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I Need an Adult

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The first time Frisk showed up at your doorstep—nose bloodied, lip trembling, face streaked with tears, arms outstretched—you hadn’t known what to make of it.

You’d never been great with kids, especially not crying ones. You just kind of shut down. Lucky for you, even as your brain flat-lined, some sort of rusty, underused parental instinct kicked in, and you gently swept Frisk up into your arms. When they rested their chin on your shoulder, and their thin arms slowly encircled your neck, it felt somehow familiar.

That was an odd notion, as you’d never so much as spoken to Frisk before. Vaguely, you recognized them as the child living down the hall from you. Some mornings you saw them waiting for the bus out front, and the two of you would exchange nervous smiles. It was unfortunate, but you were much more familiar with their mother, known commonly around the apartment complex as Screaming Lady.

After disentangling yourself from Frisk and setting them down on your couch, you rapidly googled how to stop nosebleeds on your phone. In less than a minute, they were curled up on a towel, leaning forward, nose pinched shut, ice pack (well, a bag of frozen peas) applied. It didn’t take long for the bleeding to stop, but it probably still hurt. You tried to be careful as you cleaned their face, wiping blood from button features with a warm, damp washcloth.

As you swept the cloth hesitantly over the contours of Frisk’s face, you realized they were staring unblinkingly at you. Their eyes were filled with more warmth, more trust, than anyone ever had shown you in your entire life.

It was… a little bit scary, to be honest.

Eventually, you’d cleaned off the worst of it. Your task complete, you pulled away. Already, a nasty bruise was forming over the bridge of their nose and most of their left cheek. You didn’t like the picture this painted in your head. Not at all.

After tossing the soiled washcloth in the approximate direction of your laundry basket, you decided it was your responsibility to get to the bottom of things.

You asked Frisk if their mother was home. They shook their head no.

You asked how they got hurt. They refused to say.

A minute passed in silence.

Finally you got your courage together. Quietly, as reassuringly as possible, you asked if their mother ever hit them. Their eyes widened. You didn’t know how to interpret the look they gave you—there was desperation, certainly, but towards what you couldn’t really tell. Frisk began to shake their head in the negative, more vigorously than was probably healthy at the moment, and you dropped the line of questioning in fear that the bleeding would start back up again.

“Well then,” you said, trying to inject the dead air with more pep than you were currently capable of producing, “Do you like cocoa? I’ve got cocoa.”

Kids loved chocolate, right?

The smile that answered you said yes, yes they did.

“Please?” Frisk asked, and you melted.

“With marshmallows?”

“…I love marshmallows,” they said.

That settled it, then. You slid over to the kitchen, which was separated by a partition but otherwise open to the living room. Frisks eyes followed you around. The kid was kind of intense about the whole staring thing, but you didn’t let it unnerve you.

Your hand hovered over a box of prepackaged hot chocolate in your pantry cabinet, then slowly withdrew. No, you decided. No cheap shit, you were going to do this the right way. You got out a jug of milk, vanilla extract, a tin of powered cocoa, and a box of sugar, a saucepan, and smiled back at your little audience over on the couch.

Frisk was enthralled.

It was whisk-intensive work—you couldn’t let the milk burn, but had to make it hot enough to melt the sugar—and the smell quickly filled your apartment. You weren’t the measuring sort, so you just played it by ear until it tasted right. Cooking was one of those things that came pretty easy to you, and you counted yourself lucky.

After a few minutes, after the cocoa had thickened into creamy, frothing, wholesome goodness, you got out your good mugs—the ones that were basically bowls with handles—and a half-empty sack of marshmallows.

“How many do you want?” you called, pouring out the saucepan’s contents into two, giant-sized servings. You managed not to spill.

“Two?” Frisk replied.

“What, just two?”

“…Three?” they hesitantly amended. You laughed.

“C’mon. Live a little.”

“Um.”

“Tell you what, I can fit six, I think. You want six?”

“Six,” they whispered to themselves, like you’d blown their damn mind. You took that as a yes and plopped six marshmallows in, and then put a seventh on top for good measure. Yeah. Look at you! You were good.

You waited until it was cool enough to drink before you brought the mugs over, figuring the poor kid had enough mishaps for one day. As far as Frisk’s injury went, you hadn’t forgotten that you needed to get a clear answer out of them, but… the mood was good. They seemed to have calmed down. It was nice. You wanted to let them have this moment. Questions could surely wait a little longer.

“Here you go,” you said, handing off the mug with the marshmallow tower. It was damn near the perfect, as far as presentation went, but hell, you wished you had a stick of peppermint or something to put in, or whipped cream. Chocolate shavings… no, one of those cookie tubes. THAT would’ve been perfect. You would’ve won an award for sure.

You settled down on the other side of the couch, and just let yourself sink in. When was the last time you’d felt so cozy?

Frisk blew over the top of their mug, sending sweet-scented steam in your direction. They took a slow, long sip, their eyes shut almost blissfully. You were grinning, your own treat halfway forgotten, when they came up for air and just sort of vibrated with happiness.

Oh my god, you thought. How can anyone be this precious?

They took another sip, slurping up a marshmallow whole. Suddenly, they lowered their gaze and frowned severely.

“It’s good,” they said, voice thick. You blinked.

Then Frisk started to cry again.

You set your mug down instantly and scooched over, your I-don’t-know-how-to-deal-with-this-child jitters back in full force. This wasn’t the time to be intimidated by tears, though.

“No no, hey, don’t cry! It’s… it’s gonna be okay, honey,” you said, nickname out of nowhere, words just sort of falling out of you in a frenzied panic. You wanted to fix this. How were you supposed to make it better?

Frisk shot forward, sloshing a good bit of cocoa over the front of your shirt, and buried their face in the side of your neck. You at least had the good sense to take the mug out of their hands, setting in on the coffee table with your own. With their hands now free, they twisted their fingers into your shirt and clung to you, shaking so hard you'd almost call it convulsions. The sniffling slowly dwindled. It seemed like they were trying to stop crying... for your sake.

With more tenderness than you believed yourself capable, you wrapped your arms around them, forming a protective cocoon. You were out of your depth, but that much you could do.

Frisk hiccupped once, muffled and miserable, and tightened their grip on your clothes.

That was when you knew.

You’d do anything for this kid.

Maybe you were a sap. Hell, you knew you were—a kid randomly knocks on your door one day, ruins your shirt, and suddenly you’re utterly committed. You were flipping crazy. More importantly…

That didn’t matter.

It was irrelevant to the fact that you meant it—you would do anything.

After a few minutes, having quietly made a resolution to keep Frisk from harm as best you were capable, the child loosened their stranglehold on you and rubbed their eyes with their sleeve. Instead of slipping off your lap like you expected, they simply turned in place, leaned back into your stomach, picked their mug up, and took another sip. You froze up. Hugs were one thing, this was. Uh.

Okay.

Yeah.

Your fear-of-children meter was busting a gasket, but you guessed you could do this.

Sensing your discomfort, Frisk blinked up at you with reddened eyes, then seemed to have a moment of insight. They grabbed your own mug from the table and handed it to you, smiling indulgently like they’d solved a big mystery and done you a great service.

Their self-satisfied face was almost as cute as it was hilarious.

“You’re a funny kid,” you said.

They wrinkled their nose at you.

“Comfortable?” you asked wryly.

Frisk nodded. You shrugged and took a big swig of your hot chocolate.

“You’re the guest,” you muttered, and Frisk smiled sagely. You hoped they weren’t this touchy-feely with other adults. Just thinking about Frisk knocking on some other door, what kind of person might’ve answered… you shuddered. You were glad it had been you. Here was another concern for the growing list.

Troubling. You felt like sighing, but resisted.

An hour passed companionably. As much as you wanted to let the good times continue to roll, Frisk said their mother would be home soon. They were adamant that their mother hadn’t been the cause of their injury. You chose to believe that, at least for the time being.

It wasn’t as though you saw Frisk covered in bruises or cuts all the time. You were pretty certain something was wrong in that house, (as the entire floor could attest, a lot of shouting went on, at the very least) but you didn’t have much of a case. It was probably better to wait until you had more of an idea of what was going on.

Of course, waiting too long could be catastrophic. You had to handle this carefully.

You walked Frisk to the door, and carefully wrote your phone number down in block letters on a slip of paper, before handing it over.

“Listen. You can call me anytime. I mean it. If something happens to you, or you just want to talk, or whatever. I work during the day most of the week, but I can get to you if you really need my help.”

They looked at the paper like you’d handed them a hundred dollar bill, then carefully folded it and put it in their pocket.

“And, I mean,” you stuttered, running out of steam, “you can come over whenever. If you need to get away. If you need help with your homework or something.”

Did kids as young as Frisk even have homework? Fuck it. You pushed on.

“Also… you really shouldn’t, well. People can be... uh. Okay, kid, you know, you really shouldn’t go around knocking on stranger’s doors, right? I’m a good person, I mean I like to think that I am, and I’m here to help, but. Maybe some other people wouldn’t be. You need to be more careful.”

Frisk looked at you like you were a little daft.

“You’re not strangers,” they said, and so saying, grabbed at the hem of your shirt, “I knew I could trust you.”

They said that like it was obvious. The most obvious thing in the world.

“You know that now, but it could’ve been anyone, Frisk. A bad guy, maybe.”

“No,” they insisted with a certainty that surprised you. They patted your knee cordially, like you were a particularly slow (but well-meaning) dog.

“See you later,” they said, and that too was spoken with impressive conviction. They smiled back at you as you watched them cross the hall. You waited until they were safe inside their own apartment before shutting your door.

You felt… shell-shocked. What an emotional rollercoaster this afternoon had been.

As you cleaned up, liberally spraying your shirt and the bloody rag with a foul-smelling stain remover, you frowned to yourself. Frisk…

What a strange kid.

You would do everything in your power to help them.


It didn't occur to you until late that night, but...

Frisk had never told you their name.

You'd just sort of... known.

...

No. You were sure you'd heard it somewhere. You must have. You'd lived in the same building for years, after all. It wasn't really all that strange.

Really.

Chapter Text

It was unseasonably chilly out today. Probably cold enough they’d cancel Frisk’s swim meet. You were sitting in your car, the radio turned down low, just loud enough to drown out the gossipers outside. The School Moms.

You could see them out of the corner of your eye, circling like vultures. Sharpening their lacquered nails, judgingly eyeing the cigarette burns on the upholstery of your second-hand vehicle. They were legion. Every now and then one of them would throw you a sharp, probing look. You sank down in your seat until your chin pressed up against your chest. Bullies, the lot of them. When you’d first started showing up, you’d tried talking to them to pass time, but you’d have been better served throwing yourself in the garbage for all the good it had done.

Okay, you were being melodramatic.

They were pleasant enough folk, honestly, it was just… they always wanted to know things. None of them had qualms about sharing their opinions about you, either.

First it was simply disapproval about your age—much too young to have children, surely. Then they dug into your parenting skills, or alleged lack thereof. Clearly irresponsible, not fit to be a parent, they’d stage whisper piteously among themselves, like you were some local tragedy.

What were you supposed to do? Tell them you were just a neighbor? You weren’t even sure it was actually legal for you to pick up Frisk. It’s not like you were their guardian on paper.

Although.

Petitioning for custody of Frisk was, frankly, increasingly tempting. After all, Frisk was with you more often than not, if you only counted the waking hours. How much change would it really be, if you got down to it? Most of Frisk’s stuff was at your place, their books, their clothes, the lopsided ceramic mug they’d made you wouldn’t let them throw out, no matter how embarrassed they were about it. Even the tooth fairy knew to leave the money over at your house. Funny how that worked.

Frisk was… basically your kid.

But you didn’t even want to start imagining the legal quagmire that might involve, making it happen for real.

(Then, your secret fear. The one you wouldn’t even admit consciously… that you’d screw it all up if you pushed too hard, and you’d never see Frisk again.)

…no. You knew you were a good caretaker. The worst part about those women (and a handful of stray dads)... the very worst part? They were right.

Not about you, obviously. But about Frisk’s mother.

You guessed it would be about a year ago, now, maybe a week after you’d first met Frisk.

Frisk had been by a second time, you thought, and had been healing up nicely, though the yellow/green/brown of their bruise didn’t look any less painful than the blue/purple/black had. Frisk had been… at school? Probably at school. You were carrying an armful of groceries upstairs, because the elevator had been out. There was shouting coming from your floor, which you’d nearly dismissed as simply the background soundtrack of your life (because, let’s face it, Screaming Lady got that nickname for a reason, everyone in the building was used to hearing it), when it hit you. It took you a moment to contextualize everything, but as your brain nauseously shifted, it occurred to you—wasn’t this your chance to speak with Frisk’s mother? Schmooze on up, natural-like, and try to find out if she was the abusive person you were afraid she was?

You know. How are you today, oh I’m fine, hey tell me, do you hit your kid?

She had stopped screaming by the time you got up there, and was watching a maintenance guy shuffle away in defeat, thoroughly cowed. You looked her over, with a sort of light, dawning horror.

You guessed in all the years you’d been her neighbor, you’d never bothered to actually, really look at her.

First, there was a lot of resemblance to Frisk in the facial structure, enough that there couldn’t really be any doubt. The second thing you noticed was just how thin the woman looked. No, that was an understatement. It was like… like someone had stuffed a human skin full of knives. All sharpness, hard angles, protruding bones. And if you twisted her too hard she’d split apart, sliced to ribbons from within. When she moved, it looked painful.

Then the third thing. She was so young.

Maybe only a year or two older than you. Hell, she was so small she could probably pass for fourteen, if it wasn’t for her heavily lined, sunken, deep set eyes. Seen-too-much eyes. Such sad, hollow eyes.

Frisk sometimes had eyes just like them.

The instant she saw you, the moment she transfixed you in that stare, whatever plan you had in mind for this confrontation did a flying leap out the flipping window. You set down your groceries.

“I’m your neighbor,” you said, surprising even yourself, pitch fluctuating, and then you turned and pointed at your apartment like a damn idiot because she almost certainly already recognized you, moron.

She blinked, once, slow, and you watched her thick lashes rise and fall.

“I, uh. I spoke with your child the other day, and—”

Before you could even think about saying the word “bruise” or whatever stupid nonsense was about to burst out of your mouth, she had her hand around your wrist and was dragging you into her apartment with more strength than she looked like she should’ve been able to muster.

Out of self-preservation, your brain threw up a Blue Screen of Death and went to take a smoke break.

You found yourself seated at the filthiest dining room table you had ever seen, sipping dishwater tea from a clean-ish, chipped mug. Frisk’s mother was so happy to have you over (in her rotting, garbage apartment, where there was actual food decomposing under a pile of newspapers) and she’d heard so much about you (from Frisk, who always seemed so well put together, fresh clothes every day, soft clean hair, how did they live in this) and of course Frisk could come over to your place whenever they wanted (wasn’t she afraid of handing off her kid of a random stranger, I mean YOU knew you were okay but SHE DIDN’T), it was so nice to see Frisk making friends (OH MY GOD, YOU WERE OVER THREE TIMES FRISK’S AGE) it was just that Frisk always got so antsy when she got a new boyfriend (THIS APPARENTLY HAPPENS OFTEN) and she hoped you and her could be friends as well (FUCK, HOLY FUCK, SHIT).

The tea, such as it was, had gone cold. Or maybe you were cold. Maybe the chill in your heart had created a vacuum that was currently sucking the heat from the room.

You distantly heard yourself ask about Frisk’s bruise, as if you were listening in from another room.

“Oh,” Frisk’s mother said, grinning fondly, features alight with parental love, “my Frisk is just so clumsy sometimes!”

The thing was, she meant it. This was what she really believed.

Your voice, only slightly less audible than the train yard twenty miles away, asked if it was okay for Frisk to spend the night with you tonight.

“I don’t see why not!” she said, and she’d abruptly left to gather together a set of pajamas and Frisk’s favorite stuffed toy and you weren’t sure you had been ready for this.

It was frighteningly apparent this woman wasn’t fit to be a mother. She honestly, truly, was unable to discern how any of what was happening might be a bad idea. The biohazard that was this apartment. The injuries to her child, which were seemingly recurrent. Sending her child off to sleep at the house of a person she’s only just met.

She didn’t know any better. She loved Frisk with her whole heart, she tried so hard.

But she didn’t know any better.

That night, spent with Frisk, constructing the most elaborate blanket fortress of your life, hardened your resolve to a diamond edge. A few days later, you showed up at her door with a mop, a bucket, several hundred trash bags, and the strongest disinfectant that was legally available outside of actual chemical production plants. You’d spent a dozen hours cleaning EVERYTHING, resisting your temptation to burn it to the ground, chatting softly with Frisk’s mother as she alternatively screamed banshee-like at a television set and inquired gently about your life, genuinely excited to get to know you.

After all this time, you still didn’t know if you thought of her as… a good person. But Frisk loved her, and that was the only reason you hadn’t called child services so hard it’d short out a cell tower.

It was exhausting being this nice.

A bell rang out, and you jumped. It seemed school was out.

You scanned the emerging line of grubby urchins, looking for your grubby urchin. Then you saw them. It wasn’t hard to pick Frisk out of a crowd—they were pretty adamant about the striped-shirt thing. And they were running, too, which meant they’d had a good day. On bad days, Frisk just sort of oozed over to your car, feet in constant contact with the ground, their knees almost unbending, and they’d slink wordlessly inside, deflating like they thought they could be absorbed into the backseat cushion, to join the gum wrapper hoard Frisk thought you didn’t know about.

You got out of the car, spread your arms, and braced for impact.

Frisk did their best to knock your shins off. They always hugged you like they thought it’d be the last time you ever saw one another. Or like they’d been shot out of a damned cannon.

They were never really like this around their mom. It wasn't that they didn't love her (indeed, Frisk had shut you down pretty hard on several occasions where you'd mildly suggested she was... less than suitable, as a guardian), it was that Frisk never really had the chance to act like a child. They'd had to grow up so fast. Otherwise, who'd do their laundry? Who'd make sure their dwindling money went to the right people? Frisk was the adult in that relationship. There was just no other choice.

But around you... Frisk got to be a kid.

“School was good?” you asked, hopeful.

They nodded, rubbing their chin ticklishly against you. One of the Moms shook their head at you, tut-tutting in your peripheral vision.

They could take those tuts and tut right the fuck off.

You pried Frisk from your shirt and opened the door for them.

“I wanna sit in the front.”

“Sorry, champ, you know that’s against the rules. If we got into an accident, you’d get hurt. Get in your booster seat.” The car-seat always seemed to chafe Frisk, in the ego sense. Apparently their mother had never bothered with them (a chilling thought on its own), but you weren’t about to take chances, not with how often you drove Frisk around. The internet said kid should use car-seats until they were at least five feet tall. Frisk was short, and besides that? The internet never lies. You’d take a humiliated Frisk over a dead one.

Once everyone was buckled in, you swiveled around in your seat and offered Frisk a strip of gum from one of two packs. The first was Pink Bubble Classic. The other was Too Fruity BananaBerry. Which would it be? Old faithful, or the wild card?

“Pick your poison.”

Frisk considered their options carefully.

Then, smiling a smile that said I know I’m clever as hell, they picked one strip from both packs, discarded the paper casings, and shoved both flavors into their ravenous maw. They chewed open-mouthed, to showcase their brilliance. It was the kind of gross that stretched back around to cute.

This was something you loved about Frisk.

If the rules didn’t suit them, they made their own.

A minute into the drive, you heard the sound of Velcro in the backseat, and correctly identified it as the fancy lace-ups of the sneakers you’d bought Frisk a month ago for their gym class. On clearance. Price? Half-off. Hell yeah.

“Don’t take off your shoes in here! My car’s gonna smell like feet.”

“My feet don’t smell.”

“I’ll be the judge of that,” you said, merging into the right lane. It wasn’t such a long drive home, really, but the school bus route was a snaking mess. You were happy to spare Frisk forty-five minutes of that particular misery.

They lobbed a sock at you and giggled delightedly. You shook your head at this betrayal.

“So you would stoop to this.”

A naked foot found its way onto your shoulder, toes wriggling—it was a contortionist feat you had to look at via the rearview mirror to fully appreciate.

Frisk was awfully sassy today. You smiled.

“Sit up, sassafrass. Only shoe'd children get after-dinner mints.” Yeah, like the ones restaurants have. You could just buy those, it turns out. Wasn’t adult life glorious?

Suddenly, traffic in front of you slowed to a crawl. You craned your neck up, towing the brake, trying to see the cause… you’d thought avoided the afternoon rush?

There was smoke in the distance. A car wreck? Damn it.

Adult life fucking sucked.

Chapter Text

The car accident was obscured by a fairly sharp turn, so after half an hour of soul-numbing 2 mph cruising, it was somehow a shock to see it up close.

You spared the wreck a single, cursory glance and turned away, letting the information compile as it would. Three cars involved. Skid marks, one spun out into the ditch. One flipped over. Impressive damage to the one that hit the median, destined for the scrapyard. Worse than you’d thought. The ambulances were already gone. Everything had been pushed to the side of the road, both lanes were freed up. The traffic was caused not by a blockage, but by people slowing down to have a gawk.

Determined not to be one of them, you kept your eyes on the bumper of the van in front of you. There was a fresh heaviness in your heart.

“Don’t look, Frisk.”

There wasn’t much chance of seeing anything too bad now, but there might’ve been blood on the ground or something. The state of those cars alone was probably upsetting them. Frisk was a sensitive kid.

“You doing okay back there?” you asked. Frisk didn’t answer. You took that as a no.

When you blindly reached back and gave their knee a consoling squeeze, and they still didn’t respond, you started to worry.

There was still time to chance a look backwards before traffic started moving again, and you wanted to make sure they were alright. It wasn’t comfortable, but you twisted back, ready to either dispense comforting nonsense, or as many reassurances as it took.

The words died on your lips.

Frisk was about as close as they could get to the window without touching the glass, eyes darting around almost feverishly. Their mouth was twisted into something not quite a smile, but equally troubling—a sort of detached fascination and absent-minded contentedness. The kind of look someone might wear when they were watching a favorite movie, not really paying attention to it, just kind of… letting the familiarity wash over them.

It was alien. You felt like you’d been slapped.

Frisk,” you said, your tone way past scolding and approaching authoritarian. It shocked you to hear. You’d never spoken like that to Frisk before—or anyone else. You hadn’t even known you were capable of sounding that way.

They turned to you, after a few seconds. It took twice that long for the expression to fade from their face, to be replaced by uneasiness, then guilt. That, at least, was recognizable as Frisk.

But you weren’t finished yet.

“That… that was very rude,” and it dawned on you were actually going to have to seriously chastise them. You almost never had to do this.

“People might’ve been hurt. Please show them some respect.”

Frisk nodded. You didn’t break eye contact. You needed to know they understood.

Their lip wobbled dangerously and you blanched. It struck you this was the exact kind of thing that made Frisk cry. Immediately, you dropped the issue—the last thing you wanted to do was cause them pain. Frisk’s head drooped. They squeezed the hem of their shirt.

You had to look away when the car behind you beeped their horn insistently, calling you to close a gap in traffic.

The two of you had almost made it out of Traffic Hell when you heard a small voice behind you mutter something about as quietly as possible—and you meant quietly as possible. It sounded like a tissue being thrown at a snow drift, through a soundproof wall.

“…msmm.”

“Pardon?” you said, a little more sharply than you’d intended. You were starting to speed up now, and a couple of the turns ahead got tricky because the guides on the road hadn’t been repainted for something like thirty years.

“Speak up.”

“’m sorry,” Frisk repeated, their voice strained under the effort to keep from crying. They knew you hated it when they cried. Even after you’d been harsh with them, they always put your well-being first.

You’d done a bad thing, hadn’t you?

It was hard, but you forced yourself to look at them through the rearview mirror, and like you figured, the pure, unfiltered misery staring back at you was almost enough to make you cry. Those eyes made you feel like an utter monster. And for what? So the kid looked a few cars.

Maybe you’d overreacted a little.

“It’s okay. It’s fine. As long as you know… what you did wrong.”

And what had they done wrong—or at least, what had you thought they’d done wrong?

They had derived pleasure seeing a car wreck—in seeing the suffering of others. Frisk, who couldn’t even bear to play most videogames because they had to hurt the cute bad guys. Frisk, who had once refused a chocolate bunny on the basis it might’ve had a chocolate bunny family to go home to. Your Frisk, who once donated your entire shelf of canned vegetables to their school food drive behind your back. Frisk had.

Unless… were you looking too far into it? Projecting a little? It was just so unlike them. Inconceivable.

Maybe this was your fault. With the swim meets and the new school year, stuff at work, you hadn’t really been spending much time with them. Yeah. You were sure that was it.

All you needed to do was pay more attention to them, change the pace a little. Go somewhere for the weekend.

There was nothing to do in this city, not for a kid Frisk’s age. No matter how saucy your twerp got, they weren’t quite ready to hit the club scene. But it was either the city or the mountains. How about that national park? Two hour drive. There was a lake and everything, you could rent gear.

“You wanna go camping this weekend?”

Frisk’s head snapped up. You caught the motion in you peripheral vision.

“At Mt. Ebott?”

“Huh?” you asked, and adjusted your rearview mirror. “No. No one camps at Mt. Ebott. The terrain’s dangerous year round. There aren’t any trails. There’s holes and stuff. You know that, you’ve seen the road signs.” You didn’t mention the missing children.

Frisk was silent, their expression too melancholic to qualify as a pout.

“Why Ebott?” you asked, genuinely perplexed.

It took them so long to answer, you had almost forgotten you asked.

“Sometimes I feel like…” they started, and then seemed to think better of it.

“Yeah?”

“Never mind.”

It only took a minute to find parking. You checked your watch, even though there was a clock right on your dashboard, simply enjoying the comedy of the motion. What, watches are old-fashioned? Please, you may be a modern person, but you were also a respectable adult. It had nothing to do with the fact you couldn’t ever take it off in public because you had a weird, embarrassing tan line.

Regardless, you’d been on the road about an hour longer than usual. You hoped you had something in the freezer for Frisk, because there wouldn’t be time to cook tonight.

After the two of you exited the vehicle, you pressed the lock button on your electronic key a few times, then walked around and confirmed that all the doors really were locked. Paranoid, maybe, but you couldn’t afford for anything to happen to it. Before you pocketed your keys, you tossed them up and gave them a little flip. Just because you were cool.

And now came your exercise for the day—the traditional race up the stairs.

“Spit out your gum before we head up. I don’t want you choking.” You held out your hand.

If you’d had to touch kid spit a year ago, you probably would’ve shriveled up and died. Just straight-up evaporated.

The You of Today, however, was made of stronger stuff, which was why you only did a Level 3 Wiggle of Disgust when Frisk deposited the wad of chewed gum in your bare hand, sticking to your skin with a wet little smack. You had hoped they’d have had the foresight to put it back in the wrapper first, but maybe that was asking too much today.

Actually, thinking about it, those wrappers were probably sitting on your car’s floor still.

“Frisk,” you sighed, but they’d already taken off through the lobby. You clenched your hand because there was nowhere else to put the gum, ignoring the horrible squishing sound, and just concentrated on catching up.

They had about a thirty second head start. You always let Frisk win, of course, but you didn’t want to fall too far behind. After all, you had a reputation to maintain.

On the third floor you passed the janitor. As best you could without compromising your balance, you gave them a friendly wave. Their work was never done in a dive like this, but it was best to be on good terms with one’s custodians—a life lesson you’d learned at work, after the Wastebasket Incident of 20XX.

Frisk was about one level above you. You could hear the slap of their bare feet on the tile.

Damn it, you’d have to go get their shoes before they left for the bus tomorrow, wouldn’t you?

Fourth floor. Almost there. Good, because you were starting to breathe heavy. This was healthy for you, really, so why did it have to hurt so much? Someone left a half-open container of takeout in a foam tray on the stairs, and you almost stepped in it. Smelled like Chinese.

On the fifth floor you almost collided with Frisk, who had stopped dead in their tracks at the top of the steps. You bent in two, trying to catch your breath.

“Wassamatter?” you gasped, just about done in, “Taking… pity… on the unfit?”

You scaled the last step up and saw the problem.

“Oh! You’re here!” Frisk’s mother said, smiling brightly. You kept your eyes on that smile, because with the outfit she was wearing, letting your gaze wander anywhere else on her made you feel slimy.

“I’m here,” you echoed, and you noticed the man holding her firmly to his side. Long hair, kind of greasy. Scar on the left eyebrow. You didn’t know this one.

“We’re going out tonight,” the woman said, positively sparkling, “You can watch Frisk, right?”

You briefly wondered what you had done to deserve these people.

“I mean, yeah, but you really should clear this with me beforehand—”

“Oh good!” she said. You grimaced. She hadn’t even checked if Frisk was home before she headed out. Hadn’t even called when the two of you were an hour late. What if you’d had overtime tonight?

“You have my phone number,” you reminded her, even though SHE WAS THE ONE WHO SHOULD BE SAYING THAT, RIGHT?

Frisk put a couple of their fingers through one of your belt loops, drawing your attention away from their parent. They were staring at the new boyfriend with a startling intensity. The guy looked kind of creeped out.

You decided one of you had to be sociable.

“Hey, nice to meet you. I’m the, uh… babysitter.”

You held out your hand to shake, but when you opened your palm, you realized it was the gum hand. The condescending look the guy gave you made you feel like the stupidest asshole. You dropped your hand and tried to smile, but it came off more like your face was attempting to escape your skull, mouth first. Son of a bitch.

Frisk giggled.

After saying your goodbyes, wishing the couple a good time, and doing your best to recover from humiliation, you trudged to your door, Frisk still hooked on to your side. Encounters with that woman always drained the life out of you.

“This one’s a real prick,” you said to Frisk as you unlocked your door. They frowned at you, sensing the bad word even if they didn’t knew what it meant.

“I don’t like him,” Frisk said.

“You and me both,” you muttered, frightened about how normal all this business was now.

This encounter had been particularly nightmarish. They new boyfriend seemed like a tool, not that you were the master of first impressions yourself. Here was the thing, though. As much as there seemed to be bad blood between your charge and that jerk, you hadn’t really… sensed any fear from Frisk, like you might expect. It was the opposite, honestly.

Unless you were hugely misreading the situation—and while you were no social genius, this, at least, seemed rather transparent to you—it was the boyfriend that was afraid of Frisk.

“If he ever tries something, you come to me. I’ll throw him off the roof.”

Frisk smiled sweetly and pressed themselves against you, not leaving your side for a second, even as you microwaved a frozen lasagna and made up the fold-out couch bed. You had a set of sheets with Frisk’s favorite cartoon character on them, fresh out of the laundry. Sometimes you wondered why you didn’t just move Frisk’s mattress over to your apartment.

Sometimes you wondered why you didn't just move Frisk.

The two of you watched quiz show reruns and ate dinner right on the couch bed, like a couple of animals. There were cold spots in the food, and you’d known all the answers while Frisk knew none, but the both of you were happy.


You were at work.

A hole in the ceiling kept depositing papers on your desk, faster than you could possibly review them. Half of them were in another language. You reached for your translation guide, but it was in another language, too.

What were you supposed to do? You didn’t even have any pens.

Surely… surely you could go home soon, right? You couldn’t tell. A coworker had stolen your watch and the clock on the wall was missing its hands. There weren’t any windows in the room to see outside. There weren’t any doors, either, and you really had to pee.

Just when you were about to give in and take a leak in the corner, Frisk came in through the wall.

“The differentials in the post-merge opt have executed well beyond established aggregate leverage,” Frisk said. You were confused.

“I thought the balance overdraft capital allowance didn’t net interim expenditure?” you asked, standing up now, which was all well and good because your chair only had two legs, anyway.

“No, the gathered antitrust-diligent mutual fund always accrues interest,” they corrected, and you felt a little dumb for even asking. One of the stipes on their shirt twitched and unwound, slithered away, then took up residence on the potted plant next to your desk.

“Well, how about the proprietary asset split? I heard Craig say the market incentive was creating variant underflow conceptuals, up at corporate,” you said. Frisk shrugged and slowly began to sink into the floor. You still had to pee.

“Lots of moving parts in those values,” they speculated, waist-deep in the ground.

“Hold up!” you shouted, and the huge stack of papers on your desk tumbled off in five stiff, block-like sections, “The floor manager told me to increase the backtracked synergy flow, out of pocket! How do I start?”

“That’s outside my demographic,” they admitted sadly, sunk in all the way up to their chest.

“Wait, wait! Before you go, tell me where the bathroom is!” You were squirming.

Dividends, ” Frisk whispered, as their head cleared the floor and disappeared—

You jolted awake, letting out an ugly squawk. There was a small hand on your arm. It took you a minute to remember where you were.

“Frisk?” you asked, squinting. You’d forgotten they were spending the night over.

“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to wake you up.”

“’sokay,” you mumbled, sitting up. “Had to use the bathroom anyway. Be right back.” Halfway to the restroom, you already couldn’t remember what you had been dreaming about.

You had a feeling... it had been kind of stupid.

When you returned, you saw Frisk had made themselves comfortable on your bed, the comforter drawn up to their chin. It wasn’t a really large bed, but they seemed somehow lost in it… just really, really small. You sat down next to them.

“What’s up?” you asked. They indicated with their hand for you to get closer. You leaned in. Frisk frowned, frustrated with you, and enthusiastically patted the mattress beside them. Catching on, you ducked under the covers, and squeezed in beside them.

Frisk found your hand and held it, tight.

“Are you okay?” you asked.

They bumped their forehead against your shoulder.

“Sometimes I’m afraid you’ll go away,” Frisk said. Your face twisted in grief and surprise, and you tried to match the force they were grasping your hand with. You hoped it was reassuring.

“Never. I would never leave you.”

They made a sound halfway between a sob and a hiccup, but didn’t cry.

“Is this about earlier? In the car.”

They nodded.

“You were mad.”

“No, baby, I wasn’t mad. I was… you made me worried about you.” You didn’t know how to explain why.

Frisk shut their eyes.

“I’m sorry,” they said.

“I know, sweetie.”

Neither of you spoke again for a while. Maybe it was the low hum of the ceiling fan, or they just found your presence comforting, but Frisk began to doze off and on, for about fifteen minutes. You watched them, so many questions, fears, anxieties, and doubts tumbling in your head you couldn’t put any of it to words. That, and…

You felt more love for the little dingus next to you than you were capable of expressing. Maybe more than you could even comprehend. It scared you. It scared you for a hundred reasons.

Frisk jumped lightly and cracked an eye open, peering drowsily at you.

“Can I sleep here tonight?” they asked. You thought they already were.

“…you steal the blankets.”

“Please?” Frisk said, eyes like some kind of kitten-Bambi hybrid.

“Oh, fine,” you said, like you were making some great sacrifice. “Just this once, though.”

You weren’t sure they’d even heard you before they were out again. What a log.

Naturally, your prophecy came true. Didn’t even take half an hour. In record time, Frisk had stolen your blanket and most of the fitted sheet somehow, and formed a protective nest square in the middle of your bed. You took solace in the fact that they'd at least left you the pillow. It was cute, but really. Poor you, left out in the cold.

It was funny. You figured their future romantic prospects might have something to worry about—you had no doubt this kid would break hearts someday. With a bit of mental strain, you tried to imagine a grown-up Frisk... and failed.

On second thought, you took it back. No broken hearts for this one. Better they just stay little forever and ever.

Right?

The blue glow of your bedside clock caught your eye. In four hours, you had to get up, make Frisk something for lunch, get dressed, run downstairs to grab their shoes, run back up, lay out an outfit for them, make them something to eat for breakfast, check their homework, see them off, head to work…

You didn’t think you’d get any more sleep tonight.

That was okay.

Chapter Text

Another year passed in relative harmony, the highs and lows coalescing into a melody made more intense simply by proximity to Frisk. Everything seemed somehow more vivid. There were moments you counted among the best in your life, and these came often and easily.

There was the surprise of coming home to your first birthday party since you were a small child, and the wholesome taste of a store-bought cake, purchased with allowance that must have taken a full month to save up. You felt floored, and so impossibly loved. The hand-written card you received that day, a hardy construction of striped craft paper and glitter ink, now adorned your desk at work.

There was the eventual realization that you’d run out of fridge space for Frisk’s drawings, and the epiphany that you could start buying frames instead. The off-white paint of your walls, stained with twenty years of the previous tenant’s cigarette smoke, looked almost welcoming under the cheerful spread of childish art. Your apartment wasn’t just some place you spent your time outside of your job, anymore. It was a home.

There was the feeling that gripped your heart when you clung to steel bleachers, leaning forward towards the gymnasium’s swimming pool where Frisk competed, surrounded by parents cheering on their children, and suddenly you were standing up because Frisk was pulling ahead in their race—and how’d you screamed at the top of your lungs, ignoring the dawning horror that, yes, you were being that parent, but who cared because your baby just won third place at the district level, and they’d worked so hard.

It was something exceptional, sweeping them into your arms afterwards, getting soaked to the bone because they hadn’t had a chance to towel off. They’d clung to you and whispered into your ear—

I did it. ” They had sounded disbelieving. Almost in awe of themselves.

“I knew you could,” you said, and it was actually kind of painful to feel that damn proud.

You didn’t even like sports. What was this kid doing to you?

Sometimes you would sit at watch Frisk. They’d be doodling or something, utterly absorbed in that special way they had, like the whole had been reduced to a piece of paper and a colored pencil. You would watch them, and remember.

You remembered the way you were before. How you muted you had lived, content simply to function, as though seeking out happiness was an affront to your sensibilities. The weight of walking alone, head heavy and shoulders slack, trudging sluggishly forward with all the enthusiasm of a person stepping out into their own open grave.

So much had changed—even though your job was still wretched, and money was tight, things were different now. Largely for the better.

But it wouldn’t really be “living” if life didn’t have its share of scares, right?

Like a few months ago, when Frisk had some kind of terrible allergic reaction at school, and the staff had called Frisk’s mother and of course she’d called you. You fled work, then twenty minutes later you had her picked up, and she sat in your passenger seat shaking like a leaf and stammering.

“C-c-could you drive a little faster?”

It wasn’t until you got to the ER it really hit you. How bad things might’ve been.

The test results hadn’t come back yet. All anyone knew was that Frisk had swallowed something at lunch and nearly went into anaphylactic shock. It was only because one of the teachers (familiar with such cases because they had children with allergies of their own) had responded so fast that nothing terrible had happened—you would track them down and personally thank them about a week later.

Right then, though, seeing Frisk in that hospital bed… you froze at the door, letting their mother brush past you. Frisk’s face was still puffy and swollen. Someone had changed them into a hospital gown. Even as their mother hugged and prodded at them, waxing on about how worried she had been, you couldn’t really process it.

Frisk could’ve died.

The room was swimming a little. It was hard to get enough oxygen. You leaned against the door frame heavily, and only resisted falling to your knees with intense effort.

What the hell would you have done if Frisk had died?

You killed the thought, pulling the plug on that whole thought process to walk over when Frisk beckoned to you, choosing to ignore their mother’s ministrations in favor holding both of your hands in theirs. Something wet was dripping down your chin, but you didn’t want to let go of Frisk even to wipe your eyes.

“I’m glad you’re okay,” you said, only it was more like choking.

You always carried an auto-injectable epinephrine pen with you, now.

It wasn’t like they had insurance, so paying for the emergency care had sunk you financially (sayonara, Frisk’s fledgling college fund), even though Scarbrow had pitched in. You hadn’t expected that. It was actually pretty surprising, how long he was sticking around. Frisk’s mother usually went through men a hell of a lot faster.

You still didn’t really like him, but…

Once, he had given you a hand when you were having car troubles. You were frazzled—half an hour late for work, still sitting in the damn parking lot at your apartment complex. You had already tried everything you knew to do, and were up to your elbows in grease, pouring over your car’s manual like it was an ancient, arcane tome—for you, it may as well have been. If something broke, you were usually able to puzzle it out alright. Like the toaster! You could handle fixing a toaster. There was more duct tape than toaster now, but the damn thing still cooked bread. Cars, though?

You were about to give up and get your ass towed to an auto mechanic, when Scarbrow walks up behind you, slick as all hell, and asks if you checked the battery yet.

Four minutes and a quick jump later, you’re back in business.

What followed was the most amicable conversation you’d ever shared with the guy. He explained how his uncle was the owner of an auto shop, and how he sometimes pitched in over there when he was between jobs. His good will seemed to run out after you thanked him, and he’d just walked off, muttering something like “yeah, no problem. It’s whatever.”

So he wasn’t all bad, at least, even if Frisk still wouldn’t give the chump the time of day. You had a feeling it didn’t matter who their mother was dating, Frisk would dislike them just the same… though that mother of theirs did seem to attract the unsavory sort, and that was putting it lightly.

You wondered if Frisk had learned some of their… stranger behaviors, through one of their mother’s exes. For such a young kid, Frisk sometimes really frightened you. It wasn’t that you ever felt personally threatened, per se. It was just that Frisk occasionally did something wildly uncharacteristic of themselves, and each time it happened, it was like stepping into a cold shower.

Just a month ago, the two of you were in your kitchen, working on dinner together. Frisk had taken to helping you cook, ever since they got tall enough to see over the counter, and it was pretty handy to have a helper. Even if it tended to result in a bigger mess.

You had just slipped a casserole into the oven, and were about to set a timer, when you happened to glance over at Frisk.

They were playing with a knife.

Your silverware drawer was slid incriminatingly open, absent one bread knife, the largest you owned. Frisk was running their fingers over the serrated edge, inspecting the plastic grip, then frowned like they had carefully judged it, and found it lacking.

They stared you dead in the eye and simply stated, “It’s not sharp enough.”

“Frisk,” you said, tone even and low with a hint of warning. You walked over slowly, pace carefully measured, your arms slightly raised. Like you were approaching some kind of dangerous, feral animal, and not your baby.

Frisk backed into the wall as you walked over. Your hand slid down unhurriedly and encircled the hilt of the blade, encompassing their smaller hand almost entirely. You didn’t try to wrestle it away just yet.

“We don’t play with knives in this house.”

“I wasn’t playing,” they insisted, their voice weirdly petulant and unfamiliar, “I was just looking.”

Backing down then would’ve been the worst thing you could’ve done, so you tightened your grip just a fraction and narrowed your eyes.

“Give me the knife.”

You stared at one another in stalemate, neither willing to relinquish custody of the weapon.

Finally, like it was killing them to do, they slackened their hold. With the utmost gentleness, you pried it out of their hand and placed it in the layer of dust on top of the refrigerator. In a minute, every sharp blade you owned (with the expectation of the multitool in your pocket, the screwdriver attachment of which was simply too useful to discard) joined the bread knife.

No matter how many times you tried to discuss what had happened that day, Frisk refused to talk about it. Not even to apologize. They didn’t attempt to explain their actions at all. But everything had been resolved safely, so you tried to put it out of your head. Frisk had coped with a difficult life for a long, long time. They were entitled to be a little messed up.

Quietly, the knives made a permanent move to one of the highest cupboards you had, tucked away in a plastic container behind a child-proof lock. It wasn’t anything Frisk couldn’t get into without a bit of effort, but the message was clear.


After a full day of cloudy skies, the overcast weather made good on its promise around five in the evening, though it was a weak drizzle instead of a proper rain. Combined with the low temperature, it was still enough to add just a touch of misery to your walk home from the corner store, arms laden with enough snacks that even Frisk’s exacting standards would be met.

Movie night isn’t really movie night unless there’s enough sugar present to induce a diabetic coma by smell alone. You were pretty sure that was the rule of thumb.

A quick trip up the elevator had you back on your floor. Frisk didn’t like to ride up. They insisted it was the smell, which to be fair wasn’t a far cry from stale urine, but you suspected it was actually mild claustrophobia. But then, Frisk wasn’t with you, so you could do as you pleased.

You tapped on your door with your knuckle and waited for Frisk to answer, shifting the plastic bags around in your hands where they had stretched out and begun digging painfully into your palms. After a minute, you fumbled for your key and just let yourself in. Frisk was probably in the bathroom.

“I’m back,” you called, closing the door behind you with a kick. You spent a few moments arranging the treats in an alluring pile on the coffee table. There. That looked nice, didn’t it?

“Frisk?”

The only response you got was the ticking of the clock in the kitchen.

“Frisk?” You poked your head in the bedroom. No one was there. Okay.

You collapsed into the couch, letting the cushions conform to your shape, and called for Frisk again.

When they didn’t appear, you grabbed the remote and flipped it into the air, catching it between your thumb and forefinger, making a game of putting increasingly hard spins on it.

You tossed the remote up. Everything was fine.

It came spiraling back into your waiting fingers. Frisk was probably just checking in with their mother.

Up went the remote, going a little wobbly as it reached the height of its curve. If they weren’t back in five minutes, you would call.

When you caught the device this time, the impact hurt a little. You set the remote back on the table, no worse for the wear. Maybe… maybe the mail had come in. It was delivered right to your door, one of the few perks of living here. You checked the slot and basket, picking a few letters out from the bottom. Nice.

Bill. Bill. Bank notice. Junk. Bill…

An empty envelope stamped with your employer’s logo?

Then you saw an unfolded letter on the floor. It must have been swept aside when you opened the door.

Dear Weston & Southerland Firm Employee, it read.

Aw, look, they remembered your name. You hoped you weren't being fired.

Thank you very much for your years of service. A branch office has opened in a new district, and you are now eligible to apply for position of manager there.

Holy shit.

As this opportunity has been opened to all other valued employees with a certain level of experience, many are expected to apply. If interested, please speak with your human resources liaison and request an interview as soon as possible. Have your resume and qualifications ready. If selected, relocation will commence in 15 to 30 business days.

Your bubbling hope was brought to a swift halt, record scratch and all. Relocation? You scanned the rest of the letter and discovered just how far away the new branch was—over five hundred miles. What a crapshoot. There was no point in applying. It wasn’t as though you could’ve taken Frisk with you, even if you did get the—

…wait, Frisk.

The letter had been open.

They must have…

You could feel the shape of the string of conclusions they must have come to.

“Sometimes I’m afraid you’ll go away.”

Once, you’d made an oath to keep Frisk safe. You felt the weight of your resolve.

It only took a second to grab your keys and coat, shoving the letter into a crinkled mess inside your pocket. You were out the door, dialing your old flip phone even as you approached Frisk’s mother’s apartment. She was blasting an old chart-topper from your childhood and having a yell, so you had to knock pretty hard to get her attention.

She answered the door just as you received Frisk’s voicemail.

“Heyyy,” she slurred, her cheeks tinged pink. She leaned into the door like it was one of those bull rides you sometimes saw at carnivals—like it was about to knock her off.

The only thing that needed knocking was some sense, right into her stupid head.

…you were more charitable with your thoughts when you weren’t out of your mind with panic.

“Is Frisk here?” you asked, suspecting the answer was no but ready to exhaust every option.

She turned slowly and looked around her apartment, which between the two of you was generally messy but no longer a hazardous waste zone. You were starting to scowl, now. What, did she expect to see Frisk pop up from the stack of magazines in the corner?

You dialed the phone again, watching with a measure of contempt as she messily shook her head at you. She smiled guilelessly. You wanted to grab her by the shoulders and shake her.

“Thanks,” you said curtly, turning on your heel and heading for the stairs. “You call me if they show up, okay?”

Vaguely, you heard her answer in the affirmative, but by then you’d already gotten Frisk’s voicemail message again.

Okay. Okay. Okay, it was fine, you had kind of an idea of where they’d head.

Where else could it be but Mt. Ebott?

There was only one road that lead that direction, anyway. Frisk was a smart kid, it was raining out, they had money, so you were sure they’d take the bus line—and at this time of day, the buses still ran all the way to the edge of town.

Okay.

It was fine, it was fine.

You were down the stairs in record time, taking the steps five or six at once. Funny what adrenaline did for your piss-poor physical condition.

As you ran to your car, the drizzle became full-on rain. It’d limit your line of sight considerably. You cursed violently, earning the ire of someone leaning against the wall, taking shelter from the rain and smoking. Screw them.

You fumbled your key, jammed it in the ignition, and thumbed the wipers and headlights on. Attempted calling Frisk one more time. Received no response.

As you pulled out of the lot, you noticed your hands were gripping the wheel so hard it was actually starting to warp the plastic. You made an effort to relax, but it was hard.

Twenty minutes passed in a haze of nauseous, unabating terror.

As the road got smaller, and trees became more prominent fixtures in the environment, you began to scan your surroundings in earnest. Somewhere out here was your Frisk, you were sure of it—you knew it in your bones.

The looming specter of Mt. Ebott, the sight of not one, not two, but six disappearances of children in the last seventy years, haunted you. It looked somehow larger than you remembered, unobscured as it normally was by the comforting skyline of the industrial maze that you called home.

The sun, already obstructed by clouds, sank behind the mountain. It was a hell of a lot darker out, now. You shivered, and it wasn’t because of the cold.

Then, out of the corner of your eye, a flash of color.

You stomped the break, but you still passed Frisk by a good thirty feet. Relief coursed through you, and you took a breath you hadn’t realized you’d been holding, than another, and another, until you were about a second away from hyperventilating.

There wasn’t fucking time to hyperventilate. You punched your hazard lights on and swing your door open, leaving the car running as you sprinted to reach Frisk.

They were soaked through, of course, the striped shirt hanging heavily from their frame. You knew you fed Frisk just fine, but they somehow looked emaciated in that moment, diminished. Their teeth were chattering like a cartoon, and you were sure that tomorrow they’d be very, very sick.

You skidded to a stop in front of them, and they looked at you like they just couldn’t believe you were there.

“Of course I came,” you said, almost hysterical, and their lips started to tremble.

With the last of their energy, they lifted their arms to you—and for a second, you’re transported to a memory from a lifetime ago, when you’d opened the door to Frisk for the first time and invited them into your life.

This was the part in the story where you were supposed to get mad, right? Mad because they made you so worried. Then you would cry because you were so happy. That was the way it went in movies.

Frisk’s eyes were absolutely luminous, blinking in and out of shadow in time with the flashing of your hazard lights.

You found you just didn’t have it in you.

Without hesitating a moment longer, you scooped Frisk up, and they laid against you, their wet cheek pressing limply into the skin of your neck, steam rising up into the air where you touched. They were so, so cold.

You walked briskly back to your car. There was an extra set of clothes in there for Frisk, because they tended to get into a number of pool-related shenanigans and you liked to be prepared. As they stripped out of their wet clothes and changed, you sat down in the driver’s seat and turned the heat in the car as high as it would go. The rain started to come down even harder, but you make to attempt to either close your door or drive off.

This time, you would have your answer.

Frisk finished changing, and sniffed wetly, once.

“You’re a big kid. You can handle sitting up front, right?”

Without a word, Frisk climbed up from the back into the passenger seat. You reached over and adjusted the seatbelt height, then buckled them in. When that didn’t feel like enough, you wished for a rope and padlock.

“Why?” you asked.

“I saw the letter,” Frisk said, looking up at the dark mountain, the edges of which were currently melting into the blackness of the night sky. Good riddance.

The letter in question was currently making a mess of your pocket as its ink ran. You unfolded it as best you could and showed it to Frisk briefly, before ripping it into shreds and letting the wind and rain have it, expressing the frustration of the last hour. You finally shut your door with a weak slam.

“I promised I would never leave you,” you said wetly, and started to think maybe you were going to have that cry after all.

“You hate your job. The only reason you didn’t leave was me. Because I was here, you—” Frisk tried to say, but when you grabbed their hand, they stopped.

“No, honey, no—I wouldn’t have… I wouldn’t have applied anyway. It… it wasn’t even a sure thing, and I’d have to move halfway across the country. It doesn’t matter how bad work is. You aren’t responsible for that.”

“It’s my fault you’re sad,” they said. Yeah, you thought. But not for that reason, you silly kid.

Mt. Ebott was no longer visible, and you took a deep, shuddering breath.

“You make me so happy,” you said, and it’s like a confession, because you’ve never been dependent on someone else to make you happy before. Maybe you’ve never even been happy before.

Finally and fiercely, they grip your hand back, turning away from the void outside the car to look at you.

Suddenly you noticed they had a split lip. You cupped Frisk’s face, trying to take stock of the damage.

“Did you… did you do this to yourself?”

Frisk stalls, their eyes huge and scared, like they’d been caught in the act of murder.

It takes a while, but Frisk answered your question with a question of their own.

“Do you ever have bad thoughts?” they asked, and it threw you off.

“Sure,” you said, wondering where they were going with this, “I think bad things all the time. Do you mean… bad like wanting to hurt yourself?”

“No.”

“Then… like wanting bad things to happen to other people? Mean things. Like… sometimes I wish my boss’s hair would fall out,” you said.

“That’s not like my bad thoughts at all.”

You dropped the attempt at humor immediately.

“Frisk, you’re the sweetest person I know,” you said, and it’s the truth, even if they sometimes frighten you. “I’m not worried about you doing anything bad.”

“Maybe you should be,” they said, and it sounded like they were asking for help, somehow.

“We all have these thoughts sometimes. It doesn’t make you bad.”

“Really?”

“Really, Frisk, I mean it.”

The sound of rain on the car roof was soothing, even if the heat was beginning to be a bit much. Back home, there’s a stack of delicious food waiting, and a pile of movies rented from the library. You want to be back there now. There’s a cowardice in you that just wishes everything would turn out alright on its own, because what you’re hearing right now…

It isn’t something you know how to fix. You don’t even know how to start.

“Sometimes I’m scared… if you knew what I was really like, you wouldn’t love me anymore,” Frisk said, and it shocked you.

Never mind—you’d start fixing it right the hell now.

“There’s nothing you could do that could make me stop loving you,” you say with an absolute firmness, an utter certainty, the same way you’d spout any science fact. You would always love Frisk. It was a property built into the universe.

“Even if I hurt someone?”

“Even then.”

“…even if I hurt you?”

Even then. Always.”

You and Frisk spend the next hour in the car, crying in each other’s arms. It was cathartic. It was messy. It was necessary. Maybe this would be the turning point.

Everything would be okay. Everything would be fine.

It had to be.

Chapter Text

The wind was cool and wet, the very epitome of pine fresh, but it was actually the lack of scent that really illustrated just how far you were from the city, now. You took a deep breath, and tasted no cigarette smoke or damp asphalt, nor the sting of gasoline. The morning sunlight was weak but noticeably present, killing the previous night’s frost and leaving traces of budding dew pooling in the grass.

It was the perfect day for a picnic.

It was the perfect day to do something stupid.

Perfect enough, perhaps, for both.

This early, there wasn’t much traffic out on the lonely two-lane forest road, and as far as you knew, the high fence that ran parallel to it wasn’t guarded. Frisk was walking to your left, bundled up in a second hand fleece jacket perhaps two sizes too large—all the better, because they’d grow into it in a year or so. Your hand was joined with theirs inside the tunnel your sleeves created, and every once in a while they’d squeeze your fingers a little too tightly.

“We can still go back,” you said, valiantly attempting to disguise your own apprehension.

“No,” Frisk replied, anxious but firm.

Ostensibly, this was a fun, family outing. Somehow, though, the homemade lunch in your backpack, the portable radio, and the blanket you’d taken along to spread out seemed out of place, like a yellow ball gown at a funeral. To be honest, you felt a bit like an intruder yourself, and it wasn’t just because you were about to trespass on private property.

No matter how you dressed it up, this morning had a portentous air. Not quite doom—there wasn’t lightning flashing dramatically in the background or anything. The atmosphere was just… heavy. Oppressive. Utterly at contrast with the pleasant surroundings, but undeniable. It was making you twitchy.

You’d suck it up, though, because you were a damn adult and this was for Frisk.

“Can you please explain again why we have to do this?” you asked, drawing Frisk over to a gate in the chain-link fence at the side of the road.

Frisk’s eyebrows drew down, and they briefly opened their mouth before quickly shutting it. This was about as much as a response as you’d gotten before. It looked like they just didn’t know how to express their thought, so you let the question hang while you examined the gate. It was chained up with a padlock, but both the chain and the mechanism were rusted to all hell. Like everything back in the city, it probably hadn’t been replaced since before you’d been born.

Maybe you could get it open, if you could break one of the links. You’d have it make it quick, though. The last thing you needed was for someone to spot you and start asking questions.

You let go of Frisk’s hand and flipped open your multitool, clicking the pliers into place. After securing it carefully to a particularly flimsy link of chain, you used your weight to try and weaken the metal. It only took a few moments before the link in the chain slowly began to warp, but you could only guess at how long this would take. It was starting to hurt your hands a bit, so you took off your jacket and used it to pad your palms. There, that was better.

You put your elbows into it and leaned forward, gritting your teeth.

The chain link suddenly gave, showering you in flecks of rust—a poor reward for your efforts.

The metal link was busted, but the whole chain was so rusted in place you couldn’t just slip it off unless you pried it from where it had practically melted into the fence.

A cold bead of sweat ran down your back and made your spine tingle. You wiggled uncomfortably. Suddenly hyper-conscious of how illegal this was, you looked around to reassure yourself the two of you were alone.

Of course, no one else was there but Frisk—it wasn’t like people jogged this far out, and if they were in a car, you would have heard it coming first. You turned back to the fence and recommenced your attack, gripping the chain tightly and pulling away from the fence.

“…waiting for me,” Frisk mumbled.

“What?” you asked distractedly, adjusting your footing to get more leverage.

“I just feel like something’s waiting for me.”

With a loud crack, the chain ripped away, some of it simply disintegrating into red-orange grit. The padlock dropped to the ground with a dull thud, and the shock of its loss sent clattering ripples through the length of the fence. You stumbled back, pivoting on one foot with your hands still full, but Frisk was at your side immediately, balancing you back out before you could fall on your ass.

“Thanks, bud,” you said, dropping the chain and trying not to think too hard about tetanus. The gate looked pretty obviously tampered with, now. How long would it take someone to notice?

Still, it was a job well done as far as you were concerned. You flipped your multitool in the air once, then pocketed it. Situations like this were why you weren’t a weirdo for carrying that thing around everywhere.

“If there’s one thing I learned in Scouts, it was to always be prepared,” you said smugly.

Frisk eyed you skeptically.

“You were never in Scouts,” they said.

“Semantics, kiddo.” You were twice as handy, so it was basically the same thing.

There was only one thing left to do.

Before you could lose your nerve, you pulled the gate open. It screeched on its hinges and dug into the ground as you went, kicking up dirt. After a certain point, it refused to budge any farther. By the time you’d given up, there was really only enough room to squeeze through, and even then it’d be a tight fit for you.

“I’ll go first,” you said, handing Frisk your backpack and shimmying through. There was a brief moment of panic where your belt loop got caught on some loose wire, but you made it.

The view on the other side wasn’t so different, really, from the one you’d just left.

So why were you so nervous?

“Now you,” you said, before holding out your hand out for your backpack. Frisk was looking past you into the forest.

You thought they’d be happy to finally come here, but they just looked sick.

“Second thoughts?” you asked, a tinge of hope coloring your voice.

For a moment, Frisk seemed to actually consider turning back. Then they slung your backpack across their shoulders and soldiered through the gate, their eyes hardening.

“I have to do this,” they said, and it wasn’t the kind of tone you could argue with.

Well. No one could say you hadn’t tried.

“You hold my hand the whole time, okay? The whole time. You don’t let go for anything, or I’m marching us right back to the car.”

Frisk nodded. You did your best to shut the gate behind you, took their hand, and pulled them into the tree line. Guided by the angle of the sun and the topographical map you’d printed out the day before, there wasn’t much chance of getting lost. You took Frisk up the curve of a natural trail, forged by wildlife. Everything was well in control.

Mt. Ebott loomed above you, a solemn presence. The slope began to steepen. It was going to be a hard walk.

You hoped you were making the right decision.

That rainy night a month ago, when Frisk had run away… that was when you’d made up your mind. Whatever fixation Frisk had on the mountain, it wasn’t something you could talk them out of or dismiss. You knew if you just let it stand, eventually Frisk would find some way to come up here, and they’d do it alone.

That was unacceptable.

Even with supervision, this place was dangerous. But you thought that if they visited Mt. Ebott… saw what there was to see, and got it out of their system… maybe everything could go back to normal. This way, with you here, it was safe. Or as safe as it could possibly be.

The climb was rough going. Several times the two of you had to backtrack to avoid holes—well, more like pits, really… the kind you don’t come out of if you fall in. You had long since retaken your backpack from Frisk, the weight proving too much for them. Between your huffing and puffing and Frisk’s careful surveyal of the area, there wasn’t much room for chatter. Though you never let go of Frisk’s hand for more than a moment, your ascension of the mountain was somehow very lonely.

Around noon, you started to look for a place to set up the picnic.

The underbrush was sparse at this level, which you judged to be something like nine hundred feet from the base of the mountain, give or take. You had once heard that a fit mountain climber could ascend a thousand feet per hour, and as you weren’t quite so adept as that, it had taken several hours to get this high. You didn’t plan to go much further. Surely this would be enough to satisfy Frisk’s curiosity?

It took a while, but eventually you came to a grassy spot where the trees thinned out. You spread the blanket and unpacked lunch, which was pretty impressive, honestly, if you could toot your own horn for a bit. Three kinds of sandwich, a container of homemade lemonade, sliced fruit, fresh baked cookies… after the exertion, everything tasted divine.

Frisk ate like it was their last meal, just completely demolishing it. They were probably hitting another growth spurt, poor baby.

Still. It was a pleasant lunch even if you were sharing it with Frisk the mutant: half-human, half-stomach. The view wasn’t half bad, either. You could see some of the city, the distant glass glittering, skyscrapers poking up from behind a row of pines like little headstones. The mountain smelled loamy, and you could tell from the color of the soil that it was rich with iron. A spattering of tiny yellow flowers bloomed along the edge of a dry stream bed, indicating that even though you couldn’t see it, there was likely still water in the area, probably underground. The radio was turned down low, and made for a lovely duet with the local birdsong.

It was almost enough to make you forget how many children had gone missing here.

Almost.

Before Frisk could unhinge their jaw like a snake and swallow another sandwich whole, you spoke up.

“I think after this, we should start heading back down.”

Frisk’s eyes widened, and they hastened their chewing. You couldn’t resist poking one of their stuffed cheeks—the chipmunk style looked good on them.

Huh. Which was it, actually—chipmunk, or snake? Before you could complete the thought, they swallowed.

“Already?” Frisk asked, before washing down their meal with half a bottle of water.

“Yeah. I really don’t think we should stick around when it gets dark.” Knowing your luck, you’d trip face first into an open pit, never to be seen again.

“It’s still early,” they protested.

“Late noon,” you said, pointing up at the sun, which had already crested for the day and was on its way down.

“But…”

“C’mon, no buts. It’ll take us a while to get back down, anyhow. Help me pack up?”

Frisk stuffed the garbage in a grocery bag as you folded the blanket. You were kind of sticky. Probably would’ve been nice to have brought some wipes, but hell, you couldn’t think of everything.

It didn’t take long before everything was packed away. Frisk was eyeing Ebott’s peak, contemplative. You didn’t like the look in their eye.

“See everything you wanted to see?” Whatever that had been.

Frisk hummed noncommittedly.

“Well… maybe we can come back sometime, you know?” It wasn’t as bad up here as you’d feared. Even with your reassurance, though, Frisk didn’t look particularly assuaged.

The shadow of a large bird passed over you, then winded away into the trees. You squinted up at it. The head was featherless… some breed of vulture, maybe? Neat.

“I’m so close,” Frisk muttered, their frustration palpable. You crouched down to their level and raised your hand, intending to place it on their shoulder, when your phone rang.

You checked the number. It was Craig from work. He only ever called you when something was phenomenally screwed—like, “I accidently knocked the Boss’s spare hairpiece into a mug of tomato soup, oh god what do I do” screwed.

“Shit.” You were surprised you still got service up here.

“You swore,” Frisk said. You rolled your eyes, but it was comforting in its own way to hear—if Frisk was still caught up in getting you to fill the swear jar, they probably weren’t in too much of a funk, right?

“Sorry, Frisk, I need to take this real quick,” you apologized. Frisk shrugged and sat down, folding their hands primly in their lap. Content that they were going to stay put, you turned and walked a few feet away.

You thumbed the Call Accept button and put the phone up to your ear, and were promptly bombarded with an anecdote of workplace shenanigans involving a missing photocopier. As in, someone had apparently stolen an entire photocopier, all four hundred pounds of it—just dragged that sucker to their car, and drove away into the night.

Something of a witch hunt was going down now, Craig explained to you, and being that you were currently using up one of your precious vacation days, you were one of the only people with an alibi.

“C’mon, Craig, I’m—no, I understand, yeah. I get it. But listen, man, I’m out having lunch with my kid right now—yes—no, it’s Frisk, not Fritz.”

Frisk, hearing their name, coughed behind you, embarrassed. Yeah, you talked about Frisk at work. You practically wallpapered your cubicle with their art, after all. People asked questions, and you were happy to talk at length about Frisk.

“Yeah. Yeah, got it, I’ll check in with her.”

You shifted your weight impatiently.

“I mean, I’m sure it’s on camera somewhere, right? You won’t be blamed, it’s not like you did it.”

“…you didn’t—no, I’m not saying… it’s just—of course I know that.”

“Calm down, seriously. You’re getting all worked up over nothing.”

“No, yeah. Alright. I gotta go, man, I really… yeah. Yeah, see you tomorrow. It’ll be okay. This’ll all blow over, I’m sure. Bye now.” You hung up before he could squeeze in another word, thoroughly done with this nonsense.

You checked your watch. It was almost 3 pm. You’d have to really book it back down the mountain now. The vulture from before circled around again, lazily riding an updraft. You didn’t hear any other birds anymore. The sunny clearing was blanketed by a somber hush, and there was no noise except the sound of your own breathing. Not even the wind.

Because the universe is a cold, cruel place, Frisk wasn’t there when you turned around.

Somehow, you’d half expected that. And there it was… the now horrifically familiar feeling of dread, like an ice spike piercing your heart, freezing the very blood in your veins.

Frisk would be the death of you one day.

It was okay. You had a plan, you were prepared for this. After they’d ran away the first time, you’d covertly downloaded tracking software onto their phone. It was something you’d probably feel bad about doing if they didn’t keep pulling shit like this.

This was all your fault, wasn’t it? For bringing them here. For expecting restraint.

You were in a state of functional terror, an odd mental landscape with equal shades of acute hysteria and a clinical, numbing calm. It was fine. You had done this before, and you would do it again. Even if it killed you.

Their approximate location blipped on the screen of your phone. They’d headed into the dense trees to your left. You grabbed your backpack and took off in that direction, keen on reaching them before you lost the signal… or lost them.

If—when you found Frisk, and got back to civilization, you were signing Frisk up for psychiatric help, even if you couldn’t afford it. Hell, you’d take out another loan. That was what you should’ve done in the first place. It was clear that whatever that was going on with them was something beyond your meager capabilities to handle. Deluding yourself into thinking you would be any help… you were a goddamn joke.

You ran and ran, your eyes searing from exposure to the dusty air. Occasionally, you checked you phone for guidance, but it seemed they were keeping well ahead of you.

This idea… coming up here… god, you were so fucking stupid.

If something happened to Frisk, you would die. You’d just die. And you would deserve it, utterly, for having endangered them. If Frisk vanished, like those other kids…

Ebott would claim another victim, and you… you couldn’t call yourself a victim, could you? If you died up here, broken and bloody at the bottom of some godforsaken pit, it would be justice.

In the distance, between a pair of oaks, you saw a striped shirt disappear behind a rocky outcrop. You didn’t bother to call after them—they knew exactly what they were doing. There was no point in wasting your breath. Either you would catch Frisk and drag them home, or…

You pushed yourself, counting on the length of your stride to help you catch up. It was hard to be certain, there were so many trees between you and them, but you thought the distance was closing. You could hear them crashing through the underbrush, now.

Faster than was safe, you scrambled up a ledge, intending to cut them off. At the top, there was a fallen tree wedged into a rocky crevice. You leaped over a toppled branch but misjudged the distance, getting your shoelace caught as you brushed past. Your leg jerked to a stop, your momentum arrested, and you snapped forward over the log, falling down a short slope, and busting your chin open on the granite platform at the bottom. You saw the blood before anything else. It was almost gushing down your neck, following the trail of your collarbone down the front of your shirt.

You pushed yourself up from where you had collapsed, bruised limbs splayed haphazardly over a pile of leaves and loose gravel. The pain kicked in a moment later, and you had to fight to keep from screaming, because you know it’d just hurt more to move your jaw. As it was, a low moan escaped you against your will. Your chin throbbed. A deep, jagged cut had opened up along the bottom of your jaw. It definitely needed stitches. You were sure it would scar.

Frisk stopped, probably because they’d heard your fall. For a second you believed they’d come back—you entertained a beautiful little thought where they would return to you and apologize for running away, and you could both go back together.

Then they were running again, and in seconds you were alone.

They left you behind.

You took shallow breaths from behind a clenched jaw and came unsteadily to your feet.

…they left you behind. You were reeling. Bile burned at the back of your throat. You choked it down, coughing at the raw acidity.

It felt like a betrayal.

Was whatever they were looking for out here really that important to them?

More important than you?

Your shoe was gone, stuck up on the ledge where the lace had caught. Your phone was gone, too. After a quick search, you still couldn’t find it, and you weren’t willing to expend any more precious time searching for it—you would have to proceed without it. You sopped up some of the blood on your jaw with your sleeve, and willed yourself to walk.

Moving ahead… it was hard. All you wanted to do was stop, give into your self-pity, and hope Frisk would come back on their own—to prove to you that they still loved you. You knew it was irrational, and selfish, but more than anything, you needed that reassurance. You wanted it desperately.

But Frisk was out there all by themself. They still needed you. It took a minute of shambling aimlessly onwards, but eventually, you found your resolve again. You told yourself that of course Frisk cared about you, because it was something you needed to believe to keep going. The alternative was simply too painful to consider.

You tried to follow their trail, but you were no ranger. The only real inkling you had was that they were probably still headed up.

Maybe you would die up here. You were shivering now, almost shaking, maybe from blood loss, maybe from cold. The sun had gone down the other side of the mountain. It was almost evening, and you still hadn’t found them.

Finally, you resorted to calling out for them. Why you tried you didn’t know—if seeing you fallen and bleeding hadn’t inspired Frisk to come back for you, you couldn’t imagine your pitiful, pained cries would move them.

What would Frisk’s mother think when you didn’t come back tonight? She might not notice for a few days, but she’d catch on eventually. Did she know to file a missing person’s report? When the police eventually found your car, tucked away on the side of a forest road, what conclusions would they come to? That you’d grabbed Frisk and ran off into the woods? Just another poor soul lost to Mt. Ebott, and the idiot who, in a fit of insanity, had seen fit to take them there?

When it started to get hard to see, you clicked on a flashlight. So prepared, you mocked yourself. Think you can handle anything, do you? Then what the hell is this?

Worthless. Worthless. No wonder Frisk had left.

A few hours later, you lowered yourself to the ground, simply too exhausted to continue.

There were crickets out in force, their collective chirp rolling over the mountainside in an undulating wave of sound. You dug your thumbnail into the meaty part of your palm to keep from closing your eyes. You weren’t giving up. You were just resting.

A sound like a pile of dirt and stones sliding down a rock face jolted you awake. Blearily, you blinked at your surroundings, saturated in moonlight, disgusted with yourself. It took almost everything you had left, but you managed to stand, and haltingly shuffled over to the source of the noise.

You didn't dare to hope. You were beyond that now, but...

Oh god.

Oh god, you’d found them. You actually found them. The only reason you didn’t burst into thankful tears was dehydration.

“Frisk,” you said, and it was an ugly, wretched noise, garbled by sleep and fatigue and the painful swelling of your jaw.

They gasped and spun in place, wide eyes locked to yours, and unblinking, they took a step back. They looked afraid of you. What a sight you must have been, half dead and filthy, limply grasping a flashlight, with brown, flaking blood all down your front. You trembled, and with great exertion, took a step.

“Please.” What you were asking for, you didn’t quite know. They took another step backwards, wet eyes shining.

“Pl-please, Frisk, don’t—” Don’t do this. Don’t leave me.

Don’t cry.

Frisk stepped back again, this time into open air.

A hole—

You hadn’t seen—

Your body moved without conscious thought. You threw yourself forward, landing hard on your stomach on the edge of the pit, reaching desperately. The flashlight fell into the chasm, its beam spinning dizzily, illuminating a drop so deep that you didn’t even see it hit the bottom. It just fell and fell and fell.

Frisk was three feet down, clinging to a shallow break in the stone, gripping the rock so tight their hands had gone colorless. Their eyes were gazing emptily upwards, unseeing.

“Frisk. Frisk, listen to me,” you said. Your mouth was dry. You licked your lips and tried to stay calm, but your voice shook.

“Frisk,” you said again, and slowly, their eyes focused, shifting over to your face.

They blinked as if surprised—like they hadn’t seen you before now. You couldn’t reach them like this. You braced your leg against a rock and scooted forward, bending at the waist, lowing your entire torso in. That was as far as you could go, and it was barely enough.

“I won’t let you fall. Do you understand? I won’t let you fall, but if you did, I would come after you, Frisk. I would jump in after you. I won’t abandon you. I promised, remember?”

You closed your hands over the arm closest to you as hard as you could. You knew if you pulled now, they would fight you. If they fought you, they would fall.

Desperately, they murmured your name. You tightened your grip on them, your hands beginning to sweat against their clammy skin.

“Frisk, you have to—you have to let go, or I can’t pull you up.”

I can’t,” they whispered, beyond terrified. Tears rolled down their face and off their chin, plummeting.

“Please, Frisk, you, you have to trust me. I’ve got you. Let go.” Your hold on them had to be painful at this point, but you had them. You could do this.

Suddenly, their grip on the rock slackened, and you found yourself supporting their full weight. Your body slid forward dangerously and you scrambled for purchase, digging your foot into a cavity in the rock behind you. Frisk screamed as they dropped several inches, digging their nails into your skin.

You didn’t let go.

Painfully slowly, fractions at a time, you began to retract yourself back up the cliff face. Your arms quivered with the effort of it, but you were going to make it, you were sure of it.

Distantly, you noted Frisk was muttering to themselves—I’m sorry I’m sorry I’m sorry, an endless string of apologies. You couldn’t fathom why. What did they have to be sorry about? Everything was your fault.

Finally, you had them in your arms, and they clung to your neck so fiercely it was hard to breathe. Fresh blood trickled anew from the gash on your chin. You didn’t care. Frisk was back, everything was okay again.

You would never let go, not for anything.

The granite slab you sat on made a horrible sound as it ruptured around you. There was a nauseating sense of vertigo as gravity shifted, and all of a sudden there was nothing supporting your body. You sucked air into your lungs and held it as you tipped forward into the precipice. The next few moments were disjointed. Dreamlike.

Wind in your ears.

Darkness. Your body whipped around as your arm hit the side of the wall, shattering the bone.

Then stars above you, receding to a point.

Frisk screamed. You shook mutely.

This was it.

This was how you would die.

Your last fervent wish was that you’d had time to apologize.

Chapter Text

You remember falling—the nauseous vertigo, the hopeless fear.

But… you don’t remember hitting the ground. You tried to move, and found you couldn’t. It was dark. The only noise you heard was the shrill ringing of your ears. Your head felt fuzzy, sluggish. It was something like trying to force yourself to wake up from a bad dream—when the phantoms can still get to you, despite being on the edge of consciousness. That moment of paralyzed desperation, suspended.

Were you dead? Was that what this was?

You’d heard once from a coworker that when people jump off buildings or bridges to commit suicide, it isn’t the impact that kills them, it’s the fall itself. They die of shock long before they hit the pavement, hundreds of feet below. Not exactly a friendly topic. Perhaps, in a moment of flippant morbidity, you had suggested that the two of you leap off the roof—because it would beat filling out another goddamn spreadsheet, that’s what you had said. A joke in poor taste, considering the current circumstances.

Dying from shock, midair… maybe that was what happened to you. It was alarming that you couldn’t tell. You didn’t feel dead. You didn’t feel anything. But maybe that made sense.

Something else you had heard once was that an animal in the claws of a predator feels no pain, even as the carnivore tears it to pieces.

There’s no sense in having a pain response past the point where it could make a difference. Pain is a warning sign, the body’s way of talking to you, telling you to stop what you’re doing, or to run. So when there’s no escape? No more need for pain. The animal’s brain just shuts down, fogs over. Maybe it’s even blissful. A mercy.

Your head span, and the ringing in your ears grew sharper, increasing in pitch until it was almost unbearable.

What was that? You opened your eyes, and immediately wished you hadn’t.

There was so much pain it was difficult to process. You couldn’t focus your eyes at all. It hurt to breath. You tried to take stock of the damage, but so much was just wrong. Your arm was bent at an unnatural angle against your chest, a jagged splinter of bone protruding from a swollen gash. The break was making a quiet grinding sound as you spasmed reflexively. As painful as it was to move, looking at your arm was sending you into convulsions from sheer nausea, or maybe you were going into shock. Throwing up now, you knew, would be a terrible thing.

It strikes you that no help can possibly come for you, but you don’t want to die. You don’t want to die.

You gurgle wetly, too weak to even scream properly.

Oh god. You don’t… you don’t…

“You are going to be alright,” says a gentle voice. Unfamiliar, but amiable. Like cream and brown sugar, you think irrationally. Your vision swims. Good voice. You want to catch hold of it. Surely you’ve earned that much?

Your body is still broken, but you’re already calming down. Somehow, it’s enough just to know you aren’t alone, that you won’t be dying alone. The realization comes slow, but you think you’re being moved. Someone is bearing up most of your weight, supporting your back and neck. Their other arm is under your knees. They must be pretty strong, you think childishly. It’s hard to remember to keep breathing. Hurts.

Your head lulls against a broad chest. Underneath the blood and bile, it smells like clean linen. Now, you aren’t in the habit of getting carried around by strangers, but… the arms around you feel like safety. Despite yourself, you want to go back to sleep, to simply trust in the kindness of this person and let them bear you away.

But selfishness is what got you into this mess.

“Is Frisk okay?” you tried to ask, but it came up as a bloody froth, dribbling down the side of your face. The woman—and it was a woman, you realized, despite their size—tightened her hold on you and began to move faster, still taking care not to jostle you.

“I am moving you to a safe place. Please try to remain calm. I promise that no harm will come to you.”

That wasn’t what you asked. You clawed at their chest weakly in frustration with your good arm. Interpreting your fit as discomfort, the woman adjusts her hold on you. For the first time, you can see her face.

Horns. Fur. Snout. Fangs.

She wasn’t human.

There is nothing ‘animal’, however, about her coal black eyes, or the weary intelligence they contain. She gazes down at you with indescribable tenderness.

You boggle stupidly back.

“Please hurry,” says a small voice, and you’re tempted to allow yourself to relax—because even if the world’s just gone mad, Frisk is alive.

Your wordless bewilderment, which could perhaps be translated as an unending string of increasingly large question marks, overrode that impulse. For a split second, you found yourself wishing you had died, because at least then you would know what was going on. You crush that thought remorselessly. No, fuck that. You wanted to live.

“Worry not, child,” she says, her words just slightly strained, not from exertion, but concern. “Though I seldom have cause to use it, I am very adept at healing magic.”

Your brain briefly flat-lines again, throwing up an error screen.

Yeah. Magic. Okay.

Distantly you hear the… woman, or creature, whatever she was, instruct Frisk to operate a series of levers. Having had quite enough of this mess, your consciousness chooses this moment to blink back out again, sparing you.


You jolt.

Frisk.”

No one answers you. Your eyes dart about—you don’t know this room. You’ve never woken up in an unfamiliar place, at least not like this. Not back even in college, not that you'd been a wild child. What had happened? Where…?

The memories trickle back. Your idiot idea, climbing Ebott. Getting yourself hurt. Being… abandoned.

The fall.

And there was more, weird stuff, but you weren’t really sure... how much could you trust your recollection? You’d been pretty fucked up, after all. Seeing things wasn’t out of the question.

Even though what pain you had was incredibly diminished from earlier, you didn’t want to chance moving. Not quite yet.

From what you could see, the room you were in was odd—that was your immediate impression, but you couldn’t quite put your finger on why. The door on the wall opposite you was open a crack, and there was a sweet smell wafting in. Probably what had woken you up. There were voices, too, light and hushed in the distance. It was impossible to make out what they were talking about, but their tones were cordial.

It seemed you weren’t in any danger, at least. For now.

Someone had tucked you into a large bed, and an old, handmade quilt was absolutely swallowing you. It was a well-loved thing, with a kind of thin softness that only aged fabric has. You were propped up by a pillow, which had obviously been fluffed up to maximum cushiness. A glass of water sat on a stool close by, well within reach of your good hand.

All in all it was comfortable, but you felt like a burrito.

From what you could tell, your clothes had been changed—they’d peeled off your poor excuse for a hiking outfit, and swapped it out for a large, billowing, purple robe. It was immature of you, but you were horribly embarrassed by the idea of a stranger seeing you naked. You tried not to dwell on that bit. Afraid of hurting yourself, you haltingly sat up to get a proper look around. There were no sharp pains, nothing at all like the agony you had experienced earlier, but the movement made you dizzy. You closed your eyes and took a minute to breathe, and the feeling eventually passed.

The walls and floor were made of various cuts of stone, it looked like. Most everything was a shade of calming blue. There was a desk peaking up from behind the foot of the bed, a bookcase to your left, and a standoffish plant in the corner. The furniture was all handcrafted, too, and well made. Clearly someone’s bedroom, as opposed to… say, a hospital. Though the room was soothing, you felt small, somehow.

It struck you, then, just what was strange about the place.

The scale was off. The height of the ceiling, the width of the chair over by the desk—yes, especially the furniture… it was just a little too big. It was subtle, but now that you knew to look, unmistakable. Compared to the world you’d come from, where everything was so carefully standardized to fit the average adult, it was clear that whatever lived in this room… wasn’t.

So.

You hadn’t been hallucinating earlier.

From across the room, you spotted a hairbrush, bristles thick with white fur. Tiny scratches on the bed frame, like someone with knives for fingers had clawed at it in their sleep. A smell in the air, underneath the sweetness, that was halfway between human and animal, rather unlike anything you’d experienced. You drew the quilt to your chin.

How were you supposed to handle this? Your previous worldview was crumbling around you. A nonhuman sentient. What did that even mean—she was an alien? And… magic.

You finagled one of your huge sleeves up, intending to get a good look at your broken arm. What you found was a patch of red, swollen skin, but no other trace of injury. You traced the contour of your bone, where you knew, beyond the shadow of a doubt, there had been a break. There was a little pain. An almost imperceptible ridge, where the bone had apparently been knitted back together. Other than that…

Nothing. Just nothing. You were healed.

Like magic.

In a far off room, a dish clattered. One of the two voices shushed the other, which was muffling a giggle. That one was Frisk—who was, despite their ongoing feud with Scarbrow, a rather good judge of character. You were Exhibit A on that front. The day Frisk appeared on you doorstep, they’d had you pegged, hadn’t they? Right from the start.

So if Frisk was comfortable around her…

You frowned.

It was clear that… woman… wanted to help you. Had helped you. Was still, in fact, helping. But even considering the hospitality she’d shown, you couldn’t just overlook her troubling lack of humanity. Was your trepidation really that unreasonable?

…yeah, no. That had sounded pathetic, even to yourself. Like an interspecies version of ‘I’m Not Racist, But’.

Spitting in the face of a stranger kindness because they looked funny? That wasn’t the kind of person you wanted to be, wasn’t the kind of behavior you wanted Frisk to emulate. That wasn’t you. The right thing to do was wait. Wait and see what kind of person she was. Let her earn your trust, like anyone else. Frankly, that wouldn’t be difficult at this point. She’d already done more for you than perhaps anyone ever had.

You sat in her bed, contemplative, and waited for the other shoe to drop.

It didn’t take long. Voices were echoing up the hallway now, louder than before. You could hear footsteps—Frisk’s little discount tennis shoes, and bare, padded feet.

You chose this moment to run your hand through your hair, and promptly discovered you looked like garbage. Well. At least it would be hard to make a second impression worse than your first.

Frisk was at the door first, peeking an eye through the opening—the very picture of stealth. Seeing you were awake, they abandoned the ninja approach and veritably threw themselves across the room, arms wide, mouth a comically serious line, launching at you with even more speed than when you picked them up on school days.

The collision knocked your breath away, your lungs emptying with an ugly grunt. They wrapped their arms around you and made a sound that was equally a laugh and a sob. Your chin wobbled dangerously for a moment, and you returned Frisk’s hug with an equal ferocity.

You held on. This time, it was easy. This time, they wouldn’t get away from you.

“You’re okay,” they said.

“I’m okay.”

You let out a breath you hadn't realized you were holding, and injected as much sternness into your voice as you could manage.

“Don’t you ever, ever do that to me again,” you whispered.

Frisk nuzzled their forehead into your chest, and even under your layers of blankets, it tickled.

“Ah,” said that voice, and even though you weren’t delirious this time around, hearing it was still like someone was spooning honey into your ears. What a nice voice. It sank into the crevices of your brain, lingering like perfume.

Her voice partnered with her appearance in a way that was not entirely incongruous.

She was large. Not fat, exactly, just sort of built sturdily, taller and broader than you were. Foreign musculature, weird bone structure, but inarguably a bipedal humanoid. From what you could see, she was covered from head to toe in silky, white fur, and she had two blunted horns on the top of her vaguely bovine head. Thick ears. Big, expressive eyes, and a mouth that, despite being full of sharp teeth, was turned up in a lovely smile. She was carrying a plate upon which sat a generous slice of pie. Judging from the crumbs on Frisk’s shirt, they’d already eaten their share, so this treat was probably for you.

Wow.

Your anxiety over her identity scooted over, making room for a sudden, incomprehensible burst of—infatuation?

You felt your face heat up.

Wonderful. Good to know that even after almost falling to your death over a bad choice, you were still a huge moron. This was ridiculous. As in, you actively deserved ridicule right now.

Apparently, all it takes for you generate a crush is for a mysterious person to rescue you from certain death, get along swimmingly with Frisk, and then show up at your door bearing homemade baked goods, having miraculously fixed your injuries.

...uh.

Well. When you put it like THAT, it didn’t sound so unreasonable.

In the interest of peaceful interspecies coexistence and not making a damn fool of yourself, you attempted to stuff your spark of misbegotten ardor into the deepest recesses of your mind, hopefully to never resurface.

Frisk, eager to introduce their new friend, pulled away from you, beaming, and slid off the bed over your knees. They hopped over to the woman, who was hesitating at the door, likely not wanting to interrupt your reunion. Frisk started tugging at her long purple sleeve, which you recognize because you were wearing her clothes right now, oh god, you were red again, weren’t you?

“This is Toriel,” Frisk said, and the woman gave you a regal nod.

To-ri-el. Pretty name.

“I am pleased to make your acquaintance. It is good to see you are recovering.”

You tell her your name and she smiles.

“Yes, this little one told me all about you,” Toriel said, lightly tousling Frisk’s hair in a way that normally makes them furious—at least, when a stranger did it. Interesting.

“Toriel can do fire,” Frisk whispers, their excitement making it clear that they were divulging a cool secret.

“Neat,” you reply, not understanding in the least. Frisk looks at you owlishly, which along with their previously accrued titles of chipmunk and snake, made them about three animals.

The conversation lulled as the two adults in the room silently regarded one another, neither of you certain how to best proceed. Toriel watched you patiently as you collected your thoughts. You tried to think of a polite way to ask so what are you, by the way, but you were stumped.

At a loss, you decided to just come out with it.

“…Miss Toriel,” you started, but she gave you a funny little smile, almost pleased with the address.

Ms. Toriel?” she echoed.

“Er. Mrs. Toriel?” you tried, and suddenly all the humor went out of her face.

“No,” she said firmly—no, icily, “I think not.”

Even though you distinctly felt the harshness in that statement was not at all directed at you, but some poor oafish third party, you still wilted. Why were your first impressions always so shitty?

Empathetic Frisk, catching on to your distress, blurted out that the two of them baked a pie. Toriel surmised you were well enough to eat it, and Frisk took the plate and sat on the bed with you, intending to feed you.

“Like when I got sick a few months ago and you made noodle soup,” they said. You didn’t like thinking about that night in the rain, though you supposed you had even worse memories to contend with, now.

“Sure,” you agreed. Toriel pulled up her desk chair and sat down, straight-backed, folding her hands together.

“I am certain you have many questions,” she said. You might’ve had a few, yeah.

You open your mouth to ask one of those questions and a fork shoots forward and clicks against your back teeth, depositing a bite of pie. Sweet and thick, the pie filling was almost like custard in its consistency, with a smooth texture. You mostly tasted cinnamon, with just a hint of… butterscotch? They mixed better than you would’ve guessed. Huh.

Intending to ask the recipe, you swallowed, but another bite of pie forced its way in. You shot an irritated look over to Frisk, who was grinning mischievously, then switched to an innocent countenance as soon as they saw you glance over. It seemed Frisk was making it their mission to tease you into submission.

You felt your eyelid twitching. THIS CHILD.

Sass! Critical levels of sass!

You realized Toriel was laughing in her chair, bent over double, clutching at her knees for support.

“O-oh, I’m really very sorry,” she said, thankfully not noticing your enraptured expression at the sound, “It has just been such a long time…”

She trailed off, suddenly going melancholy. Frisk’s brow scrunched up in concern.

This was your chance.

“Mi—Toriel, ” you corrected at the last second, “I wanna apologize in advance for this, but, uh. What… what are you?”

Toriel met your inquisitive look, and there was a specter of ancient grief in her eyes.

“I am a monster,” she said. You almost wanted to argue with her.

“A monster?” you repeated. Frisk clasped their small hand around your wrist, holding it to their chest like you sometimes saw them do with stuffed animals. Toriel’s tone was even and professional, but it was clear the story she was telling you had caused her quite a bit of pain.

There had been a war, she explained, a thousand years ago.

A war that didn’t exist in any human history book. The myths remained, of course—you can’t wipe out an idea. Any physical evidence of the monster’s presence, however, was long gone—their towns razed, their relics burned, their temples desecrated, and the survivors herded into the dark, sealed away like animals. Forgotten.

Though perhaps not forgotten entirely. Their presence was still felt in the language. After all, what do you call an evil being? A monster. When someone behaved cruelly? They were inhuman.

As though one race could claim the entire concept of morality for themselves. Words were insidious like that. They shaped thought.

You asked why the humans had gone to war in the first place. She refused to elaborate, only telling you that it was because they had been afraid.

The story was hard to swallow. You wanted to believe that humanity would never do a thing like that, turn on a whole other race of beings, that the version of history you were hearing was biased against humans—it probably was, at least a little. But you knew humanity. You knew what people were capable of when they were scared.

You felt a debt lower itself heavily onto your shoulders, an inheritance you wanted no part of. Maybe the ancient humans had made such overtures to erase evidence of what they had done because, even then, they had felt guilty.

The monster population was swelling, Toriel said. Soon, there would be nowhere left to expand under the mountain. There weren’t many resources besides stone down here. Ironically, if they hadn’t managed to reverse engineer some of the human technology that was serendipitously deposited in their rivers (read: tossed out as garbage), the situation in the underground would be a whole lot worse.

When the time came that there was no room left, there would be a great deal more suffering in the underground. Even a millennium later, the cage humanity had chosen—no, the tomb they had chosen for monsterkind—grew less and less hospitable.

“And you took us in anyway,” you said, misty-eyed and disheartened. Frisk sniffed and kept their eyes downcast, unable to meet Toriel’s even, professorial gaze.

“I did.”

“Why?” you asked, voice cracking.

She was quiet for a long while.

Finally, she spoke.

“I told you earlier that the humans were afraid. I did not say, however, that the humans were… for lack of a better word, evil,” she said, the corner of her mouth turning up in an expression too miserable to be a smile. "I do not believe anyone is truly evil. Not even humanity."

Then why did you feel so awful?

“The two of you are welcome in my home. As long as you stay, I promise no harm will come to you,” she said, echoing a vow she had made to you when you were on the brink of death. Warmth had returned to her face. She was telling the truth. You could read between the lines, though—if you left, the people here, in the underground? They would want to hurt you. It wasn’t any kind of fair, but what could you do? How could you, with your meager capabilities, put it right?

There was nothing. You had nothing.

It wasn’t often you would prefer to be lied to.

This was one of those times.

A pensive silence fell over the room. You turned over the new information in your head, letting it sift carefully through a filter of emotions, attempting to come to some kind of conclusion on just how you felt about all this.

There was guilt, of course. Horror. Sorrow. Denial… even resentment, for having this uncomfortable knowledge thrust upon you. In the end, you guessed, the relevant question was how accountable you should feel.

On the one hand, you couldn’t be held responsible for what humans a thousand years ago did. Not logically. You hadn’t been born. Your parent’s parent’s parent’s parent’s hadn’t been born. You supposed, however, that you had a moral responsibility now, as one of the only two humans to know the truth. There were reparations to give, penitence to be made. The monsters deserved no less, for having suffered so.

Which brought you back to the fact that you had nothing to give.

Except, maybe, one thing.

“Toriel… if we fell into the Underground, that means there are openings, right? Between here and the surface?” you asked. She caught your meaning immediately.

“There are,” she confirmed, “However, it is not the mountain keeping us trapped here, but an impassable barrier erected by the most powerful of that era’s human magicians. Anyone can enter, but there is no escape.”

That didn’t bode well.

You wanted to ask more about the barrier, because it sounded very important and hugely relevant, but an odd detail stuck out at you.

“That doesn’t make sense. Humans don’t have magic like monsters do. I’m pretty sure we don’t, at least.”

Toriel’s brow furrowed, and she looked away. It was a little hard to read her expression, and not just because you had yet to become acclimated to the slightly alien arrangement of her features. She looked, somehow, as though she regretted telling you about the barrier… or maybe she had let something else slip that she hadn’t intended to?

The idea that Toriel might be holding information back frightened you a great deal, even if you were decently certain she wasn’t lying to you.

“This must be difficult to take in all at once. Why don’t we continue this discussion later?” Toriel asked, smoothing the wrinkles out of her robe as she stood. “For now, I will draw you a bath.”

Excusing herself politely from the room, she turned the corner and disappeared into the hallway, her bare feet making little noise on the stone floor as she strode off.

“Toriel’s nice. I like her,” said Frisk, finishing off the last of your pie.

“Me too.” You just wished you knew where you stood with her.

There was something you needed to address while you had Frisk to yourself, though. There might not be time to say this later on. Even if you weren’t at a hundred percent yet, you didn’t want to waste this chance.

“Frisk, honey,” you said gently, insuring nothing in your tone was condemning or accusatory, “We need to talk about what happened on the mountain.”

Frisk, suddenly very interested in their shoes, made no effort to acknowledge you had spoken.

“No… more than that. You tried to tell me before, right? That sometimes you have bad thoughts. I don’t think I took you seriously enough that night. Because I was… I guess I was scared of what it might mean. I should have gotten you help, back then. That was my fault, Frisk, and I’m so, so sorry.”

Looking eerily reminiscent of that thin, bruised child you had first met all those years ago, Frisk laid their head on your stomach and stared up at you with haunted eyes.

“Lots of people cope with problems like… bad thoughts. It doesn’t mean you’re bad. It just means you have to—have to get the right treatment, just like when you’re sick. Do you understand? Whether it’s medicine or therapy, the most important thing is… is getting well again. And there are people who can help, who go to school their whole lives so they can help people like you—”

“I left you.” Frisk said, cutting you off.

You halted your rambling, stunned.

“I left you. You were hurt, I saw you were hurt, and I…”

Frisk trailed off. You forced yourself out of the stupor that had come over you and ran your fingers through their bobbed hair, rubbing their scalp in a way you knew helped them fall asleep. Of all the ways you had heard Frisk speak that sometimes scared you, the rare apathy, or aggression… you had never heard them say anything with such hideous, unrestrained self-loathing.

“I don’t know why. Why did I do that?” Frisk asked, utterly defeated. They closed their eyes and grabbed at the thick purple cloth of your borrowed robe, bunching it in their hands tightly as if you restrain you from leaving.

“I don’t care about that, it doesn’t matter now,” you lied. “This time, we’re sticking together, like glue on taffy. Hear that, kid? You can’t get rid of me.”

Frisk tried to smile for you. It was a good effort.

What were your petty hurt feelings, compared to this child’s pain? You needed to be strong now. Needed to be someone who Frisk could rely on, for once. You weren’t prescient or even particularly intuitive, but you could tell… whatever came next, it would take everything you had.

You felt your resolve throbbing painfully in your chest, like a freshly-sutured laceration. So the barrier was impassable, was it? You didn’t care what Toriel said. If you couldn’t find a way out, you’d make one.

“We’ll find a way out of here, and then? Then you’re gonna get well.”

Chapter Text

You looked at yourself in the bathroom mirror, your skin slightly flushed from your bath. Recent adventures aside, you looked the same as ever—with the exception of the scab on your chin, which was still pretty tender and swollen. Apparently the body’s natural healing processes interfere with magic. Toriel had gotten to it a bit late in comparison to your other more life-threatening injuries (and it couldn’t have helped that you had received that particular wound a few hours before the others). Still, you weren’t complaining. It wasn’t like you had much in the way of good looks to ruin.

Or, uh, anyone to impress.

According to your generous host, eating as much as you could would also help with the lingering stiffness in your arm and the slight pain in your side. Monster food, like monsters, was mostly made of magic.

The fact that you could think a thing like that with a straight face said a lot about your adaptability.

You dressed quickly, before the warmth on your skin faded. It was slippery on the stone tiles, but you managed not to fall and crack your head open.

Toriel had also done a good job of getting the blood out of your clothes. All the stuff you’d had in your pockets before she changed your clothes say on the counter next to you—a crumpled receipt, a dry-cleaning ticket, half a dollar in loose change, three sticks of gum, and your good friend, multitool—plus your watch. There wasn’t a crack on it, and it still functioned perfectly well (damn right it should, at the price you paid), but you weren’t sure how useful it would be underground, considering the monsters had no reason to run on a 24-hour system synced up to a sun they couldn’t perceive. It was something to ask Toriel about.

It was nice to be in your own clothes, even if hers had been pretty comfortable. There was something to be said for the power of familiarity. Made you feel grounded, even with all that was going on. You were a little proud of yourself for coping this well. Then again, you wouldn’t be coping with anything if it hadn’t been for Toriel.

Following an impulse, you tried to smile at your reflection in a suave way, then dropped it when it made you look vaguely constipated. Unhappy with yourself, you grumped at the mirror and turned away.

There were dwindling clouds of steam pooling out of the bathroom into the cooler hallway, and you followed it out, leaving the door open to air out the room. You gave the living room a cursory examination—Frisk was taking a nap in front of the fireplace, and Toriel was nowhere to be seen. This was as good an opportunity as any, you decided. Your shoes were waiting for you by the front door, so you slipped them on, intending to get a quick look around outside.

The door opened on well-oiled hinges, swinging inwards, revealing a courtyard. There was a tree outside with a skirt of fallen, bright red leaves. It looked like the branches were budding—odd, considering the lack of sunlight, and odder still that such a minor detail would register as strange to you at this point.

Magic? Monsters? Yeah, sure, whatever.

Improbable flora? Stop the fucking press!

…you needed a drink.

You wondered where Toriel kept the good stuff, and decided she probably just didn’t. Fair enough. She just wasn’t the type—and neither were you, really. Not since you’d taken in Frisk.

It was dark outside, but not so dark that you couldn’t see. The stone brick of the walls and floor emanated a faint purple glow. This was, as far as you could tell, the only proper source of light in the ruins. The glow pushed the shadows to the center of the room, and smoothed out the contours of all the objects it lit. Everything looked weirdly flat in this lighting.

There didn’t appear to be a ceiling—well, of course you knew, logically, that there was the mountain above you, but the glow of the walls just sort of slowly faded out until about fifty feet up, at which point there was nothing visible but deep blackness. It was like… how could you put this? It was as though the world just stopped, like nothing up there existed at all. The whole world, reduced to just this space.

Honestly, that was functionally true.

It was eerie just how little was audible down here. You sat down on the steps, and listened.

If the surface of the mountain had sounded like life, then the oppressive quiet underneath was exactly the opposite. There was no birdsong, no buzzing insects, no rustle of leaves, no running water. Even the noise of your breathing was swallowed up into the void. It felt horribly claustrophobic.

Although there was no wind, there was a current of stagnant, noiseless, cool air. It tasted like dust and circulated sluggishly. Caves breathed, you knew. It had something to do with shifting temperatures, if you were remembering correctly, but the air lacked the dampness you would expect. It was so dry your lips were starting to crack. You looked at your watch. It was half past eight in the morning. Probably nice and sunny up on the surface, but it wasn’t like you could claw through a few thousand tons of rock and dirt and magic to check. You were two hours late for work. Frisk should be at school right now.

It dawned on you that you would inevitably get fired from your job for this. Maybe not today, but soon, when you couldn’t report in.

Or worse—haha—they’d assume you stole the copier after all. Fuck, you didn’t even steal paperclips from the office, but even you could admit the timing was suspicious.

You laughed morosely, and the echo bounced feverishly through the courtyard, cutting the silence, coming back to you at a distorted pitch from a dozen angles. Surrounding you. Mocking.

Yeah, that seemed about right. Your boss and your coworkers would have a big laugh, blame you for the theft, then send you a bill and a notice of termination of employment in a single envelope.

You know, to save on paper.

The thought of losing your job was somehow more immediate and frightening in that moment than being trapped in a fucking cave where near everything living in it wanted you dead. It was almost funny. Just where the hell were your priorities?

You wondered if Frisk’s mother knew to file a missing person’s report.

…yeah, no.

“Snrk—hahaha.” Your shoulders shook, and you covered your mouth with one hand. Tears ran down your face.

Would she even notice you and Frisk were gone?

Would anyone?

Well, the school would call after Frisk, and the bill people and your landlord would catch on pretty quick, but that wasn’t what you meant.

Who would miss you?

Was there anyone? You weren’t valuable, really, in any sense of the term. You could be easily replaced. There were people who would miss your money, but that was about the extent of your impact on the world. It would be enough if you had even a few close friends to mourn you, but... god, you hadn’t had a real friend since college, and you’d let those bonds decay. You were a joke.

You couldn't stop laughing. It was starting to hurt your ribs.

The only person who would miss you was Frisk. Who was, because of your carelessness, trapped down here the same as you. And as regrettable as it was for you to have fallen, it wasn’t as though you had a future up on the surface. If you died here, it’d be a little sad, sure. If Frisk died here, it would be a tragedy.

You became aware that you were almost shrieking now, doubled over in nauseas hysterics, and muffled the sound in your elbow, biting into the thick cloth of our jacket. Your hands shook. You had to calm down. You had to calm down right this fucking second, because you couldn’t afford to crack, not like this, not right now. There’d be time to break down later, after you were out of this goddamn hole.

If you ever got out.

You… you just wanted to go home—

No, no, just, you had to fucking stop that. It wasn’t helping. You sucked in desperate lungfuls of air through clenched teeth.

Frisk was all you had, now. If you couldn’t hold it together for yourself, you could at least be strong for them—

You felt a broad hand on your back and nearly jumped out of your skin.

Toriel. You hadn’t heard her approach.

She sat down on the step next to you. Even seated, she was taller than you. It made you feel like a child. You wiped your eyes with your sleeve and sat up straight, but there was no use in pretending you hadn’t been crying.

“Don’t tell Frisk,” you said, the words jumping unbidden to your lips.

She took stock of your state in a way that felt just slightly invasive, if only because among strangers, you liked to present a collected front at all times.

“There is nothing to tell,” she finally replied.

You slumped in relief. The hand at your back applied a gentle, undemanding pressure, and you allowed yourself to be guided into a sideways hug. She didn’t attempt to offer you any consoling remark, likely aware that anything else she could say would ring hollow. You were grateful.

As little as it was, it was probably just what you needed. You slowly began to calm down. The novelty of hugging it out with someone you barely knew was, well. It sure was something. Toriel… smelled nice. It probably the same soap you’d used a minute ago, but the scent suited her better. Did noticing that make you a weirdo? Probably.

When was the last time you got a hug from someone other than Frisk?

…had it really been that long? Pretty pathetic, you moped.

Your self-pity party screeched to an abrupt halt when Toriel started to stroke your hair. That much contact was a little too intimate for your tastes. In a fit of embarrassment, you squirmed out from under her arm and scooched over a few inches. Your face was red. Even the skin on top of your hands was red.

“Haha,” you said unevenly, staring forward into the middle distance. “Sorry. It, uh, tickled.”

Good save.

Or maybe not. Judging from the prickling on your forehead, you were fairly certain Toriel was giving you an unimpressed look, but you deigned to keep gazing ahead instead of meeting it. Awkward.

“It is quite alright,” she said, sounding amused at your expense. “But there is no need to be… sheepish.

Somewhere, a record screeched.

…no.

She hadn’t. It must’ve been unintentional, right? She was always so… stately, regal, even. You must have misheard.

A bead of sweat ran down your forehead.

Slowly, almost mechanically, you turned your head, side-eying her in disbelief. She was smiling mischievously AND GIVING YOU THE EYEBROWS, oh god, she just did and awful sheep pun at you ON PURPOSE.

…hold the phone.

“S-sheep? But I thought you were like, a goat?” you sputtered intelligently. You must’ve been making a really goofy face, because she started to laugh—big laughter, like throw-back-your-head, actually-crying-over-this laughter. You stared, flustered.

“You caught me! I’m a really more of a nanny,” she added between giggles, and that got you started, too, melancholy forgotten. Her laugh was absolutely contagious, and the echoes that rebounded off the stone didn’t cut like yours.

“Toriel, that… was pretty bad.” She was shaping up to be… kind of a doofus, underneath the noble exterior? You had not been prepared for this revelation.

“Are you sure you do not mean ba-a-a-ad?” she all but bleated. Whatever was left of your composure evaporated.

“Oh my god, oh my GOD, you’re awful.” But you were smiling anyway—lips pulled into a crooked thing, almost a grimace. Somebody stop the ride—you wanted off.

The laughter petered out amicably this time. Before you could sink back into your funk, Toriel stood, wiped the dust off of her robe, and helped you to your feet.

You looked out at the courtyard, curious about whatever was beyond it.

“Would it be okay if I went and had a look around?” you asked.

“Well,” she said hesitantly, not entirely thrilled at the idea.

“…is that not…?”

“Frisk told me you liked to cook?” Toriel suddenly asked.

You nodded, and her face lit up.

“It is rather early, but would you like to assist me in preparing lunch?”

Monster lunch in a monster kitchen, huh? Maybe you’d get to see Toriel “do fire,” as Frisk had put it. It couldn't hurt to put exploration on the backburner for a while, right?

“Sure, yeah. I’d like that a lot,” you mumbled, averting your eyes from Toriel’s big, fanged smile in a manner that, yes, might be described as sheepish.

If, on the way to the kitchen, Toriel playfully hip-checked you, you certainly did not respond by turning the color of a tomato and flailing.


It was becoming increasingly clear that Toriel would happily stick you in a hole and board it over if she thought that’s what it would take to keep you safe.

Sure, you’d sensed she had a bit of a protective streak. That was one of the reasons she hadn’t left you soaking in your own blood at the bottom of a pit; she cared about people, even humans, when she had every reason not to. But it was starting to become a bit overbearing.

When you volunteered to help shuck snails for lunch, she’d been overjoyed at your open-mindedness—hell, you’d try anything once. Apparently escargot enjoyed a similar status in the underground as above it… that is to say, opinions were rather polarized. You had a feeling Frisk might not take to it, but you had long since mastered the stare required to coerce Frisk into eating food they found unpleasant.

Taking up your post, what followed was a conversation about human and monster eating habits.

“Snail is a delicacy in some parts of the world, actually,” you told her, elbow deep in the sink, a knife in one hand and a spiral shell in the other. “It’s prepared differently than this, though.”

A quick flip of the wrist, and you scraped a slither of grey meat out of the confines of the shell. It came up in one piece this time, too, which was an improvement. The naked snail—hah, nasty—went into the bowl with the others, landing with a slimy little plap. You were getting the hang of it pretty quickly.

Say what you will, but you were dexterous as all heck in the kitchen.

Toriel, preparing a thick, floury crust to top the dish, glanced over at you. A keen interest glinted in her eyes, likely at the notion of a new way to prepare her favorite food.

“How does it differ?” she asked.

“Never made it myself, but… let’s see, I think they’re broiled in herb butter, generally? Served up in, like, a ceramic tray with little dips in the surface. Fancy stuff.” Stick a garnish on that shit and pour yourself a glass of wine, because if you’re eating escargot, you can afford a whole new level of cuisine. Filet mignon. Caviar. Foie gras. The glories of fine dining, hovering just beyond the capacity of your salary, taunting you.

“Fancy” on your budget was ordering an extra pizza topping.

“That is an interesting idea. I am concerned, however, that the result would be rather too salty for my tastes,” she admitted, taking a moment to ponder the barebones recipe you’d given.

“I haven’t actually tried snail either way, so I can’t comment.” You had a strong stomach even if things went sour. Frisk was going to be the hard sell, the picky sprout.

“Then I hope you will enjoy my snail pie recipe. My… that is to say, several monsters I have served it to enjoyed it very much.”

“You’ve already proven your pastry skills are top notch, so I don’t doubt I will.”

Toriel, flattered by your words, grinned and winked at you. You caught the motion in your peripheral vision and turned away from the sink.

Distracted, your knife hand slipped.

It was just a little nick, hardly worth commenting on, but you made a tiny pained noise in the back of your throat, and that was all it took. As you went to move your hand under the running faucet, Toriel appeared at your side. There was a brief sense of pressure in the air that you were coming to associate with magic, then she healed you with a touch. You blinked.

“Oh. Thanks,” you said, surprised not only by the quick response but also by her dour expression. The cheer was back in her face before you could comment on it.

With insistence that was too placid to be called demanding but too firm to be argued with, she took the knife out of your hand. You very distinctly recalled doing something similar with a Frisk, and the comparison made you uneasy in a way you couldn’t quite articulate.

Toriel put her hand on your shoulder and steered you out of the kitchen. You were being dismissed? Why?

“I’m fine, I can still—” you began, mentally backpedaling even as she frog marched you into the living room.

“Thank you very much for your help.”

“I mean…”

“While I truly appreciate your assistance, please do not feel obligated to lend it. You are still recovering, after all.”

This was weird, you knew this was weird, she was handling this like you’d asked to excuse yourself, but you were clearly okay. What was the issue?

“It’s no trouble, really—” you tried again.

“Please, prioritize your health instead.”

You were unsettled.

“Okay. Yeah.”

“Maybe you should get some rest,” she said, only it wasn’t really a suggestion.

“…right. I’ll catch up with Frisk, I guess.” You nodded weakly, as if placated.

“Stay close by, because lunch will be ready shortly.”

“I will, thanks.” She was clearly not going to take no for an answer.

Satisfied, she gave you another angelic smile and shuffled away. In a moment, the clatter of knife on shell resumed, quite a bit faster and more rhythmic than your clumsy attempts. The fluttering pride you’d built a minute ago over your alleged kitchen mastery was thoroughly snuffed. You felt humiliated, and you weren’t even sure why.

Come to think of it…

This wasn’t the first time she’d vetoed a decision of yours, was it? Distracting you with cooking immediately after you had asked if you could take a look around outside… maybe it was your fault, for asking permission at all.

It wasn’t like she was outright saying “I know better than you what’s best,” but you could feel that smothering intent all the same. Outside of work, you weren’t used to people exercising authority over you, and why should they? You were grown. You could make your own decisions. It was like she didn’t know whether to treat you like a child in her care, or a friend. Almost insulting, even rooted as it was in consideration for your well-being. It wasn’t like she was your boss or your doctor. She couldn’t have it both ways.

Hell, maybe handing the knife over was the right thing to do, but it wasn’t like she tried to convince you, first. If she had, you were certain you wouldn’t be so torn up about it.

You had a feeling if you went anywhere near the front door, Toriel would materialize immediately with another task for you—something you couldn’t screw up, like watering her plants, or dusting.

Yes, she was older than you, and this was her house, but as content as you were to play be her rules, you weren’t a child. If she couldn’t respect that, you were going to take issue with her behavior.

With your thumbnail, you scratched at the small dot of dried blood on your other hand, revealing a patch of unblemished skin underneath. She had healed you so readily and casually, you’d already put the injury out of your mind. It had only taken a second. Incredible.

You frowned. Healing magic... either she was scarily good at it, or this level of healing was so simple that she hadn’t spared it a second thought. You didn’t know idea which frightened you more. Maybe dispensing healing magic like candy wasn’t a big deal for a monster, but from your perspective, it was unreal—a raw display of power.

It wasn’t that you weren’t thankful, but…

As much as you didn’t agree with what the ancient humans had done—imprisoning an entire sentient race of beings was morally reprehensible, now matter how you cut it—you thought you were starting to understand your ancestor’s fear. It was a bitter feeling, equal parts unease, cowardice, and jealousy.

You hated it.

...

Dismissing the grim train of thought, you decided to go find Frisk.