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Panic Room

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 Panic Room

Welcome to the panic room,

Where all your darkest fears are gonna come for you.

Panic Room – Au/Ra

 

Warnings for chapter: Graphic Depictions of Violence, Explicit Language, Slavery, Death, Scars, Collars

 

-Prologue-

Year: 5X

1819 days since the Shattering

The Man-Who-Guards-You is not alone when he enters your cell.

He is joined by two others, and at first you think that perhaps you have done something wrong, since the Man-Who-Guards-You usually takes you to the washrooms alone – so you are surprised when he clamps a pair of heavy steel shackles around your wrists, while another guard clips a rusted chain to the tight, metal collar around your blistered throat.

"A Boss," he gasps. "A fucking Boss, can you believe it? We haven't had a Boss in months."

"Do you think it's him?" one of the other guards hisses. "It's gotta be! I mean, he's a –“

"Just hurry the fuck up so we can leave," the other guard snaps. "I don't want to even see the freak, let alone be in the same room as him!"

"Get up, bitch," the Man-Who-Guards-You orders harshly and yanks the chain hooked to your collar.

A Boss…

That’s how you know you’re going to die today. 

You slowly uncurl from your protective ball and stand. All knowledge you have of Bosses you've collected by stealing snippets of conversations through the gaps in the door of your cell. The guards use the term as though addressing someone to be feared; not as some authority figure with influence and status, but as something far more powerful, and far more dangerous.

The Man-Who-Guards-You hauls you from your dark, damp, cold room, and he is not gentle. But his heavy-handedness is not the usual careless roughness that you're so used to; he is tense, trying to hurry you, but attempting indifference. He and several other men who patrol the corridors of your ward usher you down the dim hall with quick, urgent footsteps.

Your cell-mate was cuffed only recently – it may have been yesterday, it may have been the day before, it may have been last week, all the days meld together – and she was taken to the grounds, to the fence out back, and she never returned. You know that there is too little space to keep you all, and far too many to feed. Every now and then the humans who run the camp pick off the ones they don't want to bother keeping. The ones who are difficult.

You were one of the difficult ones, once, but you adapted swiftly. It may be seen as a weakness to surrender, sure, but you are not so foolish to remain stubborn and proud in a place like this. The quicker you submit, the longer you stay alive.

There are those in the camp who would gladly take death over this miserable existence – your cell-mate included. Every scar, every bruise, every ache in your body tempts you to just give in, too; to crave an end to your suffering as your fellow captives do. 

But as always, some small, desperate part of your battered spirit that has somehow managed to stay aflame tells you to keep going, to hold on, to persevere.

It will all get better, it whispers. You know it will.

But today, the end has finally come. Today, a monster is going to kill you.

You keep your eyes on the floor as you're hurried through long halls, echoing with the clamour of steel doors slamming, chains rattling, and humans stifling screams. The whole building smells like wet concrete and dirt, bathed in an eerie, ambler light from the swinging over-head lamps. You notice that you are not the first human to be chosen when you spot the bare ankles of another prisoner walking in front of you. You know it is a prisoner like you because they are barefoot – only the guards wear shoes. Thick, tough ones that can break open skin with a single, swift kick.

Eyes on the floor, eyes on the floor – you're only allowed to look up when you are instructed to. However, your gaze flickers just that little bit upwards when another human is pulled from their cell and added to your little train. They stumble behind you, silent and compliant. The guards are picking out all the good ones, the ones that aren’t disobedient. The ones who have broken.

You’re part of an ensemble. Whoever is buying today has not made any specific requests, and they want a good selection to choose from.

"Jesus Christ," a man says as you pass by him. He has a strong, deep voice that you recognise – he is one of those in charge of the camp, your ward specifically. "They look like shit. Smell like it, too. Get them washed before taking them to him. He's not gonna want any of them if he sees them like this..."

His voice fades as you're ushered onwards. Why would a monster care how you looked when they only wanted one thing? Your heart thumps wildly in your chest, and that barely alive part of your soul that fights to keep you sane seems to quiver.

Though you keep your gaze down, you recognise the path towards the washrooms from the turns you take. You've walked this path many times – the Man-Who-Guards-You likes to wash you, so much that it's not until you are shivering from the freezing temperature of the water before he decides that you're clean.

Once you reach the grimy-tiled washrooms, the Man-Who-Guards-You frees your wrists from the cuffs, and you and the other prisoners quickly, obediently strip without instruction. There is a heavy stench of sewage in the room, the drains forever blocked with the filth and waste washed down from the dozens of humans in the ward.

The guards don't warn you when they unleash the violent, cold spray, marching up and down the line several times. The spray is so harsh it's like an icy battering ram. The guards take great care to rinse the mud and dirt away – they angle the spray at your face, then hose you down and ruffle your hair only once before moving on to the next human along, and a thin rag is thrust into your arms for you to pat yourself dry.

Whoever this monster is, they must have some pretty high standards.

Before you are properly dry, you are ordered to re-dress yourself in a new, cleaner set of rags – cleaner meaning you can vaguely guess what colour the clothes used to be before they were greyed by continuous use. Your new uniform must have belonged to a tall man before you – the shorts are too baggy and stop halfway down your shins, and the shirt is large and loose. You manage to shrug it over your shoulders seconds before you are once again shackled and promptly rushed out of the room. But instead of turning back in the direction of the cells, you are lead down a hall you are unfamiliar with.

You can't help but look this time, to assess the new, unknown location. You are careful to be discreet about it, however the guards escorting you seem too troubled to bother keeping you in check. The human in front of you is doing the same as you, carefully tilting his head to look this way and that.

When you are lead through a large set of double doors, everything changes. The walls are not as badly chipped or cracked, and even bear the remains of wallpaper. The floor is cool, smooth concrete; it feels nice against your gravel-worn feet. Even the air is better here. There is still that lingering smell of damp, but it is masked by the scent of old plastic and bleach, with a hint of nicotine that reminds you too much of the Man-Who-Guards-You.

You don't have much time to take in your new surroundings before you are quite suddenly turned into a dark room, lit by two hanging lamps with a ruthless white glow. When the Man-Who-Guards-You roughly pulls you to a stop by the elbow, you look up in shock.

You catch the eye of a young woman in a large window.

The first thing you register is this: it's the first time you've seen a window in months.

When you recognise the woman looking back at you as your reflection, you realise that it's the first time you've seen yourself in months.

You're too thin to be healthy. You're so sickly looking, and your hair is uneven and sticking out in all directions. It just about covers the scars on your neck, on your collar bone when you scratched too hard.

They're not as bad as the one across your left eye – you knew that the wound would scar badly the moment the belt buckle slashed across your face, but you couldn’t anticipate just how bad.

You look terrible. No monster would want you looking like that. You happen to catch glimpses of the humans on either side of you in the window. They don't look so wonderful themselves, but at least they don't have scars on their faces. Hopefully the monster will take one of them instead.

You soulless creature.

You can't bear to look at yourself anymore, and turn your dead gaze to the floor.

"Fuck," one of the guards hisses. You don't recognise his voice. "You stupid, or something? You know why they buy our shit, right?"

"Of course I fuckin' know, man!" another unrecognisable voice says. "I just don't get why he's here. He doesn't need any more power, does he?"

"How do you think he got it all in the first place?"

"Shut up, both of you!" the Man-Who-Guards-You snaps. "Don't talk about shit like that when one of the freaks is here!”

The guards quickly disperse, and the Man-Who-Guards-You scarpers away when dim voices down the hall approach.

"...a good selection, sir," says the man who had ordered you to the washrooms. "All very well behaved, some lookers, too."

"Wonderful." The voice that answers him sounds bored.

The door to the room closes with a heavy bang. Almost immediately, a thick, heavy tension stifles the room – it hums, like it's vibrating, and you realise that it's magic. Magic belonging to the only living being in the camp who can wield it.

This is perhaps the closest your ever been to a monster. You never could imagine just how overpowering their presence could be – it’s threatening, smothering, like an unbearable heat that saps your energy. You swallow when the fear sinks in, the realisation that you're in the same room as one of the most dangerous, most powerful creatures in the whole building.  

"Take your time, sir," the Man-In-Charge of your ward says. He sounds confident, but there's a slight waver in his voice, lingering on the end of each word. "You...we gathered the ones we thought would fit your requirements."

There is a long, slow breath – as though exercising patience – before the second voice says, "Let's get this over with."

The stranger's voice is low, with a slight rasp that could almost be a growl – husky, like a smoker's voice. You keep your eyes down as the monster slowly stalks along the line. His footsteps are heavy, but don't sound as though they have a lot of weight to them. It's rather like a lazy sort of heaviness, as though each step is an effort.

"I hope you find one to your liking," the Man-In-Charge tells the monster. "We're bringing new strays in every day. B-but if you don't find one here we can send for others. We have plenty of quiet ones."

The monster only hums.

He wants a quiet one? Does he not like screamers? Unfortunately, you're remarkably good at keeping quiet. Is there even anything left of your voice?

"And we have..." The Man-In-Charge takes a moment to swallow. "We have plenty of taller ones, if you wished it."

Tall? Are you considered tall anymore? Did this monster specify that you had to be tall? You always seemed small compared to the guards, but perhaps they only appeared tall to you because you always kept your head down.

The monster's footsteps get closer. "I don't know," he murmurs after a throaty chuckle. "I've got nothing against small talk."  

The Man-In-Charge utters a nervous laugh. "Ah, yes," he wheezes. "Yes, very funny, sir."

You only register the large, black boots halting in front of you at the last second. Your head is forced up with a rough tug at the chain clipped to your collar, and you are staring into the face of Death.

His face is half in shadow, covered by a large hood lined with thick, straggly fur, and a single golden fang of his menacing mandible catches the light as he tilts his head to assess you. There is a strange glow in his black, narrow sockets, and it moves as easily as a human eyeball, scanning over your face.     

There is a part of you that remembers That Girl before you came to this camp. She would have made some kind of joke that the Grim Reaper has had a dramatic change in style since the Dark Ages – a failed mix-mash of punk and edge. But the thought is fleeting, and your mind goes blank, your limbs frozen, caught in the eyes of the towering monster.

And he certainly towers over you, looming into your space. You can smell faint traces of some kind of tobacco, but not quite the kind you are familiar with – maybe some monster brand. You can't quite recall the name...

The monster's face changes, morphing into a grave expression. It is both frightening and fascinating to watch; the surface of his skull looks almost malleable, like the flexible cartilage of the human ear.

So distracted by his face, you jump when hard fingers grasp you by the jaw and turn your face to the right, exposing your left cheek.

You resist his grip only slightly out of fear, but he doesn't relent. Your hair falls away from your face, revealing your scar. He holds you like that for a long time, until your neck starts to protest against the odd angle.

A sound more like a croak than a cry escapes your lips when the monster turns your head back to face him and hooks his thumb in your mouth, pulling your bottom jaw down. The monster taps his thumb against your bottom teeth. The heavy knocking rattles your skull, dull, but loud – his thumb is nothing but tough bone.

"Teeth..." the monster muses to himself. "Nine, ten... Twelve..." He pushes further into your mouth and you stifle a whimper as he pokes around your sore gums.

He then grumbles, displeased. You know you don't have all of your teeth; a few of your back teeth had fallen out over the course of your imprisonment. One fell out when the Man-Who-Guards-You struck you across the face, and the other two fell out on their own. You pushed at them with your tongue, ignoring the pain, and spat them out into your hands, black and badly chipped.

At least none of your front teeth have fallen out. The Man-In-Charge always seemed determined for his merchandise to keep those. No one finds an empty mouth attractive.

When the monster pushes against a back tooth, you wince. It's loose, a little soft, and very painful. You may end up spitting that one out tonight as well.    

"I have a question," he rumbles and you flinch.

But he's not talking to you. The Man-In-Charge clears his throat.

The monster removes his thumb from your mouth, but doesn't release your jaw. "What exactly are you trying to do to me, here?"

The Man-In-Charge coughs. "I don't understand, sir."

"Let's say," the monster says as he lifts your chin only slightly to inspect some spot on your neck, quite possibly examining the scratches and the blisters there, "let's say you were selling me..." He hums thoughtfully. "...a lamp. Heh, yeah, I'm lookin' for a real, fuckin' nice lamp. And you're gonna sell me one. And..."

The monster straightens and angles your face towards the Man-In-Charge. You've only seen him once, when he was tearing the thick belt from the hands of the Man-Who-Guards-You. He always looked quite skinny compared to some of the guards, but there are many rings on his fingers, and there's an aura about him that demands respect.

That aura is now gone, diminished in the presence of the giant of a monster that oozes power and magic.

"...you bring me one," the monster continues, "that's all scratched up, and with a smashed bulb." There is a mischievous lilt to his voice when he says, "How many monsters does it take to change a light bulb?"

The guards in the room shuffle uneasily. The Man-In-Charge looks close to fainting, sweat glistening on his filthy brow.

"N-none, sir," the he whispers, focusing on some spot near the monster's feet.

The monster hums softly. "Yeah, exactly. And now I'm gonna have to do all the fuckin' work." The teasing has vanished, replaced by something cold. His voice does not rise once, but the danger in his tone is no less menacing.

"Well, we..." the Man-In-Charge grinds out, "...don't usually need to worry about how they look. I mean, you...people only buy them for one thing."

A warning growl comes from the monster's chest.

The Man-In-Charge flounders. "We...can fetch others," he assures. "We can get rid of her –"

The monster rasps out a laugh. "Every one of these humans is damaged. If these are the best you can offer, then you ain't gonna be able to flog me any of your other humans, so don't bother trying."

The Man-In-Charge glares at you, and you know he's going to kill you.

He's going to kill you for looking so badly damaged that you turned away a potential buyer; he will kill you for what the Man-Who-Guards-You has done to you; he'll quite possibly kill every single human in this room as well, but he'll most definitely start with you.

You don’t want your last memories to be of this awful place. Hot tears prickle in the corners of your eyes, when a soft tap against your left cheek distracts you before they can fall.

You don't turn your head in case you imagined it, but your traitorous eyes flick up to the monster's face. You can't see his expression from this angle, concealed by the hood of his jacket, but you can just see the edge of his jaw, the gleaming fang. 

The monsters taps a finger against your cheek again, only once, without looking your way, his attention on the Man-In-Charge. How can he be this upset with how you look? Does it matter to him that much?

The monster abruptly releases you and drops your chain, moving to inspect the human beside you.

You cast your eyes to the floor again, not before stealing a glance at the reflection of the monster's back in the window as he stalks down the line. He is immensely tall, and impossibly thin. A pair of dark jeans hang off his waist and his jacket cuts off halfway down his torso, like he's too long in the body for it, a fraying, poorly cared for sweater clinging to his thin middle beneath it. 

The Man-In-Charge follows him, each step hesitant. "We have to enforce some rules, sir," he says. "These...people we bring in are difficult. We have to get them to behave somehow –"

"Can't give 'em a fuckin' toothbrush?" The monster's voice grows distant as he marches farther down the line.

"Some amenities are hard to come by," the Man-In-Charge splutters.

"Ah, now I know you're not being very tooth-ful with me," the monster says with a dry chuckle. "Wash 'em down with a hose, do you?"

The Man-In-Charge swallows loudly. "We can't provide every ward with toiletries, sir."

"Her gracious Majesty's prisons are better run that this hole. And we all know what a delight she is."

"Sir, please..." The Man-In-Charge is wheezing now. "We bring in so many humans every day. We do her Majesty a good service, rounding up Ebott’s unwanted, and…providing her people with easy access to souls, as it were. You know, it's quite a lucrative business. If we had, say, a way to better accommodate the humans we keep than this place –"

The monster laughs again. It begins as a low rumble, before erupting into a frightening chorus of deep, rasping belly-laughter. You dare a glance towards him and see that he is only laughing to belittle the Man-In-Charge, rather than out of genuine pleasure.

"You really think I'm that close to her Majesty?" he asks the Man-In-Charge. "Fuck no, that's my brother."

The Man-In-Charge stiffens, and the monster's already present grin seems to widen. Surely a skeleton can't smile without skin? You must have imagined it.

"And," the monster drawls, gleeful, "he doesn't know I'm here. Although, I could just happen to mention to him that I met a human this afternoon who thought so much of himself that he tried to proposition her Majesty through little ol' me."

"I meant no disrespect," the Man-In-Charge babbles. "I-it was an honest mistake. Please, sir, it's just that we have to get rid of so many. So many souls just wasted..." The Man-In-Charge's voice strengthens, and when he continues speaking, he is louder, more assured. "And we've had plenty of clients who've never complained about the merchandise before." 

The monster laughs again, a cruel sound this time. He steps close to the Man-In-Charge and curls threateningly over him, baring his crooked fangs.

"My brother has very high standards." The monster's jaw opens slightly, and you expect to see the vertebrae of his cervical spine through the hollow gap...only to find that it's not hollow. It's like a void, deep and dark, and from it you can see the tiniest faint glow. It snakes through his long fangs, and you abandon all regard for the guards' rules to openly stare; it's a long, almost gelatinous mass that glows a rich amber. It's...a tongue.

The monster runs the slick length over his teeth, giving his single golden fang the most attention…drawing the eyes of the Man-In-Charge to it.

"And,” the monster croons, “you know who he is, don't you?"

The Man-In-Charge backs away a small step. "Sir, please," he says. "There's...there's no need for his magnificence to find out. I can send someone out right now…bring in one of the newer humans –"

The monster cuts off the Man-In-Charge with a long thoughtful hum, unabashedly running his glowing tongue over his golden fang. "Nah," he says after a pause. Quicker than you can hope to catch, the monster sucks his tongue back behind his deadly teeth, and looks up from the Man-In-Charge – 

Directly at you.

You avert your eyes immediately, studying a long crack along the floor. You were not staring without permission, you were not –!  

There’s the soft clinking of a steel chain, accompanied by a pathetic grunt. "No one's gonna want to buy this one," the monster says. "So neglected, he's practically soulless."

The human he’s studying whimpers, and the monster drops the chain to the floor with a loud clatter.

His footsteps get closer. "Not gonna want this one, either." He pulls at the next human's chain. "Gave up a looong time ago. Hey, even missing a few toes, there."  

He's back in front of you seconds later, the pungent smell of his tobacco overwhelming your senses, and he's tugging at your chain again. You fight back a whimper when he forces your head up to meet his eyes.

"And no one's gonna want this one with that fuckin' gash on her face," he rumbles.

"Please."

The word escapes you before you can stop it. It scrapes against your disused throat, like fingernails on sandpaper, and it hurts. You really have no voice…not anymore, not since the guards forced you to abandon it.

But it seems that there’s a part of it that remains, and it refuses to be held back, pushed forth by that lingering ember of your soul that’s determined not to give up. Why now? What are you asking this monster for? Mercy?

Your long-forgotten voice is so, so quiet, the Man-In-Charge doesn't hear you. But the monster does.

Something flickers in those strange eyes of his, and his mouldable face changes, his brow somehow knitting in some unidentifiable expression – his sockets actually close for a brief moment. He’s thinking, and thinking hard.

Mercy…

Mercy would be leaving you in this hole, to endure day after day of humiliation and agony until your soul finally gives up. Until it’s finally free.

After what feels like a century has passed, he opens his eyes, but before you can gauge what emotion they hold, he turns to address the Man-In-Charge.

What kind of monster shows mercy?

"This one," he growls.

All the breath leaves your lungs at once.

"Tha-that one?" the Man-In-Charge splutters.

"Hmm, yeah." The monster makes a noise that sounds like a snort, one that you didn't think would be possible with only a hole for a nose. He pulls you forwards slightly so the Man-In-Charge can look at you. “I'll take her. But for half of what you offered."

The Man-In-Charge almost chokes on his own tongue. "Half? Sir, that...wasn't the agreement."

You can't see the monster's face, but the Man-In-Charge can, and he clearly sees something in it that frightens him. He pales, his eyes bulging, and his shoulders hunch protectively towards his neck. "H-half, then," he mumbles. 

Some pressure builds in your chest, to the point where it becomes painful. You want to cry it out, to scream it out – you want to scream your throat raw so you can never speak again…you never want to speak again…

But you...can't. The defiance in you has been spent, withered away, leaving you helpless.  

Without glancing back at you, the monster releases your chain and walks away.

You keep your eyes on his retreating back as he stalks towards the door, his words ringing like the grim toll of a church bell at a funeral.

This one.        

The guards positioned on either side of the door stumble back when it swings open, seemingly on its own. You catch a faint scent floating on the breeze as the monster ducks through the frame – a warm, almost rusty smell – following the surreal humming of the magic once choking the room, trailing after its master.

Beside you, the Man-In-Charge sighs, but you can't look at him; you're unable to break your stare from the open door.     

This one.

You can't believe it. The feeling is so numbing that you can’t feel anything; no fear, no sadness, not even grief. You think, for a brief moment, that perhaps that monster was the Grim Reaper after all. This may all be some fever dream. Perhaps you are already dead...

The Man-In-Charge groans loudly. "Get her out of here," he barks at the guard closest to him.

Maybe it was hunger that got you – the hunger pains have been getting pretty bad lately – or the cold. You might still be in your cell, curled up on the floor in your dark corner, falling deeper and deeper into the clutches of deadly slumber.

"Didn't you hear me?" the Man-In-Charge bellows to the room. "Get them all out of here!"

He leaves you to the mercy of the guards and storms after the monster, griping about losing out on good GOLD, GOLD that was rightfully his. Before he leaves, he snags the sleeve of one of guards at the door.

You jump when you suddenly go blind. Your panic is brief, however, when you recognise the rough handling of the Man-Who-Guards-You, as he fastens a heavy cloth over your eyes. Someone else pulls on your chain, forcing you forwards.

Though you can no longer see him, your ears are not covered, and you can hear the Man-In-Charge as you blindly stumble after your escort.

"...'em to the grounds," he growls. "To the fence out back. Christ, fucking freak saw right through us. No one's gonna want 'em now –"

"Keep movin'," the Man-Who-Guards-You grunts, and he shoves you onwards by the shoulder.

The humans you leave behind in room are going to die now, because of what this monster said; the Man-In-Charge isn't going to waste time with unwanted goods that will only ever get him as much as half a payment. If the monster hadn't picked you, you would have joined them.

The cloth at your eyes becomes warm and damp – the hot tears that you cry aren’t for these humans. At least when they die, their souls will transcend. Yours is going to be eaten by a monster.

That pulsing part of your soul splutters and dims, so close to extinguishing. But...it holds on, as it always does. Even as you cry, pushed along unknown halls towards a fate worse than death, your stubborn soul just keeps holding on.

You hate it, you want to ignore it…but beneath all the loathing you feel, it continues to call to you, promising you that you will find a way, somehow. What that means, you don’t really know. All it tells you is this:

You cannot give up just yet.

You have to keep fighting.

You have to persevere. 

 

Chapter Text

 

PART I

New Home

The lights spark and flicker,

With monsters much bigger,

Than I can control now.

-

Warnings for chapter: Mentions of Violence, Collars, Scars, Mentions of Mild Self-Harm, Implications of Asphyxiation

-

 

-Chapter One-

 

You are left to stand against a cold wall for a long time, with the Man-Who-Guards-You on your left and one of his friends on your right. They are tense, and fiddle with the buckles on their uniforms – you can hear the click of the metal clasps rolling about between their fingers dimly over the pounding of your heart. You've stopped crying, having lost the strength to even do that, and now the cloth at your eyes feels very uncomfortable.

There are dim voices echoing from afar, and getting closer.

"...put in a good word with her terribleness. She...see, the last time she passed through these parts, she wasn't exactly very...civilised." The Man-In-Charge passes by you, and your skin prickles when you feel the minute vibration of magic pass with him.

You gag when the chain on your collar is tugged once, and you are pulled into an uncoordinated march after the Man-In-Charge and the monster.

The monster makes that snorting noise again. "How the Captain of the Royal Guard chooses to act is not my problem. Maybe she busted all your little flunkies up 'cause even she, as terrible as she is, knows a real monster when she sees one."

You don't remember hearing about such an incident; there weren't even any whispers of it. Then again, you never hear anything about the world outside your ward. This place possibly has countless wings and wards, containing countless humans whose lives changed in the years after the Shattering...   

You're pulled abruptly and quite violently forwards, and you trip over your own feet. Someone else has snatched your chain, and is twirling it, fiddling with the links. You can hear the chink of the steel on...bone?

"I can take it from here," the monster says, and his smoky breath washes over your face.

He pulls again, a gentle tug this time, and you trail after him with slow, small steps. He doesn't appear to want to rush you, holding the collar chain loosely, but he doesn't speak, nor pay any heed to your broken breathing, your occasional gasp.

You keep walking, until suddenly…you're falling.

You drop as though you've taken an extra step up a flight of stairs when there was no step to take. Your stomach flips and a hoarse croak bursts from your throat. Immediately, your tongue is assaulted with the strong scent of sun-warmed metal, and your skin breaks out in goosebumps. You are cold and numb, mouth filled with the rusty taste of magic, before your bare foot hits the ground again. It's soft...

You gasp and collapse to your knees. The taste disappears, and the chill on your skin dissolves into a pleasant warmth – a sensation you have not felt in a long time…only the damp cold of your dingy cell. And the ground is indeed soft, like carpet. You know there is no such thing as carpet in the camp, only stone floors and wooden tiles.

The monster drops your chain and is pulling at the tight cloth around your head. He tears it off harshly, and your eyes burn from the exposure to light…and there is so much light. More light than you have seen in months, and far more powerful than the glow of the lamps you are so used to. You instinctively shield your face with you shackled wrists.

The monster is close to you; you can smell the smoke clinging to his jacket. You blink through the searing pain of the brightness and find his eyes level with yours. He's down on one knee, inspecting you.

Your weak soul pulses. Now? Is he going to do it now?

"N –" you try to say, but your throat burns, and you curl over into a hacking cough, one that scratches painfully with each retch.

When you manage to control yourself, the monster moves. But he does it slowly, taking hold of the cuffs at your wrists, and you get a clear view of his hands. They are indeed solid bone, yet nothing connects them; each bone fits together as though held there with glue, but his fingers move as swiftly and easily as a human's hands when they adjust your cuffs. 

You’re not expecting him to simply snap them off – surely there is no strength in hands with no muscles? – but he manages to unlock them, though you see no key. With a low grunt, he clips both of the steel bands around one of his own wrists, likely so he doesn't lose them –

He may want to use them again.

– and he reaches for your neck.

You recoil, falling onto your backside and shooting a protective hand to your throat, your body angled away from his invading touch. There may not be enough strength to shatter steel in those fingers, but they were certainly strong enough when pulling at your collar. They are probably strong enough to strangle you.

The monster hold up his hands in surrender and stills. When your breaths slow, he tries again, reaching for you at a much gentler, calmer pace. You are so terrified, and your chest hurts so much that can only screw your eyes shut and endure.

You stiffen when the sleeves of his jacket brush against your cheeks, and he taps at the collar around your neck one, twice...

Then it falls away.

You gasp; a deep, ragged inhale. It’s more air than you think you’ve tasted in…months? It feels like it’s been years since you’ve taken a decent breath. You’d almost forgotten just how easily you can breathe without a collar around your neck.

Oh, God, you can breathe.

When you open your eyes, the monster is pulling back, standing to his full height and slipping his other hand through the hoop of the collar. He lazily wraps the chain up the length of his arm as he turns and walks from you without a word. He hovers in a large, open archway, and pulls something from his back pocket with one hand as he throws down his hood with the other, revealing his skull. Yes, a skull...not a single hair in sight.

A skeleton monster. A Boss.

You quickly recognise the objects in his hand; a packet of cigarettes and a lighter. He plucks a thin, strangely coloured cigarette from the packet and carefully places it between his teeth, and lights it with a burst of blue flame from the lighter.

He takes a long drag from it and sighs, taking the cigarette between two long, bony fingers and exhaling a thick cloud of shimmering blue smoke.

"Fuuuck," he groans.

He covers his eyes and massages his temples, before he returns the cigarette to his mouth. He doesn't face you, staring at something through the archway as he smokes in silence.

Then you notice your surroundings.

It looks nothing like the grey, chipping walls of the camp. It doesn't smell like it, either; it smells of polish, and some kind of herb you think is used in cooking, mixed in with the monster's smoky scent and the forever present taste of his magic.

You're in a house; a house that looks expensive. It isn't exactly a mansion, but more like one of those suburban homes in an upper-middle class neighbourhood that only well off families could afford on the nicer, richer side of Ebott – before the monsters took them all.

There are three large, very comfortable looking couches, an ornate fireplace, and a large TV – God, it's so surreal to see one – pinned to the wall. On your other side is a large window overlooking a long, well cared for front yard and an empty road. You squint. It's daylight outside...how long has it been since you’ve seen daylight?

Though the sky is overcast, it’s still too bright to stare at directly, and you avert your eyes to the deep, blue carpet. It's a living room. The monster has brought you to a living room, of all places.    

Did you pass out? You don't remember leaving the camp, or stepping outside at any time. You never learned the precise location of the camp, though you remember enough to know that it is in the slums of Ebott closest to the border. If you're in the richer neighbourhoods, then you would have remembered passing through Central Ebott – or perhaps you are just on the outskirts. Some of Ebott's richer parts were once scattered quite far out from the larger cities, towards the east and south, before the monsters made those particular areas unsafe.

The memory of the magic clogging your senses has you thinking that perhaps this monster did something to you. Are you hallucinating now? Is this one of their tricks? Is he creating some familiar illusion to lull you into compliance before he tears your soul from your chest?

You tense, staring hard at the back of his head...skull.

The monster doesn't meet your stare. He exhales another cloud of blue smoke.   

...

... Why doesn't he do anything?

He grumbles and finally turns to face you, hooking the cigarette between his teeth.

He smiles...you think. Somehow his mouth curves from its permanent smile into something more recognisable as a forced grin. You just faintly see the corners of his jaw move as his face moulds to create an expression that should have been impossible. In this light, and with his hood down, his skull looks tough, solid, and yet it can twist and pull as easily as silicone. Strangely, you want to touch it, to feel how it can change so easily...    

"I know what you're thinking," he says with that grim smile, "but sweetheart, if I wanted to eat your soul, I would have done it by now."

Instant distrust wells up in the pit of your stomach, nauseating you. His words make no sense. What else would a monster want you for?

When you don't move or attempt to speak, the monster huffs.

"Ahh, I get it." He takes a long drag from his cigarette. "You think I'm gonna take my time, play with you a little first, get you all scared , rough you up…add a few more scars to that pretty face of yours, then finally finish the job. Nah, I ain't into that." A low laugh rumbles in his chest. You stare at his sweater, where is rises and falls with his throaty chuckles. Are there lungs under there?

"Well," the monster continues, "not with people who don't deserve it." He takes another drag of his cigarette, then walks towards you. But he comes no closer than a few feet. "Can you stand up?"

You do, slowly, shakily. Your knees almost give way out of sheer terror, but you manage to get to your feet without help, and stay upright. The smell of that odd tobacco is so strong, curling from the end of his cigarette. It smells sweeter than the cigarettes of the Man-Who-Guards-You.

The monster studies you for a long moment. You want to avert your gaze, the deeply ingrained need to look down, beaten into you over weeks of captivity, is almost overpowering...

But there's nothing in the monster's eyes that demand you submit.

The small points of light in his otherwise lifeless sockets linger on the scar across your left eye for the longest time, and – though you could have imagined it – something akin to recognition passes over his face.

"Alright," he sighs. "Lemme ask you something; I'm I the first monster that's ever spoken to you?"

He waits patiently for you to answer. And then you realise that he wants you to speak. But you don't have a voice anymore; you can only croak and rasp now.

You shake your head.

"No?" The monster raises...something on his brow that mimics the action of a raised eyebrow. "You've met other monsters besides me?"

That Girl had, once. She never looked, never raised her gaze any higher than her own hips.

See? Her Majesty is good like that, she lets us live if we just do as she says.

You shake your head again.

The monster hums thoughtfully, and he plucks the cigarette from his mouth. When he leans towards you, you're not expecting it. His movements are too quick, and his face blurs in your vision…

You see the Man-Who-Guards-You, and the flash of light catching the small steel collar in his grubby fingers as he presses it towards your throat.

You flinch back, screwing your eyes shut.

The monster hesitates before saying, "Did your tongue fall out with all those teeth? Can you understand what I’m saying?"

You're shaking. You can't seem to control yourself. Your throat closes up and you can barely swallow past the tight, icy grip around your neck.

“I’ll…” You cough, forcing the words out. “…good…be…good…”

The monster groans and steps back. "Ahh, what am I doing?” he mumbles. “You really stink, you know," he tells you. "My bro'll smell you the minute he gets home."

The tightness in your throat loosens only slightly at the sound of the monster’s voice. When he doesn't speak further, you dare to glance up at his face.

He meets your eyes and grins again. "Bet you haven't had a decent shower in a while, huh?"

It's only now that you're far away from the awful smell of the cell in your ward that your stench hits you. Wow, yes, you really do smell terrible...

The monster opens his mouth, and you think that you must have been wrong about the blackness behind his teeth. His face was cast in the shadow of his hood at the camp, so perhaps you were mistaken –

His mouth widens. No...you were right; there really is a deep, endless void beyond his teeth. The amber tongue curls out from the blackness, and before you can stare at it for too long, the monster places the still smoking butt of his cigarette on the glowing surface, and swallows it.

He chuckles, and you realise you must have been gaping at him. You quickly look away, but he laughs again.

"Waste not, want not," he says. "Come on."

He turns and walks out of the living room, not looking back to see if you follow; because he expects you to, you know well enough what his actions mean. You don't want to see what he might do if you don't obey – what the Man-Who-Guards-You did to you in the camp will pale in comparison to what a Boss could do.

You follow.

When you step into the entrance hall, you find the monster waiting at the foot of a set of stairs. He lazily opens his arms wide in a welcoming gesture.

"Welcome to scenic My House," he says.

You hesitantly look around the hall. The staircase is wide with a beautifully carved railing, curving near the top to reach the next floor up. The carpet doesn't extend any farther than the living room; the floor here is made of long wooden planks, smooth and polished, nothing like the uneven gravel of the camp halls. It...does look like a rather nice house. It's a little sparse; very neat, however, like its owner takes great pains in maintaining it. It's almost too clean – it seems like a show house rather than a home.  

Behind you is a large heavy looking door, with a shining brass handle and a small window that lets in the sunlight. You know where this door leads:

Outside.

You look back to the monster when he...clears his throat? It certainly sounds like a cough, but there's nothing there to clear...that you know of.

You search him, trying to make your observations as inconspicuous as possible. He looks rather scruffy, with a fraying sweater and a jacket that's far too small for him. His jeans look filthy, covered with dark stains that put your rags to shame, and his boots are coming apart at the seams.

He's still waiting. He wants you to say something.

You can't. You only nod.

He seems displeased, but shrugs, shoving his hands into the pockets of his jacket before turning to the stairs and slowly lugging himself up them. You follow in silence, acutely aware of the door to salvation getting farther and farther away from you.

The monster silently leads you along the first floor hall and stops outside a door opening to a large bathroom.

A skeleton owning a bathroom. It sounds like the beginning of a bad joke.

You attempt to peak up at the monster, hoping his attention is elsewhere, but he catches you and shrugs again.

"Human house," he says. "Can't say I've ever needed to use it. My bro can spend hours in there, though, using the shower. Doesn't leave the house until his noggin' is practically shining."

You're so conflicted, so confused, it's almost like you're suffering from severe whiplash. Why...is this monster being so nice to you?

"Go on, I know you dyin' to get in there," he says and gives you a gentle push against your back, urging you into the bathroom. "Ditch those." He rubs the sleeve of your shirt between his bony fingers. "Don't wanna undo all your hard work."

With that, he turns and walks back towards the stairs. "I'll be downstairs when you're done," he calls with a careless flick of the wrist.   

And then he's gone.

You are stunned, frozen to the spot.

Does he really expect you to take a shower? He doesn't seem to be particularly bothered by dirt – his brother sounds like the one who does the cleaning around the house.

Are you...perhaps for his brother, then? Does he want you clean when he takes your soul?

You shake the morbid thoughts away. You've been left alone. He's not even going to supervise you? Does he really trust you that much that he'll just leave you to make what you will of his orders?

Or is he just that lazy?

 If you can find something sharp, perhaps you can fashion a weapon. No, that's stupid, you can't take on a Boss; you'd be dead before you even raised your arm to strike.

... Perhaps he's just that powerful that he knows you'll do exactly as he says without question.

You enter the bathroom hesitantly, close the door behind you, and lock it. You've seen enough of the house to know where the front door is. Once you're done, maybe you can sneak out, make a break for it.

And go where?  

...

There's nowhere for you to go.

You distract the tears threatening in the corners of your eyes by stripping yourself of your rags. Once the offending garments are off, thrown into a heap in the corner of the bathroom, you search.

Like the hall, the bathroom is spotless, each surface so clean they cast reflections everywhere you look. Bottles and jars are lined up neatly along the edge of the bath – oh, there's a bath! – and the showerhead gleams in the light. Even the tiles sparkle.

Fresh, clean white towels hang from a glittering towel rack, and the toilet – which you are certain that neither one of the monsters needs to use – is immaculate. There's even a full roll of toilet paper hanging from the wall beside it, the loose end neatly folded into a triangle; it only seems to be there for decorative purposes, to complete the ensemble.

The smallest bubble of joy surfaces from within your despair. To be in such a clean place after cowering in a dump for so many months is almost elating –  

You catch your reflection in the mirror.  

You didn't look nearly this bad in the window of the camp. You look far worse than you thought.

Your hair is perhaps the only part of you that looks...relatively okay. Although it's grown back uneven and sticking out in all directions where it's shortest, untamed cowlicks that defy gravity, at least it's grown back.

You're not too filthy – the guards had managed to hose the worst of the grime from you, at least – you only smell dirty. Your ribs are covered with bruises from all the rough handling while being carted back and forth between your cell and the washrooms. Some are yellowing, but the more recent ones are still a nasty shade of purple. There are even bruises on your breasts...

There are bruises and scabs all down your arms and legs. You think to turn and assess your back, to see if the scars there ever healed any better than the one down the left side of your face –

The scar across your eye has to be the nastiest one you have. You lean closer to the mirror and run a tentative finger across the marred skin. Your eye narrowly escaped the sharp edge of the buckle when it clipped your eyebrow and cheekbone, but... You cover your right eye and your reflection blurs slightly. You've never been able to see clearly through your left since that day.

Your finger trails down your face to your neck, tracing the marks left behind by the many collars that cut into your skin – there are a few new blisters there. Reaching around your neck, you can feel the re-opened slice in your flesh, where the edge of the collars dig into you the most.

Your hand returns to your clavicle to ghost over the blisters, over the scratches your nails made in desperation, when you tried fitfully to prise that one collar off. The red marks on your wrists are turning purple from the crushing grip of the Man-Who-Guards-You just a few hours earlier, and there's a pink imprint of his fingers around your upper arm when he pulled you to a stop.

There's not a single inch of flesh that hasn't been marked in some way. What exactly does this monster see in you that was worth buying?     

Souls don't bear ugly scars.

You tear your eyes away from the reflection of your battered body, and climb into the shower.

-

You know you're clean. When the water hit you, you almost screamed with shock, but the soothing stream of warm water reduced you to a sagging, boneless mess of a human within seconds. You spent a few moments staring at you feet, watching your body's filth trickle down your purple stomach, over your scratched hips, down your thin legs, twisting and curling in the puddle of the bath before draining away.

Then you scrubbed. The bottles lined up along the edge of the bath all appear to be the same monster brand you couldn’t recall before: NTT Brand Shower Gel; NTT Brand Body Wash; NTT Brand Body Butter. Unsurprisingly, nothing for hair.

You settled for the shower gel, lathering it over every inch of your body, and the suds quickly turned a nasty shade of brown. When you ran the gel through your hair, your fingers came away tangled with locks that had come loose – you're relieved that it all hasn't fallen out.

When the water ran clean from you, you considered leaving...   

You know you're clean, but... Oh, but it's a bath. You haven't had a bath in such a long time...

Would the monster mind? He did only say that you should shower, not bathe. Would he get mad? Would he even know?

Does he even need to know?

You shut off the shower and fill the bath as far as it will go before it overflows.

When you settle into the water, you moan at the delicious burn stinging the open cuts, soothing your aches and pains. You stew there for quite some time, shifting only when the temperature of the water drops enough to set you shivering. You reluctantly climb out of the bath and drain the water...

Oh no...you've left a noticeable ring of grime around the tub. You wipe away the evidence before your new owner can find out. You're a little clumsy, not very thorough using only a small piece of toilet paper, but at least by the time your arm is tired from all the wiping, most of the grime is gone.

You're relatively dry by the time you finish as well. You retrieve your rags, but hesitate. You should ditch them like the monster told you…they really are quite filthy. So you wrap yourself in a towel and quietly exit the bathroom, clutching your rags to your chest.

The house is quiet – it's so quiet it's unnatural. You're so used to hearing dozens of boots marching up and down your ward, heavy metal doors slamming, and the occasional scream when they brought in a new group of humans. You creep towards the stairs and peek down into the hall. It's empty...and there's the door.

Your eyes never leave the handle as you tip-toe down the stairs, and you pray that it's unlocked. Once you get out, you just have to run, and keep running…get as far away from this house as you can, then you can worry about the next part. You spare a small thought for your nakedness, but you dismiss it – escape is far more important than your modesty right now. It's not like you're completely naked, and you have your camp uniform.

When you reach the bottom of the stairs, you hesitate before the doorway to the living room. You peek around the frame and spot the monster sprawled out on one of the couches, and duck back. After a moment of silence, you dare another glance, and notice that those sockets of his are actually closed. His chest is slowly rising and falling... He's asleep.

You slink silently across the hall, your eyes on the sleeping monster all the while. He doesn't stir once, and adrenaline has your hands quivering uncontrollably when you reach for the handle of the front door.

Something warm pulses in your chest, and your resolve seems to strengthen. You’re going to escape. You’re not going to let your soul get eaten by a monster.

Your fingers tighten on the handle. You push…you pull… Locked.

Swallowing back the sob of desperation, you frantically search the entrance hall. There's a hallway to the right of the stairs, leading to the back of the house. Perhaps there’s a back door somewhere…?

In spite of yourself, your stomach gurgles, the hunger pains that kept you awake last night reminding you that you still need food, and need it soon. Maybe you can sneak something on your way out if you happen to pass by the kitchen.          

You hang back from the living room again, cautious. You lean forwards slightly to peer through the door –

"Thought you'd drowned," a voice rasps next to your ear.

You leap back with a squeak, losing your balance and landing on the cold, wooden floor with a grunt. The monster is lounging against the frame, one hand in his pocket, the other holding a grey bundle of something beneath his arm – your chains have vanished from his wrists. He's watching you with sleepy eyes and a knowing smirk.

"I almost came in to get you," he says, then blinks. "Holy shit, there was a person under all that dirt." He eyes the rags in your hand. "I told you to ditch those. Leave 'em by the door. I'll get rid of them later."

He holds out the bundle to you – it's a sweater, much like the one he's wearing. It appears as though it's worn from many washes, the wool a little tangled and fraying in places.

"It's clean," the monster says when you hesitate. "S'mine, though, so it might be a little big."

You can only nod, badly winded from your fall. You stand and accept the sweater, dropping your rags and your towel without much thought –  

The monster makes a strange noise, but it's so quiet you almost miss it. You realise that perhaps he's not as open with nudity as your guards were – being nothing more than bone, perhaps the ignorance, or the inability to relate makes him uncomfortable – so you turn your back on him and shrug the sweater over your shoulders.

It smells just like his cigarettes, though there is a hint of some kind of flowery detergent that barely manages to mask the smoke. It is indeed far too big for you; the hem of the sweater stops halfway down your thighs, and the sleeves are so long you have to fold them up your arms several times.

When you turn back to the monster, there is the most disturbing expression darkening his face. Your knees buckle and you clench your hands against your chest, fingers tightening in the sweater.

But the shadow over his eyes quickly passes, and he casually stuffs both hands into his pockets. "You're hungry, yeah?" he says. "You looked like you were heading for the kitchen." He motions for you to follow.

You stumble after him, quivering. He leads you past the stairs and into the hallway, and makes an immediate left through a large, open archway into an incredible kitchen.

As you had expected, the kitchen is as clean as the rest of the house, although there are a couple of dirty pots and pieces of cutlery in the sink. There's something comforting about seeing them there – it's the first indication that someone does in fact live in this house, and it's not some elaborate, untouched display.

The monster heads straight for the fridge, and while he searches through it, your eyes explore the kitchen, thinking it best to stay where you are since he hasn't ordered you to take a seat. There’s another open arch leading through to the living room, and open doors to a pantry that could be it’s own living space, filled to the brim with colourful cans and bags of food.

It hadn’t occurred to you before, but can a skeleton even eat? You think back to the void of the monster's throat behind his deadly teeth when he swallowed his cigarette. Where did it go when it was swallowed by that black hole of a mouth?

The appliances look pricy, very high-tech. The stovetop on the island in the centre of the room bears the logo: NTT Brand Range Cooker.

And there is indeed a back door here, but you can't bolt for it while the monster’s in the room…

"Sit down." His voice startles you, and you obediently climb into one of the stools positioned around the island.

The monster watches you curiously. "You gotta be told everything, don't you?"

You're not sure how to answer that.

The monster returns to rummaging about in the fridge and eventually finds what he's looking for. He drops a Tupperware box, a fork, and a glass filled to the brim with water in front of you, before he takes the seat opposite you and leans on the counter, resting his head...skull in his hand.

The chilled box is filled with pasta mixed with a red sauce and large slices of tomato. Your stomach groans and your mouth waters. But you glance at the monster, searching for any hint that it could be a trick. He seems unruffled, his shoulders relaxed. 

"Human food," he says simply. "It's not the best, but anything else in my kitchen wouldn't feed you. Might get rid of…all those bruises, though."

Oh…that’s right. Of course the kitchen would only be filled with food for monsters, and none of it would help sate your hunger. Food that heals, but cannot feed. You imagine a human healing his malnourished body with a lifetime's supply of the magic-infused monster food, kept from the verge of death, but forever suffering with the pain of hunger. It's the very definition of cruel irony.

"I mean, it'd be pretty fusilli of me to feed you something you couldn't pasta-bly eat," the monster says.

You blink. Did...he just make a joke?

He's waiting, expectant. "Really? I dish out a double pun, and nothin'?"

You're at a loss for what to say. The play on words was clever... So you nod – it's the only thing you can think to do.

The monster leans a little further forwards. "Damn, sweetheart," he murmurs.  

Your face is warming rapidly under his scrutiny. You focus on the box before your cheeks melt, and pop the lid open. When the rich smell of the pasta sauce and juicy chopped tomatoes hits your nostrils, you can barely hold back. You pick up the fork with a shaking hand and take two careful mouthfuls, before your hunger blinds you. You stab relentlessly, impaling as much of the pasta and tomatoes as you can on the fork and shovelling them into your mouth.

You're certain that you're moaning as you eat. It's just plain old pasta, with the blandest sauce and too cold to be truly enjoyable, but after months of stale bread and sloppy rice that always tasted like dishwater, this Tupperware pasta is like the nectar of the gods...

When the grumbling of your stomach settles, you slow down. You haven't even finished half of the box, but already you're feeling much better. You reach for the glass of water and take several deep mouthfuls, shivering as the cool liquid travels down your sore throat – water has never tasted so good…

You continue to eat steadily, occasionally taking smaller sips of water, and when you empty the Tupperware box, you feel sleepy, satisfied.      

You meekly look up, but the monster isn't watching you; he's fallen asleep again, his head lolling in his hand. Unsure of what to do, you gently place your fork down and clip the lid back onto the box. But the tap of the fork against the countertop is enough to disturb the monster, and his sockets slowly open.

He looks at the Tupperware box. "Hell, kid, did you inhale that, or what?"

You wipe your sleeve across your mouth, then realise that you've just dirtied his sweater; you're so used to doing it with your rags you didn't even hesitate –

The monster's brow is furrowed, but he doesn't appear angry.

"Since you look like you're about to shit yourself," he says, "lemme say it again: I don't want your soul, I don't need your soul, and neither does my brother, so you can relax."

The monster's expression is deadly earnest, and his shoulders have tensed a little. "Do you wanna know why I picked you?" he then asks so quietly. "Out of all those humans in that room, why I picked you?"

It's all you've been asking yourself since he uttered the damning words...

This one.

If he truly doesn't want your soul, then what could he possibly want you for?

When the monster speaks again, his voice is a little strained. "So..." He pauses, then he lowers his eyes and appears to change his mind, much to your disappointment. He rubs a hand over his face and pulls out another cigarette from his back pocket."...you've had a rough time of it, haven't you? Today's probably wrecked you, too." He lights the cigarette and stands. He won't look at you anymore. "Come on."   

You follow him back up the stairs, left feeling jittery and nervous by his reluctance to discuss your purchase – it was the refusal to meet your stare that unsettled you the most. He silently shoulders open the first door along, flicking the light switch with a lazy hand to reveal a decently sized room that...honestly looks like a bomb site.

It's definitely a bedroom…but the bed is nothing but a large mattress, shoved in the far corner and piled with creased sheets and pillows. In the opposite corner there's a desk stacked with papers, books, binders, and stained coffee mugs next to a chunky looking computer – there are dozens of wires spilling from the CPU, the screen and keyboard are a little dusty, and the office chair tucked beneath the worktop is missing a wheel. A banged up dresser that's loaded with more books and a lamp positioned atop the unstable pile sits across from the desk, a pair of long socks hanging from one of the open drawers. The floor is covered with all manner of clothes, bags, food wrappers and screwed up paper balls. The window is blocked by a square of black cardboard, keeping out the sun instead of curtains, and there's a walk in closet that appears to be covered with…claw marks...

"My room," the monster grumbles. You're not at all surprised. Not only is it the one room in the house that looks as messy as him, but it reeks of smoke.

On cue, he exhales a glittering cloud through his nose. "Maybe..." he pauses to scratch his jaw, "...don't leave this room 'til I come and get you, yeah?"

You shoot a questioning look at the monster, and he merely shrugs again – his default answer, it seems.

"You can have my bed for tonight, okay?" he says. "'S a bit of a mess, but hey...it's a bed, ain't it?"

You gingerly pad into the room, your eyes on the mattress. Though rather lacking, it definitely looks far more comfortable than the metal plank in your cell.

Your gaze darts to the blacked out window, and you wonder if the cardboard is loose –

"And hey..." The monster's soft voice has you turning back to face him. He leans in slowly, so close that his forehead almost touches yours. "Don't even think about trying to run."

Your breath catches and you almost choke on your own saliva. Something flashes in one of those dark sockets, a warning spark like a crackling flame and you tremble.

"'Cause I will know," the monster growls. "This is for your own good."

The room is plunged into darkness, and the monster slams the door shut before you can utter even a squeak.

-

The pain that awakens you is like a knife twisting in you abdomen.

Whatever’s destroying your insides tears you from slumber and you groan, clutching your middle as your body tries to adjust to the most food it's been fed in months.

It soon passes, and you whimper – it's only going to get worse. You roll off your pallet to make for the door so you can alert the Man-Who-Guards-You –

You hit the floor. It's closer than you remember, and much softer. You blink in the darkness and realise that this isn't your cell. It's a bedroom...a rather messy bedroom. It smells of sweet smoke –  

Oh, God. That's right…you're not in the camp anymore.

The feeling that follows is strange; a mixture of fear and excitement.

But when pain ripples through your body, you gasp and limp towards the door. The monster's warning echoes threateningly in your head, before it's quickly diminished by a loud, and very unpleasant gurgling in your gut that certainly doesn't sound healthy, and you stagger to the bathroom faster.

Once you're done and the pain has passed, you crack the bathroom window open. It hadn't occurred to you to do that before you showered, so distracted by the state of yourself. The sky is already dark with the approaching midnight hours, but overcast so you can't see the stars. The fresh air almost brings tears to your eyes.

It's delicious.

The cool breeze feels so good on your tongue, gliding down your throat. You gulp down the mixed smells of car fumes and distant cooking. You could sit here for hours and swallow it all, gorge yourself on it.

You have neighbours; you can see the lights in their windows in the darkness. You wonder if they are monsters, or were some humans – the rich and powerful ones – able to keep their old homes?

You shift when the memory of the monster's threat resurfaces again. After he'd left, you'd curled up on the mattress, too frightened to even try to prise the cardboard from the window. He would have probably heard you and caught you in seconds. The mattress was coated with the scent of his smoke, but it was so comfortable that you ended up drifting off with the smell cloying your senses with it's sweetness.

You return to his room as quickly as you can, but when you settle back onto the mattress, you are too alert to fall back to sleep.

You still cannot believe that this is not your cell. Even after the monster's ominous promise, not once did he interrupt your slumber. He didn't come barrelling into the room with the smell of booze clinging to his uniform, already slinging off his belt... 

You even used the bathroom by yourself. Twice. 

When the flash of fire in his eye crosses your mind, you shiver. You were certain that he hadn't raised his hand to turn of the light switch...

You sit up and assess your new prison, though you can't see much with the cardboard square blocking out any light from the street. You creep across the room and fumble for the lamp, but when you find it, you learn that its bulb is missing.

How many monsters does it take to change a light bulb?

It's the memory of the absolute terror on the face of the Man-In-Charge that tugs at the corner of your mouth in the barest hint of a smile. You haven't smiled in such a long time you're afraid that if you do your cheeks will tear. Your fingers run absentmindedly down the stack of books, along the spines. You can remember how to read. That Girl could read very well too, and read all manner of books.

You wander aimlessly around the room, feeling for the furniture so you don't accidently knock anything over or, God forbid, break any of the monster's belongings. You find the window next, and skirt your fingertips along the edge of the cardboard. It is, in fact, solid wood, and cemented to the wall with something so strong that not even a breeze can pass through the glued up gap.

The desk comes next, and the papers ruffle when your knee taps one of its legs. Your hands run over the loose sheets, then the computer, tangling in the wires. Whatever the monster uses it for, it's clearly not for casual purposes.

You leave the desk and feel along the wall, and your fingertips slip between the slats of the closet door. You skirt them lower, and they pass over the long grooves in the wood. The claw marks…

A door opens somewhere.

Your feet almost leave the floor when you start, a cold sweat breaking out on your forehead. Without thinking, you press yourself against the nearest wall, trying to make yourself as small as possible. You expect to hear the booming footsteps of the Man-Who-Guards-You heading towards your door...

…until you remember that he doesn't guard you anymore.

There's someone downstairs, and you think it's the monster. The door closes and rattles – the front door, perhaps? Did he leave the house while you were asleep? The footsteps are muffled, but you can just about hear them trudging into the room beneath you.

Someone speaks. It's a voice you don't recognise.       

"Ah, what a surprise," the stranger says, "that I find you right where I left you."

The voice is deep, a little gravelly – it sounds rather tired. However, you know instantly that that voice has the power to set knees quaking and spirits dwindling if it so pleased.

Someone else yawns loudly. "Aw, c'mon, m'lord..." You recognise the second voice belonging to the skeleton monster. "...I haven't been on this couch all day. I shifted at some point."

The couch…you must be above the living room.

"Yes, I suppose I can see that," the unknown voice drawls. "You have moved a whole two inches to the left since this morning."

You lower yourself to the floor to better hear their conversation. Someone's walking again, and their steps are clipped, controlled, nothing like the lazy swagger of the skeleton.

"Rough day on the grind, m'lord?" he asks around another yawn. "You're lookin' a bit ruffled."

"You've been smoking down here," the stranger says gruffly. "I've told you to keep that vile stuff contained to your garbage dump of a room."

"Sorry, m'lord. I figured you wouldn't mind if it was in the hall."

"I always mind if it's anywhere other than outside or in your hovel." The stranger walks, his voice drifting across the room. "I hope, when you got up from that couch to smoke, you stayed off it long enough to clean those pots you left in the sink."

The monster laughs nervously. "You didn't even see them."

"I don't need to see them to know that they're there," the stranger snaps. "I can smell the mould growing on them already. Were you so busy sleeping the day away that you couldn't find the time to tidy up your own mess?"

"Busy as bee, m'lord."

You hear a low rumbling – the stranger is growling. "Dreaming that you are working does not count as keeping busy."

"You should be happy for me, m'lord. I've got the dream job I've always wanted."

The stranger chokes on his own snarl. "I suppose I should be relieved that you ate today, at least."

"Aren't I growing up fast?" the monster says good-naturedly. "Getting my own food and everything. I even cut up the tomatoes myself."

"Yes, and it only took you two-hundred and twenty-seven years," says the stranger, "give or take."

You blink and press your ear to the floor. Surely you misheard... You know that monsters have enviable life spans that dwarf a human's by centuries, and you suppose that it wouldn't be unusual for a skeleton monster to be old – maybe even immortal, as they are, quite possibly, already dead – but the revelation still throws you off guard. Two-hundred years?

"Perhaps if I'm lucky," the stranger continues, "you will have perfected your culinary skills by the time the next two-hundred years have passed."

"Big ask, m'lord," the monster says.

"And do you know what I've noticed? In the time I have explained to you why I despise your inability to contain your disgusting habit, and your obvious incompetency in tasteful cuisine, you have not moved to clean those pots and put them back in their rightful place.

You flinch at the sharpness of the stranger's tone. The monster groans and you hear a faint rustling, as though he's slowly rolling himself off the couch.

"Sorry, m'lord," he says, and his voice glides towards the entrance hall. "It won't happen again."

The stranger grumbles. "And when you're done..."       

His voice rises just enough for you to hear every syllable, and the absolute fury in each word...

"...you can tell me why there's a human in my house."

Your heart drops into your stomach. You sit up from your ball on the floor and frantically search the room for a hiding place – not under the bed, it's just a mattress, there's no space to crawl into; under the desk, you'd be seen immediately; the closet?

You reach for the handle –

You're falling.

You drop like a dead weight into a familiar cold nothingness – when suddenly, the air is so alive with magic it's violently buzzing, and it's strong, powerful smell floods into your mouth. Though it's slightly different this time; instead of warm and rusty, it tastes sharp, like a frigid gust of deep-winter wind.

Your back hits something hard, and the gasp you would use to scream is knocked from your lungs. You blink, and the first thing you notice that the room is no longer in darkness. The lights have somehow turned on...

When a face invades your space, filling your vision with a violent red haze, then you scream.

Although it doesn't sound anything like a scream…more like a garbled bark. The figure above you snarls, and the frightening sound freezes you, locking your joints tight with terror. The face is not a face, but a skull, eye sockets sparking with that deep scarlet light that has you shaking uncontrollably.

Another snarl ripples through his clenched teeth – they're sharp, jagged, and pulled into a furious, deadly scowl that screams murder.

"It appears that I was mistaken. You certainly have been busy, haven't you, brother?"

 

Chapter Text

 

-Chapter Two-

-

Warnings for chapter: Mild Violence, Mentions of Moderate Violence, Immobilisation, Scars, Mild Trauma

-

 

Brother.

This is the brother the Man-In-Charge mistook the tall monster for – no wonder the guards were terrified.

You try to move your arms to shield your eyes from the livid red glow, but they are too heavy. The unknown monster pulls back and stands straight, but he does not release you from his piercing stare.

Through the pounding of your blood in your ears, you hear the taller brother say, "M'lord –"

"You almost managed to hide her, covering her with the disgusting smell of your cigarettes." The other monster's voice is like the rippling snarl of a wolf; deep and vicious, bone-rattling, deadly. "But I can smell a human's filth from miles away."  

You want to cower, to curl in on yourself, but you can't. And it's not the fear that holds you still – it's the fear that's begging you to protect yourself – but something is holding you down, making your limbs too heavy to move, a pressure in your chest that feels like a strong, crushing hand anchoring your body to the floor.

But it's deeper than that; it's like it's anchoring your very being. Your very soul.

"I can explain," the taller brother says.

"Don't bother," the monster with the glowing eyes hisses, and he turns his death-glare on his brother. Without the glow of his eyes to blind you, you notice the long crack down the side of his face, across his left eye...like a scar.

"You went..." His voice is strained, "...to that dump on the other side of Ebott...and brought this thing back?"

You avert your eyes when he briefly glances down at you, and you recognise the dark blue carpet of the living room. You frantically search with your eyes, your head as heavy as your limbs; there’s the TV pinned to the wall – something is flickering on the screen, but you can’t quite see it from your awkward angle on the floor – and the circle of couches.

But that can't be... It’s like you had fallen right through the floor from the monster’s bedroom into the living room. You glance up – there is no hole in the ceiling, nothing that you could have slipped through...

The bitter, cold taste that you inhaled as you fell lingers on your tongue. The taste of magic.

"None of the humans there recognised me," the tall brother says defensively.

"Of course they didn't," the scarred monster snaps. "And you have me to thank for that! You're lucky that Alphys follows orders without question."

"They..." The tall brother hesitates. "They thought I was you at first. But I set the record straight," he quickly adds when the scarred monster shakes with barely contained rage.

"You better have done," he whispers dangerously. "If my reputation was ruined because of your stupidity –"

"All they know is that I went there for a human, and you knew nothin' about it."

The scarred monster stills. From the floor, you can see the empty darkness in his sockets, and you can feel the fury radiating from him.

You gasp when the pressure holding you down suddenly lifts, but you don't dare move, not even to shy away when the scarred monster steps around you. He marches towards his brother, each step slow and deliberate, and you shift just enough so you can keep your eyes on his back. He's dressed in a manner that boasts authority; a thick, black military uniform matched with sharp looking scarlet boots, and around his neck is a scarf the colour of fresh blood.   

His brother, meanwhile, watches him calmly -- his hooded jacket is missing, and he has his hands in the pockets of his jeans.

When the scarred monster reaches him, he grabs him by the collar of his sweater, pulls him down to eye level, and strikes him across the face so hard with a sharp, unforgiving crack that, for a moment, you think he's shattered his jaw.

"You fucking waste of space." The scarred monster's voice is a lethal hiss, and he holds his brother still by the sweater, keeping him from toppling over from the force of the blow. "You ungrateful mongrel!"

He tugs his brother down further, forcing him to drop down to one knee. 

"Do you have any idea what they will do if they find out?" the scarred monster barks. “She’s disowned! What the hell were you thinking?”

… Disowned?

"Yeah, but they won't." The taller monster's voice is full of conviction, and his stare is hard.

"No, of course they won't. Because I have to stick my neck out for you again! All because you wanted a little pet to fawn over!"

When the scarred monster turns back to you, you flinch. Light has returned to those empty sockets, and though it is gentler than the crimson fire from before, it’s still no less frightening.

"Sit up," he orders.

You don't even think to disobey – there is such power in that voice you know you'd be a fool to challenge it. You push yourself up by the elbows, curling your legs beneath you, before you realise that you are still wearing the tall monster's sweater, and only his sweater. You curl your legs beneath you so the monster can’t see your nakedness underneath…however he doesn't seem to care about your modesty, watching you as though he’s ready to pounce for your neck should you make even the smallest attempt to run.

When you're on your knees, he walks a slow circle around you.

His brother is stock-still, watching the scarred monster study you with wary eyes. There are large beads of…sweat rolling down the sides of his head – they trickle past his jaw, and you raise your eyes to his shimmering brow –

When the scarred monster hums a warning, you lower your head, staring at your bruised knees and gripping the hem of the sweater, willing your fists not to shake.

The scarred monster is quiet for some time before he speaks, and you almost squeak – his voice is so close to your ear. "How much did you pay?"

His brother coughs. "M'lord –"

"How much...did you...pay?"

There's a long pause. "I got a good deal for her." 

A strong, leather gloved hand grips you by the chin and forces your head back up into the light. The scarred monster's eyes roam over your face, focusing intently on your mouth, your nose, the slash across your eye...

You seize the opportunity to study his face as well. He looks very unlike his brother, who has a much slimmer jaw. Even their eyes are different – the scar down his left eye is a deep groove in the malleable bone, taking out a small chip in the top edge of the socket – his eyes are larger than his brother's, and somehow it makes the void within them deeper, more frightening. His teeth are not nearly as long as his brother's, but look just as sharp, just as capable of tearing flesh and bone…

He abruptly releases you and steps back, doggedly eyeing the sweater. "Take that ragged thing off."

You hesitate only briefly, but there doesn't seem to be any malicious intent in his words. He gives the order like the Man-Who-Guarded-You did before he would hose you clean; simply, plainly.

So you pull the sweater over your shoulders and keep your eyes on the floor.

After a long, long moment of silence, the scarred monster says, "Stand up."

You obey, and the monster walks another circle around you, slower this time. He is much shorter than you expected, perhaps only by a foot, or a half – his forehead would just skim the tip of your nose if he stood close to you.

He halts directly in front of you, his hands behind his back. You refuse to meet his eyes unless he forces you, or gives you the order. The anger is still pouring from him in waves, and the unmistakable hum of his magic is so strong the hairs along your arms vibrate.

"A good deal?" he finally says. "I hope that means she was given to you for free."

The taller brother huffs a laugh. "Not quite."

You peek through the curtain of your hair. The flexible brow of the scarred brother shifts and closes over his sockets, and he rubs at the corners in frustration. "Sit down," he murmurs, and you know he's addressing you. Once you’re back on your knees, he opens his eyes, and they are empty, deep and black. You shrink away, hunching your shoulders.

"We..." he grinds out, "...will discuss this tomorrow. I've had a long day and don't have the strength for this tonight. You," the glow reignites in his eyes, fixing on you, "will remain here until I can decide what to do with you." He whirls on his brother. "And you had better have a damn good explanation prepared by tomorrow evening."

He crosses the room without another word and disappears into the hall. His angry footsteps storm up the stairs, and moments later, a faraway door slams shut with such force you're certain the whole house shakes.

Your ears are ringing and your heartbeat is frantic. Holding back whimpers, you crush the sweater to your chest, covering your bruises and your scars.

Still down on one knee, the taller brother sighs. He pulls out a cigarette and his lighter from the pocket of his jeans, and takes a long drag before he speaks, the shimmering smoke leaking from between his teeth.

"Well...that went well."  

-

You jerk awake when something prods you in the side of the head.

Your head swims from the speed with which you sit up. Blinking the sleep from your eyes, you stretch and croak out a yawn.

"Time to shift, sweetheart."

You gasp and back away from the voice. Brief memories of the night before flash across your mind; falling through the ceiling, being pinned to the floor by some unknown force, and burning red eyes filled with absolute fury –

You blink. You're back in the tall brother's bedroom, and he is crouched beside the mattress, gazing at you calmly. The anxiety in his eyes from last night has disappeared, and the tension in his shoulders as he'd marched you up the stairs to his room is gone. Even his cheek, once a nasty shade of red from his brother's strike, and glistening with sweat, has faded.  

"The beast has left the building," he says with a smile. "I, uh...honestly wasn't expecting him to find you so quickly. I wanted to introduce you. Sorry, kiddo.”

He's holding something out for you to take. It's in some kind of brightly coloured wrapper.

"Somethin' sweet for you," he says. "Fix those cuts and bruises right up."

Candy for monsters? You've never eaten monster food before. You carefully take the offered wrapper and pop the boiled sweet into your mouth. It's too much sugar after just waking up, but when the flavour glides down your throat, you feel...

You feel...

Giddy? Happy? Content? There's a warm feeling within your stomach that you don't understand, but it feels good. You greedily draw more of that wonderful flavour from the piece of candy, revelling in the sensations it feeds you.

The candy piece is gone far too soon, and the elation fades. You roll your tongue about, searching your cheeks for any remains of the candy trapped in the dips by your gums, stuck in your teeth –

You pause, then poke your teeth again. Wasn't one of them sore yesterday? You bring a hand to your mouth, and notice that the bruise around your wrist, left by the shackles, is gone. You inspect your other wrist. That bruise is gone too!

It takes a moment for your sleep-addled brain to make the connection; monster food heals. You garble excitedly and lift your sweater to search your stomach. It's bare, not a single bruise or scab in sight.    

You almost laugh in disbelief. You touch your fingers to your left eye.

The scar is still there.

You deflate and trail your fingers down to your throat. The raised skin of your scars hasn’t disappeared there, either.

When you gaze at the monster, his expression quickly changes from something that looked mildly entertained to defeated. "Can't heal scars, sweetheart," he says. "Scars have already healed."

You try not to let your disappointment show too much, and force yourself to think positive, to be grateful for what was healed. The monster doesn't miss your displeasure, however. With a groan, he lights a cigarette and draws two long breaths before he speaks again. “They look fine, you know. I was…what I said in that place was just…”

Before you can make sense of his words, he shakes his head. "So, uh, you're gonna be living here now, so I'm gonna need a name."

Something unpleasant stirs deep within your stomach. You stare at the mattress to hide your frown from the monster, and you fitfully pick at the hem of his sweater.

"Look, I don't wanna have to introduce you properly as the human," the monster argues. "My bro'll never let me hear the end of it if I don't even know your name. You want mine first?"

You meet his eyes again and he relaxes a little. He gestures to himself. "Papyrus. Or if you're my brother: Lazy-Good-For-Nothing, or Mongrel, or Eternal-Burden-To-My-Great-Self." He chuckles. "Take your pick." He then gestures to you in invitation.

You briefly puzzle over the bizarre name before that unpleasant feeling returns, and you think you're going to be sick. You shake your head.

Papyrus frowns. "Come on, sweetheart, work with me here."    

You shake your head more forcefully. "I..."

You're voice doesn't sound as bad as it had yesterday. The piece of candy must have healed your swollen throat and your rusty vocal chords, but disuse still renders is no more distinguishable from a hoarse croak. And honestly, you're...scared to hear your own voice again.

You speak in a whisper – it's easier to breathe the words.

"I...have…no name."

The monster – Papyrus – stills at the sound of your voice, whisper or no. He studies you with intense eyes as the smoke curls from the burning embers of his cigarette. The amber glow of the butt reflects off of his long, golden fang, and you stare at it so you don't have to meet his gaze.

"Alright," he says quietly, running a trembling, skeletal hand over his head to rub at the back of his neck. "Alright, you tell me when you want. Or don't...we'll figure something out."

With that, he straightens and sucks the cigarette through his teeth, chewing a couple of times before swallowing it. When he exhales, a long stream of the blue smoke flows from the cavity of his nose.

"Oh-ho, that a smile I see there?" he says almost playfully.

The corner of your lips drop from the smile you didn't realise you were trying to make.

Papyrus only chuckles. "I gotta work today, sweetheart," he says. "So you can stay in here 'til my brother gets home, or you can busy yourself elsewhere. 'S’up to you."

He's letting you leave? You don't have to stay in here?

"There are rules, though," Papyrus adds. "You can go anywhere in this house except three places." His expression turn serious and his voice lowers. "Don't go into my brother's room, unless he says you can."

He waits for you to acknowledge his warning. You nod.

Satisfied, he continues. "Don't leave the house, unless one of us is with you. 'S for your safety, trust me on this."

You can't possibly think of any threat outside of this house that could be worse than him…or his brother. Papyrus did nothing to help you last night, didn't step in to protect you – he took the full force of his brother's fist to the face and remained on his knees, submitting. If he, a Boss, is terrified of his own brother, then what's outside that could be worse?

Humans.

You do trust him – you absolutely do. You nod again.

When Papyrus speaks again, he leans down, curling over you, and pitches his voice so low it rattles your bones, and your soul trembles. "Don't go into the basement. Ever." 

Your skin goes cold, the hairs rise along your arms. You nod stiffly.

Papyrus smiles and straightens. "Alright. There's more pasta in the kitchen, if you wanna help yourself."

Pasta for breakfast? Your stomach whines, groaning loudly, and your face flushes. You've had worse.

“There's some more candy too...if you can find it." The playful lilt is back.

When you nod again, Papyrus lugs over to the computer and collapses into the rickety chair. The CPU rattles and beeps loudly as it boots up, and he catches you staring.

"Old, I know," he says. "Undyne hates it, but I make it work, so bully for her."

Is Undyne the name of his brother? No...otherwise Papyrus wouldn't have said her.

He taps away at the keyboard in silence and your eyes are pulled unwillingly to the bedroom door. You can really leave? When your stomach gurgles again, you stand and fold the bed sheet out of habit. Papyrus doesn't appear to notice, too engrossed with whatever he's working on.

"Um..." you murmur, and that gets his attention. He pauses in his task and stares at you from the corner of his sockets.

"Thank...you," you rasp. "—rus."

Your voice breaks when you say his name, cutting off most of it, and his brow lifts curiously.

"Rus, huh?" He resumes typing, but his ever present smile is just a little bit wider. "You're welcome, sweetheart."

-

You're not sure what to do with your freedom – though limited, it's the most you've been given in months.

You start with the bathroom again. The tub is cleaner than you left it, your shoddy work on the ring of grime having been perfected so that you can clearly see your face reflected in the surface. The scarred monster must have scrubbed this room from top to bottom before he left this morning. Your stomach twists at the thought of his return tonight.

You shower, taking advantage of the privacy and the unrestricted access to warm water. You still only have Rus's sweater as clothes, but you weren't expecting to receive clean clothes right away – you're not expecting to receive any other clothes ever, but you're quite happy with the smoky sweater. You're already used to the smell; it's become rather comforting.

There's a total of six doors upstairs; one to Rus's room; one to the bathroom; and one to the scarred monster's room, but you can't guess which. And you don't want to try any of them unless you unwittingly break Rus's rules so soon.

You answer the call of your stomach when it becomes unbearable, and you patter down the stairs.

But you pause in the entrance hall, staring at the front door.

What are you doing?

Now that you’re properly washed, fed, and clothed, there’s nothing stopping you. You have to get out, you have to leave. If you can get as far as…wherever you are…

You’re definitely not in the middle of nowhere, and surely there will be signs in the neighbourhood, perhaps even a convenience store where you can snatch a map. Should you aim for the nearest city? No – it’ll be crawling with monsters. The boarder? No – it’ll be crawling with…humans…

Humans.

A flash of a memory gives you pause, like a flickering ember, burning brighter and brighter through the darkness of the rest of your dreary memories.

This is for your own good.

For your safety…

Who knows what’s out there, waiting for someone poorly prepared, unarmed and weak, someone like you to blindly stumble into a place you know nothing about, teeming with selfish creatures that could snatch you up in a second…and monsters that could gobble you up…

Rus gave you a bed. He gave you food…he let you shower…

You shake your head fiercely. No…no, Rus is a monster.

But his touch doesn’t hurt; it’s nothing like the fierce grip of the Man-Who-Guarded-You.

He’s a Boss monster – you’re never safe around a monster, you know this. And his brother

You wrap your fingers around the handle and squeeze until your knuckles are white. Just one pull, and you’re free. Just one…

The rest of Rus’s threat from the night before surfaces as though in warning: I will know.

Just one pull… Your soul is burning, pulsing, urging you; go on, go on…run, run, run!

And then a dim voice whispers from the back of your mind, faint as though speaking from a great distance, from memories that you hoped to bury…from a memory that feels as thought it's centuries in the past.

You sag. You can’t do it.

With a sob, you collapse to your knees, your grip loose around the cool handle. What good would running do, when you have nowhere to run to? Where can you hide, when know of no hiding places? Who can you turn to, when your own kind turned on you?

A cracked whine leaks from between your lips, tears sting in the corners of your eyes, and you hug your shoulders, resting your forehead against the heavy door.

“…idiot…” you croak through a broken sob. “Idiot…you idiot…”

Your soul flickers; it’s desperation to flee, it’s urgency to escape, softens. It pulses warmly, reassuringly. Not to run, not to escape, but to…endure.

Your eyes are sore and your temples are throbbing by the time your tears are spent. But you don’t hurry to move. You stare blankly at the wooden floor, at your thin knees that were covered with bruises no more than an hour ago.

Numbly, you lift the sweater and gaze with hollow eyes at your stomach. Looking closely, there are remains of scars left behind by the Man-Who-Guarded-You when he kicked you – though those wounds were never deep, and only bled for a day or two. But the bruises from his rough man-handling, the aches and pains and the weakness in your muscles…gone.

Healed…by a tiny, magical piece of candy. Given to you by a monster.  

With a defeated sigh, you stagger to your feet and stumble into the kitchen.

Like the bathroom, it has been cleaned. With the pots and pans no longer piled in the sink, you have no choice but to search the cupboards. You do so hesitantly, even though Rus gave you free reign – there's something unsettling about snooping through someone else's house; the fact that it's a monster's house, a Boss's house, makes you feel thrice as uneasy…

...

But you’re still pretty hungry.

You locate the pots and pans, the plates and cups and bowls, and the cutlery. In a top cupboard, there's a large collection of cookbooks. They’re all recipe books, for monster related dishes – NTT Brand, of course, As Seen On TV! – save for the last one. It's smaller than the others, and the cover is in bad shape – it's a cookbook specifically for pasta, filled with the simplest, and cheapest, recipes. There's a faded sticker in the top corner with a large '500G' written across it.

Five-hundred GOLD for a human cookbook? And it’s not even in good condition...

There's a noticeable fold in the pages, and you open the book to inspect it. It's folded at a recipe for Sicilian Fusilli.

You can't quite imagine Rus cooking, let alone a human dish. Though as you scan the recipe, it becomes clear that he didn't follow it, cooking the pasta with the bare minimum required for the sauce; namely tomatoes, a bit of oil, and nothing else.      

You place the open cookbook on the nearest counter and search the fridge for the ingredients. It's all monster food, but you manage to find the half bag of tomatoes tucked in the back. The only other human food you manage to find in the pantry – after some digging – is a bottle of olive oil and a tied up bag of fusilli pasta.

Looks like you're having pasta for breakfast, lunch, and dinner today. 

You fear for a moment that you may not remember how to cook, but when you get started, you're practically on auto-pilot. That Girl used to cook rather well, herself. Her food always smelled delicious...

The stove is not dissimilar to a human stove, and easy to use. While the pasta boils, you make the sauce as the recipe instructs, but you are missing...quite a few key ingredients. You make do with what you have, mashing a couple of tomatoes up with the olive oil and chopping the rest into small chunks. Even a little parsley would be nice, to add a bit more flavour to the pasta, but perhaps there's a monster ingredient you could add instead? Though maybe it’s not a good idea to add food you don’t know enough about…

When the lacklustre sauce is piping hot, you pour it right into the pan full of pasta to save on washing…

You’ve boiled far too much.

You barely finish half of it by the time you’re full, but you really don’t want to waste any – you never had enough food to waste in the camp, so you force it all down despite your stomach’s protests.  

You scrub every inch of the pans clean when you're almost sick from tomatoes, and you wipe down the countertops and the stove, careful not to miss any visible inch of surface. The less you give the scarred monster to punish you for, the better.

Once you’re done, you sit at the island for quite some time, staring at nothing, alone with your thoughts.

What do you do now?

Does Rus expect you do find something to do? What can you do? You don't want to bother him while he's working, lest he get angry for the interruptions, but the vague command to just...busy yourself elsewhere is eating away at you.

Your days in the camp consisted of breakfast, sitting in the corner of your cell, undergoing inspection, a trip to the washrooms with the Man-Who-Guarded-You, dinner with the rest of your inmates, then sleep. You've already botched your schedule, showering first then eating. For the strangest reason, it makes you feel incredibly jittery.

Rus did suggest that you help yourself to more of that wonderful candy...if you can find it. Perhaps that’s what he meant by busying yourself?

You take a deep breath, and your soul pulses warmly once more.

Endure…endure…

Persevere.

-

You don't find the monster candy in the end.

You're only a little disappointed, wishing to lose yourself in the euphoric feeling it gave you, so you distract your cravings by investigating the back yard. You don't dare try the door, but you peer through the kitchen window. It's rather big, and looks very well maintained. However, like the house, it's a bit sparse.

Perhaps Rus has hidden the candy somewhere else?

The first place you investigate is the living room, but instead of looking for the candy, you search the ceiling for any sign of damage when you fell through the night before – amidst the clutter of mugs and food wrappers, there was nothing on the floor of Rus's bedroom this morning that showed signs of a fall, so you know that it's pointless to check, but you can't help yourself. Maybe the floor somehow…moulded into some kind of gooey substance that you could fall through, changed by the magic of the scarred monster?

You remember how cold you felt as you fell through what you can only describe as nothingness – did you fall through some kind of void?

Your eyes lower to the carpet, to the spot where you lay prone beneath the scarred monster and his blood-red gaze, your body too heavy to move. Swallowing back whimpers, you walk through to the entrance hall.

You wander aimlessly about the house; across the hall is a large dining room that looks incredibly bare, but as immaculate as the rest of the house – save for Rus's room. Opposite the kitchen is a large den made small and cosy by shelves stacked with countless binders, the corners stuffed with filing cabinets, and a huge leather chair tucked beneath an equally large desk – turned into an office space.

But what really makes the room seem so small is the giant map of Ebott pinned to the wall across from the door. However, it details a post-Day X Ebott, modified after the monsters broke free from the Barrier beneath the mountain. Many of Ebott’s smaller towns could retain their original names, but the queen was adamant to re-christen many landmarks and larger cities.

You can’t remember what the lake in the south was called before Day X. It had become the general term when referring to south Ebott as a whole; the south was renamed The Lake by royal decree to make things simpler, as the human populace of Ebott always knew one was referring to the south when they mentioned that lake.

The west became known as The Plains for their sparse, hot farmlands; the north became Mountains for the long stretch of rocky, snowy peaks; and the east became Woodlands for the dense trees and forests.

Central Ebott became known as…Central, the smallest but most densely populated landmass. Right in the middle of Central, where the queen and her many loyal children reside, is the royal city: New Home.  

The queen seemed rather unimaginative with names.

And just to the north-east of Central, across Mt. Ebott, is the word FORBIDDEN.

The large desk beneath the map is very well organised, and you know that it belongs to Rus’s brother. You suddenly feel uneasy in this room – you quickly leave.

The next room along is much smaller than the others, but perhaps it seems smaller because it’s filled to the brim with books, stacked neatly – and alphabetically, you notice – on perfectly polished wooden shelves. You don't want to mess up the house too much in your search, so you simply skim your fingers over the books, the table-tops, the chairs. The house is so empty there seems to be no suitable nook or cranny to hide anything.

At the very back of the house is a utilities room with a large washing machine and dryer, leading through to a garage that’s close to empty, save for a cluttered work desk in a rather messy corner – you assume that corner must belong to Rus – and a large fridge-freezer.

You return to the entrance hall, and when you pass a large door beneath the stairs, you know that it must lead to the basement. The whispered memory of Rus's threat makes you shudder, and you pass the door without sparing it another glance.

You end up back in the living room, curled up on one of the couches and staring blankly at the TV.

The occasional car rumbles past the house, but other than that, there’s no noise – even the birds left Ebott not long after the Shattering, flying off to find a safer home where less creatures could eat them. Every now and then, you hear the faint thumps of thick boots, the crashing of steel doors, and distant crying. You press your hands to your ears, but you can’t seem to block the sounds of the memories out.

You spot the TV remote perfectly positioned on the mantlepiece. Should you? Rus didn’t say you couldn’t… And you need noise to distract yourself from the phantom echoes of your nightmares.

When you switch the TV on, it’s displaying a news channel; text flies across the bottom of the screen, and in the top left corner is the logo: NTT News. Every channel in Ebott is NTT owned, replacing most of the human networks with their own, independent station. Those they couldn’t acquire, the networks with greater reach across the entire country, were removed from Ebott’s schedules completely. Not a single word has been heard of the outside world in…years.

The news anchor is the familiar rectangular robot, wearing a black suit and tie, and the screen on the top half of his body is alight, mimicking a smiling face – one of Napstaton’s many identical clones.

You listen to his monotonous, robotic drawl without taking in any of his words, instead focusing on the scrolling text below him, reporting the headlines.

NTT Brand expanding range by manufacturing tinned food – specialised can opener to follow over the coming weeks.

NTT Network to extend service to cities bordering Ebott.

GOLD value up ten per-cent as trade overseas booms.

Exclusive interview with Napstaton teases new album in development, mere weeks after his upcoming release was announced.

Ebott borders expand from The Plains as agreement is met between two neighbouring counties – Border Control expected to receive record number of applications when borders open for first time in three months.

The borders shut while you were in the camp? You can’t imagine the queen allowing such a thing.   

NTT Network promises free cell service for a month to customers who use any Napstaton single as their ringtone. 

DAY X COUNTDOWN – 5 days to go!: Anniversary of the Shattering to be celebrated with Napstaton performance –

The screen suddenly goes black. Seconds later, an image of the royal emblem lights it up.

You are assaulted by the harsh colours of the royal family; the deep crimson and black, with hints of poisonous gold. Your skin goes cold at the sound of the grim trumpets, the dreary jingle announcing royalty.

The robotic news anchor drones; “And now, a special televised message from her Gracious Majesty, Queen Toriel.” 

And there she is, sitting atop her throne, head down and shoulders hunched. Though she hardly looks old, there’s a fragility about the queen that makes her seem very weak, almost pitifully so. Her neatly groomed white fur shimmers in the nearby light, and she raises her clouded eyes to stare directly into the camera, directly into your soul.

My dear children,” she says softly, “it is I, your queen, your guardian.” Her voice sounds as flat as ever, almost bored. “I come before you to remind you of my everlasting love for you. I keep you safe, I keep you from harm. My wonderful children, you must remember that.”

Children. Guardian. Even long after the Shattering, the queen still viewed the humans of Ebott as her own kin, new children to add to her already colossal kingdom of monsters. What would she say if she knew that her children were being rounded up and sold to her subjects to be eaten? Would she even care?

“It is a time to rejoice, my children,” says the queen, fiddling with something in her lap off-screen. “Ebott is thriving, Ebott is growing. The world outside of Ebott is a dangerous place, my children. Within our borders, you are safe, and as we grow, the more of you I can protect.”

You’ve seen more than enough of the queen’s many recorded addresses to know them off by heart. They are aired by NTT regularly – there’s at least one during every commercial break, many of them often recycled – but you don’t recognise this one. You can only deduce that this particular address was recorded during your imprisonment, and if the queen is concerned about opening up Ebott’s borders again, it must have been fairly recent. 

“Yes, my children. Know that while you are here, I can protect you. You can live peacefully with us, as long as you listen to me, your loyal friend and guardian. As long as you recognise that what I do is for your own good. Confrontations…conflicts only lead to sadness. No, my children, you know that this is not our way. The rest of the world will understand, your human leaders will understand.

“My children, you should be smiling. You should be happy. I am here to protect you. I am here to save you all.”

The same, grim orchestra announces the end of the address, and the picture of the queen fades to blackness, before NTT News returns to the screen.

You shake off the lingering unease caused by the queen’s blank, blind eyes and try to focus on the robotic reporter as he introduces the next story.

He drones on about the latest news of the brand new Napstaton album, to be performed at the Day X celebrations – you always know to expect very little covered on topics other than Napstaton, or the queen. A snippet of the hotly anticipated interview is played, and the impressive visage of Napstaton EX, the mainframe controlling the entire NTT network, struts into the room and takes a seat before his rectangular clone.

Even relaxed as he is, he still looks threatening; with that amber visor across his face, all you see are the sharp teeth behind gleaming black lips when he smiles arrogantly. He sits with one leg folded over the other, his hands clasped atop his knee, so eager to talk to himself about himself.

You mentally switch off when he begins answering his own questions, content to watch the headlines slowly trailing across the screen. Its almost calming to watch, the slow pace lulling you sleep…    

You dream for the first time in months.

And of all things, you dream of That Girl.

-

I'm going to get out of Ebott…I don’t care what you say! Once I've saved enough, I'm getting the hell out of this disaster zone, and you can’t stop me –!

You want to stop her...you want to smack her...

Idiot...idiot...

...

You really are an idiot...

-

You wake up.

You’ve shifted at some point during your nap, and you’re lying on your stomach with your head propped up by a large pillow. You sigh, sinking further into the couch, too comfortable to move, enjoying the gentle strokes of the fingers combing through your hair…

It almost coaxes you back to sleep, but just before you drift off, you realise that you’re being touched… Someone is touching you…

You tense when the unknown someone chuckles.

“Don’t get up on my account, sweetheart.” The gruff rasp of Rus’s voice chases away the remains of lethargy. “I’m pretty comfortable here.”

When did he come down? You turn your head slightly to search for him – he’s lounging above you with a large book in the hand that’s not occupied with your hair. When did your head end up in his lap?

“You were making this noise in your sleep, you know that? Like a purr.” Rus chuckles. “Purrin’ like a little kitten.” He resumes stroking your hair.

You don’t have it in you to stop him, it’s actually rather soothing...no one has ever been this gentle with you, before.

So you settle back down onto the couch and turn your head to face the window – the sky is already darkening. Did you really sleep the whole day away?

“Ah,” Rus sighs. “Gone all quiet on me? Come on, don’t get embarrassed, now.”

Your face is on fire. You refuse to answer, and turn your head away to hide your blush.

“Didn’t find that candy, huh?” Rus asks. When you jerk your head in a no gesture, he says, “Good. Means you didn’t break the rules.”

You sit up then, gazing at him quizzically. His hand slides from your hair, and he snaps the book shut, a triumphant gleam in his eyes.

“They’re my brother’s,” he says. “Keeps ‘em in his room."

You can only stare. The idea that someone as terrifying as Rus’s brother hides candy in his room is so surreal that it’s almost funny.

The TV is flashing, and Napstaton is still on the screen, but his haughty drawl has been muted.

Rus follows your gaze and snorts. “Ah, it turns on by itself when its off for too long. ‘S Napstaton’s way of ensuring that people are still watching him, and his ratings are still up. I’ve tried to isolate it from the NTT network so it doesn’t, but we don’t get any signal otherwise.”

Rus then laughs. “You know he was built to unify the people? Act as some kind of enforcer of the peace. And the most effective method he could think of was to make everyone collectively worship him.” He pulls his cigarette pack from his jeans pocket. “Don’t be fooled, kitten, he’s all talk and no walk. I knew him before he became Napstaton. Though I think it’s ‘cause of him that Undyne developed her…” His face darkens. “…obsession.” 

All you can gather about this Undyne is that she may be a bit of a technophile.

Rus then stands, dropping his book on the couch and popping the cigarette between his teeth. “I’m going out back for a smoke. You wanna come? Get some fresh air?”

You nod eagerly – you’re so desperate to feel the wind on your skin. He leaves the TV playing, and just as you scramble off the couch to follow, the screen cuts to black, and another address from the queen begins.

You quickly patter after Rus, through the kitchen and out onto a perfectly scrubbed deck, overlooking the empty yard. There’s a cold breeze, and it chills your bare legs, but it feels amazing.

Rus leans against the railing and smokes away, patiently waiting for your next decision. You choose to sit on the steps leading down to the patio, staring at the clouded sky. Every now and then the clouds part, and you catch a glimpse of the evening-darkened sky beyond. You pray for the clouds to pass soon – you want to feel the sun again.

You start when Rus sits beside you. He doesn’t speak, finishing the cigarette and swallowing it before pulling out another. You return your gaze to the sky, listening to the whistle of the wind through the trees, the odd car passing by the house, and the distant murmur of the neighbours in their nearby homes, preparing dinner.

Rus finishes three more cigarettes before he returns the pack to his jeans, and withdraws another piece of monster candy.

He holds it out to you. “A treat for being good, I guess. Go on. I won’t tell.”

When you take the piece, you try to thank him, but its comes out as a high pitched squeak that sounds nothing like a thank you. If Rus heard you, he doesn’t comment.

You try to control your moans as you roll the candy piece about in your mouth, left feeling empty when it’s gone too quickly. It’s a strange sensation when the bubbling joy fades, your body realising that it’s not been properly fed. Would something larger have prolonged the euphoria? You can imagine yourself getting hooked on the high easily and never eating another piece of bread again.

So you decide that the small boiled sweets are enough.

Rus is very quiet next to you. You check him out of the corner of your eye, and he’s asleep again, leaning back on his elbows. Do the cigarettes make him drowsy? Or is he easily exhausted? Living with a brother like his, you would have expected Rus to be forever alert and on edge – but it seems that he can fall asleep just about anywhere.

“S’there something on my face?” he mutters.

You avert your gaze, but when you slide a tentative glance back at him, he’s looking at you through one open eye, a smile tugging at his jaw. “You wanna go back in?” he asks, nodding towards the kitchen door.  

You’re cold, but you don’t want to give up on the fresh air just yet. You shake your head.

“Alright.” Rus settles back, shifting into a more comfortable position. “Can’t blame you. When I had my first taste of fresh air in a long time, I nearly lost my mind.”

You haven’t given much thought to the Shattering before, besides dreading the overwhelming power of the monsters as they crawled from Mt. Ebott. It seems like decades have passed since it happened – the monsters took Ebott so quickly, so easily, it was like they had always been here.

You peek at Rus, and his eyes are closed again, but it doesn’t look like he’s quite asleep yet. The longing in his voice just then hit something deep within your soul…like it resonated with this monster who was once a prisoner like you, trapped in darkness, barred from the outside world.

It’s never occurred to you that the monsters could have once felt as helpless as you.  

You rest your chin atop your knees and stare at the grass beyond the patio, the blades swaying in the breeze. The peaceful atmosphere, even with a Boss sleeping beside you, is calm enough to stir that flickering ember of your soul. It pulses, but not with desperation; with contentment.

You don’t realise you’ve fallen asleep again until your head nods, startling you awake. Your mouth is filled with the smell of Rus’s smoke, and your cheek feels numb – you must have dozed off leaning against his arm.

Your skin prickles, and you recognise the fizzling sensation of a familiar, cold magic.

You blink and look around. Rus is already on his feet, hands in his pockets and looking as casual as ever, but his eyes are wary. You follow his gaze and choke on a whimper.

The scarred monster is standing in the middle of the deck, his hands behind his back. The first thing that draws your attention is the scar across his eye, and when you realise that he has his menacing, red gaze trained on you, you shy back.

He’s still wearing his military uniform, donning the royal crest, and the crimson scarf. It looks very smart, not a single crease in sight, and there are two large, red bands circling the upper arm of his right sleeve. After a long moment of assessing you, he unleashes his spine-tingling stare on his brother.

“Inside,” he orders. “Now.”         

 

Chapter Text

 

-Chapter Three-

-

Warnings for chapter: Implications of Violence, Implications of Asphyxiation, Implications of Mild Self-Harm, Mentions of Death, Mentions of Blood, Collars, Trauma, PTSD, Panic Attacks

-

 

You are instructed to kneel in the centre of the office, while the scarred monster lounges in the impressive leather chair positioned in front of his well-maintained desk. Rus remains standing by the door at your back.

He hasn’t uttered a single sound after his brother’s reprimands: What was she doing outside? Someone could have seen her! He didn’t strike Rus across the face this time, but he looked like he desperately wanted to.

Rus remains deathly quiet as his brother addresses you, telling you how you should be sitting. Your legs are folded beneath your backside, and you hands are to be held still on your thighs. And you’re not to look up unless told otherwise.

Most of your back is drenched with sweat by the time the scarred monster is done just looking at you in silence. He chuckles humourlessly, and the sound sends a shiver rocketing down your spine.

“She can follow instructions, at least,” he says quietly. Louder, he asks you, “Do you know who I am?”

You shake your head.

When the monster growls, you know you’ve made a mistake – but you don’t know what you’ve done wrong. He stands and walks to you, taking you by the chin and forcing you to meet his livid face.

“I’m going to make three things very clear,” he whispers fiercely, “right now. When you are given an order, you follow it; you do not speak unless spoken to; and when you are asked a question, you answer it.”

You tremble uncontrollably. With the monster’s tight grip holding your head up, you can’t nod. You have to answer…

“Yes,” you whisper. Your voice sounds stronger than it did this morning, healed further by the small candy piece.

“Yes…?” the monster prompts, clearly displeased.

You don’t know his name… How are you supposed to address him if you don’t know his name? Does he expect Rus to have informed you? Rus calls him M’lord, but for some reason you don’t think that it’s appropriate for you to use – like only Rus can call him by that name.

“Yes, sir,” you settle for, flitting a brief glance to the double stripes ringing his arm, indicating his rank. Isn’t that how you’re supposed to address a lieutenant? Sir, yes sir?

The monster’s sharp-toothed mouth twitches. “That’ll do.” He releases your chin and steps back, folding his hands behind his back. You take his retreat as a non-verbal command to lower your head.

“I’ll ask again,” he says. “Do you know who I am?”

“N-no, sir,” you rasp. 

The monster tuts with disappointment. “Then I suggest you listen carefully. As it stands, you are now…irrevocably…”

The monster’s voice lowers dangerously, and Rus makes an uncomfortable sound in his throat.

“…a member of this household.” The monster returns to his chair and crosses his legs. “There is no place for you outside these walls, and I can’t very well kick you out when you are disowned.”

That word again – disowned – why did he use it?  

The monster continues. “My name is of no concern to you, human, for you shall address me as Sir at all times. Do you understand?”

You’re unsure why you are almost breathless when you say, “Yes, sir.”

“And my renegade brother,” the monster snarls, “you will also address as Sir, understand?”

“Aw, m’lord,” Rus interjects before you can speak, “don’t make her. You call me what you want, Kitten.”

The scarred monster’s displeasure is obvious in the intensifying hum of his magic. His voice is impossibly low when he says, "What did you just call her?"

Rus chuckles nervously. “She…heh…she makes this purring noise when she’s happy, I think…like a kitten.”

Happy? No, you haven’t felt that in a while… Rus must have imagined it.

You can feel the scarred monster’s red gaze on you as though it’s crushing you by the shoulders. When he speaks again, his tone takes on an almost sadistic note. "You don't know her name, do you?"

"She wouldn't tell me," Rus insists.

“She wouldn’t tell you?” The scarred monster sounds baffled. “She wouldn’t? And why does this tramp think she can refuse you?”

He’s on his feet again. “Clearly,” he rumbles, “you have more trouble following orders than I thought. I do not tolerate disobedience.”

He halts inches from you, but you don’t dare look up from his gleaming red boots. “As far as the status quo goes,” he says carefully, as though he’s making sure that you take in every word, “you are below us, and will behave as such. In this house, you are not in charge. You will not think so highly of yourself while under this roof, until I decide that you are worthy of respect.”

Rus hums in warning. “M’lord –” 

Be quiet,” he snaps. To you, he says, “Do not think that because my brother is lazy, slovenly, and cannot possibly match me in status and power, means that you can defy him. We are your masters both, understand?”  

Though you try desperately to keep your voice from wavering, you cannot control it. “Y-yes, sir.”

The monster sniffs as though disgusted. “If you do not understand the rules of this house, then you truly have no place here. For you to survive, you must obey them, or be left behind.”

Of course you understand all too well what happens when you don’t obey. When you vocalise your confirmation again, your voice is hoarse, broken, barely audible.

“Sans, c’mon,” Rus says, tone firmer.

Sans? Is that his name? It seems to have shaken him a little, by the way his heels click together, straightening his posture when he tenses.

“The human needs to learn her place,” he snarls.

Better learn your place quick, whore.

The red boots of the monster fade to a filthy brown, the soles scuffed and fraying. You can small the damp concrete of your cell, and the bitter tobacco of the Man-Who-Guards-You. You blink furiously to chase the memory away.

The monster named Sans turns on his heel and walks away, and the flash of the garish red of his boots is enough to completely dispel the awful sight of the boots that kicked you down so many times.

“And if you don’t learn it quick,” he says, “then there will be consequences.” Leather creaks as he assumes his seat once more, and he snaps, “Did you not hear me, human?”

When you feel his scarred eyes on you again, you quake. “I…” Your voice seems to have abandoned you once more.

There’s something wrong… Something in your chest is tightening, so much that it hurts.

Sans grumbles, irritated.

You try to summon your voice, but you can’t. You can smell the dirt on your skin, the metallic taste of gravel on your tongue. You feel so, so cold – your heart is caught in an icy grip, and your soul weakens. You can’t breathe.

“I said did you not hear me, human?” Sans snaps. “I’m speaking to you.”

I’m talking to you, bitch.

You screw your eyes shut and shake your head. You can’t breathe –!

Go on. I’m listening…

You’re scratching at your throat and your fingers come away bloody, and you haven’t managed to loosen the metal collar even the slightest bit…

I’ll be good…I’ll be good!

A hand rests atop your head and you almost scream. You flinch, but the hand doesn’t clench, the fingers don’t tighten in your hair. It just rests there, calm, gentle…waiting. When the smell of sweetened smoke greets your nostrils, you open your eyes.

Your hands have not moved; they’re still clenched into quivering fists against your thighs instead of clawing at your neck. Rus’s hand against your head moves to rest by your ear, and he gently motions for you to raise your chin. You’re cheeks are wet – you had no idea that you’d started crying.

The scarred monster – Sans – is waiting patiently, though his expression is stony.

“Are you mute?” he asks, and his voice is oddly soft. “Can you not speak?”

It feels like it takes you an eternity to muster the strength to think of an appropriate answer, and even longer to vocalise it.

“They…” You swallow and raise your voice from a whisper. “They put…collars on…”

The sound of your voice coming from your healed throat is jarring, and you stumble over your words. It’s as though you’re hearing a long lost friend speak for the first time.

“Really tight o-ones,” you hiccup. “S-so we couldn’t talk…or breathe…”

Rus’s fingers twitch against your jaw, and his brother looks…mortified? You can’t be sure, for his expression changes too quickly for you to properly identify it. Your damp eyes mechanically drift to the scar down his left socket, and he realises that you’re examining it – you know, because he tilts his head a little to the right to allow you to better study it.

“What else can you tell me?” he asks in a whisper. “Can you tell me more of what…they did?”

You don’t want to remember. You shake your head. “No…I’ll be…good…” you blubber.

Against your cheek, Rus’s fingers are too still. The tiny glow in Sans’s eyes have faded to that blackness you know means that he’s furious. You can’t speak anymore, your throat already sore from talking the longest you’ve done in months.

The monster sitting before you takes a long, deep breath through his nose, closing his sockets, his brow furrowed. There’s something slowly sliding down the side of his head, and you realise that it’s a fat bead of sweat – rolling steadily down, just like when Rus was on his knees the night before.

After a long moment, Sans opens his eyes and stands, regarding you with a less intense gaze, and a strange emotion within them.

He clears his throat, and the nervous sound throws you a little. “I see that…your circumstances are far more serious than I anticipated. Your scars run much deeper. For my behaviour, I must…apologise.”

Sans looks very uncomfortable, and it’s hard to tell if it’s guilt, or if he’s unused to apologising – you certainly get the impression that he has never been challenged, that his orders are followed without argument. Perhaps you’ve forced him out of his usual domineering role, a role where he’s always in the right…

“And last night, my temper got the better of me,” he continues. “For that, I must apologise to the both of you.”

Above you, Rus hums. “No harm done here, m’lord.”

Sans only rumbles, a disgruntled sound. He glances at you long enough to say, “You may get up.”

You don’t really hesitate, you’re just afraid that your legs are too numb to support you. But when Rus taps a finger to your cheek encouragingly, you stagger to your feet and keep your head down. Once you’re steady, Rus releases you and steps away.

“My rules still stand,” Sans says gruffly. “You follow orders; you speak only when spoken to; and you answer when addressed. You need to learn to use that voice of yours again.” He sighs. “I understand that your confinement has reduced you to a…” He frowns – he seems to be looking for an appropriate word, one that won’t insult you. He’s probably so used to delivering insults that it must be difficult for him. “…a timid…thing. But the sooner you can assert yourself again, the better.”

You sniff and fight the urge to wipe your eyes with your sleeve. “Yes, sir.”

“Look at me.”

Look at me again. I dare you.

You push through the illusion to meet Sans’s eyes, and the face of the Man-Who-Guarded-You is quickly replaced by the monster’s scarred visage.

He carefully inspects you before saying, “Now that you know my name, I should know yours. It’s common courtesy, after all.”

You stomach flips and churns unpleasantly again at the demand.

That name…

It’s the one thing you know you cannot do, no matter how much it’s asked of you – that name doesn’t even exist anymore, burned away with the memories of That Girl.

“I have no name,” you say bitterly.

You’re expecting Sans to scold you, or to make some kind of remark about how ridiculous that sounds. You’re a little taken aback when he responds by calmly tapping his foot while he mulls over your words.

“No name…” he murmurs. “I suppose not.” He stands. “While you are here, don’t expect to be treated like a queen. This house already has one layabout.” He shoots a stern glance at his brother over your shoulder. “You will make yourself useful, yes?”

You’re just grateful that he’s letting you stay at all.

No…he’s decided to keep you, not let you stay.

“Yes, sir,” you croak.

Sans makes a strange noise deep within his chest. “I’ll find some use for you eventually.” He glares at his brother. “And you, useless mutt…”

Rus tenses behind you.

“– we’ll talk about this, later. First, I have a job for you.”

Rus grumbles in assent. “Yes, m’lord.”

Sans clears his throat meaningfully, and you realise that your gaze has lifted slightly; you cast your eyes to the floor.

“Do what you will tonight,” he tells you. “But consider this your last night of freedom here. Tomorrow, your place will be further discussed.”

He walks towards the entrance hall, and Rus follows close behind him.

“If a door is closed, it is closed for a reason,” are Sans’s last words before he and his brother leave you. You don’t move, listening to their footsteps – Sans’s clipped and steady, Rus’s heavy and sluggish – as they ascend the stairs.

A distant door slams shut, and you collapse to the floor.

-

You eat your fresh batch of pasta numbly, still reeling. When hunger finally distracted you enough to uncurl from your whimpering ball on the floor of the study, you cooked the bare minimum, not bothering with the bland sauce this time.

When you finish – pots and pans clean and back in their rightful places – you consider going to bed, but you pause at the bottom of the stairs. You don’t want to go up there while the brothers are still talking…probably about you, about what they should do with you –

About what they should do to you…

… Whatever they’re doing, you can only hope that Rus isn’t getting much grief. Though he frightens you at times, he’s been marginally kinder to you than others have been in the past to not feel slightly concerned for him.

You end up sitting in the hall, beside the foot of the stairs, waiting for them to emerge – and staring at the front door.  

Should you attempt escape again? Now, when it’s clear that these monsters don’t want to eat your soul, however powerful and frightening they may be? You have no home of your own anymore, and both Sans and Rus have made perfectly clear that this is the safest place for you right now. While you are disowned…whatever that means.

Shelter, food, water…an iota mercy… It’s all here. Amidst your doubt, a tiny flicker of hope flutters forth.  

Thinking of your new guards, however, gives you pause.

Of the two, Rus seems the most keen to have you stay. His brother, on the other hand…

He may be allowing you to lodge with them, but it’s clear that he’s not happy with the decision. It puzzles you – clearly he has all the power. He’s even part of the Royal Guard, and a high ranking member, if those bands around the sleeve of his uniform are any indication. Surely, between them, Sans would have the first and last say in any matter? So why did he relent to his brother’s wishes in the end?

But he doesn’t want another deadweight in the house. You either become some kind of pet to his brother, or someone of use to him. He wants to work you hard to earn your place here, and by God do you want to keep it, regardless of how much he terrifies you. At least he hasn’t hit you…

Yet.

You laugh out of sheer disbelief. It slips past your lips as a strange broken giggle, grating against the walls of your throat. But you force it out, make it stronger, until it clears.

“Hah…hah…” You press your tongue to the roof of your mouth; you prod at your once rotting teeth.

“Hah!” you bark clearly. Your voice reverberates throughout the hall.

But no one comes.

No one comes to tell you to be quiet. No one comes barging in with a small steel collar in their grubby hands to clamp around your throat. At the thought, you want to laugh again. No matter what they did, they still couldn’t keep you silent – had you stayed quiet, your last memory would have been staring blankly at the rusted wire of the fence out back –

Then you think of the prisoners.

The other humans who are most definitely dead now, because of what Rus said.

The elation fizzles away. Practically soulless…missing some toes… Rus’s words echo in your mind, and you hug your legs to your chest. When the words don’t fade away, you close your eyes and press your face to your knees. The murderous stare of the Man-In-Charge burns through the blackness.

Did Rus not realise what he was doing? Condemning those poor souls to death with his careless words?

Before you know it, you’re crying.      

Your eyes are sore, your head is pounding, and you can’t feel your backside by the time your tears cease and you lift your head –

Sans is standing mere feet from you.

Your heart leaps into your throat and your head hits the banister of the stairs when you attempt to shuffle back. With a groan, you attempt to massage the sharp throbbing away, momentarily blind from the pain.

Sans remains still, regarding you with a sneer and an odd emotion in his eyes. “Enough for tonight,” is all he says. “It’s late.”

He turns away and your stomach lurches. You’re speaking again before you can stop yourself…

“Rus…!” you gasp. “Is he…?” Is he okay? is what you want to ask, but you choke back the words and shrink away when Sans whirls on you, fury sparking in his red glare. When you realise that you’re looking and speaking without permission, you lower your eyes.

“The mongrel is out,” he snaps. “You don’t need to concern yourself with him. And for the Angel’s sake, stop crying. You are perfectly safe here.”

You know you’re breaking the rules, but you have to tell him about the other humans. He may not care, but you just have to…you fear that your soul with split in two if you don’t. “They…died. They died…”

“That was not an invitation to speak,” Sans admonishes you sharply. “If you cannot follow the rules, then you will sleep on the garage floor. Like the disobedient pet that you are.”  

A pet… You’re nothing but a pet to these monsters…

No, you refuse. You’re not going to be some plaything for someone bigger and stronger than you anymore.

“I…” you stammer, trying to inject conviction into your tired voice, “I c-can clean! I can…be useful…”

Sans opens his mouth to argue, but pauses. He inspects you carefully, his glowing, crimson eyes roaming over every inch of you. He studies your skinny legs, your thin arms that have no strength. “Useful?”

You nod furiously.

After a long pause, Sans sniffs and folds his arms behind his back. “Stand up.”

You scramble to your feet.

“You understand that I have very high standards, yes?” he says. “If you wish to make yourself useful by cleaning, you must be thorough. I won’t except any less than your very best.”

“Yes, sir!” you gasp.

Sans seems pleased with your enthusiasm. “Then I suggest that you get a good night’s rest. You will have your instructions tomorrow morning, and I expect to come home to find them all met.”

After making another quick study of you, sneering all the while, he turns on his heel and storms towards the hallway leading to the back of the house. He turns for the office, and slams the door shut with an almighty bang!

You release a small breath of relief. Though you are trembling, nerves alight, heart hammering against your ribs at a bruising speed, your soul is thrumming softly, warm and pleased.

… And yet it feels as though you’ve just signed the rest of your life away…

You wait until your heartbeat slows, wait for the trembling of your limbs to settle, before you trundle up to Rus’s room. You close the door behind you, stumbling blindly through the dark room, and collapse onto the mattress. You pull the sheets right up to your neck, and snuggle your face into the pillow, inhaling a long, deep breath of the sweet tobacco.

You can’t sleep – you’re far too wired. You toss and you turn, willing your mind to just settle down so that you can rest, so that you can recover from the stress caused by your heightened emotions…but you can’t, knowing that Rus isn’t in the house.

It’s just you…and his brother.

You don’t know how long you just stare at the ceiling, shrouded in darkness, but you may have drifted off at some point, because when you hear the front door click, you start as though surfacing from a haze of lethargy. Your head jerks up, and you desperately listen out for footsteps ascending.

When you do, they’re slow and languid. The second Rus cracks the door open, you sit up. He doesn’t jump, but he certainly wasn’t expecting you to be here, and he gazes at you curiously.

“Oh, hey,” he says. “Sorry…didn’t realise you were waitin’ for me.”

You push yourself to your knees, making to stand up and go to him. “You…are you…?” you begin, but you recall Sans’s threat about the rules, and you lower your head.

Rus makes an affectionate noise and staggers across the room, closing the door behind him.

“’S my little kitten gettin’ all worried about me?” He halts in front of you and gently pats the top of your head. “Fine and finer, Kitten. Relax.”

You peek up at him, and he does indeed look perfectly fine. He smells of cold air, and beneath the cool scent, there are traces if his magic and fresh smoke. He’s even changed clothes; he’s swapped his sweater for a huge, black hoodie with the words Lazy Boy emblazoned across the chest, and his jeans for a pair of grubby looking sweats.

“So…” Rus pulls out a cigarette and his lighter from his pocket. “I hear you’re gonna be our new maid?”

You nod resolutely.

Rus takes a quick drag from the lit cigarette, returning the lighter to his hoodie. “Damn, Kitten,” he says with a soft chuckle. “Do you know what you’ve just done?”

You don’t care. You don’t want to be just a pet. Not anymore…you are more than that. And if it means that you can keep your place here, then you’ll clean this entire house with only a toothbrush and a bar of soap.

“Welp…” Rus shrugs. “You do what you gotta do.” He rubs the back of his head. “Y’know…we can take care of you, here…”

He fixes his gaze firmly on the wall to his left, then the floor – anywhere but you… “You’ve been through some shit. I…can take care of you. You don’t have to work just because m’lord said so.”

You grimace – to be cared for is all well and good, but after what you’ve been through, after days spent being manhandled from one place to another, washed down with nothing but a hose, fed scraps of mould and mush, beaten for disobedience, chained and collared like a dog…you can’t seem to trust Rus’s word, after he so openly threatened you…and while his brother continues to despise your presence here…

You’re not a pet; you’re a person. You want to feel like a person, again.

No more collars…no more chains…

You shake your head, and Rus sighs.

“Hmm, okay,” he murmurs. “If that’s what you want.” He crouches and combs his fingers through your straggly hair as though inspecting it. “I just want you to know that…if things get too hard…”

His hand rests gently against your neck, and your skin heats. His eyes are intense, glued to the scar across your eye. You’re breaking the rules by meeting his eyes, so should you look away? He’s uncomfortably close, but there’s no indication of harmful intent in his gaze…

You’re so confused, so conflicted, but you definitely don’t want to incur his anger. You lower your eyes, and Rus’s fingers twitch against your neck.

He sighs softly. “Take my bed, again, okay? I can take the couch. S’not too bad.”

You stare at the letters stitched into his hoodie. “I can…take the –”

Rus chuckles and ruffles your hair. “Trust me, Kitten, you’re gonna need it.”

He slugs towards the door, withdrawing a cigarette from the pocket of his sweats, and he’s gone before you can stop him. The room feels so much bigger without him – you didn’t notice before.

You curl up on the mattress, and it feels so much more comfortable than it did before you dozed off. Pulling the thin, creased sheets up to you chin, you inhale the scent of sweet smoke trapped within the fibres, and huddle into a ball, facing the door – a habit you picked up in the camp. If you keep your eyes on the door, then you’ll be able to hear what’s coming…

But a sudden wave of exhaustion washes over you, dragging you from consciousness towards sleep, away from the terrible memories of that terrible place…    

The memory of the humans you left behind creeps into your weary mind, but sleep claims you before it can form, before you can remember to cry for them.

-

Rus prods you awake again the next morning.

“Better get to work, Kitten,” he says with a playful smile. “Hoo boy, do you have a lot to get done in ten hours.”

Your sleep stifled brain doesn’t pick up on his words immediately. He’s seated comfortably by his computer by the time you heave yourself off the mattress. Ten hours? You’ve probably wasted far longer by just sitting in a static ball waiting for the day to just end – you can get a lot done in ten hours, can’t you?

When you’re halfway out the door, Rus calls to you.

“Ah…never mind.”

You pause anyway and he rumbles with laughter.

“Well, I was gonna tell a vacuum joke, but I thought it kinda sucked.”

He doesn’t turn to see if you smile, but when he hums with satisfaction, it’s clear that he knows that you most certainly are.

It’s still dark outside, the weak rays of morning light just peeking over the horizon. You enter the kitchen, and splayed out atop the island, just next to the stove, are several papers. You pick through them, and your heart drops into your gut.

Not only has Sans left you many, many instructions – three sheets worth, and double sided! – he has been incredibly precise, almost cruelly so.

Always start with the bathroom. Germs left behind in bodily filth can grow, and water can stain and mark surfaces. Drains can become easily blocked. Begin by filling all drains with bleach and drain cleaner so that they have time to work, and wipe down the shower tiles in the meantime. Ensure that you get in between the tiles, for that’s where the grime catches.

Once you have done that –

Oh, heavens… You’re already regretting this.

Beneath the mass of text is a list of supplies required for the bathroom. Beneath that is the next set of instructions for the hallway…

You flip through the sheets, your hope dwindling with each new task you read. Out of them all, it’s the last one that frightens you the most.

I return home at precisely 22:00. As my schedule is rather demanding, I have no time to prepare food, so you will do so in my place. A full course meal, including starter, main, and dessert must be prepared and ready for me upon my arrival.

What you decide to cook is entirely your choice, however it must be suitable for my consumption. There is a collection of relevant recipe books in the kitchen for you to choose from. 

He expects you to have his dinner ready for him too? You didn’t think he could even eat. And he’s a monster – you’ve never cooked for a monster before. How…do you even do that? Can you even do that? Don’t most monsters usually rely on fire magic to cook? How are you supposed to cook something without fire magic?

You glance down at your thin arms, recalling the way Sans studied them with such displeasure. Thin, weak, malnourished…and you’re badly out of shape, too. He knows that you’re not healthy, so why is he being so unfair?

Though he has, thankfully, left you several very well-drawn layouts of each floor of the house, and has highlighted where the relevant cleaning supplies are kept. Beneath it is a schedule written in a neatly arranged table. In spite of how daunting it looks, you’re grateful for the structure it provides.

6:00 – 6:45: Bathroom

6:45 – 7:15: First floor hall

7:15 – 8:00 Master Bedroom

Forty-five minutes maximum on each room? That’s all? He can’t possibly expect you to have cleaned every single room in the house in under an hour, surely? Though the house is rather clean already… Perhaps forty-five minutes is all you really need to give them all the once over?

You scan his list of detailed instructions again. No…he wants you to be thorough.

You pat your cheeks when dread wells in your stomach. You can do this.

You do as instructed and start with the bathroom. The supplies are stored beneath the kitchen sink, and as you pick them out one by one, you realise that even the storage cupboard is neatly arranged; the bottles are categorically lined up, and the cloths are stacked in perfect squares.

The bathroom honestly looks as though it doesn’t need cleaning. Not today, at least. But at the top of the list, Sans has written in block letters:

TO BE COMPLETED DAILY.

Daily.

You begin with the bleach.

You quickly learn that it’s not the scrubbing down that’s the most strenuous part, but in making sure that there are no suds or streaks left behind. Your arms are heavy, muscles screaming in protest, and your hands are sore and shrivelled up by the time you’ve finished…and then you move on to the next task, and it’s like poking at a bruise.  

You’re very clumsy – you know that you’re not doing a fantastic job, but like cooking, once you begin, you’re working almost mechanically…just very, very slowly. You are unbearably hot in Rus’s sweater. You consider taking it off and working through the rest of the house naked, but Rus may not appreciate walking in on you without some kind of forewarning…

Nevertheless, you’re very proud – walls clean, tub polished, sink shined, taps gleaming, toilet clean enough to drink from, and floor mopped. It’s been a long time since you’ve cleaned anything properly – you used to clean out your own cell at times, but only by swiping dirt and dust off you pallet before you went to sleep, and mopping up your vomit whenever you couldn’t stomach your dinner.  

You admire your work for a moment longer. You’ve actually done a pretty good job, all things considered.

When you leave the bathroom, Rus is waiting for you, leaning on the doorframe to his bedroom. “Finished?”

“Yes, s–” You pause – Rus didn’t want you to call him Sir, did he? You nod instead.

He hums thoughtfully. “Fallin’ a bit behind, aren’t you?”

You feel as though you’ve been punched in the gut. Are you?

Eight-oh-nine, Kitten,” he says.

Eight-oh –? Nine minutes past eight? Already?

You’re far behind schedule. Rus slides out of you way when you bolt past him, hauling the supplies down the stairs. You hastily return them to their home and fetch the vacuum from its hook in the corner of the kitchen. 

The hallway comes next.

The hallway should have been simple – a quick run up and down with the vacuum, but Sans wants you to polish the picture frames adorning the walls as well. And the disturbed dust settles as quickly as it’s sucked up – the tiny, floating particles gleam in the sunlight streaming through the window facing the east as they float back down to the floor.

You want to cry, your arms are aching so much… You reason that Sans can’t possibly have such good eyesight that he’ll see the dust, and move on to your next task. You’re so hungry – you haven’t had breakfast, nor have you showered… You’ve endured the hunger and filth before, but having experienced good food and true cleanliness again after so long, you cannot seem to fall back into old habits.

You forego the shower – you don’t want to undo all your hard work – and make a quick break for the kitchen. You take a whole tomato out of the fridge and force it down your throat to satisfy your grumbling stomach.

You march back upstairs with your next load of supplies. Master bedroom next.

Which one is the master bedroom?

You are hesitant to try the doors due to Rus’s rules: Don’t go into my brother’s room unless he says you can. You don’t want to accidentally disobey, but…doesn’t your list of instructions technically count as permission? You have been instructed to clean the whole house… Though it’s in that moment when you notice that Rus’s room hasn’t been included in the list.

Honestly, you’re relieved. That room would take you far longer than half an hour. It could take you an entire day to clean.

You think you find the master bedroom; you guess because it’s huge – larger and grander than any room you’ve ever seen. A king-size bed is centred against the far wall, and the rest of the room is decorated with stunning furniture, wallpaper, and curtains that tells you that a lot of money was spent on the décor. A large window opens up to the front of the house, overlooking the street. You sneak a glance through it, and study the large house across the empty road. It looks pricy – you could be in southern Ebott, close to The Lake, or in Woodlands. You recall those areas being particularly appealing to the rich before the Shattering.

You vacuum first, since Sans highlighted in his notes the importance of doing so before wiping down anything, as dust can settle again. Once you’re done vacuuming, you move on to polishing the furniture, removing any ornaments before wiping down the surfaces until you’re lightheaded from the smell of the polish. You are careful to return the ornaments to their exact places and positions.

You didn’t keep anything in your cell. You weren’t allowed to keep any of your belongings…

You refer back to your instructions.

Strip the bed and re-make it with fresh sheets.

The bed looks as though it has been made, so perhaps it’s already been done? You hesitantly decide to leave it, your limbs practically whining, begging you to just move on. There is a walk-in closet to the east of the room, and you investigate it only to find it already immaculate.

You scan Sans’s notes.

Ensure that the closet is neatly arranged and my uniforms are prepared for me every morning. Hang the entire outfit on the door for my easy access.

… All he seems to own by way of attire are the same black military uniforms he wore last night, hanging on one side of the closet, and numerous pairs of red boots, lined up beneath them. You pick out the closest set and hang the uniform securely on the rim of the door, placing the boots slightly to the right.

You take a moment to run your fingers down the thick black jacket. The material isn’t rough or scratchy, like the guards in the camp. It’s very well cared for, probably dry-cleaned regularly. It smells very clean, like polish and freshly washed cotton. 

You eventually find his scarves folded up in a neat line on one of the tops shelves, and you’re stunned by just how many there are – all exactly the same shape, same size, same blood-red colour…    

Guest bedrooms next.

One of the doors in the hall opens to a linen closet, meaning that, to your relief, there are only two guest bedrooms. They don’t take nearly as long to clean; only one of them can really be considered a bedroom, and the bed was neatly made, so you left it; the other room was more of a snug, with a couch instead of a bed. As you wipe down the windows you wonder why Rus let you sleep in his room last night. He had tried to hide you from his brother on that first night, so why did he sacrifice his bed and take the couch just so you could have a decent night’s sleep? He could have given you one of the guest rooms –

Your blood goes cold at the realisation; because you are not a guest, you are a servant.

Regardless, you want to cry with joy when you finally finish upstairs.

You take a moment to rest, sitting at the top of the stairs and massaging your cramping hands. You jump to your feet when Rus’s bedroom door opens and he joins you in the hall with a large coffee mug dangling from his loose fingers and a cigarette hanging between his teeth.

“All done up here?” he asks.

You nod, almost bursting with pride.

It quickly dissipates when Rus shakes his head. “Gotta speed up, Kitten. It’s two already.”

Two? In the afternoon? You were supposed to be done with the upper floor by midday! You’ve never known time to pass by that quickly…

“Aw, don’t look so down,” Rus says, patting your head as he passes you. “S’only your first day.”

You descend the stairs with him and part ways when he turns into the kitchen as you make for the utilities room.

“Hey,” Rus calls to you before you can open the door. “C’mere a sec.”

You really don’t want to waste any more time, but you answer the summon. Rus is waiting for you in the kitchen, leaning heavily against the island.

“Hm, yeah, so you may have noticed…” he says glumly, “my brother’s a bit…high maintenance. It’s more about control and structure, I guess. He’s always been very…military.”

The thought is sudden, but you quickly dismiss it. Would asking Rus for help be against the rules? If there is a rule that forbids you asking things of your new guards, you’re certain that you haven’t heard it. Then again, the Man-Who-Guarded-You always told you the rules after you broke them…

You suppose that there’s no harm in trying.

“Can…could you…?” you grind out.

Rus blinks. “Could I…help you?”

You try to keep you nod controlled, not wanting to appear too eager.

Rus sucks in a warning breath through his teeth. “No can do, Kitten. Boss’s orders, no interfering. Gotta respect the Lord of the manor. Besides, got too much work on.”

Your shoulders sag as he walks through to the back yard. You stare at him for a long moment through the window, at the way he lounges against the railing of the deck, lazily puffing through his cigarette.

You force yourself to turn away. Laundry is next.

… There is no laundry. Nothing to wash, nothing to dry, so perhaps you can skip that.

Living room; then dining room; then kitchen; then library; then office; then hall. Like Rus’s room, the garage isn’t listed, so you assume that it’s Rus’s space, and therefore his responsibility. You’re a little curious as to why Rus hasn’t given you a list of his own –

You banish the thought. Sans’s list is more than enough to keep you busy.

There’s another set of instructions beneath all the others regarding the yard.

Front and back yards are done at weekends only.

In other words: not your problem today. You ignore the rest of the text and move on to the living room.

Sans doesn’t return home until late evening. You still have plenty of time.

… You’ve done a rather poor job, but the essentials have been taken care of, at least, and you can barely stand by the time you’re done. You want to collapse onto the nearest couch and sleep, just for five minutes… But you force yourself onwards, dragging your feet to the kitchen. There’s a small digital clock on the fridge, and you steadfastly ignore it while you work, but every now and then your eye catches it, and each time your heart sinks just a little more.

16:21.

You finish wiping down all the worktops, returning all utilities to their rightful places.

16:57.

You finish polishing all the windows and wiping dust from the blinds.

17:18.

You finish vacuuming the floor.

17:48.

You finishing mopping the floor.

17:59.

You have just over four hours left. You still have plenty of time.

You dust the library and skim over the books, ensuring that nothing has been moved out of order. You spot the pile of books that Sans mentions in his instructions – those that he’d read the night before – needing to be returned to their rightful places. It takes you a while to put them all back in precise order; you need to consider every single letter of the book titles alphabetically…and by colour.

Once you’re finished, you check the clock in the kitchen.

18:49.

Just over three hours. Plenty of time…

You speed about the office, making sure that everything moved is put back into its original place, but you’re soon slowing down. You’re so tired, you need to eat again – something more substantial than a tomato.

Once you’re somewhat satisfied with the office, you return to the kitchen.

20:01.

Panic bubbles up from the pit of your stomach. Two hours…

You still have to make dinner. You have to make three courses with ingredients you know nothing about. You either sacrifice the entrance hall to cook, or sacrifice a decent meal for the hall.

You’re so tired, you’re aching, you can’t possibly –!

Yes you can, you tell yourself. You’ve survived the worst that Hell has to offer. You can do this.

Sans may not notice if the hall isn’t clean; he would most definitely notice an empty plate.   

You should have looked through the monster cookbooks when you had the chance. There are so many, so you decide to choose a recipe from the first one you take from the cupboard. To your relief, all of the recipes appear no different to any human recipe – there’s no special spell you need to weave, or any kind of instruction that requires you to use magic. Each recipes states that the food should be cooked with fire magic for the best results, but thankfully, they list the required temperatures and the time needed for cooking for the non-pyrotechnics.

For a starter, perhaps some soup? There’s a nice easy recipe for Golden Flower Soup, made with the same herbs that apparently can be used in tea. For a main, maybe you can make this strange looking pasta dish? The recipe claims that it only takes thirty minutes to prepare. For dessert, pie? Can you make a pasta dish and a pie in two hours?

You end up spending most of the next hour actually finding the relevant ingredients. You’re too short for time to check for them all, so the soup will have to be the main, and the starter will have to be something else…a salad, maybe. You cannot make a whole pie in the time you have left, so you settle for something called a Cinnamon Bunny. A very limited dessert, being only a small pastry, but if you make enough of them, or make them big enough, then hopefully it will suffice. The recipe was apparently added to the book from an NTT approved source – they used to be rather famous in the Underground… 

You don’t get everything done. So focused on folding the pastry with your heavy arms, you didn’t prepare the salad. All Sans has to eat tonight is soup and a plate of cinnamon pastries…

But, with fifteen minutes to spare, the soup is gently simmering, and three large Cinnamon Bunnies are slowly baking in the oven. 

Using your spare time, you throw a very lacklustre and simple salad together using one of the quicker recipes – new potatoes and spinach, though you are missing the cheese – and give your notes one last look. You only missed one thing on your extensive list, and surely it wouldn’t matter...would it? The entrance hall was clean enough already.

But wait…after dinner you have to clean the kitchen again. You didn’t notice that before!

You hush yourself harshly when you groan pitifully. You could still be in the camp. You could be dead…

It occurs to you at the last minute to set the table in the dining room. You doubt Sans would want to eat in the kitchen, so you quickly fetch some cutlery and place them in the correct layout at the head of the table. Just as you place the salad dish down, the front door clicks open.

When it slams shut, every single bone in your body rattles.

Sans silently enters the dining room without sparing you a glance and takes his seat. You keep your head down, wondering whether you should wish him a good evening, or stay silent. You opt for the latter; the easiest option.

“Haven’t you forgotten something?” Sans’s low growl startles you, and you look up without thinking.

He does not look happy. “Wine,” he says shortly.

Wine? Oh…you’d completely forgotten to have a drink prepared.

You rush back into the kitchen and search. Where have you seen wine before? Have you seen wine in here before? You check your map…there’s a cabinet in the living room where the wines are kept, apparently locked. The key is in a ceramic bowl on the dresser in the entrance hall…

By the time you’ve retrieved the wine and poured a glass, Sans has already finished the starter, and is looking twice as impatient as before. You leave the glass of wine with him and hurry to see to the soup. You arrange the dish as neatly as you can, rimming the plate beneath the soup bowl with even slices of a baguette – which has a strange sticky, almost…web-like texture to it – and slabs of butter.

Sans remains stoic as you present it to him. While he eats, you try desperately to quieten your breathing. Your heart it hammering so much your chest throbs in time with its beating.

He finishes quicker than you expect him to, and he announces the end of his meal by making a show of dropping the spoon into the empty bowl, and placing his knife on the plate with more force than necessary.

You take that as your cue to fetch the dessert – hopefully the Cinnamon Bunnies are properly cooked. You know that they’re not very neat, but all you need to do is add a dusting of cinnamon on top, and hopefully that will hide the obvious disfigurement of the poor pastries. With quivering hands, you take the empty bowl and plate, and make for the kitchen.

“Don’t bother,” Sans stops you.

You turn slowly, keeping your eyes glues to the bowl.

“Were my instructions not clear?” he asks.

You swallow around the icy lump in your throat. “They were…very clear…sir.”

“I already know that I was thorough. I only ask because it seems that you were unable to follow them. Can you read?”

“I…yes, I can…sir.”

“Well, you’ve done a very poor job. Why was the entrance hall not cleaned?”

The crockery clatters as your hands tremble uncontrollably. Your face suddenly feels incredibly hot.

“I…” You choose not to lie – you can’t think of anything worse than lying right now. “I ran…out of time, sir.”

Sans hums. “At least you’re honest about it. Do you know how I know you didn’t clean the hall?”

“N-no, sir.”

“Had you done that, you would have known that the key to the wine cabinet was in there, and you wouldn’t have fumbled about for ten minutes trying to find it. The salad…if I can call it that…was missing an ingredient, are you also aware that soup is a starter, and not a main?”

“I didn’t…there weren’t enough…” Your voice abandons you again.

“If there weren’t enough ingredients, then you should have prepared something else.” Strangely, he doesn’t sound angry, but there’s something else in his tone that cuts into you deeply and shakes you to your core. “Why didn’t you strip the beds?”

The plate almost slips from your hands. How did he know? He came straight through to the dining room the moment he arrived home.

You want to cry when Sans runs a finger along the edge of the table with deliberate slowness, then rubs his finger and thumb together, inspecting the dust you missed. The air around you vibrates slightly.

“I’m extremely disappointed,” he says harshly. “You assured me that you could be useful, that you could meet my standards, but you haven’t.”

Disappointment. That’s what you can hear in his voice. That’s what’s making you feel so terrible.

You’ve upset him.

You’ve upset him because you disobeyed…you fell behind…you’ve become a bother. The Man-Who-Guards-You doesn’t like prisoners who are a bother, who disobey, who are too slow to adjust…

You know what comes next: punishment.

“You do understand that if you cannot keep up,” Sans continues, “you will become a liability in this house. If you do not want to be treated like some pet, then you have to work hard. Do you understand?”

The air is crackling with magic. Your skin feels unbearably tight, and you just want to claw it all off.

Your breath hitches when you say, “Yes, sir.”

“I don’t believe you. Look at me.”

You do, and you fight the urge to recoil from the red glow in Sans’s eyes.

Do you understand?” he hisses, and it leaves your ears ringing.

A damp smell clogs your nostrils, catching in the back of your throat.

“I’ll be good!” you gasp. “I’ll be –!”

Your voice cuts off, as though it’s trying to stop you from making your situation any worse. Of course your subconscious still knows not to disobey set rules.

This is it…you’ve become too difficult to keep. The Man-Who-Guards-You is going to take you to the fence out back, and the last thing you’re going to see are the rusted links of the fence and the border of Ebott beyond, a teasing glimpse of freedom, before he ends it all…

Someone clears their throat, and you blink. The damp smell fades. You’re not in the camp, you’re in…you’re still in the dining room.

Sans is staring at you, too still. His mouth is set, tense, somehow making his menacing, permanent grin like something out of a nightmare. In his scarlet gaze, you think you can see his mind at work, probably thinking of ways to punish you for your impudence. He knows of the cruelties the Man-Who-Guarded-You inflicted on you, because he ordered you to tell him. Perhaps he’s contemplating it, mulling his options over. Rus still has your chains hidden somewhere… Sans may ask him for them… 

No more collars! No more…please –!

“I…I tried,” you rasp. “I really did! I tried…so hard –!”    

After what feels like an eternity, Sans shifts, sliding from his seat and straightening his jacket.

“Try harder,” he says, and storms out of the dining room.

You nearly faint.

That’s it? Try harder?

You’ve become so lightheaded you feel as though you’re dreaming. You must be dreaming… There is no world were you can make so many mistakes and not be dealt even the smallest punishment.

Your so pumped full of adrenaline that your hands are still violently shaking. You hastily place the plate on the table before it falls from your trembling grip. You almost collapse, and you have to hold yourself upright by gripping the edge of the table so hard that your fingers hurt.

Your temples are throbbing from all the stress. You’re crying again; from relief, or fear, you’re not sure. It may be the only way your mind can deal with what just happened – or with what didn’t happen. Though you made mistakes and broke several rules tonight, you were dealt no punishment for it.

Maybe it is relief you feel. But all you can think about is how…angry Sans was.

… You’re going to be sick.

You sprint for the kitchen and throw your head over the sink seconds before you vomit up your tomato – there’s so little in your stomach you end up mostly dry-heaving, crying from the pain of your spasming throat, the clenching of your sore abdomen…from all the confusion…

The memory of the red glow in Sans’s eyes flashes across your mind…

The human needs to learn her place.

And suddenly, the memory changes; the crimson glow of Sans’s eyes is flickering within the eyes of the Man-Who-Guarded-You.

Better learn your place quick, whore.

You sob, wiping your lips with the back of your hand. A cold, damp cell; a warm, clean house…there’s no difference. This place is still a prison, and if you keep disappointing your guards – if you cannot follow their rules – then they will hurt you.

It’s only a matter of time, really.

-

A gruff voice disturbs you from sleep, and a gentle hand presses to your stomach.

You mumble incoherently, still dazed. When it fades, you start up, but your arms are aching so much they can’t support you. You fall back onto the mattress and groan.

“S’only me,” Rus whispers.

When the ache of your exertions from the day before fades, you become aware of the familiar smoky smell…and it’s stronger somehow…

You tense when you register Rus’s body pressing into yours, with an arm curled around your middle. Your cheeks burn. He certainly hadn’t been there when you went to sleep. Did he spend the whole night beside you? He’s not very comfortable to rest against – you can feel the solid ribs through both his sweater and yours, and though it’s not painful, it would become intolerable after a while.

So no, he couldn’t have slept beside you all night. Could he…?

“Listen,” he says quietly, “my brother’s gonna get up any minute now. If you hurry, you can beat him to the kitchen. You know how to use a coffee machine?”

You nod stiffly.

Rus laughs softly, and his breath tickles your ear. “The coffee he likes in the top cupboard near the sink. Get his coffee ready for him. He’ll appreciate it.”

Once you finally understand what he’s telling you, you roll off the mattress…or try to. Your body hurts everywhere. Your stiff joints pop and crack; even your fingertips are sore.

You only mange to roll onto your front, and you peek at Rus through your tangled mess of bed hair. He seems to find your struggle amusing. He’s lying on his side, propped up by one arm, jaw cradled in his hand, and wearing a lazy smile.

“He doesn’t take milk,” he says, reaching out to brush your hair away from your face, away from your scar. “But he likes a bit of sugar.”

He tucks your hair behind your ear, and when he pulls his hand back, between his fingers is another piece of monster candy.

You can’t stop yourself from taking it eagerly. The moment it melts in your mouth, all of your aches and pains dissolve.

“Thank you,” you breathe, and you’re not just thanking him for the candy.

And even shrouded in darkness, you can just make out the look he gives you, telling you that, somehow, he understands.

You scramble up and hurry down the stairs, spurred on by the hope that Rus encouraged in you. The clock on the fridge reads five minutes to five – you’re momentarily stunned that Sans manages to function on less than six hours sleep, when his brother can fall asleep at any given moment. 

While the coffee brews, you take the opportunity to study one of the monster cookbooks, marking the pages that catch your interest by folding the edges down. Once you’ve chosen a decent course to try, you scour the pantry and the fridge for the relevant ingredients, and you have to bite your tongue to silence your delighted cry when you find them all.

You are just stirring the sugar into the brew when Sans appears in the doorway, dressed and looking as menacing as ever.

You drop the spoon and step away, leaving the mug of coffee on the island.

“For you,” you say with your head bowed. “Sir.”

He doesn’t speak, but his magic quietly hums about him – it brushes up against you ever so slightly and you can’t quite resist the shudder it provokes.

He takes the mug. “You’re still wearing that grubby thing?” he asks in a huff before taking a sip.

You fight against the impulse to fidget and play with the hem of Rus’s sweater. “I have…nothing else, sir,” you manage to say.

Sans snorts. “I’ll have to fix that. When performing your duties today, make sure that you actually commit. I don’t want to come home to a dirty house again.” 

An ugly feeling stirs in your belly, but you push it away. “Yes, sir.”

He places the mug back down. “That was the worst cup of coffee I’ve ever had."

Your heart sinks, and Sans strides from the kitchen. When he leaves the house, he slams the front door behind him with tremendous force.

After taking a moment to collect yourself, you reach for the mug so you can wash it. It’s lighter than you though it would be –

It’s empty. 

 

Chapter Text

-

-Chapter Four-

-

Warnings for chapter: Trauma, Mentions of Asphyxiation, Minor Panic Attack, Implications of Violence, Scars, Self-Loathing

-

 

Even with the head start, you still don’t manage to complete upstairs until two in the afternoon, thanks to the addition of stripping and re-making the beds. Working out the washing machine delayed you, too, and you had to split the loads into two cycles to accommodate the enormous sheets. But as you cleaned the kitchen, you boiled a panful of pasta and ate it while you worked, satisfying your hunger without disrupting you too much.

On your way out, Rus catches you in the doorway, wearing his Lazy Boy hoodie, and carrying a daunting stack of stained mugs.

“Heh, sorry,” he says when your face falls. “I end up hoarding them after a while.”

You hastily take the mugs from him and pile them in the sink to be washed after you’ve prepared dinner. Some of the mugs are still half full with cold coffee and congealing milk.

Rus props himself against the island, and you can feel his eyes on your back, watching you drain and rinse through the assortment of chipped, cracked, and badly stained mugs. You stubbornly keep your mind focused on your task.

He doesn’t make a sound until you’ve moved on to sorting through the supplies in the storage cupboard; “He drank the whole thing, didn’t he?”

It takes you a moment to understand who he’s talking about. When you do, you turn and nod to him, cheeks warming when you remember Sans draining the entire mug despite his proclaimed disgust.

Rus nods along with you. “How much sugar d’you put in?”

You think. “A teaspoon…only one.”

“Put in two tomorrow,” Rus says with a wink. “By the way, those Cinnamon Buns…” His tongue snakes from the void behind his teeth and runs slowly, almost provocatively, over his top row of fangs. “Delicious.”

You’d almost forgotten that you’d put the rejected Cinnamon Bunnies in the pantry, hoping to try serving them again tonight. Trying to ignore the strange fluttering in your stomach, you check the pantry – sure enough, the plateful of buns is gone.

When you turn back to Rus, he’s idly sliding his tongue up and down his golden fang.

“Hmm, sorry.” He certainly doesn’t sound it. “They smelled really good when they were cooking.”

He stands up, pulling a cigarette from the pocket of his hoodie, and rolls it between his thumb and index finger. “Wanna take a break, Kitten?”

You glance at the window – it’s pouring with rain. You haven’t seen rain in a long time, but you used to hear it sometimes when you were taken to the washrooms, pattering against the metal pipes. It would be nice to feel it on your clammy skin, burning hot and sticky with sweat, but you drag your eyes away from the window and shake your head.

“Thank you…” you mumble, “but…” 

At your hesitation, Rus grins and withdraws a piece of monster candy from the back pocket of his jeans. You salivate immediately at the sight of it, but you’re still behind schedule – you really can’t stop.

“Five minutes, promise,” Rus says earnestly, but you can see the mischief in his eyes.

You forcibly tear your gaze from the candy piece and shake your head again. “I’m sorry…”

Rus shrugs and eats the candy himself. You’re certain that he only does it to tease you further, because the way he does it…

He slowly removes the wrapper and rolls the spherical piece between his fingers, before his tongue snakes out again, dripping with what you can only guess is saliva – if a skeleton can sweat, then anything’s possible, right? – and curls around the sugary ball with a little too much…enthusiasm.

He’s making a show of enjoying it, all because you refused him. How mean…

He could hit you, instead…

Then, almost too quickly, Rus sucks the candy piece into his mouth, and turns to you. “Little Kitten doesn’t like to get wet, does she?”

A sensation you haven’t felt in a while swells in your chest; defiance…something that you were quickly taught to ignore in the camp. You open your mouth to object, and Rus’s brow lifts expectantly.

You bite your tongue. Are you really going to talk back to a Boss?

“Maybe…” you whisper instead, “…five minutes.”

Rus’s waiting grin seems to drop a little, but he only shrugs.

He opens the back door and perches in the frame, making sure that he’s holding his cigarette outside, but not too far that it’s extinguished by the fat raindrops. You’ve barely walked two steps when the warm scent of moist earth and brick hits the back of your throat. The defiant heat coiling in your belly vanishes. You suddenly feel a little…nauseous.

It’s so similar to the dank smell of the camp, of your cell.

“You’ve gone green, Kitten,” Rus says, and his smile has completely dropped. “You alright?”

“I…um…” You take a small step back. “I should…”

Thankfully, Rus gathers that something has disturbed you. He nods gravely. “You should get back to work. Right.”

Relieved, you quickly collect your next set of supplies, but before you can leave the kitchen, Rus calls to you again.

“You a meat eater?”

It seems like an innocent enough question – albeit a bit of a random thing to ask.

When you don’t answer immediately, Rus says, “You can cook it, right?”

You nod hesitantly.

“Cool,” is all he says, and he resumes silently smoking, gazing out into the back yard, leaving you perplexed.

The first load of laundry is done once you finish re-organising and dusting down the library. Sans’s instructions specify that the bedsheets should be hung outside to dry, as the fresh air is gentler on the cotton, but in the event of rain, the dryer will suffice.

As you re-load the machine, you mull over Rus’s bizarre question. Why would he ask you something like that? You’re still no closer to an answer when you are half-way through cleaning the office.

The papers on the desk have been moved around since yesterday. Loose sheets are lined up, clearly in the order that Sans needs them to be. You don’t want to appear nosey by reading their contents – you don’t want to get into trouble for that.

But would Sans even know if you read any of his paperwork?

Yes, he most certainly would.

Regardless, you have to know what they say so you can put them back accordingly. Some of the paperwork is hidden within zipped up folders, with the royal emblem pressed into the leather. Now, reading those would be considered nosey, wouldn’t it?  

You groan. You’re so conflicted, so stressed over every little thing because of the brothers’ unpredictability. Sans can be terrifying, and he will definitely raise his voice when angry…but he won’t hit you. Rus can be patient and very helpful, dolling out the occasional treat…but he can become downright menacing when he wants to.

You make a note of the text on the loose paperwork, before moving them to the floor so you can polish the desk. Once done, you place the papers back in their arranged order.

A list of patrols, and the soldiers required for each one is first; then what appears to be a letter addressed to someone in Central; then another list arranged into a table; then another letter addressed to The Lake – so perhaps you are in Woodlands? – then what looks like an invoice requesting an extortionate amount of GOLD…

It piques your curiosity, and you read it, only to see who is demanding such an amount. However, before you can find the name, you catch the listed Goods and Services.          

Weapons.

Arms? Sans is in contact with an arms dealer? By the name of Grillby, apparently. Your first thought is that this Grillby is a monster, with such a strange name, but since the Shattering, humans have taken to using orthodox names to either fit in with the new monster populace, or to protect themselves…  

Why on earth would a monster need weapons? Human weapons, by the looks of it.

Before your mind can wander into grim territory, you finish returning the last of the papers – a letter to this Grillby, addressed to Ebott’s northern border beyond the mountains, and another invoice to someone called Muffet paying for catering services – and you move on to polishing down the filing cabinets –

It’s probably the catering invoice that has you recalling Rus’s odd question, and all of a sudden, you understand what he meant.

He was telling you to cook meat for Sans tonight. 

You almost sprint into the kitchen, and you scan through your folded down cookbook for a good recipe that serves steak – steak would perhaps be the easiest and quickest to cook. Once you manage to find one, you scour the fridge, the freezer, and the pantry, but you find no meat.

You’re running out of time again, and you do not want a repeat of last night – Sans may actually punish you this time. You refer back to your map, and when you spot the garage drawn on the ground floor layout, you remember the fridge-freezer.

It’s filled with frozen steaks, sausages, burgers, fish, and mincemeat – some are made of what appears to be called…water sausage? But they’re all suitable for monsters. And all NTT brand…

You’re practically dancing on your toes when you take one of the steaks – shaped like Napstaton’s face, of all things – and you rush back to the kitchen to place it in a bowl by the sink to defrost.

Rus happens to catch you again once you’ve filled the dryer with the second load of laundry and you’re strutting up the stairs, on your way to put the dry sheets in the linen closet.

“Find ‘em ok?” he asks.

You know what he means, and you nod. “Thank you.”

Rus grins and pats you on the head. “Well done.”

Despite the setbacks and the added workload, you make a little progress compared to the day before; though you’re still very sloppy, and you don’t manage to clean everything in the entrance hall without leaving enough time to spare for cooking. You’re still aching, perhaps more so than yesterday. You think of Rus and the candy piece he tried to tempt you with earlier that afternoon – maybe you can ask him for it tonight?

You’ve decided to cook the soup again, but as a starter this time. For the main, a nice steak dinner with an assortment of green vegetables. For dessert, you decide to try making what appears to be called a Starfait; a Napstaton special, according to the book.

You’re feeling rather proud of yourself – you actually managed to make a three course meal, this time!

You barely manage to get the wine poured when Sans returns home. Just as he did the night before, he marches straight for the dining room, and takes a seat without a word.

He eyes the soup. “Again?” he grumbles.

You tense, but he eats it anyway, tearing up the bread impatiently. While he eats, you sneak back into the kitchen to keep an eye on the steak. You’re unsure how Sans likes his steak cooked, so you think back to anything Rus may have said, any hint that he may have dropped. You should have asked… So distracted by your elation, you’d completely forgotten. Why didn’t you ask him when you passed him on the stairs –

Well done.    

Could it be? It could very well be a steak-related joke, but it’s as good a hint as any. He could have said something else as a joke instead, like; you’ll meat his standards eventually, or; I was worried you’d mi-steak my meaning.

You return to the dining room with the steak as black as charcoal, and the vegetables piping hot. You don’t realise that Sans is glaring at you until you replace the empty soup bowl with the steak plate.

“I don’t know what you’re smiling about,” he snaps. “You still didn’t manage to finish your tasks today. And you were as shoddy as yesterday.”

You were smiling? You only notice the pleasant buzz in your stomach when it dissipates, chased away by Sans’s disapproval. As you retreat to the kitchen, you think that the vibrating cloud of magic surrounding him flares a little.

But you know that you’ve done something right when Sans doesn’t refuse dessert. You bring out the Starfait, and you’re rather proud of it. But to your dismay, Sans doesn’t spare a moment to appreciate your hard work and swallows the entire thing in seconds, knocking it back like a shot of espresso.

Trying to ignore the sting caused by his dismissal, and wait for him to excuse himself and storm upstairs.

But instead, he holds out his wine glass, tilting it in a silent request. You comply, filling it to the half-way point, before returning to your post beside the table, ready and waiting for his next order.

You’re sweating – large droplets slide teasingly down the back of your neck, the sides of your face, and you want to wipe them away. But you’re too afraid to move. Though he’s seemingly content now, you know that Sans is still displeased, and you don’t want to make things any worse.

He drains the glass before he speaks. “I’m no fool. My brother helped you today.”

The wine bottle nearly slips through your fingers. “I…” you stammer. “I –”

You cut yourself off when he shoots you a warning glare – that obviously wasn’t an invitation to speak.

“I know what he was trying to do,” Sans continues. “If you think that what you’ve done today has gotten you into my good graces, then you are wrong. You’re going to have to work much harder.”

He holds out the wine glass again, and you obediently refill it.

So focused on making sure that you don’t spill any wine onto the table, you start when you notice Sans inspecting you as intently as a cat would study a mouse.

“But,” he sighs, “I suppose if you’re going to continue to play maid, however incompetent you may be, you will need to wear something more appropriate than that…” His face twists, like he would wrinkle his nose if he had one. “…that rag.”

Rag? Rus’s sweater is like silk compared to that terrible excuse for a uniform you were brought here in. But your thoughts on your attire are quickly chased away by the notion of brand new clothes. He’s really going to give you something else to wear? And by the sounds of it, it will be…nice. If Rus’s sweater is like a paper bag in Sans’s eyes, then what could he possibly consider to be…appropriate?

New clothes…the only time you were ever given a fresh set was when yours were infested with mites and small bugs that bit at you until you were scratching yourself raw.

Stop,” Sans barks, and you leap back.

Oh, God…you almost overfilled the glass while lost in your daydream. Your hands are trembling, and you step away from the table, head bowed low.

“S-sorry…” you gasp. “I’m so sorry…!”

“For stars sake, be more careful,” Sans hisses. “Do you have any idea how quickly red wine stains? And how hard it is to get them out?”

You nod frantically. “Y-yes, sir. I’m sorry…” 

After a long, tense moment of weighing you down with his crimson gaze, Sans relaxes back into his seat and resumes carefully drinking from the brimming glass.

Aside from his occasional sip, your heavy breathing is the only sound in the room. You’re gripping the wine bottle so tightly that if you were anywhere near as strong as a monster, it would have cracked and shattered by now.

Why? Why do you feel this way? You’d decided that you weren’t going to be some kind of animal anymore, to be kicked when you did wrong. But your body knows that any touch you get will be harsh, your mind knows that any word spoken will be cruel…

Sans makes no attempt to disguise his displeasure; what frightens you the most is Rus’s peculiar, almost false kindness. You saw how terrifying he could be in the camp…even now, you are so wary that Rus’s words can be biting…and his touch can turn harsh, if he really wanted it to…

Sans continues to drink his fresh glass in silence, and you’re so close to screaming. You don’t know how much more of this you can take.

You hug the wine bottle to your chest and collapse to your knees, pressing your forehead to the wooden floor – you don’t want to see his face.

 “H-hit me!” you beg. “Please. Do…something! Anything. I can’t…can’t t-take this!”

You’re shaking terribly, hot tears pouring down your cheeks. You feel as though you’re going to be sick again. All the uncertainty has you reeling – what will it take for Sans to punish you? What will end up pushing Rus over the edge? All you’ve done since getting here is make mistake after mistake, broken rule after rule…

Just get it over with, so I can stop hoping

Through your wheezing and weeping, you can faintly hear Sans shuffle in the chair uncomfortably.

“I’m not…going to hit you,” he says tightly. “Get… Please get up.”

You carefully raise your head from the floor, but remain on your knees in fear of collapsing again.

Sans’s expression is guarded. He’s placed the wine glass on the table and has his hands clasped so tightly together that they’re shaking.

“Punishments are not…” He sighs deeply through his nose. “In this house, if you are disobedient, you have luxuries taken from you. But you are not…punished.”

You sniff loudly, wiping your sleeve across your damp eyes. You can’t seem to stop the tears, your emotions heightened by the stress.

Sans looks as though he’s desperately fighting the urge to look away from you. “I suppose I didn’t make that…very clear. I’m sorry.”

You laugh – it’s probably hearing such a terrifying creature apologise while looking genuinely uncomfortable, or it could just be relief…you’re not sure. Small giggles burst from your lips between your wet hiccups, melding into sobs, and there’s a pounding in your temples, your cheeks uncomfortably hot.

“Y-yes…sir,” you choke.

The small, weak part of your soul is pulsing again, burning brighter and brighter…

Sans gives you time to weep, before he downs the rest of the wine in one go and holds out the glass.

“The steak could have done with five more minutes,” he says quietly.

You stagger to your feet, your head spinning. “Y-yes, sir. Sorry, sir.”

Your hands shake as you pour the wine, but you don’t spill a single drop.

Before Sans finishes the fresh glass, Rus comes plodding down the stairs and into the dining room. Marginally recovered after your small breakdown, you’re a little stunned to see him just casually walk in – you thought that Sans’s evening meal was his private time. 

“Evenin’ all,” he says through a yawn. He spots you and pauses. “Somethin’ happen?”

You look away, embarrassed, and Sans groans. “And here comes the resident slob. Have you been making yourself useful around offering your clever little tips to the human, here?”

Rus scratches his jaw and takes a seat to Sans’s right. “Tips? No, no, m’lord. Just makin’ conversation, is all.”

“You smell disgusting,” Sans gripes. “Lucky for myself, I’ve finished my meal so that your stench won’t put me off.”

“All of it?” Rus asks hopefully. “She must be getting’ better for you to eat it all, m’lord.”

“Waste not, want not,” Sans replies shortly. “It doesn’t matter if it was good or bad.”

You flinch. That stung…

“Now listen,” Sans continues, glaring at his brother, “I have a job for you.”

Rus moans dramatically and slumps in his seat, throwing his head back. “Aw, m’lord, not another job.”

Sans scowls and gestures to you without looking away from his brother. “You’re worse that she is. Find this human some proper clothes.”

Rus gives you the once over. “She is wearing proper clothes.”

“If by proper you mean ten sizes too big for her, then yes, I suppose she is. But that sweater is ten sizes too big for her, and looks ridiculous.”

“I think she looks good in it,” Rus argues.

Your face heats.

“She does not look good in it,” Sans fires back. “She looks like a beggar. I’ll not have my maid walking around my house looking like some kind of derelict!”

Before Rus can complain, Sans adds, “Don’t act as though I’ve just ordered you to find me one-hundred sets of Flowey Armour. Shall I give you a head start? I’ll put in the order, but you have to be here to oversee everything else.” Sans pauses half-way out of his seat, and the strangest expression crosses his face. “Although,” he says almost slyly, “in your case, finding one-hundred sets of Flowey Armour would actually be easier, wouldn’t it?”

Sans is…smiling? Like he’s just made a joke…

Rus throws an arm over his eyes. “Everyone knows that Flowey Armour isn’t real…”

-

You awaken, once more, to Rus spooning you, a hand pressed to your middle.

“You were makin’ that noise again,” he croons. “Turbo-purr.”

His hold on you is loose, allowing you to break from it at any time. So you try to roll out from under his arm, but you’re aching so much that you can barely move an inch.

Rus chuckles and nuzzles the back of your head. “Remember, two sugars.”

Once you’re off the mattress – hoping that your flaming cheeks aren’t glowing in the dark – Rus pulls another candy piece from his sleeve and presents it to you. But before you can take it, he pulls back just an inch, a crafty gleam in his eyes.

“I mean,” he says, rolling the spherical piece along his knuckles and back again, “you can have this now and make things easier, or you can work through the pain and get used to it on your own.”

His gaze softens, and he hands you the piece of candy with a wink, and you release a shaky breath of relief.

You limp down to the kitchen, and as you boil the coffee, you place the tiny candy piece on the island and stare at it. Your shoulders burn, your fingers are stiff, and your back feels ready to snap if you stand up straight.

You raise you arm and wince – it feels like a weight is tied to you wrist. Yes, you really do need that candy piece…

After some thought, you place the candy piece on the windowsill, and stir two teaspoons of sugar into the coffee with throbbing fingers, flicking through another NTT cookbook.

When Sans comes down seconds later, he doesn’t say a word to you. But you don’t expect him to, and after last night, you’re glad that he doesn’t – he seems keen on forgetting your conversation, and leaving it in the past. Strangely, you’re rather grateful for it.

You keep your head lowered, and as Sans drains his coffee, you slowly become aware of how…empty you feel.

Calm…that’s what you’re feeling. Not empty; calm.

“Better,” Sans says flatly. “Still too cold, though.”

He leaves you with the faintest smile tugging at your lips.    

-

You’re halfway through mopping up the kitchen when Rus interrupts you.

“Drop the mop and step away from the bucket,” he says, lounging in the doorway in a maroon coloured sweater and black sweats. “You’re long overdue an afternoon of pampering.”

You weren’t expecting to receive your new clothes so soon. You return the mop and its bucket to the storage cupboard and follow Rus to the living room. The second you step through the archway, he takes you gently by the shoulders, manoeuvring you to stand in the right in the centre of the room, circled by the couches.

“Did you shower this morning?” he asks casually.

You shake your head. “Last night…”

Rus thinks for a brief moment, combing his long fingers through your straggly hair, measuring it, pulling it this way and that…then a huge grin splits his face. Though you know it’s a gleeful smile, it frightens you a little. “Oh, he’s gonna have a blast with you.” He then steps away and pulls a cigarette from his pocket. “Don’t worry, Kitten. You’re gonna have a blast too.”

Before you can properly digest his words, a sharp, high pitched voice screeches;

“You ‘ave some nerve callin’ me here two days before Day X! D’you ‘ave any idea how busy it gets? Monsters wantin’ to look their best, and Blooky has me and poor Undyne runnin’ about after ‘im so he looks all perfect for his big performance!”

The source of the voice is right before your eyes seconds later.

… A ghost?

Can a ghost be considered a monster? Although, if skeletons can, then there’s no reason why ghosts can’t be either. It’s the spitting image of the typical ghost a child would draw; a floating blob of white mist…although this ghost is as black as the ace of spades, and a hovering gelatinous mass that seems to glow golden from within.

The ghost’s yellow eyes narrow, judging you. Instinctively, you shy back.

“Sorry, Happy,” Rus says, lighting the cigarette. “Boss’s orders.”

The ghost apparently named Happy tuts disapprovingly. “It couldn’t wait until after Day X? It’s the busiest time of year!”

While the ghost’s attention is off you, you make a quick study of it. There’s a small bounce to it’s hover, like it just can’t stay still.

“Oh, yeah,” Rus responds airily, “dear old brother’s been makin’ a habit of reminding me of that.”

When Happy turns back to you, you catch a glimpse of two more golden eyes before they’re hidden beneath a mass of black ectoplasm falling over it’s face – as though it’s been styled like the bangs of human hair.

“Well, you’ve got two hours at most!” it snaps. “I ‘ave a jam-packed schedule today and I don’t wanna fall behind!”

Rus falls onto the nearest couch. “Only two? Happy…”

Happy darts across the room to get right up into Rus’s face. “That’s all you get when you call me in the middle of the bastard night for a next-day appointment! I’ve got to ‘ave Blooky’s wardrobe sorted, then cut that stupid perm of ‘is so he doesn’t look like some kind of hobo, then I ‘ave to see to the queen herself! The queen, Pappy! She needs that fur seein’ to every day, now… Lookin’ worse and worse as the days go on…”  

“C’mon, Happy,” Rus moans, “I’m calling in a favour.”

“I’ll tell ya what ya can do with ya bleedin’ favours!” the ghost spits.

Happy whizzes to your side and circles you. “Right-oh, so what am I workin’ with ‘ere, then?”

Rus inhales a good, long drag from the cigarette before saying, “Happy, meet our new maid. Kitten, this is Happy. He’s the best cosmetics spectral-ist in Ebott.” He chuckles. “Worked on the biggest names, and very in demand, despite him thinkin’ no one seems to care about him.”

“Oh, yeah?” Happy eyes you curiously. “You’re the new maid, are ya? Where’d they pick you up from, then?”

Before you can answer, he hovers behind your head and exclaims, “Blimey-o’riley… ’Oever chopped this did it with their bleedin’ eyes shut, like. Got a head like a burst couch, you ‘ave.”

He’s in front of you again in an instant. “Got just the thing for that disaster of a do. Now, let’s see what I’ve got ‘ere.” His eyes roam over your sweater. “Take that thing off for me, treacle.”

You glance at Rus, but he’s already dozing, head titled back with the cigarette drooping between his teeth.

Happy follows your gaze and scoffs. “Bloody useless, he is. Meanwhile ‘is brother’s runnin’ about getting’ shit ready for Day X, working on twenty hours of sleep a week!”

Eyes still closed, Rus’s grin twitches. “’M useful…” he mumbles.

“Then be a dear an’ get me a chair or somethink,” Happy retorts.

Rus grumbles with displeasure and slowly rolls off the couch. He shoves his hands in his pockets and trundles from the room with hunched shoulders, like a wounded dog.

Happy turns his attention back to you. “Come on, poppet! I ‘avn’t got all day.”

You remove Rus’s sweater, and when Happy notices you clutching it, he tuts again. “Chuck it, you’re not gonna need it again.”

Reluctance has you gripping the sweater tighter. You shake your head. “I like it,” you mutter.

Happy makes an indignant sound. “You’d rather keep that tatty thing than wear what I ‘ave to offer?” He flicks his strange, ghostly hair back dramatically. “Well, if ya don’t want my advice, then I’ll just leave –!”

“Let her keep the fuckin’ sweater, Happy.” Rus has returned, heaving a chair snatched from the dining table behind him, and looking less than impressed.

Happy sniffs, offended. “For stars sake, Pappy, d’ya  want my help, or don’t ya?” 

With a loud groan, Rus drops the chair in front of you, and gestures for you to hand him his sweater back. You reluctantly return it, and Happy hovers about you restlessly, eager to start.

But when he’s certain that Happy isn’t looking, Rus winks at you.

“Skin’s as dry as a bone,” Happy mutters to himself. “Bit too skinny…hardly any fat on ya!” To Rus, he asks, “D’you give her anything to fix ‘er up?”

Rus returns to his spot on the couch, puffing a long cloud of blue smoke from his nose. “Candy.”

Happy snorts. “’Ow about actual food?”

Rus closes his eyes and turns his head away from you. After a brief moment of confusion, you realise that it’s because you’re no longer hiding your nakedness behind his sweater. Is he really bothered by it that much?

“Pasta,” he grumbles.

“Of course, the easiest thing to cook!” Happy taunts. He resumes his slow circle around you. “Hmm, ya back’s taken a bit of a beating.” He inspects your face, your neck. “Can’t do nothin’ about them scars, poppet. But!”

He floats back to give you some space, and several heavy bags just seem to…drop out of nowhere. As they do, the tiniest hint of a sickly sugary smell tickles your nostrils.

“They’ll fade on their own over time,” Happy continues. “In the meantime, I can give ya a little somethink to speed it up.”

From one of the bags floats a tiny, unlabelled bottle, filled with a peach-coloured liquid. The sweet smell returns, and you reason that it must be the scent of Happy’s magic.

“Put this on that eye of yours twice a day,” Happy instructs. “All around your neck too. And get the slob to put it on your back.”

If Rus hears Happy, he pretends not to.

The bottle suddenly flies into the side of his head, bouncing off his skull and dropping into his lap. Rus groans, “Yeah, yeah, I got it.”

“Now, sit!” Happy orders you.

Once you’re seated, a pair of scissors and a thin comb gently drift from another bag, followed by a shimmering, black sheet embroidered with a brand you don’t recognise. It settles on your shoulders before you can properly examine it, and you quickly pull the sheet around your body, covering your nakedness.

You flinch when the pair of scissors hovers dangerously close to your cheek.

“Don’t get your knickers in a twist, treacle,” Happy gripes, tapping the back of the chair with the comb impatiently. “Now sit still so I can ‘ave a go at ya.”

You try to – the sharp snipping of the scissors is too loud in your ears, and the pulling of the comb through your knot-tangled hair hurts. You think it’s the sting of the tugging comb that brings tears to your eyes, but you’re not so sure…

“Stop movin’!” Happy snaps. “Just relax, will ya?”

“S-sorry…” you gasp.

You straighten from your defensive slump and catch Rus watching you through one open eye. He flashes you a quick thumbs up. It calms you down just a little, and you nod.

“Ack!” Happy craws. “Keep still! I’ll have to cut it even shorter now…”

You just manage to catch Rus’s satisfied smirk before he turns his head away again.

You endure Happy’s relentless work on your hair by concentrating on the puffs of shimmering smoke occasionally leaking from Rus’s nose and the gaps in his jaw. When the cigarette runs out, he sucks it through his teeth, and you focus on his golden fang instead. Your mind drifts, thinking back to when he ran his glowing tongue along it slowly, teasing, hooded eyes focused on you.

Those Cinnamon Buns… Delicious.

…  

Were they, really?

Is your cooking not as bad as Sans seems to think it is? Or can Rus eat just about anything and think it delicious? He does eat cigarettes, of all things…

You try desperately to ignore your hair falling away, leaving your head feeling strangely lighter. Happy’s cutting away too much… When the comb works around your face, you close you eyes tightly. As the scissors snip away, locks of you hair brush almost tauntingly against your cheeks as they fall into your lap. Instinctively, your hands open to catch them, as though you can somehow save them and stick them back onto your scalp.

“Now,” Happy’s high-pitched voice disturbs you, “I ‘avn’t got time to give you a real good wash, but if I leave these with you…”

The sugary smell glides along your tongue and a small selection of hair-care products hover before your face, each in a bottle, like the peach-coloured one, that doesn’t bear the NTT Brand logo – it’s shocking to see anything in Ebott without that ghastly logo on it somewhere.

“Use ‘em every other day,” Happy instructs. “Don’t wanna be washin’ your hair’s natural oils out.”

The bottles float away and suddenly you’re sitting in front of another young woman draped in a black coat. She stares at you like she’s ready to bolt from the chair and scarper away as fast as she can. Her tidy hair gracefully frames her delicate face, and she would look pretty, if not for the scar down her left eye –

Oh…

You’re looking into a mirror.

You lean forwards slowly, unsure of just exactly what it is you’re feeling. You can…see your face. You can’t hide behind your hair anymore – it has been cut short, but not too short, and styled simply but neatly.

“Well?” Happy demands. “Don’t just sit there catchin’ flies. Tell me what you think!”

You trail trembling fingertips down the scar on your eye, down to your neck. The scars there, the evidence of your captivity, can’t be hidden now…  

Can’t hide that ugly thing anymore, bitch.

Oh…what has he done? Why has he cut it so short? Couldn’t he have left one side of your hair long enough to conceal the scar across your eye, at least?

Did Sans order him to do this? To what end? Or…was it because you moved?

Happy makes an impatient noise and the mirror is torn from you. “Pappy, give me somethink ‘ere,” he says to Rus.

Rus cracks an eye open. After giving you a long, thoughtful look, he smiles. “Lookin’ good, Kitten.”

You press back into the chair, dipping your head, but your hair can’t shield you anymore. Those ugly marks around your throat, that awful gash across your eye…

Everyone will see it, and everyone will know how it got there, the Man-Who-Guards-You snarls, the blade of his penknife gleaming in the weak light.

Happy’s haughty laugh pulls you back to the present. “Of course she looks good! I wouldn’t settle for anythink less than perfection.”

And no one's gonna want this one, Rus rumbles, his voiced pulled from a dark memory, his long, bony fingers wrapped around the chain at your throat, with that fuckin' gash on her face.

“Now then, treacle,” Happy says jovially. “I think you’d suit a nice shade of violet. Maybe a lilac…light colours. Things that’ll match your soul…” He bobs towards the rest of his bags, and the zips slide open as though pulled by some invisible hand. A long measuring tape snakes out from a small cosmetics purse, coiling in the air.  

Rus grunts, “Gotta respect the Boss, Happy.”

Happy whines pathetically, almost a spoilt sound. “But I’ve got so much to work with ‘ere, Pappy! I brought a whole bunch of colours for ‘er to try!”

On cue, a collection of colour swatches float from within the bags, each arranged into their own binder by shade and pattern.

“Oh-ho?” Rus sits up. “I thought you only had two hours?”

“Oh, shut it,” Happy spits. “I just think that…she…needs a decent wardrobe if she’s gonna be cleanin’ day in an’ day out, like!”

At Rus’s stern look, Happy howls with defeat. “Fine…fine! Respect the boss!” The binders drop ungracefully back into their bags, and he turns to you. “Stand up, then!”

The measuring tape uncoils and flicks from side to side angrily, and for a moment you fear that Happy might strangle you with it. But the minute you’re on your feet, the black sheet is ripped from your shoulders. Your chopped off hair slips from your lap and just…disappears into thin air.

The tape coils around your middle, and Happy‘s dour mood soon dissolves. His grumbling gradually turns into thoughtful humming as he works, measuring your waist, your chest, your shoulders, and the length of your arms and legs. Rus, meanwhile, has dozed off again.

“Hmm, haven’t worked with one this thin before…” Happy muses. The tape suddenly snaps back up into a tight roll, and he meets your eyes. “Tell ya what, I’ll get you somethink that’ll be at least a size or two up from what ya are now. That way, once ya get a little more meat on those bones of yours, they’ll fit all perfect like, pop.” 

A thin, black dressing gown is pulled from one of the bags, and it floats into your hands. You glance hesitantly at Happy, and he blinks his four eyes.

“Yeah, that’s for you, treacle tart,” he insists. “Go on. Every new Happstablook customer gets a complementary accessory with their first visit. Though I figured you’d be wantin’ somethink to cover yourself better than a comb, like.”

You turn over the material in your hands, and on the right front chest-pocket is the same logo you had seen on the sheet; two letters, HB, are elegantly stitched in red and gold.

“Not as big as NTT,” Happy snorts, watching you run your thumbs over the embroidery. “But nothin’ ever has the chance to get big with that disaster brand knockin’ about. If anything gets more popular than dear old Blooky, he throws a hissy fit to end all hissy fits.”

All you can gather from that is that Happstablook knows someone who works for NTT, likely keeping an eye on the consistent ratings. You slip the gown over your shoulders and fasten the cord around your waist tightly.

“Thank you,” you say quietly.

Happstablook sniffs. “Just make sure to iron it regularly…material creases like all buggery.”   

When he turns to find Rus asleep again, he fires the tape roll at him. It hits Rus right between the eyes, but hardly moves him.

Happstablook sighs and says to you, “When scalawag ‘ere wakes up, tell ‘im I’ll ‘ave ‘is order ready to be picked up by five this afternoon, yeah? From my workshop in New ‘Ome.”

“I heard you, Happy,” Rus mumbles sleepily.

“And since I’m ever so busy,” Happstablook shoots at him, “I’m gonna need an advance payment.”

“Just put the invoice into Sans’s account as pending,” Rus says with a shrug.

Happstablook snarls. “And when’s he gonna fuckin’ pay it?”

“After Day X.” Rus hauls himself off the couch and slips another cigarette between his teeth. “That okay?”

“It would be if everyone else wasn’t waitin’ till after Day X to bleedin’ pay me what I’m owed!” Happstablook packs away his things angrily. “Oh, but the celebrations are soon¸ they all say. At least wait for me to ‘ave my fun, then I’ll pay ya for all ya hard work, Happy!

“You know Sans’ll pay his due once he’s not so stressed out,” Rus says. “He’s never missed a payment.”

Happstablook seems to inflate with the effort of holding in the vile comeback. “Oh, for Sansy, of course I’ll wait. His greatness is always quick to pay me. His slovenliness, on the other hand…”

“Yeah, yeah,” Rus says quickly. “Uh…I don’t need to mention how hush-hush all this is –“

Hush-hush? You believed that Sans’s displeasure at finding you on the deck with Rus was out of humiliation on his part. Could your presence here get the brothers into some kind of trouble? Could it get you into trouble?

Happstablook lowers his voice in a poor mockery of Rus’s. “Yeah, yeah, I get it. ‘Oo am I gonna tell, anyway? No one listens to me, do they? ‘Sall Blooky this, and Blooky that. And you can be sure as ‘ell I ain’t gonna tell ‘im. All of Ebott’ll know within the hour.” 

With his things packed, Happstablook flicks his bangs out of his eyes and turns to you. “Was a pleasure to meet ya, treacle. Shall we say another six weeks?”

You blink, and Happstablook tuts irritably. “Well, that hair ain’t gonna stop growing, is it? Give it some time and I’ll be back to sort it out.”

“Need me to act as chauffeur?” Rus asks reluctantly, glaring at Happstablook’s bags.

“Don’t trouble your lazy self, Pappy,” Happstablook snaps. “I can see myself out, thank ya verra much!”

And with that, he vanishes, fading away until he’s just…gone, along with his bags and the sickly scent of his magic.

Once it’s completely dissipated, Rus runs a hand over his eyes.

“I’m used to it by now, but he’s hard work, for sure,” he grumbles. “You holding up okay, Kitten?”

You nod, curling your fingers into the cool silk of the dressing gown. It’s too thin, and smells of hair spray and Happstablook’s magic. It’s not horrible, but…it’s not Rus’s smoky sweater.

“Heh…you do look pretty good, there,” he says and steps right up to you. He gently puts his hands on either side of your face and leans back, tilting your head this way and that. “It suits you,” Rus finally says after his careful study. “Happy did a good job.”

Everyone will see it… The hot, rank breath of the Man-Who-Guards-You washes over your face…

You’re not so sure. But Happy did seem pleased with himself before he left, even going so far as to call you perfection

Although one of his earlier comments is still puzzling you: Haven’t worked with one this thin before…

Sans clearly buys his clothes from Happstablook, since he has an account with him. Nothing could possibly be thinner than a skeleton, right…? Perhaps when calling you thin, he was going by human standards.

“Black suits you, too,” Rus says, interrupting your thoughts. “Sans’ll agree. But…” He hands you the grey sweater. “I kinda liked the baggy look.”

You happily accept the sweater and nod. “Thank you.”

Rus yawns loudly and flops back onto the couch. He pulls the TV remote out from between the cushions, but…you know that you left the remote on the mantlepiece, where it’s always been…

Rus notices you staring and pats the space beside him. “Wanna join?”

You really would if you could, but Happstablook’s visit has pushed you so far behind in your work, and you know that you won’t be able to make up the time. The best thing you can do is move on to giving the office a quick sweep and then start on dinner.

“I have to –” you begin, but Rus cuts you off with a dismissive hand. 

“M’lord knows that Happy’s here today,” he assures you with a crafty smile. “He’s not expecting you to finish everything.”

He isn’t? You can’t imagine that Sans will still be happy to come home to an unfinished house, despite knowing about the delay to your schedule. But if Rus is certain, then maybe you can relax for a few minutes. As long as you have dinner prepared, what’s the harm?

Rus’s smirk widens when you join him on the couch – but you keep a reasonable distance from him and pull your gown tighter around you. He switches on the TV, and you’re immediately assaulted with the electronic blaring of trumpets, synthesised keyboards, and a heavy, booming bass.

NTT News is, naturally, talking about the upcoming Day X celebrations, playing a clip of Napstaton’s performance from last year. And you remember watching this show with That Girl – you recognise the routine that featured dozens of miniature Napstaton clones raining down onto the stage with tiny umbrellas…

Last year…so you were in the camp for less than a year? Really? It felt like a century…

“Happy’s got his work cut out for him this year,” Rus comments lightly. “He tells me Blooky wants his Day X performance to be a huge deal, since it’s the five-year milestone. Undyne’s freaking out ‘cause she has to make a fuck-ton more of those little box clones of his, and m’lord is about ready to drop from all the security checks.”

You nod absentmindedly, until you make the connection. Rus is already half asleep, sinking further and further into the couch like it would swallow him, but when he notices you gaping, he snorts. 

“You really couldn’t tell?” Rus sits up and throws an arm around your shoulders, pulling you close to whisper, “Him and Happy?” He points to the clip of a singing Napstaton EX on the screen. “They’re cousins.”

-

When Napstaton’s constant self-praising made you feel like snipping your own ears off, you removed yourself from beneath Rus’s arm as he slept, and crept into the kitchen to begin preparing dinner.

For tonight, you’ve chosen to make a hearty broth. The meat you’d fished from the fridge-freezer that morning to defrost is tender enough to cut into small chunks, and while the broth is bubbling away in the giant pot on the stove, you set about preparing a pastry.

Since you have extra time, you decide to try one of the more extravagant desserts – perhaps you can make that pie, now. With the larger dish, maybe even Rus can have a piece, since he seemed to like your buns.

Your Cinnamon Buns.

Sifting the flour is too gentle a task to distract yourself with, but when it comes to beating the eggs, you beat them like you’re trying to reduce the yolks to nothing but vapour. You could really do with an apron for this – your gown is dusted with flour – but you haven’t seen one since arriving here, so you improvise with Rus’s sweater, tying the sleeves around your waist.

The candy piece is still on the windowsill, and as you gradually mix the eggs and flour together, you contemplate it.

Maybe you should stop accepting them, if only to set some boundaries. Rus may very well stop giving them to you all together, since his initial offerings were to help you, but recently…

He gave you one for being good, and tried to tempt you into skirting your duties with another. And this one on the windowsill he used to teach you self-restraint. There’s something about his methods that remind you of something, but you can’t quite think of what it is.

When the egg and flour mixture becomes too tough to stir with a spoon, you sprinkle the worktop with a thick layer of flour and pour the giant lump of dough onto it. You’re concentrating so hard on folding the sticky mass that you don’t notice the taste of warm metal on your tongue, barely masked beneath the scent of eggs, flour, and the boiling broth.

Your heart almost bursts from you chest when an arm slings over your shoulders.

“Package for ya, treacle,” Rus says, imitating Happstablook’s lazy, high pitched drawl. He blocks your view of the dough with a large grey parcel tied with string. “Happy says he can’t get you the others until after Day X, but you only have to wait a couple of days.”

Others? You’re hands are covered in flour and sticky dough, so you wash them clean before accepting the package. Rus went all the way to New Home and back while you were in the kitchen? Unless Happstablook faded in while you were busy and left the parcel with him… 

“Mind if I get in on that?” Rus asks, lifting the lid off the pot to smell the broth.

You nod, sliding a small yellow card bearing Happstablook’s initials from beneath the rope.

 

Outfit one of three – sorry I can’t get them to you any sooner than next Monday, treacle.

Stockings are to be washed with delicates!

Much love,

HB, xxx

 

Stockings? He’s given you stockings? And outfit one of three? You can’t imagine why you would need three different uniforms when all you’ll be doing is cleaning…

“If you put that on for when m’lord gets home, he’ll be pleased,” Rus says as he returns the lid to the pot, pointing to the parcel in your hands. He then spots the candy piece on the windowsill and smiles. “Saving ‘em, huh?”

He takes the piece between his long fingers and holds it out to you. “You can have them, you know? I ain’t gonna stop giving them to you. It’s kinda cute when you eat them.” 

Ah…that’s what it reminds you of. It’s like he’s offering treats to a dog.

But you take the candy and eat it – you’re rather used to the euphoria now, and can swallow it without moaning awkwardly – and Rus beams.

“Go on,” he says, motioning for you to hurry on out and get changed. “I wanna see it, too.”

You lock yourself in the bathroom and unfold the parcel. The ensemble is made up of a white shirt, a long black skirt, and black stockings. Very classy, but rather plain. For some reason, you were expecting frills and lace and other unnecessary things, however this outfit does seem to match Sans’s preferences – clean, simple, and not bothering with things that aren’t needed.     

You pause when you find the scarf; a deep red colour, like Sans’s, but smaller, and made of a thinner material. To go around your neck…

The scarf quivers in your trembling hands. You can’t wear this… You don’t want to wear this –!

The tightness around your throat is excruciating…

You throw down the scarf and shuffle away from it, like you can somehow escape the memories it evokes. You adamantly ignore it, returning to the rest of the parcel.

Happstablook has even left you a pair of underwear; black, like the stockings. You clip the bra around your breasts and slip the panties on, but…they feel a bit uncomfortable. You’re so used to wearing nothing but used shirts and sweats that the underwear just feels restricting.

But you can't not wear them. You're supposed to wear underwear…

Before you’ve finished buttoning the shirt, you’re far too uncomfortable to keep them on. You remove the panties and bra and dress without them. The brothers don't really need to know if you're wearing them or not. They won't be able to tell.

You assess yourself in the mirror. You look…nice. You actually look like a human being again. Whatever would That Girl say if she saw you now, after all that time in the camp? 

Before you head back down to the kitchen, you wrap the rejected underwear in the parcel paper – along with the offending scarf – and hide them in the bottom drawer of Rus’s dresser, beneath a huge collection of…socks? You don’t dwell on it for too long, and return to the kitchen to resume your pie-making.

Rus has fallen asleep again, his head pillowed by his arms, folded on the countertop. But when you step into the room on near-silent, stocking-clad feet, he stirs.

“Well, I think you just maid my evening,” he says with a throaty laugh. “Looks good on you.”

A pleasant warmth blooms in your chest. “Thank you…”

“Would have been nice if he gave you, like…” Rus searches for the word. “…a bow, or something. To go around your neck.”

You swallow back the sudden influx of bile rising in your throat. You only shake your head.

“No?” Rus’s eyes flicker briefly to your throat, and he hums knowingly. “Ah…okay. I got ya.”

Once the nausea has passed, you step around the island to return to the dough. You know that Rus’s eyes are on you as you pass by him, running up and down your body, studying your new attire. Even as you focus on kneading the dough, you can, for some odd reason, feel his gaze linger the longest on your legs.  

“Oh,” he growls deeply, and the sound rumbles through your chest, sending your heart racing. “He did that on purpose…”

Heat rushes to your neck and you spin around –

Rus has vanished.

 

Chapter Text

 

-Chapter Five-

-

Warnings for chapter: Mentions of Violence, Implications of Asphyxiation, Trauma, PTSD, Mentions of Self-Harm, Scars, Mentions of Death, Implications of Suicide, Collars, Strong Language 

Please heed the warnings for this chapter! This chapter contains content that some readers may find disturbing.

-

 

The only comment that Sans makes about your new appearance is: “Where’s the rest of it?”

You manage to catch the glass before it tips over, knocked by the neck of the bottle when you jump.

Sans is standing in the doorway with his arms crossed, scowling deeply. The rest of it? Of course…he ordered it, so he would know what was missing. But can he really tell that you’re not wearing the underwear? “I…I’m sorry…”

“Red is the royal colour,” Sans says irritably. “You work under us, you wear it. Understand?”

Oh…oh, the scarf. Do you really have to wear it? The thought makes you dizzy, and your cruel mind imagines the ghostly brush of the scarf around your neck, before it tightens…

“Please…” you try. “Not…yet. Not on…my neck…”

Sans blinks, then his glower softens. “Ah, I see. Fine. But you must wear it somewhere. Around your wrist, if you must.” 

He eats without any further comment; nothing about your clothes…nothing about your hair, or the fact that it exposes your scar –

Just as the thought crosses your mind, your eyes land on the scar down his face. Though it doesn’t appear to have cut through his skull entirely – just a long deep groove in the bone that has the faintest pink hue to it – you get the feeling that the wound must have been agonising…

“You are aware that Day X is soon?” he suddenly asks.

You lower your head. “Yes, sir.”

“My brother and I will not be here over the next couple of days. I must oversee the celebrations, and my brother is…required elsewhere.” There’s an obvious scowl in his voice, but you keep your eyes on the floor. “I’ll be home very late on the evening of Day X, but I still expect to return to a clean house, am I clear?”

The thought of you being in the house by yourself has you reeling. You’re going to be left alone, unguarded, for two whole days? The guards never let you out of their sight when you weren’t locked up in your cell, and it doesn’t sound as though Sans’s wants to keep you confined to one room. 

He’s really going to give you that much freedom? When Rus gave you free reign, he was still in the house so he could catch you if you tried to escape. But this…? How could Sans not think that you might make your escape while they’re gone, while all the monsters of Ebott are so preoccupied with their celebrations?

With all of Ebott distracted, you could make a break for it. You could travel to the nearest city – wherever that is, but there’s bound to be a sign, somewhere – completely…

… Unprepared…

… Unprotected…

It’s as if the memory of Sans’s voice surfaces only to remind you: There’s no place for you outside these walls.

He knows very well that you wouldn’t be that stupid.

 “Yes, sir,” you say numbly.

Sans grunts with approval and places his cutlery atop his empty plate in a non-verbal order for his next meal.

You return to the dining room with a bowlful of broth to find that Rus has joined his brother, sitting in his usual place at the table – after giving Sans his meal, you quickly fetch Rus a bowl too.

“What did I tell you about smoking in the house?” Sans is saying when you re-enter.

“Happy’s a handful,” Rus replies, a little too quietly.

“He’s a delight compared to his drama-queen of a cousin,” Sans huffs. “He wants as much security as we can offer for his big day. He’s more paranoid than ever.”

Rus hums. “After what happened in Central, I guess.”

The air around Sans vibrates slightly, as though ruffled. “Yes,” he replies. “After Central.”

If not for the tightness in his voice, you would have brushed off the seemingly harmless comment. But now it has you wondering what could have happened in Ebott during your imprisonment to make everyone so nervous.

According to Happy, and the papers in the office, Sans seems to be working tirelessly to ensure that there are enough patrols to monitor the celebrations; the queen is worried about the re-opening of the borders; and now Napstaton is pushing for more security at his Day X performance…because of something that happened in Central.

“Ah, look at us,” Sans says with a sneer as you place the second bowl on the table. “When was the last time we ate together?”  

Rus ignores the spoon you offer him and picks up the bowl. In one go, he chugs down the broth, rice and all. “Can’t remember. Dessert now?” He looks at you, hopeful.

You’re too busy wondering whether the food will just drop right through his jaw to pay attention to him – you could never watch Sans while he ate long enough to see exactly how he consumed all that food, obeying the rules and keeping your head down – but it’s all swallowed up by that mysterious void that hides his tongue.

“Don’t you dare,” Sans growls at you, shocking you from your musings. “He can remember his manners and wait.”

Rus only shrugs.

Sans commences with his dinner in silence, and within minutes, Rus is fast asleep, slumped in his chair with his arms loosely folded across his middle.

You can’t imagine Sans being the type to eat slowly just to spite his brother, but it seems as though that’s exactly what he’s doing; he’s taking smaller mouthfuls, chewing a little slower than usual, like he’s really savouring the taste.

Your stomach growls. You haven’t had a chance to eat since Happstablook left the house, but there isn’t much left of the pasta, anyway.

Your stomach flips at the thought of asking – though he had turned you down, Rus hadn’t minded when you had asked him for help the other day; but Sans might, since you’d technically be speaking without being addressed first.

… But you really need more food.

You clear your throat softly. “I…may I speak?”

After a long pause, Sans says, “If you must.”

You sigh with relief. “I…have nothing else to eat.”

“Is that right?” Sans takes another couple of mouthfuls before he says; “Is there anything in particular that you can’t have?”

After being fed nothing but that slop in the camp, you’re most definitely not picky. “No, sir.”

Sans gestures to Rus with his fork. “Then the deadweight can get you what you need.”

Rus stirs, grumbling something that sounds like, “Great.”

“Thank you, sir,” you say quickly when a cruel smile tugs at Sans’s mouth.

“Unless you want your little pet to starve,” he says to his brother, nastily, “I suggest you start feeding her things other than those pathetic little sweets.” Sans grumbles, then adds in a low voice; “That you seem to have an endless supply of.”

Rus groans loudly. “Hmm, pie first.”

“You can wait until I’m finished,” Sans snaps.

“Kitten,” Rus groans, “c’mon, it smells really good.”

You can’t disobey any orders that he gives you; Sans made that perfectly clear. But when you take just a single step towards the kitchen, Sans growls in warning.

“Stay here,” he demands. “He chooses to consume nothing but coffee and…” He scowls with disgust. “…instant noodles. He can deal with his poor choices with dignity.”

“I’m nothing but bone here, Kitten.” Rus feigns pain, clutching his sweater tightly. “Just a tiny little slice. You wouldn’t disobey me, would you?” His tone is playful…

However, Sans’s is most certainly not. “You disobey me and there will be trouble. I can always add Papyrus’s room to your list of chores tomorrow.”

You definitely don’t want that. You abashedly return to your post by the table, and Rus moans with hurt, throwing an arm over his eyes. “Kitten, I’m crushed.”     

By the time Sans finally finishes his meal, Rus has fallen asleep again – Hardly dying of hunger if he can nap, Sans growls – but he immediately perks up when you return from the kitchen with two plates of pie. You hope that both brothers don’t notice you’ve given a slightly larger slice to Rus by way of apology…

…but they do.

“Well, ain’t that telling,” Rus says slyly.

Your stomach sinks at the thought of having to clean Rus’s room tomorrow when Sans grumbles softly.

“Don’t spoil him,” he says, and you relax. “I’ve done that one too many times, already, and now look at him.”

Rus takes a huge mouthful of pie…by tipping the entire plate into his mouth. He doesn’t chew, and simply swallows it in one go. But he makes a show of licking his fangs, curling that impossibly long, dexterous tongue between his teeth, sliding it salaciously over his golden fang.

“Can I get another slice of that?” he asks you once he’s finished, pointing to his empty plate.

Before you can move, Sans says, “Don’t.”

You’re not quite certain why you’ve seemed to become the instrument for their bickering – had they done it before today, you may not have been able to handle it, torn between them while desperately trying to avoid cause for punishment – but knowing that it’s relatively harmless, it’s rather…

…funny?

“Please, Kitten?” Rus croons, lifting the plate and licking up the remains of the jam and pastry crumbs, never breaking eye contact.

“Stop that,” Sans snaps, jolting you from your intense observations of Rus’s tongue. “You’re…bothering the human.” 

“Heh,” Rus rumbles, placing the plate back on the table. “Sorry…”

“You are not,” Sans growls. He pushes his empty plate away and you step forwards to offer him a fresh glass of wine, but he stops you with a raised hand, not taking his murderous glare off of his misbehaving brother. “I suggest you get moving, if you want your pet to have some food for tomorrow morning.”

“Right now?” Rus sags in his chair. “No-where’s open at this time.”

“As it happens,” Sans retorts, “that pleasant couple who you insist on employing have chosen to extend their business hours in the run-up to Day X. And if I remember correctly, they’re skills lie in acquiring things you can’t be bothered to fetch yourself.”

“Like, totally,” Rus replies in a low, bored drawl. “Wanna come with, Kitten?”

You start – he wants to take you somewhere? He wants to take you…outside?

“She needs to clean up her mess in the kitchen,” Sans answers for you. “And if those two motor-mouths find out about her, then all of New Home will know by morning.”

“Nah, 01 and 02 wouldn’t do that to me.” At Sans’s withering look, Rus groans, “Fine, fine.”

He stands, slipping a cigarette from his jeans pocket and into his mouth, and saunters out of the room with a lazy wave. “Wish me luck.”

You don’t hear the front door open, but as you reach across the table to take his plate, you catch the faint scent of warm metal and rust.

Sans shakes his head, then follows his brother out and marches up the stairs, all the while grumbling something about raising him wrong. You never gave much thought to which brother may be the elder, but Sans being the oldest of the two makes perfect sense, judging by the way Rus follows his orders with only minimal griping. You honestly assumed that Rus was frightened of his brother, but he seems quite comfortable back-talking him, interrupting his dinner, and acting lewd in his presence. Perhaps his occasional reserved behaviour around his brother is not fear, but a respect between youngest and eldest?

There could be more to their strange relationship that you’re unaware of. After all, you’ve only been here for a few days…

You enter the kitchen, carrying the dessert plates, and you nearly drop them in shock when you spot a large figure looming over the island –

You relax when Rus meets your eyes and grins. He takes a huge slice of the pie you left on the countertop, and swallows it in one go. Without a word, he holds a finger to his teeth, then just…vanishes, quite literally, in the blink of an eye.

When you gasp, his magic floods your mouth and burns your nostrils.    

You stand there for quite some time, dazed, staring at the spot where Rus disappeared. He really can teleport? The idea that he can jump from one place to another within seconds is fascinating, until you remember the coldness of the void you fell through; when leaving the camp, and falling through the ceiling…

It feels terrible. Does he travel through that nothingness every time? Could he somehow get lost in there?

When you pass the island to scoop up the remaining half of the pie, your fingertips brush against something round and smooth.

A piece of monster candy has been left beside the pie.   

-

You are curled face-first into Rus’s chest when you wake up the next morning, and he seems reluctant to let you go when you try to shuffle back.

“Hmm, not yet,” he mumbles. “Waaarm…”

You manage to untangle yourself from his arms while he moans protests, and you quickly change into your new uniform in the bathroom before heading down to the kitchen.

Sans is already waiting there, seated by the island and reading through a daunting stack of papers.

“G-good morning, sir,” you blurt out to cover your squeak of surprise.

Sans only hums in acknowledgement, not looking up from his work.

You’re shaking as you prepare the coffee, acutely aware of him just…sitting there, ready to snap at you should you make too much noise. You worry for a moment that maybe he will order you to clean Rus’s room today in retaliation for your little pie stunt, but he doesn’t speak once, and accepts the coffee mug with only a grunt when you place it on the counter.

It’s the first time you’ve ever seen him look so tired – you didn’t think that a skeleton could look tired, but there are deep, heavy shadows in the corners of his sockets, like bruises, and his shoulders are tense.

“Where is your scarf?” he asks suddenly.

You clutch your wrist in a panic; you left it in the bottom drawer in Rus’s room. “I’m sorry, sir. I’ll get it…”

“I need you to organise some of my paperwork this morning,” Sans barrels on. “There’s some in the library that needs to be organised for delivery, but I haven’t the time to sort it all out now.”

“Yes, sir,” you say. Has he been up all night?

“All invoices need to be separated and organised by date,” Sans says after draining the coffee mug. “Letters sorted alphabetically by address. Once you’re done, inform Papyrus and he will deliver them. Understand?”

“Yes, sir.”

Sans places the loose papers together and slides from the stool. “I believe that’s for you,” he says, pointing to something over your shoulder.        

Your gaze follows his finger, and you spot three large shopping bags by the door to the pantry. Logos of brands you recognise are visible through the thin plastic, and your stomach growls.

When you look back to Sans, he’s already halfway across the entrance hall.

“Thank you!” you call without thinking.

Sans’s steps falter for a brief moment, but he quickly recovers, and he’s out the door before you can add Sir onto your thanks.

You blink – not even a minor reprimand? He must be tired…

Your confusion is quickly chased away by excitement as you dig through the bags, pulling out all manner of food. You can’t hold back the giggle when you pull out a large selection of pasta; fusilli, penne, tagliatelle, farfalle…you’re spoilt for choice – you makes a mental note to try out some of those recipes in that extortionately priced pasta cookbook.

Beneath all the food, at the very bottom of the third bag, is something that you are more relieved to see than three bags full of food: a toothbrush and a tube of strawberry-mint flavoured toothpaste. You can’t wait to clean your teeth again.

Once you’ve made space for your food in the pantry and the fridge, you pick up the papers Sans left behind and make your way to the library.

Though you dislike the change to your schedule, you make a start on the paperwork while you munch through a large bowl of cereal. There are quite a lot of extra loose papers in the library, but you manage to sort through them quicker than you anticipated. The letters are the easiest to organise, already tucked into their envelopes – the invoices take you a bit of time when you find yourself distracted, reading through their contents.

Invoices for more patrols, and to this Grillby up in Mountains. There are a couple of invoices going to the mysterious Undyne in The Lake – a payment for extra security cameras, and another requesting GOLD for the human weapons previously ordered from Grillby – and another going to Happstablook in New Home, paying for your recently purchased uniforms.

Once you’re done, Rus hasn’t emerged, so you decide to leave the paperwork in the entrance hall; the letters fastened by a piece of string you’d fished out from one of the desk drawers, and the invoices bound in a spare leather folder.

You hesitantly knock on his bedroom door. When there’s no answer, you peek through to find him still sprawled out on his mattress, but awake.

“M’lord workin’ me to the bone already, is he?” he mumbles sleepily, and you nod apologetically. After taking a moment to stretch and yawn, he hauls himself up and slugs towards you.

You open the door a little wider to let him through. “Thank you,” you say when he passes by. “For the food.”

He pauses and pats your head affectionately. “01 and 02 know their stuff. But if you have any requests, I can totally get them too.”

One and Two? Rather strange names, even for monsters…

“Thank y–” You’re cut off when Rus’s hand moves to the edge of your jaw to absentmindedly play with a lock of hair. 

“Any more of that pie?” he asks casually.

“The f-fridge,” you splutter.

“Cool.” Rus releases you and leaves, a huge smirk on his face.

Once you hear his footsteps descend the stairs, you quickly retrieve your red scarf from the curious sock drawer, tie it around your wrist, and make a start on your daily tasks, adamantly ignoring the burning heat in your neck.

-

Rus returns late in the afternoon when you’re just finishing up in the office – behind schedule thanks to the paperwork this morning. You know he’s home when you catch a whiff of his magic on a small breeze coming from the entrance hall.

Instead of coming to greet you, he heads straight for the living room, and you hear the robotic drone of Napstaton when he switches on the TV seconds later.

You hesitate on your way out of the office. You’ve been mulling over your decision to ask him if he can help you put that ointment on your back all day. You’ve already put it on your eye and around your neck, but you’ve been waiting until he returned to put it on your back – you can’t reach around that easily…

Happstablook did advise you to get Rus to help you, and Rus didn’t seem bothered by his suggestion…so you fetch the bottle from where you hid it in the bathroom and creep into the living room, cradling it to your chest.

Rus is already fast asleep. He’s lounging across the couch farthest from the TV with an open book covering his face, titled The Myth and Magic of Monsters and Men.

It seems as though he’s already halfway through the book, but barely made it beyond the bookmarked page before succumbing to exhaustion. Delivering those letters and invoices must have really tired him out. Perhaps phasing through the cold void from place to place is what drains him?

You think it best not to disturb him, but when you take a step back, he croaks, “What’s up, Kitten?”

He lifts the book from his face and sits up, but you back away.

“I’m sorry,” you mumble. “I didn’t mean to –”

“You didn’t.” He yawns and massages his brow. “You okay? Sorry I left you for the whole day.”

You shake your head. “… Could you help me?”

Rus frowns, but when you extend the small bottle to him, he nods.

“Right, right,” he says a little tightly. He mutes Napstaton’s mechanical drawl. “You wanna do that here, or…?”

You’re not expecting Sans back for several hours yet – you nod slowly and say, “Here is…fine.”

Rus stands and holds his hand out to accept the bottle, but he won’t meet your eyes again. Confused, you turn your back to him and pull your skirt down your hips as far as it will go without exposing your backside, and unbutton your shirt with shaking fingers. 

You tried wearing your underwear, since you were certain that the brothers could tell that you weren’t wearing them last night. The panties kept…itching all day, but you soon got used to them. However, every now and then your breathing turned a little shallow, and you had to unclip your bra for several minutes while you calmed down. When it became too much, you discarded it altogether, returning it to its hiding place in the sock drawer.

It made you feel rather silly, since it wasn’t even that tight, but it just kept evoking memories of the camp, of the tiny collars they put around your throat…  

As you shrug your arms out of the shirt, you’re very aware of how quite Rus has become. You don’t like it...it’s too tense. Once you’ve completely removed your shirt, you clutch it to your chest. Is it because you’re not wearing your bra?

“What are you reading?” you ask only to fill the unnerving silence.

You hear the rustle of fabric when Rus shrugs. “A book on magic and stuff.” Short, quiet…uneasy.

After an uncomfortable pause, he adds; “There are some pretty interesting essays on souls in it…”

That does sound interesting. “Can I re–?”

Your voice cuts off with a squeak, and you flinch when he presses two fingers, cold and slick with the oil, to the centre of your back.

“Sorry,” he says quietly.

You only shake your head. You can’t think of anything else to say, and it appears that Rus can’t either.

He works slowly, and each scar he passes over inadvertently summons the memories of how they came to be; three lashes for resisting, as That Girl was dragged into darkness, crying and screaming…then two more, just as a reminder to never do it again…  

While Rus works silently, you focus as much as you can on NTT News lighting up the TV, watching the current headlines trail across the bottom of the screen.

COUNTDOWN TO DAY X: One day to go! Incredible turnout expected for Napstaton performance.

Security increased to ensure maximum safety for monsters and humans to enjoy the celebrations.

HRM Queen Toriel expected to attend the festivities and address her subjects for the five-year milestone.

Record number of pre-orders for new Napstaton album, set to debut during Day X performance.

Ebott borders scheduled to re-open after Day X – Border Control already overwhelmed by applications from those wishing to travel to Ebott –

You avert your eyes to the window when NTT News fades to another address from the queen, her dead eyes eliciting a shudder – who on earth would want to come to Ebott?    

Rus seems to misinterpret your shiver. “You doin’ okay?”

You only hum in response.

“You sure?”

“Yes,” you say tightly.

A suspicious sound rumbles from Rus’s throat, but he continues his work at a much slower pace, gently brushing his fingertips over the criss-cross of scars – so slowly that you’re not sure he’s being thorough as much as he is studying them.

“Fucking hell, kid,” he breathes, and he rests his chin atop you head.

For a good long while, he simply rests against you, idly running his fingers up and down your spine. Under any other circumstances, it may have felt pleasant – maybe even a little arousing – but all you can think of is the heart-wrenching sound of That Girl’s distant crying as the whip struck you again and again. That, and you’re very aware of how uncomfortable Rus seems to be feeling.

He sighs – a defeated sound – then steps away and mumbles, “Done.”   

You quickly slip your shirt back on and re-button it awkwardly. When you turn to Rus to take back the bottle, he’s standing closer to you than you thought, his expression hard.

Before you can squeak a belated thank you, he runs a thumb down your cheek, tracing the scar there, and his left eye twitches.

A buckling nausea seizes you in an instant when the memory resurfaces again, his voice echoing in the dark, dreary room as he wraps the chain of your collar around his fingers:

No one's gonna want this one with that fuckin' gash on her face…

That’s why he won’t look at you naked; he doesn’t like your scars.

You pull back from his hold, looking at the floor, wishing you still had your dishevelled, uneven hair to hide behind. You pull at your shirt, ensuring that it’s covering the scars on your neck – at least you can still hide those, somehow.

“Ah…” Rus catches on to your discomfort. “I, uh…look, you’re fine here, ‘kay? Nothin’s gonna get at you s’long as I’m here…”

He attempts to reach for you, but holds back, uncertain. “I’m really not gonna hurt you…like they did. You know that, right?”

You know that now, but…he still hasn’t told you why he saved you; if he hates the scars so much, then why did he? You’re not pretty enough to keep around as some pet…and if he’s really not going to eat your soul, then what’s the point?

It’s like the strangest kind of torture, not knowing… He had almost carelessly sent you to an early grave by pointing out how damaged you were, like you were some kind of object, but in what seemed to be a sudden attack of conscience…

This one.

…he’d changed his mind.

“Hey…” Rus sound mildly concerned now. He slips his fingers beneath your chin and tilts your head up to bring your gaze to meet his wary eyes. “What is it?”

You pull away from his touch, angling your head away so he can’t see the marred side of your face, and manage to croak out, “Why –?”

Why did you save me, you want to say, when you said such awful things about me?

But a lump forms in your throat, cutting off the words.

Rus catches on quickly. “Oh…” He groans. “Oh…”

The rest of the memories of that day are dragged from within the deep pool of your mind…of the unlucky humans left behind to die, and you remember to cry for them. 

Large hands are cupping your cheeks, forcing your eyes back to Rus’s troubled face. There’s a conflict in his dark sockets that you can’t understand.

“I said those things…” he forces out – it sounds as though he’s really struggling to find the right words. “Listen to me…” He drags your face back to his when you try to turn away. “Listen… I know what it sounds like…that shit I said. But I was…fuck!” He growls with frustration and averts his eyes.

You’re frightened that he’s going to hurt you – that he may crush your skull between his shaking hands, but…are they shaking with rage, or fear?

The air around him is quiet, and all you can smell is the sweet residue of his tobacco – he hasn’t called upon his magic in his rage, as Sans seems to do…quite frequently.

And he doesn’t look nearly as frightening as he had in the camp; all teeth and tongue and imposing height, his magic stifling the room in a blatant display of power...

Right now, he looks like a wounded puppy.

And seeing the shame in his tight expression makes something sharp twist in your chest, like the drive of a knife.

His awful words were not careless nor ignorant – they were intentional.

And he knows

He knows that what he said had damned those poor souls – had almost damned you. Every time he sees your scars, is he reminded of what he said to the Man-In-Charge about you…about them…and what it lead to? Does he feel guilty?

You really hope that he does.

Rus’s sockets widen, and he suddenly looks wild, frantic. He grips you tighter, and you fear that perhaps you spoke aloud without realising it. But you’re certain that you didn’t – your throat is too tight, holding back your sobs.

“Don’t,” he says, voice hard.

Your throat completely closes over. You can smell damp and mould. Rus’s grip on your face certainly isn’t painful but…it’s tight. Too tight! “Please…” you gasp. “Let go!”

He does, dropping his hands as though your flesh has burned him, and his brows knit together.

“Listen…” he says again, almost desperately. “You…you don’t know what they do to humans there.”

All the air is knocked from your lungs, like you’ve taken a blow to the stomach, and your cheeks flush with an almost hellish heat. It’s as though he’s just slapped you – a terrible, frightening but familiar feeling stirs deep within you, rearing its head, and your soul screams.

“I…” you gasp, “…don’t know?

Just because he won’t acknowledge your scars doesn’t mean that they’re not there. You want to tell him how you got them, only to see him squirm. You want to tell him about each and every scar, and how it got there; you want to tell him how your throat became so marred and ruined because you screamed, driven half mad; how you almost lost an eye just because you dared to meet your jailer’s gaze…

You don’t know?

How dare he?

Rus shakes his head, sweat beading at his temples. “Fuck, that came out wrong…” He holds your eyes with his urgent stare. “Kid, do you really think that monsters go there for a power boost?” He reaches for you.

Your heart leaps into your mouth, and you stagger away from him with a whimper. Is he going to pull out your soul to prove a point? You shield your chest with shaking hands, and your soul flares in a panic.  

Rus’s hands hover in the air, and a pained expression crossed his face.

“Kitten, please,” he pleads. “A single human soul is worth…fuck, nobody knows how much a human soul is worth. But if a monster takes one, they don’t just get stronger. They become somethin’ else. They become some kind of fucked up creature.”

You shake your head furiously, screwing your damp eyes shut in an attempt to halt the memories – your temples are pounding from the sheer number of them.

That Girl had felt the destructive force of the Barrier shattering, rocking the earth and toppling buildings – you had only ever seen the events of that day replayed on the news, before it was replaced with the NTT Network; the monsters charging down Mt. Ebott and tearing souls from the chests of the humans who had first responded to their advance, stilling their bullets, and crushing them within seconds.

And overseeing the slaughter, there had been a terrifying being, with wings that seemed to hold an entire galaxy within them, flashing ethereal colours that would make those who gazed upon them weep blood. Wings like a demon. Wings like an angel…  

“The humans in that place,” Rus continues, though you try so hard to block him out; you don’t want to listen to him.

“They could have just locked you up and left you there,” he’s saying. “But they didn’t, did they? What they did… Those fucking scars…” The absolute fury in his voice has you meeting his eyes again, to ensure that he hasn’t reached for your neck or your frantically pulsing soul while your eyes were closed.

His arms are by his sides, fists clenched and quivering. “They put you through the fucking wringer. They chop you up, and just when you manage to piece yourself back together, they break you all over again –”

“I know!” you sob. “I know, I know, I know!

“Yeah,” Rus hurries to placate you. “I know you know. You were in that sorry line-up for a reason, kid.”

“Then please…tell me why,” you wheeze. “Why did you pick me?” You really weren’t worth saving, regardless of your desire to live… “Look at me!” You gesture to your marred neck, the slash down your face.

You’re dimly aware that you are shouting at a Boss monster – who could rip your heart straight from your chest before you so much as uttered another syllable – but you feel like you could set the whole world trembling with the sudden power in your voice

“You think I care about that?” Rus sounds offended…angry. He points to your chest, and, instinctively, you flinch back. “I saved you ‘cause of that.” As if summoned, you soul sparks in response – is he going to pull out your soul for shouting at him?

But he doesn’t. All he does is say, “That thing in there…was still alive.”

You blink and hastily wipe at your tears. “Wh-what?”

Rus’s smile is empty. “Really? You can’t hear it right now? It’s goin’ crazy. Like a fuckin’ live-wire.”

You unconsciously press your hands harder against your chest, as though you can somehow touch your soul – he can hear it that clearly?

Rus snorts humourlessly. “D’you forget that my kind are pretty sensitive to souls? What…you thought we just rip ‘em out like hookin’ a fish on a line, and that’s it?”

Well, that’s all you’ve ever seen monsters do – and the monsters never paused in their hostile take-over to educate you in their ways; you were just expected to accept them.

Don’t ask questions, just keep your head down

What else were you supposed to think? There was never talk of magic or souls before the Shattering; humans just didn’t have the knowledge, since it was all selfishly hoarded by the Sorcerers of old, before they started to die out.

And even centuries later, humans didn’t care much for something that had simply vanished eons before That Girl’s time; but to monster-kind, it was as common as the cold. After Day X, magic became so prevalent, almost natural, that humans soon stopped fearing it…

And talk of souls was treated as casually as one would discuss the weather – but it had never occurred to you just how significant to monster culture it was…

Something to match your soul, Happstablook had said to you, as though he was commenting on your eye colour.

And it’s so strange that you had become so aware of your own soul when the Barrier had shattered – That Girl had never given a single though to it before that day…

“There’s more to souls than just…” Rus waves his hand, searching for the appropriate words. “…bein’ some blip on a radar, or somethin’. We can do more than just see ‘em, y’know?”  

Rus shakes his head. “Look… The point is, it doesn’t matter what you look like. Pretty? Ugly? I couldn’t give a shit. But…” His expression suddenly softens, “…trust me, Kitten…you ain’t ugly.”

The gentleness in his eyes quickly vanishes, and he gestures to your chest again. “All that matters is what that’s feelin’. The fact that it’s feelin’ somethin’ means you’re alive. And in that silent line-up, I heard you…

“You begged me to save you.” His voice becomes quiet, almost sad. “Angel fuckin’ knows why…I’m a monster, I could have done anything to you. But your soul called out, and I fuckin’ heard it.”

You remember…you remember your traitorous voice pleading with him to show some mercy.

“Because, Kitten…anywhere is better than that shit-hole, and your soul knew it.” Rus takes a cautious step towards you. “You saw me as a chance of escape, and you took it. What they do in that place…they don’t just keep you there like in some kind of warehouse, ready to be sold. It’d be easier, right? To just lock you up and leave you until they need you…but they don’t. They break you again and again, not only because they’re sick like that…”

The air vibrates furiously with magic, and the accompanying scent of molten metal becomes near suffocating. Rus trembles with barely contained rage, and you stagger back a small step, pressing your hands to your chest until the pressure becomes painful.

“…but because they have to. They fuck you up until a kind soul turns to hate…” He takes another step, but you don’t retreat, scared stiff.

“Until a brave soul turns to fear,” he continues, his voice lowering back to a gentle rasp. “Until a patient soul turns to sloth…”

The magic in the air gradually dissipates, leaving your ears ringing.

Rus halts mere inches from you and lifts a hand to hover close to your chest, where your hands tremble, and your soul sparks and flares.

“Until a persevering soul turns to despair.” He crouches and presses his sweat-soaked forehead to yours, chasing away the pungent scent of his magic with the smell of his tobacco. “And they don’t stop there. They keep going…until you can’t even feel despair, fear, or hate…you feel nothing. Your soul just empties, n’ you become a husk…”

You can’t understand what he’s saying, but, as though surfacing from the darkest depths of your murky pool of memories, you hear his voice again, echoing in that dark room, marching down the line of unfortunate humans back towards you.

So neglected, he’s practically soulless.

Gave up a looong time ago.

You remember your cell-mate, and the way she always fought against the Man-Who-Guarded-You. You could never understand why she would fight and fight, bringing herself only more pain and punishments. She knew what the guards did to the difficult ones, so why did she insist on being so defiant? You remember the rage in her face on the day she was taken to the fence out back, when you huddled in your corner, silent and obedient, stewing in your own filth, while she kicked and screamed…

Help me, you bitch!

You didn’t.

“Monsters get nothing from an empty soul,” Rus says softly. “A little high, but that’s it. Even a negative soul gives them a kick, so those fucks in that camp make sure that there’s nothing left. Nothing. Why the hell would humans want another abomination like that thing that broke us from that mountain?”

Is that’s why they killed her? Your cell-mate… Not because she was being difficult, but because she refused to break, because there was too much fight in her…too much determination

You can’t quite keep up with what Rus is saying. Kindness, hate, bravery, despair…you have no idea what he means. As casually as they were discussed, the only thing you ever understood about human souls was that they were greatly coveted, sought after like precious jewels, to the point where it became far too dangerous to leave shelter. The missing persons that went unsolved, and the absolute carnage that tore through Ebott’s streets during that first year since Day X became so awful that the queen herself couldn’t ignore it for long.

Needless to say, the monsters didn’t like the new law that blessed the desirable souls of her new human children with her protection – and humans exploited that greed to unimaginable lengths. Herding them, locking them up, torturing them in a place where they were well hidden, far out of reach from the queen’s protective hand…

Were Rus’s words some sick kind of coup de grâce. A twisted act of mercy?

“It doesn’t matter,” you breathe.

“What?” Rus’s voice is tight.

“It doesn’t matter,” you warble. “They still died because of what you said!”

Rus scoffs humourlessly. “Oh, Kitten, they died long before I got there.”

His quivering hand cups the back of your neck, and you tense. Will he snap it?

“Once you’re a husk,” he says, "you don’t come back. You can’t come back from that. I saw the look in their eyes, and there was nothin’ there.”

“You…” But you’re voice gives way to a sob. “Please don’t say that…”

Rus cuts you off by stroking a thumb beneath your scarred eye. “I’m tellin’ you… They died a long time ago.”

“They died!” you cry. “I could have died!

The realisation is like a shard of ice impaling you through the chest.

Rus tenses.

“I…would have joined them.” Your voice sounds so empty… “If y-you…h-hadn’t…” You become too overwhelmed by sobs to continue.

You could have been sent to that fence out back with the rest of them, and all of your fighting, your endless determination to survive would have been for nothing.

A nasty, vile feeling slowly uncurls and slithers straight for your heart, coiling tightly around it – you feel selfish. You’re not crying because those other poor souls died; none of the tears you have shed were ever for them…

You’re crying because you’d almost joined them.

Is that why you’re so upset? Because you could have easily been lumped in with the others sent to the fence out back, if you had surrendered to grief? To despair? If Rus hadn’t said those once-damning words that singled you out…if, through all the pain and suffering, you hadn’t persevered

A numbing coldness infects your veins – you’re scared. You feel awful. With a whimper, you hide your face in Rus’s chest without thinking. If you had been just that little bit weaker, if that tiny ember that was your soul had been any dimmer, you would have joined them at the fence out back…

You soulless creature…

“I would have joined them…” you sob, voice ragged. “I would have…”

It’s frightening knowing how close you were to death – you feel sick, weak in the knees, saved from sinking to the floor only by Rus’s arm sliding around your waist. 

He hushes you softly, a hand gently combing through your hair. “Kitten, the fact you feel that way is why you’re here.”

He leans down. “Think about how close you came to just throwing in the towel, so you couldn’t feel anything…because the despair was too much.” His jaw moves to your ear, his whispers tickling the hairs along your neck. “Was is painful? Did it hurt?”

Why is he doing this to you? You whine. “Of course it did…does…”

Rus’s nasal ridge nuzzles into your hair, almost apologetically. “How close did you come to the edge?”

You sob. “So close… So close!”

Rus pulls you against him in a near-bruising hug. “Yeah? You just wanna give in, don’t you? You wanna disconnect yourself from it all… Those humans? They did.”

That small, glowing part of your soul pulses, still alive, but barely… You were so close to abandoning all hope in that terrible camp, so close

It would have been so quick – like severing a thread…

But still, you held on, despite knowing that there was no future for you.

For weeks after your capture, you prayed endlessly that the queen at least had a small sense of justice within her frail heart, but no one came to save you. You couldn’t rely on her protection in that place…

But you still held on, because you continued to hope that something would save you.

You kept assuring yourself that there was something waiting for you, something that would change and free you from all the misery…and though you tried so hard to convince yourself that it would be a blessing, open up some gateway to nirvana after all your struggles, all that was waiting for you at the end of the dreary road was a monster’s hand ripping your soul from your chest, and their mouth devouring it.

But you still held on, because the thought of dying was just too frightening to imagine. 

But the rest of the broken humans had given up hope of rescue and resigned themselves to their fate – while you still fought against it – stumbling through the halls of the camp like ghosts. Like…husks.

Your feet suddenly leave the floor. You clutch at Rus’s sweater in fright, but he holds you to his ribs, pressing a hand to the small of your back so you don’t tip too far backwards.

“I know what you’re thinkin’,” he rumbles, and he collapses back onto the nearest couch. He tucks you securely against him, positioning your legs comfortably on either side of his hips, though you desperately want to pull away – it was his words that had almost doomed you – but you have no strength left. All you can do is lean against him, surrounded by the scent of him, while he strokes his fingers through your hair, feathering his touch down the back of your neck.

“You think you’re selfish ‘cause you wanted to live?”

You sniff. “But…I’m…”

You didn’t help your cell-mate, because you would have followed her to that fence – hell, is your survival really that important that it should come at the expense of others?

“Listen. Feel selfish, ‘kay? Hell, feel scared, even though the worst didn’t happen. Because, Kitten…s’better than feelin’ nothin’ at all, right?”

Rus then grumbles. “This is gonna make me sound bad, but…don’t feel sad for those humans ‘cause they died. They didn’t have the presence of mind to fear death like you do.”

You whimper – what an awful thing to say.

“Kitten…” Rus says quietly, “…you don’t have to believe me, but d’you really think that there was any hope for them, with them in the state they were in?”    

You can vividly recall the empty eyes of the other prisoners, marched into the mess hall to be fed – you remember, one day, when a human farther ahead of you in your zombie-like line crumpled to the floor without warning, hitting the stone with a dull thud…and just remained there, motionless, until the guards came and dragged them out of the way.

“No,” you whisper. You manage to summon enough strength to pull back and meet Rus’s pained eyes. “I’m scared.”

His hand moves from the back of your neck to your face, tracing the scar down your cheek. “Yeah, I know.”

“You could have killed me,” you mumble. God, if you hadn’t said that single word…

Please.

Rus’s eye twitches. “I know…”

“I’m selfish,” you whisper.

Rus shrugs. “So?”

Before you can answer, he gently coaxes you to lean back against him again so your head is effectively wedged beneath his jaw – he holds you as though he’s afraid that you’ll slip right through his fingers.

“Means you’ve still got a soul worth saving,” he rumbles.

Your weak soul hums in response. You can’t speak anymore; you can’t even cry anymore.

You just sit there, wrapped up in the arms of a creature that has shown you more mercy than any human ever has…

-

You may have slept – you’re not sure. But a deep pounding in your head gradually drags you back to semi-awareness, and you sit up.

Rus’s hand that had been tracing small circles against you back stills, and he gazes at you warily.

Your cheek feels numb from being poorly cushioned by his tough collarbone. Your chest aches after resting against his ribs. In fact, everything hurts – he’s not very comfortable to lean on… 

How long has it been? “Dinner…” you say dumbly.

Rus raises a brow. “Yeah?”

You’ve wasted the entire evening sitting with Rus. You have no idea what time it is, but you have the nagging feeling that Sans should be home within the next hour or so. “I have to make dinner.”

You attempt to shuffle out of Rus’s lap, but he pulls you back gently.

“No, you don’t,” he assures you.

You shake your head – you’re still on dangerously thin ice with Sans, and you don’t want to encourage his anger any more than you already have. It’s bad enough that you’ve neglected to clean the rest of the house, but to leave him with no dinner is bound to get you into serious trouble.

“Please, Rus,” you say weakly, and you pull back again.

He lets you go this time, defeat evident in the dropping of his shoulders.

“’Kay,” he says. “You feelin’ alright?”

You rub at your sore eyes, warm and swollen from crying. You shake your head, feeling rather drained.

But you have to do something, anything to keep your mind from drifting back to those poor humans, the ones you had so readily left behind…who you couldn’t even feel sorry for…

And cooking dinner feels like hitting two birds with one stone.

You clamber from Rus’s lap, but he curls one hand around your wrist gently. When you glance back at him, he’s holding a piece of monster candy between his fingers, presenting it to you.

“An apology,” he says with a weak smile. “Sorry for, uh…well…everythin’.”

You don’t have the mental energy to smile in return, so you take the candy with a nod of thanks and absentmindedly suck on it as you shakily make your way towards the kitchen.

In a bowl by the sink is the meat you had dug out of the freezer earlier that morning to defrost, and the clock on the fridge reads 20:39.

You still have plenty of time. Perhaps Sans will understand your situation if you explain how upset you had been? He’s mean, yes, but you have caught brief glimpses of weakness when you were so overcome with grief, suffering with the trauma.

He’ll still gripe, however, so you stagger towards the sink and retrieve the bowl of defrosted meat. You fetch a knife and a chopping board, and place them on the island, only to find that Rus has followed you. Without a word, he parks himself on a nearby chair.

Unsure of what to say, rather than engage with him, you recover your current NTT recipe book, opening it at a page you had folded down earlier for a casserole dish, and you place it beside the chopping board.

Rus still doesn’t speak as you methodically slice the raw meat into small pieces. His silent company is rather comforting, but you’re still not quite sure what to think.

He saw no way out for the humans you left behind...except you. Past the filth, past the scars, he saw right into your soul, and found that tiny, stubborn, burning part that refused to let you give in. In a room full of empty souls…empty husks…you happened to shine.

And there had been such conviction in his voice, as if he was speaking from experience. Perhaps his decision was the kindest thing he could have done – you may have tried to convince yourself that their deaths were needless, avoidable, in an attempt to mask the truth of your misery…

But still…a decision like that wasn’t his call to make, was it? Who was he to say that those humans were lost? Who was he to act as judge, jury, and executioner?

“You’re a pretty good cook.” Rus’s low voice pulls you from your dreary musings. He gestures to the knife in your hands, mechanically slicing through the meat.

In spite of yourself, a smile tugs at your mouth. “Thank you.”

“Did you like cooking? Before…?”

Your arm slows. Before the camp… “Not really. I just…” You gesture vaguely to the recipe book.

“Huh…” Rus gazes at the open page. “Y’know, watching you do that…” He inclines his head towards the chopping board. “…is weirdly hypnotic. I mean, it looks like you know what you’re doin’…”

“Oh…” Perhaps That Girl had influenced you in some way – but if you really are some kind of natural cook, it’s only because of her…   

Rus chuckles dryly, but says nothing more.

The casserole is simmering in the oven, and you are close to finishing a small starter, seasoning it with pepper, when he finally speaks again.

“You’re still mad at me, ain’t you?”

You whirl to face him, almost spraying pepper everywhere. “No!” you gasp. “Just…confused.”

Rus’s eyes are dark. “What’s ‘ere to be confused about?”

You turn back to your work. “I don’t know…”

You could tell him that you’re still sickened by his twisted act of mercy, but you could do without another argument at this hour…

“I just…” you force out, “…I still can’t understand why me…”

“Haven’t we been over this?” he grumbles.

The irritation in his voice makes you squirm, and sweat beads on your brow. “N-no, I mean…” If he was so desperate for a pet, then he could have picked up any human wandering about Ebott – there were plenty of them; homeless, jobless, all alone in the world… Not that you’re not immensely thankful for his rescue, underlying intentions aside, but why go to such a dreary place, full of damaged humans and empty souls…?

While you attempt to properly articulate your thoughts, he seems to catch on immediately. His voice is hard when he says, “I don’t really wanna talk about that.”

Stomach flipping, you glance at him over your shoulder, and a shadow has descended over his face, his jaw tense, and the air suddenly feels far too thin, almost tight…

You swallow and turn back to your work without another word. Either you’ve pushed too far and he’s angry, or the events of that day greatly unsettle him.

The silence between you stretches on for far too long, but you can’t think of anything to say. You can recall the exhaustion in his voice when he brought you to his living room, taking a long drag from his cigarette and cursing under his breath, a hand pressed to his eyes.

And now this reluctance to talk about it has you wondering:

Could his actions have been fuelled by guilt?

Could it be that after witnessing how low the humans of Ebott had fallen since Day X, Rus had felt…feels somewhat responsible?

But he is responsible, isn’t he?

If he truly is sensitive to human souls, how must it have felt to have been in the proximity of so many ragged, starving, beaten humans…husks, as he called them?

“Can…” you ask hesitantly, peeking at him over your shoulder. “Can I ask you something?”

Rus’s expression is guarded. “Sure.”

“What does it feel like?”

“Hmm?”

“Um…souls. What do they feel like?” Is he really that in tune with them that he can tell when a soul has just…given up?

“Ah…” Rus relaxes, then taps a long finger on the side of his jaw, thinking. “Kind of…like a mixture of things. Sometimes it’s warm, or cold…sometimes it’s prickly, or soft. I dunno…it’s hard to explain to someone who can’t feel ‘em like I can.”

He then puts his hands together, fixing you with a serious look – strangely, it reminds you of a teacher preparing to commence a lecture.

“’Kay…when you think of anger, what comes to mind?”

You pause to think, but Rus says, “No thinking. First thing that comes to mind, fire ‘em at me.”

“Red,” you say immediately. Red blood…red hands…red eyes…

Rus flinches. “Uuh…right. I, ah…was thinkin’ more…warm? Hot?”

You nod slowly. “I guess…”

“And sad?”

“Heavy. Lost…” Empty…

“And fear?”

You skin crawls. “Cold…wet…” Damp…metal…pain…

Rus nods solemnly. “It kinda feels like that. If you get upset, your soul feels all…ah, heavy. When you’re angry, it feels like a fuckin’ fire… When you’re happy…?” His brows raise expectantly.

Nothing immediately springs to mind. You search for an answer…but can’t seem to summon one.

“Um…calm?” you try.

Rus’s smile looks pained.  “It purrs.”

Your neck heats. “Oh…” He may have said that to get a rise out of you, but he doesn’t appear to be in a teasing mood.

The whole concept is a little disturbing, however – it’s like he can read your mind simply by listening to your soul… “Can all monsters feel them like that?”

“Uh…yeah, but some are weaker than others. Boss’s are pretty in tune with ‘em, but some of us are strong enough to feel ‘em as much as they can. Like me…”

You nod. “What about…a soul like…”

Rus brow furrows. “Ah, s’at what this is about? Like the souls in that place? You still don’t believe me, do you?”

“I want to believe you,” you say weakly – you really do.

Your answer seems to surprise him. “It feels like…just a dead weight. Like there’s something there, but it’s just there. Not warm, not cold…like a lump of just…stuff, I guess.” He takes a deep breath through his nose. “Can you imagine looking into someone’s eyes and seeing nothin’ looking back at you?“

You don’t have to imagine it at all.

You may spoken your thoughts aloud, or Rus can read them from the weak, solemn pulse of your soul, because he says, “Hmm, guess you don’t.”

A tense silence falls once more and you refocus on peppering the soup starter, unsure of how to respond.

After several long moments, Rus releases a long, deep breath. “When you think about your scars, which you do…a lot…it’s like a needle, slowly pushing in my chest. N’ every time I feel it, I can’t help but imagine how you must have got them. N’ it really fuckin’ hurts to think about.”

His words hit some chord deep within your heart. That’s the reason why he won’t look at them? You turn to face him –

You jerk back – he’s abandoned his chair, and is standing inches from you; your nose barely scraped his sternum through his smoky sweater when you’d turned.  

“But it ain’t your scars, and it ain’t ‘cause of those humans why you’re still mad,” he says.

You look down and mumble, “I’m not mad.”

Rus lifts a hand and holds it close to your chest, but he doesn’t touch you. “Huh…sure, you ain’t mad…but you’re feelin’ somethin’. You’re soul’s pretty tiny right now, but it’s like it’s spitting. Heh…like a tiny, angry kitten tryin’ to look all big and tough…” He shrugs. “It ain’t always clear, y’know? S’only a feeling, and it could mean anything. People cry when they’re sad, right? But they also cry when they’re happy. It’s complicated…”

He winds an arm around your waist and perches his jaw atop your head. “So tell me.”

If it really was guilt that affected Rus’s decision to go to the camp that day, and what made him save you, then what about the rest of the humans still there? What about the humans that will undoubtedly end up there?

“Why can’t you do something?” you practically beg. The existence of that camp is illegal…

Rus closes the distance between his hand and your chest – his touch is light, barely there, but your small, weak soul seems to jump at the contact, as though it’s reaching out… “Kitten, believe me, if I could save every damn soul in that place, I would.”

But he could, couldn’t he? He could march right into that place and tear down its walls, snap the chains of every single prisoner, and just walk straight back out again without having broken a sweat. You’ve felt the overwhelming, crushing power of his magic; and the terror on the face of the Man-In-Charge when he realised he had mistaken Rus for his brother is not something to be dismissed. Rus was strong and he knew it…

…until his earlier words register. There was something off about the tone of his voice. “A Boss…” you say faintly. You glance up at him, and he pulls back.

“…Yeah?”

“You’re…you’re not…?”

Rus blinks. “I’m what? Not a Boss?” He chuckles. “Nah…”

Your jaw drops. He’s not? Really? But the guards in the camp seemed convinced that he was a Boss monster.

Then again, they did mistake him for his brother – is Sans a Boss? He certainly fits the bill… Sans probably has more power in his pinkie finger than ten of the largest monsters alive have in their entire bodies –

“Sans!” you suddenly gasp – Boss or not, surely, at least he, a member of the Royal Guard, could do something about it, for violating the queen’s law? And if the captain herself had indeed visited that camp some time before, or during your imprisonment, then why was it still standing? “Can’t he –?”

Rus shakes his head sadly. “No, Kitten, he can’t. Humans who end up in that place are –”

The front door opens, cutting him off, and slams shut with tremendous force.

What did That Girl used to say? Talk of the devil, and he shall appear?

In a panic, you glance at the clock on the fridge. It reads 21:58. Already? You tremble – the casserole needs another half an hour, at least…

Rus steps away from you, but keeps a hand on your shoulder, like he doesn’t want you to disappear.

Sans’s angry footsteps storm into the dining room, then pause. The table is set, but the starter is not where it should be – you’re still preparing it.

Every muscle tenses when his heavy footfalls advance towards the kitchen, and you just want to run and hide. But Rus’s arm around your shoulders pins you in place, and he lowers his jaw to your ear to whisper, “S’okay. Trust me.”

Sans appears in the kitchen doorway, face livid, his fists clenched by his sides. His frightening glare focuses on you, then his brother, than back to you.

“I should have suspected,” he spits, staring at you murderously. “So, you like playing the part of pet, do you?”

You lower you head. “N-no –”   

“I feed you, clothe you, and you would rather play pet to him? After you seemed so keen on proving yourself useful to me?

Your face heats, and Rus’s arm around your shoulders squeezes comfortingly.

“Tough day, m’lord?” he asks pleasantly.

“Shut up!” Sans snarls, and you flinch at the volume of his voice. “I’ve dealt with enough idiocy today.”

Rus hums. “Sounds rough. Good thing Kitten’s cookin’ up somethin’ nice for you.”

“Is she, now?” Sans whispers dangerously. “Then why isn’t it on the table?”

You dare a glance up at him, and almost recoil from the intensity of his scarlet glower.   

“And would you care to explain to me why my house is still a mess?” he hisses.

Before you can apologise, Rus releases you and takes a step forwards so that half of his body is shielding you. “Eh, don’t be so hard on her, m’lord. She got all teary this afternoon.”

Sans’s piercing glare locks on him. “What?” he snaps.

Rus shuffles uncomfortably, stuffing his hands into the pockets of his jeans. “I, ah…made her cry.”

Sans’s expression quickly drops from a scowl to a look of utter disbelief. His gaze switches between you and his brother several times before he says, “I beg your pardon?”

You’re shocked, too – it’s the first time Rus has actually defended you from his brother.

Rus scratches the back of his head. “Yeah…I made her cry. N’ she couldn’t work.”

Sans seems at a loss for words. He averts his gaze to the floor, then to Rus, then to you, then to the floor again. Almost instantly, a weariness seems to overcome him, and he closes his eyes, brow furrowed.

“It’s just as well, I suppose,” he grumbles, then raises his voice to say to his brother, “I have a job for you.”

Rus stiffens. “Right now?” His head turns a fraction, as though he wants to look at you. “M’lord –”

A warning growl rumbles from Sans’s throat, and he opens his eyes to pin his brother with his death-glare. “Don’t make me repeat myself, you useless mutt. We’ll talk about…this…later.”

Rus swallows loudly. “Yes, m’lord.”

The submission is so quick – you stare at the back of Rus’s head, perplexed. He was so confident around his brother, then suddenly…surrender. The rapid change is jarring…

He hesitates for a moment longer, then he staggers out of the kitchen, past Sans – who watches him with an odd expression – and seconds later, the scent of warm metal wafts into the room.

You reluctantly meet Sans’s eyes to endure his wrath alone, only to find that the scarlet glow in them is nothing more than it’s usual, calm light.

He regards you for a moment longer, before he says so quietly, “I expect to have dinner ready for me when I come back.” And he leaves, marching up the stairs, and within moments, he’s holed up in his room, slamming his door shut with force.

With shaking legs, you stumble back to the counter to finish off the salad.

You may still be feeling a little weary after the earlier upset, but Sans’s absolute fury at finding you so close to his brother was definitely not imagined…was it? It was a strange kind of anger, one you haven’t seen in his eyes before; as though he was almost offended that you had abandoned your chores to spend time with his brother.

Jealousy?

You shake your head – no…Sans’s loathing for you is unmistakable. Why would he be jealous at the thought of you wishing to become Rus’s little pet after all?

You had definitely imagined it.

It’s another hour before he re-emerges.

With the casserole ready, dessert prepared, and re-heated starter in hand, you walk through to the dining room and place it on the table, and turn to fetch the wine. You jump when you find Sans standing in the doorway, glaring daggers at you.

The anger is back, and it’s not the kind you had seen in the kitchen – he’s furious with you.

You can’t escape with him blocking the door, so you lace your fingers together and obediently lower your head.

“What did my brother tell you?” he demands.

You’re confused for a moment, before you realise he’s referring to your earlier conversation with Rus – about the camp…

You clasp your hands together tightly. “The…humans –”

“Yes, yes,” Sans snaps. “What about the humans?”

“Only that…” You can’t seem to will your voice to stop quivering. “They were empty…”

Sans is in front of you in an instant, his nasal ridge mere inches away from your chin, his eyes burning red, like a bright, blinding fire. You cringe and curl over, hunching your shoulders to your neck.

Your heartbeat is frantic – what have you done? What have you done to incur his anger?  

“Listen to me very carefully,” he hisses. “From now on, you do not ask questions…you do not even speak of that place under this roof, and you especially do not drag my brother into it.”

“I-I’m sorry!” you choke. “I’m sorry…I’ll be good!”

Whatever Sans was planning to say next gets caught in his throat, but you don’t dare look up at him, screwing your eyes shut, clenching your trembling fists together.

After a moment, Sans growls softly and steps out of your space.

“I…” He tuts, then mutters, “Honestly, of all days…” Louder, he says, “That place is behind you now. There’s nothing you can do about it, and there’s nothing I can do about it. I suggest that you leave it alone.”

You desperately want to know why – why can’t he do anything? What is it about that place that seems untouchable?

You forget yourself and look up. “But –”

You choke back the words and immediately return your gaze to the floor when Sans’s eyes flash dangerously, a bitterly cold wind tingling your tongue.

“If you want to know more,” he says in a frighteningly soft voice, “then perhaps you should tell me how you ended up in that camp?”

Your skin goes cold, and it’s as though the floor has opened up at your feet, plunging you into that nothingness of the void. Through the sudden roaring in your ears, you can hear the phantom ratta-tatta of wild gunfire, the creaking and shattering of metal, and you can even smell all the blood…

You can see That Girl…she runs. She stumbles. She falls…

You keep going, dragging her with you, and you beg her to hold on. This was not what she was waiting for. This was not what was promised…

This is all your fault.

Bile bubbles in your throat, and you shake your head, backing away.

Sans snorts, disappointed. “Well, then…when you are ready to tell me, I’ll be waiting.” He then takes his seat at the table, and digs into his starter without giving you a second glance.

Sweat oozes from every pore in rivets, sticking your hair to your forehead, and your uniform clings to your back. You stagger into the kitchen to retrieve the casserole from the oven, but you pause before opening the door.

Alarm bells ring in your ears, growing louder and louder to the point where they become almost deafening. There was something in his tone that just doesn’t sit right with you – confident, assured…almost as if he knows something…

Does he know?

No, he couldn’t…could he? Then again, Sans seems to possess some kind of sixth sense that can pick up on things so easily, almost like he can read minds –

You heart stutters – he can’t read minds, can he?

Of course he can’t – it’s your soul that he’s reading. It certainly explains why he always seems to know that you haven’t cleaned his house properly, but Rus did say that all monsters could gather from souls were emotions, rather than coherent thoughts...

Is there something about that camp that everyone seems to know about except you? Does it have something to do with why both Sans and Rus are powerless to do anything about it? Why it hasn’t been torn down? Why, in spite of the queen’s law, it’s still standing?

You take a deep, shuddering breath, and open the oven. You don’t know what to say; you don’t know what to think; you don’t know how to feel. You want to beg Rus to tell you more, but Sans’s threat rings loud and clear in your mind:

Don’t drag my brother into this.

Sans had certainly not been happy to find that Rus has brought you back from the camp – he clearly wants his brother as far removed from any dealings or mentions of that camp as possible.

… The only thing that seems to be stopping Rus from decimating that dreadful place is his brother…

But why?

You could always ask Sans, but you’re not ready to revisit that part of you. You just can’t – it hurts to think about…

It doesn’t really matter now…you could just tell him everything, rip off that bandage in one go with a brief jolt of pain. You’re never going to get the chance to escape again, and he surely won’t punish you for something that you have already been punished tenfold for…

… Will he?

Your mind is made up by the time you return to the dining room with the steaming bowl of casserole. You place it on the table and back away, lowering your head.

You’re certain that Sans’s livid gaze remains on you for some time, and his magic stirs, softly humming as though curious. When you still refuse to speak, he turns to his meal with a quiet sigh, and his buzzing magic dims…

…disappointed.

-

After finishing his meal – and without uttering a single word throughout – Sans quickly retreats to his room, leaving you to clean your mess in the kitchen.

Since dinner was later than usual, you work quickly so you can get to bed in order to get a decent night’s sleep. Done with the kitchen, you return to the living room to fetch the bottle of oil from the couch, and walk in to find the TV on once more with Naptaton EX lit up on the screen, but blessedly muted. You ignore it, and locate the bottle leaning against Rus’s book: The Myth and Magic of Monsters and Men.

You grimace. This must have been the mess that Sans had referred to earlier. When you retrieve the oil, you notice a folded down page in the book where Rus must have left off.

There are some pretty interesting essays on souls in it…

You pick it up and weigh it in your hands, flicking through the pages. Perhaps you could try reading, if only to try to understand what Rus was telling you about kindness, hate, bravery… Maybe once you glean a better picture of what souls truly mean to his kind, you can understand what he was trying so hard to explain…?

You let the pages fall open to the marked point, revealing a new chapter: Myth and Magic: Part II – Humans. The SOUL and it’s Many Counterbalances.

You’ve never come across such a book before – any monster related book was always extortionately priced…in fact, The Girl could never afford a book after the monsters took over. You scan the first line of the top paragraph: 

Love, hope, compassion – these are the traits said to make up the SOUL, the very culmination of every living being. However, the absolute nature of ‘SOUL’ is unknown.

You’re not surprised. After all, humans have proven that their souls don’t need these things to exist.

-

You start when your forehead connects with the book – you hadn’t felt the sleep creeping up on you. Perhaps curling up on Rus’s mattress wasn’t the best place to try reading. It’d be so easy to just sink further into it, to rest your head on the pillow, just for a few moments…

Blinking the sleep from your eyes, you focus on the open page, locating where you had nodded off…

 

…notable differences between human and monster SOULs, every human SOUL is categorised by their own ‘traits’ coined by the human Sorcerers of old. The characteristics of each trait defines the human’s abilities and personality. But, like light and dark, and good and evil, with each trait comes an additional trait that counterbalances the SOUL, and will further define the nature of whom the SOUL belongs to.

Where there is patience, there is always sloth; where there is bravery, there is always fear; where there is integrity, there is always neutrality; where there is perseverance, there is always despair; where there is kindness, there is always hate; where there is justice, there is always guilt; and where there is determination, there is always defeat.

What truly defines the human SOUL is –

 

Your head nods again – you’re so tired, but you want to keep reading. This is what Rus had been telling you, and you need to know more…

 

What truly defines the human SOUL is dependent on what their vessels will choose to lead with. Should a brave SOUL act through fear, and not courage, they shall become impulsive, and will ultimately do more harm to their surroundings than good. [see TRAIT: BRAVERY, pg. 401] Likewise, should a kind SOUL – notably the weakest of all the SOULs – give in to hate and spite, they could develop the potential to do serious harm to others. [see TRAIT: KINDNESS, pg. 457] Should a persevering SOUL give in to despair, they may very well surrender the will to live, and bring harm unto themselves. [see TRAIT: PERSEVERANCE, pg. 439] A just SOUL is an anomaly, and may often be a result of, or result in, overwhelming guilt, and thus can be the most challenging of SOULs to properly define; however, currently, it is considered to be both a beginning and an end. [see TRAIT: JUSTICE, pg. 472] Should a true SOUL begin to –

 

The next thing you register is a gentle but solid grip pulling your hand away from your chin, and you stir. There’s a low chuckle, and the cool surface of the book against your cheek is replaced with the softness of worn cotton, smelling of sweet, sweet smoke.

The scent practically encases you, but there’s the faintest trace of a crisp winter breeze weaved into the heady tobacco. Something snakes around your middle, shifting you into a more comfortable position, but you’re far too tired to protest, and within seconds, you’re asleep again… 

 

Chapter Text

 

-Chapter Six-

Anniversary of Day X

1825 days since the Shattering

-

Warnings for chapter: Graphic Depictions of Violence, Trauma, Scars, Mentions of Rape, Implications of Attempted Rape, Mentions of Suicidal Thoughts, Blood

-

 

“I gotta go now, Kitten,” a husky voice whispers in your ear.

You mumble sleepily in response and the voice chuckles.

“There’s the happy purr. But I’ve really gotta go.”

You blink away the sleep in time to see Rus’s silhouette roll up into a sitting position. He presses a hand to your forehead. “You doin’ ok?”

You nod, and Rus brushes a stray lock of hair back from your face.

“Dunno what time I’ll be back,” he says. “M’lord’ll be back late late, so don’t wait up.”

You push yourself up when Rus stands and stretches languidly. He shrugs off his hoodie, and you squint in the darkness to try and catch a glimpse of his body, to see if he really is all bone. You can just about see the ridges of his spine, the curves of his ribs...

All bone. Where is…everything? How does he laugh without a throat? How does he breathe without lungs? How does he eat without a stomach? Does it all come from that void he calls a mouth?

“You’re gettin’ me all self-conscious with your starin’, Kitten,” he rumbles playfully.

Your stomach somersaults, and you look away. “Sorry.”

You need to have Sans’s coffee ready for him before he leaves. With a soft groan, your sore, overworked muscles protesting, you roll off the mattress and reach for your uniform, folded neatly on the floor nearby.

“You gettin’ up too?” Rus asks, and you glance back at him just as he’s shrugging on a sweater. “You can sleep in today, you know?”

Is Sans letting you rest because of what happened yesterday? You want to object – you’re feeling much better – but Rus halts your protest with a pat on the head.

“If you didn’t get enough reminders, today is Day X,” he says with a smile in his voice.

Oh, of course…so overwhelmed after the emotional turmoil of yesterday evening, you’d forgotten that Day X was so close.

“It’s a national holiday,” Rus continues. “You get a day off. I got Sans to agree with me on this. Once all the stress is over, I might get him to agree to give you Sunday’s off, too.”

A day off? What are you supposed to do? You can’t go outside without either one of the brothers accompanying you, and all that will be showing on TV is the dreaded anniversary celebrations.

As if Rus reads you mind, he says, “It’ll turn on by itself eventually, but keep the TV on. You don’t have to watch it, but we may attract some unwanted attention if Napstaton finds out that someone in a supposedly empty house switched off his show.”

You nod, but could Napstaton really identify which house isn’t airing his performance? With the reach he has with his network of clones, wired into the NTT Network’s system with his strange magic, perhaps he can. That Girl never turned off her TV in fear of incurring his wrath, racking up her energy bill in the process.

Rus slides his arms through the leather jacket with the fur lined hood, then bends down to nuzzle into your hair. “Relax today, Kitten. I’ll bring you back somethin’ nice.”

And then he’s gone in the blink of an eye, leaving you with the taste of his magic on your tongue, the phantom pressure of his nasal ridge in your hair, and the lingering warmth of his breath on your ear. 

-

The TV is already on when you enter the living room, feeling fresher after your shower – though a little sluggish and drowsy – dressed in nothing but what you’ve come to accept as your grey sweater now.

Napstaton’s news reader is already highlighting the day’s events, and his many correspondents are reporting from The Lake, Woodlands, Mountains, The Plains, Central, and the enormous, extravagant stage set up in New Home.

“…and we can expect an even bigger turnout as the day goes on!” the correspondent in The Plains is saying, hovering before a huge screen with a direct feed to New Home, gathering a growing crowd of monsters and humans alike.

“Thank you, dear correspondent,” the news anchor in the studio says. “Every television is tuned into the magnificent Day X celebrations, commemorating five years since the monsters broke free from their prison beneath Mt. Ebott thanks to the admirable efforts of our dear Queen Toriel, watched over and blessed by the benevolent Angel. But today is twice as special for a reason, lovely viewers! This year has seen Ebott advance beyond its borders and extend its influence into neighbouring counties. GOLD value has reached a new high, and trade overseas has brought more riches and luxuries than we every could have hoped to possess twelve months ago!

“Naturally, all successes are down to the love and gracious rule of our beloved queen and guardian, and yours truly, the great Napstaton, and my extensive reach to all of Ebott and beyond! In less than a day’s time, Ebott’s borders shall once again open, allowing the eager flood of new citizens to join us in our ever growing eutopia. And dearest Queen Toriel shall welcome you with open arms, new viewers! While in Ebott, you shall never be left wanting of her love and devotion!

“And you shall never be left wanting of me! As is so happens, my long awaited performance, debuting my brand new album, set for release after midnight tonight, shall begin in just ten minutes!”

The screen immediately cuts to Napstaton EX, lounging in a large leather chair, and you almost give an Oh! of surprise when you see Happstablook hovering about him, dusting down a dark cloak clipped to his shoulders with three brushes simultaneously.   

It occurs to you that for Happstablook and Napstaton to be related, Napstston must have once been a spectre like his cousin. A literal ghost in the machine… Rus would have found that funny.

“Yes, my wonderful viewers!” Napstaton EX drawls. “This party’s going to be going on all day, all night! So I hope you got your twelve hours of shut-eye, because we’re not stopping even for a single commercial break!”

Napstaton EX stands, and Happstablook scowls irritably, throwing down his brushes and floating after his cousin with a small compact and contour brush.

“But just before I grace the stage,” Napstaton EX continues with an eerie smile, walking towards the camera in a rather intimidating manner, “I must extend my gratitude to the Royal Guard, and their wonderful efforts to ensure that today’s performance goes down without a hitch. Their dedication knows no bounds, and I am eternally indebted to them.” He points directly towards the lens, his toothy smile stretching his silver face – you have the oddest sensation of a heavy gaze weighing down upon you, like he can somehow see you through the camera, and you shrink back.

“This performance is for you,” Napstaton EX says jovially. “You, who go to such great lengths for the good of monster-kind…by enabling me to bless their senses with my fabulous self!”

The screen switches back to the stage at New Home, surrounded by thousands of monsters, humans, and heavily armed security. The correspondent there flashes the large screen of his body in what looks to be the shape of a smiley face.

“Yes, yes!” he drones, unable to perfectly replicate Napstaton EX’s slightly more natural drawl. “But before we begin, a message from her Majesty herself, to all her beloved children in Ebott!”

The camera cuts to the centre of the stage, but nothing happens immediately. For several minutes, there is only the din of the growing crowd, and the hustle and bustle of security flitting about the stage. You consider fetching yourself some breakfast during the pause, but just as you turn to leave, the queen finally emerges onto the stage, surrounded by guards donning the royal emblem.

To her right is a terrifying looking reptilian creature with piercing red eyes and half of it’s face practically missing – it’s so badly scarred, like the skin had just melted into the mess of flesh that it is now – clutching a ginormous axe that looks like it could cleave through a brick wall.

And to the queen’s left is Sans.

He’s alert, his eyes darting this way and that, assessing the area for threats, and that flickering crimson flare is alight in his left socket, threatening and disarming – the other socket is completely black. Unlike the reptilian monster, he holds no weapon, but…he honestly doesn’t need one to look intimidating.

The queen stands proud, casting her cloudy eyes to the crowd. Happstablook did a fantastic job on her; she look’s stunningly regal in her red gown highlighted with golden embroidery along the hem, with a long, black, shimmering veil hooked to her shoulders, and a sharp, ruby-studded crown across her forehead. But when she speaks, there’s a noticeable intonation to her tone of voice that suggests that she’s not very happy to be there.     

She’s halfway through her first sentence when you tune in to what she’s saying.

“…we, on this monumental anniversary of our freedom,” she announces, “give thanks to our human neighbours, who have embraced our ways with open arms. As I have embraced you, as my children.”

She presses a hand to her heart and smiles tenderly, but it soon vanishes, and her brow furrows. 

“You cannot be held accountable for the actions of your ancestors, who so hastily judged us and cast us far beneath the earth, to rot and starve and waste away –!”

The absolute hatred in her voice sends a shiver rocking down your spine, and the crowd before her has become unnervingly silent.

The queen clears her throat. “I am…thrilled to be standing before you on this historical day to open the celebrations, and to address you all in your own homes as though I were standing there, proclaiming my eternal devotion to you. My children, the past is in the past, and I, your beloved queen, shall never give you cause to fear…”

The queen’s smiling mouth pulls into a sneer – her teeth, the deadly canines beneath her perfectly powdered nose, are just visible through the fur rimming her top lip.  

“…my kind again. My…dearest children, you know that all I do is for your own good. My love for you know no bounds, and I –”

You can’t watch any more of this. You slink into the kitchen and pour yourself a large bowl of cereal, withdrawing an NTT cookbook from the top cupboard as you do so. Since you don’t need to trouble yourself with your chores today, you decide to the use the free time to get ahead of yourself. While you munch through your cereal, you bookmark certain recipes that catch your eye – starters, mains, and desserts.

Satisfied, you search the kitchen for the required ingredients. You’re only missing a few, so you make a few alterations to your selection. You really should write all of this down, but there’s no blank paper readily on hand. The office must have some, surely?                        

When you enter the well organised room, you see the thick book, The Myth and Magic of Monsters and Men, placed in the centre of the desk, instead of in the library, where it should be. You tuck it beneath your arm to return it to it’s rightful place once you’ve found what you’re looking for.  

You really shouldn’t be rummaging through Sans’s personal belongings – you’d likely lose a hand for it – but if you return the notepad to its home in the drawer once you’re done with it, then there’s no harm, is there?

… Is there?

Swallowing the rising bile in your throat, you close the drawer and patter up to Rus’s room. The paper balls littering his bedroom floor are already covered with incomprehensible scribbles, so you check his desk. Many of the papers stacked beside his computer are covered with his untidy handwriting, too, along with a couple of complicated looking diagrams here and there; but after some careful digging, you find several small sheets of lined paper, seemingly torn from a notebook, but never used. A large selection of chewed up pens are strewn about the desk; you take those that appear less dented than others, and return to the kitchen.

As you plan out the meals for the coming weeks, you pour yourself another bowl of cereal – once you’re finished with that, you make some toast and devour it in minutes. You’re not sure if you’re hungry, or you just want to eat for the sake of eating, just because you can now…

With the meals planned, instead of returning The Myth and Magic of Monster and Men to the library, you find yourself parked on a stool in the kitchen with the book open on the counter. You can’t remember where you left off, so you decide to begin with the first chapter you come across: Monsters, Magic, and the Power of SOULs – Introduction.

 

A monster’s matter is made purely of magic. Their physiology greatly differs from a human’s, whose bodies and organs need particular nutrients to survive, whereas a monster need only rely on maintaining high reserves of magic to remain healthy. While monsters are mostly made of magic, humans are mostly made of water. With their physical matter, they are far stronger than us – however, they will never know the joy of expressing themselves through magic. Their magic is subdued, locked within the deepest parts of their SOULs, rendered useless over years of neglect – only those born a Sorcerer [see CATEGORY: Sorcerer, pg. 505] are capable of full magical expression.

As such, monsters are particularly in tuned to the SOUL. However, while there are a limited number of monsters whose magic is so powerful that their SOUL can persist after death, typically known as a Boss [see CLASSIFICATION: BOSS, pg. 243], all monsters are capable of performing what is known as a perfect resonance.

A perfect resonance, to put it bluntly, exposes the SOUL, or forces the vessel to align wholly with its SOUL in order to reduce their physical matter. During a perfect resonance, a human is at their weakest, and must rely on the untapped powers of their SOUL alone to defend themselves, something that they have, even to this day, never managed to wholly perfect. In layman terms, when a perfect resonance is performed, a human’s SOUL can be easily overpowered when reduced to purely magical matter.

However, there are certain monsters whose magic allows them to, when perfectly resonating with a SOUL – or even performing a minor resonance – affect them physically, and in some rare instances, mentally.

Typical outcomes of such a resonance with a SOUL can result in the vessel experiencing temporary paralysis, [see CATEGORY: Paralysis, pg. 185] increased or decreased body mass, [see CATEGORY: Mass, pg. 189] an almost magnetic pull to certain substances, [see CATEGORY: Magnetismus, pg. 194] among other things. These are mainly physical afflictions, and affect the SOUL directly without influencing the vessel’s mind in any way. However, there are some cases that have documented incidents that detail a particular resonance that has resulted in the vessel’s psyche being altered or minutely affected.

However, there is not enough evidence in said rare cases to suggest that a monster can wholly affect the vessel’s state of mind, meaning that they cannot force a SOUL to experience a certain feeling – for example; pain – by conducting a resonance alone. But rather by encouraging the vessel through a resonance to believe that it is suffering more pain than is being inflicted physically, it can lead to the vessel to surrender faster, and sometimes even accelerate death. [see CATEGORY: Delusion, pg. 235]

Nor have they proven that some monsters, through Delusion – or any type of magic – can resonate so seamlessly with a SOUL that they can create a two-way connection between monster and human. It is suggested by numerous theories that the monster initiating even a minor resonance can end up exhibiting certain traits of the SOULs vessel, and at times share in their emotions, their sense of touch, or even their thoughts. However, there has been no concrete evidence to verify this, and rumours concerning the subject have been constantly rejected by experts, and excused as mere myth and speculation. [see THEORY: Myth – Soul-Link, pg. 553]

However, despite humans’ inexperience with tapping into the raw power of their SOULs, the strength of the human SOUL allows it to persist indefinitely after death. This in itself presents an opportunity; if a monster defeats a human, they can take its SOUL.

The power to take their SOULs. This is the power that the humans feared.

The reason for such a fear can be explained, but hardly justified; to perform a perfect resonance is to enter a what we have come to refer to as a CONFLICT.

While seen as a threatening act by humans, there is no other reason for a monster to perform a perfect resonance under any other circumstances other than self-defence. The monster is always the initiator, being so in-tune with the SOUL, however, to do so is considered a dangerous gamble, since should a monster choose not to fight during a CONFLICT, then they run the risk of handing power over to the enemy.

A human’s SOUL is so powerful, that it would take an innumerable amount of monster SOULs to equal such strength. While humans cannot consciously use this power unless born a Sorcerer, and while a perfect resonance can expose a SOUL and reduce a human’s physical matter significantly enough to cause damage, engaging in a CONFLICT can ultimately awaken this dormant power hidden within, and trigger a human’s defences depending on their trait [see Part II – Humans. The SOUL and it’s Many Counterbalances, pg. 385]

 

You’re enthralled – you had no idea there was so much more to magic and the soul than you thought. This is what Rus wanted you to understand…

You make yourself some more toast and a cup of tea, and settle back down to further educate yourself on Ebott’s monster populace…

-

 

PERSEVERANCE , defined, is persistence in doing something despite difficulty or delay in achieving success.

This should not be confused with determination [see TRAIT: Determination, pg. 475]  – perseverance is a little more complicated. Determination is to continue forward in spite of the circumstances; to persevere is to remain unmoved and undaunted by the current circumstances. Perseverance means to adapt, to review the situation and alter their tactics to overcome it; it means to never accept failure, and take a different path and try again. Simply put, to persevere is to endure.

Could this be considered a strength, as well as weakness? A persevering SOUL will endure anything; trauma, abuse, both physical and mental, and continue on, even taking extreme measures to ensure that the vessel succeeds.

Perseverance is typically regarded as a rather strong trait, second to determination, and is often put at odds with integrity [see TRAIT: INTEGRITY, pg. 225]. Many experts have struggled over the years to properly position the traits on ------’s Trait Scale [see pg. 371], alternating between positioning integrity above perseverance, and vice-versa. But what many experts have accepted to separate the traits is how their strength differs; a persevering SOUL persists through thick and thin, adapting –

You pause, then blink. You rub your eyes and re-read the last sentence, but a strange blotch obscures your vision, as though you’ve stared at a light for too long. You can’t seem to make out one word…just one…

You excuse it, worried that you may be getting a migraine; but when you move on, the spot on your eye vanishes…and you forget what you were looking for in the first place.

But what many experts have accepted to separate the traits is how their strength differs; a persevering SOUL persists through thick and thin, adapting to new obstacles in order to overcome them, while a true SOUL can choose to surrender, should their honour be put into question. It is only recently that experts have collectively agreed to rank perseverance higher on the Trait Scale than integrity. But why?

Why have experts chosen to rank such a trait higher than what is deemed to be a virtuous SOUL, and yet placed it lower than a determined SOUL? Many experiments and studies have provided us with multiple examples of the strength of perseverance, and ultimately, the damage it causes. Because to persevere is to persist regardless of the vessel’s circumstances, pitting survival above all else, this can cause stress, trauma, pain, and often times plague the vessel with severe mental ailments, and can cause the vessel to surrender to despair [jump to COUNTERBALANCE: Despair] As a result, many have come to call perseverance a curse, rather than a blessing.

But there are others who disagree; they argue that there is not enough evidence to support the theory that a persevering SOUL will give in to despair, as that goes against the very definition of the trait. Would a SOUL such as this fall victim to severe mental ailments, when their very nature is to remain undaunted and unmoved? Or do the vessels indeed experience these mental ailments, and does their strength allow them to persist through them, or even overcome them?

However, what truly separates perseverance from the rest of its fellow traits is that it appears to rely more on instinct, acting as, what the humans would call, an ‘independent muscle’, like the human heart. It seems as though we are suggesting that a persevering SOUL possesses some minor form of sentience. This is, however, not what we are suggesting at all.

Many experts have noted that test subjects tended to display a near-indomitable will to survive; subjects who have been exposed to simulations depicting stressful scenarios have been recorded to assess the situation with clarity, and overcome the simulation by learning from it. However, those placed in perilous simulations have displayed actions that vary between what have been recorded as ‘sensible’ and ‘shocking’. [jump to FACT: Perseverance].   

What is truly shocking is that there have been some subjects recorded to have simply endured the simulation, no matter how stressful. Physical, mental, they endured the simulation, some with considerable force, others without. And it is truly these subjects – those who endured and remained undaunted – which have convinced our experts to rank perseverance so high on the Trait Scale.

But for now, we shall look at what perseverance is when faced with magic; when experiencing a perfect resonance, and a minor resonance.

Trait: Perseverance – Minor Resonance

In terms of a minor resonance, a persevering SOUL, unlike integrity, cannot resist the influence of magic. However, while a true SOUL has admirable defence, a persevering SOUL, as stated before, is adaptable – it tends to fluctuate between a higher defence, or a higher attack.

This is what the humans tend to call ‘instinct’. Another term for the phenomenon is ‘fight or flight’. Many would say that subjects usually fall into either one of those categories. However, it has been recorded that the subjects with persevering SOULs fell into both periodically, and alternated between the two rapidly.

But why is this? And what does this mean when faced with magic? When affected by Mass, does a persevering SOUL summon the will to push against this weight upon them, lifting it enough to support themselves once again – if their mass is decreased, will they alternatively pull themselves back to some anchor point? Similarly; when influenced by Delusion, will the SOUL somehow break through the illusion and plant themselves back into reality, either by evoking some memory or feeling that affects them in some way, that separates reality from fantasy?

While a perfect resonance exposes the SOUL and triggers its defences, a minor resonance does not. Therefore, technically, a persevering SOUL should be as susceptible to magical influence as any other trait, sans integrity. Experts have not witnessed this inner conflict in action, and have not recorded concrete evidence to inform us of any symptoms, aside from this theory of ‘fight or flight’. We can only assume, when the SOUL is influenced during a minor resonance, the vessel may experience mild pain and nausea, much like integrity, when resisting it.

Or perhaps we are wrong, and it cannot break free, but merely adapts. What it means to adapt, however, is still put into question.

For example; when influenced by Paralysis, a persevering SOUL may simply endure the effects of the magic, then use the knowledge they have collected from the experience to adapt. They may use their predicament to their advantage. But this again brings up the question of how? Would the SOUL rely purely on instinct, or develop a calculated approach to the situation in order to –

 

You shuffle about on the stool – you haven’t felt this bloated in a while. Perhaps it’s all the food you’ve gorged yourself on all morning; you’re body’s still definitely not used to so much of it. You mark your place in the book and carry it through to the living room – perhaps a softer seat will help ease the discomfort.   

The concert is still going strong, with Napstaton EX surrounded by an army of dancing clones donning latex military hats and jackets. He’s certainly not slowing down, singing a rather energetic techno-jazz number while striking domineering poses with his extra pair of arms extended from his back. This particular song must be from the new album, if he’s extended his additional limbs – he usually saves them for really important performances. You’ve never given much thought to why he doesn’t keep them out all the time; they make him look far more intimidating than without, and they must make daily tasks so much easier to do. It may have something to do with energy consumption…

It’s not a bad track, but you want to read, and the shrill, computerised saxophone samples are a little grating on the eardrums. You search for the remote, and find it back in it’s place on the mantlepiece – you think back to Rus casually pulling it from between the cushions of the couch. How you managed to lose it in such a place is beyond you.

You mute Napstaton’s auto-tuned warbling and the heavy bass, shifting to one foot…

You’re suddenly uncomfortably aware of a warm wetness between your legs. You drop the book and the remote in a panic, and you thrust a hand beneath your sweater, swiping your fingers between your thighs.

Your fingertips come away smeared with red.

You’re so shocked by the return of your period, after several months of nothing, that you almost mistake the blood for some kind of internal injury. At the realisation, the muscles in your pelvis clench and you groan at the familiar ache.

Thankfully, you haven’t ruined your sweater, and when you check the stool in the kitchen, you find it clean. It must have only just started, but it’s return certainly explains your sudden appetite….and why you’ve been so affected by Rus’s constant petting over the past couple of days. His actions may not have been particularly suggestive, but your hormone heightened brain may have…interpreted them as such.

You’re only partially grateful for it returning on the one day you’ve been left in the house alone, but you’re not exactly sure of what to do next. A pair of skeleton monsters can’t possibly own any sanitary products. All you can think of to use is tissue…

You stagger upstairs as carefully as you can, wary of your lack of underwear now more than ever. You take the rejected panties from Rus’s secretive sock drawer, and hobble for the bathroom. Trying not to leak onto the pristine, white tiled bathroom floor – though you know it’s all your imagination – you stuff a huge wad of toilet paper into the underwear before slipping them on.

It’s uncomfortable. And you still don’t feel…very secure. You wobble back into Rus’s room to fetch your skirt, but that still too open. You need a pair of slacks or something –

Would Rus mind if you borrowed a pair of his sweats? Just for the day? He certainly doesn’t mind when you wear his sweater.

Among the paper ball mess, there are several pieces of clothing strewn about the floor. You don’t want to ruin any of his clean clothes by accident – if he has any clean clothes – and you can always throw whatever you don’t choose in the washing machine while you’re at it. So you gather the discarded clothes into a musty smelling pile and haul it down to the utilities room. As you throw each garment into the machine, you pick through them, settling for a pair of black three-quarter length sweats.

They’re loose, and almost reach your ankles, but tightening the string in the waistband secures them in place, and you roll the legs up to rest halfway up your shins.

You feel a little more comfortable – ignoring the fact that, unlike your sweater, the sweats still belong to Rus. You assure yourself that he won’t mind and return to the living room.

But the cramps have only gotten worse during your search for spare clothes. You limp over to where you dropped the remote and The Myth and Magic of Monsters and Men, doubled over and clutching your abdomen. You’d forgotten just how painful the cramps could be. Were they ever this bad?

After retrieving the book and TV remote, you park yourself on the floor, curling up against one of the couches. You mute the TV, and resolve to distract yourself with more reading.

You pick up from where you left off:

 

For example; when influenced by Paralysis, a persevering SOUL may simply endure, then adapt. They may use their predicament to their advantage, but this again brings up the question of how? Would the SOUL rely purely on instinct, or develop a calculated approach to the situation in order to overcome the magic binding their SOUL to the monster’s will?

However, while we continue to refer to instinct, we do not believe that instinct and perseverance are one in the same. The very definition of instinct is a natural or intuitive way of acting or thinking; meaning that it is hardwired into the very physiology of humans. Perseverance is not defined as so, though this particular change has been noted to have been observed during a single encounter, but has not been recorded since.

The subject appeared to display signs of a struggle, and acted as if by this ‘instinct’. The observer claimed to have witnessed a notable change in the subject, but this change was brief, and quote; ‘seemed like it was my all my imagination’.

The details of this particular change seem to suggest –

 

You screw your eyes shut when a particularly painful cramp disturbs you. Once it passes, you continue:     

 

For example; when influenced by Magnetismus, a persevering SOUL will –

 

You realise that you’ve skipped ahead, but the pain in your hips and your lower back is too distracting. You abandon the book and un-mute the TV, pulling a pillow from the nearby couch and hugging it against your abdomen, adopting the foetal position.

Despite how you feel about Napstaton and his infinite narcissism, he can certainly put on a good show. Every now and then the camera cuts from him to the crowd, showing the world just how entertained they are. But it never lingers on them for long, returning to Napstaton after only a second or two. At some point, the camera cuts to the queen, overseeing the performance from the balcony of a nearby building that’s draped with banners bearing the royal crest. She still doesn’t look very impressed.

To her right is the ferocious looking reptile, and to her left, Sans is still alert, still incredibly focused. You search for Rus, but he’s nowhere to be seen. He may be somewhere in the crowd, celebrating. But if he really was required to be there, as Sans put it, then he must be relatively important to the proceedings. Would he be with the queen? Or perhaps he’s working backstage with that friend of his…Undyne?

The camera remains on the queen for a little longer than it did for the crowd, but it’s almost no time at all before Napstaton EX is once again dominating the screen.

You may have imagined it, since the camera cut away too quickly for you to properly examine her, but you could have sworn you saw tears glistening in the corners of the queen’s blind eyes.

-

Your afternoon consists of multiple trips to the bathroom, wandering about the house to dispel the numbness in your legs, and enduring Napstaton’s Day X performance. The cramps prevent you from doing much else – you know that you can work through them, but you don’t…want to. You just want to curl up in a ball and wait for the unpleasantness to pass.

When you hear muffled singing in the entrance hall, you start. When you smell the warm, metallic scent of magic, you almost jump to your feet.

Rus is home much earlier than you thought he’d be. All of a sudden, you’re not so sure if he’d appreciate you stealing his clothes anymore. You hunker down behind the couch, hoping that he hasn’t spotted you, and wait for his throaty, off-key singing to drift towards the kitchen.

You slowly creep into the entrance hall while Rus cheerfully hums away to one of Napstaton’s singles, swinging the fridge door open with an audible clatter. You pause at the bottom of the staircase, ready to duck back into the living room should he emerge, but after several long seconds, you deem it safe enough to continue.

You keep your eyes on the entrance hall as you ascend the stairs, ready to bolt at any moment. But you reach the landing without incident, and release a breath of relief –

“Expecting someone else?”

With a garbled shout, you leap away from the voice, only saving yourself from toppling back down the stairs by grabbing the banister.

Rus is relaxing against the wall with his hands in his pockets and one leg crossed over the other, watching you as though he’s thoroughly entertained – though there is a noticeable weariness in his eyes.

“Sorry,” he rumbles and offers you a hand. “Thought there might be something wrong since you were so intent on sneakin’ away.”

You accept his help and he pulls you to your feet. “Th-thank you…”

He chuckles, eyes roaming over your acquired outfit. “Heh…I know people say that their pets can look like their owners, but…”

You blink. Pet? Owner?  Defiance rises within you, unbidden, and your soul seems to throb with displeasure.

Rus’s smile turns sheepish, perhaps sensing the irritation in your soul, but he doesn’t apologise. He leans forwards to tug at his sweats hanging from your waist. “So, what’s up with that? You get cold, or somethin’?”

He doesn’t appear angry, but you know of his wicked temper, and you definitely don’t want to encourage it. “I’m sorry.”

Rus shakes his head. “I don’t care. Hey, come with me a sec.”

He slides an arm around your shoulders and steers you back down the stairs, pressing you close so you don’t fall behind. The warmth between your legs feels more uncomfortable than ever, and your stomach hurts terribly. You’re sure that the heat in your cheeks is hot enough to melt iron.

“You’re home early,” you say as he leads you into the kitchen.

“Eh…I’ve done my part. My services were no longer required,” Rus explains. “And I didn’t want to be there any longer than I needed to.” He peers down at you. “You watch any of the show?”

You nod, and Rus snorts.

“I guess you had no choice. What did you think?”

Some parts were vaguely interesting, but honestly…? It was far too over the top.

Rus’s laugh startles you – your face must have said it all.

He releases you when you reach the island and trudges around it to the other side, shrugging off his jacket. There’s a large white box on the countertop with an image of a doughnut in the shape of a spider printed on the side.     

“Um…did you have a nice time?” you ask.

“Nope.” Rus throws his jacket down on the nearest stool and stretches. “Hated every minute. But the food was free, so hey…wasn’t a complete waste of time.”

He opens the box with a sharp flick of the finger, and you’re assaulted by the sickly scent of sugar and sweet dough.

“Told you I’d bring you back somethin’,” Rus says. “Courtesy of Muffet.”

Muffet…the name rings a bell. But you’re quickly distracted by the contents of the box; it’s filled with four rows of five doughnuts, and your mouth waters at the sight. That Girl always said that sugary treats were the perfect remedy for a painful period.

“Thank you!” you gasp and reach for one.

“Fresh from Muffet’s Parlour,” Rus says, taking one for himself. “Food made for spiders, by spiders, of spiders.”

Of…spiders? You hesitate. Muffet was the name on one of Sans’s invoices, paying for catering services – catering for monsters. Obviously.

You pull back your hand miserably.

Then Rus grins. “Except these ones.”

You smile in spite of yourself, and choose a large doughnut coated with purple icing. You take a huge bite out of it and groan from the wonderful taste. It’s so light and fluffy, and the icing is the sweetest flavour of plums. Or cherries? Whatever it is, it’s so good.

“You’ve got that purr dialled up to one-hundred, there,” Rus says, swallowing a whole doughnut. “I’ll tell Muffet that my little kitten approves.”

You’re too busy basking in the euphoria of eating a plain, human snack to pay attention to him. It’s nothing like the monster candy, and the high that feels like you’re floating, with all your worries and pains melting away. This is just eating an ordinary doughnut. An ordinary, sugary, unhealthy, amazing doughnut.

You finish it too quickly, and you take another decorated with dozens of tiny icing-spiders.      

“Do you know her?” you venture, nibbling away at the doughnut. Rus seems to know a lot of people, and quite personally, too.

“Who? Muffet?” Rus inhales another doughnut.

You’re momentarily shocked by the casual action – you didn’t realise that monsters could consume human food. It has no magic weaved into it to feed their apparently near-endless reserves of magic – or so your new book had claimed – so would it do the monsters any good? Or is it consumed as a luxury?

“Yeah, I know her,” Rus continues. “Runs a huge business in Central. Drinks, fast-food, desserts…bars, restaurants, bakeries…she does it all. But not a lot of people went near ’cause of all the spiders. Apparently a lot of humans are frightened of them.” Rus chuckles. “Shame, really. Muffet’s kinda fond of humans. But when she realised she could rake in the cash sellin’ them her food, she branched out.”

Rus takes another doughnut and rolls it between his thumb and index finger. “Good thing she knows humans so well. Thanks to the internet.” He grins at you. “Spiders know their way around the Web, I guess…”

The idea comes to you so suddenly you completely overlook his joke. What did Rus call them? One and…Two?   

“Uh…” You trail off when Rus’s tongue uncurls from his mouth, and coils around the doughnut between his fingers.

No…there’s no chance your hormone crazed mind misinterpreted his bizarre behaviour – he’s definitely doing it on purpose. He’s making too much of a show of it, moving too slowly, making sure that you pay very close attention to his dexterous tongue…

“I need –!” you blurt, then clear your throat. “I need…something.”

Rus regards you with a raised brow as he finishes eating the doughnut. “Oh, yeah?” He then proceeds to slowly lick the icing from his fingers. “What’s up?”

“Um…” You grip the hem of your sweater. “I…uh…” Does he even know what a period is? Would he think it’s…weird?

“…it came back,” you finally say, refusing to look at him.

There’s a beat of silence.

“Heh…what?” Rus says.

You know you shouldn’t be embarrassed – That Girl never found talking about such a thing embarrassing. But that fact that Rus is a skeleton makes it a rather awkward subject to bring up. He has no skin, no internal organs; why would he be comfortable knowing that you bled every month?

“My…my…” You try to force the words out, but you can’t think of how to properly explain it without unsettling him.

“Uh…oh!” Rus suddenly exclaims and you jump. “I get it. Okay.”

You glance up as he casually takes another doughnut from the box. “Ridin’ the crimson tide, huh? You need stuff.” He swallows the doughnut whole. “Can’t get ‘em ‘til tomorrow, though. You gonna be okay ‘til then?”

You nod stiffly. He knows? And he seems quite relaxed about it.

“Gimme some credit, Kitten,” Rus says with a throaty laugh when he catches your expression. “I read books, you know?”

You sag with relief and return to munching on your doughnut. Whoever this One and Two are, you can only hope that their knowledge of human needs and wants extends beyond food. 

… You realise that Rus has gone very quiet. When you look up, he’s hunched over the countertop and staring at the doughnut box, face set in a deep frown.

After a moment, he meets your gaze. “What do you mean it came back?

Your mouthful of doughnut catches in your throat, and the rest of it threatens to come back up. You place the unfinished half on the counter and look away, going a little dizzy.

“Hey,” Rus calls to you softly. “You…when you say…”

His voice grows more urgent and you look back at him. He’s leaning farther forwards, ready to stand, but doesn’t seem to want to frighten you by moving too suddenly. He looks terrified, eyes darting between your face and your stomach.   

Shit, kid,” he wheezes. “You weren’t…did you get…?”

You shake your head furiously. “No! No…”

You know that stress was the cause for your disappearing period; nevertheless, you were terrified the first time you realised that your period just…wasn’t coming. You had driven yourself to distraction thinking that perhaps your guards had violated you in your sleep…but you were always far too wary of your surroundings to ever fall asleep, always curled up on you pallet facing the door so you could watch for oncoming threats…

You take a deep breath through your nose, inhaling the smell of the doughnuts and the sweetness of smoke to chase away the memory of damp brick taunting your senses.

“I wasn’t…” you gasp. “I didn’t…”

The memory comes unbidden, no matter how hard you try to force it back. The Man-Who-Guards-You comes bumbling into your cell, unclipping his belt as he advances on you.

God, you can even hear his voice…

You pull at your hair and shake your head harder, as though trying to force the memory to fall out of one ear. When you feel the hands of the Man-Who-Guards-You on your bare thighs, you lash out, and your heel connects with his jaw –

With a gasp that sounds too much like a sob, you reach for the doughnut half and shovel it into your mouth, forcing your brain to focus on the taste of the vanilla custard that’s oozing from the centre. You chew and chew and chew, swallowing it all down without pausing for breath.

You glance up and meet Rus’s eyes – they’re pitch black.

You’re crying, but you cram another large doughnut into your mouth to stifle your sobs. You’re not back there – you’re here, eating doughnuts. With a monster. You refuse to go back there.

Determined, you stuff another doughnut into your mouth before you’ve swallowed the first. The overdose of sugar is making your head buzz and your hands tremble, but you don’t want to stop.

When you finish your recent mouthful, you reach for another pastry. But Rus stops you with a hand curled around your wrist. You peer up at him, and his eyes are closed, his breathing slow and deep.

“Knock it off,” he mutters.

“Sorry,” you mumble around the last of the doughnut.

Rus takes another long breath. “I didn’t mean to ask,” he says in a hiss. “I didn’t…I didn’t know…”

The doughnut slides down your throat. “I-it’s okay.”

It isn’t,” he growls, and his voice is as sharp and sudden as an arrow straight to the heart. “Nothin’ about what happened to you is okay.

The air about him comes alive, a growing hum like the increasing tempo of an approaching swarm of wasps – the scent of smouldering metal burns the back of your throat…

But it vanishes almost instantly when he opens his eyes and examines you. You’re trembling from the stifling, dangerous effects of his magic – was he angry with you…or for you?

But he remains silent, waiting patiently for you to calm down, for the distress to pass.  

Once he’s certain that you’re calmer, he smiles weakly. “I’ll…tell Muffet that you really liked her doughnuts.”

Grateful that he’s moving on from the subject, and no longer close to combusting with rage that may or may not have been on your behalf, you nod feebly. “They were…nice…”

Rus releases your wrist and walks around the table to stand by your side. He gently pulls you to him with an arm around your shoulders, and you press your forehead into his sweater.

You sit there in silence for a long time, inhaling Rus’s smoke while he combs his fingers through your hair, stroking down to the nape of your neck. 

“Happy asked about you today,” he says quietly. “Wanted to know what you thought of the uniform.”

You hum. “Nice…”

Rus snorts. “Just nice?” He poorly mimics Happstablook’s high pitched, nasally voice. “Oh, Happy never settles for anythink less’n perfection!”

You huff a laugh, and Rus taps the back of your neck. “I’ll cover for you, Kitten.”

You smile into his sweater – it’s amazing how quickly Rus’s smell can banish all memories of the camp, the horrors of it...

His fingers curl around your ear and cups your cheek. You pull back to look into his grinning face.

“Your face is a mess,” he murmurs.

You swipe a finger across your chin, peeling away the drying icing. “Sor–”

You’re going to be sick.

You barely make it to the sink before you’re regurgitating the sickly pastries into the drain. You’re familiar with the burn, with the terrible spasms of your abdomen, but it’s not nearly as painful as you’re used to. It just feels uncomfortable – there’s a stodgy taste in the back of your throat that you need to throw up to get rid of.   

“Heh, that didn’t last long.”

You peek up from the bowl of the sink and see Rus lounging on the counter beside you, a smile pulling at his mouth. Before you can apologise, you retch, and quickly angle your face back to the drain.   

It’s such a waste. Those doughnuts were so nice…

When a loud belch rips from your throat, Rus doubles over in a fit of wheezing laugher, and your face burns hotter than it ever has before.

-

“Feeling better?”

You suck in a huge breath of cold, evening air. “Yes,” you sigh.

Rus chuckles. “I think I’ll tell Muffet that her doughnuts were so good, you caked half of your face with ‘em. Heh…then you threw ‘em all back up an–  Ah…” He rubs the back of his neck. “M’lord’ll kill me if he finds out I made you sick.”

Will he? You’re doubtful that it would have anything to do with concern for your well-being. If anything, he’d probably get angry that you dirtied his sink with the insides of your stomach…

You clutch your aching abdomen when you make the dreary realisation; a sick maid is a useless maid.

“Eh…” Rus says around the cigarette hanging between his fangs. “He doesn’t need to know, does he? You got my back like I got yours, right, Kitten?”

You only nod.

With a pleased smile, Rus takes a drag from his cigarette. He’s already consumed five – he must be tired, or perhaps he’s feeling stressed. “Us strays gotta stick together.”

You lean your head back against the railing to gaze up at the sky, stretching your aching legs out on the deck. Rus is sitting opposite you, a long, gangly arm resting on one knee, and gazing at you as though you’re about to fall apart at any given moment.

Strays – what a strange word to use. It’s actually a little insulting…though it is accurate.

The cool air clears your head remarkably quickly, and the sickly taste on the back of your tongue has long since been chased away by a large glass of cold water. Shame and guilt stews in place of the churning pastries, and you never want to look at another doughnut again…

The sky is clear tonight, and you can see the stars. You count them as the lingering nausea fades, hoping that the clear skies will last until morning so you can bake in the sun.

Us strays… Not singular, plural. Why would Rus consider himself a stray? Does he feel as though he doesn’t belong here? Or…anywhere?

Unless he’s trying to form some sense of kinship with you to make him seem less frightening? Less alien to you?

You expect to find him asleep, but when you check on him, he’s still awake, and studying your face as though he can somehow see right into your brain.

When you meet his eyes, he says flatly, “You don’t have to answer… Was it…more than once?”

You stiffen, unsure how to tell this story – you may succumb to the memories…to the panic they induce if you let them out out.

“I don’t…really want to talk about that,” you say, using Rus’s own words.

And they seem to affect him; he tenses, and the fingers of his hand hooked over his knee twitch, as though attempting to curl into a fist. A long cloud of glittering smoke streams from his nose…and you’re suddenly struck with an idea.

Gingerly, you crawl towards him at a pace that he can easily stop if he wants to – but he doesn’t, adjusting his body so you can climb over his legs and position yourself comfortably in his lap.

“I kicked…my guard,” you say slowly, testing. “When he…tried…”

The memory surfaces and you whimper.

Rus places a tentative hand on your shoulder. “Hey, c’mon…don’t tell me if you –”

Your furious shake of the head silences him. You lean forwards ever so slightly so you can breathe in the coil of smoke rising from his cigarette. He catches onto your intentions and takes a long drag, gently exhaling a faint cloud so you’re not assaulted by it. It’s so much gentler, so much less suffocating than what your guards smoked.

So completely encased by the smoke, you’re pulled from the depths of the memory, anchored to the present, to Rus.

“He didn’t…he stopped after I kicked him,” you continue. “But he was mad. He used his lighter and…burned my heels. So I couldn’t kick him again.”

It’s the memory of the pain that catches you, and for a terrifying moment, you’re certain that you can feel the flame licking at your heels…

You take a deep breath of the sweetness in the air and the pain dissipates – where you smell it, you know you’re safe. Where the smoke is, Rus is...and where Rus is, is not the camp.

“He left me after that,” you press on, “but came back the next day.”

For a split second, you see him…The-Man-Who-Guarded-You, and he’s slinging off his belt again, laughing. You can’t kick him this time, with your heels so badly injured…what are you going to do? He’s so much stronger, but you can let him…you won’t let him. You have to think of something…

You take another deep breath. “I looked up. He caught me, and told me not to look. But I did.”

You tremble, but you push onwards. You can’t let them win. You can’t let the memories control you like this.

Rus’s hand rests on you hip. “Don’t, Kitten,” he says, voice tight…you can hear the fury lurking beneath his pleading. “Don’t upset yourself –”

“I looked,” you interrupt him, “when he told me not to.”

The red face of the Man-Who-Guarded-You rises from the darkest corners of your mind, and he’s sweating. He told you to keep your eyes down, but you lifted them defiantly, because you couldn’t do anything else.

You wanted him to know that that tiny, pathetic thing hanging between his legs won’t break you. It won’t. He won’t. You’ll endure in the end.

Instead of clipping the belt back into place around his waist, the Man-Who-Guards-You slides it off and raises it.

Look down!

You don’t. He strikes you across the cheek. The crack of the thick leather stings…

Look at me again. I dare you.

You do. The leather strikes your skin like the bite of a cobra.

Look at me again! Fucking look at me again!

You spit a mouthful of warm blood at his feet, and you do.

“Deep breaths, Kitten,” Rus’s husky voice breaks through the illusion, and you see his face appear from within the terrible visage of the Man-Who-Guarded-You.

“I’m here,” he says. “You’re with me. Breathe.”

“I looked at him,” you rasp. “And he hit me with his belt.”

The Man-Who-Guards-You strikes you again.

Keep looking and you’ll lose a fuckin’ eye! You wanna lose an eye?

“The buckle caught me…” you say numbly, closing your eyes.

Pain explodes down the left side of your face and you scream. You clutch your eye and your palms are covered with a warm, sticky wetness.

“That’s how I got…” You lift a shaking hand to your marred cheek.

When you reopen your eyes, Rus’s sockets are devoid of light, of emotion.

Your skin goes cold – is he angry? Because you spoke when he told you not to? “I…I’m sorry…”

He barks a humourless laugh, startling you. “The fuck are you sorry for?” he growls in that unnerving, intimidating voice of his.

With a shiver, your drop your hand into your lap and look down, focusing on a fraying pull in his sweater.

But his hand slips beneath your chin, tilting your head back up to meet his eyes.

“You don’t have to do that anymore,” he says stonily.

“D-do what?” you choke.

Rus takes another long drag of the cigarette, and as he does, he sucks the entire thing through his teeth. “Keep lookin’ down.”

Is that an official order? He still looks rather angry. “But Sans said –”

Rus releases your chin and shakes his head. “Doesn’t matter what m’lord said. You don’t have to keep doing that with me, ‘kay?”

The residue smoke from the consumed cigarette leaks from his jaw as he speaks – you rest your forehead against his chin to inhale it all.

“Thank you,” you whisper, drawing in as much of the smoke as you can to chase away the lingering presence of the dreadful memories.

Though he never attempted to advance on you again after that day, the Man-Who-Guarded-You beat the resilience out of you very quickly, and set about stamping it out completely, so you would be filled with nothing but…despair.

You pull back. “I tried to fight, but…it hurt so much. Everything I did…everything I said…”

…received punishment.

You swallow back a sob. “I just wanted to give up. I wanted to die!

Expression unreadable, Rus slowly lifts a hand to your face and brushes his thumb down the scar.

You can’t move away. You don’t want to move away.

You reach for his wandering hand and he surrenders to your tugging, allowing you to pull his palm down to press against your chest, where you heart beats wildly, and your soul pulses weakly.

“But...I didn't give up...did I?” you whisper, squeezing the tough bones of his fingers with one hand and gently tracing the ridges of his knuckles with the other.

Then, so calmly, Rus closes the space between you and trails the ridge of his nose down your cheek, breathing softly on the marred skin, an imitation of the lightest kiss. “You didn’t.”

Your soul pulses…warmly.  

 

Chapter Text

-

-Chapter Seven-

 

-

Warnings for chapter: Major Panic Attacks, Graphic Depictions of Violence, Self-Harm, Asphyxiation, Implications of Rape, Trauma, Collars, Nightmares

-

Year 6X

 -

 

The days following Day X are long and hard – and yet they pass by in a blur.

Rus wakes you the next morning with a soft nuzzle into the crook of your neck, humming, “Two sugars.”

You snuggle further into his chest by way of thanks, and his arm across your middle tightens. You lay there for several, pleasant minutes, content – it’s as if the doughnut incident and your conversation on the deck never happened.

You’re very grateful for Rus’s silence on it.

Sans enters the kitchen just as you’re stirring the sugar into his coffee.

“Good morning, sir,” you say quietly. “Um…congratulations on Day X…”

Sans takes the mug with only a non-committal grunt. You tense, thinking that perhaps you overdid it a little, but when Sans collapses on one of the stools, the weariness in his expression and the fatigue in his shoulders becomes obvious.

He looks even worse than he did the day before the celebrations; though his uniform has not a thread nor a button out of place, he himself looks badly ruffled, heavy shadows beneath his eye sockets, and his face devoid of any emotion other than exhaustion.

He knocks the coffee back in one go, then massages the bridge of his nose. Without looking at you, he says, “Post Day X clean-up is expected to take up the next few days, but I shall be home at my usual time every night.”

“Yes, sir.” He hasn’t acknowledged that you’re still wearing Rus’s commandeered sweats from yesterday instead of your uniform. Then you know that all of his energy is completely and utterly spent. 

With a dreary mumble, Sans slides off the stool and leaves. Once he’s out of the kitchen, you sort through your supplies for the day…but when you turn to head for the bathroom, he’s lingering in the entrance hall.

You pause. “Sir?”

“How are you feeling?” he asks. “Were you well yesterday?”

You realise that he hasn’t seen you since he caught you embracing his brother. You nod. “I was. Thank you.”

In response, Sans…smiles.

It shocks you so much you almost drop the bottle of bleach. It’s nothing like the harsh grin he uses to terrify people, nor the snarky smirk he gives his brother. It’s soft…

It suits him.

But it’s gone quickly, replaced with his usual scowl, and he turns without another word, slamming the door shut on his way out.

When the shock from his disarming smile fades, and you pass by Rus’s room on your way to the bathroom, you realise that, like his brother, Sans can jump through the void – he had you tumble through it into the living room on your first night here.

He deliberately uses the door just so he can – very, very loudly – slam it shut.

“’M awake…” Rus garbles, stumbling out of his room, wearing his Lazy Boy hoodie back to front.

-

So affected by Sans’s uncharacteristic sluggishness, you’re determined to clean this house from top to bottom, thoroughly and within the time frame, powering through the cramps.

Rus doesn’t emerge from his room again, but you know that he’s been jumping back and forth between his bedroom and the kitchen by the taste of his magic in the air every time you exchange your cleaning supplies, and the growing pile of empty coffee mugs in the sink.

When it becomes clear that he’s avoiding you, you realise that he only ever walked from room to room to check up on you. Now he’s relying on his magic to get around, and his careful dodging of you is rather sudden – enough to be suspicious.

At least he let you wear his sweats again.

Sans returns home right on time, and drags his feet as he enters the dining room. Though you were set on cleaning the entire house to his level of perfection, you didn’t manage to get the entrance hall done in time, and the living room carpet wasn’t vacuumed in favour of seeing to the laundry.   

You’re expecting him to comment on it…but he doesn’t.  

You greet him quietly. “Good evening, sir…”

Before you’re finished pouring the wine, Sans snatches the bottle from you and chugs it.

You nervously clutch at the air, unsure whether you should take back the bottle when he places it on the table, or leave it for him to help himself to as much wine as he wants – or needs.

Sans practically inhales his starter, taking the plate and simply tipping the salad you’d carefully prepared down his void of a throat, and washing it down with another mouthful of wine.

He massages the corners of his eyes, mumbling something that you can’t quite catch. You think that perhaps he’s taking to you, but when you lean in to better hear him, he sounds as though he’s reciting some kind of schedule, listing of times and places he needs to be.

Rather than disturb him, you take the empty plate and return with a well-done – incinerated – rib-eye stake stewing in white beans and mixed mushrooms – a recipe taken from another NTT Brand cookbook, thinking that it would help improve Sans’s mood than the original choice you’d made on your weekly plan.

But he doesn’t make any remark on it, ignoring the cutlery laid out for him and lifting the steak with his leather-gloved hands and taking a huge bite.

He chews in silence for a minute or two, then he blinks…and seems to come back to himself a little. He drops the steak back into the bowl of vegetables and wipes the grease from his fingers with the napkin you’d provided with the steak knife.

You hold you breath when he finally acknowledges you, but there’s no hardness in his eyes.

“This is nicely cooked,” he says, gesturing to the charcoal steak.

“Thank you, sir,” you say with a small bow. “Is…is there anything I can do?”

You’re not sure exactly what you could do to ease all the stress – perhaps he can give you some paperwork? Or if he made a few dinner requests, then he could come home to a meal that he can enjoy after a long, hard day’s work.

Sans regards you for a long moment with drowsy eyes. “No… Thank you, but no.”

He then lifts his wine glass and holds it out towards you.

You obediently retrieve the bottle and fill his glass. Sans finishes the rest of his dinner as normal, taking his time and using his cutlery instead of shovelling it all down in one go, and occasionally requesting you for a refill.

Once finished, he sits in silence with his eyes closed, sipping at his wine leisurely. Since you cannot dismiss yourself, you remain in your designated corner, watching the tension in his shoulders gradually slip away

The metallic taste of Rus’s magic hits the back of your throat seconds before he sticks his head into the room.

“I’ve got the cotton bullets to plug up your vagina,” he announces in the loudest voice you’ve heard him use.

Your cheeks burst into flames and Sans chokes on his wine mid-sip.

He launches the wine glass at his brother’s head. It shatters against Rus’s forehead, but it hardly fazes him. The wine cascades down his face, and it truly makes for a chilling sight – like something from a nightmare.

You vile piece of trash!” Sans screeches. “What the hell is wrong with you?”

Rus ignores his brother’s wailing and swaggers into the room carrying five boxes of tampons.

“For the love of the Angel,” Sans splutters, “I curse every waking moment of my existence knowing that I’ve been burdened with you as a brother! Do you have to be so crude?”

You snatch the boxes from Rus when he hands them to you, mumbling a small thanks. Rus winks as he licks the wine from his upper row of teeth.

“I am eating, you tactless clod! Could you be any more disgusting?” Sans snaps, and when you dare to peek at him, you spot a…noticeable flush in his cheeks.

… Skeletons can blush? Sans is blushing?

Rus passes by Sans’s seat as he leaves the room and pats him on the head. “01 and 02, like, totally send their love. Steller performance yesterday, Sansy. It was, like, totally awesome and stuff.

He disappears up the stairs while Sans furiously wipes away the stain of his brother’s touch on his skull, grumbling insult after insult.

Though mortified by Rus’s shameless announcement, you notice something…

While cursing his brother to Hell and back, Sans seemed a little more like himself. 

-

It’s another two days before Sans’s mood improves.

When he returns home just as you’re pouring him a glass of wine, he’s the one to greet you first, with a simple. “Good evening.”

It catches you off guard, and you nearly overfill the glass. “Good…evening, sir.”

He looks less tired than he has done over the past couple of days, and though it’s mildly relieving to see that he seems to be mostly back to normal, you fear that he will start noticing all your little mistakes; like how you neglected to finish polishing the picture frames in the hallway and the bookshelves in the library because you were short on time.

You’re back to wearing your uniform again, feeling a little more secure with easily accessible sanitary products, but Sans doesn’t comment on that either, and eats the entire meal in silence.

While Sans’s mood seems to be on the mend, Rus’s mood, however, seems to have dropped.

You know that he’s still avoiding you – when you joined him on his mattress for the past two nights, he embraced you as normal, but his arms around you seemed a little tense. He hasn’t been joining Sans for dinner, either, though you assume that’s to give his brother the space he needs to recover from all the clean-up.

In the early afternoon, however, Rus interrupted your cleaning in the office to give you the rest of your outfits from Happstablook. He didn’t ask to see any of them of you, and simply left you with a chaste pat to the head, disappearing back upstairs.  

It was then that you noticed, while Rus remains as pleasant with you as ever, he’s really toned down the suggestive behaviour.

The break from all of his heavy petting is rather welcome, really. You weren’t hurt, really…

…just confused.

You were surprised to find that each new outfit was different; a plain black dress with a white apron, and another white blouse and a skirt that fastened over the shoulders with buckles. Each one came with it’s own red scarf, and five additional sets of black stocking and underwear were included – they will join their siblings in the sock drawer, later.   

You decided to don a new uniform to give your recent set a wash – you even remembered to tie the scarf around your wrist. Rus didn’t leave his room again after handing you the parcel, so you’re a little desperate for some kind of approval. Does it look ok? Are you wearing it properly, or are the buckles back to front?

You’re half-relying on Sans to comment on your new uniform. But he doesn’t.

“The weekend is approaching,” he says. “If the weather’s nice, then the gardens will need seeing to.”

You deflate – you thought that perhaps Rus managed to convince him to let you have Sunday’s off.

“Don’t bother with the front yard,” Sans continues, and there’s a rather smug look in his eye. “But since…ah, what were his exact words? No one is going to see you, and no one’s that nosey? The back yard is all yours.”

He stands, and his smile is cruel. “You have my brother to thank for that.”

-

Your Saturday afternoon chores in your schedule have been replaced with an afternoon of gardening. And beholding the sheer length of the backyard was enough to exhaust you before you’d even begun.

Sans’s instructions clearly state that the grass was to be cut every other week, and thankfully, it looks as though it has already been seen to. Though all the recent rain has attracted weeds between the bricks of the patio and the flowerbeds, and worms and slugs burrowing up from far beneath the mud to sample the rainfall, leaving small mounds of uneven dirt among the blades of grass and slimy trails along the patio.

The worst part of it all it that after waiting days and days for the sun to appear so you can bask in its warmth, you find yourself wishing that it would just go away.

After scrubbing the deck – which you’re certain never looked this big – you’re desperate for a break, filthy and dripping with sweat. You only pause to knock back two glasses of water before you’re weeding the patio and the flowerbeds, catching yourself on thorns and sharp branches.

By the time you’ve finished, Rus has joined you, lounging on the freshly scrubbed deck with a cigarette hanging from his mouth. You hadn’t noticed him appear – how long has he been watching you?

Although he’s incredibly unhelpful, watching you struggle with the hose rather than help you untangle it, it’s the longest you’ve seen him since Day X, and his mere presence cheers you up a little.  

From his slouch over the railing, his gaze alternates between staring off into space and making sure that you haven’t somehow gotten yourself tied up with the hose as you shower the flowerbeds. When he catches you looking at him, he winks, sucking his cigarette through his teeth and exhaling a huge blue cloud from his nose.

However, he still refuses to move. You’re not expecting him to trail after you like some kind of puppy, but – though you have only known him for a few days – he’s usually more relaxed and open than keeping this uncomfortable distance between the both of you.

You want to go to him and ask him if anything’s wrong – it’s clear that something’s disturbed him to cause this change, but you can’t think back to what it may have been.

For a moment, you think that it was the doughnuts. Watching you throw them back up probably put him off humans for the rest of his life.

Then you remember your conversation – before and after the vomiting.

Is he…disgusted by you now? Because of what almost happened?

You feel sick. No…he can’t hate you, surely. He still lets you share his mattress – he even nuzzles you awake. But he’s seemed so tense during the recent nights, and his determination to avoid you by phasing through the void, voluntarily tiring himself out, is rather…telling.

You shake your head fiercely. You thought Rus hated your scars, when really they just reminded him of his mistake, so maybe this is all just a misunderstanding too? Maybe it really was just the vomiting – it was rather embarrassing. 

You should be grateful that he’s finally gotten the message; that you’re not content to become his pet. And yet there’s some nagging feeling caused by his abrupt distance that feels shockingly similar to a rotting tooth…and you know very well just how painful that feels.

Perhaps you should ask him, just to clear a few things up.

However, by the time you’ve finished watering the yard and returned the hose to it’s hook on the side of the house, the deck is empty.

The only thing left of Rus is the lingering smell of his magic, and a tiny piece of monster candy on the railing.

-

Four days later, and you still haven’t worked up the courage to talk to Rus.

You know you should, since all it’s done is eat away at you, keeping you up and seriously affecting your work around the house, but you’re frightened that what you fear is really driving him away is…true.

No…Rus has nothing to do with it. You’re just so tired. With Sans’s mood having gradually improved to the point where he can insult your shoddy work around the house, and very openly wiping any surface he passes, gathering a smear of dust, then rubbing his fingers together with a sneer, you just need a break from all the scolding.

All of this you mull over as you mop up the kitchen floor, finally coming to the end of your recently returned period, six days since the anniversary of the Shattering. Since you told Rus how you received the scar across your eye.

He still won’t join his brother for dinner, so you’ll have to go to him.

You decide to stop putting it off. Tonight, before you go to sleep, you should talk to him.

But you don’t want to.

If it only makes the situation worse…if it confirms your fears, then what? Where do you go from there?

You mop faster, swiping from side to side with purpose, like you can wipe away your fears along with the grime on the floor. Your sweating by the time you’re done, and the ache from all of your housework has spread from your lower back to your shoulder blades thanks to your rapid mopping.

This is ridiculous. You really should talk to him.

“Human.”

You almost slip on the wet floor from the shock, but you manage to stop yourself from crashing into an ungraceful heap by using the mop as a crutch.

Sans is standing in the doorway with his hands behind his back, eyeing you strangely and looking greatly unamused.

“The mongrel has convinced me to give you Sundays off,” he growls. “He tells me that this is yours.” He presents a crumpled up piece of paper covered with dark scribbles.

You peer at it; it’s the list of meals you’d made on Day X, with the availability of the ingredients and the page numbers for the recipes beside each dish. You’d thrown that into Rus’s growing pile of paper balls in the trash basket just the other night.

You can only nod, your voice momentarily scared away with your breath – you thought that he’d gone straight to bed after dinner.

“Use your words,” Sans orders you tartly.

“Yes, sir,” you quietly confirm. “It’s mine.”

Sans huffs and screws the paper up in one hand. “If you’re going to use the time wisely, then I will allow it.”

Your nostrils catch the smallest hint of cool dew, and when Sans opens his fist, the paper is gone.

“Although,” he says stonily, “I would prefer that you plan meals at least two weeks in advance. If you find yourself lacking particular ingredients, inform the dog, and he will fetch it for you.”

One day, you’ll pluck up the courage to ask why he continuously refers to Rus as a dog.

But right now, he seems angry, and you’d rather not make it worse. But he doesn’t appear angry with you; Sans must be angry with Rus – quite possibly for successfully convincing him to grant you Sunday’s off.

You make a mental note to thank Rus for it later…if he wants to talk to you at all.

“When you’re done here,” Sans says, “come with me.”  

Once you’ve returned the mop to its cupboard with trembling hands, he leads you upstairs, stopping outside one of the guest rooms. He turns to face you, shoulders back, spine straight, and expression set, controlled.

“How long have you been here, human?” he asks matter-of-factly. “Do you remember?”

You think back, a little nervous. Have you done something wrong? “Ten…days, sir?”

“Twelve days,” he corrects you, disappointed. “Almost two weeks. And you’ve made…some progress.” He forces his face to appear neutral. “You have gotten better with following orders, and you’ve shown dedication. That in itself deserves to be rewarded.”

He gestures for you to open the door, but you’re still puzzling over his words. Rewarded?

Sans grows impatient. “Go on. It’s yours. You’ve earned it.”

You have your own room? Your eyes flick between the door and Sans, searching for the catch. Why now have you been given one of the guest bedrooms? Why wait twelve days? What does he mean by earned it? You can’t imagine that you have improved that much in just over a week – you’re still making mistakes here and there, and you always seem to run out of time.

But it’s a room. Not a cell…it’s a bedroom with a bed, and a window with curtains, a nice soft carpet, and a wardrobe! You haven’t had anything like that in ages. You should feel happy, overjoyed, but…

Was this Rus’s doing, too? Doesn’t he even want to share a mattress with you anymore?

A sharp drumming scatters the miserable thought. Sans is glaring at you, tapping one foot irritably.

“Well?” he snaps. “Aren’t you grateful?”

You nod – of course you are. “But…” you squeak, “…why?”

“I explained this to you, already,” Sans huffs. “Since I can’t very well pay you, as you have no name…” He shoots you a curious glance, and you swallow, the memory of him sitting in his leather chair while you knelt before him in the office briefly flashing across your mind.

“…I must employ different methods. In this house, if you follow orders, and follow them well, you are rewarded. You were rewarded for your dedication with suitable clothes, and now you have a room of your own because you showed initiative. And…for your work around the house, I suppose.”

Sans brushes some invisible speck of dust from the left sleeve of his jacket. “And you needed to relearn that good deeds earn you good rewards, not further punishments.”

That’s why? Not because Rus? The relief is so sudden it’s like opening the floodgates, and you’re suddenly choked up.

“Th-thank…you,” you can only whisper.

Sans’s frown drops, and he looks a little uncomfortable. “Don’t be ridiculous. You needed to…learn.”

Your vision blurs, and you hastily wipe the tears before Sans can see them.

But he does, and distracts himself with straightening his jacket. “You’re welcome,” he mumbles, and turns on his heel, disappearing down the hall towards his bedroom.

You can barely contain your excitement when you enter your room, closing the door behind you and blindly searching for the light switch; since cleaning this room day after day, you had begun to pine for it a little. It’s the nicest of the two guestrooms, with a large window that lets in the afternoon sun and offers a stunning view of the back yard.

You find the switch, and the room is illuminated by three bulbs encased in a delicate looking lamp-shade. The large double bed is centred against the west wall, and folded atop the pillows are your grey sweater, and the sweats you’d nabbed from Rus.

You open up the wardrobe to investigate the space, and find your uniforms already neatly hung up inside. As you close the doors, you happen to catch your reflection in the mirror pinned to the back, and you pause.

That’s a genuine smile on your face…and there’s a sparkle in your eyes that you thought you’d never see again.

Your cheeks are hurting by the time you’ve changed into your sweater for bed. You leap onto the mattress and pull the sheets right up to your nose, filling your nostrils with the detergent you use to wash it.

Why does it make you feel so sad?

This is a good thing, you tell yourself. Your gradual improvement with your chores has impressed Sans so much that he’s given you a room of your own. The idea of impressing Sans makes you feel all giddy. You roll over to snuggle into Rus’s arms –

Ah…that’s why you’re so gloomy. This bed is too big, too empty, and it smells nothing like him…

Perhaps the distance he’s putting between you is for the best? After laziness, clinginess seems to be the second biggest offender in this house. Sans has always been distant with you, while Rus has, up until recently, taken every available opportunity to touch you.

Sans’s method of isolating you may very well help you to overcome any dependency issues you may be unaware of – perhaps Rus is tired of it, too? You’re a little relieved…

Though, now, lying in the empty bed with nothing but your own thoughts for company, you realise just how exhausted you are.

Not from all of the house work, but from Sans.

Rus is perhaps the only thing protecting you from him; all his jabs, his snide remarks, his sneers and growls and threats…they’re all softened by the presence of his younger brother. You’d had no idea just how much of a balm Rus could be, until he put this distance between you.

Despite his occasional temper and all the awkward touching, Rus is your only ally in this house. Without him there to soothe the terrible ache of Sans’s negative comments, they gnaw away at you. After a long day of work, and an evening of endless berating, at least you could crawl into the loop of Rus’s arms and feel somewhat wanted – you could even ignore Rus’s motive, long enough to accept the embraces, the soft pats to the head…               

Focus on the good for now; you have a room of your own, which hopefully means that you can scratch this room from you list of chores, since it’s your own space now.

You switch off the light, leaving the blinds open so you can let the moonlight in, and you can count the stars as you drift off to sleep. After months without a window in your room, you’re determined not to take this one for granted. You want as much natural light as you can get.

It takes you longer than usual to fall asleep – it’s only when you catch a brief whiff of residual smoke on your sweater that you finally relax enough to drift off.   

-

It’s cold. It’s damp…your arm hurts from being cushioned between your body and the metal pallet. There’s banging, the slamming of steel doors, and the heavy footsteps coming towards your cell.

All you can do is focus on your breathing; you can never focus on anything else with such a small collar around your throat.

He’s here. Your door swings open.

Again? He’s going to try again…he usually checks on you and then leaves, but tonight he’s entering your cell. What did you do, now? Did you do something wrong?

No, you want to say, but the collar’s too tight. You have to focus on your breathing.

There’s the sinister click-click of a penknife being withdrawn, and you open your eyes…eye. Your left is bandaged after it was almost cut open.

There’s a hand in your hair and you wheeze in protest. The Man-Who-Guards-You is pulling you off the pallet. He lifts you easily by the hair just behind your ear, and tears the bandage from your eye. It hurts…it hurts so much…

Everyone will see it, he breathes into your face. And everyone will know how it got there…

He rests the edge of the blade against your skull, and he sheers away his handful of your hair.

You scream –

You wake up.   

Where are you? Where are you? You scramble for something, anything that can tell you. You can’t be back in your cell. You can’t be –!

You tumble to the side, falling onto the soft floor…not gravel. With a gasp you bolt upright, one hand shooting to your neck, and your back hits something soft.

There’s no collar around your throat, just your sweater, and you’re leaning back against your bed. But all you can smell is the dampness of your cell, the heinous breath of the Man-Who-Guarded-You, and your chest feel so tight.    

There is no smoky smell to chase away the nightmare scents. You pull your sweater to you nose and inhale deeply, searching for the faint remainder of Rus’s cigarettes, but you’ve worn it so much it smells too much like you now. It’s not enough.

The memories threaten to overwhelm you, crouching in the darkness of your empty room, where there’s nothing to distract you. With a poorly contained whimper, you stagger to your feet and feel about for the door.

Your eyes quickly adjust to the darkness, and you hurry to Rus’s room. As your bare feet patter along the hall, you’re certain that you hear echoes of heavy boots chasing after you, and the ominous clicking of a penknife sliding from its casing…

You’re not sure how late it is, nor how long you slept for, but you barely spare a thought for potentially disturbing Rus’s sleep when you reach his door and raise your hand.

He answers your first knock with a low, “Yep.”

You enter and look towards the mattress, but it’s empty. He’s sitting at his desk, halfway out of the chair with his legs splayed out to stop him from sliding to the floor, but he looks as though he can’t be bothered to pull himself up. The computer screen behind his head flickers away, code and binary flashing rapidly in a small black window. It’s the only light in the room; a weak glow…and a little eerie.

You close the door behind you when Rus says, “What’s up? You liking your new room?”

He doesn’t look bothered by your interruption, a lit cigarette between his teeth, but you feel a little apprehensive all the same. Already the dense smoke in the room is masking the memory of the damp, and the nightmare dissolves, though you still feel a little delicate.

“I’m sorry for disturbing you,” you mutter.

Rus stretches and yawns loudly. “You haven’t. Uh…you’re shaking a little, there.”

Are you? You do feel a little shaky.

His expression turns grave. “Hey…what’s going on?”

Would he find it childish of you to get worked up over a nightmare? All you want to do is bury yourself into his chest, but he still won’t come near, and tackling him when he clearly doesn’t want to touch you is perhaps not the smartest idea.

“I just…” you try, but decide not to bother. You feel a little better anyway, after taking several breaths of the smoke from afar. “I’m sorry…I’ll go –”

“That was you?” Rus stops you. “Shuffling about?”

You hadn’t realised that you’d been making so much noise. “I’m sor –”

“Stop saying you’re sorry,” Rus interrupts you, but his voice is gentle. “Get over here and tell me what’s upset you.”

You approach him hesitantly. “I had a nightmare.”

“Oh, yeah?” Rus pulls himself up so that he’s not half out of the chair, and sucks the cigarette into his mouth. You start when he almost chokes on it, the realisation dawning on his face. “Oh…”

You nod, then force the words out. “Back there. I was back there…”

“Ah, kid…” He scrubs a hand over his eyes. “I’m sorry.”

“I just wanted…” Your face heats. “To smell…you…”

That gives Rus pause, fixing perplexed eyes on you. “You what now?”

“The smoke!” you say quickly. “I wanted to…smell the smoke…”

Rus chuckles nervously. “Well, I can light another one for you?”

You nod eagerly, and he pulls another cigarette from an open pack on his desk.

“You…wanna take a drag?” he asks. “It’s monster stuff, so it won’t kill you or anything. It won’t do anything to you, really. S’not like our food, either, so… Maybe asking was a bit pointless, huh?”

You can tell that he’s uncomfortable. But he lights the cigarette regardless and takes long, slow drags, gently exhaling the smoke for you to greedily gulp down at your own pace.

“Hey, uh…gettin’ a little close, there,” he mumbles, and you open your eyes…when did you close them?

You are rather close, leaning right into his space – you’re almost in his lap. With a mumbled apology, you pull back. He really doesn’t want you anywhere near him…    

“S’alright.” Rus takes the cigarette between his fingers. “You…wanna –?”

Without thinking, you grab his hand. The cigarette falls from his limp fingers and he almost leaps from the chair in surprise.  

“What did I do?” you ask, desperate. “Did I do something wrong?”

Rus only stares at you, uncertainty brimming in the soft glow of his sockets.

“Do you h-hate me, now?” you rasp.

That gets a reaction out of him. He looks alarmed. “What? Why would you –?” His shock quickly moulds into mortification. With a deep sigh, he shakes his head and pulls his hand from yours to scratch at his jaw anxiously.

“Aw, Kitten,” he groans. “I thought maybe…I thought I was makin’ you uncomfortable with all the touching.” He rubs the back of his head with a shaking hand. “After what you said…”

All the anxiety drains from you within seconds, leaving you strangely light-headed. That’s why he’s been avoiding you?

If only he knew how different his touches are from that awful man’s…as annoying as they are.

“I didn’t…” Rus groans, and refuses to meet your eyes. “I’m just…I’m like that, so I…didn’t think about how you’d feel after that place. After what you told me, I figured I should give you a bit more space.”

“No,” you blurt.

It startles him, and he blinks at you.

You shake your head. “N-no…” is all you can say.

Apparently, it’s all Rus needs. He releases a huge sigh of relief and rests his hand atop your head.

Then a smile splits his face, and abruptly pulls you into his lap to nuzzle into your neck, as though he’s been wanting to for the past seven days.

-

You’re hoping that Sans still hasn’t noticed that you’ve not used his generously given guest room for the sixth night in a row when you enter his bedroom.

It’s too far from both Rus’s room and yours for him to hear you tip-toeing across the hall each night. But if he can easily tell which chores you haven’t done down to the smallest detail – like which shelves you neglected to dust in the library – he must know that you’re not sleeping in your own room.

You banish the daunting thought by focusing on Rus’s improving mood. He’s perhaps becomes twice as tactile as he was before – and twice as lewd.

He joins Sans for dinner again – much to his brother’s chagrin – and he’s stopped relying on his magic to jump from room to room, back to checking up on you when he takes a break from his work. He takes every opportunity to touch you, from something as innocent as looping an arm around your shoulders and playing with a stray lock of hair, to exhaling hot, smoky breaths right into your ear and nuzzling his face into the sensitive dip between your jaw and throat.

The touching is relatively harmless, for the most part – thought the petting does still leave you feeling a little disgruntled. You’re still unsure of what it is about all the affectionate touches that bothers you.

His presence, though, is certainly a welcome return. Sans’s comments, though still harsh and biting, are quickly chased away by Rus countering it with some joke, or an – admittedly weak – defence, but it’s enough to lift your spirits slightly.   

But the lewdness is becoming increasingly distracting…

You know that you should tell him to stop. You’re not sure if he’s trying to send you some kind of message, or if he’s acting the way he is because he’s just…like that, as he put it. You can certainly understand why Sans constantly refers to him as a dog; all the nuzzling, all the attempts as licking you…you’re expecting him to start barking next.

The image of his tongue sliding up and down his golden fang – a constant habit he appears to have picked up recently – hasn’t faded from your mind by the time you’ve moved on to sorting through Sans’s closet, arranging his uniform for the following morning.  

You brush down his jacket to further distract yourself, ensuring that the buttons are gleaming as you fasten it around the clothing hanger holding his folded slacks. With the boots carefully positioned by the door, all you’re missing is his scarf.

Pulling one of the scarves from the top shelf pulls something else with it – something heavy and pointy.

With a bleat of surprise, you reach out for the object while turning your head so it doesn’t hit you in the face. It tangles in the scarf, and you clasp it before it can slip out – something that heavy must be valuable.

Exhaling a breath of relief, you fish the object out from the cocoon of the scarf, careful of the sharper edges. You can’t imagine what something so valuable, and potentially dangerous, could be doing in such a place where it can easily be pulled down. Your fingers hook around a softer part of the object, smooth like leather –

You untangle the studded collar from the scarf, and the thin, red material slips from your fingers.

You’re shaking…you can’t stop shaking…

You throw the collar down and stagger back, hitting the wall of the closet. With a shallow gasp, you sink to the cold, wet floor. You can’t breathe…

The Man-Who-Guards-You laughs.

Your chest hurts.

You can’t breathe…

You can smell the dampness of your cell, and feel the gravel under your feet. Your skin is so cold, yet you’ve broken out into a sweat.

Why does your chest hurt so much?

You need to get the pressure off from around your neck. It’s too much…you can’t scream, or cry, or talk…

You’ve gone dizzy from the lack of air, and you curl over, on your knees, clawing at your neck. They need to take it off or you’re going to die.

He put it on you because you were bad, because you screamed when you weren’t supposed to, and kept screaming, because you were so tired of the cell, so tired of the cold, so tired of everything.

“I’m sorry! I’ll be good!” you gasp. “I’ll be good, I promise! I’ll be good!”

Oh, you can talk… Your voice is remarkably clear, more so than usual. But that’s good – it means that the Man-Who-Guards-You will hear you.

The pressure won’t go away. You claw harder, trying to slip your fingers between your neck and the steel ring of the collar. This one is tighter than all the others. This one might kill you…

Why won’t he take it off? You said you’d be good.

God, your chest hurts so much!   

“I’m sorry! I’ll be good! I will!

Why won’t he take it off?

Hands are pulling yours away from your neck and you thrash. When you try to shuffle away, they pull harder, pressing you against something soft that smells of sweet smoke…

It chases away the stench of your cell, and the pressure around your throat loosens. You gasp and pant, crying into the soft, smoky fabric. The gravel beneath your knees smooths out to soft carpet…

“S-sorry…I’ll be…good,” you rasp. “…good…I’ll be…”

You lash out with a scream when a hand presses against the top of your head. Your fists connect with something solid, and the grip around your wrists falls away.

You close your eyes…then force them back open. Closing them will only make the illusion worse. You’re still in the closet, surrounded by the clean smell of polish and cotton, and faint traces of smoke – the brothers’ smells – so you suck in another deep breath, but there’s not enough air. You have to get this thing off your neck!

You claw at your throat again, trying to loosen the collar. No…it’s not around your neck, it’s on the floor. It’s not hurting you. But you still can’t breathe…there’s another one suffocating you. You have to get it off!   

Think of Rus… Think of his cigarettes… Think of anything else! You imagine Rus nuzzling into you neck instead of the tightness of a phantom collar….and you can breathe again. With a deep sigh, you cease your scratching and lower your hands from your neck, looking anywhere but at the red, spiked collar on the closet floor.

… Why the hell is there a collar in Sans’s closet?

Deep breath in…deep breath out… Your fingers search for the dropped scarf, and once you find it, you pull it to your face to absorb the clean smell – the safe smell.

It takes a while for your breathing to even out, and for the hammering of your heartbeat in your ears to die down. You’re trembling, but the memories are long gone, and you’re overcome with all the stress, the adrenaline.

You cry into Sans’s scarf. He’s not going to be happy to find that you smeared snot and tears all over it, but you’ll wash it…once you’ve calmed down.

The tears don’t quite stop, but you can’t sit here all afternoon. The collar…you have to return it to its original place – you can’t just leave it there. But you don’t want to touch it…you can’t touch it…

Why the hell is there a collar in Sans’s closet?

And…why does it look so familiar?

It’s then you realise that there’s a gentle pressure on the centre of your back, between your shoulder blades. The panic is fading, bit by bit, and in its place is a pleasant feeling, like you’ve just woken from a wonderful, refreshing sleep. It feels warm…so warm…

“Can you hear me, now?”

You tense.

When did Sans get home?

 

Chapter Text

-

-Chapter Eight-

-

Warnings for chapter: Panic Attacks, Mentions of Self-Harm, Blood, Mentions of Dissociative Identity Disorder, Self-Loathing, Trauma, Mental-Manipulation, Collars

-

 

You’re frozen on your knees, clutching Sans’s scarf to your face.

You glance up to find him standing mere inches from you, spine straight, and arms folded behind his back. You can only imagine how this must look to him; seeing you curled up in his closet, on your knees, one of his scarves pressed to your face…

Is he angry with you? Oh, God, he must be…

There’s a hand on your back, and the closet is filled with the scent of warm metal.

Rus…?

The warmth of the touch to your back intensifies, and the panic dissipates. But there’s something wrong. You should be terrified under Sans’s crimson scrutiny. Why aren’t you? You tremble, and panic stirs within you, rising from beneath the pleasant warmth.

“Listen to me,” Rus orders calmly from behind you. “Don’t fight. I’m doing this to help you.”

“Huh?” you garble.

“It’s okay,” Rus says. “You’re okay.”

“I wasn’t…” you croak. “I…didn’t…d-don’t hurt m-me…” You voice fades and you whimper.

Why is Sans home? It’s too early in the day…

“Don’t speak,” Rus says gently. “Don’t fight me. You need to calm down.”

He places his other hand on the back of your neck, and you flinch. He carefully trails his fingers around your throat, smearing wetness into your skin. Tears?

No…it’s too warm…

Sans clears his throat, and asks softly, “Do you realise what you were doing?”

“I…no…?” Your voice is a mere squeak.

Sans’s only response is the furrowing of his brow.

Rus makes a strange noise, like he’s struggling with something. “Please relax. If you keep resisting, you’ll only feel worse.”

You don’t know what he means. But the strange warmth at your back increases, and slowly, that pleasant sensation returns, dissolving your dread and leaving you lightheaded. You feel so calm…so…

Rus hums, pleased. “Good girl. I’ll stop in a moment, but I need to make sure that you aren’t gonna hurt yourself again.”

You hurt yourself? When? You can only sigh and smile into the scarf pressed to your cheeks. You haven’t felt like this is such a long time – contentment, calmness…this hardly compares to the small high that the monster candy gives you. You practically melt into the sensations, falling deeper and deeper into the delightful calm…

Something doesn’t feel right.

I’ll stop in a moment… What did Rus mean by that?

You were so frightened just a short moment ago. Is this magic? A…what did the book call it? A minor resonance? It has to be… It feels so strange.

But so wonderful…

No, you soul seems to argue. No, something isn’t right –!

That snaps you out of it, and the warmth vanishes in an instant, as though you have been showered with a rush of frigid water.

You can’t quite believe it. Rus can somehow use his magic to affect your emotions? What did the book call it?

“Kitten, please,” Rus rasps. “I’m tryin’ to help…”

You try to shuffle away, but his hand moves from your throat to your shoulder, holding you in place.

Delusion? Is that what this is? So consumed with panic, you can’t quite remember how the book described it. But you can remember one word:

Pain

Your panic worsens, and Rus pulls you to him, pressing you against his body and moving his hand in small circles against your back.

“No,” you say, then your voice gets louder, frantic. “No, no, no –!”

“Kitten –”

Stop it!” you shriek. “Get off!

Rus releases you immediately, and so does his magic, leaving you trembling uncontrollably.

Oh, God…has he used this magic on you before now? Could he really use it on you so easily? Would you be able to tell?

Your eyes sting, and fresh tears leak down your cheeks. Then there’s a hand beneath your chin, tilting your face up.

You meet Sans’s hard eyes, and you cringe. Your attempts pull away are foiled but his tightening grip around your jaw, preventing you from escaping.

Listen to me,” he says sharply. “Listen…you’re safe here. I can promise you that.”

“Huh?” you blurt, too choked up with sobs to say anything else. You’re lightheaded, and your throat hurts terribly.

Sans’s grip on you jaw relaxes just a little, but his expression does not – he looks as though he’s just seen a ghost, and strangely, the unease in his eyes screams of familiarity…

“I promise you,” he says slowly, emphasising each word, “that you are safe here. There is nothing and no one in this house that can hurt you.”

You’re too dizzy to answer.

“Slow down!” Sans orders you harshly. “You’re going to make yourself faint! Take a deep breath…”

You do, and it hurts.

Sans grunts with approval. “Good. Now out…”

You exhale, and that hurts, too. Your throat is burning.

Sans drops his voice to the softest tone you’d never thought he could manage. “I promise you that you are safe here. I promise.”

That voice doesn’t suit him, and yet, at the same time, it does.

“Okay,” you rasp. “Okay…”

Sans remains tense, and it’s a long time before he releases you. It may be your imagination, but his fingertips brush against the skin of your cheeks so lightly…

“Give me your hands,” he then says.

Dropping the scarf into your lap, you lift them. They’re trembling, and – 

Your fingertips are stained with red and browning blood, crusting beneath your nails. With a gasp, you press a hand to your neck.

You scratched, and scratched badly. Now that you are aware of them, the wounds sting and you swallow back the bile rising in your throat.

“Oh…” you breathe. “Oh, no…”

You’re shaking again, and the dank smell of mould and wet brick taunts your senses. Without thinking, you lift the scarf to your mouth and inhale, covering the phantom scents with polish and clean cotton.

“I’m sorry…” you blabber, unable to tear your eyes from the blood on your quivering fingers. “I’m sorry, I don’t know why… I didn’t mean –”

“Don’t,” Sans snaps, and you flinch. “Do not apologise for something like this. Never apologise for something like this.”

You hiccup pathetically. “But –”

“Get her washed,” Sans orders Rus without taking his wary eyes off of you. “Fix up those wounds.” His intense gaze finally relents. “We don’t want them to scar.”

Before you can speak, Rus lifts you off the floor with ease, cradling you against his chest tightly – you’d almost forgotten that he was here. You protest weakly, gripping the neck of his sweater.

He presses his nose into your hair and mumbles, “Sorry, kid. Sorry for doin’ that…”

The magic…

It felt…not awful, but invasive. To be so out of control with your emotions, to have someone change them so easily…to play with them like that…

“You were hurtin’ yourself pretty bad,” Rus continues, and he sounds quite remorseful. “I…I had to get you to stop…”

“Yes, well…” Sans sniffs. “Now you know not to use it again.”

“It was the only thing I could think of,” Rus mutters defensively, and he nuzzles deeper into your hair, as if in apology.

You feel disgusting. You hate this…you hate yourself…

New tears sting in the corners of your eyes as Rus carries you towards the bathroom, with Sans following close behind.

“Can you stand?” Rus asks when you reach the door.

You nod, poking at your neck, brushing your fingertips along the open wounds – they feel quite deep. You glance at your fingernails, and they’re rather long. When did they get so long?

Then again, you haven’t bitten at them since…since leaving the camp…

Rus sets you on your feet, and presents a piece of monster candy. “Uhh…you need any help?” he asks.

You shake your head and take the candy piece. “I’ll be fine.”

“You sure?” Rus starts forwards, his hands poised to take hold of you, as though he’s expecting you to suddenly collapse. “’Cause if you’re still feelin’ a bit fragile, I can –”

You don’t want Rus anywhere near you right now. “I’ll be fine.”

Rus smiles, but it doesn’t reach his eyes. “Right. I’ll wait out here.”   

“Oh…” You turn to offer Sans his ruined scarf, but he hasn’t followed. “Where…?”

“Don’t worry,” Rus whispers. “M’lord ain’t mad. Just give him a minute.”

You nod once and quickly enter the bathroom, locking the door behind you. Once you’re satisfied that the brothers can’t get in – without using the Void – you rush to the sink.

You make an assessment of yourself in the mirror; your eyes are pink and swollen from crying, and your neck is covered with deep gashes where you viciously clawed at the imaginary collar. You examine them with your fingers – they certainly are deep, and have bled rather a lot, staining the neck of your shirt.

Biting back more tears, you gaze at the candy piece, balancing it in your palm.

How could merely looking at that mysterious collar have reduced to such a state so quickly? And it was a vicious looking thing; made of thick and heavy leather a harsh red hue, ringed with sharp golden spikes.

God, and it was frighteningly familiar…

Why was it in Sans’s closet? Is it…for you? Is he waiting for you to make enough mistakes so he can strip you of your status as maid and demote you to his brother’s pet?

Your chest feel tight…

You press your fists to your temples. Don’t think like that! Don’t, don’t, don’t –!

With weak fingers, you unwrap the candy piece and shove it into your mouth. Instantly, the biting sting of the scratches dissolves. You stare at you reflection, watching the open cuts slowly pull themselves closed with morbid fascination. Once the skin sews itself back together, the pink shadows of the wounds gradually fade, until all that’s left are your old scars that were never given the chance to heal properly…

And you notice – with horror – that your fingernails had scratched almost exactly where you had scratched once before, desperately trying to claw the metal collar off. 

You hear dim, taunting laughter from the Man-Who-Guarded-You, crawling from the dark memory of that day. The day you cracked…

Your soul pulses, and that strange, daunting, ugly feeling stirs deep within your belly again, like a snake disturbed from sleep, slowly uncoiling from its nest.

You take a towel from the rack beside the sink and run the warm tap.

You can still hear him. You can even see him, looming over you with a smile so evil, arms crossed, waiting…

You leave the towel in the sink to soak, and remove your blood-stained shirt.

The Man-Who-Guarded-You laughed long and hard that day, watching you twitch and writhe at his feet. All you could do was focus on taking deep breath after deep breath, trying to squeeze air past the tight band of metal cutting into the skin on your throat, crushing your windpipe…

I’m talking to you, bitch.

You dump your shirt on the floor beside Sans’s scarf, and wring out the towel.

Go on. I’m listening…

When you had managed to push a desperate plea for mercy through the bruising pressure of the collar, the Man-Who-Guarded-You had just left, locking the door behind him, cackling all the way.

Let’s see if you still have that voice of yours tomorrow, shall we?

You dab away the crusting blood around your throat first, then slowly trail the towel down to your shoulders. The cloth is streaked with brown and the water in the sink is a murky shade of maroon by the time you’re done.

“I’m sorry…” you whisper to your reflection.

You can’t even look at a collar anymore… Anything that reminds you of that awful, cold, biting shackle around your neck; anything that leaves you short of breath, and you crumble.

And the Man-Who-Guards-You reminds you of his power over you.

Of the power he still has over you.

“I’m so sorry,” you whisper to the woman staring back at you, and you hope to God that That Girl can hear you.

The unpleasant feeling grows, infecting every limb, every vein, every nerve with heat…

Anger…that’s what you’re feeling. You’re angry.

You’re so…so angry!

You press your forehead against the mirror, gazing deeply into your own eyes in some bizarre attempt to catch even the tiniest glimpse of your soul, the part of it that still burns. You can feel it pulsing…

But it’s still feels weak. So weak.

Endure, you tell yourself. Endure…

You have to. It’s all you can do.

-

You exit the bathroom before you give in to the urge to shatter the mirror with your forehead.

Rus is waiting for you, and Sans is with him – they start when you step out of the bathroom, jolted from some hushed conversation. Sans gazes at the damp, blood-streaked towel hooked over your arm, and Rus stares intently at the scarf clutched in your hand.  

“I’m sorry,” you say, lowering your head and pulling at your shirt, indicating the blood stains around the neck. “I’ll change.”

Sans hums thoughtfully. “Listen,” he says slowly. “Take the rest of the day. You’ve had quite a bad scare.”

You fight the need to meet his eyes, mindful of his rules. “But…I can work!” you insist – you don’t want to end up with that collar around your neck, reduced to Rus’s pet. “I can –”

“Please,” Sans interrupts you. “Don’t. Rest. If you are feeling better tomorrow, then you may work. If not, then don’t force yourself. For now…” You peek up at him, and his voice seems to catch in his throat, a deep colour blooming at his cheeks. He looks away from you and vaguely waves at Rus, beads of sweat peppering the dome of his skull. “Just…look after her.”

Rus places a gentle hand on your shoulder. “Sure thing, m’lord.”

Your soul flares in warning. Instinctively, you step away, out of his reach.

The air in the hallway becomes noticeably awkward; Rus tenses, and Sans stares at you as though you’ve just sprouted an extra head.

But you only lower you gaze, refusing to meet their questioning eyes.

Sans clears his throat, and then he’s gone, strutting down the stairs at a pace that seems hurried. It’s quite unusual – is he unsettled by the negative energy buzzing about you?

… Surely not? Sans is one of the most terrifying beings you’ve ever encountered. Why would you make him feel anything close to nervous?

You’re still baffled that he wasn’t angry with you – he should have been furious to find you not only kneeling in his closet, meaning that you were behind in your chores, but having found something that was clearly hidden to prevent your from stumbling across it…

So he can surprise you with it, later…

Why is he home? And why on earth did he have to come home at such a time?

Rus, however, doesn’t flee – can’t flee, thanks to Sans – and walks you to his room with hunched shoulders.

The minute you’re through the door, you strip, making your way towards the mattress…far out of range of Rus’s long arms.

“Uh…” He closes the door slowly, and switches on the light. “You good?”

You only nod, throwing your uniform to the floor and looping Hapstablook’s dressing gown over your shoulders, tying it loosely around your middle. You just want to sleep, and not think about how quickly you shattered, how you had torn at your throat in the same places as your scars…

…how easily you were bewitched by magic.

“Hey, you don’t have to act all brave, you know?” Rus sidles up behind you and places a gentle hand atop your head.

You duck, and Rus immediately removes his hand.

“Right…” he murmurs. “Okay…no touching right now…”

When you turn to make for the kitchen, his expression turns urgent, and he moves to take you by the shoulders.

But he stops himself, his hands hovering close to you, but not touching. His reaction is strange enough to halt you, however.

“Where’re you goin’?” he asks in a tight voice.

“Um…water,” you rasp. “I’m thirsty…”

“I can get it for you,” he offers eagerly, and he’s gone before you can stop him, vanishing into the Void, leaving his magical smell behind…

The smell – sun warmed metal with hints of aged rust. It’s such a distinct smell, and you’re so familiar with it that you couldn’t possibly miss it.

You feel like an idiot. Of course you would have known if he was ever using Delusion on you – you would have smelled his magic! So consumed with panic and dread, you hadn’t even considered that.

Now you’re agitated. You pace around the room while awaiting his return, wringing your hands together and picking at your fingernails like you’re still trying to get the crusted blood out from underneath them.

If Rus had used Delusion on you, then you would have been able to tell – the smell, the warmth that you felt in your chest. That heat…that happiness…it’s something that you have never felt before.

His return is announced by the very magic you suddenly fear.

… You’d be able to tell. Wouldn’t you?

You turn to find him already up in your space, holding out a glass filled to the brim with water for you to take.

It’s then you notice that he’s shaking – the water spills over the edges of the glass and splatter your bare feet.

Is he scared? His expression is still as eager as it was when he disappeared.

You take a hold of the glass, and he stops shaking.

“Thank you,” is all you can think of to say.

Rus beams. “Anything for you, Kitten. Always.”

You drink the water in silence, and all the while, Rus watches you with that smile still in place, but there is an anxiousness in his eyes that eats away at you. Could it be that he doesn’t like using that kind of magic?

“Why did you use it on me?” you find yourself asking once the glass is empty, and your throat, raw from sobbing, is soothed.

Rus starts as if disturbed from a daydream. “Hm?”

“Magic –” You swallow. “D-delusion?”

Rus’s eyes widen, then he runs a hand around the back of his thin neck. “Uh…I’m sorry. You were really hurting yourself, and…when I tried to stop you, you, uh…you hit…”

Your skin goes cold. Did you hit Sans in your fright?

“N-no,” you say. “I didn’t mean t-to…”

Rus chuckles, and the easy sound calms you. “Nah, it’s fine. You only tickled him.” He rasps another throaty laugh. “I was trying to help, but then you got even worse, so I stopped.” 

He stopped…when you told him to. You can find comfort in that, at least.

“Do you hate it?” you ask hesitantly.

“Hate what?”

“Using it.”

Rus’s brow creases ever so slightly. “Heh…why?”

Your soul heats, as if warning you against asking. But you force the words out. “I just…wondered if you used it…a lot…”

Rus is silent for far too long for your liking. “What kind of question is that?”

Before you can say anything, he leans forwards, bringing his face uncomfortably close to yours – so close that all you can see is the darkness of his sockets…

They are pitch black – a sign that he’s angry.

“You accusin’ me of somethin’?” he growls.

His magic vibrates about him almost violently. The scent of it floods your nose, your mouth, and it fills every corner of the room – it’s so strong it’s almost overwhelming…just like it had been on that day at the camp. The air becomes so alive with magic it feels as though there are thousands of tiny ants scurrying across every inch of skin, disturbing the hairs along your arms.

“No…” you gasps, taking a step back.

His arm ensnares your waist, pulling you closer so he can snarl into your neck.

“Oh, little kitten…” he rumbles against your skin, making your knees quake. “If I was using magic on you…”

You jolt when he teeth brush against your earlobe.

…you’d know about it.”

His voice is deep, cutting, and it feels like a physical blow.

“I-I’m sorry…” you gasp, curling over. “I’m sorry! I’ll b-be g-good –!”

Immediately, the manic, suffocating magic in the room vanishes and Rus practically throws himself away from you, almost tripping over his own feet.

Fuck off!” he hisses, shaking his head. “Shit, Kitten…” His hands are then on your shoulders, a barely-there touch, loose, so you can bat them away if you wished to.

But you don’t. You can only stare into his wild, panicked eyes.

“I, uh…,” Rus breathes, sweat pouring down the sides of his face. “That didn’t happen…sorry, I…didn’t mean for that to happen…”

Almost desperately, he coils his long arms around you – a gentler embrace, this time – and presses his forehead to yours. “Fuck, I’m stupid. I’m sorry…”

He pulls you against him slowly, crushing you to his body, clinging to you as though you will crumble to dust and fall through his bony fingers if he doesn’t hold on tight enough.

You’re still stunned; you can’t quite make sense of what has just happened. That face, filled with rage, and that growl that oozed malice…

You’ve seen him angry, but that was the first time you’ve ever seen him look murderous.

Hesitantly, you lift your hands and curl your fingers into his sweater. The touch releases a ragged breath from him, and his arms around you gently squeeze.

You stand there for several long, stressful minutes, waiting for your breathing to steady, and for the tension in Rus’s body to dissipate. He doesn’t move for a long time, keeping his head pressed to yours, tickling your cheeks and you lips with his breath. Occasionally, his hands move in gentle circles against your back, but his fingers tremble terribly…   

Then, so quietly, he says, “I promise you…I never used that magic on you. Never. I wouldn’t…”

He almost had, you realise with a shiver. The room was so full of it, angrily buzzing like a thousand frantic insects, accompanied by the heavy, warm, rusty scent.

You would be able to tell if he was using his magic on you. Without a doubt.

 “I’m an idiot,” you mumble. “I’m sorry…”

Rus relaxes, then scoffs, but there’s no strength behind it. “Don’t say that…’s fine.”

“It’s not,” you warble. “It’s not fine…” You choke out a sob.

Are you really that damaged that you honestly believe that you could never feel happy again?

“I hate this,” you rasp. “I hate this!

Rus’s hand cups the back of your head, a silent invitation to cry into his sweater. And you do, muffling your sobs and your sniffles.

How could you have become this? Believing that the only way you could be happy was if it were some kind of magic trick? You almost want Rus to work his magic on you, since it’s the only way you’ll ever feel it again…

“Hmm, you don’t mean that,” he murmurs into your hair. “You think you do, but you don’t.”

… Oh, dear…had you said all of that out loud, or was the misery in your soul that obvious?

“Hey…” Rus then says, and pulls back to grin at you. “You remember when you cooked steak for m’lord?”

The memory is a little vague, but you definitely remember begging Sans to hit you…

“You walked up the stairs,” Rus continues, lifting a hand to idly play with a lock of your hair, twirling it around his index finger, “and your soul was so damn warm, and goin’ crazy ‘cause you were so pleased.”

He then pokes at your cheek playfully. “Heh, and when I caught you sleeping? On the couch…I sat down next to you to read, and you kinda…grabbed me. Then you started, like…climbing into my lap, and your soul started making that purring noise, and I figured it was a happy sound…”

You did? You’re not sure if you should believe him – why would you do something like that?

“’N when m’lord gave you that room…” Rus’s poking finger strokes down the scar across your face. “…he said you’d started crying, but you were smiling, too.” He chuckles. “I think you freaked him out.”

Did you? The thought is rather amusing, knowing that you, a human, managed to frighten Sans, whose mere presence is enough to set your knees buckling.

Rus suddenly shifts, and you’re tipping…

You hit the mattress with a soft grunt, and Rus follows you down, but he keeps his weight off of you until you’re safely on the musty smelling bed. Then he curls over you, lowering his jaw to your ear.

“I’m not gonna let anyone hurt you,” he rumbles. “Not anymore. If anyone puts a collar on you again, I’ll rip them to pieces. If anyone puts another mark on your body, I’ll snap every single fuckin’ bone in their body. I don’t ever want to see you like that again. Never again…”

The fury in his voice is bone-chilling, and he sounds so…unlike himself. You tremble at the threat, and the memory of that angry, scarlet strap of spiked leather slipping through your limp fingers flashes through your mind.

Panic rises within you, sending your heart racing – you can’t seem to let go of your suspicions. “W-why is it there? It’s…”

It’s not for me, you want to ask, is it?

It?” Rus echoes. “Oh…you mean that thing…”

You nod.

Instead of answering immediately, Rus rolls off of you to lounge by your side, chin cradled in his palm.

It takes him a while to answer, and he won’t meet your eyes when he says, “Uh…it’s mine.”

Your jaw drops. “What?”

Rus runs his other hand over his skull, scratching the back of his neck. “Yeah…it’s, uh…something I wear…out in public, usually.”

“Why?” you gasp.

“Sorry, I…I hid it ‘cause…I knew that it would upset you.” Rus slowly reaches for you, hesitating, so you can pull away if you want to. When you don’t, he gently trails his fingers along the scarred flesh ringing your throat. “’M surprised you didn’t panic when I wore it in the…that place.”

In the camp… He did? You don’t remember seeing it on him, but the memories of that day are rather fuzzy. Your eyes had been on the floor most of the time, but you do recall being enraptured by his face, by his height…

You gasp when the events of that day suddenly hit you with all the force of a freight train – you had been in the living room, Rus has thrown down his hood, pulled out a cigarette…then he’d leaned towards you too quickly…then you’d seen the collar, and you were thrust into the memory of the Man-Who-Guarded-You reaching for you with one hand, pressing the metal shackle to your throat with the other…

How could you have forgotten about that? Now it makes sense; that’s why the collar had looked familiar.

“Oh…” you mumble. “I don’t…I didn’t really remember that…”

Rus shrugs. “Hey, it was a pretty rough day. Memories tend to…slip away sometimes…”

He trails off, and a sudden exhaustion seems to overcome him. It’s evident in the unnerving emptiness in his eyes.

Before you can ask if he’s alright, he says, “You dream at all?”

You shake your head – in the camp you never dreamed, and since arriving at the house you’ve only dreamt twice.

“Really?” Rus seems surprised. “You…uh…” He pauses to study your neck, examining a raised bump of scar tissue where you remember one of the screws of the collar cutting into you. “You scratch in your sleep. Or…you try to. You kind of…weakly grab your neck, like you’re trying to take something off…”

Rus sighs, and you gawk at him. You had no idea…

“Thought that it was somethin’ to do with the collar you were wearing,” he continues. “So I put mine somewhere I knew you wouldn’t dare look –”

“It was an accident!” you blurt. “I w-was working, and it fell –”

“Hey, hey,” Rus soothes you, brushing his thumb across your cheek. “I know, okay? ‘S fine.”

He retraces the scar over and over in thoughtful silence, while you mull over his words. You study the thin bone of his neck – a collar would hang quite loosely, so it wouldn’t feel uncomfortable; but it was rather heavy, ringed by those awful looking spikes…

“So…” you ask tentatively, “why do you wear it?”

Rus chuckles. “Would you believe me if I said I liked wearing it? Probably not. I dunno…people say it makes me look scary. Some people think that m’lord makes me wear it to show ownership, or somethin’ like that…they say it shows that I’m loyal, like a dog. Other people say I wear it ‘cause I’m some kind of kinky fucker…”

Your face screws up – yes, That Girl knew something about collars being used for such a thing…you just can’t imagine it bringing anything but pain. “A-are you?”

Rus shrugs. “Depends on your stance on what’s kinky.”

You avert your eyes. “Oh, okay…”

Rus chuckles and digs through his pockets while you attempt to hide your burning face. He pulls free a cigarette and his lighter and sits up. “Y’know…when it comes to that kind of stuff, I’m still unsure. ‘S’all very complicated. You could say I’m still…”

When his silence stretches on, you peek up at him – he’s lit the cigarette, and takes a long drag from it when your eyes lock, his grin turning mischievous.

“…working out the kinks.”

… That was rather clever.

Rus’s grin widens. “There it is.” He gently prods your cheek and pulls at the corner of your lips. “Feelin’ better?”

You do, a little…but you still feel shaky, almost sick. You’re exhausted, so drained from the onslaught of emotions evoked by a mere collar…and the bizarre anger Rus momentarily slipped into. There’s a fragility that seems to have overcome you, and the need to just cry and cry lingers, in spite of the tears you’ve already shed – you didn’t think that you could cry any more…

You shake your head.

“No?” Rus rasps. “M’kay…” He flops back down onto the mattress, curling over you as though his thin, skeletal body can shield you from the world’s dangers, and he smirks. “Heh…want me to tell you a bedtime story?”

You must have pulled a face, because his grin only widens. “C’mon,” he whines. “It’s a good one. Send you right off to sleep.”

You sniff. “Okay…”

With a pleased rumble, Rus sucks in another mouthful of smoke from the cigarette, softly exhaling it so you can draw it in, surround yourself in it.

“Comfy?” he asks.

You drag a pillow from the edge of the mattress and place it beneath your head, and you take a deep breath, gorging yourself on the sweet, comforting smoke. When it’s flooded your nostrils, and reaches as far as the back of your throat, you nod.

“Once upon a time –”

You snort, and Rus chuckles. “Don’t hate, Kitten. All good stories start that way.”

“Okay,” you say, hiding your face in the pillow.  

Rus only laughs again. “Once upon a time…in a kingdom hidden far away from the world, there lived a king and queen. The king was wise and strong, and the queen was cold and clever. Together, they ruled over the hidden kingdom with great authority. But the kingdom wasn’t a happy place…it was cursed, doomed to live in darkness forever by a powerful magician, who hated the kingdom with a passion. For years the kingdom had tried to break their curse, but they couldn’t. They resigned themselves to live in darkness forever. So it was not a happy place…not one bit…  

“One day, the king asked the queen for an heir. The queen only laughed. A child cannot be brought into this world, she told him. This dark place, filled with cruelty is no place to raise an infant. So the king said, What if I brought light to the kingdom? What if I dragged our people from the shadows? Then would you bear a child?

“The queen only laughed again. If you can find a way to end our suffering, then I shall give you an heir.

“The king searched an searched for a way to bring light to the kingdom, but to no avail. He sought the help of his most trusted advisers, those greatly skilled with magic…but none of them could find a way to break the curse.

“One day, a stranger approached the king, and gave him a prophecy: a child, a magician, and a prince of the dark shall bring light to the kingdom. Before the king could ask further, the stranger vanished. The king returned to give his wife the news, but the queen had news of her own…she was pregnant.

“The king was overjoyed, but the queen was greatly saddened. A child cannot be raised in such a dark place! she told her husband, but the king was thrilled. A child…a prince of the dark…surely this is what the stranger meant? He told the queen, No, my dear, this is meant to be! Our child shall free us from this curse!

Rus grins down at you, and tucks a stray curl behind your ear. “Still with me?”

You hum in response.

“Heh…anyway…” He frowns. “Uhh…shit, where was I…?

“Oh, yeah… Time passed, and the queen gave birth to a healthy son, and the kingdom was overjoyed. This prince born in the darkness would surely save them one day, but the queen was still unhappy. She coddled her child, keeping him safe from imaginary dangers, while the king continued to await this wonderful prophecy.

“But as the years passed, with no sign of the prophecy being realised, the kingdom began to lose hope. The prince was still just a child, and the promise of freedom that the king had assured the kingdom was beginning to look like it was all some kind of trick. The people grew restless, and the king’s impatience grew.

“The young prince was not to blame, for he was still so little. The queen would not let him out of her sight, and told him to forget about prophecies and the curse. She did not want to lose her child, and resolved to keep him under constant watch…

“One day, another stranger came to the kingdom…a child from the light.

“The child was brought before the king and queen, demanding to know why they had come. The child cried, saying that they had run away from their village, but said no more. Taking pity on the child, the queen welcomed them, and promised to care for them. The king was not happy, for this child was an outsider, but the queen raised the child with her son, and the young prince had a sibling. Finally, someone to play with, someone to starve off the loneliness that his mother had forced upon him… And for a time, the family was happy…       

“But one day, the child grew very ill –”

Rus’s voice fades as sleep finally claims you, dragging you away from his tale and into the depths of slumber.

-

You wake to a soft, rhythmic tapping, and a pale, cold light filling the room.

It’s dim, but you still squint, your sleepy eyes unadjusted to the brightness. You push yourself up; Rus is sitting at his computer, hunched over the keyboard, typing away.

Mechanically, you reach for your throat and tentatively run your fingers along your scars – had you scratched at them? You remember watching the skin pull itself back together…

The memories come back slowly, as though surfacing from the turbid pool in your mind. The scarf falling, the collar slipping from within it…the panic, the memories of the camp…the collar, Sans, Rus…the collar, magic, the collar, that collar

You pull the bed sheets to your face and inhale…polish? You inspect the object in your hands, and it’s Sans’s scarf – you must have reached for it while asleep. But like the scent of Rus’s smoke, it’s comforting, and reminds you that you are here, not the camp.

You are safe.

Hugging the scarf to your chest, you rise from the mattress and slowly patter towards Rus.

“Hey,” he rumbles without tearing his attention from the computer screen.

You hum in acknowledgement, creeping to his side and peering over his shoulder. Numbers flash across the screen rapidly, and an open window in the bottom corner of the desktop displays fluctuating values that dip and rise at a dizzying rate, as though measuring something…

There’s too much happening on the screen for you to make sense of it, but as you observe the constant stream of numbers and symbols, a far off memory supplies a single word; hacker

Suddenly, the windows shrink down to the toolbar along the bottom of the screen, and Rus swivels around in his chair to grin at you. “You okay?”

You nod. “What time is it?”

Rus glances back at the computer. “’Bout two AM.”

“What are you doing?”

Rus rolls his neck and stretches. “Some work I had to finish up.”

You frown – did he sacrifice an afternoon of work just to keep an eye on you? “I’m sorry.”

“’S no big deal.” He eyes the scarf clutched to your breast with a raised brow, but doesn’t comment on it. “You hungry?”

You nod. “A little…” You’re unbearably thirsty again, too…

Rus’s grin becomes almost maniacal. “Know anything about stars?”

… The abrupt change of topic is a little confusing. You shake your head.

With a thoughtful hum, Rus scrutinises you, tapping a long finger against his jaw. He then leans forwards quite suddenly, and he pulls the scarf from your loose grip. Before you can snatch it back, he hooks it around your neck. You tense, but instead of coiling it around your throat, he drapes it across your shoulders like a shawl.   

He studies you again, then gestures to one of the crumpled sheets splayed atop the mattress. “Grab one of those. You’re gonna need it.”

While you dig out a thick sheet from the tangled mess, Rus hurriedly taps away at his keyboard. By the time you have chosen a thick enough blanket, he’s finished with whatever work he was busy with before you had interrupted, and shuts down his computer, plunging the room into darkness.

You can barely see through the blackness, but it doesn’t seem to affect him. He loops an arm over your shoulders and leads you across the room.

“What you wanna eat?” he asks.

“I don’t know,” you mumble – you are rather peckish, but it’s far too early in the morning for anything heavy. “Soup, maybe?”

“Hmm, good choice.” A door opens, weak light filters through the frame; the landing is illuminated by the cool, ghostly light of the moon. “Easy to cook…”

Rus leads you towards the staircase, and you want to pull away – you’re perfectly capable of walking by yourself. But Rus presents a piece of monster candy before you can protest, holding it inches from your nose.

You’re not really in the mood. “Um…no thank you…”

“No?” Surprise colours his voice. “You sure?”

Your stomach clenches, and you remember the absolute rage pouring from him, burning the air, when you confronted him – haven’t you already denied Rus enough today? Perhaps you shouldn’t push your luck…

“Maybe after the soup?” you mutter.

Rus hums again – it’s a curious sound, but you’d heard the same noise enough in the camp to notice the slight intonation there that you quickly identify as suspicion.

“I-I’ll have it now!” you insist, reaching out to take the candy –

But it falls into Rus’s palm, and he hides it within the curl of his fingers. The barest hint of warm metal tickles your tongue, and when he opens his fist, the candy is gone. 

You blink, stunned, but Rus doesn’t utter another word until he’s lead you into the kitchen, and pulled you to a stop next to the island.

“Come outside when you’re ready,” is all he says, and he releases you. Without looking back, he trundles towards the back door, pulling a cigarette and his lighter from his jeans pocket.  

You’re a little jittery while you wait for your soup to heat on the stove, tentatively sipping from a large glass of water. He must know that you’re none to keen on his methods of treating you – you accept the candy when you need it, certainly, but these occasional rewards

It leaves a bad taste in your mouth. Even with magic infused within the boiled shell of the candy, and it’s gloriously euphoric high, makes you tongue feel as though it’s smothered with ash.

You can’t imagine that he’s doing it just to be nice; they’re treats, plain and simple, because he likes watching you eat them.

Everything he does to you is like how you would imagine a child with a new puppy…or kitten…

If Rus is intent on steering you from being his brother’s maid, making you something he can coddle – or worse, some kind of accessory he can parade around – then refusing the candies is the first step. 

Or perhaps you’re worrying over something completely harmless?

The memory of his body curled around yours, and his voice rumbling in your ear sends a shiver slithering up your spine: I’m not gonna let anyone hurt you…I’ll rip them to pieces…snap every single fuckin’ bone in their body.

He had sounded so cold, so dangerous

I don’t ever want to see you like that again. Never again…

…and then he’d sounded so fragile.

He makes his jokes, but the second you’re a bawling mess he acts as though his non-existent heart has just been torn from his ribs and crushed. He can’t bear to see you like that…as much as you couldn’t bear to see a wounded baby animal whimpering at your feet…

You pour the simmering soup into a clean bowl, then scrub the pot until it’s gleaming to distract yourself from worrying about it.

When you emerge onto the deck, cradling the steaming bowl of soup, you find Rus sitting on the top step, a cloud of shimmering blue smoke hovering about his head. You approach him hesitantly, thinking him angry, but he hears you approach and turns to grin at you.

“Clear night,” he says and points skyward. “Check it out.”

Your gaze follows his finger – the sky is filled with stars, and you’re momentarily awestruck by the sheer number of them.

“C’mon…” Rus pats the spot on the deck next to him. “Park it here.”

There’s a bitter chill in the air; each exhale fogs about your face, but when Rus speaks, there’s nothing, no evidence of breath, just the glittering cigarette smoke.

You pull the scarf and blankets tightly about your shoulders and join him on the steps, tentatively sipping the soup from the bowl.  

“Y’know,” Rus says through a puff of smoke, “I used to read books about what’s up there. When I read that the stars changed throughout the year, I thought it was a bit weird, at first…”

You peer at him curiously – he seems to be in a good mood now. “Why?”

Rus shrugs. “There was this place in the Underground that had stones on the ceiling, n’ they glowed just like stars. Never compared to the real thing, though.”

The faint sadness in his voice makes you a little…uncomfortable. “Oh…” You take a sip of soup. “Do you know them?”

“Know what?”

You point to the stars. “Can you read them?”

Rus grins playfully. “Y’mean…like can I read your future?”

He closes his eyes and presses two fingers to his temples. “Let’s see…the stars say…that in about five seconds, you’re going to tell me that you meant the constellations.”

He opens his eyes and gazes at you expectantly.

A smile teases the corners of your lips. “I meant the constellations.”

Rus hold out his hands in a tah-dah gesture, grin victorious. “What I tell you?”

“Can you?” you press. 

Rus crouches and presses his cheek to yours, then points to the sky. “Uuh…okay, there’s Ursa Minor…” His finger connects a small cluster of blinking stars to form a shape – with your gaze near-level with his, you can follow his finger easily.

“And…there’s it’s mommy…” Rus points a little higher and traces a larger shape in the sky. “Ursa Major…”

“The bears,” you say quietly. “Right?”

Rus’s grin twitches against your cheek. “Right. But Draco’s in the way…” He draws a haphazard line between Major and Minor, twisting and turning like a giant serpent. “Here we got Lyra…” He draws a small diamond shape. “And that really bright star at the top? That’s Vega…the second brightest star in the hemisphere…”

He then draws a large triangle. “Vega…Altair…Deneb… They make what’s called the Summer Triangle.” 

“What’s the brightest star?” you ask.

“Sirius,” Rus replies. “But it’s part of Canis Major. N’ you can’t see it this time of year…”

His finger moves down and vaguely twirls about a large cluster of stars. “And down here, just next to Pegasus…” He draws the large constellation. “…we have…uuh….the fish…”

“The fish?” you echo.

“Yeah, uhh…it’s like Aries…” Rus connects the stars just above the space he was gesturing to.

“Pisces?”

Rus clicks his fingers. “That’s it. Then we got Delphinus just here, below Altair…”

“The dolphin,” you say.

“Heh…yeah.” He pulls back, and your cheek is suddenly cold without his touch. “You told me you knew nothin’ about stars.”

“Aries and Pisces are horoscopes,” you mumble defensively.

Rus chuckles. “My horoscope was always the same in the Underground.”

“Delphinus is the scientific name for dolphin,” you continue. “Ursa is the Latin word for bear…”

Rus raises a brow. “How ‘bout that…”

He slings his arm across your shoulders and pulls you against him. “Ah, Kitten…I could so easily fall in love with you.”

Your heart somersaults. He says it so casually…it’s a joke.

Of course, it is a joke, but lava courses through your veins, rushing straight to your cheeks and burning the tips of your ears.

“You like stars?” you say quickly and take a large mouthful of soup.

“Oh, yeah,” Rus says, chomping up his cigarette. “I take stars very Sirius-ly.”

You fall into a calm silence, gazing at the thousands of blinking stars blanketing the sky, occasionally sipping at your rapidly cooling soup. Rus smokes and consumes three more cigarettes, then he seems to fall asleep, his body against yours becoming heavy. His head dips, bringing his jaw level with your ear, and he huffs soft snores against your earlobe.

You don’t want to disturb him – mainly because you’re still reeling from his little joke.

It was a joke…wasn’t it?

Love was a word that That Girl used to throw around quite casually – Rus had said fall in love… Wasn’t that different from the love That Girl had always talked about?

You haven’t been here long; about…two weeks? More? Less? You’ve lost track of the days. Even so, that’s not long enough for Rus to suddenly start spouting nonsense like that.

Yes…it was a joke. And even if he’d meant it, it could probably be likened to affection between an owner and their beloved pet.

… Probably.

Once you have finished your soup, you place the bowl on the deck beside you and try to find the constellations Rus had drawn against the sky. You find the Summer Triangle, and you manage to locate Lyra, but the stars are so haphazardly cluttered about the sky it’s difficult to find the rest. Rus must have memorised them in that book he’d read, since he could find them so quickly.

He likes stars? And it’s clear that his interest in them isn’t some minor fascination. It’s strange – this is perhaps the first little personal titbit you’ve learned about him.

When you realise that you have been absentmindedly picking at the scarf, you examine the material, stroking your thumb across the fibres. It’s of very good quality, but it’s been tainted with your tears, blood, and snot. You should wash it, if only out of courtesy. Perhaps Sans may let you keep it…he didn’t ask for it back, after all.

You grimace; he won’t want it back because you’ve dirtied it. You could choose to believe that he’d give it to you out of what miniscule kindness he has in his soul – you know it’s there, you’ve seen it – but now, within your right mind, not clouded by your emotions, you know that he would give it to you out of disgust.

He’d looked absolutely terrified when he’d found you in his closet.

Never apologise for something like this, he’d said to you.

He can’t care about you that much, either…can he?

“Is it really okay for me to have tomorrow off?” you mumble to Rus, before you remember that he’s asleep.

“Yeah, ‘course…” he croaks almost immediately.    

“Sorry,” you say. “I forgot you were sleeping.”

Rus nuzzles his nasal ridge into your hair. “S’fine.”

“S-Sans won’t mind, will he?” you ask.

“Why would he? He’s the one who told you to take it.”

Your fingers tighten in the scarf, and your fists tremble. “I don’t know…”

“Hey, m’lord may be a scary bastard,” Rus says, “but he’s fair. He ain’t gonna force you to work after all that.”     

Of course – you’re his maid. You can’t work well if you are sick.

Rus then hums, and the sound turns your blood to ice, and goosebumps rise along your arms – curiosity, mingled with suspicion…

“But,” he rumbles right next to your ear, “you don’t believe me, do you?”

The sensation takes you by surprise – it’s like the ice in your veins has reached your heart, casing it in a painful, prickling crystal mould.

And you can smell damp…

You press the scarf to your face, inhaling the scent of polish to stop the memories. “No,” you mutter. “I can’t…”

Rus’s fingers gently comb through your hair, tucking it behind your ear. “Can you tell me why?”

You glance up at him, and though his expression is tight, he’s waiting patiently for you to answer. “W-why aren’t you mad?”

One socket twitches. “The hell? Why would I be mad?”

“Because…” you splutter. “B-because…”

Realisation slowly dawns on Rus’s face, and his hand stills. “Ah…”

He takes a deep breath through his nose and says, “’Cause everyone’s always mad at you?” His fingers resuming their soft stroking along your scalp, trailing behind your ear. “Everything you do is wrong?”

You nod. “Everything. He would… He would say one thing, and I’d believe him, and then he would hurt me…”

The memories pull at you, clawing for you attention, dragging you into them…

The Man-Who-Guards-You leans down, bringing his awful disgusting mouth so close to yours.

Come on…you got something to say? Go on…

And the second a weak sound leaves your mouth, the collar is on you, crushing, suffocating, biting, agonising

You had learned very quickly to never believe a single word he said, no matter how vague or obvious.

“And Sans…” you whimper. “He’s always so angry with me. I don’t…know how to f-feel –!”

You’re being pulled downwards; you resist out of instinct, but Rus’s arm around your shoulders stops you from hitting the deck too hard, and you’re suddenly flat on you back. All you can see is the star-peppered sky…

Rus splays out next to you, his jaw resting above your head so you’re tucked into the crook of his neck.

“Hey, I’ll be the first to admit that m’lord ain’t the most…genteel of people,” he rasps. As he speaks, his fingertip draw light circles against your shoulder – he’s awfully tactile, tonight.

Is it guilt, perhaps?

“He has…no indoor voice?” he continues. “No, that’s not right. He has problems with…being nice?” Rus chuckles nervously. “He, uh…was never nice. He can’t be nice. It’s not in his programming…heh…”

Something in your body language seems to affect him, and he quickly adds, “I ain’t sayin’ he’s innocent, Kitten. But…and don’t tell him I told you this…but he’s trying. For you.”

Rus’s curls, and he’s suddenly looming above you, filling your vision with his shadowed face.

You stiffen – he’s so close. His golden fang is inches from your lips…

“He wants you to be happy here,” he says. “He doesn’t want you to be scared of him. And yeah, I know it’s hard to believe. But y’know…every night he kicks himself because of how he acts. He really hates seeing you cry. He tries to praise you, but…” Rus leans back a fraction. “I think it’s obvious by now that cleaning’s the one thing he won’t budge on.”

You may have frowned, because Rus suddenly cackles. “Yeah, you knew that already…” His laughter abruptly ceases, and his brows knit together. “But seriously, he gets mad at himself after, ‘cause he always has some…script, or somethin’, that he rehearses in his head, but he never follows it. And he ends up upsetting you…”  

Picturing Sans exhausting himself over trying to praise you, losing sleep because you’d shed tears in his presence, evokes a twisted sense of glee. You’re actually rather glad that he’s stressing over his behaviour towards you – he’s been nothing but awful.

But those brief glimpses of vulnerability…thinking back on it now, it was always painfully evident in his blush, in the tightness of his fists when he clasps them together, and the absolute horror in his eyes when he’d found you in that closet –

The gentleness of his fingers brushing against your cheeks.

Still…

“I don’t…” You search for the right words. “I can’t really forgive him for that…even if he is trying.”

“I’m not asking you to,” Rus assures you calmly. “I guess…maybe knowing this will make it easier to be around him?”

It does…a little. “Thank you.”

Rus studies your face for a long moment – too long. The intensity in his eyes is almost penetrating, and heat blooms in your neck.

It’s too dark to properly examine him, and you suddenly have the almost undeniable urge to run your fingers up and down his fangs, to stroke along his brow and around his sockets, to feel for invisible muscles or tendons, for what allows it to move so easily…

The spell is broken when he chuckles. He rolls over to lay by your side once more, and a gentle hand cups your cheek, bringing your head to rest beneath his chin.

“Kitten,” he rumbles, “if you had any idea…”

Before you can ask him to elaborate, a candy piece is presented to you – Rus dangles it inches from your lips, playfully waving it back and forth.

“You finished the soup, right?” he says.

A frown pulls at your brows, but you accept the candy. “Thank you.”

Rus hums, pleased, and fumbles about for something in the pocket of his jeans. Your conversation is, apparently, over, and you’re hesitant to press him – if you had any idea of what?

You roll the candy around with your fingers, examining the colourful wrapper. A distant memory slowly floats to mind…the memory of your first day…or your second? You can’t really remember…

They’re my brother’s. Keeps ‘em in his room.

The conversation you’d had on that day, with your head in his lap, comes rushing back in an instant.

… The candy belongs to Sans. Not Rus.

There’s the sharp click of his lighter igniting, and smoke leaks from the gaps in Rus’s jaw, cascading over your face. Either he’s is stealing it, pulling the small pieces out of thin air to give them to you…or Sans gets him to give you the candy in his place?

If the latter is true, then it’s still rather cowardly. He really can’t give them to you himself? The mental image of Sans – terrifying, scarlet-eyed Sans, with his many-fanged mouth curled into a smile that promises death – giving you a colourful piece of candy is almost like a forbidden image, like it shouldn’t exist in this known universe.

But, in spite of yourself, as you roll the piece of candy between your fingers, you feel a little…grateful.

Only a little, though.

But if it isn’t true…

You wait for Rus’s breathing to slow, become deeper as he drifts off to sleep, before you slip the candy piece up the sleeve of your sweater.

 

Chapter Text

-

Chapter Nine

-

Warnings for chapter: Soul Manipulation [mild], Immobilisation, Mild PTSD, Mentions of Panic Attacks, Mentions of Violence, Mentions of Death, Trauma, Mentions of Collars

-

 

The mattress is empty, and the room is dark when you wake up.

Rus must be working elsewhere today if he isn’t at his computer. You’re surprised he didn’t wake you –

Ah…you don’t need to get up today. With a satisfied groan, you stretch, warm, comfortable…feeling much better than you had yesterday.

Your stomach plummets into your gut at the memory – you’re rather embarrassed about it, actually.

With a sigh, you roll over to snuggle further into the mattress – That Girl had once said that a bad dream will always go away if you turn over – and something rolls off of your chest. You reach out, blindly searching for the fallen object with your hand, and your fingertips brush something small, cold, and wrapped in plastic…

It’s another candy piece.

With a soft snort, you crawl off the mattress, towards the sock drawer. Fumbling about in the dark, you manage to get it open and locate the neck scarf, folded over last night’s rejected candy piece.

You gently rub the thin material between your fingers. It may be because you can’t actually see it, but it provokes no unwanted memories, no nausea. You doubt anything else will ever elicit the same fright as the collar had; comparing the scarf to the collar is like comparing a feather to a knife…

You tuck the new candy piece beside its sister, and fold the material back over. Once you’re confident that it’s securely back in its place in the sock drawer, you close it and search for the bedroom door.    

When you stand, however, a terrible ache throbs in your thighs – yesterday, before you had ventured into Sans’s closet, you had scrubbed inside the bathtub in an uncomfortable squat, and it seems that now you’re paying for it.

It’s very sore, but the ache is strangely welcome after weeks of denying your body from healing naturally – it’s like a reminder of all your hard work.

Your foot tangles in something soft, and you stumble into the nearest wall, just short of driving your nose right through the plaster. Startled by the sudden fright, you shuffle along the wall, searching for the door. Your fingertips brush the light switch, and you flip it on.

You hadn’t noticed before, but Rus has added to the mess of mugs, food wrappers, instant noodle pots stacked into takeaway coffee cups, and paper balls with his dirty clothes – the culprit of your near-brush with a broken nose was a pair of his sweats.

You spot Sans’s scarf – technically, it’s your scarf, now – splayed out on the mattress. It looks badly creased, and still a little blotchy in places. You could return to bed, since you have nothing else to do today; in fact, staying curled up on that mattress all day sounds rather nice.

… But you had done that plenty of times in the camp, and it had almost driven you mad.

Fighting back a shiver, you gather up Rus’s discarded clothes, then fetch the scarf, and you make your way down to the utilities room.

You suspect that the house is empty – the TV is on, but Napstaton’s robotic drawl hasn’t been muted. The door to the office, however, is closed, when it’s usually left open. There may be something in there that Sans doesn’t want you to see, so you walk straight passed it without giving it much thought.

While loading the washing machine, you pause when you get to the scarf. The material is so soft, like silk…maybe cashmere? Very delicate fabrics. Perhaps it needs to be dry-cleaned? You don’t want to shrink it. You should wait for Sans to return home so you can ask him, if he’s not still intent on avoiding you after yesterday. 

He can’t avoid you for long – and if what Rus said about him last night is true, then you want to test the waters.

… Delicately, though.

With the machine on, you fold the scarf over your arm and make your way to the bathroom to shower. As you pass the kitchen, you glance at the clock on the fridge.

It reads 10:13. It’s the longest you’ve slept in; you feel like you’ve wasted far too much free time, but you’re rather grateful for the rest. You’re still a little shaky after the scare – you definitely couldn’t have worked today, feeling as fragile as you are.

As you walk up the stairs, picking at the hem of the scarf, you think back to that awful collar. You know what a collar means – a collar means pain, disobedience…   

What if you stumble across it again?

You can only assume that Rus has moved it elsewhere; somewhere you definitely won’t find it by mistake. Hopefully he’s buried the wretched thing in he backyard, or thrown it off some bridge –

So absorbed in your internal turmoil, you only notice the familiar sweet smell of smoke when you walk face first into Rus’s chest.

You almost scream, but it catches in your throat, and you instinctively leap away from the intruder in what you had thought was an empty house.

“Oh, hey,” he says, grabbing you by the shoulder before you can topple backwards down the staircase. “Didn’t see you, there.”

He steadies you, and you wheeze out a thank you, clutching the scarf to your chest.

With a chuckle, he says, “How’re you doin?”

You nod. “Better…thank you.”

His hand moves from your shoulder to play with locks of your hair just beneath your ear. “I didn’t wake you ‘cause I figured you needed the sleep.”

You only nod again.

Rus frowns. “You sure you’re okay?”

“Yes…” You hope that he hasn’t noticed you limping – he would know straight away that you haven’t eaten any of his, or Sans’s, candy.  

Rus raises a brow, a low hum rumbling from his throat. Sweat beads across your forehead, on the back of your neck, and you soul jumps, as if it’s been caught doing something it shouldn’t be.

He must be reading the sudden energy sparking from it; can he feel your dishonesty? Can you somehow will yourself to not feel the guilt?

It’s all rather invasive. Can’t he just…turn it off? Or is it something he can’t control?

Rus is either blocking your way, or you’re blocking his, so you shuffle to one side to let him continue his descent, and to subtly indicate that you want to leave.

But he doesn’t move, and based on the smirk on his face, he certainly knows that you want to get by. He curls the captured lock of your hair around his finger, and since he’s a step above you, he dwarfs you by several inches more than he already does on level ground.  

You feel like a rabbit caught in the eyes of a hungry fox.

“Um…” you mumble. “I’m…going to shower…if that’s okay?”

“Hmm? Oh, sure it is,” Rus replies pleasantly. He drops his examining hand, but he doesn’t budge.

Cautious, you step around him, but he stops you with an arm snaking around your waist. He ducks lower to bring his mouth to your ear.

“Hidin’ something from me, Kitten?”

“N-no,” you mumble, stomach in knots.

Rus’s jaw brushes the shell of your ear when he says, “What’cha still doin’ with my brother’s scarf, huh?”

“Needs w-washing,” you say.

“Ah...” Rus nuzzles beneath your ear. “No need to be so tense, then, right?”

“No…”

Rus pulls you against him and hums. His warm, smoky breath trails a line of fire down your neck, then slowly travels back up to your earlobe, and you shudder. A deep, amber light glows in your peripheral, accompanied by the minute hum and dull scent of his magic, and you think for a moment that he’s going to lick you with his magical tongue…

“If you’re going to do that,” a sharp voice cuts through your daze, “then at least do it where you won’t get in the way.”

You whirl around in Rus’s unrelenting embrace.

Sans is standing at the foot of the stairs, holding a large mug of coffee in a tight fist, and tapping his foot impatiently. There is obvious distain on his face.

“I’ll not have you canoodling on the stairs,” he snaps. “By the Angel, you could do that anywhere else!”

You didn’t think that your face could get any warmer. You’re certain that the stairs vanish, and you plunge into the Void. The only indication that you most certainly haven’t dropped into the cold nothingness is Rus’s arm around you waist, pinning you against his side. 

“If you don’t like it, m’lord,” Rus says with a soft chuckle, “then stop stair-ing.”

Sans snorts into his coffee. “I see that the two of you have made up after yesterday.”

“Couldn’t stay away.” Rus’s arm around your waist tightens, and he nuzzles further into your neck.

Sans sneers at his brother, his disgust evident. His displeasure is no less apparent when he meets your gaze…

There’s some other hidden meaning to his stare; you wish you could understand it. Is it that same concern he displayed for you yesterday? Or is it that odd jealousy you may have imagined before Day X?

You’re not given much time to dissect the expression – Rus gently nips the lobe of your ear, and chuckles when you jolt with a small squeak.

In an instant, Sans’s scowl is back. “You’re both ridiculous,” he growls, and he stalks into the living room, grumbling under his breath.  

“You may have noticed,” Rus says pleasantly, “that my brother’s home today.”

“W-why?” you ask.

Rus pulls back so he can gaze down at you, but he doesn’t retreat very far, his arm resting comfortably around your waist – he remains curled over you, almost protectively.

“With Day X finally friggin’ over,” he says, “M’lord is being sent back to his post on the east border. S’what he does. Oversees patrols, makes sure that the borders are properly maintained and secure…”

You did find it strange that Sans worked in Central when he lives so far out in Woodlands, but you didn’t think to question it further after learning how easily he can travel, crossing through the Void to get where he needs to be.    

“So he’s finishing up paperwork and stuff for his transfer at home,” Rus continues. He then drops his voice to a whisper. “Though…and don’t tell him that I told you this…but he’s hoping that all his hard work during Day X will get him assigned to New Home. He wants to work more closely with the Captain of the Royal Guard. He even wants to surpass her, one day.”

Sans’s audible snarl travels from the living room. “Stop telling my maid information that is useless to her.”

Rus grins and steers you down the stairs. He halts in the archway of the living room, resting his chin atop your head. “She wants to know more about you, m’lord.”

Sans merely scoffs, tucking a leather binder under his arm. “Perhaps you should tell her my shoe size, as well? You seem to enjoy telling her all about me.”

“Course I do, m’lord,” Rus says with a smile in his voice. “It’s easy to brag about you.”

Sans only hums, somewhat suspiciously. You’re no fool, either – your conversation with Rus about his brother just last night must have set the ball rolling in his head, and he’s trying to hammer down the walls between the two of you with all the subtlety of a wrecking ball.  

As Sans marches across the room, he says to you, “I certainly hope that you are well rested and recovered?” His tone is stern.

“Not quite, Sir,” you say.

Sans snorts. “Well, if you can cuddle on the stairs with the mongrel…” He shoots a quick glare at his brother. “…then you must be feeling a little better.” He takes another sip of coffee, and if anyone could look arrogant while drinking coffee, Sans is an expert.

Your face heats, and you want to protest – Rus trapped you, thank you very much – but you bite back the words. Though you may have had a terrible fright, that may not be an excuse to back-chat.

With a haughty grin, Sans brushes past you. “Get out of my way, filthy dog,” he hisses, roughly elbowing his brother in the hip.

Rus grunts through a soft chuckle, developing into deep, rumbling laughter when the door to the office slams shut moments later.

“Hmm, he’s in a good mood,” he says. “I can tell.”

That didn’t sound like a good mood to you. “How?”

Rus blithely evades your question. “Things must be going pretty well in the capital.”

If Sans is in a good mood, then perhaps your little plan won’t be so difficult. Though the very thought terrifies you, you want to really test Sans’s patience, to see just how far you can push before he reprimands you for overstepping.

“So,” Rus says, peering at you over your shoulder. “What d’you wanna do today?”

“Don’t you have to work?” you ask.

Rus clutches his chest. “Fuckin’ ouch, Kitten. You gettin’ rid of me?”

You thought that it was a perfectly innocent question. “I-I’m sorry –!”

Chuckling, Rus cuts you off with an affectionate pat on the head. “I jest, Kitten, I jest.”

You relax. “I was thinking of cooking something. If that’s okay?”

Rus’s expression lights up. “Hell yeah, it’s okay. What you gonna make?” He pulls you against him, breathing into your ear, “Please tell me you’re gonna make another pie? That shit was good.”

Why is he making it sound so sexual? “Maybe some cinnamon buns…”

Rus hums, and the sound travels all the way down your spine, igniting a strange warmth deep in your gut. “Oh, yeah. You’re buns are delicious.”

“Could you…” you ask thickly, “…get a few things for me?”

Rus comes to stand by your side, keeping a possessive arm around your shoulders. “Anything for you, Kitten.”

Trying to ignore the pounding of your heart, you mentally sift through your memorised list of ingredients, and what you know is already stocked in the pantry. “I think I need some more eggs. Um…and some sugar…brown and white. For monsters,” you add quickly.

“Oof, you’re givin’ me a real workout, here,” Rus teases. He pretends to think about your request. “Yeah…I guess. I hope you’re gonna reward me for all my hard work?”

“You, uh…can have a cinnamon bun,” you say.

“Only one?” Rus whines.

“You can have two, if you want?”

“That’s better. S’that all? I ain’t too busy today.”

You do need some more food – your milk has already passed its use-by date, and you’re scraping so much mould off the bread there’s barely enough of each slice left to eat.

“Could you…um… If you’re not busy, I need some more food,” you say hesitantly.

Rus buries his nose into your hair – he’s made a habit of doing that, lately. “You got it. Anythin’ else?”

Anything else? What else can he get you? Are One and Two able to smuggle more than just human food and toiletries?

And if Rus can get you anything

“Actually,” you say, “could you get me…a hair brush?” Naturally, a house inhabited by skeletons wouldn’t have a single brush, except for applying polish to leather boots. Your hair has grown a good inch over the past week, and seems thicker than normal, likely thanks to the magical hair-care products left by Happstablook – you’d noticed a pretty nasty tangle in it just the other day.

“A hair brush? That’s it? Food and a brush?”

“If that’s okay?”

“’Course it is.” Rus chuckles, and he runs a hand over his skull. “Huh, I’d have to turn that into a joke, somehow.”

“Why?”

“Well…” Rus runs his tongue up his golden fang. “01 and 02 don’t ask questions, usually, but they’d find a skeleton askin’ for a hair brush a bit weird.”

Oh…you hadn’t even thought about that. Isn’t your presence here supposed to be a secret? “Do…One and Two ask about it?”

“’Bout what?”

“Um…the stuff you buy?” Wouldn’t Rus’s purchases arouse suspicion?

Rus blinks, then laughs. “Nah, they can’t. Their business ain’t exactly legal.”

That does make sense – you recall many human products that didn’t include food being prohibited, and those that weren’t were shockingly expensive. That Girl had many possessions taken from her when the monsters came to her neighbourhood; history books, her own TV, computer, telephone…and she’d had to replace them with NTT Brand products…

“They don’t ask about me…it?” you press.

Rus shakes his head. “Kitten, I employ ‘em, not m’lord. He hates ‘em ‘cause their business is breakin’ the law. If he had his way, he’d lock ‘em up like that.” He snaps his fingers. “But he doesn’t ‘cause of me.”

“Oh. Why?”

Rus shrugs. “I kinda rely on them for a bunch of reasons. Other people do, too. And they know not to ask questions…or run their mouth ‘bout trade. All business is kept between buyer and seller. I only know about their other clients ‘cause I need to keep track for their sake. If they get a bad client, I gotta clean up, if you get what I mean?”

The warmth in your belly dissolves, replaced by cold, numbing dread. “Really?” It’s become too easy to forget that Rus can be quite heartless should the occasion call for it.

Rus’s tone is pitiless when he says, “Yeah. Kitten. As nice as One and Two are, if word about their sales got to the wrong people, or the fact that they do business with me, I’d sell ‘em out in a second. I gotta look out for myself. And m’lord, too. If the queen found out I was buying human shit, can you imagine how much trouble we’d get in?”

An icy lump forms in your throat – the air turns cold, and you think for a moment that Sans has reappeared, announced by his magic, but a quick glance over your shoulder confirms that his brother is the only monster present. 

“Because of me?” you whisper.

Rus’s eye twitches. “I guess…”

You manage to catch yourself before you can ask why your being here could get them into trouble with the queen – Sans’s deep growl echoes in your mind threateningly:

Don’t drag my brother into it.

“I’m sorry…” you mumble.

Rus hums. “S’your favourite word, huh?”

Damp teases the roof of your mouth, clogging the back of your throat.

Now, that’s all I ever wanna hear comin’ out of your mouth, the Man-Who-Guards-You snarls.

You inhale deeply, chasing away the dreaded scent with the cloying smell of magical cigarettes. “I’m so–”

“Stop, kid. Quit apologisin’ for things that ain’t your fault, ‘kay?”

You bite your tongue to hold back your next apology – how do you know when something’s not your fault?

“So food, huh?” Rus says cheerfully. “Any special requests? I can get you a treat, if you want? Since you’re gonna be drowning in buns you can’t even eat…”

At the mention of pastries, a ghostly, taunting scent of sugar and sweet dough teases your nose…accompanied with the smell of vomit. “What about…Muffet?” you ask, suddenly nervous.

“What about Muffet?”

“Did she ask? When you bought those doughnuts?”

“Hmm…no. She wasn’t about when I bought ‘em.”

“Oh. Did you…really tell her I threw them up?”

Rus cackles. “Nah. Didn’t I say I’d have your back? She’d get pissed. She’s got issues with people who have poor taste and who are stingy with their cash.”

You release a breath of relief. “I don’t have poor taste,” you mutter defensively – those doughnuts had been lovely.

Rus rasps a chuckle. “Tell that to the sink.”

An indignant sound escapes through your lips. “I…I ate too much,” you protest.

“Uh-huh… You got a problem with spiders, or somethin’?”

“N-no!”

“I mean, if spiders really bug you that much –”

You whirl on him, and his arm falls from your shoulders. “They don’t!”

He quirks an amused brow. “Oh?”

“Th-they don’t bother me,” you insist; your voice sounds louder than normal…

“S’at right?”

You didn’t realise that you had been shouting. Panic bubbles in your chest, and you duck your head –

You don’t have to keep doing that with me, Rus had told you, on a cold, clear night that feels like eons ago…

You raise your eyes and fight the urge to drop them, but the need to apologise is harder to ignore. “Yes…”

Rus looks rather proud of himself. “Y’know, I think that’s the first time I’ve seen that fight in there…” he points to your chest, “…come out of there.” He takes your chin gently between his fingers and brushes his thumb across your bottom lip.

Every muscle tenses; every joint locks, and your frozen to the spot. For a brief moment, the memory of him hooking his thumb in your mouth, prodding your teeth, crosses your mind…but the image is gradually erased with each gentle swipe of his thumb across your lip.   

… And you realise just how smooth the skin is; not dry and flaking and gnawed open. It had never occurred to you just how much you’d bitten away at your lower lip while in the camp, chewing away at the peeling skin mechanically.

The candies may have healed them again and again, but you haven’t eaten a single piece since yesterday…

“Well,” Rus says, abruptly pulling back. “I’d better get goin’.” He smirks and gives you a soft pat to the head. “Got some shoppin’ to do.”

When he pulls away, something falls from his palm, rolling from the top of your skull and down the side of your face. You hurry to catch the tiny object before it hits the floor, and you successfully grasp it in both hands – opening your tight fists reveals a small piece of monster candy.

When you look back up, Rus has vanished, leaving behind the rusty scent of his magic…and the faint echo of a throaty chuckle.

-

 

TRAIT: Perseverance – COUNTERBALANCE, Despair

One could quite easily compare despair to hate, kindness’s counterbalance, purely based on the strength of the negative trait. Despair surely is a powerful negative, if it can defeat a persevering SOUL, whose very nature is to endure horrors beyond the scope of the imagination and remain unmoved.

But despair and hate are defined quite differently. To hate is to harbour an intense dislike for someone or something, to lose compassion and care. To despair is the complete loss and absence of hope, to lose their fight and their drive to survive.

To surrender to despair is to be overcome with a sense of powerlessness, to believe that all the vessel has endured will come to nothing. To despair is when a persevering SOUL has lost all hope, and finds no reason to persevere.

 

While waiting for Rus, you had parked yourself by the island in the kitchen, picking up from where you’d left off in The Myth and Magic of Monsters and Men.

You tentatively nibble at your lower lip, laving your tongue across it. You’ve been incessantly sucking at the healed skin since you’d started reading, revelling in just how soft it was, relieved of your once endless biting.

You force yourself to stop nibbling, and firmly close your mouth – you don’t want to fall back into the habit so soon after finally breaking it.

You glance up at the open archway leading through to the living room, then towards the hallway. Sans hasn’t once emerged from the office while you’d caught up with your reading, announcing his presence with the slam of a door and the click of his boots – you would certainly hear him if he’d left at any time.

Though he can use the mysterious Void to travel, perhaps he chooses to rely on his magic as little as possible; if he can walk somewhere, then he will.

Rus isn’t exactly cheating with his hopping to and fro through the Void, but if it exhausts him as much as it does, then it’s a wonder why he does it all the time.

You’re a little uneasy, waiting in the kitchen, so exposed – you would feel much safer in Rus’s room. You’ve not been alone in the house with Sans since you’re first night here, and you feel no less terrified. He could find your presence in the kitchen unwanted, or annoying, or forbidden, or…

You take a deep breath and force the dreary thoughts from your mind. This is but yet another obstacle to overcome; feeling comfortable with Sans in a house without his younger brother.

Taking another calming breath, you return to the mass of text to distract yourself from wallowing in your anxieties.

 

It is difficult to properly define the effects of despair on a SOUL and its vessel, since to observe this negative change would require effectively breaking a persevering SOUL, reducing them to a vastly weakened mental state, and persevering SOULs naturally resist such attacks on their person.

However, some experts have documented the gradual process of despair evident in several test subjects – it is a slow development, and acts almost like what the humans call an ‘infection’. The process can be triggered by either a single stimulus, or a range of factors that can accumulate over a period of time, and finally reach breaking point.

Experts have managed to observe this constant battle in some particularly strong cases, and –

 

Just as you recognise the scent of Rus’s magic and the slight hum of its power in the air, announcing his return, the book is snatched from its place on the counter and replaced with a bright blue plastic bag filled to the brim with packets of sugar and cartons of eggs.

Rus’s hand lands on your shoulder, and you turn to make a wild grab for the book, but his breath is suddenly hot on your neck, his nasal ridge lightly brushing against the shell of your ear, stilling you.

“I wouldn’t read that part,” Rus rumbles. “S’not for casual reading.”

“I’m so–“ You pause. “Okay. Why?”

Rus pulls back, allowing you to twist about in your chair to face him. He snaps the book shut with a dull thump, and shrugs off his jacket.

“It’ll make you question yourself,” he says gravely.

He looks far too serious for your liking, and yet his reaction to finding you with the book has only piqued your interest.

“What do you mean?” you ask.

Rus shakes his head. “It’ll scare you.”

He then grins, and just like that, he’s back to normal. “Just came to drop that off before my next quest.” He gestures to the bag on the counter beside you. “I can’t stop thinkin’ about your buns.”

Your neck heats. “Thank you. For the stuff…”

Rus chuckles, giving you a brief, gentle pat to the head. “You’re doin’ good, Kitten.”

And he’s gone before you can ask him what he means, and with him, the offending book.

Cheeks aflame, you empty the brimming bag.

Rus has certainly delivered on his promise – whatever store he went to, he must have raided the entire building of all of its sugar and eggs; the bag is filled fit to bursting with heavy packets of brown and white sugar, and several cartons of eggs. You inspect one of the cartons; NTT Brand eggs, apparently. The carton doesn’t specify where the eggs were farmed, and you had never thought to question where, exactly, monster eggs come from. Monster chickens, perhaps?

You have more than enough here to make a month’s supply of Cinnamon Bunnies…which was probably Rus’s intention.

Venturing up to his room to fetch your apron, you find The Myth and Magic of Monsters and Men tucked beneath a blanket on his mattress, but Rus is nowhere to be seen.

You ignore the book as much as you can as you fasten your apron around your waist, but his odd reaction upon finding you reading that one passage is slowly kindling your curiosity.

You creep over to the mattress and dig out the book, trying to locate where you had left off – the book falls open naturally, and you recognise some of the text, the page number…but there’s a noticeable rip down the spine.

Several pages have been torn out.

-

Your hands are trembling terribly as you creep towards the office. The cutlery clatters atop the plate with the rabbit-shaped pastry, and the coffee is close to overflowing the rim of the mug in your other hand.

The torn pages had played on you mind as you’d baked – every room on the lower floor of the house is infected with the delicious smell of sweet pastry and cinnamon…except the office, which has remained stubbornly closed all morning.

You’d considered digging through the paper balls scattered across Rus’s bedroom floor, stuffed into used mugs and take-away noodle boxes, to find out what he so desperately prevented you from reading. But if he is so concerned for you, then he wouldn’t leave the torn pages lying around for you to stumble upon.

It was certainly annoying, yet nothing too serious that it would make you lose sleep…but Sans may not be happy to learn that Rus has defiled one of his books.

You pause outside the office, staring at the gap along the floor for any signs of movement, straining your ears for the rustle of leather or the click-click of boots. But all you can hear is your own heavy, anxious breathing and the clack-clack-clack of the cutlery against the plate.

You had promised yourself, as you had folded the dough, that you would not be nervous. But without Rus here to turn to, the very notion of facing Sans not only completely alone, but of your own volition, without being summoned, sets your heart into overdrive.

But Rus’s absence is a good thing – you shouldn’t have to rely on him forever.

You’re barely dipping your toe into the water, but it’s better than sticking your entire foot in. You are only testing, after all…

“If you’re going to enter,” a cold voice says from the other side of the door, “then do it.”

You choke on your squeak of surprise. With your heart beating like a jackhammer against your sternum, and hands shaking almost painfully, you slowly, carefully push the door open to find Sans glaring at you with his fingers laced together in his lap, his chair turned one-hundred and eighty degrees from the desk. Atop the desk are two large stacks of papers and binders, and to Sans’s right is what appears to be…a cell phone?

Sans has a cell phone?

“Don’t loiter,” he snaps, recapturing your attention. “It’s irritating.”

“S-sorry,” you whisper, lowering your head.

“What do you want?” His voice is as cutting as ever.

Your tongue feels too big for your mouth. You wish you could summon the backbone you’d managed to grow – even if it was a small amount – when speaking with Rus. But you can’t seem to will it to appear.

You swallow thickly and force the words out. “Um…I thought that…m-maybe –”

“Speak up.”

“I thought you would like something to eat,” you practically shout, startled by the harsh order.

There’s a long pause, but you dare not look up to gauge Sans’s expression. His magic quietly hums about him, brushing up against you almost inquisitively.

“And why on earth would I want one of those things?” he asks coldly.

You want to hurl the Cinnamon Bunny across the room at him and just run. But you stand firm, willing your hands to cease their trembling.

“Y-you’ve been working hard,” you manage to croak out, “since Day X. And I thought you would like…a break?”

There’s a dull whine in your ears, and for a moment, you think that it’s your soul, spinning and whistling like the hysterical whirling of a Catherine wheel – but you know it’s all in your head, your trepidation building and building…

When Sans’s silence stretches on to uncomfortable lengths, you glance up. He has turned his head to one side, his eyes on some spot to his right, and his shoulders are tense.

… And is that a blush dusting his cheeks?

“Did the mongrel put you up to this?” he demands.

“N-no, Sir.” Though you do have the slightest suspicion that, while he may not have known the specifics, Rus knew of your intentions as early as last night.

Sans hums suspiciously, his eyes flicking back to you briefly. Then, too quickly, he returns his gaze to the fascinating spot to his left…without having ordered you to look down.

“Well,” he says gruffly – calm, controlled, but betrayed by that deep flush. “That’s…kind of you. Put it over there.” He vaguely waves to his left – you know he’s flustered based on the carelessness of the gesture. Sans is anything but careless. “Then get ou–” He pauses, blush darkening. “Then you may go.”

All the air in your lungs seems to vanish at once. “Yes, Sir,” you barely wheeze, hurrying to the vaguely designated spot.

You place the Cinnamon Bunny and the mug of coffee on the nearest available surface – an empty shelf – then turn to Sans without meeting his eyes, too frightened to.

You bow your head. “E-enjoy.”

Then you abruptly bolt from the office, clumsily pulling the door closed behind you, and you half-sprint up to Rus’s bedroom, putting as much distance between you and the office as possible.

Once you’re through the door and it’s firmly closed, whatever strength that managed to power you through the entire exchange with Sans abandons you, and you slump with a gasp.

It takes you several minutes to regain your composure, and drag yourself across the cluttered floor towards the inviting-looking mattress.

The rest of the cinnamon pastry batch is still cooling, and you’ve left the kitchen as spotless as you had found it. You needn’t worry about Sans dragging you back down the stairs by the scruff of your neck to clean up your mess.

You can only hope that now, after taking this small step – you’ve taken a baby step, yes, but it’s a step nonetheless – you can somehow come to disconnect Sans from the terrible image he’s so good at maintaining. That blush certainly isn’t very frightening. It appears that it’s not just your tears that disarm him.

Now you just need to work out what, exactly, you did that affected him so. Was it your concern for him, or your eagerness to please him?

… However, you’re not going to be leaving this room for a while. You’ll go back downstairs later. When you’ve stopped shaking.

While taking refuge in Rus’s bedroom, you flick through The Myth and Magic of Monsters and Men.   

A book is the only thing you can think of to occupy yourself. After cleaning the library from top to bottom day in and day out, you’d not once spotted anything particularly interesting – you had hoped that among the strategy guides, history memoirs and records, and the disturbingly large collection of NTT novels, you would have found at least one human book.

You make a mental note to ask Rus for one the next time you need food.

With the pages you had hoped to continue with missing, you backtrack, and busy yourself with a chapter detailing the age old war between humans and monsters – the decisive war that trapped them beneath the mountain. The author of the essay – a one Gerson Boom – went to great lengths to portray the humans of the war as vicious, bloodthirsty, ruthless, unnecessarily cruel in their intentions…

He’s not wrong…

You’re several pages deep within the morbid tale when the familiar scent of metal strokes along your tongue. You glance up from the book to find Rus seated at his computer, the machine already whirring to life.

“’Sup?” he says.

“Hello.”

He snakes his impossibly long tongue over his fingers, making a show of licking them clean before he says, “I left all your stuff downstairs. Dunno where it all goes.”

You close the book and push yourself up. “Thank yo–” 

Downstairs? Is…Sans still downstairs?

“Somethin’ wrong?” Rus asks, his attention now on his computer screen, but there’s clear concern in his voice.

“No,” you say weakly.

Rus’s jaw twitches into a tiny grin, and his golden fang catches the light. “If you’re worried about m’lord, don’t be. He was in a great mood when I ran into him.”

Something in your stomach flutters excitedly. “Really?” The elation quickly fades. “Are you…joking?”

Rus’s smile drops, then swivels in his chair to fix you with an earnest stare. “I wouldn’t joke about m’lord’s happiness. ‘S a rare sight.”

“So…he was really happy?” You knew that your intervention had flustered him, but he didn’t seem happy with your intrusion – not by any indication you could see, anyway…

Rus’s grin is quickly back in place. “Uh-huh. Coffee, two sugars…a Cinnamon Bunny?”

You nod slowly.

“Though so… M’lord left the plate in the sink for you. Mug, too…both empty.” Rus rasps a laugh. “He thought it was ‘cause of me that you did that, at first. He got all angry, sayin’ I’d told you he had a sweet tooth.”

You shake your head. “I kind of…figured it out on my own.” The two sugars in his coffee, the candy hidden away in his room; it was as easy as adding two and two together.

Rus chuckles. “S’what I told him. So, yeah…” He turns back to his computer. “He’s real happy. You did good.”  

“Thank you,” you gasp, relief coursing through every vein, rushing straight to your head.

Galvanised, you stand, brushing down your sweater, and making your way to door to see to your groceries. Perhaps you could make another coffee and offer Sans another bun – it’s been quite some time since you had escaped to Rus’s room, and unless he’s helped himself to one already, then he must be quite hungry…

“Oh, uh…by the way…”

You pause just a few steps from the door and turn back to face Rus –

He’s abandoned his computer, and is standing so close to you that the tip of your nose brushes the fraying wool of his sweater when you spin around.

With a squeak, you stumble back a step, but his arm snakes around your waist, pulling you flush to his chest.

Reflexively, you bring up your hands to push him away, but his warm, smoky breath washing over your neck stills you.

“Those buns,” he growls in a voice so deep it sets something deep within your stomach quivering, “were really, really fuckin’ good.”

“Th-thank you,” you wheeze into his sweater. Your face, you neck, your ears are burning.

“Hmm…” Rus rumbles. “Heh, you smell just like ‘em. Makes me wanna gobble you up…”

“H-how ma–” Your words are cut off with a yelp when Rus’s fangs brush teasingly along the skin of your throat, up to the corner of your jaw.

“You say somethin’?”

You swallow, willing your voice to stay strong, but it comes out in a whisper. “How many did you have?” 

“Uh…two.” There’s a mischievous lit to his tone.

… You don’t believe him. The heat vanishes in an instant, and you pull back.

Rus retreats enough to grin down at you.

“You…only had two, right?” you ask warily, dismay like a cold sheet of rain extinguishing your momentary glee.

He innocently plays with your hair, his attention on the captured locks rolling between his thumb and index finger. “Did I say two? I meant twenty.”  

You gawk at him – he’s eaten the entire batch! “Rus!

His wicked grin grows impossibly wider and he purrs, “Yes?”

“They were…I was saving them!”

Rus rasps a laugh. “Guess you’ll have to make more.” His tongue snakes out from the void behind his fangs at a taunting pace, licking each and every one of his deadly teeth and making the most obscene expression –!

You feel like you’re head’s about to explode. Unable to properly contain a huff of irritation, you turn and leave.

His laughter follows you all the way down the stairs.

-

You’re shocked to find Sans seated comfortably in the living room the next morning, nursing a cup of coffee and scribbling on a large newspaper.

When he didn’t enter the kitchen to accept the coffee you had prepared for him, you assumed that he had left earlier than usual, and you’d decided to take it to Rus instead – it seemed like a waste to just drain it, and coffee is still a little too bitter for you.

But you caught sight of him as you reached the foot of the stairs, and froze in the archway.

“Good morning!” you squeak.

“Good morning,” Sans returns, not looking up from his paper.

When he holds out his mug, you quickly exchange it with the full one with trembling fingers.

He’s still home? And he doesn’t appear in any hurry to leave.

You hadn’t seen him again after delivering the cinnamon pastry to his office yesterday, though you had expected him to interrupt your afternoon of additional baking with a furious reprimand about how you had ungracefully sprinted from his office without warning. When the dreaded reprimand hadn’t come, you had anticipated a quick comment on how he expected you to be up bright and early the next morning to get back to work.

Rus had offered to get you another day off before you’d retreated to bed, but you are feeling much better now, and more than eager to put the entire collar debacle behind you. As upsetting as it was, thinking about it not only evokes a sudden spike of panic, but a burst of something else…that burning, ugly feeling…

Anger.

Sans doesn’t appear to be concerned about whether or not you’re in a fit state to work – he’s acting as though it had never happened. You’re a little grateful, but at the same time, you find it quite insensitive.

Though Sans is not the most sensitive of individuals… 

“Are you staring at me?” he suddenly asks, frowning at the paper.

Before you cast your gaze to the floor, you happen to catch what’s keeping him so engrossed with his paper; he’s mid-way through a crossword.

You curl your fingers into the hem of your skirt to stop them from shaking. “Would y-you like some –”

“I can’t hear you when you mumble,” Sans retorts nastily.

You swallow. “Would you like some breakfast?”

Sans takes a long sip of his coffee…and you realise the action just about hides the blush glowing on his cheeks.

“No, thank you,” he says curtly when his blush fades.

And that’s clearly a dismissal. You scarper from the room and fetch your cleaning supplies from the kitchen, your insides twisting.

But if that blush has told you anything of value, it’s that it is your willingness to please him that flusters him so.

Cleaning supplies in hand, you hurry up to the bathroom. Just before you ascend the stairs, you cautiously peek into the living room, but Sans has vanished, coffee and paper with him.

Though you’re left alone by the brothers for the rest of the morning, you’re incredibly uneasy – a sickening churning in your stomach plagues you as you move from room to room. Knowing that Sans is in the house while you work isn’t exactly distracting – if anything, it’s forcing you to check, check, and triple-check every task, every little thing you do.

Mid-way through cleaning out the bathroom, you have the sneaking suspicion that someone’s nearby, lurking just beyond the door, listening in on you.

You fear for a moment that it’s Sans, abandoning his work to order that you keep the noise down – you have been rather clumsy this morning, dropping bottles and slamming cupboard doors in your anxiousness – but you take a deep breath, and all you can smell is bleach and soap. No frozen magic…

When you exit the bathroom, however, you find Rus perched in the door of his room, an empty coffee mug dangling from loose fingers.

“You haven’t stopped panickin’ all mornin’,” he grumbles.

The apprehension whipping your soul into a constant frenzy must be distracting him. “I can’t help it,” you insist, staring at a chipped mug hooked onto his fingers.

“M’lord’ll be home most days from now,” Rus says after a pause. “You’re gonna have to get used to it.”

His tone isn’t cruel, nor accusatory, but his words still elicit an unpleasant prickling in your chest. “I know.” 

He’s suddenly crowding you, having closed the distance between you with a single long stride. Instinct prompts you to take a step back, but you don’t get very far – you back into the circle of his arm, and the space between you is once again occupied. Your vision is filled with the dim, ghostly glow within his eye sockets, the slight gleam of the natural light reflecting off of his golden fang…and nothing else.

“Do me a favour, yeah?” he breathes.

You tense. Perhaps he caught on to the strange, almost sharp sensation that briefly flared up in your soul. “I’m so –” You bite your tongue to stifle the apology. “Um…yes?”

Rus chuckles, and there’s…mischief in it. He leans in, and the ridge of his nasal cavity trails ever so slowly down your forehead…over the curve of your nose…until his mouth is a hair’s breadth from your lips.

He then takes a hold of your hand, positioning your palm facing up, and places the mug in the cradle of your fingers.

“Wash that for me, would you?” He pulls back, and cold air hits your very, very warm face. “And if you’re still feeling generous, mind bringin’ me a bun or two later?”

And with that, he turns, lumbers back into his bedroom, and the door swings shut with a soft click, wafting the scent of rusty magic into your slack, stunned face.

You’re not quite sure if you can move anything but your eyes, alternating between the mug in your hand, to Rus’s bedroom door. If he was going to give it to you, then he didn’t need to get so close, did he?  

The room has turned cold…colder than it was only moments ago against your warm cheeks. You turn –

It wasn’t the heat of your furiously flushed skin that had made the air seem chilly; Sans is standing at the top of the staircase, a binder under his arm, his cell phone in his quivering fist, and a terrible, hellish, scowl marring his face, his magic an angry cloud buzzing about him.

The urge to just burst into tears is so strong that you almost give in, but you press you lips tightly together and fight the tears.

“Get…” Sans says through clenched fangs, as though spelling the order out to a child, “…back…to work.

You don’t even hesitate. The second Sans struts by you, you bolt down the stairs to dump the mug in the kitchen sink and retrieve the vacuum.

The rest of the morning goes by without distractions.

You’re still incredibly nervous – now, as well as worrying that you may disturb Sans by doing so much as breathing too heavily, you’re constantly on guard for Rus and his wandering hands, his ensnaring arms, his smoky presence…

Sans only passes you once more that morning. As he does, though you remain resolutely focused on your current task, dusting down a picture frame like your life depended on it, you’re sure that his scarlet eyes burn holes into your back.

But he doesn’t say a word, and storms down the stairs, leaving you feeling so tightly wound you just want to lie down for a while.

How unfair – he should be angry with Rus for cornering you!

However, entering Sans’s room dispels all worries of the brothers…and replaces it with cold, biting fear.

The second your eyes land on the door to the closet, you come close to vomiting out of sheer panic, the image of the red, spiked collar catching in your fingers. You’re certain that Rus has moved the vicious thing. He wouldn’t be careless enough to leave it in there, would he?

You’re quick to fetch Sans’s uniform, frantically hooking it on the door with the gleaming boots beneath it. When you retrieve a scarf, you tug it from its place as carefully as you can, ensuring there’s no added weight to it.

And you’re out of the room like a shot, and in the bathroom before you’re throwing up all of your breakfast into the nice, sparkling toilet you had so meticulously cleaned only a few hours ago.

You cross paths with Sans again as you’re just finishing up in the living room. He enters without acknowledging you, another thick binder tucked under his arm. He makes no comment on the vomiting incident, but you’re certain that he’d heard you – you weren’t exactly quiet. Rus had investigated your vomiting to attempt to discourage you from working when you clearly weren’t fit to, but you had assured him through coughs and dry retches that yes, you most certainly were.

Sans retrieves a second binder from the cupboard next to the wine cabinet, then returns from the direction he came.

On his way out, he says, “The carpet is a mess. Do it again.”

You glance at the carpet – it looks perfectly fine! There is a dark, scuffed up patch near the window where you had dragged the vacuum a little too harshly, but other than that, it’s hardly messy.

You look up, but Sans is already gone, his retreat announced with the slamming of the office door.

He will only complain about it at dinner, so you uncoil the vacuum cord and give the carpet another swift clean, making sure not to leave any uneven, scruffy patches.

Once you’re done with the living room, you enter the kitchen to check the time –

You start. The clock on the fridge reads 14:08. How odd…you usually finish the living room around 14:30 on a good day. You haven’t done too badly for time, today. Dare you say it, but you seem to have gotten faster…

Oh, Angel…have you forgotten to do something? You think back to your list, mouthing each memorised bullet point. You’re certain that you’ve done everything.

You continue with the dining room, going through each and every task in your mind as far back as this morning. You definitely haven’t neglected anything on your list…

Convinced that you may have fallen into that habit of skipping the menial tasks, you do a thorough clean of the dining room, paying close attention to every little thing you do and ensuring that you have most certainly done it to the best of your ability.

You’re still jittery when you move on to the kitchen. The anxiety only worsens when you find Sans descending the stairs with his cell phone held to the side of his skull.

Like before, he doesn’t regard you at first, but he deliberately drags a finger along the banister as he marches down the steps.

He pauses at the foot of the staircase and, with a sneer, he holds his hand out so you can inspect the dust coating his finger. “Make sure to get that. Understand?”

“Yes, Sir,” you say quietly.

His scolding at dinner was bad enough – now he’s around to give you constant updates and requests as you work.

You very nearly decide to forgo bringing him an afternoon coffee and Cinnamon Bunny, but stubbornness would be disadvantageous to your plan.

To your relief, the plate of second-batch Cinnamon Bunnies has been left untouched – you take one and heat it up in the oven, brewing a coffee while you wait. Fresh coffee and warmed bun in hand, you pause outside of the office only to take a deep breath, and you knock.

“What?” comes the sharp reply.

You enter, hands quivering no less violently than they had during your first coffee and bun experiment. “I thought you might like a coffee and b-bun.”

Were it not for Sans’s ever-present piercing glare, you would have congratulated yourself for only stumbling over the last word.

He regards you from his chair, turned to fully face you, arms and legs crossed as though forming some sort of physical barrier to keep you away.

“And why is that?” he snaps. “Dinner is soon.” He sneers at the pasty. “That thing will ruin my appetite.”

Just before you obediently lower your head, you catch the beginnings of a blush creeping up his cheeks.

“Dinner is n-not for a few hours yet, Sir,” you say quietly. “M-maybe a cinnamon bun will help…until then?”

Sans grumbles something you can’t quite catch, before he mutters, “Fine. Put it over there.”

You don’t see where he indicates, you so place the coffee and the bun where you had left them last time, and with a final bow, you leave the office at a pace no less calmer than before.

That night at dinner, Sans is unusually quiet – no reprimands, no comments about your work, just a simple good evening

…and the faintest blush glowing on his cheeks.

-

Sans is home again the next day.

You find him attending to another crossword in the living room, and you exchange his empty mug with the fresh one you had ritually prepared. Perhaps you should get up earlier tomorrow and beat him to the coffee machine – that may get you a few extra points…

“Go and wake the mongrel,” Sans orders harshly the second you take the empty mug from him.

“Yes, Sir,” you squeak, then you scarper from the room and up the stairs.

You know that Rus is awake, but when you switch on the light, he is still sprawled out on his mattress with one arm thrown over his eyes.

Placing the mug down, you creep towards him and kneel by his side.

“Your brother wants to see you,” you say.

“Hmm,” Rus grumbles. “Tell him I’m busy.” Then he rolls over, and seconds later, he’s snoring.

You’re stumped. You know that if you tell Sans that, he will only order you to try again.

But Rus has technically given you an order of his own, so you return to the living room and relay his message to his brother.

He tuts impatiently. “He’s being childish. Go back up there and tell him to get up.”

You obey. This time, you gently prod the side of Rus’s skull for good measure.

Nooo,” he moans. “Tell him I’m tired.”

For a moment, you think that perhaps he really is too tired, maybe even unwell, but you can hear the playfulness in his voice.

You prod him again. “Um…I’ll get into trouble.”

Rus peers at you over his shoulder. “Hmm, don’t want that, do we? Fine…” He turns over, propping his chin in one hand. “But only if you ask nicely.”

“Please?”

Rus hums, expression thoughtful. “Nah.”

You barely have any time to react before he’s pulling you against him, rolling you over so he’s got you pinned to the mattress, caging you with his arms around your torso, and his jaw nestled into the crook of your neck.

“Rus, don’t!” you squawk.

He only hums in response.

“S-San’s will get mad!” you insist.

“Will he?” Rus yawns.

“Yes!” You push against his hold, only for him to readjust his position so he’s effectively crushing you, barely giving you an inch to move.

“Oh, well,” he mumbles. “I still like you.”

You attempt to wiggle his iron hold loose, but to no avail. In fact, the more you struggle, the stronger the bony cage of his arms becomes…and the more entertained he seemed to get.

He chuckles right next to your ear, and the deep, rumbling sound provokes a shiver, rocking your entire body.

… Then comes a strange, dull whine, buzzing through the air, and the chill of a frigid breeze washes across your cheeks –

Then your falling, plunged into the freezing, unforgiving Void, and you land on soft carpet. Rus’s weight atop you knocks all of the wind from your lungs.

You blink, coughing painfully, and you recognise the living room. And to your right is Sans.

He has abandoned his chair, his arms crossed, one foot tapping against the carpet erratically, and his left socket is aflame, the only visible indication that he has used his magic at all.

“Must I continue,” he growls, “to remind you of your place here? If you would rather play with my idiot brother, then perhaps I should stop wasting my time with you.”

“N-no!” you gasp, squirming from beneath Rus’s now relaxed form. “I was –”

“Playing pet,” Sans finishes for you. “Once again.”

Your hands tremble, and you curl them into fists in the vain hope that it will steady them – but you’re shaking all over. A horrible pit has opened up in your gut, swallowing everything within its reach, leaving you feeling hollow.

Except for your soul. And it’s burning…

“And here I thought you had no desire to be a pet,” Sans continues. You didn’t think that it was possible for his terrible crimson glare to look any more menacing than it already does, but its glow pierces you like a flaming arrow. “Did you decide that, perhaps, being treated like some kind of animal is better than being clothed and properly fed?

“So, then, pet,” he spits, and the awful word is like a physical blow, “I suppose I should take that room from you, seeing as how you don’t use it, anyway.”

You sag – as you had suspected, he had known that you have hardly used it.

“You can sleep in the dog’s room from now on, and only the dog’s room. Pets are not allowed on the furniture.”

Rus remains on the floor, content to let his brother chew your ear out.

“Or perhaps you can sleep in the garage…”

A growing heat warms your face…

“…perhaps I should leash you.”

You’re shaking. He’s being so unfair…

“Would you prefer that, pet?”

Snarling, rabid bitches like you, the Man-Who-Guards-You sneers, dragging the metal dog collar through his fingers, need to be put in their place.

You want to scream.

“Did you not hear me? I said would you prefer that, p –”

No.”

The word bursts from your lips like poison – sharp, sudden, and deadly.

Sans stiffens, and his eyes blink to black. The air around him crackles, the scent of a deathly cold wind permeating the room.

But you hold his empty stare, all fear gone. In its place…anger.  

“No…” you say again, and you barely recognise your own voice, “…Sir.”

You are aware of Rus’s gaze on you, but you refuse to grant him even a glance from the corner of your eye – it’s his fault that Sans is so angry with you!

And Sans does seems to be affected by the sudden spike of defiance that flared from your soul. And the tone of you voice when you had addressed him had been so full of…attitude.

Attitude like that was most certainly not allowed in the camp.

His sockets remain dark, furious, and the longer you hold them, the more the fear builds, returning bit by bit, nibbling away at the backbone you had finally grown.

The vibrations in the air around him intensify, and for a moment, you think that your soul reacts, swelling in response. Preparing for an attack…

Is he going to use magic on you now? All of your bravery is gone in an instant, and you incline your head in a small bow. “I’m –”

…but before you can finish, Sans unleashes his empty death-glare on Rus.

“Do me a favour,” he snaps, “and stop distracting my maid! Keep your filthy, wandering hands to yourself while she is working!”

He sniffs, straightening the lapels of his jacket. “I don’t care what you do with her behind closed doors, but please try to keep from…petting her at every opportunity. Especially when I’m about!”

You stare at Sans for a long moment, baffled, then cautiously slide your gaze down to his brother, still lounging on the carpet.

He looks perfectly calm, one hand cradling his chin and the other hooked over his knee, but there are the tiniest droplets of sweat forming at his temples.

“Sure thing, m’lord,” he replies airily.

“Good,” Sans huffs, then he kicks the arm Rus was using to support his jaw. Rus’s head hits the carpet with a soft thud. “Get up, then. There’s something I need you to do for me today.”

Rus grumbles something under his breath, too low for you to catch, but Sans – somehow – manages to hear it.

“Stop complaining,” he snarls. “Get up and follow me. Now.”

Sans marches from the room without looking back to see if his brother is doing as he’s been told. As his boots click across the wooden floor of the entrance hall, in the direction of the office, Rus staggers to his feet with a groan.

He regards you with a strange expression, when a small smile lifts the side of his jaw, and he pats you on the head before lumbering after his brother.

You stare after them in stunned silence for some time.

Was that…?

My brother…playing pet…my brother’s pet… He’s repeated those words before today – now it’s gotten to the point where it could be perceived as somewhat obsessive. 

Jealously…?

The very idea of Sans feeling something such as envy is bizarre. He’s always so careful to remain in control, and though he’s rather bad at maintaining it, letting his anger get the better of him quite regularly, surely he wouldn’t allow himself to give in to such a wild, unsightly emotion like jealousy?

It could be jealousy, yes, but the thought is too surreal – it could be something to do with honour. You had assured him that you wished to be his maid when you had arrived here, and he’s clearly not very happy when vows made to him are broken.

Unless you’re wrong, and what you have just seen was…possessiveness?

You’re often referred to as his maid, not the maid. And though you’re certain that he uses the word to belittle you, he speaks the word pet with such distain. And he has only used the word with such hatred recently, when Rus is nearby, when Rus is touching you, getting far too close to you…

Brother…my brother’s pet…

No…definitely not. You had promised to become his maid, and he expects you to keep that promise. Jealousy has nothing to do with it.

Though you have managed to escape a severe scolding, you won’t last long without further reprimands if you keep dawdling. Taking a deep breath to clear your head, you patter into the kitchen to fetch your morning supplies.

Just before you leave to make a start on your chores, you rush to the pantry to ensure that there are some Cinnamon Bunnies left for Sans’s coffee break later – though they aren’t a freshly baked batch, a quick warm up in the oven will make them taste just as nice.

You open the pantry doors…and the plate of Cinnamon Bunnies is empty.

Perhaps, for a while, there was the smallest possibility…

…that Rus was jealous, too.

-

The notion of Rus feeling left out is not completely implausible.

Over the past few days, since your little confrontation with Sans, though he has obeyed his brother’s wishes, the second you enter Rus’s bedroom after a long day’s work, he’s on you.

He practically pounces, scooping you up into a tight embrace. If he can’t maintain contact – for example, while you are undressing for bed – he remains very close, and tangles his fingers in your hair the moment you’re finished with whatever you’re doing.

He doesn’t complain about Sans’s newly established no-touching rule one bit, but you can see the relief in his face when you walk through his door at night, and feel the prickliness of his magic as you leave every morning.

You’re relieved that his tactile distractions have been limited to the mornings and the evenings. Though it’s certainly not much of a bother, it can get a little irritating when you have other things to be doing.

Sans, on the other hand, has not changed. Much.

He still blushes when you bring him his coffee, and watches you like a hawk as you leave – the weight of his eyes on your shoulders as you exit the office is crushing at times.

He passes by you as you work about the house, and each time he does, he makes his offhanded comment about how the curtains aren’t straight, or there’s still dust on that picture frame, or that wasn’t there when you picked it up, put it back exactly as you found it.

But at dinner, he’s silent. Even Rus, who continues to join him, can’t seem to get a rise out of him. And it’s these abrupt silences at dinner that concerns you.

As you walk towards the office with today’s coffee and bun in hand, you wonder if perhaps he’s unwell?

Or maybe…he’s upset with you because of how you reacted the other day?

Your mouth becomes dry. If he is still angry, he would have let you know about it long before now. He’s definitely too mature to resort to the silent treatment, and he’s far too proud to ignore when he feels that he’s been wronged.

The back of your neck tingles, but you shake it off and knock on the office door.

“What?” comes Sans’s usual sharp answer – mature though he may be, polite he is not.

You gently nudge the door open, and he is awaiting you in the same position he adopts every time you bring him his coffee – fully facing you, arms and legs crossed tightly, and his impressive glower marring his face.

“Good afternoon, Sir,” you say with a small bow. “I thought you could use a break.”

When Sans doesn’t answer right away, in his standard growl, you know that something is wrong.

You glance up. “S-Sir?”

His blush is absent, too. He must be very unhappy with you.

“What exactly do you think you’re doing?” he asks you in a dangerously soft voice.

You’re at a loss for words. Where has this suddenly come from?

In the blink of an eye and a gust of frost-scented magic, Sans is out of the chair and mere inches from you. You gasp and stumble back, but not before he violently smacks the plate from your hand with a vicious swipe, and knocks the hot mug of coffee from your other.

“Do not play the fool, human,” he snaps. “I wasn’t born this morning!”

He’s right in your space, so close you can smell the leather of his uniform.

She wants to know more about you?” he growls. “Isn’t that what my worthless brother said? Why?”

You’d never wanted anything of the sort – all you’d wanted to know was why he was home that day.

“The way you act,” he continues, “when you come in here with your little offerings…you are not happy to be here. You tremble, you shake, and you stutter, your soul…” His eyes briefly lower to your chest, then back up to lock with yours, “…is so wild it gives me a fucking headache. And yet you keep coming back.”

You back away, but he follows you, so there’s barely an inch lost between you.

“You are plotting something, aren’t you?” he snarls. “Why else would you keep doing this?”

“N-no –”

Sans’s left socket flashes dangerously, silencing you.

A pressure builds in your chest, unfamiliar, alien…cold. All of a sudden, your body becomes heavy, but like some increasing weight has developed in your chest – or a hook has been lodged into your soul and you’re being forcibly pulled down.

You’re forced to your knees, the pull far too strong to resist. The scent of frost almost hurts when you gasp, prickling the back of your throat.

Don’t you dare lie to me,” Sans warns in a voice that would encase the room in ice, were it possible. In contrast, his left eye is practically on fire, sparking viciously. “I know you hate my brother’s…coddling. Yet you let him paw at you like some kind of drooling idiot! You are obviously frightened of me, and you continue to confront me. You have a motive, human. Now tell me what your endgame is.”

The weight…the pull to your soul is becoming too much. It’s almost painful, bringing tears to your eyes.

Desperate, you use an arm to hold you up, to stop you from landing face first onto the floor. “No. Th-that’s not what I…”

The air becomes bitterly cold – now there is an added push to the pull on your soul, like one hand is pulling you down by the chest while another is pushing against your back.

“Whatever it is you intend to do,” Sans hisses, “do not think that I will not find out. Attempting to get close? Get in my good graces so that you will be given more freedom? You have read through enough of my paperwork while organising it to know something of value, that you can pass on to some outside party.”

You were in that camp for months – you were never given a chance to make the kind of friends that Sans is suggesting! You were never given that chance to make any friends…

Why is he suddenly so paranoid? You were just trying to be nice…

It seems that you have reached his limit, but it wasn’t as though you had pushed further than a simple coffee and pastry. Maybe…you had done it one time too many?

“I don’t want to be scared of you!” you sob. “Please! I w-want to work for you. I’ll be go –” You choke on the words, shaking your head furiously. “I want…to be able to d-do a good job. I’m tired of being scared…I don’t want to be scared…”

The pressure pushing and pulling on your soul in tandem vanishes. You gasp, sucking in a relieved breath when your frantic soul is released from Sans’s magical grip.

“Please…” you wheeze, shrinking. “I’m not…planning anything. I wouldn’t. I couldn’t…”

A strange sound comes from Sans’s throat, like he’s swallowing.

“I’ll…b-be good,” you can’t help but blabber. “I’ll be –”

“That’s all?”

You bite your tongue to silence yourself.

“That…is all this was?”

Shivering, you glance up. Sans is staring at you with the face of someone who has just had something snatched from him without preamble. He’s baffled, sockets wide and devoid of light, his jaw slack.

“What did my brother tell you?” he demands in a whisper.

You sniff. “I just –”

“Answer the question.”

“That you don’t want me to be afraid of you.”

Light gradually returns to Sans’s sockets. He inspects the shattered mug, then the tossed place and cinnamon bun. “And…this was your attempt…at a compromise?”

You nod.

Sans’s left eye twitches. “Words.”

“Yes, Sir.”

He examines the results of his outburst again – the broken mug, the coffee staining the floor, the split plate, the squashed pastry – with a heavy frown etched into his forehead.

Then…so slowly…that blush darkens his cheeks.

“That’s all this was? This…pathetic–” The blush deepens, and he glares at you. “How do I know that you are not lying to me?”

You don’t quite know what to say. You could argue, say that is was all a harmless test to banish your fears, but they are just words. Sans could convince himself of any dishonesty in your tone if he is this paranoid –

Instead, you press a hand to your chest in answer.

This time, Sans’s demand for you to speak is forgotten.

His glare intensifies, and your abused soul seems to pulse – you wonder, for a moment, if it only ever does that in response to nearby magic. Perhaps it reacts to a tentative probe, or a ripple…

“I see,” Sans finally says. “I…”

He pauses, walking towards the cast-away plate. He reaches down and picks up the flat pastry, dumping the misshaped bunny on the damaged crockery, then brings it over to you.

“I owe you an…apology,” he says through his teeth, and motions for you to take the plate from him. “I am…sorry for frightening you.”   

You accept the plate with quivering fingers, and he turns to collect the scattered pieces of the mug. Once he’s gathered them all, he drops them onto the plate in your hands beside the pastry.

“If you wouldn’t mind,” he says, dusting down his coffee-stained gloves, “I would…appreciate another drink. Thank you.”

He appears to be finished, his gratitude also a dismissal, but you’re too stunned to move. You search his face for any traces of anger, but he has managed to disguise himself behind a mask of calm, and guilt.

Though the remorse doesn’t last for very long; he loses his patience, a crease forming between his eyes, breaking the mask. “Well?

After a staggered bow, you hurry to the kitchen.

You dispose of the broken crockery and the pastry, still reeling, then refill the coffee pot and prepare a fresh brew.

You want to hide away and just cry. You’re so overwhelmed, your soul still throbbing after the magical abuse, like a fresh wound. Did it ever hurt that much before? This isn’t the first time Sans has used his magic on you…

You should be fetching another bun while the coffee is brewing, but you don’t have the strength. You can only stare at the boiling liquid as it bubbles away in the pot.

Is this progress? You don’t feel any less frightened of Sans – if anything, you feel even worse. Perhaps your little plan was a waste of time. If Sans isn’t going to trust you, then should you really continue to make the effort?

Misery stews in your stomach as you unhook the pot from the machine once the coffee is the perfect temperature, and you turn to fetch a clean mug from the tableware cupboard.

Sans has followed you, and is lingering in the doorway of the kitchen, eyes intense.

“You were never going to get out of Ebott,” he says.

The pot slips through your limp fingers and hits the floor with a loud shatter, spraying glass and burning coffee across the floor, over your feet.

But you can barely feel the scalding liquid seeping through your thin stockings. It’s as though you’ve fallen into a vacuum…or that terrible Void, where no sound can reach your ears except the furious pounding of your blood.

Sans stares at the mess of coffee, then glares at you, a non-verbal command to clean it up.

But you can’t move. All thought is just flushed from your mind, leaving only his sharp, cutting words, echoing in the vast emptiness of your head, and a single, terrifying realisation.

He knows.

“H-how…” Your voice is weightless, a mere breath. You feel cold, numb…afraid…

Why does he know? How does he know?  

Sans tuts and brushes some invisible speck of dirt from his sleeve. “Did you honestly think that after centuries of being trapped beneath that rock by that damned Barrier, we didn’t learn a thing or two about it?”

He moves on from his sleeve to inspect his cuffs – all to keep his eyes from you…

“That Barrier,” he spits, “was designed by human magic. To keep us trapped, and nothing more. But the Barrier around Ebott is ours. We control it, and humans…”

He finally meets your eyes.

“…have no means to break it.”

You’re dizzy. A black haze flutters about the edges of your vision, and Sans’s cruel snarl sounds as though he’s speaking through a thick sheet of glass.

There’s a Barrier around Ebott.

No…that’s can’t be. Humans can still enter Ebott through guarded border points. Just because you and That Girl could never leave through them couldn’t mean that they were the only feasible way of escaping Ebott? He has to be lying…

“Her Majesty has majority control over the magic it takes to maintain it,” Sans continues, but you can barely hear him. “And her bizarre obsession with you humans means you can come as freely as you like. But you can never leave.”

Sans’s glare softens the slightest bit. “But you already knew that you could not leave so easily, yes? Why else would you have resorted to being smuggled out?”

When…how…when did the Barrier go up? Why…were you never told?

“I didn’t…” you choke, “I d-didn’t know there was –”

“Of course you didn’t know,” Sans says irritably. “Humans aren’t supposed to know. If that information was broadcast all over the NTT Network, no one would even dream of coming here! Honestly…”

He huffs. “We’ve caught so many at the border, it’s becoming routine. It’s messy, and I dislike it. But…” He sighs through his nose. “It can’t be helped, I suppose.”

Messy? Does he…?

“You kill them,” you whisper.

Sans’s voice is unforgiving when he says, “As I said, the queen controls the borders, and it is by her decree that you may leave. As long as that Barrier remains up, then the punishment for desertion is death.”

Desertion. The word is like a solid blow to the chest.

“B-but,” you splutter, your throat becoming clogged with oncoming sobs, “humans don’t know! Th-that’s not f-fair!”

Sans’s expression darkens. “Some do.”

Some do?

Some do…

You can hear the gunfire, the screaming. You can feel the burning in your legs as you run…

You gasp, but the air is too thin.

“You ended up in that camp because you tried to run away,” Sans says, his voice now soft. “Nothing within the queen’s power could save you because you chose to reject her. You deserted. So she disowned you.”

You’re going to faint.

Disowned.

“I have never understood her Majesty’s fascination with humans,” Sans continues. “You lie, you cheat, you’re cruel to your own kind…those who learned of our Barrier kept the secret amongst themselves, and exploited your ignorance. They promise you freedom, knowing there is no means of achieving it. And then they do the queen a service by locking all of the disowned up, destroying your identities, everything that makes you you, and leave you nameless, so you have no claim…no place in this world.”

Sans’s eyes widen a fraction, and he looks away from you, staring hard at some spot to his left. Your cheeks are wet – tears you hadn’t realised had fallen are streaming down your face.

Disowned…that word that had confused you so…

“Once the queen learned of that place,” Sans murmurs, “she didn’t care for the humans imprisoned there.”

Because by running, you had rejected her. You…her child…had refused her love.

Disowned.

That’s what that terrible word means?

After a long pause, he meets your eyes again. “Do you see now, why I can do nothing? Do you see why your presence here is a danger to not only you, but to us?”

You can’t understand.

How could such a thing be allowed? How could the queen feel so rejected by the humans of Ebott that by attempting to escape this hell she had unleashed upon them, her immediate reaction is betrayal?

You…can’t understand.

Your weak legs move of their own accord. You can’t even feel them – they take you from the room, passed Sans, who stares at you, mystified, and towards the front door.

You had been beaten.

You had been tortured.

You had been stripped of you name, your life, your very soul

Your hand reaches for the door. Cold fingers encircle the handle, but the strength to pull it open doesn’t come.

…you had almost died

All because you had run away –!

You just…can’t…understand!

You buckle, collapsing to the floor, and you wail.

-

I'm going to get out of Ebott…I don’t care what you say! Once I've saved enough, I'm getting the hell out of this disaster zone, and you can’t stop me –!

“– course it was not my intention. I’m not completely soulless.”

The voice of That Girl fades, and a new voice enters the dream – you know you’re dreaming because your limbs are impossibly heavy, your head full of sleep. It’s as though you are submerged in warm water, floating in comfortable darkness.

The new voice sounds familiar, but you can’t summon the name it belongs to. It’s deep, stern…bossy…

“Thank the Angel she’s stopped all that warbling, at least.”

“Yeah,” a new voice rasps. “She’s probably bone tired.” This new voice sounds husky, with a slight rumble. It sounds familiar, too…

Something long and thin gently combs through your hair. It disturbs the haze of lethargy cocooning you, but you’re quickly pulled back into its embrace when the touch slowly strokes.

The deep voice coughs irritably. “In any case, she is fine, now. There is no point discussing it further.”

Something beneath you shifts, and you become a little more aware; you’re lying on your side, and your head is pillowed on something large and soft. You nostrils are filled with a smoky, but sweet scent, and…rusted metal? As though warmed by the mid-summer sun…

You can sense a body nearby…two bodies, one closer than the other…but you cannot see them in the dark.

“You smacked the plate out of her hand,” the husky voice says quietly.

“We are done talking about this,” the deep voice snaps.

“I didn’t tell her to do it, y’know?”

“I already know that!” There’s a pause, then, “I picked it up.”

“Wow…can you sit, too? Maybe roll over?”

There’s a warning growl, and you tense. Something about that sound shakes you to your very core, and you whimper.

You surface from your light sleep for a brief moment, but you are soon dragged back under when the warm scent grows stronger, and the touch to your hair resumes lightly stroking, and maintains a relaxing rhythm.

After another long pause, the deep voice hisses, “Do not mock me, dog. I don’t care how angry you are, you do not speak to me that way.”

“Were you really gonna let her leave?”

“Don’t you dare change the subject –”

“Were you?” The rasping voice sounds…sad.

“Of course I wasn’t.”

“She had a hand on the door.”

“Yes, and the rest of her was on the floor. She had no intention of leaving. It was…I suppose, an unconscious reaction.”

… Did you attempt to run away from somewhere?

Ah…yes. You have been moved from the hall to the couch in the next room…you think. You do remember feeling very upset.

“I will admit that I got a little angry,” the deep voice says through a soft sigh. “So I tried to…make amends.”

“By upsetting her more?”

“She deserved to know what being a disowned is! I had hoped that she would own up to it herself…but she clearly has difficulty with the event. So, being as courteous as I am, I decided to just tell her in order to…apologise for my behaviour.” There’s a long pause. “How would I have known that she would react in such a way?”

“Hm…whatever.”

The silence that follows drags on for so long that you very nearly lose consciousness. You are just drifting off when the deep voice speaks again.

“You are selfish.”

There’s another long pause. “M’not.”

“Yes, you are. You always have been. You say you don’t want something, when in actuality you do, and then your throw a fit when you don’t get it. Look at you, now…”

The touch to your head twitches, and stills.

“You gave her exactly what she asked for. You even helped her, and now you’re upset because she’s doing something about it. What is it that you want, you worthless mongrel? Do you want her to feel comfortable here? Do you want her to grow thicker skin, or do you want her to depend on you for everything?”

“She’s mine.”

“She is mine as much as she is yours. What are humans to you, brother? A distraction? A novelty?”

“What are they to you?”

“A nightmare. I cannot understand them. And I cannot understand why you like them so much.”

After a moment of silence, the deep voice speaks again, sounding much closer than before.

“But what is it about this one that seems to get you into such a state, hm? Is this why you are so angry with me? Because of her?

“I like her.” The touch resumes stroking. “She’s cute.”

“She’s a nuisance,” the deep voice growls.

Sleep is attempting to pull you back into its clutches, the gentle, soothing motions of the mysterious touch guiding you towards them.

Just before you’re cut off from the odd limbo between sleep and wakefulness, the deep voice says;

“But, then, so are you.”

 

Chapter Text

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Chapter Ten

-

Warnings for chapter: Sickness, Mild PTSD, Mild Trauma, Non-Consensual Touching [mild], Minor Violence, Implications of Death, Blood

-

You have rather nasty burns on your feet after the coffee spillage.

You awake on Rus’s mattress and find him sitting by your feet, cradling one bare ankle in his hands, assessing the injuries.

“Do they hurt?” is the first thing he says to you.

Now that you are aware of them, they do...very much. It is dark; only the flickering screen of the computer gives light to the room, but even in its eerie glow, you can make a quick assessment of yourself.

Your stockings have been removed and thrown…somewhere in amongst Rus’s clothes, but you don’t remember taking them off; the rest of you uniform looks as though you may have attempted to remove it, but you were stopped – your shirt is hanging out loosely over your crumpled skirt, and the scarf around your wrist has been loosened just a little; and you can see how badly the burns on your feet have blistered, how red the surrounding skin is.

“Ow,” you say dumbly.

Rus chuckles. “Uh-huh.” He delicately traces the angry welts and you hiss – though his touch is gentle, his rough fingertips feel like sandpaper against your skin.

“How’re you feelin’?” he asks, not taking his eyes off of your foot hanging limp in his hand.

“Tired…” you say faintly.

You feel so groggy. Have you been crying? You think you dreamt…about That Girl, and perhaps something else –

Then you remember what Sans had told you; about the camp, about…

“I’m…disowned,” you say.

Rus stills, then nods. “Yep.”

You’re so tired. “Why does she do this?” You just want to go back to sleep for a hundred years. “Why is she like this?”

“The queen?”

You nod.

Rus runs a hand over his skull. “She’s old. And sick. That’s all I can say, Kitten…”

“I hate her.”

Rus only sighs, and holds his hand out to you – in his bony palm is a piece of monster candy.

You would hide it along with the others, but with Rus watching you, you have to eat it. And it’s to get rid of those painful burns, after all, rather than given to you as some kind of treat this time.

You take it. “I hate her,” you say.

“I heard you.”

You don’t believe him – he’s not really hearing you. “I hope she dies soon.”

Rus’s left socket twitches, and his grip around you ankle tightens.

“You don’t want that,” he whispers threateningly. “Believe me…you do not want that.”

He eyes the candy still held between your fingers, and you eat it to appease him – the large blisters on your feet shrink back into your skin, and the redness surrounding them fades to a dull pink. The irritated skin still stings, but only slightly, and it’s much preferred over the sharp throbbing.

“Why?” you ask.

Rus doesn’t hear you – his attention is on your healed foot.

“Why, Rus?” you ask again softly. “Why don’t I want that?”

He doesn’t respond, and instead lifts your foot higher. When he runs his thumb across your heel, you swallow – he’s inspecting the scars left by the lighter belonging to the Man-Who-Guarded-You.

“That’s…” you say faintly, but you can’t finish. The memory lurks in the corners of your mind, already teasing your nostrils with the smell of your cell, the heinous breath of the Man-Who-Guarded-You…

Silent, face unreadable, Rus lifts your other foot and studies the burns on that heel, too. A tiny crease forms between his brows, but it’s gone quickly.

You know what has disturbed him – the burns were far worse on that heel, stretching up the arch of your foot, around your ankles, leaving terrible scars that look as though you’d walked across a sea of flames.

“I kicked him,” you say, and the echoes of cruel laughter taunt your ears, and the Man-Who-Guards-You sneers down at you as he holds the flame close to your ankle. “I kicked him with…that…”

Rus meets your eyes. “This foot?” He brings his other hand to your calf to gently hold your leg like it’s something precious.

You nod.

Then, without any warning, he leans down and brushes his teeth along your inside ankle.

You seize up – it’s not quite a kiss, since he has no lips, but it feels just as…intimate. It’s nothing like his nuzzling. His hot breath compensates for the lack of warm skin, and the tender back-and-forth motion he sets sends pleasant shivers up your leg, through your whole body.

He closes his eyes and inhales through his nose. “I fuckin’ love this foot,” he purrs.

Your face heats rapidly. “Th-thank you…?”

You’re not quite sure whether you should stop him, or let him continue his odd kiss for a few moments more – it’s relatively harmless, albeit a bit strange. It’s a bizarre sensation, the feeling of bare teeth against your skin, but when Rus ghosts his jaw a little higher, up to the soft, sensitive skin of your calf, another shiver rocks through you, and you sigh…

He’s trying to distract you. “Rus?”

“Hm?”

“Why can’t you tell me about the queen?”

He groans against your leg. “’Cause I can’t.”  

“But –”

Rus pulls away from you with a soft grunt, and the frown he directs at you has the rest of your question catching in your throat. He slowly crawls up the length of your body, forcing you to fall back onto the mattress.

You tense – have you upset him? He looks rather stern…  

“Enough,” he rumbles. “Go to sleep.”

He then collapses on you, tucking his head into the crook of your neck and winding a long arm around your waist.

He sounds tired, and with his bedroom window boarded up, it’s impossible to gauge the exact time.

You feel as though you’ve slept quite a while. “What time is it?” you ask quietly.

“Hmm…eight.”

“In…the morning?” You should have been up hours ago – you should be finished cleaning the majority of the rooms upstairs by now…

“At night.” Rus chuckles. “You had a bit of an…episode this afternoon.”

Your neck flushes. “I know…” How embarrassing, but you just couldn’t believe Sans’s words. You didn’t want to believe them…

The memories of the afternoon are a little clearer now that you are more awake; you remember very nearly leaving the house, driven by some force, some urge that you just could not get a grip on; then you remember collapsing into a wailing mess; then you vaguely remember Rus appearing and…

Putting you to sleep. You can recall the warmth, the scent of his magic, his power of Delusion rendering you unconscious before you ended up doing something silly…like hurting yourself… 

The thought of Rus using such invasive and controlling magic on you again leaves you feeling somewhat unclean.

“I thought…” you say, more to yourself than to Rus, “…it was rare.”

He shifts against you. “What was?” he grunts.

“Um…Delusion.”

“Oh?” Rus lifts himself off of you with one arm, propping his chin in one hand. “It is. Not a lot of monsters can do it.”

“Why not?”

Rus yawns and gently pinches the tip of your nose. “Too tired for the magic lesson, Kitten. We’ll talk ‘bout it ‘nother day.”

You’re wide awake now, having slept the afternoon away. “Please?”

Rus laughs again, and curls over you in that odd protective manner. “How ‘bout a bedtime story, instead?”

He has the energy for a bedtime story but not for talk of magic? “Never mind,” you grumble.

“I’ve got another good one.” There’s a smile in Rus’s voice. “You’ll love it.”

“I’m alright. I actually need to cook dinner.” You attempt to shuffle out of his arms.

He pulls you back and mumbles sleepily, “You’re fine. M’lord wants you to rest.”

Does Sans want you to rest, or does Rus want you to rest using his brother as cover?

You’re not tired, per se, but there is an exhaustion deep in your bones, a heaviness in your head that you recognise all too well – the weariness that comes from crying far too much for far too long.

Rus’s soft snores are soon tickling your neck, and you don’t wish to disturb him if you’re only going to get shot down again. You should find that book on your next day off, and do a thorough study of Delusion. It’s been too long since you’ve read that particular passage, and so much has happened since. You should find it when you are not so busy –

Unless Rus finds it first, and tears the pages out like he had done only few days ago.

Should you find it now? Rus will sense your scheming through your soul…won’t he? What does a scheming soul feel like? The first words that come to you mind are slimy, or scurrying.

You listen to his low breathing; slow and deep, lost to sleep. But even the softest sound and the slightest movement can stir him. Perhaps you should find that book before making Sans his morning coffee –

Your blood runs cold at the thought of facing him tomorrow. He must be furious with you for reacting to his confession in such a way. You may have dreamt him admitting that it was a form of apology…if it was no dream, then yes, he will be very angry.

Or afraid? The last time you collapsed into tears, he looked horrified, and very uncomfortable. Perhaps he won’t mention it? He usually brushes them off, unless you hurt yourself, or he’s far too tired to maintain his snarling, uptight persona.

The shame and embarrassment return – you were so easily reduced to tears again.  

You just can’t understand how the queen could react to scorn so harshly; to be punished with death for running from her…to be punished for abandoning her with a place like that awful camp

The more you realise just how much your memories of the camp affect you, the more you realise that…you’re still plagued by some strange sense of feeling trapped.

Because the Man-Who-Guarded-You still controls you – you can feel his control every time you shy away, every time you apologise, every time you utter the words; I’ll be good

Even after all this time, you’re still…

…chained.

Though you have shed your shackles, your metal collars, and chain-like leashes, the memories bind you in new cuffs that you just can’t remove. Not with force, anyway. 

You can almost feel them; a crushing pressure around your wrists, a cold squeeze around your throat…and your chest feels tight.

With a determined grunt, you turn in Rus’s arms, and he wakes.

Wassup?” he slurs.

You respond by shoving your face into his hoodie, gripping the material tightly and taking a deep breath.

“Wha’s goin’ on?” he mumbles.

“Nothing,” you sigh, drowning yourself in the sweet tobacco.

“Y’sure?”

You hum, and his arm encircles you waist.

If he can sense the unease and the restlessness of your fluttering soul, he doesn’t mention it. He simply rolls over you again, pinning you to the floor, and he’s asleep within seconds.

You remain awake for some time, your mind a whirlwind of thoughts; they cannot continue, these occasional episodes, as Rus calls them. They make you feel so weak, they hurt, and they remind you of That Girl….

You are not That Girl – you abandoned her for a reason.

You will break these new chains. You will.

Eventually.

-

As you had hoped, Sans does not comment on the coffee pot incident – his only mentioning of it is to angrily order Rus to fetch him a new machine after you handed him a brew made by heating the water using the stove, and stirring in some instant coffee Rus had generously allowed you to use.

Loyal to his waste not, want not rule, Sans swallowed the entire thing, but you were certain that he came close to throwing it all back up by the almighty shudder that made his bones rattle.

You are rather uneasy over the next few days, but it has nothing to do with Sans – every time you bring him his coffee and bun, you are finding it easier to string a sentence together without stuttering.

The book, The Myth and Magic of Monsters and Men, seems to have disappeared from the house.

You’ve searched high and low, but it nowhere to be found. You did question Rus about it one evening when he flung himself at you the second you stepped into his bedroom.

“Huh? That thing?” he said airily, intently inspecting a lock of your hair caught between his fingers…to keep his eyes away from yours. “I dunno. Maybe m’lord moved it?”

That’s a load of crock…and Rus knows it, too. Sans would have moved it back in its usual place in the library, and every time you check the shelves, its never amongst the rest of his books and heavy tomes.   

Though you had attempted to press the matter further, Rus successfully distracted you by pressing one of his odd but intimate kisses to your neck, just beneath your ear, then dragged you to his mattress and crushed you beneath his bony body.

You had never thought a skeleton could be so heavy – though when his magic teased along your tongue, you guessed that he was performing a certain magic on himself to keep you pinned…Mass, if you remembered correctly.

And your need to find that book had only intensified.

Why is Rus so reluctant for you to find it? Is there something about Delusion that he doesn’t want you to know about?

All you can remember is; it can trick the soul into feeling certain feelings, perhaps even intensifying them; it can even go so far as to trick the soul into feeling certain emotions; and it’s rare.

False emotions…the idea is frightening. You shiver at the memory of the calm that Rus had forced upon you when you had scratched at your throat…then the sleep he lulled you into when you’d collapsed by the front door. It’s almost like…mind control. If he wanted, Rus could trick you into doing the most unimaginable things, and you would feel perfectly calm – eager, even.

God, he could make you jump off the roof of this house, if he wanted to. He could…make you really hurt yourself –

Perhaps that’s why Rus doesn’t want you to read more into it. He hasn’t used it on you for any other means than to get you to calm down before you harmed yourself in some way. There may be more information on the subject that may get you to never, ever trust him, again.

As you work, you attempt to force all thoughts of Delusion from your mind, but the haunting image of your own body being lead along a narrow, perilous ledge above a sheer drop, your limbs working as though tied to puppet strings, plagues you from morning to evening.

Your obviously distracted behaviour doesn’t appear to bother Sans very much – he grumbles every now and then, but the only remarks he makes are concerning your work, the occasional swipe of a finger across a dusty surface, or the lingering stare on some ornament you may not have put back exactly how you found it.

Rus doesn’t mention it, either, but you know that he’s uncomfortable – there’s a tension in his body as he curls around you to sleep, as though he’s expecting you to question him about his magic again. He also leaves little candy pieces here and there for you to find throughout the day, since Sans’s no-touching-during-work-hours rule still stands. Whenever he leaves his room, either to fetch another drink or take care of a job for Sans, you dig out the candy pieces you had hidden down your shirt and wrap them in your spare scarves in the sock drawer.

He’s been giving you a lot more, lately. Perhaps he’s feeling a little guilty?

You shouldn’t worry about it, really – Rus hasn’t used it on you with any malicious intent…

…but just knowing that he could is what has you so anxious.

On top of that, you’re still reeling from the whole disowned talk.

You’re trying to avoid Sans as much as possible. If he is aware of what you are doing, then he seems quite happy that you’re keeping your distance, rather than demanding that you tell him why you back up a few steps when he enters a room, or why you deliver his afternoon coffee and pastry in noticeable haste.

How can you look at him again and not imagine what horrors he must see at the borders? Or what horrors he inflicts on the poor humans just trying to escape the Ebott hellscape…?

All disowned…

But would a quick death be better than being sent to that camp, where they would end up begging for it, until they just didn’t have the energy – the soul – to beg anymore…

You soulless creature.

Does Sans…enjoy it? Or is it, to him, merely his duty? Is he bound to serve his queen even if it means doing something so terrible? He claimed that it was messy…

Does Rus know?

… What does he think about the whole thing?

You would ask, but Sans’s warning to leave his brother out of the whole business rings in your ears – it’s almost as if Sans himself is screaming it directly into your ear.

Your thoughts bounce back and forth between Delusion and disowned…disowned and Delusion… It’s too much. Your mind works as you try to sleep, and each time you drift off, sleep is light, and you dream more than you ever have before.

You dream of a mixture of things; you dream of the camp, cowering in your cell as the walls close in on you, and a televised address of the queen plays over and over on various television screens dotted about the room – that particular dream had you waking up in tears, shocking Rus awake as well.

You dream of the house of the brothers, of cleaning it endlessly – each time you finish one room, you blink only once to find it a mess again, and Sans’s snarl rings in your ears.

You dream of running through the halls of the camp, and each corridor gets longer and longer the faster you urge your feet.

You dream of Rus making some odd remark about your left eye, something to do with his brother.

You dream of the queen speaking directly to you from behind her screens and cameras, scolding you like a mother would a misbehaving child.

You dream of…That Girl, just watching her from the other side of a cold, empty room as she rocks back and forth while whimpering you promised, you promised, over and over…and you wake up feeling guilty.  

You dream of Sans dragging you by the ankle away from the front door, and you leave a trail of blood along the floor, pouring from agonising wound slashed across your stomach. And Sans sounds as though he’s crying…

You dream of the Man-Who-Guarded-You, pulling out your old chains from his mouth as cigarette smoke billows out in waves from between his teeth… And in each dream, that crushing metal collar is tight around your throat…

And the most terrifying dream of them all is when you’re walking through the camp, swaying as though drunk, taking yourself to the fence out back where the firing line awaits, and a dark rasping chuckle that sounds so evil taunts you as you’re puppeteered towards your doom.

You wake, for the fifth morning in a row, sweating and gasping.

The stress is getting to you – you have a terrible headache, all in your face. Your cheekbones burn, and there’s an uncomfortable pressure in your head that feels like a gradually tightening vice.

“You’re soundin’ a little antsy,” Rus mumbles when you stir.

Do you? What does a flustered soul feel like?

You only hum in response and blindly search for your clothes, while Rus keeps his fingers of one hand entangled in your hair.

“You feel pretty warm, too,” he adds when his thumb brushes against your cheek.

It’s probably a tension headache, and you’re very familiar with those. “I’m okay.”

Rus rolls away from you, releasing your hair only for a second, before his hand is back on your head. “You blushin’?”

You shrug. “I guess.”

You jump when Rus’s breath warms your ear, his voice low and playful. “Have a nice dream?”

“N-no…” Finally, with your eyes having adjusted to the darkness, you locate your clothes and sling them over your arm.

“Wanna talk about it?” Rus’s voice lowers to a purr.

God, no…the picture of the fence out back was so vivid. You could even smell the moist earth, the smoke from the guns, and feel the power in your limbs that forced you to walk onwards…

You huff – you’re not really in the mood for this, and your face hurts far too much. “No, thank you.”

“Huh… Why’re you all prickly this mornin’?” Rus’s hand gently presses against your chest, and you can just about make out his outline in the dark.

You stand, and Rus rises with you. “I don’t know…” Were you too sharp? You didn’t mean to be…

Rus grumbles, then chuckles dryly. “I’d lose that attitude, if I were you…before m’lord notices it.” He leans towards you, his teeth halting inches from your lips. “And you know how observant he is.”

You don’t mean to have an attitude – maybe you’re period’s due? It’s going to take you a few cycles to get used to them happening regularly, again.

“Sorry,” you mumble, picking at a button on your shirt.

“Hmm…you know he likes it, right?”

You blink. “What?”

Rus snorts. “Never mind.” He gently urges you towards his bedroom door, and follows you with his body very close to yours, his hand alternating between stroking down the side of your head to trace the shell of your ear, and twining your hair around his fingers. “You’ll figure it out.”

Figure what out?

But Rus opens the door and guides you out before you can ask. You turn just in time to catch the amusement on his face, the slight pull of his jaw, before he closes his door, leaving you alone in the dim hallway.

You dress slowly, mulling over his odd remark, then trudge downstairs to prepare Sans his coffee – he’s already seated in his usual spot in the living room, a mug of coffee in his hand and a crossword in his lap.

You pause in the archway and gaze at him, studying his brow, his jaw, his dark eye sockets. What does he like? What will you figure out?

Your head feels fuzzy…

A frown creases his brow and his head snaps up to glare at you. “What?” he spits.

You bow your head. “Nothing. Sorry…”

“I beg your pardon?”

You meet his eyes again – he sounds annoyed. “Huh?”

Sans tuts. “What’s the matter with you this morning? Is that any way to address your master?”

Oh. “S-sorry…sir.”

With a satisfied harrumph, Sans returns to his crossword. “That’s better.”

You’ve finally gotten used to working the new coffee machine, and manage to get Sans a fresh cup just as he finishes his first. As you switch the mugs, he eyes you strangely. When you meet his gaze and hold it, he hums thoughtfully, then folds his crossword and tucks it beneath his arm.

He rises from his seat. “Stop staring and get to work.” With a sneer, he brushes passed you and marches towards his office.

“Okay,” you say dumbly.

He halts in the doorway and whirls on you. “What?

“… Yes, sir.”

Sans scoffs sharply and storms off, slamming the office door behind him with a tremendous bang! that means he’s either incredibly unhappy with you, or he’s stressed out because of work.

You brush it off – you’re really not in the mood this morning. The pain in your head has developed into a terrible pressure that feels as though you’re slowly sinking deeper and deeper into a pool of water.

It’s irritating, but you can deal with it…but you can’t deal with the brothers. Not today. You can probably ignore them.

You get to cleaning, and by the time you’ve finished the bathroom, you’re already exhausted. You want to lie down for a while…just for five minutes…

No…this is only your first task of the day – you’re stronger than this. To prove it to yourself, you scrub at the bathroom tiles with purpose.

This is your second period since arriving here, and somehow the hormones feel worse than the first; headaches, fatigue, even a slight temperature…though you haven’t got as much of an appetite. Rest would help, but if you keep taking time off, Sans might get tired of it and take something away from you…

You power through it, but when you finish upstairs and trudge into the kitchen, you notice, to your dismay, that you’ve fallen behind. To have gone back so much after you had been making progress with your chores is a little disheartening.

You angrily push the thought away – your time of the month is bound to affect you like this. You’ll be back to normal in a few days.    

Rus checks up on you while you’re scrubbing the kitchen worktops with a damp cloth, lingering in the door with five mugs dangling from each finger of one hand. Still honouring San’s no-touching rule, he keeps a fair distance from you, and you remember to feel grateful for it.

“A bit slow today, huh?” he comments.

“Yeah…” You drop the cloth and approach him. He stiffens, but doesn’t flee. He does, however, flinch when you snatch the dirty mugs from his hand. “Give me these…”

You rush to the sink and dump the filthy mugs into the bowl, plugging the drain and turning the taps.

“What was that?” Rus asks from the door.

You would apologise for your bluntness, but all he’s done is add to your workload, and you haven’t got the patience for it. You only shrug, then scrub each mug with purpose, refusing to look at him.

He chuckles. “You mad, or somethin’?”

“No,” you say shortly.

That makes him laugh. “How come you’re mad?”

You only shake your head.

Rus remains in the doorway until you’ve finished up with the mugs and left them to drain to the side of the sink.

You turn to find him scrutinising you. “What’s goin’ on with you, today?” He approaches you slowly. “Kid, if there’s something wrong, you can tell me.”

“There’s really nothing wrong,” you say earnestly – you’re just in a really bad mood. Your hormones are going crazy, and you ache all over. There was no blood when you did a quick check of yourself in the bathroom this morning, and you’re not looking forward to it – if it is your period that’s making you irritable, then its rather early, or late…if you’ve got your days right…

Rus gives you a curious once-over, then holds out his hand. “Here.” Opening his palm reveals a piece of monster candy.

You stare dumbly at the candy for a moment, then remember that you’re supposed to take it. “Thanks.” You accept the candy and absentmindedly shove it down your shirt, then return to your task of scrubbing the worktops.

Rus chuckles dryly. “Not gonna eat it now?”

You pause – the hidden candies are supposed to be a secret. You hadn’t realised what you were doing when hiding the new piece.

“Um…maybe a bit later,” you say softly. “I don’t feel well.”

“Oh, yeah?” A cold, bony hand presses to your forehead, and you become aware of Rus’s body close to your back, but not touching. “It’ll help, y’know?”

“Will it help cramps?”

“Ah…don’t think so. It’s a…thing that doesn’t need healing, if you get me?”

“Uh-huh.” His cool hand feels rather pleasant against your burning forehead.

“Bad this time, huh?”

“Uh-huh…”

“Go lie down, or somethin’. I can always join you…”

You shrug him off and he – reluctantly, judging by the tension in his body – takes a step back. “I’m okay. I can work.”

“You –”

The door to the office clicks open, then slams shut, and Rus chokes on his words.

Sans’s clicking footsteps storm towards the kitchen, and he halts in the doorway. He glares at his brother, then you – you simply return to your scrubbing, lowering your eyes.

Sans snorts softly, satisfied. To his brother, he snaps, “What are you doing?”

“Takin’ a break, m’lord,” Rus says casually. “No use breakin’ my back workin’ too hard.”

“Shut up,” Sans spits. “Though…I am pleased to see that you are following my orders, at least.”

“Wouldn’t dream of disobeyin’ ‘em.”

There’s a long silence, then, “Good. Keep it that way.”

Then he’s gone, his clicking heels retreating back towards the office, followed by the door slamming.

You pause in your scrubbing to glance up at the archway, then to Rus – his shoulders are still a little tense, but he’s smiling.

You have the sneaking suspicion as to why he looked so smug – did Sans abandon his work just to check up on you? Because he heard your voices, did he only investigate to make sure that Rus was indeed leaving you alone?

Rus then huffs and pulls a cigarette from his pocket. He lumbers towards the backdoor and sends you a quick wink before he exits, slipping his cigarette between his teeth.

You remain still for a long moment, gaze alternating between the back door and the kitchen archway.

If Rus had been caught touching you, would Sans have intervened in some way? And would it have been for your sake, or simply because Rus was breaking the rules?

You drop your damp cloth and stagger towards the pantry to fetch a cinnamon bun, setting the coffee machine to boil on your way.

-

By the time dinner rolls around, you’re practically dead on your feet.

Your head feels as though it’s stuffed with cotton, and feels so heavy. Every joint aches, and each limb takes a tremendous effort to lift. Even your gums hurt, and your tongue is covered with ulcers.

You just couldn’t bring yourself to eat today. Instead, you drowned yourself with water, drinking at least ten large glasses by the end of the afternoon, and three more while preparing dinner.

You are absolutely freezing – you had to put on your sweater when your shivering became too violent to keep working without risking breaking some ornament or plate.

In the dining room, the brothers are bickering, as per the usual. But when you enter and place their starters before them, they pause.

“What on earth are you wearing?” Sans sneers.

You pick at the sleeve of your sweater. “Sorry…I’m cold.”

Sans sniffs. “I see. I will let this slide.”

You sigh – honestly, he’s so rude. The gratitude you had felt for him checking up on you that afternoon fizzles away. “Whatever.”

There’s a choking sound, but you don’t happen to see where or who it comes from – you’re already out of the room, returning to the kitchen to finish off the main dishes. Rus’s soft snickering trails after you, and it irks you. What has he found so funny? You’re really not in the mood…

You season the steaks – one charred black, the other as pink as you can make it without it being potentially dangerous to eat – with pepper and paprika…

You blink. Then blink again.

The edges of your vision are badly blurred, and seem to be darkening a little. You rub the back of your trembling hand over your eyes to dispel the blur, and your knuckles come away streaked with wetness. You stare at the moisture dumbly – are you sweating?

Pressing the heel of your palm to your forehead confirms it. How can you be sweating? You still feel so cold…

You return to the dining room with the mains in each hand – Rus’s starter plate is empty, but Sans hasn’t touched his food at all. His face is flushed, but there is a terrible rage boiling in his eyes.

Why? What have you done to make him angry this time? Was the starter not prepared to his impossibly high standards?

You replace Rus’s starter plate with his main, and he chuckles again.

You approach Sans, and he dials his glare up a notch, his fangs bared, his scarred eye twitching, and his hands atop the table clenched into shaking fists.

“What’s wrong with it?” you ask, gesturing to his starter – your voice sounds so far away…

What…” Sans growls in a voice that promises severe punishment, “…did you just say?

Oh…he sounds really angry. But why? You really could do without this foul mood of his – you just want to get dinner over with so you can clean up and sleep.

Darkness feathers the edges of your vision again. You blink furiously to expel it, but it won’t go away.

You should lie down, you can’t take this anymore. As quickly as you can, you retrieve Sans’s starter plate and replace it with his main –

The plate misses the table by a good few centimetres, and hits the floor with a loud smash.

The steak lands with a wet smack on the floor, splattering the sauce everywhere; peas and carrots scatter, rolling away from the mess.

There’s silence…then there’s a ringing in your ears, and you realise what you’ve done.

You’re going to be in so much trouble.

“Oh…s-sorry…” You’re too frightened to dare a glance at Sans – already you can feel his magic manifesting around his person, can smell the coldness of it, like a deep, midnight frost.

“Sorry…” you mumble again. “I’ll get it –”

You crouch to tidy up your mess, and the world tips. Your head is swimming suddenly, and you’re falling. The floor comes at you fast…

You’re saved from hitting it face-first by an arm around your middle. The arm gently lowers you to your knees, then pulls you up so that your back is pressed against a hard, bony body.

The first thing you see when you look up is Sans, half out of his chair – not towards you, but away from you, his expression horrified, as though he’s narrowly escaped a collision. Your eyes are hurting so much, vision swimming to the point where it’s nauseating, so you close them.

A cool hand is pressed to your sweat-matted forehead. “Hmm…yeah, I figured somethin’ was up,” Rus rasps next to your ear.

Sans tuts sharply. “For goodness sake, humans are pathetic. Get her upstairs before she causes more damage!”

The last thing you are aware of it being lifted from the floor, and the second plate falling from your limp fingers, hitting the floor with a shrill shatter, and Sans howling in fury.

-

The next time you are vaguely conscious, you first thought is; I need to serve dessert.

The second is how much you hurt – you feel heavy, stiff, and just plain awful. You are so cold, but when you try to shift to fetch a blanket of some kind, you find your arms pinned by your sides in some kind of cocoon.

Where are you? You’re so confused…

There’s something on your forehead that’s irritating you – you grumble, wanting it off. Tearing yourself from your strange bundle, you grab the annoying object. It’s damp, and too cold…

A firm grip curls around your wrist, and you open your sore eyes.

You gasp – is that a skeleton?

“Heh…don’t chuck that, Kitten.”

Oh, God, it can speak?

The skeleton pulls the damp object from your hand – it’s a cloth of some kind. But you don’t care about that. You can’t stop staring at the skeleton’s face; it’s harsh, high cheekbones are deadly sharp angles, it’s jaw filled with fangs…and that golden tooth looks familiar…

“You’re burnin’ up, kid,” it says, then puts the cloth back on your forehead.

You’re too enamoured by the familiarity of this talking skeleton to protest. You definitely know it, you’re certain. He – oh…yes, he, you remember that much – has a voice that sounds like it’s been fed dozens of packets of cigarettes every day for most of his life. He certainly smells like it, too. You recognise it…

But what did he call you? Kitten? You don’t like that name. At all.

“You should have told me you were sick,” the skeleton says with a wry smile. “You almost gave m’lord a heart attack. Not that he has one…heh…”

Milord? That name sounds familiar, too.

… Wait, you’re sick? You do feel terrible…

“C’mon,” the skeleton says. “Drink this, then sleep, ‘kay? Get better.”

The cool rim of a glass is pressed to your lips, and a large hand is cupping the base of your skull, tipping your head back so you’ll drink. The water tastes wonderful, and you obediently gulp it down.

“There you go.” Once the glass is empty, the skeleton pulls it away from your lips, then gently presses your shoulders, pushing you down.

It’s then you realise that you’re in a large bed, and in a room that, like the skeleton, looks shockingly familiar. There’s a large window that looks as though it would let in a lot of light, but the curtains are drawn.

You struggle against the skeleton’s hold, suddenly desperate to leave. You’re not allowed to be in this room, are you? You feel as though you shouldn’t be here…

“Calm down, kid,” the skeleton soothes you. “You’re fine…”

You glance at him, and the smell of cigarette’s hits you with full force – it’s sweet, not bitter at all…and you like it. You think…

It’s then when a faint memory surfaces from the fog in your mind. Not quite a name…

“Dog,” you blurt.

The skeleton blinks. “Huh?”

“Dog!” Ah, yes! That’s who he is…probably… “Dog…dog, dog, dog…”

The skeleton – Dog – chuckles. “You makin’ fun of me?”

You hum, satisfied that you’ve put all the pieces together. “Yes. Dog…” It’s strange – he doesn’t look like a dog, and yet…you’re sure that that’s exactly what he is.  

“Whatever you say, Kitten,” Dog says with humour in his voice, and he places the empty glass on a bedside table.

You giggle. “Puppy…”

Dog pauses, and you pat him on the head – his skull feels so odd, and each time you pat, you skin makes a dull smacking sound that only makes you giggle more. “Big puppy…big weird puppy…”

Dog has gone still under your touch. “’S’at what you think, huh?” A deep colour blooms on his face.

You squeak delightedly and cup his glowing cheekbones. How cute… “Pink puppy!”

Dog laughs nervously. “Knock it off, kid…” But he doesn’t attempt to remove your hands.

You laugh, and though it hurts, you can’t seem to stop. “Puppy…dog…puppy…big, pink puppy…” You like dogs. You really like dogs…don’t you?

Your head hurts so much, and your suddenly exhausted. But you want to keep petting the weird looking dog and his pink cheeks…

Dog seems to notice how tired you are, so he carefully removes your hand from his skull and pushes you down onto the bed.

You don’t fight this time, and the moment your head hits the pillow, you’re asleep.

-

The sound of metal clinking rouses you, dragging you from the sweet oblivion of sleep.

You are so, so cold, and your breathing rattles painfully. There is a strong, damp smell, tinted with mould and dirt. You feel so heavy, so tired, sore everywhere, and your head is pounding. The room is dark…but you can see him…whoever he is…

All you know that that he’s bad. Whoever this man is in your bedroom – cell? – he’s not friendly.

He laughs cruelly, and smoke pours from his mouth, leaking out from between his rotting teeth. In his grimy hands is a long train of rusting chains that he fiddles about with, and on the end of the steel links is a small ring of metal.

You whimper and try to turn away, but you can’t move an inch.

“Look at you, huh?” the filthy man says, swinging the chain from side to side like a pendulum. “Not so tough now, are you?”

Your tongue is so dry, so heavy – you can only mumble incoherently.

The man laughs, and smoke cascades from his mouth. “If you think I’m gonna let you get away with that shit…heh…you’re wrong.”

He lifts the chain and inspects the collar. “This is the smallest one I could find. It’s used to leash our dogs. The boss let me borrow one to teach you some manners…”

He stands and you choke out a broken cry.

“Your screaming is pissing me off,” he growls, and embers spit from his throat. The smoke is suffocating you – it’s bitter, too strong, and you want to cry…

“So…” He snaps open the collar. “Let’s see if you still have that voice of yours tomorrow, shall we?”  

Before he can clamp the collar around your throat, he explodes into a cloud of smoke, and another face emerges from the grey mist.

It’s a woman – she looks just as filthy as the man had, streaks of dirt across her face, and a nasty bruise beneath her right eye.

She looks furious, and you feel as though you know her…like the man…

“You’re a fucking coward,” she hisses. “How can you just lay there and take it?”

She then looks at something over her shoulder, but you’re too exhausted to follow her gaze.

“The next time he comes in…” The woman crouches and pulls a sharpened piece of metal from up her sleeve – it looks like a screw. “I took this from my pallet. Took a while, but… What are you shaking your head for?”

Your head is too heavy…you can’t move.

“Look, I’ll draw his attention, then jab him in the eye with this! Then we can make a break for it!”

The woman then sneers and pulls away from you. “God, you’re pathetic! Fine…I’ll go. I’d rather die trying to escape that die taking it like some kind of pussy!”

Something red slowly rolls down her forehead from some unseen source, trickling over the bridge of her nose…

“You’re so useless…what did they fucking do to you?” the woman says sharply, and more redness trickles down her face.

… Blood?

There’s a small hole forming in the centre of her forehead.

“I don’t care if they kill me,” she says, and the hole gets bigger – the trickle of blood becomes a steady stream…and then she’s gone, disappearing with a loud bang.

Your face feels wet, and the pillow at your head is damp, but you’re asleep again before you can work out if it’s splatterings of the woman’s blood or your tears.

-

The room is a little lighter the next time you are aware, and the pain has lessened.

Your head still feels as though you’ve taken a sledgehammer to the temples, but moving your arm to shield your eyes doesn’t feel like as much of an effort.

You’re so thirsty. You vaguely recall someone feeding you water…you hope they’re still nearby.

You turn your head to search for them, and find a full glass of water on the bedside table, but your helpful stranger is nowhere to be seen. Pushing yourself upright takes all of your strength, and a damp piece of material falls into your lap. It takes a couple of blinks to properly make it out, and you gingerly lift it with shaking hands.

Burning up… A distant voice had said that, so you press the cloth to your forehead –

It falls back into your lap. With a huff, you try again…and it falls again.

“For crying out loud…” a voice mutters scornfully. “You are as useless in sickness as you are healthy.”

You glance in the direction of the voice and almost leap out of bed – it’s only the weakness of your limbs that prevents you from moving much farther than a few inches.

There’s a…skeleton standing by the door. Standing, like it’s alive…and it’s eyes are full of fire, teeth jagged fangs…

Have you seen it before? There’s a line down the left side of it’s face, and there’s something about it that tugs at your memory.

“Dog…?” you mumble. You do have the faintest recollection of a skeleton pushing you down, but he had looked very different from this one.

The skeleton’s face twists – how does it do that?

“The mongrel is out,” it – he – snarls. “But at least you are lucid enough to remember him, if only a little. You must eat.”

You then notice what the skeleton is carrying; it’s a tray with a large bowl of a steaming something in it, and it smells delicious. There’s a pot and an empty cup beside the bowl, a napkin, and a large spoon.

“It’s been two days,” the skeleton continues. “If you don’t eat, you’ll only get worse.”

Two days since what? The soup does smell amazing, though…

The skeleton huffs and places the tray carefully on your lap, then steps away, dusting his hands down with disgust twisting his face. “Try not to break that one.”

You stare blankly at the soup for a moment – it’s of a thick, creamy consistency, and you catch the smallest hint of ginger. The pot is filled with tea that has a strong citrus scent.

The skeleton growls. “Eat it, already. I have a lot of work to do, and I need to make sure that you finish that entire bowl without fainting into it.”

Wow, he’s so nasty. “Meanie…” you mumble.

The skeleton’s scarred eye twitches, and his cheeks darken. “Unfortunately, it comes with the territory. Now eat.”

You weakly fold your arms. “Don’t want to.”

“This is not a negotiation.” The skeleton snatches the spoon from the tray and holds it right up to your face. “Eat, or I will make you.”

“Say please.”

The skeleton’s fist around the spoon clenches, and his blush deepens. “I am going to throttle that mongrel… Eat. Now. Please.

Smiling at his compliance, you take the spoon and eat the soup…and it tastes even better than it smells. The ginger is strong, but its not too overpowering; it’s just enough to give you a small kick, and you feel just that little bit better with each mouthful.

The skeleton remains where he is, still as stone, his hands folded behind his back, and his crimson eyes locked on you and the spoon as you dip it into the bowl, then bring it to your lips, never blinking.

He looks like the living embodiment of a thundercloud – a permanent scowl mars his face, and his fanged mouth is held in a sneer. He would look so much nicer without it. The brief image of him smiling crosses your mind, and he looks so calm, so natural…

You want to pull at his cheeks so you can see that smile, but you don’t want to knock over the tray in your lap. And the soup tastes heavenly.

It takes you a while to finish it, feeling as weak as you do, and the soup keeps escaping the spoon thanks to your uncontrollable shaking, but once you’ve finished it all, the skeleton seems to relax.

He gestures to the pot. “Now drink that.” Then, hissing through his teeth, he adds, “Please.”

You attempt to pour the tea into the cup as carefully as you can, but in spite of your best efforts, you’re not very accurate. The skeleton mutters something under his breath, but doesn’t intervene as you do a terrible job of pouring yourself a cup of tea.

Like the soup, the lemon is strong, but tasteful. The skeleton watches you as you drink, as well, and you gaze at him curiously out of the corner of your eye.

He growls softly under your scrutiny, and you’re suddenly overcome with the urge to avert your eyes.

But you don’t – you’re still trying to figure out why this skeleton looks so familiar.

He gets impatient, tapping one foot erratically. “Hurry up. I have very important business to attend to.”

How rude. “S’no need to be so horrible,” you mumble into your teacup.

The skeleton sighs, exasperated. “If I must endure this a moment longer, I’ll surrender myself to the Void for the rest of my days.”

Wow.

You place the teacup on the tray and fold your arms again.

The skeleton snarls. “Do not play the act of stubborn child with me, human.”

A steady pounding is developing in your head, and the air turns cold. But you suppress a shiver and glare at the rude skeleton. “You’re not very nice to me.”

“I’m not nice to anyone,” the skeleton retorts. “Drink, or I shall force it down you! Do you want to get better?”

You sniff and stare into the half-full teacup. You do want the pounding to stop. “Yes…”

“Then hurry up. And I refuse to spoon-feed you.”

Reluctantly, your lift the teacup. “You used to be okay.”

“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” the skeleton says irritably.

“You were nice to me before,” you continue, your mind getting a little foggy. He’s always so horrible to you…even though you’ve never met him before. You’re certain that he’s been nice to you, though…

 “You can be nice,” you mumble, taking a small sip of tea. “You can be…”

The skeleton tuts. “Don’t say such ridiculous things.”

Your vision is going dark, and the painful hammering in your head only gets worse. “My head hurts…”

“Then go to sleep. Give me that…”

The skeleton removes the teacup from your hand, places it on the tray, then lifts the tray from your lap.

“Don’t go…” you say weakly – you don’t want to be on your own. You have the strangest feeling that something’s going to come after you.

“For the Angel’s sake,” the skeleton mutters under his breath. “Once you are asleep you will be fine. I am needed elsewhere, so I –”

“Please,” you beg, eyes stinging. “I’m scared…”

The skeleton gestures about the room impatiently. “Of what? There is nothing here that can harm you.”

You sob, and the tears welling in your eyes escape.

The skeleton makes a strange noise of discomfort. “Don’t be so…stop that!”

“Sorry,” you garble.

“… Go back to sleep.”

“Okay…” You collapse back down onto the mattress, too weak and tired to wrap yourself up in the bedsheets.

After a long moment of silence, the skeleton sighs again. “You’ll catch a chill, idiot.”

You’re an idiot…” you mumble.

The skeleton huffs and securely tucks the sheets around your shoulders, ensuring that your neck is covered.

“Yes, I am,” he says quietly.

You’re unconscious within seconds.

-

A familiar voice awakens you.

The room is dark. It reeks of moist earth and rot, and the woman with the bloody hole in her head is staring down at you.

“You know what they do to us, don’t you?” she says – her voice has changed since the last time she spoke to you. She’s become quieter, almost hoarse.

“I hear the guards talking,” she continues. “They fucking sell us. To monsters.”

You only groan – you still feel pretty awful, cheeks aching, and just want to rest. Why is this woman so intent on bothering you? You want to go back to sleep, huddle in your corner, and not attract trouble…

“Well,” the woman scoffs and blood trickles from the nasty hole in her forehead, over her nose and catching in her lips as she talks – she doesn’t appear concerned about it. “I’m not gonna become some kind of slave to a monster. Or a meal. I’ve got a new plan.”

Oh, for God’s sake, another one? When is she going to get it through her head that escape is impossible?

She did. In the shape of a bullet.

You’re scared.

“That man,” she says, spitting blood into your face and you whimper. “You remember? In the mess hall, he just collapsed. They dragged him away somewhere. They must have taken him outside, or something.”

Yes, to shoot him…

Don’t end up like that. You can’t end up like that.

“And I’m gonna…what?” The woman stumbles back as though she’s just been shoved. She stares at you incredulously.

Why is she looking at you like that? You didn’t do anything. You don’t have the strength to move.

“What the fuck is wrong with you?” she spits.

Someone chuckles nearby, someone with a deep, rasping voice that echoes around you menacingly. You can’t see who the new voice belongs to.

“Are you really gonna sit there and become some kind of food for a fucking monster?” she screams. “Are you?

The new voice laughs again. “Clever girl, you are.” They sound male, and come with the clinking of chains and the smell of smoke.

“You’re a fucking embarrassment!” the girl keeps shouting, blood cascading down her face now, and you can hear footsteps approach from far away, getting louder, more urgent.

They’re coming for her. And this time she isn’t coming back.

Whoever she is…

“She preferred to die rather than life in this shit-hole,” the deep voice says, and you shiver at the pure wickedness of it. “But you…your type are so durable. Sometimes even determination becomes defeat before you’ve even realised it.”

The footsteps get louder, and yet the women keeps screaming at your prone form, face covered with blood, staining her teeth.

“Fuck, but you…” The voice cackles with cruel amusement. “You’re interesting. I gotta say…I can’t wait to see what it’ll take to break you. Maybe it’ll be knowing that you’re still living in shit-smelling Hell while she had the easy way out. Maybe it’ll be when I decide you’re worth another shot, and no-one’s around to come and save you. Maybe it’ll be when a monster finally comes to get you, and eats…you…whole…”

“Shut up,” you grumble. You don’t like whoever this new person is.

They laugh that cruel laugh again. “Well, ain’t you gotta mouth on you? Little kitten’s got bite. More like a wildcat…

The girl’s furious screams then become ones of distress, and she disappears, but her screams do not fade.

“Don’t call me that,” you say weakly – your head hurts too much…there’s too much noise. You just want to sleep.

The stranger chuckles. “My little wildcat…

You have just enough strength to turn your face into your pillow, but it takes a while for sleep to pull you under again, plagued by the distant echoes of screaming, the clink-clink of metal links, and the occasional evil chuckle.

-

You can hear voices again.

You want to tell them to shut up, to let you rest in peace, but you’re not quite…there. It’s as though your floating between consciousness and unconsciousness, unable to properly wake. There is a heaviness in your limbs, a strange, deep rumbling in your ears like that of being submerged in deep water, yet you can hear a rattling…

It’s your breathing – you sound terrible.

“See?” a voice says. “She’s gotten worse. She won’t wake up, now.”

That sounds…familiar.

Dog…you try to say, but you can’t move your lips. You can’t make a single sound.

“You said she was muttering away to herself before,” a different voice says, and that voice belongs to the grumpy skeleton with the scar down his eye…

“Yeah, like she was all delirious, or somethin’,” Dog says, and he sounds concerned.

“That’s what happens when humans get a fever,” the skeleton snaps. “There’s nothing you can do but make sure she stays warm and drinks.” There’s a pause. “You have been making sure she’s drinking, haven’t you?”

“Yes,” Dog mumbles. “She’s barely awake when I do, though.”

“Whatever. As long as she’s swallowing it.”

“She’s all over the place. I hate it. I hate how it feels. I can’t get a grip on it, it’s like it keeps slipping through my fingers, or…jumping out of my hands even though it’s like I’m fuckin’ crushing it.”

“It’s nothing we can control,” the skeleton says calmly. “And there’s no point in trying. Not with her in the state that’s she’s in right now.”

“Sometimes she gets scared.”

“I know.”

“I don’t want her to be scared.”

“… I know.”

They both sound so sad. Why are they sad? Is it because of you? You want to tell them that you’re perfectly fine so they don’t have to worry, but your body is still too heavy, like lead.

“Oh, by the Angel, don’t look so dreary!” the skeleton hisses. “Moping isn’t going to get her better! Water and rest and food is.”

“What about the candy?” Dog asks.

The skeleton snarls. “I thought I had made it perfectly clear that you are supposed to give that candy to her when she needs it. Not all the fucking time!

“I know, I know. But look at her. She needs it now, right? That…that won’t do anythin’, will it?” Dog sounds disappointed.

The skeleton sniffs. “A fever is the body’s way of healing from something else. You cannot heal something that is in itself a healing process.”

Dog chuckles. “Did you look that up, m’lord? ‘Cause you’re worried about her? You’ve never cared to educate yourself about humans before.”

Milord? The skeleton is the mysterious Milord that Dog mentioned before?

“I did so in order to treat her damn illness!” Milord says sharply. “Angel, how is my maid supposed to get better if she is not treated properly? And I don’t see you lifting a finger to help, except sulking over her and making sure she drinks! Meanwhile, I’m the one working myself to the bone ensuring that she’s fed! Considering you’re so obsessed with her, I would have thought you would be a little more proactive.”

Milord tuts sharply. “But it is not in your nature to possess forethought, is it? If things cannot be solved with a tiny piece of candy, then you can’t be bothered.”

There is another long silence, and then…

“You sound jealous, m’lord,” Dog says slyly.

Milord makes an indignant sound. “Of what? That you can leer around her and paw at her and she doesn’t flinch from you? Don’t you dare belittle me, you worthless mongrel! She let’s you near her because she’s frightened of what you will do to her if she refuses! She’s scared of you.”

There’s the sound of footsteps, then when Milord speaks again, his voice so low you barely catch it.

“You say that you hate it…when she’s scared…but what are you going to do when that fear fades, one day? When she’s no longer afraid of you, then how will you get her to be complacent with your obsessive touching?”

“See, now you make it sound like you want her to be scared of you,” Dog mutters, “but you don’t like it, either. Heh…you’re starting to sound like me.”

“As brothers, I suppose there are some similarities that we unfortunately share.”

Brothers?

You’re sinking, farther and farther away from their voices, and you desperately cling on to their words. You want to hear more…

But you’re already gone.

-

You jolt awake with a gasp.

You really need to pee.

With a groan, you tumble out of bed – each joint feels so stiff, and snaps and pops as you stagger blindly along a path from the room towards the bathroom.

Once you exit the bedroom, you realise where you are; a house. A very nice house that smells clean, almost brand new.

You remember it, and more importantly, you remember where the bathroom is. It’s only when you reach the spotless toilet that you realise you’re naked, when you reached down to grasp at the edges of your skirt only to find it…not there.

Why are you naked? You shrug it off. You’re not all that bothered – you’ve spent quite a lot of time being naked.

After you’ve relieved yourself, you study your reflection in the mirror above the sink.

Oh, dear…you look terrible. Sickly, sweating, eyes sunken and circled by dark rings, lips shrivelled and badly chapped…the scars don’t help, either. You’ve stopped shivering, thank goodness, and you don’t feel so cold anymore, but now you just feel like your boiling from the inside. It’s not very comfortable, and it’s making you feel a little queasy.

Maybe a shower would help? But you just want to curl back up in your bed and go to sleep. It’s taken nearly all of your strength just to relieve yourself.

You trudge back to your room, and open the door to find Dog stretched across it, his chin cradled in one hand.

Dog? No…Rus. 

“You’re walkin’,” he says cheerfully.

You close the door behind you. “I guess…” Even your voice sounds awful. “What happened?”

“You’ve got a pretty bad fever,” Rus says, tone ringing with concern.

Oh…that explains so much.

“I freaked out when I heard you,” he continues with a huge, glowing smile. “But you’re up. Means you’re getting’ better, right?”

“Maybe…?” You still don’t feel great.

Rus opens his other arm. “Wanna cuddle?”

He doesn’t look like huggable material, but if you wrap yourself in the bedsheets, it may offer some protection against his bones. “Fine.”

Before you can clamber into bed, Rus points to a glass of water on your bedside table. “Drink that, first.”

He’s bossy today. You begrudgingly take the glass and chug down the contents until the glass is empty, then scrabble under the covers 

With a soft laugh, Rus presses his ribs to your back, curling over you. “I missed you,” he murmurs into your ear.

Did you go somewhere? “Sorry.”

“Y’know, m’lord was worried about you, too. Made you soup ‘n everythin’.”

You grumble. “Shut up. M’tired…”

Rus chuckles. “Whatever you say, Kitten.”

He’s blessedly silent for all of two minutes – or maybe you drifted off to sleep in his arms for what felt like two minutes.

“Can I ask you somethin’?”

“Do you have to?” you mumble.

“Yeah…” Rus’s fingers tangle in your hair for a moment and he sighs softly. “I ain’t mad, though…”

Why would he be mad? You’re on your way to getting pretty angry with him if he won’t just let you sleep.

Rus releases your hair and you hear the faint rustling of paper and cloth.

Then he drops the handful of candy right in front of your nose.

“You think I don’t check my own sock drawer?”

You don’t like the tension in his body at all. You refuse to meet his gaze, staring hard at the candy with bleary eyes. Why is he bringing this up now? You can’t deal with it today.

“Somethin’ wrong, here, Kitten?” he asks so softly.

“… No.”

Rus gently presses his nose to your hair, and his breath warms the shell of your ear. “I told you…I ain’t mad.”

“I’m tired, Rus,” you breathe, closing your aching eyes. “Please…not now…”

“Y’know…when I said I’d take care of you, I meant that…”

You shiver when his fingers delicately trail up the side of your neck, tracing along the edge of your jaw – though it’s so soft, there’s something about the touch that seems…predatory.

“I wanna take care of you,” he murmurs; his inquisitive fingers re-tangle themselves in your hair, and his fangs press against your temple in his strange imitation of a kiss. “You know that, right?”

The anger sparks – it’s brief, but burns bright enough for you to say, “I’m not a pet.”

Rus stiffens.

You don’t mean to be so sharp, but you’re so weary. You ache…your head keeps pounding…you want to be left alone…

“Kid, I…” Rus sighs. “I…really do wanna look after you,” he says earnestly. “I, uh…I wanna make you happy, ‘cause…fuck, the shit you had to go through…”

He strokes his fingers down the ridges of your spine, along each scar left behind by the whip. “Is it really so bad to be looked after?”

“Don’t…” you wheeze, “…don’t make me a pet…”

“I want you to be happy…”

“I’m not a pet,” you say again.

There’s a long silence, and then, “No. Of course you’re not…”

You yawn and Rus laughs softly.

“Can I stay?” he asks.

Sleep is calling to you, reaching out with long, dark fingers. “Okay…”

Rus relaxes. “Thank you,” he breathes, and he presses his face into your hair, inhaling deeply. “Thank you…” 

What a strange creature he is. “Weird puppy…”

Rus’s sudden laugh is cut off when you’re dragged into blissful unconsciousness.

-

A soft sound like someone clearing their throat awakens you.

You sit up to find Milord…Sans standing with his back to the door, arms folded, and staring at you grimly.

“Are you lucid?” he asks. “Are you well enough to stand?”

You rub at your eyes – you feel no different from when you awoke to use the bathroom, skin burning and stomach rolling. You shrug.

Sans’s mouth curls with displeasure. “The mongrel said that you were up and about earlier. I have come to ask if you would like to eat here, or in the kitchen.”

… Has he made food for you?

You try to move, but by the time you have managed to swing your legs over the side of the bed, Sans appears to have made the decision for you.

“Wait here,” he snaps, and he’s gone in the blink of an eye, leaving behind a sudden, frosty wind that makes you shiver –

Ah…you’re still naked.

You pull the bedsheets around you, securing them with a tight knot at your chest, and Sans returns from the cold Void with a tray of soup and tea in his shaking hands.

He’s blushing. What a weirdo…

“Eat this,” he orders, thrusting the tray towards you. “And be quick about it!”

You take the tray and place it on your lap, arms weak – the soup is of a different colour and smell; it’s a radioactive-green with hints of garlic and spinach. It doesn’t look very appetising…

“Don’t make that face,” Sans snaps. “Eat it so I may get back to more important things.”

You would refuse out of stubbornness – he really doesn’t need to be so rude! – but your hunger makes itself known, and you shovel the soup into your dry mouth with relish.

Sans watches you eat, and you get the oddest sense of déjà-vu. Has he done this for you before?

“Thank you,” you say.

Sans makes a strange noise in the back of his throat. “You’re welcome. Hurry up.”

“You can go,” you tell him.

Sans shakes his head. “Absolutely not. I do not want to have to come back upstairs to find you face-first in that soup and drowned. Or scalded by tea because of your clumsiness. I will go when you are finished.”

That’s almost sweet of him, but he cannot seem to go a single sentence without insulting you, even when he appears to be concerned for you.

“You can be really nasty,” you mumble, head clouded.

“Yes, as you have been so kind to remind me,” Sans hisses.

When did you do that? You can’t remember. “You always insult me.”

“Don’t be so childish.”

“I’m not clumsy.”

Sans snarls. “Eat. Finish that so I may go!”

“I’m not stupid.” Some distant voice in the back of your foggy mind tells you to shut up, but you can’t understand why.

Sans brushes off some invisible dust from his left wrist. “I haven’t got the time to listen to your mindless whining.”

“Why do you hate me?” you ask, and your throat becomes tight.

“If I hated you I wouldn’t be looking after you, would I?” Sans shouts.

You glance up at him – he looks greatly harassed, cheeks a dull pink, fists clenched quivering by his sides.

You are a danger to him and his brother. You presence in their house puts them at great risk. It’s no wonder he hates you.

But, then, if you are such a threat to their safety, why is he taking care of you?  

“Thankfully,” Sans says in a huff, “I have had experience with taking care of idiots.”

“Why are you always so mean?” you ask.

“We’re not discussing this now.”

“I want to –”

“Well, I don’t.” Sans peers into the soup bowl. “Are you done?”

You shake your head. “I want to like you…”

Sans tenses, and his blush deepens – from rage or embarrassment, you are not sure. If he were angry, his magic would be manifesting around him like a building storm. For now, the air remains calm, warm.

“No-one likes me,” he says quietly. “But they respect me, and that’s all I care about.”

“Rus likes you.”

Sans snorts and waves a dismissive hand. “My brother is too dependent on others. He can barely take care of himself. If it weren’t for me, he’d never get out of that room of his! That’s the only reason why he likes me.”

You slurp at the soup before saying, “I don’t think that’s true.”

Sans fixes you with a glare. “You do not know my brother. He’s clingy, he is needy, and he just can’t keep his hands to himself. You…you’re nothing but a novelty to him. Something to cuddle because he just…has to touch everything and everyone!”

Rus does seem to have this obsession with touching – he even admitted it, himself, on a night that seems like years ago…

“You make his days less boring and lonely,” Sans continues with disgust dripping from his tone, “and you give him some strange sense of fulfilment. For whatever Angel-forsaken reason, he‘s besotted with your kind, and I don’t get it.”

“What about you?”

“I find you irritating. You humans are all so…panicky. You live short lives and therefore you feel like you never have enough time! You’re quick to judgement, you’re impulsive, you all feel like you need to prove something, you just can’t leave each other alone…”

Sans pauses.

“You…have such little time in this world. At the end of your lives, some of you are happy to go. And then some…are sad to. That, I don’t understand. You lie, you bully, you are vile to your own kind…look at you! Look at what your own people did to you.”

His eyes are locked on the scar down the side of your face.

“And yet you still wanted to live,” Sans continues. “Why? After everything, why?”

His eyes leave your scar to flicker briefly to your chest, where your stubborn soul rests, pulsing gently.

“You have so much potential,” he continues in a low voice, “but you never use it. You possess an incredible power that we could never have, and yet you cannot use magic like we can. We are more powerful than you, and…we are jealous of you.

“And you banished us under the earth for centuries,” he says firmly. “That’s why I hate you all.”

He then gestures for the tray. “Finished?”

You can only stare at him.

He grows impatient. “Give me that if you’re not going to eat it.”

You lift the tray off of your lap, but instead of placing it in Sans’s open palms, you put it on the bedside table. “Can I shower?”

Sans sniffs and slowly curls his open hands into fists. “No. You’re sick, and weak. You can’t be left alone when you’re not asleep.”

“I went to the bathroom by myself,” you argue.

“Yes, I am aware,” Sans says, sounding somewhat displeased. “But no.”

“You can keep an eye on me if it makes you feel better,” you say.

That only makes Sans’s blush darken even more. “Absolutely not.”  

“What I slip and fall and hit my head and die?”

Sans’s scowl only intensifies. “That’s exactly why I don’t want you in there! Stop being so stubborn and stay in bed!”

You fold your arms. “Fine. Can I keep the tea? It smells really nice…”

“You could burn yourself. You did a terrible job last time. Give it to me –”

“It smells nice, though.” You feel a little loopy.

Sans throws up his hands in defeat. “Fine! But if I hear you screaming because you were too weak to lift the damn teapot, then I’ll make you work with blistered fingers!”

A smile tugs at your mouth. “You wouldn’t make me work if I hurt myself.”

Sans’s glare turns murderous. “And what makes you think that I wouldn’t? I’ve made soldiers train with worse injuries!”

He probably has, but you are convinced that he would send you straight to bed, or heal you if you were ever hurt.

“You just wouldn’t,” you say with conviction, but your voice doesn’t sound very strong.

You hold Sans’s deadly stare with hazy eyes – your bed is calling to you again, and your head feels too heavy to keep upright, but you keep your eyes locked.

Unfortunately, because your eyes are still so sore, you blink first. But Sans makes an exasperated sound, and pinches the bridge of his nose.

“Very well,” he grumbles. “Let me help…” He reaches for the teapot and pours you a cup.

Aw, he’s helping you? “Thank you,” you say and he places the teapot down with a grumble.

You need to show him how grateful you are. You launch yourself off the bed – you’re vaguely aware of the knot fastening the bedsheets around your body loosening, but you don’t really care.

Sans turns at the sound of your advance, his face a picture of shock, but he doesn’t have much time to react – you throw your arms around his neck and squeeze, pressing your burning cheek to the side of his cool skull.

Ah, that feels nice… 

He’s not very comfortable, all harsh bones, but his scarf is nice and soft, and his jacket is as cool as his skull, and soothing the burning heat that’s suffocating your body. He is covered with the scent of his leather polish. It’s a bit strong, but there’s also a nice, clean smell mixed in…like freshly washed cotton…

Then you smell the frost.

Sans has gone very still beneath you, but you’re too busy enjoying how wonderful his cool body feels against your burning skin.

How dare you?” he growls in a terrifying voice. “How dare you touch me?”

Your eyelids feel heavy. You’re too tired to move. “You’re so sweeeet,” you slur with a giggle.

Sans says nothing and attempts to prise your arms from around his neck.

“Sans,” you breathe into his neck and he stiffens. “You smell nice…”

“If…” he grinds out, “…you do not…release me right now…I’ll…”

You only hum again, closing your eyes. You want to sleep, now.

“Your fever has worsened,” Sans says through his teeth. “Get off of me this instant!

You giggle and poke him in the side of the head. “Angry puuuppy…”

Sans makes an indignant noise, but you’re already half asleep, too tired to move and teetering on that edge between dream and oblivion.

In the dream, he sighs, and with a gentleness that you never could have imagined he had – of course, it is a dream, so this is all in your head, anyway – he lifts you from the floor and cradles you securely against his chest.

The dream apparition of Sans returns you to the bed, pulling the covers up to your neck and ensuring that you’re properly tucked in, safe and warm.

Then the dream is slipping, but you hold on – you want to enjoy this kind version of Sans for just a moment longer, before you’re faced with the cruel reality of him when you wake. You wish that he could be as nice in the conscious world as he is in your mind.

Just before you drift off, he presses a hand to your forehead and murmurs;

“Please don’t remember this.”

He sounds so sad…   

-

Whatever you have that’s making you feel so awful, it’s gotten worse.

Much worse.

You know because you’re shivering so violently that your teeth clack together loudly; you’re dripping with sweat, but you’re skin is so cold; your head feels like it’s about to burst from the pressure…

The room is dark, but you see him. A man…the man, sitting in the corner with smoke billowing from his disgusting mouth, rusty chains clinking between his fingers.

“Need to be taught another lesson, do you?” he says cruelly.

No, you want to say. Go away…

“She’s dead, you know?” the man growls with a maniacal grin stretching his soot-covered face. “Put a hole right through her head.”

The man stands and approaches you, swinging the chains from side to side – you can’t tear your eyes from the tiny metal collar clipped to the end. The collar that almost killed you.

“You might get another little friend,” he says almost casually. “Or…you might not. She was the only reason I didn’t come back for you.” The man spits on the floor.

I have to clean that! you almost cry, but you haven’t got the strength to speak.

“Fuckin’ bitch,” the man snarls. “Screaming at me like some kinda vulture. I don’t like the loud ones, believe it or not. A real boner killer for me…”

His grin turns salacious. “But the quiet ones? Heh…and if you scream, means I’m doing a good job.”

I’ll kill you…

“So your screaming right now…” The man steps closer, pulling the chains until he can hook his fingers around the rim of the collar. “…is really pissing me off.”

I’ll kill you if you touch me…

“See, and I thought you were a good girl,” the man coos mockingly. “You’re so obedient when I wash you, scrub you down…”

I’ll…kill…you…

“When I feed you, you eat it all up like a good little bitch…”

I’m going to  k i l l  you…

“So why can’t you just do as you’re told, hm? Snarling, rabid bitches like you need to be put in their place…”

The man vanishes, and you gasp.

Gone…just a dream…a hallucination.

You’re crying – one side of your face is soaked where your tears have trickled into the pillow at your head.

Then…

You know that there’s someone else in the room with you. Another fever dream… God, when will they stop?

There is a presence on the bed, but you know it’s another illusion because there is no weight to it – the mattress doesn’t bow or creak as the shadow moves up your body.

Hot breath washes over your face, ruffling your hair. Cool, smooth, but trembling fingertips stroke down your cheek, tracing your scar, catching your tears.

Then the dream-stranger speaks – it’s a voice you don’t recognise, and yet one you think you’ve heard before. It’s badly muffled, as though spoken underwater.

“Poor little thing…”

The gentle touch moves along the edge of you jaw, slipping beneath your ear and into your hair.

The hand clenches, gripping in a possessive hold, and the rough fingers scratch lightly against your skin.

You’re mine,” the voice growls.

A cold thumb brushes over the pulse in your neck and lingers there.

 “And I will do with you whatever I wish.”

You want to push this stranger away, but trapped within the dream, you cannot move.

Little wildcat,” the stranger croons. “Declawed and fangless…

The chilled pressure is removed from your pulse and replaced by something hot and wet, and you would flinch if you had the strength. The wet object slides up your neck, up to your face, then lightly trails across your scar.

All mine,” the voice says again with a deep, terrible laugh.

The hand in your hair releases its crushing grip and soothes the ache in your scalp caused by the harsh tugging against the roots of your hair.

You want to reach out to push them away – you manage to twitch one arm just a little to the side, and a small, disgruntled sound escapes your dry lips.

The stranger cackles, and it’s the last thing you hear before you’re lost to exhaustion.

-

The next time you wake, you know that you are definitely awake.

You feel stronger, less dizzy. You’re uncomfortably hot, no longer trembling with the cold, and your mind feels clearer than it has in a long time.

With a yawn, you sit up, throwing back the suffocating sheets and sighing when your body is released to the cool air.

You feel disgusting, dirtied by sweat. You tongue is so dry – you glance towards the bedside table, and to your relief, there’s a glass of water filled to the brim atop it.

Taking the freezing glass with weak fingers, you gingerly sip at the liquid until it’s all gone, and your body becomes aware of the chill. You place the glass back on the table, then roll out of the bed to make for the wardrobe.

Your stomach gurgles, then cramps painfully, begging to be fed.

Shower first. Then food.

You dig your black dressing gown out from the wardrobe. You notice that your uniforms are all hung up nice and tidy, and they smell like they have been recently washed – Sans’s doing, perhaps? On one of the shelves in the wardrobe are your shoes, your stockings, and…your underwear? How did they get here?

After loosely fastening your gown around your waist, you pad towards the bathroom on wobbling legs. You spend an unnecessary amount of time in the shower, scrubbing where you feel filthiest, then washing your hair until your head smells sweeter than Happy’s sugary magic.

Once you’re clean, you feel ten times better – you momentarily marvel in the healing power of water. Now you’re just starving.

The first thing you need to do, however, is strip your bed. You don’t know how long you’ve been sleeping and sweating out your fever in it, and you cringe at the thought of having to sleep in it again tonight.

The brief thought that Rus may let you share his mattress again crosses your mind, but perhaps sleeping next to him when you could still be carrying a lingering sickness is not a good idea. A skeleton might not be able to get sick, but if they can sweat and blush, then who’s to say they can’t?

You exit the bathroom, washed and dressed, and it’s as though your thoughts had summoned him; Rus is waiting for you, leaning against his doorframe, looking quite relaxed, but a huge grin is splitting his face, his golden fang catching the light.

“Look who’s wearing clothes,” he comments gleefully.

“Um…I don’t know why I was…naked,” you say quietly, picking at the neckline of your dressing gown.

Rus waves you off. “We just wanted you to feel more comfortable. How’re you feelin’?”

“Better. A little. How long was I…sick?”

Rus taps a finger against his jaw. “’Bout five days.”

Oh, God…were you really that bad? “I’m sorry. I don’t know what happened…”

Rus shrugs. “Eh…it happens right?” His smile grows wider. “Want somethin’ to eat?” He points vaguely towards your stomach. “Sounds like you got some kind of animal in there.”

“Yes please.” Your eyes slide to your bedroom. “I’ll be down in a second…”

“I can wait.”

Rus watches you from the door as you tear the bed apart, ripping the sheets off the quilt, then stripping the pillowcases and piling them all into a messy lump by the door.

“There’s some soup for you,” he says conversationally. “I was told to bring you some if you woke up, but…” He chuckles. “I’m a pretty bad cook.”

You only nod – based on what you’ve learned of Rus’s minimal experience with the oven and the stove, you’d rather he left you to it. He can stick to his instant noodles and candy –   

Just as you’re tearing the sheet from the mattress, you remember…

It’s a foggy memory, suffocated by the clouds of your fever, but you do recall the image of Rus piling all of your hidden candy on the mattress, inches from your nose.

You pause in your task, feeling a little sick. He said he wasn’t mad, but could he have been lying? Was he saving you the stress of worrying while you were so riddled with fever?

You turn to study him – he’s observing you intently, like you’re moments away from collapsing. When your eyes meet his, he smiles.

“’Sup?”

“I don’t regret what I said,” you find yourself saying. “But…I’m sorry.”

Rus blinks. “You what?”

“I’m sorry for lying to you,” you say. “About the candy.”

Rus’s face is unreadable. He regards you in silence, hands in the pockets of his jeans, giving nothing away.

There’s the fear that you’ve upset him, but in response, you soul seems to flare, burning in denial.

No more. No more fear…

Then Rus chuckles softly, shrugging away from the wall. He approaches you at a slow, unthreatening pace, and you don’t flinch, don’t shrink away.

No more.

“Don’t worry about it,” he rasps gently. “I told you I wasn’t mad.” He scrubs a hand over his face, averting his eyes from you. “That whole pet thing? It was…you know I never actually called you that, right?”

“You did, once,” you point out.

“As a joke. But…yeah, it was…I guess it was pretty tasteless.”

“Your brother said you like humans,” you say, grabbing at the fractured memories of your brief moments of consciousness during your fever.

“Yeah? S’at bad?” Rus looks a little defensive.

“…No. I guess it isn’t.” You remove the sheet from the mattress and throw it in with the rest of the dirty bed sheets. “But…even if you don’t say it…”

Rus waits for you to continue.

“Why do you want to look after me?” you ask.

He only shrugs.

“Please don’t do that,” you say. “I…need an answer.”

“’Cause I want to? Isn’t that enough? Why do you humans get a cat, or a dog? Or a fish, or…whatever, a fuckin’ gorilla, I don’t know…”

Pet animals…minus the gorilla. To get a pet is to desire companionship, something to make the days less boring…

And lonely. Where did you hear that before?

You don’t really know how to respond. In silence, you gather the sheets into your arms, trying hard to drag up the memory of those exact words. Less boring and lonely… Someone had said that to you. Did you dream it?

Rus has always been vague about his exact reasonings for rescuing you. What you can gather, however, is you’re here because of two things; guilt, and based on Rus’s cat-dog-gorilla comment, loneliness.

Guilt, because of the suffering you endured at the camp – a camp created to house those who dared to escape the monsters who had invaded their home and taken their freedom.

Loneliness, because he’s in this house all day, every day, all by himself.

The memory finally comes – the memory of Sans’s voice at your bedside. It’s cloudy, but clear enough…

For whatever Angel-forsaken reason, he says, he‘s besotted with your kind.

You gaze at Rus, and he gazes back at you, tense.

How should you feel about this? You don’t even know anymore…

But, some voice in the back of your mind seems to whisper, would you rather be here? Or there…?

“I never actually thanked you for saving me,” you say. “Did I?”

Rus’s eyes widen, but he says nothing.

You step towards him and he stiffens, shoulders hunching. He looks a little uncomfortable, so you keep your distance.

“Thank you,” you say.

Rus attempts nonchalance, but the tautness of his shoulders gives him away.

“Thank you,” you say again, “for saving me.”

For a moment, you’re back in the camp, clamped in chains and shackles, and Rus is looming over you, the length of your leash curling over his bony fingers.

Then you’re back in the bedroom, free of your chains, and Rus staring at you like you’re about to vomit on him in fright.

Something flutters in your chest, and a smile pulls at your mouth.

“Thank you for saving me,” you say. “Weird puppy.”

Rus blinks, then snorts. He closes the distance between you and puts a hand to your head. “You’re so cute.”

“Where’s your brother?”

“Office, I think.”

Bed sheets in hand, you leave the room, with Rus following close behind you. The house is quiet, Napstaton’s muted news bulletin flashing on the TV, and the door to the office is closed, meaning that’s where Sans is hiding.

You dump the sheets on the floor out of sight, then raise your hand to knock.

“Want me to come in?” Rus whispers.

“If you want,” you reply. “But I should be fine.”

“What are you two whispering about out there?” Sans snaps from beyond the door.

Rus snickers, and you enter, holding back the scowl you want to fire at him.

Sans is sitting in his usual place, arms and legs crossed – barrier up.  

“You’re awake,” he says flatly. “Good.”

You bow your head. “Yes, sir.”

“I hope that you are well rested,” Sans continues in a bored voice.

“Yes, sir.”

Sans hums. “Yes…well, I do not expect for you to have fully recovered. Light duties for the next week or so should be reasonable, yes?”

“Yes, sir.”

You peek up at him – like Rus, he’s guarded, expression blank, not even that obvious blush is present.

“Well?” he spits. “What else do you want?

But in that moment, though he has his mask on, you can hear his voice – a soft, sad voice that you were sure that you’d dreamt, but there’s the nagging feeling that it was real, spoken when you were only half there.

Please don’t remember this.

Of course, you don’t remember everything, but you remember enough. If he knows that you remember what he said and did, he refuses to show it. If you started crying, perhaps his mask would crack the smallest bit, but you have no tears to shed.

He doesn’t want you to remember his kindness, because, for some reason, that’s who he cannot be. And to long for his kindness while you are faced with the cold, cruel, stern monster that he is – that he has to be – would only hurt you, and quite possible him as well.

So you bow lower, and say, “Thank you for taking care of me while I was sick.”

And, now, things will go back to normal. Sans will go back to being mean, Rus will go back to being…Rus. And you…

You’re not sure what you’re going to do next. Go back to cleaning? That doesn’t really matter – it’s not like you have anything else to do that can occupy your time.

Will you go back to flinching from every harsh word thrown your way?

No more.

Sans clears his throat. “For goodness sake, you would only have gotten worse. I can’t have my maid dropping dead every five minutes, can I?”

“Of course not, sir,” you say, then straighten. “But thank you, anyway.”

“Whatever. Get out. I’m busy.”

And with that, Sans turns back to his desk and scribbles away on something. You don’t hang around to see what it is, and you back out of the room, closing the door behind you.

Rus is lounging against the wall, running his tongue up and down his golden fang.

“I’m proud of you,” he says in a whisper – he’s beaming from cheekbone to cheekbone.

You walk towards the kitchen and he loops and arm over your shoulder as you pass by him, matching you step for step.

“Y’know,” he says breezily, “it’s been almost a week since I’ve had one of your buns. I almost died. Now that you’re up and about…” He presses a toothy kiss to your hair. “…any chance I could snag one?”

“I don’t know,” you say, heading for the refrigerator. “I’m still feeling a bit woozy.”

“But Kitten, I almost died. Cinnamon deficiency, y’know?”

You say nothing, shrugging him off and digging out the pre-made soup from the fridge.

The image of Sans preparing this for you, dressed in an apron and chef’s hat, flashes through your mind, long enough to produce a smile, but the domestic image is quickly replaced with his deadly scowl and crossed arms.

“Kid, I don’t think you get it,” Rus moans, feigning hurt. “We have to keep our magical reserves up.”

You close the fridge and leave the container of soup on the counter, then rummage through the pantry, pulling out the small jar half-filled with the magical ground cinnamon. Without a word, you hold it out for Rus to take.

There’s a pause, then he takes the bottle with a sly smile of his own. “What do you take me for?”

He’s calling your bluff, but you’re too slow to stop him – he unscrews the jar and knocks back a mouthful of cinnamon.

When he laughs at your expression, an orange dust cloud streams from the gaps in his jaw. “Waste not, want not.”

“But…you’ve just wasted that,” you say, gesturing to the near-empty jar. “I could have used that for something…”

Rus places the jar on the nearest surface, and sweeps you up into his arms, lifting you off the floor. You tense when he presses his teeth to your neck.

“I fucking missed you, kid,” he wheezes.

You sigh – he really is like a puppy. It’s not like you went anywhere.

He pulls back after a moment, lowering you so your feet can touch the floor – his teeth are covered with large clumps of cinnamon that have mixed in with his saliva into a weird paste.

“What?” He grins. “S’there somethin’ in my teeth?”

You step out of his arms when he goes in for another one of his odd kisses. “You should wash that off,” you tell him, swiping a hand over the spot on your neck where he breathed onto your skin, and you palm comes away smeared with amber powder.

“Hmm, can you wash it off for me?”

You retrieve the container of soup in silence.

“I can always scrub your back for you in exchange?” Rus teases.

You grimace. “No, thank you.”

Rus shrugs, a mischievous smile tugging at his jaw. “Well, you’re still sick, ain’t you? Can’t take another risk, leavin’ you alone in the shower. What if you slip and fall and hit your head and die?”

-

That night, after an easy day of laundry and cooking, you dream – of all things – of a bedsheet.

It’s crumpled up on the ground, smeared with dirt and grime. There’s a terrible smell in the air, bitter and wet, that must be coming from the sheet.

Sans won’t be happy. You gather the bedsheet up in your arms and straighten –  

Then you see him, that awful man, lurking in the corner, smoke floating from his mouth, chains in his grimy hands.

You then realise that you are naked – clean, but your scars are on full display. The bedsheet would offer protection, but it’s filthy. You can’t wear it without getting dirty yourself.

You stare hard at the man in the corner.

Go away, you say, voice quivering.

The Man-Who-Guarded-You smiles. “If you think I’m gonna let you get away with that shit…heh…you’re wrong.”

You’re crying, but you lift yourself higher, squaring your shoulders. Go away, you say again louder. You can’t hurt me here.

The Man-Who-Guarded-You lifts the chain holding the collar. “This is the smallest one I could find. It’s used to leash our dogs. The boss let me borrow one –”

Go away. Now!

“– to teach you some manners…”

Go away!

“Your screaming is pissing me off,” he growls, but it’s weak. The smoke that spews from his mouth is fading, shrinking down to the barest trickle.

You can’t hurt me here. Not anymore. Go away!

The Man-Who-Guarded-You seems to crumble, and then he’s gone, taking that awful metal leash with him.

With a small breath, you fold the bedsheet over your arm.

The smell of him remains – bitter smoke and damp. But that’s fine.

It’ll wear off, eventually.

 

 

Chapter Text

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Chapter Eleven

 

-

 

Warnings for chapter: Mentions of Death, Scars, Implications of Mildly Sexual Scenes, Bodily Harm, Blood, Brief Mentions of Gore, Mild Trauma, Implications of Terrorism 

 

-

 

You’re greeted the next morning with a small card placed atop the island in the kitchen.

It bears Happstablook’s brand, followed by his delicate handwriting.

Heard you were sick, treacle.

I’ve scheduled our appointment for within the next month – I’m very busy, as you know, and can’t fit you in until then.

I’ll let the dog know in advance when I’m coming.

Hope you’re feeling better, poppet.

Much love, HB

Ah, that’s right – you were supposed to have your hair trimmed after six weeks. You’re a little disappointed; it would have been nice to see Happy again. But it’s sweet that he doesn’t want to bother you while you’re still recovering.

Sans notices the card in your hand when you bring him his fresh coffee.

“Yes, Happstablook left that with me this morning,” he says sourly, accepting the fresh brew and folding up his crossword.

This morning? It’s very early – does Happstablook not sleep, either? He is a ghost, so perhaps he doesn’t need it. Then again, Sans and Rus could be considered of the…deceased kind of monster, too, and yet they sleep…

“Stop dawdling and get on with it,” Sans barks.

You didn’t realise that you had been staring. You bow your head, then leave him to finish his coffee in peace.

You’re feeling awfully weak in the limbs, so you do what you can within the allotted time on your instructions – which, you’ve noticed with some smug satisfaction, that you hardly need to refer to anymore. Each room has a quick run-around with the mop or vacuum, all surfaces dusted down, but the smaller things, like wiping each and every ornament, are given a miss.

Once the basics are done, you move on to the next room. Sans did say light duties, after all.

He interrupts you just as you’ve finished stripping and changing his bed. You turn to find him lingering in the doorway, watching you intensely. He doesn’t speak and does a quick study of his room, his eyes darting between his uniform hanging in its usual place on the closet door, to the windowsill that you wiped down with a damp cloth, then to the pillow you have generously fluffed up in your hands, and the pile of bedsheets on the floor at your feet.

He hums with…some satisfaction. It sounds forced. “Very good…I suppose.”

He straightens the lapels of his jacket and says, “I am needed at the border this afternoon. There is some paperwork I need you to organise in my absence.”

You bow. “Yes, sir.” It’s been a while since he’s given you some paperwork to sort out, with him being here to do it himself, and his suspicion of you affecting him for a time.

“They need filing by date, and some need delivering,” Sans continues, regarding you with some of that mistrust flickering in his sockets. “Inform the mongrel when you are done.”

“Yes, sir.”

With a pleased huff, Sans turns to leave.

“Have a good day,” you call after him.

He pauses, then turns his head ever so slightly to regard you over his shoulder, but you focus on the pillow before he can meet your eyes, smoothing out any creases in the pillowcase.

Then he’s gone, storming down the stairs and slamming the front door behind him.

Perhaps you overdid it? All you did was wish him a good day.

It’s strange, but you feel a lot less frightened of him since he fed you and put you to bed.

Please don’t remember this.

But you do. And you will, no matter how much he thinks it may hurt you. Because it doesn’t hurt you. If anything, it’s opened your eyes.

You make your way down to the office, deep in thought.

Rus is always so calm and confident around his brother – save for during the occasional elder sibling scolding. Sans maintains his belief that he’s spoilt him far too much, and you’re rather inclined to agree; because Rus was raised by the kindness.

You wonder if Rus misses it, the Sans who raised him before he had to don the mask of Second to the Captain of the Royal Guard. Does he hope to get him back?

Is that why Sans doesn’t want you to remember? Because it hurts his brother, and he doesn’t want it to hurt you, either?

… Monsters are weird. What’s wrong with being kind within these walls, where only you and Rus can bear witness to it?

Maybe Sans finds it hard to switch off. Or maybe he’s just being…a brother. They do live together, after all. Doesn’t familiarity often breed contempt?

You enter the office and focus on the task at hand – the desk is covered with sheets of paper that need organising. You’re not quite sure when Sans is required at the eastern border full time, but he seemed a little…harassed just before he left.

Something unexpected must have happened. It’s infuriating not knowing what’s going on in the outside world. And NTT News isn’t exactly a reliable source.

You attempt to turn all of your attention to the paperwork – sort out the invoices first, then separate those that need sending. Your traitorous eyes glance at the contents; they mostly consist of patrols needed moving from Central and New Home to the east, some detail the delivering of weapons from The Mountains to Woodlands.

Some of the letters look more like official documents, with the Royal Seal printed all over them. They appear to be relocation forms.

You sift through them, making note of the dates. There are a lot of monsters in need of relocating, and you didn’t realise what a costly process it all was. Sans must be exhausted.

You realise there are duplicates of everything, with the words COPY stamped across them. These, you guess, must be for Sans’s records, so you store them in a binder of their own and make a note of the date and the contents so Sans knows what’s inside.

The originals clearly need to be delivered, based on the addresses – Rus certainly has his work cut out for him, today.

You spend most of the afternoon neatly tucking the forms into pre-prepared envelopes, however, some are missing. Sans must have been called away before he could finish them all.

He may yell at you for this, but there are only a few that haven’t been done. So you fetch a small stack of blank envelopes and, as neatly as you can, copy the addresses for each form, mimicking Sans’s elegant cursive.

You’re sweating a little. Why is this so stressful? Perhaps Rus can come up with some excuse, like…Sans had to finish them in a rush…

No, Sans never rushes. People will realise, and ask questions. Will this get them in trouble? Maybe you should stop?

… But you may as well do them. Rus will come up with something. He’s very good at cooking up excuses.

Done with the forms, you quickly skim over the letters; one appears to be addressed to someone by the name of…Catty? And there’s another for a monster – you assume they’re a monster based on their name – Bratty.

Bratty and Catty? They sound more like insults rather than names. But whoever they are, based on the contents of the letters, they appear to have rather high ranking positions at the eastern border.  

Once you’ve finished, tongue very dry and a little sore from sealing so many envelopes, you tie up the stack that needs to be delivered with some parcel string and take them to Rus’s room.

When you enter, he swings around in his very unsafe desk chair and gives you a huge smile…and it drops when he spots the letters hanging from your fingers.   

“I don’t want those,” he mutters.

You cross the room and hold them out for him to take. He only glares at them.

“I was thinking of making some Cinnamon Bunnies this afternoon,” you say.

Rus snatches up the envelopes. “Well, I wouldn’t want to get in your way, would I?” he says merrily.  

“I had to write out some of the addresses myself.”

Rus raises a brow.

“My handwriting’s not very good,” you add.  

He nods, understanding. “Heh…need me to put my glorious silver tongue to good use?” He rises from his seat, only to curl over you and purr into your ear, “I can do other things with it, too, y’know?”

You step away, cheeks heating. “If you hurry, they’ll still be warm when you get back.”

Rus’s smile curls. “Your buns?”

“The Cinnamon Bunnies, yes,” you say stonily.

With a deep, rumbling chuckle, he vanishes.

-

Sans doesn’t return home that night.

Thankfully, you’ve chosen to cook something that can easily be reheated. But you’d be lying to yourself if you said you weren’t a little worried.

Rus seems to be a little restless, too. He scarfed down several Cinnamon Bunnies upon his return from his deliveries, then left you for a few hours. Then he emerged again only to gobble up some more pasties, before disappearing back to his room.

It’s ten-thirty at night, and you’ve given up. Sans obviously isn’t coming home.

You’re cleaning up the kitchen while you wait for the broth to cool down enough to store it in the refrigerator, when Rus surprises you by appearing from thin air beside you, shrugging on his fur-lined jacket.

“Are you alright?” you ask in a gasp, heart hammering.

Rus presses a kiss to your temple. “Uh-huh. I gotta go out for a bit.”

“You haven’t eaten…”

He grins and pats his sweater where his stomach would be if he had one. “Full of cinnamon and cooked batter. I’m good.”

“Is everything okay?”

“Yeah, course it is.” Rus smiles, then fumbles about with something in the pocket of his jacket.

There’s the familiar soft clink of bone hitting metal, and you glance at his pocket. Metal…chains?

… Or spikes?

Does he have his collar in his pocket?

“Does it have something to do with Sans?” you ask, voice weak.  

Rus hesitates. “Yeah. But it’s fine. Something happened and they kind of needed him at the border. Nothing big.”

A cold sweat has broken out on your forehead – humans trying to escape, perhaps?

Your concern for Sans dissolves almost immediately. You don’t want to imagine what must be going on at the border, now that Rus has been called to assist…with his terrible collar on his person…

“Uh, you feelin’ sick again?” Rus asks. “You’re lookin’ a little clammy…”

“I’m fine,” you say thickly.

“I’d stay, but I really have to…y’know…”

 “Fine,” you say curtly and scrub at a dirty pot.

“Kitten?” Rus sounds hurt.

“I’m fine,” you say again.

There’s a moment of awkward silence, and then Rus is gone, leaving behind his warm-smelling magic.

You spend a lot of time just scrubbing at dirty pots and plates, even long after they’re clean. You’re angry, a little frightened…but mostly angry. How can you just get on as normal when you know what they’re doing at the eastern border?

There must be humans trying to escape – and, of course, there aren’t enough monsters there to contain them all, so they’ve sent for Sans. But why send for Rus, too? Why would Rus be needed?

Once the kitchen is clean, you sit by the island, staring at the clock on the fridge. You cannot sleep, and you cannot eat – the toast you had made for yourself has gone cold. Your stomach is too much of a churning mess to consume anything.

Waste not, want not, the brothers would say, so you force the toast down you and clean up your mess, then make your way to the library.

Skimming your fingers along the spines helps to pass the time, but none of the titles look particularly interesting; Memoirs of a Magical Robot, Vol. I, all the way through to Vol. V consist of Napstaton’s diary entries of his early days, all the way through to the present, accompanied by photos. Hundreds of them.

There’s a copy of My Quest to Stardom: How you, too, can be Famous! [But not as Famous as Me!], another humble biography of Napstaton that looks as dull as dishwater – you would get more joy out of watching paint dry.

The strategy books look a little interesting, but you’re itching to find The Myth and Magic of Monsters and Men. It’s still not been returned to the library, it’s not in the office, and it’s not in Sans’s room.

You decide to check Rus’s room again – you enter and switch on the light, illuminating the disaster that it is. It may be because you haven’t slept in it for the past week, but it seems to have gotten messier.

You’re hardly tired, and if you can’t find that wretched book, then you can always occupy your mind with cleaning Rus’s floor.

You set about gathering his clothes first. Once they’re in the washing machine, you fetch a garbage bag from the kitchen and fill it with noodle pots, coffee cups, cigarette packets, candy wrappings, paper balls, empty plastic bottles…

Then you vacuum the dust and ash ridden carpet. You would open the window to let some air in, but with the board in the way, you can only hope that enough clean air from the hallway will suffice.

The book isn’t here, either. You weren’t expecting it to be, though you did hold onto some sliver of hope that it would tumble out of a pair of slacks or a hoodie.

There are a couple of places you haven’t checked; Rus’s closet, and the basement.

The basement is still very much out of bounds. You don’t want to damage your relationship – whatever it may be – with the brothers now that you seem to be on slightly better terms with them.

So you check Rus’s closet. Your eyes linger on the deep claw marks in the wood for a moment, and you shiver. What on earth made those?

You gingerly pull the door open to reveal…a very normal looking closet.

Except it’s filled to the brim with clothes, shoes, socks, coats, monster-related boardgames and video cassettes… It’s a miracle that it doesn’t all come crashing down on you.

You’re definitely not cleaning this out. However, you do spot a couple of books in the trash-mountain – they appear to be mostly science related; astrophysics, quantum physics, bog-standard physics…and there’s a joke book or two mixed in there, as well.

An interesting collection, but not what you’re looking for.

With nothing else to do until the brothers return, you retreat to the deck outside and sit atop the steps while you wait for the washing machine to finish its cycle.

You remain there for a long time, staring up into the clear night sky, counting the stars and trying to remember the constellations. There’s Lyra, and shining Vega; the bears, Ursa Major and Minor dancing around Draco…

You really hope that Rus isn’t hurting anyone.

The image of him trudging through the camp, donning his collar, strutting up and down the line of dead-eyed humans with his magic humming about him, surfaces unbidden in your mind. He can be so frightening, and so cruel…

Just like his brother.

“Please,” you find yourself whispering in the dark. “Please don’t hurt anyone…”

You want to believe that the Rus who loves stars is who he truly is…but you know that he has the capacity to hurt people, and do it quite easily. He’s powerful enough to frighten the most awful, terrifying people you had ever known; the Man-In-Charge, and the Man-Who-Guarded-You.

He won’t hurt you…he made a promise. But if he can still hurt other people…

You return to the house after several more attempts at counting the stars – the washing machine hasn’t quite finished yet, so you make yourself comfortable in the living room, curling up on the couch.

Napstaton is running through the headlines, still boasting about the recent Day X performance, saying that it was his best one to date!

It’s surprising just how quickly his constant self-praising can tire you out, when just minutes ago you were wide away with fear. Your eyelids are heavy, and you find yourself actually fighting to stay awake…

You lose.

-

You wake on the couch, neck and shoulders sore from the odd angle you had slept at.

Blinking away the remains of sleep, you squint against the brightness beaming through the window – you’ve overslept.

Not that it matters, since you’re still on light duties, but you’ve left Rus’s clothes in the washing machine, and you need to have Sans’s coffee ready for him before he finishes his first –

He’s usually sitting in the living room with his crossword, but you’re alone. Perhaps he’s already working in the office…but why didn’t he wake you? He certainly would, if he saw you slacking. Rus would have either joined you on the couch or moved you to his mattress…

Did the brothers not want to disturb you? Or…did they not come home? Could they still be at the border?

The TV is still on, displaying the same news channel – you tune in to Napstaton’s computerised voice while scanning the headlines rolling across the bottom of the screen for anything to do with the eastern border.

There’s nothing, yet – it did happen just last night. And if something bad happened, then NTT News wouldn’t report it…or they’d find a way to turn it into something positive.

Perhaps stopping humans at the border is a long process. So many deaths to file –

You shake the thought away and see to the washing.

While it dries on the washing line outside, you see to your work, occasionally checking the news for any updates, and listening out for the brothers returning. Nothing changes by the time it hits three in the afternoon, and still the brothers haven’t come home.

It makes you so restless – there were times in the camp where you felt so disconnected from the world that it felt as though the world consisted of just that camp; the walls like concrete forests, the amber lights and damp-riddled ceilings the sky, the gravel-covered floors the earth, the rattle of chains the sounds of the sea...

All that you knew were those moulding walls, the dank washrooms, the long, amber-lit hallways, your cold, dirty cell…

Even with windows and doors and news reports, you don’t feel any less disconnected now than you did then. You can’t leave this house for yours and the brothers’ safety, and all news is butchered and remoulded into monster propaganda.

You’re in the living room, staring hard at the headlines on the TV, very close to exploding from the lack of information, when you hear a soft thwump from the room above. Rus’s room…

Your first thought is that he’s come home, since only he would teleport to his own bedroom – Sans would walk through the front door – but then the frightening notion that someone may be breaking in crosses your mind.

You sprint to the kitchen and dart for the knife block on the counter, pulling out a jagged bread knife. Your sweat makes the handle slippery in your palm, and you’re trembling as you ascend the stairs.

Rus’s door is closed. Taking a deep breath, you timidly push it open…

The room stinks of his magic. He’s face-down on his mattress, still dressed in the clothes he left in, and snoring softly.

He must be tired – he usually gets changed the minute he returns home from a job. You close the door as gently as you can, leaving him undisturbed in the darkness, and return to work.

He doesn’t emerge until the evening, dressed in a pair of sweats and…nothing else.

You’re putting together a soup for him when he enters – he drapes himself against the wall and fixes you with a playful, hooded stare.

“Was this your plan, Kitten?” he asks in a sultry voice. “Take away all my clothes so you could catch me naked?”

Honestly, he looks ridiculous – a living skeleton with nothing to show off except his ribcage, presenting himself like some kind of peacock. Admittedly, it is rather fascinating to see a spine move in such a way, but the lack of organs and skin is both disturbing and hilarious.

“My plan was to have them washed before you got back,” you say. “I overslept. I’m sorry.”

Rus huffs. “A likely story.” He swaggers over to you, putting a little too much emphasis on the sway of his hips.

It would be funny, if you didn’t remember where he’s just come back from. You return to preparing the soup, splitting garlic cloves, crushing them between your palms, and throwing them into the pot.

Rus’s steps falter. “You still mad at me?”

Mad…scared…disgusted… “Yes.”

There’s a long, awkward silence, then Rus’s arms are around your shoulders and his nose is in your hair.

“Please don’t be mad,” he breathes. “I don’t like it when you’re mad at me.”

You want to push him away – it’s only the unmistakable hurt in his voice that prevents you. It’s strange to hear him sound so upset, so affected by your refusal to play along with his little joke…and the idea that he is saddened by your anger with him.

“Did you kill anyone?” you ask, voice weak.  

He tenses. “No…”

He sounds…confused?

You drop the garlic and turn to face him. His arms fall from your shoulders and he steps back, expression tight.

You peer at him, and he seems to shrink back a little. “Did you?” you ask again.

He runs a hand over his skull. “No…no, I didn’t…”

It’s an odd feeling, sensing death in the air. It’s difficult to describe, but you would know that something was amiss – it was always present as you walked through the halls. It wasn’t ever an obvious sensation, like a shiver tingling up your spine, or the crawling of skin… Sometimes it was just the stillness of the air, and sometimes it felt like choking on a gasp.

But you always recognised the shadow of death in the eyes of the Man-Who-Guarded-You, in the cruel curl of his lips. In Rus’s eyes, you see nothing but unease because of your scrutiny.

“How do I know?” you say.

Rus’s brow creases. “Huh?”

“Can you tell me what happened? At the border?”

Rus looks away. “Uhh…”

Is he under strict orders not to tell you? He looks very uncomfortable, and beads of sweat speckle his temples.

“Can’t you tell me?” you ask softly.

Rus laughs dryly. “No, not really.”

“Why not?”

Rus’s expression turns hard when he says, “’Cause I can’t, okay? Get off my back.”

Your heartrate picks up at the harshness of his tone, and the buzz of his magic, the scent of warm metal, builds around you. Yet…you refuse to break your gaze, your soul flaring with displeasure.

Rus can obviously sense it, but he remains undeterred, matching your stare.

You’re the first to relent – he’s not going to tell you anything, so pressing is useless. Sans must have ordered him to keep quiet, and his brother’s orders have far more power over him than your questions do. You are only a servant, after all.

“Are you hungry?” you ask.

Rus seems thrown by the change of subject, and his magic dissipates. “What?”

You gesture to the fridge. “I can heat you something?”

He glances between you and the refrigerator. “Sure…”

You busy yourself with fetching the container of broth so you don’t have to focus on his reluctance to discuss the situation at the border, and silently fume about how evasive he’s being. The air is rather awkward, but you try to ignore it, and fetch a clean pot for the broth.

Once the broth is simmering, Rus’s arms encircle your middle.

“Uh…sorry,” he mutters. “But…I really can’t talk about it.”

You believe him, but that’s not the problem. You are angry with him, since you have a very strong suspicion as to what he was at the border for.

… And you’re angry because you don’t actually know what happened.

That’s probably the most frustrating thing – you are as much in the dark as you were in the camp.

If anyone would know what happens in Ebott, it would be a member of the Royal Guard, and his social butterfly of a brother. But Rus won’t tell you, because perhaps he’s afraid that anything he tells you will damage your fragile psyche.

And Sans won’t tell you because he just won’t.

You release a breath. “It’s fine. Really…”

In response, Rus peppers your neck with his strange, breathy kisses.

After a moment of indulging him, you say, “I thought you weren’t allowed to touch me?” You keep your eyes stubbornly on the broth, counting the bubbles instead of counting the kisses he’s dotting upon your skin.

“Technically,” he murmurs against the scars ringing your throat, “m’lord isn’t here, and technically you’re on light duties, so technically you’re not working, so technically I can kiss you as much as I want.”

“Okay…” You move to fetch a spoon, and you end up dragging Rus with you. “Why…um…”

“Hmm?” he rumbles into your shoulder.

“Why do you like touching me so much?” Desired utensil in hand, you return to the stove.

“You’re warm. And soft…” His arms around you squeeze. “You smell nice…heh, nicer than you did when you arrived.”

He shoves his face into your hair and inhales deeply. “I dunno…I just want to. I mean…is it starting to bother you?”

Yes.

No…

You’re honestly not sure anymore.

Rus doesn’t seem to like your silence. “You…you said you didn’t mind it. Right?”

The last time his touching habits had come up was when he was giving you the silent treatment. Thinking back on it now, you had never actually said that the touching didn’t bother you – all you had wanted was for him to start talking to you again.

Perhaps it is the softness of his touches that disturbs you. You’re so used to roughness, to harsh groping. Not…gentle caresses and toothy kisses.

“I’m…not used to it,” is all you can think of to say. “Th-the way you do it, I mean…”

Rus goes very still.

Your hand gripping the spoon is trembling. “Um…so it’s a bit weird for me. I’m sorry.”

Rus’s bark of laughter almost sends you shooting right through the ceiling.

“What the fuck?” he snaps. “Why’re you sorry for somethin’ like that?”

You’re shaking all over from the shock of his shout, knuckles white from gripping the spoon so tightly. “I don’t know…” You peer out of the corner of your eye to assess his reaction.

He’s staring hard at the boiling pan. “If…it bothers you, I can stop?”

“I really don’t know,” you admit.

Rus then meets your gaze, watching you for any change, any hint that you’re lying for his benefit, but you’re definitely not. He seems to understand, and with a smile, he places a gentle hand atop your head.

“Okay,” he rumbles. “But let me know? I’m not good with knowing my limits…”

You nod – the last thing you want is for him to give you the silent treatment again.

“‘Cause I like cuddlin’ you,” he continues. “I can still cuddle you, right?”

“I don’t mind that too much.”

Rus grins. “Cool.” Then he spins you around by the shoulders so you are facing him, and he pulls you flush against his chest.

The impact makes you grunt – his bones are cold and tough, it’s like running face-first into a brick wall. With a laugh that comes out more like a gasp, you pull back…

It’s then you notice Rus’s ribcage. Or, rather, what’s covering it.

They were too small to see from a distance, but each and every bone is marked with small scratches and grooves. And now that you can look more closely, the larger, deeper marks stand out to you.

Are they…scars?

They’re small, but there are so many of them. There are some that, if Rus had skin, would follow the length of his chest. Those that are a little deeper seem to have faded with time, and none of them look as deep as the scar down Sans’s eye, but they still look like they would have been painful.

Rus catches you staring. “When your brother is a member of the Guard,” he says sadly, “you’re gonna make a few enemies.” 

Were these scars the result of brawls, or torture? You then glance up at his golden tooth – was that to replace a fang that had been knocked out, or pulled out?

Scarred…missing teeth…just like you.

…  

You turn back to the stove before you can think too much about the similarities between you and Rus. “It’s ready.”

Thankfully, he realises that you’re uncomfortable. “Nice.”

You pour the broth into a spare bowl, and while Rus chugs the entire thing down, you continue your work on the soup, chopping and crushing the garlic with purpose.

“Thanks,” Rus breathes into your ear once he’s finished. He reaches around you and places the empty bowl on the counter. “Any more?”

You nod, momentarily breathless. “But it’s for Sans…”

“Hmm…okay, won’t argue, there.”

He remains curled over you, watching as you finish off the soup in silence. Once the full pot is full and gently cooking, you clean, while he hovers very close to your back. But he doesn’t touch you, nor kiss you again.

But once the kitchen is tidy, without warning, he grabs one of your wrists and lifts it to his mouth – your fingertips are still covered with ground coriander and the lingering scent of vegetables, garlic, and tomato purée.

He hesitates for a moment, before his tongue snakes out from between his fangs and curls around your little finger.

You tense, but you don’t pull away, too shocked to.

It’s the oddest sensation – his tongue feels exactly how it looks; gelatinous, of a soft, rubbery texture, and it’s disturbingly warm. This close, you can just faintly smell the magic used to summon it…

The appendage slowly, gently coils around your finger, then uncoils with the same, agonising slowness…then Rus moves on to your ring finger.

It feels…strange? It feel wet, and warm, and weird, like the magic that it’s made of is tingling, but at the same time…

Each soft, smooth caress of his tongue over your fingertips makes something stir deep in your belly and sends sharp shivers fizzling down your spine, but not the unpleasant kind; when the tip of his tongue tickles the skin between your fingers, warmth spreads from your neck to your face…

You don’t realise it, but your hand has turned ever so slightly, presenting your palm. Once he’s done with your fingers, Rus takes the silent invitation and smooths his tongue across the lines of your hand.

… You should stop this. You’re angry with him…

With a hum, Rus’s head dips lower and he strokes his fangs against your palm.

You should stop this – this feel far too intimate…

You can’t pull away.

With a soft chuckle, he raises his head.

“There,” he says in a low voice. “All clean.”

Your fingers are covered with slobber – this is the opposite of clean.

“If anyone ever tries to hurt you,” he breathes against your fingers, staring directly into your eyes. “I’ll kill them.”

The shiver that shakes you is not a pleasant one, this time.

“I’ll kill them,” he says in a dangerously soft voice. “I don’t care how many times I have to say it.”

And it’s then you can see the shadow of death in his eyes. A promise.

Then he drops your wrist, the shadow vanishes, and a smile stretches his jaw.

“Any cinnamon buns left?”

-

Sans doesn’t return for two days.

Rus didn’t seem particularly worried, but his gaze did often drift towards a nearby window or door and linger there for a disturbingly long time.

You’ve managed to resume your usual duties, feeling far stronger and clear headed than you did when Sans left for the border. You’ve also managed to convince Rus that you want to keep sleeping in your own room, just in case the fever comes back – you know it won’t, but you’ve grown used to sleeping in your own space. Hopefully, after a few more days, he won’t think to question it anymore.

With Sans absent, you joined Rus for dinner, sitting opposite him at the table.

“I won’t tell,” he’d promised you when you’d excused yourself to eat in the kitchen.

It was rather nice, eating with company. You had to prepare an entirely separate meal for yourself, but it wasn’t too much extra work – Rus doesn’t seem to care about the effort you put into preparing his meals, so simpler dishes are on the menu.

It’s the day Sans returns when you finally learn something of value about the incident at the eastern border.

You almost miss it, having slowly forgotten to regularly check the news for any updates since you’ve been so preoccupied with work – you happen to be in the kitchen when you hear the Napstaton news anchor utter the word border.

You drop the mop and dart into the living room, fumbling about for the remote to turn up the volume.

“…this decision to close off Ebott’s borders!” the news anchor is saying. “It is with a heavy heart that her gracious Majesty has chosen to do this, but with the record-breaking entries that have poured into her kingdom after the recent Day X, she is overwhelmed by the love and devotion that these new arrivals have brought her!

With the process of citizenship long and quite tiring, she must, with regret, halt the influx of arrivals in order to focus her full attention on the children that she has accepted into her arms! This year has seen record numbers of humans flock to Ebott’s borders, with an estimated four-point-five thousand applicants!

You gawk – that many? That can’t be right. Why on this earth would any human come to Ebott? But of course, the Ebott that the NTT Network presents to the world is a far cry from the Ebott that you live in…  

Still, the number must have been grossly inflated as part of the entire utopian façade the queen seems determined to keep up.

Compared to last year,” the news anchor continues in his robotic drone, “these numbers have increased by well over half! Close to thirty-five percent of applicants were in the twenty to forty-years-of-age range, another fifteen percent consisting of aged sixty or over, and an staggering forty-six percent were those aged eighteen and under!

Oh, God…Ebott is no place for children especially – it’s hard enough for adults to get by, and stray children have a tendency to go missing quickly.

Feeling a little dizzy, you collapse onto the nearest couch and listen to the rest of the report – there are mentions of the rough estimates of applicants from each border crossing, then of the queen and her endless reserves of love that nearly makes you vomit from the memory of how quickly that love fizzled out, and then of how it was mostly down to the dazzling performance provided by Napstaton for the many applicants.

And then it’s over. Napstaton quickly moves on to some report about a brand new range of hospitality venues he’s planning to fund out of the goodness of his metal heart.

You don’t have much to go on, since the report mostly boasted about last year’s numbers rather than why the borders were closing. And the only time the eastern border was mentioned was in reference to the number of humans that passed through…

However, you did notice that the numbers for the eastern border were smaller than others, save for the border in the north – hardly anyone seems to come through The Mountains, for some reason.

The only valuable nugget of information you’ve learned is that the borders have been closed again, and you can only assume that it had something to do with whatever occurred in the east. 

Your lack of knowledge is maddening. You return to your mopping to rid yourself of your restlessness and occupy your mind. However, for the rest of the afternoon, your traitorous feet walk you back to the living room to see if anything more is said…

The reports isn’t mentioned again.

You’re leaving the living room once more, irritated and confused, when Sans marches through the front door.

You freeze in the archway with a polishing cloth clutched to your chest. He doesn’t notice you at first, slamming the door shut and marching across the hall. He then pauses at the bottom of the stairs, whirls around, and locks eyes with you.

He looks terrible – he’s actually sweating, purple shadows darker than bruises hanging heavy beneath his sockets, and even his scarf is a little askew.

… Whatever happened at the eastern border, it couldn’t have just been humans trying to escape.

Sans squints at you, blinking several times, then he storms into his office, throwing the door shut behind him.

You’re barely given any time to process what just happened when warm metal floats along the breeze.

“M’lord home?” Rus grumbles from behind you.

You nod. “He looks…awful,” you say quietly, unable to tear your eyes from the office door.

“Yeah…” Rus loops an arm over your shoulders. “Maybe leave him to himself for a while.”

You look up at him – he looks tired, too. “B-but…I have to get dinner ready –”

Rus shakes his head. “He ain’t gonna want it. Trust me.”

After another quick glance towards the office, you say, “What happened at the border?”

Instead of answering, he steers you towards the stairs and ushers you up them. Once you’re in the darkness of his room, door securely closed, he switches on the light and regards you with a weary expression.

“I can’t talk about that,” he says. “Seriously.”

Which clearly means please don’t ask me.

Now you are certain that Sans had demanded silence of his brother – getting a straight answer out of Rus is going to be impossible.

You already know that the only other time the borders were shut was just a little over a year ago, and the queen was unhappy about re-opening them in the run up to Day X. More security was needed for this year’s performance, as well…

because of something that happened in Central.

The memory of the brothers briefly mentioning it at the dinner table, the night before the Day X celebrations, springs to the forefront of your mind.

Could the previously closed borders have had something to do with this mysterious Central incident?

“Okay,” you mumble, decided. “Okay…what happened in Central?”

Rus blinks. “I mean…lots of things happen in Central…”

“N-no,” you press. “I remember…before Day X, you mentioned that something happened there. Napstaton wanted more security, and you said because of what happened in Central. What did you mean?”

Rus chuckles, but it’s weak, and he rubs the back of his head. “Why?” He must be able to sense the scheming in your soul.

“Because…” You falter – will he tell you if you admit that your ignorance it eating away at you? He may not see it as a reasonable excuse.  

“Because…” you try anyway, “…I hate not knowing what’s going on out there. I don’t know anything…”

You wring your hands together and stare at the fibres of the carpet at your feet. “I was trapped for so long, and now…I still feel…cut off.”

That seems to affect Rus quite badly – he makes a strange noise that has you meeting his eyes, and they’re pained.

Perhaps it’s because you’ve just likened his house to that camp that’s upset him so – he must be mortified by the notion that his house is anything like that place filled with death and misery. But they only share one similarity; you’re surrounded by walls that let in no sound, no news, and your new guards are just as vague as your old ones.

“I just…” you continue, “…I feel like I’m going a bit crazy…” 

Rus’s face twists. “Kitten, don’t look at me like that,” he whines.

Like what? All you want to know is what happened!

Without thinking, you grasp his fingers. “Please, Rus…I can’t take this.”

He glances between your face and your hand, a faint colour coming to his cheekbones…

He’s blushing? Why? He’s done far more embarrassing things to you than simply holding your hand. He licked you from fingertip to palm just a few days ago…

Eventually, he sighs. “Fine.”

Before you can react, he’s twisted his hand in your grip so he’s taken a hold of your wrist, and he pulls you towards the mattress.

The world spins, and your back hits the sheets. Second’s later, Rus’s arms are around your middle, and his head is pillowed on your stomach.

“What –?” you gasp out, disorientated, but he cuts you off.

“S’fine if you figure it out on your own, I guess,” he mumbles against you. “During last year’s Day X party, some humans went to Central and blew half the crowd to dust.”

You weren’t sure what you were expecting, but the revelation is shocking.

Humans? Humans not only managed to get in to Ebott with weapons, but managed to stage a successful terrorist attack? Apparently without anyone knowing? 

Suddenly, so much seems to make sense; the borders re-opening, the extra security, the queen crying

“Oh, my God…” is all you can say.

Rus grumbles in assent. “Was live, too. We had to cut the feed, but some of it got out. We don’t talk about it, obviously, but it was pretty nasty shit. Monsters’ dust and humans’ limbs…fuckin’ everywhere.”

You’re reeling. Of course NTT News, with all its edits and heavily filtered propaganda, wouldn’t revisit such a terrible story. But…you remember last year’s performance. How could you have not heard at least the smallest whispers about it?

You attempt to think back to where you were on that day – you were definitely within range of a TV screen, if you can remember the segment of the show with the floating clones…

As if reading your mind, Rus says, “Everything was on lock-down in Central for a while. No one got in, no one got out. News was carefully monitored, any footage from Central was removed completely…”

It feels like it happened so long ago – you can’t quite remember.

“The actual performance was happenin’ in New Home,” Rus continues, “so everythin’ went on as normal. But the stage in Central was a mess…and no one knew about it.”

“So…what…how…?” You’re too stunned to speak.

“They blamed it on a gas explosion. All the injured went straight to Undyne…” Rus’s voice turns dark. “The queen was pretty set on makin’ sure no word of it got out. ‘Course, NTT kinda had to cover it, but it wasn’t given much time to be talked about. Gas pipe went boom, people died, and now, a word from out sponsor!”

Rus attempts a light-hearted tone, but it can’t quite mask the grimness lurking there.  

“Why?” you ask.

“Why what?”

A human resistance in Ebott would be a foolish thing – everywhere is watched by Napstaton, and the Royal Guard are meticulous in their patrols, thanks to Sans. Nothing can escape the queen with her arsenal of dedicated monsters working under her. The humans who orchestrated the attack on Central must have planned the entire thing beyond the Barrier, but…

“Humans…from outside of Ebott,” you say, more to yourself. “They don’t know what goes on here…do they?”

Rus lifts his head to scrutinise you. “Why’d you ask?”

Sans’s voice from a distant memory floats through your mind:

Some do

The humans who know of the Barrier and it’s restrictions are those who run that terrible camp. But Ebott is a big place…could it be possible that other humans know of it, too?

Could some rebel humans somehow know that the Barrier prevents escape? You can’t imagine that communication between Ebott and the outside world has been established for anyone not part of the queen’s inner circle. Either they are indeed unaware, and realise too late that they’re trapped; or they are somehow aware of the Barrier, and the attack on Central was a suicide mission.

You have to hold onto some hope that those terrible, awful, repulsive humans running that camp aren’t the only ones who know of the Barrier.

Your head hurts. “But –”

“No more,” Rus mutters. “Please. Sleep…”

His head drops back onto your stomach, and he’s silent.

“I…need to finish cleaning,” you mutter.

Somewhat reluctantly, Rus rolls far enough to allow you to crawl out from beneath him. Once you’re off the mattress, he flops back down onto it, and he’s asleep seconds later.

You sneak from the room and down the stairs, careful to remain as quiet as you can as you pass the office.

An attack on Central, expertly kept a secret by the monsters loyal to the queen…casualties involving monsters and humans…

Whatever the intention of the attack, it delivered a message from the rest of the world…the only message they could give the monsters, and the humans of Ebott:

We are not ignoring you. We are not powerless.

Which also leaves you wondering:

Did some humans attempt to blow up the eastern border?

-

It’s close to midnight already, and Sans has not once emerged from the office.

You should be in bed, but knowing that he’s still up a this time, and looking as exhausted as he did when he entered, you feel…worried? You had attempted to distract yourself with watching NTT News, then baking a fresh batch of Cinnamon Bunnies, but each time you caught glimpse of the firmly closed office door, that concern would rise up, and leave you feeling pretty morose. 

Having finally given in, you knock gently on the office door with a bowl of re-heated broth in hand.

No response.

… How odd. Did he go to bed, after all?

You open the door wide enough to peek through, and Sans is definitely in there, hunched over his desk, scribbling away at something with a pen in one hand, and massaging his skull with the other. The screen on his cell phone is going wild, flashing rapidly with incoming message after incoming message, but it appears to be muted – probably to prevent his headache from developing into a full blown migraine.

You could get into trouble for this, but you enter, closing the door behind you.

It’s when the door clicks shut that he acknowledges you.

“What do you want?” he snarls. “Can’t you see that I am busy?

“You haven’t eaten,” you say, head bowed. “I’ve brought you some–”

A loud bang has you looking up in fright – Sans has turned his chair half to face you, the hand he had been using to soothe his apparent headache clenched in a quivering fist, brought down on the desk with force.

“Do I look like I have time to eat whatever swill you’ve prepared?” he almost bellows. “Get out!

You tremble and lower your head once more, but gritting your teeth, you say, “I understand, but you need to eat.”

“What I need,” Sans hisses, “is for you to leave me in peace! Go and entertain my brother.”

That makes you angry. You lift your head, but Sans has turned back to his work, muttering, “The queen should have just kept the damn borders shut. I fucking told her…”

“You looked after me w-while I was sick,” you say, mentally cursing yourself for stumbling over your words.

Sans’s shoulders shake with barely suppressed rage.

“Let me look after you,” you finish in a whisper. “P-please…”

Sans throws his pen down, and puts his head in his hands. “Get…out.

The rejection stings, and the defeat is like a poison in your veins. You trundle into the kitchen, weary, and you sit at the island, miserably munching through a bowl of cereal while you wait for the broth to cool down.

Once you’re finished, you stand to clean your mess, and spot Sans lurking in the archway of the kitchen.

He looks ready to drop at any moment – if he’d looked exhausted during Day X, then right now, he looks like some kind of zombie.

“Give me that,” he says quietly, gesturing for the broth.

You’re quick to obey, passing him the bowl and fetching a clean spoon…but he doesn’t need it. He knocks back the entire bowl in one go, then does something you could have never imagined him ever doing – he wipes his mouth with the sleeve of his jacket, smearing the leather with gravy.

“Please sleep,” you say.

Sans glares at you, handing the bowl back to you. “You are annoyingly persistent. I have far too much work to do. But thank you for the meal.”

“I can do some of it,” you blurt. “I can organise it for you.”

“And mess it up? Like you did those addresses? Yes, I know about them!” he adds in a snarl when you flinch at the memory of your untidy scrawl on the envelopes.

“I’m sorry,” is all you can think of to say.

Sans sighs. “Messy though they were…it was your way of helping, I suppose. But I am afraid I cannot stop tonight. Things must be done.”

“I can sort them out in the morning?” you offer. “So you can get some rest.”

Sans opens his mouth to argue, then pauses. He hums thoughtfully, staring at you as if he is attempting to read your mind.

“Fine,” he finally says. “If you’re just going to keep pestering me about it. I will work through the night, and I trust you to get right to it first thing in the morning.”

You take it as a small victory, and you may have smiled, for colour rushes to Sans’s cheeks.

“What?” he spits.

“Nothing,” you say. “Thank you, sir.”

Sans grunts, the turns on his heel and disappears into his office, though he doesn’t slam it as aggressively as he usually does.

-

You may, in fact, be going a little crazy.

It’s after organising all of the paperwork that you can really feel the cabin fever developing. That morning, Sans had passed you on the stairs as you were making your way to the kitchen to fetch him a coffee, muttering make sure you’re thorough, before disappearing into his room.

And you were – that meant reading almost each and every one of the papers, and it confirmed a few suspicions you had.

Some of the papers were invoices and delivery forms to Grillby, the mysterious arms dealer in the north, detailing a large shipment of human weapons from the east and demanding payment for them; some were to another source in The Plains requesting materials for repairs, along with the same to Undyne in The Lake; some to New Home requesting a few more patrols for a certain amount of time; a couple to the Captain of the Royal Guard herself, the terrifying Alphys, requesting the transfer of a few extra elite guards…

There was nothing that detailed the incident – those that did may have already been taken care of and sent off – but you have enough pieces of the puzzle to put together some coherent picture.

Human weapons seized, repairs required, and more patrols requested. All of this you mull over while you vacuum the living room.

You’re certain that the eastern border was attacked.

Was this attack a long time coming? You recall, before your fever hit, the moment when Sans pinned your soul with his magic, demanding answers from you. There may have been rumours floating about at the time…maybe even threats made to the queen that aroused his suspicions.       

Confirmation would be nice, but you know that he will refuse to tell you – especially after that outburst – and Rus is gagged by his brother’s orders. But after learning about the infamous incident in Central, the result is quite obvious.

So the brothers weren’t out there killing humans. The humans were…

The attack on Central has obliterated both monsters and humans alike. How many humans trying to get into Ebott were blown to pieces by their own kind?

You realise you’ve stopped vacuuming, and you’re tracing the scar down your face. Shaking yourself, you return to work.

Moments later, there comes the sharp clicking of boots descending the stairs, and Sans stops in the archway to the entrance hall.

He looks slightly better than he did only a few hours ago, but that’s only because he’s changed clothes; his jacket is immaculate, and his scarf is neatly positioned around his neck. The exhaustion is still evident on his face. 

Perhaps you woke him with all your vacuuming – you immediately switch it off. “I’m sor –”

“Have you done as I asked?” Sans interrupts you.

“Y-yes, sir…”

“Where is the mongrel?”

“Out delivering them, sir.”

“Good.” And with that, Sans turns on his heel and stalks to his office.

You dart into the kitchen only to check the time – Sans has barely slept for six hours. You could attempt to convince him to take more time to rest, but you will probably be met with a door to the face.

Knowing that any further persuasions are only going to be ignored, you continue your duties as normal.

But Sans doesn’t emerge for dinner.

You’re hovering in the dining room, debating on whether or not to knock on the office door, or just dispose of what you’ve cooked and heat up a dish you had prepared they other day when Rus walks in.

He inhales deeply. “Smells good, Kitten. What’s up?”

“It’s your brother,” you admit.

“What about m’lord?” Rus asks blithely. “He looked fine after he slept.”

 “Well…you’re both probably really tired…”

“Aw, look at you,” he coos, diverting from his path towards his seat to pat you on the head. “Worryin’ about us.”

You take the petting with dignity now that you believe that he was telling you the truth, when he’d assured you that he hadn’t killed a single human at the border. You can allow him this, by way of apology.

“Are you hungry?” you ask.

“Always for your cooking,” Rus says with a chuckle, and he takes his seat. He gestures to the other side of the table. “You wanna eat, too?”

There’s a Tupperware container of pasta drenched in a creamy sauce you couldn’t finish the other day that needs to be eaten soon. “Won’t Sans get angry?”

“If he does,” Rus says with his mouth full of rice and vegetables, “I’ll take the heat for you. But you’ll owe me.”

Once you’ve warmed up your pasta and returned to the table, Rus has already finished his main course.

“Dessert now?” he asks with mischief in his eyes.

“Can…can I eat, first?”

Rus exaggerates a sigh. “I guess…”

You know he’s joking, but feeling as weary as you are, it irks you a little. You’re still badly behind on sleep thanks to the night of the border incident, and the night before, when you were up worrying about Sans.  

You take your place opposite Rus, and he watches you eat with mild fascination.

It makes you a little uncomfortable – are you getting food lodged in your teeth? Or have you smeared sauce all over your face? “Are you okay?”

Rus nods. “I like lookin’ at you. S’at alright?”

“I…yes?”

“You keep lookin’ at the door, though.”

You hadn’t noticed – you’re half-expecting Sans to strut in at any moment, demanding sustenance. “I’m sor–” You clear your throat. “I didn’t realise.”

You fall into silence again, focusing on eating. When the Tupperware box is empty, you say, “Will your brother be okay?”

Rus chuckles. “Fuck, you’re cute. Yeah, he’ll be fine.”

You’re cute for asking about Sans? That doesn’t make much sense.

Rus then very suddenly leans forwards, fixing you with an intense look. “Can you sleep with me, tonight?” he asks in a low voice.

Heat rushes to your cheeks. “W-Why?”

Rus’s smile is sheepish. “’Cause I miss you. I miss cuddlin’ you.”

You stare hard at the Tupperware box. “I…might still be…sick…”

Rus snorts. “I know you ain’t. But…ah, fuck it. I really miss you. Just…one night? Please?”

Should you? You’ve become quite comfortable sleeping on your own.

“I’m not sure,” you say carefully. “Sans might get upset.”

“Hmm…maybe.”

The following silence is awkward. You’re caught between keeping your eyes on the Tupperware and daring a glance at Rus’s expression. You haven’t had a nightmare since that awful fever, and you’re a little concerned that if you start sharing Rus’s mattress again, you may end up relying on his presence to keep the nightmares at bay, and they will come back when you’re alone once more.

“Why do you want me to sleep with you?” you ask.

There’s the scritch-scritch of his fingers scratching at his skull. “I dunno. When you’re there, it…distracts me.”

You’re not sure if you want to know the answer to that, but you ask anyway. “From what?”

“From thinkin’ too much…”

Your heart lurches – he sounds a little frightened. You look up at him, and there’s a deep colour on his cheekbones. Is he embarrassed to have admitted that?

You presence distracts him from thinking about what, exactly? His guilt? Whatever carnage he must have seen at the border? Or something else?

“One night,” you say.

Rus perks up and meets your eyes, expression hopeful. “Yeah?”

“Yes. One night. If it helps…”

Rus sighs with relief. “Oh, Kitten…it’ll help plenty.”  

Then he’s gone, vanished into the cold Void, and leaping straight back out of it behind your chair, wrapping his arms around your shoulders and burying his face into your hair.

He doesn’t say another word, and covers your neck with his toothy kisses. He lingers around the scarred piece of skin where the screws of your collar bit into your throat, and caresses the scars with his fangs almost lovingly.

This seems like a bit of an overreaction. You shift in your chair, but Rus doesn’t relent.

“I need to clean,” you tell him.

He responds by pressing a kiss to the sensitive hollow underneath your ear, making you shiver involuntarily.

“Hurry up,” he says in a husky rasp, and he releases you.

He’s that excited just to cuddle you?

While you clean up the kitchen, he hovers close by. Compared to his kisses in the dining room, his touches are rather chaste – he plays with a curl of your hair while you wash up the pots and dishes; he keeps his body close as you patter about the kitchen, putting everything back in its rightful place; he grows bolder while you wait for Sans’s broth to heat up on the stove, combing his fingers through your hair and kneading your scalp.

It’s still a little irritating, but he doesn’t get in your way, moving just at the right time, stepping back when you need space…

“Fuck, I love watching you work,” he says with a huge smile.

You’ve noticed that he’s been swearing a lot lately – you’ve only known him to swear when he’s stressed.   

“Why?” you ask.

“Hmm?” Rus appears to be distracted by another lock of your hair.

“Why do you like watching me work?”

Rus shrugs. “It makes you look more…alive, I guess?”

You can’t think of anything to say in response, so you busy yourself with traying up Sans’s dinner.

He parts with you outside the office, breathing into your ear, “Don’t be long.”

It’s as if he’s anticipating something…more intense than what you’re expecting.

“We’re…just cuddling?” you ask in a whisper. “Right?”

“Yep.” Rus beams. “And I can’t wait.”

What a strange thing to be excited about. He’s been acting quite affectionate ever since your fever broke.

No…it’s been longer than that…ever since your panic attack in the closet…

Once he’s up the stairs and you’ve managed to steady your racing heartbeat, you face the office door.

You enter when Sans doesn’t answer your second knock – he’s deeply submerged in the mountain of paperwork he still has to complete. You thought you’d helped him a great deal this morning, but it seems that you’d barely scratched the surface.

Did he really take that small break to rest just to make you feel better?

“I’ve brought you dinner, sir,” you say quietly.

He doesn’t acknowledge you, so you place the tray of food on a nearby surface.

“I’ll leave it here for you…” you add. “Um…so you can help yourself when you want.”

That gets his attention – he glares at you over his shoulder, but his attention is soon back on whatever he’s scribbling at on his desk.

“Thank you,” is all he says, but it elicits a pleasant warmth in your chest.

Making your way to Rus’s bedroom, you happen to catch a glimpse of the flashing TV screen as you reach the bottom of the stairs.

It’s showing the usual address from the queen, but it hasn’t been muted, and her words float along the air and reach your ears, drawing you away from the stairs and into the living room to listen.

…understand my reasoning. I would not do this if I did not love you.

You don’t recognise this address – it’s brand new.

The queen sits in her usual throne, a golden, ruby-studded diadem encircling her head, curling gracefully around the little horns protruding from her forehead. She looks as regal as ever…

But there is a sadness in her clouded eyes, and a puffiness that her make-up can’t quite cover. Though dressed in her crimson gown with golden embroidery, she looks as though she’s in mourning.

It is with regret,” the queen says, looking directly at the camera, as she always does, “that I must close my borders to you once again. I am greatly overwhelmed by your love, and must take the time to welcome each and every one of you.

But know this, my children… I am your friend, your guardian, and no harm with come to you as long as you hold love in your heart for me. In return, you have my unwavering devotion. The world is a dangerous, cruel place, but do not despair. I am here, and I will keep you safe. I will save you all…

And it ends with the dreary blare of trumpets, leaving you feeling sick to your stomach.

-

You had thought that by figuring out what happened at the eastern border, your curiosity would have been sated for at least a little while. But the stifling, itching cabin fever is only getting worse.

You need to get out of the house.

Sans’s mood gradually improves as the week progresses, to the point where it could be considered that he is back to normal. However, he always seems to be on edge. His shoulders are constantly tense, and he snaps at you and his brother far more frequently than usual.

Rus happily ignores it. You try to follow his example, shrugging Sans’s biting remarks off, but they leave you feeling a little bitter.

Rus seems to have calmed down, too, especially since you had – apparently – offered to cuddle with him for at least one night a week.

You had assumed that that one night of cuddling would be a one-time occurrence. According to him, it’s not; after that first night, he had thanked you profusely, then gleefully told you that he couldn’t wait to cuddle with you again. Not that it’s a problem – the nightmares have not come back like you had feared, so you don’t mind cuddling with him every now and then.

Sans doesn’t appear to care about your increasing restlessness, but Rus does.

He doesn’t comment on it, nor give you any indication that it’s bothering him aside from the occasional raised brow and curious glance in your direction, but you know that he can feel it in your soul – or maybe it’s written all over your face.

You try not to think about it too much, about what happened at the eastern border, nor about just how much of Ebott you miss. You don’t even know what Central looks like, anymore. You can remember parts of it, the dreary outskirts where That Girl lived, but how different could the cities be, now? Especially after that explosion? 

What does New Home look like?

You fitfully gnaw at your bottom lip as you scrub the brothers’ dinner plates, jittery and feeling as though something is trying to burst from your chest. You feel like some kind of caged bird, and somehow, it’s worse than being stuck in a windowless cell.

You can see the outside world through the bars of your cage – you can even hear it. But you can’t get to it.

The dishes are only half done, but you’re far too agitated to continue. You dump your current plate into the sink and storm out through the back door, onto the deck.

You take a moment to inspect your surroundings – the nights are getting colder and colder, even bringing with them a deep frost from time to time, but you don’t care much for the temperature. The garden is shielded by the night, the clouds heavy and concealing the moonlight.

You’re practically invisible.

You run the length of the garden, then back towards the house…then back to the end of the lawn. And you keep running…keep running until the air is painful to breathe, cold and piercing, and your legs are burning.

But you just can’t stop. When you are too tired to run, you pace around on the deck instead, wringing your hands together and sucking at your bottom lip. 

When the chill of the night seeps deep into your very bones, you enter the house and walk about the rooms to warm up, then you’re back out on the deck again, pacing, pacing, pacing…

It’s only a week after the eastern border debacle, and you’re close to your breaking point.

You eventually give up on your wandering, concerned that your flitting in and out of the house will disturb the brothers, and crawl into bed, feeling not dissimilar to a ticking time bomb.

It’s when you wake the next morning that you decide to do something about it. Waking in that bed in pitch blackness, to the same ceiling, the same room, the same house, the same routine, the same, the same, the same

You perch on the edge of the bed for a moment, taking deep breaths to clear your head, to calm the frantic pulse of your stifled soul.

You are so familiar with this feeling – waking up to the same walls, the same ceiling, the same damp, earthy smell…and knowing what the day would bring…

It had pushed you over the edge, unleashing itself in a torrent of screams and flailing, which resulted in the collar.

Will this madness end with another collar clamped around your throat?

The brothers wouldn’t do that to you. They had promised you, time and again, that you were safe with them.

And you had promised yourself that you wouldn’t be afraid anymore.

Is there really any harm in asking?

Trembling, you dress and descend the stairs, finding Sans in his usual chair in the living room with a crossword in his lap and an empty mug dangling from his fingers, instead of the office.

“Good morning, sir,” you say, which he returns with a grunt.

If he’s not at his desk, then all work concerning the attack at the eastern border must have finally come to an end. He still looks as sour as ever, but more awake that he has done in days.

You haven’t managed to control your shaking by the time a fresh coffee is brewed. Sans notices when you bring it to him, eyeing the rim of the mug, wary of a potential spillage.

“What’s the matter with you this morning?” he asks with distain.

You hand him the boiling coffee and take his empty mug. “Could…I ask you something, sir?”

Sans chooses to take a long sip of coffee, then study his current crossword instead of answering right away, only serving to send your nerves crackling like wild electrical wires.

You notice that your knuckles are white, gripping the mug for dear life. It is quite an extreme question, given that Sans is constantly paranoid that you’re exposure will lead to a terrible punishment for him and his brother…and you…

“Fine,” Sans finally says. “What is it? Make it quick.”

… How are you going to ask him? Will he get angry?

You need to calm down – the worst thing he can say is no, right?

“I was wondering,” you say, “if I could leave the house. For a while…”

Sans’s head snaps up, and his glare is like the strike of white-hot pokers through your chest.

“Never mind!” you squeak, and you lower your gaze. “Never mind…”

Yes, it was a foolish thing to ask. You know the risks, and Sans wouldn’t dream of threatening the safety of his only family. His poor younger brother…

“Why?” he asks coldly.

You fight the urge to meet his eyes. “Sir?”

“Why do you want to leave this house?”

Is this a positive reaction? He hasn’t outright refused you – does the fact that he wants to know why mean that he would consider it? Given that your reasons are sensible and realistic?

“Um…I’m getting a bit…” You search for the right word. “Agitated?”

Sans grumbles. “And why is that?”

You could admit that it was the border incident that set off this sudden cabin fever, but perhaps bringing it up would arouse Sans’s suspicions. He may suspect foul play on your part, convince himself that you’re a spy, or something asinine like that.

“I just…need to get out of the house,” you say. “Just for an hour. Anywhere. I feel trapped. And…I know that it’s dangerous for me out there…” You peek at him, and he’s watching you with a startling intensity that feels like a laser burning right through you.

“I just need a change of scenery for a while,” you add. “I’ve spent too long in the same place…”

Sans scrutinises you for a moment longer, searching your eyes, then the whiteness of your knuckles around the empty mug – his stare seems to linger there for quite some time.

Then he sighs loudly. “I have no time for this. Ask the mongrel.”

… That’s not a refusal? It didn’t sound like one. “Sir?”

“Did you not hear me?” he snaps. “Go and spout your complaints to my brother. I’m sure he will have much more fun dealing with your woes.”

He downs the rest of his coffee and angrily folds his paper shut, then storms from the room with the faintest trace of his magic buzzing about him, irked.  

Ask his brother? But…he didn’t say no.

You replay his exact phrasing in your mind several times; Sans is one to tell you how he feel in as little words as possible, and will never resort to vague sentences with hidden meanings when he would much rather tell you outright.

So there was definitely no refusal. But…he didn’t say yes, either… 

Your question must have really thrown him. Especially if he’s referring you to his brother.

-

You’d spent the entire day trying to figure out an appropriate way to approach the situation with Rus.

Sans had given no indication that your request had been troubling him as much as it had you during dinner – he’d eaten mostly in silence, snapping at Rus every now and then, but didn’t once mention what you had asked him that morning.

You had contemplated asking Rus there and then, with Sans nearby to interject whenever he so pleased, but you had the nagging feeling that putting Rus on the spot like that would stress him out. If Sans had happened to change his mind during the afternoon, and didn’t want you galivanting off across Ebott, Rus would be torn between granting your wishes, and adhering to his brother’s rules.

… But Rus would choose Sans, there’s no question about that. So perhaps asking him in the privacy of his room would be wiser.

But you didn’t ask him that night, even though you’d joined him on his mattress for the sole purpose of asking him.

You wake with your face buried into his painfully hard chest, his arms around your shoulders a tight cage that prevents escape.

You prepare to wrestle your way out of his arms, until you remember that today is your day off – and Rus seems to know that, too, with how solid his embrace is.

You’re going to ask him. Today. Now.

“Rus?” You gently poke him in the ribs when he doesn’t answer.

He snorts into your hair. “Careful,” he rasps. “’M ticklish.”

You push at him to roll off of you, and he complies, stretching out onto his back. You make yourself as comfortable as you can in his lap, with his pelvis being as pokey as it is. You can’t see his expression in the darkness, but you can sense a rather smug aura about him.

“Can you turn on a light?” you ask. 

“Hmm…nah…”

You choke on a tiny squeak when his fingers dance along your thigh.

“S’more fun this way,” he says with a chuckle.

“I need to ask you something,” you say, grasping his wandering fingers. “It’s important.”

“’Kay, What’s up?”

You wish there was some light, enough so you can see his expression. You take a deep breath and say, “I was wondering if I could go somewhere. Like…out of the house.”

There’s silence from Rus. He doesn’t pull his fingers from your grip, and he’s very still beneath you. You need to see his face, but the darkness is too thick. 

“Rus?” you venture.

That seems to break whatever stupor he fell into. He makes a strange noise, and then comes the sound of his bony fingertips scratching against his skull.

“Sans said I could ask you,” you quickly add.

That gets a laugh out of him. “What a surprise.”

“Do you know why?”

“Hang on…”

You catch a faint whiff of rust, and light explodes all around you. With a shout, you squeeze your eyes shut.

“Heh…sorry,” Rus says.

“No, you’re not,” you retort, gingerly opening your eyes, adjusting to the brightness of the overhead light.

To your relief, Rus looks mostly at ease, one arm thrown behind his head, the other still trapped within the curl of your fingers. His Lazy Boy hoodie had ridden up his body, exposing his spine and a few scar-covered ribs. Your eyes are automatically glued to them.

“I get around a bit.” Rus draws your attention from his old wounds. “M’lord doesn’t know Ebott like I do.”

“He doesn’t?” That doesn’t sound like Sans.

“Oh, make no mistake, m’lord knows enough about Ebott. But he doesn’t know it.”

“So…you would know of a safe place?” you ask, hope fluttering within your chest.

Rus chuckles. “Uhh…I’d know of a place where you’d be okay to go to,” he says after some thought.

“Okay,” you say, leaning forwards slightly, excitement sending your blood racing. “Where?”

“Hell, calm down, Kitten.” Rus pulls his fingers free from your grip and reaching up to playfully tug on a stray curl of your hair. “Listen, okay? I can…probably dump you somewhere for an hour or something. Like…there’s an old park not far from here –”

“Or by the lake?” you ask.

The edge of Rus’s mouth quirks. “Yeah, I guess.”

“Or…in the old farmlands?”

“Sure.”

“Or by those train tracks in the hills where –” Wait…dump you? “You wouldn’t come with me?”

Rus’s smile drops, and his fingers in your hair still. “Uh…no.”

Your stomach clenches – you’ll be alone? “W-why?”

“’Cause…well…everywhere is watched. And if anyone saw me with you…”

… Of course, he would get into serious trouble. “But…would anyone even know? I could be…just some stranger.”

Rus hums thoughtfully. “You’d want to be alone?”

You almost say yes in desperation, but when the thought of you being left somewhere in Ebott, all by yourself, makes every muscle tense and your skin go cold.

In the house, you know you are safe, even with the brothers gone. But braving the world without their presence sounds…

If you honestly felt brave enough to dare facing this new, unfamiliar Ebott all by yourself, then you would have walked out of that door on your first day. You don’t even know what Ebott is like, anymore. And with the rise in human resistance, blowing up anyone in their path, monsters and humans included…

“No,” you say firmly. “No…I wouldn’t.”

You wouldn’t be able to relax, knowing that a monster…or a human…could stumble upon you and do…anything they wanted to you…

“Sorry,” you mumble. “No…”

Rus sighs softly. “Yeah…I wouldn’t like that, either.”

“Is that stupid of me?” you ask.

Rus frowns. “What? That you don’t wanna be by yourself? Why’s that stupid?”

You shrug – That Girl has never minded walking the streets of Ebott alone. In fact, she’d rather preferred it. It’s infuriating how the very thought terrifies you.  

“I just…that thing you told me,” you say. “About Central…”

Rus tenses. “Uh-huh?”

“I’m a little scared of someone finding me and…”

“Humans, huh?” Rus says faintly.

You shrug again. You’ve experienced a human’s cruelty first hand. You have yet to endure a monster’s, and you really don’t want to find out the extent of their depravity.

“Right.” Rus releases your hair and trails his fingers along the line of your jaw, then over the scars circling your neck. “I…can’t help you there, Kitten.”

The disappointment makes you feel sick. “Really? I can’t go anywhere?”

Rus’s brows knit together in a grim expression. “Not with me. Or m’lord.”

“Why?” you ask again, gripping the hem of his sweater.

“Well, because –”

“No, I know you’d get in trouble,” you interrupt him. “Just…is there really nowhere? Ebott’s…a big place, right?”

Rus’s smile becomes dark. “Yeah, and it’s watched. I’m talkin’ like eyes in every wall, every rock, every tree…”

That sounds very unrealistic. You already know that, with his always-awake arsenal of clones and his magic, Napstaton can, indeed, monitor Ebott far more efficiently than humans ever could, but he has to be exaggerating.

“Heh…what’s that look for?” Rus lightly scratches that sensitive dip beneath your ear and you flinch.

“I don’t really believe you,” you say bluntly, batting his hand away.

Rus sucks in a gasp between his teeth. “Ouch, you doubt me so? I’m hurt…”

Impatience is like an angry swarm of bees buzzing about your brain. “Rus, please.”  

“Okay, so…think of the weirdest place you could put a camera…” He clicks his fingers. “…guaranteed there’s a camera there.”

“A bush?” you guess.

Rus nods. “Camera.”

Honestly, it sounds ridiculous, but Rus’s eyes are so serious… “A…rock?”

“Camera.”

“A cornfield?”

“Little tiny corn cameras.”

“A…waterfall?” No sane person would put an electronic device near water.

Rus’s jaw twitches. “Waterproof camera.”

“The sky.”

“Cameras taped to bird asses.”

Your brows knit together. “You’re…joking, aren’t you?”

“Hmm, I can see why you would think that.” Rus chuckles. “But no. I really ain’t joking. And every single one is hooked up to some Napstaton double somewhere. Feeds right back to the mainframe himself. Undyne likes to dip in from time to time.” He rasps a laugh. “For someone as busy as she is, she’s got a lot of time to just…people watch.”

That…sounds terrifying. You do remember seeing an invoice addressed to Undyne, around the time of the recent Day X, asking for more security cameras. Was she responsible for this sudden onslaught of obscurely hidden cameras that Rus is suggesting?

“Is it really that bad?” you ask.

Rus rolls his eyes. “I mean…I don’t talk to Blooky as much as I used to. He’s hard to stomach, and that’s comin’ from a guy who doesn’t have one.”

You glance down at his spine. “You always seem to be hungry, though.”

Rus gently pinches your cheek. “Touché. But Napstaton knows all. And I don’t just mean the cameras…I mean every phone call, every text message, every email, every video chat…and if any one of his clones spots somethin’ out of the ordinary, the big guy knows about it in nanoseconds.”

You swallow. “And Undyne?”

Rus waves his hand. “We’re buds, so she likes to keep tabs on me.”

“That…sounds bad,” you point out.

“She’s a busy girl. She doesn’t get to see me all the time, so she likes to watch me and pretend.”

A terrible sensation similar to the feeling of eyes on your back makes you shudder. You glance about the room. If Undyne keeps tabs on him, then could she have bugged his house?

Rus seems to read your mind. “Kitten, if Undyne had rigged the place, A, I would know about it, and B, you wouldn’t be here right now.”

You swallow around a cold lump forming in your throat. “So…there’s really nowhere? Nowhere we can go?”

Rus thinks for a moment, then with a soft groan of what you hope isn’t dismay, he pushes himself up with one arm and looks you in the eye, deadly serious.

“I guess I could take you somewhere,” he says, one hand coming up to tug at the neck of your sweater. “But I don’t think you’re gonna like it.”

But it’s somewhere, and it’s away from this house, at least. “Why?”

“You remember what I said about Muffet? She’s head of this huge chain of food businesses.”

Ah, yes…the monster who made all of those wonderful doughnuts. Didn’t Rus mention that he was friends with her? That could be considered a good sign.

“So…she has this place where humans are safe,” Rus continues. “Y’know, ‘cause she loves humans, and all.”  

In your excitement, you blurt, “And we can go there? And…Muffet won’t tell anyone?”

Rus laughs nervously. “Uh…well, not if we’re together. But…there’s something you should know about this place. First of all, it’s a…bar.”

The excitement evaporates in an instant. A bar? You’d made a point of avoiding bars in the early years of monster rule.

“And…” Rus speaks slowly, wary of your reactions. “…it’s a place where humans and monsters can kinda…hang out? It’s a safe space, y’know?”

A safe space where humans can mingle with monsters. That doesn’t sound terrible – the only red flag at the moment is the fact that it’s a bar, and bars – especially monster-run bars – usually equal bad news…

“So it wouldn’t be weird if people saw you and me there together,” Rus adds. “Uh, but…there is one more thing…”

His nervousness is making you uneasy. “Please just tell me,” you say weakly.

“I said that monsters go there to…hang out with humans. And by hang out, I meant…get friendly.”

You’re feeling a little nauseous. “Don’t tell me that’s what I think it means…”

“Heh…yeah. But it’s not…like…shit, how can I explain this?”

You shake your head. “Please, don’t. I don’t want to go.”

Rus frowns. “Kitten –”

“No,” you cut in. “I don’t want to go there.”

He relaxes. “Okay. We won’t go.”

Hell, why did you think that it would be so easy to find a normal, calm place where you could just feel the wind in your hair, on your skin, and sit under the wide, open sky, where you could be free for just a few hours? Is you only option really some kind of…monster brothel?  

“Why…why is that the only place?” you ask desperately.

“I think you really underestimate just how much Napstaton sees,” Rus replies bitterly. “It’s a wonder that he can function with how much energy he needs to play the ultimate spy and superstar combo.”

Something in your expression must have irked him, because he says, a little impatiently, “Look, Kitten, when we got here, you humans had already done half the job for us with all your cameras.”

You don’t doubt him at all. The towns and cities of Ebott had been experimenting with increased CCTV not long before the Barrier went down – within weeks, every one of those cameras was suddenly linked to Napstaton and his army of clones.

Rus shrugs. “Didn’t take long for us to hack into the system…”

You mean for you to hack into the system, you want to say, but you wouldn’t dare.

“…all Undyne needed to do was bug out the residential areas. No one can get away with anythin’ anymore without Napstaton, or Undyne knowing. The only places that ain’t bugged are her place in The Lake, Napstaton’s place, but he pretty much is the system, anyway… Alphys’s place…though…” Rus rasps a laugh, “…wouldn’t be surprised if Undyne had hacked into her webcam, or somethin’. The queen’s residence ain’t bugged, either. And this street is camera free, but that’s only ‘cause we live here.

“Anyone close to the queen is left alone. For the most part.”

Rus shrugs again. “I know Muffet personally, and that bar of hers is usually her favourite place to hang about, ‘cause that’s where most of her money comes from. She won’t think it’s strange if I rock up there with you under my arm. I’m a regular, too. Practically a VIM, so I got a room with my name on it.”

VIM?” you echo.

Very Important Monster.”

“So…do you go there a lot?”

A light colour blooms on Rus’s cheeks, and he locks his gaze on your sweater, on the loose wool he’s worrying between his fingers.

“Every now and then,” he says. “Muffet gets suspicious if I don’t.”

How odd. “Because…you like humans?”

Rus laughs, but he sounds embarrassed. “Did m’lord tell you that? You make it sound like I have a problem.”

“I…don’t get it,” you say. “Humans are…” Awful, spiteful, soulless

His smile drops. He runs his fingers along the scars on your throat once more, tracing each scratch left behind by your fingers, then he cups your jaw so, so gently.

“Some of you are okay,” he says. “And you’re my Big Favourite.”

Your face heats – he makes it sound like some kind of badge of honour. “Wh-what do you –?”

You’re interrupted by a loud, mechanical ringing blasting from the computer. You didn’t realise that it had been left on overnight – Rus must be working on something important.

At the sound, his face hardens. “Shit. Better scram, Kitten.”

Your stomach turns. “Why?”

“’S Undyne callin’. Ahh, fuck, now I gotta find my web-cam…”

You leap up, and Rus follows you, stretching as he makes his way over to his buzzing computer – there’re a large window with a moving picture of a ringing telephone open on the screen, the name UNDYNE flashing beneath it, and the options ANSWER and DECLINE.

“What does she want?” you ask, skin cold.

“Dunno,” Rus replies as he rummages through one of the drawers in his desk. “We haven’t got a project on, or anything.”

“Does…could she know about me?” you ask, throat dry. Could there have been cameras at the camp? Rus hadn’t mentioned anything about that place…

“She would’ve said somethin’ by now,” Rus says distractedly.

You relax – if anyone had seen him saving you from that camp, you’re certain that something would have happened long before now.

Technically, that place doesn’t exist…

Before he moves on from his desk, Rus hits the spacebar on his keyboard. “Hey, sweetums.” He then fixes you with a hard stare and puts a finger to his teeth.

“Morning, skele-bae,” comes a low, nasally, but distinctly female voice from the small computer speakers.

You glance at the computer screen and duck – a face has appeared where the ringing phone used to be. A big, blue face with impossibly wide, amber eyes, and a jaw full of jagged, yellowing fangs covered in what appears to be…several sets of braces?  

“Wait…” the face says, squinting her giant eyes. “I can’t see you.”

She adjusts something resting where her nose would be where she human…then you realise that her eyes look so big because they have been magnified by the circular glasses hooked over her ears.

Wait…her fins.

And the name Undyne makes sense; Undyne is a fish.

She looks quite scary from this angle – her face is covered with gleaming sapphire-coloured scales, and an untidy bun of blood-red hair is escaping from a thick rubber band. Her teeth look very like a shark’s jaws, with rows and rows of fangs fighting for space on her black gums. The braces – the shocking number of them screwed into her mouth – are doing absolutely nothing to properly align them.

Undyne taps at something below her, out of frame of the screen. “I-I can fix this!”

“’S me, Dina,” Rus calls, searching through his chest of drawers. “Gotta plug in my web-cam.”

“Didn’t I tell you to keep it plugged in?” Undyne scolds. “It’s waaay easier!”

“Heh, so you can tune in to the Papyrus Variety Hour?” Rus retorts. “Nah…I’m the one who gets paid to do the hackin’.”

Undyne laughs nervously. “I only d-did that once, y-you know? Are…fuhuhu…are you mad? I, uh…still can’t see you…”

“Gimme a sec, okay? I just got up.”

Undyne scoffs. “I woke you up, I’ll bet!”

You release a small gasp of relief – she can’t see you. But you really should be going…

Slowly, you creep towards the door. Rus notices your retreat and flashes you a thumbs up.

“Uh-huh,” he continues. “You got me. So what’s so important that you gotta disturb my beauty sleep?”

“Oh, my God, Pappy, you’re not gonna believe it!” Undyne hollers, a disturbing, wide smile splitting her face. “Fuhuh…I, uh…could, um…g-get into so much trouble! Fuhuh…fuhuhuhu… B-but I…I just had to tell you!”    

“Sweetums, your crazy is showing,” is the last thing you hear Rus say before you close his bedroom door.

Taking a moment to calm your racing heart, you descend the stairs, forgoing a showing in favour of seeing to your empty stomach. You stick your head into the living room to find it empty, with the TV, as always, on, but muted. NTT News seems to be the favourite channel in this house…

While munching through several bowls of cereal, you make your obligatory dinner list and meticulously search the kitchen for the ingredients. Once done, you make your way back to the living room to give yourself a break…

Only to find that during your breakfast, Sans has left his office and is now occupying his usual chair with a mug of coffee in one hand and a newspaper in his lap.

It’s quite late in the morning. He should be well into his paperwork by now – is he taking a break?

“G-good morning,” you squeak.

“Good morning,” Sans grunts without looking up. 

You tentatively back away – you can always hole yourself up in the library instead.

But you pause. Constantly running away from Sans isn’t going to improve your relationship with him.

You steel yourself and walk back into the room. “Can I join you, sir?”

Sans glances up at you. “I assume that you have done all that you needed to do this morning.”

“Yes, sir.”

He studies you with narrowed eyes, then mutters, “Fine. If you must.”

With a shaky bow, you take a seat on the edge of the sofa, as far away from him as possible. You spot the remote on the mantlepiece, then you glance at Sans.

“Can I change the channel?” you ask – when That Girl was forced to purchase an NTT Brand television set, it had only ever had three channels. You’re curious to see what else there could possibly be to watch…and you’re getting a little sick of NTT News.

“I don’t care,” Sans grunts. “As long as it’s muted.”

You can happily comply with that request.

After retrieving the remote and returning to your place, you flick through the channels with renewed interest – there are so many, you’re in awe – which very quickly morphs into regret.

As you should have expected, every single channel features Napstaton in some form. There’s a channel dedicated to his singles, featuring music videos of Napstaton EX strutting about, waving his many arms, and maintaining intense eye contact with the camera the entire time; there are re-runs of his movies – the current movie playing is one you remember; Life Of A Robot Superstar, Part IV – which consist of him reclining on a red, leather divan as rose petals float upon him from above.

These channels, you recognise. You keep searching through various NTT Infomercials, NTT Weather Reports, and eventually find a programme dedicated to him reading through his own books – Reading With A Killer Robot – with accompanying performances by miniature models of his clones…

And…a human.

And you realise why the brothers only ever have the TV switched to NTT News.

The poor boy can’t be older than fifteen, and he’s curled up on the small stage, shaking terribly. He looks awful; skinny, malnourished, but he’s covered with so much make-up that it’s hard to tell if he’s pale with sickness, or fear. His thin ankle is trapped in a tight shackle, chained to the stage so he cannot flee…

The Napstaton clone recites the next passage, but you can’t hear them. However, the programme has conveniently provided subtitles of excerpts from the book; …and our brave hero, the Beautiful Napstaton, declares his love for the Princess Napstaton, and slays the wicked Sorcerer!

A clone donning a cape, a feather-topped cavalier hat, and deep, crimson tunic rolls towards the cowering human, who is clothed in dark, shredded robes. The clone spasms…and you realise they’re supposed to be laughing. It lifts it’s hand, and the appendage splits…and from it’s arm, a long, deadly-sharp sword emerges.

The human screams, but it’s muted –  

Turn that fucking thing off!” Sans barks just as the clone impales the poor boy through the chest.

You violently jump, hurrying to switch the channel, but all you have done is change it to a far worse programme; Cooking With A Killer Robot.

You nearly vomit; a Napstaton clone, donning a chef’s hat and brandishing a bloody pair of garden shears is looming over another human, who is bound to the cooking counter by crushing zip-ties with their intestines spilling out of their belly…

The human is still alive.

Barely managing to hold back a retch, you frantically switch back to NTT News.

You throw down the remote and painfully swallow the bile, panting and sweating. Trembling, you look towards Sans for an explanation.

He’s glaring at the television, his left eye sparking red.

“Wh-what was…?” you gasp. “What…was…?” You can’t get the words out.

What the hell was that?

Sans lets out a breath. “You were not suppose to see that. I apologise. I should not have allowed you to watch.”

You feel very weak – you want to lie down in your room, away from the television, but you can’t seem to move.

“I had forgotten that you humans are not privy to certain luxuries as we are,” Sans continues, straightening his paper. “Three channels, yes?”

You nod stiffly. Only three… 

NTT News, NTT Music, and NTT Movies are all that the world can see of Ebott now. NTT News, of course, advertising the monster-populated place as a magical haven for monsters and humans alike; NTT Music advertising Napstaton’s incredible talents, tantalising people with the otherness of it all; and NTT Movies…although you’re not quite sure what could be very appealing about watching Napstaton EX stretched out on a bed of rose petals…

“Are you alright?” Sans asks softly – too softly.

You take a deep breath, but you can’t get the image of that poor boy out of your head, or that human with their blood, their intestines just…everywhere

“You’re not going to be sick, are you?” Sans then asks gruffly, frowning. He eyes the couch, then you, waiting for you to vomit all over it. You will be the one to clean it up, his fierce expression says.

You shake your head, and he mumbles something under his breath. Perhaps you should leave him to his crossword and shower – you feel filthy all of a sudden. But you’re still too weak to move, let alone stand.

“I think…can I just lie down for a while?” you croak.

He relaxes. “Of course.” With a huff, he turns his attention back to his paper. “Try not to snore too loudly, please.”

He’s concerned about your snoring when you’ve just learned that Napstaton kills humans for entertainment?

How were you never aware of this? How was That Girl never aware of this? Are these humans lured into participating in his shows with the false promise of GOLD? Comfortable living? Food?

Or are they disowned…like you?

Head spinning, you lay back on the sofa, curling into a tight, protective ball, and you watch the headlines in silence to calm yourself down…to distract you from thinking too much about that boy, that cut open human…

It appears that Napstaton has finally decided that the hype over Day X is dying down, and he is now instead focusing on an upcoming range of clothes that he has designed, so people can look just like him, but obviously less fabulous.

Happy must have had something to do with the range, since his whole business revolves around design. But his name doesn’t appear anywhere – he is not once credited. Poor Happy…    

The NTT News studio then fades out, and the royal seal fades in, announcing a scheduled address.

It’s an address you have seen before, so you refuse to unmute it, sick at the thought of hearing the queen’s pained voice. You watch her drooping lips move silently, her milky, unseeing eyes fixed on the camera. Her arms move, forever fiddling with something in her hands off screen, and you wonder what it could be that she plays with. Perhaps it is a nervous habit that she’s developed over the years?

You glance towards Sans, and he too is watching the address…

He looks very unhappy.

Not angry, but not necessarily sad, either. He looks as though he’s fed up.

You avert your eyes in case he happens to catch you watching, relaxing further into the cushions at your back. The queen talks and talks, her face betraying no emotion – you can read certain words on her lips; my children…guardian…your queen

What would she say if she ever watched Cooking With A Killer Robot?

And then the screen fades to black – Napstaton returns, detailing a new movie in production that will document his recent Day X display, apparently to be titled: 5X: A Robot’s Journey.       

Peeking out of the corner of your eye, you notice that Sans has returned to his paper. But he still doesn’t look very pleased. What was it about the address that bothered him so?

The room is warm; warm enough to send you into a quick slumber, or it could be the sudden shock that has exhausted you. You are aware that Sans is in the room, and you don’t really want to fall asleep with him here…

You don’t want to close you eyes and see that boy with the sword thrust through his chest, or that person with their insides pulled out…

Even though the TV was muted at the time, you swear you can hear the snip-snip-snip of the shears cutting through muscle.

-

In spite of the fright, in spite of Sans, you have a relatively peaceful rest…until the dream.

It’s short, but terrifying. You rise from the deep pool of sleep into a small room, which is empty save for a small chair.

You have nowhere else to go – there are no doors or windows to escape. So you take the seat.

Suddenly, you’re not alone.

An enormous dog is sitting opposite you, head held high, and regarding you with deep, dark eyes.

Then it speaks. “Do you think I could eat you?” It’s voice is otherworldly, deep and with an eerie echo.

Its question startles you, but your voice is calm when you answer, “Yes, you probably could.”

The dog growls.

“But please don’t,” you add.

The dog sniffs at the air, then turns up its nose. “You would taste awful, anyway.”

A loud boom draws your attention over your shoulder – a large space has opened up in the wall behind you. Glancing back at the dog once, you rise from your seat and gingerly approach the gap, aware that the giant animal is watching you with fury in its eyes.

You step through the door to find another room, exactly like the first, with the same chair positioned in the centre.

Another dog is sitting opposite you, and it’s far larger than the last one – so large that it can’t comfortably fit in the small, cramped space. Around its thick throat is a rusting metal collar, and a chain dangles from a hook right in the centre of the harsh band. You cannot see where the chain leads, your gaze drawn to the dog’s frighteningly dark gaze.

“Do you think I could eat you?” it says in the same deep, distorted voice.

“Yes, you could,” you say. “But please don’t.”

The dog nods. “I won’t.”

“Why not?”

The dog lowers its head in response, and it’s then your eyes are free to follow the chain hanging from its collar.

It leads right into your hand.  

Something about it unsettles you, but before you can properly distinguish why, there comes the same boom of a metal door opening behind you.

You know that you have to progress to the next room. Dropping the chain, you stand, and the large dog watches you with eyes full of longing.

You walk into the next room and take your seat. You look up to find another colossal dog sitting opposite you…

But it looks ragged, like it’s just been in some kind of brawl.

It bares its fangs. “Do you think I could eat you?”

“Yes, you could,” you say, and your voice trembles. “But please don’t.”

The dog laughs, and saliva oozes from its jaws. “Since when were you the one in control, here?”

The dog lunges for you.

You wake, sweating and gasping, just as it sinks its fangs into your jugular.

There’s something heavy pressing into your middle, and you thrash in a panic. The object tumbles off of you and hits the floor with a loud thump, doing nothing for your already frazzled nerves. You curl into a tight, frightened ball, staring hard at the edge of the cushions.

When nothing emerges from beneath the couch to devour you – no dog with dripping fangs, or a Napstaton clone with a pair of garden shears – you slowly peer over the side.

On the floor is a large book. But not just any book…

It’s the missing book; The Myth and Magic of Monsters and Men.

You scramble to pick it up, nearly toppling from the sofa in your haste.

Near breathless with excitement, you search the room for your generous gift-giver, but you are alone. Sans has vacated his chair, and Rus is nowhere to be seen.

Dream practically forgotten, you reposition yourself on the sofa and open the book. To your surprise, the ripped out pages have been returned – they’re very badly taped back in their original places. It’s no mystery whose shoddy handiwork this is, and you smile a tiny smile.

Why did Rus decide to give you the book in the end? Before delving into the pages, you hurry up to his room and knock on the still-closed door.

There’s no answer.

As carefully as you can, you push the door open. His room it dark, the computer off. He must be out.

How odd – he usually tells you if he’s ever leaving the house.

You’re too excited by the return of the elusive book to think too much into his strange absence. With barely retrained glee, you retreat to your room and make yourself comfortable on your bed, flicking through the pages until you get to the chapter you had so desperately been hoping to read since discovering the collar…

Monsters, Magic, and the Power of Souls: PART II – Magic

CATEGORY: Delusion

The mind is a truly formidable thing. Once an idea takes root, it can sprout and develop as long as the mind continues to feed it. If abandoned, the idea can wilt over time, but the carcass will remain.

It has been proven time and again that magic cannot directly influence the mind of a vessel – only by affecting the SOUL can magic touch the brain. Paralysis, Mass, and Magnetismus, for example, affect the SOUL itself. Physical magics such as Fire, Air, Earth, and Water do not affect the SOUL in any way, but rather the vessel.

Exchange/Conjuring is a rather complicated case; Conjuring is a monster based magic; magical energy will take the form of what we have come to refer to as ‘bullets’; Exchange is an effect of this magic being cast on a  human SOUL, as it can transform their SOUL energy into these ‘bullets’ when exposed during a Perfect Resonance.

But no magic is more complicated or misunderstood as Delusion.

Rumoured to be one of the few magics to affect the mind, rather than the SOUL, Delusion is categorised as not only an incredibly rare ability, but is the only magic whose entire documentation consists of theories instead of fact.

But how do we know that it even exists in the first place, if it is rare and is made up of theories and speculation?

The fearful truth is; we simply do not know.

These theories have, over the years, continuously sprung up from random sources, many of which have been lost to time, others whose sources either simply do not exist, or have long since turned to dust before reliable experiments could be conducted.

Regardless of its mysterious origins, Delusion is both a fascinating and a dangerous magic that, while may not even be possible, must be detailed for future references.

 

You swallow. Is there really so little concrete evidence on it, when Rus is living, breathing proof that the magic exists?

 

Delusion, defined, is a belief or an idea maintained despite contradictions by reality or rationality. Typically regarded as a symptom of severe mental disorders, and also a term used for someone who is being misled, Delusion as a magic can also be explained using such definitions.

The act of Delusion, based on multiple theories and ideas, is the altercation of the vessel’s state of mind by using the SOUL as a proxy. One rather frequently documented example would be the heightening of sensations that the nerves feed back to the brain.

Delusion grants the user the ability to affect the brain’s reception of the stimuli transferred through the nervous system of the vessel. For example; the soft brush of a feather could be perceived as the slice of a knife while the vessel is under the influence of Delusion. A small tap against the skin could be received as a harsh blow. The plucking of a single hair or scale could feel like the loss of an entire limb. There are some documents that even describe the acceleration of death due to this heightened sensation, as the body undergoes extreme stress and can simply give out.

This particular form of Delusion is noted to have tremendous power during a Perfect Resonance, when the SOUL has been exposed, and stripped the vessel of its physical form. Most records of death are detailed when mentioning a Perfect Resonance. During a Minor Resonance, it is noted to be less effective, as the body has slightly better defences against phantom pain. We have yet to uncover any theories or possibilities that different stimuli can be simulated, as the heightening of the nervous system increases sensitivity, rather than tricks the system into feeling certain sensations. [jump to CATEGORY: Delusion – Stimuli].

Additionally, the act of Delusion has been reported to have slight effects on the psyche, affecting the vessel’s emotions. Through the SOUL, the initiator can, like with their physicality, either heighten or switch between certain emotions to suit their needs. [jump to CATEGORY: Delusion – Psyche].

There have also been brief mentions of the possibility that Delusion can run so deep that it can form a psychological link between the vessel and the initiator. However, as there is not nearly enough information to back this theory, mentions of this particular effect are pure speculation [see THEORY: Myth – Soul-Link, pg. 553].

 

Reading further into the topic only drags up the memories of how the magic had affected you; turning your fear into calm, then your despair into exhaustion. Thinking back on it now, that was relatively tame in comparison to what is being described. You were right to be wary of Rus and his invasive magic – you briefly wonder if, since they’re brothers, can Sans use it, too?

 

First we shall cover the possible origins of this magic, and the scientific explanations behind it. One could attribute the existence of Delusion to the human based theory known as ‘chakra’ [see PART II: Humans. The Human SOUL Defined, pg. 326]. To give a brief revision of the concept, the idea of chakra is not so dissimilar to our theories of the balance between the SOUL and the vessel.

To put it simply, the theory of chakra is as such: human life exists in two parallel dimensions, being the physical body [the vessel] and the subtle body, which consists of the psychological, emotional, the mind, or the non-physical [the SOUL].

For the sake of this report, we shall be referring to chakra and the links between the physical body and the subtle body.

The theory of a system consisting of seven spiritual points has become a very well know feature of chakra. But how does Delusion fit into all of this? Modern interpretations of the chakra system suggest that they vitalise the physical body and are associated with interactions of a physical, emotional and mental nature. The function of the chakras is to keep the spiritual, mental, emotional and physical health of the body in balance.   

So could the magic of Delusion have some roots in this practise?

Using the theory of the physical body and the subtle body co-existing between two parallel universes, the altercation of one would surely affect the other. Some magics cannot be cast on one aspect of a life form without affecting the other. For example, Paralysis will freeze the SOUL, therefore it will ultimately freeze the body with it.

Delusion, however, has far deeper effects on both bodies.

CATEGORY: Delusion – Stimuli

Arguably one of the more prevalent effects of Delusion, Stimuli is the –

 

You almost scream when an arm slides over your shoulders, and the bed dips with a sudden added weight.

When you recognise the scent of warm, rusting metal, you relax.

Rus presses a toothy kiss to your hair. “Hey.”

“Hello,” you gasp. “Where did you go?”

“The Lake,” he replies. “What’cha readin’?” He takes a hold of the book and tilts the cover ever so slightly to inspect it. “Hmm…should’ve guessed.”

You close the book and twist in his hold to face him. “Thank you. For giving it back to me.”

Rus shrugs.

“Why did you give it back?” you ask.

He scratches at his jaw. “I guess I just want you to trust me more. What’d you think so far?” He looks fearful for your answer.

“It’s…” Scary? Awful? Frightening that there’s hardly any solid information? “…unnerving.”

The disappointment that overcomes Rus’s face is almost painful. “Right…” 

“But…I’d believe you over this.” You pat the fraying book. “You can actually do it. There’s not much in here…”

Rus’s relieved smile is a little saddening – he was really that concerned?

“Could you tell me about it, one day?” you ask.

“Sure,” Rus replies cheerfully. “But first…”

He pulls you up by the arm, sliding you off the bed and plucking the book from your grasp. He throws it down on the sheets and steers you towards the door, slipping his fingers between yours.

“I got ya somethin’.” He seems very excited. “C’mon…”

He went out to get you a present? But you didn’t ask for anything.

As you follow him down the stairs, he says, “So Undyne called ‘bout somethin’ important, right? She wanted to show me somethin’. You remember?”

“Y-yes?”

He pulls you across the entrance hall and down towards the kitchen, but he passes the archway, heading for the garage.

“Okay, so I get there, and she’s fished out a bunch of stuff from the lake. A lot of junk ends up there, from reservoirs and sewers and stuff, y’know?”

Rus opens the door to the garage and releases you, hurrying over to his workspace in the far corner.

The garage is freezing – the approaching winter is making even the daytime hours colder. In the camp, you were so used to the cold, but after being wrapped in the warmth of a cosy home, the biting temperature against your bare legs is unwelcome and irritating.

You tip-toe across the icy, concrete garage floor to join Rus by his cluttered desk.

“Here,” he says, thrusting something into your hands.

It’s an old, rather beaten-up-looking portable MP3, badly chipped around the edges.

You gaze at it in wonder. It’s been a long time since you’ve seen anything like it. That Girl used to have one before it broke, and no shop could fix it. Or, every shop refused to fix it. She had to buy an NTT Brand MP3 instead, and all it contained were Napstaton songs.

But the screen of the battered MP3 is alight, listing an extensive collection of songs. You recognise some of the titles…

“We found this, too.” Rus’s voice drags your attention back to him – he’s gesturing to a large speaker dock hooked up by several wires to what looks like some kind of battery pack, and plugged into a nearby outlet. Beside it is a pair of large headphones that, like the pack, have several jacks plugged into both speakers connecting them to the dock.

“What do you think?” Rus asks, voice eager. “Human music’s pretty good. Dina gave it to me to patch up.”

“Oh…is that what you’ve been doing all day?” you ask. Is this what she had called him about this morning?

“Uh-huh.” This is the most excited you’ve seen him. “Undyne’s pretty psyched to get it fixed. Even though…y’know…it’s a crime against nature to listen to anything other than Blooky.” He lowers his voice to a playful whisper. “But I won’t tell if you don’t.”

You hadn’t realised that human music was actually illegal. You’d just assumed that it was impossible to find because of Napstaton’s fragile ego.

Then you remember the cut open human, tied down to a make-shift kitchen counter with Napstaton towering above them. That was done purely for entertainment – what would he do to someone who refused to listen to his music?

Rus pats the power pack, jolting you from your thoughts. “We played with this a bit…the system was pretty badly water-clogged, but I’m good with re-modelling old tech.”

The excitement in his voice is contagious, and you begin scrolling through the song list on the MP3. You recognise almost every song, and there’s not a single Napstaton track in the playlist…it’s incredible.

With only Napstaton’s songs to listen to, it quickly became easy for humans to stop finding enjoyment in music. Most of Napstaton’s songs are very much the same; same genre, same formula… It became tedious, overused, and people grew very tired of having it blasted in their ears day in and day out.

However, it was vastly better than having no music at all.

“C’mon, pick one!” Rus urges. He leans over you to watch you scroll through the song list. “I wanna hear somethin’.”

“You haven’t tested it yet?”

“No. I wanted you to listen to it, too.”

Your heart swells and your face heats. “Why?”

Rus pinches your burning cheek with a snicker. “’Cause you’re the expert, right? Better pick a good one.”

After scrolling through several more albums, you settle for a song that you remember quite clearly. You hand the MP3 back to Rus and he gleefully places it in the dock, removing the headphone jacks and hitting the play button.

You quite nervous, but you’re not sure why. Anticipation is making your head buzz.

There’s no sound at first, just the crackling of static as the power pack surges life into the speakers. You swallow as you anxiousness makes your stomach churn.

Then the beat comes in…

You gasp.

Oh, God…you remember… You remember how the tempo picks up, and then the first verse comes in, and…

You…remember how this song makes you feel. Excitement…the insatiable need to move a foot in time with the beat…joy

The song reaches the bridge, and the onslaught of emotions creeps up on you. Tears are quick to form in your eyes, and they’re cascading down your face before you’re even a single line into the chorus.

“Whoa…shit, hey…” Rus takes you by the shoulders and turns you to face him. He inspects you warily. “You okay?”

You nod, unable to summon your voice. You’re smiling – it doesn’t feel small, or even like a teasing smile. It’s stretching your cheeks. It’s a genuine smile.

Rus seems a little taken aback. “You sure?”

“Yes,” you manage to choke out.

Rus stares at you for a moment longer, then grins. “You remember this, huh?”

You nod again, wiping at your face, but the tears just keep coming. “C-can I…can I look…?”

Rus sweeps a hand towards the music player. “Be my guest.”

You rush forwards and crouch by the desk, sifting through the song list while the current track plays on. When you reach a song that evokes a spark of unrestrained glee, you press it.

It’s a much more lively song than the last – you cough out a sound between a sob and a laugh when the vocals begin.

You move on to another song you recognise. Then another.

Then another.

“Heh…” Rus breathes right into your ear. “Havin’ fun?”

You can’t reply, too swept up in the music. You can’t stop crying…you can’t stop smiling.

With another chuckle, Rus crouches next to you, swinging an arm over your shoulders and patiently observing you scroll away.

After several more quick-fire song changes, you calm down, content to listen to the entire piece before moving on to the next. Rus is silent, happy to listen along with you. You’re knees are soon numb, your tears have long since ceased and dried, your stomach growling for food…but you don’t want to stop listening.

You don’t ever want to stop listening.

You’ve moved on to quite a morose song, but as sad as it is, it has a hypnotic charm to it that makes you listen regardless.

“Thank you,” you mumble. “Thank you so much…”

“You’re welcome,” Rus replies with a nuzzle into your hair.

“Please don’t give it back to Undyne,” you whisper. “Please…”

“I’ll figure somethin’ out.”

You lean into him, resting your head against his cheek. You close your eyes and just listen. Your soul flutters happily, warming your chest.

“Wanna dance?” Rus asks you when a slightly more upbeat song plays.

Your eyes slowly open. “Huh?”

“I mean…humans dance, right? C’mon…”

He takes your hand and pulls you to your feet. Your legs are so sore from crouching for so long that Rus has to support you with an arm around your waist.

“Okay, so…” He takes a hold of one hand, then lifts your other to his shoulder. “Show me.”

You glance down at your bare feet, then back up at his face. “I…don’t know.”

“You don’t know?” Rus snorts. “You don’t remember how to dance?”

“I, uh…never really…” That Girl used to dance, usually involving the bobbing of the head and the occasional shuffle of the feet. You’ve never even tried.

You’d never had the time to dance.

“You never danced?” you ask Rus, cheeks aflame with embarrassment.

He pulls a face. “To a Napstaton song? Kitten, have you even listened to a Napstaton track?”

“Never mind,” you say with a small smile.

“Alright,” Rus says, his grin matching yours. “Let’s see if we can figure this out, huh?”

He shifts one foot forwards, and you move one foot back, trying to match him. You repeat the movements, trying to keep in time with the beat of the song, but you can’t seem to get the hang of it.

Rus chuckles. “Hang on…let’s try…”

He takes your hands and links them around his waist, then he loops his arms over your shoulders. After a moment, he rocks his body from side to side, and you mimic him.

“This is easier,” he murmurs.

You hum in agreement.

The song ends too soon, and switches to another more energetic song – far too fast for the lazy pace you’ve adopted.

But you keep swaying, not bothering to keep in time. You close your eyes and rest your forehead against Rus’s ribcage, and he responds with a pleased rumble.

The new songs ends, and another commences. Then another.

Then another…

You keep swaying.

 

Chapter Text

-

Chapter Twelve

 

-

 

Warnings for chapter: Mentions of Gore, Mentions of Trauma, Mild Trauma, Mildly Sexual Implications

-

 

Dare it be said, but things around the house seem to look…brighter.

You awake the morning after joining Rus in the garage with a strange sense of determination. There is a spring in your step as you descend the stairs to prepare Sans his coffee.

Before you make your way to the kitchen, you stick your head into the living room. He is in his usual chair, engrossed in another crossword.

“Good morning, sir,” you say – you sound quite chipper.

And Sans notices. His head snaps up to stare at you.

“Good morning,” he returns, suspicious.

You merely bow, then hurry on to the kitchen, replaying a particular song in your head as you go.

With a steaming mug of coffee in hand, you return to the living room to find Sans ignoring his paper, awaiting you with mistrust still glowing in his eyes and creasing his forehead. He exchanges his drained coffee mug with your freshly prepared brew, carefully observing you take his cup from his outstretched hand and loop the handle of the filled mug onto the hook of his fingers. He then scrutinises your face, but you obediently lower your gaze the second his eyes meet yours.

A low growl rumbles in his throat. “Get to work.”

“Of course, sir,” you say.

You try not to skip from the room, the echoes of an incredibly catchy and lively song filling your ears.

Cleaning supplies in hand, you run into Rus at the top of the stairs just as he’s emerging from his bedroom – he is noticeably tired, with heavy shadows beneath his sockets. His Lazy Boy hoodie is askew, and a pair of sweats hang loosely from his pelvis. He doesn’t appear to have noticed you…

“Good morning,” you say.

He brightens up at the sound of your voice. He turns, then pauses, mouth half open. “What the fuck?”

You falter. “Wh-what?”

Then he smiles. “You’re in a good mood, today, ain’t you?”

… You really are. It feels…amazing. “Yes. Thank you for yesterday.”

Rus chuckles. “You’re welcome.”

The shadows beneath his eyes are like bruises. “Are you okay?” you ask.

 You must have been leaning towards him, because his cheeks flush, and he tilts back ever so slightly.

“Yeah,” he mumbles. “M’fine.”

“You look a bit tired.”

Rus snorts. “Wow, thanks.”

“Did you sleep at all last night?”

He plucks a cigarette from his pocket and slips it between his teeth. “Yeah…couple of hours. I think…”

I think? What on earth has he been doing? Before you can ask, he pats you on the head and brushes passed you, worrying the cigarette between his fangs erratically.

“Don’t work too hard,” he calls as he trudges down the stairs.

Perhaps you should have offered him a coffee, or something for breakfast. You file away a mental reminder to make a second coffee and cinnamon bun for him alongside Sans’s.

Work goes rather smoothly – you notice, after you’ve moved on to the library, that a growing excitement has been slowly developing within you.

You understand, once you’ve realised that you’ve been singing in your head all morning, that it’s anticipation. You’re desperate to listen to the MP3 again, and knowing that once you’re all done with your tasks, and the brothers have been fed, you are free to listen to as much music as you want.

Your excitement is so overwhelming that you’re not even the slightest bit nervous when you bring Sans his afternoon coffee.   

You don’t wait for him to answer your knock – you breeze into the room, coffee and warm Cinnamon Bunny steady in your hands, and Sans swings around in his chair to glare at you.

“Why are you so…excitable today?” he snaps.

“I’m sorry, sir,” you say, placing the mug and plate on the usual shelf. “Is it distracting you?”

Sans sneers. “Don’t be stupid. Would I get distracted so easily?”

You bow. “No, sir.”

Sans grunts with displeasure. “Get out.”

You quickly leave, closing the door behind you, but Sans’s sourness hardly affects your good mood. You return to the kitchen to retrieve Rus’s coffee and pastry, then hop up to his bedroom.

Halfway up the stairs, you pause and lean over the banister, staring at the door to the office – it’s still closed. You wonder if Sans will notice that you put three sugars in his coffee.

If he did, he doesn’t mention it at dinner. He takes his seat as normal, at ten o’ clock on the dot, and consumes his starter with nothing more than a curt good evening.

He appears to still be a little wary of you and your apparent excitability. He watches you like a tiger on the hunt as you leave the room – you know that he’s watching you, you can feel it – and as you return with his main course, eyes wide and unblinking.

“Is there something wrong, sir?” you ask as you exchange his empty plate for his main.

A strange noise rumbles from his throat. Suspicion, again. “No,” he says flatly, and he tilts his wine glass towards you, requesting that it be filled.

Rus enters the room while Sans is mid-way through his main course, and he looks terrible. He lumbers through the archway and drags himself with some considerable effort across the room towards his seat.  

But he doesn’t hang about. He picks up his starter and swallows it in one go, wipes his teeth with his sleeve, then disappears back up the stairs, swaying with each step.

Is he unwell? He never refuses food…

Sans tuts and continues with his meal, muttering something under his breath that sounds like stupid mongrel.

It’s painfully obvious that Rus is working himself ragged. That exhaustion plaguing him had once plagued Sans – twice.

“Is he going to be alright?” you ask without thinking.

“What does it matter?” Sans replies bitingly. “If he has work to be doing, then he has to do it.”

“But –”

Sans’s glare silences you. “And it’s probably confidential, so I know nothing about it. There is no point in asking me.” He folds his cutlery together on his now empty plate and dusts down his hands, then reaches for his wine.

After finishing the entire glass, he says, “You have a habit of pestering. Leave him be, do you understand?” 

“Yes, sir,” you agree reluctantly – Rus can’t work well if he’s tired. He needs to rest at some point…

Sans may suspect that you are planning to check on his brother once he has retreated to his room, but if he is truly aware of your intentions, he doesn’t question you about them during dessert. Once he has finished, he gives you a curious, sceptical once-over, then leaves, marching up the stairs without a word.

When you are certain that he isn’t going to re-emerge, you creep up after him, heading for Rus’s room.

You can hear nothing with your ear pressed to the door – no shuffling, no typing, no clicking. After several minutes of silence, you gently push the door open.

The computer is on, and the screen is nothing but a flashing mess of static, like that of a television with no signal.

But the desk chair is empty. You stick your head into the room, searching…

You find Rus face down on his mattress, snoring. The sight elicits a small laugh – at least he’s getting a little sleep.

You leave him be and return to the kitchen. You’re quick to clean up the remains of dinner, scrubbing and mopping with zeal. With the last of the plates clean, dry, and back in their usual places, you waste not even a second and sprint to the garage.

Rus has covered the MP3 set-up with a fraying, dirt-covered sheet. You throw it off and reach for the MP3 with trembling fingers.

Like before, it’s difficult to pick a song – there are so many to choose from, you just cannot decide, like you don’t have enough time to listen to them all.

You manage to choose one – a song that elicits a small squeak of joy at the sight of the title – and you hit play, sliding in back into the dock, and plugging in the headphones.

You slip them over your ears just as the vocals begin, and you lower yourself to the floor, folding your legs beneath you.

It’s cold, but you don’t care. You can’t care about anything else but the music.

You’ll remember to bring a blanket, tomorrow.

-

After that once instance, Rus has not showed up for dinner since.

You have to force some food in him – three nights in a row with no decent food cannot be healthy, even for a monster.

When Sans finishes his meal, you wait for Rus to emerge.

And wait.

And wait…all the while itching to get to the garage and listen to the MP3.

It doesn’t take long for the impatience to sink in, and you storm up to his room with a plate in hand, filled with vegetables, mashed potatoes, and an enormous steak drenched in sauce.

Rus is sitting by his computer, tapping away when you enter his room unannounced. Whatever he was working on is quickly banished from the screen, and his bleary eyes search for you.

“Wha –?” he garbles, but you thrust the plate into his face, cutting him off.

“Eat, please.”

Tired though he is, he has the presence of mind to crack a joke. “Only if you feed it to me.”

“Fine.” You lift the plate. “Open wide.”

That manages to make him laugh. “Holy shit, I’m kidding. Give it…”

You only take back the plate and leave once he’s swallowed everything, down to the last pea.

However, you pause when you reach the door and glance back at him – he’s returned to his computer, studying something far too small for you to see from where you’re standing.

What could he be doing that’s so important that he has to forgo sleep? And he falls asleep so easily – it’s unsettling to see him fighting to actually remain conscious.

The strangest thing, however, is that whatever this job is, Sans knows nothing about it – it must be incredibly important if even the lieutenant of the Royal Guard doesn’t know the specifics. Does the Captain even know?

“Can you rest?” you ask softly. “Please?”

Rus turns to wink at you sleepily. “Sure.” Then he turns back to the computer. “Not yet, though.”

That irks you a little, and you mumble, “You’re just like your brother.”

Rus barks an undignified laugh, and realising he’d heard you, your face warms.

You quickly close the door and flee back down to the kitchen, but Rus’s loud laughter travels through the walls like they’re made of nothing but paper.

The next day, before commencing with your daily routine, you check up on him again. Thankfully, he’s asleep, curled up on his mattress. With a breath of relief, you leave him to prepare Sans’s coffee, and the elder brother is, as expected, seated in the living room, focused on his crosswords.

“Good morning, sir,” you call on your way to the kitchen.

“Good morning,” comes Sans’s deadpan reply.

The coffee seems to take longer to brew this morning. As it bubbles away, your thoughts drift to Rus.

Should you bring him one? Perhaps that would make him feel better. But disturbing him would deprive him of the rest he clearly needs.

The lyrics of a song float through your mind; something about not getting any sleep…

You smile in spite of yourself – you can make him one when he’s awake.

Once the coffee is finally done, you return to the living room. The fresh brew nearly slips from your fingers when you enter to find Sans out of his chair, standing in the middle of the room, clenching his paper, and staring at you as if you’re some kind of intruder.

“What on earth is that terrible noise you are making?” he asks coldly.

Noise? What kind of noise? You were making it?

Ah…you must have been humming to the tune of that particular song that had entertained you so.

“Sorry, sir,” you say with a small bow. “I…was singing…”

Singing. Angel, you were singing. The idea is too surreal – were you really that happy to have ended up singing without even realising it?

“Is that what that dreadful sound was?” Sans spits. “What, exactly, were you singing?”

You swallow. Human music is illegal, isn’t it…?

“A…Napstaton song,” you say, but you already know that it’s pointless to lie. Especially to Sans.

He narrows his eyes to dangerous slits. “I know Napstaton music because I am subjected to it every day. And that is not in any measure a Napstaton song.”

Because it’s actually good? you want to say, but you’d rather not receive a scolding so early in the day.

“What is it?” he demands viciously. “Tell me, now.”

“Human music,” you blurt, the confession frightened out of you.

There is silence. Sans goes rigid, and his eyes darken, become hollow…angry. Perhaps you won’t be escaping a scolding, after all…

Human music?” he hisses. “Why in the Angel’s name are you –?”

His voice fades, and his empty eyes are suddenly ablaze with a demonic wrath that makes you quiver.

Papyrus!” he bellows.

The sheer volume of his voice shakes the foundations of the house…or maybe you had imaged that in your fright.

There’s a faint shuffling from above, then Rus just…appears in a burst of strong magic. He blinks out of the Void several feet above the largest sofa, and he drops like a dead weight, violently bouncing onto the cushions and you fear that he may bounce right onto the floor. 

You immediately jump forwards to assist him, but thankfully, he doesn’t tip over, sinking into the pillows…

He’s still asleep.

… At least until Sans thumps him in the side of the head.

“Are you some special kind of idiot?” he asks in a deadly whisper.

Rus mumbles sleepily. “You wha…?”

“Why is my maid singing human music?” Sans demands.

“I dunno m’still sleepin’…”

“What did you give her? You’ve obviously given her something for her to be able to listen to human music.”

Rus turns over, putting his back to Sans, and waves dismissive hand. “Undyne found the thing. M’ just fixin’ it.”

“Fixing what, exactly?” Sans looks outraged.

“Uh…a thing that…plays music.”

Sans clips him over the back of the head with his paper. “Where is it?”

Your stomach lurches. Why does he want to know where the MP3 is?

“The garage…” Rus says through a yawn.

Your heart sinks – you’d hoped that Rus was lucid enough to know to keep the whereabouts of the MP3 a secret.

Sans strides across the room, and you’re reacting before you can even process a single thought; you reach out for him and your fingers hook into the sleeve of his jacket.

He whirls on you, eyes livid, fangs barred. The burning lights in his sockets flick between your face and your hands. The air about him buzzes and turns deathly cold.

“Please,” you say in a whisper, desperate. “D-don’t get rid of it!”

Take your hands off of me.

His voice cuts right through you. In a panic, you remove your tight fingers from around his arm and step back, bowing low in submission.

“Please…” you say again, your voice trembling. “I’m begging you…”

“Be quiet!” Sans spits. 

You look to Rus for help, but he’s asleep once more, snoring away.

“You are both idiots,” Sans snaps. “I have come too far for this pathetic distraction to ruin everything that I have achieved!” He glares at Rus. “I have constantly worked to give you a comfortable life, and I’m not about to let you destroy my progress over something so…nonsensical!”

Progressa comfortable life… Your eyes find the deep scar down the left side of Sans’s face. Then your mind drifts to Rus’s golden tooth, the scars covering his ribs…

You had never thought to ask Rus about the brothers’ lives in the Underground. All you have learned is that they had made a few enemies…

“Papyrus,” Sans warns in a growl when his brother doesn’t speak.

“’S Undyne’s,” Rus mumbles. “N’mine…”  

Sans snarls. “Dr Undyne’s fascination with whatever shit the lake spits out is her business, and her business alone! As the Royal Scientist, she has certain freedoms with her projects. You do not. And now she has made you complicit!”

He snarls harshly. “As clever as she is, she is the most idiotic, self-absorbed monster I have ever known.” He side-eyes his brother. “Except you.”

With an unhappy grunt, Rus turns over and props himself up with one arm. “She just wanted to play with it…”

“Take me to see it,” Sans orders.

Rus blinks, reluctant. When his brother remains steadfastly silent, he groans, pushing himself off of the couch and slowly getting to his feet. He staggers out of the room, and Sans follows closely behind him.

You hurry after them, trepidation making you feel queasy – you want to collapse to your knees before Sans and beg him not to get rid of the MP3. You don’t want to lose something so wonderful so soon…

Rus shoulders the garage door open and Sans pushes passed him, elbowing him in the ribs as he does. He stalks over to the set-up, covered with the filthy sheet.

He eyes the grimy material for a moment, then says to Rus, “Take this off. Now.”

Rus hesitates in the door long enough to give you a reassuring pat to the shoulder, then he does as instructed; he lifts the cloth for Sans to inspect the forbidden device.

You gingerly step into the garage, the rushing of your blood loud in your ears. Don’t get rid of it…don’t get rid of it…

Sans examines it in tense silence, his piercing eyes taking in every wire, every button. He lifts the MP3 from the dock and switches it on, looking through the extensive song list. His face twists, disgusted.

You want to scream. Don’t get rid of it…don’t get rid of it…!

After a long and thorough study, Sans returns the MP3 to the dock. “This should have been kept within her lab.” He addresses his brother. “If anyone hears you messing with it, they will investigate, and this will not look good before the Royal Court. Even if Undyne accepts responsibility, you will still have to face some consequences for wasting precious time with a human affair that has no benefit to monster-kind.”

Rus only shrugs. “The Ambassador needs to let that go, y’know?”

Sans practically barks a warning, almost sending you leaping from the floor in shock.

“The Ambassador has reasons,” he hisses. “And as long as her Majesty agrees with those reasons, then there is nothing I can do.”

The queen has an ambassador? You’ve never heard of them.

Then again, you had never seen the Royal Guard before the recent Day X, flagging the Queen from all directions, wary of potential attack, when before, they had been in the shadows – a scary story to tell frightened humans to deter them from stepping out of line.

Do anything suspect and the Guard will find you, That Girl had once been told. No one knows what they look like, because no one survives them.

Could this Royal Court of hers be filled with influential individuals that none of the humans of Ebott are aware of?

“It needs to go,” Sans says. “Send it back to Dr Undyne as soon as possible.”

You feel as though your heart has just been torn from your chest. “N-no!”

Sans slowly turns his head towards you, his outrage a fire in his sockets. “I beg your pardon?”

“You can’t,” you say urgently. You can’t bear the thought of losing your music, to never feel the excitement, the elation, the pure joy that it gives you…ever again…

You will not give it up.

Sans slowly approaches you. “If this thing is discovered here, then who do you think will bear the punishment for it? I am not risking my brother’s life, or mine, for the sake of some human accessory.”

You glance at Rus, but he looks wrecked, too tired to put up a fight.

“Sir, please,” you try again, bowing low. “You don’t understand –”

No,” Sans cuts you off. “You don’t understand. We have a duty to her Majesty, and if we are caught with such things, then we will be dubbed traitors to the crown. Do you have any idea what that would mean for us? For you? For Papyrus?

Sans points at the MP3. “That thing cannot be in this house!”

A powerful rage seizes you in an instant. You straighten, putting yourself above Sans’s eye-level, and you say, “I cannot be in this house.”

His scowl drops for a moment…then a low growl builds in his throat, and his sockets go dark.

“Do not back-chat me, human,” he snarls. “It is illegal. You are illegal. If someone came to investigate the…noise this thing makes, you could be discovered. And can you image what happens to disowned humans who have escaped custody?”

You don’t have to – whatever they could do, it can’t be any worse that what they’re already done.

“It means a lot to me,” you argue, furious tears prickling in the corners of your eyes.

“More than your life?”

“It makes me feel like I can have a life again.”

“You need to watch your tongue.” Sans’s shoulders are quivering with rage.

“Please,” you plead, the tears escaping. “I’ve missed it…”

You fall to your knees and press your head to the cold, concrete floor – you can’t think of anything else to do or say that could persuade him.

“I’ll give up anything else,” you gasp. “Anything! Just…please don’t make me give up my music.”

You can’t go back to silence again. You have already suffered the absence of music, with only the sounds of doors slamming, steel links clinking together, the thump-thump-thump of heavy boots marching up and down damp, empty corridors to occupy your mind. A symphony of pain, of despair…

“It means more to me that you will ever know,” you say. “Please –”

“Get up.”

You lift your head – Sans is staring down at you, but not with disgust. He’s blushing.

“Angel, help me,” he mutters. “That stupid thing is why you were so…”

… So happy?

“Get up,” he then says again, a little harsher.

You slowly get to your feet, wiping at your tear-streaked cheeks. “Sir, please –”

Sans holds up a hand to stop you. “I heard you. Fine. It can stay.”

The relief makes you dizzy. “Thank you!”

“Listen to me,” he says stonily. “If you wish to keep it, then you must be careful. You –”

“I’ve only listened to it at night,” you hurry to assure him. “After dinner. And with headphones. Sir…”

Sans scans your face, looking a little irked that you had interrupted him. “Good. Keep it that way. But I hope you understand the risks here.”

“Yes, of course,” you say, hope building in your chest, alighting your soul.

His blush deepens, and he distractedly brushes down the lapels of his jacket. “I am already behind with my work because of this. Do not interrupt me this afternoon. Understand?”

“Yes, sir!” you say with perhaps a little too much enthusiasm, so full of adrenaline.

And then he simply vanishes, leaving behind the scent of a gentle winter wind.

He used the Void? Sans rarely uses it to save on magic. He must have been flustered – after all that talk, he’d relented quite quickly, keeping his answers short and without his usual dramatic flare that he uses to intimidate…

And then he’d actually used the Void to get away from you as quickly as physically possible.

He really isn’t such a scary monster, after all.

Rus is still present, supporting himself on the nearest wall, but he’s awake. With a smile, he flashes you a thumbs up.

“You could have helped me,” you say.

He shrugs. “You did pretty well.” He pushes himself upright. “’M goin’ back to bed.”

When he reaches you, you stop him with a gentle hand against his arm.

“Why…didn’t you help me?” you ask.

Rus regards you with hazy eyes, then he presses a kiss to the top of your head. “You were fightin’ for it. ‘N I wanted you to.”

Warmth blooms in your cheeks. “Are you going to give it back to Undyne?”

Rus snickers. “Nope. Told her it exploded.”

You smile, relieved. “Thank you.” Your gaze wanders to the MP3. “It is dangerous, though. Isn’t it? Keeping it here…”

“Yeah. So?” Rus pats your hand, then continues his weary trudge towards the house. “Everythin’ is always dangerous.”

You watch him go, numb in the aftermath of the whirlwind of emotions.

He’s right; everything is always dangerous. But there’s nothing you can do about it.

So why be morose about it?

-

Yes, things are definitely brighter around the house.

Waking up doesn’t feel like much of a chore, you bring Sans his coffee with a brave smile, and you complete you work all the while singing and humming to yourself.

Sans continues to be grumpy, but there are instances where you believe that his glare, often angled at your back, softens – maybe he even smiles from time to time.

Rus’s exhaustion ends up fluctuating, rather than it be a constant state of being. There are days where he is too tired to stand, and others when he is quite alert, but there is a noticeable weariness in his eyes. It is getting better, but it’s still not good enough to put your mind at ease. 

And every evening, you occupy yourself in the garage, listening to music until you are too tired to listen any more. And the next day doesn’t seem so gloomy or…samey.

But the calm doesn’t last.

You know that the peace has been disturbed when you bring Sans his coffee in the morning. He is tense, and obviously irritable – you can see it in the small crease between his eyes, and feel it in the slight humming of his magic around him.

What happened to cause this sudden change? 

All day, as you work, you wait for the inevitable; for the spark that will trigger the dynamite, and Sans will tear into whatever, or whoever, is bothering him.

It doesn’t come as the afternoon creeps in. So you’re on high alert when you bring Sans his coffee and Cinnamon Bunny, tense, and even shaking a little.

You had stopped knocking only few days ago – he hasn’t showed any signs of displeasure about your sudden bravery, but today, he growls at the sound of your entrance.

You hesitate in the doorway, and you spot his cell phone, placed to his left on the desk – it’s vibrating like mad, messages piling in without pause.

However, Sans doesn’t seem to be too bothered by it – he continues scribbling through his paperwork and thanks you with a stiff nod when you place his coffee and bun on the nearest surface to his right.

He calls to you just as you’re leaving. “There is some paperwork I need you to organise tonight.”

“Yes, sir,” you say. “Before or after dinner.”

“After,” Sans says nastily. “Obviously.”

You deflate, but it’s only one evening of music lost…

You glance at his flashing cell phone, then at the back of his head – perhaps whoever keeps messaging him is bothering him more than you’d thought… “Of course, sir.”

A low grunt is your dismissal.

The tense atmosphere around the house only gets worse as the evening draws near – Rus doesn’t leave his room; Sans doesn’t leave his office; you just clean and clean…

And you have an awful feeling that whatever is troubling Sans has something to do with Rus.

Why, exactly, you’re still unsure. But there’s just…something that keeps nagging at you, telling you that it’s all because of Rus. Maybe Sans is still unhappy about him bringing home the MP3 without consulting him?

But if he is, he would have destroyed it by now. And you’ve been very careful with it, keeping the volume low, and pressing the headphones to your ears to ensure that no sound escapes.

You’re sweating while you cook dinner, and it has nothing to do with the heat of the oven. You think long and hard about what Rus could have possibly done to provoke his brother’s sour mood.

Rus has been exhausting himself, working on something that may be confidential. Is Sans feeling a little rejected because he is, for once, in the dark? Or had he been informed of what Rus is working on, and he doesn’t like it?

Ten o’ clock comes around far too quickly, and you enter the dining room to set up Sans’s place at the table, wine and all.   

Just minutes later, he enters with a face like thunder and cell phone in hand – it looks close to being crushed in his tight fist, the screen still flickering away.

“Good evening, sir,” you say cautiously.

“Good evening,” he grumbles, pausing by his chair to tap a quick message to whoever is bothering him.

Nano-seconds later, the phone flashes with an incoming message.

With a snarl, Sans slams the phone on the table and climbs into his seat, huffing and scowling. He then points at the wine bottle in your hands.

“Give me that,” he orders in a frightening growl.

You hurry to his side, and he snatches the bottle before you can offer it to him. He takes a long mouthful, swallows…then sighs.

The phone flashes again, and he knocks back another mouthful. 

When Sans is halfway through his starter, Rus suddenly strides into the room. And he’s looking much better than he has been over the past few days.

“Evenin’ all,” he says in a cheerful rasp. “What’s on the menu tonight, Kitten?”

Before you can answer him, Sans snaps, “Pray tell why I have had several complaints sent to me today.”

Rus collapses into his chair before answering. “Complaints? What about?”

Sans lifts his cell phone. “You seem to be attracting quite a bit of attention from a certain someone, lately.”

You sneak out of the room to fetch Rus his starter – you didn’t think that he would be joining his brother tonight, so you hadn’t plated anything up. As quickly as you can, you pour him some soup and return to the dining room to find Sans reciting small snippets of his messages.

I can’t see anything,” he’s saying with irritation. “Get Pappy to check. Have you gotten him to check yet? Have you gotten him to have a look? Have you spoken to him? Have you, this, and have you, that! I’m getting sick and tired of this pompous, high-and-mighty toaster disturbing my work!”

Rus takes the bowl of soup from you and slowly drinks it, taking his sweet time. “Blooky getting his wires in a twist, huh?” he says with a small belch.

“What exactly have you been doing up there?” Sans growls.

Rus looks…not exactly smug, but there is something about his blithe expression that suggests that he knows something.

And Sans can see it, too. “What have you done?”

Rus lowers his bowl to the table. “… Nothin’.” 

“If Napstaton is going to keep pestering me about random cameras shutting down,” Sans hisses through his teeth, “then I will keep going on at you until you stop causing him problems!”

What? Cameras shutting down? You didn’t think that was possible. You glance at Rus curiously.

“I turned them back on,” he says.

“That doesn’t matter!” Sans retorts. “How long do you think it will be before he goes complaining to her Majesty?”

Rus barks a laugh. “He won’t. Not in a million years. You really think he’d tell the queen that he’s got a glitch in the system?” He then winks at you.

A glitch…named Papyrus, perhaps?

Sans slams his fists against the table. The almighty boom has Rus tensing, and makes you violently jump.

His glare is murderous, fixed on his brother. “Stop messing around. It’s because she wants to leave, isn’t it?” He points towards you. “Isn’t it?

Rus nervously swipes the circumference of his bowl with a finger, sweat gleaming at his temples. “Yeah…”

… That’s what he’s been doing for the past few days?

He’s messing around with cameras dotted about Ebott…because you wanted to get out of the house? Because you just wanted a change of scenery – just for an hour or two – he went and messed with the surveillance network to see if he could make Ebott safe for you?

“And here I was beginning to believe that my dear younger brother had finally stepped up,” Sans seethes. “You had finally taken some responsibility. But no…it was all for her.”

Should you take some responsibility for this? Technically, this is happening because of you…

“Sir –” you say meekly.

Sans thrusts a hand out towards you with a threatening finger raised, ordering you to stay silent.

“How many times are you going to put us at risk for a human?” he says in a bitingly cold voice. “How many times must I entertain your endless obsession with them? How long will it be before I am forced to clean up your messes again because you just cannot keep your fucking fixation under control?

Sans sounds…absolutely furious. The only other time you have heard him sound so angry was…

The very first night. The night you had arrived at this house.

Has Rus’s fondness for humans gotten him into trouble in the past?

“I’ll figure it out, okay,” he says, so quietly that you can barely hear him.

“You had better,” Sans retorts. “This is serious, Papyrus. Do you understand me?”

“’M sorry, m’lord…”

“You cannot keep doing things like this. You are good, but you’re not that good. And you’re definitely not above the law! Not with things like this.”

“I know…” Rus looks devastated.

You glance at Sans – even he looks a little shaken.

“I’m sorry,” you blurt.

Sans barks a warning at you, pinning you with his glare.

“It’s my fault,” you press on – your fault again. “It’s because I asked. Please –”

“Be quiet,” Sans snaps. “Yes, I am fully aware that you asked, but that does not mean that the mongrel should have taken such extreme measures!”

He turns back to his brother. “Couldn’t you have thought of any other solution than damaging the network? Napstaton is the network, for the Angel’s sake! Did that not once occur to you?”

Rus licks up what food his finger caught from the bowl, curling his snake-like tongue around his digit. “I’ll call Blooky later, if that’ll help? I’ll tell him that I was tryin’ some new software, or somethin’.”

That appears to placate Sans slightly. He sits back, regarding his brother with a deadly stare. “Then do it. And soon. I cannot bear Napstaton’s voice anymore…”

Rus then chuckles, instantly dispelling the discontent in the room. “Oh? You sure?”

Yes, I’m sure!” Sans hisses savagely.

He inhales the rest of his starter, then throws his bowl down. His head then whips around towards you, crimson eyes piercing…and his cheeks are glowing pink.

“What are you standing around for?” he almost shrieks. “I am finished! Hurry up!

You obey with a quick bow, taking the brothers’ empty bowls and scurrying to the kitchen.

It’s hard to process what’s just happened – Rus has been experimenting with Ebott’s surveillance system just so you could go somewhere safe.

Why? Though you have only learned of the true extent of Napstaton’s reach across Ebott recently, the very idea of tampering with the network is idiotic. He could have gotten himself into serious trouble for you.

He…worked himself to exhaustion for you.

You don’t understand. How should you feel about this?

You want to tell Rus that he’s a fool, and maybe threaten him with no Cinnamon Bunnies for a month. You want…to thank him for trying.

A warmth develops in your chest, travelling to your face, heating your cheeks.

Human!” Sans screeches.

You frantically plate up his main course, then rush back to the dining room to serve it before he decides to eat your head instead.

-

Once Sans’s paperwork is properly filed and ready for delivery – invoices, relocation forms, patrol schedules, nothing of much value to you – you go straight to Rus’s bedroom.

You enter to find him sitting at his computer with a cigarette hanging from his mouth. Still working?

“Hey,” he says casually.

“How are you?” you ask, stopping beside him and peering at his computer screen – several windows are open, displaying code that you cannot even begin to decipher.

Without tearing his attention from the computer, Rus gently pinches your nose. “Fine, snoop.”

“I’m sorry you got into trouble,” you say.

Rus shrugs. “Nah, it’s okay. I’ll say that I was experimenting with a new software, or somethin’.” He pauses. “Ahh…fuck, now I’m actually gonna have to…make the software…” He rubs a hand over his face. “I could just…make a patch, or somethin’…that fixes a few bugs in the system…” He seems to be talking more to himself, now.

He then turns his chair around to face you, grinning. “’S child’s play, anyway.”

“Is it?” It sounds rather complicated to you.

“Yeah…it’ll only take me a night to do.”

“Why don’t you want to do it, then?”

“… ’Cause it’s work?”  

You glance back at the computer screen, at the thousands upon thousands of numbers and symbols. “Would you like a coffee?”

Rus’s face lights up. “And a cinnamon bun?”

A scowl pulls at your mouth. “No.”

Rus blinks. “Why not?”

“Because you did a stupid thing.”

Rus leans towards you. “C’mon, Kitten,” he coos – he doesn’t sound upset. He’s teasing. “I did that for you, y’know?”

He reaches for you, mischief dancing in his eyes, but you step back.

“You shouldn’t have!” you argue. “You could haven’t gotten into trouble.”

Rus is unaffected by your rejection and leans back, lounging in his chair. “Eh, Blooky likes me. He freaks out easily, but if I tell him what’s up, he’ll calm down.”

“You don’t like Napstaton, though,” you point out.

Rus rolls his eyes. “Doesn’t mean I can’t be professional. He’s a client. I gotta be nice to him, even if he pisses me off.”

“Does he really trust you that much?”

“Oh, yeah. Blooky thinks I’m obsessed with him.”

“Where did he get that idea?”

Rus chuckles. “I, uh…used to ask him for a lot of early access stuff. Books, singles, albums, y’know? I got a CD of his Day X album like…a month before he actually performed it.”

Is that why there are so many NTT books in the library? “Why?” If Rus despises him, then why… “Oh…”

… Is Sans a Napstaton fan? He did get rather angry at his brother’s snarky comeback during dinner, involving Napstaton’s voice…

“Don’t tell him you know,” Rus says with a crafty smile. “M’lord’s a bit embarrassed about that phase.”

Oh, Angel…you’re not going to be able to look at Sans the same way again. If you had learned this fantastic piece of information sooner, you would have stopped fearing him long before now.

Sans, Lieutenant of the Royal Guard, second to Alphys the Terrible, used to be a hardcore Napstaton fan.

“You got some kind of psycho smile goin’ on there, Kitten,” Rus says, holding back laughter. “Seriously, don’t bring it up around him. He ain’t a fan anymore, so he’ll get all snappy. If he complains about Blooky, just…y’know, nod and say of course, sir. Okay?”

“Okay,” you promise.

”Stop smilin’ like that. You’re freakin’ me out.”

You try – you really do. But it’s unbelievable that a creature as terrifying as Sans is such a…a nerd –

Then you remember the humans…the humans that Napstaton mutilated for the sake of his show, and your smile falls.

You can only hope that, based on the absolute disgust in his expression when he caught you watching the torture, the reason why Sans is no longer a fan is because of Napstaton’s heartless brutality.

But he kills humans at the border almost daily…why would something like what you witnessed on Reading With A Killer Robot upset him so much?

… Unless he was worried about you?

Angel, thanks,” Rus says with relief. “You looked like you were gonna tear me apart and enjoy it.”

“Sorry,” you say numbly. “So…why does Sans still have all those NTT books?”

“’Cause we can’t get much else,” Rus says. “And m’lord likes it when the library looks full. They’re there for show. And…heh, I stopped askin’ Blooky for stuff years ago…when m’lord fell out of his phase, but Blooky keeps sendin’ us merch. Books, special one-of-a-kind tapes of his movies, his music…all addressed to his biggest fan.” He gestures to himself. “I think it makes him feel better to send us stuff…helps fuel his ego.”

“So…apart from the books,” you ask, “what do you do with the rest?”

Rus scratches his jaw. “Burn ‘em, usually.”

“Why did Sans’s…phase end?” you press.

Rus shrugs. “I mean…they’re called phases for a reason, ain’t they?”

He’s dodging the question. “But–”

“I’m really gettin’ no cinnamon bun?” he interrupts with exaggerated dismay.

You brush down your apron to keep from having to meet his eyes, irked by his evasiveness. “No.”

“Why, though?” he whines, reaching for you again. “What’s goin’ on? You sound all…spazzy…”

He turns his hand to catch the end of a lock of your hair, but you turn your head to side so he can’t make a grab for it.

You suddenly remember why you had come to Rus in the first place, so distracted by talk of Napstaton. You clasp your hands tightly together to prevent them from shaking. “I need to tell you something.”

Rus sucks his cigarette through his teeth in a puff of glittering smoke and swallows it. “Sure.”

You take a deep breath and say, “I’ll go to the bro– The bar.”

Because if he’s just going to keep treading such dangerous territory, putting himself, his brother, and you at risk…and if he’s going to drive himself to near-collapse just for you…

If it means that you can get even the smallest break from the house, and Rus will stop taking such drastic measures, then…you’ll endure the bar.

Rus’s stare turns hard – it’s so intense you feel almost naked, your very soul exposed to him. He’s incredibly still for a long time, as if he’s waiting for you to say ha-ha, just kidding! or perhaps even change your mind.

But you’d made the decision while cleaning up the kitchen. Though it had taken some very careful thought…

Do the monsters who frequent it have this same fascination with humans as Rus does? Or is there perhaps something else that they get out of getting intimate with them?

You don’t want to imagine it.

How can that place be your only refuge outside of this house? Unless you can gather enough courage to wander The Lake by yourself, or walk the long-abandoned train tracks in the distant hills alone, and run the risk of encountering some of the larger monsters – those that couldn’t make their homes in the bustling cities – or desperate humans… 

Then the bar really is your only option. And you do feel perfectly safe with Rus.

You couldn’t believe that you were actually considering going to a monster brothel just so you can dispel the cabin fever. It is possible that Rus isn’t being entirely honest with you about it, about how it’s the safest place for the both of you to be seen together…

Considering all of this, you had mulled over the pros, and the cons.

The list of cons is endless; first of all, it’s a brothel; it’s an establishment built for monsters, by monsters, never mind that humans are free to come and go as they please; it’s owned by the mysterious Muffet, a monster that, based on Rus’s comments in the past, sounds very powerful; it’s a brothel; there are cameras everywhere, and you are still disowned…illegal…this endeavour could get you killed; it’s a brothel…    

There is only one pro; it will get you out of the house.

The pro won.

You’re a fool for doing this, but if you’re careful…if you plan for every possibility…then perhaps you will succeed without too much grief.

“Fuck…” Rus rasps. “You sure?”

“Yes,” you say firmly. You have no other choice, really, so you have to be brave.

He drags a hand over his face, droplets of sweat forming along the line of his brow.

“You…” he grinds out. “You really wanna do this?”

You don’t trust yourself to answer when the memory of your screaming slithers from that dark place in your mind where all of your worst memories lurk; you, writhing in the corner of your cell and beating your fists against the walls with desperation, trying to knock them down so you can see the sun for once

You only nod determinedly.

Rus releases a ragged breath. “Shit…okay. Alright…” He screws his eyes shut and rubs them with trembling fingers. “But…we need to be really fucking careful.”

You close the distance between you and press a weak hand against his arm. “I know.”

He opens his eyes and regards your touch – a light blush blooms on his cheekbones. “I can’t believe you wanna do this…”

He then sits forwards and cups your chin, expression serious. “We can do this, but not tonight, okay?”

“Of course,” you agree.

Rus relaxes. “You gotta day off soon?”

You nod in his hold.

“Hmm…if we do the night before…we can stay out for a long as you want.” Rus slowly strokes your cheek with his thumb. “We can take the long way…go through the streets of Central where all the lights are brightest. Sound good?”

If the bar is in Central, then… “Can we walk through the park? The really big one? Is it close?”

A smile plays about the corners of Rus’s mouth. “’S a few blocks away… Can do, I guess.”

That Girl used to walk through the park. It was so beautiful during the bright summers, and the auburn fall especially.

“But…” Rus’s smile drops. “…we can walk wherever, but we have to end up there. You know that, right?”

Your skin crawls. “Yes…”

“I’ll figure something out,” Rus promises. “It has to look like I’m taking you there. It’ll look…suspicious if I’m leadin’ you all around Central and then just droppin’ you without stepping into that neighbourhood.”

Is his human obsession really that well known? “Couldn’t I just…run away from you?”

Rus’s smile returns, but it’s very unsettling. “No one gets away from me.”

That doesn’t sound very comforting.

“But we gotta go over a few things,” he says sternly.

“Okay…” you say hesitantly.

“First thing, you keep your head down. Always. Eyes on the floor, and if someone tries talking to you, you keep quiet and let me handle it. Alright?”

“Yes…”

“Next…you gotta do everything I say, okay? If I tell you to touch me, you have to. If I tell you to sit in my lap, you do.”

“… Yes…”

“If you feel uncomfortable, you tell me immediately, and I get us out of there. Right?”

You like that rule. “Okay.”

Rus groans. “And…I’m gonna get a bit touchy. I mean…I touch you a lot here, but there…it’s…” He clears his throat. “So, I know you didn’t like me getting too familiar. Yeah…you get all prickly,” he adds with a low chuckle – your displeasure must have been showing.

“But I’m gonna be touching you a lot, there,” he continues. “Until we get somewhere safe. Where no one can see us.”

It’s not the most appealing option, but if it keeps up the façade, then you’re going to have to endure it.

“What…do you do there?” you ask slowly, though you would rather not know the answer.

“What d’you mean?”

“With the humans? When you’re there…what do you do with them?”

Why is he so popular in this bar? Why does he have to lead you there? Why can’t he just accompany you around Central and then just pretend that he lost you?

Why does he have to constantly touch you?

Rus is obsessed with humans.

The bar is a brothel – he even has a room of his own, unless that was some kind of joke…

It’s not hard to connect the dots.

“Kitten,” Rus says gently, “we’re goin’ for you, okay? We don’t need to stay long, and we don’t need to make a scene or anything.”

He has very carefully managed to evade answering your question – it doesn’t instil confidence.

Rus taps his thumb against your cheek. “Kitten? You doing okay? You…still wanna do this?”

You can only hum, too sick to speak. Can he…even engage in something so intimate when he’s nothing but bone? He obviously can, in some way, if he frequents a place built specifically for that purpose…

Angel, you never would have thought that you would find yourself wondering if skeletons can have sex!

Rus frowns. “Why’re you blushin’?”

You shake your head, panic welling in the pit of your stomach. If you go to this bar with Rus, how will the night end?

The Man-Who-Guarded-You…you can hear him stumbling towards you cell, belching between hiccups, full of the booze that he reeks of.

“You’re panicking,” Rus says. “What’s up?”

“Nothing,” you squeak.

He narrows his eyes. “Kitten…what happens there doesn’t have to happen between us, okay? That’s what’s got you all twitchy, ain’t it?”

Can you trust him to hold back? Sex is no foreign concept to you…but your first experience with it was not a pleasant one. You’re not ready; you’ll never be ready after what that awful man tried to do to you.

“Kid, I promise you,” he says, “nothin’s gonna happen.”

“Are you sure?” you ask in a whisper.

Rus presses a kiss to your forehead. “Kid, I know I’m pretty shameless. I know I’ve got a touching problem. But d’you really think that I’d force you?”

I’m not gonna let anyone hurt you, he’d once promised you, looking the spitting image of the Grim Reaper.

“No,” you breathe, the panic dissipating. “Okay…thank you. I’m so –”

“Say sorry and I’m gonna have to ban music for a week,” Rus interrupts you with a bitter smile. “I’ll do it,” he warns when you open your mouth to protest. “I’ll pull every wire. Good luck puttin’ ‘em all back in.” 

He kisses your brow again, slowly, gently breathing against your skin. “I know why you’re freakin’ out, and you don’t have to apologise for that. Ever.” 

You lean into him, the adrenaline still fizzling through your bloodstream, making you feel like you’re seconds away from exploding.

Rus rasp a soft laugh. “I’d love to cuddle tonight, Kitten.” He pushes you away, releasing your chin. “But I gotta fake patch to make.” His face darkens. “Listen…you’ve still got time to change your mind. If you do, tell me, and we can call it off.”

You probably should…but you can’t live the rest of your days only knowing this house.

“I can’t,” you say.

Rus sags, defeated, and scratches the back of his skull. “Fine.”

“Will Sans get angry?”

“Heh…he won’t like it, but s’long as we’re careful, he’ll allow it.”

It’s happening – not in the way you ever would have imagined it, but you’re going to get out of the house! You will see Central again…you will see the streets, the houses, the stores, the park…

It may have all changed, so much that it may be unrecognisable, but it will be outside; under the wide, open sky, with no walls boxing you in, no windows teasing you with the view…

“Thank you, Rus,” you say earnestly.

His left eye twitches. “Uh…maybe don’t thank me, yet. Let’s get the night over with, first…”

You nod, picking at the seams of your apron. It could go horribly wrong, but…you trust Rus. He won’t let anyone hurt you…he won’t…

You leave to brew him his long-needed coffee…and to warm up a Cinnamon Bunny.

-

You’re expecting the apprehension to build as the days leading up to the promised night of freedom get smaller and smaller.

But it doesn’t.

Your anticipation, however, does.

Sans remains ignorant for the time being, but you’re certain that he will figure it out – he already knows that you want to get out of the house. He just doesn’t know when. Or where.

He does appear to be in a much better mood, after the NTT camera debacle was apparently resolved – his cell phone has been unusually quiet and dark, lately. Unfortunately, having to endure his rantings about how he is finally free of that sentient calculator’s incessant whining is nothing short of…torturous.

His distaste of the robotic superstar is very convincing – you never would have guessed that he was once so devoted to said sentient calculator if Rus hadn’t told you.

Nevertheless, you tolerate his complaining, acknowledging each new grievance with the well-rehearsed Of course, sir, unable to say it without smiling just a little…

It’s almost no time at all when you’re waking from a light sleep with the single thought;

Tonight.

Tonight, you’re getting out.

Rus is absent all day – his room is empty, and Sans claims to have not seen him since dinner last night. He is either preparing for tonight’s excursion, or he’s genuinely busy.

It’s incredibly hard to focus on your work all day, knowing what’s awaiting you the moment dinner is over; sky, streets, trees, grass –

Monsters.

Humans.

Rus will be with you. Rus…won’t let anyone hurt you.

As you had expected, he doesn’t show for dinner that evening. Sans appears untroubled by his missing brother, but he is a little suspicious of you.

“Why are you so fidgety?” he spits. “What’s the matter with you?”

You hadn’t noticed that your hands are trembling around the neck of the wine bottle. “I’m sorry, sir.” The excitement is actually making you a little sick.

Sans harrumphs. “I don’t suppose my brother told you why he is not joining us?”

“No, sir.” It isn’t exactly a lie. Can Sans sense half-truths on your soul?

He only tuts with displeasure. “Stupid mongrel…”

Perhaps you were wrong, and Sans has become more suspicious of his brother since the camera incident – or maybe even as far back as the MP3 episode. But he continues with his dinner in silence, grumbling to himself every now and then about the state of the eastern border.

After he’s long since retreated to his room, Rus finally appears, just as you’re finishing up with cleaning the kitchen.

He enters the room with a large plastic bag hooked in the crook of his elbow, donning a maroon sweater, a pair of torn jeans, and his intimidating hooded jacket, lined with scraggly fur. His clothes look familiar –

He wore them at the camp.

The only thing that is missing – thank heavens – is his collar.

“Evenin’,” he rasps, kissing the top of your head. “Still good for tonight?” He looks reserved, a small glimmer of hope that you have changed your mind twinkling in his eyes.

You definitely haven’t. Though you are certainly uneasy, if you back out now, you may never regain the courage to try again. Ever.

When you shake your head, Rus fishes something out of the plastic bag before he hands it to you. “You’re gonna need these, then.”

You peek into the bag; it contains a new set of clothes, a pair of boots, and what looks like a baseball cap…

“Why?” you ask, digging out the hat – whatever logo that was once sewn into it has been torn off. In fact, all of the clothes seems to be in pretty bad shape.

“Can’t parade you around lookin’ all cute in that skirt and those stockin’s, can I?” Rus answers, crossing the room and swinging the fridge open. “Anyone would wanna just…”

He withdraws a half-cut garlic bulb from the fridge and holds it up to his mouth, drawing your eyes to his amber tongue slowly – infuriatingly slowly – snaking out from behind his fangs.

“…gobble you up.”

His tongue curls around the garlic bulb, and he swallows it in the blink of an eye.

Does he have to do that now? You’re about to argue when you spot the object in his other hand.

“What’s that for?” you ask instead.

Rus lifts the object – it’s a paper bag bearing the image of a spider…shaped like a doughnut?

“Bribing material,” he says. “Fresh from Muffet’s.” He opens the bag and pulls out a ring doughnut slathered with magenta icing. “Gotta make it look like I’m tempting you.”

He’s going to lead you through the streets of Central with sweets? Like you’re some kind of stray dog? You’re not very comfortable with that.

“Do you have to?” you ask miserably.

Rus does have the good grace to look remorseful when he says, “It’s gotta look convincing, Kitten. Can’t make it look too easy…”

It’s annoying, but understandable. “Fine…” you grumble.

Rus chuckles and swallows the doughnut. “Go get changed before I eat them all.”

You trudge from the kitchen and change in your bedroom, careful not to make too much noise, lest Sans decide to investigate for whatever reason.

Everything fits you almost perfectly; the dark jeans are a little short, but the boots cover your bare ankles; the shirt, too, is small, barely reaches half-way down your middle, but it doesn’t feel tight around the shoulders…because the neckline is very low cut. Maybe you should wear your bra tonight…?

Shrugging off the shirt, you fetch the garment from your wardrobe, weighing it. It might not hurt, this time. It’s nothing like a collar, really…

Slowly, you clip the bra around your chest. It doesn’t feel too uncomfortable…

You lift the straps, securing them over your shoulders, then assess yourself in the mirror; the bra looks quite nice, actually.

It’s not quite a victory, yet. You take a breath –

You…can’t take in the air. The bra squeezes…

It’s tight…it’s cold…it’s metal.

It’s too tight!

You tear off the awful thing and throw it back into the closet. Your knees turn weak, and you stumble backwards, collapsing onto the bed, panting.

It’s only a bra! you scold yourself – it’s nothing compared to a collar.

But it had felt so suffocating

You press your hands to your temples, forcing yourself to focus on each steady breath in, each steady breath out. It would do you no good to succumb to a panic attack now. You’re about to venture outside for the first time in a while. You’ll be traversing an unfamiliar Ebott while your existence is considered illegal.

If a simple bra can work you up this much, then maybe this is a bad idea?

No…it’s not about a simple change of scenery, anymore. You used to be so brave, so strong…everything That Girl wasn’t. What those men did to you in that camp…you need to undo it, somehow.

You continue dressing without the bra, not too concerned about the low-cut neckline anymore.

The zip-up hoodie is a little too big, forcing you to roll up the sleeves so you can use your hands; a leather jacket has also been provided, again, too big, but warm.

Once re-dressed, you assess yourself in the mirror pinned to the door of your closet.

You look…very scruffy. The jeans are full of fraying holes, and the boots are badly scuffed up. The leather jacket appears to be in relatively good condition, until you turn just a little to the right, revealing a long rip across the shoulder that has been poorly sewn back up with red thread.  

With the addition of your scars, you look as though you’ve been in a fight…but you also look like you’d emerged from the scuffle victorious.

Do many of the humans in Central look like this, now? Their clothes torn to pieces in brawls, and fraying at the edges from neglect?

If they do, then you’ll fit right in.

You grab the baseball cap and creep back down to the kitchen, where Rus is waiting for you perched on a chair by the island.  

He hums approvingly. “Grunge suits you.”

“Where did you get these from?” you ask – after weeks of skirts, the jeans feel too tight, too snug…

Rus shoves another sugar coated doughnut into his mouth. “01 and 02. Who else?”

He approaches you, licking the sugar from his fingers as he does. After making another careful assessment of you, he throws the bag of doughnuts on the island and snatches the baseball cap from you. He hooks it over your head, ensuring that it’s secure, then he pulls the hood out from under your jacket and slips it over the cap.

“Nice,” he rumbles, playfully tugging the brim of the cap over your eyes.

You smack his hand away and lift it to glare at him. “Where do they find all their…products?” You hope that they didn’t recover these clothes from the remains of starved humans littering the streets. 

Rus shrugs. “Scavenging, probably.”

Angel…they probably did…

But something doesn’t sit right with you. “So…how can they keep their business a secret if Ebott is always watched?” Surely at least one of Napstaton’s many cameras would have caught them in the act?

Rus pulls a cigarette from his pocket and slides it into his mouth. “’Cause of me. I needed a few things, so I got Blooky to turn a blind eye. Just once. But…then he decided he liked what they had, so he ignores them ‘cause they get him stuff, too.”

“You protected them?” He’d said that he would sell them out in a second if he had to…

He chuckles. “What can I say? ‘S real nice when people get all mad at you about it, then act like they secretly thought it was a good idea all along once they’ve gotten a taste. Makes me feel real special. Undyne relies on them for human related junk. Alphys hates them as much as m’lord, but they got her a drum kit once… ‘S her pride and joy, so she pretends that they don’t exist.

“S’long as the queen doesn’t find out, they’re fine.”

“Couldn’t you just get Napstaton to turn a blind eye with me, too?” you mumble, picking at the zip of your jacket.

Rus’s smile turns bitter. “I mean…a pair of knee high BDSM-lookin’ boots isn’t exactly gonna land him in a metal crusher.”

He nervously fiddles with something in a back pocket of his jeans. “Look, kid…he sees you with me in that club, he ain’t gonna care…but if he sees you with me by The Lake, or in New Home, he’s gonna do a background check. Why? ‘Cause of my glowing rep with humans. And when he can’t find you in the system, he’s gonna know you’re disowned.”

He scowls and yanks his lighter from his pocket and lights his cigarette. He takes a long, desperate drag before he continues. “Sure, he might not go to the queen right away, but he ain’t above blackmail. And if we don’t bend, he’ll spill.”

He exhales a glittering cloud of blue smoke. “Or…he’ll take you away.”

Bile gathers in the back of your mouth. “F-for what?”

Rus inhales another mouthful from the cigarette, then says, “Ever watched Cooking With A Killer Robot?

“Okay,” you say thickly. “Okay…I get it…”

Something in your head suddenly clicks. “You asked me if I wanted to go with you to see them. Ages ago…”

Rus quirks a brow. “Who?”

“One and Two. You went to see them once, and you asked me if I wanted to come.” If Napstaton buys from them, then… “Are they watched?”

Rus shakes his head. “Nah. But I know where you’re going with this…why don’t I just take you to see them, right?”

You nod hesitantly – if Rus protects these monsters, and they are under strict orders to speak of nothing that occurs during business, and Napstaton keeps his mechanical eyes off of them, then why not go to…wherever they’re based…instead of the bar?

But his eyes darken, a wry smile pulling at his mouth, crushing your hopes. “They’re set up there. They rent out the basement.”

Your stomach plummets. “Really?”

“Biggest social hub for humans in Ebott? Couldn’t have picked a better place.” Rus exhales a cloud of smoke. “Aw, Kitten, don’t look so down. I can still introduce you, if you want? They’re cool guys, y’know?”

When you don’t answer him, he gently takes a hold of you by the shoulders.

“Kid,” he says lowly, smoke pouring out from between his fangs, “are you still okay with this?”

You nod, heart thudding painfully against your sternum. “Yes.”

“… Right” Sweat forms around Rus’s temples. “You remember what I told you? Head down, always.”

You nod.

“You do everything I tell you, no questions?”

Your mouth goes dry. “Yes…”

“You tell me immediately if you feel scared, and we come home. Capiche?

It’s hard to swallow around the cold lump clogging your throat. “Yes.”

Rus stares at you hard. “I’m gonna be touching you a lot, tonight…”

He won’t hurt you. He won’t let anyone hurt you… “That’s fine.”

He takes a deep breath, closing his eyes. Is he going to refuse you? He looks uneasy, sweat rolling down the sides of his face…

To your relief, he smiles. His eyes snap open and he pulls you against him, sucking the still-lit cigarette into his mouth, and he brings his grinning, smoky mouth close to your ear.

“Hold on tight,” he whispers.

And he plunges the both of you into the Void.

 

Chapter Text

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Chapter Thirteen

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Warnings for chapter: Mild Trauma, Soul Manipulation, Non-Explicit Sexual Scenes, Strong Language, Mild Violence

 

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You fall from the Void with a gasp.

The second your feet hit solid ground, the near-arctic temperature of the vast nothingness quickly lessens to an uncomfortable chill. The choking smell of magic dissipates, and in its place is…dust.

You pull away from Rus, but his arm remains tight around your middle.

You glance up at him. “What –?”

But he silences you with a finger to his teeth. He winks, then points upwards.

You follow the direction of his finger – you’re pressed into a corner, and a camera is hanging from a badly rusting bracket directly above you, monitoring the room.

“Blind spot,” he whispers.

You relax, just a little. “Where are we?”

Your breath fogs before your face. You’re out.

You’re out

“Old video store, I think,” Rus replies, and no cloud of breath floats from the void of his mouth. “Whoa, hold it a sec…”

He grabs you by the shoulder when you push forwards, desperate to investigate your new surroundings. It smells so different; dusty, with hints of plastic and aging wood. It even feels different; breezy, but not too cold, large and empty…new…

“Kitten, listen to me,” Rus urges. “Here’s what I need you to do, okay?”

You’re itching to look around, your fingertips buzzing, your knees shaking with the anticipation. But you force yourself to remain still. “Okay…”

Rus grins. “Take your time…look around, then go outside, alright? I’ll follow. I promise.”

He releases you, then shifts so you can crawl from the cage of his arms.

And you take in your surroundings.

It takes all of your self-control not to sprint around the room in a fit of excitement. It’s dark, the strip-lights scattered, bent and cracked, across the floor, and some hanging by a single wire from the ceiling, but the streetlights beaming through the broken windows at the front of the store illuminate it just enough for you to properly assess it; it is, indeed, an old video store, but it looks like a tornado tore through it.  

Old VHS tapes and cases are cluttering the place, some kicked into large piles in the corner of the room; the carpet is full of tears and plaster dust, dirt, cardboard, pieces of shattered tapes, and food wrappers; flaking and peeling posters are barely hanging onto the walls by a single pin, the images badly faded over time; the shelves have either been tipped over or shoved against the walls, the door to the store, and the windows…perhaps to once prevent a break-in.

The cashier counter bears clear evidence that it’s been raided several times over the years; the surface is dented and covered with scratches from shoes, knives, many other possible weapons; the register had been torn from its place, but the screws keeping it anchored haven’t quite broken, and the cash draw is empty.

It’s…filthy. It’s awful. It’s disgusting. It’s terrifying…

But it’s different.

You glance back at Rus for some kind of sign, anything that could suggest that danger is nearby. When he gives you a thumbs up, you relax, and pick through the tapes littering the ground.

Many of the titles are recognisable; old children’s movies, documentaries, comedies, tragedies… Maybe, one day, Rus can fix an old VHS player and allow you to watch some of these.

You abandon the tapes to investigate the front of the store. It’s messier than you had first realised; glass covers the carpet, and amongst the cluster of crystals are large rocks, shoes, some bricks…used to break in. The door doesn’t exist anymore, ripped from its hinges. 

Then you look outside.

The street is huge, lit by ghostly white streetlights lining the sidewalks. Hesitant, you tiptoe out of the store, each crunch of glass beneath your boots provoking a small flicker of panic, the fear that someone will hear you…

When you step out into the street, that fear momentarily vanishes.

Buildings tower high above you – not quite like the skyscrapers that you’ve seen of New Home on NTT News, but tall enough that they look like they’re skimming the heavens. Looking up at them makes you dizzy, but you can’t tear your eyes away; windows are shattered, some boarded up with metal sheets or tarp; fire-escapes have crumbled away with age and lay in tangled heaps in the street…

The sky is clouded over, grey in the lamplight. Winter is finally at its peak, filling the air with a frigid cold that promises an overnight frost.

You jog out into the road – several abandoned cars have been stripped down to the skeleton over time; trash cans and torn boxes are scattered across the sidewalks; all it unnervingly quiet, empty…

There’s another camera hanging from a bracket nailed to one of the nearby buildings. It’s not trained on you…but then you spot another…and another… Every building in the street has its own camera – one of them must be able to see you.

Napstaton must be able to see you.

You take a staggered step back and lower your gaze…then spot a hunched figure lingering in the mouth of a dark alley. A pair of large, glowing eyes slide open, and they are looking right at you.

And your fear returns.

Are they human, or do those eyes belong to a monster? You can’t tell – they’re just a big, lumpy shape cloaked in shadow. Then the figure shifts, and you retreat with a weak cry –

Your back hits a familiar, bony body, his ribs pressing into your spine.

Rus…you almost say, but your relieved sigh is cut off when his arm curls around your shoulders and his teeth brush against your temple.    

“Whaddaya think?” he murmurs.

The figure’s gleaming eyes widen, then close, and they slink into the darkness of the alley.

Once you’ve caught your breath, you say, “It’s big.”

“Uh-huh. Recognise any of it?”

“No…”

Rus shuffles against you. “I dunno how long it’s gonna take for us to get to the bar from here, but once we’re there, then we’ll be safe. You gonna be okay?”

“I think so.”  

“Well, then…” Rus holds a doughnut inches from your mouth, coated with a clear glaze. “…I think the park is this way…”

When you don’t respond, he teasingly waves it from side to side.

You want to tell him to stop, but it’s the keep up the illusion…right?

Letting go of your pride, you take the doughnut and nibble on it as Rus steers you to the right and walks you down the middle of the road.

It’s so strange to feel the rough, uneven tarmac beneath your feet – there are potholes everywhere, and litter gathers along the curbs, clogging the drains.

“D-do you know where we are?” you ask in a whisper. Could all of Central have been reduced to this state? It can’t possibly be – the various stages erected for the televised Day X have always been in immaculate locations, stunningly beautiful and lively.    

“Sort of,” Rus whispers back, twirling some of your hair around a long finger. “’S a pretty empty part of the city. Nobody lives here except the outcasts…those who like the dark and quiet…”

He turns to walk down a narrow, dingy alleyway, and you struggle to match his pace in the dark. The alley is near-pitch black, lit only by the streetlamps lining the road behind you.

“This part of Central’s sort of…off limits?” Rus pulls you to a halt only to light a cigarette, and he urges you onwards, puffing out sweet clouds of smoke as he speaks. “Some monsters like solitude, so they stay in streets like that…” He jerks a thumb over his shoulder. “Don’t bother makin’ them look nice, otherwise everyone would wanna live there.”

“Do you know if humans live there, too?” you ask.

Rus shrugs. “Probably.”

“I-isn’t that dangerous?” you say, thinking back to the wide, menacing eyes of the strange figure outside the video store, watching you…

“Yeah, maybe,” Rus replies. “But s’cheaper, I guess…”

You can only nod.

Before your imprisonment, you were aware of many humans in your apartment building still struggling to catch up with the GOLD exchange, trying to make back all of the money they had lost – like everyone else – during the first year of monster rule. It had taken That Girl months to become financially stable again…perhaps there are still some humans who have not caught up.

“Cheaper than wh–?”

You choke on your words when a large figure peels from the shadows and sways towards you.

It’s a monster, tall and skinny, with pencil-thin limbs so long that their knuckles drag along the ground. They’re naked, and they’re staring at you with eyes quite literally as big as dinner plates. They look like some kind of nightmare, leering at you, saliva dripping from their wide, smiling lips.

The doughnut slips through your fingers and hits the ground with a dull pap! You resist Rus’s pulling. You don’t want to be anywhere near this monster. But they keep advancing…

Oh, Angel… They know you’re disowned. They know you betrayed their queen, they know, they know –!

Then they spot Rus.

A strange noise croaks from the creature’s throat, and they stumble backwards.

“Y-you…” the monster wheezes. “My…my apologises, s-sir.”

Rus growls, and it sounds menacing. Threatening…

“See somethin’ you like?” he asks with a sinister chuckle. His magic hums to life, crawling along your skin.

The monster almost trips on an over-turned trash can. “N-no! No, sir, not here!”

Then the creature leaps towards the nearest building, latching onto the wall. They scuttle up the bricks like a spider, and they disappear over the edge of the roof.

“You doin’ okay?” Rus’s low voice in your ear makes you jump.

No. “Yes… I’m fine.”

He hums, not quite convinced. Then he pulls another doughnut out of the paper bag and hands it to you.

“Eat up,” he says, crouching to pick up the fallen pastry. “The sugar might help.”

He blows the collected dirt and gravel off the ruined doughnut, then swallows it in one go. “Wanna keep goin’? We can go ho –”

“No,” you say resolutely, and you scarf down the entire doughnut.

Your aware that your words have not put him at ease, but he doesn’t argue and gently pushes you into a walk, adopting a slightly quicker pace than before.   

“What was th–” You swallow your mouthful of doughnut and nearly gag on it. “What was that…thing?” It didn’t look like any kind of monster you could identify – monsters usually bear some resemblance to Surface animals, or objects, or mythical creatures.

Rus’s fingers trail over your shoulder, then stroke along your bare collarbone. “The type that likes the dark.”

Thank the Angel that it stays there – you would have a heart attack if you saw that walking down the peaceful streets of Woodlands.

And it had been terrified of Rus.

Just like the Man-In-Charge of the camp. Just like the Man-Who-Guarded-You…

Who had mistaken him for Sans.

You do recall Rus saying that any relation to someone in the Royal Guard would earn you enemies…so did Sans do something in response? Did he perhaps ensure that any attack on his brother would result in a punishment far worse than death?

You peek up at Rus out of the corner of your eye – he’s huge, but only in height. There’s no impressive weight to him that could be perceived as threatening. And while he does have a wicked temper, he’s not very…imposing, really. Nothing like how Sans can be.

Is it Sans’s reputation that protects him?

“What’s up?” he asks, sensing your discomfort.

“You…you won’t let anyone hurt me,” you say weakly, “will you?”

He twists you around by the shoulders and he backs you up against the nearest building, pressing you into the cold, wet bricks.

You’re still reeling from the sudden reaction as he cages you with his arms, and your shocked from your daze when he presses his teeth to the side of your neck. 

“Never,” he rasps, gently dragging his fangs up to the corner of your jaw.

You’re frozen, face heating, blood rushing to your ears, and your stomach in knots.

It’s all for show…endure it…

Then he pulls away, grinning. He coaxes you back into a leisurely stroll, swinging a protective – possessive – arm over your shoulders once again.

He turns you down another narrow alleyway, and it’s harder to keep your footing, barely able to see through the darkness. You cling to Rus to avoid tripping over some unseen obstacle and breaking your face open on the concrete.

But after the next turn, light filters through the thin mouth of the alley up ahead. It’s then when a buzzing sound reaches your ears, like a rumble of distant voices…

“Alright,” Rus says, voice serious. “I know it’s gonna be hard not to give in to temptation, but try to keep your head down. Got it?”

You shiver. “Okay…?”

The rumbling noise grows louder. You reach the end of the alley and step out onto another main street –

And it’s like you stepped through the Void and emerged into a completely different world.

There are lights everywhere; bright, neon signs that flash and flicker, some remodelled from old human signs that now advertise monster-based products and services. The buildings along this wide street are in much better shape, all painted vibrant colours, windows intact, doors undamaged; stalls are set up along the sidewalks, selling magical food, small knick-knacks, late-night drinks…

And the road is alive with people.

…alive with monsters.

You have never seen so many in one place before…aside from the Day X performances on TV. That Girl had had several encounters with monsters in the street outside of her apartment block, but this cannot compare.

There are a few sparse humans milling about the crowd, some dressed like you; scruffy and with clothes dotted with holes. Some look quite smart – they must either work for a monster, or work in the food business.

Human food is a necessity in Ebott – now more than ever – therefore a lucrative business to be in. 

You shrink back, ensuring that the brim of the cap is covering your face. You’re immediately regretting your decision to take the long route to your destination. The air is suddenly too thin. You’re sweating, shaking…you don’t feel safe out here.

What if they see you? Will they know that you’re disowned at first glance? Will they attack you? Will they kill you…?

Rus’s arm around your shoulders squeezes. “Deep breaths, okay? You’re with me.”

You try to control your breathing before you faint while Rus leads you down the bustling street. You keep your eyes on the ground, on your feet, on Rus’s feet. If you keep your face hidden, perhaps no one will even notice you…

The monsters don’t acknowledge you, or Rus…at first. But when they do, they jump out of your path, scrabbling away with a soft intake of breath or a loud choking sound.     

You dare to look up, and you catch a small frog-like creature stumble back and fall, it’s incredibly large eyes staring at you –

No, not you. At Rus.

The creature is shaking, watching him with unmistakable terror in its eyes.

Rus doesn’t spare the monster a glance and keeps walking. You realise that a hush is following you – the indistinct chatter of the crowds dulls to a tense silence with every step you take.

The monsters are not only leaping out of Rus’s way in a panic, but they’re giving him a wide berth, too. They edge around him, and they don’t slow to watch him in awe – instead, they quicken their pace, eager to get away.

This kind of reaction you would have expected around Sans. Rus can be frightening when he wants to be, but you had thought that he was quite social – from what you had gathered, he seems to have quite a few good friends; Undyne, Happy, maybe Napstaton, One and Two…

“The mutt…” someone whispers as they hurry on by –

They don’t get far.

Rus moves too fast for you to keep up; you crash into his side when he abruptly turns. When you blink away the vertigo, he has a monster donning what looks like a witch’s hat by the throat.

The crowd collectively gasps, and they’re in a rush to leave before the carnage begins.

That’s quite telling – people usually tend to stick around to watch a good brawl.     

The monster in Rus’s grip thrashes, kicking their stumpy legs, struggling for air. They have no arms, so it cannot prise Rus’s fingers away from their thin neck.

…not that they would have had any success even if they did have hands.  

What was that?” Rus asks cordially…but you can hear the murderous intent lurking beneath the pleasantness. “Sorry, I wasn’t payin’ attention. Mind sayin’ it again?

The monster shakes their head as if in a fit, gasping a stream of no, no, nos.

You’re too frightened to move – in Rus’s left eye is that flicker of a flame, spitting magic and power, the energy of it hugging you like a brewing thundercloud. His magic is strong, like the sharp tang of metal…but in that moment, it reminds you more of the taste of blood…

He looks so different. He even sounds different. Murderous…

Can’t you see I’ve got company?” Rus drawls, his arm around you tightening. “You tryin’ to embarrass me?”   

No, no, no, no!” the monster squeaks. 

Rus brings the monster’s face close to his wickedly grinning mouth. “Wanna see if this old dog has any new tricks?

The monster looks like they’re close to suffocating. Just when it seems that they’re going to faint, Rus releases his crushing grip and they crumple to the sidewalk with a ragged gasp.

“Better run along before the mutt decides to play fetch,” he snarls.

The monster leaps to their feet, losing their hat in the process, and they literally fly away, gliding through the air with their curly-toed boots an inch from the ground.

You’re stunned, heart racing. If it weren’t for Rus holding you up, you would have collapsed.

There. There had been that temper of his.

… Maybe this fear of him has nothing to do with Sans after all.

His magic fades, and he’s leading you down the street again. It’s a lot emptier than it had been only a few moments ago.

You walk in silence from there. Word has clearly travelled fast about Papyrus’s night on the town – the next road you turn into is not nearly as busy as the first, and those that are still braving the streets keep as far away from you as they possibly can.

You’re still reeling. You can’t enjoy the sights anymore, too affected by that sudden display of anger.

He won’t hurt you…he won’t hurt you.

He promised…

Rus suddenly pulls you into an alley and presses you against the wall.

He cups your face and leans in close. “You alright?” he whispers, and he sounds much calmer, more like himself. Maybe even a little scared…

You try to answer, but your throat is too tight.

“Tell me you wanna go home,” he says. “I’ll…I’ll figure out a way to –” He sighs when you shake your head. “Okay. But…what that was…back there? It…it wasn’t me, okay?”

It wasn’t him…no, of course it wasn’t. You know Rus, don’t you? Star-gazing, cuddle-obsessed, Cinnamon-Bunny-loving Rus…

It’s all part of the act.

“Yes,” you breathe after a moment.

He sags against you, then peppers kisses up your throat, pausing beneath your ear. “No one’s gonna hurt you,” he murmurs.

He kisses along your cheek. “I’m not gonna hurt you…”

His fangs hover over your lips, filling your mouth with his smoky breath.

You remain there for quite some time, simply breathing each other in. Calming each other.

Then, with a deep sigh, he says, “Ready?”

You can’t give up now. “Yes.”

Rus consumes his cigarette and pulls out another, taking several drags from it before he walks you out of the alley and down the now deserted street.

There’s the outline of the park in the distance; the trees have shed their leaves, turning the thin branches into spindly hands that reach for the clouded night sky. You had forgotten that the trees would be bare, so deep in winter; you had foolishly imaged that you would walk beneath full, healthy leaves and fruit blossoms, following the path through the lush, neatly trimmed bushes…

The farther down the road you walk, the more decrepit the surrounding buildings become; there is a strange mid-way point where all life seems to vanish, all colour, all light…then the state of the buildings gradually improve the closer you get to the park.

It’s like the monsters picked the spots of Central that suited them, and left the rest to rot.

The thought has you worried that the park may, too, have been neglected. But when you finally reach the gates, your apprehension vanishes.

The metal structure look a little dented in places, the paint flaking here and there, but the area looks clean; no litter, no abandoned cars or clothes, no bodies…

“You ever been here before?” Rus asks.

“No,” you reply. That Girl had…

The park is eerily quiet. Dim lamps alight the winding paths, glowing some otherworldly light that you are certain is powered by magic. The grass is quite clean, instead of cluttered with wrappers of empty bottles, but it’s definitely been forgotten; too long, too untidy, with plants in places that they shouldn’t really be. The path is cracked and bumpy, weeds and tree roots burrowing beneath the concrete.

… But at least that’s only the worst of it.

You soon realise that the park is not as empty as you had hoped; there’s a small crowd of monsters hovering beside the path, crowding around a dented park bench. All heads turn at the sound of your approach.

“Oh, my God…check this out,” a deep voice leers.

“…lookit…a meatbag.”

Two meatbags.”

You lower your head, hiding your face beneath the cap.

“Haven’t seen one here in a while. Have you?”

“Not me. Thought we’d chased ‘em out…”

Do humans not come to this park, anymore?

“Oh, fuck…” one of them suddenly hisses. “Fuck, fuck, fuck!

“Dumbass, that ain’t no meatbag!”

Ah…they’ve recognised Rus.

“Fuck, he sees us!”

Fuck, fuck, fuck!

Scatter!

You glance up just in time to see some of the monsters dive head first into the nearest bush, some scarper across the grass and out of sight. One leaps into the air and lands in a naked tree, clutching the branches and trying to make themselves as small as possible.

Rus just…ignores them, casually striding on by with a look of smug satisfaction on his face.

Like before, word travels fast – any monsters that may have been loitering about the park have disappeared, leaving evidence of their presence; half full cans of Sea Tea or Authentic Spider Cider roll down the path, contents spilling across the tarmac, and empty food wrappers floating across the grass in the gentle breeze.

“You still with me?” Rus mutters.

Just barely. “Yes…”

He pulls out another doughnut and hold it out for you to accept. “We might be able to talk, now…”

You cram the doughnut into your mouth instead of answering – what could you possibly say to him?

“Look…” he then says, taking you gently by the chin and tilting your head up.

You’re looking at a tree. Why does he want to you look at a tree –?

Then you see it; there’s a tiny camera lens jutting out of a small hole that may have once housed a bird’s nest. You never would have seen it had Rus not pointed it out…

“Don’t look too long, though,” Rus chuckles, releasing you. “That the…eighth one I think I’ve seen.”

You swallow your doughnut, and it’s like gulping down sand. “Since…we left the store?” You think back to the cameras positioned on every corner of the street, observing every alley and every miniscule crack in the sidewalk…

“Since we entered the park.”

… Angel, help you.

Is Napstaton watching right now? Has one of his clones clocked Rus and decided to stalk him, or have they already alerted the mainframe? Is Napstaton EX debating on what show he wants you on; Reading With A Killer Robot, or Cooking With A Killer Robot?

“This was a bad idea,” Rus grumbles. “You’re panicking…”

“I’m not!” you assure him. “I’m fine. I am…”

“You wanna stop for a while?” He pulls you to a halt. “Think I saw a set of swings over there…”

Swings? That’s only going to upset your already unsettled stomach. Though the image of Rus pushing you on them is rather amusing.

“I’m okay…really,” you insist, lifting a hand to squeeze his wrist.

Rus shrugs. “Only if you’re sure.”

You continue walking – as you do, you gaze up into the bare trees. The city circles the park with a wall of crumbling buildings, and the rare distant car rumbles on by. Sometimes, when That Girl walked far enough into the park, she could barely hear the traffic at all.

All is quiet; Rus’s presence has emptied the park within minutes.

Is it truly his relation to his brother that protects him, or could Rus have really built up such a reputation that his mere presence can frighten an entire crowd of monsters?

The mutt, that small, witch-like monster had called him.

Sans calls him mongrel, dog, sometimes useless mutt. But the names are spoken as a brother would address an annoying sibling.

Rus even admitted that his collar earns him a lot of these names, and he doesn’t seem to mind them.

But that name uttered by the little monster in fear…the mutt

And unless that display of frustration was all posturing, Rus really seemed to hate it.

“Why did that monster call you that?” you ask.

Rus doesn’t answer immediately, appearing distracted.

“Y’know,” he eventually hums. “I was really freakin’ out before. Thought maybe you were gonna change your mind after what you saw…”

“Would it have been bad if I had?” you ask.

Rus crunches on his cigarette, then swallows it. “No…just a bit difficult. Only ‘cause I would have had to come up with some kind of distraction to get us home.”

“Like what?”

Rus’s smile is empty. “Uhh…I dunno. A fire, maybe? Or…a fight of some kind.”

In other words, things that would result in injury. Or death.

“We escape in the commotion,” Rus continues. “Then…we probably get an ear-chewing from m’lord.”

“I’m…I’m not going to change my mind,” you say.

“No?”

“No. I…need to do this.”

Rus grins down at you and says, “You really amaze me, y’know?”

You neck warms. “I do?”

He leans down and takes a handful of your hair, letting it run between his fingers – it’s gotten a lot longer over the past few weeks.

“Hmm…yeah,” he rumbles. “You fall down, and you just…get back up again.”

He releases your hair and pulls back, expression thoughtful. “Ain’t there a song like that? Didn’t we listen to it?”

The song immediately plays in your mind. “Yes, we did.” Then you’re wondering… “Will…uh…will there be music at the bar?” You’re hopeful that your emphasis on the word music helps Rus realise that you mean of the human variety, and not the abhorrent NTT kind.

In response, he cackles. “Yeah…there will be. But it’s usually live performances. Can’t be found with solid evidence of human music being played, or the place will get shut down.”

“But singing it is allowed?”

“Yeah. Doesn’t make sense, does it?”

“No… I thought you’d never listened to human music before?”

Rus’s wry smile tells you: I never stay for the music.

You’ve already reached the end of the park – despite being empty, it feels smaller than you had anticipated. The street beyond the gates is abandoned, but in the distance is a road full of lights, open stalls, and monsters… 

“What’s up, Kitten?” Rus asks.

“Can’t we…just stay here,” you plead, looking over your shoulder into the dark, empty park. You don’t want to go back out there, where you’re watched with fearful eyes…

Then again, it’s not you that they’re watching.

Rus abruptly halts, forcing you to a stop. He curls over you, tilting your head up to meet his eyes with strong fingers beneath your chin.

“Just a little bit more, okay?” he breathes, looking a little desperate. “I promise. Then we’ll be alone. We can talk safely…”

His face is so close…

He never stays for the music…

It’s all for show, you have to keep reminding yourself. All for show, all for show…!

“Okay,” you finally say.

Rus pulls away, forcing his weak smile into a confident grin for the hidden cameras undoubtedly trained on him.

“Just a bit farther,” he says and pulls out a doughnut sprinkled with violet dusting.

You nod and take the doughnut. “Okay…”

With one final, despairing look towards the park, you walk through the gates and return to the dreary streets of Central.

 

-

 

The bar is most certainly not a bar – it’s immense.

It’s three buildings long, and appears to be what would have once been a hotel, and a very high-end one, at that. The windows on the ground floor are tall and elegant, framed by rich purple curtains that are covered with web-shaped embroidery; the front door is like the entrance to a palace, ornately designed and gleaming silver, with what must be the club’s logo stamped on the clean surface.

It’s almost identical to the bakery logo; a spider, but in the shape of a heart. Above the logo is the name The Parlour.

There is an incredible number of monsters gathered at the door. They are forced into a line by barriers that bear The Parlour’s logo, with large, burly monsters the size of garbage trucks pacing up and down the street to ensure that no one is shoving their way through.

You start when you spot a human amongst the crowd. Then another…then more…there are quite a few.

“Kitten,” Rus whispers. “You need to keep your head down, now. Whatever happens, don’t look up…don’t speak…don’t leave my side. Okay?”

If your heart could beat any harder it would erupt from your chest. “Yes…”

You approach the end of the line, where a badly trampled but otherwise beautiful lilac carpet awaits…

And walk straight passed it.

Rus manoeuvres you so you’re walking very close to the line, on the opposite side of the barriers. There are gasps, shocked mutters, and the soft shuffling of retreating feet.

A low growl rips from his chest, and the deep sound shakes you. It affects the crowd, too – based on sound alone, you guess that they’re scrabbling as far away from the barriers as they can.

Just a litter farther

You reach the door, and one of the behemoth monsters steps in your path, accompanied with the sound of heavy metal clanking together, like armour. It’s feet are like tree trunks, and it strikes the butt of some kind of weapon into the ground.

“You…” they say, gruff and authoritative, then… “You? What…?”

“Well, how’s that for a warm welcome back to my home away from home?” Rus says with a harsh laugh.

“My apologies,” the monster says, voice trembling slightly. “We haven’t been…anticipating you since…”

“I’m here now,” Rus says flatly. “You gonna move, or am I gonna have to move you?”

The monster retreats. “That w-won’t be necessary. Have a good night.”

With a parting snarl, Rus pulls you away, resuming your walk towards the entrance to The Parlour.

Your tongue is loaded with questions; who was that? What did they mean when they said they hadn’t been expecting him? Since…when? 

But you swallow them back and just focus on putting one foot in front of the other.

The whispers follow you all the way to the front door, and a large gathering of monsters at the entrance parts as if for some kind of celebrity – their conversations are already hushed, news of Rus’s appearance having reached them long before they could actually see him.

He drags you up a set of marble stairs, then pulls you to a stop next to some kind of pedestal. “Miss me?”

Against your better judgement, you peek up to see who he is addressing.

There is a lanky, feline-like monster with crooked whiskers stationed behind the pedestal, dressed in a dark shirt and waistcoat, with a rich purple bowtie at their throat. Their teal-coloured fur looks as though, while it had been desperately groomed at the beginning of the night, it has been mussed by unsteady hands and nervous scratches.

There are monsters stationed at the door; they’re massive, dressed in armour, of all things, and brandishing giant spears. Something around one of their abdomens blinks –

Angel, is that a face? Two eyes, a beak-like mouth…

You worry for a moment that your gawking will alert them to you, but you needn’t fear the strange monsters noticing you, nor the one manning the door – they only have eyes for Rus. Wide, panicked eyes.

“I…I…” the monster – he? – splutters. “Oh…jeez, I…I…I haven’t seen you…in a wh-while…sir!”

“Not a slow night, huh?” Rus comments, glancing over his shoulder at the vast line. “Pretty busy…”

“Pretty busy, sir,” the monster agrees with a frantic nod of the head.

Rus leans towards the monster, a nasty smile curling his jaw. “How long’s the wait?”

The monster shrinks back. “N-not long! I…I…I’m sorry, but…Miss M-Muffet will get angry –”

Rus slams a hand down on the edge of the pedestal, making the monster – and you – jump.

“Do I look like I have all night?” He inclines his head to the side, and that’s when the monster finally spots you.

You duck your head before his eyes meet yours.

“No…no, sir,” the monster wheezes.

“You’ve been here a while, haven’t you?” Rus asks in such a condescending tone that it reminds you…

It reminds you of the Man-Who-Guarded-You.

You tremble and look at Rus out of the corner of your eye.

He’s wearing a smile that promises certain death. “What happens when you upset a regular, hm?”

“Miss Muffet…will get mad, and sh-she stares at me…and it’s creepy, and –!”

Magic crackles in the surrounding air, wild and threatening. The sensation has you tensing, and the monster chokes out a whimper.

“I…I…I’m sorry!” he squeaks. “Please go on though, sir! It’s a pleasure to have you back!”

Without a word, Rus strides on, pulling you with him. The monsters at the door shuffle well out of his reach, allowing you to pass by. You enter what you assume is the foyer of the hotel – the lights are dim, and there’s a strong scent of some kind of incense…sweet, like icing. Gleaming purple and silver tiles cover the floor, clean enough to reflect your face – you look like a zombie.

Then you see the spiders.

They’re not big, but there are quite a lot of them, scuttling from under your feet…running from you?

… Running from Rus?

Music is coming from somewhere, but it’s muffled. There are voices in the foyer, and like the crowd outside, they quieten as Rus slinks across the room. You cautiously raise your head enough to examine the room; even the walls are painted purple; mirrors hang above elegantly carved tables and divans; dark curtains outlining closed doors are tied back with silver rope; and there are…cobwebs. Everywhere. 

There are huge, intricate webs hanging from the ceiling; thick, dusty looking ones gathered in every available corner; tiny ones attached to the furniture…

Either Muffet is obsessed with spiders, or she is a spider.

The monsters lurking within the foyer hover by the walls. They’re following Rus’s every movement with their eyes, whispering behind their hands, claws, tentacles…

Rus’s hand presses against the side of your head, gently coaxing you to turn your face into his body. You want to apologise for looking, but it may not be wise to speak just yet.

Just a bit morewe can talk safely…  

A door opens, and the dim music gets louder – frantic chatter follows, cheering and leering…and the smell of booze…

You can hear the heavy boots approaching your cell.

He’s coming for you.

The Man-Who-Guards-You is slinging off his belt !   

“Holy fucking shit!” a scratchy, male voice hollers, shocking you from the memory.

Just before you cast your gaze to the floor, you spot who this new voice belongs to; a rabbit-like monster is staggering through a set of grand, silver-painted double doors thrown wide open, revealing a room full of moving bodies and flashing lights.

He’s hunched over as if hiding from someone, and he’s very skinny, with one ear bent and floppy, like it’s been broken in the past and never properly healed. His white fur is a little scruffy in places, some patches a darker shade of grey, as though it has grown back discoloured.

He’s quite dishevelled, wearing a tight fitting pink tank top and loose slacks with a heavy spiked chain hanging from the waist band. A hoodie the colour of a cardinal’s robes covers his shoulders, the sleeves ripped away, and his would-be bare shoulders are covered with a pair of shoulder cops, midnight black, and bearing…

The Royal crest…

He’s a Royal Guard member.

Holy fucking shit!” the rabbit-monster shouts again, a crazed smile splitting his face. In his hand is a switchblade, and he’s twirling the awful thing, sliding the blade out, then in…out…then in…

Bile builds in the back of your throat at the sound. You remember when the Man-Who-Guarded-You had held his switchblade close to your nose, making sure that you could see it…then when he pressed it to your scalp, you hair trapped in his grubby fist…

You look down, focusing on the reflection of your sickly-looking face.

“Do my fucking ears deceive me?” the rabbit monster roars. “S’at you, Papyrus?”

Shockingly, the monsters gets right into Rus’s space – you watch his reflected visage in the floor, his ears twitching and twisting as if they have a life of their own.

“As always, Bo,” Rus says with a chuckle, tapping a finger against your chin, “’s pleasure to hear your dulcet tones.”

The monster named Bo screeches with laughter. “How the fuck’ve you been?”

Rus shrugs, his finger tapping away. “The boss’s been workin’ me to the bone, as usual.”

“Wouldn’t’ve fucking guessed!” Bo barks. “S’at why you haven’t been fucking here?”

“That’d be why.”

“I fucking missed you! Can’t get humans to come near when I haven’t got my fucking wingman, can I?”

“What’s that mean, Bo? You ain’t been at the north border?”

“I’ve been there!” Bo punches Rus in the arm. “Throw me a fucking bone, here, Papyrus! The Guard have been fucking fine without me!”

Bo must be on very good terms with Rus to do something so brazen. You notice that the monsters in the foyer have left, perhaps unsettled by this exchange between such high-ranking monsters.

“Things ain’t good right now, Bo,” Rus chastises. “You know none of us have time to be spendin’ nights soul-searching.”

Bo hunches over, expression sheepish. “Ehehehe… Alphys’ll have my other fucking ear if she thought I’d been slacking again. So, uh…his Magnificence doesn’t need to know I’m still coming here after…uh, what went down…does he?”

Rus pulls out a cigarette and slips it between his fangs. “I dunno. Does he?”

Bo clasps his hands together before his chest, his ears twitching like mad. “I’ve been playing fair! Doing my assigned patrols! I fucking swear!”

“Alright, alright,” Rus grumbles, lighting his cigarette. “I’m fuckin’ kidding. I didn’t come here to talk about work.”

“You started it! And I can fucking see that!” All of a sudden, there’s gleeful curiosity in Bo’s loud voice.

You stiffen – his reflection is inspecting you, tilting this way and that to try and see your face beneath the cap.

“Ehehehe…so what you got under that fucking arm, Paps?” he asks.

Rus’s arm around you tightens, and still his finger taps. Is he trying to tell you something? “I ain’t up for sharin’, Bo.”

“Oh, yeah, yeah, I know you’ve been working fucking hard! But she’s a fucking slice, ain’t she? Where’s he fucking picked you up from, cutie?”

You’re shaking. You keep your eyes glued to your face mirrored in the floor.

Don’t speak, Rus had said. He’ll take care of it… 

“I ain’t revealing my hunting grounds, Bo,” he says good-naturedly.

“Fucking Angel, Pap, if they all look this good, you gotta!”

“S’exactly why I’m not gonna.”

“You fucking selfish bastard!” Bo says affectionately, thumping Rus’s arm again. Then his wild eyes are back on you. “You…really don’t wanna share?”

Rus’s voice turns cold and cutting when he says, “I really don’t.”

Bo’s reflection throws up his hands and backs up a step. “I get you! Don’t fucking mind me! Y’know, I actually can get humans with my fucking dulcet tones!”

“You shouldn’t be needin’ to leech off of me, then,” Rus says, expelling a cloud of smoke.

Clearly ignoring Rus’s biting sarcasm, Bo claps him on the back, closing his switchblade and pocketing it. “You have time for a fucking drink? Or are you that starved you gotta…y’know…” Bo whistles and makes an odd gesture, as though he’s pulling his heart from his chest. “…get right fucking to it?”

“Weren’t you on your way out?” Rus says dryly.

“Listen, man, you can’t fucking blame me for trying!” Bo steps back and shoves his hands in the pockets of his slacks. “People are usually up for a threesome! Not fucking tonight, apparently!”

“Just make sure you’re at the border on time tomorrow,” Rus says when Bo staggers around him. “I still ain’t coverin’ for you.”

“I fucking know, soulless prick!” Bo calls as he walks towards the door.

Rus turns to send Bo a parting wave, then he ducks, lowering his mouth to your ear.  

“Sorry,” he breathes, so quietly that his voice is almost lost in the music.

You only nod stiffly. That loud, twitching, switchblade wielding monster was looking for a…a threesome.

Angel…God…anybody, help you…

You cling to Rus, pressing yourself into his side, and his hand on your face twitches. He doesn’t move, smoking in silence.

Hesitantly, you lift your head – the foyer is completely empty. The door that Bo had stumbled through is perhaps the largest in the room, and it appears to lead to where the party is.

The music almost deafens you. It shakes the ground, rocking you to your core, like the beat is inside you. And it’s a song you recognise, sung by a voice that sounds otherworldly, eerie…

The room looks crowded, filled with a mixture of monsters and humans. Those closest to the entrance are watching Rus from the corner of their eyes, trying to appear nonchalant, unbothered by his presence, but failing.

You can’t see much of the room from where’s you’re standing, but what you can see is nothing short of impressive; the ceiling is so high that it reminds you of some kind of ballroom; like the foyer, the walls are covered with cobwebs and the windows are bordered by curtains.

There is a stage in the centre of the room where the mysterious singer sits, surrounded by a band made up of monsters; the singing monster looks like some kind of deformed mermaid, her head hovering several inches from her body, and yet it is still somehow alive…

You can see the corner of a large, lively bar, the shelves stacked with an array of colourful bottles and glasses, some filled with what look like fireflies, and others with liquid that sparkles.

The rest of the room appears to be filled with booths, crammed into every available space – the seats are dyed the same rich purple that seems to be the club’s trademark colour, and each booth is filled. With monsters and humans.

Do they share the booths to save space? Or…?

“Fuckin’ finally,” Rus grunts, swallowing his cigarette.

A small figure barrels their way through the crowd. They’re tiny, with bristly amber fur and large fox ears…

They’re nothing but a floating head.

The fox-like monster bobs towards you, muttering to themselves; their teeth are sharp and crooked, and many appear to be missing; perched on the bridge of their snout is a large pair of sunglasses that can’t be practical in such a dark place...

“…can’t get any help?” you hear them grumble as they get closer. “It’s like people just don’t want to work?”

You lower your head when the monster halts before you, but you keep one eye trained on them. They tilt themselves upwards to address Rus, raising their voice to be heard over the music, “I’m sorry for the wait, sir? It’s…real busy here tonight? We can’t get –?”

“Do I look like I give a shit?” Rus mimics the monster’s tone.

The monster shrinks, their ears flattening. “N-no? I’ll…show you to your…uh…your private suit? Follow m-me, sir?”

They float away, somewhat staggered, much like a bumblebee drunk on nectar, without once sparing you a glance. No one seems to care that you’re even here, glued to Rus’s side, save for Bo – and the odd, nightmarish monster in the alley and the gang gathered in the park; and that was only because they hadn’t spotted Rus first, concealed in the dark.

With a groan, Rus follows, dragging you with him, away from the crowded room.

Just before you turn away, two monsters grab the handle of each of the doors and quickly pull them shut.

The monster leads you to an impressive set of stairs to the east of the foyer. “It’s a pleasure to see you again, Sir?” they say. “I-It’s been a while –?”

“Shut the fuck up,” Rus barks.

The monster falls silent. 

 

-

 

Were it not for the dark décor and the cobwebs littering the hotel, making it look like something plucked straight out of some old, gothic novel, The Parlour would look stunning.

The hallways are beautifully built; graceful arches curve across the ceiling; glittering chandeliers hanging high above you; mirrors, candelabra, and curtains adorn the walls – even the narrower corridors look grander than anything you’ve ever seen.

You are lead through the guest wing of the hotel. Each door you pass bears a number and the club’s logo, some with small signs hooked on the doorknobs that read Do Not Disturb! or Keep Out Or Get Dusted!

It may be your imagination, but while the corridors are empty, you can feel the magic that the monstrous patrons hidden within their rooms are exuding. It’s a mixture of sensations; sometimes erratic, like there’s lightening crackling through the air; sometimes it’s like the thumping beat of the music downstairs; sometimes it’s like the buzzing of a horde of mosquitoes…

And the sounds…

Bedsprings creaking…deep laughter…heavy breathing…whimpering…moaning

You press into Rus’s side and squeeze your eyes shut. Desperate to block out the sounds that leave nothing to the imagination, you mentally recite a song – the same song that the strange mermaid was singing in the bar – focusing on the words…

The chaperoning monster softly clears their throat, and you cautiously open one eye.

They’re leading you towards an elevator, and there’s a notable agitation in the way they’re bobbing along in the air.

You have a small inkling as to why they’re so nervous – they’ll have to share that small space in the elevator with Rus. 

A door farther down the corridor clicks open.

You immediately duck your head, staring hard at the carpet. There’s a soft gasp, followed by hurried footsteps approaching…

“Good evening, sir!” a small voice says. They sound…quite excited.

How strange – no one tonight except Bo has addressed Rus with such apparent glee. You glance up and balk.

It’s a human.

His hair is a dishevelled, his cheeks flushed a dark colour, and he’s wearing the same uniform as the monster manning the club’s entrance – a black shirt, black waistcoat, maroon trousers, and a purple bow-tie…though it’s a little askew.

The fox-like monster makes a choking sound, but Rus doesn’t appear bothered by this young man’s sudden appearance.

“’Sup?” he rasps. “You new? Don’t recognise you.”

The boy nods. “Y-yes! I’m new…” He’s scrambling to keep up with you, and is gazing up at Rus with sparkling eyes.

He’s not scared. Why is he not scared?  

“But I’ve heard…” the boy continues. “…from the others here! Y-you’re him, aren’t you?”

Rus halts, forcing you to stumble to a stop, and he looms over the boy.

“Depends,” he says. “What’ve you heard?”

“You’re…well, you the most regular of regulars!” the boy titters.

Rus grins, pleased. “That’s me.”

You watch the exchange with wide eyes. This seems almost…normal. After witnessing all his cruelty thus far, to see Rus act so cordial again is jarring. 

The boy’s cheeks are bright and beaming, and he’s smiling as if he’s just met one of his heroes. Rus is smiling, too. It doesn’t look forced…but it doesn’t look like his usual smiles at home, either…

It looks hungry.

Then the boy spots you.

Your eyes lock for a brief moment, and you’re frozen in time, staring into this stranger’s face.

It’s odd to see a human close up that isn’t the Man-Who-Guarded-You or the Man-In-Charge. He’s young, but not too young, with a hint of stubble dusting his jawline; he has a rather handsome face, with very expressive eyes and a mouth full of perfect teeth…

… Unlike you.

Then his handsome face changes.

All excitement in his eyes vanishes, and his smile drops. You think for a moment that he’s going to hurt you…

But he looks crushed, like he has just lost his chance at some grand opportunity. His shoulders fall, and his mouth parts, releasing a soft sound of disappointment.  

Why is he looking at you that way? What have you done upset him?

He looks back up at Rus. “I…can give you my name, sir?”

Rus shakes his head. “I’ll remember your face, kiddo. Trust me.”

The boy’s smile returns, but it has less life in it, and the gleam in his eyes is dull.

“O-okay, sir.” He then bows. “Th-thank you for your patronage. All proceeds go to real spiders.”

And the boy turns and hurries down the corridor without looking back.

Rus resumes walking, pulling you along before the boy has even turned the corner at the end of the corridor.

You’re new, Rus had said.

Humans…work here? You’d thought that they only came here for a chance to intermingle with the monster crowd in safety.

The fox-like monster gains speed, floating towards the control panel to the left of the elevator doors and rams their nose against a single glowing button.

A small ding! announces the elevator’s arrival just as you reach it, and the doors slide open.

“After you?” the monster croaks.

The elevator is far too small to accommodate Rus.

He glares at the monster, and the monster cowers.

“I’ll…I’ll see you up there?” they squeak.

Without waiting for a reply, the monster darts into the elevator and hammers their nose against the top button on the floor plan until the doors slide closed.

Rus dips his head. “You still doin’ okay? We’re almost there…”

You nod stiffly. “What did that boy mean?” you ask in a whisper. Why do humans work here? is what you really want to ask…

“Hang on…” Rus curls his arm securely around your middle, then you’re sucked into the vacuum of the Void…

…then you’re spat back out before you can utter even a squeak, landing on soft carpet in a corridor that more or less looks identical to the one you had been in just a few seconds ago. But it’s bigger, grander…designed for those who are richer than the rich…

Yet it’s no less calmer here; the hallway is just as stifling, just as frantic…and it’s just as noisy. Low chuckles and desperate moans float through the air…

The elevator is now behind you, and there are flashing numbers slowly climbing up on the tiny screen above the doors. The monster must have pressed the button for every floor before this one, trying to delay their next encounter with Rus.

Because they’re terrified of him. So why did that human look so pleased to see him?

And they definitely hadn’t known Rus personally; they had only heard about him.

“We can talk more soon,” he breathes in your ear. “Keep it together…”

He doesn’t wait for the monster, coaxing you to walk with him down the hallway.

“You really have your own room?” you ask quietly. Was that actually true and not a part of his VIM joke?

Rus nods. “We’ll be okay once we’re there. I could get us there now, but gotta get the key.”

“Can’t you…use magic to keep the door locked?”

A grin tugs at the corner of his jaw. “It ain’t that easy. I have an idea…hows about the next time you’re cooking, you can juggle three eggs with one hand while making sure the food doesn’t burn?”

You’re put at ease by the smile and the easy humour in his voice – he seems more like himself, again.

You violently jump when a figure comes tumbling of a nearby room. Rus pauses before you and the falling mass collide, and you instinctively duck your head…

There’s a human curled up on the floor: she’s a panting mess, sweat pouring down her bright red face, and her uniform is badly creased. She’s clutching her waistcoat in one hand, her skirt is loose around her waist, and her bow-tie is undone around her neck…

Your first thought is that she’s been attacked, but she doesn’t appear to bear any wounds or evidences of a struggle. And she doesn’t look harassed…more like she’s just run a marathon.

“You just keep fallin’ for me, don’t you?” Rus says to her with a soft laugh.

The girl blinks, dazed eyes focusing, and her head whips around, searching for Rus’s voice.

Like the boy, her face lights up immediately, but this time, there is a hint of recognition glinting within them.

“Lookin’ a little overworked, there,” Rus says.

“Yes,” the girl gasps, her smile bright and dazzling. “I’m sorry for getting in your way, sir…”

Her eyes land on you, and just like the boy, she deflates, smile disappearing, eyes dimming…

Disappointed.

… What’s wrong with you?

“I…” the girl says. “I…will be going now, sir. I’m sorry again…”

“Honey, I ain’t got anythin’ against you throwin’ yourself at me,” Rus teases. “Hey…when you go back down, tell ‘em…”

His voice becomes white noise when your eyes are drawn to the sounds that are coming from beyond the open door –

You freeze.

You don’t even take in the room – you can’t tear your eyes away from the enormous wolf curled over on a bed that looks far bigger than any normal bed. Beneath it is another human. She is almost identical to the woman by your feet; the same hair, the same skin…

And she looks like she’s in pain, her face screwed up, mouth open in a silent scream, her hands fisting in the bedsheets so tightly that, even from a distance, you can see the whiteness of her knuckles.

Then she moans…

… She’s not in pain.

The wolf growls, lowering its head, and it’s face is illuminated by some otherworldly emerald glow…and it’s then you see it.

You don’t know what it is, but it definitely looks magical – a bright, pulsating mass of vibrant light hovers above the woman, curling in on itself, then expanding, glowing a wonderful colour that reminds you of full trees in summer. The magical light spits, then shrinks, then grows…beating just like a heart would…

Then the wolf opens its maw, and a long, gleaming, black tongue rolls out from between its jagged teeth. You hold your breath when the appendage curls around the strange pulsing ball of light, and the woman beneath the monster screams

The door slams shut with a tremendous bang, wafting the scent of Rus’s magic into your face.

“I was never much of a voyeur,” he says coolly. He turns back to the girl. “Run along, now.”

She scrambles to her feet, dips in a quick bow, then she hurries down the corridor.

You’re going to be sick. Your breath is coming in too quickly. What on earth did you just see? The wolf wasn’t even touching that woman.

It must have been magic…

“Wh-what…?” you gasp, weakly grasping Rus by the arm. “That…what was th-tha–”

He grips your jaw tightly, forcing your lips together.

“Getting’ cold feet now, sweetheart?” he croons in a deceptively sweet voice. “What? You don’t wanna eat tonight?”

…Eat? What does he mean?

The soft tump-tump-tump of the girl’s footsteps fade, and Rus relents his threatening grip.

“Sorry,” he says. “You okay?”

You shake your head, nausea churning in your stomach, a terrible crawling sensation creeping beneath your skin.

“What was that?” you demand. “What did…what…?” But you can’t finish, too shocked to.

Rus brushes your hair away from your eyes. “Keep it up, okay? You’re doin’ good.”

You can’t do anything else but nod and allow him to urge you into a walk.

Whatever that wolf was doing to that girl, it certainly looked intimate. More intimate than anything you’ve ever seen, but you’re not sure why…

A weariness seems to overcome you, and were it not for Rus’s arm around your shoulders, or his body pressing close to yours, you would probably buckle. You need to lie down – you’ve endured far too much for one night.

This was a terrible idea. Perhaps you should have started with something smaller. Rus did mention that the street where the brothers live wasn’t watched; maybe a quick jog up and down the road would have been better than this gruelling expedition through Central…

There’s the sound of shallow panting approaching you from behind, and the fox-headed monster finally catches up with you, saliva dripping from their mouth, and their sunglasses steamed up.

“Sorry for…keeping you waiting?” they wheeze. “I went to…the wrong floor…?”  

The monster ignores Rus’s death-stare and assumes the head of the party once more, their straw-like fur damp with sweat.

It seems to take hours before you pause at a large set of doors – painted black, unlike the rest of those on this floor that are coated in silver. They bear no number, no plaque…

“Here you are, sir?” The monster then convulses, and with a belch, they regurgitate a key, looping their tongue through the keyring that is nothing but a large, black slab of plastic with a skull head carved into it.

Their bobbing turns frantic, agitated. “If…if you n-need anything…I can get someone to send something up?”

Rus takes the offered key, looking very unimpressed. “No.”

The monster dips into a bow. “Th-thank you for your patronage, sir? All proceed go to real spiders?”

And they’re gone as if fired from a cannon, disappearing back down the corridor within seconds.

Rus unlocks the door and is quick you usher you in. You stumble into the cold, dim room, nearly tripping over your feet, and he closes the door behind you, plunging you into complete darkness.

There’s the sound of a lock clicking shut, and he chuckles.

“Piece of cake,” he says breezily.

 

Chapter Text

 

-

Chapter Fourteen

-

 

Warnings for chapter: NON-CON, Soul Manipulation, Mind Control, Mild Sexual Scenes, Strong Language, Trauma, Mild Violence

 

-

 

You sink to the floor, your strength abandoning you.

Are you safe now? You don’t think you can keep up with Rus’s demands anymore; remaining quiet, hiding your face, trying to control your shaking…

You want to grab a pillow and scream it all out.

There comes the soft click of Rus’s lighter, and the end of a cigarette hanging from his teeth alights, casting a frightening shadow across his face.

“Gimme a second, Kitten,” he says.

As he walks around the room, you follow the gentle flare of his cigarette every time he takes a breath. There’s the clatter of curtains being drawn…then another…then another…

He hums, satisfied. “’Kay. Hang on…”

He switches on a lamp, positioned in the far corner of the room, and it illuminates the space with a warm, amber light.

“Are we safe?” you ask desperately.

Rus walks over to another light perched on a large table and he switches it on, revealing more of the room. “We are. Promise.”

“N-no cameras?” You’re shaking so violently that your teeth are chattering.

“Not a one,” he answers, face earnest.

With a broken sob, you hang your head. Your soul is throbbing so much that it feels like there’s some kind of animal in your chest trying to claw its way out.

Rus approaches you with quick footsteps and kneels by your side, placing a gentle hand to your back. “You doin’ okay?”

“I’m sorry,” you burble, curling in on yourself. “I just…I need to cry…”

He moves his hand in soothing circles between your shoulder blades. “Cry away.”

You’re not quite sure why you’re so distressed – because of the long walk, the fear of being so exposed to so many eyes after so long spent hidden away; because of the monsters, the leering, frightening creature in the alley, or the loud and rather intimidating Bo; because of Rus’s temper, the cruelty that he exuded; because of the humans who stared at Rus with such adoration while the monsters cowered before him; because of what that wolf was doing to that poor girl…

It’s all too much. Too much

When your loud sobs quieten to weak sniffles, you sit up. “I’m sorry…”

Rus wipes at your tears with his thumb. “Don’t be. I’m real proud of you, y’know?”

“I didn’t know that it was going to be so hard.” 

He leans forwards and rests his forehead against yours. “Yeah…sorry we couldn’t take a shortcut.”

You had agreed to the walk through Central, and it’s not Rus’s fault that you came to regret it, but did he really have to parade you through the hotel like that?

“Why?” you ask.

“Muffet has…there’s protocol here, if you know what I mean?” Rus plays with your hair while he talks, refusing to meet your eyes.

Why does that sound so ominous? “What kind of protocol?”

“You hungry?” he suddenly asks.

You nod – you didn’t have a chance to eat in the house once dinner was finished.

Rus grins, then he lifts you off the floor, holding you close to his chest. “We can talk about it after you’ve eaten.”

“O-okay.” you say, jolted by the sudden action. “I can walk…”

“You ain’t heavy.” Rus crosses the room towards a very comfortable looking couch. He lowers you onto the soft surface and gives you a pat on the head. “Stay here a minute…” 

He turns, and you can finally take in your surroundings.

This private room is incredible; it’s vast, larger than the brothers’ living room, and it’s spotless, with nary a cobweb in sight; a large chandelier hangs from the ceiling, but the delicate lamps in the corner of the room give off more than enough light; the walls are the same plum-purple as the rest of the hotel, and the long maroon curtains are pulled shut across towering windows, blocking out the world; the floor is carpeted a glaring scarlet colour that reminds you too much of Sans’s eyes…

What would he say if he knew where you were? He would be angry with Rus, certainly…but you? Would he be disappointed in you?

The room is quite sparsely furnished; the leather couch is dyed black and decorated with violet cushions; before you in a beautiful coffee table, and a large TV that looks incredibly expensive is attached to the wall above an empty fireplace, but it’s switched off. Perhaps Muffet likes to protect her customers from Napstaton in more ways than one…

Expertly carved tables are dotted about the room, either with a set of mugs and a coffee pot placed atop it, or with bowls filled with fruit or that same monster candy that Sans owns; a large bed is positioned against the west wall…and it is enormous – big enough for a monster of Rus’s height, you realise with a shiver.

To the left of the bed is a door to what you assume it a bathroom, and you could really do with a bath after all the excitement. All the stress has made you sweat terribly, and you feel quite filthy after walking through the decrepit streets of Central. Would Rus mind?

You glance his way and find him rummaging through a small fridge wedged beneath a stack of shelves that are stocked up with glasses and bottles of liqueur.    

“There’s…” you say quietly, glancing about the room again, peering closely at the bottles for any tiny cameras floating within the liquid, “…really no cameras?”

“Nope,” Rus says as he pulls something out of the fridge. “Muffet insisted on her clients’ privacy. People don’t like bein’ watched when…you know…”

He closes the fridge and straightens. “Cameras in the halls? Yes. Foyer…yes. Club…yes. But the rooms? No way. Blooky threw the biggest hissy fit I’ve seen since he got that one bad review of his first movie, but I was with M on this one. Believe it or not, the privacy is what really makes this place so appealing…”

You throw back your hood and remove the stifling baseball cap, dropping it into your lap and letting the air cool your burning forehead. You shrug off your jacket, sighing when the weight of it is dropped from your shoulders.

With a chuckle, Rus dumps his findings on the table before you; it’s an assortment of chocolate bars and drinks cans.

After a thoughtful inspection of the hoard, he picks out a brightly coloured can and cracks the seal open, taking a long swig, cigarette and all, before he collapses onto the couch next to you.

“Here,” he says, gesturing to the food stack. “You can eat them. Muffet likes to keep the rooms stocked for her happy helpers.”

You hesitantly lift a bar wrapped in blue packaging. “Protein bars?”

Rus finished off his can, crushes it, then swallows it in one go. “Heh…yeah? Sometimes they need a little energy boost.” His expression turns sheepish when your fingers clench around the protein bar. “Okay…uh…this place–”

“What was that we saw?” The question bursts from your lips. “What was that…wolf doing to that girl?”

Rus reaches for you, his hand hovering just short of touching so you can pull away. When you don’t move, his fingertips trace the shape of your ear. “That was…I don’t suppose you’ve ever seen a soul before, huh?”

You gawk – that beautiful, ethereal green light was a human soul?    

“So…after 1X,” Rus continues, “this place was built to deal with the whole soul epidemic. When the queen ruled out soul hunting, people got mad. So Muffet got creative.”

Rus frowns at you, then at the protein bar in your grasp. “You look like you’re gonna faint. Eat that.”

You comply, tearing off the wrapper with numb fingers. The bar tastes quite bland, tough and chewy, but it’s enough to sate the hunger. Once you’ve eaten the entire thing, Rus speaks again.

“It worked. But…it’s like takin’ drugs. A monster pays for a night with one of Muffet’s humans, they get their kick by whatever means, s’long as the human’s not hurt. This is a pretty dangerous business…allowing monsters to just have at souls like they’re candy, or somethin’, so Muffet’s people need to make a note of who comes and goes, which client is with which employee, just in case a soul…goes missing. S’why we had to be shown to our room.

“It’s for damages, too…just in case the client gets a bit rowdy and their human has to be treated for injuries…or trauma…”

With the protein bar having teased your empty stomach with the promise of nourishment, you’re craving another.

“Why?” you ask, reaching for one. “Why does Muffet care so much?”  

“She keeps her humans happy. Happy humans equals happy souls.” Rus trails his fingertips from your ear to your chin, tilting your hear up to assess the scars around your throat. “Happy souls equals good business.”

Happy souls…compared to the husks in that camp…

The Parlour is the very antithesis of that place. And yet monsters will purchase the dying souls collected within its walls? Surely a happy soul is better than a dead one?

“Then why?” you ask. “Why would anyone…go to that camp?”

After a moment of contemplative silence, Rus says, “Humans are pretty expensive to look after. S’cheaper.”

Just how much does it cost for a monster to spend one night with a human that possesses a bright, healthy soul? Those poor disowned humans in the camp are worth so much less that the humans here.

You are worth so much less…

Going to the camp to purchase a husk of a human is like purchasing a rip-off of some better, more expensive product.

“What does it feel like?” you ask, tone icy.

Rus releases you. “What?”

“A happy soul,” you say. “What does it feel like? You come here a lot, right?”

He presses a hand to your chest in answer, and you tense.

“The humans here?” he says, holding your gaze. “They’re here because they want to be. They get paid, fed, looked after…pretty well, too. Even if they have clients who get a bit…rough, they’re taken care of.”

But is it an equal exchange? A good life for your soul? No one should have to offer up something like that just to be able to live comfortably.

“They seem to really like you,” you mutter.

“Do they?” Rus grins proudly. “I guess?”

“Do you always…pay for the humans?” Just uttering those words makes you want to vomit.

“Sometimes,” Rus says, his eyes becoming guarded. “If I bring someone in, I only have to pay for the room.”

“Are monsters allowed to do that?”

The corner of his mouth twitches when he says, “I am.”

Are they promised a warm bed, a warm meal in exchange for…offering up their soul to be chewed on?

What? You don’t wanna eat tonight? Is that why Rus had said that to you?

“Y’know, when you start treatin’ people like people,” he says, taking the baseball cap from your lap and dusting it off, “it really changes things.”

He picks at a loose thread hanging from the brim. “And I have my reasons for hangin’ out with humans.” With a crafty grin, he hooks the cap over your head and stands. “So the night it yours, Kitten. What d’you wanna do?”

You lift the cap and gaze at him. He looks rather excited, but you can’t seem to share in it.

If he is so obsessed with humans, and he’s so full of affection that it’s practically an addiction, then why does he just bring them here to…hang out with them? There has to be something more to his human fascination. Something that he’s not telling you…

Thinking back on how polite he was, how familiar he appeared to those humans…and now learning that he’s the most popular patron of this establishment…

…he even has his own private room…

… You’re not special.

The thought really hurts.

“Hey,” Rus calls. “What’s up?”

“Can I take a bath?” you ask, throat a little tight. “Please? I feel kind of dirty.”

“Sure,” he replies. His face then lights up as though hit with an idea. “When you’re done, you wanna go shopping?”

You blink. “Shopping?”

“01 and 02 are in the basement, remember?”

Oh…that must be why those humans are lining up outside.

Rus smiles triumphantly. “You wanna check it out? You feelin’ up to it?”

You’re not too sure – you still feel a little fragile.

“They’re not that scary,” he assures you when you don’t reply. “They’re chill.”

“Not like…Bo?” you ask, recalling the knife in his shaking hand, and his shrill, scratchy voice.

“You mean Rabbo?” Rus snorts. “Give him a break. He can only hear moving things. S’why he’s always so twitchy.”

How does that work? Is that why Rus was tapping your shoulder during their chat? “How?”

“I dunno. Makes about as much sense as a person only seein’ moving things.”

Shopping…for human products. You could probably get that book that you had been hoping to ask Rus for. You can probably get more than one…

“I don’t have any money,” you point out.

“Fine,” Rus says dramatically, bending down to pick up another drinks can. “I guess I can treat you. Just this once…”

Doesn’t this room cost enough? And the food he’s just raided from the fridge must have added quite a large extra charge to the bill. Is he really that rich?

The bathroom is calling you. “Can I think about it?”

Rus nods, curling his tongue around the can and gulping the entire thing down. “Yeah…I guess you’ve seen a lot tonight, huh?”

“I’m sorry…”

His left eye twitches, but he smiles, sliding his tongue up his golden tooth. “But don’t take too long. I’ll start missin’ you and I might decide to join you.”

Your neck warms. “Okay…”

You stand, but he’s suddenly blocking your way, snaking an arm around your waist and pulling you close.

His fangs brush against your throat, and you jump when his hand sneaks beneath your hoodie…then the hem of your shirt to stoke his fingers against your back. 

“I ain’t kiddin’,” he says with a deep chuckle.

When his hand ventures higher you pull away, cheeks on fire, and rush to the bathroom, locking the door behind you. Though you know it’s useless, the clack of the lock securing offers at least a little comfort.

Even the bathroom is a sight to behold; the floor and walls are pristine, the sink is big enough to fit a child, the toilet gleams in the light, and the bathtub looks more like a jacuzzi than a bath…

You strip, desperate to get out of your stolen clothes, and perch on the end of the bath while the tub fills with water.

This place…you can’t quite understand it. You had never known that a place like this exists. If you had, would you have come here seeking work? Would you have done it for the money? For the food? For the chance of living in relative luxury?

Would you have met Rus under completely different circumstances?

Perhaps…if you hadn’t been so desperate to save That Girl, you would have seen this place as some kind of haven. You would have seen Rus in a different light. You wouldn’t know Sans, or Happstablook…

Would you have been happy here?

Here, the humans are cared for. The humans who had chosen to live in Ebott…those who had chosen to serve.

In the camp, the humans are punished. The humans who had chosen to flee…who had chosen to rebel.

… This place sickens you.

 

-

 

Your mind is made up by the time you’re finished in the bathroom, clean and re-dressed.

A book would be nice. Maybe two…maybe three… Perhaps One and Two sell human clothes, too? Maybe they sell chocolate? Those protein bars have awakened a dormant craving for it.

Rus is splayed out on the couch, fast asleep, but he stirs when the bathroom door clicks shut and searches for you with bleary eyes.

“What’s the verdict, Kitten?” he asks through a yawn.

You slip the cap onto your still damp head. “I think I’ll be okay.”

“Yeah? Nice…” Rus stretches, then pushes himself up. “Better go tell them to clear out the place. Can’t interrupt during a sale.”

He walks around the couch, sliding a cigarette into his mouth, and pats you on the head. “Be back soon, okay?”

You glance at the door. “Will…will I be safe?”

Rus presses a kiss to your temple. “No one’s gettin’ in, kid. They wouldn’t dare, knowin’ I’m here.”

You believe him, but perhaps you should search for some kind of weapon. Just in case… One of those liquor bottles looks like it could do some serious damage if swung hard enough.

“See you in five,” he rasps into your ear, and then he’s gone.

You’re at a loss at what to do while you wait. There’s a small, insistent feeling that’s fighting for your attention, telling you that this may not be the best idea…

You do have your music; maybe you should be grateful with what you already have?

… But a book really would be nice.

You pace around the room while you await Rus’s return, squeezing and twisting your fingers, forgoing the weapon idea – if a monster were to enter while he is gone, you wouldn’t stand a chance, really. But they probably would stay well enough away; the fear in their eyes when faced with Rus spoke volumes.

But if a human were to enter…a curious human who may come to investigate their favourite client, to see if he needed anything, extra food, extra company…

Would they attack you out of jealousy?

You creep over to the door and pull at the handle – it feels quite secure. Then you press your ear to the cool surface, listening for any noise in the corridor, for any snooping monsters or nosy humans.

There is only silence.

You return to pacing, unable to stop imagining what could happen if Rabbo decides to make a second attempt at convincing Rus to let him have his way with you; or if that young boy, new to the hotel, wants to investigate him further and steals a second key to his room, if there is a second key…

You pick out a bunch of grapes from one of the fruit bowls and eat them as you inspect the furniture to stop yourself from dislocating your fingers in your nervousness. You’re not surprised to find the grapes to be magically grown, left by the staff for their clients, while the humans have nothing but dry protein bars.

The grapes don’t even taste like grapes; to you, they taste just like the candy, melting on your tongue and filling you with nothing but the heavenly high. Do they taste like grapes when Rus eats them?

You abandon the fruit and fetch a drinks can, picking an energy drink.

The television in the room is bigger than you had realised, larger than the brothers’ TV by far. You search for the remote, but before you can find it, your eyes land on the bed and stay there. It really is massive…   

Curious, you sit on the edge of the mattress, and your feet hover an inch from the floor. After placing your half-full can on a nearby table, you crawl into the centre of the bed and lay back, adopting a star-shaped position.

Your fingertips and toes don’t even skim the edges.

A bed this size would certainly accommodate a monster of Rus’s height – when you get home, you should test out his mattress. You have a habit of curling into a protective ball when you sleep, so you could never tell just how big it was…

You should probably get up, but the bed is quite comfortable. And you’re very tired, exhausted after a long day of work and left feeling very weak after all the stress of your journey through Central. You can rest your eyes for just a moment, while Rus is busy…

You must have drifted off at some point, because when you open your eyes, he is curling over you with a huge smile on his face.

“If you wanted to sleep,” he says, poking your cheek, “you could’ve said.”

“I-I’m fine,” you insist, but a yawn cuts you off.

Rus chuckles. “We don’t have to go –”

You sit up. “I want to! I’m okay now.”

He presses close, and your fingers tangle in the woollen threads of his sweater, nervously picking. “I’d like to see what they have…if that’s okay?”

Rus hums and tucks your hair behind your ear. “Sure it is. The guys’ve got plenty to choose from.” He presses his mouth to your hair. “Coast is clear. You ready?”

You’re not ready, really…

“Yes,” you say firmly. “I am.”

Rus looks apprehensive. “Alright. Going down…”

His arms lock around your waist and the Void swallows you, dropping you through its endless expanse…and then you tip, and you grunt from the impact of your feet landing on concrete. The protein bars and half-finished energy drink churn in your stomach – you may never get used to travelling through the Void.

You can hear the deep, pounding volume of the club above you, and you pull back from Rus to search; a grimy, moth-crowded lightbulb is hanging from a moss-covered ceiling, dangling inches away from Rus’s skull…

"Ground Floor,” he says with a soft laugh. “Womenswear, Menswear, Footwear, Electronics…Human Crap Found On The Street…”

You’re in a small, box-like room; the walls are brick, and are covered with more moss and evidence of water damage. To your right is a door that may lead to the street, based on the muffled chatter and the sounds of impatiently shuffling feet coming from the other side, and to your left is a much smaller door with a heavy looking hatch shut tight.

The tiny room is uncomfortably cold, infected with the winter air leaking in from the street through the main door. It feels wet…it smells…

…damp.

A whimper slips through your lips...the air becomes hard to breathe…!

Rus abruptly pulls your head into his chest and holds you there, forcing you to inhale the smell of his tobacco and nothing else.

“Deep breaths,” he soothes.

You gulp down the smoky smell, and it’s enough to chase away the panic.

“Hang on a sec…” Rus shifts, and there’s the sound of material tearing.

You pull back at the sound, then something is gently pressed to your nose; it’s soft, like wool, and reeks of smoke…

“Is this okay?” he asks, loosely fastening the material around your head. “It’s not…too much, is it? It doesn’t hurt?”

The wool covers your nostrils and your mouth, filling your head with the smoky smell, but it’s not too overpowering, not too stifling. And it leaves your throat bare…

You blink up at Rus – he looks wary.

“It’s…fine,” you say. “Thank you.”

Then you notice one of his ribs is sticking out – a good section of his sweater is missing, ripped away and now tied around your face.

“You didn’t have to do that,” you say.

Rus shrugs. “I got others.”

It’s still a shame that he had to ruin that sweater for you – that colour really suits him.

“You doin’ good?” he asks.

You nod, then a particularly strong gust of wind whistles through the gaps of the door, seeping right into your bones.

“A-are we ok-okay?” you say through clenched teeth, cursing yourself for leaving your jacket behind and for not properly drying your hair.

“Yeah,” Rus whispers – he doesn’t appear bothered by the cold. “01 and 02 locked the place up. Told the customers they needed to re-stock.”

“How long do we have?”

“However long you want.”

He slides an arm over your shoulders, then turns to the door with the hatch and gently raps his knuckles against it.

Almost immediately, the hatch slides open. The room beyond the tiny slot is pitch black…

“Like, what’s the password?” a deep, drawling male voice says.

“01, it’s me,” Rus says coldly. “Who the hell else would it be?”

“Can’t take any chances, bro,” the voice retorts bitterly. “Got lots of dodgy stuff in here…”

They sound quite threatening. Swallowing, you clutch at Rus’s sweater.

You were right…this was a terrible idea to add to a night full of terrible ideas. You’re about to go into the dark basement of a brothel full of monsters. How do you know that there aren’t more in there…where they are unwatched by Napstaton, and away from Muffet’s precious protocol…where they are free to do unspeakable things to humans?  

A low, intimidating growl rumbles in Rus’s chest, then he sighs – a heavy, defeated sound – and he mutters, “Napstaton is my robot husband…”

There’s silence.

Then a stream of giggles floats from the open hatch. The plate slams shut and there comes the clank-slam-ker-chunk! of heavy locks being drawn back, and the door swings open.

The room is suddenly illuminated with a burst of white light, and you shield your eyes.

“Bro,” the voice guffaws, “totally pulling your leg! Come on in, skele-dude! Oh…and little dude!”

You blink against the harsh light to search for the voice…

There’s a rabbit standing in the doorway, but he’s the exact opposite of Rabbo – he’s gigantic, broad shouldered, and with arms the size of a gorilla’s. He appears to be wearing some kind of mask…or a medieval knight’s helmet, and a pair of large, white, fluffy ears are sticking out from two badly made holes in the top. The helmet is without a doubt the strangest addition to his attire; he’s wearing a pair of very normal high wasted jeans and a shirt with the digits 01 stamped on the chest.

He sweeps his arm out in welcome. “Come on in, dudes. Place is all yours!”

“Fuck you,” Rus hisses, and he urges you into the room. As he passes One, he raises an arm as if to strike…

Then One bumps his large fluffy fist with Rus’s bony one. “Dude, whoever said you can’t, like, totally mix business with pleasure?”

“And you take pleasure in embarrassing me in front of guests?” Rus asks.

“Totally,” another male, but much deeper voice echoes from within the dark, cluttered room.

The basement is vast, and it looks very similar to a warehouse; several shelves stacked with various products are positioned down the length of the room. Some of the objects piled haphazardly along the shelves are covered with sheets, or half-shoved into boxes.

You had no idea just how much One and Two had – you had thought that they foraged for items specific to certain clients. Their basement is like some kind of scavenger’s supermarket.    

“Like, you never bring friends, skele-dude,” the voice says again, and another monster emerges from behind a shelf filled with bottles of human brand shampoo.

Like One, he is huge, muscular, and donning a very similar outfit with the digits 02 on his shirt. His arms are covered with aquamarine coloured scales, and sticking out from messily carved slits in the sides of his helmet are a pair of fins.      

He’s carrying a large box filled with cassette tapes, and he’s assessing you…you think. You can’t see his face through the visor of his helmet; it’s too dark.

“This the human you’ve been, like, getting us to buy stuff for?” he asks.

Rus pulls out a cigarette from his back pocket. “What human?”

Two nods. “Yeah, you’re totally right. What human?”

“Whoa…” You turn to find One standing very close, and you recoil with a gasp.

“Little dude,” he says, “like, what the hell happened to your face?”

Before you can hide your scarred eye behind your makeshift scarf, Two says, “Oh, my God, bro…you can’t just ask someone that.”

One throws out his arms and retreats to a large pile of boxes in a far corner of the room. “It’s a genuine question, bro! No disrespect, little dude.”

Rus’s arm over your shoulders squeezes comfortingly. “So…what’s new?”

Two places the box on a shelf already filled to overcrowding with stacks of cracked CD cases and more boxes of cassette tapes. “Raided downtown Central, dude. Undyne tipped us off about some totally awesome crap shoved in some storehouse.”

“We, like, totally went to town on that place,” One chimes in.

“So,” Two continues, “we got TVs, we got stereos, we got record players…we got computers… Hey…you know what a fax machine does?”

“Nothing useful to me,” Rus says with faint amusement in his voice. “How’d you get it all back?”

“BP’s burger truck, dude,” One says. “Took a few trips, but 02 paid him for gas.” 

“Bro…I though you paid him for gas?”

One and Two stare at each other for a moment, then Two sighs.

“Well, like, one of us is gonna have to pay him back.”

“Oh, my God, bro,” One groans. “You can’t pin this all on me! I was busy loading the van.”

While the masked monsters argue, Rus lowers his mouth to your ear and whispers, “Have a look around. Pick out anythin’ you like.”

You keep watching One and Two. “C-can I do that?”

“Hey, you’re not here, remember?” Rus sucks in his cigarette and presses his grinning mouth to your temple. “You’re fine.”

“Thank you,” you reply, and you slip out from beneath his arm.

“Bro, like, I love you,” One is saying as you sneak into the dark cover of the shelves, “but you totally need to pay. I paid for our last trip.”

“Bro, I forked out for the rent this month,” Two argues. “Muffet, like, totally hates late payments. And she never accepts instalments. All up front, bro.”

“Bummer,” Rus agrees, looking over his shoulder to wink at you.

And with that, you disappear into the labyrinth of human wares.

-

Walking through the towering shelves stacked with the dusty, broken, and half-assembled scraps of humanity is like stepping into a world that died centuries ago.

One and Two appear to have established a rather impressive business – the farther you venture into the depths of the basement, you notice that their stock is not as much of a general assortment of items, but consists of what had gradually vanished from Ebott and replaced by the abhorred NTT Brand.

Most of the basement is filled with electronics that managed to escape being destroyed; televisions, radios, stereos, MP3 players, speakers, but no telephones. There are several aisles filled with television sets, including VHS players, aerials, even the odd DVD player – what’s truly impressive is that each and every television has a remote control of the same design taped to the side. They must have taken hours to match up.

VHS’s and DVD’s are piled into a vast collection of boxes lined up and down the aisle, all categorised by genre. You trudge down one of the television aisles, peering into the boxes containing various VHS’s. The cases are all quite battered, but in relatively good condition – some of them are missing the sleeves, and One and Two have improvised by sliding a piece of paper with the name of the move into the case. They have even attempted to draw on some of them.

You dig out a VHS you recognise and weigh the case in your palm. Napstaton hasn’t seemed to have hopped onto the home video release wagon for his movies; his music is released continuously, but never his movies…

You do remember that Rus mentioned that he gets one-of-a-kind tapes of Napstaton’s movies…and the hissy fit that Blooky apparently threw after receiving a bad movie review. Perhaps that review served as a wake-up call for Napstaton; that a three hour movie of him posing with a rose in between his teeth doesn’t have as much substance as his music. At least his singles have some quality in them that his audience can enjoy…just a little.

You return the tape to its rightful place and continue on.

The next biggest aisle is full of radios and stereos, CD players and MP3 devices with accompanying speaker docks, complete with charger cables, headphones, and battery packs. Like the VHS’s and DVD’s, the CD’s and cassette tapes have been sorted into boxes and positioned all the way down the aisle.

Television and music…made illegal…

As you walk, you gaze enviously at the vast collection of CD’s – there are so many that you recognise, but you wouldn’t be able to play them unless Rus agrees to buy a CD player as well.

You have your MP3, and you shouldn’t get greedy. It’s bad enough that it’s in the house. If you were to return home with a boxful of CD’s and a stereo, Sans would probably throw a tantrum to rival Napstaton’s. They would be very damning evidence against the brothers if found by any visitor…though the only visitor you’ve ever had is Happy…

Though One and Two have organised the basement very well, it’s so cluttered that you don’t quite know what kind of aisle you’re walking into until you’re in it; you wander down an aisle full of picture frames, photo albums…but no cameras. It’s strange, but when you inspect a nearby frame, you find that it’s still holding a photo.

And it’s no stock photo, either; the subjects look too natural, instead of stiffly holding some forced pose.

You lift the frame and stare at the picture – you assume that the people in the photo are related; two children, one just a baby, held in the mother’s lap, and the father is running towards them with a huge smile on his face…

You don’t feel comfortable looking at this. It’s almost as if you’re invading this family’s privacy, stealing memories that you have no right to…

You return the frame to its place on the shelf and keep walking, but it’s difficult not to study the photos, at these brief glimpses of others’ lives in a time before…before everything changed.

Beaming students watch you with their diplomas in hand; children laugh at you; old couples scrutinise you; young couples observe you; even some animals are following you with their wide, curious eyes…

You’re drawn to a thick looking photo album by the large letters stamped in the cover that feature a date of some significance. A wedding, perhaps? Or a funeral?

As much as you hate yourself for snooping, you open the album; the collection of photographs inside do indeed begin with a wedding, between two very beautiful young women. They look happy…their families look happy…

They have children…they get a house…they travel…then…

The album is only half filled.

Feeling wretched, you snap the album shut and slide it back into its place on the shelf. Why have One and Two collected so many frames and albums, and yet kept all of the photos? Surely they have no need for them?

… Perhaps One and Two keep the photos for the humans searching for them?

Being in this aisle makes you feel…uneasy. There are too many lives here that you have no right to invade. You’ve already pried enough.

You hurry onwards, keeping your eyes on the ground, and you turn the corner into the next aisle.

It’s crowded with toys. Dolls, action figures, cars, planes, scooters, balls, baseball bats…toddler’s toys…

You pause and reach for a doll. It’s not in the best condition, missing most of her hair, short a leg, and one of her eyes is broken, forever closed.

The doll is wearing a chief’s apron, and it has you wondering where, exactly, One and Two keep their food. You haven’t come across any so far…but then again, human food isn’t illegal. It’s likely that Rus requested One and Two to fetch you food on his behalf, since he couldn’t really be seen shopping for it without attracting suspicious eyes…     

It’s the toddler’s toys that very nearly bring tears to your eyes. No one will be wanting these…in fact, this entire aisle is useless. Children in Ebott never survive long…

The books are at the very back of the basement. And there are thousands of them, stacked to the ceiling, stuffed into every conceivable space on the shelves.

You brush your fingers over the spines, over the titles – some are badly faded, some have been damaged by water, fire, mistreatment…

Each title you recognise sends the strangest sensation of longing through you; That Girl loved these…some she never picked up, but had promised herse