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A Certain Tenderness

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New Order - Regret

You pull your jangling keys out of the door with a long-suffering sigh, flexing your fingers gingerly as you realize the office is already unlocked. Leaning against the heavy door, which you probably shouldn’t have strained yourself wrestling open and just used the button like a smart person, you take a deep swig of the coffee in your green metallic travel mug.

The lights are on and everything, and you didn’t even notice. You accept that your brain is cancelled until the rest of the coffee is gone.

“Hey, Diane,” you try to say as your pass her office, but the fact that your coffee is more than half milk in an attempt to spare the lining of your stomach turns the words into a mucus-y sound like you’re breaking into an impromptu death metal cover. You clear your throat and try again, but Diane is already replying.

“Good morning,” the woman who’s technically your boss but acts more like a partner replies, tapping a thick sheaf of stuffed manila folders on her desk inside her office. She’s saying more, but it’s not getting through. You stop, rocking back on your heels a moment, and stare at her mouth until she repeats herself.

“Pop in here once you get set up. We’ve got a Personage coming in this morning to get coordinated.”

You can practically see the capital ‘p’.

You stand there for an uncomfortably extended moment, holding your mug in front of you stiffly and blinking at her, waiting for the information to process. Your bags dangle heavily from your shoulders, and it’s making your joints ache. Being groggy gives you a tendency to get stuck like this. Luckily, Diane is accustomed to your eccentricities by now and just goes on with organizing her desk while she waits for you to finish absorbing what she’s said. After a time, you raise your coffee to your mouth again, then abruptly walk down the hall to your own office, unlock it, and sit down to scroll your phone during the serious business of further caffienating yourself.

The barrier separating monsterkind from humanity had fallen a little over ten years ago, while you were still in college. After years of struggling with accommodations for your disabilities and the outright hostility of so many professors and staff, you’d made an adjustment in your career plan and ended up working in higher ed disability services after gaining your degree, instead of the more traditional academic track you’d had planned. It felt like you were on the right side, especially after years of being around professors who acted like students were the enemy. You weren’t the one who started the fight, but you wanted to make sure you were on the right side if everyone else decided to make it into one.

When you’d first heard about the new hybrid academic institution being founded in Ebott with the combined efforts and funds of both humans and monsters, you’d been one of the very first to send in an application. You’d stressed your own experiences with hostility, alienation, and resistance, as well as your track record in coordinating services across disciplines at the college you’d been working at for the years previous. Your hopes that it might provide some insight for anyone looking askance at the extra years it’d taken you to get your degrees were rewarded, and you’d been willing to move here for the opportunity to shape an entirely new field of education.

This is the beginning of your second year working at Ebott University, the first academic institution to integrate magical education into its curriculum from its inception, and you’re the assistant director of the Adaptive Services Coordination department. Second fiddle is just fine with you, since you’re more than happy to do most of the organizing, decision-making, and delegating work tucked safe on your office. Diane, the director, can have all the dinners and speeches; you’re much happier working directly (and tirelessly) with the students and their families to find the programs, professors, mentors, and adaptive technology that work for their individual styles and abilities.

The best part of it all is that every student who attends the university has to meet with a coordinator here before attending classes or programs. It’s the first place you’ve worked where the students don’t come in with at least a slight edge of resignation tainting their enthusiasm, and you ascribe that to the reduction of stigma that usually surrounds asking for and seeking accommodations. It can’t be “special treatment” if everyone receives it, after all. In fact, tailoring every student’s approach helps the slowly evolving shape of the curricula here to become more and more accessible for any type of person who might decide that college is the right choice for them. It’s all taken into account, and it’s not even a quarter as difficult as people in traditional human colleges like to pretend it is.

No other position has ever afforded you so much leeway in assigning novel solutions to problems that shouldn’t even be problems in the first place, and the pay is honestly higher than you’d expected. It feels good to not be struggling for what’s possibly the first time in your life, but you have to admit it can take a lot out of you. You wish you’d had more time to make friends and engage your own self-directed activities since you’d moved to Ebott, the town around the mountain where the monsters had first emerged and then settled, before spreading out across the continent over time. In a lot of ways, you still feel like you just got here, and many of the activities and places where people tend to socialize and make connections aren’t always accessible for you. And sometimes, you just plain don’t have the physical or emotional energy outside of work.

Although you consider this your dream job, it had been hard to leave your family and friends to come here, especially your younger sister, her husband, and their children. Despite the age difference (you’re older by a good handful of years), you don’t have the same kind of rivalries or resentments between you that many siblings carry into adulthood. More than that, especially after your mother’s passing, you consider her your best friend.

Eventually, the puffy feeling around your eyes clears up (mostly thanks to the NSAIDs you have for breakfast; you say a silent apology to your stomach for the third time today), and you’re feeling a little more prepared to have a conversation like a human person.

In the meantime you grab one of the bags you’ve brought with you to work and head to the restroom. You open the door to the single-stall that’s your default choice for workday personal care, not that gendered restrooms are even a thing at Ebott. You consider yourself grateful for a lot of the changes that the monsters have brought with them even in one short decade; after all, a lot of the human ways of differentiating and categorizing don’t even apply to at least half of monsterkind. You smirk trying to imagine someone trying to assign a gender to the Moldbygg that worked in the bursar’s office. You’re pretty sure they don’t even have a name, technically, but some nerd in the office had started calling them “Chell” for some reason and it had mostly stuck. If nothing else, monsters were forcing humans to get much more comfortable with ambiguity in general.

After you take care of your more pressing business (probably too much coffee but oh well), you pull the toothbrush and toothpaste out of your bag and run the tap, spending several minutes brushing away the unpleasant aftertaste of yes-definitely-too-much-coffee as you consider what the morning’s appointments might have in store for you.

Although the monsters had definitely had a baby boom soon after coming to the surface, at least once the military “quarantine” period was over (as ineffective and silly as the whole thing had been in the end; turned out the monsters had mostly just been being polite about it), none of those children were college-age yet. Although built and intended as a hybrid institution, the vast majority of the students were still human. Most of the monster children were still attending Toriel’s school for their educational needs, one of the first organized institutions monsters had founded after emerging.

The queen of the monsters was an imposing figure, or at least so you’d gathered from the footage and photos you’d seen of her over the years. Diane had met her in person quite a few times, mostly in her function as director of this department. The last board meeting had actually involved preparing for an influx of monster students in the near future as those boom babies grew up and got interested in possibly continuing their educations. Diane had given you the notes from the meeting later, which you appreciated. Just because you have a hard time sitting through a lot of those functions and the attendant social interactions doesn’t mean you’re not interested in shaping the direction the college will be heading as it evolves, and it’s a relief to be somewhere that can accommodate in spirit as well as on paper.

You knock cursorily on Diane’s office doorjamb, then come in and get yourself seated as she turns her swivel chair around.

“So, anyhow. Important meeting for you today.” She hands you a thick folder and when you open it, you blink in surprise at the name on the top.

“Oh,” you murmur softly. “I didn’t realize...I guess they would be about that age now, wouldn’t they?”

You frown a moment, considering. “But, are you sure you shouldn’t be the one handling all this? I mean, I don’t really stand on ceremony, and you already know Toriel, and I’m not very… is she going to be coming here with them?”

Diane smiles as you remember to pause and let her answer the questions you’ve already asked.

“They didn’t really say, so I’m not sure. Frisk might just be coming by themself. After all, the Ambassador’s nineteen now, and perfectly capable of making themselves understood. Especially here,” Diane smiles, remembering to finger-spell the names, numbers, and pronouns for clarity, as well as signing a few other words for emphasis.

You glance down at the file again, noticing something.

“So, they primarily use ASL, then. Some hearing, though.”

“Well,” Diane shrugs. “You know how it is with that. If they’d notice a bomb going off right next to them they get marked as some hearing. You’re more fluent than I am, and I think it’s better if you handle most of the nuts and bolts. You’re a lot better at working with the students longterm, and I don’t hesitate to admit it. I’m just too impatient. I can schmooze the crap out of parents and dignitaries, though, so I’ll save my patience for that.”

You snort, considering how often she’d embarrassed you at first by singing your praises to others in your presence. At this point, however, you consider her a friend and have gotten more used to her, just as she’s become accustomed to you. It’s a huge relief to just be able to be yourself at work, instead of feeling like your skin’s on too tight under other people’s unkind scrutinies. Being around monsters, who were all so different not only from humans but also each other, had eased a lot of mental baggage you hadn’t even realized you’d been carrying around. Everyone’s individuality makes it hard to feel like “the weirdo” in a place like Ebott. You might be a little lonely, but you feel less alienated here than anywhere else you’ve ever been.

You continue to peruse the transcripts in front of you. A combination of homeschooling with testing and research projects through Toriel’s school, for the most part. Although you know Frisk is human, the transcripts read a lot more like those of the monster students you’ve worked with to coordinate curricula to suit. Traditionally, higher ed for monsters was a lot more like mentorships or apprenticeships; again human institutions had had to learn to adapt to less cut and dried categorizations. Monsters didn’t really have degrees, just those who were willing to swear to their expertise, or documented time spent working alongside experts. Although you aren’t an academic advisor per se, you often function as one for the students whose files end up on your desk. Your skillset is less about static knowledge, and more knowing exactly how to find out what you and your students might need, or who to ask. It’s one of the few areas you’re surprisingly flexible.

“Mmm. I think you’re right, Diane. I should probably handle this, since I’m not seeing any sort of declaration as to what kind of program or major they might be interested in. And it’s honestly better to accommodate to ‘no hearing’ just to be on the safe side-if they don’t speak verbally it just makes sense anyways. The communication aspects should flow smoothly, though I’m fine lipreading.”

You and Diane share a look, and you’re reminded of how relieved you were that she’d been familiar with auditory processing disorders before you’d come to work here. Some people have a hard time wrapping their heads around the idea of someone being able to hear sometimes, or under certain circumstances; much less the concept of being able to hear, but not understand. Yet another thing that didn’t have to be a problem for you, but so many seem to take it as their personal mission to turn it into one.

***

Frisk Dreamurr, human ambassador of the monsters and one of the more symbolically important people on Earth, is surprisingly charismatic considering they are one of the most ambiguous human beings you’ve ever met. Their heavy and warm-looking sweater, although oversized, looks handmade in the most positive sense of the term. The forest green yarn certainly suits their nut-brown complexion. They have thick, blunt-cut dark hair and long, narrow eyes that glitter with cheer and humor.

The person standing beside them is a few inches shorter than Frisk, and rather unambiguously a skeleton. You assumed already that anyone accompanying the Ambassador was very likely to be a monster, but you’ve never seen a monster that looked like a skeleton before. Then again, you’re sure there’re plenty of things in life you’ve never seen before, and someone else’s appearance isn’t really the sort of thing that’s going to trip you up. His face is rather broad and somehow smoother than a human skull, and the deep grooves that curve outward from the inner corners of his eyes remind you of a tearstained cat. The way his eye sockets almost seem to be half closed only adds to the effect.

Frisk’s clothing is casual but neat; in contrast, their companion looks like he just rolled out of bed in a battered hoodie, basketball shorts despite the chill temperatures, and what you’re pretty sure are the most broken-in pair of house slippers you’ve ever seen. Lace-trimmed ankle socks peep shyly from the backs, which you imagine help keep them from sliding off the bare bones of his feet. Far from being being offputting, his sleepy appearance and attitude just makes you feel comfortable. Although the thought does attach itself to another one- wishing you yourself were home in bed yourself rather than meeting two new people and working all day, but in truth you only feel a passing regret. It’s time to do what you do best.

Frisk’s eyes take in your own carefully ambiguous appearance, and although you’re not always great at gauging these things, a moment of silent commiseration seems to be shared between you as you introduce yourself and welcome them.

“I’m Frisk,” they introduce themselves enthusiastically. “Good to meet you. This is,” they hold up their fist and carefully spell it out to avoid misunderstandings, “Sans.”

You notice that tiny white lights or points float expressively in the otherwise impossibly dark eye sockets of Frisk’s companion; they glitter with what looks like amusement. You turn toward the grinning skull (he does seem to be grinning, it’s not just his face) and nod carefully, but his surprisingly deep voice attempts to clarify before you have a chance to speak.

“sans the skeleton,” he rumbles. Then he says something else, but it seems as though one of the junior members of the staff is running off what sounds like a thousand copies of her dungeons and dragons character sheets again. You belatedly remember it’s Monday, that she always hosts her group on that evening, and everyone knows she’ll be coopting the printer for at least an hour before lunch. The noise of the machine seems to blend with the resonant, almost musical tone of his voice, and you realize you can’t separate the two sounds at all, really. It’s just one long, throaty stutter.

Uh oh.

Out of habit, you stare at his mouth to try and find a thread of the conversation you can extrapolate from, but come to the realization rather quickly that there’s no help for you there. A voice is certainly emerging from that fixed grin, but the sound isn’t being produced in any way you’d be able to follow visually. Rather than forming arches in his upper jaw, the tops of his teeth are covered by some kind of ridge that tempers his expressions, but doesn’t move the way lips do. It doesn’t even seem like his teeth part at all when he speaks. And...he’s not signing. Why isn’t he signing?

You glance toward Frisk in confusion, but they seem to be following whatever Sans is saying well enough; they huff a laugh through their nose as their eyes narrow shut in amusement. Does Frisk have more hearing than you’d assumed? Well, you have to admit, you can almost feel the vibration of Sans’ voice as well as hear it, maybe it’s in the right range for Frisk to catch the sound. Either that, or maybe Frisk can read...teeth?

You do your best to keep your face neutral, but it feels tight with anxiety. You hadn’t anticipated this kind of issue, and you’re not very good at coping with an unexpected impediment in the middle of an already-stressful social interaction. They glance at you, seeming deflated, so the neutral expression is apparently not working. Rather than trying to guess what sort of response might have been called for, you take a deep breath and smile gently.

“Why don’t we uh, talk in my office?”

They both nod, and you walk them down the hall toward your room in the department, then gesture both of them past you through the door. Even flustered as you are, you notice Sans’ interesting personal fragrance; a scent not unlike human hair, but drier and more pleasant-reminds you of something nostalgic you can’t quite place. Frisk just smells like any nineteen year old; crayons and lemons. You shut the door behind you, finally closing out the incessant interference from the copier, and invite them to take any seat they like. Sans is still commenting quietly, and Frisk huffs their quiet laugh again. You really wish you could understand what he’s saying, but even without the enormous printer whirring and chuffing in your peripheral hearing, you can’t make sense of it. It’s almost as if his voice is made of multiple complex tones, somehow.

Both of them choose the dumpy but comfy mauve love seat you furnished your office with instead of the hard plastic chairs that seem to spawn of themselves throughout the entire administrative building your department is housed in. You’re not surprised; it’s much more comfortable for humans and monsters of all sizes and shapes. You still keep the chairs around for times when you’re inundated with bigger family groups or support staff, but the couch is your favorite fixture. It also doubles as a napping space on your bad days.

You take your own ergonomic office seat with a half-suppressed sigh; it was mostly anticipatory, you realize. Either you’re having a good day, or the medication’s working like it’s supposed to for a change.

“Okay,” you say, more comfortable ensconced here in your own carefully curated space. “I’m going to be working with you to help choose what kind of classes you might be interested in taking, and to develop both a schedule and a curriculum that will suit your individual learning style,” you begin, warming up now that you have the opportunity to get down to business.

“Every student who wants to attend here has to come to this office first, since we’re still developing a standard methodology for delivering education that’s accessible for anyone, but I personally don’t think that should ever really happen. A standard methodology, I mean,” you clarify, then stop yourself before you end up waxing philosophical on pedagogy for the next half hour. That’s not what your current meeting’s for, although you have already half-forgotten that the kid in front of you is some kind of important person, and are already mentally running down a list of text and image based software that could be implemented to replace any audio-based extant learning materials. Not that there are a ton of those, anyway; blind and low-vision students in general have the disadvantage there all too often. But you’re getting ahead of yourself.

“Um, anyway, do you know what kind of program or discipline you’re the most interested in here at Ebott?” You glance up from the papers you’re pushing around on your desk, lists of class descriptions and basic summaries of programs. “You don’t have everything or anything decided yet, just give me a general idea of your preferences.”

Frisk is nodding. “Monster sciences,” they sign firmly. “And,” they hesitate, glancing at Sans. “Social sciences, maybe.”

“really?” the skeleton replies with a smirk. His facial expressions are surprisingly easy for you to read, you’re not really sure why. “you sure you-” and you don’t quite follow what he said, again? It doesn’t sound anything like the kind of thing you’d anticipate someone might say in this situation, which just makes the whole thing more confusing.

Oh, no. This is turning into a Situation. He’s still not signing.

Frisk makes a moue of distaste and shakes their head.

All you can pick out of Sans’ response to that is something that sounds like “organic chemistry”, and “trouble.” You’re not sure exactly what your face looks like, but it must not be good because when they both glance at you for a reaction, they immediately look concerned.

“Why aren’t you signing?” you blurt loudly, sounding a little panicked. Oops. Now you’re overreacting. You belatedly realize that you’re the one that turned this into a Situation; after all, there’s been nothing stopping you from explaining the difficulty to both of them, rather than trying to put your head down and barrel through the interaction like nothing is wrong. Bad habits die hardest. You take a deep, bracing breath.

“I’m sorry, I uh, didn’t mean to be rude. It’s just, I saw in Frisk’s file they primarily use ASL, and I...have some hearing difficulties myself. That’s part of why I’m handling this meeting, and...” You trail off, and flick your eyes at Sans apologetically.

“I’ve barely understood a word you’ve said since you got here. Sorry.”

His teeth are parted a little (so, his mouth does open? Not much, maybe), and you turn to Frisk. “Would you mind terribly, uh, translating for your...friend?”

Now Sans just looks embarrassed, and Frisk bursts into laughter at what appears to be Sans’ expense.

“You just wasted all your best material!” they sign, waving fingers almost in the skeleton’s nonplussed face. “Now you can you please stop acting like you’re doing me a favor and just admit you wanted to come?”

Sans pushes the eager teenager’s hands out of his face, but does it with a fond smile and chuckles wryly. They share a look for a moment, then Frisk shakes their head at him subtly but firmly. “Not without asking,” you think they say, but they’ve turned to the side a little, putting their body between you and them, so it’s not entirely clear. Frisk also has the habit of tucking their hands into their long sleeves or wrapping them around and between their fingers, which seems an odd idiosyncrasy for someone who uses their hands to speak.

Then their hands come back out, and Frisk’s eyes gleam with humor. “I’ll translate for you, Sans,” they emphasize.

He grimaces.

“don’t start that, you-” (donut? Something like that) he cuts off before he gets any further, and pulls his other hand out of his pocket finally. “i think i can remember how to do this,” he says in his low voice, but this time a word or two is accompanied with signs.

You breathe a sigh of relief, then rush on to reassure him, “You don’t have to like, sign everything you say just, um, maybe for emphasis? Or I might ask you to spell a few things out, if that’s okay.”

“no problem, boblem,” he replies, spelling out the “boblem” with unhurried gestures of his skeletal fingers. They seem pretty nimble, actually, and you don’t have a problem (or a boblem) reading his phalanges at all. You find yourself smiling despite your earlier frustration at the sheer ridiculousness of emphasizing a nonsense word, but at least you’re in on the joke, now.

Frisk is toying with the apple-printed skirt they have on over a pair of cuffed jeans, and you take another calming breath while you try to remember what you’d been about to say.

“So, you’re interested in Em-Stem,” you say, trying to recenter the conversation around Frisk’s educational goals, verbally using the common phonetic for MSTEM, the acronym blanket term for the emerging interdisciplinary departments focused on combining monster and human knowledge in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. “Any particular concentration that appeals to you? I mean, it’s no problem if you’re not sure y-”

“Soul Studies,” Frisk signs decisively before you finish your sentence.

Oh. Uh, well. A controversial choice to say the least. The reintroduction of souls to humanity as an observable quantity rather than a philosophical and theological concept had been a rocky process, to say the least. While many religious leaders had more or less smugly accepted the existence of souls as proof of their own doctrines and left it at that, others had railed against pre-mortem observation, or even acknowledgement of souls as observable entities, as inherently blasphemous. You were hardly well-read on the subject, but from what you’d gleaned it seemed like for monsters, souls were also a sort of reproductive organ (although there is some debate on even as to describing a soul as an ‘organ’, considering they lacked biological components).

You glance at Sans for some sort of reaction to or context for Frisk’s statement, but he’s just slumped there looking...not bored, exactly, but you notice his eye sockets must be rather flexible because it almost looks like they’re closing? Frisk just continues to look at you expectantly from under their messy dark brown bangs. There’s something very personable, almost extroverted about them, despite not being very talkative.

“If you’re interested in Soul Studies, I understand why you’d want to be attending here as opposed to anywhere else,” you say as evenly as you can. “The program might be small, but considering a lot of it is being invented as they go along, it’s a unique opportunity to innovate and become a part of shaping an emerging discipline.” Putting it into the context of your work is actually helping a lot to reduce your discomfort. “After all, that’s why I’m here. Adaptive Coordination is a new thing too, and it’s been one of the most rewarding experiences of my life to be able to help create a new way of teaching and learning.” You’re feeling a little more confident in keeping things appropriate.

“Can you tell me more about the program?” Frisk inquires, leaning forward a little. “Can students be involved in scans, or is it strictly observation?”

You blink in surprise. “Oh! We don’t even have that kind of equipment here. Actually, to the best of my knowledge, scanning equipment and the resulting data aren’t allowed outside of the Royal Scien-”

Frisk actually makes a little grunt of frustration, startling you enough that you drop the end of your sentence. They immediately gesture apologetically, and when you look over at Sans, he hasn’t moved or even seemed to have noticed Frisk’s outburst. He looks like he might just take a nap right there, in fact. You kind of envy him.

“I knew that already, I don’t know why I even asked,” Frisk replies, and you find yourself remembering that Frisk is in fact someone with the kind of connections to gain access to that sort of information though the royals. Toriel’s been their guardian since they all emerged to the surface, after all, and queen of the monsters still outranks Royal Scientist, last time you checked. So couldn’t they have just asked?

Maybe there’s some sort of family drama going on with them. It’s possible Frisk’s family doesn’t approve of their interests, or maybe they’re just fighting.

Either way, it’s not like it’s a situation you’re unfamiliar with; plenty of the human students have had to deal disapproving families who’d much rather see them going into traditional human fields. Luckily, the fact that Ebott University doesn’t require any sort of monetary payment on the part of the students goes a long way to making sure the students’ aspirations aren’t completely derailed by lack of family support. It also ensures the best students aren’t excluded by such minutiae as inability to pay- yet another reason this place has won you over so completely.

“Well, how about this,” you suggest, rather than asking any questions that might dredge up family tensions simmering under Frisk’s laconic surface. “After we’re done here, would you like a tour of the department and related facilities? That way you can get more of a sense what we have here for yourself. Meetings aren’t in session right now and won’t start up again for another two months, but it’ll give you an idea of where everything is and how it all works. Even if you do declare Soul Studies right away, you still have to take prerequisites before you’ll even be going to meetings in those buildings, but there’s no reason you can’t take a look.” You smile encouragingly.

Frisk nods enthusiastically, then glances over at Sans. He’d been pretty quiet during all that, but he perks up a little at the suggestion of a tour.

“if s’not too much bother, I was hoping to see the observatory.”

“Of course,” you agree readily, then pull one of the decidedly non-optional bits of paperwork back in front of you. “We go right by it on the way, so we might as well stop there first. But before that, I still have some questions for Frisk, if that’s all right.”

“Shoot,” they indicate saucily. Their extremely round, placid face gives away very little information but you think you might have even seen a wink? What a peculiar young person.

“What is your living situation, and is it likely to change when and if you start here? This is only meant to determine how much assistance you might need in regard to transportation, housing, food...that sort of thing.”

Sans shifts on the loveseat slightly, remembering to take his hands out of his pockets again. “kid’s staying with me’n m’ brother right now. Our place is right around the corner, so it’s just more convenient and we don’t mind having ‘em.”

“So, with family?” you inquire, and both just nod. You move your pen to the part of the document for monster families, which omits the need to describe exact relationships and instead allows for the relative ambiguity of monster households. In the latter days of the underground, monsters often formed households filled with unrelated people in the wake of “falling down”, which you gathered from context was some kind of wasting sickness, often fatal. Parents lost children, children lost parents...but no one had gone without a family if it could be helped, and if a family was desired. The intake forms designed for a hybrid institution reflected this.

“Do you have any concerns about your food or housing? Transportation? Are you interested in being assigned a volunteer position or work-study program?” They indicate negative to all of those, so you just finish with, “Okay, I’ll put you down as ‘family providing’.” They nod, so you continue. “Speaking of which, are there any other members of your household, are any of them dependent on you, or possibly in need of assistance?”

Another negative. “Papyrus works, and Sans...” Frisk grins a little. “He’s fine. And that’s all of us.”

You assume “Papyrus” must be the brother Sans had mentioned, although you’re not exactly sure how to pronounce that.

“Do you want to put either down for emergency and secondary contacts? It’d make the next part simpler, but you don’t have to.”

Frisk glances over at Sans, who shrugs. Frisk nods back at you.

“All I need is name, address, and phone numbers for Sans and his brother then.” Instead of going to the trouble of having them spell everything for you while you look back and forth between them and the paper, you just hold out the clipboard towards them until Sans takes it. To your surprise, he appears to be left-handed. Or is handedness even a thing with monsters? None of the monsters you work closely with have hands. Although the cramped way Sans holds the pen and curls his arm around makes you expect chicken scratch, you can see that his tiny, rounded letters and numbers are perfectly legible.

“My handwriting is terrible, so I figured I’d spare you” Frisk supplies with the hint of a smile. They seem eager to smooth over the earlier awkwardness, but you honestly don’t feel any discomfort lingering. Who knows, maybe they were worried you’d ask why they weren’t staying with Toriel, but it honestly isn’t any of your business.

Sans hands you back the paperwork, and although you only glance over it, you see he really wasn’t kidding about living close.

“Heh, you all really are right around the corner, huh?” you observe absently. “You won’t have to worry about being late, I bet.”

“is that a challenge?” Sans replies with a wink.

Although the wink is somewhat distracting on account of seeing the bone socket of a skull close suddenly, his comment annoys you a little. As if just because you have an office and a desk, you’re the administrator of a no-fun zone for recalcitrant children. You don’t even work with children, but a lot of the human students seem to carry over the belief from earlier experiences that you’re personally invested in wiping their noses. It gets old.

“It’s no skin off my ass if they are,” you state tersely, then feel your face heat when you realize what you’re cussing at work again. So much for keeping it appropriate for a personage, or actually thinking before words come out of your mouth. “I mean…just saying. They’re responsible for themself.”

Sans just stares at you for a long moment, then throws his head back and physically rocks with laughter. You can see the bones in his neck. That are his neck.

“n-no-no skin off your-” he actually falls over to the side, and starts nudging at Frisk. “why haven’t i heard that one before?” he groans at Frisk between paroxysms of hilarity, weakly remembering to sign a bit even as he’s rolling around, the loose collar of his t-shirt pulling down and exposing his clavicle and the top of one or two ribs, and the darkness between. It’s an interesting view-nothing really in there but bones, is there? While you’re not sure why he thinks what you said is so funny, his mirth dissipates your annoyance rather than heightening it.

“i’m stealing it,” He wheezes weakly. “i’m stealing that (from you),” he repeats, guffawing as he points, and you’re just waiting to see if the show’s going to end soon. “why haven’t I heard that?”

“You don’t spend enough time around humans,” Frisk comments casually. “We’ve got the monopoly on skin.”

you spend too much time with toriel,” Sans deflects, catching his breath. “’s like you forgot how to say curse words.”

Frisk’s eyes glitter with amused intent under their dark lashes. “It’s like you forgot how to keep your bones in your shirt.”

Sans frowns, surprising you again with the expressive flexibility of his skull, then glances down and scrambles to tug his neckline back into place. His face looks a little...iridescent? for a moment, but it’s hard to tell in the incandescent bulb and magic light combo you’ve got in your office; florescent bulbs give you a headache.

Their hearty but harmless bickering is the kind of habit you’d usually find irritating, but with these two it comes off as sincerely affectionate rather than like personal sniping, or compensating for an inability to communicate. You actually really like them both. Frisk seems to have the kind of passionate drive to learn and make connections that you can relate to, and Sans, well...he’s just a mellow, trashy little...person. Skeleton. Whatever. His smartassery manages to be kind of charming, and so does his odd modesty.

“I guess I’m just surprised I haven’t seen you around, considering I work here and live on what’s technically campus housing,” you say as if that slight detour hadn’t occurred.

Sans seems to have sorted out what apparently counts as dishabille for him, and just shrugs.

“’m out of town a fair amount.”

“Okay,” you reply simply, then stand up with less pain than you were expecting. “Let’s do the tour now.”

You’re a little abrupt, but they both rise to their feet agreeably enough.

“Do I need to do placement testing, or pick out classes or something? I thought there would be more paperwork,” Frisk signs without seeming all that interested in being proven right.

You think about it, but you’d really rather get the physical activity out of the way while you’re in relatively little pain, and these two seem to be less than great at sitting in offices and filling out forms. You have to admit that Frisk’s indifference to decorum combined with Sans being more or less the walking, breathing manifestation of a messy bedroom makes you feel a lot more relaxed about working with them, despite the initial problems communicating.

“Nope. Let’s do the fun part first,” you reply with a grin. They both return it, then follow you out of your office and down the hall toward the exit to the administrative building. On the way, you stop by Diane’s office to request the keys you’ll need, and you go over the introductions without incident this time. Although Frisk’s lip movements and expressions are a part of ASL, they’re different from someone who’s actually speaking verbally, and don’t contain the same information. Frisk is less expressive than most Deaf and HoH people you’ve known, at least facially. They get their point across well enough, but it’s a grounding experience to have Diane’s lips to read for a minute or two.

“You three going on a tour? Great idea. Where to?”

“Sans wants to see the observatory, and then we’re gonna stop by Em-Stem and Soul Studies.” You frown thoughtfully, and add, “Why don’t you throw the ones for MAHI (sorry, that’s Monster and Human Interaction) on there too, just in case?” You raise your eyebrows at Frisk. “We can decide if we wanna see Social Sciences after the first two.”

You put on your outdoor coat and strap on one of your smaller bags containing various small necessities and comfort items in under it, and reassure yourself by touching the small bottle of water in the coat’s capacious pockets. Frisk has a coat as well, but Sans just zips up his hoodie and waits for you to finish bracing yourself before pushing the door open with a suddenly mittened hand. You glance down; it seems he had kept the mittens in the pockets of his hoodie the whole time. It makes you smile, but you’re not sure why. “Thanks,” you murmur as you pass by him on the way out.

You use your chin to indicate the dome of the observatory, which isn’t very far. You’re grateful, since the chilly wind whipping past you reminds you that your joints are on a timer today. Frisk walks briskly and stoically, eventually overtaking you with their shoulders hunched only slightly in their soft-looking felted wool peacoat. They’ve wrapped their hands back into their over-long sweater sleeves again before shoving them into the pockets of the coat, so you’re not really expecting them to make conversation on the way.

At least it’s not snowing, and there’s no ice on the ground today. It’s a little dry, even though there’s a high haze of overcast obscuring the sun. Despite seeming underdressed for it, Sans seems to almost relish the icy air whipping past his face, his flexible eye sockets narrowing a bit, but less in resistance to it than what appears to be enjoyment. It really is remarkable; the white points that float like pupils in the cavernous sockets don’t become less visible, even in daylight. It’s as if they exist in another dimension where the usual laws of light and shadow don’t really apply.

He catches you looking and meets your eyes for a second. You glace away reflexively since you’re not big on eye contact, but grin at his enthusiasm, at least compared to his earlier sleepy-seeming indifference. He grins back as you come to a stop outside the squat, domed building and yank the ridiculous lanyard out of your pocket to start fumbling for the correct key.

You shoulder the door open heavily (again, why do you keep forgetting to just press the goddamn button today?) and flail around for the light switch. You hit it, and wince as you realize you’ve forgotten your anti-industrial-light hat, but you try to get the strained look off your face as you turn around to address them.

“Astronomy is actually one of the more popular programs in the sciences here, but you wouldn’t really know it from the look of this place,” you say, gesturing around at the cluttered and well-worn interior filled with equipment, counters, desks, and papers.

Sans shakes his head a little as he enters and slowly, and pinches his middle finger and thumb together as they draw away from his sternum. “feels really lived-in,” he elaborates. “you can tell people are really into what they do here.” His face gets sort of soft and vague, and he wanders around the big room fiddling with bits of things and looking through piles of photographs and printouts. You don’t bother asking questions or trying to explain, since you don’t know what most of this stuff is or what it does, and it looks like he’s got a pretty good grasp on how to find whatever he wants a closer look at. Frisk is watching Sans putter with a fondly indifferent expression on their face, but when you make a motion inviting them to converse, they turn to you readily enough.

“So, you seem like you have a really firm idea of what you want out of your experience,” you comment, not making it a question but rather an invitation to share their thoughts. Frisk tilts their head ambiguously, but answers gamely enough.

“The Soul Studies concentration is the reason I’m here.”

You nod. “Well, I guess I don’t have to tell you that it’s still a bit of a controversial field,” you sign, not bothering to speak verbally anymore since Sans is hunched over in a corner near a pile of something, and you’d probably just be distracting him.

“In fact, since you’re kind of a… highly visible? person, you might want to take some steps to sort of prepare yourself for backlash, if you think that might be a thing for you,” you continue. “You’d have a much better idea of what the case will be there than, I do, of course.”

Frisk’s eyes glitter between their lashes. “Have there been problems?”

“Mostly just a buttload of hate mail,” you say with a wry smile. “I think they said some people tried to break into the building a few times, but I don’t know what they think we have in there? It’s just a place for them to exist in while they talk about it. Just some research papers, a few diagrams, the books that have been written so far, which isn’t much... Even the printed information from the scans are highly private, considering they’re from living individuals, and have to be loaned out from the Royal Libraries with a chain of custody, and an attendant...” you trail off. “Even the alternate format materials I’ve created have to go back right along with the paper ones. We don’t keep any of that here.”

Frisk leans forward eagerly. “You’ve seen them?”

You raise your eyebrows apologetically. “One or two, but I don’t actually understand any of the information in them,” you try to explain. “And I can’t really… tell you about it. Uh, legally. It’s like medical information.” If you remember correctly, most of it had seemed to be some sort of sequences corresponding to hexadecimal color codes, or at least that’s what it had reminded you of. Even sharing that much isn’t really allowed, though. But Frisk waves down your defensiveness, smiling gently in a way that reaches their long, heavily-lashed eyes.

“I just think it’s cool,” they clarify.

You smile again. “It is pretty cool. The program so far is modeled almost entirely after monster-style methods, considering there really isn’t any pre-existing human knowledge about souls that predates the fall of the barrier,” you sign thoughtfully. “But it also doesn’t seem like a lot of monsters are willing to come forward and really present themselves as experts, either. Less as if they’re uncomfortable, though, and more like they don’t know why or how humans would study souls?”

“Right now it’s just Professor Bob; otherwise I guess we have Gerson, who comes in about twice a month to answer some questions, and he decides which ones. It’s almost more like a club than a department. Even a few people who work here seem to think...well, people make certain assumptions about what goes on there. But a lot of it is really just supervised encounters, which I’m told isn’t like, um, canoodling. Debate and exploration of existing papers and online information. And the scan info we get access to sometimes, of course, not that I’m a hundred percent sure the people in the department know much more than I do about what they mean,” you elaborate.

Frisk looks down for a second and seems to come to a decision.

“I might be able to help with that,” they sign tightly.

You feel a little surprised, then wonder why you would be. Of course Frisk would know more about souls, presumably having access to more monster-based information about them, than possibly any other human alive today. And they did have connections...

“I don’t mean to overstep,” you begin hesitantly, “but do you mean with your own knowledge, or with greater access to the materials? I’ve heard you knew Dr. Alphys personally, or that she’s a, um, a part of your family? I’m aware that she’s the one who decides what equipment and materials are allowed to be accessed by the college, and I just...” You trail off as Frisk’s expression changes.

“Alphys has… concerns about human access to knowledge about souls. And her reasons...I can’t say it’s not justified” Frisk hesitates before they continue. “But so are mine,” they finish.

“you’re downright chatty today, buddy” Sans appears almost out of nowhere in your peripheral vision, making you jump. “that excited to start school, huh? can’t say i blame you if ’s all as interesting as this,” he adds with a last glance around the room. “but i don’t wanna hold you up anymore than i already have. so let’s go to the next stop, ‘kay?”

As you walk back towards the door, you indicate the dish of candy that Wilhelmina leaves out at reception for everyone regardless of whether classes are active or not. “Feel free to take one. Or some, or none,” you say with a smile. “My coworker says it should to be obvious they’re for everyone, but I think a little encouragement can’t hurt.”

Sans gives a quiet chuckle, and you stare at him quizzically. He looks at Frisk, then back at you.

“it’s the second coming of papyrus,” he comments cryptically. “they don’t even know they’re doing it, and it blows me out of the water every time.”

Frisk takes pity on you finally, signing “encouragement,” then grabs a piece of candy out of the dish and fingerspells “encourage-M-I-N-T” with an indulgent eyeroll at Sans.

“Ohhhh,” you lilt, finally understanding.

“Ohhhhh,” you groan in disbelief, taking the striped candy from Frisk.

Then, you cover your face and start giggling.

Encourage-mint.

It’s a fucking pun, and you didn’t even think of that until they hung a lampshade the size of the universe on it. Par for the course for you; it’s like jokes are on a timed delay sometimes. Maybe that’s why they hit harder, because it takes longer for you to process it.

Wait.

You uncover your face and goggle at Sans.

“Was that why you were laughing about the ‘skin off my ass’ thing so much? Because-” you start laughing harder, “because you don’t-” your eyes start to tear up. “You literally don’t have any skin on your ass,” and now you cover your face again because it’s actually really funny. The more you think about it, the harder you laugh because he was probably making jokes of that caliber the whole time, and you couldn’t understand a fucking word he was saying. No wonder he looked like no one showed up for his birthday party earlier.

“I’m sorry,” you wheeze, trying to wipe your eyes and regain your composure, but then you see his face and it sets you off again, and you can hear Frisk huffing along with you. He just looks so surprised.

“wow,” your hear him say, and you wipe your eyes quickly so you don’t miss cues. “no one’s laughed at my jokes like that in a few years,” he comments wryly, grinning easily again and putting his hand on the door handle. “’cept tori, a‘course,” he adds with an odd look you can’t read, then yanks the heavy door open and lets in a squall of wind.

“Well, I hope that it makes up for me being so slow on the uptake,” you reply weakly, pulling the wad of keys and lanyards and god-knows-what out of your pocket again to lock the door behind you. “Now I’m sorry I couldn’t understand you before, I probably missed out.”

“Mostly just bad science jokes,” Frisk signs immediately.

You nod toward the Biology and Medicine building, and then everyone shoves their hands back in their pockets for another silent and chilly trek, although the warm atmosphere from the shared laughter lingers.

As you walk, you think a little more about the controversial nature of souls among humans, and the subtle but pervasive cultural shifts that had occurred since the monster’s emergence to the surface. It was strange finding out you have body parts you never even knew existed. Except not really since it’s not like there was the same sort of hubbub around the discovery of the interstitium, which really was a body part everyone had all along and never knew about.

The thing is, you’re not really a fan of thinking too much about your body, because you sort of have to all the time, just to live your day to day life in little enough pain and fatigue to function. The idea that there are even more things about it that could possibly go wrong or make your life harder, well. Your soul, you assume, can just take care of itself like human souls have apparently been doing for millennia.

The knowledge that souls were not only real but a lot more tangible than anyone had ever guessed had affected a lot of things for almost everyone, and in sometimes really weird ways. Peoples and cultures around the world had reacted differently, but they’d certainly all reacted. The trends reflected a million little moments of personal revelation without much concrete information to ground them in. Most monsters seemed reticent to explain much about them other than they existed, humans and monsters all had them, and that however monsters had children had to do with their souls. In this nation, even the casual popularity of “heart” symbolism had undergone a sort of reverse renaissance, disappearing from emoji selections and valentine’s day products alike, now that its significance had been re-contextualized.

Always fascinated by writing, languages, and symbolism, your curiosity had been piqued by that. You’d read a research paper claiming to debunk a pre-surface theory that the heart symbol’s origin as representative of the seedpod of a now-extinct contraceptive plant circa the 6th century BCE.

Rather, the paper had asserted, the “sylphium” referred to in the ancient artifacts was actually a sort of monster-human congress that was unable to result in offspring, as the two species were incapable of interbreeding due to the incompatibility of their physical substance. After all, human bodies are made of organic matter; monsters’ bodies are mostly made of a substance or energy they called magic, with properties unlike any known to humanity before the barrier fell. It had made you a little uncomfortable, maybe because although the paper itself had not been especially titillating, it had somehow come off as if the author had found writing it to be.

Another article, anonymous but supposedly by a monster, had hinted at the idea that human sexuality had had a reputation for shallowness, or a kind of selfishness, and was considered to be slightly deviant among monsterkind. However, the mere fact that monsters had been aware of the existence and mechanics of human sexuality had been latched on to and later led to rampant speculation and, it can be assumed, experimentation by individuals, and oh god, why were you thinking about that while giving a tour to a prospective student and what you assume is their family member?

You try to think about the cold wind and will the heat in your face to flee as you clear your throat. It still impresses you not only that new taboos and hangups could be so widely adopted by most of humanity so quickly, but that your own feelings could become so oddly reactive to a concept that was utterly unknown to you until you were already in your twenties. Actually, that wasn’t exactly right. It seemed as though monsters tended to be more embarrassed by human sexuality, and humans by souls existing and what that could mean, but, well. It makes sense that culture shock between entirely separate species would run deep and have some unforeseeable side effects.

This time you finally remember to shove your shoulder against the button to open the door automatically, even though you have to take a step back after unlocking it and messily shoving the keys back in your coat pocket. Once all three of you are inside, you pull the water bottle out of the other pocket, take a swig, then turn towards them.

“Well, this is the right place for science jokes, if you’ve got more, since right now Soul Studies is being housed in the biology and medical section,” you say, then start leading them down the hall. “That might change, since it’s still really new and we’re not sure how big it’s going to get, or how...what kind or size of equipment might be necessary...” you trail off, feeling a little excited at the prospect of a flourishing new field coming to light, especially with the acumen or assistance of Frisk Dreamurr, human ambassador of monsterkind.

“huh,” Sans comments absently. “guess y’gotta put it somewhere.”

You blink. “Well, but...isn’t it like...uh, a body part?”

They both look over at you with a strange expression, then each other. Oh. You guess not.

“ol alphie must be keepin’ a tighter lid on it than I thought,” Sans says dryly, but not derisively. Still, you worry your apparent ignorance might be misrepresenting the department’s credentials, so you hasten to reassure them.

“I hope you understand, any knowledge I have about this would be whatever I’ve come across personally-I’m not actually a member of Soul Studies! I coordinate curricula so I have to have a passing familiarity with how the programs are run, but I’m not an expert in all of them. I’m sure the students and mentors of this program-”

Sans has been waving his hand at you placatingly for your whole speech, but you finally slow down enough for him to cut in.

“s’fine, don’t mind me. like the kid said, I don’t spend a lotta time around humans. just, uh, an odd idea to me i guess. sorry.”

You arrive at the elevator that heads to the second floor of the building, where the smallish set of rooms that house the Soul Studies department, such as it is, are located. You hit the button and wait, feeling flustered but unsure what else there might be to say about it. Frisk’s expression might be a little perturbed, but you don’t think it’s at you. Maybe it’s frustration with Dr. Alphys, if that’s the “Alphie” Sans had been referring to. It would make sense.

Sans scratches his chin with the back of his thumb bone for a second, then turns to you.

“so, a body is something you have, right? you don’t say, ‘i am a body.’ you say, ‘i have a body.’ right?”

The elevator dings, and you nod cautiously as you hold the door and invite them into it. You catch another whiff of the dry, nostalgia-inducing scent you noticed earlier. A memory niggles at you but you push it away, trying to concentrate on moving and listening at the same time. You press the button and lean back against the side of the elevator so you can see what the other two might say.

Sans’s grin gets a little wider.

“soul’s the you that has the body.”

You feel your face scrunch up, and you almost miss Frisk cutting their eyes sharply at their skeletal relative. But you’re definitely distracted. And sort of freaked out.

“But...isn’t that like...your...brain? Your personality and stuff?”

“heh. well, not to sell myself short, but I don’t exactly have one of those. a brain,” he clarifies, raising the tops of his eye sockets like brows. “but i’m still slingin’ snappy comebacks, so it’s gotta be coming from somewhere.”

He’s looking at you sidelong in amusement, but then his eye lights flicker (whoa) and his grins flattens a bit.

“hey, uh. sorry. i’m freakin you out. it’s nothing you need to be worried about, ‘k?”

You shut your mouth with a snap, and realize Frisk’s been holding the door of the elevator open on the second floor for an unclear amount of time, watching you both cryptically.

“I’m!” you start, then modulate your volume a little. “I’m not exactly freaked out, I’m just, uh, it’s a lot to think about. I guess I never really looked into it as much as some people do,” you finish, stepping past Frisk to lead the way towards your goal, which luckily is only a few more feet away.

“Okay, so this is where the magic happens,” you say glibly as you turn the key in the door, trying to recover your composure and succeeding somewhat. “Literally, sometimes,” you add with a smile. There. That’s better. You flick half the switches and wince only slightly as the florescent lights bathe the room in a whitish glare, not very alleviated by the overcast sky outside, which is nonetheless visible through the open blinds.

You walk into the space that has a few small desks scattered about, a few padded chairs and some tables. An extra long table against one wall has some papers scattered on it. You should…

something.

You…

should...

“The head of the program right now is Professor Bob, and everyone says she does a good job of generating discussion and providing praxis without breaching any of the confidentiality issues or the-the….”

You’ve gathered up the papers into your hands, but they’re shaking so hard you’re having a hard time holding onto them.

That’s weird. Are you...sick?

You look over at Sans, and realize Frisk’s hunched back is to you, which is just as well since you...you forgot to sign.

You’re holding the papers in your shaking hands. What are they? They’re starting to bend and fold in your grip, you can’t tell.

“I, uh, I’m sorry? What...was I saying?” you whisper hoarsely.

Sans looks at you in concern, then takes a few steps forward.

“hey, are you okay? I really didn’t mean to-”

He leans in and peers at your face closely. Your teeth chatter, and you’re embarrassed. What the fuck is wrong with you? Maybe you just need to-

The tiny lights in Sans’ eyesockets go out completely as he stiffens in shock.

f r i s k

It feels like the word is being traced onto the inside of your skull with a cold fingertip.

w h a t h a v e y o u d o n e .

You tear your eyes away from the black sockets in front of you and look at Frisk, who has turned back around and is holding themself tightly, hands running over their abdomen in an oddly disturbing manner.

“We have to get out of here. Now,” they sign.

Sans’ eyes flicker back into existence, but the points are hard-edged and tiny.

“you said-”

Frisk barks a noise of urgency. “Later,” they sign urgently. “He’s coming. Can we take a shortcut?”

Sans darts a tense look at you, then turns back to Frisk.

who’s coming?”

“A killer,” they reply desperately, face carved with grief.

Sans sags heavily for a long moment, but his back is to you. Before you or Frisk can say another word, Sans moves more quickly than you’d imagined he was capable of, since he’s already out the door. It click-thuds behind him with finality.

You and Frisk stare at each other; they’re still holding themself as if they expect to fall apart at any moment. Their mop of thick, blunt-cut hair shudders a moment as they take a deep breath. Their heavy-lidded eyes narrow further and their mouth falls into a straight line. They stride forward determinedly and take your arm, leading you slowly toward the door. You resist a moment, although for some inexplicable reason, you’re shaking less than you were a minute ago. “A killer is coming” is NOT reassuring news, so why do you feel almost...relieved? You have no idea what’s going on, or how Frisk can know that someone is coming to do something terrible to them. That was definitely not ambiguous.

Frisk looks at you.

“We don’t want to end up trapped in the room,” they state decisively.

You allow yourself to be led as Frisk opens the door and peers out carefully, holding you slightly behind them.

Then you duck instinctively as a loud bang echoes down the hallway, tugging at Frisk’s arm. You think it came from the left, so you point and gesture.

You hear Sans’ voice, and you can’t make it out but he sounds...calm. Then, another echoing bang. You look at Frisk questioningly and they purse their lips, looking frustrated. Your hand is still shaking violently but you manage to steady your fist just enough.

“Sans,” you gesture silently. You point again.

Their eyes flash darkly, and they drag you both up from where you’ve crouched in the doorway and start to lead you slowly down the hallway. Not to the right and back to the elevator but towards where the loud slamming sounds and Sans’ voice had come from. You’re breathing heavily, and you know you’ve just kind of shut down and Frisk is practically a baby and you should be the one protecting them, but you can’t think, you can’t-

You and Frisk turn the corner, and the hall beyond is filled with a dimness that can’t be penetrated by the overcast daylight coming in through the hall’s windows. It’s very hard to see but you can tell you’re looking at Sans’s silhouette from the back. It looks like there might be a prone figure in front of him. Sans’s hands are in his pockets, and his posture seems casual, almost relaxed.

You look at Frisk, who seems relieved for a split second before their face twists enigmatically.

They turn and look at you.

“We should call someone,” they urge.

“Oh,” you whisper, then belatedly fumble in your pockets for your lanyard, which has an emergency fob on it. Frisk pulls out an oddly bulky rectangular object.

It’s a monster phone. You’ve heard of them, you know what they look like and that they’re nearly impossible to get, but you’re never seen one in person before. They’re doing something with it, but you’re trying to split your attention between whatever is going on in that dim area, and pulling the pin out of your emergency fob so campus security can get the fuck over here like immediate style and sort out whatever the hell this is. You also pull out your phone to send a shaky text to the proper emergency number, with your location and highest priority code, although you’re not entirely sure what this situation is exactly. You barely manage, and by the time you look back up to Frisk they’re putting the monster phone away; you wave to grab their attention.

“What’s happening,” you sign. “What is this?”

Their eyes lock back onto the dim area the second your sentence ends, and you see a tear leak out of their eye only to be scrubbed away by one of their long, lovingly hand-knit sleeves.

“Sans pulled him into an encounter,” they reply after a long moment.

Encounter, that’s a magic thing. A monster thing… a soul thing. Anything that happens in it, stays in it. Conversations, and...

“They’re fighting?” you croak.

Frisk’s head shakes, but you’re not sure it’s a refutation.

“It’s still his turn.”

That...doesn’t actually mean anything to you. Suddenly you think you see a flash, and you feel something hit the floor although you don’t hear anything this time.

A low, raw sound happens beside you and you snap your eyes back to Frisk.

“He doesn’t want to hurt anyone. He never did,” Frisk says disjointedly, almost like they forgot you’re here. Then their eyes refocus and they seem to see you. They take a deep, shuddering breath.

“[sign] will be here soon. It’ll be...soon.”

“I don’t know what [sign] is,” you reply.

Another shuddering breath. “Undyne,” they spell shakily.

Oh. Captain of the Royal Guard. Dr. Alphys’ wife. Eight foot tall fish lady. That Undyne. You realize the sign Frisk had made resembled a fan held by the side of their face….a fin? It must have been a name sign for Undyne, whose grimly scaled visage you’d seen photos of before. You hope she lives up to her reputation because you’re feeling distinctly in need of rescue.

“Campus security will come,” you whisper absently, but Frisk isn’t looking at you anymore, anyways. Their arms are wrapped around themselves again, their fist pressing a tight circle into their chest over and over. It feels like a century goes by while you stare dully into the dimness in the hall of the BioMed building.

Then you hear a faraway slam; a lot of loud crashes, thumps, and bangs that sound like they’re coming nearer. You touch Frisk’s arm, and their head snaps toward you like a viper’s.

“Someone’s coming.”

Despite your anticipation you still jump when the door to the stairs behind the two of you slams open and hits the wall behind it hard enough that you’re surprised the windows don’t shatter.

A blue, scaly monster with a bright red topknot stomps towards you and wheels Frisk around by their shoulder. A faraway part of your brain that isn’t currently broken notes that while she is taller than any human you’ve ever seen, she’s probably not eight feet tall. Wow. That eyepatch.

“What happened?!” she hollers into Frisk’s devastated face.

Frisk emits a tiny, anguished wail and points to the dim area.

“NGAAAAAHHHH!” Undyne shouts, and then runs right into the encounter, swallowed up by the dim area.

There are several more of what might be flashes, and blurry movement of some kind. After a few moments, the light and space around the monsters return to normal. Sans stands in the same spot, hands in his hoodie pockets, while Undyne crouches over a dark heap that doesn’t struggle.

She drags a bag you hadn’t seen before over and looks inside, says something sharp you don’t quite catch.

“What the hell was he going to do with this,” she adds, and you do understand that. You’re not sure you want to, though. You’re really not...feeling very well at all.

Your entire mind feels like it’s been stuffed full of cotton and novocaine, but you hear what might be the belated arrival of campus security. There are voices, at least.

Sans turns around, and you realize nothing about him is relaxed. He looks indescribably exhausted, and for the first time, he reminds you of something dead. Frisk totters forward hesitantly.

“heya, kiddo. looks like you were right. not that I expected anything else.”

You can’t see what they say; their back is to you.

After a moment: “nah. we all got choices.” his eyes flicker dully. “and we made em, didn’t we?”

Frisk breathes shakily, a tiny grunt slipping out. Now Undyne is calling someone.

“nothing to be done about it. and you know how good I am at doing that.”

Sans looks around Frisk a moment and slowly focuses on you, and the deep grooves under his eye sockets look freshly carved. His eyes are dull pinpricks.

“no skin off my ass,” he intones humorlessly. “heh.”