It had been an amazing morning at Rivethart’s Itty Bitty Reader Shelter (a subsidiary of Crybaby’s Bitty Bones Inc.). Several little Readers had found forever homes with kind, trustworthy monsters. Alpha Clan Mettaton had swept in and cleaned out the clothing section of the store, as well as buying several new furniture sets and a few larger bags of the more expensive Muffet-Brand treats. The splurge had set Rivet’s sale goals for the next month, and she was planning on buy pizza that night for her and her little Readers to celebrate.
None of the Readers had started squabbling – in fact, they were all getting along better than ever! It was play time, which meant all two-dozen of them were in the Pen. The Pen was a large area blocked off in the front corner of the store by a two-foot high wall; small enough for most monsters to step over, but tall enough that the Readers (who tended to range in height from 3 ½ inches to 6 or 7 inches) couldn’t climb out and get into trouble. There was no shouting, squabbling over toys, or play-fighting going on today – even the Biters (well, they were ‘Aggressive’ on the poster, but Rivet had enough scars on her fingers to call them whatever she wanted) were behaving.
And, as anybody familiar with Murphy’s Law knows, when everything goes this well, something bad is lurking just around the corner.
In this case, the bad came in the form of two skeletons in sharp suits wielding weapons – the short one had a tommy gun hanging casually from his hand, pointed at the ground, while the tall one had a bone-shaped club resting over one shoulder. They cut quite a dashing figure, radiating a 20’s mobster movie charm. The deer monster would have swooned, if she didn’t find them irritating as hell.
“Sans. Papyrus.” Rivet greeted the two as she turned from the Pen and caught sight of them. Her voice was soft and low, quiet enough that the Readers couldn’t hear her. “If I’ve told you once, I’ve told you a thousand times, no weapons in the store.”
Papyrus’ fingers twitched around the hilt of his bone club, but Sans merely smiled and wiggled the tommy gun at the floor, one eye drooping in a lazy wink. “C’mon, toots, you know me ‘n’ Paps would never hurt you or your little buddies.”
“Don’t. Care.” Rivet pointed to a sign posted by the door. It was vinyl, and with the sun shining they could see the printed side through the back. There was a gun, a sword, and a magical spear gathered together in a red circle with a line through it. “No weapons in the store. No exceptions.”
“Yeesh, kid, you’re gonna ruin our look.” Sans deep Boston accent slurred a bit as he pulled out his phone and popped the gun into the magical inventory. Papyrus simply dismissed his bone, which dissolved into magic and settled back into his frame.
“Thank you.” The deer huffed, hands on her hips. “Now, what can I do for you gentlemen?”
“Gentlemen?” Sans popped a brow, smirking. “Last time you called us brutes.”
Rivet returned the smirk. “Gentlemen, brutes, same thing.” She shrugged. “Now, is there a reason you’re bothering me? It must be important, if you came in waving weapons to intimidate me.”
“We weren’t trying to intimidate you,” Papyrus corrected, a hand on his chest to convey his sincerity. “It is simply a habit from when we are on the job.”
“Ah. And you’re on the job right now…?” Rivet crossed her arms and cocked one hip, waiting.
“Yeah, we are.” Sans tilted his fedora back with his thumb, having to look up a bit to meet her eyes. “We need to talk to you ‘bout something serious.”
Rivet searched his eye sockets for a moment, then glanced at his brother. Papyrus stood on his right, slightly behind him, an impressive show of strength and an attentive backer. Well, normally attentive backer. As Rivet watched, he glanced at the large pen on the floor in the corner of the room. It was playtime, and all the Readers were romping around. Some Adventurous ones had decided to scale a model castle using paperclips and string, while a handful of Curious and Intellectuals tag-teamed a monster-sized game of chess. Impressive, seeing how the pieces were almost as tall as themselves. The space was a play area for the readers, as well as a space that allowed potential adopters to play and interact with them.
“Papyrus,” Rivet ignored the shorter skeleton, “Could you do me a favor?”
The tall skeleton frowned, and the monster wanted to smack herself – asking for a favor from a Mobtale was always a bad idea. Ah well, too late now.
“Yes?” The skeleton asked carefully.
“Will you please watch over the Readers while I speak with your brother?” She tilted her head towards the Pen.
Papyrus hesitated, glancing at his little brother, who sighed heavily. “Go on, Papyrus. I’m more than happy to explain the problem to our friend myself.” The taller skeleton looked like he wanted to squeal in excitement. He quickly schooled his face into something softer and hurried over to the pen. He stepped over the half-wall and sat, only to immediately be swarmed by enthusiastic Readers.
“How is your inventory doing, kid?” Sans glanced around the large main room, taking in the soft blue walls and colorful posters.
“If I’ve told you once I’ve told you a thousand times,” Rivet huffed, “They’re not my inventory. They’re my friends.”
“Mm.” Sans expression softened a bit. “Right. So, have you gotten any new friends lately?”
“A few.” Rivet crossed her arms, looking him up and down. “Why, are you looking to adopt? Fill that empty place that used to be your SOUL?”
The skeleton glowered, but didn’t lash out. It was a common fight between the two, one that played out every time he visited. “Nah,” he tapped his chest, “My SOUL’s as empty as ever. I was wondering, though – you get any new friends that are, eh, special?”
“Every Reader is special and unique in their own way.” Rivet jabbed at one of the posters on a nearby wall, which displayed the saying in bright, neon letters.
“Not that kind of special.” Sans pinched at the slight ridge above his nose cavity, eyes closing as he heaved a heavy sigh. “I mean Readers with weird marks or hair or things that make them stand out more than usual.”
Rivet froze, feeling her stomach drop to be replaced with an organ made of dread and malaise. “Sans, why are you asking me this?” She asked, slowly.
The skeleton shoved his hands in his pocket and rocked back on his heels, keeping his eyes on the deer’s rapidly paling face. Even the blue-gray fur on her cheeks was beginning to turn white.
“No reason,” Sans answered, turning away from her. “Just keep an eye out, kid. You got my number – call me if you see anything strange.” He strode away with heavy, sure steps, stopping by the pen.
Papyrus was in heaven. There were at least a dozen different Readers sprawled over his lanky body. Some Adventurous ones had climbed all the way to his shoulders and skull, while the others made themselves comfortable by sprawling over his limbs or snuggling in his lap. The tall skeleton was stone still, fearing any movement would harm the little Readers, though a please hum slipped between his teeth as one of the Readers began petting his cheek.
“C’mon, Paps, we gotta go.” Sans seemed a little reluctant to disturb his brother, and Papyrus seemed equally reluctant to leave. He began to carefully scoop off the Readers and set them down, saying goodbye to each and every one. Rivet moved over and helped him, shooing the little Readers away to their activities. The Curious restarted their chess game, the Intellectuals (she called them Smarties, but never to their face) went to the well-stocked bookshelves, while the others dispersed to the toys to amuse themselves. Finally, Papyrus was Reader-free and able to step over the short wall that kept the pen separate from the rest of the store.
“You’re welcome to visit them any time, Papyrus.” Rivet told him, grinning at the spark that lit up his thin eyes. He tipped his hat to Rivet, then left through the door Sans was holding open.
“Sans,” Rivet grabbed the skeletons suit sleeve, tugging him to a stop. Sans tensed but didn’t lash out, though his fingers twitched and the deer was sure if he had a gun in hand she’d be dust, or at least very sore. “If you were to find any ‘special’ Readers in need of a home, there will always be room here. No matter how many need to come.”
The gangster met her eyes, and for a moment they just stared at each other. Finally, he slowly nodded. “I’ll let you know if I find any new friends for you.”
She nodded back and held the door open for him, watching as he and his brother climbed into a sleek red convertible and took off. It seemed like, no matter the clan, each Papyrus owned at least one convertible. Huh.
You were tired, but couldn’t sleep. The cage was small and cold, a flat metal base and roof wrapped around with chicken wire. The cages were stacked one on top of the other, all against one large wooden wall. Each cage had three or four Readers in it, all huddled together for warmth and comfort and, to some extent, safety.
You’d been stuck in a cage with two larger male Readers, one an Adventurous and the other a Jumper. As soon as you’d been thrown into the small space (you were part of a new ‘shipment’ and had arrived only a few days ago) they had pulled you to the back of the cage, farthest from the wire door, and sandwiched you safely between them.
“Don’t talk when they’re around,” Adventure had warned quietly, nodding towards one of the large monsters standing by the doorway to the small room. “They don’t like it.”
“And don’t look at them.” Jumper had his arm around your shoulder, holding you tight against his side. “Just be still and quiet. The less attention you draw, the better.”
Adventure had tugged at your purple sweater curiously, then grinned and rested his chin on your head. “Heh, you’re a Justice, huh? It’s rough here, but don’t worry – we’ll all be okay.”
That had been two days ago. Over those days, Readers had been taken from their cages and out of the room. Most of the time they were returned, bearing bandages or odd haircuts. Many times their faces were red and puffy from crying, and other times they were unconscious when they were brought back. A few were never brought back at all.
You asked where they were taken, but neither of your cage mates would tell you. The readers in the neighboring cages wouldn’t tell you either – it was a taboo subject. Instead, the Creative in the cage to your left told stories to keep you all entertained, and you all ate the little ‘nutrition bars’ the monsters provided you. At night you tried to sleep, despite the cold and anxiety eating at you. During the day you snuggled between your cage mates and dozed, comforted by their soft voices. It was after one of those sleepless nights that your cage door was open.
A monster – scaly, red, with an unpleasant snout full of sharp teeth – unlocked the little wire door and thrust his large, clawed hand in. The sound of talons scraping across metal jolted you all the way awake just before the monster’s fingers pushed you to the side. The tree-trunk thick digits wrapped around Jumper, who was unnaturally quiet and still, and yanked him harshly from the cage.
“Jump!” You tried to scramble upright, but Adventure had his arms around you, pinning you against him as the cage was relocked. “No, let him go! Bring him back!”
“SILENCE!” The dragon monster slammed his fist against the front of your cage, rattling the entire wall of enclosures. You shrunk back against Adventure, who turned a bit, shielding you from him. He ran a hand through your hair, hugging you tightly.
“What’s gonna happen to Jump?” You asked clinging to Adventures dirty orange sweater.
“He’ll be fine,” Adventure soothed, shifting so the both of you were pressed into the corner of the cage. In the next cage, Curious and his mates moved to rub at your shoulder through the chicken wire. “Jump is strong, he’ll be fine.” The two of you stayed in the corner for the rest of the day, worrying about your friend as the hours ticked by.
An exhausted Jump was returned just as the sun began to set. His face was blotchy and red, though as soon as the dragon monster had thrown him back in he’d wiped at his face and put on a cheery smile.
“Hey guys,” he croaked, voice rough and stressed, as though he’d been screaming for hours. “Miss me?”
“Jump!” You threw yourself at him, wrapping your arms around his neck and holding him tight. He had to stoop a bit, being much taller than you. “I was so scared you wouldn’t come back!”
“And leave you with only Ad’s bad jokes? Never, Justy! You’re my best friend!” He ruffled your hair, and only then did you realize that the sleeves of his bright blue jumper had been torn off. Each arm was wrapped in bandages, which were dotted with blood.
You immediately let him go and took a step back, aghast. “Jump, what happened? What did they do to you?”
“It’s nothing, Justy. I’m fine.”
“Bullshit.” Ad snorted, pulling the active Reader into a tight hug. “C’mon, come sit down.” You followed them both to your regular corner, and found yourself squished between them like normal. “How do you feel?”
Jump tugged at one of the bandages, wincing as it shifted against his skin. “It hurts, but it’s not bad. You know it’ll heal up in no time. They’ll give me some of that weird monster food tomorrow and I’ll be fine.”
“What’d they do to you?” You asked softly, catching his hand in your own and holding onto it tightly. The bandages went all the way up to his shoulders and beneath parts of his sweater.
“It’s nothing, kid. Just branding.” He yanked his arm free and draped it around your shoulder instead.
“Don’t worry about it.” He tugged you over so your head was resting against his chest. “C’mon, neither of us have gotten much sleep lately. Maybe tonight we can snooze through Ad’s snoring.”
“Hey, I don’t snore!”
You giggled and tucked your head beneath his chin as the slightly-insulted Ad leaned against you both, rounding out the cuddle pile. The three of you managed to sleep through the night for once, despite the worry and pain all three of you felt.
You were the last to wake that morning. Your little corner of the cage was cold – Ad and Jump were standing by the door, picking at the nutrition bars the monsters had dropped off during the night. One of them was wrapped in a bright green package, which Jump was scarfing down.
“Morning,” you greeted sleepily, shambling over to them. Ad handed you one of the tasteless bars, and you obligingly nibbled on it, not all that hungry. “How do you feel, Jump?”
“Much better,” Jump said as he finished off the bar. As soon as it was gone, he began unwrapping the bandages around his arms. You watched, stunned, as the bloody fabric fell away.
The skin was healed, but marks had been left. Dark lines of ink covered his arms in complex, intricate patterns. A few spots of blood clung to the curves, but they flecked off as he flexed and rolled his arms.
“W-what did they do t-to you?” You asked, cautiously running a hand over his arm. Ad was examining the other one closely, tracing the lines with his finger.
“Tattoos.” Jump explained, pulling his arms away and tugging at the frayed shoulders of his jumper, where he’d once had sleeves.
Ad sighed, running a hand down his face. “It makes us more ‘desirable’ as pets,” he huffed. “It makes us ‘unique’ and ‘exotic.’ They do it so they can sell us for more.”
“Sell?” You felt a sick pit open in your stomach. “But – but I thought King Asgore outlawed the selling of Readers – we’re sentient! Just as smart as them! We’re only allowed to be adopted, no sold.”
“Tell that to them,” Jump hissed, motioning to the monsters who had just entered. “They don’t care – they just want gold.”
Ad and Jump both sighed, finishing their food and dropping the wrappers in the little box the monsters delivered the food in. “I’m going back to sleep,” Jump huffed, returning to his corner. He shouldered past you, and you couldn’t help but stare after him, a little hurt.
“Don’t take it personally,” Ad assured you, hugging you tightly. “He’ll feel better later, once he’s use to them.” One last squeeze and he wandered over to the other corner, slumping down with a tired sigh. Neither of them were fast enough to grab you when the cage door was yanked open and you were grabbed.
You squeaked as you were squeezed. The monster who had grabbed you – the same red dragon from the day before – relatched the cage door and strode from the room. He held his hand at his chest, though not close enough so you were touching. In fact, he even seemed a bit sick at the idea of touching you with his bare scales.
Outside of the room with the cages was a long hallway with bright lights and ugly, artsy prints on the wall. Beside the door you’d been brought through was the words ‘Storage Center.’ Other doors were labeled as ‘Storage Room #’ or ‘Office #.’ The dragon carried you past all of these to a door with a small window in it at the end of the hall.
Inside the room was several tall tables – almost as chin height for a standard-height monster. Each one had a small padded gurney on it with tiny, Reader-sized restraints. There were needles and inks all over the room, as well as dyes, scissors, knives, and other tools you’d never seen before. At one of the tables was a tall monster dressed in a black labcoat over a white turtleneck.
“I’ve got number J-24 for you, sir.” The dragon moved to the table nearest the man and dropped you roughly on top of the tiny padded gurney.
The monster turned to smile at the dragon. His heads and hands were bone – a skeleton monster of some kind. There were lines along his face – one arching up from his right eye, the other dropping from his left eye to the corner of his mouth. A pair of slim, rectangular glasses were attached to his face (somehow – he had no ears?).
“Ah, thank you, Burner.” His hands moved quickly, and before you could move from the gurney he had you strapped down, the leather restraints holding you tight against the plush surface. Your arms were attached to armrests that could be moved up, down, out, and in.
“Sure thing, Dr. Gaster. This the only one you need today?”
“Yes, thank you.” The skeleton waved him off, turning all his attention to you. His fingers – long, thin, dainty – easily tore off the sleeves of your sweater, exposing your arms. He picked up what looked like a tiny gun with a needle instead of a muzzle. A small bottle of purple ink was attached to it. “Alright then, J-24. Let’s get started, shall we?”