It was a slow to start rumor, like most rumors were.
But as it was something they had hoped would never get out at all, it was far too fast of one as well. They had hoped it would stay a secret forever - a secret sort of vigil, a way for them to just exist and be at peace in the world without anyone else knowing about it.
And yet, they knew they had been spotted - and really, what were they expecting to happen? It was stupid, it was - flagrant, their display.
What was the point of it, really, if not to be seen? It was all a matter of perception, after all.
“It’s kind of exciting, isn’t it?” Connie said to him, as she popped a fry-bit into her mouth.
They were currently sitting on the boardwalk, on one of the shorter areas, before the wooden planks set to jut out over the ocean’s waves; Connie had taken the time to unclasp her sandals and had her toes buried into the warm sand, was kicking it up and digging them into it idly. School had been out for a good month or so at this point, the conclusion of her junior year a fading memory already, and she was spending her abundance of free time on a myriad of things, but primarily with her favorite person.
“Huh? What is?” her one and only Jam Bud said, blinking his eyes with confusion.
She rolled her eyes, holding up a finger as she finished chewing - it wasn’t polite to talk with her mouth full, friendly company or not - but she was too fired up to just let this go, even if Steven had been kind of weirdly distracted today, had clearly not been following along with the flow of conversation today.
(Which was fine! Sometimes that’s just how Steven was, lately, especially after everything that had happened - she had all the patience in the world for him, really.)
“The - the beach siren, the water walker - the ocean’s watcher , Steven! PeeDee was talking about it - haven’t you heard about her yet?” She gestured out to the ocean across the beach from them, could feel the grin lighting up her eyes as her words painted the picture.
“There’s a mysterious figure appearing on the beach at night, when the moon is high in the sky, and they say you can hear her crying, calling out to her lost love, or something like that - for her home planet !” Connie’s face was lit up with unrestrained excitement by now - though after a moment it gained a thoughtful look, as she brought a finger up to her chin, tapping it. “Hmm. You know, now that I think about it - I wonder if it’s a Gem?”
Steven blinked at her once again, before shrugging; there was an oddly closed-off look in his eyes that Connie nearly missed, but had gotten pretty good at recognizing by now. He seemed clearly… not as enthused about all this as she thought he would’ve, evident in his words.
“What makes you say that?” was his reply, as he crumpled up his bag of bits and tossed it towards a nearby bin - where it bounced off and fell to the ground, making him very slyly have to get up and throw it away properly, because littering was not cool, thank you very much.
“Oh, well. It just seems like - like something a Gem would do, you know, crying in the middle of the ocean - kinda weird and mysterious? Though it’s not impossible it’s a person, but they’d probably need a boat. With the water, hmm... maybe it’s Lapis?” She paused, thinking, as she held out her own bag of bits for him to pilfer through as he headed back over to their spot. “Probably not, though, knowing her - doesn’t strike me as the type. Oh, oh , Steven -”
She turned to him, clutching the bits bag close to her chest. “The full moon’s tonight, we should try to meet her!”
In response to that, Steven - coughed, choked a bit on a bit. Pounded his chest for a moment. “W-why would we do that?” he rasped out hoarsely, coughing again a few more times.
That was… not the answer she had expected!
“You okay there?” He nodded, wincing. “Because - it sounds like fun, silly! Besides, we haven’t really done much adventure stuff lately, not since - er, Spinel’s visit.” ‘ And there was that time you turned into a monster’ went unsaid between them, laid heavy between them for a beat before she charged - “and,” she added, ticking off her reasons on her fingers, building her case, “if it is a Gem, they might be in trouble. It could be someone worth helping out…”
Steven sighed, his face clearly showing that he had - hesitation? A lot of hesitation, and she was thrown by it once more - but he nodded, looking away as he shoved his hands in his pockets. “I mean, sure? I guess, if it’s someone that needs help… “
They didn’t know why they kept it a secret from everyone.
It’s not like they’d really be too surprised, after all. Gems really were a single-gender species, though there were differing degrees to their presentations - discovering that they lied outside the human so-called binary would hardly be much of a shock to them. But would they really understand?
They thought back to their time elsewhere, when everyone had so easily called them ‘she’ and they had to fight for their understanding, had insisted to them so much that no, they were a ‘ he’ - would they be upset now, that they were trying to change things once again? That they had lied to them previously, had them work so hard to accept them for who they were only to have them have to make another change, another adjustment in their accommodations - who were they to do that.
And their dad, their friends - they were about as accepting as they came. In fact, they had all already been put to the test - because they had seen how everyone treated Sadie’s new partner Shep, how the third pronouns flowed easily between them all without any hesitation.
But there-in laid the conundrum, where his hesitation was buried - Shep had been a non-entity before, and had only ever been introduced to them all as a non-binary individual. There had been no mistaken ‘he’ or ‘she’ to use, because they all had never known them to be anything but that. And they -
- they, as a new they, didn’t have that same luxury afforded. Because everyone already knew them, had known them for years - not as a them at all.
How were they supposed to disrupt that?
“I don’t think - “ Steven stifled a yawn next to her, covering his mouth. “Connie, I don’t think anyone’s showing up... ”
Connie was a bit surprised that Steven himself had actually shown up, to be honest. And there was a big feeling of guilt in that thought, oh, because it was Steven , of course he would follow through with their plans - just because he didn’t seem to show the same level of interest in this whole thing didn’t mean he was going to, what, ditch her? How dare she doubt her Jam Bud in such a way...
But despite that doubt, she had still snuck out at night, as careful as can be to not wake her parents (though it was summer, now, so it wasn’t a school night, and she had been to space before so it was hardly like sneaking out was the craziest thing she had ever done in her life), had called Lion and headed back to Beach City. And true to their plans, he had been waiting for her outside the house, and they both had walked over to the boardwalk, were currently halfway under the pier, staring out onto the ocean, waiting for -
- for literally anything to happen.
“It’s not late enough for her,” Connie whispered back, as if anyone was around to hear her besides her companion right next to her. “Come on, we’ve only been here, what, an hour?”
Steven glanced down at his phone, blinking blearily. “It’s almost two in the morning,” he sighed, shoving it back into his pants pocket. “Maybe they, maybe they know we’re here, so they’re not going to show up - or maybe they’re taking the day off, you know. Didn’t feel like being a weird sea person today?”
He looked back towards the house, and - his anxiety was clear as day, to read on his face in the soft glow of moonlight.
“Are you… are you okay, Steven?”
His face snapped back to hers, and he - gave a laugh, and it almost pained her to hear how forced it was. “What? Oh, no, I’m fine, just - just tired, is all. It’s late.” He yawned again, fully this time, as he stretched his arms up above himself in an exaggerated show. “I didn’t really… sleep well last night, and the Gems are really hounding me on it, ‘specially Pearl.”
“Wha - why didn’t you say so?” she hissed, giving the ocean one more glance before fully turning around to face him, finding her hands on her hips. “Steven, we don’t have to do this, especially if - if you haven’t been sleeping well, if this is going to mess with your - your circadian rhythm !”
He shrugged, gave her a soft grin. “I don’t know what that is, even.”
“Your sleep cycle - come on, this was dumb,” she sighed, and started the trek back towards the temple, trying to squash down her visible disappointment as much as possible. “I’ll walk you back and call Lion - I haven’t gotten any texts from my parents, so I don’t think they know I snuck out.”
Steven looked for a moment like he was going to protest - but, surprisingly, he didn’t, just yawned once more and began to follow her. “Sorry, magical crying sea person,” he whispered out to the ocean. “May you find peace.”
And so they headed back.
It was - was stupid, they thought, that they were doing this. Risking so much, to come out here on the ocean and just - what, do nothing at all? Risk someone seeing them, especially her, now that the rumors had really started going about? They needed to cut it out, needed to just - to just stop . Or go somewhere else if they needed to, warp to somewhere else in the world even- there were so, so many different ways they could go about doing this!
And yet -
It was like there was a consistent, perpetual knot in their chest, one they had only noticed a year or so ago. They knew what it was - the burden of their secret, the feeling that they were hiding such a thing from everyone.
And that knot didn’t disappear, no, but it loosened a bit when they slipped into the dress, when they donned their garb and went out onto the sea, and looked up at the sky and just - existed. Just had the moment to be themself. It was almost like a ritual, a ceremonial bleeding to rid some of the swelling inside their heart.
And so they thought, then, maybe… maybe it wouldn’t be such a bad thing, then, if someone saw them out there? If someone chanced a closer look, saw them for who they really were. It had the potential to be embarrassing, to ruin so much -
But they were already a mess, really, so what did it matter?
The risk was worth it, if only for now.
And yet - Connie had made up her mind, even as they walked back to the temple, as they bid each other goodnight and Steven made his way slowly up the stairs, as she hopped onto Lion’s back and whispered to him to take them back -
She wasn’t going to give this up.
Even if it meant going alone - and she was certain that it would, because Steven had made his lack of interest incredibly clear to her. It was really an odd thing, that something about the rumor in general had been bothering him so clearly, but she couldn’t quite put a pin on it yet, not solidly.
Maybe he knew who the watcher really was? That made sense, in a way - he knew most of the Gems at Little Homeworld, so the chances of it being someone he knew (if it was a Gem at all) were pretty high. He also knew most everyone in Beach City (at least, it felt like he did, since he had lived his whole life there and all), so if it were a human somehow it’s likely he would know them too, even. Or maybe he knew, but it was a secret of hers and he didn’t want to share it - even with his closest confidant. That made sense, kind of.
She felt her resolve waiver a bit at that thought, that maybe she was interrupting something.
But she shook her head at it quickly - because if it was someone in need, then she should help them! Plus, the watcher had already been spotted, there were already rumors - it was hardly like Connie alone would be the first one to spot her and all. And it wasn’t like she had any sort of negative intentions or anything! It was the thirst for knowledge that drove her, and stars, she was going to figure this one out.
(Steven acting weird and all - that was its own separate issue, and something she could work on solving too.)
And so, she found herself at the pier once more, a few days later, hiding as stealthily as possible underneath the boardwalk slats.
She kept her position back further, hiding herself more - maybe the issue was that last time they were too visible, and had scared the watcher off? She kept as quiet as possible, as well - because maybe the issue last time too had been that they hadn’t been quiet before, Steven especially, and had scared her off with that, too. There were so many things they could do better this time, and they were going to find her, even if it meant staying up all night!
Which, around three in the morning - it really, really felt that way.
Connie felt herself yawn, felt her resolve waiver a bit with it. The boardwalk was eerie this late at night, not a soul out, and she felt a bit of nerves - as if she were breaking some sort of unspoken rule of silence, even as quiet as she was. She didn’t worry for her safety at all - she could easily handle most anyone that would try to harm her, she was certain, and the violent crime rate for Beach City was nearly nonexistent (largely thanks to the presence of the Gems, she gathered). But it was just… so late .
And yet, she found herself staying.
She glanced down at her watch after a bit longer - she had maybe one good hour left in her vigil tonight before she’d have to head back, since her mom tended to be a bit of an earlier riser, and she didn’t want to risk being found. Heaven forbid if she was found sneaking in in the early morning because she had been chasing a rumor.
And then, as she glanced up from the digital watch face on her wrist -
- she saw it - movement.
Her eyes, trained as a fighter’s for quick responses, immediately tracked it to a figure far off, sitting down on one of the rocks jutting out of the ocean - over by the temple, a bit off from where she had thought she would be, given her current position. She could barely see the figure in the night, wishing she had brought binoculars with her this time, but - and she rubbed her eyes, clearing the sleep from them for a moment - there was definitely someone there, out there, she could see a bit of fabric blow in the night breeze -
It hadn’t been just a dumb rumor at all - she had been right.
She allowed herself to be excited for a moment, before focusing, calming herself down - this was not the time to get carried away, even as late as it was. She needed to go out there and check, maybe even snap a blurry photo if she could? Though that would potentially be invasive of the figure’s privacy, but oh - she so wanted to show Steven this.
(Partially because she wanted to share her find with him, that he would find it interesting, but partially because, well - maybe there was a small part of her that had been a little let down, by his lack of interest…)
But it was fine, because - the figure, the ocean’s watcher was there ! And Connie was going to check it out.
The closer she got, she heard… music?
Connie tried to move as carefully as possible, staying in the shadows of the cliffside as she moved closer to where the figure was, but as her angle changed relative to the rocks, she found that the figure became totally hidden by them. She would’ve thought they had vanished completely, even, if it weren’t for the faintest sound of music.
And it was singing , definitely, just like the rumors said, but it wasn’t live singing, was definitely just a recording being played with full backing and all, emitting from some sort of device on the rock. Connie could hear the tinniness to the sound, as if it were coming from a small speaker, like a cassette player, or a phone, even -
And weirdly enough, as she crept closer - she found that she. Knew the song? Knew the artist, even, because she had listened to her many times before, on the stretch of road connecting her neighborhood to Beach City proper. Had listened to this song on repeat, and had even sung along to it a few times - because Steven had been excited when it came out, when it had dropped in recent months. He had pulled it up on TubeTube, and they had watched the video of the singer being hit with flower petals repeatedly.
“ Something that I used to feel, like a heartbeat racing, like a new beginning - ”
And maybe, maybe someone else would’ve heard the singing, and would’ve been clueless still - Connie herself was, for a moment longer, as she stared and listened to the quiet music, the sound of the ocean waves, and the tall rocks jutting from the ocean.
They had once been a part of the state on the cliffside, she knew. Were a part of the Gem fusion of Obsidian, when the four of them came together, and - had formed a giant, stories tall woman, and -
She wasn’t sure why that was the thought that clicked it into place. But it was.
Connie pulled out her phone, looking down at it - her heart thudding loudly in her chest suddenly, louder than the waves - and she flipped through her contacts, scrolled down to the listing for her friend, her best friend, her confidant - and she clicked on it, and clicked dial, and held her phone up to her ear.
And the music - stopped, suddenly.
Changed over to a ringtone, and then stopped.
“Hey, Connie,” Steven replied, his voice thick with exhaustion ( but not sleep itself, her mind supplied, because - ), “is everything alright? It’s really late - ”
“‘ Remind Me ’, by Emily King,” she said into the phone. Loudly announced it, and her voice echoed across the beach.
There was silence.
“Why are you out here, Connie…?”
It wasn’t a question, though, not really - and the amount of defeat in his voice, in his quiet tone was just - it broke something in her heart, springing up a well of confusion in its place. “It’s late. Your parents would be worried, I’m worried. Head back home, okay?”
“Steven, I -”
There was a click, as the phone hung up.
And she found herself - mad? Frustrated , because - she stomped up to the ocean, to where the waves met the sand, and she stood there on the beach and - how did he even get out there! How did he get onto the rocks in the first place?!
Did he float, take a long running leap jump, or did Lion -
She whistled, summoned the giant pink cat to her side almost instantly, as he had clearly been in the area from where she had called him earlier. And with a hop onto his back and a silent nod of communication, the two of them headed out over the ocean, towards the rocks.
Towards someone who, if she was right - and she was pretty sure, 99% sure - was Steven.
She thought for a moment about yelling something, about saying some sort of warning to him, so he would know she was coming. But she didn’t, the only bit heralding her crossing of the water being the nearly silent sound of Lion’s paws against where they touched down.
And she looked up, and - for a second, she didn’t recognize the figure as Steven at all, curled up as they were against a nook in the rock.
They - she? He? It was Steven, right? - were wearing a light, flowing sort of dress, the breeze ruffling the edge of it lightly. It looked to be a soft sort of cream color, but it was hard to tell in the moonlight alone - and they weren’t wearing shoes, their toes tucked in against the rocks. Their knees were brought up to their face, hiding it a bit from her view, making it even harder to tell exactly who it was -
But she would recognize those dark curls anywhere.
“Steven,” she whispered loudly, a stage sort of call to him. The figure lifted their head a little to look at her, and - it was.
And they just… stared at each other for a moment.
“Can I come up?” she said at last, turning to sit sideways on Lion as her sleep-deprived mind tried to gather how exactly she was going to scale the rocks; he nodded at her silently, re-covering his face again as she whispered her plea to Lion. The majestic creature that he was, he scaled the rock with her on board effortlessly, almost weightlessly, and allowed her to jump off onto the bit of flattened area that her friend was sitting on. He then looked at the two of them, giving them both a silent look, before jumping down and - wandering off, over the ocean.
She looked down at the waves slapping against the bottom of the rock they were sitting on for a moment, mesmerized. The whole thing - didn’t quite make sense to her, yet, late as it was. It all had the air of being somewhat ethereal, of a secret moment that her mind had to struggle to process as real, but she had had many of those moments before, especially with Steven - so she knew how to adapt.
“So,” she said after a bit, quietly. Turned her attention towards her friend, but didn’t quite look at him - he seemed to be… embarrassed, if she had to guess? Something like that. “You’re the ocean’s watcher?”
“Apparently so,” he said with a shrug. Didn’t lift his face up yet. “Stupid rumors, huh.”
“So I guess that’s why you were so sure she wasn’t going to show, then,” she said, looking down at her shoes against the rocks. Was this piece one of the missing hands?
He nodded silently.
“Huh,” she replied.
And they just… sat there, for a moment. Peacefully, silently.
“Don’t you think it’s….” Steven said then, his voice hushed and muffled against the fabric of his dress. “I dunno. Weird? That I do this? What it might mean about me?”
And Connie - paused for a moment. Thought, the gears in her brain almost audible in their turning.
“Not really,” she replied truthfully, at least. “I mean, I do want to know , if it means something, if you want to tell me - but you’re Steven, first and foremost to me?”
She paused, mulling over her words carefully, as carefully as she could at almost four in the morning - they came sluggishly to her, but they were there thankfully.
“If you want to be in a dress, that’s - that’s okay. If you want to be in a dress in the middle of the night looking at the ocean while listening to tunes, that’s - also okay, I guess? But you really should be getting sleep.”
He snorted a little. “You’re telling me,” he said, finally lifting his face to look at her, and even in the moonlight she could see the dark circles under their eyes. They hadn’t been there earlier, when they had met up what felt like an eternity ago, but there were ways to cover it up, she knew. “I’ve just - I can’t sleep? My mind’s just been going into overdrive lately, ever since I -”
He paused. Bit his lip a bit, looked down.
“Ever since you…?” she supplied, tried to help him along. But he shook his head, and Connie let out a quiet sigh. Of frustration, perhaps, but not at him, no -
She scooted herself closer to Steven, bumping her hip up against him, and they just sat there for a while longer. She almost wished for him to get out his phone, to turn his music back on, but this whole situation seemed - heavy, in the way a four in the morning conversation could only.
“Can I ask you something?” Connie said at last, after a few minutes surely had passed.
He nodded silently.
“Do you…” And she thought over the words - thought over her different online friends, ones that identified differently than she did. Thought about Steven’s position, unique in the universe as it was. “I’m not an expert, but, uhm. Do you feel like… a girl?”
Steven shrugged. “Not really,” he mumbled.
She blinked. Huh. That.. hadn’t been what she had expected. “Do you feel like a boy?”
He winced at that one, and oh, she felt bad for the question then, effortlessly. “Not really,” he repeated, and lifted his head up to look out on the ocean, eyes still avoiding hers.
“Are you -” and oh she wished she had paid more attention to these sort of things, because she did remember that there were tons of different names for these sorts of things, tons of different things people called themselves when they didn’t feel like a girl or boy, but she couldn’t remember exactly which one to use in this situation, and it was late at night, and she finally finished with - “are you… both? Or neither?”
“I don’t know ,” he hissed, and his hands were tightly fisted in the fabric of his dress at his sides, then. He seemed so, so frustrated. “I don’t know what I am, only that - that being called a boy doesn’t feel - right , anymore. But I don’t think I’m a girl, either? I -”
He - they - shook their head then, finally turning it to look at her, and gave her - a strained smile.
“I know I’m me , I’m Steven still - but I don’t know who that is, I think. What gender they even are!” They laughed, a short, sad bark. “I’ve come so far, and yet - I don’t even know something simple like that? It’s - it’s ridiculous. I’m ridiculous.”
“It’s - it’s not, it’s not simple, Steven. Not for everyone.” She looked down at their hands, tense as they were, and carefully - covered the one nearest her with her own.
“For many people, it’s - something of a journey, you know. There’s a lot of different, uhm, genders out there, too, besides just - girls and guys? Lots of different pronouns that people use. I’ve thought about it a lot myself, you know, though not in as much - detail, or whatever. What does it mean to be a girl, or a guy, or - or to just exist.”
There was a moment of silence. Then Steven nodded, looked at her once more. “What did you find out?”
She shrugged. “I think I’m comfortable being a girl, but it’s - it’s not super important to me, I guess? It’s more important for me to just be Connie - but I don’t mind being called a girl, or being called her, or she.” She leaned her head against their shoulder, blinked her eyes slowly. “But it sounds like you might?”
“I might,” they whispered back. “I might like it when people call me a… a ‘they’, instead. I might be...non-binary? I don’t… I don’t know, yet. I don’t - ”
She nodded, humming quietly. “That’s… that’s cool, though,” she sighed, leaning into their side further. Trying to share with them a feeling of comfort, of security, as they watched the clouds in the night sky drift by. “That you don’t know, that you’re trying to figure it out. You’re on a sort of adventure. It sounds kinda like when we’re Stevonnie, but all the time?”
They nodded. Leaned back against them. “Yeah,” Steven murmured. “Except - as Stevonnie, we have … confidence? We know who we are as them. But I just feel so… lost , as Steven now.”
“You aren’t,” Connie said, closing her eyes. “You’re on a - a journey, and I’m here with you for it, okay? You don’t have to walk it alone.”
They almost ended up falling asleep on the rock, there - Connie might’ve, if she was honest about it. They chatted a bit more, brief and tired. But eventually they noticed the sky getting lighter, shade by shade, and the two of them realized that they were going to be in a bit of a pinch if they stayed out any longer.
So they headed back - called Lion up, and when he didn’t show (because of course that’s when he chose to wander off), ended up carefully floating over the waves back to the shore.
And, “it’s fine,” she said to Steven a moment later, when they suggested that they drive her back home in the Dondai, before her mom noticed. “It’s too late - it’s not safe for you to drive like you are, you know.” She poked them in the side, before tapping under her eyes at him. Their face flushed a little. “So if it’s okay, I’ll just - crash on the couch, and I’ll text mom that - oh, I dunno, that something came up?” She let out a yawn, stretching tall with it. “It’s fine.”
Steven shook their head at her, frowning a bit. “No, no - you can take my bed! I - “ and then they were cut off by their own yawn, mirroring her - which prompted a bit of a delirious giggle from Connie. Because it was late.
“No, no , silly - how about this, we just. Go upstairs, and we both lie down, and - we pass out, okay? And, whatever, we’ll deal with all of that in the daytime. But we both need to sleep like, now .” She started heading up the stairs, and then paused - “do you think you’ll be able to? Sleep, I mean. I can make you tea, or something?”
And they looked up at her, still somewhat nervous in their dress, but - they had a smile for her, too, one that reminded her of how she had missed it in the past few days.
“I think so,” they said, heading up after her. “I think - talking helped a lot, really. Can we talk about it more later? I, uhm.” And they sighed, bowed their head sheepishly. “I didn’t - think anyone would get it, really.”
She paused at the top of the stairs for them to finish heading up, before she wrapped her arms around them.
“I’ll try,” she whispered. “I love you, and I don’t know - how much I know, or don’t know about it all, but - I’ll try, I promise you, and we’ll walk this path together.”
They sniffled, loudly. “Connie…” they whined.
She laughed, pulled on their hand. “Come on, silly. Let’s get to sleep.”
And they did.