Steven feels a bit like a broken cassette tape, tying himself tighter with each rewind.
“She was nice, I guess.” The words come out short and curt. “She never looked at me like-” There is a pause, a dismissive puff of air, and the subject is changed fast enough to give him whiplash.
“Your mother always seemed to know what to do.” A cool hand cups his chin as the soft, pensive voice washes over his ears. “Even without future vision, she was a natural leader.”
“Rose was-” The word turns strangled at the end, and he waits patiently. “Rose- Rose was, well, what wasn’t she? She was kind, and graceful, and we’re-”
She cuts herself off, but Steven can fill in the blanks. They were lost without Rose.
Steven loses his shoe. This comes as a surprise to no one; Greg is pretty sure Beach City’s only shoe store could be kept open by selling nothing but pink flip-flops in a kid’s size 4. This time it’s lava, last pair was lost in the temple (likely doomed to Amethyst’s room), the pair before that is at the bottom of the ocean…
“It’s no problem, Stuball. I can swing by Sole Addiction this afternoon and grab you a new pair.”
His son twirls the lone flip-flop on his finger like a pinwheel, considering the statement longer than Greg felt was necessary.
“Actually, Dad, it’s fine. I’ll get a new pair myself tomorrow.” Steven lightly tosses the shoe, catching it in a bubble and sending it off with such ease that Greg wants to fall over. Since when had his son gotten so good at the magic gem stuff?
“Goodbye, shoe! You served me well, you will be missed.” Steven’s toes wiggle absentmindedly at the gravel on the hard concrete in front of the carwash as he performs his exaggerated obsolete-shoe sendoff. The loose pebbles look like they could be sharp, and Greg can see them digging into Steven’s feet.
“Are you sure you don’t want me to go today? It’s not a big deal.”
“You don’t have to worry about it! Besides, eventually a man has to take responsibility and buy his own shoes.” At this, Steven crosses his arms and nods his head in an imitation of sage wisdom.
And, gosh darn it, his curls bounce and his cheeks stick out so adorably that Greg can’t help but snort and reach down to ruffle his son’s hair. “They’re shoes, Kiddo. Not a mortgage.”
Steven gives a snort of his own as he hugs his dad goodbye, ready to head back to his house. His bare feet smack on the sidewalk with each step.
“Do me a favor and wear your sneakers when you go to the store tomorrow!” Greg calls out.
“I will, don’t worry!”
Pearl warps back to the temple, balancing a bubble full of pale blue gem shards between her palms. Normally, she wouldn’t carry her bubbles back to the temple by hand, but Pearl doesn’t want to take any chances with the volatile shards. Looking at them makes her feel ill, like the time she had let Amethyst talk her into eating those disgusting oil-bathed starch roots. Pearl explained to Steven once, that gem shards were like a broken DVD. The information was still there, all parts of a once whole and independent being. Memories, thoughts, and functions, all rendered useless in a single, life-shattering moment. The fractured remnants in her hand represented the closest a gem could get to death. That is, until Rose…
Pearl didn’t feel like carrying them longer than she had to. Not sparing a glance towards the house, she twirls on one foot to open the temple door with her gem.
“Hey, Pearl! You’re back.”
Pearl startles, nearly popping the bubble as she spun back around to meet her distraction. “Steven! I was just- uurgh! ”
This time, the bubble does pop. The gem shards hit the stone floor with a sound like twinkling wind chimes, and Pearl hears Steven gasp over her own yelp of surprise.
“Sorry! Sorry, I didn’t mean to make you drop your bubble!” Steven cries as he rushes from his place on one of the kitchen bar stools to help Pearl gather the crystalline pieces.
“Steven,” she admonishes, gathering a handful of shards, “why is the house such a mess? ”
“Oh,” Steven gathers the last of the gem shards as he glances around the house, eyes brushing over stacks of greasy plates, scattered books, and crumpled clothes. “I guess I, uh, lost track. Of stuff.”
Steven places the shards in Pearl’s hand, and she wastes no time creating another protective bubble. “How do you just ‘lose track’? I would have noticed the pans on the stove way before it ever got this bad-”
Pearl cuts herself off with a sheepish cough. She would have noticed before it got as messy as it did, but finding every last gem shard had taken her longer than she thought it would. How long had it taken her? Long enough for the coffee table to gather a thin layer of dust, something Garnet wouldn’t have noticed or Amethyst would have cared about enough to remind their charge.
Steven wasn’t the only one that lost track.
As Pearl stands to move the shards, Steven takes a breath and rises to his feet in one smooth motion, eyes closed and mouth curved in a smile. “Sorry, Pearl. I’ll start cleaning now.”
He leaps into the house, above the wooden rafters, using his powers to float peacefully to the middle of the living space on bare feet.
The motion catches Pearl off guard. There was something… hm. Amethyst would likely describe it as “really weird”. Garnet would describe it as “un-Steven-y”. Pearl doesn’t want to use such imprecise language, but watching her charge pick up wrinkled balls of shirts with quiet steps and a peaceful smile settles oddly in the pit of her stomach and the back of her gem in a way that makes it impossible to think of a better word.
She pushes her bubble gently to the side of the temple door, where no one would hit it on accident, and moves to join Steven in cleaning the house.
“Oh, it’s okay, Pearl. I can clean up myself!” Steven says as Pearl starts stacking bowls on the coffee table. He drops the pile of shirts in his arms to grab the bowls out of her hands and move towards the kitchen.
“Oh, Steven-” Pearl is cut off when she trips on a stray book with a winking human on the cover. The title reads Metempsychosis and You!, and Pearl leaps to the loft to place it on the bookshelf between Magical Mallard and Nevermore: The Spirit Morph Final Saga. “If the mission hadn’t gone so long, it wouldn’t have gotten so messy in the first place.”
Steven turns on the sink to wash the towering pile of dishes on the counter. “Yeah, but you’ve got your own stuff going on. I should have taken care of this myself before it got so…” He finishes the sentence with a puff of air.
“Hmm, true,” Pearl says as she gathers the discarded mountain of identical shirts in her arms. It wasn’t hard, and it would have been even simpler to do in the first place when there was one shirt instead of ten, and only shirts instead of dishes and trash, too. Steven was old enough to not have to be reminded to keep his space clean, and her initial guilt at being gone for so long is replaced by annoyance. But…
There’s a small, selfish part of her that causes her to puff out her chest and swell with something like satisfaction. Steven’s grown faster than any of them can keep up with, and being his caretaker feels like driving a speeding, out of control vehicle that won’t brake no matter how hard you press your foot to the petal. Knowing that Steven still needs her in this small corner of their small world…
It feels nice.
The two of them finish tidying the place, organizing toys by type, alphabetizing the rest of the books, and doing the laundry. Pearl makes sure to ask Steven about his week, and is glad to hear Connie kept him company. All the while, the gem shards rest safely in their bubble until Pearl is ready to take them to their place in the temple.
Next time, she’ll be more diligent.
The temple door whirs open, bisecting and pulling apart in goopy, purple strands that reminded Amethyst of melted cheese. And thinking of melted cheese made her think that pizza sounded pretty good…
But no! She had to focus. Amethyst was on a mission, a mission only one person could know about.
Amethyst climbed the shelves above the couch like a squirrel, landing at the top of the loft. Steven was face-planted at the edge of the bed, above the covers, snoring softly and definitely not watching the cartoon flickering across his TV screen. As much as Amethyst respected anyone’s decision to sleep in the middle of the day, the mission couldn't wait. She began to shapeshift, reaching for the right form and letting it shake out of her gem in a practice that was as natural and unnecessary as breathing.
“Cock-a-doodle-do! Wake up, Steven! We got STUFF to do!” she says through her new beak as she flapped her chicken wings. Steven groans and picks his head up, blinking blearily at Amethyst.
“What stuff?” he asks in a hoarse voice.
Amethyst shifts back to her usual self and gets right up in Steven’s face, waving her arms. “Uh, just the thing we’ve been looking forward to for weeks!”
Steven’s eyes widen as he rolls off the bed with a thud. Bare feet smack the floor as he jumps up to face her. “It’s the first day they have-”
“The Triple Donut Burger Sandwich! ” the two exclaim at the same time. By now, Amethyst is vibrating with excitement. She can practically feel the amazingly ungodly mishmash of textures in her mouth, and Steven seems just as excited.
There’s a moment where Steven takes a breath and smooths out the wrinkles in his shirt, and his energy falls short of matching Amethyst’s. He looks past the loft at the house, probably thinking about something that wasn’t the most important donut-burger fusion the world had yet to see. Amethyst bumped his shoulder with her own, bringing him back down to Earth and the house that was way messier the last time she saw it.
“Pearl finally came back from her mission, huh?”
And yeah, Steven could get pretty gloomy and sad-like when one of them had been away too long, but that’s why the concept of comfort food got invented.
“Soooo, are we going or what?” Amethyst asks.
“Oh! Yeah.” Steven closes his eyes and puts a little smile on his face, walking down the stairs all dainty like he wasn’t barefoot on his way to buy a crime against food-nature. It’s a cute little gag that has Amethyst letting out a throaty laugh as she rolls down behind them, and the two are on their way to the Big Donut.
It isn’t long before the pair are seated on a bench facing the ocean seagulls squawking for their share of carbs above them. Amethyst wastes no time shoving the whole Triple Donut Burger Sandwich in her mouth, chewing with gusto so that she knows she’s getting every possible flavor at once. Once she’s done, she swallows and leans back with a content sigh.
Steven’s still working on his. He’s taking little bites, mostly from the donut part, and his eyes are closed and his mouth is upturned in the perfect picture of contented peace.
But he is taking way too long, and Amethyst finally asks, “You gonna finish that, or…?”
Steven opens his eyes and thinks about it for a minute. Amethyst assumes the answer will be no, since Steven was always down for some donuts, but to her surprise, Steven hands her the rest of the sandwich.
“You sure, dude?” Amethyst says, with deadly seriousness. “This thing’s gonna be gone before you blink.”
“I’m sure,” Steven’s smile remains unchanged. “I mean, you and the donut are kinda similar, because you’re both unique and, uh, interesting!”
“So you should have the donut.”
“Thanks,” Amethyst says slowly, taking a bite of the donut burger as Steven turned back to the ocean, face a shade redder.
“Don’t you think it’s beautiful, that we’re here on Earth?”
“...To eat donuts?”
“To eat donuts,” Steven agrees, folding his hands in his lap and closing his eyes.
Amethyst slowly puts the rest of the donut back in the bag where it lands with a wet plop, keeping her eyes warily on Steven. “What’s with you today? You’re acting really weird.”
Steven falters, smile slipping into a frown. He folds one leg under him and picks on the sand at the sole of his foot with a sheepish expression. “Weird? I thought I was being, uh,” he looks up at Amethyst, “Nice?”
The situation’s getting uncomfortable in a way that Amethyst wants to bury in the ground and forget about. She plops a hand in Steven’s loose curls and lets herself chuckle out, “You’re always nice.”
Steven seems happy with the answer.
A corrupted gem is hiding in the woods beyond the strawberry fields, and Garnet sees numerous possibilities for its location. The four of them together have the best chance of catching it, and Garnet says as much to her other teammates.
For Amethyst and Pearl, it’s business as usual. Steven, true to form, uses the mission as an opportunity to show off something new.
“Do you like it?” he asks, running to meet the gems at the warp. “Connie helped me pick it out.”
It’s a white jacket, the zipper open to show his usual star shirt. The sleeves puff out a bit on the ends, and the material has a slight sheen to it.
“Lookin’ snazzy, Steve-o,” Amethyst replies with a wink.
“I’m glad you’re replacing that ratty old hoodie, this seems like a very sensible selection with the fabric too,” Pearl says, pulling on the collar to inspect the new garment.
Steven turns to look up at Garnet with a smile. “What do you think of it?”
“Hmm.” If Garnet were completely honest, she’d say white wasn’t his color. But the style looks nice on him, and he’s looking up at her with big, starry eyes that say there is only one right answer.
The simple praise makes Steven stand taller, and Garnet’s chest feels like it’s going to burst with almost impossible fondness as they warp to the fields.
When the high-pitched chime of the warp dies down, Steven is the first one off. He leaps in the air with a smile and floats back to the yellowing grass, white jacket billowing in the breeze. Pearl is next, always one to stop and admire her strawberry-covered history. As Garnet moves to follow, Amethyst bounces off the warp with a raspy giggle.
“Dude, it’s gonna get dirty anyway, just let it happen.”
Garnet, out of habit, flicks at her visor.
Steven was picking his way through the bushes of wild strawberries with care, his new jacket already sporting a small pink stain on the left sleeve. “I literally just got this, I’m trying to be careful!”
Pearl clasps her hands at her cheeks, looking like she might just burst with her own pride. “There’s nothing wrong with using a little more-”
There’s a wet squelch and a grunt as Amethyst trips on a rotting berry the size of her torso, splattering pink goop in every direction. Garnet gets a small splatter of red on her cheek, and Steven yelps and bounces on one foot to save himself.
“-grace,” Pearl finishes, wiping jam from her squinting eyes.
Amethyst points from her spot on the and belches out a bellowing laugh as Pearl sputters and huffs in indignation. They are suddenly cut off, however, when a swarm of white butterflies suction to the strawberry goop like fluttering magnets. Amethyst bats at the swarm with pinwheeling arms and Pearl lets out a surprised “Ga-yhee!” as the butterflies latch onto her eyelids and flutter like eyelashes.
“Guys!” As Steven moves to help Pearl, Amethyst’s helicopter arms smack into her, sending the blinded gem stumbling over a vine and straight into Steven. There’s a yelp, a thump, and another squelch.
“Yikes,” is all Garnet can say about the ensuing mess. Steven’s once white jacket is completely covered in strawberry juice, black seeds stark against the light fabric.
Pearl finally claws the butterflies from her eyes, and reaches out to help Steven stand with a gasp. “Steven! Are you okay?”
Steven doesn’t answer. But Garnet suddenly notices the bags under his eyes, dark and pronounced with his gloomy expression.
Pearl no doubt notices as well, and she turns a stern gaze towards Amethyst, wide-eyed on all fours.
“Amethyst! Apologize to Steven, it’s your fault his jacket got ruined!”
“Don’t be so dramatic, Pearl. Just wash it later.”
Pearl sneers at the flippant response, but before she can say anything else, Steven speaks up quietly from where he is standing.
“I don’t get it. Nothing’s working.”
Garnet doesn’t understand. She doesn’t have enough information, she needs to push further.
Amethyst pipes up from where she is pushing herself to her feet. “Dude, it’s alright. Junk happens, Pearl can clean the jacket-”
“I’m trying so hard here!” Steven yells, throwing his head back. Pinprick tears are forming at the corners of his eyes, and Garnet doesn’t understand. “I don’t know what I’m doing wrong! W-why-”
Say it, Garnet urges.
“Why can’t I just be…” Steven slaps a hand over his mouth, expression closing off, and it’s over. Garnet doesn’t have enough information.
“Oh, Steven.” Pearl interrupts, hand on her heart, reaching out...
“There’s nothing wrong with using a little more-”
“Watch your feet,” Garnet interrupts, letting go of her visor and grabbing Amethyst by the shoulder to yank her back before she eats dirt and a massive, rotting strawberry.
“Hey, nice save from the G-Squad,” Amethyst remarks with a chuckle, “That would’ve been a real mess.”
Amethyst trots past Steven, whose jacket is as almost-perfect as his almost-perfect expression. A single pale butterfly has latched itself to the pink stain on his left sleeve.
Garnet's vision brought some light to the raging storm hidden under that fairweather face. The only indication of the future she managed to avoid are the faint, near-unnoticeable dark circles imprinted under Steven's eyes.
“Enough messing around!” Steven says, a determined grin on his face. “Lets split up to find the- uh, what did you call it, Garnet?”
Garnet can’t help a grin of her own as she recalls the name she came up with; a very cool name if you asked her. “The Crystal Capuchin.”
“Right! Let’s split up and find the gem monster. Pearl, Garnet, I think you two should go together while Amethyst and I-”
“Wait, wait, pause. Steven,” Pearl crosses her arms, “where are your shoes?”
“Oh.” Steven blushes as he glances down at his feet, blades of grass sticking up through his toes. “I guess I just, uh, forgot them. At home. But I’m fine! I don’t need them. See?”
Steven leaps in the air, and as he floats back down, continues with, “I’ll barely even have to touch the ground!”
Steven’s still in the air when Pearl lets out an exasperated huff. With a chime and a bright flash of blue light, she reaches into her gem and produces a ragged old pair of sneakers.
“Here, put these on before you step on something.”
Steven’s eyebrows furrow in frustration and he falls the last few inches to the ground.
“I don’t want them.”
Pearl shoves the shoes into his arms anyways, and goes on to say, “I think I should go with you, and Amethyst should go with Garnet. I want to make sure you wear them.”
Steven grumbles something out the corner of his mouth as Amethyst stands grimacing to the side.
Garnet doesn’t need to activate her future vision to see the situation going pear-shaped. It’s written all over the uncharacteristic frown on Steven’s face. And something about the image of Steven, floating gently to the ground with bare feet and a billowing white jacket, gem glistening from under his shirt as it flaps in the breeze…
Why can’t I just be…
It doesn’t sit right.
Before Pearl can fire back, Garnet jumps in and says, “Enough. Steven will go with me.”
Finally, the two pairs split up. Garnet trusts Pearl and Amethyst to do their job with diligence, so before Steven and she steps into the forest hiding the Capuchin, Garnet pauses to lean against a tree.
Steven stops a few steps ahead, shoes still in his arms, butterfly still stuck to his sleeve. “Aren’t we still going?”
“You didn’t sleep last night.”
“How could you tell?” Steven suddenly drops the shoes, stars growing in his eyes, “Oh! I bet it was future vision.”
“No,” Garnet couldn’t keep the warmth out of her voice. As she reaches down to brush the stray butterfly from his jacket, she continues, “You always get grumpy when you’re tired.”
Steven’s cheeks grow a shade pinker as he frowns, looking down at the worn sneakers in the dirt.
“I guess I should apologize to Pearl, huh?”
He’s too sweet, one of her gems whispers to the other. He learned that from us.
I doubt it.
“Just try not to pull anymore all-nighters, sour-worm.” Garnet gives Steven’s hair a ruffle as she grabs the sneakers and stands.
“I couldn’t help it! The new Spirit Morph book just came out and I had to finish it before-” Steven pauses for a jaw-cracking yawn, “-before Connie.”
As the two trot further into the forest, Seven begins to twiddle his fingers and tug at his sleeves. Whether or not Steven asks his question is dependent on not being interrupted, and Garnet changes their course slightly to ensure there’s time.
“Did m-” Steven clears his throat and tries again, “How did r- uh-”
Shyness, grouchiness, the color white, a peaceful facade hiding stormy seas, all very un-Steven-y traits. Garnet doesn’t have enough information to predict what Steven will say, or how he will feel after he’s said it, and the uncertainty is maddening. She’d circle around avoiding the gem monster all day if it meant not being in the dark on this.
“How are you such a good leader? You’re so cool, and calm, and everyone listens to you.”
Garnet pushes at her visor, taking a brief moment to ensure she says the right answer. To her frustration, it seems like every stream and river leads to the same, dead-end lake.
“To tell you the truth,” Garnet stops Steven, turning him to face her and placing two hands on each shoulder, “I don’t always know exactly what to do. But if I can keep us all together, that’s good enough.”
Steven sighs and looks down, betraying little of what was going on in that Steven-shaped head of his. Just like he would’ve if she’d given any other answer. Just like he would’ve if she said nothing at all.
In the end, it’s Pearl and Amethyst that find the Crystal Capuchin. Garnet catches a brief hint of disappointment in Steven’s face before he takes a breath, closes his eyes, and paints a peaceful smile on his face to congratulate them.
Slick tile beneath bare feet, humid air in his lungs, Steven zips his white jacket closed over the star on his shirt. He’s standing against the back wall of his bathroom trying to get as much of him in the mirror as possible, but the space is too small. He’s too small, and can only catch the upper half of his torso if he stretches…
Steven tugs at the jacket, and zips it back open. He considers it in the mirror, turns to get a better look. Thanks to Pearl’s help, the jacket is once-again pristine, wrinkle-free, and devoid of any stains. The Crystal Capuchin mission might not have gone exactly how he wanted it to, but that didn’t mean he couldn’t try again. Next time, he would be more careful. More graceful. Nicer, calmer, a better leader if the gems let him try…
Steven tests out a smile. It wants to come out goofy and jovial, stretching out his face and pushing at his eyelids, but he forces it to something more restrained and thoughtful.
Or, that’s what he wants it to look like. The mirror bounces back to him an image of himself that looks tired, almost lazy, with drooping lids and a tight, furrowed brow. Steven drops the smile with a frustrated growl before pulling a face, sticking his tongue out at his reflection.
Pearl’s muffled voice is punctuated by a sharp knock that has Steven yelping in surprise.
“Come outside whenever you’re done, Greg has something he wants to give you.”
“Sure thing,” Steven replies, wondering what his dad could have brought.
Moving closer to the mirror, Steven tugs unhappily at thick, black curls, still damp from his shower. With one last ruffle, he turns on his heel to open the bathroom door, step out, and turn into the main living space.
The air in the rest of the house is much colder than the air in the bathroom, and the wood floor shocks his bare feet enough that his toes curl. With one foot in the air, arms rigid, and teeth chattering, Steven pauses and takes a second to acclimate.
The house is quiet, in the way it often is. A faint, electric buzz tells him he forgot to turn off the T.V. before his shower, and waves like white noise crash rhythmically around the walls of his home. Morning sunlight streams through the windows at the house’s face, dust seemingly motionless in the air caught in their beams.
Once Steven’s temperature evens out and warmth returns to his fingers and the soles of his feet, Steven straightens out to trot to the front door. Before he can reach the handle, he catches his reflection in the door’s window.
Unlike in his mirror, Steven can see his whole body, head to toe, reflected weakly back at him, layered transparently atop his porch.
A frown tugs at Steven’s face, and his heart sinks to the floor. It wasn’t that long ago, that he didn’t feel for his reflection one way or the other. Steven was always just, well, Steven, and that was never a dirty word before.
Maybe if he zipped up his jacket? He tries that, covering his pink shirt. He lets the look sit for a few moments, but it still doesn’t click.
Maybe it was his hair? He had been meaning to try something different-
“Steven! Are you coming?” Pearl’s voice speaks up from somewhere outside.
After one last glance, Steven unzips his jacket and pushes the door open to rush outside.
The van is parked down on the beach, back doors swung open and his dad seated inside, legs swung out. It’s a familiar sight, with a wonderfully unfamiliar twist. The gems are also there, standing in a circle that includes Steven’s dad, and the four of them are talking in low voices, not a single sideways glance betraying their usual tension. Steven feels as though he must be doing something right after all, and he’s so delighted he feels like he could soar.
Steven means to take the stairs, but he’s too light. He spins upwards instead of down with a surprised, “Woah!”
Straightening himself out midair with a soft giggle, Steven finds himself looking down. His family is watching with rapt attention, and he feels heat rush to his face. He can’t forget what’s making them happy, what’s making them get along, so he pushes his goofy smile to something calm, makes sure his arms are out so his jacket can billow just so, works to keep his heart from sinking so he doesn’t sink with it, and lands on the beach with one foot first. Nailed it.
But when he opens his eyes, he finds his performance met with questionable reception. Amethyst is grimacing, eyes shifting between the other two gems. Pearl is tapping one finger against her chin, eyebrows furrowed. And Garnet- well, she looks the same, arms crossed and mouth in a line, but Steven can feel her staring.
Greg is the one to cut the tension.
“Hey, Kiddo,” he says with a wave and a smile.
“Hey Dad,” Steven replies, sand shifting as he walked closer toward the van, “Pearl says you wanted to give me something?”
“A couple somethings,” his dad amends with a wink. He reaches behind him, further into the van, “I found this in one of the boxes from the old storage unit, and I just had to bring it over to show you. Ta-da! ”
Steven’s dad holds up a small, white blanket. It’s been stitched together in multiple places, but the material looks soft and plush.
“Okay,” Steven is interrupted by a yawn, and rubs at one eye as he continues, “what is it?”
“You don’t remember this old thing?” his dad replies, setting the blanket on the van’s floor. “It’s from when you were just a baby! I remember when you were this big-” he holds his hand about a foot above the floor of the van, “-and you wouldn’t go to sleep without it. You thought it had the power to keep away nightmares-”
“Yes!” Pearl pipes up, a little too loud, standing stiffly with a finger in the air. “You managed to trick your brain into not having nightmares by using a placebo! It was a wonderfully effective coping mechanism that allowed you to get more sleep!”
“As a kid,” Steven’s dad amends, “of course, it wouldn’t work now that you’re all grown! We would find something more, I dunno, uh,” he pulls at the strap of his tank top sheepishly. “Pearl, can we start over, I think we went too fast- what I’m trying to say, the gems and I have been talking and, uh.”
“What?” Steven’s head is spinning trying to keep up with the twists and turns of the conversation. “Are we still talking about… the blanket?”
“Ugh ! This is taking forever!” Amethyst whines. She pokes a finger out at Steven’s nose, causing him to step back in surprise. “Dude, you’ve been acting super weird lately. Something’s up with you.”
“Huh? Weird?” Steven feels the heat of embarrassment rush to his head as he tugs sheepishly at his jacket. “I thought I was being-”
“Nice?” Amethyst finishes.
Well, yeah, nice. And kind, and graceful, and other things that were apparently weirding them out. The heat of embarrassment morphs into something frustrated, and he feels his brow tighten. Didn’t they want him to be better? They weren’t happy when he acted like Steven, and now they were unhappy with him acting like-
“Steven,” Garnet interrupts, crouching down to put a hand on his shoulder. “A lot has happened. It’s been scary, even for us.”
“Right,” his dad begins, “no one would blame you if you were having trouble sleeping.”
“Huh?” Now Steven was really lost, and he searches through the tangled threads of their conversation, “You think… I’m having nightmares?”
His dad and the gems look at him in a way that has his stomach turning with guilt, their brows furrowed and hands wringing in worry.
Steven miscalculated. His family wasn’t happy, they were scared, just like they always were. They were all just as lost, and nothing changed.
“You know, it might make you feel better if you talked about them,” Pearl says softly from where she’s standing. The other three nod in agreement.
Steven considers for a moment, messing with the zipper of his jacket as he worries over his next words.
“I’m,” he doesn’t want to say too much, they were already concerned enough, “I’m not having nightmares.”
“But you’ve been falling asleep in weird places,” Amethyst chimes in.
Steven’s dad is next, “Yeah, and Garnet said--”
“Yeah, and I said I’m not!” The words come out more snap-ish than Steven meant, and he forces himself to pull back.
You always get grumpy when you’re tired, Garnet’s voice muses in his head.
Steven gets grumpy when he’s tired. His smile comes out big and goofy, his hair is short and black, he hasn’t had a growth spurt in years, he talks too loud when he’s excited, his powers go haywire with his emotions, and no matter how hard he works to grow up, his family still worries over taking care of him.
His jacket feels wrong on his shoulders, and the sand under his soles is uncomfortably hot.
Giving up, Steven falls backwards into the sand with a sigh, landing in a crossed-legged position, one hand cradling his chin.
Pearl reaches out, “Steven?”
There’s a part of Steven that tells him they’ll be upset, that they’ll be mad once they find out what’s actually been going on with him. And then he’ll know, for sure, that they really do blame him for everything that’s happened, for the fact they haven’t been happy in a long time.
“I haven’t been having nightmares,” Steven says, pushing past the voice in his head that says they already have enough to worry about, they shouldn’t worry about this too-
But the gems exchange a look before settling down in the sand, and his dad even takes the cue to step out of the van and join the little circle they have going. They are all listening intently, and Steven feels compelled to continue.
“Actually, I’ve been having good dreams lately. Like, really nice dreams. About the beach, and you guys, and the temple-”
The temple, bare in front, all smiles, carefree, happy.
“So, what’s the problem?” Amethyst asks, not unkindly.
Steven takes a moment to slow his pounding heart, and he gnaws at his cheek inside his mouth.
“I don’t think they’re mine. I think they’re Mom’s.”
Garnet is the first to react, in that subtle way of hers. A frown takes over her features, and she pushes up at her visor with one hand as she looks down. From where she sat beside Garnet, Amethyst's eyebrows raise while her hand slowly lowers from her chin. Steven's tongue dries up as he forces his eyes away from Pearl's wide ones, her hand coming up to cover her mouth, and to his dad's. He at least seems to be taking a measured effort to stay calm, but his pursed lips give him away. Steven can’t tell if they’re upset or relieved, and he doesn’t know which would be worse.
Steven’s heart is threatening to pound free of his chest now, and the pressure is forcing out words faster than he can stop them.
“So, I thought that maybe her memories were still in there somewhere,” Steven clutches at his shirt where his gem is, almost without realizing, “or that she could be trapped, or that I was seeing what she saw because I was actually there, and-”
“S-steven.” His dad looks close to a heart attack, hand clutched in his shirt and expression watery.
“-and I thought that if I acted like her and dressed more like her then maybe I could, I don’t know-” Access her? Become her? He feels stupid at the prospect of saying it out loud.
“Oh, no…” Amethyst looks more upset than he’s ever seen her, hand curled in her hair.
“-I don’t know. I thought if I did, we would know what to do,” Steven hiccups, and scrubs at tears he didn’t know were falling. He keeps his arm over his eyes as another hiccup rattles his frame, and he keeps going, “and we w-wouldn’t be so scared all the time, a-and you guys wouldn’t have to be so sad anymore.”
Steven sniffs, keeping his arm over his eyes. He takes a moment to calm his breathing before going on, “I don’t know why I thought it would work. Sorry I was being weird.”
He doesn’t want to know what his family looks like. Keeping his arm over his eyes, he lets out a few more sniffs. Steven doesn’t feel much better having let it out. Maybe they’d agree, maybe they’d want to help him try to get Rose back. It makes him feel terrible when his stomach sinks at the thought-
Steven’s thoughts are interrupted when he’s suddenly jostled four different directions in just a few moments. He’s totally enveloped, cool limbs soothing the heat in his face, tangled together in a massive group hug. Steven can feel Garnet’s hand around the back of his head, and Amethyst’s arm is flung around his neck as she chuckles into his hair. Pearl’s hand finds a place on his shoulder, and the other on Greg’s as he pulls Steven close to his chest.
It’s warm and comfortable, and they way they embrace him from all sides make him feel more loved than he has in awhile. In a way, he never wants it to end. In another, he knows it never really will. He’ll carry this feeling with him for a long time.
When they pull away, his dad keeps one hand in his hair, and the three gems sit back in front of him.
Pearl offers a watery smile. “You weren’t acting weird. I think we’d just rather have you act like yourself.”
Amethyst lets out a soft chuckle. “Aww, yeah. If you weren’t around, I’d have no one to hang out with.”
“Steven,” Garnet’s low voice commands attention, and he turns to her expectantly, “we don’t always do the right thing. Sometimes, our words and our actions have unforeseen effects. I’m sorry.”
Steven feels a frown tug at his face. “It’s alright.”
“No, it isn’t,” Garnet says, straightening up. “We made you feel like our problems were your fault.”
“Yeah. It’s not on you,” Amethyst adds.
“That’s right,” Pearl agrees, “and we love you.”
“We miss Rose,” his dad speaks up from behind, “but that doesn’t mean we would ever trade you for her.”
As Steven looks up at his family, their faces so much more open and easy to understand than he feels like they ever have been, he feels his heart swell almost impossibly. His throat is so thick, and his smile is so tight that all he can manage is a soft, “Thanks.”
“How are you feeling?” Amethyst asks.
“I’m feeling…” Steven considers the question, as he gives one more sniff and shrugs off the jacket. His toes wiggle in the sand. “Like I should buy a new pair of shoes.”
“Way ahead of you!” Steven’s dad jumps to his feet, giving his own eyes a brief swipe before crouching into the van. “I figured you’d need a replacement eventually anyway, so I bought a few new pairs a couple weeks ago.”
Steven takes the familiar pair of pink flip-flops and sets them in the sand. The minute he steps into them, Amethyst lifts him in the air with a holler.
“All right! He’s back!”
Steven laughs as she parades him around above her head like a trophy. Pearl and Garnet exchange a laugh of their own, and his dad settles into the van with a relieved huff.
Steven still wasn’t sure he could make heads or tales of what he was; human or gem, Rose Quartz or someone entirely new, but-
With a family like this, he was sure he could be comfortable with what he wasn’t.