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the trick is to keep breathing

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Sans almost makes it out the door the next morning without getting busted. Almost.

Papyrus is supposed to be at work already. As soon as Toriel opened her school, Papyrus got a job there as some combo of gym/magic teacher and guidance counselor. The kids adore him, mostly because Papyrus treats them in the exact same way he treats anybody else. (Which is probably why Tori now insists that he run any puzzles or traps by her before he uses them on the kids. Papyrus has some understandably wonky ideas about what kids can handle.) Papyrus is amazing at his job and very, very dedicated to it. Taking a day off would be sacrilege. He doesn’t believe in vacations.

But there he is in the kitchen, prodding skeptically at a pot boiling on the stove. He's got his phone propped up on the counter and Sans can hear one of the human cooking shows. It has to be. Not enough chainsaws revving to be Mettaton.

So. Looks like he has to decide between coffee and stealth. Life is cruel.

Before he picks one way or the other, though, Papyrus's finely honed bullshit sensors fire and he turns from the stove. There's a smear of something charred across his cheekbone. Sans decides he doesn't want to know. Papyrus taps his phone and the cheerful human nattering cuts off.

"Oh! I didn't think you were home!" Papyrus sounds somewhere between pleased and suspicious. He settles on the second one, squinting at Sans. "Shouldn't you be at work? Do you have the plague? Are you broken?"

His cover blown, Sans wanders into the kitchen. When he reaches the coffee machine, he snags the pot and drinks straight from it just to see the face Papyrus makes. He likes to max out his annoying older brother stats when he can. "Nope. How about you tell me why you're not at work first?"

Papyrus waves irritably at the smoke rising from the stove. "It's some sort of human holiday. They have a lot of those. It's always about setting things on fire one way or another."

"So you decided to get in the holiday spirit?"

"I didn't set anything on fire," Papyrus says, offended. "Undyne wouldn't be here to enjoy it. I merely added a subtle smoky flavor! Naturally! With actual smoke!"

"Organic is in," Sans agrees, taking another swig.

"Exactly." Papyrus points at him with the abused wooden spoon. "You didn't say why you were home. Don't think you can hoodwink me by flattering my cooking techniques!"

"But look." Sans tugs at the hood of his jacket. "I'm dressed for hoodwinking and everything."

"The kitchen is a shenanigan free zone," Papyrus says sternly. He gives Sans a second look. "You look terrible. Terribler than usual."

Probably. Sans tried the soul manipulation thing one more time before he showered and came downstairs. He didn't look great in the bathroom mirror. Even after washing off, he can still faintly smell his own acrid fear sweat, too reminiscent of the labs. He shrugs. "Is it the turtleneck?"

"Don't be silly. I wear turtlenecks all the time and I'm a fashion plate. Even Mettaton thinks so." Normally that'd be enough to derail Papyrus's train of thought (sex or no sex, Papyrus has had a thing for Mettaton for years) but Papyrus only frowns at him. "No, it's something else. It reminds me of..."

The words trail off into nothing. Papyrus's eyes go distant and unfocused. Sans's grip tightens on the handle of the coffee pot until the plastic creaks, his soul twisting with anxious guilt, and he waits for the moment to pass. Some part of him always worries that when Papyrus has one of these spells, trying to get to memories that aren’t there anymore, he's never coming back out of it.

Then Papyrus blinks, visibly rebooting, and continues without missing a beat, "-- fingers." Another blink. Papyrus shakes his head like he's trying to jar his mind into working again. "Wait. What was I saying? I have a headache. Other than you."

Sans could take advantage of the fact that Papyrus spaced out to make his escape. That'd be lousy even for him, though. "About why I'm not at work. I'm, uh, probably taking a break from the delivery job for a while. The hot dogs too."

"Oh," Papyrus says, startled. He's been on Sans to drop a job or two, covering his worry up with a bunch of stuff about terrible productivity stats and too many jobs meaning too many breaks and too little cool dude exposure. Surprise gives way to relief. "Well! Good! It's about time you listened to me!"

"Sorry, what was that? I didn't hear you."

"And the moment has passed." Papyrus turns the stove off and tugs off his oven mitts. "Do you want late breakfast? I hear it's the most important meal of the day. Probably because there's oatmeal."

Tempting, but if Sans doesn't show after what happened last night, Edge is probably going to jump to a lot of the wrong conclusions and several of the right ones and show up here to make sure he’s not dead. Sans glances at the clock on the wall. It's getting towards noon. "Nah. Thanks, though. I'm gonna do the lunch thing with Edge."

"Well, at least I know it's not Grillby's," Papyrus sighs. "Papyruses have standards. It's a universal constant."

"Yeah, he'll keep me on the straight and narrow." Regretfully, Sans replaces the coffee pot in the machine. "Heh. Well, as straight and narrow as I get. Seeya, dude."

He almost gets to the door before Papyrus calls after him. "Brother? One last teeny thing?"

The door is so close. He's never needed a shortcut more in his life but no, his magic has to decide to be a pain in the ass. As slowly as a horror movie victim about to meet their fate, Sans turns around and grins at Papyrus. "Yeah, dude. What's up?"

Smiling brightly, Papyrus asks, "What happened to your neck?"

Fuck.

"I don't--" Sans starts, sees the highly unimpressed expression on Papyrus's face, and sighs. "It's nothing. Some marks. Last time I saw Red, things got a little, uh. Yeah."

"Like hickeys?" Papyrus asks dubiously.

"Yeah," Sans says. Hickeys and bruises are pretty much the same thing, physiologically speaking.

"They must be quite something not to have healed overnight."

Sans shrugs. "You know how it is, bro. My HP and everything. Don't worry about it."

"Mm-hmm.” Papyrus manages to inject a lot of doubt into one non-word. He puts his hands on his hips. “You know, Edgy Me lent me his relationship handbook."

Not this. Anything but this. Sometimes it's hard for even Sans to tell whether Papyrus is deliberately fucking with him or not. He squirms. "That's great, Pap. I gotta go, so--"

"It was very educational."

"I'm sure it was. Anyway--"

"You should probably read it if you and Cherry are going to do things that leave bruises on your neck," Papyrus says. "Communication is very important."

This is it. This is Sans's punishment for all his mistakes: Papyrus gearing up to talk earnestly about aftercare. As he backs towards the door, he says, "Okay. Communication. You're right, buddy. I'm a changed man. All about the communication. In fact, I'm gonna go right now so I can communicate the hell out of Red. Got a lot of it to catch up on."

Papyrus crosses his arms. "I have no doubt. Just... be responsible for once, all right? I worry about you."

Damn. The doorknob is in Sans's hand and he's got the door open a crack but he can't just pretend he didn't hear that as easily as he would if he had a shortcut. Not when Papyrus gets all sincere on him. Not when he's bothered enough to actually say something. Not when he has a damned good reason to be worried.

"I know,” Sans says, painfully inadequate. "Sorry."

Papyrus raises a brow and for a moment he looks so eerily like Edge that Sans's soul lurches in his chest. "Sorry enough to actually tell me what's going on?"

Sans hesitates, the easy bullshit answer caught in his throat. He hesitates for too long.

Papyrus sighs. The worst part is that he doesn't look surprised. Hurt, yeah. Angry. Disappointed. But not surprised. "Fine. Can we please skip the part where you tell me there's nothing wrong, at least? Just say goodbye and go where you're going."

"There's something going on," Sans says.

The words don’t come out easy. He has to pry them out, like pulling a tooth without anesthetic. It feels like the truth should cause some sort of seismic shift. Some fundamental reordering of the universe. It doesn’t. The world keeps ticking. Papyrus’s brows go up. It hurts to look at the tentative hope in his eyes. "Well, yes, I figured that much. But you won't tell me what it is?"

"I just need some time," Sans says.

Exasperated, Papyrus says, "It's been nine months already! Ever since we got above ground! Ever since the human came!" Suddenly, he stops. He’s is no judge, but he knows Sans. His eyes widen. "Is that--?"

"Pap," Sans says, halfway to a plea.

"All right," Papyrus says, almost soothing. He frowns, looking dangerously thoughtful. "At the end of all this time I'm giving you, you'll tell me?"

If the years pass, if the kid never resets, if Sans doesn't die of terminal stupidity, if he ever manages to get his shit together... it's a lot of hypotheticals. There’s a very narrow chance he'll ever have to deliver.

But the answer isn’t no.

"I gotta figure some stuff out,” Sans says. “Might take a while. A long while. Then... yeah. I'll tell you."

Papyrus considers him for a long time. Then he nods. "Okay, brother. I believe you."

And that's it. Papyrus doesn't even ask for a promise. He turns back to the stove and turns it on. As high as it’ll go, of course. As far as Papyrus is concerned, there’s no other setting. Without turning, Papyrus says, "Tell Edgy Me I said hello. Hmm, wait, no, he's me, he'll know I said hello. Tell him I want to borrow a pair of his pants on Saturday."

Sans stares at him. Papyrus is giving the stove his full attention, or at least pretending to. Finally, Sans says, only a little choked up, "Thanks."

Papyrus flaps a hand at him. "Yes, yes. I know. I'm the most patient monster in the world and you adore me. Now either go all the way out or stay in, but close the door. I'm not heating the neighborhood. That's not how thermodynamics work."

Sans laughs. Then he pulls open the door, takes a last long look at his brother, and heads for the bus station. He hasn’t confessed to jack or shit but even admitting that there’s something to admit to, he feels warmer. Maybe the book has a point about that whole honesty thing. Maybe he should turn over a new leaf. Maybe he’s completely full of shit.

The bus is terrible. When he rides in cars, it’s for the company like on joyrides with Papyrus or because Asgore insists he looks too tired from judging to take a shortcut. It’s never been out of necessity before. Turns out public transportation is agonizingly slow with a bunch of humans giving him and the other two monsters the side-eye. There’s some entertainment to be found by meeting their eyes and smiling his most unnerving, dead-eyed smile, but not much. It takes way longer than he expected. He gets off a stop before the embassy, far enough that nobody like Undyne or Edge will see him taking the bus and ask questions, and walks the four blocks.

By the time he gets to the park, Edge is already there on their usual bench, looking like a bad mood personified. When he sees Sans, he straightens up like he didn’t think Sans was really coming. As Sans approaches, Edge thoroughly looks him over, then around them. "Where's your cart?"

Sans shrugs. "It's lousy weather and tourist season is dying off anyway. I figured setting up would be more trouble than it's worth. I don't relish the thought of wasting dogs, y'know?"

Edge stares at him, appalled and not by the pun. "How hurt are you?"

"Dude, relax," Sans says. Clearly his ‘everything’s fine’ routine needs some serious work if three out of three skeletons call bullshit. "I'm just taking a day off. Nothing's wrong."

"I had to harangue you to get you to take an afternoon off when you were coughing hard enough to crack a rib," Edge says.

"I'm still going to work tonight, man, it's no big deal," Sans says. "Lazy, remember?"

“You walked here,” Edge says accusatively.

“I wanted some air. Aren’t you always on Red for taking too many shortcuts?”

It’s suspicious as fuck and Sans knows it, but it’s the best he’s got. Edge looks up the sky as if glaring at the universe for making him put up with this bullshit. Then he sighs and jerks his chin at the bench. "Fine. Sit."

Sans sits, shoving his hands in his pockets. Maybe Edge will give him a biscuit for being a good boy. "How's Red?"

Edge's expression goes through a tangle of worry-resignation-irritation, settling finally on tired. "Given what happened, I'm surprised you're asking."

"Give me some credit. I already knew he wasn't exactly the most stable guy,” Sans says. “I'm not mad or scarred for life or whatever else you think I'm supposed to be."

Edge searches his face for a long moment. Sans waits. Finally, Edge looks away. There's almost a hint of a smile playing at the corners of his mouth. "No, you aren't, are you. Well. He's as fine as he ever is. Pretending it never happened. When he gets in these moods, at least they pass quickly. At the moment, I'm more worried about you."

"It's seriously just a day off."

"Your throat," Edge clarifies. "It was already bruising last night."

"I bruise easy. No big deal." When Edge gives him that same unimpressed look, Sans sighs and tugs the turtleneck down. "See? It looks pretty but it's not terminal."

Edge studies his bare throat with an unnerving intensity that makes Sans want to cover it back up. It's not like his usual clothes don't leave that part of his spine visible but nobody's ever looked at it like that before.

Gruffly, Edge says, "I could heal you."

"Well, sure," Sans says, taken off guard by the guilt in Edge's eyes. "I mean, you're great and terrible and everything."

That amuses him, at least. Sounding more like himself, all dry sarcasm, Edge says, "May I heal you?"

Sans has only got the one turtleneck and it was bad enough explaining the bruises to Papyrus. He doesn't want to hear it at work. He scoots closer and tilts his chin up to give Edge more room. "Do I get a lollipop and a sticker if I don't kick you?"

At least he thinks that's how normal doctors go, judging from pop culture and what Tori's said about Frisk's checkups. He wouldn't know.

(Don't think about Gaster.)

"No, but you won't get kicked back harder," Edge says. Sans chuckles, which feels weird when Edge's fingers come to rest very lightly on his spine. Edge checks him, expression tightening a little.

"Don't make that face or it'll stick that way," Sans says. "My HP is at max and everything."

"If I see someone I care about at one HP, it means something has gone terribly wrong," Edge says.

Someone I care for, huh. "Not now, it doesn't. Put down the duct tape and the bubble wrap."

"I'm trying," Edge says, his voice unexpectedly soft. Sans blinks and Edge clears his throat. "Hold still."

When Papyrus or Toriel heal, their hands get warm, but Edge's hand gets so hot it's uncomfortable. Nobody taught him to gentle it, probably. Not much opportunity for gentleness where he was from. It would be easier and faster if Edge just wrapped his fingers around Sans's spine like Red did, but he doesn't. His fingers skim Sans's vertebrae, so light it's almost ticklish, like he's afraid to hurt Sans more. Sans didn't realize Edge had quite that much gentleness in him. He shivers.

"I'm sorry," Edge says, not meeting Sans's eyes.

"Yeah, that's bullshit," Sans says. Edge makes eye contact, startled. "Total bullshit. I'm not even mad at Red. Why would I be mad at you?"

Edge looks away, his jaw set, like Sans daring not to blame him is deeply aggravating. "I pushed him too hard. I made a mistake."

Sans shrugs as much as he can without jarring Edge's hand. "I don't do the kind of kinky stuff you guys do but even I know you're supposed to stick around when a... uh, scene? Is that the word?" Edge nods, looking amused. "A scene goes off the rails."

"Off the rails is putting it mildly," Edge says.

"Yeah, I got that," Sans says. "Still. It's okay. He didn't hurt me. Even if he had, that wouldn't be on you."

"The collar says otherwise.”

"Sounds exhausting.”

"He’s my brother,” Edge says, as if that explains everything. To Sans, it does. “I wouldn't change it."

"I'm not saying that you should, buddy." Hard to deny that as uncomfortable as it makes Sans, the two of them need each other. They're devoted. Loving, in their own weird way. A universal law: a Sans needs a Papyrus. "I don't want to stick my, heh, nose in your business. Just making an observation, that's all."

"There's no such thing as 'just an observation' from you, judge," Edge says without heat. Sans shrugs. "I made my decision a long time ago. It's fine. Although your help yesterday was appreciated."

Sans snorts. "That wasn't help. That was the least I could do. Literally."

"Hm," is all that Edge says. He takes his hand away and sits back on the bench. The bones of Sans's throat still burn where Edge touched them like they might glow from the heat. Sans resists the urge to rub at them.

"You brought him back to me," Edge says simply. "Thank you."

Yeah, that's a little too sincere for comfort. Sans has the feeling that 'thank you' is a big honking deal where Edge is from and, like the food thing, he's left trying to avoid making it weird. He awkwardly pats Edge's shoulder, drawing his hand back when Edge tenses. "Don't worry about it. Like I said. Easiest option."

"I can think of several easier," Edge says. "What were you going to do if I hadn't come home?"

Sans thinks of Red's body on top of his, pinning him to the mattress. Red's one hand around his throat and the other between his legs. The slick red tentacles twining up the inside of his femur. He scratches his suddenly hot cheek and grins sheepishly. "Uh, guess we'll never know."

Edge's mouth quirks at one corner. "I suppose not. Red was right, I think--”

"Don’t go around saying that,” Sans says. “Red’s insufferable enough already without you giving him ammo.”

“It’s so nice to have someone who appreciates exactly how aggravating he is,” Edge says, almost smiling. “I mean to say that I misjudged you.”

Because he saw Red at his (not-murdery) worst and didn’t flinch? Well. Hopefully that means he can stop banging humans in bathrooms just to make a point about his durability. He grins. “Good thing you don’t do it for a living, huh?”

Edge sighs. "Speaking of, I should go. Undyne has everything under control but I don't want to push it."

"She can't quite scowl like you." Sans tugs the turtleneck back up. "I'm gonna hang out here for a while. Gotta give the humans something to stare at. Thanks for the healing."

"Of course." Edge stands. Once he’s on his feet, he pauses for a second, looking down at Sans. There’s a strange expression on his face. Warmth and a little uncertainty. Sans can still feel the heat of Edge’s hand on his throat.

“You, uh, got something to say?” Sans asks warily.

Edge says, almost thoughtful, “No.” Then he turns on his heel and heads off for the embassy.

What a weird guy.

Sans waits until he sees Edge disappear into a side entrance of the embassy before he gets up and heads for the bus stop. The guy's suspicious enough. Maybe he ought to just call Red and say he wants some afternoon delight. That’ll get him a free shortcut to Red’s place and let him check on Red himself. If he's really doing better, Sans will--

He'll...

... try to find an excuse not to ask for help, because he's pathetically predictable. The whole judge thing doesn’t leave him much room to be unaware of his failings. But he needs to figure this shit out. Papyrus is starting to catch on, like he hasn't been worried already, and there's only so long Sans can keep this whole bus thing up without getting caught. If Papyrus and Edge find out, this is going to spin entirely out of his control. He's running out of time and options. Pretending he can handle this on his own has crossed from stupid into outright suicidal, and that’s never been his bag. Something’s got to give.

(Unless the kid resets, anyway. Unless he doesn't have to deal with this at all. Unless there's no point like there's always been no point--)

A flash of white out of the corner of his eye. He looks up to see a kid in the mouth of an alley. Not just any kid. No, the neighbor kid, his black eye healed to ugly blotches and a new cast around his left wrist. It was the stark white of the cast that caught Sans’s eye. The kid's face is twisted up, the rage and hate of someone in a cage, his mouth trembling and tears in his eyes, and Sans knows what’s coming even before the kid takes a wild swing at him.

Even with one hand out of commission, the kid has good aim. It’s going to hit him. Only way to dodge is with a shortcut. A calculated risk versus an automatic death sentence. He takes the shortcut. When he feels Edge’s hand clamp down on his shoulder, bodily hauling him out of the way, it’s too late to stop.

They're in the void, frozen in that moment between two doors. It's only supposed to be seconds. It's only ever been seconds, a few steps between one place and another.

The door doesn't open. It won't. He can feel the place where it should, a weakness in time and space, but as hard as he claws at it, nothing happens. The door behind them is shut. They’re locked in.

The void is absence. Absence of sight, absence of taste, absence of sound, absence of time, but not absence of sheer fucking panic.

He tries the door. There is no door. There's nothing. A vast field of nothing. It's forever in here.

And between one (not)second and the next, not that there's between, not that there's anything to be between, there is a face. An impossible break in the darkness where nothing lives. It's close to him. Too close. A bone white, pitiless mask. Long-fingered hands that shape words with cruel precision. Sans knows that face.

Sans’s mouth shapes the word ‘no’, even if there’s no sound here and no air to speak. It doesn’t matter. No has never meant anything to Gaster.

Gaster's head cocks. His eyes are black pits with only the void showing through. When he hurt Sans, he was always coldly, cruelly rational, but there's nothing like sanity in those eyes now. Six years in the nothing, watching. Waiting. Remembering. He says, the words ringing in Sans's head despite the fact that they aren't said aloud, found you.

His hand clamps down on Sans's shoulder. It's cold. It burns. Sans would tear his throat screaming if he could but like a nightmare, he can’t run or cry out for help. No one would come anyway. He stands there, Gaster gripping one shoulder, Edge gripping the other, caught between them.

Very interesting, Gaster says, and gives him an unceremonious shove. The darkness gives way to the world.

Then Sans is back out into the light. He can breathe again. He makes an undignified noise like a yelp, short and sharp, that quickly cuts off as he drops to his knees in the snow. His knees won’t hold him.

Wait. The snow?

The snow. The forest. He knows it. They're in Snowdin, trees crowded around them. In that one panicked moment before the shortcut, he’d been aiming for home as in their new little house above ground. Maybe his shortcuts just decided to drag him back to his real home. He's lucky they didn't wind up in the labs. Hell, he's lucky he didn't get them both killed by shortcutting into a wall. It was such a stupid mistake and then Gaster--

found you.

Sans can hear his bones rattling as he trembles. When he looks down at his shoulder where Gaster touched him, there’s a handprint on his hoodie, black as the void and sticky. It stands out like an accusation.

found you.

A check breaks into his reverie a moment before Edge drops to his knees in front of him. Sharply, Edge demands, “Are you all right? Did he hurt you?”

Yes. God, yes, he did. But Edge means the kid.

“I’m okay,” Sans lies. He sounds almost calm despite the fact that his teeth are chattering. "Did, uh. Heh. Did you see something?"

"The part where that child you’ve been protecting from my tender mercies damn near killed you?" Edge says, with a sharp, brittle anger. "Yes, I saw. He's still young enough to persuaded to change. I was going to frighten him, not--"

All at once, Edge goes very still. Slowly, as if he's trying not to startle prey into bolting, he looks around them. Takes in the snow, the woods, the silence.

"Look," Sans says, bracing for an awkward explanation. "We might have to walk b--"

"Shut up," Edge says.

Sans shuts up, hearing the dead fucking serious tone in Edge's voice, jerked to a stop like he’s on a leash. Edge listens and Sans listens too. Even with the population gone above ground, it's too quiet. All the little sounds of life are gone.

The snow is grimy. Gray. Like dust.

This isn't Snowdin. This isn't his Snowdin.

Edge grabs Sans by the arm and hauls him to his feet. In a tight, deliberately calm voice, he says, "We need to go. Now."

But before Edge can drag him more than a couple feet, a sound breaks the silence. A long, eerie howl.

The dogs are coming.