It starts with a whisper, a breeze licking around his body and wisping straight to the bottom of his lungs. John breathes, opens his eyes.
He never thought he’d see this place again!
There's a single silvery black tree, cracked, glowing blue at the edges; a flickering, overcast sky. His cheek is pressed against concrete, affording him a sideways view of a familiar brick bottom of a white wall rising up and up and up until it ended under a overhang of mundane gray shingles. This is all really familiar.
The air is heavy underneath the clouds and stinks of ozone, just like it’s about to rain.
“John,” Rose says, pausing before the corner in their dark, airless meteor, “remember, we love you too.”
John stops. His foot falls halfway down on the stairwell. He could imagine the look on her face, her smoothed out orange robes, a hand poised against the wall, unlike Jasprosesprite- she's been so particular about her pronouns these days- and somehow, he knows with a chilling certainty she means you, this you, the John in the instance in this “time” and “space” and not any other Johns in her previous acquaintance.
What could she know?
How could she know?
"I have no idea what you're talking about," he says, and turns to give her a loose and cheery grin. "But I love you too, Rose!”
She doesn't match his memories. Rose looks older, now, prettier, her glowing eyes settled into her face. She takes two measured steps closer, boxing him in- unless he wants to fall down the stairs! and starts talking about important, battle oriented things, about Kanaya, about consequences of timelines beyond sight, beyond prediction, about saying goodbye, drawing out the seconds bit by excruciating bit until she gives him a quick flicker of a smile, and finally turns to leave around the corner.
John’s breath echoes harshly off the walls.
[Try again. Restart?]
No. Fuck that! Nothing's wrong.
“John,” Rose says, laughing as Dave splashes ocean water all over her stupidly frilly bathing suit, purple and black and alchemized fresh off the Maryam-Lalonde fashion press. “Get this dangerous maniac away from me!" A bucketful of water blurs over her makeup, smearing lipstick very slightly. "I am slain,” she says, waist deep in beach water, and faints into Kanaya’s arms, who obligingly bares her teeth and sprays Dave with one broad stroke. Dave splutters away, dipping and weaving wave crests as he flies awkwardly, rambling dire raps about old battles nobody even knows. Jade swims quick and deadly as a shark to ambush a yowling Karkat, and the splash fight comes to an ignominious end when John upends the top layer of ocean on top of all of them, and then quickly becomes the next casualty of soggy war.
This was a victory! Jack was defeated, the rings destroyed, Lord English trapped in a centuries long, 3 years turnways loop that was completely fulfilled and over with. Elation runs through them like an electric current, they fought their battles, they survived, they deserved it, everything happened just like Vriska and Terezi said it would, the game was won.
Water is everywhere. The entire new world is green and mild, all rolling hills and endless blue sky, slowly transforming into the warmth of summer. Earth summer, for a human value of Earth, if Earth summer lasted a year.
The important thing is there were temples, there were towns, there were people. Skaia was protected.
The trolls are all set up in their little camps, they are fussy and assiduous as their chatlogs would suggest, exact in requirements and hilariously outraged with any failure or imperfection. It’s kind of great.
In person, they are so weird. Double jointed, nubby, and gray, varying and different as any human, and they become a part of home.
Kanaya, Rose’s troll, searches carefully for weeks for a hole, of all things, to put the matriorb in, and after she finds a cavern, creates an entire little monitoring system that keeps all of them busy for days, and even without Roxy chattering in his ear about like Dave rambles John is excited because babies! Troll babies! Holy fuck.
The matriorb rots from the inside.
There doesn’t seem to be a reason for it, just as if the egg was infertile from the start. Roxy is devastated, Kanaya runs calculation after calculation in her incunursery, adjusting dials up and down and sitting miserably in chairs.
It’s surprising, but the humans and trolls can take surprises. They beat the entire game, didn't they? They just have to work together.
The second Matriorb, when finally eked out, just explodes after a week, a puff and a flashing crack of white that's so shocking Kanaya just sits down. And the third one turns a sickening shade of black and cracks after two days, dripping like oil into the ground.
And like this last Matriorb is somehow a catalyst, everything starts falling apart. The eternal spring fades away in the face of an onset of an unfriendly winter. The trolls drift in sudden huddles of small networks of homes, the humans break off to form exploratory camps, sometimes it's just too depressing to talk to each other. And well, everyone seems to be getting along better alone. Roxy and Kanaya are persistent with the Matriorb attempts in the now-cold cave, but it's as if the universe itself rebels against it- by the time the humans are 18, the trolls are plumbed down to the depths of existential despair. But look. It's not as if humans can't live without trolls, and ectobiology is still possible. But still, they're the last of their species left.
This is painful- John thinks, watching Roxy gritting her teeth and tears at the corner of her eyes as she tries to form the matriorb, and fails, and fails, and fails. They must have messed something up. Something went wrong.
No. It's not that big a deal, right? Earth C is where they belong.
Dirk and Roxy are friends, John knows, but even when he visits Rox he doesn’t do anything, he wouldn’t touch her with the slightest hint of harshness. He treats every last one of his friends like they are delicate as glass and just as breakable. He doesn't remember anything that happened in other timelines, and neither does Jake and Jane or Dave, even though Dave knows something might have happened, and John can somehow let them.
There's no point in bringing it up.
Karkat, Terezi, and Kanaya all sit in the shade of the cave, whispering furiously amongst themselves, the reflected sun just a little too strong for them, the cold just a little too unbearable for them, emerging from their blocky homes deep into twilight. It’s with a grim kind of solemn when they conclude that nothing can be done.
Kanaya these days, is a bag eyed, shoulder slumped ghost, and something about the days are stagnant, nobody can quite catch each other's eyes. Rose is constantly by her side. No one is really giving up anything, John assures himself. That would just be ridiculous. But there's no labs, no game, no ectobiology or alchemy, just an empty planet full of nothing, waiting for something to grow.
So, here is the chain of events: Kanaya convinces Rose. Rose convinces Dave. Dave talks to Karkat. Karkat and Dave talk to Jade, who quickly run a discussion with Dirk and Jake and Calliope.
“Can you try to stop me from going on this quest in favor of fulfilling this particular enzyme hunt? I think we narrowed down the most major event where the breeding gene was input... incorrectly.” Kanaya says to John, looking more optimistic than she has in weeks, cautiously, he pats her shoulder in friendly concern. He looks over her shoulder at Rose, who looks bright eyed but also tired, and Karkat, Dave’s arms around his shoulders, Terezi; he thinks with a twinge of annoyance, nowhere to be seen. Roxy sniffles and squeezes his hand.
This is a bad idea, probably. But this was just how Sburb was, one stupid idea after the other. Anyway, it worked out just fine the other times.
John gives them all a grin. Dave gives him a little nod. And, really? John is tired too, of watching the smiles slide off his friend’s faces. “Well, I don’t know how this is supposed to work, but maybe if you can tell me what you think we should do!” He says, and the group collectively breaths a sigh of relief.
Kanaya relaxes, hands curling open like a flower. “We’ve been talking, and we believe it was because of the failures we caused ourselves initially, before we even knew you. I had the matriorb, but I didn't finish all of my quests with Eridan. We didn’t work hard enough for it. I think I can find the period of time where it all went wrong.” She looks suddenly anxious. "If you're up to it, of course. I wouldn't dream of trying to force you to try again."
Out of nowhere, Rose moves forward to put her hand on John’s shoulder. “John, let’s not be melodramatic. This is your decision. You are allowed to stay.” Her hand is light as a feather. Everything in her eyes is lilac pale and enshrined in light.
John pats her hand. And, well, that decides it then.
Round 2 is very confusing.
He follows Kanaya’s directions to a tee, John zaps around in and out, flickering out and feeling more ghosty than Casper. He barely has time to talk, he figures it doesn’t much matter anyways. He has a job to do.
He drops in time to stop some battle, he drops information at useful places and changes the timeline at haphazard- it feels dangerous to let everything just flow as is.
When he really does pause for air, the situation is outwardly manageable, but seems gets worse and worse in mysteriously related and indirect ways, the sinking feeling of denizens backtracking and communication cutting off periodically everywhere and early an almost-catastrophe that sends John ricocheting through the troll’s beta-beta-timeline, hiding his face and appearing at the end of the Alternian revolution more than he felt was really appropriate, even if it was just flickering in and out like a mysterious alien superhero in a windsock.
He does learn a lot about Alternia, this time round, finding himself ankle deep in alien mud caverns and runoff of rain and some mysterious colored substance he really hopes is not blood; the matriorb stored safely against his dad’s wallet. The guard trolls are like, extra angry all the time, but their entire life seems to revolve around relationships and reproduction. This really does explain a lot about Karkat.
But then he tips off Rose’s stupid cueball head years early, who seems to anticipate his every move entirely, and the Condesce is pulled back as a last resort, their Jack isn’t there and Dave is indisposed the exact moment Jane dies- and Rose chokes in a way that twists the future enough a small retcon can’t do shit- through a small cascade of unfortunate events, everything changes. There is no new universe. Lord English wins.
His friends are dead, flippantly resigned as ghosts, they pat him on the shoulder in his dreams.
“What?” He says. “Again?”
The survivors on the empty lily pad look at him as if he’s an idiot.
Terezi pushes to her feet. Jade doesn't look up. Terezi's not grinning. She’s not teasing. She’s never seen him face to face, she’s never sat by him at the edge of an empty void and cackled her way through all his secrets, and she looks so entirely mad.
“This is your fault. This never should have happened. You have to fix this!”
He grabs her wrists and pushes her aside before she reaches for him. Her cane swipes at air, shockingly off guard. He supposes she's never fought him before, in this timeline.
John is not stupid. He knows he messed it up. He thinks of Kanaya and Rose and Dave and Jade, laughing on a beach, Karkat and Terezi hand in hand. The survivors on this astroid are desolate. He can't quite figure if the timeline he just left doesn't exist anymore, if it was destroyed to make way for this new one. He feels power thrumming under his skin. He can still try again.
There was no chance they- he- was going to sit here and wait for the scrawny remainder of their session to die when Karkat and Dave and Rose were just atomized. Dead, even. Dave, even though John didn’t really know it, was the stabilizing counterpoint to John’s shitty time travel, a time player regulating the universe even if he didn't even know it, and with even Aradia literally blocked out of this new Alpha by shenanigans, this entire reality was pretty much another little doomed ravel in the fabric of Paradox Space.
Well, that would have been nice to know 100 or whatever retcons ago. He just can’t believe they died. That everyone died.
Even Karkat, which is just inconceivable, really. John turns away from all the expectant gazes, tries to process what just happened, paces away from Terezi.
“I don’t know what I’m doing,” he says, and looks up at the survivors- at Dirk and Roxy and Kanaya and Terezi. Terezi, he's startled to notice, has actual tears in her eyes, furious in ways he can’t understand, and Roxy’s gaze slides over him and away without the faintest spark of recognition. This was wrong, not even doomed, it just should have never happened.
"But don't worry, I can just-"
Third time’s the charm!
It’s the first thing he says, banging onto ‘scene A’ with a hammer at the ready and slaying the giant ogre looming over his 13 year old self, before flashing to Dave’s planet to bail him out of the way of a falling pillar. Rose’s 13-year-old comments almost immediately start peppering his screen.
Everyone out of the goddamn way! He has a fist full of wallet, a body full of cheats, and a head full of empty. He grins at his confused 13 year old self, at Dave’s startled sword stance, and Rose’s calculating expression, which is also her way of being confused.
This time he has a real plan. A timeline, even, collaborative and everything. There was so much gratuitous fuck ups the last time that he had to have learned something. Nothing could go wrong!
Round 3 throws secrecy and efficiency out the window, he keeps all lines of communication blasted open so early the trolls barely have time to antagonize them. There's an advantage to being a badass super powerful teleporting hero who can literally handle anyone. John avoids the pinpoint specific event correcting that made all his friends fight him the last time around, and even when other John mysteriously dies in a Typheus related accident John rushes to cover it up and to his shock, it's almost like nobody notices. But that can't be right. This time, both races work together, he’s just a facilitator, and he pretends he doesn’t know a thing. He kind of knows the track he has to keep it on to keep the cueball head from interfering before he's dead. He just shouldn't mess with Alternia. This time, for sure, it has to work.
It’s not the same, somehow, being the outsider. “Don’t worry,” he says to his younger self, before his younger self disappeared. “You’ll become me.”
You’ll remember me, he thinks. Remember this, remember-
Sburb is strange. It’s written into their minds. It’s like some actions were always meant to happen, and he’s just a blip on it’s radar. Sburb subsumes, it’s inside of him, taking over him, every breath is like his last. Nothing can go wrong.
One night, when he’s dreaming, or maybe wandering on a familiar, empty meteor on the furthest ring, Meenah pops out of nowhere for a visit. “Blue boy!” she says jovially, “Just the human I wanted to sea!”
“No reely,” she says, twirling her double sided fork to her side. She looks him up and down, and smiles slowly. “I thought about what you said. I’ll take you up on it! Pretty creative of you, making yourself indispensable to my future reign. I can work with that. Tail me, got any more suggestions to discus?” Her eyebrow raises in amusement. “Anenome more threats?” The fork disappears with a sharp pop. He eyes her with suspicion, but Meenah doesn’t seem to be intent on doing anything other than giving him an unnerving shark teeth grin.
“Look, I have no idea what you’re talking about,” he says, touching off the ground a little, ready to fly. “Nice seeing you, Meenah,” he adds.
Meenah is unbothered. “Whatever, blue buoy,” she says, “Remember to come see me! You’ll come crawling back to me for shore.”
She grins at him, he stares at her, and when she refrains from trying to stab him to death, he flies away.
At some point when John becomes John, and they keep on playing like it's not a big deal because a giant green snake monster said so; because in Sburb people are the same people even when they are long dead and twisted backwards, in a decidedly anti-ship of theseus kind of way, and also because no one can seem to think straight unless John is around. John starts zapping back and forth through timelines, becoming different timelines, but he can always seem to remember what he’s supposed to be doing. He can’t help but remember. It’s only natural. He's been in this game nearly his whole life, he knows it inside out, he can see people’s lives twine together like vaguest wisps of smoke, and at least with every change he makes is John is John is John, even if no one remembers it. He pulls and pushes and forces things to work together. Gets mechanics from the veil. Holds back the time of the reckoning, but lets it happen anyway. Threatens to zap onto the meteor if they can't pull themselves together for 6 hours. The green sun is especially tricky, but while he's changing things, might as well lock Lord English out of the loop.
And, finally, in the end, it worked! It really worked! As the sprites and players disappear one by one through that door, the endgame door, all the Players know innately, subconsciously that everything went exactly to plan. John’s face hurts from grinning so much. Easy. Two planets to support two species, a for sure glitch-free matriorb, a healthy new universe. Sure, it took a few mistries, but look at this new human planet. It was so peaceful, so strong, incorruptible. It was worth it in the end. With distance from the game, their powers slowly wash from them. The trolls don’t make contact. The kids all live past 16.
Then try 3 all goes to shit.
“John,” Rose says, like she knows everything, “remember we love you too.”
He watches her stand up like unfolding twine, she looks down at him with all the serene intensity of the green sun. His breath echoes harsh off the meteor walls.
“You- I, you let me stay,” said John.
“Of course I would say that." She grins microscopically, like this is one big seer joke. "It’s your decisions that make you, John. Our choices. And I must say, well done. I must think for anyone, this is a great accomplishment. Thank you for doing this, John.”
He looks at her, barely daring to believe what she can see. “You…”
“Kanaya's not on this planet,” says Rose. “I'll miss her. Do you think this really is the answer?”
“Of course,” bursts John. “Don’t you remember? If we tried to be on the same planet- This was the only way to make sure- we worked so hard for it, Rose!” Rose’s answering nod and smile is relief. She's so bright. He’s so glad they’re all alive.
On the new, beautiful, planet, there isn’t much water. Instead, there are layers, strata and floating isles and natural majesty that is amazing in it’s sheer alien-ness. Their powers fade with distance, with time. John feels the thrum of power under his skin. He waits for that to fade, too.
John’s 18 like everyone else when Rose gets impatient for interplanetary communication, then absolutely determined. The 8 human kids conspire in hallways and dig up computers and drag sketchy meteor technology all together- Dirk and Jade on tech, Rose and Roxy on esoteric methods, the remaining sprites plumb themselves for information and nearly drive themselves crazy trying to communicate, to shift, but for all their careful, elaborate, time traveling space changing machinations New Earth's text messages can’t quite manage to reach a corresponding signal. John’s a little bummed. Pesterchum was a pretty stubborn universal constant, after all.
But, it’s no problem. There are several old ruined labs on their new world that are useful. First, Rose and Dirk and Jade devise alchemizers. Transportalizers, when that doesn’t work. Coding and science and universe defying physics, bickering all the while with the sprites remaining on their own planet.
Then one day, suddenly, Jade gets so frustrated green sparks shatter the screen around her, and out of nowhere, a frog appears with a faint plop over the nearest counter.
The kids stop. Jade blinks at Dave's stare. “That was me,” she says, surprised, “I didn’t know I could still do that.”
There’s no real reason to stop her from what she does next.
In the split second before she screams, John knows something is wrong. He feels a pulse, a suddenly empty line dropping off into the distance, like she reached too far and snapped at the tip, as fragile and undefended as a twig, like there were ten missteps where they forgot to give her support. John jumps and grabs at that fragment, that flash of awareness that’s gone before he even starts to move, the world dissolving into flashing blue wind around him, but there's nothing there and and his heart jerks and he gags.
Jade howls, raw, and gone in a second.
[error: error: This universe does not possess a green sun/they aren’t in a medium/they are in a new universe/where nothing works like before. Dave and Rose too startled to react, there’s blood coming out of Jade’s ears and eyes and mouth, oh god, oh god, oh god-
“What happened?” demands Dave, frantic.
“Get Jane, now!” Rose’s voice comes out whip sharp, and there’s the whirring of the fans in the background and slamming doors and screeching and shouting, and all John can see is the slow pulse of Jade’s breath. He shakes her a little. She has to live. Jade's got to live. He needs her to live.
Jade's breath gets alarming shallow as her eyes slide lazily across his face. She’s not looking for him. She’s still looking for— he can see it, he knows, she still wants to be somewhere else.
Trolls, humans, this session, they are all intersected as tight as twine, what was wrong with them? What has to happen in every timeline? Is something wrong? Are they all just supposed to suffer, or die? No, it's fine. Everyone's still alive. He can live without seeing the trolls 24/7, everyone can live! They could be…
Jane makes it in time. Jade doesn’t die. Even Dave, stiff-quiet, who obsessively watches her every new twitch, refuses to admit that nothing will be fixed.
John alchemizes her a floating chair and stacks her favorite physics books on her lap and tries to surprise her into reacting, because Jade is still alive, if vacant as a ghost.
The day before Rose disappears, she finds him, and says with absolutely resounding synchronicity to a timeline that never was: “John, could I ask a great favor of you?”
He hesitates, and she catches it immediately, so he grabs her hands and says earnestly, “Of course. Rose, I’d do anything for you.”
“Thank you, John. You couldn’t know how much I value your presence in these times.” She smiles. It’s the first smile he’s seen in a long, long while. “In advance, I do apologize for what I will even ask.” He watches her disappear into her room.
Fix this! It’s not like she said that, right? They all know it’s not that simple. Rose knows he doesn't want to try again. It’s not like there’s no way to fix Jade.
He crouches down by Rose’s body, the full length of her, and stares.
Where the fuck is
dave? Where was Roxy, her mom? Where was Jane, and Dirk, and Jake?
This couldn’t happen. She couldn’t let this happen. This is bullshit.
There are so many things he does not understand. This game, the game, where even if you were an absolutely normal human you would just die for no reason in a corner of a universe where everything could be good enough but good enough would just collapse like a house of cards- why? How many things will this game do just to fuck with them? What was so bad about Earth? It’s not like Earth was a terrible place to live. Isn’t it possible to just possible to- isn't it possible to live without Sburb- his understanding of the game is-
This strain of sudden and inexplicable disaster is too familiar.
Once Rose told him it was his choices that made him, that he always had the option to stay, it’s fine if you stay. Is this supposed to be some kind of choice? What did she see? She really can't live without Kanaya? What is she trying to say? Is this his fault? What was she warning him about? Why can't he remember? What is she trying to make him do? John is young, he’s too old for this, how long has it been, he’s living in circles, he’s nothing. He doesn't understand. There was a deal he was supposed to make. He just needs to
The interim before destruction and resetting is like a clusterfuck. It's blurring the lines between death and inevitable death, it's jumping right back into the dreambubbles, it's world hopping and time traveling, he messes up so many timelines just to make contact with the denizens until they listen. By Choice and contract he can barely remember who he is, he remembers Sburb, and horrorterrors, and long nights talking for deals he can't understand, his whole world is without the sun. Empty eyed ghosts and small hard-earned victories. He needs a break. He needs a break. He tries again.
He wakes up. birds chirp above him.
John sits up, accidentally kicking the covers off his bed.
The room is white. Everything is white, smooth walls and familiar shapes.
When he breaths out, it’s a rattly sigh from too small lungs. The air curls, hypersensitive and gentle and soft. There’s a feeling of comfort he doesn’t understand.
The world is so bright.
While he's staring at the shitty neon wall doodles it all comes crashing down onto him. John stands up. It feels surreal, like he’s outside his own body, looking him over to stare at his own shape of his small, pudged up hands, soft and ever so slightly calloused from practicing piano. The air smells like leaves falling. The truculent scent of baking wafts through a familiar closed door.
His dad calls from downstairs. Still feeling tired and light and floaty, John hops out of his bed and goes over to his old computer, shiny and still supremely old fashioned, the button to power it on inconveniently around the back edge of the top right. He rolls his eyes at his own forgetfulness as he flicks it on.
Whoops. It was already on. This isn't a dreambubble. He waves the mouse a bit, and Pesterchum boots up with a soft sigh.
Red and Purple pulse gently at him. He tries to marshal his memories into order. He remembers Rose. Jade. Dave. A wheelchair.
GG is grey.
He stares at it.
-- gardenGnostic [GG] came online!
-- gardenGnostic [GG] began pestering ectoBiologist [EB] at 16:13 --
GG: oh! john, are you awake??
EB: i.... think?
EB: are you?
GG: obviously!!! i'm messaging you, aren't i?
EB: well, i am just making sure!
EB: you know, it isn't always that apparent
EB: am i dreaming, jade?
GG: you don't have a dreambot, and mine is glitching out, so we are both very awake.
EB: oh man, i don’t care about your shitty robot, i missed you!
GG: john, that is so sweet, i miss you too!
GG: <3 <3 4wfr
GG: sorry, bec's freaking out :(
GG: he just blew up my whole room! he is such a bad dog!!
GG: i’ll go see what he wants…
EB: you have bec?
GG: john, are you ok?
EB: of course! go see what he wants
GG: it looks like grandpa is destroying the lab again.
GG: i know, he is so ridiculous
EB: is that.... normal grandpa behavior?
GG: well he did shoot my dreambot last week
EB: he did?
GG: yes! That's why it's glitching out remember? at the grandpa-granddaughter party???
GG: the what??
GG: i told you all about it yesterday!
EB: oh yeah, of course you did.
EB: that is totally a thing i remember
GG: john, you're acting kind of weird!
EB: this is nonsense you write. lies.
GG: yeah doofus go on denying it that's sooo convincing!
EB: it is such slander I am called the weird one here
GG: well it's libel if it's on pesterchum :p
GG: like you told me yourself last week :p :p :p
EB: well, changing the subject why did your grandpa shoot your dreambot again?
GG: he was playing fetch with bec
GG: oh no!
GG: i’m sorry john! i’ve got to go!!!
GG: the robot crashed into the volcano i need to go salvage it and protect it from attacking my grandpa!
EB: ok jade, i'm glad you are doing fine!
GG: haha ok fine mister but i will talk to you later!
GG: don't think you're getting away with anything! byee
-- gardenGnostic [GG] ceased pestering ectoBiologist [EB] at 16:18 --
One by one red and purple and green crowd onto his screen, behind sparse blue text, and he sits back on his chair, this doesn’t make any sense. This can’t be right.
No, this is what he wanted. Right?