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make a little birdhouse in your soul

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The house is quiet and caliginous at this time of night. No older brother to keep Kris awake with flashlights and boardgames and pillow fights; no older brother to share long, winding conversations and probing questions with; no older brother to sneak into the kitchen with and devour a whole cinnamon-butterscotch pie or all the chocolate stashed in the pantry. This room really does feel empty without Asriel, and even more so because Kris is in it. This is the effect Kris seems to have wherever they go: places always seem emptier with them in it, as if they emanate a negative energy, as if their body not only lacks presence but actively invites absence. Loneliness is the same for them: the more people they have around, the more lonesome and isolated they feel. Asriel is the only exception to that rule, but, then, Asriel isn’t here right now.

Kris sits up on their bed and places a hand against their chest, covering the spot where their second soul glows red like an old streetlight over a forlorn midnight road. They try to snuff out the light as much as possible, but it stubbornly filters through the gaps in Kris’s fingers, dimming and then brightening again in a never-ending cycle that reminds Kris of a real heartbeat. It even synchronizes with their breathing, a fact they find exceedingly nauseating. Kris knows how hard it’s trying to become a part of them, while every part of them actively rejects it.

Kris fishes a knife out from under their sleeve that they pilfered from the kitchen earlier, removing their other hand from their chest so the crimson light can illuminate and reflect against the metal blade. Kris peers at their own murky reflection for a moment, then raises the knife to their throat, pressing ever-so-slightly. They wait several seconds, holding their breath all the while, their grip on the plastic handle only tightening as time transpires. It starts to shake, and Kris feels their pulse accelerate. But nothing happens. Once again, nothing happens. It’s not a relief. It’s a disappointment.

Kris puts the knife down with a sigh. They’ve been doing more and more of this as of late: standing dangerously near the edges of cliffs and peering down at the world below, not bothering to look both ways before crossing a busy street, wadding out into the lake even though they never learned to swim and would probably drown if pushed towards the deep end. It’s not that they’re suicidal per say – although, as their family well knows, they are no stranger to the feeling – rather, they are trying to prove something, a theory regarding the entity that has elected to usurp Kris’s autonomy for reasons they cannot – or at least try not to – possibly fathom. It’s quite simple really: Kris just straight up refuses to view it as benevolent. They are ruining Kris’s life but that alone is not enough. How it ruins their life matters. To what extent it will go. Maybe it’s unfair of Kris, but it’s also unfair to control someone else’s body without their consent, so Kris feels like they have the moral high ground on this one. All they want is a sign. A single, definitive sign that not fighting this force would be a dangerous choice, not only for Kris but for everyone else as well.

In a way, Kris has already received the sign they’re looking for. They can feel it in their body: in their chest, yes, but also in their hands, in their legs, in their head. It exercises a pressure like one of those excessively suffocating embraces that Kris loathes so much. Every day, while they speak and act in ways carefully curtailed by this external force, Kris can feel its invisible hands wrapped around their neck, squeezing so tight it leaves little bruises like seashells brought onto a beach by a high tide.

This Kris has learned to tolerate, at least for certain periods at a time. What they absolutely cannot tolerate under any circumstances and for any duration of time is when it decides to speak. God, Kris hates when it speaks.

“Oh, my dear, why do you hurt yourself this way? Don’t you know you’re special? Don’t you know you’re loved?”

The voice echoes between Kris’s temples like a ball being flung back and forth, internal rather than external. It’s sickly-saccharine and nearly submerged in grief. It reminds Kris of the tone their mother used to ask what had happened the first time she discovered suspiciously deep cuts across Kris’s arms, cuts that didn’t look like the sort of scratches playing outdoors could inflict. This, of course, makes it worse for Kris, who hates thinking of it as genuinely caring for them. If it cared at all, it would have ceased communicating with them a long time ago.

“We could be friends, you and me. Work together. Make all of your dreams come true. If only you’d open up to me a little – well, I could show you what a big help I could be then!” The voice continues with – what seems to Kris – like excessive cheeriness, exactly like a child that’s just been awarded the exact toy it’s been pining after all year long.

It quickly becomes a physical presence in the room, snaking around Kris like plumes of smoke that fill every inch of empty space, making it harder and harder to breathe. Kris’s therapist would call this a panic attack, but to Kris it just means dealing with a very uncomfortable presence, something beyond their control to escape or mitigate. Kris can feel their skin tremble and perspire, like there’s a second skeleton forming inside of them, pushing outwards towards freedom. They shut their eyes and clasp their hands over their ears in an effort to drown it out, but of course they know this to be utterly futile.

“You know, I didn’t ask for this, either!” The voice wails wretchedly. Kris – against a profound desire to not do so – registers anguish, heartache, discomfort. But there is no remorse. Not that Kris would ever forgive it for what it’s done, anyway.

“You think I’m happy to treat you this way? To have no say in the matter whatsoever? I’m in pain, too! I’m in just as much pain as you!”

Kris takes a deep breath and forces themself to stand, each step they take accompanied by the wobbling of their unsteady feet and clenching and unclenching of their fists. Their head hangs low, breath still erratic, too deep at times and then spiraling into hyperventilation at others. Their long, brown bangs hang limp against their face, partly obscuring their face. When they reach the corner of the room, they kneel, one hand on the rusted birdcage and the other on their chest. They say a small prayer in their mind, to the Angel that supposedly watched over everyone. They pray that this voice will finally shut the fuck up.

“All I ever wanted was to know you!” The voice sobs, a torrent about to devour an unsuspecting town, except Kris is perfectly aware of what it’s capable of.

There’s resentment this time, a sort of vindicated grief, as if Kris is the one to blame in this situation and should dutifully apologize. Kris can’t say they understand where it comes from, but then Kris can’t claim to understand anything about this being or why it clings to them so desperately. Kris doesn’t believe that it’s literally incapable of cutting itself out of their chest. Kris is pretty sure it just chooses not to. Why is beyond them – it’s explained many times before and probably will again now, but Kris doesn’t expect to ever even minutely comprehend it.

“Now I love you and I can’t let go of you! Don’t you understand? Can’t you imagine how hard this is for me?” The voice accuses, a pitiful sight if Kris has ever seen one, but Kris has never felt any empathy for it. “I only want what’s best for you. And I want to help it happen! I love you and I want to make you happy…”

Kris can feel their power over their body waning, their consciousness flickering like an old gray film against a dark background. They are losing control again. They are being forced to watch while someone else decides what is best for them, decides who they should be, decides how they should move about in the world and respond to that world. It’s sickening, like throwing up when all there is in their stomach is gastric acid, like being bedridden with a fever that induces frightful hallucinations, like all the times Kris has been forced to dissociate in the middle of a perfectly normal conversation and only regain clarity hours or even days later, with no recollection of what transpired during that period. But Kris needs to hold on. Just for a moment longer.

“Aren’t you happy with the choices I’ve made for you? Aren’t you happy with the friends I’ve helped you make? Aren’t you happy with all the fun adventures I’ve helped you have together? I’ve tried to choose what I truly believe you want…” The voice pleads. Kris can’t figure out why it seems so desperate to earn their approval. It can do whatever the fuck it wants with Kris’s body. Why the hell should it matter so much what they think of it? It can’t really expect them to be grateful, can it? This is all just some sick joke. This is just its way of burrowing deeper under Kris’s skin, of making them feel all the more upset. Someone that genuinely claims to love them wouldn’t do this. It’s inhumane.

“Maybe if you just talked to me, if you told me what you need, we could figure it out together! We could both be happy!” The voice appeals, betraying a faint smattering of hope, of amiability. Kris can practically see it smiling at them, a fact that infuriates them all the more. Does it not realize how fucking insane it sounds right now?

The blood loss is always a bit of a surprise, but it’s long since ceased being alarming to Kris, who is more or less used to seeing their own blood at this point. There’s no real pain, at least not any Kris could complain about, just a dull ache, like they’re pressing on an old bruise that they just can’t let heal. The soul throbs crimson in their hands, a deformed mass that only vaguely resembles the internal organ it’s supposed to correspond to. With shaking arms, Kris drops it into the birdcage and shuts the door with a loud clang, then uses their still bloody fingers to rub circles into their forehead. It feels like a forest fire is blazing through their nervous system, like their entire body is one big rubber band stretched well past its limit, about to either break or snap back into place.

With great effort, Kris manages to stand and stumble their way towards the door, exiting into the hallway and making a beeline for the phone, which is situated right between the kitchen and living room. Behind them, they can hear the desolate soul crying frantically behind them.

“I love you I love you I love you I love you I love you I love you I love you I love you I love you I love you I love you I love you I love you I love you I love you I love you I love you I love you I love you I love you I love you I love you I love you I love you I love you I love you I love you I love you I love you I love you…”

Kris tries to ignore it as they cradle the receiver in their hand and dial the only number they’ve ever memorized. It takes a couple of rings, but eventually someone does pick up. Kris lifts the receiver to their ear, attempting to tamper down their breathing so it’ll sound more normal.

“Hello?” The voice – a different voice – says, sounding quite groggy. It is the middle of the night, after all.

“Hey,” Kris manages to cough up, cringing internally at how hoarse they sound. Not how they wanted to start this conversation.

“Kris? Is that you? What’s wrong? Why are you calling me in the middle of the night?” Asriel asks, but there’s neither judgement nor resentment in his tone, just pure curiosity, pure concern. It’s the only type of concern Kris has ever felt even vaguely comforted by.

“Do you remember… do you remember when we were little, and I’d tell you that sometimes I felt… possessed?” Kris says, one hand fidgeting anxiously with the cord of the telephone while the other grips their chest, trying to make up for all that empty space.

“Of course I do, Kris. I’d never forget something like that,” Asriel says, his voice gentle and patient. Kris closes their eyes and they can see Asriel sitting up in his bed, crossing his legs and cradling the receiver between his shoulder and neck as he reaches out with one hand to turn on a light, all while looking profoundly concerned but not pitying. It brings Kris an iota of comfort, which goes a long way in their current state. Sometimes, Kris even thinks Asriel genuinely understands what it’s like to exist with such a fucked-up brain as theirs.

Kris doesn’t answer for several seconds, just breathing into the receiver as if the silence between them had the power to convey everything Kris is feeling. But, even if it could, Kris isn’t sure they’d do it. They don’t know how they’d ever explain their current predicament. They don’t know if even Asriel – dear, compassionate Asriel, who has always been on Kris’s side one hundred percent regardless of how weird or outlandish Kris’s stories have been – would believe this one. But maybe there is a way of fitting it into a frame that Asriel can understand.

“Why? Did it… did it come back?” Asriel asks tentatively, clearly wanting to know more while also wanting to be respectful of Kris’s boundaries. He knows how much Kris hates being pushed about something they aren’t ready to discuss. Maybe this phone call is just to hear Asriel’s voice and feel somewhat comforted. Asriel would be fine with that. He doesn’t need to know everything right away to do everything in his power to help his beloved sibling.

“I think it did,” Kris admits, shame making them lower their gaze to the ground, as if they have no one to blame for their current predicament but themself. In the distance, they can hear the rattling of metal as the other soul struggles fruitlessly to reunite with its unwilling vessel.

“Well, what do you want to do about it?” Asriel asks after a short pause, launching into what Kris knows well as Asriel’s “helpful” mode. “Do you want me to talk to mom about it? Do you want to see a therapist? ‘Cause we can find someone to help you. We can –”

“I don’t think it can be helped this time,” Kris interrupts softly, their eyes suddenly becoming moist. It’s rare for them to cry and the prospect of doing so now fills them with unsurmountable dread. If only Asriel were here in person, maybe Kris would have the courage to do so. But all on their lonesome? With only that atrocious soul for company? They can’t picture a sadder sight.

“How come?” Asriel inquires. Kris can hear him holding his breath.

“Because… because I think it came from the Angel this time,” Kris answers carefully, perfectly aware of how ludicrous they sound. But this is Asriel they’re talking to. Asriel will understand, or at the very least take Kris seriously. What is real to Kris has always been real to Asriel as well.

“The Angel?” Asriel questions, sounding confused but not incredulous. It surprises Kris a little that he needs an explanation at all. After all, he’s the one that has attended church regularly for the entirety of his life.

“Yeah. Isn’t that what it’s called?” Kris answers, peering back up at the ceiling as if they expect a divine light to suddenly pour down onto them and explain why all these terrible things have been happening to them. “The Angel that’s supposed to protect everyone? The one people are always talking about at church?”

“Oh! Right – the Angel,” Asriel says and Kris can picture him nodding on the other side, the contours of his face gaining confidence as they tread into familiar enough territory. “You’re saying you have some kind of guardian angel telling you what to do?”

Kris pauses, considering this statement carefully. It’s not the truth truth, but it feels close enough, at least for now. Whatever is actually going on in Kris’s life, it does often feel like divine judgement – whether that means they’re being rewarded or punished, however, they have no idea.

“I guess you could call it that,” Kris finally answers, their voice dropping to an uneasy whisper. They close their eyes and try to conjure up the image of Asriel again, try to get lost in it so everything else that’s currently happening will just politely fuck off and give them a much-needed moment of peace and quiet.

“Not gonna lie, lil sib… that sounds kind of cool!” Asriel exclaims brightly, practically beaming through the receiver. It’s exactly the sort of reaction Kris expected. “So, what’re they like? This angel, I mean!”

“It’s…” Kris mumbles softly, pressing their back to the wall and sliding down until they’re seated on the floor. Their chest has stopped bleeding, so they place their newly unoccupied hand on their knee, trying to steady their shivering body.

“It’s terrible. I hate it. It makes me feel like I’m not myself anymore. Like everything I do and say is being decided by someone else and I can’t do anything to stop it,” Kris answers honestly, relief suddenly knocking the oxygen out of their lungs and making them gasp. For all their antagonistic behavior, they’ve never permitted themself the luxury of admitting their sincere feelings aloud. There’s simply never been anyone to admit them to.

“But… but it also doesn’t seem like what it’s doing is wrong. I mean, people seem to react positively to it. People actually like me now – they want to be my friends, and go on adventures with me, and stuff! It just makes me wonder if… if maybe I should just let it do what it wants…” Kris trails off, an existential despair that they’re all too familiar with suddenly gripping their chest and making tears squeeze through the corners of their eyes. They hate themself for it. They don’t know why or where this tremendous self-loathing comes from, but they know it’s real, and fierce, and all-consuming.

“Kris…” Asriel says, the concern palpable in his tone. “Can you bring the receiver to your forehead? I want you to feel like I’m right there, pressing my forehead to yours.”

Kris nods despite there being no one to spectate it and does as instructed, closing their eyes so they can really imagine Asriel right next to them. They remain this way for several seconds, until Kris presses the receiver back to their ear, providing Asriel with the signal he’s been waiting for.

“Look, I don’t know this angel, or what it might be doing for you, but I believe – I really believe – that it’s more important to feel like you’re able to be yourself as much as possible,” Asriel says gently but firmly, with all the brotherly affection and guidance that Kris has grown to depend on over the years. “Whatever this angel is, they’re not you – only you can be you. And that’s a privilege, but also a responsibility. Who you are – who you really are – will draw people to you. You’re still capable of making friends on your own and going on adventures with them. You don’t need someone else to tell you how to do that. I mean, you’re my best friend, aren’t you?”

Kris laughs a little at this, a smile worming its way onto their face despite how miserable they feel. They can’t say they wholly believe Asriel – life has certainly provided them with plentiful examples of people not liking them and not wanting to be their friend – but they appreciate the sentiment, appreciate that it’s Asriel saying these things to them. No one knows Kris like Asriel, so, if there’s anyone Kris can trust to be a good judge of their character, it has to be Asriel.

“Thanks, Azzy,” Kris says after a pause, wiping the tears from their eyes with the sleeve of their unoccupied hand and feeling relieved when none emerge to replace them. Their breathing has also relaxed significantly, finally allowing their mind to form concrete thoughts rather than relying on fragmented sentences. It’s both a blessing and a burden – Kris’s thoughts can be an awful, terrifying force at times.

“Don’t even mention it! That’s what big brothers are for, right?” Asriel proclaims cheerfully.

Kris is wondering if it’s time to bring this conversation to an end – they already feel bad enough having woken Asriel up on a school night and don’t want to further contribute to him not getting the amount of sleep necessary to properly navigate his college life – when Asriel pipes up with another question.

“Is it happening right now? Like… do you feel like you’re being told what to do right now?”

Kris considers this query carefully for a moment, surprised when they realize that the answer is a loud, resounding no – in fact, Kris can’t think of a single occasion in which it’s happened while in Asriel’s presence. This strikes Kris as odd because it’s happened in just about every situation and around every other person imaginable. Is this only because Asriel has been away at college while it’s been happening, or is there something else, something deeper, that stands as a barrier between Asriel and the other soul? It’s almost as if Asriel is a safe sanctuary for Kris, truly the place where they can always be themself.

“No. It’s never happened while around you. I don’t know why but that’s how it is,” Kris says.

“Hey – it’s like I’m your lucky charm!” Asriel exclaims with a bout of effervescent laughter.

Kris has only just started to smile a little when they hear a loud bang coming from the direction of their bedroom. Terror strikes Kris’s complexion like a slap, making the blood drain from their face and their whole body start to shudder again. They know what that sound means. They know who finally wriggled out of its cage.

“Kris? Is everything okay?” Asriel asks, having apparently heard the sound as well.

Kris can’t bring themself to answer. Instead, they bang the receiver back into place, abruptly concluding the call, and make their staggering way back to their bedroom. Leaning against the frame of the door for support, Kris peers down grimly at the wriggling mass on the floor, a mixture of hatred and pity bubbling up inside of them like a geyser about to burst. It occurs to them that it really is a pathetic entity, incapable of operating in a vessel of its own and thus forced to hijack the body of someone else.

“Kris! Oh, Kris – there you are! I was worried about you!” The voice starts up again, as obnoxious as ever, but, for once, Kris doesn’t try to drown it out completely. Instead, they listen silently.

“Who was that you were talking to on the phone?” The voice continues, now with a chipper ring. “Oh, I can’t wait to meet them! Won’t you introduce us, Kris?”

This strikes Kris as the single most repulsive thing this voice has ever said to them. Their reaction is visceral.

“Stay away from him,” Kris warns coldly, baring their teeth in a grimace and glaring down at the soul.

“Who?” The voice asks, seemingly perplexed.

“I’ll do whatever the hell it is you want me to do. Just stay. Away. From. Him,” Kris continues, certain in that moment of how deeply they mean their words. Asriel is the one person Kris can never let this other entity interact with. Not through Kris.

“You mean Asriel,” the voice guesses, seemingly without effort. It pisses Kris off.

“Don’t say his fucking name!” Kris lashes out, hands clenching into fists while stomping down repeatedly on the bloody mass.

“But, Kris, I know how important he is to you – which makes him important to me, too!” The voice insists, seemingly unaffected by Kris’s aggression. “I’m sure if we talked it out, we could all just get along –”

“I said stay the hell away from him!” Kris yells, kicking the soul against the wall and then slamming their fist above it, leaving a visible dent in the concrete.

Exhausted, and bored with these petty and ineffective acts of violence, Kris collapses face-first into their bed, aware that their time as an autonomous being is rapidly coming to an end. Any moment now, they will feel it. Any moment now, they will cease being.

All Kris can think of during those last moments is how they’ll ever face Asriel once he returns from college. Can Kris exorcise this intruder before then? Or will they be forced to watch as it interacts with their beloved brother? Will this new Kris fool him? Will it impress him? If Asriel ever did come to love this soul more than the real Kris, would it be selfish and cruel for Kris to still pursue the desire to be only and wholly themself?