I'll Try Anything Once

feebop Jul 20th, 2019 (edited) 551 Never
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  1. On a sweltering summer morning, a family of goats clattered along an old forest trail.
  3. At the head of the troop strode Asgore, whose resounding footfalls announced his family's presence to anything in his line of sight. As he trotted along, the great goat hummed a marching tune that only a keen ear could hear beneath the booming of his feet. He prayed, too, but not even the most sensitive ear on Earth could hear that.
  5. A few steps behind glid Toriel, whose normally thunderous steps barely registered behind her husband's. A certain energy powered the goat woman's gait that day, and she may have left Asgore in the dust if she weren't minding the two at the end of the line.
  7. Asriel, for his part, walked confidently after his mother. The path was familiar, and his footing was sure. He, too, felt something bristling at the tips of his fur. Something crackly and exciting that made him want to run. Not that he could, of course. That would mean leaving his brother behind.
  9. At the very end of the Dreemurr procession, keeping pace only by the grace of Asriel holding his hand, trudged Kris.
  11. Modest. That was the pace Kris could keep on his absolute best day. At present, he was going far slower than modest, because he was far from having his best day.
  13. The youngest Dreemurr was following a strange trail leading somewhere he had never been, to meet people he had never met, in heat hotter than he had ever felt before.
  15. The path appeared to be made of the same stuff as the family driveway. Hard and black and smelly. Hot, too, like it could suck up the sun's warmth and spit it back at poor children out of spite. Kris wondered why things needed to be made from the awful material.
  17. He also wondered why the sun wanted to kill him. On that morning it sent down a sinister glare instead of its usual pleasant warmth. A high-of-one-hundred heat, his father had called it, whatever that was worth.
  19. In the one-hundred-high warmth his faithful sweater felt like a thick blanket wrapped around him. His shiny black shoes were so hot on the outside that he could feel them through his socks. Beads of sweat swam on his brow and the back of his neck. Or, he assumed it was sweat. He might just be melting.
  21. He knew he had to keep going, though.
  23. Today was a crucial milestone for him. At least that's what Mom had told Dad a few nights ago, when good little boys should have been asleep. Something about mainstreaming and socialism-ization. Kris wasn't familiar with the words, but he could tell they were important.
  25. Strangely, though, Mom hadn't told him about any of the fancy words that were at stake. She had just said he was going to get the chance to meet kids his age... besides his brother. She had said that it would be fun.
  27. So far she was wrong.
  29. “How are you feeling, my child?”
  31. Kris scarcely had time to look up from his shoes before his brother answered: “I'm fine!”
  33. He was just in time to see his mother's tired smile, and the slightest roll of her eyes.
  35. “Not you, dear,” she told him, finishing the familiar exchange before she glanced over at Kris.
  37. Asriel giggled to himself, and Kris almost felt the corners of his mouth turning up. One day Azzy would get tired of that routine, but Kris hoped it wasn't soon.
  39. As for his monther's question, Kris wasn't totally sure. He felt hot, there was no mistaking that. Tired, too, from all the fast paced walking. He felt a gnawing sort of feeling in his belly about all the uncertain things waiting for him down the road. He felt odd, for being the only member of the family affected by the heat. A part of him felt like acting pathetic in the hopes of going home, but a bigger part knew that he had to be here.
  41. Kris scraped his tongue along the inside of his teeth as he thought.
  43. This must be how the hero of his favorite game felt when he had to go into a dungeon.
  45. Yes, he realized. That was almost exactly what he was doing right now.
  47. Heading towards some strange place where his fate was uncertain, through a fire level without the magic shirt that stopped him from catching on fire. Odds were that there was nothing good waiting for him there, but he was honor-bound to go anyway, for the good of main streams and socialism.
  49. Brave, he settled on. He was feeling brave.
  51. His mother was still looking at him.
  53. The little soldier clenched his jaw and straightened his lip. In the coolest way he could he nodded at his mother.
  55. She smiled at him, and nodded back. Seemed she understood.
  57. Mom turned back around and resumed her stride. After only a few steps, though, she looked over her shoulder again, and furrowed her brow. Not an angry furrow, more like a sad one.
  59. The goat woman slowed her stride and allowed her children to catch up to her.
  61. “Here,” she told Kris, rustling through her purse, “I think this might help.”
  63. Before he had time to wonder, Toriel produced a glistening bottle of water, sweating just like he was. Kris' lips were already parted. With one flick of her fingers she removed the lid, and handed him the precious thing.
  65. Kris marveled at his mother's powers. He hadn't even indicated that he was hot but somehow she knew. It was a superpower that Mom and Azzy and sometimes Dad seemed to share, being able to tell what Kris was feeling without him guiding them along. She'd even taken the lid off so he wouldn't have to let go of his brother's hand.
  67. “Can I have one?” Asriel asked.
  69. The crinkling of an empty bottle interrupted any answer he might have received.
  71. Toriel looked down at Kris with wide eyes, while Asriel murmured in amazement.
  73. “Oh dear,” the old goat said. “Drinking that much so fast will give you a stomach ache.”
  75. Kris could only blink at his mother. What was he supposed to do with that information? He couldn't un-drink that sweet, sweet liquid now. And he preferred the cool sloshing in his belly to the knots it had been in a while ago.
  77. After another moment, his mother took his spent bottle into her purse and produced a fresh one for his brother.
  79. “Drink slowly, my dear. We will arrive soon, and I think you want to avoid getting cramps while running around with your friends.”
  81. Asriel nodded at mother, and after a moment he thanked her for the water.
  83. The elder goat patted her sons' heads and turned around once again, resuming her place in the middle. Kris though he heard her mutter something about driving the gosh darned car herself as she went.
  85. “How is everyone?” called Dad, without turning around.
  87. “Fine,” Mom told him. “Everyone is fine.”
  89. The answer seemed to satisfy him.
  91. “That was pretty cool how you chugged that whole bottle in two seconds,” Asriel told him, when it seemed like their parents were done talking. “It's like how they drink potions in games.”
  93. Kris smiled without even meaning to. He was supposed to be looking steely and brave, marching off to certain doom. Not happy.
  95. “They're going to like you, you know,” Asriel told him, as he nursed his water. “They're going to think you're cool, too.”
  97. Asriel squeezed Kris' hand, and the youngest Dreemurr found himself feeling warm again despite his gut full of cold water.
  99. There it was again, that family superpower.
  101. The rest of the walk felt like it flew by. As he and his family trotted along, Kris noticed a change taking place in the trees beside the path. Pine trees were popping up in between their leafy cousins. They were short at first, and only appeared once every several trees, but as the family progressed the pines grew taller and more frequent.
  103. After a certain point Kris could only see pine trees, growing great and tall in neat tidy rows. Eventually, though, they reached the end of the trees, and their destination came into view.
  105. Kris couldn't help but gape at it.
  107. The black path in front of them stretched through a meadow. A vast meadow, surrounded by pines, with rolling little hills and shallow little valleys. Dotted around the landscape were thin poles with tiny flags, each of a different color. When the breeze caught the grass Kris could even see lines where it looked like it had been mowed.
  109. The boy had never seen anything like it.
  111. At the back of the meadow, where the road ended, sat the most impressive thing of all.
  113. A castle. It stood tall and wide, with big pointy arches, gleaming windows, and strange metal things on its roof.
  115. Actually, Kris realized after a few moments of staring, it wasn't a castle. It was a house. But one so large that it looked like it could eat the Dreemurrs' home and still be hungry.
  117. That meant the meadow wasn't really a meadow, either. It was a yard.
  119. “Neat, isn't it?” asked Asriel, and Kris could only nod.
  121. Kris thought of the quests and adventures that he and Asriel had in their yard, and how much more ambitious their games could be if they had a million times more space to work with.
  123. As the house-castle grew near, Kris could make out even more details.
  125. Rose bushes guarded the edges of the great structure, with little pink peonies dotted between them. If Kris had to knock one thing about the giant house it would probably be the flowers. Dad's were way cooler looking.
  127. The big house had a nice porch, though. It had its own little roof held up by pillars, with four rocking chairs lined up near the railing. Behind the chairs sat what must be the home's front door, and a thick-paned panoramic window. Light filtered through the heavy glass, and Kris could make out strange shapes behind it.
  129. Asriel stopped Kris from bumping into their mother. She and Dad had stopped moving several paces away from the porch.
  131. Before Kris had time to wonder, Mom turned around and knelt down. She looked him and his brother over, flicking debris off of their sweaters and straightening their collars. She made sure the fluff around Asriel's ears was level, and she took his mostly finished water bottle. Mother patted him on the back and shooed him towards Father.
  133. Reluctantly, he let Kris' hand go.
  135. Kris heard a door open, but he couldn't react. Mom wiped at his face with a wet thumb and smoothed strands of his fur into place. Kris knew better than to struggle. His mother's strength became infinite when she did this.
  137. “Hey, who are these strangers on my lawn!?” called a familiar, jolly voice. Kris took a deep breath.
  139. Mom finished grooming him, and gave him one last sympathetic smile.
  141. “They will only be new once, dear.” Kris had heard the statement before, but still didn't know what to make of it.
  143. With that his mother turned around.
  145. Brave, Kris told himself. He was brave and cool and also these strangers were going to like him.
  147. Bravery didn't mean recklessness, though. So the stoic little soldier bravely took a stand behind his mother, and peered out from the edge of her skirt.
  149. Immediately, he spotted two figures, one of which he recognized.
  151. “Hey, Rudy!” called Father, and the larger figure waved at him.
  153. It was Mr. Holiday, Kris knew. He had visited the house a few times. He was a tall, energetic man who always seemed to have a joke or candy on him. And he knew how to play video games despite being an adult, which Kris thought was pretty cool.
  155. Mr. Holiday didn't cause Kris any worry at all. It was the other figure with him that gave him pause.
  157. Beside the lanky man stood a smaller reindeer, roughly half his size. His arms and legs were slim and bony, but his body seemed athletic. He had a sharp chin, a black little nose and half-lidded green eyes. A mess of dark blonde hair sat atop his head, and Kris thought that Mr. Holiday must not preen his children like Mom does because many little poofs stuck out of it. The boy also had two brown nubs peeking out that must be the beginnings of horns. Or, antlers.
  159. He wore black shorts with a silver chain glinting out of the pocket, and a black t-shirt that had some white letters on it. Kris would have to ask Azzy what it said later.
  161. “Good afternoon, Rudolph,” his mother called. “And hello, Dess. It seems like you grew a few inches since the last time I saw you.”
  163. The boy, who must be Dess, scratched his head and nodded.
  165. “Yep, he's like a little weed, isn't he?” Mr. Holiday said, patting the boy on the head. “You know how it is, though. Seems like just yesterday Asriel was about knee high.”
  167. Kris thought the boy made it to “weed” before he tuned out of his father's small talk. As the adults chattered, Dess waved at someone on the other side of his mother. Kris could only guess it was Asriel. After a moment, though, the young reindeer started to look around, and Kris bravely retreated a little behind his mom.
  169. “Wait, did you guys really WALK here?” Rudy squawked, up in the world of adults. “It's like a million degrees out! You're gonna melt that little guy... wherever he is.”
  171. For a moment Kris felt proud of his sneakiness, until the elder reindeer looked over and gave him a little wink.
  173. “Oh, of course we walked,” Toriel answered, in a tone Kris wasn't familiar with. “We wanted to experience fresh air, right dear?”
  175. She punctuated her question by clapping her husband on the shoulder.
  177. That must have been his signal to talk.
  179. “Well, actually,” Asgore started, “Our kind has, uh...”
  181. Asgore swallowed the rest of his sentence, and after a pause Toriel clapped him again.
  183. ”As you know we possess an affinity for... pyromancy, and so heat uh...”
  185. Every word the great goat uttered sounded less sure than the last. Each time he stopped and started again he sounded as if he'd shrunk an inch.
  187. “The uh, heat doesn't bother us.”
  189. Toriel patted him on the shoulder.
  191. Kris wasn't sure what to make of the exchange. It was the first he'd heard of this pie-romancing thing, but he hoped he got his soon so that dastardly sun would stop bothering him.
  193. “Well!” chimed Mr. Holiday, a little louder than he probably needed to “Are we gonna do the uh, the meet and greet, then?”
  195. “That is a wonderful idea,” Mom said, as she rested a hand on top of Kris' head. She looked down at her little soldier as best she could, given his awkward position.
  197. Kris felt like she was asking him a wordless question. After one more deep breath, Kris set his jaw and straightened his lips and found some excess bravery that he just had laying around. He nodded again.
  199. Mom nodded back.
  201. “Go say hello, sweetheart.”
  203. Bravely, Kris let go of his mother's skirt and walked over to where his brother was standing.
  205. “Hey, there he is!” Mr. Holiday chipped in. “Kids, come say hello!”
  207. He turned behind him in the same awkward way Mom had just done. “And by 'kids,' I mean 'you,' kiddo. If he can do it, you can do it.”
  209. Kris was pretty sure he looked cool and brave, but he broke character for a moment to scratch his head.
  211. The reindeer boy Dess gave Kris only a quick glance before he looked over at his father. He had a soft sort of look on his face.
  213. Then Kris noticed, for the first time, a little hand clutched around the leg of Mr. Holiday's pants.
  215. After the hand came a shiny golden twiggle, and after the twiggle came a head. Before Kris knew it, an entire third reindeer emerged from behind Rudy. A girl, it looked like. Kris was already wary.
  217. He felt impressed, though, at the feat of stealth she had pulled. Mr. Holiday wasn't nearly as good a hiding spot as Mom, and he'd been totally unaware of her presence. Then again, the girl didn't have as much to hide as he did.
  219. She looked to be about Kris' height, but her arms and legs were even slimmer than Dess'. She had a much lighter shade of blonde hair that looked distractingly shiny in the harsh sun. She wore it in two little twiggly pigtails on top of her head, that looked to Kris like the ends of carrots that were ready to be pulled. Her face was long, and she had a round, bright red nose that would have looked like a clown's nose if it were any bigger. And she wore a mossy green dress that ended past her knees but before her ankles.
  221. Kris thought there was something weird about the way she looked.
  223. As she inched over to stand near her brother, though, Kris could hear his mother ooohing and aaahing at her.
  225. “Alright kids, introduce yourselves,” Mr. Holiday said, after the impromptu fashion show was over.
  227. The deer boy gave Kris another look up and down, before he stepped forward and cleared his throat.
  229. “Hiya,” he offered, “I'm Dess. Nice to meetcha.”
  231. He looked Kris directly in the eye and smiled about half of a smile. Kris felt a little braver.
  233. “Um, and...” a squeaky voice piped up, “I'm Noelle. Hi.”
  235. The girl walked up, too, and waved at him sheepishly.
  237. Dess put a hand on her shoulder and that seemed to help her out a little.
  239. “Nice to meet you,” she added after a moment. This time her voice sounded more like a bell and less like a mouse.
  241. Kris nodded at her, and her brother. He offered the two of them a wave, and a little smile which had sprung up unbidden.
  243. Kris couldn't believe he had been so scared of this. Not that he was ever scared. He couldn't believe he had had to be so brave for this. He had met them, and they hadn't killed him or anything. Just said hello.
  245. They were still staring at him, though. Dess even quirked his head to the side, after a moment. Kris wasn't sure how to proceed. After a moment Kris could feel six sets of curious eyes on him, and he didn't like the way it felt.
  247. “Uh, this is Kris,” Asriel chimed in, after a moment. “Kris doesn't talk much.”
  249. At that, Dess unquirked his head.
  251. “Hunh. Alright.”
  253. Kris thought he could hear air wooshing behind him.
  255. “Well that was easy, huh?” Rudy asked no one in particular. He glanced behind Kris for confirmation before he added “Kids, why don't you run off and go play with Asriel and Kris? Show them around, you know?”
  257. Dess nodded, and Noelle did too.
  259. “Come on, we'll show you around the yard,” the little buck said, as he walked away, sister in tow.
  261. Asriel took Kris' hand and followed after them. Once again, Kris felt like the protagonist of his favorite game. This time he would just be heading out on an adventure, not facing certain death.
  263. He looked back at the adults who were slowly becoming small in the distance. Mr. Holiday was his usual jolly self, waving after them. Mom waved them off with just a little worry on her face. Dad was waving too, while looking awfully sorry for some reason.
  265. Kris would wonder about it later.
  267. “Come on, ya slowpokes,” called Dess, from a few dozen paces ahead of them.
  269. “Don't be mean,” said Noelle.
  271. “I'll be mean if I want,” he laughed, messing up her pigtails before breaking off into a run.
  273. “Hey, come back here!” she squeaked, sprinting off after him.
  275. Before Asriel could even say anything, Kris picked up his stride, taking his brother with him. For the first time Kris could remember, he was the one leading Azzy, chasing after their supposed tour guides at a modest pace.
  277. He didn't get to lead for long, though. Up and over a small hill the littlest reindeer had caught her brother by the shirt. Kris slowed down to an even more modest pace, a little disappointed.
  279. “You have to wait!” she whined. “Dad said we're supposed to show them around.”
  281. “Fine! Alright! Jeez! Just let go of my shirt already. You're stretching it out.”
  283. “You're gonna run away if I let go aren't you?”
  285. “I definitely won't.”
  287. Kris wasn't sure he trusted the boy's tone.
  289. “Don't worry, Noelle” Asriel called, cupping his free hand to his mouth like a megaphone, “I'll keep an eye on him for you.”
  291. He exchanged a little glance with Kris before he dashed off at a more than modest pace to go stand by the rabble rouser.
  293. “Good,” she told him, finally releasing her brother's shirt. “Somebody has to.”
  295. Dess wheeled around and stuck his tongue out at her, and the little doe returned the favor.
  297. The reindeer children were strange, Kris was quickly coming to understand.
  299. “So what do you plan to show us, anyway?” Azzy asked, as the other boy straightened his shirt.
  301. Dess pawed at his hair for a moment. “Uhhh... the golf course, I guess. And the pond. And the trees, maybe. I dunno. You've seen all that stuff before, though.”
  303. “Well Kris hasn't,” Asriel said, “So I'll see them again.”
  305. That seemed good enough for Dess, so he set off again at a pace Kris could keep up with.
  307. And that Noelle could keep up with. The two elder siblings had longer legs, so they naturally kept a few paces ahead, leaving Kris with no one but the girl to walk beside him.
  309. He was on his guard. Mom had told Azzy once that girls were nothing but trouble. The entire lot of them. And that meant a lot coming from her, because as far as Kris knew she used to be a girl herself some time ago.
  311. As Kris thought about it, though, he was pretty sure she had added an “except for Noelle Holiday” clause at the end of her warning. But still, it was better safe than sorry.
  313. Noelle was already proving troublesome. She kept looking at him. Every time he tried to steal a little glance over at her she was already looking at him, so they both had to look away when their eyes met. Very inconsiderate.
  315. “So, how old is he?” asked Dess, as they walked.
  317. “Who, Kris?” Asriel asked.
  319. “Yeah, duh.”
  321. Kris frowned.
  323. “Ask him yourself,” Asriel told him.
  325. “Will he answer?”
  327. “It's not nice to talk about him when he's right there.”
  329. “Fine, fine.” Without breaking his stride, the blonde looked sidelong over shoulder and asked “How old are you?”
  331. Kris held up his right hand, fingers outstretched.
  333. “Four, then?” Dess asked, turning around before Kris could answer.
  335. Kris frowned a little deeper. Even he could count to five.
  337. “He's five, dude,” Asriel cut in.
  339. That got Dess to stop walking. He turned around gave Kris his full attention.
  341. “Can you show me your hand again?”
  343. Kris blinked for a second, but complied. He held up his right hand, and stretched out all his fingers.
  345. “Holy crap he has five fingers!” the boy shouted, clapping his hands against the sides of his face.
  347. “I'm telling dad you said crap,” Noelle informed her brother, but soon she too found herself gawping at the novelty of Kris' totally normal hand.
  349. What was supposed to be so crazy, here? Did reindeer not have five fingers? Kris looked at the hands the older boy pressed to his head, and squinted. Maybe they actually didn't, on closer inspection. Dess' hand looked very strange.
  351. Somehow the boy knew Kris was looking and frowned at him. “What, have you never seen a hoof before?”
  353. Kris shook his head, and that wiped the sour look off of his face. “Well, here,” he said, holding up his weird hand for Kris to see.
  355. It had a regular looking palm, but only three fingers and a thumb. And the fingers were weird. At the second knuckle they turned from fuzzy fluffy stuff to hard, black, shiny material. Possibly the same stuff roads were made of, for all Kris knew.
  357. “Cool, huh?” Dess asked, and Kris nodded. It was kind of cool.
  359. Dess reached back to scratch at the nape of his neck for a moment, and his eyes searched for something off in the distance.
  361. “So what are you, anyway?” he asked, when he found what he was looking for.
  363. Kris could only blink.
  365. “What do you mean? He's a boy.” Asriel said.
  367. “No, I mean like what animal are you related to?”
  369. Kris could still only blink.
  371. “He's a goat,” Asriel informed him.
  373. “No way, dude. I mean just l-”
  375. “He's a goat,” Asriel said, in a tone Kris hoped he never used on him. “Alright?”
  377. “Whoa, alright dude. Got it.”
  379. For a few moments everyone just stood. Finally, though, Asriel, in his normal chipper tone said “Let's go see the golf course.”
  381. The other older brother nodded, and the group went on their way.
  383. Kris stopped blinking so much. Things stayed silent as they made their way up a small hill, but it didn't feel as bad as it had a minute ago.
  385. Eventually, the boy felt a little tug on the end of his sweater. It was the treacherous girl, peeking over at him.
  387. “Um, I'm five, too,” she said, in her small squeaky voice.
  389. Kris nodded at her. He wasn't sure what else to do.
  391. “Um, are you going to kindergarten, this year?” She was still peeking.
  393. Kris nodded again.
  395. “Oh!” she exclaimed in her voice that sounded more like a bell, “Well, just so you know, I can already add and subtract, and I have a second grade reading level.”
  397. Kris nodded at each new revelation, still unsure what to do with any of this information.
  399. “So, if you ever need help with homework or lessons or anything, I can help you! Okay?”
  401. Kris nodded one final time. This Noelle was proving to be an odd little person. She either thought VERY highly of her school smarts, or she was going to be in for a huge shock when she saw who their kindergarten teacher would be.
  403. “You'll need all the help you can get if you get the same teacher we had,” Dess called back to them, gesturing to himself and Asriel. “She was the worst.”
  405. “Awww, she wasn't that bad,” Asriel said.
  407. “She totally was. Remember when she tried to use those foreign comic books to teach us the alphabet?”
  409. “Well we learned, didn't we?”
  411. “Barely! And I'm gonna have to know what a nichijou is for the rest of my entire life thanks to her!”
  413. “Oh, come on. It wasn't that bad,” Asriel insisted. “And besides, they're actually not going to have the same lady as us.”
  415. Asriel and Kris passed a sly grin between them.
  417. “Really?” Dess asked. “Well, lucky them, then.”
  419. “Yep,” Asriel nodded “And guess what?”
  421. “What?”
  423. “The yellow lady got promoted.”
  425. Dess fell silent.
  427. “You know what that means, right?”
  429. Kris was already smiling because he knew what it meant.
  431. “It means she's going to be our teacher again next year,” said Asriel with wicked glee.
  433. “Wait, we're not getting the turtle?” asked Dess, with a glimmer of hope left in his voice.
  435. “Nope, he was just back for one year.”
  437. “Noooo!” the boy wailed, pumping his weird shiny fists in the air for effect, “No, this can't be happening!”
  439. Noelle began to giggle, and Asriel was spitting out full bodied laughs. Kris couldn't help but laugh, either, as Dess played his misery up to its fullest.
  441. His sacrifice wasn't in vain. The little troop's spirits were lifted. Asriel and Dess exchanged war stories about the weird yellow lady who was filling in for Mom, and Noelle felt comfortable enough to hum a little song that Kris wasn't familiar with. It sounded nice, though.
  443. Eventually, their jolly procession crested a slightly larger hill, and Dess spread his arms out to stop everyone. He led them just a little further up the hill, and it was then Kris saw a flagpole with a little orange flag on it.
  445. “Alright, here's hole number one,” Dess said, kicking at the pole. “I'm not gonna show you all of them because they're mostly the same. Basically our whole lawn is like half a mini golf course, so just imagine like eight more of these poles sticking out all over and you've pretty much seen it.”
  447. Kris didn't need to imagine much, actually. From the top of the hill he could see a few more flags sticking up at random intervals. His imagination did spark when he considered that Dess used the words “half” and “mini” to describe one of the biggest things he'd ever seen, though.
  449. “Why don't you tell Kris about what golf is?” Asriel asked.
  451. “Oh dude, I don't know that much about golf,” Dess said, waving a dismissive hand.
  453. “I know about golf!” chimed an excited Noelle.
  455. “Alright so golf is a dumb game dads play to-” Dess started, before a squeak interrupted him.
  457. “It is not dumb! It's strategic!” Noelle insisted.
  459. “Oh, whatever. I know you just pretend to like golf to hang out with Dad.”
  461. “Do not!”
  463. “Uhh, so...” Asriel cut in before things could get shrill “If we're not going to the rest of the holes, do you want to go to the pond?”
  465. Dess turned away from his sister and rubbed the back of his head. “Welllll... I don't think the pond would be very fun, come to think of it.”
  467. Dess turned to look Kris in the eye. “It's nothing special, just a pond. It doesn't really do anything. Can't go in it because of chemicals, and there's no fish or anything. It's boring.”
  469. “Well you can skate on it when it's frozen,” Noelle offered. “That's fun.”
  471. “It is fun,” Dess admitted, “But it sure ain't frozen now. Now it just sits there and helps Dad pretend golf is hard.”
  473. “Hey! It IS hard to not hit the ball into stuff.” the girl protested.
  475. “Oh yeah? I have a great strategy for that, actually. It's called 'don't play golf.'”
  477. Kris knew for certain now that the reindeer children were strange. He couldn't remember ever fighting with Asriel in his entire life and yet somehow the Holidays had been fighting this entire time.
  479. “Alright,” Asriel cut in, “so what did you want to do if we're not going to the pond?”
  481. “Oh, I had a great idea actually,” Dess declared. “Let's have a race.”
  483. The great idea sat in the warm air, for a moment. Kris thought it was a foolish idea to have a race while Asriel was around.
  485. “A race?” the elder goat asked.
  487. “Yeah, you know, a foot race. I want to see what Mr. Five Fingers there can do.”
  489. Kris frowned. He didn't want that to be his name, moving forward. And he didn't really want to race.
  491. “Well, Kris isn't really-” Asriel began.
  493. “And I think I'm finally fast enough to get one over on you, too,” the young buck said, wagging a finger at Azzy.
  495. “Oh is that so?”
  497. The Dreemurrs shared an incredulous look, and Kris gave his brother a nod.
  499. “Well I think Kris is in, then. How about you, Noelle?”
  501. “Well I'm wearing a dress,” she declared, as if that meant anything to the boys, “But I guess I'll go, too. Where are we running?”
  503. “Past the house to the other end of the yard, by hole number 8,” he told her, and everyone else.
  505. “And don't die this time,” he added, just to Noelle.
  507. “I did not die,” she told him, “I had a... reaction... to a s-s-s...”
  509. “We don't have snakes around here, dummy.”
  511. Noelle jumped at the very mention of the word. “We do too!”
  513. “Yeah and I'll bet you scared it right off by dying, huh?”
  515. “Alright!” Asriel practically shouted, “A race to the number 8 hole, then?”
  517. Noelle nodded, and so did her brother. Kris nodded too, even though he didn't fully understand where they were going.
  519. Asriel beckoned Kris closer, and pointed out over the horizon to a red flag.
  521. “That's where we're going, okay?”
  523. Kris nodded again, in earnest. There was that power again.
  525. “Everybody line up,” Asriel ordered, before the reindeer could start bickering again.
  527. Everyone did as they were told. Dess took the same weird, bent over pose Asriel did, while Noelle just sort of hunched over. Kris copied Noelle's pose, because that seemed easier.
  529. “On your marks,” Azzy began, “Get set... go!”
  531. In a flash, the elder two were bounding off down the hill. It would have taken some sort of miracle to bring Kris up to the speeds they were reaching, but he tried his best, regardless.
  533. Heading down the hill gave the boy enough momentum to exceed a modest pace. He could hardly believe how fast he was going.
  535. Not fast enough to catch up to Asriel or Dess or even Noelle, but certainly a record for him.
  537. The elder brothers were fading off into the distance already. All Kris had to look at as he attempted to run was a tiny red speck on the horizon and a little deer girl flapping in the breeze several yards ahead.
  539. And, strangely enough, Noelle looked back at him, too. Though he picked up no speed, the boy began to gain on her. When they were shoulder to shoulder, he finally noticed that she had slowed down to a jog.
  541. “Might as well hang back here,” she managed to puff out, “I'm not going to catch them, especially not dressed like this.”
  543. Kris nodded. He appreciated the reminder that he was slower than the girl even with extra obstacles in her way.
  545. “Are you alright?” she asked him, as the flag in the distance hardly drew any closer.
  547. Kris wasn't sure.
  549. His old friend the sun was catching up to him. And so was his old friend the belly full of water. Only that old friend had turned on him, roiling his guts around and making it hard to fill his lungs.
  551. Still, he pushed forward. Even though he was sweating. Even though step felt like it took a little more effort, and yielded less of a result.
  553.  He wanted to know that his brother had gotten a win over the kid who didn't even know what a goat looked like.
  555. But his legs were not cooperating. A scalding hot shoe collided with its twin, and before Kris could correct himself he was facedown in the grass.
  557. The soft grass that felt surprisingly cool against his sweaty face.
  559. Kris tried to rise to his feet again, but his sweaty palms slipped, and he couldn't marshal the strength to roll over. Not that he particularly wanted to. The grass was growing on him.
  561. “Oh gosh!” a little voice above him cried “Kris, are you alright?”
  563. The boy managed to give her a thumbs up from the cool darkness of the ground, but that didn't sound like it helped.
  565. “Uh, stay there!” she told him. He was way ahead of her. “I'll go get help!”
  567. The rumbling of heavy, heavy feet told Kris someone else was also ahead of her.
  569. “Kris!” cried another, deeper, feminine voice. “My child, can you hear me?”
  571. Kris batted a whole arm up at the sound of Mom's voice but that still wasn't enough to stop her from rolling him over.
  573. Kris squinted to keep that jerk the sun from stinging his eyes. Behind him Noelle was rattling off words a mile a minute. Kris could pick out “race,” “turned red,” and “fell down.”
  575. Out of curiosity the boy looked over at his arms, and sure enough they did seem reddish.
  577. Mom poked and prodded and felt his cheeks, then his forehead. To his dismay, she even pried open his squinting eyes to look into them.
  579. Panicked red eyes met calm, annoyed red eyes. After a few moments of staring, and attempted blinking, the calmness seemed to transmit.
  581. Not a moment too soon, Kris' mother released his poor face, reached into her purse and produced another water bottle.
  583. This one was not sweating, sadly, but Kris drank it anyway. Slowly, this time.
  585. Mom placed a hand on Noelle's head and, like a silenced alarm clock, the girl's panicked babble ceased.
  587. “Thank you, sweetheart. You were a big help.”
  589. Kris was pretty sure she was lying but he thought it was the nice sort of lie.
  591. Every sip of water seemed to take his skin a little closer to yellow than red, and all the sweat in his hair helped his head cool off in the breeze.
  593. Eventually, the boy looked up and realized he had more of an audience than just Noelle and his mother.
  595. A worried Mr. Holiday and a very, very grave looking Dad knelt down beside him.
  597. “Are you alright, son?” his father asked, when Kris caught his eye.
  599. Kris nodded. He just needed to lay down for a moment and drink some water.
  601. “What happened?” yelled a familiar voice, from some distance away.
  603. Within moments the party was fully assembled, with Asriel and Dess making their way back from the little red flag.
  605. “Your brother overexerted himself,” she said, more to everyone than just Azzy. “Kris should not do much physical activity in weather like this. It fatigues him.”
  607. “Oh jeez,” the deer boy piped up,”I was the one who said we should-”
  609. Mr. Holiday reached over and put a hand on Dess' head and shut him up like a little alarm clock, too. Must be a reindeer thing.
  611. “Kris is just fine,” the woman went on. “Right, sweetie?”
  613. Kris nodded, and waved to his audience to demonstrate how fine he was. He was tired, and sweaty, and in a distant last place in a race at the moment, but he was okay.
  615. “No one needs to apologize,” Mom went on, “but Kris should avoid doing anything physically taxing for a while.”
  617. The congregation seemed to understand.
  619. “Oooh!” Noelle was the first to break the silence, “We could play inside, then! It's cool in there.”
  621. Kris liked the sound of that. He wanted to see what the inside of a castle-house looked like.
  623. At the suggestion, though, Dess made a big X with his arms from behind Mom's back, and Asriel let imaginary steam out from under his collar.
  625. “Well...” Mother wondered out loud, before turning to the other adults. She flicked a claw over, away from the children, and the three of them walked off to confer.
  627. “I bet you'd like it inside,” Noelle told Kris. “We have all sorts of toys, and games. And I can show you my room. It'll be fun!”
  629. From behind her the two older boys did everything they could to signal that it would not be fun.
  631. Noelle seemed like she might be alright, for a girl. If she had insidious intentions she could have done whatever she wanted when he fell down, but she tried to help. Still, he wouldn't trust her over Asriel. The inside of the Holiday house must be no fun at all, somehow.
  633. “Alright, little ones,” called Toriel, as she approached once again. “We have decided that it would be for the best if Kris does take a little break, indoors.”
  635. Kris frowned at the news. He took it better than the other two boys, though, who seemed to deflate at the prospect of being taken indoors.
  637. “Hey, but you two still get to hang out out here,” called Mr. Holiday to the dejected youths.
  639. That perked Dess up, but Asriel shook his head.
  641. “No, I'll go in too,” he said, earning a bewildered look from the boy next to him.
  643. “Actually, dear,” Mother said carefully, turning to the little goat, “We thought it would be best if I kept an eye on Noelle and Kris. By themselves. And if you and Dess stayed out here with your fathers.”
  645. She gave Azzy a look Kris couldn't see, but he had a pretty strong guess. Asriel seemed to understand, too. He nodded at her, but he still frowned.
  647. Toriel turned to Kris, next, and he saw that his guess was right. It was that same silent, pleading look as when he first had to meet the reindeer kids.
  649. “What do you think about this idea, my child?”
  651. Kris really didn't know what to think, but he could he only had one option. He clenched his jaw, and straightened his lip, and nodded up at her.
  653. Mother nodded back at him. “We should go, then.”
  655. “Yay!” Noelle chirped. She offered Kris a weird hoof hand, which he took, and she helped him up. “This is going to be great.”
  657. Kris wasn't so sure, but tried not to let that on. As he passed them, Asriel and Dess waved to him like he was heading to his funeral.
  659. Not a funeral yet, he decided. Just another trip into a dungeon. Led by a girl, this time.
  661. “So what are we going to do out here, then?” asked Dess, from behind Kris.
  663. “Well, me and Gorey got to talking a little while ago, and we had a great idea!” said Mr. Holiday, clearly enamored with his plan. “We're gonna pull out the ole' clubs and have a father-son golf game!”
  665. The young doe holding his hand began to chuckle, and Kris heard Asriel cackling behind him. Soon, Kris, too was laughing, even though he was supposed to be looking cool.
  667. “I don't know what I should show you first,” Noelle said, as the other boys faded off into the background. “I could show you my books. Or my shoes. Or my dollies. Or...”
  669. She began to ramble, more to herself than to him. Kris made sure to nod along every once in a while.
  671. As they approached the Holiday estate, Mom's pace began to slow. Soon Noelle was leading her, too, as she quietly listed off every object she could think of.
  673. Kris' neck was starting to get tired from all the nodding.
  675. “I like your dress, sweetheart,” Mom cut in. “It was a good choice.”
  677. “Oh, thank you Mrs. Dreemurr,” Noelle chimed, looking back at the former-girl. “I knew I would be out in the sun today, so I thought I should wear a sundress.” She wiggled her hips a little to make the hem move. “I think it was a good idea. It's all breezy and nice.”
  679. “Yes, I think that was a wise decision, dear.”
  681. Kris watched the little doe beam, in silence.
  683. Noelle's silence only lasted a minute, though. As the party stepped up onto the porch, she declared “I know exactly what we're going to do first!”
  685. Kris was all ears.
  687. “I'm gonna give you a tour of the house!”
  689. Kris nodded as coolly as he could, not letting on how interesting the idea seemed.
  691. Mother hummed her approval from behind them, and without further ado the little deer opened the front door and led them inside.
  693. The first thing Kris noticed was the ceiling. High, high up in the air it hung, holding some kind of giant glass device which shone out a golden light.
  695. “This is the foyer,” Noelle declared, gesturing around her. Kris took his eyes off the big lamp and saw that the space around them was slightly enclosed by strange half-walls.
  697. “It's where you take your shoes off,” she explained, and she kicked off her little slippers to demonstrate.
  699. Kris bent down to untie his shoes, and he almost startled when he noticed Noelle's feet. They weren't even feet, actually. They were hooves. And unlike her weird hoof fingers, Noelle's weird hoof feet didn't have anything articulate about them. They were just black sticks on the end of her legs.
  701. Kris wondered how reindeer could get any stranger.
  703. “Do you need help with your shoes, my child?” Mom said, putting a hand on top of his head.
  705. Kris shook his head, and hurriedly untied his shoes.
  707. At the rate today was going, Noelle was going to show him the room where reindeer ate brains or washed their mouth tentacles, and he didn't want to miss that.
  709. The girl, who had waited patiently for him, took his hand again and led him to the next room.
  711. “This is the standing room,” she said. “Don't let the name fool you, though, nobody ever stands around here. This room just kind of connects some other ones.”
  713. Kris thought it should be called the lamp room, since the massive glass thing he saw at the door was by far the most interesting thing here. The room was large, and mostly empty. It had plush red carpet that felt good to Kris' socked feet, and clean off-white walls. It also had refreshingly cool air, but Kris was pretty sure the air wouldn't be exclusive to this one room.
  715. Ahead of him stood a staircase that led up in branching paths to the left and right. A fancy old clock stood by the stairway, which meant little to Kris since he couldn't read clocks.
  717. Off to the group's left stood two big wooden doors, and to their right was a big gap in the wall that looked like it lead to another room.
  719. Noelle took them over to it, and sure enough another room awaited.
  721. “This is the kitchen,” she explained. “This is where we cook stuff, and eat.”
  723. Kris nodded at the helpful refresher on kitchens.
  725. This room had a very different look than the one before. The walls were the same color, but the floor was made of cold tiles instead of fluffy carpet. It seemed about the same size as the standing room, which made it far bigger than the Dreemurrs' kitchen.
  727. Noelle took them around the kitchen table in the middle, and helpfully explained that it was where her family ate dinner. The trip around the table brought Kris close to the fridge, which he thought looked like a captured boat.
  729. It bowed out in the middle and had nice sloped edges. And an ice dispenser. Attached by magnets were two colorful pictures. One depicted three messy brown figures grouped together, with a fourth one off to the side. There were neat little letters on it, but the only symbol Kris really recognized was the number 4 in the corner. Next to the picture of the brown people hung a mostly colored in picture of Ice-E, who the artist had given a spiky collar and thick black sunglasses.
  731. Noelle led them past the counters, which looked like black rock slabs, and the stove, which had more dials than he could count.
  733. The kitchen tiles made Noelle's hooves give off a distinct clacking sound, and they amplified the noise of Mom's thudding feet. Kris did not envy the Holidays, who must have a very difficult time sneaking pie from the fridge at night.
  735. Noelle's clacking stopped when she led her guests to the next room. Back to carpet, again.
  737. “This is the living room,” she said. “It's where we do family stuff and watch TV.”
  739. This room had an odd warmth about it, despite the chill in the air. Red drapes on the windows kept back the full force of the sun, but allowed a few warm rays through.
  741. On the far wall Kris could see a fireplace, which he suspected Noelle would say was used for fires. In the middle of the room, against the rightmost wall sat a plush green couch which had a nice contrast with the floor. Across from it sat a gigantic TV with an even bigger TV stand under it. Kris couldn't even estimate the number of tapes stored within.
  743. Noelle led him towards the center of the room. “There's the fireplace,” she started, but she stopped when she noticed Kris wasn't looking.
  745. The boy didn't mean to be rude, he was simply transfixed. On the wall behind the TV sat a massive painting, of four grumpy looking old stags who glared down at him. Maybe they had heard how weird he thought reindeer were.
  747. “Oh that?” Noelle asked, when she saw what he was looking at. “That's a portrait of my grandfather, and his brothers.”
  749. Kris nodded. He hoped he never met Noelle's grandfather or his brothers.
  751. “We're going to get a new one commissioned. Of me and Mom and Dad and Dess. And we'll make sure to smile, in ours.”
  753. That would go a long way to make to make a painting look nice and not creepy, Kris thought.
  755. “Anyway,” she said, when she had his attention back. “This is the couch.”
  757. Noelle walked over and flopped her bony self onto it. “It's really nice,” she explained. “It's made out of shan... shen... shun...”
  759. “Chenille?” offered Mother, earning a vigorous nod from the girl.
  761. “It's made of shaneel. Come feel it.”
  763. Kris needed no second invitation. He too walked over and flopped down onto a fluffy cushion.
  765. He felt like he was suspended in the air, held up only by some vague pillowy force. Shaneel was something else. Much nicer than cotton.
  767. “Ahhh,” Noelle cooed, as she floated next to him.
  769. Kris wondered if his mother would indulge in the couch too, but he didn't hear her move.
  771. “Um,” Noelle managed, after another heavenly minute, “I don't think we should stay here too long.”
  773. Kris looked up and cracked open an eyelid at the crazy doe.
  775. “If we sit here too long, we won't want to get up. And we still have to get to my room.”
  777. She was right, he knew. He suspected he could spend all day on this couch if he needed too. Possibly forever.
  779. Reluctantly, he nodded at her, and the pair peeled themselves from shaneel's fluffy grasp.
  781. “You saw the TV, right?” she asked, and Kris nodded. “Good.”
  783. Noelle pointed a little black finger at the fireplace. “That's the fireplace, by the way. We don't really have fires in it, it's mostly for show.”
  785. Kris felt a little surprised, but he nodded again.
  787. “Let's go,” said the girl, “We're almost done, I think.”
  789. As the pair set off again, Kris heard his mother chuckle.
  791. “Sweetie, have you ever thought about a job in hospitality? I think you are a wonderful little tour guide.”
  793. “Nope,” said Noelle, as her hooves clacked over tiles, “But thanks though!”
  795. After a moment, the girl called back to Mom again. “Oh, I told Kris something, Mrs. Dreemurr.”
  797. “Oh?”
  799. “Yep. I told him that if he needs help in school this year, I can help him because I know a lot of stuff about reading and math.”
  801. That earned another cluck from the woman behind them.
  803. “Oh how sweet,” the goat woman said. “I hope Kris thanked you for your generosity.”
  805. “Mhmm,” hummed Noelle, although Kris remembered doing no such thing.
  807. “Noelle, dear, I think you are a girl after my own heart.”
  809. Noelle simply giggled, as they reached the stairs.
  811. The girl poked a finger over at the wooden doors. “Those lead to where we keep all the Christmas decorations. They're locked, right now.”
  813. Kris nodded, and the party began to climb. Noelle pointed to the left fork of the stairs.
  815. “Over there leads to a guest bedroom and the bathroom,” she said, as she led the group right.
  817. “Here are where our bedrooms are.”
  819. The stairs led up to a hallway with three doors. When Kris looked back he marveled at how close the giant lamp was. And he felt just the littlest bit worried seeing that he was high up above the ground.
  821. “That's Mom and Dad's room,” she said, pointing to the first door.
  823. It felt a lot colder up here, Kris realized. The sweat soaked into his sweater practically ate up the chilly air, and he shivered.
  825. Once again the little hero felt like he was wearing the wrong shirt for the job.
  827. “That's Dess' room,” Noelle said of the second door. It had a paper sign taped to it which Kris couldn't read.
  829. Kris clenched his jaw, and remembered his coolness. Right, this was a dungeon crawl, after all. He knew what was coming next.
  831. “And here's mine,” Noelle sang, as they finally reached the last door in the hall.
  833. Noelle stood for a moment before she thought to ask, “Are you going to come play with us too, Mrs. Dreemurr?”
  835. Kris turned to look at his mother, just in time to see her shake her head. “No, sweetheart. I trust that you and Kris can play nicely together by yourselves, for a while. Right?”
  837. “Yep!” beamed Noelle.
  839. Kris caught his mother's eye, and he nodded to her before she could even give him the look. He was as ready as he would ever be.
  841. Mother smiled at him. She didn't look worried at all. “I will be in the living room if you need anything, little ones.”
  843. With that, she turned around and thumped off.
  845. As she disappeared down the stairs, Kris wondered if this wasn't part of Mom's master plan to hog the shaneel all to herself.
  847. Regardless, he had a job to do. Kris turned to the ecstatic doe, and prepared himself for whatever awaited.
  849. The girl turned the knob, and took Kris, by the hand, into her lair.
  851. It really was a dungeon, he knew after a moment. A real dungeon that someone crazy must have designed.
  853. He decided that it would be called “The Land Where Everything Was Pink.”
  855. In this dungeon, the walls weren't off-white, but a washed out shade of light pink. The hot pink drapes on the windows tinted the very light of the room pink. In the center of the land of pink sat a large pink bed. Although its frame was white, possibly on accident, it connected to a set of poles that held extra pink drapes over itself.
  857. The floor wasn't actually pink, Kris noticed. It was the same dark red as the carpet in the living room. But the architect of this pink dimension had thought to lay down a few heart shaped pink rugs on it. Thank goodness.
  859. He couldn't help but notice that the room dwarfed his and Azzy's bedroom, which seemed to be a recurring theme of the Holiday house.
  861. “What do you think?” squeaked the world's most excited little girl “Isn't it great?”
  863. For the thousandth time that day Kris nodded at Noelle. He didn't think “great” was the right word, but it was undeniably something.
  865. “Let me show you around!”
  867. She took him to the left side of the nightmare first. “This is my dresser,” she said, pointing to a large white-and-pink chest of drawers that stood a little taller than the children. “I keep my socks and stuff in here.”
  869. Kris nodded for the thousandth-and-first time.
  871. “Ooh!” squeaked the girl, as something on the ground caught her eye. “Look, Kris, this is Waambi. She was one of my first friends when I was little.”
  873. Noelle held up a sad looking little deer baby doll. “Cute, huh?”
  875. Before Kris could react, he found the little thing placed into his care. He held it up by a leg, and looked it over. It was gangly, with a stitched on frown, and a much rounder head than deer people seemed to have in real life. It had exaggerated sad eyes, too.
  877. Kris frowned at it. He wasn't sure toys could be friends, like Noelle claimed. Azzy had once said that friends were people who wanted to hang around with you, for no other reason than because they liked you. Kris wasn't sure toys qualified, and this one most certainly didn't. It didn't seem like it ever liked anything.
  879. “Kris! You can't hold her like that! She's a baby!”
  881. Kris looked up from one frowning doe to find another.
  883. “You have to hold her like this,” she said, bringing her arms up by her chest and shoulder to demonstrate.
  885. Kris blinked a few times, before he realized she was being serious. Of course. What was he thinking?
  887. The brave hero held the sad little fawn up to his shoulder, and Noelle grinned, which made him feel a little less silly for doing it.
  889. “She used to cry when you held her wrong,” Noelle told him, “But that battery died a while ago.”
  891. Kris wasn't sure he needed to know that.
  893. “Anyway,” Noelle went on, leading him to a corner, which held a box full of fluffy things, “Here's some dressup stuff!”
  895. The girl bent down to rifle around the box. The digging took a while, and she took multiple breaks to look up at him before resuming. He wasn't sure what they were about.
  897. Eventually, she produced a shiny headdress. A tiara, Kris was pretty sure. “Look at this,” she told him, twisting it around so he could see it sparkle “Isn't it neat?”
  899. Once again before the boy could answer, the tiara was on his head. “There,” she mused, “Now that looks great!”
  901. Kris did not like the feeling of the thing up there. It wasn't heavy, but the sparkly stuff made it kind of itchy. He prepared to shake the unwanted ornament off, when Noelle pulled something else out of the box.
  903. “Here,” she said, “I think this is supposed to go with the tiara.” She held up a little blanket.
  905. No, wait, Kris realized. It was no blanket.
  907. Noelle tied the cape, which would have looked awesome if it were any color besides solid pink, around Kris' shoulders. He didn't struggle.
  909. Maybe he could stomach the tiara if it meant he got a cape. Even a pink cape could be alright if he used his imagination.
  911. Maybe he was a brave hero whose mom had made a mistake in the laundry. And he had wandered into a falling tiara zone. While he was rescuing a pitiful little baby deer.
  913. That sounded alright.
  915. “Isn't this fun?” asked a beaming Noelle.
  917. After a moment's consideration, Kris nodded. It wasn't bad, really.
  919. Kris lived to regret that nod, and he soon understood why Azzy and Dess wanted to avoid coming here.
  921. Noelle had taken Kris' affirmation as an invitation to drape her entire dressup collection on him. Just a few moments after his fatal nod, Kris found himself covered in jingly hair ornaments, a feather boa, bracelets, a ballerina's tutu, and an oversized pair of sunglasses that Kris had to wear backwards, just to make room.
  923. Noelle had even found another baby doll for him to hold, this time a miserable baby rabbit.
  925. “There,” she said, as she sat back to admire her handiwork. “That's everything. You look awesome!”
  927. Kris wondered if she was lying, or if she really thought that “heroic pink ballerina princess father of two” was a good look.
  929. “Do you like it?” she asked.
  931. Kris was quick to shake his head. Shake it as best he could from under his wrappings.
  933. “Oh,” said the deer, as her face fell a little. “Too much?”
  935. Kris nodded.
  937. “Well you can take it off, then.”
  939. Take it off, the boy did. He shook himself like a wet dog, jostling the jingle bells out of his hair casting off the pinkness clinging to his torso. He also finally dropped the silly dolls he was carrying, which alerted their mother.
  941. “Hey, they're babies, Kris!” she scolded. Her voice sounded kind of grumpy but her face was smiling, so Kris wasn't sure how to feel. “You can't just drop them on the floor!”
  943. Kris was pretty sure Noelle had found the two of them of the floor, so he didn't know where she had room to talk. All the same, Noelle retrieved her dollies and put them on her bed with a great show of care.
  945. She began to pick up the discarded clothes, too, and Kris had just enough manners to know he should help. As the two put up the pink trappings, Kris still noticed her glancing up to check on him every few moments.
  947. What did she think he was going to do?
  949. Whatever it was, it clearly didn't keep her enthusiasm down. When the last hair ornament was stuffed back in its box, Noelle hopped up to her hooves and waved him after her.
  951. “Come on,” she said. “I'll show you the other side!”
  953. To his surprise, she took a shortcut across the bed, instead of around it.
  955. From across the mattress she waved after him, so he shrugged and followed her lead.
  957. It took a good leap on his part to get up on the vast pink slab, but it was easy going after that.
  959. The boy got to enjoy the soft, springy thing for only a moment as he rolled across.
  961. Smelled like gingerbread, he noticed.
  963. He also noticed the bed had been concealing something pretty interesting, behind it.
  965. A castle. A huge toy castle, sitting between Noelle's bed and the right wall of her room.
  967. It was pink, of course, but it was still the most impressive toy that Kris had ever seen.
  969. “Oh, you like the princess castle?” Noelle asked.
  971. Kris really wished she hadn't called it that, but he nodded in earnest all the same.
  973. “I can show you that in a minute,” she said. “And we can play dollies. But I want to show you a few more things first.”
  975. Kris didn't like the sound of dollies, but he did want to see the inside of the castle, so he went along with Noelle.
  977. There weren't so many things on this side of the room, besides the big castle. Next to the bed sat a side table, which held a few things. Against the wall there towered a table-thing with a big mirror on the back. It was too high up for Kris to see himself in it, but it had a little bench tucked under it, which must be how Noelle managed to use it. In the corner sat another door, which Kris could only wonder about.
  979. “Here's my alarm clock,” the girl chirped, to get his attention. Kris looked over at the side table, and saw the device in question. The little red-and-green box apparently missed the memo that everything in this room had to be pink.
  981. “My mom got it for me last Christmas,” she rambled. “It plays Jingle Bells when it's time for me to wake up. It's very practical.”
  983. Kris thought that someone else's alarm noise was a weird thing to know about. Most people only ever heard their own, unless they ended up sleeping in somebody else's bed. Kris would have to take Noelle's word for what the thing sounded like, because he would probably go his whole life without hearing it.
  985. “Oh, here's my phone,” quipped the deer, as she plucked up a little plastic contraption from another part of the table. She handed it to Kris for inspection.
  987. It was indeed a phone, Kris realized as he looked it over. A weird little one, in Noelle's favorite color, with its receiver hanging on hooks and a wheel full of numbers. Kris saw that it had no wires running out of it.
  989. “It's just a toy, obviously,” she said, “but I like it.”
  991. Kris quirked his head, at that. Who would ever want a toy phone?
  993. “You can pretend to call people on it. And then you pretend they pick up and talk to you,” the girl babbled. “It's pretty cool.”
  995. Kris and Noelle would have to disagree on that. Toy phones sounded awfully boring to Kris. Who would Noelle even pretend to call?
  997. Kris handed her back her silly thing, and she put it back in its place.
  999. Before she could lead him away, another object on the night stand caught his attention.
  1001. In the corner stood a tall, rigid doll. A deer, of course, which wore a thick red robe with shiny green clothes beneath it. Atop her antlered blonde head sat a glinting crown, and on her face she wore a dull frown. She was a far cry from Waambi.
  1003. While the rest of the table was shiny and littered with baubles, the regal doll's corner looked desolate. No plastic rings or pencil erasers dared get close, and Kris thought he saw the beginnings of dust forming in the shadows of her flowing garb.
  1005. “That's my mom's old dolly,” Noelle murmured, “She uses her when we play dollies together.” After a moment of silence, she added “Please don't touch her.”
  1007. Kris hadn't planned on it.
  1009. He felt a tug on his hand, and he let the girl lead him around the other way.
  1011. “This is my mirror,” she said, pointing at the big table with the bench. “It's where I brush my hair in the morning.
  1013. Noelle led him past it without feeling the need to demonstrate. Kris was grateful.
  1015. “Here's the dolly castle,” she said, and Kris began to get his hopes up despite that goofy word.
  1017. “I'll show you that in a minute, though,” she told him, deflating his hopes immediately. “I want to show you the closet first.”
  1019. Kris frowned. He didn't want to see the closet, he wanted to see what was in that castle.
  1021. Still, he followed along, as the girl brought him to the door in the corner.
  1023. “Don't worry,” Noelle chirped, as she fiddled with the knob, “I'll just show you a coouuuple of outfits.”
  1025. For some reason Kris didn't trust the way she said that last sentence.
  1027. She led him into the closet, and for a second the two stood in darkness. Then he heard the click of a little hoof finger hitting a switch, and his mouth almost came open.
  1029. Noelle's closet wasn't really a closet. It was an entire extra room, that seemed about half the size of his and Azzy's bedroom. A neat row of shoes lined one wall, and there were a few odd toys on the ground, but the room's  biggest attraction by far was the densely packed rainbow of fabric hanging from a rod above them.
  1031. Kris could barely even conceive of so many clothes. Noelle probably had enough shirts and skirts and coats to last her entire lifetime, provided she didn't outgrow them.
  1033. Kris had five copies of his green sweater and a couple of pairs of black pants.
  1035. “Awesome, right?” Noelle asked, and Kris nodded dumbly after a moment. In a sense, actually, it was awesome.
  1037. “I love my clothes,” sang the little cloth hoarder, “Let me show you some of the good ones.”
  1039. A small black nub pointed to the very first garment on the rail.
  1041. “This is a pink cardigan,” she said of the thing. “I'm actually not sure if I've worn this before, but it looks cute.”
  1043. Kris nodded. He guessed it looked nice.
  1045. Noelle turned and slid the cardigan down the rack. She took a lightning fast look over at Kris before she inspected the next item.
  1047. “This is one of my Christmas sweaters,” she said, poiting to a striped red-and-green affair. “I don't think I've worn it since Christmastime, but I remember it's nice and warm.”
  1049. Once again Kris nodded, and Noelle took a quick look at him before coming to item number three.
  1051. At around item number five, Kris realized just what he was in for.
  1053. He was going to see every single thing this crazy girl had in her gigantic closet.
  1055. As he nodded along and watched the girl's gaze flick between him and her clothes, Kris contemplated.
  1057. In a way, he felt like his favorite hero more than ever. Every time the silent protagonist from the Fable of Wanda entered a dungeon, he too ended up in terrible situations like this. Usually he had a smart way to get out of them by solving a puzzle, though.
  1059. Kris didn't think he had a path out of this.
  1061. Noelle looked back at him every few seconds. To make sure he was still there, he finally realized. There was no sneaking off.
  1063. Even if he did make a break for it, he knew for sure that Noelle was faster than him.
  1065. And he wasn't stupid, despite Noelle's insistence on explaining the functions of everyday things to him. He knew that his mother had separated him from Azzy so that he would interact with the girl. If she turned up grumpy, or crying, that would be no good.
  1067. So he sat, and nodded to the rhythm of Noelle's rambling, and wondered.
  1069. What made her like this? Why was she so eager to talk about every little thing she could set her eyes on?
  1071. She was the exact opposite of her brother. Dess had spared Kris the boredom of seeing all the golf holes, and the pond, because the boy knew they were boring. Come to think of it, he had tried to avoid showing Kris and Azzy anything at all, because Asriel had seen it already.
  1073. And then, it clicked.
  1075. You only showed off things if they were new to someone.
  1077. Something his mother told him flittered back into his mind. People were only new once.
  1079. And it was the same for things, he reasoned.
  1081. Once. He only had to do this once.
  1083. Noelle could kidnap the poor boy, tie him up with that dumb feather boa, have him at her absolute mercy, and she would still never rattle off the names of all her clothes again. She was only doing it this one time, because they were new to him.
  1085. Suddenly, the inconceivably long fashion show ahead of him felt shorter. He just had to get this over with now, and then never again.
  1087. With little ceremony, the boy flopped down onto the carpet and made himself comfortable.
  1089. The sound caught Noelle's attention, and she took a look that lasted more than half a second.
  1091. “Are you okay?” she asked, and Kris nodded. The boy began to idly kick his feet, and that seemed to satisfy the deer.
  1093. She turned back and continued talking about her clothes. She kept looking, too.
  1095. But every time she saw the boy sitting there, staring as intently as he could manage, she took a little longer to look again.
  1097. Her voice grew ever more confident, and her descriptions became more flowery, when they could be. Some outfits had stories that went with them. Others made the girl pause to consider, as if she was describing them out loud for the first time.
  1099. She probably was, in some cases. She had so many pieces of clothing that Kris wouldn't be shocked to learn she was seeing some of them for the first time.
  1101. When she wasn't wasting so much time making sure he was still there, she actually managed to move through her wardrobe at a decent pace. For the last dozen or so garments, she didn't feel the need to check on him at all.
  1103. “And I think that's the last one,” she chirped merrily. Kris thought it was, too. She pushed the last festive sweater down the rack.
  1105. “Gee, I got a little carried away, didn't I?” she asked, and Kris offered her a shrug. “Well, did you like seeing my stuff, at least?”
  1107. Kris thought for a moment, and finally nodded. It wasn't so bad. Her rambling made for a pleasant sort of sound after a while, and she did have a few cool shirts tucked away in a sea of lame girl clothes.
  1109. “That's great!” she said. “You're really gonna like the second closet, then!”
  1111. Kris' stomach bottomed out, and his eyes went wide.
  1113. And then he heard delicate little giggles flowing out of the girl.
  1115. “I'm just kidding,” she laughed. “Got you.”
  1117. Kris blinked his fear away, and then nodded. She had got him. He would have to remember that.
  1119. “We can go see the castle, now,” the girl informed him. With that, the boy got up to leave.
  1121. As he did, though, something shiny in the corner caught his eye. Moving all those clothes must have revealed it.
  1123. Noelle followed the unmoving boy's gaze, and said “Oh, those are my golf clubs. Want to see them?”
  1125. Kris did want to see them. They were weird.
  1127. He let the girl lead him over to the other end of the clothes rack, and they stopped in front of a strange bag.
  1129. It was pink, naturally, and made of a heavy looking material. It was covered in more zippers and pouches than Kris could ever imagine using, and from its top jutted at least a dozen metal poles all ending in rosy grips.
  1131. “Yep,” said Noelle, “these are my clubs. I use them to play golf with my dad. Maybe sometime I can show you how to play.”
  1133. Kris grabbed a random pole and freed it from its pink prison.
  1135. “That's a wedge,” Noelle informed him. “Or, sorry, it's an iron. It's kind of hard to tell.”
  1137. Kris didn't know what Noelle was talking about. It was a sword with a weird oval on the end, no matter what the deer said.
  1139. “Um, don't swing them around, or anything,” she warned. “They can be dangerous. And also I think it's bad luck to swing them in the house.”
  1141. A cursed sword, then. Kris returned the blade back to its home.
  1143. “I actually have a really cute hat and gloves in here somewhere,” Noelle realized aloud. “Let me see if I can find them.”
  1145. The girl knelt down and began to fiddle with the zippers and pouches of the bag.
  1147. She was oddly close to him, Kris realized. Practically touching his leg while she rifled through the bag.
  1149. Kris could smell gingerbread.
  1151. He watched as she worked, and as he did he noticed something. Something that he thought he saw a few times before, but he wasn't sure.
  1153. A tail.
  1155. A puffy, fluffy, white and brown tail sticking out from Noelle's dress. About as long as a pointer finger, and puffed up to the width of a whole fist.
  1157. He could see it easily now that she was sitting still in one place.
  1159. The thing held the boy's attention easily, just sitting there and bouncing and looking like the poofiest thing in the world.
  1161. Without thinking, Kris grabbed it.
  1163. It was indeed soft.
  1165. Noelle died.
  1167. “Yeeep!” came her shrill deathrattle.  All at once she stiffened up to her full height, and fell face first onto the floor.
  1169. The fluffy tail went with her, and Kris was left grasping at nothing for several moments. He had to process what he was seeing.
  1171. There was no way that had happened. He tried to blink it away, but there sat the poor girl's corpse each time his eyes opened.
  1173. He poked at her, when blinking failed. She was stiff. Kris was pretty sure corpses went stiff, so this was a very bad sign.
  1175. He shook the girl and got no response.
  1177. His stomach was in freefall.
  1179. He had murdered her. On accident. Somehow. But he was a killer. The girl just wanted to show him some stupid gloves and he had paid her back with murder.  
  1181. How would he explain this? Did all reindeer die when you touched their tails?
  1183. Kris thought of his impending life behind bars, and of Noelle's sad little pink funeral.
  1185. And then the girl's arm moved.
  1187. The pint sized killer stood, transfixed, as his victim, ever so slowly, started to move.
  1189. The doe pushed herself to her hands and knees, and then she rolled over onto her butt.
  1191. She looked up at Kris, and he saw wide green eyes with little beady tears forming in the corners.
  1193. He was so happy that he wasn't a murderer, but somehow the lingering fear he saw made him feel worse.
  1195. She hugged her knees to her chest, and took a few deep breaths. When she was ready, she said, “I'm okay, Kris.”
  1197. Kris nodded more times than he meant to.
  1199. “That was just... a r-reaction I have, sometimes...” she looked down at the floor. “When something scary or surprising happens.”
  1201. After a moment, she looked up at his eyes.
  1203. “It's not nice to touch somebody's tail without asking, you know.”
  1205. His chest felt tight, and his eyes stung.  He was about as sorry as he had ever been, and he wanted her to know. Something rare started gathering in his throat.
  1207. Noelle simply looked at him for a few more moments, before her face softened.
  1209. “It's okay, Kris. I know you're sorry.”
  1211. The boy found himself blinking, on top of everything else.
  1213. That seemed like the Dreemurr family superpower, she had just used. That strange ability to know how he was feeling without him indicating it.
  1215. That rare something changed course, a little.
  1217. “How did you know that?”
  1219. It sounded low and groaning like a frog's noise, but every word was clear.
  1221. For several moments, the words and the children just sat there. Kris stood, feeling like he was burning, and Noelle sat with an “o” for a mouth.
  1223. Finally, she said. “It's your eyes.”
  1225. Kris blinked the things in question.
  1227. “They're really uh... expressive. I think that's the way to say it. Really, your whole face kind of is, but especially your eyes.”
  1229. Kris brought a hand up to his face, and he felt how tight his cheeks felt. How rigid his nose had gotten.
  1231. “Even if you don't talk, or anything, it's usually pretty easy to tell how you're feeling.”
  1233. She let the boy smoosh his face in peace, before she added, “That's how I knew you weren't going to run away when I was showing you my clothes.” A little grin formed on her face. “You looked like you liked it.”
  1235. Kris felt his face get warm, and it got even warmer when he realized that she knew what that meant.
  1237. “Want to see the castle, now?” asked the girl, as she rose to her hooves, and Kris nodded. He was glad to be off the subject of whether he liked dumb clothes or not.
  1239. “I knew you could talk,” Noelle murmured as they went. Kris could only nod.
  1241. She led him out of the closet's harsh fluorescence, and back to the washed out pink rays of her room.
  1243. The pair marched up to the long-awaited castle, and Kris followed the girl's lead when she plopped down in front of it.
  1245. “So, this is my castle,” she said. “It's where all my dollies live. I think it's pretty neat.”
  1247. Kris also thought it was pretty neat, for as pink and girly as it was.
  1249. The castle was huge, and fairly detailed. It had six high walls, which ended in turrets and spires. It was mostly pink, but the roofs of the spires were white, and red plastic flags dotted the top of the structure every so often. He could see the outlines of bricks on the outside walls, and in the front there was even a gate.
  1251. The castle, despite its pinkness, would make an excellent staging ground for all sorts of battles and campaigns and sieges. He suspected the poor thing had never been used for that, though.
  1253. “Check this out,” Noelle told him. The girl undid a latch, and opened the grand structure up to reveal its guts.
  1255. Kris saw that he was correct. It seemed like a miniature version of his mother lived in this castle. Everything was flowers and frills and doilies inside.
  1257. Noelle pointed out a kitchen, and a bathroom, and a nursery, all adorned with cute little pink furniture. There was an indoor garden, and an art studio, and a rumpus room, whatever that was.
  1259. It lacked an armory. And a dungeon. And even a throne room.
  1261. Much like the Holiday home, the seemingly grand fortress was less of a castle and more of a big house.
  1263. From out of a tiny master bedroom, Noelle produced two dolls.
  1265. “Here's my dolly, Princess Fawna,” Noelle said proudly, holding up a little plastic deer in a pink dress. She had small antlers, flowing blonde hair and a little tiara. “She's super cool.”
  1267. Kris would let Noelle have this one.
  1269. “And here's her friend, Chazz the Knight. Check him out.”
  1271. Noelle held up another plastic deer. This one had the saddest knight costume Kris had ever seen, if he could even call it that. He had no cape, or breastplate, or boots, or shield or sword. Just shoulder pads that accentuated big plastic muscles. He had a swoosh of blonde hair and big antlers, but only a tank top and shorts to protect everything besides his shoulders. Kris thought he looked more like a beach dude than a knight.
  1273. “I'm not sure if they're supposed to be married, or friends, or related, or what...” Noelle rambled. “But it doesn't really matter, that's what imagination is for.”
  1275. Kris nodded. He also didn't really care how Chazz and the princess were related.
  1277. “So, do you want to play?” asked the girl.
  1279. Kris scratched his head. He didn't really know how to play with dolls.
  1281. “It's not hard, or anything,” Noelle explained. “You just kind of hop them around and do voices for them.”
  1283. After a second Noelle thought to add, “Uh, and I can do voices for yours, if you want. I'm pretty good at voices.”
  1285. Maybe his super weakness wasn't all bad.
  1287. Kris thought, for a moment. This didn't sound too bad, once he got past the girliness of it. And he had nearly murdered her, after all.
  1289. He could try it, once.
  1291. The boy nodded, and Noelle handed him the lame knight.
  1293. The doe got situated, and made herself comfortable. When Kris had followed suit, she bounced her little princess through the gates of the castle-house. In a squeaky, high pitched voice, she said “Ugh... I think I'm the only woman in that office who knows how to do her job.”
  1295. After an expectant look, Kris remembered to put down Chazz in the confines of the castle, and bounce him around a little.
  1297. “You should say hi to the kids,” said Noelle, in a fake low voice that sounded like a mouse attempting to be tough.
  1299. “They should be in bed,” answered the squeaky voice, as the princess bounced around. “I don't want to wake them.”
  1301. “They want to see you,” said the goofy voice again.
  1303. At this point, Kris decided that Chazz should be upside down.
  1305. “Kris!” said Noelle's normal voice, “Chazz can't fly.”
  1307. Kris shook his head. He wasn't flying. He was doing a handstand, to cheer up the grumpy princess. Noelle needed more imagination.
  1309. “Well, I guess it's fine. Just remember to bounce him around once in a while.”
  1311. Kris nodded.
  1313. As their doll games went on, Kris found himself paying less attention to the tiny plastic drama, and more attention to Noelle.
  1315. She really seemed to light up as she played out her stories. She chuckled and smiled up big grins when she thought of something funny, or when Kris' unorthodox doll maneuvers hit just right. Kris thought she looked different than she had when he first saw her.
  1317. When she got all smiley her face didn't look as thin or tall as it did when she was trying to shrink away. Her hair looked different, too. In the filtered pink light of her room it looked like shiny gold, not polished metal.
  1319. “Oh no!” cried the princess, in a voice that sounded like Noelle's. She hopped after Chazz, who was in the process of whooshing around the castle like a deflating balloon. “Come back! Don't pop!”
  1321. Kris thought it was funny that Noelle thought she was good at voices. It wasn't the kind of funny he could laugh at, but it was enough to make him smile. The doe really only had about four distinct voices. She had her deep, goofy sounding “man” voice, her squeak-pitched woman voice, a boy's voice which was just a less deep version of the man, and a girl's voice.
  1323. The girl's voice was just her voice, and it was the only one Kris thought was good. When she was concentrating on her doll stories,  and doing the regular girl voice, she sounded clear and even like a bell.
  1325. Despite the princess' protests, Chazz popped. Or, Kris kind of tossed him in the air and he fell down, and that would have to a good enough pop.
  1327. As the giggling princess read him a quirky eulogy, Kris thought that that must have wrapped up the most inventive doll plot yet.
  1329. Most of the stories Noelle came up with followed the same pattern. The man voice would try to get the woman voice to do something, and she wouldn't. The boy voice would tell the girl voice he would do something, but he didn't. And sometimes the man voice would invite the girl voice to come play. The last scenes didn't really didn't have much plot, so that was how Kris managed to get Chazz to suck up the stuff that balloons were made of and pop.
  1331. He wasn't sure how to top it.
  1333. Noelle sat the princess down next to her fallen... friend, and looked up at him.
  1335. “That was pretty good, Kris.”
  1337. Kris nodded, and smiled just a little.
  1339. “I think I'm all dolled out, though.”
  1341. Kris blinked at her.
  1343. “We've been playing a while, and I think we've told the funnest story we're going to for a while.”
  1345. Kris had to agree with that.
  1347. “Is there anything you want to play?”
  1349. The boy thought for a moment. There was something he wished he could be playing, but he didn't think Noelle could help much. It was worth a try, though, since she did ask.
  1351. He didn't know how to communicate it, though. It was a hard thought to express, even with his super weakness. After a second, though, he had an idea.
  1353. He picked up Chazz and Princess Whatsername, and booped their heads together. He even made a little clashing sound, for emphasis.
  1355. “Kris!” cried Noelle, in the same angry-smiley way as before, “Dolls shouldn't hit each other!”
  1357. The boy frowned. Only one way, then.
  1359. “I like games with fighting.”
  1361. The sound made Noelle blink, but she wasn't stunned as long as the first time.
  1363. “Oh, you like fighting games?” She grinned at him. “Well why didn't you say so?”
  1365. Kris gave her his flattest look.
  1367. “Oh wait, you did...” she realized, scratching the back of her head. “Well, it's alright. I know exactly what we can play!”
  1369. The deer hopped up to her hooves and offered Kris a hand, which he took.
  1371. “If you like fighting, you're gonna love this,” she chimed, as she led him out of the World Where Everything Was Pink.
  1373. They walked in silence for a while, but by the time they reached the stairs, she piped up, “You know, I don't think anyone's ever played dolls with me until I got bored of it.”
  1375. Kris blinked. She wasn't looking at him, as she spoke. “No one's ever seen my whole wardrobe, either.”
  1377. They had stopped about halfway down the stairs.
  1379. “I try to get Dess to play stuff like that with me, but he always runs away the second I turn my back.”
  1381. Kris waited.
  1383. “Your brother does that, too. And he's too fast to catch.”
  1385. Kris thought he should squeeze her hand, so he did. That got her to look over at him.
  1387. “But you're... reliable. You know?” She was grinning really wide, but her eyes looked misty.
  1389. Kris nodded and returned her smile as much as best he could.
  1391. “Anyway,” she went on, when they resumed their trip down, “Like I was saying, I think you're gonna like this.”
  1393. Kris thought he heard thumping several meters away.
  1395. They made their way through the standing room, and Noelle clacked them through the kitchen. Finally, they arrived in the living room, where Mom was smoothing her skirt and opening a book.
  1397. The same book she tried to read to him every Sunday, he recognized. Only the little red heart on it was upside down. Maybe it was a different book, then.
  1399. “Hello, children,” she called to them. “Did you need something?”
  1401. “Hi Mrs. Dreemurr!” chimed the girl, letting go of Kris' hand to skip over to the TV. “We just got tired of dolls, and Kris said he wanted to play fighting games.”
  1403. “Oh, I see,” nodded his mother. After a few seconds of looking at her book, she furrowed her brow. “He did?”
  1405. Noelle fiddled with something under the TV, and Kris tried not to stare at her tail. “Yep!” she chirped, “He did.”
  1407. Mom looked at him for confirmation, and he smiled. And then she smiled, and waved him over to whatever Noelle was doing. “Alright then, children. Have fun with your games.”
  1409. Kris nearly did a double take when he saw what Noelle had found. It was a shiny purple Nontendo. With two player one controllers plugged into it.
  1411. Noelle's weird hoof-hands held a few cartridges up to him.
  1413. “Which one do you want to play?”
  1415. They all had interesting art. One had a shirtless guy doing a kick, and another had guys in karate outfits staring each other down. Kris selected the one he recognized, though.
  1417. “Good choice,” she said.
  1419. The doe twiddled with a couple of wires, and hit a few buttons, and before Kris knew it the logo for Super Smashing Fighters was playing on the giant TV screen.
  1421. Kris wished he had known that Noelle had these kinds of games when she had first taken him inside to play.
  1423. The tapped their way to the character select screen. The Holidays seemed to have characters that Kris didn't recognize, but he went with the cool silent hero anyway. He was sure she would pick the fancy pink princess, but to his surprise she chose the spiky turtle.
  1425. And then she whomped him, mercilessly. He barely got a single arrow in edgewise.
  1427. Kris chalked it up to being unfamiliar with the controller. And it seemed like he was right, as their next bout felt far more competitive.
  1429. Back and forth they went, trading wins, and showing each other tricks they knew. They groaned when their random stages were terrible, and laughed when random bombs killed somebody.
  1431. Eventually they grew tired of sitting, and laid down on the plush carpet.
  1433. Kris noticed the gingerbread smell, again.
  1435. Some uncounted number of brawls later, a door slammed open somewhere else in the house.
  1437. An agitated voice yelled “Never again, in my whole life!”
  1439. And then Mr. Holiday said “That's why they call it a hazard, bud.”
  1441. The two paused their game and looked to their left.
  1443. “In here!” called Mom, and several sets of feet clacked on the kitchen floor.
  1445. In a few moments Dad, Azzy, and an absolutely soaked Dess stood in the living room doorway.
  1447. Dad smiled at the sight before him, while Asriel gave Kris a relieved look. Kris was happy to see him, too.
  1449. Dess just looked impressed. “How did you get out, dude? I thought we were gonna have to save you from Pink Heck.”
  1451. “Hey, watch it, kiddo,” said Mr. Holiday, who chose that moment to ambush his soaking son with a towel.
  1453. Noelle responded with a raspberry directed at her brother. “I'll have you know, Kris actually likes playing with me. So there!”
  1455. Kris kind of wished she hadn't told the other boys that, but he also didn't correct her.
  1457. “Well whatever,” said a marginally more dry Dess. “We're playing actual fun games now!”
  1459. The two children joined their peers, while the two adults joined Mom.
  1461. “They wanted to play games,”  Mom explained to Rudy, “I hope that is alright.”
  1463. “Oh, totally,” said the jolly old deer, as he he and Asgore found spots on the couch. “Between you and me,” he told the elder goats in a tone he probably didn't think Kris could hear, “games are usually the only way those two get along.”
  1465. As Kris, Noelle, and the two newcomers all squared off with each other, Kris thought Mr. Holiday was right. When the reindeer siblings beat on each other in-game, their trademark bickering was absent.
  1467. They really were weird.
  1469. After who-knew-how-many more polygonal beatings were dished out, the conversation on the couch turned to time, and dinner.
  1471. Seemingly all too soon, Mother informed them that it was time to go. After a little prodding, Noelle and Dess put the Nontendo away, while Mom and Dad led them to go put their shoes on. When the reindeer children were back, the adults made everyone line up and say goodbye.
  1473. “See ya later, kiddos,” Mr. Holiday told the boys, “Try not to outgrow me, the next time I see ya.”
  1475. “Bye, dudes. Maybe we can do something cool, the next time you come over,” Dess said, mostly to Kris. “No weird dressup games.”
  1477. Noelle harrumphed at her brother, before she chimed in “Bye! And, um, maybe you could have a sleepover next time! I've always wanted to have a sleepover with a friend.”
  1479. Noelle's suggestion earned some noncommital chatter from the adults, as they said their own goodbyes.
  1481. Reluctantly, Kris waved to the reindeer kids. Azzy held his hand again, which made it easier, but he was still a little sad to have to go. It turned out the Holiday children were actually pretty cool, and so was their house. Not what he expected at all.
  1483. It was about as far from a dungeon as anything could be.
  1485. The walk home was much easier, for many reasons.
  1487. For one, the evil sun had slumped back behind the treeline. Perhaps it was pouting that it failed to ruin Kris' day. For two, Asriel regaled the family with the story of how Dess golfed his way into a lake.  And, for three, Kris' body felt ten times lighter than it had that morning.
  1489. The rest of the day passed in a blur. As soon as they were through the door, Mom rushed her boys into the tub. When they got out, the discovered that Dad had produced various flavors of pizza. And ice cream, Kris found out when the pizza was gone.
  1491. For some reason Dad bought an obscene amount of ice cream. Tubs upon tubs of it, in many flavors. And he even told Kris that he could have as much as he wanted. Mom made him walk that back, though, so he just said Kris could have ice cream whenever he felt like he needed it.
  1493. Kris wondered if Dad realized just how often Kris was going to need ice cream.
  1495. That would be something to exploit later, though. Even with a couple of scoops in his belly, the weight of the day began to press on Kris, and Asriel too.
  1497. Before the little goat knew it, the two of them were laying in their beds, in the dark. Kris realized now that his bed wasn't as soft as Noelle's bed, or even her couch, but it felt perfect against his back.
  1499. Coiled energy and tension released, and after a minute the boy felt like he was floating.
  1501. Sleep didn't find him, though. He was still thinking.
  1503. He listened carefully, and he couldn't hear deep breaths across the room. That meant Azzy was feeling the same way.
  1505. “Did you win that race?”
  1507. After only a moment, Azzy replied “Of course. Dess is pretty fast but he's never beat me.”
  1509. Kris smiled.
  1511. “Did you notice Noelle called you her friend?” Azzy asked.
  1513. Under his covers, Kris kicked his feet.
  1515. “Yes.”
  1517. After a minute or two, Azzy asked, “Are you her friend?”
  1519. Silence sat for only a moment.
  1521. “Yes.”
  1523. Asriel only offered an affirmative noise. That was enough for Kris.
  1525. After a few more minutes of silence, Kris heard deep, steady breaths from across the room.
  1527. And he heard thumping. Another minute later, his door silently creeped open, and the scantest ray of light peeked in.
  1529. Mother looked in on him, and saw his opened eyes. Normally this event meant trouble, but this time he could see his mother smile. She nudged the door open a little further, and with grace that should be impossible for a creature her size, she snuck over to him.
  1531. “Good little boys should be asleep right now, my child,” she whispered, but there wasn't even a warning in her tone.
  1533. Kris just nodded at her.
  1535. “I thought all your adventures would have put you right to sleep,” she admitted, and Kris could only shrug. He thought the same thing, but there was plenty on his mind, despite his tired body.
  1537. Mom stood for a moment, and gathered her words, before she said “Your father and I are very proud of you, dear. We do not think you could have done a better job of interacting with your peers.”
  1539. Kris smiled at her.
  1541. “Noelle is nice.”
  1543. He felt almost obligated to say it. He probably wouldn't have had as easy a time if it weren't for that. Mom was right about her being an exception to the treachery of girls.
  1545. “Yes,” chimed the old goat, “she is a little sweetheart.” After a while, she mused “It is a shame that-” but she stopped.
  1547. “Nevermind,” she told him. “I just want you to know that you did a wonderful job, today. And that we love you.” With that, she ruffled his hair, and gave him a goodnight kiss.
  1549. As she turned to leave, Kris remembered one more thing.
  1551. “When will I get pie-romancing?”
  1553. Mom turned and gave him a confused look. “Where did you hear...” and then she looked like she smelled something foul. “Oh.”
  1555. She looked up at the ceiling, as if that held an answer, and finally said “It will come after your horns come in.” She didn't look at him when she said it.
  1557. She reached over and patted his head one last time. “But, think nothing of it, my child. Just try to sleep.”
  1559. And he didn't. As his mother glided away, Kris thought nothing of pie-romance, or heat, or sweat. Nothing of golf, or castles, or shaneel. He didn't even think of Azzy.
  1561. As he dozed, the boy's mind was ruled by gingerbread, and bells, and fluffy tails, and shiny gold.
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