> Look up.

The sky is really blue. But it’s a different kind of blue than Earth C’s sky; it’s less, somehow, like someone took a photo of the sky and turned the contrast down a little, just enough to make the clouds blend into the horizon. That is to say, it isn’t the kind of sky promised by a paradise planet. Just an ordinary one. You realize suddenly how much you’ve missed the ordinary, as opposed to the supposedly perfect.

You’ve been away from home almost as many years as you lived there. It’s not just the sky. Everything else is exactly and nothing like you remembered it: the scent of damp grass, the quality of the air, the solitude. There’s nothing but white houses and maple trees as far as the eye can see. A woodpecker raps away incessantly at the tree with the tire swing outside your old bedroom window.

You couldn’t think of anywhere else to go, so you and your little army are sitting in a circle in your old backyard exactly one week before the meteors hit. It’s you, Rose, Dave, Jade, and all four of your teenage progenitors, each dressed in god tier garb. No trolls. No one who can die from anything less than a heroic sacrifice. At least, this is what you assume to be the reasoning for Rose’s instructions to assemble your party this way.

Wind slices down the street, between the neat rows of bungalows. It’s chilly, carrying air from the mountaintops with it. Even that feels different. The wind moves through you now, under your skin and right into your bones, skimming their hollows the same way it does the homes of your salamander neighbors, or the open mailbox in front of your childhood house.

The smell of a cake baking wafts from the open window and the sick stench of browning sugar fills the yard. You used to hate that too, but now it makes you want to—

> Dude, don’t cry in front of all the cool teen versions of your friends.

You hold back your tears with a big, ugly snort. Jake is sort of ruining the mood anyway by bouncing away on your old Green Slime pogo. Doesn’t he realize how dangerous that thing is? Of course not. The fool.

Dave fractures the silence by broaching a subject that’s on everyone’s mind but yours, apparently.

DAVE: so whats gonna happen to everyone we left in the wrecked time line

JOHN: uh, well.

JOHN: i don’t know actually. i’ve been to that time line four times now and it always pretty much goes to shit.

DAVE: oh

ROSE: This has been bothering me as well. Is Kanaya going to be ok?

ROSE: And by Kanaya, I guess I mean... everyone?

DAVE: yeah what about karkat

DAVE: and terezi

DAVE: and the MAYOR??

JADE: oh my god!!!!!

DAVE: what

JADE: actually dave, i hate to say it but...

JADE: i think john might have actually saved the mayor by bringing us all here?

DAVE: what

DAVE: what could that possibly even mean

JADE: i just remembered......

JADE: before john zapped us all here, and unbrainwashed me

JADE: .....i think i was going to kill the mayor :(

DAVE: wtf jade no

DAVE: jade that is seriously uncool


JADE: i was gonna kick him right into the lava!

DAVE: that is fucked up on so many levels i dont even know where to begin

DAVE: its like an escher staircase of cartoon villainy

DAVE: i got nothing

DAVE: its so

DAVE: so...

JADE: grimbark? :B woof woof

DAVE: jesus no jade its stone cold evil

DAVE: i cant believe you just said that shit and then woofed at me

DAVE: i cant

DAVE: i cant even look at you right now

JOHN: uh, everyone, can we...

Everyone turns to look at you immediately, like you’re an authority. Which you kind of are. You are struck with the sudden and uncomfortable realization that you are the only adult in the yard. You’ve never felt like an adult until this moment. Eighteen came and went and nothing really changed except that you’re pretty certain you could grow a bitchin’ mustache now if you wanted. And you might even have one by now, if you didn’t feel a sense of duty to uphold the sacred Egbert family tradition of shaving at least once per day, even if it isn’t really necessary. You owe at least that much to the memory of your departed father.

JOHN: let’s chill out for a minute. i’m sure this is all very confusing to all of you.

JOHN: about the time line you’re leaving behind... yeah, i get it. it’s weird.

JOHN: i’ve already left one major time line behind. well, two if you count the one i just came from, where we’re all adults.

JOHN: the truth is, i have no idea what happens to these time lines and all the people living in them, when i just... zap out of them, to use my retcon powers to change stuff?

JOHN: they might stop existing completely. i don’t know.

JOHN: the thing is, we can’t really think about it.

JOHN: it’s tough, but if we’re all acting like heroes here, and trying to do the right thing, then we have to put it all behind us.

JOHN: it’s a sacrifice we’re making.

JOHN: i mean, we’re risking our lives by fighting a powerful monster, sure.

JOHN: but the sacrifice i’m talking about... is saying goodbye to the life we thought we belonged to, and all the people in it.

JOHN: probably forever.

JOHN: it sucks, and i’m sorry i had to ask this of you all.

JOHN: but there’s no other way.

JOHN: everyone who has ever existed, and will ever exist, is counting on us... i think?

JOHN: so...

JOHN: yeah.

> Shrug.

It’s all you can think to do to punctuate your speech of lukewarm inspirational value. Judging from the confused looks from the others, all of them may share your assessment of your own oratorical skills, except for one person. She’s perked up at your spiel, regarding you with alert and admiring eyes.

ROXY: damn

ROXY: john uh

ROXY: i know we just met and all but

ROXY: that was a fine ass speech and idk if i speak for the rest of my peeps here but im fuckin psyched

ROXY: lets do this shit

She *wonks* at you.

JOHN: uh.

You weren’t prepared to get passively hit on by the Definitely Not Legal version of a girl you used to have a crush on at the age she was when you first met her, only a few hours after you watched the Actually Legal version of her engage in passionate hand-holding with her possibly aromantic skeleton alien monster girlfriend. You start to sweat, and again the unwelcome odor of undercooked meat emanating from your body makes itself known to your nose.

JOHN: oh, um. thanks.

JOHN: anyway, we need to make battle plans.

You quickly distance your mind from any additional discomfiting thoughts about your old and semi-ex flame, and propel yourself into a wildly unrehearsed tactical planning session. You review each of your abilities, strengths, and weaknesses, and then cobble together a reasonably sound approach to besieging a young and bratty version of Lord English by way of surprise attack. The planning is mostly disorganized and structureless, although some common themes that often recur involve you and your original three friends leading the charge, since you are the oldest and wisest, and therefore the strongest, with the exception of Jade, whose gaudy array of powers make her the most formidable of the group, bar none. Aside from that, it appears the consensus is that the melee will likely devolve into an absolute free-for-all—at least going by the general patterns of incoherent banter, shit-talking, and points of pedantic tactical disagreement plaguing the jam session. You overhear someone making mention of... a huge, gay hope bubble? That can’t be right, but you didn’t catch who said it. A flamboyant pink spell? Yeah, this conversation is off the rails now.

At the precise moment you believe the meeting has outlasted its usefulness, Jake does you the favor of effectively pounding the gavel for adjournment by rocking back a bit too far on your lawn pogo and launching himself over the top of the ride on the next bounce. He face-plants right into the dirt.

JAKE: Jeepers!

Dirk goes to help your yard clean the Jake off its dirt. Jade follows, to help out. It seems she wants to chat with Jake, considering it’s the first time they’ve met, from her perspective. Some eruptions of chatter can be heard from other members of the group. It’s easy to forget, since the reunion between your friends and all your young relatives happened so long ago from your point of view, but this is all quite novel to everyone here. They’ve hardly had a moment to process it, since your plan to drag them all off to fight Lord English has understandably stolen the thunder of an otherwise poignant homecoming. Poor kids, you think.

You decide to give the teens some space to work through their shit before you take off to save the universe. You end up wandering all the way around to the other side of your house, and back, until you reach a window facing the neighbor’s fence. You can see straight into your dad’s study from here. You go still. Feet rooted to the ground, heart hammering in your ribs. Your dad’s sitting right there, smoking his pipe and operating his professional-looking, boring, gray PDA. He’s got the kitchen timer set up on his desk, and you can hear the notes of his favorite fatherly jazz album filtering out through the window, which is open only an inch.

The sun is hitting the glass in such a way that you can’t see his face.

> This is probably the last time you’ll ever have the chance to talk to him...

The urge is overwhelming. But you can’t, and not just because your feet won’t move and your throat is closing up. It’s just that... it would be a really bad idea to bother him. It would totally freak him out, to have an adult version of his son show up out of the blue and knock on his window like a creep. He probably wouldn’t even recognize you.

> Fair enough. It’s time to go, John.

You return to the backyard. Your teen friends have split off into genetically segmented groups: Roxy and Rose sitting in the grass, Jade and your shared ecto-parents laughing together by the Green Slime pogo, and the Striders leaning against the farthest fence, with a tense foot and a half of space between them. It’s heartwarming. But something doesn’t feel right about it to you, possibly for selfish reasons. It’s the selfishness of your own perspective, of wanting the memories you had of the reunion between all these people to be the most notable and legitimate manifestation of this event. To see the moment echo, or play out all over again, to overhear the heartfelt confessions repeat themselves... It feels cheap. To you, that is. To the man who lived through it all before and selfishly doesn’t want to have the memory tarnished with a tawdry reprisal, an exhibition of counterfeit emotional catharsis among pale shadows of those you care about most in the world.

You wonder. Do you see these teen versions of your friends as “real”? Are you treating them, at Rose’s behest, as simple puppets? Doing your part to insist they fill friend-shaped recesses in an essential plan to stabilize all else that can be considered important, a distinction no longer applying to them? Do you care at all about whatever fate it may be that you are sentencing these children to? Are you becoming as complicit in the fatalistic evils of Paradox Space as Lord English himself? Are you becoming a monster, John Egbert?

You can’t bear to watch them bond any further than this. Nor can you tolerate another moment of your self-incriminating reverie. You wait one more minute before breaking it up, but not a second longer.

JOHN: uh, hey kids...

ROSE: Please, Adult John, don’t do that.

Rose gets up from the grass, elegant as a fold in paper, and brushes down her skirt. She tilts her head at you, looking very much like your Rose did when she saw you off that morning. It’s obvious that she’s trying very hard to hide her apprehension.

ROSE: Is it time to go?

JOHN: yeah.

JOHN: i mean...

JOHN: no, if you want to be technical. i can zap us in wherever, whenever. we have all the time in the universe if we want it.

ROSE: But if we don’t leave now, you’re afraid we never will?

JOHN: heh.

After all these years, in the reverse direction, she still has your number.

JOHN: i guess it’s true that people don’t really change. they just grow up?

Rose gives Roxy a strange look, appearing to silently acknowledge an entire conversation that has been taking place, using a great volume of words that aren’t being spoken.

ROSE: I guess.

She smiles.

> Get the show on the road.

JOHN: okay everyone... i’ve never zapped this many people before so let’s all just...

JOHN: uh, hold hands, maybe? in a circle, i mean. that should work.

DAVE: god this is so lame

JADE: its not lame its perfect!!!

DAVE: nah

JOHN: shh!

JOHN: alright. is everyone ready, then?

Only Jade says yes enthusiastically. Everyone else takes a deep breath and looks around at each other. Hands are taken, some tentatively, some firmly. When all sweaty teenage palms are correctly clasped, you place your own hand on Jade’s shoulder and concentrate on where you need to go.

The last thing you hear before zapping away is your dad’s kitchen timer going off in his study.

> ==>