"Sans? Are you out here?"
Sans opened one eye and peered over the edge of the roof. He watched Asgore look around, then vanish back inside. Sans pillowed his head back on his arm and drifted back to sleep.
It had been months since they'd moved in with Asgore. Mostly things were fine, but there were days Sans found having two fathers and a brother endlessly concerned with his health to be more than he could stand. He'd taken to sleeping in out-of-the-way places, but he was having to grow increasingly creative. So far no one had figured out he could get on the roof. He might have solitude here for a few more days at least.
He knew they meant well, but he hated the babying and reminders of his condition. The worst part was knowing they were right. The move had not made his problems go away. Twice he'd fallen asleep, only to awaken in suspension after several days unconscious. Gaster had no bedside manner when he hauled Sans out of the tube, muttering darkly about magic levels and HP.
His soul hadn't been strong to begin with, and time had not fixed what Gaster had inadvertently done. Yes, their souls were intact again, but both brothers carried scars. Papyrus seemed no worse from the ordeal. Sans tried not to feel bitter when he felt the ache in his chest and struggled to manifest the smallest semblance of magic. He tried...
Being exposed to more monsters had made it clear how broken he was. He'd always known Gaster and Papyrus to be his physical superiors, but he hadn't realized how massively they outclassed him in magic ability, and Asgore eclipsed both combined. Even the frailest insect monster had more hit points than him. It was discouraging to learn how damaged he truly was.
His family tried not to remind him of his weakness. Privately Sans preferred Gaster's tactless assessment of his frailties to Asgore's pity. Papyrus always insisted Sans was perfect just as he was... and then nagged him to stop being a slob and to do something besides lying around. Sans could never stay bitter at his brother.
But he did envy. Those days Asgore or Gaster took Papyrus off to train, and Sans was left with strict instructions to stay out of the way. The days Papyrus plucked something off a tall shelf for him, just as Sans was getting out the step-stool. The days Asgore commended Papyrus for being such a helpful presence in the house. Sans didn't begrudge his brother's skills and talents - he was the first to praise Papyrus' amazing feats and generous nature... he just wished he’d been made more like his brother.
He really tried to be more like Papyrus. To see the good in people. To not hold bitterness in his damaged soul. But... it was so easy to feel helpless, to feel resentment... to feel small.
And there were the things he saw. He hadn't told anyone about the numbers. It happened rarely and in uncontrolled flashes, but sometimes he saw things. That day in the dreamstate, when he'd seen the numbers underlying the world and its inhabitants. It had seemed like a dream, like part of the maddened vision Gaster had created with his pain. But sometimes he still saw them. And he didn't like what they told him.
Positives and negatives. Pain and suffering. Caused to and caused by. Both their father figures were marred and marked. More than any other monster Sans had encountered - not that the flashes of insight appeared often enough for him to have a large sample size.
He'd come to understand what he was seeing due to one of Gaster impromptu lectures - this one on Level Of ViolencE. Something had been said, and Gaster had leaped far too gleefully into explaining how one act of violence made others easier. He'd rambled on until he'd realized both children were staring at him in horror, and had hastily muttered that those impulses were in the past, and wouldn't Asgore be back soon, and shouldn't they go clean their room?
So, that was what the numbers meant. Scars of events past. Sans knew some of what scarred his creator, but what had Asgore done? And how long ago?
He hadn't told Papyrus. Asgore was all kindness in Papyrus' eyes. Sans didn't want to damage the gentle worldview. Besides, Papyrus wasn't much for keeping secrets. He'd tell Asgore, intentionally or not, and Asgore would tell Gaster, and Sans didn't like to think how the doctor might react.
"Sans! Come down or I'll tell Asgore to take down the trellis!"
The boy awoke with a sigh and climbed from his apparently not-so-secret hiding place. "how'd you know?" He asked as he reached the ground.
Gaster pointed at the beams Sans had used as a ladder, and Sans saw he'd not gotten all the ketchup off his hands after lunch. "are you gonna tell me not to go up there anymore?"
"No." The scientist walked into the house. "But Asgore will once he figures it out. Do try to cover your tracks better."
Sans grinned a little. His feelings for the doctor who had given him life, kept him captive, intended to torture him, and protected him with his life, were justifiably mixed, but he and Gaster understood one another far better than either of them understood Asgore and Papyrus' wide-eyed joy for the world at large. Those two were ready to forgive and forget anything Gaster had ever done or intended to do. Gaster did not find his sins so easy to dispel, nor did Sans find it so effortless to forget what could have come to pass, or believe wholeheartedly in the doctor's change of heart.
"did asgore leave?" he asked as he followed the doctor into the house.
"He got a call from Hotland an hour ago and ran off."
Gaster pointed at the kitchen table and Sans climbed into a chair, pulling a math workbook to him. Papyrus and Gaster joined him, and lessons began for the day.
Asgore had wanted the boys sent to school, but it hadn't worked out. Sans had lasted two days before Gaster pulled him out, grumbling he wouldn't see moron teachers ruin a strong intellect. Papyrus lasted two more, crying the whole time that he missed his brother and no one liked him. Asgore had reluctantly agreed the boys could remain at home, at least until they were more comfortable with the world.
So, Gaster taught them. He liked teaching, or at least liked the sound of his own voice and a captive audience. Lessons went better now that fewer subjects were taboo and Gaster answered less questions with, 'You wouldn’t understand', although his patience for children was still in limited supply. His passions were science and puzzles, though he was willing to extend his lectures to history, geography and a few other things.
Literature Sans handled on his own, devouring every book he could find at a rapid pace. Papyrus limped through reading proficiency, getting Sans to read to him when possible.
For cultural learning they had to go to Asgore. Gaster's idea of monster cultural talks were to explain why skeletons were better than everybody else. Asgore had a better-rounded view, and took them abroad to see the underground. Asgore was apologetic about the size of the underground, but the brothers found in vast and varied. It had wonders they'd never expected to see, and more still to explore. They wanted to see it all.
The daily lessons meandered along until Gaster grew tired of them and retreated to his room. Despite there being three bedrooms in the house, one unused, Gaster had added a room for himself at the end of the hall, and the third bedroom remained locked. The boys generally settled on the floor of Gaster’s office and played or worked while he labored. Gaster didn't seem bothered, much to Asgore’s puzzlement.
When evening came without Asgore returning, Gaster headed for the kitchen and made an effort at putting a meal together, with Papyrus helping more than he particularly wanted. Sans sat at the kitchen table, working out a new pattern with the color cube, and listening to Gaster's barely restrained temper contend with Papyrus' boundless enthusiasm.
The front door opened quietly. Sans watched Asgore trudge down the hall toward his room without first greeting them. Odd. "he’s back," he called toward the kitchen.
"Dinner will be ready in five," Gaster called out the door.
Sans returned to his puzzle.
"ALL READY!" Papyrus crowed, slamming plates onto the table with his usual gusto. He ran back to the kitchen to fetch more.
Asgore entered the room, leaning against the wall and looking ill.
Sans looked up at him... and the world spun.
Numbers and patterns. Actions and reactions. Violence begat violence begat...
He yelped and lunged from his chair, his eyes locked in horror on the king.
"Sans?" Asgore asked, taking a step toward him. "Are you hurt?"
Gaster and Papyrus appeared in the kitchen doorway.
Sans backed against the wall, his bones shaking. "you killed somebody," he whispered.
Asgore froze. His body sagged and he bowed his massive head.
"Asgore..." Gaster spoke cautiously. "Was there another human?"
"i thought it was a long time ago..." Sans babbled. "like him... but you're... you're still..."
"Sans." Gaster’s tone was sharp. "Sit down and be quiet."
Sans slid to the floor. He barely felt his brother's arms encircle him.
Gaster somehow got Asgore into a chair before the king broke down sobbing. He clutched the doctor to him, and Gaster almost seemed to reciprocate the embrace. "Th... they d-didn't even t-try to fight," he sobbed. "Just... two more... and... then..."
"Don't talk that way," Gaster protested. "You don't have to... we can find another way... I can..." His eyes slid toward the children, then his focus snapped back to the king. "Why don't you go lie down? ... tea... That always helps. Papyrus." He didn't look at the boys as he spoke. "Go make some tea."
Papyrus went, dragging Sans along by the wrist. “WHAT’S GOING ON? WHAT HAPPENED? WHAT DID YOU MEAN?” He demanded as soon as they were alone.
“um…” Sans didn’t want to explain. Not letting his brother know what he’d seen seemed infinitely important. But, what choice did he have? “asgore… he hurt somebody… a lot…”
“NO HE DIDN’T! HE COULDN’T! HE’S NOT LIKE THAT!”
Sans slid to the floor and hugged his knees. He didn’t answer his brother’s fervent denial of reality.
“HOW DO YOU KNOW? YOU DON’T REALLY KNOW THAT… RIGHT? HE COULDN’T REALLY…”
The smaller boy’s eyes had turned black and despondent. “y’know how he talks about…um… level of violence? sometimes i… i see that. and… his got bigger.”
“NO!” Papyrus was trembling in his desperate need to make the world right. “NO, HE CAN’T DO THAT! HE CAN’T MAKE BAD CHOICES! HE’S GOOD!”
Sans huddled, silent and miserable.
The tea finished boiling and Papyrus trotted off with it, still insisting everything was fine and Sans was mistaken. Sans followed after his brother.
Gaster was just coming out of Asgore’s bedroom. “He’s… leave him alone for now.”
“BUT I MADE TEA.”
“I know, but it’s not…” He took the tea. “I’ll give it to him. Go eat dinner.”
"WHAT ABOUT YOU? WHAT ABOUT ASGORE-DAD?"
"Later... just... just go eat."
The boys retreated to the table and toyed with their food, listening to the low murmur of voices. They watched Gaster come out of Asgore's room with a bag and leave the house.
Sans slid from his chair and set out in pursuit. Papyrus followed.
Gaster didn't notice them until he'd started down the stairs beneath the castle. Then a clatter caught his attention and he glanced back. "Go back to the house."
Papyrus started to turn away but Sans held his ground. "no."
Gaster held up a hand tinged in a warning blue.
Sans felt his soul grow heavy, but he planted his feet and glared back. He would know what was going on, whether Gaster willingly explained or not.
They stared at one another for several seconds, then Gaster turned away, releasing his hold. "Fine. Come."
There were coffins in the basement. They'd seen them before, although they had only the dimmest idea what they were for. Sans had slept in one a few times before he'd been caught. Three had been empty the last time they'd played down here. But now... another lid was screwed shut.
Gaster continued past the coffins to a door at the far end of the hall. He put his hand on the touchpad and stepped into a long hall. The boys followed close behind.
They went through three more doors, all of which required codes to be typed in, magic utilized, and finally a physical key.
Gaster ushered them into a small and dark room. "Stand there." He pointed to a spot in the center of the room. "And don't move." A tether of blue magic ensured his orders would be obeyed.
Sans huffed his annoyance, but forgot as the lights came on. At the far end of the room was a machine. It hummed a familiar vibration - like the power source in the lab. Attached to it were four clear cylinders. And inside each glowed a soul.
"THOSE ARE PRETTY," Papyrus remarked innocently. "WHAT ARE THEY?"
Papyrus frowned. "BUT WHERE'S THE REST OF THEM?"
"i thought souls couldn't live without bodies."
Gaster set the bag on a table. "The machine acts as a substitute host, keeping the souls stabilized and intact."
"like when i get sick?"
"Yes, it's the same concept." Gaster removed a jar from the bag. Inside pulsed a glowing green soul.
Sans shuddered. He hadn't quite been sure what was happening, but it was becoming painfully clear. "did asgore... kill all of them?"
Papyrus gasped and started to object, but something in Gaster's bowed head and pained eyes made the protests die. "HE CAN'T," he whimpered. "HE'S GOOD!"
Gaster's hands shook as he focused on attaching the jar to the machine. "He didn't have a choice," he said quietly.
"You wouldn't understand."
"it's cause of the barrier, right? you said it'd take human souls to break it. so... is that what he's gonna do?"
"but why's he need so many?"
"Seven souls." Gaster finished putting the jar in place and stepped back to survey his work. "That's what it took to trap us here. It'll take seven to free us." He touched the empty place in the machine where spaces lay waiting for two more such souls.
"and then what?"
"Then, Asgore will... set us free."
"OH! AND WE'LL SEE WHERE YOU USED TO LIVE? WITH THE SUN AND THE OTHER SKELETONS?" Papyrus grinned and bounced eagerly.
Gaster became very busy checking the machine's power levels.
Sans stared at the souls. "but... fightin' humans is dangerous. couldn't they kill him?"
Papyrus' enthusiasm died instantly.
Gaster didn't respond.
"and... you said... about absorbing human souls? that the monster ain't the same after. and... is asgore gonna absorb all of them? what'll happen?"
"He’'l become a god." The idea sounded as if it made Gaster sick. "He'll have the power to break the barrier... and annihilate the human race."
"YOU MEAN KILL?!" Papyrus stared. "ASGORE-DAD IS KILLING HUMANS NOW AND HE'S GOING TO KILL MORE? WHAT ABOUT THE NICE ONES?"
"There aren't any nice ones."
"THERE MUST BE!" He pointed at the green soul. "HE SAID THAT ONE DIDN'T FIGHT. AND HE STILL KILLED THEM. THAT'S..." He shuddered and clutched his scarf. "HE CAN'T DO THAT. MONSTERS AREN'T LIKE THAT. MAYBE... MAYBE THE HUMAN JUST WANTED TO BE FRIENDS. DID HE ASK FIRST?"
"You don't understand." Gaster was shaking uncontrollably. "They took everything from us. They started this. They keep us here. If they wanted to, they could... they could destroy us all anytime they feel like it. We have to..."
"BUT THEY HAVEN'T! YOU SAID THEY ALMOST NEVER COME HERE! MAYBE THEY WANT US TO BE SAFE."
"Even if they did... all it would take is one... just one with enough determination... to wipe us out." Gaster rubbed his head. "We have to get out of here. It's our only chance to survive. Otherwise we'll.. we're doomed."
Distracted by misery, Gaster lost his hold on their souls. Papyrus didn't notice, too caught up in horrific revelations. Sans went at once to the machine and peered at the souls.
"CAN'T WE... CAN'T WE LEAVE WITHOUT HURTING ANYBODY?"
"I've been trying to find an alternative. So Asgore won't... have to do what he's doing. But..." Gaster slung the bag over his shoulder. "We're going back now. Come."
Gaster's tone said talking wouldn't be appreciated, but Sans had little regard for the doctor's hints until they turned into threats. "why're the human souls different colors?"
"Human souls have... special qualities about them. They manifest certain emotions or abilities which govern the human's personality. Patience or persistence and such." As often happened, Gaster seemed compelled to answer whether he was in the mood or not. "It affects the hue of the soul."
"why're our souls grey?"
"what quality's grey?"
"that's it? don't we have special stuff?"
"Not like humans do."
Gaster looked thoughtful. "Perhaps it's a lack of magic that allow them to develop differential traits. Magic is our essence, our being, and our identity. It forms us and allows us to shape our world. Perhaps..." He continued on, talking mostly to himself.
Gaster had fallen silent by the time they reached the house, and Sans had thoughts enough to occupy his mind.
Asgore was a murderer. He'd been vaguely aware of that already. Seeing the evidence - this trophy room of his kills - it was jarring. Could he trust either of his father figures? He looked up at Gaster, studying the sad and downcast face. Same as Asgore's had been. Regret? So why did they do what they did? Were there really no other choices?
Papyrus lay awake, his arms encircling his sleeping brother. They'd talked a long time, talked until Sans had talked himself to sleep. Lucky him. Papyrus' mind was far too awake for the peace of dreams.
Asgore-dad had done bad things. Gaster-dad had done bad things. How could they? They were good. Didn't they feed the brothers, and take care of them, and teach them? Didn't Gaster do big important science to help the underground? Didn't Asgore listen to all the problems monsters had and take care of them? So how... how could they do bad things?
It had to be a mistake. An accident. Except it wasn't. Asgore was killing humans. Knowingly killing humans. Five of them. Five who might have been bad, or might have been good. Gaster said it didn't matter. They were dead. There was no sense justifying those deaths.
Level of Violence. Gaster had explained it. The more times you did something bad, the easier it was to do bad things. Until the only things you could do were bad things. Gaster had stopped doing bad things. He wasn't always good now, but he was better than he'd been, and Papyrus had every confidence in his continued improvement. But Asgore...
Gaster said he had no choice. That Asgore had to kill the humans. But there was always another choice. Always a way without killing. There had to be.
He’d argued that with Gaster many times. Every time Gaster tried to explain about a trolley running over one or five people, or a car hitting either a baby or an old person. The answer was neither. Everyone could be saved. Somehow.
It hadn't been easy for Papyrus since they'd left the lab. Things had been simple Inside. Obey the rules and all would be well. Behave, be good, work hard, and order would remain steady. The lab and its two inhabitants had been his entire world. His brother had meant the world to him, and he to him. Now... it was so wonderful Outside. Room to run. No beams. Less tests. But... so complicated.
And how did he belong in all of it? He'd been important Inside. He'd had a purpose. Now... the Outside didn't seem to care too much about him. Despite Sans assuring him he was perfect just as he was, despite Gaster claiming skeletons were the upmost height of creation, Papyrus sometimes thought it would be nice if he was a little less the height of creation and more capable of communicating easily.
And… sometimes it seemed like even his family didn't need him. Those days Gaster told him to be quiet while he taught Sans things Papyrus couldn't begin to understand. The days he found Sans engaged in conversation with a strange monster, who left in a hurry when Papyrus tried to join. The days Asgore said he had no need of Papyrus' help and sent him away while sighing over whatever useful thing Papyrus had done. Papyrus didn't begrudge Sans his mind and skills - he was first to praise Sans' abilities... he just wished he'd been made more like his brother.
He really tried to be more like Sans. To be smart at lessons. To know when to be quiet. To not feel crushing disappointment in his soul. But... it was so easy to feel stupid, to feel useless... to feel small.
He looked down at his brother and held him tight. This was one thing he could do, one thing that remained constant. His family had to be protected. Sans had to be watched in case his soul broke again. Gaster had to be protected from bad choices. Asgore... did he really not have a choice in what he was doing?
...What if someone else had a choice?
Papyrus eased himself out of the bed. "DON'T GO ANYWHERE," he whispered to Sans. He put on a scarf for comfort and slipped into the hall.
Gaster's door was cracked. He was awake, bowed over his desk, head in his hands.
Papyrus shouldered the door open. "DAD?"
Gaster winced. Papyrus was the only one who called him that. He wanted the family connection - the love and hugs Gaster gave rarely and reluctantly. If he said it often enough, if he hugged Gaster often enough, could he really and properly break through those barriers? The ones he kept crushing, only to find them erected again? Why was his father so insistent upon walls?
Gaster rubbed his nasal bridge. "What?"
Papyrus hesitated and closed the door behind him. "THE... THE THING YOU WERE GOING TO DO... WHEN YOU MADE US? THAT WAS SO ASGORE-DAD WOULDN'T KILL ANYONE ANYMORE... RIGHT?"
The scientist shuddered and turned back to his work. "That was the plan, yes."
"WAS IT... WAS IT GOING TO HURT A LOT?"
Gaster frowned and turned his head.
Papyrus clutched his scarf with both hands. He took a step closer. "IF... UM... IF YOU DID WHAT... WHAT YOU WERE GOING TO DO... ASGORE-DAD COULD... HE WOULDN'T GET HURT ANYMORE? HE WOULDN'T BE SAD? AND... NOBODY ELSE WOULD HAVE TO DIE?"
Gaster stared at him. "What are you..."
The boy forced himself to take another step forward and put a trembling hand on Gaster's arm. "YOU CAN DO IT. I'LL DO IT."
"Papyrus..." The scientist pulled away in a hurry. "You don't know what you're talking about."
"BUT I DO!" The boy looked up earnestly. "NOBODY HAS TO DIE THIS WAY! ASGORE-DAD WON'T DO BAD THINGS. AND... AND I CAN HELP YOU WITH YOUR SCIENCING!" He stood as tall as he could and tried to look brave. "I CAN! I'M SMART. I REALLY AM."
Gaster stared with such a look of bewilderment. "You're serious. You're actually offering... God... how did you end up like this?" His head dropped back into his hands.
"UM... DIDN'T... DIDN'T YOU MAKE ME TO BE LIKE THIS?" Papyrus put his hands on his father's arm once more. "DON'T BE SAD. IT'S OKAY. EVERYONE WILL BE HAPPY THIS WAY." A tremor ran through him. "BUT... UM... IT WON'T... IT WON'T HURT THAT MUCH, RIGHT? IT WASN'T... YOU WEREN'T EVER GOING TO REALLY-REALLY HURT US... RIGHT?"
"Go back to your brother." Gaster said weakly. "Go to sleep. We'll... I need to think about this."
"OKAY." Papyrus backed toward the door. "BUT YOU'LL DO IT? YOU'LL LET ME HELP?"
The scientist rose. He put a hand on Papyrus' back and escorted him out the door. In the brothers' room, he tucked the blanket around both of them. "Go to sleep," he said quietly. "We'll talk tomorrow."
Papyrus gave him a smile full of confidence and devotion. He snuggled down and put his arms around Sans.
It would be alright. Asgore wouldn't get hurt, and Gaster wouldn't be sad, and Sans would be safe. Everybody would win.
He just had to be brave.