Chapter 4: Lost Brothers
The cold hit me harder than I thought it would. My memories of snow did not include the sharp chill or the numbness rapidly spreading through my limbs. I shivered as I walked, bundled tight in my too-thin shirt. I wished Toriel had given me a scarf or sweater, and then I felt bad. Selfish. She'd already given me more than I could ever ask for, and in return I'd broken her heart. I shook away the thought and looked around at the trees. Some niggling sense of intuition was prickling the back of my neck. Something was about to happen. I would…meet someone? The dogs were in the snowy area. Skeletons too. Papyrus? No, I would meet him a little later. No, now I would meet…
There was a gate with wide bars set in the path. I stopped and examined it for a long moment until I heard the crunch of the snow, of heavy footsteps approaching. Something tight constricted in my chest, and I wasn't sure if it was hope or fear.
"Human. Don't you know how to greet a new pal? Turn around and shake my hand."
I turned slowly, and there he was, his had extended and a skeleton grin spread across his face.
"what's up, kid?" he asked when I stood frozen for too long. "you're not planning on leaving me hanging, are you?"
I raised my hand, but instead of shaking his, I touched his skull and traced his cheekbone down to his teeth. He flinched in surprise, his eyes going wide.
"You're…Sans?" I asked hesitantly. Daydreams and darkness did strange things to my memories, but I was more certain of this than just about anything else I'd faced in the Underground so far.
Sans was silent a moment more, then he laughed.
"famous, am I?" he asked. "yep, that's me, Sans the skeleton. you're a human, right? that's hilarious."
I dropped my hand as he settled back into his routine. He tucked the whoopee cushion into his pocket and led me through the gate with too-wide bars. I wondered if he remembered, and suddenly I was filled with dread. Had I imagined his ability to recall other timelines? I'd held out a small shred of hope that I might not be alone down here. I'd hoped…
"well, I'd tell you to hide behind this lamp, but…"
This break in the script made me look up. I could hear Papyrus approaching, but my usual lamp was…upside down? I looked at Sans, and he shrugged helplessly. Right, errors. I searched frantically for someplace to hide before deciding on the sentry station. One impressive swan-dive over the counter later, I listened to Sans and Papyrus chatter. But Papyrus sounded strange. He always lamented Sans's laziness, but there was a sting to his insults this time, a twist of revulsion that I'd never heard before. He sounded cruel, and Sans's joke responses were measured, almost unfriendly. I shifted uncomfortably, and a board squeaked.
"WHAT WAS THAT?" Papyrus asked, and the menace in his voice made my blood run cold.
"hey, Pap, what's a skeleton's favorite language?" Sans asked. That was odd. Was he trying to distract Papyrus? Why? He'd always drawn his brother's attention toward my hiding places before.
"I DON'T HAVE TIME FOR-"
"french, because they greet everyone with bone-jour, they start every meal with bone-appetit, and they end every conversation with bone-voyage!"
I had never heard that joke before. Since when did Sans know anything about other languages? I couldn't help but giggle, and covered my mouth quickly to muffle the sound.
"NO, I HEARD SOMETHING," Papyrus shouted, and I could hear his heavy footfalls approaching. I stopped giggling and curled into the corner more tightly. Papyrus had never killed me. No matter what happened, he was the only one to always spare my life. But something was wrong, and I felt afraid as his footfalls grew nearer.
"aw, Pap, don't be such a numb-SKULL, there's snow-body here but the two of us," said Sans, and the bite behind the words was unmistakable.
I heard Papyrus wheel around with a snarl of rage.
"DON'T FORGET, SANS. IF YOU WEREN'T MY BROTHER, I WOULD DUST YOU," he said. "I'M GOING TO RECALIBRATE MY PUZZLES. WHEN I CAPTURE A HUMAN, I WILL TEAR ITS SOUL FROM ITS BODY AND YOU WILL CONTINUE TO LAZE ABOUT IN MY SHADOW FOREVER. IT'S THE ONLY THING YOU'RE GOOD FOR."
I listened intently to the crunch of his retreating steps. There was a long minute of silence before Sans called out softly, telling me it was safe to emerge. But I didn't move. The sentry station was warm, and I curled in on myself more. Even if it held only the illusion of safety, it was better than the cold, strange world out there. Soon, Sans peeked over the counter to see me huddled there and sighed.
"you look bone-tired, kid," he said. I nodded. Last night's incident with Toriel and the knife had seen to that. I looked over the condiments and selected the ketchup.
"You like ketchup?" I asked as I handed it to him. Sans took it as he sat down on the floor beside me. His bulk blocked out most of the cold, and I felt a little better.
"yep, and you and I have a lot to 'ketchup' on now that Alphys can't see or hear us."
The wave of relief was enough to make me squeeze my eyes shut.
"You remember?" I asked.
"yep, but you, on the other hand seem to have a few missing details," he said. I nodded. "and a bit of missing Determination." I nodded again. "and a missing soul." I hesitated, and then I nodded. Sans sighed.
I felt something in the world twist then, and my eyes snapped open. For a moment, I thought Sans had teleported away, but looking down at the ground made me gape a little. Sans was still here, but he was tiny, like a toy version of himself. It was the most adorable thing I'd ever seen in my life, and I couldn't stop the grin that spread across my face. I wanted to poke him, to see if he was as soft and cuddly as he looked.
"you know, this is particularly terrible because I don't think I can claim to big-boned anymore," he said. "little help here, kid?"
Sans was gazing mournfully at the ketchup bottle, which now towered over him, far too large for him to use. Still smiling, I reached over and held it for him with the nozzle pointed at his mouth. He gave me a thumbs-up, and I squeezed the bottle. A wave of ketchup almost knocked him over, and I giggled softly as he wiped the condiment from his face. But as Sans finished cleaning himself, the moment of levity passed.
"what did you do, kid?" the small-Sans asked heavily. "what happened out there?"
I turned away. I'd hoped for a friend, but after everything I'd done, I couldn't expect anything besides anger and disgust. Still, I'd given everything to stop Chara once, and as long as Sans was willing to fight beside me to stop Chara again, I could live with his hate. So I told him everything. Sans listened in silence as I talked and talked and talked. I told him about the timelines where I pried out every secret, about the timeline where I killed us all, about selling my soul, about remaking the world, about Chara, about dying, about the dark and dark and dark, and about the deal. I rambled on and on, a near endless stream of words and thoughts. I was used to this type of recital, but unlike in the darkness, here I grew tired, and my mouth grew dry and my voice grew rough.
My eyelids were heavy, and I buried my face in my arms.
"I tried," I said at last. "I tried to give you a happy ending. I tried to die. Please, I'm so sorry. I really, really tried."
"I know, kid," he said, running his tiny bony fingers through my hair. "but that doesn't quite explain everything."
I knew what he was talking about.
"The errors," I said. "Errors upon errors. Chara made them when it tried to restart the timeline."
"did it say how to stop them?" Sans asked carefully. I shook my head. "of course not. do you know how long they last?"
I hesitated before answering. Papyrus had obviously been affected somehow, but Sans hadn't seemed surprised to hear his brother's cruel words. That implied a much longer error than anything I'd ever encountered. I told him about Flowey turned Asriel, about Toriel turned Asgore, and about the size shifting during battle.
"But nothing lasted for very long," I insisted. "A few minutes, maybe a few hours for the flowers in the hallway. How long has Papyrus been like…that?"
Sans's eyes were completely black.
"two weeks," he said. "Papyrus isn't the only one. everyone in the underground has been affected somehow. sometimes it's just for a minute, sometimes…not. places too. the river around snowdin was replaced by lava yesterday. still didn't manage to melt the snow. the kids were swimming in it, even. no one seems to notice when things change, or when they change back."
"What can we do?" I asked tiredly. The world was beginning to blur, and I blinked to clear my vision. Sans was staring out at the world beyond our little hideaway. He slipped into the crook of my arm and settled down, looking fully prepared to settle in for a nice long nap. That seemed like a wonderful idea from my exhausted perspective.
"dunno, kid, dunno," he said, sounding as tired as I felt.
"Do you hate me?" I asked suddenly. Sans and Papyrus were, perhaps, the truest friends I'd ever known. Papyrus had no memory of the timelines, so befriending him again would have been easy if not for his mysterious error. I was afraid of him now, of what he intended to do. There was no mercy in his voice. But I'd become friends with people determined to kill me before. Maybe we could still become friends if I found a way to make him kind again. But Sans was another story altogether. I'd stolen life from him. I'd stolen the surface from him. He had every right to hate me, and no amount of resetting would fix it.
"do you know how long you were gone?" Sans asked. I shook my head. There was no measuring time in the void. "Nine hundred and ninety-two years." The shock was enough for me to raise my head and stare at him. Surely that was a joke. Almost a thousand years in the void? But Sans was looking at me seriously. "after you died, I waited for time to reset. when it didn't, I began to believe that you were truly gone. Tori dedicated the surface celebration to you. Frisk day. it's a day for friendship and gifts and resolutions to be better. Papyrus always made special Frisk-day puzzles for the little kids. I think you would have liked them. anyway, after seven hundred years or so, Papyrus was killed. I built a machine to call out into the void. I begged you to come back, to reset time so that I could see my brother again. I thought you couldn't hear me."
If possible, I felt even worse. Sans had spent the last three hundred years hoping for a reset, and when one finally occurred, an error stole his brother away just as surely as death had. Maybe this was even worse, to see someone walking around with his brother's face and knowing he was gone.
"I heard you," I said. "But I couldn't get back. I was lost and alone."
"I know, kid," he said, patting my arm without opening his eyes.
"I came back," I said, an apology, an admission, and a defense all in one.
My eyelids slid closed, too heavy to stay open. I felt Sans's hand on my cheek as I drifted off.
"yeah, kid. you came back. and you know what? you're not alone anymore."