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Like One Sundered Star

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Depending on how fast they went through the gate, they pop out in different ways. Vriska, Terezi, and Tavros, who had the hilarious misfortune to get punted through at high speeds by Typheus, apparently came flying out miles away from shore and skipped over the water like stones until they stopped flopping around and remembered how to float themselves the rest of the way to shore - John gets to hear all about that one when Vriska regales everyone with the story at top volume around the 'We're Not Dead, Time To Commit Celebratory Arson!' bonfire on the beach. The denizens themselves take off the second they come through - Typheus scoops them all up in a tempest and flies up into the sky without a word to anyone else. The Black Queen and PM, dropping out of the air with no wings left between them, fall out of the gate fifty yards down the beach and into a deep inlet of water, so they don't splat like pancakes by landing in the shallows. Dripping and half-strangled due to reasons unknown (but which are really obvious, considering) PM trudges down the beach a half hour late and tackles AR and WV in a scuffling, arm-flailing reunion.

(No one seems to know where the Black Queen went. The White Queen sleeps on a shallow, grassy incline near the edge of the treeline, her carapace riddled with faint grey seams, and no one remembers how she got there, either.)

The ones who walked through like normal people step out into knee-deep water. Karkat's still kneeling where he landed when John stumbles through a minute later, the sobs ripping out of his chest in broken, choked, wordless screams, with a dark red bloom around him that's either dried blood washing off his clothes, or water spontaneously turning into blood.

The small, shining white door vanishes half a second after John steps through. He drops down and wraps his arms around Karkat, instead, and rocks him as the cold water seeps into his shoes. Something hot and gnarled forms a lump in his chest, too high up for the water to cool it - John blinks furiously to keep the tears away, and watches with blurred vision as Kanaya walks out on top of the water, to come help them to shore.

-

It's Jade's island, but not. The volcano that dominates the northern half blew its top a long, long time before they arrived - it's half the size Jade says it used to be, and greenery covers the wide caldera almost as thickly as it does the rest of the island, like it hasn't erupted since. Several small, white-domed observatories poke out here and there along the edge of the volcano - with the familiar, blocky shape of Lalonde Labs stuck crookedly next to a thin waterfall like an afterthought - while the shallow white dish of a radio telescope is just visible in a ragged dip in the caldera's edge. Glass-clear fish dart through the water under their feet as Kanaya and John, between them, coax Karkat to dry land; when they get closer, John sees that some of the flowers dotted along the beach twirl in the breeze, like tiny spirographs blooming and cycling over and over again in a rainbow of colors. When he leans all the way back and scans the sky, he can just barely make out a dark red ark ship, so far off in the distance that it looks tiny compared to the lush green moon that hangs in the early morning sky.

So, yeah. Things are weird. When are they ever not?

Feferi doesn't look up as the three of them finally hit the beach and Karkat sinks back down onto his knees on the wet sand. She sits with her knees curled up to her chest, her mouth hidden behind her folded arms as she stares out over the water with a flat expression in her eyes. Her frilled ears stay clamped down against the sides of her head. Occasionally a wild strand of her hair bobs in the breeze. But apart from that she doesn't move an inch as she waits. She looks like she just finished crying.

Kanaya leads them around Feferi in a circle to give her space - which is harder than it sounds, when Karkat's determined to bury himself in a pile of sand like a crab - and over to a grove of trees with thick, branching leaves and rough-looking yellow-green fruit. It's not actually that hot out, even in direct sun, with the Breeze winding around the beach and exploring everywhere; John still sags with relief the second they're in the shade and he sees Rose sitting cross-legged next to Dave. "Jade spied Oriole over the forest," Rose says, in an undertone. "She thinks the scratch kids are roaming around there, as well."

"That's good," John says, but his mouth moves on autopilot. He knows he sounds weird, even though he's not snuffling and gasping for air like Karkat. Rose reassesses their group with a flicker of confusion; then her mouth parts, and John looks away from the shock as she realizes who's missing, and why.

Because of all people, who would've thought Gamzee wouldn't make it?

-

Jade returns from her short jaunt through the jungle flushed and grinning, with her hair full of leaves and Jane and Roxy in tow. Nepeta prowls away to hunt down Dirk and Jake the traditional way, but the general consensus is that all of the scratch kids are okay. Roxy sprawls out next to Dave, occasionally poking his cheek to make him pull a weird face in his sleep until she grows bored and joins Terezi and Vriska down the beach, while Jane leans against a tree where she can keep an eye on the edge of the jungle. Oriole circles around on orange, sail-like wings over the observatories in the distance, wheeling closer to the replica of Lalonde Labs with each pass. He gives them a barely-visible thumbs up when pinged.

Sollux arrives last, right when they're about to give up on anyone else making it through. For John, it's been half an hour since he and Karkat got here. Surrounded by very confused bees, Sollux just flies out of the gate, shrugs, and says he left only a few minutes after everyone else went quiet. Time was kinda busted, though. He takes one look around the beach and plops down with Jade next to Feferi to watch, and wait. His bees fill the air with a low hum as they bumble their way to the slowly spiraling flowers and investigate in the lazy heat of the day.

-

The gate doesn't open again. Feferi stands up, brushes the sand off the back of her clothes, and walks into the water until it closes over her horns. Thankfully, universal Wi-Fi is still in effect: she messages Jade that she just need to 'clear her head,' and vanishes into the sea.

-

For the most part, the only people on the island are people that they know - including some that Jade teleported onto an ark ship to evacuate, and who now have no idea how they walked out of the gate on their own two feet apart from 'weird Space reasons.'

Which, in practice? Means that instead of finding someone cool and famous that John recognizes (like, say, Nicolas Cage), they find people like Diamonds Droog and Hearts Boxcars on one of the islets that form a circle around the bay. By the time Jake and Nepeta stumble across them on their quest to scout the islands (before Jade can tell them she knows every inch of the place backwards and forwards), Boxcars has stripped off his shirt and ripped the ragged legs of his pants off so that they're shorts, and laid out on a rock to fry himself beat red in the sun. Droog sits under a tree, watching the tiny, scattered clouds drift by on the wind overhead, apparently without expression. Neither Jake nor Nepeta recognize the third person on the islet - it's just some random troll with a brand new laptop, who has discovered the wonders of an omnipresent internet connection and is going to town. "Beats the desert, any day," the troll apparently tells them, without looking up from her screen. "Please send water, we've been sitting out in the sun for fucking ever."

"But how did you even get here?" Jake asks, nonplussed, as he hands over his water canteen and Nepeta lines herself up to tacklepounce Boxcars.

"Heck if I know." The troll shrugs. "And if you see a sunburned guy carving horses into the rocks around here, with a dumb meme face painted onto a volleyball? Just…let him do his thing. I think it's a part of his 'process.'"

-

Spades Slick and Ms Paint turn up on the next islet over, all set up with a pair of beach chairs and the shade of an rocky arch where the underside of a cliff has been worn away. Ms Paint hushes them with a claw tapped against her mouth, smiling, and Spades slumbers on, the knife he has strapped to the end of a pole stuck point first into the sand.

-

Bro finds them.

Well, he just shows up all of a sudden, crouched silently on a tree branch in the shady grove like some kind of shady…guy. When John finally notices him with a jolt, Bro sticks a hand in his pocket and pulls out a second set of pointy sunglasses to wear on top of his usual pair. Kanaya tilts her head back a half second too late to see it, her claws falling still where they've been carding through Rose's hair, and then she nudges Rose with a low murmur while John's jaw drops.

(As far as John can tell, he's the only person who sees this happen. When he tries to mention it to Rose later, all subtle-like, she just raises an skeptical eyebrow. In the end Dave agrees that Bro probably did that entirely on purpose so no one would ever believe John.)

"Been checking the place out," Bro says, like he's picking up a conversation where they left off. "There's a greenhouse at the base of the volcano."

"We're doing fine, too," John replies, which is the snarkiest thing he can come up with when he feels this burnt out. It's also a big fat lie. Karkat, laying on John's lap as he nurses a crying headache, shifts and makes a terrible, small sound into John's stomach, and John blinks a couple of times. Dave rolls over in his sleep, his face buried in the dark fabric of his wadded-up cape, but otherwise doesn't react to Bro's appearance.

Bro tips his head ever so slightly in the world's tiniest maybe-nod of acknowledgement. John's too worn out to get aggravated by it. "Might want to check it out, later," Bro adds, cryptically, and then exchanges a series of increasingly arched eyebrows with Rose in a silent contest of wills. Or possibly a Strider patented variation on Morse code, communicated solely through snarky eyebrows - Strider-Lalondes are really super weird, and John wouldn't put it past them.

…Rose can't even see Bro's eyebrows. John digs his fingers into the side of his head and tries to massage his brain until it stops whimpering. Then, with a grumble, he pulls out his phone and scrolls through Pesterchum, where he finally finds a memo with Rose and Bro's chat handles and an endless stream of TT: *raises eyebrow* and TT: *Raises eyebrow even higher* and the occasional TG: *raises eyebrow the highest* from Oriole.

"All in good time," Rose says, matching Bro's neutral, cryptic voice almost exactly. "Father dearest."

Bro raises a second eyebrow to join the first, then settles in a crouch on the balls of his feet. The patchy rays of light that fork through the thick leaves catch his sunglasses as the Breeze picks up. From the tilt of his head and the way he's angled, John knows that Bro is standing guard - covering the side of the beach that falls in Jane's blind spot. This could be the most peaceful place in the world, but John isn't sure any of them are gonna be able to really relax for…a while. The Breeze might be doing loops around the island with wild, boundless excitement that filters through John whenever it comes back around to greet him, but regular old John still has a horrible weight in his stomach, and his ears prickle in anticipation of hearing another [crack] at any given moment.

John finally takes the bait. "Why? What's in the greenhouse?" he asks, with a sigh. Karkat curls up into a tighter ball; John calls a soft, discreet breeze through his fingers and runs it over Karkat to keep him from overheating.

"Someone you punks should probably meet."

-

Doctor Lalonde turns up wandering the radio telescope facility rather than the beach. John, who left the Strilonde memo open as he let his hand rest on the cool, shaded sand, catches a sudden TG: *Raises eyebrow at 4,207.3 meters* appear at the bottom of the screen. According to her and Oriole, Lalonde Labs itself is deserted: there's no sign of any of the scientists and interns that Doctor Lalonde boarded an ark ship with. No one can find any of the oodles and oodles of snakes that they gathered in the labs, either, which is probably for the best. An unknown, probably giant crab-shaped party raided all the refrigerators and left empty packages of chilled roe cubes scattered all over the floor, and no one can find any of the colorful Expo markers or chalk, which means they've got at least two lusii roaming the island – a problem for another day.

Equius goes. First, he approaches them stiffly, like Rose sits on some kind of friendleader throne instead of in the crook between two gnarled tree roots. For the first time in a long time, John can see Equius with no trouble at all; his hair is blue-black in the sun, and he squints to see in the sudden shade, his eyes exhausted but surprisingly clear of pain. His arm ends in a clean slice just short of his shoulder; John's so, so happy he wasn't here when Equius asked Kanaya for some classic medicull assistance with her super-powered space chainsaw. Because eugh. "I require parts to begin the construction of prosthetics for Nepeta and myself," Equius says, stiltedly. "If the facility still has power, it should also contain most of the necessary tools for prototyping."

A shift up above - so slight that the leaves don't even rustle. "Need help," Bro says. It's not a question.

Equius stiffens, and then relents with a sigh. "…Another hand might be useful, since Nepeta has cavalierly run off on her own."

"Then let's bounce."

"We'll keep you in the loop," Rose says.

By the end of the day, Equius has accumulated more help than he knows what to do with. Jade and Roxy and Dirk and Jake and Nepeta arrive in staggered waves, mostly curious, with Doctor Lalonde 'supervising,' a glass of mango juice in hand, and Bro darting in and out. A huge crash! rings out over the island late in the evening, audible even from the beach, followed by the sounds of Equius throwing them all out of the lab for distracting him.

"Nobody say anything," Nepeta hisses, and then she treks off into the jungle with a glass of coconut milk held high over her head, a prankster's glee in her eye. Her cackles carry through the trees over the crackle and snap of the bonfire after John salutes her pranking zeal.

-

The Black Queen's ring appears to be a shiny, powerless piece of jewelry here, and nothing more. Equius keeps it in a pocket of void for a few years after - until, one day, he reaches in to check on it and comes up empty.

(A Queen always has her ways.)

-

Dave wakes up with an indescribable expression - John would sum it up as three-fifths 'not dead yet' yuckiness and two-fifths 'I just napped for an ungodly length of time and nothing feels real and my mouth tastes like dying' grogginess, but there's an extra element in there that defies simple words. John sympathizes with it immensely. "What time is it?" he asks, peeling himself up off the ground. His face scrunches up in a very recognizable post-nap headache pang as he flops over on his back.

"How the tables have turned…" Rose trails off. She's beaming like the sun, like the relief finally has unknotted something inside her that wound up tighter the longer Dave was unconscious. Then she pretends to consult the clock on her phone. Dave's too distracted by his post-stab nap revival to appreciate it. John stifles a laugh - Rose's grin is contagious - and fires off a quick message to Jade to give her a heads up.

Kanaya rolls her eyes at both of them and checks the time herself. She scrutinizes her phone for a solid minute, perplexed. "I don't think anyone's phone clocks are working, at the moment. Something about surviving close proximity to the Lord of Time seems to have disagreed with them," Kanaya informs Dave at last, as Rose plants a kiss on her cheek and pushes away from the base of the tree.

"Hell, that's fair. It sure as fuck disagreed with me," Dave mumbles. He scratches one of the scars that run down the length of his face, then sticks a hand into the sand under him and raises, squinting as the sand trickles out between his fingers. Then he grunts and pushes up on his elbows, taking in the early afternoon sun and the ocean lapping against the beach in front of them. "This is peak fucking irony. My last pair of shades, fucked - and I'm on a beach."

Rose reaches him first; John's still gently extricating himself from Karkat's exhausted deathgrip when Rose very elegantly pats Dave's head and messes up his hair. "Glad you're okay," she says, still smiling the hardest John has ever seen her smile, while Dave does his best to look up at her with one eye scrunched up.

Jade teleports in and performs the most gentle yet merciless body slam hug ever performed by a human being; John crawls out from under Karkat a second later and joins her, monitoring Dave's 'oof!' for any sign of real pain. "Dude. Let's not do that ever again," John says, muffled, and then their whole pile jolts as Rose flops on top of them. Dave grumbles, but Jade is defying gravity with scientific precision to avoid putting any of her weight on him, and John's floating on a thin cushion of air, so it appears to be a token grumble. Dave makes a valiant effort to pat them all on the back to complete the group hug.

"Then again, if we run into another situation where reality is breaking down and we're stuck with a Lord of something or other, we've probably done something wrong!" Jade says, laughing. This close, when John turns his head to nod with her in agreement, they only avoid headbutting each other by a narrow margin.

"Don't fucking put that idea out there! The universe will hear you!" Karkat yells from his curl-huddle. John nearly topples the whole friendpile with a jump - he thought Karkat had passed out from crying - and Dave tenses up. There's a weird sensation for a split second, like John's ears are about to pop -

Nothing happens. "Huh. Gonna have to get used to that," Dave says, scratching his face again. Rose shifts a little to prop herself up, her hand absently climbing toward her eye, and Jade rolls her eyes at John as she quickly flicks both of them before they can start picking at the skin.

"You don't have any time powers at all, anymore?" Rose asks, quietly, in sharp contrast to her silent, pretend slap fight with Jade. Her hand shoots out with unfailing accuracy to boop Jade on one of her Bec ears, and Jade's mouth pops open.

"None that I can tell. Shit, dude," Dave says, with feeling. Another one John can't quite pin down - a little bit wistful, a little bit relieved. Dave starts to fidget, and John pokes Jade in the stomach to get her attention back so they can all give Dave some space to breathe. "No aspect, no nothing. I can finally call myself the Dude of Guy, just like I always dreamed of -" Dave starts to ramble, and that's when it hits John.

His hand shoots out and he grabs Dave by the shoulder; Dave twitches, blinking in alarm, and John stares at him solemnly. "Dave. Dude. You don't have an aspect." John pauses, and then waggles his eyebrows with weighty significance. Dave stares back at him, still uncomprehending. "You know what this means, man."

Slowly, Dave's hand creeps up, and he presses it to the side of his face as his jaw drops. "Oh…my god," Dave says, faintly.

John grins. "You're ass-less."

"RIP my ass," Dave says, a grin blooming on his face.

Jade buries her face in her hands, and bursts into helpless snort-giggles.

Terezi stops dead just outside the shade of the trees. Shaking her head, she turns and starts walking away. "Never mind, I'm going back to the normal side of the beach. The Vriska side of the beach." After a moment to let the shame of that sink in, she waves. "Smell you later, coolkid."

"Take me with you," Karkat groans, waving a useless claw in the general direction of Terezi's back.

-

They head over to investigate the greenhouse as soon as Dave finishes transforming his white-and-grey clothes into something more tropical beach-worthy. He flatly refuses to give up his hooded cloak aesthetic for perfectly understandable reasons, but eventually winds up sleeveless and in shorts. John's default state is short-sleeved and 'breezy,' so he's good to go. Rose and Kanaya are both down to tank tops and wrapped skirts; they have to leave excess fabric in the form of god tier hoodies behind in a pile on the beach. Karkat's miserably red in the face from sweltering in the heat by the time John convinces him to shrug off his jacket and swap things around so he has short sleeves. He looks a little less likely to faint after that, but the misery doesn't go away - it just fades into fatigue and resignation. John's not sure it will go away for…a long time. His own smile feels kinda brittle, but after sitting on the beach for a few hours he's built up enough restless energy that the Breeze tugs him along with infectious drive.

As one, they all opt to fly over the thick jungle rather than walking through it. Dave is wobbly and can barely fly above the level of the treetops on his own, but it's more than he was ever able to do as a Time player. Eventually Jade slings an arm around him and they bound ahead of the rest of the group.

On the one hand, it feels dangerous to leave Vriska sunbathing on the beach. On the other hand? Worrying about Vriska is getting pretty overrated.

John almost flies right over the greenhouse itself. Unlike the astronomy observatories crowning the volcano, the greenhouse blends in almost seamlessly with the lush growth around it. The sunlight winks off a pane of glass before he gets too far. From above, it's clearly built in the shape of a Space symbol, the arms spiraling out between the trees. Ropy vines and interlocking tree branches obscure parts of the glass roof. A wide, round atrium sits in the center of the symbol, clear of the trees and lit up with direct sunlight, and Jade and Kanaya gravitate toward it like magic.

The door isn't locked or anything. After Jade slides it open, they leave it hanging wide open behind them as they wander inside. John brings up the rear and turns in a slow circle. The humidity in here feels slightly damper than it does outside. In a small pond right by the entrance, a pudgy white frog with flickering eyes sits in the center of a lily pad as wide as John is tall. It ribbits at him when he comes over to check it out, then hops off the lily pad into the water with a tiny plop.

John looks back over his shoulder and considers closing the door with a tiny loop of wind -

For a second, he swears someone is lurking in the trees outside the doorway. It sends a weird, familiar jolt through him, like he just banged his funny bone against the wall.

He leaves the door, and floats faster to catch up with everyone else. Karkat stumbles a little on the gravel path that winds through the plants, his head hanging low and his swollen eyes mostly fixed on his feet. John brushes their shoulders together and Karkat raises his head just long enough to smile at him, quiet and small. Then, up ahead, Dave says, "Uh, hello? Anyone home?" and Karkat's expression morphs into horror as Dave nearly sticks his whole head into a huge lily flower.

"She's here," Kanaya says, absently. She reaches out, carefully plucks a sky blue flower with a globe of thin petals from one of the nearby plants, and tucks it into Rose's hair - and doesn't explain at all who she's talking about. The pond water burbles behind them, and the sound carries through the room under the faint hum and chirring of unseen insects.

"She?" Karkat asks, his voice rough. He reaches out and seizes Dave by the back of his hood as they walk by, and proceeds to drag him away from the plant without looking back once. John checks over his shoulder again, but enough plants grow between them and the entrance that he can't see much through the leaves.

"She!" Jade replies, with a sudden bounce in her…bounce. Her eyes spark with sudden delight, and she skips ahead of Kanaya and Rose to round the last bend in the path. "Hey, wait -"

John hurries up. Karkat matches his pace after a lurch, towing Dave along in their wake. "Pardon our intrusion," Rose says, as they step beneath the curve of one of the huge flowers from LoFaF, and John automatically raises his hand to wave at the two people sitting on the edge of a round, stone platform, lit up by the sun. But he catches only a glimpse of the second person - a tumble of curly dark hair and faded red cloth - and then, without warning, the only one remaining on the platform is a young, short girl in a pale green sundress and a red bowtie.

Her face is a familiar skull, with sharp incisors and deeply carved bone structure, but her glossy eyes are the brilliant green of Jade's power, and the odd, deep green skin that covers her skeletal frame doesn't stretch to bursting over unnatural muscle. She folds her claws together in front of her chest as she smiles at them; they're longer and more hooked than any troll's claws. "Oh! Yes, um…Hello! Welcome!" Calliope says, and her voice sounds nothing like her brother's.

"Hello again, Calliope," Kanaya says with a toothy smile. Jade's busy frowning at the spot next to Calliope like it has personally offended her; John does a quick check with the Breeze, but whoever sat there a second ago has vacated the premises.

Calliope hops down off the platform - she's actually super short. John blinks as the cherub walks over to them with a clatter of clawed toes and bony heels on the smooth stone that covers the floor here. "Sorry, sorry. I'm not used to having visitors yet! I had a whole speech planned out, and everything…" she says, trailing off, while John gets used to the fact that the Muse of Space is shorter than Rose, with the bright, earnest voice and eyes of someone who doesn't look or sound much older than any of them.

"Was someone there, just now?" John asks, to be sure - after the weird lurking at the entrance, he's not sure what he just saw.

"Yes! A cosmic cryptid, one might say. We were in the middle of a conversation, but – well, never mind!" Calliope sidesteps a little, her movements fluttering and flustered as she flits around to look at each of them in turn, like a hummingbird. "First! How are you all adapting? What do you think of the place? Does everything here work the way you're used to? Any problems with gravity?" she asks, darting in on the tips of her toes to inspect Dave's face. Dave takes a step back automatically, his exposed eyes a little wild as he looks at John for backup.

John shrugs, and puts in his two cents. "I mean, most of us can fly - so."

Calliope nods seriously, her expression fiercely intent as she takes John's words into consideration. "Right, right! I really hoped you wouldn't have too many issues! I think that I am quite good with gravity, if I do say so myself!"

"This is Jade's island, correct? Have you recreated Earth in its entirety?" Rose asks, running her hand along the edge of a large pot near the edge of the floor, while Kanaya approaches the central dais.

The cherub Muse twirls around to face Rose, a bright, skeletal grin crinkling the skin around her eyes as she hurries to explain. John catches a glimpse of Calliope's ribcage through the loose armholes of her dress - even with the strange, thin layer of skin, it's a little unsettling to look right at someone's bones. "Pretty much! I, uh, might have improved it all a little," Calliope admits, scratching her zygomatic bone with a sheepish look in her eye. "I tried to make a study of your world and your people, even while my predecessor was rather determined to wipe them off the map, and I noticed that your solar system seemed a little difficult to live in, as a general rule. I checked with my consultants, but they didn't really have any opinion on it."

"You improved the solar system?" Karkat says - it's the loudest thing he's said all afternoon. Apparently, being appalled by someone casually altering the solar system in her spare time is enough to make him jerk his head up and stare in abject horror.

"Which is why the moon is suddenly covered in trees? And air!" John says, snapping his fingers. He can feel it way, wayyy off in the sky, if he concentrates - it's kind of hard to miss that there's an extra Moon-sized atmosphere full of breathable air that begs to be visited by a Breath player. It's just that the second they were back on Earth 2.0 (or maybe they're on 3.0, by now), John's focus automatically fixed back on his immediate vicinity, rather than wandering around the way it did in the Medium.

"Er, I may have gotten a little creative with the physics to make things more hospitable. Earth is pretty bog standard, with a few tweaks here and there, but figuring out how to live on some of the outer planets may prove an interesting challenge for you, still!" Calliope folds her claws together again and squeezes tight, her eyes shining with excitement as she hurries back over to the dais. She hops up next to Kanaya and taps part of the stone with a claw. A diagram of the solar system appears in the air over the platform, with all the planets outlined with green light, and Calliope starts pointing at each one with a claw as she chatters on. "And I added a few extra decent-sized planets, since 16 seemed like a nice, round number, and the denizens requested a larger place where they wouldn't have to deal with tiny uninvited people for a few millennia -"

"She improved the solar system," Karkat says, dropping his face into his hands, his voice muffled.

"That's going to be…interesting," John agrees.

Dave, free from scrutiny, sticks his hands back in his pockets - then reconsiders it and removes one so he can jerk a thumb up at the sky. "And Condy has interstellar travel down, so the sky's not exactly the limit," he says. "Where's that King dude? We need him to start quoting Star Trek."

Which is…a weird thought that John has never even thought of before. They all flew around the Medium at will throughout the final round of the game, yet the thought of having easy access to the rest of the solar system still feels bizarrely unreal. Heck, the Condesce's fleet of giant space ships doesn't seem half-real, either. Out on the beach, with the sea-salty air and the warm sun, the overwhelming fact that their whole world was gone seemed to fade into something distant and aching. "Space - the final frontier," Jade says, enchanted, as she walks forward to float on the other side of Calliope, her eyes full of stars.

Rose does the rounds of the central area - one foot skims along the edge between stone and gravel as she paces the circle, her pale eyes drifting as she starts to frown in concentration. "The Condesce has billions of people in those ark ships that need to be resettled, and they've been kept in stasis while their entire reality was destroyed. I don't even know where we would start here."

That thought's almost as overwhelming as the recent apocalypse - but more stressful, since it's still gotta happen. At least the end of the world is over with and done. "Urgh. I hate to say it, but being responsible for telling a bajillion people that they need to sort their crap out and get along on a whole new planet sounds like it's way above our paygrade," John says, one side of his mouth twisting downward skeptically.

"Aka, we'd only fuck it up," Karkat says, with an almost identical expression. He goes on a short face journey as another thought occurs to him. "Can you imagine Vriska trying to stick her irons in it? But - fuck, letting the Condesce run it alone would be fucking worse. Her Imperious Go-fuck-herself, with a whole new assortment of planet-sized shameglobes for her to conquer."

All joking aside, that does raise a lot of unfortunate questions. Rose pinches the bridge of her nose with her fingers as though her sinuses just screamed in unison; Kanaya tears her gaze away from the planets dancing over the central platform and walks around to intersect with Rose's pacing circle. "We, um. May need some time to sort all this out," Kanaya says.

Calliope turns and smiles at them. It's a smile that's too old for her oddly young skele-face - gentle and understanding and rueful all at once. "Pshh, time," she says, with a flip of her wrist, and then she hops down from the dais in a clatter. "You can have all the time you need! Time isn't very important here, in the grand scheme of things." The cherub Muse pats the stone platform with her claws. "You can stay here whenever you like, for as long as you like. This is a nexus point where you can create anything you might want to live and relax, or where you can leave if you want to visit other places. That bit's more experimental, though..."

To demonstrate, Calliope pats the platform again. The real-time model of the solar system winks out, and a white tablet zaps out of the air, hovering before Calliope at eye level. A few other screens appear around the nexus of the greenhouse - dark projections with eye-searingly bright green command line interfaces.

Sollux, John thinks, is gonna freak.

"Can it create therapists?" Rose asks. Because they can always count on Rose to ask the most important questions.

Calliope taps her chin with a claw. "You might need the transportalizer for that," she says, after giving it some deep thought. "I'm not sure I would recommend creating new people wholesale or duplicating existing ones until you've had more practice with it!"

Rose rubs her hands together in anticipation. "Excellent. We shall need to import them in bulk, I think."

Okay, good. John wanted to skip past the 'creating new people' part, too. Karkat, already appalled by the solar system, looks like he's ready to storm out and start shouting at the volcano.

"What about you? Are you staying here like this?" Jade asks, suddenly, tearing her eyes away from the nexus interface - she's already started typing something on the touchscreen. Her curiosity fixates on Calliope, though, and that's also a good question, now that John thinks about it. It feels right that they found Calliope here, but also…yeah. Strange skeleton girls who form the firmament of all reality with their unfathomable cosmic power - not exactly the type of person John expects to see wandering around with a surprisingly normal, corporeal form.

"Yes! This is an avatar of me - I want to be able to see and experience everything." Calliope does another twirl, and beams at Jade as her sundress swishes around her. Her bowtie has fallen askew around her neck with all the whirling, caught on the jut of her vertebra. Then she ducks her head, sheepish again, and scuffs her foot along the floor. "This is so awkward to admit, but I'm not sure where to begin, either. I think I would be so dreadfully lonely without people like you to talk to: people who have caught a glimpse of how realities become - well, reality!" She smiles again, shyly, and catches John with it, so he can't help but smile back and give her a thumbs up. He's not really sure what he's thumbs up-ing about, but the instinct can't be denied.

Then Calliope frowns and balances on one leg, leaning around to peer back the way they all came. "Though, speaking of which…" she says, half to herself, tapping one of her teeth against one on the bottom row with deliberate clicks.

John is suddenly very sure that they're being watched. He blinks and whips his head around, but can't make out more than a quarter of the doorway from here. "Is someone there?" he asks, while the Breeze sneaks along the gravel path and swishes around through trees, trying and failing to find anyone.

"I really don't know why they're being so shy," Calliope murmurs. She leans over a little more, one gangly leg stuck out in the air to keep her balanced, and begins to absently gnaw on one of her finger claws. Then she shrugs and sets her hands on her hips, the frown easing off her face. "They've been here longer than you all - maybe they're embarrassed? From what I understand, they were very dramatic about coming to see me and didn't realize I wouldn’t let people who came to visit me die just because I was distracted with being born."

She says it so matter-of-factly. Like it's a perfectly normal thing to say.

John suddenly can't breathe. "Wait."

Karkat lifts his head. "No," he says, and for a second his haggard expression stabs something hard and rusted through John's chest - it's the same mess of grief and disbelief that John would be feeling, if he weren't totally frozen in place. The Breeze sends streamers combing through the jungle, and with a silent request from John, stops frantically searching for breath and lungs and just - listens.

He knows what he's listening for now.

"Aradia was just here -" Calliope starts to say, gesturing at the platform with both hands and a look of rueful exasperation. Somewhere, out near the old ruins deep in the jungle, the Breeze catches a faint whisper of chimes.

"They're okay?!" John yells, loud enough that he hears a panicked ribbit and then a considerably louder splash from the direction of the pond. Rose and Kanaya, deep in their own conversation on the far side of the nexus, look up almost in unison, confused by the sudden outburst.

Calliope's smile inches up at the corner of her mouth, almost imperceptible with the way her teeth are already showing, an impish look in her eye. "They were in a crucible of unlimited creative potential as a new Muse was being born. So they're a tiny bit different, now. But that's no reason for them to not come say hello!" she says, rising up on her toes again and shouting the last bit pointedly in the direction of the door. Jade frowns in concentration, now - the distant, focused look of her reaching out with her own powers the same way John did earlier - while Dave starts frantically batting at John's arm.

Karkat surges forward and seizes Calliope by the shoulders. There's a weird moment where John's eyes cross and Calliope looks like she's halfway across the room instead, before she settles back into place and allows it. "Is he here?!" Karkat says, voice cracking.

Calliope smiles, pats Karkat's hand, and then points toward the entrance.

At the edge of the jungle outside the atrium, someone shifts their weight, then ducks behind a tree. The Breeze snatches up a quiet, murmured honk and rushes it into the greenhouse in a flurry of excitement for all of them to hear.

Karkat lets go of Calliope and books it. "GAMZEE, YOU CRYPTID FUCK! GET BACK HERE!" he howls, vaulting over a potted plant and charging back toward the entrance. "Don't make me fucking honk at you -!"

"What - Gamzee?" Rose repeats, but there's no time to explain; John takes off at a dead sprint, gravel flying out from under his shoes as he races to catch up with Karkat. The plants and flowers whip by his face, but he can't stop for anything.

"Karkat, John, where are you going?" Kanaya shouts after them.

Karkat bursts out through the doorway and flings himself in between the trees without hesitating for a second. John answers for him. "Clown hunting!" he calls back over his shoulder, and a bright, uncontrollable grin takes over his whole face as he waves.

Then he's out the door and under the sun. The grass provides more traction under his feet than the gravel did, and when the wind rushes around him it smells like fresh, uncut grass and damp earth, and nothing feels empty or missing or lacking at all.

It's a beautiful day outside, and John can finally breathe.