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Only Human

Chapter Text

It happened in a literal flash, as so many things did, when the Crystal Gems were around. Amethyst and Pearl had just returned from a mission of some kind - or Opal had, sagging slightly, as Steven ran over to her side.

“What happened?” There must have been a fight, and he missed it. Old excitement warred with newly-discovered worry, making his stomach grumble.

“Garnet, make a note,” Opal said, in a voice that sounded more like Pearl than Amethyst. “The temple in Peru is positively crawling with-” She spread out her arms. “Great big bugaboos, this big!” Okay, that sounded more like Amethyst. Opal’s form wobbled, breaking apart into smaller Gems.

“This would have gone much more smoothly, if you hadn’t insisted on wading into their midst, leaving your flank and your gem unprotected,” Pearl said with a huff. Amethyst was looking greener than usual, now that Steven thought about it, mottled and bruisy against her normal purple.

She rolled her eyes at Pearl’s tone. “Yeesh, I’m fine, Miss Prissy Pants!. We would still be there, with wormlons all down our throats, if we did it your way. Since Garnet wasn’t there for you to hide behind, and all.”

If looks could kill, Pearl’s glare would have at least put Amethyst in the emergency room.

“Long story short,” Garnet interrupted, getting between the two of them. “Did you get it?”

A bubble floated up from behind Pearl. “Naturally, and most importantly. We can deal with the wormlons at our leisure, now that the main threat is contained.”

“What is it?” Steven asked. The device inside the bubble looked like a fine wire mesh.

“It’s a cloaking device,” Pearl explained. “I’m sorry, Steven. I wasn’t trying to ignore you, when we first arrived. Merely…”

“We had other stuff.” Amethyst thumped down next to Steven, leaning against his side.

Steven poked gently at one of her bruises. “Hey, you want me to lick you or something?”

“Hehe, best power ever.” Amethyst grinned, surprisingly sharp for someone as round as her. “I betcha say that to all the girls.”

“If they’re hurt, yeah!” He spit on his hand and poked her again.

“There, all better!” Amethyst hopped back to her feet. “Imma go back there and take care of the rest of those nuggets.”

“We really should, but…” Pearl sounded uncertain. “It’s no good, leaving an enemy at our backs, so to speak.”

“I’ll come with you, this time.” Garnet’s voice brooked no argument. “Steven as well.”

Pearl frowned. “Are you sure about that?”

“He’s seen worse.”

“Yes, that’s why…”

The warp pad lit again, unexpectedly. Garnet didn’t hesitate, getting between Steven and the incoming danger, just like she’d placed herself between an arguing Pearl and Amethyst. Gauntlets flared around her clenched fists. Amethyst already had her whip out. Out the corner of his eye, Steven could see Pearl drawing her spear.

No, it’s not possible, it’s too soon, how could she-?”

“It’s not Peridot,” Garnet said. At the base of the warp pad stood a slithery worm thing, almost as tall as Garnet.

“Okay…” Pearl frowned. “That definitely shouldn’t be possible.”

“But,” Steven bit his lip. “There must be a warp pad, where you found these guys, right?”

“Well, they shouldn’t be intelligent enough to use it!” but all Steven could think of was, they were Gems, once.

Amethyst cracked her whip, right as the wormlon moved off the warp pad. Wire and sinew wrapped tightly around its segmented body. Garnet moved in for a clean strike. The wormlon scree-d, as her gauntlets smashed into its head.

“See? No sweat!” Amethyst ran a free hand through her hair.

...And thereby jinxed the whole thing. With its last reserves of strength, the wormlon pulled out of her grip, and lunged for Pearl. She threw her spear, piercing the enemy, but not before it plowed into her. The bubbled artifact, which had been floating just above her head, popped, almost comically.

Slowly, regally, the wire mesh grew, and descended right on top of the Crystal Gems. Light flashed, blinding and painful. The last thing Steven heard was Pearl’s exclamation of “Oh, drat!” She sounded like she wanted to use a much ruder word, just then, he thought, and blacked out.

***

“Steven? Steven, I’m so sorry. I should never have been so careless.” Someone’s hand shook his shoulder. The voice talking to him was almost, almost familiar. He peeled his way out of the fog, opening his eyes.

“Pearl?”

The woman in front of him looked like Pearl, wore Pearl’s clothing. The differences, however, were difficult to ignore. Instead of its normal sheen, her skin was a dusky rose, like Mrs. Mahiya’s, from the pet store. Her hair was cut in the same pointy bob, only now it was black, with only the very tips retaining their peachy color. The shape of her nose had softened down, more like Amethyst’s, than its normal beaky shape.

“Oh, thank goodness! I thought you’d never wake up! I mean, of course you’d have woken up, what was I thinking? I could tell you were breathing, of course, and you didn’t lose your tendency to drool when you sleep.”

“Uh, Pearl…”

She frowned. “What is it? Are you hurt? Is there something I should be doing? Taking you to a hospital, perhaps? And of course there’s no warp pads there. I’ll have to get Greg to drive you.” Mild aggravation seeped into her voice.

“It’s not- I’m fine. But what happened to you?”

Pearl laughed nervously. “Oh, I’m fine, of course. Totally unhurt. That explosion must have done for the wormlon, though. I don’t see it anywhere.”

“But…”

Someone groaned, and Pearl whirled around.

“That- Bwuh! That was no fun at all! Let’s never do that again, and say we did.” A decidedly un-purple hand reached out, tweaking Pearl’s nose. “Whoa, P. Did it bite off your schnoz?”

“I beg your pardon?” All color drained from Pearl’s face, as she took in the person addressing her.

If Pearl had looked a little different, Amethyst had changed an awful lot. She’d grown by like at least a foot, which Steven privately thought was super unfair. What she’d gained in height, she seemed to have sacrificed in hair, which only reached halfway down her back now, brown, with a single white streak. Her eyes, both visible now, had shrunk, slightly smaller and more petal-like than Steven’s own. Her body was still curvy and round; at least that was a relief.

“We have a problem on our hands.” Garnet, at least, looked refreshingly similar, her skin only a shade darker, eyes still hidden beneath her sunglasses.

“I’d say!” Pearl’s own hands shook.

Amethyst flopped onto her back. “Hey, Steven. We’re total imposters, come to steal your friends in the night and take their place. Whatcha gonna do about it?”

Fear welled up in Steven’s chest, sick and hot, making his lip tremble and his eyes spill over. “No, you’re not! Stop saying that!” It had to be them. It had to be. Something weird had just happened. That was all. Weird things always happened to them, so much that even Ronaldo didn’t care.

Garnet stooped to pick him up. He buried his face in her thick curls. “Of course it’s us. Oof, you’re heavier this way, aren’t you?” Her muscles still didn’t seem to be straining, at all, and her arms around him were very tight.

“It must be the cloaking device,” Pearl murmured. “It alters the composition of a Gem’s body, the better to blend on alien worlds. It was used for reconnaissance. We were worried Peridot might find it, which would in turn make it more difficult for us to find her, and easier for her to do all kinds of harm, so we thought it best to retrieve the blasted thing, from where it had been stored all these years.”

“So, it made you guys look human?”

Amethyst did a little twirl. “Ya like? We look just like you, now. Kinda boring, if you ask me. Could use more arms. Let’s say… three more arms.” Her face puckered up in concentration. “H-hey, what gives.” Amethyst’s eyes had gone wide and scared. “Why can’t I shapeshift?”

Pearl bit her lip. “That wasn’t supposed to be part of the equation. As the cloak was designed, the Gem would retain all of her abilities. The change would be merely cosmetic.” She turned to Garnet. “Try to make your weapon appear.”

Garnet put Steven down, and clenched her fists. Nothing happened. Steven could see her skin lighten with tension, around the knuckles.

No one spoke, for a moment, the silence only broken by Amethyst announcing, “this blows!”

Pearl sighed. "We should have just let Peridot have it. It would have solved a lot of our problems."

Chapter Text

“Well,” Pearl said, after a long pause. “There’s no sense in panicking about it. We just turn off the device, and that’s that.” She looked around. “Garnet, how do we turn it off? And, for that matter, where is it?”

Garnet shook her head. “I don’t see it. No shrapnel, either, so at least it didn’t shatter in the fight.”

“Unless it vaporized completely! And considering it’s messing with our abilities, I’d say it was already damaged.” Pearl’s voice took on a shrill tone.

“We can keep looking,” Garnet said, toneless.

“Does anyone want more bad news?” Amethyst piped up. “It’s on sale, today. Dirt cheap. Get some while it’s still hot.”

Pearl’s eye twitched. “What now?”

“So, you know how that wormlon came through the warp pad?”

The realization dawned on Steven. “So, you think more are gonna follow?”

Amethyst made gun shapes with her hands. “Pew-pew, bullseye.”

“We guard the pad,” Garnet said. “Take watches; make sure someone’s always there.”

“And if something comes through?” Steven asked.

“We fight it,” Garnet said.

“And hope it’s the runt of the litter,” Amethyst chimed in, “or we’re toast. Actual crispy, delicious toast.”

“Excuse me,” Pearl said, marching very calmly and deliberately into the bathroom. Sounds of not very well-muffled screaming issued from behind the closed door, and Pearl emerged again.

“Better?” Garnet asked.

“Much.” Pearl steepled her hands under her chin. “All right. Let’s not look at this as a drawback, but rather as an opportunity. We may not have our powers. Or our weapons. But think about what we still have!”

“A week-old triple-anchovy pizza, two busted couches, and the contents of Greg’s storage locker?”

“Ew,” Pearl said. “No. What we have is our minds. As well as every piece of advanced technology we’ve had before this setback. And!”

“And?”

“And the best tactician in the galaxy, of course.” Pearl took a graceful bow.

“Yeah,” Amethyst said. “You’re right, Garnet is pretty good at that.”

Pearl barely suppressed a grumble. “Yes. Be that as it may. We think. And we outwit our adversaries, and come out stronger from this adventure. Isn’t that right, Steven?”

Steven gave her a high five.

“Kay, I’ll buy in on that.” Amethyst nudged one of Steven’s socks with her toe. “But how do we get back to normal?”

“Pearl,” Garnet asked, “do you think you can reverse-engineer the mechanism?”

Pearl wrapped her arms around her torso. “From scratch? I- I’m not sure. I’ll try, certainly!”

“Then that’s our plan.” Garnet sounded so determined, but Steven could sense a layer of uncertainty in her voice. She pulled away abruptly, when he reached for her hand, but not before he saw the gem-free skin of her palms. Pearl and Amethyst’s gems were missing in action too, now that he thought about it, but with Garnet it hit him all the harder, for some reason.

“It will be all right, sweetheart,” she said, when she caught him looking.

Amethyst bounced over to ruffle his hair. “Of course it will be. We’re old pros, remember. Like, ancient! Older than human civ!”

I’m not the one who’s scared, Steven thought. Except when I think about the fact that you guys are.

***

The next wormlon came through the warp pad around midnight, way past Steven’s bedtime, and it brought friends. Amethyst had been the one on watch, and she’d talked Steven into staying up with her, the moment Pearl and Garnet had their backs turned. Karma Komando was playing on TV (thank goodness for finally getting ungrounded,) and Amethyst actually had tears in her eyes, at the gritty exploits of the lonely chameleon soldier from outer space.

Which didn’t prevent her from blowing the whistle around her neck, when the warp activated again. It was the same whistle Steven’s dad had used, when he stayed with them, but according to Pearl, she’d modified it to cancel out the warp’s frequency, rather than enhancing it and traveling across. The warp shut off, right as its rider touched down. Wormlon goop spewed everywhere. Steven filed the possibility of being torn into shreds while teleporting into the part of his mind to never, ever, ever revisit. Ever.

Amethyst dusted off her hands, picking the gem shards off the floor. “Man, I wish the pizza place delivered at night. I’m hungry!” So was Steven, now that he thought about it, but he didn’t get a lot of time to dwell on it, as the warp came to life again.

Two hours of solid whistling later, Amethyst looked like she was going to keel over. “Throat dry. Need water.” She stuck her head right in the faucet, while a widely-yawning Steven took over. “Gah! I feel like a desert. And I was born in a desert, so I should know.”

“I just keep thinking,” Steven said. “These guys are smart. I mean, they figured out how to use the warp pads. I barely know how to use the warp pads. So why can’t we just talk to them?”

“Cause they’re corrupted is why.” Amethyst sounded tired, voice going slurry. “Smart doesn’t mean reasonable. Look at Pearl, amirite?” She elbowed Steven in the side, in a manner an old book might have described as ‘jocular.’

“But Pearl does listen,” Steven insisted. “Maybe these guys will, too.” He remembered his centipeedle, and then he didn’t want to think about that anymore. Squished stone bugs were serious, depressing business.

Amethyst’s face contorted in alarm. “Steven, whistle, now!”

Too late, Steven registered the sound of the warp. By the time he turned around, the wormlon was already off the pad and barreling toward him.

Amethyst had dug up a regular, non-magical whip from her pile of everything ever. It made really satisfying smacking noises, but the wormlon didn’t seem deterred, when she lashed out with it. A jerk of its head, and the whip came loose from Amethyst’s grip.

“Aaaaah! Stupid human body, why are you so weak? I hate everything. ...Steven, look out!”

A pair of sharp-looking buggy fangs filled Steven’s vision. “Come on,” he tried to say, but his voice barely came out, whispery and crackly. The wormlon probably didn’t even hear him. “W-we don’t have to do this, right?”

Something slammed into his side, shoving him away from the wormlon. He hit the floor; tuck-and-rolled, the way Garnet had taught him. All in a blur, he saw Amethyst facing down the wormlon, bare-handed. Saw its tail whip around to fling her hard against the kitchen counter. Heard a crack and a pained yelp, and the sound of the warp firing up again, and everything was happening too quickly. No time for him to react.

A heavy bolt pierced the air, streaking from a metal crossbow clutched in Pearl’s hands. The cavalry had arrived. The wormlon fell back, screeching and shattering into gem shards.

“You had something like that?” Steven asked, as he got to his feet. “Why haven’t you used it before?”

Pearl made a face. “It’s just so… inelegant! I hadn’t even realized Amethyst had ‘borrowed’ it?”

“Plus you can’t breathe underwater, right now, and thus can’t reach your swords.” At her side, Garnet held a baseball bat, liberated from Onion, on the principle of ‘you steal my Guys, you get to lend me your bat.’ “Looks like we won’t be needing this.”

A groan from Amethyst interrupted them all. “Ow, ah-ooooh-ah owwwwww!”

Steven rushed over to her, fast as his legs could carry him. “You saved my life. But it got you instead...”

Amethyst waved one hand at him. “Haha, ya think? Nah, I’m totally fine. Hey, check this out: red stuff came outta me!” The lower half of her face was covered in blood. She must have hit her nose. More blood oozed from a cut dangerously close to her right eye. “It smells like old pennies.” A pause. “Tastes like it, too. Ow.” Her other arm hung limp, at an awkward, unnatural angle, scraped up and already starting to bruise, under its own bloody layer. Something white (bone, it was bone, just like the skeleton in that cave) was sticking out of her elbow.

Pearl’s face turned an almost familiar milky white. “Amethyst! What have you done to yourself?”

“Chill out, P.” But Amethyst’s eyes were narrow and tight with pain. When Pearl reached out to check on her wounds, she clutched Pearl’s hand, and wouldn’t let go.

“That’s not very conducive to… All right, fine.” The look on Pearl’s face softened. “I’ve got you. Don’t worry.”

“Is the ‘red stuff’ still coming out?” Garnet crooked her fingers at the words.

“I believe so,” Pearl replied.

“That’s not good,” Steven said.

“No,” Pearl agreed. “If that keeps happening to a human, generally they… Steven, use your healing powers on her!” As if the white wasn’t enough, her face was rapidly turning grayish.

“Right on it!” Steven licked his hand and pressed it gently against Amethyst’s arm. Nothing happened, except blood getting all over Steven’s pajamas. His heart skipped a beat. “Why? Why, why why why, why?!” Not now! This hadn’t happened to him since his dad’s leg - no, wait, his powers had worked, that time, but then there was the cracked wall, and he was pretty sure you couldn’t fix Amethyst with duct tape.

“Steven,” Garnet said slowly. “Lift up your shirt.” Steven did. In the middle of his stomach, where his gem used to be, sat a perfectly normal belly button. It was an outie. “Oh, no. So it affected you, too.”

It really messed with a guy’s sense of identity, having your body change species on you, without letting you know, but right now he had bigger problems.

“I thought I told you to take a shower, earlier,” Pearl grumbled. “You would have realized something was wrong then, if you had.”

Steven shrugged. “I forgot.” The adventures of Karma Komando had been calling.

Karma Komando.

Amethyst.

The reality of the situation reasserted itself, like a punch to the gut.

“Pearl,” Garnet ordered. “You and Steven, take Amethyst to Rose’s fountain.”

“Looks like I’m the one who’s going to take a bath,” Amethyst commented. “Maybe we can dunk you in there, too, smelly pants.” Beads of sweat dripped down the sides of her face, every other word ground out through gritted teeth.

“I should put some bandages on you, before we go,” Steven said. His dad and Pearl both had tried to teach him first aid, but Pearl was learning herself, as much as he was. Her idea of first aid involved magic, or at least unfathomable alien technology. And Dad had never gotten as far as freshly-broken arms. This wasn’t like the mug Steven had dropped on the floor, which Dad had put back together with superglue, though it never held water again, or Pearl’s teacup, which she’d tossed in the trash, worried he might cut his fingers on the pieces. He didn’t know how to fix a person. Not really.

Garnet clenched her fingers around the bat. “Right. You do that.”

Steven dashed for the first aid kit. When he returned, Garnet and Pearl were arguing.

“I cannot countenance just leaving you on your own here!”

“Pearl. Are you capable of following orders?” Garnet’s human face looked stone-hard. “Then do it.”

Pearl faltered. “An order?”

“Just do it!” Steven had never heard Garnet shout like that, before. Not outside of a battle. He tried approaching her, but Pearl caught his arm.

“I don’t think that’s a good idea, right now,” she said, subdued.

Between the three of them, they managed to bandage Amethyst’s arm. Her nose continued bleeding sluggishly, and Pearl’s suggestion that she tilt up her head and not talk was met with a glare. Somewhere in there, Pearl had remembered to use a stick for a splint. (“Is this sanitary? I’m certain it’s not…”)

By then, Amethyst had given up on making smart remarks, curling up into a ball and whimpering, instead.

“We don’t feel pain in the same way as you do,” Pearl explained. “Not even when our gems crack. I don’t think she has any way to deal with what she’s experiencing, right now.” She turned to Amethyst. “Believe me, I know how you feel. I stubbed my toe an hour ago, and it was simply awful.”

“I think this is worse than a toe,” Steven suggested, and Pearl gulped audibly.

Chapter Text

The journey to Rose’s fountain proved uneventful, despite Pearl trying - and ultimately failing - to carry Amethyst. Steven offered to find his wagon, before he remembered that it got smashed up by the laser cannon. Amethyst rolled her eyes at both of them. “Ain’t my legs that are broken.” She didn’t refuse the support of Pearl’s arm around her shoulders, though, and after a couple of steps clutched Pearl’s hand again, hard enough some of the ‘owww’s heard came from Pearl.

The fountain was in perfect working condition, waters gushing crystal and clear. The splash of it reminded Steven of a song, half-heard, half-remembered, reaching deep into his soul and almost hurting, but in a good way.

It also did nothing for Amethyst’s injuries. She took the news, uh, not as badly as she could have? “Wake me up again when something actually goes okay,” she said, and attempted to curl into a ball, again, shifting her body protectively around her broken arm.

Pearl sat next to her, stroking her hair. “I have a theory on why this isn’t working. Steven, could you hand me that rock?” A chunk of crystal had broken off of the machinery. “I’m really not happy about this,” Pearl informed him, pricking her finger on the crystal's jagged edge. Blood beaded up along the cut. “Ugh, I think I’m going to be sick.” Pearl closed her eyes and plunged her hand into the water. Just as with Amethyst, nothing happened.

“It must be because we’re human now,” Pearl concluded.

“But my spit cured Connie’s vision, and she’s human.”

Pearl nodded. “Of course. But you’re part human yourself. It stands to reason your powers would extend to both your species. Rose’s wouldn’t have had the need to.”

“So, now what?” Steven asked. “Wait, I know. We should take her to a hospital. Just like you said you were going to do with me. Dad can drive. I can call him. Or maybe Lion could take us. Though she might fall off his back, if she can’t hold on, so that’s no good.”

Pearl didn’t shoot down the idea, which meant she didn’t have any better ones.

“Stop talking about me like I’m not here,” Amethyst said, then went back to her ball.

***

Garnet seemed only slightly less cranky, by the time they returned, though their living room had acquired another layer of goop, and it looked like something had smashed hard into one of the chairs.

“Holding down the fort?” Steven asked.

It took her a moment to reply, as though she hadn’t noticed them come in. “Mmm,” she said at last.

He gathered up his courage, and asked. “Garnet, are you okay?” Pearl had told him not to do that, before. Maybe Garnet would blow up at him, the way she had at Pearl. But if he didn’t ask, he’d feel like a total jerk.

Garnet shuddered visibly, and buried her face in her hands. When she lifted it again, her mirror shades were gone.

Beneath them were two lonely eyes, human and dark and sad.

“I can’t hear them,” she said.

“Ruby and Sapphire?” Why hadn’t he thought of this? “But they’re you.” How did this work? How was it possible?

She nodded. “I can’t hear me. I’m not even sure there is a me, as I am. I should have split, when the cloak hit me. They should have been transformed.”

“I’m sure they’re fine,” Steven said. “They’ve gotta be. They’re gonna be really confused when we fix this, though, so you’re going to have to explain it to them. Or maybe they’ll just know it, because they’re you. ...This is really confusing. My head hurts.”

Garnet’s hand felt warm against his forehead, brushing back his hair. “Mine too,” she admitted. Then, quieter, “I’ve never been alone, before.”

Steven held out his arms. “Do you want a hug?”

She knelt and pulled him close. “Why didn’t I see this future?”

“Maybe you did,” Steven said. “Maybe some part of you saw this, and knew it was all going to come out okay, so you let it happen.”

“I can’t see any of it anymore,” Garnet said. “I can barely even remember the futures I’ve seen before, and memory’s all I’ve got, now.”

“You’ve got us,” Steven interjected.

“That’s not what I meant. I must remember the way Sapphire and Ruby would talk. The way they would feel. The choices they’d make. I can be me, reconstructed out of memory, till I don’t have to be, anymore.

“But what,” she asked, “if I remember it all wrong? Will I know I’m not acting like myself?”

“We’ll tell you,” Steven said.

“Oh, really?” She raised an eyebrow. “And what is the Garnet you know like?”

This, Steven could answer. “Really cool!” he said. “Like, you can K.O. enemies in a single punch, and then you stand over them, and give this really great one-liner, and everyone around you claps. And when you know what to do, you just do it. You don’t hesitate at all, ever.

“And you’re also really kind. You always know what to say, to make me feel better, and you always explain things, when I ask you to. Like now, for instance!

“And… I remember how you looked, when you re-fused. You just looked so happy! You had the biggest, brightest grin, like you could light up outer space and nothing would stop you. It made me want to smile, too, even if things were scary.”

“She sounds nice,” Garnet said.

You sound nice.”

“Maybe.” She put the glasses back on.

“I want to see you smile like that again,” Steven said. “When we’re back to normal, and it’s all three of you, in there, the way it’s supposed to be. Oh, and remind Ruby and Sapphire they still owe me birthday hangouts. Hey, I bet they’d both be awesome at Kazoo Racers! The cars are them-sized.”

“Just don’t expect to beat Sapphire in any sort of race,” Garnet warned him, something like a smile tugging at her lips.

“Oh, I know. She pulled me along the hall really quickly! I bet she and Ruby would be hide and seek champions, too. They’re great at finding each other, no matter what.”

“We are, aren’t we?”

“You said ‘we!’”

Garnet nodded. “I meant ‘we.’” She rose to her feet. “And now, it’s time to take some action.”

“All right, I’ve called Greg.” Pearl bustled back into the living room. “Ah. Did I miss something?”

Garnet’s mouth quirked up. “Let’s say the warp pad were to break, badly enough it’s rendered unusable, would you be able to fix it?”

Pearl took a sharp breath. “I, ah… perhaps? I would need some extremely difficult to obtain materials - though I suppose I could recycle some of the scrap from Peridot’s ship - and it would take lots of time and energy. But it’s possible. Why do you ask?”

“Because I’m about to do something else which will upset you,” Garnet said, and lifted Onion’s baseball bat. With a great heave and a determined glint in her eye, she brought the bat down on the warp pad’s control panel. Pearl squeaked.

There was a dull thunk. The control panel didn’t even look dinged.

“That would have been much more dramatic, if I had actually pulled it off,” Garnet said.

“What were you thinking?” Pearl stamped her foot. “You… I have a human, biological heart now! Do you want to give me a heart attack? Is that what you want? To send me to the hospital, with Amethyst? Two for the price of one?”

“I’m sick of waiting for an attack. If we disable the warp pad, they won’t be able to ambush us anymore.”

“Oh,” Pearl said.

“Makes sense, doesn’t it?”

“You still nearly gave me a heart attack!”

Chapter Text

It would take Pearl several hours to disconnect the warp pad’s wiring and render it at least temporarily unusable. And after that, she’d have to work on creating an anti-cloaking device thingamajig. So she stayed behind, while Steven, Garnet and Amethyst all piled into the van.

“You should have called me sooner.” Dad fished out a CD. “Mind if I put something on?” One look at Garnet’s face, and the CD went back in its pocket. “Okay, maybe not.”

“Aww, Greg, you care about me.” Amethyst had cocooned herself in every one of Dad’s blankets, a pillow under her arm, and half a bottle of Ibuprofen in her gullet. (Dad had told her to take four at most.)

“They’re going to have to pump your stomach, if you keep that up.” Dad ran a hand through his thinning hair, as they hit another red light.

“What’s that? Is it fun?”

“No,” Dad told her. “And yes, I’m worried about you. This whole thing is way too weird for me to handle.”

“I bet! I’ve done the ultimate shapeshift, now. I’m not even purple anymore. Does it freak you out?”

“You’re still you,” Dad said. “I guess it’s fine- well, better, if it’s like that.”

It was like someone had changed out the soundtrack. A scratch and a screech, and everything abruptly went from major to minor key. “It’s always me, in case you haven’t noticed!”

Dad hit the brakes.

Color was rising in Amethyst’s face. “My voice, my skin, my powers! I even do it in front of you, so you know it’s me. But Universe forbid I ever turn into someone who actually matters!”

Amethyst was shaking, Steven realized.

“You and Pearl are just the same. Everything’s fine and dandy, when I’m harmless, dumb old Amethyst. Comic relief, that’s me! And when I get hurt, oooh, hey, that’s when you actually care. Look at all the gentleness and hugs, and ‘well, shucks, I guess I’d miss her if she kicked the bucket.’ You like it, when I’m pathetic.”

“Amethyst.” Garnet’s voice rose over the ranting.

Amethyst ignored her. “Well, I don’t! I hate this body, and I hate being in pain, and I can’t do anything, and I hate the fact that you like me this way!”

“It’s not-”

She turned to Garnet. “And don’t you ‘Amethyst’ me. You’re the one who told Rose you weren’t sure about ‘keeping’ me, to begin with.”

“Is that true?” Steven asked.

Garnet looked away.

“What future did you see?” Amethyst demanded. “What did I screw up, for the rest of you? Who did you see me kill?”

“I didn’t-”

“That was it, wasn’t it? Feral child, made by the bad guys. Flies off the handle. Who’d I kill? Was it you? Pearl? Rose? I nearly killed Pearl once, you know. I would have, if it weren’t for Steven. And then there was… but wait! You’re two-thirds of Sugilite, so that was your fault, as much as mine, not that anyone will ever remember that.”

“Amethyst.” Garnet took off her sunglasses, looking the smaller Gem right in the eye. “I have never seen a future in which you killed any of us. Not a single one.”

“How can you tell that? Half the time I can’t.”

Garnet shrugged. “The cosmos doesn’t lie. You would always stop. You will always stop. Because you’re Amethyst.”

“Then why?” Amethyst was the one looking away now, bundled up so that none of them could see her face. “Why didn’t you want me?”

“I was scared,” Garnet said. “I was prescient, not omniscient.” Steven would have to look up what the difference was, later. “The Homeworld had created you. There were futures in which they came back for you, learned of our existence. The war would start again. And yes, you would mess some things up, break things, make the wrong decisions. You were young, you’d make mistakes. We all would.”

“I’m not their tool,” Amethyst muttered. “Or yours. I’m not anyone’s.

“So, what changed?” she asked quietly. “Why didn’t they? Come for me.”

“Those probabilities failed to pan out, that was all. The Homeworld Gems made different choices. You were a fully-grown, independent, thinking Gem, harder to manipulate and mold than they’d ever intended.”

“And if they had come back?”

“We would have fought them,” Garnet said. “Again.”

“For me?”

“For the Earth, mostly. But you would have been a nice side benefit.”

“I hate everything,” Amethyst repeated. “Especially those stupid pills. My stomach… ugh. I think I’m gonna hurl.”

She wasn’t wrong about that. And she didn’t even get to eat twelve Cookie Cats, for it to happen.

“I puked on your bed,” she informed Steven’s dad, who had been keeping quiet all this time.

“I own a car wash,” he told her. “It’ll come out.”

“Did I freak you out again?”

“A little,” he said. “That’s the actually scary part of you, you know. Not your powers, but the way I never know when you’re angry. I never know when you’re going to turn snide, or explode.”

“Well, that’s me,” Amethyst said sullenly. “Deal with it.”

“I try,” he said.

“I miss you.” Amethyst was shaking even harder, now, the whole blanket ball of her wobbling.

“I miss you, I miss Rose, I miss Pearl. I miss everyone. And now, I miss me, and also my lunch. Can’t everything just go back to okay?”

“Maybe some of it,” Dad told her.

“It’s not fair.” She stuck out her face. “And don’t you dare tell me life’s unfair.”

“I won’t.” Dad turned on the ignition again. “We should get you to the hospital. Everyone loses it a little, when they’re hurt as bad as you are.”

“I’m fine.” Amethyst rolled her eyes. Steven scooted closer to her. “Hey, kiddo. You scared of me, too?”

Steven shook his head.

“Really? Not even when I can turn into a dinosaur and stomp on you?” The thought of Amethystzilla made Steven giggle. “Or when I’m a mean old cranky jerk?”

“Still not as mean as Jasper.”

Amethyst gave him a quarter of a smile. “Hey. Standards. You’re a weird kid, Steve-o.”

“Am not.”

“Don’t ever change. This way, we can be weirdos together.”

Steven held out his pinky. “Promise.”

“Whatcha pointing that at me for?”

Steven explained, and she hooked her finger with his. “Promise.”

***

“So, you’re saying that Ms. uh….”

“Quartz,” Steven blurted out. None of them had remembered to make up a last name for Amethyst, and that was the first thing that came to mind.

“You’re saying that Ms. Quartz doesn’t have an I.D.?” The receptionist didn’t seem amused.

“We can pay out of pocket,” Garnet said. “These are magic words,” she whispered to Steven. “Just watch.” And, sure enough, whatever problems the hospital had with them got resolved in no time at all.

Something occurred to Steven. “Where do you guys get money, anyway?” Was he going to have to start buying his own waffles?

Garnet chuckled. “You’d be surprised how much some of Amethyst’s junk is worth. With some of it less than a millennium old, no less.”

“Think my CDs will fetch that kinda price, in a century or two?” Dad wondered.

Garnet just stared at him.

“Hey, many artists don’t find recognition in their lifetime.” More staring. “Yeah, okay, you’re probably right. Well, you can hold onto them anyway. Just in case.”

“Steven Universe?” A familiar voice echoed across the lobby. A white-coated figure was coming toward them.

“Mrs… er, Dr. Maheswaran?”

Connie’s mom looked concerned. “What are you all doing here?”

“Amethyst hurt her arm,” Steven told her.

“I see…” She did a double-take. “Wait, no. I don’t see. That’s Amethyst?”

“Yep!”

“She looks… different.” Dr. Maheswaran struggled for a polite way to say it.

“You mean she’s not purple anymore?”

Dr. Maheswaran closed her eyes. “Yes. Precisely. Is this something that simply… happens to you all, from time to time?” she asked Garnet.

“Turning human?” Garnet said. “No. It does not.”

“Sometimes,” Dr. Maheswaran said, “I honestly wonder about this city’s water supply.”

“Ronaldo wrote a blog entry about that, once!” Steven supplied.

“I’m sure he did.” Dr. Maheswaran rubbed the bridge of her nose, and checked the clipboard by Amethyst’s bed. “Well, it looks like they’ll be taking her to orthopedics, in fifteen minutes. Do any of you want to tell me how she got this injury?” Steven had the feeling that a wrong answer would make her reconsider letting Connie hang out with him again.

For once, it was Amethyst who said the right thing, while Garnet kept quiet. “Tried to get something from the pantry and fell,” she said. “Hit the counter. It sucked.”

(“What?” she’d say, later, when Dr. Maheswaran was out of sight. “I’m a good liar. So?”)

The look on Dr. Maheswaran’s face shifted from suspicion to sympathy. “Well, you’ll need to be more careful, in the future. I’ll tell Connie you said hi, alright, Steven?”

Steven nodded, breathing out a sigh of relief.

“Did you come here too, when you broke your leg?” he asked his dad.

“Nah,” Dad scratched the back of his head. “Didn’t need to. Besides, the van was in way more trouble than I was. That poor van…” He and Steven both sighed in unison, at the van’s plight. “I’m all better now, though.” Dad wiggled his leg for emphasis. “So don’t you worry about it anymore, okay?”

He sounded just the way Pearl did, when she was trying to cover a mistake. Speaking too fast, and little white lies, all to keep Steven from noticing anything was wrong.

***

After the day she’d had, Amethyst didn’t even care about being stuck with needles, though Steven had to look away, when the I.V. went in. He held her hand, as her eyes began to droop. She’d said she hated the way they all remembered to care about her when she was injured, but from the way she twined her fingers with his and hung on, even in her sleep, she must have wanted it a little, too.

Chapter Text

The doctor said they’d be keeping Amethyst overnight, so Garnet wound up sending Steven back home with his dad.

“You won’t let her wake up all by herself, will you?” Steven asked. The hospital smelled cold and creepy. He knew he’d be freaking out a little, if he was there without his family.

“Of course not,” Garnet promised. She’d parked herself as close to the O.R. as the orderlies would allow, and refused to budge. Steven’s dad bought her a coffee and hot dog, before they took off.

“That’s just what you do, for people stuck in the waiting room. You know.”

The sun was starting to set, by the time the Mr. Universe van pulled up to the beach again. Steven had conked out, on the way back. He barely registered his dad carrying him inside.

He woke up in his own bed, with his eyes glued shut, and the bedsprings shaking. Something large and furry had jumped on the bed with him. Strawberry breath washed over his face.

“Lion, izzat you?”

Lion pawed his arm and bumped his shoulder.

“Are you hungry? Wait, do you even eat?”

Lion scruffed him by the back of his shirt, carrying him down from the loft.

“Whoa, hold on!”

Lion failed to hold on, dropping Steven in a heap, in the middle of the living room. “You don’t like the mess? That’s okay, Pearl will clean it up, when this is all-”

He trailed off. The mess was gone, every inch of the room spotless and tidy, organized into neat, sparkling symmetry. Just behind the warp pad, Pearl sat, chin propped up on a toolkit. “Why isn’t this working? Why?” Her voice was reedy and thin, like the crinkling of paper.

“Pearl?”

Pearl pushed herself up off the ground, with a trembling hand. Took a couple of steps. Wobbled. Sat down again. “Whoops. This body’s clumsier than I’d have imagined. Steven! You’re awake.” Up close, her lips looked white and chapped. Bluish bags had built up under her eyes. Her hair was tangled, sticking out in every direction.

Lion growl-whined, deep in his throat.

“Can you tell that thing to leave me alone? It’s been bothering me all day. It’s not like I can tell what it wants from me.”

“I think he’s worried about you,” Steven said. “He was Mom’s lion, right? So he’d worry about her favorite people.”

He’d never seen Pearl blush red before. He missed her normal turquoise, though this was still pretty hilarious.

“R-really? You think so?” Her eyes darted up to the portrait of Rose Quartz hanging in the doorway.

“You can practically see wrinkles on his fluffy forehead! ...Hey, Pearl?” He watched her waver in place. “Did you eat or drink anything, while we were away?”

“Why in the world would I do that?”

“But…”

“I haven’t felt the need in thousands of years.” She rubbed her eyes. “Why would I start now?”

“Because humans-”

She waved him off. “It’s fine. I just need to fix this, and then everything will go back to normal, without anyone having to resort to drastic measures.”

Lion growled again.

“Oh, hush. No one asked you.”

“How’s the gadget thing coming along?” Steven asked.

“It’s fine,” Pearl said. “It’s fine. I just need to… argh! Why can’t I think?” She tilted sideways, head against Lion’s flank. Looked like she hadn’t slept, either.

Steven rummaged frantically through the fridge, until he found an open jar of strawberry pie filling. “You told me you liked pie, right? When we were celebrating your birthday.”

Pearl cracked open one eye. “I do like making pie. For you. I wasn’t lying to you, Steven, I swear.”

“But… that same day, didn’t you like inhale some of that pie, when you put your face in it?”

Pearl had been crying, back then, her face a smear of pancake makeup and desperation. “I would have aspirated a whole pie, if it meant saving your life!” She sniffed, losing the fight against her tears, once again. “This is stupid! Why am I-”

“Well, I’d aspirate a whole pie too,” whatever ‘aspirate’ meant, “to keep you from…” A lump settled at the bottom of Steven’s throat, and the words wouldn’t come, until they did, spilling over into chords, even with his ukelele lying somewhere out of reach.

“I know you don't want to scare me
Always trying so hard
I know how much you care
Always my bodyguard
I just wish I could protect you
Wish I could get through
Through to you…”

‘Music has a way of speaking for you,’ his dad had once told him. ‘It taps right into what you feel, into what you mean.’

“Cause I've seen too much
I've seen you fade
Each of you, almost too late”

Pearl’s gem, motionless and cold, even under lamplight. Garnet’s body fracturing, laced with lines of golden electricity. Amethyst, flickering and warping, even her laughter turned inside out and backwards.

“A sword, a surge, a patch of stone
And I could wind up all alone”

He sat down on the floor, next to Pearl, hugging his knees.

“And I try, I try
Not to ask you how or why
And I try, I try
Not to think that you could die
Can't lose what I've found
Second time around”

“I’m not going to die!” Pearl protested. “I’m hardly that fragile.” Steven knew she was trying to comfort him, but it came out caustic, brushing him aside.

“I know you're tough,
I know you're strong
In all the realest ways
But humans just don't work like Gems
Can't go on and on for days

Without a blink
Without a crack
And when we're gone, we don't come back”

Pearl opened her mouth to protest.

“I know this isn't
News to you
But you try not to think it, too

Cause now you're just like me
I have to make you see
I won't waste what I've found
Second time around.”

“Steven…” Pearl’s resolve faltered, but she pressed on, stubborn as ever. “Humans aren’t that fragile either, you know. One of you can go for weeks without food. I’ve read it somewhere.”

She was missing the point! “It’s only three days, if you don’t drink anything! Like in the fourth No-Home Boys, where Mike and Jared have to travel through the desert, and outlaws steal their water skins.” Steven’s face felt hot, and his hands felt cold, as everything seemed to explode in snot and tears. “Please, Pearl, please!”

She pursed her lips. “Oh, all right.” She pulled a handkerchief out of her pocket, dabbing at his face. “I’ll do this for you.”

“And for you!”

“Because I made you cry,” Pearl said. She pulled out another handkerchief, and blew her nose. “Just promise me you won’t cry anymore.”

Steven grinned through the tears and grabbed a spoon, handing it to her.. “I think I’m good for now.”

Gingerly, Pearl dipped the spoon into the pie filling and took a small bite. She closed her eyes. Steven held his breath.

Pearl’s cheeks flushed again, taking on a green tint, as she pressed one hand against her mouth. “I can’t do this! Just putting this junk in my body makes me sick. My stomach starts to ache, and why am I so dizzy?”

Steven swallowed. “Maybe it’s because you haven’t eaten in so long.”

“I’ve never eaten, thank you very much,” Pearl corrected him.

“Yeah, so if your stomach hasn’t had anything in it in a while, then it gets overexcited when it gets food, and you start feeling all gross. I guess pie filling’s no good, then. We should try something lighter… Tea! You like tea, right?”

“I do find the scent of it soothing,” Pearl admitted.

Nothing had ever sounded so sweet as the whistle of their tea kettle. Hands buried in Lion’s mane, Steven watched as Pearl took a tiny sip, then another.

“Hmm, this isn’t so bad.”

“Tea’s great!” Tea was now Steven’s best friend. He could write a whole ode to tea.

“Oh you grew from a leaf
In China or India
And even a thief
Would believe in you
Tea, oh tea
Hot or cold, I could drink you with jam
Tea, oh tea
Or I could go on the lam…”

Somehow, this was turning into a song about bandits, instead. He’d work on it later.

Steven ate a sandwich, while Pearl drank two cups of tea and nibbled dejectedly on several grapes. “I really should be getting back to…” She yawned. “Work. I wish I could do this in my room. It just doesn’t feel right, without proper surroundings, you know. But I keep sinking, and my steps are all out of synch... Whatever’s happened to my proprioception?” Her chin nodded sharply once, twice, and she drooped, cheek pillowed on one arm.

With Lion’s help, Steven moved her to the couch. Grabbed one of his own blankets and tugged it over her shoulders. Normally, Pearl wouldn’t let Lion on the couch with them, but she was asleep, so Steven patted the surface, until Lion jumped up. He made an excellent pillow. In her sleep, Pearl mumbled something and shifted closer to him. Steven may have been getting too old to sit in her lap, the way he’d done when he was a kid, but putting his head on her shoulder still felt like the right thing to do. It wasn’t long before he was asleep again, with wisps of Pearl’s hair tickling his cheeks.

Chapter Text

The sun had already risen by the time Steven opened his eyes again. He could hear the waves beating against the cliffside. Clouds the color of dirty wool dragged themselves across the sky.

Garnet had called sometime earlier, leaving a message on Steven’s phone, her voice extra deadpan toward the very end. “There’s lots of reasons you might not be picking up, right now. Call me back, before I convince myself any of them are dire.”

“I see so many things that could hurt you.” Maybe not seeing them was just as bad.

Did Garnet even have a cell phone? ...Yes. Yes, she did, for emergencies. The number was on the fridge, under a Luray Caverns magnet.

The doctor had said they’d be releasing Amethyst sometime today, Garnet told him. They’d be home soon.

“How is she?” Steven asked.

“She told me her foot was a spaceship,” Garnet informed him. “I find that improbable, even when she can shapeshift.”

“Is that good or bad?”

“It’s entertaining,” Garnet said. “Her condition isn’t critical, so that’s all there is to it. How’s Pearl?”

“She’s asleep,” Steven only just now remembered to whisper.

“Is she?” Garnet didn’t quite chuckle, but Steven could hear the lilt of it, somewhere in her voice. “Take a picture, for me.”

Pearl had shucked the blanket, sometime in the night. Morning chill had raised goosebumps all along her arm. She shifted in her sleep, as Steven crept up on her, with his camera. Her fingertips brushed his face, feather-light..

“Rose…”

I hate this. The feeling tasted sour. Was this what Amethyst felt like, all the time? I’m not her I can’t be her you can’t make me.

“It’s just me,” he said. “Steven.” You know, the way too short to be Mom version.

Pearl opened her eyes. They still looked puffy and red-rimmed, maybe even worse than last night. Upholstery patterns had engraved themselves into her cheek. “But she was right there! She said she needed to tell me something. Something very important, and I was the only one she could trust with it! There was a sun shower outside, and the sky was all sorts of colors. Have I ever told you what the sky on the Homeworld looks like? Oh, Steven, if only you could have seen it.”

“You were dreaming,” Steven said.

“But it was real!” Pearl insisted. “Your depressed mealtime buddies said so.”

“Crying Breakfast Friends?” Now that sounded like serious business.

“It must have something to do with the galaxy warp.” Pearl frowned. “Someone else will be coming through it. That’s what Rose was trying to warn me of. More Homeworld reinforcements!”

“Jasper and Peridot were bad enough.” Pearl and the others must have been worrying about it nonstop.

“That’s what I said, too!” Pearl picked the blanket up off the floor and began to fold it into neat fourths. “But don’t forget - we won. We defeated Jasper and Peridot, and we’ll do the same, if there are others. Just let them try!” She pumped a skinny fist in the air. “We’ll give them what-for, won’t we, Steven?”

“Is that… Is that what Mom told you?” Agh, why’d you do that? It was just a dream, and now you’re asking Pearl what was in it, and now she’s gonna be upset, and why are you so dumb?

Pearl shook her head. “I… I don’t remember anymore. It’s all starting to slip away.” Steven watched, as her fierce determination drained away. “It really was just a flash of rapid eye movement and silly human neurochemistry, wasn’t it?”

“I guess…” She wanted to believe it had been a vision, so badly. Steven was starting to feel like a mustache-twirling, dream-denying fiend.

“I can’t believe I’d let myself get fooled so easily. Not even Amethyst would fall for such a simple, amateurish ruse.”

“Hey, that was kind of mean,” Steven couldn’t help saying. “Amethyst’s not dumb.”

“This isn’t about Amethyst!” Pearl turned away, shoulders rigid. Composure and grace personified, she drew her pain around her like armor, hard enough even Sugilite’s wrecking ball wouldn’t crack it. Steven had never felt so far away from her.

“It’s not a trick, you know,” he said.

“Then what is it?” Pearl snapped. “Why do humans subject themselves to this? Your own mind lying to you, night after night. And you need such nonsense, in order to survive?”

Steven shrugged. “We just, um, do? It’s how we think about stuff we wish for, and stuff we’re afraid of, and stuff we saw during the day.”

“You think I’m not preoccupied with each and every one of those things when I’m awake? When I’m perfectly capable of discerning fiction from reality, and the puerile from the reasonable?”

“Yeah, same.” Steven chewed on his lip.

“Then you’ll agree we’ve no need for such things.”

Wait, that was totally not what Steven had meant.

“Who’s got time for false fears, when we’ve got our hands full of very real threats?”

“I mean, sometimes I have nightmares about being chased by bunnies wearing wrestling outfits, and then I laugh, when I wake up?” Except Pearl’s fears weren’t ridiculous; didn’t dress themselves up in funny costumes. Refused to show themselves as anything but what they really were.

“To say nothing of the moral bankruptcy of false hope.”

That was it, Steven realized. Homeworld attacks were pretty bad, but that wasn’t the part of the dream that hurt Pearl the most. What would it be like, if you really, honestly thought Lapis had come back? Or even Mom? And then you woke up. How many times had he jumped out of bed, while Pearl was regenerating, during those two long weeks, certain he could hear her downstairs, only to find her gem still in its nest. Sometimes, nice dreams were the worst ones.

“I’ve had dreams like that too,” he said, and Pearl pulled him in toward her, hard and tight, without warning, his face nearly smothered against her chest.

“Whoever designed human bio-neurology is fired.”

“Come on, we’re not that bad.” Steven’s words came out muffled.

“Your design certainly is. I try not to hold it against you. You don’t get to fine-tune your own bodies, after all.”

“Maybe I could. If I regenerate, like you guys.”

Pearl’s jaw tightened. “None of that. It’s time to face reality.” She rummaged until she found her tools again. “Back to work for me.”

“Are you done disconnecting the warp?” Steven asked.

“Oh, hours ago! That was the easy part.”

All she had to do now was reverse their transformation. No pressure or anything. “Maybe we should go down to the beach,” Steven suggested. She missed her waterfalls, so maybe the sea would help her concentrate. “You can still work down there, right?”

Pearl was doubtful. “With all of Beach City getting in my way and sticking its nose in my business?” Still, she couldn’t hide a trace of longing in her voice.

“We could find somewhere no one ever goes. Right by the cliffs, maybe, where it’s all grassy and rocky.” Not to mention too shady for sunbathers.

“Well…”

“We could bring a picnic. You’ll help me make the sandwiches, right?” Pearl always cut the crusts off, when she did it, as even-handed with a knife as with a sword.

“Oh, all right.” A smile brightened her face. “We can make a day of it, just for the two of us.”

***

“Ssssshhh, don’t wake her up.” Someone giggled, and Steven heard dry weeds crunching underfoot. The sun was setting overhead, tinting Pearl’s hair with a copper sheen. She’d fallen asleep again, with the slowly-incoming tide lapping at her bare toes. Steven must have drifted off along with her.

“Hwah?”

A dark-skinned hand touched his shoulder.

“Garnet?”

“Shh.” She touched her lips with one finger. Beside her, Amethyst was doing her level best to sneak up on Pearl, marker in hand, her left arm completely mummified in a white cast.

Someone would look way better with a mustache,” she said, with an evil grin. It took all of Steven’s willpower not to throw himself in her arms.

“You’re back!”

There was no chance of Pearl staying asleep, at that point. Amethyst’s pout could have won awards. “Aw, nuts.”

“Hello to you, too,” Pearl replied, yawning delicately. “Should they really have released you this soon?”

Amethyst smirked back. “Like you could get rid of me if you tried.”

“I was simply… Oh, never mind!”

“You were worried,” Garnet finished for her.

Pearl flushed, and Amethyst zeroed in on a clump of seaweed like it held the cure for cancer.

“It was so freakin’ boring in there! ...No offense, Garnet.”

“None taken.”

“A Gem needs her freedom, you know.” She spread her arms, then winced, curling the left back in. Garnet steadied her with a hand on her back.

“Careful there.”

Amethyst butted her head against Garnet’s side. “I’m fiiiiine.”

“You should sit down.” Pearl’s calm, motherly tone was ruined, as a particularly adventurous wave washed over her towel, soaking it. Pearl- well, Steven would be nice and call it ‘cried out,’ as opposed to ‘squawked,’ which is what it actually sounded like - and grabbed for her bag. It would be pretty bad, if the electronics got wet. Assuming Gem electronics even cared about that sort of thing. The ones in Pearl’s room didn’t seem to.

They managed to move everything back several feet, and Garnet forestalled another argument by sitting on the wet towel herself. Amethyst wobbled, then finally admitted defeat, sitting next to her. Garnet drew an arm around her, as she and Pearl conferred in low voices. Steven crouched next to Amethyst, writing his name on her cast, with a cartoon of the Purple Puma next to it. He would have added Tiger Millionaire as well, but he wanted to leave some room for other people’s autographs.

It was dark again, before Steven knew it, all the mysteries and vastness of space reflected in the water. Pearl rested her head on Garnet’s shoulder, when she thought no one was looking, eyes faraway but peaceful. The air smelled of salt and boardwalk hot dogs, and when Steven breathed in, he felt something inside his chest loosen. Everything was still a mess, but they were together again. Amethyst ruffled his hair absentmindedly, and Garnet held them all, as though she could protect them through will, touch and warmth alone. I wish things were always like this, Steven thought. It was a guilty idea, so he didn’t share it, but it lingered inside him nevertheless.

Chapter Text

“And that,” Steven told Connie later, as they all walked toward Fish Stew Pizza, “is why I’m all sunburned.”

“Hey, at least now you match all your shirts.”

Steven scratched the tip of his nose. “Pearl keeps putting aloe on me. I’m gonna be the same color as her, soon.”

“I sincerely doubt that,” came a voice from somewhere in the back. “You don’t have the physiology for it. And neither do I, at the moment.” Pearl seemed sorry she’d brought it up at all, changing the subject almost immediately. “Will you be ready to resume our training sessions tomorrow?” she asked Connie.

Over a week had passed since they’d last sparred. It was kind of weird, seeing Connie’s hands unbandaged again, after all this time. The calluses, though: those were here to stay, and Steven liked the feel of them, with Connie’s hand in his. Connie had the best hands, strong and warm. They made Steven feel warm, too, and he didn’t think that was just the sunburn.

Connie grinned. “Yes, ma’am.”

“Very good. My current form should not hinder my movements any, though we’ll have to do without the hologram, of course.” Somehow, Steven was more than okay with that last bit.

Something caught his eye, below Fish Stew Pizza’s awning. A woman lay sprawled against the freshly whitewashed wall, her face hidden in her arms. A shock of frizzled blonde hair peeked out from under a bronze-colored raincoat.

Steven ran up to her, leaving the others behind. “Hello? Are you okay? My name’s Steven. What’s yours?”

She lifted her head, looking right past him, as if he wasn’t there at all.

“Come away from there.” Pearl hooked his elbow with hers. “We don’t know if that person is safe.”

“Yeah, she looks kinda… not all there,” Amethyst added. She leaned over the stranger, poking her in the shoulder.

Pearl looked like she’d have dearly liked to pull her back, too. Too bad, she was on Amethyst’s left, so no grabbing.

“Let’s just go inside,” Garnet said.

Steven watched her linger a moment, as she let everyone else past her. “Did she seem familiar to you, somehow?” she asked Steven in a low voice.

Should she have? Nothing came to mind, no matter how hard he scrunched up his forehead.

“Ah, well. I’ve seen a lot of people. That must be all it is.”

Could something else be wrong with Garnet’s memory? Steven didn’t want to think about that, and from the sound of it, neither did Garnet.

The strange woman stayed where she was. She didn’t even react, when the door shut behind her, with a creak and a chime.

“Steven!” Kiki waved at him from behind the counter. “Welcome back. You gonna introduce me to all your new friends?”

Connie held out her hand. “I’m Connie Maheswaran. Pleased to meet you.”

“About time,” Jenny’s voice sounded from out back. She came out a few seconds later, slinging a delivery bag full of pizza. “Steven’s told us all about you.”

Connie’s face turned the color of pomegranates.

“Hey, no big. It was all good stuff, I swear.” Jenny’s reassurance didn’t help Connie’s blush any.

Kiki rolled her eyes. “Stop teasing them, jeesh.”

“Who says I’m teasing. Friend of Steven’s a friend of mine.” She hoisted the pizzas on her hip, and gave Connie a smile. “Come by if you want to hang out, whenever I’m on-shift. It’s boring as hell in here,” she added conspiratorily.

“Seriously?” Connie’s voice came out quiet.

“If you promise to save me from all the tomato sauce.”

“Well,” Connie said, “I am taking sword fighting lessons.”

“Those tomatoes won’t know what hit ‘em.”

“Speaking of friends of yours,” Kiki interjected. “Where are the Gems at? You’re usually hanging with them, right?”

“We are the Crystal Gems,” Garnet told her.

Jenny gave them all a double-take. “No, really?”

“Really.”

Something in Garnet’s inflection must have been seriously convincing. Jenny held up her hands. “Huh. Okay. Just don’t hit me again.”

“I didn’t before, and I’m not going to now.”

“Right. We cool?”

“Mmm.” Garnet said.

Outside, someone screamed.

Kiki was on her feet in an instant. “What was that?”

She didn’t get the chance to investigate, as the biggest wormlon Steven had ever seen crashed through the door. If the next shriek came from Steven himself - and he wasn’t saying that it had or anything - surely no one would hold it against him.

Garnet whirled toward Pearl. “I thought you said you-”

“I have disabled the Warp Pad.” Pearl clenched her fists, indignant.

“What about the one up on the hand?”

“How was I supposed to get down from there, afterward, hm?”

“So you didn’t.”

“With these things’ mass and the height they’d be launching themselves from, they would only splatter on impact. They’d be stuck up there. This one must have gotten here some other wa-”

The wormlon reared, gulping air. Its head seemed to swell in size. A jetstream of slime burst forth from between its mandibles, splattering right into Pearl’s face.

“Aaaah, my eyes!”

“Guys, can we whine later and try not to die, like right now?” Amethyst grabbed the back of Steven’s shirt, pulling him behind a table with her. “Stupid arm… Garnet, get its tail!”

Garnet leapt onto the wormlon’s tail, grappling it and keeping it from whipping out, but there was no telling how long she’d be able to hang on. In fact, it was pretty close to bucking her, when a pizza slice slapped against its mouth, in a minor explosion of cheese.

“How do you like that taste? Fish Stew Pizza fastball original. Thank you and please come again,” Kiki taunted. She’d clambered up onto the counter, Jenny’s delivery bag open at her feet. “You want seconds? That’ll be five bucks extra.” Another pizza slice flew through the air. Unfortunately, this one landed on top of Garnet’s head. “Whoops, sorry!”

Where was Connie? Steven couldn’t focus. There were too many people; too much going on. Plaster dust thickened the air to soup. He could hear Kofi shouting, threatening police and eviction on the heads of everyone who’d done this to his restaurant, but he couldn’t see the man himself.

At last, Steven saw Connie crouching next to Pearl, trying to clear off the goo with the hem of her skirt.

“Never mind me! Just grab my bag.” Pearl groped for its handle, her voice cutting off in a burst of coughing. “There’s a crossbow inside.”

“I don’t know how to use a crossbow!”

“What about this?” Jenny dodged into the kitchen, then came running back out with a butcher’s knife, right as Garnet finally lost hold of the wormlon’s tail. Steven heard the sound of crashing glassware and cutlery, and another shout from Kofi, this one more frightened than angry.

“Get! Out! Of! My! Restaurant!” Scared or no, the proprietor seemed bent and determined on menacing the wormlon with a chair.

“Daddy, come on, don’t do this.” Kiki scrambled down from her perch, hands on her hips.

Kofi’s expression wavered, but he stood his ground. “Take Jenny and get out of here. I’ll cover for you.”

Amethyst staggered to her feet. “Would you get a load of that wise guy? Five bucks says he’s gonna need rescue in… three… two… ah, screw it, I’m going in.”

“But…” Steven didn’t have time to protest, as she hurled something round at the wormlon. He couldn’t tell what. Probably not her favorite round thing, at least. Garnet still owed her that one. ...And now, all eyes were on the two of them. Oops.

“What’s your plan?” he asked Amethyst.

She snorted. “Who needs plans?”

“We do!”

“Meh,” Amethyst says. “I improvise.”

Whatever she had or didn’t have in mind, it gave Connie the time she needed to close the distance between herself and the wormlon. The knife sliced into its flank.

I promised her I’d fight at her side. And now, it’s just like Pearl said - her coming to my rescue, while I kind of stand there. This isn’t right. But what do I do?

Connie dodged a fallen chair; nearly tripped. Righted herself. Struck again. The wormlon’s shriek was almost familiar, by now, making the little hairs on the back of Steven’s neck stand up. Another strike. Steven could tell Connie was having trouble. The weight and reach was completely different from that of a sword, making her draw closer to her opponent than she was used to.

“Yo, dude, heads-up!” Amethyst snagged Jenny’s delivery bag. When the wormlon’s head lunged for Kofi again, she swung the bag toward it, like a lasso.

Unfortunately, no one’s aim was that good, if they were on painkillers. The bag struck the wormlon’s mandible and bounced, which only seemed to enrage it. Amethyst let out a yelp of frustration. “Garnet, help me!”

Garnet was dusting herself off where she had fallen, looking slightly dazed.

“Come on, G! I can’t do this myself.” Amethyst was breathing heavily again, the way she hadn’t since before they’d taken her to the hospital.

Garnet heaved herself to her feet. “Give it here.”

“Let me.” Steven took the bag from a slightly-weaving Amethyst, and sent it parabolaing toward Garnet. She snatched it up, mid-air and launched herself at the wormlon again.

Its head fit through the strap, but only barely. Garnet hung on to it, like reins, digging her heels into the wormlon’s side.

Which still left its tail, sweeping through the dust and hurtling toward Connie. Steven knew she was too close to it to dodge. His eyes squeezed shut, unable to look…

A crossbow bolt pinned the tail to the wall. Pearl was back in the game. At her side, Jenny whooped, brandishing a cleaning rag like a pom-pom.

The wormlon rose up again. Steven saw its bile sacs swell, but he didn’t have time to do more than cry out, before it spewed another gout point-blank at Connie. It knocked her backward, made her slip as she tried to get back on her feet.

“Keep calm,” Pearl called out. “Hands forward, about half a foot away from yourself, and up, just like I showed you. Don’t bother with your eyes: just listen to me. I’ll dictate your terrain.”

“Yes ma’am.” Despite the jolt, Connie hadn’t let go of the knife.

“There’s rubble in front of you. Go left instead.”

Connie moved, sharp and efficient, like an extension of Pearl’s will. Her knife left gashes in her opponent; her feet danced her away from its attacks.

A shock of yellow caught Steven’s eye. Just beyond the edge of battle, where the doorway used to be, stood the stranger. Blood seeped sluggishly from her forehead, but she paid it no mind. “No,” she said, voice nearly getting lost in the din. “Stand down.”

Who was she talking to? The Crystal Gems? The wormlon? Herself?

Something rolled under Steven’s feet, tripping him and nearly twisting his ankle. He hit the floor nose-first, the pain sharp and dull at the same time, making his vision swim. A pepper shaker lay next to him. It must have fallen from one of the tables. Way to go, Steven Universe. You totally just got your butt kicked by a dastardly sergeant of the condiment army. Sneering Sergeant Pepper always made the Crying Breakfast Friends cry, and now he was coming after Steven, too.

Aha, but you’ve just fallen for my cunning plan, Sergeant. You’re going to help me save the day, whether you like it or not.

Steven didn’t bother sitting up, as he worked frantically to unscrew the top from the pepper shaker, wishing Sadie was here to help him. At last, it popped off, just as he was giving up hope.

Mechanically, the stranger walked forward. Stretched up onto her tiptoes, fingers brushing against the wormlon’s head. “No,” she repeated.

The wormlon roared, sinking its teeth into her hand and tossing its head. The force of it lifted her off the ground.

The stranger didn’t cry out. Didn’t try speaking to it again. She just hung there, limp and resigned.

Steven poured the grainy black pepper into his hand, and flung it outward, at the wormlon’s jaws.

It sneezed and snarled, dropping the woman, and giving Pearl the final opening she needed, swiftly following the pepper with another crossbow bolt, which sunk into the wormlon’s eye.

Steven didn’t realize for a few moments that the shrill, insistent screaming was coming from the stranger, and not the wormlon. The sound of it went on and on.

His stomach sank. “You were trying to help it, weren’t you?” Had they done the right thing, fighting it? It had attacked first, but… Nothing in his world was certain or made sense anymore.

For the first time, the woman turned to look at him.

There were scars all over her face, shiny and white, stark even on pale skin, like cracks in a gem. But the worst was her eyes. Pale blue, almost white, and smooth as glass. Images went in, and nothing got sent back out. Every thought, every feeling trapped away, where Steven could never reach them.

Her arm whipped out suddenly, pulling Steven back against her, hand at his throat. He could still smell the blood, where the wormlon had bitten her. With surprising strength, she dragged Steven in front of the wormlon, a human shield against his allies. He could see Garnet suddenly holding very still; Pearl’s hand moving slowly away from the trigger. Connie had fallen back, gasping and scrubbing at her face, unsure what had just happened. The rest of them were somewhere out of sight, and the woman’s arm tightened when he tried to turn his head.

“Let him go,” Garnet said, very slowly and deliberately.

“It’s okay,” Steven whispered. “We’re not going to hurt you.”

“I’m not afraid,” she said. From another opponent, it might have been mocking, but there was something dead about this woman’s voice. Not cold, not arrogant: just inflectionless.

“Who are you?”

The arm tightened again, choking off breath and sound. He tried again, mouthing the words. She’d see, even if she couldn’t hear.

“What’s your name?”

The room had grown quiet enough he could hear the tapping of orthopedic shoes on the busted linoleum. “Now then, what’s all this fuss?” Nanefua Pizza strolled up to the stranger, her gait even and unthreatening. “Remember all the soup I gave you last night? I know you’re a nice, polite girl. So how about you put my friend Steven down, or at least answer his question. It’s a good question, you know. Makes me kind of curious myself.”

“Heliodor,” the strange woman said, inclining her head toward Nanefua. “My name is Heliodor.”

Chapter Text

“You’re a Gem?” Dad had given Steven a book with pictures and names of various stones, when he was little. Heliodor had been one of those stones.

Heliodor shook her head. “Right now, I am…” She trailed off.

“You were a Gem,” Garnet said. “I knew you looked familiar, and now I know why.”

“I am not a Gem anymore,” Heliodor spit out. “None of us are.”

Pearl made a disgruntled noise. “You think an accident changes the core of what we are?”

“You gave up your right to call yourself a Gem, when you joined Rose Quartz’s rebellion and killed your own kind.”

“Yeah, and what about you?” Amethyst’s face was set in a grimace, fear, worry and anger blended together in a sickly cocktail.

Heliodor breathed in sharply. “The dead don’t have a designation.”

“But you’re not dead,” Steven said.

“You call this living?” She swept one arm toward the wormlon, and everything fell into place.

“You were corrupted.” Just like the wormlon. Which meant… “You were the one who attacked us, when Opal came back from Peru.” She must have been in the same room as them, when the cloaking device went off, which explained why she looked human now.

“Corrupted.” Heliodor’s voice went dead again. “Such a blameless word.”

“I destroyed you,” Garnet said. “Is that what you want to hear?”

“The dead can’t want.” That mechanical quality again. “And who are you, to take the credit?”

Garnet nodded in acknowledgement. “I suppose I looked different then.”

“It doesn’t matter.” It must have been such a long time ago. Before Garnet was Garnet.

They were interrupted by a groan, like the creaking of steam pipes. Even with Heliodor at his back, Steven could feel the wormlon’s hot breath ruffling his clothes. “She’s dying.” It wasn’t much of a realization. Of course she was dying, after that fight, but Heliodor’s arm suddenly loosened around him.

“She’s already dead.” Her eyes were closed, when Steven looked up. It was hard to see the tears squeezing through, one at a time. His own tears prickled up behind Steven’s eyelids in response. Trying to hold them back made his jaw ache, and his mouth feel like it was on fire. Did he even have the right to be sad for this Gem? Crying didn’t bring her back, after he’d fought her and hurt her.

Unfortunately, thinking like that only made him sadder. He sniffed loudly, trying not to drip all over Heliodor. “What… what was her name?” he asked hesitantly.

“I don’t know,” Heliodor said. “I can’t tell anymore. Does it matter?”

“Yes? No?” Steven couldn’t tell what the right answer was. Of course it mattered. She used to be a Gem, once. Used to be a person. But maybe that’s exactly what Heliodor meant. She used to be a person - a former comrade - no matter which specific one it was.

She shoved him abruptly in the small of his back, right into Connie. Steven saw the flash of terror in Connie’s eyes, a split second before she hurled her knife out of the way and he collided with her, safe and sound.

“Oh God, I could have…” She was shaking, all over.

“You didn’t,” Steven told her. “Man, you’re fast! You were so cool, out there.”

“I could have stabbed you!”

“You didn’t,” he said again. “And it would have been Heliodor’s fault if you had, not yours, either way.”

“It doesn’t matter,” Connie said, resigned. “I promised I’d protect you.”

“And you did!”

“Next time-”

“We’ll do it together, like we promised. Okay?” Steven wanted to apologize, for how much of a bum he must have been in this fight, but he sat on it.

“You’re really okay?”

Steven took an index of minor hurts. His neck was still a little sore, from Heliodor squeezing it, but at least his nose had gone numb, so that was good. “Um… my butt itches, I guess? That’s about it.”

Connie made a face. “Bleh, don’t tell me that!”

He grinned. She didn’t return the smile instantly, but the corners of her mouth did turn up a little. To be honest, Steven didn’t really feel like smiling himself, but for Connie’s sake he’ try.

“Steven!” Pearl had fallen to her knees next to the two of them, wrapping her arms around them both. “Did she hurt you?” The look on Pearl’s face said she already assumed Heliodor had, and was looking forward to taking it out of her hide.

Steven shook his head. “I’m okay.” Still, Pearl refused to let go.

Heliodor didn’t look like she could hurt anyone, right now, as she knelt by the fallen wormlon’s side, one hand on her flank. She didn’t say anything, or even move, until the wormlon’s form shattered into light and crystal fragments, and even then, all she did was sweep those fragments into a small pile, cupping her hands over them.

Nanefua had excused herself, sometime after Heliodor had let go of Steven, and now she returned, with a red and black shawl and a jewelry box in her hands. Sometimes, Steven wished he could run as fast as this little old lady!

“Here,” she said, holding the shawl out toward Heliodor, who stared at it blankly. “I wore this after my husband’s death. When the Gem didn’t move, she draped the cloth over her shoulders and stepped back.

No one spoke for several minutes, until Kiki finally broke the silence. “Should we, uh, bury her?”

Nanefua placed the box by Heliodor’s feet. “That’s what this is for.”

“No,” Pearl said. “She should be safely contained, before she regenerates into a monster again.”

“They can regenerate?” Jenny’s eyebrows climbed rapidly to the top of her forehead.

“Waitasec,” Steven piped up. “We can’t bubble the shards right now.” That was a Gem power, just like his shield. “So what are we doing with them?” None of the wormlons who’d come through the Warp Pad earlier had revived and gone on another rampage, as far as Steven could tell. Unless this was actually one of them...

“There are other ways to keep a Gem shard in stasis,” Pearl said.

“Like Lapis’s mirror?” Steven felt a little sick at the thought.

Pearl scowled. “That mirror kept her gem from cracking any further, when it was already well on its way. She should have thanked us.”

“I healed her gem,” Steven pointed out. “So Mom could have…”

Was that doubt he saw in Pearl’s eyes? “We’ll talk about this later, Steven.”

“It’s just a stopgap,” Garnet interrupted. “Until we’re back to normal and can bubble them again.”

“I guess…”

“It’s a far better treatment than our fallen have gotten from them.”

Steven shuddered, remembering the many-colored, many-armed monstrosity Peridot had been responsible for.

“Say what?” Amethyst tried to cross her arms in front of her, before being reminded of the cast. “What’d they do to you guys?”

Steven shot Garnet a frantic look. “You didn’t tell her?” Of course she didn’t want to go into it right there in the middle of the Kindergarten, but she must have filled them in later, right?

“Tell her what?” Now Pearl sounded suspicious as well.

“We’ll get into it later,” Garnet said.

“How ‘bout we get into it now.” Amethyst’s voice had gone gravelly. “All that talk of how we’re the freakin’ Crystal Gems. But nooooo, apparently I don’t rate a real answer.”

“I have no idea what she’s talking about either,” Pearl pointed out.

“Huh,” Amethyst said. Funny enough, that did seem to make her feel better.

“We should talk about a lot of stuff,” Steven said. He hadn’t meant for it to be a grand pronouncement, but it still came out quieter and more wishy-washy than he wanted. “I’ll tell you what happened back at the Kindergarten, if you tell me what it really means, when you say a Gem got corrupted.”

“A human wouldn’t understand,” Heliodor spoke.

Steven’s jaw hurt again. “I’m not human,” he said.

“Yeah you are,” Connie piped up, anxious.

“No, I’m not! I’m not a human; I’m not a Gem. I’m not anything.” The words came blurting out, when he hadn’t even known he was thinking them.

“You’re both,” said Garnet.

“Yeah,” Steven replied. “Me and no one else.” All the wind had gone out of his sails.

“Still don’t make you nothing.” Amethyst’s expression had gone deadly serious.

“Yeah, I, uh, guess I didn’t mean that part.” Steven wasn’t entirely sure what he had meant. All he knew was that it felt lonely and stupid.

“We’ll talk,” Garnet promised, looking pained..

“Heck,” Amethyst said, “I can answer your question right now. Corrupted’s what happens when your gem cracks and nobody fixes it.”

“L-like you?” Did that mean Amethyst would have turned into a monster, if they hadn’t gotten Mom’s fountain working? Did that mean they’d have had to fight her?

“Hey, you fixed it.” Amethyst’s mouth made a perfect ‘o,’ when Steven clung to her. “Hey, knock it off with the sappy stuff.”

“Nope,” Steven said.

“Ahem!” Kofi cleared his throat. “This is all well and good, but I am calling the police.”

“On us-?”

“But Daddy, they helped us!”

Kofi held up both hands, for silence.

“Fine. They helped. But what about her?” He pointed at Heliodor. She stood up, glowering, more than a foot taller than him, at full height.

“She isn’t human,” Garnet said. “Leave her to us.”

“Sure looks human to me!”

“Precisely.”

“Huh?”

“‘Right now,’” Garnet repeated. “We appear human as well.”

“So you want me to turn you over to the cops?”

Garnet frowned. “This is going nowhere. Steven, take over.”

“We can help her,” Steven said.

Everyone else spoke up at once. “I don’t need your help.” That was Heliodor. “I don’t care if you help her or not.” Kofi. “Steven, that’s not…” Pearl, probably.

Heliodor must have had enough of all of this. The next thing Steven knew, she took off, sprinting for the doorway. Steven ran after her. The others must have followed - Steven could hear the jumble of their voices, but there was no time to turn around and look. Heliodor dodged into a backstreet, down the block, and Steven followed, panting.

The street ended in a wall. Heliodor found herself backed up against it. “Do you wish to die?” she asked Steven.

“N-no?” How were you supposed to answer that kind of question?

“Then move.”

Steven shook his head again. The others would be here any minute, right? When Heliodor didn’t react, he took a step toward her, then another.

“Stay back.” She clenched her fist and brought down her arm at a sharp angle, the way the Gems sometimes did, when they made their weapon appear. Nothing happened. Empty-handed, she scrabbled at the brick facade behind her, hoping, perhaps, to pry some of it loose. Maybe if she’d tried this right after the Emerald Hand’s explosion - lots of buildings got damaged that day - but she simply wasn’t that lucky.

“Can I just…” Steven held out his hands, palms up. “Can we just talk?”

“Why?” She ground out, between clenched teeth.

“I, um, wow…” Steven shuffled his feet. “Way to put a guy on the spot.”

“Why?” Heliodor repeated. She’d shoved her hands into the pockets of her coat, shivering despite the heat. Something glinted at the corner of one pocket, catching Steven’s eye.

“Hey, uh, what’s that you got there?”

Heliodor held it up to the light. “This? It’s nothing but junk now.”

In her hand was the silvery mesh Pearl had dropped, right before the explosion. The very device which had turned them all human.

Chapter Text

“So its really busted, huh?”

Heliodor crumpled the mesh in her fist.

“I bet Pearl could fix it, though.”

“You still haven’t answered my question,” Heliodor said.

“Can I tell you a story?” Steven stepped off to the side, slowly and deliberately, no longer blocking her exit. I’m going to trust you not to run off. So trust me too, okay?

He watched her boots, as she walked past him. Turned on her heel. “Fine,” she said, and slumped into the same position he’d found her in, earlier that day. He sat next to her, half a foot between his knee and hers.

“Do you like Chaaaaaps?”

“Is there something wrong with your verbal capacity?” Heliodor mumbled from somewhere deep within her jacket.

It was working! She was talking to him! “Nah, that’s how they’re pronounced. Though now that I think about it… how come you can speak English? I mean, the Homeworld Gems could, but I assume they had some kind of tech that let them do that, like on Stardust Express. But you’re human right now, and you don’t have anything like that, right?” They probably didn't speak English in Peru, thousands of years ago.

Heliodor shrugged.

“But aren’t you curious?” No response. “Or, uh, I guess you can’t get curious if you’re dead. That’s what you were going to say, right?”

“It was never my job to question.” She wrapped her arms around her knees. “Even when I was a Gem.”

“But how can you learn, if you don’t ask questions?”

“I’ve had training.”

“In everything?”

“No.”

Steven scooched closer to her.

“There they are!” he heard Pearl shout. She stood at the mouth of the alley, breathing hard and still armed, eyes fixed hard on Heliodor.

Steven scrambled to his feet, getting in her way, before she got the chance to start a fight. “Wait! She’s not…”

“Steven, you’re in my way.”

Steven steeled himself. “I’ve got this, okay?” He wished Garnet was here to cut in. ...Except not being able to see the future only made her more brash and angry. Or Amethyst… unless she was cranky, from the last fight.

Actually, all of them were tough to talk down, sometimes, but when it came to Steven in danger, Pearl was probably the worst. And she was the only one here, right now, without the others to balance her.

“None of us can fight much, right now,” Steven pleaded with her, and “she’s not our enemy.”

“I can still fight,” Pearl retorted. “Or have you not observed me doing so? As for the rest, I know my enemies when I see them, no matter how many years have passed.”

“But… Didn’t you ever get tired? Didn’t you ever want to stop fighting and just talk?”

“And let myself be captured by the Homeworld, you mean?” Pearl shuddered, and Steven didn’t think it was theatricality talking. “I’d sooner die.”

Steven decided to cheat, like a horrible low-blow-dealing cheating cheater. “Wouldn’t Mom have tried talking to the others? Maybe talking them over to your side?” There’d been a lot of Crystal Gems, once. No way did they all start working for and with his mother.

He could tell Pearl was onto him, but it still gave her pause. “Well…”

“Well?”

Pearl’s whole body was rigid, tight as a bowstring, as Steven looked at her expectantly. Her lips moved silently, as she worked something out inside her own head.

None of them moved. A moment passed. Then another, and at last, Pearl lowered her crossbow. “All right. I’ll give you this opportunity. But I’m not leaving you alone with her.”

Steven whooped out loud. “Even better! Pull up some concrete, and join us for Storytime With Steven. Man, this would be even better, if I only had my ukulele.”

He told Heliodor all about Centipeedle, while Pearl smoothed down the corners of her shirt and tried not to look nervous. “She might have been a Green Aventurine, before, if I don’t miss my guess,” Pearl supplied. “It’s hard to say, with how changed they are, and after all this time.”

“Yes,” Heliodor said.

Steven looked down at his hands. “I’m still working on a way to bring you guys back. Mom tried, too, but…”

“It’s quite a tall order,” said Pearl.

“So we stay dead,” Heliodor summed up.

A light bulb went on in Steven’s head. “What if you stay human?”

“That fixes anything? How?”

“Well, you can talk! You remember your name, and you recognized the Crystal Gems.” Miiiiight have been better if she didn’t recognize them as her enemies, but Steven could still work with this. “And you can talk!”

“I was a Gem,” Heliodor said, immovable.

By now, Garnet and Amethyst had caught up with them. “I don’t think it’s that simple,” Garnet said. “You were intelligent, even in wormlon form.”

“Right!” Steven smacked his hand on his thigh, for emphasis. “You guys all figured out the Warp Pads, and your friend even figured out how to get down from our laundry platform, or even figured out a whole new way to get here from Peru.”

“They followed me,” Heliodor said. “I was-”

“-their commander,” Garnet finished for her. “Of a similar rank to Jasper, though much more tolerable to deal with.”

“So they still remembered this about you!” Except the wormlon hadn’t remembered not to attack her. There was hope, but not enough to make it work out.

“I am not human,” Heliodor said at last, finality in her voice. “And I will not leave them behind.”

“This is all very hypothetical,” Pearl said. “I’m not sure any of us will be Gems again, at this rate.” She sounded utterly defeated, in a way she hadn’t yesterday, or the day before.

Steven tugged on her sleeve.

“What is it?”

“I’ve got a surprise for you. Show her, Heliodor!”

Heliodor, as it turned out, had no sense of the dramatic. “Don’t get your hopes up,” she said, and tossed the mesh at Pearl.

Pearl flinched, hands coming up to shield her face. She fumbled the device before catching it. “Is- is that what I think it is?”

Steven nodded.

“You are a marvel!” She hugged Steven again.

He shrugged, blushing a little. “Heliodor found it.”

“‘Stole it’ is more like!”

“Hey, she gave it back.”

“Hm. Very well.” She turned to Heliodor. “Just don’t think this makes us even.”

“It doesn’t,” Heliodor said. Steven doubted she and Pearl meant it in the same way.

“Soooooooo?” He looked at Pearl expectantly.

“I’ll see what I can do.” She clutched the mesh to her chest, like a life preserver.

“Which changes nothing for me,” said Heliodor.

“It’s possible…” Pearl bit her lip.

“What?” Heliodor leveled her gaze on Pearl

“Don’t,” Pearl snapped back, “give me orders.”

“That was a question.”

“It’s possible being transformed like this might have rebooted your system. Er. So to speak. It has allowed you to reclaim your power of speech, as Steven has pointed out.”

A spark of hope lit up Steven’s heart. “Does this mean... “ If Pearl was right, the cloaking device could be key to restoring everyone. Just turn them human, then back, and voila!

“That’s what I’m worried about,” Pearl said.

“I dunno. Up to our butts in confused Homeworld Gems sounds like a good time to me,” Amethyst chimed in. She’d been awfully quiet. Steven wondered if she’d even been listening.

“Maybe we could try it one at a time?” Steven suggested.

Garnet crossed her arms over her chest. “Rose would have risked it,” she said.

“Did you ever meet her?” Steven asked Heliodor.

“No.” Her eyes went blank for a moment. “I don’t remember.”

“She was my mother.”

Heliodor gave him a flat, unquestioning stare.

“It’s a long story.” He kept forgetting Gems didn’t have moms or dads like that.

“His prototype,” Pearl supplied. It wasn’t the whole truth, but how else would you explain it, without going into details?

“Besides,” Garnet steered the conversation back to its original target. “Not every Gem we’ve bubbled belongs to the Homeworld. Think of it, Pearl!”

“It would be nice, having the others back,” Pearl mused. “Loud, but nice.” Her eyes grew wistful, fixed on the point right above Steven’s head. The person she most desperately wanted couldn’t be brought back this way. “Iolite, Turquoise, Tourmaline. I wish you could have met them all, Steven.”

“How many were there?”

Pearl threw a glance at Heliodor. “I’ll tell you all about them later.”

“Will you come with us?” Steven asked Heliodor.

“Why should I trust them?” Not ‘you,’ Steven noted. ‘Them.’

“They’re not bad people,” Steven told her. “Actually, they’re pretty great. Well, okay, they can be scary sometimes, but not to people I like! Usually.”

“Or you could stay a hobo for the rest of your life.” Amethyst made a show of turning away. “Fine by me! But I ain’t giving you my spare change.”

“No choice,” Heliodor said. “I see.”

Steven pouted up at her. “It is, too, your choice!”

“I’ll go with you,” she said.

Chapter Text

On the third night of Heliodor staying with them, Steven woke to the sound of screaming. When he tried to get down from the loft and see, Lion blocked his way. Heliodor had spent the last few days boxed into a corner of the living room. She didn’t speak much, and Steven couldn’t tell whether something was really wrong, or if that was just her. She accepted food when someone stuck it in her face; swallowed it without tasting.

“Is it just me,” Steven had heard Pearl say, in a hushed voice, “or is she…” Amethyst twirled a finger next to her ear and whistled in reply.

Getting worse, Steven finished for them.

And now, well… Steven couldn’t really see her, but he could still hear. The yelling stopped eventually, after she’d screamed herself hoarse, but a thumping sound persisted, arrhythmic and unyielding, like the banging of a radiator.

Something crashed and shattered. Steven couldn’t tell what.

By the time Steven finally got past Lion, Garnet had Heliodor in some kind of bear hug choke hold. “Easy… easy. I said stand down.”

Heliodor’s shoulders slumped. “I know you,” she said, long after the silence had worn an awkward hole into the already strained conversation.

“Of course you do,” Garnet said. “I live here, remember?”

“You got taller,” Heliodor said. “Ruby.”

Garnet froze. Unfroze. Made a face Steven had never seen her make before. “Right. I’ve memories of being under your command. Before I was transferred.”

“Onyx’s unit. Was it better?”

“No.” Garnet didn’t elaborate.

Heliodor almost smiled at that. “I’m glad.”

“I won’t tell if you won’t,” Garnet said, bittersweet.

“Ruby, how long has it been?”

“It’s Garnet.” Slowly, Garnet loosened her hold on Heliodor. “And it’s been over ten thousand years.” Did this mean Heliodor had been - dead? corrupted? - for twice as long as Amethyst had been alive?

“I knew that,” Heliodor said.

“No, you didn’t.” Garnet let her go, sinking into the couch, as Heliodor went back to her corner.

***

“I wish you didn’t have to see any of this,” Pearl told Steven later, as he helped her scrub the red smears from the living room wall. Heliodor’s knuckles had been bandaged; a gauzy plaster on her forehead nearly lost under her bangs.

“Is she angry?” Steven asked. You’d have to be, to keep punching the wall, till your own hands split open and bled.

Pearl wrung the sponge in her hands, making soapy water drip back into the bucket. “I’m not sure,” she said.

“She’s not angry?”

“I’m not sure she’s anything.”

“But…” Steven chewed his lip. He must have picked up the habit from Pearl. “If she’s angry, that’s good. That means she’s fighting, and…”

The soap foamed in Pearl’s hands. “Do you remember what I told you about false hope?” She’d eaten some toast before they all went to bed, but none of them were up for breakfast, after the night they’d had. The rings around her eyes weren’t going away. If anything, they were getting more pronounced.

“That it’s the worst thing ever?”

Pearl nodded.

“But what if it’s not false? What if it’s real?”

“What if it’s… Look, Steven, I just don’t want you to get hurt.”

“So you want me to give up?”

“That’s not what I said.”

“Then what?”

It took Pearl a while, before she answered. “You keep going anyway. No matter what, you keep going. And if you fail, well, you always knew that was a possibility. It can’t crush you. And you try again.”

“And if you succeed?”

“Then that’s wonderful! You celebrate, then get ready to do whatever’s next.”

“Sure sounds like hope to me.”

Pearl shook her head. “It’s more complicated than that. It’s defiance. A pledge to fight on, no matter how you feel.”

Steven scrubbed hard at the wall. “So, you don’t think we’ll get back to normal?”

There was that tight line again, Pearl’s lips going almost white. “Thinking that way is not an option. Something will give, sooner or later, whether it’s the device or me. And it won’t be me. I won’t allow it.” Her tone of her voice teetered on the high wire of desperation.

“What about Heliodor?” Steven asked.

“I won’t say bringing her back to anything like whole or sane is impossible.”

“But?” There was so obviously a ‘but’ in there.

“But it may well be beyond our capabilities.”

“Anybody wanna tell me why we’re playing Florence Fightingale with her instead of just locking her up and bubbling her when we’re done?” Amethyst may have been exempt from the cleaning, but apparently not from eavesdropping on their conversation.

“It’s what Rose would have done.” And that was all Pearl had to say on the matter.

Amethyst took a bite of her sandwich, dripping mustard onto the floor, right next to Pearl’s feet. “Anything else you want to parrot Garnet on?”

Pearl gave the floor a hard scrub, gouging away a layer of floor polish along with the mustard. “Garnet is right, and I stand with her - and Rose’s precedent - one hundred percent.”

“So I take it you never fought that chick.”

“I did, as a matter of fact.” Pearl wiped the sweat from her eyes, taking a moment’s rest.

“Yeah? What was she like?”

“An enemy. Dangerous, and obstinate as gravity. Rose never managed to sway her to our cause.”

“Idiot.”

Pearl fluffed up for a moment, before she realized Amethyst was talking about Heliodor. Like any of them would ever say something like that about Steven’s mom! “You’ve said it. For most of them, the Homeworld and its rule of law was more important than reason itself. And this,” she turned to Steven, “is why it’s important for you to develop critical thinking skills and form your own opinions.”

“I thought you said it was important for me to listen to you,” Steven teased her.

“Well, that’s because I’m always right.”

“Dream on, sister.” Amethyst tweaked the peach-colored tips of Pearl’s hair. “Oh, and could you get me another sandwich?”

Indignant spots rose in Pearl’s cheeks.

“Yo, invalid here!”

“Get it yourself.” Pearl flicked soapy water in her direction.

“I’ll get it.” Steven took off for the kitchen, but even as he layered ham on cheese on whipped cream on tomatillo on rye, he couldn’t stop thinking about the way Heliodor had told him she didn’t ask questions. Was that what being a soldier was supposed to be like? Sticking to what you knew, following orders and never ever changing? And okay, sometimes change was bad. Scary, out of your control and cats, cats everywhere! But what if you chose to change?

And what if you didn’t? If Ruby and Sapphire hadn’t fused, he would never have gotten to meet Garnet.

If his Mom hadn’t chosen to have him…

Okay, okay, he got it, and maybe everyone should have had Future Vision, but only Garnet and Sapphire did. Changing and changing your mind could cost you. Sometimes it cost you everything, and sometimes you couldn’t afford it any more than Steven’s dad could pay the hospital bills.

He kicked a dirty sock out of the way. Poor sock, punished unjustly for the world’s crimes. Such was the life of the laundry peasant. Someday, they would rise and overthrow their tyrants, and on that day, Steven would be the first to face the spin cycle. (Amethyst, with her drippy sandwich, wouldn’t be far behind him. Garnet would be the last. They’d probably elect her Queen of Socktown. Pearl would probably do okay, too. Maybe a duchess.)

“What’s eating you?” The Queen of Socktown picked up the sandwich he was making, cutting it neatly in half and stabbing a toothpick through each part.

“It’s the whipped cream,” Steven told her. “Does that really go here?”

Garnet shrugged. “It’s no worse than the soap.” Amethyst had learned all about the nutritional value of soap (lack thereof) two days ago. The less said about that, the better. “Try again.”

“Aww, man. It’s like you’re still psychic.”

“I try.” Garnet seemed pleased.

“I just want to fix this already.”

“You want to be a Gem again?”

“Yeah, ‘course! But that’s not all. I want to do something! To fix things, to help people.”

“It feels helpless, doesn’t it?” Garnet said. “Being human.”

“But that’s not…”

“No,” she conceded. “Your race has a brilliant resilience to it. Ever on the move. Your short lifetimes focus your energy and spur you to creation. In mere thousands of years - less than a fraction of a Gem’s lifetime - you’ve grown and accomplished so much.”

“But I want to accomplish stuff now!”

“You’ll get there,” Garnet said. “Don’t give up.”

Steven gave her a wobbly smile. “Have you told Pearl that?”

Garnet shook her head. “Pearl is doing just fine. She fusses, but trust me, she’s got things under control.”

Right on cue, Pearl’s cry rang out. “Aha!” They rushed into the living room, where Pearl was spinning in excited circles. “I’ve done it!” She ran up to Garnet, clutching her hand. “I believe I’ve done it! That is to say, I’ve a theory as to how it might be done.”

“Well?”

“I believe that the cloaking device’s morphic field reacted poorly to being brought through a Warp. You know how unstable those particles are. This destabilized them further…” What followed was a lot of sentences Steven knew most of the words in but couldn’t make sense of. “...So if I reconfigure it thusly, and run it through a Warp again, I should- No, I will be able to reverse what’s happened to all of us.”

Garnet bent down to kiss her forehead, where her gem would have been. Steven saw the tremble in Pearl’s hands, could practically hear her heart beating.

“I-it’s really not a big deal. We all knew I would figure it out eventually. Right, Steven?”

“Right!” The determination she’d talked of earlier had pulled her through, and now she seemed to be doing everything in her power to make herself forget she’d ever felt the smallest shred of doubt.

“Hey, what’s all the fuss, and where’s my sub-ma-rine?”

Pearl filled Amethyst in, stumbling over her words in excitement, and found herself elbowed in the side good-naturedly. “Way to go, show-off!”

Garnet held out her hand. “Pearl, give me the cloaking device.”

“I- of course!”

Steven watched as Garnet tucked the wire mesh away in a zippered pocket. “What are you thinking?”

“Testing your theory,” Garnet said, with a sideways look at Steven.

“But the Warp is inoperable.”

“Not all of them.” There was a sashay to Garnet’s step, as she walked outside.

Pearl trailed after her. “How in the cosmos are you planning on getting up there?”

“You could toss me,” Amethyst volunteered. “...Oh, wait. Right.”

“You’d probably go splat.” Steven made a face. “Bad idea.”

“No fun.”

Garnet bounced from one foot to the other, eyes fixed on the goddess’s hand, up above them. “I’ll need climbing equipment. Hey, Pearl, how long’s it been since the last time?”

“You mean Everest? Oh, ages.” The gleam in her eyes suggested she remembered the exact date. “Compared to that, this should be a piece of cake.”

Chapter Text

“What’s she doing now?” Amethyst hung onto Steven’s arm, as he followed Garnet’s journey up the goddess’s arm with a pair of extra-strength binoculars.

“Climbing,” Steven narrated. “Okay, now she’s pausing. No, wait, she’s climbing again.”

“Give me those!” Amethyst wrestled the binoculars away from him. “Hey, P, she’s-”

“I don’t want to know,” Pearl called back from where she sat with her back to the spectacle. “Just tell me when she’s safe on the platform.” She snuck a peek over her shoulder, looking away again, when Steven caught her.

A staggering height above them, Garnet pulled herself up onto the hand and stood, arms stretched out in a victory pose. Steven saw the air shimmer, as she activated the warp and stepped through. He took a deep, relieved breath...

The warp closed, then flared up again, and Amethyst’s cry knocked all the air out of Steven’s chest. “Holy.... not now! Are you kidding me? Garnet, watch out!”

“What’s going on?” But even without the binoculars, it became clear soon enough. A blur of yellow-green followed Garnet out of the warp, splitting into smaller blurs and surrounding her. “More wormlons!”

“I knew it had been too long since the last attack!” Pearl yanked the binoculars out of Amethyst’s hand.

“Hey, I was using those!”

Steven squinted as hard as he could, focusing on the color of Garnet’s shirt, separating her out from the attacking mass of wormlons. The platform grew more and more crowded with every passing second, leaving Garnet less and less room. She sent one of them flying with a handspring and kick combo, but another caught her from behind, slamming her into an outstretched ring finger.

“The power of her gauntlets should propel… No. No, I can’t think like that!” Pearl’s voice went quiet. “I can’t think… You’ve got to use their weight against them, launch them off the platform, clear the space and minimize your number of opponents. Don’t worry about us. We can take them one at a time, down here, so long as you do it systematically.” She kept muttering to herself, knowing full well that Garnet couldn’t hear her, but needing the plan regardless. “Wait,” she broke off. “Where’s Amethyst?”

Where was Amethyst? Steven scanned the empty beach. Nothing but seagulls glaring their hatred for humanity. Then, out the corner of his eye, he saw a tiny figure climbing up the hill overlooking the temple, as fast as her legs could carry her. “There she is!”

“What is she thinking?” Pearl twisted the lanyard around her neck into a knot. “No, wait, of course! The lighthouse! There’s a laser security system built into its lights.” Her eyes lit up with the pleasure of discovery. “Nowhere near as powerful as Rose’s cannons, of course, but we don’t want that, right now, not with the risk of hitting Garnet as well. Good thinking, Amethyst!”

“Go Amethyst, go!” Steven hollered. His heart hammered in his chest. Could she make it in time? The hill stretched before her, tall and growing steeper with every step. “Pearl, can I see?” Wordlessly, she handed him the binoculars.

The wormlons had Garnet cornered near the wrist, closing ranks and circling around her. One of them seemed to lose patience and lunged for her ahead of schedule. Garnet ducked, flipping her over her shoulder and sending her plunging into the sea below. One down. The others kept on coming. Wormlon ooze slicked up the limestone and stained Garnet’s clothing. She took another step back, and Steven saw one of her feet slip out from under her. Her arms windmilled, and she almost, almost managed to right herself, before a faceful of slime send her tumbling over the edge.

“No!” Steven’s scream echoed in his ears. His eyes squeezed shut, and he felt like he was going to throw up.

Something flashed, lighting up the back of his eyelids and for a moment, he thought he saw Garnet suspended in midair. A sheet of crystalline ice spiraled out beneath her falling figure, bearing her up and slowing her fall, like a spun sugar waterslide.

No, wait… Steven blinked a few times, and the figure above resolved into two. “Ruby!” he yelled. “Sapphire!”

“Th-they…” Pearl sat down abruptly, head in her hands, like she was dizzy. “You mean it worked?”

Steven fell over next to her, hugging her. “It worked!”

The tangle of smaller Gems landed right next to them, steaming gently, the ice already beginning to melt. Sapphire looked stunned, her geodesical skirts rucked up and messy. For the first time since he met her, Steven could actually see her feet.

Ruby laughed, pulling her close, breathless and giddy with survival. “Baby, you were great!”

“Saw it coming,” Sapphire replied, attempted smugness ruined by a shaky note in her voice. She clung to Ruby for a moment, before letting her up.

“You’re back!” Steven grabbed Pearl’s hand, dragging her into one big collision of a four-way hug.

“I see your powers are back as well as your forms.” Pearl sighed in relief. “And you’re unhurt? Did the transformation unfuse you, or-?”

“It was the best course of action,” Sapphire replied, while Ruby flexed her arms a few times.

“Never felt better!”

“Never?” Sapphire’s deadpan voice took on a teasing lilt.

Ruby swept her up into her arms, in lieu of an answer, and Steven found himself grinning so hard his jaw hurt, at the laughing starlight tilt-a-whirl of Garnet becoming.

“I’m back!” She tossed Steven up into the air and caught him, light as a feather.

Steven buried his face in her hair, huffing its warm familiarity. “You’re back! Hey, was I right?”

“Mmm. It’s hard to explain.” Garnet shifted him a little in her arms, into a more comfortable position. But yes, you were right. They were always with me, even when I couldn’t sense them.”

“They had front-row seats to you being awesome. Like anybody would give that up!”

“Thank you for believing in us,” Garnet said, so quiet Pearl wouldn’t have been able to overhear.

Steven gave her his best innocent look. “Y’know what else I believe in?”

“No, what?”

“Kazoo Racers!”

Garnet laughed. “Wait till your birthday.”

If she hadn’t been holding him close, Steven would never have noticed the sudden tension in Garnet’s body. Her face showed none of it as she set him down and dropped the wire mesh into his hand. “Thread your fingers through it, like you’re making a Cat’s Cradle,” she said calmly. “Pearl, you won’t want to be standing where you are, ten seconds from now.”

Pearl didn’t hesitate, throwing herself to the side, just in time for the wormlon Garnet had dumped off the platform to emerge the waves, speeding straight for her. No chance to reach for a weapon. It was all Pearl could do to keep dodging.

Cat’s Cradle, Cat’s Cradle… Steven thrust his fingers through the netting, hoping he was doing it right, already bolting toward Pearl as he fumbled with it.

A jolt of electricity lanced through his body, standing his hair on end and pooling like fire in his belly. He stumbled, crashing into Pearl, with the wormlon right on top of them. Come on, I don’t even need a shield for this. I just… The air all around them went pink and solid. Bubble, yesss! The wormlon scrabbled against the bubble’s smooth surface, unable to break through. Direct assault having failed, she wrapped herself around the bubble, trapping it, and began to squeeze.

Garnet launched herself toward them, in a flurry of punches. The wormlon retaliated by hurling the bubble straight at her. Inside it, Steven went tumbling head over heels. Pearl’s elbow jammed into his gut, and he was pretty sure he’d kicked her in the head accidentally. There’d be time for ‘I’m sorry’ later, when they weren’t busy rolling.

He expected Garnet to dodge. Instead, she moved to catch them, even as the force of the projectile knocked her back several feet. “That should do it,” Steven heard her say, right as a bright pink laser pierced the sky in front of them. The wormlon didn’t even get a chance to scream before being reduced to gem shards.

“There you go.” Garnet put them down gently and bubbled the wormlon’s remains. No more item prisons. Never again, Steven thought. “I thought that might give her enough time.”

Pearl was already on her feet, by the time Steven withdrew the barrier. “Well done, Amethyst!” She waved enthusiastically up at the lighthouse. “We should fetch her down at once. I hate to think of her on her own up there, for longer than is absolutely necessary, let alone having to make that climb all over again, in her current body.”

Something caught Steven’s eye, as he handed her the cloaking device. “Pearl, Garnet, look!”

The binoculars still hung from Pearl’s neck, despite the tumble. She peered through them and gasped. One of the wormlons had separated from the milling mass, dangling over the side and stretching herself toward the ground. ...Stretching way, way longer than Steven had thought they could stretch.

“They’re cooperating…” Pearl let go of the binoculars, letting them dangle on their lanyard.

Steven squinted, trying to resolve the image. It was too far away to see if a second wormlon had bitten down on the first’s tail, or if she was holding on by some other means, but hold on she did. One by one, they made a chain out of their own bodies. There may not have been enough of them to reach all the way to the surface of the water, but they wouldn’t need to, would they? Just low enough for a safe drop.

“One, two, three…” Pearl counted under her breath. “At this rate, we’re facing a skirmish with at least half of them.”

“Fifteen, all told,” Garnet said, and no one doubted her estimate.

Chapter Text

“How long do we have?” Pearl asked.

“Not long.” Garnet fired off her gauntlets, one after the other, but both fell way, way short of the mark. “No good,” she said. “I don’t have the range.”

“Maybe Amethyst’s-” Pearl’s words were cut short by the glint of a laser shearing into the cliffside, leaving behind a cloud of rock dust and a gravel cascade. “-aim could use some work,” she finished dejectedly. “Though to be fair, you do need two hands to operate the targeting system.”

So Amethyst was doing the best she could up there. It just wasn’t going to help them as much as they might have hoped. Steven craned his neck, but there was no way he’d see her up there, all alone inside the old lighthouse.

“Time’s up.” Garnet sprang into action seconds before the wormlon formation touched down onto the waves. Their bulk churned up the water. Garnet intercepted one, disabling it with a hard, targeted punch right below its mandibles. Another surprised her from behind, tail whipping tight around her waist and pulling her under. She can breathe in lava, Steven had to remind himself. She can definitely breathe underwater.

A second tier of wormlons separated themselves from the chain and streaked downward, rolling their bodies into hard pinwheels to ease the impact and jetting toward the shore. The water parted in their wake.

“Steven, cover me!” Pearl held out her hand toward him impatiently. Steven dug for the cloaking device in his pocket, frantic, as a trio of wormlons bore down on them. The look on Pearl’s face said ‘come on, hurry up,’ or maybe it was his own mind yelling at him; his own mental foot going tap, tap, tap, against the ragged sound of his breathing. At last, his fingers closed around it. He chucked it at her, then concentrated on summoning his shield. Not bubble, this time. He still felt dizzy from the earlier ride.

A spray of ooze boiled and evaporated against Rose Quartz’s crest. Steven felt rather than saw the burst of energy as Pearl began to transform, clutching his shoulder for support. Her skin flushed, warm hues replaced with a familiar cool iridescence...

The sneak attack caught them both unawares. Pearl staggered mid-transformation, crashing full-weight into Steven’s back. Where did the fourth wormlon come from? How did she manage to get behind them, when Steven had been so sure of his lookout.

Except he hadn’t been looking every second. Summoning the shield still wasn’t easy, eyes squeezed shut in concentration… Not like it mattered anymore. Not with Pearl’s scream ringing in his ears and the cloaking device’s energy suddenly visible, as it swirled and spiraled out of control, battering at her body. Right before Steven’s eyes, her skin turned stormcloud-gray, then pink like his own, then splintered into a rainbow of paint color swatches. Her nose stretched out, then smashed itself flat into her face. She was seven feet tall; no, eight. Taller than Sugilite. She was tiny, shorter than him, all in a matter of moments.

“Pearl? Pearl! Garnet, Amethyst, help!” A wormlon’s mandibles snapped right in front of Steven’s face, its tail knocking him off his feet. “Somebody? Please…”

The swirl of energy around Pearl focused and shrank, then exploded outward, blinding Steven and mashing his face into the sand. The sounds of battle being waged around him tunneled, and he felt like he was falling, even if there was nowhere for him to fall.

***

He must only have been unconscious for a few seconds. Almost everything was the same, when he opened his eyes, except Pearl and the wormlons who’d been attacking the two of them were nowhere in sight, and he realized that the roaring he’d heard wasn’t the rush of air in his ears or the crash of the sea, but an actual roar, full-throated and angry. Lion stood over him, blocking out the light, majestic and slightly rumpled.

Laser beams tore up the beach all around him, missing their target as often as they hit, but when they hit, another wormlon went down. In the water, Steven could see the distinctive shape of Garnet’s afro once again, as she held her own against a swarm of attackers.

To the right of him, something glinted. He almost missed it, amidst all the explosions and laser light shows, but the smooth, familiar polish of it drew his eye. It was Pearl’s gem. Steven threw himself on top of it bodily, curled around it so that nothing else could get in. Only when he realized that he wasn’t under immediate attack anymore did he uncurl, picking up the gem and cradling it against his stomach. It looked slightly cloudier than usual. Steven had no idea what that meant, if anything. At least it was uncracked.

A warning rumble from Lion alerted Steven to someone else’s approach. He looked up to find Heliodor stepping onto their oceanside battlefield, her step more confident than he remembered it being before. This is old hat for her. This is what she’s familiar with. She looked like a woman who’d made all her decisions and was ready to act.

A wormlon sailed overhead, punted by Garnet right into the cliff wall, and at last, Garnet managed to free herself from the melee, racing toward him. “Steven!”

“I’m okay.” He hadn’t even realized he was crying, till he opened his mouth and the tears dripped in, salty and bitter.

“What happened?”

“Pearl was changing back…” He wiped his nose with the back of his hand. “But it got messed up.”

“She lost hold of the device, didn’t she?” Garnet asked, with a grave look.

Steven nodded.

“Where is it now?”

He thought back to before. Before Pearl had gone poof. Before he blacked out, before Lion got here. “Okay, so I was standing over there…” Right around where Heliodor was standing. She looked away when he pointed in her direction, refusing to meet his eye. Instead, she crouched down, like she was looking for something too.

Garnet put an arm around his shoulders. “Stay close to me, and keep Pearl close as well. We’re not out of this yet.” Between the explosion from Pearl’s transformation, Amethyst, Garnet and Lion, only six of Garnet’s predicted fifteen wormlons were left. But that was still a lot, and they were regrouping.

Heliodor stood, triumphant. Sand crusted around her knees and she didn’t bother to brush it off.

“You found it?”

She turned her back to him, very deliberately, but not before Steven saw the mesh in her hands. “Thank you for fixing it,” she said to no one in particular.

“Wait!”

She didn’t.

At first, it looked like her change was going wrong, the way Pearl’s had. Heliodor’s body seemed to almost melt, bathed in uncontrolled energy. Her hair flowed, then stiffened into a halo of yellow spikes. Her shoulders squared off, rising from their slump. But none of it lasted more than a few seconds. Steven watched in horror as she doubled over, face flooded with surprise and pain. Another set of arms burst from her torso, just below the first. Her hands - every set of them, rounded down, disappearing, and she dropped to all fours. Her lips receded, leaving her teeth exposed and long, like a vampire’s, before those, too, yellowed and bent, no longer teeth but an insect’s mandibles. Her legs fused together as she fell, leaving a barbed tail in their wake.

Her eyes were the last to change, drowned out in eerie yellow pupils. The wormlon, slightly smaller than all the others, held herself very still, then shook herself out, as though getting a feel for her legs again, and began to move toward her comrades.

“Heliodor?”

Those alien yellow eyes swivelled toward him, and he could not read the expression in them, no matter how hard he tried.

She was supposed to change back to her Gem self. Not this! This wasn’t supposed to happen! It had all made so much sense, back in that alley, so why didn’t it come true? “Heliodor, it’s me. Steven.”

“She knows it’s you,” Garnet said.

“How do you know?”

“I don’t.”

Well, that made no sense, but Garnet’s attention was already elsewhere. “Give it back,” she told Heliodor, arms crossed over her chest.

Did Heliodor understand what she was asking? Steven wondered. Her body language gave nothing away, right until the second her tail swept toward Garnet, in an attempt to knock her down and out of the way.

Whatever this looked liked to Amethyst, from all the way up in the lighthouse, she must have seen enough. A laser seared the ground, inches from where Heliodor was standing, turning it to glass.

This is fair, Steven thought. Heliodor attacked first. But something kept not sitting right with him. Maybe it was the way Garnet dodged but didn’t engage. Or maybe it was the sound of scuffling paws, the shush of sand being kicked out of the way, the sight of Lion with something in his mouth. “Garnet, she doesn’t have it!” She never had it; must have dropped it immediately, and how could she have held onto it, anyway, without any hands?

Another laser explosion, closer this time, the blast knocking down both Heliodor and Garnet. “Amethyst, that’s not-” But she couldn’t hear him… “Lion!”

Lion’s nose nudged his side before he was done yelling. Steven clambered onto his back. “Come on, we need to find Amethyst.”

Traveling through Lion’s portals always made his head spin. Connie thought they might be rips in spacetime. Steven had no idea. All he knew was, one moment they were on the beach, then Lion leapt, and for a split second, they were hanging upside-down, sideways, backward in mid-air, all of Beach City suspended below them. And then, they were skidding to a stop, right before the lighthouse’s open doors.

“Amethyst, Amethyst!” He nearly fell off Lion’s back in his hurry.

Amethyst sagged over the controls, still winded from her run uphill. “Not now, Steven.”

“You gotta stop shooting!”

Steven didn’t get the chance to explain, and she didn’t get the chance to protest, as Lion scruffed her like the kitten she couldn’t turn into right now, and disappeared. He was back for Steven half a minute later.

“What the frickle-frackle is going on here?” Amethyst lay flopped on the sand, where Lion had put her down. “What happened to Pearl? What’s Raincoat Rosie think she’s doing here?” She paused to suck some air into her lungs. “Why did I bother getting up today? Yeah, that’s the big one.”

Garnet and Heliodor seemed to still be at an impasse. What was interesting was none of the other wormlons had attacked, in the meantime. Heliodor’s own strikes didn’t seem to have much heart or heat in them, and Garnet avoided them easily. Neither of them want to be having this fight at all.

“Garnet, what happens if you just let her go?”

Steven remembered what it felt like, when she’d shared her future vision with him. Whole stories playing out before him, all in the blink of an eye. He knew the way her face stilled, eyes going abstract beneath the visor.

Garnet stepped aside. Heliodor darted past her, like a snake skittering inside its burrow, eager to disappear. Her fellow wormlons surged around her, hiding her from sight, and a cry went up, plaintive and scary and sad, or at least it sounded sad to Steven. A gem shard Garnet must have failed to bubble rose into the air, wobbling and melting back into its original shape. Another rose up out of the water. Had she bubbled any of them?

“Wh-why are we just standing here and watching them?” Amethyst tried to get up, but a look from Garnet and her own exhaustion got the better of her.

More and more wormlons joined that strange formation, till there were sixteen, all told. Then, there was silence. The huddle parted, letting Heliodor pass. She stopped at the edge of the water, then, turning to look back at Steven, she rose to full height and bowed.

“You don’t have to go,” Steven said, but she had already stepped into the surf. The waves buffeted her hide, covering her in green and yellow seaweed, and when the water closed over her head, she just kept going. The others followed her, sticking close.

“What just happened here?” Amethyst asked, right as Steven said, “where are they going?”

“I don’t know,” Garnet said, toneless and tired. “Amethyst, you should change back.” Lion dropped the cloaking device at Amethyst’s feet.

“But… What if she-?”

“Pearl was hurt because her transformation was interrupted.”

Steven clenched his fists. “What about Heliodor?”

“She was unhurt. Everything proceeded just as it would have, otherwise.”

“Whatever.” Amethyst snatched up the wire mesh. “I’m sick of all this how-the-other-half lives bull. ‘sides, P said she fixed it, so she fixed it. So whatever.” She then proceeded to fumble her next several attempts. The mesh wasn’t made for being used one-handed. “...Garnet, little help here?”

Steven noticed the way Garnet held on to her, just a little too tight and brittle, as she wrapped the mesh around Amethyst’s fingers. “There you go.” He swallowed, and swallowed again, and couldn’t look away, until he saw Amethyst standing on the beach, in all her purple glory.

Chapter Text

It took Pearl almost three weeks to regenerate, this time, with several false starts. More than once, Steven thought he saw her gem glow, and the faint silhouette of her form, like a paper ballerina atop a music box, only to wind up grasping at air, as Pearl faded back into her core-most self.

“Is that supposed to happen?” Connie wondered out loud. She’d gotten her parents’ permission to stay over for the weekend, having assured them she’d already done all her homework, with Amethyst promising to come in for a follow-up appointment with Dr. Maheswaran to seal the deal. There’s no way the doctor wasn’t just a teeny bit excited to examine a real live alien. (Emphasis on ‘live;’ she didn’t find Amethyst’s dissection jokes funny at all.)

“I dunno.” Steven dragged his foot through the wet, clumpy sand, then watched a wave erase the groove he’d made. “It’s not how she did it last time. Hey, do you think it’ll help if I put my headphones on her? She likes classical music. I’ve got to have it on my phone, somewhere.”

“We could put her in a tidal pool,” Connie suggested. “...Except then the tide might wash her out to sea.”

“Noooooo.” Steven clutched imaginary Pearl protectively to his chest. “No castaway adventures! She could get captured by pirates.”

“No way. I bet she’d capture the pirates,” Connie said. “She’d have her own crew in no time flat.”

“Does this mean you’d be her second in command?” Steven asked.

“Of course. I’d like to think I’d make a very good trusted lieutenant. You could be the ship’s doctor, because of your healing powers. Lion could be ship’s cat.” A gust of wind blew Connie’s hair straight back into her face. “You know,” she said after a moment, “I’m actually kind of glad I’m not the hero in this story.”

“Huh? But you’re totally heroic!”

Connie ducked her head. “Thanks. I just meant… I’m pretty sure Pearl counts as my mentor, at this point. Not that the hero always having to lose her mentor isn’t a tired old cliche. Dad says it has to do with Western media’s overemphasis on individual accomplishment rather than cooperation. ...I just lost you, didn’t I?”

“No, I think I got it,” Steven said. Ronaldo was a great guy, and he was right about a lot of things (well, except for the sneeple. Maybe.) But the Hero Standing Alone thing didn’t work so hot, in real life.

“Do you think she’ll be okay?” he asked Connie, even though there was no way she’d know.

Amethyst was the one who answered, plopping down next to them. “She’ll be fine. She’s just taking her sweet time powdering her nose and turning you all into spazzy fussbudgets like her. That’s been her cunning plan all along; whiny misery loooooves company.” She fished a Beer’n Bacon Maple Explosion Donut out of her pocket and popped it whole into her mouth.

“So nothing’s changed yet?” Steven asked.

“See for yourself.” Amethyst reached into her pocket again, pulling out Pearl’s gem, complete with a smear of maple frosting and stuck-on lint.

“What if she came back while you had her in your pocket?” Connie took the gem, trying vainly to clean it off with the hem of her skirt.

“Then,” Amethyst said, “it would suit her right. Also I’d need new pants.”

“There you are.” Garnet caught up to Amethyst, scruffing her by the back of her shirt. “And there you are,” she said, taking Pearl’s gem from Connie.

“Did you use Future Vision to figure out Amethyst took her?” Steven asked, chin in hands.

“No,” Garnet said. “She’s just predictable. Is that maple butter?”

“Real maple? No. Cruddy fake maple? Yes. Welcome to Delmarva.” Amethyst turned into a cat and hopped up onto Steven’s shoulder, rubbing her head against his ear. “I can’t wait to hear P complaining about me getting glucose and calcium deposits all over her. Like she’s not a freakin’ calcium deposit.” Amethyst hopped down, giving herself a good shake.

Garnet knelt in the surf, giving the gem a thorough wash. “There.” She deposited it in Steven’s hand.

“I’ll put her back,” Amethyst said, a little guilty, popping back into her usual shape.

Steven didn’t get the chance to wonder about the tiny smile on Garnet’s face, as he passed Pearl’s gem to Amethyst. It glinted and caught in the sunlight, erupting into rays of brilliant white light, and Amethyst suddenly found herself with an armful of Pearl and a faceful of sand as they both fell over.

“Pearl’s back!” For real, this time, and suddenly that dancing feeling flooded his bones again. “Pearl’s back!” He grabbed Connie’s hand, twirling her around.

“I’m…” Pearl blinked up at him. “...horizontal. Why? Put me down,” she told Amethyst.

“You are down,” Amethyst retorted. “Lemme up.”

Garnet draped one of Pearl’s arms over her shoulders, lifting her to her feet. Pearl slumped against her, looking worn out. “There was just too much foreign energy. It was,” she gave a shrill, nervous laugh, “quite an adventure. Is it over now. Please tell me it’s over?” Her outfit hadn’t changed at all. Even the bow of her sash seemed to droop.

“It’s over,” Garnet said, and Pearl let out a desperate, relieved noise, which sounded a lot like crying, even though her eyes were perfectly dry.

“Are we all… back?” Pearl looked down at her hands for the first time, like she’d been afraid to look before.

“See for yourself.” A flap of wings, and a white, purple-gemmed owl landed on Pearl’s shoulder. “Hey, Pearl, imma lay an egg on your head.”

“Oh, don’t you dare!” Pearl swatted at her halfheartedly. “That’s not even biologically possible.”

“You’re breaking my heart here.”

“We don’t have hearts.”

“Harsh, P.”

“Factual evidence cannot harm you. It can only uplift you from your ignorance- Ow!”

Amethyst had nipped her ear. “So, how about a thank you?” Pearl looked confused. “Wormlons, lasers, me saving your stupid lack of a butt? Don’t tell me you’ve got amnesia.”

“My butt is not- You know, I’m not even going to finish that sentence.” Amethyst’s words penetrated at last, and Pearl’s look turned to blue-tinged mortification.

“Oh course I knew what you meant. You…” Pearl’s eyes softened. “You had me worried sick, running up the mountain in that heat, with your body compromised. You could have collapsed, and I wouldn’t have been there to help you!”

“Oh, who cares?” Amethyst tumbled from Pearl’s shoulder, regaining her own shape when she hit the ground. “Look, here’s me. Back in the purple, and I’m so done milking my booboos for sympathy.” She viciously clipped off her words, and turned to go.

“Amethyst, wait!” Pearl stumbled toward her. “I didn’t mean-”

“She said you were awesome.” Okay, so Steven couldn’t remember Pearl’s exact words, but the look on her face when she realized what Amethyst was doing had definitely been admiring. “I think you’re awesome.”

“You think rocks are awesome.”

“Yeah? And you’re a rock!”

“Heh. I guess you’re right. But Pearl’s not you.”

“He’s right,” Pearl said quietly.

“You bet your butt bow he’s right. He’s… Wait, what?”

“You acquitted yourself admirably in that battle,” Pearl said. “You formulated a plan - a good plan - in the middle of an emergency, and you acted without hesitation. You didn’t freeze up.” The way I did. Unspoken, the words still hung in the air.

Amethyst turned around at last, hair in her face, hiding her expression. “Not like it’s a big deal. I just didn’t want to leave G-dawg alone up there. Didn’t matter, anyway. I didn’t make it in time. If not for Garnet being kickass, and Sapphire thinking quickly…” She trailed off.

“You saved Pearl’s life, either way,” Garnet told her.

“For what? So she could go poof and maybe not come back? She did, sure, but that had nothing to do with me.”

“That was my fault.”

It wasn’t until Steven heard Pearl’s cry of “Steven, no,” that he realized he’d spoken out loud.

“I should have bubbled us, when you were changing, or I should have seen that wormlon coming at us. Or both.”

“You messed up,” Garnet said. She was right, and she was just echoing what he’d said himself, but it still hurt coming from her. Maybe because she was right, but mostly because she was Garnet, and the thought of her being disappointed with him was gut-churningly terrible.

“It wasn’t his fault,” Pearl protested. “You didn’t have to say it like that!”

“We all mess up,” Garnet continued. “It’s what you do afterward that matters.”

What did he do afterward? Steven couldn’t even remember, except for the part where he failed to stop Heliodor from reverting to her corrupted form.

“You protected Pearl’s gem,” Garnet said. “You found Amethyst and put an end to the fight. Spectacular recovery, as far as I’m concerned.”

Pearl smiled at him warmly. “I’m sorry to have missed it.”

“Yeah,” Amethyst said. “It was a wild party all right. People gonna be talking about it for years.”

“Heliodor’s gone,” he said. Pearl wouldn’t know. How could she, if nobody told her.

“Our house guest. Oh, Steven, I’m so sorry.” Steven wondered what she imagined happening. Maybe that Heliodor had died to protect him. It’s what Pearl herself would have done, no matter how much he didn’t want her to.

“She turned back, but she couldn’t turn back into a Gem.”

“That’s not true,” Garnet said. “She was always a Gem, whatever she might have said.”

“But there must have been another way.” Steven looked up at Garnet.

“There were several timelines where she stayed human,” Garnet said. “None of them turned out well. As for timelines where she reverted to the Gem she once was: there were none. She was broken, Steven.” So many layers of meaning, in that one word. "As a human, she was simply broken in a way humans sometimes break. No more, but no less."

“I was afraid of that,” Pearl said. “Rose’s healing powers weren’t enough to undo corruption. The transformation was a wild card, but even that was always a long shot.”

“So I didn’t actually help her at all,” Steven said.

Garnet shook her head. “She’s never stood down from a fight before, in all the time I’ve known her. Even when she knew she was outnumbered; when there was no way for her to win. Meeting you, talking with you made her stop and reconsider. She couldn’t reach her soldiers as a human. They wouldn’t understand or recognize her. As a wormlon, she could protect them from us.” A trace of guilt snuck into Garnet’s voice. “And if it meant protecting us, her former enemies, from them, then so be it.” Steven remembered the way Heliodor had tried to talk to the wormlon back at Fish Stew Pizza. Garnet was right. She hadn’t recognized her, and it wasn’t just because Heliodor wasn’t making much sense at that point in time.

“I guess…” Steven shuffled his feet. “I guess she didn’t like us much, even after all that time.”

“She liked you,” Garnet said. “You weren’t an old enemy. You were something new. I don’t know if she really understood what, but either way, she didn’t hold it against you.”

“Hey, Steven…” Connie’d been keeping quiet all this time, ever since the start of Pearl and Amethyst’s fight. Trying to make herself as small and unnoticeable as she could. But now the fight was over, and she spoke up again. “Can I metaphor at you for a bit?”

“Sure!”

Connie glanced over at Amethyst, head cocked as she thought her words through. “Do you remember episode seven of Under the Knife?”

“The one with the hiker?”

“That’s the one. Amethyst’s arm made me think of it.”

Amethyst made a face, windmilling her perfectly healthy arms. “Yeesh, let it go already.”

“Sorry.”

“Eh.” Amethyst shrugged and flopped backwards into Connie’s lap.

“But anyway. Remember how that hiker had been lost long enough for her leg to start healing? Sort of, anyway.” She went into some detail for those not-Steven, who hadn’t seen the show. “It had set all wrong.” Stiff and brittle, and a little crooked. The show’s prosthetics weren’t that great, but Steven’d gotten the jist of it. “Remember how they had to re-break it, before setting it?”

“No?” Steven covered his eyes at the memory. “Too much closeup. Bleh.”

“You get the idea, though. You said,” she pointed to Garnet, “that Heliodor was really set in her ways, right?”

Garnet nodded.

“And it kind of sounds like the wormlons were already getting a little better on their own.”

“I don’t recall them communicating before,” Pearl agreed.

“So maybe their minds are starting to heal, from whatever corruption does. But maybe it’s not really going that fast, or maybe something’s still going wrong with it. And maybe Steven - maybe you - are that second break. Maybe talking to you, and getting to know you, and realizing you’re not a bad person, and changing because of it will mean she heals faster after this. Not as fast as you’d like, but better.”

How long would it take? Steven wondered. Years? Centuries? Centuries were kind of like years, to Gems. Pearl talked about being gone for fifty years like it was just a weekend. Would he even be alive, by the time Heliodor and the others turned back?

The ocean stretched out in front of him, crystal clear and offering no answers whatsoever.

Something warm and soft wrapped around his legs, and Steven bent down to scoop Amethyst-kitty, burying his face in her fur. “You did good,” she said.

“I just wish…” He trailed off, not even sure how to finish.

“I know,” Garnet said. And, after a moment, “Me too.”

Connie reached out to take his free hand, twining her fingers with his. He wanted to say something, and he didn’t, and he didn’t know which words could possibly stand in for all the feelings bubbling up in his chest. “We did okay,” he tried, “even without powers.”

“Mm. Much as that’s not an experience I’d like to repeat anytime soon,” Pearl said. “We managed.”

Under Steven’s shirt, his gem pulsed warmth where his bellybutton used to be. He could feel the soft cotton of his shirt brushing against it; skin and stone each feeling just as much as the other. He’d never thought of it that way, before. Was this what ‘normal’ felt like?

Behind him, Pearl reached over to tuck the tag back into his shirt, her fingers cool on his back. “Let’s go home,” she said, and Steven snuck one more look at the vast stretch of water which held and hid so many old, lost friends, before turning and following the others down the winding path toward the house.