Chapter 1: The DeMayo's Happy Home
Looking back, Steven wasn’t sure where along his trip he’d gotten the idea. New Carolina was only a few states south of Delmarva, so it had to have occurred to him pretty early on. He’d definitely started really considering the idea by the time he’d hit Keystone, though. That was when he’d brought the idea up with his therapist on their weekly video chat, live from the bed & breakfast he was staying at.
“You want to meet your grandparents? Greg’s parents?” Dr. Lin seemed surprised by that idea, enough so that she immediately began scribbling away at her notepad. Steven had recognized that very early on as something she’d do whenever he made a point she’d want to come back to later. They’d probably filled at least 20 pages of those within the first two meetings after he’d started with her. There was a lot of ground to cover. “They’re the ones whose house you broke into a few months before we started working together, right?”
“Yep, those are the ones.” Even in spite of how weird his overall life was, Steven couldn’t help but feel like that one was a particularly weird little misadventure. Even if his entire family’s legacy was one of rebellion and war crimes, breaking and entering a human home was something else altogether. Fortunately, Dr. Lin had been pleased to have that relatively minor issue to delve into among Steven’s cavalcade of Gem traumas.
“That was a pretty big point of contention between you and your dad, wasn’t it? He had that hypothetical upbringing you sometimes wish you had.” She quickly began flipping back through the notepad, scrounging through the veritable novel of Steven’s past until she finally found the spot where he’d described the incident in question. “You were very impressed with the normalcy of their house. The potpourri, the foreign spoons, the ceramic goats, and so on.”
“The goats were actually glass, not ceramic.”
“Right, sorry, I’ll just update my records.” Heh. That was something about Dr. Lin that Steven really felt helped him in being able to do that at all. She had a sense of humor. He had a lot of doubts at first, but when she’d grabbed her pearl necklace during that first session while smiling and asked if Steven was comfortable with her wearing it, he knew it’d be just fine.
She continued. “Regardless of what their goats are made of, though, you lashed out at your dad because of how you perceived that lifestyle. Greg grew up in a home with parents and rules. You grew up in a van with him, and not much in the way of restriction.”
The woman stared at Steven through the screen for a moment, pausing. Eventually, she seemed to realize that was all he had to say on that. “So, what’s that mean for you then? You’re on a road trip across the country, do you want to be able to stay with them when you make your way through West Keystone?”
“No, no, nothing like that. It’s not about their house anymore, or even that kinda life. At this point…” Well, it wasn’t an easy question to answer. Considering he was already going around the country for the express purpose of trying to find out a little more of who he was and what he wanted, any question about what he wanted from family he didn’t even know was hard to parse out. “...At this point, I think I just want to know them.”
There wasn’t any comment on that from Dr. Lin right away. Rather, she simply nodded and scribbled away at that notebook for what had to be at least a solid 30 seconds. Whenever that happened, Steven could be sure she was gonna hit him with something big. What exactly, he was never sure, but it was always something.
Once those 30 seconds were up and Dr Lin’s pen had finally stopped, Steven finally got to hear just what that something was. “Alright, so, Greg was the only human family you knew from birth. For 14 years, you were unaware of any other blood relations you might have. It wasn’t until Andy fell out of the sky, literally, that you were suddenly forced to contend with the fact that there was an entire line of DeMayos he’d never really mentioned to you.”
Yep, Steven was exactly right. Dr. Lin had just been gearing up to hit him with something strong. “Yeah, I guess that’s part of it. He showed me a picture of his aunt and uncle, Andy’s parents, but I never even learned their names! And it wasn’t even important to him, he let Lapis keep it in her new art studio just because it reminded her of living in the barn!”
“He undervalued it, a direct memory of those relatives, which was at odds with the respect and love for family that he instilled in you at the same time.”
“Exactly! Like, come on dad, was your family really so bad? Did you just wanna keep acting like we never came from anything for the rest of our lives?!”
The familiar feeling of frustration boiling up in him was recognized as soon as Steven finished, realizing he was beginning to clench his fists and raise his voice. Nope, time to decompress. At all once, Steven drew back from the call for a moment, folded his hands together in his lap, and scooted back up against the headboard of the bed he was sitting one. His eyes closed as he began to analyze where he was at. Physically and emotionally.
A deep breath in through his nose. An exhale through the mouth. This was okay, it was not a situation where he had to fall apart. Everyone he loved was only a phone call away, and Dr. Lin was right here, still on the call here with him. She always gave him a chance to recollect himself on his own each time he started to panic, and he’d been getting better at it as it continued happening over the past few months. Now, he really felt like he was taking accountability and helping himself more often than not.
A few minutes passed like that, with silence only being filled by Steven's internal thoughts. Thoughts of encouragement, safety, his support network, things that made him happy, and more. Whatever helped him step back from the precipice he stood on that had so nearly led him to a bad panic attack.
By the time he opened his eyes, Steven’s frustration had dissipated by quite a bit. There was still a raw feeling, but he was okay enough that he felt like he could finish the session. It was good it happened towards the end, too. Sometimes he’d have a bad little attack right at the start, and feel like crap as he struggled through the rest of the session. At least now he didn’t feel like he had to ration what was left of his energy just to get through.
“Yeah. Sorry about that. Did I start glowing during that one?”
“No, actually. You’re very adept with the tools we’ve been using. You identified that you were beginning to spiral, withdrew from the subject that was affecting you, and just like that you’d helped yourself before the stress could physically alter you.”
Beyond just the instruction of the tools she’d taught him, positive reinforcement had gone a long way toward helping Steven feel comfortable in being able to do all this. A few kind words really solidified his progress for him, he found. “Thanks, Dr. Lin.”
She smiled at him from his screen, but looked to the right as her phone began to beep. Not the chime for their time being up, just the one for the five minute mark. A useful tool in case Steven had to finish a thought he was on, or if there were any last minute topics he really wanted to cover. Dr. Lin reached over to turn off the alarm before facing back to the camera. “Alright, we’re winding down. There’s just one last question I think I should ask. You’re clearly very resolute about seeking out your grandparents, you’ve shown that it’s an important point as far as you’re concerned. What did Greg have to say when you told him?”
“Ha, funny story about that.” Steven, ever the advocate for open and honest communication these days, might’ve made a tiny little lapse in judgement with this plan. “I actually haven’t told him yet.”
“You want to do what!?”
Of course Steven had to bite the bullet and call his dad eventually. To his credit, he didn’t end up waiting too long. A few hours later, enough time to recuperate from his session and have a meal, he’d returned to where he was staying and prepared for another video call. His dad was always up for a call, and things had started well enough.
The two of them were relaxed on their respective beds while they'd talked about all the usual things. Places Steven was visiting, what was new in Beach City, how Greg was decorating the old room, all kinds of stuff. It was all easy to talk about, enough that Steven thought he could segue into his plan without much issue.
In reality, not so much.
As soon as Steven had even asked about visiting Greg’s parents at their timeshare, his dad’s entire demeanor changed. He leapt up off the bed, pulling the phone closer to his face and giving Steven a close up of his anguish-struck expression. “Steven, I know that maybe I didn’t really explain it well when we drove out to their house, but I can promise you that this isn’t a good idea!”
Well, Steven had at least been prepared for a reaction like this. “Dad, I get the apprehension, but it’s not like what we talked about before! I don’t care about what kind of upbringing you or I had anymore! I just think I should be able to know them.”
It wasn’t like Steven had expected such a simple sort of explanation to completely placate his dad, but he’d at least hoped it might’ve calmed Greg down a bit. Instead, it only seemed to do the opposite. His dad continued to look like there was a knife twisted in his gut, the beginnings of tears starting to form in the corners of his eyes. Steven could even begin to see him pace about his room, like a stressed out animal in a cage.
“Steven, I told you before, you don’t have any idea what they’re like, my dad especially! I know you wanna reach out to people, but they’re not the ones to do it with! Please, just let me protect you from them!”
In spite of his immediate urge to implore Greg to finally let him make that choice, Steven couldn’t really bring himself to do so. Not with his dad like this, looking like he could start hyperventilating at any moment. He couldn’t ask something of someone who was already feeling as low as ever. He had to get him to relax if there was any hope of them talking about this at all.
“Dad, it’s okay! Just take a second, and we can talk about this! Where’s your relaxing music CD? Did you bring it with you when you moved in?”
“Yes, it’s in the drawer with my—” Greg seemed to catch himself as he thought about it, suddenly shaking his head. “Wait, no, I do not need to calm down! You need to understand me, Steven, that this isn’t an option! There’s things about them you wouldn’t understand, things that go beyond meatloaf and curfews!”
While not necessarily damning, whatever these unspecified things that Greg was referring to had Steven second-guessing his decision. While the controlling things that Greg parents had done to him did sound like a pain to deal with over so many years, Steven had assumed that those things were meaningless now that Greg was an independent adult off living his own life. What could they do to him nowadays?
“Alright, dad, I hear you. Just, tell me what you mean? It’s been like, over twenty years by now! Who knows what they’re like by now?” Steven had done enough of the old unwilling forgiveness in his life with so many people who’d tried to kill him at some point. By now, he just wanted to know what could’ve gone down for his dad to react like this.
For a minute there, it looked like Greg really might start to talk to him. The tears were flowing freely now, but he’d stopped pacing and his breathing had returned to normal. He couldn’t quite look up at the camera yet, but he was clearly thinking hard about things. About what he could say.
Just when he finally looked back to the camera and Steven allowed his hopes to rise, they were shot down just as quickly. “Steven, I love you. More than anything else in the universe. But this? No, I can’t do it.”
Even as Steven opened his mouth to protest, Greg was a step ahead. “Anything else you want or need, I can do that for you, but this is the one exception. Please believe me that whatever you might want them to be like, I can guarantee you that they are not.”
With that, Greg reached for his phone and ended the call all before Steven could so much as utter a word. The CALL ENDED message was all that Steven could see now, leaving him wondering just what it was that he didn’t really know about his grandparents.
Even when his common sense called on him to listen to Greg and believe what he said, Steven couldn’t quite bring himself to just drop the subject. He was smart enough to leave well enough alone when it came to talking to Greg about it, but he still had his heart set on giving this a chance. Not having his dad’s help did complicate things a bit, though. Aside from knowing that his grandparents spent this part of the year on the timeshare on Florida Island, Steven had no other idea about how to find them.
Even though he had what felt like all the time in the world, Steven really couldn’t do a lot without so much as a general idea of where the timeshare might be. Florida Island was a hugely popular vacation spot as it was, who knew how many timeshares he’d have to wade through trying to find one that was used by the DeMayos, assuming that sort of information was even publicly available.
Without Greg, Steven’s plan was as good as dead. His dad was the only one who might have any of the information needed to make it happen.
Well, that was true until it suddenly occurred to Steven that there was another person he could reach out to.
Later that same day, he was back in that same spot on the bed for just one more video call. He tapped that contact near the top of the alphabetical list, holding his breath as it began to ring. Hadn’t done this is in a little while.
“Steven Quartz Cutie Pie DeMayo Diamond Universe, you little turd! You’ve been at this little cross-country self-discovery mumbo jumbo for how many months now, and you’re only just now calling your poor old uncle?!”
Welp, it wasn’t like Steven had the time to consistently video chat with everyone he knew, but he could still understand Andy’s frustration. With how often Andy was out and flying around anyway, he’d kinda blended into the background of Steven’s mental list of important people. He couldn’t be that upset about Steven leaving Beach City if he himself wasn’t a Beach City resident anyway!
“Heeeeey, Andy! Sorry it’s been a bit of hot minute, I meant to call sooner, it’s just been—”
“Aw, forget about it, you know I’m just giving you grief!” Andy’s laugh was as big and boisterous as ever. A nice shift in tone after Steven’s last call wasn’t nearly as light. “Hey, how’s that shrink of yours treating you? She’s not just trying to foist a bunch of pills on ya, is she? All that therapy stuff is supposed to be more than just the chemistry of your mind or whatever.”
“Dr. Lin and I are working really well together, Andy, and she’s not the kind of doctor that prescribes medications anyway.” Even with a comment that could be pretty easily construed as something misinformed and ignorant, which it possibly was in some ways, Steven understood that it came from a place of love. Surprisingly enough, Andy had been one of the people most vocal about his opinions on how Steven should seek help. All helpful input, believe it or not.
Steven had surmised that, after making a conscious effort to get over his own problems with change and acceptance, Andy just really wanted to be sure Steven could have an easier time doing just that. It was a touching little revelation, even if it was slightly clouded by Andy’s tendency to be a little much.
“Right, right, she’s the no medicine kinda doctor, the one who just works on the brain, that’s good! Your brain’s still young, Steven, it’s workable! You got a lotta’ time left in ya before it turns all to mush like me and your dad!”
There were many layers of hilarity to that sentence and Andy’s view of psychiatry as a whole, but Steven couldn’t really focus much on that once his uncle mentioned his dad. That was going to be a difficult subject to broach, but it was one that he couldn’t rightly shy away from. How to find the right words, though?
Well, maybe his dad could be a good segue. “Speaking of dad, I actually just got off a call with him not too long ago! It’s still kinda weird seeing my room being lived in without me, and with all sorts of new stuff in it!”
“Ugh! You think it’s weird for you? This is the first time Greg’s lived in a house since he left! Even when he went to college, he was staying with that friend of his that his parents hated.” That sounded like dad, alright. Hitting his stride and just living for that rebellion as soon as he got out.
“I guess I had to pick up that rebellious streak somewhere.” Funny enough, silly jokes like that didn’t feel quite as heavy anymore. He could still remember laughing uncomfortably about a remark he’d made with Connie and her friends at the roller rink so many months ago, in response to Daniel’s quip about inheriting stress from his mom’s family. Now, he could actually laugh earnestly about that kind of stuff.
“Eh, we all knew his folks were too hard on him. Still, it was a damn shame when he suddenly ducked out. Some stuff started going south around that time.” Andy suddenly looked a little pensive, reminiscing on the past. He reached up to remove his hat, running his other hand over the smooth part of his head. “Aunt Paula and Uncle Andrew didn’t wanna come out to anything looking like they didn’t have a grip on their kid. All of a sudden we saw ‘em less and less until we weren’t getting anything from ‘em but the annual Christmas cards.”
That, that right there. That was the gap that Steven wanted to bridge. The clear missing piece in life that he, Andy, and his dad were yearning for. He’d come far enough that it wasn’t just about helping them, it was something Steven really felt like he wanted for himself. If that thing he wanted also benefited other people in his life? Then all the better.
“Y’know. We talked about that, too. Grandpa and Grandma DeMayo. I brought up the idea of me going out to meet them at their timeshare to dad on the call.” The memory of Greg looking broken and hurt from his phone screen had Steven feeling similarly down. “He didn’t respond very well, though. Without him, I’ve got no idea where to find them.”
Quite suddenly, a light bulb seemed to go off over Andy’s head. Steven could see his eyes widen as he explained the situation, alight with whatever had just occurred to him. “Timeshare...you mean they still go down to that old place on Florida Island?”
This time, it was Steven’s turn to go wide-eyed. “You know about it? Can you tell me where it is?”
“Aw, geez. I never been there, but…” Something seemed to be clicking in his head yet again. Andy deliberated for a few more seconds before snapping his fingers. The camera on his end suddenly whirled around and ended up focused on the ceiling, the phone obviously having been put down. “Steven, don’t go nowhere, I’ll be right back!”
Not like he had much choice if he wanted to see where this rabbit hole went. So he sat tight, fingers idly drumming against the sides of his phone in anticipation. Andy couldn’t have taken any longer than a few minutes, but it felt like an eternity to Steven nonetheless.
When Andy finally returned, a small stack of something in hand, Steven could finally let go of a breath he didn’t even realize he’d been holding. “Hey, Steven, I found ‘em! I knew I held onto these somewhere! Kept 'em hiding under the seat of the plane!” Andy began to flip through them, and from the glances he could steal at both sides, Steven was finally able to discern just what they were. Postcards.
A few different faces flashed by as Andy continued sorting through them, until he settled on one and gave a particular smile with a look of recognition. He flipped the card to show the picture side towards the camera, and Steven was able to make out a family photo. Greg and his parents, looking as stiff and formal as they did in all the family portraits that had been hanging in their house.
Sure enough, the card that Andy was holding up seemed to be in a very different sort of setting. Almost definitely Florida Island. All three family members were in casual type summer wear. Greg in khakis and a polo, Mr. DeMayo in a matching set, and Mrs. DeMayo in a modest sundress. They stood on a sandy beach, still with the parents flanking Greg from both sides, one hand on each of his shoulders. Was that just their signature pose?
As entranced with the photo as Steven was, Andy seemed much more preoccupied with what was on the back. “I knew these things would be good for more than just the sentimentality! Still got the address there, right on the back! Steven, you want me to text it to you?”
Yes. That was exactly what he’d called for, wasn’t it? That address was just about the only hope Steven realistically had of meeting with his grandparents. Now, in the actual moment though, he only felt unsure. If he ended up really going through with this, and things went south, his dad was at risk of hurting even more.
This was all so messed up. Steven’s thoughts were ramping up and moving a mile a minute. He needed info. Context. Anything. “Andy, please tell me what you think. The last thing in the world that I want is for my dad to be hurt. He’s really upset about this. You actually knew them, do you think it’s worthwhile for me to reach out to them?”
That question actually seemed to throw Andy a bit. He sighed suddenly, setting the postcards aside and steadying his phone. “Like I said, we all knew Greg’s folks were tough on him. Too tough. They didn’t like his hair, or his friends, or what he was suddenly doing at school. When we stopped hearing from him, it was sad, but not really surprising, ya know?”
Steven knew. What a luxury for other people to just be able to walk away from the people that hurt him.
He nodded, but stayed silent as Andy went on. “They weren’t the best they coulda’ been, I know. But hey, neither was I when we met, am I right?”
“Well, I wouldn't have called you the worst stranger to have flown to my home out of the blue one day, at least!” The less they had to talk about Andy’s tumultuous introduction to Steven’s family, the better. He was just glad that it had only taken a day to get through the worst part of that particular obstacle.
“Aww, you’re just being sweet, you cupcake! Anyway, I get it. Greg deserved better from them. He’s a real good guy, I want him to be happy too.” They were on the same page, it seemed. Steven and Andy were at the exact same crossroads of wanting Greg to be safe while also wanting to reach out to some of their family. “I haven’t talked to them, so it’s anyone’s guess what they’re like now. What I do know, though, is that running into Greg after so many years turned out to be a pretty good thing for me. Made me into an uncle and everything!”
Just like that, Steven understood just what his own preoccupation with this little venture was. The same way Andy had improved in so many ways from having family there for him, Steven was looking for more human connections that might help him along his way to find what he wanted in life. He couldn’t be sure if this particular connection was going to be one that would definitely help him, but he’d never know without at least trying.
A small revelation, but enough for Steven to suddenly be sure what he was going to do. A slight grin grew on his face as he suddenly turned to the bedside table, reaching for the pencil and little journal he’d left there. It was typically used for Dr. Lin’s assignment to assess himself and how he was doing on a day to day basis, but he just needed one page for something else.
“Andy, could you go ahead and read that address off for me?”
In Paula DeMayo’s humble opinion, the constant rolling and crashing of the waves just outside the house was a perfect companion to some light reading. The temperature was nice and modest, too. Not blistering but any means, but just enough of that Florida Island heat that she and Andrew kept coming down here for. A welcome departure from the cold of a West Keystone winter, that was for sure. She counted herself lucky to be able to enjoy a quiet moment like this, in their little patch of paradise.
Of course, nothing so perfect could go without interruption forever. A knock at the door suddenly sounded through the adjacent sitting room where Paula sat. She made it a point to finish her sentence before plucking her bookmark off the coffee table, tucking it into the pages and returning the novel to the bookshelf to the right of the sofa.
“Coming.” With everything in place, Paula finally began making her way to the door, low pumps clicking against the wooden floor all the while. She stopped in front of it to primp up for a moment, tucking any stray strands of hair behind her ears and smoothing out the wrinkles of her long skirt. She really hadn’t expected company today. Nevertheless, she finally undid the lock and opened the door to a young man. One who was probably hot in that slightly garish jacket. “May I help you?”
“Uh, hi.” He looked a little uncomfortable, but smiled and gave her a little wave anyway. Odd. “I’m looking for Paula and Andrew DeMayo!”
Hmm. Probably not soliciting if he had found them all the way out on their timeshare. “I’m Paula. Andrew is out at the moment. What can I do for you?”
“Oh! It’s nice to meet you, I’m Steven!” The young man held his hand out, which Paula took with some apprehension. Even though she had no idea who he was, something about him was undeniably charming. Something about that chubby face and his smile was nostalgic. He reminded her a bit of Andrew’s childhood pictures.
“Paula DeMayo, pleased to make your acquaintance, Steven.” She couldn’t help but smile as she gave his hand a slight shake before pulling hers back and folding both hands in front of her. Something about his grin was infectious. “What brings you by today?”
“Uh, I guess I just came to meet you!” Paula quirked an eyebrow, which Steven must have noticed. He suddenly reached into his jacket pocket, pulling out a phone. After unlocking it and doing some swiping and tapping, he turned it and showed a picture to Paula. Steven on the right, and a remarkably familiar face on the left. “This picture is of me and my dad, Greg. Your son.”
All at once, so many things seemed to click for Paula. One hand reached up to cover her mouth, while the other clutched at her blouse. Steven’s familiar visage, how she could’ve sworn she knew the other man in that picture, even that black shirt with the star smack dab in the middle that he was wearing. Greg’s son…
“Oh, Steven. You’re…?” The hand on Paula’s mouth suddenly turned, pointing a delicate finger at the young man on the house’s front porch. Four decades since she’d brought Greg into the world, over two decades since they’d last spoken to him, and suddenly she found that he’d brought a son of his own into the world.
“Haha, yeah, I think you’re my grandma! Crazy, right?” For as shocked as Paula obviously was, Steven seemed to just be doing his best to try and lighten the mood. Easier said than done, especially in a situation such as this. His forced smile wasn’t doing much to ease her obvious shock, though. “Sorry, I know this is a lot. If you’d like, I can leave and come back. Or we could—”
Paula didn’t give him a chance to finish the thought. She wiped a sudden tear from her eye and pulled the boy in for a hug, making a noise somewhere between a laugh and a sob. “Oh, Steven, don’t you go anywhere! You’ll come in for tea right this instant, young man!”
“Tea?” When had Steven ever been invited for tea before? This had to be the first time! He chuckled and returned the hug, arms wrapping around Paula as he leaned into the embrace. “Tea, yes! That sounds amazing, thank you grandma!”
They spent another moment like that, huddled together and sniffling on their porch. Paula was the first to finally pull away, keeping her hands on Steven’s shoulders. “Alright then, come on in! Just make sure to remove your…” She looked down, suddenly frowning as she took in Steven’s choice of footwear. “...Oh, Steven. Flip-flops?”
Steven himself looked down, wiggling his exposed toes. Were they a problem? “Well, it wasn’t like I was gonna need my boots today.”
Paula could only sigh. She gave Steven’s cheek a quick pat before turning, making for the stairs. “Wait here just a moment, dear. I’ll fetch a pair of your grandfather’s socks.”
Sat on the loveseat in the sitting room, the first thing Steven noticed was just how uncomfortable wool socks could be in such warm weather. If his grandma hadn’t been so insistent, he would’ve never worn something like this. Taking a look around the house, though, he could kind of see why she was. The house was spotless and immaculate, enough that tracking any sand or dirt would be immediately noticeable. He couldn’t so much as see any dust on the shelves. This vacation beach house looked cleaner than his old, lived-in beach house.
“Steven! Do you like sugar with your tea?”
“Oh, yes please!” He turned into the direction of the kitchen where Paula had headed off to prepare the tea. Steven had offered his help, but she’d insisted he take a seat. Since then, he’d just been looking at the immaculate state of things and resisting the urge to scratch at the itchy socks.
Just a moment after he’d answered, Paula returned to the room carrying a tray with both hands. She’d gone above and beyond in terms of presentation. It was the fancy kind of tray with two raised handles, and had every tea amenity one could ask for. The tea pot itself, two tea cups on two saucers, two stirring spoons, and a small plate with three sugar cubes.
“I just assumed you’d want two sugars, I hope that’s alright. Greg always was the type to have a little tea with his sugar.” Paula grimaced a bit as she set the tray down on the coffee table between them, immediately getting to work. The two cups were poured with practiced precision that was obviously a result of doing this for many years.
“Oh, it’s fine, sugar is great.” Steven accepted the cup and saucer offered to him gratefully, being careful to set it down gently. He didn’t really know much about fancy dishware, but he’d hazard a guess that dishes this intricate looking were probably some kind of fine China. “Are you running low or something?”
“No, dear, there’s plenty more in the kitchen. Why?” Paula was quick to stir her own sugar cube into her tea, spoon clinking against the sides of the cup lightly.
“Well, could I go grab some more then?”
“Steven, please, remember your etiquette.” His grandmother took a seat in the armchair on the other side of the coffee table, crossing one leg over the other before reaching for her cup. Taking a sip seated like that, Steven couldn’t help but think about how she looked like a character in a TV show hired to teach the main character how to act fancy and proper.
“Huh? Oh, right, sorry grandma!” It seemed a little pedantic, but Steven wanted to make the effort to appease Paula. Maybe the stereotype about old people being very specific about stuff was just truer than he thought. He stirred his own sugars into the cup before lifting it by the handle and extending a pinky. “Thanks for the tea!” He finished by taking a sip, ignoring the bitterness that called for just a little more sugar.
That didn’t get the desired effect. Paula’s grimace had returned, looking at Steven like he was a fly in her soup. “Not your manners, Steven, your etiquette.”
“There’s a difference?”
The sigh from his grandma that followed had Steven blushing and looking away in embarrassment. Oh boy, this was going as well as his first shot trying to relate to Connie’s friends. At least they were his age, but trying to bridge this generational gap was a bit of a daunting task, even for someone who’d saved the universe.
“Well, I suppose it can’t be helped. Greg never had a mind for high society after all. I’m sure we can fill in the gaps at least.” Well, that was good then. A little compromise on both their parts would mean this didn’t have to be so painfully awkward, at least. “With that said, shall we address the elephant in the room?”
Steven didn’t grasp quite what the meant at first, but her smile clued him in after a minute. “Oh, you wanna talk about my dad?” Yes, that was a great point of common ground! A perfect jumping off point, and then they could go from there!
“I’m sure I’ve got a lot of catching up to do, but mostly I’m just glad to see you! If you’re here, then it means Greg was finally able to marry and settle down with a girl. We worried that would never happen.”
Well, at least Steven didn’t only have to give her bad news. “My parents did settle down, but I don’t really think they ever got officially married. Sorry.”
Predictably, Paula’s face fell. She resumed a more neutral expression after a moment, at least. “Well, it’s a start. You father used to send us letters from Delmarva, do he and your mother still live up there?”
“Uh, yeah, my dad still lives in Beach City. That’s where he met my mom, Rose.” This is where the hard part came in, though. “My mom isn’t around anymore, though. I never got to know her.”
When he cast his gaze downward, Steven heard the clink of the cup again and suddenly felt a hand rest on his knee. He looked up to see his grandma leaning across the table between them, looking at him with an expression of empathy on her face. “I’m terribly sorry, Steven. I really wish Andrew and I could’ve met her.”
“Thanks, grandma.” He put down his own cup to lay a hand over hers. It was soft, very delicate. Definitely dwarfed by his own. Judging by the look of himself and his dad compared to Paula, he guessed that a lot of their physicality came from his grandpa’s side of the family. It was a nice sort of feeling to have, one of knowing where you came from. It was doubly nice when you weren’t finding out about your relatives' old war crimes, too.
That being said, there was something else in what Paula said that Steven was intensely curious about. He sat up a little straighter, looking at her head-on again. “Why were you so worried about dad finding someone?”
“Oh, goodness.” That question seemed to open a whole new can of worms for Paula. She suddenly leaned back into her chair, placing a hand against her forehead and looking a little exhausted. “With the way he acted, Steven, we thought we’d never be able to fix him. Wild and crazy choices, so many things he hid from us until he slipped up and we only found out about them by accident.”
Constantly sneaking in and out through a second story window was apparently not as fool-proof as Greg made it out to be. “You guys really weren’t down with the whole music thing, huh?”
“Ugh. The rock and roll was hard to cope with, I admit, but even Andrew and I could’ve put up with that in tandem with a viable career.” The conversation was clearly draining for her. Something about the look in Paula’s eyes just radiated pure exhaustion. Even so, Steven didn’t want it left there.
“So what was it then? What kept you from talking to him for so many years?” He must’ve looked as desperate as he sounded, because Paula’s face took on a look of immense pity. Steven would’ve resented that if he didn’t care more about finding out than his own pride at this point.
What followed was a very tense bit of silence. His grandma all but froze for a moment, barely moving a muscle until she finally started to shift in her seat. Those delicate hands Steven had noted before were suddenly folded in her lap as she leaned forward, finally answering Steven even while looking like she was in a considerable amount of pain.
“Steven, your father picked up some ideas when he started getting older. From where, I’ll never know, but he started spending time with people that weren’t good for him.” His grandma looked like she could be sick at any moment. Wait, could she be talking about Marty? Greg had always cited him as one of the worst people he’d ever known. “There was one boy in particular that he even started sneaking into the house. Dallas, I think his name was. That’s who he stayed with when he left us.”
His dad stayed with him? That had to be the friend Andy mentioned on their call earlier, then. The one that his parents hated. Steven still didn’t know why, though? Was Dallas a criminal? A bum? A bad boy type with a motorcycle?
Thankfully, Paula went on. “Well, one day, things came to a head. Andrew went upstairs to bring Greg down for our weekly meatloaf dinner, but he didn’t think to knock for whatever reason. So when he opened the door…”
Finally, it seemed to be too much for Paula. Tears pooled in her eyes, and her voice broke into a full on sob. Whatever Steven’s grandpa had seen, it was supposedly too much for her to even so much as talk about. Part of him wanted to tell her she didn’t have to go on, but the other part of him was happy when she continued of her own volition anyway.
“When Andrew walked in, he found the boys on Greg’s bed, lying there and kissing!”
It was a good thing Steven had put his tea down. He would’ve spit anything in his mouth out onto the coffee table after hearing that. So, his dad had a boyfriend previously? His dad was bi? That hadn’t been something he’d been expecting to learn today. Still, that didn’t explain the whole falling out.
“O-Oh. So, what was the problem with Dallas, then?” It was a little difficult, but Steven did his best to conceal his surprise. He steeled his face while reaching for his tea cup, hoping to look like he hadn’t just been blind-sided by this recent revelation.
“What was the problem with Dallas? I mean, why were you mad at dad for dating him?”
The response from his grandma was hard to parse. She looked at him in a way that he couldn’t really describe. What was that expression? It was almost like...disappointment?
“Steven...Dallas was a boy.”
“Yeah. But I mean, why did you…?” Wait. Wait, wait, wait. Suddenly, a thought occurred to Steven. A thought he didn’t like. A thought that made him feel sick, like he was about to throw up. Was that what she meant when she mentioned worrying about him marrying a girl? No, no, no, that wasn’t it. His dad would’ve told him about something like that, right? If it was that awful, his dad would’ve warned him.
Steven looked to his grandmother’s eyes with a hopeless sort of look, pleading with her to confirm that wasn’t true. He couldn’t be here with someone who felt that way, it wasn’t right. There had to be a legitimate reason. The only thing he got back though was a condescending little shake of her head.
“Steven, I understand Greg might have embedded some of his own beliefs in you. I don’t blame you for any of that, but you have to understand that they aren’t normal.” No. Steven froze as tears of his own started to spill, still sitting there with his cup in hand. Paula suddenly sighed as she rose from her chair, beginning to walk around the table towards him. She reached out, her hand starting to make its way to Steven’s shoulder. “I mean, really. If Greg and Dallas had been together, you would have never been—”
Steven was out of the loveseat before Paula could so much as lay a finger on him. His tea cup had fallen to the floor, staining the rug underneath the table. More concerning though, was the intensity of his scream. No immense quake or broken glass this time, but it did shake the building. A few books fell from the shelf, while Paula’s own cup fell and clattered to the floor as well. Paula herself seemed as shook up as anything, looking around in shock. Her perfectly pulled back bun wasn’t in such good shape anymore, with a few gray locks now sticking out every which way.
More concerning was the fact that she was pink. Or, more accurately, there was a pink light being cast on her. One that was definitely coming from him.
He was glowing pink again. Hadn’t done that in a while.
Months of advice in his therapy sessions came flooding back to him. If this wasn’t a situation where he was safe, it was time to remove himself. Steven clenched his fists at his side and closed his eyes as he recalled his breathing exercises, making an effort to be conscious of the way his body felt as he did so. A breath in through the nose, hold, and exhale through the mouth. Difficult when he was attempting to fight off sobs, but not impossible. A few cycles of that until he could finally feel his body begin to let go of the tension he was holding onto. That was usually a pretty good indicator of when the pink had worn off.
Sure enough, when Steven opened his eyes, he took a look at his hands and was relieved that the discoloration had passed. Thankfully, Paula had stood aside all the while. Whether out of sheer shock or because she recognized Steven needed a moment, he didn’t really care. All Steven knew now was that it was time for him to go.
“I’m leaving.” Finally, he could reach down and whip off those awful socks. He tossed them onto the nearest chair while walking back towards the front door where he’d left his flip-flops.
“What? Steven, wait!” Paula trailed after him, sparing a quick look at the poor state of the room after Steven’s outburst. In any other case he would’ve elected to at least help clean up the mess he’d made, but this was an exception. There was no real damage, and this wasn’t a safe place for him to be sticking around anyway.
The fact that Steven had elected to ignore her, even as she followed him, was clearly upsetting for Paula. She reached out for his shoulder again, but stopped short of actually touching him. Probably thinking better of her plan after considering what had happened just a moment ago. Regardless, she was intent on keeping him from walking out like this for whatever reason. “Steven, wait! Let’s just talk about this! We’re family!”
Wow, did Steven hate to hear that now. He’d heard that from people who had actually been a part of his life, and from people he had to make peace with for the sake of helping others. From Paula, though? It was as hollow and empty as a statement could be.
“I don’t want to be treated the way you’ve treated your family for years!” He whirled around suddenly after getting his flip-flops on. She backed up a bit as he did so. Probably a reflex after seeing what could happen when Steven experienced stress that he didn’t process right. He couldn’t blame her, but it proved his point at the same time. She didn’t know him, and she was scared by him. His family had seen him at his lowest and still wanted to help him.
Paula and Andrew needed help, but Steven wasn’t the one responsible for giving it to them, or even helping them find it. Even so, there was a part of him that wished they might seek it out someday. If not for their sake, then for Greg’s. To apologize for treating him the way that they did.
It was for his dad’s sake that Steven did stop one more time before leaving. He pulled his wallet out of his pocket, taking a card from one of the sleeves. It was Dr. Lin’s. Meeting with her specifically wasn’t realistic for obvious reasons, but it would at least make the point that they had to do some serious work if they wanted to start fixing things.
Steven stuck the card on the table by the door as he opened it, turning back again as he stepped out. “Please. If we’re really family, understand that the way you treated my dad isn’t right. You have to take responsibility for that if you ever want me to be even remotely okay with you.”
Paula’s mouth opened to respond, but Steven had shut the door before the sound could actually reach him. He had no more time to hang around here. Not when this place had nothing to offer him.
When he’d outlined and started this whole trip around the country, Steven had made one little oath to himself. No warping around, either through Lion’s roars or any warp pads. The only exception was traveling through Lion’s mane to visit Lars in space. This whole thing was explicitly about finding something new in life, a place that he wanted to live and thrive in by his own choice. That whole effort would be undermined by the constant presence of a direct link back to his old, familiar home. It would just create a temptation to try and run back whenever he got a little homesick.
Today, though, he needed to break his own rule. Steven had texted Connie just a day after he’d met Paula, asking for her to try and have Lion sent his way for just a bit. She was good enough to remind him of the promise he’d made to himself, but also good enough to relent when Steven mentioned really needing to give something to his dad.
True to form, it took a few hours for Lion to arrive after Steven had reached out. It was a good thing that he’d taken the initiative to send the message early in the morning. Being able to get back in the early afternoon would leave him plenty of time to visit before he had to duck out. He definitely wanted to be back to the hotel room he had on Florida Island before the day was out, no matter how many inevitable requests to stay the night he already knew he would get.
“Hey, buddy. Thanks for coming on such short notice.” Steven walked up to Lion once the big cat had emerged from a portal, landing on the sidewalk in front of the hotel. He wrapped his arms around Lion’s neck and cuddled into his mane for a moment, savoring the sensation of being surrounded by such soft fur. That would never get old.
Lion gave a tired little huff in response, stepping back out of Steven’s grasp. He lowered himself onto his belly, tipping his head forward to allow Steven easy access to his mane. A well practiced move that Steven asked of him once a week, but not quite what he needed right now.
“Aww, thanks Lion. I’m not meeting with Lars today, though. I’m actually gonna go see dad.” Still, the big guy deserved some kudos for obedience and sheer cute factor. Steven leaned down to hook a hand under Lion’s jaw, giving him his favorite chin scratches. “Wanna take me back to Beach City, just like the good old days?”
Whether the chin scratches had helped contribute to his good mood or not, Lion was thankfully quite amenable to the request. He rose back to his feet with another little hum, rearing back before giving a roar that opened a portal a few feet in front of them. With that, Steven hoisted himself onto Lion’s back, gripping his sides tightly as the big cat propelled them both through the swirling pink light.
Actually walking through Beach City again was weird now. Not unpleasant though. Just weird. It wasn’t new or exciting like all the places Steven was exploring these days, but it also wasn’t his home anymore. It existed in a weird sort of middle-grounds, a nostalgic memory where he felt welcome to return to and visit, if not stay in. Already the quiet atmosphere that accompanied him while he walked down the beach reminded him that even if it wasn’t a place where he could really come into his own, it would always be a place where he could at least be happy for a little while. That was worth something. Worth a lot, in fact.
Lion walked alongside him as they came around the bend, the view of the cliff gradually giving way to the sight of the beach house. It was the first time Steven had seen it with his own eyes in a few months, and that was a really odd feeling to suddenly have to confront. Getting a little choked up while looking up at it from the shore was hard, but it also reminded him of just why he was so against having Lion and the warp pads so available. Having the temptation of being able to run back to this whenever he liked would be so damn hard.
After a while of standing there and trying to keep from crying, Steven’s attention was drawn to Lion insistently nuzzling against his hand. That big, wet nose kept bumping into his fist, and Steven couldn’t tell if Lion was trying to comfort him, or nudge at the bag of donuts he was grasping that he’d picked up on the walk over. Both were equally likely, but Steven chose to believe the former.
“Aww, Lion! C’mere, you big softie!” It turned out that even with all the support and help in the world available to you, there were sometimes moments where there was no better balm for the soul than the affection of a pet lion. Steven set the bag down and knelt in the sand to rub his hands affectionately over Lion’s muzzle, laughing when the big cat suddenly leaned in and rubbed his face across Steven’s own. It wasn’t a miracle cure by any means, but Lion had been just what he needed right then to feel a little more at peace.
Another minute or so of getting pushed around by Lion’s headbutts and Steven was finally up to get back to what he was doing. “Alright buddy, we’ll catch up later when it’s time for you to take me back. You can take it easy until then.” A gentle push on his nose signaled the Lion to back off, though he kept a close eye on Steven as he suddenly picked up the bag again and began to rummage through it.
From the bag, Steven produced a handful of three Lion Lickers he’d picked up at the Big Donut. Fair payment for making Lion come all the way out to him on a day he normally wouldn’t have otherwise. “Here’s these for your troubles. They’re already a little melty and gross, but I know you like them that way.” Steven tossed them to the ground for Lion, laughing a bit as the feline suddenly began tearing into the wrappers like he’d been starved for days. Considering the amount of magical lizard bits that Connie had mentioned showing up on her lawn since Steven left, though, that was probably not the case.
With Lion pacified for the time being, Steven returned his attention to the house. The Gems were probably off at Little Homeschool, but Greg’s van was parked on the beach in front. Good. As much as he’d love to see them, Steven knew it’d be a whole lot easier to talk to his dad without the Gems jumping all over him the minute he walked through the door. This conversation would necessitate a degree of privacy, too.
Finally, he resumed the trek toward the house, noting all the little things that had already begun to change in such a short time. Greg seemed to have added some outdoor garland lights to the railing of the bedroom’s balcony, while someone had added a sign to one of the front windows advising visitors to beware the dog, with an angry looking german shepherd pictured beneath the words. A german shepherd which had very clearly been painted purple. Steven could only waffle between wondering who Amethyst would want to be keeping out and wondering why Pearl hadn’t taken the sign down yet.
There was also that smashed in section on the left side of the statue of Obsidian, one of the few bits of damage on the temple that had resulted from violence instead of the passage of time. Oof. Even after going through and attempting to process that day with Dr. Lin so many times, just looking at that broken bit of stone gave him anxiety and a headache. He elected to keep his gaze cast down as he began walking up the stairs to the balcony, avoiding looking upwards to the best of his ability.
With his gaze cast down at his feet, it caught Steven off guard when he suddenly heard the front door open as he set foot at the top of the stairs. He looked up suddenly, finding Greg standing at the front door with his acoustic guitar in hand, looking astounded to be face to face with him.
Greg had only murmured his name, but Steven already felt a little pang of guilt. Maybe a surprise visit wasn’t the best approach he could’ve taken, considering the circumstances. Ever since everything went down yesterday, he was just eager to get here and talk. Apparently being too eager to do so was entirely possible.
“Hey, dad. Sorry to drop in so suddenly. I thought about calling, but—” Steven’s train of thought was quickly lost as he was wrapped up in a hug so tight it forced an exhale out of him.
“Steven, I’m sorry! I’m so, so sorry! I did it again, I was selfish and didn’t think about how you were feeling! I should know better by now!” While there may have been some validation to be found in the acknowledgement for his feelings, getting that specific catharsis wasn’t really Steven’s prerogative right now. There were bigger concerns to address, but maybe they could swing back around to this point a little later on.
“Dad, it’s okay. I know it was about protecting me. I get it. I’m still a little sensitive to this stuff, and you wanted to try and take that into account.”
“But I didn’t! I didn’t think about telling you what you had a right to know! All I did was shut you down without giving you any reason, I should’ve never done that.” Breathing suddenly came a little easier to Steven as Greg released him from that bone-crushing hug. He set his guitar up against the side of the house before turning to Steven and placing a hand on each of his son’s shoulders. “Seeing them is still the wrong move in my eyes, but you deserve to know why. I should tell you about who your grandparents are and more about them so you can make that call.”
Well, they were on the same page of Steven deserving some agency here. Just a shame Steven had gotten to that page so much quicker. “Uh, yeah. I kinda felt the same way after our call, so I employed a little help and made some arrangements of my own.” The confused look Greg gave him in response was hardly comforting, so Steven raised the bag of donuts in his hand between them. “I brought some apology éclairs, though!”
The scent of friend dough certainly caught Greg’s attention, though it definitely didn’t resolve any of his confusion. “Apology? Steven, what did you…?” As he trailed off, a nervous little giggle and a shrug was the best Steven could muster up in response. Greg seemed to be mentally doing the math, though, so it was a relief when something seemed to click for him on his own. “Oh no. Andy?”
Suddenly, Greg took a small step back, crossing his arms over his chest and looking off in the direction of the ocean. It was a little painful and depressing to see, but Steven couldn’t really blame him. If he really understood what Steven was getting at here, then this was likely a pretty vulnerable moment for him. This was a secret he’d been sitting on for a few decades by this point, after all. Now the lid had been blown off of that through no choice of his own.
After a moment, Greg’s eyes returned to Steven. He smiled again, but it didn’t reach his eyes. Without that, he just looked tired. Like a beat-down retail employee doing their best to put on a smile for customer service. “Guess we should talk about some stuff then, huh?”
That was what Steven had hoped to do. “Yeah. Only if you’re okay to do that right now, though.”
Greg actually seemed to consider the question for a moment before eventually nodding. “Yeah, I think it’ll be good. For both of us.” He turned to pick up his guitar again, carrying it with him as he walked back to the front door and held it open for Steven. “Come on, hand over those éclairs and let’s head upstairs. You can get reacquainted with your old bed for a minute.”
Even though he’d already seen it via their video chats, Steven was still happy to see his old room imbued with new life. His dad had really come a long way from just the one Kerry Moonbeam poster. Now, there was enough characterization in the space to really make it feel lived in again. Greg had some of his old Mr. Universe memorabilia properly framed and hung, plus a poster for Sadie and Shep! Being a manager for them seemed to be a big point of pride for him.
“It looks great in here, dad! I’m really happy I could give this room to someone who really appreciates what it has to offer.” Steven gave a content little sigh as he relaxed onto the bed, lying back and looking up at the leftover glow in the dark stars like he’d done so many times before. “Is that hole in the ceiling new?”
“Oh, yeah. I keep meaning to ask Bismuth to stop by and fix that. Amethyst misunderstood my idea to hang a disco ball.”
Classic shenanigans. Steven wasn’t quite sure if he missed those or not. On the one hand, it was convenient not to have those weird sort of hilarious mishaps to distract him from his day to day life. On the other hand, he sometimes missed having those spontaneous magic disasters to take care of. Dr. Lin had rationalized it as Steven associating missions with the sense of purpose and direction he was currently looking for. Probably true, but he’d done them for so long that Steven wasn’t yet at the point where he could do anything but recall them fondly.
The mattress dipped underneath him as Greg took a seat to Steven’s right, one hand digging in the Big Donut bag. This must’ve been tough for him, his dad had devoured one éclair in two bites while they’d walked up the stairs and was already going for another.
“So...you met my parents.”
“Yep. Well, actually just your mom.”
“Oh, that’s good then.” A tense moment of silence passed as Greg bit into his second éclair while Steven sat up straight. His dad seemed relieved at that. Strange.
This was definitely not an easy thing to talk about, not without someone who knew how to deal with this stuff. A brief thought about maybe helping Greg find a therapist of his own occurred to Steven, but that was a conversation for another day. That was something his dad would need to want on his own, anyway.
Once he’d finished his pastry, Greg did eventually speak. “So, my mom…” Steven anticipated a question about how she was doing. That would be hard, he didn’t really get a chance to really talk to her about anything in regards to what they were doing now. He looked over at his dad, only to find a half-grin on the man’s face. “Does she look old?”
This wasn’t usually the sort of mean-spirited stuff Steven would ever want to indulge in, but he would give it a pass this one time. His dad deserved a little bit of petty fun. “Super old. She looks kinda like a librarian. You can tell that she’s trying really hard to keep her hair in a super tight bun so it doesn’t look as thinned.”
“Ha, a librarian, huh? Used to be a school teacher, actually. Close guess, though!” Greg’s laugh wasn’t the kind that actually sounded very happy, but it was close enough to at least relieve some of the tense atmosphere. Bonding over a mutual dislike could be fun enough, after all. Weekly, spiteful discussion of the new Camp Pining Hearts was still something Steven looked forward to every week with Peridot. “She always used to say I’d be happier without all my hair. Guess she’s singing a different tune now that karma’s come to bite her on the butt.”
It was such a little comment, but it gave Steven a little bit of context into his dad’s grief over losing most of his hair during the whole Bluebird Azurite debacle a few months ago. It was never just about the actual hair. That was another piece of Greg that his parents just kept trying to deny and suppress to the best of their abilities. That picture of his dad looking like he was about to cry at his graduation suddenly told a whole new story with the whole picture that Steven now had.
Greg looked over at him after a moment, and he must’ve looked as down about his thoughts as he felt, considering how his dad suddenly leaned in to wrap an arm around his shoulders. “Sorry, I probably shouldn’t be so vindictive. Or so eager to make fun of how anyone looks. Not with this dome of mine.” His dad tapped a finger against the top of his head, clearly trying to lighten the mood just a bit. Thankfully, it did the trick.
“Yeah, you better be careful. Any more remarks like that and White Diamond might pay a visit to moralize about the evils of judging things based on appearance!” Steven placed the back of one hand against his forehead, closed his eyes, and turned his head away in an effort to imitate the theatrics of said Diamond. A well-practiced move by now that went over as well with Greg as it always had.
“Oh geez, spare me! Anything but the in-laws!” Greg threw up his hands in mock surrender as he laughed aloud, rendered powerless against the threat of having to try and confront any of the Diamonds.
It was a happy little moment, but one that Steven’s brain just had to linger on and think too hard about. He’d been the one to mention White Diamond, but then he just had to go and over-analyze it like he always did. Maybe it was a long-shot, but he suddenly couldn’t help but draw up a mental link between Paula and the Diamonds as he’d first known them. Combative and immoral, only throwing up a guise of family whenever they wanted to pacify or gaslight him.
It wasn’t really a thought that he needed to bring up, but his mouth had moved faster than his brain did in this instance. “Kind of a weird thought, but she sort of reminded me of the Diamonds. Acting all posh and better than everyone, even though she’s just mean underneath.” Well, maybe that wasn’t a fair comparison these days. The Diamonds were repairing gems, providing them with joy, and giving them a voice when they felt powerless. Paula just made tea that was too bitter and didn’t put out enough sugar.
Yeah, that statement deserved an amendment. “Well, like the Diamonds of two years ago anyway. Before all the community service. And, y’know, at least trying to be better.”
It wasn’t like Steven would expect Paula to reconstruct shattered Gems or anything like that. But she could easily start by opening some of the letters Greg had sent them and penning a reply. Hopefully one with an apology in there.
Greg looked over at him once he said that, giving a look that was a bit hard to read. It didn’t look entirely troubled, but there was definitely some kind of discomfort there. His eyes shifted around for a moment before finally focusing on Steven as his dad spoke. “So she’s not any better then?”
That was hard to answer without a frame of reference for what Paula was like before, but even without that, Steven had already formed a pretty strong opinion of the lady. No matter what she was like before, the fundamental issue with her was big enough to be defining. As much as Steven really wished he could compliment her based on their initial chemistry, he really couldn’t do so in good-conscience after learning everything he did.
A reluctant sigh, then he spoke. “At first things were okay. She was fussy about things like my sandals and my etiquette, but I thought it was just an old lady thing.” If only that were the worst of their problems. Steven would’ve happily worn scratchy socks for the rest of his life if that could’ve made them all a big happy family with no bigotry. “But then we started talking about you. She said some dumb stuff, and she started crying when she told me about-” About your boyfriend. “-Dallas.”
That was a subject Steven really didn’t wanna be the one to broach, and the way his dad flinched when he said Dallas’ name only solidified why. This was gonna be a tough topic. Still, it was only fair to be upfront about all that happened. Steven would be in no place to judge his dad for not being honest about stuff if he didn’t do the same thing.
“Wow, you guys got all the way back to him, huh? Must’ve been a productive meeting.” The attempt at humor was as dry as it could’ve been, but Steven could appreciate that his dad was holding firm and weathering the obvious discomfort. The older man fidgeted about a bit, drumming his fingers against his thighs in an effort to either distract himself from the stress, or simply focus himself through it. Steven had a few similar little tics he sometimes used.
“We really didn’t get to talk much. All I got about him was that he was a friend you snuck into the house, and that your dad found you kissing him one night.” No good way to try and ease into that one. It was Greg’s turn to sigh this time as he learned of how he’d been outed to his son without knowing for a full day. “Andy mentioned you living with a friend your parents didn’t like. Was that him?”
“Yep. But I guess you know now that he wasn’t just my friend.” Greg’s voice was sad as he reminisced, but he had a smile on his face anyway. “Dallas was my first boyfriend. We knew each other from sophomore year of high school to the time I dropped out of community college.”
Woah, that was a long time. There was definitely a history there. As much as he didn’t want to pry, Steven couldn’t resist. His dad’s past made for the best stories. “Can you tell me about him? It doesn’t even have to be through song.”
That silly old agreement had been abandoned at some point over the past two years, but the reference brought another laugh out of Greg anyway. He reached over to tussle Steven’s hair, starting to regain some of his typical jovial quality. “Well, I guess it’s only fair I give you the other half of the story. Don’t want any personal biases bleeding into your perception!”
The mattress shifted around a bit again as Greg stood, walking over to the closet. The doors were opened before he stepped inside, pushing aside clothes and other assorted items as he searched for something. Steven rose from the bed and followed, curious to see wherever this was going.
Whatever Greg was looking for, it must've been stuck pretty far back in there. It seemed like a few minutes had passed before Greg finally pulled out a small envelope. “This was just one of those photos I couldn’t bring myself to leave behind. Looks like I had a little foresight.”
From within the envelope, Greg pulled out the photo in question. He offered it to Steven, who accepted it readily. Flipping it, he found his dad and a boy pictured, presumably Dallas. Steven’s eyes were instantly drawn to his unkempt mane of blonde hair, cascading down behind him and poofing out around him wildly. The expression he wore was a strange blend of indifference and excitement, like a facade of detachment being breached by a joy so big it couldn’t be contained.
The two looked to be seated on some lawn chairs on the balcony of an apartment, with Greg holding a guitar and Dallas holding a lit cigarette. His dad looked only a bit younger than he did in all his old Mr. Universe photos, missing some of the piercings he’d had by then.
“Yep! One of his pals took that right after I officially moved in. He hosted a little housewarming party to welcome me to his apartment.”
The context of the photo was appreciated, but second in Steven’s mind to another obvious detail that was discernible from it. “Geez, dad, have you ever dated someone who wasn’t bigger than you?”
The fact that both men were seated in the photo made specific guesses a little difficult, but it wasn’t difficult to make the call that Dallas definitely had his dad beat on both height and weight. He even had that wild mane of blonde hair that threatened to rival his dad’s old mop. That was no easy feat.
“Ha! You end up with two people that are a little taller than you and suddenly people think they have your type pegged!” Greg laughed, even as he said it. Obviously, it wasn’t actually all too big a point of contention.
“Well, am I wrong? The evidence is kind of piling up at this point.”
“It was a coincidence, you little smart-alec!” A playful slug to Steven’s shoulders accentuated Greg’s point. Still, coincidence or not, Steven couldn’t deny that there was something just the least bit funny about it. His dad had always seemed to be around an average height, and yet somehow he just kept ending up with people that dwarfed him.
“Anyway, being that big wasn’t just for show, y’know.” Greg’s tone became a touch more somber as he continued to reminisce, apparently on some bittersweet memories. “People in school only knew not to mess with him because they knew he could probably knock any of them around if they tried.”
“Dallas fought people?”
“Nah. Well, once or twice. Only with people that got too aggressive. Dallas hated fighting, that’s why he was mostly happy that people were just scared of him.”
What a bad way to be safe. Having to push people away because of something you couldn’t control. It hit too close to home for Steven. “Did people know about you two?”
There was a pregnant pause before Greg replied. They were getting into heavier territory. “Only the friends outside of school that he trusted. We spent way more time hanging around empty lots and behind old buildings because of that. Places where nobody would bother us.”
“So how did people know about him?”
Greg leaned in and tapped Dallas’ face on the picture, another pensive smile on his face. “Take a closer look, kiddo. This was after we were out of high school, but he’d been wearing that stuff since he was about 15.”
Another cursory glance at the picture illuminated a good few details for Steven. Details that explained a few things, even though Steven hated the logic they presented. Dallas’s two fingers that held the cigarette showed his nails in the direction of the camera, revealing them to be coated in a shiny black polish that was chipped around the edges. In addition, an equally shiny purple color adorned his eyelids.
“People were just awful because of the makeup?” It was enough for Steven to narrow his eyes at the photograph. Not out of spite for those depicted in it, but rather that it had come from an era where it would be viewed as something deviant.
“Well, it clued them in, at least. Still, Dallas himself was vocal about it, too. He was one of those rare guys from our time that was out and proud.” Greg’s position had shifted a bit as he suddenly crossed his arms and leaned back against the wall. “I don’t think he ever once denied it to anyone that asked for as long as I knew him.”
It was weird to think about the whole story in the frame of only a few decades ago. There was almost definitely always going to be more work to do on this front, but at the very least there was a marked improvement in the world compared to back then. “Wow.”
“Heh, that’s the same way I felt when I finally worked up the nerve to talk to him.”
“You made the first move?”
Greg laughed and leaned his head into his hand, shaking his head a bit in disbelief. “I don’t know if I’d call it that! It felt more like I was trying to work up the nerve just to compliment his jacket! My parents were distinctly against leather being used in anything except for shoes and upholstery, but I thought wearing it as real clothes always looked cool!”
Steven preferred his jackets to be organic, but he could see the appeal in leather, even if the style had long since gone out of vogue. Not that he’d ever mention the aesthetic’s dated quality to his dad. Greg went on. “He was a year older, but got held back once and was in my same year. He was also way more confident and chill than I ever was. I counted myself lucky he was so receptive and wanted to hang out after that.”
Greg finally began to walk back towards the bed, still thinking back as he sat again. “For a few months, we were friends. Then he was a best friend. Eventually, I guess we were dating.” He looked up, smiling fondly with eyes that seemed to sparkle. No wonder Steven had grown up to be such a sappy romantic. He’d been raised by another one. “He made that first move. A first kiss that tasted like nasty tobacco smoke in a beat up old car in an empty parking lot might sound like a bad deal, but it was pretty special with the right person.”
Considering that he and Connie had shared their first real kiss in the Dondai, Steven certainly wouldn’t have said otherwise. At least he’d had the smart idea to park by the sea, though. Probably made for a better story if he ever pursued that passing idea he had about adapting the events of that night into a romantic-comedy novella.
Of course, Steven already knew that the romance didn’t progress smoothly from there on out. “How long before your dad found out?”
As could be expected, Greg’s face fell a bit as he was forced to think back on that. “About a year. We got together romantically around the end of our junior year. Dad found out the summer after our senior year. I snuck Dallas in through the window, like we always did it, and time got away from us. Before I knew it, it was time for meatloaf, but I wasn’t downstairs.”
This was as far as Steven had gotten in the story with Paula before things devolved. Anything that followed was completely unknown to him. “Dad came up to drag me downstairs. Boy was he shocked when he found out his son and the ‘hoodlum best friend’ he hated so much were mid lip-lock!” Greg’s use of finger quotes around the descriptor in question mirrored the general vibe that Paula had given off regarding Dallas.
“I was just lucky that Dad never pulled anything with other people in the house. He waited until Dallas was out the window and down the tree again before hitting the mini-fridge.” Even as Greg mimed tipping a glass up in front of his face with a sick sort of grin and narrowed eyes, Steven felt a little tightness in his chest at the implication. Things were only looking worse the more he learned about the situation.
“What happened when people weren’t in the house?” Steven followed his dad back to the bed and took a seat beside him. This was a part of the conversation he was sure neither of them really wanted to have, but he also did at the same time. Anything to contextualize this family dynamic even more.
This was definitely hard. Greg’s hand fell as he looked to his son with an expression that clearly evoked the pain he felt even now. He looked away before speaking, but did pipe up eventually. “Dad and drink didn’t work well together. Or maybe they worked too well together. Guess it depends on how you look at it.”
Greg’s voice was low, entirely devoid of the usual mirth that was typically present in his voice. “He was a mean drunk. Didn’t matter what led up to it, as long as he was alone and in private he’d always get physical.” He accentuated his point by suddenly slapping his palm against his fist, making a loud enough sound that Steven actually shuddered a bit. To imagine the act of someone being hit was scary enough, the actual physicality of it was downright hard to think about.
“Sometimes it wasn’t any worse than a slap on the back of the head. Other times it would be a shove. That night with Dallas was probably the worst I ever got it. It was bad enough Dallas saw me the next day and decided I was moving in.”
And rightly so. Steven couldn’t see himself doing any differently, considering how mad the thought was making him. The anger was easier to ignore while he was hearing about this from his dad and not someone who’d helped perpetuate this abuse, but it was definitely affecting him nonetheless. His hands were clenched tightly at his sides, trembling a bit as he struggled to keep himself in check. Relax. It was a long time ago. Stop freaking out. Just don’t go pink.
The weight of his dad’s arms around his shoulders provided a brief lapse in Steven’s agitation. He looked to his dad, finding Greg looking at him with an expression of concern. “Sorry, I know the details are some pretty rough stuff. I probably should’ve asked before I got into all that. You alright, Schtu-ball?”
Considering how he’d been struggling not to actually acknowledge the anger he was feeling, the question forced Steven to actually do so for the first time. He stopped and looked down at his hands, slowly opening them until he could see his palms. There were four very distinct crescent shaped indents left on each of his palms, left behind where he’d been digging in his nails. The story had gotten him so into his own head that he hadn’t even noticed he’d been balling his fists up so hard.
It was a reminder that talking about this wouldn’t be so easy for Steven just one day after he’d had a small relapse. If he didn’t look after himself a little more closely, he could just as easily have yet another bad reaction.
Deep breath in, deep breath out. Dad’s right here, he’ll help you if things get too bad.
Listen for the waves. In, and out.
There’s gulls right outside the window, they’re calling to each other. In, and out.
A simple grounding exercise to take the edge off before he continued. Steven’s hands folded in his lap and his eyes closed as he worked to mitigate the anxiety, his father’s hand rubbing his shoulder soothingly. It helped bring him back down to a more manageable level. Steadily, his shaking hands stilled, and the negative feelings that held him gave up their hold on him. A familiar raw sort of feeling was left behind. An uncomfortable sensation, but not an overwhelming one.
“I’m okay. I’m okay.” A shaky first response from Steven, followed by a more assured one right after. It was a little difficult to get his bearings when he came out of grounding, but things were already beginning to feel a little easier on his senses. The constant sounds of the waves faded back into the background, no longer sounding so forthright in his ear.
Just as Steven had asked him to when he’d first explained his grounding exercises, Greg didn’t immediately launch into any aggressive questions or affirmations. He simply removed his arm and backed off a bit, giving his son the necessary space to come back comfortably. That ended up being a bit of a redundant decision though, with how Steven suddenly leaned in to wrap his arms around Greg’s neck in a hug.
“I freaked out when your mom started to tell me about kicking you out too. Worse than now. Like, a lot worse.” By now, Steven had come to not feel ashamed or afraid of his pink episodes. They were just his body’s response to stress. That being said, those reactions were still easily quantifiable. As far as they went, this was a pretty mild one. “I don’t think I can really hear about the details right now.”
“That’s okay, kiddo. I don’t need to go bringing up that old stuff anyway.”
“No, that’s not what I meant. We should talk about it.” Steven suddenly pulled back off the embrace, but left one hand on his dad’s shoulder. “The specifics are too much for me, but it’s still important to talk about it.” Well, he shouldn’t say that. It wasn’t his call to make alone. “Only if it’s okay for you, though.” He quickly amended his statement, giving Greg’s shoulder a squeeze as he did so.
To Greg’s credit, his expression brightened as he gave a nod in response. “Whatever helps, Steven. As long as you look after yourself and do what’s best for you, we’ll talk about whatever you want.” He offered his own form of affirmation through contact, placing a hand in Steven’s curls and tussling his hair.
Tired as he was, there was hardly any energy left in Steven to so much as pull away from the gesture. He opted to simply lean against Greg and let his dad’s shoulder support him for a bit. Even if he was physically little drained, that didn’t mean there weren’t still questions buzzing around in his head. “So, did you and Dallas break up?”
Kind of a dumb question, considering that Greg had never mentioned him and had gone on to settle down with Rose. Even so, his dad didn’t give it any less of an answer. “Yep. We spent two more years together after high school, me in community college while he kept his job as an apprentice mechanic. You remember Marty?”
“Unfortunately.” That old jerk was one of the few entries on a very short list of people that Steven wouldn’t hesitate to admit to not liking at all. A list so short that it probably was just Marty and Kevin. And maybe that old lady in the Keystone gas station who told him to run a comb through his hair. That was unwarranted while he was just trying to buy gum and gas.
“Well, that’s where it started. I was so eager to get out there and start making a name for myself as Mr. Universe, I took on the very first manager who seemed to like my demo.” Greg leaned back a bit on the bed as he thought back, supporting himself with both arms behind him. “Dallas got bad vibes from the moment he met Marty, though. He saw the red flags I just ignored cause I wanted to start succeeding.”
“Were the spiky teeth one of those red flags?”
“Hey, you saw the old pictures of me with braces! Who was I to judge anyone else’s dental work?” Greg threw his hands up in mock exasperation, while Steven laughed and scooted away from the sudden movement.
He lowered his arms as a contemplative air returned to the conversation. “Well, he was already peeved that I was going on the tour with someone that he got a bad vibe from. And back then, I wasn't gonna be able to get to a phone whenever I wanted to be able to call him up. Breaking up wasn’t what I wanted, but it seemed like an inevitability. We were both pretty broken up about it by the time I was packing up my stuff.”
There was a pause as Greg suddenly sighed in frustration, looking more than a touch resentful. “Marty encouraged me to drop it too. Said that a boyfriend might trash my image.”
“Gross. I’m glad he’s dead to you.” Steven’s irritated frown matched his dad’s.
“Yep. Well, things turned out alright. You already know the rest of the story.” Greg bumped Steven with a shoulder, a wide grin back on his face. They’d tread this part of his past so many times by now. “I meet a giant woman, I get the best son in the world, and Marty has to slide me a cool few millions a few years later!”
There were definitely a few more bumps in that chain of events, but Steven couldn’t quite argue with the bold strokes that Greg was painting with. Of course he’d wanted better for his dad, but the experiences that Greg had were all part of bringing him where he was. Without things like his childhood, Dallas, touring, or even Marty, where might he have ended up? There was no way of really knowing.
Still, there was one part of the whole story - besides the one obvious bit that Steven had already had a clear reaction to - that still bothered him. “It’s sad you and Dallas fell out of touch, though. You sound really happy when you talk about him, like with mom. I mean, he was right about Marty in the end. You didn’t even get to meet up again and tell him he was right.”
“Well, you’re right about one thing, Steven. I’m always really happy when I think about Dallas. What he and I had was the same kind of relationship that I found with Rose. Minus one important detail, of course.” The way Greg looked at him with eyes that just oozed with pride was more than enough to clue Steven in on what that detail was.
Strangely enough, his dad began to laugh a bit after saying that. “It’s funny that you should mention meeting up, though…”
There was a brief flicker of confusion on Steven’s face, but it was quickly replaced with a look of surprise once Steven successfully put two and two together. All at once, he gasped and leaned in to place both hands on his dad’s shoulders, looking at him with starry eyes. His inner-romantic was coming out in full force. “You reconciled. ”
The words were spoken with such a reverent whisper that Greg couldn’t help but give another chuckle. “It was just a chance meeting! Sadie and Shep’s tour rolled through Empire City, of course, and who else do I find but a familiar gentle giant?” Even as he attempted to downplay it, Steven could clearly see how dad was blushing and smiling sheepishly at the memory of it. “I must’ve had an influence on him. At some point he dropped the mechanic gig and got into audio engineering.”
The expectant look Steven gave was an effective tool for prying more info. Resigned to his inevitable fate of giving in, Greg went on. “It wasn’t anything major, we both had work to do, of course. We found just enough time to share coffee, catch up, and promise to try and keep in touch. World’s gotten so small ever since cell phones came into the picture, after all.”
As he said it, Greg pulled his phone from his pocket and began to tap and run his finger across it in a few places. After a moment, he turned the screen towards Steven, showing off a contact page for Dallas. Right at the top was a picture of the same person Steven had seen in his dad’s photo, unmistakable even with a few more decades behind him.
“He still wears the eyeshadow.” It was a weird little thing to notice, but Steven couldn’t help but smile. After learning so much about awful pasts and severed relationships, it was nice to see even a little bit of a happy ending somewhere among it all.
“Forget the eyeshadow, he still had the nerve to call me ‘little guy!’ I haven’t been anything resembling little since I turned 30!” Greg gestured to his belly with a wave of his arm, an incredulous expression on his face. The fact that he seemed to be entirely serious in his shock was hilarious in and of itself.
Well, whether that little situation went anywhere or not, Steven was happy. So much of his dad’s personal history was a blank to him for so long. It had led to him internalizing some feelings that he really shouldn’t have. Long gone were any notions of wishing he’d gotten to enjoy what his dad had, but also gone was that lingering resentment over not knowing. It helped Steven feel closer to his dad, as well as more at peace with his decidedly small human family. What he had now was the perfect amount for him.
Well, almost perfect. There was one more thing he’d like to know. “One last question?”
“When we went to your parents house in West Keystone, I found a stack of letters from you. That was when I started to realize why we were there.” In retrospect, the fact they’d all been unopened should’ve been enough of a clue for Steven to realize that there was something wrong on the part of the DeMayos. Guess he’d still been looking through rose-colored glasses for a close, familial upbringing back then. “Why’d you keep writing to them? It was a pretty big stack.”
The question gave Greg a bit of pause, followed by a sad little sigh. “Part of me hoped my mom would wisen up and leave my dad. I used to think she was just kind of a victim, like me. I knew that my dad never put his hands on her like he did me, but it helped to think that maybe one day we’d reconnect and I could have a relationship with her again.” The admission was made with some reluctance, enough that Greg had to reach up and wipe an arm across his face to dry his eyes. It was surprising they’d kept from crying until now. “Kinda dopey and sentimental, I know. Like ‘hey, dummy, why are you so invested in this lady who treated you so bad and helped your dad buzz off all your hair?”
“No, it’s not.” Steven was quick to respond, shaking his head without a moment’s hesitation. “I feel the same way.”
“Really?” That came as a genuine surprise to Greg, who turned to Steven with a quirked eyebrow. “Odd to hear from you, considering how you compared her to the Diamonds in their pre-Steven years.”
Exaggeration or not, that was a comparison Steven would stand by. “Don’t get me wrong, I still kind of hate her.” That was as odd to say as it was for Greg to hear. It was rare that Steven ever admitted to feeling real hate for someone, even with a conscious effort to be more emotionally honest. “I really wish she could be better though. Even if it’s just to apologize to you, you deserve that much. More than that, really. A lot more. But, it’d at least be a start.”
Just like that, Steven found himself being pulled roughly into his dad’s chest for yet another hug that left him surprised at how strong his dad could be sometimes. “Steven, if my parents go to their graves still believing nothing but nonsense about people like me, I’ll be good knowing I’ve got the best family I could ask for right here.”
Oof, that sentiment. That unfettered caring. That unalienable love and trust. It was the last straw. Steven’s own eyes began to water as he grinned as wide as he could and leaned into the embrace. It was a tender moment, but not one that would last too long.
The sound of the warp pad downstairs activating was not what Steven was hoping to hear right now. Were Little Homeschool classes already over? How did it get to be this late in the day?
“We’re back!” Pearl’s voice lifted up to the bedroom as she called out, accompanied by the sound of three pairs of feet walking into the home. “Greg, why is Lion on the beach? Is Connie here? I could’ve sworn she was out of town touring schools this week!”
“Dang, you think he forgot Steven left and came looking for him? That’s sad. But also kinda funny.” Amethyst’s voice joined Pearl’s, just as Steven pulled away from Greg and stood up from the bed.
As much as he loved them, getting swarmed by the gems would definitely take up more time than he’d allotted for his little impromptu visit. “Sorry, dad, I should go. I really didn’t mean to stick around for this long.” Already Steven was eyeing the door to the balcony with an appraising eye. Good place where he could float down unseen.
Unfortunately, one more voice stopped him before he could make his escape. “Lion on the beach. What a nostalgic sight. Oh, how it reminds me of long-past days with our dear Steven Universe! Oh, how I miss him.” Garnet’s voice was rife with a strange inflection, like an actor struggling to read their lines off a cue card.
Then, silence. A long awkward silence where Steven knew even without looking that Pearl and Amethyst were most definitely looking at Garnet strangely. “Well I’m glad someone else said it, I guess.” Came Amethyst’s eventual reply.
With a beleaguered sigh, Steven stepped away from the balcony door. “She already knows I’m here.”
Greg stood up to join him. “Guess there were no futures where you didn’t stop by. It’d be cruel to deny them a visit now, wouldn’t it?”
Ha. If the gems knew he’d come for a heart-to-heart with Greg and left without so much as a hello to them, they’d trek out to visit him instead instead out of indignation. “Yeah, I guess it would.”
Greg suddenly crossed the room to the stairs, gesturing towards them with a smile. “Come on, just indulge them for an hour. Sometimes I think they’re only one Steven-less day away from putting me in a star shirt and flip-flops. I can’t pull that look off as well as you can.”
Nope. Steven knew well that his style was one of a kind.
Ultimately he gave in. “Hey guys! Sorry to illegally park my Lion on your beach, I think he’s having a little engine trouble!” He cupped both hands around his mouth to call down to the first floor, reveling in the pregnant pause that followed. While Garnet may have been a little heavy-handed in guilting him into staying, Steven could at least appreciate the fact that she’d set up Amethyst and Pearl for him to pull off a pretty good zinger.
A few seconds later, and those same footsteps he’d heard a moment later suddenly all seemed to be gunning for the stairs. In the brief moment Steven had before being inevitably besieged by the hugs of the rest of his family, he shared a smile with his dad and mused on the moment.
There was a lot to be said for fixing things. Steven had been fixing family for most of his life. Right now, though? He was just happy that he had a family that cared, no matter what it took to get there.
Here we are, we made it to the end! Thanks so much to all the commenters, subscribers, and kudos-leavers who gave me so much love for the first chapter! You all made this silly idea I had feel that much better, and encouraged me to write like I wanted to even while struggling with all this isolation. And thanks to the Greg superfan I got to chat with for helping me spitball ideas about Dallas! He helped me a lot in getting a good handle on Dallas' aesthetic and dynamic with Greg! Plus plenty of additional ideas that may someday see the light, wink wink nudge nudge.
If you've enjoyed my work, feel free to follow me on twitter or tumblr @josephthropp. I bitch about how much I struggle to write on the former, so I welcome any and all people with a desire to tell me to bitch less and write more.