Waking up with his face in the snow isn’t very comfortable. Papyrus shakes the snow from his eye-sockets and noseholes. His head aches dully, his neck feels strange, and there’s no sign of the human. Overall it’s not a great morning.
Climbing back to his feet, Papyrus calls, “Human? Whew, for a minute there things got really scary! But I’m awake! You can come back now!”
Yawning silence. He sighs. “Oh, Undyne is going to be so mad.”
When he turns around, Sans is there, on his knees in the snow.
Annoyed, Papyrus stomps over to him. “Thank you for helping me up. That is sarcasm, you didn’t actually help me up. Which way did the human go?”
Sans doesn’t move or look around at him.
“Are you sleeping in the snow? That’s a new achievement for you. Wake up! The human bested me somehow and escaped, they're very confused and scared--"
Sans isn't sleeping. Sans is staring, black-eyed, at a red scarf clenched in his hands.
“You retrieved that for me? My thank you is less sarcastic.” When there’s still no response, Papyrus frowns. His life is one long moment of being worried about Sans, but this is starting to exceed the baseline into new levels of concern. He waves a hand in front of Sans’s eyes, then looks at the scarf. “Oh no, is there a stain--?”
There isn’t a stain. The scarf is cut almost in two, and what’s left is caked in dust and snow.
Slowly, Papyrus looks at his own hands. He can see right through them.
He’s a ghost. He’s dead. The human killed him.
Papyrus puts his head in his hands and thinks about this for a long minute. He can’t even say he’s particularly surprised. Disappointed, maybe. Sad. Terrified. But he’s not stupid; he knew what he was risking when he offered mercy. He’d hoped...
With a last shaky breath, Papyrus drops his hands and tries to smile. "All right. Well. You can't just sit in the snow forever. You'll get sick! Then who'll look after you?"
Nothing. That thousand mile stare.
"I guess Undyne will. We made that deal once that I'd take care of Alphys if she died, and she'd take care of you. But she won't make you the right spaghetti or know the right things to do, and--" The words clog in his throat. Papyrus kneels in the snow beside Sans. His hand hovers over Sans's shoulder. "At least put the scarf on."
Jerkily, like a malfunctioning robot, Sans takes the scarf and wraps it around his skull. Some dust falls out. But, well, his dust is supposed to be scattered over things Papyrus loves, and he can't think of a better place than Sans.
"Did you hear me?" Papyrus reaches the last little distance to touch Sans's shoulder. His fingers pass right through, and he jerks his hand back. Sans doesn't react. "It's just like you to only listen to me when I'm dead. Come on, get up! Go find Undyne."
Slowly, painfully, Sans gets to his feet. Wobbles there. His right eye is lit up like Christmas, burning blue fire that casts eerie shadows across the snow. Papyrus didn't know Sans could do that, and as cool as it is, he's not sure he likes it.
"There you go!" Papyrus coaxes. "One foot in front of the other! You can do it. I believe in you. I'll stay with you as long as I can."
Sans pulls his hoodie up, most of his skull hidden by the bright flag of Papyrus's scarf, and shoves his hands into his pockets. Then he walks, hunched into the wind, leaning hard against it like he doesn't care if he falls.
There's nothing else Papyrus can do but follow.
"Undyne's house is that way."
Sans keeps walking. Papyrus steps in front of him, waving his arms. "You're going past it. I know you're distracted, but Undyne is there. You need to tell her wh-- grrk!"
Because Sans walks straight through him, which is a very uncomfortable feeling. Papyrus flails at the empty sidewalk that does not appreciate the depths of his exasperation, then turns around to stomp after Sans, who isn't any more sympathetic.
"You're a sentry! You're supposed to report! Come on, this is hardly the time to slack off. You--" Papyrus tries to catch Sans's sleeve to tug on it like a babybones, and his fingers pass through. "You need her to protect you, you're not all right!"
No reaction. Sans really can't hear him.
Papyrus looks over his shoulder at the receding path to Undyne's house. What if she can hear ghosts? What if she needs Papyrus’s help? He's her friend.
But, well. Sans.
"Argh," Papyrus says to no one, and walks after his brother.
They go to the castle. There's no one guarding it, no one to try to stop them. The city is empty, no children on the streets playing, no musicians on the corners, no life. Once in a while someone peeks through a shuttered window and ducks away when they see Sans walking straight down the middle of the street.
"You're lucky there's no traffic," Papyrus says. "You're not being very careful."
No response. Sans radiates silence like he might never tell another stupid pun to make Papyrus groan, might never torment Papyrus with incidental music, or grumble when Papyrus drags him from bed in the mornings. Like if he can’t do those things with Papyrus, there’s no point. That quiet makes Papyrus very, very nervous.
Glancing around the deserted streets, Papyrus says, "Why is everyone afraid?"
The middle of his neck itches like an answer. The human. Papyrus immediately pushes the thought away. One human couldn't scare this many people, not all the way from Snowdin, not when there were brave people like Undyne to protect them all. Even if Undyne somehow, impossibly didn't win (she wouldn't die, she'd never die), then the king would certainly--
Papyrus brightens. "Oh, you're going to see the king to tell him what happened. That's a good idea. Undyne must be busy doing royal guard things."
Sans walks right into the castle, and nobody tries to stop him. The king’s home isn't what Papyrus would have expected. There are no servants bustling around, no wise advisors doing wise things, no tapestries. It just looks like an empty house.
Then Sans pushes open a door into a long golden hall. The hall is more like Papyrus expected from a castle, bigger than their house in Snowdin, all pillars and stained glass. The silence drops into a deeper, reverent hush; Sans's footsteps seem disrespectfully loud.
Wide-eyed, Papyrus looks around. Is it a church? He’s has never been in a church before. "Maybe the king will make you tea. You could use some tea, I think. You--"
Sans stops in the middle of the hallway so suddenly that Papyrus goes a couple steps without him. When Sans turns around to stare at the door, Papyrus walks back to him.
"Did you hear something?" Papyrus peers in the direction that Sans is watching. "I don't. I think it might have been your imagination, unless you're starting to hear me, in which case it’s about time!"
Sans sinks into the same easy, lazy slouch he has during sentry duty. It's a posture that Papyrus has seen a million times, the one that says Sans isn't moving for anything, including fire and tornadoes and Undyne in a rage.
"The king is that way." Helpfully, Papyrus points in the appropriate direction. "I'm not sure what you're doing, but I don't think it's the right thing."
“Fine!” Papyrus sighs and waits with him. “Be that way.”
Time passes. After a while, Sans reaches into his hoodie's pocket and pulls out a battered pack of cigarettes.
Papyrus’s jaw drops. "I can't believe you! You said you quit!"
From his other pocket, Sans produces a lighter. His hands shake almost too badly for the flame to catch, but it eventually does. Sans pulls the scarf down, jams the cigarette between his teeth and takes a deep drag. Smoke begins to pour from his eyesockets, trickling out from under his hoodie where it escapes through his ribs.
"Ugh, it's going to smell like smoke now." Papyrus glares. "You lied to me. I suppose you've got a drink somewhere too."
As if on cue, Sans reaches into his hoodie and brings out a flask. At least his comedic timing still works. Papyrus leans close to Sans; maybe if he disapproves hard enough it'll pierce the veil of death.
"What else did you lie about? That you're okay? Because you're not. I mean, yes, I'm dead, it's a very sad loss for the world in general. But I think maybe you weren't okay before then."
Sans finishes his cigarette, flicks the butt against the wall. Papyrus cringes. Then Sans lights another cigarette. He smokes through the pack at a grim, steady pace. Papyrus has seen him do this on the very rare occasions that Sans makes an effort to stay awake, although he can't remember when the last time was. Before Snowdin, probably. When they were teenagers? When Sans was studying for his nerdy final exams in college? In any case, it's an extreme measure, because Papyrus makes sure to register his complaints about it at top volume.
"You could've told me you needed help. I’m your brother. I was listening."
The next deep inhale hitches. Sans shakes his head, but his breathing doesn't even out. Tears sneak out of the corner of his eyes. Irritated, he wipes them away.
Papyrus can only think of three times he's caught Sans crying, and in every instance Sans told him to get out. Papyrus is not supposed to see this. He's not prepared at all. "Um. Expressing your emotions is... healthy?"
With sudden violence, Sans throws his lighter into the wall hard enough to chip the tile. The lighter goes skittering off somewhere. Sans's smiling mask rips away, and there's so much darkness underneath. So much grief, and rage, and guilt.
"Sans," Papyrus says, helpless. "It wasn't your fault."
Sans drags a hand across his eyes. After all those cigarettes, he's jittering with energy. When he drops his hand back to his side, the mask is on again. The only sign that anything happened is the telltale chip in the tiles.
"I don't know why you'd think that it was your fault, that's very strange, but it wasn't."
Taking a long drink from the flask, Sans lets it clatter to the floor. He kicks it away, tugs the scarf into place, and puts his hands back in his pockets.
"I didn't mean to leave. I love you. You know that, don't you?"
Sans keeps smiling.
All these years Papyrus has said that he'll sleep when he's dead, but it turns out that when he's dead he doesn't sleep either. If he did, the drowsy warmth of the hallway would've gotten to him. The sun is shining through the windows, and the quiet is deeper than even a snow-muffled night. He's expecting Sans to doze off standing up, a skill his brother has perfected over the years, but no. Sans is awake, even if he's so still and silent that he's like a hole in the world. It’s like Sans is the ghost.
Sans is lazy, but he's always been there. Whenever Papyrus needed him, Sans was there with a dumb joke or an argument about dirty socks. And now Papyrus doesn't know when this ghost thing will end, or where he'll go afterward, and Sans will be here. Alone.
The door opens. The noise is like thunder. Papyrus flinches. Sans doesn't.
The human advances. They are dusty and shambling, and they smile. There is a knife in their hand.
"Oh. Oh no." Papyrus itches to grab the back of Sans's hoodie and drag him away from that knife. "It's nice that you're trying to be friends, but I think you should go now. Go get the king, go--"
For the first time in hours, Sans speaks. His voice is colorless. "Heya. You've been busy, huh."
The human holds out their hands, showing off the dust that covers their face and clothes, like they're on a Mettaton game show: tada.
When the human came to their fight all coated in death like flour, Papyrus had been terrified. He'd still offered mercy, of course, but he had been trembling. Sans barely seems to notice, like this is an old joke he's told a thousand times. "So let me ask you a question. Do you think even the worst person can change?"
As Sans goes on, he asks all the same questions Papyrus asked before he fought the human. How does he know? Did he see the human kill Papyrus? No, if he heard Papyrus's speech then he'd seen the whole fight, and he would've stepped in to stop them. He might not have been fast enough, but he would have tried.
It must be because they know each other so well.
The human doesn't answer, but Sans chuckles anyway. "Well, here's a better question." The light extinguishes in his eyes, leaving only black hollows. "Do you want to have a bad time? 'Cause if you take another step forward, you are really not gonna like what happens next."
"No!" Papyrus steps in between them, waving his arms like maybe Sans will finally see. "You don't fight people! This is a terrible time to start!"
Maybe the human will see reason. Maybe fear will work better than friendship and nobody will have to fight. Maybe...
The human takes exactly one step forward.
"You don't know how to fight! They're really not very nice!" Papyrus stumbles forward, tries to grab Sans by his shoulders and shake him. "Sans!"
Most of Sans's skull is covered by scarf, but Papyrus knows him and sees his perpetual grin turns into something almost mean. "Welp. Sorry, old lady. This is why I don't make promises."
Like Sans can even hear him, Papyrus asks blankly, "What are you talking about? What old lady? Wow, you really don't tell me anything!"
"It's a beautiful day outside," Sans says. His eyes go through Papyrus-- unsurprising-- but they don't focus on the human. They don't focus on anything. Sans is seeing that far away place he stared into when he first found Papyrus. "The birds are singing. The flowers are blooming."
"Yes, which is why you should stop this! There are still birds. There are still flowers and beautiful days! There's hope!"
"Days like this, kids like you..." Sans snaps back to attention, and there is a terrible joy in his eyes. "Should be burning in hell."
It turns out that yes, Sans can fight if he wants to, because he throws murder straight through Papyrus. There's about thirty seconds, or an eternity, where the world is all violence and searing light and bones erupting from the walls. When it's over, the quiet is like a vacuum.
"Uh." Papyrus feels his chest. He's already dead, he can't have died again, but it takes a few moments for it to sink in. The human is alive, expression unchanged. "That... sure is a thing you did."
The first trickles of sweat are running down Sans’s forehead. Sans has always tired easily, gotten sick faster and harder than anyone else they know. Low HP. If Papyrus was sparring with him, they'd be stopping right now and Papyrus would be carrying him home (over his shoulder if necessary) to rest. But this isn't Papyrus fighting him, this isn't anyone who loves him, and nobody will be coming to carry Sans home.
"You're not going to stop," Papyrus says. "Are you?”
And he's right. Sans doesn't. The human stabs at him, and Sans dodges. The grim humor stays in Sans’s smile, but he is afraid now. He throws attacks like he's tearing away pieces of his life to do it. Maybe he is.
Papyrus keeps thinking of how long it'd take Sans to recover from an attack like this. A day of napping on the couch while Papyrus hovers, freaking out. Three days. A week. A week and a half. Two weeks. Papyrus can't stop doing the math, even when he knows with heavy finality it won't matter. Sans isn't expecting to see their battered couch ever again. Even if the human stops now...
After the human swings their knife for the third time, so close that it skims through Sans's sleeve, Papyrus tries to summon his own magic. It's panic, a desperate attempt to throw up a wall between Sans and the human's knife, but nothing happens. Not even sparks. Sans doesn't get a burst of energy or hope; Sans doesn't even know Papyrus is there. It's nothing like the stories Papyrus read, and he doesn't know why that hurts so much.
Another round of magic, another dodge. Sans’s voice shakes, he’s so tired. Despite throwing the human into the walls and ceiling with great violence, he pleads, “C’mon, buddy. Do you remember me? Please, if you’re listening, just forget about this.”
And Sans offers mercy. Sans stands there, burning out like a torch, and he offers mercy. Papyrus’s eyes sting, he’s so full of pride, but he can’t cry. He’s too dead for that.
The human steps right through Sans’s guard and tries to stab him, just like they killed Papyrus. Sans slips through their fingers. If Papyrus didn’t know him, he wouldn’t see that Sans is stumbling a little.
Sans goes ‘tch’ and keeps fighting. He can’t fight forever, but he’s fighting for right now.
Papyrus doesn't want to watch this, or hear the confusing nonsense Sans says (anomalies? resets?), but he won't leave. Sans shouldn't be alone right now, even if he thinks he is.
He doesn't look away. Even when Sans throws the brakes on the fight, refusing to do anything, which is so Sans that Papyrus laughs. Even when Sans starts to black out on his feet, eyes closing.
"Wake up." It's an old habit, Papyrus yelling from the stairs to drag Sans out of bed to go to work. His voice cracks. "Come on, lazybones. Don't make me come up there. Sans!"
The human walks closer. Papyrus doesn't know he can hate, that he even has it in him, until he realizes that the human is humming an energetic tune. They are having a wonderful time.
They swing their knife. Sans dodges, starts to say something smart, and catches the second attack straight across the ribs. He folds to his knees, his hand going to the wound like he can hold it shut. Blood starts to spill through his fingers.
Papyrus reaches for him. He can't feel the warmth of Sans's blood pooling around their knees, but he should. That blood ought to burn him.
“I’m sorry,” Papyrus says. “I’m sorry it didn’t work out.”
"Welp." Sans laughs. Laughs, like the universe told a particularly funny joke. Then he gets up, Papyrus's stubborn brother, and starts to walk away. Papyrus walks beside him, his hand hovering over Sans's chest, still trying to figure out how to stop the bleeding even though he can’t and it's far too late. It was too late as soon as Sans started fighting. It might've been too late as soon as Papyrus died.
"I'm going to Grillby's," Sans says, and takes a staggering step forward. Almost trips on Papyrus's unfurling scarf. Recovers.
"That place is a greasetrap," Papyrus tells him.
Sans stops dead, which is a tasteless pun he would probably appreciate. Their eyes meet. For the first time in a while Sans sees him, really sees him. His smile twists, sorrow and shame and relief. "Papyrus."
Papyrus smiles back with all the love in his breaking heart. "Did you really think I wouldn't wait for you?"
The light in Sans's eyes is starting to stutter and go out. His hands are crumbling to dust. He sways. "Do. You. Want...?"
Sans falls, finally. Papyrus is there to catch him.
Waking up with his face in his blankets isn’t very comfortable.
Papyrus bolts upright and scrambles out of bed, still tangled in his sheets. He kicks them off in the hall, making a mess. Not important. He shoulders into Sans’s bedroom door hard enough that it rebounds off the wall.
“Hnngh?” Sans says eloquently, squinting at the light. “What the fuck, I’m up, I’m up--!”
The hug is more like a collision, Papyrus clutching Sans to his chest. Sans grunts, startled, and tries to hold him too; Papyrus shakes him off, his fumbling hands on Sans’s ribs feeling for wounds. No blood.
“Whoa, Pap, at least buy me dinner first.”
Papyrus hold him out at arm's length, peering into his right eye, looking for blue. No, only the normal dark circles. Sans isn’t wearing a scarf, or his hoodie, just a ratty t-shirt reading ‘World’s Tryingest Brother’ that Papyrus gave him.
“Hey,” Sans says, gentler. “It’s okay, buddy. Nightmare?”
Some of the terror is draining from Papyrus’s mind. His eyes well up, and he rubs the tears impatiently away. “You’re not hurt.”
“Nope.” Knocking on his own chest, Sans shrugs. “Sounds okay to me. You want I should make a bad joke? Proof of life.”
“You’d make a bad joke even if you were dy--” Papyrus chokes on the word and lets Sans pull him back into a hug.
“That nightmare must’ve really sucked, huh?” Sans rests his hand on the back of Papyrus’s neck, right where it aches so strangely. “You remember it?”
And the terrible thing is that no, the dream (memory) is starting to lose its sharp edges. He’s starting to forget. What color was the hallway? Where was the hallway? What did Sans say, that last nonsense thing before he crumbled into dust? But it’s important, it matters, he needs to save…
“It doesn’t matter,” Sans says, as if he can hear what Papyrus is thinking. “It wasn’t real. Might as well forget it. We’re both here now. We’re okay.”
What was Papyrus trying to save?
“Would you tell me if you weren’t?” Looking Sans in the eyes, Papyrus catches a brief flicker of something. Some expression that Sans quickly smothers under his constant easy smile. “If you weren’t okay, you wouldn’t lie to me, would you?”
“No,” Sans says immediately, and pats Papyrus’s cheek. Bone clicks on bone, an old familiar sound. “C’mon. I’m always okay. Gravity makes things fall, fire can’t burn without oxygen, and I’m okay.”
He’s so earnest. Papyrus has to believe him, even though he’s a tiny bit nervous about it. He’s a tiny bit nervous about a lot of things that turn out fine. He sniffs. “That is possibly the nerdiest thing you have ever said to me in a long list of nerdy things.”
“Damn, really? I’m gonna have to try harder. Let’s see.” Sans leans back, and grudgingly Papyrus lets him go. “Have you heard that entropy ain’t what it used to be?”
“No,” Papyrus says flatly. His mouth is trying to curve at the sides. “Just no. I don’t even get that one.”
“Now who’s the liar?” Winking, Sans shoots a fingergun at him. “Does a radioactive cat have eighteen half-lives?”
He does. Sans calls after him, “Bodies in motion tend to stay in motion, and bodies at rest stay in bed until their awesome brother makes coffee!”
Grousing at top volume, Papyrus stomps into their kitchen to make coffee. His hands have mostly stopped trembling.
Sans is all right. Of course Sans is. It was only a dream. If he repeats things loud enough, he can make himself believe them. That’s what faith is!
Papyrus opens the kitchen windows. The sunlight reflects off the snow like a thousand other mornings. He smiles and tries to ignore the dream crawling on his back.
It’s a beautiful day outside.