Tick, tock. Tick, tock.
There isn’t actually an analog clock in his room, but as Steven stares up at the ceiling, he hears the sound, anyway. His therapist told him when he began losing focus like this — which happens more frequently than not these days — to count the things he can sense. Do the things he makes up count?
(“No,” she would say. He would roll his eyes at her, and she would laugh, which would make the knot in his chest a bit looser.)
The bed is soft and warm. It’s always soft and warm. He feels the contact of the blanket, feels it following the flow of his chest as his lungs inhale and exhale.
On the ceiling, he can see the overhead light, some sticky glow-in-the-dark stars that don’t really work anymore. If he looks really hard, he can see a face in the pattern of the wood.
He smells whatever Pearl and Dad are cooking this morning, and accompanied with the savory-sweet smells is the sound of activity. Clanking about in the kitchen, chatter, laughter. They’ve gotten into the habit of doing that, to encourage him out of bed. It works even on his worst days, because he always imagines the warm food going untouched, turning cold as it sits on the perfectly prepared plate, laid out on the table with silverware, actual cloth tablecloths — a piping hot cup of coffee set next to it in a geometrically pleasing spot — and the looks on his parents’ faces when they realize he isn’t coming down.
He’s disappointed them enough.
What’s he even doing? He hasn’t dissociated right after waking up in a long time. He used to be hyperactive, getting up at extremely odd morning hours in order to tackle the day as quickly and intensely as possible. Now it’s as if his body is taking recompense for everything he’s ever done, and it’s now infinitely more difficult than ever before.
It doesn’t exactly help that he can’t go anywhere. “You’re under house arrest, bud,” Greg had said with the fondest of voices, so softly and tenderly that Steven almost broke. “No goin’ anywhere for a while. Not alone, anyway.”
He knew that he would face some sort of consequence for leaving without telling them. For running away not once, as he did after crashing the van, but twice, when he refused to let them follow him as he escaped to Homeworld. And after corrupting… or transforming… whatever that was, it’s not like he can blame them for not being willing to let him out of their sight. But the fact they wouldn’t let him even go down to the boardwalk without a chaperone…
Even as a kid, he wasn’t babied this much.
(“This is a good change,” his therapist would say. “They’re trying to show you how much they care now, even if it’s late. In all honesty, the fact they let you run about town with no supervision whatsoever is possibly what’s led to your abandonment issues. You’ve never had any proof that anyone cared beyond their physical presence.”
“I don’t think the fact they never babysat me is proof they didn’t care.”
“I didn’t say they didn’t care.”
“Semantics,” he’d grumble.)
A knock startles him. He jolts upright, anxiety seizing — as if somehow, whoever interrupted his own imaginary conversation could have possibly heard any of it — but it’s only Connie.
“Connie,” he whispers in surprise, in relief, a greeting. He’s still in his pajamas. “What are you doing here?”
“Your parents invited me over for brunch.” Connie smiles and it is like the sun. “And also, I heard you’re on lockdown. Let’s eat, and then we can take a walk or something.”
“As long as I don’t have to hold your hand the whole time.” The attempt at humor is stale, and his laugh even more so, as he swings his feet over the side of the bed.
“Oh, because that would be a tragedy.” Connie laughs and turns around, back to him. “All right, get dressed. I’ll see you in a bit.”
Though she disappears downstairs, he suspects she remains only just out of sight.
Brunch is as usual, but with Connie there, everything is a little bit lighter. They sit next to each other, Greg across from Steven, Amethyst next to him. Garnet and Pearl are there, though neither of them partake. When Steven asks Connie to pass the jam for his toast, their fingers touch and electricity shoots through him. They both giggle, awkward and excited, and Greg bursts into a story about the first time he introduced Rose to a chili dog.
It’s still a bit painful for Steven, but Connie takes his hand under the table and gently massages it with her thumb. He doesn’t know if he’ll ever forgive Rose, but he’s slowly learning that enjoying the stories they all tell about her is not quite the same as condoning her.
(“If you feel miserable whenever someone mentions her, that’s a sign that your way of thinking about it is unhealthy. It isn’t doing you any favors. Let’s find a way you can not so much enjoy thinking about her, but at least make you indifferent to it.”
“I don’t really know if I want it to hurt less. Is that bad?”
“It’s not bad, Steven, but you shouldn’t be searching your mother’s history for ways to hurt yourself.”)
As conversations die, Connie offers to do the dishes, which of course means Steven offers to help. Pearl’s aghast, immediate refusal dies when Garnet steps in. That’s a bit of a relief, too; ever since the incident, no one’s agreed to his offers of help, and it’s been killing him.
“So, how have things been?” Connie asks gently as she hands him a mug.
Steven swallows. “Um. Fine.”
He sighs. He’s thankful that the gems and Greg seem to be engaged in a critical conversation about which upcoming heavyweight champ could possibly take Purple Puma, because he doesn’t want them to overhear. Even still, he lowers his voice. “I don’t know. I feel like I’m being treated like a kid, but… maybe I never was treated like a kid? I hate feeling like they can’t trust me, but sometimes it’s nice. And sometimes I hate it.”
Connie nods. “I get that. My mom was kind of the reverse. Sometimes I worry that the fact she isn’t constantly checking my text history, like… that means she doesn’t care as much as she did before. Even though I’m happier now.”
He nods. He wonders if he would consider himself ‘happier’ than he was before.
“All right.” Dishes done, she takes his hand and turns to the gems. “Steven and I are going for a walk!”
“Get me some fry bits!” Amethyst calls as they head for the door.
“Don’t be out more than an hour,” Garnet advises.
(“They’re trying to keep track of where I am, even without being there.”
“That’s what parents are supposed to be doing.”)
Connie does not take him far. Her fingers interlock with his as if she’s afraid he would disappear if she let him go. They reach the edge of the beach near the house, just where the waterline meets the sand, and she gives a great, huge sigh.
“What about you?” he finally, finally asks, which is probably the worst thing, isn’t it, that it took him this long to ask her how she was doing? That when Connie turns to him, there’s a blank expression, that she doesn’t even know what he’s referring to? “How have you been doing in all this?”
“Oh, you know.” She rolls her shoulders and then kneels down, slipping her shoes off and setting her bare feet in the sand. Steven watches her, transfixed, as she rolls her jean legs up. “College prep is still ongoing. I was trying to get Jayhawk to accept me early, but now I’m wondering if that’s what I want, or if I was focusing solely on studying to the detriment of everything else because I was trying to avoid thinking about, you know, everything.”
She laughs. Her laugh, as always, is like a jewel; beautiful, precious, invaluable. “But now that you have no choice but to think about everything, it feels like maybe that’s what I need to be doing, too.”
Connie stands once the rolls are secure, nodding to herself resolutely, and then continues forward in the path of the water. She extends her arms as if to embrace the waves as they roll in. She misjudged; the waves come up nearly to her knee, soaking the edges of her jeans in sticky saltwater.
“Everything, huh.” Steven wraps his jacket a little closer around him in response to the incoming breeze.
His voice dies. He considers asking her if she’s ever felt the things he’s felt. He wonders if she’s ever tugged on her hair to the point her scalp is raw, if she’s ever found herself suffocating under the weight of her own self-loathing, if she’s ever found herself wishing everyone would stop looking at her because then they’ll see everything.
If she’s ever been overcome with the urge to slam her head into the side of a cliff.
She’s turned to face him. He looks up to catch her eyes and there is another soft, tender look on her face. “Yeah?”
That knot in his chest tightens. He opens his mouth and tries again. “I was just… I mean… back when I had that, um. That — breakdown…”
Even calling it what it was hurts, in a way so sharp and painful that his mouth slams shut and he bites his tongue. What is he doing? Even breaching that moment in therapy is so difficult, like clawing open a locked chest inside the den of a starved lion, but it’s so dark that you can’t see the lion, only hear it and you’re weaponless, and you’re desperately trying to open this chest you don’t have the key to.
Even if he could open it, what would be inside? Nothing worthwhile, but also not… nothing. A swarm of tarantulas. Hungry vampiric bats. Gangrene.
“Hey.” He blinks and finds Connie at his side again, pressing a wet hand to his cheek and brushing away a tear. The urge to turn, to hide, is overpowering, but something in her gaze stops him. “It’s okay. You don’t have to talk about it if you don’t want to.”
“I do.” His voice hiccups. “Connie, I — I do, but it’s literally impossible. It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do. What… what if I can never talk about it? What if I’m doomed to just be stuck repressing it forever?”
She presses her forehead to his and he closes his eyes, swallowing another painful hiccup. “You could show me.”
He thinks of Nephrite, drawing her failed escape from Earth. He doesn’t know how he would depict the things he felt. Nephrite couldn’t draw her own feelings, either, beyond a few simple facial expressions; he had to infer most of it from what he would be feeling in her shoes. “I don’t know how.”
“What if…” Hesitation. Steven’s eyes open to find Connie’s are closed. “What if we formed Stevonnie, and you showed me?”
He stares. Her eyes remain shut, and slowly, he forces his hands to move up, to stop being fisted at his sides like some sort of idiot, and holds Connie’s cheeks between them. That gets her eyes to open, and… they’re watering. “Is that what you want?”
“To be honest, I’m kind of scared.” Connie laughs and this time it’s nervous, high-strung with an anxiety Steven feels on a molecular level. “I know it’s going to be intense. But if doing this will grant me some small glimpse of what you were going through, if it will allow me a window… I would do it a thousand times over. And maybe there’s a part of me that needs to see it, to get some kind of closure.”
His heart swells and he feels his chest might burst. “I love you.”
“I love you, too,” she says between more nervous laughter, and then she wraps her arms around his neck and pulls him in closer, and Steven inhales the scent of lavender perfume and salt, and for one long moment, everything is okay.
“You… haven’t answered me,” she murmurs, breath hitting his ear.
“I’m scared, too,” he answers honestly. “I’m scared of what you’ll think of me.”
“I could never think less of you. After everything you’ve been through—” And Connie pauses here, though she does of course continue, “—and everything you’ve done, Steven, please. Let me do this for you.”
Steven swallows. It’s still terrifying, of course, to even consider being this kind of vulnerable with someone. To articulate it is one kind of vulnerability, but to have someone else literally experience it?
… But then, there’s no one in the world he trusts more than Connie Maheswaran.
And there’s some comfort in the fact she seems just as scared of this as he is.
“Okay.” He nods slowly. “Let’s do this. But if it gets to be too much, or you change your mind, or you hate it and regret it immediately—”
“You’re not a monster, Steven.” She pulls away now with a fond look on her face, though it’s marred by the anxiety there. “No matter what form you take.”
He prays she’ll feel the same in a few minutes.
Their foreheads press together and they share the same breath, eyes closed, and there is one infinite moment as they see each other without sight and feel each other without touch.
And then they’re neither Steven nor Connie, and they’re both.
Stevonnie giggles with a spin around, enjoying existence. “It’s been a while,” they murmur, holding onto their own arms and relishing the sensation.
But they’ve got a job to do right now.
Stevonnie nods solemnly to themself and sits on the sand criss-cross applesauce. Their jeans are soaked in saltwater.
“Okay.” They inhale once, deeply, and then exhale. Their elbows rest against their legs and they press the tips of their fingers together into an open circle. Digging through the memories of their components wasn’t something they did often, unless it was pushed to the forefront.
But then again, Stevonnie knows if they don’t do this now, they’ll be hallucinating sooner rather than later. And falling apart is never, ever fun.
I’m a monster.
It isn’t a thought as much as a feeling, a sacred belief integral to his sense of self, and it marrs everything else. Steven roars as he loses grip on his form. His bones crack and shift to accommodate the thorn-like spines clawing out of his flesh, which itself shifts, grows, grows.
It doesn’t even hurt.
His thought process ceases and his vision is blinded by emotion. Self-loathing, disgust, guilt, rage and frustration —Self-loathing self-disgust guilt rage frustration disgust disgust I HATE MYSELF — it all consumes him until there’s hardly enough room left to breathe, it explodes out of him with such ferocity that there is nothing else.
They call up to him and he hears the sound but can’t process it. He snarls and lands his eyes on the cliff face, just barely his height and there isn’t anything but a rushing sound in his ears and an urge he can’t control.
He rears back, before throwing the entirety of his weight forward, slamming his head into the side.
The worst part is that it doesn’t even hurt.
The rock gives way to his form, dust and dirt and sandstone flying, large rocks collapsing to the beach below and he doesn’t notice. Raw anger and frustration boil and he screams as his arms wrap around the cliff, clawing against the ground as he attempts to hoist himself up over it, snarling, crying.
He’s crying and no tears come.
When some giant form jumps onto his back, fear surges up and overpowers everything, get away get away get AWAY FROM ME and he slams them back into the cliff and he’s got to get out of here before—
Two creatures slam into one of those thorns that didn’t hurt even as they broke his strange new skin, and he spun to face them and roared as that rage surged back up and it wasn’t even at them, didn’t they understand, he can’t even see them right now, only a target, a way to externalize everything wrestling inside of him so he leaps—
He’s in chains.
He screams and he yanks and he tugs and there’s no give. His eyes search rapidly for the blue gem with wings and finds in her eyes an unforgiving look.
He can’t be trapped here. He can’t be trapped if he’s trapped he’s going to lose it he’s going to hurt everyone again and oh hasn’t he already done that, isn’t this what makes him a monster, what’s one more thing added to his list of sins?
White Diamond steps forward and there’s only rage and fear and wrath, snarling inside as he focus on her, targets her, and she gasps as she falls backwards, collapsing as the others rush to her side.
He’s trapped and he’s trapped and White Diamond is right there and his gem responds and he screams. The blast knocks everyone back.
How could they do this to him?!
It’s their fault you’re like this. It’s their fault you turned into this it’s their fault it’S THEIR FAULT
He’s stopped this time by a giant arm and he’s so tired of this! He’s so tired of trying and trying and trying and then it’s not exhaustion that’s at his forefront but rage and anger and that sharp, directed self-loathing and he obliterates the obstacles in his path.
Then there’s Garnet and it’s the first time he truly recognizes her; her arms wrap around him and hold him in place and for a moment there’s panic, there’s fear there’s no no no GET AWAY FROM ME and then—
And then she speaks and it cuts through everything. For the first time, in this monstrous form at this monstrous height, he processes language.
No, some part of him insists. No, stop this, I don’t want this! I don’t—
Then the others continue. All of them come forward and wrap their arms around him and hold him in a tender way he hasn’t been held in years and each of them has something to say, an apology or an affirmation, and each of them puts to words the way he’s helped them over the years and he doesn’t want to hear it.
I don’t deserve this.
A familiar figure bursts from the sky on the back of a pink lion and lands on his muzzle.
Terror. I don’t deserve this I don’t deserve this—
The kiss is everything he’s ever wanted and simultaneously everything he’s terrified of: tenderness, forgiveness, redemption, love.
I don’t deserve any of them—
Suddenly Stevonnie vanishes, Steven and Connie separated and both falling back on the ground like they’ve been repelled apart by the same pole of a magnet. Steven groans and holds his head, aching; his skin itches where the spines had broken through, and he sits upright, struggling to focus.
Connie’s voice has his attention immediately. He turns and finds her eyes on him, watering more perhaps than his did when she kissed him. “You can’t… oh, Steven…!”
“C-Connie, I—” He holds his hands out to hold her and flinches, hesitating; she saw all of it, she saw how raw and intense and out of control all of his emotions were at the time, how his self-hatred drove him to do horrible things and how his own self-preservation, foolish and worthless, had drove him to hurt them, and what if she is terrified of him now? Does she see why he thought himself a monster—
Then she shoots forward and wraps her arms around him, pulling him in tight. “Steven, I swear…” She hiccups. “If there’s one thing I need you to know right now, it’s this: You deserve the world. You deserve every moment of healing and love. And you deserve so much more than anything I could offer you.”
“H-hey…” His own eyes are watering again and he puts his hands on her shoulders, pushing her back just enough that he can meet her eyes. “What are you talking about, Connie? I’m so, so lucky to have you. You’ve done more for me than anyone in the whole world. You’re the only person who knows any of that stuff… and you’re still here? And you actually asked to see me like that…”
“Of course! If you ever feel like any of that again.” Connie wraps her hands around both of his, even though his hands are bigger than hers, and she enfolds them in her warmth, pulling them close to her heart. “The self-loathing, that fear and anguish and those horrid, horrid thoughts about… about what you do or don’t deserve… Please come to me. I will be here for you, and I won’t leave until you’re in a better place, and I will remind you of all the ways you’re loved. You know that, right? You know that you’re loved?”
He smiles fondly and sniffs, wishing he could wipe at his tears, but he wouldn’t pull his hands from Connie’s for anything. “Yes, I do. I know.”
If there’s one thing he knows, it’s this: Connie Maheswaran loves him far more than he loves himself right now.
A piece of him selfishly hopes that in the future, he can learn to love himself like that.