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Papyrus sat up in bed, instantly awake.

And then, before he even really knew what he was doing, he was lunging out of bed, kicking open his door, racing down the hall, and all but ripping Sans' bedroom door off its hinges. Then he was kneeling at Sans' mattress, scooping up his brother, sobbing into Sans' chest, burying his face in Sans' jacket.

"woah, hey," Sans murmured groggily, still half asleep. "hey, calm down, take it easy, it's okay." He cradled Papyrus's head in one hand and reached around to pat Papyrus's back with the other.

Papyrus cling to Sans, clutching his jacket in an iron grip, the jacket seemingly only moments ago, Papyrus had been holding, its wearer gone.

The thought made Papyrus cry all the harder, sniffling and choking and sobbing in his brother's grip. And for another snatch of a moment, he saw that quiet apathy on Sans' face again, as he collapsed to dust, that calm resignation, the acceptance of his own death, and once again, Papyrus felt that raw terror and grief ripping through him.

Sans' grip on him tightened. Papyrus could hear Sans talking, distantly. Telling him it was okay. It was over now. He was safe. Sans was there. He would keep Papyrus safe. He would always keep Papyrus safe. It was okay. He would protect Papyrus. Papyrus was safe.

Sans told him.

And there was that moment, Sans stepping between Papyrus and the human, taking the life-ending hit that was meant for Papyrus.

Protecting Papyrus.

Papyrus's wails rose an octave.

Sans just held on to him. He started rocking a little, side to side, and rubbing Papyrus's back.

Papyrus didn't know how long they sat there. Sometime, Sans gave up in words, switching to humming a quiet, simple tune. He still held on to Papyrus, arms wrapped tightly around the distressed skeleton.

Papyrus tried to reign in his ragged breathing with limited success. Every time he came close to calming down, he would remember how he held on to Sans, how Sans went from holding on to him like he was now, to going limp, to crumbling apart—

And the cycle, this small cycle, Papyrus falling into grief, sobbing and crying, would start again in a cruel echo of the bigger cycle, his encouraging words falling on deaf ears, followed by his own skull falling in the snow.

Eventually, in one of the lapses, where he had almost gotten control again, Sans quietly encouraged, "c'mon, bro. i don't think you can handle whatever this is alone. just tell me what's wrong, 'kay?"

And Sans' gentle prodding was all it took, and before Papyrus knew what he was saying, the whole thing came pouring out, how they were stuck in this cycle, how they almost always died, and Papyrus didn't know how to stop it, how they just kept coming back, except no one but Papyrus remembered, how he kept waking up, like it was all some twisted nightmare, except he was stuck in the same day, again and again, how he didn't know what to do anymore, how nothing worked, how it was getting harder to do anything, because every time, what he did failed, making it harder to do something else, because nothing worked, and he couldn't do anything, he couldn't do anything, why couldn't this be just a nightmare, just a nightmare, he couldn't do anything, he kept thinking next time, he'd have better luck next time, but he couldn't—

Papyrus sucked in a sharp, pained breath as he realized something, as it sank in, all the way to his Soul.

"pap? are you— you alright?" Sans asked in a halting voice.

Papyrus lurched upward, tearing out of Sans' grip, the sheer horror of his realization shaping his face into something shocking. "H-how long?"

Sans just blinked.

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