, meant that Asgore had spent most of his birthday walking into walls after being blinded by a rainbow.

Then he noticed something. The bottom of the book was theatrically marked “PAGE ONE.” He flipped it over; it was the only page there. But along the rough-bound spine, there was a sliver of paper, its edge roughly torn. He glanced at the shreds scattered on the carpet.

Thanks to the size of his hands, it took him time and care and considerable frustration just to get all the pieces off the floor without tearing them further. But eventually he had them all laid on the library’s sole reading table, and pushed them together like a jigsaw until the sloppy, careless print became legible.

And since magic acts directly on the soul, doesn’t that mean we could probably attack humans by accident? A monster who didn’t know better might hurt a human just by saying hello. Oh well, not like it matters down here anyway. Page Two, the end.

“Oh…Your Majesty.”

Asgore looked up, and swept the torn paper into his cupped hand. There was a silhouette hunched in the doorway, fresh snowflakes limning it like fireflies.

“I wasn’t expecting to find you here, of all things.” It shuffled into the light. “What a relief, to be pleasantly surprised for a change.”

Most of Snowdin Town’s founding residents had been monsters whose bodies were well-suited to the region’s bitter climate, but some of them had been simply too old or too weak to travel to the opposite end of the Underground. The librarian has been one of the latter, judging by her querulous voice, but still, it was hard to tell – she was cloaked in so many layers of shawls and scarves that she resembled a motley cone, without limbs or features. In the approximate area where her head would have been, there was only a hollow space, veiled with darkness, a single pale red eye shining deep in the murk. Asgore stepped out of the way as she shuffled toward the shelves.

“I apologize if I startled you,” he said. “I…I came to pay my respects…”

“Ah, then you’ve heard.” That red eye glowed brighter as she examined the books. “But I’m afraid most of them have gone out to the woods. To gather the dust, you see.”

“So it’s true that-”

“It seems so. A few of the injured children came into town with the news. Trying times. Terribly trying times. I’d have been little use out there, so I’m just tidying up. Though I doubt any of those poor people will care much about the state of these shelves.” A sigh. “I suppose I’m just a silly old lady who worries too much.”

Asgore visibly winced at that, but she didn’t seem to notice. A limb extended from that mass of shawls – milky-white and smooth, with just two fingers. That pale pincer expertly straightened several askew books, and then retreated into the monster’s layers.

“If you’re here, then I assume the human has been slain.”

“Yes.” He felt the need to add something more. “I made it quick.”

“Sometimes that’s the only mercy you can offer.” She turned, her one eye dim. “I just don’t understand it. He seemed like such a kind boy.”

“You spoke to him?”

“I.” The shawls shuddered. “I’m sure you have better things to do than listen to my rambling.”

Asgore stood still for a moment. Then, with great deliberation, he pulled out a seat at the table, gathered his mantle under him, and sat down, hands on his knees like a student waiting to be asked a question. The chair whimpered under his weight.

“I would like to hear it,” he said. “If I may.”

Her eye strobed for a second, flickering like old neon. Then, she nodded, and began to speak.

She hadn’t even known he was a human at first; she admitted that freely. She’d been out taking a walk when she’d seen him arrive, huddled against the cold, looking lost – she thought he was from Capital, they were getting more visitors and residents all the time out here, apparently some monsters still preferred the quieter life. When she’d struck up a conversation he had been polite, if shy, and clearly uncomfortable at having to hold still, his soles fidgeting and scuffing around the snow; he’d worn a faded pink glove over one hand, and rubbed at it constantly, as if trying to get it clean. But when she asked where his parents were, he’d become evasive, nervous, constantly glancing over his shoulder at the road leading back to the Ruins.

“He was shaking like a leaf,” she said. “Even then I had no idea. Stupid me. Stupid old woman.”

She’d kindly told him that he could get out of the wind at the library if he wanted to rest for a bit – he would have the run of the place, it was usually empty and even she couldn’t bear to stay cooped up there for long – and then tottered off to the small riverbank at the north end of town. The sound of the water there was very soothing, she explained, and in fact she had a relative who was quite enamored with it. She’d returned just in time to see him fling the door open and bolt down the road, moving so fast that his heels tore up the snow in clumps. But she hadn’t been the only one to leave her post. 05 and 06 had been on the far end of the path.

The clock’s crippled tick filled the silence.

“They just…stood there,” she said. “The three of them. Staring each other down. They didn’t seem certain of what to do. And then the children arrived home. The survivors. They were beside themselves, of course. The whole town came running. It was an awful commotion. Even before one of them pointed out the human.”

And there he’d stood – with the defenseless, aggrieved townsfolk on one end, and the black-clad hulks of the Royal Guard on the other. He’d chosen to move forward. And afterwards, all that remained of him was his glove and a threadbare bandana, both of them lost and half-buried in the snow.

“I didn’t see anything when I arrived,” said Asgore.

“I believe one of the children came and took them. I could retrieve them, if you like-”

“No. No, that’s fine. But thank you for offering.”

She said no more. The only sound outside came from the wind. Asgore turned to look at the clock; that tick was giving him a splitting headache.

“You did choose those guards well, Your Majesty,” she added, hesitantly. “They scarcely felt his blows. Everyone here admires them, you know.”

“I’m sure they appreciate it.” He rose from his seat, turned to the door. “I suppose I should wait for the others, then. They might need-”

“Perhaps you’d best return home, Your Majesty. You look exhausted.”

“We all do, I’m sure.” He pinched his muzzle; he felt lightheaded. “Still, if you’re certain that you don’t need me…”

“I’ll be sure to let the others know you came to visit. That should bring them comfort enough.”

He nodded, and turned to the door.

“Your Majesty?”

He looked over his shoulder. “Hmm?”

She stood with her back to the shelved, her formless body rippling beneath the shawls. She seemed to recede into those strata of clothing.

“I don’t…I mean, I wanted you to know that we all admire what you’re doing, as well.” That shaky voice grew fainter still. “Two souls already, isn’t that right? I have no illusions about my chances, I’m certain that I’ll fall down long before you succeed, but at least the children…or even their own children…they’ll be able to see the sun again someday. And that’s enough, for me.” She raised her head just enough for him to see the barest sliver of that gleaming eye. “It is worth it. Isn’t it?”

The torn paper crinkled in his clenched fist. Whoever had read that page had been deeply disturbed by what they’d learned. Enough to lose their will to fight.

“Yes,” he said. “Yes, of course it is.”

He turned back to the exit, placed his hand against the door.

“He was crying.”

Asgore froze. The words were hushed and abrupt, as if they’d been torn from her.

“I’m old, but I’m not deaf. He wouldn’t stop fighting, even though he wept all the while.” Her voice now so low that it was little more than an implication in the snowy night. And again she said: “I just don’t understand it.”

He pushed open the door and left without another word.

The snowfall had turned heavier, enough to obscure the far edges of Snowdin Town from view; the lamplights and the bulbs of the Christmas tree glowed like wisps in the distance. He turned away from them and trod back to the river, where the boy had been struck down by 05 and 06. He stood on the bank, watched the way the flakes settled on the ice-blue surface of the water, and sank, and dissolved. He tried to avoid his reflection’s gaze.

He held out his hand and let the scraps of paper fall. They joined the snowflakes and, as Asgore retreated the way he came, faded away to nothing.

Chapter Text

The dripping blue-veined caverns of Waterfall were widely believed to hold some of the most beautiful sights in the Underground, but there was a reason most of its long-term residents were either aquatic, thick-skinned, or incorporeal. The ceaseless wet took what remained of Snowdin’s bitter air and turned it into a gnawing, unpleasant chill that clung to the skin like a sheathe and wormed down to the bones; the ground underfoot was either full of puddles or dark sucking mud that could swallow a full-sized monster halfway up to the knee, if they had knees; many of the caves and corridors were cramped and low-ceilinged, so that, with that blue tinge in the air, one eventually began to feel as though they were trapped under glass. That last issue didn’t apply to the marshlands, though, where the reeds grew tall and the water glowed cobalt from the magic that had seeped into Mt. Ebott. Here, the only sound came from the shivering grass, and the dripping rocks, and Asgore’s own footsteps, which splashed and clanked no matter how hard he tried to disguise them. He brandished his trident in both hands, and its thin red outline burned in this cave like a wound. The gleam of another soul canister could be seen under the folds of his mantle.

His pace was slow, his posture hunched. The trident shook in his grip. His eyes darted in every direction, but there was only the grass and the glow and the tall amorphous shadows printed on every wall.

Then, a voice, so close it seemed to be resting on his shoulder. It was a girl’s, breathy and lilted, like a modulated yawn:

“You’ve killed me three times.”

Asgore spun on his heel and the trident lashed out, cutting a thatch of marsh-grass cleanly in half. The pale green leaves leapt in the air as if startled, and then floated down along with a miasma of dust. No one was there. But again the voice sounded, now on the other side of the cave:

“This dance is so beautiful that I don’t want it to end.”

This one was different.

It had been a nice day; he’d made a note in his journal. The phone had rung when he was gathering up his gardening tools for the day’s usual excursion downstairs. He shuddered to think what might have happened if he’d left any sooner.

The girl that came from the direction of the Ruins had been quiet, smiling; she’d walked as if half-asleep, steps that were strange and slow and delicate. By now the woods around Snowdin had been cautiously judged to be safe again, and once again, the monsters in that region hadn’t realized that she was human – there were so many kinds, with so many behaviors, and they were so rare that only the Royal Guard bothered to keep a lookout for them. The first few monsters to greet her had been killed on the spot. So had anyone nearby. And then the ones who’d tried to run. She had continued toward Snowdin Town at that same easy pace, dust sticking to her soles.

A few lucky refugees came screaming the news – this human wasn’t like the last one, her attacks didn’t even injure, she simply tore them apart as if they had never been anything more than a thin skin of dust in the first place. The townspeople, already on edge from the memory of their last visitor, had bolted their doors and fled down to Waterfall. The last few stragglers saw her enter the village perimeter. 05 and 06 had been there, and prepared to fight her, and hesitated. The human had struck them down in a single blow apiece, so quickly it was impossible to tell who’d died first.

Asgore heard all this from Gerson, who’d heard it from the refugees and then made the call in between hasty, desperate attempts to keep some sort of order and evacuate to the Capital. He’d delivered the news, and then told him, with significantly harsher language and quite a lot of shouting, to get out of that castle and come save his people while he had people to save. And so Asgore had run out and towards Waterfall, the canister knocking against his side, and felt that sensation once again – that dreadful, inexorable movement in the pit of his stomach, the future pulling him towards some grim conclusion.

He couldn’t remember how he’d gotten here. He didn’t recall when he’d manifested his trident. He was certain he’d know if he just took a moment to concentrate, but a moment’s distraction here could prove fatal. The air was thick with dust and déjà-vu, and silent except for when the girl chose to speak.

“It’s so cold.”

She seemed to be everywhere at once.

“There’s a terrible chill on my shoulders. If I had known, I would have dressed more warmly. Instead, I must keep moving. Flowing blood warms the limbs. And I can distract myself. With a sound.”

Asgore flung out a hand and a sheet of flame erupted from the nearby marsh. No one there, but the burning orange light printed a new shadow on the cave walls, its head reared back and its limbs bent like a spider’s.

“Such a beautiful sound. Like pouring out a cupful of sand.” A giggle. “I wonder. How many more times can I hear it?”

He didn’t speak. No use in giving away his position further. And something told him that talking would do no good, anyway. The girl talked as if she wasn’t even aware that he was here.

“It’s just us, isn’t it.”

He jumped at that; it was like she’d stolen the thought from him. He sidled over a patch of mud and peered into the dark. Nothing there. But beside his footprints, another pair, impossibly faint even in the gasping muck, faded away.

“Everyone else is gone.” She didn’t sound particularly saddened. “It’s only the three of us now. You. And me. And my little voice.”

Invisible. Invisible. He set more fires, slashed at the grasses, and only found more crazed shadows and faint, amused laughter. The girl stepped so lightly she couldn’t be heard, she seemed to float on air, he wouldn’t even know if she was here at all if not for her relentless chatter and the dust that trailed in her wake like a freight of ghosts.

“A friend, perched on my shoulder. Every time I hear that beautiful sound, it speaks to me. Keep going. You’re doing so well. Don’t let any of them get away. Like I’m carrying my own audience with me, always clapping. But who would speak so much and never show their face? It must be someone very sad and strange.”

A footstep splashed behind him.

“Show me your face, sad stranger.”

He turned just in time to see a blur of shadow and movement, and something cracked against his chest and shattered his breastplate like glass; he expelled a violent susurrus of air, the blow having knocked even the voice out of him, and collapsed to his knees, hands clutched over the wound. His trident clattered to the stones beside him. A shimmering pink shoe stomped it in half, and it burst into sparks.

He drew in what little breath he could and slammed both palms down on the stones. The earth around him exploded in pyrotechnic light. He staggered out of those gouts of flame, barely able to stand, the girl’s delighted peals of laughter clinging to his heels.

“Like stepping on a frozen puddle! Beautiful sounds. Beautiful feelings. I’ve gone looking for them everywhere.”

The clutching shadows surrounded him as he tried to find shelter, both hands pressed over his chest. Dust streamed through his fingers. His every labored breath felt like it would shake his body apart.

He remembered the war.

It had been a farcical affair from the beginning. A tragic, brutal joke. It barely deserved to be called a war at all – there were certainly no soldiers on either side, not when the entirety of monsterkind was a target, not when the very strongest monster could be easily struck down by the very weakest human. But there was the question of souls. The same paranoia that had sparked the conflict in the first place. A single human casualty could have turned the tides completely. So humanity had continued their assault, first with fear and then with hate and then with neither, just a grim and passionless determination, cutting down his people in swathes and leaving the air clouded and choking on their remains. It wasn’t even a matter of strength. There was something in the nature of humanity that was anathema to monsterkind, a potency, a twist in those souls that no monster could explain or understand. If they were sufficiently motivated, humans seemed to alter the world through their presence alone, the future cracking apart and giving way under their unrelenting will. And on some battlefields Asgore had felt the same thing he did now – that distortion in time and memory, déjà-vu that ate at him like a toothache.

It was absurd. Monsters had kindness etched into their being, they needed considerable time and effort to justify the act of hurting anyone at all. Whereas the humans couldn’t afford to be kind, because kindness would have softened their blows; they were empowered by the need to hurt, and the empowerment became motivation, and so they had marched on and on, their violence feeding into itself, until what remained of Asgore and his people had been driven into the dark. And now here was one more echo of that dismal time. This laughing phantom that killed so easily that she barely seemed to understand her victims even existed.

That laughter drew closer as he slogged through the marshes and into a small grotto, where the reeds grew no more than ankle-height and the ceiling was studded with those false, gemlike stars. No other way out. He looked over his shoulder and thought he saw a silhouette, closing in.

The two souls he had collected slept now in the Underground’s very first cavern, whose mouth was covered by the pulsing opaque sheet of the barrier. Sealed into the very stones, with the most potent spell he could muster; he’d taken great pains to make sure that he was the only one who could ever, ever retrieve them. If he’d taken just one of them in preparation for this battle, he could have destroyed the human effortlessly. But he couldn’t. Even now, the thought of unsealing one of those jars and absorbing the light inside nearly made him retch.

He hobbled to the far end of the cave, and turned, and collapsed, sliding down the stone wall. The purple of his mantle darkened to black as it drank up the puddles underneath. He looked down at his wound; his entire gut seemed slightly concave, and when he pulled away his hands dust ran out in trickles.

He had to laugh. After all he’d seen and done, dying like this was almost too appropriate.

“Asriel,” he said, and tried to remember his son’s face. He failed; that glare still blinded him. But, he thought, that shouldn’t be a problem for long.

“Asriel,” he said again. “Forgive your idiot father. It looks like I’m following in your footsteps after all.” He grimaced at the pain. “I just hope you and Chara waited for me.”

That sleepy, toneless voice strained through the grotto’s mouth.

“You must be tired.” Approaching footsteps. “It’s okay to rest.”

She emerged. Dark of hair and skin and eye, so for a moment only the frosted pink and white of her clothes were visible, floating disembodied in the murk. Then the rest of her form bled into view, the half-lidded eyes and lazy sideways smile and dainty, outstretched fingers. Her sparkling pink shoes, smeared with dust like sugar, stepped among the stones in a jerky, uneven rhythm like a failing windup toy, always picking where the puddles were shallowest, and dust shook off the stiff hoop of her skirt with every footfall. He saw no compassion in her stare. He saw nothing that he could even recognize.

She said, “I think this dance is over.”

With that same languorous grace, she stepped out of her shoes, pulled away her skirt. She stood before him in only her leotard and tights, thin as a matchstick.

“The last one your size made a terrible mess,” she said, and started to advance again. “I must do my best to stay clean.”

Those were the last words he would ever hear. More absurdity.

Still, he couldn’t entirely let go of hope. By now Gerson would have evacuated everyone and prepared to take a stand himself, and maybe, though Asgore thought this a touch optimistic, news of the king's death would galvanize the monsters enough to strike this human down. From there, his people would need to take the future into their own hands. Try as he might, he’d never been able to keep ahold of it himself. Here it was now, approaching step by step.

And at this final extremity, he couldn’t lie to himself. More than anything else, he wanted to see his family again.

Asgore’s eyes flew open wide.

Toriel. In the Ruins, in their old home, which had become a checkpoint for each of the humans to fall thus far. Who would have stood in the way of this child smeared with his people’s dead.

“Her too?” His voice was a horse creak.

“Oh? It spoke.” She kept walking. “What did it say?”

“Toriel. The woman in the ruins. Her too?” He rose inch by painful inch, propped against the back wall for support; his lips peeled back, fangs bared. “Did you kill her, too!?”

She stopped.

The girl’s smile was gone. Her eyes now wide with shock. Asgore watched her placid expression crumple like a paper bag.

“How dare you,” she said. And then: “How could you?”

To his astonishment, tears started running down her cheeks. She knuckled them away, sniffling.

“She brought me pie and tucked me in. Her house was the warmest place I’d ever been. She even tried to find me new shoes. She tried so hard.” The girl’s lip quivered. “She smiled when I danced for her. The most beautiful thing I’d seen. You think I would spoil that? Do something to take it away? What kind of person do you think I am?”

He didn’t answer; his traitorous throat had closed up again. But seeing her there, bent double and still coated with the dead, his only answer would have been, I don’t know.

Little by little, she straightened again. She tilted her head, still frowning. She was no longer watching him; her gaze was fixed on something unseen.

“Little voice, you’ve gone so quiet. What’s the matter?” Then that lazy smile crept back onto her face. “Oh. Oh, I think I know.”

This was his only chance. He grit his teeth and flung both arms out.

Three trails of licking fire raced in from the grotto’s periphery, thin red lines cutting through the blue. As the girl’s eyes flicked back over to him, they snaked between her feet, and the ground glowed hot.

She said, “You must be-”

She gasped as the flames underfoot erupted, a great burst of fire that sprang up to the ceiling and turned the world into a negative of itself, the quiet blue light now blazing hot. The center of the chamber had become a torch, and consumed the girl entirely. Asgore slumped, and clutched at his wound again.

“You should be smiling, too.”

His head snapped back up, mouth agape. She was still there, upright in the fire’s embrace, a macabre wick in a great candle.

“Smile,” she said. “Because everything ends. Even terrible things.”

He watched her stand en pointe, one arm crossed over her chest, the other raised up high, fingers curled, as if she meant to seize the false stars overhead. A figurine in flame. Her grin widened until her teeth shone even through the firelight, and fire licked between those teeth like breath.

“Ah...it’s so warm.”

Then she extinguished, and collapsed, and did not rise again. All that remained of her was a single point of light, beating deeper blue in the grotto’s wet and silent air.

There wasn’t any celebration waiting for him this time. The monsters had huddled in whatever cellars or dark corners they could find, waiting for news of victory or defeat. He returned home alone, in silence, taking slow and hobbled steps. In the crook of one arm he held the girl’s body, weightless as air and barely charred, the dust from her clothes mixing with the dust from his wounds. And in the other was the soul, trapped under glass, strangely lively. It swayed from side to side in its prison, as if dancing to music that only it could hear.

Chapter Text

She found the ballet shoes and tutu in the same place as ever, this small cavern beside the marshlands where the reeds grew halfway up to the ceiling. The once-brilliant pink fabric was dull with age and marred with dust so thick and wet that it resembled a layer of mold. She’d touched them only once, and shivered; it had felt like poking her finger into the carcass of a long-dead animal.

Maybe the unease radiating from those clothes was why this cave was always empty. She’d hid here often, gathering her thoughts and her notes, sleeping when she could manage it, and several times she had seen lean and amorphous shadows stretching through the entryway, only to pause, and shudder, and move on. As if there was a warding placed here. A curse from times better left unknown.

It suited her fine. The world down here was crawling with monsters, and since all of them apparently wanted her dead, a guaranteed safe haven was a relief, even if the air was close and cold and wet enough to make the pages of her notebook wrinkle up. She constantly had to hold it inside her hoodie, where none of the raindrops would hit it and make the ink run. Her handwriting was already so bad it was one step away from pictograms; she didn’t need it to be any more illegible.

She jotted down a few quick observations – plant growth seemingly at normal pace, number of shining stones embedded overhead remained constant – then closed the book, secreted it in her jacket, and scurried out of the cave with her head low and her hood pulled up. A sorry disguise, but it seemed to work. She’d seen that one monster on the river that was always robed and hooded and singing that strange tuneless tune, and hoped the others would just think she was its species, or relative, or however the creatures down here worked, she still wasn’t really sure. There was only so much she could research in these circumstances.

The marshlands were soggy as ever, the drip and bubble of the water above and below the only sounds she could hear. Motes of light danced above the surface like fireflies, and when she waved her hand through them they dispersed and reformed around her fingers. Something to do with magic, she guessed. That seemed to be the answer for most of the stranger things down here.

She normally moved through this place as fast as she could – far too open, and the reeds didn’t make reliable hiding spots – but this time she looked around (and above, just to make sure), and saw no one, and huddled by the water’s edge, the toes of her shoes digging into the mud. She looked down and held her glasses in place with one hand. No telling what would happen to them if they fell in there, or if she’d regain them if she had to start over.

The marsh was flat and shiny as glass. She cautiously dipped a finger in, watched the ripples form a growing bullseye. Then she cupped her hand, and scooped up a palmful of the water, and lifted it out. It was pleasantly cool, and though it still glowed, it didn’t appear to stain her skin. She raised it to her face, the glow turning her glasses into blank blue moons.

“That’s a bad idea.”

She yelped and staggered away from the marsh, smearing mud on her pants as she fought to get upright. The mud broke apart under her scrabbling and a great clod slid free and splashed into the marsh, and then she had no foothold at all, tumbling back and ready to drop into the swamp. Someone grabbed her wrist. For a moment there was an intense feeling of déjà -vu.

“Whoa there,” the stranger said. “Don’t fall in. That’d be worse than drinking it.”

The feeling subsided, and her breathing slowed. She saw a leathery green hand on her own, and then got a look at its owner.

He was a two-legged turtle, about twice her height (not saying much), dressed in what looked like khaki prospector’s clothes, his hat rocking on his knobbly head. Goatee, permanent squint, genial grin with teeth that had seen better days. There was a large satchel slung over one shoulder, securely buckled shut. She recognized him right off – he was always stationed at the checkpoint between the snowy region and this one, though normally he was asleep, in the same unchanging pose, fingers laced over his chest and hat pulled low. Usually she could sneak past him without incident, but now that she thought about it, she’d felt a gaze on the back of her neck during her most recent trek past that splintery wooden guardpost.

They stared each other down. He appeared to be waiting for something. Then, he relaxed, and released her.

“Steady as she goes, right?” He patted her shoulder. “Would’ve taken you ages to dry out if you took a dip in there. Wa ha ha.”

She looked at the marsh, looked back at him, and said, “Thanks.”

“Don’t mention it. And don’t drink swamp water, kiddo, no matter how thirsty you are. It’ll give you an awful bellyache.”

Her voice was hoarse with disuse, but his was so grizzled that it sounded like someone gargling gravel. It almost made her throat hurt listening to it.

She sidled back to the marsh’s bank and looked down into the pool. No reflection. The glow consumed it. That was something new, at least. Then she turned back to the turtle, arms crossed over her chest to keep the notebook in place.

“I won’t do it again,” she said, and began inching her way around. “I’ll just get out of your way-”

“Now hold on a sec.” She flinched, but he appeared not to notice; his attention had turned to the satchel. He unclipped the buckle. “If you’re thirsty I’m not about to let you go just yet. ‘specially if you’re going to the Capital, Hotland’s in the way and that place would dry out a cactus. Let me see…no, uh-uh, definitely don’t want to give you that…aha!” He produced a small canteen and held it out. “Have a swig of this.”

She hesitated, but he was right; her mouth was dry, and her only other options for a drink around here consisted of eating snow or licking the walls. She took the canteen and popped the cap. A soft blue glow spilled out, followed by several motes of light. They drifted over her worried expression.

“Yeah, that happens,” he told her. “No worries. Just sip, don’t gulp. Packs a bit of a wallop.”

She took a sip. The liquid inside was fizzy and sweet, with a distinct non-licorice taste. Her heart beat a little faster after the first swallow. She smiled and drank deeper.

The turtle grinned. “Good stuff, right? Even for humans.”

Her eyes went wide behind her glasses. She coughed up flecks of the drink and staggered back. The canteen slipped out of her hand and hit the stones and a small and sluggish cobalt trail oozed out and joined the marshwater; again there was that feeling of division in the air, time and space creaking and ready to turn in on themselves.

But the turtle didn’t move. If anything, he looked concerned. But she kept her distance, her glasses gleaming under the shadow of her hood. The marshes bubbled indifferently.

“The name’s Gerson,” he said. “You all right?”

“I’m fine.” Mostly true.

“Been down here long?”

“Just a few days.” Technically true.

He nodded, and retrieved his canteen, and gave it a few quick wipes on his shirt before shoving it back into the satchel. He seemed to deliberate on his next question.

“Why haven’t you tried to escape yet?”

She bit her lip, and said, “I know the king is in the way.”

And that cockeyed stare became unusually piercing for a moment, but she held her ground, and he relented. “Come and sit, how about it. My hips are killing me.”

“I should really get going-”

“No one else’ll bother you if I’m around. Besides, I doubt they’ll even know what you are. Been a piece since the last human fell down here. And that’s lucky for you, because they caused an awful lot of trouble.” He crouched down beside the marsh with a grunt and a sigh. “Only reason I pegged you is ‘cause I was in the war. Got acquainted with a lot of humans in those days. Maybe not in the kindliest of circumstances, but still.”

She wasn’t about to come any closer, but curiosity got the better of her.

She said, “You really fought in the war?”

“Sure did. Well, ‘fought’ might be a skosh generous. ‘Survived’ is what I’d call it. Not a whole lot of room for feats of heroism in that mess. Wouldn’t know it listening to the folks down here, though. The Hammer of Justice, they called me, though not so much these days, and I’m grateful for that. Tacky name.”

“That was you?” She’d overheard the moniker, once or twice, huddled somewhere out of view with notebook open and pen scritching. She hadn’t expected the famed war hero to look like this. Gerson seemed like a stiff breeze would snap him in two, if not for the shell.

“Heard the kids jabbering on about me, eh? It’s usually the young ones. They’re always banging on my door when I get home from guard duty.”

She risked honesty. “You’re not a very good guard.”

“Wa ha ha! Guilty as charged!” His good eye gleamed. “I let you just waltz past me over and over again, after all. You must’ve done it, ooh, twice a day since you got here? Close your mouth, kiddo, you’ll attract flies.” She shut her hanging jaw. “You ought to keep an eye on us old folks. We’re craftier than we look.”

She held her ground for a moment longer. Then, slowly, she walked over and knelt in the mud beside Gerson. He smiled, then turned his attention back to the water.

“Truth be told, I don’t like the job much,” he said. “I’m just filling in for the boys who used to be there. No one’s really wanted to replace them since…well, I did say the last human made a bit of a mess.”

She lowered her head. “I’m sorry about that.”

“No need to be. It was a long time ago.”

“Everyone else seems to remember it, though.” She brushed the notebook under her jacket with her fingertips; it felt reassuring in there, like armor plate. “I hear them talking about it. The third of seven human souls. And they’re still waiting for the rest.”

“Yeah, yeah, all due respect, but if I had a gold piece for every time I heard that cockamamie tale I could swim in ‘em. Don’t let it stress you, kiddo. Like I said, it ain’t likely anyone besides me can even peg you for human at a glance. Besides the king, that is. I’m assuming you haven’t actually run into him yet.”

She averted her eyes. “I haven’t met him. But I know what he looks like.”

“Oh? How’s that?”

“The Ruins.”

And that was all she needed to say. He heaved a sigh, and nodded.

“Figured as much,” he said quietly. “How’s she doing?”

“She’s fine. I mean, lonely. I felt awful, leaving her behind. But I need to go home.”

“I understand. And frankly speaking, she might not be the most trustworthy source when it comes to Asgore. Her opinion of him's had a long time to go sour. But, still, kiddo…I’d stay out of his way, if I were you.”

“Because he’ll kill me.”

“Oof. Not gonna gild that lily, are we.” His expression turned grave. “I’d like to say it wouldn’t end with that, I really would. But I wouldn’t want to risk your life on a hunch.” His beak wrinkled, like he’d tasted something bitter. “He’s…look, he’s a good guy. I know that doesn’t mean much to someone in your predicament, but it’s true.”

She believed him. Everything she knew about King Asgore was gleaned from eavesdropped conversations, but whenever the monsters mentioned him, it was with almost condescending fondness. Not a single person seemed to have anything bad to say about him. With one notable exception.

“I’ve known him for a while,” Gerson continued. “Us old fogeys gotta stick together, after all. He’s always been a big fluffy pushover. Goes around the kingdom, shakes hands, chats folk up, pops into the schools to play with the kids. Tell him your name and he won’t ever forget it – and thank goodness for that, because he’s just plain ghastly at coming up with ‘em himself. I wish you could’ve known him back in better days. But after that whole wretched business with his family, and that promise he made to everyone, it’s no surprise he’s gotten a bit…peculiar, lately.” He shrugged. “Everyone wants to be free. He’s caught up in the tide. That’s all.”

She said nothing at that. Instead, she looked down, unzipped her jacket, and withdrew her notebook. Its deep purple cover drank in the light from the marshlands.

“No one’s tried to find another way?” she said, and flipped the notebook open.

“You know, it’s funny you should mention that. Had a chat with Asgore the other day – first one in a while, actually – where he mentioned that exact thing. Didn’t go into detail, though. I should probably pay him a visit sometime, follow up on it.” He rolled his eye. “Bit of a hike for someone my age, but easier than trying to make the man answer his blasted phone.”

“I read the stories.” She leafed through the pages, the blocks of scrawled text passing by in a sleet. “And I know about the war. The barrier. What happens when a monster takes a human soul.”

“And I’m sure you know what’ll happen if Asgore nabs all seven.” He chuckled, and shook his head. “Everyone's all waiting with bated breath for the destruction of humanity. You must really hate us, bunch of fools that we are.”

“No. I don’t.”

“That so? Must not feel too charitable about humans, then. You’re not alone in that, the first human who fell down here was the same way. Always thought he was a bit spooky, honestly, but the royal family sure did love him-”

“I don’t blame them, either. I don’t blame the king. And I don’t blame you.”

She stopped at her most recent entry, those petty observations about the reeds in that small side cave. Then she let down her hood, shook out her mousy mop of hair, and regarded Gerson out the corner of her eye, made huge and round and wet by the lens of her glasses.

“It’s all just history,” she said. “Everything that happened. What matters now is what we do with it.”

Gerson’s face was so still and stiff that it looked carved. That one-eyed stare bored through her. Then, he snapped open his satchel again, the buckle’s pop loud as a gunshot. He rummaged through its contents, and withdrew a large glass jar, its bottom stoppered, its surface so agleam with swamplight that it looked alive.

He said, “Do you know what this is for?”

She shook her head.

“Then I’ll show you.”

In one smooth motion, he popped off the lid, bent over, and dunked the jar into the water. When he pulled it out again, it blazed like a jewel with that shimmering blue glow. He grinned and screwed the lid down again.

“Lovely water collector, this thing. Which is just as well, since you spilled the rest of it.” She remembered the canteen, and made a face. “Wa ha ha. Don’t worry, the marshwater’s just the base for that stuff, it gets mixed around with some herbs and magic after and turns out nice and tasty. I call it Sea Tea. Puts some spring in my step.”

She smiled. “It’s good. You could probably sell it.”

“Oh, could I? I suppose I could.” He slipped the jar into his satchel and buckled it shut; thin blue light still leaked out from around the flap. “And since you’re so abrim with ideas, I suppose you’ll be the one to find another way to crack open that barrier and set us all free?”

“I don’t know. But I don’t have anything better to do.” She held up her notebook. “I’ll just keep writing down whatever I learn. And see what happens from there.”

“Sounds like a better plan than some, that’s for certain.” He heaved himself back to his feet, his joints crackling from stiffness. She got up with him, and they stood side by side, the motes of light from the swamp flitting about between them.

“Before you go,” he said, “you wanna see something impressive? Some of the kids down here’d give an arm and a leg to have a gander at this. The ones who’ve got arms and legs, anyhow.”

“All right. Surprise me.”

He nodded, and held out his arms, fingers twiddling theatrically. “Observe, human. Nothing up this old man’s sleeves, but…”

Suddenly, new sparks blinked into life around Gerson’s hands, brilliant gold to offset the cavern’s burning blue. They multiplied, and swarmed, and then Gerson seized hold of them and pulled hard; there was a soft purring rip, like he’d pulled open a hole in the fabric of the world, and a flash so bright she held the notebook over her eyes to guard against the glare. And when she lowered it again, what she saw made her back away so fast she nearly took another tumble into the swamp.

Gerson was bent low, his eyes hidden beneath the brim of his hat. One hand dangled limp, knuckles scraping the ground. The other was wrapped around the handle of a hammer as big as he was, the color of burnished bronze, its gilded head large enough to smash her flat. The notebook shook in her hands. Her eyes were wide as saucers behind her glasses.

Gerson looked up and winked.

“Surprised?”

She tried to say something, but all that came out was a thin creak. Gerson straightened up and dropped the hammer into his other hand; he frowned as he examined its massive head.

“Feh, I’m really out of practice. The etchwork’s a disgrace.” He sniffed. “Frankly, I can’t even bear to look at it. Catch.”

He lobbed the hammer in her direction. She cried out and made a desperate, clumsy grab at the handle, eyes squeezed shut, waiting to be crushed – and then opened her eyes again when this did not happen. Her arm didn’t even buckle. The weapon weighed no more than a balloon.

Gerson whistled. “Would you look at that. Brains and brawn, this human’s got the whole package.” He clapped his hands and the hammer burst into sparks, illuminating her grin. “It’s heavy as I want it to be, kiddo. That’s magic for you.”

“That was incredible!” She flipped open her notebook again and took out her pen. “Can you tell me more about how that works? It might be really useful.”

“Whoa, whoa, slow down. I’m not as spry as I used to be.” He hunkered down by the water’s edge again. “I’m gonna stick around here for a bit, keep gathering ingredients. But you can wait by my place, if you like, it’s just outside the dump. Once we have a proper sit-down, I’ll talk enough to fill that book ten times over.”

“Okay.” She closed the notebook, tucked it back into her hoodie, and zipped up. “And thank you.”

“Nah, it’s no trouble. Old people don’t need a reason to talk young people’s ears off.”

“Not for that. It’s just…” She looked down, and traced an idle pattern in the mud with her shoe. “I’ve been on my own down here. Mostly on my own. It was nice to make a friend.”

He didn’t answer, and she looked back up. That gaptoothed grin was gone; the look that replaced it was quiet, thoughtful.

“Very kind of you to say so,” he said at last, and looked back out to the swamp. “Now get going. Take care of yourself. And remember – watch out for the king. If I know you’re down here, odds are that he does too.”

She nodded, and set off. She left the marshes and entered the abandoned canal, where the polished gray surface of the water held none of that unnatural light and the path was narrow enough so that she found herself flanked by her reflections, inverted girls on inverted walkways. And halfway through, she stopped, and turned, and all three girls’ faces turned puzzled. Because it was only then she realized that, through the whole conversation, Gerson had never asked for her name.

*             *             *

The strange horned statue was huddled under a single beam of pearly light that lanced though a hole in the stone overhead, along with a steady patter of raindrops that clung to its arms and ran down its blank face like tears. Its base was cracked and broken, several larger hunks of stone scattered around it like tribute. By the velvety coat of moss around those rocks, she guessed that no one had disturbed the statue or anything near it in a very long time, and it was easy to understand why – the air around it was oddly cold, and it only got worse as you drew in closer; she’d once touched the statue’s head, lightly, and the freezing rock had bit at her skin like teeth.

Once, out of curiosity or maybe just pity, she had taken one of the nearby umbrellas and propped it in the crook of the statue’s elbow, to shelter it from the rain. The drops had run off the umbrella and pooled at the base in new configurations, and she’d heard a click before a song played from within the statue’s depths, a tinkling music-box tune whose notes were scattered and lonely as the rain. She’d listened for some time, and then taken away the umbrella and moved on. The song offered her no answers, and she’d found it unbearably sad.

She moved on again, umbrella in hand, her hood pulled back up and her notebook tucked under her free arm. The Underground’s central cavern, with its muddy paths and perpetual rainfall, lay ahead. The tall blue flowers gossiped on the trail’s edge as she walked; two pairs of them bowed low, and sounded like they were laughing at her. She’d recorded some of their conversations, as well, and found no solutions there, either.

This narrow stone path, which afforded a view of the half the kingdom, was a dangerous place to linger. Any monsters who wanted to move from the swamp to those burning caverns had to come through here, and there was barely room for two people to walk side-by-side. But she sat down at the path’s edge anyway, heedless to the cold water seeping through her clothes, and flipped open her notebook, the umbrella propped beside her like a companion.

She flipped to the back of the book. These were the pages she hadn’t even shown Gerson.

The final page consisted of two simple columns. Numbers on the left, tally marks on the right. Something even her handwriting couldn’t render indecipherable. The tally marks represented the days she’d spent down here. The numbers were how many times she’d started over.

Toriel had been a good teacher, and she’d tried to stay an eager student for as long as she could. The first several pages of her notes were dedicated to arithmetic, history, quotes from books they had shared. But Toriel hadn’t shared the most important lesson until she’d told her that she needed to leave the Ruins and go home. She’d been crushed, but let her go, with a warning: it’s dangerous out there. The king is seeking your soul.

So when she had entered the Underground proper, she’d already been on edge. The snowy woods that made up the first leg of her journey had been mostly abandoned, which only made her feel more tense. But then she’d entered that cozy little village outside the forest, and found the residents cheerful and welcoming; she’d relaxed a little, and then overheard two of the monsters casually chatting about how long it would be before another human soul was gathered. And then, one of them had turned to her.

It could have been paranoia. Probably was, if Gerson had told the truth. But the jolt of terror she’d felt had been real, and seemed to knock her right out of the world. She’d woken up in the same place she’d first fallen, her notebook at her side, filled with Toriel’s old homework. And Toriel hadn’t recognized her. She’d treated their meeting like it was the very first time.

She’d gone through several more loops before understanding how or why. Down here, for whatever reason, she could flee through time, turning back the clock to the moment of her arrival – but never any further, though she’d tried again and again. It was still hard to control, and she’d suffered several accidental resets just because she thought she’d seen someone reach out to her, or heard a shout, or noticed a silent shadow walking behind her own, and every time she’d had to watch Toriel’s joy at finding another human child, and the way her face fell when she told her that she needed to leave.

She had all of Toriel’s lesson plans down by heart. She recorded whatever information she could find, in gossip and signposts and the strange plaques embedded in Waterfall’s walls. She’d even taken a cautious venture to the Capital, but it hadn’t lasted long; the streets were claustrophobic and clogged with darkness, and she’d reset again in a matter of hours, huddled inside some carved and dripping alley surrounded by buildings with stony surfaces mottled as fungus. And only once had she braved the path to the castle itself, through that eerie, empty duplicate of Toriel’s home, past the echoing silence and stained-glass light of the antechamber, and into the garden full of birdsong and the scent of sweet lemons. There she had finally seen King Asgore, and the moment she’d glimpsed his face, the shock had sent her flying back down the corridors of time, where Toriel had greeted her once again, and asked with concern why she looked so unwell.

Her notebook marked this as the fourth day of the sixteenth loop. And the only useful fact she had learned in all this time was that, to pass through the barrier, one needed a human and a monster soul in unison. Only two monsters in all the Underground had souls strong enough to suit her needs. And she could collect neither. She couldn’t bear to face the king, and the one time she’d even considered taking Toriel’s, and imagined the expression on her face as she crumbled to dust, she’d had to run off and quietly be sick in a corner. It was unthinkable.

She’d turned the Underground inside-out, looking for answers. She’d filled the notebook with a hundred disparate facts without organization or comprehension, as if staring into those scribbled pages would cause some unknown truth to coalesce like a magic eye picture. None of it helped. Even Gerson’s promise of more information seemed hollow here, where the castle and the Capital loomed larger than the mountain under which they’d been sealed, their glittering angles carving apart the dark. It was too much. She’d already walked every path this place could offer her. Her footprints extended in so many directions that she felt caged by them. And despite what Gerson had said, she knew that speaking to the monsters themselves was out of the question. They were hungry for freedom, too. They would suspect her, and recognize her, and strike her down.

The king.

She leafed through the pages until she found something on Asgore. Childless, alone, frozen in time by the death of his son. A man who loved his subjects so much he was willing to kill for them, even though he outlived more of them year after year after year.

You’d be doing him a favor.

It sounded like her thoughts, but coming from outside her head. She flinched and turned around. No one was there.

She returned to the pages. Nothing but black on white. Meaningless shades. No answers to be found. But there had to be another way. She couldn’t bring herself to leave this place with someone’s stolen soul beside her own.

You know it’s the only way.

“Stop it,” she muttered. “Leave me alone.”

And the voice, if there had been a voice, fell silent.

Then, footsteps. But not Gerson’s – that old turtle had moved with shocking stealth for someone his age, even her paranoia-sharpened senses hadn’t picked him up until he was right on top of her. These were heavy enough to make the puddles around her ripple, and clanked like a drawerful of cutlery. She kept her head down, and waited for it to pass. But then they stopped, and she saw the shadow printed over the pages of her book. The horns.

Her hands started to shake uncontrollably. She had to remind herself to breathe.

She kept her head down as the visitor turned, and grunted, and sat down beside her. She heard rain patter off metal, a backbeat to the drops striking her umbrella’s stretched skin.

“Nice day today.”

If Gerson’s voice was gravelly, this was an entire landslide. She felt its resonance down to her bones. Out the corner of her eye she could see that cloak, deep purple like her notebook’s cover.

“I have a journal of my own,” he continued. “It’s a good habit to keep, I think.”

“This isn’t a journal.” She spoke before realizing she’d spoken.

She turned and saw him fully. Sitting with his palms on his knees, so tall that she could barely make out most of his face. He had no umbrella and the rain plastered his hair over his eyes like a veil; he was smiling, but it looked lost on that face.

“Did you see the statue?” he asked. “It wasn’t always there, you know. Someone moved it, I don’t know who. It might have been me. My memory hasn’t been very reliable, these days.” He was still as a statue, himself. “I remember when it was first commemorated. It was before…no, no, it must have been after. A very solemn affair. Perhaps that’s why it was moved. No one wanted to see something so sad.”

She said nothing. The rain’s wordless gossip went on.

“I just wish they had been more gentle,” said Asgore. “He was always such a gentle child.”

“Don’t do this,” she said. “You don’t have to do this.”

She was bent low over her notebook, now shaking all over. The umbrella shielded her from the rain, but moisture spotted the pages anyway.

“I’m trying to find another way. I just need a little more time. Please don’t do this.”

Asgore raised a hand. When he reached out to her, the whole world seemed, for a moment, to lose focus, holding onto the present by its fingertips. But then he gently let down her hood, and ruffled her hair, the same way Toriel had done.

“I wonder if that’s why she keeps sending all of you out here,” he said, and withdrew his hand. “Maybe she hopes you’ll find answers the rest of us could not. Because we only know one way to leave the Underground. And it’s terrible. Isn’t it?”

His eyes were visible now, heavy-lidded and dim. Even though he was still smiling, his stare reminded her of a trapped animal. She was transfixed by it.

“I don’t know,” she managed to say. “It’s just the way it is.”

“Well said. But I just can’t understand it. The barrier was made to forever separate humans and monsters. But to pass through it, a human or monster must die.” He turned back to the swamp, the luminescent castle. “Kill or be killed…what a horrible view of the world. And yet, that appears to be the way of things. It seems we have no choice but to accept it.”

He rose, water dripping off him in streams. She also scrambled to her feet, and left the umbrella behind; she clutched the notebook to her chest, hunched over against the rain. They stood perhaps a dozen paces apart, and the drizzle murmured around them like an audience.

“Tell me,” he said. “Have you killed anyone?”

“No.” Her grip on the notebook tightened. “But…but I can fight. If I have to.”

“You can also flee. I won’t give chase.”

She appeared to consider it. Then, her breathing steadied, and her back straightened. Her glasses shone blankly in the scant light of the cavern, and the rest of her face was just as impassive. The persistent feeling of déjà-vu in the air had gone completely.

“I can’t run,” she said. “I don’t have anywhere else to go.”

He nodded, once.

“Then, allow me one request,” he said. “My people…they don’t deserve this. Their hopes should not die with me. If you emerge victorious, then please. Tell the world outside of what you saw here. Find a way to bring down the barrier. Maybe you won’t find a solution, even out there. All I ask is that you try.” His voice broke. “Please don’t let this be for nothing.”

She looked at that quavering face. She risked a glance behind her. Nothing but the path, empty and stretching on into darkness. One that she’s already treaded more times then she could count. When she turned back, her expression was determined, resolute.

 “I’ve been taking notes my whole time here. Someone will have to believe me.” She brandished her book. “I’ll do whatever I can.”

“Do I have your word?”

“I promise,” she said. “I know what it’s like to feel trapped.”

He smiled gratefully, and then lowered his head, so once again his mane of hair covered his face. His arms remained hidden behind that purple cloak, darkened almost black by the wet. He no longer appeared to be looking at her.

He said, “Ready?”

She opened her mouth to answer, and heard the splash of a footstep behind her.

She turned around.

From where he stood, staring down at the ground, Asgore saw a flash of brilliant light and a tremendous, hollow sound – lightning and thunder to join the false downpour in this cavern. Raindrops flew out like frightened birds and struck him in a soaking nova, so that he instinctively raised his arms over his face against the shock; he heard a series of meaty thuds, growing closer in the echo of the thunderclap, and then silence as the raindrops cautiously began to fall again. Then he lowered his arms, and made a strangled sound in the back of his throat.

The girl’s body lay face-down at his feet, soaked and limp and lifeless as a dropped rag. A deep purple spark pulsed just over her, its glow bathing her like a spotlight. Further down the path were her glasses, one lens cracked down the middle, and then her notebook, already bloated with water – and at the end of it all was Gerson, his hammer slung over his shoulder, his expression inscrutable.

He threw the hammer aside; it was so heavy that it cratered the stones where it fell, and then it burst into sparks. He stepped past the girl’s belongings, looked down the body, as if anticipating something. He seemed disappointed when nothing happened.

“I suppose that’s that,” he said. “After the last one, I sort of thought…but no. Guess she didn’t see the point.”

Asgore, with great difficulty, pulled his stare away from the girl, and met Gerson’s gaze. He almost flinched at the look in his eye.

“Well?” said Gerson. “There’s the soul. Pop it in one those jars, already.”

Asgore said nothing. He did nothing. His hands flexed uselessly inside his cloak. Gerson’s good eye narrowed.

“Ah, I see. You didn’t bring it, did you?” His voice was cold and flat. “Must’ve been a senior moment, happens to the best of us. Good thing you’re not the only one who’s got some junk from the war.”

He opened his satchel, withdrew the canister filled with that soft blue swampwater. He dumped it out onto the stones, shook off the last few droplets, and then gently guided the soul into its confines. When he screwed the lid on, the soul shuddered for a moment, then stilled. With exaggerated care, Gerson placed the jar at Asgore’s feet.

“There you go. On the house.”

Asgore ignored it. He knelt down and picked up the girl’s body instead; it lolled in his hands, eyes closed, mouth slightly open.

“How long were you there?” he asked.

“Not long enough. Dallied too much collecting herbs for the tea. More fool, me.”

“So you-”

“I got in earshot just as you gave that human your blessing to kill you. And don’t you dare deny it, because that’s exactly what you did.” Asgore felt Gerson’s stare burning a hole through his head. “I chatted her up just a little while ago, you know. She was a sweet kid. Nothing like the last one. But I could tell how bad she wanted to leave. Once you gave her the go-ahead like that, she never would have stopped coming at you. And that’s what you were counting on, wasn’t it? Look at me, Asgore.”

He did. Gerson’s face was impassive as before, but he was clearly making a mighty effort to keep it that way. His nostrils flared as he took deep, deliberate breaths.

“This is what you meant when you told me you’d ‘found another way’? Letting a human stroll out of here with your soul in hand, so the rest of us could just sit and hope they’d find a way to let us out?”

“I gave it a lot of thought, Gerson.” His words sounded limp as the body in his hands. “I didn’t-”

“Did you give any thought to any of them?” He jabbed a thumb in the direction of the Capital. “How do you think they’d react if their king got dusted by yet another human and left them all alone? No leader? No hope?”

“Toriel was a more competent leader than I ever was. Even in the Ruins, she’d know something was amiss. She would-”

“Toriel’s been gone for ages, Asgore. Half the monsters around these days don’t even remember her face anymore. And you want her to just walk out of there, into a kingdom that’ll be crazier with grief than ever, and try to pick up the reins? I knew you two had fallen out, but you must really hate her to put her through that.” Asgore’s eyes flashed, but Gerson went on. “She was right to leave. This place lost its damned mind when those kids died. You included.”

“Is that so?” he said quietly. “And what would you propose, then?”

“The answer that’s been staring you in the face since the beginning,” Gerson snapped. “Stop fighting! Get all these folks together and call off this insane hunt! If a human falls down and they’re killing us left and right then sure, call to arms, then you’re just a king defending his kingdom, but that ridiculous promise you made is poison, Asgore. And I know you agree with me, since you just put your head on the chopping block because you can’t deal with the consequences!”

“You want to talk about consequences?” Now he mustered some anger of his own. “Imagine how all of them would react if I tried to recant everything I’d done. They still remember all those dead. Not just my children. The monsters these humans have killed, as well. Everyone out there is able to go on because they know freedom is coming. No matter the cost.”

“Do you remember those boys who used to stand at my post?” Gerson asked, and Asgore shrank back. “Let me tell you something I should’ve said ages ago. They hated it there. The only reason they kept at it is because they were convinced you believed in that promise. I kept telling them, ask the man yourselves if you want his opinion so badly, but no, they were still going off what you said the day Asriel died and you were spitting venom over half the kingdom.” His voice was rising steadily; his neck strained out of his shell. “They don’t know any better! I’ve got kids who barely come up to my knee telling me how great it’ll be when humanity gets exterminated, like they’ll all just lie down and give up if they see the barrier break and all of us come storming out. They haven’t seen what we’ve seen! Running from one hopeless fight to the next, trying not to breathe in what was left of our friends! You’re not leading them to freedom, you’re opening the door to a world full of people who can kill them all with the flat of their hands, and they have no idea!”

“It won’t matter anymore. Once I have all seven souls, I will-”

“Oh, what? You’ll what? What will you do!?” The cavern echoed with Gerson’s voice now, and his broken teeth were bared tight; he stepped forward, almost knocking over the soul, and Asgore clutched at the girl’s body like a lifeline. “You can’t pull that ‘destroyer of humankind’ line on me, Asgore, I know you too well for that! Oh, sure, you’ll stride out of that mountain and you’ll be great and terrible and plenty impressive, I bet it'll be a sight to see. You’ll take on all comers, beat down the humans’ warriors, maybe knock over a village or two. And then you’ll see a couple of humans bent down and crying over their kids, the same way you and Toriel cried over yours, and I know exactly what’ll happen then, because it’s what I’m seeing now. You’ll freeze up, and do nothing, and good people will die!”

Asgore had no response to that. He shivered under Gerson’s glare, eyes wet, lip quivering like a scolded child. Gerson’s chest rose and fell, and then stilled. He stepped back. Little by little, his features softened.

“Asgore, look at us,” he said hoarsely. “Look at what’s happening to us. We can’t go on like this.”

 Silence rolled out between them. Then Asgore reached out, and took the soul canister. Its amethyst glow stained him like a bruise.

“Three left,” he said, and tucked it under his mantle. He raised his head. “It can’t be for nothing, Gerson.”

For a moment, Gerson’s eye twitched with fresh anger. Then, he slumped, and nodded.

“Yeah,” he whispered. “I’m out of line. Can’t pretend to understand what you’re going through.”

“Gerson, I-”

“I wish you the best, Asgore. I really do.” He turned and picked up the cracked and clouded glasses, the worn, sodden notebook, and slipped them into his satchel. “I know that you wouldn’t keep at this unless you believed it was the right thing.” Then he took the umbrella, raised it up. “Maybe that’ll be enough. You might be able to see this through to the end. But I can’t.” He shook his head. “I’m done.”

Asgore remained mute as Gerson walked around him, and continued down the path, taking slow and shaky steps. His silhouette bled away into the dark.

“That was the Hammer of Justice’s last great battle.” His voice already fading. “I’m sure everyone will sing its praises for years to come.”

And then it was just him, the soul’s glow spilling out from around his cloak, the girl clutched close to his chest. He stood, and started to follow Gerson, but then stopped; instead, he sat back down at the edge of the path and watched the still and silent city in the distance, rocking gently back and forth with the body in his lap. It was a long time before he moved again.

In the days ahead, Waterfall’s unceasing drip did its work. Rain filled in their footprints in the mud, digested them, rendered them anonymous as the rest of the soaking earth. Rain pooled in the crater Gerson’s hammer had left, until it looked like just another puddle out of dozens, shining like lenses in the false starlight. Rain pattered down onto the lonely and hidden statue, and clung to its surface like a shroud. And things continued as they always had, if a little more broken than before.

Chapter Text

Even after all this time, Hotland was still far and away the least inhabited part of the Underground, a tiresome obstacle between the ever-more crowded Capital and the ever-growing hamlets in Snowdin and Waterfall. Some monsters, being thick-skinned or metallic or perpetually aflame, gladly kept their own little community out here, where the climate was ideal and the crowds weren’t an issue, but for everyone else the sweltering heat and twisted geography quickly became unbearable. The rocky paths were sharp-edged and unkind to anyone’s feet, and they arched and bent and reversed into themselves like a plateful of sedimentary spaghetti, a confusion of smoldering bridges over the bubbling magma whose convection made every outline waver like a mirage. Every time Asgore crossed over that sullen orange sea, he thought that the Underground’s growing energy crisis could be neatly solved if they just found a way to harness all this heat. But such matters were beyond his knowledge.

Still, he thought about it again as he made the trek back home, returning from his monthly visit to Waterfall’s snail farm. He never bought anything there, he had enough trouble with just one of Toriel’s old recipes, but it was a comforting routine and he enjoyed the time he spent with the farm’s spectral owners – one of them was a bit on the melancholic side, but their cousin was more than lively enough to make up for it.

He wiped sweat off his brow and peered over the edge of the path. The lava below roiled and surged.

“Should really install some guardrails here, at least,” he muttered. “Terribly unsafe.”

He stepped away, paused, and bent down. There were other, fresh footprints in the layers of soot and scorch on this rock – small and flecked with red like grains of rust. That alone wouldn’t have been very noteworthy, but the prints were askew and unsteady in a way that reminded him unpleasantly of the ones the second human had left in Snowdin. When he looked closer he saw rough handprints there too, and long tracks that cut through the ash. Whoever had left these hadn’t just walked through Hotland; they’d fallen to their knees and tried to crawl.

Asgore tutted and followed the trail, walking slowly, head down. Monsters had gotten lost here before, and the heat made it dangerous to linger if their bodies weren’t suited for it. Even he already felt like he was in a pressure cooker, thanks to his breastplate helpfully sealing in all this boiling air. Still, he took his time, tracking the prints – now just the feet again, apparently their owner had managed to stand upright – and eventually stepped off the main trail and down a craggy tongue of stone whose black-glassed surface held a wicked glitter.

He stopped. His eyes widened.

The human was laid out on his back, unconscious, fighting to breathe, his chest heaving with every labored rasp. Asgore assumed it was a boy, but couldn’t be sure – the body itself didn’t tell him much, he had never seen a human so thin. His clothes, ragged and streaked with soot, lay on the geography of his ribs like a bas-relief; the hard knobs of his cheekbones cast canyons of shadow down the sides of his face. And his shoes were gone, his socks clotted with hardened clay from where Waterfall’s mud had been blasted dry by Hotland’s heat, and with soles worn down by the rocks, so that the skin underneath was cut and raw and bleeding free.

There was something else at the end of the path, where the footprints doubled back – evidently the human had reached the outcropping, dropped something there, tried to retrace his steps, and collapsed. Asgore gingerly stepped over the body and went to get a better look. He found an old apron, riddled with holes and unknowable pastel stains, and a non-stick frypan that was scorched and eaten half-through with rust. It nearly glowed from the heat of the stones beneath.

When he returned to the boy, Asgore felt it again. That yawning gap in the pit of his stomach. That sense of motion without motion. The future grasping him and pulling him ever closer to some dread conclusion. He was expressionless and numb. He looked up and saw the twisted tendrils of stone casting shadows like hungry fingers.

Asgore breathed deep, and clenched his fists, and bent down low.

When he arrived at that quiet gray cavern where the unadorned fountain bubbled, his mantle was folded shut, arms hidden. What he carried underneath was so light that it might as well have not been there at all. He moved past the cave and through the Capital’s outskirts, head down, face slack, like someone in a dream. The boy’s body burned like a coal against his chest. His pained breaths counterpointed the clatter of Asgore’s armor. When Asgore glanced behind him he thought he saw those shadows again, cheated and trailing in his wake.

He arrived at his front yard – the true face of that grand castle, the rest occupied by little more than the antechamber and the garden and the cold and quiet basement where the number of coffins climbed ever higher. He saw his front door wide open and clutched the body tighter. Of course his home was always open to visitors, it certainly wasn’t being used for anything else these days, but right now he dearly hoped no one had stopped by to give him some company.

He sidled up to the entrance, stuck his head in.

“I’m home!” he called. “Anyone there?”

His voice trailed through the silent halls and cold kitchen and empty bedrooms. No answer. He sighed in relief and stepped in, shutting the door behind him. The boy’s chest shuddered against his own.

“I know,” he said, unsure what he knew. “I know, I know. It’ll be all right. Everything will be all right.”

The house always quiet and somehow colorless in the Underground’s unchanging light. These unread books, this dusty carpet, these doorframes notched by careless horns. The stiff-cushioned easy chair and unlit fireplace and ill-used kitchen and these rooms which should have seen the patter of small and running feet. He disregarded it all and went to the children’s bedroom, and gripped the doorknob, and hesitated, and let go. He went to his room instead.

“Here we are. Don’t worry. It’s all right.”

 He removed the boy from underneath his mantle and carefully tucked him into the crook of one arm. His room was the same as always, the journal turned to the latest entry, the bed neatly made. He pulled aside the covers and set the boy down and tucked him in. His hair laid across the pillow, a neck-length mat of ragged, uneven clumps, like someone had just chopped off the most troublesome bits with or without a mirror. The sheets rose and fell with that rattling breath. He leaned over to prop up his head on the pillows, and then froze.

The boy’s eyes were open – just a sliver, the corneas gleaming underneath. He smiled, faintly, but enough to dimple those wasted cheeks.

He said, “Hi.”

The voice was so low that it was scarcely heard at all; it seemed to lodge in Asgore’s mind without ever reaching his ears. But he smiled back anyway.

“Howdy,” he said. “How are you-”

But those eyes were shut again. He’d already gone back to sleep.

Asgore stared down at him. It might have been his imagination, but the boy seemed to breathe a little easier.

He went to his journal and wrote a hasty note: Howdy! Feeling a little under the weather. Sorry I missed you! Then he tore out the page, left the house, and stuck it up on his front door.

He risked a last look behind him, and thought he saw them again – those reaching shadows, the clutches of the inevitable. He glowered at them, and stepped inside, and shut the door. And for the first time in many years, he locked it tight behind him.

*             *             *

Asgore pulled open the oven door and peered inside, his expression hopeful.

The pie had turned out fairly well, he thought. The pillowy mound of butterscotch-cinnamon filling was well-shaped and filled the air with its fragrance, and the outer ring of crust was delicate and firm. Yes, there were a few light scorches on the crust, and the sweet scent possessed a certain acrid undertone reminiscent of an overused vacuum cleaner, but those were easily ignorable.

“How is it?”

The voice came from the living room, hoarse and frail.

“It looks okay,” said Asgore. “A little burnt.”

“Just a little?”

“Well…relatively speaking.”

He regarded his previous four attempts, which sat huddled like convicts on the countertop. Two of the pies were so burnt that they resembled charcoal briquettes in tins – even the tins had burned, which he guessed was also impressive, in a way – while the third was so underdone that it would be best eaten with a straw. The fourth was little more than a few bedraggled scraps of crust and filling on the edges of the tin; it had actually looked quite appetizing, right up until the point where it had mysteriously and abruptly exploded. There were still a few butterscotch-colored patches on the ceiling that he’d failed to scrub off after that misadventure.

He slid the latest pie out of the oven, set it down to cool, then pulled off his mitts and stepped into the living room.

“It will have to do, in any case,” he said. He pulled out a chair at the dining room table and sat down. “I’m out of ingredients.”

The boy smiled. “It’ll be fine.”

He was in Toriel’s old reading chair, enveloped by a quilt, a steaming mug of tea held in both bony hands. He noticed Asgore’s meaningful look at the drink, then shrugged, took an obligatory sip, and looked back to the lit and crackling fireplace. His bare feet poked out from under the blanket; all the cuts were healed.

He’d awoken the morning after Asgore found him, and in fact had needed to wake Asgore up himself, limping out of bed to shake him feebly by the shoulder; he’d said, not unkindly, that Asgore’s snoring was terrible. That had been their introduction. Asgore had tended to his wounds as he slept, but his step was still hobbled and slow. Whether it was because his feet still ached or because he couldn’t find the air to walk, Asgore didn’t know, and the boy wouldn’t say.

He was ill, that much was clear – something had infested his lungs before he’d even come to the Underground, and the chill and damp and blasting heat he’d sucked in on the way over here had just worsened his condition further. Even now, as he sat and sipped his tea, his every inhalation rattled loud enough to drown out the hiss and pop of the hearth. Monsters knew little about human diseases and Asgore couldn’t risk the boy’s discovery anyway, so he’d fallen back on an old, reliable treatment – bed rest, fresh air, and so much piping hot tea that whatever illness he had was likely to drown in it.

The boy was quietly grateful for all of it; that faint smile rarely left his face. They passed the time reading through the catalogs of dusty books that had accumulated on Asgore’s shelves, or down in the garden, Asgore carrying him there with his books and blankets and leaving him on the throne as he tended to the flowers, all of them the same as ever, the tall one in the center nodding towards the boy as if acknowledging his presence.

They spoke little, at first. The boy was cheerful in his understated way, but strangely guarded, deflecting Asgore’s oblique questions about where he’d been and what he’d seen. He did say that all the people he’d met had been very nice to him, and it was his own fault that he’d lost his shoes; he’d wandered too far astray in Waterfall and the mud had sucked them clean off his feet. “They made an amazing sound, though,” he’d added, as if that made it all worth it. But he wouldn’t say his name, and didn’t use Asgore’s, either, though he’d introduced himself shortly after the boy had awoken. Still, Asgore didn’t pry. It had only been a few days.

The boy continued to sleep in Asgore’s bed, while Asgore dozed in one of the dining room chairs (he still didn’t sit in Toriel’s) – the boy had protested but Asgore knew this was best for everyone, it meant his guest didn’t have to suffer through his snoring and that he was able to quickly answer the door whenever some kind well-wisher knocked, opening it just a crack, affecting a sniffle and a cough and a thank-you and goodbye. The rest of the world could wait outside, for now. For now, all he had to worry about was the human’s recovery, and all the problems that would follow from there – the monsters’ reaction, the question of the barrier, the promise, the souls, all of it – would be dealt with in their own time. For now, he just brewed his tea, and tended his garden, and made the occasional glance to those seats to make sure the human was still there, still real, and return his smiles when they were given. He traded out his cumbersome regalia for his old sweater, garish though it was (Toriel had knitted it shortly after Asriel was born, and Asgore, in what he believed to be one of his more inspired moments, contributed the lettering on front). The fireplace stayed lit and warm. Color seemed to bleed back into the house, little by little.

“I’ve been trying for ages to get that recipe down,” he said. “Never had the knack for it. Maybe you could give it a shot, one of these days.”

“That wouldn’t be a good idea,” the boy replied.

“Really? I saw the things you brought down with you. The apron and-”

“Oh, geez, you actually found that stuff?” He laughed, then coughed, then stopped. “It’s…it’s kind of embarrassing, actually. I never, um, had a whole lot to eat, so I thought it’d be nice to learn someday. I found those a while ago and just sort of wore them around. Like playing pretend, you know? But I never actually got around to the ‘learning’ part. I still liked having them, though. Didn’t want to drop them, but I got turned around and it was just so hot.”

“I could always step out for a bit and retrieve them, if you like. They were rather off the beaten path, no one should find them for-”

 “It’s fine. I don’t mind if someone else picks them up. Maybe they’ll be useful.” He shook his head. “But yeah, I can’t cook for beans.” He paused. “I can’t cook beans, period.”

“Ah, that’s good. Wordplay,” Asgore said drily. And, before he could stop himself, he added, “My wife would love you.”

His teeth clicked together as he tried to take back what he’d just said, but the boy’s smile only widened.

“Oh, I think I met her! Does she live in…what was it called, the Ruins? That old place with all the purple?”

“Yes, she…well, in a manner of speaking, we. Ahem.” He fidgeted with the front of his sweater. “We’re apart, for now, but yes, we’re married. Did she mention me?”

The boy turned away, and sipped his tea again. Their shadows wavered in the fireplace’s glow.

“She was really nice,” he said, sidestepping the question. “I wasn’t in great shape when she found me, but she worried about me like crazy. I guess that’s her pie you’re trying to make?”

“Yes. It’s more complicated than it looks, I assure you.”

“I bet. She cooked a lot. Even said she’d teach me, once I got better.”

“But she let you leave?”

He tapped his thumbs on the side of the mug; his smile turned slightly brittle. “I, um, sort of ran away after a few nights. Snuck out. I didn’t want to be stuck in a bed, is all. Probably wasn’t a great idea, considering what happened. I hope she isn’t too upset.”

“Well, maybe once you’re fit to travel we can both apologize.” He sighed and settled back in the chair. “Something to think about for when you get better. And speaking of which, you should really drink that tea.”

“I’m savoring it.”

“It’ll be much harder to savor when it’s cold.”

“You’re no fun.” He raised the mug to his mouth, and lowered it, and then asked, quite suddenly, “Hey, where do your kids live?”

Asgore’s palms had been resting on his knees. Now his grip tightened so hard his legs nearly cracked. The boy didn’t seem to notice; his voice remained quiet and casual.

“Sorry, I, uh, peeked into the other rooms last night. Don’t worry, I didn’t touch anything. But I noticed how dusty the place was. I guess they moved out a while ago?” He took another drink and went on. “I hope they visit Toriel, at least. She seemed really lonely out there.”

“They.” He stopped, and cleared his throat, and look down at his feet. “They’ve passed on. Both of them.”

The boy’s face fell. “Oh. Sorry, I was just…I shouldn’t have asked.”

“It’s all right. It was a long time ago.”

For a while, the silence was broken only by the fireplace’s crackle and the boy’s occasional cough. He stared down into the tea, chewing his lip.

“I really am feeling better, by the way. I know I don’t sound too good, but before I…you know, fell…I was having some trouble eating. Not anymore, though. It’s nice.”

“Well, monster food doesn’t work quite the same as human food. Maybe it was the medicine you needed.” He straightened in his seat. “And while we're on the subject, I suppose it’s time we tried that pie.”

“You can have the first piece.”

“Oh, that’s very generous of you.” He sighed and set off for the kitchen. “A king’s trials are never done.”

“Um, can I ask you one thing?”

The boy’s head was bowed, his fingers massaging the sides of the mug. Those butchered locks of hair blocked his eyes from view.

“I really appreciate you looking after me like this,” he said. “But, when I get better, I just wanted to know…”

Asgore held his breath, felt his hands begin to shake. The faces of the last four flipped through his mind. All of them, in their own way, asking the same question. All of them desperate for home.

The boy looked up. “How long do you think I can stay here?”

Asgore’s eyes widened. He looked away. He tried to hide the relief on his face, and when he spoke, he made his voice as gruff as possible.

“I think the answer to that is up to you,” he said.

When he looked back, he saw the boy grinning ear-to-ear, the parchment of his skin wrinkled with the effort. He couldn’t help but smile back. Then the boy bent double with coughing again, and the moment passed.

Still, it was a nice day. Later he would make a note in his journal.

*             *             *

He remembered the sickbeds.

When he’d first tried the pie Asriel had made him, he had ignored its acidic, bitter taste. He had assumed it was just because the pie happened to be his son’s first attempt at cooking. As it turned out, he’d been right, but that had given him little comfort in the days to come, trapped in his bed with his insides writhing and cramped. “I guess neither of us are any good at baking,” he’d tried to joke as Asriel bawled at his bedside; that had just made him cry harder.

The pain had been almost enlightening, in a sense. Asgore had experienced his fair share of tribulation over his long life, but sickness like that was new, it had filled every grain of him, squirming through him with every breath and every twitch. Time and space had seemed confused, as he’d lain gasping under his sheets; the bedroom had swum before his eyes, bigger than the world and yet smaller than a cell, and he wasn’t sure if he’d been there for a few days or a hundred years. He’d done his best to grin and bear it, insisting to Toriel and Asriel that they shouldn’t worry, even as she fretted and he cried up a storm. Only Chara had kept his distance, always standing in the shadows of the doorway, fingers curled around the jamb, his face divided in half. Even then, his face had been the same – his cheeks high with color, his smile oddly stiff. Asgore always recalled that face clearly. It didn’t have the smear of glare that had crawled over Asriel’s in his memories.

The nights had been the worst – the dark suffocating, every tick and creak so loud that they’d threatened to burst his head open like old fruit. He’d passed in and out of consciousness, never sure of when he was dreaming or awake, the world warping and dripping like candle-wax as it tried to decide what was real.

In one dream, Chara had been there, slipping into his room easily as a ghost – he wasn’t there and then he was, standing in the darkness opposite his bed. Arms held tight to his sides, hands clenching, unclenching, a spasmodic rhythm. “Are you awake?” he’d asked. “Can you hear me?”

Asgore hadn’t answered, too wracked with cramps to make speech. And then Chara had kept talking, faster and faster, more words pouring out in that soft high voice than Asgore had ever heard at once, rushed and breathless but strangely articulate, as thought he was biting them off in chunks and then spitting them out. It was an accident, he’d said, but this was for the best, it was exactly what he’d been waiting for. All of them. All of us. This would make up for the mistake, all the mistakes. It would be hard, he promised it would be hard, but in the end it would be best for everyone. Everyone who mattered. Then Chara’s face had loomed over Asgore, and the dream curdled into nightmare, because through his bleary half-lidded eyes Asgore saw that he was still smiling, but that smile lay on his face like a parasite, the rest of it didn’t match, every feature twitched and jumped like a bug trapped under a rock, and his eyes and cheeks glistened with unacknowledged wet.

“Just don’t die,” he’d said. “I don’t want Asriel to hate me.”

Then he’d gone, and morning had come, and Asgore had forgotten everything. He'd soon have other things on his mind, anyway. Chara would fall again, take to his own sickbed, where Asriel’s stuffed animals watched blindly and the blind eye of his video camera nestled in the corner. Asriel would cry until his body seemed to shake apart; he would bend over Chara and say things that Asgore either wouldn’t hear or wouldn’t understand. And Chara would keep smiling, even as his color drained away and his eyes grew dim; in his final extremity, Asgore almost would have described his expression as triumphant.

It was two days after they’d shared Asgore’s pie. He sat beside his bed, in the chair that had been at his desk; four dark circles marked the carpet where he’d dragged it out and away. He rocked back and forth, the wood creaking rhythmically, his face unsmiling and pale. The boy’s struggling, strangled gasps filled his ears.

He hadn't gotten better. He’d been fine until the afternoon after their talk, and then his coughs had erupted worse than ever, so fierce that he’d spilled his tea and clutched his chest; he was exhausted by the fits, and took to bed early. He hadn’t gotten out of it since. He opened his eyes rarely, and when he did his gaze was unfocused and fleeting. His skin had gone chalk-white, save for two feverish points of color in his cheeks. And the sound of his respiration now made Asgore’s own stomach churn; it no longer sounded like the breath of any living thing, but the air passing through some broken and burnt-out machine, flaring up one more time before falling silent for good.

When visitors came now, the weariness he showed when he asked them to leave wasn’t feigned; he hadn’t slept or eaten since the boy had relapsed. He sat vigil at the bedside, ready to give him a sip of water every now and then and prop him up when the coughing grew too intense. He didn’t know what else to do. That feeling of not knowing, the same as with Chara’s own illness. The same awful uncertainty.

“Hi.”

Asgore jerked out of his reverie and looked down. The boy was watching him, his eyes clear.

“It’s taking me a while to shake this off, huh?” he said. The words punctuated by that awful, broken breath. Asgore leaned closer.

“Try not to talk, okay? You just,” his voice broke, but he swallowed and finished, “you just have to hold on.”

“Why?” the boy asked. “Isn’t this what you wanted?”

Asgore couldn’t reply. His mouth hung open uselessly. The boy turned and stared up the ceiling.

“I heard what you were trying to do,” he said. “All the souls. So when I woke up here, I thought you were…you know, waiting. It wasn’t like I could do anything about it. But you tried really hard to take care of me.” He shrugged apologetically. “I didn’t think it was a good time to mention it before. But was everyone wrong?”

“No. They weren’t.” He shook his head. “But I…I didn’t want-”

“It’s okay.” He looked back to Asgore. “I’m still doing my best. But in case that’s…you know, not enough, that works out too, right? I wouldn’t mind if you took it.” He smiled. “Maybe it’ll be useful someday.”

Asgore stared. He tried to speak. Something had gone wrong. His voice was all strange. He’d meant to say something. But instead he hiccupped, like the words had broken up in his chest, and then his own breath was broken, it was bending him double, and the boy’s face doubled and tripled as his eyes welled up.

Asgore hadn’t cried when the other humans had perished; not when he’d mourned his own people, or seen the statue of his son rise and then vanish, not on any of those days or all the days in between. But he did now, and with such force that the whole room rumbled. He buried his face in his hands and wept like a child.

The boy’s smile was gone. Even through his exhaustion, he looked close to panic.

“Hey. Did I say something wrong? I didn’t mean-”

“This already happened,” Asgore said, voice choked. “The same thing. No matter what I do, it’s always the same thing…

The words dissolved again. And as he continued sobbing, the boy frowned, and struggled out of bed, his thin limbs shaking with exertion. Asgore felt small, burning hands clasp over his own, and looked up to see that pale face inches away.

“Listen,” he said. “I think…no, I know that you’re a good person. Because that’s why you’re crying like this, right?” He tried to smile again. “I don’t really understand everything, but please don’t be sad. Just do what you think is best.”

Asgore shook his head, his cheeks damp with tears. “I don’t even know what that is anymore.”

“That’s okay, too. Things will get better, okay? Even if you don’t think so. You just-” He started coughing again, and the force of it made him fall to his side and nearly roll off the bed; Asgore straightened up, eyes wide, and caught him, and picked him up. The feel of him almost made Asgore start crying again; he was so alight with fever that his skin nearly hurt to touch.

But Asgore set him back into bed, and tucked him in, and propped his head on the pillows. He lay there under the acreages of linen, and looked up at Asgore with that same, faint, familiar smile.

“Thanks,” he said. “For everything. But you shouldn’t stick around me all the time. You’re a king, right? Don’t you have anything better to do?”

“I just want you to be comfortable.”

“I am. And, um, I just want you to know. I’m really glad I came here. I don’t regret any of it.”

“I’m glad,” he said.

The journal lay open, its pages bare. The fireplace unlit, the oven clean and cold, The reading chair stiffening back up. Those labored breaths marked off the moments between them.

Finally, Asgore said, “Goodnight.”

“Goodnight,” he replied. “I’ll see you tomorrow.”

But he didn’t.

Chapter Text

“Tell the king I’m on my way.”

They never would have known what he was, if not for those words. The fallen humans moving though the monsters’ world anonymous as phantoms, their forms and faces bleached out by the years. Existing only in story, and rumor, and anticipation, the evidence of their passing sealed away in silent coffins, or the canisters beneath the barrier cavern’s stones, or the scattered artifacts clutched or cast away by those who had known them. The monsters stood vigil for the intruders, the bearers of the souls that would set them free, but in these late days they were invisible unless they chose to make themselves known. So it went for him.

He was sighted somewhere in Waterfall, speaking those words. The monsters briefly thought of capturing him. But the Royal Guard had grown complacent, and the look on his face and the stoop to his posture and the sight of his shaking, clenching, empty hands made them reconsider, and instead they ran ahead to tell Asgore of the newcomer, who slouched toward the castle at a slow but implacable pace. He pushed the news out before him like a storm front, and left the ground behind him stained with the filth of his passing.

He was older than the others, though it wasn’t easy to tell – only a thin halo of peach-colored stubble around his cheeks marked his age. The rest of him was slight, gaunt, and stiff, as though that body was held from within by wires tied too tight; every muscle shuddered with tension, and in particular the fingers of his right hand, which hovered near a cracked and empty holster, twitched and jumped, repeating some unknown motion again and again. His head was bare, the bruise of a too-tight hatbrim ringing his hairline like a coronet. And his clothes and his skin and the surface of that oversized gunbelt were all smothered with an epidermis of grime, dirt and mud and soot and bark and bramble, that fell off him like snow and marked his every step. He walked with a slight limp. He was covered in scratches and sunburn. He never seemed to blink.

His metronomic footfalls echoed in the castle’s antechamber. The place where, many years ago, Asgore and Toriel had parted ways. At the end of the hall loomed a great silhouette, horned and still. The footsteps scraped to a halt. And as they stared each other down, an unseen bell tolled; its half-dozen chimes rattled the windows in their sockets and made the Delta Runes they cast below quiver and crawl.

When the last of the sound died away, he spoke.

“Are we close to the barrier?”

His voice was toneless and as tense as the rest of him; it shook like a violin string. In reply, the shadow of Asgore nodded.

“I’d like to see it first. If I can.”

Asgore said nothing. His head inclined slightly, his unseen eyes fixed on that empty holster. He remained still for a long time. Then, he turned on his heel and walked off.

“This way,” he said.

The boy’s bent shadow trailed Asgore’s down the castle corridors. Both of them walked slowly, heads bowed, postures somber, funereal. The sounds of birdsong grew closer and clashed with the clatter and scrape of their approach. The smell of sweet lemons filled the air.

The throne room and the garden, alive and untouched as ever. That tall flower in the center of the patch wavered indifferently in the breeze. On the small table off to the side of the chamber was a tea set, the drink long gone cold. The boy raised his hand over his eyes, squinting at the residual sunlight as Asgore continued to walk. Grime sifted down from him and mixed with the garden’s earth.

In the far corner was Toriel’s old throne. The sheet was now covered by so many layers of accumulated pollen that it resembled a pelt, some hunched and yellowed beast skulking in the dark. The boy glanced at it as he passed.

“She’s doing okay.”

Asgore stopped, and looked over his shoulder. The boy wouldn’t meet his eye. He stood ankle-deep in the flowers, scrawny and crooked as the flowers themselves.

“She told me everything,” he said. “After I got her to stop treating me like a kid. She asked me not to kill you, for what it’s worth. I told her I wasn’t planning on it.” His fingertips brushed the holster. “Though it doesn’t matter now.”

Asgore regarded the throne. It offered no answers.

“Not much further,” he said at last, and started off again. The boy followed without another word.

The halls darkened. The birdsong and the sweet smell faded. In its place was a hollow, constant rush of air, like the cavern ahead was trapped in one long exhalation, and underneath it a pulse, a bass beat that shook their own hearts in their chests. The light grew alien and strange. Molten gold tinged with red. Twilight was shining through the barrier.

Asgore came to a halt. The boy stopped at his side and stared forward, his grim expression unchanged.

Here, in the barrier cavern, was nothing but space – the walls and ceiling twisted to impossible proportions by the warped light from the surface, the periphery of the cave dropping off into bottomless shadow. The ground beneath was unadorned, undeveloped, nothing but gray rock seamed with cracks and pocked with craters full of slimy mud. But underneath their feet, the soul canisters slept, their presence betrayed only by a faint shimmering sound easily overwhelmed by the barrier. Asgore’s face twisted, for a moment; he could hear them. He sometimes found it difficult to stop.

And at the far end of the cavern, the barrier itself. A mass of bloated, opaque light that covered the cave mouth like a sheet, throbbing like a living thing; the twilight rippled with its every beat, and made their shadows waver behind them, as if viewed through water. The boy’s shadow grew longer as he stepped forward.

“Here we are,” he said. “About time.”

Those limping footsteps started again. Asgore remained where he was, blocking the exit.

“I wanted to see this in the first place.” He held out his hands. “Just had to take the long way ‘round.”

His silhouette warped in time with that ceaseless beat. His shadow grew and grew until it buried Asgore behind him. And at last, his grasping hands met resistance on the wall of light; the barrier allowed him the slightest pressure, distending like a sponge around his palms, and then stopped fast. He was sealed in. He stopped, and sighed, and rested his head against the unyielding glow.

“To be honest, I’m disappointed. But that’s all right. I already got my answers.”

He turned around, a smear of charcoal against that twilit wall.

“Let’s get this over with.”

Asgore watched him. He made no further moves. His hands dangled limp at his sides, the fingers of his right still restless, bending and clenched, caught in that same motion.

Asgore said, “Why?”

The word traveled easily through the space between them. The echo here was tremendous. The boy’s ashen outline tilted its head like a dog.

 “Why come all this way? Just for this?”

“It doesn’t matter,” he said.

“I would like to know. If I may.”

He shook his head. A small movement, but his magnified shadow cast it over the whole cave, a panning mass of dark like a lighthouse beam in negative.

“I just wanted to know what you did. That’s all.”

“I don’t understand.”

“Then look closer,” he intoned. “It’s easy to see, once you see it. All our mistakes. Everyone we’ve ever hurt. And everything we’ve ever done. They cling. They remember us. And they run ahead and see us again.” His words were rushed but somehow rehearsed, as if he’d repeated them in his own head many times. “Are you looking? Every piece of bad luck is just a mistake we’ve made with a different face. We bring everything down on ourselves. It’s all deserved. Even this.”

He struck the barrier with the back of his hand. The curtain of light wavered jellylike from the impact; a stray sunbeam crossed his face, and it was still as a mask, his eyes bulging and wide.

“I heard the stories. That’s what you are now, outside. Just stories. But you’re not stories, are you? You’re down here. Disappearing a little more every day. We killed you and then locked you up and forgot about you.  I wanted to know why you deserved it.”

“We didn’t,” Asgore said quietly.

The boy laughed, then, and the sound made Asgore shiver – it was too high-pitched, jagged as a broken windowpane. There was something unhinged in it. His body bent in the barrier’s glow. It hunched down, limbs cocked, looking almost feral, poised to spring.

“I think you’re right,” he said. “There’s good people down here. Better than anything outside. I couldn’t imagine them hurting anyone on purpose, even though I tried. And then. When I.” He started to shake all over. “When I p-pointed my gun at one of them, and pulled the trigger, they…th-they…”

The laughter rose up again like quickmud, swallowing his words. He huddled further into himself, covering his face with his arms, and that jagged, helpless giggle made his shadow convulse and spasm across the cavern’s stony panopticon. Asgore stepped back at the sight of it. Whatever he was laughing at, it was so funny that he couldn’t stop. When he looked up again, tears rolled down his face.

“It wasn’t even loaded,” he said. “I just wanted to see what would happen. The war. It must’ve been horrible. You all die so easily.”

“It was horrible, yes,” he said slowly. “But humanity was afraid of what we might become.”

“I don’t care what we were afraid of. There’s no excuse. I wanted there to be an excuse. But there’s none.”

He straightened up again by inches, wiping at his face.

“And that’s the answer,” he continued. “The barrier wasn’t your punishment. It was our mistake. We’re the ones who need to be punished. You see? We killed all of you. We killed your children. And all of that’s waiting for us, isn’t it? Seven human souls, and then we’ll all see you again. We were afraid of what you’d become. And you’re going to become exactly what we were afraid of.” His teeth gleamed like pale pebbles as he grinned. “So come on. I’ll give you what you want. Because you’re going to give all of us what we deserve.”

“I don’t want this.”

Asgore’s reply was hasty and hushed, but spread throughout the cavern like ink in water. His eyes widened, as if shocked by his own words. The boy’s grin disappeared.

“I don’t want this,” he said again. Slower, deliberate. A thought that had been festering in him for years, finally released into the world. “I don’t. I never wanted to do this.”

His shaking hands emerged from his mantle and clutched at his face. He inhaled, then exhaled. When he lowered them again, his expression and voice were calm.

“I was furious when my children died, it’s true,” he said. “In that moment, I would have gladly seen all of humanity destroyed. I promised it to my kingdom, in that moment. But then the moment passed, and the promise remained.” He shook his head. “There was a time…there were many, many times…when I could have taken it back, but I never did. So this is all because of me. Every day. Every death. It all comes from that one choice.”

The barrier’s beat went on, relentless. The boy’s outline hung askew like a strung puppet. He seemed at a loss.

“There is no goodness in any of this,” said Asgore. “No righteousness. There is only my cowardice. Neither my people nor yours deserve to suffer because of it. And if what you’ve said is true – if there is some reckoning due for our mistakes – then it should be mine alone.”

The boy asked, “Then why don’t you stop?”

That monotone, slightly mad certainty was gone from his voice. He sounded genuinely confused, almost hurt. But Asgore couldn’t answer. His useless voice had fled again, as if ashamed at this outrush of truth. Seconds passed, each marked by the barrier’s pulse. And when the boy spoke again, his confusion had darkened to contempt:

“It doesn’t matter.”

He stepped forward, enough for Asgore to see his scowl.

“Weren’t you listening?” he said. “I killed someone. One of your own people. They weren’t even trying to hurt me, you know. I shot them in the back. Even if I didn’t mean to, I did.” His mouth twitched. “And I can’t take it back. Can’t take it back. Even if I could take it back, I couldn’t take it back. Do you understand? Even if I made it so it never happened, I’d still feel it…crawling on me.” He clutched his arms, scraped his nails across his skin so hard they left trails of welt. “You can’t just let me go.”

Asgore remained silent.

“They’re all waiting for you out there.” He was getting louder. “I told everyone I was coming! You think they’ll just let me walk away?” He tried to grin again. “Maybe I should kill a few more of them. Then you might-”

“That’s enough.”

Asgore held out a hand, palm-up, his face solemn and still. He flicked up one finger, and from unseen seams in the stones around him, the canisters emerged. The souls within pulsed gently, in sync to the barrier’s own, and bathed Asgore in in their prismatic shine. They stood assembled before the boy like a jury. The two empty jars gleamed hungrily.

“There is no need to goad me into this,” he said. “The path before me is clear. Even though I know it will end in nothing but ruin.”

He sighed and looked up at the cavern’s ceiling, the overhanging dark.

“There’s no way out,” he whispered. “Not that I can see. But I want to believe that there is someone out there. Someone who will never give up trying to do the right thing, no matter what. Someone better than myself.” He trembled in his armor. “I hope…I truly wish…that they will cross my path one day, and strike me down, before this awful future comes to pass. But, until that day comes…”

He bowed his head. And with a great rush of wind, his mantle flew open, his arm held out to the side; the air snapped red, and then he was gripping his trident, its wicked points flashing in the souls’ luminescence. The boy flinched away.

Asgore advanced on him.  

His pace was agonizingly slow, as if he moved through deep water – or as if he was being dragged forward, attracted to the barrier like an iron filing to a magnet. His armor clattered in counterpoint to that all-consuming heartbeat. He would not meet the boy’s eye. If he had, he would have seen that desperate grin gone, his lip quivering, his eyes bright with tears. But still, he tried to hold his ground as the king drew near.

“Hey,” he said. “Do…do you know the stories they tell about this place? Sure you do. Everyone knows the legend. Travelers who climb Mt. Ebott are said to disappear.” He swallowed hard. “So when I c-came here, I knew exactly what would happen to me. I’m n-not afraid. You hear me? I’m not afraid of you!”

Asgore gripped the trident in both hands and the boy whimpered and shrank back. His tears started to flow, cutting trails through the layers of grime on his face, and as the dirt washed away his years seemed to fall with it; he seemed younger with Asgore’s every step. His fingers desperately scrabbled for purchase on the barrier behind him.

“But…b-but you. I feel sorry for you. Because if what you’re doing really is wrong, and you kept doing it anyway, then your punishment…it’ll be horrible. Worse than you can even imagine.” He took another step back, and found he could go no further. His shoulder blades dug into the barrier; his palms plastered against it flat. “And you won’t be able to run away from it. It’ll find you wherever you go!”

Asgore hesitated, then, mere paces away. And the boy seemed to take it as a victory. He straightened up, face twisted into a desperate, shaky smile, and spread his arms wide, looking like a desiccated scarecrow against the twilight. The barrier’s relentless thump was in sync with his beating heart, with Asgore’s, with the souls’, all of them pulled into the future one pulse at a time. As that warped light passed through his splayed and twitching fingers, their shadows became impossibly long, entwining around the whole of the chamber, as though they meant to seize souls, king, child, cavern, and all.

Asgore looked up. They locked eyes.

“The worst isn’t over,” said the boy. “The worst is waiting for you. You’ll get everything that you deserve.”

*             *             *

It was a nice day.

He made a note in his journal.

The Underground had been more lively than ever in recent years, to the point where even Asgore couldn’t help but feel his spirits lift. The overcrowding issue was worse than ever, true, but that in itself could be seen as a positive thing – once again, monsterkind was thriving, even down here in the dark. And as they grew, their little world continued to develop. Hotland especially had, at last, been tamed; the great enigmatic engine of the Core crouched in its center, its metal tentacles smoothing out the land and drawing power from the endless heat, more than enough to solve the monsters’ energy issues at a stroke. Asgore wasn’t entirely certain when that massive structure had first been built, but he’d grown to accept occasional lapses in his memory. He’d signed a few simple measures to keep its reactor cool, and left it to run on its own accord.

The Royal Guard, too, was now more or less running itself, thanks to its latest captain, a girl from Waterfall with a wide smile and an almost hazardous over-abundance of enthusiasm who’d apparently adopted both him and Gerson out of sheer force of personality. They’d grown quite close over the years – there had been a few spirited assassination attempts on her part, true, but Asgore had taken them in stride, considering his experiences with certain other children prior. Once she’d dropped that habit, all he really had to worry about was the possibility of her using his kitchen; her culinary endeavors had already set her own house on fire three times.

He left his bedroom and gathered up his gardening tools, humming tunelessly to himself. Outside his door, the Capital gleamed like a jewel in the distance. Even the somber gray cave that had once housed the memorial fountain had burst into life and color, owing to the influence of that Mettaton fellow. Asgore didn’t entirely understand his appeal, but the younger monsters seemed head over heels for him. He’d definitely brought some much-needed energy into everyone’s lives, at least.

He continued to be social with his people. He paid Snowdin a special visit every Christmas. He even had his Royal Scientist running some tests to find an alternative way to break the barrier – they hadn’t borne fruit just yet, apparently, and her reports had become somewhat infrequent and vague, but he was happy to leave her to her devices, certain that he’d just get in her way if he tried to delegate too closely. And if he sometimes heard the thrumming of the souls in his sleep, or remembered the last child’s twisted grin and grim prediction, that was fine, too. He kept to his routine. He just had to visit his people, and write in his journal, and visit the snail farm, and tend to his garden, and bake his pies and fix his tools and dust his room and go to bed and rise again and shut his door and plug his ears and not think, not think, not think.

With watering can in hand, he walked through the antechamber, where the marbled and color-dappled floor was swept spotlessly clean. It was silent as a cathedral. Except not quite. He stopped, and cocked his head, expression puzzled. There was a sound scratching on the very edge of his hearing. It sounded like someone crying.

Familiar cries. Not very forceful. The long, low sobs of someone who could go on crying for a very long time, even if they didn’t want to. His eyes went wide as he realized where he’d heard them before, and he groaned, and covered his face with his free hand.

“Imagining things now,” he said, and the walls muttered it back at him. He waited for the sound to cease. But it didn’t.

He took cautious steps. The air syrupy, like in a dream. Out the chamber and into the corridor beyond. He paused and shook as a blast of freezing air rushed past him from some unseen draft, cold enough to make his teeth chatter, rushing towards the garden. He glanced behind him and saw nothing there – only the blank stone and lean shadows, seeming somehow darker. They grew, and leapt. He turned and went on, and under those cries he could hear the barrier throbbing. Even this far away, it felt like his head might split open with every beat. The crying grew louder. He couldn't seem to breathe.

He stepped into the garden and didn’t know what he saw. It wasn’t what he expected. Just the sunlight and the throne and the wavering flowers, same as ever. But something was strange about the one in the center – the first flower that had ever grown, the one that had gone off to the Core laboratory and come back unchanged. It was bent towards the throne, facing away from him. It didn’t move with the breeze. It heaved with every fresh sob.

Asgore quietly set down the watering can and stepped forward. The flower was so busy crying it didn’t even seem to notice the rattle of his armor. He hunched down beside it, bent in close.

“Curious,” he said. “I’ve never seen a plant…cry before.”

It stopped weeping and gasped, its stem stiffened in shock. The sun lay warm on Asgore’s back. The smell of sweet lemons filled the air.

The flower turned around.

He remembered Asriel’s face.

Chapter Text

The flower was gone.

Asgore didn’t question how or why it had disappeared – possibly it had been lost when being sent back from the Core laboratory, or possibly some careless young monster had just picked it on a visit to the garden. Alphys hadn’t been answering Asgore’s calls lately and there was always a steady stream of guests in his home, someone stopping by for some tea and a chat and a chance to feel the sun on their face, so he never bothered to pry. Still, that flower had been like a companion to him over the years; sometimes, when he had stepped into the garden, the breeze had bent it in his direction, and he’d liked to imagine it was saying hello. He decided that was why, whenever he stared too long at that small scrub of earth where it had once stood, he felt faintly unwell, a melancholy that coated his insides like tar.

Still, there were plenty of others, and all of them were in need of watering. He finished off his latest cup of tea, picked up his watering can, gave it a brief, musical shake, and got to work.

It was a nice day; he’d just made a note in his journal, before grabbing his can and going downstairs like always. But unusually quiet. No visitors, no calls, not even the usual daily report from Undyne, and she normally called like clockwork. He’d thought about popping out for a bit, checking to see how she was doing, but then he’d decided to just leave her to her own devices. Children grew up, after all; it had been a good many years since she’d first run into his throne room and attempted to drop-kick him in the back. Between the Royal Guard and that perpetually exuberant young skeleton she kept telling him about, she had her own little garden that needed tending.

He avoided looking at the covered throne in the corner, same as always. He blocked out the barrier’s heartbeat, same as always. The pollen smelled sweet and the earth lay rich, same as always. Birds were singing. Flowers were blooming. Water droplets clung to their petals iridescent as pearls.

His ears perked up. Someone was walking down the corridor outside. Small feet, but steady steps, footfalls innocuous as a ticking clock. He smiled and tipped out the watering can again.

The footsteps crunched and rustled as the visitor stepped into the garden, stopped in the plants behind him. He could feel their gaze on his back.

“Oh, is someone there?” he said. “Just a moment! I have almost finished watering these flowers.”

He emptied the can, gave it a last shake, and set it carefully on the ground beside him. He turned around.

“Howdy! How can I…”

The words stopped dead in his throat. He felt his smile flee. He nearly tripped over the can as he took a step back.

The child looked exhausted. Eyes heavy-lidded, hair a tangled mess, shoulders slightly stooped as if bearing up invisible weight. Silent, unsmiling, his clothes hanging on him like sacks; the breeze briefly pushed them to the side so that the harsh angles of the bones beneath poked through. His only weapon a thin stick held delicately in one hand like a conductor’s rod, and not a hint of malice in his expression. Yet there was a potency about him. The world seemed to distort in his presence, time and space creaking around where he stood like a lead ball on a rubber sheet, and even all the flowers briefly bent in his direction as if welcoming him home.

But Asgore noticed none of that, at first. What he noticed was the deep blue and purple of the child’s shirt – except that he was knee-deep in the flowers, surrounded by their jolly gold and green, and for a moment his shocked eyes briefly swapped those colors, turned the world photo-negative, so the clothes were gold and green and those shut eyes were wide open and that grave expression and pale face became smiling wide, rosy-cheeked, and time broke loose in his head, it snapped from end to end like elastic pulled too tight, and as it did he remembered it all, the new child, the happier times, the sickbeds, the disappearance, the dust on the ground, the tea all gone cold, the bedrooms lying empty and the basement ever more full, the days he’d met the other fallen ones and then carried those canisters to the cavern beyond like a pallbearer, those terrible days and all the terrible days in between, all of them made heavy and cold by the weight of anticipation for a day that he didn’t want and couldn’t hold back no matter how hard he tried, the day that was today. In an instant he fell through the expanse of those long years and crashed back into the present, where the child was still watching him, either not noticing or not impressed by his shock – except that he saw sympathy in that face, and something else. Expectation. The seventh child, waiting for him.

Asgore said, “Oh.”

And the future reached out, and grabbed hold.

*             *             *

He remembered the future.

He remembered how you never know it’s coming until it’s there, and then it’s there.

Winter had come and wiped the land clean. The snow here was recent and unmarred, and it made everything uniform – the earth’s contours flattened, every blade of grass buried, the snags of tree roots sleeping deep beneath the white. The only marks were his footprints, deep and even-spaced, stretching from the horizon to this bare wooden park bench under a gaunt and leafless tree. Viewed from a distance, the prints looked like markings on paper – like punctuation, an interminable pause.

It was a strange place to arrange a meeting. But the other children’s families had chosen stranger.

He gathered his coat around him as the wind picked up and bit through all his layers – the coat, his clothes, the pelt underneath. He’d melted the snow around the bench with a clap of his hands so he’d have somewhere to sit, but he set no more fires. If someone were to emerged from that horizon, following his footsteps, and saw him sitting alone and wreathed in flame, it would make a poor first impression. So he suffered the chill, hands on his knees, his hair unkempt in the wind.

On the edge of the wind he thought he could smell tea, sickly sweet. He stared at the footprints he’d left and noted the snowy spaces between them, and how the wind teased the loose snow in eddies and sent it drifting like dust. The flat disc of the sun strained through the clouds overhead like a circle of blank glass. A gale whipped through the tree’s upper reaches and rattled like a pneumoniac’s breath. And as the tree shivered, the splayed fingers of its branches cast their twitching shadows around him, clutching and desperate.

He took all these sensations in stride. He flipped through them like playing cards. He didn’t notice the crunching footfalls behind him, or the leaner shadow that approached and merged with his own. He faced forward and watched the slithering breeze sift powdery snow into his marks he’d left behind. In time it would erase all sign of him, only for new signs to be left and left again.

“Dad?”

The voice behind him hesitant and small. Asgore turned around.

Asriel there. Beneath the shadow of the leafless tree. Bundled against the cold, huddled into his clothing, round wet eyes staring out. A gleaming red canister held between his hands like a lantern. Ankle-deep in the snow and the snow marked by his weight but no prints behind him or before him or anywhere around, like he’d dropped out from the sky, like he’d come from nowhere at all.

Asgore’s breathing creaked. The landscape tilted and spun before his eyes. Asriel’s expression turned panicked.

“Oh, no, please don’t freak out! It’s just me! Really just me, I mean, I know this looks weird, but I didn’t mean to sneak up on you, I asked Sans to drop me off because I thought it’d be quicker than driving and I guess he missed the target or something…hey, Sans, tell him that you-” He turned around and saw no one there. “Wait, he was just…” He ran to look behind the tree, ran back around to look behind the tree from the other side, then stopped, and groaned, and rested his head against the trunk. “I really hate that guy sometimes.”

When Asgore had at last confronted Frisk in the barrier cavern, awash in warped twilight with the six human souls standing by like witnesses, the events that followed had been rushed and confused. Toriel returning with Undyne and the rest, and then choking vines, and a twisted but somehow familiar voice, and the cavern mobbed with monsters and a blinding flash of light – and when it had faded, the barrier was gone, and the cavern mostly taken up by an enormous tree that had Frisk and Asriel sleeping among its roots like strange, fallen fruit, all of it impossibly alive. Asgore had picked up Asriel and held him for what felt like years, waiting to wake up. Part of him was still waiting.

“Asriel,” he said, with effort. “What on earth are you-”

“I brought you something.”

Asriel slogged back through the snow and around to the other side of the bench. His worried face twitched for a moment when he noticed Asgore’s overcoat. It was a voluminous brown thing stiff and thick as a welcome mat, and the first time he’d seen it, Asriel, who still had a somewhat erratic grip on his emotions, had laughed himself into hysterics; once he’d managed to calm down, he’d said that the coat made his father look like a giant potato. But this time he just shook his head for a moment and held up the canister. It was actually a Thermos, lid screwed on tight, its surface fogged with condensation.

“It’s freezing out here,” he said. “And I didn’t know how long you’d be out, so…”

“How did you know I was out here at all?”

“Oh. Right. Um, so, Mom told me what you were doing, about trying to find the humans’ families to apologize and all, so I told Frisk, and then Frisk told me that Sans told him, and we talked about it for a while and Frisk told me that I should talk to you about it, because I-”

“All right, all right, consider me educated.” He sighed and took the canister from Asriel’s hands. “I’m just surrounded by conspiracies in this family, aren’t I?”

“At least we didn’t climb a mountain this time, right?”

“Yes, I suppose there’s that. Come and sit down.”

Asriel hoisted himself up on the bench as Asgore popped the Thermos open. Out drifted the smell of sweet lemons. His face lit up.

“Well, I’ll be. I thought I was fresh out of this stuff.”

“You are, but Mom had a little bit left in her pantry.” Asriel tugged on his scarf – Toriel had knitted it for him, deep purple shot through with stars, in metallic thread that shimmered in the cold afternoon light. “This really is the last of it, though. End of an era, haha.”

He sipped and smacked his lips. “Not bad. Still nowhere close to mine, of course, but another few years and you’ll be as good as your dad.”

“Mom made it, actually.” The Thermos froze halfway to Asgore’s mouth. “I mean, me and Frisk asked her to do it, but she didn’t need much convincing, for what it’s worth.”

“Well. How nice.” And then, much quieter, “Please never tell her what I just said.”

“Secret’s safe with me. She wouldn’t be mad, though. She can’t make your tea and you can’t make her pies.”

“I’ll get it right one of these days, I swear.”

“You could always come to dinner someday and just try hers again.” Asriel looked down at his swinging feet, kneading his hands together anxiously. “I don’t think she’d mind seeing you again. You know, she and Sans are really-”

“Asriel. It’s fine.” He smiled and ruffled Asriel’s head. “Really, it is. What your mother gets up to is her own business.”

“Yeah, but-”

“I’ll admit I spent a fair bit of time wishing things were the way they used to be. But not just with Toriel. With…well, everything.” He took another deep drink of the tea. “But it’s passed. Now all I’m concerned with is taking care of you and Frisk. Which is challenging enough on its own, trust me.”

Asriel said nothing.

“That said, I don’t approve of everything she and Sans have been up to,” he added. “They appear to have permanently damaged Frisk’s sense of humor, for one thing.”

Asriel remained silent. His head hung low. The hollow wind and rattling tree provided Asgore’s only answer.

Asgore cleared his throat. “So…you know why I’m here.”

“Yeah,” Asriel said. “That’s why I’m confused.”

“How so?”

The wind plucked at Asriel’s scarf, his ears, the tuft of fur on his head. It was the only movement about him. He sat so rigid that he barely seemed to breathe.

“Mom worries about you,” he said at last.

“Toriel worries about everyone. It’s one of her best-”

“So do I. So does Frisk, even though he tries not to show it. And if anyone else knew what you were doing, they’d be worried, too. So why aren’t you?”

Now it was Asgore’s turn to stay silent.

“This is dangerous, Dad. I mean, we’re just sitting here, and any minute whoever you’re waiting for might show up and j-just…” His voice shook and he took a sudden, fierce breath, and let it out, and spoke again, calmer. “I know all the things you did after me and Chara…you know. And I know it was for the best.”

“It might have turned out well, but that doesn’t excuse it, Asriel.” Asgore’s voice was stern. “I should not have to tell you that.”

“But they might not even care. You know how dangerous humans can be when they’re angry, Dad. So do I. None of us want you to-” His voice cracked again, and he sighed in disgust and covered his face, waiting for his breath to steady. “I’m not gonna try to talk you out of it. I just don’t want you to get hurt. That’s all.”

“I understand.”

“Then why aren’t you worried?” He lowered his hands and his stare lanced through Asgore. “Shouldn’t you be at least a little scared, after everything that’s happened?”

Asgore bent down a little, tapping the canister contemplatively. The wind teased at his hair, sifted more snow into his trail of footprints leading into the horizon. The skies had started to darken, from the color of slate to the color of iron.

 “I dearly wish I could say something like ‘maybe you’ll understand when you’re older,’” he said.  “But I don’t believe that would pass muster with you, would it?”

Asriel smirked at that, despite himself. “Yeah, I think that ship’s sailed.”

“Mostly I think about something one of the fallen children told me,” he said. “A very philosophical young man, in his way. He made it clear that I’d be punished for my actions. Someday, somehow. It stuck with me, I suppose. I waited for that day to come. And instead, look where we are. The barrier is broken. Monsters are living alongside humans. Your mother doesn’t seem to entirely despise me. And you’re here.” He smiled at Asriel, then turned back to the landscape. “I feel…indebted. Like something is overdue. This is the only way I know to make amends. It’s not as though I’ll go looking for trouble. But if trouble should find me, I won’t run away from it, either. I’ve been ready to invite it in for a long time.”

“What if it already came?”

Asgore glanced over. Asriel had quietly moved to the far side of the bench, bent double, bony fingers laced before him. His voice had gone queerly flat.

“Dad. These people you’re seeing…how much longer before they get here?”

“I’m not sure,” Asgore said. “Could be a while. I showed up early, what with the weather and all.”

“Okay.” He shook his head and laughed; it was completely mirthless. “I had a feeling I’d wind up telling you this sooner or later. I guess now’s as good a time as any. Better to do it without Frisk around. Same as last time.”

Asgore recognized that tone. He shivered a little at the memory of it.

When Asriel had first returned home, he’d taken it upon himself to confess everything he’d done to Asgore and Toriel, alone, while Frisk remained unconscious, sleeping off whatever tribulations had brought Asriel back from death. Except it hadn’t really been a confession; it had been a purge, with all the messiness and pain that implied. Asgore still didn’t like to think about it, and couldn’t have remembered half of the things Asriel told them even if he tried – his son’s story of his twisted resurrection and the madness that followed had quickly devolved into barely-coherent screaming as he tried to force the words out through his own tears, clutching his head as though he wished to tear those rotten thoughts out the thin sheathe of his skin. It had taken a full day, and by the end of it Asgore was exhausted as he’d ever been, both he and Toriel worn to the bone just from their efforts to soothe Asriel enough to stop him from hurting himself. Asriel had shut himself away in his room, and not come out again until Frisk had woken and done whatever he did to lift both their spirits again. He’d gotten better. But something inside him scabbed over, after that day. His hopeful expression would occasionally turn dim and faraway when he thought no one was looking. And whenever he alluded to those dark times again, his voice turned flat and contemptuous, tinged with bitter amusement. It made him sound like a stranger. It was the way he sounded now.

“You remember what I told you before, right?” Asriel said. “How you were the first person to see me when I came back?”

“Of course. But Asriel, you don’t have to-”

“Dad, please be quiet and let me talk.”

Asgore shut up. The wind murmured between them. The smothered sun continued to slip down to the horizon, growing dimmer as the clouds thickened.

“After I visited you and Mom, and figured out what was…different, about me, I had to start finding other things to do,” Asriel said. “You know I got tired of being nice to everyone. It didn’t do much for me, after a while. So I had to think of something else. That’s when I thought about the souls.” His upper lip twitched, exposing his fangs; old and rancid hunger bubbled out from his voice like sewage. “I could do all sorts of things if I could get you to give me that power. I wanted those souls, Dad. I really…really wanted them. So my first idea was to just do everything from the start. I showed up in the throne room. Pulled my crying act. And after I spent enough time with you, I said that I knew about the human souls. That giving them to me would be enough to turn me back.” He angled his face toward Asgore. “And you said no.”

“I’m sure that I didn’t mean-”

“I’m not blaming you,” he said. “I would never, ever blame you. You promised you’d find another way, no matter how long it took. But obviously I didn’t care about that. So I kept resetting, trying to find something to trick you into giving them up. I couldn’t get to them myself, even though I knew where they were. I tried ripping them up, but it’s like they were…stuck there, in the ground. You must have made one heck of a strong spell to lock them in like that, huh?”

“The best one I could manage,” he said, with a hint of pride. Then he looked down, gazed into his warped reflection in the canister’s surface. “I suppose I thought they deserved to rest. After everything they’d been through.”

“Maybe that’s why you wouldn’t let them go. I tried everything, Dad. And not just being nice, either. My temper back then was horrible, you have no idea. It didn’t take long before I stopped pretending to care.” He said, in a dragging singsong: “I said that I hated you, that you were a bad dad, that I was glad Mom left you, all the usual stuff. Then I threatened to hurt you, and that didn’t work. Then I threatened to hurt her, and that didn’t work. And then,” Asriel’s fists clenched, his knuckles cracked, his claws dug into his skin, “then I really stopped playing around.”

Asriel’s speech was careful and casual. He spoke with the tone of someone describing an uninteresting film. The wind bit and the sky stained blacker as he told Asgore about the rewound time, and the creaks in the night, and the taunts outside his door in the voices of people he knew, and the warping shadows by his bed, and the lashing vines on his back, and the mangled garden and crushed thrones when he stepped downstairs, and people arriving with polite requests to see the canisters, and the teary-eyed hostages begging the same, and the shrieked accusations, and the howling laughter in his sleep, and the torn and dust-stained robes deposited at the foot of his bed, and the stinging thorns that tore at him every time he took a careless step, and the stinging pellets that burned him every time he turned his back, and the hissing voice by his ear that infected his dreams, and the journal’s pages blackened with scrawled mockery and promises of worse things to come, and the same twisted graffiti scrawled in mud and thorn and dust across the face of his house and the streets of the capital, and the vines that choked the capital where the streets lay heavy with dust and the air rang with that deranged laughter, and the vines that tore down his house and smashed the artifacts of his memories in the rubble, and the vines that in their desperate clutching fury infested even the barrier cavern and ripped it down stone by stone in a mad attempt to eviscerate the souls from their hiding place and instead only caused the ceiling to collapse and the barrier’s light to die and leave those huddled and weeping remnants of monsterkind to be trapped forever – this litany of cruelty upon cruelty upon hundreds more unspoken cruelties, devised by a mind that no longer had anything better to do than devise new ways to be cruel, and always with the same demand, unrelenting as the barrier’s heartbeat, as the oncoming and merciless future: “Give me what I want, and this will all be over.”

He fell silent, if only to catch his breath. It had begun to snow again, in slow plump flakes that spotted their clothes with moisture. Asgore looked up at it. He didn’t feel the chill when they landed on his face.

“Oh, Asriel.” It was all he could think to say.

“I tried again, and again, and again.” His whole body quaking now. “And eventually I got bored. Same old story, right? Pathetic. Unlimited time, but no attention span. You didn’t give me anything to work with. If anything I tried had just gotten you angry, or made you say you hated me, I could have figured something out, but nothing did. You fought me when you could, but that was nothing useful, just self-defense. You wouldn’t change, Dad. You kept trying to make peace. I lost track of how many times you offered me tea. Even when I was hurting you, you still had that look on your face. That one. The one you have now.” Asgore felt his face, to better understand what he meant. “Understand? No matter what I tried, you just wouldn’t change.

“So I got bored. And I got so frustrated that I started making mistakes. You began to figure out that I was resetting everything whenever I messed up. And then, one time, the last time, you. Y-you.” He swallowed hard. “You guessed my name. My real name, I mean. And you told me. That you knew who I really was all along.” He shook his head hard; droplets flew off his face. “No idea if it was true. You sure didn’t seem to recognize me when I ambushed everyone at the barrier. But after that I decided there wasn’t any point. If you could just grin and bear it even knowing w-who I was, there was n-no p-p-point.”

“Asriel-”

“So don’t tell me that you deserve to be punished, okay? I don’t care if you hate me now, or don’t want to see me anymore, or whatever. You’ve gone through enough. I saw to that myself. And,” he said fiercely, “don’t you dare say that it doesn’t count, just because you can’t remember it. It all matters. Everything we do, good and bad. It’s never going away.” He let out a deep, shuddering breath, and added, “So there.”

The snowfall was heavier, now. It frosted the little bench like dust. Asgore set the Thermos down; the tea inside was still warm. He watched Asriel’s shoulders quiver, his hanging ears obscuring his eyes from view.

He asked, “Are you all right?”

A long pause. Then:

“That’s not fair,” Asriel said. His voice a harsh whisper. “You can’t just listen to all that and ask if I’m all right. Were you even listening?” He covered his face. “I don’t get why you won’t hate me. I don’t…I just d-d-don’t…”

Asgore reached out and pulled him in close, engulfing him in the rough folds of his coat. Asriel buried his face in the fabric and wept, his body shaking under Asgore’s palm. Asgore stared forward, frowning, dry-eyed. He noted how Asriel already seemed a little taller, and felt a fresh, unfamiliar twinge of pain in his shoulder. New aches. The both of them were getting older.

“I have no right to judge anyone for what they’ve done, Asriel,” he said. “And even if I did, you’re my son. No matter what happened, I could never hate you.”

“I know that,” Asriel sobbed. “That’s what I was always afraid of…”

“It’s all right to be afraid. But we can’t just run away from what scares us. That was my mistake.” He sighed. “I was so scared of the consequences of that promise that I tried to keep the future away. But you can’t stop something like that. Instead, for so many years, I just felt like I was living through the same day, over and over again. Always dreading what would come.”

Asriel let out a slightly strangled laugh. “I know the feeling.”

“We’ve all been through a lot, haven’t we? And there might be even worse things waiting for us. But I think that’s all right, now. The future might have terrible things in store, but it’s still the future. It’s still worth cherishing. Despite everything.”

More time passed. Then Asriel said, “I think you can let go now.”

Asgore released him and he moved away, sniffling and wiping his eyes. He tried to laugh again.

“I was doing better that time, right? Almost got through the whole thing without cracking up. Haha.”

“A few tears are nothing to be ashamed of, Asriel.” Asgore offered him the Thermos. “Have a sip of this. Your throat must be dry.”

“Yeah. Wow, how long was I talking? It’s gotten really dark.” He looked hopefully at the sky. “Maybe they won’t show up?”

“Possibly. It wouldn’t be the first time. I’ll hang around until the sun sets and then head home. No use in staying out here all night.”

Asriel drained half the remaining tea at a gulp, swallowed, licked his lips, and set the Thermos back down and stood up. “I should probably get going, then. I’ll give Sans a call, hopefully he can pop out of nowhere like he does and take me back home.”

“Would you like to stay?”

Asriel stared. His mouth opened and closed, like he wasn’t sure what he’d just heard. His father’s expression was placid, genial.

“That’s…that would be a pretty awful idea, Dad.” He attempted a smile. “I mean, the reason you went through all that in the first place is because me and Chara died, right? If they just saw me sitting here, it’d make things even worse. I don’t-”

“Asriel,” he said quietly. “Would you like to stay?”

Asriel went stiff, his claws plucking worriedly at the threads of his scarf. After a long moment, he sat back down, huddled against the chill, and rested his head against Asgore’s coat. Asgore put an arm around his shoulders and pulled him in closer.

“Mom’s gonna kill me,” he muttered.

“She let you go in the first place, didn’t she? That means she trusts you. Especially after all that’s happened.”

“Can you stick around for a little bit after you drop me off? Say hi to Frisk, at least.”

“I can do that, certainly.”

“Promise?”

“I promise.”

Snow filled in Asriel’s small, scattered footprints behind the bench; already Asgore’s own were barely-seen impressions in that carpet of white. It clung to their clothes like wool and reflected the scant twilight like a prism, so that even as the sun became nothing more than a thin layer of paler gray at the meeting between earth and sky, dull and tarnished as the side of a coin, it was still bright enough for them to feel like they were under glass. Asriel held the Thermos against his chest, red as a beating heart. There was no longer a hint of wind; the whole world seemed to be holding its breath.

He said, “I hope they understand.”

And Asgore wasn’t sure what he meant, but still answered, “So do I.”

In time, on that ever-dimmer horizon, some stranger might appear thin and dark as a tally mark against the bleached landscape, bearing any number of unknown intentions. In time, this bench might stand empty, with two fresh sets of prints leading away in the fresh snow, new marks that would be erased and remade and remade again. There was even the chance that more familiar visitors might arrive, family and friends who, like Asriel, had decided not to let the king face the future alone. These possibilities and more passed through both their minds, but they said nothing. They faced forward, sharing each other’s warmth. The two of them, the unmarked earth, this fragile and fleeting moment – all silent, and treasured, and awaiting whatever might come.