Chapter 1: Internal Debt
It had been two years since he'd seen Jasper. At that point in time, through intergalactic diplomacy and dispersed calls with the gems, Steven thought Jasper returning back to Homeworld was the best step in returning her to a life of compassion. A life where she could reintegrate back without hassle, to show her that her world has changed, for the better.
The Empire itself has morphed into something more democratic than he had expected. Hierarchy molted down to a more simplistic structure with established etiquette (belovedly named “The Steven Rules of Compassion”), gems of previous roles allowed themselves to talk and work without the premonition of punishment, and the Diamonds have taken strides—rickety at best—to keep it that way. So her return had his worries equal to none.
But meeting her again, with her calloused hands wrapped around his neck like a vice, it took time for him to wash his face in the water basin in the aftermath, the water and dirt dripping in rivulets to the bottom of the sink. Coagulating into mush it made him want to throw up.
It wasn't supposed to be like this, he thought. Out of all the things he’s achieved, he believed that it would take a lot of empathy and persistence to become leveled with his past aggressors. He handled lone missions of diplomacy, where hard bargains and cajolery were weapons in the hands of his opposition, his gift of the gab tested to its very limit with the narrowest of minded people. After everything he’s done, he believed nothing else could top it: that was his first mistake.
When given signs of her return, the rest of the mistakes started appearing.
There should have been a concern when she was rumored many times to have left Homeworld without supervision. There should have been caution when their telecom received blips over the airwaves (something Connie remarked sounded akin to Morse code). When old arsenals began to deplete of weapons. When a gut feeling loomed over him like Death itself. There should have been action when the worries kept rising and rising.
But he didn’t.
He made more problems for himself.
He made his life harder than before.
The thought made him rub harder at his skin, hoping it could wash off the frustration that toiled in his features. But all he saw was a desperate child in the mirror, scratches adorned on his cheeks, neck bruised purple.
The mortifying part of all this was when she got detained. Detained but not at all happy, held back by her weakened state of mind, the desperation seeping through her words haunted him: “There are more out there that aren’t happy with what you’ve done, and they’ll find me—they’ll take me away from your wretched planet—and when they do…”
The poof and collection of her green-speckled stone reminded him of hot coals when he tried to touch her, leaving him to stare at it with a dilated look in his eyes. Peridot, in her notice of his hesitation, took it from under his feet. Putting it into a green bubble, it dissipated like stars, leaving him and the rest of the gems to clean the bruised remains of the southern portions of Little Homeworld, houses scratched and tethered by the skirmish.
Her bubble was sitting somewhere under him, in the deep bowels of the Temple. Waiting and toiling for rescue. All he could do was just wash his tired eyes, wishing the bags under it could disappear.
A few drops ran down his cheeks. Fingers landing on the edge of the sink, Steven tried to breathe again. One deep inhale over a sea of voices. One deep exhale while fighting back the onslaught of tears. Repeat. And repeat. And then repeat. Until his arms were shaking under his weight, his throat threatening to claw itself out with each ragged attempt to reassure his nerves.
Don't do this, he repeated in his mind. They need you; they need the morale, their main man. You can't cry now. He had no right to cry.
Every word echoed and ricocheted into vast nothingness. He winced at how it vibrated, keeping his chest tight and taut as his thoughts melted to their normal pace. Melting then to a crawl.
His mind was of murky water. He could wade in it for hours, allow himself to go deep into the swampy unknown, and bring himself nothing but disappointment in his hands. Slushed and barely there.
He clambered for more. Filling the ceramic bowl, he enveloped his head in the rush of ice, placing himself under for a few seconds. Or hours. Maybe days? He felt like he was losing it, allowing himself to fly in nothing but the numb and prickly. Until a cough made its way to his lips. He ripped himself from the pool in a wretched cacophony, his shirt splattered into damp folds, droplets escaping to the tiled floor.
Breath. Letting in a deep breath, he smacked at his chest, heart bombarding him with the realization that he was alive. After calming done he looked at his hands, watching them twitch and shake under his scrutiny, pale and bleached as paper.
What was he doing? Why was it so hot?
Amidst the piercing cold rose a blistering fire in his abdomen. Ravishing in waves, pulsating like an animal coming loose. Blood drumming in his ears, his fingers lingered down, only to then scatter at the touch of his gemstone, for it throttled with something fierce. Hungry. An inferno craving tinder. He groaned in pain.
It's going to be fine. His stomach felt smeared in cinders, bringing him to his knees. It was going to be just fine, he repeated.
There was nothing wrong with him.
Nothing but a little pain.
T́ͯh̘̙e͗̄̌ͮ̆r͓̄e̓̏ͦ͌ͪ̚̚ ̯͎̜̦͉͐͛̐ͬ͛ŵ͖̜̣͑ͩa͉̥̲͙͐̄͒̆s n͑͒͊o͑ͮthi͈̭n̽̉̏g̝ͤ w̱̯̣̰ͫ̎ͯͮro̭̿n̟̣̭̭g̗̯̟̱͎.̥͎̗͔̩̘̖̏ͨ̏͛̉̅ͥ
Then it all stopped. Leaving him on the floor with a quivering gasp, every part of him seeming to quake and shudder in retaliation, he was fine again. Like a stone, his stomach bore lead, the taste of metal on his tongue.
Steven was fine.
He—in careful steps—clambered back onto his feet. His chest ached and ached, but the heat was gone, like it was never there to begin with.
His head snapped back up to the mirror, watching himself gaze into it with a forlorn stare. The bags saddled his face more; each fragile part of him intact. He was fine. He was all there, together, normal.
But when he looked back again, he choked. Tucked between the curls of his hair came a root: sharp, jagged, rupturing in milky pink.
Steven blinked at the sight, a gasp caught in his throat. A dream. A hallucination. Something that shouldn't be there. Something that shouldn't even exist. "No..."
He twiddled with the stem, breath quickening at how it rooted itself into his scalp, skin burrowed in with the color of deep purple. “No, no, no no!” Steven gripped the base. Pulling with all of his might, his head splintering into agony, he bit down a terrified sob—teeth breaking the skin.
It took years for him to believe in the idea that he was okay; that nothing could pierce the mortared walls that divided the worries and discomforts from the rest of his mind. Out of everything he’s seen—from jetting into the cosmos to holding on for dear life—he promised himself to be there. To be present. For his friends, family, and everybody who sought him as a role model for the young and impressionable. He's failing them, and it came to him like trickles in a dam: the threat of Jasper, vigilante justice, and now...an illness he can’t scrape off.
There is no such thing as happily ever after. Not in a year. Not in a lifetime. That fact pressed in his throat like acid, waiting for his next move.
Chapter 2: Observations
He was acting unusual.
That was the first thing Connie noted down after the Jasper incident as the weeks passed by.
It's not like she got this observation out of nowhere. After adventuring with the boy for so long, fighting to the last sore muscle with him, it wasn't hard for her to notice the patterns.
Steven was erratic in his responses when he’s stressed. He may not see it himself, but she knew when the threshold began to sizzle and brim. He would usually pace around, making noises that reminded her of a confused animal while considering his options, and other times he would just shut down entirely and hone in on what he thinks is best—reading books, staring at written plans, getting advice from others—until something happens. A plan. A solution. A thought to hold on to. If not, he would lose himself in a sea of worries, the surf desiring to sweep him under, leaving his body drenched to the soul.
But another thing he would do, which was unfortunately common for him, was to push himself. She noted many times (the estimate being two-hundred in the past two years of being with him) where he would push and push, hoping to some prevalent god out there that his resilience would create results; and when he trudged on like a soldier in the muddied gorges of war, he never noticed the gunfire up ahead until he took himself as a priority.
That was what he was doing at this very instant: smiling along while singing a preamble to a newly developed home for a flock of excited agates, but now and then he would shift and gyrate his arms, wincing like he was in pain. She would’ve observed the origin of it if it weren’t for the broad-brimmed hat adorned on the crown of his head and the extra layers of shirt that made him look puffier than in reality.
He was hiding something. She didn’t know what it was, but after the rehearsal, she took her curiosity by the scruff of its neck and strode over to him. Steven, in his soothing nature, was advising an agate on how to play his guitar, positioning her fingers over the strings, experimenting with a few sounds that plucked and chirped in the air. Singular. Simplistic.
"Steven, I need to talk to you."
He looked up at her. His hat painted his face in the shade, twiddling with its shape as to look at her. With a nod he placed the instrument into the agate's arms, promising her temporary ownership before being ushered away. When they reached a niche location—squished between the walls of two residences—she stopped and turned around, looking at him with a stern expression. "Something's bothering you, so spill it."
Steven glanced around for a second. His chuckle strung and off-tune. "What makes you say that?"
"Please, Steven, don't play dumb. You're wearing three layers of clothing."
"What's wrong with that?"
"In the middle of Summer, Steven."
He stiffened. Eyes rolled to one portion in thought, pondering what to say. His attire made him look small, shelling him in a textiled carapace. "It's no big deal, I'm calm with this type of thing. Ain't sweaty or anything."
"That's not the point." She rubbed the bridge of her nose. Connie adored him, to Hades and back, but she didn't want him balancing on eggshells. Heck, she didn't want him to beat around the bush at all. "I'm worried about you. It's okay if you're embarrassed to say it, but we promised honesty, remember?"
At the sight of his twitch, she knew he didn't forget. They've held onto that promise ever since they made up from their split; both of them never planned on holding back if the other felt pained or betrayed afterward, but sometimes one of them had to remind the other to not bring back the cycle again.
"Yeah, we promised to never lie." His words trailed out in a pathetic line. He was thinking of something, something that bore into his head like a nuisance, but the expression disappeared before she could note it further. "To never hurt the other."
Her expression softened. His awkward nature persisted vulnerability, and she didn't bear pressing onto him. "That's right. We stick together and we both know what happens if we don't."
Butterflies. Scattered tears. The drop of one's stomach as they fell from stories high in the cloud layer. She could remember it so well; the notice of how small they were compared to the Earth's surface, pinpricks in the grand scheme of the world; the cascading details—pilfering and blurred—as her mind slowed and took in her best friend's fetal position, gritting his teeth as he clambered for apologies his aggressors never attained. But when she looked back at him now, with his tightened stature and caught in exhale, the hardened scrunch of his eyebrows told her something else.
"I'm fine, Connie." Voice tilted, eyes glazed elsewhere. He appeared more like a tired old man than a youth, lines decorating his forehead. "I'm just a bit stressed right now. With Jasper. With my duties." Sandals shuffled the ground, creating puffs of dust. "It's fine."
"We’ve been over this.” Reaching towards him he scuttled back, leaving her stunned and agape, like a touch from her fingertips could incinerate him to cinders, turn his body into shards. “Steven…”
He grimaced, breath syncing with his rising chest. Controlled, going in and out. In and out. “Okay, okay.” The utterings were small like they weren’t for her ears but for his own. But the words he spoke next bore heaviness, vulnerability. Laced with something indistinct in his tone. “There was something that had been gnawing on me, you’re right on that. I felt down today; nothing bad or anything, but I’m just exhausted.” Looking back at her, Steven brought himself to a smile. Genuine, but downcast. “It would help to have some company, maybe a movie to watch to get my mind off things.”
Connie felt something loosen somewhere in her shoulders; a weight maybe, or a fear that took hold of her when she wasn’t looking—it was gone now, now that he talked without restraint. “Dogcopter?”
Even with the growing smile adorned on his lips, unease toiled inside of her; she was missing something from the equation. “I would love to see Dogcopter, let’s go!”
She didn’t brush it off when they ran out of the alley. Rather, she watched him sprint off towards the direction of the beach house with her at his tail; focus stuck on him, with the broad-brimmed hat and his three layers of clothing.
He turned seventeen today.
Under the lilac-campfire sky, the gems (Greg and her included) propped a get-together on the Beach City shore. They knew Steven cherished each coming of age like it was his own moment to shine, so they covered the air with fireflies—collected deep from the fields miles outward—and brought a huge dance mat for the competitions that occasionally ensued. And if they didn't bring it, there would've been a fight for the 'best dancer in Beach City' title, anyway.
"Heads up!" Splat came the confetti. The poor remains of the horse piñata held on to its post as Amethyst, swinging with abandon, continued to beat it senseless in a barrage of laughter.
"Amethyst, save some candy for Steven!" Pearl, smiling from ear-to-ear, watched as the gem continued to wreak havoc to the poor thing, already eviscerated to paper shreds.
Garnet was perusing Greg's stacks of vinyl from his van. While she selected out pieces of R&B and reggae, he commented on rock and metal records stocked in the nooks of his boxes, going into arduous details until Garnet volunteered him to play one of the albums on the speakers.
Lapis, Peridot, and Bismuth were busy planning a public piece amid it all, "faux with a side of theatrics" being the only response she got from the green gem when asked. From all she knew, the sculpture was of melded aluminum cans—ranging from average sodas to energy-stocked steins—looming down on her as its sheen bubbled and collided with spirals of water through its cavities. A living, breathing metropolis of the abstract.
Guests were arriving in trickles as the time ticked down. Lars and Sadie promised a menagerie of pastries, delivering in clean packages to the delight of the citizens, while others, such as the Nephrites, declared their soon-to-be arrivals over the telecom, wanting to reassure that their "RSVP", even if the birthday wasn't formal by any means, still remained legitimate to the party hosts. People took their time to acquaint themselves, talking of their professions, aspirations, and the scars they've mended over the recoveries of the previous skirmishes (either mentally or physically).
And then there was the birthday boy himself. On the sand, a rainbow hat crooked and large atop his dark-brown curls, eyes low to the ground as he plucked his guitar: focused, attentive, flinching when a tune went sour. He looked more peaceful nowadays, quiet, serene to the world, ears open to melting utopia, but she wasn't sure. She would never be sure.
"We'll get the cake set up soon." At the entrance of her voice he looked up, eyes wide as saucers before returning to normal size; a loosened countenance harboring him. "Strawberry, vanilla, and chocolate. Your favorites."
"Wow." He giggled, plucking a few more sounds in delight. His tendency to wear layers was gone now, more attuned with wearing his jacket and shirts again as he brushed the sand off his sleeves. "When I said I couldn't decide on the flavors, you guys didn't have to go all out for me."
"Don't underestimate us, Steven.” Her laugh carried, intertwining with his. “We’re always going to go all out for you.”
The waters were calm tonight. The setting sun—melting in with the horizon—cascaded flickers of auburn into the waves, enveloping them with its smooth splendor, the wind caressing them as if in a lullaby. Nothing about it harbored fear or concern. It was familiar, homely. Soothing to one's ears. “Get up, we’re almost ready.”
“Wait.” His words cut the air unexpectedly. Still grounded in the grains, focus shifting to corners of his periphery, an agitation riddled him. “Can I have a bit of time to think? I’ll be there, I just need to take in the fact that I’m—”
“Yeah.” Steven nodded, fingers drumming the tuning keys. “Getting older. Being allowed stuff like licenses or PG-13 movies. It feels weird to think about it.”
“That’s okay though.” She said, nestling down next to him. His guitar was adrift with music again, harmonizing with each crash of the shore. “I’m getting older too and I still feel weird about it. Imagine all the things we could do when a certain age gets eclipsed, you never know!” She leaned towards him. "Think of it, Steven, what we could do together legally when there's no limitation.”
He looked absent, relaxing with an exhale. “You could drive us when I’m really tired. Or we could drink that kombucha from the grocery store.”
“And we don’t have to go through the idea of sneaking into those R-rated horror movies anymore.” She added.
"Oh yeah, we can!” His eyes lit up. There was a wildness inside them, thinking and wondering about the world and its rules without the fear of breaking them. They broke doctrines before—citing the various times they’ve flung themselves into the unknown—but she never wanted him to lose that sense of spirit and abundance he showed around. Steven was a one-in-a-million experience, a light in the encroaching darkness of the youth. He was enough. He truly was. “Man, Dogcopter Seven better be good. How did the movie go from PG-13 to R so quickly?”
She was left exasperated. "Have you seen Dogcopter Four, Steven? It's left PG-13 a long time ago!"
They left themselves bundled in a fit of laughter, enjoying each other’s company. At the roar of the campfire, they stopped themselves to watch the gems set up a barbeque circle around the encampment, Greg hustling with a package that balanced between his arms and the brunt of his gut. It wobbled, tipping at an alarming angle.
“Mr. Universe, let me handle that!” Connie got onto her feet, but before she could run off, something tugged at her right arm. Stopping in place, she gazed back to see fingers wrapped around hers; the owner of them trying his best to hold contact, cheeks flushed pink (starting to turn purple in the eventide).
“Can I thank you, Connie?”
She blinked at the inquiry. Turning back to face him—her fingers interlocked in response. What was on his mind? she thought to herself. What would bring him to this conclusion of appreciation? Was it a moment of weakness? A moment of clarity? With her mouth ajar, she replied: “Thank me for what?”
“Just…” His hold grew on her, lips tightening up, breath stuck in his throat. The twinkle of his view hit her, the sentimentality in his voice and a wavering smile coming through. “Just being there, really. I’m glad for your presence, I’m glad for you being here, I’m glad to have met you way back when you saw nothing but a boy with his cool bicycle. Becoming your jam bud was the best thing that ever happened to me,” at the sight of his beginning tears, she brought herself to wipe it away, heart thrumming in her chest, “and I’m sorry if I do anything in the future that I’ll regret.”
She furrowed her eyebrows. He was doubting himself that was for certain, but why? “Steven, you’re not going to hurt me.”
“But what if I do?” The question struck at her like lightning; it threatened to collapse on her if she didn’t say the right thing, like her words were the remaining beams holding himself up, holding himself from whatever overshadowed him. She just held his hand tighter, biting back a groan when he constricted like a vice.
“You won’t.” Thumb brushing down on his knuckles, feathery to the touch. "We have each other, as long as we remain open nothing could hurt us entirely.”
"Nothing could hurt us…" A second went by. Then another. Steven started to slacken his grip, shoulders slugging down. It unsettled her on how uncertain his look became as a presage bore into his skull. Never-ending worry spilling on to the floor
What happened, Steven? She grimaced at his look of uncertainty, haunted by something she can't see.
She wanted to ask. She wanted to know. Questions crowded her mind, wanting to break loose and bombard him with nothing but demands, to find an answer to something she craved wholeheartedly. What are you hiding, Steven? What are you afraid of? Why the anxiety in your eyes? What am I missing? But with his brittle glance and the shaky resolve, she held it back, swallowing the lump in her throat.
Another day. She told herself. Not on his birthday.
Maybe tomorrow, maybe the day after that, but not today.
With quiet resolve, she held on to his clammy fingers. She squeezed him, voice soft and careful. "You feel good now?”
Silence. The distant crackles of family, friends, and the sea alone accompanied them.
"Yes." His voice was of glass. "Yes, I feel a lot better."
Chapter 3: Cooking
In the valleys of the impossible, Steven had it all. There were no familiar faces to call his own except for the one he adorned, for he observed the luminescent pools at the base of his sandals and saw his watered features greet him with delight. And all the words he thought reflected nothing but pleasure, for he was a bird.
With the grace of a dancer, Steven landed his feet onto the puffy layers below, taking in a profound breath. The scent of mildew hit his nostrils: sweet and strong. Warm as the rays of tomorrow.
Carried by the currents, he blazed into the cerulean skies, hair swept into teasing zephyrs with each soar and swerve. Diving at command, air hurtling past, then spiraling himself towards the heavens with a prophetic bow. The yonder sparkling at his arrival. He wanted to yell, whoop, holler to the far ends of nowhere, but the world kept him shut, his smile lighting up like fireworks.
Hands tucked between the stems of multi-colored flowers, he bounded off to the unknown horizon. A poppy placed behind his ear, his fingers fiddled with the light above, the air on his back bristling into beds of grass, leaving him breathless — high with elation while situated under the care of an elongated, lilac tree. Its flowers trailed like wedding veils above his forehead, the taste of nectar oozing on his tongue. Symphonies sang to him in whispers. Hums of tender care.
He needed to sing. Feel euphoria at the slightest tickle from the blossoms, wrestling in the flora without a want in the world. Decorate his palms with tiny daisies for good luck.
To feel like he had wings.
To smell the faint drift of nature.
He felt whole.
He felt satisfied.
The flowers wilted to nothing, leaving a rose on his chest.
The tree branches roped to the ground in slow bindings, bark emaciated to ill grey. Gnarled, each oozing and wriggling with its pulse, curling into worms that made his arm hair bristle stiff.
Roots grew at the start of his feet. Stumbled back, he jolted at the limbs that surrounded him, wanting to suffocate him with their plentiful oblivion. He tugged at his legs. Pushing back, gritting his teeth, blood lugging through his ears. Pain brought itself to his lips, but no sound escaped from him, balance giving way as his limbs loosened from his unruly fetters, pouring him to an endless drop, gut wrenched in fear.
He was falling.
Stripped and tormented, a vitrified Icarus, he plunged into the depths of the sky. Direction was nothing. Pointless. For everything bled into somber, each reflection in his mind echoing into screams of pure, relentless mania.
For he was earthbound, each second choking his arteries as the vivid colors left his view, leaving him rattling at the sirens that blared stronger with the plummet’s distance. Animalistic. Harrowing.
The sirens kept going.
He tried to plug his ears but all he could hear were the sirens.
Curdling, raw, deep as the ravines of the darkest oceans.
The air in his lungs crunched out from its casings, the ringing growing into oceans. Forcing his eyes downward, wrestling his form through the streams, he saw the abyss stare back at him: pair of hell-fire in the neverending dark, searing of lilac.
He kept going, dropping into the void as if a corpse to fate.
Plunging into the maw of the breathing chasm, swallowed by the deafening sirens.
Steven shot up to a pair of hands on his shoulders, grappling him. He grabbed them in return, trying to twist the intruder off him. Kicking his feet. Breathing heavy.
"Steven, it's me!" He stopped, blood gatling in his chest as he looked at the person in front of him. Pearl looked haphazardly at him, eyes wrought with worry and panic.
"We need to get out. Right now."
Pain swarmed his temple. “Wha—”
A sound ruptured to the left of him, clouds of smoke pouring into his vision. Bubble engulfing them in pink, Steven held onto his guardian with a hastened shake, trying to ignore the pain on his navel; it crackling with heat. Pearl rubbed his back in comforting circles. Each rotation easing him, his senses mending to the muted environment.
The dust swirled in settling storms, clouding them of view.
"Steven." Her voice was hoarse. "The rest of the gems are holding off Jasper and the fusion as long as we can, but I need you to start running this bubble to the balcony and don't look back."
“Pearl, what do you—”
A shuddering rose from under them, making him quiver as the regain of his balance. Everything was going too fast.
“I’ll handle them off, but you need to run; we’re not going to let them take you.” She clutched the shaft of her spear, leaving him dazed as the world morphed in whites and greys. “Got it?”
He could now make out the din of noise that clogged itself from their shelter: cracking wood, the yells of Garnet amid the clash of screeching metal, the pounding of bodies on impact. The dust started to settle. The floorboards were vibrating, battering, and it hit him that a force was bounding up the stairs.
Steven shot towards the balcony. Forcefield dispersing as he passed the glass doors—pajamas bit by the remaining glass—it reappeared the instant he jumped off the rostrum, hurtling towards the sands.
Glancing back, the platform became cloaked in the smog. Lights pulsing shadows onto them like curtains.
Landing at the shore, he started to run. With the pedal of the ball's curvature, he dashed past the outer lining of the city, watching himself bound the distance. Legs aching, screaming. All he could think was to run, Pearl's words jumbling into the mush of his brain with that singular command.
His mind ached for rest.
But he kept on sprinting, the momentum carrying him under the piercing moon.
Until he started to slow down, thoughts starting to organize—each one morphing into a simple question.
What was he doing?
He was running away from a battle he’s supposed to be in. Instead of being there, protecting his family, he was fleeing.
Like a coward.
His legs went sluggish, the pink enclosure vanishing as the world stood still; heart resonating deep in his chest, he stared off into the quiet, noting nothing but his thoughts. Slow and winding. Deathly.
He was a coward.
The words stung him. Anxiety ladened his senses. Beach City glowed in the unnatural hue and all he could think about was his home: he wasn’t going to leave it to Jasper, not by a long shot. For if he did, he would be a burden to the people he adored, and everything he’d done would crumble away from his negligence. All of it. His fault.
His heart pounded. Each beat reminding him of the time he had left.
In the resolution of the night, he turned around (protection enclosed once more), revolving the bubble until his eyes met back at the cliffside, pricks of sounding skirmish against the crashing waves. He started running again. With each passing second, his throat wanted to carry bile, every part of him ragged at the blurring coast.
He wasn’t a coward.
Steven, fighting it off with each rush of adrenaline, carried himself past the scraggles of rock lining the shore, pain settling in his abdomen. The remains of the battle were on the foot of the entrance, the front of the house blown and burrowed into smithereens, charred flickers of wood sprinkling down in sour rain.
His stomach dropped, bubble dissipating to nothing.
Scattered around the beach were his friends, stiff as statues, captured in cases of blue light. Each one in stuck motion. Lapis and Bismuth perched high up in the sky, the latter holding on to the other’s leg. Peridot with rabid packs of immobile robonoids. Garnet holding the front. Pearl and Amethyst on their knees, faces ashened and battered.
“Wow, took you long enough to show your smug mug here.” A shrill voice capitulated him. Floating above him, circling like a vulture, a fusion held a cane in their hand—one eye honing him, the other being polished, solid corundum. They twirled the instrument with aimless need, the tip of its golden bulb pooling his family in cocoons. “I thought the ‘Era Three Revolution’ would have some heightened security around, but seeing you late to the party has me stunned stupid.”
The glint of the tear-shaped stone on their cheek had him breathless, stricken with strain. Out of all people, why now?
“What do you want?” He asked.
“It’s none of your business.” The fusion flared its wings, countenance piercing into him. “I’m not one to go off orders, so sadly, I can’t kill you from where you stand if that’s what you’re wondering.”
He tried to swallow the thick air, the debris speckling the sand around him. It tasted dry, burning his throat. “Is it because you’re unhappy? With what I did?” His mind hummed low. “Is that it?”
Their expression didn’t show anything he could decipher, their contours marked with obscurity. His voice grew desperate.
“Is that it? You need to tell me, please.”
“If that’s the reason then I understand why you’re upset, I know that it’s hard to adjust to a society you’re not used to, so let me help you. I want to. Let’s talk!”
“That’s not necessary.” The fusion growled. “No more talking: that’s how we got this mess in the first place.”
“But why do this?” He bit down at his skin, shield forming on his wrist. “What could you possibly want from me?”
“You ask too many questions.” A shadow loomed over him. Spinning around, he was met with the towering height of Jasper, looking at him through half-lidded eyes, a twitch on her lips. He clambered, falling to the ground from imbalance. “Too many.”
“Jasper…” He scuttled back, body frozen at her frigid stare—palms cutting into the rubble.
“I warned you that I would come back and you didn’t abide by it.” She advanced towards him, muscles contracting with intensity. Her fist clasped around his collar, lifting him off the ground, handling him like a rag doll. “Disgusting. And weak.” A bubble tried to revolve but, with a simple block of her wrist, Jasper shattered it to particles. “A disgrace to her name.”
She sneered. “We’re resorting to begging now? The forced inheritor of the Pink Diamond throne, groveling at my feet, wanting mercy.” Steven held on, fists white at the knuckles. “How low can you get!?”
“Please, I just wanted to help you.” He wheezed, every part of him boiling at her touch, at the invisible flames leaping at his skin. In the center of a pyre he cannot see. “It hurts...so much.”
At the sight of her raised eyebrow, his forehead fractured to scalding knives, each second rushing towards him with fervor, time slowing down. Stars judging him above, vision flashing crimson. He wrestled in her hands, whimpers morphing into blood-curdling howls, ripped straight from his gullet.
The ground rushed towards him, leaving him gasping when the impact coursed through his senses. Stinging his touch. Mind haywire. I was dropped, his thoughts repeated, letting the details rush by like a derailed train. The words of Jasper, faint through the throbbing anxiety, melded to him: “It can’t be.”
His home fell to pools of color—kaleidoscope and smeared, committing pirouettes in his daze. Steven gripped the ground, heat pooling in his eyes. He forced himself to look up, Jasper plaguing him with a darkened expression; something wounded in her gaze, like she was observing the slow death of an animal. Seeing it do nothing but scramble in vulnerability.
He tried to reach out towards her.
Then everything went black.
Sunlight seeped in. With the crack of his eyelids, the aches riddling his body—surreal, extraneous—took him out of his slumber. Above him came the pale faces of a ceiling, aged-yellow, ringing above him in patterned covering.
With a groan, he attempted to lift his arm, only to have the sound of clambering feet occur, hands then pressing to his side. "Steven, careful."
It was Connie. Drabbed in wool pajamas, she brought herself to his side in a stern examination, placing his arm back onto the cushions. Her hair was raised to a ponytail, frazzled with split ends; eyes cursed with bags that made him wonder if she ever slept; the words she spoke drifting in and out of focus, spilling into mumbles even with her stern composure. Looking over he saw the edge of his bed, cloaked in patches of white and black, a chair idle by—supposedly where she’s been for the remainder of who knows how long.
“Connie.” He croaked.
She pressed a hand onto his shoulder, laying him up. “I came as fast as I could when I heard the news.” Grabbing a glass from his bedside she placed it to his mouth, the cold liquid making its way in hesitant sips. Then to large gulps. “You’re not hurt or anything, but uhh.” Connie wavered.
She looked restless. Her glance would slide upwards now and then with uncomforting regard. Looking at something that disquieted her. “The gems told me all about it and,” she gave a deep huff, wrapping her hands around his own, warm against the cold, “you’ll have to talk to them after this, they’ve been going at it for hours and are worried for you.”
“I don’t understand.”
“They’ve been arguing about—hold on for a second.” She separated from the bed, walking down the remainder of the stairs—which were scarred with scratch marks.
His eyes started to wander when her footsteps died down. In his attempt to focus, rekindle some sense into his mind, he noticed how debilitated his bedroom became: memorabilia he stored on the shelves were either gone or chipped of its value, stuff such as his Lonely Blade collection wearing dents and scuffs on its packaging; the ceiling damaged of many of its coverings, strands of white particles dancing in the sunlight from sites of fallen plaster; his sliding doors were off their hinges, nothing left but a giant hole to replace the frame, lined with charcoal. He was in the middle of a wrecking zone.
Connie came back up the stairs, this time with a hand mirror. "Here, this is what they're talking about."
In the reflection, Steven looked upon himself with bated breath. He could see, in the aged glass, a deformed boy. Eyes savored a paranoia he couldn’t attest to and his cheeks looked more hallow, thin. But the thing that struck him was his head; patched with plagued purple, it fostered the sight of two stalagmites burrowed on each end: unmistakable and jutted, noticeable against his bleached-white face.
Chapter 4: Debriefing
Steven gripped the bedsheets. There was something about his room that threatened to close in on him, leaving him to stare at her with a muted expression, unyielding.
"Steven," she grimaced, fingers hesitant on touching him, "you knew, didn't you?"
"Connie, I'm sorry."
"The hat, the layers, the covering on your hair." Her lips contorted, pain found and lingering. It brought his chest to a smoldering burn, melting to melancholy. "One month, Steven, you hid it for over one month."
"Connie, I'm sorry. I’m so sorry." His apologies spilled from him, each one flowing out with misery. He was supposed to be better. "It was nothing, it was just a little horn—"
"Steven, Steven." Connie squeezed his hand, the words that were pouring out stopping like a dam. She's mad, his mind yelled. She'll never forgive him. They promised once, they won’t promise again. "Concentrate. Why didn't you tell me?"
Even with her reassurances, his tongue stumbled with the syllables. He felt like a buffoon. "It was practically nothing. It will go away in a few days, I'm sure of it."
"But when that day passes, what will you do?" Connie placed a weight on his shoulder, pressing into his blades. "It's been one month, it's not going to go away on command."
He gritted his teeth. She was right, but what was he going to do? He hid it, tried to rip it off, and dipped himself into his mom’s pool countless times; the results made him frustrated, helpless, and drenched to the last piece of clothing. He could list a few others in his head, but all of it left him the same way: afraid to tinker with the deformities. “You’re right. You’re absolutely right, but what am I supposed to tell them?”
“Just answer their questions and don’t leave anything out from it.” She was stern, each sentence lined up like an order; a natural leader like he knew she would become. Steven glanced at the hole in his bedroom, not helping the defeat that slipped into his eyes. He couldn’t stop gawking at its brittle frame and the leftover remains on the beach. It made him feel terrible. Wretched.
He mumbled. “So, you’re not mad?”
Connie hesitated, the stress on her more apparent now. She rubbed her arm. “Well...I would be lying if I said I wasn’t, but we can talk about this later. For now, the gems want answers, and you need to give it to them, okay?”
“I will.” If he gave himself enough time to brace for the collateral damage.
Anxiety pooled in his gut. Them listening made him want to recede into the ocean, but seeing her look of sincerity and the way she held his hand—light and comforting with that petal-soft smile—the rambunctious ideas in his head slowed to something decipherable. He didn’t deserve her, that is for certain.
"Good, now let's get you fed."
Ripe with nerves, Steven took his time savoring the pancakes that accompanied the bedside. Buttered and oozing of maple, he enjoyed the few minutes of recreation he had even as the confrontation with his family became apparent and inevitable. The soft texture reflected comfort, breakfast. And between the food and the shelter of his bed, the small talk the two had also given some enjoyment even with the circumstances.
They talked briefly of different things: the epilogue series of Crying Breakfast Friends, Connie’s personal life at Astro-camp, and the want for waffles to accompany the plate. But the most important part of it was the details she could recall of the day before, because, in all honesty, Steven saw the past in blurred glimpses, only remembering the agony of heat and Jasper's sanguinary stare. From what she told about the growing panic and the battle in his home, the situation seeped in like a stone: Jasper was out and about, ready to exact whatever she wanted alongside the members she promised would hurt him. Cruelty abound. The perfect storm.
"We sent out a search part; we relayed messages to sister Little Homeworld settlements so they could keep an eye out." She told of this with formality, the same kind she wore when she came with him for a few diplomat missions. She wore it with such civility that he wouldn't be surprised if she climbed to Presidency someday with the same demeanor. "I ordered them to record anything unusual—irregular earthquakes, missing people—so we just need to wait now until they could tell us anything."
"How did she even get in the Temple, though?" He asked, placing his licked-clean plate onto the table.
"From what I've heard, lots of observation and time. Your guys' rooms are a maze so Pearl was surprised that Aquamarine and Eyeball were able to get in and out without raising suspicion at the beginning."
He frowned. They wasted too much time staying here, but the worries kept him shackled to the bed. "Connie, I’m so glad you’re here.”
“I’m glad too.” She gave him a bittersweet smile. “You look like you’re about to throw up.”
“Just preparing myself, that’s all! Waking up to be interrogated could work up an upset stomach.” Time still ticked by, Steven pushing himself inch-by-inch off the bed. “I think I'm ready to talk now, Connie."
"Steven, they're not going to incarcerate you for this." She said. "They just want to get to the bottom of this."
“Are you sure about that?”
With her assistance, Steven clambered onto the floorboards. Before he could take his first step spasms surged through his lower body—Connie grabbing him before he walloped onto the floor. Careful. Careful. He wished his energy could work on its own, but her arms would have to do.
Each pace took him closer to the stairs. As his legs ached and tingled with feeling, the voices down the flight of steps became more prominent.
"I can confirm that the symptoms on his person are of corruption. Splotching of the skin, archaic growths with the same material density as crystal; there's no doubt about it."
"But how did this happen? It can't be a half-human rite of maturity, right Garnet? He never showed any discomfort that could've led to this."
"Steven is the only hybrid we know of, so how the heck are we suppose to know it's a rite of passage?"
"Don't you forget the key thing here, the tips of the outgrowths are aged—he's harbored it for a month."
"That can't be a coincidence, he lied about his health for that entire duration?"
"Steven would never lie!"
"Everyone calm down. He's coming."
Then there was silence. It was hard for him to swallow, keeping himself peering down on the descent while Connie kept him close, her tiny reassurances floating in his mind; she'll be there for him as a backup, he just needed to calm down.
He saw rigid faces. The dining room had most of them surrounding the table, exceptions like Pearl appearing to have stopped in the middle of pacing and wearing down the floor.
Peridot had her hands splayed on the surface, few of her gadgets glowing measly hues as they portrayed images in heightened definition; one of them being the side profile of a human head with purple skews on its temple, the others listing off graphs and bullet points he couldn't make out.
Amethyst had her eyes directed to her feet. Bismuth kept herself hunkered down to survey the technology in front of her. Lapis seemed to be shaken, eyebrows askew in thought. Then there was Garnet, who's expression was undiscerned from the opaqueness of her glasses, but her body language was tight, restricted.
He wished for a better place.
“Steven.” Pearl was the first to break the silence. Even in her relaxed gait, he could perceive the strain in them and the reluctance in her tone. “We want you to take a seat, we just want to talk about last night.”
Connie, giving his hand a final squeeze, lead him over to a chair. He sat down, heart starting to pump at the pairs of eyes on his person. His forehead ached.
"Well, would you look at that." Bismuth surveyed him. "It doesn’t reflect light."
"Odd. I scanned it numerous times last night. Crystal is supposed to reflect!" Peridot added, making him squirm in his place. He felt like a lab rat, being examined at each cranny of his being by a swarm of spectators.
Connie nudged them back. "Guys, give him some space. He's still sore and I don't want him to get overwhelmed."
"I'm fine." He said. "Seriously, I really am, I'm just a bit tired." Though, the nerves he had were starting to get frazzled. "Please, ask away."
Pearl spoke up. "How did this happen, Steven? Were there any symptoms? Did you feel nauseated beforehand? Did you touch something radioactive?"
"It started a month ago."
“Did you touch anything?”
“I don’t know.”
“What about any acid or poison?”
“I never touched poison.”
Then Lapis. "Why didn't you tell us?"
"I don't know."
Peridot. "What do you mean you don't know! Are you telling us that you never noticed tiny bumps on your head or any type of pain whatsoever?"
"Guys lay off him." Amethyst barged in, shoulders taut. "You're interrogating him."
"Amethyst is right," Garnet spoke up before Peridot could bite back a remark, bringing herself between them as a broad barrier. "Give him time to say what he needs."
With the hush over them, Steven took a moment to breathe, allow himself to formulate what he wanted to say—keep it brief, lay down the facts, give them what's necessary. He then commenced. "It started one month ago…"
The flock around him lessened their staring at the end of his explanation. Each of them glancing at the other in uncertainty, but Steven only saw worry as Connie kept to him—holding his hand as a nurse would do to a victim. He wanted to pull away.
"One month," Peridot mumbled, rubbing her chin. "Temperature-related pains. I'll need to write these down."
"Please do," Pearl said. "This is the first time we've had this happen in two years."
Bismuth added onto it. "But then the solution is right there: get the Diamonds in here and do the incorruption again!"
Pearl jumped. “Bismuth that—!”
"Why didn't we see this before?" Amethyst wracked her fingers through her hair, almost bouncing out of excitement. “Call them to get their butts down here and BAM!” She slammed her hands together. “The corruption is gone and Stevo won’t have to go through this anymore!”
"Now hold on, it can't be that simple," Lapis said.
"We might as well try though," Bismuth fiddled with the gadgetry in front of her, Steven trying his best to peer at the bullet points she honed in on. Nobody seemed to object to the idea. "Garnet, is the telecom up?"
"Good, we have some monarchs to ring up, let's go!"
She—alongside Peridot and Amethyst—hustled themselves up the stairs, leaving the floor to the remainder, who kept themselves busy with the displays laid out. Lapis, in particular, was fidgeting with the details, a few of them comprehensible to him even as he sat opposed to her.
He wiped the perspiration from himself.
“But wait, aren’t the Diamonds on a diplomacy mission?” Connie asked. “With relativity and time dilation, it’ll take a while for them to get the message if they’re at the Abell sectors.”
Steven recalled the debriefing well when that was brought up; going to that section of the vast existence one too many times, it made his head spin when physics came into the picture, forwarding him a few weeks Earth-time when he returned, where an ecstatic Connie barraged him with inquiries such as aging and the types of gems he met. It wasn’t a bad experience. It just felt weird to still be aging at a normal pace while his friends entertained themselves with time he never garnered.
“Having them travel back here is going to be a bit difficult.” Pearl agreed, pacing the floor once again as she pondered the circumstances, the rest still occupied in, Steven assumed, attempts to keep themselves calm. “But yes, they are, but when it comes to Steven they won’t hesitate to arrive here in one week or so.”
“I just want it to be over.” A shiver ran down to the tips of his toes, his jam bud’s hand still enclosed with his. “And we could have a party afterward...with a lot of cake and party hats and more piñatas.”
Garnet pressed a hand onto his forehead. It seared to the touch. “Lapis, can you lift him to his bed?”
“Pearl.” The aforementioned gem looked her way. “When Greg gets here, debrief him of everything.”
"We need you on the warp deck."
With each confirmation, they went to work.
Hooked into Lapis’s arms, Steven's vision leaked of blearing white and black. The feeling of flight crept upon him, his body stiffening and retracting with each steady lift to—what he presumed—was his room. He didn’t want to fly. The promise of falling was too great.
“I got you,” she kept him close like a cradle until the coverings softened his landing. With ragged puffs, he laid down, beads of sweat a nasty halo on his discomfited face. A fever. He groaned through his teeth. It must be a fever. Why does the world love to make him uncomfortable?
Something cool pressed onto him, but the shivers kept him alive in tremors, unable to delve into the dreamscape with the desolate feeling of the desert. The tepid sensation kept going, however, leaving him to realize that Lapis was still at his bedside, pools of crisp sensation lingering at each focal point, streams of relief.
“Steven, try to focus on sleeping.” She sounded tired, but the request soothed into his mind like a pool. “I’ll have the others check up on you, but for now, just relax.”
He couldn’t fight it. His mind was small compared to the reassuring brushes of cold, leaving him subdued, leaving him to drift.
Returning in a quiet swoop, Lapis’s countenance harbored heaviness. When Garnet and Pearl turned their heads to address her—the latter opening their mouth to ask, she reported back: “It got worse.”
In a heartbeat she continued, terse, voice cracking. “The skin sores are spreading and I don’t know how to stop it. I tried to cool him off with water but it’s useless.”
The will to respond died down, leaving them to stare through each other, words in their throats; ghosts to the house.
Glass. His bedroom was a battleground of glass, of eggshells splintered between the floorboards, tiptoeing around lined shrapnel that could cut one’s feet with ease. He didn’t know where the hazardous boundaries lied, but his family could see it with certainty because with each hour that passed and the torment of his fever boiled, they kept themselves talking to him in a certain way: like he was about to die.
It all started with the dawn of the new day, his body laid out on the mattress with restless fumblings; he couldn’t sleep, if he allowed himself to go back into slumber his muscles would’ve deteriorated by this point, and with his current situation—the skin festering with ardent chills and peppered flames—it left him to question the nature of his situation. Why he placed himself there. Why he allowed this.
There was no point telling them he was fine if his body betrayed him of it. The growths couldn’t hide under hoodies or hats or festive accoutrement, and the blotches marking his skin left his face prone even if he used makeup or masks. There was no point. He yielded to the nature of it all.
The gems would wander in a few times with the sun’s rousing. Each a specific purpose in mind. Pearl brought him breakfast at the tick of five a.m., pills—ibuprofen, vitamin D, fish oil—assorted in a neat pile to help him fight against the delirium; she coddled him with questions (“Do you still feel cold? Do you need the skin cream? Are you itchy anywhere? I could sing you a lullaby if you’re having trouble falling asleep.”) until he excused them one by one, relieved when she took his word and left.
Amethyst came next. Hunkering herself up the flight she dumped a tiny hoard of video games at the foot of his television, announcing that she paid for all of them (adding a small ‘kinda’ towards the end), then leaving with a hearty ‘get-well’ and a trail of solaces thereafter. In her absence he stared at the pile, wishing for his body to stop its burning so he could get his Gameboy. Lifting an arm, he yelped and placed it back down. With it, he abandoned the idea.
Seven a.m. arrived. Garnet and Bismuth spent the early hours to secure a tarp and a few panels of wood to the balcony hole. Racketing and pounding with utensils—each clang making him flinch—as they worked in the quiet. Bismuth, at certain points, would bring herself to his bedside, reassuring him of their progress before returning to her work—departing when fatigue started to weigh on them, the wind rustling the canvas in the daybreak draft.
Peridot and Lapis took their time when they succeeded them. Becoming the longest duo to occupy his day, they distracted him with talk of Little Homeworld's progress and the newest exhibition they previewed in the town’s many recreation centers. The former would gesticulate each explanation of why their creation—broken pieces of injectors melded into the size and stature of a tree—represented the relationship between gemkind and nature, while the latter kept silent, shifting her attention towards him with fleeting disgruntlement even as her roommate prodded her to assist with the analysis. And when she didn’t the air became claustrophobic. Breath held and sparse, inaudible glimpses separating him from them, assuming each twitch and shift a message of burrowing panic. He was finally relieved of this when Peridot decided to leave him back to a hurried peace, the two of them withdrawing by the galaxy warp’s pathway. Because of it, he was left anxious; anxious for the next visitor to thwart the remaining pieces of calm he had left. To give him a moment to lie idle, wondering when the ailment would subside.
The light behind the covered hole retired. In its place was of inky black, the lamp placing weary color onto his features as it warded off the night that pierced through his intact window above the steps. A wind’s howl scratched at the side, leaving him to listen close, waiting for something to come by—the departure of Connie a few moments prior leaving him weak. Between the visits, he formed a habit of shutting his mouth, and in this decision, he observed of the activity passing under him like ants. Certain times Garnet would talk and order. Amethyst rustling with cushions directly below. The closing and opening of the door (followed by a farewell). He entertained the idea that he knew what was going on and what they were doing; that if he was a ghost, meandering around with a critical gander, he wouldn’t be in a pathetic slump but instead using himself for good, for something important.
Tep, tep, tep, went the familiar tune of Pearl’s shoes. With it, he buried himself under the sheets; he didn’t know what he was hoping for, but if he stilled himself to the point of assumed slumber she would leave him lone. To lay awake and count the specks of moonlight on his bedroom wall. Restless. Hoping.
Tep. Tep. Pearl’s feet encroached. He kept his muscles taut.
Tep. Tep. The squeak of the floorboard. Light clack of his dinner plate.
He focused on nothing, exhorting his mind to believe in the plains of the impossible, to placebo himself to believability.
Tep. Tep. He regulated his breathing. In. And then out.
“I know you’re awake, Steven.” Darn it.
He continued still.
“Steven, take your head out of the bedsheets; you’re going to suffocate.”
Steven emerged from the waves of fabric, mumbling under his breath. “How did you know it was me?"
Pearl wore an amused grin for a second. "I've taken care of you for most of your life, would I ever forget the times you tried to fake your sleep just to play a game?"
Even with the heat, he recognized the flushed feeling in his cheeks. He giggled. "Nah, nah you wouldn't."
They both shared a chuckle; the night less menacing now.
Pearl tucked the sheets, making sure it cocooned around him, eyes diligent as a mother was to a needle and thread. "Connie left, did she say goodbye to you?"
A meek nod. "Very quick goodbye though."
"Ah." She tilted her head, hands pressed on her hips now, looking triumphant at her work. "Your father’s almost home." A hesitant breath. "I told him everything and he wants to see you."
"Why did you tell him?" He asked, the aches making their way down again in numb rhythms. Something hung over him, leaving him cold, submerged in the deep.
"Why wouldn't I?" She raised an eyebrow. "Just like the rest of us, he has to know."
Breath, he told himself. Don't panic. Don't panic. "Okay, okay, I understand."
Without a word, Pearl placed an arm around him—Steven ripping away in a daze. He could only see her features, the worry and concern, the deep press of her lips. Breath. Breath. "I'm fine, the pain is just acting up again!"
"No, I'm serious." He pointed at his forehead incessantly. "Very bad, just give me a moment." He rubbed the temple, trying not to think of the spikes that decorated him like a crown. "It's going away a bit, just a little bit, we're good now."
She stared at him, an unreadable tone harboring her expression. "Do you need more medicine?"
"I'm fine, Pearl." He reassured her, something pulling on his lips, giving her the best smile he could. "I promise you."
Pearl studied him. Under her scrutiny, he reminded himself to breathe. To calm the scattered thoughts. Take them all and bury it under his feet, only for his eyes to peruse.
She sighed. "Then before you meet him, eat your food. We wouldn't want you on an empty stomach."
He accepted this with a hearted hum, shifting to allow his arms to take the food beside him, Pearl still watching him with an indiscernible face.
When she left, the remains of the plate gone with her, he waited for the sounds; any kind of sound that prickled him with attention—that his father arrived in a clamorous worry that'll leave Steven bubbling with torment.
In a strain of contention, his ears picked up a knock. Sharp, honed in, like a predator to the rustle of prey. Gripping his blanket, he listened to the noises that sequenced it: thumping, clack of a door, then the exchange of greetings before the click of receding wood. He heard it with clarity. Heard it like a dropped pin on the surface. He tried his best to submerge himself into the cushions, waiting as each thump got closer, the squeaks of the boards resonating loud and clear.
"Steven, you awake?"
"I am." He noted the ceiling, not wanting to see his face as the silence ensued.
"Oh boy," Greg mumbled, the chair nearby scraping the floor. "They weren't joking about the horns."
Steven still kept his sights onto the ceiling. A tired breath. "Surprise."
"At least you’re resting ‘til everything’s patched up,” he told him, leaning forward, the seat squeaking under him. He was now in his periphery and he couldn’t do much to avoid it. For Steven, he still looked young; the greying of his scalp was hidden by a flowing mane, and his pudgy form and reddened skin gave him hope that a few things haven’t changed. “Wouldn’t want to run around while having a huge fever, that could mess anyone up.”
“I’m not.” Steven couldn’t stop his grin. “I’ve had enough running around since yesterday.”
His father rustled the back of his neck. "Have you been getting sleep? You look like you haven't."
To admit this was to add another worry to the pile. "Must be the light, I've been sleeping on and off for most of the day."
"Huh." Greg pondered, fingers twiddling with his pant leg in concentration. From closer inspection he looked more pressed and clean, his usual attire of t-shirts replaced with a tweed suit that hugged his form. "That's good either way, might as well reserve some energy when you could finally get out."
"I forgot to ask." The tweed reminded him of why he was here. "How was the galaxy tour?"
Greg's frown melted into elation. A good sign. "Oh man, it was amazing. I never knew there were so many colorful planets until now!”
Steven listened. With the rise and mix of gem and human culture, he wasn't surprised to see that aspects such as music and art became a growing curiosity and staple back on Homeworld; talking with visitors lead him to realize that amongst the intrigue towards Mike Krol and The Unfamiliar Familiar a newfounding admiration for Sadie Killer and the Suspects grew—surmising from the admiration towards disobedience and the call for action. As a result, they've been introduced to a debut throughout the domain. His father was, of course, delighted.
He talked extensively without stopping, relieving Steven the burden to speak back. Each story brought some familiarity to him; from his father befriending and being accepted into a clique of zircons to the exploration of the concert structures the band would play in, it allowed him a moment to listen to something that didn't connect to the pressures from the current situation, alleviating the fragility of the day's interactions with his dad's earnestness. It was pure to him. There was no fear of pain, just the wanting to be there.
"After everything I've experienced," Greg relaxed, imitating a few guitar motions on his chest, "teaching a bunch of zircons to be band managers wasn't something I'd imagined to jot down from my 'to-do' list."
"Well, at least you know how I feel." Joy trickled in. "You get involved with the chaos of the gems and then boom, you're now introducing ice cream to an entire city who never had that delicious goodness!"
“Here’s the test though." He narrowed his eyes at him, emanating a careful hum. "What flavor?”
“Cookie cat flavor.”
"Aw yeah, now you're talkin'!"
The two of them burst into laughter. It was the same laughter Steven hoped to cup in his hands forever, to bring him the solace his body and mind craved as sustenance. He didn't want to end the ensuing jokes and topics they brought up from it: when he introduced television to a curious bunch of sapphires (pleasantly surprised by the narratives); when his dad persuaded a pebble to follow their dreams of being a sculptor on par with the bismuths; the many ways both of them could have fun with the possibilities of their world. He didn't want it to stop. He didn’t want it to end.
Greg, in his fit of giggles, stopped. Face weighed by a frown. "Steven, are you alright?"
He was perplexed by the question. He felt okay. "What do you mean?"
In response, Steven wiped his cheek, the glint of the smeared droplets reflecting hazy yellow under the lamplight. "Oh." He was.
Greg shuffled in place, wincing at the sight. The battlegrounds were back. "Shtuball, are you okay?"
No. "Yeah, these are just involuntary; from the laughter."
His expression deepened. "Son...is it because of corruption?" Steven held his breath. "You could tell me, I'm your dad after all."
"I'm fine, trust me."
"Steven, I know something's wrong."
Breath. Breath. "Nothing's wrong."
"I'm not believing you."
Both of them were frigid, held in a bubble that clambered for sense and rationality. Steven could hear the rush of his heartbeat, the wanting for breath. Choking him.
He gritted his teeth. "Just trust me, Dad. I need one guardian in my life to believe that right now. Please."
Greg faulted. For a few seconds, he did nothing. He then responded, voice minuscule: "Okay, I won't dig anymore."
His father had done so much for him. When his mother wasn't there and before the gems came into his life, his dad kept himself close from the beginning, where they bordered on poverty; finding piles of fry bits to sustain another day, holding him as the thunderstorms forced his fetal self to wail in the van, slumbering under the stars with a lack of clue to what the future would hold except the knowledge that they had each other; and Steven had the gall to silence him, raising his voice like a brat. "Dad, I'm sorry."
"Steven, hey," Greg stopped him, leaving his skin to crawl from the heat. "I'm not mad at you. I'm not."
"No, I would never."
Breath. You're going to be fine. "Okay, okay, I'm so glad."
But the concern was still there; Steven couldn't get rid of the rising tide inside him that sputtered and frothed without vail. To apologize more. To placate the fears.
A hand pressed onto his shoulder. He looked up to see his father's face, bearing worn lines of fatigue. "Hey, I could tell that this whole thing is making you anxious so how's about a little song for old time's sake?"
He blinked at him. "What?"
"Y'know," he motioned towards the guitar in the corner, "even if you slept a lot you still look like you haven't had enough, so why not a lullaby?"
Steven wouldn't admit it, especially to his father, but the catalyst to all of his dredged activity came from his reverie. Sleep allowed him to dive back into the drop, where his ideas scattered and broke on the plummet to the darkness of searing lilac, body caught like a stone. He remembered the harsh rocking of his skull with every attempt to fight back, to lucid dream an escape; his cravings for success equally dashed by the cutting brambles and thorns that held him back like a monster shackled to the dim drenches of a cell. It terrified him.
"I don't think that's a good idea," he said.
Greg shook his head. "Please, just one song. For you."
Hesitation. The weakness that inherited him at the worst of times. To take the path where he could say no and have him leave his dwellings before the pain got worse, but some part of him urged the idea on. "It's not going to be loud, right?"
He chuckled. "Unless you want the lullaby to be a rock ballad it won't."
Lack of resilience. "Okay."
His dad lifted himself, steps light as he took a moment to grab the guitar—a small strum resonating in toyish example—and returning to greet him with a tune.
A ting lifted, flowing through his ears with a hit of nostalgia he couldn't place. His heart flitted.
"I don't know if you remember this lullaby—you were a wee baby back then," string plucked in a symphony, repeating and mounting like an avian dance, flying past them in circles, "but I made this lullaby for your mother when she couldn't sleep; we were preparing for the final months of her pregnancy and she wanted something to help her through the burdens." Cascading pulls. Long, passionate cries. "I never really finished it but you loved it when you had the same restlessness as her."
Speak to me my lonely star.
It hurts us both to be apart.
Steven shuddered at the rise of the melody. It was a song of a butterfly, fleeting its wings in a distant past that he tried to grasp onto.
Let me into your world.
Let me hold the universe with you.
The words blurred in an embrace, leaving him warm. Fuzzy to the tips of his fingers.
I don't mean this to fall apart on you.
My words are as sharp as the nova's burn.
For I want you to rest alright,
lend me your hand tonight.
For the first time in a month, Steven dreamt of nothing but verdant fields.
The talented @flashmumriken on Tumblr made a musical rendition of the lullaby (https://drive.google.com/file/d/178UGEPYD4LGshctT4xlI0UIA8j23kIqF/view) if you want to listen to it!
Chapter 6: Ticking
TRIGGER WARNING: Mentions/Sensory description of a panic attack.
The distance between the Abell sectors and the Milky Way galaxy lead up to a time of two weeks until the Diamonds could return back from the diplomacy mission. Two weeks. It doesn’t help that physics still applied—or 'astrophysics’ with what Peridot and Connie had established to him—so the duration varied, only estimating to those two words that imprinted itself into his brain. Two weeks.
Fourteen days of this. Or more. Or less. Mostly more.
Breath in. Breath out.
When his chest relaxed, the thrum of his heart tamed to a stilling beat, he allowed his clustered family to continue—trying his best to follow. The tick of the kitchen clock aggravated the never-stifling drumming of his arteries.
He was informed of his condition. With Peridot's scans, they found that his inflammatory riles receded throughout his sleep, that the corruption stopped indefinitely with the needed rest and calm, leaving him less disgruntled with the acknowledgment given. But, in a hesitant tone, she added of his corruption: "More skin has been infected throughout the duration of your stress period, so I advise that in these two weeks that you stay away from any contact that'll upset you."
"Now hold on a second," he interjected, their stares nibbling at him. "That doesn't mean you're going to put me under house arrest, right?"
Peridot laughed. "Oh, Steven, you make it sound like that was our intention!"
Bismuth looked at her, perplexed. "Wasn’t it?"
"Now hold on." Pearl shushed them both. She then leaned over him, voice soft, eggshell-like. "Steven, what we're trying to say is that we want you to be safe. If Peridot's hypotheses are correct, then having you stay inside will allow you to heal and stay put before you can get better."
"So..I'm under house arrest."
She scrunched her nose. "I wouldn't call it that."
He sighed. "It's house arrest."
The gems shifted in agitation. Each one settled for something different: Peridot would fiddle with the equipment in her hand, Garnet appeased the attention of a mundane wall, Bismuth gave him the playing of her beefed fingers, and so forth. He couldn't escape the judgment of them and the fact that they feared his decline into eldritch creation. A broken form. Or something lacking itself. The concept made him shiver, but the lack of trust burdened more than his clear grievance.
"It'll only just be for two weeks," Pearl promised him, enveloping his hands with her own. Voice sweet as a bird, grating with the beat of his blood. "We just want to make sure the corruption doesn't get any worse."
His stomach simmered with heat—flinching at the pinches at his skin.
"Can you do this for us?"
Beneath the discomfort—toiled in the depths of his gut—came a deep-edged fire; it trembled and shook under his breath, the violent tremors of his soul waiting to break free, to lash out at her with a bloody-teared objection.
To destroy their concerns that brittled him boneless.
To scream defiance until his throat rang sore.
To cry out that they're wrong.
To ultimately say no.
And what did he say?
In the days coming after, a new message had been forwarded to the telecom, the gems assembling without delay, each reviewing the reports laid out on the holographic display.
Jasper had been spotted in the state of Nevada. Moreover, she’s been sighted near a popular landmark by the name of the Grand Canyon, and when the title had been uttered in the warp deck—fully optimized with the coordinates—the dread diffused its way to every person on board.
The Grand Canyon, by itself, didn’t sound scary. But the notion of Jasper, being lustful for vengeance, going active in that area added hypotheses that made the stress build in their systems. For Peridot, the creation of soldiers with stolen equipment came to mind. Bismuth, the establishment of a new base of operations. The gems, in agreement, saw calamity. Destruction. Rebellion. Ruthlessness under the hold of the corruption-scarred soldier.
Battle plans were conceived. Leadership placed on Garnet’s shoulders, they pondered on the field goal: what they needed, what they wanted, what should be seen and considered with grave caution; and the group came up with robonoid scouts, the compiling of tracking technology, and their weapon enhancements at the center of the warp deck. In the bustle of orders there came the notion that each one had to be on guard—for the future, Garnet perceived, remained dripping in fog and murk. There was nothing she could truly get them ready for what’s to come. And that left the room stiff with anticipation.
At the end of the scramble, out of everything planned and conceived, came Steven. Drinking the remains of a strawberry-honey mixture, he kept himself busy by watching the conundrum, eyes sullen and unreadable, keeping a distance in the chamber's corner. He was to be left behind under the watchful eyes of Lion and his father, where he would be safe and sound and away from the danger. They gave him the instructions, the reminders of nutrition, and notice towards the video games stocked at his television ("Because, hey man, at least you have some people to fight on the tv if you get antsy without us!")—his protests dying to the promises of returns and blurred goodbyes as they whisked off in a speed of light.
With blue-hued chutes rocketing into the vast skies, his world became muted. Heavy. Dark. Watching from the frame of the warp entrance, he pierced his gaze at the crystalline platform, then, with a ragged sigh, turned around to walk the path down the metal steps.
The silence, plowing through him with stunting veracity, became his norm. Tick, tock went the clock, his fragile countenance lit by the beach’s bleeding sunset; thoughts were on his mind, circulating with no direction, every one trickling vile to his tongue and throat for they all repeated the answer he told them. A promise he forced himself to keep.
To stay put.
In his descent from the pathway, his eyes caught the shadow that tailed him. The wretched growths poked out from the darkness like tumors, his pajamas long—body bag-like—dragging on the footpath. It left him livid where he stood; not because of the disgusting tendrils or the order he had to heed, but of that thing.
The thing that filtered his face to the color of paper, a squirming beast of its own, swallowing the same food as him, breathing the same oxygen, befitting the same space. The sight of his silhouette kept him aware of the turmoil inside of him, a dissonance too terrifying to describe, making him wonder if he was falling apart on them already; falling apart to whatever is pulling him from the inside out like string cheese.
Was it him? Was it his fault?
He shuddered at the prospect.
Get a hold of yourself, Universe, he berated. You’re not supposed to fall apart on them. He was just angry; it wasn't a big deal. He’ll just have to go downstairs, eat ramen with his dad until the brink of night, and there won’t be any trouble from here on out.
But then why did his thoughts scream at him when he fought back? Why was there so much enclosure, so much heat in this box he couldn't see or handle? He was going to drown in a deathtrap. A car. A bubble. And the mortifying reality that he'll never get a clear answer made him bite back a sob.
Why was he making this so complicated for himself?
What was he missing?
He was glad of the emptiness that shrouded the house; he couldn't take the idea of the gems seeing him swallow the air in desperation, skin bumpy as gravestones, trying his best to emerge from wherever he was—this sick deception that slithered from his grasp. But in the quiet, burst the sharp clink of dishes: his father below him, humming a familiar tune as he washed (with a sod-bubbling sponge) the plates from their finished dinner. The noise floored him, petrified with the ticking once again; he forgot about his dad.
He noted these qualities before, but his surroundings were too loud.
Was he going mad?
What if they were right?
What if he just needed sleep?
Each inquiry fired up his gemstone, Steven yelping out from the sting, feet trying to regain balance.
“Steven?” Greg shouted from below. “Are you okay up there?”
“I’m good!” He told him before clambering over to the mattress, bile rising to the brim of his throat—swallowing it down like liquid fire. The discord that trembled in him receded once he curled up into the cushions, an earful of noise losing itself to the stillness that consumed it.
Tick. Tock. The clock brought him back, each second going by in an air of bewilderment; his fingers clasped on the ridges of his sheets, vision shut, teeth sawing together. He had to keep put, he promised them he wouldn’t add more to the deluge that became of his life. He wouldn’t, for the life of him, become a burden—the worst punishment of them all.
Steven recoiled at the wetness pressed to his neck. Opening his eyes bid the view of beady pupils, the growl amongst a flurry of pink, motioning against him with vexed curls. “Lion?”
A snort. Brief and rude. Yep, it had to be him. He must’ve been keeping an eye on him, for his shoulders remained broad, gait snapping and whipping, different to the sedentary nature he carried around him with pride.
“I’m staying in bed, don’t worry. It’s not like I have anywhere else to go.” He reassured him.
The feline held his expression regardless, shooting him tilted glances as Steven, in misery, kept himself occupied in his fetal position, waiting for the heat to subside from the prickles of his gut. His companion didn't move when ushered away, seeming to lean and prod at his body like a stick, senses meshing into incoherency as Steven waited—the desire for rest pressing down and down.
His dying focus left him subservient to the clack of the bedroom chair. He jumped a little. “Dad!”
“Oh, did I scare you?” Greg looked at him with a mellow raise of an eyebrow.
Steven relaxed. “Yeah. Just a little.”
“Sorry about that, kiddo. I sometimes forget I could be sneaky if I wanted to.”
“Like Lonely Blade?”
“If Lonely Blade was a huge ninja, then yeah.” The two shared a chuckle.
Greg’s fingers were occupied on a guitar sitting on his lap, experimenting with the tuning keys as each pluck sounded off. They relaxed him. Left him happy. "I'm going to give you another lullaby so you can sleep, but do you want me to give you time to relax?"
If the assurance for music was an indicator, Steven provided him a weak nod, knees pressed up to his torso. There was a reprieve found in being lulled to rest and he didn't want to skip the chance of being with his father, away from his anxieties that piled his room like garbage.
After allowing his arms to slacken and press to the bedsheets, he told him, with dripping gratitude, to play.
Lion was nowhere to be found as the song began. Each tune—loving and elegant—repelled the shots of daunting pressure from his conscious, the relief wrapping him in a carried embrace; his dad's words reassuring him that everything will be fine.
Everything will be okay.
The orange-dusk walls guided him home.
In the confusing shades, Steven walked between the towering cliffs of rock and incline—sky the color of painted fire, imprinted with white-yellow smudges. Stepping over outcroppings, going around steep ends that welcome crossroads and river trickles; the maze grew with his patience.
As his sandals trekked through miles of crags, the sandstone fortresses morphed into hole-speckled overhangs. His movement slowed, eyes pulling up to the rock faces with shallow breath: overhead savored human niches, nooks pressed to the sides as if they were drilled from huge stencils. His mind was of a heartbeat, however, pressing on even as the hollows became more frequent.
Down the receding tail of a river—banded by strong patches of flourishing grass—the natural tors grew into crooked shapes. Shapes drafted by years of Earthly development were now twisted into spires of limestone, instances of broken metal now littering the floor as Steven, in his stupor, strolled into a ravine where the light (flickering in specks on his feet) patched out from existence.
Even in the gorge's darkened passage, he paced himself, as an interest pulled him further, working him to a warping mess of outlines and silhouettes—groans and clangs sounding off in a symphony. Each one rattled him, growing in clamor as he stepped forward. Growing intensity vibrating his ears. Until the walls doused itself in electric pink, metal branching itself in naves, gigantic canisters of liquid neon-rose stuck to the walls like bolts to a fixture; the growing caverns buzzing with mechanical life.
Down and down he went, brushing by whirs of pipes and naked gears with nonchalant ease; into the heart of the wild machination, where poison slept and wires strung about like spider webs.
Until a crack sounded under him.
Gazing down bore him fragments of green. An oblong shape, oozing liquid by its upturned belly, shards of glass dispersed, circling it in the dust. Seconds passed as he stood there, unblinking, at the pieces. It then hit him that it wasn’t just metal he was surveying.
That was a robonoid.
Like a gutted deer.
The world began to scream. Voices, drastic and different. All of them sang in horrible cries, his heart throbbing at each surrounding echo, a crowd of mockery that melted the floor—feet sifting through the floor like amalgamated putty. No matter how hard he heaved the screams grew louder. His heart was of a gun, the gorge growing to a circus of noise.
The screams called out to him. Each one was of family. Each one crying out for his help.
He did nothing as the ground swallowed him whole.
Swallowed him into the Earthen cage.
Bullets of sweat and raging breaths.
Rising chest, tears pricking his eyes, clothing stuck to him like paper mache.
The dissociation—splitting like glass—reeled him forward, suffocating him. Steven, hyperventilating under the pale ceiling, trying to scramble out of bed, panic shredding its way through. A devil stealing his breath.
He should've gone with them.
He should've followed.
Why didn't he go?
Steven tried to drop from the mattress but the fire whipped against his skin, forcing out a pained gasp as he remained on the cushions. The world blared in alarms, words curdled in his mouth.
He wasn’t going to make it; the room kept tilting and tilting and nothing felt safe.
He couldn't move. He didn’t want to move.
He couldn't breathe. There was too much. Too much feeling. They didn't make sense. So much pain. It's his fault. He needs to go.
It was too much, too much.
Everything was too much.
But if he doesn’t, then they’ll get hurt.
All of them will get hurt.
All because of him.
H̩̜͚e҉̧̝ ̢̤̳͙͇͉̪̞͍̫n̨̝͞e̘̤̞͜͡e̢͎͓͡ḑ͞҉̭̻̪̲ş̯̯͉̥͙͔̪͇ ̮̠̠̳̲̝͡t҉̙͉͉̪͟o̙̲͙ ̵̴̜g͏͇o̲̼.̜̮̠͖̱̟̳ ̢̬͈N͖͓̩̣̟̪͔͚̜o̼̯̩w̴͟͏̙͉̮͉̟͔.̛̭̻͜
At the crackling shock, his eyes lit up. With a croak, he called out for Lion, voice lashing out into the empty room, increasing with each crack of his name.
After a moment of silence—ear-sharp creaks and jits surrounding him from the floorboards—he whimpered at the figure that entered from the deck entrance; form squeezing through.
Steven rasped to him.
Breath in. Breath out.
Lion was poised, circling and pacing the foot of his bed like a protector. He was taking the job seriously. Like there was endangerment if he let him loose.
Breath in. Breath out.
When the world dipped away and muffled the alarms, he spoke. "Hey, Lion." The feline flinched. With a shuffle of his body—avoiding the pressing of his belly—Steven reached over to pet him by the spine of his back, fingers parting the blades of fur with imaginary drabbles, hands shaking throughout. "It's just me, Steven, your owner?"
Even with his reassurance, Lion's response didn't pose of certainty: his mane flared in tangled nests, body tight to his touch, noise gurgling in his throat. Steven bit his lip. In that instant, a realization came to; throughout the days he's been experiencing this phenomenon, Lion never touched him; the sight of him became scarce with the coming days, and the only times he gave evidence to his existence was today. The day where the gems placed him on house arrest. He didn't know what to believe. "Please, you don't have to fear me. I'm just going through some discomfort."
But with each shuffle of Lion's body and the scuffle for space grew the thing: the dissonance under his skin, the unseeable plague that toyed his body like a tormenting marionette. His fingers shook, reaching out to grasp Lion's coat—only for him to scuffle away from his range. There was devastation at the sight; the inability to do what he wanted; decapitation of his freedom and liberty with a simple question. A simple question to stay in this suffocating house.
"Please, Lion." His voice cracked. Desperation. It was present in his soul, the thing shifting in grievance. "I know you're protecting me but please come closer, please for the love of all that is beautiful, I need to talk to you."
He knew Lion heard him. He knew that the feline understood ever since they met, but a voice, persistent and worn, kept berating him. There was the throwing of dejection, of shaken disapproval of his hopelessness, like his very being rejected him even with their unified whole, making the bedroom more enclosed than before. It wasn't safe. It was a trap.
This room was the only thing separating him from saving the gems.
He would not let this happen.
"Lion, I need to get out of here." The walls crept from the corners of his view, becoming intruders that crawled and inched in, never-ending in scope. "I want out, right now. I want to go to the Grand Canyon. Where the others are."
This took Lion's attention. With his utterance he stirred, apathy replaced with pooling curiosity, body slouching to a more relaxed posture. Relief washed over Steven at the sight of his returning frame. He had to persuade. To allow him to get out of this prison.
"The gems need more: I have the defense, the healing, the change, the whole deal," he said. The clock grew louder at the back of his head. Tick. Tock. Tick. Tock. Each one stood for a second wasted. "It may look like I'm not ready, but trust me on this. I'm fine, they need me out there, who knows what'll happen now that Aquamarine and Ruby are involved too."
Distress. His words oozed of it like puss. When Lion crept closer, his voice squeaked in delight, a heaviness bearing in his gut like a stone. "Yes, just like that. Let's make a promise too," promises were dangerous, but he couldn't help it now that Lion attended to his words. "After this, I'll give you a freezer-full of lion lickers, and I'll go to sleep just like the gems instructed me to. Isn't that a great deal?"
"I promise you, just take me to them."
Lion poured his view to the out-stretched hand, the language in his eyes illegible no matter how hard he tried to decipher it. What was he thinking? Was this all for nothing? Will he leave him here, fettered by the wooden walls of his own home—stuck with the discordant thoughts that crawled into the nooks of his cranium like insects?
To leave him alone.
With nothing but himself.
A castaway on the side.
The feeling grew to the size of a ball chain. "They need me. I'll do nothing when we get back, it won't be your fault but mine; just let me out, let me leave this place."
Lion didn't move; Steven's voice wavered.
"It's the only thing I want."
His last attempt brought him success. Lion, rising from his haunches, nudged his snout against the area of Steven's clavicle, edging himself to the brink of the bed until his body dropped, latching onto his pelage. Success flooded him with relief.
Lion gave a small grunt. Taking his first steps, a voice rang out from behind. "Steven!"
Steven looked back: at the top of the stairs, his dad watched him, eyes wide in horror. Without a word, Lion swept out from the entrance, leaping off the wooden path to the sands of the beach—howling a fuchsia vortex. A force, an unseen hook, behind Steven's navel pulled him onwards as he held onto his companion for dear life, the pain quieting with the flash of the desert landscape and the roused mass of sand that came with it.
Chapter 7: Meet One's Loathing
Just in time for SU:F, haha! Enjoy everyone.
His limbs were of lead.
Sullen by his sides.
Painted in nightfall hues.
Steven drifted in and out of restlessness, eyes heavy in his sockets; the tirades in his head numbing to an uncomfortable pressure, chest centered with an invisible grip.
There was no hope of moving—it was his first thought, out of everything indiscernible in his river-churned mind. Even if he wanted to move, to throw himself into the line of duty like a true leader should, the choking feeling would grow. Like a bogeyman, it warned him—through shots of disquiet—that if he stirred, he would get hurt. That it would lead to the death of him, being better for him to stay on Lion’s back than force himself to go undone.
And that was how the journey into the Grand Canyon felt: a slow sink into a labyrinth of rock and sandstone, where the walls morphed and loosened from focus to the point of blurry reconnaissance, holding onto Lion’s back akin to a cradle amongst the storm, and trying to breathe in cotton-mouthed air—accepting the miserable fact that he felt fragile under the weight of unseen faces.
No right nor left, no up nor down. There were only thoughts, each slithering along, attempting to connect like crunched puzzle pieces in a child’s hands; never truly there, at least trying to fit in frustrating niches. Trying with whatever could help him out from the continuous weight.
In his mumblings, his stares winding at the cliff faces, and the dredged boulders, he hoped for Lion to bring him somewhere new, somewhere closer to what his dreams foretold and ladened him with.
He would talk with Lion about many things. His words would bumble out like dominos, listing out concerns that his mind could comprehend: over Little Homeworld, his dad’s presence back home, the confusing trial they must navigate when their mission is over, and, most importantly, the heart-wrenching fate over his family. Of the fact that they need to move before the brink of something horrible. The brink of a skirmish, where his family would be at the brunt of it—an idea that made him shudder and heave in nausea. He couldn't take the idea, not even a second of it.
"Lion," he mumbled, slurring in fatigue. The feline paid him no attention. "Where are we going?"
Lion kept his head up, pulling up at the intersection—the left division parched of water, the other moving with a semi-oasis in a band of river grass. He saddled towards the left. He wasn’t going to listen to him.
Steven groaned. Resting his neck on the pillowed portions of his mane, the sky churned to sickly sunset, a soup that curdled and screamed of lost time. "I should've went with them."
His companion flinched under him; there was an upset lurch to it, but was Steven correct in assuming such? He couldn’t even think straight, let alone speak with restraint. "If I just followed behind when they didn't look." His breath froze, pain parched in his throat. "If I did that, then we wouldn't be here and they wouldn't be getting hurt.”
If Lion had the decision to intervene (with a snort or a grunt or a magical interference) Steven couldn't tell, for he just kept going, the walls growing less familiar.
"I made so many mistakes, Lion," he said, swallowing the lump in his throat—its taste bitter and callous. "I have to fix this, I have to be there."
The scuffle of dust sounded from his friend's claws. Was it a response of sympathy? Was he losing it?
"Why’d you stop?”
With loosened grip, Lion dumped him onto the ground. The boy picked himself up with a groan. He gritted his teeth, grateful that the pain was lessening its strain. That they must’ve wandered endlessly for the looming thoughts reminded him of physical white noise.
Peering up at the canyon faces, the strange cliffs morphed to recollection: there, in their distant and looming features, came the hollows and orifices—many warped in sizes and shapes, reminiscent of the Beta Kindergarten and its gallery of hastened processes. A shiver ran down his spine, still faint at the rush of blood through his skull.
They were close. And at that moment he was glad for the summoned calm in his systems, trying its best to comfort him at the prospect of finding them, even if the panic towards bad endings were finding its way to the forefront of his priorities.
He just needs to focus; focus on the task at hand, worry about the future later.
“When I was here before,” he said. Placing a finger onto one of the cavities—the cool grime powdering it in sandstone—he tried to bring back the dream’s location. “There was a huge ravine...you could walk into it, no climbing or anything.”
Steven shot a look at the growing pathways he had to choose: looking the same, having tail bends and growing patches of green and water pools in their narrowing space. He grimaced; any recollection from here on out was akin to a dying radio signal. “The middle looks familiar, so let’s go there.”
Bunching up his pajama pants, Steven got back onto his lion, fingers bundled with fur as they started off once again
There was waiting. Pain swarming in the recollection of his mind as they traveled the distance, time molding into birthing darkness—the yellow-orange mix of the sky seeping like liquid into an unseen drain. He had to wait, watch the time pass by as he rested on his companion, watching as the walls became more noticeable, adorned with Kindergarten hollows.
His family was a priority. He knew that, but what was to come about this? He didn’t have his two legs to support him or even a stable sense of thought for that matter. He had Lion, but what could he do if it was them against a myriad of gems who were directed for fighting, built just to antagonize him? Did he have time before this? What if the dream was a result of his distressed state, tricking him to bewilderment?
With that, something simmered into his stomach: regret, low and boiling like a nuisance that wouldn’t go away, filling him with dread. He should’ve prepared, gathered up the strength or some type of medication to stand his ground, but now he was too late. Going back would only waste time.
He would have to go with it, nonetheless. Nothing he could do now.
Yet, when he tried to think too much of it, Lion came to a halt. Looking up, he eyed a familiar scene, with its sucking decline and lightless entrance—the entrance from his dreams, where the wretched screams ripped from night terrors rattled him to the panic-induced onslaught. The sight of it, while alluring, made him wish to disappear. He didn’t want to go through that again, but his legs were already shifting, placing themselves onto the ground before protests could pull him away.
His family was in there, his mind rationalized—sharp and set, penetrating the terror infesting his sanity. He just needed to take a step forward. A tiny step. Then the rest will follow with ease.
What was he afraid of? The alarms started to ring at that note, but he kept pushing through, finding the will to motion Lion forward, towards the cavity, beckoning them into the unruly earth.
What was he afraid of? His mind kept at it, a sergeant plowing orders and platitudes until his vision was clouded into ink-black, and with it, the atmosphere bloated with dank air, leaving him hard at breath as they continued deeper. The dark exposed nothing but pressure and reality. Even if he had the power to stop Jasper and her group, what would stop him from making a mistake and ruin everything he tried to do?
Down and down he went. The snorts of Lion's breath tracked him throughout, keeping him in check while the clinks of their feet sounded of rocks being brushed aside and forgotten. It was longer than he thought. The expected electric pink didn't infect his senses at the end of a long tunnel way, but the atmosphere felt buzzed, stinging him away with each trudge—suffocation tempting him further with terrifying speed.
Then it appeared. The pink canisters pooling above them with looming size—each akin to wombs of liquid, groaning in place. The growl from Lion didn't reassure him; in fact, it made the panic sizzling inside him even worse.
"We're getting closer," he mumbled, swallowing a thick lump in his throat. They kept going deeper into the eye-paining abyss. "Come on."
Torments of metal strung about him. They look deformed, like they came from elsewhere and were twisted into macabre skeletons to befit the closed space. The buzzing grew louder, Steven trying to not stare at the glass on the ground, strewn about with the corpse of a shredded robonoid.
His heart pounded. Breath in. Breath out. Just don't look at it.
What surprised him was the lack of screams. He waited for them ever since they've gotten there and the blood-curdling agony didn't beset him with a sudden fever. He didn't know if his dreams were truly accurate or if the world gave him sympathy and erased that portion from ever happening again. If the latter was right, then he thanked luck for bringing him to that point.
They stopped at a crossroads. Three paths laid forth in doppelganger fashion, Steven biting his lip at the sight.
"Lion, are we on the right track?"
His companion looked at him (eyes drowning in neon), before leading the way into the middle chasm, the groans of the earth crawling into his sleeve.
He felt like he was back in his delirium. The steps into the musty taste of rock were suffocating, fleeting in reassurance and brushing with dread, but his body kept going, continuing with a sense of purpose, the path waning and pouring light akin to ocean-toxic moonlight. Even with all of these signs, there was no stopping; he'd have to go.
Radiator growls. They would echo off the walls when thuds pounded the rock faces, calling over the cries of a metallic hurricane—Steven's nerves firing up.
After a few more minutes, his hands grasped the edges of a natural platform overlooking a deluge of brazing and light, gaze flickering at the sight pervaded. Gems, silhouettes climbing the walls like tormented ghosts, kept themselves in dangerous tangos, pairs lashing out with summoned weapons against one another. Each one sparring with rocketing fists and luminescent-summoned blades.
There was the question of why. Why was there an army? But a good part of him knew what this whole thing was; it was an insurrection in the making; Jasper wanted to hurt him, to take everything she believed was unjust, to kill him in cold blood. An uneasy minute went by, the lump in his throat rock-solid and unmoving.
Then the growl from Lion pulled him back. Turning around, wide-eyed, spotting his companion quickly enraptured by light, he didn't process the shot of scorching blue until it was too late.
And everything went to black.
It was a prevalent form, harassing his eyes until the pressure in his chest receded—pain aching across his forehead.
Tongue-tied, words stuck in confusing mumbles, attempting to focus. Steven found himself stuck—stuck in place with nowhere to go.
All he could focus on were pinpricks of light, dancing in view like lonely spectacles in a one-viewing soliloquy, tenebrous beginning to loosen its grip. He squinted. Flickers of blue and red danced across his vision. His arms pressed down, fingers curling against the stone-cold rests below his arms. Stuck.
After recessive tapping to the right of him, his vision cleared, welcoming him with a fusion. Floating in front of him with the flap of her liquid wings, the fusion's form was speckled in red and blue, her smile bearing cruelty. "Well, looks like the prodigal son is awake."
Steven stared at her, pupils sluggish. So familiar, yet so far away. "Wha?"
"Still dense since last time." The fusion grimaced. Her face bore like a liquid hourglass, unease pooling at the squirming colors. "I will not wait for minutes on end for you to get smarter, for Heaven's sake. Especially if we're taking care of you."
The room dimmed to mundane grey as his vision adjusted to its place, light cracking from a lone fixture, razing him of sensitivity. Rocks piled in clumps at the edge of his vision, the dust and the smell of metal sparking his nose. He tugged at the arm restraints. Secure. Locked down. "Aquamarine. Eyeball."
"That's Bluebird Azurite to you. Wouldn’t want to disrespect us on those terms, since we’re not two gems, we’re an 'experience' as you call it." Her features shifted, lips curled in disdain. There was hellish intent, like her face threatened to split any second out of sheer spite. "I'm not here to smack you around. My leader wouldn't allow it even if I tried."
There were many reasons—many compiled under the wanting for Jasper to hurt him for something he couldn't control—but the questions in his mind felt endless, one in particular burning like an ignominious brand. Back before his sickness, his plague, his two-week countdown, their encounter propped him to an inquiry. And that inquiry was simple: why allow him to go free on the beach, when she could have taken the shot? "Can you give a reason why?"
She stared at him, pupil constricting to the tip of a pin. "She would like to hurt you personally."
Stomach swollen with aches, Steven lowered his head. Dry and slow. "Of course she would."
"Hey! I didn't capture you to have you soil the floor with your wallowing." What floor? It was all dirt. No polish. "Look at me!" her voice shrilled.
He shot a glance.
The hues on her face simmered to a crawl. "Don't you have anything to say for yourself?"
"Are you a coward to look your enemy in the eye?"
His voice went stiff. "I don't see you as an enemy."
Her smile was a specter. Seconds passed by.
"That's funny." She started to laugh. "Who knew that you could be such a...what's the word...comedian." Her cackle was of a car crash, wheels shrieking on melting asphalt. "Such a funny man, a funny funny" — his neck squeezed and constricted, vision flashing razor blue at the sight of her summoned staff—"so darn funny boy!"
And with that the blue went away, Steven gasping and shaking for breath—images flashing before him like static. He breathed through his nose, fire burning his tongue.
"I'm stunned, honestly." She said, cane twirling between her fingers. "You're still going on with all of this 'let's be friends' this and 'let's hug it out' that even if it's pointless to hold on to it while in the face of potential death."
"I don't want to fight."
"Ohh sure you don't." She hissed, eyebrows wickered. "Because you're sooo unlike your mother, right, Steven?"
Her statement made him flinch. He didn't want this; he didn't want her to be a part of this conversation. "I want to help you, I really—"
"Nuh-uh, we're not going to skip this." Malice. She saw him wince—there was no doubt in his mind. "You want to help me? Let's talk about that wild goose chase you've forced us into."
"It wasn't a—"
"Oh, it's not?" Her lips danced on the words like a glass-nipped skater. "Does Neptune ring a bell? Or how about that whole 'I am my mom' business? Do you understand how stupid you were? How much anguish your little comeuppance caused, with its shock wave of change?"
"Change is vital to growth!"
"'Change is vital to growth!'" She mocked, rolling her eyes. "You're not even hearing yourself, what is this? You're blabbering like a malformed zircon."
Steven grimaced. The azurite's eyes crinkled with delight, but something about it felt unnatural, morphed. "Is this a forced fusion? Are you okay?"
"Hey," she snapped her head at him. "No distracting from the truth here! Just admit it—you're ruining this whole empire!"
"Gems have told me that many times," he heaved, watching her with a languid stare. Ever since his diplomacy missions started, he was always told the same thing from people who resented him: that he destroyed a perfectly good life, that he broke down a society too soon, placing its fate to a crumbling idea that'll leave it defenseless and wasted by hypothetical systems. Because of him. They saw nothing but a pest who changed something that never should have been changed. "And no matter how much you tell me that I'm wrong, I still want to help you. You have the potential to do something amazing if you just allow yourself to open up."
Bluebird faltered for a second, eye squirming at his restless figure. He wondered if he had gotten closer to her, gotten close to something personal, but that went away when the hesitation flashed to disgruntlement. "You're making this whole thing complicated, I'll tell you that."
"You aren't Rose Quartz." The words settled onto his shoulders. Bluebird's expression flickered. "If you were her, then you wouldn't have given me a chance. You would've shattered me."
"She's not…" The sentence died on his tongue.
"Funny," she told him, shadows latching to her countenance. "Gems love to listen to all facets of a story. We listen to the words of our superiors, bring ourselves the honor in the correct way, and intuition could be such a giveaway. Yours is the most controversial, especially, because who would believe that a beloved leader could corrupt into such a blind martyr and start a 'revolution' in just a few thousand years?"
"Change is such a vital thing, you say? Then what will come of it if we change the status quo right this second?"
He dug into the supports.
"What if…I ended this right now?"
He gritted his teeth.
"What do you think?" she asked, a devilish smile curving across her face. "Will the death of your body bring Pink Diamond back?"
Dissonance. Panic—it slammed into him full force. He buckled against his restraints, wrists rubbed to sore red.
"That won't work." She cooed. He lugged his body back and forth. He didn't want this again. "I never realized you could be so dramatic about such a thing."
"I want out." His voice cracked.
"Request denied." She sniggered.
"Let me out." The gems. The gems. He needed to find the gems. Lion. Where's Lion? Everything was slamming into him all at once. "Please, let me out."
“Like I said, very dramatic.”
"Where are they?"
"Hm?" Her eyes glazed in a jeer.
"The gems." There it was, the panic breaking in like a dam. "Where are they?"
"I don't know what you're talking about."
"Don't lie to me." Breath in. Breath out. "Where are they? What did you do to them?"
"Why would I tell—"
"Just tell me where they are!"
She jumped back at his snarl.
There it was: that dissonance, beating inside of him with thunderous fire. Each drum of his heartbeat skewing him to a tight cord, threatening to squeeze and burst like Pandora's box.
"The answer is no!" Ringing. "I can't believe I have to tell you this multiple times!" The ringing won't stop. "One, I can't let you out. Two, even if I did, why would I?" She stared at him, alarms piercing into his skull. "For the supposed son of Pink Diamond, you sure aren't bright."
Fingers doused in splitting coals, Steven popped off the restraints; metal bolstered and folded in his escape; clapping on his shield before the azurite's tool could overcome him in electric blue. In his place, trapped in an azure-swallowed rose bubble, he seethed at her; the words she spat sharp in his ears: "You will come out eventually, your powers can't protect you!"
Gemstone punctured in a blistering fire. He could feel his enclosure expand, watching the borders between the colors push and push, the rose hue creeping to the corners of the dirty chamber. Sweat stained his forehead. One step. And another. Floor smooth with his stride, strength—terrifying and piercing—driving her back feet by feet.
"Stop that!" Blue shrieked.
“Stop that right now!”
Her snarls morphed into strained groans as he overwhelmed her, distant stare beating against her with horrendous intensity; the boundaries of his shield pressing into her with claustrophobic aim.
He wanted her to yield. Go down under his weight. Until he got his answer.
"Where are they?" Reverberating, ricocheting. "Tell me."
But as he scrutinized her, the fusion fighting him off in her sparking cage, his thoughts came back—arms quivering at the sight. What was he doing?
How far was he going?
Breaths, slow and winding, his muscles faltered—barrier pushing into him for a second before the thoughts stifled to nothing. The dissonance was back. It kindled the fire, combustible and relentless.
Time was a blur. The only thing he could remember was his shield dispersing, a bright flash, and his body—dashing out the breach in the wall. Running. Running as if his life depended on it. Not looking back.
Down rows of pink canisters. Up excavated ditches. Steven sprinted passed blurry faces, clashes of shield protecting him from the snap of whips and the bolts of refined knuckles. Where was he going? He had no clue; all he could focus on was the now, the present, the zig-zag of clodded rooms and gravel-spittled platforms. Looking for them. Looking for his family; dissonance piling like thunder.
Empty canisters? No Garnet.
Impervious pits and trenches? No Pearl.
Metal scrap construction sites? No Bismuth.
No Amethyst. No Lapis. No Peridot.
Signs of scuffle and shouts overhead? He didn't care. He needed to find them.
He needed them with him.
He didn't want to be alone.
He stopped. Steven pulled away from his stupor, dazed and searching. Wherever he was, his feet traveled far, far enough to the belly of a ravine, "Pearl?"
"Steven, up here!" Amethyst.
He glanced up and saw a glint from the ravine's upper overhangs: electric light gleaming on a box of metal barring; a prison cell. Jumping up proved reliable, clutching onto the stable scarp with the scraping of desperate feet on the walls to usher himself up. Alarms were still ringing, but as he peered at the yellow-filtered hunkered faces through the cell. All of them safe, all of them found. The relief took over.
"Woah hey, stay back!" Bismuth shouted. The burly gem was on her feet, hand placed out, Steven quickly realizing that she was motioning him to stop. "Be careful of the barrier, Steven, this ain't a pretty one."
It looked normal. It reminded him of the jail cells Jasper had used a long time ago when the Crystal Gems got captured in light-diffusing cages and he, the half-human, broke out with only a weird tickle in his spine. "Relax, I'm going to get you out—"
The sting ramshackled his hand. Pulling away in a howl, he popped it into his mouth, hoping the sensation—searing like a million shocks—could crackle away.
Audible, pained hisses came from the gems.
Amethyst crawled over. "Dude, I don't mean to rag but we don't have much time left."
"I know." He said, wiping his finger on his shirt. Focus, Universe. See if your powers could make a dent.
With his bubble enveloped he zipped towards the cell, cringing at the machine-like groans that emanated around him, shield pressured to the excruciating uproar that resounded like Hades itself. Making two holes in his bubble, he dug his sandals into the dirt. "Get out!"
Each gem began their passage through. Scuffing his tracks, Steven groaned, watching his family pass by him, squeezing in and out the cell, until the last of them pulled through, jumping out before the electric-yellow could lash out at him.
He felt calm. Even with the morphed sense of light, he lunged forward, locking himself onto Amethyst before the gems could react. There was reassurance in touch, the wanting for grounded reality. They were safe; they were going to be fine, and he wasn’t going to be alone with himself. Amethyst returned the hug.
“Dude, how did you find us?”
Pearl went aghast. “Steven, you weren't supposed to do that. You promised.”
"What was I suppose to do? Leave you guys here while the—"
Garnet’s voice, terse to his ears, sounded off—gauntlets flashing onto her fists. “We'd got to go.”
Steven tensed up. The rumble of gem feet, the shout of tin barks, and an assortment of metal clangs left him shrinking back from Amethyst, joining them in their confusion as they looked for a way out. The ravine was massive, piled on with levels that dipped to stalagmites and platforms unstable as card castles; if they were going to flee, they’d have to think fast.
“We need to fight!” Bismuth formed her mallet.
“No, no, there’s too many of them.”
Lapis grimaced, the sea-blue fists pooling behind her faltering at his disclosure. “How can you tell?”
“The number of gems that outnumber us is huge.” The sounds Steven heard were proof of it, each thump and crackle reminding him of an army. The uproar terrifying every inch of his being. “We need to get out another way.”
Peridot peered into the darkness. “If my research on the canyons is correct, then the only way for us to escape is to go down.”
“Go down?” Amethyst tightened her posture. “I see the bottom of this place and it’s a dead-end to me, Peri.”
“Peri,” Lapis looked around. “It’s the formation, right?”
“Stalagmites, signs of heavy erosion; there are cave structures under us as we speak.” She directed to Garnet, motioning to an area down below in the murk: dark and wet with a curved, morphed bottom. “Punch down, we’ll lose them in the systems.” She looked over to Lapis. “Lapis, there should be enough water down there to rupture the entire thing!”
“Huddle up everyone,” Garnet ordered. The rest followed suit, Pearl clasping a hand onto Steven’s shoulder as the sounds from faraway became more clear: “Don’t let them get away!”, “Over there!”, “Get your weapons out!”.
The floor shuddered. Something breathed under them, rocks heaving like they were on the chest of an enormous animal. Looking over to Lapis—her poise grounded, palms raised and twisted into fists—Steven could only pray.
Garnet, diving off the height in ready lock, rammed her knuckles into the earth, Steven yelping out as the floor under him made way, the created tremors accumulating dirt and soot. They were falling. Steven knew the feeling of it well: the climactic drop of his stomach as the ability to hold on became useless, leaving him to clasp onto images (his family, Connie, anything positive and warm to lighten his feet) before resorting to his bubble, crashing and rolling in a dizzy tango of noise-chocked calamity.