1. Lingering Thoughts

Steven lies down in the soft sand, looking up at a blue sky. It's a true blue, elegant as it stretches for miles, disrupted only by regal, puffy white clouds. The way these creations of nature, cotton in appearance, massive in size, but ecologically natural to the order of Earth, is awe-inspiring. The way each cloud folds in on themselves, embodying textures and patterns of all shapes and sizes, and the way they danced through the sunlight and cast shadows on the ground made Steven feel small.

It was, by all standards, a beautiful day.

Peaceful. Beach City resonated with the soft sighs of the wind along the water, an occasional giggle from the boardwalk carried down to the sea. Seagulls could be heard in an impromptu song all along the coast, harmonizing with the swish of the waves as they came up just to reach the young boy's toes. In spite of the beauty of it all, Steven was finding it very hard not to cry.

The clouds reminded him of his Temple room, of the time he spent in there with Connie while they remade the ending of Unfamiliar Familiar, of Amethyst eating a cloud and dealing with the hilarious consequences, of Pearl's training on the top of the Sky Arena, and when Garnet caught him as he fell from jumping after Blue Diamond's ship. He smiled in spite of himself, those memories floating to the surface, reminding him of all he had to lose. His fingers tingled as he continued to gaze up, flooded by the memories, remembering the last time he entered his Temple room, how he so gently but with a twinge of desperation, tried to hold onto his mother the night he returned from the zoo…

It always came back to the zoo, these days. Steven had lived through a fair amount of troubling, even traumatic, experiences at this point in his short life, but there was something especially haunting about the time he spent at the Human Zoo. Being separated from the Gems, the bizarre outfits, the commanding earrings that were somehow gentle and demanding at the same time, the apathy of the humans themselves, unconcerned with their entrapment, his Dad's complacency with it all, the terror he felt when he was surrounded by at least hundreds of bubbled Rose Quartz, the mourning of Yellow and Blue Diamond… It was all too much.

He released a sigh. A nice, deep breath, trying to release his frustration out onto the winds. The world outside continued on its peaceful trance, unaware of the monstrosities of the universe that care so little about their lives. If the air from Steven's lungs released any of the turmoil bubbling in his chest, the world gave little notice.

Steven shifted in the sand, leaning up onto his elbows and gazing outwards towards the sea. He tried to focus on the things he could feel around him, distancing himself from the nagging in the back of his mind. The sand protested slightly as he shifted his weight, turning from soft to gritty as his elbows dug into the ground. Steven decided that of all the things he loved about Beach City, it was days like these that he loved least.

Connie was spending the day with her mother, doing some sort of family errand. The Gems weren't out from their Temple rooms when he woke up this morning. He thought about going to see his Dad, but he's felt a little awkward around him since the day Stevonnie fell from the Sky Arena.

Now that he was trying to be more… transparent with what bothered him, he felt he wanted to talk to his Dad about everything whenever he saw him, to the point where it was overwhelming. The whole thought of spilling his heart out over a pizza or while his Dad tried to make music just felt… wrong. Sometimes he wanted to cry to his Dad, sometimes he wanted to yell – do you really not know about Mom's past? Are you just trying to protect me? Why were you so okay with the zoo? Part of you seemed like you… wanted to stay. Did you know Blue Diamond was mourning someone Mom murdered when you approached her? Did you notice all of the Rose Quartz bubbled in that room? What do you think it means?

Most of the time Steven just ended up sitting silently, watching his Dad and responding half-heartedly, not wanting to cause his Dad anymore trouble. After everything that happened at the zoo…

Steven took a deep breath. He really needed to stop thinking about the zoo. He couldn't wait forever for the Gems to show up, and sitting here only made his stomach squirm uncomfortably. Just as he prepared to brush himself off and head back to the Temple, Steven jumped and rolled awkwardly onto his side as he heard footsteps quickly approach. A thud, followed by some giggles. He held his breath and turned around, wondering who (or what) gave rise to these sounds.

His heart swelled with feeling when he saw a familiar straw hat and brown hair – it was Connie. The tightness in his chest relaxed and he was about to get up to greet her, but he stopped when the girl turned to face him fully. It was just another girl, maybe a year or two younger than Connie, wearing a similar hat, but had light skin and sunglasses. It was not Connie, just a stranger, another human walking through the sand that gave the town its' namesake. Steven looked down in front of him and noticed a Frisbee while the girl approach. She looked at Steven somewhat quizzically and expectantly.

Oh. She probably wants me to throw it back to her.

Steven complied, giving her a smile and a small laugh as he tossed back the plastic toy. She shouted "thank you," and returned to her friend a little way down the beach. Steven watched her turn and run back, as she called to her friend, "Now this time, I mean business!"

Steven's heart sank at the words. He remembered not long ago he heard those same words on this same beach in the company of someone he thought could be another friend. Bismuth, her graceful rainbow of hair that so contrasted her rough and determined outlook. Steven shuddered when he thought of the orange hue that had tinted her hair, her eyes, her gem the last time he saw her. The way the tear fell from her cheek… If only she had listened to him. He had only wanted her to listen! But she couldn't move past the idea that he was Mom. That he was Rose Quartz.

As soon as the thought bubbled to the surface, another voice sounded deep in his memories. The mocking anger of Eyeball Ruby swelled in his thoughts uncomfortably as he buried his head in his hands, fighting back tears.

You're despicable! We're gonna die out here, and you're just gonna… make fun of me until we do!

You're even crueler than Rose Quartz.

At this point, Steven laid back down on the sand again, trying to relieve tension by focusing on the feeling of the sand and its softness on his skin with his hands resting on his eyes. He pushed the palms of his hands gently onto his shut lids, trying to massage out the tension.

Garnet's mindfulness techniques had certainly helped stablize, so much that whenever he embodied one half of the fusion he could feel their focus and technique improving with each training. Now, Steven was trying to transfer those lessons over to his individual consciousness, trying to make sure he was ready to tackle his demons alone, if he ever needed to be.

Breath in. Breath out. Listen to the waves. Let the thoughts pass you by…

Steven sat there for what felt like a long time, eventually removing his hands from his face and resting one on his stomach and another on his gem, and looked back up at the clouds. He left his phone in the house so he couldn't check the time, but he found he didn't really want to. The meditation was… helping? He at least wanted it to. He felt like he wasn't crying as much these days, or when he did, it wasn't as intensely. He listened to the giggles carry down from the Boardwalk to the water, and he managed a smile.

Steven tried to prepare himself for whatever was coming. Forgiveness, compassion, independence, flexibility, love and trust, he felt ready to move. Maybe not move on, but at least move. Any direction was an improvement than feeling trapped.

He knew the next phase in this intergalactic game of chess was on Homeworld, and he sat up and looked out at nothing in particular. A soft hum of a melody floated through his mind, remembering that Pearl taught him to be strong in the real way. He thought of Smoky Quartz, and how he and Amethyst had overcome so much of their own self-doubt by working together. He thought of Connie, and Dad, and Lapis and Peridot, and Uncle Andy, and the Earth. Steven even thought of Rose Quartz. By releasing all of these swirling feelings into another shuddery breath, Steven stood up and turned towards the Temple. He felt a small flow of tears slide down his cheek, but he didn't brush it off. Steven wanted to feel these feelings, so he could let them go. He began to walk, and then found himself running, towards the steps of the Temple. He finally felt like he was ready for whatever Homeworld had in store.

He wasn't.