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Postcards From Waterfall

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The stool swayed dangerously as Sans leaned against the bar, swivelling it and daring it to tip over. He was hunched over the counter, lidless sockets blanked as he tilted his bottle. It made a hollow noise, a faint, depressing song of a ketchup bottle long since emptied. He gave another half-hearted sigh.

It had been the fourth such sigh that evening, and the bartender was not giving in. That had been perhaps Sans’ eighth bottle, and his reserves were already becoming lean. Don’t think that the fire monster had let the increase in condiment intake get past him; Grillby caught on to a lot more than his empirical demeanour let on.

He’d allowed Sans to precariously seat himself at the bar hours ago. While other monsters were seemingly oblivious to the small skeleton’s mood, Grillby had known Sans far too long to know the silence was more than his usual quiet self. His visage was masked by flame, an ethereal crackle sparked in quiet reverence as the skeleton stayed silent in turn. When Sans finally let all four legs of the stool hit the floor, his shoulders were hunched, the weight of the entire mountain on them.

And yet, the skeleton would not speak.

This was new. Usually after a few hours and drinks there would be words. But now? Nothing.

Concerned, the bartender tapped the counter with one digit. Lazily, those lightless sockets would turn to him, a weary tug at the ever-present grin on Sans’ face. When the skeleton shrugged, he seemed almost listless. It was heart-wrenching to see an old friend so down in spirits, but unless Sans made the initiative, Grillby thought it better not to pry, but to confirm he was there for him until the skeleton relented.

It was not as though he hadn’t tried before; it was just that Sans was a flight risk when confronted. Grillby knew that his friend had inner demons more dangerous than any of the beings lurking above the mountain. Pure conjecture, considering it had been centuries since any monster had seen it last. But Sans had a way with bending a conversation away from himself; however clumsy he appeared to be on the outside, his mind had showed the fire monster how clever and adept he really was, over time.

 

While his posture was not receptive, Sans stayed. The bartender’s company - hell, everyone’s company gave his life meaning in what felt like crushing darkness. And, if truth be told, he didn’t want to conjure up the memory of some of his more horrid night terrors of late. He was already avoiding his brother, shirking his duties more than usual… He was tired, and even his puns didn’t have the same appeal anymore. Sure, they were still bad; they just didn’t ring with his own personal brand of humour anymore. He’d slipped into the habit of leaving others out of the loop, and back into the cycle of misery he’d go.

Left behind in more ways than one, the skeleton’s thoughts whirled in his skull for the fortieth time that evening. No one left. Following a small creature through the entire Underground. Everything becoming ‘empty’ as he helplessly followed, scared for what was happening and what was to come.

And then, there would be… skips?

Sans would wrestle with it in his mind. He wasn’t sure about them at first, but he knew that pieces of his memory were missing. There would be an instance or two where he would attempt to remember something in order, but it would all be flashes, nonlinear pieces belonging to a recollection of a dream that he’d once told someone, long ago.

If Sans was being honest with himself, that was the reason he didn’t open up to anyone. His worries, his nightmares, his hopes and dreams. Because somehow, in what amounted to another life, he already had. And Sans was not someone who easily revealed his worries, over and over…

 Over and over…

    Over and over and over…

 

He snapped out of his pitch-dark reverie when the stool next to him scuffed against the floorboards, the noise loud and jarring enough to make Sans jump. The ketchup bottle lost its balance as his finger slipped and it rolled away, stopping against a nearby salt shaker.

“oh. heya, grillbz,” he muttered, his tone oddly neutral as he settled his skull into his crossed arms on the countertop. The waft of heat from the bartender shone on his pale bones, the patient virtue of his friend’s composure oddly comforting. Sans had joked, once upon a time, that Grillby was at least forty times more relaxing than a hearth. Now, the skeleton just watched the flames lick languidly around his old friend’s hands, obscuring their true shape.

“welp. i should get goin’.”

The skeleton huffed one more sigh, leaning further down into his arms so his face was out of view. He really didn’t want to leave. It was more and more difficult to even leave the house each day; that is, if he ever went home in the first place. This was probably the third day Grillby had graciously allowed him to stay, and the morose skeleton was starting to feel like he was becoming a bit of a burden.

Another tap to the countertop and Sans lifted his skull again, just peering out from the corner of his socket to Grillby’s hand. Yeah, he knew he had to talk sooner or later. Half of him wanted to, and the other half vehemently objected. What would be the point if this happened to be another offshoot, and one day everyone conveniently decided to forget about what had happened? He’d bare his soul for whatever temporary relief it offered, only for the action to be rendered pointless.

Something akin to a cold tendril of guilt coiled at the pit of his spine despite Grillby’s presence. His mind wandered once more to the ‘alternate’ route, pieces flickering in his memory like a deep chasm. Of Grillby’s entirely empty - Snowdin in a dark light, no life, no wind, only a whisper of dust and deep, unsatiated hunger.

And that knife.

Sans winced inwardly, instinctively going for an old wound he felt he always had, yet wasn’t there at all. No wound, no dust and no scar. There was just a phantom pain that wrecked his soul from time to time, causing him to crumple into weakness, especially on dark evenings like these.

 

The monster beside him pulsed, his flames crackling like kindling and with the faint hum of an ever-lasting blaze. Cautiously, Grillby leaned against the bar too, closing the distance between them. He was careful not to spook Sans; the skeleton had a habit of leaving and disappearing, after all.

“Talk to me, old friend,”  was the ethereal, low gravel.

Sans moved his arm up slightly, cradling the back of his skull in something akin to self-comfort. The look on his face was almost pained but familiar. Grillby had been seeing it a lot lately. Defeated, the skeleton raised his eye lights to the bartender’s visage, defaulting to his usual excuse in previous lives that would always more or less explain things, “just… bad nights. not so great dreams lately.”

Grillby knew that wasn’t all to it and patiently watched from behind glowing spectacles, waiting for more while keeping his silence.

“…they just seem so vivid,” Sans muttered into his sleeve as he turned his skull away. It was almost rehearsed, as though he’d said it so many times before.

Grillby knew about his issues - sleeping damn near anywhere, tormented by night terrors. It was something that he knew Sans had grown to dislike about himself; it wasn’t the kind of joke he wanted to be, Sans said once or twice.

 

Absently, Sans would scratch the back of his skull, as though unsure how to proceed, but at the same time knowing full well what to say. Being forced to play along with fate’s plan for him always dulled his willingness to participate.

That, and he already knew what advice Grillby would offer. In different ways, but it was always the same. Take care of himself. Try something, every day, even if he didn’t feel like it. Take time for himself. Spend time with the people he loved. Grillby’s advice, while seemingly simple, struck with deeper meaning, every time. Sans knew Grillby’s therapeutic touch on a more personal level than anyone else. It was an endearing little quirk that causality kept in its reserves, as if just to placate him. Perhaps that is why the fire monster’s company was so soothing to his soul…

“…spoken to Papyrus about it?”

Sans’ eye lights flicked back into focus from his reverie, catching the tail end of the fire monster’s soft spoken, carefully chosen words. He made a gesture of frustration; running bony fingers down his face and stopping over his sockets briefly, pinching the surface between them. Every so often, he just wanted to talk with his brother, to let him know everything that kept him uneasy. However, Papyrus’ boisterous attitude and clamorous worry had always been a hurdle Sans just never had the energy for.

“i’ve tried. he worries. and i don't wanna make him worry…” the skeleton replied in hushed undertones. It was all very exhausting, actually. Sometimes, he wondered if his brother had gotten his share of energy by some cosmic mistake.

A seemingly impermeable silence dropped over him, threatening to hitch his voice as he attempted to sort through the words. Every time was a damned train wreck. Sans realised his gaze had shifted back to the fire monster’s hands, clasped over themselves in a calm and respectful manner. It was just another one of Grillby’s refined qualities that Sans had taken a liking to.

Sans realised that he’d been lost in thought again and groaned inwardly. Grillby had just asked something more and he was debating even replying, since he hadn’t heard the question. Like every time, he supposed he could’ve just guessed or shrugged indifferently, but the bartender’s expectant gaze shone through him, putting him on the spot.

“…sorry. didn’t get that.”

Grillby tentatively reached over and settled a gentle hand on Sans’ shoulder when he didn’t move. The gesture was kind and comfortable, and somehow made Sans feel worse. Guilt bubbled inside of him.

“Go home tonight and rest, friend,”   came the quiet crackle of fire once more.

“i know, i know,” the skeleton sighed; the fifth one. He made no effort to move, his eye lights dimming until the hollows were bare. Rest meant sleep and sleep meant more trouble than it was inherently worth. Sans supposed he could always nap later in Waterfall, after he attempted to man one of his posts. If he actually got a full night’s rest, maybe he’d have more than one hope left to cling to.

It was all in wishful thinking, though.

 

Eventually he would exit the bar, if for nothing else than to stop worrying the fire monster. He played it off as though he’d had too much to drink, his weary grin tightening as he stumbled out the door - a show for the other patrons. They all called after Sans, telling him to be careful on his way home and to have a good night. It was nice for them to treat him with such kindness. But it was also another one of those things that made the skeleton feel so hopelessly guilty for.

Stubbornly, Sans dragged his slippered feet in the snow, preparing himself for that one spot of ice that always got him just before the library. He skidded to one side, lost balance, and unceremoniously landed on his back. He huffed indignantly, staring up at the vaulted cavernous ceiling looming above as though it was its fault.

Why this time? Why in every single goddamn…

As the universe seemed to unload unrelenting heaps of misfortune and reasons to despise himself, Sans simply lay there, reluctant to get up. It was partially the reason he didn’t want to fall in the first place. Moving was so much effort. Talking, keeping up the facade… after a while, hurting just felt like an annoying burden.

With a grunt of effort, Sans sat up, rubbing at the back of his spine in mild irritation and dusting off the slush from his clothes. He was absolutely drenched and even if he didn’t feel the cold, ice water between the joints was enough to impede movement and get painful if it happened to freeze. It was what ultimately motivated him to get up, his pace a little quicker than usual, if only to get back home and maybe get changed.

When he arrived at the steps to his house, Sans stopped. An eerie feeling crept into his soul. Something was different, so severely different that he was surprised he didn’t notice it when he had passed it earlier. His magic coiled around his bones, making him shiver as he turned to face the street towards the library. Apart from his own, there were no footsteps, but… His eye lights settled on his stuffed mailbox. Or at least, it would’ve been stuffed, had the months’ worth of mail been there.

The unsettling feeling returned as he approached, his skull craned in that direction, his left eye socket starting to wisp and sear cyan with a touch of gold. There were no footprints in the snow at all, yet… he was sure his mail was there before he left, even if it had been days ago. It was always there, like his pet rock. It was a universal constant!

His soul was thrumming hard in his chest, fear coiling around in his bones. With every cautious step he took towards the porch, something within him jerked and cried out that something was wrong. So, not as dead on the inside as he thought, but scared enough to not want to find out, he bitterly thought.

He took in a gulp of air, his erratic and paranoid magic throwing a hue of bright colours and mayhem onto the front door. He was halfway to reaching for the doorknob when the wood nearly flew off the hinges, startling the skeleton so much he lost his footing.

“SANS! YOU HAD ME WORRIED SICK!” came the familiar tone, cadence, and impenetrable volume level. Sans clung up the rail with something of a grimace, gingerly stooping to pick up the slipper that had fell off in his rush to regain his balance. It hurt so badly that Sans felt as though his ankle bone had twisted in the joint when he slipped.

Papyrus leaned over him, helping him to regain footing on their as-per-usual slippery steps. He’d always said Sans’ footwear needed more traction, would have loved to tell Sans off about it, but something in his brother’s stature just felt like it would be too much. His outings of late had been plenty and Sans only seemed to come home after several days. When he was home, it was to wash up, have some dinner, and somehow be very bad at sleeping.

“sorry, bro,” Sans replied, wagging his injured foot as he entered the house with a series of hops. He bent down with a grimace, leaning against the door jamb for balance as he sorted things out, audible clicks of bones settling into place. Then he tossed his slipper onto the floor, returning it to his foot with a sloppy squish.

“WHERE WERE YOU?”

“grillby’s.” Sans shrugged as he unzipped his hoodie jacket, fighting with the toggle at the end where it was always impossible to unhook. Dejectedly, he just sighed and dropped it on the floor in a sopping pile, leaving it there. Without missing a beat, his brother picked it up and hung it on the coat rack where it could drip dry.

“FOR THREE DAYS?” The tone was lower and highly suspicious as he rounded on Sans, ready to give him a proper scolding.

 

Then again, his brother seemed smaller, his eye lights gone and hollowed. His own narrowed slightly, uneasy about the crackle of magic he’d sensed just outside the door. It had been worrying - with his brother’s meandering around at all hours of the night, leaving without telling him, and just… not being around? Well! The Great Papyrus would certainly have to get Sans to tell him about all his brotherly troubles!

The grin at Sans’ mouth tightened artificially as he attempted a softer, lazier demeanour. His little brother already looked like he was going to interrogate him, and he didn’t want to invoke any questions about his panic attack on their doorstep. Thinking on it, Sans sauntered into the living room, his one foot clicking due to his fall. It would sort itself out. Always did.

He stopped in front of the blaring television, eyeing the sizeable pile of letters, postcards and bills on the floor. It looked like Papyrus had been sorting them into smaller piles with more yellow sticky notes decorated in spidery cursive. In big capital letters, the notes marked each pile: DUE, FOR SANS, FLYERS, ???. Sans had to let out a soft laugh at that. Trust his brother to be scrutinizing, even with this.

But this wasn’t right. He hummed thoughtfully, rubbing his jaw with his bony digits as Papyrus unsuccessfully tried to gain his attention by stepping in full view of him. Sans gave him a feeble grin when he snapped out of his thoughts, hands going into his shorts’ pockets in lieu of his jacket. Papyrus was puffing his chest out and crossing his arms impatiently. 

“oh, uh… you just… never have bothered with my mail before, paps,” he offered a little meekly, still looking at the closest pile.

Papyrus made a grandiose speech, whirling in place and gesturing to the huge pile of papers on the floor; about how if he ever did give in and did all the things Sans should be doing, he’d never have any time for himself or for training to get into the Royal Guard.

The smaller skeleton nodded absently, still scratching. “no, i mean, you’ve… never done it.” Not ever, not in any memory he had…

Something in his expression must’ve betrayed him, since Papyrus was about a foot away from him again, eyeing him with suspicion. His brother always closed in on his personal space whenever he knew something was up, and today was no different. “THEY’RE PUTTING YOUR MAIL IN MY BOX NOW! IT WAS TIME!” It was the most cordial way for his brother to tell him.

With everything being the same to the point of predictability, for one or two things out of place in the loop just made Sans feel uncomfortable, as though something had to have gone wrong. Hell, maybe this would be the offshoot where he’d pick up his sock next to the TV? Taking a quick glance to it, he scoffed. It wasn’t likely; in fact, there was a brand new yellow note attached to the one he’d left weeks ago. He’d have to see to his reply later.

The uneasiness in his soul made Sans quiet, and instead of walking away to his room like he’d normally do with a shrug, he side-stepped Papyrus and took a seat on the floor next to the heap of papers, his movements punctuated by the sound of popping bones. More of his brother’s worries concerning sore bones and exercising regularly barely even reached Sans as he picked up one of the postcards, flipping to the back of it to study the picture. Its glossy texture had been weathered from its life in his mailbox, the subjects a couple of impressively drawn echo flowers from Waterfall. It was addressed from Papyrus, on one of his first trips to Undyne’s cooking and training exercises.

Something like nostalgia passing through him, Sans’ smile eased into something calmer, something forgotten. Why had he never looked through these? If he had to be honest with himself again, it just never passed his mind. It always seemed like something that could probably be done later. Yet here he was. It was kind of nice.

 

Papyrus had seated himself across from Sans, making a show of sorting more bills and scoffing at how overdue they were. But on the inside, he knew something was eating away at his brother. The fact that this was their first actual conversation in what was probably a week both excited and worried him. Sans had always been the reclusive type, and he had wracked his memory if he had done anything to upset Sans in the past while. Nothing out of the ordinary - his nagging about his laziness (the usual), silly arguments about the best puzzles, his sock, his frequent trips to greasy food establishments… entirely acceptable, brotherly correspondence!

Which brought him to another thought; of his brother’s constant sleepiness. He looked worse for it. Even now, he saw Sans’ frame teetering, his eye lights faded in fatigue and as small as pinpoints. Papyrus watched Sans wrestle with the urge to sleep, his skull nodding slightly before he roused himself and reached for another postcard, blatantly ignoring the ever-increasing pile of overdue bills. It was a good thing the CORE’s power reached Snowdin, otherwise he could only imagine how astronomical the cost would be to light the town! Still though, the capital would wait only so long before sending another, politely worded letter requesting their owed forty gold payment for setting them up on power from Hotland… before they resent it. As they had, fourteen times already.

Papyrus sighed in exasperation, watching as Sans jerked his skull up once more at the noise. He was fighting sleep, which meant he hadn’t been resting for all of the time he had left. The living room was warm and quiet, save for a commercial that blared something MTT-Brand related. The taller skeleton promptly stood and turned off the TV in one fell motion. Then he unceremoniously reached under his brother’s shoulders and hoisted him up as though he were a child.

 

Sans buckled out of his dazy, sleepy spell and jerked against Papyrus’ arms, in time to fall directly on the couch. One of the springs in it dug against his femur and his spine spasmed where he’d landed on it earlier. Grumpily, Sans rubbed the spot, looking up to his younger brother with a hurt expression.

“NOW! ARE YOU GOING TO TELL YOUR ADORING AND PERHAPS A LITTLE DISTRESSED BROTHER YOUR TROUBLES? OR ARE YOU GOING TO NAP?”

If he had to pick, Sans wouldn’t. They were both choices he didn’t want to commit to. He shuffled back against the couch, at inner turmoil with Papyrus’ worry gnawing at his soul. It was like at the bar, but instead of warm, patient silence, his brother was quickly chipping away at his resolve to ignore his feelings.

“WAS IT… ME??? DID I DO SOMETHING, SANS?”

Sans dropped the postcard he’d been looking at, eye lights flicking up to his brother’s face. He noted the unsure posture, the way his gaze shifted about but didn’t look at him directly. Papyrus’ hands tugged on his gloves, as though the fit wasn’t quite right. He was uneasy, but he had no reason to be. The smaller skeleton felt even smaller, so laden with guilt that he didn’t say anything for awhile. Instead, he wanted to hide in his room. He lowered his eye lights to Papyrus’ red boots, searching for something he could say to make him not worry so much.

“I… SEE.” And there it was; decided for him. He couldn’t not say anything to that voice. Sans’ eye lights snapped up back to his brother’s face, horrified that Papyrus didn’t wait.

“paps… i’m just tired, i’m sorry,” he offered, giving a menial shrug. “it’s nothin’ you did, honest.” He felt trapped, his mind racing, trying to find that one sentence that wouldn’t plunge his brother into self doubt on his account. Nervously, he gripped the edge of the couch’s cushion, his fingertips digging into the worn corduroy for comfort.

Papyrus continued to stand in front of him as Sans struggled with his inner turmoil, before giving in. So, he was going to bare his soul once more. Sans gave an experimental breath, the sound almost hollow as he tried not to make it sound as pathetic as he felt inside.

“ok. just… bear with me, `cause it’s a doozy of a dream.” Sans rubbed his hands over his face, the action only somewhat soothing. “mrs snowdrake is gone,” he started, his tone neutral. This was no different than any other offshoot, as she had Fallen Down a while ago, her body sent to Hotland Labs. It was no secret, since her son and husband were waiting hopefully for her promised return. “then… the canine squad… doggo, lesser, greater, dogamy and dogaressa… all of them.”

His voice was even but slow, as though every name and word stung. Magic recoiled from the memories within his soul and he tensed just as Papyrus’ stance eased, then moved to drape his brother with the old blanket from over the back of the couch. Appreciatively, Sans held the worn fabric close to him, thumbing the folds anxiously.

“undyne, s-she’s next… shyren, mettaton, guards, citizens, monsters - just, everyone, they all just-”

He gestured vaguely. The Underground goes empty. Sans cut himself off, realising he left out the most important loss. His fingers gripped the blanket against his arm, breath hitching as what he had all pent up became too much. Sans’ sockets hollowed out again and he lowered his skull, trying to gain his bearings. His whole frame was shaking, of guilt, anger and unfathomable helplessness.

“WHAT ABOUT ME?”

Oh god. Sans did not want to hear that. He tensed further, wanting to crumble into a ball or pile of dust. Sans nodded, the action painful as his arms flew up to his skull, interlocking behind his neck and pulling down so Papyrus could not jerk his head up like so many times before. He couldn’t let him see the emptiness of his sockets. Sans knew it would only hurt him.

“y-you too, paps. you’re gone too.” His voice felt and sounded lifeless as it echoed out from his body, as though being repeated from a wistful echo flower planted behind his sternum.

He shuddered at the silence, hating himself that he couldn’t keep it all inside. He regretted not going directly to Waterfall, or even Hotland, to one of his posts. But the kind suggestion from his old friend at the bar had warmed his soul like a haunting melody, wanting to soothe and stop its fearful grip inside him.

The couch dipped beside him and he let out something of a startled gasp when his brother’s arm encircled him. While tense, the hug was comforting in its own way; skeleton hugs were always closer than any other monster’s, after all. For a moment, Papyrus didn’t say anything and just gently patted Sans’ shoulder, glad to get at least something out of him.

“GONE, YOU SAY?” His brother’s register had lowered and tone softened. The taller skeleton gave him another pat on the shoulder as Sans nodded morosely between his forearms. “WOWIE… THAT IS A LOT! WHYEVER DID YOU NOT SAY ANYTHING TO ME, SANS! YOU MUST BE SO CONFUSED!”

Sans’ soul lurched sickeningly behind his rib cage at those last words. He’d heard them before. A twisted, cynical, horrifyingly deep feeling shuddered his frame, the soft clatter of his bones jostling against Papyrus’ gloved hand. He pushed the thought away, echoing another useless, but calming breath.

“WE’RE NOT GONE, SANS! WE’RE ALL HERE! WELL, EXCEPT MRS SNOWDRAKE, YOU KNOW SHE’S IN HOTLAND… BUT! STILL!! THE GREAT PAPYRUS WILL NOT TOLERATE ANY MORE SLACKING OFF!”

Horror eventually melded into confusion as his older brother loosened his grip at the back of his skull. He turned to face Papyrus, the barest of pinpricks lighting Sans’ sockets and a twinge of a disdain crooking his grin.

“wha…?”

“YOU HAVE BEEN NEGLECTING YOUR SLEEP… FOR ONCE,” Papyrus started again at full volume and nodded his skull as though in full agreement with himself. One of his hands cupped the square of his jaw as though pensive. “YES… I THINK! THAT! A SLEEPOVER IS IN ORDER!!!”

Sans’ shoulders hunched in defeat as he gave Papyrus something of a skeptical look. “bro… it’s just nightmares. they’ll pass.” He said it in a convincing way, though Sans knew full well that it was damn near any time he closed his sockets. He didn’t see how waking up in a cold sweat in the middle of Papyrus’ room would help him any, really.

But Papyrus was already planning out the rest of their evening - listing off how he’d prepare his specialty signature dish, how Sans would take a bath (for once), and how he’d make sure everything was to his dear brother’s liking before heading to bed. After, of course, a bedtime story.

The smaller skeleton found no use in arguing with him. It did seem nice, and Sans knew it was his brother’s way of trying to calm him down. Guilt continued to swim in a dark pool of heavy emotion at the pit of his soul. It echoed an utter weakness that refused to dissipate, tugging him blindly into the past.

 

He would play along, though. If anything, Papyrus was the kindest monster he knew and he didn’t deserve to be brushed aside as often as he was. Sans gave in to Papyrus’ brotherly affectations, complimenting him on dinner with a lazy grin and thumbs up. He only protested when Papyrus forced him into the bathroom to strip his remaining clothes, still wet and cold from his earlier fall in the street. When the bath was run, Sans realised that his brother had successfully japed him and took his dirty clothes. Papyrus had replaced them with Sans’ own neglected pyjama set, neatly folded and on top of the sink’s counter.

He muttered a few thankful words as he slipped into the tub, allowing the hot water to pool into his nasal cavity and eye sockets, suspended in more comfort than he felt he really deserved. The water sloshed around the cavity of his skull, lulling him into a doze. It was part of the reason he visited Waterfall so much. While a marsh, it was beautiful scenery, with lights much like his own magic’s hue took on. It was peaceful, and when it wasn’t, it didn’t change much at all. He could just get lost in the serene waters for hours… 

Sans dozed for a moment as he tuned out the world around him. He reclined, languidly stretching out with the hue of his magic whispering around the subtle disturbances in the water. So much like Waterfall. It was almost peaceful, he noted soundly.

Sans raised himself up a little more and stared down at his wavering reflection as it rippled. As it settled, a half-cocked grin with hollowed eyes mockingly stared back at him. There were dark circles more pronounced than usually, bare signs of stress for his kind and his grin dropped a little more, not liking how he was looking just then.

He rotated his clicking foot in the joint. Every movement a twinge of pain plucked at his soul like a taut string. He gave a soft sigh as he tilted his skull to one side to drain the water from it and leaned forward to remove his leg at the knee cap to inspect the injury. There was a miniscule fracture line at the head of the talus and he rubbed angrily at the spot. He’d be quicker if he had the energy, but if anything did happen this sure wasn't going to help…

Papyrus’ voice called him from down the hall and Sans moved to reattach his leg, the joint connecting underwater with a faint clack and a painful pinch. He moved his foot again, experimentally, before calling his brother’s name back in turn. He chuckled softly at Papyrus’ pause, then flinched when the door burst open in his orange and bone printed pyjamas, the monster’s primary form of entrance. It was a good thing skeletons had no reason to be shy when it came down to their bodies. Or perhaps it was just due to the face that they were family.

“I WAS MERELY WONDERING, DEAR BROTHER, IF YOU HAD A STORY IN MIND FOR THIS EVENING?” Papyrus charmingly suggested, holding up a handful of worn and well-loved books in both hands.

Sans idly rubbed his elbow, forcing a grin as he itched between his joints, finding a rock of all things. He studied it for a moment before giving an answer, flicking the pebble outside of the tub where it skittered across the checkerboard tiles towards Papyrus.

“you pick one, pap. you know i like `em all.”

His brother gave him a rather flat expression at his noncommittal answer - well, as much as he could. Sans was well-versed in the way Papyrus expressed his irritation, being the subject of his nerves so often. With another one of Papyrus’ exasperated sighs, Sans chuckled to himself, scratching absentmindedly at his jawbone as he gave a halfhearted shrug.

“fluffy bunny. yeah, why not.”

His brother stood there for a moment in silence before Sans made the motion to get out of the tub. His baths never did last that long, enough to soak some dirt off, much to Papyrus’ disgust.

 

He handed Sans a towel and turned to leave the bathroom, cradling his books in his arms and allowing his expression to drop into one of worry. Sans was… not ok. He sure played along with him, acted like things were fine, but the presence of his brother’s magic, all the time, while he was home… it didn’t feel right. A person’s home was where one could relax and didn’t have to be on guard. If Sans was really fine, he wouldn’t be on the defensive, even while in the bath - even around him, his own brother!

But the nightmares of everyone leaving had no doubt left Sans rather jumpy. Papyrus couldn’t understand why, not entirely. Was it not to be a good thing if everyone left the Underground?? Not unless… Sans was afraid of being left behind! Papyrus was astonished he didn’t think of it before. What a careless blunder on his part! He would have to admonish his dear brother for ever thinking he’d leave his own family behind, to return to the surface without dragging or carrying him there, post-haste!

It was then that Sans left the bathroom, fully clothed in his blue pinstripe pyjamas, buttons done up but askew. The legs and arms were admittedly still too long, even after Papyrus’ valiant effort to hem them. He doubted Sans took much time to dry himself off properly, his skull still glistening with water and dripping down his neck. With a sigh, Papyrus shuffled his books into the crook of his arm and went back into the bathroom to grab Sans’ towel off the floor and bring it back out.

“HERE-” He all but shoved the collection into Sans’ arms as he stared at him, dumbfounded, as he proceeded to rub the towel onto his brother’s thick skull. “THERE, MUCH BETTER, DON’T YOU SEE?” He looked at his work with scrutiny as Sans stared at him in silence, not entirely sure how to take his brother’s admittedly, more thorough-than-usual pampering.

“sure is, bro,” was all he could respond before attempting a forced grin.

Without further ado, and only pausing long enough to hang the damp towel on the back of the door where it belonged, Papyrus led him to his room. He gestured placidly towards the interior as Sans gave a light chuckle, heel clicking as he approached the bed. He took his usual seat beside the bed on the floor, allowing the collection of books to tumble out of his arms and onto the neatly made comforter. Papyrus closed the door and all but rushed up to the bed, giving pause for a moment before hitching his older brother up under his arms again and depositing him on the mattress, where he sat next.

Sans gave him a more genuine grin, although it looked more like a grimace as a snicker escaped him.

“jeez, paps,” he mumbled, scooting back a touch as Papyrus collected the other books. He then pulled back the covers and looked at him expectantly, the childlike whimsy of his demeanour oddly infectious.

Well, it had been quite awhile since he’d been home, and his brother really enjoyed his reading. He scooted out of the comforter’s way so Papyrus could arrange it to his liking, and soon they were huddled close together. Sans sat cross-legged, leaned over the large paperback laid out in front of them both while Papyrus sat next to him, the comforter draped across both of their shoulders and around them like a blanket fort.

 

As Sans read the story for what had to be the eighteenth time that month, he really did feel a small stirring of peace in Papyrus’ company. He relaxed, shoulders hunched and his tone even and warm as the glow of the nightstand’s lamp bathed them both in orange. Not as comforting a sight as his brother’s magic, but the resemblance was there and for the first time in weeks, Sans felt just a little more at ease.

During the course of the story, Sans had paused only for a moment to get more comfortable, laying down with his arms propping him up beside his brother, who followed suit. It wasn’t long before the warm glow and comfort of his brother’s presence had lulled him into such a relaxed state that his words were getting slower, more hushed. Sometimes he’d read the same sentence twice or even three times, before his skull nodded, losing his battle against sleep. As his sockets finally drifted closed, Sans very nearly dropped onto the last few pages with a tired grunt of surrender.

 

Papyrus thought it best to leave the story unfinished, for once. Poor Sans was, unfortunately, too tired to even protest when he slid the book out from his lazy grasp and closed it, returning it to the nightstand with the others and to where he carefully inched up to turn out the light. The hue of Sans’ magic was more subdued as he gave in to sleep, curled next to his younger brother and using his forearm as a pillow.

“Lazybones,” Papyrus whispered at a fraction of his normal volume as he pulled the covers up to their skulls, and then gently patted Sans’ hand. “Like I could ever leave you in the Underground on your own.”