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Terms of Engagement

Chapter Text

In the furthest corner of the lab amidst the wrecked equipment and overturned tables, Papyrus curled up tighter, holding the warm little bundle of his brother close as he tried to figure out what the hell he was gonna do.

Wrapped up in his blanket, Sans was sleeping restlessly and when he woke, he was gonna want to eat. He wasn't gonna understand that Rus had given him the last of the stale cereal this morning. He was gonna cry and right about now, Rus was ready to join him.

The scientist was gone. He'd had a name, but Papyrus didn't remember it anymore. He was pretty sure he only remembered the scientist at all because of the picture. Scientist? He was wearing a lab coat in the picture, maybe he was a doctor, but then why were they in a lab? Not knowing was frustrating but it was hard to care with the ache of hunger in his soul.

No more food, no one coming, and Papyrus didn't know what to do. There were other places to go, he knew, outside. They’d gone before, to the palace, and to see the old turtle. The scientist sometimes got them treats on these outings, Papyrus remembered that much. But something kept him here in the abandoned lab, some sense of certainty that if anyone knew, they might do something, might take away his brother.

Maybe they would be right, he thought unhappily, even as he pressed his teeth to Sans’s little forehead. He didn’t know how to get them food, didn’t know where to go, what to do. He had to take care of his little bro, if only he knew how…!

A sob welled up in his throat. Papyrus swallowed it back, but the tears refused to be ignored, spilling down his cheekbones. The best he could do was cry as quietly as he could and let Sans sleep.

An unexpected sound made him look up, curious and afraid. There was no one else in the lower levels, just them, and he hadn't ever heard that sound before, so what…?

More sounds, coming closer and weirder still it was voices…were they arguing? Papyrus shrank back for a moment, then he moved quickly, hiding his sleeping brother behind one of the overturned tables. He patted the baby absently, hushing him and darted back out just in time to see two skeletons turn the corner into the lab. They were arguing furiously, didn’t even seem to notice him standing there staring at them in fearful confusion.

One of them, in a too-large jacket with fur lining the collar was complained loudly, “i’m tellin’ ya, we don’t need another, we can handle this!”

"will you be quiet?" the other hissed. “i already toldja, we could use another pair of hands!” He was in a hoodie like Papyrus wore, only his was blue and it hung a lot further down on him that Papyrus’s did. They were kids like him, he realized, only they were a lot shorter and wearing oversized backpacks. At the same moment he thought it, they both finally caught sight of him and froze.

"oh, great, we found us a crybaby," jacket boy said in disgust. Papyrus stiffened even as he wiped hastily at his face with his sleeve.

"shut up," the other shoved him roughly, ignoring it when his companion snarled and snapped teeth that Papyrus suddenly saw were like a sawblade, much different than his own even teeth. The other skeleton looked more like him, offering a cautious, flat-toothed smile, "hey, uh. papyrus?"

Papyrus blinked at him. "how'd you know my name?"

The other skeleton visibly relaxed, "lucky guess. you got a big brother around here somewhere?"

"no," Papyrus said, warily.

Instantly, they both looked concerned. "no? that's a first, no brother?"

"don't have an older brother," Papyrus corrected. A cry came from the corner and he guessed there was no point in trying to hide his bro. Papyrus retrieved his little brother, jostling him as he whimpered unhappily.

A sound came from behind him, like Sans’s whimpers turned into a weird echo, and it was something of a shock to turn back to the others to see them both hushing their own little bundles, murmuring almost in unison, "hey, paps, shhh, it's okay."

"you…you've got little brothers, too?" Papyrus blurted.

"that’s your little bro, huh?” Jacket Boy’s mouth twisted, “okay, so you're a papyrus here whose older. sounds like your world is all swapped around from ours."

World? Papyrus wasn’t sure what that meant, but he scowled at the shorter skeleton’s assessment, "why is my world the swapped one?"

Hoodie grinned. He shifted the bundle in his arms and the blanket fell away to reveal a baby bones about the same age as Sans. "cause we're the older brothers in our worlds and it's two against one."

Papyrus could only shrug. "guess that makes sense." As much as two skeletons showing up from another universe could. Besides, arguing sounded like too much effort. The shorter skeletons got their brothers soothed pretty quickly, but Sans only cried on; poor kid was so hungry, and Papyrus could only bounce him uselessly, trying to calm him.

“huh,” Hoodie looked at him shrewdly. “hang on.” He set his brother down on the floor where he giggled and bounced happily, ignoring jacket boy’s hiss as he slung his backpack off his shoulder and dug into it. He took out two little packets and offered them to Papyrus. When he didn’t take them, Hoodie said easily, “hey, you’re hungry, ain’t’cha? it’s good stuff, i promise.”

Promise. Something about that made Papyrus reach out warily, snatching away the little wax paper bundles. Inside each one was a donut, and much as he wanted to feed his little bro, Papyrus took a cautious nibble first. Hoodie only watched, smiling easily, and Jacket grumbled something about wasting time. He set his own blanketed bundle down by the first kid, revealing another baby bones. They could’ve been twins, if the second one didn’t have a matching set of those sharky teeth. Both of them gabbled to each other in unintelligible baby talk and in his arms, Sans quieted, offering a curious babble of his own.

The donut tasted okay and when nothing happened after a couple minutes, Hoodie gave him a wry grin, “see, nothing’ wrong with ‘em. your scientist was kinda like ours, huh?”

Papyrus didn’t know what to say to that, so he offered one of the donuts to his brother. Who immediately tried to cram the whole thing into his mouth, complaining in his baby chatter as Papyrus stopped him, taking back most of it until Sans chewed what was already in his mouth. Only after he was done eating did Papyrus finish his own donut, and it was delicious, his magic greedily soaking in every morsel. It wasn’t enough after days without food, but it was enough to quell a little of his hunger pangs.

"now that that’s done, can we get this going?” Jacket Boy grumbled, “we ain’t got time to dance around. from the looks of things, you’re in the same leaky boat as we are, and all of us need some swim lessons pretty fucking quick. we're here for a reason, so let's get down to it."

He supposed he owed them at least a listen for the food. Cautiously, Papyrus sat his brother down with the other little ones, the three of them gabbling happily together.

“what reason?” Papyrus asked warily.

Hoodie answered him this time. “see, me and red here are from another ‘verse. i figured out how to get my machine working and decided it couldn’t hurt to visit around,” Hoodie’s mouth twisted unhappily. “turns out it can hurt, but anyway, since we bumped universes, we’ve been workin’ together. hard to work or find supplies when you’ve got a babybones to watch, innit, so we’ve been trading off days. one of us babysittin’ and the other working. if you want to sign up, then we can do even more, right? whatcha think?”

Trusting these two strangers with his little brother? It should be horrifying to think of, they’d been here ten minutes and were suddenly suggesting some kinda baby skellie daycare and yet…somehow, he felt like he’d known them so much longer.

“yeah, sure,” Papyrus found himself saying. Jacket Boy (Red?) and Hoodie both sighed in something like relief.

“good, that’s some good news. one more thing, we’ve already got a papyrus,” Hoodie nodded at his little brother, who was currently trying to use Sans as a brace to pull himself up on his feet. “so you’re gonna need a nickname. also got a sans, dibs on that, so your little bro’ll need one, too.”

“okay,” Papyrus said, a trill of unease going through his still-hungry soul. What was he getting himself into?

One Year Later

"all right, kiddos, you ready to go on a trip today?"

His little trio all squealed excitedly, and Rus grinned down at them, even as he winced at the echo. Most of the lab was still empty; Rus preferred to keep to the back rooms, their living quarters tidy and safe for whenever it was his turn to keep track of the baby bones. But the walk to the outside was pretty safe; he’d spent a lot of time making sure the walkways were baby-proof, and he let the kids run ahead, dawdling back while they waited impatiently for him at the door.

Long experience taught him that Blue and Papyrus would run the second he opened it, which wouldn't be a problem except they tended to run in opposite directions. That was a damned important lesson learned. So, he'd rigged up little harnesses for 'em, both of them reluctantly allowing him to truss them up. Hey, if the Dogi could do it, then so could he. His trouble-twins didn’t look much alike anymore; Papyrus was already a good head taller than Blue, much to his little bro's dismay. But one look at Sans and Red gave him a pretty good idea of what Blue had to look forward to, height-wise. He probably wasn't gonna be catching up anytime soon.

Edge only stood back and waited, watching him with those big ol' crimson eye lights and Rus knew exactly what he was waiting for. He looped the leashes around his wrist before turning his attention to his last little troublemaker.

"c'mere, kiddo." Rus scooped him up, making sure to tickle him on the way to get him giggling. Edge was a weird looking kid with those sharp teeth, but he was a good lesson in how appearances could be deceiving. Kid was a little sweetheart and all he needed to make him happy was a cuddle and a smile.

“Russy!” he crowed and Rus grimaced. At some point Edge decided if Sans was Sansy, it only made sense in his little mind that Rus should be Russy. He’d successfully argued the point by simply refusing to call him anything else. If that was the worst problem he ever caused though, then Rus’d take it. He still remembered the day Blue and Papyrus had found an old tub of paint in one of the rooms that they shouldn’t’ve been able to get into. Cleaning ‘em up had taken up most of the day and Edge had only sat by the tub, quietly playing while Rus cursed beneath his breath and scrubbed.

Rus loved his brother to bits, but man, Red got it easy with this little guy.

A couple more tickles and Rus slung Edge up onto his shoulders, and they were off.

“where we go?” Blue asked, even as he strained at the very end of his leash. Papyrus echoed him eagerly and even Edge made an inquisitive little sound. Pretty normal, all told. Blue and Papyrus didn’t usually ever shut up, but Edge didn’t talk much unless he had something to say.

"i got a little extra g this week,” Rus told them. He was already sweating, Hotland always lived up to its name, but they weren’t going far. “found some good dvds at the dump to sell. so, how's about we get a treat?"

Red would have a fit if he heard…and he would, all three of the trouble triplets were incapable of keeping a secret. But fuck it, the kids didn't get many treats. Sharing a couple bisicles wasn't gonna break them.

The Nice Cream cart was deserted this early in the day, except for the lady who ran it. She perked up curiously as they approached, but Rus couldn’t blame her for that. A pack of skeletons, two of whom were on leashes, was probably the most exciting thing she’d seen all day.

Rus swung Edge off his shoulders, lowering him carefully to the ground before he ordered. “two bisicles, please.”

While she rummaged in the cart, Rus carefully counted out his g, handing it over in exchange for the packages. He broke both of them in two, offering one half to each of the kids. Blue and Papyrus both took their unisicle and started in happily, their teeth colorfully smeared in moments.

Edge only stared at the one Rus offered him with those wide, wide eye lights, all soft crimson. He looked up at Rus, back to the treat, then back to Rus again and the hopefulness in his gaze ached as he whispered, "For me?"

"yep,” Rus waggled the unisicle in his fingers as the first melting drip fell over his hand, “all yours, edgy. try it."

He took it almost reverently, readily devouring it after a first cautious taste. Rus had to look away, eating his own unisicle as he blinked back angry tears. One treat shouldn't get that reaction, it shouldn't; he could vaguely remember not that long ago getting a bisicle every other day without even having to share. The sweetness of the treat was marred by his unhappiness, and Rus regretted that he'd had to waste the g on one for himself. But they only came in pairs, not much choice there, and he could only swallow down his regrets with the cool ice.

"I'm going to marry you, Russy," Edge announced suddenly and that took Rus's mind off his problems right quick.

The nice cream gal made a little snorting sound, muffling it behind her hand. Rus grabbed a couple napkins and knelt down to wipe away the smeary mess that was liberally decorating Edge's face.

"that so?" Rus gave the kid's nasal bone a playful tweak, "nah, you want to find someone better, not a crusty old jerk like me."

Edge scowled up at him, trying to fend off the napkin. "Nuh uh. I love you. Sans said people get married who love each other so I'm gonna marry you."

It was very difficult to school his expression to seriousness, but Rus did his best. "well, you can't just marry someone, you gotta ask."

"Okay." He turned to Blue, who was wearing more than his fair share of his treat, "Please tell your brother to marry me?"

Rus couldn't hold back the laughter anymore, "no, numbskull, you ask the person you're gonna marry. tell you what, you go on ahead and ask me again when you're a little older, then we'll see, all right?"

"Okay," Edge said agreeably. He let Rus toss his stick into the trash and wipe off his sticky fingers, then immediately held up his arms, pleadingly.

"i got you, baby bones." Rus scooped him up, nuzzling his little face and neck ticklishly until he squealed. A tug on his sweatshirt made him look down into two more messy faces, both hopeful for their own cuddles.

Rus crouched, gathering the other two in close, uncaring of the sticky faces pressed to his sweatshirt. "okay, let's get you two cleaned up, too, and we'll head for home. your brothers will be back soon enough."

"Red!" Blue chirped up and his starry eye lights glowed happily.

"yeah, yeah, red," Rus rolled his eye lights. Why the hell Blue was so enamored of that little thug, Rus did not know. His bro would have to be the contrary one and worship the worst possible role model. No matter how much of a dick Red was, Blue always came back for more, completely oblivious. But the first time Red made Blue cry, Rus was going to kick his ass, no matter how much Sans tried to keep them from fighting too much. Hell, if Rus caught Blue saying 'fuck' again, Red was getting a boot up his pelvic cavity.

Soon enough they were heading back, the leashed ones babbling to each other excitedly about their treat and yeah, Red and Sans were gonna know in two seconds. From his position on Rus’s shoulders, Edge didn’t talk, but he did rest his little skull on top of Rus’s, cuddling in contentedly. His little chin dug in painfully, but Rus didn’t care.

Hell, they were practically engaged according to Edge, he thought with no little amusement. An extra hug or two was probably allowed.


Chapter Text

A Couple of Years Later


Rus sighed tiredly, settling back into his heap of cushions and blankets that were piled into the corner of his room. Someday he was gonna have an actual bed, but until then, this worked.

Besides, he wasn’t entirely sure a larger bed would fit. His room was crammed to the brim with all kinds of stuff, stacks of books and scattered broken electronics that he was trying to fix, knickknacks of all kinds scrounged from the dump and clothes draped over whatever was the least dirty. Not like he had a closet, and anyway, he didn’t own much in the way of a wardrobe. A coupla striped shirts and a pair of shorts worked for him.

His old, shorter mattress was in Blue’s room now, handed down a while back when Rus started waking up every morning hanging off it from the knees down. Still worked pretty well for Blue, at least. True to his suspicions, his little bro was firmly in the pint-size brigade. Blue was kinda disappointed about it, but it was fine as far as Rus was concerned. Made it a hell of a lot easier to find him clothes, for one, Sans and Red were always struggling to keep up with their little bro’s growth spurts.

Speaking of which, he should really be trying to get some sleep. Tomorrow was his day to watch all the baby bones. He needed to be on his toes to keep Blue and Papyrus out of trouble, because if it was out there, those two would find it. Rus couldn’t be mad at them for it; neither of ‘em meant to run the older skellies ragged, but damn if they weren’t experts at it, little balls of energy.

He could’ve cried the day he stepped out for one minute and came back to find the two of them ‘cooking’, which to them meant dumping all their carefully stored supplies into a large bowl to make a sort of vile pudding. It’d been edible, at least, in the loosest sense of the word, and Rus wasn’t about to waste all that food. A few days of having to choke down Kitchen Sink Stew for lunch had been a pretty memorable punishment and they’d been cured of any urges to try more cooking for themselves, for now.

So yeah, sleep would be a good idea. The problem was, Rus’s mind didn’t seem to agree. It was wandering all over the place, thinking about his last day spent dump picking, mentally calculating the amount of G he had saved and if it’d be enough, even poking at his scattered memories of Before, the ones that were so foggy to him, but still itched somehow, like a scab of marrow over a painful scratch.

With a sigh, he clicked on the little desk lamp he’d scrounged from one of the upstairs rooms. A little reading usually helped settle him and there were plenty of books, the lab was filled with ‘em. They were fascinating to him, loaded with theorems and equations. A shame no one else seemed to think so; he’d tried selling some of them early on and not even the Floweys had been interested.

He was barely into his second page when he heard the pitter patter of little bony feet. Rus sighed, fully expecting a little brother to turn the corner and begin fierce negotiations for another glass of water or one more bedtime story.

What he didn’t expect to see peering through the crack of his open door were wide sockets with crimson eye lights, peeking hesitantly inside.

“Edge?” Rus called warily. Not that he really expected it to be anyone else, but it paid to be cautious. He hadn’t exactly been expecting Red or Sans to land in this world either.

Today was in his favor, because the mysterious figure in red footy pajamas that crept guiltily into his room was definitely Edge. A ragged stuffed bunny was clutched in one little hand, dragging on the floor behind him, and Rus made a mental note to steal Rabbit the next time the kid was napping. Looked like his lovey was in dire need of a little impromptu surgery again before all its insides played a reversal.

Edge shuffled up to Rus’s makeshift bed, shifting from foot to foot hopefully, “Russy?"

Rus only looked at him sternly. “what are you doing here, kiddo, it's late.”

He shrugged, a one shouldered affair that was very Rus-like, he noted with amusement. "wanted to see you."

“you aren't supposed to use the machine without your bro, you know that.” In the past couple years, Rus had gotten pretty good at the ‘very disappointed’ voice.

It worked pretty damn well, too. Edge scowled, his adorable little face scrunching unhappily as he blinked back tears. A rebuke from Rus was like one from the Angel themself, and maybe Rus had the voice down pat, but he hadn’t figured out yet how to harden his soul against those teary sockets. Rus shook his head and reached out to catch hold of him, hauling Edge up into the cushions and bundling him in blankets to cuddle that sadness away.

Normally that would have Edge giggling in minutes. That he only snuggled in, both little arms tight around Rus’s neck made Rus settle on a frown of his own. Carefully, he tugged Edge’s grip loose, sitting up with him into his lap. Absently, he noticed that Edge’s pajamas were getting a little tight, almost straining at the zipper. Looked like Blue was going to be getting some more hand-me-downs soon.

“okay, kid,” Rus said, “‘fess up. what's wrong?”

Edge swallowed hard, his eye lights downcast. “Red didn't eat dinner yesterday.”

That wasn’t at all what Rus expected to hear. He was thinking of a confession about breaking something and a pleading request that Rus be the one to tell Red, please and thank you. He hadn’t expected to hear that Red was the source of Edge’s worry. “what’s that now? he didn’t eat?”

Edge nodded slowly, “he didn’t eat dinner and he didn’t have a snack later and he didn’t yell to ‘not touch, damn it,’ because he was saving it. Is he sick?" They didn’t have a lower lip to wobble, but damn if Edge didn’t give it a try. His wide sockets were welling with tears that spilled over, trailing down his cheekbones. He let out a hitching sob, burying his face into Rus’s pajama shirt as he wept, “I don’t want him to be sick!”

"hey, hey, easy, sugar skull,” Rus crooned, his already aching soul constricting sorrowfully at those pitiful sobs. He cradled Edge into his arms like he had when he was much smaller, peppering soft kisses on top of his skull. "i’m sure your bro is fine. how’s about i talk to him, okay?"

Edge nodded, hiccoughing out a broken little, “Okay.”

“i’ll talk to him in the morning, promise. now, let’s get you back home…grk!” Rus broke off, suddenly strangled by Edge clinging to him with an impressive death grip. Wheezing, he managed, “your bro is gonna worry if he finds you gone, kid.”

“Nuh uh,” Edge clung stubbornly, “left a note.”

Of course he had, sneaky little shit, Rus thought fondly. Of all the baby bones, Edge was the most well behaved but when he got into trouble, brother, he was all in. Blue and Papyrus weren’t great at thinking ahead but Edge was a kid who made plans…like the time the three of them tried to make a raft so they could go down the river and be pirates like in one of the books Sans read them. The idea was sound, the execution? Not so much and Rus would be forever grateful it sank on its maiden voyage in the bathtub before any of them figured out how to sneak out.

Or the time they’d designed a ‘human trap’; man, that was never going to be not funny, the world lost out some true comedy when they didn’t get a picture of that. To be fair, the trap worked the very first time they tried it. A shame there wouldn’t be a second time, since the only thing they caught was Red, and he’d promptly shuffled it off this mortal coil and back to the dump.

Once he’d gotten over being pissed, though, Red had bragged the shit out of it. Edge designed the trap himself and the other two helped him build it. Pretty damn clever, all of them, but it was a good thing that Edge was normally the quiet one, because when he spoke up, all hell broke loose.

And it was breaking Rus’s damn soul to see the kid so unhappy.

Then an idea hit him. Edge didn’t seem inclined to let go anytime soon, so Rus was forced to roll the both of them to the side of the cushions, rummaging through the pockets of his shorts where they were laying rumpled on the floor.

“here, lemme show you something.” Rus held up a single G.

Curiosity seemed enough for Edge to loosen his grip a little, though he was too clever to let go entirely, ready to latch on again if it looked like Rus was going to try to make a daring escape.

“watch,” Rus told him. He set the coin in the bony palm of his hand, closing his fingers around it. With a grand gesture, he swooped his hand around, discreetly dropping the coin into his other hand behind Edge’s head, then held his closed fist in front of Edge’s hand. “okay, blow on it.”


Rus’s mouth twitched into a grin, yep, that was Edge, curiosity and suspicion all blended as one. “because i think you can blow it away.”

His expression was doubtful, but Edge did it, blowing hard, and a little slobbery, over Rus’s knuckles. Those dubious eye lights went wide as Rus turned over his hand and opened it, showing his empty palm.

To his amusement, Edge turned his hand over and back, even pushing up his sleeve and peering into it. Finally, he looked up and demanded, “Where did it go?”

“toldja, you blew it away. oh, but what’s this?” He reached behind Edge’s skull and plucked the coin seemingly from thin air, “there it is! didn’t get too far away, did it.”

Memorizing that book of magic tricks he’d found at the dump before he sold it was worth all the effort to see the innocent wonder in Edge’s eye lights. Rus dropped the coin into Edge’s hands and wonder turned to flabbergasted delight.

He swallowed hard, looking up at Rus, and he doubted Edge would look half as awed at meeting the Queen herself. Barely, he whispered, “I can keep it?”

Rus buzzed a wet kiss against his forehead and that awe turned to a much more comfortable giggling squirm. He did make a mental note to show the same trick to other two so there wouldn’t be hurt feelings. He could spare a couple more G. “all yours, baby bones.”

Instantly, Edge scowled. Even his excitement over the coin wasn’t enough to let that pass. “M’not a baby!”

“course not,” Rus yawned. His lack of sleep was starting to catch up on him. Finally. “you’re a real tough guy, ain’t’cha.”

“Yeah,” Edge said stubbornly, and Rus thought it would be prudent not to point out the stuffed rabbit that was tucked into the blankets with them. “I’d keep you safe, Russy. Keep everyone safe.”

“i know you would, kiddo.” That this little kid would even know to think such things gave Rus a moment of aching sorrow. Rus swallowed it down behind a grin, scrubbing his knuckles roughly over the top of Edge’s skull before tugged him down deeper into the messy blankets. “c’mon, you can sleep here if you want. have to check your return policy in the morning, though.”

Edge giggled but already it was thick with drowsiness. He snuggled in, Rabbit in one arm and the other around Rus, with a fistful of Rus’s shirt clutched in one small hand. Just in case.

But he didn’t fall asleep, only shifted restlessly, and Rus smiled to himself. He knew where this was going. Very softly, Rus whispered to him, not quite singing, “you are my sunshine, my only sunshine, you make me happy, when skies are gray—”

Seemed like not being a baby bones didn’t mean abandoning lullabies quite yet. Edge sighed contently, humming along for a moment before his voice trailed off into slow, even breathing.

“please don’t take my sunshine away,” Rus finished, a bare thread of sound. He dropped a last fond kiss on top of Edge’s skull and for once, his soul felt content. No aching worries or nagging thoughts, only warm affection for the baby bones sleeping next to him, who was already starting to drool on the front of Rus’s pajamas.

Oh, sorry, not a baby bones, he thought to himself, tiredly amused. Edge was their protector, that was right, and all the Undergrounds would tremble in fear at the sight of him and Rabbit, saviors of skeletons everywhere.

He reached up to switch off the lamp, laying his head down on the cushions and closing his sockets. Tomorrow was soon enough to worry again, and Rus knew with sour certainty that if it involved Red, there would be plenty of troubles to share around.


Chapter Text

Before he’d ever met the others, before he’d inherited a pack of baby bones to watch on every third day, Rus was already pretty used to waking up with a small, warm, bony body sleeping on him.

When Blue was only a little boney maroney, they’d shared a room and whenever he’d woken up crying, Rus was the one who went to him, soothed him, fed him from the bottles the scientist left even if they couldn’t be trusted because there was nothing else to eat. He’d tuck his little brother into bed with him, holding him close and taking his own guilty comfort from no longer being alone.

He’d promised to keep the kid safe all the way back then, one of the first promises he’d ever made. First one he’d ever broken, too; his memories of how or why were fuzzy on the details, but he knew it was true. Rus had made the some promise again After, this time to three little ones who all looked up at him with worshipful eye lights, believing every stupid word that came out of his mouth.

He’d kept his promise a lot better this time.

Blue usually slept pretty well on his own these days, but sometimes he’d wake up from a bad dream, or maybe those fuzzy memories trying to find a way back in. He’d wander in and burrow into Rus’s blanket-and-cushion pile with him, all snuggly-warm, and Rus would wake up with a little brother squirming against him, ready for whatever breakfast there was.

So, it wasn’t too weird to wake up with a heavy weight on top of him, even if it did feel heavier than normal; maybe Blue brought one of his toys in with him? Rus blinked heavily, but the room was completely dark. None of the artificial daylight nor the glow of the lava made it all the way down here. He fumbled for the lamp, wincing at the sudden flood of light. It was only when his vision cleared and he saw it was Edge sleeping on him that Rus remembered.

“shit,” Rus mumbled, scrubbing at his face roughly with one hand. They needed to get moving and over to visit in Red’s world before Sans got here with Papyrus if he was going to have time to talk to Red. He did hate to wake the kid; Edge was sprawled out on him like a starfish, drooling enthusiastically on Rus’s pajamas and his rabbit hanging loosely from one hand. But time was a-wasting and Rus wasn’t even sure how much they had. They needed to get going.

He gave Edge a gentle nudge, “hey, kiddo, time to get up.”

Yeah, and that was the reason he hated having to wake Edge up. The kid woke instantly, already scrambling to his feet and away, his eye lights skittering around wildly. Rus didn’t know what Edge was looking for, but he only relaxed when he didn’t find it.

Edge didn’t seem to think there was anything strange about waking up like he was expecting to find something (someone?) gnawing on his femur. He only yawned and gave Rus a sleepy smile. “Morning, Russy.”

“good morning, sugar skull,” Rus gave the skull in question a gentle knuckling, “we need to go talk to your bro real quick before blue wakes up and sans gets here with papyrus. lemme get dressed and we can go.”

“’kay,” Edge scrambled to sit on a cushion while Rus scrounged through his clothes for something reasonably clean. The kid started automatically putting his thumb into his mouth and paused with it halfway there, forcibly settling his hand back into his lap. Rus pretended not to notice, Edge’d been trying to break the thumbsucking thing for ages and usually had it beat. Must be really worried about his bro if that habit was putting in an appearance.

When Rus finally found a sweatshirt without too much in the way of stains or stink, he shrugged into it and a pair of shorts, groaning and stretching with every step. It was too damned early to be up, Red better appreciate this. He wouldn’t, but Rus could hope. Once he’d shoved his feet into his sneakers, he paused by Edge, who was looking up at him hopefully.

Rus raised a brow bone at him and those sockets went wider, his jaw quivering tremulously. It made him chuckle and shake his head, giving in, “okay, c’mere, kiddo. you’re starting to get big for piggy backs, ya know.”

“Not too big!” Edge said sulkily, but it turned to a gleeful crow when Rus swung him up on his shoulders.

“no? thought you weren’t a baby bones,” Rus said slyly. He winced as Edge flicked him between the sockets, his bony finger making a hollow thock against his skull.

“Don’t be mean, Russy!” Edge whined.

“me?” Rus rubbed his skull ruefully. “okay, quiet down, kiddo. we’re gonna check on blue and then head over to your place, yeah? don’t wake him up or he’ll hafta come along and this’ll take too long.”

“okay,” Edge whispered. He hunkered over Rus’s skull like he was using all the energy in his little bones to keep quiet.

Good enough.

Rus knew all the places on the floor that creaked by heart and avoided them, easily balancing Edge on his shoulders as he made his way to Blue’s room. It was Red who’d pointed out that all the squeaks and creaks were good as an early warning system in case anyone ever came wandering down here, so Rus left them as they were. So far, the only use they’d been was to warn him about an escaping baby bones, but hey, that right there was worth the price of admission.

A quick peek showed Blue was still sound asleep, curled up in his little bed with his own lovey. He’d sleep for a while yet if Rus didn’t wake him, so if they hurried, they’d be back before his bro even noticed he was gone.

True to his word, Edge kept quiet as Rus crept back out and down the hallway to the machine room. It was only once they were inside that he shifted uncomfortably, his sharp little fingers pinching a little against Rus’s skull.

Not that Rus blamed him. Using the machine always made him uncomfortable, too.

There was something about it, something that felt wrong, prickling uncomfortably over his bones. It was stupid, but sometimes Rus had this weird idea that machine wanted him to use it. Didn’t make any sense, it was a machine, machines didn’t want things, and he never mentioned it to Sans or Red. They’d think he was dumb. Dumber.

Dumb or not, it didn’t stop him from feeling it, but there wasn’t much choice about using it, it was the only way to get to the other worlds.
Rus reached back and gave Edge a gentle pat as he tapped in the coordinates he’d long ago memorizing, waiting for the rush of painful cold from the opening portal.

The shimmer of black that appeared was eerily silent as always. Rus never did figure out how Sans worked up the nerve to walk through it the first time, because he sure wouldn’t have done it.

Well, maybe.

The portal wasn’t that tall, Rus usually had to duck to go through it, and this time he swung Edge off his shoulders to balance him on his hip bone before walking in. There was a certain guilty comfort to holding him close, even as Edge shivered a little in his arms. This kid didn’t much like it, either, although he’d never heard a complaint from Blue or Paps.

Stepping through it took less than a second, but it was like falling through ice on a lake, chilling him to his soul.

The machine room in this world was weirdly similar to his own, down to the same feeling of prickling discomfort that didn’t ease until Rus went through the door. The second it closed behind him, that feeling was gone like it was shut off with a switch and Rus gave himself a little shake and went looking for Red.

The building itself was laid out different than his own, a weird mirror image and Sans’s was the same way. Sans joked that it wasn’t just him and Blue, it was all of their world that was swapped around from theirs and so far, Rus hadn’t seen any proof that he was wrong.

Didn’t matter much, all it meant was that he turned left instead of right to get to Red’s room and that he had to follow the path of creaks and squeaks in reverse.

Edge’s fingers were gripping his sweatshirt so tightly it was pulling it off his shoulder, and Rus rubbed his back soothingly. He kept quiet though, biting back any soothing words. Something felt…off, ominous, he couldn’t explain it. The door to Red’s room creaked loudly enough to make him wince, but there was a light on and he didn’t need to let his gaze adjust to the dark.
Red was sprawled on the bed, snoring away, a blanket draped haphazardly over his legs.

No wonder Edge was worried; even asleep, Red looked like shit. He’d taken to wearing sunglasses lately like an asshole, and Rus hadn’t thought it worth anything past an eyeroll. Looking at him now, he was obvious he’d been hiding the dark circles under his sockets. How long had he been hiding this shit and he’d been watching the little bros like this? What if he got them sick, too?

Rus sent a Check at him to see how bad it was and what came back to him chilled him worse than any walk through the void.

Sans: LV 3
*he’s only pretending to sleep

“oh, fuck,” Rus whispered. He stumbled back a step, sockets so wide they ached as Red rolled over and looked at him, and never had those crimson eye lights, that permanent sneer with those razor teeth seemed so threatening.

He barely noticed Edge squirming in his arms. “Russy, you’re holding too tight…Russy? It’s too tight, you’re hurting me…!”

His feet were moving on their own, shuffling backwards and nearly tripping over his laces so he didn’t have to look away from Red. Who was climbing to his feet, reaching out to them with his sharp-clawed fingers and he had EXP, he had LV, killer, he was a killer

“wait!” Red cried out and Rus was so stupid that he actually did, paused at the pain in that voice and the tears that were suddenly tracking down Red’s face, because when had Red ever cried? Never, that was when, Red played the badass, always, even though he was a full head shorter than Rus, he didn’t cry, never cried. Until now, sinking down to the floor amidst socks and sweatshirts, curling into a ball and burying his wet face into his upraised knees as he rocked and wept, “i didn’t have a choice! i didn’t…i couldn’t…”

Rus glanced at the door out of the corner of his socket. He could make it, one quick dash and he could maybe slam it closed, trap Red in here while he and Edge made for the machine.

Instead, he hesitated, watched the quiver of Red’s shoulders even as he clutched Edge closer to him despite his complaints, “what happened?”

Red lifted his skull, his blotchy face awash with tears that he tried to wipe away roughly on his sleeve. He snuffled hard, “not in front of the kid.”

Yeah, he wasn’t that stupid. “either tell me, or i’ll take him back with me.”

Red’s eye lights flicked to his brother, who was starting to sniffle himself, still trying to worm free of Rus’s grip. He nodded reluctantly. “i was at the dump, digging for somethin’ to sell. usually, i can get in and out without nobody seein’, but this time, they caught me. i thought i lost ‘em but they followed me back here and—” The tears started again, trailing down his cheek bones to meet at his chin, falling in droplets. “they attacked me, tried to kill me. called me free xp. i couldn’t…they knew where we lived, they coulda found the machine. coulda gotten to all of you, i didn’t know what else to do!”

Some part of Rus’s soul cried out that there was always something, that killing was never the answer…but it was weak, easily squashed. He’d always known this world was more dangerous, he and Sans both knew it, talked a few times about maybe quitting with the even steven in babysitting and only watch the kids in their worlds.

Just thinking of what kind of Monsters would call Red free XP, little Red a full head shorter than Rus in his striped shirt and stupid boots, thinking of those Monsters getting to the machine, getting to his world, getting to Blue—

“fuck,” Rus mumbled, because what were they supposed to do?

“couldn’t let ‘em hurt you guys,” Red said, dully. He’d given up on stopping the tears, letting them fall, staining his face. “couldn’t. not my bro, not blue and paps, i couldn’t.”

“i know,” Rus said, struggling with numb fear of his own. This could happen again easy and what was Red supposed to do? Keep killing anyone who found him out, piling on the EXP until it drowned him in LV? He knew about LV, knew what it could do to a Monster, and Red was an asshole, but they couldn’t let that happened to him. Worse, he might not earn EXP, he might get dusted, and then Edge would be here alone and—he didn’t realize how hard he was squeezing Edge until the kid smacked him, squalling again that he was holding too tight. He loosened his grip absently, his thoughts a’whirl, what could they do—

The solution was so simple he couldn’t believe he’d never thought of it before, clicked in his head like one of the puzzles that the three trouble triplets loved to do.

“listen,” Rus said, slowly, “why don’t you and edge come live with blue and me?”

That got him a fresh emotion from Red. His eye lights flashed and he snarled out, “we don't need your pity!”

“good, because you’re not getting any!” Rus shot back. "how are you gonna protect our bros here, huh? how can you keep edge safe? you know things aren’t the same in my world, so come stay with us! no one is gonna call you free xp there!”

Red flinched, the truth of that hitting him hard. He was wavering, so Rus finally set Edge down and let him run to his brother, flinging himself into his arms. Usually, Red would tolerate hugs from the kiddos with a lot of grumbling and shove them away after a minute. This time he gathered Edge close, holding him in tightly as his little brother bawled and clung to him.

Over his little bro’s head, Red’s eye lights twitched to the wall where a few pictures of all the kids were tacked up, taken with an old camera Sans found at his lab. One of them was of Blue, swallowed up into one of Red's old jackets, the sleeves hanging over his hands as he beamed up at the camera with starry eye lights. There were plenty of others; Edge and Paps and Blue as baby bones, working their way up from toddlers till now, the three of them laughing and playing. Safe.

Red tried to swipe away his tears again, uselessly, and snuffled out, “you mean it?”

“course i do!” Rus said stoutly, with more confidence than he felt. Okay, it was gonna be a pain in the ass, he knew that, but it was a helluva lot better than the alternative. “red, you guys don’t need to stay in this shithole

He still didn’t look convinced. Edge squirmed free of his arms, for once having to fight loose from his brother’s grip. He stood there in his too-small footie pajamas, looking up at Red, and his voice was pure hope as he asked, “We’re gonna live with Russy?”

“yeah, kiddo,” Red sounded like he was still trying to persuade himself. “you like that idea?”

To say Edge lit up gave lightbulbs too much credit. The kid all but glowed, shining with delight, and he stood on his toes to whisper to his brother too softly for Rus to hear.

Red only snorted and shook his head. “you still on that idea? he ain’t marrying you, that ain’t how it works. is that why blue keeps askin’ me, you put that idea in his head?”

“am so,” Edge repeated stubbornly and for all that none of this was very funny, Rus had to cough to hide his own smile. Kid had a long memory, that was for sure.

Red looked around at the room, at the scattered clothes, the pictures and let out a slow breath as he nodded. “okay, give me some time to get everything packed up and we’ll head over to your place, yeah?”

“I can help!” Edge said eagerly. He started to run out, paused and gave Rus’s leg a hard hug.

His skull was only as high as Rus’s hipbone and he gave it a gentle pat, crouching to press a soft kiss to the curve of it and murmured, “go get your stuff, sugar skull. bet you and blue can share a room for a little while, yeah?”

“Yeah!” His delighted grin was the last thing Rus saw as he ran out, heading to pack what was probably too many toys and not enough clothes. Ah, well, he was sure Red would double-check.

Red was already stuffing clothes into a bag, frowning as he tossed a few things aside. Rus jerked his thumb at the door, “i’m gonna go back and give my brother a heads up. this’ll work out, red.”

He nodded jerkily, adding a striped hoodie to his bag. “yeah. least i know my bro will be safe in your world.

You both will, Rus didn’t say. He left them to pack and headed back to the machine, shivering his way through the void and back to his own world. It was no surprise that Blue was thrilled with the idea of having Red live with them, even if he had to share his room with Edge, and he spent the morning neatly splitting his room in half. Rus was less amicable about sharing; there were plenty of empty rooms in the lab, Red could pick a new one. They might even be able to find Red a mattress, short as he was, it’d be easier than finding one for Rus.

They were still waiting for their new roomies when Sans showed up to drop off Papyrus, who was so disappointed that no one was moving in with them that he started to cry. Rus gave Sans an abbreviated version of what was really going on while he soothed his little bro, and he decided to wait around instead of heading off to his own world, get a bead on how things were gonna be changing.

They were still waiting at lunchtime. At dinner. Still waiting that night when Rus tried to use the machine and found that it wouldn’t open a portal to their coordinates. Sans and Papyrus could head home, but their machine didn’t open to Red and Edge’s world either, only flashed a brief pattern of warning lights and stopped.

They waited the next day and the next, while Blue and Papyrus cried over their friends, and Rus and Sans sat in silent worry, trying the coordinates again. And again. Until eventually the kiddos stopped asking when Red and Edge were coming back, until Blue only looked at the pictures of his friends sadly, placing them in a scrapbook, and he wore that old jacket of Red’s until it was rags. Until Sans came up with his Idea and the four of them had to make a choice. But the machine never opened a portal to those coordinates again.

Rus kept that worry in his soul, waiting for a portal that never came, for the next fifteen years.


Chapter Text

Some Fifteen Years Later

“Time to get up, brother!”

Rus rolled over on his bare mattress with a groan, pulling his blanket back over his head. Not that a flimsy barrier was going to stop his bro, not a chance. Nothing short of a brick wall could stop him once he got going, and Rus didn’t keep one of those in his inventory.

Maybe he should look into it.

In the meantime, he could only hiss like a new vampire when Blue yanked open the curtains to let in the artificial light. It gleamed blindingly off the snow and through the window, directly into Rus’s cringing sockets. Satisfied at his brother’s betrayed howls, Blue dusted off his hands and turning back to Rus to scold, “Brother! Get up!”

“c’mon, bro!” Rus’s words were muffled into his pillow. “can’t you see i’ve been working myself to the bone?”

He peeked out in time to see Blue stamp one of his booted feet indignantly, gloved hands on his hips. “You have sentry duty in an hour! How can I catch a Human if we aren’t watching for one!”

Rus rolled over with a yawn, “don’t worry, bro, ulna be late.”

“Ugh, brother!” Blue shook his head, but beneath his pained disgust was a glimmer of humor. “All right, I’m leaving, but I’ll check on your post later!” He left, but poked his head back in to add, “I wasn’t bone yesterday, mweh heh heh!”

Blue vanished again as Rus chuckled to himself. He waited until he heard the front door close before rolling over to snag his cigarettes. His bro couldn’t stand the smell and he had enough to gripe about already this morning. A flick of his lighter and Rus drew in a long breath of smoke, held it in even as trickles escaped through his ribs, and exhaled it in a pale cloud. He flopped back in bed, careful to let the ash fall to the messy floor rather than into the sheets.

Idly, he considered the glowing tip of the cigarette dangling between his fingers. He’d started smoking not long after they came to Snowdin. Couldn’t really hurt him much and it made him seem older to Monsters who weren’t interested in looking too closely. Back then, anything he could use to make others not question him raising his brother had been helpful.

Mostly he’d fooled everyone with a trick as simple as abandoning his stripes early. That made it easy to pretend to be older than he was. He’d been tall even then and no one asked any troublesome questions. They’d let him come into Muffet’s after a long day of napping on sentry duty, let him drink alongside them and no one questioned that he preferred honey to whiskey; all Monsters had their preferences. It’d worked until he was old enough for it to not matter, and no one had been the wiser.

That was years ago now, though and Blue was of age himself, for whatever good it did him here. Ah, his wonderful, sweet-natured bro. So desperate to be liked and to make friends. The residents of Snowdin were nice enough, but outside of Muffet’s, they tended to keep to themselves. The cold weather and being trapped Underground tended to sap away friendly impulses and no matter how hard Blue tried, no one had been willing to step into the role of friend for him.

It hurt a little to know that Blue probably hadn’t had a decent friend since they’d stopped using the machine.

Since he’d lost Edge and Papyrus.

Damn, but it’d been a while since he’d thought of them. Rus sat up a little more in bed and lit another cigarette as he thought of his bro’s childhood playmates.

The scrapbook Blue made with their pictures all those years ago still sat on his bookshelf, but it was dusty with disuse. It was a wonder Blue remembered them at all, he’d still been a wee baby bones back then.

Barely a month after whatever happened to Red and Edge was when it all finally fell apart. Their little shared worlds were already beginning to unravel on the day it was Rus’s turn to watch the kiddos. Sans came right on time to drop off Papyrus. Kid was as wriggly as ever in his cheery orange-striped shirt, squirming down from his brother’s arms and off to play with Blue.

The two of them stopped asking when Edge and Red were coming back, but Blue still sniffled about it at night, lying in bed with Red’s worn-out jacket clutched in his arms.

To Rus’s surprise, Sans lingered and his grim expression brought no comfort. Not after what happened with their missing friends.

“what is it?” Rus asked, low to keep the kiddos from hearing him.

“we need to talk.”

Shit. Rus nodded and led Sans to his room. Their bros would be okay to play on their own for a little while. He sprawled out in his bed cushions, drawing up a knee to rest his chin on.

“okay, spill, what’s going on?”

But Sans wouldn’t be rushed. He settled to sit on one of the larger cushions that passed for a chair, legs crossed under him, and said bluntly, “we need to talk about what that fucker did to us.”

Rus could only blink, shocked to his core. They all had a fair idea of what had gone down before, even if their memories were pretty damn shaky. None of them ever compared notes, but they’d been to each other’s worlds, dozens of times. They’d seen the equipment, the tables with the straps on them. They all knew without a word, so Rus wasn’t sure why Sans wanted to share any now. “i don't want to talk—”

“i know you don't!” Sans said and his normal amicable tone was lost in a fury that jumbled in even more confusion. “me either, but we hafta. someone came to our lab yesterday.”

That nugget of information froze Rus’s soul. “what?”

“someone in a white coat,” Sans picked at the ragged hem of his shorts moodily. “don’t think she was looking for us, but she was with some others, poking around. they looked like they might be trying to open it again. and if they’re trying to do it in my world, they’ll try it here, you know. that’s how this works.”

It was true. They’d all noticed odd parallels between their worlds past people looking alike and if someone was coming to Sans’s lab...a painful thought occurred and it hurt to think it, of that sweet little baby bones who’d craved hugs being hurt or afraid, but Rus forced out, “do you think that’s what happened to red and edge?”

“i dunno what happened to them, maybe.” Sans blew out a long breath, his finger bones scraping his skull as he rubbed the back of his head agitatedly. “look, you guys weren’t the first worlds i came to. found another one first, another pair like us. those two seemed nice enough. they lived with the queen, took me to see her. but i gave her a hard look, i saw her. i saw her soul was bad.”

Rus looked away. He didn’t like talking about seeing souls. Neither had Red. The way it felt, someone else’s sins crawling up their spine like a bloated spider, ugh. It was horrible and Rus preferred not to, thanks.
“she wanted me to stay, see,” Sans went on, doggedly, “wanted me to show them how the machine worked. i said i was gonna, played like it was all dandy. and then i ran back and got the hell out of there. scrambled the coordinates, but they still have a machine. if they figured out how to use it on their own?” He shook his head. “we’ve been using the machine for our own piddly shit, started all this back when we were kids and didn’t know better. but i don’t like to think what could happen if someone else tried it. someone with a little more determination.”

“what are you saying?” Rus whispered. But he already knew.

“come on, let’s be honest.” Sans was always grinning; with his skull structure, he didn’t have much choice. But there was nothing pleasant in the way he smiled now, “we can do that with each other, yeah? d’you trust anyone in your world with the machine? bet the nice cream gal is a real sweetheart, but you really think the old doc was the only bad soul around?”

“but…” He could feel the tears stinging in his sockets. He and Red had never been besties, but Rus found he missed the little asshole more than he’d ever thought he could. Losing Edge hurt even worse, that sweet baby bones, and remembering the last time he’d seen the kid, those thin, strong arms hugging him so tightly. If he’d known, had even an inkling what might happen, he never would’ve let the kid go.

Now Sans was saying he was losing him and Papyrus, too.

“we could move in together—“ but Rus trailed off, already knowing the answer even as Sans shook his head. All of them living in the same world would mean leaving the machine behind for anyone to use. That would kinda miss the point of it all. “fuck it, this sucks!”

Sans looked as miserable as Rus felt, blinking too hard. “i know. and it’s gonna break our bros hearts. but we can’t know what all is on the other side and i’m not sure i wanna wait until they step through to find out. and i definitely don’t wanna leave them for some other white coat to find. we need to shut them down, get them someplace where no one else can use ‘em ever again.”

Everything Sans was saying made sense, no matter how much Rus didn’t want to hear it. Hot resentment welled up, filling Rus’s soul; against the scientist, the machine, even against Sans. This wasn’t fair, none of this, why did they have to be the ones to do this shit? All Rus ever wanted was to be like the other Monster kids he’d seen, playing and getting nice cream, waiting for Gyftmas and a Santa who never managed to find his way to laboratory where little skeletons waited hopefully, thinking maybe this time, maybe they’d been good enough, and never were.

But there was no point to being mad about it, never was. All they’d ever had was each other, and someone had to do it. The same way someone had to clumsily wrap little presents for all the baby bones because if Santa couldn’t be bothered to show up, then a trio of big brothers weren’t about to let their little bros be disappointed again.

Someone had to and much as Rus hated to admit it, Sans was right.

“how can we move the machines?” Rus swiped at his damp sockets with his sleeve impatiently, “not like we can piggyback it around like we do our bros.”

“that’s another idea i got. follow me, i wanna show you something.”

Rus scrambled back to his feet, almost on Sans’s heels as they went out the door. But something felt odd as they walked through, a wavering of some sort and when Rus blinked, they weren’t in the hallway. They were standing outside the lab where the sweltering heat of Hotland was already making them sweat.

“how did you—“ Rus whirled around, blinking hard, but the scenery didn’t change. They were outside somehow and Sans’s grin was showing a little more humor.

“neat, huh? that’s why i said we needed to talk, cause if i can do it, i bet you can. and it’s not just monsters i can move, i can take things, too. maybe with a lil’ more practice…” He trailed off meaningfully.

“yeah, i get you, but i still don’t get how. or why.”

Sans could only shrug. “ain’t like we can ask. if i was gonna guess, i’d say he was hedging his bets that if the machine didn’t work, we’d be a different way through the barrier.” That grin twisted sourly. “shame none of his shit worked the way it's supposed to.”

Wasn’t a shame at all in Rus’s opinion. The real shame was the use they’d found for the machine was about to get dumped like so much trash. But when he thought of that other world Sans described, thought of Monsters coming through with bad souls filled with LV. Like the world Red was from.

Yeah, no. That wasn’t happening.

“show me how,” Rus said and Sans did.

It was exhausting and painful at first, worse even than the machine. He’d step out from a shortcut chilled to his marrow and it would be hours before his shivering stopped.

But it was easy, right within reach, and soon he was good at it, too good, good enough to take other people and things with him, and when he learned about the sentry job opening in Snowdin, he knew it was time.

After that, they’d only needed to say goodbye.

Rus stared up at the ceiling as he finished his cigarette, quietly consumed by memory.

Damn, but that was a long time ago now. It’d been what, fourteen, fifteen years? Their faces were reduced to blurred smears in his mind, maybe he needed to have a look of his own in Blue’s scrapbook tonight.

But even if the faces weren’t clear, he remembered Papyrus’s exuberance, his laughter. He remembered little Edge’s shy sweetness, the precious giggles from the kid who was so determined to marry him someday. Red and Sans, so like him and yet not, big bros determined to protect the baby bones.

So long ago but it still felt like there was gap in his soul where they’d all been once.

Rus snorted and smashed out his butt. Why was he thinking about them, anyway? Today wasn’t some kind of fucked up anniversary or anything. It was just another day in the Underground, another day, another G, and tonight it would be the same as any other. Watching Napstaton on the television he’d scrounged from the dump, choking down his brother’s less than appetizing version of tacos and secretly eating over at Muffet’s on the sly. Write another post-it to put by his sock for Blue to howl about tomorrow, and maybe head out for a drink, maybe even something else depending on who was there.

Nothing happened in Underswap, nothing changed.

So why the hell did he feel so agitated?

A niggling idea occurred, shaken loose by his nostalgia. Might be that there was a little something something he needed to check on, a thing he hadn’t looked at in years. He still had a little time before he had to get to his sentry post and it wasn’t like it took him longer than a minute to get there, anyway. He had the time, but the place he was heading wasn’t one he liked to shortcut into.

Rus pulled on a pair of shorts and a hoodie, scrounged from the pile of ‘not too stanky to wear again’ clothes and headed downstairs to shove his feet into his untied shoes. He lit another cigarette while he walked around back, standing uncomfortably by a door he rarely opened and Blue never seemed to notice. That was something right there, wasn’t it, that his little bro didn’t even see this door. Hard for Rus to figure out what that meant, and he wasn’t much one for puzzles or mysteries, anyway. Knock knock jokes, that was his gig and he wanted to keep it that way.

So why was he here, then, unlocking the door and pushing it open, all creaking and wheezy like a fucking late-night Halloween Special.

The lights still worked, thank the stars, or Rus might’ve said fuck it and headed off for his morning nap sentry duty after all.

Down in the cold basement, the machine sat hulking in the corner where Rus had dumped it after a painfully exhausting shortcut and there was a memory Rus could do without. Laying quivering on the dirty floor, close to vomiting from the burnt dregs of magic in the back of his throat along with bitter satisfaction and tears.

It was covered in a heavy cloth that was dusty and untouched. Useless. The machine didn’t have any power, cut off and starved to keep away any of the other Universes.

But Rus still shivered from something other than the cold. That feeling was still there, the same sensation he remembered as a kid. Like it wanted to be used.

“stop it,” Rus said aloud. Stupid. Like anyone was here to hear it? But his soul was crawling, a prickly sensation tiptoeing up his spine. He was alone, but it felt like something was here, a presence.

Rus wasn’t afraid of ghosts, knew a couple personally. This wasn’t a ghost and he couldn’t tell if it was malevolent or kind, only that it was there. And it wanted something from him.

“knock it off. i’m not listening,” Rus said, but it was a lie. He was listening to the throb in his head, the faint hiss like white noise echoing. Thin panic was starting to rise and he’d had enough of being here on his own. Let the machine crumble to dust, he was out of here.

He ignored the creepflesh feeling in his soul; he wanted out of here now and he reached out for a shortcut, the same way he had since he’d learned how and a thousand times since.

But the moment he stepped into it, he knew something was wrong. Colder than it’d ever been and it wasn’t gone in an instant as it should be. The dark/not dark lingered, his vision rattled, shaken in a psychedelic kaleidoscope. It hurt like his very molecules were being squeezed in an vice.

All together it only lasted an instant, but when Rus could see again, he was blinking through tears, staring uncomprehendingly at what was in front of him.

That…was not his sentry post. His shortcut should’ve plopped him right into his chair where he’d been a hundred times before, ready to sink down with his head on his arms and nap away the morning. This was wrong.

The trees were wrong, the sentry station, the snow, even the fucking light, everything was wrong, the world tilted to the side and off.

He felt like he’d walked through a door and ended up someplace else, which yeah, that was what a shortcut was, but this was a grotesque parody of where he was supposed to be.

This sentry post looked like a fucking fortress, crisscrossed with razor wire and there were bars in the windowed section. Warnings were graffitied on it in garish paint and what the fuck was a LV hunter? Not something Rus wanted to meet, that much he knew.

Rus stepped backwards and away, the sharp taste of fear heavy on the back of tongue. He was already reaching automatically for another shortcut, felt that unnatural cold in his grasp a split second before unexpected pain broke his focus. Rus yelped as he fell, hot agony zigzagging up his leg as a bone in his ankle snapped when he hit the ground.

The snow was as cold as the void, maybe colder, seeping wetly through his clothes. Painfully, Rus managed to roll over only to stare downward in disbelief. There was a trap around his foot, winding up his leg like a cruel vine. Nothing like the childish games his brother designed. This was a fucking snare made of barbed wire and springs that dug dusty gouges into his bones, and he was caught but good in it. He tried to kick it loose and had to stifle another scream, dull agony flaring sickeningly from his broken ankle.

Fuck, what was going on, what? Something was wrong, this whole place was wrong, not his shabby little cardboard post with the rickety chair he’d scrounged from the dump. This was someplace else, someplace terrible.

Through the haze of pain, Rus could hear the distant baying of dogs.