Snow drifts by the kitchen window, in flakes the size of nickels. Frost creeps up the corners of the glass, but the inside of the apartment is warm and rich with the smell of baking cinnamon. Sans stifles a yawn as he pads into the kitchen, drawing an oversized bathrobe closer around him. He rubs sleep out of his eyes. The clock over the oven tells him it’s one in the afternoon.
Man, he loves Sundays.
Frisk is sitting at the dining table, a tall mug of cocoa next to them and papers and books spread out across the table’s surface. They’re tapping their pencil irritably against the wood, other hand tangled up in their hair. Their lips are screwed up in an expression of distaste.
“Hey, kiddo,” Sans greets. He folds himself into the seat next to Frisk and collapses forward, pillowing his skull on crossed arms.
Frisk waves a half-hearted hello, and doesn’t look up from the paper in front of them.
Sans cracks open one eye socket. “Geez, you’re really glaring at that thing. What it’d do, insult your mom? ‘Cause if so, I could have a few words for it.”
Frisk taps the heavy textbook at the top of their stack. “Midterm tomorrow,” they reply wearily, over-exaggerating the movement of their thumb as they sign 'tomorrow'. “I’m not getting the right answers on the study guide questions.”
Without lifting his head, Sans tilts his skull to read the spine. Physics. “Whatcha studying?”
“We started waves. I thought I understood but when I try the questions, I’m not getting the same answers as in the answer key.”
Sans peers over at the paper Frisk is attempting to glare into submission. The space under the first question is strewn with half-erased attempts. Sans points one bony phalange at it. “You forgot to square the x.”
Frisk looks startled. They stare down at their paper, brow furrowed.
“You’re looking for work. Area under the curve, right?”
Frisk blinks. They hastily scribble in a tiny 2 over their x, and then then pull out a calculator to punch in the new numbers. They compare the result to another sheet of paper laid out by their textbook, and a look of relief crosses their face. “That's it. Thanks!”
Frisk pushes their paper over toward Sans. “Can you tell what I’m doing wrong on number five?”
“It’s a Sunday afternoon, and you’re asking me to find work ? Man, tough standards.”
Frisk rolls their eyes.
Chuckling, Sans picks up the sheet. At that moment, padding footsteps behind him announce Toriel’s return to the kitchen. He twists around in his chair and smiles. Toriel is wearing a soft blue sweater under her apron, which is dusted white with flour. It’s a great look.
“Hey, T,” he says with a lazy wave.
She smiles at him. “Hi, Sans.” She comes over to the table and leans down to press a soft kiss to the top of his head, then does the same for Frisk. She glances down at the table, at the papers and books scattered around the surface, and the sheet now in Sans’ hands. “Are you helping Frisk with their homework?”
“He figured out what I was doing wrong,” Frisk signs cheerfully. “At least on the first question.”
“Oh, good! Well, now that you’ve had a break through, do you want to break for pie? It’s about to come out of the oven.”
Sans grins broadly. “Really? That was not up to your usual standards.”
Toriel wrinkles her nose and swats at him. Sans laughs, and doesn’t bother to dodge.
Frisk shuffles some of their papers into a semblance of proper piles, clearing a few spots of space on the table. A hot draft of sugar and spice wafts through the kitchen as Toriel pulls open the oven to retrieve the pie. She sets it up on the stove to cool, and begins to pull some small plates out of the cabinet.
“You know, I want some hot cocoa,” Sans announces. “Kid, you want a refresher on yours?”
“Cool, you can make mine too, then. Make it with milk, not water, thanks.”
Frisk shoots him a very dry look and lifts their eyebrows. Behind him, Toriel huffs an amused sigh.
Sans chuckles. “Just kidding. I’ll make it. Tori, you want some?”
With effort, Sans drags himself back out of his chair. Frisk pushes their mug toward him; he takes it over to the counter, where he starts rummaging around in the cupboard for the cocoa.
And then the three of them are sitting at the table with three slices of pie and three mugs of hot chocolate in front of them. Frisk is still scribbling at their sheets of physics equations, but looking considerably less frustrated than when Sans first came into the kitchen. Toriel leans back with her mug in her hands, eyes closed as she breathes in the steam. Sans rests his chin on one hand and watches the snow still swirling past the window.
Nearly ten years since the barrier vanished, and he still hasn’t gotten used to snow on the surface. Oh, sure, they’d had plenty of snow back in Snowdin - enormous, eternal drifts of the stuff. But snow in the darkness was nothing like snow in the sunlight, when you could make out each individual flake and light sparkled off the ground and through the trees. When Frisk was younger, they’d drag everyone off to play outside every time a snowstorm blew their way. Now, homework kept them inside more often, but this was pretty good too -- quiet Sundays around the kitchen table, sharing pie and hot chocolate.
Ten years since the barrier vanished. It’s at once everything they’d hoped for, and nothing he’d expected. Sometimes, he thinks, time is the strangest thing.
To be fair, though, he’d always had an odd relationship with time.
The physics textbook is still in front of him, and Sans pulls it closer. Absently, he flips through. Thermodynamics, optics, electromagnetism… old, familiar equations jump out at him, and it’s like vertigo.
He keeps turning the pages, until… Chapter 29: Quantum Physics .
It’s not quite what he used to work on -- he wouldn’t expect a high school textbook to have the long, elaborate equations they’d used on the CORE -- but the principles are the same. Sans stares down at a page demonstrating the difference between photons in gamma rays and x-rays and at the image of the skeletal hand that’s printed there.
Time is an odd thing.
“Hm?” he pulls himself out of his thoughts and looks up. Toriel and Frisk are both watching him curiously.
“Can Frisk have their book back?” Toriel says with a smile.
“Oh -- yeah, sure.” He passes the book to Frisk, who flips back to Chapter 16: Oscillatory Motion and Waves.
Toriel is watching him knowingly, a slight smile on her lips. Sans flashes her back a shrug and a grin. Trying to pretend he wasn’t thinking of anything would be a futile endeavor, he knows. But she doesn’t ask for any details.
Loud footsteps clang up the stairs outside, and then the door bursts open in a flurry of snowflakes.
Papyrus bustles into the apartment, shaking snow from his thick wool hat. Under one arm, he has an assortment of envelopes and paper. “I am here to collect Frisk for our weekly visit to Alphys and Undyne! I have also collected your mail!”
“Papyrus!” Toriel gasps. “I hope you didn’t drive in this weather!”
“Certainly not! I walked! ”
“Oh, dear,” Toriel murmurs, taking in the the snow crusting the edges of Papyrus’ scarf.
Papyrus kicks off his slushy boots, then strides over to the kitchen table. With a flourish, he slams the mail on the table and pulls off the top piece.
“Toriel! Snail and Wine - first issue of the year! And for Sans, oh, a credit card offer! And these people are asking for you to vote for them! Oh, an electric bill!”
Somehow, junk mail is just as much a problem on the surface as in the underground -- if not more so. As Papyrus slides coupons for local businesses they’ll never use in Sans’ direction, Sans tries propping the envelopes upright into a tower shape. Papyrus glowers, but Toriel hides a chuckle behind a large paw.
“And for Frisk!” Papyrus continues, as he reaches the last, but largest, pieces of the pile. “Oh, these are big! Exciting! ‘Thank you for your request for information,’ they say. How polite! You have one from Ebbott University, New Home College, and Northwestern State University!”
Oh geez, college mail. It’s not the first time Frisk has received college mail, but each time another information packet or flyer shows up, Sans gets a stab of that of not-quite-vertigo that always makes him feel like he’s on the receiving end of the timeline’s own prank. He catches Toriel’s eye. Her expression is soft, warm, but there’s also an ache there. He offers her a would-be-casual shrug, but he knows she can read him as well as he can read her.
Frisk has already snatched the packets from Papyrus, and torn open the first one. They flip eagerly through the glossy magazine from Northwestern State. Sans peers at the images of laughing college students on the cover, considering. Somehow, he feels like he doesn’t trust them.
“And when you have retrieved your warm clothing,” Papyrus adds, “we can head to Undyne and Alphys’!”
Frisk looks meaningfully clock over the stove, then back to Papyrus. “It’s early,” they accuse.
“Indeed! Snow and ice does not not hinder me ! Of course, it may be difficult for you, my friend, and there is no shame in that. If we depart early, we will not be late for anime viewing!”
“Really, you two want to head out again in this weather?” Toriel asks worriedly.
“It is Sunday! Sunday has always been the day for the great Papyrus and Frisk to watch anime with our dear friends Undyne and Alphys!”
Frisk looks up at Toriel imploringly. They gesture at the papers strewn in front of them, in a clear “look how much work I’ve done!” expression.
“I know, my child. But this snow is so heavy, and it’s not going to let up until late this evening…”
“Eh, let them go, T,” Sans puts in. “It’s just around the corner. If the weather is too bad later, they can crash at Undyne and Alphys’. It’ll be snow problem.”
That makes Toriel crack a smile, while Papyrus throws back his head with a loud groan. Sans grins, pleased to have elicited his two favorite reactions. Finally, Toriel nods. “Okay -- but bring your school bag, Frisk, in case you get ice -olated over there.”
“UGH,” Papyrus protests.
Frisk, however, just signs “thank you!”, chugs the rest of their hot chocolate, and scrambles up from the kitchen table.
“I will come help you pack!” Papyrus exclaims. “Anything to get away from these two’s bad jokes…”
“You don’t like our winter jokes?” Toriel asks, in mock concern. “How… cold .”
“The day you two met was the worst day of my life!” Papyrus retorts, while Sans bursts out laughing.
Frisk disappears into their room, Papyrus on their heel. A few moments later, both reappear, Papyrus with Frisk’s half-packed bag under his arm, Frisk cradling a flowerpot that contains a single, yellow flower. The flower is wearing a tiny woolen scarf.
“Oh -- you’re taking Flowey?” Toriel asks, surprised. “Won’t it be too cold for him?”
Frisk shakes their head. “I’ll put him under my jacket,” they say with some difficulty, as they need to keep one arm still to hold the flowerpot.
“I will not be left here alone with them ,” Flowey growls, his tiny scowl focused directly on Sans. Sans lifts his brow.
“It would be cruel to leave anyone alone to their onslaught of bad jokes,” Papyrus agrees sagely. “Do you know what they just said? Sans said the weather would be ‘snow problem’, and then, Toriel said we might get ‘ice-olated’ at Alphys and Undyne’s! And then! And then! She made another cold pun! That’s three bad jokes in ten seconds!”
“Uggggh,” Flowey groans. “Yesterday, I had to hear them flirt-punning . It was disgusting .”
“You poor creature,” Papyrus sympathizes.
“Well, if you all are going to head out, why don’t you take the rest of the pie?” Toriel says. “I’ll wrap it up for you.”
When Papyrus and Frisk finally leave the apartment, trudging carefully down the spiraling metal steps under Toriel’s watchful gaze, Papyrus is carrying an enormous box that’s been tied up with a piece of cooking twine, and Frisk carefully keeps their arms wrapped around the bulge at the front of their puffy jacket. Flowey’s surly face pokes out over the zipper.
“Be careful!” Toriel calls after them. “Call me when you get there!”
Frisk waves goodbye with a gloved hand.
Toriel retreats inside and closes the door behind her. “I cannot believe that Papyrus walked all the way here,” she sighs. “I should have called him and let him know we don’t need him to take Frisk out for us this week…”
Sans waves one hand dismissively. “Eh, we haven’t needed Papyrus to take Frisk out for us for years; Frisk keeps themself busy. He just likes doing it. And we’ve walked further in worse snow back when we were sentries.”
“I suppose it is nice to have a routine,” she agrees, smiling. “I’ve goat to admit I appreciate having a weekly ‘date night’.”
Sans cracks a broad grin. “Heh. Can’t make any bones about it either. Say, did you have any plans for today?”
“Oh, not really… I have some progress reports to work on. Is that not a little embarrassing -- using our date night to catch up on work?”
Sans shrugs nonchalantly. “I don’t mind. It’s always a treat to see you in your reading glasses.” He winks.
“You incorrigible flirt,” she teases.
“Is that one of your kids’ vocab words for this week?”
“‘ Incorrigible ’? Sans, I teach first graders.”
“Yeah, and you’re their teacher, aren’t you?”
She rolls her eyes. “Help me clear the table? There isn’t enough space for my papers with all this.”
Toriel clears away the empty plates and mugs and carries them over to the sink. Sans dumps the junk mail in the recycling and takes Toriel’s magazine over into coffee table in the living room. He picks up Frisk’s mail next, then pauses, his gaze lingering over the cover of the top of college catalogues. Ebbot University. The cover displays students laughing on an outdoor campus, surrounded by fall foliage and books.
He turns the first page. Our Mission - Break All Limits! -- vague, grand words describe commitment to things like ‘achievement’ and ‘potential. The next page. Award-Winning Programs . Arts. Chemistry. Political science. Next comes Extracurricular Opportunities and then State-Of-The-Art Dorms. It’s this page he lingers on the longest, scrutinizing the images of brightly-lit dormitories that are filled with bunk beds and books and plastered with generic posters.
Toriel notices him pause. She comes over and glances over his shoulder. “Ah…,” she says softly. “At least this one is not far away.”
Hastily, Sans flips the catalogue shut. “Eh, they’re not leaving for a year and a half yet.”
“Yes, that is true.” Toriel takes the catalogues from him, and takes a moment to turn through them. The heartache in her expression is back, as a tension in her temples and a shadow lingering in her soft eyes. She’ll never be really ready to let Frisk go, Sans knows. And even if it’s just college, this time… that pain in her expression is so potent it makes Sans’ own chest tighten. He reaches out to rest one hand on her arm.
Toriel covers his hand with one paw. “Are you going to be okay, Sans?”
“Me?” he replies in disbelief. “What about you?”
Toriel meets his eyes steadily. “It will be hard, yes. I will miss Frisk when they leave. I will cry for many months, most likely. But Frisk gives you something to do. As I said, it is nice to have a routine -- and Frisk is your routine. I teach. I will still have somewhere to go, something to do, most days. You will not.”
“I mean, looking after Frisk doesn’t take that much work even now,” Sans says bewilderedly. “They’re seventeen. They don’t need me for much.”
“You get them ready for school in the mornings. You clean their dishes. You make dinner on the weekdays.”
He snorts. “Half the time, that’s frozen pizza.”
“Not every day. And even on pizza days, that still gives you a reason to get off the couch each evening. What will you do without that?”
Awkwardly, Sans rubs the back of his head. “I dunno. I guess I’ll find something. I mean, back in Snowdin I had three jobs, right? There’ll be something to get me out of your hair.”
“I do not care about you ‘being out of my hair’. None of those jobs you had in Snowdin were important to you. Looking after Frisk gives you something to do that means something to you.”
“Hey, I liked those jobs,” he protests. “It was fun, working with Papyrus.”
“Yes. It was Papyrus that mattered to you, not your jobs. If he were not there, would you have bothered to go to those jobs?”
Sans huffs a weak laugh. “There were a few I worked without him. He didn’t sell hot dogs with me.”
Toriel gives him an expectant look.
“Eh, alright, I slept when he wasn’t around. Okay, cool, maybe I’ll work with him again. Would that be bad?”
“No,” Toriel replies. “That would be fine, if you want to do that. Just… I want you to think about what you want to do when Frisk leaves home. I want you to be doing something that you want to be doing. Something that means something to you.”
Sans looks down at the catalogues in Toriel’s paws. How ironic it is, the thinks, for him to be worry about the passage of time. “I mean, you guys -- you, Frisk, Papyrus, kind of are the important things.”
“ You also are important.”
“I don’t follow. Are you calling me out for taking care of my family? Because, pot, kettle.”
“No, no, that’s not it,” Toriel laughs. “Sorry, I am not explaining myself well. But your family is here. We will always be here, even if one of us moves away. I just want you to make sure you’re giving yourself enough, that there are enough things in your life that matter to you to keep you going when what your family needs from you changes.”
Sans isn’t quite sure what to say to that. Family matters. Toriel knows that. Hell, Toriel has the same damn priorities. “Right. So…. I don’t get it. What am I supposed to be doing?”
“Just. Think about what you’ll do. Maybe,” -- and here, she offers him a wry, apologetic smile -- “make some plans.”
He laughs softly. “Okay, I’ll think about it. No promises on the plans.”
“Deal,” she agrees. She sets down the catalogues on the kitchen counter, then leans down to give him a light kiss, which he returns. “I will go get the progress reports now. Can you make us some more hot drinks?”
She leaves the kitchen. Sans watches her go, scratching absently at his jawbone.
Ten years. He’d never pictured anything like this back in Snowdin: the surface, the sunlight, this apartment, a kid he thinks of as his , being able to watch laughter crinkle at the corners of Toriel’s soft, currant-red eyes, Papyrus still dropping by at all hours. But that’s time for you, he supposes.
He only wishes it didn’t feel so tenuous.
Hi all! Thanks for dropping by.
In full honesty, I have no idea where this story is going. I myself am a graduate student, and I started this fic as a purely self-indulgent piece to muse about academia, explore motivation, and to live vicariously through fictional characters who also love the stars.
I do have some plans for this story, though, so stay tuned if you're interested.
Thanks for reading!
Content warnings for this chapter: Loss & grief
--Sixteen years ago--
It’s dark outside.
Well, it’s always dark outside. It’s the Underground, after all. But at this time of day, even the street lights and windows outside the lab are going dark, their pinpricks of light snuffing out one by one as monsters go to bed.
Inside the lab, Sans is still at his desk. He doesn’t spare a glance for the window or the clock above his work station; he’s focused on the computer screen, leaning forward with his chin on one hand as he puzzles. An empty mug stands at the corner of his desk. Papers are scattered across the surface, and the one under the mug sports a now-dry coffee stain.
Sans taps a finger thoughtfully against his chin, then moves his hands to the keyboard and types, almost hesitant. He jabs a finger at the return key.
The computer considers his input for a moment. It throws back an error message.
Sans grimaces. He begins typing again.
Sans jumps. Gaster is standing behind him, hands in the pockets of his long lab coat as he watches Sans with an expression of slight amusement.
“I did not mean to scare you; I apologize.”
“Geez, Dad, you move like a ghost! Warn a guy when you use a shortcut, okay?”
Gaster laughs softly, and the sound is breathy, like something on the wind that you can’t quite make out. “As, indeed, you warned your brother before startling him out of his chair last weekend?”
“Heh. It was funny.”
Gaster laughs again and does not disagree. “Speaking of your brother, it is getting late. Papyrus will be waiting for us, so at least one of us should head home.” He nods meaningfully at Sans.
“Hey, don’t give me that look. I went home first yesterday; your turn.”
“I need to wrap up a few things in the CORE that require my clearance. It will take me about another hour.”
“I’m busy, too,” Sans protests. “Hey, you could head home and I could do the CORE stuff for you. I know your passcode.”
“You should not know that,” Gaster says, frowning. “What are you working on?”
Sans waves a hand at the computer screen. “The code for the simulation. I broke a loop somewhere. I just need to find it and fix it.”
“Fixing broken code can take hours. Come back to it tomorrow.”
“I just need ten minutes! I’ll get it.”
Gaster heaves a sigh. “Ten minutes. But then, please , go home. If you haven’t solved it by then, you can do it tomorrow.”
“Yeah, yeah,” Sans says, waving him off. “Go do your fancy Royal Scientist stuff.”
Then Gaster is gone, and the lab is empty save for Sans. He turns back to the computer and focuses on the code displayed on the screen. He types, hits run, and frowns again. And then again. He frowns, rubbing his jawbone as he tries to spot the missing comma or extra bracket, or whatever else it is throwing off the command.
Finally, the code runs. Sans sits back with a self-satisfied sigh as a display comes up on the screen: numbers upon numbers scroll out, followed by a black and white animation which resets and repeats every few seconds. Sans watches it for several moments, smiling slightly to himself. Man, it feels so good when a code finally runs. There’s something wonderful about watching the computer spit out long strings of numbers and images, translating the data and computer language into something meaningful.
He glances up at the clock above his work station.
...Well, he’s only fifteen minutes late.
Sans climbs to his feet, joints cracking as he stretches. He begins to close up his workspace, saving and closing the files on his computer, setting aside the papers he no longer needs, packing his bag to go home. His mind is running at a contented, exhausted buzz, and he’s already thinking in a sleepy sort of way of the work he’ll get started on tomorrow. The simulation is set, but he has to check the output for anomalies, then read through the results, and write them up in a summarized report for Alphys and Gaster…. It will take hours to sort through all the numbers and organize them into a report. But that kind of work is rewarding, as he gets to watch weeks of work come together in a clean, concise summary. When he really gets into writing a report, the time just slides by; it’s only him and the numbers. Tomorrow will be a good day.
The computer shuts down. Sans pulls his bag onto his shoulder. He checks the clock one more time, thinking up an apology to Papyrus for his lateness. He could probably work in some pun there about time and relativity…
A loud bang rocks the lab. The walls tremble; pens roll off the desks; one of the computers starts beeping loudly, and then cuts off as the lights go out and the lab goes dark. Sans stumbles, knocked off balance as even the floor shifts under him. What the--?
He whirls around. Emergency lights are flashing on the CORE’s monitor, the only lights still lit in the lab, and they’re casting the whole room in a horrible red light. Sans rushes over, eyes scanning the readouts. Oh shit, oh shit, oh shit . It’s catastrophic. He feels cold all over, dread prickling at the back of his shoulder blades.
He rushes for exit, somehow gathering enough coherence to remember the shortcuts. He shoves the door open, and then he’s there, in the CORE’s center, but it’s all wrong.
Debris and dust covers the room, smoldering. Rather than the soft blue light of the CORE’s center, the room is now alight with a red-orange glow as flames flicker at what’s left. The ceiling is cracked, and a hole is blasted right through the opposing wall, through which Sans can see nothing but blackness. He doesn’t see Gaster anywhere.
“Dad?!” he yells out into rubble, straining to be heard over the caterwauling of alarms. “DAD!”
No answer comes. Sans yanks off his lab coat and throws it over his shoulder, and then he dashes into the chaos. “Dad! Dad! Where are you?!” Sprinklers have come on, and Sans’ shirt dampens as they weakly attempt to push back the flames in a futile attempt to save the wrecked CORE.
He’s still pushing through the rubble when the Royal Guard arrives. His hands are black with soot and burns, his clothes singed, his face dirty and dripping with magical sweat. Captain Undyne grabs his shoulder. “Sans! You gotta get out of here!”
“Dr. Gaster -- my dad!”
“We got it! Get out of the way, okay?”
She pulls him back, and this time he just goes limp. He doesn’t remember deciding to stop fighting. Sans lets her guide him out of the rubble and sit him at the perimeter of the room. He collapses to his knees there, staring numbly out at the smoldering wreckage. His mind is white fuzz.
Maybe Gaster isn’t here at all; maybe he already went home; maybe everything’s fine, Gaster missed the explosion by minutes --
But when Papyrus arrives, clinging to Grillby’s arm, Sans takes in the ashen expression on his face and he knows. Gaster never made it home.
“Sans!” Papyrus runs over to Sans and drops to his knees next to him. Even with both of them crouching like this, Papyrus is so much taller than Sans, all long, gangly limbs he doesn’t yet know how to control and honestly when did that happen…
Sans gives his head a little shake, trying to focus, but his brain doesn’t seem to work anymore.
“What happened?” Papyrus asks, voice shaking. “Where’s Dad?”
“I don’t know,” Sans croaks back. Softer: “He was working here, and . . . I don’t know.”
Papyrus sets his jaw. “I will find him! Don’t worry, brother! I will retrieve our father!”
Papyrus jumps up and rushes forward. Sans grabs for his hand, but misses. And then Grillby and an armored member of the Royal Guard are there, holding Papyrus back. Papyrus struggles.
“Let me go! I must find our father! I MUST!” They don’t let go, and Papyrus’ voice cracks into a desperate kind of sob, and he fights harder against their grip. “I will find him!”
Sans buries his face in his hands, pressing his fingers as hard as he can into his skull as if, somehow, if he pushes hard enough, he can push this timeline right out of his head.
He’ll be okay, he’ll be okay, he has to, he took a shortcut somewhere and is just injured, he’ll be okay…
But as the Royal Guard’s efforts drag on, Gaster does not appear. The fires are tamed; bits of the CORE are dragged out; emergency power is restored to the Underground from a backup generator. But no Gaster. Eventually, Papyrus wears himself out and collapses next to Sans, still sniffling. Grillby finds Sans’ discarded lab coat and wraps it around the both of them, sitting with them as they watch the wreckage of the CORE in numb horror.
It’s in the early hours of the morning when Undyne climbs back out. “We’ll keep looking, but it’s getting late. You should get some rest -- being worn out won’t do anyone any good. Grillby will take you boys home.”
“I don’t--,” Sans begins, but cuts off when Grillby shoots a meaningful look at Papyrus. Papyrus is trembling from a blend of exhaustion, horror, anger, and grief, and whatever else. He looks barely able to hold himself upright, but he’ll try as long as Sans is there too.
Sans takes a long look at the smoldering wreckage. Please be okay, Dad. “Okay,” he says finally.
Grillby puts a hand on each of their shoulders and steers them away. He leads them back to their home and does not leave to head for his place, perhaps guessing -- accurately -- that the absence of the home’s third inhabitant would be suffocating with just Papyrus and Sans there alone. Instead, he makes them hot drinks and they sit around the kitchen table in silence, waiting for news.
It doesn’t come. Sure, Undyne drops in after a few hours, but the story hasn’t changed. The CORE is still destroyed. Gaster is still missing. There are no answers.
Alphys calls at dawn. She asks if there’s anything she can do. There isn’t. She hangs up quickly. The day drags on.
Then the next day. And the next.
Grillby eventually goes home, but comes back to check on them daily. At the end of the week, Papyrus goes back to school. It takes Sans much longer to go back to the lab.
A month later - two? Sans hasn’t been keeping track of the days - he drags himself in. It’s all different. Alphys is there, asleep at her workspace which is strewn with papers and old bowls of ramen; she’s apparently been overloading herself with the work of three people, but Sans can’t bring himself to feel bad about that. He can’t bring himself to feel much at all. He goes to his station and boots up his computer. Old files cover the desktop screen -- code, results, equations, theories, all promising, all half-finished. There’s the old simulation he’d been working on the day of the accident, the one he’d been so eager to write up. He ignores it now; it’s not important anymore.
Instead, he digs into his folders until he finds a file, titled ‘spacetimemanipulation_theory’ . The document is old, unorganized, bits of ideas having broken off into new projects, while others are left behind -- too costly, too impractical, not yet fully designed. Sans scrolls to one of these abandoned thoughts now.
Costly, yes. Impractical, yes. But maybe…
He shortcuts to the closet and rifles through scrolls of old posters and diagrams. When he finds the one he’s looking for, he seizes the sheet and reappears at his desk, where he splays the paper out across the surface. It’s covered in equations and scribbles -- and, there, at the center of the sheet, is a large circle. A loop.
Sans stares at the screen, then at the sheet, mind churning. His hands hover over the keyboard.
Can they go back? Can they start over? What would it take?
“FRISK!” Undyne shouts, sweeping Frisk off their feet into a rib-cracking hug the moment they and Papyrus come in. Frisk is taller these days, so the sweeping hug isn’t as easy for Undyne as it was in the early days after they emerged on the surface, but she insists on doing it anyway.
Frisk smiles and hugs Undyne back. Inside their jacket, Flowey complains about the rough treatment but he is ignored. Undyne eventually sets Frisk back down and fist-bumps Papyrus.
“You guys are here!” Undyne declares loudly. “ALPHYS! We have guests! Frisk, let me take your things.” She almost tears Frisk’s jacket in her zeal to help them pull it off. “Alphys is waiting for you in her laboratory. Papyrus, come, let us make snacks for when these eggheads are done with their science!”
Frisk nods a thanks and trots off down the entry hall, Flowey cradled under their arm.
Undyne and Alphys’ place is always in a state of chaotic disarray. Alphys leaves books and bowls and anime DVD’s over every flat surface, including the floor. Undyne often makes an attempt to housekeep, but it’s hard to say if those attempts help or hurt; the coffee table is cracked from being over-polished, and Undyne has installed ‘decor’ in the living room which is really a somewhat hazardous tangle of spears right beside the couch with a ribbon on top.
But there are also Alphys’ anime figurines in a spot of honor on top of the curio cabinet, intermingled with trophies from community sports Undyne has participated in -- volleyball, tennis, basketball, dodgeball. And there are photographs all over, propped up on tables and hanging lopsidedly on the walls: here, Alphys and Undyne dressed up for a date, and there, Undyne and Papyrus posing dramatically together. There’s another from when Frisk was still small enough to ride on Undyne’s shoulders. (To be fair, Undyne insists that Frisk can still ride on her shoulders, but Frisk avoids it. It’s not a comfortable experience for anyone.) Another portrait of Alphys and Mettaton, this one with Mettaton’s flowery signature looping over half the frame.
And Frisk’s favorite: a photograph right over the fireplace -- the bricks of which are black and cracked, due to the heat of the roaring bonfires Undyne keeps building -- that portrays over a dozen people, all clustered together and smiling at the camera, all happy: there’s Alphys and Undyne and Papyrus and Frisk and Toriel and Sans and Mettaton and his cousin and Muffet and a whole squad of the Royal Guard, and even more. It’s from the one-year anniversary after they emerged on the surface, when the monsters reunited at Mount Ebott to celebrate. In the following years, fewer and fewer people have showed up for the annual gathering, as the monsters got busy with their lives and fewer found the time to come out, but most stay in touch.
Undyne and Alphys’ place is unusual and a little bit hazardous, but it’s cozy, and is bursting at the seams with love. Frisk feels at home here as much as they do at the apartment with Toriel and Sans.
Frisk passes by the living room, and through to the very back of the house. Undyne and Alphys have converted the second bedroom of their place into a home laboratory for Alphys; here, Frisk pushes open the door and lets themself in.
“Frisk!” Alphys greets brightly, looking up as the door creaks open. “Oh, goodness, you’re early! I didn’t expect you so soon -- oh, dear, my workspace is a mess, I was working on this other thing, it’s, um, a little update for Mettaton, he has this idea for a show -- oh but I’m rambling, and he wouldn’t like me telling you before the show airs! Hang on, let me clear up…”
The laboratory is as much chaos as the rest of the house. Frisk pushes a few stacks of paper off a chair to sit down, and clears a spot on the desk to set Flowey. They angle him to face the broad windows that take up much of the far wall. Outside, it’s still snowing heavily.
“Ugh, it’s a mess,” Flowey complains. “I feel dirty being here.”
Alphys turns slightly pink, and Frisk frowns warningly at Flowey. “You literally live in dirt,” they point out.
“Don’t mind him,” Frisk reassures Alphys. “He’s in a bad mood because the sunlight is weak today.”
“I’m in a bad mood because I have to deal with all of you!”
“Um… how have you been, Flowey?” Alphys asks tentatively.
“What do you think!”
“He’s been wilting a bit,” Frisk says. “I think he might need more determination.”
Alphys winces. “Oh, you’re probably right… it’s been a while.” She looks troubled. “You sure you can handle him? I know you have some midterms coming up.”
Outside the concentrated magic of the Underground, Flowey needed occasional boosts on determination to keep his flower form alive and thriving long past the lifespan of a typical flower. Unfortunately, these top-offs of determination came with a side effect: he temporarily became much more bad-tempered than usual, and more creative in his attempts to inconvenience everyone around him.
Frisk lifts their chin, resolute. They nod once, and say: “He needs it.” They sign ‘need’ with a sharp, exaggerated movement.
“Okay… okay. Well, be careful. Um, tell me if he gets to be too much,” Alphys mutters as she rummages through the cupboards. She finally withdraws a small plastic container, labelled in messy capital letters: FLOWEY. She pops it open; inside, there are several clear vials, a syringe, and a package of needles.
Flowey huffs disdainfully.
“Um, sit still,” Alphys says to Flowey, preparing a needle.
“You are so clumsy with that,” Flowey grumbles. “I’ll be sore for days -- or maybe that’s your point, huh?”
Frisk pats Flowey’s head, in a seemingly consoling manner, except that it makes Flowey splutter in indignation. The slight smile on Frisk’s lips makes it clear they completely expected this reaction.
Alphys carefully steadies Flowey’s stem with one claw and presses the needle in with the other. Flowey winces, but for once, stays obligingly still.
“There,” Alphys declares. “You’re all set. Now, don’t give Frisk too much of a hard time. You’ll be ready for your next dose of residue next week.”
“And what if I don’t want the residue?” Flowey asks, massaging the point where the needle went in.
“You do,” Frisk replies. “Asriel did.”
Flowey looks away. “Ten years of research,” they mutter darkly. “And the only breakthrough you have to show for it is dog residue . How does that feel, Alphys? Do you feel accomplished ? After all the things you did--”
Frisk holds up a hand warningly. “Be nice, or I’ll put you in the cupboard so you can’t insult people.”
Flowey scowls mutinously, and falls silent.
“Thanks,” Alphys says. “Although, I guess he’s right… the residue really isn’t much.”
“It makes a difference,” Frisk replies.
Dog residue had become one of Flowey’s treatments about six years back. Before then, Flowey had been in turns irascible or cruel, cycling between the two as he received his determination boosters. It’d been frustrating, and Sans and Toriel had asked gently if Frisk was sure they wanted to keep Flowey in the house -- but the look Frisk gave them was so grimly resolute that they'd stopped asking.
And then, the summer before Frisk started middle school, Alphys had the thought to try dog residue. It had something to do with her continuing research on the amalgamations; apparently, amalgamations composed of higher ratios of dog were visibly happier than those with fewer dogs. This was true for even the non-dog parts when controlling for the happiness of the dog parts -- whatever that meant. Frisk hadn't really followed Alphys' excited rambling.
So, they’d tried mixing some dog residue in with Flowey’s soil (Flowey had complained, but ultimately consented). The effect was not immediate, but it was definite: a week after the treatment, Flowey’s demeanor had perked up, and he seemed downright cheerful. On the eighth day, he’d told Sans “good morning”, and didn’t even follow up with any insults or barbs.
Turns out, while Flowey couldn’t feel love, dog residue allowed him to feel loved . Because of the residue’s unusual self-replicating tendencies, the treatments were small and spread apart to avoid overdoses, but it changed the tone of Flowey’s care. Before, they’d been just in a holding pattern, keeping Flowey alive and healthy and supervised; now, there was progress. They were finally improving Flowey’s life.
Unfortunately, since then, there haven’t been any further developments.
“Um… Frisk,” Alphys says nervously. “Have you thought recently about, um, telling Toriel the truth about him?”
Frisk shakes their head sharply; at the same moment, Flowey whips around and snarls at Alphys: “Don’t you dare!”
Alphys squeaks. “But -- she’d want to know! Flowey is Asriel -- it’s her kid!”
“I am not Asriel!”
“Asriel didn’t want anyone to know.”
“I know,” Alphys says. “But… it’s her kid . It’s been years, and… and she’s not okay. I think she would want to know.”
Frisk looks down, expression troubled. But they say: “Asriel didn’t want to be remembered this way.”
Alphys drops it. She heaves a sigh. “Well . . . okay. Let’s, uh, go get the TV ready then, I guess.”
Frisk nods, visibly relaxing. They catch Flowey’s eye and sign: “Do you want to watch too?”
“No,” Flowey snaps. “Spare me from your stupid hang-outs.”
Frisk shrugs. They turn and leave the lab, resolutely ignoring the worried look Alphys shoots in Flowey’s direction.
Back in the living room, Undyne and Papyrus are setting up a spread of snacks. There’s popcorn swimming in butter, nachos piled with so many toppings that it’s hard to spot any chips, an enormous bowl of gummy bears, and the leftovers of Toriel’s pie -- reheated, and piled high with whipped cream that is slowly melting into puddles of stickiness on the plate. Everything is burnt, even the gummy bears. It’s less burnt than usual, though, only partly blackened and not even ashy. It’s probably edible.
“Hi, nerds!” Undyne greets them cheerfully. “You ready for some kickass anime?!”
“What shall we watch this week?” asks Papyrus. “Something exciting? Dramatic? It must be cool!”
“Umm… I don’t know,” Alphys says. “I mean… I’ve been binging Mew Mew Shippuden, but uh, you guys are super behind on that so you’re not going to have any idea of what’s going on. It’s suuuper complicated. I mean, I guess we could watch the episodes you haven’t seen, but the early stuff is really… kind of bad….” She laughs, breaking off. “Frisk, why don’t you pick? You know where the DVDs are!”
Frisk obligingly heads to the DVD case and skims the titles. Soran High School Kiss Club, Fruit Salad, Halfmetal Scientist … They trail their finger over the spines, considering.
“ Cowboy Depot ?” Alphys says, when Frisk pulls one out. “Oh, okay! It’s pretty popular, got a lot of awards too! I haven’t seen it in a really long time, though -- it’s not really my favorite genre I guess?”
“Are there giant swords and magical princesses?” Undyne demands.
“Um, not really? It’s kind of about outcasts being bounty hunters and traveling in space.”
“Hmm,” Undyne considers. “I suppose that sounds okay. Bounty hunters are cool.”
“It used to be one of Sans’ favorites,” Alphys offers.
“Sans likes this one?!” Papyrus exclaims. “Ugh, Frisk, pick a different one! It’s bound to be full of terrible jokes!”
But Frisk is watching Alphys with faint surprise. “Sans?” they ask.
“Oh, um…” Alphys scratches her scales nervously. “Yeah. I know he hasn’t really come to anime night in a really long time… never while we’ve been on the surface. But he was actually the first person to ever come to the Human Culture Fan Club, you know?”
“Not Mettaton?” Frisk says.
Alphys shakes her head. “Mettaton was the first to come when I started advertising it, when it was, uh… back down to one member.”
“Yeah, when Sans and Alphys were working together, they used to hang out all the time and talk about weird science stuff for hours!” Papyrus says. His eye sockets narrow. “I thought you knew that?”
“I didn’t know that he was in the Human Culture Fan Club,” Frisk points out. “He liked anime?”
“Eh,” says Alphys. “He liked science fiction. He had a whole collection of paperbacks that had fallen down from the surface -- in really good shape, considering how many were rescued from the river -- and every day it seemed like he had a new one!
“Anyway, we were the original members of the Human Culture Fan Club. It started with us hanging out at the lab, and I would tell him about Chonibs and he tossed me some of his old paperbacks… Then he started coming over, and I showed him anime, and he showed me some of his live action science fiction shows, and we ending up watching a whole lot of science fiction anime.”
“I don’t know how they did it,” Papyrus puts in. “Their fan club parties lasted hours! I came to one once, and it was so boring !”
“You came on a bad day,” Alphys points out. “That was make-fun-of-the-worst-shows day.”
Undyne scoffs. “Papyrus isn’t a nerd . Of course it was boring.”
“I mean… he’s here now for anime night, isn’t he?” Alphys says, laughing nervously.
“That’s different!” Papyrus insists. “Anime is cool now.”
Frisk waves for their attention. “What happened to the fan club?” they ask.
Alphys’ expression becomes somber. She rubs the back of her neck. “Oh, right. It lasted about two years, just me and Sans… but after the accident at the CORE, he kind of stopped coming. He stopped doing a lot of things, really. First it was because he got kind of really obsessed with his work and didn’t have time for anything else… but then eventually he stopped working too, so I didn’t even see him in the lab. When I finally caught him and asked him about it, he just waved it off and said it wasn’t a big deal.”
She looks down at the DVD case in her claws. “After a while, I guess I realized he wasn’t coming back. I missed watching anime with someone, so that’s when I put up the flyers. And that’s when I met Mettaton.
“Sans never did start coming back. Even now, I guess… Toriel shows up sometimes for anime night, but never Sans. I wonder if he’s avoiding me.”
“Avoiding you?!” Undyne echoes in disbelief. “Why would he avoid you?!”
“Oh, um, I mean...” Alphys stutters, flushing. “I mean… not me , specifically. He does talk to me, I guess. But I know that when I feel like I messed something up, I start avoiding it because I’m so embarrassed. And I think, maybe, Sans kind of does the same thing sometimes in his own way? Maybe he feels guilty about leaving the club? Or I don’t know. Maybe I’m totally wrong. I don’t think he’s into science fiction these days anyway.”
“Nah,” Papyrus says. “He doesn’t read as much, but it’s still his favorite!”
Frisk doesn’t say anything immediately. They take the DVD case back from Alphys and turn it over in their hands, reading the synopsis and inspecting the cover art. They look thoughtful. Then: “I’ll pick something else. Can I borrow this one?”
“Oh,” says Alphys, looking surprised. “Yes, sure! What one do you want watch?”
Sans lays sprawled across the couch, feet propped up in Toriel’s lap as she knits. It has long since grown dark and the snow has stopped falling, but in the porch light outside they can see some flakes swirling in stray gusts.
Sans breathes, eye sockets closed. The television in front of them is tuned to some kind of food documentary, and he’s half-listening as he dozes.
Footsteps thump up the stairs outside. As Sans cracks an eye open, the front door bounces open.
“Hey, kiddo,” he greets, with some surprise. It’s late; they had come to think Frisk would be staying over at Alphys and Undyne’s.
Frisk waves back, setting Flowey on the floor so they can pull off their coat and gloves.
“Did you have a good time, my child?” Toriel asks.
Frisk nods, but they seem distracted. The second they’ve kicked off their boots, they grab their backpack and drag it over to the couch. From the front pocket, they pull out a DVD case and thrust it into Sans’ hands.
“Will you watch this with me?” they ask.
Sans looks down at the DVD case. Cowboy Depot. His brow lifts. “Huh. I haven’t seen this one in ages.” Frisk’s gaze is impassive, and Sans grins. “Judging by your expression, you already knew that.”
“What is it?” Toriel asks, leaning over to look.
“A show I used to watch with Alphys.” To Frisk, he adds: “I’m guessing Alphys told you that, huh?”
Sans is looking down at the case, turning it over and over in his hands. It isn’t that this specific show means anything in particular to him, but it’s like holding a relic of an old age. “Alphys tell you anything else?” he asks casually.
Frisk shrugs. “Some. So, you gonna show it to me?”
Sans peers at them. “You up to something, kid?”
They say nothing, just watch Sans unblinkingly.
After a moment, he huffs a laugh. “Well, okay then. Sure, I’ll show you.”
“But not tonight,” Toriel puts in. “It’s getting late. Child, you should head to bed -- and I should, too. Sans, are you coming?”
“Sure -- let me just get Pap his bedtime story, and I’ll be there.”
“Do not be too late,” Toriel says, smiling. Sans’ feet fall to the floor as she gets up. Frisk obligingly follows her out of the living room, dragging their backpack behind them after collecting Flowey from the foyer.
“Good night,” they sign at Sans.
Sans stays on the couch for several long minutes after that, still turning the case over in his hands.
Look, I don't know if Sans would actually like Cowboy Bebop. I haven't watched anime in about 10 years so I picked a random popular sci-fi anime.
If he wouldn't like it, hey, it's Cowboy Depot he watches anyway.
The next morning, the snow has turned to rain. It patters against the window and runs down the glass; the snow that had accumulated at the bottom of the window has melted.
Sans yawns widely, scratching his jawbone as he peers out at the wan morning light. The coffee machine gurgles. It’s too early to think, he reflects, but schools on the surface don’t seem to care about little things like sleep.
A bleary-eyed Frisk enters the kitchen, backpack slung over one shoulder. They slump over to the kitchen table and collapse heavily into one of the chairs.
“Hi,” Frisk says wearily, the gesture sloppy. They grab the box of honey flakes and set about filling the bowl already set out on the table.
“Coffee?” Sans asks as the coffee machine finally clicks off.
Sans brings over a mug. Black, no sugar; the kid has always had oddly tough tastes for a child. As Frisk eats, he returns to the counter, where there’s a loaf of bread and jars of peanut butter and jelly. Sans lays out two slices of bread and sets about slathering them with generous portions of peanut butter.
“Asgore’ll be picking you up after dodgeball practice today,” he says. “Ambassador stuff. Sound good?”
“Okay,” Frisk says. “Is it that book interview?”
“Yeah, the guy who’s writing up about how fun our integration has been. Asgore wants to take you for dinner afterwards -- just don’t as-gnore your homework, ‘kay?”
Frisk meets his gaze impassively. “Too early for puns,” they complain.
Sans grins widely. “It’s a punnerful morning. Kid, which do you want in your lunch -- chips or fruit snacks?”
He tosses a bag of chips into the brown paper bag after the peanut-butter jelly sandwich and then drops the whole thing on the table next to Frisk. “Bone appetit.”
Toriel emerges from the bathroom, yawning, just as Frisk finishes their coffee and is zipping up their backpack.
“Heading out, dear?” she asks. “Have a good day.” She kisses the top of Frisk’s head.
Frisk slings the backpack over their shoulders and tugs a hat over their head. “Bye!” they wave. “See you later!”
“See ya, kid,” Sans replies.
Toriel takes Frisk’s vacated spot at the table. Sans brings her a cup of coffee -- two creams, three spoonfuls of sugar -- and another bulging brown paper bag. He fixes a coffee for himself and slides himself into the seat across the table from Toriel. He yawns widely.
“These high schools make kids get up far too early,” Toriel sighs.
“You’re telling me ?” Sans mumbles, his voice muffled as he pillows his head on his arms. “Used to be when I got up to make Frisk breakfast, I got to at least see the sun. Thank goodness for coffee.”
“Tell me more,” Toriel says. “It’s good for you to espresso yourself.”
Sans turns his head to grin up at her from where his head is rested on his arms. “I’m in morning about this schedule. I’ve decided to save myself by any beans necessary.” He picks up his coffee, and accentuates. “Any. Beans. Necessary.”
Toriel laughs heartily, in her bright bleating laugh that makes Sans feel light as air. He thinks that might just be his favorite sound in the world.
“Oh goodness,” Toriel gasps finally. “A good joke is better than coffee. Thanks for that, dear. And I am sorry that your wake-up time is so much earlier these days.”
“Eh, I’ll live ,” he says, and that sets her off again.
Neither of them point out that Sans could always choose to sleep in and let Frisk get themself ready in the morning. Frisk doesn’t need Sans to make them coffee and a peanut butter jelly sandwich for lunch every morning. But if truth be told, Toriel could sleep in as well; her elementary school starts an hour and a half after the high school. Letting Frisk get up and leave on their own just wasn’t an option. Frisk got up early, so they got up early. It was the way things were.
They sip at their coffee, relaxing at the table as the rain patters the glass and the sky outside slowly lightens to charcoal grey.
“Frisk is going with Asgore tonight, yes?” Toriel asks, after a long moment of quiet.
“Yep.” Sans glances at her. “You okay?”
She smiles slightly. “Yes, of course. Asgore is good for Frisk. I’m glad he’s there to help with their ambassadorial tasks.” But there’s a tightness around her eyes.
“Yeah,” Sans says. He doesn’t press the issue, but adds in an offhand way: “Frisk will be home around eight. Nine at the latest.”
Toriel nods silently.
He watches her. He wishes there were something more he could do to ease the tension in her expression, but he knows there isn’t. This business with exes and children is complicated stuff, and there’s nothing that’s really going to make it easier for her. Well, if there were, he knows Toriel would have found it already.
Toriel manages a smile. “Do you have any plans for today, dear?”
“Nah,” he replies. “Just got a couple things to check on.”
She meets his gaze steadily. “That so? Well, I hope it doesn’t keep you too busy.”
He grins back; she knows it won’t.
When Toriel finally heads out for the day, bag slung over one shoulder and her lunch clutched in her opposite paw, the sky is fully light. Although, today ‘fully light’ is no brighter than a dull, slate gray.
“Have a good day,” Toriel says, and leans down to offer him a peck.
“You too. See ya.”
She picks up a floral-patterned umbrella from beside the door. As she heads out into the rain, Sans can hear the water trickling off the roof and splashing into the growing puddles of slush and mud below. At least Snowdin had had the decency to stay snowy.
And then Sans is left alone inside the apartment. Or. Well. Mostly. Sans casts an uneasy glance at Frisk’s room; Flowey has been quiet this morning.
Eh. Well, unless there’s actual evidence of an immediate problem, Sans isn’t going to bother to deal with it.
The rest of the morning drags by. Sans pulls out a laptop and checks the ambassadorial email account. He clears out the junk and the messages Frisk doesn’t have to see, handles the simple stuff that just requires an attachment or a copy-pasted form letter, and forwards the messages that actually need work to Frisk’s personal email. Once upon a time, cleaning out the influx of emails would have taken all day. Now he’s done before mid morning. At noon, he heats up some leftover snail fry for lunch. By then the rain has petered out, although the air remains heavy with humidity. He decides it’s time to check on Papyrus.
He pulls on his sweatshirt and an old, ratty pair of sneakers and heads out. Four blocks down, he emerges at the front door of Papyrus’ home and doesn’t bother to knock.
Papyrus, technically, lives alone. In practice, Sans does his best to make sure it doesn’t feel that way. Papyrus’ place is a cozy, two-bedroom apartment, in almost the exact kind of layout as the place Sans shares with Toriel; a living room in view of the front door, a kitchen in the back of the house, two bedrooms branching off a long hallway. And, in name, one of those rooms belongs to Sans.
There never had been any kind of official ‘move-out’ for Sans. When they’d gotten to the surface, this was the apartment Sans had managed to find for him and Papyrus; it was affordable and boasted wide windows that allowed the place to fill with natural light. And for a while, they had both lived there. But Sans had started spending more and more time at Toriel and Frisk’s. First just in the afternoons, when Frisk got home from school and Papyrus was still at work. Then he had started being there all day most weekends. That became staying overnight, when he didn’t feel like making the trip back to the place he shared with Papyrus. Eventually, he was there most of the time, dropping back only when Papyrus was home. When the time came to renew the lease, Papyrus had signed off on his own and sent it back.
So, Sans was no longer on the lease. Hell, Papyrus had even started paying the rent on his own. But Sans’ room is still there, looking much the way it did when they’d lived in Snowdin, and he still drops in at least once every day. Sometimes, Papyrus protests loudly that Sans is clingy, and Sans will chuckle and make an idle comment about mooching off of Papyrus’ food. But Papyrus has never yet had to spend a full day without company.
As Sans slouches down the hallway, he glances in on his room, at the tangle of sheets on the floor and discarded socks sprawled around an empty dresser. There’s a note on the door: “CLEAN YOUR ROOM!”. That note has been there for years. He still hasn’t cleaned his room.
“Yo, Pap,” he calls through the house.
“Sans!” comes the response. In the kitchen, Sans finds Papyrus wearing a chef hat and carrying a large bowl that is filled with some sort of batter. “You are here! Excellent! You can help me -- I am making tiny cakes for the children!”
“Oh yeah? You guys having some kind of event at the after-school program today?”
“Yes! I have decided that today will be tiny cake day!”
Sans watches as Papyrus tosses something that looks suspiciously like curry powder into the mix. “Heh. Sounds fun.”
“It shall be! Go fetch my tiny cakes pan.”
“Hey, I never actually said I’d help. I think maybe I’ll just wait here until the free food comes out.”
“You aren’t getting any tiny cakes unless you help!”
Sans chuckles and wanders toward the cabinets, where he finds the cupcake tray at the bottom of a teetering tower of pans. He manages to pull it out, stabilizing the rest of the pans with a lazy flick of one wrist and a half-second flash of blue.
“Here ya go,” he says, bringing it over. “Do I get my free food now?”
“They haven’t been baked yet!”
“What, I can’t taste the batter?”
“Hmm… that is a fair point.” Papyrus scratches his chin. “Alright, you may taste the batter. Go fetch a spoon -- you are not using this one!”
Sans obliges, and Papyrus allows him to scrape a heaping tablespoon of batter out of the bowl.
“Well?” Papyrus asks eagerly, as Sans sticks the spoon between his teeth. “What do you think? It’s my own recipe.”
“Perfect, Pap,” Sans tells him, and Papyrus beams.
But when Papyrus sets down the bowl to check the oven, Sans hastily adds some cocoa powder into the batter to balance out the curry flavor. The tricks Sans has learned from Toriel have protected the kids at Papyrus’ after-school program a fair few times.
Papyrus manages to wrangle Sans into helping fill the cupcake tin, but then promptly ‘fires’ him for his sloppy, uneven work. So Sans is lounging at the kitchen table, enjoying another spoonful of pilfered batter, when the doorbell rings.
Sans and Papyrus both look up in surprise.
“Who can that be?” Papyrus asks loudly. “Sans, go answer the door!”
Sans heaves a sigh and cracks his limbs and he stands, but obliges. In the front hallway, he pulls open the door -- and is almost knocked over as Mettaton bursts in with an explosion of energy.
“DARLING, HELLO!” Mettaton crows brightly, flourishing a bouquet of roses with one flexible, robotic arm. He spots Sans at the door, and pauses. “Oh! You’re here, too.”
The tone isn’t surly, exactly, but it sounds disappointed. Sans’ brow lifts.
“Yep,” he confirms.
“Hi, Sans….” Napstablook floats in behind Mettaton. They’re wearing headphones around their middle, in the absence of having a neck, and are looking downright gloomy. Well, gloomier than usual.
“Hey,” Sans replies. “Pap’s in the kitchen.”
“Thank you, darling,” Mettaton declares, and heads off, with Napstablook trailing quietly behind. Sans follows.
“Mettaton!” Papyrus greets as they enter the kitchen. “I didn’t know you were coming!”
“Surprise, beautiful,” Mettaton coos, leaning up against the counter. He angles the roses toward Papyrus with a flourish of his wrist. “Blooky and I were hanging out this morning, rehearsing some ideas for our next show. And then! We got a delivery of an entire garden of flowers to my dressing room. Well, I couldn’t possibly keep all of them. My skirts kept snagging on the thorns! But, I thought, you know where these flowers would look divine ? In this beautiful home of yours! Blooky and I knew we just had to come over immediately to deliver them! Blooky was so excited!”
Sans notes the resigned look on Napstablook’s face and thinks this recounting might not be entirely accurate.
Papyrus clasps his own face with oven-mittened hands. “For me? Wowie!”
“That is very nice of you! I will have to arrange them immediately! But first, let me clean my hands!”
Papyrus pushes the filled tray of cupcakes into the oven and pulls off his oven mitts. As he washes his bony fingers in the sink, Mettaton moves around to the other side of the counter to inspect the empty bowl where the batter had been.
“Tell me, darling, what are you making?”
“Oh! I am making tiny cakes for the children!”
“Is that so? Delightful!” Mettaton draws one elegant finger through the last of the batter clinging to the sides of the bowl and sucks it into his mouth. It’s almost an obscene gesture.
Slightly uncomfortable, Sans glances over to Napstablook instead -- except now, he can barely spot Napstablook. Their figure has faded to almost complete transparency. Nearly invisible, Napstablook hovers by the fridge and watches Mettaton and Papyrus.
Sans looks between Napstablook to where Mettaton is fawning over Papyrus’ cupcake batter. Mettaton leans toward Papyrus, propped up on his elbows with one high-heeled foot kicked out behind him. Papyrus is focused resolutely on poking the rose stems through the weave on the dining room chairs, but keeps glancing back to Mettaton’s half-lidded expression and grinning. To be fair, Papyrus is always grinning, but… huh. Apparently there a several new developments going on here.
Sans glances back to Napstablook. “You cool?”
Napstablook looks startled to be addressed directly; for a moment, their figure flickers back into full view. But then they look back to Mettaton, and their outline fades again. “Oh....,” they say sadly. “I think… I think maybe we’re not needed anymore….”
Papyrus’ cheekbones are slightly flushed; compliments have always made him blush easily. Sans shrugs. “Eh. I guess even family grows up at some point.”
“Yes… that’s true… I’m sorry… I should go…”
“Hey, bud--,” Sans starts. But Napstablook has already faded entirely.
Sans huffs a sound halfway between a sigh and a laugh. He runs one hand over the back of his skull, glancing back to the center of the kitchen. Mettaton has stolen back one of the roses and is holding it between his teeth.
Maybe Napstablook has a point, Sans thinks. Mettaton and Papyrus might both be the biggest show-offs to come out of the Underground (and Sans says this with the utmost fondness), but right now, they probably deserve privacy.
Silently, he shortcuts out of the apartment.
Afternoon drags on. Sans only has to make it until four before Toriel’s school finishes, but he still has two more hours before then. He takes a nap, washes the dishes left over from breakfast and his lunch, and watches the rest of the food documentary from the previous night.
Eventually, the solid curtain of clouds breaks. As the sun begins to stream in through the west-facing kitchen windows, Sans finally drags himself up from the couch. He fetches a glass of water from the kitchen and makes his way to Frisk’s room.
Frisk’s room isn’t big, and it’s rather cluttered. It’s not messy in the way that Sans’ spaces can get -- even when Sans doesn’t have many things to lay about, he finds ways of having his possessions be in places they shouldn’t be. No, Frisk just has a lot of stuff: collections of odd objects they find lying around and trinkets from friends. While their room is full to bursting with it, there’s some semblance of organization. Their closet doesn’t quite close with all that is crammed inside -- old toys and books and clothing that spans the spectrum of capes to combat boots to cocktail dresses -- but junk doesn’t spill out across the floor. There are action figures from Mettaton, Papyrus, and Alphys; a sweatband from Undyne; receipts and ticket stubs from events that Frisk has hung on to. Collaborative art they made with Monster Kid. A set of bracelets from their new friend Maya. A miniature otter they got as a gift from that other kid, Kelping… or was it Jake? Or Scribble?
Eh, try as he might, Sans can’t keep track of all the friends Frisk makes. Every week, it feels, there’s someone new. He’s not sure how much of that is Frisk’s fame as ambassador, and how much of that is just who Frisk is. It’s definitely some of both.
But some of Frisk’s friends are impossible to forget, even if he’d like to.
“Hey, Flowey,” he greets wearily.
The flower on Frisk’s desk twists around to fix him with an expression of distaste. There’s a pile of paper scraps at the bottom of the flowerpot, apparently from where Flowey has been shredding an old birthday card. Aw, shit. Sans hopes that Frisk wasn’t overly attached to that card.
“Trashbag,” Flowey drawls. “What are you doing here? Don’t you have anything better to do? Like laze around being useless?” Flowey twists his head upside down and leers up at Sans. “Oh, that’s right, you’re always useless!”
Sans heaves a sigh. “One of your rude days, huh? You know, one of these days I’m gonna learn to stop promising to take care of things.” Unceremoniously, he upends the glass over water over Flowey’s head.
Flowey splutters indignantly, shoving soaked petals out of his face with furious swipes of his leaves. “And so what if you do? One day it’ll all go back and you won’t remember! You’ll do it all over again.”
“Maybe,” Sans agrees, gathering up the flowerpot under one arm. “Wouldn’t be so bad to relive this, though.”
“But maybe it will be different this time. Maybe someone will make different choices. Maybe you’ll lose everything, and you won’t even remember having had it at all.”
Sans doesn’t say anything. Flowey cackles.
“And they won’t remember you! Everything will go back to the way it was -- underground, no hope for escape. No one will remember anything. Toriel will have her real family, and she won’t need you.”
This time, Sans meets Flowey’s eyes. “That’s the best you got? Toriel being happy? You’re losing your touch.”
“I am not! You know that bothered you!”
Sans ignores Flowey’s protests and dumps the pot in front of the kitchen window. “There. Enjoy your light snack.”
“You think you’re so clever!”
“Yep,” says Sans. He decides to leave the kitchen; if Flowey’s going to be in one of his worse moods, it’s probably best to leave him to it.
But as he wanders back toward the living room, he finds himself musing. It’s true that Flowey’s taunts didn’t get under his skin -- so to speak. But that hadn’t always been the case. Flowey liked to use his knowledge of the resets as a weapon, and for a while, Sans had come away from every interaction with Flowey with a feeling of roiling unease in his abdomen. Somehow now, the absence of that discomfort is palpable.
Sans flops onto the couch. His gaze falls on the coffee table, where the Cowboy Depot DVD still lays. He picks it up.
Ten years. After so long, the taunts of the resets had lost their sting. It was hard to be scared of something he hadn’t seen any evidence of in over a decade. And even if there had been resets happening in the past ten years and he hadn’t known it . . . well, in a way, that was almost better. Ten years had gone by anyway. Life, somehow, against all odds, against all his expectations, had kept moving.
He’d never really expected to get here. Now that he is here, he finds, he doesn’t know what to do.
I came up with every pun in this chapter except one all by myself, and I am very proud of this fact.
--Seven years earlier--
The bar at the corner isn’t Grillby’s, but Grillby hasn’t rebuilt his business on the surface yet and so they make do. O’Keefe’s at least has a decent offering of burgers, unlimited ketchup refills, and is known for being relatively friendly toward monster patrons. It’s a good place to stop for a treat after a long sign language class and an even longer day at school, and it’s one of Sans and Frisk’s favorite weekly traditions.
Today, though, Frisk is only picking at their burger. They’re staring at their plate with a distracted, tense expression.
Sans lowers his ketchup bottle. “You okay, kid?” he asks.
Frisk looks up, fixing him with that same scrunched-brow look they were giving to their burger. With slow, halting sign language, they say: “Can I ask you something?”
“Uh, sure. Shoot.”
A second’s hesitation, and then: “Time travel.”
Sans feels a jerk below his ribs. The chatter of the bar somehow suddenly sounds distant, as if someone had turned up the fader. Okay, so they’re having this conversation. “That’s not exactly a question,” he points out lightly.
“I’m not the only one who can do it, right?” Although it’s signed as a question, the expression on Frisk’s face says they already know the answer.
Sans lets out a breath between his teeth. “No.” he agrees. “Our reports… well, some of the timelines that changed were from before you were born. Those probably weren’t you, eh?”
Frisk shakes their head. They add: “I don’t think I could do it before I fell.”
“Yeah? That fall changed a lot of things, I guess.”
Frisk nods, and looks down at their plate. Several long moments pass.
Sans really wants to change the subject, but it’s obvious that something is still weighing on Frisk’s mind. He takes a long swig from his ketchup. Then, carefully, with forced casualness: “So, uh… have you done any resets since we’ve been up here?”
“ No!” They gesture emphatically, even while shaking their head.
Sans feels a weight lift off his shoulders. “Oh, okay. Just askin’.”
“I only did it two times on purpose down there, too!”
“Really, only twice?”
Frisk nods. They start to sign something, then hesitate, as if trying to find the words. They start again, then pause again.
“Do you want to write it?” Sans asks. Over the past few years, Frisk’s skill in sign language has improved incredibly, but sometimes when they have a lot to say at once it’s still easier for them to write it out instead.
Frisk nods, and pulls a notebook out of their backpack. As they write, Sans sits back, watching. He should have known this conversation was coming, he supposes. Two and a half years out of the Underground, and they hadn’t yet talked about the resets. The elephant in the room should be paying rent at this point. But he’d gotten so used to not talking about it, it feels almost taboo to mention it aloud now.
Finally, Frisk finishes writing. They turn the page toward Sans.
“When I died, I time travelled anyway. But only two times I did it on purpose. The first time was because Mettaton kept killing me. I was scared and I wanted to go home, but Mom didn’t answer the phone. So I time traveled back home and Mom found me again and I stayed there for a while.”
Sans has to break off reading there and close his eyes. He draws a hand over his jaw, feeling -- not for the first time -- a sinking sense of guilt about the pain Frisk went through when he was supposed to be looking out for them. He remembers the way, in the months after leaving the Underground, Frisk would flinch away from Mettaton’s hugs. Sans is lucky Toriel hasn’t killed him. And then resurrected him. And killed him again, over and over, for each and every time Frisk died.
“The second time,” he reads when he opens his eyes again, “I was scared because I was going to fight Dad. When you left, I was alone, and I couldn’t find you again. I time traveled so you’d be back. That’s when you figured out I could do it, and you told me to do it again for your password.”
Sans looks up and meets Frisk’s gaze. “Kid, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to leave you scared. I totally believed you could do it, I guess.”
Frisk gives him a weak smile. “It’s okay.”
It’s not, but Sans doesn’t push the point.
“I haven’t done it again,” Frisk says, after taking the notebook back. “But if other people can time travel, maybe they’re doing it. Or maybe they will.”
“It’s possible,” Sans agrees slowly.
Frisk meets his gaze with wide, worried eyes. “What do you do when everything could go back, even when you don’t want it to?”
Oh, boy . Here are Sans’ anxieties, laid out for him in broad daylight. He’s not sure he ever expected anyone else to utter those worries; he definitely didn’t expect to face them in the worried expression of his own kid.
He takes a deep breath and scratches uncomfortably at the back of his skull. “Heh, you go right for the gut, kid.” He exhales a breathy laugh. “I’ve been asking myself the same question for years, and I don’t know that I ever came up with any good answers.”
Frisk is still watching him expectantly. He takes a moment to consider his next words, then continues:
“I guess the best I can say is just, well, if all of this can disappear, make sure you’re doing the things that matter. Some things won’t matter anymore if everything goes back. Other things will never not matter. Like… if I spend all my energy on some project for work, and everything goes back, that energy didn’t matter because I have to do it all over again. But if I spent that time with you or Toriel or Papyrus, well -- no matter how many times I do that over, it will always matter.”
Here, he pauses. “Don’t use any of this as a reason to slack off from school, though. If Toriel thinks I encouraged you to quit homework, she’d never let me hang with you anymore.”
Frisk doesn’t laugh, or even smile. “That’s not what I mean, though,” they say. “When I time traveled all the way back home because of Mettaton, none of you remembered me. Papyrus said he felt like he knew me, but… he didn’t really remember me. If someone else time travels all the way back, I don’t want everyone to forget me again.” Their face scrunches up; they look to be on the verge of tears. “I don’t want to lose everyone.”
“Oh.” Well, damn, isn’t he stupid to assume Frisk would have the same worries as he does. Of course Frisk isn’t concerned about work! Frisk has always been kinder, more selfless, than himself. “I’m sorry, kid. That’s not something I’ve thought about as much. I guess… well, I’ve always had my family so going back didn’t matter about that. Hell, if you went back far enough…” He trails off. This is about Frisk.
“Look, kid,” he says finally. “You said Pap kind of remembered you when you went back?”
“I did, too. I didn’t really say anything then ‘cause I was still trying to get a read on who you were, right? But the moment I saw you I had the sense I already knew you, and that I liked you.”
“But you still didn’t really remember me.”
“No,” Sans agrees. “But, I guess what I’m tryin’ to say is that some bonds seem to last the resets. So, if someone else resets us back there, we’ll be friends again. Hey, I wouldn’t mind meeting you all over again.”
“But what if I don’t remember you either?” Frisk asks stubbornly. “What if I go back to the foster home and I don’t run away this time because I don’t remember everyone?”
“Aw, come here, kid.” Sans leans across his bar stool to wrap one arm around Frisk and draw them into his shoulder. Frisk clings tightly to his sweatshirt. “Look, I dunno how many time travelers there are out there, but we’re all here today. We were here yesterday. And . . . we’ll all be here tomorrow.”
He takes a breath, and adds:
Frisk pulls back, frowning. They let go to say: “You don’t know that.”
“Maybe not,” Sans agrees. “But I learned a secret: promises ain’t always about what you know.”
“I don’t understand.”
“I don’t either, really,” he admits. “But tomorrow, we’ll all still be here.”
Slowly, Frisk nods. They stay there for a long moment, just leaning against Sans’ shoulder. Sans stays perfectly still, as if not to startle a skittish cat that has chosen his lap.
Eventually, Frisk straightens. They exhale.
“You good, kid?” Sans asks gently.
“I don’t want to time travel again,” they reply, the motions small.
“Yeah. Well, hopefully whoever else out there that can do it keeps their magic to themself.”
“No. I mean, I don’t want to be the one who does it.”
Sans pauses. Slowly: “I think that’s a good idea. Time travel is messy business.”
“But what if someone gets hurt? And I could go back to stop it?”
Sans frowns, uneasy. The conversation seems have to swung from the helplessness of being dragged along for the ride in a reset to a control he’s never quite had. And yet, this question too dredges up tough memories. He searches Frisk’s expression, as if looking for a map of their thoughts. He doesn’t find any answers.
“That’s not your job,” he says quietly.
Frisk looks dubious.
Sans sighs, dropping his gaze to the bar’s surface. “I… tried once. I had to do it the old-fashioned way, with time machines and stuff, not with whatever magic it is you got. And it was just one thing I was trying to change, one person I was trying to save. But it drove me kind of crazy.
“The timeline’s not supposed to belong to anyone. And no one’s supposed to live outside time. When ‘now’ stops mattering . . . well, you’re not really living anymore.”
When he looks up again, Frisk is still watching him stubbornly. “But I could help them.”
He shakes his head. “Not your job,” he repeats. “And for every . . . every one person you save, there’s another Frisk who found their home, another bunch of people that’s found freedom. You’d have to start deciding whose happiness is worth sacrificing. That’s too much on any one person.”
This time, Frisk nods. They pick at their fries.
“Hey, if you don’t mind,” Sans says, “what brought these questions on?”
A sheepish expression crosses Frisk’s face. “Flowey was talking to me.”
“Talking flower got in your head? Aw, kid, you can’t listen to a word that thing says.”
Frisk shrugs, and eats another fry.
“You sure you want to keep him around? We could drop him at Alphys and Undyne’s . . .”
Frisk levels him with a cold glare.
“Okay, okay, sorry,” Sans says, breaking off with a chuckle. “He stays. But stop listening to him.” And Flowey is getting a talking-to, Sans thinks darkly. Flowey has no place messing with the one person who stands up for him the most.
“Okay,” Frisk agrees. They grab another fry and suck on the end, while watching Sans intently. Then, they ask: “Who did you try to save?”
Frisk’s eyes fly wide. “Your dad! I didn’t know you had a dad!”
“Well, of course I did. Where did you think I came from?”
“Did you have a mom too?”
“Nope, no mom.”
Frisk frowns, confused. They finish eating the fry hanging out of their mouth, and say slowly: “So… you tried to time travel to help your dad?”
Sans nods. “Yeah. He got hurt. I tried to go back to stop it, but it didn’t really work. I’ll, uh . . . I’ll tell you the whole story one day, okay?”
For a long moment, Frisk stares at him. It’s that steady, piercing gaze Frisk has, the one that makes him wonder if determination is a magic all of its own.
The moment passes. “Okay,” Frisk says, and picks up their burger.
Sans lets out a breath. If Frisk had pushed, he would have tried to tell them, but he’s not sure he knows the words. He remembers telling Toriel; he’d felt hot all over, and he couldn’t meet her eyes. He’d just stared into his mug of coffee, as if telling the story to the coffee rather than her, and his voice had sounded high and tight even to him. Frisk would be even harder to tell; at least with Toriel, he can let himself fall apart just a little.
One day, he’ll tell Frisk. Just not today. In the meantime, at least Frisk can talk to him about their anxieties about the resets. That’s more than Sans ever had himself.
What were the resets to you, Dad? he wonders. What would you have said to me, if I came to you?
“Alright, everyone, are we ready for lunch?” Toriel asks.
“Yes!” chorus a dozen young voices.
Toriel smiles down at her class. Every year, a new set of faces, and yet every year she feels certain she has the best class in the world. The children grin back at her, clustering around excitedly. “Alright, everyone. Grab your lunches, and then let us get in a single file line.”
There’s a lot of rushing around happy babbling as the children dart for their cubbies. When they have lunch boxes or brown paper bags clutched in hand (or paw or claw), they scramble to organize themselves in some semblance of a line.
“Ren, are you not hall leader today?” Toriel calls to a dark-haired child clinging to a star-patterned lunchbox who had slipped to the back of the line. They look sheepish, and scurry to the front. Toriel takes her spot at the caboose.
The energized gaggle of children sets off down the hall. The librarian waves as they pass by the library’s open doors. When they get to the cafeteria, Toriel herds them over to their class’ table and releases the kids with meal tickets to go buy lunch. “Everyone all set?” she asks, but the students aren’t listening anymore. They’re digging into their packed lunches and babbling excitedly with one another, their barely-contained energy bubbling over all at once.
Toriel smiles fondly at them, waves a greeting to the lunch monitor, and heads back to her classroom. There, she retrieves her bulky paisley handbag from beside her desk. When she opens the bag, though, her expression suddenly falls, and she covers her face with a resigned sigh.
“Forgot your lunch, huh?”
Toriel jumps, the fur on the back of her neck all rising all at once. “Sans!” she scolds, twisting. “Do not scare me like that! And did you even stop by the office to get your visitor pass?”
“Oops,” Sans says, grinning. “ Pie guess I was too egg -cited to drop by.” He holds up a brown paper bag and rattles it.
And Toriel is smiling, too. His visit is an unexpected but delightful surprise. “I think I can make a good guess of what you have packed for me.”
“I’m so grapeful you understand me.”
She laughs, leaning her face into one hand. It’s been a while since she’s seen him at the school, and already her day feels better to see him here now. “Do you want to romaine for lunch, Sans? But please get your visitor pass first.”
“C’mon, Tori, it’s just us. You know who I am -- Goullish the Ghost, right?”
“It is the rules, sweetie. And the kids will be coming back eventually; don’t you want to set a good egg -sample for them?
He beams, eyelights bright. “Heh, alright. You know they won’t notice, though.”
She blinks and he’s gone. A few moments later, he reappears, with a nametag plastered haphazardly on his sweatshirt, and a family-size bag of chips in his hand.
“Potato chips, really?” Toriel chastises as he pulls another chair up to the desk. As short as he is, the children’s chairs aren’t as ridiculously small for him as they could be. “You make such nice lunches for Frisk and myself; you could eat the same.”
“Well, you and Frisk need your energy,” he says with a wink. “‘Sides, you can’t tell me what they’re serving the kids in the caf is any better. What’s it today -- pizza grease soup?”
“Ah, well…” But even she has to admit he has a point there. “Well, at least share some of the fruit you have packed for me.”
He waves her off. “Don’t like grapes. How ‘bout I promise fresh veggies at dinner? Extra serving for me.”
Toriel sighs. “Whatever will I do with your diet? But alright. That is acceptable.”
“So, how are the little squirts?” Sans asks, as he pulls open the bag of chips.
“Oh, wonderful as always. Ren did such a good job sitting still during story circle today! And Lola wrote some beautiful letters; she has really been working on her handwriting. Unfortunately, I am going to have to call Susie’s parents again. They just will not believe she has a behavior problem.”
As Toriel talks, Sans rests his chin on one hand and pops chips in his mouth with the other. “Ugh, parents.”
“I know they are just trying to support her, but ignoring problems is not going to help her. She is having trouble making friends; that will hurt her in the long run.”
“Yeah, that’s true. What’re you gonna tell her parents this time?”
Toriel sighs. “I just do not know. I have tried what I could think of. I have offered them referrals and spoken with her kindergarten teacher, and I have tried being gentle, and I have tried being firm. But if they will not listen, there is not much I can do for her outside of class.”
He nods. “At least she’s got you at school, though. Not all teachers would do what you do for ‘em.”
“You flatter me,” Toriel says with a soft laugh. “And I do hope I help. But in three months she will not be in my care anymore, and I do want her to have the opportunity to thrive.”
She sighs again.
“But let us not spend our entire lunch worrying about stubborn parents. I still have three months to get through to them, and I can make sure that Susie’s next teacher knows about her troubles and the methods I have found that help.”
“There ya go,” Sans says. “She’s got you; someone’s looking out for her.”
She smiles at him. “Thank you, dear. I hope it will be enough.” Sans always seems to find the right words to make every anxiety seem a little less pressing. Or perhaps it’s not specifically his words at all, but his presence itself. It is hard to worry about the things that might be when she’s around Sans’ laid-back demeanor. She reaches into her bag and unwraps her egg sandwich. “But tell me about your day?”
“Eh,” says Sans. “Same old. Flowey’s being a jerk. I dropped by Papyrus’, said hi. The journalist writing that book sent over that chapter he wrote from Frisk’s interview last month.”
“Oh! Have you read it? How was it?”
“Looked pretty good to me, I guess. Pretty straightforward; not a whole lot of embellishments or commentary. But I guess Frisk’ll have to take a look and see what they think.”
“Ah, good, no frisk -y exaggerations.”
Sans shakes his head, chuckling. “That was terrible , T. That wasn’t even a good bad joke.”
She laughs brightly.
It’s been too long since she and Sans had spent a lunch together on a weekday; goodness, it’d been almost a full school year. This past year, Toriel had been spending her lunch periods preparing for afternoon lessons, perhaps rather by habit than by necessity alone. But today maybe, a dose of Sans’ easy-going smiles and bad humor would be a welcome break.
And, she thinks, watching his eyelights glow brighter, Sans needs a lunchtime visit as much - if not more - than she does.
“By the way, I think I might need to remember to bring sunglasses to class.”
“Oh yeah?” Sans says, grinning and propping his chin up with one hand.
“Because my students are so bright!”
He laughs. “Heh, that one’s better. Okay, I have one -- what did the ghost teacher say to the class?”
“I do not know. Tell me?”
“Look at the board, and I’ll go through it again!”
“Oh, of course! Have you told that to Napstablook?”
“Yeah, I don’t think they liked it though. Their sense of humor is a little dead .”
She covers her mouth, even as she laughs. “Oh no, do not be mean!”
Yes, Sans needs these visits. A long time back, she knows, Sans had decided only one thing mattered to him: family. And, once, that had been enough. There had been sign language to learn and homework to help with and company to provide and relatives’ rent to pay.
But, Toriel also knows, there’s this ironic thing about providing for people: when you do it right, one day they don’t need you anymore. At least, not in the same ways. It’s a strange, but lovely, way of things, and one that’s still sometimes hard to wrap her mind - and heart - around.
And so, there’s another thing Toriel knows: Sans is bored. And while the shift might be a testament to years of good support, while Sans might claim to prefer few responsibilities and more free time . . . boredom is a dangerous thing.
Jokes over lunch help, but they no more heal than jokes through a door. A comfort, certainly; a bright spot to lighten up dull days, a special occasion when it’s irregular and a positive routine when it’s not, but purpose matters. Without a sense of purpose, a comfort is just a patch on a frayed sense of well-being. It’s never been jokes that gave Sans a sense of purpose.
Toriel tells Sans about the new marker-poking game the students came up with, which doesn’t seem to have any clear-cut rules (or rather, has rules that bend depending on who’s playing and how many points that person is behind on). He’s in stitches as she describes the absurdity of the latest round with Jackson and Alice, which involved drawing increasingly imaginative rainbow dragonfly pirates on each other’s skin.
“Oh man, I’m glad you work with kids,” he gasps between laughs. “The material they come up with is comedy gold.”
“Children are certainly something special,” Toriel agrees, snickering into her paw.
Indeed, the children are special. Toriel knows a thing or two about boredom after so many long, lonely years in the Ruins, and having her class now is a blessing. Where would she be without them, if she hadn’t won the fight to allow monsters to teach in human schools? The thought of the world that could have been, in which she never got to meet any of her students, in which they never got to be in her life, twists something uncomfortably in her chest.
Toriel rests her chin in her paw and peers at Sans, considering. He must see something in her expression shift, because his laughter quiets and he fixes her with a quizzical gaze.
“Have you thought any more about what you will do after Frisk leaves?” she asks.
Harsh, perhaps, to drop the question without warning, without even a transition, but Toriel has learned if she gives Sans too much warning about a question he doesn’t like, he has a tendency to worm his way out of it before she even gets the words out of her mouth.
“Oh. Uh. Not yet.” He scratches uncomfortably at the back of his skull. “I mean, there’s still a lot of time, right? Still over a year before Frisk leaves.”
“There is,” she agrees. “I hope that whatever you pick will not have too many obstacles to getting started.”
They both remember the long fight it took for Toriel to start teaching. The equally long fight for Papyrus to work at his afterschool program. Mettaton’s struggle to land roles; Napstablook’s long, gigless months. It took Grillby five years to open a business on the surface, not for lack of trying.
Sans shrugs. “If I go back to work, it’ll probably be something like dishwashing or whatever. Plenty of monsters are already doing that, and hey, maybe Grillby will have a spot for me.”
“Is dishwashing what you want to do?”
“Uh, I dunno. I mean, what I want to do is take it easy and hang around. Isn’t that an option?”
But there’s something sad in Sans’ tone. Toriel reaches out and covers one of his hands with her paw. “There still is some time,” she says again. “How about we talk about it more after Frisk takes the SAT’s at the end of the month? You can think about it until then.”
“Alright. It’s a date.”
“Thank you, dear.”
Sans easily -- perhaps too easily -- slips back into telling jokes for the rest of their lunch break. Toriel laughs with him, but part of her mind is working, churning over the question she’d posed to Sans. She’s not sure she trusts him to consider what he wants; she’s not sure she trusts him to know what he wants. Not in the ways that are meaningful, at least.
What will it take, she wonders, for Sans to be not just content, but fulfilled?
Sans and Toriel are eventually interrupted by the approaching noises of excited children still buzzing from recess. Sans glances toward the open door. “Welp, sounds like lunch break is over.”
“Yes -- well, thanks for dropping by, dear.” Toriel sweeps the remains of her lunch into the brown paper bag. Sans takes it.
Before he disappears, though, the recess monitor appears at the doorway, flanked by Toriel’s class.
“Here’s your delivery of one class, Miss Tori. Oh hello, you have a visitor!”
At the recess monitor’s words, the kids are craning around curiously, trying to get a good look at the newcomer.
“Thank you, Ms. Emily,” Toriel says. “Children, please put away your things and go to your seats.”
“Who’s that Miss Tori?!” pipes Maya, who is at the front.
Sans looks like he’s not quite sure how to react to the attention, but nor does he seem overly uncomfortable. He’s watching the kids, one hand in his pocket, and the other scratching at his neck.
“This is, ah, Mr. Sans, he is my part--”
“Is that your boyfriend?”
“Oh my gosh, it is! Isn’t it, isn’t it!”
Sans laughs, covering his face with one hand. “Oh man, Tori. You weren’t kidding; these guys are smart.”
Toriel’s laughing too. “Yes,” she says to the class. “I suppose he is my boyfriend.” It’s not the word she and Sans usually use, but saying it now makes her feel giddy and young.
“Oh my gosh!” a dozen children squeal in unison.
“Well, I’ll leave you to it,” Miss Emily sniggers, grinning widely. “It was nice to meet you, Sans!”
Sans waves her a distracted goodbye. The kids are tumbling into the classroom; most hurry over to their cubbies, staring at Sans with wide eyes, but Jamie scrambles right up to him and grabs his sleeve.
“Do you kiss Miss Tori?” he asks breathlessly.
“Uh, sometimes, yeah.”
“ Ewwwwwww! ”
A deep blue flush is creeping over Sans’ cheekbones, and when he shoots her a helpless look, Toriel has to cover her mouth to stop from breaking into wild laughter. She’s known that Sans is a blusher for years, but it’s been a long time since she’s seen him blush like this.
“Come on, go sit down,” she says to Jamie, struggling to keep the mirth out of her voice. “We can ask Mr. Sans more questions later.”
At the front, Ren’s hand shoots up, and without waiting to be called on, they shout out: “Mr. Sans, are you a teacher too?”
“Eh, nope. I’m just a lazybones.”
Most of the class stares up at him unblinkingly, but at the back of the classroom, Lola starts giggling. Sans beams at her; Toriel knows he’s just picked a favorite student.
“Do not be a bonehead , Sans,” Toriel puts in, and Lola laughs harder. “You don’t just laze around. Sans here takes care of our child and the rest of our family from home.”
Another squeal. “You have a baby! ”
“Oh -- not exactly,” Toriel says, almost apologetically. “Frisk is almost grown now. They’re going to finish high school next year.”
By the window, Jackson pulls a face and grumbles loudly: “I don’t like teenagers.” Next to him, Susie is completely ignoring all the excitement, and is instead picking at one of her scabs.
But the other children are riveted. Maya yells out: “Do you have pictures?!” Dylan asks: “Are they a skeleton like Mr. Sans? Or do they have big ears like you, Miss Tori?” And Maria and Kat grab each other’s hands and burst out singing: “Mr. Sans and Miss Tori, sitting in a tree, K - I - S - S - I - N - G! First comes love, then comes marriage, then comes Mr. Sans with the baby carriage!”
Sans stares helplessly at Toriel, still blushing furiously. Toriel almost wants to take pity on him, but another thought strikes her.
“Actually, Ren,” she says, to the child still clutching their planet-patterned lunchbox. “Did you know that Mr. Sans knows a lot about science and space?”
Ren lights up. Space is their favorite thing in the whole world - so to speak. “Really? Mr. Sans, do you know what a black hole is?”
“A black hole?” Sans echoes. He winks out one eyelight and points at the now-dark, empty socket. “You mean like this?”
“ Ewww! ” Ren giggles. “No, that’s not it!”
“Sans!” Toriel chastises, even as she hides a laugh behind a paw.
“Heh, just kiddin’. Yeah, I know about black holes. Dead stars that are so big that even light can’t get past ‘em.”
“But they can be really little, too! Like, as big as a fly’s eye!”
“That so?” Sans says.
“Yeah! And only really really big stars can become black holes.”
“Yep, that’s true.”
“And! And! there’s a giant black hole at the middle of the Milky Way!”
Sans is watching Ren intently, clearly amused by this child’s take on stellar phenomena. Ren, for their part, is beside themself with delight to have someone they can spout information about their favorite topic at. Toriel feels almost sorry to reign them back in, but she knows if she lets them, Ren will babble for hours.
“Well, we had better get back to class so that we can have a lot of drawing time at the end of the day, right?” Toriel calls out, drawing attention back to her. “But maybe sometime we can have Sans come back and teach us what he knows about space. What do you think?”
“ Yes! ” the class choruses, and Ren’s voice is the loudest.
Sans shoots Toriel a startled look. She smiles innocently back at him; she knows he can’t turn them down now.
“How does that sound, Mr. Sans?” she asks sweetly.
Sans gives his head a little, resigned shake. “Yeah, okay.”
“Great! Now, class, let us say goodbye to Sans for now.”
“Bye, Mr. Sans!”
Sans tosses them a lazy wave, then gathers up the rest of his and Toriel’s lunch and heads out through the door at the back of the classroom. Lola is closest to the back; she watches out the window on the door, and gasps: “He disappeared!”
Toriel chuckles. She gets up from the desk and makes her way over to the brightly-colored schedule on the side of the board. “Alright, class. It is after recess, so what do we have next?”
“Journals!” the kids call back.
When Toriel gets home later that day, the sun is sinking in the sky and casting the apartment in a red-gold glow. In the living room, Sans is sprawled out across the couch, a laptop propped up on his middle.
“Hey, Tori,” he greets, rolling his head to grin at her. “What’s up?”
“Good evening, Sans,” she replies. She comes over to the couch and leans down to give him a quick kiss. From there, she glances at his computer screen. “What are you looking at?”
It looks like an article on recent astronomical discoveries. An artistic rendering of a black hole portrays a dark, spherical shape casting out shards of light; it’s quite beautiful.
“Oh, uh.” To Toriel’s surprise, Sans sounds almost sheepish. “I guess I was gettin’ a head start on the lesson for your kiddos. Thought I should brush up on what’s new in space.”
“Oh, that is lovely! Did you find anything interesting?”
“Yep. They got some really cool readings off the event horizon of the supermassive black hole in our galaxy. They think it’s from the accretion disk. Also, did you know that there was a galaxy that once collided with ours called the Gaia Sausage? I think that’s pretty great.”
Toriel laughs lightly. “What a fantastic name!”
“Hey, the telescope they used on the black hole is called the VLT, which stands for Very Large Telescope. Scientists are great at names.”
“I never doubted it. Come on, move up.” Toriel pushes at Sans’ feet, and he obligingly draws them up closer to his chest so that she can sit down on the opposite side of the couch. Once she’s settled, he plops his feet back in her lap.
“Yep. There’s also an Extremely Large Telescope in Chile, and there was a scrapped project for an Overwhelming Large Telescope.”
“But of course! Next up will be TSLIGYED.”
Sans lets out a startled chuckle. “Hey, I’m the one who’s supposed to make jokes about existential dread.”
“No, you are not,” Toriel replies sagely. “Because they’re not really jokes when you say them, are they?”
“Oof. It’s not polite to air a comedian’s baggage like that,” he laughs, covering his face with one hand.
Toriel laughs too and pats his knee. “Sorry, dear.”
“But y’know,” he adds, slowly drawing his hand back down his face and peeking out at her between his fingers, “I haven’t really felt that way in a while.”
Toriel’s ears perk up; her eyes crinkle at the corners with the force of her smile. Yes, she’d suspected as such, but hearing him say it aloud makes her heart leap. “Really?”
“Yep. It’s been ten years. I guess everything could reset, but I’m starting to think it’s not gonna. And, well, I guess we’re here now.”
“Yes,” Toriel stays softly. “I guess we are.”
Sans pulls his hand down properly and grins at her.
Toriel rests her chin on his knee. “Would you like to tell me more about the Gaia Sausage?”
“Uh, well, frank -ly it’s a new discovery. They don’t know a lot about it, yet. But apparently they think the Gaia Sausage restarted stellar formation, ‘cause of all the gas it brought.”
It’s wonderful to hear Sans talk about the stars. When he starts to really talk about them, his eyes are always a little brighter, and if she listens closely, she can hear a note of something like reverence in his voice even while he’s cracking puns. Whatever else might come of her ploy to get him to teach her class, this moment alone is pay-off enough.
She remembers the first time she’d realized just how much the stars meant to him. It’d been a few weeks after they’d made it to the surface, in a small suburb some distance away from Ebott City where an inn had agreed to host some of these strange monsters in exchange for a few Gs (a very uneven exchange, they discovered later, but at least they had a place to stay). And that night, Toriel had found Sans sitting outside on the steps of the inn, his head craned toward the heavens. The expression on his face was something raw and beautiful and almost intimate, a kind of disbelieving longing. He heard her approach and tore his gaze away from the sky, and Toriel had felt a sharp pang of regret for having disturbed him. But he just smiled lazily at her and commented: “We’re really on the surface, huh?”
“What are you looking at?”
“The stars.” Quietly, to himself: “Wonder how many times I’ve seen them.”
Toriel hadn’t known what he meant back then. But she sat beside him and looked up at the pinpricks of light strewn across the deep black sky. Every time she looked up on the surface, she got a sharp sense of vertigo, as if she were about to fall into the sky. But she looked, and it was beautiful. Sans pointed out Orion and Betelgeuse and Sirius and the Seven Sisters, and Toriel listened to every second in rapt interest, knowing that seeing this side of her humorous friend was a gift many didn’t receive.
Now, the times Toriel gets to hear Sans talk about the stars are still few and far between, but each time he does, she gets a glimpse of something like that raw expression she’d seen back on the steps of the inn.
When he finally exhausts talking about the discoveries he’d read that afternoon, Toriel squeezes his knee and says: “Thank you for giving so much of your time to making a treat for my students.”
“Eh, it’s nothing,” he says, looking embarrassed. “Heh, between this and Frisk’s sci-fi episodes tonight, I’m doing so much space stuff today. Pap would be horrified.”
“I am certain Papyrus would be delighted that you are spending time doing things that you enjoy.”
“Eh, he thinks it’s all nerdy crap.”
Toriel narrows her eyes at him disbelievingly but does not argue further. “What will we be watching with Frisk tonight?” Since they’d finished Cowboy Depot a few weeks ago, Frisk has been coming up with new shows to watch with them -- always science fiction, always something Sans had once known.
“I unno,” Sans replies. “Think Frisk has been hinting at Star Walk , but if we do that we’ll be here for the next four years.”
“If that means Frisk will visit us every evening for the next four years, I will not complain.”
“Speaking of Frisk, they will be home from dodgeball soon, yes?”
“Yep. Guess I should probably start thinking about dinner.” A grimace suddenly crosses his expression, and he covers his face with a groan. “Oh man, I forgot to thaw the chicken. Geez, I’m sorry, T.”
“Oh!” says Toriel. “That is alright. We can use the microwave, or we can make something else. I be- leaf you promised me extra veg tonight.”
That makes Sans quirk a smile, but he says: “I guess that’s what you get for asking a lazybones to do any work, huh?” The tone is self-deprecating, and it’s such a sudden shift from the joy that had been on his face moments before that Toriel feels as if part of her stomach has dropped away.
She frowns. “Sans. It is alright. I believe everyone forgets to take the chicken out of the freezer at some point. And we will not go hungry; there are many alternatives.”
“Yeah. Guess I just should have known to do everything else before doing any of this space stuff. I tend to forget about the important things.”
Toriel places one paw on the laptop, looks Sans square in the eye, and states firmly: “ This is also important.”
Sans doesn’t reply to that, just lifts his brow. He looks unwilling to believe her, but also unwilling to argue. Toriel knows they’ve touched on something that runs deeply for Sans, part of the reason the moments she gets to see his eyes light up like the stars he talks about are so few. But she has never found the words to help him talk easily about this topic. Even now, she can see his expression closing down.
She sighs, and offers him a soft smile. “Come on, dear. We still have plenty of time before Frisk gets home. Let us go to the kitchen and see what can be done.”
He drags himself off of the couch and slouches off toward the kitchen. Toriel follows. As Sans stares into the pantry, scratching his neck, she rests a hand on his shoulder and drops a casual kiss to the top of his skull. He leans slightly into her touch.
She wishes desperately she could magic away whatever anxiety or self-doubt is plaguing him, but that is not a magic any monster can do. Toriel supposes she can only hope that the support that she and Frisk and everyone else give Sans will be enough to help him solve his troubles himself.
When Frisk gets home, there’s grilled cheese and steamed vegetables for dinner. Frisk tells them about the mind-bending dodges they made in dodgeball practice; Flowey is brought out to the kitchen table, and Sans cracks jokes to needle him until Frisk glares. Toriel asks what Frisk’s friends are doing over the spring break; Frisk talks about Kid’s hiking trip and Jake’s college visits. Flowey complains about every topic brought up.
And Sans doesn’t talk about the stars.
Stars are great okay???
Comment and tell me your favorite thing about space, since I'm actually getting into the space shit part of this fic now.
Content warning in this chapter for discussion of canon child loss.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
“Yo, so pros for Ebott U - in a city, academics, research opportunities, close to home. Cons - not a lot of dorm space, no regular dodgeball team, and again, close to home.”
In the backseat of the van, Kid has a notebook open their lap and several flyers from Ebott University spread across the center seat between them and Frisk. Sans looks back and sees Frisk say: “No dodgeball is fine. I can play something else, and I’m not going to college for sports.”
“Don’t let Undyne hear you say that, dude,” Kid comments, and scribbles something in their notebook.
They’ve gotten really into this college search process. Sans has seen the charts and heard them ramble about the characteristics of different schools so fast he feels dizzy just listening. And Kid has dragged their parents off to visit something like a seven campuses already, sometimes taking Frisk along with them. So this time, when Kid wants to visit a school that’s also on Frisk’s list and also a half hour from Frisk’s place, their parents were quick to ask Sans and Toriel if they wanted to take the children instead.
Sans is a little surprised by Kid’s enthusiasm about the whole thing. They never did strike him as the egghead type -- sure, Kid gets decent grades, but isn’t really into school. Them and Frisk both. Well, the college thing isn’t just academics, Sans figures. He supposes he can understand getting excited about figuring out where you’re gonna live for the next four years. It’s kind of adorable, really.
“Oh! A spot!” Toriel exclaims, and flicks on her blinker to take the empty parking spot along the side of the road. It’s a tight fit, but Toriel’s a whiz at parallel parking. “We are quite lucky to get a spot so close to campus,” she says as she shuts off the van.
“Yo, come on!” Kid calls, sweeping up the flyers with their tail and shoving them unceremoniously into their bag. “If we move, we can check out the Student Union before the tour!”
Enthusiastically, Frisk springs from the car. The two of them scamper down the sidewalk, leaving Sans and Toriel to hurry after them.
“Children! Wait for us!” Toriel calls, but Frisk and Kid are already halfway down the street. “Oh, goodness, they both are so excited.”
“Heh, yeah. Kid is getting Frisk more riled up, too.”
“Yes, that is true - of course, Frisk liked Ebott University before, but Kid’s excitement is a little . . . infectious.”
“Yep. And what do you think?”
“It is a good school, at least on paper. Strong academics, and it is close to home.” Toriel gives Sans a sidelong glance. “Of course, if my child never left home, I would be happier.”
“What’s the alternative? You already got one lazy sack of bones at home.”
Toriel nudges him hard with an elbow. “Stop that. You do not do nothing .”
“Eh.” He shrugs.
She holds his gaze for a heartbeat, then shakes her head. Sans flashes her a winning smile.
A cool April breeze whispers down the street, ruffling Toriel’s fur and the lining of Sans’ jacket. The air still smells of the past week’s constant rain, but today the sun has broken through the clouds, casting puddles in glitter. Good day for a tour.
Sans and Toriel catch up with Frisk and Kid at the street corner, where they’re waiting for the light to change.
“Yo, look,” Kid points out excitedly. “You can see the entrance gates around the corner! I think those are the Milton Gates!” They snatch a map out of their bag. “Yeah, those are the Milton Gates!”
When the light changes, Kid races for the gates, Frisk close on their heels.
“Wooooooow,” Kid says coming to a stop under the gate. Frisk stops next to them, takes a look, and gives an appreciative thumbs-up.
Sans watches them in some amusement. Sure, Ebott U’s central campus is pretty nice for a city school. Past the gates, a barrier blocks vehicle traffic, and the road opens up to a cobblestone pedestrian pathway. The pathway is lined with wrought iron street lamps, and fields stretch out on either side. Buildings rise around the perimeter of these fields -- squat, stone buildings that sprawl out like a village. It’s a pretty picture, but Frisk and Kid have also lived a half hour from Ebott U for the past ten years. It’s not the first time either of them has seen the campus. But, hey, he’s glad they’re having fun.
The Student Union is a tall, narrow building, with two staircases sloping up to the entrance around a relief of the school crest. Kid and Frisk scamper up the steps and spend the next several minutes exploring the lower floors of the union, They check out the cafe and the study cubicles and the bulletin boards, marveling at everything. Toriel and Sans follow a few steps behind, Toriel peering at everything with an appraising eye. Frisk and Kid have just enough time to buy a couple of smoothies from the juice bar before heading up to administration to meet their tour guide.
Several other families are milling about here, all human, and in varying states of interest. Some of the students-to-be seem as excited as Frisk and Kid, enthusing to their parents or each other about the school. Others seem nervous, and still others look outright bored. As Frisk and their party reach the landing, a few startled glances are shot their way, and Sans catches the sound of rushed whispers. Looking around, he thinks he can probably tell the out-of-towners from the Ebott City residents. He meets the gaze of one of the whispering teenagers, and they look hurriedly away. Out-of-towner. After ten years, Ebott City residents are used to seeing monsters, but monsters are still something of a tourist attraction for visitors. Those who barely look up -- those are the locals. And those whose attention focuses directly on Frisk, he can’t place; even in Ebott City, the sight of Ambassador Frisk themself can be a surprise.
Frisk and Kid, for their part, aren’t bothered by the attention. They’re nursing their smoothies and deep in conversation about some of the clubs they saw advertised on the first floor (“Yo, did you see that Outdoors club poster? They go freakin’ ice climbing! Do you think they provide the gear?”).
Sans and Toriel settle themselves against the wall, out of the way of the stares that still follow them.
Quietly, Toriel murmurs: “I do wish they wouldn’t all stare.”
“Noticed that too, huh? But hey, I guess there aren’t enough of us to fill up every tour. Bound to stick out like a sore thumb sometimes. Or a bony, furry, or scaly thumb - er - body part,” he adds, counting off his, Toriel’s, and Kid’s various grasping appendages.
“I know,” Toriel sighs. “But nevertheless, it is unsettling.”
“Yep,” Sans says, levelly meeting another teenager’s stare.
At five minutes to one, a pair of beaming university students enter the room. The taller one, who wears her long, black hair in a high ponytail, calls out to the group: “Hello, everyone! Are you all here for the one o’clock tour?”
There’s a general murmur of assent.
“Excellent! My name is Simone; I’ll be your guide. First, though, Dan here will just check the sign-up sheet, make sure we’re not waiting on anyone.” She indicates her companion, who pushes his floppy magenta bangs out of his eyes and lifts a clipboard.
“Hi, guys,” Dan greets them. “Alright, so let’s see… Nick Allard?”
A sleepy-looking teenager in the corner raises his hand.
As Dan continues down the list, Sans considers the other families. Nick Allard has come with two parents, but Elena Benito is accompanied by only her mother. A couple prospective students are alone, while others have brought have their extended family. Sans catches Toriel watching a pair of siblings with an odd look in her eye, and he surreptitiously takes her hand.
Toriel startles, then smiles weakly down at him.
“Hang on,” Dan says abruptly, looking out at the room with a broad grin. “Who’s the wise guy who signed up as Frisk? Haha, very funny.”
Impassively, Frisk raises their hand.
Dan spots them, takes in Frisk’s signature poker-face, and flicks his gaze to the monsters behind them. He makes a weird, strangled sound in his throat. “Oh, shit. It’s actually you.”
The whispering starts up again with renewed energy. Sans sees a young girl, barely older than a toddler -- must be a younger sibling -- tugging excitedly on a parent’s sleeve and pointing at them.
Dan nervously runs his hands through his hair. “Sorry. I just... we get ‘celebrity’ sign ups once a month, you know? I thought you were just… We’re happy to have you here, really!”
Simone covers her face with a sigh. “Oh, jeez. Ignore Dan. Sorry about that.”
Frisk flashes them a thumbs-up.
“Yo, don’t worry about it!” Kid says. “We don’t mind!”
Dan hurries on, still looking a little flustered. He gets through the rest of the list of names, and when he determines that no one is missing, he tucks the clipboard under one arm. “Alright, should we, uh, get started with the tour then?”
Scattered nods and mutters of agreement answer him. A lot of the other tour-goers are still staring at Frisk, or their monster companions. The young girl who had been tugging on her parent’s sleeve is still meekly peering at Sans with enormous, wide eyes. He catches her gaze, winks, and his left eye-light flashes blue as he flicks at the string on her sweatshirt with a touch of magic. The girl gasps.
“What are you doing, dear?” Toriel asks absently.
“Oh, nothing,” Sans replies. “Just puttin’ on some little entertainment.”
Toriel follows his gaze and smiles at the small girl. She offers a small wave; almost in awe, the girl waves back.
As the tour group sets off, Frisk and Kid hurry a few paces in front of Sans and Toriel. This works fine for Sans, because he can hang toward the back of the group with Toriel and keep an eye on everyone. He didn’t catch any really outright hostile expressions, but you never know.
A teen girl with short black hair squeezes through the group toward Frisk and Kid. Sans tenses for a moment, watching her, but when she reaches them, she excitedly says: “Hey! My name’s Anya. It’s such an honor to meet you, Frisk! I’m a big fan!” She looks a little dazed, as if she can hardly believe her luck, and Sans notices she keeps tugging unconsciously at the hem of her sleeve.
“Thank you,” Frisk replies politely, and Kid translates the sign.
Anya grins at Kid. “What’s your name?”
Frisk’s expression immediately brightens; anyone who shows interest in Kid gets points in their book.
“I’m Kid, yo!”
Sans relaxes. Anya seems harmless enough. Maybe a fame leecher, but Frisk knows how to deal with those well enough when they want to. He continues to listen in on their conversation.
“Nice to meet you, Kid! So, uh, are you both looking at Ebott U?”
“What do you guys think of it so far?”
“ So cool, dude!” Kid replies. “It’s so great it’s in a city, but still has such a cool campus!”
“I like their political science program,” Frisk puts in, and again Kid translates.
“You’re interested in political science?” Anya asks. “Me too! I really want to get into environmental policy, you know? There’s also a couple environmental action student groups on campus that look really interesting.”
“We were looking at a flyer for the Outdoors Club just before we came up for the tour!” Kid says eagerly. “Apparently they’re doing a trail clean-up this weekend.”
At the front of the group, Simone stops. Anya, who has just opened her mouth to reply, closes it again. They’ve stopped right outside the doors of the Student Union, and from the top steps here, they have a wide view of the surrounding campus.
“Ebott University was founded one hundred twenty years ago, at the start of the twentieth century. The university was created by Marcella Ebott, the eccentric and well-funded widow of Eugene Ebott, whose family left their fingerprints all over our city hundreds of years before even that. It was originally a private institution, but in 1961, it became a public school.
“As you know, right now we’re on the steps of the student union, which opened forty years ago. Here, we have student clubs, some study rooms, a couple cafes, and a bar in the basement. There are events there almost daily, so if you check their site, you’ll almost always find something to do.”
Toriel catches Sans’ gaze and mutters under her breath: “Oh, goodness, we are only ten seconds into the tour, and we are already discussing bar recommendations?”
“Eh,” Sans replies with a shrug. “It’s college. Kids’re gonna drink.”
“Well, yes, but…”
Simone is already continuing, describing some of the many clubs at the school. One of the teenagers asks about intramural sports, which seems to perk Frisk’s interest. Simone next leads them down the sloping steps of the Student Union, and up the path toward the administration building.
“And this is where you will handle student ID cards, registration problems, study abroad applications, et cetera,” Simone tells the group.
Toriel is peering in through the wide glass windows that span the entire length of the street-facing side of the building. “It looks quite busy inside. I fear those students must be waiting hours to be seen,” she whispers to Sans.
He glances at her with some surprise. He hasn’t generally known Toriel to be so consistently critical of anything. “Tori,” he says, grinning, “didn’t you like Ebott U when the catalogue showed up in the mail?”
“Yes, well...” She looks faintly embarrassed. “It is a little different, being here in person, is it not?”
He chuckles. “Eh, you’re not wrong. I don’t know Ebott U , but I liked it more when I didn’t have to walk.”
They catch each other’s eyes, and both have to fight back an onset of giggles. Next to them, a couple parents are watching them with some reproach. Sans ignores them.
He nudges Toriel with an elbow. “I’m sure no school’s gonna be good enough. But hey, when some dumb school takes Frisk from home, we’ll have fun hating on it together, huh?”
Toriel scrunches up her muzzle. “ Must you say the ‘takes Frisk from home’ part?”
“Sorry. You know I’m a bonehead.”
She pats the top of his skull solemnly. “That I do.”
And so, through the rest of the tour, Sans and Toriel cheerfully swap criticisms of the school. At the arts building, Toriel comments that the windows do not look large enough to let in nearly enough light; after they tramp up a steep hill to the medical building, Sans states dryly that the campus is far too hard to get around when you’re not using shortcuts. Most of the dorms are too far from the class buildings. Study spaces in the library don’t seem as quiet as they could be. The cafeteria seems to serve far too many unhealthy options.
Yet, there are also several points at which neither Sans nor Toriel can think of anything bad to say. The dorms are secure. The tech in the library is state-of-the-art. The lecture halls are large and comfortable, and equipped to accommodate diverse needs. Outside the physics building, Simone asks: “You guys all heard about the image of the black hole that came out the other week?” When the group mumbles agreement, she grins and says: “Yeah, well, our physics department was part of the multi-institution team sending over data.”
And that’s friggin’ cool. Sans almost wants to raise his hand and ask more about research in the physics department - the telescope, the projects, the data. But he doesn’t.
And for all the criticisms Sans and Toriel can dig up, Kid and Frisk are clearly having a blast. They’re eager to ask questions, jabber excitedly amongst themselves, and Kid has their phone out to record. Kid is beside themself with enthusiasm as they explore the dorms, while Frisk’s attention is captured by the list of activities at the recreation center. Their new buddy, Anya, seems equally enthusiastic, although that’s not clear if that’s just her or if she’s trying to keep up with the other two.
And then, while they’re wandering through a student lounge in the chemistry building, they even encounter an unexpected, familiar face.
“Frisk! Kid! Hey, guys, what’s up!”
Frisk and Kid, as well as Sans and Toriel and half the tour group, turn to locate the source of the call.
A monster girl with a head of green fire is hurrying toward them, her eye-flames glowing with excitement.
“Yo, Ember!” Kid greets her. “What’s up!”
“I have class in a few minutes, but what are you guys doing here? Hi, Toriel, Sans.”
“Hello, dear,” Toriel says warmly.
“We’re on a tour,” Frisk tells Ember.
“Oh! You guys are checking out Ebott U for college?”
“You betcha!” Kid says.
“Oh, that’s awesome! I really hope you guys come. It’s a great school. And there’s actually a bunch of other monsters here, which is great. Like, Octoling went to the other side of the country for college, and she’s the only monster there, and god you would not believe the stuff she has to deal with!”
Frisk frowns. “Does she need a bit of ambassadorial muscle?”
“No, no, it’s no big stuff, just dumb stuff,” Ember says, waving them off. “If it gets big though, she’ll let you know to bring out the ambassador power. And I mean, we still have some BS at Ebott U, too, but it makes a difference that we monsters can stick together. Like, we have enough to actually get a club together and show up to protests, and that makes you feel a whole lot more supported, by the humans too.”
Some of the tour group look enthralled, but many more look uncomfortable. Sans isn’t sure if it’s irrational human anxiety about flame-type monsters in buildings, irrational human anxiety about monster rights activism, or irrational human anxiety about monsters in general. He watches the most scowley ones carefully.
“I need to head out to class,” Ember adds apologetically. “But it was really cool to see you guys! If you have any questions about Ebott U, like, let me know!”
“Bye!” says Kid, and Frisk waves.
“Say hi to your dad for me,” Sans puts in.
Ember laughs. “You see him more than I do, Sans.”
“Hey, I’m putting you through college with my tab.”
“Only if you pay it,” she points out. “Anyway, I’m running late now. See you guys later!” And she dashes off to the stairs.
Sans and Toriel exchange a look. “Supportive monster body. That is one for the positives,” Toriel says quietly.
“Darn,” says Sans. “Despite our best efforts, this might actually be a good school.”
Toriel laughs, covering her mouth with her paw.
The tour finishes up back outside the student union, where Dan hands out branded pens and cards with resources for prospective students. Simone thanks them all for coming, and then she heads back inside, Dan on her heels. Families start to peel off from the group. Anya exchanges phone numbers with Frisk and Kid before running after her parents.
Of course Frisk made another friend. Sans supposes he shouldn’t be surprised.
“What did you two think of the school?” Toriel asks Frisk and Kid kindly, as they head off back toward their car.
Both light up; the whole way home they enthuse about everything they saw -- the grounds, the buildings, the dorms, the little tricks and hidey-holes the guides mentioned.
“Ember had a good point about there being other monsters,” Frisk adds. “If I’m where there are monsters, I can also do more about higher education access for monsters.”
“You yourself are going to school,” Toriel points out. “While looking out for monsters is admirable, remember to let yourself just be a student as well.”
Frisk makes a face like they don’t quite agree with Toriel, but aren’t going to bother arguing. Sans chuckles. Toriel should know Frisk is an incorrigible world saver.
“But, overall, you liked the school?” Toriel asks, as if there were any doubt.
Frisk nods, firm. “It’s my number one, I think.”
And what a weird feeling that is, Sans thinks. It’s a good school, a close school, for all Sans and Toriel’s nit-picking. It’s the kind of school any parent dreams their child will pick. And yet, the very act of picking makes everything feel more real, more immediate. Their kid is leaving next year. If Sans had lungs, the thought would take his breath away.
When he glances at Toriel and sees the shadow of sadness behind her eyes, he knows she’s feeling the exact same thing.
It’s spring break, so when they get back to the house, Toriel takes over making dinner. Kid and Frisk rush off to Frisk’s room, and Sans can hear Kid’s enthusiastic rambling through the open door. As Toriel pulls out ingredients from the cupboard, Sans digs out the laptop from their bedroom and props it open on the kitchen table. He goes to the Ebott University website.
Frisk likes this school. Frisk might go to this school. And so, Sans needs to know everything there is to know about it.
He digs around the website, reading about dorms and funding and accessibility accommodations. The page for the Center of Students with Disabilities seems fairly easy to navigate; the page on funding less so. He reads about student clubs and course requirements, and about the political science major. He doesn’t take notes, but files everything he reads in his mind.
He’s scrolling the academics page when a headline in the news box catches his eye.
“Congratulations to Dr. Rubin for her grant, funding her star cluster neutrino project!”
Stars and neutrinos. For a heartbeat, Sans is sixteen years younger, poring over neutrino readings, imagining the stars they might come from. How strange it’d been underground, to be able to measure neutrinos, but not to see the stars. What must it be like, he wonders, to read neutrinos, to plot their emissions, and to then go out and look up and watch the stars they stream from.
With an odd sense of almost nostalgic longing, Sans clicks the link to Dr. Rubin’s page. There’s a list of publications here, and he skims the titles - Prediction and detection of fusion neutrinos ; Gamma-ray burst neutrino background and star formation history; Star-forming galaxies as sources of high-energy backgrounds. He clicks the link to the most recent paper and begins to read.
It’s a paper simulating neutrino emissions from the nearby star, Altair. Old, familiar phrases wash over him: spectral class, pp chain, neutrino flux. He doesn’t notice Toriel has brought over a cup of tea until it’s already gone cold.
It’s a good paper, based on solid modeling and well-presented with clear writing and easy-to-interpret charts. It’s, frankly, an enjoyable read. But when Sans gets to the limitations section, a sentence holds him up: “In our model, Altair did not yield a signal strong enough to determine neutrino directional information; directional information was lost in local solar neutrino background.”
Yeah, that’s a thing. But back in the Underground, their simulations had ways of clearing out background noise. Sure, they didn’t use it on Altair specifically, and maybe this lab had already tried it… Sans scrolls back up to methods.
No, there’s no mention of a simulation quite like the ones they’d used Underground. Sans considers, lazily tapping his chin.
On the first page, the corresponding author’s email is clickable.
He could shoot them a message, give ‘em a couple pointers. But it takes energy; it takes time; it takes bothering to put physics into words. All things Sans tends to be against. But also, it’d be a sure shame for the researchers to put so much effort in and not get the full, accurate results. They’d just have to do it all over again one day. He’s also against making other people have to redo old work.
(Okay, that’s a lie; sometimes, tricking people into redoing stuff is hilarious. But not when it’s research.)
He sighs, and clicks the corresponding email. Handling daily troubles on Frisk’s ambassadorial email has clearly corrupted him if he’s going out of his way to help. He’ll have to complain about it later.
Sans writes out a quick message. Nothing elaborate, just mentioning that some simulation tweaks can help, and listing out a couple of the main weights they’d accounted for when writing their own simulation. He doesn’t sign the email, and sends it from the fairly anonymous handle of 24_ribtickler.
He looks up from the laptop, intending to joke with Toriel about how weird it is for him to offer someone help. But then he takes in the sight in front of him, and something swoops horribly somewhere around his abdomen.
Toriel’s standing at the counter, a cutting board in front of her. But she’s not chopping vegetables. She just standing there, staring unseeingly at a blank spot on the wall.
“Tori?” Sans says quietly.
Toriel startles at the sound of his voice. She jerks around, then forces a smile on her face and wipes quickly at her eyes.
Sans feels that horrible swooping again. Toriel has been crying right in front of him, and he didn’t notice. That’s what happens when he starts getting involved with physics. He should have been paying attention. He should have known. He should have known .
“Toriel,” Sans says softly. “What’s up?”
“Oh, it is . . . it’s, uh, nothing,” she murmurs.
Sans gets up from the table and goes over to her. He takes one of her large paws into his own bony hand and squeezes it. He doesn’t say anything, not wanting to push her into talking, but it’s a statement nonetheless and one he knows she understands. A reminder that he’s there, a promise that they’re a team. In whatever way she wants that to be right now.
And perhaps that’s what Toriel needs most, because she lets out a long, heavy breath and starts quietly: “It is just . . . Frisk is growing up, and I am so happy to see them making plans for their future. But I started thinking about the others. What they would have been like, when they were Frisk’s age. What they would have chosen for their futures.”
Sans tightens his grip on her paw. Of all the things he wishes he could make better for her, of all the things he can’t, this is by far the worst.
“Yeah,” he murmurs. “Do you wanna tell me about them?”
Nothing takes this hurt away. Nothing makes it less sharp. All he can do is this: listen and witness her grief. And hold a bit of that grief in his own soul, even if he never knew Asriel or Chara or Patience or Bravery or Justice or Kindness or Integrity or Perseverance.
There’s no way it’s ever enough, but maybe it makes a difference. Toriel gives him a weak, watery smile.
“I must finish making dinner,” she states, but not in a tone that says the conversation is over.
“I could cook,” Sans offers. “Want me to do it?”
Were it Papyrus falling apart in front of him, Sans would insist on taking over cooking, but he knows that for Toriel, sometimes cooking and caretaking and whatever else she does out of love are all that keep her sane.
But this time, Toriel looks grateful. “Would you?”
“‘Course. Take a break. You want some tea?”
Sans makes her a cup in the largest mug they have and drops in two teabags. When he brings it over to her, she takes it and just holds it in her paws, staring into the steam.
Sans lets her be for the moment and goes back over to the counter to pick up the chopping where Toriel left off. For several long minutes, the only sounds in the kitchen are the rhythmic thunk of knife against cutting board and Kid’s distant laughter from Frisk’s room.
Finally, Toriel speaks. “Asriel would have been a wonderful king. He loved caring for people. Everyone he met, he was kind to. He used to ask Asgore and I why we did all kinds of things, and he was excited to lead and one day spread his kindness across the whole Underground.”
As she speaks, Sans listens. In his mind’s eye, he sees a small, fluffy child with Toriel’s eyes and ears and smile, tugging on her sleeve. He may have never met Asriel, but the thought -- and the knowledge that scenes like that are gone forever -- tugs on something aching inside him.
“Chara was wilder than Asriel,” Toriel continues. “I do not know what they would have wanted to do with their future, but I wish I could have watched them explore whatever made them happy. They loved to wrestle with the dog guards, and play pranks on everyone in the palace. You would have loved them, Sans.”
Sans thinks of a bright-eyed child with a mischievous smirk and scrapes on their elbows and thinks she’s probably right.
“Perhaps Chara would have grown up to lead alongside Asriel. Perhaps they would have joined the guard and spent many days rough-and-tumbling with the dogs. And what would either of them have done with the opportunities of the surface? Would they have gone to a college? Travel the world?” She squeezes her eyes shut. “What a terrifying thought -- them traveling the world alone! But they can’t give me those heart attacks anymore and it’s not fair .”
“Not one bit,” Sans agrees. It feels like such a dumb thing to say, such a trite contribution, but Toriel doesn’t complain.
She sucks in a deep breath. “And then the other children . . . oh, I wish I had known them better. Integrity loved to dance. Perhaps he would have been a dancer. Perseverance would have loved to go to a college, I am sure. But would Patience have chosen? What about Bravery? I did not have the chance to know them well enough, and how I wish I had. They deserve that.”
Toriel looks out the window, at the darkening evening sky.
“I wonder if anyone out there did know them better. If someone out there truly knew them and grieved for them. Maybe some who are still around. Someone who knew their dreams, their hopes, their fears and loves, and remembers all of it.”
If there is, Sans had never found them in ten years of looking. “Maybe,” he says. “Hope so. But you did know the kids. Maybe not every one of their dreams, but hell, do we know every one of Frisk’s dreams?”
Toriel gives him a weak smile. “I like to imagine we do. But you may be right.”
“Yeah, and even if you didn’t know all their hopes for the future, you knew who they were. You knew what made them tick. You knew Kindness was gentle, and that Bravery liked adventure stories, and stuff like that. You knew ‘em, and you remember them. And you tell me about them, so.” He shrugs. “I guess I remember them too, in a way.”
Toriel doesn’t smile this time, but she holds his gaze for a long moment. Her expression is one of a kind of mingled pain and trust. That blend of emotions, her willingness to show them to him -- it’s this kind of open grief that once made him make a promise through a door. “Thank you for that,” she murmurs. “I do wish you’d had the chance to meet them.”
“Me too,” he says, and it’s sincere.
She keeps talking; he keeps cooking and listening. Asriel, Chara, Patience, Bravery, Justice, Kindness, Integrity, Perseverance. Sometimes he thinks he can almost see them.
By the time dinner is ready, Toriel has talked herself out, and she and Sans have lapsed into the silence of shared, companionable grief. Although her tears have dried, when the children come into the kitchen, Frisk takes one look at her and frowns.
“Are you okay?”
“Oh, I am alright, my child,” Toriel assures them. “We were talking about your siblings.”
And Frisk nods, and pats her paw. Their expression is drawn tight. Frisk is in the same strange boat as Sans, having never met any of these children who should have been their family, yet missing them all the same. Kid hangs back respectfully, but Toriel waves them in.
“It is alright,” she says again. “It is nice to remember them, even when we miss them. It was a good talk. Now, how about you tell me what you two were up to this afternoon?”
And so, Frisk tells her about drawing and sharing books, and Kid, following their lead, jumps in as well.
The memory of those who are gone is still a poignant weight in the room, but just as tangible is the presence of the family that’s here. Sans knows that doesn’t make it easier for Toriel, and yet Toriel is listening and smiling, attentive to everything the children tell her. At once, she is both open and honest about her grief, and also loving and supportive and warm. As Sans watches her, he thinks for the millionth time, that she might just be the strongest person he has ever met.
I pretty much completely wrote my own undergrad institution into this chapter, just 'cause. If you can figure out what my undergrad was, you get an internet cookie!
Oh, and Dr. Rubin in this chapter is named for Dr. Vera Rubin whose work on galactic rotation provided groundbreaking evidence for the existence of dark matter.
From: Jocelyn Rubin <email@example.com>
Date: 4/11/202X 6:08 PM (GMT-08:00)
To: "24_ribtickler" <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Subject: Re: passing through
Thank you for your correspondence regarding our paper, titled “ Predicted detection of fusion neutrinos from α Aquilae”. We are intrigued by the model adjustments you proposed. While such an approach is certainly theoretically possible, we were not aware of any such simulation currently available. Would you be able to send over the relevant publications or files?
With which university or laboratory are you affiliated? If your group would be interested, we are working on a follow-up paper, and we would be happy to discuss collaboration.
Thank you for taking the time to read our paper and to provide your insights. I look forward to hearing from you.
(P.S. I like the subject heading. :) )
Dr. Jocelyn Rubin
Department of Physics
From: “24_ribtickler” <email@example.com>
Date: 4/19/202X 12:13 PM (GMT-08:00)
To: Jocelyn Rubin <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Subject: Re: passing through
nah, i don’t work for a university or lab these days. i don’t have the files anymore either, but maybe my old colleague does
From: Alphys <ays1989@BIOlab.com>
Date: 4/19/202X 2:32 PM (GMT-08:00)
To: "24_ribtickler" <email@example.com>
You’re talking to physicists again??????? omg????????? Is this a new development???????
But why are you giving them my email?? I didn’t keep anything from our old lab! And you know way more of the star stuff than I do. I wasn’t really on the neutrino work!
I sent her back to you. Try to help her I guess?
What’s going on!!!??
From: “24_ribtickler” <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Date: 4/19/202X 3:15 PM (GMT-08:00)
To: Alphys <ays1989@BIOlab.com>
Subject: Re: WHAT
don’t get over-excited, nothing’s happening. i was just reading a paper for fun and noticed that some of our old stuff could have helped their research. figured it was a long-shot, but worth trying i guess.
oh, damn. now that i say it, that really is an a-bone-amoly for me. think i should check if i’m sick?
anyway, hope you didn’t give her high expectations of me. or, any expectations, really.
From: Alphys <ays1989@BIOlab.com>
Date: 4/19/202X 3:17 PM (GMT-08:00)
To: "24_ribtickler" <email@example.com>
Subject: Re: WHAT
Too late :)
From: Jocelyn Rubin <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Date: 4/11/202X 3:23 PM (GMT-08:00)
To: "24_ribtickler" <email@example.com>
Subject: Re: passing through
Unfortunately your colleague, Alphys, did not have the files you mentioned. They did, however, say that you knew the work that went into the development of the simulation intimately, and might be able to put it together again.
Your colleague mentioned that these days you are a stay-at-home-dad, and I do not wish to take you from your responsibilities at home. But it sounds as if your perspective from the Underground could be incredibly valuable (I had not realized so much research had been occuring in the Underground, and now I wonder how much potential collaboration has been lost over the years!). If possible, I would like to further discuss your modeling approaches (perhaps over Skype?). If your simulation does seem to be something that could work for our project, I believe we could find the funds to pay you for your time.
Let me know.
Dr. Jocelyn Rubin
Department of Physics
From: “24_ribtickler” <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Date: 4/19/202X 4:11 PM (GMT-08:00)
To: Alphys <ays1989@BIOlab.com>
Subject: Re: WHAT
did you have to tell her everything?????
From: Alphys <ays1989@BIOlab.com>
Date: 4/19/202X 4:36 PM (GMT-08:00)
To: "24_ribtickler" <email@example.com>
Subject: Re: WHAT
I didn’t tell her everything. Just the things that were relevant! And, seriously, your name and work background are relevant.
From: “24_ribtickler” <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Date: 4/19/202X 6:39 PM (GMT-08:00)
To: Alphys <ays1989@BIOlab.com>
Subject: Re: WHAT
no they’re not.
From: “24_ribtickler” <email@example.com>
Date: 4/30/202X 8:15 AM (GMT-08:00)
To: Jocelyn Rubin <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Subject: Re: passing through
thanks for the offer, but i don’t do that kind of thing anymore.
On the last day of April, Frisk sits their SAT. The morning is hectic, as Frisk stares down Sans into quizzing them on last-minute flashcards over breakfast, and Toriel frets about Frisk having enough supplies. Papyrus has even dropped by, swearing he has a duty to pump up Frisk’s confidence before the big exam. Sans has his work cut out for him in trying to remind everyone how to not give a shit.
“We’re sendin’ them off for a four-hour test, not a decade’s worth of schooling on a deserted island,” Sans points out, as Toriel adds another six pencils to Frisk’s already full pencil case.
“Yes, well, if a few break, I would not want Frisk to worry!”
Frisk jabs a finger at the flashcards in Sans’ hands, trying to drag his attention back to their impromptu quiz.
“Okay, okay. Hold your horses. Uh, ‘austere’.”
“Plain,” they say decisively, exaggerating the sweeping gesture of the word. “Or stern. Or . . . minimal?”
“Yep. I think the last one you’re gettin’ at is ‘related to self-denial’. Like monks. An austere lifestyle would treat austere -ibly.”
“ UGH !” Papyrus protests. “Stop joking! Quizzing Frisk is a serious job, Sans!”
“My jokes are very serious,” Sans replies solemnly.
“They actually help me remember,” Frisk puts in. “He puts effort into making them relevant to the definition.”
“Did you just use ‘effort’ in a sentence about me? Kid, don’t go ruining my reputation.”
Frisk rolls their eyes at him.
“Well, you still need to work harder at boosting Frisk’s confidence!” Papyrus says severely. “I will demonstrate. Here!” He snatches a flashcard out of Sans’ hands and squints at it. “Co-rob-o-rate.”
“To back up a claim,” Frisk answers.
“YES! WOWIE, FRISK, YOU’RE SO SMART! YOU’RE GOING TO BE THE BEST TEST TAKER EVER!!! See, Sans, like that.”
“Eh, I’m not sure I got it,” Sans says. “You wanna demonstrate a couple more times?”
“You’re just trying to make me do it for you!”
“Aw, how kind of you to say.”
They’re interrupted then by Toriel. “It is getting late,” she breaks in, with a glance toward the clock. “Child, have you finished your breakfast?”
Frisk shoves the last of their scrambled eggs in their mouth and flashes a thumbs-up.
“Wonderful! Alright, I have packed you your pencils, a calculator, and some snacks. Do you have your student ID and test ticket?”
Frisk nods, and pats their pocket.
“Good,” Toriel continues. “Papyrus, do you still want to take Frisk to the testing location?”
“YES! I, the Great Papyrus, will be the best accompany-er ever! We’ll go the whole way talking about how smart we are!”
Toriel bends down to Frisk’s chair and wraps them in a tight hug. “We will come pick you up in four hours. If you finish early, text us, alright?”
Frisk taps an agreement against her shoulder.
“Good luck. I am sure you will do wonderfully, my child,” Toriel says as she straightens up again.
“Yeah, you’ll destroy that test,” Sans puts in.
“No they won’t!” Papyrus retorts, aghast. “Why would Frisk destroy it? Then they can’t grade it!”
Sans sniggers into his hand. “Good point.”
“Bye,” Frisk waves. Pencil case and snacks in hand, they hop up from their seat and head to the door. Papyrus hurries after them. As they pull on their coat, Frisk adds: “Have a good morning!”
A breeze rustles through the apartment as the door opens and shuts. Frisk and Papyrus’ footsteps clang on the winding metal staircase outside, and fade away.
Quiet falls on the apartment. Toriel shuffles Frisk’s flash cards into a neat stack on the table, and Sans drags himself up to make a fresh pot of coffee.
When he sits back down at the table, carrying a steaming mug, Toriel is watching him with an expectant expression. Sans isn’t sure he likes that look. He wracks his mind, trying to think if there was something he was supposed to be doing.
“Sans,” Toriel says, holding his gaze steadily.
“Tori,” he answers. “Uh, did you want some coffee too?”
“No, thank you. I have had enough caffeine.”
“Right.” He puts his mug on the table and looks into its steaming depths. He can still feel Toriel’s gaze on him.
“We said that when Frisk takes their SAT, we would talk about what you would do next year after they leave.”
Oh. Right. Shit . Sans chuckles weakly, covering his face with one hand. “Man, you don’t waste any time. Frisk went out the door ten seconds ago.”
Undeterred, Toriel just smiles. “What have you been thinking of?”
“C’mon, Tori, Frisk hasn’t even gotten to the test place yet, so they’re not technically taking the SAT yet. Don’t I get those extra fifteen minutes or something?”
“We first agreed you would think about next year’s plans in January . Will fifteen minutes make a difference?”
Sans sighs. “Nah. You’re right.”
“Yes, I am,” Toriel says primly.
Again, Sans laughs.
Toriel leans forward, her expression shifting from impish to thoughtful. “So. What have you been thinking of?” she asks again.
And Sans sighs, running a hand across his cheekbone. “I dunno, Tori. I guess, working with people we know? Like I said, I could work with Papyrus again.”
“At the afterschool program?”
“Yeah, I guess. I mean, I suppose I haven’t worked with kids a lot before, but Pap and Frisk turned out okay. I might be okay at it?”
Toriel frowns at that. Slowly, she says: “Sans, I adore working with children. I understand how fulfilling it can be, and if you would also find that fulfilling, I would of course support you in every way. I agree that you did a wonderful job with Frisk and Papyrus. But . . . do you truly wish to work with children?”
She shakes her head. “I do not know. Correct me if I am wrong, but you are choosing this because of Papyrus, not because of the children, are you not?”
Sans can’t tell her that she’s wrong. He pauses for a moment, killing a few seconds by taking a long sip from his coffee. Finally, he mutters: “Well, I mean, you said to pick something important to me. And, like I said. You, Papyrus, Frisk - you’re the important things.”
“As are the children,” Toriel states. “The children at Papyrus’ program are underprivileged and struggling. He does a wonderful job building their confidence, but they are not easy to work with. If you were to work there, you would have to give those children every ounce of your attention. You would not be able to split your attention between the children in your care and Papyrus. If that is what you are planning, I do not think it would be a good idea.”
“Alright, alright, I get it.” Sans sighs. “And I guess you’d say the same thing about me bein’ a para at your school?”
“Indeed I would.”
“Well, what about a janitor then? I would mop have kids to look after, but we’d have broom to hang out.”
Toriel smiles at the jokes but shakes her head. “I also must give my students my complete attention during the school day. I will not allow you to distract me.”
Sans smirks up at her. “Yeah, I’m very distractin’.”
She holds his gaze unblushingly. “That you are.” A beat. “So. What other work have you considered?”
“Not distracting enough, apparently,” he grumbles. “Uh, I dunno. I mean, I mentioned dishwashing for Grillby once, right? I could do that.”
“Perhaps,” Toriel agrees. “But as I said then, would dishwashing truly fulfill you?”
He frowns. Frustration dims his eyes, but they don’t go out entirely. “What do you want me to say, Tori? I hate to break it to you, but work doesn’t matter to me. Sure, I’ll do it, but what matters to me is you guys, my family. I don’t get fulfillment from punchin’ in and working for a boss. You know that. So what are you getting at?”
Toriel lets out a soft sigh. For a few moments she says nothing, just looks down at her folded paws and entwines her fingers together. Sans can see the gears churning as Toriel carefully considers her response.
When she speaks, her words are measured but sure: “I do not entirely believe that. Of course, I know your family is most important to you. And there are indeed people who are only truly fulfilled by looking after their family. But I do not believe you are one of them. I believe you can care about your work.”
“What-?!” Sans starts, brow lifted in sheer disbelief.
“Sans, let me finish,” Toriel interrupts. “When I am done, you may tell me if I am wrong.”
“Yeah, okay. Sorry. But again, what ?”
She smiles slightly. “You can be fulfilled by work, but it has to be the right work. Not selling hot dogs, not dishwashing, not even looking after children. I had hoped you would come to it on your own, with the lesson I asked you to put together for my class and the film nights you are sharing with Frisk, but perhaps that was foolish of me. You may have pushed it down too far, packed it away too long.” Toriel’s expression softens, but her gaze is unflinching. “So, quite frankly: Sans, I want you to think about returning to physics.”
He goes still. “I don’t do that anymore.”
“Please hear me out. When I hear you talk about the stars, you light up. It is beautiful to watch. Even after all these years, your love for your research is still there. If I truly believed you would be most fulfilled only by looking out for your family, I would not push you as I am. But it would be a tragedy if you neglected something you love so dearly.”
He shakes his head. More firmly, he says: “I don’t do that anymore.”
“I know there are a lot of bad memories wrapped up with all this, and I am sorry to bring it up--”
“Yeah, there are,” he says tonelessly, staring at a knot on the table. “I can’t do physics again. Like I said, family’s what’s important. Physics and family aren’t compatible where I’m concerned.”
“Sans, that is not true--”
“Of course it is!” he retorts. “You know what happened. And it’s not like this is all some dumb mistake I made fifteen years ago, either. Even now when I try to start thinking about physics, I screw up. Remember last week? I was reading some papers, and I didn’t notice you were getting upset!”
“What?” says Toriel, plainly bewildered.
“You know, after we checked out Ebott U. You were literally right in front of me, and I didn’t notice.”
Toriel continues to look confused for a moment. Then she must remember, because she frowns sharply. “Sans! It is not your responsibility to guess what I am feeling at any given moment.”
“I wouldn’t have to guess--”
She cuts him off. “As you said, I was ‘right in front of you’. Had I needed your attention, I would have asked.” A soft smile twists at the corner of her mouth. “Do not misunderstand me, dear. I very much appreciated your support. But do you not remember? I was not ready to talk about how I was feeling the moment you noticed.”
“I, too, have some sway in our relationship,” Toriel continues wryly. “If I feel I need something you have not already given, I can ask . And if I do not ask, that is my folly, not yours. Please do not forget that there are two people here.”
Sans looks down at his coffee, chagrined. “Yeah, of course. I didn’t mean…” He trails off. “Sorry.”
“It is alright, of course. But, Sans, I do not understand. Why do you believe that your work in physics and your family are so incompatible?”
“C’mon Tori, you know. ”
“No I do not,” she insists calmly. “You have told me the story of what happened fifteen years ago. And if you felt you never wanted to go back to your research because you were grieving, I would of course understand and not ask any of this of you. But what you tell me is that you have taken on responsibility for events not in your control, or at least not wholly in your control. You see a divide between your research and your family that I do not see. I want to understand what you see.”
For a long moment, Sans doesn’t say anything. He drinks from his coffee, lowers the mug back to the counter, and turns it around in his hands. His coffee is starting to get cold. He considers freshening his cup. But Toriel is watching him expectantly.
He hates talking about this shit. Around him, Sans can feel the knots and wrinkles in spacetime, dozens of shortcuts that go to their room, the stairs outside, Papyrus’, anywhere but here. He’s tempted. But he also remembers Toriel trusting him with her deepest grief before she’d ever seen his face. She deserves the same kind of trust. And so slowly, dragging out each word as if it pains him, he speaks.
“It’s part of just what research life is like,” he says. “You don’t just clock in nine-to-five, put the work out of your mind when you’re not in the lab. It’s everything. It gets into your head, y’know? You’re thinking about it all the time, turning over this problem or that problem, ‘cause if you don’t you’ll never solve them. So you give everything else half attention. And it’s like, you know what you were saying about the kids at Pap’s program and your school, about them needing total attention? Same goes for family. But when I’m wrapped up in research, I can’t do that, ‘cause half my mind’s working on some dumb equation or methods issue. And that shit doesn’t even matter, not when you’re ignoring people who need you.”
He laughs hollowly. “I mean, Alphys lived in her lab. What does that tell you? So, yeah. Maybe the thing from last week wasn’t a big deal or whatever, but it’s always the same choice. Research or family. Only one gets enough attention, and if I try to split it, one of them doesn’t get enough. So, screw research, I guess.”
He gives a helpless shrug, and falls quiet.
“I see,” Toriel murmurs. “But is that always the case? If it were, no scientists would have families, or at least not happy families. I cannot believe that.”
“Well, no,” Sans admits. “It’s about balance, right? Problem is, I suck at balance. A lot of researchers do, but I’m especially bad at it.”
“Do you not think that is something you could learn?”
“I ‘unno. If I haven’t learned it by now, don’t you think it’s a little unlikely? Some of us are just shit at balance. Makes us great at research, but pretty crappy at other being-a-person things.”
“Huh? Oh.” He hadn’t realized he had slipped into the plural. “I guess I mean me and Alphys, and . . . my dad. They’re the researchers I worked with, right?”
“So this has been your entire experience with research,” Toriel states, watching him sadly -- not with pity, no, but with understanding.
“I guess. But it’s not just like ancient history stuff either. You know that paper I was reading after we visited Ebott U? They were struggling with something we’d figured out in the CORE with our simulations, so I emailed them.”
Toriel looks startled, but does not interrupt.
“But I didn’t want to get really distracted, so I kept it short. Balance, right?” He chuckles to himself. “‘Cept turns out I didn’t give them enough information to actually make the simulation on their own, so the prof came asking for my files. Which, of course, I don’t have, so I sent her to Alphys. Alphys didn’t have them either, but she told the PI a ridiculous amount of stuff about me, like that I’m a stay-at-home dad -- which, stay-at-home- dunkle, thank you very much -- but you know what the PI did?”
“I do not know.”
“Offered me a job.”
“ What?! ”
“Dumb, right? Who in their right mind would hire me? But see, when I try to balance, my research work sucks. And straight up, the PI admitted the work could take me away from my ‘responsibilities at home’. So, fifteen years ago or today, the choice is still the same: research or family.”
“Sans,” Toriel says, her voice a little strained. “The professor offered you a job ?”
Sans leans his head on one hand and meets her gaze. “Well, sorta. She said she wanted to talk to me first about the simulation more, but yeah. She offered to pay me if it worked out. Said no, of course. I don’t do science stuff anymore.”
Toriel lets out a long sigh and clasps her hands together in front of her muzzle. “Oh Sans,” she murmurs. When she looks at him, there’s again that sad understanding in her eyes. “I believe you. I believe that you have tried to make the best choices for your family. But . . . I think you need to talk to the person who actually was affected by all of this.”
Sans frowns. “Tori--”
“You need to talk to Papyrus.”
Sans drops his gaze to the table, focusing on a knot in the wood. Slowly, he says: “I don’t wanna bother Pap with this. He doesn’t deserve that.”
“This all started from what happened with Papyrus, did it not? I think it would be good for both of you to talk about it.”
“C’mon, Tori. It’s been years, I don’t want to make him have to think about--”
But Toriel shakes her head. “If Papyrus was the one hurt by all this, do you not think his perspective matters most? Have you ever spoken honestly with him about all this?”
“I mean, not directly. But it’s not exactly his job to worry about me.”
“Do you not think that he deserves the chance to express his perspective?”
“‘Course he does,” Sans replies. “But it’s not like Papyrus keeps his perspectives on things secret. ”
“So, what is his perspective on your research?” Toriel presses.
Sans snorts. “Well, he sure didn’t like it when he was a kid.”
He shrugs. “Well, I don’t have any reason to think it’s changed.”
“But it has been fifteen years. The opinions children hold when they are fifteen are not the same opinions they hold when they are thirty.”
“Yeah. Well. This is Papyrus . He’s always been pretty sure of his opinions.”
“At least give him the chance to tell you his opinions have not changed, then,” Toriel insists.
Sans sighs and drops his head back into one hand. “I guess I just don’t see the point.”
“Maybe there will not be one,” Toriel admits, unfazed by his stubbornness. “But you both lost your father, and you do not talk about it. Perhaps Papyrus does not feel the need to talk about it. But if he does, this will show him that you will be willing to listen, no matter how many years pass.”
And at that, Sans tilts his head to meet her gaze, brow lifted. “Now, that’s not fair. You’re usin’ my brother against me. You know I can’t say no to that.”
Toriel almost laughs. “No, dear. I am trying to help you and Papyrus, nothing more.”
“Sure, sure. Still, you know me too well, and you’re too good at using that.”
“Will you talk to Papyrus, then?” she asks.
Sans sighs. “Yeah. Okay.”
Her paw finds his hand from across the table, and gives it a squeeze. “I am glad.” And the concern and love in her expression is so poignant that Sans can’t find it in himself to feel put out about giving in.
 Email subject: "passing through" -- neutrinos pass through lots of stuff; in fact, neutrinos are actually often measured underground, because they pass right through the earth. (Which, you know, is why I picked them as Sans' speciality.)
 Jocelyn Rubin -- I mentioned last chapter that 'Rubin' was for Dr. Vera Rubin, whose work on galactic rotation provided support for dark matter. 'Jocelyn' is for Dr. Jocelyn Bell Burnell, who discovered radio pulsars in 1967.
 Of course, we know Sans' dichotomy between family and research is a false one, developed from trauma and whatnot. But for the record, I had a faculty member give me a pretty damn similar speech when I started grad school, as a "this is what you have to do to succeed here" kind of speech. WOULD YOU BELIEVE. UGH. Thankfully I have an advisor who thinks this kind of thing is bullshit, but it's unfortunately a very common perspective. :// Anyway, I promised that this fic would give me the opportunity to get on my academia soapbox, so this is me fulfilling that promise!
 "PI" -- Principal Investigator. Technically means the person who holds a grant and is thus the lead on a project, but in practice it's used interchangeably with "head of the lab".
 I'm heading out to Israel tomorrow! Since my schedule will be super packed, I doubt I'll be even able to start on the next chapter until I'm back on the 4th. So, sorry about the delay, but I promise I haven't forgotten!
The first time, it goes like this:
In Sans’ notes, manipulating the timeline is purely theoretical. There’s no evidence of anomalies in any of the reports. But he’d spent hours with his father in the lab, excitedly musing about the flexibility of spacetime. They’d gotten pretty damn good at manipulating the space side of spacetime, even if time had thus far eluded them. Yet, Gaster had always thought control of time was something possible, something within their reach in this lifetime.
“Two sides of the same coin,” he’d said. “We know one side; all we must do is turn that coin over.”
Now, Sans has to prove it.
When he goes back to the lab, he drowns himself in simulations and algorithms and tests. He works late every single night and more often than not falls asleep at his desk. He eats Alphys’ ramen and doesn’t talk to anyone. Alphys is working on some project or another for Asgore -- something about Determination, but Sans doesn’t know any more than that. It won’t help him take control of time, so he doesn’t care.
Sometimes, Alphys tries to talk to him. “H-hey . . . um, how’s it going?”
“It’s going,” he says shortly.
“And, uh… how’s Papyrus?”
He shrugs. “Fine, probably.” He doesn’t even look up from his computer screen, and Alphys leaves him alone.
The few times he goes home, Papyrus clings to him. He accuses Sans of never being around, which Sans can’t argue. And each time Sans goes into the lab, Papyrus looks hurt. Sans knows Papyrus doesn’t like his work hours, but it doesn’t matter. When he figures out how to manipulate the timeline, none of this will have existed anyway, and then he can give Papyrus all the attention he wants.
Slowly, slowly, his work comes together. Dead ends give way to successful experiments. As theory becomes practical application, Sans moves his work from the main lab to his own workspace behind his house to build without Alphys’ projects getting in the way. Whatever she’s doing, it’s noisy and messy and more than he can handle. Sometimes, she looks like she wants to ask him something. He’s glad she doesn’t.
Being closer to home doesn’t mean he actually spends more time in the house. Sometimes, Undyne tries to talk to him about it.
“Hey, your kid brother keeps trying to tag along during my training,” Undyne says, one of the few times she manages to catch Sans.
“Yeah, he does that.”
“Why aren’t you watching him? Seems like the guy needs a bit more attention.”
“Eh, don’t worry about it. Pap’s clingy, but he’ll be fine.”
Undyne frowns at him. “Look, I can’t be babysitting. I know, things are probably tough, with your dad --”
“I’m handling it. Don’t worry.”
The next day, Sans goes to the lab as usual, and tells Papyrus to go to Grillby’s. Sans ignores the resigned expression on Papyrus’ face.
This is all temporary, anyway.
Sans can’t quite reset the entire timeline, not with the energy available to him, but in simulation after simulation, he manages to isolate a single entity from the larger timestream. Alright, so not ideal. Maybe he can’t save himself and Papyrus from years of grief. But that’s okay. Research is all about changing tracks. And simulation after simulation tells the same story: he can still save their dad.
The machine is built. It takes more long hours, takes countless requisitions from the palace (Sans supposes he should be grateful that Alphys hasn’t told Asgore that he’s not actually doing anything to work on Asgore’s project). And two years after the disastrous CORE collapse, Sans is staring at his machine, which is charged and ready and humming contentedly. The lights blink lazily. The readings displayed on the screen are perfect.
He’s done it. He built it. If his simulations are correct, if his calculations are accurate . . . Sans’ mind races as he reaches out a trembling hand for the final lever. He pulls the handle.
The machine whirrs, clunks, beeps; the lights flicker as it draws on an exorbitant amount of power. Readings are flickering so fast Sans can’t keep up with them.
A tall, dark figure begins to take form in the machine’s center chamber. First it’s the barest hint of a shadow, but then the form solidifies, stretches, and a familiar shape is unfolding itself in front of him.
It worked . He’s done it. Magical tears well up in Sans’ eye sockets, and his hands fumble as he tears at the levers to get the chamber open. The glass has barely slide aside when he’s lurching forward, grabbing for the figure inside which is now blinking bemusedly at his new surroundings.
“Dad, Dad, Dad ---”
But then, none of this happened.
The next several times happen much the same way as the first.
In Sans’ notes, manipulating the timeline is purely theoretical. There are a handful of anomalies in the reports, but nothing that can’t be explained away by measurement error.
He drowns himself in work, withdraws from Alphys and Papyrus and everyone else who reaches out to him, focused only on fixing this. He runs simulations, builds a new lab, and throws the lever.
He does it; he saves his dad.
And then he doesn’t.
Again, he does it.
And again, then he doesn’t.
Sometimes, he’s starting over before he even builds the machine, before Gaster can step out of that glass chamber, alive and whole and there . Sometimes, he saves Gaster and Gaster comes home and they’re a family again for a few beautiful days, weeks, months, years. Until they’re not. And then again Sans is in a dimly lit laboratory, grieving and alone and obsessed with breaking time.
Sometimes, things go much differently.
In Sans’ notes, manipulating the timeline is purely theoretical. He never gets the chance to turn that theory into something usable in these timelines, because even the lab isn’t immune from the chaos happening outside.
Dust swirls through the Underground. In Snowdin, dust coats the snow, turning white to a horrifying slate-gray. Alphys begs him to evacuate. Sometimes, he leaves soon enough. Sometimes, he doesn’t, unwilling to give up on his work. These ones are the worst.
Sans collapses in the snow, lifting the dusty red scarf from the ground with trembling hands.
He can’t speak. He can’t breathe.
In these timelines, he seeks justice. Vengeance. Self-destruction. Whatever. He follows the trail of destruction until he finds the flower. Sometimes, the flower smirks to see him; sometimes it sighs wearily. Sans isn’t aware of the difference, but something niggles at the back of his head -- a memory that was never made. They fight, and Sans dodges, dodges, dodges, vindictive fury pushing him to survive. He needs to stay alive just long enough to put everything back. This timeline can’t exist. It can’t. Sans fights for the chance to break it all.
Most of the time, he kills the flower. Sometimes, though, Sans himself crumbles to dust. Either way, it doesn’t matter; in these timelines, this fight is always the end of the line.
In Sans’ notes, manipulating the timeline is purely theoretical. But in the reports, there are anomalies, too many to brushed aside. Sans stares at the numbers, disbelieving; if these reports are to be believed, they would imply dozens of broken timelines -- loops, restarts, branches. Perhaps a natural phenomenon? But no theory they’ve ever developed has suggested anything like this.
He has nothing more to go on right now, so it’s with a heavy feeling of foreboding that he dives into his work. He withdraws from Alphys and Papyrus and everyone else who reaches out to him, trying not to think about the anomalies and what they might imply. He runs simulations, builds a new lab, and isolates Gaster’s signature.
His machinery spits out a read-out. Sans prints it, skims the records, and feels his soul jolt horribly.
Gaster’s signature is riddled with anomalies.
Sans clutches the read-out, staring with numb horror at the numbers laid out before him. Slowly, he sinks to the floor of his laboratory, lab coat pooling around him. His brain churns, putting together the pieces. The earlier reports suggested the timeline was jumping erratically, starting and stopping, shifting sideways and looping. Yet, Sans isn’t aware of anything like that, doesn’t remember any loops or restarts. As far as he can tell, no one is aware of anything but a linear progression of time.
He’d gone ahead, doggedly focused on bringing Gaster back. Two years of obsession had consumed him, ate his sense of self, his relationships, everything in his life but this one pursuit. He’d given this everything he had, and now these reports . . .
Sans covers his face with his hands. “How many times?” he mutters. “How many times ?”
He doesn’t move from the floor of his lab for the rest of the day. When he finally drags himself up, he trudges back to the house, ignores Papyrus, and collapses on the bed. Unseeingly, he stares at the wall. A week passes, just like that. Two weeks.
Until he’s back in the lab he shares with Alphys, printing out the first report again.
Small changes compound on one another, becoming something greater.
In Sans’ notes, manipulating the timeline is purely theoretical. But as the anomalies mount, he figures out the timeline jumps earlier and earlier. Sometimes, he hasn’t even moved out of Alphys’ lab before he collapses under the despair of how many wasted timelines he doesn’t remember.
Alphys is stressing about something, but he’s falling apart. He can’t bring himself to care. Not about her, not about himself, not about anything.
Sometimes, his despair consumes him and he decides to wait out the timeline. Ignorance is bliss. When time inevitably runs back, he won’t remember and he’ll care again. Just wait for that. No point in fighting for this timeline.
And maybe, if it weren’t for Papyrus, Sans would wait out each of these timelines in his bed, subsisting off potato chips. But Papyrus doesn’t let him.
Two weeks of wallowing, that’s what Sans gets. But then Papyrus lets himself into Sans’ room, and he’s always there. He makes Sans eat -- pop tarts and ramen and whatever else Sans bought for the house, but at least it’s food. He drags Sans off the sheets so he can make the bed, and even if Sans is just lying there for hours, Papyrus is there, reading or talking.
Papyrus doesn’t bother Sans about going to work, not yet. In these timelines, Sans is sorely behind on family time.
He keeps talking at Sans, until finally Sans starts talking back.
“Undyne’s new training spot is in the woods, right where Dad used to take us sledding,” Papyrus says, as artificial evening light filters through Sans’ window. “Do you remember it?”
“...Yeah.” It’s the first thing Sans has said in hours, and Papyrus visibly brightens.
“Well, remember that time we crashed into the brambles and there was this super-cool tunnel on the inside? I hid in there to watch Undyne’s training, because she doesn’t like me watching for some reason, but how am I ever going to learn how to be cool like her if I don’t? She was pretty annoyed when she found me. But! I learned really cool moves! Even if I did get stuck trying to get out of the brambles…”
Sans huffs, a ghost of a laugh. “You got stuck when we were kids, too.”
“I did not ! I just didn’t want to come out.”
“You were totally stuck. You were all wrapped up in brambles, and it took Dad like twenty minutes to get you out.”
“It was a game,” Papyrus insists. “Dad knew it.”
“Sure,” Sans concedes, rolling his eyes.
Silence falls for a moment. Sans rolls over, so he can see Papyrus sitting on the ground beside the bed.
“...I miss Dad,” Papyrus says finally.
“Yeah,” Sans mutters. “Me too.”
As the days pass, they talk about Gaster more. Sans hears the grief as a strain in Papyrus’ voice, sees the longing as a tension around his eye sockets. Sans’ own soul aches. They reminisce and remember and grieve, and somehow in the midst of it all, a miracle happens: Sans starts to care again.
It’s scary, this caring stuff. How can anything matter, when everything that happens can be erased in a heartbeat no one will remember? But as Sans and Papyrus talk, Sans also finds himself wondering how this could ever not matter. Even if nothing lasts, how can he give up on his family? What they had, the three of them, was good. And if he gives up, it’s gone.
“Pap, say hypothetically… you know someone gets hurt, and you want to save them.” Sans is sitting at the kitchen table, popping open a take-out container from Grillby’s. “But you can’t do anything. No matter what you do, the bad thing still happens, like you never tried at all. What do you do?”
“You keep trying, of course! You keep trying new things. You don’t give up when you need to save someone!”
Sans chuckles lowly. “Yeah. That’s what I thought.”
So, somehow, he finds the drive to form a new resolution: find the source .
If he can find the source of the anomalies, if he can stop it, everything will matter again. Things will last . His effort, his energy, would make a difference. It’s the only way to make saving Gaster mean anything. But Sans knows that at the next anomaly, he won’t remember any of this, and he will have to learn everything painfully all over again. It’s a race against time when time doesn’t make sense.
He goes back to the lab.
The first night Sans doesn’t come home, Papyrus doesn’t like it. He’s devastated, actually. But Sans is trying to make things right. What’s a few sacrifices?
The first time Sans tries to find the source, he doesn’t succeed before he’s starting over again. But with each loop, there are more anomalies. Sans loses and refinds his motivation over and over again. With each loop, the data triangulates faster and faster, sorting noise from signal, until . . .
In Sans’ notes, manipulating the timeline was purely theoretical. He stares down at the flower between his feet, meets the cold, black eyes, and knows with grim fury that this flower has broken every theory he’s ever had.
The flower meets his expression with an easy smile. “Huh. You found me . I didn’t even kill anyone this time. That’s new!”
Dust isn’t blowing through the Underground, but as Sans looks at the flower, he feels a white-hot loathing and something like fear.
“I don’t know what game you’re playin’,” Sans says, tone dangerously light. “But I get the sense that I did know. And I didn’t like it.”
“That’s funny,” says Flowey. “Because I don’t know what game I’m playing. I make new rules every run!”
“How ‘bout this ‘run’, you run away, huh?”
“Now why would I do that?” asks Flowey, still smiling.
“‘Cause I don’t like you.”
“You don’t even know me!” Flowey protests, with mock hurt.
“Nah, I get the sense that I do.”
And the flower just smirks, and does not deny it.
“Why do you do it?” Sans asks.
“I’m bored,” Flowey says simply.
“ How do you do it?”
“I don’t really know, to be honest. I just do.”
“So, just ‘cause you can, you mess with everyone’s lives for kicks? That’s pretty crappy of you, huh?”
Flowey snorts. “Like you weren’t planning on doing the same thing for yourself. How long has it been this time that you’ve been trying to reset?”
Sans doesn’t bother asking how he knows about that. “It doesn’t work that way for me.”
“Nope. But if you could, you would. Wouldn’t it better that way? Don’t just bring him back, make it so he never left, so that you and your brother never had to be sad in the first place! That way, you never have to see the disappointment on Papyrus’ face when you ignore him.”
Sans still doesn’t ask how Flowey knows all this, but he feels cold with unease. This was new, Flowey had said. New that Sans had found him . But if Flowey knew so much, how many times had Flowey found Sans on his terms?
Well. Sans is used to fighting at a disadvantage.
“It’s not the same,” Sans states.
“No? How’s what you were trying any different from what I do?”
“Simple. You’re getting in the way of me savin’ my family.”
Flowey cackles. “All about your goals, huh? You’re not noble at all.”
“If you want nobility, you’re talkin’ to the wrong skeleton,” Sans replies. “Anyway, it’d be real cool of you to quit it.”
“And how are you gonna stop me?” Flowey asks, twisting his head nearly upside-down to leer at Sans. “I do what I want! Even if you kill me, I’ll just reset. Again… and again.”
“Maybe so.” Sans shifts his foot to press against the base of Flowey’s stem. Flowey scoots backwards, but Sans follows. “But you see, I can be real annoying. And if you remember the ‘resets’ when I don’t, well… you’re gonna get bored long before I do.”
And again, Flowey cackles. “Oh, I think this is going to be a lot of fun.”
In Sans’ notes, manipulating the timeline is purely theoretical. But even theory is enough for him to hold his own in a fight against a proven time-traveler. When mistakes can be undone, special attacks and one-hit knock-outs are useless. It’s a war of attrition.
It doesn’t matter how many times Flowey resets anymore. There are so many anomalies, Sans always finds him again. Sometimes, Sans identifies the source but bides his time coming after Flowey, until he feels like he could inconvenience Flowey the most. Sometimes, he captures Flowey rather than outright fighting him, brings him back to the lab to study. But time and time again, he’s standing before Flowey, blocking the path.
In some timelines, Flowey welcomes the challenge. In some timelines, he does not.
“Leave me alone! ” Flowey snaps, dodging a bone. “How many times do I have to kill you? Don’t you have anything better to do?”
“Not until you quit messin’ with the timeline,” Sans replies, tossing another blast in Flowey’s direction.
“You said that last time,” Flowey grumbles. “This is really getting old.”
“Funny, since nothing else has the chance to get old around here.”
Flowey throws his head back and groans. “ Uuuuurgh . You’re so annoying. Can’t you stay out of the way just once ?”
And Sans grins. Good to know he’s been consistent.
He kills the flower.
Eventually, Flowey isn’t grinning when he meets Sans -- or, to be more accurate, the grin is cold and unfeeling.
“I’m so sick of you,” Flowey states. “Killing you doesn’t matter anymore. That’s old hat. I’ve done it so many times.”
Sans shoots a line of bones in Flowey’s direction, but his expression doesn’t change.
“You think you’re so tough because you’re fighting for your family?” Flowey taunts. “Hah! It doesn’t make you tough. Just annoying. And weak .”
Flowey dodges yet another attack and bursts up from the ground directly under Sans’ feet. Sans jumps back.
“You’re so dumb. You’ve showed me your weakness a thousand times over! You’re so proud of it!” Flowey leers at him. “And now, I’m going to break you.”
Sans doesn’t like the sound of that. But he doesn’t have the chance to worry about it, because time cuts out.
Sans stands outside the door to Papyrus’ apartment and lets out a breath. Warm May sunlight streaks the building, and stray petals from the nearby crabapple tree tumble across the welcome mat.
It’s been a week and two days since Frisk took their SAT, since Sans had refused to go back into physics. As far as procrastinating difficult conversations went, this is probably a record in ‘being responsible’ for Sans. Sure, he’d wanted to drag his feet longer, but Toriel had gotten in his head.
Papyrus had lost his father, and now Sans can’t stop wondering if maybe Papyrus does need to talk about it. Maybe Papyrus feels lonely or whatever and just never mentioned it to Sans. Sans is under no delusions that he’d ever made it easy to bring up serious conversations to him.
And so a week and two days later, he’s standing outside and trying to drum up the courage to go inside.
He sighs. “Ah, shit. What am I, scared of a few feelings?” Sans mutters to himself. He shakes his head, lifts a hand, and knocks.
Inside, there’s a bit of commotion -- loud thumps and scratching, like something large being moved across a wooden floor. Then, rapid footsteps, and the door flings open.
“HELLO -- Sans?” Papyrus’ eye sockets narrow. “You never knock?”
Sans shrugs. “Well, I did knock know if you were availa- bell .”
“UGH. Also, that never stopped you before.”
“Man, so much trouble for being polite. Maybe I shouldn’t bother.”
Papyrus claps him on the back. “No -- I am just surprised! I am of course proud of you for learning to be polite! Maybe a little late . . . but, you’re learning! Please, wipe your feet and come inside.”
Sans does not wipe his feet and steps through the door. If he’s too civilized, Papyrus might just pass out in shock.
“Would you like some tea?” Papyrus asks, leading the way to the kitchen.
“What would you like? I have goldenrod tea, daffodil tea, chamomile tea, blueberry tea, lavender tea, earl grey tea, pomegranate tea, hibiscus tea, rose tea--”
“Man, you have quite the diversi- tea of choices.”
Papyrus groans. “ Sans! And yes, of course I do. Tea is an essential part of guest-hosting!”
“What, I’m a guest now?” Sans’ tone is light, but he’s so startled, he forgets the pun he was about to make. (A shame. ‘Tea’ is such a rich source of wordplay humor.)
“No, but . . .” Papyrus frowns. “You did knock.”
Damn, that knocking was really unsettling, huh? Well, now Sans knows not to be polite in the future.
“Well, surprise me,” Sans breaks in. He flops into a chair at the dining table and pillows his head on his arms.
Papyrus sets himself to putting the kettle on the stove. When he sees Sans’ head down, he frowns. “Sans, did you just come here for a nap?” he asks accusingly.
“Wouldn’t be the first time, but no. I’m just here to hang with my super-cool brother.”
“That makes sense,” Papyrus grants. “I am super-cool. Today, I made a new game for the after-school program! There are two teams, and each one has a ‘flag’ they hide on their side. Then the other team has to find it and bring it back! I call it . . . ‘Capture the Banner’.”
“Yeah, that sounds like the coolest game ever,” Sans agrees.
He should bring up the topic he’d resolved to ask Papyrus about, but . . . eh, after. There’s no rush. It’s already been more than ten years; it can’t hurt to let Papyrus gush about his after-school program as long as he wants. Maybe even encourage him to drag it out.
“I know! And then, I will follow up with a cooking class, because it is very important to know how to make a healthy snack after lots of exercise!”
“Can’t disagree there. Snacks are super important.”
“Hmph,” Papyrus responds, dropping tea bags into two identical mugs. “Yes, you have your snacks even before exercise.”
Sans grins. “Sure do. Snacks are great before, during, and after exercise.”
“You can’t have snack during exercise!”
“You can if you consider exercise walking to the couch from the kitchen with a bag of potato chips.”
“Ugh! Sans, I worry about your health.”
“Aww, I’m fine,” Sans replies, propping his head up on his hand. “I also eat ketchup and burgers. I keep it balanced.”
A low whistle rattles the kettle. As the pitch grows, Papyrus grabs the kettle off the stove. “Well,” he says decisively, “now you’re having tea. That’s very healthy!”
He pours the boiling water into each of the two mugs, then slides one across the table to Sans. Sans picks it up and breathes in the steam. He can’t identify the scent, but it’s vaguely sweet. Something . . . fruity?
As Papyrus sits down across the table and picks up his own mug, the conversation naturally fades.
This would be a good time to bring up the topic Sans came here to talk about. He should do it. He should say it. He looks up at Papyrus, cheerfully chugging his boiling tea, and opens his mouth. The words don’t form.
Instead, he says: “What are you going to make for the kids’ snack?”
“Spaghetti, of course! It is my best dish, and pasta is the perfect food after lots of exercise!”
“I’m pasta-tive they’ll love it.”
Ah, yes. Puns. The armor of cowards.
Papyrus has started talking about his after-school program again, about the puzzles and games he’s making for the kids, the exercises he’s developed to improve the kids’ self esteem. And so the moment of opportunity passes. Sans is relieved to just listen; as long as Papyrus is talking, Sans doesn’t have to try to bring up any tough topics. Which, apparently, is something he’s terrible at. How does anyone talk about serious things? Why would anyone want to?
Ugh. Communication is awful.
Maybe this was stupid. Maybe he shouldn’t bring anything up at all. Papyrus seems fine. He’s thriving, really. Why bring up bad memories? No, Toriel had her heart in the right place, but Sans knows his brother. Papyrus is fine. He doesn’t need to think about Gaster, or what Sans did.
But just as Sans resolves not to ask Papyrus anything after all, Papyrus trails off, and is watching him with some concertion.
“Something is bothering you,” Papyrus states, eye sockets narrowed. It’s not a question.
Sans startles, his hand dropping from where he’s propped his head up back to the table. “Uh, what makes you say that?”
“You’re not listening to me,” Papyrus acuses, “And . . . you knocked.”
Damn that knock. Whatever possessed Sans to be polite?
“Eh, it’s nothing,” Sans says, waving a hand. “Tell me more about the, um, puzzle?”
“I finished talking about that. I was talking about the costume party.”
Papyrus puts down his mug and places his hands on the table as he leans forward. “Tell me what is bothering you! I’m a great listener.”
Well, damn. Now, refusing to tell Papyrus would imply that Sans doesn’t think Papyrus is a great listener. He could lie, but that would imply to himself that he thinks Papyrus isn’t a great listener, and that’s all bullshit.
Sans looks up at Papyrus. He sighs. “As I said, it’s nothing. It’s just . . . . well, do you ever miss Dad?”
And, immediately, Papyrus nods. “Yes, of course.” He does not seem surprised by the question.
Which, honestly . . . that surprises Sans. It’s been years since they talked about Gaster, yet Papyrus is taking the question completely in stride.
Sans searches Papyrus’ expression. It’s hard to hold Papyrus’ gaze; Papyrus has fixed his full attention on Sans, and is considering him with an air of concern. Under his gaze, Sans feels vulnerable, as if Papyrus is both waiting for and expecting Sans to lay himself emotionally bare. At that moment, Sans is suddenly keenly aware that Papyrus is a freakin’ after-school guidance counselor.
Sans takes a deep breath. Here goes nothing.
“Well, I just, uh, wanted to make sure you were okay, I guess? Like, we all know I screw up a lot of stuff. It’s kind of my thing.” Sans flashes Papyrus a wry, casual grin. “But I really screwed up after the accident. So, I just wanted to . . . you know, say sorry. And I might not be half as good a listener as you are, but if you need to talk about it, I’ll do my best.”
Papyrus frowns. “Screwed up? Do you mean when you quit work?”
“What? No, of course not. I mean, before I quit.”
“Before you quit?” Papyrus echoes.
“Yeah? I wasn’t there for you. After everything that happened, I should have been, but I wasn’t.” Sans shrugs heavily. He doesn’t meet Papyrus’ eyes, looking past him instead. Sunlight streams through the kitchen window, and Sans focuses on the white flecks of dust floating through the air. “I got, uh, kind of obsessed with my research. But I left you alone. Which was pretty dumb of me.”
“Hmm. You were kind of intense about it.”
Sans snorts. Coming from Papyrus, that says a lot.
But when Papyrus continues, his voice is surprisingly gentle. “You took it really hard when Dad died. I’m glad I was there! I was really worried about you.”
“You shouldn’t have had to worry about me. That’s not your job.”
“Who else was going to?” Papyrus points out. “Who else was going to do the laundry and keep the house clean, and make sure you eat, once Dad was gone?”
The words feel like a punch. Sans winces, running a hand over his face. “Me,” he mutters. “It should have been me doing all those things. You were fifteen.”
But Papyrus shakes his head. “It should have been Dad,” he states.
“Dad was gone .”
“Exactly! And you were super close with him. So someone needed to take care of you.”
“Come on. It’s not like you didn’t know him from a hole in the wall,” Sans retorts, disbelieving. “And I was the adult. But I let my research be more important, which was the stupidest thing I could have done.”
Papyrus opens his mouth, but Sans interrupts.
“Don’t try to tell me it wasn’t. We both know what happened.”
Papyrus scratches his cheekbone a long phalange as his gaze slides to the side. “Umm . . .”
Sans stares. “Don’t tell me you don’t remember.”
“Of course I remember! But, um. What are you referring to?”
Sans is stunned. In every version of this conversation he’d played in his head in the week up to this moment, he had never thought that Papyrus might not remember. “You fell .”
And, incredibly, Papyrus still looks confused. “Fell?”
Sans stares at him. Papyrus doesn’t remember? Is it possible that Sans is somehow remembering events that didn’t happen in this timeline? Sure, he’s never been aware of the timeline shifts, but he’s sometimes gotten odd, niggling senses in the back of his mind like déjà vu. Maybe this time he’s picked up a more concrete memory.
“You fell,” Sans repeats slowly, less sure. “Into the CORE? Like Dad.”
And, finally, Papyrus’ expression brightens with understanding. “Ohhh. But you caught me! So everything was fine.”
“Uh, wow. Okay.” Sans wants to laugh. Papyrus remembers; he just doesn’t think it’s important. Sans has to run that thought through his head several times before it sinks in. Papyrus doesn’t think it’s important . “Okay.”
Papyrus is watching Sans worriedly. “Uh, Sans?” Perhaps he thinks Sans is losing his marbles. Sans wouldn’t blame him.
“You fell, and it was my fault.”
“Um, it was?” Papyrus says, perplexed. “How? Did you just mop and forget to put up a wet floor sign?”
This time, Sans does laugh. “That would’ve been easier to explain. But no.”
“But then . . . how was it your fault?”
“Look, I. Well.” Sans trails off, and covers his face with his hands. God, this emotional honesty stuff is freaking hard. Dragging each word out is physically painful. Literally. His chest is tight, and each word is sharp, as if the confession is a knot of barbed wire he’s trying to drag out.
“It’s ‘cause . . . I wasn’t paying attention to you. I was so obsessed with my research that the only way for you to get my attention was to follow me to the lab. If I’d been paying attention, you wouldn’t have been there. It wouldn’t have happened.”
Sans exhales. There. He said it. Pulled out that freakin’ knot of barbed wire.
Well. Most of it.
“Well, maybe,” Papyrus says, although he sounds uncertain. “But I didn’t fall! Because you caught me! And after that, you gave me a lot of attention.” He pauses. “. . . Maybe too much. Because you stopped going to work after that.”
Sans chuckles, but it’s a humorless sound. “Well, yeah. Hey, if research almost kills my family, it was time I discovered my true calling as a lazy bones.”
“Sans, it wasn’t the research. It was the resets!”
Sans freezes. Did Papyrus just . . . . ?
“What did you say?” he breathes.
“It wasn’t just the research, it was because you were studying resets.”
There’s a lurch in his chest. Sans stares, struggling to restart his spluttering mind. How could Papyrus have known? When had Papyrus figured out? Why hadn’t he said anything before now? Sans is hyperaware of the moment, aware of the cold wood under his fingers, aware of the sound of traffic outside, aware of each and every excruciatingly long passing second.
“You . . . ,” Sans manages finally. “You know about the resets?”
“Of course I do! It’s all you did for years.”
Sans feels a bit like he’s been flipped upside down. He had never wanted Papyrus to find out, to have to deal with this. “I . . . how’d you figure it out?”
“Well, it’s what all your notes were about! Your research was your favorite thing, so I wanted to know about it! So I read your notes!”
“But . . . they were in code?”
“I’m very good at puzzles!”
Of course. Sans covers his face with one hand again and laughs into his palm. Of course. His younger self always did have a tendency to underestimate Papyrus, and apparently he still hasn’t completely broken that habit. Sometimes, he’d imagined timelines in which Papyrus knew about the resets, but in every one of those, Sans had told him. He never imagined Papyrus figuring it out on his own. “Yep. That’s, uh, very true,” Sans says, still shaking his head at his own stupidity. “But why didn’t you say anything?”
“Well, you were kind of at work all the time?” Papyrus says. “And after that, I kind of thought . . . maybe it wouldn’t be a good idea to talk about. You didn’t seem to want to talk about your research, and I think the reset stuff was bad for you.”
A weak huff. “Yeah. No kidding.”
“It was a good idea, and you worked very hard on it!” Papyrus says encouragingly. “It would have been really nice to have Dad back. But it wouldn’t have worked. No one can reset the timeline.”
In Sans’ notes, resetting the timeline had always been purely theoretical. He hadn’t had the heart to write down the horrifying implications of the anomalies he found, as if writing them down would make it all the more real.
So, Papyrus has half the story. A dizzying sense of relief fills him. Sure, Sans could tell him the rest, fill him in, but at the same time, does it really matter? Papyrus is still right. The story is the same. Sans got obsessed with resetting the timeline. He couldn’t do it. He almost lost the rest of his family in the process. Resets were never good for him. Where it counts, Papyrus always has been the smartest one in the family.
Papyrus is still watching Sans. “Do you still think about Dad a lot?” he asks, tone soft.
“Yeah.” A pause. “Every day.”
As the words fall from his mouth, they surprise Sans. It’s been fifteen years. Surely he should have moved on. But, somewhere in the furthest, most repressed part of his mind, he knows: in every flicker of a shadow, there’s a jolt, as if for a second he thinks he’s going to see his father step out of a shortcut. An emptiness when he remembers Gaster is gone. But those are thoughts he can’t dwell on, thoughts he’s had to shove down since he walked away from his lab.
Papyrus nods. “I think about him a lot, too. You know, he would have loved the surface.”
“Yeah, he would’ve,” Sans agrees. “He would have gone nuts to see the stars from the surface. A positive luna -tic.”
“It doesn’t count as a pun if that’s where the word comes from!”
Sans sniggers. “Nah, it just means it’s e- space -ially bad.”
Papyrus groans. “Don’t think I don’t notice you trying to joke your way out of this conversation.”
“Uh, what? No, I’m not.”
“Suuure,” Papyrus says, squinting disbelievingly at Sans. “You came here because you needed to talk about Dad! But now, instead of being honest about your feelings, you’re making bad puns.”
“This wasn’t about me!” Sans protests. “I thought you might want to talk about Dad! I’m fine.”
“You suddenly start talking about Dad after, like, years , but it’s not because you need to talk about him at all? O- kaaay .”
Sans laughs weakly. “Really. I just thought I hadn’t really asked you how you were doing with it, and I thought I should.”
“Uh-huh. But you miss him.”
“Of course I do.”
“So you should talk about it!”
Sans sighs, shaking his head resignedly. “Yeah, I miss him. But what else do you expect me to say about it? That I cry myself to sleep about it every night? That I blame myself for what happened to him?”
“ Do you blame yourself for what happened to him?”
“That would be ridiculous.”
“You didn’t say ‘no’.”
“I’m fine , Pap, really.”
Papyrus is still watching him with a scrutinizing expression that Sans doesn’t like one bit.
“You should tell me what happened that night,” Papyrus states. He gives a little nod at the end, as if to decree it so.
“Huh? But you already know what happened.”
“I know what Undyne told us. But you were there! And you never talk about it.”
“I mean, it’s pretty much the same story. Look, I wasn’t in the CORE. I was in the office. I didn’t see anything.”
Papyrus frowns, and rubs his chin with one finger. “Is that why you blame yourself? You think that if you’d been in the CORE with him, he’d still be alive?”
“I didn’t say I blamed myself.”
“But you do,” Papyrus says sagely.
“Look.” Sans groans, running a hand over his face. “Even if I blamed myself, it wouldn’t be for that. Okay, if I’d convinced Dad to let me do his work in the CORE instead that night, maybe he’d still be here. And maybe it would have been me who fell in instead. And, okay, yeah, that probably would have been the better outcome, because then at least you would have had someone who knew a damn thing about taking care of you, but that’s a whole different kind of guilt. Nah, if there’s something that’s my fault, it’s giving up.”
“You mean on your research?”
“Yeah. I could have brought him back, Pap. I could have. But I had to stop. So. I gave up on him. And he’s going to stay gone because I gave up.” Sans shrugs, offering Papyrus a wry, resigned smile. “But, hey, it’s not like I had a choice.”
“Sans.” Papyrus fixes him with a serious expression. “You couldn’t have brought him back. He was gone. Even the coolest, most brilliant scientist in the world couldn’t have done it!”
Sans shakes his head morosely. “I could have. I really could have. But it almost killed you. So I had to give up to keep you safe, and that’s why he has to stay gone. And I don’t regret that. I can’t regret that. But that’s why I’m never gonna step foot in a lab again.”
The last line he says with something of an air of levity, but he’s not looking directly at Papyrus.
“Hmm. I think it was closer to killing you ,” Papyrus replies. “You probably would have forgotten to eat and starved to death, or something. So I’m glad you’re not studying resets anymore. Even if you could have brought Dad back -- which you couldn’t -- you need to take care of yourself first! But. It’d also be really sad if you never went to a lab again. You really liked that lab. And liking your work is cool!”
And Sans stares at Papyrus in sheer disbelief. “Pap, we just established how bad it was when I got obsessed with my research. Even you admitted I was a ‘little intense’!”
“Yeah, but that was after Dad died! You’re not intense about it now. You’re kind of . . . not intense about anything these days.”
“Hey, it’s my brand,” Sans says.
Papyrus ignores this. “Before Dad died, your lab stuff was awesome! You did all sorts of weird science things, and you loved it! You had a different kind of smile back then.”
Sans blinks, stunned. The look of resigned hurt on Papyrus’ face each time he went to the lab is still seared in Sans’ mind. He remembers Undyne and Grillby both begging him to spend more time with Papyrus, remembers Papyrus crying at the dining room table. He can hear each sound in his mind, as if listening to it on a recording. He’d never expected Papyrus to push him back toward the lab.
His eyes search Papyrus’ expression, trying to find some lingering pain or anger or grudge, anything. But Papyrus just looks, well, determined. And . . . sympathetic. That kind, concerned expression directed at him makes guilt roar in Sans’ chest. He doesn’t deserve this.
Slowly he says: “But before Dad fell, I still worked late. I still wasn’t a great brother.”
“You always came home,” Papyrus insists.
“But I ignored you. And that was the dumbest thing I could have done, because you’re the coolest brother in the world.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about! Well, other than the coolest brother in the world part. That’s true. But you didn’t ignore me! You used to read with me! And teach me about your research! You told me all about stars and neutrons!”
“Neutrinos,” Sans corrects automatically.
“That’s what I said!”
“Oh, yeah, absolutely.”
But inwardly, Sans is baffled. How could he and Papyrus remember the past so differently? Sure, he had given books to Papyrus and tried painstakingly to explain his research when Papyrus had asked, but it wasn’t like he’d looked forward to spending time with Papyrus every day. He’d put off going home many nights, taking for granted that his family would always be there.
“So you . . . want me to be back in a lab? Really? You want me working late and doing nerdy crap all the time?”
“Well, you’re my nerdy brother!” Papyrus points out. “So you like doing nerdy things. And it’s better than pranks.”
Sans laughs. “Aww, thanks. I love my pranks, too. But, uh. You’ve spent years trying to get me to work. If you thought it was cool when I did research, why didn’t you try to, I don’t know, convince Alphys to kidnap me and make me her unwilling research assistant or something?”
“Well, Dad died in the lab. I thought it would be rude to make you go back before you were ready. But if the reason you won’t do science anymore is because you blame yourself for Dad being gone, that’s stupid!”
And Sans sighs. “I told you, it’s not that.”
Papyrus frowns at him, clearly thinking.
“We literally just went over this,” Sans says, waving one hand as if at an invisible script of their conversation.
“You mean . . . when I almost fell.”
“You know, you did save me. So! Everything was okay!”
He could tell Papyrus the rest. Let Papyrus have the full information so that he can pass true judgment on Sans. Sans doesn’t deserve Papyrus’ forgiveness. He should tell him.
But he can’t. The barbed wire of words catches in Sans’ throat. Papyrus doesn’t deserve that burden. Even if it means Sans has to shoulder a forgiveness he knows shouldn’t be his.
So Sans just smiles, and says: “I guess so.”
Perhaps Papyrus sees the guardedness in his expression, because he makes a face. “Hm. And, well, I made the choice to follow you into the CORE. I shouldn’t have done that.”
“C’mon, you can’t blame yourself, Pap.”
“I don’t! But, I couldn’t have slipped if I hadn’t made the choice to be there! So, like, you can’t blame yourself either. I just shouldn’t have listened to Flowey!”
Sans pauses. The hand he’s resting his head on falls to the table. He stares at Papyrus, who is looking back at him triumphantly, as if sure that Sans can’t doubt his airtight logic.
“Flowey,” Sans echoes.
“Yeah, it was Flowey’s idea for me to follow you to work! He said that if I went with you and got to know your science better, you’d probably want to hang out with me some more. I’m sure he was trying to help, but it was a bad idea.”
“Trying to help. Sure.” Sans feels his eye-lights go out. Quickly he runs a hand over his face and forces the eye-lights back on. “So. You, uh, knew Flowey all the way back then?”
Sure, he’d known Papyrus had known Flowey before they reached the surface, but now they’re talking fifteen years ago.
“Yeah! He kept me company a bit when Dad died! But then . . . he went away for a while. I guess, maybe, he realized you were around more after you left your lab? Or. I don’t know. Flowey is going through a lot, and he doesn’t always do things that are kind.”
Sans chuckles, a low, hollow sound. “Yeah. No kidding.”
All at once, he stands up from the table and pushes aside his cold, untouched mug of tea.
“Hey. I just remembered, I gotta do some stuff before Frisk gets home. So I should go.”
“Oh,” Papyrus says, looking startled. “...Are you sure you’re not just trying to get away from this conversation?”
“Now, would I do that?”
“Yes. You would.”
Sans grins. “Aww, thanks. But nah. I really have some things to take care of, once and flor-al.”
Papyrus groans. Sans waves and steps away from the table.
He shortcuts directly into their kitchen. Flowey is on the counter, his pot turned toward the afternoon sun. Casually, Sans leans up against the surface.
“Hey, bud, how’s it growing?”
Flowey lets out a heavy groan. “Great. You’re back.”
He twists around, but then, spots the expression on Sans’ face. Although Sans is still smiling, he’s let his eye lights go out again. Flowey hesitates, and a single petal quivers.
“Okaaaay,” Flowey says slowly, watching Sans. “You know, I get the sense there’s something you want to say to me.”
“Yep.” Sans folds his arms on the counter and leans on them, so that he’s almost looming over Flowey. Well, as best he can given his height.
“Right. So, uh, you gonna tell me? Or do I gotta guess? Oh wait, don’t tell me, are we playing twenty questions? Let’s see, did I do something ‘rude’?”
“Somethin’ to that effect. I’ll save you the other nineteen. You see, Pap told me a very interesting thing today.”
“Oh yeah?” Flowey says, resting his head on one twisted petal to leer up at Sans. “What was that?”
“Fifteen years ago, Pap followed me to the CORE. That day, he nearly fell in. Now, he tells me it was your idea to go there.” Sans tilts his head, his dark eye sockets narrowing. “I’m gonna take a wild guess here and say that wasn’t the only thing you did that day. What was it -- a vine across his path? Literally pull the ground out from under him?”
Flowey’s eyes widen for just a heartbeat. Then, he smirks. “You’re asking after fifteen years? Slow, are you? Well, you can’t prove anything.”
“I don’t have to. I just wanna ask: did you get what you wanted?”
The grin twists and widens, becoming a raggedy, toothy sneer. “Oh, it worked so much better than I could have planned.”
“And what was your goal, exactly?”
“To get you to quit being annoying, of course.”
Sans nods, almost serenely. “So. You wanted me out of the way.”
“Don’t let it go to your head,” Flowey snorts. “I could have gotten you out of the way so many other ways. I killed you a hundred times over! This was just way more fun. I got to mess with Papyrus and watch you become a lazy trash bag.”
Sans shifts, and Flowey jumps back, as if anticipating a hit. But Sans just turns away, so that his elbows are resting on the counter and his back is up against the edge. He stares out into the empty living room as he speaks.
“But, just so y’know, it wasn’t you.”
Flowey blinks. “What are you talking about?”
“All this?” Sans gestures at himself -- the old sweatshirt, the basketball shorts, slippers. “Wasn’t you. You couldn’t have done this. Wouldn’t have lasted if it were. But hey, points for effort.”
“You’re not making any sense. Spit out what you want to say!”
Sans looks back at Flowey. “There’s only one thing I wanna say. You ever come after my family like that again, I’m gonna give you a bad time.”
Flowey just sighs, resting his head on his leaf again. “That threat was stronger the first hundred times.”
“Eh, whatever. You got the warning.”
Sans pushes himself away from the counter and starts off toward his bedroom.
“Wait!” Flowey calls after him. “What do you mean, ‘it wasn’t me’?”
Sans looks back. His eye-lights have flicked back on, but even he can feel the weariness in his expression. Flowey seems startled.
“You’re not the only complete bastard in the world,” he states. Then, he turns on his heel and leaves the kitchen.
Frisk gets home before Toriel does. The faculty meeting must be running late. Sans isn’t feeling it tonight, so when he goes into the kitchen to make dinner, he just cranks up the oven and throws a frozen pizza on the counter.
Frisk disappears into their room to do homework. They’re not gone long, though, before they re-emerge, a frown set on their face. They walk right over to Sans, and grab his sleeve to get his attention.
When Sans turns, they say: “Flowey said he had a weird conversation with you?” They sign it as a question.
Sans could turn Frisk away, tell them not to worry about it. But.
Frisk understands the resets, understands them emotionally in a way Toriel only can intellectually, in a way that Papyrus never will. Once upon a time, Frisk had been so small they only came up to Sans’ chest, so small they struggled to clamber onto the bar stool. At that bar, Sans had told Frisk he would tell them the story about Gaster one day, when they were older.
Now Frisk towers over him, all long and lanky limbs. Their round baby face has sharpened into the angles of adulthood. And if anyone’s going to get it, Frisk will.
“Yep,” Sans says. He exhales, and looks to the window, where the sunset has painted the clouds in pink and orange pastels. The sight of the sun is grounding in a way. “You know, kid, I never finished telling you the story about what happened with my dad. What d’you think? Want to hear the whole thing?”
Frisk’s brows arc in surprise. But, resolutely, they nod.
“What’s your homework situation like?”
Frisk waves a dismissive hand. “Did most of it before practice. It’ll take me a half hour to finish the rest.”
“You want to do that first?”
Frisk shakes their head.
“Alright, well, just don’t tell your mom I let you put it off, then.” Sans gestures toward the kitchen table with a lazy wave. “After you.”
Frisk pulls out a chair and settles themself in. Sans takes the seat opposite them and folds his arms on the table. For several moments, they look at each other impassively as Sans sorts through his thoughts.
“So. My dad,” he starts. “Dr. Wing Dings Gaster. Pretty great guy. Not perfect, but who is? Anyway, he was the Royal Scientist and I was doing science right along with him. You know this part.”
Again, Frisk nods.
“And I guess the first thing you gotta know about this story is that we weren’t really great to Papyrus. Dad and I were a team, and we were at the lab all the freakin’ time. But Pap was too young, and not really that into science. Not, like, we kicked him out or anything, but, well, he deserved more than what we gave him. Dad and I would pull straws to figure out who would go home when Papyrus got out of school, and I usually drew the short straw. So to speak.” Sans flashes Frisk a grin, although he knows it doesn’t reach his eyes.
“But anyway. Dad and I were studying the fabric of spacetime. He thought maybe we could find a way to shortcut around the barrier to get us all out of the Underground. I studied neutrinos mostly, studying how they pass through solid matter. And we got the CORE doing all kinds of readings for us. Until, well.”
Sans closes his eyes for this part. He can see the lab again, can see the red glow of the alarms.
“One night, Dad fell into CORE. Made it explode, I guess. We never even found any dust.”
When he opens his eyes again, Frisk is still watching him. They don’t say anything, but the expression on their face is tense.
“I, uh, kind of went a little nuts after that. I thought maybe I could use our research on spacetime to break time a little and bring Dad back. An artificial sort of reset.”
Sans breathes. This next part is tough to tell, but he’s dragged out this mess of barbed wire before.
“And I totally ignored Pap. Just. Got obsessed with work, and let Papyrus take care of himself. He was younger than you are now, but I treated him like a roommate I had no interest in talking to. And you know Papyrus; he didn’t like that. Begged me to stay home, tried to get my attention any way he could.
“So, uh, one time, Pap followed me to the CORE where I was doing some tests. And he . . . he almost fell in. Just like Dad.”
Sans’ voice drops on the last sentence, a quaver of emotion that he didn’t expect running through his tone. He swallows. He’s gotten to the tangle of barbed wire that has never come out, and he feels his eyelights threatening to glow blue as something inside him instinctively tries to shut down.
He folds his hands together in front of his face and leans his forehead against the fingers to ground himself. Not looking up, he continues:
“That’s the story Toriel and Papyrus know. Pap almost fell, and I got scared of losing what was left of my family, and quit research. And I guess, Flowey did somethin’ to trick Pap into the CORE in the first place, probably was the one who pushed him in, but it doesn’t really matter. ‘Cause here’s the other part of it:
“I caught Pap. He didn’t fall. But I was pissed off. He’d pulled me out of my work again, and I had felt like I was so close to a breakthrough. And I thought . . .”
With his eyes closed, Sans can see every detail of that moment as if it were a movie playing before him. Papyrus’ cry as he slips off the walkway. Sans hurtling through a shortcut from across the lab and throwing himself forward to snatch at Papyrus’ hand, but his fingers close on empty air. His eye erupts blue. Inches from the CORE’s center, Papyrus’ descent slows to a stop.
“What were you thinking?!” Sans had yelled. “This isn’t a playground!”
“I’m sorry!” Papyrus had hiccuped. “I just wanted to see what you were doing!”
“You keep causing trouble and gettin’ in the way! I don’t have the time to deal with this! You just ruined another test!”
“I’m sorry!” Papyrus whimpered.
“Now I’m going to have to start all over. Maybe I should have just--!”
Sans had cut off there.
Papyrus, still hanging in limbo, enveloped by blue magic, watched him with a wide, terrified expression. He’d curled in on himself, arms wrapped around his knees as he stared pleadingly up at Sans.
“Should have . . . ?” he’d echoed.
But Sans’ eyes had gone wide, as if seeing something nightmarish. And then the anger drained from Sans’ expression. In fact, all the energy at once seemed to leave him. His shoulders slumped; his expression turned downward toward the grated walkway. He lifted his hand; silently, Papyrus floated back onto the walkway and landed softly by Sans’ side.
Papyrus yelped with surprise when Sans grabbed him and yanked him into a tight, one-armed hug.
“I should have stayed home with you,” he’d muttered. “I’m sorry. ”
And it’s only now, fifteen years later in front of Frisk, that Sans voices the thought he’d never finished.
“I thought I should have let him fall.”
Each word scrapes at his soul as he drags it out. He can’t bring himself to open his eyes yet, to read Frisk’s reaction. If he does, he won’t finish.
“I needed to figure out how to reset. I knew I could do it. But Papyrus was distracting me. One more responsibility keeping me from my stupid research. If I let him fall, I wouldn’t have to worry about that anymore. And then, once I finished my research, I could just bring him back. No net loss.”
“So you get it, Frisk? I almost let Papyrus fall. That’s what I’m like when I do science. And that’s why I can never go back to it.”
There. He’s said it. He’s pulled out that final tangle of barbed wire that’s sat inside him for fifteen years. He feels raw. Already, he wishes he could snatch the words back, pack them deep inside, to never give them the power of ever having been uttered.
But he needs to do this. Toriel and Papyrus are trying to forgive him for something that can never be forgiven. At least this way, someone can see him for who he is, can pass judgement in a way that’s just.
He’s still not looking at Frisk, though, until an impatient tug on his sleeve grabs his attention. Frisk’s expression is drawn tight; Sans sees anxiety there, concern, and . . . guilt?
When Sans is looking at them, Frisk signs: “It’s okay.”
Sans lifts his brow in disbelief. “Yeah, kid, no it’s not.”
“It’s okay,” they say again, hand slapping against their palm in emphasis. “Do you remember when I was little, you told me how no one was supposed to live outside time? That when now stops mattering, you’re not alive anymore?”
“I think that’s what happened. You were living outside time because of the resets. No one’s supposed to live with resets. You only thought that way because of them. So it wasn’t that you were doing science, it was the resets.”
Sans stares, then huffs a laugh. “You been talking to Pap?”
Impassively, Frisk replies: “No.”
“Yeah, he said the same thing, about it bein’ resets and not the science. Which -- by the way, did you know he knew about that?”
“No. But I’m not surprised.”
“Heh. Guess I was just dumb then.”
They scowl at him, and the resemblance to Toriel’s reproachful expression is so poignant, that Sans is struck for a moment with just how much Frisk is her kid. And, somehow, that makes him feel all the more sharply that Frisk needs to understand.
“But kid, it can’t have just been been the resets. I mean, look at you. You’ve been actually able to do resets for the last ten years, not just obsess over researching them, and you’ve never hurt anyone.”
To Sans’ surprise, Frisk flinches. They look down. “No, you didn’t,” they say, still staring at the table. “You just had a thought. You didn’t actually kill anyone. I . . . killed Mom.”
“. . . What ?”
They squeeze their eyes shut. Now, Sans wonders if they look more like him, when he couldn’t bring himself to look at Frisk while he laid his sins bare.
“When I told you I only reset twice, I lied. There was one more time. I killed Mom. I didn’t mean to! But she said I had to fight her before she would let me leave, so I could prove I could take care of myself in the Underground. And I thought I could just hit her lightly. But I hit her too hard by accident, and she died. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean to.”
“Damn, kid . . .”
Sans slips out of chair and gets up to go around the table. Frisk still refuses to look up, but they’re trembling. As Sans watches, a tear falls into Frisk’s lap. Sans reaches out, and pulls them into a hug. For a second, Frisk resists, but then they lean across their chair to wrap their arms around Sans and squeeze as if he’s the only thing tethering them right now.
Frisk has killed Toriel. There were resets Sans didn’t know about. Something in the back of his mind whispers with grim vindication: I knew it. But there’s another voice as well -- not as old, not as stubborn, but louder: It’s not the same. He tucks his face against the side of Frisk’s head, pressing the ridge of his nasal cavity into his kid’s hair. “You’re okay, bud. You didn’t mean to.”
He hears Frisk sniff, and give a choked sob. Frisk’s hands fist at the back of his sweatshirt as they cling to him. “Hey, hey, it’s okay,” he shushes them. “Toriel’s fine. It was an accident. Everything’s okay.”
Frisk shakes their head into his chest, but it’s still several moments before they can recover themselves to say anything.
When they finally extricate themselves, sitting back heavily in their chair, they wipe at their eyes. With slightly shaky hands, they say: “I don’t think I would have risked hitting anyone if I hadn’t known I could reset.”
“Yeah. You’re a good kid. And the resets suck.”
Red, puffy eyes meet Sans’ gaze.
“Is it really so bad you had a thought?” Frisk asks. “You didn’t hurt anyone. I did.”
Sans shrugs. “Yeah, well, you didn’t mean to hurt anyone. But thoughts kind of show who you really are, even if you hide them. And I was someone who could consider sacrificing my brother for peace and quiet.”
Frisk glances down. They seem to be processing this; their forehead is creased with thought, their hands twisting again and again at the hem of their shirt. Trepidation wrenches on Sans’ soul. Perhaps now, finally , Frisk will see him as he deserves.
But when Frisk speaks, they only say: “You don’t hate me?”
“What? Of course I don’t hate you, kid.”
“Even though I hurt mom?”
“It was a mistake. Look, are you asking me to hate you? C’mon, you can’t just ask family to hate you.” ‘Cause I did first, he thinks inwardly.
And perhaps Frisk can read Sans’ intentions better than he expected, or maybe Frisk just always knows the right thing to say, because they say emphatically: “I don’t hate you, either.”
Of course not. Frisk has always been too kind, too forgiving. How could Sans have thought they would have understood? Now Frisk is sitting in front of him, eyes red from crying, and they’re still trying to comfort him. Sans sighs, feeling a surge of protective warmth and self-loathing. He leans forward, and presses a soft kiss to Frisk’s hair. “Yeah. I’m sorry, kid. Love you.”
“I love you, too.”
Sans doesn’t know how he feels about that.
This chapter took so long for one reason, and one reason only: Sans is ridiculously emotionally constipated.
The next day is Saturday. Ebott City comes alive on the weekends as the late spring sunlight hints at the coming summer. People bustle under trees heavy with blossoms and the first buds of new leaves, and snatches of music float down the sidewalk under clear blue skies. City fashion turns floaty and colorful as the temperature climbs. The annual racecar festival spills out across the street. But with the nearing summer, Sans is rudely reminded that three events on the calendar are much closer than he’d thought: the end of the school year, the tenth annual monster reunion, and Frisk’s eighteenth birthday.
Shit, Frisk is nearly an adult. As many times as Sans has thought about it over the past several months, it still trips him up every time. They’ve got one more year of Frisk in high school, and then after that . . .
Sans decides to cope the best way he knows how.
“Hey, Tori,” he calls, grabbing the string of the giant cat balloon that’s bouncing cheerfully around the ceiling of the party store. “What does a cat like to eat on their birthday?”
Toriel glances over from the paper plates she’s considering. “I do not know. What does a cat like to eat on their birthday?”
“Mice cream and cake.”
Toriel laughs, the sound breaking off into a snort. Sans beams. It’s hard to feel worried about anything when he gets to listen to that.
“What’d’you think?” he asks, tugging the balloon down so he can cross his arms over the top. “Doesn’t it just say ‘happy purr-thday’?”
“Oh, indeed. A delightful selection from the party cat-alogue.” She pauses to let Sans chortle, and then continues: “But it does not quite fit the theme, does it? Cats are not really ‘weird sports’.”
“Eh, I dunno, there’s probably some weird sport with cats. Maybe competitive cat napping. I’d win that event, paws down.”
“Yes, it would not be fair to the other players. We would have to give you some kind of handi-cat.”
“Awww, mew flatter me.”
Finally, Sans releases the balloon and turns back to the paperware on the shelf.
“So, guide me. What’s your vision for ‘weird sports’ decor? ‘Cause we’ve got footballs and baseballs,” he says, picking up each set of plates in turn, “but neither of them are particularly ‘weird’.”
“I thought perhaps we could select items related to the activities we have chosen,” Toriel replies. She shows him the napkins she’d found; cheese of all shades of white and yellow pattern the border. “This, I hoped, would represent our cheese racing event.”
“Hmm. Oh -- this one is perfect.”
Toriel looks down at the plates Sans shoves in her hands. They’re ocean-themed, with fish and bubbles cheerfully criss-crossing the front. “What event does this represent?”
“Our mascot, obviously. When it comes to weird sports, Undyne is the queen.”
Toriel laughs. She glances at her watch. “We should hurry up, dear. There is only so long Papyrus will be able to distract Frisk. We did promise to meet them at the racecar festival.”
“Pssh. They’re at the racecar festival. They won’t even notice we’re gone.” Still, Sans pushes the fish-plates back on the shelf and considers the other designs with renewed interest.
When they do finally leave the store, they have a mismatched selection of random supplies, including the cheese napkins, some plates with horses on them, and two different banners. One banner reads Welcome Back and the other says Happy Birthday.
“That is probably a good start,” Toriel says, peering inside the bag. “Papyrus and Undyne will be able to pick up the rest later.”
“They’ll have a blast,” Sans agrees. “Not really sure why we didn’t just leave everything to them, to be honest. Or, speaking of a blast, Mettaton for that matter.”
“Dear, Mettaton’s idea of decor is bombs.”
“Well, he does like a good blow-out.”
Toriel sniggers. “Besides, it is Frisk’s eighteenth birthday. Do you not want to be involved in planning that?”
“You really want me in charge of planning a party?”
“No,” Toriel replies. “Which is why I did not send you unsupervised.”
“‘Unsupervised’? Ouch, Tori.”
She grins at him, ears perked playfully. “If I had sent you alone, you would have come back with that cat balloon and nothing else.”
He laughs. “Hey, Frisk would have loved it.”
“I cannot argue that.”
They find the van parked along the edge of the park. As they load in their new party supplies, Sans says in a casual tone: “Speaking of Frisk growin’ up and all . . . well, I think I came up with something for me to do next year.”
“Oh?” Toriel looks up from where she is covering the bags with a blanket. “What did you decide?”
“Don’t get too excited; it’s nothing really different from what I’m already doing. I just thought, well, I’m already doing some ambassador stuff for Frisk. I could do that more seriously, I guess. The more ambassador stuff I take on, the less Frisk is gonna have to worry about in college.”
“Ambassador,” Toriel echoes. Sans searches her expression for some sign of disappointment, but he doesn’t find one.
“Hey, I’m a people person. I’d be great at it.”
She smiles at him. “Yes, if you wanted to. And as you say, looking out for your family is what matters most to you.”
Toriel shuts the trunk of the van. “Have you mentioned this to Frisk yet?”
“And what about Asgore?”
“Also not yet.” Sans rubs awkwardly at the back of his skull. “Uh, would that be okay with you? Me working with Asgore more?”
“Of course. I have been co-parenting with him for almost ten years, not to mention all that Frisk does with him as ambassador. I think I could handle you spending a little more time with him.” Toriel shoots him a look of fond amusement. “But it would probably be polite to speak with Asgore about this before making long-term plans.”
“Yeah, good point.” Sans has never felt particularly uncomfortable around Asgore, and never really got the sense Asgore was overly uncomfortable around him, but who knows? Asking a guy to work with his ex’s new partner can be a little awkward.
Sans feeds the meter, giving them a few more hours of parking time. “So, you wanna head back to the festival now? I know a shortcut.”
“Not yet,” Toriel replies. “I would like to talk for a moment.”
Sans lifts his brow. “I thought we were in a hurry.”
“This is more important.”
He doesn’t like the sound of that.
“So,” Toriel says, tone light. “Can I take it that you have spoken to Papyrus?”
Sans does not wince. It’s a close thing. “About the science stuff?”
“Uh, yeah. I did, yesterday.” He grins wryly and shrugs. “Sorry I didn’t mention it earlier, but I didn’t really know where to bring it up, you know?”
Toriel nods, smiling reassuringly. “I understand. What did Papyrus say?” Her eyes are dazzlingly red in the sunlight.
And all of a sudden, the memory of Frisk’s words rear in Sans’ head: I killed Mom. Sans looks into her eyes and feels a gut-wrenching horror at the thought of something so beautiful, so precious, being lost, even in some far-off, aborted timeline. Decisively, he shoves the thought away. It leaves an uncomfortable churning in his soul.
“Well, you were right,” Sans admits. “Papyrus doesn’t care about me doing research. Hell, he kind of wants me to get back to it, too. Get this -- he called it ‘cool’. What the heck, right?”
Obligingly, Toriel laughs. “Yet, you still did not want to consider going back to your research?”
He shrugs. “Yeah, well. He forgives me, sure, but he doesn’t know the full story. If he did, I don’t know that he would forgive me. I sure wouldn’t be surprised if he didn’t. So. Kind of doesn’t matter if he wants me to go back to a lab or not.”
“Do I know the full story?”
The question is too direct for Sans to obfuscate around. He glances down at the cracks on the sidewalk and exhales. “Nope.”
“So, to you, my opinion on the subject does not matter either.”
“I wouldn’t say that--”
“But you also consider my opinion to be uninformed, do you not?”
He winces. “Well, it’s not exactly your fault or anything. I’m just the coward who never told you.”
“Sans!” Toriel scolds. “You know how I feel about that kind of talk.”
“Hey, it’s true.”
Toriel lets out an exasperated sigh. “Come. Let us sit down.” There’s a bench at the edge of the park a few feet from their car, and Toriel leads the way over there. Sans follows obligingly and sits, although he can’t get comfortable.
“Y’know, this is a nice change,” he comments idly.
“I seem to keep having these kind of conversations at kitchen tables lately. I was startin’ to think I should just not go into kitchens anymore.”
“Ah,” Toriel says, smiling. “So now it is kitchens and parks you must avoid.”
He winks. “Precisely.”
Toriel laughs softly.
For a moment, they lapse into silence. Sans tilts his head up, watching the light filter through the blossoms in the trees as he listens to the sound of the park: distant snatches of conversation, a dog barking, the beeping of the walk light at the corner.
Finally, Toriel begins.
“I do not suppose you are willing to tell me what it is I do not know?”
Sans squeezes his eye sockets shut. Toriel is so kind, so gentle. He can imagine the horror and disgust on her face if he told her the truth about what he’s done. Toriel has been a stable constant in his life for so long, one of the only constants when even time couldn’t be trusted. He’s not sure he can handle her judgement. And yet, he’d been so desperate for someone to pass judgement on him just a few hours ago. He’s a hypocrite.
“Not yet,” he says finally. “Sorry.”
Toriel nods. She looks disappointed, but resigned. “Yes, I suppose I had expected as much.”
“You don’t seem that surprised that there was more to the story.”
“Of course,” she replies. “Clearly, these events have been troubling you greatly for quite a while. I rather suspected there might be something deeper.”
Sans chuckles softly into one hand. “You’re too smart.”
She smiles at him, even as concern shadows her expression. “But Sans, I do worry. While I do not wish to push you before you are ready, these events have been affecting you deeply. I do not think it is good for you to keep this all inside, to yourself. I believe it is important to open up to someone about this. Are you certain that you are not willing to tell Papyrus the rest?”
“No,” Sans says sharply. “I can’t tell Papyrus, not ever. You, maybe sometime. Papyrus, never.”
“You can rely on your brother as well, sometimes, you know.”
“Not for this.”
Toriel sighs. “Well, alright. Perhaps another friend then? Alphys, Grillby?”
“Well, I told Frisk already. Does that count?”
Sans is startled by the fire in her voice, and his head jerks up. Toriel’s brows are furrowed, her ears pulled back. She’s staring at him, looking as if she’s hoping desperately she just misheard him.
Sans rubs awkwardly at his neck. “Um. I, uh, told Frisk?”
“Sans, you did not.” Her tone is measured, dangerous.
“What?” he says. “You were just saying I should tell someone.”
“Not Frisk! Sans, that is not at all appropriate! Frisk is a child.”
“Hey, they’re going to be eighteen in like, a month! They’re pretty much an adult.” But even as Sans defends himself, he feels shame hot in his face.
“That does not matter! No matter how old Frisk becomes, they will always be your child. That means they must always be able to rely on you, not the other way around. I may not know exactly what it is that you told Frisk, but I know the effect it has on you, and it is not acceptable to put the burden of helping you work through something so heavy on your own child.”
She’s right, and he knows it --- he’s known it even as the words were leaving his mouth back in the kitchen. But it didn’t seem to matter back then, because he was already the asshole who almost let Papyrus fall. What’s one more family screw-up?
But he mutters: “I mean, you’ve always been super in favor of being transparent with Frisk about hard stuff.”
“Not in this way! It is okay to let Frisk know when we are going through difficult emotions -- it lets them see that difficult emotions are normal, and understand how we work through them. But we have to be working through them on our own! You have not been dealing with these emotions, and you cannot ask Frisk to be your only confidant! Do you truly not see the difference?”
Sans sighs, covering his face in his hands. “No, I do. You’re totally right. I’m sorry. I screwed up, big time.”
Toriel lets out a heavy breath. “As I said, I do not wish to push you to be open until you are ready, but . . . you have already told Frisk. For me to properly support my child, I may need to know the rest of whatever it is you are not telling me.”
My child , not our child. Sans knows Toriel doesn’t mean it that way, but it stings nevertheless.
“Yeah,” Sans mumbles. “Yeah. I guess you’re probably right.”
Shit. He hadn’t planned on this. He closes his eyes and tries not to picture the disappointment on her face now, the horror that will be there when he finishes telling her the story. The tangle of barbed wire is heavy in his gut. But he’s already pulled it out once before, and now he’s sacrificed the right to let it stay there.
“I almost killed Papyrus.”
Toriel’s forehead tightens. But gently, she says: “Tell me.”
He inhales, and starts his confession.
As he talks, he can’t bring himself to look at her. He wishes desperately that he could have a wall between them, then regrets the thought. It’s not a good idea to tempt the powers in his universe. Toriel listens attentively, not touching him, not interrupting.
But when he finishes, Toriel reaches over, and wraps him in a tight hug. Sans blinks, startled, and then reaches up to card one hand through the fur on Toriel’s arm. Again, the memory of Frisk’s words surfaces, somehow jostling for space between all the other memories of the lab flitting through his head: I killed Mom . Sans squeezes his eye sockets shut and holds tighter to Toriel’s arm.
“Oh, Sans,” Toriel murmurs, her muzzle pressed against his skull. “It is alright.”
Sans twists his neck around to fix her with a disbelieving stare. She’s watching him not with anger or horror, but with a kind of compassionate heartache. “You kidding, Tori? Yeah, no, it’s not. You heard me, right?”
“I did. But, dear, it was just a thought. It is our actions that define who we are, not our thoughts. And your actions have shown time and time again how much you truly love Papyrus.”
“I shouldn’t’ve thought it.”
“Thoughts happen. And the moment you had that thought, you decided to walk away from your lab and devote all your time and energy to Papyrus. That is quite telling, I think.”
Sans doesn’t say anything.
Toriel puts her hands on his shoulders, gently turning him to face her. “Sans. I, too, have had thoughts I regretted. I cannot count the number of times I have wished horrible things on Asgore.”
“I mean, he’s your ex--”
“And I certainly have hated humans at times.”
“That’s completely understandable--”
“And if thoughts reflected on what we were capable of, do you not think my LV would increase from each and every violent thought?”
Sans shakes his head. “LV doesn’t work that way. Hell, if you hurt someone by tripping over them it doesn’t care that it was an accident.”
“Exactly. It is actions that matter, not thoughts. You had a thought, but your LV never increased.”
“I don’t care about LV,” Sans insists, exasperated. “It’s not like it’s any kind of perfect marker of who’s good or not. Papyrus is my brother, and I thought I should let him fall. You don’t come back from that.”
“Papyrus is your brother,” Toriel agrees. “And you love him, and you have cared for him, and you did not let him fall.”
“Maybe in another timeline I did.”
“Perhaps. But, somehow, I do not believe you ever did.”
Sans sighs. “Look, Tori, I appreciate that you’re trying to help. But it’s not going to change anything.”
Toriel smiles sadly. “I believe I am beginning to see that,” she says, and runs one paw tenderly over the side of his skull. “This may be . . . well, something for someone who is trained to help people work through difficult emotions.”
Wait. What. Sans stares at her, brow cocked in disbelief. “Uh, are you talkin’ about a shrink?”
“Therapist,” she corrects mildly. “Yes. This has been troubling you for fifteen years, enough to impact your relationship with your family. It may be time to talk to a trained and impartial third party.”
“Wait, hang on. I don’t need a therapist.”
“I cannot force you, of course. But--” And here, she fixes him with a stern gaze. “--I would appreciate it greatly if you did.”
The hard lines in her expression are not accusatory, but Sans withers inside nevertheless. He’s let her down. Well. Of course he has. He’s Sans ; they both should have seen this coming.
He sighs. “I thought we agreed that therapy wasn’t a great idea years ago.”
Toriel shakes her head. “You were hesitant the first time I brought it up, back when you told me about the resets. You wanted to deal on your own. I let it go because you did improve. You gave yourself something of a routine, and I found I was not so worried about you. But . . . I think you have gotten stuck. It has been ten years, and these issues are still upsetting you. You may have reached the limits of what you can do on your own.”
“C’mon. Even if I admitted I needed a shrink, how the heck would I talk to one?” Sans asks. “I start talkin’ resets, and they’re gonna lock me up.”
“It is not so hard to believe when one understands magic. On occasion, even humans have magic and so a good therapist would have to have an open mind. We also have Frisk to corroborate your story. If you are invested in giving therapy an honest try, we can find ways to explain it.”
Sans tries to imagine the conversation, and he has to shake his head. That poor shrink. But next, he argues: “And therapy’s expensive. We can’t afford it, especially with Frisk going off to college next year.”
“We will be fine. Our insurance through the school is good. And Asgore is going to be paying most of Frisk’s tuition.”
“But I’m the last one in this family who should be getting therapy. You and Frisk are the ones who have dealt with real shit. All my shit is just me getting up in my own head.”
“Do you not consider losing your father ‘real shit’?” Toriel asks.
Sans shrugs. “Lots of people lose parents. They don’t all lose their head over it.”
“It is difficult to predict how anyone will respond to grief. You were young, and pushed into a position of responsibility before you were ready for it. And besides.” Toriel smiles softly. “If this is ‘all in your head’ that is all the more reason to see a therapist. A therapist cannot erase the things in a person’s past. They can only help find lost heads.”
Sans looks away and rubs at his face.
“I don’t like the idea of telling some poor sap about the resets. It’s not really a nice thing to do to someone, tell them that time is screwing with them and that nothing they do matters.”
Toriel’s lips quirk up. “I thought you did not believe that anymore.”
“Well, it’s still a pretty heavy thing to dump on someone.”
“You do realize that being on the receiving end of ‘heavy things’ is more or less the job description of a therapist?”
Sans concedes the point with a chuckle, and then is quiet for a long moment. He’s running out of arguments. He looks down at the sidewalk beneath his feet, maps the cracks in the concrete with his eyes. The thought of talking about his shit, to a stranger, is terrifying. The sense of no, oh god no, please don’t make me is visceral. He could always dig his feet in, refuse. When he wants to be, he’s quite good at being an unmovable object. And, as Toriel said, she can’t force him.
But he looks up, takes in the weariness in her eyes, so subtle he knows most people would miss it, and says: “Would it help you if I did?”
Toriel gives him a small, almost sad smile. “I would rather you did this for yourself, but yes. I believe it would. It would help both of us.”
She pulls him into another tight hug. This time, Sans lets himself relax and lean into her chest. “Thank you, dear,” she murmurs against his skull. “For your honesty, and your openness.”
“‘Course, T. You’ve goat a way with words.”
Toriel laughs, and the whiskers on her muzzle tickle the top of Sans’ head. Sans closes his eyes, drinking in the moment.
“You know, we should probably get going to the festival. The little squirt is probably gonna notice we’re gone any day now.”
“Yes, of course. I think we will take one of your shortcuts now.” Toriel gets up, and reaches down to help Sans to his feet.
Sans grins. “Alright. This way.” Still holding on to Toriel’s hand, he leads them down the sidewalk, to the edge of the park. They cross the street. A bus goes by, blocking them from view of the park. When the bus passes, they’re gone.
The racecar festival doesn’t seem particularly, well, racecar-y. A city street has been cordoned off and it’s bursting with shops and stalls and activities. Sure, here and there, an antique racecar is parked on the street, and passerbys pause to take photos. But besides that, there are home good sales, and vintage clothing markets, and international food trucks, and an art show that doesn’t include a single painting of a racecar.
It’s here, by a painting of a cat wearing a superhero cape, that Toriel and Sans find Frisk and Papyrus.
“SANS, TORIEL,” Papyrus calls, when he spots them. “HELLO. YOU HAVE RETURNED!”
“Hey,” Frisk waves. With a mischievous glint in their eye, they sign: “How did surprise birthday supply shopping go?”
Toriel startles. “Um, ‘surprise birthday’?” she echoes. “Who said anything about a surprise birthday? Who said anything about surprises?”
“Yeah, kid,” Sans puts in. “We had to go check on Rocky. Papyrus forgot to let it out to do its business today.”
“THAT’S A TERRIBLE LIE, SANS,” Papyrus scolds. “Everyone knows you never take care of your pet rock! That’s why it lives with me now!”
Frisk grins. “Would it be okay if I added a few more names to the invitations?” they ask. “Since it’s going to be at the monster reunion, I know a few more humans who would die to come. At school, Rachel has a huge celebrity crush on Shyren. And Anya has just always been curious about the monster reunion.”
“Who said anything about the monster reunion?” Toriel says nervously.
“Well, when else are all my monster friends from all over the country going to be in one place?” Frisk asks pointedly.
Sans chuckles. “We don’t know what you’re talking about, kid. But, sure, we’ll add Rachel and Anya to the non-existent list.” He winks.
“SANS, TORIEL, HAVE YOU LOOKED AT THE RACECARS YET?” Papyrus breaks in. “There is a blue and gold one with flames on it! It is not as cool as my car, but it is still very snazzy!”
“Sounds very cool,” Sans agrees. “You know, I’m surprised you’re not still out by the racecars now.”
“Yes, well . . .” Papyrus pauses to gesture at the painting. “It’s a cat! In a cape!”
“Excellent point, bro.”
Frisk turns to Papyrus and says: “Let’s give them a tour of the cars!”
“Excellent idea, my cool friend! We’ll show them all the best cars!”
Frisk grabs Toriel’s paw and eagerly leads the way from the art tent as Papyrus enthusiastically continues describing the various racecars parked along the street. They weave through the throngs of people enjoying the festival, past taco trucks and vintage street stalls.
At the very mouth of the street, where the silver road barriers separate the street festival from the traffic, Papyrus bounces over to a gold and silver striped car that looks a bit like an oversized metallic pill. Papyrus climbs right in, much to the horror of the human onlookers, although they look too stunned to intervene. Toriel laughs delightedly on the sheer joy on Papyrus’ face, and Frisk leans up casually against the tail wings of the car for Toriel to snap a photo on her phone.
“Come on, Sans! Get in the picture!” Papyrus crows.
“Okay, okay,” Sans chuckles, and lets Frisk grab him and drag him up to the car. He rests one hand on the nose of the vehicle and smiles lazily for the camera.
He next swaps off with Toriel so she can have a picture with the car. Papyrus throws his arms around both Toriel and Frisk, startling the both of them into laughter. Sans snaps a photo.
His family looks happy. He watches them laugh, ignoring the stares from the humans around them. Life bustles through the street festival, and there’s a lightness in the air that is more than just sunlight and spring breeze.
I killed Mom.
He feels like he can’t breathe.
Old-style jazz music thuds on a dozen feet down the street. Frisk’s head perks up as they seek the source of the sound. A large space has been cleared on the street, and there’s a wide banner hanging over a set of boxy speakers: Swing Dance - Free Instruction!
“I want to check that out!” Frisk declares.
“What, the swing dance place?” Sans asks.
“Yeah, it looks cool!”
“Kid, you are not getting me to swing dance.”
Frisk grins, lifting their eyebrows wickedly. “Is that a challenge?”
“I would like to see you swing dance,” Toriel puts in, smiling.
“No, no way, it’s not happening.”
Frisk and Toriel exchange a mischievous look, and Sans has to laugh.
“LET’S GO!” Papyrus enthuses. “We will be the best swing dancers! They will all be amazed by our elegance and grace!”
He bounces out of the racecar (to the relief of the still-scandalized onlookers), and Sans can’t help but be swept up with the rest of his family as they descend on the swing dancing station. A small crowd is already gathering, and Frisk clears a little corner of dance floor for their little group of four.
Instructors mingle through the would-be dancers, giving guidance and demonstrations. A South Asian young man with swept black hair and dark skin reaches them.
“So, we’ll start with just getting into the walking step,” he tells them. “It’s literally just walking, keep your hips moving, and make sure you’re leaning forward, not back.”
He demonstrates for them, then compliments Frisk’s perfect recreation and encourages Papyrus to take it a little easy on the hips. Toriel’s struggling to find the rhythm, but she’s laughing.
“Oh, come on, Sans!” she encourages. “It is just walking!”
Sans lurks at the edge of the crowd, hands shoved deep in his pockets. He smirks. “Oh, walking? I’m not real good at that, but I could give it a try.” And he starts lifting his feet in exaggerated marching movements, and staggering sideways as if he can’t keep his balance. He stumbles heavily into Frisk.
Frisk squeals a mirthful protest. They grab Sans’ hands, keeping up their smooth, subtle stepping. This close, Sans can’t keep up his ridiculous marching motion without kneeing Frisk in the stomach, and so he relents. Laughing, he moves his feet in a mirror to Frisk, letting them lead across their little spot of dance floor.
“Look, you have got it!” Toriel exclaims. She’s dancing with Papyrus, who still hasn’t toned down his enthusiasm. He tries to spin her out, and Toriel gasps as she trips over her own feet. But still, she’s laughing.
Their instructor returns to show them a quick staccato triple step to throw into their walking rhythm. Frisk catches on immediately, their feet beating a tap, tap, tap-tap-tap against the pavement. Sans stubbornly keeps up the basic stepping. The leisurely pace suits him just fine.
He passes Frisk on to Papyrus, and the two almost immediately end up tripping over each other as Papyrus eagerly throws some kind of high-kick into his triple step. Toriel comes up behind Sans and wraps her arms gently around him. She gives him a soft squeeze, sighing as if she’s in the most comfortable position in the world. Sans leans back into her touch.
“May I have this dance, dear?” Toriel murmurs against the side of his skull.
He chuckles. “I thought I said I wasn’t dancing.”
“Hmmm. But you were dancing.”
Sans turns in her arms. He runs his hands down the fur of her arms, tracing the soft curves until he reaches her hands. He laces their fingers together. “Ain’t fair. It’s too hard to say ‘no’ to you guys.”
Toriel winks. “I think you like it.”
He laughs, and does not deny it.
Toriel starts up a rhythm, and Sans falls into step with her. He keeps it simple, but Toriel seems content with that. They sway to the beat of the music, while beside them, Frisk and Papyrus try out a complicated kicking rhythm that seems almost more like a can-can than swing dancing.
Sans watches them, even as he lets Toriel guide him around and around. Papyrus is laughing his high, barking kind of laugh, looking endlessly pleased with himself; Frisk’s face is shining. A couple of onlookers have paused to watch the two, and their instructor looks like he’s not sure if he should correct them or just let them have their fun.
It seems to Sans that everything in that moment is beautiful: the wild dance between Papyrus and Frisk, the bright blue sky above, the triangle-shaped flags that criss-cross the festival street, even the bricks of the buildings around him.
It’s a feeling he’s not used to, but one that’s becoming maybe a little less alien to him with each passing year.
But then Sans’ gaze slides back to Toriel and a whisper in the back of his mind shatters the moment:
I killed Mom.
His foot hits the ground wrong, and he slips. He hits the ground hard. “Oof.”
“Sans!” Toriel’s paws fly to her face. “Oh goodness! Are you alright?” She hastens to reach down and pull Sans up to his feet.
“Uh, yeah,” he mumbles, as Toriel pats dirt from his sweatshirt. He winces, and rubs uncomfortably at this smarting tailbone. “Sorry. I guess I’m just not that athletic.”
“You do not need to apologize. Are you hurt?”
“No, I’m fine. But, uh, maybe I will sit this out for a bit.”
“Yes, of course. Would you like me to come with you?”
He waves her off. “Nah, I’m good. Go dance with Frisk and Pap, have fun.”
“If you are certain . . .”
“I am. Go. Have fun.”
Toriel squeezes his hand, and moves off toward Frisk and Papyrus. Sans settles himself on the curb and watches them. Papyrus starts showing Toriel his elaborate high-kick maneuver, and after a few moments, the worry lines on Toriel’s expression smooth out.
His family is still happy. But for Sans, the moment has passed.
I killed Mom.
He lets out a sigh and rubs a hand hard over his face. Shit.
Maybe therapy isn’t such a bad idea.
When they get back to the apartment late that afternoon, it’s not quite sunset, but the sky is beginning to pinken along the city skyline. They drop Papyrus off at his place first, and he is gracious enough to smuggle out the not-so-secret party supplies from the trunk and away from Frisk’s watchful gaze.
“What do you want for dinner, kiddo?” Sans asks, as Toriel shuts the front door of their apartment.
Frisk shrugs. Helpful.
“Great. Liverwurst and blood pudding it is,” Sans says sagely.
Frisk rolls their eyes, and trots off to the living room to flop on the couch. They pull their phone out of their pocket and start typing rapidly.
Sans chuckles to himself as he heads to the kitchen. Toriel follows him.
“That was a lovely day,” Toriel comments.
“Yeah, it was,” Sans agrees. “Hey, could you grab me an onion?”
Toriel fetches an onion from the top shelf of their pantry and hands it over.
“Of course. But, ah, Sans, I think we should talk to Frisk about the conversation that you and I had at the park today. It would be important for them to know that you have confided in me, and that they do not have the responsibility to look out for you.”
Sans winces. He cuts off the ends of the onion and halves it with three rapid thunks . “Right,” he mutters, as he starts peeling off the outermost layers. “Another kitchen table heart-to-heart. I can do that.”
Toriel laughs softly. “Sorry, dear. But it is important.”
“Yeah, I get that,” Sans says, shooting her a sheepish smile. “It’s my own fault, anyway. I’m just really bad at these kinda talks.”
She smiles back at him. “Well, thank you for being brave.”
“Heh. Thank you for bein’ patient.” He shakes his head slightly. “You seem to always know the right thing to do when you’re feeling out-of-sorts. You keep your head up, and you don’t let people get caught in the middle. I wish I knew how to do that like you do.”
He needs tomatoes. Wordlessly, he jerks his head toward the open pantry, where two cans of crushed tomatoes sit on the middle shelf.
Toriel fetches the cans. “You are not so terrible at it as you might think,” she says softly. “We all have our own journeys. I have been watching you grow for quite a few years. You are warmer now, more open, more directed than you once were.”
He passes her a can opener. “Yeah, but as you say, I’m ‘growing’. Wouldn’t you rather I already knew this crap? You do.”
“Do you think I never had to learn?” She winks at him. “You are with an older woman.”
Sans lets out a startled laugh. “Great, now I feel kinky.”
“Oh yes? I could make you feel more kinky, if you like.”
“Frisk is in the living room!” Sans hisses, choking back mirth that could draw their kid’s attention.
Toriel grins mischievously. “I did not say ‘now’.”
“Oh, open your cans.”
“Is that what the kids are calling it these days?” But, still chortling, Toriel slides the can opener along the lid of the first can. “Anyway. I also had to learn how to manage emotions and communicate them. And, truly, you do know more than you think you do. I would not have considered raising a child with you if I thought you were not emotionally ready. But even by the time I met you, you knew how to be vulnerable enough to love with every bit of your soul. You knew how to listen. You knew how to keep going even when you despaired, knew how to choose what was important to you. And, you knew how to learn.”
Sans pauses from dicing his onion to look up at her. There is genuine love and tenderness in Toriel’s expression -- the norm for her, really -- as well as a faint glow of pride. Awkwardly, he scratches the back of his neck. “Doesn’t it bother you that I screwed up?”
“Do I like that you chose to confide in Frisk? No. Does that mean I do not trust you? Of course not. Even good parents make mistakes. Do you not remember Frisk’s first sleepover?”
Sans chuckles. A year after they reached the surface, Frisk had been invited to their first sleepover. But, only a half hour after dropping Frisk off, Toriel had panicked and pulled Frisk home. Although Sans had talked Toriel down and returned Frisk to the party, Frisk had sulked for a week afterwards.
“Hey, it didn’t hurt the kid.”
“Frisk certainly thought it did,” Toriel says wryly. “And I had needed your help back then to realize I was being unreasonable. Even as parents, we learn.”
“I guess.” He’s still not sure it’s comparable, but it’s good to know that Toriel doesn’t feel like he’s just a kid playing at being a parent. “Hand me the tomatoes?”
She does so.
And an hour later, a tray of baked ziti is steaming on the kitchen table. “Frisk! Dinner!” Toriel calls, as Sans sets a stack of plates on the table.
A disgruntled sound protests from the living room, but Frisk obligingly appears at the doorway of the kitchen. They’re tapping away at their phone as they settle in a chair.
“Phone down, dear,” Toriel says, scooping some pasta onto a plate and passing it to Frisk.
Frisk obliges. Sans takes his own plate from Toriel and takes a seat. He glances up at Frisk, who’s already digging in.
Great, he has another tough conversation to get through. The anticipation is a pressure at the back of his skull.
All at once, he blurts: “Hey, kid, I told your mom what I told you yesterday. So, uh, don’t worry about me, okay?”
Toriel, halfway through spooning some pasta onto her own plate, gives Sans a startled glance. That’s fair. He’s startled himself, if he’s being honest.
Frisk’s head shoots up. Their eyes slide to Toriel, then back; they look terrified.
I killed Mom.
Sans swallows. “You know, what I said.” He holds Frisk’s gaze as he emphasizes the ‘I’, and after a moment, Frisk nods. They relax somewhat, but still look tense.
“Anyway, sorry I dumped on you,” Sans continues. “It wasn’t cool.”
“It’s okay,” Frisk says. “I wanted to help.”
Toriel gives Frisk a soft, almost sad smile. “That is kind of you, dear, but I do not think that is something anyone could do alone. Even I cannot work through his troubles for him.”
“Yeah,” Sans says, affecting a dry, resigned expression. “Tori’s even making me go to therapy.”
To his surprise, Frisk gives a firm nod and says: “Good. It’s not good for you to be so freaked out about one thought.”
Sans lifts his brow. “What, you a psychologist now?”
“No. But everyone knows how much you love science. Papyrus talks about it; Alphys talks about it. And you quit because of one thought.”
He huffs a soft laugh. “Kid, I just want to take care of my family. And sometimes science can get in the way.”
Frisk shoots him an exasperated, disbelieving glare. But before they can say anything, Toriel breaks in: “Perhaps a therapist would be better equipped for this conversation.”
Frisk relents, although they look like they want to argue some more. Their mouth sets in a dejected line.
Sans feels a little bad. “Kid, I know you’re trying to help, and I appreciate it. I just don’t really want to do anything science anymore.”
“Ah,” Toriel murmurs. “Well, I do not want to push you, but you did promise my students a class about stars. Did you still want to do that? If you do not feel ready, you do not have to.”
Sans glances up at her, startled. He hadn’t forgotten, exactly, but he hadn’t touched that lesson since that first disastrous evening. He’d kind of hoped she’d forgotten. That way, there’d be no pressure until he showed up at the last second. “It’s fine,” he says finally. “I made a promise. And hey, it’s one class. Probably can’t hurt. I’ll finish planning the lesson this week, I guess.”
Frisk’s hand shoots up. Toriel and Sans look at them, and excitedly, they sign: “I have an idea! If you don’t like doing science because you think it hurts your relationship with your family, what if we help you make the lesson plan? Then it’ll be a bonding activity.”
“Kid, you don’t have to--”
“It is not a bad idea,” Toriel interrupts. “Would it help?”
Sans shrugs. “I don’t know. Probably wouldn’t hurt.”
“Then let us give it a try.”
“Tomorrow,” Frisk adds.
Sans looks to them, takes in the determination in their gaze. They care so much about him. Frisk and Toriel both. His chest feels tight. He’s making them do so much for him. But if he turns them down, they’ll worry more.
He forces a smile.
You know, I didn't intend to send Sans to therapy, but there's only so many times I can say "man, Sans needs therapy" before I gotta put my money where my mouth is. So, I guess that's happening now.
Also, the racecar festival is actually more or less exactly the Canadian Grand Prix Weekend, which was a street festival I went to every year in Montreal when I lived there. And yes, there was free swing dancing and art shows that had absolutely nothing to do with racing. Damn, I miss that place.
When Sans wanders out of the bedroom at noon the next day, he finds the living room strewn with craft supplies. An enormous poster board takes up much of the coffee table; markers and colored pencils are stacked on the corner. On the ground, there are acrylic paints and styrofoam balls and toothpicks and a glue gun.
Frisk’s in the kitchen, loading a sandwich high with sliced turkey.
“Mornin’, kid,” Sans yawns, scratching at his jawbone. “What’s up with the art fair?”
“They’re leftovers from my chemistry project from last year,” they tell him. “I thought you could use it for your lesson for Mom’s class.”
“What, I’m making props now? Man, I was just planning on showing them a video and taking a nap. Kids love videos, right?”
Frisk gives him a very dry look.
Sans sees effort in his future. Shame. “Speaking of your mom, where is she?”
“At the corner store. We’re out of milk.” They put the last piece of bread on top of the sandwich and slide the rest of the bread back into the fridge.
“Oh. Too bad.” Sans digs a box of cereal out of the pantry and pours out a bowl. Frisk looks on with mild disgust as Sans sets into his bowl of dry cereal.
“You could wait for Mom to get back with the milk.”
“Eh,” Sans replies, voice muffled through a mouth of cornflakes.
Frisk wrinkles their nose at him as they bring their sandwich over to the table. “So, what are you going to teach Mom’s class?”
“Uh, I dunno. Space stuff.”
“That’s specific,” Frisk comments, exaggerating the motion with sarcasm.
He chuckles. “You seem to have a lot of ideas. You wanna do it for me? We can get you out of school for a day an’ everything.”
They cross their arms and give him a look.
“You’re not jumping on the chance to skip school for a day? Jeez, you really haven’t learned anything from me.”
“I’m not the one who’s an actual scientist.”
He shrugs. “You’re more scientist than me these days. How’s studying for your physics final going?”
“Slow. Why, do you miss physics? Do you want to help me study so you can do some more physics?”
Sans blinks and shakes his head with fond exasperation. This kid. “Why’re you so bent on getting me to do science, anyway?”
Frisk shrugs, mirroring Sans’ movement. “You like science.”
“I like my family better.”
“You can have both.”
“Agree to disagree, kid.”
Frisk frowns, but drops the subject long enough to take a bite of their sandwich. Sans continues picking at his dry cereal, watching them. He knows better than to think the topic is over; he’s spent the last ten years living with Frisk, and he knows that when Frisk sets their mind on something, they don’t let it go. It’s what you get when your kid has boundless determination even by human standards.
And, exactly as he expects, the moment Frisk puts down their sandwich, they continue: “You really love science. It makes you happy.”
“Lots of things can make someone happy. A burger slathered in ketchup makes me happy, too.”
“But science is different for you,” they insist. “Papyrus and Alphys talk about when you were doing science. You were different then, and I never got to see you like that.”
“Count yourself lucky then,” Sans says.
“If they aren’t mad at you, I don’t think it was so bad.”
“How do you know they aren’t mad?”
“They’re not,” Frisk replies simply. “And you said Papyrus blamed the resets, not the science.”
Sans shrugs. “Look, I appreciate you trying to look out for me, kid. But it’s my job to look out for you. And so I gotta stay away from things that make me a little crazy.”
“Does that mean you won’t help me study for my physics final?”
He peers at them. “Do you really need help studying, or are you just trying to get me to do more science stuff?”
Frisk stares back impassively, their expression betraying nothing. That’s answer enough.
Sans chuckles lowly. “Look, I’ll do the class for Toriel’s kids. If you need help with your physics, sure, you can ask me to multiply force by distance for you. I’ll do what helps my family, but that’s it.”
“We’ll see,” Frisk replies.
Man, this kid.
Sans has just finished his bowl of dry cereal and dropped the dish in the sink when the front door squeaks open.
“Hey, T,” Sans says, leaning against the doorframe to the kitchen.
“Good morning, Sans,” Toriel replies, setting her bags on the floor. “Goodness, I did not expect it to start raining!” She gives her head a little shake, which causes her damp fur to fluff up.
Sans can’t help but grin. She’s absolutely adorable.
Toriel then seems to notice the state of their living room, namely that it looks like an art store has exploded all over it.
“Oh, Frisk, are you working on something?”
Frisk appears in the doorway beside Sans and shakes their head, pointing at Sans.
“The kid thinks I should make props for your class,” Sans explains. “I don’t know what yet. Heck, I don’t even know what I’m teaching yet.”
Toriel laughs softly. “Oh, well, visuals would be a lovely idea.”
Frisk looks triumphant.
Toriel picks up her bags again and carries them to the kitchen. When she sets the bags down, she reaches over to press a kiss to the top of Frisk’s head.
As Frisk leans into Toriel’s touch, Sans remembers their words again: I killed Mom. He squeezes his eye sockets shut and pushes the memory back. But he can’t help but wonder at the easy comfort Frisk shows around Toriel, trying to reconcile it with the pain in their expression just two days previous when they’d confessed to him. Do they feel haunted by their memories? Is the easy comfort genuine, or a carefully cultivated face to show the world? Shit. Does Frisk need to talk about it more? Does Sans even know how to talk about it?
He wishes he could ask Toriel. She’s always known the right thing to do, the right words to say, when everything just looks like a big jumbled mess to him. But he can’t ask her, not this time.
Toriel’s saying something to Frisk. Sans forces himself to reorient, to focus on her words.
“But, dear, let us not overwhelm your dunkle too much.”
It takes him a second to remember what they’re talking about. Oh, right. Making props for Toriel’s class.
“I feel like I should protest,” Sans puts in mildly. “But you’re absolutely right. I’m very easily frightened by work. Like some small, woodland creature.”
“Small woodland creatures don’t have work,” Frisk points out.
“Exactly. Because they’re scared of it.”
Frisk rolls their eyes. Toriel opens the fridge, and Sans helps her out by pulling items out of the bags and handing them to her to put away.
“Would you still like to finish your lesson plan today?” Toriel asks as she sets a carton of milk in the fridge.
Frisk shoots Sans a warning look. He chuckles.
“I don’t think the kid would let me get away with anything else.”
“It’s true,” Frisk states.
Toriel sets a tub of cream cheese in the fridge and shuts the door. “Alright. Let me make us some tea, then, and we can get started. Frisk, go get your homework.”
“I wanted to help Sans with his lesson plan!” Frisk protests.
“And is your homework done?”
“No,” they say, the gesture sulky.
“Homework first, dear.”
Frisk slumps off obediently.
Toriel fills the kettle and sets it on the stove. To Sans, she says: “Have you thought much about what you will do for the lesson yet?”
“Eh, not really.”
“Well, what is it that you like the most about stars?”
The question throws Sans somewhat. What does he like about stars? Does it matter? “I, uh, I don’t know. Never really thought about it.”
Toriel simply nods.
Sans glances at the window, where rain has started trickling down the glass. What does he like about the stars? He thinks about the first night he saw the stars, splayed high across the sky above the steps of the inn. The stars stretched in every direction, and for the first time in his life, he didn’t feel claustrophobic when he looked up.
“The sizes, I guess. When you think about how big the stars are, how far away they are, it’s pretty mind boggling.”
“Why not something with that, then?”
“Uh, I guess. What do you have in mind?”
“I do not know,” Toriel replies. “This is your lesson. I will let you know if what you come up with might need to be adjusted for small children, but I think you should come up with it.”
“You’re really not letting me get out of it, are you?”
Toriel smiles -- no, smirks. “I did offer you an ‘out’.”
He shakes his head with a low chuckle. “Yeah, yeah, this is my fault. Don’t remind me.”
Frisk re-emerges from their bedroom, their bag slung over one shoulder. Under their other arm, they carry Flowey. They deposit the flowerpot on a windowsill in the living room, where weak sunlight is filtering through the glass.
Flowey lifts his head slightly and looks out the window. The earlier drizzle has strengthened to a steady fall. He lets out a quiet sigh, then drops his head again. His leaves hang limply in the dirt, his petals drooping. He looks, well, wilted.
Toriel evidently notices as well. She catches Sans’ eye, and they exchange a look. When Frisk comes over to the kitchen, she drops a paw on their shoulder and says quietly: “Is, ah, Flowey well?”
Toriel may not have much love for Flowey, but she knows how much Frisk cares for him -- for whatever bewildering reason Sans has never understood.
Frisk nods. “He’ll be fine. Alphys will sort him out.”
“Yeah, we’ve seen Flowey droop before,” Sans puts in. “He always perks back up. He’ll be feeling bouquet in no time.” It’s more for Frisk’s reassurance than his own; he doesn’t particularly care if Flowey is feeling well or not. In fact, Flowey tends to be easier to deal with when he’s all droopy like this.
“Let me know if there is anything I can do to help,” Toriel says, squeezing Frisk’s shoulder supportively. “Why not get started on your homework now, my child? I am making tea.”
Frisk sets their bag by the table and extracts a laptop and a folder. As they set their work on the table, Sans steps sideways out of the kitchen.
The laptop he shares with Toriel is resting on the dresser in their bedroom. For a brief moment, he hesitates.
He’s going to go back to the kitchen. He’s going to start putting together a damn lesson about the stars, with Toriel and Frisk right there. Something inside him squirms at the thought. He wants to dig his heels into the carpet and stay put, or cast the laptop aside and take a long nap on the bed and get nothing done. To disappoint them, to break the expectations for him that he’s accidentally let them build.
He shakes his head at himself. What the heck is he expecting? That the moment he opens the laptop and so much as thinks about a star, Toriel and Frisk are going to vanish?
Flowey is right there. It’s not so far fetched .
Flowey hasn’t done anything in years.
As far as I know. I didn’t know he’d targeted Pap either.
Flowey is drooping anyway.
Sans sighs, gathering up the laptop. He sure doesn’t miss these old anxieties. Well, he made a promise. He’s just gotta do the bare minimum. It maybe would have been easier to put together the lesson on his own, to not have to worry about putting on a show for Toriel and Frisk -- that this doesn’t bother him, that he doesn’t care, that he’s still the carefree dunkle they shouldn’t have expectations of.
He doesn’t care. They shouldn’t have expectations of him.
It doesn’t matter. He made a promise. Even if it would be easier to take his own time, to put together the lesson alone, without his family watching, without trying to somehow both meet their expectations and thwart them . . . well, Frisk needs to feel needed right now.
Sans steps out of the bedroom.
There are three steaming mugs of tea set on the kitchen table by the time he returns. Toriel has set the book she’s currently reading by one mug, while Frisk has papers spread across their side of the table. Sans has to push a few aside to set his own laptop down. He glances down at the papers as he moves them; they’re some kind of history project.
“So,” he says, opening his laptop and glancing up at Toriel. “Remind me where your students are? Do you think they have a good grasp on relativity or string theory, or should I start with a refresher on those?”
“Oh, I do not know,” Toriel says without missing a beat. “They are really struggling with integral calculus. Relativity might be perhaps a little difficult.”
“Damn. What are they even teaching kids in schools these days?”
And then, having provided the requisite jokes, he turns his attention to the computer. Something about distances in space, huh?
Sans doesn’t expect it, but planning the lesson goes, well, relatively painlessly.
They’re kindergarteners; it’s not like he’s going to give an elaborate lecture. So, he just has to come up with some kind of activity to keep them entertained. In the end, he settles on doing some kind of presentation about the relative scales of stars and planets, and then having the kids invent some constellations. All in all, it only takes him maybe twenty minutes to put it together.
On the one hand, he wonders why he didn’t do this earlier. On the other hand, he knows exactly why he didn’t do this earlier.
“This is wonderful, dear,” Toriel says, when Sans shows her what he’s come up with. “They will love this!”
“Can I see?” Frisk asks. Sans turns the laptop toward them. They peer at the screen appraisingly. “What’s the scale model?”
“You know, relative scales of stuff. Thought I could use a marble for Earth and Mars, grapefruit for Jupiter, clementine for . . . Uranus.” It’s not even a joke, but he can’t help but emphasize the word.
Frisk chokes on a laugh.
And Toriel just smiles. “Oh, my students are going to love you. What will you use for the sun?”
“I thought I’d steal one of Pap’s giant exercise balls. And we can’t really make a scale model of the whole solar system, since I don’t really feel like walking a couple miles, but if we can go out to the recess field I can at least show them how far apart the sun is from Earth.”
“I can see what we can do.”
“So do you not need to make any props?” Frisk asks.
Sans chuckles. “Sorry, kid, I guess not.”
“What about for this?” They shove their finger at a note on the screen. constellations, 3d not 2d .
“Oh. I thought I’d just levitate a couple’a oranges for that. Easier than makin’ something, and kids like magic, right? Especially the human ones who don’t see it much.”
“Well . . . ,” Toriel says slowly. “It would perhaps be a good idea to introduce the students to the planets before showing them the scales. They are likely not all familiar with them. How about we make some planets with the styrofoam balls Frisk has?”
“Aw, wouldn’t it be easier to just pull up a few pictures from the internet?” But it’s only a token protest; when Frisk brightens and grabs his sleeve, Sans allows himself to be dragged into the living room.
Toriel follows after them. “Did you finish your homework, my child?”
“Almost!” they say, releasing Sans’ sleeve to sign.
Sans and Toriel exchange glances. Sans shrugs. Toriel responds with a small nod. They’ll let it go for now.
Flowey lifts his head as Frisk digs out the bag of styrofoam balls and pulls out ten. He squints. “What are you guys doing?”
“None of your beeswax,” Sans tells him.
But Frisk says: “We’re making a model of the solar system for Mom’s class.”
Flowey smirks, meeting Sans’ eyes. “Ohhhh, that’s right, you’re having Sans run a class! Do you really think that’s a good idea? I don’t know that I’d put that trash bag in charge of anything.”
He’s not looking at Frisk; he’s looking at Sans. Flowey’s just trying to needle him. Too bad for Flowey, it’s really not working. Flowey’s late; maybe if he had tried taunting Sans while Sans was having his little crisis in the bedroom, something would stick. But right now, Sans is doing arts and crafts with his kid. Nothing worrisome here.
But never one to miss a good punchline, Sans lets the styrofoam ball slip from his fingers and bounce to the floor. He looks up at Flowey and drawls: “Well, look at that; you’re right. I sure dropped the ball .”
Frisk snorts. They toss the ball back to Sans, and turn to Flowey to scold: “If you aren’t nice, I’ll put you back in my bedroom.”
“Away from this shmoopfest of ‘family time’? Oh no, how will I survive.”
“He raises a good point,” Sans says, glaring at Flowey. “He doesn’t want to be here; I don’t think we want him here. Does he gotta be out here?”
“Yes,” Frisk says simply.
And so Flowey stays.
Frisk tasks Sans with painting Neptune, Saturn, and Mars; Toriel gets Uranus, Mercury, and Venus; Frisk themself takes Earth, Jupiter, the Sun, and Pluto.
“We are considering Pluto a planet then?” Toriel asks, as she divides the styrofoam balls between them.
“Adding fuel to the debate no one knows anythin’ about, in a kindergarten class? I love it,” Sans says, grinning. “As long as I’m not being asked to paint a whole extra planet.”
He gives each of his styrofoam balls a quick and sloppy paint job, through which white still shows. Frisk, meanwhile, takes their time with each of their planets. Not only do they painstakingly draw out each of the continents on earth, but they stick their tongue out while tracing swirls of orange and red on Jupiter and even dab orange and brown sunspots on to the yellow ball that is the sun. Toriel, for her part, tries to mimic Frisk’s care, but less successfully.
Sans finishes his planets long before the other two and kills time by flicking the extra styrofoam balls around. Frisk and Toriel kick them back to him, and it becomes some sort of pinball game. The rain outside gets heavier, pattering steadily against the roof. Flowey seems too out of it to really bother them, and so an easy comfort falls over the living room. Sans watches Frisk finish dabbing on the last spot of dark grey on Pluto.
There’s some kind of tension coiling in his chest. He doesn’t know how long it’s been there. It’s been there all of today, as he dragged his feet through putting together a lesson plan he’d promised months ago. It was there yesterday, as memories from his conversation with Frisk echoed through his head and Toriel pulled words from him that he didn’t know he was ready to say. It was there the day before that, as he forced himself to talk about events he hadn’t voiced for fifteen years. And it’d been there before that, knowing that he was going to have to have that conversation.
He knows this tension. It’s the pressure of responsibilities. It’d been so poignant years ago. A promise in the Underground. And after that, when the monsters were fresh on the surface and trying to figure out how they fit into this strange new world, when Sans for some reason had been expected to play a part.
But that tension had faded. Making dinner for Frisk, keeping Toriel company, occasionally picking up a sock from the living room, cleaning the ambassadorial email account, even looking after Flowey -- it was okay.
So, it’s real annoying that it’s back now.
Frisk finishes painting their planets, and they set about gluing sticks together to make a base for the mobile. Sans makes a show of lazing back while Frisk finishes the mobile for him, and Frisk swats him with an extra stick. He laughs.
He’s just doing arts and crafts with his kid. This is fine.
And, finally, the mobile is finished, and resting on some scrap paper to dry.
“That looks lovely,” Toriel says, admiring their work. “Thank you for putting together this class, Sans. I am sure my students will adore it.”
“Yeah, sure, T,” Sans replies. When she drops a kiss to the top of his head, he leans into the touch.
This lesson planning thing had been relatively painless. It really hadn’t taken long, and it hadn’t even involved a whole lot of thinking. So why is the tension in his chest still there? Why does he feel weary?
Sans rubs at the side of his face and lets out a breath. The very picture of a lazybones.
They start cleaning up the leftover supplies. Frisk collects the paintbrushes, while Sans caps the paints. Toriel gathers up the rest of the supplies, pausing the untangle the wires on the glue gun. They’ve just about finished clearing the living room when the doorbell rings.
Sans looks up. Judging by the expression on Toriel’s face, she didn’t expect anyone either. But judging by the look on Frisk’s, they absolutely did. Sans glances at the clock. It’s Sunday, but…
“Isn’t it early for Pap to be picking you up for anime night?”
Frisk just gives Sans a little, knowing smile.
“Unless that’s not Pap.”
Another inscrutable expression.
“Oh, you’re killing us with the suspense. Wanna go get the door?”
Frisk hops up. When they pull the door open, Papyrus does swirl in, but on his heels follows Alphys and Undyne as well.
“HELLO, MY DEAR FAMILY,” Papyrus crows. “ARE YOU READY FOR MOVIE NIGHT?”
Sans takes in Alphys’ nervous grin, the bag bursting with DVDs, and the covered pot in Undyne’s hands.
“Uh,” he says, rubbing his lower jaw. “Don’t you guys usually do that . . . not here?”
“Yeah!” says Undyne. “But this rascal wanted to do it here today!” She leans over to grab Frisk and awkwardly give them a one-handed noogie, her other hand still supporting the pot.
Frisk squirms good-naturedly to get away. When Undyne releases them, they press their hair back into some semblance of order. With a smug expression, they say: “We’re watching science fiction tonight.”
Sans huffs a weak laugh, covering his face with one hand. This kid .
“Oh no ,” Flowey whines from the windowsill. “Don’t tell me you’re all staying here.”
That seems to drag Alphys’ attention to Flowey. Sans sees her considering him with a concerned expression, taking in his drooping petals and limp leaves. Even now, as Flowey scowls his fury, he can’t seem to make himself perk up.
“You are of course very welcome,” Toriel says. “Ah, do you all need any snacks or drinks for your movie?”
“We brought some!” Undyne says proudly, lifting the pot. “I made marshmallow murder! And Alphys has the drinks!” Meekly, Alphys pulls a liter of soda from her bag to show them.
“Marshmallow murder,” Toriel repeats.
“Yeah!” Undyne sweeps into the living room and plunks the pot onto the coffee table. Toriel lifts the lid and peers inside at the contents. Her muzzle scrunches up -- just barely, but Sans recognizes the two little wrinkles at the bridge of her muzzle. She’s trying to think of how she can make and offer dinner for everyone without implying that Undyne’s snack is inedible.
“We probably got some popcorn in the pantry,” Sans suggests. “For variety. Tori, you wanna come help me make it?”
“You need help making popcorn?!” Papyrus cries. “Sans, you are even more helpless than I thought!”
And Frisk says: “Wait, you need to pick the movie!”
“Me?” Sans says, lifting one brow ridge. “Isn’t this your guys’ thing?”
“It’s science fiction, ” Frisk emphasizes. “You’re the expert on science fiction. So you pick.”
Sans feels a little bit like he’s standing with one foot on a stair and the other half-hanging off the step below. Like he’s uneven, and tense all over from trying not to fall. He exhales a chuckle. Yeah, he’s sure everyone in the room already individually knows that he once used to read dime novel paperbacks by the dozen, scavenge newspapers with science articles from the trash heap, and spend all night watching old sci fi movies and TV shows with Alphys. But it’s different to have it aired out in front of everyone all at once. It’s like they’re all seeing him as someone he’s not sure he wants to be seen as.
But. He can work with this. He grins widely. “You’re giving me total control over what you guys watch?”
“FRISK, I THINK THIS IS A BAD IDEA,” Papyrus breaks in. “Sans has terrible taste in movies!”
“Bro, I’m hurt. You really think I’d pick a bad movie for you?”
“YES! YOU WOULD!”
“Here, uh, these are all the science fiction movies I had,” Alphys says, and passes the bag over to Sans.
He takes it and digs through the contents. There’s a lot of old, familiar titles, lots of stuff he remembers watching with Alphys once upon a time in the Underground, but never since. He pushes through a dozen thought-provoking and well-written movies, searching.
Ah. He knew Alphys wouldn’t disappoint.
He pulls out a DVD case, hand carefully positioned over part of the cover. “This one.”
“Blade Seven?” Undyne reads. “Cool! It’s about blades!”
Papyrus peers at Sans suspiciously, but says: “...That does sound cool.”
But when Papyrus and Undyne turn to mess with getting the television set up, Alphys takes the DVD from Sans, looks at the cover, and then back at him. “That’s Roller Blade Seven ,” she comments quietly.
Sans grins. Toriel, who’s close enough to overhear, stifles her laughter in a paw. She may not have seen Roller Blade Seven, but she knows him well enough to know where this is going.
“C’mon, T, let’s make some popcorn,” he says.
The two of them get up and head to the kitchen. Sans pulls out the box of microwave from the pantry, while Toriel retrieves a bowl.
“We can probably also order pizza while the movie’s going,” Sans suggests, popping a bag in the microwave. “What’d’you think? Got your dairy and your vegetable, what with the cheese and tomato.”
Toriel laughs and cuffs him around the shoulders. “Your diet is terrible , dear.”
“It’s a talent.”
The bag turns around and around in the microwave. The first pop cracks through the kitchen.
“Is this all alright with you?” Toriel asks.
She gestures toward the living room, where Papyrus and Undyne are eagerly arranging cushions into what Sans can only guess is their idea of optimal movie viewing configurements. Alphys, Frisk, and Flowey have disappeared, but Sans can hear low voices from Frisk’s room.
“You askin’ me if I mind having my family and friends over and getting to mess with them by showing them god-awful B movies?” he says, grinning. “‘Cause nah, that’s a treat.”
Toriel laughs. “Yes, that is delightful. But, ah, I mean that Frisk is quite . . . zealous about their efforts to ‘encourage’ you. I know you do not like the spotlight.”
“Yeah, well, I suppose that’s what I get for trying to make them my confidant, right? ‘Course they’re trying to help; they’re Frisk .” Sans shrugs, still smiling. “But hey, it’s actually kind of nice when family gets on your case, you know? Even if you don’t actually take their advice.”
“Well, alright.” Toriel squeezes his shoulder affectionately. “But you know, Frisk does have a few good points.”
“Not you too!” Sans says, with mock hurt.
Toriel laughs brightly. Sans will never get tired of that sound.
When they return to the living room, Undyne and Papyrus have got the TV set up and the DVD on the home screen. Alphys and Frisk are back in the living room, and Flowey is on his perch on the windowsill again. Sans notices with some surprise that Flowey’s petals are perked again, leaves straight and shiny. His eyes linger on Flowey, then on Alphys.
“POPCORN, EXCELLENT,” Papyrus crows, taking the bowl from Toriel and setting it happily next to Undyne’s concerning marshmallow concoction. “Come, let us watch the movie! And Sans, you cannot fall asleep!”
“And miss this? Wouldn’t dream of it, bro.”
Sans winks, and flops himself out across the couch. Frisk shoves his legs aside to make room for everyone else, and he laughs as he complies. Once the others have settled in, on the couch or on the floor, Undyne hits play.
The movie is terrible , almost worse than Sans remembers. Papyrus is horrified, and almost demands they stop the movie and picking a new one, but Frisk insists that Sans made his choice. Sans and Toriel, for their part, almost have tears in their eyes from laughing as the protagonist battles ninjas and gangs, all on the speed of his trusty roller blades.
And when the movie finishes, Frisk hands the bag of DVDs over to Sans. With a grin, he picks out yet another absolutely terrible film.
50,000 words. Sans still hasn't considered grad school. What the fuck.
HOLY DANG GUYS, I GOT ANOTHER FIC COMIC!
My friend and beta for this fic, SkelePlatypus, happens to share a birthday with me (today, actually!), so we did an art trade. And while I just went and did a little doodle for them, they went all out and made me a gorgeous FREAKIN' THREE PAGE COMIC. They picked the swing dance scene in chapter 11, which blew me away. I'm still yelling oh my gosh thank you thank you thank you!
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
--Nine years ago--
“SANS!” Papyrus calls from the entryway of their new apartment. “AREN’T YOU COMING?”
Sans is sprawled out across a bare mattress laid out in the living room. They don’t have a couch yet, so for now Sans’ mattress makes do. He lifts his head and yawns widely. “Hmmm. I think I might be busy.”
“OH MY GOD SANS. You’re so lazy! Our friends are applying for an apartment! We should show them moral support and offer advice, as legal apartment-havers!”
“Meh,” Sans mumbles. “I think you’ve got that handled pretty well.”
“UGH,” Papyrus groans. “Fine! Stay here and be lazy. I will go and cheer Napstablook and Mettaton on!”
The door slams behind him, and Papyrus’ footsteps clunk down the outside stairs.
For a long moment, Sans just breathes, one arm covering his eye sockets. Six months since the monsters had left the Underground. The government arranged some kind of temporary camp for the monsters while they look for housing, but conditions suck and there’d been a stipulation that some monsters had to stay underground for now, because of ‘capacity restrictions’.
So. There’s a desperate scramble to find housing when no one is renting out. Sure, a handful of refugee organizations have been hauling ass to get monsters settled (while plenty of others have argued the monsters aren’t technically refugees and declined to get involved), but the waiting time is years at this point. And there’s that whole issue that for some reason the humans don’t want monsters living near each other. Two monsters get settled in one town, and then the next monster family is placed forty miles away.
Anyone who doesn’t want to wait years only to have no say in where they end up, anyone who wants nearby monster companionship, anyone who wants to be housed with someone they don’t have family bonds with or can’t prove family bonds with -- they all have to strike it out and find housing on their own. With monster currency. Without references. Without employment. Without an ID.
Toriel and Frisk had been first in line to be settled. Ambassadorial privileges. And Sans and Papyrus were the lucky ones. They’d found a place, a private landlord who was willing to rent out to them.
Other monsters want to know how they did it. Or more to the point, how Sans did it, since he’s the one who just showed up one day with a lease for Papyrus to sign.
But he didn’t do anything. He’d been doing the same damn thing as everyone else, filling out applications and never hearing back, trying to sway potential landlords over the phone with his charm. And he’d gotten lucky.
He’d shown up at an apartment viewing, expecting nothing. A middle eastern man had greeted him at the door and shown him around. Sans threw out a few jokes. The man laughed. That didn’t mean anything; it never did. Sans tried not to get attached to the tall windows that let in sunlight or to the spacious kitchen that he knew Papyrus would adore.
“You said you are looking for a place for yourself and your brother?” the man asked, as Sans scrawled out an application on the kitchen counter.
The man nodded. After a moment, he said: “If you want it, it is yours.”
Sans’ head jerked up. “Wait. What? Don’t you need to read this application or something? Check my financial statements?”
The man smiled slightly. “I see that you have them. My brother and I came to this country as refugees. What can an application tell me that I do not already know?”
Again, they’re lucky.
So when Napstablook or Alphys or Bunny want tips, he’s got nothing to give them. Papyrus is chock full of ideas, though. Whether or not Papyrus’ advice really works in getting an apartment is debatable, but, hey, people seem to like it better than Sans’ honest “I dunno”. Why not let Papyrus handle it then?
Sans lays on his mattress and breathes.
Boxes still need to be unpacked. They still need a couch. And a dining table. And chairs. They need to go grocery shopping. Eventually, he’s going to need a job. He’s sure Papyrus would like him to do at least one of those things.
Sans lays on his mattress and breathes.
He should shower at least. Yep. Showering is good. He could relax in the shower, and when Papyrus comes home, he could say he’d done something. Not that ‘showering’ would satisfy Papyrus, but at least Sans would have something to say.
He lays on his mattress and breathes.
Okay. In five minutes.
Five minutes pass.
And still, Sans lays on his mattress and breathes.
Eventually he draws his arm down and squints into the sunlight streaming through the tall living room windows. The wide-bowed sycamore behind their apartment waves its branches lazily in the autumn breeze, yellow-orange leaves fluttering.
His eyes track the slow up-down motion of the branch. It’s nice to see a tree that’s not a pine.
Slowly, as if moving through water, Sans climbs to his feet. He wanders over to the window, hands shoved in his pockets. The sky is clear, the sun a glare of white on bright blue. Yet it’s cold enough that his breath puffs on the windowpane.
Sans reaches out one hand to wipe the mist away. He looks out, past the tree to the building on the other side of the alley. Someone has hung their laundry up on their balcony, and the breeze is catching at the cloth and making it flutter. Toys are scattered on another balcony. On the sidewalk below, a cat lounges in a patch of sunlight.
They’re on the surface. Wild.
So why can’t they rest?
This isn’t going to last. They’ll probably wake up in the Underground any day now, with no memory of sunlight or the wind. So why can’t they just rest ? But no. First it’s getting Gs accepted as currency, and then it’s getting housing, and then it’s getting jobs, and every other damn hurdle, fighting bureaucracy and human hostility every step of the way.
Move, move, move. Work, work, work. Monsters are helping monsters, collaborating to drag the entire society out into the daylight. They’re making food and helping each other fill out applications, and the monsters with more Gs are giving funds to the monsters with less. It’s this big sense of community and goodwill and cooperation and all those other wonderful things that make monsters monsters. Undyne’s building shelters. Mettaton is putting on moderately-attended benefit shows. Even Muffet has reduced her prices.
Look, Sans has always just had to keep a roof over Papyrus’ head. And he’s done that. He’s converted the last of his stipend into human currency and found them an apartment that they can afford for at least a year. He’s done his part.
But for some reason, Papyrus, Grillby, the other monsters -- they’re all still expecting him to be a team player a little bit longer. They should know better. Just ask Alphys.
Sans exhales. He goes back to his mattress and stares almost unseeingly at it for a moment before collapsing back down on its surface. He draws his hood up over his head and tucks his face into his arms, his eye sockets sliding shut.
If there’s one thing Sans is grateful for, it’s that sleep still takes him quickly.
He’s woken some time later by late afternoon sunlight falling across his bed. He yawns, rubbing at his eye sockets as he blinks hard against the light. He’s not real good at telling time of day by the sunlight yet, but he figures at least a couple of hours have gone by.
“Pap?” he calls blearily into the apartment.
There’s no answer.
Sans climbs to his feet and wanders into first the kitchen, then checks in on Papyrus’ bedroom. But before he’s even pushed open the door to Papyrus’ room, he knows it’s too quiet; Papyrus isn’t home.
He sighs. Back in the living room, his phone is kicked under a small pile of his things strewn over the floor. (Hey, his favorite pillow had been at the bottom of the box.) He retrieves it and flicks through the messages.
“THE FIRST COMPLEX IS NOT RENTING! STRANGE. THERE WAS A SIGN OUTSIDE THAT SAID APARTMENTS ARE AVAILABLE NOW! BUT WE ARE NOT DISHEARTENED. WE WILL TRY THE NEXT ONE!”
“UNPACK YOUR BOXES!”
“WE ARE WAITING A LONG TIME TO SEE AN APARTMENT HERE! WOWIE, THEY MUST BE GETTING IT REALLY PRETTY FOR US! SANS, I HOPE YOU PICKED UP YOUR THINGS!”
And so forth.
Sans stifles a yawn as he tosses the phone back on the mattress and sits down next to it. He looks to the window, where the yellow-orange leaves of the sycamore outside are saturated in the late afternoon sun.
Papyrus has apparently taken this apartment cheerleading to heart. It will be some time before he gets home. Sans knows he won’t give up until either Mettaton and Napstablook have found an apartment, or until the leasing offices have closed for the day. And Sans is willing to bet a year’s supply of ketchup on which one will happen first.
Sans could take another nap. Or maybe he could pick up his things and unpack a few boxes.
...Heh. It’s good to make himself chuckle sometimes.
He flops back on the mattress, the fluff of the pillow inviting under his head. The silence of the apartment is stifling. In the quiet, the apartment feels . . . timeless. And Sans hates every endless, empty second of it. Man, maybe he should have gone with Papyrus after all.
And yet, he just lays there. Five minutes pass.
Sans blinks his eye sockets open. His phone vibrates again, and he digs it out of his pocket.
It’s a couple of texts from Toriel. “ Are you planning to visit this evening? ” And then: “ ]: ) ”.
He breathes easier. He laughs into one palm, and then runs the hand up and over the curve of his skull.
The emptiness of the apartment is still a pressure on his head, one that threatens to press him back into the mattress. But instead, Sans shoves himself up. He snatches up his new keys and his phone, and goes out the door.
Toriel’s apartment is just a few blocks away, which suits Sans wonderfully. Walking and taking a shortcut take about the same amount of effort, and so he can change it up as he wants, keep Toriel and Frisk on their toes. Today, he decides to walk. The late afternoon air nips at his bones, but it’s not the bite like it was in Snowdin. This cold, on the cusp of seasons, feels like a breath of change. He inhales, letting the scents of autumn wash over him. A couple passers-by on the sidewalk stop to stare at the still-unusual sight of a monster, and he enjoys himself by meeting their eyes and making them look away, flustered.
When one doesn’t look away, but rather holds his gaze with a steady glare, he decides it’s time to shortcut the rest of the way to Toriel’s apartment at the next corner.
At the front door, he raps his knuckles against the wood and calls out: “Knock, knock.”
He hears the heavy pad of footsteps, and then a moment later, Toriel’s half-laughing voice: “Who is there?”
“Etch who?” She’s already giggling. Perhaps she knows where this joke is going.
Toriel lets out a peal of laughter. “Knock knock!”
“Who’s there?” Sans supplies, grinning. He already feels lighter.
“Yahoo! I am excited to see you, too!” Toriel throws the door open, and before Sans can react, she’s wrapped him in a tight embrace.
He laughs and hugs her back, amazed every time to be able to feel the tickle of her fur under his phalanges. He tucks his face against her shoulder, trying to ignore the way his soul feels like it’s turning flips in his chest.
“It is good to see you,” Toriel says, when she finally pulls back. “Do come in. Where is Papyrus?”
“Eh, he’s out helping Mettaton and Napstablook find an apartment.” He steps into the apartment after her.
“Oh! I wish them luck!”
Toriel and Frisk’s apartment has been completely unpacked, books put neatly away in their new bookshelves and the cutlery in their drawers. They even actually have a proper couch. The only sign that they’ve only recently moved in is the sparsity of decorations and other clutter that accumulates over time.
A door slams open. Sans hears small, hurried footsteps, and then Frisk comes barreling out of their room. They launch themselves at Sans, tackling him in a hug.
“Oof,” Sans utters, as Frisk catches him around the middle and squeezes.
He looks down at the fluffy head pressed into his chest with some surprise. Sure, every time he drops by he finds himself with an armful of human, but he’s still not exactly used to anyone being so happy to see him. Awkwardly, he ruffles their hair. “Heh. Hey, kiddo.”
Frisk grins widely up at him, squeezes one more time, and lets go.
The kid had never been all that chatty in the Underground, but since they’d gotten to the surface, they’ve lapsed into complete silence. Sans knows that Toriel is concerned, but, hey, the kid seems pretty happy.
“You hangin’ in there okay?” Sans asks. “Tori hasn’t baked you into a pie yet, then?”
“Sans!” Toriel protests, while Frisk just beams and shakes their head.
“What?” Sans answers defensively. “I know Mettaton’s got some great human dessert recipes. Thought you might want to try them out. Oh wait, was that dessert from humans, or dessert for humans?”
But rather than smiling at the joke, Frisk’s expression shuts down. Sans blinks once at them, wondering if maybe his joke was unclear and they’re trying to parse through his meaning.
Then he realizes. Oh, right. Mettaton’s cooking show. Frisk had been on it. And for some reason, Frisk has seemed oddly freaked out by Mettaton in particular given just how many monsters tried to kill them in the Underground. Wow, ten seconds in and he’s already put his foot in his mouth. It has to be a new record.
Maybe a Toriel has a point in being concerned about the kid.
“My child?” Toriel asks, crouching down and wrapping an arm around Frisk’s shoulders. One of Frisk’s small hands clutches at Toriel’s sleeve, but they otherwise hold their chin up.
“Heh. Wow. That was, uh, a distasteful joke, huh? Oops.”
Toriel doesn’t react, still focused on Frisk. Toriel not responding to his joke makes Sans feel even shittier.
“Whelp. You know, I just remembered I haven’t fed my pet rock. Should probably go do that, before Papyrus gets on my case.”
But as he turns to head for a shortcut out of the apartment, he feels a small tug on his sleeve. He glances back and sees Frisk has fisted their hand in the fabric of his sweatshirt, and is steadily meeting his gaze.
They pull again, insistent.
“What? Aw, kid, you know, I really oughta feed Rocky. It’s good to look after your pets.”
Frisk does not let go. Another tug.
“Stay, Sans.” Toriel’s voice is soft, but firm.
Sans looks down at the small hand clinging to his sweatshirt. There’s something tight in his chest, something he’d rather not sit with or examine. But he glances to Toriel, takes in the warmth in her eyes and the lines of worry around them. He exhales.
“Yeah. Okay, kid.”
He gets a small smile from Frisk in return. Toriel, her arm still wrapped around Frisk’s shoulders, says gently: “Thank you.”
Frisk turns away, but maintains their hold on Sans’ sleeve. They give it a little tug.
“You trying to lead me somewhere?”
“Well, alright then. The curiosity is killin’ me.”
Toriel lets go as Frisk leads the way to their room. The small bedroom is remarkably tidy for an eight year old’s; Toriel must have been cleaning it earlier. Irreverent of the careful organization, Frisk heads over to the plastic drawers in one corner of the room and tugs them open to pull out paper and markers and colored pencils. They toss all the art supplies on the floor, then look up almost triumphantly at Sans.
Sans looks down at the art supplies, then back at Frisk. “Are we coloring?”
Frisk nods. They scoop up two boxes of colored pencils and hold them out to him, one in each hand. They jiggle the boxes in turn, asking Sans to choose.
“You sure about that? My art skills leave something to be desired.”
Frisk doesn’t respond, but continues holding the colored pencils up to Sans.
“Well alright, kid, but don’t say I didn’t warn you.” He takes one of the boxes from Frisk, and then the sheet of paper they proffer him next.
Frisk smiles and grabs a sheet and a box of colored pencils for themself.
“You want to join us?” Sans asks Toriel, who is still watching them from the doorway.
She shakes her head. “I believe I should start cooking. Would you like to stay for dinner?”
“Eh. I should probably get back to Pap eventually.”
“Well, there will be a portion for you if you change your mind. And, of course, Papyrus is very welcome as well.”
“Thanks,” Sans says. “I’ll let him know, but I think he’s got plans for dinner. Spaghetti, probably.”
Toriel laughs softly. “I may have to send you with some food, even if you do not stay for dinner.”
“Hey, Papyrus is getting way better. It’s kind of edible these days.”
Frisk makes a face that clearly says they think Sans’ sense of taste may have been permanently compromised.
“What? Really, he doesn’t even try to age the sauce anymore!”
Toriel laughs again, which makes Sans’ eyelights glow brighter.
“Come on, you two,” she says. “How about you both color in the living room?”
Obediently, Frisk gathers up their supplies and follows Toriel back out to the living room. They spread their paper and pencils across the new coffee table, and set up a spot for Sans across from them. Then, they sit down on the floor, pull a piece of paper toward them, and start scribbling.
Toriel heads into the kitchen as Sans settles into the spot Frisk has set up for him. He takes a moment to text Papyrus and invite him to Toriel’s dinner. Next, he picks up a pencil.
“We drawing anything in particular?” Sans asks.
So, Sans starts coloring with the kid who has the power to break time and lock an entire civilization back underground. And it’s surprisingly comfortable.
Sans draws two lines for eyes and a hard line for a mouth, then holds the sheet up to his face while he waits for Frisk to notice. It takes a moment.
Frisk looks up, stares, and then they choke out a snicker so sharp it sounds almost like a cough. Sans pulls the sheet down to wink at them.
Frisk flips their sheet over and draws quickly on the back. They hold it in front of their face; they’ve scribbled two messy black spots for eye sockets, and a wide grin with a wobbly hand.
Sans barks a laugh, which draws Toriel’s attention from the kitchen. When Frisk turns to her, page still in front of their face, she holds her sides with laughter.
Sans turns his page over and considers what will get a rise out of Frisk next.
Sans still doesn’t quite know what to make of Frisk. They’re powerful, more powerful than any being has any right to be, and they’ve used that power. Sans doesn’t quite know what motivates them -- trying to wrap his mind around Frisk feels a bit like staring at the edge of the universe and demanding to know it. Futile. Terrifying.
And yet, despite his apprehension, despite his hesitation, he finds himself genuinely liking this kid. He’s still not sure if he totally trusts Frisk, but he can’t help being a little fond of them. As he hangs with the kid, he feels the dark pressure on his mind and the tension in his chest let up just a little.
Just a bit.
Over the island counter, he can see watch as Toriel putters through the kitchen. Smells of cooking onion and garlic fill the living room. He watches her, pausing in his absent doodling to tuck his hand under his chin.
He wonders what it’d be like to see Frisk through Toriel’s eyes. She has so much warmth and gentleness and absolute trust in Frisk. So much unconditional love.
Toriel doesn’t know the whole story. She doesn’t know about the resets, what Frisk can do, that Frisk has used that power. She probably has the right to know if she’s raising the kid, Sans reflects. Someone probably should tell her.
But as he watches her, as he sees her regard Frisk with a heartbreaking warmth, he knows he can’t do it. It’s not that he thinks that Toriel wouldn’t love Frisk anymore. No, Toriel would love Frisk just the same, so completely, so overwhelmingly. And that’s just it. Toriel deserves to have the easy kind of love.
To be fair, no one deserves to know about the resets. It’s more like a need-to-know curse. But maybe there’s no harm in Sans letting Toriel have her peace a while longer. After all, at some point, he won't remember either.
And for now, it’s just kind of nice to hang with the kid, even if they are stupidly and ridiculously powerful.
Sans’ phone buzzes against his femur. He pulls it out.
There’s a new message from Papyrus: “WOWIE. TORIEL IS SO NICE. BUT METTATON AND NAPSTABLOOK HAVE INVITED ME TO HAVE DINNER WITH THEM!! STILL!! TELL TORIEL I SAID THANK YOU! I AM GLAD TO KNOW YOU WILL HAVE A GOOD DINNER, EVEN WHEN I AM NOT THERE!”
“Huh,” Sans murmurs, brow ridge lifting in some surprise. It’s good that Papyrus is finally making some other friends. “Hey, Tori,” Sans calls. “Guess I will take you up on dinner after all.”
Dinner is casserole, and is as warm and homey as any of Toriel’s cooking. Toriel sets out a box of mango juice for Frisk and a small glass of ketchup for Sans. She’s honestly and truly the best.
Frisk brings their paper and pencils over to the table, and they write about their day for Sans while they eat.
“Mom and I went to talk to school principals today, ” Sans is able to make out, from the sloppy handwriting and misspellings (‘principals’ is spelled ‘prinsapils’).
“Oh yeah? How’d it go?”
Frisk pulls the sheet back and spends a few minutes carefully scratching out their reply. Sans waits, sipping at his ketchup.
“It went OK. We were trying to tell them to let monsters into their schools. They said they liked us, but it would be hard to let monsters in the schools.”
Sans huffs. Sounds about right. “Welp. Now, don’t get me wrong, I value a little good old-fashioned laziness. But that’s why I take jobs that don’t matter if I do ‘em or not. Maybe these guys would be better off selling hot dogs than molding young minds.”
“They said they would let me in, but not monsters. They said they didn’t have the stuff for lots of people with special needs.”
“It was . . . rather frustrating,” Toriel puts in, glancing over Sans’ shoulder to read Frisk’s words. “I pointed out that the Underground has been teaching all monster children on far fewer resources for quite some time. Goodness, we have have been using the trash that falls from the surface!”
“Yeah, that argument is pretty . . . rubbish ,” Sans comments. “Whatcha gonna do now?”
Frisk writes: “Try again.”
“Heh, that’s the spirit.”
“The school board did offer to confer with the school in the camps, perhaps discuss donating some funding, but . . .” Toriel trails off and sighs. “I fear that may make it more difficult to integrate the schools in the future.”
“Yeah, they’d probably try to swing it that way.”
Toriel gives him a small, sad smile. “Well, as Frisk says, we will keep trying. In the meantime, let us talk of happier things. Frisk, do you want to tell Sans about the art show?”
Frisk nods, shoving an enormous chunk of casserole in their mouth. They write: “The monsters are making art to sell for charity. There is going to be a show tomorrow! I’m selling a drawing too.” They puff their chest up proudly as the shove the sheet at Sans for him to read.
“You got a piece in the art show? That’s awesome, kid.”
“Yes, the children have their own exhibit,” Toriel says, as she gets up to check on the dessert warming in the oven. “Some humans have shown interest in collecting the art of our children while they are . . . in the camps.”
Sans lets out a small, mirthless laugh. “S’ppose it’s easier than just letting us out of the camps.”
“These are the same humans who are trying to find monsters homes,” Toriel points out, but her smile looks tired.
She does so much to fight for the welfare of monster children, every damn day. Sans feels a twinge of guilt for spending most of his days laying on the mattress and watching the sycamore through the window.
“Will you come to the show?” Frisk asks. “It’s at lunchtime.”
“Lunchtime?” Sans echoes, and Frisk nods. “Heh, I dunno. I’ll have to see. I might be busy napping.” He winks at Frisk.
Frisk giggles, but over their shoulder, Sans sees lines of worry set around Toriel’s muzzle.
He doesn’t have the opportunity to reflect on it though, because the timer goes off, and the kitchen swims with the smell of fresh-baked pastry as Toriel pulls the oven open. The warm, sweet smell pushes the worry to the back of his mind.
“Thanks for dinner, T. Welp, I gotta get back now, or Pap’s going to be real cranky that he has to stay up for his bedtime story.”
The night air is brisk against Sans’ bones as he stands on the balcony outside Toriel’s apartment. Toriel and Frisk are framed in the light of the doorway, Frisk curled up against Toriel’s side as they shrink from the cold.
Frisk waves at Sans. He tosses them a wave in return. “See ya, kid. Keep being good for your mom.”
Toriel brushes one paw over Frisk’s hair. “Go start getting ready for bed, dear.”
Frisk nods, and extricates themself to dart back into the apartment.
But to Sans’ surprise, Toriel does not say goodbye. She steps out of the apartment, and closes the door behind her.
He blinks at her. “Ehh, what’s up? Kind of chilly out here.”
“Yes, a bit,” Toriel says. She gives her head a little shake as her fur fluffs up.
Oh, shit , she’s so cute.
“I wanted to thank you, Sans,” Toriel continues. “For keeping Frisk company so often. It is more helpful than I can say.”
Sans stares, and lets out a startled chuckle. Him, helpful? “Hey, I just drop by for the free food.”
“The free food you did not intend to take tonight?” Toriel replies, eyes sparkling knowingly.
“Alright, free food and the company. What can I say, I like you guys.”
She laughs her bright, bleating laugh. “Well, thank you. We are all so busy with the situation in the camps, and you keeping Frisk busy in the evenings makes a world of difference. As much as I adore having them around, it is easier to cook without them underfoot.”
“Right,” Sans says, rubbing awkwardly at the back of his skull. “Sure. No problem.”
“But, Sans . . .” Toriel expression turns serious now, worry creasing the bridge of her muzzle. “I would appreciate it if you would tell Frisk that you will be at the art show.”
“Hey, I said I would see about it.”
“You said you ‘do not know’.”
Sans inhales, and the breath feels tight. Pressure squeezes at his chest. “Ah, I don’t really do promises. You know that. I’ll try to be there, of course.”
Toriel shakes her head. “I know you will try. But you are important to Frisk, and they do not expect you to come to these events. Although you do usually make it, they are always resigned to believing you will not come. A promise would go a long way.”
Sans thinks he might have an inkling why Frisk doesn’t trust him. One of the downfalls of deciding he actually likes the kid is the newfound sharpness of the guilt he feels every time he remembers slacking on his last promise.
“Wow, you totally missed it ,” Clamshell had commented, when Sans woke up at his hot dog stand in Hotland. “Undyne was chasing a kid through here. Kid tried to wake you, but man you sleep like a rock!”
Yeah. He doesn’t do promises.
Sans huffs a sigh. “Look, I’ll try to be there, but you never know what’s going to happen, right? I don’t like making promises when there’s a chance I might end up breaking them.”
“Are you expecting something to come up?”
“Meh.” He scratches the back of his skull. “Not exactly. Just. You know, stuff outside your control. Something could happen, so I’d hate to make a promise and not be able to keep it.”
Heck, if the timeline breaks again, he won’t even remember having made the promise. The thought is a pressure in his throat, silencing him before he can even hope to say the words to Toriel.
He can’t tell her. Not yet.
Softly, Toriel asks: “Are you worried that you will not feel up to it tomorrow? You seem to be doing alright today, but . . .”
“Oh. Uh. No, that’s not it. I’ll be fine. Just . . . other things could happen.”
Sans drops his gaze to the grated metal of the balcony. He’d never meant for Toriel to know how bad his moods could get, but somehow she’s read between the words he didn’t say.
But rather than pushing Sans to explain his worries, Toriel nods slowly. “Alright. Yes, there are always unforeseen events that might happen. But . . . perhaps a promise is not always about what we know will or won’t happen. A promise can just be saying that you will do your best. Sometimes, a promise is a way of saying ‘I love you’.”
Sans jerks his head up, startled. He feels his eyelights flash brighter.
Does he love Frisk? He likes them, sure. He’s rooting for them. But does he love them? Can he love someone he’s not sure he trusts, someone he’s maybe a little scared of?
Toriel does not push for an answer. She offers Sans a small smile. “Please just consider it.” She pulls him into a tight hug, pressing her muzzle into the top of his head.
Again, Sans’ soul turns a backflip in his chest.
“Night, Tori.” He manages a broad grin as he extricates himself, settling his features back into his lazy, careless expression.
Toriel gives him one last, lingering look before disappearing back inside the apartment.
Sans walks home. Papyrus is probably back by now. Of course, Sans is looking forward to seeing him, to hearing all about his day trying to track down a lease for Mettaton and Napstablook, but first Sans needs a quiet moment with his thoughts.
Does he love Frisk?
The kid has knowledge of the timelines that no one should have. They’ve used the timeline. There could be dozens upon dozens of versions of this world that Sans doesn’t even know about, set and reset by Frisk.
Does any of that matter?
By the time he’s wandering up the front steps of his apartment, he’s still mulling it over. When he pulls open the door, he’s dragged from his thoughts by Papyrus’ infectious energy. And for at least a few hours he’s busy with Papyrus’ stories and antics.
But finally, Papyrus has had his bedtime story, and has put himself to bed for his evening shut-eye (it’s not ‘sleep’ or a ‘nap’, obviously). Sans finds himself on his bare mattress in the living room, staring up at the ceiling.
Does he love Frisk? What would that even mean ?
The thought is terrifying.
Is it bad etiquette to comment on where your writing connects? Oh, who cares. Anyway the conversation in chapter five, specifically the line "promises ain't always about what you know" was written with this scene in mind.
On the day of Frisk’s eighteenth birthday party, Sans finally presents his lesson to Toriel’s class.
“Can you do the magic thing again?” Maya calls out. “Please? Pleeeeease ?”
At the front of Toriel’s classroom, Sans chuckles. “Alright. But you gotta help me pick a new clement-stallation.”
Maya holds up her sheet of paper, where she’s connected the splattering of dots printed there into the shape of a leaping dolphin. “This! Do a dolphin!”
Sans laughs. “You have pretty high expectations of my art skills. I try to do that, it’s gonna look like a pointy sausage.”
“What about a smiley face?” Ren calls out.
Sans nods his head in their direction. “Now, that I can do. Okay, kiddos, get into the center of the room.”
Eagerly, the students clamber out of their seats and scramble toward the middle of the classroom, where they line up between the desks and crane over each other’s shoulders to see Sans.
Sans picks up his bag of clementines and dumps them out across the floor. The fruit goes rolling. One makes a valiant attempt at escaping under Toriel’s desk, but Sans stops it with a lazy flick of his wrist and a flash of his eye.
The students titter with delight.
Sans grins at them. Another flick of his wrist, and the dozen clementines all soar up at once. The students gasp and clap. The human faces are shining with awe, and even the monster children are caught up with the excitement. Sans twiddles his fingers, arranging the fruit in the air so there are two clusters up top and one cluster below. But the clusters stretch toward the board and are staggered from one another, so that from the point of view of the students, it looks like two large, misshapen blobs of citrus.
“So, you guys see the smiley face?”
“No!” the students chorus back.
He turns his cupped hand, and the clementine arrangement rotates. “How ‘bout now?”
“There it is!” Maria cries delightedly.
“Wow. You guys really did it,” Sans says. “You found the brand new smiley face constellation.”
“Do a star!” calls out Bunnie.
“A star?” Sans echoes. He turns his hand over and all but one clementine fall back to the ground. He plucks the last one out of the air. “Here we go. One star.”
“Noooo,” Bunnie replies. “Like with the points!”
But before Sans can come up with some way to invert the request, Toriel stands up from her desk and claps twice. Immediately, the students clap in response and turn toward her.
Toriel smiles at her students, eyes crinkled at the corners. “This has been a lot of fun, my children, but it is time for us to go meet the busses and go home. Let us all say thank you to Mr. Sans.”
“Thank you, Mr. Sans!” the students chorus.
“Sure thing, kiddos,” Sans replies, tossing a lazy wave.
“Children, please collect your things,” Toriel instructs.
The students scramble over to the wooden cubbies at the back of the room, and pull out their backpacks and lunchboxes. Sans sets about picking up the clementines that are scattered over the floor. Once the students are packed, they line up at the door.
“Bye Mr. Sans!” Ren calls. “I hope you get to be an astronaut one day!”
Sans chuckles. “Heh. Wasn’t in the plans, but thanks. See ya, kiddo.”
“ I’m gonna be an astronaut!” Ren says, puffing themself up proudly.
“I don’t doubt it. Send me a postcard from the moon, ‘kay?”
“I will, I promise!”
“Let us go, Ren,” Toriel calls. The students have started moving out the door. “It is time for us to line up for the busses.”
Ren tosses one last wave over their shoulder at Sans and scrambles after their class.
“I will be back in a moment, dear,” Toriel tells Sans.
“Kay. I’m not going anywhere,” he replies.
Toriel leaves the classroom after her students. Sans continues cleaning up his props from the lesson, tossing the basketball and marbles and solar system diorama haphazardly in the large bag he’s brought with him. The smaller bag of clementines goes in on top. The large exercise ball that Sans borrowed from Papyrus doesn’t fit in a bag, and so Sans just lounges on top of it, belly down and his arms hanging off the sides.
He’s still laying like that when Toriel returns, now class-less. He props his head up on one hand and greets her: “Hey, T.”
Toriel comes right over to him, grabs him by the shoulders, and hauls him up to plant a firm kiss on his mouth. Sans makes a muffled sound of surprise.
Toriel sets him back down, a wide smile plastered across her muzzle. Her eyes are sparkling. “You did wonderfully , dear,” she says, her voice warm and rich with pride. “The children loved you!”
“Heh,” Sans says, abashedly scratching at his jawbone. “They’re great kids.”
Toriel bends down to wrap him in a tight hug. She presses her muzzle to the top of his skull, and he can feel her breath whisper across the surface of his bones. He hugs her back, burying his phalanges in the cloth of her dress.
“Thank you, Sans,” Toriel murmurs.
“Thanks for inviting me in,” Sans replies.
He’s surprised to realize how sincerely he means it.
Finally, Toriel extricates herself and places one last kiss to the top of Sans’ head. “We should hurry if we want to help set up Frisk’s party before Asgore gets there with Frisk.”
“Yeah. Man, I can’t believe the kid’s gonna be eighteen .” Sans chuckles, shaking his head at the thought as he gathers up his bag. “It feels like yesterday it was Pap’s eighteenth birthday.”
“Time is such a strange thing.”
He laughs. “Yeah. You’re not kidding.”
“Come on, dear.” Toriel picks up the exercise ball Sans had been resting on, tucking it under one arm. With her other arm, she slings her purse over her shoulder. “We should get going.”
Together, they set off from the classroom.
Outside, the sun is bright and hot overhead, washing the city in summer heat. Birch trees line the school parking lot, and their branches are heavy with the bright peridot leaves of early summer.
Sans tilts his head up toward the sky, letting sunlight warm his face.
Ten years on the surface, and he can’t imagine life without the heartbeat of the seasons anymore. The cycles of temperatures and leaves are a constant reminder of the passage of time, one he doesn’t have to do a damn thing to make happen. Spring bursts into summer, until autumn paints colors across the trees, and then winter rolls in with cold white. And yeah, he doesn’t like winter all that much, but on the surface, even winter is somehow more. They never had sleet in the Underground.
Ten summers on the surface, and now it’s Frisk’s eighteen birthday.
Holy frickin’ dang .
Sans feels his soul constrict his chest. Or maybe it swells -- one of those annoying, confusing, contradictory sensations that mean his emotions are having some sort of really weird conversation.
“How’re you holding up, Tori?” Sans asks, as Toriel hits the trunk open button on the car keys.
“Hmm?” she responds, distracted.
“Frisk being grown and all.”
“Oh. Well.” A crease furrows the spot between her eyes, and the corners of her lips twitch up in a conflicted smile.
Sans chuckles. “Yeah. Same.”
Toriel pushes the exercise ball into the back of the van, and then takes Sans’ bag and tucks it in next to the exercise ball. She steps back and lets the trunk door slide shut. She’s quiet for a moment, parsing through her thoughts.
“I am so, so very proud of them. They have grown into a remarkable young person. They are brave and kind, resourceful and just. But goodness, it is hard not to remember when they were so small they barely came up to my waist, when they had to hold my hand to cross the room.”
Sans smirks at her. “I’m not sure the kid ever needed that. They did cross the entire Underground on their own. They just let you get away with it.”
Toriel cuffs him playfully on the shoulder.
“Anyway,” Sans continues, as they climb into the van. “Gotta admit, it’s weird to me that Frisk hasn’t been an adult for years already.”
“In what way?”
He shrugs. “I dunno. The kid’s determined. They know how to handle themself.”
Toriel gives a non-committal hum as she turns on the van. “I suppose they do, but does that alone make an ‘adult’? I must admit, it is hard for me to imagine Frisk truly on their own.” She sighs. “Perhaps I am only a short-sighted old woman, but I do believe that eighteen is far from truly being ‘grown’. Only human culture dictates that it is one day and not another that Frisk is an adult.”
“Maybe.” Sans props his elbow at the base of the window and rests his skull on his hand. He watches the traffic creep by as Toriel waits for an opening to pull out into. “But I guess that’s the world we’re living in now, huh? I mean, Frisk is human.”
“Do you see Frisk as grown, then?”
“I guess? As grown as any of us get, I suppose. Kid’s already gone through a whole lot more than most adults have. Heck, they know more about how the world works than most people ever do, period.”
Toriel gives him a sidelong glance. “Are you referring to the resets?”
“Partly. But knowledge of the resets alone doesn’t let you lead an entire civilization to the surface and then help you get that civilization to get along with the folks that kicked them underground in the first place.”
“That is true,” Toriel grants. “But there is still plenty they do not know, even about living in a human society. For instance, I would not wish for them to worry about taxes and insurance on their own yet.”
Sans shrugs. “Hey, most adult monsters didn’t know what to do with that stuff when we got out of the Underground, either. And I’d guess that Frisk knows a bit more about that stuff than a bunch of ‘em full grown monsters even now, just by dealing with the ambassadorial stuff for the last ten years.”
Toriel gives him a pensive nod. “Perhaps. There is just so much I would not wish for them to be responsible for yet.”
“Yeah. Well, being responsible sucks, no matter how old you are.”
She chuckles. “Perhaps.”
Toriel pulls up to a red light and turns on her blinker as she prepares to take the ramp toward the highway. Sans watches the pedestrians cross the road. There are a few parents with young children, but the teenagers and college-aged kids on the crosswalk are all accompanied by friends their own age.
“Don’t get me wrong, though,” Sans continues, as the walklight begins to flash orange. “It’s not like I’m eager for the kid to move out or anything.”
“Ah,” says Toriel. “Is that what you have been worried about?”
Sans huffs a laugh. “Who said I was worried?” But he flashes a sheepish smile at Toriel, letting her know with his expression alone that, yes, she has read him correctly. Again. “Yeah. That’s probably the weirdest thing about human culture, if you ask me. Kids are adults at eighteen years old? Random number, but okay. But they’re also expected to move out as soon as they’re done with high school, and maybe move hundreds, thousands of miles away? Look, just ‘cause you’ve got all this space on the surface doesn’t mean you should try to scatter your family all across the whole dang thing. Papyrus technically never even moved out, and he’s doing just fine.”
“No, he just kicked you out,” Toriel says teasingly.
“Hey, I still have my room there. If he really kicked me out, he’d clean my room.”
Toriel laughs. The light turns green. As she pulls onto the highway, she continues. “That is not precisely the human expectation. It is perhaps more common in humans in this part of the world, but there are plenty of human societies where the children stay with their families their entire lives. Even here, many children stay with their families long after they have completed high school.”
“Alright, yeah,” Sans grants. “I guess it’s just a bit unsettling, thinking that here Frisk could end up a thousand miles away and that’d be normal . In the Underground, when a kid got their own place, you could just take a stroll over every afternoon.” A pause. “Not that I’m advocating us being sealed back underground or anything.”
“I understand,” Toriel says softly. “I too do not like thinking of Frisk leaving home.”
“Yeah.” Sans squeezes his eye sockets shut. The constriction in his soul has tightened. “Yeah. Frisk could do it. They could move to the other damn side of the planet and do just fine. They know how to handle themself.”
He’s proud. He’s so proud. And yet the thought twists and twists at his soul.
He feels Toriel’s warm paw brush at his shoulder, and he cracks his eye sockets open. Toriel smiles at him gently.
“I know,” she murmurs. “But we have at least a year before they finish high school. And perhaps they will not leave. They wish to go to Ebott University. It is nearby; they can attend from home.”
“Yeah.” Sans glances out the window; he can’t see Ebott University from here, but he knows the spot on the skyline where the campus should be. He tries to focus on the idea of Frisk staying home for college, coming home each night after classes, still being around for dinner . . . “One day they’ll leave, though. Maybe they’ll stay for college, but--” He laughs weakly. “Even if I can believe Frisk is an adult, man, I can’t believe it’s already been ten years.”
“I believe the phrase is ‘time flies when you are having fun’?”
He chuckles. “Unless you’re Froggit. Then it’s ‘time’s fun when you’re having flies’.”
Toriel lets out a bleat of laughter. But she sobers quickly and murmurs: “Even monster children leave one day.”
She looks to him, a sad smile softening the creases around her eyes. “It is hard to let go, is it not?”
“Not surprising at all, I think,” she says softly. “Parents miss their children when they are gone.”
Sans considers Toriel silently for a moment, taking in gentle sorrow in her expression. She has always worn her heartbreak openly on her face.
“Hey,” he murmurs. “How are you holding up? Really.”
“I am alright.” But she exhales heavily, and then adds, with an unexpected tone of something almost like bitterness: “I am pleased that one of my children has made it to adulthood.”
Sans squeezes his eye sockets shut for a heartbeat, letting a surge of anger on her behalf flash his eyelight blue. But he lets out a slow breath, calming himself, before reaching out to press one hand against her shoulder.
Uselessly, he says: “Yeah.”
Toriel does not react to his hand, but she does not pull away. “Asgore will be there today.”
And again, all Sans can say is: “Yep.”
“He should be there. Frisk loves him, and he has done well by Frisk. He is their father. But every time I see him, I think of what he did to Kindness, Justice, Bravery, Integrity, Patience, and Perseverance. All of them would be grown by now, but he killed them.”
“Tori, I am so sorry.”
She does not reply to that immediately, but gives him a stiff nod. She swallows, blinking hard.
“. . . I should not cry while I am driving,” she says finally.
“Do you wanna switch?” Sans offers. “If we see a rest stop, I could take over.”
“No. It is good to have something to focus on. I would not want to fall apart before Frisk’s party.”
Sans nods. “Alright. Well, offer’s open if you need it.”
“Thank you, dear.”
Silence falls in the car. Sans stares out at the tall conifers that are growing denser as they get farther out from the city. The trees are dark green against a bright blue sky. The sight of conifers, so much like the endless dark forest of Snowdin, framed by open sky, is oddly fitting.
When Toriel speaks next, her voice is gentler -- weary, rather than angry. “I wish I did not feel such hatred every time I saw Asgore. My anger will not bring the children back, and I must mask my feelings from Frisk as it would be unfair to put them in the middle of my conflict with their father. It does nothing but cause me misery.”
“I can’t exactly blame you for being angry, though,” Sans says.
“Yes, well . . . perhaps if I did not have to see him, I would be better able to put all that awfulness in the past. If I had the time and space away from him, time and space in which I was not alone as I was in the Ruins, perhaps I could learn to let go of my anger.” A sigh. “But I cannot take that space. He is Frisk’s father, and I must see him.”
Toriel glances over to Sans.
“Sometimes, I wonder about what it would be like if I had refused to co-parent with Asgore. I could have chosen to raise Frisk alone. Or -- well, I did not know originally what Frisk and I would have in you, but if I had, perhaps . . .” She trails off with a tight, sad smile. “But it does not matter. I could not have kept Asgore away. He must work with Frisk as ambassador. And it would be terrible to withhold Frisk from a parent who truly loves and supports them, no matter how angry I am with him.”
“I suppose,” he says with a sympathetic shrug. “‘Sides, I definitely would have panicked if you’d asked me to step in to be Frisk’s dad that early on.”
“I would not have,” Toriel says, and now, finally, her smile reaches her eyes. “After all, you are not their dad but their dunkle .”
Aw. She really knows how to warm his soul.
“But Tori, if I’m gonna be doing more ambassador stuff, are you really cool with me spending more time with Asgore? Like, alright, you gotta share your kid with him, but that doesn’t mean you gotta share me with him too.” A pause. “That came out wrong.”
Toriel lets out a sharp bleat of laughter. “ Please do not give me that image. Honestly, I would not have noticed if you did not point it out!”
“Heh, sorry. Ulna -ver say it again, promise.”
Toriel laughs again, shaking her head. Then her expression mellows, but it’s softer, warmer than before, with fewer lines creasing her face. “But, truly, it is alright for you spend more time with Asgore. You will be doing it to help our child, and how could I ever begrudge you that? Of course, I would ask that you do not meet with Asgore at our dining table, but I have no concerns about you working with him.”
Sans nods. “It doesn’t bother you then, that I’m not real pissed off at Asgore? I mean, of course, I wish the kids were here, but . . .”
“Of course not,” Toriel says. “I wish I were not so angry. It feels terrible. Sometimes, I feel like it nearly consumes me. I would never wish that on you.”
She sighs. She lapses into silence as she merges right toward the interstate junction.
Sans doesn’t speak either. He thinks of Asgore, and feels only pity. Toriel might forgive Sans for not being angry about the choices Asgore made in the Underground, but Sans can’t help feeling like he’s letting the kids down. Kindness, Bravery, Integrity, Perseverance, Patience, and Justice are dead, either by Asgore’s hand or by his orders. They are gone , and every time he looks into the grief in Toriel’s expression, he wants to be furious.
And, honestly, when he sees that grief, he does feel a spike of anger. But it doesn’t last, and the anger is always on Toriel’s behalf, not the children’s. How dare Asgore make Toriel feel so much pain?
But can Sans really be sure he wouldn’t have made the same choices that Asgore did?
Well. Actually, yeah. He probably wouldn’t have. Even before Toriel had made him promise to look after any human he found, Sans hadn’t really had much interest in capturing and turning over anyone. Even if he were the one on the throne (an awful thought Sans doesn’t like entertaining), he can’t imagine himself giving that order.
Still. He kind of gets where the guy was coming from.
Toriel merges onto the northbound route. When she turns off her turn signal, she speaks again: “I know that, partly, I feel the way I do because I once loved Asgore so deeply.”
“Yes. He had meant so much to me, been such a source of stability in my life. I trusted him completely. When he made those terrible choices, it felt like the world did not make sense anymore.” She sniffs hard, and when Sans looks over at her, he feels a horrible jolt. Her expression is set, the line of her jaw sharp even through her fur, but her eyes are shimmering with unshed tears.
“I would be angry at anyone who ordered the deaths of children,” Toriel continues in a tight voice. “But there is something worse about it being someone I loved and trusted. Were it someone else, I could perhaps accept them as someone callous and thoughtless. But Asgore . . . I cannot reconcile the decision he made with the man I knew. And the senselessness of it all will not let me go.”
“Huh. I guess that makes sense,” Sans says. He scratches at his neck. “I dunno that I’ve had anyone let me down like that, so I dunno how I’d feel. But makes sense.”
Toriel nods. There’s still a crease at the spot between her eyes, still tension written in every hard line of her limbs. But as Sans watches, she exhales a slow breath, and her posture relaxes.
“But I do not wish for my feelings about Asgore to tarnish my memory of Frisk’s birthday. Perhaps we should talk about something else.”
“Right,” says Sans. “Sure. Uh, you want a joke, or not in the mood right now?”
“A joke would be lovely,” Toriel says.
“Alright. Let’s see. Uh, why do flamingos lift up one leg?”
“Why?” Toriel supplies promptly.
“Because if they lifted up both they would fall.”
And Toriel laughs. It’s a soft, weak laugh, a little wet, but it’s a laugh.
“Here is one,” she replies. “What do you call an illegally parked frog?”
“What?” says Sans.
He chuckles. “Nice. Alright -- a magician was walking down the street. Then, he turned into a grocery store.”
“Oh, that is your worst one this week!” But she’s smiling, and her laugh is brighter.
“Don’t like that one? I got more. Why are mountains so funny?”
“I do not know!”
“Because they are hill areas .”
By the time they pull into the parking lot for Frisk’s party, there are still tears in Toriel’s eyes, but for an entirely different reason. Toriel shuts off the car and leans on the steering wheel, almost choking with laughter. Sans, too, has his face covered with one hand as he’s overcome with mirth.
When Toriel has finally recovered herself enough to speak, she reaches out one paw to clasp Sans’ shoulder.
“Thank you,” she says, her voice so warm that Sans feels his soul swell.
“Sure,” he replies.
Sans covers the paw on his shoulder with one hand and gives it a squeeze. “Welp. We should probably get started settin’ up. Let’s show our kid a good time, huh?”
Really lazy doodle this time because this chapter was an accident.
Seriously, I was just trying to get Sans and Toriel from the school to the party, but then they started talking. They're trolling me, I swear it.
Also, I would like to thank this fic's new sponsor: an AskReddit thread with seven thousand dad jokes in the comments! No, I will not be linking it; that way, you all get to live in blissful ignorance of just how many of these jokes have been blatantly plagiarized. :)