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One By One

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(Knock, knock, knock.)

The brothers’ house was well-insulated against the Snowdin cold. This seemed unnecessary, since its residents didn’t have any skin, but Papyrus hadn’t wanted guests to feel unwelcome. Still, a thin draft wisped in from underneath the front door, and puttered about the house like an annoying dog.

(Knock, knock, knock.)

The draft maneuvered through a small galaxy of spare change under the couch, which was lumpier than Undyne’s mashed potatoes. This was impressive, as Undyne mashed her potatoes entirely with headbutts. Her head often wound up with more lumps than the potatoes. Undyne insisted that this improved the flavor. She emphatically denied the concussion had anything to do with it, often just before having a couple of aspirin and a nice lie down.

(Knock, knock, knock.)

It brushed against the lengthy trail of Post-It notes dangling from Sans’ discarded sock. Papyrus had long since given up adding to this record-breaking chain letter, but as the glue wore off and the notes fell down, he just re-wrote everything on new ones and stuck them on the sock again. He said they really tied the room together.

(Knock, knock, knock.)

The breeze ambled into the kitchen, where occasional doggy snores sounded under the magnificently elongated sink. In the fridge, Papyrus’ collection of spaghetti brooded under low light. The lids of the spaghetti containers were a fantastic cornucopia of colors. For that matter, so was the spaghetti. Several containers had at this point developed rudimentary societies of their own, and plotted dark conspiracies against Sans’ interloping chip bag in the corner.

(Knock, knock, knock.)

It sniffed at the end table, where Sans’ pet rock slowly digested its chocolate sprinkles, and, apparently deciding that there was nothing of interest in the house besides that persistent knocking, headed back out the door, and disappeared.

(Knock, knock, knock.)

The knocking continued – three polite raps, every five seconds, made with metronomic precision.

(Knock, knock, knock.)

Frisk stood at Sans’ bedroom door, staring straight ahead as though he’d found a prophecy written in the wood grain. He raised his fist.

(Knock, knock, knock.)

He lowered his fist again.

He raised his fist.

(Knock, knock, knock.)

He lowered his fist again.

He raised his fist.

(Knock, knock, knock.)

He lowered his fist again.

He raised-

The doorknob turned. The door swung open.

“Heya, kiddo.”

Sans shuffled out of the impenetrable murk of his bedroom, grinning the same as ever, two dim points of light shining deep in his eye sockets. The aroma of gently used socks wafted out in his wake. No one knew exactly how he accumulated so many socks, or why they always smelled like they hadn’t been washed in a week. He never stepped out of his fluffy house slippers. He didn’t even have calves. He was a skeleton brimming with unfathomable mystery.

“So, you’ve been knocking...pretty regularly...for about twenty minutes straight.” He glanced down at Frisk’s knuckles, which were slowly staining purple. “Man, doesn’t that hurt?”

Frisk said nothing. Sans raised what would have been his eyebrows – it was always a little odd, the way his and his brother’s skulls could move like soft clay – then shrugged and went on.

“Anyway, sorry I took so long. Usually when someone knocks I just figure it’s Papyrus asking me what happened to his Junior Jumble or where pirates come from or something, but at this point he’d have given up, or, you know. Said something. Literally anything.”

He peered out of the room and down the hall. “He must be out doing...whatever it is he does. Lucky, ‘cuz otherwise he’d have heard you and dragged you out of the house to go on friendship adventures.” He glanced back at Frisk. “Friendship adventures. His words. Not mine. Just got to state that for the record. I think his action figures were involved.”

Frisk remained silent.

“That’s some pretty good timing. Catching me when I’m home, and Papyrus isn’t. Usually it’s the other way around.” His grin widened. “You must really need me for something.”

Frisk nodded.

“Welp, sorry, can’t help ya.” He gingerly stepped around Frisk and headed for the stairs. “Got a lot of work to avoid, you know how it is. Keep an eye out for me in Waterfall or something, we’ll get brunch.” He stopped at the front door and turned back to Frisk, who was watching from the second-floor rail. “And put some ice on that hand, kid, geez.”

He stepped outside and shut the door. Frisk was left alone in the house, and the only sound was the tick of an unseen clock.

*             *             *

(Knock, knock, knock.)

The brothers’ house was well-insulated against the Snowdin cold. This seemed unnecessary, since its residents didn’t have any skin, but Papyrus hadn’t wanted guests to feel unwelcome. Still, a thin draft wisped in from underneath the front door, and puttered about the house like an annoying dog.

(Knock, knock, knock.)

The draft maneuvered through a small galaxy of spare change under the couch, which was lumpier than Undyne’s mashed potatoes. This was impressive, as Undyne mashed her potatoes entirely with headbutts. Her head often wound up with more lumps than the potatoes. Undyne insisted that this improved the flavor. She emphatically denied the concussion had anything to do with it, often just before having a couple of aspirin and a nice lie down.

(Knock, knock, knock.)

It brushed against the lengthy trail of Post-It notes dangling from Sans’ discarded sock. Papyrus had long since given up adding to this record-breaking chain letter, but as the glue wore off-

“Heya, kiddo.”

Sans shuffled out of the impenetrable murk of his bedroom, grinning the same as ever, two dim points of light shining deep in his eye sockets. The aroma of gently used socks wafted out in his wake. No one knew exactly how he accumulated so many socks, or why they always smelled like they hadn’t been washed in a week. He never stepped out of his fluffy house slippers. He didn’t even have calves. He was a skeleton brimming with unfathomable mystery.

“So, you’ve been knocking...pretty regularly...for a while now.” He glanced down at Frisk’s knuckles, which were covered in sunset-colored bruises. “Man, doesn’t that hurt?”

Frisk said nothing.

“Anyway, sorry I took so long. Usually when someone knocks I figure it’s just...Papyrus...” His eyesockets crinkled for a moment, and he reached up and tapped his skull. “Heh. Wicked déjà-vu just then.” His pupils swiveled towards Frisk. “And that expression...if I didn’t know better, I’d say you heard all this before.”

Frisk remained silent.

“You need my help with something?”

Frisk nodded.

“I’ve been keepin’ an eyesocket out for ya since we first met. Doing all I can, here.” He stepped around Frisk and headed for the stairs. “Now if you’ll excuse me, I gotta see a man about a dog. That man is my brother, and that dog is probably his arch-nemesis.”

He went to the front door, grabbed the handle, paused, and looked over his shoulder.

“And, kid? Don’t do that again.”

He stepped outside and shut the door. Frisk was left alone in the house, and the only sound was the tick of an unseen clock.

*             *             *

(Knock, knock, knock.)

The brothers’ house was well-insulated-

“All right, knock it off.

Sans was still grinning, but now his bony brow furrowed in irritation. A moment passed, and it smoothed out again.

“Heh. Knock it off. See what I did there?”

Frisk nodded, and made a see-sawing gesture with his unbruised hand.

“Ahh, everyone’s a critic.” Sans kept his voice light, but the way the bone around his eyesockets crinkled suggested that he, too, wasn’t very amused.

“So, okay, you’re a time traveler. Congrats. Round of applause.” He clapped his hands together with a sound like castanets. “Kind of a weird way to show it off, but hey, I’m not judging you. I guess this isn’t just a house call?”

Frisk shook his head.

“You need my help with something.”

Frisk nodded.

“You gonna finally bang together a couple syllables and tell me what it is? Heck, what even makes you think I can do anything?”

Frisk angled his head slightly. The way the light fell on his face turned his stare accusatory.

“...heh heh heh. Okay.” Sans stuck his hands back in his pockets. “I guess that goes without saying. So here’s the twist ending, kiddo.” He leaned in close. “The answer’s no.”

He did a nimble half-step around Frisk and headed for the stairs, whistling tunelessly as he walked. Frisk watched him go.

“Take it from me – you gotta learn to be satisfied with what you’ve got. That little piece of advice is all the help I’ll give.” He paused with his hand on the doorhandle. “Don’t waste any more of your time with this. You’ll get sick of it way before I do.” He opened the door, turned, waved, and stepped out.

Frisk stood in the empty house, listening to the clock tick. That sound filled him with determination.

He cracked his knuckles, and winced at the pain.

*             *             *

The fifth visit.

“Heya. Still at it?” Sans held up a small memo pad, then shoved it in his hoodie pocket. “Figured I’d keep a running tally of your visits. That way, at least one of us can have a good time.” He slid around Frisk and headed for the stairs. “Well, so long.”

The front door opened and shut.

*             *             *

The eleventh visit.

“Look at that, I think we already broke double digits! Feels like it took no time at all. For me, anyway. I bet it’s getting real boring for you.” He insinuated around Frisk and headed for the stairs. “You know, I can put in a good word at Grillby’s and get you on my tab. Unlimited burgers, or staring at my door forever. Your choice! Keep it in mind.”

He paused at the front door. “Though I guess I wouldn’t remember telling you that. Eh, just let me know I told you. I’m sure I’ll believe me.” His grin turned slightly rueful. “Time travel. Ain’t it a delight?”

He shut the door slightly harder than usual.

*             *             *

The twenty-third visit.

“’scuse me, please.”

Sans stood in his doorway, grinning wide. After a long moment, Frisk stepped aside and let him pass.

“Thanks. Everything’s so much easier when you just ask.”

Sans ambled down the stairs, hands in his hoodie pockets. “Our little tally’s gonna fill up the page at this rate. No worries. Plenty of space left in my notebook.” Sans pulled the memo pad out one pocket and waggled it in Frisk’s direction. “C’mon, kid. Don’t you have anything better to do?”

The color drained out of Frisk’s face. Sans’ smile dimmed.

“Uh...was it something I said?”

Frisk chewed his lip, stared down at his feet.

“Guess I. Uh. Touched a nerve, or something.” Sans replaced the notebook, opened the front door. “Sorry.”

He left anyway. Frisk stood there for some time, his fists clenched at his sides. His right hand was becoming badly swollen.

*             *             *

The fortieth visit.

Sans’ bedroom door swung open.

“Hey, kiddo,” Sans said, opening the front door. “Bye, kiddo.”

Frisk did a double-take from one doorway to another, mouth hanging agape. By the time he worked out what had just happened, Sans was already out and away.

*             *             *

The fifty-fifth visit.

Sans stepped out with his cell phone pressed to the side of his head.

“Hey, bro, got someone wants to speak to you.” He tossed the phone to Frisk. “Catch.”

Frisk fumbled it with his left hand – the fingers of his right no longer bent properly – and picked it up just in time to hear a distinctive voice erupt from the receiver. It sounded a bit like a kazoo attempting to yodel.

“Congratulations, mysterious caller! You have successfully reached the phone of the great Papyrus, most definite future member of the Royal Guard. Now, identify yourself! Are you a friend, or a future friend!?”

“You two have a nice conversation,” Sans called from downstairs. “Or, you know, any kind of conversation. Cheers!”

“Hello? Why aren’t you saying anything?” The front door shut. “Ahh, I see. You are so intimidated by my greatness that you need extra time to think of the perfect greeting! A salutation that will pierce my stern exterior and render me your comrade for life! Do your worst! Also, do your best! I believe in you!”

*             *             *

The sixty-third visit.

Sans strutted out of his room whistling through his teeth; a jaunty, jazzy tune that, somehow, didn’t sound like the kind of song you’d hear if you were having a good time. He passed Frisk without a word, slid down the banister of his stairs, moonwalked across the living room carpet, and held one, final note, arms outstretched, jazz hands shaking. He froze stiff in that pose. Frisk stared down at him.

Sans stuck his hands back in his pockets and left the house.

Frisk sighed, turned back to the bedroom, and jumped at the sudden noise. The front door popped open and the gleaming brass end of Sans’ trombone popped out. He played three warbling notes, a dismal, heart-rending coda, and then shut the door again.

*             *             *

The eightieth visit.

Frisk had switched to his left hand for knocking long ago. And while Sans no longer kept him waiting for nearly as long – in fact, he often popped the door open at the first knock – he still had to tap his knuckles on the wood as gently as possible. The handle turned. The door swung open.

Sans’ bedroom was empty. But on the floor was a single sheet of lined notebook paper. Frisk bent over and carefully picked it up. In Sans’ thick, loopy print was written the words:

gone fishin’

you know the spot

Frisk stared at the paper for several seconds before folding it up and sticking it in the back pocket of his shorts.

The Snowdin chill bit at his bare legs and he had to walk half the town’s length with his arm over his eyes before his vision adjusted to the light, but the fresh air was a welcome relief from that miasma of socks and sadness. He passed by Grillby’s, caught a whiff of food greasy enough to lubricate an engine, and felt his stomach rumble. He hadn’t eaten or slept since the first visit. His vision was starting to swim a bit.

Nevertheless, he walked across the mountain, over Papyrus’ meticulously re-painted “bridge,” past the humble dwelling of Greaterdog. He took out his stick and traced idle trails in the snow, broken lines running parallel to his footprints. Eventually he arrived at the riverbank where the world’s saddest pick-up note dangled from its fishing line. Sans was not there. Instead, Frisk saw another sheet of paper, held down by a rock. Frisk blew two white jets of steam from his nostrils, then bent down over the note.

“Hi there, honey,” said the rock. “That nice skeleton-man said you’d stop by. Here, let me get out of your way.” It gently slid off the sheet and continued into the underbrush. “Send my love to my brother in town.”

Frisk waved goodbye and scooped up the note. It read:

stopped fishin’

find me at home

The skin under Frisk’s eye twitched. He folded the note and put it in his pocket with the first, then headed back across the mountain.

The Snowdin cavern ceiling brooded high overhead. The light that lay on these woods filtered in from sources unseen. As Frisk crossed the bridge again he turned and gazed down at the expanse of pines jutting arrow-straight from the earth. The wind hummed like breath across a bottle; it plucked at his hair and his thin clothes like fingertips.

Forests beneath mountains. Mountains beneath mountains. The underground was beautiful in its way, but it had no weather or time. You couldn’t look up and see the movement of the clouds or stars, that comforting reassurance that the world continued to turn. Instead there was only darkness, the sheer presence of Mt. Ebott pushing down on you. You tried not to think about how you lived and slept under that weight. The first time he had left the barrier, he’d looked back at that blank cliff face and thought of Asriel, alone, buried, with what remained of his essence trickling out like sand. And that thought had stayed with him. It wouldn’t go away.

He re-entered Sans’ and Papyrus’ house. The place was still quiet as ever. Sans’ door was shut again.

Frisk climbed the stairs, approached Sans’ bedroom, and knocked. The door swung open.

On the floor was another note. Frisk picked it up.

gone fishin’ again

sorry, kid

maybe you should give up for today and try (turn over)-

Frisk turned the paper over.

-tomarrow.

The rest of the page was taken up by a sketch of Sans’ winking face.

It was quite well-drawn.

With great deliberation and infinite patience, Frisk withdrew the other two notes, put them on top of the third, and crumbled all the paper into a ball. He walked downstairs, approached the garbage can, raised the ball high over his head, and dunked it.

*             *             *

The ninety-sixth visit.

Sans opened the door. He was still grinning, but the look in his eyes suggested that this was only because his mouth was incapable of doing anything else. That grin was there because it had to be, and it felt lost and all alone in the world. Frisk didn’t look much better – his skin was pale, his hair more askew than usual, and strange tics fired off in his face and limbs as his body struggled to stay upright.

The silence was broken by a long, luxurious growl from Frisk’s gut. Sans glanced down, then back up.

He said, “Wanna go to Grillby’s?”

Frisk nodded.

“Go on ahead. I’ll catch up.”

Frisk’s expression turned wary.

“No tricks, kid. I’m pretty sure you’ve used up all my material.” He started to close the door, and stopped so that only the light in one eye and a sliver of his grin was visible. “And I think you’ll agree – no one likes repeat performances.”

The door closed. Frisk waited for a second, then carefully made his way downstairs. He wasn’t sure how long he’d been awake at this point, but he felt very aware of each muscle and how much they wanted to turn to jelly. He stepped outside, circled around the side of the house, then took a deep breath and shoved both hands into a snowbank.

He hissed air through his teeth and flashes of colored light went off in his vision. His left hand didn’t look too bad, but the skin on his right had turned shiny and taut and sent needles of pain up his arm with every flex. He kept them in the snow until they went numb, then pulled them out, shook them off, and limped to Grillby’s.

The usual clientele was present, amidst the soft smoky haze. The place smelled like hardwood and dog fur. The Royal Guard’s card game continued apace, and by the state of the chips, Greaterdog and his indefatigable poker face appeared to be dominating. Doggo waved at the spot where Frisk had been a second ago. As he approached the counter, Grillby glanced up, his flickering match-head glinting orange-red off his spectacles, and then quietly went back to polishing a glass with a clean rag. Due to the incendiary nature of its proprietor, everything in the tavern was magically fireproofed, though the jukebox had somehow managed to burn out anyway.

The punk-rock horse leaning against the juke gave Frisk a quiet nod. Frisk nodded back, and then looked at the open stools. On top of one was a strange lump, cunningly painted the same color as the wood. Frisk eyeballed it, and hopped on top of the other stool.

(PPPPBBBBHHHTTTPBHTPBHTPBHTplbrplbrplblblbrplbprfweetfweetfweeeeeeet...poot.)

Frisk groaned and pulled the whoopee cushion out from under him. The first stool-top was innocent and bare. There were a few good-natured laughs from the other customers.

“Don’t sweat it,” said the bird sprawled out against the bar. “Grillbz says he was watching the whole time, and he has no idea how Sansy pulls that off either.”

Frisk kept his eyes forward as he heard the tavern door creak open. Sans’ slippers shuffled across the hardwood.

“No one panic, it’s only me. What’s up, Grillby, Dogamy, Dogaressa, Doggo, Greaterdog, Lesserdog. Hey, L.D., nice hand you’ve got going there. Have a bone on me. No...no, man, not the bone that’s literally on me, I meant- ow, not the tibia, not the tibia. Here, this one. Good boy.” Frisk heard muffled chewing. “Jimmy, you mind clearing out the corner? Me and this little guy need some quiet time.”

“Sure thing, Sans.” The horse’s imitation-pleather jacket crinkled as he pushed off the jukebox. “I need some fresh air anyway.”

As Jimmy clip-clopped away, Sans drifted into sight like a squat rotund moon and took the stool to Frisk’s right. “What’s up, kid?” Frisk dangled the whoopee cushion in front of him. “Oh, neat, was wondering where I left that.” He grabbed the cushion and stuffed it into his hoodie pocket. “How’s about you take a seat right here.”

He patted the stool to his right, nearest the jukebox, then gestured to Grillby. “Mind getting us a couple deluxe platters, man? I think we’re gonna be a while.”

Grillby flashed a thumbs-up and headed into the back as Frisk changed seats. Sans drummed out an uneven rhythm on the bar with his fingertips.

“Let’s wait for the grub before we talk,” he said. “You look worn out. You...seriously did this all in one shot?”

Frisk nodded, and it took visible effort to lift his head again.

“Somehow I think that even if I got an answer out of you it wouldn’t make sense. Don’t do that to yourself, kid. Someone your age needs their sleep.” Grillby emerged from the kitchen with two plates piled high with burgers and fries. “Aha, perfect timing.”

Grillby set down their plates and discreetly moved to the far end of the bar. Sans grabbed a ketchup bottle, flicked the lid off like a quarter, took a swig, then smacked the bottle back down just in time for the lid to land on the bottle-top again.

“I never get tired of the food in this place.” He bit into his burger, then looked to his right and saw that Frisk had already demolished half of his. “Heh. Looks like you’re the same way.” Frisk swallowed and took another bite.

They ate in silence for a while, their food diminishing by degrees. Eventually all that was left of Sans’ plate was a stray smattering of fries. Sans pushed them around for a bit and waited for the sounds of Frisk’s chewing to cease.

He said, “Alright.”

Frisk pushed his empty plate away and folded his hands on his lap. The atmosphere in this corner of the tavern grew solemn.

“At this point it’s pretty clear that you’re not knockin’ on that door just to hear my jokes. Though I bet some of ‘em were hilarious. Did I get you on the phone with Papyrus?” Frisk wearily held up four fingers. “Heh heh, priceless. But that’s the thing. I’m no time traveler. Every time you pull that trick,” his voice dropped an octave, “those resets,” his voice lightened again, “I don’t get the privilege of remembering what happened. Memories can’t survive. But, with a little work,” he produced the memo pad from his hoodie, “other things can.”

He slid the pad across the counter. Frisk hesitantly picked it up and flicked through it. The first several pages were covered with tally marks.

“I’ve got more, of course. Taking notes helps pass the time when I’m at my guardpost. Usually I don’t bother reading ‘em after, because what’s the point, right?” The light in his eyesockets dimmed. “It’ll all be undone anyway. But, just for you, I did some quick skimming, and I can more or less guess why you’re here.”

He swiveled his plate around. Frisk looked down at it, and the pad slipped out of his fingers. Sans had rearranged his fries to spell out one word:

A-S-R-I-E-L

“Gotta admit, I didn’t see that coming,” Sans said cheerily. “The crown prince of monsters. Guess he’s got something to do with that rascally flower runnin’ around. Heh heh. The same one whispering sweet nothings to my brother. That’s funny. That’s really funny.” He scooped up several fries and bit them in half. “And I know what you’re thinking: it’s not right. It’s not fair. You’ve got a great big heart in that ribcage of yours. I bet you’d do anything to help him out.”

Something in the tone of Sans’ voice made Frisk back away to the edge of his stool.

“But, speaking of unfair. I said I kept good records. Notes, sketches, amusing anecdotes...” He flicked something else out from his hoodie. “Photographs.”

Frisk already looked wan, but he turned even paler when he saw that picture.

All seven of them were there – Sans, Papyrus, King Asgore, Toriel, Undyne, Alphys, and Frisk himself. Papyrus was waving so frantically at the camera that his arm was a white and red blur. Toriel and Asgore both smiled wide, though Toriel’s smile looked a little strained, and Asgore’s a little desperate. Sans was giving Frisk bunny ears. Undyne had Alphys in an amiable headlock and, in an inspired move, was giving Sans’ bunny ears bunny ears. The sky overhead was a faultless blue. The sun-drenched silhouette of Mt. Ebott towered in the background.

“Nice, ain’t it?” Sans said casually. “Looks like Undyne and Alphys finally hooked up, always thought they’d make a cute couple. I guess that lady is Asgore’s ex, sucks that they seem on the outs, but them’s the breaks. Papyrus is just happy to be there as usual, and you appear to have fallen victim to the classic Two-Tier Ear, though you’re taking it like a champ. Oh, and one other thing, minor detail, almost forget to mention it, really – it looks like we all made it to the surface.”

Frisk reached for the photo and Sans snatched it away.

“That isn’t yours.”

Frisk’s hand flinched. For a moment the lights in Sans’ eyes had died completely.

“We were there. We were out. And now we’re back where we started, trapped in the dark. What, saving the world wasn’t good enough? You had to send us all back because you couldn’t get a perfect run?” He shoved the picture back in his hoodie. “Like smashing the cookie jar because you couldn’t reach the last crumb. I bet he didn’t even ask for your help. Otherwise you wouldn’t have that guilty look on your face right now.” His gaze was unrelenting. “I don’t even want to know how many times you’ve put us all through this.”

Frisk slowly turned in his seat and stared at his empty plate.

“You know what, kid? I’m fine with it. I expect this. Our reports showed a massive anomaly in the timespace continuum. Timelines jumping left and right, starting and stopping – until suddenly, everything ends.” His grin widened, his eyesockets darkened. “Heh heh heh...that’s you, isn’t it? But don’t expect me to play along. And better yet, don’t think you can just keep me trapped in my own bedroom until I give in. Otherwise I might have to re-think that promise I made.”

Frisk said nothing. Sans waited a moment, then scraped his stool across the floor and stood up.

“I’m going home. Have fun with the next one.”

He turned away, stuck his hands in his pockets, took a deep breath. By the time he exhaled, his face was calm and jolly as ever. He started toward the exit.

“...please.”

Sans’ foot froze in mid-step. The voice was so thin it was more remembered than heard; it awkwardly sidled past his hearing and lodged in his mind. Frisk’s head was down, his fingers splayed on the countertop. His shoulders shook. The myriad of bruises on his hands glistened under the tavern’s lights.

Sans stood there long enough for several of the patrons to raise eyebrows, or approximations of eyebrows. Then he sighed heavily, and slid back into his seat.

“Grillby? Glass of soda, please. No ice.” He rapped on the counter next to Frisk's head. “Hey. Look at me.”

Frisk turned by inches. The corners of his eyes were wet.

“I guess you’re gonna keep going with or without my help, so...” He drummed on his skull. “Ugh, how do I explain this to someone who’s still in short pants. Look, you’re talking about the impossible here. Asriel’s long dead. Once a monster’s soul is gone, it’s not ever coming back. All that’s left is to scatter the dust, and we both know how that turned out. But if we’re talking about the impossible, then there might be...something...I can do.”

Grillby set down the glass. The fizzy yellow cola inside bubbled and frothed as Sans pulled it close. “Thanks, man. Give us some space?”

Grillby tapped the side of his spectacles and moved back to the other end of the bar.

“Okay.” Sans slid the glass between himself and Frisk. “This soda is time.”

Frisk looked at the glass, then to Sans, then back to the glass. His expression became slightly concerned.

“Just...stay with me. See all these bubbles? These are moments in time. Events that happen, people you’ll meet, or don’t meet...or maybe you want to meet again. The bubbles you see now are the things that are happening. But they don’t stay where they are, right? They move, they disappear, they get replaced. See, right now this glass has a whole lot of bubbles in it, but it can also contain every single bubble that ever has or will exist. Do you understand, like, half of what I’m saying so far?”

Frisk’s forehead was scrunched and a vein throbbed at his temple, but he motioned for Sans to keep going.

“All right, let’s keep the soda train rolling. Whenever you pull one of those minor resets, you give time a little...nudge.” He flicked the side of the glass and it fizzed. “So new bubbles can show up. Like how I’m sitting with you this time instead of all the others. But when you do a big one? The kind that pulls us all out of the sunlight and back down here? That’s a little more intense.”

Suddenly, Sans pounded the counter hard enough to make the whole glass jump. Frisk flinched and every head in the tavern turned.

“Everything okay over there, Sans?” Dogamy called.

“Yeah, man, just showing the kid here something cool. Don’t mind me!”

“Give us some warning next time, Sansy,” Dogaressa said. “You almost gave poor Doggo a heart attack. And he owes us money!”

“Ah ha, that’s a funny joke,” Doggo said darkly. Greaterdog barked and rubbed his thumb and forefinger together.

The glass now fizzed ferociously; new bubbles surged and burst. “You see? Look at all these possibilities that just showed up. All that potential. Now here’s the important part, kid – out of every single bubble that could possibly show up in this glass, there’s exactly one that might be able to help you out. Even then, it’ll be hard to find. I can look for you. I know the shortcuts. But one timeline might not be enough. You get me?” Frisk’s face fell. “Yeah, that’s right. You’ve got to keep doing what you’re doing, over and over again. Mixing up time. Creating your ripples until the path is clear. I’ll take the best notes I can, give you a call now and then to keep you updated, but this is on you. This might take a hundred resets. It might take forever. And even then, there’s no guarantee that we’ll get what you want in the end.” He stared at the glass. “But as long as you can keep it up...I’ll try to do the same. Heh, should be a decent way to kill time. It’s been a while since I’ve hit the books.”

Frisk stayed in his seat for a while longer. Then, he slid out and stood up.

“Leaving, huh? Guess that’s a no?” Sans got up, too. “Welp, I did my best-”

Suddenly, Frisk threw his arms around Sans’ waist and hugged him tight. Sans’ eyesockets widened. He was a little too round for Frisk’s hands to meet, but Frisk made an attempt anyway, burying his face in Sans’ hoodie.

“Heh heh, okay, wow. Watch the ribs, I’ve only got twenty-four of ‘em.”

Eventually, Frisk let go, leaving two dark moist spots on Sans’ hoodie where his eyes had been.

“Done? All right.” Sans winked. “Knock ‘em dead, kid.”

Frisk nodded and stepped around the bar. Sans sat back down and stared at the bubbling soda glass until, after an unusually long time, he heard the tavern door open and shut. Only then did he grab his memo pad, slip it in with the rest of the detritus in his pockets, and leave his seat.

“Alright, that’s it from me. Put it on my tab like always, Grillby.”

Grillby let him know that his friend had taken care of it.

“What, he paid already? That was generous of him.”

Grillby corrected him – the young man hadn’t paid for the meal, he’d paid Sans’ tab.

Sans stared.

That was pretty impressive, Grillby continued, since Sans’ tab was, at this point, probably greater than the net worth of half the underground. Not that he was complaining.

Sans looked at the tavern door.

Grillby remarked that he seemed nice. A little quiet, but a good kid.

“Yeah. I think so too.” He stuck his hands in his pockets. “And I’m pretty sure that’s why he’s gonna have a bad time. Bye, Grillby.”

He sauntered out of the tavern and into the snow. “Hey, Jimmy, your spot’s free. Sorry we took so long-“

Jimmy was nowhere to be found. Sans glanced up and down Snowdin’s road and didn’t see a hint of that radiation-green mane. What he did see were small footprints headed in the direction of Waterfall – evenly spaced at first, then growing off-kilter and unsteady. Then he saw the vaguely pumpkin-shaped indentation in the snow where Frisk had finally lost consciousness and face-planted into the ground. And finally, here were the hoofprints heading towards that indent, and off in opposite direction, where Jimmy had picked Frisk up and carried him to the Snowed Inn.

Sans rubbed his chin. “Heh. Guess that gives me a head start.”

As he walked down the path, he pulled out his cell phone and dialed. It barely rang for half a second before picking up.

“Hello, Sans! It’s me, Papyrus!”

“Hey, bro. Where are you at right now?”

“In the woods, of course!”

“Yeah, I figured. What’re you up to out there? Besides looking for humans, I mean.”

“At this moment? Yoga!”

“Cool. Anyway, I, uh, got a message from King Asgore. Long story short, I’m gonna be working extra hours for a while, so I won’t be home as much. Just giving you the heads-up.”

“You’re...actually doing your job?” Sans crossed his fingers. “That’s amazing!” Sans uncrossed them. “You’re finally turning your life around, Sans! This is the first step of a bright and glorious future! Keep doing what you’re doing, and you might even be as great as me! You can even go back to dental school, like you always wanted!”

“Heh. Yeah. Maybe.”

“Do your best, Sans! That’s all I could ask for!”

“I’ll try, Pap.”

“Goodbye, Sans!”

“Seeya around, bro.”

“I’m hanging up now!”

“I know you are.”

“This is me, hanging up!”

“This is me, waiting for it.”

“You will hear a clicking sound!”

“Looking forward to-“

(Click.)

The phone went silent. Sans stared at it, then shook his head and pocketed it again.

“Brothers,” he said, to no one in particular. “What are you gonna do.”

He’d reached the river running into Waterfall, where the water ran just warm enough to send up clouds of freezing fog that lay over the landscape like a veil. Sans peered into that milky air, and couldn’t see a thing.

“Well. Better get started.”

His slippers crunched in the snow as he walked into the fog. Before long, the sound of his footsteps ceased. The wind picked up and stirred the mist just long enough to expose the landscape again, and Sans was nowhere to be found. Even his footprints had disappeared.

*             *             *

Again.