It was a rather quiet night, save for the soft squeaks of a plate as Pearl finished scrubbing the last one and set it off to the side. A crescent moon glared ever so softly through the many windows of the downstairs portion of the house, further creating the illusion of tranquility. There was never much for her to do once the sun went down. Many gems within Little Homeworld had fallen in line with the human activity of sleeping, so most of her options for entertainment had already been cast aside right then and there. Luckily enough, there were always chores to do that were quiet yet entertaining enough to not disturb Steven while he slept upstairs.
She knew that the boy needed sleep whenever he could manage it. In fact, it was almost a blessing to the stars whenever Steven went upstairs to sleep for the night. There had been times where she warped back into the temple at the crack of dawn, and Steven would be right at the kitchen table scribbling away at another notebook for who knows what.
Three soft knocks broke her from her thoughts after she had unintentionally started staring at the staircase. Who in the right mind would be visiting the house at this hour? The door opened with a low creak right as her eyes caught sight of who the polite intruder was. Low and behold, her own protegé crept in, the teenager's eyes completely avoiding her own. Her posture was poor, her hair astray, and even her night clothes were wrinkled and sloppy.
"Oh, hello Connie!" Pearl chipped in with a friendly smile, breaking the awkward silence between them. The girl didn't acknowledge her at first as she stared at the gem as if she were a deer caught in headlights. Pearl leaned to the side a bit in order to glance out of the nearby windows, and promptly pursed her lips. There was no sign of sunlight nor anything indicating that morning had arrived. "It's quite early, don't you think? You know that we don't have any training scheduled for the day."
"Yeah." She finally answered back at a mumble. Pearl watched as she pulled her phone out of her pocket and turned on the screen, the light illuminating her own tired eyes. "It's five in the morning." Connie supplied with a weak shrug before tucking her phone back into the pocket of her sweatpants.
"And you are here at five in the morning because…?" The gem prompted kindly while drying her hands on a nearby towel. Connie didn't speak again, her gaze still not meeting Pearl's. Whatever it was, it was either embarrassing or something she's just overthinking, or at least that's what Pearl could assume.
Another minute of awkward silence.
This was getting nowhere, and there was really only one reason that Connie could show up at this hour. With a sigh, she placed a hand on her hips. "Connie, if it's because Steven texted you-"
"He didn't! I-" Connie interjected urgently, only to bite the inside of her cheek. "It's not like that. He-" She fumbled on her words. A frustrated sigh escaped her lips, and she marched over to the couch. As soon as she got close enough effortlessly dropped herself onto the cushions, and buried her face in her hands.
Pearl frowned sympathetically at her telltale signs of distress. She abandoned the now-drying dishes, and walked into the living room portion of the house. "Mind if I sit by you?" She asked. As she expected, Connie didn't verbally answer, but at least she nodded to where Pearl could see it. After being given the indication, she sat down on the cushion right next to the teenager. "Now that we're both sitting down, do you think you could talk about it?"
Out of nowhere, Connie laughed. It wasn't the trivial, jolly kind of laugh that you'd hear after a joke, it was more dry, more meaningless. "If only it were that simple." She spoke at a level barely above a whisper.
She went quiet after that statement. That was an ominous sentence at the bare minimum, and it didn't look like Connie was going to put it into context anytime soon. "What do you mean, Connie?" She questioned in further confusion. "If what was that simple? Is something wrong?" The teenager only sank further into the cushion as the questions continued to fall from her mouth. Pearl's hands wrung nervously in her lap. She wasn't exactly the best at dealing with human emotions, and there was only one person in this house who really could. "I'm sorry Connie, should I go wake Ste-"
As soon as the letters left her mouth, Connie shot up from her slumped position with sudden vigor. "No!" She shouted, a blush rising on her face at the sudden volume. "I mean… no ma'am. Please don't wake him up." Connie amended sheepishly.
"Alright, I won't." Pearl agreed, and the thin layer of tension within the air vanished as Connie breathed out a sigh of relief. It was considerably better than when she arrived, but she still couldn't help but notice the way the girl's dark eyes occasionally drifted from the door to the staircase. She didn't want to pressure her for the reason, but it had to be important to make her act like this. Teenagers were very difficult to talk to, she knew that from experience.
As if Connie had heard her thoughts, she pinched the bridge of her nose and took in a deep breath before exhaling calmly again. Her composure straightened, and for the first time that night, she looked Pearl right in the eyes. "Sorry about that ma'am. I'm just a little…" She paused to think, one of her hands sliding through her dark and messy locks. "worried? Angry? Kinda sorta freaked out, I guess?"
"From your recent reactions, I'm going to guess this has to do with Steven." Pearl assessed.
"Yes and no?" Connie answered in an unsure tone, a look of puzzlement crawling into her face. "Yes, it has to do with Steven, but no it's not something directly with Steven." She leaned back and groaned in aggravation. "I'm not making any sense, am I?"
Pearl was just as confused, if not moreso, than Connie was with her own words. She wouldn't admit that out loud though, her wording was a little jumbled and she didn't blame her. From what she's heard, human beings don't exactly function well without a proper night of sleep. "How about we start from the top?" Pearl suggested, and rested a reassuring hand on her shoulder. "You said this had something to do with Steven, so let's start there."
Connie nodded slowly, and started to speak. "Right, Steven. Has anything happened recently with him?"
Pearl tapped her chin thoughtfully as she recalled what all has occurred within the past week. She hasn't spent much time with Steven, as the teenager has deliberately been avoiding the house until nightfall. He started doing that after what they called The Cactus Steven incident. Hold on. Actually, that might just be it. "Well, did he tell you about the sentient cactus he created a little over a week ago? That's the only thing I could think of." Pearl offered, her hand dropping back into her lap.
Connie went wide-eyed and immediately shook her head. "The what? No." She hissed, minding her volume. "That's half of the problem. Steven hardly talks about himself to me anymore." She complained, her hands flailing out in front of her.
"Really?" Pearl raised a brow. She knew that he had purposely stopped having heart-to-hearts with the gems after Cactus Steven, but Connie was the last person she'd expect him to leave in the dark.
"Yep." She huffed while popping the p, her expression only growing more and more annoyed. "He always texts me asking about my day, but when I ask him about his he says something stupid like "Fine" or changes the subject before I can get a direct answer." Her hands dropped from her face and onto the couch, her fingers now gripping the fabric of the cushion.
"He's been distancing himself lately, especially from all three of us." Pearl added with a frown. Steven wasn't talking to Connie nor any of his caretakers. That made her wonder if he was talking to anyone about what happened at all. Her mind vaguely recalled what all Cactus Steven had said during the fight, and her frown deepened.
"What is it, Pearl?" Her protegé asked, most likely noticing her visible actions.
"You know nothing about the cactus at all, correct?"
"Not a thing, but it sounds like you do." Connie urged, her grip on the couch slackening as she sat back up in interest.
Pearl hummed in affirmation. While she didn't have every piece of the story, she knew she had the most crucial parts to it considering she had witnessed it first-hand. "Steven took to gardening after Little Homeschool's graduation, and for a while, it went pretty well." She purposely left out the part where he named the plants after his friends. "Next thing we know, he comes downstairs with a small potted cactus shaped like his head."
"Like the Watermelon Stevens?" Connie interrupted.
"Yes, but this one was different ." Pearl nodded, ignoring the fact that she was interrupted. "It could speak. I mean, not well, but it could repeat whatever it has heard." Connie had a look of surprise written on her face, but didn't speak again. Seeing as she had no comments to make, Pearl continued. "It was cute at first with the talking and all, but then it got, well, considerably less cute when we came back home to Steven fighting a monstrous cactus."
"What happened to it? Did Steven get hurt?"
Pearl thought for a moment on how to explain this last part. It was considerably more complicated than the beginning, and Connie was completely out of the loop. "We fought the cactus together, but remember how I said it repeated things it hears?" The younger swordfighter nodded slightly, already getting a hint of where this was going. "It said some very concerning things about us. Not about you or Steven, but the three of us. Steven himself said that the cactus has been repeating his words that he vented to it." The gem recollected, also opting not to say the exact words Cactus Steven had said. She'd rather not hear those words out loud let alone from her own mouth. "As for Steven, he was fine. Maybe a personified pin cushion at the end, but physically fine."
"Physically? Was he not fine fine?" Connie pointed out her specific wording. There was an emotion swirling in her eyes that Pearl couldn't name. Had she made things worse by explaining? No, Connie needed to know.
"I think I've said enough." Pearl recalled what Steven had said. She noted the visible confusion and irritation returning to Connie's body. "That's the last full sentence we've gotten out of Steven concerning himself or the cactus for the past week." She concluded, and Connie glanced away again. "Bismuth didn't finish repairing the damages until yesterday now that I think about it." She added thoughtfully, but the statement only made Connie's distraught more apparent.
"Why didn't he just tell me?" The teenager whispered half to herself. "We're Jam Buds. He used to tell me everything , and now he doesn't tell me anything." Her voice was soft, shakey, and tired. It broke Pearl's heart to hear the confident girl act so sullen. "He's been alone through all of this, and all I've cared about lately was studying ." She continued with a short sniffle. As soon as she saw tears start to bud in her eyes, Pearl quickly pulled her into a hug.
"It's alright, Connie. It's not your fault." She soothed while the teenager buried her face into her jacket. "He hasn't been very talkative lately. I'm sure he's just trying to figure things out for himself."
"It's not that, I miss him. The real him." Connie admitted sadly, her voice slightly croaking. "I don't think he knows who he is anymore, Pearl. He's lost." Her fingers grabbed at the back of Pearl's jacket.
"Then I guess it's up to us to find out."
The grip slackened a little, and Connie pulled away to stare at her. "What…?" She mumbled with a miniscule tilt of her head.
"I said, it's up to us to find out." Pearl reiterated while getting to her feet. "If Steven is afraid to talk to us about himself, we'll just have to try harder. We're not going to give up on him that easily." She asserted. The gem extended a hand to Connie who was still seated on the couch. "He'd do the same for us."
The human glanced at her hand for a moment before clasping it with her own. Pearl helped her to her feet, and Connie stared back at her, a fire rekindling in her eyes. "Right. We can't give up on Steven. Not now, not ever." She confirmed with a small, determined smile quirking on her lips.
Now this was more like the Connie that Pearl remembered. The exhaustion and aggravation in her eyes ended up temporarily forgotten as the two had a moment of solidarity over Steven. She shook her head, a smile of her own starting to blossom. "Now tell me the real reason why you wanted to show up this early."
This caused Connie to blank for a moment. Her hand scratched nervously at the back of her head. "I, uh, I couldn't sleep. Too many thoughts, so I was kind of banking on you being at the house if I'm going to be honest. I needed someone different to talk to." She explained guiltlessly with another shrug. At the mention of time, Connie stopped to pull her phone back out of her pocket. Pearl read over her shoulder to see that the time read 5:54. "Mom's gonna kill me. I didn't mean to be out this long." She groaned in dread.
"Steven should be up in about an hour if you'd like to stay." Pearl offered sympathetically. She'd imagine that Connie didn't tell her mother about leaving the house.
"No, but thanks anyways ma'am." Connie dipped her head, returning back to the formality she'd use during training. "I should really get going while Lion is still around." She jabbed a thumb in the direction of the windows where the large pink cat snoozed away on the porch.
"I'm also going to guess that I'll see you soon?" Pearl tipped her head in the direction of the stairs.
"Definitely." Connie affirmed. She walked over and rested a hand on the door handle for a moment. "Hey, Pearl?" She asked quietly without turning around.
"Thanks for talking to me, I mean it." Her head turned slightly to where Pearl could recognize the soft smile again.
"I can't ignore a fellow knight in need, right?" Pearl joked back while mirroring Connie's expression and tone.
A sudden force slammed into her chest as Connie left the door and charged right into her. "Ah! Connie!" Pearl yelled in surprise as she almost stumbled backwards from the impact. Connie had her arms wrapped around Pearl's midsection for a few seconds before backing off, a dark red blush covering the entirety of her cheeks.
In a matter of seconds, the teenager had already dashed back to the door. "Bye Pearl!" She called back as the door shut with a click.
Pearl shook her head at the shift of mannerisms. Teenagers will be teenagers, she supposed. Oh well, she was glad that she was able to help her out. In fact, the talk made her feel a bit more confident regarding their current predicament with Steven. She sighed as she saw Connie warp away on Lion out of the corner of her eye. That was one way to get through an otherwise uneventful night.
With the thought of peace in her mind, Pearl's gem glowed as she stepped back into her room within the temple.
Meanwhile in Steven's room, his figure leaned against the wall right next to where the staircase led into his room. Despite the darkness, a mixed expression of guilt and shame washed over every inch of his face. Connie had been rendered unable to sleep because of him. He had caused yet another problem. All he could do anymore was cause problems that needed to be fixed.
He didn't need anyone to fix his mistakes. Pink already started that trend, and he wasn't about to continue it. If anyone was going to fix his mistakes, it'd be him and him alone.
A vibrant pink glow started to contaminate his cheeks. The light from it practically blinded his eyes for a moment as he rubbed his arm across his eyes that had just started to water. Steven willed for it to just go away. He didn't want to deal with this right now. This was the last thing he wanted.
The pink faded as quickly as it appeared, shrouding the room in darkness other than what the light of the moon provided. With an unstable exhale, the teenager sulked back over to his bed. Pearl and Connie didn't know that he had listened to them talk about him. That was just another thing they didn't need to know about.
He sat back down onto his bed, and picked up his phone from where it laid next to his pillow. The screen flickered on as he picked up the phone. Almost immediately, he opened his messages with Connie. He couldn't text her right now. She'd know he was awake during their conversation. Instead, he scrolled through their recent chat history, more specifically his own messages. He cringed at every single ' Fine' or unfulfilled ' I'll talk to you later' that he sent over the past week.
He placed his phone back down, and laid in his bed. His gaze blankly locked into the ceiling above him. There was a twinge in his heart as he recalled their talk downstairs word for word. It repeated within his head like a broken record, and he cringed every time that Connie's voice dropped or broke.
"I don't think he knows who he is anymore, Pearl."
He went numb to the exhaustion in his system entirely. Steven wasn't tired anymore.
The only thing he was tired of was being a burden to the ones around him.