John looks up to see Rose waving at him while hanging out the hatch of a troll cruiser. John tries to smile at her, but all he can muster is a weird, queasy expression. Rose looks glad to see him anyway. She drops to the ground when the modest cruiser comes in for a landing, followed out, regrettably, by her daughter, Vriska.
Shit. John flies up to greet them, more quickly than he would ordinarily in a situation where he wasn’t trying to divert his friend’s and her teenage daughter’s attentions away from a couple making out in a bush. He dips forward like he’s going in to hug Vriska (to her apparent surprise, due to his historical complete lack of desire for any physical contact to be made between them), but instead uses his momentum to spin her all the way around so that her back is facing the cursed shrubbery in the distance.
VRISKA: Whoa! Hey, Old Man.
JOHN: hey vriska, hey rose. nice to see you both!
ROSE: John, I—
John and Rose appear equally surprised themselves when Vriska hauls him in to seal the deal with a crushing hug of her own.
JOHN: haha. geez! hi vriska!
VRISKA: Hi John!
JOHN: this is great. just great. hey, why don’t we just go over here to talk, for like. no reason at all? ha ha.
ROSE: O... kay? If that’s what you want.
JOHN: oh yeah, it’s the thing i want most. the view on the other side of this ship is just... AMAZING. trust me.
Rose cocks an eyebrow at him. Behind her, the bush releases a strangled, lusty honk.
ROSE: Was that...
ROSE: Vriska, why don’t you go and help your mother with the deployments?
VRISKA: UGH. I can’t 8elieve I have to Actually Listen to you now that we’re At War.
ROSE: Run along now, dear.
Thankfully, Vriska heeds her mother’s command and heads back to the cruiser. Rose tries to glance back toward the source of the suspicious honk, but John pulls her behind the ship, beyond audible range of the activity taking place in the offensive bush.
On this side of the cruiser, troops are departing the hold in single-file efficiency. They’re all decked out in full Alternian military garb. It’s the cool, Tron-looking stuff with the luminescent cording that matches their blood colors. Rose is wearing it too, John notices, in black and lavender. He gives her a concerned look up and down, then holds out his hands, palms up.
JOHN: so... i guess this war is really happening?
ROSE: I understand that you don’t want to be involved, and I respect your decision. However, I wanted to speak with you before we left.
JOHN: oh, thanks. i actually appreciate that a lot.
JOHN: i think i would have been pretty bummed if you went off to your potential doom without saying goodbye.
JOHN: now that i think about it, that’s how this all started, isn’t it?
JOHN: you were so sick that it looked like you were dying, and i was about to leave on a perilous mission.
JOHN: but now, here we are.
JOHN: it’s almost like...
JOHN: the circle of stupidity is complete?
ROSE: Don’t be ridiculous John. Nothing is complete.
ROSE: There is no true ending or beginning in this scenario.
JOHN: ha ha. yeah, right. because this is real life, right?
JOHN: i guess reading narrative relevance into a bunch of dumb and totally random events is kind of lame and childish.
ROSE: No, that isn’t what I meant at all.
ROSE: By all means, apply a narrative to our lives. Up until a certain point, it would have been perfectly accurate to do so.
ROSE: But not anymore.
JOHN: because... it’s not canon, right?
ROSE: Do you remember what I told you years ago? About the three pillars of canon?
John strokes his chin and thinks very hard on this. Maybe too long, because Rose sighs and taps the bridge of his spectacles.
ROSE: “No” is a perfectly valid answer to that question, John.
JOHN: i just didn’t want to make it look like i don’t pay attention to your wordy philosophical babble!
ROSE: I philosophically babble rather a lot, or at least I used to.
ROSE: It would be unfair of me to expect you to retain nearly three decades of oblique technical jargon regarding the metaphysics of the reality in which we inhabit.
JOHN: wow, we’ve known each other a long time.
ROSE: Yes, we have.
ROSE: It would be more accurate to say that we both have and haven’t known each other a long time.
ROSE: As I explained to you on that morning sixteen years ago, there are three critical features of canon: essentiality, relevance, and truth.
ROSE: We have been untethered from the mooring of “truth” for some time now.
ROSE: So while we, in our subjective experiences of conscious perception, feel in this moment that we have known each other for a very long time, technically it’s not true at all.
Contemplating the vastness of that statement makes John feel suddenly very small and sad. He shuts his eyes and runs a hand through his hair.
JOHN: oh my god, rose. it’s too early in the day for this.
ROSE: I agree.
ROSE: And besides, that’s not what I wished to speak to you about.
ROSE: Look at me.
Rose wraps her narrow hands around John’s arms and pulls him gently toward her. He cracks his eyes open to see her face glimmering in the late morning sun. Her eyes are glossy and bright in the gleaming light.
ROSE: I want to thank you.
JOHN: for... for what?
JOHN: didn’t i fuck everything up by not going to fight lord english?
JOHN: it’s my fault we’re all living in this meaningless hell world where everyone’s vaguely out of their minds, and we’re all about to go to war over... freeing prisoners from the whipping cream camps!
ROSE: Oh, whatever.
ROSE: The war is just as irrelevant as everything else that’s happened here in the last decade and a half.
ROSE: At least with a conflict, we have something to DO.
ROSE: Something to strive for and against. Something to believe in.
ROSE: I’m thankful for that. But more than anything, John, I’m thankful that I got a chance to be happy.
ROSE: I never...
Rose pauses meaningfully, as if the realization is falling into place as she says it.
ROSE: I never thought I would actually get to be happy.
JOHN: rose... you weren’t happy before?
JOHN: when you married kanaya? before you got sick? when we were all together?
Rose shakes her head. She brushes past John, out toward the open field, away from the brewing battle. The land is so flat that it rushes out to meet the horizon uninterrupted for miles and miles. Rose is a pale flame against the brilliant haze of a perfect Earth C morning.
John doesn’t follow after her. He lets her compose herself privately with her back to him. She clasps her hands in front of her and raises her head to look at the perfectly blue sky with its perfect sun and its perfect clouds, unmarred by the dark storm brewing on the planet below.
ROSE: In Complacency of th—
She corrects herself.
ROSE: In the silly wizard story I wrote when I was a child,
ROSE: The realm most comparable to heaven existed in a state of subliminal conditionality, dependent on the inscience of the individual experiencing it.
ROSE: Which is to say that it would cease to exist the moment you realized what it was.
ROSE: And so, those with knowledge could never truly be happy.
John looks at his hands. The same hands that held Harry Anderson when he was a baby. The same hands that tore up Terezi’s photograph just a few hours ago. The same hands that remember steadying Rose on her sickbed sixteen years ago, and the shaking feeling they’d awoken with that morning: a subharmonic symphony that can only be heard in the bones. All things that remain “true” to him. Knowledge of what came before his choice, and then after. There are things that he can’t forget. That he won’t forget. Is this the reason he’s felt like this for so many years?
ROSE: But that isn’t me anymore.
ROSE: I am blind against the veil of this world.
ROSE: It’s all ambrosia to me.
ROSE: I don’t care if it’s not true. I care even less if it’s not canon.
ROSE: I have a beautiful wife who I love more than I thought possible, and a daughter who I am immeasurably proud of.
ROSE: It can all be senseless, ephemeral noise that dissolves in the void. A whisper swept up by the wind before it’s uttered.
ROSE: I’m still grateful to have felt this way.
ROSE: So, John...
Rose turns around, smiling. The smile is calm and honest. Her eyes are perfectly clear. There is no other word that could possibly do justice to her expression. She looks happy.
She comes forward to give him a kiss on the cheek. John wraps his arms around her shoulders, pulls her into a tight hug, and breathes in the scent of her hair. Whatever the truth of the matter is, she still feels tangible and real to him. What does it mean to be real, anyway?
Around them, the first wave of bombs start to go off. Bright pinpricks of light and dark that flash and flame out, leaving a nanosecond of absolute, dead silence in their wake.
John’s laughing when they part. They’re enveloped in a cloud of smoke and dirt so thick that they can barely see each other. Despite what Rose said about there being no ends or beginnings for them anymore, it feels very final. And in that moment, he thinks he understands. Finality was always up to him.
He finally decides to allow it.