3

It’s a beautiful day in the Carapace Kingdom, just like it was in the Human Kingdom and just like it was in Salamander Village. For whatever faults this paradise you created might have, you sure don’t hear many complaints about the weather. You’re sitting with Roxy and Calliope on a giant, chessboard-pattern tablecloth. It’s a nice touch, you think. But if you spent any time shopping in the Carapace Kingdom, you’d know most things you can buy are chess themed.

Friendly carapacians go about their day around you, passing through the park with their eyes politely averted as they pretend not to notice that three celebrities are having lunch in the grass nearby. It’s extra polite of them, because you and Roxy are having a very personal conversation.

JOHN: she looked alright. mostly just tired.

JOHN: at least she seemed to have enough energy to babble at length about philosophical gibberish, and things about canon and such.

ROXY: lmao

ROXY: guess she filled you in on all the ultimate self junk then

JOHN: the what?

ROXY: the shit where she starts knowing everything and feelin bad

JOHN: oh. that’s not the term she used. she just kept describing it as a condition.

JOHN: you haven’t been feeling anything like that, right?

ROXY: what getting to know my ultimate self?

JOHN: yeah.

ROXY: man ive barely got a hold of my basic ass self

JOHN: heh.

JOHN: yeah, she said she was the only one going through this, that she knew of.

JOHN: poor rose.

JOHN: at least all that medication seems to be keeping her sort of functional.

Roxy gives you a serious, sidelong glance.

> Remember that whole totally unprovoked spiel Rose gave you about substance abuse.

JOHN: she said it wasn’t like that!

JOHN: i mean... she said it was under control.

JOHN: well, what the fuck do i know. the only illicit substance i’ve ever done is lick that STUPID trickster lollipop.

JOHN: NEVER AGAIN.

ROXY: yeah w/e

ROXY: cant say its much my business anymore

ROXY: rose and i arent as close as we used to be

You nod, sort of knowingly, because you’re thinking about how you hadn’t talked to Rose in ages either. Roxy gives you a quizzical look, but you turn away before she can draw meaning from it.

ROXY: maryams been keeping her real busy since they got hitched

ROXY: they both vanished down the brooding caverns and that was p much that

ROXY: only since she got sick and spent more time at home did we start talkin more again

ROXY: its been great but our conversations have been a lil bit upsetting

And, here it comes. The thing you were trying to avoid thinking about the moment Roxy texted you, about how you haven’t talked to Roxy in ages either. You were having such a nice time ignoring that fact, too.

> Change the subject.

JOHN: so, are you and callie still living at the same place i last saw? the one near the tower?

You look towards the bell tower in the distance. It’s a gothic building so tall that it cuts a shadow through the midday sun. It’s an important landmark in the kingdom—the tallest structure for miles around—and the only way you can ever navigate your way here flying. Carapace architecture is otherwise identic, a reflection of their functional, collectivist society.

ROXY: yup

JOHN: that’s cool.

JOHN: it’s a nice place.

ROXY: yeah i like it here

ROXY: ive thought about it but ill probably never wanna live in a different kingdom

ROXY: still feel most at home around the chess guys

JOHN: makes sense.

JOHN: that’s about how i feel about the salamanders.

JOHN: which... i realize actually makes no fucking sense.

ROXY: haha

JOHN: they lead simple lives.

JOHN: i don’t really care for the chaos of human or troll cities.

ROXY: neither do we

You watch Roxy smile and reach for Calliope’s hand.

> Look away before you start dwelling on it.

You start dwelling on it immediately, looking probably quite conspicuous with how quickly you whipped your gaze away. But seriously, what is up with their relationship? Is it romantic? Platonic? Can cherubs even have a romantic relationship? Are they even interested in it, like, on a fundamental level? Do their brains and hearts even work that way? Questions like this used to keep you awake at night.

You look at them, at where Roxy’s fingers are entwined with Calliope’s green claws. Calliope is still wearing the Ring of Life. The same one you obtained in a ludicrous adventure through the afterlife, and then re-obtained in a ludicrous adventure through canon when it was stolen from you. It’s the same one that allowed Calliope to stop being dead in the first place, and to come live with your friends here on your beautifully renovated home planet. And it’s the same one you gave Roxy all those years ago, to fulfill a promise made to a very special new friend.

At the time, the gesture felt so important. It felt more meaningful than any gift you’d ever given. Like there was some grand emotional gravitas about it that signified something deeper than... than what it turned out to be.

You have since concluded you were just imagining things. Ascribing symbolic meaning to gestures that they simply didn’t carry, like the dumb kid you were.

> Tactfully avoid saying anything at all about Roxy and Calliope’s weird, ambiguous relationship.

JOHN: uh, so...

But you can’t stop thinking about it. What goes on in Roxy’s head. What she thinks about you.

You and all your friends have dispositions affected by your classes and aspects. You think you know what that means in your case. But what about her? You can only speculate. Void is a place where things sink and disappear. Where they linger forever, but cease to exist. You aren’t actually sure if your feelings for Roxy ever really faded, or if they just grew numb with time and distance. Is it the same for her?

You search your soul for the answer, but come up empty. The truth is, you suspect her mental interior is unfathomable. In fact, you feel sure of it.

You wonder suddenly, watching her. This version of her, that is. The one with whom you share all these bittersweet memories—will you ever see her again?

CALLIOPE: ahem.

CALLIOPE: john!

JOHN: what?

CALLIOPE: please forgive me if i come across as impatient. bUt if we are finished with the pleasantries, i believe yoU have a choice to make.

JOHN: huh?

CALLIOPE: the choice as to whether yoU will go defeat my brother, or stay here.

CALLIOPE: have yoU decided yet?

JOHN: there’s a choice??

Calliope is smiling brightly, but Roxy’s face has no expression at all.

JOHN: i was just assuming i had to go.

JOHN: because if i don’t, then...

JOHN: a lot of stuff will stop being real. or i mean, stop being canon?

JOHN: to tell you the truth, i’m a little confused about what will happen if i don’t go.

JOHN: but it sounds like it will probably be bad!

CALLIOPE: that may be so.

CALLIOPE: we are not here to caUtion yoU aboUt the conseqUences of yoUr decision either way.

CALLIOPE: bUt there is always a choice!

CALLIOPE: roxy and i merely wished to invite yoU here for a nice hUman picnic, and show oUr sUpport for whichever decision yoU make.

ROXY: tbh its a relief to finally be doin this

JOHN: it is?

ROXY: mm hm

JOHN: how much have you actually... talked about this? i mean, how many people knew this was going to be a thing?

ROXY: just us and rose. well dirk too i think

ROXY: shes been talkin to me about it a bunch

ROXY: and him too but i dunno how much

ROXY: hes got like

ROXY: “thoughts” about all this shit

ROXY: but whatever thats not important or even remotely surprising

ROXY: bottom line, rose has been tormenting herself about having to tell you

ROXY: im just glad she finally said it so she can rest

ROXY: now its up to you

CALLIOPE: yes. take all the time yoU need.

CALLIOPE: again, we aren’t here to inflUence yoU. it’s very important that the decision come from yoUr desire to go throUgh with it, one way or another.

CALLIOPE: any tampering coUld taint the resUlts.

JOHN: taint the...

JOHN: wait, what?

ROXY: so whatll it be john

A chill runs through you and stays there.

> Consider the gravitas of this choice.

You try, but you can’t, because you weren’t really prepared for it. You didn’t think it was a choice at all until this very second. You think back to the way Rose looked at you before she went to bed. What has she told Roxy that she didn’t tell you? The chill tightens around your throat and turns into fear.

No, not fear. The feeling is worse than that. It’s regret.

You wasted your time here on this idyllic restoration of Earth. Why did you spend so much time alone? Moping around the house mourning your dead father, who probably would have wanted you to get more enjoyment out of your teen years, as well as your unusually early retirement. There’s so much you could have done. You could have even reached out to Roxy again; maybe she was waiting for you to do that. Maybe your withdrawal hurt her. Maybe she was heartbroken, just like you kind of feel right now. You study her perfectly stoic face and conclude nothing from it. Her expression reminds you of how Dave used to look, when you first met for real, before years of living with Karkat softened him up. Impenetrable cool.

It’s too late to figure any of this out now. You fucked it up already.

Unless, of course, you choose to stay.

Upon further examination, you realize that Roxy’s stoicism isn’t cold. There’s concern there. She is displaying restraint, keeping quiet while you make up your mind. You’re sweating, you realize. Cold sweat. Even worse than the anime nightmare sweat you woke up soaked in this morning.

ROXY: john u ok?

JOHN: ...

ROXY: looked like you were gonna pass out there for a second

Suddenly, Calliope bolts upright.

CALLIOPE: of coUrse! what was i thinking.

CALLIOPE: this decision is far too important to be made on an empty stomach.

She fetches the picnic basket, which naturally has been sitting there on the tablecloth since the moment you arrived.

CALLIOPE: here, before yoU choose which path yoU’re going to take, yoU shoUld decide what yoU’d like to eat!

CALLIOPE: i have packed a wide variety of provisions. easily enoUgh to satisfy even the most ravenoUs picnic-goer’s appetite.

CALLIOPE: behold, an array of savory delights for the carnally inclined.

CALLIOPE: or perhaps something for yoUr sweet tooth, if a lUst for treats is what stokes yoUr desire?

Calliope produces two dishes from the basket and begins gingerly unwrapping them. The unwrapping is so ginger, in fact, that there’s something almost dramatic about it. Like the opening theme to that boring sci-fi movie with the monolith and the bone-throwing monkeys should be playing as she peels away the cheesecloth.

On one plate is a pile of meat: rare, almost bleeding cuts from animals you can’t identify. The other plate holds a generous heap of colorful, exotic-looking candy. You scoot to the side and peek into the basket to see if there’s anything else. There’s a book in there, but no more food. This is all there is.

> Contemplate your lunch.

You put a finger to your lips and focus on the food with great intensity. You stop fretting about choices, and heartbreak, and eternity, and Lord English. Your entire world narrows to a single point of light as you are utterly consumed by the overbearing decision about which of these absurd meals to have for lunch.

> MEAT or CANDY?

Meat or candy. The two possibilities pinball around your skull. Meat or candy. It’s a tough choice. On any other day you might be inclined to simply follow the whims of your cravings, but no clear victor surges to the forefront of your mind.

Either option offers a tempting means of sustenance. You know the meat will be rich and filling, and if you’re being honest with yourself, you haven’t had the most robust diet as of late. You didn’t even have breakfast. It’s probably a good idea to eat something resembling a real meal for once.

But you’re no stranger to Calliope’s tastes, as far as carnivorous comestibles are concerned. You know every cut on that plate is rare to the core. It’ll fill your mouth to bursting with juice, lie heavy on your stomach for hours to come as your body works to break down all the nutritious protein and fat.

It might be tough to chew. It might be even tougher to swallow.

Maybe the candy is the better choice for a picnic like this. Something that’ll go down easy and fill you with bright energy as you pass the time with your friends. You know you need to just let go sometimes, and stop worrying so much about what other people expect of you. Or even what you expect of you. It’s not a bad thing to enjoy yourself just for the sake of pleasure.

But eat too much and all that sweetness could make you sick.

Roxy and Calliope glance at each other in confusion as you deliberate over what to eat. You suppose it’s taking you a while to choose, but each dish is appealing enough in certain ways. Each has its potential dietary drawbacks. You don’t want to make a decision you can’t stomach.

Meat or candy, John. Meat or candy?

You release your breath when you realize you’ve been holding it. You’re being ridiculous. What’s the sense of fussing over lunch? In the end, it really doesn’t matter. Whatever you choose, it’ll all be flushed down the toilet tomorrow.

Just go with your gut. Don’t sweat the small stuff. There are much more important things out there to fuck yourself up over.

To Be Continued

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