Actions

Work Header

Reasonable Measures

Chapter Text

Papyrus woke up as usual. Not quite as usual—he’d been sleeping too much lately. Becoming a lazybones, he groused to himself. Just like…well. He didn’t even know what time it was.

He made no move to get up. Rather, he burrowed deeper into the piled blankets to preserve his own meager body heat. It was always cold in his new room. And damp. He didn’t like it. He took a suspicious look around.

Everything still appeared to be in place. There was the lamp, sitting on Sans’ desk beside a stack of his favorite books. No computer, true, but Sans had been kind enough to bring most of his other things down.

His flame-patterned rug was on the floor, the human flag with its grinning skull hung up on the wall, and his action figures were carefully arranged on top of the storage cabinet. He hadn’t been able to practice battle scenarios with them in a while but being able to look at them was nice. It had been a nice thought.

The machine in the corner hummed under its sheet. Papyrus stared at it for a good long while, waiting. There were countless other things he’d rather be doing. He thought about some of them at great length, slowly drifting off into a lethargic daze.

He was startled awake, on edge without realizing why. A moment later the door upstairs creaked. Ah. He’d heard the lock click.

With a small huff of effort he shuffled himself into a more or less upright position. There was the soft, familiar pad of small slippered feet on the stairs and Sans, holding a tray with what could have been his breakfast, lunch, or dinner.

“heya paps.”

Papyrus whined, all he could manage without his lower jaw. Sans nodded in acknowledgement, distracted. He needed another key and it was buried somewhere in his pockets.

“gimme a sec.”

Sans shifted his burden to one arm, rather carelessly in Papyrus’ opinion. There were two glasses of water on the tray and both came close to spilling. Another lock clicked.

Inside the cabinet were neat rows of white bones nestled in a plush blanket. Sans picked one up and shoved the drawer closed with his hip.

When he sat, the edge of the mattress hardly dipped under his slight weight. He fit the mandible into place against his brother’s skull and held it there while the magic that kept both of their skeletal bodies together recognized its missing piece and took. Papyrus clicked his teeth together. It didn’t hurt, not exactly, but…

“…s…sanSS…” his voice was only a rasp and the small effort of saying his brother’s name sent him into a coughing fit. Sans gave him a sympathetic look, grabbing one of the glasses.

“shhh bro. here, drink.”

He gulped down the water which Sans kindly held for him. Sans wiped up what dribbled down his chin with an affectionate smile.

“more?” Rather than trying to say anything Papyrus gave a wet cough and a desperate nod. His brother pat his back and made him drink the second glass slower.

The food was a bowl of lukewarm oatmeal, somehow gumming up in clumps and yet too watery. Sans never managed to make it right. What should have been freshly hatched dinosaurs were only little melted spots of colored sugar. He’d left them sitting out too long. Papyrus looked between the bowl, Sans, and the cabinet, rubbing the blunted ends of his humeri self-consciously against the chest plate of his battlebody.

“BROTHER…COULD I…EAT BY MYSELF TODAY, PERHAPS?” He smiled, hopeful. Sans didn’t look up from stirring. Papyrus decided he was thinking about it. He’d been thinking about it for several minutes now. Maybe even really considering it. “I WOULD ONLY NEED ONE HAND.” he added, helpfully. “SO…”

Sans held out a spoonful of oatmeal and Papyrus sighed, opening his mouth and taking a bite in defeat. Maybe next time.

Chapter Text

The machine sat in its corner, covered in its sheet. Its low, constant, droning hum was Papyrus’ only company during the hours Sans was away. He’d seen it once. Sans had dragged the covering off the machine. He’d been angry. That had been Papyrus’ fault. He’d been trying to tell Sans that he knew he wasn’t a bad person. That he didn’t just didn’t understand why Sans would—

“you’re right. you don’t understand. how could ya…?” he’d trailed off, muttering to himself. Papyrus strained to hear.

“BR—BROTHER?”

The machine was a dull, industrial gray under chipped white paint, dirty despite its protective cover and rusting in places. It was covered in dials and buttons and small screens that Papyrus couldn’t guess the use of. There were a few tools scattered around it.

Sans grabbed one up, hostility telegraphed in every motion as he worked. He wrenched off a large panel, throwing it down in Papyrus’ general direction. It clattered to the tiled floor several feet short of actually hitting him but he flinched all the same.

The exposed innards of the machine glowed in shifting, ethereal shades of white and the palest blue. The hum was louder without the protective casing, the quality of the sound somehow altered. Papyrus could feel it resonating inside his skull. It was a strange and altogether unpleasant feeling. He shook his head to try and clear it. Sans dug past wires and circuits and other, unnamable components until he was half wedged inside. Papyrus shifted in bed, trying to see what he was doing.

A notebook was tossed on the floor. Another and another. Sans freed himself, backing out without dislodging anything. He stood up, digging in another part to retrieve—a scarf? Papyrus recognized it of course, it was his scarf. But… he was wearing it already…?

He looked down at himself, frowning in confusion. Yes, there it was. Then what…? He looked back up to see Sans holding a jar filled with—his eye sockets bulged with ridiculous googly eyes. He had only seen someone’s dust once before but there hadn’t been nearly so much and…just how many monsters did Sans have in there?!

Sans had gone still. He clutched the jar to himself, almost hugging it. His eye lights were gone. Papyrus hated it when he did that. He suppressed a shiver.

“BROTHER…? SANS?” Sans didn't respond.

Eventually he seemed to get a hold of himself, or at least he started moving again. Papyrus watched Sans kneel, coil the strange, duplicate scarf up into a little nest and tuck the jar of dust inside.

“it's broken,” he said. “the machine, i mean.”

It had been designed as a time machine. It could monitor timelines. Something like that. Papyrus didn't quite follow. A scientist, a doctor whose name Papyrus knew he’d heard many times but could never quite place had designed it. Sans had helped. (When had Sans ever been a scientist?) Sans tried to explain the resets.

He didn’t remember them, he said, not really. None of us do. But he’d felt it. Déjà vu, the feeling of (something having happened before, I know what it means, Sans) had led him to repair what he could of the machine and keep notes where they would be safe within. He showed Papyrus a few random pages in one of the notebooks, each covered in short, disjointed scrawls of his own messy handwriting.

*human left the ruins today. made friends with papyrus and the dogs. killed undyne. alphys went missing. asgore and the souls are missing.

*human left the ruins today. the lady didn’t answer from behind the door.

*human killed everyone except papyrus.

*human killed papyrus

*they only killed papyrus. empress undyne declared war.

Papyrus squinted at that last one. “EMPRESS UNDYNE?”

“thought i was real clever," Sans said, "when i figured i could preserve things within the machine’s temporal shielding. some real original thinkin, courtesy this sans. only when i opened it up the first time, with that intention? these were already in there.”

“do you know how long it took me to, to figure out somethin was wrong? it was just that feeling at first. déjà vu, we all get that. but, i…”

Through notes he never remembered writing, he’d come to realize that it was always the same. The human came out of the ruins, made their way through Snowdin, Waterfall, and Hotland, all the way to the Capital. Whatever they did, whoever they killed, in the end it was all erased, “reset,” like nothing ever happened.

What? How did I remember this time? Heh.

“so the lady behind the door to the ruins—i never mentioned her? she's great, she's got jokes. anyway, she tells me she’s found this human that’s fallen down. and she feels like she’d met this kid before. she thought it was funny that she even knew their answers to questions before she asked. that they seemed almost familiar with the puzzles, with everythin in the ruins really. and the kid she described? it was like i already knew them too.”

Papyrus squirmed uncomfortably on the bed. He couldn’t exactly say he understood, that he remembered anything. Not exactly, but what Sans was saying— He’d been having bad dreams lately. Even before this…current predicament.

He could almost, almost picture the human from those dreams that were, quite honestly, often closer to nightmares. Sans confirmed that Papyrus would probably recognize them if he saw them. That he’d asked before, when confronted, if he knew them.

Papyrus thought very, very hard, trying to picture the human. They were…small? Shorter than Sans. An indistinct figure approaching through the fog, a toy knife clutched in their tiny, dusty hands. That expression…were they even human? He remembered, if nothing else, being so, so afraid.

“I’M NOT A BABYBONES, SANS. I CAN DEFEND MYSELF FRFOM A CHILD.”

His brother was quiet, his eyes black and empty.

“heh.” There was no humor in his laugh. He hadn’t told a single bad joke or even made a pun since bringing him down here. Papyrus missed them. “i know you could. thing is, bro, you never do. not from them. you've let them kill you over and over, offerin forgiveness and acceptance to that thing, covered in dust or not. and that…that’s you. you’re the best person i know, papyrus. i can’t change you. i just...”

“i can’t. i couldn’t stop you any other way. i tried so many times, believe me.” He was clutching the flimsy notebooks too tight, crinkling their edges. “i can’t…not again. N e v e r a g a i n.

He was shaking when he’d said it, his permanent grin giving the impression of a pained rictus. He wouldn’t look at Papyrus. He wasn’t looking at the jar either, but Papyrus was. He wondered how many times Sans had watched him die.

We, uh, made it to the surface once, Sans said when the silence stretched on for too long. I read about it in one of these. You, me, Alphys, Undyne, the king and queen, the kid. We all just sat there on the mountain watching the sunset until the stars come out. God, Papyrus, we were free. That, that was real. That happened, but—

“SANS...PLEASE COME HERE.” He held out his truncated arms and Sans took reluctant, shuffling steps closer, coming to stand beside the bed. Papyrus embraced his brother as best he could. Sans clung to him. He laid his head on his brother’s shoulder, sighing.

“IN THIS TIMELINE,” he said, choosing his words carefully, “THE HUMAN HASN’T HURT ME.” Sans stiffened in his arms.

“pap. you don’t give me a choice.”

He didn’t apologize. Papyrus didn’t really expect him to. And Sans hated himself just a little more, already knowing that his brother would forgive him.

Chapter Text

Today (?) Sans came downstairs with a laundry basket.

“i brought clean sheets,” he said. “i gotta move you, ok?”

A small ‘ping’ sounded and with a casual gesture Papyrus was lifted from the bed. His soul glowed blue inside his chest and no, no, nonono not that.

He writhed against the hold, fighting it, remembering the feeling of his body pressed into the mattress with blue magic. Paralyzed, completely helpless as Sans begins to take him apart piece by piece. It hurts so much.

I’ll keep you safe this time, he'd said, his teeth clicking against Papyrus' forehead in the skeleton equivalent of a kiss. I promise.

Sans hadn’t taken his mandible at first. Papyrus could concede that being his own fault. He wouldn’t stop screaming.

He’s shaking, tears streaming down his face. No, no, please no. He can’t make Sans understand. He can’t speak, he can’t scream, can’t breathe.

“paps…it’s okay. you’re okay. look, i won’t...i’m not gonna hurt you, c’mere…”

Papyrus buried his face in Sans’ shirt, trying to choke back his sobs. He knew he was overreacting, that this was shameful behavior even if Sans was too nice to say so. He was only going to pick you up. He’d said so.

Sans held him just the same, rubbing comforting circles against his back and murmuring reassuring nonsense until Papyrus' fit reduced itself to little hitching breaths and sniffles.

“let’s try again, yeah? no blue magic.” He waited for Papyrus to nod.

One short arm hooked under his femurs, the other around his ribcage. Huffing with effort Sans awkwardly hauled Papyrus off the bed and nearly dropped him, scaring them both. It wasn’t that Papyrus was heavy. Even as a larger skeleton he hardly weighed a thing. More than Sans, true, but… Sans was weak.

Always weak, always fragile with his single, solitary HP. Papyrus, propped against the wall, watched his brother with concern. He had excellent control over his magic. He’d had to, growing up with Sans, knowing that one stray bullet was all it would take.

He knew Sans wouldn’t let him go without a fight. Papyrus could fight, but could he get away without hurting his brother? One HP. The thought stayed his hand whenever he was allowed them.

Chapter Text

Flowey was watching the house. He’d been missing for a few days but now the trashbag skeleton came and went like he normally did, going to Grillby’s, to his various places of semi-legitimate employment. Flowey didn’t care about that today. He wanted to know what had happened to his favorite.

Word among the guard dogs was that he’d died in an accident. Everyone was oh so somber, giving Smiley Trashbag the respectful deference owed to those mourning. He smiled his empty smile just the same as always but was quieter, more withdrawn. He spent most of his time at home. What a load. Flowey didn’t believe any of it for a second.

Houses were an inconvenience but Flowey managed. He grew vines, hauling his delicate little body up to the second story windows. Papyrus’ room was stripped bare. Shouldn’t his brother have left it just as it was, as a shrine? Slept curled up in that dumb car-shaped bed, weeping to himself? Back when Flowey had the power to reset that’s what he’d always done when…

Well, maybe it was different because of the human?

He looked in all the windows but didn’t find anything else. Under the ground in the icy soil, he poked around the house’s foundation. There were only the tiniest of cracks in the concrete box of the basement’s walls but that was enough. He forced his way in, popping up inside and shaking dirt off himself.

Ah ha! He’d found all the missing things from Papyrus’ room. And Papyrus. Take that, Trashbag! he gloated. Internally, of course. He didn’t want to put Papyrus off. The skeleton was staring at him.

“Howdy! What are you doing down here, friend?” he cocked his head to the side when Papyrus didn’t answer. His favorite skeleton was always so loud and boisterous. It was a big part of his charm! Something wasn’t right. He squinted, growing closer. Papyrus curled in on himself, hunching to try and hide, but…

“Golly, Papyrus! What happened to your face?”

Dark, miserable pits met Flowey’s beady little eyes. Papyrus whined and tried to look away, but a vine caught his skull and turned it back. The flower’s face was close, much too close for comfort.

“That’s really messed up!” he said brightly, moving the skull this way and that for a better look. It really was. No wonder Papyrus couldn’t talk.

Curious, Flowey reached down with another few vines to pull away the blankets hiding the rest of him. Papyrus shook his head as much as he could against Flowey’s hold, trying to grab at them with his useless arms and hold them in place.

Don’t look, please don’t look was all he wanted to say, tears stinging his eye sockets. The flower’s little face twisted into a vaguely disgusted sneer as the covers fell away. Papyrus flinched.

“Wow, Papyrus, that brother of yours is really sick, isn’t he?”

Papyrus’ face burned, tears spilling over. To be laid bare to one of his only friends in such a pathetic state was... He hissed, trying to jerk away when Flowey prodded none too gently at the sensitive end of a humerus. The offending vine wound tighter.

Papyrus was leaking magic on him, though, and that was pretty gross. He made a face when he released the bone, wiping his vine clean on the sheet. Papyrus at least had the decency to look ashamed.

“The missing parts," he asked, "are they dust?” There was more interest than concern in his tone and Papyrus tried to ignore that. No, he shook his head. He gestured towards the cabinet with a meaningful look. He felt a stirring bit of hope. Someone had found him. His friend! Flowey was his friend. He could help.

Please, help me. He couldn’t speak but Flowey took the meaning of his plaintive whining well enough. He moved over to the drawers, trying one with a vine. Locked.

“I could help. I think I can get this open. But, geeze…Papyrus, this is serious.” He looked around at the sad imitation of Papyrus’ room before turning back to the skeleton. “Sans already told everybody you were dead.”

He watched carefully, devoting his full attention to savoring each distinct emotion that crossed Papyrus’ face as that sank in.

“What would he do if he came back and found you gone?”

The skeleton had no answers. Of course he didn’t. He couldn’t talk. Flowey told him not to worry, that he had to go now but he’d be back as soon as he could. He felt bad, maybe? Just a little. Papyrus was shaking his head no, no, and reached out for him, overbalancing and tumbling off the bed, landing in a struggling heap that couldn’t right itself.

No arms, no legs…Flowey could remember the first time he’d woken up like that. He shivered a little with something that might have been the distant echo of sympathy.

“I’ll be back,” he said, doing his best to sound sincere. “I promise!”

He had something really interesting to tell Chara.

Chapter Text

Frisk shivered in the familiar cold of Snowdin’s forest, staring up at the door to the ruins. They’d backtracked, hoping against all hope but knowing, knowing Toriel would never open it back up. She never had before.

The door to the ruins, they heard their personal narrator repeat in their head. You can’t go back.

They gripped their toy knife, the stick they’d fallen with tucked safely into their inventory to distract any dogs they hadn’t yet encountered. That part was always the same, like everything else used to be. The skeleton brothers would always greet them just beyond here. Sans with his jokes and thinly veiled warnings. Papyrus…

Whether they were being friendly or had let the voice with a particular fondness for chocolate, knives, and exposition talk them into trying one thing or another Papyrus was always, always so kind and understanding right up until the end. He had never killed them. Not once. They missed him.

Something changed again, thought Frisk. The voice gave a hollow laugh. Nothing ever changes, it said.

Chara? they addressed the voice by name. A wave of hostility answered. What?

Why wasn’t Asriel in the ruins?

He hadn’t greeted them and tried to kill them with ‘friendliness pellets,’ hadn’t popped up to mock them after sparing Toriel…

Variants on a theme, Chara answered. It’s the same story. The details don’t matter much.

Like when Papyrus went missing?

A glitch, they offered. The image of the mysterious man behind the grey door that sometimes appeared in Waterfall entered their mind, his smooth white skull cracked and eternally smiling. Frisk shrugged for the both of them. Skeletons were weird.

They had felt Sans watching them when they’d left the ruins, ready to greet them with the same old whoopee cushion trick. None of his dialogue referenced Papyrus anymore since he’d gone missing. Frisk wasn’t sure how many resets it had been since they’d seen him last. Inquiring with the Snowdin townsfolk only got them evasive non-answers. Undyne had tried to stab them even harder than usual last time they’d asked her.

It was a change, it meant something, but they couldn’t determine what. No matter what they tried, they couldn’t leave the underground. They fought their way through, befriended everyone, saved only their most special friends, killed everyone except the Vulkins, paid for Temmie’s college fund, spared the king…every possible iteration of the ‘storyline.’ Anything, anything to try and make it stick. It never did.

They made it to the surface only to wake up in the same patch of golden flowers in the ruins, having just fallen down. Chara was no help.

What does it matter? they thought. Do you really believe that either of us survived the fall? Didn’t Asriel tell you that he knew why I climbed the mountain? We’re the same, Frisk. Their silent giggle had an edge of hysteria. We’re Sisyphus. This is our hell.

Chapter Text

Of course Undyne had come looking for Papyrus when he missed his training, his patrols, wouldn’t pick up the phone no matter how many times it rang. Sans hadn’t been seen that day either, but that alone wasn’t anything too out of the ordinary. His work attendance was always... sporadic at best.

She was prepared to, but didn’t have to bust down the door. Sans answered after only a few slightly wood-splintering knocks and some rather restrained (for Undyne) demands for them to open up.

Sans looked tired, more than usual. The shadows under his eye sockets were heavy and he didn’t say anything to her, only moved aside to let her in.

“Where have you been? Where’s Papyrus? There’s been reports of a human around and two of my sentries go missing without a word, what am I supposed to think?”

Sans knew in his nonexistent gut that that Undyne would never buy his explanation of an accident. There would be too many questions, an investigation...she might even find Papyrus. But that was easy enough to avoid. She just needed someone to blame.

“the human killed him,” he said, and it wasn’t even a lie because they had, countless times. He knew they would again if he gave them the chance. “i saw them disappear back into the ruins.”

“Son of a…and you didn’t think to tell anyone?!”

He looked away. Undyne groaned, hand to her face. Of course he wasn't okay. SHE’S not okay. Papyrus was gone? She couldn’t process that right now. A spear formed in her hand.

“You said the human is in the ruins?” Sans winced. Necessary as it was, he hated throwing a friend into the path of Undyne on a rampage. Even if, in a way, this whole mess was her fault too.

“undyne…be careful. the queen, she lives in there.” Undyne blinked.

“Queen Toriel? But she’s-”

“not dead. she exiled herself. i’ve been, uh, talking to her for a while now. through the door. she’s lonely. i get that. and she, heh, she loves my dumb jokes. got some real stinkers herself. we’d trade ‘em back and forth for hours.”

Sans shoved his hands in his pockets, turning away. “so, one day, she ain’t laughin so much. the mood gets all serious like and i ask what’s wrong. she says, please, will you promise me something? please protect any humans who might come out of the ruins. and i hate makin promises, but this lady, she’s so…and she’s our queen, even if she’s hidden herself away. how can i say no to her?”

Undyne nodded, encouraging him to go on.

“so when the human was playing around in snowdin, i didn’t report it to you right away. papyrus wanted to capture them by himself and i... it’s my fault, y’know? that papyrus, that he…”

“Sans, no.”

Sans went quiet after that. Undyne closed the distance between them and gripped his shoulder in solidarity. They stood there together in a moment of silence.

“undyne,” Sans said, his voice low and monotone, emotionless. "she thinks that little demon is her child. she’ll defend it.”

Undyne’s expression hardened. The spear in her hand crackled with energy.

“I’d like to see her try.”

Chapter Text

It was quiet in the ruins. Always quiet. Toriel had visited Chara’s grave earlier that day. She had said hello to the Froggits and Whimsuns and Vegetoids, refilled the bowl of monster candy, made sure that all of the traps and puzzles were in working order. She smiled sadly at her book, wondering how the little human was fairing. She supposed it was about time to prepare lunch.

There was a loud crash downstairs. Before Toriel could get up to investigate, a single royal guard in full armor was storming her living room, shouting at her and brandishing an electric blue spear. Toriel narrowed her eyes and closed her book.

“Where is it?!”

Toriel stood, looming over the intruder by sheer virtue of her size.

“I would kindly suggest that you remove yourself from my home. I've no wish to be disturbed.”

A boss monster wearing such a stern expression was nothing less than scary as shit but Undyne wasn’t in the mood. She ripped off her helmet. Toriel blinked at the sight of the unfamiliar monster’s face. The grief, the sheer rage and hurt in her expression…

“You let that thing loose on the rest of us,” she spat.

“That thing? What could you possibly—” Undyne nearly screamed in frustration.

“The human, lady!” Toriel’s eyes grew colder.

“That human, that -child- left the ruins days ago.”

Undyne did scream then, tearing at her own hair.

Aaaaargh, of course Sans would wait days to say anything!”

She paced, cursing. She could picture him lying there in his empty house, unable to cope let alone act. The human could be half way to the Capital by now, couldn’t it? She looked up at the queen, hatred blazing in her eye.

“You set it loose and now Papyrus—” The queen gave a little gasp.

“Papyrus? I know that name. He, at the door, he always spoke so fondly of his younger brother. He wished to become a royal guard, did he not? He was—” Undyne watched, grim, as horror dawned on the queen’s face.

“Killed by your human, yes.”

“I…”

Undyne didn’t have time for this. The human wasn’t here. She shook her head.

“If Sans told you anything about his brother, you know he never would have hurt anyone. This wasn’t self-defense, lady. Just murder.”

She jammed her helmet back onto her head, turning her back on the queen who had fallen back into her chair and was muttering to herself. No, it can’t be, they were…

“You should have kept it here.”

Chapter Text

There had to be something wrong with Sans. This wasn’t...he wouldn’t…his brother had never hurt him on purpose. There had to be a way to make him understand that this was wrong, that they could go back to the way things were before. It was just so, so hard to do much convincing at all when Sans wouldn’t listen to him.

Food had always just sort of disappeared in the vicinity of his brother’s mouth when he ate. Convenient, since he couldn’t open it. With a working jaw Papyrus had never mastered that trick and he was glad of it now. If he didn’t need it to eat Sans probably…Sans wouldn’t let him have it back at all and he wouldn’t be able to say anything and try and reason with him and so…

It was good to have things to be grateful for.

His face and his limbs didn’t hurt. Not really. As long as nothing touched them there was just a dull, persistant, pulsing ache and the slow seepage of the magic meant to hold his bones together fouling the sheets. And he could still feel the detached bones, even if he couldn’t move them. It was… disconcerting.

His HP ticked down a point or two every few hours. Nothing that eating didn’t compensate for. He was grateful that Sans always changed the sheets before lying in his own residue became too disgusting and that Sans had never once tried to bandage him up despite the mess. There were bandages that contained healing magic. Magic that would 'fix' the 'open wounds' by sealing them shut. Then this would...but anyway! Sans had left them alone.

The bed he was confined to was a cot he’d dragged down here himself for Sans. He remembered when his brother hadn’t been such a lazybones, when they’d first come to Snowdin from…where was it? Hotland? He seemed to remember Sans having a job at the Core.

Sans had stayed awake, down here working for days at a time on the now sheet-covered machine whose low, droning hum was Papyrus’ constant companion. Sans had worked himself until he collapsed, on the floor or at his desk. Back then…to think he’d actually had to encourage his brother to nap.

It was one of that doctor’s machines. He didn’t remember their name, but it was to stabilize the timelines? Or track them? Something. There was an anomaly. He knew about that. Sans had told him. The anomaly is attached to the human.

The human who, according to Sans, appeared from the ruins again and again as the same week or so repeated on an infinite loop, playing out according to their whims.

Maybe they’ll be nice this time, Papyrus had offered last time they’d spoken. Sorry, bro, Sans had said. I can’t risk it.

He couldn’t even say how long he’d been down here. Sans would know. Days and days, alone with the maddening hum of the machine and his own thoughts. He could barely stand either of them anymore.

He’s been too dependent on Sans their entire lives, he thinks. It’s just been the two of them for as long as he can remember. Since he was a babybones needing dressed and fed and tucked into bed at night with a story…

Papyrus choked on a sudden strong wave of self-disgust. How was that any different from the way things were now? What Sans had done only made their relative positions clearer.

He’d gotten into the habit of nagging Sans about his messiness and his laziness as they worsened over the years but he knew well enough that Sans was the one putting most of the money into their shared account that paid for everything.

Sans was lazy but he worked so hard too, holding down multiple jobs while Papyrus was barely a sentry. He didn’t even have an official station, just the box he'd done up to look like one. They’d worked on that together and Papyrus had thought, he’d thought…but it was childish, wasn’t it? Embarrassing. All of it.

His dreams of joining the royal guard, when Undyne was clearly stalling with cooking lessons instead of real training. The entire idea that Sans was the less responsible sibling and had ever needed Papyrus to ‘take care’ of him.

No wonder Sans thought so little of him. This was coddling, wasn’t it? If Sans truly thought of him as anything resembling competent he’d trust him, not… not this. Sans really thought this was necessary to keep him safe. From what? A small human?

He could never clearly picture the face of the human in his dreams, only the impression they had left. He didn’t even know anymore if those were ‘memories’ or if he'd just internalized all the things Sans had said about the human and the timelines and the resets and—what proof did Sans even have about all that?

Notebooks in his own handwriting. Mad rantings, vague feelings…the jar of dust. Whose dust was it, then, if it wasn’t other Papyruses? Who had Sans killed?

Something twinged in his nonexistent stomach. Alphys he’d only known through the Undernet but Undyne… surely, she was looking for him? He’d missed at least a few training sessions by now. He worried for Sans when she found him but he could surely smooth things over. Sans wasn’t himself, he was confused. He needed help. Undyne would see that and Sans would apologize and they’d all hug it out and…

Tears dripped down his face. He couldn’t wipe them off. He wasn’t stupid, no matter what Sans might believe. No one was coming. Flowey had already told him that everyone thought he was dead. Sans had thought of everything. He’d…clearly been planning this for a while.

When Sans came down later with food he couldn’t help noticing that Papyrus was less responsive than usual. He didn’t even sit up on his own, Sans had to move him. He said that he wasn’t hungry but Sans insisted he eat.

“Fine,” Papyrus mumbled.

When he was done Sans had him lay back down. Adjusting the blankets, he noticed that the solid roundness of the battlebody’s breast plate made Papyrus’ exposed spine bend at what couldn’t be a comfortable angle. He’d have frowned if his face allowed him to. He made an offhand comment about trading the armor for something comfier.

Papyrus couldn’t…he still had his jaw but he couldn’t find the words to respond to that. He shook his head so hard it rattled and he clenched his useless stumps around the armor. He couldn’t say, he would never have said it out loud but Sans had already taken so much from him. How could he possibly—?!

“easy, easy paps. breathe for me, yeah? nice and slow. i’m sorry i said that. it’s okay, i won’t-”

Flinching away from his brother’s outstretched hands, Papyrus let out a harsh sound that was half laugh, half sob. Sans was only humoring him. He’d made the costume in the first place and he could take it if he wanted to. He’d made that clear enough.

Papyrus curled in on himself, rolling over so he didn’t have to see his brother’s hurt expression. Sans withdrew without touching him and shoved his hands deep into the pockets of his hoodie.

“sorry,” he muttered. “sorry bro.”

Chapter Text

One day, something Papyrus said upset Sans more than usual. He wasn’t even sure what it was. You can do better, things don’t have to be like this, I believe in you…they were all the sort of things Papyrus had made a point of saying as often as possible but this time, Sans had taken a shortcut out.

Papyrus lay there, tired and contemplating. Surely this was a sign that his words were getting through to Sans. Perhaps he was beginning to see the error of his ways. He hoped that Sans would feel guilty enough to let him go soon.

Time passed. The machine hummed. Papyrus glanced at the abandoned Grillby’s takeout Sans had been feeding him. It was, at least, one of their less greasy offerings. Up the stairs the door creaked on its hinges. He looked up, expecting Sans, but rather than the pad of slippers Papyrus heard a bark.

He watched the little annoying dog that sometimes lived in their house nose its way through the unlocked -it’s unlocked, Sans took a shortcut and left it unlocked- door and bound down the stairs, yapping as it jumped up onto the side of the bed and began to devour Papyrus’ food.

“GOOD DOG! GOOD, GOOD DOG I’M SO SORRY I EVER CALLED YOU NAMES AND RAN YOU OUT OF THE HOUSE, YOU BEAUTIFUL CANINE!” The dog looked up with its ketchup-stained face and yipped, tail wagging.

Papyrus dropped ungracefully to the floor. The dog danced around him as if they were playing while Papyrus tried to situate himself on the protesting ends of his femurs and humeri. He managed an awkward shuffle to the base of the stairs on all fours, his canine cheerleader rushing on ahead.

He had been telling himself that the stumps of his limbs didn’t hurt often enough that he’d nearly gotten himself to believe it. Having them bear his weight across the rough pile of the rug and the slippery tile floor was making that harder.

Staring up the steep incline of the basement’s steps, he tried to reassure himself. You can do this! You have to.

The climb was precarious and agonizingly slow but when Papyrus dragged himself up the last few steps at last his wonderful friend was there, wagging his whole body as if this was the best thing that had ever happened. He yipped again and ran out the door.

Papyrus made to follow but collapsed instead, trembling with pain and exhaustion. He tucked his skull down against his collarbone, letting out a long, shuddering breath.

He saw that he’d left behind a silvery trail of magic like some sort of bioluminescent snail. Disgusting. Negotiating the stairs had taken much longer than he had anticipated. Still! He was very nearly there! He forced himself up.

The dog had slipped in through a thin crack of open door. Papyrus nudged it further with his face, breathing in a sharp gust of icy Snowdin wind and finally, finally shambling out into a thin layer of snow that crunched and bit into the raw, oozing ends of his bones.

The house was on the edge of the little village but anyone heading to Waterfall on foot had to pass it by. He could safely assume Sans was at Grillby’s. He’d recently taken up drinking again. Papyrus' feelings on that were mixed. Sad that his brother had relapsed, but...clearly, a drunk Sans was a careless Sans.

The entrance to the basement was behind the house. He just had to get out onto the road and be seen.

The little white dog came back around the corner of the house, circling and yapping as Papyrus hauled himself along. He took it as encouragement. Good dog.

It was late. He could tell by the dimming of the town’s main lights, leaving only ambient gloom and the distant glow of ceiling crystals. And the Gyftmas lights. He’d almost forgotten how beautiful the twinkling, multicolored lights adorning the house were, casting their soft reflections against the snow.

He crawled past the garbage cans, past the mailboxes, out into the street. He’d made it. The dog was barking.

“IT’S OKAY,” he said, trying to comfort the dog as it backed up to him and put its ears back, defensive. Its bark took on a sharp, warning tone. It growled. Someone was coming down the road.

“HELLO…?” he called, uncertain, unable to make them out. He didn’t know if his voice would even carry over the racket his little friend was making. “IF YOU COULD PLEASE—”

The distant figure blinked out of existence and reappeared before him. Papyrus looked up at his brother, his soul sinking. With a startled yelp the dog fled.

Chapter Text

The magic holding the humerus in place stretched tight, resisting. Sans knew he could choose to release it. They had the same bodies. He’d lent someone a “hand” often enough as a prank. Papyrus was just being difficult.

“let it go, paps.”

There was a threatening undercurrent of warning that Papyrus wouldn’t have cared for at all if he’d been able to pay attention to it. He was being held down with blue magic. It was happening again. The only movement he was capable of was a minute trembling. Tears streaked down his face.

“papyrus.”

He wasn’t understanding the words but heard the clipped tone. Sans was angry. His chest heaved with a voiceless sob. He would have been begging Sans to stop if he hadn’t already been silenced.

Out in front of the house, Sans hadn’t said a word. He’d crouched over Papyrus and pulled him close. Shoved fingers into the space behind his teeth and forced one side of his jaw and then the other to dislocate from the temporal bone all the while his eye, lit in blue and yellow, cast a fearful gaze around at every shadow.

He’d teleported them right back down into this nightmare of a basement and Papyrus couldn’t even scream. He’d been left on the bed. Sans had gone up the bloodied stairs, shutting and locking the door with a certain finality. Papyrus knew he’d never get another chance.

One small hand is braced against his bare ribcage, phalanges curling in the intercostal spaces. The chest plate of his battlebody lay discarded on the floor. Sans had said he wouldn’t take it but he had. Of course he had.

“this doesn’t have to hurt.”

Papyrus distantly noted the sound of Sans’ exasperation. As if he was the one being unreasonable here. There was something funny about that. He tried to laugh, choking instead as Sans' sharp fingertips forced their way into the magic joining his scapula to his humerus.

Magic was all about intent. Sans’ will to remove the bone had to be stronger than Papyrus’ intent to keep it. Just because he didn’t understand... the human would…what if the human had been the one to find him outside? That was what mattered. This had to be done.

Sans focused all of that intent, all of his strength, and made himself ignore his brother’s hiccupped sob of pain when the bone finally tore free. One down.

The other arm isn't any easier but it comes off too. Breathing hard from the physical effort Sans paused to recover, leaning on the edge of the bed.

There’s liquid magic, dripping and spotting the sheets beneath Papyrus. His soul, glowing blue, is beating frantically behind his ribs. He’s looking up at Sans with a tear-stained expression Sans can read perfectly that says NO and PLEASE STOP and I LOVE YOU BROTHER SO WHY—

Sans has watched Papyrus fight. Sparred against him himself, countless times. The blue attack Papyrus uses is weaker by design. The opponent is weighed down but still able to move, to dodge. They still have a fighting chance that way. It’s “fair”.

He can feel Papyrus trying to fight against the unyielding hold of his attack, feel his HP dropping. His brother’s magic is staining his hands and his clothes and Sans can’t look him in the face anymore. He looks down instead at Papyrus’ femurs pinned against the bed, clad in the ruined tatters of black tights.

Setting the humeri down on the floor, Sans hates himself for what he has to do next. There’s no way to do this, no touch that won’t be too intimate. With the feeling of sins crawling on his back he eyes the ilium barely peeking over the gold waistband of Papyrus' briefs. The alternative is to wrap his hand around Papyrus’ lower spine but it’s even more sensitive there and—he’s sure his brother doesn’t even know about things like that but it’s a step too close to making this a different sort of violation all together and so—

By the time he’s finished Papyrus has stopped struggling. Lying flat on the bed, his eye sockets stare up at the ceiling, wide and empty. Sans dispelled the blue attack ages ago but Papyrus isn’t responding.

Sans gathers up the bones to put away with the others, keeping up a nervous string of one-sided chatter to fill the silence.

“i dunno where toby went, but i’ll try to find ‘em for ya. and i’ll get ya something else to wear, ok? papyrus?” A single shudder runs down the length of what's left of his brother’s body when Sans places a hand on his skull. He finds himself needing a drink.

He waits. Papyrus doesn’t do anything else.

“i’ll…i’ll be right back.”

Chapter Text

Flowey found Chara hiding in one of the countless dark, waterlogged caves of Waterfall. The few crystals dotting the ceiling cast more shadows than usable light. To be safe, he popped up at a distance to read the mood before engaging. They could get kinda stabby sometimes. But Frisk hadn’t even noticed him.

They looked damp and miserable. They were sniffling, head pressed against their boney, scraped up knees.

Frisk was so scared. Undyne had acted out of turn, hunting them before appointed time. Toriel had broken radio silence and called, twice. They hadn’t listened to her messages yet.

Everything was…everything was changing. They knew the script by heart. They had tried their best to be good this time. They hadn’t done anything wrong!

Chara whined at them to do something, anything. They were bored.

“Friiiiiisk. Chara!” Their head snapped up. Asriel! He was right there beside them, his little white face shining with a bright smile in the dim light. Frisk wanted to hug him but knew better. He’d probably kill them for it and they didn’t feel up for a reload right now.

“I missed you,” they murmured instead.

“Aw, I missed you too, Frisk! Hey, listen, is Chara awake right now? I have something to tell them. It’s really important!”

I’m listening, Chara griped. What else am I going to do?

Frisk nodded for them. Whatever it was Asriel—Flowey, Chara reminded them. He doesn’t want to be called by that name.

Whatever Flowey had to say, he was practically vibrating. He’d made it very clear he didn’t like being accused of having emotions so they never would have mentioned it, but he seemed excited.

“Okay, so! I found Papyrus.” Frisk gasped. Chara’s attention focused. They liked the skeleton almost as much as their sibling did. He was fun.

Flowey recounted the whole sordid tale, hardly having to embellish it at all to get the reaction he wanted. Frisk was properly horrified as Flowey described what had become of poor, sweet, innocent Papyrus.

And we’re the ones who should burn in hell?

Frisk repeated Chara’s comment for Flowey, who nodded with great enthusiasm.

“Right?? We should rescue him, don’t you think? It’d really piss the Trashbag off!”

Chara laughed in their head. As if. Tell him he’s an idiot. You know what Sans is capable of.

Frisk did know. And sure, maybe they’d deserved it at the time, maybe it never stuck but dying hurt. Sans had stabbed them, beaten them to a bloody, broken pulp, torn them limb from limb, blasted them to ashes…countless painful, violent deaths, all with the same smile on his face. Even when they’d been good, when they’d done nothing wrong he still threatened them.

They recalled their many past, identical ‘dates’ at MTT resort. The instant, uncanny shift from lazy, amiable almost-friend to coldly admitting that he would have murdered them at first sight if he hadn’t made that promise to Toriel.

Frisk could see his smiling face and black, empty eyes in their head. No, they wouldn’t cross him. They only ever felt safe around him because his violence towards them had always been contained to the Judgement Hall. Because they knew he would only ever fight them if they’d been completely irredeemable and killed absolutely everyone they could.

But no one was following the script any more. If he caught them…Frisk didn’t want to die.

He might not kill you, Chara mused. He might keep you like that too. Alive, so you can’t reset. They had several creative visions of what that might entail. Frisk’s breath hitched.

“Stop it—!” they clutched at their head. Frisk rarely slipped and spoke out loud when talking to Chara but they couldn’t help it. The things Chara was imagining were awful. Frisk was very sorry for Papyrus but it was so much worse to see themselves in his place, as mutilated as Flowey had described. “Please stop,” they whispered.

Flowey watched them, mildly interested. They’d been quiet for awhile now and hadn’t responded to his suggestion. He assumed they were arguing or something.

Realizing just how badly they’d upset Frisk, Chara stopped. Even though it was something unique and, therefore, quite interesting to them. There was no privacy in their head, no way to separate their thoughts from Frisk’s.

As an apology they brought up a pleasant memory instead. Warm golden rooms, white fur, her sweet voice. The comforting scent of cinnamon and butterscotch. They couldn’t understand why Frisk’s response was to curl up on the ground and cry.

Flowey didn’t get what had happened either. Frisk ignored his every attempt at getting them to get up and do something about Papyrus. It was really frustrating.

“Don’t you care at all?” he said.

“I ha-hate it here,” was all he could get out of them, between sobs. “I want my mom. I want to go home.”

Chapter Text

“paps, please, say somethin.”

Papyrus hadn’t spoken a word since his aborted escape attempt and subsequent recovery. Sans understood if his brother was mad at him, but he really should be yelling at him if he was. Papyrus was many, many things but eerily quiet had never, ever been one of them.

His bones had a washed out look, the same dingy gray tone as the old white t-shirt he was wearing. It hung loose around his frame, damp where the tips of his scapulae pressed into the fabric. His scarf was wrapped around his neck but the bright burst of color didn’t add any liveliness to appearance. A mound of pillows carefully tucked around his pelvis and lower spine kept him sitting up.

“bro, please…”

Papyrus had never manifested visible eye lights like Sans’ but Sans could still see what was missing. That spark of vitality, the darkness that shimmered in a way exactly unlike the void, warm and comforting and…

Papyrus’ mouth opened a bit and Sans’ eye lights snapped up, hoping he would… but Papyrus looked through him.

Papyrus ate mechanically when fed, though his jaw never closed quite right anymore. He kept leaking magic and HP at such a rate that Sans finally broke down and healed the joints shut. He didn’t think Papyrus noticed.

Sans didn’t want to, but he needed to check the condition of his brother’s soul. Actually touching someone’s soul without permission wasn’t anything like using magic on it in a fight. It was...

He kept putting it off. Kept hoping the kid would just…but they didn’t. A week went by. There was no reset. The human had last been spotted in Waterfall, days ago.

So, Sans was sitting on the edge of his brother’s bed, watching him stare at the wall. He kept telling himself that there wasn’t another choice, hating himself all the while. Not because he was about to do something unconscionable to his brother, catatonic from the trauma of what had already been done to him. Of course that, but the idea of this being the line he wouldn’t cross after everything else? It was absurd.

Still, his hands shook as he lifted Papyrus’ shirt and reached up into his ribcage. Papyrus moved away.

Sans froze, guilty fingers inches away from the soul.

“bro?” he muttered, looking up at Papyrus. No expression. His body slowly listed to the side. A dislodged pillow fell to the floor. Papyrus hadn’t reacted at all, he’d only been jostled by Sans’ movements. He felt his disappointment sickeningly tempered by relief.

He resettled Papyrus, trying to make him comfortable and delaying the inevitable. It had to be done.

The soul hovered in Sans’ loose grip, barely pulsing. There were no cracks, no scarring but god, he wanted to cry just looking at it.

Monster souls were supposed to be beautiful, bright and white and shining with iridescent shades of hope and compassion. The little inverted heart in his hands was…of course it was beautiful, it was Papyrus. But it was so small, fragile and atrophied. Its color was a pale, hopeless shade of gray that matched Papyrus’ bones. It was the color of dust.

He gently stroked a thumb across the surface of the soul. He should have been able to feel something. Papyrus’ emotions, a stray thought, at the very least a visceral, instinctual rejection of the uninvited contact. The soul gave him nothing.

He’d used most of it healing Papyrus’ body, but Sans tried pressing what little healing magic he had left past the soul’s thin, permeable surface. He watched the bright sparks of green meet with sluggish, swirling gray, dulling and fading out as they absorbed.

There was nothing else he could do. He returned the soul, grateful not to look at it anymore. Its condition had all but confirmed his worst fear. It was…it was like Papyrus wasn’t even in there. He was… he’d really…

“please, bro,” he choked out. “Papyrus, you can’t do this to me.” He cupped Papyrus’ face, guiding him down just a little to touch their foreheads together. He felt something shift. Papyrus’ mandible had come loose in his hands.

Conditioned response, the rational part of his mind supplied. The rest was incoherent screaming.

Chapter Text

Papyrus lay still, calm and quiet. It wasn’t very Papyrus of him but Sans didn't mind.

He had curled up in bed beside his brother, burrowed under the pile of blankets against the basement's chill. They were roughly the same size now. It was kinda like when they were kids, back before Papyrus’ teenage growth spurt that had seemed like it was never going to end. There was a joke in there somewhere about Papyrus being all leg. He kept it to himself.

It was nice. Peaceful. He didn't have anything to worry about. Papyrus was right here. Safe. He could ignore the smell of dust permeating the basement. Sooner or later the kid would reset and none of this would matter.

He nuzzled his skull into the back of Papyrus'. His arm was looped around his spine, hand resting on a floating rib. His awareness had narrowed down to the steady rise and fall of Papyrus' chest, the slow and rhythmic pulsing of his soul. He slept sometimes. There were no dreams.

Sans’ metaphorical insides ached with hunger but that was easy enough to ignore. He hadn't been able to get Papyrus' mandible to reattach. He wasn't about to eat when his brother couldn't. His skull pounded with a constant, worsening headache that was most likely dehydration but, heh, same.

Time stretched on in near silence. Exactly how much was hard to gauge when nothing changed. The only sounds were the hum of the machine and quiet breathing. The dim fluorescent lights overhead would occasionally flicker. It didn’t matter. He didn’t plan on getting up again.

At one point Sans heard someone pounding on the front door of the house above. One of his eye sockets cracked open. They went away. Sometime later they thought better of it and returned.

This time there were distant strains of a voice he recognized, yelling. The entrance to the basement was discreet but if someone was really determined to find him they'd find it. Sans sighed.

“be right back, bro,” he muttered, hugging Papyrus tight before unwrapping his arms, rolling over, and teleporting himself up to his bedroom right before the front door splintered around its lock as Undyne let herself in.

The daytime lights of Snowdin streaming in through the window hurt his already aching skull. Sans pressed both hands up against tightly closed eye sockets, groaning.

He swung his legs over the edge of the mattress and tried to sit up but his head swam and he fell right back down. He hadn't realized how weak he'd gotten. Undyne's metal boots clanked as she stomped up the stairs. The locked door to his bedroom didn't fair any better than the one downstairs.

“hey,” he said.

Undyne stared at him for a good long while, saying nothing. Assessing. Sans could feel her judgement. He guessed he didn’t look so good.

“No one has seen you in days,” she said, finally.

“takin a leave of absence.”

She came into the room uninvited, kicking a few socks half-heartedly out of her way.

“Everyone’s worried about you, Sans. I know this has been hardest on you out of all of us, but you can't just lay down and give up.”

“eh, been doin pretty good at it so far, i think.” She frowned at the comment.

“When did you last bathe? You reek.”

“who knows.”

“Have you been eating?”

“eh.”

Undyne's every question was met with a similar non-response, to her growing frustration. She was no good at this sort of thing. She had thought of sending in one of the dogs, Dogaressa, maybe Dogamy or Greater, but ultimately decided against it. She wanted to take responsibility.

She’d been the one, after all, to string Papyrus along with the idea of joining the royal guard. She’d let him patrol as a sentry, maintain the traps and puzzles of Snowdin Forest even if it wasn’t official, even if he was really a civilian and he never should have been anywhere near a human.

It was her fault. She knew Sans blamed himself but he was Papyrus’ brother. Of course he’d encouraged his brother’s dreams, whatever they were. She was the authority, the one who’d told him he could do it. Even if he was too nice. Even if she knew, she KNEW this is what would happen and why he could never—

Undyne wanted to pick Sans up and shake the apathy out of him. She wanted to kill the human. She wanted—she knew there was nothing she could do to make it okay. It wasn’t okay. It never would be again but that didn’t mean she didn’t have to at least try. That SANS didn’t have to try.

“Sans, get up,” she said. “We’ll go to Grillby’s.”

“nah.”

Frustration beat out sympathy. She’d kept her voice as gentle and friendly as she could manage so far but that was it. He really intended to give up.

“You can’t do this,” She scowled down at him. “You’ve got to keep going! Papyrus wouldn’t want—”

Sans let his eyes go black. It was somewhat less intimidating while he was laying helplessly sprawled across the bare mattress in his filthy room, but Undyne got the gist.

“heh,” he laughed, monotone and humorless. “get out.”

“Sorry,” she said. “But you know I'm right. He'd want—”

“you found that human yet?”

“We’re working on it.”

“can you go do that, then?” he asked the ceiling. “everything’s fine here, captain. we’re fine.”

“Sans…”

He refused to acknowledge Undyne further. Eventually, she went away. Papyrus, warm and silent, was waiting for him. He cuddled close, struggling to get the blankets tucked around them again. The second teleport had used up the very last dregs of his magic. He was tired. So weak, and so very, very tired.

He let his awareness narrow down to the faint pulse of Papyrus’ soul, let his breathing synch to the slow, shallow rise and fall of Papyrus’ chest.

He slept. There were no dreams.

Chapter Text

The next time Sans woke up he was blinded by golden light. He was standing, barely. Disoriented, blinking up at artificial sunlight shining through stained glass windows adorned with the symbol of the delta rune.

“Papyrus?” he muttered. But his brother wasn’t there. Sans was alone in the hall.

He stared up at the blurry windows. He was weak, his head aching. He knew where he was, of course. Not how he got there, but…the why, that he could guess.

Of course he couldn’t fall down yet. It figured. He still had his role to perform in the human’s game, after all.

He stumbled towards the nearest pillar. Propping his back up against it, he tried to look casual and not like he needed the support. His hands went into his pockets, eye sockets trained on the far end of the hall. Waiting. He didn’t remember much of anything from the resets but this, this part was always all too familiar.

He heard the human coming before he saw them, echoing footsteps on the marble floor. They stopped a few feet away. He wanted to ask if they were done fucking with the timeline yet. Instead, he found himself reciting a speech. The lines felt scripted. It wasn’t even in his normal font. The human listened passively.

“…way of measuring someone’s capacity to hurt. The more you kill, the easier it becomes to distance yourself. The more you distance yourself, the less you will hurt. The more easily you can bring yourself to hurt others…”

He trailed off, noticing the human’s expression. There was a glint in their red eyes. They seemed like they had something to say.

“kid?” They regarded him silently.

“Was it easy?” they asked, after a long moment of uncomfortable silence. “To hurt him, I mean? Since you’ve done it before?”

If Sans had blood it would have gone cold. They knew?

“Look inside yourself,” they said, reciting familiar-sounding words in a sing-song tone. “Have you really done the right thing?”

They spread their arms. There was dust on their hands, on their sweater. The musty stench of it clung to them.

“I don’t think you really have the right to judge,” they said, shrugging. “I was defending myself. Those monsters, they were trying to kill me.” Their head tilts. “What’s your excuse?”

Sans’ hands clench in his pockets and for the first time since he’d woken up in this dream-like hall he feels grit in between the joints of his finger bones. No. His hands are shaking when he pulls them out to see.

His brother's dust is on his hands. It's...no, he's covered in it. He'd been holding Papyrus when he'd died and he'd slept through it. It's over. He's failed.

He doesn't hear the human’s footsteps as they approach him. He finds he's on his knees when they lean down, too close. Smile on their face stretched wide, voice mocking as they ask,

“Who’s the dirty brother killer now?” They see Sans’ eyes go black. He’s muttering no, no, no to himself, over and over. He doesn’t see how their face falls. How they jerk themselves up, away from him.

Stop it, Frisk scolds.

They hadn’t killed many monsters this time. Undyne had been relentless. She’d discovered their hiding place. There hadn’t been a choice. And with their captain dead the other royal guards had been out to avenge her. They hadn’t even been able to distract the bunny and the dragon man into revealing their hidden feelings for each other this time.

It wasn’t near enough killing for Sans to fight them under normal circumstances but what was normal anymore? Frisk skittered away from him, lacking Chara’s confidence. He was clearly unstable. And they were provoking him! Who knew what he’d do?

Frisk just wanted this all to be over with. They had to get past Sans. Fight Asgore, defeat Flowey, and reset. That was all. They’d wake up in the flowerbed. Mom would be there. The hall wasn’t nearly wide enough but they skirted around Sans, trying to get by without him noticing.

“i’ll do better next time,” they heard him mutter and Chara, no! Frisk cried out in their head but Chara just couldn’t resist turning back to Sans and asking,

“What’s ‘better,’ in this sense? Doing the same thing without him falling down?” Chara, don’t, Frisk pleads. They really want to know, they insist. Monsters need hope to survive. They know it, Sans surely knows it, so why is he so surprised that putting Papyrus in a hopeless situation would eventually kill him?

Sans hears them but he doesn’t respond. Not out loud. That’s how it had to be done, he assures himself. He’d had to keep Papyrus quiet. So, the mandible. Arms, hands, to prevent the use of magic. Legs to immobilize. And when that hadn’t worked, when Papyrus had still managed to crawl away…?

He shudders. He can feel the weight of the human’s gaze. They’re not even judging him. They’re just curious. Detached interest. Somehow that’s worse. That’s—

“you think this was the first idea i went with, you little creep?”

They plop down in front of him. Legs crossed, head propped up on their arms like it’s fucking story time. He’d have stabbed a sharpened bone right through their smug face if he’d had the magic left to summon one. Everything, everything was their fault.

Frisk felt his killing intent but Chara held them still. They only twitch.

“it was temporary,” he hissed at them. “you weren’t supposed to take this long.”

They wait, expectantly, so he keeps talking. It’s not like there’s much else left he can do.

“you try to be subtle about changin things at first. i’m sure you know. but there’s so many variables. no, hey paps, let’s just stay home today. i got a bad feelin. he won’t skip work. somethin like playing sick? really make myself sick so he has to stay home and take care of me? of course he does, but then he remembers that sick people need soup and he just has to run by undyne’s for her help makin it…”

Sans levels a hateful gaze at the human.

“that spot you always do it…it’s not far from the house. it’s not hard for him to get to. even the most elaborate plan takes just one slip up, takin my eyes off of ‘em for just a minute.”

He already has a better plan for the next reset, not that he’s gonna tell them about it. Everything's outlined in one of his notebooks safe within the machine. The next Sans won't remember any of this, thank the angel for small mercies. But it will be there when he needs it.

Once he’d realized how truly untenable the situation he’d created for his brother was, once…once Papyrus had fallen down…well.

He’d realized what a fool he’d been. How much he’d made Papyrus suffer, and all for nothing. How could he have overlooked such a perfect, simple alternative? Alphys. Rather, Alphy’s lab.

Alphys’ lab that had a fully stocked medical supply. She’d have sedatives he could “borrow”. Sans could keep Papyrus perfectly safe without hurting him. He just had to make it seem that Papyrus had fallen down. He could take care of him in his own room. It would be like the last few days, nice and peaceful.

Sans was so caught up in his thoughts that he forgot about the human until they leaned forward and poked him on the skull.

“what?”

“I don’t even kill him every time,” they said, sounding annoyed like they were having to repeat themselves. “So how is it better to do it yourself?”

“like i said. that wasn’t supposed to happen.”

“So you can’t just let him live his life and be happy, on the off chance that something bad might happen?”

Sans let out a sharp laugh at that, incredulous.

“kid, this ain’t living. this is a farce. what’s he got to be happy for? there's no future, thanks to you. gettin through a reset alive is the best any of us can hope for.”

The human tried to say something but he kept talking over them.

“you act all friendly and sweet if it suits you. cruel when it doesn’t. you make problems so you can solve ‘em. i know all this is just a game to you. you want to see what happens. we’re variables in that. we ain’t people to you. he’s not.”

The human’s muscles trembled as they received conflicting signals to move and stay still at the same time. Chara fought to keep control of Frisk, who didn’t want to listen anymore.

“he’s all i got. i’m not gonna let you ‘play’ with either of us again.”

You’re playing right now, Chara tried to say. Frisk didn’t let them.

“I…” they mumble. Their voice is so much softer than Chara’s. Hesitant. Sans doesn’t miss the change. He can see that they’re scared. “I just…”

“speak up, kid.”

“I…I just want to stay in the ruins with mom. With Toriel, I mean. If I stay there, you’ll all be safe, right? You don’t…you don’t have to worry about me hurting anybody. So you don’t have to either.”

Sans just stares at them. They cringe back, but when he speaks again the venom’s left his tone. Righteous anger was the only thing holding him up. His whole body sags.

“sure, kid,” he says, weary. They never stay in the ruins. “whatever you say.” The floor seems like a good place to lie down.

The human stands up. They seem determined. Good for them, Sans thinks, closing his eyes. He can feel himself beginning to drift apart. He gently moves his fingers, feeling his brother's dust. Papyrus is right here, with him still. That's all that matters.

“see you on the other side,” he says. If Frisk wants to assume he’s talking to them, that’s fine. He doesn’t watch them go.

Chapter Text

When Undyne cornered Frisk in their little hidey-hole, wallowing in—whatever it was they were wallowing in, Flowey just rolled his eyes and snuck outside to wait for them. There wasn’t anything interesting about another Undyne fight. No reason to get involved.

He’d resigned himself to the fact that they weren’t going to do anything about the Papyrus situation. Which was… disappointing. He’d hoped to interest Chara and, if not them, then at least Frisk. He’d really thought Frisk would care. Like, a lot. Had something changed?

Maybe they were becoming more like him and Chara despite still having a soul. Between his resets and theirs it had been many years since time had been allowed to progress normally. He could imagine how difficult it must be for someone who wasn’t an empty shell to cope. Just how much the repetition would wear on their mentality once every possible action had been taken, once every possible outcome had already been explored. How ultimately limited everything was.

Especially people once you knew exactly what they’d always say and how they’d always react in any given situation. It was easy to forget that to them, at least, their thoughts and feelings were real and new and they could really be hurt. Hard to care when the only thing you felt was bored. Reset after reset. It was exhausting.

But this, this was the sort of thing he’d lived for during his own resets. A variable that changed everything, a whole new avenue of potential scenarios. They could rescue Papyrus. They could expose Sans’ actions to the guard, or maybe to the king himself. They could blackmail him. They could kill Papyrus to see what Sans would do. They could—there were just so many possibilities! How could they ignore all that and lay there crying about mom?

Mo—Toriel was one of the boring ones, completely predictable. Don’t mind that nasty flower. Look at these puzzles! Be nice to the dummy, won’t you? Here’s your room, here’s some pie, please, oh no, please don’t leave me here alone—

He was using his Toriel-voice to mock her and a few nearby Echo Flowers picked up the words, repeating please—please don’t leave me— in soft, whispering voices that sounded too sincere.

They sounded just like her.

Flowey’s imitation of a motherly goat face shifted to a scowl and he burrowed underground. Not to get away from them or anything.

There in the dark with the heavy, saturated soil pressing in close on all sides, he rode out the stuttering start-stops of reality tearing apart and reshaping itself as Frisk repeatedly died and had to load. Limiting sensory input made it less disorienting. There they went again. Huh. Undyne must have been feeling extra passionate today.

But all things were inevitable and Frisk came out of the cave with a small powdering of grey dust on their sweater and that haunted look they had sometimes, stumbling over their own feet towards the nearest save point. Flowey poked his head out of the ground and watched like he usually did, inconspicuous but nearby.

They gave a jerky nod after standing there for awhile, agreeing to something. He really wished their conversations with Chara weren’t 90% internal. They started walking.

He trailed them from Waterfall, through Hotland, all the way to New Home. Frisk avoided monsters when they could but didn’t hesitate to use violence in retaliation when attacked. At the minimum LV that Chara could take over they did.

Flowey hadn’t been close enough to see their eyes turn from a deep brown to red but he didn’t need to. Their entire demeanor was different from Frisk’s, from how they walked to the way they wielded their current weapon. Frisk preferred blunt instruments like that iron pan but he knew that Chara would swap it for the knife in their room as soon as they could.

Flowey was torn between his longing to talk to them without the filter of Frisk in between and knowing that Chara, well…Chara didn’t really want to talk to him. They never did. And that was fair.

He’d sat and watched their slow, painful death and said nothing to their frantic parents. Snuck in more buttercups once they were too sick, too weak to get up anymore. Taken their soul. It had been Chara’s plan, Chara’s choice, but he’d gone along with it. He’d promised.

Then, far too late, he’d hesitated. They—Chara and Asriel both, had died for nothing. They could have set everyone free long ago if not for him.

Now they were trapped here forever. Not a god, not heroes, just two soulless remnants, less than ghosts, and one slowly rotting corpse buried in mom’s garden…

Flowey kept his distance.

Then, outside Da— outside Asgore’s house, they’d stopped. Turned back.

“I know you’re there,” Chara said, smiling. Flowey had time to escape. Their steps were slow and deliberate as they approached his hiding place. He didn’t move. It wasn’t their face, wasn’t their voice, but that expression—there was no mistaking his sibling, no matter what they looked like.

Frisk was younger than Chara had been. Smaller. But even a child their size loomed over Flowey. He cowered when they crouched down and their hand shot out, grabbing him by the stem before he could burrow away to a safer distance.

“Next reset,” they said, pleasantly, “Frisk wants to take a break. We’ll stay with mom until they want to leave. I suspect it will be quite a while this time. My advice? Don’t attack them. She won’t forgive you.”

Flowey put on his most winning expression and did not side-eye the iron pan in their other hand that could very easily be used to smash him.

“Undyne held us responsible for the disappearance of Sans’ brother. There were things she said that may have once been true. Who do you suppose told her? We both know that he can’t be remembering the details of each reset on his own, don’t we?” Flowey nodded. Of course! he said. Of course he can’t.

“Correct. However, when we’ve fought he’s let slip that he has ‘reports’ with information regarding the timelines. He’s been keeping records somehow. I need you to find them and get rid of them. Can you handle that, Azzy?”

The friendly smile didn’t reach their eyes. They were never going to forgive him, were they? Still! They were giving him another chance to help. That was something. He smiled and nodded and projected all the enthusiasm and sincerity he could muster. An awkward moment passed before he realized they were after verbal confirmation.

“Definitely. You can count on me, Chara!”

It would be easy. After all, he knew exactly where Sans kept everything important to him locked away. Chara let him go but Flowey stayed where he was, just watching them as they were distracted by an internal conversation.

Before Frisk fell, back when they’d…when they’d really been gone, he’d clung so hard to the memory of how much he—how much Asriel had loved them. Now? He wanted to be useful to them. For them to forgive him and be nice to him again, but…

Chara gave a snort of amusement at some unheard comment. Glancing down, they saw he was still there and impatiently waved him off.

Flowey went.

He wasn’t exactly surprised to find that Papyrus was already dead. Disappointed, maybe. A bit disgusted. When he’d peeled back the covers, just to be sure, the remains were smeared around like someone had been laying in them.

Then again, he’d carried his sibling’s lifeless body around until he’d died himself so he couldn’t really judge. But he didn’t want to sit around comparing his own actions to those of trash like Sans. He had an important mission. He started with the cabinet.

Nothing in there but four undisturbed rows of monster dust and a familiar if dusty pair of gold-trimmed red gloves. There wasn’t anything relevant in the drawers of the desk. Some blueprints and photo albums, a child’s drawing, other useless junk. That left only the sheet-covered machine humming in the corner. It was easy enough to pry it open and inside? Jackpot.

There was a veritable packrat’s nest crammed in amongst its glowing insides. He started pulling things out, carelessly tearing through wires and breaking off bits and pieces, dumping everything out on the floor. It was mostly scraps of paper, small electronics, notebooks, bits of tattered red cloth and…glass jars?

One of his vines snapped something inside the machine that must have been important as its ever-present hum abruptly ceased. The soft blue and white light flickered and went out.

Flowey’s eyes had to adjust but in the end he found three jars full of dust. All Papyrus, no doubt. Probably kept for rolling around in he thought, glancing contemptuously across the room at the latest dead brother whose remains had been left strewn across the bed.

“Sicko,” he muttered. It wasn’t as if during his own resets he’d ever been lonely enough to plant himself in amongst the other golden flowers covering Chara’s grave and let his roots grow down deep and wrap around the fragments of bone and rotted cloth that were all that was left and…

He started shredding notebooks even though he was pretty sure that breaking the machine would be enough. It couldn’t hurt to be thorough.

He did glance at some of the entries as he tore and crumpled the pages. Some were complex yet meaningless sets of numbers and symbols but others were neutral observations of the human’s progress and activities. Some of it was pretty interesting. Flowey more or less remembered the other timelines but there were plenty he’d never gotten to see the end of, having been dead at the time and all. It seemed Sans usually survived.

Amongst the dwindling pile there were a few hardbound journals that stood out amongst the cheap notebooks. They seemed special, so he saved them for last. He lined them up by the numbers on their covers: 1, 2, 3. Inside he found Sans’ confessional, a record detailing his escalating attempts to “protect” Papyrus. Once he started reading Flowey found that he couldn’t look away.

The tone of the entries here shifted between self-disgust and regret and intense frustration all tinged with despair. Halfway through journal 2 Sans became fixated on the idea of keeping Papyrus locked in the basement. That had come with its own set of challenges. One entry simply read:

*restraints are useless. who taught him how to pick locks???

He mentioned the idea of amputation in passing pretty early on but it had taken awhile to work himself up to it. He’d even planned to steal a magic suppressor from the royal guards’ armory. Apparently, it was some sort of device used only in very rare cases of dangerous, violent criminals needing to be contained? That entry wasn’t finished so Flowey assumed he’d been caught in the act.

He didn’t get it.

Papyrus was Flowey’s favorite because of his spontaneity, his eccentric personality. He was loud and annoying, outgoing and self-absorbed and yet so endearingly insecure and desperate for anyone’s approval and attention.

He was interesting! Fun. He could be provoked into so many unique, varied actions. He always thought the best of everyone and tried so hard at everything. Sans didn’t seem to care about any of that.

Case in point, the final entry detailed a plan to steal certain drugs to keep Papyrus comatose and mimic the appearance of having fallen down. The whole thing had this self-congratulatory tone about it. Papyrus wouldn’t be hurt, it said. Flowey supposed that was true. The life-sized skeleton doll Sans planned to turn him into wouldn’t be feeling much of anything.

Flowey was literally a soulless, unnatural abomination incapable of love and even he couldn’t begin to imagine treating his own sibling like that. Like some kind of object.

He had manipulated (it was so easy, after all) and played with and sure, hurt and killed Papyrus plenty of times during his own resets and watched the human do the same but that had nothing to do with anything. If Sans really loved his brother as much as he frequently proclaimed, he had a really weird way of showing it.

But there wouldn’t be anything left here for Sans to find. Nothing to provoke him. The next reset would be a real fresh start. Just like Chara and Frisk wanted.

Task complete, Flowey abandoned the dark, cold, dust-filled basement without a backward glance. Maybe, if he hurried, he could catch up to Chara before the reset. Frisk had never stayed in the ruins very long. Trying to make a life there with Toriel would be something new. It even seemed like Chara was already on board for playing along.

He decided to skip trying to steal the souls. Just this once.

Chapter Text

Sans sat in the basement in front of the dark, silent machine. Its covering had been discarded and the side paneling and a small assortment of tools lay spread out beside him. The dim florescent lighting flickered overhead. He stared at the gutted mess of its insides, distinctly remembering it having been in better condition.

But it had been…how many years since he’d worked on it? Maybe he was remembering wrong. Bone fingertips tapped a distracted pattern on the dusty tile floor.

He was missing something here.

There was a human in the ruins. The moment he’d heard her say it he’d felt a cold dread creeping up his spine. A human child and a talking flower. Why did that sound so familiar? She’d been so happy going on about her new additions that she hadn’t noticed how Sans failed to respond.

As the lady was assuring him that the little human had made themselves quite at home in the ruins and agreed to stay he’d interrupted her, making a quick excuse to leave.

The human was going to…Papyrus. Where was Papyrus? He took a dizzying series of shortcuts that landed him flat on his back on his own (sorry excuse for a) bed in his (filthy) room. He got up, hearing the commotion downstairs before he even opened the door.

There were pots and pans clanging in the kitchen and the TV was on. His brother was having a loud, one-sided conversation with it. Sans leaned his head against the door, breathing a sigh of relief. The smell of heavy Italian spices and burning vegetables permeated the house. Papyrus was right where he should be, downstairs cooking lunch.

He appeared in the living room and watched Papyrus for a few minutes, just to be sure. Still, something felt...off. That human. The human was going to…

He’d teleported again, down to the long-neglected basement lab where he now sat, pensively staring up at the inoperable time machine. He wasn’t sure exactly what he’d expected to find inside it, but—

“sorry, g,” he muttered, almost by reflex. After the accident he’d tried so hard to fix it. He hadn’t given up, not right away. He…

The door upstairs creaked open.

“SANS…?” Papyrus called, peering over the railing. Oh! Good, he was here after all. He went down one, two steps before a vague, disconcerted look crossed his face and he paused. Something about the basement seemed significantly more …ominous… than he would have expected. It was odd.

Papyrus prided himself on having developed finely-honed instincts for danger, befitting a future royal guardsman personally trained by Captain Undyne herself. He knew that he could generally trust his gut feelings (despite his physical lack of one) but at the moment those feelings were practically screaming NO and STOP and GET AWAY FROM HERE as he took a third, tentative step down the stairs.

It didn’t make any sense. The Great Papyrus had nothing to fear from a room in his own house! He mentally told his guts to stop being irrational. Sans looked up and gave a lazy half-wave. Papyrus released the crushing grip he hadn’t realized he’d had on the bannister so that he could properly gesticulate along with his words.

“BROTHER! I HAVE PREPARED A FINE MEAL TO REENERGIZE YOU FOR THIS AFTERNOON’S PATROL! THE PASTA WAS SPECIALLY AGED, AND THE SAUCE IS VERY FRESH. STOP LURKING IN THE CREEPY BASEMENT AND COME EAT.”

Sans’ smile as he nodded was soft and genuine. No doubt that it wouldn’t be anything particularly edible. He really had to have a talk with Undyne soon about her “training” and how to gently break it to Papyrus that she wasn’t really going to let him join the guard.

“cool bro, be right up.”

He left the machine as it was: hopelessly broken. No glow, no hum. He locked up the basement and joined Papyrus inside their nice, cozy house. Afterwards, they both went back to work. Papyrus worked. Sans napped until his brother came to collect him from his station because his shift was over.

They spent that evening on the couch, watching MTT’s latest movie. The little annoying white dog showed up to consume their popcorn. Papyrus, for once, was the first to drift off to sleep, draped bonelessly (heh) up against Sans, drooling on his shoulder and letting out the occasional soft ‘nyeh’ in place of snores.

Sans settled in for the night, adjusting their positions so Papyrus was laying down. He wrapped an arm comfortably around his brother's shoulder. It was nice. Peaceful. MTT played on in the background.

Papyrus would be awake again in an hour or two, ready to run around the forest bothering the night-shift sentries. Sans was glad that the underground was such a friendly place. He yawned.

In the flickering blue light of the TV he watched his brother sleep, idly petting his skull. Fingertips accidently brushed over the line of an old, very faint scar. He had two, well-healed cracks running up from one eye socket and down the other.

“hey, bro?”

He gently shook Papyrus. No response. Still, he was careful as he took one of Papyrus’ hands and worked it free from its ever-present glove.

Papyrus hated letting anyone look at them. Skeletal hands were delicate enough in the first place with their multitude of tiny, intricate bones and his were… rather badly damaged, with phalanges held on through structural magic alone. The few scraps of bone remaining between fingers and wrist mostly served to frame the shape of gaping holes.

Sans laced his finger bones together with Papyrus’. He’d go back tomorrow and get the lady to tell him more about her new kiddos. Papyrus was set on catching a human and if hers ever got out of the ruins it could be dangerous.

One thing was certain—Sans wasn’t going to let it get anywhere near Papyrus. He’d almost lost his brother once before. Nothing was ever going to take him away again.

Sans picked their joined hands up and pressed the ruined shards of metacarpal bone, worn smooth by time, against his teeth.

N o t h i n g.