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Flowey Is Not a Good Life Coach

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The wind that blew through this gallery of caverns was always bitter cold. Lacking anything that could suffer frostbite, neither of them were bothered by the chill. On the contrary, Flowey savored every small scrap of sensation he could get, angling his face into the breeze to feel the prickle of minute ice crystals against his petals.

An hour or so of pointless but amusing chatter had lapsed into a comfortable silence. Papyrus reclined in the snow, contentedly gazing up at the “stars” on the distant ceiling. He wasn’t one to relax like this often, unlike his worthless slug of a brother, but at this time of night even he started to slow down. Flowey took the time to appreciate it. Any event that was even slightly unusual was a treasure to him.

Papyrus was his favorite toy. He was one of the only monsters who wasn’t afraid of or unsettled by Flowey. It simply didn’t occur to him to be frightened, and he was one of the few who could actually hold Flowey’s interest for any length of time. The sentry was endearingly stupid and narcissistic in a harmless sort of way. He was also kind and merciful to an absolute fault, and needy as all hell. It was an interesting set of variables. They’d become friends in dozens of timelines now, not that that was an accomplishment on Flowey’s part. Papyrus leapt at any scrap of affection like a starving man. Some time, Flowey would have to figure out why that was, but it was low on his list of curiosities at the moment. Right now it was simply amusing and useful, like the skeleton himself.

Generally speaking, Papyrus served as a break from Flowey’s heavier experimentation. A palate cleanser, of sorts. That routine was starting to get a bit stale, unfortunately, and as they enjoyed the night air together, Flowey went over some options in his head. It wouldn’t do to get too extreme right at the start, or anything to follow would feel anticlimactic. Besides, sadism was one thing, but thoughtless brutality on its own was dull. He could do better than that. The real deal was seeing how far he could push a personality off the rails. To see how much he could disorient them, to see just how much it took to flip the switch. To take someone apart, learn how they worked on the most intimate level possible, and then rewire them any way he wanted.

Some monsters were easy to remake into all sorts of cool toys. Some were just easy to break, or broke in spectacular ways. He was curious to find out which kind Papyrus would be.

He didn’t have a long play worked out quite yet, but he felt like whetting his appetite. There was nothing but time to refine his methods. This go-round would just be a warm up for later projects.

“Hey, Papyrus?” he said.

“Yeah?”

“You’re my favorite skeleton.”

“Of course I am!” Papyrus beamed. It was a sight to see from someone who was anatomically predisposed to smiling already. “You’re my favorite magical talking flower!”

Flowey poked his tongue out, grinning. “Aw, shucks! If I had blood, I’d be blushing right now.”

“A flower with blood sounds pretty gross, Flowey.”

“Yeah,” Flowey said, with a genuine chuckle. He loved that Papyrus could surprise him like so few other monsters could, even if it was in such small ways. “That would be pretty messed up.” They were quiet again for a few minutes. There was no rush. Finally, at what Flowey judged to be the proper moment, he spoke. “Papyrus, we’re friends, right?”

“Yes,” Papyrus said, before Flowey’s ‘right’ had even passed his lips. “We’re great chums!”

Flowey smiled. “I’m glad,” he said. Papyrus needed reassurance like flowers needed water. He responded even better to others calling on him for reassurance. It was always a good string to pull.

“Um…” Papyrus said, after a minute of oblivious silence. “Is something on your mind, friend? Because I’m a great listener.”

“As a matter of fact, Papyrus, yes. There is something on my mind. I was just thinking about how tough you are.”

“Really?” Now this really had Papyrus’ attention.

“Yeah. I feel really safe hanging out with you,” Flowey said. “You wanna know a secret?”

Papyrus nodded furiously. Enthusiasm practically radiated off him. A funny thing about him, Flowey thought, was how his prodigious self-love tended to extend to others. One would expect the opposite. He was a regular sweetheart.

Flowey wiggled his leaves thoughtfully. “Did you know I wasn’t always a flower?”

Papyrus pushed himself up on his elbows. “Get outta town! Really?”

“Yeah, silly goose.” Flowey winked. “There’s a reason there’s no other magical talking flowers around here, you know.”

“Well, so what were you before? Were you cursed?” Papyrus asked, steamrolling over any chance at answering. “Are you under an evil spell? It’s not the kind that has to be broken by a kiss, is it? Because I’d like to point out right now that I don’t even have lips, and as much as I-”

“Papyrus, Papyrus, there’s no need,” Flowey said, gesturing for his friend to settle down, which he did. Papyrus always listened to him. He was good like that. “You certainly have an active imagination, but no, I wasn’t put under a spell. What happened to me was stranger than that.” He paused briefly for the sake of building a little suspense.

Papyrus was back to hanging on his every word. Such a good boy. The skeleton would have been on the edge of his seat if he weren’t sitting on the ground. “Well?”

Flowey beckoned him to lean closer, and he did so. “I used to be a really strong monster; a really rare, special one. I was a boss monster!” Flowey bounced on his stem and watched Papyrus’ jaw drop.

“Wowwie!”

“I know, right? Don’t tell anyone.”

Papyrus shook his head. If there’d been any kind of a brain in there, Flowey mused that it’d be getting pretty scrambled.

“I bet you’re wondering how a boss monster ended up as a li'l old flower, huh? It’s a super big secret, so I’ll whisper it to you.”

Papyrus obliged to lean down close enough that Flowey could whisper into the spot where his ear would have been. “I died.”

For a second, Flowey was sure Papyrus would fall over. He shot upright, gasping.

“Crazy, huh?” Flowey said, cutting Papyrus off as the skeleton opened his mouth to speak. “I should have disappeared, but instead I got stuck here, in one of the flowers I fell onto when I died.” He shrugged his leaves. “Don’t ask me how. I could see my own dust around me when I woke up.”

“That’s awful!” Papyrus clutched his cape around himself. He settled back down on his knees, looking down at Flowey with deep pity. 

Flowey’s parents had both given him that same look, once upon a timeline. It didn’t piss him off nearly as much coming from Papyrus. Papyrus hadn’t been the one to drop the ball and let him get killed in the first place.

“Yeah,” Flowey said. “A bunch of humans came after me when I was just a kid. They beat me to death,” he chirped.

“Oh my god!” Papyrus gasped. He covered his mouth with a gloved hand. “No…”

“Sad, huh?” Flowey drank in the sight of Papyrus shaking in the snow. He enjoyed Papyrus’ compassion, even if it was the emotional equivalent of tossing diamonds into a bottomless pit. The pit would accept the tribute gladly.

“That’s the saddest thing,” Papyrus said, fighting back tears, “I’ve ever, ever heard.”

“Nah.” Flowey winked. “The real kicker is that I was strong enough to have easily killed them. I could have wiped that miserable village off the face of the Earth.

Papyrus started.

“Sorry!” Flowey said, giggling. “It’s a sore spot. I’m sure you understand. Getting murdered is no fun at all, gosh!”

“I…I bet not,” Papyrus stammered, settling back down.

“I didn’t believe in fighting back then. I was just a kid! A nice kid.” Flower bobbed on his stem cheerfully. “You weren’t born yet, but I bet if you’d been there with me, you’d have protected me for sure!”

Papyrus straightened his back. “Absolutely! No way would I, the great Papyrus, have let those humans harm you!” He frowned, staring down at the snow. “How could they have done something so terrible to a child?”

Flowey leaned forward to catch his friend’s gaze. “The world is a cruel, cold place, Papyrus. It’s kill or be killed out there, you know? I didn’t want to believe it, and look where mercy got me.”

Papyrus had no response for that but to pull his cape tighter around himself. He had no body heat to warm him– just a self-soothing reflex that accomplished nothing.

“You always pull your punches, too,” Flowey said. “I don’t know how strong you are for sure. Could you really have saved me?” He dropped his placid smile. “Could you have killed them, or would you have made the same mistake I did?”

“I…” Papyrus glanced around at everything but Flowey. At least he had enough awareness to know this much about himself. Merciful to a fault. It was what was holding him back from his goals; he was either ignorant of the realities of the world, or chose to ignore them in favor of how he felt things ought to be. Flowey had never quite been able to decide which it was. Either option was a mark of stupidity. It would be interesting to see how much of that stupidity could be corrected.

Flowey’s smile slipped back into place. “I don’t want to bum you out, Papyrus. I’d like my sad fate to do some good in the world, you know? I told you my secret because I thought it might help you.”

Papyrus cocked his head, a habit he’d no doubt picked up from the town full of mangy mutts he lived with. “Help me? I don’t follow you.”

“Well, silly, I want you to learn the lesson I died to learn.” Flowey stretched, pulling more of his form above ground. “We’re going to try a little exercise, if you don’t mind,” he said, voice dripping sugar and tar.

“I, um…” Papyrus backpedaled, an awkward crab-walk that had him stumbling over his cape. “I think I mind. A lot. If it’s all the same to you.”

Flowey ignored his protests. It felt good to get more of himself out in the open; he hadn’t indulged in a while. “I’m going to attack you, Papyrus,” he said. His stem creaked as he flexed some of the stiffness out of it. “For real. And I want you to fight me. I want you to fight me for real. I want to see what you can do when you don’t pull your punches.”

While he was talking, Papyrus managed to stumble to his feet. He was trembling. “I-I don’t want to fight you,” he said. He was tall, but he now had to crane his neck up to meet Flowey’s eyes. He took a step back, hands raised in supplication.

“I know you don’t, friend,” Flowey said. He pouted. “But if you don’t, then I’ll have to find another way to teach you the lesson.” He stretched a few handy roots out of the ground; they swished through the chilly air with satisfying whip-cracks, fencing Papyrus inside the small circle that would serve as their arena. “Now, I know the great Papyrus wouldn’t dream of running away like a coward, would he? That would disappoint me.”

Papyrus was shaking so badly Flowey could hear him rattling. “Please,” he said. “Please, don’t. We’re…we’re friends, aren’t we?”

“Of course we are, you silly goose. You are my favorite, after all.” Flowey prepared his first attack, his favored ring of bullets coalescing around them. “Now, are you ready to fight like your life depends on it? Because guess what?” His grin split his face wide, showing teeth. “It does.

That did the trick, at last. Papyrus dropped unthinkingly into a defensive stance, raising a hand wreathed in the blue will-o-wisp flame of his magic.

“Good boy!” Flowey crowed, and then he lunged.

Chapter Text

“Good boy,” Flowey crooned. “You did much better than I expected.” Several of his leaves were bruised and wilting, and a deep gash in his main stem oozed sap. Yes, Papyrus had managed to get a few good hits in. He'd worked his favorite toy to exhaustion, sending the skeleton to the ground over and over until, hours after they'd started, Papyrus simply couldn't get up again.

That didn't mean he'd stopped fighting. Even now, Flowey had to restrain him, vines wrapping around his limbs to hold him snug against the ground. While Papyrus bucked and struggled in his grip, Flowey admired the aftermath of their match.

Great chunks of permafrost and ice littered the hilltop, churned up and scattered where Papyrus' attacks had ripped furrows in the frozen earth. It had been enjoyable to see-- well worth the injuries. Papyrus had even tricked him into a few blue attacks. He'd caught the flash of excitement and pride that had chased across the skeleton's features each time an attack got through.

“I'm still sensing some hesitation,” Flowey said, bearing down a little harder to stop Papyrus' desperate thrashing. “But I think you've made some real progress, don't you? Friend,” he said, when Papyrus failed to get the hint. “We're done for tonight, so you can stop fighting me now.

That, along with a final, warning squeeze got the message across. Papyrus stilled.

“There we go!” Flowey drooped his face down closer to his friend's. “See? As long as you keep pleasing me like this, you'll be perfectly safe, Papyrus.” He took in the cracks and scrapes covering Papyrus' frame. “Boy, you got a little banged up, huh? Let me take care of that for you.”

Papyrus tried and failed to wriggle away from the vine extending toward him. Flowey didn't use healing magic often, but it was more than up to the task of mending the relatively minor wounds he'd caused.

“Boop!” Flowey touched the vine lightly to the tip of Papyrus' nasal bone. In seconds, the scrapes vanished and the cracks filled. “All better!”

Papyrus was unfailingly polite, so when he didn't say thank you, Flowey chalked it up to fatigue. That had been quite a workout, even for a monster in such good condition.

“Now,” he said, “I know you train with Undyne, and you practice three hours a day like a good boy. I'd like us to keep having this special practice a few times a week, just to give you the edge you need. Sound good?”

Papyrus nodded weakly. He turned his head away, hiding his face against his shoulder.

Flowey craned his stem to bring his own face back into Papyrus' view. “You want to be in the Royal Guard, don't you?” Gently, he tipped Papyrus' chin up with a vine, forcing him to meet Flowey's stare.

Papyrus stiffened, but didn't fight against Flowey's grip. He was learning fast. “I...”

“Of course, you do.” Flowey smiled and pulled back, loosening his vines.

As soon as he was free, Papyrus scrambled to his feet. He didn't bolt. That was pleasing. It was a sign that there was something here for Flowey to work with. Papyrus watched, wary, alert, as Flowey looped a coil of vines around his shoulders. He flinched when Flowey leaned against him, but he didn't fight or try to run away. He was being quiet, too. That might have been his most impressive accomplishment of the night.

This was encouraging.

“I don't want you to be afraid of me, Papyrus.” Now that Flowey had let his face close back up, Papyrus didn't seem quite as averse to looking at him. There was suspicion and fear in the skeleton's face that he'd never seen before, but that was a good thing. That was exactly what he wanted; to make the naive doofus wake up to reality. “Seeing you succeed and get what you want would make me happy. Because I'm your friend, isn't that right?”

“Y-yes.”

“From here on out, just remember that I'm doing all this because you're my cool and great friend, okay?”

“Yes.”

“And you're going to be even cooler and greater with my help.”

“Yes.”

Flowey giggled. “Papyrus, are you just agreeing with me so I'll let you go?”

Papyrus cringed, and sputtered for a few seconds to spit out a lie. His gaze darted around, trying to find the answer Flowey wanted. “...Yes…?”

“Ha, you're so honest. I've always liked that about you. It's okay, friend,” Flowey said, giving Papyrus a playful nudge. “I know this is a lot to get your head around, and you're not used to thinking big thoughts. Why don't you go home and rest, huh? You earned it, champ.”

With that, Flowey let him go. Sinking back into the ground was the work of a moment, and he was right back to being a cute little flower.

Papyrus stared at him for a moment, fists clenching and unclenching, seemingly afraid to turn around. That, Flowey thought, was very reasonable. Finally, Papyrus turned to go, stumbling and shaky.

After a few paces, Flowey called after him. “Hey, Papyrus?”

The skeleton stopped, looking back over his shoulder.

“Remember that you're keeping my secret!” Flowey winked. “If you blab, I'll have to tear you up into itty bitty pieces. And I'll do the same thing to anyone you tell, got it?”

After a long hesitation, Papyrus nodded. “I got it.”

“Good! Well, nighty-night!” Flowey said, and pulled himself fully underground. It had been a productive night.

He had a good feeling about this run. This was going to be fun.

 

Chapter Text

Papyrus had always had excellent control over his magic. Even Undyne said so, and as the extremely cool and strong captain of the royal guard, she would know about such things. Not that Papyrus lacked confidence in his abilities, but confirmation that he was great was nice all the same.

He used to like using his magic. He loved making gracefully rolling waves of lovely bones and sculpting intricate, baffling patterns for his would-be opponents to navigate. His sense of honor precluded any underhanded tactics; he liked to think that as a fighter he was tough, but fair.

And he always, always knew exactly how much damage each attack would do if successful.

That was why it was so upsetting to see what remained of Undyne's practice dummy after his last attack. Bits of musty old stuffing floated through air around them like snow. Splinters of wood and bits of burlap were embedded in the cavern wall.

“Oh, no,” he muttered to himself, raising a hand to his mouth in alarm.

“Oh, YES!” Undyne hooted and clapped at his side.

“I'm sorry, Undyne,” Papyrus said, as he was swept up into a crushing bear-hug. “I'll get you a new one.”

Undyne spun wildly, making Papyrus dizzy despite the lack of an inner ear. “Who cares about the dummy, dummy! That was hard-core!”

Papyrus braced himself for the suplex he knew was coming, but Undyne merely set him decisively back on his feet and affectionately head-butted him.

“WOOOOO!”

“Yeah, uh, woo,” Papyrus said, unable to muster up much excitement. “I sure did some property damage, all right.” He rubbed at his forehead. She'd restrained herself; it would only ache for a couple hours.

“HELL YEAH, you did!” Undyne jogged over to the wreckage that had been, up until a couple minutes ago, her outdoor training salle. She ran her hands over the crack in the wall, exclaiming over how deep it was. Bits of stuffing and rock dust settled in her ponytail and stuck to her gills. She coughed to dislodge them. “Man, that dummy got wrecked!”

Guilt-ridden and disturbed at what he'd done, Papyrus moved to start cleaning up. Undyne was of the opinion that bigger was better pretty much all the time. Some things, like parties and spaghetti recipes, she was absolutely spot-on about. Magic was one matter where Papyrus found himself in disagreement with her. She valued pure strength over everything else. He believed, strongly, that it was more important to make sure that magic did only exactly what its wielder intended.

Undyne's attacks had all the subtlety of a brick wall, and as awesome as she was, sometimes Papyrus worried that one of her wild barrages of spears would end up hurting someone.

He really hadn't meant to hit that hard. What if it had been Undyne standing across from him instead of a dummy? He looked down at the bundle of splinters and torn fabric in his arms, suddenly ill.

He didn't want to hurt anyone.

Undyne marched over and slapped the splinters out of his arms. “Hey, don't worry about that, Paps.”

“But, I-”

“I wanna get a picture of the impact zone to put on the fridge, so let's just leave it for a while, yeah?” She surveyed the mess again, puffed up with pride.

Well, there was really no point in arguing with her. It was her yard. “Okay. If you don't mind.”

Undyne wasn't listening, staring hard at the crack in the wall and stroking one of her facial fins in deep thought.

Finally, she turned smartly on her heel to face him. “That's it! I've made my decision.”

Papyrus looked from her to the mess he'd made and back again, not making the connection.

“You've really buckled down this past month. Don't think I haven't noticed how hard you've been working,” she said, folding her arms and pacing to and fro in front of him. “To be honest, I was holding out on making you a guard because I couldn't be sure you could take care of yourself. No offense,” she said, “I'd feel like total crap if I sent you out unprepared and you got hurt or something.”

“I understand, Undyne.” Truthfully, Papyrus was a little offended, despite her not meaning any offense. The thought that she didn't think he was tough enough to handle himself stung.

Undyne went on. “But you've really proven how serious you are about this, Papyrus. After seeing the burning, righteous passion you showed me today, I feel like it just isn't right for me to deny your dream anymore. You've got the right stuff.” She grasped Papyrus' shoulders with both webbed hands. “You're in, buddy. I'm swearing you into the Royal Guard right now.”

“Undyne, I...” Papyrus trailed off as his mind caught up with his hearing. “What? Really?” This was happening now? Joining the Guard had drifted from the 'definitely soon' category into the vague 'someday' category a long time ago.

Undyne shook him back and forth like the Underground's biggest maraca. “Yes, really!” She laughed. “You can start screaming and jumping up and down any time, Paps.”

“Uh,” Papyrus said, shaking her off as politely as possible. “That wouldn't be very...guardly behavior.” He was happy about this, right? This was his dream. He should have been screaming and jumping up and down in a very cool way right now. But he wasn't. “I'm super stoked, Undyne, really. On the inside.”

He didn't really know how to feel. Whatever part of him was responsible for the whole 'joy' business had been blocked off.

Undyne nodded. “The cool facade that hides the tempest in your soul-- I can respect that. Just don't get too stoic and brooding,” she said, stabbing a finger at him. “That's my style.”

“The great Papyrus would never bite his friend's style, Undyne, er...sir.” Oh, that might not go over well. “Ma'am!” No, that was even worse. “Commander?”

“Aw, c'mon, you can just keep calling me Undyne!” Undyne waved dismissively, chortling. “So, you ready to get sworn in, or what?”

Papyrus jumped. “You mean, we're doing this now? Like, now now?”

Undyne rolled her eyes. “Well, yeah! Why wait? Now stand up straight, this shit's serious.”

Papyrus snapped to attention. Undyne's posture didn't change, but something about her manner immediately shifted in a more captain-ish direction, stern and commanding.

Dang, she was cool.

“Do you, Papyrus of Snowdin Town,” she said, in suitably gruff tones, “solemnly swear on your very life to fight for King Asgore and the monster race, to uphold justice, to defend the innocent and wimpy, and to seriously kick evil's ass twelve ways from Sunday everywhere, all the time from now until you're dead in the cold, cold ground?”

“I do!” Papyrus answered, swept up in the grandeur of it all. A half second later he realized he'd said the thing people said at weddings instead of the thing people said when they were joining holy orders of justice and peace. Frick.

“Excellent!” Undyne said, either not noticing his mistake or being awesome enough to let it slide. “Okay, that's it! You're a guard now.” She punched him on the arm.

Papyrus had been expecting a little...more? But the induction ceremony wasn't important in the face of being a real, actual guardsman. “Wowie!” He rubbed at his sore arm, tentatively happy for the first time in a month. Even though the feeling was already beginning to fade, it felt really nice. He clung to it for as long as possible.

“Tomorrow, I'll get you kitted out, all right?” Undyne grinned, flashing her mouthful of pointy teeth.

Papyrus flinched back, just for a second. “Y-yes,” he said, the conditioned response falling from his mouth before he could think.

Undyne didn't notice, thank god. “Right, well you'll want to tell your brother the good news and get your party on with your Snowdin buddies, so we'll call it good for the day. I gotta find some armor to fit your skinny ass.” She screeched laughter. “Waah, I'm so pumped for you, Paps!”

 

 

~*~

 

 

Papyrus' yell bounced off the low ceiling and close walls. The road from Waterfall to Snowdin was all but abandoned in the evenings, and there was no one to hear him cry out. Under any other circumstances, he would have been relieved by that, that no monsters had witnessed his loss of composure.

Flowey smiled brightly up at him from where he'd popped up at Papyrus' feet.

Papyrus longed for a crowd. He should have taken the ferry. He should have done anything but take the road alone at night.

“Hey, there!” Flowey said. “Did I scare you? Gee, I'm sorry.”

“Y-you simply startled me, that's all.” Papyrus' hands twitched. The mere sight of Flowey these days left him feeling like he ought to be holding a bone club. “I'm not scared of you.”

It was hard to tell what would upset Flowey, but Papyrus remembered him saying that he didn't want Papyrus to be scared of him. He would do his best to put forth the impression that he wasn't.

He was. Oh, god, he was. He liked to think himself brave, but the past month had flayed bravery down to bare self-preservation.

Flowey smiled wider, and Papyrus relaxed by a small fraction. That had been the right answer.

“I'm glad,” Flowey said. “How was your training session, champ? Anything major happen?”

Papyrus suspected Flowey knew full well how his practice with Undyne had gone, but he couldn't accuse the flower of spying on him. “Good. Um,” he said, fumbling with the hem of his cape. “I-I'm a guard, now, so that's...good.”

“Oh!” Flowey bounced on his stem. “That's great news, Papyrus! She changed her mind, just like that?” He winked. “Guess I'm a pretty good coach, huh?”

“Yeah,” Papyrus said, a hope kindling in his chest that even he knew was unlikely. “So...so, mission accomplished? We can go back to normal and chill and talk about neat stuff?” Or part ways forever; Papyrus would be more than fine with that, too.

Flowey blinked in a near approximation of confusion. “Aww, friend! You're more ambitious than that. This,” he said, “is just the beginning of your career! You can do way better than just being a lowly guardsman.”

He should have known it wouldn't be that easy. Any lingering happiness from his time with Undyne withered away.

Flowey hummed tunelessly to himself, thinking. Papyrus stood by and waited patiently. Sometimes Flowey liked to be asked what was on his mind, but sometimes he didn't. Humming was usually a cue that Papyrus should be quiet.

“I think,” Flowey said, once he'd reached the end of his train of thought, “we should move our special practice to tomorrow night, yeah? You deserve a night off for doing such a good job.”

“Thanks, Flowey,” Papyrus said. The reprieve was unexpected, and he was grateful for it.

“Aww, you're welcome, friend! You just relax and enjoy yourself tonight, okay?” Flowey beamed up at him. “Just don't stay up too late; I want you good and rested up for our new training regimen.”

“Right.” Papyrus waited to be dismissed, but Flowey wasn't leaving. “Um...”

“Oh, and I sure hope that wasn't a load-bearing wall you put that big honking crack in, gosh!”

So, he had been spying. “Yeah…” Papyrus said, rubbing the back of his neck. “I don't know how that happened. It kind of got away from me.”

Flowey's leaves rustled. “Nonsense! You're just getting stronger, that's all. Sure impressed me. Undyne, too.” He giggled. “Boy, it's a good thing you two weren't sparring today, or she would've gotten hurt real bad, huh?”

The words speared Papyrus' worry from earlier and dragged it back to the front of his mind.

And that's when Flowey decided to leave, sinking down into the ground to wherever it was he went when he wasn't topside. Papyrus was left alone in the cavern, staring at the small disturbance in the dirt that was the only sign Flowey had been there at all.

He took a few minutes to calm his nerves before getting underway again, listening to the babble of the river and the soft rustle of sea grass in the breeze. Part of him wanted to run the rest of the way home, but he forced himself to walk. Once he got home, he was going to have to tell his brother the good news, which meant he would probably get dragged out to Grillby's where he'd have to have drinks and laugh and be confident and fun for several hours. The thought alone made him want to shut himself up in his room for the rest of the night.

And tomorrow was another day.

 

 

Chapter Text

Papyrus woke up the next morning to find Undyne had already been and gone. Five in the morning-- he'd slept in. Atop the bundle she'd left in front of the door was a teasing note, so at least he hadn't angered her by sleeping so late.

 

Undyne had been thoughtful enough to give him two padded gambesons to wear, and she'd picked out the smallest pieces of armor available, but it was still meant for monsters with flesh. He was in the process of punching extra holes in the straps when Sans shuffled downstairs, still wearing yesterday's clothes and looking even more rumpled than usual.

 

It was only nine o'clock, so by Sans Standard Time his brother was up early. He mumbled something that may have been a greeting and trudged into the kitchen, returning with a glass of water and a piece of dry toast a few minutes later. He sat down across from Papyrus at the table and gingerly nibbled at the toast.

 

“You're up early,” Papyrus said, looking up from his work for a moment.

 

“Heh,” Sans chuckled, spraying toast crumbs onto the tabletop. “Headache woke me up. Partied a little too hardy, I guess.” He took a sip of water. “What I don't get is how you're always fine even though you drink maybe twice a year. I'm kinda jealous.”

 

“I'm in much better shape than you are, if you hadn't noticed.” His head did hurt a little. That last round of fire shots had been ill-advised, but it was easy enough to ignore.

 

Sans laughed, and promptly winced. “Ah, geez, it's like hammers on my skull...” He took another small sip of water. “Believe me, bro, I'm well aware. You're in shape; I'm...shapes. Heh.”

 

That was something that could be fixed easily enough, but Papyrus let that argument go for once. Instead, he got back to work on the straps.

 

“Is that your new kit?”

 

“Yes,” Papyrus said. “Undyne dropped it off this morning.” He twisted the awl he was using through a particularly stubborn piece of leather. Modifying the straps was taking forever, but he couldn't have the plates twisting around on him when he moved.

 

“She sure doesn't waste any time.”

 

“No, some people don't.” Papyrus was getting irritated. He didn't know why, and he felt bad about it, so he just stopped talking before he said something needlessly mean.

 

Sans watched him work for a few minutes, finishing off the toast. He hadn't used a plate (no great surprise there), and there was a small collection of crumbs on his side of the table in addition to what he'd spread while he was talking with his mouth full. Nothing unusual, but it was getting to Papyrus all the same. “You're awfully quiet. You okay, bro?”

 

Papyrus didn't look up. “You have a hang-over.” With the last hole punched in the last piece that needed it, he started the slightly daunting task of putting it all on.

 

Sans came around the table to help once Papyrus got to the breastplate and gorget. It was tricky business trying to buckle the straps behind his own back. He knelt down so Sans could reach easier.

 

“Come to think of it,” Sans said, pointing the first of the pauldrons onto Papyrus' shoulders, since that was pretty difficult to do one-handed. “You've been quiet for a few weeks now.” He frowned, tugging on one of the point laces. “Man, this stuff's fiddly, isn't it? And heavy.”

 

“I'll get used to it.” Papyrus hauled himself back onto his chair. The armor easily tripled his weight. He could handle it, but it wasn't exactly easy. “Thanks, Sans. I can get the rest.”

 

Sans returned to his own seat, pausing to brush the toast crumbs onto the carpet, as if that were any improvement at all. “Seriously, though,” he said. “You seem kind of down, especially for a guy who just got his dream job, and all. I must en-squire about your mental well-being, bro.”

 

Papyrus threaded the leftover lengths of the arms' straps out of the way. Even with the padding, he had to pull as tight as he could, and it still felt a bit loose. It would have to do for now. “It's a lot more responsibility than just being a sentry, Sans.” The gauntlets were too big as well, but if he wore his gloves underneath they were workable.

 

Sans frowned at him, and cleared his figurative throat. “Uh...en-squire?”

 

They stared at each other for a few seconds.

 

“Because I helped you with your armor?” The light in Sans' eye sockets glowed a little brighter. “Nothing?”

 

“Oh. Right,” Papyrus said. “That's terrible, I have no brother, et cetera...” He stood and gathered up his helm. Now seemed like a good time to go on patrol.

 

Faster than Papyrus expected, Sans moved between him and the door. “Why won't you tell me what's eating you?” Tension pulled at the edges of his smile; he was badly failing to hide his worry.

 

“Nothing is,” Papyrus said, guilty and annoyed. “I'm fine-- I'm just tired.” He tried to push past his brother, but Sans slapped his hand away from the doorknob. “Sans!”

 

“No, listen,” Sans said, planting his back against the door. “You're acting really off and it's weirding me out. We're family; we don't...” he faltered for a moment, gaze darting away for a split second. “We don't keep things from each other. So, I'll ask again. What's going on with you?”

 

Papyrus met his brother's concerned glare, and some tiny, over-tightened screw in his mind suddenly stripped out. “Oh, that's rich! So, I'm supposed to be peppy and cheerful all the time, am I? I'm not allowed to have a bad day?”

 

Sans blinked, caught off guard by Papyrus' blow-up. “Bro…?”

 

“You're the one who sleeps twelve hours a day! You're the one who stumbles around unwashed and half-dressed all the time!” Papyrus was aghast at his own words, but now that the dam had burst he couldn't stop himself. “You don't do anything unless I physically shove you outside, and even then you put forth the absolute minimum effort you can get away with. Something's wrong with me?

 

Sans wasn't barricading the door now so much as he was leaning on it to stay upright. His mouth worked, but no words were coming out.

 

Papyrus couldn't get the words to stop. He was coming to a realization about his brother in the worst way possible, and he couldn't make himself stop talking. “When's the last time you washed those clothes? When's the last time you showered? Do you even remember? You smell like wet dog hair and feet.” God, why was he being so cruel? Why couldn't he just shut up? “I'm the one with the problem? You can't even- no, you refuse to take care of yourself. You refuse to take anything seriously. You think I want to drag you along by the wrist for the rest of our lives? You think I want to be the one keeping you going day in and day out? I should be asking what's wrong with…I should…”

 

Why had he never asked if Sans was okay?

 

He was the worst, most selfish person in the world.

 

“Please, stop,” Sans said, barely a whisper, but Papyrus had already run out of steam.

 

The house felt very small. Sans wouldn't look at him, and Papyrus needed to go. Now. “I'm...uh,” he said. “I need to start my patrol.”

 

Sans didn't move, just allowed himself to be pushed along in front of the door when Papyrus opened it. He stepped away only when he had to to avoid falling over. “Yeah,” he said, eyes gone dim and flickering. “Guess I should get ready for work, anyway.”

 

“No, you should stay home today.” Papyrus jammed his helm on. One last piece that didn't quite fit; at least the visor slit was in the right place. “Better you fall asleep here than at your station,” he added, unnecessarily. At any other time a comment like that would have been normal brotherly sniping, but after...that...it amounted to a final blow when he should have been merciful.

 

He didn't shut the door after himself; wholly focused on just putting some distance between them as quickly as possible. He could feel his brother's stare on his back until the house was out of sight.

 

 

~*~

 

 

“Wow, looking sharp, Papyrus!”

 

Papyrus bit down on a frustrated scream. Of course Flowey would pop up as soon as he crossed the bridge out of town. Of course he'd lead with the same compliment Papyrus had heard over a dozen times on his way here, thoroughly ruining it forever.

 

Though, he hadn't taken a great deal of pleasure in the attention, anyway. He wasn't sure why. Maybe it was because he still felt like the scum of the Underground after his altercation with Sans that morning. All the praise and well-wishing rang hollow.

 

As if to twist the knife deeper, Flowey said, “So, I couldn't help but overhear you reading your brother the riot act earlier.”

 

Papyrus frowned. That was none of Flowey's business. And, while he wasn't surprised, it was deeply unsettling to know he was being watched at home, too. “That's between my brother and me,” he said.

 

“If you ask me,” Flowey said, ignoring him completely, “you were completely in the right. It wasn't my place to say anything, but I've thought for a long time now that he takes advantage of your kind nature.” He bobbed on his stem. “Not that I think he means to, don't get me wrong, but that guy has some serious issues, don't you think? Maybe he'll do some thinking thanks to your intervention.”

 

Yeah, Papyrus thought to himself, he'd do some thinking on what a jerk his brother was. “I don't know why I was acting like that,” he said, more to himself than Flowey. “Once I got going, I couldn't stop, and the things I was saying were so...mean!”

 

Flowey scoffed and looked up at him, brow raised. “A family isn't a family without a lot of pent-up resentment and bitterness, Papyrus. Relax.” He brightened up again. “Besides, sometimes the truth only sinks in when it's harsh. Sad, but true. I'd think you of all people would get that, right?”

 

Papyrus got it. That particular idea had been literally beaten into him over the last month.

 

“Well, I won't keep you, Guardsman Papyrus!” Flowey giggled. He giggled an awful lot. Papyrus was beginning to really dislike the sound of it. “Don't worry about it too much, okay? It's his problem that he's wasting his life, not yours. Oh,” he said, “and don't forget our practice tonight, huh? Wear your armor.”

 

And then he was gone.

 

Papyrus slumped, blowing out the breath he'd been holding. His plate felt even heavier now, pressing him down into the snow. He rolled his shoulders, trying to get the weight distributed more evenly. The extra layer of padding wasn't much of a substitution for muscle and fat.

 

Still, the physical discomfort of sixty pounds of ill-fitting armor wasn't enough to distract him from his real troubles. He needed to figure out what Flowey wanted out of all this so he could make it stop. All he'd wanted was to get into the Guard; with that done, what was the point of continuing?

 

Unless Flowey just enjoyed beating on him for its own sake. But...Flowey was a child, wasn't he? He'd been a child for a long time, true, but he'd been through such horrible things, and he'd been alone for so long. Perhaps he just didn't know how to behave.

 

Maybe he could talk with Flowey tonight. It might not get him anywhere, but he was at a loss for what else to do. They couldn't go on like this. Flowey wasn't being a very good friend, and whatever the reason for that was, something had to change. It would be scary to stand up to him, but Papyrus had to try.

 

Papyrus had never been so unhappy in his life, and his unhappiness was starting to spill over onto the people he cared about. He didn't want that.

 

He didn't want to hurt anyone.

 

Chapter Text

 

Papyrus stayed in the woods until it was time for their practice. As he ascended their usual hilltop, which was by now getting pretty torn up and ruined, he found Flowey waiting for him, staring up at the cavern ceiling.

 

“Do you ever wonder what the real stars look like, Papyrus?” he said, his gaze fixed upward.

 

Papyrus stopped short. He'd been going over what he would say to Flowey all day, and now his thoughts were scattered by one unexpected question. “Sometimes,” he said.

 

“My mother and father told me that the real stars move,” Flowey said. “They said that the sky turns like a wheel, and the stars all turn with it, but it's too slow to really see.”

 

“Oh,” Papyrus said. He hadn't known that. He didn't know why Flowey was bringing it up, but it made him a little glad, in an unsteady way, that he was. It felt familiar. It felt like things going back to normal.

 

Flowey turned to look at him, and his face was uncharacteristically somber. “They just spin in circles above the Earth, over and over. They always end up back where they started. They never really go anywhere.”

 

~

 

Flowey wondered what Papyrus' reaction to that fun fact was, but the helm hid the skeleton's expression and the plate armor made his body language hard to read.

 

It was wonderful.

 

This was the first timeline in which Papyrus had successfully joined the Guard (well, the first time he'd done so while the Guard still meant something.) It was the first time he'd donned this armor, and Flowey gorged himself on the novelty of it.

 

“Come closer, friend,” he said, beckoning Papyrus out into the open. “I wanna get a better look at you.”

 

Papyrus obeyed, as always, kneeling down so that Flowey didn't have to stretch to see him.

 

“It's kind of mismatched,” Flowey said, looking Papyrus up and down, “but it's a good start.” Nothing fit properly, but Papyrus had clearly done the best he could with what he'd been given. Once he'd distinguished himself he'd be entitled to a higher quality kit, and wouldn't that look impressive?

 

“Ah,” Papyrus said, armor clanking gently as he shifted his weight. “I actually wanted to talk to you about something, before we...you know. Got started.”

 

“Oh?” Flowey said. He wondered if his toy had gotten over his little snit already. Papyrus had been standoffish when they'd last spoken. Well, as long as he did as he was told, Flowey didn't see the harm in letting Papyrus cop an attitude now and then. “If it's about this morning, don't worry about it, friend. I know how siblings can be. Mine used to get me into all sorts of trouble, you know,” he said, raising a few vines to run them over the plates of Papyrus' armor. He had to admit that Papyrus did look cool, even if the suit was just cobbled together hand-me-downs.

 

Papyrus didn't pull away, but he shuddered lightly. “No,” he said, “It's about what you said yesterday. I was kind of hoping that we could...” He trailed off for a moment, as though he'd suddenly forgotten his next line.

 

Flowey turned his attention away from the armor and looked at him. He could just make out the twin pinpricks of light glowing in Papyrus' eye sockets through the visor. “Go on, friend,” he said. “If you have a request, then go right ahead. This training is for your benefit, after all.”

 

Papyrus went tense, steeling himself for the words that burst forth. “I was really hoping that we could just stop this now! I mean, I'm in the Royal Guard, and that's honestly all I wanted, and I'm very grateful for your help, but I'd very much like to end this because I don't like it at all and I'm upset and nervous all the time and I'm worried that something is going to go wrong and it will be my fault and-”

 

“Papyrus, Papyrus, shhhh,” Flowey said, not without tenderness. He carefully gathered up Papyrus' hands in his vines. “I'm going to go ahead and stop you now. Okay?” He gave Papyrus' hands a reassuring squeeze.

 

Papyrus nodded, looking at the ground. He was trembling like a leaf.

 

Flowey smiled. “It was very brave of you to say that to me, Papyrus.”

 

“You mean...you mean you're not angry with me?” Papyrus' shaking subsided.

 

Flowey laughed. “Oh, Papyrus! There's no need for me to be angry, is there?” He pulled Papyrus a half step closer. “You're my friend, and I care about you. Does this really make you so unhappy?”

 

Papyrus nodded again. “I know you're hurting,” he said, more confidently, “I know you suffered things you didn't deserve, and I can't imagine what it must feel like to be in your position.” He looked up, searching Flowey's face for something Flowey was certain he wouldn't find. His eyes glowed, earnest and open. “But you must stop. If you're my friend...” Papyrus gripped the vines around his hands. “I know you can do better, if you try. I'm sure of it.”

 

Was he now? Flowey could have laughed himself to death right then and there. Oh, Papyrus! Always putting his faith in precisely the wrong people. Flowey was going to remedy that flaw if it killed both of them. “I'm truly very sorry to hear that you feel that way, Papyrus,” Flowey said. “But, can I ask you one question?”

 

Papyrus looked up to face him.

 

Did you think you were in control?”

 

Flowey's grip tightened as Papyrus jerked back. “I'm glad you're grateful for what I've done for you, Papyrus,” he said, stretching farther into the chilly air. “Because you'll have much more to be grateful for before we're done, which will be when I say, not you. Never you.”

 

“Please,” Papyrus said, vainly pulling against the vines, his voice rising higher, edging on hysteria. “I don't want to do this anymore. I d-don't want to do this!”

 

“You don't say no to me, friend.” Flowey whipped his vines forward, casting Papyrus onto the ground. “On your feet, Guardsman! And ready your magic,” he hissed.

 

Papyrus pushed himself upright, moving more laboriously under the weight of the armor. Flowey could make out the outlines of ethereal bones forming between them.

 

“Better,” Flowey said, preparing his own opening attack. “And remember, Papyrus: for your life.”

 

Papyrus had improved a great deal over the past month. His attacks had grown stronger, and he cast them faster and more aggressively. The calculated patterns had become more unpredictable, fashioned to lure Flowey (and any future enemy) into a false rhythm before springing the trap. Flowey was taking more hits than ever, much to his delight. It made for an easy way to gauge his toy's progress, and he had nothing to fear from the skeleton's magic, not really.

 

In return, he kept up a steady hail of bullets, forcing Papyrus into constant motion. Harassed on all sides, Papyrus redirected attacks as shields. Bones rippled along the ground like mobile stockade walls. More than once, Flowey lashed out at him with a vine only to recoil, stung by a blue attack raised at the last moment.

 

Ironically, the major weak point now was the new suit of armor. Skeletons had little mass of their own, and Papyrus was struggling under all that extra weight. In time, he would adjust and be just as effective as he was without it. But tonight, after a mere hour and a half, Papyrus was spent.

 

He went to all fours after a glancing blow knocked him off balance.

 

“Get up,” Flowey said, wrapping his vines around each other into a heavy flail. He brought it down.

 

On the third save reload, Papyrus managed to roll out of the way in time to avoid being crushed. He stumbled to his feet with a grunt of effort, flinging an attack Flowey's way in the same motion.

 

The arc of bones bit into him, all but a few finding their target. Flowey's leaves hung in tatters, sap oozed from half a dozen new gashes. He giggled in delight as Papyrus led him into the space between two alternating waves of massive bones that caught and mashed his form like the molars of some great beast. He roared laughter when he felt his main stem hit the ground for the first time. Oh, but this was splendid!

 

And then the waveform collapsed, Papyrus' magic dissipating like frost on a warm windowpane. The skeleton bounded over to him, babbling apologies, and skidded to a halt at his side. Flowey felt the warm prickle of a healing spell spreading over the worst of his wounds.

 

Oh, Papyrus.

 

“What,” Flowey said, “are you doing, Papyrus?”

 

“I'm sorry!” Papyrus said, yet again. “I'm sorry, I didn't mean to-”

 

Flowey reared up, knocking Papyrus backward into the muddy, churned snow. “Idiot! Why did you stop attacking?”

 

Papyrus stared up at him, uncomprehending. “You...you were hurt! I-”

 

“You DARE?” Flowey loomed taller, splitting open half-healed cuts in his haste. “Do you really think you are any danger to me, you worm?” he bellowed, spittle flecking his lower petals. “Attack!”

 

Climbing to his feet, Papyrus backed up, hands raised in that gesture of pleading submission that never failed to annoy him. “Please,” he said, “You're hurt. Y-you can't ask me to-”

 

“You would refuse me again?” Flowey lashed out and dragged Papyrus closer with a makeshift leash of vines. “You're really trying my patience tonight, friend,” he said, choking on fury. “You're forgetting your lessons.”

 

With the flick of a vine, he tossed Papyrus' helm aside. The skeleton stared up at him, the lights of his eyes constricted in terror. Mindlessly, he clawed at the vines around his neck that were squeezing hard enough to dent the gorget.

 

“Please,” Papyrus said, stuck repeating that same futile plea for mercy over and over. “Please, please...”

 

Restraint. That was what Flowey needed to remind himself of when this game ran into difficulties. As cathartic as smashing Papyrus into a shower of dust would be right now, it wouldn't get them any closer to the endgame. “I think you need a refresher,” he said, smoothing his voice into a neutral tone. “You need some course correction, Papyrus. Get on your knees. I don't want you to fall and hurt yourself.”

 

Confusion jolted Papyrus out of his fear just enough to let him move, obediently sinking to his knees.

 

“Give me your arm.”

 

Shaking, Papyrus extended his left arm. Flowey slipped one of his vines from around Papyrus' neck and twined it around Papyrus' arm from wrist to elbow, sliding along under the steel vambrace. He could feel the bones under the thick padding the skeleton wore, softer and more pliant than flesh. Not that it made a whit of difference-- even hard muscle was as nothing compared to his vines.

 

For a moment, he simply stroked Papyrus' forearm, as though comforting a skittish pet. One that needed more training.

 

“Papyrus,” he said, gently. “I'm going to break your arm. Don't struggle.”

 

“No!” Papyrus pulled against Flowey's grip, too exhausted to put up much of a fight despite his panic. “No, no, no, no-”

 

“You keep saying no to me, Papyrus.” Flowey wrapped the vine tighter. The creak of the bones bending under the pressure was drowned out by Papyrus' blubbering, but he could feel it.

 

Papyrus felt it too, going rigid. “No, no, no,” he whispered, “No, please, no, no, noooo-” The final syllable rose to a shriek as Flowey bore down, pushing the slimmer bone past its limit and snapping it in two.

 

“Stop saying that word to me, Papyrus.” Flowey watched as Papyrus scrabbled at the vine around his arm with his free hand. He couldn't put much strength into it, shaking and bawling like a child. Pathetic. He gave the remaining bone a hard, twisting wrench. He felt the crack spiral down the bone's length under his grip.

 

Papyrus screamed. Flowey gave the ruined arm a final squeeze and let go of both arm and neck. Without the support, Papyrus pitched forward. He landed badly and howled in renewed pain when his broken arm was jostled by the impact. The skeleton pulled his arm in close to his chest, curling into a fetal position on his side instinctively to shield the injury with the rest of his body.

 

“A member of the Royal Guard wouldn't cry about a broken arm,” Flowey said, over the whimpers and hiccuping sobs. “But, I won't tell anyone.”

 

He let Papyrus cry it out for a few minutes. Maybe this had been a good thing, in the long run. Papyrus clearly had a lot of built up tension that he was now getting out of his system. Crying was healthy, right? He'd heard that somewhere.

 

Flowey certainly felt better.

 

“Now that you're a Guardsman,” Flowey said, once Papyrus' sobs had grown more muffled. “You need a new carrot, right? New goals. I bet you twenty gold that you could replace Undyne in six months, what do you say?”

 

Papyrus hiccuped.

 

“I know that sounds like a stretch, but you can do anything you set your mind to, friend,” Flowey said. “I believe in you. And once you're Captain,” he went on, reaching out to stroke Papyrus' head with a vine and ignoring the flinch this elicited, “you'll be close to King Asgore. Won't that be neat? You just stick with me, Papyrus.”

 

He took a moment to appreciate the tableau. His favorite toy, damaged and reeling, lying in the snow beside him. Papyrus would come back from this better than ever. What didn't kill him would only make him stronger.

 

“I'm going to make you a hero, Papyrus,” he said. “You're going to be a legend.”

 

 

Chapter Text

Papyrus enjoyed folding laundry. It was his second-favorite chore. Something about starting with a basket of chaos and ending up with neat stacks of sorted clothing was satisfying on a fundamental level.

 

He'd been catching up on the laundry since he'd gotten up. He hadn't slept much, but that was just as well considering how much there was to do.

 

Nice, mindless chores.

 

When the silence got to him he turned on the TV for some background noise, keeping the volume low enough not to wake his brother. Mettaton's morning show was on. The boxy robot was chatting amiably with one of his guests over coffee that Mettaton, lacking a mouth, couldn't drink. Papyrus wasn't paying attention to their conversation. He just let the soft chatter wash over him and kept folding, trying not to think.

 

He winced when he made a careless reach for an unpaired sock. Flowey had healed him before letting him go last night, but his arm was tender, and would be for days. He took a couple minutes to remind himself that he was safe in his home, to convince himself that he was okay now.

 

Movement upstairs caught his attention, and he looked up to find his brother leaning against the railing, watching him.

 

That was two days in a row he was up early. “Was I too loud?” Papyrus said, reaching for the remote to dial the volume on the TV down farther.

 

“Nah,” Sans said, “I woke up and I could see my floor. Thought we got robbed. Heh.”

 

“Laundry bandits?” Papyrus said. “Not on my watch. You left your door unlocked, so...”

 

Sans chuckled, and shambled down the stairs. “You know you don't have to do that, bro,” he said, nodding at the basket.

 

Papyrus shrugged. “I don't mind.” He turned his attention back to his folding. “There's coffee on the counter. You'll have to warm it up.”

 

He felt Sans sit down at the other end of the couch. Papyrus was aware his brother was staring at him, but he wasn't going to say anything. Not after yesterday. He didn't want to know what other vulnerabilities he'd shred if he snapped again.

 

“So,” Sans said, after a long, awkward silence.

 

And that was all it took. One second Papyrus was fine, and the next he quietly sort of caved in on himself.

 

“Oh, shit.” Sans hurriedly scooted closer, putting a tentative arm around Papyrus' shoulders. “Um…?”

 

“I'm...I'm sorry,” Papyrus said, between sobs. “I shouldn't have said anything I said. I'm sorry.”

 

He hated crying. It was embarrassing and unbecoming, and the action itself was bringing up fresh trauma that he was still in the middle of pushing down and burying.

 

Ugh, and he had the hiccups again.

 

And then Sans had to go and make it worse by not even teasing him about it. “Bro, it's okay,” Sans said, sounding close to tears himself. “It's okay. Deep breaths.” He gestured to the undershirt Papyrus had been folding, that he was now using to dab at his eye sockets. “You want me to get you some tissues, or-? Or not,” he said. “I mean, it's still cleaner than it started out, right? It's a net gain.”

 

It took what felt like hours for Papyrus to pull himself together. Sans sat with him the entire time, not saying anything, rubbing circles into Papyrus' back. Eventually and by degrees, he was able to calm down, taking deep, shuddering breaths that served no practical purpose beyond forcing the tightness out of his chest. Finally, the storm passed, and he was left wrung out and empty.

 

“Feel better?” Sans tried for what Papyrus assumed was a goofy smile and ended up somewhere in the middle of grimace territory.

 

He nodded. He didn't trust himself to talk quite yet, in case he set himself off again. Sans got up to get that cup of coffee, and Papyrus picked up where he'd left off on the laundry. He set Sans' undershirt aside; he'd have to re-wash it.

 

Sans set his mug on the end table and settled down cross-legged on the floor. He matched socks for a few minutes in silence.

 

“You know I'm always right here, right?” he said, finally. “But if you need me to back off and give you some space for a while, that's fine, too.”

 

Papyrus sighed. He wanted nothing more than to tell his brother everything, even though there was nothing Sans could do about any of it. It would be easier to bear, he thought, if only someone else knew what was happening to him.

 

Flowey's threat from that first night was always at the back of his mind, however. He couldn't slip up. He had to be strong on his own, for his brother's sake, and Undyne's, and everyone's.

 

Sans kept talking, filling the silence. “Someone I talk to now and then says that, uh, people can get depressed after something really good happens to them,” he said. “Like, sudden success can actually make them feel kinda lost, like they don't know what comes next.” He shrugged. “I don't know if she's right or not. Sounds kinda backward.”

 

“That must be it,” Papyrus said. It sounded backward to him, too, but any ready explanation would do if it meant Sans would let the matter drop.

 

Sans hummed thoughtfully. They sat for a few minutes more, until he coughed lightly. “So, uh,” he said, “not trying to freak you out, so don't cart me off to the doctor or anything, but have you ever just...” he gestured, trying to fish the right word out of the air. “Lost a few seconds? Like, the world skips like a scratched CD?”

 

Papyrus looked at him. Last night, when Flowey just barely missed him with that attack, for a split second before he pushed himself up it had felt like… He'd chalked it up to standing up too fast. But it wasn't dizziness, was it? What was it, then?

 

Sans shrugged. “It happens to me sometimes. It happened last night, in fact, at...I dunno, around eleven?” He gave Papyrus a searching look.

 

“Maybe you stood up too fast.” Papyrus didn't know what Sans was on about, or what that stuttering feeling had been, or why they'd both felt it, but he knew no good would come of admitting to his brother that he'd noticed it, too.

 

Sans stared at him for a second longer, frowning, and then dropped his gaze to the socks in his lap. “Yeah, that must be it.” He picked up a single yellow sock. “Man, how come there's always one with no mate?”

 

Tension left Papyrus' body that he hadn't realized was even there.

 

Sans stood up, giving up on finding matches for the last few socks, and walked over to take a swig from his mug. He pulled a face. “Aww,” he said. “How many times can you microwave coffee before it gets too gross to drink?”

 

Papyrus shrugged.

 

They both jumped at the sudden knock at the door.

 

Two snowdrakes and an ice cap, some of the teenagers that liked to play survivalist out in the forest, were crowded together on the front step.

 

“Can we help you?” Papyrus frowned. “Is there some emergency?”

 

“No,” the older-looking of the snowdrakes said, “but we found something really freaky in the woods that you need to see.”

 

The bottom dropped out of Papyrus' figurative stomach. Sans joined him in the doorway, shooting him a concerned glance. Then he turned his attention to the youths outside. “Aww, you mean we gotta do actual work today?” he whined.

 

This seemed to soothe the teens somewhat, but it did nothing for Papyrus' nerves. He was halfway out the door before remembering that he was still in his pajamas. “Uh,” he said. “Give us ten minutes.”

 

 

~*~

 

 

“Whoa,” Sans said.

 

Papyrus worked very hard to look as though he were seeing this hilltop for the first time.

 

“Yeah,” the older snowdrake said. “The woods west of town are getting a little crowded, so we came this way looking for a new hang-out.” She fluffed up her feathers. “And we found this hill just tore the hell up.”

 

“Language,” Papyrus scolded, but he couldn't put much feeling behind it.

 

“So, like,” the icecap spoke up, “what is it?”

 

Papyrus frowned. “Hard to say, but you should definitely stay clear of this area until we find out. Tell your friends to do the same.”

 

The trio muttered their assent. A matter of days ago, they would have blown him off, but the armor conveyed authority. That actually annoyed him. He was still the same person with the same judgment; why was he worth listening to now, just because he was lugging around a bunch of uncomfortable metal and had a different title?

 

The teens milled around talking amongst themselves while Papyrus and Sans investigated.

 

“I'm at a loss, bro,” Sans said, toeing a chunk of permafrost the size of his head. It came loose and rolled away down the hill. “Some kinda fight?”

 

Papyrus gritted his teeth. “It's impossible to make out any tracks, if so.” Partially because he'd been discreetly scuffing up any hint of his own footprints while he was looking around.

 

Sans shrugged. “I can't imagine any of the kids that goof off out here would be able to do this kinda damage, unless...” he said, rubbing his chin. “Unless they're holding some kind of club for organized fighting. A fight club, if you will.”

 

Papyrus frowned. “Really.”

 

“Hey!” Sans shouted to the teens. “You guys narking on fight club? There's rules against that!”

 

The trio looked at one another, and then at Sans. “...What?”

 

Sans waved them off. “Bah, never mind!” He grinned up at Papyrus. “Fight club theory goes in the 'maybe' pile,” he said.

 

As far as fake explanations went, Papyrus would prefer something more plausible. “Could it have been a stalagmite, do you think?” He peered up at the ceiling, though it was too far away and dark to make out.

 

“You mean a stalactite, bro?”

 

Papyrus shrugged, glancing sidelong at his brother. “What difference does it make?”

 

Sans drew a cone shape in the air with his finger. “I think the ones that hang down are stalactites. The ones that sit on the ground are stalagmites.”

 

“Well, whatever!” Papyrus snapped, relieved beyond words that they were having a normal exchange. “Do you think it was one of the hangy-down ones, then?”

 

“Could be, I guess,” Sans said. “Falling from that high up, could probably make a pretty big mess of whatever it landed on.” He frowned. “Shouldn't there be pieces of it laying around?”

 

...That was a good point. Papyrus had hoped Sans would be bored enough by now to accept that explanation and leave. But he was actually taking this seriously! The one time Papyrus didn't want him to!

 

“Well,” he said, “at least it was better than your 'club for fighting' idea...”

 

“Which is still on the 'maybe' pile, lest we forget,” Sans said.

 

Papyrus scoffed. “Maybe your 'maybe' pile.”

 

Sans gave the hilltop another look around. “You know what we could do,” he said. “We could get Dogamy and Dogaressa out here to do some sniffing. They should be coming on duty soon, right?”

 

“That's,” Papyrus said, struggling to keep his voice level, “a really...good idea...Sans.” He wanted to scream. Specifically, he wanted to scream: 'Sans, for the love of god just lose interest already, or we are all going to die in ways that will likely be very unpleasant, and I would spend my final moments feeling incredibly awful for letting that happen.' But he couldn't do that, because of the aforementioned unpleasant death issue.

 

The absolute last people he needed here were Mr. and Mrs. Smell Everything Really Well. This must have been some kind of karmic backlash for all the lying and otherwise dishonorable behavior he'd been perpetrating lately. Suddenly, his brother was a competent sentry, and it was all his fault. This was a disaster.

 

“Yeah,” Sans said. “If we're going all the way back to town, though, I say we break for lunch. I missed breakfast and I'm getting a little hangry.” He snapped and pointed a finger at Papyrus. “That's hungry-angry.”

 

“That's not even a pun! That's just a stupid, made-up word!”

 

“I think the results speak for themselves.”

 

 

~*~

 

 

Papyrus brought a secret weapon when he and Sans returned to the hilltop with the dog couple in tow. He'd hoped to beat everyone else there, but the dogs moved surprisingly fast for monsters whose legs didn't lend themselves very well to bipedalism.

 

Dogamy and Dogaressa got right to work once the group crested the hill, and Papyrus' heart sank.

 

He'd never been able to figure out any kind of logic to the way the dog couple worked. He studied them now to keep himself from crying, but no new information revealed itself. They just ran around every which way, occasionally colliding with each other and generally looking like a pair of buffoons.

 

After several minutes of this nonsense, they trotted up to Papyrus and Sans. Dogamy snapped off a quick salute. “We have findings to report, sir!”

 

“Yes, go on,” Papyrus said, with the opposite of pleasure.

 

Dogaressa clicked her heels together. “Sir! A preliminary sweep of the area puts six principle scents on the scene! Firstly,” she said, “you!” She pointed an accusing paw straight at Papyrus.

 

Papyrus jumped. “I-I-” he stammered.

 

“And you!” Dogaressa continued, pointing at Sans.

 

Papyrus blinked. He shut his mouth.

 

“Also,” Dogamy added, “Two snowdrakes, female, aged fifteen and seventeen. One icecap, male, aged fifteen. Also of interest,” he said, leaning in, “The icecap had recently eaten...a peanut butter sandwich!”

 

Dogaressa nodded solemnly. “Yes, and now we both have a serious peanut butter jones.”

 

Sans chuckled. “Huh. Me, too, actually.”

 

“It is spreading,” Dogaressa said.

 

“I see what you did there,” Sans said, “and I approve.” He looked up at Papyrus. “Well, this was kind of a dead end, huh?”

 

“Looks that way,” Papyrus said. He really was going to cry at this rate. His heart couldn't take the emotional whiplash it was being put through today. That had been too close.

 

Dogamy held up a paw for attention. “Not necessarily, gentlemen,” he said. “As we said before, those were the results of our preliminary sweep.”

 

“Yes,” Dogaressa said. “With more time, we can accurately assess smells days or weeks old.”

 

“Well, get to it, then,” Sans said, while Papyrus had a minor aneurysm. “Work your magic.”

 

“It is not magic, Sans,” Dogamy said, “merely a skill honed through years of-”

 

There was the small, sharp crack of glass against the frozen ground. Two seconds later, the smell of peppermint filled the air.

 

The dogs howled.

 

“Oh, no!” Papyrus said, raising a hand to his mouth. “My vial of peppermint extract that I keep on my person at all times for secret reasons! It must have fallen from my pocket unintentionally!”

 

“Pep...” Dogaressa whined. “P-peppermint...”

 

Dogamy covered his snout, vainly trying to keep the scent out of his nose. “Olfactory bulb...shutting down...too...much...minty!”

 

Sans frowned. “Well, that's bad luck,” he said. “How long until you can smell again?”

 

“It will be weeks until we are fully recovered,” Dogamy said, rubbing his temples and giving Papyrus the stink eye.

 

“Sorry.” Papyrus fought to keep a straight face. Disaster: successfully averted. He refused to feel guilty for saving their lives, even if the pair had a nasty headache for a while. Headaches got better. Death, not so much.

 

“Hey,” Sans said, “don't worry about it. What say I treat you two to some P.B. sammies for your trouble?”

 

“What's the point?” Dogaressa grumbled, as they all started back down the hillside. “It's just going to taste like peppermint...”

 

 

~*~

 

 

Papyrus looked down at what was apparently his meal. “Sans, when you said you were taking care of dinner, I didn't expect this.” He looked across the table at his brother. “I don't know why I didn't expect it, of course...”

 

“Who's Sans? Just call me,” Sans said, with a flourish, “Peanut Butter Jones.”

 

“You could have just let me cook.” Papyrus took a bite of his sandwich. Not even peanut butter and jelly-- just peanut butter.

 

No plate, either.

 

Sans shrugged, starting on his sandwich with more enthusiasm. “Nah, bro, it's my turn. I mean,” he said, “I think it was my turn about a hundred turns ago, but I'm lazy, so...”

 

Papyrus frowned. “Sans, I-”

 

“Bro,” Sans said, “it's fine. Just forget about it. I know I'm hard to live with.” He opened and closed his mouth a couple times, looking pensive. “Huh. I think I'm remembering why I don't eat this stuff more often.”

 

The problem with peanut butter, for a skeleton, was that it got stuck to the roof of the mouth like normal, but being without a tongue made it extremely difficult to dislodge. Papyrus was having the same trouble.

 

Sans sighed. “Well, that's what we get for letting me cook. Let that be a lesson to you.”

 

Papyrus winced, hard.

 

“You okay?”

 

“Yes, of course,” Papyrus said, a bit too quickly. “Just...this peanut butter is driving me crazy.” That, at least, wasn't a lie. It was like a mouthful of glue; it wouldn't budge.

 

“Just dig it outta there with your finger, bro. That's what I'm doing.”

 

Papyrus sighed. “I can see that.” Not that he cared to. Disgusting. “...Fine.” Leave it to his brother to mangle the basic tenets of dining etiquette at any and every opportunity.

 

It was nice to get the peanut butter unstuck, though.

 

“'Ou 'ould 'ave 'een the 'ogs,” Sans said around his finger.

 

“...'Ut?” Papyrus took his finger out of his mouth and tried again. “What?”

 

“I said, you should have seen the dogs,” Sans said, hopefully done digging around in his mouth for the rest of the conversation. “They were licking their chops for a good thirty minutes after they finished their sandwiches. Hilarious.”

 

“They took you up on your offer?”

 

“Yeah, you're lucky I smoothed things over.” Sans leaned back in his chair, lacing his fingers behind his head. “They were pretty peeved at you. Their eyesight isn't very good; you really did a number on them, knocking out their smellers like that.”

 

Papyrus did his best to look appropriately remorseful. “That is unfortunate. I'll have to find some way to make amends for my clumsiness.”

 

Sans' grin slipped. “Why'd you do it?”

 

“I just told you,” Papyrus said, avoiding Sans' eyes. He'd never noticed before now, but Sans was incredibly good at staring. “It fell out of my pocket in a moment of clumsiness.”

 

“Tch,” Sans said, packing an essay of meaning into one syllable. “And since when do you carry peppermint oil around with you, anyway?”

 

“Peppermint extract,” Papyrus corrected. “And, er...” he said, floundering for a lie that was even remotely believable. “Just in case...I found myself in a situation in which a kiss seemed imminent…? It's prudent to be prepared for eventualities like that.”

 

That was a thing that could have been true, right? On the off chance that someone wanted to kiss him while he was out and about, and they had bad breath, he could offer them the peppermint first. The logic was sound.

 

Sans clearly wasn't buying it. “That's the biggest load of bullshit I've heard in a while,” he said.

 

Papyrus really didn't want to start fighting again. This was so tiring he couldn't bear it. “Oh, all right,” he said, shoulders slumping in defeat. “I used that peppermint bomb on purpose. I confess.”

 

“Why?”

 

“Because,” Papyrus said. “Because… The truth is...” He paused, caught up against a moral crossroads. He gathered himself and forged ahead. “The truth is, I'm the one who tore up that hill. I've been practicing there because it's out of the way and I don't have to worry about breaking anything.”

 

 

Sans sat back in his chair, deflating a bit. “Is that true?”

 

Papyrus nodded. It wasn't a lie, exactly. “I wanted to keep it secret. You know how those kids are; I'd have to find another spot if they found out I was there.”

 

“So, what you're telling me,” Sans said, leaning his elbows on the table, “is that when you say you're doing a night patrol, you're actually wandering out into the woods to goof around with your magic?”

 

“I'm not goofing around, Sans.” Papyrus at least didn't have to fake offense.

 

Sans' grin crept back into place. “My brother is slacking off of work.”

 

“I'm doing no such thing!”

 

“Bro, I've never been so proud of you,” Sans said, wiping nonexistent tears from his eye sockets. “I wanna shout it from the rooftops.”

 

“You'd better not!”

 

“And this is just the beginning!” Sans winked. “If you want, I can show you all the prime napping spots. You just say the word,” he said, with a grand, sweeping gesture. “I can show you a whole new world of underachievement.”

 

Papyrus crossed his arms, doing his best to look cheesed off. Seeing Sans back to normal had evaporated any irritation he would normally be feeling at the implication that he was in any way lazy. “I don't have to sit here and listen to this slander.”

 

“Seriously,” Sans said, pushing away from the table, “this might be the best day of my life. Not even exaggerating.” He gathered their abandoned sandwiches and dumped them in the trash. It was the first time Papyrus had seen him throw something away on his own in over a week.

 

He supposed he should be happy about that, along with the attempt at making food. Instead, Papyrus found himself trying to suss out why Sans was acting so unnaturally functional. Either he was still stinging from Papyrus' rant yesterday, which was bad, or Papyrus was showing enough strain that Sans felt moved to try to take care of him, which was equally dire.

 

“Hey,” Sans said, “Lesser Dog is on duty tonight, right?” He shuffled across the living room to rummage around under the TV stand in what, for him, counted as a flurry of activity.

 

“Yes, I believe so.”

 

“Well, if you don't have anything else going on, my contact at the dump came through with this,” Sans said, coming up with a human car magazine. The cover was wavy from a long-dried spill. “Car and Driver, July 2009! Nice, huh?” He tapped the cover with one finger. “I'm really hoping this is just coffee or soda or something.”

 

Garbage juice was never quite that benign, but faint heart never scored neat stuff. Besides, that was one good reason why Papyrus left the actual reading part to Sans, aside from necessity. “Only a few years old,” Papyrus conceded. One of the better publications, too, in his opinion.

 

Sans teased the stuck-together pages apart. “I haven't had a chance to read it yet, so I don't know if it's even any good, but we could go through it if you want.”

 

Come to think of it, they had fallen out of their normal routine, hadn't they? Normally it would be Papyrus pestering Sans about reading to him. He was fascinated by cars, but he couldn't really read about them himself. Books, he could mostly deal with, but the text in magazines was so small, and it was usually faded and stained, too. And print wasn't like a computer screen, where he could resize the text and mess with the font to find something he could manage. After about ten minutes with one of the human magazines, all the words swimming around and letters switching places left him with a headache.

 

Truth be told, Papyrus couldn't really dredge up much excitement about only-slightly-obsolete automotive discourse. Technically, reading about cars had always been pointless; he'd never see one for real, much less get to drive one himself. Until recently, he'd gotten a lot of joy out of just learning about them. Daydreams were as important as oxygen to most monsters in the Underground, but lately he'd lost access to his dreams.

 

If there had been anything close enough to lean on, Sans would have been leaning on it. The way he was peering over the top of the magazine, eyes glowing a little unevenly, betrayed exactly how nonchalant he actually was, which was not very.

 

“Okay,” said Papyrus. What else could he say?

 

Their couch was not comfortable. It was lumpy and there was a broken spring that always wound up digging into Papyrus' pelvis no matter how he sat. If Sans was uncomfortable, he didn't show it. He tossed himself onto one end of the dreadful davenport with a creak of springs.

 

It took Papyrus a couple minutes to fidget around for a passable configuration. He settled for sort of sprawling across the remaining cushions. Maybe if he spread himself out enough, that spring wouldn't… Nope, there it was. He sighed, defeated.

 

Without knowing when the next one would turn up, they couldn't really be choosy about what they read and what they skipped over. They'd gotten into the habit of reading each magazine methodically cover to cover. As Sans moved from the letter from the editor, to the reader letters and responses, to the first of the editorials, Papyrus started to relax.

 

Normally, he would be thoroughly engrossed in the articles, or wondering about what the humans who had written them were doing now and what kind of people they were and whether they were nice. He still couldn't recapture that spark of interest, but right now it was enough just to bask in how ordinary it all felt. The light from the lamp, the lumpy but familiar couch, the sound of his brother's voice as he read about fuel injection systems or slightly disappointing sport coupes...it felt normal, and right, and safe.

 

He realized, sleepily, that this was his new daydream. Just this. And he didn't really have this anymore, but it was nice, right now, to pretend.

 

Papyrus didn't know when he'd dozed off, but when he woke up the clock on the wall read two in the morning. Too early to get up.

 

The magazine had slipped from Sans' hands to the floor, and he snored softly, head resting on his collarbone. Papyrus grabbed the afghan from the back of the couch and draped it over him.

 

He got up and turned the lights off, eying the stairs in the dim, colorful light from the fairy-lights outside. A few of the steps were creaky, and he could never remember which ones. He didn't want to wake his brother. He also didn't really want to be alone, so he returned to the couch, curled up on the lumpy cushions, covered himself with a corner of the afghan, and went back to sleep.

 

Chapter Text

“...don't really know what you expect me to do. I can't keep him locked in the shed all day.”

 

Papyrus took stock of where he was, half-asleep and confused. Oh, right. He'd slept on the couch. That would explain the achy joints.

 

He had the whole couch to himself now, and the whole afghan, too. If his brother was up first then he'd slept in very late. Sans' voice carried from the kitchen, just above a whisper. It sounded like he was talking on the phone.

 

“No, actually, I can't,” Sans said to whoever he was talking to. “Of course I care!” he hissed, “he's my brother, isn't he? Why do you think I called to ask about...” Sans trailed off as the other person talked over him. Papyrus could hear that it was Undyne's voice, but he couldn't make out the words.

 

They were talking about him. Immediately, he was back on guard. Pulling the afghan up higher, he closed his eyes and forced himself to relax. If Sans happened to walk into the living room, he'd be none the wiser. Meanwhile, Papyrus would try to figure out what exactly they were discussing so he could come up with a countermeasure.

 

“I know you're careful with him,” Sans said, “I didn't mean to accuse you of anything, really. I just couldn't think where else he could have got...uh-huh.”

 

Undyne had a hard time with the 'taking turns' aspect of phone conversations.

 

“It can't be more than a couple days old,” Sans said, answering whatever her question had been, “and it's bad. His ulna must have snapped clean through; you can see the line. And there's a spiral fracture running all the way down….”

 

Papyrus' hand found the mended breaks on his arm. The marks were faint; anyone but another skeleton would have overlooked them, and he'd been careless enough to leave them uncovered at home. All of his long sleeved shirts had been in the wash-- curse his refusal to wear dirty clothes! He should have known Sans was bound to notice.

 

Sans sighed. “I have no idea, that's why I called. He hasn't said anything about it, and I doubt he would if I asked him.” He paused for a long while. “I know,” he said, voice gone slightly hoarse, “I'm worried, too.”

 

How was he this obvious? Papyrus had been keeping up appearances for a month, but now, for some reason, cracks were beginning to show. What was he letting slip? What were they seeing that he wasn't catching?

 

...Other than the literal cracks on his arm. That had been a stupid oversight. And on top of everything else, now he was upsetting Sans and Undyne for no good reason. There was nothing they could do, and they were only safe as long as they were ignorant. The least he could do was keep them from fretting over him.

 

When Sans hung up and wandered back to the living room, Papyrus made a show of being 'woken up' by the scuffing of his footsteps.

 

“Oh, hey,” Sans said. “You okay? Not coming down with something, are you?”

 

Papyrus was about to protest that he never got sick, but caught himself. “Maybe,” he said. “What time is it?” He knew what time it was; he could see the clock perfectly well. He'd checked it twenty minutes ago when he actually woke up.

 

Sans frowned. “It's eight-thirty, bro. You must have slept a good nine hours.”

 

Sans' concern was well-founded. Papyrus generally slept about half that long-- he'd never needed much sleep. Lately, though, he hadn't been getting even the meager four hours a night he required. It had to catch up with him eventually.

 

Papyrus sat up, his vertebrae audibly popping back into alignment. He might as well have been sick; sleeping for so long on such an uncomfortable surface had left him stiff and sore all over. Reaching up, he pushed his fist against his jaw, left then right, to pop his neck. That was a little better. When he stood up, his hip shifted in its socket with a dull thunk.

 

“Remind me never to sleep on this miserable thing ever again,” he said.

 

Sans shrugged. “Never sleep on that miserable thing ever again.”

 

“Thank you, Sans.” A skeleton rolling their eyes, such as they were, was a very subtle maneuver and easy to miss, but Sans had seen that particular expression an uncountable number of times.

 

Sans had the gall to laugh. “Welcome.”

 

If he tried, Papyrus could almost forget about the phone call he'd just overheard, and pretend this was an otherwise average morning.

 

“Uh,” Sans said, stuffing his hands in his jacket pockets. “Undyne called. Wants to do some training this morning. I told her you weren't feeling well, but since you're up it's your call, obviously.”

 

If Papyrus hadn't known for a fact that Sans was lying to him, he'd never have been able to tell. His brother looked him square in the eye, with the same air of affable laziness as always.

 

Papyrus wished he were that good an actor. It would solve a lot of his current problems. He supposed he'd simply have to practice.

 

And the first step was going to Undyne's for training. Sans had given him an easy out, but Papyrus liked spending time with Undyne. He liked training. Had liked, anyway...but that outward appearance had to stay firmly in place. He'd been getting careless. No more-- he couldn't bear to think what might happen if their questioning got out of hand.

 

No matter what it took, no matter how much his soul shriveled inside him, he would keep them safe.

 

 

 

~*~

 

 

 

Papyrus watched Undyne measure out twenty paces. “I really don't think this is a good idea,” he said.

 

On the twentieth pace, she turned to face him. “Look, Paps,” she said, arms akimbo, “I get that you're still a little freaked out, but you gotta get back in the saddle.”

 

The massive crack in the wall drew Papyrus' gaze like a magnet. The mess had been cleared away, but the rock was marred for good.

 

Undyne snapped her fingers to get his attention. “Hey!” She glared, her facial fins pushed out stiff. “If you start getting scared of your own magic, you'll never get it under control again.”

 

“I don't want to hurt you.” Papyrus knew he was annoying her.

 

They were wearing their civilian clothes. Undyne didn't have her armor to protect her, just the loose trousers, tank top, and boots she favored. The thin garments would be less than useless if he miscalculated an attack again. He'd heard of monsters with flesh getting horrendous infections when cloth was pushed into their wounds.

 

Asking Undyne to strip would likely be taken the wrong way. Papyrus abandoned the notion as soon as it entered his mind.

 

Undyne sighed. She wasn't a patient woman, but she was trying, and Papyrus appreciated it. “You won't hurt me, Paps, c'mon.” She folded her arms. “What happened to all that confidence you used to have? This,” she said, waving at the crack, “happens sometimes, especially when you break out of a plateau like you did. You just have a little higher power level than you used to, and you need to get a feel for it. You know what you're doing. I trust you.”

 

The praise went right through him. Papyrus had to admit that Undyne had a point, though. He had gotten scared of his magic, hadn't he? He was scared of a lot of things right now, but that was one thing he could actually do something about. “You're right, of course,” he said.

 

“That's a little more like it!” Undyne smiled. “Nothing keeps you down for long, Paps.” She squared her shoulders. “If it makes you more comfortable,” she said, summoning one of her spears, “we can start with just me attacking and you defending, and go from there. Yeah?”

 

Papyrus settled into a defensive stance and reached for his own magic. “Yes,” he said, nodding. “I can do that.”

 

Back when he'd first started training with her, Papyrus had found Undyne intimidating, and an absolute terror to spar with. Once he'd gotten to know her, however, he'd found that beneath her rough-and-tumble exterior was a passionate and caring person. Well, the rough-and-tumble went all the way down, actually, but she was more than capable of showing her finer feelings, in her own unique way. He admired and liked her immensely; she was his first (and only) close friend aside from his brother.

 

He hated to think that she was worried about him, so he put his all into this training session. For the first quarter hour or so, he simply dodged her attacks. This didn't require any use of his magic and gave him some time to get into the proper headspace. By the time she started to pressure him a little more, he was able to smoothly transition from dodging to blocking.

 

She praised him for that. For whatever reason, Undyne disapproved of dodging attacks. Blocking, in her opinion, was more direct, and therefore better and more honorable. Papyrus didn't see what difference it made as long as he didn't get hit, but he was trying to make her happy, so he stood his ground.

 

Undyne's spears shattered against wall after wall of bones. As his magic flowed easily and disaster kept failing to strike, he started to loosen up. His defenses became more elaborate, more proactive. Rather than simply wait behind his walls, Papyrus tossed bones out to intercept attacks in midair, where bone and spear both dissipated in a shimmering burst of spent magic. Undyne answered by varying her attacks, forcing him to adapt his defenses further.

 

Against his better judgment, Papyrus started to have fun. Undyne was a great fighter, and their differing styles made sparring exciting and challenging.

 

“All right,” Undyne said, not letting up on her barrage. “Warm-up's over. I'm going to keep hassling you until you counter me.”

 

Here was where things could go south. But Undyne wasn't overwhelming him with attacks the way Flowey did, and Papyrus was able to focus. Undyne left herself open briefly between throws; she had a big follow through to go with her big attacks.

 

Papyrus watched, gauging the timing. Undyne launched another volley. Dropping his defenses, Papyrus ducked to one side and flicked a weak counterattack at her. It skimmed through the air like a skipping stone, heading for Undyne's ribs.

 

She summoned a spear into her hands and batted it aside. The miniature bone scattered in a little magical poof. “I may as well have let it through!” she said. “You can hit harder than that, man!” She adjusted her grip on her spear. It glowed, more solid and real in her hands.

 

Apparently, it was Papyrus' turn as attacker. He took a deep breath, shifting his stance. Nothing had gone wrong yet. He could do this.

 

His first volley coalesced around him. He felt each waiting attack as a light tug on his soul as he fed them. They were formed just as he'd intended, and were exactly as strong as he wanted them to be. At the precise moment, he released them, in the sure knowledge that even if Undyne took each and every one square to the face, she would only be mildly injured.

 

Undyne blocked each and every bone, swatting them from the air and cutting them off at their connection with the ground as necessary. “Too easy!”

 

Papyrus frowned. Fine, then. If she wanted to defend, then she'd defend the way Papyrus thought was best. He started his next attack.

 

Where Undyne's strategy was to pin her opponent down in one place, Papyrus formed his attacks into patterns that forced his opponents to move. Undyne quickly figured out (after a couple weak-ish hits) that she couldn't effectively block both waves of bones that were now flanking her, and stopped digging her heels in.

 

Papyrus couldn't help but find it a little gratifying to watch Ms Head-On jigging back and forth to avoid his attacks.

 

“Hey, Paps,” Undyne said, between hops. “If you're gonna keep it up with these wimpy-oof!” She stumbled when a bone smacked into her back, knocking her forward a half step. “-these wimpy attacks,” she continued, righting herself without missing a beat, “you could at least make me blue or something. I wanna get some kinda workout out of this, you know?”

 

The waveform faltered. “Are you sure about that?” Papyrus certainly wasn't. Undyne seemed to enjoy training under the effects of Papyrus' special technique. She always said it made her feel like Goku, whoever that was. He didn't feel that now was really the ideal time to hobble her like that, not when he still wasn't sure if his magic would keep behaving itself.

 

Undyne straightened up to her full height and nodded. “Yeah, yeah! Look,” she said, “You're attacking like you're sparring with Sans, or something. Gimme some excitement, for cripe's sake!”

 

“Well,” Papyrus said, not liking the idea at all but wanting to please his commander and friend, “If you insist, I guess...”

 

“I insist! Lay it on me, Paps.”

 

Papyrus carefully tuned his magic. Bones shimmered into existence around him, icy blue. “Remember to hold still until it's done,” he said. He knew she knew how his blue attacks worked, but it helped calm his own nerves to say it out loud.

 

Undyne did hold completely still, letting the attacks phase harmlessly through her. She shivered just slightly as they did so. Blue attacks felt a bit unnerving even when they were expected, cold and tingly. By the time the wave was finished, the effect had taken hold. Undyne sank to a kneeling position, propping herself up with her spear.

 

“Two hundred times the Earth's gravity,” he heard her mutter to herself. That wasn't at all how his attack worked, but Papyrus knew better than to correct her.

 

“Are you okay?” he said. They'd trained this way dozens of times before, but he couldn't shake the feeling that they were tempting fate when they did this.

 

Undyne grinned. “Never better!” She lobbed her spear at him, summoning a new one into her hands.

 

Papyrus sidestepped the spear. It wasn't even a real attack as much as a strong hint to get back to fighting.

 

They exchanged blows this way for a good while, Undyne dodging well despite her hindered movement. Papyrus came to the decision that she'd been right all along. He really only made it more likely that an attack would go wrong by stressing about it. This was fine. He knew what he was doing, and so did Undyne. He needed to trust her, too.

 

After half and hour, they both started to flag. “Break soon?” Papyrus asked, voice strained. It was taking more and more attention to keep his attack patterns well formed while defending against Undyne's spears. He could tell she was just as tired.

 

“Five more minutes!” Undyne leapt clear of an undulating wave of bones. She landed heavily, grunting. “We still got some juice left, Paps, keep it going.” Her gills were flared wide, and she gulped air through her mouth.

 

Papyrus skipped out of the way of another volley of spears while he wove together one last pattern. His friend was tired, whether she wanted to admit it or not, so he structured the attack in a way that would demand accurate, small movements to dodge. Failing that, she could probably block most of it. He raised his arm to throw the attack.

 

A gold-colored something moved behind Undyne. Distracted, he focused past her.

 

Flowey smiled and waved a leaf at him.

 

Everything went wrong.

 

Papyrus jumped back, panic slamming into him like an avalanche. His attack tore free, misaligned and far too strong, ripping along the ground straight for Undyne.

 

If she hadn't been blue, she could have gotten out of the way. But she was too heavy, too tired, and there was no time. In the split second before his attack hit, Papyrus saw her brace herself, barring her spear across her chest, planting herself firmly, teeth bared.

 

Papyrus had started running as soon as the attack launched; he stumbled as he watched it hit, shattering Undyne's spear in an instant and tossing her across the yard like a rag doll. “Undyne!”

 

 

Chapter Text

Undyne hit the ground at an angle, tumbling over and over until she struck the wall of her house. She landed in a senseless heap.

 

Papyrus skidded to a halt at her side and fell to his knees, tears streaming down his face. Oh god, oh god, oh god, he'd been afraid this would happen! “Undyne!” His hands shook. Her arm was folded under her at an unnatural angle, but he was afraid to move her in case he hurt her worse. Blood trickled from her slack mouth, stained her white tank. “Oh, my god,” he moaned, “what did I do?”

 

He wanted nothing more than to bind his magic up tightly so it couldn't do any more damage, but Undyne needed help. The worst of her wounds was the gash his attack had put in her chest. Carefully, Papyrus peeled the sticky fabric away, fighting down nausea. She'd been more or less split open; a large, messy tear of ragged scales and flesh running between her breasts from collarbones to the base of her ribcage. A sliver of her sternum peeked out under the shredded muscle, and thank god it had held. Blood and raw magic oozed from the wound.

 

Tugging his gloves off, Papyrus pressed his hands against Undyne's chest, shuddering at the warm slickness of blood and meat. Undyne's magic prickled against the bones of his hands, and he poured as much of his own magic into his healing spell as he could muster. She needed more than the first aid he was able to give her; his spell was the equivalent of filling a bathtub with a water glass in the face of her injuries.

 

This must be a nightmare. There was no way this was really happening-- Undyne slowly unraveling under his hands and him helpless to do anything about it. The most he could do on his own was delay the inevitable.

 

Papyrus took one hand from the wound and fumbled for his phone. He struggled to dial the number, bloody digits sliding on the smooth plastic. He counted the rings while he watched magic slip out from under his other hand, glittering and pretty in contrast to the gore but no less lethal if Undyne didn't get real medical attention soon.

 

At the last ring before it went to voice mail, his brother picked up. “Yeah?” His voice held that gravelly crackle that betrayed he'd been napping on the job.

 

“Sans!” Papyrus tried not to yell, but it was hard enough to form words. “Undyne's hurt! I don't know anyone here and I can't leave her and she needs a doctor and-”

 

“Whoa, whoa, whoa,” Sans interrupted, instantly awake. “Slow down, Papyrus. What happened?”

 

“I hit her, Sans, I hit her way too hard I didn't mean to it got away from me and-!” Papyrus cut himself off. Hysterical babbling wasn't helping. “S-she needs a doctor, and I have to stay and keep healing her,” he said, forcing the words to line up neatly. “Sans, I can't keep up with it...”

 

On the other end of the line, Sans cursed. “Okay,” he said. “I know someone in Waterfall who should be able to help. Just sit tight, bro. You want me to stay on with you?”

 

Papyrus shook his head, then realized his brother couldn't see the motion. “No,” he said. “I need to concentrate. Please, please hurry; she's leaking really fast.” He let the phone drop and pressed his hand back onto the wound, redoubling his efforts to stem the outflow of magic and blood.

 

After the longest fifteen minutes of his life, Papyrus heard running footsteps outside Undyne's cave. He looked over his shoulder to find an elderly tortoise monster jogging toward them, a satchel slung over one shoulder and clattering against his shell. Sans wasn't far behind.

 

Later, Papyrus would wonder how Sans had got from Snowdin to Waterfall so fast, but right now the only thoughts in his head were about Undyne.

 

“Damn youngins,” the old man grumbled, gently shoving Papyrus out of the way. “Think they're invincible, slinging magic around like it ain't no nevermind...”

 

Papyrus stumbled to his feet and gave the oldster some room to work. He watched, trembling and exhausted, as the old man struck up a healing spell that put his own to shame.

 

“Hey,” Sans said, touching Papyrus' arm and making him jump. “You okay?”

 

Papyrus tore his gaze away from Undyne's unconscious body. “I don't know how...It happened so fast.”

 

“I know, bro, I know.” Sans picked Papyrus' gloves and blood-streaked phone up off the ground and put them in his jacket pocket. “Let's sit, huh?”

 

Papyrus dropped heavily onto the ground, and Sans sat down beside him. He looked at the rut his runaway attack had left in the stone floor of the cave, pointing like an arrow to where Undyne was sprawled on the ground, and burst into tears again. Sans pulled him into a hug.

 

“I almost killed her!” Papyrus clung to his brother for dear life, sobbing into the collar of his jacket. “Oh my god, I almost killed her!”

 

Sans stroked the back of his neck, murmuring soothing nonsense while Papyrus cried. “It's okay now,” he said, after a few minutes. “It's okay. Gerson's gonna fix it, okay? She'll be fine.”

 

“What if she's not?” Papyrus was inconsolable. He'd known something like this would happen; why had he walked right into it anyway? What kind of idiot did that? “I never should have...I shouldn't have,” he stammered, hiccuping. “I'm s-so stupid!”

 

“No, you're not,” Sans said, firmly.

 

A sudden thought hit Papyrus, one more small, stupid thing. “Oh, no,” he said, letting go of his brother. “I'm g-getting blood on your jacket.”

 

“I don't care about the stupid jacket!” Sans pulled back, gripping Papyrus' shoulders. His face was stern. “I care about you. What happened?”

 

Papyrus took a few shaky breaths. “We were sparring,” he said, when he'd pulled himself together sufficiently to talk without crying. He gestured helplessly at the rut in the stone. “M-my attack misfired.” His voice quavered just thinking about it. The sight of Undyne crumpled on the ground would stay with him forever. He'd done that.

 

“Wow,” Sans said, sounding more concerned that anything. “And that?” He pointed at the crack in the far wall.

 

“Earlier this week,” Papyrus said miserably.

 

After a lengthy pause, Sans said, quietly, “And your arm?”

 

Papyrus rubbed at the healed bones distractedly. “Recoil,” he lied.

 

Sans' frown deepened. “How long has this been going on?”

 

Papyrus shrugged. Horror was edging into numbness. He was too tired. “Weeks,” he said. “It doesn't happen all the time.”

 

Sans hummed thoughtfully, putting two and two together. Well, putting a two and another two together. “So,” he said, “when you're skiving off of your night shift, you're trying to figure out...” He waved an arm at the scars in the rock. “This?”

 

Papyrus nodded. That wasn't a lie. Not really. He really was trying to rein in his magic. It was just difficult when most of his attention was focused on staying alive.

 

“I can see why you didn't want the teens sniffing around that hill, then.”

 

The old man, Gerson, touched Papyrus' shoulder. Papyrus hadn't noticed him move, and flinched under the scaly hand.

 

“Easy, son,” Gerson said, not unkindly. “Help me get her inside, won't you? I'm not as strong as I used to be.”

 

Papyrus nodded weakly and stood. Undyne was still out, but she was more or less whole. Dried blood matted her hair and caked her lips, and her tank was beyond saving. Other than that, and the dressing Gerson had wrapped around her chest, there was little sign of how badly off she'd been. Careful not to disturb the dressing, Papyrus picked her up, one arm supporting her back and the other scooped under her knees. She was surprisingly heavy, but then again there was a lot more to her than bones. Papyrus adjusted his grip. He could manage.

 

Gerson opened the door for him, and he carried Undyne inside the house, laying her gently on her bed. He could feel the old man watching him as he removed Undyne's boots and pulled one of the blankets over her. “Thank you for coming so quickly,” Papyrus said, feeling like he should say something. “You saved her.”

 

“You did a good job keeping her going until I got here,” Gerson said.

 

Papyrus frowned. “I'm the reason she got hurt in the first place.”

 

Gerson chuckled, a rusty, dry sound. “Oh, she'll be alright,” he said. “I've known that girl since she was just a small fry-- she's tough as nails. And reckless,” he added. “But I'm sure you know that. Tell me,” he said, peering up at Papyrus. “I overheard you talking-- what were you feeling when your magic went wild? Do you remember?”

 

Papyrus met the old man's rheumy eyes. “Um,” he said. “I'm sorry, but I don't remember. It's a blur.”

 

“That's all right, son.” Gerson scratched at his chin with blunted claws. “You know, the same thing happened to me back in the day.”

 

“Really?” Papyrus was already grateful to the old man for healing Undyne; the news that he wasn't suffering alone like some kind of freak had him ready to adopt Gerson into the family.

 

Gerson nodded. “It wasn't unusual during the war. Not unusual at all. Our magic is part of us, son, and if things get bad enough it starts to react on its own.” He shrugged, and gave Papyrus a disturbingly knowing look.

 

This was the part where the old man started asking questions, and where Papyrus would have to deflect and lie and generally be a garbage person.

 

To Papyrus' surprise, Gerson sighed, turning away to line up some of the medicines and supplies from his satchel on Undyne's bedside table. “I don't know you,” he said, “I don't know your life, and it's not my place to tell you what to do. Just know that it won't get better on its own. That's all I have to say on the matter.”

 

“Thank you,” Papyrus said, and meant it. “I'll think about it.”

 

Gerson patted his arm absently. “Good man. Now, go wash up.”

 

Sans was rummaging through the kitchen cupboards. He gave Papyrus a wan smile when he got close. “Hey, you know your way around Undyne's kitchen right? Where does she keep her tea?”

 

“Cupboard to the left of the fridge,” Papyrus said, turning on the tap and letting the water warm up. “Bottom shelf.”

 

“Thanks, bro...Ah! There it is.” Sans grabbed the tin and set it on the counter. He already had the kettle on; it was ticking softly on the burner as the water heated. “Mugs?”

 

Papyrus held his hands under the warm water, hoping for the blood to soften up. It had gotten down between the joints. “Second cupboard from the stove,” he said. Sans seemed to sense the fog Papyrus was in, and kindly wasn't trying to pull him out of it. The questions required just enough thought to keep him from getting totally lost, and no more.

 

“Ah.”

 

The blood flaked off reluctantly, even with soap. The bones of Papyrus' hands felt smooth, but there were plenty of tiny grooves and nicks where a liquid could get good and stuck once it dried. He wanted nothing more than to take the vegetable brush and scrub it all off, but that would ruin the brush. Between the cave wall and floor, the training dummy, and Undyne herself, Papyrus was of the mind that he'd ruined enough of her things.

 

“Aww, what?” Sans glared down into the tea tin. “Loose leaf? I wouldn't have pegged Undyne for a tea snob.”

 

Papyrus shut the water off, dried his hands, and grabbed the teapot off the top of the fridge.

 

“Thanks, bro.” Sans took the teapot from him and dropped some tea leaves in. “Oh, bone china,” he said. “Aren't we fancy?” He glanced at Papyrus, but didn't comment on the total lack of reaction.

 

While the tea steeped, Sans dug Papyrus' gloves and phone out of his pocket and handed them over.

 

“Thank you.” His hands weren't totally clean, but that would have to wait until they got home. For now, he felt immensely better with his gloves back on. He wiped as much of the blood off the phone as he could manage, and put it away.

 

The tea helped, a little. Sans had put too much sugar in it, but Papyrus finished it off quickly regardless. The three of them sat around Undyne's kitchen table, Sans and Gerson carrying on a light conversation over Papyrus' head, which he was resting on the table, pillowed on his arms (for what that was worth). Now that he'd gotten something in his system it was hard to stay awake. He'd spent a lot of magic today.

 

“You should take him home,” Gerson said to Sans. “Make him rest.”

 

Papyrus raised his head with an effort. This was the second time today people were talking about him, and he didn't need it. “I'd rather stay,” he said. He wanted to be here when Undyne woke up. He needed to see that she was okay, and to apologize.

 

“There's nothing more you can do here.” Gerson took a swig from his mug, his beak-like mouth clicking against the ceramic. “Trust me, son, she'll be embarrassed enough when she comes 'round without you here making sad eyes at her. You just leave it to me.”

 

Sans stood, picking up his and Papyrus' empty mugs and carrying them to the sink. “You heard the man, Papyrus. He's practically her grandpa; he doesn't mind.”

 

Gerson nodded. “I don't. Besides, the shop was slow today,” he said, chuckling.

 

There was no sense arguing with both of them. Resigned, Papyrus hauled himself to his feet. After a final assurance from Gerson, he let Sans take his arm and half-steer, half-support him as they left.

 

Papyrus barely remembered the ferry ride back to Snowdin, or the walk through town to the house. He showered and changed his clothes in a daze, and collapsed into bed, where he slept hard for several hours.

 

His dreams were unpleasant.

 

Chapter Text

Sans tried to talk him out of his night patrol. Papyrus had been expecting that, and countered that it wasn't fair to make the Lesser Dog stay up two nights in a row. He'd had a full four hours of sleep-- all at once, even. He was fine.

 

It was a practice night. He couldn't miss it if he wanted to.

 

And he had some words for Flowey.

 

The hill had been compromised, so he'd been instructed to head to a new spot, a clearing deep in the forest, near the edge of the ruins of Home. Papyrus saw Flowey sitting innocuously in the center of the clearing, and felt a sudden wellspring of terrible emotion at the sight of the not-flower-but-not-monster. He was used to fearing Flowey, or even pitying him. Anger was a new one.

 

“Howdy, friend!” Flowey said, as Papyrus stepped out of the trees. “You're looking well, considering. Boy, was that ever a three ring circus, huh?” He tipped his face to one side. “Papyrus? Friend, are you-”

 

“Why don't you just shut up?!” Papyrus spat, bearing down on Flowey. “You did that on purpose, so spare me your nonsense!”

 

Flowey's smile wilted. “What? Why, Papyrus, I just wanted to watch. You're the one who lost your grip.”

 

“Because you frightened me!” Flowey was right, and that was the worst thing. Papyrus had been the one to hurt Undyne, through his own lack of control. He was a danger to everyone around him.

 

He wanted to never use his magic again. He wanted to break something. He wanted to sleep for a hundred years. Now that the shock had ebbed away, now that he had rested, now that he was standing here in this place with this person… His magic gathered in a bilious lump, a bubble about to break the surface, and it was all Papyrus could do to hold it down.

 

“Now, Papyrus,” Flowey said, “it's unattractive to go blaming your failings on someone else. It's natural to feel guilty after what you did, but you need to own your mistakes.”

 

Papyrus stomped down hard enough to jar his ankle. “Shut up! Shut up, you horrible little weed!” Oily tendrils, the weight of what he'd done (what he'd very nearly done, god, he was half a murderer), crawled up his spine and ticked against his skull. Unforgivable.

 

Flowey rolled his eyes. “Name-calling, now? Very mature.”

 

“You listen to me,” Papyrus hissed, carried by the momentum of anger and redirected guilt and wild magic. “You stay away from my friends from now on. They're nothing to do with this. Leave them alone, or I swear-”

 

“Or you swear what?” Flowey's face split open slightly, revealing teeth like knitting needles. “Giving me orders, friend? Is that a good idea?

 

“I don't care!” Papyrus gripped the bone club he didn't remember summoning. “Break my arm again, if that's what you want to do! I got through it once; I can do it again.” Flowey could break every bone in his body, so long as he didn't hurt anyone else. Papyrus could take it. It would be no worse than what he'd put Undyne through.

 

Papyrus shook, expecting the blow to fall at any moment, but he stood his ground.

 

Undyne would be proud.

 

 

~*~

 

 

This was fantastic. Flowey couldn't keep the elated grin from splitting his face wide open. Here, at the end of a day that had been supremely entertaining, was his toy practically boiling over with rage. That was progress leaps and bounds beyond his expectations.

 

Papyrus was already armed! He had dared Flowey to harm him! He wished he had some kind of treat with him to reward such outstanding behavior. He'd been starting to wonder if he'd pushed a little too hard last time, but it looked as though the skeleton was starting to get some steel in his spine. Finally.

 

It didn't take much prodding to get their sparring session underway. Papyrus, for once, was spoiling for a fight, and Flowey was more than happy to oblige. The events that had transpired at the Captain's home had sapped much of Papyrus' magic reserves, however, and so it wasn't long until the skeleton was put on the defensive, dodging and running from Flowey's attacks.

 

He kept coming right back, though, snarling frustration and swinging with the bone club he'd conjured for whatever petty damage he could inflict. The shift in his demeanor was profoundly satisfying. Papyrus wanted to hurt him, even if only in this moment of anger. Even if only in the knowledge that he couldn't really do anything serious. The intent alone represented a paradigm shift. A real breakthrough.

 

“You're slowing down,” Flowey pointed out, after less than an hour of playing. “You wasted too much energy on that one-eyed fool.”

 

That seemed to throw some fuel on the fire. Flowey could have gleefully kept taunting him until Papyrus dropped from exhaustion-- he was so much fun like this! Much better than having to cajole and force him to do what Flowey wanted.

 

He stopped short when he caught the muffled but distinct jingle of Papyrus' cell phone ringing. “Ah,” he said, snatching the club from Papyrus' hands. “You should probably answer that.” He squeezed, and the club dispersed in a cloud of magic.

 

Papyrus glared at him, but even he was smart enough to realize that Flowey had been indulging his little tantrum. He fished his phone from his armor. “...Yes?” He masked the tension in his voice well. So many improvements!

 

Undyne's voice came over the receiver, scratchy and raw. “Papyrus! I knew you'd be awake. Hey, so I guess you made a liar out of me earlier, huh?”

 

Flowey drifted closer, the better to listen in. Papyrus made no move to prevent this, not that he could have. He seemed to have temporarily forgotten that Flowey was even there. The skeleton's rage bled away, all his attention on the voice coming through the receiver..

 

“Undyne! Are you okay?” Papyrus was back to his wet-blanket self in an instant. Typical. Just when things were going so well, too. “I'm so sorry, I know there's no excuse but-”

 

“Aw, c'mon, Paps! Don't start blubbering about it; I've had worse,” Undyne said. “Gerson patched me up real good. The only thing I'm pissed about is having to STAY IN BED FOR THE REST OF THE WEEK, YOU BIG DOOFUS!”

 

Papyrus flinched, holding the phone out at arm's length until Undyne was done yelling. Flowey couldn't help but be impressed that the tiny phone speaker had withstood the assault.

 

“I'm really sorry, Undyne,” Papyrus said, meek as a mouse.

 

“Oh, don't you worry,” Undyne said, at a more reasonable volume. “I know just how you're gonna make it up to me.”

 

Papyrus nodded, getting that people-pleasing glint in his eye sockets. “Anything!” he said.

 

Flowey scoffed. What an exploitable thing to say.

 

“I was hoping you'd say that.” Undyne sounded cheerful for someone who'd had a brush with death mere hours ago. “Since I'm going to be laid up for a few days, I need someone to gather the Guard reports for the week. Guess who that someone is, Papyrus?”

 

Well, now, this was interesting! A sidequest...

 

Papyrus frowned. “Is that really appropriate, Undyne? Not that I'd say no,” he added quickly, “but I'm the most junior guardsman here.”

 

Undyne made a strident noise between a laugh and a bark. “Have you seen the Greater Dog's handwriting? It's more ink-splatters than letters. Besides,” she said, “this is gonna be your punishment, so don't think you're gonna eel out of it just because you're the newbie.”

 

“Okay,” Papyrus simpered. “If that's what you want, then of course I'll do it.”

 

“Good! Listen,” Undyne said, “I'm pretty beat; I just wanted to check up and make sure you weren't crying too hard, or anything, okay? I'll call back in the morning and tell you what you need to do.”

 

Papyrus assented, and the two said their good-nights and hung up.

 

“Well!” Flowey said, relishing the way Papyrus jumped. “All's well that ends well, right? You even got a job opportunity out of this.”

 

Papyrus stepped back, more disgusted than fearful. “You don't care about her at all, do you?” His posture betrayed that fear was still very much on the table. He held himself like a cornered animal.

 

Flowey smiled. “I care about you, friend!” He looped his vines around Papyrus' shoulders, keeping him from pulling away farther. “Aww, Papyrus, don't be like that,” he said, shaking the skeleton gently when Papyrus fought to turn away from him. “I'm only looking out for your interests. I said you were going to move up the ranks; this is your first opportunity to show Undyne that you're more useful than the rest of these idiots.”

 

Papyrus didn't speak, glaring out at the trees surrounding them.

 

Flowey shrugged. If Papyrus wanted to give him the cold shoulder, that was fine. He didn't need Papyrus to talk, only to listen. “You're organized, and thorough in your work,” he said. “By the end of the week I wouldn't be surprised if that meat-head didn't give you her clerical work to do permanently. Which, in turn,” he said, “will make you indispensable to her along with giving you a greater understanding of the Guard's inner workings. You'll need that later, when you're Captain.”

 

“I don't want to be Captain,” Papyrus said, sullen.

 

“Yes, you do.” Flowey tightened the coils subtly. “Look,” he said, “I know I ask a lot of you, but there's a very good reason why I drive you so hard. One day you'll understand, and you'll thank me.”

 

Papyrus' jaw was clenched so tight Flowey could hear his teeth squeaking together. “Are we done? Can I go home now?”

 

Flowey sighed. “Yes, I suppose,” he said. He unlooped his vines and let Papyrus go. He watched the skeleton stalk toward the trees. There would be plenty of time to address that attitude and fine-tune it into something more constructive later. For tonight, Flowey would be flexible. Besides, Papyrus was amusing when he was riled up. “Oh, Papyrus?”

 

Papyrus stopped, back going ramrod stiff. He didn't turn around. “What?” he snapped. Cheeky.

 

“I'll have some information for you during the week about something very important,” Flowey said. “I thought I'd better give you some warning.” He giggled. “I'd hate to scare you again, friend.”

 

He was underground before he could see the effect his words had had, but Flowey could imagine well enough.

 

Ha.

 

 

Chapter Text

Papyrus spent the next two days, all of the next two days, traipsing all over the Underground collecting reports for Undyne. He was sure there wasn't normally this much footwork involved, or she'd never do anything else. She had said that this was his punishment, though, and if she wanted him to do this the hard way, it was no less than he deserved. Honestly, he was lucky to still be a Guardsman at all.

 

Lucky. Maybe that wasn't the right word.

 

Undyne had instructed him to tell anyone who asked that she was meditating under a waterfall and couldn't be disturbed. He didn't know if the lie was motivated by a desire to protect Papyrus or Undyne's own pride, or some mixture of both. In any case, he felt like the excuse was a bit of a stretch.

 

Everyone asked. Everyone believed that Undyne was sitting under a waterfall for the rest of the week. ...Well, he supposed she knew her Guardsmen better than he did.

 

He spent the next day compiling the reports and transcribing them into something easier for Undyne to read. It was in no way an easy task.

 

Papyrus looked up when Sans set a mug of coffee next to him. His brother sat down at his usual spot on the other side of the table, setting his own mug down on one of the only empty spaces left.

 

“Please don't spill that,” Papyrus said, looking back down at his work.

 

From the corner of his eye, he saw Sans look around at the mat of papers covering the table. “Wasn't planning on it,” Sans said.

 

“Oh, and thank you for the coffee.”

 

“No problem.”

 

Papyrus looked up again long enough to smile at his brother. He was tired, but he didn't want to be rude.

 

He heard the soft rustle of paper as Sans looked at the reports. “There's no possible way this much happened in one week.”

 

Papyrus shrugged, and pinched the bridge of his nasal bone. He could swear he'd read the same line of this guard's report five times. Sans was distracting him, but he didn't want to tell him to go away. This was his home, too, after all.

 

Maybe it was time for a little break. Papyrus sat back and took a sip of his coffee.

 

...God, did Sans have to put so much sugar in everything? Quiche, tea, coffee, was nothing safe? Papyrus took another sip, trying to adjust to the cloying sweetness and waiting for his teeth to cement shut. His brother was being thoughtful, though, so he was going to finish the mug no matter what.

 

Sans skimmed the report he'd picked up. “Monday, south-east lantern cavern, Waterfall ward, oh-nine-hundred hours: a bird…?” He looked up. “A bird what?

 

“Just a bird, I suppose,” Papyrus said. Honestly, that was the hardest part of compiling these reports, other than deciphering some very challenging handwriting and contending with reports that had been crumpled up, ripped, partially lost, and spilled on. A lot of them didn't seem to make a whole lot of sense, whether they were intact or not. “Guardsmen are supposed to record everything that happens.” He'd been working on this for a couple hours now, and his skull felt like it would split open any minute. Written language was starting to morph into meaningless squiggles.

 

“But the report doesn't say what happened.” Sans, against all odds, seemed to be discovering what witnessing total absurdity felt like.

 

Papyrus, on the other hand, had developed something of an immunity to nonsensical things. The needlessly wasteful paperwork of the Royal Guard couldn't hold a candle to Sans on a good day. Not that Sans had had many of those lately. Papyrus frowned. He knew a lot of that was his fault. “Yes, a lot of them are turning out like that.”

 

“Is Undyne even going to read this?”

 

“I'm sure she wouldn't have me going to all the trouble if she didn't intend to read it.” He hoped not, anyway. Of course, if that were her intention, it wasn't as though he'd have any right to complain.

 

His brother picked up another report, one that had been heavily creased and wrinkled from sitting in someone's pocket too long. “Ehh, you did throw her into a wall. Sorry!” Sans blurted when Papyrus couldn't hide his stricken expression. “I mean, I'm sure there's gotta be some kind of point to this, right?” He grinned uncertainly and turned his attention to the crumpled paper. “...Why does this one smell so bad?”

 

Papyrus caught a whiff of brimstone as Sans moved the paper. There was a reason he'd set that report down as far away as possible. “That one's from Hotland,” he said. He tapped his pen against his teeth. Hotland had been annoying to traverse; hardly worth it for the scant number of reports he'd gotten. “I didn't even know dragons could sweat.”

 

Sans made a face and dropped the paper. “Welp! I'm gonna go wash my hands now.”

 

Papyrus followed him into the kitchen, pen in hand. A small flicker of something like mischief had caught alight in him and he couldn't afford to let it pass. While Sans washed his hands (a somewhat challenging operation, given their sink) Papyrus circled today's date on the calendar and wrote a short note.

 

His low-key japing did not escape Sans' notice. “What's that?” He clambered down from the sink and peered at the calendar. “'Sans: grossed out.' Hey!” He swatted Papyrus with the sleeve of his jacket.

 

“As a Guardsman,” Papyrus said, feeling lighter than he had in weeks and not bothering to even try to look serious, “it's my duty to record all noteworthy occurrences.”

 

“I'm not a complete animal!” Sans pressed one hand where his heart would be in mock offense. “Besides, dragon sweat is probably some kinda weird acid, or something. And you just stay in your lane, bro,” he said. “I'm supposed to be the funny brother.”

 

“Which one am I, then?” Papyrus wasn't sure why, but he was very nearly in a good mood. He gripped it tightly. “The handsome one? The smart one?”

 

“The fussy one.”

 

“I'm not fussy!” Papyrus huffed.

 

“Bro.” Sans gave him a look. “How many passive-aggressive notes have you left on that one sock?”

 

To be honest, Papyrus didn't even notice the sock and its attendant pile of sticky notes anymore. It had become a fixture of the living room. “Well, clean it up, then! Must I do everything?”

 

Sans smirked. “See? Fussy. It's okay, bro,” he said. “I'm sure you'll be a great homemaker for some lucky monster someday.”

 

“Please.” Papyrus rolled his eyes. “I'm a career skeleton.” He frowned when his gaze caught the clock on the wall. “Speaking of which,” he said, “I should get back to work.”

 

“Right.” Sans seemed to shrink a bit. “Sorry-- gotta learn how to turn off my time-wasting aura.”

 

“I doubt there's any such magic,” Papyrus said. He hadn't realized just how down his brother had gotten until this too-brief reminder of how he used to be. Guilt curled up in the empty space under his ribcage. His mood sunk lower still when he realized that Sans' sentry shift had started an hour ago. “Er,” he said, reluctant to mention it. “Are you...are you working today?”

 

Sans cast a sullen look at the floor. “I dunno, bro, I'm not really feeling it today.” He glanced up at Papyrus, brittle and unsure. “You want me to?”

 

This would probably be the one day in decades when a human really did come through the Ruins. Papyrus found it hard to concern himself with it either way. “If you're not going out,” he said, instead, “I could use some help here.”

 

Doggo would have to handle anything that came up in the forest today on his own. In all likelihood, that would mean smoking half a bag of dog treats and chasing after every clump of snow that fell from the trees in front of his station. But even if it didn't, well, Papyrus and Sans weren't the only capable monsters in Snowdin.

 

Sans frowned, visibly puzzled at the lack of scolding. Then, he brightened, just a bit. “Oh, yeah,” he said. “You must have a pretty bad headache by now, huh?”

 

“The worst.” Papyrus' headache was abating slightly now that he wasn't staring at pages covered in chicken-scratch anymore, but he had no doubt that as soon as he returned to the reports it would come back with interest. “Writing is going to be hard enough without trying to read the rest of that unholy mess, too.”

 

“No worries, bro, I can read them for you.” Sans pulled his chair around to Papyrus' side of the table. “Just tell me where to start.”

 

 

 

~*~

 

 

With Sans' help, Papyrus was able to finish preparing the weekly report by mid-afternoon, hours earlier than he had expected. He was grateful for the assistance, and the company. Sans had perked up a bit, too. It struck him that Sans must be lonely, with Papyrus working so much (on top of the other thing that kept him away from home several nights a week). Sans was popular enough in town, but he seemed ambivalent about socializing with anyone other than Papyrus, now that Papyrus noticed enough to give the matter some thought.

 

He wondered how long his brother had been struggling, and why it had taken him so long to pick up on it. Sans' messy habits and beyond laid-back attitude took on a different and more worrying shade. There had been a time when Sans had been more vibrant, when he'd cared more. The change had just been so gradual that Papyrus had failed to notice. And it was a failure. Papyrus had been too wrapped up in his own ambitions to notice his only family in need of his support.

 

If Flowey had done one good thing, Papyrus mused, bitterly, it was shaking him out of his complacency and letting him see what was happening under his own roof. Well, he didn't intend to stand idly by while his brother was suffering. Whatever Sans needed, Papyrus would do his best to provide.

 

He just had to find the energy.

 

The ferry ride was quiet and uneventful. At the Waterfall stop, Papyrus paid his fare and made his way into the cave system that made up Undyne's neighborhood, careful not to let any water drip onto the neat bundle of papers or the covered dish he carried.

 

In hindsight, it hadn't made sense to expect that Undyne would be home alone-- she was still confined to bed, after all, and someone had to make sure she stayed there-- but the stout reptile woman who answered the door came as a surprise.

 

“H-hello?” the woman said, sounding as if she weren't quite sure that was the proper thing to say and deftly avoiding any chance of eye contact.

 

Papyrus gave up on trying to catch her eyes. “Ah, yes, hello.” This visit was uncomfortable enough, and this woman's intense awkwardness was infectious. “I'm, er...here to deliver the weekly report, and this, um,” he said, holding out the dish, “apology spaghetti.”

 

It was made with love and remorse. He'd smashed the tomatoes extra hard, and the garlic bulb had been rendered into a smooth paste by the time he'd finished with it.

 

The woman took the dish from him, and stood aside to let him inside. “T-that's nice. It certainly smells...” She hesitated, her nostrils quivering in a strange way, as though trying to close themselves. “Strong…? I'll, um, I'll just put this in the fridge.”

 

She bustled away, and Papyrus tried to figure out why she seemed familiar. They couldn't have met before; he had an excellent memory for faces.

 

“ALPHYS!”

 

Papyrus and the lizard woman jumped, the woman banging her head on the freezer door as she shot upright. Alphys! That's right, Papyrus knew her from Undernet. They were friends through Undyne; they'd never met in person. She didn't post pictures of herself often, and when she did they were so heavily filtered that he hadn't made the connection right away.

 

The bellowing from Undyne's bedroom continued, and the pair ran for the door. “Undyne?” Alphys burst into the room just ahead of Papyrus. “W-what's wrong? Is it your injury?”

 

Undyne sat in bed, propped up by several well-fluffed pillows, and empty glass in her hand. “Would you be a doll and get me another glass of water?” She jiggled the glass in Alphys' direction. “I'm parched.”

 

Alphys and Papyrus relaxed-- or slumped, in Alphys' case. “Is that all?” she said.

 

“Um,” Undyne said, lips curling around her teeth in a pointy yet ingratiating smile. A few teeth were missing. “Could you get the remote for me, too? I sort of threw it at the TV.” She pointed to the remote, laying on the floor beneath a suspicious-looking dent in the plaster of the far wall.

 

Alphys sighed and went about her tasks.

 

Undyne, meanwhile, turned her attention to Papyrus. “Paps! Get in here, doofus. Sit yourself down.” She whistled slightly on the S's.

 

“How are you feeling?” Papyrus hadn't had a chance to see her before now. She looked more or less okay, but most of her wounds hadn't been visible to start with. “Sorry about your teeth.” He frowned. It would really alter the tone of her speeches if she had to spend the rest of her life whistling like that.

 

“What, these old things?” Undyne tugged at her lip. “Don't even worry about it! I lose 'em all the time. See?” She opened her mouth wide.

 

Papyrus felt he really should have noticed the extra rows of teeth, but then again he'd never payed any special attention to the inside of Undyne's mouth. “Wowie.”

 

Undyne leaned back on her pillows. “Yeah, it's pretty great. Give it a few days, the fresh ones'll fill the gaps.” She smirked. “Until then, I get to sound like a broken whistle.”

 

“Sorry.”

 

“Paps, you're killing me here,” Undyne said, heedless of the poor choice of words. “You don't need to keep apologizing. You got that report?”

 

Papyrus handed the bundle to her.

 

“Wow,” she said, “This is way more organized than how I do it. Nice work.” She flipped through the pages casually. “Anything major I should know about?”

 

“In a word,” Papyrus said, “no. Not really.” If anything truly urgent had occurred, Undyne would have been notified directly.

 

Undyne tossed the report onto the bedspread beside her. “I'll read it later, then.”

 

Papyrus studiously did not frown. She could, of course, read the report any time she liked, or not at all. Sans...may have been on to something, though.

 

Papyrus wasn't mad, and wouldn't have had a right to be if he were. It was just that, he'd sort of held out hope that he was at least doing something worthwhile, something that was useful and helpful to her. The thought that she may have made him do all that work just for the sake of it felt awful in a way that was hard to pin down.

 

She kept insisting that she wasn't mad at him, and he didn't understand why. She should be mad. And if putting together a report she wouldn't read was his only atonement, then it was a fairly meaningless one, just a waste of both their time.

 

And aside from that, he'd been… Well. A little bit proud of the work he'd done. It had been tedious and difficult, and possibly pointless, but he'd done his best.

 

He did his best not to think about it. Undyne had been cooped up in bed for a long time, and was dangerously bored. They chatted for an hour or so about this and that. Undyne had done nothing but watch television for the last couple days, and caught Papyrus up on the latest happenings, which didn't take long. Every day was a slow news day in the Underground. He entertained her with gossip he'd picked up from the rest of the guardsmen.

 

As normal as she tried to act, Undyne was still recovering, and eventually dozed off. Papyrus left her to her nap.

 

Alphys was seated at the kitchen table, browsing on her phone. She looked tired. Papyrus didn't know if he really felt like staying, but she was being very kind by looking after Undyne today, and there were dishes in the sink, and this was the first time they'd met 'i.r.l.' and it would be rude to just leave without acknowledging her.

 

He put the kettle on. It seemed like the thing to do. “You're Dr. Alphys, right? Sorry!” he said, when she jumped in her seat. “I didn't mean to startle you.”

 

Alphys' cheeks shaded pink for a moment while she composed herself. “N-no, that's quite all right,” she said. “I, uh, I was spacing out.”

 

There was a gap.

 

“Oh!” Alphys blushed again. “Y-yes, I'm Dr. Alphys. Um.”

 

Papyrus started filling the sink. He could easily finish up the dishes before the water boiled. Plus, he had his back to Dr. Alphys as long as he was at the sink. Maybe she'd be more comfortable that way. “I thought you looked familiar! It was really bothering me when I got here.”

 

The tapping of claws against keys continued. She was probably updating her status. She was very conscientious about her blog. Papyrus mused that it must be because scientists were in the habit of taking notes on everything. “Oh?” she said. “Oh, that's right! You're...” she paused, and the growing embarrassment was palpable. “You're coolskeleton95, right? I-I'm sorry. I swear I know your name, but I'm blanking.”

 

“That's okay!” Papyrus wondered if he shouldn't have called her by her online handle, instead. Undyne always used Alphys' name, though, so that's how he'd come to think of her as well. “The whole point is to keep your name secret, right? That's half the fun.” He wasn't sure if he even had his name up anywhere obvious. “I'm Papyrus,” he said.

 

He took his gloves off and started on the dishes. It wouldn't take long at all. There were no pots or pans, just bowls and chopsticks. Hmm. Good thing he'd brought that spaghetti. Not everyone was good at cooking, and Undyne needed more than noodles and salt.

 

“Papyrus, right,” she said. “I knew it was something that sounded like that, er...” She typed for a few seconds. “Are you related to a Sans, by any chance? Sorry if that's a stupid question.”

 

Papyrus didn't know why Alphys kept acting like he didn't want her to talk to him. Was facing away from her the wrong move? Oh, well. The dishes were almost finished, anyway. “Yes,” he said, “He's my brother. I didn't know you knew Sans; he's never mentioned you.”

 

That possibly could have been worded better. There are a lot of things Sans doesn't mention, after all.

 

“We're not really friends,” Alphys said. She still had that apologetic edge to her voice. “More like acquaintances.”

 

That described Sans' relationship with most people. Papyrus rinsed the sink clean. She couldn't see him scowling, which was good because she would probably assume that he was upset with her for some mysterious reason.

 

“You, um, didn't have to do that, you know. I-it was my mess.”

 

“Oh, it's no trouble,” Papyrus said, pulling his gloves back on. “I like cleaning. Besides, I'm sure Undyne's been running you off your feet all day.” He glanced back at her while he fixed the tea, and gave her a grin.

 

She didn't dive under the table, so that was good. “The last two days, actually,” she said. “Sorry I'm such a mess. I didn't plan to stay the night, so I didn't have a change of clothes. Figures I meet someone I know when I look like total garbage. Heh...” She fidgeted with her sleeves. They were pretty wrinkled, but she was working hard taking care of someone who was hurt. Anyone would look rumpled.

 

Papyrus still wasn't sure if she even wanted him to stay, but it would be weird to make tea without drinking it, so he brought both mugs over and sat down across from her.

 

“Thanks,” she said.

 

Papyrus smiled. “You're welcome. I hope green is okay-- I see it on your desk a lot when you post pictures, so...”

 

“Yeah, it's my favorite.” Alphys tried for a smile, too. It wasn't a bad effort; a few teeth slipped out of hiding as her lips curled up. “You're, um, really observant.”

 

“I just remember things about people,” Papyrus said. He actually put a lot of work into learning about the people he met, but that could come across as somewhat...off-putting, he'd noticed.

 

Alphys blew on her tea to cool it. “I can't even remember people's names, heh...”

 

“Oh, I hope you don't think I was criticizing you!” This wasn't going so well. Alphys was a lot more relaxed online; he couldn't figure out why she was so awkward around him now. “You're a very busy person, after all. Got a lot of important...science to worry about.” He wasn't entirely sure what she actually did as the Royal Scientist, but he was sure it was very important and complicated.

 

“That's nice of you to say.” Alphys made another attempt at a smile. It was a little better.

 

Papyrus tapped his fingertips against the table. “So,” he said, “how has Undyne been holding up? Until now, I hadn't seen her since… Well. Since.” He curled his hands around his mug, letting the heat seep into his hands. But that reminded him of other, less pleasant warm (warm, wet, bloody) things he'd touched in recent days, so he let go.

 

Alphys' features settled into the worried frown that was her natural expression. “Oh, well,” she said. “Undyne is really tough. She's mostly been sleeping and eating. And yelling.” She scowled briefly, but with more fondness than irritation. “Gerson says that's good. Um.”

 

There was an uncomfortably long pause while Alphys seemed to debate something with herself. Very, very hesitantly, she reached out to give Papyrus the shortest, lightest pat on his hand. It felt like being comforted by a particularly skittish whimsum.

 

“You really shouldn't, um, beat yourself up about it,” she said, mumbling into her mug of tea. “She's going to be okay, and it's not like you meant to...um...”

 

“It doesn't really matter if I meant to or not. I still hurt her.” Undyne would have been dead either way. If things had gone even slightly worse…

 

Alphys went a little pale at that. Papyrus was starting to expect odd reactions from her, so he didn't dwell on it. “It would have mattered to me,” she said, stuttering only slightly. “There's a difference between an accident and… and just being careless or cruel. There has to be.”

 

Papyrus didn't want to argue when she sounded so earnest, so he just sipped his tea. He wanted to go home. Sans would be there, and they could watch TV or talk about cars and he could stop thinking about all this for a few hours. Hopefully.

 

“You, um, h-haven't been online much lately,” Alphys said, surprising him by talking without being prompted. “Before...before this, even. I was getting kind of worried, to be honest.”

 

Oh, no. “I've just been too busy,” Papyrus said. He didn't need yet another person poking at him. Alphys was very cool and nice, and he didn't want to get her into any kind of trouble. “Working a lot.”

 

“Oh, I understand.” Alphys drew designs in a small tea spill with her claw. “If you ever get too stressed out, uh… Well,” she said, “I know you're up late a lot, so I just wanted to say I pretty much live in front of my computer. If you ever need to vent or something, you can always message me. Even if it's something stupid, I-I don't mind.” She was getting red again. “I hope that's not too weird...”

 

“No, that's really nice of you. I'll remember that.” Papyrus chugged the rest of his tea. He needed to leave before he got too emotional. “I should really get home before Sans decides to make Ketchup Surprise for dinner again.”

 

Alphys blinked. “Ketchup Surprise?”

 

Papyrus sighed. “It's ketchup, in a bowl. That's the surprise.”

 

She actually laughed at that, a short little giggle-snort that she forced down immediately. Papyrus couldn't help smiling to himself. Making Alphys laugh felt something like an accomplishment, one that he could take some pride in. He stood to carry his mug to the sink.

 

Alphys stood up, too. “Oh, I can wash these,” she said. “Y-you cleaned everything else.”

 

“Thanks,” Papyrus said. “And thanks for looking after Undyne.”

 

“I don't mind.” Alphys smiled again, almost believable this time. “She's always looking out for me, so it's actually kind of nice to be able to do this for her.”

 

Papyrus wanted to hug her for that, but she might not like that very much. “You're really cool,” he said instead. She flushed and stammered something he couldn't make out. The hug would definitely have been too much for her. “Take care of yourself, too, though. Eat some real food. All you have to do is heat it up, so there's no excuse.”

 

For some reason, she was back to avoiding eye contact. “I, um, I thought that was for Undyne…?” If he didn't know better, Papyrus would think she was trying to avoid trying his spaghetti. Knowing Alphys, though, she was probably just trying to save it all for Undyne. She was very nice.

 

“Nonsense,” Papyrus said. “I made plenty.”

 

“Oh...good.”

 

Papyrus felt a little better knowing that at least he'd provided the two of them with a healthy meal. Better than instant noodles, anyway. Undyne needed vitamins and things if she was going to get her strength back, and who knew the last time Alphys had eaten anything fresh.

 

Maybe he'd bring more food by tomorrow, too. He bet they'd like that.

 

Chapter Text

In the gloom of Waterfall, Papyrus could almost have mistaken the plant on the margins of the shallow pond in this cavern for an echo flower. Perhaps other monsters had done just that, or whispered something to it-- some small, sacred thought shared with the last creature in the Underground that should have such a thing.

 

Papyrus made a quick check of the cavern. No one around, for the moment. “What do you want?”

 

Flowey smiled up at him. “What do you want?”

 

The ferry was only a few hundred yards away. Papyrus could hear the gurgle of the river up ahead. “Don't waste my time,” he said.

 

“Don't waste my time.”

 

“I'm not in the mood for your stupid nonsense tonight,” Papyrus snapped, and kept walking.

 

Until a vine caught him around the ankle and nearly tripped him.

 

I'm not in the mood for your stupid nonsense tonight.”

 

Papyrus stood still, counting the luminescent fungi on the ground in front of him. He didn't want to turn around, so he wouldn't unless Flowey made him.

 

“So, I was thinking,” Flowey said. The vine around Papyrus' ankle flexed, creaking against the leather of his boot. “We had to cut our practice short the other night, and you weren't really at one hundred percent, anyway, were you?”

 

Papyrus didn't know if that called for an answer, so he didn't say anything.

 

“No, you weren't. Silly of me to think you'd be in fighting shape after such a hectic day.” Flowey hummed to himself for a moment. “But you seem to be feeling better now, right? So we can make up our practice tonight, yes?”

 

It wasn't a question. Papyrus nodded, teeth gritted so hard he couldn't talk if he tried.

 

“Good! Remember,” Flowey said, “it'll be our new spot, at the usual time. We're going to try something new, and then I'm going to share that important thing I told you about. Sound good?”

 

Papyrus nodded. He'd agree to anything if Flowey would just leave.

 

The vine unwound itself from his ankle. Papyrus didn't need to turn around to know Flowey had gone; he could tell from the sound.

 

He didn't linger. If he hurried home, he could still have a few hours of normal life tonight.

 

He wasn't looking forward to it as much anymore.

 

 

 

~*~

 

 

 

Leftovers, lumpy couch, the flicker of the TV… All the ingredients were there, but Papyrus couldn't recapture that same feeling of serenity from before. He blamed Flowey's interruption and the imposition of another practice so soon after the last one, but truthfully he didn't know if that had made the difference. That peaceful evening that already felt a lifetime away may well have been a one-off. Or maybe he was just trying too hard-- it was hard to say.

 

Papyrus shoved pasta around with his fork. Normally, he insisted on eating at the table from actual dishes, but that kind of thing didn't feel terribly important anymore. So here they were, eating straight from the storage containers like barbarians. Not that either of them were doing that much eating.

 

“You okay over there, bro?”

 

Papyrus looked up to find Sans studying him from the other end of the couch. “Fine,” he said.

 

Sans waggled his own container. “I can get you a plate if it's bothering you that much.”

 

“It doesn't matter.” Papyrus chewed listlessly. This batch of spaghetti hadn't been one of his better attempts to start with, and he didn't have much of an appetite regardless. “Why do you think they replay these quiz shows?” he said, redirecting the conversation away from himself. “Everyone knows the answers now.”

 

Sans blinked. “You seriously remember all the answers?”

 

“We just saw this two months ago,” Papyrus said, shrugging. Most of the questions weren't all that difficult to begin with. The one with the two trains was just arithmetic, and since it was all multiple choice there wasn't any need to get the exact answer.

 

“Fair enough.”

 

The conversation fizzled out again. Anticipation hung in thick sheets in the air. Papyrus profoundly did not want to leave the house again tonight. Whatever new thing Flowey wanted to try, Papyrus was sure he wouldn't like it. And any news was probably bad. He never looked forward to these practices, but the threat of the unfamiliar had him actively dreading this one.

 

No matter how badly he wanted time to stop and let him stay in this mediocre hour forever, the clock kept right on ticking. At last, he couldn't put off getting ready anymore.

 

Sans watched him, playing with the drawstrings of his jacket in poorly-hidden and increasing agitation. “Uh, bro? So, I was thinking...”

 

Papyrus looked up from the straps he was fastening. He'd gotten the hang of buckling on even the tricky pieces of his armor, and it didn't take even half the time it had when he'd first kitted up. It was no more comfortable than before, but he was used to it now. “Yes?” he prompted, when Sans didn't go on.

 

“Well, you know how you're always complaining that I'm lazy and out of shape, and how I'd probably die if an icicle fell off the roof and hit me?”

 

It had been weeks and weeks since Papyrus had made any real mention of Sans' fitness, or lack thereof. They both knew that, and one of them thought they knew why, so Papyrus didn't dispute it. “And?”

 

Sans shoved his hands into his pockets, drawing himself into less of a slouch. “I figured maybe it's time to do something about that, so I'm gonna tag along with you.”

 

“Absolutely not.” Of course Sans would choose now to give a damn about his health.

 

...But then this likely wasn't anything to do with Sans finally deciding to start training.

 

Any other time, Papyrus would be more than happy to work with him, whatever his brother's motivation really was. Sans was incredibly frail. It had always been a source of anxiety for Papyrus, how easily he tired, how easily he could get hurt. And maybe the exercise would do him some good in other ways, make him feel a little better.

 

But not now. Now, Sans needed to stay in the house where he was safe.

 

“It wasn't really a question,” Sans said. His grin slipped. “You're not even on patrol tonight, so what's the problem?”

 

Papyrus glowered, and pointedly went back to fastening the last of the plates. “I'd really rather you didn't, Sans.”

 

Sans' face fell into an outright frown. “Yeah, well,” he said, “Guess who has two thumbs and doesn't care what you'd rather? You can't keep me from going unless you stay in, so deal with it.”

 

For just a flash, Papyrus' mind went totally blank with rage. He'd never been so mad at Sans in his life. Briefly, he considered some way he really could keep Sans from following him, but…no. Locking his brother in the shed was something there was no coming back from. There was no way to justify or explain it without putting Sans in more danger, so he'd have to come up with something else.

 

He was going to be late to practice. He'd just have to hope that Flowey wouldn't come looking for him.

 

“Fine,” Papyrus said, jabbing a finger in Sans' direction. “But I'm not going easy on you; it's not my problem if you can't keep up.”

 

Sans shrugged. “Hey, don't write me off just yet. I might surprise you.” His grin crept back into place, but it fell a little flat.

 

Anger whip-lashed hard into guilt. Sans was just lonely and worried-- Papyrus had no call to be so sharp with him. And hadn't Papyrus decided just today that he was going to make more of an effort to support his brother?

 

God, but he couldn't have had worse timing…

 

Papyrus locked the door behind them, and kept quiet as they walked down the road that led past the library. Most everyone was indoors at this time of night, and a fresh snow was filling in the myriad tracks and footprints that criss-crossed the town, giving the ground a softer look. Papyrus liked when it was snowing. He liked the clean white blanket it created over everything, the almost-nothing whisper of sound it made as it was falling. He liked how it muffled the world for a little while.

 

He sighed. Snow or not, this was shaping up to be a bad night. It just went to show that things could always get worse.

 

“Do you remember how to get to that hill?” he said, breaking his silence once they were near the edge of town.

 

“Yeah,” Sans said. “I think so.”

 

Papyrus picked up the pace. “Good. For a warm-up,” he said, “we're going to run there. Okay?”

 

Sans blanched. “What, all the way?”

 

“If you can't keep up, then go home.”

 

This would be unpleasant in a full suit of armor, but Papyrus could do it. He started running.

 

Cursing, Sans ran, too. His form was atrocious. He put in the effort, though, doing his best to keep up even though he had to take two steps to Papyrus' one. It remained to be seen whether he could last the two miles to the hill.

 

Papyrus, for his part, didn't really want to see that. After the first quarter mile, he sped up. His longer stride ate up the distance, and it wasn't long before he'd built up a significant lead. The armor weighed on him, but however hard he had to work to keep up his pace, Sans had to work even harder not to be left behind entirely. Papyrus could hear faint, breathless grumbling behind him, receding slowly but surely. He slowed just a bit-- he didn't want to get out of sight, or Sans might be tempted to slow down to an easier jog.

 

The trees grew thicker, crowded closer together as they retreated farther into the forest. Papyrus picked his way through the worst of it, leading his brother up every incline, through every snowdrift, and over every fallen log he could manage. He would let Sans nearly catch up only to leave him in the dust again, carefully pacing his brother to ensure that he was as worn out and frustrated as possible when they reached the top of the hill. With any luck, Sans would throw in the towel at that point and head for home.

 

When Sans did crest the top of the hill, wheezing and shaking, Papyrus was waiting for him.

 

“There you are!” Papyrus glared, hands on hips and fighting the urge to run over and make sure Sans was okay. “What took you so long? I've been waiting here for ages!”

 

“No fair,” Sans rasped. “Your legs are, like, twice as long as mine...”

 

Papyrus scoffed. “And I'm carrying what amounts to three of you on my back. It took you over forty minutes to run two miles, Sans; that's absolutely dreadful.” He was actually a little impressed that Sans had made it all the way here without stopping, not that he was going to come out and say it.

 

Sans coasted to a halt at Papyrus' side and sort of gently keeled over into the snow. “A personal best,” he said, quelling Papyrus' brief panic at his collapse. “Think I'm gonna take a little break now.”

 

A break was not what needed to happen. Papyrus couldn't let up until Sans gave in and left. “Oh, no you don't, lazybones!” Papyrus nudged Sans with his boot. “Up!”

 

Sans half-heartedly pitched a handful of snow at him. “I'm dyin', bro. Snow me a little mercy, huh?”

 

“A feeble attempt, just like your running.” Papyrus felt like a cad, but this was necessary for Sans' own safety. “Get up. The night's half over already.”

 

“I got a stitch in my side.”

 

“We barely even have sides, Sans,” Papyrus said, rolling his eyes.

 

“Then it's a miracle. The Angel's coming to take me away.” Sans drew the back of his hand over his brow in a mock swoon. “So long, dear brother! Settle my tab with Grillby when I'm gone.”

 

“Sans! Stop wasting time!” This was taking too long. Papyrus scanned the treeline, looking for any sign of movement. The longer they were in the forest, the more likely something bad was going to happen. He desperately hoped that Flowey was still in the new clearing.

 

Sans grumbled, but pushed himself to his feet. He was clearly worn out. “Fine, I'm up,” he said, visible tremors running through his arms and legs. “What's next, sarge?”

 

Papyrus paused. “When was the last time you used your magic?”

 

“Eh...” Sans did a few calculations on his fingers. He shrugged. “Couldn't say.”

 

Of course. Sans was the more gifted of the two when it came to magical ability. Maybe that was part of the reason why he didn't make any effort to improve. It was only part of the reason, and possibly only a small part, but Papyrus didn't have the luxury of being able to look after his brother's feelings tonight.

 

Right now, he just needed to get Sans to admit defeat without actually hurting him. Given the shape he was in, that could pose a challenge.

 

“Start with something basic, then.”

 

Face screwed up in concentration, Sans raised one hand and tossed out an arc of small bones. They skimmed over the surface of the snow in a widening cone and faded away. He turned to Papyrus with a sheepish grin. “Well,” he said, “that kinda sucked, huh?”

 

It did suck. “That's why you ought to be practicing.” His current predicament aside, Papyrus shuddered to think what would happen if Sans somehow ended up in a fight. “Do it again.”

 

The next arc moved a little faster, lasted a little longer.

 

“Instead of a single arc,” Papyrus said, “do a wave.”

 

Sans sent out a wave. It marched along the ground at a uniform speed, each bone uniformly shaped and spaced. Not very effective as an attack, but neatly formed.

 

Papyrus judged it safe to push a bit more, now that Sans had proven that he still remembered how to cast. “Try an interlocking wave,” he said. It was an attack they both favored; Sans called it 'high-stakes double dutch.' Papyrus didn't care for the name, but he had to admit it described how an opponent looked while they were trying to dodge the attack pretty accurately.

 

The waves passed through each other with mathematical precision. Keeping his attention spread over a larger area than the linear attacks he'd been using would tire Sans out more quickly, so Papyrus drilled him on every variation on the attack he could think of. He had Sans vary the height of the bones, the speed of the waves and their duration, the addition of blue attacks and secondary layers.

 

After half an hour, Papyrus started to get irritated. Sans' endurance was at the same time worse than he'd feared and better than he'd hoped. He was tired, but he cheerfully kept going, defying Papyrus' expectations.

 

“Your patterns are too regular,” Papyrus chided. “Too easy to dodge.” He was running out of ideas. Sans couldn't possibly be enjoying himself; what was it going to take to get him to quit?

 

Whatever. If Sans wouldn't leave, then he might as well address one of his actual weaknesses.

 

If Sans wouldn't leave, there was a chance those weaknesses might become a more immediate problem. Papyrus' checks of the forest around them were bordering on a compulsion. It was getting late. His magic itched across his palms, restless.

 

Sans peered up at him. “Is Mr. Gentleman Duelist seriously telling me to fight dirty?” His voice was unsteady and thin, betraying the toll the drills were taking on him even if his performance hadn't suffered yet.

 

“I'm not saying anything like that! Just...” Papyrus fumbled. His philosophy on fighting had shifted, and he hadn't been aware of that until the moment he had to put it into words. He laid his hand on his brother's shoulder. Under the jacket, the bones felt light, hollow. “If this really happens, you need to win,” he said, at last. Sans couldn't take a fraction of the punishment Papyrus could, not as he was now. His magic was his only defense, and he'd let even that slide.

 

“Wow, okay, um,” Sans mumbled, rocking on his heels for a moment. “Uh, who are you, and what did you do with Papyrus?”

 

Papyrus glared. “Sans, I'm being serious!”

 

Brushing Papyrus' hand aside, Sans took a half step back. He shoved his hands into his jacket pockets. “Yeah, bro, I know,” he said. Something dark passed over his features and was gone, too fast and subtle to parse. “Maybe I need a demo? You know me.” He chuckled. “Slow learner.”

 

Papyrus looked away, opening and closing his fists. His hands felt strangely empty. “That's not going to be happening.”

 

“Come on, bro,” Sans said, shifting his weight into a slightly more confrontational slouch. “You haven't done a damn thing but bark orders at me since we got here.”

 

“That's not my fault.” Papyrus crossed his arms. “Maybe if you'd given me some time to prepare, instead of just inviting yourself along-”

 

“Do you want me around or not?”

 

Papyrus' jaw snapped shut mid-sentence. He blinked.

 

“Because I'm getting confused,” Sans went on, glaring down at the churned-up ground. The fresh snow was filling in and evening out the dips and gouges. It would be treacherous to walk on. “I mean...” He shrugged. “I haven't been pushy, have I? You don't wanna talk about it, so we don't talk about it. You're scaring me, but I'm leaving it alone because that's what you want me to do. And you've been tolerating me for the last few days, since...that thing, so I thought maybe things were getting better, a little.”

 

“Sans...”

 

“And I don't know what I expected tonight; I just thought, I don't know… You spend all this time alone out here, and you're always nagging me about this stuff, and it could have been,” Sans gestured vaguely with one hand. He was angry, his words clipped and his voice creeping higher. “It could have been...fun, or something. Like that day last week. Like...like before. I thought maybe we could help each other out, like we always do. All you've been trying to do this whole time is get me to give up and leave.”

 

Papyrus felt about an inch tall. “This just isn't a good time, that's all,” he said. He checked the trees again, unable to meet Sans' eyes. The itching was getting worse. The forest was quiet, and Sans was raising his voice, and he felt so very, very exposed up here.

 

“Oh, sure, it's not a good time.” Papyrus could practically hear Sans' eyes rolling. “I swear to god, it's like you're a different person, and I don't even know why. I'm so tired of this!”

 

“Leave, then.” Papyrus tried for sternness, but his voice cracked. He moved to cross his arms again and ended up sort of hugging himself instead. Trying to comfort himself, or trying to hold something in, or both.

 

His brother stood up straight. “Excuse me?” Oh, Sans was pissed. No mistake.

 

“If I'm upsetting you so much, then leave,” Papyrus repeated, with a little more feeling. “I wanted to be by myself, so go away.” He hated that he had to do this, but he was over an hour late already. And he was getting twitchy and he felt weird, and that couldn't be good.

 

Sans glared, face pinched and shrinking in on himself. “You've gotta be kidding me.”

 

Papyrus took a deep breath. He could do this. It was for Sans' own good. He wasn't safe here. “No,” he said. “You're the allegedly 'funny' one, not me. I don't know what makes you think you'll do me any good when you can't even handle yourself. Go back to town, Sans.” He looked down his nasal bone at Sans. It was easy to pull off a haughty look, given the height advantage. “I don't want you here. I can't use smaller words than that.”

 

Sans flinched like he'd been hit. He recovered quickly, though, darting forward to stand toe to toe with Papyrus. “You know what?” he said, voice quavering and tears gathering at the corners of his eye sockets. “Fuck you, Papyrus! You don't see me treating you like garbage just because I had a bad day. Which is every goddamn day, by the way!” His finger prodded Papyrus' breastplate with a hard tic. “I'm done. So, you better tell me what the hell your problem is right.” Tic. “Fucking.” Tic. “Now.”

 

Magic shivered up Papyrus' spine, tickled the roof of his mouth. He was angry and scared, and starting to panic. This was turning bad. He felt wrong. “I don't have to tell you anything,” he hissed, desperate. “Go away!”

 

“Make me!” Sans shoved him, putting all his weight behind it.

 

Reflexively, Papyrus swung, backhanding Sans to the ground. Both brothers froze, shocked.

 

Sans moved first, bringing his hands up to shield himself. “W-whoa...” He wasn't looking at Papyrus-- his fearful stare was fixed on a point just above Papyrus' head.

 

Papyrus felt the flow of his magic, and realized what his brother was staring at. No, no, no…! Spent magic fell around them like snow as Papyrus frantically tore down whatever had formed when he'd lashed out.

 

Slowly, like he was facing down a dangerous animal, Sans stumbled to his feet. His outstretched hand could have been beckoning Papyrus closer or holding him at bay; it was impossible to tell. “Bro?”

 

The single syllable punched through the shock, letting panic take hold in earnest. “Get away from me!” Papyrus' first impulse was to put his brother on the ground again. He knew Sans couldn't-- would never-- hurt him, but that one hard push had been enough to set off this and he didn't understand…!

 

He turned and sprinted down the far side of the hill. He had to get away. His magic swamped him, choking him, and he forced it down. Down, down, down and it was going to escape, he couldn't keep it under. He was going to go off and they were miles from town, and Sans was so fragile.

 

Why was this happening?

 

Papyrus heard footsteps following him, heard Sans calling to him. He couldn't make out the words, all his higher functions washed out with dumb, primal terror. Get away! Hold it down, hold it in…! Get away far away he was faster he could lose him get to the trees hold it down down down down keep running-

 

Icy blue filled his vision. He stumbled under his own momentum, tried to stop or change direction and wound up slamming into the fence of bones Sans had raised in front of him. Electric cold zapped through him, blue-white pain. It flipped the switch on his fight-or-flight response, and his magic ripped free, unspooling in every direction out of all control.

 

Distantly, separated by space or the drug haze of absolute fear, Papyrus could hear Sans shouting.

 

Weight that wasn't weight pulled him down, hard enough to knock the wind out of him if he'd had lungs. He clawed at the ground, leaving furrows in the snow, every movement a monumental effort. The surface of his bones prickled with the familiar sensation of blue. Sans was very good at blue, Papyrus recalled, dimly, through his panic. He didn't even need an attack as a vector.

 

Papyrus tried to grasp at his magic, to reel it back in. Half-formed waves snaked along the ground and lashed the air, directionless and knife-sharp, seeking something, anything alive to target. Ethereal fire wreathed his hands and licked up his arms, arsenic blue and painfully bright. He couldn't hold it.

 

Sans ran half tripping down the hillside. “Oh, fuck!” He chanted the phrase like a spell. “Oh, fuck, oh fuck, goddamn it!”

 

“Stay back!” Papyrus shouted, voice hoarse and weak. His attacks bled his strength away with no way to cut them off. He thrashed against the force pulling him down. He needed to get farther away from Sans.

 

Sans simply pressed harder, pinning him flat against the ground. Steel groaned ominously around him, and Papyrus wondered exactly how ironic it would be to be crushed by his armor.

 

Beyond the blinding, chaotic light of his own magic, Papyrus could make out the single lantern glow of Sans' magic, contained and controlled as it should be. Sans jigged anxiously at the edge of Papyrus' range, wanting to get closer but not daring to put himself in the path of a stray attack. Thankfully, Sans' range was slightly larger, but neither of them knew by precisely how much.

 

“Back up!” An arc of partially congealed bones collapsed into magical noise mere yards away from where Sans was standing.

 

“Sorry, can't do that,” Sans called, voice strained. He must have been holding Papyrus at the edge of his own range. “You'd just run off again.” He paced back and forth, just out of reach of the attacks breaking like surf in front of him. “Bro, you gotta relax! Try to breathe, or something!”

 

Breathing was easier said than done. Had Papyrus been the type of monster that needed air, he'd have been in serious trouble by now. Sans was pressing hard enough that he could feel his long bones bend slightly when he tried to raise his limbs, and his ribcage was compressed to the point of pain. The ache gave his panic focus, a pivot point, and he tried to ground himself to it.

 

With considerable effort, he could take very shallow breaths. He concentrated on that, trying to ignore the maelstrom in favor of listening to the soft creak of his ribs. In, and hold. Out, and hold. Over and over. Over and over.

 

He didn't count his breaths, didn't know how long he waited, crushed down into the snow while his magic raged around him. In the end, he couldn't tell if he'd successfully calmed down or if he'd simply burned through all available fuel. He didn't know when Sans had approached him, but when he felt his brother's hand on his arm his flinch was only a flinch. Nothing else.

 

“Easy, easy. I got you, Papyrus.” Sans leaned over so Papyrus could see him. He looked exhausted, and tear tracks stained his face. “You okay now?”

 

Papyrus croaked a laugh. “Okay how?”

 

“If I let go, are you gonna dust me?” Sans knelt down next to him.

 

“No,” Papyrus said, after some thought. After more thought, he added, “...Don't think so.”

 

“I guess that's good enough,” Sans said, and the weight that wasn't weight disappeared.

 

Papyrus curled up on himself as much as his armor would allow. He thought he ought to be crying, or something. But then that would require energy, and he was utterly spent. “I'm sorry.” He hoped Sans could hear him-- anything over a whisper was just too much effort.

 

“No,” Sans sighed, “this was my fault. It was a dumb idea.” He brushed his fingertips over the side of Papyrus' face, sighing again when Papyrus cringed at the unexpected sting. “Man, you got pretty scuffed up. Sorry,” he said. “I was sure you'd stop in time.”

 

The bones. Right. Papyrus reached up with a hand that felt oddly light now and touched his face, wincing. Rough, pitted abrasions trailed from brow to halfway down his jaw on the left side of his face. It felt like he probably had matching abrasions running all down that side of his body, too. He hadn't been hit with the business end of a blue attack in years; he'd forgotten how much they hurt. “It's okay,” he said. The sting would fade. He'd had worse. “You were trying to help.”

 

Sans leaned against him, likely too tired to hold himself up anymore. “Yeah, I made you have a nervous breakdown, and then I jacked up your face. Super helpful. Go, me.”

 

Papyrus moved to do...something soothing. He wasn't in a state to plan things out. Whatever he intended to do, he misjudged how hard it would be to move his arm and ended up boffing Sans in the side of the head. “Sorry,” he said, and patted Sans clumsily, square in the face. He let his arm drop back down. Moving was clearly not worth it right now. “Didn't want to hurt you.”

 

One solid hit. That's all it would have taken. No possibility of rescue, nothing left to heal. He shivered.

 

“You didn't,” Sans said.

 

They sat in silence for several minutes, quietly horrified and so, so tired.

 

Papyrus watched the snow fall. It was coming down heavier now, big and fluffy. Perfect for snowballs. He remembered something. “Every day,” he said, and coughed to clear some of the scratchiness from his voice. “Every day is bad?”

 

“Yeah, sorry about that.” Sans put his hood up, tugging it down to keep the snowflakes out of his eye sockets. “It's not because of you. I mean,” he said, “that's not really helping, but like you said-- you're allowed to have problems, too.” He leaned back, laying his head against Papyrus' breastplate with a hollow clack. “Don't suppose you wanna tell me what those are now…?”

 

Papyrus shifted his arm out of the way. From this angle, he could see up under the hood to meet Sans' eyes. “Why is every day bad?” he countered. “Why did you stop trying?”

 

Sans sighed, scowling up at the hill. “I'll tell,” he said, “if you do.”

 

His gaze returned to Papyrus, and Papyrus had to look away.

 

“Yeah,” Sans said. “I figured.”

 

Papyrus scrubbed at his eye sockets. There were those tears—better late than never. Great. “Sorry,” he said, for what felt like the thousandth time. “I want to.”

 

Sans sighed, also for what felt like the thousandth time. “Then why don't you?”

 

“I just can't.” No matter what.

 

They fell silent again for a while.

 

“God...”

 

Papyrus started, spooked out of the light doze he'd slipped into. He looked up at Sans, questioning.

 

“All that,” Sans said, that tell-tale quaver back in his voice. “After all that, we're just gonna sit here and cry ourselves to sleep in the snow in the middle of the goddamn forest because we w-won't talk.” A noise bubbled up in his throat, somewhere between a laugh and a sob. “We're a mess.”

 

Papyrus made a wordless sound of agreement. Gingerly, he pushed himself up to his knees, catching Sans when the movement jostled him. They both took a moment to wipe their faces dry, studiously not looking at each other.

 

Sans stood first, and offered his hand to help Papyrus up. Papyrus took it, careful not to actually pull at all. He was tempted to just get rid of the armor; it was so blasted heavy. But it was expensive, he knew, and it would rust in the snow even if he came back for it tomorrow. So he stood, shaking under the weight.

 

They skirted around the hill, picking their way through the drifts because it was still easier than climbing, until they got back to the path they'd taken.

 

Papyrus watched Sans weave along half-drunk with exhaustion. “I can carry you, if you want,” he said.

 

Sans shot him a skeptical look. “No, you can't,” he said, turning his attention back to making sure the ground was where he thought it was. “I'm good to walk.”

 

They didn't say anything else after that.

 

The walk back to the house was interminable. Snowdin, when they reached it, was asleep and silent, dreamlike. Their front door took an eon of fumbling with keys and shaky hands. The TV was still on-- too much work to turn it off.

 

Papyrus shucked off every plate of armor he could lose without stopping, letting each piece thud to the floor, a trail of cold and heavy steel. The stairs were endless, but to hell and back with that couch. His bed was neatly made, and it was too much work to turn down the covers, so he just let himself fall onto it.

 

He felt the mattress dip, felt Sans press against him, back to back. Felt the hitching of his brother's shoulders, caught the barely-audible sobbing he tried to muffle with his jacket sleeves.

 

Papyrus had no more tears to cry. He was numb. He was grateful.

 

Dawn wasn't far off. There would be consequences, he knew. Later, he would be frightened. Later, there would be apologies and begging and fear and pain. But right now, he didn't care.

 

He didn't care about anything.

 

 

Chapter Text

Papyrus woke to a rhythmic tapping on the windowpane. He was a light sleeper; unaccustomed sounds woke him easily and it was just as well that he didn't need much sleep.

 

He sighed, groggy and reluctant to return to consciousness. There was never any outside indication of what time of day it was, and he couldn't see the clock from here, but he didn't feel rested. He didn't know if it was lingering fatigue or just a desire to not be awake. He wondered if this was what Sans felt all the time, if that was why he slept so much.

 

Sans slept like the dead, snoring softly and mumbling unintelligibly under his breath. He hadn't moved an inch, still curled up on his side at Papyrus' back. Skeletons, by nature, generated very little heat, but the gentle pressure was comforting on its own.

 

The tapping came again, just as he'd started to drift off. Annoying. Must be a tree branch scratching at the glass. He resolved to ignore it.

 

Shave and a hair-cut…

 

Papyrus went rigid. That wasn't a tree branch. That tapping wasn't random.

 

Shave and a hair-cut...two bits…

 

Sans was hard to wake up even when Papyrus tried, but he was careful anyway, climbing slowly out of bed, up and over the side. He hadn't bothered to take off his greaves; they rattled and creaked as he moved. Papyrus glanced over his shoulder. Sans was still asleep. Good.

 

Papyrus padded as silently as possible across the room. The tapping had stopped now; he leaned over the top of his computer monitor to see out the window.

 

“Oh, good, you're up.”

 

Papyrus clapped a hand over his mouth to keep from shouting and jumped back. The next several seconds were spent trying to coax the blue flame that leapt up in his free hand into extinguishing itself.

 

A soft sound behind him made him flinch again. He turned to its source, trembling. His magic threw weak, flickering light around the room, making shadows dance along the walls. Sans had shifted, rolling onto his back into the space Papyrus had vacated. Papyrus held perfectly still, and after a moment, he heard his brother's snoring pick back up.

 

Thank god.

 

He turned back to the window, where Flowey looked in at him with a bland smile. “Don't wake your brother,” he scolded, speaking softly through the glass. “Come outside.”

 

Flowey sank out of sight.

 

Papyrus stood there in the middle of his bedroom, hand cupped to his chest to shade the light. He did nothing but breathe, in and out, for several minutes. He couldn't stay here. He had to go. He gathered his will and pushed, felt the magic recede, resisting, until the light flickered out. The itch was back, skittering over his bones. But his reserves were spent after the night, his magic threadbare and unsteady. He could hold it down, for now.

 

He left, descending the stairs like a condemned man.

 

Flowey was waiting behind the house, just on the near side of the trees that backed up to the riverbank. The house's fairy lights cast a multicolored glow over the undisturbed snow. Papyrus would have found it pretty, if his attention weren't completely fixed on Flowey.

 

“Good morning, friend!” Flowey chirped, swaying back and forth on his stem. “Why don't you sit right here beside me? We need to talk.”

 

Papyrus sank to his knees, the snow softly scrunching under him. “I m-missed practice,” he said, trying valiantly to keep his voice steady. “I'm sorry.”

 

Flowey gave him a considering look. “Yes,” he said, “That is one of the things I wanted to talk about, Papyrus. You made a pretty silly decision, didn't you?”

 

“I'm sorry,” Papyrus repeated, as if it would help. “My brother...”

 

“Why did you let him make you miss our practice? You know how important this is.” Flowey frowned, looking more disappointed than anything.

 

He was being led into something, he was sure, but he didn't know what. “He wouldn't leave.”

 

“Why didn't you make him stay in the house?” Flowey looked genuinely puzzled.

 

Papyrus blinked. “I...I can't really make him do anything…?” He knew that was the wrong answer, but he just didn't know what Flowey was angling for.

 

Flowey giggled. “What do you mean, silly goose? You're much bigger and stronger than he is!”

 

“That's horrible,” Papyrus said, recoiling at the very implication. Bullying Sans was not an option. The thought made him feel ill.

 

“You know what would be really horrible?” Flowey's expression turned somber. “Accidentally killing your brother. I can't think of a more awful thing, can you?” He tilted his face to one side. “You were pretty close to fratricide last night, friend. And you can't blame it on me this time.”

 

Sudden dizziness swept over him, and Papyrus braced himself with one hand on the ground. “You know?” Of course he knew. Of course he did.

 

“Naturally, when you didn't show up I went looking for you,” Flowey said. “I was worried; you're usually so dependable.” He winked. “It wasn't really that hard to find you. You went up like a crate of firecrackers-- you're just lucky no one else saw.”

 

That, at least, had been lucky. Or else the teenagers were still keeping away from the hill, as unlikely as it seemed. Papyrus would have thought curiosity would have outweighed caution by now.

 

“Now,” Flowey went on, “I know you know that I can't just let this go, but I want you to understand I'm not doing this because I enjoy it.”

 

A pair of vines hooked around Papyrus' jaw, in the space behind his teeth on both sides, and tugged him off balance. He gagged; the intrusion felt odd, choking. He tossed his head, pulling back on a thoughtless reflex like a horse fighting a bridle.

 

“Easy, Papyrus,” Flowey said, gently. “I've got you. Don't hurt yourself.”

 

One hand halfway to a vine, Papyrus stopped cold. Whatever was going to happen, fighting would only make it worse. Past experience had taught him well. He forced himself to hold still. He could hear a faint, high whine from somewhere very nearby. After a few seconds, he realized the sound was coming from him. He swallowed, half-gagging again on the vines, and forced down the sound. Forced down the magic. Waited.

 

Flowey smiled. “Good boy,” he said. “Since I know you're sorry, I'll go easy on you. Sound fair? This'll only take a couple minutes.”

 

Papyrus couldn't nod. It was taking everything he had to hold still and keep himself together. He felt oddly separated from himself, like he was watching this happen to someone else.

 

“I won't break it,” Flowey said, in a way that was apparently supposed to be consoling. “I promise. Now...” The vines tightened, shifting slightly as Flowey found the best grip, the best point of leverage. “Don't wake your brother.”

 

The vine on Papyrus' injured side snapped downward, sharp and quick. A loud crunch filled his awareness on that side, blotting out all other sound, reverberating through the bones. And then pain. Like falling through a thin patch of ice, it swallowed him up. He bit down on a scream to find that he couldn't close his mouth. The attempt made the pain worse, sharper, and he choked on every decibel of sound that tried to escape. He was hyperventilating; he didn't know how to make himself stop. His hands hovered inches away from his face. His instinct was to clutch at his jaw, but that would only hurt more. He resisted.

 

“Good,” Flowey said. “Gee, look how tough you've gotten!”

 

Papyrus was only half listening. Most of his focus was on staying upright and keeping quiet. His magic hammered at the inside of his chest and skull. Ruthlessly, he pushed it down. Sans was sleeping twenty yards away. He couldn't. He couldn't let it. Not again.

 

Flowey watched him, his bright smiling turning contemplative. “Before I help you fix your jaw, Papyrus,” he said, “I want you to meditate for a moment on what you would do if your brother died. I'm sure you've been thinking about it all night, but just indulge me.”

 

Somehow, through the light-headedness and the throbbing pain radiating out from his jaw to his face and skull and neck, Papyrus managed to organize a glare.

 

“Sure,” Flowey said, “You'd feel really bad, right? But hear me out. You wouldn't have to keep worrying about him all the time. You wouldn't have to wait for the worst to happen, because it would already be over!” Flowey tapped a leaf against his lowest petals, thoughtful. “In a way, wouldn't it be almost a relief?”

 

Papyrus was physically unable to talk, or he'd have let Flowey know what he thought about that, and damn the consequences.

 

Flowey shrugged. “Just an idle thought. Okay,” he said, “Put your hand right here.” He guided Papyrus' hand to brace it just under his jaw. It hurt. “Keep your head still-- we're going to shove that puppy right back where it belongs! Stay quiet! One...two...”

 

Flowey forced his hand up and back, and Papyrus heard the crunch again. This time, he couldn't help whimpering.

 

In a matter of seconds, the near-unbearable pain ebbed away until Papyrus merely had a pounding headache and a jaw that felt like he'd taken a bad punch.

 

“There! Isn't that better?” Flowey let go with his vines; they snaked back into the ground, leaving only faint depressions in the snow. “You'll have a headache, and you probably shouldn't open your mouth too wide,” he said, “but after practice tonight you'll be all healed up, good as new!”

 

Papyrus sat rubbing his jaw, feeling around the joint carefully and ignoring how much it hurt to do so. He was glad he hadn't touched it while it was popped loose, the same way he'd been thankful that he hadn't been able to see his arm. Feeling the end of his mandible, the surfaces that shouldn't have been visible or reachable when it was properly attached, would have been too much. He wouldn't have been able to keep silent, then.

 

“My sibling dislocated my shoulder, once.” Flowey was watching him, an expression very like sympathy on his face. “We were rough-housing, and they were stronger than me. That kind of thing happened sometimes.”

 

Talking would hurt, and there wasn't much Papyrus wanted to say to Flowey right now, so he didn't. He just stared.

 

Flowey paid no mind. He seemed to be years away. “Father found us, and he fixed it. Held me still and pushed my arm back where it was supposed to be. He said he'd count to three but he only counted to two.” As he spoke, he seemed to soften around the edges, as though something rotten and stinking had peeled away to reveal cleaner layers underneath. “It hurt terribly, but only for a moment.”

 

It was too easy to forget that Flowey had once been someone else, something else, before this. Just a child. A dangerous, unpredictable child, but a child nonetheless. Papyrus found himself listening despite his own upset. His magic scratched at his insides a little less.

 

“Papyrus,” Flowey said, more alert now, more present. “Would you like to know something important? A story no one else in the Underground knows?”

 

Papyrus was going to hear about whatever it was either way, but he was...curious. Hesitantly, he nodded.

 

“Good! You're my favorite, Papyrus, so you're the only one I can tell this big secret. You see,” Flowey said, “I'm...a failure! A big loser!” He bobbed on his stem, grinning.

 

Papyrus blinked. That wasn't what he'd expected at all. He made a confused noise.

 

Flowey giggled. “That's right, you need some context, don't you? Well, remember how I said I died after my sibling?”

 

Papyrus nodded. He remembered that conversation with perfect clarity-- the last night he'd been happy, when he'd felt like himself. Where was this going?

 

“We died the very same day,” Flowey went on, his smile drooping. “And it destroyed our family, and it all came to nothing...and that's all because of me. I thought I was being good, but I was just a coward.” His brow furrowed, like he was squinting at something very far off and small. “I carried my sibling's body outside after they died, like they asked. And I was so strong with them-- I could do anything, anything I wanted. And I could have gotten six more human souls and broken the barrier. Just like we agreed. It would have been easy.”

 

Papyrus gasped. It stung, but that was easily ignored.

 

Flowey kept talking, though it felt like he was talking more to himself, now. “I would still be alive, and my parents would be happy, and everyone would be free. If I hadn't been such a crybaby...” He blinked, and smiled again. “But it was all just a waste, in the end! And here we are, going around and around and getting nowhere.”

 

This didn't make sense. How had Flowey gotten...outside? Did he mean the surface? How? The barrier was in the way. How could Flowey's sibling have a body after they were dead? Did Flowey mean he'd carried the dust? But he'd have said that if that's what he meant…

 

“I can see the gears turning,” Flowey said, smirking. “You're smart, Papyrus. I don't care what anyone else says.”

 

Papyrus barely heard him. Half-remembered stories and rumors were stitching themselves together with what Flowey had just told him. Flowey had been a boss monster; he'd said that all those nights ago.

 

Six more souls. And didn't humans have bodies that kept their shape after death? And what would let a monster cross the barrier…?

 

What other two children had the Underground lost on the very same day? What other family had broken apart under the weight of that grief? Why had the king begun collecting souls? Why was every human that fell down to this place his by right?

 

The whole Underground had mourned. It had been before Papyrus' time, but it was an inescapable piece of history. Every monster down to the youngest child knew the tale.

 

The king and queen had once had two children. Those children were gone. ...But that wasn't quite true, was it?

 

Papyrus spoke, the pain in his jaw unimportant. “You're-”

 

“Please, don't say the name.” Flowey was strangely quiet. “I'm just Flowey. Flowey the flower.”

 

Sitting there in the snow, nursing a re-located jaw next to the person responsible for everything that was wrong with his life, Papyrus suddenly and forcefully had no idea how to feel.

 

He reached out with one shaking hand, thought better of it, and pulled it back. No. That would probably be unwise. “Why...” he said, trying to wrap his mind around Flowey's 'big secret.' “Why did you tell me this?”

 

Flowey actually looked unsure, just for a moment. Then he giggled, and all was back to normal. “Maybe I'll tell you at practice, friend!” He winked. “Gotta give you a reason to show up, right?”

 

As if Papyrus would miss another one. Flowey had said that he'd let him off easy, and Papyrus believed him. He still felt a lingering dread, expecting an additional punishment that wasn't forthcoming. He'd braced himself for rage, and when it hadn't shown up Papyrus should have felt relieved. Instead, he was tense, uneasy. Waiting for the rest.

 

“Papyrus?” Sans' voice called from the front door.

 

Papyrus jumped. How long had Sans been awake? Had he looked outside? The curtains in his bedroom were wide open; he'd have been able to see...

 

In a blink, Flowey was gone, leaving Papyrus alone in the snow just as Sans rounded the corner of the house.

 

 

~

 

 

Flowey didn't go far. He resurfaced among the trees, hidden from sight. For the second time in as many days, that interloper had nearly spoiled the game. And just when he'd given out some crucial exposition! Irritating.

 

“There you are!” Sans loped over to where Papyrus was kneeling. He was barefoot. “What are you doing out here?”

 

Papyrus gaped stupidly up at him for a second. “I just, um,” he said. “...I needed some air.”

 

That was lame. Papyrus was still a lousy liar, all improvements aside.

 

Sans fidgeted with the zipper toggle on his jacket. “I, uh, I woke up and you weren't there. And you weren't in the house, so I...” He grimaced, seeming to realize how clingy he was acting. “I don't know. I guess I freaked out a little?”

 

“Sorry.”

 

Sans helped Papyrus to his feet. Or, more accurately, Papyrus did a good job of acting like Sans was helping him. Flowey caught the lack of tension in Papyrus' arm as he stood, the way he timed his movements to sync up with his brother's with practiced ease. He wondered if the act worked. Did Sans really believe he was strong enough to pull Papyrus upright, or was this another of their mutual fictions?

 

They stood there staring at the ground like idiots. Then, finally dropping the pretense of not being a needy sack of trash, Sans grabbed Papyrus in a hug. His hands bunched up in the fabric of Papyrus' shirt, his head buried against his taller sibling's chest. He was probably crying, or something. Pathetic.

 

Papyrus hugged him back.

 

Flowey had no soul, and therefore no emotions. So he knew it wasn't jealousy that was boiling up at the back of his throat, hot and acidic. No, he probably just thought those two were stupid and codependent and gross. And he was probably just frustrated at how Sans kept getting in the way of the game.

 

He'd told Papyrus who he was, and Papyrus hadn't pitied him, had barely reacted at all. That was good! That was progress! He wanted his favorite toy to be cool and tough and useful, not a soft-hearted fool. Not a big crybaby.

 

He hadn't known what the best course of action would have been if Papyrus had actually followed through and touched him. Papyrus hadn't had permission to touch him, so Flowey would have had to punish him for that, of course. And that would have spoiled the effect of the story! So it was a good thing Papyrus had been smart enough to stop himself. This run was going very well!

 

Yes. Of course it was going well. This was just what he'd wanted.

 

Sans pried himself away several minutes later, scrubbing at his eye sockets with his sleeve. “Uh,” he said, voice shaking like the wimp he was. “Come back inside…?”

 

Papyrus nodded, and they walked together around the corner of the house and out of sight.

 

Flowey watched the pair from the trees, letting the not-jealousy wash over him. It was a novelty, and that was what he'd been after in the first place, wasn't it? He couldn't feel, not really. Not jealousy, not love, not even anger, except as a kind of intellectual exercise. He knew when things were stupid or annoying or amusing. He couldn't experience these things, but he knew when they were there, like seeing the sky through the barrier. It was there-- just unreachable.

 

He hadn't been this close to reaching it in a long, long time.

 

...It was too bad, really, that Sans had survived the night. Flowey had been pretty pissed off when Papyrus didn't show, but that would have more than made up for it. That walking trashbag took up too much of Papyrus' time. He was getting in the way and impeding their progress.

 

Now that Flowey had finally figured out what he wanted to do with this run, that was annoying.

 

Nothing he could do but be patient, for now.

 

He was good at being patient. All he had was time.

 

 

Chapter Text

The house was a little chilly. Sans had left the front door wide open when he'd come outside. Not that it really mattered; the cold didn't do them any harm, and wasn't even that bothersome-- they just preferred warmth when they had the choice. Both bedroom doors had been left open as well, and although he couldn't see from the living room, Papyrus expected the doors to the bathroom and closets were open, too.

 

Sans mumbled something about starting coffee and retreated to the kitchen, leaving Papyrus standing amongst the pieces of his kit that he'd left strewn across the floor. He was getting as messy as Sans.

 

As he gathered his armor, Papyrus frowned at the small spots of rust that were already forming on the metal. Right, he'd probably been covered with snow, and he certainly hadn't taken the time to dry it off when they'd gotten home. Best to clean it up now, before it got any worse. He piled his armor up by the couch and went to the shed to hunt down supplies.

 

He was halfway across the yard when he heard the door open behind him. He turned, and Sans skidded to a halt in the snow.

 

Papyrus frowned. “I'm just grabbing a few things,” he said.

 

“Right,” Sans said, rubbing the back of his neck, sheepish. “I knew that.” The lights in his eye sockets were constricted to sharp pinpricks. Where did Sans think he was going to go? He was a bundle of nerves this morning. Which was understandable, but it was still out of character and Papyrus didn't like it.

 

“Since you're out here, you can help me carry things?” Papyrus said, continuing on to the shed. Telling Sans to go back inside felt cruel, somehow.

 

Despite its size, the shed didn't store much. Most of the space had been converted into a sort of holding area, just in case a human happened. Better safe than sorry, though Sans liked to give him lip about the width of the bars. Lumber wasn't cheap! Besides, humans were probably pretty big, to go along with being so dangerous. It was better than nothing. He'd even gone the extra mile and added a thick layer of clean, dry straw and a dog bed, reasoning that any human he managed to catch would be less likely to try escaping if it felt like it was being treated with some measure of hospitality. A little kindness never hurt.

 

The small space outside the makeshift cell held everything Papyrus used to maintain his puzzles. He grabbed anything he thought he could use now, handing it off to Sans. Polishing rags, steel wool, a rasp, and machine oil to use in lieu of armor polish. That would do well enough.

 

The coffee was ready when they got back inside. Sans brought a mug over.

 

“Thanks.” Papyrus had totally forgotten about the coffee already, even though he'd smelled it as soon as they were through the door. He set the mug down at his side. He was fixated on getting his armor clean, sitting cross-legged on the floor and scrubbing at the gauntlet in his lap.

 

Sans shrugged. “No prob-- I know how you get when there's a mess.” He stood there for a moment, then knelt down on Papyrus' bad side. “Man, I clocked you worse than I thought...”

 

Papyrus flinched when Sans prodded his face. It hurt like blazes, even though Sans had barely touched him. He hissed under his breath.

 

Sans snatched his hand back like he'd burned it. “Sorry!”

 

“It's okay; it's just tender, that's all.” Papyrus smiled, and immediately regretted it. Everything from the shoulders up was throbbing.

 

Sans frowned. “It's starting to bruise. You want me to try and heal it a little?” Sans' healing magic was the one area where he fell short of Papyrus, for whatever reason. It might have had something to do with his own poor health.

 

“No, you're still tired,” Papyrus said. “It's fine. I can heal it myself later.” Talking hurt. He hoped his clipped answers weren't coming off as irritated or mad. He just really wanted to keep his face still as much as possible.

 

Sans nodded, but then something seemed to catch his eye. “What's that?” He laid a hand on Papyrus' skull and tipped his head to the side. “Did I do that?”

 

With his face turned away, Papyrus couldn't see what Sans was looking at, but there weren't many possible guesses. “It's fine,” he said. Ow.

 

“No, it's not fine!” Sans leaned in closer, peering at Papyrus' jaw joint. “...It popped out, didn't it? Why didn't you say anything?”

 

“Well, it's back in now.” Everything hurt. Talking hurt, having his head twisted like this hurt, every point of contact between his brother's hand and his head hurt. A lot.

 

If Flowey's healing magic was an avalanche, Sans' was a melting icicle. He tried to heal Papyrus anyway, fingers pressed to his jaw (it hurt) and a slow drip of magic itching at the damaged bones.

 

They could sit here all day and all they'd accomplish would be draining Sans further. Along with making Papyrus' headache worse. “Sans,” he said, “you really don't need to do that. I'll be fine by tomorrow.”

 

“I can't just leave it like that.”

 

Papyrus swatted Sans' hands away. It just hurt too much to put up with. “Well, you can't fix it, either, so at least stop manhandling me.”

 

Sans withdrew, in every sense of the word. “I'm sorry.” He moved to stand.

 

Papyrus stopped him, reaching out to grab his sleeve. “I didn't mean to say it like that,” he said, staring down at the rusty armor in his lap. “I'm just...I'm just tired.”

 

“Me, too.” Sans settled back down. He watched Papyrus work in silence for a few minutes, then took up a piece of steel wool and a piece of armor from the pile and started cleaning alongside him.

 

They didn't look at each other, or speak. Papyrus, for his part, was too afraid of saying the wrong thing again to risk it. Slowly, the silence grew more companionable and less tense. Less tense.

 

Everything that Sans had cleaned still had traces of rust left on it, but Papyrus said nothing and simply rubbed the machine oil over each piece, polishing it as best he could. He could clean it properly later; going over the metal again right in front of his brother wasn't worth it to get rid of a few missed flecks of rust.

 

When his armor had been seen to, Papyrus glanced up at the clock and sighed. “I should get cleaned up.” He was still wearing yesterday's clothes, and he was sure he had snow-melt and dirt ground into his joints.

 

Sans nodded. He'd been buffing the same piece of armor for the last ten minutes, and didn't stop when Papyrus stood up. Papyrus left him to his thoughts. Any comment he made would come out wrong.

 

The sight that greeted him in the bathroom mirror was alarming enough that Papyrus actually flinched back from his own reflection.

 

The side of his face, from temple to chin, was glossy and discolored. Sans' blue attack had scorched him when he'd run into it. Tiny craze-lines spiderwebbed across the injured bones, the skeletal analog of a bad bruise. As he undressed, Papyrus found more microfractures and more scorch marks all along that side of his body. His armor had helped, but couldn't cancel out the effects of the magic entirely.

 

No wonder he was so sore.

 

Well, Sans already felt bad enough about damaging his face. He didn't need to know about the rest. Papyrus could deal with it for one day.

 

His jaw joint was the worst of it. The cracks were more pronounced there, and the bone darker and inflamed. It still didn't look as bad as it felt, but he had to admit it looked pretty crappy. That wasn't Sans' fault at all, and it pained him that he couldn't say so.

 

Showering was an act of willpower for the first few minutes, with Papyrus angling the injured side of his body away from the spray because even the water was painful. He had to get the grime out of his injuries, though, so even though each droplet felt like an ice-pick jamming into his bones he turned to face it head on. It took a few more minutes of psyching himself up to actually start scrubbing.

 

As far as showers went, it wasn't very relaxing. At least the warmth was nice.

 

Sans was on the phone when Papyrus came out of the bathroom. His reaction alone gave away who he'd been talking to.

 

“Oh, gotta go,” Sans said, hurriedly, forcing a chuckle to drown out the yelling coming over the receiver. Undyne. “Talk to you later, bye!” He grinned too wide. “Hey, bro! All squeaky clean?”

 

Papyrus was not going to start a fight while he was in a towel. He still had some pride.

 

Once he was dressed, all bets were off. As much as he hated to make waves today, Papyrus was deeply uncomfortable with Sans and Undyne talking about him behind his back. That needed to stop. He came downstairs to find Sans stacking his armor neatly beside the sock-slash-sticky-note mess.

 

The opening salvo of the argument Papyrus was preparing for scattered in his head. “What are you doing?”

 

Sans looked up, a guilty grimace on his face. “Just straightening up,” he said.

 

“Well, you don't need to worry about that-- I'll have to leave soon, anyway.” Papyrus arched a brow. Leave it to Sans to clean only when it was pointless. And meanwhile, that sock remained untouched.

 

Papyrus hadn't cared one way or the other about Sans' discarded sock in weeks, but it was a safe, normal target for what he was feeling now. He took a few seconds to be mad about it, just for familiarity's sake.

 

“Um, actually,” Sans said, rubbing the back of his neck, “I already called Undyne and told her you couldn't work today.”

 

“What?” So that's what the call had been about. Papyrus counted backward from ten in his head. He was not going to snap again. He was better than that. “Why?”

 

Sans blinked. “Uh...because you're hurt, and because you're, like, less than twelve hours out from a nuclear meltdown…?”

 

“That's ridiculous,” Papyrus said, adjusting his shirtsleeves where a sliver of darkened bone was peeking out. “I'm perfectly fine.”

 

“Yeah, you know, saying it twenty million times doesn't make it true.” Sans crossed his arms, glaring and doing his best to loom despite being considerably shorter than Papyrus. It was a posture Papyrus often employed when Sans was being particularly lethargic. He did not appreciate having it used against him.

 

“I think I can judge that for myself, thank you.” He preferred it when Sans just worried in the background. Now Undyne would wonder what was going on.

 

Sans scoffed. “Doesn't look that way from where I'm standing. Besides,” he said, “it's too late. Undyne thought a day off was a great idea, so you're staying home whether you like it or not. Sulk all you want.”

 

“I'm not sulking,” Papyrus snapped. “I'm annoyed.” He crossed his arms, too. If it was a loom-off, he was going to win. He was more naturally inclined to loom, and he was far more practiced than his brother. “Just where do you get off making that decision for me, anyway? Without even talking to me first!”

 

“Bro!” Sans waved his arms, as though what he'd just heard was so nonsensical that he'd burst if he didn't move. “You do the same thing to me all the time!”

 

“I do not!”

 

“You literally do, though! What about the library thing?”

 

Ah. That was technically a good point. Possibly. Papyrus may or may not have volunteered Sans to read to the younger children in town every Saturday morning. Possibly without letting Sans know about the arrangement until the last minute. But! Sans was good with kids, and he was the perfect person for the job. He did all the voices when he read, and everything. “You love the library thing.” Or, at least, he'd never complained about it in an obvious way.

 

Sans dragged one hand down his face. “Yeah, but you didn't ask me. You just railroaded me into it like you always do.”

 

“Okay,” Papyrus said. “I concede that that one time I might have overstepped.” Maybe. He wasn't sorry, though. It was good for Sans to get out into the community.

 

“And the sentry job.”

 

Papyrus balked. “I didn't make you take that job.” Since when was Sans upset about his job? Having something useful to contribute was important!

 

Sans shook his head. “No, you nagged at me until I gave up and accepted it.”

 

“I don't nag,” Papyrus said, but even he couldn't put much conviction behind it. “I just...You...” This was so hard to put into words. “You don't do anything,” he said, “and sometimes you just need to get up and do something, and you won't if I don't push you.”

 

That sounded a little stupid out loud. ...Why on earth had it taken him so long to figure out what was going on? Why had he never simply asked?

 

“I know, bro.” Sans looked nearly relieved. “And you never stop doing things,” he said. “Sometimes you need to. I'm trying to help-- you get that, right?”

 

Papyrus opened his mouth to retort, but shut it again. He was very tired of of fighting, despite how angry he was. He was very tired in general. And maybe Sans was right.

 

He was still upset that he hadn't been given a choice in all this, but then again perhaps it was only fair.

 

In any case, putting up too much resistance now wasn't going to benefit him. Papyrus needed to pick his battles, conserve his energy. Maybe if he gave in now, Sans would relax and back off a bit. “Maybe...” He sighed, scarcely believing the words coming from his own mouth. “Maybe I'll just go back to bed, then.”

 

Sans smiled, tension easing out of his face. “I think that sounds like a great idea, bro.”

 

 

~*~

 

 

Papyrus really did try to sleep. He'd never been a nap person; even though he knew he wasn't rested he couldn't convince himself to not be awake. Sans made it look so easy-- all he had to do was stop moving near something stable enough to lean on. Papyrus had been staring up at the same small crack in the ceiling for nearly an hour.

 

He ached all over. He couldn't stop thinking.

 

The last twelve hours had been so full his head couldn't hold it all. He'd nearly killed his brother. He couldn't control his magic in any meaningful way anymore. He wasn't safe to be around. It was even odds that he'd go off again the next time he got too stressed, too scared. Too angry.

 

Why was he so angry? It wasn't a normal anger; it didn't even seem to have a cause he could pick out. It was like every drop of fear and anxiety and misery changed as soon as he started to feel safe again, turned into something he had to hold down so it didn't hurt anyone. Like magic. It was exhausting. It was like cracking apart from the inside and trying to glue himself back together at the same time. All the time. And every day it kept getting worse.

 

He hadn't even felt his magic knitting together last night. He hadn't consciously constructed an attack when he'd struck Sans (he'd hit him, he could hardly wrap his mind around it) because why in the world would he? Whatever it had been, Sans had been terrified, and with good reason. The attack could have torn free in a second, and that would have been all.

 

He'd nearly killed Sans.

 

He'd nearly killed Sans.

 

He'd nearly killed his brother. And it could happen again any time.

 

In the face of that knowledge, Flowey's revelation this morning felt like a trifling matter. It wasn't; it was just hard for Papyrus to care about two such disparate things at once. Flowey-- what he was, what and who he had once been, was an abstract concept more than it was anything comprehensible. Papyrus had to try, though. Somewhere in that story was a clue that could help him out of this mess, he was sure.

 

The computer bleeped.

 

Papyrus jumped, and took a moment to smooth down his magic. It bristled outward along each finger, up his spine, too ready.

 

The computer bleeped again, and Papyrus recognized the tone as an undernet alert. He hadn't checked his messages in weeks. He didn't particularly want to check these new ones, but it was possible that they were from Undyne, and it wouldn't be a good idea to ignore her.

 

He shouldn't have left the computer on so long; he'd forgotten all about it. It took a couple good thumps to get the monitor back up and running. One of these days, he'd have to look for a replacement. For now, he squinted at the somewhat distorted display. He had a lot of unread messages, though they started to taper off after the first couple weeks. He left them. They weren't relevant anymore, and he didn't have the energy to deal with them.

 

Today's messages were from Alphys, not Undyne. In fact, every one of the handful of messages from the last week or so had been from Alphys. Papyrus started with the oldest ones from the beginning of the week.

 

Omg mtt trying to make pasta primavera on cooking w/killer robot 2nite. know who's going to be all over that lol @coolskeleton95 >^_^<

 

Are u ok? :/

 

Sorry if i'm being too creepy, but you haven't been on in a long time, so I just thought i'd see if everything's alright. ^^;;; kind of worried about you!

 

so i probably creeped you out. sorry. it's none of my business, but i hope you're doing ok.

 

Hey so we talked at @strongfish91's place but I thought i'd drop a line. It was nice to meet you. Remember you can pm me whenever if you need to talk. I know that feel, bro.

 

Inserted under this message was a drawing of a hug between two odd-looking froggits. Papyrus assumed they were supposed to be froggits, anyway. They didn't look quite right.

 

@strongfish91 says you're sick??? I have chicken flavored ramen if you want some. that's kind of like soup. get well soon! >T_T<

 

don't take this the wrong way, but are you really sick? Because sometimes i say i'm sick when i'm just feeling kind of bad and don't want to be around anyone. if you want to talk i'm right here. you don't have to. Or if you want a distraction you know i'm always good for that lol ^^;;;;;

 

Those last two had just come through. So, Sans had called him off sick? That was something of a relief. He still didn't like that Sans had done it in the first place, but the lie made it feel, oddly, a little less like Sans and Undyne ganging up on him and more like Sans was on his side.

 

Papyrus was pondering how best to respond to Alphys, since it was mean to keep ignoring her when she was only trying to be kind, when he heard the front door open.

 

Normally, that wouldn't be a very noticeable sound from the second floor, but when it was kicked open hard enough to bounce off the wall…

 

“PAPYRUS!”

 

Undyne.

 

Chapter Text

Papyrus leapt to his feet. What was Undyne doing here?! He shut himself in the closet. After a few seconds, he came to the conclusion that that was a temporary solution at best. And he felt a little silly.

 

What should he do?

 

“Um,” he called out, cracking his bedroom door open. “I can't hear you, I'm very ill and asleep!”

 

Too late, Papyrus realized the fatal flaw in that response.

 

He heard the thump of footsteps coming up the stairs and had just enough time to jump back from the door.

 

“Papyrus!” Undyne slammed the door open and strode into the room, a heavy backpack slung over one shoulder. “I brought you some stuff to do while you're stuck in...bed...” She trailed off, the exuberant grin slipping from her mouth.

 

Papyrus didn't notice, focused on the burden she was carrying. “You shouldn't be lifting anything!” He moved to tug the backpack out of her grip. It was heavy enough that he needed both arms to hold it. “What are you even doing here, Undyne?” he scolded. “You should be resting!” She could have hurt herself! What was she thinking, traveling all the way from Waterfall with such a heavy pack?

 

Sans scooted into the room behind Undyne, puffing a little and visibly pissed. “What the hell? You can't just barge in here hollering when-”

 

Undyne ignored them both. A low growl rumbled in her chest, and her sole remaining pupil was a tiny dot of rage. Cobra fast, she grabbed Papyrus by his shirt and hauled him closer, staring at the side of his face. “Who did that to you?” she hissed, slow and cold, like deep water.

 

Even though her anger wasn't directed at him, Papyrus couldn't help the shiver that ran down his spine at her voice. Undyne could be scary when she wanted to be. “N-no one,” he said.

 

She whipped her head around to glare down at Sans, who put his hands up in surrender at the sight of her. Papyrus didn't blame him one bit.

 

“You said he was sick!” Her teeth snicked together on the last syllable with the sharpest of clicks.

 

“Well, I mean, heh,” Sans stammered, trying for a disarming chuckle that came out as more of a squeak. “It's kind of like being sick, right?”

 

Undyne's hand flexed, and Papyrus could feel a couple of her claws poke through the fabric. He sighed. He liked this shirt. She turned back to him.

 

“Who did it?” she said. “I will put them in the fucking ground.”

 

Papyrus saw Sans flinch and take a step back.

 

“You'll have to, um, put me in the ground, then,” Papyrus said, “because I did it. Not on purpose!” he added quickly when Undyne's face shifted. “It was an accident. Sans lied for me and told you I was sick. I'm sorry, Undyne.”

 

That was sort of the truth. Sans caught his eye, and the two of them shared a guilty little nod past Undyne's shoulder. This was between them; Undyne meant well, but this wasn't any of her business. Papyrus didn't quite trust her to be careful around Sans if she misunderstood.

 

Undyne let go of Papyrus' shirt, her facial fins twitching in agitation. “Accident? You mean you hit yourself with your own attack?”

 

“It's happened once before,” Sans said, edging forward now that Undyne's temper had blown over. “I guess that's what happened with his arm.” He glanced sideways at Papyrus, looking for confirmation.

 

Papyrus nodded.

 

Undyne looked back and forth between the two brothers, frown deepening. “You're sure?”

 

“Uh...” Sans shrugged. “Yeah?”

 

“I think I would know,” Papyrus said, arching a brow.

 

“Hey,” Undyne said, waving one hand. “I didn't mean anything by it, Paps, relax. It's just...” She stroked her chin, brow furrowed. “I never heard of a monster hurting themselves with their own magic, that's all. Not by accident, anyway.”

 

Papyrus could feel Sans staring at him. “Just because you never heard of it doesn't mean it can't happen,” he said. He threw in what he hoped was an appropriately derisive tut for good measure.

 

“Yeah, no doy,” Undyne grumbled. She looked at them for a few seconds more, then threw her hands up. “Bah! I'm over it,” she growled. “Accident. Why not? You would be the one to manage it, doofus.” She punched Papyrus on the arm.

 

It was the wrong arm. He yelped, shrinking away from her and covering his arm with his hand.

 

“H-hey,” Undyne said, stricken. “Are you okay? I didn't hit you that hard, did I?” Her hands hovered in the air, like she was scared Papyrus would shatter if she touched him again.

 

Sans shoved his way between them. “Would you be careful?!”

 

Now it was Undyne's turn to step back. “I barely touched him, I swear!”

 

“It's fine,” Papyrus said, tugging at Sans' hood. “It's not a big deal.”

 

“She can't keep-”

 

“What's that?” Undyne was staring at Papyrus' wrist.

 

His sleeve had slipped back a bit. Papyrus pulled it down again, too late.

 

Undyne caught hold of his hand and shoved his sleeve up to the elbow. Papyrus hissed and tried to pull away. God, that...didn't feel good. At all. The fabric of his shirt might as well have been sandpaper or broken glass. He studied his bookcase on the far wall so he wouldn't have to see her reaction.

 

“Holy shit,” Undyne said.

 

Sans said nothing, just made a very soft sound of distress. Papyrus' intention of keeping those injuries hidden hadn't lasted any longer than the realization that he hadn't brought any clean clothes with him when he'd showered, but Undyne wasn't helping by metaphorically rubbing his brother's face in it.

 

“What the hell did you do, Paps?” She lifted his shirt to see his ribs, also scorched and bruised on that side.

 

Papyrus slapped her hand away. “Rude!”

 

“Lay off, Undyne,” Sans said, sullen and quiet.

 

Undyne shook her head. “How can you be so calm about him being half charred?”

 

“I'm fine, Undyne, really.” Papyrus shook her off and pulled his sleeve back down, gently. “It was just a stupid accident, that's all.”

 

“Papyrus,” Undyne said, grimacing, “this is more than an accident. I think we need Alphys to check you out.”

 

That was not what he needed. That was about the last thing he needed. Papyrus shook his head vehemently. “No, thank you.”

 

Undyne gaped like...well, like a fish. “What do you mean, 'no'?!” She gestured to the bruise on his face. “You're fucked up all down your side, you broke your own damn arm-- not to mention none of that should even be possible! Something's wrong.” She crossed her arms, frowning. Her facial fins were clamped down tight against her neck. “Look, I know I blew you off earlier when you were freaking out, and I'm sorry. Maybe...” she trailed off, and blew out a sigh. “I don't know, maybe I rushed everything too much. If this thing with you is getting worse, then...”

 

“That's okay,” Papyrus said, relieved and deeply heartsick at once. This could be over. He could make it be over. “If you think it would be best, I'll quit the guard right now.” It would be for the best, he knew. Maybe under other circumstances being in the Royal Guard could have been fulfilling and great like he'd thought it would be, but...not now. Not the ways things were now.

 

He could find a way to be content as a largely anonymous sentry. He could find a way to deal with whatever retribution Flowey meted out.

 

“I did it.”

 

Papyrus and Undyne turned to look at Sans, who met Undyne's eye with a sort of miserable defiance.

 

Undyne curled her lip in a baffled snarl. “What the hell are you talking about?”

 

Sans shoved his hands in his pockets. “It wasn't Papyrus' attack that nailed him, it was mine. We were practicing yesterday, and I got too cocky with my blue attacks.”

 

Papyrus caught the tell-tale hunch of Undyne's shoulders and coughed. “It wasn't really his fault, Undyne,” he said, mind racing. “I, er, slipped on a patch of ice at what happened to be an inopportune moment.” The lie stuck in his mouth, but he managed.

 

“Yeah,” Sans said, shooting a glare at Papyrus, “but it wouldn't have happened at all if I'd been more careful to begin with.”

 

Undyne gnawed on her lip, clearly confused. “You trying to tell me that Sans did all that,” she said, gesturing at Papyrus in general, “in one hit? You gotta be kidding!”

 

Sans looked more downcast than ever at this, but nodded.

 

Papyrus couldn't help feeling somewhat offended on his brother's behalf. “Sans is good at magic!” he snapped. “When he tries! And technically, the way I ran into it,” he added, “it was more like five or six hits. Er...”

 

“You can't kick him out when he didn't do anything wrong!” Sans blurted, forcibly dragging the three of them back on topic.

 

“I'm a liability!” Papyrus said, not to be outdone. “I'm already missing work, and I'm not even sick!” And he was a time bomb.

 

Sans waved his arms. “Because I beat you up!”

 

Undyne kept opening her mouth to interject, but there was no space for her. Instead, she watched the exchange, head whipping back and forth as though spectating a particularly tense ping-pong match.

 

“That was an accident!”

 

“That doesn't mean I hurt you any less!”

 

“They're just surface wounds, Sans, I'm a lot tougher than you are.”

 

“How does that make it okay?!”

 

“Because I'm fine,” Papyrus said. Why was Sans so distraught over this? It wasn't like he'd been seriously injured. By tomorrow he'd be good as new, in any case.

 

Sans pressed the heels of his hands to his eye sockets. “Argh, would you stop saying that?”

 

“Oh my god, shut up?!”

 

Both brothers looked at Undyne. Her mouth was curled up into the manic grin of a woman pushed to the limit.

 

“Is anyone in this house gonna be straight with me?” She crossed her arms. “Just tell me the truth, will you? You're both driving me nuts!”

 

It was hard to keep the argument going with that baleful yellow eye trained on them. Papyrus, at least, had somewhat lost his train of thought. The next several seconds were filled with a lot of avoided eye contact and noncommittal muttering. Neither brother wanted to be the one to tell Undyne what had actually happened, but they couldn't get a better cover story worked out with her standing right there.

 

Undyne rolled her eye. “Ugh, it's even worse in stereo. FINE!”

 

Papyrus jumped, and saw Sans do the same. They were clearly both amateurs in the shouting department.

 

“Fine,” Undyne snapped again, at a more bearable volume. “Close ranks on me, see if I care.” She shrugged; her voice was like pickle juice. “I mean, we're friends, and all, but whatever.”

 

Papyrus felt like dirt. Seeming to sense his distress, Sans shot him a warning look. Right. Sans had stuck his neck out, lying to Undyne to cover up Papyrus' disastrous loss of control last night. As much as he hated to hurt Undyne's feelings like this, he couldn't throw away the fragile alliance that had sprung up between himself and his brother. After everything they'd been through, it felt like being back on the same team again, however shameful the method.

 

He started at Undyne's hand on his shoulder-- his good one.

 

“Look,” she said, laying her other hand on Sans' shoulder. “I'm not happy about being lied to, but this isn't the hill I'm gonna die on. As long as everyone's okay, you can sort out your own shit. I don't know where you two boneheads got the idea that I was gonna can anybody.” She glared at Sans, then at Papyrus. “And you better not even think about quitting, Paps. I mean it!”

 

“But-”

 

“Shut it! We ride together, we die together, guardsman!” Undyne's glare softened. “It's gonna take a while for you to find your feet, Papyrus. I don't expect anyone to be flawless and have everything figured out when they join up. It's a process. In fact,” she said, mouth twisting into a proud grin, “I think we might have found your niche, and it's all thanks to you curb-stomping me!”

 

Papyrus flinched. “I really don't think that's my niche, Undyne.”

 

“No, no, no!” Undyne shook her head. “I don't mean that,” she said. “Take a look in the pack.”

 

Papyrus crouched and unzipped the pack. It was full of...paper?

 

“What,” Sans said, “is all that?”

 

Undyne chuckled and gave Sans a good-natured slap on the back that nearly bowled him over. “That's what's gonna keep ol' Paps busy while he's 'sick in bed,' Sans.”

 

Papyrus caught the faint smell of brimstone, realized what all that paper was, and snatched a page out. He skimmed a few lines. “Undyne, these date back months.

 

“I know, right?” Undyne grinned wider. “I'm supposed to prepare a master report for King Asgore at the end of every month, but I forgot about it for...the last four months. Ha ha?”

 

Four. Months. “You're serious?” Papyrus supposed this was just karma coming to call again, for his many transgressions.

 

Wait. This was his niche? Fielding paperwork?

 

Undyne made a sort of 'oh well' gesture. “You can do it,” she said breezily. “I actually read that report you dropped off, and it was way better than I could have done. So organized! And you write so neat!”

 

“I just write so I can read it later,” Papyrus said, a little passive-aggressively, maybe. Possibly.

 

“See? You're a genius!”

 

Sans' face had been steadily darkening during this exchange. He crossed his arms. “So, your response to hearing my brother was sick,” he said, calmly, “was to dump a backpack full of your neglected work on him? Am I understanding that correctly?”

 

Undyne waved him off. “As the newly-appointed official clerk of the Royal Guard, now it's his backpack full of work,” she corrected. “And it won't take him that long.”

 

“Are you serious?” Sans drew himself up to his full height. “Do you know how long it took him to sift through a week's worth of that illegible crap?” He stabbed a finger in the pack's direction. “This'll take a week, maybe even two! And that's if he doesn't do anything else!”

 

Papyrus kept looking over documents, but he watched the pair from the corner of his eye socket. Undyne was trying hard to wink.

 

“Exactly. You're welcome,” she said, giving Sans a conspiratorial nudge with her elbow. She cleared her throat. “I mean, this is kinda important, so you're exempt from patrol duty until it's done, Paps.”

 

“Important enough to leave for four months.” Papyrus gave her a doubtful look. She was trying to keep him in sight. As his captain she could, of course, change his job duties at will, but he wished she'd been up-front about it. This felt a little patronizing somehow.

 

At least she'd actually read his report, he mused. It hadn't been a pointless exercise after all.

 

Undyne chortled. “Yeah, well, you know how it is. But seriously,” she said, “Asgore's starting to get kinda...naggy about it. So start on it as soon as you can, okay?”

 

Sans seethed at her side. Undyne didn't seem to notice, but Papyrus knew his brother's tells.

 

“I'll start in the morning,” Papyrus said, hoping this was an acceptable compromise. Dragging Undyne into their fighting was undesirable at best, and Papyrus would rather avoid it. Sans would hit the ceiling if he tried to do any work today. It took a lot to rile him to such a degree, but the stress of last night coupled with Undyne's less than soothing presence seemed to be wearing away at his normally unflappable brother's nerves.

 

Undyne looked put out for a moment. Papyrus watched the way Sans was eyeballing her, as though waiting for her to say something worth yelling at her over.

 

Sans' glare faltered. “Wow,” he said, “You're really clammy.”

 

Papyrus stood, the mountain of paperwork forgotten. “He's right.” Her scales were coated in a thin slime, and duller than usual. It was subtle, but her fins quivered slightly, as though it were taking an effort to hold them out. Papyrus frowned. “You're not feeling well, are you? You overdid it.”

 

“Pfft!” Undyne crossed her arms. “Relax, dorks! I'm totally better now.” She puffed up her chest, radiating health, or at least trying very hard to. “I even got a workout in before I came here. Gotta make up the gains I lost while I was lazing around the house, you get me?”

 

No wonder she looked about to fall over! After the night he'd had, the morning he'd had, somehow this was the last straw. “The only thing I'm 'getting' you,” he said, pinching a facial fin and frog-marching her out of his room, “is downstairs so you can eat something and rest before you go straight back home.” Anger with a constructive purpose zinged through him. It felt almost cleansing.

 

“Ow ow ow! Papyrus, jeez!”

 

Papyrus could hear Sans snickering behind them. That alone was worth any amount of embarrassment on Undyne's part. She deserved it for being so reckless. Honestly! She was even worse than Sans.

 

He released her fin only when they'd reached the couch. “Sit,” he said, and dashed to the kitchen to fetch her a glass of water. She dehydrated easily.

 

When he came back, Sans was helping her arrange the afghan over her lap in a particularly gloating way. Undyne scowled at him as she accepted the glass from Papyrus. “What're you grinning about?”

 

“Nothing,” Sans said. “It's just funny when it's happening to someone else, is all. Remote?”

 

“Yeah, yeah,” she grumbled, but took the remote when Sans offered it. “Get your bony asses in the kitchen and make me some food, then.” She switched the TV on and proceeded to ignore both of them, sulking and sipping at her water.

 

“Man,” Sans said, once they'd passed through the archway into the kitchen. “Poor Alphys. She must have been a nightmare to deal with when she was actually laid up.”

 

“Alphys did seem rather tired when I saw her,” Papyrus conceded. Undyne took a lot of pride in her physical strength; she couldn't have been an easy patient.

 

Rummaging around for ingredients (leftovers were fine when it was just the two of them, but guests deserved fresh food), Papyrus tried to figure out what was niggling at him. Like he'd forgotten to do something…

 

Oh! Alphys. Here he was, ignoring her again. “Sans,” he said, “Would you mind getting a pot of water started?”

 

Sans shrugged and went about his task, while Papyrus got his phone. There was another message.

 

Is @strongfish91 at your place??? <:U

 

Papyrus answered in the affirmative, and had a reply seconds after hitting the send button.

 

Oh good. Dozed off and she was gone when I woke up.

 

Papyrus gave her a brief rundown of Undyne's visit.

 

Omg. U need me to come get her?

 

Catching movement, Papyrus looked up from his phone. “Sans, no, you have to let the water boil first.”

 

Sans set the fistful of uncooked pasta on the counter. “'Kay,” he said, shrugging. “Who are you texting?”

 

“Alphys.” Who actually did seem to be online all the time. Papyrus hadn't expected to have a whole conversation while the water boiled.

 

“Oh, that's good.” Sans seemed to perk up some. “She's good people.”

 

“Yes, she's very nice.” Papyrus exchanged a few more messages, answering Alphys' questions.

 

hey instead of writing it all out longhand u could type it up and send it to me to print

 

Huh. That was a good idea, actually. Papyrus sent a reply saying so. Come to think of it, there might not have been enough paper in the whole house to write that monthly-now-quarterly report.

 

Once the water came to a boil Papyrus said his goodbyes and put his phone away. He had the feeling that Alphys would have happily kept trading messages all afternoon, but he really needed to get the sauce started.

 

“She wondering where her fish wandered off to?” Sans said, as Papyrus diced vegetables. There wasn't time to properly mash them, unfortunately. Maybe they'd soften up enough when they cooked that it wouldn't matter.

 

“Yes. Looks like Undyne gave her the slip.”

 

Sans made a face. “Kinda hard to imagine her sneaking anywhere.”

 

“She can be surprisingly quiet, believe it or not.” She'd gotten the jump on Papyrus more times than he could count, usually with painful and embarrassing results. With as exhausted as Alphys had looked when they'd spoken, it didn't surprise him a bit that Undyne had been able to get past her.

 

Papyrus had Sans keep an eye socket on the noodles while he cooked the sauce. He added some oil to the pan, hoping it would help make everything a little more liquid. As he'd feared, it...didn't really end up as a sauce. Just oil and vegetables and seasonings, all still clearly visible and not a homogenous paste like it was supposed to be at all.

 

“Smells nice,” Sans said.

 

Papyrus thought he detected a hint of surprise in his brother's voice, but let it go. “I ruined it,” he sighed. Now that the pasta was drained and he'd tossed everything together it looked really stupid.

 

Sans shrugged. “I don't know, bro, I think it looks kinda nice like that.”

 

Undyne was probably going to need another glass of water to wash this mess down. Oh, well. Papyrus fixed a plate for her and brought it out. She was sprawled across the couch, and looked to be having as hard a time getting comfortable as Papyrus usually did.

 

“Thanks, Paps,” she said, sitting up and taking the plate from him. She peered at the multicolored disaster. “Looks different then usual. You experimenting?”

 

Papyrus sat down next to her, resting his chin on his hand. “No,” he said gloomily. “It just didn't come out right. I'm sorry if it's terrible.'

 

She took a bite, chewing methodically. Her eye widened, and she swallowed. “Holy crap.”

 

“That bad?”

 

Undyne didn't answer right away, too busy shoveling more failed spaghetti down her gullet. “'Shnot bad,” she said finally, spraying a bit. She gulped down her current bite after minimal chewing. “Not bad at all! What'd you do different?”

 

Papyrus shrugged. He was happy she liked it, at least, even if he didn't understand why. “I cut everything up with a knife instead of punching it, and I put some oil with it in case it helped melt the vegetables, even though it didn't really,” he said. It was no wonder it hadn't cooked quite right.

 

Could vegetables melt?

 

“Cut things with a knife and use scalding hot oil...” Undyne looked thoughtful for a second. “I could get behind that. Yeah!”

 

Sans wandered out to the living room and sat on Papyrus' other side. He glanced at Undyne, who was still eating. “See, look at you worrying about nothing,” he said quietly. “She likes it fine.”

 

In a matter of minutes, Undyne had polished off the whole plate and set it aside on the floor. The three spent the next half hour or so chatting (awkwardly at first, since they were all still a little ticked off at each other) and watching TV.

 

At some point in the middle of a soap opera they'd all seen before, Papyrus became aware of a weight on his shoulder. Undyne had fallen asleep. He wasn't sure when that had happened, but there was a considerable patch of drool on his shirt already.

 

“Oh, my god,” he said, just above a whisper. “Really?” She was on his injured side, but her added weight wasn't doing much to add to the stinging ache he was already feeling, which was good. He just couldn't move, which wasn't so good.

 

Sans looked over at them and smiled. “Wow, she's out.”

 

“I can see that, Sans.”

 

“Here,” Sans said, shifting to lean against Papyrus. “I'll help prop you up.”

 

Papyrus huffed in irritation. “I don't know if that counts as helping...”

 

Sans didn't answer. Papyrus was about to say something else when he heard soft snoring.

 

Really.

 

Well, now he was truly trapped. He couldn't even get to his phone to talk to Alphys with the two of them leaning on his arms. Great.

 

Papyrus woke up with a view of the ceiling, and had a brief moment of panic. What time was it? How long… He caught sight of the clock and sighed. Oh, good; he had hours left until he needed to leave. He relaxed back onto the cushion.

 

Which was breathing…? At some point, Undyne had tipped the other direction, and the three of them had ended up more or less stacked like fallen dominoes. Papyrus was half draped over Undyne, leeching her body heat. Sans was curled up on both his and Undyne's legs like a shabbily-dressed dog.

 

They were both still asleep. Gingerly, Papyrus moved to extricate himself from the tangle of limbs without waking them. Undyne muttered under her breath, her brow furrowing.

 

“Don' wanna go to school today,” she said, catching Papyrus in a crushing bear hug and rolling them over. “Mrs. Craken purpled all the horses, 'snot fair.”

 

Well, crap.

 

“Undyne!” Papyrus hissed. He elbowed her in the ribs, gently.

 

“Mom, I said I don't-” Undyne blinked her eye open. “Oh, hey, Papyrus,” she said, blearily. “What are you doing in my house?”

 

“You're in our house, actually,” Papyrus said. “And you're, uh, kind of crushing me.”

 

Undyne scrunched up her face in confusion. After a moment, she woke up fully, took stock of the situation, flushed, and pushed herself away with a squawk to flop half onto the floor. “Haha, sorry, Paps,” she said, rubbing the back of her head and grinning. “No hetero.”

 

“Right, don't worry about it.” Papyrus propped himself up on his elbow. “Are you alright?” he asked, watching her flex and shake her arm.

 

“Yeah, I think I just slept on it wrong.”

 

Sans stirred, drawing in a yawn and stretching. “Oh, man,” he said, disentangling himself from their legs. “I had the weirdest dream that I was working in a cheese factory, and...” He trailed off, looking pointedly at Undyne's feet, which had been in fairly close proximity to his face. “Never mind, that explains it.”

 

“Hey!” Undyne pulled her legs off the couch, taking special care to knock Sans over.

 

Papyrus blinked. “You dreamed you were working? How awful.” It was too easy a target to pass up. The nap must have done him some good.

 

Sans pushed himself upright. “Hey now, I resemble that remark,” he said, huffing in mock offense.

 

Papyrus' phone bleeped. He pulled it from his pocket and winced. Five unread messages from Alphys that were increasingly flustered in tone. “Um,” he said. “Not to run you out of the house, but I think Alphys is starting to worry.”

 

Undyne sat up straight, digging her own phone from her back pocket. “Oh, crap!” she said. “I had it on silent this whole time; she's gonna be so pissed.” She clambered to her feet. “Thanks for the grub, Paps, but I gotta go. Put some ice on that...half of you, okay? Later, dorks!”

 

She let herself out, with a last muttered, “I didn't mean to take a three-hour death nap, oh jeez she's gonna kill me...”

 

Papyrus sent a quick text to let Alphys know Undyne was on her way home. He sat up, making his back pop all the way down. “Ugh,” he said. “I thought you weren't going to let me sleep on this thing again.”

 

“I've brought dishonor upon this family,” Sans said, but he didn't seem terribly broken up about it.

 

Papyrus thought he should probably get up, find something productive to do for a few hours. Maybe he could start getting that backlog of reports sorted, or clean something, or…

 

Instead, he just stayed on the couch with Sans, watching TV and dozing. Uncomfortable and lumpy as it was, it was an oasis, and he wasn't quite ready to leave it.

 

Chapter Text

“You know,” Sans said, twirling noodles around his fork. “I gotta level with you, bro. This might be the best thing you've ever made.”

 

Papyrus glared down at the mess on his plate. “But I didn't do it right.” He couldn't quite get past that. He'd screwed up the recipe, so by rights this should be the worst thing he'd ever made. But Undyne had liked it very much, and Sans had taken a larger portion than he usually did.

 

Suspicious, Papyrus gathered some of the ruined spaghetti on his own fork, spearing a bit of tomato doubtfully. Chewing hurt, but if he took very small bites he could manage. The taste of it caught him so off guard he might have choked if it were anatomically possible. “It is good,” he said, taken aback. “Better than usual, even.”

 

Sans shrugged. “Guess you're such a good cook, messing up just improves it.”

 

“I guess so. But I don't understand,” Papyrus said, pushing slices of accidentally- sauteed carrot around his plate. “I didn't follow Undyne's recipe correctly at all this time.”

 

“Uh, I keep meaning to bring it up,” Sans said, “but Undyne might not be the best person to teach cooking lessons, bro.”

 

“What makes you say that?”

 

Sans got that slightly blank look on his face that meant he was trying to find a diplomatic way to word whatever he was about to say. “Well, for starters, she only knows how to make one thing.”

 

That was true. Papyrus had never really considered the fact that each lesson was about the same. He liked spaghetti a lot, so it felt sensible to make it as often as possible. “Well, it's important to master the fundamentals.”

 

“I can't speak to that,” Sans said, “but you have to admit your lessons also end with you guys putting out a kitchen fire a little too often. That can't be normal.”

 

Another good point. Papyrus had always chalked that up to Undyne's fancy stove being defective. After all, he'd never set anything on fire in his kitchen. Of course, Undyne wasn't in his kitchen, either. Hmm.

 

“I'm not saying you should stop doing lessons with her, or anything,” Sans said, between bites. “You guys have fun, right?” He waved a hand. “Fiery doom aside.”

 

Papyrus nodded. He and Undyne hadn't cooked together in quite a while, come to think of it. He missed just hanging out with her. Now that he was in the Royal Guard, she was more captain than friend. Which was appropriate! But this afternoon had been nice, once the dust had settled. She'd helped shake him and Sans out of that weird, apprehensive mire they'd been, well, mired in.

 

“Hey, here's an idea-- we should make something tomorrow, since you'll be stuck in the house, anyway.” Sans leaned back in his chair, the lights of his eyes twinkling slightly. “Dare I say it, maybe even something that's not pasta? The possibilities are nigh limitless!” He made an expansive gesture that threatened to overbalance him, but caught himself.

 

That actually sounded like fun. Especially when it was so rare that Sans wanted to do much of anything. That was even better than normal, even now that normal had been elevated to the level of an unattainable ideal. How could he say no?

 

Papyrus didn't bother to question whether Sans intended to report for work tomorrow, or any time in the near future, for that matter. He found he didn't much care. Undyne would understand, if she even noticed Sans' absence.

 

“As long as it's not one of those awful sugary quiches,” Papyrus said.

 

Sans chuckled, and blinked as though surprised at himself. “It wasn't a quiche, bro, and you didn't even try it. You'd have liked it if you tried it.”

 

That was unlikely, but Papyrus wasn't going to say so.

 

“Heh, I know you're gonna go stir-crazy in here while you're climbing Mt. Paper, but this might be kinda...” Sans' grin slipped as he trailed off. All four legs of the chair rested on the floor again. “Listen,” he said. “About today, with Undyne… Don't tell her about all that stuff, okay?”

 

“I won't,” Papyrus said. He frowned, feeling the awkwardness creeping back in like a curtain drawing closed between them. “I'm not going to throw you under the bus just because I feel guilty.” And he did feel guilty. Undyne had tried to play it off as a minor offense, but he could tell he'd cut her, colluding with his brother to lie to her face like that.

 

He was hiding things on multiple levels now; it was getting complicated. And the more complicated it got, the more likely it was that he'd make a mistake. He pushed his plate away. He wasn't hungry anymore.

 

Sans shook his head. “I don't care about that. If Undyne has a bone to pick with me, I got two hundred of them she can choose from.” He paused out of habit, but kept on when the groan never happened. “To be honest, I don't care what she thinks of me. I just don't want you to lose this job.”

 

Was Sans, of all people, telling Papyrus not to quit? That felt weird. “I'm not sure what you mean,” he said. He stood, collecting their plates. Sans followed him to the kitchen.

 

“I'm just saying,” Sans said, leaning against the counter while Papyrus put the leftovers away. “Quitting won't fix anything. It might feel good for a few days to not have that obligation hanging over you, but after that wears off you'll feel even worse. I know you. You're not wired for unemployment, bro.”

 

Papyrus sighed, focusing his attention on finding a free spot in the fridge for the container. “I just don't know if this is a good idea anymore,” he said. “I have to consider everyone around me, not just what I want.” He didn't know what he wanted anymore.

 

Or, he knew he couldn't have what he wanted. Nothing could make all of this un-happen. He couldn't go back to the life he'd had before.

 

“You'll still exist, with or without a job,” Sans said, quietly. Papyrus looked up to find him hunched over slightly, arms wrapped around himself. “God, I hope this shit doesn't run in the family, or something,” he muttered.

 

“What runs in the family?” Papyrus said, belatedly realizing that he was still holding the fridge door open. He shut it.

 

“Nothing.” Sans flinched under Papyrus' sharp glare. “I mean,” he said, “you know.” He gestured at his own head. “The...the bad brain, um...stuff.”

 

What did Sans mean by- oh. Right. “I hope not,” he said, for lack of a better response. Papyrus knew why he felt the way he did; it wasn't anything he'd inherited, not that Sans could know that. Or could ever know.

 

But did that mean Sans had been hit with his so-called 'bad brain stuff' out of nowhere? At least Papyrus had something to blame! He couldn't even imagine what it would be like, to feel his soul going numb without even knowing why. “I'm sorry,” he said. The words felt small in his mouth.

 

Every day was bad. For how long? Why?

 

Sans glowered at the linoleum floor. “Quit apologizing so much, it feels weird.”

 

Papyrus caught himself just before saying 'sorry' again. They stood there for a moment, neither of them very motivated to move or speak, pretending Silent Kitchen Hangout Time was a normal occurrence.

 

“Um, unrelated to anything in particular,” Sans said, gathering himself. “I was wondering how long you've been able to summon that...that attack.” He wouldn't look in Papyrus' direction, much less make eye contact.

 

Papyrus rubbed absently at his jaw. It was a little better, but dinner had aggravated it. “Which attack?”

 

“The one you shook off.” Sans plucked at the drawstring of his hood. “You know, when...after I shoved you.”

 

“Oh.” Papyrus stood up straighter, fighting the urge to slouch. He wanted to crawl into a dark hole, but there wasn't one handy. “I didn't see it; was something wrong with it?” Now that he thought back to last night, not that he wanted to, whatever that attack had been had pulled hard on him, drawing more magic from his soul than a single attack really ought to.

 

Sans looked up at him. “You didn't even look?”

 

“I was more concerned with not letting it go off,” Papyrus said.

 

They spent several seconds examining the floor. Huh. Who'd decided these colors looked good together, anyway?

 

Finally, Sans coughed. “It was sort of a...” He raised his hands to his face, and couldn't seem to decide what shape to make with them. “Like a...you know.” He settled for making vague antlers with his fingers, and opened his mouth in a sad little roar. Or maybe it was a burp. “You know?” he said.

 

What did any of that nonsense mean? “Sans,” Papyrus said, crossing his arms and voice dripping pure bafflement, “I have absolutely no idea what you're talking about. Could you try using words?”

 

“Like,” Sans said, smiling tense and brittle. “Like a skull. Like a messed up kind of animal skull.”

 

Papyrus blinked. “I don't have an attack like that,” he said. He was sure he'd know by now if he could shape his bone attacks into skulls. “I have the same attacks you have.” Their magic manifested in very similar ways, as was to be expected. Even unrelated monsters of the same type had a lot of shared attacks. Each brother had his own style and proficiencies, but the attacks themselves were nearly identical.

 

Sans laughed, but didn't sound very amused. “Don't know what to tell you, bro. I know what I saw.” He shrugged. “I was staring right at it. It was staring right back, even.” His smile looked pinned on, stiff and mirthless.

 

How was that possible? Magic didn't just take on new shapes willy-nilly! “Not that I don't believe you,” Papyrus said, marveling at this new level of disturbed he'd managed to reach, “but are you sure? It was only there for a second. Maybe...maybe it was just malformed…?” He hadn't consciously formed that attack, after all, and a lot of his attacks last night had been unfinished and messy.

 

“I wish,” Sans said ruefully. “No. I saw it clear as crystal.”

 

Maybe this was what cold felt like.

 

“Do you know what it is?”

 

“Never seen it before in my life.” Sans answered just a little too fast, hardly waiting for Papyrus to finish his question. He looked Papyrus in the eye socket when he spoke, face a bland mask. “I was just curious, that's all.”

 

Then why had he seemed so…? Something didn't sit right about Sans' behavior. Just as Papyrus was starting to get better at lying, he was getting better at spotting when he was being lied to.

 

“It hasn't even been one day,” Papyrus said, unable to keep some of the bitterness from creeping into his voice. He'd thought they were on the same team again. This was beyond exhausting. “Can't we just skip all this for now?”

 

Sans sighed. “Right,” he said. “Maybe this isn't a good time.” The echo of Papyrus' own weak excuse slipped in between his ribs like a knife, intentional or not.

 

“I think,” Papyrus said, after a long, uncomfortable pause. “I think I'm going to go to bed. I'm tired.”

 

Sans nodded.

 

Papyrus passed the rest of the evening in his room trying to rest. He chatted intermittently with Alphys about inconsequential things. Undyne had made it back, apparently, and was sleeping after the requisite admonishment about sneaking out. Papyrus couldn't picture the soft-spoken reptile really scolding anyone, but the idea of worrying her was probably enough. Undyne put her all into her friendships, and she and Alphys were good friends.

 

He knew nothing about the human TV show Alphys was talking about now, but it was a distraction, and that was all he was after. She could probably tell that he was just agreeing with her criticisms without really comprehending what she was saying, but she didn't call him out on it. She was very nice.

 

When the time came, he messaged her to say he was going to bed, and shut down his computer. The house was quiet, not that Sans was ever all that loud. Papyrus cracked the door, peering out into the dark. The TV and all the lights were off; he couldn't hear any signs of movement. Quietly, he crept down the hall to Sans' door and listened. Silence. No light under the door.

 

Papyrus slipped downstairs, successfully skipping the creaky step. He shut the front door behind him carefully, with only the soft click of the latch to give him away, if anyone had been awake to hear it.

 

The night air was cold and still, but of course it didn't bother him. There were never many people about at this time; Snowdin didn't have much of a night-life to speak of, and everyone was either at home or at Grillby's. Papyrus skirted around the edges of town, regardless. He couldn't risk being seen by anyone. Everyone in Snowdin was his responsibility, and he would keep them safe.

 

 

~*~

 

 

 

“No armor?”

 

Papyrus shuffled in the snow. The loose, long-sleeved t-shirt and ratty jeans were a far cry from the armor Flowey was used to seeing him wear. The shirt was well-worn, and had the word “Angel” blazoned across the front, with horns sprouting from the “A” and a long, pointed tail extending from the “L.” No doubt some human joke, rendered meaningless down here.

 

“I'm off patrol for a while,” Papyrus said, hugging himself though the chill couldn't be affecting him. “It'd look strange to wear it.”

 

“I suppose we'll have to make do.” Flowey could always reload if something happened, though he didn't anticipate that being necessary. Papyrus' defenses had improved immensely; it was his offense that needed work, now. He still wasn't aggressive enough. “Say,” he said, “We were interrupted this morning. There's something I wanted to ask you.” Flowey rustled his leaves, looking up at Papyrus. “You remember what we were discussing, right, friend?”

 

Papyrus nodded. Between the rumpled clothing and all the scuffs and bruises, he looked extra pathetic, all slumped like he was trying to make himself smaller.

 

“What would Sans do if you died, Papyrus?”

 

That got through the fog. Papyrus' spine snapped straight, and he took a step back. “W-what do you mean?”

 

“I mean what I mean, friend!” Flowey winked. Papyrus wasn't as skittish as he used to be, but he was plainly freaked out. “I know you've been thinking about the opposite all day, but that's kinda selfish, isn't it? After all, his troubles would all be over!”

 

“I don't-”

 

“But, golly!” Flowey went on. “What if a human fell down and you couldn't beat them? What if something happened to you, huh?”

 

The look on Papyrus' face spoke better than words that he'd never considered this before. He frowned, opening his mouth to say something before changing his mind.

 

Flowey gave him a moment. “It's tough to think about this kind of thing, isn't it? Especially if you've never died before,” he said, with a wry smile. “Sometimes I forget that I have a better grasp on mortality than most people do.”

 

Papyrus kept quiet. Perhaps he thought it was a rhetorical question. Well, he wasn't wrong, as such. Flowey would have enjoyed hearing his thoughts on the matter, actually, but he wasn't in the mood to push for it.

 

“You don't know?” Flowey giggled.

 

Hesitantly, Papyrus shook his head.

 

“Well, I bet I can guess,” Flowey said. “You know what Sans would do if you died? I'll tell you.” He waggled his leaves in what he judged to be a decent approximation of jazz hands. “Nothing!”

 

Papyrus blinked, twisting the hem of his shirt in his hands in a childish gesture of discomfort.

 

“Don't take that the wrong way, now.” He didn't need or want to listen to Papyrus defend his worthless brother. “I don't mean he wouldn't be sad. I just mean that he'd do nothing!” Flowey did a little dance on his stem to amuse himself. “He wouldn't go to work, wouldn't leave the house, wouldn't clean or cook or take care of himself.”

 

Gee, Papyrus was quiet tonight! He just stood there listening, staring in Flowey's direction without quite focusing on him.

 

Flowey went on with his list. It was fun to say out loud-- had a sort of rhythm to it. “He wouldn't talk to anybody, or answer the phone or the door or anything. He'd stop trying and stop caring about anything at all. He'd just stop! And he wouldn't ever start again.” It was funny because it was true. “That's why you shouldn't pin your happiness on another person,” he said. “Because then when they're gone, you're left all alone forever, and you have to deal with it. Or not!” He shrugged.

 

Just as Flowey was starting to get annoyed by Papyrus' silence, the skeleton piped up. “Why do you say things like this?”

 

“You know I'm right, don't you? You do.”

 

Papyrus gave him a wounded look. He nodded slowly.

 

Flowey grinned. “That's right! You're the only reason he even gets out of bed. It's unhealthy, if you ask me,” he said, “but I guess I'm not in a position to judge.”

 

Papyrus looked dangerously close to tears. He was so emotional.

 

“Aw, don't be a crybaby, Papyrus,” Flowey said, gently scolding. “I'm only trying to motivate you! This is why you need to keep getting stronger, right?”

 

Papyrus nodded, sniffling.

 

“I'm not going to attack you this time, friend. We're going to try something new.” Now he would find out just how well Papyrus could follow directions. “I want you to attack me with everything you've got, okay? I won't counterattack, or anything, so it'll be easy.”

 

“I-I can't do that...” Papyrus said, without much conviction.

 

Flowey sighed. “Of course you can, Papyrus. You know I can take it, and I can't really feel anything, anyway.” He blinked up at Papyrus, frowning. “You want to get control of your magic again, don't you?”

 

Papyrus rubbed at his hurt arm. “Yes, of course,” he said. “I don't know how beating you up is supposed to help.”

 

Gosh, he could be a dummy sometimes. “Because, silly goose,” Flowey said, patiently. “Up until now, you've been reacting to me attacking you, right? Defending yourself. If you're just reacting to things, you're not really in control, are you? So you gotta start making decisions again. That's the way I see it.”

 

“Do I have to?”

 

Flowey rolled his eyes. Well, that was better than an outright refusal, at least. “You know the answer to that one, Papyrus.” He smiled, showing teeth. “Remember, I'm the one who says when we stop. And you should probably start before I lose my patience.”

 

Like a light-switch being flicked on, the familiar will-o-wisp fire caught alight in Papyrus' hands. Rather than having to muster it, it seemed that the skeleton had been spending effort to keep it in check. Perhaps last night's light show had bled off enough pressure that Papyrus had bought himself time to regain some measure of control, though how much and for how long remained to be seen.

 

As amusing as his little meltdown had been, Flowey was pleased that Papyrus was adapting so quickly. Maybe he wouldn't be one of the monsters who broke into a million pieces. So far, everything they were doing was simply the crucible making him stronger, tempering him.

 

Flowey felt a facsimile of pride as the first wave of attacks hit him. He was pretty good at this whole coaching business.

 

Papyrus was getting better at doing as he was told. Grim misery etched on his face, he nonetheless ran through each of his attacks, progressing in strength and complexity. Without having to split his attention or dive around the clearing, he could focus on his attack patterns fully, and it showed.

 

As the session wore on, Papyrus' grimace faded into a look of detached concentration.

 

Flowey's leaves hung in tatters from an equally damaged stem, and several petals lay scattered in the snow. He hadn't bothered to expose more of his form than the top couple of feet, which left him a rather small target to hit, but Papyrus was doing well. He lay staring up at the distant ceiling for a moment, knocked over by a strong wave of bones. Straightening up, Flowey couldn't help giggling. One of his teeth had been knocked loose! He rolled it around in his mouth, and spat it out into the snow like a dart.

 

This, at last, made Papyrus pause. The wave sliding toward Flowey halted when he raised his hand, but didn't dissipate. For a few seconds, he didn't say anything, just looked at Flowey with that closed-off expression.

 

“Problem?” Flowey asked, testing out his new gap-toothed grin. “You're doing a good job, Papyrus!”

 

Papyrus frowned, brows knitted. “If you are who you say you are,” he said. “…I don't understand. Why are you doing this?” The bone waves rolled back and forth slowly, huge pendulums stirring up the snow.

 

Flowey raised a ruined leaf to his ruined petals, patting them thoughtfully. That wasn't a question borne of panic; it was genuine confusion and interest. “I guess I did say I'd tell you, huh?” He smiled. “Because you're my friend, Papyrus,” he said. “I like you. You're my favorite.”

 

“That's not much of a reason,” Papyrus said. The waves undulated from side to side, ready to continue on their course at a moment's notice.

 

“I disagree! It's the best reason.” Flowey extended a single vine to pick up his discarded tooth. He held it up, examining it. It was sharp, and pollen yellow. “I don't want you to be a victim,” he said. “I want you to be stronger than I was, and get the ending I should have gotten.” He wanted to see that ending. He'd never seen an outcome like that, where Papyrus triumphed. It would be a good ending. Satisfying. For a time, anyway, and that was all Flowey could ever hope for.

 

He'd seen Papyrus reap the rewards for his naivety enough times that Flowey was thoroughly bored with the entire concept. No-- killing Papyrus, no matter how drawn-out or creative the process, was passe. Even the most outrageous things Flowey could think to inflict beforehand resulted in only a minor blip of momentary interest. At a certain point it was just too much work for too little payoff, when every death boiled down to the same intersection of misdirected mercy, blind faith, and the literally fatal flaw of having more compassion than sense. The same exhortation to do better in the future, to be kinder, even as the soft-hearted idiot crumbled to dust.

 

Any hint of transgression or guilty pleasure (as though he could feel either guilt or pleasure) had long since faded out into the flat gray of repetition. The first few times had been difficult, despite a lack of any capacity for emotion. After that, Flowey had found it funny. Once the joke got stale, it made him angry, in his dull and empty way, until even that drained away into gray, gray, gray.

 

Flowey had gone back to making friends, instead. A palate cleanser, a too-little-too-late attempt at fighting the tide of desensitization. And recently even that had begun turning to gray mush like everything else.

 

But seeing Papyrus-- dopey, loveable, harmless Papyrus-- become something different…? Something sharp-edged and strong and cool, someone who could kill rather than meekly be killed? Flowey hadn't seen that yet.

 

He wanted to see something new. It would be almost like feeling. And Papyrus was still his favorite toy, boredom aside.

 

His favorite was still maintaining that attack, bones held suspended but ready to rush onward as soon as Papyrus let the leash slip. “I don't understand,” Papyrus said.

 

“One day, you will,” Flowey said. “I don't think I could explain it fully if I wanted to. And I don't really want to, Papyrus. I want you to trust your best friend!”

 

An odd look passed over Papyrus' face at that, like he'd mistaken vinegar for water. It was gone in a second.

 

Flowey giggled. There had been a time not long ago when Papyrus would have wept tears of joy to hear that anyone considered themselves his best friend. “You may proceed, friend!”

 

With a defeated sigh, Papyrus lowered his hand, and the bones lurched into motion again.

 

It took longer than usual for Papyrus to reach the point of exhaustion. Not surprising, considering he was standing still and not taking any damage himself. He spent the last half-hour or so sitting in the snow while he directed increasingly slap-dash attacks. At last, with a final, clumsy tumble of bones that collapsed long before they could do any damage, Papyrus stopped.

 

Flowey watched the skeleton shaking in the snow with his one useable eye, wondering if Papyrus were truly spent. Well, he had said that he wouldn't attack tonight. He supposed he could save that for another time. “You did very well, Papyrus,” he said, with a smile that had a few new gaps in it. “That wasn't so bad, was it?”

 

“Can I go now?”

 

“Aww!” Flowey's face fell. “You don't have to leave just because practice is over.” What was Papyrus' hurry to get back to his stupid house that was hard to see inside of, anyway? As if he wasn't going to spend enough time in there… “We can hang out for a little while, huh? Like we used to! You should take a break before you walk back to town.”

 

Papyrus drew his knees up to his chest, wrapping his arms around his legs. He didn't argue, just sat and sulked.

 

Minutes ticked by. Flowey made a design on the ground with his lost teeth and petals. “So,” he said brightly, “did you do anything fun today?”

 

“No.”

 

Flowey frowned, to his own surprise. He hadn't heard Papyrus chatter about his daily life since he'd started their training regimen, and he was finding that he missed it. Forcing Papyrus to talk wouldn't be the same.

 

Well, this was just more novelty, in the end. That was the point of the whole run! And this new-found reticence made Papyrus more mysterious, and mystery was one thing that was always in very short supply. He couldn't complain, really.

 

“If you ask me a question,” Flowey said, “and I like the question, then I'll let you go home. Does that sound fair, friend?”

 

Papyrus seemed to mull the offer over for a moment, arms folded over his knees, glaring at nothing. After his deliberations were over, he said, “What was the surface like?”

 

That wasn't the sort of question Flowey had been expecting. He laughed. Papyrus could always surprise him! “I was only up there for a few hours,” he said, shrugging. A handful of leaves fell to the ground. “And it wasn't exactly a pleasant nature hike.”

 

He had carried his sibling's body back to their village, back to those damned flowers. A human soul had blazed in him like a star, like a nuclear reactor. Grief and wonder and fear had kaleidoscoped through and around him, and then he had died alone. How had he ever been so full, to be so empty now?

 

“I've only ever seen pictures,” Papyrus said, his glare softening. “In magazines, and things.”

 

Flowey didn't think about the surface very often. It was pointless. Most monsters were somewhat obsessed with it, but then the Underground was a small world, after all. “It's really...open,” he said. “The air feels different, and there's no walls or ceilings. It's scary at first. You feel really exposed and small.” He couldn't feel that kind of fear now, but he remembered.

 

Slowly, Papyrus relaxed, propping himself up with his hands, stretching his legs out in the snow. “It looks pretty in the pictures,” he said.

 

“It is pretty,” Flowey conceded. “The sky is...” The sky was hard to describe, he was finding. It had been so long ago, but he remembered staring at the sunset, utterly transfixed. He'd already been crying, but seeing a sight like that, knowing that this was the world his sibling, his best friend, had lost, would never have again, that they couldn't share this beauty, had made him cry a whole lot harder. He remembered sitting in the soft grass, his sibling's cool, still body cradled in his arms. He'd been unable to think, unable to process the magnitude of this world's cruelty, howling agony as the sun receded beneath the horizon, taking the light away.

 

Until the soul prodded and seared and burned him back into motion. Back to his task. Or perhaps it had just been hurting, too.

 

Flowey giggled, shook himself free of the memory. “It's super pretty, obviously!” That was all there was to be said about it. Pretty. Stupid. Pointless. “Stick with me, and you might even get to see it yourself one day,” he said. If this run went just right, it was a definite possibility! Flowey could get hyped for the destruction of humanity at least a few dozen times before that got boring, he supposed.

 

Papyrus made a noncommittal sound. He yelped and scrambled backward when Flowey submerged to pop up at his side.

 

“Easy, Papyrus,” Flowey tutted, halting the skeleton with a few vines. “You didn't think I'd forget to heal you before you left, did you?”

 

“O-oh.” Papyrus held still, save for the shaking that made him rattle softly. He winced as the cracks and bruises mended themselves in the wake of Flowey's healing spell.

 

Flowey winked. “There! That's better, isn't it?”

 

Papyrus nodded, rubbing his now-intact jaw.

 

“So,” Flowey said as Papyrus moved to stand. “I'll see you tomorrow night!”

 

Papyrus stiffened, but the tension receded just as quickly. “Alright,” he said.

 

Flowey dismissed him and watched him go. It would be a long, shambling walk back to Snowdin. Once he was out of sight, Flowey turned his attention to the bits and pieces of himself that littered the clearing. He'd have to find something reflective to examine himself in before he healed. Goodness, but he'd taken quite a lot of damage!

 

How wonderful. And tomorrow, they could do it all again.

 

Chapter Text

By the time Papyrus stumbled through the front door, there was no point in even going upstairs. He'd be getting up soon on a normal day. After checking for signs that Sans was awake (he wasn't), Papyrus started a pot of coffee. He'd need it today. He didn't need very much sleep-- what most people would consider a long nap, really, but staying up on top of hours of magical exertion had him feeling like the walking dead.

 

At least he wasn't in pain anymore. His jaw only ached a little, nothing compared to what was now technically yesterday. Flowey had kept his word.

 

He sat at his usual place at the table while he waited on the coffee. The couch was out of the question; lumpy as it was he might fall asleep if he sat there. He stared at Sans' pet rock, counting the colored sprinkles scattered over it. His head was empty-- too tired and strung out for coherent thought. The coffee maker gurgled in the kitchen. Five minutes, give or take, and then he could head upstairs and try to make a start on the reports.

 

“Bro? Papyrus?”

 

Papyrus sat up, blinking. “Wha…?” When had he fallen asleep? He didn't even remember putting his head down.

 

Sans looked him up and down, concern written in the set of his mouth. “Uh, what's up, bro?”

 

“Nothing,” Papyrus said, still muzzy from an unknown but inadequate amount of sleep. “Just drifted off, I guess.”

 

“Huh. Hey,” Sans said, “your face looks better.”

 

Papyrus' hand came up to his jaw on a strange impulse to hide it from view. “I said I'd heal it once I was rested.”

 

“That was a lot to heal; you sure you didn't overdo it a little?”

 

“I'd rather be tired than sore, wouldn't you?” If Papyrus had actually tried to heal his own injuries, it would have taken a couple hours, if not longer, and left him completely drained. After his training session, he probably looked fairly convincing.

 

Sans' brow ticked upward a fraction of an inch as his gaze dropped to the floor at Papyrus' feet. “You know, you're always nagging me about tracking snow onto the carpet.”

 

Papyrus followed his gaze to the damp patch around his boots, and the smaller patches leading from the table to the kitchen to the door. “Sorry,” he said. “Forgot I still had my boots on.” Usually, he'd stamp the snow off on the welcome mat, but he hadn't wanted to make any noise.

 

“Where'd you go?” Sans asked, idle curiosity injected into his voice and posture.

 

“Wasn't sleeping well,” Papyrus said. “Went for a walk.” He reached out to sweep some of the rock's sprinkles into his hand. It gave him an excuse to get up and move around. He wandered to the kitchen and dropped the stale sprinkles in the trash can.

 

Sans scuffed along after him. “In yesterday's clothes?”

 

While he was up and nearby, Papyrus supposed he might as well have that coffee. “You do it all the time,” he said as he fished his favorite mug out of the drying rack. “You're doing it right now.”

 

“That's because I'm an unrepentant slob,” Sans said, huffing. “And I think we discussed how I feel about you biting my style.” He watched Papyrus fix his coffee, frowning. “I can't believe you slept in your clothes again. Or did you even go to bed?”

 

“What does it matter?”

 

A sharp crack of bone on tile rang through the air as Sans brought his hand down on the counter-top. “Because you need rest!”

 

Papyrus jumped, coffee sloshing over the rim of the mug onto his hands. It wasn't hot enough anymore to burn, but his gloves were soaked through. He sighed.

 

Sans cleared his throat, and, at a lower volume, said, “Are you okay? I didn't mean to, um...”

 

Papyrus nodded. “It's not hot.” Even if it had been, bone was harder to scald than skin. It wouldn't have felt good, but it wouldn't have done any lasting harm. Setting the mug back down on the counter, he peeled his wet gloves off. He'd have to wash them before they stained.

 

Sans leaned back against the counter, massaging his hand. “You were out in the woods again, weren't you?” It was more of a statement than a question. “Did you stay out all night? But, hey, I guess you passed out at the table for god knows how long,” he said, shrugging, “so you're all good now, right?”

 

“Don't use that voice at me,” Papyrus said, irritation flaring up in his chest. He just wanted to drink his lukewarm coffee and get to work. Was he this annoying when he nagged Sans?

 

Sans blinked. “What voice?”

 

“That voice you get-- like you think I'm still a kid, or stupid, or something.” Sans used that voice on a lot of people, not that they ever seemed to notice. Maybe Sans didn't notice, either.

 

“I don't think you're stupid,” Sans said, meekly. “I'm just, um...” He trailed off with a helpless gesture.

 

Silent Kitchen Hangout Time was becoming a family tradition in record time.

 

“A-anyway,” Sans said, visibly pulling himself together. “We're missing a few things for this recipe I wanna try. So, I thought I'd go, um, do that. Anything you need while I'm out?”

 

Papyrus sipped what was left of his coffee. “Nothing that isn't already on the list,” he said, out of habit. His gaze caught the bare fridge door. “Ugh,” he said, pinching the bridge of his nasal bone. “I forgot to make a list.” Grocery shopping hadn't been a high priority lately.

 

He usually kept a running list of things they needed or were running low on, in the hope that Sans would take it upon himself to pick up a few items now and then. Usually he didn't, but sometimes he did. Sometimes he even got everything on the list. For reasons Papyrus hadn't grasped until very recently, having a list to go off of seemed to make the chore easier for his brother.

 

Right now, the thought of even looking through the kitchen to write a list out was too much.

 

His exhaustion must have showed. If he looked half as bad as he felt, it was probably pretty obvious. Sans shrugged. “Don't sweat it, bro, I can handle it. It's just groceries.”

 

“Are you sure?” Papyrus supposed they could always go together, but on the other hand having an hour or so alone was looking very attractive. He needed some time to gather himself. Maybe bathe, or at least change his clothes.

 

“I'll be fine,” Sans said, waving him off. “It's probably my turn, anyway. You just take it easy.”

 

God, he must look terrible.

 

While Sans was at the store, Papyrus showered and changed, and got started sorting through the heap of paper Undyne had left with him. He was glad to have something to do, even if he felt a little like he'd been put under house arrest.

 

And even if what he'd been given to do was the definition of tedium.

 

When he heard the door open, Papyrus took a break to help Sans put away the groceries. With the way his morning had been going, staring at sloppy handwriting was almost a relief, except that he already had a headache...

 

Surprisingly, Sans had done a decent job, though he'd gotten a good deal of random items that didn't seem like they could go together. As Papyrus sorted out things that needed to go in a cupboard from things that needed to (somehow) fit in the fridge, he spied a distinctive brown paper bag in amongst the rest.

 

Papyrus picked it up, pulling it free of the bag. It was heavier than he'd expected; more of a jug than a bottle. He glared at it skeptically. “I seriously doubt your recipe calls for cider, let alone this much.”

 

Sans looked over from the cupboard he was filling with several varieties of pickles. “Hey, at that price I couldn't afford not to get it.” He winced, and put his hands up in surrender. “Hey, don't look at me like that! It's not like I'm gonna drink it all today.”

 

“I should certainly hope not.” Papyrus wasn't sure if it were even physically possible to drink that much at once, at least not without significant consequences. Neither of them had a liver to ruin, but even so…

 

Once the groceries were squared away, Papyrus got back to work. With Sans volunteering to read the reports out loud and Papyrus transcribing, everything went much faster. By the time they stopped to fix lunch, they'd gotten through nine reports. There were somewhere around two hundred in all, by Papyrus' estimate, but it was a decent start.

 

~*~

 

The recipe Sans wanted to try was, as Papyrus should have expected, quiche Lorraine.

 

And quiche, as it turned out, was a pretty involved process if a monster were trying to do it right. Which they assuredly were not going to do. Snowdin wasn't a big town, and the store only carried a small selection, plus whatever the shopkeeper found on excursions to the dump. This meant they had to make a few substitutions to the recipe. Yogurt for heavy cream, tinned red herring for slab bacon-- slight adjustments. It would probably work out.

 

“Okay,” Sans said, gamely spooning yogurt into a large bowl. “She said we're supposed to separate the eggs.”

 

Papyrus picked the required number of eggs out of their carton, lining them up on the counter. “Separate them from what?”

 

“Um...” The lights in Sans' eye sockets went unfocused, face taking on a vacant expression. “You know,” he said. “I have no idea. Probably should have asked.” He picked up an egg, turning it over and over in his hands. “Separate them...from the shells, maybe?”

 

Papyrus didn't know what else he could possibly separate them from, though why Sans' mysterious recipe benefactor couldn't have told him to crack the eggs in plain language was beyond him. Unless it was meant to be a sort of puzzle…? He wasn't sure either of them were up for subtle trickery when they were just trying to make lunch.

 

He cracked the eggs into the bowl and mixed them with the yogurt. Sans added the salt and pepper, along with...nutmeg? Well, Sans insisted that this woman was a good cook, although he'd never actually eaten anything of hers. As a beginner himself, Papyrus wasn't in a position to question the seasonings, even though his instincts were telling him garlic and oregano were the logical choice.

 

“Who's Lorraine?” he asked, as he stirred. The mixture wasn't looking very appetizing so far, sort of unpleasantly slimy. “Is that her name?”

 

He took a moment to wonder if he was having fun and just hadn't realized it. Sans was cooking with him; this should be a red letter day. And still, he couldn't recapture that feeling. He was almost happy, but it was washed out and gray.

 

Maybe he was trying too hard. He put the thought from his mind and just stirred, watching the yolks mix in and disappear in the off-white of the yogurt.

 

Sans blinked. “I don't think so. She doesn't strike me as the kind of person who names a recipe after herself. Somebody else must have, I guess.” He shrugged, and went back to opening tins of herring. A pungent, fishy smell soon permeated the kitchen.

 

“How long have you been talking to this person?”

 

“I dunno. A few months.”

 

Odd to think it had been that long. Sans spoke of this person with more warmth than most of his other acquaintances put together, but Papyrus knew hardly anything about her, other than she had a...distinctive sense of humor and liked to cook. “You've never asked her name?”

 

Sans layered herrings in the bottom of the pre-made pie crust. Evidently, the woman had given him instructions on how to make the crust, but Papyrus found himself agreeing with Sans' own assessment that he was not the kind of person who made a crust from scratch. One step at a time.

 

“I mean,” Sans said, after a thoughtful moment, “I think she would have offered her name by now if she wanted me to know it. And after this long, it'd be kinda awkward to ask.” He wiped his fingers on his jacket. “It doesn't really matter to me.”

 

Sans didn't elaborate any further, and Papyrus didn't press. He had to admit, he was curious about anyone who could get Sans to do something like this just by making him want to try. The best Papyrus had ever managed was nagging and arm-twisting Sans into some semblance of action. Or, lately, worrying him half sick.

 

Once the makeshift custard mixture was poured over the herring, all that was left was to let the quiche bake. They did a few more reports while they waited.

 

~*~

 

Papyrus studied the wedge of what was very nearly quiche Lorraine on his plate with no small measure of trepidation. It looked more or less the way he expected a quiche to look. The smell, though-- the smell was...interesting.

 

“Well,” Sans said, poking at his own plate. “I guess it looks alright.”

 

Mostly, it did. The custard was holding together, and the herring made a nice stripe along the bottom, save for a few delicate little fish ribs poking out the sides. Papyrus tried to think of it as added calcium.

 

There was no turning back now. He had to at least try it. In one quick motion, he popped a bite into his mouth. The next few seconds were spent trying hard not to spit it back out.

 

Sans watched him chew. “Um, how is it?” He hadn't taken a bite himself, yet.

 

The quiche tasted about how it smelled, except more so. Papyrus gulped, trying and failing to suppress the weak cough that followed. “It's...” He tried to find the words. “It's not so bad,” he said. Tears pricked at the corners of his eye sockets, but he persevered. He couldn't hurt his brother's feelings when he'd gone to all this effort.

 

Sans brightened up at that. “Really? Because it smells like actual garbage.”

 

Papyrus nodded, with what he hoped was an encouraging smile. “It's a little salty? But it could have turned out worse, I think.” That was the honest truth.

 

Heartened by this, Sans took a bite. Slowly, the lights of his eyes crossed. “Oh. My god,” he said.

 

“Don't talk with your mouth full,” Papyrus said, trying to screw up the courage to take a second bite.

 

“Am I dying?” Sans swallowed, with a half-second pause that made Papyrus worry that he'd somehow managed to choke without a windpipe. “Hck! Oh, my god, that was unspeakable,” he said, pressing a hand to his chest as if to steady himself. “You lied...”

 

Papyrus stared down his next bite. At this point, it was him or the quiche. He couldn't back down from this challenge. “I said it could have been worse,” he said. At least it wasn't very sweet. It was still slightly sweet, though, which was odd and didn't seem right. There were a lot of things not right with this quiche.

 

Sans hummed doubtfully while Papyrus crunched up another mouthful of baked fish and the attendant bones. “In retrospect,” Sans said. “Vanilla yogurt was probably a mistake. Should have stuck with plain.”

 

Papyrus nodded, and swallowed. That would explain the weird, dessert-y flavor he hadn't been able to identify. “There is room for improvement,” he said.

 

“You don't have to keep eating it,” Sans said, watching him take another bite. “It's godawful.”

 

Somehow the taste got worse the more he ate, but Papyrus refused to admit defeat to a pastry, no matter how foul. “I said it wasn't that bad.” Sans had made a meal with him-- a new recipe, no less! So what if it tasted like despair and bad choices? Papyrus would eat the entire damned thing if he had to.

 

The going got easier the closer he got to the crust. He found he was getting used to the taste. Not that he was ever going to like it, but familiar terrible was more manageable than new terrible. Once his sense of smell gave out, he was nigh unstoppable.

 

“Whoa.” Sans gaped as Papyrus polished off the last few crumbs on his plate. “That was amazing.”

 

A tiny spark of accomplishment ignited in Papyrus' chest. He slammed his fork down on the table. “Cut me another piece.”

 

Sans met his gaze across the table and grinned. “Don't be a fool!” He stood with a dramatic flourish. “No one could survive a second piece!”

 

“The Great Papyrus will not lose! Lorraine!” Papyrus pointed an accusing finger at the quiche lurking in the middle of the table. “Your reign of terror ends here!”

 

With great solemnity, Sans walked to the kitchen, returning with the bottle of cider and two glasses. “I can't let you do this alone, bro,” he said. “I unleashed this abomination; I gotta take responsibility.”

 

Papyrus didn't argue as Sans cut another generous wedge of quiche and placed it on his plate. If it made his brother happy, he didn't care. Even if he spent the rest of the day sick, it would be worth it.

 

But he really was going to need a drink if he was going to make it through another ordeal like he'd just weathered.

 

Sans alternated bites of quiche with swigs of cider, making a different amusing face each time. “Ugh,” he said, after a few gulps. “Where did this stuff come from, someone's bathtub?”

 

“It's possible,” Papyrus said. “I suppose you get what you pay for.” It was fairly nasty, he had to admit. He wasn't even sure it was actually cider. If someone had told him he was drinking paint thinner, he'd have believed them. It did a good job of burning away the taste of the quiche, though.

 

In the end, Papyrus wasn't sure exactly how much quiche they'd each eaten, but after close to an hour of steady work, the pie pan was empty.

 

“Take that, Lorraine,” Sans said, emptying his glass for the third time. “Ain't nobody messes with us.”

 

Papyrus sat back, glowing with victory and vision blurring slightly. “At last,” he said. “The world is safe again.”

 

“That's right! We're un-fucking-stoppable.” Sans leaned back in his chair, and smoothly toppled over backwards. His momentum carried him through a graceless somersault.

 

Papyrus stood, bracing himself against the table. “Are you alright?” He walked unsteadily over to Sans, who was lying on his face and giggling into the carpet.

 

“Bro, I don't think I can read,” Sans said, voice muffled against the floor. “You wanna just watch TV?”

 

Papyrus nodded, which made the room tip to one side. “Yes,” he said, once he realized Sans couldn't see the gesture. “Yes, I think that would be best.”

 

So much for being productive today. Well, if Undyne had put it off so long, another afternoon wouldn't make a great deal of difference.

 

~*~

 

By an unspoken agreement, they'd both settled on the floor, using the couch as a backrest. The television cast a cool light over the room as they let the afternoon pass by.

 

Papyrus toyed with the bottle of cider in his hand. Somewhere in the back of his mind, in a small corner that wasn't yet saturated with alcohol, lurked the thought that he'd almost certainly had too much to drink, and should probably stop. After all, the quiche was gone, along with his need (however tenuous it had been) for the cider.

 

One more swig filled that corner up nicely, and he handed the bottle back over to Sans. This went on for one and a half episodes of Cooking With A Killer Robot, the bottle slowly but steadily growing lighter.

 

“I don't get it with this guy,” Sans said, slurring a little. “Doesn't even have a mouth. What's with all the cooking shows?”

 

Papyrus shrugged. “Maybe he likes making it, even though he can't eat. It's fun.”

 

“Seems kinda pointless.”

 

Papyrus, had he been sober, might have been able to make an argument to the effect that inspiring other monsters to try cooking was the point, immaterial of whether Mettaton could eat what he was making himself. But he wasn't sober, and it was too many thoughts to string together. “Eh,” he said, instead.

 

They lapsed back into a comfortable silence.

 

“So,” Sans said, after a while. “I think you should stay in tonight. Take a break from that magic shit.”

 

Lord, not this again. “Why's that?”

 

Sans gave him a sidelong glare. “'Cause you're making yourself sick. Your bruises are gone, but you still look like crap.” He took a long pull from the bottle and handed it back. “Even you need to rest now and then, and you won't do it.”

 

“Thanks for that.” Papyrus swirled the cider in the bottle, watching it spin into a little whirlpool. He'd long passed the point of being buzzed. On the rare instances when he did drink, he was always the responsible one, always knowing the exact point to stop. Right now he was well and truly drunk, and not having much fun being so.

 

He took another drink, passed the bottle back to Sans.

 

“It's true, is all. What's the point of doing this to yourself, huh?” Sans didn't hesitate, draining half the bottle's remaining contents, head thrown back. He took a moment to regard the bottle, idly picking at the label.

 

“Doesn't flare up as bad if I'm tired enough,” Papyrus said. Which was true. That itching feeling had been gone all day, and even yesterday's...incident hadn't pushed him over the edge. He'd been able to hold his magic down even through the pain. Flowey could be right or wrong about whether their new nightly practice would help him get back the control he used to have, but in the meantime the constant exhaustion would keep him from hurting anyone.

 

Sans seemed to think on this for a while, still picking away at the cider label.

 

The cooking show wasn't very interesting anymore. Papyrus shifted, slumping so that he could rest his head on the couch cushion and crossing his arms over his chest. He watched the light from the TV flicker across the ceiling. “Please don't worry so much,” he said. “I'll get this figured out.”

 

The only reply was a grunt. For a few minutes, the only sound aside from the TV was the soft click of bone on glass and the tearing of paper.

 

That sort of thing used to drive Papyrus up the wall. Another mess to clean up.

 

He couldn't recall when he'd last vacuumed the living room, come to think of it.

 

“Um...” Sans sat up a little straighter, setting the bottle down between them. “You know you're my whole family, yeah?”

 

Papyrus blinked. That was an accurate statement, even if the wording was strange. They had no cousins, no uncles or aunts, no parents. All they'd ever had was each other. It had never bothered him, not really. “Yeah,” he said. He kept his gaze fixed on the ceiling.

 

“And even if we weren't brothers, you'd still be my best friend,” Sans went on, the cider rendering him wordier than usual. “But we are, and it's always been just me and you, hasn't it? Right down the line.”

 

“That's true.” Papyrus could feel the oncoming guilt trip, and braced for impact.

 

Sans fell quiet, as though collecting his thoughts. “And that's never gonna change, alright? There's nothing you could tell me that would ever...” He trailed off, losing either his train of thought or his nerve. “Anyway,” he said. “I'm always rooting for you, so...so don't think you ever have to go it alone, okay? Because you don't.” Self-consciousness radiated from him. Tipping over against Papyrus' shoulder, he flashed a goofy smile. “I, like, love you, bro.”

 

There it was. If Papyrus had felt bad before, he felt a thousand times worse now. He reached out to catch the cider bottle before Sans knocked it over and set it aside. Neither of them needed another drop.

 

“Love you, too,” he said, sitting up and dislodging Sans. He drew his legs up to his chest and stared ahead at the TV without really seeing it.

 

“Aaaaauuuuuggghhhhh!” Sans' voice wasn't given to loudness, but for all it was more of a creaking groan than anything else it was jarring. “Stop it,” he said, grabbing Papyrus' arm and doing his best to shake him. “Stop it, stop it.”

 

“What?” Papyrus snapped, turning to glare at him since he couldn't really avoid it any longer. His annoyance evaporated at the look on Sans' face.

 

“Why won't you talk to me?”

 

There were a thousand things Papyrus could say to that, and it was an effort not to blurt out the wrong one. The only safe answer was none at all. “Why is every day bad?”

 

Sans broke the stare, his gaze sliding away as he heaved a sigh.

 

Seconds became minutes, and Papyrus thought that perhaps that was the end of the matter. But at last, Sans sighed again.

 

“Time is a flat circle.”

 

And Sans was officially too drunk for cogent thought. Papyrus moved to stand; maybe they needed coffee, or something. Some water, at least.

 

“No,” Sans said, grabbing Papyrus by the wrist and hauling him back down. “I'm trying to be serious. You asked.”

 

“You're not making sense.” Sans could be confusing even while sober, but the weird non-sequiters always got worse when he'd been drinking. Generally it was some of his sci-fi rambling-- alternate universes and string theory and other topics that sailed over Papyrus' head. This was nothing new.

 

“Don't worry about it,” Sans said, leaning back against the couch. “It doesn't matter.” He chuckled. “Kinda like everything I do. Get it?” He looked over at Papyrus, lopsided grin tacked on. “Eh,” he said, “I guess it wasn't a very good joke.”

 

This was new. Papyrus sat up, his own concerns forgotten. “What do you mean?” A tight knot of worry took up residence under his ribcage.

 

The grin slipped, too heavy to hold up. “Well now, if you're gonna make me explain the joke, it really won't be funny.” Sans gathered up a handful of label bits and tossed them into the air like sad confetti. “Nothing I do matters,” he said, as the paper floated down around them. “At all.”

 

“That's not true.” Papyrus didn't know what else to say. If he tried to talk too much he was sure he'd start crying, and that wouldn't help anything.

 

“It is, though.” Sans tapped his fist against his chest. “I know so. Believe me, bro, I tried real hard to convince myself different.” He shrugged. “Even this doesn't matter, in the long run. Don't know why I'm still so broke up over it,” he said, and rasped out a single, humorless laugh. “That's unfair, don't you think? All the bad parts still suck just as much as ever, even if it feels like the millionth time it's happened, but anything good is just...gray.”

 

Oh, he was not going to be able to keep it together much longer. Hearing his brother talk as though he were on the edge of falling down was far more than Papyrus was prepared to deal with. “How long?” he asked, past the hand he'd pressed to his mouth.

 

“Honestly couldn't tell you, bro,” Sans said, palms turned upward like he was about to do a magic trick. “Kind of a meaningless question, no offense.”

 

“What do you mean?” Papyrus repeated, getting more frantic by the second. He felt like there was a crucial detail he kept missing, some code he wasn't breaking fast enough.

 

Sans looked older somehow, frailer. Dry as tinder and hollow as a drum. “Nothing,” he said. “I just don't know when it all started. Can't remember. Feels like forever.”

 

“You never said anything.” Papyrus hadn't noticed, not in all that time. Clueless. Selfish.

 

“Didn't see the point. Why worry you when you can't fix it?” Sans grinned. “It's okay, Papyrus. I'm fine. I just kinda want to not exist, that's all. It's just one of those-”

 

Papyrus didn't know how Sans planned to finish that sentence, and didn't care. He dragged Sans into a hug, barring his arms around his brother as though whatever was in Sans' skull making him think these things were a physical threat he could ward off. He was dimly aware that he was crying. He didn't know what else to do.

 

“H-hey,” Sans said, muffled against Papyrus' shirt. “Don't start that! You know I'm a weepy drunk, dammit.”

 

“I'm sorry,” Papyrus sniffled. “I'm sorry.” With an effort he loosened his grip, visions of bones soft and crumbly as chalk marching through his mind. Of hopelessness, cancerous, filling up every crack.

 

He'd always had to be careful around Sans. There were so many ways he could get hurt, so many ways he could get sick. But what could he do about this? What could he do?

 

Wriggling an arm free, Sans patted Papyrus' back in a lame sort of comfort. “Hey,” he said again, quietly. “I'm not going to do anything to...to upset you, alright? I would never put you through that.”

 

Papyrus shook his head. The thought alone was bad enough. He didn't want to hear about it, but he'd left Sans alone with this for too long already. “Why do you want to?” he asked, voice gone croaky.

 

“It's not that I want to,” Sans said, and it was a blessing that their positioning meant they couldn't really look at each other. “It's just...I mean, it would just be easier, sometimes. Like, if I could maybe sleep for the rest of my life, that'd be pretty nice.” He sighed, and seemed to shrink in on himself, smaller in Papyrus' arms. “I'm real tired, bro.”

 

The worst part, Papyrus thought, as he tried and failed to get any words at all past the lump in his nonexistent throat, was that he could understand. That particular idea hadn't crossed his mind, but Sans had been fighting a lot longer than him. How tired could a person get before they were too tired?

 

He had the sudden, clear realization that he could never un-know this; it would eat at him and keep on eating at him. He couldn't un-hear what he'd heard.

 

And he couldn't fix it. Sans was right about that.

 

Sans worked his other arm free and hugged him back. “Sorry,” he said. “This is kinda why I didn't want to tell you. But, um...” His fingers snagged on Papyrus' shoulder blade as he clutched at the fabric of his shirt. “If something's up, you can tell me. I'm not gonna judge you, or, or anything like that. I'll get it.”

 

Even without Flowey's threat hanging over him, Papyrus didn't want to put yet more weight on Sans' shoulders, make him worse off than he already was.

 

“Y-you...you can't fix it.”

 

Sans squeezed him hard, with a muttered curse. Then he shook himself free and stood, wobbling and unsteady. “C'mon,” he said, grabbing Papyrus' hand and pulling.

 

Papyrus sat and stared up at him. “What?” he said, watching Sans haul on his arm.

 

“Come outside,” Sans said, leaning back with all his weight trying to get Papyrus up. “Stand up and stop making me look like a dumbass.”

 

What was outside? Papyrus tried to keep a hold of Sans as he pushed himself upright to keep his brother from falling over. Somehow he managed, even with his own sense of balance in shambles.

 

It was good that they lived on the edge of town; there was no one around to see them tear-stained and sloppy drunk, wandering barefoot through the snow.

 

They walked down the road east of town, far enough that the warm breeze from Waterfall could be felt, stirring up a dense fog off of the river. Papyrus was at a loss, confusion edging out some of the misery. “What are we doing out here?”

 

Sans stopped. “There's something I need to show you,” he said, squaring his shoulders and swaying only a little. “But, um...”

 

“Yes?” Papyrus met his stare, mystified and a little scared. What was going on?

 

“You have to promise you won't freak out.”

 

Chapter Text

Papyrus didn't know what to make of that. “I'll try…?” Uncertainty crept up his spine in a weak shiver of stirring magic. He pushed it down. Now was absolutely not the time.

 

“Try really hard, okay?” Sans guided Papyrus to a spot just behind him and slightly to his right. “Stand here; that seems like the safest place." He looked back over his shoulder. “I won't be able to see you, so, uh...please keep it together, bro.”

 

Papyrus nodded. “I will.” His palms itched. He could feel his magic shifting with his mounting anxiety, but it was weak enough still that he could manage it. He just wished he knew what to brace himself for.

 

Sans gave him a thumbs up, and a grin that wavered a little around the edges. “Cool. Remember, you're totally safe. I got this.”

 

That was a statement that really needed more clarification, but Papyrus didn't have time to ask what, exactly, it was that Sans had. Magic flared in Sans' left hand, a neat sphere of not-quite-flame caged by his fingers. Papyrus looked at it with a small pang of envy and sadness-- until very recently, his own control had been at least that good.

 

He flinched as he felt Sans' magic bell outward, scraping against him and rising to coalesce at a point above Sans' head. It was the work of a second, and then…

 

Papyrus took a step back, shaking with the effort of holding down his magic. “What is that?”

 

“Don't freak out.” The stern edge to Sans' voice was enough to catch Papyrus off guard, jolting him out of his panic before it could get started. “It's not gonna do anything.”

 

The...thing, the attack, floated sedately overhead, twitching its bifurcated jaw now and then but otherwise still. It really did look like an animal skull, though not from any animal Papyrus had ever seen. It was big, its mouth lined with steak-knife sized teeth. Its eye sockets stared out at nothing. And something about it was...off. Too real. More solid than an attack had a right to be.

 

Was this what his magic had made that night? No wonder it had pulled so hard on his soul. “What is it?” Papyrus asked again, edging closer, gaze locked on the skull. Nothing about it looked the least bit safe, but it was arresting, hard to look away from. What was it?

 

His tremors were subsiding; frightened as he was, he trusted his brother not to hurt him.

 

That thing was damned creepy just the same.

 

“It's sort of a cannon,” Sans said. “It kinda...projectile vomits raw magic, I guess. With a lot of enthusiasm.” He shrugged one shoulder. “Kinda draining.”

 

“A cannon,” Papyrus repeated. That didn't sound like anything they should be able to do.

 

Sans flexed his left hand, popping his knuckles. The skull tipped side to side like a puzzled dog. “It doesn't look like we're the only monsters that have it, either. I found some notes a while ago-- can't tell if they were describing it or...designing it…? They're hard to read. Anyway,” he said, “it's called a Gaster Blaster, if you can believe that. Pretty goofy.”

 

Papyrus scowled. “Really.” He couldn't place why, but the words snagged over something in his mind the wrong way. The feeling was gone just as quickly, and he was left wondering at the ridiculousness of the name itself. That it was named after someone was obvious, but a magic attack wasn't something you could name after yourself like...like a quiche! They weren't things that were made, not like that. They were a natural expression of magic, an extension of body and will, not… Not...

 

Wait, notes? Where did… What was Sans talking about?

 

“We don't have to call it that if you don't want.” Sans stroked his chin, thinking. “How about Cooper? It looks kinda like a Cooper to me.”

 

It occurred to Papyrus that they were both very drunk, and that this was not an ideal time to be messing around with high-power magic. Especially magic neither of them seemed to really understand. Questions piled up and log-jammed in his head. “How long have you been able to do this?”

 

“A while.” Sans shrugged. “Don't really remember.”

 

“How do you forget a thing like that?” Papyrus gestured at the skull, which didn't take offense, or react in any way. Just a mindless attack.

 

Right.

 

Sans forced a laugh. “Hey, I'm a busy man! I can't be expected to keep track of every little detail.” His grin wilted under Papyrus' glare. “Heh. Look, I really can't remember. I was probably stressed out or distracted, or something. Either way, I'm pretty good at it now, right?”

 

How? How? No one was laid-back enough to take summoning something like that in stride. Not even Sans.

 

Though, in fairness, 'laid-back' wasn't what Sans was, not really.

 

“And you didn't tell me about it,” Papyrus said, crossing his arms to hide the fact that his hands were still shaking.

 

“Well, no one likes a show-off. Um...” Sans scuffed one heel into the frozen ground. “I'm not...super comfortable with ol' Coops, to be honest,” he said. “I'm not sure whether I'm relieved that you've got one, too, or what. On the one hand, we have all the same attacks again, and it was actually bugging me that we didn't for a while, there, but...” He seemed to notice that he was rambling, and stopped.

 

Papyrus found himself extremely concerned about whatever Sans had been about to say. This was raising a lot more questions than it was answering, and he just couldn't get his jumbled thoughts in order to even begin to make sense of it.

 

It didn't help that a good proportion of those thoughts were the mental equivalent of hysterical screaming.

 

“Notes?” he said. That one detail above all others kept floating to the top of the confused tangle in his head. Where would Sans find such a thing? Who could have written them, and why? He did his best to convey all these questions in that single word, because damned if he could manage complete sentences at the moment.

 

“Oh, yeah.” Sans shifted. “I wouldn't worry about that right now. They're pretty dry. Not very helpful.” Above them, the skull clicked its teeth shut. “One thing at a time.”

 

Papyrus frowned.

 

“I mean,” Sans said, “the important thing is, um...” He trailed off, scowling as though annoyed that his point hadn't shown up at the end of his sentence as he'd expected. “Well, we can both do this, right? So it must be normal. For us. So, neither of us have to feel like...like freaks over this, or anything.” He nodded, satisfied. “That's the takeaway, here.”

 

That was debatable. Papyrus was not at his most articulate at the moment, though, and he knew well enough that Sans would just lead the conversation around in circles until Papyrus gave up. He couldn't win the battle over the sock in the living room; he had no chance here.

 

A light snow started to fall, sleety little pellets as the highest reaches of the fog refroze and condensed. Papyrus watched it bounce off the skull and collect in between the ridged horns and in the grooves scoring its snout.

 

“So...” Sans watched Papyrus watch the skull. “What should we call yours, do you think? Andy? Felix? Nah.” He shook his head. “Georgia? That's classy. Or Lucida!” he said, snapping his fingers. “You could call it Lucy, for short.”

 

“I'm not calling it Lucy,” Papyrus said, the absurdity of the very idea finding no room in a head already overflowing with impossibilities. It slid off and away like snow off a pitched roof.

 

Sans sniffed. “Well, I think it's nice.” The skull's jaws clicked as though in agreement. “Coop and Lucy, just a couple of death-rays out on the town.” He chuckled. “It'd be easier to come up with a good name if I could see it, I guess.”

 

“No.”

 

“Look, it's not gonna-”

 

Papyrus crossed his arms. “I said no.” Seeing that massive skull, knowing what it did, the remembered feeling of panicked rage forming his magic into something that was so…so... No. He'd be happy to never form that attack ever again. That one second had been a second too long, as far as he was concerned.

 

And Sans had been left staring right down the barrel of it.

 

Never again.

 

“Fine,” Sans said, sighing. “I get it; it's kinda unsettling.” He glanced up at the skull. “I'm not real fond of it, myself, but it's not going to go away.” Resignation crept back into his voice.

 

“It's okay.” Papyrus hadn't intended to make Sans feel bad. He wasn't sure how he'd done that, and so he didn't know how to apologize. “I don't even know how I did it before,” he added. He couldn't summon the attack even if he wanted to. He profoundly did not want to.

 

“What were you feeling,” Sans asked, “when it happened? Do you remember?”

 

Rage. Sans' shove hadn't hurt, but it had made Papyrus see red, a whip-crack of emotion that had bypassed all rational thought. Panic and loss of control and rage, rage, rage. “It...I'm not sure.” Papyrus dropped his gaze, staring down at his feet, bone-white on snow-white. He would have liked to just fade into the snow and disappear from view. “I felt,” he said, shame rising up to choke him. “I felt...cornered. And upset.”

 

Sans said nothing, waiting patiently.

 

Why was he lying when he didn't need to? That wasn't right, not when Sans was doing his best to be honest with him, to help him. “And...maybe angry,” Papyrus added, wrapping his arms around himself. “...Definitely angry.” Just for an instant, but an instant was all it had needed.

 

“Yeah.”

 

Papyrus looked up. Sans wasn't looking at him, but rather up at the skull, still hovering overhead like a balloon. As though feeling Papyrus' attention on him, he made eye contact, smiling just a little and without a trace of humor.

 

“Yeah, that sounds about right.”

 

It would be pretty great, all things considered, if the ground would open up and swallow him. No such luck.

 

“It's okay,” Sans said. “I was pissed off, too.” As if 'pissed off' was in the same universe as the rage that had made Papyrus consider, even subconsciously, even for a moment, hurting his brother. “Sorry I pushed you.”

 

Papyrus didn't want to talk about this. “I'm sorry I hit you,” he said. It was the most minor of the litany of apologies he owed Sans. He was sorry for being so cruel that night, and for putting Sans' life in danger, and for scaring him, and for a dozen other failures. “And...and I'm sorry I...” He lost his nerve. He couldn't face it, couldn't put it into words. “It will never happen again.”

 

Sans made a sound that wasn't a laugh. “Yeah, it will.”

 

“No, it won't!” Papyrus said, voice cracking. “I promise.” His own brother didn't trust him. Well, and why should he? Papyrus hadn't given him much reason to do so. He didn't even believe himself just now, though he desperately wanted to.

 

“I...don't think it'll be up to you, bro.” Sans looked to his left hand, alight with magic that was contained and controlled. “I mean, if it were really possible to just push it down and never let it out again, wouldn't I have done it?”

 

Above them, the skull yawned, mouth gaping open, lower jaw spreading wide. The hint of a blue glow, like a pilot light, was just visible at the point where jaws joined cranium.

 

“I'm not good at this because I want to be.”

 

It wasn't a bright light, but Papyrus couldn't look away from it. The skull was pointed safely away, facing the trees that lined the river. That soft light signaled a danger far more potent than the maw of teeth that surrounded it. Those jaws weren't meant to bite. They were merely the barrel of the cannon.

 

The mouth shut, teeth interlocking like a jagged zipper-- on its own or by Sans' command, Papyrus couldn't tell. “The next time you feel like that,” Sans said, “it's going to come out, whether you mean to summon it or not.”

 

Papyrus caught himself on the edge of a protest, but he knew it was true. It had happened once. It was only a matter of time before it happened again, maybe in even worse circumstances. Just one more way he was putting his brother and everyone else at risk. All because he'd become too weak to control his magic, and too cowardly to try.

 

Flowey was right. He had to come to terms with his magic as it was now, to regain control. But he couldn't do anything anywhere near Sans. It wasn't worth it.

 

“Here,” Sans said, taking one wobbling step back to put some space between them. “You can get a better look at Coop, then maybe it won't bother you so much.” He whistled up at the skull. “Hey, Coop! Come on down here, you big lug.”

 

Papyrus was sure there was no point in talking to it. He was also sure he didn't want a closer look at it, thank you very much, but it was already moving, sinking smoothly down to rest in the snow. From this close up, the uncanny realness of it was even more apparent. It looked for all the world like normal bone. Even though it had only existed for a few minutes, it was covered in score marks and scratches like old scars. Instead of the soft luminescence of a conjured attack, it was dull and weathered. Real.

 

Sitting there on the ground, the skull somehow looked even larger than it had looming overhead. At its tallest point, it reached nearly to Papyrus' hip, and the tips of the horns were a little higher still. Sans leaned against it, working very hard at looking completely chilled out.

 

“See?” he said. “It's even easier to handle than normal attacks, once you're used to it.” He rested his chin in his hand. “Practice makes perfect, huh?”

 

Sans was only acting this way to help Papyrus stay calm, but it was working, much to Papyrus' mingled irritation and gratitude. He took a step closer.

 

“There you go,” Sans said, encouraging him to come closer still. “Check it out. Everything's fine.”

 

From this angle, the glow at the back of its mouth shone out through its eye sockets, giving Papyrus the sensation that it was watching him. At Sans' nod, he reached out and tentatively brushed his fingertips over the skull, tracing one of the ridges above its eye socket. When nothing horrible happened, he laid his palm against it. It felt just like real bone. Almost like it had physical matter of its own.

 

“Is it tiring? Keeping it going like this, I mean,” Papyrus said, studying Sans out of the corner of his eye socket. He'd been maintaining this thing for several minutes now, and it wasn't exactly trivial magic.

 

Sans grinned. “Nah, once it's formed it's not too bad. Firing it is where it gets rough.” He yawned. “Took a while to get the hang of it without having to take a long nap afterward. It's kinda overkill.” He blinked like it was taking real effort to stay alert. “Hmm. I was going somewhere with that,” he said, scowling, “but I kinda lost my train of...”

 

Papyrus watched him struggle not to doze off. “Are you alright? Are you sure you don't need a break?” The visual aid wasn't strictly necessary, after all. They could discuss this without the addition of a literal death ray hanging around being spooky and hazardous.

 

“I'm fine, bro,” Sans said, waving him off. “Just kinda...floaty, all of a sudden. Not in a bad way,” he added. “Kinda sleepy, is all. Must have had more cider than I thought, heh.” Now he did seem relaxed, propped up on the skull like he wasn't reluctant at all to touch it. He glanced down. “Oh. Bro?” he said. “Are you, uh, aware that you're doing that?”

 

Papyrus followed Sans' gesture, looking down at his own hands. At some point, he'd started sort of absently petting the skull, the light scrape of bone on bone too soft to hear over their conversation. “Oh! Sorry.” He stopped, pulling his hands away. That was awkward. Petting an attack; he'd start calling it by that stupid name next.

 

“Hhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhaa.”

 

If they'd had skin, both brothers would have jumped out of it. Papyrus stumbled back, tripping and landing rather gracelessly on his backside in the snow. Sans stared down at the skull, shock and total discombobulation written across his face. In capital letters. “Excuse the fuck out of me…?”

 

They watched the skull, which was still laying motionless on the ground. Papyrus felt his magic wreathing his hands, blue light sparkling over the snow. It had done nothing beyond that, and he took a moment to be thankful as he pushed the welling anxiety back down. The light faded.

 

“W-what was that?” The less-than-manly-and-cool tone of his voice wasn't as embarrassing as it normally would have been when Sans looked every inch as freaked out as he was.

 

Sans frowned and shook his head. “I dunno,” he said. “It's never done that before.”

 

They both flinched back as the voiceless whine came again, the skull's jaws twitching. “Hhhhhhhhhhhhhh...”

 

That was not okay. Nothing about any of that was okay. “Sans, why is it doing that?”

 

Sans shrugged, clearly at a loss and not happy about that fact. “Beats me. It's not real chatty most of the time.” He scratched his head. “Hey, um...come back over here for a second.”

 

That was asking a lot, but Papyrus clambered to his feet, a task that would have been far easier if he weren't still hours away from sobriety. He hadn't been comfortable standing so close to the skull before it had started making that frankly demonic noise, but Sans seemed to have an idea, so Papyrus forced himself to return to his place opposite his brother.

 

“This is gonna sound stupid, but could you maybe pet it again, or something?” He rolled his eyes at Papyrus' incredulous look. “Yeah, yeah, I know. Just humor me, alright?”

 

Papyrus sighed. “Fine,” he said. He stroked the flattened top of the skull's cranium. Nothing happened.

 

After a few seconds, Sans said, “Okay, now stop.”

 

Papyrus did so.

 

“...Hhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhaaa...”

 

Now that he was ready for it, Papyrus merely cringed at the low sound. Thoughtlessly, he started petting it again, and the skull quieted down.

 

“Huh!” Sans drummed his fingers on the skull. “Okay. That's a little weird.”

 

It was more than a little weird. But...at least it made the enormous skull a bit less scary, somehow. “Am I going to have to pet this fool thing all night?” The flicker of maybe-pride Papyrus felt at the thought that Sans' attack seemed to like him was immediately drowned out by the fact that attacks couldn't like or feel any kind of way about anything because they were attacks.

 

“Hmm? I mean,” Sans said, the lights of his eyes unfocusing slightly, “you can if you want, I guess.”

 

“Sans, I really don't think you're giving this the proper amount of concern,” Papyrus snapped. There he was nodding off again!

 

Shaking his head like he was trying to dislodge some of the drowsiness, Sans chuckled. “Oh, don't worry,” he said. “I'm flipping shit on the inside. That's just really, really relaxing.”

 

This time when Papyrus took his hand away they were both expecting the skull's whining.

 

“Wonder what that's about,” Sans said, coming out of his fog. “That's kinda...”

 

“Worrying?” Papyrus supplied.

 

Sans shrugged. “I was going to say trippy, but that works, too.” He dug a small notepad and a stubby pencil out of his jacket pocket, scribbling furiously.

 

Papyrus crossed his arms. “That really shouldn't be happening.”

 

“Well,” Sans said, still writing. “The blaster stays tethered to me the whole time I'm using it, so...” He trailed off, lost in thought for a moment. “I dunno, maybe there's some kinda feedback going on. Hmm.”

 

That sounded like something that called for a stronger reaction than curiosity. Papyrus glared down at the skull. He didn't like the idea of an attack that could talk back, much less influence the monster it belonged to.

 

If Sans was bothered, he didn't show it. “It's always been just me and, uh, targets whenever I've got this thing going,” he said. “It's never interacted with anyone else. Maybe...maybe it just likes you. Or maybe it recognizes you, or something. I mean, it's coming from me, right?”

 

A queasy lump formed under Papyrus' ribcage at that. “Mine didn't recognize you,” he said.

 

Sans put his notepad away. “Hey,” he said. “Don't do that. You were having a panic attack, bro; you can't think into it so much. Besides, I could be totally off-base.” He laid a hand on the skull. “Obviously I don't have this all figured out yet.” He smiled, tight and uncertain. “But we could tackle it together, if you want.”

 

Papyrus was torn. He needed to get a handle on this, at least to the point that he didn't summon it by accident. But so much could go wrong.

 

“You don't have to do anything you don't want to do, Papyrus,” Sans said, quietly.

 

The sharp crack of a tree limb breaking filled the air.

 

The skull lurched up off the ground, jaws gaping, aiming at the trees. The glow of raw magic gathered rapidly in its mouth; Sans had just enough time and presence of mind to force its muzzle upward as it fired.

 

Light, blinding, and a shockwave that thumped into his chest were all Papyrus could process of the blast in the half second it lasted. The skull collapsed into a scatter of spent magic, ripped apart by Sans' will.

 

Just visible across the river, through the curtain of fresh steam, was a swath of bare ground where the snow had been melted away. Damaged trees listed against each other.

 

They stood in the vacuum of light and sound the blaster had left behind, lit by the faint glow of the bones Papyrus didn't recall summoning to fence them off from the trees and whatever imagined threat may have been in them. The bones stuck up from the ground at crazy angles-- a testament to how little either of them needed to be using magic right now.

 

“Welp!” Sans was shaking, eye sockets and grin too wide. “We're drunk off our asses, and this was a stupid fucking idea. We should go before anyone shows up, huh?”

 

Papyrus nodded, shivering. No argument there.

 

Chapter Text

The TV was on, the bottle of cider and the ripped up bits of its label were still on the living room floor. The house was just as they'd left it only an hour ago, but it felt surreal to be standing here now.

Sans paced aimlessly in a five-foot square in the middle of the room, as though he wanted badly to escape but couldn't commit to a single direction. “I fucked up.”

Nothing had been in the trees when they'd checked, and the falling snow would fill in their tracks. There was nothing they could do about the scarred riverbank other than wait for the snow to cover it and hope no ferry passengers took much notice of the damaged trees.

“I fucked up,” Sans repeated. “That was stupid.”

“No one was hurt. You handled it,” Papyrus said, saying what he knew Sans needed to hear and would not accept. He wouldn't have accepted it, either.

Predictably, Sans shook his head. “It shouldn't have happened. I know better.” It wouldn't have happened, Papyrus knew, under normal circumstances. Sans' control was ironclad. Half a bottle of crabapple cider had corroded it somewhat, and as quickly as he'd recovered, Sans wouldn't tolerate even a brief slip any better than Papyrus was handling his own difficulties. "I keep making things worse."

"I'm fine," Papyrus said, mostly truthfully. At least he had a good idea of what that attack actually did, terrifying as it was. Knowing was better than not knowing, and finding out this way was better than finding out on his own. He was badly shaken (and also shaking badly), but he would be alright.

Sans peered up at him. "Yeah, you know," he said, "you took that pretty well. I was kinda expecting to get smeared." A weak laugh slipped out between his teeth.

Papyrus scowled, lost in thoughts of what could have happened. But he'd more or less kept himself in check-- and while drunk, no less! It made him feel a little…good. Hopeful. Like he wouldn't be this way forever.

He could almost look forward to practice. Depending on how long the report for the king took him to finish, he could regain some of his former control by the time he returned to his normal duties. He wouldn't have to worry so much about hurting anyone by accident.

And Sans wouldn't have to worry about being hurt.

"Anyway," Sans said, through the growing awkwardness, "it's pretty obvious we don't need to be messing with that tonight, so…" He shrugged and crossed his arms. “Maybe you could just call it good until tomorrow?”

"I'll stay in," Papyrus said, making sure not to break eye contact.

A skeptical look passed over Sans' face. "The whole night?"

Papyrus nodded. "Promise." Guilt gnawed at him as he watched Sans relax and smile for real.

"Finally!" Sans reached out to clap him on the shoulder. "You have no idea what a relief that is, bro. Thank you."

“Think nothing of it.” After such a trying day, Sans deserved a break from his constant worrying. And it was especially important that his brother stayed in the house tonight, given how inebriated he was.

That's what Papyrus insisted to himself, anyway. Lying was simpler and easier than another argument.

The rest of the evening passed in a sort of drowsy haze. Neither of them had energy for much beyond lounging on the couch and half-watching the news. Papyrus went upstairs early, under the pretense of wanting to sleep off the cider. Sans, unfortunately, did not. The appointed hour was getting close, and his brother was still downstairs. It was possible that he'd fallen asleep watching TV, but Papyrus didn't want to chance waking him, if so.

He'd be late if he didn't get going soon.

Papyrus eyed his room's single window appraisingly. If he couldn't leave by the door, then maybe… He nudged his computer monitor aside to make room and, leaning over the desk, tried the sash. It lifted easily enough once he remembered to unlock it.

Trickier was climbing outside without knocking anything over, but he managed. Dangling from the windowsill, he looked down and gauged that he only had around eight feet to drop. Perfectly doable. He let go, kicking away from the wall in the same motion, and landed, rolling over in the snow.

Not bad at all! Under different circumstances, he might have been proud. He dusted himself off and set out, a bit unsteadily, for the woods.

~*~

Flowey watched as an arc of bones cruised past him, missing by inches. He could feel the wind of its passing. "Gee, Papyrus," he said. "You're all over the place tonight. Not feeling well?" This wasn't the first attack Papyrus had whiffed, and Flowey was well aware why that was. The silly idiot was putting up a valiant effort to maintain some kind of coordination, for all the good it was doing.

In recognition of this effort, Flowey kept his attacks on the manageable side, just this once. Watching Papyrus stagger around with that look of earnest concentration on his face was comedy gold.

"I might be, er, a little under the weather," Papyrus said. He smelled like crabapples that had met a sorry fate. Why did adults always assume kids didn't notice these things? Papyrus had always been better than most about not talking down to him or being otherwise patronizing, but even he wasn't without these occasional slips.

"That's one way to put it, I suppose." Flowey winked, sticking his tongue out. "I don't see the appeal of drinking, myself, but then I'm not a grown-up." When Flowey needed to distract himself, he preferred altering the states of other people, not his own.

Besides, he remembered his father letting him try a sip of wine once, long ago. It had tasted dry and bitter. He hadn't liked it.

Papyrus shifted nervously. "Sorry," he said. "I don't normally-"

"I know, friend. You don't need to apologize." Flowey moved closer. "Just don't let your brother drag you down to his level. You're better than that." As far as implications went, it was heavy-handed, but then again Papyrus was firing on fewer cylinders than usual.

A brief, mutinous glare flashed across Papyrus' face, but he nodded obediently.

"Speaking of your brother," Flowey said, moving on to the main business of the night. "Who would have guessed he could summon an attack like that, huh? Golly!" The idea that Sans could do anything the least bit impressive was laughable. Flowey wouldn't have believed it if he hadn't seen it with his own eyes. That thing had been cool.

Papyrus tensed. "Like what?"

Flowey giggled. "Oh, you know which one I'm talking about, silly goose! Now, what was it called?" He put a leaf to his lower petals in thought. "A…gaster blaster? What a funny name!" Very funny. He didn't know why, but something about saying that name tickled the back of his mind in an odd way, as if the words were resisting being thought about. It felt weird. How lovely!

Papyrus stared up at him, guarded and silent. He was getting better about not tipping his hand at the first sign of trouble. Flowey would go so far as to say he was developing some small measure of cunning.

"Pretty rude of him not to make mention of it until now," Flowey said, smirking. "It would have served him right if you'd let yours fire on him. After all, you didn't know what to expect, thanks to him.” He nodded to himself. “That would have been poetic, I think."

Oh, if looks could kill.

Flowey swayed on his stem. "I never even got to see yours, friend," he pouted. "I bet it's way better than Sans'."

"I don't know how to summon it," Papyrus said, taking a step back. Flowey wondered if he'd try to run, but of course he knew better than to try something foolish like that.

"Don't be silly! You've done it before, right? So," Flowey said, "we just need to jog your memory."

Vines whipped out to twine around Papyrus' neck, lifting him to dangle high above the ground. Flowey gave him a rough shake, watching him struggle. Flowey shook him again, mostly to hear the rattling sound his bones made. Ha. Like a living tambourine.

"Hmm, nothing?" Flowey frowned. "Gee, this might be kinda hard, huh? Good thing we have lots of time."

"Nngk!" Papyrus said, kicking wildly. He clawed at the vines. His fingertips wouldn't have done much damage even without the gloves on, but Papyrus' scratching and pulling let him twist himself into a position where he could chomp down on a vine.

The bite didn't hurt, of course, but it did break the surface.

Flowey laughed and tossed him away. Papyrus did his best to catch himself, but falling at that speed from that height meant his shoulder roll became a tumble that halted only when his back struck up against a tree trunk with a sharp crack. Snow fell in clumps around him from the tree's lower branches. Papyrus staggered to his feet, groaning.

"I want to see it, Papyrus." Flowey reached out to push him, making him stumble to keep his footing. "Are you even trying?"

Spitting out a mouthful of sap, Papyrus balled up his fists. "I told you, I don't know how!" Was that anger Flowey detected in his voice? Well, well. Progress!

Flowey shoved again, knocking Papyrus to his knees. "Sans got to see it," he said. "I'm feeling very left out. Aren't I your best friend?"

An hour passed in this way.

Papyrus hit the ground for the umpteenth time with a frustrated huff. He scrambled upright again, grumbling. It was a welcome change from his habitual shaking and sniveling, though in all fairness that had been tapering off more and more. Fear was now shot through with anger-- far more productive, and on Papyrus, far more amusing. He was cute when he was angry; it was like being growled at by a puppy.

"Let me see it, friend."

Papyrus glared up at him. "I'm trying!"

Flowey giggled. If anger was the key, he had to accept getting yelled at a few times, but he found he didn't really mind. Papyrus was so funny! He even stamped his feet now and then, like he couldn't think of a better way to vent his aggression despite having all that magic at his disposal.

But despite how much fun Flowey was having teasing him, the night wouldn't last forever. He really wanted to see that attack. He'd seen Papyrus really pissed off once before, and he wasn't quite there yet. "Maybe you're right after all," Flowey said. "Maybe you really can't do it by yourself. Maybe we need to ask for help."

Papyrus blanched. "No," he stammered. "I-I can do it! I just need a moment!"

Flowey pretended not to hear him. "I bet your brother can explain it, right? Why don't I just go and get him?"

"No! Don't!"

"What's that word I hear, Papyrus? Be careful," Flowey cautioned.

Papyrus cringed back, hands raised in front of him. “Just...just...”

“That's right, Papyrus.” Flowey grinned. “I'm going to go to your house, and I'm going to drag Sans out of whatever window is most convenient, and we're going to come right back here and get this mental block of yours all straightened out. I bet he'll be so happy to not be utterly useless for once.” He moved, as if to leave the clearing.

Papyrus darted in front of him, blocking the way with a wall of bones. He said nothing this time, wild-eyed and quivering.

"You silly!" Flowey laughed. "As if you can stop me." He started to pull himself below ground. "I'll say hi to your brother for you!"

Faster than he could blink, a beam of raw magic punched through him, bright and colder than death. It was spent in a second, but it more than made up for every bit of damage Papyrus had failed to deal thus far. When the beam faded, past the dazzled spots floating in Flowey's vision, he could make out the shape of a large, beast-like skull hovering over Papyrus like a wrathful mother over its child.

It seemed to stare into and through him with its empty eye sockets while it closed its massive jaws. Implacable, unfeeling, and lethal. It was the most glorious thing he'd ever laid eyes on. Who would have thought that Papyrus had it in him?

So many new things in one day! This run had been his best idea ever, no matter what became of it in the end. He hadn't been this entertained in a long time. Secret magic and words that wouldn't stay in his brain and Papyrus, of all monsters, looking like he really could take down a human…! Whatever happened, it would be an ending Flowey had never seen before. The possibilities were intoxicating.

Papyrus fell to his knees, woozy from the quick drain on his magic. The skull dipped down as if to shield him even as it began to dissipate. And then it was gone, showering its master in spent magic. Flowey's scorched body and the area of steaming mud around him were the only evidence it had existed at all.

"See?" Flowey said brightly. "I believed in you, all the way!" He drew close, crackling as he moved. Burnt leaves and charred bits of stem fell from him, leaving a trail.

Shivering with exertion, Papyrus struggled to focus on Flowey's face. "Are you," he said, teeth chattering. "Are you alright?"

Sweet, simple Papyrus. For a few brief moments he'd looked like a proper human hunter, even without the armor. His blaster would be embarrassed if it were still present...and capable of thought. "I'm more than alright, friend! You did very well." Flowey patted the skeleton's cheekbone with a crispy leaf.

"T-tired," Papyrus stuttered. He was shaking hard enough to rattle. Clearly, there would be no repeat performance tonight, no matter how riled Flowey got him.

Flowey hummed. "Well, I suppose we can take a break. You have just made a major improvement, after all."

Nodding, Papyrus shifted to sit fully on the ground. Flowey curled loosely around him, feeling him tense up.

"Easy, friend! We're just hanging out," Flowey said. "You've had a pretty heavy day, huh?" He tightened his coils briefly in a hug. Papyrus sat stiff as a statue. "It must be hard having to deal with such a high-maintenance person all the time. Sans really shouldn't lean on you so much."

Stock still except for his shivering, Papyrus stared off at the mud patch the blast had melted into the snow.

"That was pretty awesome," Flowey said, following his gaze. "I bet a human would sizzle right up after something like that!" He giggled. "You're getting so strong." He gave Papyrus another light squeeze. Positive reinforcement was important, too!

His favorite toy seemed to be out of batteries for the night. Minutes ticked by as Flowey kept up a one-sided conversation. Papyrus said nothing in reply, and, in fact, gave no indication he even heard Flowey speak. Oh, well.

Flowey had already gotten what he wanted, for now.

~*~

The walk back home was long. More than once, Papyrus had to sit and rest for a few minutes before continuing on. Catching his reflection in a patch of ice, he winced at the picture he presented. The shaking would hopefully subside by the time he reached Snowdin, but he couldn't do anything about the rest of it. His clothes were damp and grimy from tumbling through the snow, and he could feel a rip in the back of his shirt from his close encounter with that tree trunk. That, and the fact that he was scuffed up and barefoot combined to make him look like some manner of drifter.

It was with a sense of profound relief that he crossed the bridge into town. They'd finished early; he'd been unable to do any magic after...after… And so after sitting together quietly for a while for reasons Papyrus couldn't fathom, Flowey had let him go.

Maybe he'd have time to shower and have something of a proper nap before Sans got up. That would be nice. His feet were sore and his back hurt a lot. His whole body ached, in fact, and he was certain his skull would fall right off his neck and shatter on the ground if he moved it too fast. He wondered if it was magical exhaustion, or if he'd finally managed to achieve a hangover. Perhaps both.

He walked through the silent town in a daze. The sooner he was home, the happier he'd be. He wanted rest, and then he wanted to keep busy. He had a lot to avoid thinking about.

Painfully bright light and a subsonic thrum that was more physical sensation than sound played through his head, over and over. Torrential magic, like a dam had burst somewhere inside him, had siphoned off every scrap of strength his soul could spare in an instant. If that night on the hill when his magic had run wild could be compressed into a few seconds, Papyrus imagined it would have felt just like that. It had been so strong, so alien and yet so perfectly tuned to his soul. It had frightened him.

The stink of burnt vegetation lingered in his nasal cavity even now.

He stopped short in the road. Sans was sitting on the front step of their house, watching him.

“Yeah,” Sans said, hoarse and tired-eyed. “That's what I thought.”

Papyrus stood there stupidly, saying nothing.

Sans rested his head in his hand, face expressionless but pinched. “Out for a nice walk? Do you know,” he said. “that I've been up all night? Same as you, I bet.”

This was bad. “Sans, I-”

“Just save it, Papyrus.” Sans sounded more tired than angry, but then again he sounded very tired. “I went to check on you since, you know, we had a lot to drink and I wanted to make sure you were okay.” He gestured, spreading his hands. “And lo and behold, bed's made, you're not in your room. You're nowhere in the house.

“You know what was in the house, though? Your phone.” Reaching into his pocket, Sans pulled out Papyrus' phone. He tossed it and Papyrus nearly missed the catch, too tired and achy to move very fast. “And you know how relieved I was when I heard it ringing? I figured you must have just ducked out for a few minutes and I was overreacting. And then it just kept on ringing, and ringing. You left it on the kitchen counter.”

Unsure whether speaking or keeping quiet was the wiser option, Papyrus spoke. “I'm sorry. I must have misplaced it.”

Sans exhaled sharply. “That phone hasn't left your side longer than it takes to charge the battery since you got it.”

Papyrus really, honestly had simply forgotten his phone. He dearly wished he hadn't. If he'd just been a little more careful...

“Anyway,” Sans went on, still staring him down. “I'm getting pretty worried by now, right? So, I start looking around outside, and notice tracks behind the house. Did you seriously climb out your window?” He chortled at that, slapping his knee as though hearing a good pun. His laugh was like sandpaper. “After everything that went down yesterday, after you promised me you'd stay, you fucking vanished again. You went out of your way to sneak out like a goddamn teenager and you lied right to my face."

Going another round with Flowey would have been preferable to this. Sans wasn't even yelling; Papyrus hadn't seen him this upset in years. “I'm sorry.”

Sans shrugged. "That so? Because I think you'd have slipped back in the house and played it off like you'd been here the whole time if you could. If you were sorry, you'd stop pulling this shit." He looked Papyrus over from top to bottom. "Yesterday's clothes. No shoes, even. And you look like you took a walk off a cliff."

Papyrus made a helpless gesture. He could think of no good reason for him to look this way, none that his brother would believe.

"You weren't at that hill, either," Sans said. "I checked. Didn't time myself, so, you know, sorry about that." His grin took on a bitter edge. "And I can't very well search the whole forest, so I decided to keep a lookout here in case you came back. Only had to wait three hours."

Unable to meet Sans' gaze, Papyrus looked away. He didn't know what to say to make Sans even slightly less angry with him. He'd really stepped in it this time.

"Three hours of feeling like a moron for taking you at your word, when that used to be one of the only things I never had to question.” Sans' voice shook. “Three hours wondering where you went this time, and why, and knowing I wouldn't be able to find you if anything happened to you. Do you have any idea," he said, "what that feels like?"

"I'm sorry," Papyrus said again. It was completely inadequate, but it was all he had.

Sans stood up, and Papyrus couldn't help flinching back at his approach.

Sans frowned at his reaction, and circled him, studying him with an air of judgment. "I mean," he said, "is this some kinda mania, or something? You can't skip it for one night?" He stopped directly behind Papyrus, no doubt looking at his torn shirt. "How the fuck did you get a chunk of bark stuck in your spine?"

Before Papyrus could think up an answer, Sans took hold of the offending tree bark and yanked it out. Papyrus yelped.

"It's chipped," Sans said, feeling with his thumb along the process of one of Papyrus' vertebra. It stung. Sans circled back around to shove the bark in Papyrus' face. It was a sizable piece; Sans couldn't close his fist around it. "What the hell are you doing? Why are you hurting yourself?"

"It was just an accident," Papyrus said. "I messed something up."

"Yeah," Sans said. "You messed up your fucking back. And if you'd really got hurt, how long would you have been lying out there before someone found you? If anyone ever found you." He winced at his own raised voice.

Papyrus looked down at the ground. "I didn't mean to worry you."

"Really? Because you're getting pretty pro at it." Sans' voice cracked. He scrubbed at his eye sockets with his sleeve, sucking in a deep breath. "At least tell me where you went."

Papyrus crossed his arms, disgusted with himself but resolute. He couldn't give his brother that information. Coming up with a fake answer was as bad as refusing to answer at all, if not worse. Sans would see through the lie now that he was expecting one.

Sans threw the piece of bark as far down the road as he could with a choked yell. "You know what? Fine!" Shoving his hands in his pockets, he knocked roughly against Papyrus with his shoulder as he stormed past.

"Where are you going?" Papyrus asked, letting the momentum of the hit turn him around.

"The inn," Sans snapped without looking back. "I'm tired. Do me a favor and stay away from me for a while."

Papyrus watched him go, wanting to call after him or follow him or just stop him somehow, but...it wouldn't do any good. He stood there for several minutes after Sans was out of sight, then let himself inside.

He forced himself to get cleaned up, though he wasn't looking forward to any part of the day anymore. His chipped vertebra and his many scrapes stung under the spray of the shower, but he took his time, making sure every last speck of dirt and plant matter was gone and all the snow and ice was melted away. Once that was done, he stood there until the hot water turned dead cold. The water did a good job of camouflaging any tear tracks that happened to be on his face, not that there was anyone in the house to see them.

Too tired for anything else, he settled down to try to sleep. He shifted uncomfortably for a few minutes before flopping over onto his front to take pressure off his injured back.

His mind churned, keeping him awake despite his exhaustion. It was as though each problem were fighting over his attention, trying to outdo one another.

That attack-- the blaster-- needed to be dealt with. As much as Papyrus would rather have forgotten all about it, there was no going back. Whatever had triggered its appearance in the first place, it wasn't going to go away, just as Sans had said. Flowey had goaded it out of him easily, and yet he still wasn't sure how he'd summoned it.

Papyrus sighed into his pillow, trying to think. He remembered getting increasingly upset and afraid while Flowey tossed him around like a rag doll. That was a feeling he'd become used to; it no longer held much of an edge. But threatening Sans, and it had been a threat without any doubt-- that had sparked a kind of frantic, helpless anger that overrode conscious thought. That was something Papyrus had never in his life had much occasion to feel. Until recently.

That was rage. Rage that had burned hotter than it had that night on the hill. Papyrus didn't know what came between him feeling that way and the blaster existing. It happened so fast. All he could recall was a strange sort of…reverberation. As though his soul had cried out, and something answered. Something came.

He wondered, briefly, if Flowey would be alright. He hadn't seemed fazed at all, but then again he didn't really feel pain. Not that that made it okay to injure him, but…

Not long ago, Papyrus wouldn't have continued that thought with a 'but.' It wasn't okay to hurt someone, no matter what the circumstances. Shame rolled over him in greasy waves. The word clung to him regardless, refusing to be shaken off.

Flowey was just a child.

But…

Flowey had suffered violence and cruelty that no one, and especially not a child, should ever have to endure.

But…

He had been denied even his final rest, trapped in a strange form and slowly unraveling in loneliness and despair that Papyrus couldn't begin to imagine.

But...

All monsters told of the little prince they'd lost, who had been every bit as gentle and warm as his parents. He had once been kind. He had once been good.

But…

But he'd threatened Sans.

Papyrus ardently believed that there was no such thing as a purely evil person. There was always a reason why someone left the narrow path, some underlying wound that could conceivably be healed. Anyone could be good if they tried, if they were given hope for atonement and forgiveness. Papyrus believed this with his whole being, and always had, and always would.

Flowey had been good once, and Papyrus truly felt that he could be so again, no matter how twisted and cruel he'd become as time passed and he lost more and more of himself.

But.

In the moment that Flowey had been leaving the clearing, leaving for Snowdin, Papyrus hadn't cared about any of that. In that moment, he'd just wanted his brother safe, no matter what.

Papyrus would stake his life on his belief in the power of mercy. He couldn't gamble with Sans.

…Sans.

Siblings fought. That was an immutable fact of nature. Siblings that worked together, lived together, that had more or less raised each other fought, if anything, more often than average. Papyrus knew he could grate on Sans' nerves, and Sans routinely crossed the line from funny to infuriating. They'd done their share of screaming at each other over the years.

This morning had been different. This morning had felt like something irreversible was happening. Sans knew he was being lied to, that Papyrus was throwing all attempts at help back in his face. Papyrus had heard his deepest hurts, and had, from Sans' perspective, simply nodded along and then tossed them aside. That betrayal must have cut deep.

Being brave and honest had done Sans no good. No matter what he said or did, it would never be enough to get through. Papyrus could never allow it. The price was much too high.

If Sans started to resent him, Papyrus would understand. Papyrus wouldn't blame him if he gave up on trying to help altogether. As long as he was safe, nothing else really mattered. No matter how much it hurt.

Papyrus wasn't sure when he'd finally fallen asleep, but he woke to a headache that made him regret waking up, along with other bad decisions he'd made in his life. Decisions like drinking all that cider the day before and, going back a little farther, ever being born. If he was careful to lie perfectly still, it only hurt immensely instead of extremely, but he couldn't stay in bed all day.

With slow, considered movements he managed to get on his feet. He got himself a glass of water and returned to his room. Sans was still out; Papyrus doubted he'd see him at all until tomorrow.

No use thinking about that now.

Sipping the water slowly, Papyrus booted up his computer. Two days in, and he hadn't made much progress on Undyne's-- now his-- reports. He had a dreadful headache that would be made worse by reading, but there was no helping it. It was going to be a long, miserable afternoon.

After a dozen reports that took far too much time, Papyrus was forced to admit defeat. He couldn't see straight; even the screen was doubled. The desk chair was hitting in just the right spot to aggravate his back, too.

This was going to take ages without help. And the longer it took, the longer he'd have these nightly practices and the more he'd alienate Sans.

What was that acronym Alphys always added when she was venting? He didn't know what the letters stood for, but he was sure it applied.

“Eff em ell,” he sighed.

Chapter Text

Of the two brothers, Papyrus was as healthy as Sans was not. He almost never got sick, and when he was injured he healed quickly and easily even without magic. It was rare that anything came up that he couldn't manage on his own.

He couldn't manage this. His first-ever hangover was apparently making up for lost time (with his back injury acting as its eager accomplice), keeping him too nauseated to eat and in too much pain to focus on anything other than holding himself in whatever position hurt the least. Wasn't it supposed to get better as the day went on? He felt worse.

How did Sans put up with it? Papyrus supposed his brother was simply more accustomed to being ill; he made it look almost effortless.

...Ha, effortless. Sans would have found that funny on several different levels. Through clenched teeth, Papyrus half-laughed, half-sobbed. Naturally, the one time he had a joke… Well, it probably wasn't that funny, anyway.

The minute sound of his own laughter dragged through his head like a ripsaw. Something had to be done. He had work to finish. If nothing else, he at least needed a bit more rest before nightfall. Sans kept all sorts of medicines in his room, but borrowing any of it felt inappropriate. Besides, knowing his luck Papyrus would take the wrong pill and really make himself sick. He'd have to go out and buy something for himself.

Snowdin was a small town; nevertheless the walk to the general store was entirely too long. All the way at the western edge of town, it was the last building before the bridge leading into the forest. Normally, Papyrus would run there, but just maintaining a slow walking pace was difficult enough. Each step sent a bolt of pain up his spine to ricochet inside of his skull.

He paused at the T-intersection near the library with the realization that he would have to pass the inn to reach the store just next door. The thought nearly sent him back home. Shaking his head at how ridiculous he was acting, he forced himself to keep moving.

A small eternity later, when he'd finally made it all the way down the road to his destination, Papyrus faltered for a moment in front of the inn. Crossing his arms, he gazed up at the second-floor windows, wondering whether Sans had a room that looked out onto the road or one that faced back into the trees.

...Not that his brother was the type to stare forlornly out of windows. Even if he were, Papyrus would be the last person he'd want to see hanging around outside.

With a small shake of his head, Papyrus continued on into the store.

The general store always smelled of cinnamon, and it was always kept toasty warm. Along with the soft lighting, it made for a cozy, calming atmosphere. So cozy, in fact, that the shopkeeper was napping at the sales counter, her head pillowed on her arms. The bell over the door made her stir, ears flicking, but wasn't enough to wake her.

“Excuse me, miss?” Papyrus said, his own voice unbearably loud in his head. When that didn't work, he reached out to gently tap her shoulder.

“Hmm?” Bleary-eyed and whiskers twitching, the woman raised her head. She jumped on seeing Papyrus in front of her. “Oh, hiya!” she said, ears pricking up straight. She had a forceful speaking voice; today she might as well have been shouting through a megaphone. Ow.

Papyrus rubbed his temple, coaxing the bones of his skull to stay together. “Sorry to startle you, miss.”

The shopkeeper laughed, waving him off. “'Miss!' Well, bless your heart!” She took a moment to smooth the fur on her cheek. “I do apologize,” she said. “It's been a slow day. What can I get for you, sweetie?”

“Just pain reliever, if you have it.”

“Sure do! Only thirty gold.” While the shopkeeper skimmed over the shelves behind her, Papyrus set a few battered gold coins on the counter. “I thought you looked a little peaky. You sick?”

Papyrus made a vague, affirmative sound, thankful that the lighting was dim enough to mask a lot of the scuffs on his face. After a brief search, the shopkeeper turned back to him and pressed a small bottle of pills into his hands.

"And remember," the shopkeeper said, writing out a receipt, "it works best if you drink a full glass of water with it." She smiled. "You probably know that, but then you buy medicine so rarely."

"Thank you for the reminder." Papyrus pocketed the receipt and did his best to smile back despite his splitting headache.

The shopkeeper scooped the coins into her lockbox. "Poor thing," she said, looking at him with motherly pity. "I guess even you must catch colds sometimes."

"I guess so," Papyrus said. No need to correct her.

"Well, try your best to rest up."

Nodding, Papyrus turned to leave. A cough from the shopkeeper made him pause.

"It's not my business, of course," she said, ears drooping, "but my sister was awfully concerned to see your brother at the inn this morning. He is your brother, right?" She fidgeted with the clutter on the sales counter. "He seemed real upset, and she found it odd that he was checking in, considering you two live right in town, and all." She frowned. "Not to pry, but is everything alright? It's just that my sister worries about folks, you know, as if all her kids ain't enough. She's everybody's momma."

Everything was not alright. Everything was about as far as possible from alright.

"Yes," he said, more unsure and thready than he was aiming for. "We had a disagreement, that's all."

"Oh," the shopkeeper said, perking up. "Say no more! My sister and I butt heads all the time, but it always blows over. Family's family." She smiled reassuringly. "Once he's cooled off I'm sure you two will patch things right up."

Papyrus knew better, but he didn't need anyone else's concern. "Thank you," he said, forcing a grin through every kind of pain. "I'm sure you're right."

 

~*~

 

It was late afternoon when Sans finally returned home. Papyrus heard the front door, but stayed at his desk. He listened as his brother shuffled upstairs and seemed to pause for a moment outside his bedroom. Papyrus kept still and quiet, the moment passed, and Sans moved on to his own room, shutting the door behind him.

Throughout the evening the pair avoided each other, staying holed up in their respective bedrooms. However, as the night drew in and Papyrus readied himself for another practice, Sans showed himself.

“I kinda figured.” Sans leaned against the railing, watching Papyrus pull his boots on. "I'm not going to waste my time trying to stop you," he said. "And I won't follow you."

"Thank you," Papyrus said, looking up at his brother. "I appreciate that, truly." He hadn't expected Sans to give up so easily, despite everything that had transpired this morning. Was Sans retreating from this one specific battle, or was he withdrawing entirely? And either way, should Papyrus feel relieved or worried?

He didn't know.

"Don't sneak out like that again." Sans' face was impossible to read, closed off and flat. "If you insist on doing this, you can be an adult about it and let me know where you're going and when you'll be back."

...And look Sans in the eye as he did so, presumably until his nerve failed or his guilt caught up to him and he relented and stayed home. Papyrus frowned. The tactic wouldn't work, and it would only upset Sans more to have Papyrus breeze right past him every night.

How was he supposed to keep Sans safe from his own soul-draining melancholy and Flowey at the same time?

"There's a clearing three miles to the southwest," Papyrus said. "The teenagers haven't found it yet. I'll be back no later than six."

Roughly half of that statement had been true. More than half, if he counted the 'west' minus the 'south.'

Sans gave him a long, long look. Papyrus calmly held his gaze until, grudgingly, Sans nodded his acceptance.

Letting himself out into the night, Papyrus relaxed, scowling openly in self-disgust. He had to stay strong. There was no other way. Better that Sans was unhappy, so long as he was kept safe.

It bothered him, how easy it had become to take his cruelty toward his brother in stride.

 

~*~

 

As much as Papyrus hated to admit it, the nightly practices were helping. Flowey was a pitiless teacher, and being subjected to his attentions without any time to recover was taking a toll on Papyrus physically, especially since Flowey now only healed him on an as-needed basis. Magically, though, Papyrus was slowly regaining control.

It was strange. If anything, he was twitchier than ever, but the magic that roiled below the surface was easier to hold down. Having an outlet for his energy was probably part of the explanation, but it was more than that. Constant use of his attacks without mishap was rebuilding his confidence, bit by bit. And just as he'd become adept at spotting the slightest change in Flowey's moods, he was learning to recognize when his own emotional state was beginning to shift, giving him a chance to subdue his anxiety before it got the better of him. The familiar feeling of self-mastery was coming back, at last. Papyrus had missed it so much.

His relief at seeing some progress buoyed him through the long nights. Flowey pushed him harder than ever, and Papyrus threw his whole self into each new challenge. As long as he kept improving, nothing was beyond his endurance. Even Flowey's tantrums held less horror now, and the off-putting conversations at the end of each night were more bearable. To be in control of his magic again was worth anything Flowey threw at him.

As they went on, that dizzy, stuttering feeling came back, sometimes more than once in a night. Papyrus would catch a glancing blow or dodge out of the way of an especially devastating attack, the world twisting and shuddering around him for just an instant. It was worrisome, but far from the most pressing issue in his mind. He shrugged it off. It wasn't important.

On the tenth night, Papyrus made a breakthrough.

 

~*~

 

"Sans!" Papyrus pounded on his brother's bedroom door. "Sans, I can do it now! Get up!"

He'd run the whole way back to the house. He was tired and sore and elated. Flowey was pleased with him, so much so that he'd been given the next few nights off as a reward. That on its own was nearly as exciting as what he'd just achieved.

The sounds of shuffling and confused muttering filtered through the door. "Papyrus...?" There was a creak of worn bed springs. "It's four in the morning."

"You might as well get up, then," Papyrus said, fighting to keep still. His face ached from grinning. "Come see what I can do! I can do it on purpose now!"

The door swung open, and Sans squinted in the brighter light of the loft. "Do what on purpose?" Sleep roughened his voice. He leaned against the door frame as though he might doze off again standing up.

Papyrus fought the urge to shake his brother into wakefulness. "Take a guess!" He smiled brightly.

After a moment, Sans straightened. "Wait," he said, eyes widening. "You mean you can-"

"Yes, yes!" Papyrus said, too excited to let him finish. Grabbing Sans' hand, Papyrus pulled him toward the stairs. "Come see!"

Sans stumbled along in Papyrus' wake for a few steps, then dug his heels in.

Papyrus stopped when he felt resistance, narrowly avoiding dragging Sans off his feet. He looked back at his brother. "What's the matter?" He asked, giddiness tainted with a now-familiar unease.

They hadn't been getting along well since Sans' all-nighter. Things had been…chilly. Their home was now a no-man's-land. Papyrus spent most of his time struggling through reports alone until he was forced to lie down until the headache eased. Sans seemed to do not much of anything in particular. He didn't go to work, and Papyrus wondered if he even still had a job to go to. He didn't dare ask.

Papyrus had apologized numerous times, but with nothing to back up the words, they were merely words. For the most part, they gave each other a wide berth, speaking little when their paths did cross. More correctly: Papyrus spoke little, and Sans responded with stony silence.

In his excitement, Papyrus had forgotten, slipping back into the habit of seeking encouragement and validation from the most reliable source he knew. He readied himself for Sans to pull his hand free, to disappear back into his room. He deserved as much.

"You sure you don't want to rest first?"

Papyrus blinked in surprise.

For the first time in a week, Sans was looking at him without a trace of guardedness or disappointment in his expression. Just concern. "You're looking pretty rough, bro."

"Not important," Papyrus said, his soul lighter than it had been in what felt like forever. He tugged Sans' hand insistently.

With a doubting sigh, Sans started moving.

The ever-present fog swallowed them up as Papyrus led them down the road east of town. In one sense, it felt as though no time at all had passed since Sans had led him to this very spot; in another, it might as well have been years ago.

Directing Sans to stand next to him, just in case, Papyrus took a moment to calm the figurative butterflies in his figurative stomach. He'd made a huge leap tonight, but he still needed a lot more practice with this attack.

Slow. Steady. He was in control.

Raising his hand, Papyrus let his magic curl around his fingers, pulling it together into his palm. He gripped it loosely, a focus point and a catalyst for what followed.

He was tired from the night's training session, but he turned his attention inward and gathered his will. He'd done this successfully half a dozen times now, and each time it had taken more energy, more concentration. This time, for some reason, it felt almost easy. Natural. Silently and soul-deep, Papyrus called out, not in rage or fear but, for the first time, in calm invitation.

His magic drifted outward, a flowing tide that felt gentle as a sigh now that he'd stopped trying to fight against it. He was momentarily aware of his brother's soul at his side, a bright spark at the back of his consciousness.

As the blaster took form above him, Papyrus centered his thoughts on that brightness, wordless commands of defend-safeguard-protect running through his mind like an incantation. Who knew how much the blaster could be directed this way, if it even could, but the action alone made him feel better, steadier.

"Oh," Sans said, as the attack settled into existence. "Hi, Lucy." He didn't so much as flinch, but his voice wavered.

"I told you, I'm not calling it that." Papyrus fought down a smile. Sans could call the blaster whatever he wished if it meant they were on speaking terms again.

The blaster hung in the air, thrumming with potential, a taut string waiting to be plucked. The kernel of raw magic inside it twinkled out through sightless eye sockets, making it appear alert and alive.

"So, this is what you've been doing at night?" Sans peered up at the too-real skull, not shocked and fearful as he'd been that first time on the hilltop but far from enthusiastic.

Papyrus nodded. "Mostly," he said. That much was true. Flowey had become obsessed with the blaster at first sight, and made it clear that neither of them would rest until Papyrus mastered it.

Sans played with the zipper toggle on his jacket, clicking it up and down along the teeth. "You figured it out pretty fast," he said. "Guess you didn't even need my help."

"That's not true," Papyrus said. "I can summon it and keep it from firing until I want it to, but that's about the extent of it." He looked up. From this angle, he could see up through the lower jaw to the raw magic inside the blaster, the same blue as the light he held loosely in his hand. "And I just got a handle on that a few hours ago."

If anything, the progress Papyrus had made gave him a better appreciation of Sans' control of his own blaster. He could do more while stumbling drunk and half asleep than Papyrus could do sober and with undivided attention. It was enviable, given that Papyrus was still making up lost ground with his magic.

Sans shrugged. "That's the most important thing," he said. "Can you make it move at all?"

"A little." To illustrate, Papyrus directed the skull to pivot in place, a gentle head-shaking motion. "Just enough to aim it." He focused on a treetop some forty yards away, framing it with his thumbs and forefingers. Above him, his blaster arranged itself to line up with the target, its jaws scraping softly.

Sans grunted in acknowledgment. “Good.”

Papyrus looked down at his brother. This was the most they had said to each other, the longest they'd even been in one another's presence, in a week. “Are you...are you still angry with me?” It was a stupid question.

If the grimace pulling at his mouth was any indication, Sans agreed with him. “What do you think?”

Another useless apology was caught behind Papyrus' teeth. He swallowed it back down.

“How many times have you summoned that thing tonight?” Sans asked, after a long, icy silence.

The blaster was almost a comfort, something else for Papyrus to pin his attention on. “This makes seven,” he said. The previous six times, he'd fired it. It was a wonder he could still muster up any attacks at all. He could sleep for a hundred years after this.

Sans crossed his arms, frowning. “You should probably scatter it, then. Especially,” he said, “if you're going to bring this up again. You're already getting distracted.”

“Oh,” Papyrus said, wilting. What Sans was saying was perfectly sensible, of course. The blaster was dangerous. He looked up at it, a lump rising in his throat. With a flick of his wrist, he tore it up. Spent magic drifted down like snow.

Sans started walking back to the house.

“I was hoping,” Papyrus blurted out, watching with his soul in his mouth as Sans paused. “I was hoping...” Hope was already fading as Sans turned to face him again.

“What?” Sans jammed his hands in his pockets. “You don't have to worry about Lucy popping up when you don't want it to. Good job.” He shrugged, as though he couldn't possibly have anything more to say.

Papyrus' jaw worked uselessly for a moment. “I was hoping,” he started again, feeling stuck, “that maybe you could, um...” The idea seemed so stupid now. “That you could help me, like you offered earlier.” As if Sans would still want to help him with anything. Stupid.

Instead of getting angry or even laughing at him like Papyrus half-expected, Sans just stared at him. “And what happens if I do that?” he said.

That wasn't any of the responses Papyrus had braced for. “W-what?” He wrung his hands. “I...What do you mean?”

“If I agree to work with you on the whole blaster deal,” Sans said, idly scuffing at the snow, “what happens? We just go back to the act? Pretend everything's a-okay?” He searched Papyrus' face for something Papyrus knew he wouldn't find.

Papyrus stared back for as long as he could. Stupid. Why had he thought…? He sighed and wrapped his arms around his chest. He flinched when Sans spoke again.

“Hey, you know that thing where I 'help' pull you to your feet, but you're just standing up on your own? You know, because I'm not actually strong enough?”

Papyrus looked up. “Yes.”

“When did we start doing that?” Sans asked. He had that peculiar tightness at the corners of his mouth now. “Was that one of my jokes, or was it something you came up with? Which one of us was playing along?”

Thinking back, Papyrus found that he couldn't recall when or how that little ritual had started. It was just something they did now and again. They'd done it since they were kids. He shook his head. “I don't know,” he said. “Maybe we both did.”

“Heh,” Sans chuckled. “Yeah, maybe we did.” The stiff smile flattened out and drooped. “Papyrus,” he said, “have we just been humoring each other all this time?”

What? “I don't know what you…?” Papyrus shook his head again, swallowing around the lump in his throat and dread weighing on his limbs. “What do you mean?”

What did that mean?

Sans dropped his gaze to his feet. A strong breeze would blow him away like a handful of dry pine needles. Papyrus didn't take a single step closer, as much as he wished to close the distance between them. How could he try to offer comfort when he was the reason Sans looked that way? He had no right.

“I mean, it's… Whatever. Yeah, I'd love to 'help,'” he said, twitching air quotes with his fingers.I get to feel like I'm doing something as long as I don't ask the wrong questions, right? Let's throw poor ol' Sans a bone.” Sans laughed, a short huff of cold air. “Heh. Get it?”

No, no, that wasn't it at all! Not...completely, anyway. “I just,” Papyrus said, hands clenched. “I just miss you, that's all.”

Pressing one hand to his eye sockets, Sans sighed, tense and shallow. “God help me,” he said. A tear escaped from under his hand, tracing the contour of his cheekbone. “I can't keep going like this. I can't. I can't do it. Just...” He lowered his hand, giving Papyrus a bleak grin. “Stop fucking with me, will ya?”

This time when Sans turned to go, Papyrus didn't try to stop him. He wanted to. He wanted to give his brother a hug. He wanted to ask to be read to. He wanted to promise to stay home at night, and then keep his promise. But it was already too late for that.

It was too late.

 

~*~

 

Several long, silent days later, Papyrus put the finishing touches on the massively long and arduous master report and sent the file to Alphys for printing. It was time to make the trip to New Home.

After weeks without it, Papyrus' armor was more uncomfortable than ever. He shifted, tugging at plates and straps that dug into tender spots and rubbed against scrapes.

Water slapped against the hull of the ferry as it slipped downstream to Hotland, where he would pick up the hard copy of the report. Then, he'd have to backtrack to Waterfall to have Undyne sign off on his work, after which it was onward to King Asgore. It was a lot of ground to cover in one day. It was early morning now, but Papyrus doubted he'd be home before nightfall.

He wondered how much of the riverperson's income was paid by the Royal Guard. It was probably a good proportion.

Hotland was, as usual, very hot. It felt even hotter inside a bunch of metal and padding, to the point that even a skeleton could start to feel overheated. No wonder Undyne hated the place so much. Papyrus had always disliked how fussy traveling through this part of the Underground could be (even he had limits when it came to puzzles, after all), but the smothering heat added a whole new dimension to his irritation at both Hotland and his armor.

Thankfully, Alphys' lab was located fairly close to the ferry landing. Leaving the gently steaming river behind, Papyrus climbed the carved steps to the road. He'd never visited the royal lab before, but it was impossible to miss, a massive white building that hunched at the intersection where the roads to Waterfall and the Core met.

After a moment's bafflement, he figured out which button on the panel next to the door worked the intercom. While he waited for a reply, he pondered over why it was called a lab. Most canine monsters preferred New Home or Snowdin over a place like Hotland, what with being covered in fur, and all. Odd that any building in this region would be named after a dog.

Unless he was missing something. He considered asking Alphys about it, but decided against it. Maybe he could ask Sans about it later.

...Oh.

...Or not.

How long had he been standing out here? His armor had him feeling like his bones were turning to charcoal in the heat; it was sapping his patience. He tried the intercom again. "Dr. Alphys?"

A muzzy voice came over the speaker. "…Yes?"

"It's Papyrus; I've come to pick up the report I emailed you." Papyrus frowned. "Is this a bad time? I'm not interrupting you, am I?" She may well have been doing some important science when he'd shown up to spoil her concentration.

"Oh!" There was a faint scrabbling noise. "Not at all! Sorry, um… Here, let me just unlock the door for you."

With a magnetic click, the door slid open, and Papyrus walked inside the blessedly cool lab.

Harsh fluorescent lighting made the pale walls and floor nearly glow, and strange machinery beeped and hissed somewhere out of sight. A terminal and enormous monitor dominated the north wall, along with a large desk that housed a computer, several small toys (mostly figures of humans in fancy dresses), and an impressive mountain range of papers, junk food packets, and dirty dishes.

Alphys stood at the desk, dwarfed by the piles of junk around her. "Sorry about that," she said, rummaging through a stack of bowls. "I forgot you were stopping by today. Er, possibly I forgot that today was...today. E-heh!" She gave him a wavering, buck-toothed grin.

"I'm sure you've been very busy," Papyrus said, watching her sift through the mess. He didn't want her to feel bad. She was obviously a woman with better things to do than print out huge documents all day.

"Well…" Alphys glanced at him with a guilty twist to her lips. "I don't know if I'd say very busy." She sighed, tail twitching from side to side. "D-darnit, I know I set it down right here! Sorry," she said. "I-it's in here somewhere."

Papyrus shifted his weight from foot to foot, eager to be on his way but not wanting to seem rude when she'd gone out of her way to do something helpful and nice for him. "Would you like me to help you look?" His hands itched with the need to do something about those dishes, at the very least.

"N-no, you don't have to do that," Alphys said. "It'll be just a second." A minor avalanche of notebooks slipped off the side of the desk. "So, how have you been?" Alphys shoved a stack of dishes out of her way. "Aside from compiling a very long report, that is?"

"Fine," Papyrus said. The bowls at the bottom of the stack were probably growing mold, or something. He wondered where the kitchen was.

Alphys paused, turning to give him a furtive once-over with her eyes. "That's good," she said. "I was just wondering since, um, y-you're missing a tooth."

Moldy noodle bowls were forgotten. "Yes, I know." The words were more clipped than Papyrus meant them to be.

With the look of someone mentally kicking herself, Alphys went back to searching for the report. "S-sorry!"

Papyrus sighed. "No, it's alright," he said. "Quite a lot of people have been pointing it out to me, that's all. It's kind of you to be concerned, but it was just a silly accident."

"Um…" Alphys knocked over an action figure with her elbow. "Was it a normal accident, or…a m-magic accident? I mean," she said, "if you want, I'd be happy to run some diagnostics for you. More data, uh, never hurts...right?" Her lips pulled back in what was probably meant to be a friendly smile. It made her look vaguely ill.

Papyrus shook his head. “It's fine. I slipped on a patch of ice, nothing exciting.”

Alphys stopped her search, and actually glared at him. “T-that's not very convincing, you know.”

Papyrus hadn't been expecting that. Admittedly, he didn't know Alphys all that well yet, but so far she'd only expressed real opinions when it came to those human cartoons she watched. Everything else she'd seemed content to go along with-- a side effect of her niceness that Papyrus had been taking advantage of.

“That's what happened,” he said, shrugging. “That...issue is a lot better now, anyway. I'm fine.”

As a scientist, it was only fitting that Alphys was really good at looking skeptical. “Really?” she said, peering over the top of her glasses at his face. “What caused your condition to improve?”

Fidgeting under all that clinical curiosity, Papyrus made a non-committal gesture with his hands. “...Practice?” He smiled. “It sort of went away on its own. Undyne was right in the first place!”

It wasn't a lie. Not really.

“Really? Undyne made it sound like she'd made the wrong call before,” Alphys said, rubbing her chin. “She said that when she was at your house, you and your brother were being very evasive about your injuries.” She frowned. “It's r-really been bothering her. A-and me, too.”

Alphys and Undyne were both better friends than he deserved. Feeling queasy, Papyrus laid a hand over where his stomach would have been. “Well, you don't have to worry anymore,” he said. “My magic is getting back to normal, like I said.”

With a hesitant nod, Alphys returned to her search. “So, you won't be h-hurt every time we see you from now on...right?”

Papyrus let out a weak chuckle. “Er, no promises! I'm a little clumsy,” he said, pointing at the gap in his smile. He jumped when Alphys' tail smacked against the side of her desk.

“N-no,” she muttered, tail still lashing back and forth. “I know clumsy. Y-you're not. ...Oh, h-here it is!” She pulled a binder from the middle of a stack of books and paper, which promptly collapsed.

Thank god. Now he could leave, before this conversation went even more wrong. Papyrus took the binder she held out to him.

...Only to find that she wasn't letting go. “Alphys?” he said, giving the binder a gentle tug. Alphys' claws gripped tighter. “Thank you, but I really do need to go.”

Pushing her glasses up her snout with her free hand, Alphys took a deep breath. “I-I, um...” She took another breath, pulling herself up a little straighter. “I don't...have a lot of friends,” she said.

“I'm sorry…?” Papyrus honestly didn't know how to properly respond to that. He stopped pulling.

“I'm n-not easy to like. Even I d-don't like me very much. But you're always s-so nice to me,” Alphys said, with a shaky grin. “You put up with me rambling about anime...and you'll even agree with me about stuff you p-probably don't know or care about, just t-to make me happy.”

What was this? Papyrus couldn't imagine why such a brilliant, successful person would think about herself that way. “I'm not just putting up with you,” he said, relaxing his hold on the binder. “We're friends. I like you.”

“I know.” Alphys' shoulders slumped. “I d-don't know why. Um...why you like me, I mean.”

Papyrus glared. Despite all of his own problems, this was simply unacceptable. “Because you're great!” he snapped. How dare she think otherwise! “You're smart, and you're a good person.” Her shoulders dipped even lower at that, for some reason. “And you're always there when I need to talk, even in the middle of the night. Why wouldn't I like you?”

Papyrus let go of the binder entirely, and Alphys clutched it close to her chest, shielding herself. “I'm not a good person,” she said, eyes downcast. She tensed her hands, raking her claws over the plastic of the binder. “Most people only talk to me when they n-need something, and I don't really blame them. B-but,” she said, “if I have Undyne and y-you as friends, then I'll be okay.”

Oh, it was too early in the day to be crying. At this rate, Papyrus was going to have steam rising from his eye sockets the whole way back to the ferry landing. He cleared his throat, aware that he looked very uncool at the moment, and not just because he was missing a tooth.

“If there's, uh, anything I can do,” Alphys said, looking up at him through her glasses. “Anything. Even if you just n-need to talk…or...” She shifted, curling her tail around one foot. “Or if you n-need me to keep a...a secret…? I'm...I'm really good at keeping s-secrets, even bad ones.” She smiled, and it was such a sad, sad smile.

He had no time to get emotional like this. “I...um...” Papyrus wiped at his eye sockets. “That's very kind of you. Now,” he said. “I really should be on my way.” He held out his hand for the binder.

Instead of handing it over, Alphys set the binder down on the desk. “Papyrus,” she said. “Can I ask you something? I p-promise I won't tell anyone else.”

No. “That...that depends on the question,” Papyrus found himself saying, to his disbelief. He ought to just reach out, pick up the binder, and excuse himself. That was what he ought to do.

He wasn't doing it.

“D-don't be mad at me, p-please,” Alphys said, her stutter worsening with her nerves. “But...when you g-get hurt, um...” She stopped, and took several long, shaky breaths. Sweat was beading on her creased brow when she looked back up at him. “Are those all r-really accidents, or...or is s-someone else doing this t-to you?”

The instant the question was spoken, Alphys' mouth snapped shut. She stood there, breath held, waiting for an answer. Or maybe she was waiting for him to yell at her.

Papyrus held his breath too, for all the difference it made to a monster like him. The world seemed frozen in place, one endless second trailing Alphys' question. He couldn't answer that. He ought to put up a fuss, take offense, make her regret asking and make sure she never asked again. She was so kind to him; he couldn't be selfish and put the both of them at risk. He couldn't answer.

Alphys looked up at him, chewing her lip and radiating anxiety.

He wanted to answer.

God, everything hurt. He dried his eye sockets, his gaze darting around at the walls that felt so much closer now despite how large and airy the room was.

Papyrus snatched up her fleshy hands in his, making her flinch back. “Can I trust you?” He squeezed her hands to stop his own from trembling, searching her face for any sign of uncertainty. Her cheeks reddened under the scrutiny. “Can I trust you with this?”

What was he doing? What was he doing?

“Um...” Alphys hesitated, seriously considering the question.

The part of Papyrus' mind that was happily charging straight off a very tall cliff (and dragging the rest of him along, and Alphys, too) decided that that was good. She needed to be sure.

“Y-yes,” she said, nodding. She swallowed, and gripped Papyrus' hands, squeezing back. “You can trust me.”

This was a terrible idea. This was practically a murder-suicide. But Alphys was smart, and she'd put it together on her own regardless. And he was so tired. So alone. He spoke, just above a whisper, hating himself for how selfish and weak he was, after all this time. All this effort to keep them safe. “Ask me again.”

Alphys blinked several times, and without seeming to notice she was doing it, lowered her voice to match Papyrus' own. “Is someone doing this to you?”

He was all alone. He was so sorry. He was so damned tired.

It was instinctive now to deny, to refuse, to mislead. Papyrus took a deep breath, steadying himself, ignoring the inner voice screaming at him to stop, to do the right thing. Slowly, he nodded.

Alphys gasped quietly. Pulling one hand free, she rubbed at her eyes, knocking her glasses askew.

Papyrus tightened his hold on her other hand. “Don't cry,” he ordered.

Tears already spilling down her cheeks, Alphys sniffled. “S-sorry,” she said, the words wheezing out from a tight chest and throat. “I'm sorry.” She dabbed at the tears with the sleeve of her coat. “W-who…?”

Papyrus shook his head. “I really, really can't tell you. Don't ever ask me that.” He frowned, trying his best to project sternness. He suspected he was failing. “And don't try to find out. I'm serious, Alphys.”

“I d-don't understand.”

“Please,” Papyrus hissed, stepping in closer, his hold on her keeping her from backing away. “I already regret this.” Now that the temporary insanity was lifting, he was sickened by what he'd just done. How could he do this to her? Selfish. Stupid. “Don't tell anyone else. Not anyone. Don't talk about it, even to yourself, and don't write anything down.”

Alphys was shivering, her eyes wide. With him standing so far inside her personal bubble, she had to crane her neck back to make eye contact. “I...I want to help,” she said, sniffling. “There must be s-something I can-”

“You already help me so much,” Papyrus said, cutting her off. “Just by talking to me. Please believe that.” He gripped her hand with both of his own. “I know I'm asking a lot, but I need you to keep this secret. I can't tell you why-- trust me that it's vitally important. It's a matter of life and death.” It truly was, and oh, why had he done this? He may have just doomed her; there was no way to take back what he'd shared.

Still sniffling, Alphys nodded. She snorted, a thick, goopy sound, and dragged her sleeve across her snout. “I w-won't tell anyone,” she said. “I swear.”

Papyrus let go of her hand, and she moved to retrieve the binder. She put it in his hands, letting him take it this time. “Thank you,” he said, pushing as much sincerity into the words as he could.

“You're w-welcome.” Alphys grinned. It was still a solemn expression on her, but it looked a bit surer, now. “Thank you for… for t-trusting me.”

One thing Hotland was good for, Papyrus mused as he left, was that no one would be able to tell he'd shed a single tear. The heat evaporated every trace of moisture in seconds, leaving his face as dry as...well, as bone.

Chapter Text

In the end, Papyrus decided against the ferry, opting to walk to Undyne's instead. It would add a couple hours to his day, but he wasn't expected at the capitol at any specific time. He needed to gather himself. He couldn't face Undyne while he was a shivering, nervous wreck.

 

Had that really just happened? Had he really…? As he traversed the neon-lit tunnel that made up the border between Hotland and Waterfall, if felt as though his consciousness lowered with the temperature, leaving him dreamy and detached from reality. His conversation with Alphys could well have been a dream, just something his mind conjured up out of stress and exhaustion. Some kind of wish fulfillment.

 

If he thought about it long and hard enough, he could almost convince himself that this was indeed the case. Almost.

 

Passing into the vast, open cavern that held the capitol at its far end, Papyrus stopped for a moment, taking in the view. New Home rose up in the distance, glowing with electric lights. A few scattered homesteads twinkled in the basin between the city and the high road he traveled on, pale imitations of the riot of crystalline stars on the ceiling far overhead.

 

Papyrus looked up. Snowdin had a few stars like these, though they didn't glow so bright, but fog or even clouds often obscured the ceiling. It was rare to really see them.

 

A particularly large, bright crystal caught his eye. That was a star that had a lot of wishes piled up on it already, surely. He shifted his focus to a crystal nearby, flickering and dim like the stars in Snowdin. It had the look of a star that was relatively unappreciated, passed over.

 

He wished that he'd kept his mouth shut.

 

He had many other wishes, but they were large and this was only a small star.

 

After a few more minutes spent just...existing, Papyrus moved on.

 

Some time later, in the waterlogged caves where a perpetual rain fell from the ceiling, a patch of echo flowers softly repeated Papyrus' startled yell back and forth.

 

“Gee, Papyrus,” Flowey said, shaking droplets from his petals. “You're always so jumpy!”

 

Fumbling to keep hold of both the binder and his umbrella, Papyrus stepped back. “You surprised me,” he said. He ought to have been used to Flowey's habit up literally popping up at random by now, but no. It wouldn't do to look too shaken, though. Not after the mistake he'd made earlier today.

 

He made a show of checking over the binder to ensure it hadn't gotten wet.

 

Flowey blinked up at him. “Don't drop that in a puddle, now,” he said, “or you'll have to walk all the way back to the laboratory for another copy.” He submerged to pop up again near Papyrus' boots, sharing the shelter of the umbrella. “There, that's better. I like water, but not that much.”

 

“Is there something I can do for you?” Papyrus asked, regretting it immediately. “It's just that I'm working right now, and-”

 

“And what?” Flowey rustled his leaves. “Can't I say hi to my favorite? These last few days have been so lonely,” he said, pouting. “You don't even visit me unless it's for practice.”

 

“I'm sorry,” Papyrus said, out of pure reflex. “I've been very busy.”

 

Flowey sighed. “Anyway, if you're in such a rush, why didn't you take the ferry instead of walking all this way?”

 

“The ferry isn't free, you know.” Papyrus frowned. What did Flowey want? He hated not knowing. It felt dangerous.

 

“Well, if saving the fare is more important than getting to Undyne's house quickly,” Flowey said, smiling, “then what's the problem? You look so distressed, friend.”

 

He should have taken the ferry. How long had Flowey been following him, watching him? “What do you want?” Lacking a free hand to clap over his mouth, Papyrus silently cursed himself instead. That hadn't been smart. When he dared to look back down, Flowey's smiled hadn't slipped an inch.

 

“Someone's sure a grump today!” Sticking his tongue out playfully, Flowey swayed on his stem. “I want attention, silly. I'm bored.”

 

Submerging again, Flowey popped up among the still-yelling echo flowers. He giggled, and they picked up the sound, mingling it with the yell.

 

Papyrus started walking-- not too fast, but he didn't want to stand still anymore. His joints felt loose and weak despite how tense he was.

 

Flowey popped up farther down the path. “Is your brother's idiocy still bothering you? You know you can always come to me with any problems you have.” He let Papyrus walk past him, and popped up farther ahead again. “Did Alphys say something about it?”

 

Papyrus managed to keep his face neutral, but a slight stumble betrayed him. Water splashed up around his boots as he caught himself. He shook his head. “N-no.”

 

“You've been dragging your feet and sighing since you left her lab. Don't worry about her,” Flowey said. “She's always sticking her nose in where it doesn't belong. I think she was an only child.”

 

Frowning, Papyrus forced himself back into motion. “What does that have to do with anything?”

 

“I mean, she doesn't understand how rocky sibling relationships can be.” Flowey grinned. “My sibling could say some pretty awful things when we argued. They were usually true, too.”

 

“Like what?” Papyrus asked, guessing that he was expected to.

 

“Oh,” Flowey said, “all kinds of things. That I was a crybaby, and I wasn't going to be any kind of decent king if I didn't toughen up.” He moved again to catch up with Papyrus. “They were right, of course. Like I said before, I was a failure. I had the chance to save everyone, and I blew it. I choked.”

 

Papyrus stumbled to a halt, his growing irritation fizzling out into...something. Flowey and the little prince couldn't line up in his mind. He'd never known the prince, of course, but from what the stories said, the difference couldn't be more profound. Flowey was right-- there was no point in calling him by his old name. That person might as well not exist anymore. Right?

 

He flinched just slightly when Flowey popped up at his feet again.

 

“Maybe this is my punishment.” Flowey shook himself off, droplets flying in all directions. “Still,” he said, turning his face upward, “I guess it's not all bad. At least I have you.”

 

Were this anyone else, Papyrus would have offered some reassurance. Perhaps a hug, or a few kind words. He wasn't sure what the point would be, now, other than risking setting Flowey off with an incorrect response. They stood in silence, raindrops thudding against the umbrella.

 

 

~*~

 

 

Doing his best to avoid looking at the crack in the cave wall and the furrow he'd left along the ground in the yard, Papyrus leaned up against the facade of Undyne's house while she skimmed through the master report. He ought to have been standing at ease—they were both on duty, technically, and she outranked him.

 

But he was tired, despite the early hour, and she hadn't said anything about his unprofessional posture. So he leaned.

 

“Wow, I can't believe you got it all done so fast.” Undyne flipped pages faster than she could possibly read them, her eye glazing over in a matter of seconds. “I would have gone insane. So much stuff…”

 

Papyrus nodded. “Yes, I know.” Transcribing and summarizing everything had taken days and days and days of constant work. Without Sans' help, he'd had no choice but to tackle the handwritten reports on his own. He was pretty sure the migraine was permanent now.

 

Undyne had the good grace to look sheepish. “Well, the next one won't be anywhere near as bad, since, unlike me, you'll actually remember to do it.” She shut the binder and handed it back.

 

Papyrus held the binder close to his chest, anxious to be on his way. If that was all the closer she was going to read, he seriously questioned why he'd made the trip at all. He kept his thoughts to himself. He had insisted that he didn't have time to come inside, so maybe she was trying to help him out by skimming over the report so quickly.

 

“Good work,” Undyne said, tapping the binder with one claw. “Looks snazzy all typed up like that.”

 

“That was Alphys' idea.” Credit where it was due. Alphys had saved him from having the world's worst case of writer's cramp on top of the headaches. She was very nice.

 

“Yeah, that girl's a genius, isn't she?” Undyne grinned a broad, toothy grin. “She's the best.”

 

“Yes, she is,” Papyrus said, guilt swamping him. He was so selfish.

 

Leaning against the doorjamb, Undyne looked him over, her grin fading. “So,” she said. “You're down a tooth, I see.”

 

Super. Papyrus wished he had lips, sometimes, if only to be able to keep that damned missing tooth out of sight. “I'm aware of that.”

 

Did people think he hadn't noticed, or something? He knew what Undyne was going to ask, so why didn't she just ask and have it over with?

 

“Another accident?”

 

“As a matter of fact,” Papyrus said, bristling at her tone, “yes. It was.”

 

Undyne crossed her arms. “You don't have spare teeth, Paps. That thing's gone.”

 

He shrugged, self-conscious, reaching up to probe at the empty socket with his finger. “I can have it healed later, or I'll have it replaced. It's fine.” He didn't know if Flowey was a good enough healer to regenerate a missing part, but with an entire clearing to search, finding his tooth in the snow had been an impossible task. It wasn't like he was happy about it-- the gap really marred his appearance. But there was nothing he could do about it right now, so it would be nice if everyone would stop drawing attention to it.

 

“You know,” Undyne said, “This all started around the time you joined the Royal Guard. I can't help but feel kinda responsible for you.” She scowled, fins twitching.

 

Papyrus shook his head. “It's not your fault at all,” he said. “Besides, my magic has been getting a lot better recently. No...outbursts for almost a week.” He was actually rather proud of that. The more frequent practices were hard work, and painful, but it was paying off.

 

Undyne wasn't as happy to hear the news as Papyrus had hoped. She frowned. “Yeah? So how come these scuffs are fresh?” She stepped forward, reaching out to touch a scrape on his cheekbone.

 

Papyrus dodged away from her hand. “I'm running behind,” he said, aiming for the mouth of the cave. “I need to go.” He took off at a brisk walk.

 

Behind him, there was the swish of something being swung through the air; faint green light reflected off the cave walls. A feeling like syrup trickling into his joints passed over him, and Papyrus was all at once unable to take another step. He stood there, disbelieving. She'd made him green! Without even asking!

 

How dare she?

 

“Undyne, let me go.” She couldn't just keep him here when he'd made it clear that he wanted to leave. That wasn't right.

 

Undyne walked around to stand in front of him. “Not until you tell me the truth.”

 

Oh, this was ridiculous.

 

“Undyne,” Papyrus repeated, his chest tight. “Let me go.”

 

“Papyrus,” Undyne said, her fins drooping. “I'm your friend. Come on, you're really starting to freak me out.”

 

Struggling against a green attack was pointless. Papyrus was going to have to wait out its effects. If he could hold out for just a few minutes, he'd be able to get away. She wouldn't catch him off guard a second time. He glared at her, jaw clenched.

 

They stared each other down for several seconds. Summoning a spear, Undyne drove the point into the ground, leaning against the shaft for support. “Gerson told me all that magic explodey shit isn't random,” she said. “What's going on that has you acting like a war vet on a bad day, huh?”

 

Of course it had been too much to hope that the old man would keep quiet. Papyrus ground his teeth, wondering how it was even possible to feel betrayed by a stranger.

 

By his estimate, Undyne's green was half spent. He just needed to wait.

 

Undyne was getting impatient. “Guardsman, I order you to speak.”

 

“Oh?” Papyrus shook, his magic simmering beneath the surface for the first time in days. The second he wasn't green anymore, he was leaving this cave, even if he had to trample over Undyne to do it. “I thought we were friends, captain.”

 

That hit the mark. Undyne blinked, standing up straight and letting the spear dissipate. “You won't talk to me as a friend, so what choice do I have?”

 

“Well, as my commander,” Papyrus snapped, “you have no right whatsoever to ask about my personal life, so you can take your order and...and...” he faltered, furious but unsure how to proceed from here. “And shove it.”

 

Undyne gaped at him, speechless.

 

As angry as he was, he hated that it had to come to this. But there was no choice-- any further weakness on his part would end in disaster. Undyne wasn't careful the way Alphys was, as she was proving right this minute.

 

He shifted experimentally, feeling his boot slide a fraction of an inch along the ground. Just a little bit longer.

 

Recovering from her shock, Undyne laid her hands on Papyrus' shoulders. He tried to shake her off, but without really being able to move yet, he was unsuccessful.

 

“Hey,” she said, gentler than he'd ever heard her. “Whatever's going on, I can make it stop. I swear it, Paps.”

 

The green was weak enough now that he could break free, but Papyrus didn't make his move right away. She would be ready for that. As calmly as he could, he formed a small bone in his hand, feeding it with blue.

 

Undyne squeezed his shoulder. He couldn't feel it, but he could hear her claws squeak against the metal of his pauldron. She smiled, encouraging.

 

He smiled back, tentative and believable.

 

“Thank you,” Undyne said, sighing. “I promise I'll do whatever I have to, okay? You can tell me.” Relief smoothed the lines from her face.

 

Papyrus lifted his hand, unhurried, and pressed the blue attack into her chest. He kept his hand in place as the attack took effect and Undyne sank to her knees.

 

“What…?” Undyne strained against the blue, the tendons in her neck bulging with the effort. “Papyrus!”

 

“It doesn't feel very good, does it?” Papyrus asked, split between guilt over what he was doing and rabid anger at what she'd done to him. He pushed his palm against her chest, fingers splayed out, feeling for her soul. He wasn't nearly as good at this as Sans was. It was a rotten thing to do, in any case, but he needed time to get to the ferry.

 

There.

 

Down.

 

Undyne cried out as she was crushed downward, her head striking the ground with a sharp smack that made Papyrus wince. That was harder than he'd meant to pull.

 

He checked her over to make sure she hadn't been hurt. “Can you breathe okay?”

 

Her head jerked slightly—trying to nod. “Yeah,” she wheezed, staring up at him with a wide eye. “What's the-”

 

“Don't ever do that to me again,” Papyrus said. He straightened, and stepped over her. Once he reached the end of his range out in the larger cavern, he broke into a sprint for the ferry landing.

 

He didn't hear footsteps behind him, or shouting, even as the ferry slipped away down the river. Hopefully Undyne was alright. It was irresponsible to leave her alone like that, in case he really had hurt her while she was blue.

 

Pulling out his phone, Papyrus sent a quick text to Alphys. It wasn't ideal, but someone had to check on her, make sure she was okay.

 

He sighed and stared down, unfocused, into the black water. Today was a mess. Perhaps his luck would improve when he reached the capitol. He wasn't sure how it could get any worse.

 


~*~

 

 

New Home was even larger and louder than Papyrus remembered. The sort of giddy over-stimulation he usually felt when he visited the capitol twisted sharply, more than he could process. Now and then he ducked into an alley or a quiet archway to get away from too many monsters making too much noise, venturing out again once the shaking stopped. Every jostle against him as he made his way through the narrow streets made him flinch. An unexpected shout or the slam of a door was enough to send his magic zinging through his bones, a full-body itch.

 

Once past the checkpoint and up the stairway, the high road leading to the castle was, thankfully, all but deserted. Up here, the din of the city was reduced to a dull buzz. Papyrus looked out over the parapet as he walked, admiring the view. New Home's sea of tall, stone buildings was impressive, far beyond anything found in a frontier town like Snowdin. It was dizzying to contemplate thousands of monsters all living together in one place like this.

 

The smell of thousands of monsters all living together in one place was also dizzying, but up on the high road the breeze carried most of it away.

 

Papyrus had never been to the castle before, and had no idea what to expect. Still, he was a bit surprised when the guards merely gave him directions and let him by. The king was so widely beloved that perhaps there was no need for any real security measures. On the other hand, King Asgore was the most powerful monster in the Underground-- maybe he just wasn't worried about those sorts of things.

 

Though nothing like the crowded streets below, the castle was far from empty. Staff and visitors alike went about their business, their numbers thinning out as Papyrus moved further in. By the time he reached the courtyard leading to the royal apartments, a house built right into the greater structure of the castle, he was alone.

 

Bright lamps overhead lit the courtyard with dazzling intensity, serving as artificial sunlight for the golden flowers that grew all around. A delicate perfume filled the air, nauseating for some reason Papyrus couldn't place. He took a moment to settle himself. He couldn't very well meet the king looking half-sick. Once he was more or less at ease, he started for the door.

 

Halfway across the courtyard, one of the flowers spoke.

 

“Ha, you sure showed her who's boss, huh?”

 

 

~

 

 

“Wow!” Flowey said, giggling while he watched Papyrus jump. “You didn't even see me at all!”

 

A trace of blue flame outlined the skeleton's gauntlet, but was swiftly quelled. Palm pressed to a chest that had no heart beating inside it, Papyrus glared down at him, just for a second. Then, his expression shifted back to it's now-customary worried frown. “You scared the life out of me.”

 

Flowey swayed to and fro, matching the movement of the other flowers in the soft breeze. “Gee, I sure am sorry, friend. I wanted to wish you luck before you meet with my father.” He bobbed on his stem. “Isn't this neat? He'll like you, Papyrus. You're sweet, and you're earnest. He eats that right up.”

 

Flowey hadn't decided on Papyrus' ultimate career path yet, but gaining approval would only make whatever it turned out to be easier when the time came. It would be no trouble at all for his favorite toy to get the king wrapped around his bony finger with that innocent angel act of his. Asgore was even needier than Papyrus, as remarkable as that seemed.

 

Poor old dad, all alone.

 

“Oh,” Papyrus said, the lights in his eye sockets flickering briefly. Had he forgotten who Flowey was—had been-- already?

 

Papyrus wasn't precisely stupid...or at least, he wasn't stupid in the common, boring way that most people were. He just couldn't keep too many thoughts in his head at once. It added to his charm. He stood there with a finger laid against his mouth, thinking so hard Flowey half expected him to blow a fuse.

 

“Why do you keep bringing that up?”

 

Well! How about that? Always another surprise. “Papyrus, gosh! That's a little insensitive,” Flowey said, utterly delighted. The delight faded as he realized that he didn't have a ready answer to the question. Well.

 

Hunkered down among the other flowers whose blank faces turned up, unseeing, to the light, Flowey studied his favorite toy.

 

Papyrus returned the stare, face closed off, back straight.

 

“Because I want you to remember how I ended up this way, friend,” Flowey said, the words ringing hollow even to him. “Your little family drama shouldn't distract you. Being ready for the next human that falls down is more important.”

 

Did Papyrus look...disappointed? Flowey was having trouble reading his expression. Which was wonderful, naturally, but…

 

Whatever.

 

Flowey shook some pollen off himself. He hated this place-- all these stupid flowers everywhere! “I was trying to get home. I can't remember if I wanted my parents or if I just wanted to crawl into my bed.” He smiled. “This was as far as I made it. I collapsed right about where you're standing,” he said, nodding towards the flowers at Papyrus' feet. “You might even have some dust on your boots, who knows?”

 

He giggled as Papyrus took a pointed step back, visibly bothered by the idea. Subtly, the skeleton wiped his boots off on the grass.

 

“Aw, it's okay,” Flowey said. “Our dust is supposed to end up on things we liked, right? I like you.”

 

He waited for a reply and didn't get one. Papyrus was pretty stoic these days. And that was great! Flowey certainly didn't need any soppy declarations of friendship or useless pity. They were both too cool for that.

 

“Anyway, my father is probably waiting for you. And he'll want to have tea and a chat and waste your time,” he said, with an apologetic grin. “He's lonely and pathetic. It's up to you whether you want to humor him or not; I literally couldn't care less. It's funny,” he went on, curious about where his own train of thought was taking him, “if things had gone differently, maybe you'd be reporting to the prince, instead.”

 

What did he care about that? He didn't. Not that it mattered, anyway.

 

“I'm sorry.” Papyrus' voice was little more than a whisper.

 

Flowey glared up at Papyrus. He'd gone to so much trouble to make Papyrus tougher, and it was working, for the most part. So why wasn't he annoyed when Papyrus looked at him this way, all soft and understanding and weak? Why did he make the effort to get this reaction in the first place, to drink in as much of the idiot's compassion as he could? It was worthless. Stupid.

 

He'd wanted to needle Papyrus about Undyne some more, but now he was out of the mood. That had been such a treat to watch, too! Well, maybe later, when he wasn't so...off.

 

“It doesn't matter,” Flowey said. Having no more to say, he retreated underground.

 

He spent more than enough time in this place as it was.

 

 

~

 

 

Papyrus really couldn't take much more today. It was tempting to leave the binder on the doorstep, find some neglected corner of the castle, and take a nap. Anything to be alone for a while, and preferably unconscious.

 

But he had a job to do. He needed to pull himself together. He could do this.

 

After a few deep breaths to steady himself, Papyrus marched up to the oddly ordinary-looking door and knocked.

 

The figure who answered filled the doorway all the way to the lintel. Higher, if Papyrus counted the horns. Wearing a tatty old sweater and jeans that appeared to be made up of half a dozen smaller pairs was the king of all monsters.

 

King Asgore smiled down at him, fangs glinting in the light. “Well, howdy!” His deep voice didn't echo off the courtyard walls so much as it filled the space entirely.

 

Papyrus had seen the king from a distance on several occasions, as most monsters had. Asgore was much, much bigger up close. But for all the fangs and claws and size, there was nothing threatening about him. He was like a big marshmallow with fur.

 

Or Santa, Papyrus' mind supplied, out of nowhere. This entire day was getting to him.

 

“Hi! Um...” Papyrus shifted his weight back and forth, absolutely at a loss. “I have the master report here for you. Uh, Your Majesty,” he added hastily. That probably wasn't the way to talk to royalty, but he was stressed out and distracted.

 

Honestly, he was a little awestruck, too. Managing to make a patched-up sweater with 'Mr. Dad Guy' written across the front look regal was an impressive feat. If the king's next words were to order him to jump off the ramparts, Papyrus would probably be halfway to the ground before it occurred to him to refuse.

 

Fortunately, the king didn't tell him to jump off the ramparts. Instead, he scratched his bearded chin for a moment in confusion. His ears pricked up, or rather, they drooped slightly less. “Oh, you must be Papyrus, then!”

 

He hadn't even introduced himself, god. “Yes, that's me,” Papyrus said, with a lame little wave. He had better social skills than this! Why was he so flustered? After the day he'd had, this part should have been easy.

 

“Are you alright?” the king asked, looking over Papyrus' face. “Did something happen on your way here?”

 

What was he…? Oh. Papyrus shook his head. “No, no. I'm fine, really. Just slipped on some ice; you know how Snowdin is.” It really was a thin story.

 

The king smiled. “Oh, quite. I've had a few spills that way, myself. Luckily, I have more padding than you do.” He laughed.

 

Papyrus nodded, feeling slimy for how readily the king had believed him.

 

A soft glow wreathed the king's hand. “If you'd allow me? There's nothing I can do about the tooth, I'm afraid,” he said, “but those scrapes look rather uncomfortable.”

 

Seeing no reason to refuse, Papyrus allowed the king to heal him. “Thank you,” he said, as he felt cracks mend and bruises fade. He'd gotten used to carrying minor injuries most of the time, and the sudden easing of pain left him feeling oddly light.

 

“It is no trouble at all.” King Asgore waved off the thanks. “So, Undyne's told me about her new...was it scribe, or clerk?” He tilted his head to one side, still smiling patiently.

 

Stamping down the urge to just throw the binder and run, Papyrus nodded. A second later, he realized that didn't answer the question. “Clerk,” he said, mouse-timid.

 

Undyne. He really did hope she was alright. That said, he was well aware that he was probably bone meal when she caught up with him. He'd attacked her, and that hadn't been friendly sparring or a prank. She had to be absolutely livid.

 

“I'm amazed it took her this long to scheme her way out of her paperwork,” Asgore said, pulling Papyrus from his worrying. “But look how rude I'm being, keeping you out here on the step when you traveled all this way. Come in, come in!” He stepped aside, laying a broad hand on Papyrus' back.

 

“O-okay,” Papyrus said, as he was more or less scooped into the house. Even if he hadn't walked, he'd have simply slid across the threshold, pushed forward by inexorable hospitality and a hand that could snap him like a dry twig if its owner weren't so studiously gentle.

 

Asgore shut the door behind them. “I just put the kettle on a few minutes ago. Please, make yourself at home while I fix us some tea, eh?” Humming to himself, the king ducked under an archway (that had years' worth of scratches and dents in the woodwork at the top) and disappeared into what Papyrus assumed was a kitchen.

 

Anywhere but in the heart of the castle, the king's living space would have passed for a nice but ordinary house, painted in pale shades and simply furnished. The only thing that stood out was its relative size; the entry foyer Papyrus stood in was nearly as big as the first floor of his own home. It seemed too big for one person, even a monster as large as the king. But then it had been meant to house a family, hadn't it?

 

The scent of golden flowers prevailed here, too, turning his nonexistent stomach. Papyrus wondered why he hadn't realized the connection right away. He knew this smell; it just hadn't been this strong before. One flower, rather than hundreds.

 

The hallway leading off to the right looked like the private areas of the house, bedrooms and such, so Papyrus went left into a perfectly normal living room. Humming and the general clatter from the kitchen signaled that the king was still busy with the tea, and Papyrus felt a little twinge of curiosity despite himself.

 

Setting the binder on the dining table, he moved around the room, taking stock of everything. He wondered at the single armchair by the fireplace, while the table was still arranged for four. He read the titles of some of the books on the bookshelf (a lot of texts on snails, along with some children's books), and examined the pictures on the mantlepiece. Various monsters smiled out of the frames, some in black and white and faded with age, some colorful and recent. There was even a picture of Undyne as a teenager, grinning from fin to fin, her skinny chest puffed out as she flexed. And there, at the center of the mantlepiece, was a picture that froze him in place.

 

The photograph was blurry and degraded, and wasn't the right size or shape for the frame it was in-- the white borders around the film showed. On the wide lower border, someone had written the date (long before Papyrus' time) and 'the spitting image.' Papyrus had no idea what that meant, but it didn't matter. What mattered were the people in the photo.

 

Two children sat on the front step of this very home in matching striped sweaters, though that was all that matched about their appearances. Papyrus had seen pictures of humans in magazines, and the child on the right was undoubtedly a human. It gazed at the camera with a placid smile-- it had looked at the flash, in fact, and had red-eye as a result. It clasped hands with the child on the left, who'd been caught mid-laugh, eyes screwed shut and small fangs bared in a grin. This child bore a remarkable resemblance to King Asgore, and there was no question as to who it was.

 

“Beautiful, aren't they?”

 

Papyrus jumped, whirling to look up at the king, who had appeared at his side without a sound. How could anyone that big be that sneaky?

 

“S-sorry!” Papyrus stammered, unsure why he was apologizing. It wasn't like he'd been caught snooping through cabinets, or anything like that.

 

King Asgore laughed. “No need for that,” he said, turning his attention to the photograph. “I have this picture out because I like it. And when other people see them, it feels like they're a little closer, somehow.” He smiled and shook his head, long ears dragging across his shoulders. “It doesn't sound very sensible out loud.”

 

Soon enough Papyrus found himself sitting at the table with the king of all monsters, staring down into a floral-patterned, chipped mug of golden flower tea. Out of context, the aroma was probably nice. As it was, he didn't know how he'd possibly be able to drink it.

 

Blowing on his own tea, the king looked over the report, turning the pages delicately with thumb and forefinger. A pair of reading glasses perched on his snout, comically small for his face. “This is really quite impressive,” he said. “Much more...readable than usual. I could get used to this.”

 

“Thank you, Your Majesty.” Papyrus caught himself tapping his fingertips against his mug, and stopped.

 

The king made a dismissive gesture. “Please, Asgore is fine.” He reached up to tap his head, with its conspicuous absence of a crown. “Here, I'm off duty.”

 

Papyrus was in no way prepared to be on a first name basis with the king after fifteen minutes. Meekly, he nodded.

 

That seemed to please the king well enough. “Undyne speaks very highly of you,” he said, still skimming the report. “And yet, she seems somewhat conflicted about recruiting you. I must admit that I find it odd-- she's not one to waver once she makes a decision.” He glanced at Papyrus over the top of his glasses, but didn't stare. Soon enough, he'd gone back to reading.

 

“To be honest,” Papyrus said, gripping the mug tightly, “I wish she'd told me no. Not that I'm ungrateful, but I'm not sure I'm cut out for this.” He wasn't sure why he'd spoken so candidly when it would have been easier to act confused or disinterested. Today was the day his stupidity got the better of him, apparently.

 

He took a sip of tea for the sake of politeness, stifling a sharp cough. The taste was worse than the smell, cloying and invasive. Wanting nothing more than to spit it out, Papyrus swallowed, shuddering.

 

“Oh?” The king frowned. “I would be very sorry to go back to Undyne's reports after this, I must admit. What makes you say that, if I may ask?”

 

Papyrus shifted in his seat, in no great hurry to put his misgivings into words. He didn't want to lie to Asgore again. That was probably treason, or something. Besides, it didn't feel...right, even though Papyrus had a very good reason not to be entirely truthful. He gripped his mug hard, as if it would help him.

 

“Kindness isn't a handicap, you know.”

 

Papyrus looked up from his hands to find the king studying him, reading glasses set aside.

 

Asgore closed the binder. “Whatever Undyne thinks, the Guard doesn't need to be filled entirely with people like her. In fact,” he said, “I'm of the opinion that a gentle person is exactly the sort who ought to be a guard.”

 

“I'm not sure what good I'll be able to do,” Papyrus said, and that much was the truth. As matters stood now, he could only put everyone around him in danger, as he'd done to Alphys this morning. Even if he completely regained control of his magic, there was always Flowey to consider.

 

Frowning, Asgore leaned his chin on his clasped hands. “Could you tell me,” he said, “what made you want to join the Royal Guard? I'm told you were very persistent.”

 

Papyrus really didn't want to answer that. His reasons had been so selfish and shallow. “I...wanted to help people,” he said, the words mocking him. There had been nothing noble about his ambitions. He'd wanted to be liked, and he'd wanted to feel needed. That was all.

 

He'd already had that. He didn't, anymore, and that was his own fault.

 

“You don't have to be at ease with violence, even as a guard. On the contrary,” the king said, looking his true age, if only momentarily. “It's not something to be relished.”

 

That didn't make sense. Aside from what crime existed in the Underground and the odd disaster, the Royal Guard existed mainly to protect monsterkind from humans. A guard had to be prepared to do what was necessary.

 

Papyrus didn't want to hurt anyone, not even a human. Capturing one was acceptable, if it meant everyone could leave the Underground, but...that wasn't how it worked, was it?

 

If it was, then surely the king would have six humans living with him in the castle. He didn't.

 

Papyrus could practically feel the eyes of that human child on him, staring out from the photograph next to...

 

It wasn't his place to question what the king was doing, but he couldn't help, either. Undyne had been right in the first place.

 

Why did Flowey want him to do this so badly? Why him?

 

Even without speaking, Papyrus' doubts must have shown on his face. Asgore sighed, reaching across the table to lay a hand over Papyrus' forearm, covering it entirely. “I can't prevent you from leaving, if that is what you truly wish. Neither can Undyne. But there is a place for you here. You are needed, Guardsman Papyrus.”

 

Papyrus nodded. The king's hand was heavy, and warm even through the metal of his vambrace. The brief feeling of safety was nice, even if it was an illusion. Just heat and weight.

 


~*~

 

 

If Papyrus hadn't been so tired, he'd have been tempted to walk from New Home all the way back to Snowdin. Hours of walking held more appeal than hurrying to get back to that cold, silent house. The atmosphere at home wasn't tense, no. It was a total absence of tension, a vacuum. No chance of reconciliation, no hope of a better outcome, just Sans ignoring him completely, as though it hurt to even look at him.

 

Maybe...maybe it was time to move out. Technically, it was Sans' house; he'd been the one to make most of the payments on it and it was his name on the deed. Papyrus just lived there and split the bills. Maybe it would be better if he left, gave his brother some space.

 

He was only making Sans more miserable, after all.

 

A nudge on his shoulder tugged Papyrus from his thoughts. He looked up into the hood of the riverperson, who pointed to the Snowdin landing with a soft, sing-song hum. Home already.

 

A small crowd had gathered in front of the library, whispering amongst themselves and looking to the east. Tired and too distracted by his own fretting to take much notice, Papyrus walked right into a short mouse woman.

 

“Oh, I'm sorry,” Papyrus said, catching the smaller monster before she could fall. Only then did he become aware of the people standing around him. “Um…?”

 

Another monster in the crowd, one whose face Papyrus recognized as one of Sans' drinking buddies, grabbed his arm to get his attention. “Hey,” she said, pointing down the road. “What's going on, huh? Is Sansy getting fired, or something?”

 

Papyrus blinked, puzzled. “What are you…?” He looked in the direction she was pointing, the words dying in his throat.

 

Undyne stood half inside the door of his house, keeping it open with her body. She was shouting.

Chapter Text

Shoving his way past the onlookers, Papyrus raced toward the house. As he got closer, he could hear his brother's voice, all but drowned out by Undyne's yelling but no less angry.

And a third voice.

“P-please, let's just...let's just c-calm down...”

Undyne had blocked her from view, but now Papyrus could see Alphys cowering on the front step. The guilty twitch of her brows as their gazes met spoke volumes. It didn't take long for Papyrus to draw the connection.

She'd thought he was talking about...

Oh, god, no.

Why else would she and Undyne be here, with Undyne looking so murderous?

It was all he could do to keep himself from barreling into the pair of them, to drive them away by force. One day. She couldn't keep her word for one day. Papyrus wanted to scream at her. His magic strained to form something, anything, and it was an effort to push the impulse down. He was afraid for Sans and afraid of himself and so, so, so angry.

“Undyne!” Papyrus managed to halt himself before he made the mistake of actually running into her. He stood shaking in the patch of light streaming from the half-open door.

Undyne spared him a quick glance, grimacing. “Shit.”

Alphys sidled closer to Undyne with a muttered “Oh, d-dear...” This unintentionally put her between Papyrus and his brother.

“Bro?” Sans stared at him from the gap between Alphys and the bulk of Undyne's armor. He didn't look relieved, or happy, to see him. “What the fuck's going on? What did you tell them?” The lights of his eyes were barely visible, faint and flickering and washed out.

“You don't have to answer that, Papyrus,” Undyne snapped, whipping around to face him. “Just stand back; I'm handling this.”

“You're fucking delusional,” Sans said, drawing her attention again. “I'm the one who told you about all that shit in the first place!”

“Real clever, too,” Undyne said, practically growling. “Threw me off for weeks. Shit-heels like you are good at covering your tracks.”

Papyrus moved, reaching out to pull Alphys off the step and out of the way. “Undyne, you need to leave.

A spear formed in Undyne's hand, the point materializing inches from Papyrus' face. “Paps, let go of Alphys and back away. I don't want to hurt you, but there's too many civilians around for you to flip out.”

What was she…? Light bounced off the snow around them-- blue, not Undyne's teal. Papyrus glanced down at his hand, still gripping the collar of Alphys' lab coat. Alphys was shaking like a leaf, and it was little wonder why. Blue flame crawled halfway up Papyrus' arm, snapping like a banner in the wind.

“I'm sorry,” he said, letting go and staggering a few steps back. Not good. Not good-- he'd been doing so well all week! Alphys huddled against the wall of the house, shivering.

The hiss of distant voices carried on the wind as the crowd whispered. Papyrus wanted to tell them all to mind their own business, to chase them away-- for their safety but also because they had no right to stand there and stare and talk and...

“Take it easy, bro,” Sans said, gently. “Take a deep breath.”

“Don't tell him what to do!”

Sans shoved the door as hard as he could into Undyne's side. He couldn't budge her, the door slamming uselessly against her armor. “Stop shouting before you set him off, fuckhead! Go away!”

Deep breaths. He had to keep it together, or someone would get hurt. Papyrus poured every bit of his remaining strength into pushing down the magic, making sure nothing could escape.

He glared at Undyne, who was still looming over Sans. His brother didn't stand a chance if Undyne lost her temper, and the door made a poor shield. “Leave us alone,” Papyrus said, voice shaking. “You're making a big mistake.”

“See?” Sans snarled, gesturing at Papyrus. “I don't know where you got that stupid fucking idea, but you're way off base. Get off our property now, or I'll make you leave.”

Undyne shook her head. “Oh, please threaten me again. That's really making you look better.”

“No, what's making me look better is the fact that you have zero grounds to arrest me,” Sans snapped. “Do you have any evidence at all, or are you just rolling with the first dipshit idea your tiny goldfish brain puked up?”

“I know you left those burns on him. You admitted to it, and I know you were both lying about why they were there.”

Sans bristled. “I told you, that was an accident!”

“Yeah, I bet they're all 'accidents,' aren't they?” Undyne sneered down at him. “Maybe you don't even remember doing it-- it's an open secret you're the town drunk, in a town full of drunks. You spend more time at the bar than you do at your post, not that you do anything but slack off when you are there. If it weren't for Paps, I'd never have hired a no-account waste like-”

“Undyne!” Papyrus said, boiling over at the awful things she was saying. “Stop it!” He took a step forward.

That spear whipped upward to fend him off again. “I get you're upset, Paps, but you need to sit this one out,” Undyne said, giving him a stern glare. “Hate me if you want, but I'm your friend and your captain, and I'm doing what has to be done. So help me god, he is never touching you again. This ends.

“Why the fuck do you think I'm hurting him?” From his tone, it likely wasn't the first time Sans had asked the question. “Why would I ever do something like that? He's the only good thing in my entire fucking life.”

“I think that's exactly the reason you're doing it,” Undyne hissed. “You're a loser, and you know it. He doesn't need you. You can't stand the thought of him outgrowing you and leaving, can you?” She curled her lip up over her jagged teeth. “And you know he's too damn terrified of dusting you to hit back, so you were just gonna keep him too worn down to get away. Cowards like you disgust me.”

Sans rolled his eyes, but his fingertips curled tighter over the edge of the door. “Wow, you're a guard captain and a psychologist, too? Next you'll tell me you can read.” His voice was raw from yelling. With one last flicker, the lights in his eye sockets guttered out. “You don't even know me.”

“Obviously not,” Undyne said, unmoved, “or I'd have figured out what a piece of shit you are a long time ago.”

Sans turned to look at Alphys. “Al, come on,” he said, pleading. “We're friends, aren't we? You know I'm not like that.”

“I d-don't know you all that w-well,” Alphys muttered, staring fixedly down at her feet.

This was going way too far. Papyrus caught himself as he tried to move closer again, chest tight and mind racing. “Undyne, you both have this all wrong. Sans would never do anything to hurt me.” Why wasn't she listening?

Still taking shelter against the wall, well out of any potential fight, Alphys coughed. “Then w-who is it? You s-said there was someone, so it has to be...” She wrung her hands, glancing at Sans. “S-someone.”

Sans blinked, realization dawning. “Bro?” Worry and deep hurt dragged over his features. “Is that true?” He moved out from behind the door, but the shaft of Unyne's spear barred his way. “Why didn't you say anything to me?”

Papyrus couldn't look him in the eye socket. He couldn't look at anyone. “It's not Sans.”

“'Not Sans' isn't an answer.” Undyne growled. She glared at Papyrus, her eye burning. “Who is it? Give me a name, Papyrus. I want a name.

All three of them stared at him.

Papyrus opened his mouth, but couldn't make a sound come out. There was only one name he could say.

He couldn't say it. Undyne and Alphys were here, Sans was here. They were out in the open, along with more than a dozen monsters who didn't deserve to...

This had to be a nightmare.

Undyne stared down at him, her mouth a flat line. “You can't do it, can you? Because it isn't anyone else, is it? And you can't put the blame on an innocent person because you're you.”

Shaking his head, Papyrus took a step back. “No, no, that isn't why-”

“Papyrus,” Sans croaked. “Bro, please...tell the truth.”

Undyne snorted. “That's enough from you. In fact,” she said, grabbing Sans' arm, “I'm done talking.”

The crowd's murmuring grew to a dull roar as she dragged Sans outside.

Sans cried out as he was yanked off balance, kept upright only by Undyne's hard grip on his arm. He struggled against her, kicking up snow as he tried to break free. “Get off me!”

The panic in his voice bypassed every rational thought left in Papyrus' head, calling straight to something primitive and angry. It was ready to answer. Papyrus held it down, fists clenched hard enough to hurt. That would only make things so, so much worse.

“Undyne, stop!”

Again, she ignored him.

“Sans of Snowdin Town, you're under arrest,” Undyne said, steely and cold, “for domestic battery, assaulting a guardsman, threatening a guardswoman, resisting arrest, and obstruction.”

Sans stared up at her, mouth agape. “You can't be serious!” He looked to Papyrus. “Papyrus, tell her!”

What could he say? What could he do? Papyrus froze.

Undyne turned her attention to him, and read his lack of response in the worst way possible. “It's okay, Paps,” she said. “I promised you.”

“Papyrus…?” Sans stopped trying to twist his arm free, tension bleeding out of his body. “Why won't you…?” Trembling, he reached his free hand out, as though Papyrus would take it and pull him to safety.

“I'm sorry,” Papyrus said, choking on the words. How could he have let this happen? Why couldn't he stop it-- why couldn't he think?

Undyne headed for the shed. Sans stumbled along behind her, no longer fighting. As Undyne opened the door, he looked back at Papyrus, lost and utterly broken. He let himself be shoved inside, and Undyne disappeared into the shed after him.

A moment later, Papyrus watched, numb, as all of his tools were tossed unceremoniously out the door. They landed in ones and twos in the snow until Undyne had cleared out everything. She shut Sans inside, glaring at the doorknob in her hand.

“What doofus installed the lock backward?” Grumbling, she picked up a large rock from the side of the house and barricaded the door with it. It hit the ground with a deep thud.

Her task finished, Undyne walked back over to where he stood. She laid a hand on his shoulder. For a moment, she just looked at him, frowning and thoughtful. She looked back at Alphys, who was still hovering near the front door. Undyne beckoned her over with a jerk of her head.

“I need to talk to the rest of the guard in town,” Undyne said as Alphys joined them. “Alphys, can you keep an eye on him? If you don't think you're up to it, I'll have to take him with me and have one of the dogs watch him.”

Alphys nodded. “I c-can do it.” She took Papyrus' limp hand in hers and squeezed.

He didn't squeeze back. His attention remained fixed on the shed. It was quiet.

Undyne leaned into his line of sight. “Hey,” she said. “I know this is hard. I'm sorry it had to go down like this, but you didn't give us much choice.” Her forehead wrinkled in a scowl. “To be honest, I'm...I'm really hurt that you didn't trust me enough to come to me with this. Did you think I was gonna haul off and kill him, or something? I'm not a thug.”

Papyrus stared at and through her, uncomprehending. He felt as though he was standing slightly behind himself. A few inches too far back, detached.

“I say this from a place of love, Paps,” Undyne went on, frowning deeper. “If you give Alphys any trouble or pull anything while I'm gone, I will place you under protective custody, got it? Nod for me.”

Papyrus nodded, not really listening.

“Okay.” Undyne sighed. She patted Alphys' back awkwardly. “Call me if you need me, alright? Don't let him out of your sight.”

Alphys nodded. “I w-won't.”

Undyne broke up the crowd as she left. Papyrus could hear her bellowing at them, cutting off questions and shooing everyone home.

He and Alphys were left standing side by side in front of the house.

Papyrus didn't know how long he stayed like that, absent and staring at nothing. It could have been five minutes, or an hour. Eventually, an insistent tugging on his arm caught his attention, bringing him back to reality. He flexed his hand, and Alphys let go.

“Uh...do you w-want me to help you gather y-your tools?” Alphys nodded toward the pile of discarded tools in front of the shed. “They'll rust if we leave them there, and I think I s-saw a p-pretty expensive power drill, and-”

Papyrus shook his head. “I don't care.”

"Oh. O-okay. Um. It's...p-pretty chilly out here," Alphys said, curling her tail around her legs. "D-do you want to go inside? I could m-make you some tea, or...?"

It was warm and bright and normal inside the house. Sans was trapped in the shed, like an animal. Like a human.

"No." Papyrus watched her shift from foot to foot in the snow. She didn't wear shoes, and the clothes under her lab coat were lightweight, meant for Hotland's climate. "You can go in, if you're cold."

"I'm not supposed to leave you alone."

Papyrus shrugged.

Pulling her lab coat more tightly around herself, Alphys sighed. She sidestepped closer to him, trying to get out of the rising wind. Papyrus wasn't large enough to do her much good. They stood in silence for a few more minutes, Alphys' breath condensing in the air as it was carried away.

"This… this really sucks." Alphys looked up at him, smiling ruefully. "I'm sorry this w-was such a...that it was s-so traumatic. I'd hoped Undyne w-would be a little more s-subtle." She twisted the fabric of her coat in her hands. "I guess its over n-now, either way."

"You're making a mistake." How many times had he repeated that sentence? What was the point?

"I thought s-so too, when we first got here. I didn't think it could p-possibly be him, he's s-so funny and..." Alphys shrugged. "B-but if it were s-someone else, you'd say so. You wouldn't just...let this happen if he hadn't d-done anything."

Papyrus said nothing, hunching in on himself and staring at the shed.

Alphys kept on talking. “I know this is hard. He's s-still your brother. B-but it'll start to get better from here,” she said, laying her hand on his arm. “Undyne and I will be w-with you every…every step of the way, I promise.”

“I know what your promises are worth.”

Alphys ducked her head. “You hurt Undyne,” she said, mumbling as though reluctant to bring it up. “She was so upset when I got there-- she couldn't believe you'd attack her like that on purpose.”

Only now did it occur to Papyrus how much he must have frightened Undyne, doing what he'd done. The last time she'd been blue it…hadn't ended well.

And then he'd left her alone after she'd hit her head, like he didn't even care if she was okay.

“It t-took forever to calm her down. She was so w-worried, and she was really beating herself up for...for not being able to d-do anything. She kept saying that s-something bad was going to happen, and it would be her fault, so I...I'm sorry. I told her.”

“I know that already,” Papyrus snapped, knowing he was being cruel. He had no real right to be angry at Alphys. This disaster, and everything leading up to it, had been his doing. He had failed completely.

“You w-weren't acting like yourself, and you look s-so...bad,” Alphys stammered.

If he hadn't panicked with Undyne, if he'd kept quiet at the lab, if he'd kept a leash on his magic, if he'd been smart enough to come up with better cover stories, if he hadn't let Sans see the break in his arm, if he'd been more careful...

“And you're getting kind of s-scary,” Alphys said, with an apologetic grimace. “Y-you're not okay. We had to do something. Um...” She touched his arm. “I s-saw some unformed magic over you. Thank you for not...I don't know if I could have s-stopped you. I'm n-not very good at using magic that isn't part of a m-machine.”

Papyrus stared down at her worried face. He'd been that close to sparing Flowey the trouble and taking them all out himself.

“Go inside and warm up,” he said, his mind rejecting his last thought in self defense. “Your claws are turning blue; you'll get frostbite.”

“I'm n-not supposed to-”

Sighing, Papyrus sat down heavily on the front step. “Where would I go?” he asked, glaring up at her. “I don't want to go in. It's our house. It doesn't feel right.”

Alphys made a thin, distressed sound. She looked from Papyrus to the door, torn between Undyne's order and impending hypothermia.

“Just go in long enough to make tea,” Papyrus said, as she shivered. “My room is right at the top of the stairs; there's a coat at the back of my closet you can borrow.”

She sighed, flexing fingers that were going stiff from the cold. “And you'll be here when I come back out?”

Papyrus nodded, looking her in the eye.

As soon as Alphys was inside, Papyrus made a beeline for the shed. He glared at the rock. A few testing shoves proved it too heavy for him to move, not that doing so would cause anything but more trouble. He sat down on it instead, leaning back against the door.

“Sans?”

There was no reply. A knot of panic started to build in his midsection, only to be broken by the sound of rustling straw.

“...Sans?”

Nothing. Was he sleeping? More likely, he just didn't want to talk. Papyrus sighed, letting the back of his skull hit the door with a hollow clack.

“I don't know what I did,” Sans said, so close by he must have been just on the other side of the door.

Papyrus straightened. “What do you mean?”

A dry laugh filtered through the door. “You're letting Undyne haul me in under the impression that I'm beating you.” Sans' tone was more in line with a bit of uninspired stand-up comedy than the topic at hand. “And you're fine with everyone thinking that's true? Why?” His composure cracked on the last syllable.

“I'm sorry.” He couldn't risk it. Not even now.

“Is what you told Alphys true?” Sans asked, gently.

Papyrus clenched his teeth so hard he was sure they'd crack. “No,” he ground out. “It's not.”

Sans went silent for a minute. There was a soft scrape of bone on wood as he shifted. “Papyrus,” he said, low and quiet, “what did I do?”

Did he really think this was payback for something? Papyrus wrapped his arms around himself, suddenly nauseous. “You didn't do anything.” He stared at the pile of tools in front of him. They'd have a layer of rust coating them by morning.

“Ha!” Sans' voice was still hoarse, and Papyrus found himself wondering, to his horror, when he'd last refilled the water dish. “Is that a joke?”

They sat for a moment, separated by two inches of wood and an uncrossable gulf.

“...'Cause it's not a very good one.”

 

 

 

~*~

 

 

Papyrus was on the far side of the suspension bridge and heading into the woods when his phone rang. He frowned at the number on the screen, and answered. “What.”

W-where are you?”

“None of your business,” Papyrus said, flat and cold. “Sorry, Alphys. Don't speak to me again.”

W-wait! Papyr-”

He hung up. Almost immediately, Alphys called back. Papyrus ignored it. Then the text notifications started, coming as fast as her thumbs could type.

He wasn't interested in anything else she had to say, and in any case she'd been dragged too far into this mess. Everyone had. With a few quick taps, he blocked her number and her Undernet profile.

Not far past the treeline, his phone started ringing again, from Undyne's number this time. He didn't bother answering, just blocked it and moved on.

He'd done enough damage, and he couldn't begin to figure out how to set it right. All he could do was this.

As time passed and he moved deeper into the woods, Papyrus glanced at his phone again, anxiously noting how little battery was left. The one person he wanted to call him...wasn't going to.

He had to try. He'd regret it if he didn't.

After four rings the call went to voice mail. It was hard to listen to the outgoing message-- so stupid and goofy and… Would he ever hear that voice sound normal and right again?

Would he ever hear it again at all?

Papyrus wasted a few seconds after the beep, working up the nerve to speak. “I'm sorry,” he said, voice breaking. “I'm sorry, I...I can't fix this. I didn't mean for any of this to happen, and you must hate me now, and I guess you should.”

He took a breath.

“I need to go away for a while. Please, please don't do anything...don't do anything stupid. You're safe where you are, so just wait, please.” He was babbling; this wouldn't even make any sense. “Sans, I'm so sorry. You didn't deserve this, and you didn't do anything wrong. I'm sorry. I'm so sorry. I love-”

The phone switched off. No more battery.

Papyrus stared at the blank screen for a moment. Then, he wound his arm back and threw the phone as far as he could. Listening to the crack of plastic and twigs as it fell through low branches and into the underbrush didn't make him feel any better.

His magic stirred in him only to die back down.

There was nothing he could do.

 

 

~*~

 

 

Flowey hadn't laughed that hard in ages. The alliance between Captain Idiot, Dr. Failure, and Papyrus' deadbeat brother had imploded so beautifully. What an absolute farce! Those idiots couldn't figure out what was happening if he showed up at their doors himself with a singing telegram. Undyne and Dr. Alphys were so frustrated and eager to play the hero that they turned on Sans at the mere suggestion of a reason, like rats in a cage.

Watching Papyrus try to salvage the situation, only to wind up condemning his brother from his own mouth, was an extra treat. Flowey could remember what glee felt like, and witnessing that had brought him extremely close to actually feeling it. He had the scent of it, if not the full flavor.

And now his favorite was out here in the woods, sitting on a log like he intended never to get up again. He'd thrown his cell phone away! How positively symbolic.

Flowey popped up near Papyrus' feet, smiling wide. “Gee, that sure was dramatic, huh?” No response. He stretched up a bit-- the snow was drifted deep here. “What's the plan, hmm? Now that you're out here, what happens?”

Papyrus dragged his gaze up off the ground to look at him. “No plan,” he said, eye sockets dull and lifeless. “Just had to...had to...”

“Had to come see me?” Flowey grinned. “Had to come ask for my help? Or maybe,” he said, “my forgiveness?”

That cut through some of the shock. “What do you mean?” Papyrus played dumb so smoothly that Flowey almost bought it. Well, it wasn't exactly a difficult role for him, now was it?

“Oh, I think you know exactly what I mean.” Flowey wound a vine around Papyrus' leg, just in case he tried to run. He wouldn't, but still. Principles. “You blabbed to that imbecile reptile, didn't you? I thought you looked guilty.”

Papyrus cringed. “N-no, I didn't, I swear!”

Poor Papyrus. Once his composure slipped it was right back to his bumbling old self. “Now is not the time to lie to me, Papyrus,” Flowey said, grin firmly in place. “What did you tell her?” Whatever Papyrus had given away must have been quite vague. Dr. Alphys was perhaps the one monster in the Underground who wouldn't immediately assume Papyrus had gone insane if he told her the full truth.

“I...I honestly didn't say anything,” Papyrus said, shielding himself with his arms as if it would matter. “I really didn't!”

Gently, Flowey grasped Papyrus' wrists, pulling his arms away from his face. “A lie of omission is still a lie, friend.” He leaned in closer.

If it weren't for Flowey's grip on his wrists and leg, Papyrus would have toppled over backward off the log trying to lean away. “I never said anything about you!” He was shaking. “Honestly! Just...she asked...she asked whether someone else were involved,” he said, babbling, “and I did say yes, but that's all! Nothing about you, I promise! I...I had to tell her something, or-”

Flowey burst out laughing for the second time this evening, making Papyrus jump at the sudden noise.

“Please,” the skeleton said, half-hysterical. “She promised she wouldn't tell anyone else. I thought that-”

“Well, I suppose if she promised!” Flowey quelled his laughter, with an effort. “Did you make her pinky swear?” he cooed. What an idiot. All this work, and Papyrus still trusted too easily. Once a fool, always a fool.

It was his downfall, his fatal flaw. Flowey supposed the saying was true: you really couldn't save people from themselves.

He could feel Papyrus shaking in his grip.

“I'll take that as a 'no.' You know, Papyrus,” Flowey said, “I could get you on a technicality, here. But,” he went on, as the sniffling started, “since it led to the funniest thing I've seen in years, I'm willing to go easy on you this time.” He smiled. “Just this once.”

The shaking stopped, though not because Papyrus had relaxed at this news. Flowey could see him gritting his teeth, bracing himself.

Flowey made a face. “Oh, come on! You act like I enjoy hurting you.” He'd gotten sick of that a long time ago, not that Papyrus would remember any of that ancient history. “I'm not going to break anything. I'm going to give you a test! If you pass, I'll be happy with you and we can forget about your colossal screw-up.”

Slowly, Papyrus unclenched. “You'll...you'll leave Alphys alone?”

“I'm surprised you're so worried. It's thanks to her that your brother's in so much trouble, isn't it?” But then, once someone showed Papyrus a hint of acceptance, there was virtually no limit to what he would tolerate. Some part of him would always stay a doormat, it seemed. “I can't make any guarantees,” Flowey said, shrugging as much as he was able to without shoulders. “That's really up to her. Unless she goes sticking her big nose into our business again, I suppose I'll have to let her be.” And wasn't that a pity. Oh, well! If he didn't stick to his own rules, the game wasn't as fun.

Papyrus nodded, eager to please now that a scrap of hope was being dangled in front of him. “Okay,” he said, as though this were a deal he could agree to or reject as he pleased.

Flowey smiled brightly. “That's the spirit, friend! The test is very simple. Why, even a child could do it.”

“Anything you want,” Papyrus said-- and wasn't that a dangerous offer to make? Ha.

“Good! We'll worry about it tomorrow, though, huh? You look all worn out.”

That was novel, too. Papyrus was one of the most energetic monsters Flowey had ever met, but his toy's clockwork had come unwound. At several points during this run, Papyrus had suffered episodes where he shut down, too overwhelmed to work with. There was no vacancy in his stare, now, no lingering tension in his limbs once the immediate fear had passed. Whatever lay on the far side of shock, Papyrus was floating there, calm and quiet and still.

Interesting. Flowey wondered how long this mental state would last, and whether it would make his favorite toy more receptive to tomorrow's task. Wouldn't that be something? A feat never before accomplished in any of his runs… But tomorrow could wait. The present moment held its own fascinations.

Pulling more of himself out into the open, Flowey wrapped some of his heavier vines around Papyrus' shoulders and waist, gathering the skeleton close to his main stem. Papyrus let himself be manhandled, unresisting. Whether it was because he was simply too tired to bother or he actually wanted the contact Flowey didn't know, or care.

Papyrus laid a hand on the vines coiled around his waist. Not scratching or pulling at them, just acknowledging that they were there. Flowey didn't precisely feel a warm glow of satisfaction at that, but he was satisfied nonetheless.

“There, there,” Flowey said, resting his head atop Papyrus' skull like his own mother used to when she cuddled him after a nightmare or a skinned knee.

“What should I do?” Papyrus asked, barely above a whisper.

Flowey grinned. “About what, friend?” Why hadn't he thought to try this weeks ago? Papyrus responded powerfully to affection and reassurance-- he knew that. He took a moment to lament all the extra progress he might have made. Oh, well. He would remember his mother's tactics for the future.

“About Undyne and...and Sans.”

Satisfaction curdled into something Flowey couldn't put a name to. “Oh.” Papyrus couldn't see his sour expression, so he didn't try to hide it. “Well, friend,” he said, sweetening his voice, “I don't think there's much you can do. Undyne isn't very smart, and now that she's made up her mind about your brother, nothing's going to change it.”

Papyrus sighed, a heavy sound from such an insubstantial body.

“Is it really so horrible?” Flowey gave Papyrus a light squeeze, an approximate hug. “We'll have to be more careful during practice, of course, but no one will ask any more questions! The mystery is solved, as far as Undyne and Dr. Alphys know, and word will spread to everyone else who only sort of cares about you. They're all safe.” He giggled, stopping himself with a leaf pressed to his mouth. “I guess your brother isn't completely useless.”

A thready whine scraped through clenched teeth, and Papyrus tightened his grip on the vines.

Shifting the tip of one vine to hold Papyrus' hand, Flowey shushed him. “Oh, Papyrus, it's alright. I'm sure he'll be okay. So his life is ruined-- it's not like he was doing a whole lot with it to start with, right? And if everyone hates him now, well, he never had any real friends, anyway. He's not losing much, if you think about it.”

God, it was so funny. What a loser! Sans hadn't even tried to defend himself, at the end.

Oh, boo-hoo-hoo, I'm garbage and my brother doesn't like me, might as well give up… Ha! Pitiful. Who could care about a worthless sad-sack like that?

As if to answer the unspoken question, Papyrus started crying. He must have been holding it in for a while-- it went straight from zero to agonized wailing. Curious, Flowey tugged him closer, and Papyrus threw his arms around Flowey's main stem, burying his face against it as he cried his metaphorical eyes out. Big, wracking sobs shook him hard enough to rattle his armor. Flowey could feel frost forming on his stem where the tears were freezing.

A couple minutes in, the hiccups started, right on cue. Biting down on a snigger, Flowey nuzzled the top of Papyrus' head in what he calculated to be a comforting manner. “Shhhh,” he hushed, and had to take a second to collect himself before he started laughing again for real. “I'm sure the Royal Guard will deal with him fairly, yes? Undyne is all about self-control and calm reasoning.” He smiled against Papyrus' skull. “And the dungeons under the castle are really nice. They're clean, and dry, and warm. There's cots to sleep on and the jailer brings food nearly every day! Your brother will be right at home down there. He can nap and sit around doing nothing as much as he wants, with no one to yell at him.”

Flowey didn't know how it was physically possible, but Papyrus cried even harder.

“You're going to make yourself sick at this rate, friend.” Flowey wrapped a few more vines around his favorite, both to be extra-reassuring and to keep Papyrus' arms in place. Getting a bit tangled up in himself was worth it for some hug insurance. He hadn't been hugged in quite a long time, long enough that the act had regained some of its interest.

All the noise aside, this was pretty nice, for some reason. Papyrus was being desperately uncool, clinging to Flowey like his life depended on it. Messy sobbing wasn't something a tough guardsman did, but somehow it wasn't annoying like it should have been. Instead, it was sort of...special. Gratifying. Like he'd won a prize that all those other idiots were losing out on.

Flowey let Papyrus cry, holding him with a strange sense of triumph. He didn't even get impatient when it took nearly an hour for Papyrus to calm down.

Strange. Interesting.

Once the sobbing tapered off into soft weeping, Flowey sighed in mock exasperation. “You really threw a wrench in everything, didn't you?” He ignored Papyrus' full-body shudder. “Maybe you'll be good from now on, huh?”

The slight motion against his stem might have been a nod, or not. It didn't matter.

“But it'll work out,” Flowey said, giving Papyrus a squeeze. “You'll make it up to me tomorrow, and then, once you're ready, you can go home and get back to work.”

Papyrus dug his fingertips into Flowey's stem. “I don't care about any of that,” he said, voice gravelly from crying.

“Yes, you do.” Flowey giggled. “What, do you want to live out here in the forest with me forever, is that it? Do you want to throw away all the progress we've made? No one likes a quitter, friend.”

Sighing, Papyrus loosened his grip, his arms pinned in place by the vines looped around him.

Good. Not that it mattered if Papyrus put up an argument, but Flowey was enjoying the compliance. “Someday you'll look back on all this and see that it was worth it, and you'll thank me,” he said, low and soothing. “You're my favorite. Out of everyone down here, I like you best. As long as you do as I say, I'll get you through anything and everything, Papyrus. You'll always have me.”

Papyrus didn't answer, and after a moment Flowey realized he'd fallen asleep. Carefully, so as not to wake him, Flowey shifted, rearranging Papyrus into a slightly more comfortable position where his armor wouldn't dig in.

Flowey didn't need to sleep, but he also had nowhere to be. Petting his favorite toy with a loose vine, he chewed over the events of the day, thinking on his next moves.

He had a distinct feeling that Papyrus' indiscretion had shortened the lifespan of this run, possibly by quite a lot. As entertaining as the whole debacle had been, it had pushed Papyrus to the edge of his endurance. It also drew the wrong kind of attention and cast him in a negative light-- he was a victim now, which could slow his advancement in the guard considerably. Pity precluded respect. What kind of guardsman couldn't defend himself from his own weakling brother? Who would trust someone who wouldn't stand up for himself?

Oh, well. There was no helping it now; what was done, was done. If it came to the worst, he could always start over. After all, when had he ever achieved all his goals on the first try? Never.

It would be annoying, yes. Going back to vanilla Papyrus and doing all that work again didn't hold much appeal. He'd been looking forward to seeing how far they could get, and now it was looking as though he wouldn't even see Papyrus oust Undyne as captain, let alone anything further. Not this time around, anyway.

Flowey sighed. Win some, lose some. This was shaping up to be a loss, at least as far as his goal went. Blind runs were so rare, though, that it was a waste not to let them play out completely before trying again.

He had nothing but time, and increasingly little to fill it with.

Besides, the last cool toy he had was more important than the game. As long as he had Papyrus to play with, he was content, no matter the outcome.

For now, he would do his best to enjoy the ride, maybe even indulge in a bit of recklessness. Why not? His plan had been thrown into disarray already. Even if it wasn't possible to put it back on track, he couldn't find it in him to be too annoyed. Not with all the fascinating new things he'd already seen, and might see in the future.

Flowey had no idea what was going to happen next. It was wonderful.

 

Chapter Text

Papyrus woke to the rustle of the wind through the treetops. Short, strong gusts swept snow into eddying swirls in the air and piled it up into drifts. Half-awake and dazed, Papyrus stared up at the treetops swaying back and forth. The hushed whisper of powdery snow and quaking pine needles nearly lulled him back to sleep.

He wanted to sleep. Heaving a sigh, he rolled over, trying to get comfortable in the snow.

Feeling resistance when he shifted his legs, Papyrus looked down to find that he was waist deep in the snow drift that had built up next to the log he was leaning against. He sighed. Normally, he'd be irritated. Now, rusting armor and drenched clothes seemed like petty concerns.

“Good morning, sleepyhead!”

Papyrus scrambled backward over the log, landing hard on his back. Flowey leaned over him, peeking through the fence of blue bones he'd surrounded himself with in his panic.

“Gosh,” Flowey said, grinning. “I've been right here the whole time, silly! Ha, you were asleep for a long time, for you.” He tapped one of the bones, his vine sizzling at the contact. “I was starting to get kinda bored waiting for you to wake up.”

Papyrus didn't recall falling asleep, but he'd been so tired. He was still tired.

Pushing himself to a sitting position with arms that were stiff and leaden, Papyrus scattered the bones. Spent magic drifted down around him, describing a glittering circle in the snow.

With the bones gone, Flowey approached. He held something hidden in a coil of vines. “I brought you some breakfast,” he said, with a touch of pride. “I hope you like nice cream-- it's all I could get without making a mess.”

He shook out the coils, letting three nice cream packets drop into Papyrus' lap.

Papyrus looked them over. They were grubby with dirt and somewhat crushed, but otherwise they'd weathered their trip surprisingly well. He only hoped the nice cream seller had been away from his cart.

“How did you get these?” Papyrus ran his fingers over the wax paper. The hand-drawn logos smiled up at him.

Flowey pouted. “What is that supposed to mean? It's not like I have any money, Papyrus,” he said, gesturing to himself, “or pockets to keep it in if I did. I was just trying to do something nice for you.” He winked. “That blue dope didn't even see me, so relax. He'll never miss it.”

Papyrus sighed, staring down at the stolen nice creams. He hadn't considered the practical aspects of his self-imposed exile. Something as mundane and trivial as food had been the furthest thing from his mind last night. Part of him still found it trivial.

He set the nice creams aside. "I'm not hungry."

Flowey glared, just for a second, then perked back up. "Don't be silly, friend! You haven't eaten for a whole day by now. You have to keep your strength up."

Regardless, Papyrus had zero interest in food. All he wanted to do was go back to sleep. Just do nothing and let the snow drift up over him and...and...nothing.

When he'd left Snowdin, it had been without any sort of plan, only the sure knowledge that everyone was better off with him gone. Now it was morning, and he still had nothing more in mind than just being gone. No future tense, no later, no tomorrow.

He had nothing. Nothing but a small pile of nice cream he didn't want, and Flowey.

"Papyrus," Flowey said, picking up one of the packets and pressing it into Papyrus' slack hands. "Eat. There's no point in starving yourself." He prodded Papyrus' arm, urging.

"I don't want it."

Flowey frowned. "I went to the trouble to get you these." He drew closer, and his voice took on a warning edge. "I think you're being rude."

"Sorry," Papyrus said, fidgeting with the packet but making no move to open it.

Flowey stretched up to loom over him, hovering too close and staring. Papyrus was used to this move, and didn't flinch-- just kept his gaze trained downward.

That didn't seem to be the reaction Flowey wanted. "You know, the heartbroken act is getting old fast. I'm being thoughtful, so the least you can do is be polite about it." Flowey grasped Papyrus' jaw, forcing him to look up. "Eat," he said, showing teeth, "or I'll shove it down your throat myself."


~


Flowey wasn't mad. He wasn't capable of anger as anything more than a thought exercise. He most certainly wasn't disappointed.

He'd only spent the last two hours trying to find something for Papyrus to eat. The nice cream had been a stroke of genius, he'd thought. It was wrapped up, all clean and easy to carry, and it tasted good. Papyrus should count himself lucky that Flowey had put forth the effort to find something fresh when he could easily have rooted through a trash bin for whatever wasn't entirely rotten and brought that instead.

Flowey had expected a little gratitude. Maybe even another hug. If nothing else, he'd expected Papyrus to eat.

Papyrus glowered up at him defiantly. Was he trying to call Flowey's bluff? Cute. Two could play that game. Flowey reached out a vine for one of the nice creams.

Shaking his head free, Papyrus snatched the packet out of Flowey's reach, tore it open, and took a bite.

His favorite chewed sullenly, glaring daggers at him.

“That's better,” Flowey said, satisfied. He backed off and watched the skeleton with a sense of minor accomplishment. Once Papyrus seemed to realize how hungry he actually was, he ate with less reluctance. It still wasn't the most pleasing reaction, but Flowey made the decision to let it go.

He wasn't going to let anything ruin his mood today.

Idly, Flowey considered how it would have made his former self's teeth itch to see someone bite straight through something that cold. He remembered getting the worst sort of sudden headaches from eating nice cream too fast, and how it had made his teeth sting. Unpleasant sensations, but knowing he'd never feel them again lent them an odd charm.

Papyrus ignored him for the time being, focused wholly on his food. He ate quickly but neatly-- interesting to witness, given the lack of cheeks or lips or anything else Flowey would have thought necessary for the task.

“Isn't this fun?” Flowey leaned against Papyrus, folding an empty packet into a paper star. Over time, Flowey had become as dextrous with his vines as he'd ever been with his fingers. Each fold was crisp and even; every point on the star was perfect. He'd made so many of these as a child that he could fold them without thinking.

Technically, he supposed he was still a child, if a plant could be considered a child-- if Flowey could rightly be considered anything. Unnatural, yes. Damned, perhaps. And, possibly, slightly lonely.

Last night had left him in a strange, thoughtful mood.

Just because he couldn't feel anything didn't mean Flowey was able to sit alone for long with no company or stimulation. He'd tried that, back when his curiosity had first turned toward what was, at the time, a troubling direction. He'd sworn to stay away from them, all his dear friends, until the thoughts retreated.

To be alone, isolated, was torture. Flowey couldn't recall how long he'd held out, talking to himself for the sake of hearing a voice, plucking out petals and gnawing on vines to remind himself that he was real, even if it was in a form he despised. Expecting isolation to cure him had been foolish.

The thoughts had stayed, had grown from whispers to howls and screams. The need to see something new, to interact, to alleviate the crushing boredom that was slowly and steadily unraveling him became an all-consuming fever.

And so, to an intellectual sort of horror, Flowey had given in.

The weight lifted.

Those first times, he'd been disgusted with himself. He'd apologized to each monster even as he toyed with them, even as he cut them down. From his current vantage point, Flowey couldn't for the life of him understand what the big deal was. Why had he waited so long? Why had he let himself suffer pointlessly for what felt like eternity when relief was so close, so easy?

After all, it didn't really matter what he did. No one stayed hurt or stayed dead, and no one remembered but Flowey himself. No harm done, and it kept him sane.

Until he realized he was running out of things to do. Until the boredom returned, slow poison dripping into him. He was alone, playing with his toys.

Playing games that were getting stale.

Life wasn't fair.

Exhibit A was still working on the nice cream. Poor Papyrus. How much had he suffered for Flowey's benefit? Flowey had befriended him countless times, killed him countless times, left him grieving and alone countless times. He'd told Papyrus riddles and played games with him, had tortured him to madness and heaped every kind of cruelty and humiliation onto him.

And always, always, Papyrus offered forgiveness, acceptance. Love. It was insane, and maddening. No other monster clung so tightly to such a feeble ideal. Flowey couldn't figure out the mechanism behind it, no matter what he tried. He couldn't find the switch.

That, above all else, was what made Papyrus his favorite toy. As simple as the skeleton was, he was unsolvable. Unbreakable. He was endless entertainment. He was good company, willing to talk and to listen and to just be with him in a way that only Flowey's own parents were willing to match, but without all the baggage. Flowey would have loved Papyrus, if he were able to.

Taking a mental step back, Flowey examined that last thought from every angle.

Well. Interesting.

“This is a little like a camping trip, don't you think?” Flowey set the paper star on Papyrus' leg and started another. “My sibling and I used to camp out in the courtyard, but I could never last the whole night without going back to our room. Isn't that pathetic? The safest place in the Underground,” he said, setting the second star next to the first, “and I was still scared.”

The same sensation he'd had in the courtyard yesterday-- was it nostalgia?-- rose up behind his eyes. If only he hadn't been such a crybaby...

Flowey rustled his leaves. He needed to stay in the moment. That was the trick. He'd wring as much enjoyment as possible out of what remained of this run, and that would give him the fortitude to try again and again until he got his methods just right.


He picked up the last empty packet, noticing the hand-written compliment inside. Have you been working out? Ha.

“We could build a fire tonight,” he said, smoothing out the paper on the armor covering Papyrus' thigh. “The teenagers do it all the time, so no one would think anything of the smoke. I know you like to be warm.”

The third packet, he folded into a crisp little heart. He set it with the others.

Finished with his breakfast, Papyrus drew his legs up, spilling the paper stars and the heart onto the snow. He tapped the stick from his last nice cream against his gauntlet, a metronome-regular tic-tic-tic.

His favorite wasn't nearly as much fun this morning as he'd been last night. Flowey huffed, winding vines around Papyrus' midsection and resting his head in the protected space between pauldron and neck. “Gee, Papyrus, you're all doom and gloom today,” he said, nuzzling against the side of Papyrus' face. The bones were rough with old abrasions. “You can talk to me, you know. I'm your friend.”


Papyrus turned his face away. He clamped the nice cream stick between his teeth, gnawing on it fretfully and staring off into the trees.

Flowey drew back, studying the skeleton for a moment before speaking. "Papyrus, how much do you know about love?"

There was a snap of the stick breaking, and Papyrus shot Flowey a skeptical glare, spitting out splinters.

Flowey giggled. "Awake now?" Papyrus was behaving so strangely-- irritable and distant. It was a far cry from last night. Oh, well. Like that tooth he'd knocked out, yesterday's damage might well be irreversible. Considering Flowey's plans for today, that could be a hindrance or a help-- it was too soon to tell. "I'm not talking about gross, soppy love," he clarified, adding an exaggerated gag for good measure. "I mean LOVE."

Slowly, Papyrus shook his head, as though he couldn't hear the difference.

“Gosh, Papyrus, you're so ignorant,” Flowey said, knitting his brows in mock concern. “You've gotten tougher since we started having our little practices, yes? And your magic is more powerful.”

Papyrus glanced up at him, mistrustful. “Yes,” he said, quietly.

Had the silly idiot really not thought about this before now? Probably not. “All the sparring in the world couldn't have done that. You have to fight for real. You have to want to harm.” Flowey giggled as a joke came to him. “It's tough love!”

Curling up as small as the armor would allow, Papyrus folded his arms over his knees. He scowled pensively at nothing in particular. Or perhaps he was just nauseous. He'd eaten that nice cream pretty fast.

“You're not where you could be, though, all things considered,” Flowey said, with an airy wave of a leaf. “We can do better.”

Papyrus tensed.

“Not that it'll be easy,” Flowey said, shrugging. “People who are angry, or self-righteous, or hurt-- they gain LOVE like it's nothing! But a bleeding heart like you...” Flowey sighed dramatically. “All this time and effort, and you're still lagging behind.”

Papyrus was pathologically merciful. Even on the rare occasions that Flowey managed to push him beyond mercy into earnest hatred, he stepped back over the line mere seconds later. It was as though the gravitational pull of his own forgiving nature was inescapable. A kindness singularity.

Flowey found himself desperately curious. If he only had time enough for a short-term goal, he wanted to know whether Papyrus could ever be cured. As soft as the skeleton still was, he had improved. That progress had been hard-won, and Flowey wouldn't see it go to waste if he could help it. He wanted to see Papyrus at his best.

What would put him over that line for real? Flowey wanted to know.

Papyrus was plainly more willing to harm than he normally was. What was the threshold they needed to cross? Were they close? What would happen if sweet, stupid Papyrus finally cut loose?

Something awesome, Flowey wagered. Something new and ruinous. He wanted to see that.

Gently, he tugged Papyrus to his feet, uncoiling his vines only once he was sure his favorite wouldn't sink back down into the snow again. “Say, Papyrus,” Flowey chirped. “What do you say we go for a little walk?”



~*~



Despite the early hour, Grillby's was packed to capacity with Snowdin residents. Some were there to answer guard questions, others were forming hastily-organized search parties, although no one seemed to have much of a plan. Judging from the snatches of conversation that carried over the general din, a good many were just there to gossip and take in the spectacle.

“-used to watch my kids! I can't believe-”

“-know what they say about-”

“-always was something odd about those two, if you ask-”

In the farthest corner of a corner booth, Alphys rested her head in her hands, bleary-eyed and sniffling, her tail wrapped tightly around one ankle. She'd been up all night, helping Undyne and the local guards turn the town inside-out. Their search had turned up nothing. Less than nothing, in fact, as their frantic running around had disturbed any tracks or scent trail the local trackers might have been able to use.

Papyrus had been gone for hours now. Every passing minute put him farther out of reach.

Over the course of the night, Alphys had borrowed the phone of every monster she could ask, and each and every call had gone straight to voice mail. Her surveillance cameras showed no activity on the roads. She was at a loss.

A pewter mug was set in front of her with a thump, beer sloshing over the rim. Alphys looked up into Undyne's haggard face as the guard captain slid into the booth beside her.

They shared a quiet drink, mulling over what to do next. It had been a long night. Everyone was tired, and there was still Sans to deal with, but they had to find Papyrus. Neither of them knew why he'd run off now that his ordeal was finally over, but with the way he'd acted last night it couldn't lead anywhere good. They had to find him.

The door swung open, banging against the wall.

A hush fell over the bar.

Silhouetted in the door frame, bits of straw stuck to his clothes and eye sockets shining over-bright and manic, was Sans. He was shivering hard enough to audibly rattle.

His gaze swept over the crowd and landed on Undyne and Alphys.

“Where is he?”



~*~



The woods were peaceful and still. Pretty as a postcard.

Flowey moved deliberately, watchfully. There was no movement in the underbrush, and no sound. The last hour had been much the same; it seemed they were well and truly alone. Naturally...

Patience. As eager as Flowey was to administer his test, he found he was enjoying the build-up beforehand. What was going to happen? How would the test turn out? Would Papyrus pass, or fail? By the end of the day, Flowey would have his answer, but for now he could only wonder and wait.

If it weren't for the need to be as quiet as possible, Flowey would have whistled a tune.

The snow here was pristine, left untouched for weeks or months until an icy crust formed over the top. Without the added weight of his armor, Papyrus likely could have walked along the surface. As it was, he broke through, sinking in knee-deep.

His favorite toy was living up to the epithet. Papyrus trudged through the snow at a steady, brainless pace, like a clockwork soldier. He stared straight ahead, eye sockets dark and face neutral. Flowey couldn't tell whether he was lost in thought, or not thinking at all.

Either way, this new, placid attitude was fascinating. Papyrus was, in most runs, a completely open book. Flowey couldn't begin to guess what was going through that empty head of his right now, but it wouldn't be any of the endearing, inane drivel that occupied the skeleton's thoughts during more peaceful runs. It was wonderful.

Aside from that token bit of resistance over the nice cream, Papyrus had been supremely biddable all day. No backtalk, no questions asked. The combination of quiet, mysterious calm and perfect obedience was compelling in the extreme, and Flowey's hopes were rising.

This run might be the run. Today might be the day that it finally happened.

If Papyrus passed this test, not only would it serve as a proof of concept for this little experiment, but it would be...oh, it would be amazing to witness! Flowey didn't care if he had to reset directly after if he got to see…

A little shiver of anticipation ran down his stem, for the first time in ages.

This was going to be great.


~


Papyrus walked with crunching footsteps through the deep snow. He paid little attention to his surroundings, drifting in a strange, clear-headed apathy. Flowey moved beside him, not popping up at intervals as he usually did, but simply cutting through the frozen earth as easily as a fish through water.

Flowey had directed him deeper into the woods, insistent on staying far from the roads. The muted crack of permafrost splitting apart and his own footsteps were the only sounds. They did not speak, not that Papyrus would have had anything to say. Now and then, Flowey would tell him to turn this way or that, and Papyrus wordlessly did as he was told. It was easier than arguing.

He didn't wonder what the test would entail. He didn't care. Whatever it was, it didn't matter. Pass or fail, it was all the same to him.

Forcefully, he reminded himself that Alphys was still at risk. For her sake, he would try.

In a thick stand of trees, Flowey made a soft chirp of elation and stopped, halting Papyrus as well with a vine pressed firmly to his breastplate. Papyrus lifted his gaze from the ground, watching Flowey for instructions.

“Stay very quiet, Papyrus,” Flowey whispered. “It's time for your test.” He stared into the clearing ahead of them, a smile curling across his face. “You're going to do great, so don't be nervous.”

Papyrus shrugged. He wasn't nervous, for once. He was too tired and too numbed-out for that. Best just to get it over with.

“Now, don't speak,” Flowey said, placing the tip of a vine against Papyrus' mouth. With another, he gestured toward the clearing. “Do you see that snowdrake there?”

Papyrus followed the direction of the vine. A lone snowdrake was hopping around, making designs in the snow. After a moment, he recognized her as one of the teenagers who'd found his and Flowey's hilltop, so long ago. He nodded.

“I want you to kill her.”

The world tipped as a wave of dizziness threatened to send Papyrus to his knees. Only Flowey's quick reaction kept him upright, vines catching and supporting him.

Flowey sniggered, shaking Papyrus lightly. “Did you just swoon? Gee, Papyrus, you're such a wet blanket.”

“What…?” Papyrus' mind reeled, trying to wrap itself around the present moment in vain. “W-what did you say?”

“You heard me the first time, silly.” Flowey grinned, showing teeth.

The snowdrake was still horsing around in the clearing, blissfully unaware. Papyrus could faintly hear her humming to herself.

Flowey watched the girl as though observing a distasteful insect. “This is your test. Do this, and I'll forgive you for talking to Dr. Alphys and ruining everything.”

This had to be a joke. Flowey had to be playing a sick prank on him. “I...I can't! I can't do that!” Papyrus wrung his hands, bones grinding against each other inside his gauntlets. “I thought...didn't you want me to be a hero? I'm supposed to protect people, not...not...”

Flowey smiled and tutted at him. “Now, now, you have to break a few eggs to make an omelet, right? This will make you so much stronger, you have no idea.” He stroked his lower petals with a vine. “I wonder if you'll gain one level or two? Two wouldn't shock me.”

“I won't!” Papyrus hissed, glaring up at Flowey. He was shaking, fear and anger and magic all twisting together. “I will never-”

“This is exactly why you're always the victim, Papyrus,” Flowey spat, cutting Papyrus off. “You refuse to go far enough. All that ability-- you insist on wasting it!”

Papyrus pointed at the snowdrake, arm cutting through the air like a blade. “She is a child.

Unimpressed, Flowey rolled his eyes. “So was I.”

“That's not-”

“Enough.” Flowey snapped a vine out to drag Papyrus closer by the wrist. “Don't spoil this for me, friend. We've come too far for you to wimp out now. It's not,” he said, pulling, bringing their faces close, “a big. Deal. One hit. That's all I'm asking.”

Reflexively, Papyrus hauled back on his captured arm. Tears pricked at the corners of his eye sockets, and his chest grew tight. “I don't care what you do,” he said, swallowing down panic and magic. “I won't do it-- I'm not going to murder a child just because you tell me to. I don't care!”

Flowey smiled. “You're shaking pretty hard for someone who doesn't care.” He slid the vine higher, wrapping Papyrus' arm up to the elbow. He squeezed, and chuckled when Papyrus whimpered. “Let me put it to you this way: you're going to kill that snowdrake, or else I'm going to kill you. Right here. Right now.”

Papyrus took in Flowey's wide, cheerful grin. All traces of anger were gone, and somehow that was more terrifying than the threat itself.

“Do you doubt me? Do you know what I'm capable of, Papyrus?” Flowey leaned in even closer, bumping their foreheads together and filling Papyrus' field of view with a yellow blur. “Can you guess?”

The vine loosened, releasing him, and Papyrus staggered backward.

“Remember that I'm going easy on you, friend,” Flowey said, parting jagged teeth. “Make your choice. Don't keep me waiting too long.”

With that, he reached out and shoved Papyrus toward the edge of the trees.

It was all Papyrus could do to stay upright, light-headed and weak-kneed as he was. He stumbled forward for a few yards before he had to stop. For a full minute, he stood with one hand braced against a tree trunk, waiting for the world to stop spinning.

He wanted to go back to the morning, when he'd woken up sure that the worst had happened, that he'd lost everything. That he'd sunk as low as he could go.

He'd been so wrong. It could always get worse.

Life would only ever get worse.

A sort of claustrophobic fit took hold of him without warning. Slowly, he sank to his knees, fingertips scraping against bark, spine bowing like a branch overladen with snow. He pressed his free hand hard against his mouth, stifling the despairing moan that he couldn't hold in.

There was no way out. Flowey would never be satisfied. He would always find one more thing to take away, one more thing to ruin and defile. It would never end.

It would never end.

He wanted it to end. Was this what it felt like, to finally be too tired to go on? He wanted it to stop-- all this fear and misery and pain. If this was all his life would ever hold, then he should go back to Flowey and tell him to get on with it. He doubted that Flowey would spare the girl after killing him, but if there was even the slightest chance, then the way forward was clear. She was innocent in all of this.

Papyrus willed himself to stand, to turn around, but his trembling limbs would not obey. He kneeled, gulping down air that he didn't need and trying not to be sick.

As close to the treeline as he was, the snowdrake would surely see him if she turned around. He had to decide.

He should… He should...

No.

As hopeless as the situation seemed, Papyrus didn't want to die. As tired as he was, he wasn't quite that tired yet.

There was only one option.

Standing, Papyrus took a deep, shaky breath, steeling himself for what he had to do. Hands wreathed in the blue of his magic, he stepped out into the clearing. He didn't hurry, mindful of his armor rustling as he stalked through the deep snow.

Kill, or be killed.

He had no choice at all.

When he was only a few paces away, the snowdrake finally noticed his presence, whirling to face him.

“Oh!” The girl smoothed down her feathers. “Mr. Papyrus, you scared the hell out of me!” She looked him up and down, her gaze lingering on his hands and face. Ice crystals formed around her as she tittered nervously. “You, uh...you okay?”

“Listen to me,” Papyrus whispered, low and harsh. “The forest isn't safe. You need to run to town as fast as you can. Now.”

She blinked up at him as he backed her toward the trees. “Uh...just take it easy, dude...”

With a subtle motion of his hand, tall bones coalesced at Papyrus' back on either side, ready to sweep forward. A small blade of ice magic bounced uselessly off his breastplate. Papyrus shook his head. “Don't try to fight,” he urged, watching the trembling snowdrake gather her ice in front of her. “Just run.”

Why wasn't she moving?

...The girl stared beyond him with wide, terrified eyes. He didn't need to turn to know why. The sound of permafrost cracking rang in his head, clear as breaking bone and drawing closer.

Out of time.

“Don't stand there!” Papyrus shouted, summoning his blaster. “Go!”

Spinning on his heel, Papyrus swept the bones out in front of him just as the first hail of bullets hit. Bones and bullets alike shattered.

He was dimly aware of the snowdrake's screech of alarm, and her quickly receding footsteps as she fled into the woods. Training his blaster on Flowey, he fired. The blaster pulled at his soul, bleeding his magic away. The scent of mud and scorched vegetation filled the air.

A barrier of bones raised up before the blaster fully dissipated. Papyrus would keep Flowey at bay for as long as he could. He would attack with everything he had.

He wouldn't win, but he could buy her time to get away. That would have to be enough.




Chapter Text

 

Green light arced from Undyne's out-flung hand.

 

Sans had time to raise his left hand, but thankfully the green took effect before he could summon anything.

 

“How did you get out?” Undyne growled, striding forward.

 

...Or striding, anyway. She wasn't getting anywhere, feet pushing off empty air, ponytail drifting lazily upward.

 

The crowd seethed uneasily as Undyne bellowed her outrage.

 

The temperature climbed several degrees. A sound like popping embers carried softly through the room. The shadows shifted, and Alphys caught movement from the corner of her eye. It was the bartender. He'd stepped out from behind the bar and now stood, arms crossed, watching the unfolding scene with calm authority.


A bird-like woman on a nearby barstool cleared her throat. "Uh, Grillby says no fighting."


As one, the crowd took a shuffling step back.


"I'm not here to fight," Sans said, though he still held Undyne just above the floor. His gaze darted around the room, waiting for someone to make a move toward him. No one did.


"What, then?" Undyne snapped. She kicked her legs out, straining to gain purchase against the floor. The tips of her toes were a fraction of an inch above the floorboards, but she just couldn't reach. “And how the hell did you move that rock?”


Sans ignored her, turning his attention to Alphys, who gave him a lame little wave.

 

She didn't know what to expect. Why would Sans show up here? He'd managed to escape the shed only to throw himself right back at every sentry and guard in Snowdin, in front of half the town.

 

Not for the first time, things weren't adding up.


"Al," he said, beckoning her with the slightest incline of his head, the most movement he was currently capable of. "Get my phone from my left front pocket and hand it to Captain Undyne. Please," he added, when she didn't move right away.


Sliding out of the booth, Alphys approached, flinching under all the eyes that were now suddenly trained on her. Gingerly, she fished the cellphone out of Sans' pocket with two claws.

 

She handed it over to Undyne, having to reach up slightly higher than usual.


"Listen to the last voice message," Sans said, as Undyne fumbled with the buttons.


Sans was apparently as bad about clearing out his inbox as he was about answering the phone in the first place. After a couple minutes, Undyne reached the last message. She listened to it, an irritated snarl on her lips.


As she listened, her face softened from anger to a confused scowl. She replayed the message. After yet another listen, Undyne thrust the phone into Alphys' hands. "I don't get it," she said as Alphys held the phone to her ear.


The reception had been bad, but Alphys could make out every word. Her frown deepened as the message played.

 

I'm sorry. I'm sorry, I...I can't fix this. I didn't mean for any of this to happen, and you must hate me now, and I guess you should.

 

I need to go away for a while. Please, please don't do anything...don't do anything stupid. You're safe where you are, so just wait, please. Sans, I'm so sorry. You didn't deserve this, and you didn't do anything wrong. I'm sorry. I'm so sorry. I love-”


Undyne chewed her lip. "What did he mean by all that?"


Alphys looked up to find Sans watching her, silently pleading.


She lowered the phone as a lump of ice seemed to settle in her stomach. "It...wasn't you."


“What?” Undyne straightened, not quite at a right angle with the floor below. “Who else would it be? You were there-- Papyrus let me lock him up.”

 

Alphys looked from Undyne to the phone screen. The time-stamp for the voice message was hours old. “I know, b-but the message doesn't make s-sense otherwise.” She chewed her lip. “...H-he kept insisting it w-wasn't Sans.”

 

Undyne scoffed, but a flicker of doubt crossed her face. “Paps has been lying for weeks. He was just trying to protect his brother.”

 

“He was,” Sans said, “but not from you.” He twitched slightly, trying to fight off the green. “Look, shithead, as much as I really don't appreciate the accusation, I get what you're trying to do. You don't have to tell me where he is; just tell me he's safe.”

 

Frowning, Undyne opened her mouth, only to snap it shut again.

 

“W-we...don't know w-where he is,” Alphys said, stepping forward. “N-no one's seen him s-since last night.”

 

The lights in Sans' eye sockets guttered for a moment. “Fuck,” he hissed.

 

Undyne echoed the curse under her breath. “But I asked him! He wouldn't give me a name!”

 

“Yeah, well...” Sans trailed off, as though finishing the thought was a wasted effort.

 

If they had the wrong person, then Papyrus was missing, and whoever was hurting him was still free. That wasn't an equation Alphys liked. “We've...l-looked all over t-town,” she said.

Sans shook his head. “He won't be in town. Search the woods.”

 

“If you're pulling shit,” Undyne said, jabbing a finger in Sans' direction, “I will kick your ass all the way to New Home.”

 

She twisted to look at the guardsmen standing at uneasy attention in the crowd. “Alright, we got a lot of ground to cover, so look alive!”

 

A chorus of barking answered her.

 

“And you better stick around where I can-”

 

Undyne turned back in time to see the blue hem of Sans' jacket disappear around the door-frame.


~*~

 

“That's strike one.”

 

Flowey held Papyrus down with a scorched vine. His body was too green to burn, but all that raw magic had done considerable damage regardless. Dismembered vines littered the clearing and his main stem was battered, leaving him unbalanced and wobbling.

 

If Papyrus hadn't tired himself out so quickly, Flowey might have had a real problem on his hands, metaphorically speaking.

 

“You know,” Flowey said, watching Papyrus claw at the vine, “it never fails to astound me how little you value your own life.”

 

Blackened strips of vegetation peeled up like curling ribbon under the fingertips of Papyrus' gauntlets. Flowey let him go, loosening and lifting the vine. Not that he could really feel pain, but it was easier to heal without fresh damage taking place. Besides, with the way Papyrus was shaking, it was doubtful that the skeleton could stand, much less do anything else.

 

As impressive as that burst of desperate magic had been, now it was done.

 

Flowey watched the animal terror drain from Papyrus' face, replaced by confusion. With quivering limbs, Papyrus pushed himself up onto his knees. That was as far as he could go, arms bracing him in the slushy mud.

 

It took a visible effort for Papyrus to lift his head to meet Flowey's gaze. “Just...” His breath rattled without lungs or throat. “Just get it over with.”

 

Dim as they were, Papyrus' eye sockets held the tiniest glint of light. He returned Flowey's stare, spent and shaking but defiant.

 

It wasn't the obedient attitude that Flowey required right now, but it was pretty cool on its own merits. Flowey smiled fondly. Brave, silly idiot.

 

“Now, Papyrus,” Flowey said, angling his face lower. “No one likes a quitter. Didn't you want to kill me a moment ago?”

 

Slowly, the facade cracked. Papyrus' head sagged low, and Flowey could see his shoulders hitching.

A thinner, less damaged vine curled under Papyrus' chin, lifting his face again. “That's why you couldn't,” Flowey cooed, dabbing at Papyrus' tears. “I'm a poor choice for a first kill, friend. You have too long to think about what you're doing.”

 

“I...I'm n-not...”

 

“Shhh,” Flowey soothed. “I know. This is a big step for you.” He stroked his remaining petals, making a show of thinking hard. “Maybe I'm not giving you enough incentive to push through this little hang-up of yours. But first,” he said, “we need to address what you just did. What did you just do, Papyrus?”

 

Fists balling up against the thawed ground, Papyrus glared. The lingering sniffles undercut the effect somewhat.

 

Main stem heaving in the equivalent of a shrug, Flowey rolled with the now-rhetorical question. “You know I'm not mad about you attacking me, so what does that leave? You refused me.” He grinned. “You know I don't like that. And today isn't the day to disappoint me.

 

Wordlessly, Papyrus held out his right arm.

 

“So tough!” Winding a vine around the offered arm, Flowey giggled. “Good job, friend! You're not bawling, or anything! Good.”

 

Papyrus shifted on his knees, bracing himself. He thought he knew what was coming.

 

Flowey grinned. “Good Papyrus,” he said, flexing the vine. This correction was going to stick.

 

He'd make sure of that.

 

~

 

Papyrus wasn't listening.

 

Breathe in, and hold.

 

Out, and hold.

 

Again.

 

Again.

 

It would hurt, but he could manage. He'd done it before.

 

It would hurt, but he was alive, and so was she. It was worth it.

 

He blinked as he felt air against his right hand.

 

Flowey tossed aside his gauntlet, winking at him. A vine roughened with magic burns wound in and out through his hand and curled around his thumb, stroking gently. Papyrus flexed his fingers, and in turn the bones of his hand shifted uncomfortably against the intruding vine.

 

“Will your magic hold everything together, or are we going to have to hunt for lost knuckles in the snow?”

 

Shaking his head, Papyrus looked away. He didn't know what would happen, and the possibility that his hand might simply fall apart was too awful to contemplate. With a sigh, he stared unseeing at the dirty snow beneath him. That now-familiar feeling of disconnection pushed him slightly outside himself, and he welcomed it with open arms.

 

Papyrus didn't cry out when the bones of his hand cracked under a hard and sudden squeeze. Dizzy, he sucked in a gasp of air, shock and detachment dulling the pain to a throbbing ache. He fought the urge to look, instead staring resolutely down, finding nonsensical patterns in the snow.

 

It hurt, but the worst was already over. With a deep breath, Papyrus relaxed, careful to keep his broken hand absolutely still.

 

“Wow, Papyrus,” Flowey said, bracing the bones as he healed them. “That was pretty badass. Not a peep!”

 

There. It was done.

 

Papyrus leaned his weight onto his knees, lifting his free hand to scrub at his face. Relief rose and then quickly ebbed away as he realized that Flowey wasn't letting go.

 

“Huh, it's almost like this stuff doesn't even bother you anymore.” Flowey's voice held a note of curiosity that signaled danger. “Is that true?”

 

Looking up to find Flowey studying him like he was a cleverly designed puzzle, Papyrus tugged painfully against the vine still tangled up in his hand. “No,” he croaked.

 

No, no, no…

 

Flowey grinned, openly taunting. “Were you answering my question,” he asked, twisting the vine to grind the captured bones together, “or are you telling me 'no' again?”

 

A wave of pain and nausea rose up to choke Papyrus' reply in his throat. The anticipation was so much worse now that he knew exactly what would follow. He swayed, bracing himself with his arm once more as his strength left him. He shook his head, dumb and frantic. “N-no…!”

 

“You're not communicating very clearly, friend.”

 

Fingers curling in spasms as the bones of his palm contorted in ways they weren't meant to, Papyrus clawed at the air with his captured hand. He longed for the numbing fog to return-- Flowey wasn't supposed to punish him twice.

 

No sound came out when he tried to speak, not that anything he said would make a difference now. He hung in limbo, tense and helpless while he awaited the inevitable.

 

“I hate this just as much as you do, Papyrus,” Flowey said, twist-pulling until the outermost bone gave with a wet snap.

 

Papyrus shrieked. In a burst of feral energy, he threw himself back, heels digging ruts into the snow and dirt as he fought to get away. White-hot pain lanced up his arm when the next bone snapped, and he half prayed that his wrist would pop loose altogether. At least he'd be free. “Stop!” he begged. “Stop, please!”

 

His magic flared out, weak and formless. He'd poured everything he had into the fight. Now he had nothing in reserve, no way to defend himself. The attempt alone left him light-headed and trembling.

 

Flowey shook his head with a regretful sigh. “I'm not stopping until you learn your lesson. You really let me down this time, Papyrus. You remember what happens if you fail your test, don't you? Or is Alphys not worth the trouble anymore?”

 

Grasping Papyrus' jaw, Flowey forced him to watch while that slender vine rolled along his shattered hand, prying the breaks apart. Seeing was infinitely worse than merely feeling, but Papyrus couldn't tear his gaze away. The fingers connected to the bones that were already broken twitched against his will, making his hand bend in a sickeningly wrong way. The third bone flexed slightly under the pressure, and he stared in sick fascination as a thin crack snaked its way around the bone's axis.

 

Noise filled his head without comprehension. Was it him? Was he speaking, pleading, screaming? He couldn't tell. He could only watch the crack spread, feel as Flowey slowly bent the bone past its limit.

 

The sound of breaking bone was lost in the roaring static filling Papyrus' awareness. In the moment before the pain caught up to the shock, he simply stared at the splintering ruin of his hand.

 

Inside, the bones were delicately honeycombed with little open spaces. Who would have guessed they would look like that, like lace all bundled up in…?

 

The world tipped, and Papyrus was flat on his back before he registered that he was dropping. All tension left his body, and he was left blinking up at the distant ceiling and its sparse stars while everything spun and twirled around him.

 

Stars moving in a circle, just like the real thing.

 

Bones all full of lace. All fluffy and light. He was so light he could float right up off the ground and touch the stars as they passed by.

 

Papyrus groaned, caught between trying to move because he wasn't safe and lying there in almost-happy delirium.

 

A double image of Flowey leaned into his line of sight, smiling twin gentle smiles down at him.

“Hanging in there, champ?”

 

Snap.

 

Unaware that Flowey had healed his hand again, the fresh break cut through the mental haze like a dull knife. Papyrus let out a rasping sob. When would it stop?

 

Flowey clicked his tongue, scolding, healing the bones a third time. “You'll thank me for this later, Papyrus,” he said, bending Papyrus' pinky back as far as it would go. “Your friends would thank me, too, you know.” He pressed, and the resulting crack was drowned out by Papyrus' high screech.

 

“No more, please,” Papyrus sobbed, all defiance flushed out by relentless pain. “Please, please, please...”

 

Begging wouldn't help. Papyrus knew this, but couldn't stop himself. Flowey's answer was to break his hand a fourth time.

 

Papyrus convulsed as the vine squeezed and twisted the broken bones, wrenching them out of alignment. His back arched off the ground, mouth gaping in a hoarse scream. There were no words, there was no thought. The whole world, all existence, was camera-flash white and blinding pain.

 

The pressure on his hand eased. The vine pulled away, hurting him all over again in the process, and let his arm drop to the ground. He writhed, choking on dry heaves. Fingers, broken and unbroken, twitched involuntarily. Papyrus could feel the motions bending his palm into the wrong shapes, joints that weren't joints at all. He didn't look at it. He knew what he'd see.

 

Flowey was saying something. He may have been asking a question, but Papyrus couldn't answer, couldn't even parse the sounds as speech.

 

“-to pass your test, don't you?” Flowey was a blur of color and movement above him. “It would…so happy if you did, fr...”

 

Gritting his teeth, Papyrus flung his uninjured arm over his eye sockets. Too much. Everything was too much.

 

In the dark, more of the sounds Flowey was making resolved themselves into words. “-hate...to you, Papyrus, really. You gave me no choice.” The tip of a vine brushed against Papyrus' face, wiping away a tear. “You'll hate yourself if you fail, trust me,” Flowey said softly. “I don't intend to let you fail. I'm your friend; I care about you.”

 

Whatever Flowey was, it was brutally clear that he was not a friend. Papyrus tried to say so, with no idea whether he'd formed the words correctly.

 

He must have been close, because Flowey tutted at him. A vine lifted his arm off his face, and Papyrus struggled to focus on the yellow shape above him.

 

“I'm your best friend, you silly goose,” Flowey said, and though his face remained calm and smiling his voice was flat.

 

Gently, Flowey pushed and pulled the broken bones into their proper places while Papyrus whimpered in renewed misery. Several minutes of silence followed, Flowey seeming to pick up on his need to recover at last.

 

Papyrus stared up at the ceiling as it slowed and came to a stop. He focused on his breathing. He did everything in his power to forget that Flowey existed. He found himself fervently wishing on every star in sight that he, himself, did not exist.

 

But the snowdrake had escaped. He'd saved her.

 

Breathe in. Breathe out.

 

It was worth it...

 

~*~

 

"Hey!" Undyne hit the floorboards, staggering. She kept her footing, but the half-second delay gave Sans a larger head start. "Dammit, wait!"


She lurched forward, breaking the spell that had fallen over the crowd as monsters filled in behind her.


Alphys was swept along with them, jostled and shoved out into the road. She clutched Sans' phone tight to her chest to keep from dropping it.


Sans was nowhere to be seen. Out at the front of the group, Undyne coasted to a halt in the middle of the road, turning this way and that, trying to find a clue as to which way he'd gone.


"How?" Undyne growled, ponytail whipping around her head as she scanned west, north, south, east, up. "What the fuck…?"

 

The tracker couple milled around a point in the trampled, packed-down snow. “The trail ends here, sir!” the dog woman said, nostrils flaring, trying to catch even the slightest mote that would lead them in the right direction.

 

How was that possible?

 

Commotion from the west pulled Alphys from her wondering, every monster present shifting and straining to see who was approaching.

 

A young snowdrake barreled down the road, shedding feathers and trailing ice.

 

 

~*~

 

His favorite lay sprawled out in the snow, staring up at the ceiling. Aside from the rhythmic rise and fall of his chest and the occasional slow blink, Papyrus could pass for dead. His face was utterly devoid of expression, and though the lights in his eye sockets were bright, they were unfocused and glazed over. Nobody home.

 

Flowey supposed he may have let his irritation run away with him, just a tad. But Papyrus had been so close! After all these runs, after getting his hopes up about finally seeing Papyrus actually kill something, watching him seemingly change his mind at the last second was an unbearable tease.

 

That was why Flowey had taken some measure of satisfaction in hammering the point home, over and over, that he expected Papyrus to behave and follow directions. He'd been tempted to keep going for as long as his favorite remained conscious, but he wanted Papyrus functional. The line between obedient and catatonic was thin.

 

“Now,” Flowey said, “what do I need to do to motivate you, hmm?” He doodled flowers in the slush. “A carrot won't work, so how about a bigger stick?”

 

“I don't care,” Papyrus rasped. He kept his gaze fixed upward. “Do your worst. I don't care.”

 

Catching himself with his vines outstretched, Flowey silently counted backward from twenty. No need to rise to the bait. A little false bravado didn't mean the correction hadn't worked.

 

Giggling, Flowey leaned over Papyrus. “Trust me, friend, you don't want my worst.” His smile drooped. “But I can offer a better incentive, since you're so quick to throw yourself on the grenade, so to speak.”

 

Papyrus stared up at him, face a blank mask.

 

“Maybe I won't kill you. You won't be the noble martyr, this time.” Flowey watched some of the life rekindle in his favorite's eye sockets. “Here's a riddle for you, Papyrus,” he said, playing with a length of dead vine. “What is the objective worth of a stranger's life? Is it equal to one other stranger's life, or two, or three? Is it worth the lives of a town?”

 

The gears were starting to turn, now. Papyrus pushed himself up on his elbows, tension rolling off him in palpable waves.

 

“If you're truly honest with yourself, is a stranger's life worth as much as the life of a friend? Are all your friends' lives equally valuable? What's the balance point?” Flowey suppressed a grin. “I can find you some scratch paper, if you need it.”

 

“...What are you getting at?” Papyrus asked, in the tone of someone who didn't want an answer.

 

Flowey couldn't help grinning then. “Do you think everyone is equally important, that every life is sacred? I know you believe that,” he said, grin sliding into a leer. “But none of us is a saint, Papyrus, not even you. Be honest. You were willing to sacrifice Dr. Alphys if it meant you kept your hands clean.”

 

Papyrus sat up. “No!”

 

“Yes,” Flowey chirped, looping a vine over Papyrus' shoulders. “That's exactly what you were doing. You didn't spare her a thought. Poor, pitiful Alphys.”

 

“No,” Papyrus repeated, with less conviction. “I just...”

 

By and large, Flowey had grown tired of tormenting Papyrus ages ago, but he had to admit that poking at the skeleton's simplistic morality still had some mileage left. “It's okay, friend. It's only natural. Some people are worth more than others. Clearly, Alphys isn't worth staining your nice white hands for,” he said, curling a vine around Papyrus' bare, freshly healed hand.

 

In a flash, Papyrus was upright, stumbling as he tried to pull his hand free. Flowey caught him before he could fall.

 

“Careful, Papyrus, you'll hurt yourself.” Tracing the mended breaks that laced Papyrus' palm, Flowey hummed to himself for a moment. “Can you think of anyone who would be worthy? Anyone at all? Surely there's someone.”

 

There wasn't any need to name names. Flowey knew of only one person who stood a chance of getting Papyrus to abandon his silly principles and take this final step.

 

How ironic. The person who was, perhaps, the least deserving…

 

Papyrus' magic stirred, prickling over Flowey's vines at every point of contact. It would be a while yet before his favorite could summon even a rudimentary attack, but the spirit was willing. Papyrus froze stock-still in his grip.

 

“Because you're my favorite, you get two more chances,” Flowey said, smiling. “And believe me when I say you don't want to waste my generosity. Think about the bigger picture, Papyrus. Your loved ones are depending on you to protect them.”

 

They stood in silence while reality settled in. Papyrus wept quietly, frustrated. Flowey let him. Better he process this ahead of time, without the distraction of whatever worthless monster they would run into next. If he came to terms with the situation now, it would mean less hesitation later.

 

A few seconds of resolve was all that he needed. Flowey was sure they were close to achieving something huge. He wanted to see.

 

“Walk,” Flowey said, once he judged Papyrus' tantrum to be over. He coaxed the skeleton into motion, vines pushing and pulling. “The sooner we find something else, the sooner you can finish your test. Won't that be a relief?”

 

Papyrus said nothing, stumbling along beside him as they returned to the shade of the trees.

 

 

~*~

 

 

Stuck in place as though he were the one with roots, Papyrus stared hard at the moldsmal in front of him, willing it to flee. It glurped agreeably at him.

 

“What are you waiting for, Papyrus?” Flowey sighed. “The longer you stand there, the harder it's going to be. Just do it.”

 

Papyrus adjusted his grip on his summoned club, palms burning like his own magic had turned hostile to the touch. He couldn't make his feet move. “I can't,” he whispered, “I can't.”

 

“Oh, for gods' sake, Papyrus,” Flowey snapped, rustling his leaves. “It's just a moldsmal! They're barely self-aware.” He gestured at the gently jiggling monster. “Look, it doesn't even understand what we're saying.”

 

“It's still alive.”

 

This wasn't right. It didn't matter if moldsmals couldn't talk, or if they were a little strange. They were still monsters.

 

It was still murder.

 

Flowey rolled his eyes. “Mushrooms are alive, friend. If I told you picking a mushroom would save your friends, you'd do it.” He submerged, popping up again a few feet away on the moldsmal's opposite side. “Come on! No one's going to miss one stupid moldsmal.”

 

Papyrus took a deep breath, trying and failing to quell the tremors running through his arms. “Someone will.” Papyrus nearly always saw moldsmals in groups. They must enjoy the company. Someone would miss this one, would wonder where it had gone.

 

The moldsmal slid closer, and wiggled in what seemed to be a friendly way. A few spores puffed out of its top.

 

Flowey frowned. “I can't understand why you're being so difficult about this. I really don't,” he said, glaring as Papyrus took a step back. “You do know that if you don't kill this overgrown mold, you have to kill whatever we find next, right? Do you want to risk it being another one of the teenagers? Or do you want to fail?”

 

“N-no,” Papyrus said, shuffling backward as the moldsmal failed to take the hint. It rubbed up against his leg, leaving a film of slime on his armor.

 

“Well,” Flowey said, “you're going to fail at this rate. Get a grip, Papyrus. This thing isn't worth more than Alphys. Or Undyne.” He sneered. “Surely not your brother.”

 

Vision blurred with tears, Papyrus took another step back, only to find he'd backed himself against a tree. “Go away!” he hissed down at the moldsmal. “I'm here to hurt you, don't you understand?”

 

“It doesn't. Even for a moldsmal, this one's stupid.” Flowey came closer, lifting a vine to wind around Papyrus' hands, lashing them to the club. “I can't do this for you, Papyrus,” he said, stretching up to eye level. “It won't even know what hit it. Just swing.”

 

The vine let go, but Flowey remained hovering at Papyrus' shoulder, glaring at him expectantly.

 

He couldn't. He just couldn't do it. He wouldn't.

 

Flowey sighed, a sharp little huff. “Don't you care about Sans at all? That shed has a dirt floor.”

 

Papyrus clenched his teeth, squeezed the club tighter. He couldn't make himself move. This was all wrong. There had to be something else he could do. There had to be another way.

 

“Stop crying over a pile of slime and think of your own family,” Flowey said, leaning close enough that Papyrus could feel the tickle of petals against the side of his face. “You're killing him, Papyrus. If you just stand here and do nothing, you're killing him.

 

God, help him. Blinking back tears, Papyrus took a deep breath. He didn't want to do this.

 

But…

 

...Sans.

 

One second. It would just take one second. It wouldn't feel a thing.

 

With a desperate yell, Papyrus swung.

 

The club dissipated, drifting onto the moldsmal in a harmless shower of spent magic.

 

Papyrus' knees hit the ground, and he buried his face in his hands, howling. How could he have… How could he have even thought…!

 

Breath against his skull made him cringe. “You selfish, self-righteous coward,” Flowey said.

 

“I can't!” Papyrus fought down nausea, swallowing a lump that might have been his own soul trying to abandon him. He couldn't blame it. “I can't, please! I tried!”

 

And he had. Oh, god.

 

Papyrus could feel the soft mass of the moldsmal's body leaning against him. It gurgled quietly, like it was trying to comfort him. It knew he was upset, but not why.

 

“Go away!” Papyrus snarled, jabbing the moldsmal with his elbow.

 

It quivered, but didn't retreat. The gurgling started up again.

 

“What would your friends say if they could see this? What would Sans say?”

 

“I can't,” Papyrus repeated, mind racing, trying to find some way out of this and coming up empty. “Please. We don't have to do any of this. We can stop!”

 

Flowey giggled. “What makes you think I want to stop?”

 

Lowering his hands, Papyrus looked Flowey in the eyes, searching for something, anything. Some scrap of the person he used to be. “Please,” he said, “if you ever were my friend, can't we just go back to the way we were? I'll forgive you, I promise.” He was grasping at straws. He didn't know what else to do-- his magic hadn't recovered enough to help the moldsmal the way he'd helped the snowdrake girl.

 

To his surprise, it was Flowey who looked away first, petals drooping to hide his face.

 

“I don't want to do this,” Papyrus said, quietly. “Let's stop. Please, Asriel.”

 

Please.

 

Flowey cringed, and for a wild, hopeful instant Papyrus thought he might have gotten through. But Flowey shook himself free of whatever glimmer of compassion had seized him soon enough. He tossed his petals back, smirking.

 

“You're trying to manipulate me.”

 

Papyrus shook his head, denials bunching up in his throat. “N-no, I-”

 

“You're not smart enough for that, Papyrus,” Flowey said, showing teeth. “What, you thought the name I died with would snap me out it it, remind me of what a good person I was?”

 

“Asriel...” Papyrus whispered, all other words momentarily obliterated from his mind. He'd made a fatal misstep.

 

“Asriel,” Flowey crooned, twisting a vine around Papyrus' neck, “for all his strength, was a weak, pathetic loser. And in the end, maybe that's all you are, too.” He smiled, mild and calm. “It's okay, Papyrus. You're still my favorite. I can't stay mad at you.”

 

Papyrus knelt transfixed, like a mouse just before the snake's coils tighten. Despite Flowey's assurance, he couldn't shake the suspicion that the rest of his life wouldn't be measured in years, but rather hours, minutes, and seconds. Sooner or later, Flowey's patience would run out.

 

“I'll be straight with you, friend, I couldn't care less about the Royal Guard anymore, or humans, or the barrier, or any of that window dressing. You ruined everything yesterday.” Flowey shrugged. “Up until now, you were pleasing me so well-- you can give me this one last thing, Papyrus. Think of it as my consolation prize. It's not killing a human, but it is killing something, anyway.”

 

Papyrus scratched at the vine around his neck, unaware he was doing it and unable to stop himself once he did notice. “But why?” His voice shook. “There's no reason to-”

 

“Reason?” Flowey tilted his head to the side, as though truly puzzled. “Reason? The reason, Papyrus, is that I want to see you kill. It would give me pleasure to watch you get your hands dirty for once. It would amuse me.”

 

“...That's it?” Papyrus couldn't believe what he was hearing. Months of hell, culminating in this, and for what? Nothing? “This is all just...to entertain you?”

 

That wasn't possible. Everything he'd been put through, for something as petty as that?

 

He was going to die for something so...meaningless?

 

Giggling, Flowey tapped the tip of a vine against Papyrus' nasal bone. “Don't look at me that way, friend! You have no higher purpose, and you serve it so well. So,” he said, gesturing to the moldsmal, which was now observing them from a few paces away. “Give me what I want.”

 

If the thought of killing another monster for the sake of better protecting the others later was unacceptable, doing it to satisfy the whim of a...of this cruel brat was obscene. Sickening.

 

Papyrus took a deep breath. He had to stay strong. He still had time to solve this. He couldn't give in now.

 

“No.”

 

Offering both arms, he braced himself. Once he started screaming, the moldsmal would run away.

 

Humming thoughtfully, Flowey twined his vines around Papyrus' arms. “You'd rather be punished again? Are you sure?”

 

“Yes,” Papyrus said, glaring. How could he choose any different?

 

“Well, okie-dokie!” Flowey swayed, his smile stretched a little too wide. “Remember, this is what you wanted!”

 

Bullets coalesced in the air, and Papyrus' magic reacted, raising a few thin bones to shield him. But he wasn't the target.

 

The moldsmal shuddered as the spray of bullets hit, then went rigid.

 

Papyrus looked on as it gave a final, wheezing belch, and crumbled to dust.

 

He couldn't look away.

 

“Aww, would you look at that.” Flowey's voice dripped with fake sympathy. “The stupid slime heap is dead, and instead of being done,” he said, face splitting open to show the full length of his teeth, “you're on strike two. There's no third option, Papyrus. Either you kill the next thing you go up against, or I kill everyone you love.

 

Papyrus called out for a blaster he was still too tired to summon. He felt himself dragged to his feet, vision tunneling until all he could see was Flowey's mocking smile. He staggered, dazed, pulled along like a toy on a string.

 

That smile was moving, but once again it was too much to make out the words.

 

Pushed back down onto his knees, Papyrus felt his bare right hand sink into something warm, and dry. He blinked, struggling to differentiate between white snow, white bone, white powder.

 

“-since...so important to you...”

 

Words filtered through, processed in a slow, unsteady drip. Papyrus lifted his hand, watching the fine grains sift through his palm.

 

“...wonder...liked the most, do you think?”

 

A light breeze funneled down through the forest canopy, stirring up the dust. Papyrus was kneeling downwind. Fine white powder clung to eye sockets and teeth and the lingering texture of his old burns.

 

There was just enough time for Papyrus to turn his head away as he was sick, doubled-over and retching.

 

“Wow, Papyrus,” Flowey said, rubbing Papyrus' back where the straps securing his breastplate crossed over. “That's not how you act when you're officiating a funeral-- who raised you?”

 

Arm clamped over a stomach he didn't have, Papyrus stared down at the scant few drops of phosphorescent blue melting pock-marks in the snow. He had little magic to spare, which made the hard clench that much more intense as his body tried to purge itself of whatever it could.

 

Another wave of nausea swept over him, bringing up nothing more, leaving him whimpering and shivering.

 

“Remember how this feels.” Flowey reached out and wiped a clinging strand of blue sick from Papyrus' mouth. “Think how much worse it would feel if that dust were someone you actually cared about.”

 

Papyrus didn't want to think about it, didn't want to think about what he'd have to do to avoid finding out first-hand. Possibilities split off, converged again and dead-ended in his mind. There had to be a way out. There had to be.

 

But he couldn't find it! One chance left before the trap was sprung, and he couldn't find the solution.

 

He wouldn't see tomorrow. He was certain of that, now. The realization didn't terrify him like he'd always thought it would.

 

The only fear left to him was how to keep Flowey from following through on his promise. If he could buy enough time, if he could regain enough strength…

 

Shaking, Papyrus pushed himself to his feet.

 

Flowey made an approving sound. “Ready to go? Third time's the charm, Papyrus,” he said, following along in Papyrus' wake. “I believe in you!”

 

Papyrus ignored him, gaze set on a point in the distance as he walked. His magic simmered beneath the surface. He forced it down. Not yet. He couldn't afford to waste energy.

 

When the moment arrived, he had to be ready. He had to be able.

 

This had to end.

 

 

~*~

 

 

The forest was beautiful. The way the snow glittered in the dim light, the trees reaching up toward the false stars, the waxy green of pine needles, their scent... Papyrus had lived in Snowdin for so long that he took it for granted. He'd spent countless hours in these woods, building and maintaining puzzles and traps of all kinds. That was a lifetime ago, it seemed, and now every detail around him caught his attention, oddly comforting. It felt like saying goodbye to an old friend.

 

Only this forest would know what had really happened. No one would find him, just as Sans had feared.

 

Papyrus was afraid, but he'd made up his mind. As much as he wished it hadn't come to this, Flowey was right. He'd been selfish, putting his ideals above the lives of those he loved.

 

He would keep them safe. It would be worth it.

 

His magic wasn't fully recovered yet, but perhaps another hour would be enough. He didn't want to wait too long, lest they drag yet another monster into this, but he didn't want to rush, either. Every minute he waited returned some of his strength, improved his odds.

 

If he couldn't win, he'd at least make sure Flowey couldn't win, either.

 

Flowey followed him at a distance, perhaps confident that Papyrus wouldn't try to escape. That was fine. Papyrus had witnessed the result of trying to reach out. There was nothing more to say. They'd each made their choice.

 

Even now, Papyrus couldn't help but feel a deep sorrow for the creature he'd once considered his friend. There was little that he couldn't forgive, but if Asriel wasn't willing to try, if he was really that far gone…

 

Papyrus wouldn't let anyone else suffer for the sake of Asriel's hurt. He'd do what he had to, for Undyne and Alphys, for all his friends. For Sans.

 

“Bro?”

 

Freezing in place, Papyrus replayed the word in his head. He was so out of it he was starting to hallucinate! There was no way his brother could be out here in the woods-- he was back at home, trapped but relatively safe. Papyrus turned, expecting to find only his own tracks in the snow, or Flowey having a laugh at his expense.

 

No. No.

 

Sans rushed forward, colliding with him in a forceful hug. “Oh, thank god,” he said, voice quavering. “I thought I'd never… I've been looking all over for you!”

 

“Sans, what…?” Papyrus stood dumbfounded, not returning the hug. “How...how did you get here? How did you find me? You can't be here!” Shaking himself free of Sans' hold, he pushed his brother away.

 

Sans blinked tears from his eye sockets, reaching for him even as Papyrus backed up. “Papyrus, it's okay,” he said. “Everyone's got to be out searching for you by now. We'll meet up with Undyne, or the dogs. It's gonna be okay, I promise.”

 

How was this happening? “No, you don't understand, you can't be here!” Papyrus scanned the trees around them. Where was Flowey? “Please,” he begged, “just leave, before-”

 

“Howdy!”

 

Slowly, like every joint was encased in ice, Papyrus looked down.

 

Next to his boot, near enough to stomp on, Flowey grinned up at his brother.

 

“Boy, you have really crappy timing.”

 

Chapter Text

It was an effort for Papyrus to get any words out, like he was in a nightmare where he could neither speak nor scream. His voice, when it finally cooperated, was weak, breathless. “Sans, run.”

 

Sans edged a half-step back. “What the hell is this thing?” A wary scowl clouded his face as he picked up on Papyrus' distress.

 

“Run,” Papyrus pleaded, softly, gripped with terror at what might happen if he made too much noise, if he disrupted whatever fragile spell was keeping Flowey from making a move. “Run. Sans, run.”

 

The faraway feeling was seeping into his head again and no, no, no, he couldn't afford to do that now! He had to stay alert, had to be ready to do… god, something. Anything.

 

“Yeah, Sans,” Flowey echoed, giggling. “Run! I've never seen you run before. It would be good for a laugh, don't you think?”

 

Stepping forward, Sans regarded Flowey carefully, the lights of his eyes tightly focused and glimmering. “Who are you?”

 

Papyrus wasn't fully recovered, but his magic was strong enough to once more fight his control, boiling and building in an upward spiral even as his body remained frozen with mortal fear. He couldn't breathe, couldn't calm down. It was still too soon. He'd really needed that extra hour of rest, or even thirty minutes. What if he couldn't…?

 

No. No, he had to win this time. He had to.

 

“I told you you'd hate yourself, didn't I? I tried to tell you,” Flowey said, ignoring Sans' question to address Papyrus instead. “Still think you made the right call?” He laughed. “Now, you have one last chance to make up for how selfish and short-sighted you've been. Be rational.”

 

Rationality had no part in Papyrus' reaction. All thoughts of magic and probabilities and worst-case scenarios evaporated in an instant. Dread and rage and the remembered sensation of dust coating his fingers drove him to turn on Flowey, to lunge.

 

...Think how much worse it would feel if that dust were someone you actually cared about...

 

Something obscured his vision, and there was pressure, so much pressure. Papyrus lifted his hands to claw at the vine wrapped around his head and-

 

The world stuttered.

 

The world stuttered.

 

The world stuttered.

 

The world-


"Enough!" Sans' voice cracked, unused to shouting.

 

Flowey loosened his grip, the vine sliding down to leash Papyrus by the neck.

 

Papyrus blinked. Not one but a trio of blasters surrounded them, drifting with jaws open and ready. The soft hissing could have come from them, or from the breeze stirring up the snow. It was difficult to tell.


Gingerly, Papyrus ran his fingers over his temples. No damage, which was surprising for some reason. He'd felt...or had he? No, he couldn't have. He was fine. Nothing had even happened.

 

The vine that had come close to crushing his skull now hung heavy around his neck. Next to him, Flowey stared at Sans, mouth slack and eyes wide and gleaming.


"You," Flowey said, breathlessly. "You know what just happened, don't you?” His mouth split in a wide grin and a light shiver ran through the vine.

 

That could not possibly be good.

 

“Oh, Sans, I've had you pegged all wrong! Here I thought you were the boring one.” Flowey giggled, delighted. Questions tumbled out in a giddy rush. “Did you keep count? How many times did I crush him? Do you remember, or are you just aware? Have you always been special like this, or did it come on suddenly? Tell me everything.

 

“Wait, wait,” he added, though Sans hadn't answered. “I don't want any spoilers. Let me figure it out on my own. Ha, this explains so much about you!” Flowey's grin turned sharp-edged. “No wonder you're so idle. You know better.

 

“What-” Papyrus started, only to gasp when the vine tightened. He could hear the gorget creak. It would be no protection at all if Flowey decided to really squeeze. One hand flew up to grab at the coils, for all the good that would do.

 

Flowey barely glanced at him, staring greedily at Sans. “Shut up, Papyrus. The adults are talking.”

 

Three points of light flared in the backs of the blasters' mouths, the only visible sign of Sans' anger. “Stop it,” Sans hissed. “Let him go.”

 

“Gee, Sans, missed opportunity. You could have told me to leaf him alone, at least. But really, we both know you're not going to do anything while he's in the way,” Flowey said, winking. “Or are you banking on me un-killing him again? If you want a free shot, all you have to do is ask.” Lips pulled back farther over those thorny teeth. “He's been driving you crazy, hasn't he? Go ahead. Let it all out.”

 

Papyrus stumbled as Flowey tugged him to the side, putting him in line with the nearest blaster.

 

“He'll never even know, and I won't snitch. No harm done!”

 

The three stood in a tense silence, staring one another down. Papyrus didn't dare speak, confused and frightened. The light at the back of the blaster's mouth kept drawing his gaze, mesmerizing. He knew Sans would never hurt him, but this was still a very unsafe place to stand.

 

Flowey giggled. “Looks like we're all walking the edge, huh? How thrilling!” He pulled gently on Papyrus' makeshift leash. “Are you sure you're not the least bit curious, Sans? Now's the time to try, like I said. It's really quite liberating.”

 

The blaster drifted aside, its muzzle reorienting to point safely away. No longer entranced by the pilot light, Papyrus turned his frantic attention to figuring out what on earth was going on. He'd missed something important in the half-second he'd been blinded by the vine and the stuttering sensation passed over him. What was he missing? This wasn't the time to be caught off-balance.

 

“This whole time, you're the one who's been...” Sans kept his gaze fixed on Flowey, staring him down with darkened eye sockets, wary and tense. “What are you?

 

The vine around Papyrus' neck flexed as Flowey laughed.

 

“Papyrus knows!” Flowey bobbed on his stem, still smiling hideously wide. “But wouldn't you rather solve this one yourself, Sans? New experiences are so rare, aren't they? It's hell to be bored.”

 

Sans' face was a flat mask. “Think I'd rather just kill you now.”

 

Flowey laughed again, genuine and childlike. He dragged Papyrus over to shield himself, or perhaps just to taunt Sans further.

 

“That is one possible outcome. Wowie,” Flowey crooned, mocking. “Who would have thought sleepy old Sans had a violent streak? But then, you must be pretty pissed to call up three of those puppies.” He gestured to the blasters still hovering overhead, lethal but useless as long as Papyrus was close enough to be caught in the crossfire. “Papyrus can barely manage one, even with my best encouragement.”

 

Sans paced like a beast in a cage, growling low.

 

“You know, I envy you,” Flowey said, readjusting Papyrus so he could see around him better. “This uncertainty is exhilarating and you actually get to feel it.”

 

This was strange. Everything about the last few minutes felt unnatural and wrong. Flowey had Sans cold, but he wasn't moving to attack, just...goading him. Why? Something about Sans had Flowey totally enraptured.

 

As much as it made Papyrus' insides crawl to think of Flowey focusing any amount of interest on his brother, it opened up a chance at gaining a slight advantage. Every minute Sans kept Flowey talking Papyrus' magic recovered a little bit more. He clung to that knowledge, praying that it would make any difference at all when the baffling conversation ended, as it inevitably would.

 

“You could try to enter into the spirit of all this a little bit, trashbag. We're the only two beings here with any kind of persistence. The only ones who are really real. Your brother is a neat toy-- my favorite, in fact,” Flowey said, though he was ignoring said toy entirely, “but a playmate would be grand. Do you know how long it's been since there were consequences to anything I did? Nothing I do matters. I'm sure you can relate.”

 

Carefully, Papyrus shot his brother a pointed look. It was impossible to tell exactly where Sans was looking with the lights of his eyes out, impossible to know if he'd caught Papyrus' gesture.

 

Keep him distracted.

 

Once Papyrus made his move, there would be no second chances. His timing had to be right. Angling his body to hide his hand from view, he conjured a small attack, keeping it close to his palm. Slowly, he fed it with blue.

 

Sans flexed hands that were wreathed in blue flame. “Stop hiding behind my brother and I'll show you consequences.”

 

“Now that I would like to see,” Flowey said, stretching up taller. “What exactly do you intend to do?”

 

Papyrus bit down on a curse. No, that wasn't what he'd wanted at all…! What did Sans think he was doing?

 

Sidestepping to get a clear shot, Sans flicked his wrist. A line of bones flew arrow-straight into Flowey's stem.

 

They didn't even leave a visible mark.

 

“Wow,” Flowey said, eyes wide. “Lame. That's it?” A vine popped up from the ground. “Guess it's my turn, now, huh?” He made a grab for Sans.

 

Sans dove to the side. The vine twisted around empty air.

 

“Pretty quick for a lazy slob!” Flowey lashed out again, only for Sans to switch direction and duck under the vine as it whipped past. Flowey seemed to find this hilarious. Giggling, he brought out a few more vines, playfully swatting at Sans to see him dodge out of the way over and over.

 

Papyrus' soul caught in his throat at the sight, but Sans avoided the vines easily. Meanwhile, the vine around his own neck loosened, draped over his shoulders like a heavy necklace. Papyrus glanced down at the vine, looked up at Flowey watching his brother with amusement.

 

Slowly, cautiously, Papyrus shrugged off the relaxed coils. He stood still, waiting for Flowey to notice that he'd slipped the leash.

 

Flowey didn't. His attention was fully occupied by his new victim.

 

With only the slightest rustle of metal on metal to give him away, Papyrus edged closer to Flowey. His attack was as ready as it would ever be, and Sans wouldn't be able to dodge forever.

 

As if the thought alone had jinxed him, Papyrus heard his brother cry out. A vine grazed Sans' shin, tripping him up and sending him tumbling to the ground. Sans pushed himself up, only to fall to one knee with a pained hiss and clutched at his ankle.

 

“Golly, you sure are fragile,” Flowey said, tilting his head as he watched Sans try and fail once more to get to his feet. “I'll have to be careful not to kill you too fast.”

 

This close, there was no way he could miss. Papyrus sprang forward, pressing his attack into Flowey's main stem. Mustering his will, Papyrus pulled down with weight that wasn't weight.

 

Flowey let out a startled squawk as he crashed to the ground, vines and all. Papyrus was already running, closing the distance between himself and Sans in a matter of seconds. He threw himself over his brother, grunting as a spray of bullets peppered his back. Light wounds for him; for Sans, it would have been far too much.

 

Papyrus twisted, slinging Sans onto his back as he forced himself back on his feet. Sans, fortunately, had the presence of mind to hang on.

 

“You okay?” Sans asked, shoving his right arm under a handy armor strap at Papyrus' shoulder and scrambling for footholds. Even if he lost his grip for a moment, he wouldn't get thrown off right away.

 

Sans wasn't terribly heavy, but on top of the armor Papyrus was struggling. The pressure against his back hurt like hell. “I'm fine,” Papyrus said, dodging a sluggish vine. “You?” Keeping Flowey blue was tiring; he didn't know how long he'd be able to keep this up.

 

“Fucking ankle's busted.” Sans hissed at every sudden movement, but whatever pain he was in wasn't affecting his grip.

 

Movement at the corner of Papyrus' vision caught his attention. A heavier vine that had picked up enough momentum to make up for being blue was already too close to avoid. Bracing for impact, Papyrus turned to face it head-on-

 

The world stuttered.

 

-and he staggered, traces of vertigo making his head spin. Papyrus blinked. They were behind Flowey somehow, well away from the vine, which slammed down onto empty footprints.

 

Sans cursed. “Cheating shithead weed bastard!”

 

“What…?” Papyrus looked down at the snow, wondering if he'd somehow forgotten the last few seconds. No prints led to where he was standing now. How? How in the…?

 

“Just go with it,” Sans said, “Freak out later.”

 

What? Papyrus twisted, glancing back over his shoulder at Sans. “Did you do that?”

 

“We can talk about it later.

 

Flowey turned to face them, struggling under the blue. “Neat trick!” He giggled. “You're not trying to run away, are you, Sans? That's not sporting.”

 

Sans replied by firing all three blasters at once. They didn't last more than a second each. Flowey didn't even make an attempt to dodge while weighed down with blue, the beams colliding with his stem on all three sides, leaving only small black scorches on his otherwise green body.

 

“Sans,” Papyrus said, “if you can leave, then please-”

 

Summoning a fresh blaster, Sans fired again, a quick burst that bought Papyrus time to get moving. The area was littered with pine trees, but there was enough space between them to maneuver, the trunks providing some limited cover.

 

“No way in hell,” Sans said, tightening his grip as Papyrus leapt clear of another vine. “I'm not leaving you. We deal with this together.”

 

Another salvo of bullets filled the air. Papyrus had just enough time to raise a defensive wall, bullets shattering against heavy bones. God, he needed to focus. Blue didn't work on attacks, only bodies.

 

Flowey wasn't even attacking in earnest yet. He was playing.

 

“Sans, he's dangerous,” Papyrus pleaded, moving continuously out of fear that a vine would outflank him. “I can't let him hurt anyone else. If you can do...whatever it was you did, and warn the town-”

 

“Like I give a shit about the town right now,” Sans snapped. “Kinda doubt it's gonna let either of us go, anyway. Just a hunch.” His teeth ground together. “Is this the thing that's been messing with you?”

 

It was phrased as a question, but Sans had clearly made the connection already.

 

Papyrus stung a too-close vine with a blue attack. “Yes.”

 

There was no point in lying anymore. At least he could die honest.

 

A wordless, ugly noise bubbled up from Sans' chest. “Then this fucker's gonna die today,” he growled.

 

Flowey laughed as Sans fired another blaster on him. It was a solid hit, the short, blinding burst scorching his side for only a second. “Ha, even your blasters are weak! What even...” He trailed off, grin slipping as a look of confusion spread on his face. “Huh. That's new.”

 

Papyrus heard Sans snicker.

 

“Weak, huh?” his brother muttered to himself. Sans readjusted his grip. “Okay,” he said. “I got your back, bro. Heh. We can take this thing.”

 

Papyrus nodded. There was no time to argue about it. “I won't let anything hit you.”

 

“I know. Here,” Sans said, and Papyrus felt all resistance to his blue disappear. “No offense, but I'm better at that than you, bro.”

 

Gratefully, Papyrus let go of his own blue. Just holding Flowey down for a brief time had taken more energy than he could spare.

 

Whatever Flowey was pondering wore off, his eyes tracking them with sadistic glee as his trademark smirk spread across his face once again. Papyrus jumped aside as a vine erupted clumsily from the ground. He wasn't as agile with Sans on his back, top-heavy and weighed down, but he had an excellent motivation to keep his footing.

 

Splitting his concentration between avoiding Flowey's vines and defending against his bullets while also not running into a tree or tripping over snow-covered underbrush was taxing. Flowey was moving slower than normal, though, and Papyrus had fought him enough to know his habits and tells.

 

Papyrus fell into a rhythm, circling Flowey at a distance, doubling back and weaving around vines. The world narrowed down into run, weave, jump, block, repeat. Now and then he had no choice but to take a hit, but as long as nothing struck him from behind, he didn't care.

 

Sans took care of their offense, and Papyrus was left wondering if this was really the same person he'd criticized on the hill. There was no opening his brother couldn't take advantage of, and despite being injured and stuck being carried around like a backpack he attacked viciously.

 

A vine slipped around a tree and shot out at an unexpected angle. With the extra weight, Papyrus couldn't change direction fast enough without leaving Sans exposed. He gasped as the vine connected with his midsection, sending him staggering.

 

“Bro! You okay?”

 

Papyrus twisted to avoid falling on his back and threw out his right arm to catch himself, regaining his balance. “Fine,” he grunted, pushing himself up off the snow and back into motion again. He'd been knocked out from behind his defensive wall. Hurriedly, he pulled it up level with the two of them again, bones ripping along the frozen ground.

 

Sans aimed a wave of bones through one of the gaps. “Sorry,” he said, “I'll try to keep an eye on those.”

 

Flowey leaned out of the way of the attack, too slow due to the blue-- or maybe he wasn't really trying. The wave grazed his side. It barely fazed him.

 

“I'm fine,” Papyrus repeated. “Just stay on him.” He could take a hit. The vines were merely distractions. They weren't vital, and it would only be a waste of Sans' energy to attack them.

 

The snow in his path shifted, and Papyrus slid to a stop as another vine pushed up from the ground. With a soft sound of dismay, he moved his wall between them and the vine to cover their retreat, lurching into motion again.

 

 

~

 

 

Flowey labored under the blue. It was stronger than usual, and coupled with the labyrinth of tree roots in his way movement was annoyingly difficult.

 

But perhaps it was only fair that he fight with a handicap, seeing as Papyrus was stuck lugging around a sack of trash. Besides, it added an element of interest to a fight that would have been boring and one-sided otherwise.

 

He watched like a cat stalking a mouse as Papyrus darted in and out between the trees, circling him. His no-longer-useless brother kept sending attacks at weird intervals, some of which Flowey couldn't see coming until they were on him, not that he cared all too much.

 

Slowed down too much to dodge, Flowey simply let some of the brothers' attacks hit him. Sans was still an absolute joke. So weak! Even his blasters let off just a brief flash of magic before falling apart. Wet tissue paper would have hurt more.

 

Still, something about them left Flowey with the feeling that something was sneaking up on him. It was terribly fascinating.

 

Giggling, Flowey went out of his way to maneuver a vine into Papyrus' path. There was no way he'd be fast enough to connect, but it was worth the effort just to watch his favorite practically fall over himself to get away. Papyrus was working so hard to keep his worthless brother out of harm's way. No matter what Flowey tried, Papyrus wouldn't allow him to land a hit on Sans.

 

Not that he really wanted to. Not yet, anyway. He was enjoying watching them dance.

 

 

~

 

 

The rising whistle of bullets approaching sent Papyrus diving behind a tree trunk that wasn't quite wide enough. He twisted to keep Sans out of the line of fire. Chips of bark pelted his face as the bullets connected with the tree. A few strays pinged against his armor, and one bit into a narrow gap between breastplate and pauldron. He stumbled back, reaching up to clutch at his wounded shoulder, and stepped into nothing.

 

The forest was gone. They were in free-fall, but they weren't moving. Or, at least, no air was moving past them. Papyrus looked around, finding nothing to orient himself with. It wasn't too dark to see, but there was nothing to see. There was nothing at all.

 

“Okay, so,” Sans said, his voice oddly muffled despite his mouth being so near Papyrus' skull. “I can't keep us out here real long. Are you gonna be ready to hit the ground running when we load back in?”

 

“What?”

 

Sans sighed. “Bro, this isn't working. You're taking too many hits.”

 

Papyrus bristled. “I'm f-”

 

“Don't say you're fine,” Sans snapped. “Look, I wanna help you out, but I need to know you'll be able to roll with it. If you freak out like you did the last time I moved us, we're gonna get smeared.”

 

This was altogether too much for one day. Papyrus shrugged helplessly, his shoulder flaring with pain. “You mean,” he said, wrestling his mind back on track when it started to wander back to the vast not-black all around them, “can I handle suddenly being in a totally different place with no warning?”

 

“That's exactly what I mean, yes.”

 

He couldn't handle it, but the longer they were in this...wherever they were, the more Papyrus noticed how battered and sore he was. Sans was right.

 

Papyrus sighed. “It's worth trying.”

 

“Okay.” Sans was quiet for a few seconds. “Be ready to run to the...left? Yeah, left.”

 

Light and sound and matter reappeared, and there was ground beneath Papyrus' feet again. Forcing himself not to think, Papyrus darted to the left, putting them behind Flowey. They were now completely on the other side of the small clearing. He could just see the bones of his defensive wall dissipating, some fifty paces away, where they'd been standing before.

 

...That couldn't be right, could it? They'd been in that empty not-really-a-place-maybe for a couple of minutes. Those bones should have been long gone.

 

He was definitely not freaking out, but he was losing focus and this was not the time for that. Right. Papyrus got moving again, resolving to just roll with it, as his brother put it. Sans knew what he was doing.

 

 

 

~*~

 

 

A small group of monsters stood at the western edge of town, staring out over the suspension bridge that led into the woods. The snowdrake girl leaned dozing against one of the bridge piers, steadfastly refusing to rest inside the inn. Groups of dotted-line footprints stitched patterns in the snow and disappeared past the treeline where the search parties had split up. One set of tracks belonged to Undyne.

 

Alphys jumped as a brilliant flash of light broke through the forest canopy. Removing her glasses, she rubbed at her eyes to dispel the colored spots dancing in her vision. Though it had been miles away, the unnatural brightness of the light had dazzled her. Like a giant camera flash.

 

Or a magical discharge. Late at night, when power usage was low, the Core threw off raw magic in similar bright, short-lived arcs. Alphys didn't know of any back-up generators in Snowdin.

 

A low grumble rolled through the air, seconds after the light had faded. Intermittent flickers of light glowed in the distance, outlining the treetops.

 

The Greater Dog let out a soft growl, ears pinned back, and the snowdrake girl startled from her nap. Grillby remained as unruffled as ever, but sidled closer to the bridge. He could burn through the ropes in seconds if the need arose.

 

Hopefully it wouldn't.

 

 

 

~*~

 

 

 

Papyrus surprised himself with how quickly he adjusted to Sans' strange ability. For the first few jumps, it took a second to orient himself, but soon enough he simply kept moving without missing a beat. Once or twice, he could swear he caught a glimpse of the two of them through the trees, a lingering afterimage in the space they'd just occupied.

 

When there was time, Sans barked an instruction or a warning, but for the most part they fought in silence. Papyrus had far too much to keep track of to talk or do much listening, and Sans was giving it his all. Seemingly-weak blasters herded Flowey into waiting blue attacks. Papyrus cornered Flowey into attacks that drifted lazily through the air but seemed to sting for far longer than they should before dissipating.

 

There were long trenches in the snow from the blasters and Papyrus footsteps as he darted back and forth, continuously circling the malignant plant. Flowey occasionally fought the blue, bobbing and twisting around attacks, sometimes only suffering a slight graze.

 

Sans and Papyrus didn't need to talk. The jumps never really caught him off guard, even without advance warning. Their attacks wove together, one augmenting the other. Papyrus didn't know why, but it was easy to guess at Sans' intentions, and it seemed the same for his brother.

 

There was no good reason why that should be so. They never practiced together, and Sans was using techniques that Papyrus wasn't familiar with. It was like a muscle memory he'd never actually learned in the first place.

 

It just...worked.

 

Fighting in tandem felt like the most natural thing in the world. If they hadn't been fighting for their lives, it would have been a joyful feeling. Papyrus could do this forever.

 

...In theory, anyway. In reality, Papyrus was getting tired. Sans was slowing down, too, attacks rippling out at longer intervals and shorter durations. Papyrus could hear him breathing hard, feel him shaking.

 

Flowey was looking much the worse for wear. Not long into the fight, he'd even stopped taunting them, too focused to speak, though he never stopped smiling. Severed pieces of his body littered the snow, and he was more black than green.

 

But he was still moving, still attacking. His thick, elongated body weaved about like a drunken snake thanks to the blue. White bullets still flew and vines still whipped sluggishly through the air, trying to catch either of the brothers as they scurried to and fro, throwing off their own attacks. Sometimes Flowey even managed to smack away an attack or lean completely away from a blaster's path.

 

He was strong, and at this rate they might not outlast him.

 

Papyrus grimaced, lurching out of the way of a vine. For every minute the fight dragged on, it was taking more effort to stay ahead of Flowey's attacks. And if Flowey managed to get free of the blue, he could easily escape or kill them outright, and all their efforts would come to nothing.

 

“We got him on the ropes,” Sans said, voice raspy. “Any minute now.”

 

Right. Negativity wouldn't help. They were close. Flowey was moving, but it was labored. His attacks were sloppy.

 

They could finish this. They had to.

 

 

~

 

 

Papyrus and his trash-bag brother flitted about him like a pair of particularly angry wasps, popping in and out of view and managing to stay just ahead of him. The battle remained in the ruined clearing, Flowey finding himself twirling in slow circles trying to catch them. Scarred trees and churned earth marked his efforts.

 

That was such a neat trick Sans had. It was a shame Papyrus' brother was so delicate, or Flowey might have found out about some of his hidden depths a lot sooner. He always died so early… But now that Flowey had a good reason to be extra special careful with him, all kinds of fun new games sprang to mind.

 

Maybe next time! For now, Flowey needed to focus. How long had it been since he'd had to try this hard? He couldn't even remember.

 

He giggled as another one of those curious bone attacks of Sans' dug into his side. Another cool trick! Even if Flowey could feel pain, he doubted Sans' attacks would hurt very much, but they inflicted a deceptively large amount of harm. It was a slow burn of sorts.

 

The attack dissolved, but the gash continued to widen for a few seconds. Amazing! Leave it to the laziest monster in the Underground to have the most efficient attacks. Sans was doing more damage than his brother, a monster who could hit much harder.

 

Speaking of Papyrus, he was doing so well! For the first time, he showed no trace of hesitation or conflicted feelings. Single-minded determination was etched into every movement, every attack. He'd have looked a little cooler without his brother clinging to him, but he still looked pretty cool.

 

Sure, if Flowey had feelings to hurt, Papyrus' total rejection of him in favor of his stupid brother might have stung. As interesting as Sans was turning out to be, Flowey certainly didn't like him, and didn't appreciate him butting in where he wasn't wanted. But! Positive results were positive results, even if Flowey himself ended up being the target.

 

Disentangling himself from a nest of Papyrus' stinging blue attacks, Flowey blundered into two of Sans' blasters. Fresh cuts cauterized in the blast as his tissues dried up further on his upper stem, close to his face. He noted the loss of a few more petals with detached annoyance.

 

Technically, he should dock Papyrus points for having help, but Flowey had to admit they were doing quite well together. Maybe too well. They were clearly starting to tire out, but so was he. Papyrus and Sans were a far cry from either of his parents as far as pure strength went, but they were turning out to be dangerous in their own rights when properly motivated.

 

For the first time, it occurred to him that he might not win.

 

Incredible! Uncertainty, urgency, mortal peril...how long had it been? This was all so exciting.

 

Moving like molasses under the blue magic, Flowey flung three of his vines at the brothers. Only one connected, catching Papyrus' lower arm before Sans moved them out of the way. Flowey listened for the pop of displaced air, turning to face them again as they reappeared on his right. It was getting easier to follow.

 

Flowey noted with unaccustomed pleasure the pained grimace on Papyrus' face when he moved his arm. The movement was a little off, a little stiff, and the resulting attack was misaligned. A few bones collided with his brother's, canceling out both waves. Flowey grinned wider. With the possibility of losing the fight came the renewed enjoyment of winning.

 

This was the absolute. Best. Run. Ever.

 

 

~

 

 

Not good. Flowey was adjusting his strategy.

 

With his attention split between attacking, defending, and maneuvering, Papyrus just couldn't compensate for his arm, which was all but useless. Frustrated, he fell back to purely defending. He was no help to Sans if he couldn't cast an attack precisely enough to avoid interference.

 

God, he was exhausted. Every step was a battle.

 

“Any minute now,” Sans urged. His hand slipped, scrabbling painfully at Papyrus' collarbones.

 

Damn it, why wouldn't Flowey stay down? How much longer could he possibly last?

 

How much longer could they last?

 

A flash of cyan flickered across the snow. Papyrus staggered to a halt as a flurry of spears whizzed by, so close he could hear them whistle through the air, feel the breeze as they passed. From over his shoulder, Sans gasped.

 

Papyrus knew that magic.

 

Risking a glance to their right, the direction where the spears had come from, Papyrus shouted in mingled relief and dismay to see Undyne, Dogamy, and Dogaressa through the trees. He didn't want them anywhere near Flowey, but they were fresh, and he and Sans needed help.

 

Flowey turned on them, flinging multiple vines at their approach. The dogs hacked and chopped at any vine that got within reach, defending their captain. Undyne harried the overgrown flower with spears, asking no questions and looking almost gleeful at the chance to beat the life out of something at last.

 

Sans jumped them clear of a barrage of spears that went a little too wide. “She could try not to skewer us while she's at it,” he grumbled. Taking advantage of the distraction, Sans dispelled his blasters, resting and rallying what was left of his reserves, which had never been much to start with. His magic was a physical warmth at Papyrus' back, gathering for one more push.

 

Papyrus did the same, tearing down everything save for a defensive cage of bones around them because now was not the time to get careless. Calling on the rest of his magic felt like trying to get the last dregs of a milkshake from the bottom of the glass, but he rolled it up into something he could use.

 

“Hold him!” Papyrus called to Undyne, hoping she would understand. He could see Sans was slowly but surely losing his grip over his blue. The thought of Flowey being able to move normally, able to escape underground, out of reach, was not permissible.

 

One life for five, or a town's worth of lives. Or maybe it would be two for four, or three for three. However it balanced out in the end, it did have to end, and soon.

 

A great arc of green that spanned the clearing sliced through the air, perilously close as Papyrus scrambled out of its range. Even if he hadn't been blue, Flowey would have been hard pressed to dodge it. Papyrus could feel Sans relax incrementally as Undyne's attack took effect, freezing Flowey in place.

 

Every vine went still.

 

Undyne would only be able to keep Flowey still for a couple minutes at the most. They couldn't waste the chance she'd given them.

 

Sans summoned a ring of blasters-- so many, too many for Papyrus to count at a glance. Like falling dominoes, they fired one after another, a fresh blaster taking the place of each one that dissipated. The light was blinding. The roar of them was a physical force, vibrating through the air and the ground and Papyrus' bones.

 

With no more need to dodge around vines, Papyrus could focus all his remaining energy on attacking as well. He still had poor control of his own blaster, but against a stationary target it didn't matter. He summoned it, the stark animal skull like death itself given shape and form, and fired. Everything he had left, he let the blaster take, holding nothing back.

 

The world stuttered, shadows snapping to new angles. Sans' blasters were firing from a different part of their ring than they had been, but they were still firing. Flowey was still green.

 

Papyrus held firm. All that mattered was keeping his attack going. He fed magic into the blaster as fast as he could, the beam burning white.

 

The world stuttered, snow un-melting and re-melting, images flickering in Papyrus' vision. He was shaken, but unmoved. He kept firing. He'd burn himself out before he let Flowey get away.

 

The world stuttered.

 

A ring of bullets shot past the brothers' collective blasts, as if Flowey somehow knew where the miniscule openings between the blasters were. Moving meant diverting his attention from his blaster, so Papyrus didn't. He felt a bullet graze his cheek, carving a furrow into the bone, felt the others pelt against his breastplate as he staggered a half-step back from the force of the impact. A sharp pain in his chest signaled some measure of that force had hurt him even through the armor.

 

No matter. He was still standing. Flowey wasn't going to win.

 

Sans had ducked safely out of the way, but he lost his grip and Papyrus felt his brother slide off his back and landed on the ground behind him with a sharp cry. In that instant, Sans' ring of blasters disintegrated, glittering spent magic showering around Flowey, a snowstorm in miniature. Keeping his own blaster going, Papyrus quickly turned his head, his soul twisting with panic.

 

“Sans!”

 

His brother was stunned but alive, curling into himself as he gripped his bad ankle. He must have landed on it. Glancing around, Papyrus realized Undyne had also been thrown to the ground, the dogs shielding her with their axes.

 

But the green still held. Flowey was still immobile...helpless.

 

Above the subsonic roar of his blaster, Papyrus could hear Undyne's bellow of effort as she fought to keep the green going just a little longer. Green was time-based, but that didn't seem to matter to her.

 

Papyrus gritted his teeth, willing his blaster to keep firing, keeping it from scattering. He risked a quick glance up to see the skull was cracked and splitting.

 

It was all up to him now. Just a little bit more…

 

He pushed yet more magic into his blaster, stumbling forward to bring the cannon closer to its target, lightheaded and disoriented. For just an instant, he could feel the splintering skull above him as though it were his own, see through its sightless sockets. Magic, raw and wild, coursed through it and him.

 

Take everything I have.

 

Protect.

 

Safeguard.

 

Defend.

 

The world stuttered, or maybe it was just dizziness. It hurt, now, to keep attacking. Papyrus shook, fighting to stay upright and conscious. Magic bled from him, pulled away like water down a drain. He couldn't have held it back now if he wanted to. It ripped away, leeching from his bones themselves. Away, away, away.

 

The blaster's muzzle split and flew apart, and the deep thrum rose to a high whine as the blaster drew out the last scraps of his magic before the rest of the skull shattered. Papyrus' knees hit the ground. Head swimming, vision doubled, he gasped as the connection to his blaster snapped. Spent magic shimmered down around him.

 

Sans was at his side, saying something, but Papyrus couldn't quite parse it. Back in the trees, he could make out the double image of Undyne kneeling, propped up with one of her spears. The dogs stood at her sides, panting.

 

He felt a vibration through the ground, turned his head to see Flowey laid out flat in the steaming mud, deflated. The green had worn off.

 

Flowey's head was only a few feet away. With a great effort, Papyrus crawled over to it. Sounds were happening, voices, but that bit of his mind hadn't caught up with the rest quite yet.

 

The stink of burnt vegetation was overpowering. There wasn't a visible inch of Flowey's main body that wasn't charred black and withered.

 

Papyrus reached out, trembling, unsure what exactly he meant to do. Some part of him, the part that let him use his blaster, wanted to beat Flowey's head into a pulp with his bare hands. But that part wasn't in control.

 

Gently, he cradled Flowey's face in his hands. The limp weight of it and the sap that seeped into his joints spoke to the likelihood of Flowey getting up again. Papyrus felt relieved, and then remorseful. This had been the best of his very few, horrible options. It was still horrible.

 

Flowey stirred, nuzzling his face against Papyrus' palms. “You...never change, do you?” He rasped, blinking up at Papyrus with eyes that had already gone glassy. “But still, you did it! I knew you could.”

 

“You need to leave us alone,” Papyrus said, at a loss for anything else to say.

 

Flowey chuckled, his smile cracking open fissures on his face. Loose flecks of char fell to the snow and rivulets of fresh sap followed. “Oh, I wouldn't worry about that, friend. The game's over.” He sighed contentedly. “I wasn't expecting this ending, but it was so worth it. Haven't had this much fun in ages...”

 

“I'm sorry.” It was an effort to form the words, push them out past his teeth. Everything tingled, unreal and distant.

 

“Don't be!” A sticky foam formed at the corners of Flowey's mouth as sap bled into spaces it shouldn't be. “I'm super proud of you, Papyrus,” he said, voice gurgling. “That was cool.”

 

Papyrus frowned. “I can't heal you.” Did Flowey not care? Was he delirious? He wasn't making sense. Nothing made sense. Papyrus stared down at Flowey's head in his hands, hands that felt like someone else's hands.

 

Flowey twitched. “No need for that, friend. And hey,” he said, wheezing out a weak giggle. “I can't love, but I ended up giving you some LOVE.” He giggled again at his own joke.

 

Shivering with exhaustion and a wrongness he couldn't place, Papyrus said nothing. The inexplicable desire to clench his fists with what strength he had left, to make that laughter stop for good, swept over and through him. And then it was gone.

 

It was gone, but the memory of that feeling, not rage but a cold wanting, would linger. Flowey would not survive, and Papyrus had struck the killing blow, but even this was not the lowest possible point. There was always something more, something lower.

 

“Two levels, ha. Called it...”

 

 

~

 

 

At some point between the cavalry's arrival and the third (fourth?) attempt to reload that couldn't reach far back enough, Flowey realized he'd been a little too...flippant. Careless. Overconfident.

 

He hadn't needed to be careful in so long. Hadn't had any reason to think he was in real danger in so long.

 

And now, in a matter of seconds, he'd actually lost! What a strange occurrence. What a novelty.

 

Papyrus' blaster was a sun to Sans' false stars, but those sneaky, weak attacks had sapped far more of Flowey's strength than he'd realized. He was helpless to do anything but wait for the inevitable as searing raw magic burned the rest of his life away.

 

He should have been ready to reload the instant Undyne's damned green hit him.

 

Oh, well. At least he'd been able to last long enough after the attack to see Papyrus' level go up. Rarities upon rarities! It had been quite a run.

 

And Papyrus couldn't stay mad at him, even after all that. Somehow, that was very...nice. No hard feelings. Never any hard feelings with Papyrus. Flowey nuzzled into the hands that held his face out of the mud. His favorite.

 

He should reset now, before he waited too long and died for real.

 

He was so comfy right where he was, though. Flowey couldn't feel pain, but a sort of drowsy lightness stole over him. He didn't really want to do anything but lie there and admire his favorite.

 

He should really reset. And he would! In...just a moment...

 

 

~

 

 

Leave it to Flowey to win even by losing.

 

Head swimming, Papyrus held Flowey's understanding gaze, staring into black, empty eyes that got blacker, emptier.

 

“I think,” Sans said, pulling Papyrus' attention from the still face. He hadn't heard his brother approach. “I think it's dead, bro.”

 

Flowey didn't look dead...but then he didn't look alive anymore, either. His blank eyes gazed out at nothing, dull and unfocused. The tip of a limp tongue lolled out from between his teeth.

 

Papyrus laid Flowey's head down in the mud. After a moment, he brushed the eyelids closed with his fingers. It didn't feel right to leave them open.

 

Flowey looked rather peaceful, as badly mangled as he was. Like he was sleeping.

 

Come to think of it, Papyrus was feeling very sleepy himself.

 

Undyne's shadow fell over him. Her fins drooped and her scales were washed out and pale. She glared down at Flowey's body, leaning on the spear she was using as a walking stick. “What was that thing? I've never seen anything like it.”

 

“That's what I'd like to know,” Sans said, moving to stand before his broken ankle sent him to the ground again. Dogamy stepped forward to help him. “I think we should get back to town first, though. None of us is exactly the picture of health.”

 

Accepting Undyne's offered hand, Papyrus let himself be pulled to his feet. He took a step, and his legs gave out, sending him back to the ground with a hard jolt. “Oh!” he cried, but the shock was already fading, and the pain of his awkward landing felt distant.

 

Sans pushed away from Dogamy to lurch clumsily to his side. “Papyrus!”

 

“Papyrus, are you okay?” Undyne knelt down, propping him up with strong arms. Her spear scattered, forgotten.

 

Papyrus sagged back against her breastplate. “I don't think...” He heaved a breath. It was hard to talk. “I can't stand up.” He couldn't even feel his legs, but he didn't want to alarm anyone. He peered over at his brother, who was gripping his right hand tightly in both of his own. They were strangely clammy. Papyrus scowled. “Why are you all drippy?”

 

Sans barked a short, nervous laugh. “You don't look so hot yourself, bro. Heh.” The lights of his eyes blazed with anxiety. “Kinda fuzzy around the edges, in fact.”

 

“Oh,” Papyrus said mildly.

 

Dogamy and Dogaressa crowded at his other side, whining softly, ears pinned back. They fussed over him, removing his armor, cutting straight through the straps and point laces in their haste. That was a little confusing, but it felt so nice to have the weight off of him that Papyrus didn't care. He felt so light.

 

He heard Undyne snarling curses behind him as she struggled with his gambeson. “Dammit,” she hissed. “Who designs this stupid bullshit?” There was the pop of seams ripping, and a lot of what Papyrus thought was unnecessary jostling as she tore the garment off of him. He'd just been getting comfortable, too…

 

“Hey,” Sans said, and Papyrus blinked his eye sockets open. “You gotta stay awake, okay? Pull yourself together, bro. Get it?” He smiled, but it didn't reach his eyes.

 

“That's...really terrible,” Papyrus said, his voice reedy and thin. Dimly, slowly, it dawned on him that he was dying. He'd taken too many hits, and he'd spent all of his magic. He didn't have enough left to maintain his physical form.

 

But they were safe now. He couldn't complain about that.

 

He wasn't scared. It was more like...disappointment. He'd almost made it.

 

Sans laughed, or perhaps it was a sob. “There's more where that came from,” he said, tears rolling down his cheeks. “And you're gonna hear them all, so d-don't go to pieces on me.”

 

“Awful.” Papyrus tried to squeeze the hands holding his, managing just a slight twitch. He felt...loose, somehow. Like he was made of powder snow.

 

A strong breeze would blow him away, carry him all the way up to the stars.

 

He could feel warmth at his back and side, could feel familiar hands gripping his own hard enough to hurt.

 

“It's over now, so you...you can't leave, ok? Don't leave. Don't…me here...-pyrus...”

 

Everything was fading in and out. Blurring. It would be easy to relax into that blur, to just drift off to sleep.

 

...But he couldn't leave Sans all alone. Flowey's prediction echoed back to him and he knew, with knife-sharp clarity, that it would come true.

 

You have to keep getting out of bed, he wanted to say. You have to keep leaving the house and talking to people and living, please. Don't just give up. Don't follow me. Too many words. Too hard. He was so tired.

 

He couldn't leave Alphys thinking that he hated her. He couldn't leave Undyne to do all the Guard paperwork herself. Everyone had been so worried about him, had been hurt by him. He needed to make it up to them.

 

He didn't want to die.

 

Try as he might, Papyrus couldn't hold on. He was sinking down, floating away, falling apart. It was happening so fast.

 

Magic that was different from his own seared into him, shocking him awake. Instinctively, he tried to squirm out of Undyne's arms, to get away from the burning hands pressed against his ribcage.

 

“You can beat this, Paps, come on!” Undyne's voice quavered, but her hold was unshakeable. She curled her arms tighter around him, curled her fingers between his ribs. Every point of contact was electric, scorching.

 

More hands joined hers, and soon the dogs' magic added to the torrent. Papyrus couldn't even scream, utterly paralyzed. Nothing Flowey had done to him had hurt like this. Dying hadn't hurt like this. Magic from three sources flooded him, colliding, clashing. It was too much at once. He could feel himself being torn apart.

 

And then there was a fourth magic. It didn't add much to the total, a melting icicle on top of the tidal wave. That trickle, that thin thread, wasn't foreign and didn't burn. It was just like his own magic, like him. Like home.

 

The storm in his body forgotten, Papyrus was transfixed by the weak glimmer of right magic twisting through him, calling to him. He followed the thread, compelled to reach out, to take hold of it.

 

At once, brilliance engulfed him. It wasn't light, and it wasn't words or even thoughts, but he could see and feel and understand.

 

Loved, it said.

 

Needed, it said.

 

Stay.

 

Papyrus anchored himself to the thread and its brilliant source. The other three sources resolved themselves in his awareness. Now that he wasn't caught between them, he could perceive the currents of foreign magic. Hesitant, determined, he reached out to gather them up.

 

By degrees, the separate currents aligned. The chaotic maelstrom of magic resolved into a single pulse. The pain eased. Papyrus was still on the edge of oblivion, but he had a handhold.

 

He would make this magic his own. He would heal. He would stay. He would live.

 

He just had to...had to…

 

 

 

~*~

 

 

 

The flashes of light stopped, and the forest was dark once more. That was either good, or extremely bad.

 

A magic flare arced up over the treetops, bursting into tiny valentine hearts that shimmered and faded away.

 

Good, then.

 

Alphys' cell phone rang, the ending theme to Mew Mew Kissy Cutie. Undyne's ringtone. Alphys could have wept tears of relief, but she was proud of herself when she kept it together.

 

Over the next couple hours, the search parties trickled back into town. Undyne and her search party were the last to return. All three of them moved sluggishly, Undyne most of all. Straining her eyes, Alphys could see she was carrying someone-- no, two someones.

 

Undyne held Papyrus' slim form in her arms. The blue lump draped across her shoulders had to be Sans.

 

A smile spread on Alphys' face. She'd been worried, but Undyne was the captain of the guard for a reason.

 

With a soft boof, the Greater Dog crossed the bridge to meet the returning search party. He took the skeletons from Undyne. Against his much larger bulk, the brothers looked like children. They didn't stir in his arms as he moved carefully back across the bridge, and Alphys' smile wavered.

 

What was wrong with them? She'd assumed that they were just worn out, but it was clear from how still and limp they were that they weren't conscious.

 

Stepping onto solid ground again, the Greater Dog kept to a slow pace, letting Alphys get a look at them both. Sans' face was pinched even as he slept. His ankle was wrapped tightly with a strip of cloth.

 

Papyrus was worse. Naked from the waist up, he was riddled with wounds, some hastily healed, some not. His bones had an almost translucent quality. Just visible inside his chest, his soul flickered candle-flame weak. The only hint of tension in his body was his right hand, which was gripping Sans' left hand so hard it was difficult to match the bones up with their respective owners.

 

Alphys knew all too well the look of a monster who had fallen down.

 

The dogi and Undyne stepped off the bridge. Undyne's scales were pale, and she was puffing like she'd just run a marathon.

 

Alphys approached. Undyne paused to scoop her off her feet in a brief, tight hug. She set Alphys back down, digging a small object from a pouch at her hip and pressing it into Alphys' hands.

 

A thorn? No.

 

A tooth.

 

 

 

~*~

 

 

 

There was the murmur of a TV at low volume. There was a spring poking him.

 

Blinking, confused, Papyrus took stock of the situation. Two arms, two legs, his head was attached. Every bone was present and accounted for, and hurting.

 

He was alive.

 

He was alive, and on the living room couch. Someone had tried to make it comfortable with every pillow and blanket in the house, but it was still lumpy, and that spring was still digging in.

 

Sans was curled up at the other end of the couch, snoring softly.

 

If he'd had the energy, Papyrus could have cried. He was home.

 

The living room was almost unrecognizable. Filling every corner was a frankly excessive amount of flowers (none of them golden, thank god), parcels and cards. The air smelled of cinnamon bunnies and tomatoes.

 

A lump of fabric on the floor sat up, revealing Alphys wearing his old coat. Her eyes lit up as she noticed him, and she shuffled over to the edge of the couch. “You're awake,” she whispered, squinting as she studied him in the dim light from the TV. “How do you feel?”

 

“...A lot,” Papyrus croaked, unsure if he'd understood the question. “What happened?” Everything after the fight was hazy. He didn't even remember getting back to Snowdin.

 

Alphys frowned. “You fell down.”

 

“Really?” Papyrus wasn't sure why that information wasn't more upsetting.

 

“Yeah,” Alphys said. “I was s-starting to think we'd have t-to...but you woke up on y-your own, so...so that's g-good!” She gave him a smile that was a touch too wide. Well, she was still a novice smiler. “Gerson's at the inn, but I can c-call him once you're ready. He'll want t-to check you over again. Probably Undyne and S-sans, too.”

 

Papyrus was so tired he was having some trouble following what Alphys was saying, other than things were more or less fine, by whatever standards Alphys was using. Papyrus nodded, since it seemed like some kind of agreement was in order.

 

If he fell asleep again, he really wanted to make it upstairs to his bed, at least. “What time is it?”

 

“It's T-tuesday.”

 

It was an effort to keep his voice down. He didn't want to wake Sans. “I've been asleep for two days?”

 

Two days! That was obscene.

 

Every inch of his body disagreed with him, and wasn't shy about letting him know. Throbbing pain rolled over him in waves, and he was so utterly drained it was an effort just to sit upright. He'd have to avoid brushes with death in the future.

 

...Two days. Two days since...and everyone was still fine. Which meant he...Flowey must really be…

 

Must really be dead.

 

Yes. That part was coming back now. Papyrus would have been happy enough if it hadn't.

 

Alphys nodded. “Well, it's Tuesday night, so it's actually closer to three d-days. Still, as bad a shape as you were in, I'm amazed it w-wasn't longer.”

 

They were speaking quietly, but Sans stirred at the end of the couch. He blinked his eye sockets open, stretching and popping a few joints. “Hey, lazybones, you're finally up.” His voice was hoarse, and his haggard face betrayed how little rest he'd gotten in the last few days. “You know, you can't just sleep all the time, Papyrus. It sets a bad example for the rest of us.”

 

Standing, Alphys straightened her borrowed coat. “I t-think Undyne needs help in the kitchen.” As if on cue, there was a crash from that direction, followed by muffled cursing. “Try to s-stay awake for a few m-minutes, and I'll bring you something to eat, okay?”

 

Papyrus nodded absently, more focused on his brother than Alphys. After a few seconds of careful study he was mostly satisfied that Sans was alright, albeit worn out. A faint line crossing the end of his tibia was all that remained of the break in his ankle.

 

“How are you?” Papyrus asked, scraping the words out with a voice that was still reluctant to work properly.

 

Grinning, Sans shook his head. “Never better, bro. You?”

 

Papyrus shrugged. “Fine,” he said. Everything hurt, and he had no energy, but he wasn't about to complain. He was alive, and that was more than he'd expected.

 

“Heh, well, you look like crap.”

 

It hurt to laugh. The tears pricking the corners of Papyrus' eye sockets were...nice, somehow. “You're not winning any beauty contests, either.”

 

“Yeah,” Sans said, grinning wider, “but that's me all the time.” He blinked, and reached up to scrub one hand across his eye sockets. “I'm, uh, really glad you're awake,” he said, glancing away. “Was starting to think you weren't gonna...”

 

Memory seeped back into Papyrus' mind, a slow drip. He'd felt himself starting to crumble and turn to dust. He'd been so close. “It would take more than that to stop the great Papyrus,” he said, unable to muster up the proper amount of bravado when he still sounded like a froggit with laryngitis.

 

Sans laughed, such a heartening sound.

 

Off in the kitchen, the distinct whoosh of a stove burner turned too high was accompanied by Alphys' worried stammering. Papyrus smiled. “Undyne is still here?”

 

Nodding, Sans crossed his arms. “We had a...talk. That's all I'll say about that for now. But I'm thankful she turned up when she did,” he added.

 

“Me, too.” Even now, if he concentrated, Papyrus could feel that a portion of his magic was a little closer to cyan than blue, in a manner of speaking.

 

“She's been good crowd control, too,” Sans said, gesturing at the gifts piled up around the room. “I'm pretty sure the whole town's been through here by now.”

 

It certainly looked that way. Papyrus wasn't sure why his neighbors had gone to so much trouble, but he was touched by their thoughtfulness. He was going to have a lot of thank-you notes to write.

 

“Oh, no,” Papyrus groaned, a thought suddenly occurring to him. “And the house is such a wreck!” The worry sounded ridiculous even to him, but it was such a normal worry that he clung to it fiercely.

 

He shouldn't feel relieved about any of this. He shouldn't be thinking about petty things, like the state of the house. That was wrong. He should just feel sad, he was sure. He shouldn't feel like he'd had some of the poison drawn out of him, some of his own soul returned to him.

 

He shouldn't feel glad, or good, or happy.

 

“Nah,” Sans said, waving him off. If he noticed the way Papyrus kept drifting off in thought he let it go without comment. “I guess those rabbit sisters came over with their kids the day we got back and cleaned up the place. I heard tell of a casserole, too, but Undyne and the dogs polished that off before I woke up.” His laugh was just a shade forced. “They spent a lot of magic to keep you in one piece, bro.”

 

Yes, they had. That called for more than a thank-you note.

 

The world shouldn't feel brighter right after he'd committed murder. It shouldn't feel like waking up from a nightmare. And yet...

 

Papyrus really was going to cry. He was surrounded by such wonderful people.

 

One of those people ducked her spaghetti-sauce-spattered head through the kitchen archway. “You dorks ready to eat?” Undyne crowed. Black smoke wafted up toward the ceiling behind her. She passed out bowls and flatware before settling on the floor in front of the couch with her own food.

 

Alphys followed soon after, similarly covered in splotches of red. She grinned sheepishly as she settled down next to Undyne.

 

“I made sure it had extra milk, for the calcium,” Undyne announced proudly.

 

“Sounds heavenly, fish-face,” Sans said, but he ate without complaint.

 

Papyrus smiled, letting the heat from his bowl seep into his hands. He was alive, on their lumpy couch, in their home. His favorite people were here, safe and sound. He took a bite of extra-milky spaghetti, letting the others' conversation swirl around him like warm water.

 

He'd done an awful thing. There hadn't been much choice, but he'd done an awful thing all the same. And killing Flowey hadn't undone any of the awful things that had gone before. It was over, but it had happened.

 

It had all happened.

 

Later. He could face all of that later. Now, in this oasis of love and safety and slightly irregular pasta, he let himself be.

 

Right now, he was happy.

Chapter Text

Checking over his tools to make sure he hadn't forgotten anything, Papyrus slung the pack over his shoulder, and together he and Sans set out for the woods. Everyone they passed on their way through town waved and greeted them warmly, but didn't flag them down to chat. Papyrus was careful to walk a little too fast for conversation to be anything but difficult and awkward. It wasn't that he didn't like being well liked! But...well...it was tiring.


Maybe after a while, when the town calmed down, when everyone could talk about something else…


“Hey, wait up!”


He'd been unconsciously picking up speed, but slowed down at his brother's call. “Sorry,” he said, as Sans hustled to catch up.


Sans grinned. “Heh. You know, the puzzle's not going anywhere.”


“We'd be remiss in our duty as guardsmen,” Papyrus tutted, “if we didn't return this puzzle to working order as quickly as possible. What if a human were to pass through here?” The sentence sent an uncomfortable hiccup through his mind, and he hurried to push past it. “Why, they'd go completely un-befuddled!”


If Sans noticed the brief hitch, he let it pass without comment. “Yeah, can't have that.”


They crossed the suspension bridge into the quiet of the woods. Papyrus hadn't been outside of town much in the last month. As the official Clerk of the Royal Guard, regular patrols weren't part of his duties. Instead, he'd spent most of his time either at the dining table or his desk. Where some people liked to make soup or send a thoughtful card, Undyne's method of soothing the sick and the troubled seemed to mostly rely on paperwork, and lots of it.


Papyrus was immeasurably grateful to her for that. It was harder to spend all day sleeping, crying, or staring off into space when there was work to do, tedious as it was.


“Has Undyne found a replacement for you yet?” Papyrus asked, once the silence stretched out from companionable to awkward.


“Hmm?” Sans blinked up at him, as if he'd been lost in thought. That was nothing new. Though the worst of his malaise had lifted over the past month, he was still prone to long spells of quiet rumination. “Yeah, as a matter of fact. Remember that snowdrake girl? What's-her-name?”


As the official Assistant to the Clerk of the Royal Guard (a post that came with a generous raise in his stipend, Undyne's indirect way of apologizing), these days Sans only ventured into the western reaches of the forest to speak with his friend. He gestured westward. “Saw her manning...birding? Saw her birding my old station last time I was out that way.”


“Chilldrake,” Papyrus supplied, idly. It was hard not to remember her. Sweet girl, but very...persistent. Papyrus had avoided standing in view of any of the windows for several days while she was camped out in front of the house.


Papyrus adjusted the pack on his shoulder, which was tense after a long morning of writing. “Anyway,” he said, “I have to admit I was glad to get Doggo's phone call. If I spend any more more time today staring at those reports, my eyes-- metaphorically speaking-- are going to fall right out of my head.”


Papyrus' own report was coming along slowly, too. Undyne had given King Asgore an extremely brief and largely fictitious account of the creature that had menaced the Snowdin forest, and Papyrus' gallant efforts to hold it at bay and finally subdue it. But as the principal guardsman involved, it fell to Papyrus himself to provide a more detailed account.


He was having trouble putting it all into words, even if half those words were evasions or outright lies.


That picture on the king's mantle… What could Papyrus possibly say? He had no children of his own, but it was no great stretch to imagine how learning of Asriel's second death would affect Asgore. For the king's sake as well as his own, Papyrus couldn't tell the whole truth.


There was no point in opening such an old wound when it no longer mattered, was there? No, far kinder to just keep his silence as much as possible.


Such an awful, awful thing.


Sans nodded his agreement. “Right? I've been sitting still way too much this week.”


Tripping over his own feet, Papyrus stumbled to a halt and out of his reverie. “What was that?” His jaw hung open in honest shock, though he made sure to play it up a bit.


“Oh, shut up,” Sans said, rolling his eyes though a smile tugged at his mouth. “I'm not lazy all the time.” He kept walking, leaving Papyrus behind. “Shake a leg; I thought you wanted to get started on this puzzle.”


Catching up to his brother in a few bounding strides, Papyrus turned to face Sans, walking the path backward. He knew the route well enough not to run into anything. “We could race!” The urge to move was strong after being cooped up in the house and his own thoughts. A run might help him feel more like himself.


What was that saying? Fake it 'til you make it. He was doing a lot of faking, so the making couldn't be far off.


Sans shuffled along through the snow at the same leisurely pace. “Heh, one step at a time, bro. You can run,” he said, shoving his hands in his pockets. “I'll catch up.”


That idea didn't appeal at all. It was strange-- as much as Papyrus wanted to be left alone, he didn't want to be by himself. Ever. That went double in the forest. Enthusiasm dampened, Papyrus turned forward again. “No, walking is fine.”


“You okay?” Sans asked, grin fading.


“Fine.”


Beside him, Sans sighed.


They hadn't done a great deal of talking about the last few months. Not for lack of trying, but Papyrus ended up doing more crying than speaking when he didn't simply lock up. Sans would sit with him until he calmed down, and then they would go back to whatever they'd been doing. After a few days of that routine, Sans stopped asking questions.


As much as they could, they tried to go back to their old routine. Papyrus was keeping up on the housework again, Sans was back to finding interesting things to read in the evenings. Despite their best efforts, they still found themselves avoiding one another, each leery of cutting the other on his own sharp edges.


When they reached the broken puzzle, Papyrus' spirits began to lift again. He put his gloomy thoughts aside.


As he'd suspected, the mechanisms underneath the switches' pressure plates were iced over. A common problem, it would be time consuming but easy to remedy.


Kneeling in the snow, Papyrus dug through the pack. He'd rigged a salvaged hair dryer to a power drill battery for just such eventualities. He'd also brought a small blowtorch, some machine grease, screwdrivers of various sizes, and a mallet. A mallet was always handy.


“Here,” he said, handing the hair dryer to Sans. “Get to it!”


Sans saluted, and set about prying up one of the pressure plates.


Papyrus did the same, and fired up the blowtorch. It was trickier to use than the hair dryer, so he kept it for himself. He didn't relish the idea of melted puzzle wiring or putting out a brother-shaped inferno if Sans dozed off.


God, he'd missed this. How long had it been since he'd worked on a puzzle? That was probably why this one was iced over-- he'd been maintaining Snowdin's puzzles and traps for so long that no one else had thought to check on them.


If not for the likelihood of burning his glove, he would have reached out to pet the neglected mechanism he was thawing by way of apology.


A brief flash caught his attention, and Papyrus looked up to see Sans texting someone, the camera lens on the phone angled in his direction.


Papyrus frowned. He used to like having his picture taken. He didn't really like it anymore. “You're not sending that to anyone, are you?”


“Just Undyne and Al,” Sans said, shrugging. “For someone holding a blowtorch, you're grinning a little too big, bro. Couldn't resist.”


Papyrus grumbled, but let the matter drop. Alphys and Undyne knew what he looked like. They weren't as bothered by his marred appearance as he was.


Sans got back to work, dutifully moving the hair dryer back and forth over the icy switch. “You're not still weird about the tooth, are you?”


It had been too late to do anything about his missing tooth with healing magic. A smith in New Home had made a replacement out of gold, which...stood out.


“No,” Papyrus said, absolutely not sulking. “...Maybe a bit.”


Undyne had spray-painted her eyepatch gold in solidarity. It suited her, though the paint tended to rub off on her scales. As nice as the gesture was, it didn't make Papyrus feel any less ambivalent about his own looks.


“It looks fine,” Sans said, spreading some grease along the pressure plate edges to keep the moisture out. “I don't know why you're so self-conscious about it.”


Papyrus didn't know, either, truthfully. Even with a normal tooth, he wouldn't look like he had before. Healing magic could fix a lot of things, but severe damage still left traces behind. Permanent reminders waiting in every mirror, every picture.


Sans lost his grip on the next plate he was prying open. It fell back down with a crash.


Papyrus jumped, his blaster materializing above him in an instant.


“Heh, my bad.” Sans grimaced apologetically.


“No, it's fine,” Papyrus said, irritated at himself. He glared upward, waiting for the agitated frisson of magic to die down. If he'd had a heart, it would be hammering out of his chest. “I wish it would stop doing that.” He raised a hand to dispel the blaster, only for Sans to interrupt him with a little cough.


“Uh, you know, it wouldn't really hurt anything to just leave it for a while,” Sans said, studiously not looking at the evidence of Papyrus' minor panic attack looming overhead. “Here, mine could use some fresh air, too.” Sans summoned his own blaster, letting it hover over him while he got back to his task.


Attacks didn't need fresh air, and the blasters weren't pets, but Papyrus appreciated the attempt to make him feel better. Or maybe not better, but less like a rattling bundle of nerves. Less weird.


He hated to admit it, but he was more relaxed this way. He couldn't very well walk around Snowdin with his blaster trailing along behind him, but out here in the woods there was no harm.


Papyrus sighed, turning his attention back to the iced-over mechanism. Switching the torch back on, he set about carefully melting the ice without also melting the wiring.


“You're not as jumpy as you were,” Sans said. He'd managed to successfully pry up the panel of his next pressure plate, prodding disinterestedly at the mechanism inside.


“I hate that it still happens at all. It's been a month.” It was embarrassing, how twitchy he was. He tried to keep the anxiety under control, holding it tight like wild magic. And, like wild magic, it slipped out anyway, generally at the most inopportune times.


Some days it felt as though Papyrus was just the vehicle carrying his collection of scars around, with nothing of importance underneath. Most of the time he could ignore that feeling and carry on, but it was always just a step behind him, waiting for an unguarded moment or a sudden noise.


Sans gave him a look. “A month isn't that long, bro. You're getting better.” He grinned, brandishing a screwdriver. “If any punks give you crap about it, I'll have Grillby pay them a visit, scare 'em straight. You've got street cred with those old boys now.”


Despite himself, Papyrus laughed. What was the quiet bartender meant to do, glare disapprovingly? He didn't even have visible eyes, glasses notwithstanding. “He's not very scary.”


“Ah, you've clearly never seen him on the first of the month when he calls all the tabs in.” Sans shivered. “It's bone-chilling, bro.” He blinked, brow knitted as he mulled over his own pun. “...Ironically enough.”


Papyrus had to remind himself to groan, but he did it. “Ugh. Well,” he said, “I can hardly blame the man, with the kind of tab you run up.”


His comment earned him a snowball to the head. A week ago, the sharp paf of packed snow against his skull would have resulted in more than a momentary flinch. Maybe Sans had a point. Papyrus was making progress; it was just slower than he'd like.


Sans huffed in mock affrontery. “Hey! I don't even have a tab running this month, thank you very much.”


Papyrus gave his brother an apologetic half-smile. “That is true. Sorry.” Sans hadn't spent nearly as much time at Grillby's as he used to. When he did go, no one let him pay for anything. Whether that was out of gratitude or guilt, Papyrus didn't know. Maybe both. It should be both.


But that was unkind. Mistakes had been made, and gossip was just part of monster nature.


They worked in silence for a few minutes.


“Everyone has been very patient with me,” Papyrus said, still chewing over Sans' joking offer.


Sans sat back, scratching his face and leaving a smudge of grease. “Yeah, they better be. You're the hero of Snowdin. Heh.” He grinned a knowing grin.


Papyrus couldn't keep the grimace from his face. He hated that title. The whole idea was tainted for him now. He wasn't that story Undyne had told them all, wasn't some dashing, battle-scarred guardian. Truth be told, he was a mess.


The truth wouldn't be told. Not the full truth, anyway. And so Papyrus fidgeted on his pedestal.


He and Sans lapsed back into comfortable quiet. The longer his blaster hovered over him as he worked, the more the tight knot of anxiety loosened in Papyrus' chest. It was funny, how little he noticed the tension he always carried now. He let it go, little by little, while he thawed the puzzle mechanisms.


It was nice until it wasn't.


Sans looked up when Papyrus sniffled a little too loud. “You okay?”


Papyrus nodded. When had he started crying? He was having a good day. Nothing bad was happening.


“Didn't burn yourself, did you?”


Papyrus shook his head.


Sans frowned. “Alright. Just, um, checking.”


He couldn't have a few hours of normalcy, it seemed. Loosening the knot meant all the mess came spilling out in tangles. It took a minute for Papyrus to decide what to do, for the stuck pages in his head to flutter open. Maybe it was something about being outside instead of in the house that made it a little easier to think about him. Or maybe he really was just getting better with time. Slowly.


“He kept me company when I did things like this, sometimes,” he said, just above a whisper.


“Oh.” Sans switched off the hair dryer and walked over, ready to pack up the gear. “Do you wanna go home, then? We can if you want.” All traces of levity gone, he stood by, patient and watchful.


Papyrus shook his head. “I can't just...not do things.”


“Okay. Just say the word if you change your mind,” Sans said. He reached up to give Papyrus' blaster a quick scritch on the jaw before heading back to his share of the work.


A feeling of safety and peace bloomed in Papyrus' soul, passed along through his connection with his blaster. It crowded out some of the sorrow, grounded him in the here and now.


“I think...I think I miss him.” Papyrus switched off the blowtorch before he lost track of the flame and set himself on fire. He stared hard at the frozen puzzle innards in front of him. “Is that insane?”


Sans was back at his side in an instant, literally. The puff of displaced air blew a layer of snow into the mechanism. “No,” Sans said, slinging an arm around Papyrus' shoulders. “You're not insane; you're you. I don't think you have it in you to really hate anyone.”


Rubbing at his eye sockets, Papyrus couldn't help a slight, rueful smile. Weak and stupid, just like Flowey said he was. A silly idiot.


Flowey would have been disgusted to know that he was missed. That Papyrus was mourning him, despite everything.


“It's fine,” Sans said, forcing a grin. “I can hate for both of us.” His anger radiated from him, almost palpable, not directed at Papyrus but at someone a month dead.


“It'd be easier if I could hate him, I think.” Any rational person would. The things Flowey had done and threatened to do were unpardonable. An innocent monster was dead, his friends had been put in terrible danger, and Papyrus had memories and scars and a new level of violence that he would never be rid of.


Flowey was gone now, but Papyrus couldn't go back.


“I feel like I'll wake up and these last few weeks will all have been a dream, and he'll be outside waiting for me.” Papyrus regretted saying that aloud as soon as the words were out. His brother's arm tightened around his shoulders.


“He's dead.” Sans pronounced this like the words were blocks of granite. “But in the unlikely event of a zombie plant, we'll just kill him again. Right?”


Papyrus wondered how unlikely that truly was. Flowey...Asriel had been dead already, hadn't he? Who was to say…? No. No, they'd burned everything that was left. He wouldn't let paranoia get a toehold. He was getting better.


Asriel was gone for good.


More words he didn't really want to say but couldn't really stop trickled out, giving voice to a thought that had worn deep ruts in his mind over the last month. “I wish there had been something...if I could have...”


How many lives was one life worth? It depended on the life, didn't it?


“That thing made his choices, just like the rest of us,” Sans snapped, grin falling into a scowl. “There's always a choice.” His expression softened. “You did the right thing, bro.”


It didn't feel like the right thing. If Flowey was on the hook for his choices, then Papyrus was, too. He'd chosen whose life was worth more, whose life had to end. What's more, he knew he'd make the same choice again without a second thought.


There at the end, at the moment of the final blow, he had brought all his remaining strength to bear with the single, suicidal goal of making sure Flowey did not survive. It had been an execution, not self defense.


His friends and his neighbors were worth more. Sans was worth more. Papyrus would do it again.


Spent magic drifted down around them as Papyrus' blaster dissipated.


“Are you sure you don't want to go home?”


Papyrus shook his head. “I'll be fine,” he said, turning the blowtorch over in his hands. He looked down into the partially-thawed switch mechanism. This job was going to take a lot of time still. “Maybe we could just sit here a little longer?”


“Sure, bro.” Sans leaned against him, solid and comforting. The shadow of his own blaster, still present, lay over them. “Take all the time you need.”


Minutes ticked by, silent, unraveling like an untied knot. A chill breeze shook the trees. The pine needles rustled a soothing whisper.


Every minute that passed took him farther away from Flowey. Farther away from everything that had happened. He was getting better. He'd keep getting better. He had Sans and all his friends nearby to help him. He just needed time, surely.


At last, Papyrus nodded and re-lit the blowtorch.


They got back to work.