Disclaimer: don't own
He walks the boardwalk day after day, retracing the same steps every time. He does not stop at any of the stores, he does not vary from his path, and he does not stop to talk or campaign.
Every step feels weighted down with iron, thick chains wrapped around his legs.
He avoids eye contact, blocks out voices, and continues to tread the path he took not so long ago, except then he was running, then he was shouting, then the sky was tinged with fire and darkened by smoke, and the apocalypse was right at his doorstep.
Buck had been on his cell phone as they both curled up in the basement, accepting their fate. He spoke in a low murmur, and his father pretended that he couldn't hear the things he said to people he thought he would never see again.
Hell, he would have done the same, if he'd wanted to die with someone's voice in his ears.
His pace quickens. He can hear his shoes pounding into the shoddy wood.
He couldn't keep the people safe. That was his job, but he'd failed horrifically. He's just Bill Dewey now. Resigning was the first thing he did upon being sure that everything was as okay as it was going to be for a long while.
The people move aside, part the crowd, let him be.
They know what it's like to have demons.
He shut his blog down. For real this time. The Sneaple might still be at large, but he now knows that they aren't the real enemy.
He almost deleted it, but PeeDee managed to convince him to keep it up. His little brother thought that he needed that reminder of his naivety, the ability to immerse himself, just for the moment, in simpler times when he fabricated stories and made up creatures and theorized completely whack conspiracies. Now he has seen too much of all of that.
He will not post about the ear-shattering roars, the crashes and yells and explosions. He will not post about the gems, most of them cracked or shattered, that lay submerged in the sand for days as Steven and his family rounded them up, remnants of a war he could not begin to understand.
He did post a picture of the ship, before he knew what it meant, but he took it down in the aftermath. He can only be relieved that his reputation on the Internet as a nutjob desperate for paranormal activity led most people to believe that the grainy photo had been faked, or it might have been all over the Web. He wouldn't have been able to deal with that.
He sometimes thinks back on the first time he shut down KBCW, when Steven told him that all of the strange things he had been recording were because of the Gems. It's laughable, really, that he was disappointed, that he didn't think that Steven's aunts or whatever were supernatural enough. They were far too supernatural, now. Far too powerful.
He'd once loved his town's weirdness, but that very weirdness had brought a war to the beach- a terrible war that left everybody shell-shocked and desperately trying to pick up the pieces.
The first time Ronaldo killed Keep Beach City Weird it was because he'd stopped believing, if only momentarily. Now, it is because he believes too much.
She almost wanted to paint it.
It was beautiful in a horrifying way, the blood in the sand and the destroyed stones and the remnants of the pretty white beach house that were scattered around the Temple.
She knew more about what was happening than some of the others. Amethyst kept her filled in. Amethyst could smell the fight in the air long before it actually began. Amethyst told her, grim-faced, their last visit together before everything went down in flames, to spread her warning, take her family and get as far away from Beach City as she could.
Naturally, she refused.
She believed Amethyst, of course. Amethyst did not joke about that sort of thing, and she was never wrong about that sort of thing. And of course she wanted her boys safe and okay.
But how could she have missed the slight tremor in her friend's voice as she announced that they couldn't hide anymore, that Homeworld was coming for them? How could she have missed how Amethyst's shoulders hunched slightly at the thought of facing off what sounded like a horrifyingly formidable army?
Not to mention that neither of her boys wanted to go. Onion and Sour Cream were close to Steven, in vastly different ways. Onion adored the boy. And as Sour Cream had pronounced firmly, "Steven's just a kid, Mom. A magic kid, but he's still not that much older than Onion. We can't just turn and run when he's facing off against those guys. Not cool."
He was right, completely right. Steven was a child. And as much as the Gems tried to keep him out of things, he would have to fight.
She's glad they stayed, now. Who else would Amethyst have stumbled to, shaking with sobs, carrying the added weight of the Gems she killed? How would Buck and Jenny react if they couldn't come out of hiding straight into the arms of one another, couldn't know immediately that everyone in their tight-knit little group was okay?
But she still wonders, sometimes. She hears Sour Cream blast his music at frightening volumes to block out his crying, watches Onion sit perfectly still for hours on end, staring at the wall, surely replaying the images they all try so hard to repress. She sees her husband's saddened face as he comes home from a day of fishing with armfuls of gems to deliver to Steven that he found bobbing around in the water, and she wonders. She had that forewarning. Not everybody did. Many people probably would have wanted it, people the Gems couldn't get to in time.
Vidalia doesn't regret her choice, but sometimes she wonders how life would be different if they'd left.
She killed a monster once.
She'll never forget it, the rough, coarse fur, slick with rain, slipping through her fingers.
It was muddy too. It splattered her head to toe as she wrestled it. That was the only reason she was able to kill it, looking back. It was muddy in the area they fought. She could see it.
It was terrifying. She had a sharpened stick as her only weapon. She was fueled entirely by adrenaline and rage.
It kept her up at night for weeks afterward. She'd wondered several times, staring up at her ceiling, how the Gems did it. Just one monster had almost been too much for her, and even after she beat it, its low growl and heavy footsteps haunted her nightmares.
How did they do it?
She knows the Gems didn't come out of the battle unscathed, despite the fact that she didn't see any of them for nearly a week afterwards. But they came out alive, and mostly victorious, and they'd been outnumbered so much that it went beyond terrifying.
Now, she does what she always did. She makes donuts, the repetition of her work soothing. But some things will never be the same. Lars comes in when he can, but he was injured badly in the panicked evacuation, and he might never be able to walk again. Customers are few and far between, which is terrible for business, but she doesn't care about business anymore.
The Big Donut is less of a job to her now. It's her way of staying sane. She cares little about the money, about the hours and breaks and tips, all those tiny, insignificant things that she once paid great attention to.
And the biggest difference of all- Steven has not come.
He was a constant there. You could expect him at least four times a week, if not every day, with a huge smile on his face, excited chatter spilling from his lips.
She knows he's alive, and physically okay, but he hasn't dropped in, and who can blame him? The kid just fought a giant Gem war at the age of twelve. He has bigger things on his mind than donuts. He might never eat a donut again and she would still understand.
No matter how much she understands, though, Sadie always keeps a few of his favorite tucked away somewhere, in case today is the day he decides to come.
He's considering shutting down the arcade.
No business in months.
The first thing he did when he returned to the arcade was unplug every single fighting game he could think of. They were too flashy, too many loud noises and explosions for this town, and now everyone knows that war is far from a game.
One of Steven's moms showed up once- the one with the Afro and the sunglasses. She went straight to Meat Beat Mania and started playing hard. It was almost violent, the way she swung those hams.
She got way farther than anybody else ever had, farther than he thought anybody could get. Her arms are a blur.
After she's been playing vigorously for an hour, she slams a maraca into the screen with enough force to send pieces of glass flying, and then she leaves.
He just replaced that game, but he doesn't say anything, merely kneels down and starts sweeping it up.
He really doesn't know why he bothers. Funland Arcade is abandoned. He spends his days sitting behind the counter or wandering the boardwalk aimlessly. Nobody comes anymore, and he honestly isn't sure why he does. He's seen all those things- all that fire, all that fighting- and it's maybe a quarter of what some of the other residents of this small town have. Now that he's seen the big picture, now that he's seen semi-immortal beings die without anyone really caring, why do things like work still matter to him? Why does he still bother to drive into town every morning, to sweep the arcade in the evening before he locks up?
He knows why, though, in the back of his mind. He knows that Funland Arcade is never shutting down.
Harold Smiley knows how much the kids need this, even if they don't. He knows that they need to have fun.
It was hands-down the most terrifying thing he has ever experienced, and he didn't even experience it, not really. But he heard pretty much everything.
He wasn't stupid. He knew that there were things he shouldn't interfere with. If he attempted to fight with the Gems, it would end disastrously. One of them might even get injured because of him. He would just slow them down.
But it was still hard. He buried himself in his storage shed, threw himself into measly organization, remembering how he came upon each object, anything to keep him occupied. He could still hear so much, and he eventually just abandoned it all and sat in the middle of his junk towers, head in his hands, shaking.
Steven would be okay. He was advancing so well in his training, Pearl said so. But a dad worries, especially when his son is fighting battles he can't even begin to comprehend.
Now, he stays close to Steven. It's a miracle that both he and Connie made it out okay, and to his surprise the Gems don't protest to him hanging around.
Steven seems to also like the keeping-occupied-so-you-can't-think-about-Gem-wars mindset, and together they make amazing progress in rebuilding the house. The Gems help too, but they have other jobs.
The pair of them don't talk so much anymore, and he understands. Anything else they try to talk about seems empty, useless, filler. Talking about that brings awful memories to the surface. Steven just needs him to be there, and he can do that. He can be there for his son.
They sit on the beach mostly, and watch the waves, in and out, unaffected by the enormous battle that took place here not so long ago.
Tomorrow, he'll suggest going to the Big Donut for breakfast, because Greg Universe has always been one for moving forward.
Pearl didn't want her to fight.
She didn't want Steven to fight either, because when it came down to it, they were kids. They might be good fighters. They might have been training for so long, they might have worked so hard, but they were still kids.
They had to sneak in, and do it in a clever way so the Gems wouldn't get distracted while fighting.
The rest is a blur to her. She killed Gems, slamming her sword into them so hard they shatter, making a sickening noise that she will never forget as long as she lives. She ran and dodged, thrusted, parried, improvised, and fought by Steven's side the whole way.
Now, her parents don't look at her much. She can kinda understand that. She's become someone new, a preteen fighting in horrible wars, and they may not even recognize the girl she's become.
The daughter they knew is still there, though. Buried underneath that newfound courage, those months of training, the years she aged in just a couple of nights, that shy, awkward, bookish girl is there. She'll never leave, most likely. They'll always be one and the same.
Steven's really different, but maybe not any more different than she is. Maybe the change in herself just seemed so logical and clear to her, and Steven's seemed so sudden. But war changed people. She always knew that, she'd just never thought that she'd experience it firsthand.
Pearl said that they were a big help, that they fought really well, that they may have even turned the tide of the battle. It was glowing praise, especially considering how much she'd despised the idea of them fighting in the first place. She wasn't entirely sure that she believed her mentor, but Steven did and she'd take what she could get.
Steven sits next to her on the cliff. They have good memories of this cliff. The picnic, just a little over a year ago, where Steven discovered his healing powers. The time that they were playing a game and Ronaldo Fryman came running out of the lighthouse, yelling at them to stay away from his "office." Will they ever share that kind of memory again? Did they give up their childhood completely? She wishes she could answer that.
Steven's quiet, encased in his own thoughts. Is he remembering those times, too? Should she be worried?
When he finally speaks, his voice is low and he sounds like he's about to cry. "If you don't want to be friends anymore, I'd understand."
She gapes at him. He can't possibly be saying what she thinks he's saying.
He continues, staring down at his shoes. "I mean, it was fun and all, but you just had to fight in a war because you're friends with me. And I know you're not okay, not really. It changed you. And it's all my fault."
He is! He really is! She's torn between yelling at him and laughing, but thankfully she doesn't do either.
"Steven," she says, taking his hands. They're so soft, so smooth. Those hands did unspeakable things. So did hers. They are now tainted with memory. "If I wanted out, I would have left long ago."
His words come out all in a rush. "But now we've had to fight and you saw some really awful things and you might've gotten really hurt, you might've gotten killed, and you could've avoided the whole thing if we weren't friends!"
"Steven," she says again, hoping her voice conveys her urgency. "I love being friends with you. And yes, being a part of all this Gem stuff may have changed me for the worse, but it changed me for the better, too. If I wasn't mixed up in all this, I would've still been shy and I wouldn't have been comfortable with showing people who I really am, and I wouldn't have any friends. I may not love fighting," and here she grabs his face, needing him to hear this, needing him to understand, "but I do love fighting with you."
He stares at her for a moment, and then gives a tiny smile, the first she's seen in a long time. "You really mean it?"
"Every word," she says firmly.
He's got a real smile now, a big one. "I saw a book," he says finally, and she starts, surprised at the change of subject, "the other day, and I think you would really like it. I think I might like it too."
"I can't wait to read it," she says. "We can read it together, and discuss it to death."
"It doesn't have magic," he says.
"That's okay," she says. "I think I've had enough magic for a while. And my mom said I should try out other genres."
"It'll be just like old times," he says, and she nods.
They've changed a lot, both of them, because war does that to people. They'll probably never be the same again. But as she discusses books with her best friend in the whole world, Connie Maheswaren decides that things are going to be okay again. It just might take a little while.
Review, please! Feedback is always appreciated.