You've known Connie Maheswaran for as long as you can remember. You remember when you were in first grade and she was the first to read but always the last to volunteer for it. She's a quiet girl, shy and nerdy. You don't really remember if she ever had friends. You can't say you really care.
You don't see her that often. She tends to fade in and out. You asked her once where she went for semesters at a time. She peered at you through thick glasses and mumbled something about moving a lot. That's the only time you think you've spoken to her face to face. Or heard her speak at all. She always knows the answer when the teacher calls on her, but she never raises her hand.
You've snuck glances at her test scores here and there. You've never once seen her get less than a perfect score, but she doesn't brag about it the way some people do. Once she gets into the Unfamiliar Familiar series, you never see her face again. If it's not buried in a textbook, it's buried in one of her novels.
You reach middle school and most of your friends start trying out new hairstyles or new fashions. Most of the girls start wearing lip gloss at the least. A few even wear eyeshadow every day. You can't figure out why they go to all the effort. Connie doesn't change. She never does. You never really noticed her before, but she sticks out like a sore thumb now. It seems like she's a fixed point. The rest of the planet may surge forward into a brave new world, but Connie still lives in a world where people like classical music and use flip phones. You almost pity her.
Sometimes, you invite her to eat lunch with you and your friends. Connie eats lunch alone most days, but she doesn't look up from her books so you don't think she minds. Still, you're kinda curious. You've known her since first grade and still you don't know her at all. So, every so often, you ask. She eyes the large, rowdy group with distaste and politely declines. Every single time.
Other times, you ask her to hang out with you after school. You aren't sure why; it's not like the two of you have anything in common. You have no idea what you would do together. But you never have to figure it out. Every time you ask, she tells you that she has to go home with a tutor. Between her piano tutor, her violin tutor, her tennis coach, and God knows how many more you can't keep track of, it seems like she doesn't have a minute of free time. You know it's a mean thing to say, but you don't care enough about her to try to schedule around, like, seven zillion tutors. She's not a bad person, but if she really wanted to be your friend, you'd think she would try a little harder.
Eventually you give up and Connie Maheswaran fades into the background. You're busy with middle school. New friends, new teachers, new crushes. You don't really think about her.
At least not until seventh grade.
The first day of seventh grade, your mom drops you off early. She says she won't be able to pick you up until way late because her boss needs her at work. Your house is too far away from the school for a bus to take you home. Since you know none of your friends will be here for a while, you go up to your homeroom class.
The only people there before you are the teacher and an Indian girl who looks vaguely familiar who is texting with a smile on her face. She's wearing a blue outfit with a red sash and her hair is in one long braid. Before you can go and introduce yourself, your best friends texts you and you put the new girl out of your mind.
Nearly forty-five minutes later (there had been some difficulty finding the roster), Ms. Phillips finally calls the roll. You crane your neck trying to match faces to names as the names are called. There's the usual mix of people calling out "here" loudly and quietly and everything in between with the occasional "present" thrown in for flavor.
The new girl looks up, tucking her phone into her bag, when Ms. Phillips reaches the Ls.
"Connie Ma-" Ms. Phillips calls. "Connie Mahes-" She stops. "Miss Connie?"
"Maheswaran," the new girl says and you barely keep your jaw from dropping in shock. "Connie Maheswaran, ma'am." Ms. Phillips nods and marks her name down, ignoring your existential crisis. You know big changes start happening in middle school, but you wonder what could have brought Connie out of her shell. You'd thought she was shell all the way through. You try to keep from staring at Connie, but your eyes drift back to her for the rest of the period.
The bell rings and you go to your next class. It's math and your sheer hatred drives any thoughts of Connie from your head. You look for her during lunch and stop her up a tree, perched in a branch that's way higher than you would ever dare to climb, chattering away on her phone. You can't hear her voice, but you've never known her to talk this much before. Not wanting to be creepy, you go back to your lunch, but now you're getting curious.
You don't see her again until the end of the day. Every single one of your friends except you takes the bus and you're left alone for another few hours until your mom can pick you up. You see Connie sitting on the front steps of the school, what little homework she's been given on the first day spread open on her knees. You have no one else to talk to and she's the only one here you sorta know, so you go over to her.
She looks up when your shadow falls on her.
"Hey man, what's up?" she asks.
You shrug. "Not much," you say. "All my friends take the bus and my mom won't be here for a while, so d'you wanna chat, I guess?"
She raises an eyebrow at you. "You're only talking to me because everyone else is gone? Nice."
You cringe but she laughs. "I guess we can talk until my ride gets here," she offers, scooting over to make room for you.
"Thanks," you say and you mean it. "So, uh, how was your summer?"
Connie grins. You've never seen her grin before. "It was awesome! Like, I can't even begin to describe how spectacular it was."
She opens her mouth to keep going but your phone goes off before she can say anything. You read the text and groan.
"What is it?" she asks.
"Mom's work got really busy," you say. "She won't be able to pick me up until six."
"That sucks," Connie says fervently. Then, "Hey, where do you live?"
You tell her.
"That's great," she says. "I live really close. I'll see if you can come with me and I can get my parents to drop you off at your place after my lesson. It's only, like, an hour and you would get home a lot sooner."
You text your mom and ask her. She's cool with it. Apparently, she has a healthy respect for Connie's mom. That's saying a lot. Your mom's a nurse and everyone knows that nurses know more than doctors.
"So here's the plan," Connie says. "You come with me to my lesson and then after that, my parents will take you home."
"Okay, cool," you say. "What kind of lesson is it?"
Connie grins and doesn't answer. "What do you think of seventh grade so far?" she asks.
You tell her all about your classes and teachers and how you're sure Ryan in your third period does weed. She tells you that Ryan is in her fifth period and he offered her some.
"Did you take it?" you whisper, glancing over your shoulder to make sure no teachers are around.
She shakes her head. "Of course not. If he wants to get high, that's his business, but I'm not doing it. I need to be alert for my lesson."
There's that mysterious lesson again.
Before you can ask about it, a beaten down old van with the words "Mr. Universe" painted on the side rounds the corner.
"There's our ride," Connie says, stuffing her books back in her bag. You give the can a dubious look, but you follow her. Being kidnapped would at least be more interesting than sitting at school for hours and hours with nothing to do.
As it turns out, the Mr. Universe who owns the van isn't a kidnapper, just some random guy. He doesn't seem like a tutor either. He mentions that he offers guitar lessons when you bring it up. You seriously consider his offer. You've always wanted to learn how to play guitar.
You don't really recognize where you're going until you get to Beach City. You haven't been to Beach City since you were a little kid, but it's a pretty unforgettable place. The last time you were at the Funland Arcade, it was attacked by some sort of weird crab thing. That's why you haven't been back. Your parents are worried that it's too dangerous or something. Honestly, you think they're just trying to ruin your fun. The crab thing didn't even hurt anyone except that weird purple kid but the lady with the square hair said she would be fine.
Mr. Universe drops you and Connie off at the carwash and goes inside.
"Come on," Connie says. "I don't wanna be late."
You follow her up the boardwalk (Frybo seems to be gone, thank God) and towards the huge cliff on the beach.
"Wait," you say. "I thought this was private property." You've always wanted to know what was over here, if for no other reason than you aren't allowed to, but caution has always won out over curiousity.
"Oh, it is," Connie laughs. "But this is where my tutor lives."
She leads you around the bluff and you have to stop to gape. "Woah," you say.
Jutting out of the bluff is a massive stone statue. It's the biggest statue you've ever seen, heard of, even. It's carved in the image of a woman with a gigantic gem in her chest and a mask looking out over the sea. Or maybe the mask is scanning the sky for threats and it's her face that guards the sea. Either way, she feels alive in a way that should be impossible for stone. You want to write it off as an overactive imagination, but you don't dare. The statue is imperfect, parts of her arms broken off and her body covered in moss and vines. Two of her hands cradle a house and it's only when your brain registers this that you finally realize how utterly, impossibly huge the statue really is.
Connie grabs you by the hand and tugs you forward. As you follow, you hope the house is a normal sized one and the statue doesn't turn out to be large enough to hold a mansion. To your relief, the house is pretty small.
Connie lets herself in. She doesn't have a key, but the door is unlocked. For a moment, you think that's dangerous, but then you remember that no one knows this house exists or even that this massive statue does. Suddenly you wonder if someone's gonna kill you to make sure you don't tell anyone, but whoever lives here hasn't killed Connie yet.
The house is empty and all the lights are off. It one room, but there's separate areas for a kitchen, living room, and bedroom upstairs. There's also a strange geometric pad in the back room and a completely smooth door with a star emblem on its surface.
"So, uh, where's your teacher?" you ask.
"She'll be out in a minute," Connie says, rooting around in the fridge like she owns the place. Maybe she does. It's not like you know enough about Connie to say for sure that she doesn't. "She likes to try to catch me off guard." She tosses you a juice box and you barely manage to catch it. She gives you an apologetic look. "You might wanna wait up in Steven's room," she says, getting herself a juice box. "Just in case."
You go up to Steven's room, whoever Steven is, and sit down on the rumpled bed. Connie hops up onto the counter and grabs at something on top of the fridge. It's too far away for you to make out what it is until she finally gets ahold of it.
It's a sword. A real one. Not like one of the foam ones you can buy for like twenty bucks. A real live sword.
You have maybe thirty seconds to wonder why Connie has a sword before the door with the star opens and a tall, slim figure comes out, bearing a sword of her own. The stranger attacks, swift and silent. Connie ducks under the first blow and parries the second, swinging from the counter to the ground to slash at the stranger's legs. The stranger dances backwards and, in one fluid motion, brings her sword down at Connie's shoulder. Connie parries again, locking their blades, and grabs the handle of a cabinet to swing herself over the counter into the living room. The stranger leaps over the counter, pinning Connie between her and the counter, but Connie slips under her legs to attack her from behind.
"That's enough," a new voice snaps.
You wrench your eyes away from Connie and her opponent to see the square haired lady from the boardwalk. She stalks over to them and pulls the sword out of Connie's opponent's hands, throwing it with perfect aim back through the open door. The door closes behind her, sealing like it had never been opened.
"I told you not to spar without supervision." The lady's expression is nearly impossible to read behind her shades, but she's definitely not happy.
"Garnet," Connie's opponent pleads, "Connie is more than capable of handling herself in a combat situation."
"And you've proven yourself less than capable of determining that, Pearl," Garnet snaps.
Pearl blushes pale blue and drops the sword. "My apologies," she says stiffly.
Garnet sighs. "Just be more careful," she says, placing a hand on Pearl's shoulder. "I don't want a repeat of-" She stops. "Well, you know."
Pearl nods. "I will. I promise."
They stare at each other and you want to look away. It feels like you're intruding on something private. It's not as awkward as that time in fifth grade when you had that really bad nightmare and snuck into your parents' bedroom at the worst possible time, but it's close.
"Where's Steven?" Connie asks. She doesn't seem nearly as bothered by the situation as you are, which is a dynamic you never would have thought possible before today.
"He and Amethyst went to the Big Donut," Garnet says. You assume Amethyst is the weird purple kid. That seems like a reasonable guess, for whatever value of reasonable is left in this bizarre world you stumbled into.
"When will they be back?" Connie asks. "I was thinking of borrowing Lion to bring my friend here home." She points her thumb in your direction and you freeze when Pearl and Garnet look at you. You don't need to see the strange rock in Pearl's forehead to know something is going on here. They're definitely not human and their gaze is honestly terrifying.
"Lion's out," Garnet says, not breaking what you think is eye contact with you. "He'll show up when he shows up."
"And you don't know when that'll be? Seriously?" Connie asks incredulously. She sits on the countertop and swings her feet in the air. Her sword rests beside her. It looks natural in her hand, like it's meant to be there. It looks more a part of her than even that one lucky pencil of hers that she always had when she aced every single test she ever took.
"I don't know everything," Garnet says. "Just most things." She looks at you even closer, although she still doesn't move from where she's standing, and nods to herself. "Come along. I'll take you home."
You don't dare disobey her and fall into step behind her.
"Bye!" Connie calls after you. "See you at school tomorrow!"
"Yeah, see you soon!" you yell back, waving to her. You really are eager to see her again. Before today, talking to her had always seemed like a charity, like you were helping out someone who needed a companion and you were just moral enough to stoop down to her level, even if you didn't really want to.
Now you realize how ridiculous you were being. Clearly, there's something to Connie that weird warrior alien women found cool enough to train into something even awesomer. And now that you've had a proper conversation, it's not hard to see what. She's intelligent, driven, dedicated, kind, compassionate, and brave.
When you think about it, you realize that you already know most of this. Or, at least, you should have known. You make a mental note to talk to Connie later, get to know her better. Maybe you could even be her friend.
It occurs to you that you've never seen her happier than when she has a sword in her hand.
Suddenly, you're outside your house. You don't really know how you got there, but Garnet is already leaving and you're too scared to ask. It's only three-thirty, so you have two and a half hours to yourself before your mom gets home.
You go to the front door, turn the handle, and say a word you pray your mom never finds out you said.
When your mother comes home two and a half hours later, she finds you sitting on the front porch with your nearly dead phone in your hands.
"Mom?" you asks.
"Yes, sweetie," she says.
"Never let me leave the house without my keys again."