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To The Marrow Part 2

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"Sans? Are you out here?"

Sans opened one eye and peered over the edge of the roof. He watched Asgore look around, then vanish back inside. Sans pillowed his head back on his arm and drifted back to sleep.

It had been months since they'd moved in with Asgore. Mostly things were fine, but there were days Sans found having two fathers and a brother endlessly concerned with his health to be more than he could stand. He'd taken to sleeping in out-of-the-way places, but he was having to grow increasingly creative. So far no one had figured out he could get on the roof. He might have solitude here for a few more days at least.

He knew they meant well, but he hated the babying and reminders of his condition. The worst part was knowing they were right. The move had not made his problems go away. Twice he'd fallen asleep, only to awaken in suspension after several days unconscious. Gaster had no bedside manner when he hauled Sans out of the tube, muttering darkly about magic levels and HP.

His soul hadn't been strong to begin with, and time had not fixed what Gaster had inadvertently done. Yes, their souls were intact again, but both brothers carried scars. Papyrus seemed no worse from the ordeal. Sans tried not to feel bitter when he felt the ache in his chest and struggled to manifest the smallest semblance of magic. He tried...

Being exposed to more monsters had made it clear how broken he was. He'd always known Gaster and Papyrus to be his physical superiors, but he hadn't realized how massively they outclassed him in magic ability, and Asgore eclipsed both combined. Even the frailest insect monster had more hit points than him. It was discouraging to learn how damaged he truly was.

His family tried not to remind him of his weakness. Privately Sans preferred Gaster's tactless assessment of his frailties to Asgore's pity. Papyrus always insisted Sans was perfect just as he was... and then nagged him to stop being a slob and to do something besides lying around. Sans could never stay bitter at his brother.

But he did envy. Those days Asgore or Gaster took Papyrus off to train, and Sans was left with strict instructions to stay out of the way. The days Papyrus plucked something off a tall shelf for him, just as Sans was getting out the step-stool. The days Asgore commended Papyrus for being such a helpful presence in the house. Sans didn't begrudge his brother's skills and talents - he was the first to praise Papyrus' amazing feats and generous nature... he just wished he’d been made more like his brother.

He really tried to be more like Papyrus. To see the good in people. To not hold bitterness in his damaged soul. But... it was so easy to feel helpless, to feel resentment... to feel small.

And there were the things he saw. He hadn't told anyone about the numbers. It happened rarely and in uncontrolled flashes, but sometimes he saw things. That day in the dreamstate, when he'd seen the numbers underlying the world and its inhabitants. It had seemed like a dream, like part of the maddened vision Gaster had created with his pain. But sometimes he still saw them. And he didn't like what they told him.

Positives and negatives. Pain and suffering. Caused to and caused by. Both their father figures were marred and marked. More than any other monster Sans had encountered - not that the flashes of insight appeared often enough for him to have a large sample size.

He'd come to understand what he was seeing due to one of Gaster impromptu lectures - this one on Level Of ViolencE. Something had been said, and Gaster had leaped far too gleefully into explaining how one act of violence made others easier. He'd rambled on until he'd realized both children were staring at him in horror, and had hastily muttered that those impulses were in the past, and wouldn't Asgore be back soon, and shouldn't they go clean their room?

So, that was what the numbers meant. Scars of events past. Sans knew some of what scarred his creator, but what had Asgore done? And how long ago?

He hadn't told Papyrus. Asgore was all kindness in Papyrus' eyes. Sans didn't want to damage the gentle worldview. Besides, Papyrus wasn't much for keeping secrets. He'd tell Asgore, intentionally or not, and Asgore would tell Gaster, and Sans didn't like to think how the doctor might react.

"Sans! Come down or I'll tell Asgore to take down the trellis!"

The boy awoke with a sigh and climbed from his apparently not-so-secret hiding place. "how'd you know?" He asked as he reached the ground.

Gaster pointed at the beams Sans had used as a ladder, and Sans saw he'd not gotten all the ketchup off his hands after lunch. "are you gonna tell me not to go up there anymore?"

"No." The scientist walked into the house. "But Asgore will once he figures it out. Do try to cover your tracks better."

Sans grinned a little. His feelings for the doctor who had given him life, kept him captive, intended to torture him, and protected him with his life, were justifiably mixed, but he and Gaster understood one another far better than either of them understood Asgore and Papyrus' wide-eyed joy for the world at large. Those two were ready to forgive and forget anything Gaster had ever done or intended to do. Gaster did not find his sins so easy to dispel, nor did Sans find it so effortless to forget what could have come to pass, or believe wholeheartedly in the doctor's change of heart.

"did asgore leave?" he asked as he followed the doctor into the house.

"He got a call from Hotland an hour ago and ran off."

Gaster pointed at the kitchen table and Sans climbed into a chair, pulling a math workbook to him. Papyrus and Gaster joined him, and lessons began for the day.

Asgore had wanted the boys sent to school, but it hadn't worked out. Sans had lasted two days before Gaster pulled him out, grumbling he wouldn't see moron teachers ruin a strong intellect. Papyrus lasted two more, crying the whole time that he missed his brother and no one liked him. Asgore had reluctantly agreed the boys could remain at home, at least until they were more comfortable with the world.

So, Gaster taught them. He liked teaching, or at least liked the sound of his own voice and a captive audience. Lessons went better now that fewer subjects were taboo and Gaster answered less questions with, 'You wouldn’t understand', although his patience for children was still in limited supply. His passions were science and puzzles, though he was willing to extend his lectures to history, geography and a few other things.

Literature Sans handled on his own, devouring every book he could find at a rapid pace. Papyrus limped through reading proficiency, getting Sans to read to him when possible.

For cultural learning they had to go to Asgore. Gaster's idea of monster cultural talks were to explain why skeletons were better than everybody else. Asgore had a better-rounded view, and took them abroad to see the underground. Asgore was apologetic about the size of the underground, but the brothers found in vast and varied. It had wonders they'd never expected to see, and more still to explore. They wanted to see it all.

The daily lessons meandered along until Gaster grew tired of them and retreated to his room. Despite there being three bedrooms in the house, one unused, Gaster had added a room for himself at the end of the hall, and the third bedroom remained locked. The boys generally settled on the floor of Gaster’s office and played or worked while he labored. Gaster didn't seem bothered, much to Asgore’s puzzlement.

When evening came without Asgore returning, Gaster headed for the kitchen and made an effort at putting a meal together, with Papyrus helping more than he particularly wanted. Sans sat at the kitchen table, working out a new pattern with the color cube, and listening to Gaster's barely restrained temper contend with Papyrus' boundless enthusiasm.

The front door opened quietly. Sans watched Asgore trudge down the hall toward his room without first greeting them. Odd. "he’s back," he called toward the kitchen.

"Dinner will be ready in five," Gaster called out the door.

Sans returned to his puzzle.

"ALL READY!" Papyrus crowed, slamming plates onto the table with his usual gusto. He ran back to the kitchen to fetch more.

Asgore entered the room, leaning against the wall and looking ill.

Sans looked up at him... and the world spun.

Numbers and patterns. Actions and reactions. Violence begat violence begat...

...Death.

He yelped and lunged from his chair, his eyes locked in horror on the king.

"Sans?" Asgore asked, taking a step toward him. "Are you hurt?"

Gaster and Papyrus appeared in the kitchen doorway.

Sans backed against the wall, his bones shaking. "you killed somebody," he whispered.

Asgore froze. His body sagged and he bowed his massive head.

"Asgore..." Gaster spoke cautiously. "Was there another human?"

"i thought it was a long time ago..." Sans babbled. "like him... but you're... you're still..."

"Sans." Gaster’s tone was sharp. "Sit down and be quiet."

Sans slid to the floor. He barely felt his brother's arms encircle him.

Gaster somehow got Asgore into a chair before the king broke down sobbing. He clutched the doctor to him, and Gaster almost seemed to reciprocate the embrace. "Th... they d-didn't even t-try to fight," he sobbed. "Just... two more... and... then..."

"Don't talk that way," Gaster protested. "You don't have to... we can find another way... I can..." His eyes slid toward the children, then his focus snapped back to the king. "Why don't you go lie down? ... tea... That always helps. Papyrus." He didn't look at the boys as he spoke. "Go make some tea."

Papyrus went, dragging Sans along by the wrist. “WHAT’S GOING ON? WHAT HAPPENED? WHAT DID YOU MEAN?” He demanded as soon as they were alone.

“um…” Sans didn’t want to explain. Not letting his brother know what he’d seen seemed infinitely important. But, what choice did he have? “asgore… he hurt somebody… a lot…”

“NO HE DIDN’T! HE COULDN’T! HE’S NOT LIKE THAT!”

Sans slid to the floor and hugged his knees. He didn’t answer his brother’s fervent denial of reality.

“HOW DO YOU KNOW? YOU DON’T REALLY KNOW THAT… RIGHT? HE COULDN’T REALLY…”

The smaller boy’s eyes had turned black and despondent. “y’know how he talks about…um… level of violence? sometimes i… i see that. and… his got bigger.”

“NO!” Papyrus was trembling in his desperate need to make the world right. “NO, HE CAN’T DO THAT! HE CAN’T MAKE BAD CHOICES! HE’S GOOD!”

Sans huddled, silent and miserable.

The tea finished boiling and Papyrus trotted off with it, still insisting everything was fine and Sans was mistaken. Sans followed after his brother.

Gaster was just coming out of Asgore’s bedroom. “He’s… leave him alone for now.”

“BUT I MADE TEA.”

“I know, but it’s not…” He took the tea. “I’ll give it to him. Go eat dinner.”

"WHAT ABOUT YOU? WHAT ABOUT ASGORE-DAD?"

"Later... just... just go eat."

"BUT-"

"Go."

The boys retreated to the table and toyed with their food, listening to the low murmur of voices. They watched Gaster come out of Asgore's room with a bag and leave the house.

Sans slid from his chair and set out in pursuit. Papyrus followed.

Gaster didn't notice them until he'd started down the stairs beneath the castle. Then a clatter caught his attention and he glanced back. "Go back to the house."

Papyrus started to turn away but Sans held his ground. "no."

Gaster held up a hand tinged in a warning blue.

Sans felt his soul grow heavy, but he planted his feet and glared back. He would know what was going on, whether Gaster willingly explained or not.

They stared at one another for several seconds, then Gaster turned away, releasing his hold. "Fine. Come."

There were coffins in the basement. They'd seen them before, although they had only the dimmest idea what they were for. Sans had slept in one a few times before he'd been caught. Three had been empty the last time they'd played down here. But now... another lid was screwed shut.

Gaster continued past the coffins to a door at the far end of the hall. He put his hand on the touchpad and stepped into a long hall. The boys followed close behind.

They went through three more doors, all of which required codes to be typed in, magic utilized, and finally a physical key.

Gaster ushered them into a small and dark room. "Stand there." He pointed to a spot in the center of the room. "And don't move." A tether of blue magic ensured his orders would be obeyed.

Sans huffed his annoyance, but forgot as the lights came on. At the far end of the room was a machine. It hummed a familiar vibration - like the power source in the lab. Attached to it were four clear cylinders. And inside each glowed a soul.

"THOSE ARE PRETTY," Papyrus remarked innocently. "WHAT ARE THEY?"

"Human souls."

Papyrus frowned. "BUT WHERE'S THE REST OF THEM?"

"i thought souls couldn't live without bodies."

Gaster set the bag on a table. "The machine acts as a substitute host, keeping the souls stabilized and intact."

"like when i get sick?"

"Yes, it's the same concept." Gaster removed a jar from the bag. Inside pulsed a glowing green soul.

Sans shuddered. He hadn't quite been sure what was happening, but it was becoming painfully clear. "did asgore... kill all of them?"

Papyrus gasped and started to object, but something in Gaster's bowed head and pained eyes made the protests die. "HE CAN'T," he whimpered. "HE'S GOOD!"

Gaster's hands shook as he focused on attaching the jar to the machine. "He didn't have a choice," he said quietly.

"WHY NOT?"

"You wouldn't understand."

"it's cause of the barrier, right? you said it'd take human souls to break it. so... is that what he's gonna do?"

"...Correct."

"but why's he need so many?"

"Seven souls." Gaster finished putting the jar in place and stepped back to survey his work. "That's what it took to trap us here. It'll take seven to free us." He touched the empty place in the machine where spaces lay waiting for two more such souls.

"and then what?"

"Then, Asgore will... set us free."

"OH! AND WE'LL SEE WHERE YOU USED TO LIVE? WITH THE SUN AND THE OTHER SKELETONS?" Papyrus grinned and bounced eagerly.

Gaster became very busy checking the machine's power levels.

Sans stared at the souls. "but... fightin' humans is dangerous. couldn't they kill him?"

Papyrus' enthusiasm died instantly.

Gaster didn't respond.

"and... you said... about absorbing human souls? that the monster ain't the same after. and... is asgore gonna absorb all of them? what'll happen?"

"He’'l become a god." The idea sounded as if it made Gaster sick. "He'll have the power to break the barrier... and annihilate the human race."

"annihilate?"

"YOU MEAN KILL?!" Papyrus stared. "ASGORE-DAD IS KILLING HUMANS NOW AND HE'S GOING TO KILL MORE? WHAT ABOUT THE NICE ONES?"

"There aren't any nice ones."

"THERE MUST BE!" He pointed at the green soul. "HE SAID THAT ONE DIDN'T FIGHT. AND HE STILL KILLED THEM. THAT'S..." He shuddered and clutched his scarf. "HE CAN'T DO THAT. MONSTERS AREN'T LIKE THAT. MAYBE... MAYBE THE HUMAN JUST WANTED TO BE FRIENDS. DID HE ASK FIRST?"

"You don't understand." Gaster was shaking uncontrollably. "They took everything from us. They started this. They keep us here. If they wanted to, they could... they could destroy us all anytime they feel like it. We have to..."

"BUT THEY HAVEN'T! YOU SAID THEY ALMOST NEVER COME HERE! MAYBE THEY WANT US TO BE SAFE."

"Even if they did... all it would take is one... just one with enough determination... to wipe us out." Gaster rubbed his head. "We have to get out of here. It's our only chance to survive. Otherwise we'll.. we're doomed."

Distracted by misery, Gaster lost his hold on their souls. Papyrus didn't notice, too caught up in horrific revelations. Sans went at once to the machine and peered at the souls.

"CAN'T WE... CAN'T WE LEAVE WITHOUT HURTING ANYBODY?"

"I've been trying to find an alternative. So Asgore won't... have to do what he's doing. But..." Gaster slung the bag over his shoulder. "We're going back now. Come."

Gaster's tone said talking wouldn't be appreciated, but Sans had little regard for the doctor's hints until they turned into threats. "why're the human souls different colors?"

"Human souls have... special qualities about them. They manifest certain emotions or abilities which govern the human's personality. Patience or persistence and such." As often happened, Gaster seemed compelled to answer whether he was in the mood or not. "It affects the hue of the soul."

"why're our souls grey?"

"You're monsters."

"what quality's grey?"

"Magic."

"that's it? don't we have special stuff?"

"Not like humans do."

"why not?"

Gaster looked thoughtful. "Perhaps it's a lack of magic that allow them to develop differential traits. Magic is our essence, our being, and our identity. It forms us and allows us to shape our world. Perhaps..." He continued on, talking mostly to himself.

Gaster had fallen silent by the time they reached the house, and Sans had thoughts enough to occupy his mind.

Asgore was a murderer. He'd been vaguely aware of that already. Seeing the evidence - this trophy room of his kills - it was jarring. Could he trust either of his father figures? He looked up at Gaster, studying the sad and downcast face. Same as Asgore's had been. Regret? So why did they do what they did? Were there really no other choices?

*****

Papyrus lay awake, his arms encircling his sleeping brother. They'd talked a long time, talked until Sans had talked himself to sleep. Lucky him. Papyrus' mind was far too awake for the peace of dreams.

Asgore-dad had done bad things. Gaster-dad had done bad things. How could they? They were good. Didn't they feed the brothers, and take care of them, and teach them? Didn't Gaster do big important science to help the underground? Didn't Asgore listen to all the problems monsters had and take care of them? So how... how could they do bad things?

It had to be a mistake. An accident. Except it wasn't. Asgore was killing humans. Knowingly killing humans. Five of them. Five who might have been bad, or might have been good. Gaster said it didn't matter. They were dead. There was no sense justifying those deaths.

Level of Violence. Gaster had explained it. The more times you did something bad, the easier it was to do bad things. Until the only things you could do were bad things. Gaster had stopped doing bad things. He wasn't always good now, but he was better than he'd been, and Papyrus had every confidence in his continued improvement. But Asgore...

Gaster said he had no choice. That Asgore had to kill the humans. But there was always another choice. Always a way without killing. There had to be.

He’d argued that with Gaster many times. Every time Gaster tried to explain about a trolley running over one or five people, or a car hitting either a baby or an old person. The answer was neither. Everyone could be saved. Somehow.

It hadn't been easy for Papyrus since they'd left the lab. Things had been simple Inside. Obey the rules and all would be well. Behave, be good, work hard, and order would remain steady. The lab and its two inhabitants had been his entire world. His brother had meant the world to him, and he to him. Now... it was so wonderful Outside. Room to run. No beams. Less tests. But... so complicated.

And how did he belong in all of it? He'd been important Inside. He'd had a purpose. Now... the Outside didn't seem to care too much about him. Despite Sans assuring him he was perfect just as he was, despite Gaster claiming skeletons were the upmost height of creation, Papyrus sometimes thought it would be nice if he was a little less the height of creation and more capable of communicating easily.

And… sometimes it seemed like even his family didn't need him. Those days Gaster told him to be quiet while he taught Sans things Papyrus couldn't begin to understand. The days he found Sans engaged in conversation with a strange monster, who left in a hurry when Papyrus tried to join. The days Asgore said he had no need of Papyrus' help and sent him away while sighing over whatever useful thing Papyrus had done. Papyrus didn't begrudge Sans his mind and skills - he was first to praise Sans' abilities... he just wished he'd been made more like his brother.

He really tried to be more like Sans. To be smart at lessons. To know when to be quiet. To not feel crushing disappointment in his soul. But... it was so easy to feel stupid, to feel useless... to feel small.

He looked down at his brother and held him tight. This was one thing he could do, one thing that remained constant. His family had to be protected. Sans had to be watched in case his soul broke again. Gaster had to be protected from bad choices. Asgore... did he really not have a choice in what he was doing?

...What if someone else had a choice?

Papyrus eased himself out of the bed. "DON'T GO ANYWHERE," he whispered to Sans. He put on a scarf for comfort and slipped into the hall.

Gaster's door was cracked. He was awake, bowed over his desk, head in his hands.

Papyrus shouldered the door open. "DAD?"

Gaster winced. Papyrus was the only one who called him that. He wanted the family connection - the love and hugs Gaster gave rarely and reluctantly. If he said it often enough, if he hugged Gaster often enough, could he really and properly break through those barriers? The ones he kept crushing, only to find them erected again? Why was his father so insistent upon walls?

Gaster rubbed his nasal bridge. "What?"

Papyrus hesitated and closed the door behind him. "THE... THE THING YOU WERE GOING TO DO... WHEN YOU MADE US? THAT WAS SO ASGORE-DAD WOULDN'T KILL ANYONE ANYMORE... RIGHT?"

The scientist shuddered and turned back to his work. "That was the plan, yes."

"WAS IT... WAS IT GOING TO HURT A LOT?"

Gaster frowned and turned his head.

Papyrus clutched his scarf with both hands. He took a step closer. "IF... UM... IF YOU DID WHAT... WHAT YOU WERE GOING TO DO... ASGORE-DAD COULD... HE WOULDN'T GET HURT ANYMORE? HE WOULDN'T BE SAD? AND... NOBODY ELSE WOULD HAVE TO DIE?"

Gaster stared at him. "What are you..."

The boy forced himself to take another step forward and put a trembling hand on Gaster's arm. "YOU CAN DO IT. I'LL DO IT."

"Papyrus..." The scientist pulled away in a hurry. "You don't know what you're talking about."

"BUT I DO!" The boy looked up earnestly. "NOBODY HAS TO DIE THIS WAY! ASGORE-DAD WON'T DO BAD THINGS. AND... AND I CAN HELP YOU WITH YOUR SCIENCING!" He stood as tall as he could and tried to look brave. "I CAN! I'M SMART. I REALLY AM."

Gaster stared with such a look of bewilderment. "You're serious. You're actually offering... God... how did you end up like this?" His head dropped back into his hands.

"UM... DIDN'T... DIDN'T YOU MAKE ME TO BE LIKE THIS?" Papyrus put his hands on his father's arm once more. "DON'T BE SAD. IT'S OKAY. EVERYONE WILL BE HAPPY THIS WAY." A tremor ran through him. "BUT... UM... IT WON'T... IT WON'T HURT THAT MUCH, RIGHT? IT WASN'T... YOU WEREN'T EVER GOING TO REALLY-REALLY HURT US... RIGHT?"

"Go back to your brother." Gaster said weakly. "Go to sleep. We'll... I need to think about this."

"OKAY." Papyrus backed toward the door. "BUT YOU'LL DO IT? YOU'LL LET ME HELP?"

The scientist rose. He put a hand on Papyrus' back and escorted him out the door. In the brothers' room, he tucked the blanket around both of them. "Go to sleep," he said quietly. "We'll talk tomorrow."

Papyrus gave him a smile full of confidence and devotion. He snuggled down and put his arms around Sans.

It would be alright. Asgore wouldn't get hurt, and Gaster wouldn't be sad, and Sans would be safe. Everybody would win.

He just had to be brave.

Chapter Text

Gaster stared without seeing at the wall of studies he'd amassed over the years. Souls. The core. Vents. Elevators. Water systems. Puzzles. Humans. The barrier. Children.

How many projects had he done? He could still remember when his work brought him overwhelming joy. How long since he'd felt that? Not since Toriel...

...If he made it right... if he prevented Asgore from harming anymore humans... would she come back? Was she still out there somewhere? Sometimes he thought he could still feel her arms around him, hear her jokes, taste her cooking...

Asgore still lived in the past. Always insisting she'd be back. Buying snails every week to be ready for her. Trying again and again to get her recipes right.

Gaster was more fatalistic. She was gone. And maybe it was better that way. After what he'd done... intended... could he face her? Her disappointment... although, her disappointment would be better than her absence.

But that was over and done. The experiment was over. His plans were dust...

...Except he'd never promised to halt the experiment. Just said he wasn't going to harm the kids.

Truthfully, he'd never stopped experimenting on them. They were too interesting not to examine. They'd continued their IQ tests on a daily basis - the boys unaware that no other children were daily tested on their puzzle-doing skills and mental growth. And he's taken advantage of Sans' periodic blackouts to run physical tests. On the surface, they were to try and repair the damaged soul, but not everything he did could be justified on such pretenses. He'd found some interesting things buried in the boy's physique, but he'd refrained from following up on anything he'd discovered. Sans was much too fragile for any physical enhancing. And it would likely hurt.

...But if Papyrus was going to offer himself up as a sacrificial lamb...

He argued with himself as he had all night. The boy didn't know what he was offering. It wasn't fair to take advantage of his ignorance. He'd promised himself he wouldn't cause them any harm...

...But if Asgore could be saved...

It was the same argument. The boys or the king. The king who had saved him, given him a home, given him a family, lost more than anyone deserved. And on the other side were the children. He couldn't think of them as otherwise anymore. Couldn't hide behind clinical terms. Couldn't pretend they weren't his.

...But this was why he'd made them.

Could he... could he have it both ways? If he proceeded with caution? Just take a look inside Papyrus' skull... see if the magic he'd seen inside the one was present in the other. If he could enhance it... if he could see the future... it wouldn't really be hurting them, would it? Just... getting what he needed. Everyone might win.

He'd have to move carefully. Minimize the chances of Papyrus being injured... definitely ensure he wouldn't show physical damage at home. Finding regular pretense to separate the brothers wouldn't be easy. But one thing was certain. Asgore couldn't know. He wouldn't approve on any level. And Sans... it would be useful if he could be trusted to assist and keep quiet. Gaster's own healing abilities were erratic at best. Sans was a steady healer, despite not being powerful. And he could serve as a control variable... but there was little chance he'd consent to this plan. Sans wouldn't see it as protecting Asgore. He'd only see his brother being harmed. He'd have to be kept ignorant of what was going on. And that would be harder. If only the boys didn't have a habit of wandering into dreams. Who knew what his or Papyrus' subconscious would reveal? Even if Papyrus could keep his mouth shut... and lying was not his strong suit.

So... did he proceed? Yes. The opportunity was too good to reject. And the payoff was Asgore unharmed. He'd risk so much to see his king spared the agonies piling on him.

Step one, finish the emitter machine. Step two, take every precaution that Papyrus would get through the session with minimal damage. Then... then he'd have to figure out how to get the boy into the lab every few days unseen. And how to keep Papyrus from telling everything.

He collected his toolbox and headed for the laser. One thing at a time. Finish the machine, test the machine. Patience. He had time.

...So long as another human didn't put in an appearance.

*****

"WHAT ARE THOSE?"

"Restraints."

"WHY DO I HAVE TO WEAR THEM?"

"So you don't move out of alignment while the machine is running."

"BUT WHY WOULD I MOVE?"

Gaster didn't answer. His hands were shaking, and he felt sick as he bound the -mostly- compliant child to the chair. Papyrus was willing, but confused and frightened as well. "IT WON'T HURT TOO MUCH, RIGHT?" He'd asked a dozen times already. Gaster was having trouble answering since he had no idea how to measure the potential pain output of the untested machine. Certainly, shooting a laser into the boy's eye socket was sure to be unpleasant. Hopefully Papyrus would walk away with nothing more than a headache.

He'd put the machine at its lowest setting for their first session. Fifteen seconds on the timer. It probably wouldn't have any effect this first time around, but he had to start small if he didn't want to be caught.

"Hold still," he grumbled, putting Papyrus' head back in place for the third time. The boy kept twisting in the restraints to see what Gaster was doing. "You do not want to be out of alignment when the emitter is on." He stepped back, studying the rigid and purple-glowing child. "Can you move?"

"N-NO." Papyrus panted, gazing at Gaster with anxious eyes. "IT... IT'S HARD TO BREATHE."

Gaster busied himself making a final check of the machine.

"I..." The boy's bones were starting to click. "I'M SCARED."

Gaster looked away, the tremors running through him. This was a terrible idea. Just stop now. Let the boy go. Tell him... tell him the machine wasn't ready, or there were barrier removal options which didn't involve pain, or...

...No. The scientist squared himself. "You wanted to help me, didn't you?"

"Y-YES."

"Then do as you're told." He went the controls. "Eye sockets forward. Don't move. And no matter what you do... don't blink."

*****

There were skeleton arms around Papyrus. He felt the familiar pattern of ribs beneath his head. The smell of bones. The steady throbbing of a familiar soul.

...But something was off. The ribs were too far apart, the arms too long. The soul pulsed a different pattern.

"BROTHER?" He whimpered.

He was pushed away, not unkindly, but rapidly. He quested with an anxious hand, seeking any form of comfort.

Long seconds passed, his search growing more desperate. And then... a hand in his own. He clutched it with both hands, panting and sobbing.

"You're unharmed. There is no need for this emotional display."

"WHY CAN'T I SEE?"

"I've bandaged your eyes shut for the time being. I'll remove them shortly."

"D-DID IT WORK? DID YOU FIND OUT WHAT YOU NEEDED?"

"...That remains to be seen... how do you feel?"

"MY HEAD HURTS." Papyrus burrowed his head against Gaster's arm. The doctor flinched, but didn't draw away. "CAN YOU MAKE IT BETTER?"

Another long pause. "I've provided what healing I can... You'll have to wait for the ache to go away."

"OH... UM... OKAY..." Another long silence. "I DID WHAT YOU SAID. I DIDN'T MOVE."

"Yes... You did well."

Papyrus grinned, squeezing the hand and wriggling in place. "I DID? I DID! AND... AND IT DIDN'T HURT TOO MUCH. B-BUT..." He grimaced. "I'M GLAD IT'S ALL OVER." More silence. "T-THAT WAS... IT IS OVER... RIGHT?"

The hand he'd been holding pulled away. When the doctor spoke, it was from across the room. "That was just the preliminary session to test the machine. It will take longer and more intensive sessions to yield results."

The boy shook. "Y-YOU MEAN... WE HAVE TO DO THAT AGAIN? AND AGAIN?"

"No." Gaster's voice moved around the room, working and not facing in his direction. "If you wish, we can stop. Asgore won't have to know you decided not to help him."

"NO!" Papyrus sat up. "I-I'LL K-K-KEEP... UM... I WON'T STOP. BUT... YOU REALLY HAVE TO DO IT AGAIN?"

"Multiple times. Once the magic begins to build up in your soul, we'll move on to the next phase."

"NEXT PHASE?" Papyrus' voice was a tiny squeak. "WILL THAT HURT TOO?"

"Most likely. You were warned before we began what this would entail."

"I KNOW BUT I THOUGHT..." Papyrus halted. He took a few breaths. "IT... IT'S OKAY. I'LL DO IT."

"Good." The doctor returned and pushed him down. "Lie down and rest. We'll return home once you've had time to recover."

"OKAY." Papyrus clutched Gaster's sleeve. "WILL YOU STAY WITH ME?"

Gaster pulled away. "I have work to do."

"OH." Papyrus trembled and tried not to cry.

A long pause. "If I bring you to the workroom, will you lie quietly and not speak?"

"OH, YES! I CAN DO THAT! I'LL BE QUIET."

Magic wrapped around Papyrus' soul and bore him aloft. Air moved around him, but he felt a sudden sense of security. Blue magic had always been something of an annoyance. Gaster's sometimes harsh way of enforcing his will and manipulating the world. But before that... somewhere far, far back... there had been a moment Papyrus had liked this feeling. Like it meant... safety.

He smiled as he settled on the floor, a blanket draped around him and the scientist still holding his soul. All was well. Maybe today had been stranger than he'd expected. Maybe it had hurt in a way he hadn't understood. But it was okay. Because his father was taking care of him. His father who would never really hurt him. His father would teach, and mold him, and together they'd see everyone safe.

Gaster was good. Papyrus just had to trust the pain was for the good of all.

*****

Sans lay on top of a column in the room of golden light. His latest hiding place was a good one. Few but someone as small as him could have discovered there was a gap between the top of the column and the ceiling. Perfect for a very small skeleton.

Plus, the traffic through this room was worth watching. Everyone going or coming from the throne room passed through here. Sans enjoyed watching the marching royal guards, bustling courtiers, grumbling workers, and all the other creatures who roamed New Home. He liked getting to know these strange beings. Observing was key. He generally knew a lot about monsters before he crawled from one of his hiding places and said 'hello.'

Today, two familiar figures hurried past, and Sans narrowed his eyes. His father and brother... going off together again.

It had been like this for months. Every few days they'd find a reason to go and leave Sans behind. At first the reasons had seemed plausible, but repetition had made him suspicious. And when he'd asked Papyrus... the stuttered and evasive answers hadn't allayed his concerns.

The barriers were back up in Gaster's mind. Sans had tried to get into his dreams and been shut out. And Papyrus... he'd complained of a headache one evening and Sans had tried to help, but Papyrus had been flighty, resisting Sans' touch and rejecting his brother's attempts to dig deeper. But what Sans had seen had frightened him. Papyrus wasn't just hurt on the surface. There was pain compounded on pain. But he was avoiding healing. It felt like...

...like their father.

And there was more. The way Papyrus talked now... or was it the things he saw now? Sometimes his brother spoke to people who weren't in the room, or about things that had never happened. Was he seeing dreams while he was awake?

His drawings were often of Snowdin... but with an intimacy Sans couldn't understand for a place they'd only visited once. And why was there was much blue and pink? Papyrus scribbled whole pages of the colors, wearing their crayons down to stubs.

He awoke crying on a weekly basis, but he wouldn't let Sans into his dreams. Sans had crawled into one anyway, drawn there by his brother's pain. A great kaleidoscope of rainbow light... and something formless and dark... and blue-and-pink against white... none of it terrifying on its own, but somehow it all equaled fear.

He'd tried to follow them - defeated once by the elevator maze through the core, and once by his own stubby legs. But he'd recognized their trajectory. They were heading for the lab.

He'd gone there... only to find the doors no longer opened to his touch. He was shut out, both physically and emotionally. He wasn't a part of their world any longer.

At first he'd been concerned, then hurt, then he'd fallen into depression and given up his pursuits. They shut him out, so he did the same. It was hurting Papyrus... but Sans hardened his soul against his brother's pain. If he wouldn't share, neither would he. They still shared a bed, but at opposite sides, no longer curled into an affectionate heap. They were together much of the day, yet so far apart.

Sans turned his head away. If they were going without him, fine. He didn't care...

...Except he did. He was hurt. And more, his brother was hurt. He couldn't keep going away and being hurt... not when Sans might be able to do something about it. So what if they wouldn't let him in? He'd find out what was going on himself.

The lab was locked. He paced restlessly outside the door, contemplating entry methods beginning with Asgore's trident and Gaster’s blaster. But he had neither. What did he have? Brains. A lousy soul. A sad ability to chuck bones. And sometimes he saw numbers.

...And one time those numbers had told him how to get through a locked door.

He sat down and studied the door seriously. Had that been part of the dream? Yes and no. The numbers were real. Even if he saw them infrequently and rarely when he wanted them. They were real. So... was what he'd done to the door real?

He lay down and closed his eyes. Maybe he could dream his way inside. It was easier to see the numbers sometimes when he wasn't quite awake. And falling asleep anywhere was never a problem. He let himself drift into a half doze.

The world swam hazily. He tried not to really look at anything - just let the world drift into pieces... fragments... numbers.

Stay asleep, he told himself, even as he rose very slowly. Don't think about what you're doing. It's just a dream. Just go where you want. That's how dreams work.

He wove through the numbers in this no longer solid world. He could go anywhere if he tried hard enough. Or, didn't try at all. If he thought about what he was doing... if he started to push... no. Just let the world drift by. Just let it carry him...

...into the lab. He blinked and shook himself. He was standing just where he'd wanted to be. Awake again, he trotted down the hall in search of his brother. Soon voices caught his attention and directed his steps.

"...THERE'S THESE BIG TREES... AND SOMETHING'S WALKING BETWEEN THEM... AND I LOOK DOWN..."

Sans halted in the doorway, trembling in horror at the sight before him.

Papyrus was sitting in a chair. Nothing was holding him in place, so he must have been there of his own volition. But... what was on his head? And around his neck? And inside his eyes?!

"what are you doin' to him?!" Sans shrieked.

At the controls, Gaster whirled around, barely having time register the blur before Sans was on top of his brother and clawing at the machinery. "No!"

"BROTHER, NO!" Papyrus caged Sans' hands and restrained him from his assault. "IT'S OKAY!"

"what's he doin' to you? what is that?" Sans sobbed, shaking one hand free and planting it against the horrific metal collar.

"SCIENCE STUFF. I..." Papyrus broke off with a gasp of pain.

"what is it? what's wrong?"

'What's wrong is you're tangled in the wiring and hurting him." Gaster scruffed Sans and slung him aloft. "I thought I locked that door."

Sans glowered, but refrained from kicking his father in the face. "you said you wouldn't torture us."

"And I haven't. Papyrus volunteered to assist me."

"did you tell him what he was volunteerin' for?"

"I CAN STOP ANYTIME," Papyrus insisted. "HE SAID SO." He turned plaintively to the scientist. "CAN WE STOP NOW? IT HURTS."

"I suppose we've been interrupted for the day." Gaster dumped Sans on the ground and went to work removing the headpiece. A few minutes and Papyrus was free of mechanics, his expression pained and weary. Gaster looked down at Sans. "You may swarm him now."

Sans scrambled back into the chair and threw his arms around his brother. His hands began to glow, and he slid into the silhouette world, seeking out his brother's pain and alleviating it with all the strength he could muster. The headache and soul ache weren't bad, but Papyrus was still buried beneath the barriers between them. 'Secret', 'don't tell', 'pain', 'no one can know', 'don't...'

The smaller skeleton nosed about this mountain of secrets, then took his brother's approach and dove right in. "not from me. don't hide from me. not ever. please."

"YOU HAVE SECRETS TOO. YOU PUSH ME AWAY SOMETIMES."

"i won't. not anymore. promise? both of us?"

And the barriers melted in a flood of green fire. The children clutched themselves desperately together, feeling the warmth and longing flow between them. This was where they belonged, how they belonged. Twin souls pulsing in harmony.

"what's he doin'?" Sans demanded. "why're you doin' this? why didn't you tell me?"

"WE THOUGHT YOU'D BE UPSET. DAD SAID WE SHOULD KEEP IT SECRET UNTIL WE FOUND OUT WHAT TO DO."

"about what?"

"BREAKING THE BARRIER." Papyrus sat up proudly. "I'M GOING TO FIND OUT HOW TO DO IT SO NOBODY GETS HURT."

"how?"

"UM..." Papyrus looked unsteady. "I... SOMETIMES I SEE... UM... OTHER TIMES."

"hu?"

"Possible futures. Other timelines," Gaster supplied. "Your souls allow for unique vision."

Sans gripped his brother protectively around the neck and glared at the doctor. "you said you wouldn't hurt us."

"I TOLD HIM IT WAS OKAY! I WANTED TO DO THIS!"

"why?"

"SO ASGORE WOULDN'T MAKE BAD CHOICES ANYMORE!"

Sans' mind raced. "you thought... if you figured out how to break the barrier... before anymore humans show up... we could all move to the surface... without anybody else dyin'?"

Papyrus raised his head, every picture the hero. "EXACTLY!"

Sans' expression became troubled. "but... once we get to the surface... are the humans just gonna leave us alone?"

Papyrus put a hand to his chest. "THAT'S NO PROBLEM! I'LL EXPLAIN HOW WARM AND CUDDLY WE ARE. THEY'LL BE HAPPY TO BE OUR FRIENDS ONCE THEY KNOW WE'RE NICE."

Sans eyed his brother uneasily. Yes, the human who'd tormented Gaster had left them alone after a long discussion with Papyrus... but he'd witnessed Papyrus' struggles to talk with other monsters. And once again, here was Papyrus voluntarily putting himself in danger without even being aware of the danger. Sans turned to Gaster. "what'd you think? they gonna let us live there?"

The doctor looked away, mumbling indecisively.

"you don't! so why are you doin' this?"

"Because it's what Asgore believes!" Gaster whirled, his expression helpless. "What am I supposed to do?! Every time he kills, we lose a little more of him. He's breaking from the inside and if he absorbs all those souls..." The doctor slumped. "...We can't... I can't let it happen. Not if... not if there's a way to stop it. What choice do I have?"

Sans studied his father, warring between anger and confusion. This was wrong. This was all wrong. Papyrus wasn't supposed to be hurt. Gaster wasn't supposed to do this. Family didn't hurt one another like this.

But Papyrus looked so resolute. And Gaster looked so desperate. And Asgore... Asgore was family too. "isn't there some other way?" His tone was plaintive. "it shouldn't have to be like this."

"IT'S OKAY, BROTHER. I'M GOING TO MAKE IT OKAY FOR EVERYONE."

Gaster just remained slumped and ill by the machine.

"kay... then... do it to me too."

Gaster jumped and stared. "That’s not an option."

Papyrus' response drowned out any explanation of the doctor. "NO, NO, NO, BROTHER! I'M DOING THIS! YOU DON'T HAVE TO! I'M MAKING IT SO NOT ONE GETS HURT!"

"but you're gettin' hurt. an' if you're gettin' hurt, i wanna help!" Sans ducked his head beneath his brother's arm and tried to cram into the unoccupied space in the chair.

Papyrus vacated the chair, grabbing Sans around the middle and attempting to drag him away. "NO! I HAVE TO SAVE EVERYONE!"

"no you don't! it's not all on you!" Sans grabbed the arm of the chair and hung grimly.

"Boys! Enough!" Gaster advanced with a set expression. He'd been too stunned by the unexpected offer to react, but the sudden escalation to a tug-of-war had reminded him he was occasionally required to act like a parent. "Calm down this instant and stop this unnecessary display!" He reached out to untangle the pair.

"DON'T TOUCH HIM!" The brothers shrieked in unison, both convinced the other was about to be harmed. Twin fires ignited in their dual souls. Blue-heat raced as both flung up a restraining hand to ward off the perceived danger.

Blue magic slammed Gaster's soul like a wrecking ball. He barely registered the attack before he was flung into the wall. His head snapped back, and he heard a sickening crack before the world went black.

*****

Gaster was aware of the crying before he was properly aware of the world.

"WE KILLED HIM! WE KILLED HIM!"

"we didn't! he's not dusty."

"HE'S GOING TO BE SO MAD! I DIDN'T MEAN TO DO THAT. DID YOU?"

"i didn't know we could do that."

Gaster moaned and heard the frantic scrambling of bones away from him. He sat up, blinking and struggling to process the world. Blearily, he focused on the brothers.

The boys had retreated across the room, but the swirl of green sparks still dancing in the air proved they'd frantically tried to rectify their mistake.

Papyrus began to babble. "WE'RE SORRY! WE DIDN'T MEAN TO DO THAT! WE DIDN'T MEAN FOR YOU TO GET HURT! WE DON'T WANT TO HURT ANYONE EVER! WE'LL NEVER-"

"Stop," Gaster panted. He leaned against the wall, clutching his ringing head. God, he hadn't felt a blow like that since Alphys had handed him a live electrical wire. He panted, his vision swimming blurs. "Blue magic..." he groaned. "...of course they'd have blue magic." He fumbled at his coat pockets.

Sans cautiously handed him the fallen cigarettes, then hastily retreated.

Gaster lit one, smoking slowly as he stared at the ceiling. He lit another. "Papyrus," he said, his tone much calmer than either child expected. He waved a vague hand at the wall. "Throw a bone. As hard as you can."

"OH... UM... OKAY." Confused but ever the dutiful son, Papyrus let fly a missile. 10! Flashed the point value as the bone slammed into the wall and dissolved into dust.

"Hold your brother's hand. Do it again."

A second bone followed the first. 18!

Gaster nodded. Shared souls... magnifying attacks. Did it work for other magic? What else could they do together?

"Alright," he said slowly. "We'll give it a try."

Chapter Text

"Gaster? We need to talk about the boys."

Gaster glanced up from his journaling. "Did they break something? I told them to be careful."

Asgore rubbed the back of his neck, glancing in the direction of the front door. "No... they're being careful. It's just... why did you give them blasters?"

The doctor shrugged and resumed writing. "It seemed like good practice."

"Practice for what?"

They heard a whoosh of energy from the front yard, followed by a yelp of triumph.

"NOW YOU THROW BONES AND I'LL SHOOT THEM!"

Asgore winced. "You don't expect them to ever need to... use those, do you?"

"It doesn't hurt to take precautions."

"But Sans..." Asgore paused and reconsidered which child was less likely to survive an actual fight. "Papyrus doesn't exactly have the soul for war."

"He's been going on about the royal guards ever since you took him on that last field trip."

"You know he has no idea what their actual purpose is. He'd never actually be able to fight."

There was another whoosh of energy.

Asgore tensed again. "Aren't you worried about Sans?"

"He knows when to dodge."

"Yes, but one mistake..." Asgore still looked vaguely toward the door. "Look." His attention snapped back to the doctor. "It's wonderful you've been spending so much time with them. They seem so... eager to visit the lab with you. But... isn't about time for them to start expanding their world views?"

"I thought you were doing that."

"I mean more than spending all day in the lab. Encouraging them to interact with other monsters. Learn to understand the world. Not just..." Asgore broke off. How did he explain?

Asgore didn't know what the make of the boys, and time had only increased his bewilderment. Initially, he'd thought once the language barrier was overcome and the boys had time to adjust, their idiosyncrasies would dissipate. In some ways they had. He no longer found them experimentally poking at light switches or trying to eat crystals.

Yet time had not erased all their peculiarities. He couldn't understand how they did the things they did. How had Papyrus gotten on the roof after Asgore dismantled the trellis? How had Sans gotten into Toriel’s room when the door was still locked? How did Papyrus navigate regions of the underground he'd never seen with a familiarity he couldn't have had? How did Sans know Asgore's darkest secrets?

Some of their strangeness he blamed on Gaster. When he'd voiced concerns over their social and emotional limitations, he'd been annoyed at Gaster's bemused look, until he'd realized who he was dealing with. That the kids were even capable of showing affection for one another was remarkable considering their father, but Asgore worried for the future.

School might have helped, but Gaster saw no reason for them to go. "What good would it do?" He asked and, intellectually, he was right. Sans learned at a voracious rate. School would have only slowed him down. Papyrus struggled, but thrived far better with the one-on-one attention he received at home than he would have adrift in a classroom. Asgore thought they needed more companions, but they seemed so poorly able to communicate that he worried school would overwhelm them. Papyrus seemed incapable of interacting with monsters outside the family, and further incapable of trying new tactics. Sans simply showed no interest any longer. He was content with his books and his brother, expressing no desire to expand his social circle.

What truly confused Asgore was the strange duality of childish nature and far too much insight. Just the day before, Papyrus had put a blanket over his head and crawled around the house, roaring and nibbling toes, while Sans clung to his back whooping like a cowboy. Children's games... but when told to settle down they'd sketched out plans for a self-sustaining electrical maze, and started bantering with Gaster using scientific vocabulary Asgore couldn't begin to pronounce. It happened over and over. One minute they'd be chasing each other with sock puppets, the next tackling ethics questions of who to save from a sinking boat, and how to beat the question to save everyone.

They were children... but not quite children. They knew too much, and they knew too little. They were innocent, and too insightful. It couldn't all be a strange infancy locked in a lab. It couldn't all be accelerated physical development. Something was strange... and Gaster wouldn't enlighten him.

And now these children had weapons. Well, they'd always had weapons. They'd known how to manifest bones even before they'd moved in. Papyrus had been eager to be taught to spar. Asgore had insisted Sans not be involved in those games, and Gaster hadn't argued the point, so only one had been trained. Except now Gaster had given them both weapons... and shown them their use. It worried Asgore. Those blasters weren't toys - no matter how the brothers were currently using them. They were meant to do harm, and why was Gaster teaching the children to do harm?

So here they were - these socially inept, co-dependent, infantile and wise-beyond-their-years youngsters who were now well-armed and unaware there was anything odd about that. How did Asgore explain they needed something they weren't getting at home - some life understanding neither of their fathers was capable of teaching? And he couldn't express what it was.

"I... just think they... I don't want them knowing things like that." He concluded poorly.

"Like what?"

"Fighting! Weapons." He flinched, a terrible thought coming to his mind. "You're not thinking of teaching them to kill, are you?"

Gaster had a sudden far-away look in his eye. "That would open up some interesting possibilities..." he murmured. "How would that affect the timeline..."

"Gaster!"

The scientist flinched. "No... no of course that's not something I'd consider... anymore."

"Good." The king tried not to sound doubtful. He wanted badly to believe in Gaster... but there were moments. "So, again, why did you give them blasters?"

Gaster looked irritated. "Obviously to practice dexterity, control, magical expenditure, hand-eye coordination, coordinated offensive strategies, reaction time..."

"Oh." Asgore cut him off as he started to lose the thread of Gaster's rapid signing. But he was pretty sure there hadn't been anything about fighting in there. "So... not for battle purposes?"

Gaster glowered and returned pointedly to his journaling. "That would be wholly ineffective at this point in time."

"So, what should we do about..."

"IS IT TIME TO MAKE DINNER YET?" There was a crash of the front door as Papyrus made his never-subtle entrance. "SANS FELL ASLEEP. HI DAD, HI DAD." He halted beside them. "DO YOU WANT TO PLAY WITH ME?"

Gaster rolled his eye.

Asgore smiled and took Papyrus by the hand. "Let's get dinner started."

As he walked away, Asgore looked back. Gaster was already absorbed in his work, no apparent thought or concern for the children. Asgore squeezed Ppayrus' hand a little tighter. Someone had to assist these little ones. If their own father wasn't capable of it...

...But what could he do?

*****

"GIVING-TIME! GIVING-TIME! HAPPY, HAPPY PRESENT TIME!"

Gaster cringed at the gleeful singing which assaulted him the moment he entered the house. He tried to back out the door before he was spotted.

"HI DAD! IT'S PRESENT TIME! SEE? WE'RE HELPING SANTA!"

Sometimes Gaster wondered how Papyrus couldn't spot the answer to a math problem to save his life, but had eagle eyes for anything the doctor wished he'd miss. He sighed and came into the living room.

The room was a mess of brightly-colored paper, toys, ribbons, tape, and boxes. Sans and Papyrus were sprawled into the midst of it, cheerfully attempting to add wrapped gifts to the pile Asgore was carefully stacking inside a bag. Unsurprisingly, Papyrus' gifts were precisely wrapped, and overly-complicated with multiple bows tied in complex patterns and multiple sheets of wrapping paper intertwined around the boxes. Sans' attempts barely concealed the toys, and the paper bulged in strange ways, often held together by a single lump of tape.

"WE'RE GOING TO SNOWDIN WITH SANTA!" Papyrus explained. "ASGORE-DAD SAYS WE GET TO HELP SANTA GIVE GIFTS TO EVERYBODY! AND WE'RE GOING TO MEET LOTS AND LOTS OF MONSTERS, AND HAVE A BIG PARTY, AND HAVE SO MUCH FUN, AND MAKE LOTS OF FRIENDS!"

"Mmm," was Gaster's only response.

"How was the meeting?" Asgore asked Gaster, even as he smiled at the boys' enthusiasm.

"If I have to hear about safety rails one more time..." The skeleton rumbled.

"It's for everyone's peace of mind, Gaster."

"I said I'd design them, didn't I?"

"Yes... but that was two months ago. I believe the foreman's getting a little anxious."

"I'll find a maze for him to run and work off some of that anxiety."

"OH! DO YOU KNOW SOMEBODY WHO LIKES MAZES?"

Gaster pinched his nasal bridge and stalked into his room.

Asgore appeared in the doorway. "Do you want to join us? I have three elf hats."

Gaster scowled. "I will not engage in frivolous appeasement of the masses though the exchange of unnecessary objects."

Asgore patted him on the head. "You're going to love what I got you this year."

The skeleton reddened.

"WHEN'S SANTA COMING? I WANT TO MEET SANTA!" They heard Papyrus calling from the living room.

"Soon," Asgore called. He turned back to Gaster. "We'd love it if you joined us."

"I have work to do. There's two sections of the core which need inspecting." Gaster bent over his bag, concentrating pointedly on rifling through its contents.

The king sighed. "I worry when you get like this. You are allowed to take breaks, you know. Take a day off. Have some fun."

"There's too much that needs doing. I don't have time."

"You always say that. Please come with us."

Gaster looked toward the living room, his expression shifting to pain. "I don't... It just reminds me of..." His expression hardened as he slung his bag over his shoulder. "I need to get to the core." He pushed past Asgore and out of the house.

*****

"MY BROTHER WRAPPED THIS ONE. HE DID A LAZY JOB. YOU CAN SEE THE THING INSIDE. SEE? IT'S A BALL. I'LL FIX IT. I'LL MAKE IT A BETTER PUZZLE. THEN YOU CAN TRY AND SOLVE IT."

"Papyrus." Asgore gently tried to guide the skeleton toward the child reaching for the toy. "Just let her have it. It's fine as it is."

"I COULD MAKE IT BETTER."

"I'm sure you could. But we have a lot of monsters wanting their gifts. See if you can find something for this young rabbit."

"OKAY!"

Asgore glanced at Sans, unsurprised the boy wasn't succeeding at gift-distribution with any more speed than his brother. At least he was still awake.

Gift-giving continued, the massive, furry Santa winding through the crowd and greeting everyone he saw. Asgore felt his soul growing lighter with every step. This was what he loved best - making others happy. All the joyful faces, the laughter, the singing. This was how things should be. This was the feeling monsters should always feel.

And, this plan of his was sure to help the boys. Here they were surrounded by monsters of all shapes and types. They were sure to find monsters to interact with. This casual setting would help. No pressure, just everyone laughing and playing together. Look how happy they...

...Where had they gone? He looked around wildly, but any sign of the brothers was hidden by the crowd.

*****

"IT'S THIS WAY! I KNOW IT! I KNOW I CAN FIND IT!"

"if it's a house, it's not goin' anywhere." Sans tried to keep up on lagging strides as his brother hauled him along by the wrist. He didn't mind. The festivities had worn him out, and leaving the crowd in favor of the currently-deserted residential street was fine with him.

Papyrus loped along with his usual single-minded gusto. There was somewhere to be and something to find. Nothing would get in his way. "HERE IT IS!" He slid to a halt, kicking up a flurry of snow. "THIS IS IT! THIS IS OUR HOUSE!"

Sans craned his neck to get a look at the two-story home. "if you say so." It did look vaguely like his brother's drawings, although Papyrus' art, especially in relation to his seeings, leaned heavily toward the surreal.

"I DO!" Papyrus kicked away the snowdrift in front of the door and tugged on the handle. "IT'S LOCKED!" He jumped off the porch and ran to the window. He flattened his skull against the glass. "I CAN'T SEE ANYTHING."

"try glowing."

The boy's eyes flared orange. "I SEE... I THINK A COUCH. OR SOMEONE REALLY BIG LYING ON THE GROUND. HELLO! ...NO, IT'S A COUCH."

Sans joined him at the window. "nothin' to show we live here?"

"NO." Papyrus was momentarily deflated, but brightened with confident resolution. "BUT WE DO. I REMEMBER WE DO. I REMEMBER WE WILL DO."

"you're mixin' up times again."

"IT'S THE SAME THING! IT'S OUR HOUSE AND WE WILL LIVE HERE!"

"okay... but... is this a definitely thing, or a maybe thing?"

"DEFINITELY! IT'S A HAPPY ONE. THE HAPPY ONES ARE THE ONES THAT REALLY COME TRUE."

"really?"

"YEAH! NOTHING BAD EVER REALLY HAPPENS! LIKE THE FAIRYTALES ASGORE-DAD READS US. EVERYONE ALWAYS KNOWS TO BE FRIENDS AND BE HAPPY IN THE END."

Sans forced a smile and stared carefully at the window. He'd gotten a look at Asgore's book of fairytales and found the endings didn't conclude with the dragon and the knight going out for tea, or the wolf helping the girl look after her sick grandmother, nearly as often as they did when Asgore read the brothers their nightly bedtime story. But there was no chance he'd ever tell Papyrus that.

Papyrus trotted across the road and turned back to take in the whole house. "BUT IT DOESN'T LOOK LIKE THIS WHEN I SEE IT. IT'S SUPPOSED TO HAVE LIGHTS ON IT. LIGHTS LIKE OUR EYES."

"maybe we can find some."

They roamed the perimeter of the house, looking for signs of lights and peering in the windows. Papyrus kept up a steady stream of chatter about their future in this place, insisting confidently he'd seen both of them present and happy in this location. They'd play in the snow, and make friends with the furry monsters nearby, and be happy forever. "YOU DO BELIEVE ME, RIGHT?" He asked abruptly, turning on his silent brother.

"i believe you see the house..." Sans said cautiously, never wanting to contradict Papyrus' beliefs. "but... not everything you see happens. he says it's all possibilities."

"THIS ONE WILL! I KNOW IT!"

"okay... but we live in new home. why would we move here?"

"BECAUSE..." Papyrus faltered. "WE JUST WILL," he finished with something resembling confidence.

They'd reached the back of the house where another door could be found. Papyrus yanked on the knob. "IT'S LOCKED TOO."

Sans shuffled his feet, uncovering something in the snow. He bent down. "maybe we do live here." He held up one of many cigarette stubs lying by the door.

As they returned to the street, they heard a distant voice. "Boys! Sans? Papyrus? Where are you?"

"OH, SANTA!" Papyrus jumped. "GUESS WHAT?!" He took off toward the town center.

"hey, bro?" Sans waited by the house until Papyrus ran back to him. Sans looked once more at the door. "maybe... maybe we don't tell anyone about livin' here."

The bigger boy huffed. "YOU AND YOUR SECRETS! WHY NOT?"

"when you... when you see us here, is asgore with us?"

"OH... UM..." Papyrus scrunched his eyes shut and rifled through the many timelines clamoring his vision. "YOU'RE THERE. YOU AND ME. AND... MAYBE... SOMETIMES... DAD... BUT..."

"no asgore?"

"...NO." Papyrus' eyes popped open with a look of distress. He hastily tried to explain away the visions. "MAYBE HE'S IN ANOTHER ROOM, OR BUSY, OR..."

Sans slipped his hand into his brother’s. "c'mon. santa's lookin' for us."

*****

HONK!

Gaster leaped out of his metaphorical skin and whirled around, a bone club cocked and ready.

Sans stood behind him, a grin nearly splitting his face in two.

Gaster glared at him, and at the object in the child's hand. "Why do you have that?"

"it's what skeletons are supposed to play," Sans replied sweetly.

"Is it."

Sans nodded, his grin further widening, if that was possible. "yeah. a trombone."

Gaster groaned. "Again, why do you have that?"

"santa gave it to me. and he says you can never give back a santa gift." Sans put the instrument to his teeth and let out an even louder squawk.

Gaster shuddered. "Dare I ask what dreadfulness Papyrus received?"

"action figures."

"At least those will be quieter."

"wanna bet?"

From the living room, they heard Papyrus' gleeful voice. "'LOOK OUT! DANGER!' 'I'LL SAVE YOU!' 'PREPARE TO FACE MY EXPERT PUZZLES!' PHEW! PHEW! 'OH, NO! WATCH OUT FOR THOSE BULLETS!' PHEW-PHEW-PHEW! 'STOP! THAT'S NO WAY TO MAKE FRIENDS...'"

Gaster dropped his head to the desk. "He does this to punish me. He really does."

*****

"...I thought it might help them interact with some monsters," Asgore explained after the boys were in bed, hugging their new toys and drifting into dreams with smiles on their skulls. King and scientist sat in the living room as Asgore tried to explain himself. "Music and math are supposed to be connected, aren't they? Maybe Sans can play with a group. And Papyrus might have a better chance with a playdate if he has objects to focus on."

"I don't see why you feel it's such an issue. A child with a superior intellect..."

"Still needs to be able to talk to other monsters, Gaster." Asgore put his arm around the scientist, who tensed, but not very much. "I seem to remember another young skeleton being very anxious to learn the fine art of communication."

Gaster tried to hide the blush. "That was before I understood responsibility to be a lonely and lofty road."

"Oh, Gaster." Asgore squeezed him affectionately. "The boys shouldn't be burdened with too much responsibility. They have us for that. Right now, they should just be allowed to be children."

The doctor looked away. Abruptly, he pushed Asgore's arm aside and left the room.

Asgore sighed and leaned his head back. What was he going to do with these three?

"Um..." Gaster had returned, still looking red. "Since it's the day for gift-giving... well... I... really, it was the boys... but... here." He shoved a thin package at the king.

Asgore pulled off the wrappings. Inside was a framed photograph. The king's arms were around the two skeleton children, who grinned for the camera. Gaster stood a slight distance away, not entirely appearing to be part of the family photo, but encapsulated in the moment even so.

Asgore rose and hugged him, much to Gaster's discomfort. "Thank you," he murmured with tears in his eyes. "It's perfect."

Gaster squirmed and muttered something dismissive, which only made Asgore smile and hug him tighter.

When the king had gone to his room, Gaster found himself unwillingly scanning through the photo albums on the bookshelf. He didn't understand why Asgore kept them and continued to torture himself with memories. But tonight, it was Gaster opening a book in search of a moment long past.

It was from a day of giving so many years ago that he couldn't place it in the context of time. But there it was. Santa with his arms around a furry Mrs. Claus. And between them, an elf hat pulled over his eyes to avoid seeing people stare, was a young skeleton whose red-faced embarrassment was somehow evident even in the black-and-white photo.

Gaster stared into the past until it hurt too much. Then he hastened away to bury himself in statistics of the core.

Chapter Text

"I understand the power output isn't enough for your targeted design, but you could cut down the energy needs if you removed some of these features. What would a robot need with a self-generating disco ball?" Gaster bent over the blueprints with a frown.

Alphys looked redder than normal. "I... I t-though it m-m-might be... um... for entertainment purposes."

"The robot?" Gaster eyed the design and shrugged. "It's your project. But if you really think you have AI mastered, I would think a better use would be replacing some of the workers in those sections of the core the foreman won't stop whining about."

"...um... I thought this would be a good... first step." Alphys looked uneasily away from the scientist. "You know... make sure it works right."

"Well, the design is absolutely brilliant whatever use you intend it to be for."

Alphys flushed all the way to her crest. "R-R-Really?"

"Yes... although I'm still not clear about the brain. The chassis is conceptually well along. You're using this secondary design to test the concept?"

"Yes..."

"You seem to have thought of everything physical function-wise. But where's the brain center?"

"Oh... that’s sort of a... surprise."

Gaster leaned back. "I see no reason you can't proceed with construction. We should have parts enough for most of the initial body. That second body will be harder."

"Maybe we can go hunt in the dump sometime. Like we used to."

"If I can ever find the time." Gaster stretched and rose. "Between those power surges, and everything else I'm trying to accomplish, and... other things... I barely have a spare moment anymore."

Alphys' face fell. "Yeah... having a family... that takes time."

"Too much. Which reminds me, we should be on our way. Boys!" He called across the apartment to where the brothers sat in front of Alphys' television. "Time to go!"

"but the movie's not done."

"I don't care. We have a schedule to keep."

Reluctantly, the brothers rose with many backwards glances at the television.

"BYE DR. ALPHYS."

"thanks for letting us watch your movie."

"Y-you're welcome. You can come by anytime."

"YOU SHOULD COME TO OUR HOUSE, TOO! I CAN SHOW YOU MY BATTLE SIMULATION PUZZLES."

"action figures."

"THEY'RE BATTLE SIMULATORS!"

"Sorry about them," Gaster said, shooing the kids out the door. "I should have left them outside."

"Oh, no! They're fine. I like... like the..."

"CAN WE GET SOMETHING TO EAT ON THE WAY?"

"There's food at the lab."

"IT'S ALL JUNK FOOD."

"what's wrong with that?"

"ASGORE-DAD SAYS WE SHOULD EAT HEALTHY THINGS."

"he buys snails."

"THEY MIGHT BE HEALTHY IF HE KNEW HOW TO COOK THEM."

"I'll see you tomorrow, Alphys," Gaster called. "Good luck with your design."

The lizard-monster stood at the door of her apartment, arms crossed and a forlorn expression on her face.

Sans was the only one to notice. "maybe dr. alphys could come to dinner sometime?"

"I am not subjecting her to the likes of you two."

"...she might like it."

Gaster ignored them and walked faster, the brothers trailing behind as they made their way from New Home to the lab. He paid little attention as they began discussing the movie.

"WHY DID THE GOO MONSTERS EAT THE FROGGIT?"

"i dunno."

"MONSTERS SHOULDN'T HURT EACH OTHER LIKE THAT."

"it spit it out later. guess it was a case of mistaken indigestion."

"SANS! DO HUMANS REALLY TURN INTO MONSTERS IF THEY EAT WEIRD FOODS?"

"i dunno."

"DAD? DOES THAT HAPPEN? CAN HUMANS TURN INTO MONSTERS?"

"Not in my experience." Gaster thrust his hands into his pockets. "Try not to take Alphys' taste in films too seriously."

"SO... THERE AREN'T GOO MONSTERS THAT EAT OTHER MONSTERS?"

"there was in that dream we used to have."

"WE DON'T HAVE THAT ONE ANYMORE. NOW IT'S ALL GREEN."

"those aren't any better."

"BUT GREEN'S A GOOD COLOR. IT MEANS HEALING AND HAPPY AND KINDNESS..."

"not that green."

Gaster slowed and looked back. Sans was walking with lowered head and blank eyes - a general sign something was upsetting him. "What dream is this?"

Papyrus hastened up beside Gaster. "IT'S THIS ONE WITH LOTS OF... UM... GREEN."

"I comprehended that much."

"UM... LIKE ASGORE-DAD'S GARDEN. BUT... NOT."

"there's vines." Sans joined them. "and laughin'. but not good laughin'." He stared at the ground. "i dunno... it's not like the other dreams where you know what's wrong. this one just feels... broken."

"Are you seeing this often?"

"UM... I NEVER SEE IT WHEN I'M AWAKE." Papyrus frowned at his brother. "ARE YOU SURE IT'S NOT YOUR DREAM? I ONLY EVER SEE IT WITH YOU."

"it's yours. it feels like yours."

Gaster heaved a sigh. "It doesn't sound like information that will do us any good. Not with those details." He looked to Sans in hopes he'd have more insight, but the boy shook his head, still clearly bothered by the unknown.

The emitter sessions and TML readings had continued for some months after Sans had become involved, and his presence had drastically accelerated Gaster's projected timetable. Papyrus had been able to work far longer with Sans keeping his headaches to a minimum, and he'd seen far more with Sans enhancing his abilities. An unexpected bonus had come with their dream-sharing. As Papyrus' visions spilled over into sleep, they'd both witnessed his visions of possible futures, and Sans proved skilled at latching onto details Papyrus overlooked.

Sadly, the visions were rarely clear. Papyrus reliably saw his family engaging in activities days before events occurred, but things grew obscure the further down the timelines he sought. Mostly his impressions were blurred colors. The timelines could almost be entirely categorized by color patterns - blue-and-pink, red-and-gold, black-and-white, green, and on it went. They came in waves. He'd spend long days unsuccessfully describing something dark and unsubstantial, then would come stretches of something blue and pink amidst snowy wilds. It wasn't the clarity Gaster desired.

Despite a few useful projections, Gaster had grown increasingly uneasy at the growing quantity of warnings flashing on his computer whenever he began to probe the timelines. And some of the data he collected further shied him away from that line of experimenting. Why was his own magic signature so reliably absent from the timelines? At least 80% gave no indication he even existed. A disturbing thought, and reason enough to call a halt to the emitter sessions, much to Papyrus' evident relief.

Since then he'd found more interest in exploring the brothers' combined magic, and the results there had been more encouraging. Plus, the boys enjoyed playing with the blasters, which made things easier. Sans was relentless at reading over his shoulder and prepared to intervene if he tried to talk Papyrus into more... invasive projects. Maintaining the willing cooperation of the smaller child made for a much easier work environment for everyone.

They reached the lab. Papyrus hit the touchpad to open the door, eternally thrilled with the ability, no matter how many times he repeated the action. "WHAT ARE WE DOING TODAY? ARE WE HELPING YOU?" He demanded the moment the door swished shut.

"Do what you want. I have other things to deal with for now."

"ARE YOU GOING TO COME WATCH US LATER? ARE WE GOING TO HELP YOU LATER?"

"Yes...yes... Just go play on your own for now." He raised his voice as they took off down the hall. "And don't forget to attach the sensors!"

In the workroom the computer was up and running, still working out the simulations of the core he'd left it processing. Gaster brought up the results, rumbling in frustration to find little conclusive data. "What is wrong with you..."

He glanced at the monitor and saw the brothers had gone to the testing room. He watched for a minute as they summoned their blasters and began their well-rehearsed warmups.

By now the boys knew the locations of the lab's security cameras, sometimes chucking bones at them when they wanted Gaster's attention. Most of the lab wasn't under surveillance, and Gaster no longer worried if the vanished from his sight for long stretches. They knew what was dangerous and breakable, and generally respected his rules. He trusted them not to harm his things, or each other. The boys reliably checked in on him at random intervals - generally looking for amusement or nourishment. He grumbled at them, but he couldn't say he minded the interruptions too much, and their assistance was useful more often than not.

He watched them briefly, then turned his back on the monitor and settled in for yet another long afternoon of trying to decipher the core's ongoing issues.

*****

Papyrus let fly another series of bones, cheering as Sans blasted them into dust. "YOU'RE GETTING FASTER!"

"have to if i wanna keep up with the best," Sans panted.

Papyrus preened. "DO YOU THINK I'M GOOD ENOUGH TO GET INTO THE ROYAL GUARDS?"

"good enough to be in charge of 'em."

"OH, NO-NO-NO! I'M NOT LIKE THE GUARD-IN-CHARGE! SHE'S THE MOST AMAZING, AMAZING-EST EVER!" Papyrus cast another volley ceiling-ward. "ASGORE-DAD SAYS SHE FOUGHT SUPER HARD TO BE IN CHARGE. SO I HAVE TO FIGHT SUPERER HARD TO IMPRESS HER!" He scrutinized his brother to confirm Sans was still unharmed and alert. "LET'S DO THE BIG STUFF!"

They joined hands, turned to the training targets and properly lit up the room. Concentrating first on power, the blaster grew massive under their conjoined magic, shattering an unfortunate training dummy not properly resistant to their onslaught.

It was their frequent game ever since they'd received the blasters. They alternated between improving skill with their own and combining magic with explosive results. Gaster had monitored them at first, but eventually he'd shown them how to record the sensor data, so they could play on their own and he could review the results later. He'd taught them both in the use of the blasters and increasingly complex bone patterns.

They'd begged to be allowed to spar with one another. After Papyrus had sworn a dozen times over he'd be careful never to actually hit his brother, Gaster had relented and allowed them to spar under heavy supervision. After a few fights, he'd stopped keeping a tense grip on Sans' soul, even if he had decreed they still couldn't play-fight unless he was present.

The one thing he had decidedly not taught them was blue magic. They'd tried it once on him on purpose, and Gaster had whirled on them with such ferocity and shouting that Papyrus had sworn with tears in his eyes to never try that again ever. Sans had muttered something which might have been agreement... or not. The family later discovered he'd taken to practicing on the unsuspecting citizens of New Home, a game which was only halted when two annoyed guards escorted the ruefully grinning child home. Asgore had given him a stern talking to, but that was all the punishment he'd received. Gaster had found Sans' antics merely amusing.

Papyrus sometimes wondered how what they did now could save Asgore, and had asked if there was more they could be doing. Gaster said he was still working on possible solutions, and not to pester him, and then would put them to work on tasks which, although useful to science in general, did not seem to be progressing the cause. Papyrus did enjoy feeling useful, and Sans was clearly fascinated as Gaster trained them to operate the computer and better understand his work. Often Papyrus had no idea what his brother and father talked about, but he tried not to feel hurt. Keeping his family happy was important, and he knew the lab was the place Gaster felt most at ease, conditional upon the brothers' presence. Gaster didn't like the crowds outside, preferring solitude, but fearing the isolation of the lab after what had been done to him in this place. Papyrus understood they accompanied him on a daily basis more for Gaster's peace of mind than true need.

He'd puzzled over Asgore’s difficulties and lit upon the obvious answer. If the goal was for Asgore to not kill humans, they simply needed to talk nicely to the humans and ask them not to fight Asgore. Papyrus had already decided on his own plan of action should he come upon a human. He'd use his puzzle expertise to capture them, and keep them safe until they were friends with him and with Asgore. He'd explained his plan to Sans, who'd been supportive... but had recommended against asking Gaster if they could keep a human in the cell.

With his own plan settled (as soon as he found somewhere to build a human cage) Papyrus worried less about how Gaster's experiments were progressing and concentrated simply on the joy of what they did now.

Sans had enough of blaster games long before Papyrus, as always. He flopped on the sidelines, absently making a small blaster turn loops in the air, while Papyrus filled the room with an elaborate bone maze.

This was the part of training Papyrus loved best. Gaster had taught him bone patterns, and Papyrus had been thrilled to find something which came naturally to him. It felt so right - the duality of order and creativity which the patterns required. Gaster had told him that long-ago skeletons had used their bones to create art. To Papyrus, art and puzzles were one in the same. Sans might see the world in numbers - things which could be deciphered with the proper code. But to Papyrus, the world was a beautiful and complex riddle, and puzzles were a way of forging both order and beauty to be admired and enjoyed by everyone who saw them.

At night, after Asgore tucked them into bed and Sans fell asleep, Papyrus would lie awake, building mazes in his mind, and longing for morning so he could make them into reality.

"IT'S DONE!" He cried at last. "YOU CAN TRY AND SOLVE IT NOW."

Sans rose agreeably and began winding his way through the maze.

Papyrus watched with glowing pride, his fists clenched and an eager tremor running through him. This was it! This was the one to stump anyone. Sans would never figure it out. He could finally declare himself the puzzle master!

Sans ambled one way, then another, being careful not to touch the walls. He halted, and Papyrus giggled gleefully. Another wrong turn! He'd stumped his brother this time for sure!

Sans cocked his head, studying the bones seriously, then ducked between them.

"SANS! THAT'S A WALL! YOU CAN'T WALK THROUGH IT!"

"but there's room to go between the bars."

Papyrus scrambled into the maze, dusting some of his own bones as he shoved his way toward his brother. "BUT IT'S SUPPOSED TO BE A WALL! YOU'RE SUPPOSED TO FIND YOUR WAY AROUND IT! THAT'S HOW THE PUZZLE WORKS!"

Sans studied the bones for a second, gave his brother a wicked grin, and took off running, weaving his way between the bars.

"YOU'RE NOT DOING IT RIGHT!" Papyrus yowled and pursued, but too many bones had gone to dust. It was getting harder to see, and he was becoming lost in his own maze. He sneezed and changed directions, stumbling over a bone which failed to turn to dust immediately. His glasses careened across the floor, leaving his world further blurred. He found his feet and ran toward an impression of movement. A blue-hued bone caught him in the face and...

...bone patterns flowed around him as he sent them flying toward a figure crouched against the snow. A soul glowing blue against a backdrop of blue-and-pink. Was he holding it? He wasn't supposed to do blue magic...

"bro? hey, bro! are you okay?"

Papyrus blinked unsteadily, aware he was on his hands and knees and breathing hard. Sans had him by the arms and was trying to call him back to reality. He put his arms around his brother, finding stability in someone real and familiar.

"where were you?" Sans asked once Papyrus was sitting upright and calmer. "what did you see?"

"I WAS... SPARRING WITH SOMEONE." Papyrus studied the floor then looked up, suddenly delighted. "DO YOU KNOW WHAT THAT MEANS? I'M GOING TO HAVE A FRIEND! SOMEONE TO PLAY WITH ME! SOMEONE WHO LOVES ME AND WANTS TO BE WITH ME AND WILL TELL ME HOW GOOD MY PUZZLES ARE!" He turned to Sans, beaming with joy.

Sans turned away, but Papyrus saw the flash of doubt in his brother's eyes.

"SANS!" He cried, joy evaporating at once. "THEY'LL BE YOUR FRIEND TOO! WE'LL HAVE LOTS OF FRIENDS SOMEDAY! AND YOU'LL ALWAYS BE MY BEST-BEST-BEST FRIEND! EVEN IF... WHEN I HAVE A MILLION FRIENDS, YOU'LL STILL BE THE MILLIONTH AND ONE! THE FIRST ONE."

Sans forced a smile. "yeah... yeah... are you hungry?" He rose.

"SANS!" Papyrus tackled him back to the ground. "YOU'RE NOT MAD, ARE YOU? WE'LL ALWAYS PLAY TOGETHER. REALLY."

"it's not that."

"WHAT IS IT?"

The smaller boy tucked his knees beneath his chin. "do you... really think the person you were sparring with... were they really your friend?"

"OF COURSE. WHAT ELSE WOULD THEY BE?"

"yeah... yeah you're probably right." Sans tried to rise once more but Papyrus pulled him back down. The boy hesitated, then sighed. "it's just... there was that dream with that... gooey thing. the one tryin' to eat you."

"BUT THAT WON'T HAPPEN. I DON'T HAVE THAT DREAM ANYMORE."

"yeah... but now the green one's happenin' more."

"YOU DON'T KNOW IT'S A BAD DREAM."

"it's all negatives."

"WHAT DO YOU MEAN?"

"the numbers... when we had it the last time... i could see the numbers. they weren't right. they were all negatives. like... infinite negatives."

Papyrus grimaced. He never really understood what Sans meant when he started talking about numbers. But he understood it was something like his seeings, except Sans saw the past and present, while he saw the future. "BUT THAT JUST MEANS IT WAS BAD, NOT THAT IT WILL BE BAD."

"but it’s a maybe future. so, we might find somethin' really bad. like... too bad to change."

"NO! THAT CAN'T HAPPEN! EVERYBODY CAN CHANGE! EVERYBODY CAN CHOOSE TO BE GOOD."

"what if there's a point where you can't? where you've done so many bad things, you can't do anythin' else anymore?"

"NO!" Papyrus flattened his hands around his skull. "NO, THAT'S NOT TRUE! THAT CAN'T BE TRUE! THERE HAS TO BE A WAY... THERE HAS TO..." He covered his face and broke into sobs.

"bro? hey, calm down! i didn't mean it! i'm sorry!"

Papyrus leaned into Sans and cried helplessly. "IT'S REALLY HARD SOMETIMES. I KEEP LOOKING AND LOOKING, BUT SOMETIMES IT'S REALLY HARD TO FIND THE GOOD ONES."

"the good what?"

"THE GOOD TIMELINES." Papyrus looked at him, shaking helplessly. "I SEE SO MANY BAD THINGS. I-I KNOW... I KNOW HOW IT COULD BE REALLY BAD. REALLY-REALLY-REALLY BAD."

"i know." Sans hugged him fiercely.

"I CAN'T LET IT. I HAVE TO... HAVE TO FIND THE GOOD ONE."

"he said you didn't have to do that anymore."

"BUT I HAVE TO! THERE HAS TO BE ONE WHERE NOBODY DIES AND NOBODY HURTS ANYBODY AND EVERYBODY'S HAPPY. THERE HAS TO BE!"

Sans clung to him as Papyrus cried.

At long last the tears subsided, and Papyrus smiled hopefully at his brother. "AND THAT'S HOW I KNOW THERE'S A GOOD ONE."

"hu? how?"

"BECAUSE OF YOU." He scrubbed away the tears. "BECAUSE I KNOW YOU'LL ALWAYS BE THERE TO HELP ME. AND IF THERE'S AS SOMEONE AS GOOD AS YOU WITH ME, THERE MUST BE LOTS OF GOOD SOMEONES OUT THERE TOO. AND IF ALL THE GOOD SOMEONES HELP, NOTHING BAD CAN EVER REALLY HAPPEN. RIGHT?"

Sans grinned and hugged him even tighter. "well, who can argue with that?"

Papyrus leaped to his feet, swinging his brother in his arms. "I KNOW WE'LL BE OKAY. WE'RE GOING TO HELP EVERYBODY BE GOOD! WE REALLY ARE!" He twirled in a gleeful circle.

It was good. It truly was. He had a wonderful brother and two very smart fathers. Together they'd save the underground.

Nothing could stand against them so long as they were all together.

Chapter Text

"Boys! Time to go!" Gaster called as he entered the living room, rummaging through his bag in search of toxicology reports. He hadn't had his morning coffee yet, and his mind was sluggish.

At the table, Asgore was packing a massive basket of food with the brothers' assistance. The king turned at Gaster's arrival. "Actually, I hoped they'd come with me today."

Papyrus gave his father a gleeful smile. "WE'RE GOING TO INSPECT ALL THE ROYAL GUARDS AND GIVE THEM FOOD PRESENTS AND LEARN TO BE GUARDS!"

Sans rested his chin on the table and looked exhausted just at the prospect.

"Oh." Gaster found himself dazed at the sudden change in plans.

"I talked to you about it last night," Asgore said apologetically, and Gaster dimly recalled Asgore talking at him while he'd been writing, even if he couldn't remember a word of it.

"I'm making rounds out to Waterfall. I thought it would be nice for them to see all the things the guards do."

"CAUSE THEY'RE AMAZING, AND I'M GOING TO BE ONE SOMEDAY!"

"Oh... then..." Gaster faltered, then headed for the kitchen. "Is the coffee ready?"

Emerging with a full cup, he forced down the shiver of trepidation and started for the door. "I'll see you tonight."

He was surprised to realize he wasn't alone as he opened the front door. A small figure had detached himself from the party at the table and was trailing behind him.

"Sans?" Asgore asked.

"SANS DOESN'T WANT TO COME. WE DECIDED LAST NIGHT."

Gaster stared at the boy, uncertain if he was more surprised that the brothers were prepared to spend a day separated, or that one of them actually wanted to join him.

"Are you sure?" Asgore sounded as confused as Gaster felt. "You might enjoy Waterfall..."

Sans shrugged. "i might end up en-drenched in a bad situation there. it's smoother sailing for me at the lab."

Gaster rolled his eyes. Papyrus moaned. Asgore winced. It was the normal reaction.

Soon after, four monsters set out from the house. They parted ways at the elevators, the brothers clinging together one for last hug before setting out for a day apart.

*****

"Careful!" Asgore grabbed Papyrus before he could walk into a steam vent.

Papyrus, who had been walking backwards, skipped out of the way quickly. "I'M VERY SORRY," he said to the vent, then hastened onward, still gazing behind him.

"If you’d rather go with your brother..."

"NO... NO, I WANT TO SEE THE GUARDS... BUT, UM... DO YOU THINK SANS REMEMBERS HOW TO GET TO THE LAB? MAYBE WE SHOULD CALL HIM."

"He'll be just fine."

"YEAH... YEAH, I KNOW... WE SHOULD CALL AT LUNCH. SO HE REMEMBERS TO EAT. AND WHEN WE'RE GOING HOME, SO HE KNOWS WE'RE COMING. AND WHEN WE THINK THEY'RE AT THE LAB TO MAKE SURE THEY MADE IT TO THE LAB..."

"Papyrus." Asgore put a hand on Papyrus' shoulder. "Sans is going to be just fine. He'll have a nice day at the lab. You and I will have a nice day exploring the underground. And tonight, you two will have lots of stories to tell."

Papyrus nodded quickly. "I KNOW." He smiled bravely. "AND SANS WILL TAKE GOOD CARE OF DAD, TOO."

Asgore walked faster, his hand still gripping Papyrus' shoulder to keep him facing forward. "I'm sure he will. Although, if Gaster was actually taking care of himself, he'd stay out of that lab."

"HE HAS TO GO THERE. IT'S WHERE HE DOES HIS EVERY DAY IMPORTANT WORK."

"I know why he goes there every day," Asgore replied grimly.

Papyrus tensed. "YOU DO? SO, YOU KNOW WHY WE HAVE TO GO WITH HIM?"

"I don't see what you two have to do with it. If he wants to hurt himself, he can do that on his own."

"BUT HE DOESN'T GET HURT WHEN WE'RE THERE! WE KEEP HIM FROM HAVING ATTACKS!"

"Attacks?" Asgore halted and crouched down to look eye-level with the boy. "What are you talking about?"

Papyrus skipped back a step. "YOU SAID YOU KNEW..."

"I know he goes down there to smoke. Changing his clothes doesn't completely make the smell go away."

"OH... THAT."

"What did you mean about attacks?"

"OH..." Papyrus' eyes flitted about evasively. He desperately needed his brother for moments like this. "IT'S JUST... HE CAN'T BE ALONE. THERE. EVER."

"Alone? He likes being alone."

"NOT SINCE THE HUMAN HURT HIM," Papyrus insisted earnestly. "HE'S AFRAID TO BE THERE BY HIMSELF. BUT HE WON'T SAY IT. SO WE GO WITH HIM."

Asgore closed his eyes. "That poor, idiotic monster."

"DAD'S NOT AN IDIOT!" Papyrus' eyes took on an angry glow.

"No, Child. I just meant..." Asgore rose. "I wish he'd tell me these things."

"HE DOESN'T TELL ANYONE. WE JUST KNOW IT."

Asgore patted his head. "You two are so good for him." He started walking. "Is that why Sans went with him?"

"YES... AND BECAUSE HE NEVER EVER WANTS TO BE A GUARD."

*****

"THAT ARMOR LOOKS HOT," Papyrus remarked as they walked away from a Hotland patrol. "DO THEY HAVE TO WEAR IT ALWAYS?"

"No... but it must be better insulated than it looks. They're certainly fond of wearing it."

"IS THAT ALL THE GUARDS IN HOTLAND?"

"I believe we've seen everyone." Asgore glanced down at the skeleton. "You're not tired, are you?"

"NO... BUT I DON'T LIKE IT HERE."

"No?"

"CONVEYOR BELTS MAKE MY TUMMY DIZZY. AND I DON'T EVEN HAVE A TUMMY!"

Asgore smiled. "We'll be in Waterfall soon."

Several elevators, another conveyor ride, and one long bridge later, they were in Waterfall.

Asgore looked back the way they'd come and stroked his beard. "I wonder if Gaster could do something about the transit issues."

"DAD SAYS CONFUSING LAYOUTS ARE IMPORTANT FOR DEFENSE. AND HISTORY. AND MAKING SMART PEOPLE SMARTER." Papyrus bounced up and down on the bridge. "THIS IS AWESOME!"

"Please be careful! Magma is very dangerous." Asgore studied the bridge. "I really think we should remove those."

"BUT IT'S SO MUCH FUN! LOOK AT THIS!" Papyrus tossed a bone over the bridge. It hissed as it hit the magma, briefly spraying ash and dust across the river before vanishing completely.

Asgore shuddered. "We'd never even know if someone fell in... I think these bridges should be covered..."

"AWW..."

Asgore led the way through Waterfall to a particular farm where he stopped once a week without fail.

A glum looking ghost was watching the snails slither around their pen.

"HELLO!" Papyrus called, running up to - and through - the ghost. "ONE HUNDRED-HUNDRED SNAILS, PLEASE!"

"Not so many, Papyrus."

The ghost turned around reluctantly. "oh... it's you... i have your snails... if you want them... if not... it doesn't matter..."

"Of course I'd like them. Thank you." Asgore put on a pleasant smile. "How are you today?"

"oh... it's just another day... just me and the snails..."

"Just you? Isn't your cousin here?"

"...no... he's gone."

"GONE? WHERE DID HE GO?"

"...oh... away... maybe... he'll visit sometime..."

"THAT’S WHAT ASGORE-DAD ALWAYS SAYS TOO!" Papyrus replied brightly. "MAYBE YOUR FAMILY AND HIS FAMILY ARE TOGETHER HAVING FUN AND THEY'LL COME BACK WHEN THEY'RE DONE."

“maybe…not like there’s much to keep them here…just me and the snails…and i’m not much company…if you don’t mind…i need to lie down…” The ghost faded out of existence.

*****

"...If Undyne isn't home, she must be on patrol," Asgore said as they walked away from the quiet cluster of houses.

"OR SHE'S FIGHTING A BAD GUY! OR A HUMAN! OR A MONSTER! WAIT... SHE WOULDN'T FIGHT A MONSTER."

"Gerson might know. He likes to keep an eye on her."

"THAT'S GOOD BECAUSE HE ONLY HAS ONE. BUT IF IT'S ON HER, HOW DOES HE SEE... OH! IS THAT WHERE HIS OTHER EYE IS?"

They hadn't gone far before they heard shouting.

"NO, YOU MANGY MUTTS! THAT IS NOT THE PROPER FIGHTING TECHNIQUE!"

"There she is." Asgore veered into the swamp. Papyrus squelched after him.

Undyne, captain of the royal guard, stood with her hands on her hips, shouting at some half dozen dogs who sloshed about the swamp in a bewildered manner. Some were armed and looked willing to try combat. Others appeared to be having a lovely time in the swamp with no idea why they were present. One splashed up to Undyne and dropped a spear at her feet, wagging its tail violently as it did.

"That's not... Well, you DID dodge it... BUT YOU'RE NOT SUPPOSED TO BRING IT BACK! But... thanks. I lose more spears that way."

The dog wriggled and spun around in a circle, which served no purpose save to slosh muck in Undyne's face.

The captain wiped it off. "I don't need a drink. Back to sparring. All of you! And stop chasing your tails!"

"Hello, Undyne," Asgore said as they reached her.

Undyne turned around. "Oh, hey, Asgore. And... you."

Papyrus responded with a high-pitched squeeing noise.

"We're making an inspection of the guards today. How are the new recruits shaping up?"

Undyne waved a hand at the wrestling canines. "See for yourself. The pups have a whole lot of heart (and not a lot else). But their parents are great guards. I think they'll do just fine. If they'd just... NO, DON'T EAT THAT!" She stormed toward her cadets, waving her arms.

Asgore watched her and the assortment with an amused smile, then looked down at Papyrus.

The boy's eyes were ablaze with delight. "ISN'T SHE THE GREATEST?" He whispered.

"She's done a fine job with the guards since taking command," Asgore agreed. He leaned closer and murmured conspiratorially. "Do you know, I was the one who taught her to fight?"

Papyrus turned to him with a look of awe. "YOU WERE? AND YOU TAUGHT ME... THAT MEANS... THAT MEANS I KNOW THINGS SHE KNOWS!" His squeal rose in pitch.

Two dogs turned their heads and blinked at him.

Asgore patted him on the back. "She's quite remarkable, but she's just another monster."

"ANOTHER MONSTER? ANOTHER MONSTER?! SHE'S NOT JUST ANY MONSTER! SHE'S UNDYNE!!! NO OTHER MONSTER IS AS AMAZING AS HER!!!"

A wounded look flashed across Asgore's face but was hastily replaced with a tolerant smile. "Why... why is it so important to you to be in the guards?"

"WELL... EVERYONE LOVES THEM... AND THEY HELP MONSTERS... AND PROTECT EVERYONE. RIGHT? THAT'S WHAT I HAVE TO DO."

"You don't have to."

"I DO! I HAVE TO PROTECT DAD AND SANS AND YOU AND EVERYBODY!"

"That seems like a lot of responsibility."

Papyrus nodded seriously. "IT IS. AND ONCE I'M A GUARD, I'LL KNOW EVERYTHING ABOUT PROTECTING EVERYBODY."

"It... might not be that easy."

"OH... WELL, UNDYNE PROBABLY KNOWS EVERYTHING I DON'T KNOW."

Asgore suppressed a smile. "Someday, I'm sure you'll make a fine guard."

"LIKE TODAY?"

"What?"

"MAYBE TODAY'S THE DAY I SHOW HOW AMAZING I AM!" Without another thought, Papyrus dashed into the training ground.

Several of the dogs were now holding spears and squinting toward a distant training dummy.

"Throw the spears AT the target," Undyne explained. "DO NOT try to retrieve them until I say go. Ready... Aim..."

"UNDYNE! I CAN DO THAT TOO!" Papyrus loped forward eagerly, attempting to manifest a bone while not falling on his face.

Attracted by the movement, a masked dog whirled and let fly the spear.

"No!" Asgore's paws burst into flames as he rushed forward, feeling a horrible certainty he couldn't move fast enough.

A blur of blue and red charged at blinding speed. Undyne tackled the skeleton, crashing them both into the mud as the spear shot over their heads.

"Are you hurt? Are you okay?" The guard demanded.

Papyrus looked up at her in awe. "YOU'RE SITTING ON ME," he whispered. And at top volume; "THIS IS THE BEST DAY EVER!!!!"

Asgore pulled Papyrus out from beneath Undyne and set him on his feet. "Papyrus, do you know what nearly happened? You could have been seriously hurt."

Papyrus only grinned. "BUT I WASN'T." He turned on Undyne, still starry-eyed. "YOU'RE EVEN MORE AMAZINGER THAN I THOUGHT!"

"I am?" Undyne blinked. "Well, yeah... I mean... No! That was a crazy thing to do. What were you thinking?!"

"I WANTED TO SHOW YOU HOW GOOD I AM AT FIGHTING. SEE? WATCH!" Papyrus let fly a short barrage of bones, striking the dummy with reliable accuracy and force.

Undyne gave a grunt of approval. "That's... pretty tough." She looked Papyrus up and down. "So, you want to be in the guards?"

"DO I?! YES, YES, YES! CAN I JOIN NOW? RIGHT NOW?! WHAT DO I DO?"

"What?... No… I mean... I love the enthusiasm... but..."

Asgore put a paw on Papyrus' shoulder. "This is a someday plan, Papyrus. You're not ready yet."

"I'M NOT? WHEN WILL I BE READY?"

"Ah... let's talk to your father about that..."

Soon the king and the skeleton were saying their farewells and beginning the trek home.

Papyrus kept up a steady stream of chatter. "...AND I'LL HAVE A GUARD POST, AND I'LL MAKE DEFENSIVE PUZZLES, AND BE FAMOUS, AND EVERYONE WILL BE MY FRIEND. AND I'LL TAKE CARE OF EVERYBODY, AND..."

...He leaned forward, pushing with all his strength. At the other end of the piano, Undyne planted her feet and dragged it over the rugged piece of ground. She pointed northward and he shifted to...

"Papyrus? Papyrus what's wrong?"

Papyrus shook himself back to the present, realizing he'd stopped walking and was staring toward a side tunnel. "N-NOTHING."

"Did you see something?"

"N-No... IT'S NOT THERE YET."

"Yet?" Asgore frowned, looking between the boy and the tunnel. "What do you mean?"

"UM..." Papyrus looked around evasively. "IT'S NOTHING. IT MIGHT NOT HAPPEN. LET'S GO HOME!" He surged forward.

"Papyrus."

The boy froze.

"Did you see something I should know about?"

"NO! NOT YOU! I... I MEAN... IT'S A SECRET."

"What's a secret?"

Papyrus sank into himself. Where was Sans when he needed him? Sans had always headed off these moments and made sure secrets stayed secret. Now...

"Tell the truth." The king was frowning at him. "What is this 'secret'?"


They'd been waylaid at the core. Gaster had been forced inside by the insufferable foreman who refused to take hints or a 'no' for an answer. "I'll be right back. Don't fall asleep," he'd called to Sans as he'd entered the core's main control room. Nearly forty minutes later, he stormed out, fuming at the audacity of ignorant underlings.

He was surprised Sans was still awake. The boy was seated against the wall, engrossed in a newspaper. He didn't notice Gaster's return until the scientist shouted at him. Reluctantly, he rose and followed, still trying to read as they walked.

"The junior jumble can't be that exhilarating," Gaster grumbled.

Sans flipped to the front page and held it up so Gaster could see.

'Robot-with-Soul New Singing Sensation!'

"Wordy headline," Gaster scoffed and walked faster.

Sans trotted to keep up. "did you know this was what dr. alphys was building?"

"She mentioned something similar."

"it says she made a soul. you said that wasn't possible."

"It isn't."

"it says she did it."

"I'm aware."

"did she?"

"She did not."

"then, why...?"

Gaster sighed. "I don't know what she's playing at, but it's going to blow up in her face if she's not careful."

"have you asked her?"

"No. And, no, I don't intend to."

"why not?"

"Because it's none of my business. Or yours."

"if it's nobody's business, why's she doin' interviews?"

"I suspect that was the robot's idea."

"you made pap 'n me's souls. how come she couldn't do the same?"

"I didn't make those from nothing. They're created from preexisting pieces. Creating a whole new soul... no research or experimentation has indicated that is possible."

"maybe she figured out somethin' you didn't."

Gaster rolled his eyes and didn't respond.

Inside the lab, Gaster led the way to his office. Once there, he unslung his bag and began sorting his notations and journals in piles across the tabletop.

Sans clambered into the desk chair and went to work on the computer's password prompt.

Gaster's attempts to keep Sans out of his work had proved a losing battle. The boy read anything which came his way, and was far too adept at guessing the computer passwords. Gaster had begun setting them as math equations, and Sans had risen to the challenge. It was a game now. Gaster tried not to show any sign of pride, but inwardly he glowed at how quickly the boy's mind was developing.

Sans was willing to work, if it meant his mind felt engaged. Life tended to drift by hazily for Sans, save when his brother pulled him out of his lethargy, or he found reason to lift his head and become aware of the world. And those moments were mostly in the lab. He'd come to like the place which had once been his prison. This was where his mind was challenged. He'd begun to understand more and more of Gaster's work, and had developed a new respect for his father as he discovered how brilliant the core, and Gaster's other projects, really were. Sans couldn't yet grasp the scope of all Gaster had done, but he was eager to understand the equations which were the building-blocks of all science. With them, he'd be able to understand the numbers he saw. And more. He'd understand the world.

"are we doin' the stuff you wanna do or the stuff you're supposed to do?" He asked as the computer's main menu came up.

"Both. But not the core today." Gaster leaned over Sans and clicked open a file. "We're working on the aquarium designs."

Sans cocked his head and studied the proposal. "why don't the water monsters want to all live in waterfall?"

"Some just want to be closer to the city. Or they like having options. But the water in Waterfall isn't as clean as it once was, which is why there is a sudden exodus."

"what do you mean?"

"The water filters down from the surface. And whatever the humans are up to up there, it's polluting the water. We can't purify all of Waterfall... so, this is the best solution."

"besides breakin' the barrier?"

"Hush."

They spent the morning with Gaster going over designs with a meticulous eye, and Sans running calculations for water volume and pressure. A break for a late lunch, then Gaster moved on to his pet project.

Sans fell asleep the moment his insides were full, and it was several hours before he awoke and went to examine Gaster's latest theories in eliminating the barrier. "is that gonna work?"

"Science is about experimentation," the doctor rumbled back.

"kay... but seems like you've tried that before."

"Reevaluating old theories sometimes provides new information." Gaster hunched a little possessively over his notebook. "There is time enough to hypothesize."

Sans yawned. "yeah, so long as one more human doesn't show."

"Two more, Sans. Do try to remember pertinent details one of these days." Gaster looked down at the blank space in his notebook where words should have been. He shook the pen, tried it again, and rumbled irritably. "There are more pens in the desk drawer." He waved a vague hand toward the computer. "Fetch me one." He flipped back a page to remind himself of what had sparked his curiosity. After a moment, he looked up, wondering what was taking so long.

Sans hadn't moved.

"Pens. Desk drawer." Gaster made a shooing motion. "You. Fetch."

The boy was still staring at him. “i thought you knew,” he murmured.

"Knew what? Don't tell me you lost all my pens."

Sans blinked uncertainly. "he didn't tell you?"

"Who? Papyrus? Tell me what?"

The boy hesitated, then spoke slowly. "he only needs one more soul. asgore's had six for months."

*****

Papyrus ran out of the house the moment he saw Gaster and Sans coming. He grabbed his brother in an embrace filled with relief, anxiety, guilt, and a desperate need for contact-comfort. He steeled himself and lifted his gaze to his father.

Something in Gaster's expression killed the words forming in Papyrus' mind. He quailed and turned to his brother.

Sans' eyes were hollow and worried. A look passed between the brothers - a rush of understanding that both were carrying trepidations. Sans squeezed his brother's hand and pulled him silently into the bedroom. He shut the door behind them.

Asgore and Gaster met in the entryway hall. They stared stiffly at one another.

"Dr. Gaster."

"King Dreemurr."

They eyed one another for a long moment of silence. Then...

"We need to talk."

Chapter Text

The shouting-matched ended with the slamming of the front door, then silence descended on the house. There was a pause, then Gaster wrenched open the bedroom door and tossed two backpacks at the boys. "Pack your things. We're leaving."

His expression permitted no debate, and the pair hastily cast about for their most valuable possessions. Papyrus tried to utter an apology, to take the blame on himself, but Gaster rumbled a wordless warning as he herded them from the house. The brothers gripped hands and followed in a state of silent anxiety.

Where was he taking them? The lab? It seemed so at first, but then Gaster turned aside from the usual path and headed for the river.

Docking in Snowdin only compounded the mystery. They hadn't known Gaster had any familiarity with the town. Yet he strode down the street without hesitation.

Papyrus gave a gasp as Gaster turned toward a familiar house and fished a key out of his pocket. "THIS HOUSE? THIS IS WHERE WE'RE GOING?" He demanded.

Gaster didn't look at him. "It's my house."

"IT IS? I KNEW IT! WE DO LIVE HERE!" The boy forgot the circumstances and ran inside. "IT'S A HUGE MESS!" He cried as he sprinted up the stairs.

Sans stood in the doorway, glaring at the doctor. "you knew? all the time he's been goin' on about this place? and you didn't say..." He trailed off, reading the pain in Gaster's eyes. This was one of Papyrus' seeings Gaster had hoped would not come true. The accusation died in his voice. "maybe it's just for a little bit?"

The look of agony only deepened. "Go inside," the doctor mumbled.

"YOU CAN SEE THE WHOLE TOWN OUT THE WINDOW! AND THERE'S BEAUTIFUL ART! AND SCIENCEY BOOKS! OOH... WHAT DOES THIS DO?"

Gaster cringed. "Try not to break..." He trailed off.

Sans poked about at a sedate pace. "where do we sleep?" He asked after assessing the rooms were crowded with books, boxes, machinery, and only one bed.

Gaster glanced around vaguely. "I have some spare blankets... somewhere."

He made up the couch, which prompted protests from Papyrus regarding the entire 'going to sleep' process. Who would read them their bedtime story?

That brought a look to Gaster's face which wavered somewhere between fury and agony. He shut himself in the bedroom and they heard no more from him.

Papyrus looked helplessly at his backpack, which was filled with puzzle toys and action figures. "I DIDN'T BRING ANY CLOTHES," he whispered.

Sans dumped out his own bag, which held little but books and a few socks. "sleeping in regular clothes is fine. i do it all the time."

Papyrus frowned. "YOU'RE SUPPOSED TO WEAR BEDTIME CLOTHES AT BEDTIME. YOU CAN'T JUST SLEEP IN REGULAR CLOTHES. ONLY LAZY PEOPLE DO THAT."

Sans flopped onto the couch. "that's me. dressin' to impress my dreams."

"SANS..."

Sans looked up, realizing Papyrus' voice was starting to break. "hey, we get to sleep in the cool house, right? it's gonna be fine."

"I JUST..." Papyrus scrubbed at his eye sockets. "WHO'S GOING TO READ US A BEDTIME STORY? AND TUCK US IN? AND KISS US GOODNIGHT? AND..."

Sans slid to the floor and put his arms around his brother.

"WE COULD HAVE A LEAST BROUGHT OUR PAJAMAS," Papyrus whimpered.

Sans rose and grabbed his empty backpack. "i'll be right back, okay?"

A flickering of darkness and numbers, and he was standing in their bedroom.

Pajamas, some proper clothes, his trombone... what else? Food? They hadn't had dinner.

He heard the sobs as he crept toward the kitchen. He hesitated, torn between wanting to retreat back to his brother, and the sound of someone he cared about in pain. He entered the room.

Asgore was at the table, a photo album lying before him. Sans knew from past occasions which photos dominated his mind. His first family. His real family. The boy turned away.

"Sans?"

Before he could vanish, Asgore had him off the ground and smothered in a massive hug.

"I was so worried," Asgore babbled. "I thought I'd lost you. I didn't know what I'd do without..." It registered that Sans was alone. "Where's..."

Sans put his arms around the king's neck and allowed himself to cry. In a moment he'd have to tell the truth. In another moment he'd have to put on a smile and be strong for Papyrus' sake. But for this moment, he could mourn for what they were leaving behind.

*****

Papyrus awoke the next morning overflowing with plans. While Gaster and Sans looked on in a daze, he put himself in charge of the household, starting with cleaning and making a place for the brothers.

For so long Papyrus had dreamed of this house as their pinnacle destination. This was the place they'd be happy, and he set about making that a reality by sheer force of will. A house which belonged to them offered a freedom their previous living spaces had not. The lab had not been a home, just a place they'd been kept. Asgore's house was a home, but it was also a mausoleum to the past. This place was theirs. They could make of it what they would.

It was a big house. Gaster had acquired it years before, feeling a large house bestowed an air of prestige. It had always seemed more than big enough. Now...

They got into everything. Sans dove into his books, revived the aging computer, even found some of Gaster's earliest experiments. Papyrus ransacked his closets, rearranged the kitchen (six times in the first week), and was constantly coming up to Gaster with another box and questions of, "IS THIS JUNK OR IMPORTANT?"

Their energy spilled out into the town. Despite having lived there for years, Gaster barely knew his neighbors. By the end of the first week, the boys knew, and were known by, everyone. Papyrus went at the job of making this town their home with breathtaking energy, leaving a trail of dazed bodies in his wake. He assaulted their neighbors with a tidal wave of suggestions, offered assistance, and semi-edible baked good. It was hard to tell what the town thought of him, but everyone could agree Snowdin wasn't so sleepy as it had once been.

Gaster didn't try to restrain them. He didn't seem capable of it. Once the doctor had controlled every aspect of their lives, and they'd believed him more powerful than any other being alive. Now, he was diminished. He rarely left the house, rarely worked, rarely spoke. His energy was gone, just a broken dullness remaining.

Papyrus leaped into the role of caretaker. Gaster ate what Papyrus set before him without a murmur. He allowed himself to be propelled to bed at night, and dragged out of it come morning. In between, he sat the computer, typing infrequently, and mostly staring into space.

With no guidance, the brothers did as they pleased. Sans discovered Gaster had been careless with leaving lying money around. He started eating at the local bar, pleased to not have Asgore prodding him to maintain a healthy diet. But as the weeks progressed, it began to occur to him that no money was entering the house. Was Gaster still employed?

He asked, receiving mumbled answers which failed to allay his concerns.

"bro?" He asked one night after they'd curled up to sleep. "what jobs are out there?"

"JOBS? OH... UM... THERE'S KING... AND SCIENTIST... AND ROYAL GUARD."

"is that it?"

"NO... THERE'S HEAD OF THE ROYAL GUARD."

"think that's taken. but there's lots of guards, right?"

"YES. UNDYNE SAID THEY'RE ALWAYS LOOKING FOR RECRUITS."

*****

Undyne nearly trampled the small skeleton asleep on her front step the next morning. "The hell?!"

Sans sat up with a yawn. "i'm here to be recruited."

"You're what?"

"i'm joinin' the guards."

Undyne stared at him. "Who are you?"

"sans. you know my brother."

The captain blinked. "That crazy skeleton kid always running around with Asgore? Yeah, he said he wanted to be a guard someday." She studied Sans. "He's pretty tough. And if you're his brother... what can you do?"

"i'm good at sleepin'."

"No, I mean combat-wise." She flared out her fins, seized a small rock, and crushed it to chalk. "Do you have what it takes to be the best?"

"at what?"

"EVERYTHING! We're the best of the best, the top of the top, the cream of the..."

"cream?"

Undyne was afire with passion now. "We protect the underground. We fight to be strongest of all. To be a guard, you have to have fire in your soul, passion in your blood, determination as strong as a human! So tell me, why do you want to be a guard?"

Sans looked placidly up at her. "we need money."

Undyne deflated. "That's... not really the reason I'm going for."

"seems like a good reason to me."

"But it's not passion."

"sure it is. i'm passionate about eatin'. and i can't do that without money."

"But what about glory? Honor? Protecting the weak?"

"that sounds great."

"It does?"

"sure. you can give me a job, and then i won't be weak with hunger anymore."

The fish-guard clapped a hand over her eyes. "That is NOT how this works."

"why not?"

"Aaarg!" She stormed across the clearing and put a spear through a rock. She returned. "Okay. Let's try this another way. You want to be in the guards?" She jumped straight up, and came down fully clad in armor. "Show me what you can do!"

Sans didn't move. "cool trick."

"Isn't it?" Undyne's face split into a massive grin. "It took a ton of work to attach my armor to the ceiling and to learn how to jump exactly into it. But the effect is SO WORTH IT! You know, when someone is exactly where you're sitting." She shook herself. "Now. SHOW ME WHAT YOU CAN DO!"

Sans cocked his head. "you mean like... fight you?"

"Yes! What did you think I was talking about?!"

Sans considered. "nope. not real into fightin'."

"THEN WHY WOULD YOU EVER WANT TO BE A GUARD?!!!"

"well... i know the guards talk about fightin'... but they spend a lot of time just sittin' around. and i'm real good at sittin'. so i thought you could give me the most borin' post, and then other guards can go do the fightin' stuff."

Undyne hesitated. "There is a post in Snowdin I can't keep anybody at for long..." She glowered. "But if you won't fight, what's the point? What would you do if you saw a human?"

"um... i guess this." Sans flicked his hand, and his blaster solidified into existence.

Undyne's eyes went to stars. "That... is... the... COOLEST THING EVER!"

"Pap has 'em too."

"I WANT ONE!" Undyne practically kissed the blaster's nose. "I bet that does amazing damage. You're in!"

*****

"DAD! I NEED HELP!"

Gaster roused himself out of his stupor to the sound of Papyrus' shouts.

"DAD, I'M SLIPPING!"

He followed the sound out of the house and glanced around. "Papyrus?"

"UP HERE. HELP!"

He looked up, discovering Papyrus clinging to the eaves. A flick of blue magic and the boy was on solid ground again.

Papyrus threw his arms around his rigid father. "YOU SAVED ME! THANK YOU!"

"What were you doing up there?"

"HANGING LIGHTS. SEE?" Papyrus held up a string of colored lights. "LIKE OUR EYES. SO EVERYONE KNOWS SKELETONS LIVE HERE."

Gaster turned to go back inside. "Shouldn't your brother be helping?"

"HE'S AT WORK."

Gaster paused. "Sans has a job?"

"HE'S IN THE ROYAL GUARDS. WE TOLD YOU."

"Did you?" Maybe they had said something. It was hard to keep a thought in his head.

Papyrus kicked a snowball. "I WANTED TO BE A GUARD TOO. BUT WE THOUGHT SOMEBODY SHOULD STAY HERE BECAUSE..." He looked hastily away from his father.

Gaster looked down at his rumpled and dirty clothes. When had he last done... anything?

He examined the house with sudden awareness. His things were packed in boxes stacked neatly against the wall and labeled, 'DAD'S I-DON'T-KNOW-WHAT'. The windows were washed, the floor meticulously vacuumed. The kitchen was organized to an obsessive degree. The fridge was nearly bare of food.

Upstairs, he opened the other bedroom door. The sofa cushions lay in a row, a blanket and pillow pulled over them. The boys' clothes and toys sat in cardboard boxes.

He returned to his room, feeling ill and ashamed. He should have left the boys with Asgore. It was one thing to ruin his own life... again... but why was he destroying theirs?

"DAD?" Papyrus appeared at the door. "I KNOW YOU'RE NOT HUNGRY EVER ANYMORE, BUT I MADE SOUP. AND YOU SHOULD EAT SOMETHING BECAUSE YOU DIDN'T EAT YESTERDAY. AND IF YOU DON'T WANT SOUP, SANS IS GETTING MORE FOOD BECAUSE HE SAYS THE STORE ACCEPTS A DIFFERENT KIND OF MONEY."

"Different kind of money?"

"YES, IT'S CALLED... CREDIT. I DON'T KNOW WHERE HE GOT IT BECAUSE HE HASN'T BEEN PAID YET. ANYWAY, HE'S GOING TO BUY FOOD WITH THAT UNTIL WE HAVE MORE GOLD MONEY, OR WE SELL SOME OF OUR STUFF AGAIN."

Gaster closed his eyes and bowed his head. "I'm fine. You eat the soup."

"BUT... YOU SAID THAT YESTERDAY."

He sighed. "Fine... I'll eat." He forced himself to shower and change his clothes, which elicited delighted crowing from Papyrus.

The boy hovered attentively while Gaster ate. "YOU SHOULD EAT THIS TOO. IT'S GOOD." He set a box of pocky on the table.

Gaster eyed the candy. How long ago had he found that? He'd meant to give it to someone who'd appreciate it. Draining the bowl, he rose. "I'm going out."

"YOU'RE LEAVING? FOR REAL? LEAVING THE HOUSE LEAVING?" Papyrus looked stunned. "OH... WAIT A MINUTE!" He charged out of the room.

Returning, he pushed something white into Gaster's hands. "I HAD TO WASH IT A BUNCH OF TIME TO GET ALL THE COFFEE STAINS OUT, BUT IT LOOKS GOOD NOW."

Gaster unfolded his lab coat, impressed to see it had been cleaned until it looked nearly new.

"AND... HERE." Papyrus fluffed out a massive red scarf. "IT'S THE ONE FROM YOUR MEMORY-DREAMS, ISN'T IT? I REMEMBER LITTLE-YOU WORE IT A LOT."

Gaster stroked the scarf. "I stopped wearing this years ago. It was getting too ragged."

"IT'S STILL REALLY NICE. AND COMFY. LIKE A BIG HUG."

Gaster handed it back. "Why don't you keep it?"

The boy's eyes widened. "REALLY? YOU'RE GIVING IT TO ME? AS MY OWN?"

The doctor shrugged offhandedly. "Someone should keep it from being eaten by mo-" He broke off as Papyrus squeezed him in a brutally affectionate embrace.

*****

"A robot with a soul, hmm?"

"Uh... yeah... a-about that." Alphys looked more panicked and evasive than usual.

"It's all about the publicity, Darling," Mettaton cooed from where he reclined on Alphys' couch. "Robot with a soul sounds much better than Ghost in the Machine."

"Shell," Alphys muttered.

"Whatever you call it, it worked out just as we hoped. I have the fans, and Alphys has the prestige. It's perfect." He rose and leaned his boxy head against Gaster's skull. "And don't you go ruining anything. I still need Alphys to finish my real body. Don't mess that up or I'll show off all this form's 'special features' on you. Ta-ta!" He wheeled out the apartment.

Gaster glared after him, then turned to Alphys. "How did you get mixed up in this?"

The scientist wrung her hands. "I just... er, Mettaton asked me a-about a body. I-I mean... I suggested. And then... well..."

"And now Asgore thinks you can make souls."

Alphys reddened. "I didn't think that would... I should have... a-are you g-g-going to..."

"Of course not." Gaster put a hand on her back in a manner he meant as consoling, but it came off closer to pretentious. "I know you'd keep my secrets if one of my projects was misunderstood. I'm hardly going to shame you in some misguided act of professional jealousy. You're far too valuable a colleague for that."

Alphys blushed crimson. "Y-you won't tell? E-even though..." She looked miserable. "Do you know... about what Asgore asked me to do?"

"No... we're not really... what's on his mind?"

"H-he... he asked me to look into... um... creating souls."

"That's not possible."

"Are you sure?"

"I researched that for the years. The closest I came..." Gaster rubbed his damaged hands. "It... it wasn't what he wanted."

"But... is there a possibility? Maybe something you didn't try?"

Gaster still stared at his hands. "I think I went deeper than..." He wrenched his eyes away. "But if you want to take a look, you're welcome to the research."

"T-that would be... I didn't have any idea where to start. I mean... it's a lot to think about. Where's... how much research did you do?"

"...You're probably best off just reading it in the lab. There's a lot. And... machinery. Blueprints..." Gaster clenched his fists and forced his mind out of the past. "Take the whole lab," he said hoarsely. "I'm not going to be using it for a while. Someone might as well do something with it."

"What about you? You're not..."

"I'm... getting back to work. But in Snowdin. It's..."

Alphys struggled to say something personal. "I'm sure if you just talked to Asgore..."

"I don't want to discuss it," Gaster snapped, flinching at the look on Alphys' face. He hadn't meant... "I should go."

"...We could watch a movie."

"...That would be nice."

*****

Guard duty was exactly as boring as Sans thought it would be. Trying to stay awake was the hardest part. On the plus side, no one knew whether or not he did his job. He could have stayed home, if Papyrus hadn't insisted he show up, even if Papyrus had to drag him there... and sometimes track him down if he'd convinced Grillby to let him sleep in the storage room. When Papyrus came along, they'd build forts or spar with Papyrus using snowballs instead of blasters, correctly assuming Gaster no longer cared what they did so long as they returned home alive.

Mostly he was alone since Papyrus felt compelled to look after the house and their father. Being alone left him a lot of time for thinking. Too much. Inevitably his mind drifted to that evening of the fight. The night everything had changed.

Papyrus had been too guilt-ridden to listen, but Sans had sat against the door, listening as the voices rose steadily in pitch and temper. He'd heard every accusation, every condemnation. From Asgore's demands of, 'How could you do that to your children?' to Gaster's rantings of, 'Why are you trying to destroy yourself?' He’d heard them each on the defensive, each convinced they were right. And he'd heard the last thing Gaster had said - the thing which had made Asgore rush out of the house. The thing Sans knew Gaster regretted the second the words left his fingertips; 'It's no wonder she left you.'

That was why they couldn't go back, no matter how many schemes Papyrus proposed to reconcile their fathers. Gaster had said the unforgivable. He couldn't apologize, couldn't face the king he'd insulted. So, he'd exiled himself. This move might have been a delight for the brothers, but for Gaster, it was the end.

Despite Gaster awakening and returning to the world, Sans had little faith in the doctor's reliability and had kept his job, much to Gaster's annoyance.

"Why the hell are you wasting yourself sitting in a snowbank?!" Gaster had demanded when he'd first noticed Sans' new profession. "Do you want to do that your whole life?"

Sans had been caught off-guard. He'd never really considered his future, or than his father might have opinions on it. "i dunno," he'd said, his tone forcefully lazy. "if i keep it up, they might give me a spot where i can sell hotdogs too and really rake in the gold."

Gaster had launched into a tirade about Sans wasting his talents and how no one but morons joined the guard. Sans' temper flared and he retaliated back about scientists who did nothing but stare at walls, and couldn't be counted upon to take care of a pet rock, let alone a child. They'd shouted back and forth, both glowing and rattling, until a sobbing Papyrus threw himself into the melee and begged them not to hate each other. They'd settled down, and nothing more had been said, even when Sans had deliberately left a rock by the front door, giving Gaster a pointed glare as he did.

To avoid thinking, he wandered. He'd pick a direction and walk until he ran out of cavern and energy. So far he'd found nothing but forest, snow, and rocks. Which direction to go today? West? It didn't matter. There probably wouldn't be anything different to find...

*****

"do you know what you should plant outside the house?" Sans leaned against his brother with a wicked grin.

"SANS! I AM TRYING TO COOK!" Papyrus yowled, his eyes screwed shut.

"you should plant a... spine tree."

"STOP WITH THE PUNS! YOU'VE BEEN PUNNING EVER SINCE YOU GOT HOME!"

"but they're so punny."

"THAT'S WHAT I SAID!" Papyrus dragged his brother out of the kitchen. "GO PICK UP YOUR MESS! OR PLAN A DEFENSIVE PUZZLE. OR ANYTHING BESIDES PUNS!"

Sans flopped onto the couch. "c'mon, bro. you know you find them humerus."

"ARG!"

Gaster, coming in from his workroom, rolled his eyes and continued upstairs.

"HI DAD!" Papyrus called. "DID YOU DO AMAZING SCIENCE STUFF TODAY?" There was no answer. He sighed, then moaned as he discovered his brother was standing beside him, his grin still far too gleeful.

"do y'know what you can say when you serve dinner?"

"PLEASE DON'T."

"you say, bone appetit."

"THAT DOES IT!"

They chased each other around the living room until Sans was winded and dinner was scorched.

At no time of day was Asgore's absence more evident than at mealtimes. Papyrus tried to fill the role of initiating conversation, despite little to no encouragement from his family "WHAT SHOULD I COOK TOMORROW?" He asked out of desperation when other topics had failed.

"the most popular meal for skeletons to eat," Sans said with a glint in his eyes.

Papyrus missed the setup. "WHAT'S THAT?"

"spareribs."

Papyrus moaned. "DON'T YOU HAVE ANYTHING BETTER TO DO THAN COME UP WITH JOKES?"

"i'm not comin' up with 'em. i heard 'em."

That got Papyrus' attention. "YOU TALKED TO SOMEONE? GOOD FOR YOU! WHAT'S THEIR NAME? WHAT ARE THEY LIKE?"

Sans shrugged. "i dunno."

"YOU DON'T KNOW?"

"nope. never saw 'em."

"YOU'RE NOT HALLUCINATING, ARE YOU? IS THE COLD GETTING TO YOU? I SAID YOU SHOULD WEAR THREE SCARVES SO YOU DON'T GET COLD."

Sans laughed. "nope. i just couldn't see her through the door."

"What door?"

The boys glanced at Gaster, surprised at the intensity in his voice.

Sans waved a vague hand in the direction of the Snowdin wilds. "at the end of the cavern. got a big delta rune on it. and there's an old lady on the other side. she really likes - hey! let go!"

Gaster had practically pounced on him. "Show. Me."

*****

Knock-knock.

"WHO'S THERE?"

"ya."

"YA WHO?"

"yahoo, i'm glad to see you too!"

Papyrus moaned.

"You're sure you heard jokes coming from behind THIS door?" Gaster demanded.

Sans gave the scientist a withering look. "it's the only door."

"THEN WHY AREN'T THEY ANSWERING?"

"sometimes it takes a while." Sans raised his fist to the old door.

Knock-knock.

"Who's there?"

All three jumped at the voice calling from the other side of the door.

Gaster shoved Sans out of the way and hammered on the door. "Toriel? Please. Is that you? Toriel?"

Silence answered him.

Sans glowered at his father. "you're real bad at jokes." He jumped as the door moved.

With a painful rasp, the door slid open.

Gaster rushed forward with a sob. Massive paws enveloped him as the scientist broke down and wept for things lost and hopes long laid aside.

Chapter Text

Gaster dreamed.

    He stood between the human and those he had to protect. He couldn't fail. No matter how they hurt him...

    The fists came relentlessly. He stumbled and the human threw him aside. He tried to cry a warning...

    A flash of fire...

    "Gorey, no!"

    ...He was on a battlefield swathed in dust and darkness. A roar split the air and Asgore - fifty feet high, eyes glowing red - charged into the fray. He mowed through the ranks of humans with mindless abandon, a ring of seven souls encircling his brow.

    "You've lost him. You failed."

    ...The god-king lay in a sea of golden flowers. The king and queen cradled the fallen.

    "There is no justice, only strength."

    "This is your fault. You said you'd find another way. You failed."

    ...Infants floating in tubes. His mutilated hands against the glass. Whispering he had no choice...

    "How could you? Your own children?"

    "Why couldn't you save him?"

    "You're weak and useless."

    ...The ground was the dust of his failures and he was sinking. The abyss opened into darkness...

 

"DAD, WAKE UP!"

Gaster jolted awake. The world was swathed in purple haze, punctuated by two orange-glowing orbs.

"Where..." he panted as the unfamiliar room and the anxious boy came into focus. "...Am I... oh."

A child's bedroom. The ruins. Toriel's home.

Days before he'd fallen into her embrace. In that moment, he'd felt nothing but the purity of joy recovered, hope restored.

And then the fears had set in.

What could he say - the display of his sins standing beside him? How could he feel joy, knowing love would turn to hate the moment he confessed? How would he cope with her disgust?

The boys felt none of his doubts, falling instantly in love with this provider of pies and puns. They'd wanted to stay longer and longer, with Toriel encouraging them to feel welcome anytime. It was Gaster who resisted, although this wasn't the first time he'd fallen asleep after one of her dinners.

Papyrus inched onto the bed. Pulling Gaster from nightmares wasn't the safest occupation, and Papyrus had been flung into enough walls to have learned caution. Approaching from Gaster's blindside and unexpected physical contact were the surest ways to trigger a panic attack. He was careful as he rested a hand on his father’s arm. "YOU KEEP HAVING THE SAME NIGHTMARE. YOU SHOULD TELL IT TO STOP."

Gaster studied the ceiling. "It won't..." He mumbled. "...not until I tell her..."

"YOU DON'T HAVE TO WORRY ABOUT THAT," Papyrus assured him. "SANS IS TAKING CARE OF IT."

"He's what?!" Gaster was suddenly very awake.

"NO, LIE DOWN! HE SAID YOU SHOULD STAY ASLEEP UNTIL... COME BACK!"

Gaster charged out the door.

Toriel and Sans sat by the fireplace, murmuring softly. They broke off at Gaster's sudden arrival. Toriel rose.

Ice flowed through his marrow. He cringed and waited for her condemnation.

There was no hesitation as she drew him into her arms. "My sweet little boy," she murmured. "I'm so sorry."

"...W-what?"

"I was so angry then. So focused on leaving. By the time I started thinking clearly, it was too late. I wanted to see you... but I knew if I'd opened the door... even once..."

His knees buckled and he went to the floor, her arms still around him.

A thousand memories hit him. Those long days after she'd vanished. Trying to be strong for Asgore's sake. Sobbing at night when none could see. Working longer and longer hours in a frantic effort not to feel. Watching his king fall apart and feeling the waves of impotency as he found no way to fix the brokenness. Searching for her. Begging the darkness for her return. And when days turned to years... burying the pain and filing her among the dead. It was better if she was dead. If she wasn't... it meant she didn't care enough to...

...but she wasn't. She'd been here all this time.

Had Asgore suspected? Had he stood outside the door, pleading with unyielding stone? Had she hardened herself against him... against them all this time?

...And all it had taken was Sans and that damned joke book.

"You could have told me," he whimpered. "I would have gone..."

"I couldn't have asked that. Your work was so important. I couldn't take you away from your life. Or ask you to choose between us." She hugged him tighter. "I just worried you'd be alone. But look at what you did. I always knew you were brilliant, but this is beyond anything I could imagine."

He went rigid. What did she think he'd done? Why wasn't she outraged?

She pulled away, wiping her tears. "Why don't I go make us some coco? And then we'll all talk." She departed.

Gaster turned on Sans. "What did you tell her?" He hissed.

Sans lounged by the fire, looking unconcerned. "that her disappearin' got you all panicky to save asgore. that you did somethin' real stupid and then changed your mind. that you were still tryin' to keep asgore from killin' humans, so we helped you look for answers."

"But... that's not..." It was the truth... technically. "But... the rest of it..."

Sans glared at him. "why do you keep doin' that?"

"What?"

"act like everybody gets to tell you how awful you were? do you want to be miserable?"

"THAT CAN'T BE TRUE," Papyrus protested as he joined them. "NOBODY WANTS TO BE SAD."

Gaster stared at the ground. "After everything I've done..."

"but you did it to us. we're the only ones who should be hatin' you. why do you keep lookin' for more people?"

"AND WE DON'T HATE YOU!" Papyrus looked to Sans for confirmation. "YOU DON'T, RIGHT?"

"cept when he's bein' stupid."

"DAD'S NOT STUPID!"

"shootin' lasers at you, and tankin' his life again was real stupid."

Gaster bowed his head. "I shouldn't have taken you away from New Home... I shouldn't have dragged you down with me..."

Two sets of hands settled on his leg and shoulders.

"you didn't. we coulda gone back if we wanted."

"YOU NEED US. WE'RE FAMILY. FAMILY HELPS EACH OTHER. EVEN IF YOU SOMETIMES SAY MEAN THINGS, OR DON'T ACT LIKE A PARENT, OR NEED US TO TAKE CARE OF YOU. THAT'S JUST YOU."

Gaster rubbed his eye sockets. "I never apologized for any of it, did I?"

"never thought you would."

"BUT WE KNOW YOU'RE SORRY." Papyrus' eyes began to glow. "BUT MAYBE... INSTEAD OF FINDING PEOPLE TO TELL YOU ABOUT YOUR BAD CHOICES, YOU COULD MAKE FEEL-GOOD CHOICES? INSTEAD OF FEELING SAD ABOUT WHAT YOU USED TO DO? WE THOUGHT MISS TORI COULD HELP. YOU WERE GREEN WHEN YOU SAW HER. YOU'RE NEVER GREEN. SHE MADE YOU SAD BEFORE. BUT NOW MAYBE SHE COULD MAKE YOU HAPPY."

"I have coco for everyone." Toriel's voice was a welcome hum. She came to him and offered him her hands.

He stared up at her. "I missed you... so much." It hurt to confess to even so small of pain.

She took him in her arms. "I'm sorry I hurt you. Can you ever forgive me?"

He struggled not to break into tears. "If you can do the same."

*****

"WE BROUGHT ALL OUR STUFF!" Papyrus announced as Toriel held open the ruins' door for the brothers. "DAD SAYS WE SHOULDN'T MOVE EVERYTHING CAUSE WE'LL STAY IN SNOWDIN SOMETIMES. BUT SANS BROUGHT HIS TROMBONE. AND I BROUGHT MY BATTLE SIMULATION FIGURES! SO YOU CAN SEE HOW GOOD I AM AT PUZZLES! MAYBE NEXT TIME YOU TAKE US INTO THE RUINS YOU'LL LET ME SOLVE THE PUZZLES INSTEAD OF TURNING THEM OFF."

"I can't have you getting hurt," Toriel laughed.

"he brought a cookbook too."

"YES! I WENT TO THE LIBRARBY. I'M GOING TO MAKE KIMCHI!"

"quiche."

"YES, THAT!"

"That's wonderful. I'd be happy to help you."

"OH, I DON'T NEED HELP! I'M A MASTER CHEF. BUT... UM... MAYBE YOU COULD WATCH AND... EXPLAIN ABOUT CUPS AND OUNCES... AND TEMPERATURES... AND INGREDIENTS."

"Absolutely. Why don't you two go get settled?"

She waited in the doorway, squinting into the forest. Were they alone? Or would he...?

Gaster limped hesitantly from the wood. She resisted the urge to run to him...

...Because there was a part of her which recoiled at what she'd learned. Betrayed and disappointed once more by someone she'd thought she could trust implicitly.

But at least he'd reevaluated. Resisted doing the worst. And she couldn't really believe he'd ever fall so low. Not her brilliant little boy.

She gave him a smile of welcome and was rewarded by the surge of relief in his eyes before he schooled his expression back to neutrality.

"Are you sure you want us to move in?" Gaster asked. "They're not quiet."

She nearly laughed. How could she explain how desperately she wanted a family again? "Of course. But are you sure this is what you really want?"

The scientist gazed back at the snow. "The boys insist it'll be good for me," he mumbled, then turned quickly, trying to mask whatever he was feeling. "I don't know where they get these ideas..."

Toriel hid her smile.

Their first dinner as a family was served by a very anxious skeleton. "MISS TORI TOLD ME TO BE REALLY CAREFUL AND READ ALL THE DIRECTIONS. I DID IT RIGHT... I THINK I DID IT RIGHT. DOES IT TASTE RIGHT?"

Even Gaster had to agree the meal was greatly improved from Papyrus' early attempts.

Papyrus soaked up the compliments with increasing pride. "I REALLY AM A MASTER CHEF! I'M GOING TO BE THE BEST EVER! I'LL BE SO GOOD A CHEF ALL THE OTHERS WILL QUIT AND WANT ME TO COOK FOR THEM."

"what about the royal guard?"

"OH, I'LL STILL BE A GUARD. I CAN BE BOTH."

Toriel patted his head. "Oh yes. We'll all be amazed by what the Great Papyrus can do."

"GREAT PAPYRUS? ME? WOW... YEAH! THAT'S WHO I'LL BE!"

Toriel tucked the boys into bed that night, reading them stories of slugs and snails until both were nodding. She kissed two upturned skulls.

"MISS TORI..." Papyrus sat up, sounding suddenly bashful. "WE WERE WONDERING... UM... ARE YOU OUR MOM NOW?"

"Your..."

"I MEAN..." Papyrus nervously squeezed his brother around the middle. "WE'VE HAD SOME DADS... BUT WE NEVER HAD A MOM... SO... DO YOU THINK MAYBE..."

Toriel put her arms around the pair. "Of course, my children. I'd be proud to be your mother."

*****

"There, all done! Gaster, don't they look adorable?"

The scientist looked into the living room, eyebrows arching at the sight.

The boys were dressed in lavender robes. Toriel had just put the finishing stitches into Papyrus', working patiently around the fidgeting boy. Sans was curled up by the fire, entirely burrowed inside his robes.

"WE LOOK LIKE MOM!" Papyrus crowed and leaped from the chair on which he’d been standing. He landed on the robe's hem, nearly tumbling onto his face.

Toriel caught him. "Gently, child. Take small steps."

Papyrus minced about the room. "AM I DOING IT RIGHT? IS THIS GOOD?"

"That's very good." Toriel turned to Gaster. "Are you settling in alright?"

The scientist tried not to wince. It had hurt - watching Toriel haul everything out of the empty bedroom and dump memories of times and persons past out the door. Her face had been set as she muttered under her breath that she should have done it years before. Gaster had been left with a bare room which still made him feel like an invader into someone else's life.

If Asgore's home was a mausoleum to better times, Toriel's was a denial that those days had ever happened. Gaster found dusty photos shoved in the backs of drawers, cabinets locked against remembering. Which was worse, he had to wonder. To live surrounded by the past, or pretend those memories and feelings had never existed?

"Just fine," he lied.

"Oh, good. Then you'll be able to join us for a picnic after all."

He failed to hide the wince that time.

*****

"...And then he said, 'I didn't break the plumbing. I was improving water pressure!'" Toriel laughed, encouraged by the pink glow spreading across Gaster's skull.

"DID YOU DO THAT REALLY? REALLY?" Papyrus demanded.

"Oh, he got into so much trouble trying out his experiments," Toriel continued cheerfully, passing out pie to the skeletons seated on the picnic blanket with her. "We'd hear an explosion in the middle of the night and have to remind him sleep was necessary, even for our little Smarty Bones."

Sans sat up very straight, his eyes abruptly very bright.

"You didn't hear that," Gaster rumbled, a hand over his eyes.

"oh, i heard it."

"Forget it."

"YOU SAID YOU'D SHOW US ALL THE WAY TO THE END OF THE RUINS. ARE WE GOING TO GO THERE NOW?"

"Yes. If everyone's done..."

Thus far on the walk, Toriel had managed to keep the boys walking sedately beside her. Now they took off, heedless of her anxious calls. "Children! Slow down! There are puzzles ahead I haven't explained yet!"

"They'll be fine," Gaster tried to assure her.

"You don't understand. The ruins aren't stable anymore. There are pitfalls everywhere."

Papyrus ran lightly across a narrow room, pausing on the other side to wait for the others.

"Wait!" Toriel rushed after him... and went straight through the floor.

Gaster and Sans rushed to the hole.

"Is everyone alright?" Toriel called from the darkness.

"you're the only one takin' a dirt nap."

"Oh, dear. This is what I was afraid of." It took a combination of hefting and magic to free her.

By then Papyrus had returned. "WHAT HAPPENED? WHERE DID YOU GO?"

Toriel dusted herself off. "I just needed proof I shouldn't eat so many pies." She smiled at Papyrus. "You must have been too light to jar the floor."

"pap doesn't always remember to fall."

Toriel blinked. "What?"

Papyrus toyed with his scarf. "OH... IT'S JUST THIS THING... IT HAPPENS SOMETIMES..."

"I don't understand."

"I told you their souls are unique." Gaster tried awkwardly to explain.

"You did mention your timeline experiment."

"Yes... There were some... unintended side-effects. Papyrus occasionally disregards... gravity."

"He can fly?"

"No... he just neglects to fall." Gaster shrugged. "It's not particularly useful. It doesn't happen with enough regularity to be of combat use." He glanced at the boys, deciding a full confession was sensible. "And Sans occasionally sees LOVE... again, not reliably."

"i'm gettin' better at it," Sans muttered.

"AND SANS CAN-"

"we have blasters too."

Toriel whirled on Gaster with furious demands of why he'd given weapons to children. She was still bristling and he was still sputtering when she glanced around with sudden alarm. "Where are they?"

Gaster gestured vaguely. "Probably exploring."

Toriel lunged to her paws. "Alone? They'll be hurt! We have to find them."

"Toriel." Gaster caught her arm. "They'll be..." He was dragged along as she charged down the hall in pursuit.

She slowed upon reaching a branch in the path. "Where would they have gone," she murmured. "Probably west. Toward the entrance... They always go there first." She took off again.

Several long corridors later, they ran into a closed door.

"They must have activated the defenses," Toriel cried. "The puzzle is on the other side!"

"Oh... this is one of mine." Gaster found himself smiling. "It still works?"

"Yes! Curse it. Where's that switch...?"

Gaster leaned against the door. "Listen."

From the other side, they could hear a soft voice reading; "...brave ones, foolish ones. both walk not the middle road."

"I'M NOT FOOLISH! I'M THE BRAVE ONE! AND THE FEARLESS ONE!"

"kay... so which buttons?"

"...UM... WHICH ONES ARE THE MIDDLE?"

"see the floor? you can figure this out..."

Gaster smiled with quiet pride.

Toriel was all anxiety. "Those poor children. They'll be hurt. Trapped. We have to..."

Gaster cut her off. "They're fully capable of looking after each other. They'll either solve the puzzle or blast the door. You don't need to worry." A sudden flash of enlightenment came to him. "But it's not them you're afraid for, is it?"

She froze. It took her a long moment of struggling to speak. "...How... how many has he killed?"

He shuddered. He'd seen the signs of her human visitors around the house but hadn't dared ask. "How many have there been?"

"Please... don't say they're all... he wouldn't have..."

"What choice did he have?" Gaster protested. "They killed. They-"

"No! Not... not all of them! They promised me... I told them they didn't have to... If they could just be kind."

He turned away. What was he supposed to say? That Asgore was wrong? That peace between humans and monsters wasn't a ridiculous joke? That the hope she and Asgore had claimed their child represented was something he'd believed in? Was he supposed to lie?

"Six," she whispered. "Does he have all of them?"

He didn't reply.

She collapsed to the ground sobbing.

Gaster slid down the wall beside her. "...Can I get you some water?"

She gave a hysterical laugh and put her arms around him. At long last she sat back and wiped her eyes. "Thank you for trying."

"Trying?"

"To find another way. To save my children. Even if that wasn't your main intent."

"Save humans?" The stunned and horrified words slipped out.

The door slid open.

"I DID IT! ANOTHER DECISIVE VICTORY FOR THE GREAT PAPYRUS!"

Toriel took Papyrus' hand. "Yes, very good. And you need to stay right with me from now on."

*****

"DID YOU FIND YOUR GOLD?"

"shh! not so loud."

Gaster leaned against the entryway wall, intrigued by the whispering coming from in the boys' bedroom.

"here... it's not much."

"IT'S JUST FOR YOU ANYWAY. I DON'T LIKE THAT FOOD."

"you could still get milk or somethin'. are we good?"

The bedroom door eased open and the boys tip-toed into the hall. They rounded the corner and nearly ran into Gaster.

"GAH!"

"jeeze!"

Gaster crossed his arms. "Sneaking out?"

"we were just..." Sans looked frantically over his shoulder.

"You can stop whispering. Toriel's still off watering the flowers." Gaster's moment of amusement passed as he looked at them with abrupt pity, and more than a little guilt.

Moving to the ruins had been a weight off his bones. There was no chance of accidentally running into Asgore here. He'd felt safe in this place which had been his first home in the underground. Protected. Happy. There were inconveniences, of course. The commute to the core was arduous. His phone often failed to work - leaving him stranded on the Snowdin side of the door, or shouting responses to Alphys over a sea of static. But he was willing to endure the trivial in favor of finally giving his soul time to heal. He'd finally started admitting to the pain in it and laying old demons to rest. He couldn't remember the last time he'd felt this contented.

Not so the brothers, though they tried valiantly to hide it. They adored Toriel, but even Gaster could see she was smothering them.

She saw them as children. In some ways they were. They wanted bedtime stories and kisses goodnight. They wanted to play games and make gingerbread monsters.

But she mothered them to a smothering degree. She worried constantly for their safety - forbidding them from exploring the ruins and declaring the exit door to be entirely out of bounds.

She dressed them in robes, instructing them to walk slowly. Sans didn't care what he wore, having lost interest in fashion within weeks of leaving the lab. He'd have gone back to hospital gowns without complaint, conditional upon having a hoodie for sleeping. But Papyrus took clothing seriously. His outfits were sometimes ridiculous, but Gaster had never said a word, and Asgore had concealed his smile and encouraged Papyrus' creativity. Toriel firmly tried to instill a sense of proper attire. Papyrus had been willing to adapt, right up until his beloved and ragged red scarf had been taken away.

Their diets were strictly watched. Papyrus didn't mind. But Sans ate less these days and often cast wistful glances toward the stairs. Toriel's cooking was good, but the freedom of choosing from a menu was lacking.

They were obviously bored. Limiting their world to the house was stifling. They had no interest in the toys she provided. Sans shot through her library, unimpressed with gastropods. Papyrus was halted from rearranging the furniture. Their usual games of sparring and target practice were banned.

Perhaps if they'd come straight from New Home, they would have accepted the life she set for them. But Snowdin had aged them. They'd had a long stretch of looking after themselves - of earning a living and taking care of a household. Maybe they'd wished for someone to take the responsibility of an unresponsive father from them, but now that someone had, they found they couldn't go back to innocence.

Gaster looked the pair over. They'd discarded robes in favor of warm-weather clothes. "Where were you planning to go?"

"NOT FAR," Papyrus insisted. "WE THOUGHT SANS SHOULD CHECK ON HIS SENTRY POST. SO HE DOESN'T LOSE HIS JOB. AND WE FOUND A BOX! WE WERE GOING TO MAKE A PRETEND POST FOR ME. SO I COULD PRACTICE. AND SANS WANTED TO EAT OUT. AND WE THOUGHT WE'D SEE IF THE HOUSE WAS STILL CLEAN... BUT WE CAN STAY HERE. IT'S FINE."

"That job means something to you?"

"YES! I WANT TO BE A GUARD MORE THAN ANYTHING!"

"Not you." Gaster stared pointedly at Sans.

The smaller boy scuffed his foot on the ground. "just... nice to have someone trust me to do somethin'."

"Stay." Gaster headed for his bedroom. Returning, he handed Papyrus a phone. "You'll have to call to return."

"WE CAN GO? WHAT ABOUT MOM?"

"I'll explain it to Toriel." Somehow. He held out a bag of gold to Sans.

"really?"

The doctor shrugged. "I'm aware it isn't always apparent, but I do take some responsibility for your care and actions... Oh... Here." He shoved the ragged scarf he'd retrieved from the trash at Papyrus and hurried away before the delightedly shrieking boy could hug him.

Alone, he paced nervously. He could do this. He'd spoken in front of dozens of specialists and defended his proposals to the underground elite. He just had to explain to Toriel that she was being overbearing. That losing so many children had perhaps made her overprotective. That if he said the boys could roam unattended, or wear what they wanted, or occasionally spoil their dinner, she had to accept that. He could do this. He was a well-respected, highly intelligent scientist. And he was their f... their fa... no, he still couldn't say that word, even if he'd stopped flinching at Papyrus' insistence upon using it.

He was pretending to work when Toriel returned. He listened as she called for them, tensing as she neared his room. "Gaster, where are the children?"

They're not children and I decided they should have more liberty. They're not children and I... They're not... Just say something, dammit.

He opened his mouth and lifted his hands, but all that came out was a pathetic, tense, rattle.

*****

It was late when the brothers returned.

Toriel was waiting for them with folded arms. "Your father and I had a long talk this evening," she said by way of welcome.

The brothers bumped their shoulders together and looked nervous.

"We've decided." She cast a sharp glance at Gaster, who looked away. "That if you want more freedom, it comes with responsibility."

"WHAT KIND OF RESPONSIBILITY?"

"I've made up a list of chores for you," Toriel began, holding up the list.

Before she could finish, Papyrus snatched it from her. "WE GET TO CLEAN?! AND HELP COOK?! AND WATER THE PLANTS?! AND ALL THESE OTHER THINGS?! REALLY? THANK-YOU-THANK-YOU-THANK-YOU!" He threw his arms around Toriel.

Toriel looked startled, but hugged him back.

Sans picked up the dropped list and eyed the tasks dismally. "yeah... no."

"It's either that or you help me with my work," Gaster replied dryly.

Sans jabbed a finger at him. "that. let's do that."

*****

"Good morning, Gaster."

The scientist mumbled blearily and fumbled for the coffee pot.

"Honestly... how long have you been an addict?" Toriel teased. She took the pot away from him and filled a cup.

"...When did I start designing the core?" Gaster tried not to snatch the mug from her.

Toriel shook her head. "I think you should consider more sleep instead of caffeine."

"You sound like Papyrus." Gaster rubbed his eyes, discovering his glasses were missing. "Speaking of which... isn't he usually cooking by now?"

"Sans must have gotten him to sleep in for once. I haven't heard a peep from them. Do you want some eggs?"

"Yes."

"Yes, what?"

"Yes, please... have you seen my phone?"

"It's probably in your pocket, Dear."

"No, I checked..." Gaster grimaced as his fingers brushed against the object in question. He pulled it out and meandered an erratic circle around the kitchen.

"I can cook much easier if you do that somewhere else."

"I only get reception in this one spot... You haven't heard my phone, have you? I sent Alphys new plans a week ago. She's getting harder to reach, but I thought she'd..." The phone rang. "That must be her." He put the phone to his skull without checking the ID. "I was starting won... your majesty?"

Toriel froze.

"The boys? They're fine... here? I'm not sure. I'll check."

Toriel had left and now returned with a shake of her head.

"They're not here... No, I don't know where they went. Why?... What?... You're breaking up... What did you say?"

The voice which shouted over the phone was loud enough for both Toriel and Gaster to hear. "THERE'S BEEN AN ACCIDENT!"

Chapter Text

Papyrus dreamed.

    He stood on the steps of New Home. Monsters gathered below. The king put his paws on Papyrus' shoulders. "Everyone admire and adore Papyrus, the greatest of the royal guards!"

    And the monsters cheered.

    And Undyne gave him her captain's badge and said he was worthier to lead than she.

    And he posed in the garden while Asgore trimmed a hedge to look exactly like his face.

    And Gaster said how proud he was of his son.

    And Sans... was there.

    And he was walking in snow, looking for good deeds to perform. The trees were thick. He wriggled and shoved. But now it was water. He struggled against the current. No, he was not in the water. The water was beneath him. Bubbling up, up, up. Closer to the surface. Reaching watery fingers to tear the ice. A terrible cracking...

    ...Darkness closing around him. Plummeting down, down, down to the abyss below...

 

Papyrus wrenched awake with a cry. He had a second’s panic that he still couldn't move, before registering that Sans had rolled sideways, pinning his legs to the bed.

Papyrus blinked away the distressed glow in his eyes and tried to make sense of the images. A good dream... and then a nightmare. Not just a nightmare... something that meant...

"SANS! SANS, WAKE UP!"

"mmhrr?"

"SANS, WE HAVE TO GO!"

"...s'sleep time..."

"NO! IT'S BAD TIME! WE HAVE TO HELP THEM!"

"...who...?"

"THEM!"

****

"if you'd tell me where we're going, i can get us there without all this walkin' in circles." Sans stumbled along, still half asleep. The air was warm enough to turn the snow heavy, making for slow-going.

"I DON'T KNOW WHERE! I'LL KNOW WHERE WHEN I SEE IT! BUT I HAVE TO SEE IT TO KNOW IT!" Papyrus plunged onward relentlessly. He slid to a halt as they reached another drop-off. "UGH! WHY ARE THERE SO MANY CLIFFS?!"

"i dunno... puzzles?"

"THIS IS SERIOUS! MONSTERS ARE IN TROUBLE, OR WILL BE IN TROUBLE. I KNOW IT! DIDN'T YOU SEE MY DREAM? YOU WERE IN IT."

"was i asleep in it?"

"YES."

"then how could i see it if i was asleep?"

"SANS!"

"okay, okay. um... what did you see?"

"WATER. AND SNOW. AND FALLING."

"so... let's check along the river."

They followed the path down the cliffs, Papyrus lifting his brother over the spikes so as not to waste time with puzzles.

"there's a guard post up ahead," Sans panted after a long stretch of trying to keep up with Papyrus' longer strides. "maybe the dogs saw something."

It was then that they heard the screams.

Papyrus broke into a heedless run. He shot past the guard post and onto the long stretch of ice which ran through the forest. He'd only taken a step when he felt the cracking beneath him. Momentum threw him forward as the ice pitched him toward the dark river far below.

Sans slammed him from behind. A wrenching of nothingness and numbers, then both were sprawled in a snowbank.

"you okay?"

Papyrus surged to his feet. "GET US BACK THERE!"

"what? why?"

"THERE WERE MONSTERS OUT ON THE ICE! THEY'RE GOING TO FALL! WE HAVE TO SAVE THEM!"

Sans hesitated, his expression indicating more anxiety for his brother's well-being than anyone else. But he gripped Papyrus' hand and drew them back through the darkness.

The ice shelf was shattered, broken into unstable shards with gaping holes sending debris and monsters tumbling toward the river. Monsters clung to branches, rocks shelves - anything offering a fraction of stability as the remaining ice threatened to pitch them into oblivion.

Papyrus surged forward, but now his brother was a hindering weight on his arm.

"you can't go out there!"

"BUT THEY'RE IN TROUBLE!"

"so help from here!" Sans held up their joined fist, his hand glowing blue.

"RIGHT..." Papyrus squeezed his eyes shut, willing the magic from his soul. His eyes snapped open, pulsing with the blue-orange light of their conjoined magic. He flung out his hand, casting a protective wall of bones, as Sans reached out to haul the nearest soul to safety.

*****

"My god," Gaster breathed as he surveyed the make-shift hospital which had sprung up inside Snowed Inn. "What happened?"

"There was an idea for an early-morning skating party out on the cliffs," the innkeeper explained in a rush. "Most of the dogs were out there, and their friends. Maybe it was too much weight, or the ice was too warm. The whole shelf cracked off. It's a miracle anyone survived."

"How many injured?"

"I don't know. They brought anyone who wasn't dust here. You're a doctor, right? There's lots of patients for you."

"I'm not that kind..." But she was gone, and Gaster was left listening to the howling of the dogs and a snowdrake youth sobbing, "Why won't she wake up? Why won't she wake up?"

He wandered in a sickened daze, assisting reluctantly with splinting several bones and applying his meager healing magic until he was spent. He skirted a room where he could hear the king taking stock of the wounded and missing, and stumbled outside.

Assuring himself the boys weren't in town, he crossed the bridge into the wilds, shouting their names. Where were they? Why hadn't he insisted they carry their phones... or put trackers on them back when he could have quietly done so?

He called Toriel, but received no answer. She was searching the ruins in hopes they hadn't left. But he'd assumed the worst and rushed to Snowdin. He'd been obliged to take the long route through the valley, and that left a lot of ground to backtrack.

It was nearly an hour before he heard an answering cry.

"here! we're here!" Sans stood on the other side of the river, waving his arms frantically.

"Stay there!" Gaster shouted. He found a narrow place and cast out a bridge of bones.

"he won't get up!" Sans sobbed and Gaster followed him toward the cliffs.

They found Papyrus curled in a shaking ball.

"Oh thank god," Gaster breathed, almost hugging them in his relief. "Are you hurt?... You're not hurt. What's wrong?"

Papyrus threw himself onto his father. "I COULDN'T DO IT!" He wailed. "I TRIED, BUT THEY'RE GONE! THEY'RE..." He buried his face in Gaster's coat.

"What? What are you talking about?"

"he saw the ice breakin'," Sans explained. "pap saved a lot of monsters. he kept 'em from bein' pulled down the river until more monsters showed up and got 'em out."

"BUT NOT ALL OF THEM," Papyrus whimpered. "I SAW THEM TURN TO DUST. HEROES ARE SUPPOSED TO SAVE EVERYBODY. I FAILED. AND I DIDN'T KNOW WHAT TO DO! SANS HAD TO TELL ME."

Sans shrugged. "you'd have gotten it on your own, bro. no big."

"BUT I'M SUPPOSED TO PROTECT EVERYONE." Papyrus looked to Gaster for confirmation. "THAT'S RIGHT, ISN'T IT? THAT'S WHY YOU MADE US?"

"...Something like that." What was he supposed to say? Why couldn't Asgore or Toriel be here? "No one expects you to succeed every time. You just have to learn from your mistakes and move on."

"IS THAT WHAT YOU DO?"

"...The important thing is monsters are safe because of you. And now you know how to handle a crisis."

"bet it'll really impress undyne," Sans supplied. "maybe enough to get you in the guard."

Papyrus shook his head. "NU-UH. I HAVE TO DO SOMETHING REALLY GOOD. SOMETHING SO THIS WON'T HAPPEN AGAIN." He sat up straighter. "MAYBE IF I PUT PUZZLES ON THE ICE - THE KIND FOR ONLY ONE MONSTER AT A TIME - THEN THERE WON'T BE TOO MANY MONSTERS THERE AT ONCE! AND WE CAN PUT BIG PILES OF SNOW WHERE MONSTERS SOMETIMES FALL SO THEY WON'T GET HURT! AND MAKE A SNOWMAN OF ME. SO EVERYONE WILL KNOW I DID IT!"

Gaster rolled his eyes. "If we're through, can we go back to the ruins? Toriel will torch me if we keep her worrying."

"YES!" Papyrus surged to his feet. "I HAVE TO TELL HER ABOUT MY IDEA!" He took off at full-speed, despondency forgotten.

Sans quirked an eye at Gaster. "'no one expects you to succeed every time?' you're just quotin' mom."

Gaster scowled. "It worked, didn't it?"

"sure. but you should take your own advice sometime."

*****

"DAD? ARE YOU BUSY?"

Gaster grimaced. "How many times..." He sighed. "What?"

Papyrus crept into the bedroom. He fiddled hesitantly with his scarf. "YOU HAVE TO TEACH ME BLUE MAGIC!" He blurted out.

Gaster blinked. "No."

"BUT SANS KNOWS!"

Gaster returned to his drawing. "Sans figured it out on his own."

"I CAN'T DO WHAT HE DID! IT WASN'T NICE. I ASKED HIM TO TEACH ME, BUT HE SAYS OUR MED FILES SAY WE SHOULDN'T DO IT TO EACH OTHER."

Gaster frowned. When had Sans read their med files? Damn that boy...

"I ASKED MOM. SHE SAID IF YOU THINK IT'S DANGEROUS, SHE SHOULDN'T TEACH ME. IT HAS TO BE YOU."

"I'm not teaching you blue magic."

"BUT I NEED IT!"

"Why?"

"TO HELP PEOPLE! AT THE RIVER? SANS PULLED SOME OF THEM OUT, BUT I COULDN'T. AND WHAT IF I HAVE TO SAVE SOMEONE STUCK IN A TREE? OR DOWN A HOLE? ASGORE-DAD SAID SKELETONS USED BLUE MAGIC FOR LOTS OF HELPING THINGS. THAT'S TRUE, RIGHT?"

Gaster closed his eyes, his mind unwillingly flitting into the past. But not toward the kindest uses of magic.

"That's enough reading, come on."

"But-"

"I said, that's enough!"

He shuddered. The sensation of losing control, of being in someone else's power. The forced intimacy of his soul clutched by someone who could do as they pleased to him.

It hadn't been like that in every family. He could recall children leaping into their parents' arms, souls pressed together in mutual closeness. Babies falling asleep in the protective embrace. Dancers performing leaps and catches impossible without magic and trust.

But... that hadn't been the use he'd put it to.

He could still feel the human's soul in his grasp. He'd still been holding it... they'd still been connected when...

His memories shifted to the lab days. When it had felt necessary to enforce with every word and action that the subjects were his. Distance had to be maintained. Magic had proved his power. He remembered their yelps of surprise and fright as he'd hauled them out of places they weren't supposed to be, kept them restrained on the exam table, forced them apart when they clung together. They'd cowered at his temper and a hand tinged in blue had often been warning enough to ensure their obedience. Magic was for him to control them. If he allowed himself to be in their power... Allowed himself to lose control...

He wrenched himself back to the present. "I..." How could he say the prospect terrified him? How could he admit...?

"Fine." He rose. "But there are rules."

"LL TEACH ME? REALLY-REALLY-REALLY?"

"Stop talking. Rule one, don't break your brother."

"NO! I WOULDN'T EVER HURT SANS."

"Two, with the exception of lessons, you will never use blue magic on me."

"BUT WHAT IF YOU'RE FALLING INTO A PIT OF LAVA AND TEETH?"

"...What?"

"I HAD THIS DREAM..."

"I don't want to know. Three, absolutely never use it without warning someone."

"I CAN DO THAT! IF I'M FIGHTING I'LL SAY... UM... PREPARE FOR MY BLUE ATTACK! OR... LEGENDARY BLUE ATTACK... OR..."

"Work on that later." Gaster headed for the door. "Let's get this over with."

"CAN YOU TEACH ME THE FLOATING HAND THING TOO?"

"Don't push it."

*****

"bro? what's all this?" Sans wandered into the living room with a yawn.

The room was a sea of paper. Papyrus lay in the midst of them, drawing furiously. "DON'T MOVE ANYTHING! THEY'RE IN A VERY SPECIFIC ORDER."

"for what?"

"I'LL SHOW YOU! YOU HAVE TO STAND RIGHT HERE. NO... HERE... UM... WHERE DID THE FIRST ONE GO...? THERE!" Papyrus dropped Sans at the start of a curving row which wrapped twice around the room. "FIRST! THE BONES COME FROM BOTH SIDES AND TOP AND BOTTOM. BUT EVENLY SPACED SO YOU HAVE TO JUMP BETWEEN THEM. SECOND! BLUE AND WHITE BONES - ONE THEN THE OTHER, SO YOU HAVE TO HOLD STILL, THEN JUMP, THEN... YOU GET IT. THIRD! TOP AND BOTTOM BONES FROM BOTH SIDES AGAIN - BUT TALLER! FOURTH..."

"are you fighting somebody?"

"WE'RE PREPARING!"

"for what?"

"FOR DANGER! COMPETITION! HUMANS!"

"what humans?"

"THE HUMAN! SOMEDAY ANOTHER HUMAN WILL COME. WE HAVE TO STOP IT."

"we do?"

"YES! WE HAVE TO CATCH IT AND MAKE IT OUR FRIEND SO EVERYONE WILL BE OKAY."

"fighting's not really my thing, bro. i'll just watch you, okay?"

"NO! I'M MAKING THIS FOR US TO DO TOGETHER!"

"you know my magic isn't human-fightin' caliber, right?"

"I'LL MAKE THE BONES. YOU'LL BRING THEM TO THE FIGHT PLACES."

"what?"

"UGH! YOU'RE GOING TO MAKE ME SKIP AHEAD. OKAY, COME OVER HERE." Papyrus dragged his brother past a dozen papers. "THAT'S A BUNCH OF STUFF WITH PLATFORMS AND BONES. THEY'RE REALLY GOOD. I'LL SHOW YOU LATER. ONE HAD OUR BLASTERS BUT I THINK BLASTERS ARE WAY TOO DANGEROUS FOR A HUMAN BATTLE. OKAY, HERE. THIS IS THE GOOD PART." He plopped Sans back down. "SO, THAT WAS FOR REGULAR HUMAN BATTLES. AND I CAN DO THAT STUFF MYSELF BECAUSE I AM VERY GREAT AT SPARRING. BUT WHAT IF WE MEET A HUMAN WITH REALLY HIGH BULLET STANDARDS? THEN WE HAVE TO PREPARE THE MOST ULTIMATE FIGHT EVER! THAT'S WHERE YOU COME IN."

"uh, that's the opposite of where i come in."

"NO, THIS IS PERFECT! HERE'S THE FIRST ONE. IT'S A BIG LONG LINE OF BONES THEY HAVE TO JUMP OVER. BUT, AS SOON AS THEY DO THAT, YOU BRING THEM OVER HERE! AND I HAVE THIS ALL SET UP WITH THE TOP AND BOTTOM BONES AGAIN. AND WHILE THEY'RE DOING THAT, I MAKE THIS ONE WITH THE BONES COMING IN BOTH DIRECTIONS... OH, NO... THAT ONE DOESN'T HAVE A WAY OUT. I'LL FIX IT LATER. THEN MORE TOP AND BOTTOM BONES. THEN..."

"are these different rooms?"

"THEY COULD BE. WE COULD GET THEM READY AHEAD OF TIME. THERE IS NO WAY ANYTHING COULD GO WRONG."

"a dog might take them."

"NO DOG WOULD DARE MESS WITH MY ATTACKS!"

Sans surveyed the room. "how long is this fight supposed to go on?"

"I GUESS UNTIL WE RUN OUT OF BONES. BUT A HUMAN WILL DEFINITELY GIVE UP BEFORE THEN. NO ONE COULD STAND AGAINST THE MIGHT OF THE GREAT PAPYRUS - AND YOU - FOR LONG WITHOUT WANTING TO BE FRIENDS."

"we could hit 'em with our blasters right away and not do all this other stuff."

"SANS! FIGHTS ARE SUPPOSED TO BE FAIR! DAD SAID HUMANS LIKE FIGHTS WITH TURNS SO WE CAN EACH SEE HOW GOOD THE OTHER IS."

"yeah... but wouldn't the other way be easier? maybe not do turns? just hit 'em with bones while they're thinkin’?"

"SANS! YOU ARE NOT BEING POLITE ABOUT THIS AT ALL!!!"

"you want me killin' em with kindness?" He grinned sweetly at Papyrus.

"SANS!"

"hey, bro, if this is what you want, we'll do it. what's this one?"

"OH, THAT'S ONE WITH LOTS OF BLASTERS DOING A SWIRLY THING. BUT I DON'T THINK IT'S FAIR..."

*****

Sans sniffed appreciatively as he trotted into the kitchen one evening. "that smells good."

Papyrus turned from the oven with a baking tray in hand. "OF COURSE! THE GREAT PAPYRUS IS A MASTER CHEF!"

Sans grinned and snatched a cookie off the tray.

"THOSE ARE NOT FOR YOU!" Papyrus turned quickly, scattering cookies across the ground. He scowled at them. "NOW I HAVE TO MAKE MORE."

"feed 'em to the dogs. they don't mind if they're dirty."

"THESE ARE NOT FOR DOGS. THEY'RE FOR..." Papyrus broke off.

Sans grinned wickedly. "what? are they for someone special?" He leaned against Papyrus. "special like your favorite brother?" He reached for another cookie.

"NO! THEY ARE NOT FOR YOU AND THEY ARE NOT FOR DOGS!" Another cookie hit the floor. "OKAY... THOSE ARE FOR DOGS."

"or me." Sans flopped onto the ground and stuffed a cookie in his mouth. "so, who're they really for?"

"...UM... YOU REMEMBER WHAT HAPPENED? ABOUT THE DOG GUARDS?"

Sans shuddered. "nobody's forgettin' that, bro."

Even with the passage of time, the accident in Snowdin still hung heavily on everyone's mind. The injured had mostly recovered, but there had been those who wavered between life and death - too damaged to heal, but not yet deceased. The king had ordered them taken away and said they'd receive aid. That was the last any had heard of the missing.

"YEAH... UM... I HEARD UNDYNE'S STILL UPSET. SO I THOUGHT I'D CHEER HER UP WITH COOKIES. AND PUZZLES. AND MAYBE FIGHTING."

"good plan."

"AS SOON AS I MAKE ANOTHER BATCH... A PERFECT BATCH! THE MOST PERFECT BATCH IN THE HISTORY OF BAKING!"

Five hours, many discarded cookies, and many crumpled puzzles later, Papyrus set out.

Sans awoke at the sound of Papyrus running down the stairs. He sauntered into the kitchen and gathered up the imperfect cookies. The dogs weren't picky, and he thought he knew some other monsters who could use a 'cheer up' treat.

*****

KNOCK-KNOCK-KNOCK!

A sleep-dazed Undyne stuck her head out the door. "W-wha...?"

"I BROUGHT YOU COOKIES TO MAKE YOU FEEL HAPPY!" Papyrus shouted.

The door slammed shut.

Papyrus cocked his head. "SHE'S PROBABLY GETTING MILK." He raised his voice. "I'LL BE HERE WHENEVER YOU'RE READY!"

*****

"I can't believe you stood out here all night," Undyne marveled.

It was morning and they were sitting on her front step, sharing cookies and tea.

"WELL, OF COURSE I DID! I COULDN'T GO AWAY WITHOUT GIVING YOU COOKIES. THAT WOULD BE RUDE."

"You could have left them on the doorstep."

"BUT WHAT IF A SNAIL TOOK THEM? THEN YOU'D THINK I WAS LYING AND I'D NEVER GET TO BE A GUARD."

Undyne reached for another cookie. "These are really good."

"OF COURSE. I'M A MASTER CHEF." Papyrus reconsidered. "WELL... I'M LEARNING TO BE."

"Oh yeah? You're into cooking? Me too."

"REALLY?" Papyrus' voice went up an octave. "WE HAVE SOMETHING IN COMMON?!"

"I guess." The captain rose abruptly. "Hey, c'mere."

They splashed through the swamp to a narrow place in the cavern. Undyne sat down, facing the southern wall. "Right here."

"HERE? WHAT'S HERE? WHY ARE WE... OHHHH!"

As the light from the swamp shifted, the wall lit up with a thousand vibrant reflections. A prism of rainbow light scattered across the watching monsters.

Papyrus was speechless - briefly. "I HAVE TO SHOW SANS! HE LOVES STAR STUFF. HE'LL LOVE THIS!" He rambled on about his brother.

Undyne let him talk. "You care a lot about your family. That's cool."

"DO YOU?"

Undyne shrugged. "They never really got me. I'm too intense for most monsters."

"I DON'T THINK YOU ARE."

"No? All anyone thinks I do is fight."

"NO. YOU LIKE LOTS OF THINGS BESIDES FIGHTING. LIKE COOKING, AND ART, AND PIANO, AND FIGHTING, AND..."

"How'd you know I play the piano?"

"I... OH... UM..."

"Was someone making fun of me?"

"...WHAT? NO!"

Undyne looked hostile. "Yeah, I like piano. Something wrong with that?!"

"NO, OF COURSE NOT." Papyrus looked anxious. "SANS PLAYS THE TROMBONE. SANTA SAID PLAYING MUSIC IS A GOOD THING TO DO WITH FRIENDS." He hung his head. "MAYBE THAT'S WHY I DON'T HAVE FRIENDS. I DON'T KNOW HOW TO PLAY ANYTHING." He brightened. "MAYBE YOU COULD SHOW ME ABOUT THE PIANO!"

She looked startled. "You want to learn to play?"

"YES! AND I CAN TEACH YOU TO MAKE COOKIES. IF YOU WANTED."

The guard hesitated. "I mean... I'm pretty busy, but... yeah. Yeah, let's do that!"

Papyrus bounded to his feet. "WE CAN START RIGHT AWAY!"

Undyne laughed. "Don't you need to sleep? You stayed up all night."

"I DID? I DID! SANS WILL BE WORRIED! I HAVE TO GO HOME!" He sprinted off, then rushed back. "I'LL BE BACK TOMORROW! BUT I HAVE TO GO NOW. BYE!"

"What time tomorrow?" Undyne called, but he was gone. The guard shook her head. "He'd better bring breakfast if he's going to be on the doorstep again..."

*****

"SANS-SANS-SANS! GUESS-WHAT-GUESS-WHAT-GUESS-WHAT?"

Sans awoke to Papyrus bouncing on his head. "mrh?"

"UNDYNE LIKED MY COOKIES! AND WE TALKED AND SHE'S GOING TO TEACH ME PIANO AND I'M GOING TO TEACH HER BAKING!"

"that's great." Sans yawned. "did she let you in the guard?"

Papyrus looked stricken. "I FORGOT TO ASK. I HAVE TO GO!"

Sans dropped back asleep to the sound of Papyrus rushing out of the house.

*****

"DAAAD!"

Gaster's pencil skipped across the blueprints, leaving a severing line across the core's new cooling system. The scientist let out a frustrated growl and tried to regain his focus.

"DAAAAAAAD!"

Something in the shriek made Gaster look up with a frown. Yes, Papyrus in distress was a normal state of affairs. It was a regular occurrence for him to arrive announcing he'd set the laundry on fire, or lost several fingers down a crevice, or couldn't get a spider out of his skull, but he did understand levels of emergency. Panic was only reserved for... "Oh, god." Gaster ran from the room.

He nearly collided with Papyrus, taking quick stock of the bundle in the boy's arms. Sans asleep was nothing strange... but coupled with the look of distress Papyrus was wearing... Gaster scooped the smaller boy from his brother and bore him to the table.

"HE WON'T WAKE UP! I TRIED EVERYTHING!" Papyrus insisted. "CAN YOU MAKE HIM BETTER?"

Gaster yanked up Sans' shirt, eying the boy's soul doubtfully. Nothing immediately wrong... or at least no worse than usual. "Let's see..."

After barely a half hour, he gave up on what tools he had on hand and slung Sans over his shoulder. "I'll take him to the lab."

"I'LL COME TOO!"

"No. Stay here. I'll need you to open the door. Tell Toriel where we've gone. We'll be back as soon as possible."

"OKAY..." Papyrus followed them down the stairs. "SANS WILL BE OKAY, RIGHT? LIKE LAST TIME? AND LAST TIME?"

"He always recovers," Gaster replied absently, not expanding on the assessment. He kept his face forcefully neutral until Papyrus' anxious goodbyes had been cut off by the slamming of the ruins' door. Then Gaster quickened his pace and allowed the worry to show.

All this time, everything he'd tried, and he still didn't know why Sans suddenly lost consciousness at random intervals. His soul was to blame - it had to be. It wasn't strong, but Gaster could find no way to strengthen it. Every time this happened he'd treat the symptoms and eventually Sans awoke on his own. But every time, Gaster worried this would be the last time.

Soon he was at the lab door, his hand on the touchpad.

Nothing happened.

"ALPHYS!" Gaster shouted and hammered his fist to no avail. He fished out his phone.

"H-hello?"

"Alphys, open the door!"

"Oh... You're here?"

"Yes, I'm here. I need the lab."

"But... i-it's not really a good time..."

"It's urgent. Let me in."

There was a long pause. "...Okay."

An even longer pause and the door cracked open.

Gaster shouldered past the scientist and into the elevator. "Why did you change the locks?"

Alphys trailed after him. "I... I... You see..."

Gaster pushed through the doors the moment they opened. "I need the stabilization tube. All the chemicals should be on hand unless you've been using them. Though I can't imagine what you'd be doing which would requi..."

Something massive and gelatinous blocked his way. Gaster looked up, and up, into the faceless maw of a panting dog. The creature towered over him, vibrating restlessly. A trail of slime dripped over the skeleton's face.

"That's... um..." Alphys wrung her hands and stuttered wordlessly.

"Huh." Gaster found his mind unable to process what he was seeing. He should be terrified... or angry... or... anything. He shoved past the creature and headed deeper into the lab. "I can't wait to hear you explain this one."

*****

"Momma? Momma? Are you here?"

Papyrus pricked up his senses at the sound of crying. Distress must be soothed! The weak protected! The injured healed! He oriented toward the cries and raised his voice in answer. "HELLO! HELLO, WHERE ARE YOU? I'LL HELP YOU!"

"I'm trying to find my mother," the voice whimpered. "I don't know if she's still alive. I've looked everywhere."

"I CAN HELP YOU! I CAN FIND HER!" Papyrus came around a boulder and threw himself on the ground beside the weeping monster. "DON'T CRY, LITTLE FLOWER. WE'LL FIND HER TOGETHER."

The flower lifted his face imploringly. "I've looked everywhere. Dad said she'd gone away. He said she'll come back... but I don't know if that's true."

Papyrus patted the flower's top petals. "WE'LL LOOK TOGETHER. WE'LL LOOK IN EVERY FLOWER PATCH AND TALK TO EVERY FLOWER UNTIL WE FIND YOUR FAMILY. NOBODY SHOULD LOSE THEIR FAMILIES EVER."

"Okay... but she's not a..."

"WE CAN ASK MY MOM!" Papyrus leaped up eagerly. "SHE KNOWS EVERYBODY IN THE RUINS! SHE'LL KNOW YOUR MOM. AND UNTIL WE FIND HER, YOU CAN STAY WITH US."

"Really?" The flower looked doubtful. "Just like that?"

"SURE! WE CAN PLANT YOU BY THE BIG TREE."

"What tree?"

"THE ONE BY MOM'S HOUSE." He waved a hand. "IT'S BACK THAT WAY."

The flower stared at him. "But... there's only one house that way."

"YEAH! THAT'S MOM'S HOUSE! THAT'S WHERE WE LIVE."

"Who... who is your mom?"

"OH! HER NAME'S TORIEL." Papyrus rattled on, not seeing the flower's expression turn stunned. "SHE'S SUPER NICE! AS SOON AS SHE FOUND OUT MY BROTHER AND I DIDN'T HAVE A MOM, SHE SAID SHE'D BE OURS."

"Just like that..."

"YEAH! SHE HAD A BED FOR US AND EVERYTHING."

"That was my..."

"AND SHE BAKES US PIES AND READS US STORIES AND TEACHES US ALL SORTS OF THINGS."

"...She replaced me..."

"WE GO ON PICNICS, AND SNAIL HUNTING, AND WATER THE FLOWERS... HEY! MAYBE THAT'S WHERE YOUR MOM IS!" The boy abruptly noticed the flower looked even more distressed. "OH, DON'T BE SAD. WE'LL FIND YOUR FAMILY."

"...I already did..." Something was changing in the flower's face. Pain was still there... but now... "I thought she'd miss me. I thought he'd miss me. I saw the photographs, but I didn't believe it. I didn't believe he'd just forget and find a new family."

Papyrus stepped back. The tiny flower was starting to swell larger.

"And when I realized I couldn't love him, I thought I'd find her, and then everything would be fine. She wouldn't replace me. She wouldn't forget me. She'd show me how to love again."

Papyrus stared up at the face looming over him. "UH... THAT COULD STILL HAPPEN. WHEN WE FIND HER."

"Oh, I'll find her. Alone. And she'll be alone. No more fake family. No more replacements. No more getting in my way..."

*****

"How much DT did you use?" Gaster asked as he studied Alphys' notes. "That stuff is unpro-" He broke off with a gasp of pain. He pitched over the table, clutching his chest.

"Gaster!" Alphys grabbed him. "What is it?"

Gaster clawed at his ribs, fighting through the sudden rush of pain and panic. "...Something's wrong."

"M-maybe you'd better sit..."

"Not with me!" Gaster took off down the hall. He careened around the corner and into the room where he'd so recently left Sans adrift in suspension.

Sans was still asleep, but no longer peacefully. He writhed and clawed at the glass, his shut eyes the only sign of his continued slumber. He threw back his head.

Even through glass and fluid, Gaster could hear him screaming.

Chapter Text

Sans dreamed.

            He dreamed he was at Home. Toriel and Asgore were together - hugging and crying.

            "I'm so sorry. It was all my fault."

            "There were mistakes on both sides. Now we know."

            "We'll never be parted. And it's all thanks to..."

            He dreamed Papyrus was forcing a shirt over his head with something blurry and yellow drawn upon it.

            "WE'RE STARTING A FAN CLUB. YOU'RE THE SECOND MEMBER! WELL, THIRD IF YOU COUNT..."

            He dreamed he was at the librarby. "it's a good book so far. i haven't finished..."

            "She dies in the end."

            "don't tell me! maybe this one instead..."

            "They find the dog."

            "mm... this one?"

            "They all live happily ever after." Sigh. "Not like real life..."

            He dreamed he awoke to the lab rumbling and he cried out in terror as the ceiling smashed down on them...

            He dreamed he clawed at the glass of the tube while Gaster was pulled apart bone by bone before his eyes...

            He dreamed he stood among a crowd of gelatinous and melted monsters and shouted, "run! we'll hold it off..."

            He dreamed he fled deeper and deeper into the ruins, calling for Toriel, calling for Papyrus, and finding only dust piles...

            He dreamed he stood among the guards, with Undyne at their head. Her head was flung back as she issued a battle cry. "No matter what, no matter how many of us fall, we will protect the king..."

            He dreamed his picked up Asgore's crown from amidst a pile of dust, then something closed around his neck...

            He dreamed Gaster and Alphys held him pinned to the ground, shouting at him to calm down while he slammed his head against the floor and screamed, "it won't stop! it never stops!"

            He dreamed the world opened beneath his feet and he fell into the abyss...

            He dreamed he saw Papyrus... Papyrus... Dying...

                                    And dying...

                                                And dying...

                                                            And dying...

            And he was powerless.

            He dreamed he hung in suspension, listening to his father's screams, and didn't lift his head...

            He dreamed his brother held him in his arms, and swore they'd never be parted, and then those arms went away...

            He dreamed he witnessed death. And more death. And more death. And he could do nothing...

            And he dreamed nothing mattered.

*****

"Sans?" Rap-rap. "You ought to be awake by now."

"I-is he... maybe there's something else wrong..."

"His vitals are steady. I think he's just..."

WHUMP!

Sans flinched as something slammed the glass beside his head.

"That's what I thought. You're coming out now."

The fluid drained around him. Sans sank to the grating, making no attempt to regain use of his limbs.

Gaster threw a towel at him. "Get cleaned up so we can go. Your brother's been calling twelve times an hour."

Sans didn't move.

"You're not a child. I am not dressing you." But in the end he did when no threats or orders would make the skeleton move.

Alphys hovered nearby. "A-Are you sure it's safe for him to come out? We can p-put him back in..."

"He's been unconscious for days. He's usually moving long before now." Gaster concentrated on the task before him. "If the fluid's not working, I'll have to come up with something else."

Sans was set on him feet. He slumped back to the ground. After a few prods, he stood unsteadily and stumbled along a few steps each time Gaster poked him in the back.

He remembered this. But not really. This was the first time... and the dozenth time. There had been times before... and times after... and all of them were the first time.

He realized he was on the ground and Gaster was telling him to stand up, but he couldn't find the energy.

"I am not carrying you. If you can't walk on your own, I'm leaving you in Hotland."

Sans didn't move.

Gaster made good on his threats.

Sans drifted between waking and sleeping and waited for the end.

"Here he is."

They'd come back for him. They always did. They always would.

"COME ON, SANS! YOU'VE SLEPT FOR DAYS. YOU DON'T NEED TO SLEEP FOR MORE."

Then he was in his brother's arms.

"FINE. YOU REST AND WE'LL GO HOME. BUT TOMORROW YOU'RE GOING TO BE ALIVE AGAIN."

He rested his head against the comfort that was no longer comfort. Because he'd lose this. Comfort and security and... everything. It wasn't real. It couldn't be real. Not with the feeling it could be lost at any second.

But he fell asleep anyway.

*****

For days they tried to bring him back to living. Scolding, teasing, jokes, threats, brute force. Nothing changed him. He drifted, waiting for the end, waiting for the inevitable.

But there were words to bring him back. One whisper he couldn't deny.

"DON'T LEAVE ME. PLEASE COME BACK TO ME."

Sans looked up at his brother.

They were sitting in the flower patch. Daylight filtered down on them from beyond the barrier. Papyrus was relating everything he knew about the sky, though Sans hadn't heard a word of it.

"pap..." he said weakly, his first words since their return. "do you still see?"

"UM... SOMETIMES. NOT AS MUCH. I DON'T REALLY TRY TO MAKE IT HAPPEN."

Sans took his hand. "try. what do you see?"

Papyrus closed his eyes and made a show of concentrating. "I SEE US PLAYING A GAME. YOUR FAVORITE GAME. AND THEN I COOK AND YOU EAT EVERY BITE. AND THEN YOU CLEAN OUR..."

"bro. for real."

Papyrus sighed and leaned his forehead against Sans'. A stretch of silence, then he spoke slowly. "I SEE YOU AT YOUR GUARD POST... YOU SHOULD REALLY GO CHECK THAT. HOW LONG SINCE YOU MADE SURE EVERYTHING WAS OKAY THERE? YOU'RE SUPPOSED TO DO A JOB EVERYDAY. AND IF YOU GET FIRED THEN..."

"pap."

"OKAY. UM... I'M WALKING UP TO YOU... AND I'M SETTING DOWN... A LAMP."

"a lamp?"

"YES... DEFINITELY A LAMP."

"why would you bring a lamp to the sentry post?"

"I DON'T KNOW. BUT THAT'S WHAT I SEE."

Sans shrugged. "kay... guess that was illuminating."

It took Papyrus a second. Then he squealed and crushed his brother in a hug. "YOU'RE BACK!"

*****

"DAD? UM... ARE YOU BUSY?"

Gaster rolled his eyes to the ceiling. "Less idiotic words have never..." He sighed and turned to the boy hovering in the doorway. "What?"

Papyrus toyed with his scarf uneasily, then blurted out his thoughts. "WE NEED TO MOVE BACK TO SNOWDIN."

Gaster frowned. "Is this place not good enough for you?"

"NO-NO-NO! I LOVE MOM, AND THE RUINS, AND YOU BEING HAPPY, AND THE SPIDERS, AND THE FLOWERS AND..."

"Get to the point."

"I'VE BEEN SEEING... AND I THINK... WE HAVE TO GO BACK. SANS... UM... HE SMILES MORE THERE. MAYBE... MAYBE IT'S HAVING A JOB... OR THAT AWFUL RESTAURANT... OR... I DON'T KNOW... BUT IT'S BETTER THERE."

Gaster put his head in his hands and stared moodily at the blueprints.

"NEVER MIND!" Papyrus hastily switched gears. "IT'S FINE HERE. I'LL... UM... I MIGHT HAVE SEEN IT WRONG. I'LL MAKE SANS BETTER HERE. MOM'S THE BEST SO SHE'LL HELP..."

His father rose. "Get packed. I'll explain to Toriel."

*****

"You could come with us."

Toriel hugged him - the one embrace he ever desired. "You know I can't." She held him close. "You have to do what's best for your children, and I have to do the same."

He felt his eye sockets grow damp. He pulled away before he could say something embarrassing.

Toriel put a hand on his shoulder. "You can visit anytime. We'll make plans."

"Weekly," Gaster promised. "Don't lock us out."

"I'll listen for the jokes."

*****

"I THINK HAVING A JOB HELPS."

"Really? He never seems to care about it."

Papyrus stretched out his legs and studied the river. He and Undyne were sharing the results of the afternoon's cooking while discussing Papyrus' favorite subject. "I KNOW HE ACTS LIKE THAT. AND SLEEPS ALL THE TIME. AND SOMETIMES DOESN'T WANT TO GO. AND JUST SITS THERE DRINKING KETCHUP... BUT I THINK IT'S GOOD FOR HIM. HAVING SOMEWHERE TO GO EVERYDAY. SO, I WAS THINKING... IF HE HAD TWO JOBS, HE'D HAVE TWICE AS MANY PLACES TO GO."

"Two jobs?"

"SURE! DON'T YOU HAVE ANOTHER GUARD POST HE COULD HAVE?"

"How would he watch two at the same time?"

"OH, SANS CAN BE REALLY FAST WHEN HE WANTS TO BE. YOU SHOULD SEE HIM WHEN WE SPAR. AND HE CAN GET PLACES REALLY QUICK. WHEN HE'S AWAKE. DON'T YOU HAVE ANOTHER POST OPEN?"

Undyne shook her head. "Not really. Hotland and New Home are covered... Snowdin's fine now that the dogs are finally figuring out how to patrol without stopping to chew every stick they find... and I've got Waterfall handled."

"BY YOURSELF? YOU'RE REALLY GOOD AT YOUR JOB."

The captain grabbed Papyrus around the neck and noogied his head. "That's what it takes to be head of the guards!"

"AHH! NOT THE SKULL!" They tussled briefly, then flopped onto the bank. "ARE YOU SUUUURE THERE'S NOWHERE IN WATERFALL YOU DON'T LIKE TO GO?"

Undyne picked up her spear and sharpened it absently against a rock. "No... actually, there is an old guard post nobody's watched in years. I don't think it's really needed, cause it's not like anyone could get past me. But it's right by the Hotland border. It's too dry out there for me."

"SANS COULD DO THAT! CAN HE DO THAT? THAT COULD BE HIS POST TOO!" Papyrus bounced eagerly.

"I guess... wouldn't hurt. If you really think he can be in two places at once."

"HE WILL! I'LL HELP! I'LL MAKE SURE HE'S THE BEST GUARD HE CAN POSSIBLY BE. WHICH IS STILL PRETTY LAZY AND ALL... BUT HE CAN DO IT. THANK YOU!" Papyrus crushed her in a swift hug, then took off running. "I CAN'T WAIT TO TELL HIM!"

Undyne watched with a shake of her head. "And he didn't ask if there was a post for him..."

*****

"Bleh! Hey! What's the big idea?"

"OH, SORRY LITTLE FLOWER. YOU LOOKED DROOPY. I THOUGHT YOU NEEDED WATER."

"Ask first."

"I'M SORRY. I WOULD HAVE IF I KNEW YOU COULD TALK. ARE YOU AN ECHO FLOWER?"

"Do I look like an echo flower?"

"NO... YOU LOOK LIKE ASGORE-DAD'S FLOWERS... I HOPE HE'S OKAY. I HAVEN'T SEEN HIM IN A WHILE."

"Well, he hasn't suicided in a few resets."

"THAT'S... UM... THAT'S GOOD... ARE YOU OKAY? YOU SEEM DEPRESSED."

"Me? Depressed? Why would I be depressed? Lose everything I care about, come back to find my parents don't need me, can't feel a damned bit of empathy... and no matter how many monsters I slaughter I still can't get out of this hellhole."

"YOU KILL MONSTERS?"

"Try to keep up. I've done absolutely everything possible to get out of here. I know every secret... every option... every possible reaction by every possible monster... nothing changes. No matter how many times I reset, no matter who I kill... nothing makes a difference."

"OH... THAT'S TOO BAD... UM... WHAT DO YOU WANT? WHAT WOULD MAKE YOU HAPPY? SO YOU'D STOP DOING VIOLENCES?"

"What do I want? I want what everyone wants! To get out of this nightmare! To stop living in a damned loop and be free!"

"SO... YOU SHOULD DO THAT! STOP LIVING IN A... A CIRCLE? AND LIVE SOMEWHERE ELSE. THAT'S WHAT WE DID. SANS WAS SAD WHERE WE LIVED BEFORE. SO WE MOVED SOMEWHERE ELSE TO MAKE HIM HAPPY."

"How's that working out?"

"IT'S... I THINK HE'S GETTING BETTER... I HOPE HE'S GETTING BETTER. MAYBE TRYING SOMETHING DIFFERENT WOULD MAKE THINGS BETTER FOR YOU."

"Like what?"

"LIKE NOT KILLING PEOPLE. DEFINITELY THAT. YOU SHOULD NOT DO THAT ANYMORE. AND DON'T LIVE IN CIRCLES. LIVE IN THE OPPOSITE OF THAT. STRAIGHT LINES. YEAH!"

"Just like that? Stop resetting? Stop killing everyone when I get bored? Just let time roll along and see what happens?"

"YEAH! YOU'LL BE MUCH HAPPIER! YOU CAN DO NICE THINGS."

"I doubt I can."

"SURE YOU CAN! I'LL HELP! I KNOW YOU CAN CHANGE! I, THE GREAT PAPYRUS, EMBRACE YOU WITH OPEN ARMS!"

Crack.

"Huh... well... it's an idea... maybe I'll try it next time I feel like resetting. But for now... ♪Saaansy... Guess what I did?♪"

 

*****

"ONE, TWO, THREE, PUSH!"

"are you sure you want this bed?"

"YES! WE NEED A BED AND WE WILL NEVER FIND A MORE AMAZING ONE!"

The brothers were exploring the dump and had come upon what Papyrus considered the find of a lifetime. A great deal of bailing had finally gotten the object unearthed from the trash mound and floating unsteadily in the dirty water.

"IT'LL BE EASY! WE JUST HAVE TO DRAG IT THROUGH THE DUMP, UP THE STAIRS, ONTO THE BOAT, THROUGH SNOWDIN, AND INTO THE HOUSE! WE CAN DO THAT. YOU PUSH, I'LL PULL. OKAY?"

"lever it to me."

"SAAANS! READY? GO!"

Papyrus screwed his eyes shut as he threw his whole weight into hauling his find along. He could do this! He was stronger than anyone! But this was tiring work. It felt like the bed was getting heavier. He opened his eyes to see how Sans was doing, and wailed at the sight. "SANS! YOU CAN'T SLEEP ON IT UNTIL WE GET HOME! IT'S DIRTY AND GROSS."

"i thought it was a waterbed."

"SAAANS!"

"Hey guys. What are you doing down here?"

Papyrus turned with a grin. "UNDYNE! HI! LOOK WHAT WE FOUND."

"Is that a car?"

"IT'S A RACE CAR BED. ISN'T IT AMAZING?"

Undyne stared at it for a second, then her face broke into a grin. "It's smashing!"

"you wanna help us?" Sans asked with a yawn as he crawled off the bed.

"Sure!" Undyne grabbed the side and yanked. With their combined strength, Papyrus and Undyne dragged the bed with ease. Sans ambled ahead, pushing trash piles out of the way.

"Hey, this reminds me. After this, can you guys help me move a piano?"

"OF COURSE! THE GREAT PAPYRUS IS VERY HELPFUL! DID YOU FIND A NEW PIANO?"

"No... Asgore said we need more puzzles. Y'know. Defense crap... As if I need puzzles to slow a human down..." She scoffed. "Anyway, I had this idea with a piano, and I have a spare."

"WE'LL HELP! WELL, I'LL HELP. SANS WILL BE LAZY AND MAKE BAD JOKES."

"you know me so well, bro."

They reached the stairs.

Undyne hesitated. "Hey... did you guys see anyone else down here?"

"no. were you lookin' for somebody?"

"Kinda." Undyne looked suddenly awkward. "I was patrolling down here the other day, and I met this monster... I sorta... thought maybe she'd be here again..."

"OOH! IS SHE A BAD GUY? DO WE HAVE TO CAPTURE HER?"

"No, nothing like that... she was just... I dunno... she started talking about all this human stuff. She knew a ton of things and was really passionate. That's... kind of cool, you know?"

"OH, YES! I UNDERSTAND COMPLETELY! PASSION IS VERY COOL WE MUST MEET THIS COOL MONSTER! WHAT'S HER NAME?"

"I... didn't ask. We were so busy talking about other stuff." Undyne looked slightly red. "She was really into human history... except she called it... anime? It sounded cool. And science. Definitely into science."

"that's alphys."

Undyne jumped. "You know her? How?"

"SHE WORKS WITH OUR DAD." Papyrus fished out his phone. "DO YOU WANT HER NUMBER?"

*****

"Seems like it's losing itself."

Gaster and Alphys stood on either side of the exam table, studying the creature before them.

On the table, an amalgamate burbled and dripped over the edges. "Sn...o...wy..." It moaned, its face dissolving with a pitiful gasp as it finished its frail lament.

"Is this the worst one?" Gaster asked.

"T-t-that's still around," Alphys stammered miserably. "A c-couple got like this and just... melted. I s-see them sometimes. They slide around in the d-drains. I t-t-think the first one m-merged with the s-second one."

Gaster sighed. "That may be the eventual fate of all of them if we can't separate them."

"W-we? You s-still want to help?"

"Of course, I do." Gaster poked his pen into the slushy mess of the amalgamate's arm. "This is fascinating..."

"And awful!" Alphys broke down sobbing. "I never meant for this to happen! Everyone was counting on me and thought I could fix everything and I failed! Everyone's going to find out and they'll hate me." She shook. "Oh my god. What are they going to do to me?"

"Alphys, no one's going to find out. You have me helping, and I'm brilliant. We'll find a way to fix this. You're worrying too much. Let's just sit down and take a break. Here, I found something you'll like." Gaster extracted a slightly damaged package of matcha candy.

"Oh... t-thank you. B-but actually... I have a lot of that."

Alphys had led the way to a small room she'd outfitted with television, couch, and a shelf brimming with movies and candy. She picked up a box of pocky. "Do you want some?"

Gaster took the box from her and studied it with a frown. "No water damage?"

"It... ah... I didn't get it at the dump. A... um... this friend..."

Gaster went to the shelf, his frown deepening at the sight of the DVDs. "These are complete sets... We never got this lucky."

"Well... I-I met someone who g-gave me the movies... And candy. And... um..."

Gaster followed Alphys' blushing gaze higher up the shelf to where a handmade doll which bore a remarkable resemblance to him sat in a place of honor.

A memory teased at his mind. Something he'd tried to repress. Someone with a forced smile offering him cigarettes and coffee before they'd changed tactics and begun brutalizing him. Someone he'd thought was gone for good. Someone he'd never have dared give Alphys use the lab if he'd thought for a second...

"Alphys..." he said very slowly, ice flowing through his marrow. "Have you..."

*****

Asgore trudged the length of the room, trying not to look at the coffins as he passed. He reached the door at the end of the hall and raised a palm toward the touchpad...

...and drew back.

There it was again. The feeling of being watched. The sensation of déjà vu. The certainty, without know why, that he should not enter that room. He turned away.

Did he hear a frustrated sigh? A rustling of leaves against stone? But, no. He was alone.

Except for them.

Six bodies. Six souls. Six children. Sealed away in their stone boxes. Bodies decayed. Nothing more than skeletons now.

His hand rested on the coffin marked with the yellow soul. They'd hurt him - that child with their sad little pellet gun. That flash of pain, and in his mind he'd been back on the battlefield. He'd felt the rush... the desire for blood...

And then, when he'd fished their body out of the dump... they'd been so small. That frail creature. How had he thought it was his enemy?

But they were dead. Same as all the others.

That first one, found just outside the ruins and brought to him for the slaughter. That dazed and delirious child, mumbling about a lost ribbon. His resolve had been fresh then. Everyone was counting on him, watching him...

And after... it had felt like Asriel all over.

Next had been the brazen youth in the snow. The little warrior who'd attacked relentlessly despite the odds. It had almost been funny... admirable... if it hadn't ended so horribly.

And the agile child with dust on their clothes. That had been an easy kill to justify, to fortify his resolve. He had to do this. He wouldn't waver...

But then another child in Waterfall. This one squinting through damaged glasses. "Mother?" They'd asked so innocently, advancing toward him with outstretched arms.

He'd been ill after... feeling the weight of what he'd done... the single word confirming...

He'd wanted to stop. Please no more, he'd begged the darkness. Would the prophesied angel return and save him from his sins?

But, no. What came was another child. One who begged for mercy, who threw down their weapons. But he... he had a family again. A family counting on him. It was justified.

Except it wasn't. Not in Sans' horrified eyes. Not in Papyrus' assurance that he'd make sure Asgore never had to kill another human. Even Gaster... even he'd wondered if enough was enough.

So, he'd hidden his sixth kill, put on a smiling face, told no one what he'd done.

But Sans... how had he known? How had he gotten to the souls? The pained bewilderment in his eyes as he'd looked between them and Asgore. Why? He'd asked. Why destroy them? Why destroy himself? Did he really have no choice? Did he enjoy killing them?

And Asgore had known that his last grasp at happiness was just a fantasy.

He still saw Gaster at the occasional formal gathering, but the scientist was distant, and Asgore was awkward. How could he apologize? How could he make it right?

The brothers had visited him at first, then with decreasing regularity as they became caught up in their lives. He hadn't even known they'd moved until the accident at the river. They'd vaguely pointed westward when he'd asked, and then Papyrus had stopped coming to see him. Sans had come a time or two more, but something had been wrong. He'd clearly been hurting, but he'd put on a false smile, ducked Asgore's questions, and then stopped visiting entirely.

Home again. Home to empty rooms, preserved in hopes their occupants would come back. Home to a freezer full of uneaten snails, and cabinets full of uncooked pasta. Home to a journal insisting the day was good, and the one before it was good, and the one after would be...

Even his garden felt empty. Ever since the oldest, and best-loved of the flowers had disappeared. Who would have done that to him? Taken that last...

He wished for the seventh human to come and end this... he hoped they'd never come... he wished for another chance. Reset the clock. Take it all back. Back before it all went wrong.

He sank to the ground, head in his hands. He had to... to be strong... it was what people... needed him to be. He was a king... he was supposed to be there for others. A tree against the storm.

...What if the tree withered?

*****

"SO, THE GREEN TILE IS WATER... NO, THAT'S THE BLUE TILE..."

Sans cracked one eye open, then burrowed deeper into his coat. "maybe you should read the directions first."

"I DID," Papyrus insisted. "THAT'S WHAT IT SAYS."

"if you say so. but your scarf's on fire."

He listened to the sound of Papyrus frantically stomping out the fabric.

"HOW DID THAT HAPPEN? THERE'S NO FIRE TILE."

"maybe you should turn off the machine until you get it laid out?"

"YOU COULD WAKE UP AND HELP." Papyrus threw the instructions at him.

Sans rolled onto his side and took a look. "alphys has real bad handwriting." He dropped the directions and resumed sleeping on his face. "i don't see why you asked her for this. aren't your puzzles good enough?"

"OF COURSE! MY PUZZLES ARE BRILLIANT!" Papyrus yelped as he received another electrical shock. "BUT WHAT IF A REALLY CLEVER HUMAN SHOWS UP? WE HAVE TO BE READY FOR ANYTHING."

"kay. so long as i don't have to do anything."

"OH NO!" Papyrus hoisted him out of the snowbank. "AS SOON AS WE FINISH WITH MY PUZZLES, WE'RE CHECKING ON YOURS! YOU WERE SUPPOSED TO HAVE ONE DESIGNED BY TODAY!"

Sans blinked sleepily. "sure, pap. it's at home. i'll bring it tomorrow."

"YOU SAID THAT YESTERDAY!"

"did i? i thought yesterday you said you wanted to build an electrical maze."

Papyrus dropped him in a rush. "YOU'RE RIGHT! I DID SAY THAT! OH NO! WHAT IF A HUMAN APPEARS BEFORE I FINISH?! I HAVE TO GET THIS DONE IMMEDIATELY!"

"why the rush?" Sans patted the snow into a pillow. "not like there's humans comin' along all the time. how long's it been since the last one?"

"THAT DOESN'T MEAN WE SHOULDN'T BE PREPARED! ANYTHING COULD HAPPEN AT ANY MOMENT! YOU NEVER KNOW WHEN EVERYTHING COULD END! WE HAVE TO PLAN! WE HAVE TO TAKE CARE OF EACH OTHER! WE HAVE TO MAKE SURE NOTHING BAD EVER-EVER-EVER HAPPENS TO DAD OR MOM OR ASGORE-DAD OR UNDYNE OR DR. ALPHYS OR ANYBODY!"

Sans' eyes went blank. His mind tumbled through sickening patterns and unreal memories which threatened to sink him into the abyss of apathy. He sat up very slowly. "have you been seeing?"

"NO..." Papyrus continued attaching the tiles. "NOT AWAKE-SEEING. JUST THE ASLEEP KIND."

"you've... have you been having the same dreams as me?"

"THE NOT-THERE DREAMS? LIKE YOU WAKE UP AND YOU FEEL LIKE A MILLION-MILLION-MILLION BAD THINGS HAVE HAPPENED, BUT HAVEN'T REALLY HAPPENED. AND YOU REMEMBER THEM, BUT YOU DON'T REMEMBER THEM. THAT KIND?"

Sans stared. "how... how long?"

"I GUESS... SINCE DAD TOOK YOU TO THE LAB. I THINK THAT'S WHEN IT STARTED."

"yeah." Sans hugged his knees to his chest. "yeah... when i woke up there... that's when i felt it. the first time. and it's never gone away."

"IS THAT WHY YOU'RE SAD ALL THE TIME NOW?"

"well, yeah. don't you... don't you feel like nothin' matters? knowin' that nothin' we do... that everything we try... it doesn't matter? it all ends?"

"NO! THAT'S NOT RIGHT AT ALL!" Papyrus leaped to his feet and swung Sans onto his back. He stormed down the path in a surge of restless energy. "THERE IS ALWAYS A WAY. WE'LL FIND IT. TOGETHER."

"but... we're not always together in the dreams. i feel... i feel like i've lost you. a lot."

"BUT YOU HAVEN'T. I'M RIGHT HERE. AND YOU'RE RIGHT HERE. AND DAD'S RIGHT HERE... WELL, OVER THERE. WE'RE TOGETHER NOW. SO WE HAVE TO KEEP IT THAT WAY." He looked up at Sans. "THAT IS WHAT YOU WANT, RIGHT? US TOGETHER? EVERYONE SAFE?"

"of course." Sans squeezed Papyrus around the neck. "i'll do anything for that."

"THEN THERE'S A BIG THING YOU HAVE TO DO."

"what?"

Papyrus set him on a boulder and cupped his hands around Sans' head. "DON'T GIVE UP, OKAY? NOT EVER. NOT AGAIN. I NEED YOU. I'M NOT STRONG WITHOUT YOU."

"c'mon, pap. you're plenty strong for the both of us. you're the great papyrus."

"NO..." Papyrus turned away, clutching his scarf. "DO YOU REMEMBER... A LONG TIME AGO... YOU SAID YOU WEREN'T YOU WITHOUT ME? I DIDN'T GET IT... BUT AFTER THE NOT-DREAMS... I THINK.. WHEN YOU WENT AWAY, WHEN YOU WERE HERE-BUT-NOT-HERE, I DIDN'T FEEL LIKE ME ANYMORE."

Sans wrapped his arms around him.

"DON'T LEAVE LIKE THAT AGAIN," Papyrus begged. "IF YOU HAVE TO SLEEP AND BE SAD SOMETIMES, THAT'S OKAY... BUT COME BACK TO ME."

"you too," Sans replied. "if you have to run around like crazy doin' all this stuff to make yourself feel safe, okay. i'll help you. we'll make it safe. we'll fix up the garage like you wanted."

"IT'S A CAPTURE ZONE."

"yeah, right. and we'll build all these puzzles. and paint the rock bridge, and set up your... what was it?"

"GAUNTLET OF DEADLY TERROR."

"yeah... i'm gonna hafta sleep a bunch before that one. we'll do it all. just... you be here for me... and i'll be here for you."

"AND DAD."

"and him. yeah."

Papyrus held him close. "WE'RE GOING TO BE OKAY. I PROMISE. EVERYONE'S GOING TO BE OKAY."

"There you are. What did I say about always carrying your phones?" Gaster trudged up the path toward them.

"HI DAD! I THOUGHT I HAD IT." Papyrus rifled through his pockets. "THERE IT... UH-OH."

Gaster took the phone from him. "It's fried. Looks like a power surge. What did you do?"

"nothin' much. papyrus just wanted to see how many volts he could take."

"THAT IS NOT WHAT HAPPENED!"

Gaster pocketed the phone. "If you do, come by the lab and do it where I can take notes. But enough playing. Toriel's expecting us for dinner."

They hadn't gone far when a zap and a terrified yelp sounded through the air. The trio rushed up the path.

The abandoned puzzle machine had activated itself... and made its first capture.

"Can't-get-through, can't-get-through, can't-get-through," the masked dog whined as he struggled blindly amidst zapping squares and unexpected water traps. A piranha hung off his ear and he smelled heavily of oranges.

"IT WORKS! I DID IT!" Papyrus punched the air.

"Hold on," Gaster called as he pulled open the instrument panel and fiddled with the wiring. A moment later the puzzle turned pink. "DAD! YOU BROKE IT!" Papyrus whined.

"doggo!" Sans clapped his hands and bounced in place. "c'mon, boy. good boy. that's it." He patted the whimpering dog and lit a biscuit for him.

After Doggo was well on his way to town, Gaster turned to the boys. "Is this what you borrowed from Alphys?"

"SHE SAID SHE WANTED TO TEST... UM... 'REAL WORLD APPLICATIONS'." Papyrus waved his hand toward the trees. "AND SHE ASKED US TO PUT UP CAMERAS. TO SEE HOW THE PUZZLES WORK."

"or she's hoping someone special's walkin' around shirtless in the woods," Sans muttered.

Gaster pinched his nasal bridge. "You're putting off switches and default modes on every puzzle you put out here."

"AWW... BUT ELECTROCUTION IS FUN FOR THE WHOLE FAMILY!"

Gaster blinked. Then he gave a small snort and shook his head. "C'mon, boys. We can't keep her majesty waiting."

Three figures walked through the snow. Though the forest was dark, together they knew the way.