*pretends I haven't been gone for months*
*drops this in your lap and runs away*
Amethyst and Blue Pearl walked in silence for a long time - at least, what felt like a long time - and their variant comfort with the quiet was palpable. The former started to speak, only managing to get a few syllables in before her confidence would falter. It might be the sound of traffic passing on the other side of the trees that made her stop, or the tiny turn of Blue Pearl's head in her direction, or the simple anxiety of needing to know something she didn't want to know at all. Whatever the case, the small gem's voice would catch and she would swallow the lump that formed, along with the impulse to drop the whole thing altogether.
Blue Pearl, comparatively, had no trouble remaining quiet. It was one of the few things she could practice anywhere, anytime, in company or in private. It mattered not if her Diamond was still alive, on a different planet, or if she was crushed to shards. Blue was confident that, if nothing else in the universe was right, she could at least count on the silence.
That was the interesting thing about the concept of "zero," or the void, or null in Homeworld operation systems. Silence wasn't exactly anything, it was the absence of any thing. Blue found the thought oddly comforting. A familiar concept of absence made the hole in her chest ache a little less.
So they walked, and stepped through leaves, and trudged up hills, and sloped down valleys. And then they walked some more.
It must have been miles by the time Amethyst had finally found her voice, something she had never really struggled with before.
"So… listen," she coughed unnecessarily, finally stopping when they reached the coast. Her best guess placed them maybe five miles south of Beach City, and if she had cared enough she probably could have guided them a bit better, but the purple gem had a lot on her mind. Here, they were in what remained of Ocean Town, although no one really called this place by that name anymore.
She dropped back into the sand, soft and undisturbed by humans on their small stretch of beach.
"I have some questions, but like, I don't really know how to start this. Any of it." Amethyst's face was half-covered by her long bangs, and noticed with amusement that so was Blue's. She patted the ground next to her and smirked.
Blue eyed the spot with pause before lowering herself into the gritty substance, careful not to press her skirt.
"So... " Amethyst started again, voice a little lower. Blue simply watched the sea, waiting, quiet.
Gritting her teeth, the smaller gem pressed her knuckles into her purple knees, exposed against the tears in her clothing. "I want you to tell me what happened on Homeworld."
Blue's lips flattened slightly, and Amethyst didn't notice the small change. When the gem beside her continued to say nothing, the purple gem let out a little huff of annoyance.
"Listen, okay? I get it. You're a Pearl. All pretty and perfect all the time. But can you drop it for like, five minutes? I need some real-talk. I want to know what happened to Steven."
Now, Blue's brow drew closer together, causing the lines of her face to crease into a slightly addled mask. It wasn't clear to Amethyst what exactly the Homeworld gem could be thinking, but at least there was some sort of visible recognition this time.
After a serious pause, Blue gave a solitary nod and looked at Amethyst properly. "I… am not like White." Amethyst made a face, knowing she was referring to their Pearl. She didn't care for the reminder of Pearl's past, but did not interrupt.
"I can't, um, 'drop it.' That would be… as if I asked you to stop being... mercurial."
Amethyst had no idea what that meant, so she brushed it off in favor of getting to the point.
"Okay, whatever, I just need you to be honest with me. Can you do that?"
Blue pursed her lips and said nothing, so Amethyst started again, voice seathing with her tumultuous emotions.
"Okay. Okay, um," she let out a breath. "You were there, when… when Holly Blue fused with Steven the first time, weren't you? That's what Garnet said. It would be - or, er, it happened - in front of Blue Diamond."
A flash of disgust flitted across the gem's face, but she remained wordless; Amethyst took that as confirmation.
"I need to know what happened," she said, almost spiting the words at her feet. There was rage and confusion buried in the statement, transparent enough that Blue actually flinched away. Quartz soldiers were unpredictable, often violent, and Blue did not want to be on the receiving end of her anger.
So quietly, unsure if the word was imagined or not, Blue thought she heard Amethyst stifle a cry.
"I can tell you," Blue answered with a strained frown, glancing at the smaller gem seated beside her. "But, it's not going to be a happy story."
"I need to know," the purple gem said with a raised hand. "Just, tell me, from the beginning. Okay?"
Nodding solemnly, the lithe gem and began to play with the sand between her fingers, drawing small patterns in the shape of memories, time recanting the days since this all began.
"It was my Diamond's idea. Fusion. A sort of control." Indigo eyes glanced at the speaker, but her eyes were ever-hidden by the waves of pale tresses that danced around her cheeks.
"The first time, ah, Garnet," she lingered on the name, and Amethyst noted the curl of her lip. "...formed, was when the idea was really born. It was millenia ago now, but the revolt of a Ruby, and particularly a Sapphire, so defiantly in front of Blue Diamond was a… a sort of insult one could only imagine."
Amethyst waited patiently while the Homeworld gem gathered her thoughts, watching the shapes come to life by her fingers. A distinct image of the two halves of Garnet materialized in the sand, but in lieu of fusion, she raked her fingers across the portrait with something like anger.
"You have requested my honesty, so I will say, I do not think the Diamonds ever expected to use such a tactic in the way they had… with Steven." Blue grimaced, adjusting in the sand as she recalled the first appearance of terrifying, disproportionate and deadly fusion, framed by the soft cerulean light of the doorway to the Judgement Chamber.
Their terrible cries of pain were still too fresh, too real, coupled with the knowledge of the kindness Steven had done for her. It made Blue shudder to think of; she owed the boy her life, and he suffered in ways untenable to those who didn't see it - who didn't hear it…
To her left, Amethyst cleared her throat and brought her back to the present.
"Umm... " She brought a hand to her chin. "Fusions. They motivated the creation of The Cluster. Forcing rebels to fuse, in the irony that it was their desire for freedom that got them there. At the time, the Diamonds had only ever imagined fusing... shards."
Amethyst's eyes darkened, and she studied the patterns in the sand as Blue Pearl traced her fingers carefully across them. It reminded her of one of those mini zen gardens Vidalia used to have. She even half-smiled at the memory, recalling the comforting feeling of flattening and rearranging the sand that Vidalia said it was supposed to inspire.
Her silence acted as an invitation for Blue to continue.
A bit more quietly, she went spoke through tight lips. "Things never should have been that way, but it is… it was," she corrected with a grimace, trying to chisel away the denial from her icebox heart. Blue Diamond was dead now. Is doesn't apply in the same way anymore. "It was egregious to imagine such fusion, but Yellow… Yellow Diamond was a dark influence on her."
The moment the words fell from her tongue, Blue gasped and her hands flew to her lips. Amethyst jumped at the sudden movement and turned to face her properly.
"Whoa, what's up?" The purple gem leaned back slightly, unsure if she should offer comfort to the standoffish Homeworld loyalist. Would a comforting hand on the shoulder seem like an assault? She wasn't sure, so Amethyst opted to just hover beside her.
Chewing her bottom lip, Blue folded her hands in lap, flushing navy beneath her hair. The Earth had loosened her lips, and she nearly insulted a Diamond. The sand seemed that much more uneven and uncomfortable, and the atmosphere than much more oppressive and heavy against her needless throat.
Blue lowered her head in attempt to hide her embarrassment. "N-nevermind. Let's continue. You wanted to know what happened… starting from when they fused?"
Amethyst raised a brow skeptically at the gem's sudden flustery behavior, but felt she didn't know her enough to make heads-or-tails of the change. With a shrug, she nodded.
"Um, yeah. Anything that you feel like was important… starting from around then."
"I understand. Holly Blue Agate was ordered to retrieve Steven from his cell. At the time, the judgement from the Diamonds on the hybrid - he - was unclear. It was unbelievable. How could a human creature and a gem…? The thought was more sickening to our people than the possibility of fusion."
The story unfolded much the way Amethyst predicted it would from the bits of information she had been able to gleam from Garnet's cryptic visions, Pearl's dream, Holly Blue's beratement on Homeworld, and Steven's own teary confession on the first night of his arrival.
Closing her eyes, Amethyst listened patiently while Blue found her narrative stride. The small gem held her breath the entire way, in part as not to interrupt, but mostly to give the small gem something tangible to focus on beside her clenching teeth and deepening brow.
Amethyst didn't need to breathe, so it was, at best, merely uncomfortable. Like stretching herself a little too thin for too long, and right now, choosing to forgo air felt like a small bit of universal justice. Oxygen was a luxury she didn't deserve, for all that had happened, for all that she didn't do.
"Holly Blue Agate was awarded with great esteem when she presented a promising lead to the Crystal Gems. The humans they left the Zoo with had to be significant, and so they only had to follow them to find you."
The meaning of Blue's words were clear - she was referring to the break-in - and an unwelcome whirl of emotion started to build in the pit of the purple gem's stomach.
"The traitors, that is - um, the Quartz soldiers who were under Holly Blue Agate's service were reported as seditious. Without a cohort to maintain the facility, there was only a handful of maintenance gems that would remain on the ship, and it would have to be closed."
A little awkwardly, Blue turned her head away and grasped an arm across her chest. To Amethyst, the move read as defensive, and she did her best to muster some semblance of sympathy. While she did not particularly trust or even like Blue Pearl, she acknowledged that this wispy personality had lost the single most important figure in her world. War doesn't have victories, only varying degrees of loss.
To Blue Pearl, it must have been like losing Rose Quartz in a sudden, devastating turn of fate, coming in the form of a punch straight through her tiny, dependent self. She had no chance to say goodbye, no chance to reflect or share memories, or to welcome a new little life into the world that radiated with her same warmth. No new misssion to ascribe new, no new life waiting beyond with her close companions.
She left Homeworld with all she had left.
… It must have been devastating, Amethyst decided, but did not speak on the subject.
The Homeworld Gem proceeded in her explanation, focusing on the sand that stuck to her smooth blue form. "Right before… Yellow Diamond sent a message to my Diamond. Regarding the decision on fusion. It was heatedly debated, but they conceded that there was no way to know with certainty of Steven's origin and abilities without being… in his mind."
Amethyst cringed and squeezed her eyes as if she had been hit. It sort of felt that way.
"After that, Yellow Diamond approved a special request by Holly Blue Agate. She sought the satisfaction of revenge."
From then on, Blue Pearl eloquently and decisively outlined the events that happened. Opalite's presentation, the display of their weapons, Blue Diamond's tears, a feeling of darkness that captured her from the inside out. She came, at last to the Amethysts, Jaspers, Carnelians.
Blue had some suspicions that this was what the night's passings was all about. The desire for privacy, the awkwardness, the unusual solemnity that passed over the small purple gem. It was clear, however, that Amethyst needed to hear the story from the inside, to experience that pain, live the loss, and bury the feelings with due respect. Doubts, wondering, questioning, guilt… that would never lead to closure. Steven had taught her that.
Once she reached the end, recalling Steven's return to consciousness at Blue Diamond's feet, a new sort of silence was shared between them. Amethyst said nothing, and Blue said nothing, much like their evening began. The familiarity of stillness, the absence of everything, was their only company for several minutes.
The smaller gem, narrowed her eyes at the calming waves. It was hard to believe this all started beneath the ocean, a mistake, her mistake. It was entirely too much.
Voice low, she wagered a question. "... Where are they now? The Famethyst?"
Blue Pearl blinked a few times, confused. "Fam-ethyst?"
"The Quartz soldiers," Amethyst clarified, barely keeping the venom from her tone. "From Pink Diamonds base."
"Oh. I… can't know for certain. They were prisoners to Yellow Diamond, um, before. Alive. Unbubbled. Holly Blue Agate had kept two bubbled privately, as… trophies."
They both shared a glance, though one a single eye could be seen between the two of them, and it was heavy with unspoken understanding. A minimal twist of Blue's lip into a frown, Amethyst's clenched jaw.
They were, perhaps for the first time, on the same emotional plane.
"That is all I know," Blue finished when the tired, emotional eye of the Crystal Gem looked away.
Eventually, Amethyst offered a small "...got'cha." She wasn't exactly sure what else to say.
On Blue's part, it wasn't clear if it was appropriate to ask the gem if something else was troubling her, because she seemed notably more tense compared to when this all started. A tiny part of her wanted to ask, but she couldn't manage the words. Silence was easier. Familiar.
Amethyst looked skyward for a short time, and Blue readjusted and tucked own slim legs beneath her. She did not enjoy the sensation of sand against her legs and longed for the perch she had found beside the "laundry," at the Temple, to dangle with Earth's gravity above midnight skies and winking stars. But, Blue didn't feel it right to leave Amethyst alone. She didn't feel much like being alone, either.
"This was stupid," Amethyst eventually lobbed into the silence, and Blue merely shifted her gaze downwards.
"I mean," She shot Blue a sidelong glance. "I'm sorry if I hurt you, bringing up Blue Diamond. I just… I needed to know what happened. I just was expecting some sort of… I don't know, relief? I thought it would be better…"
Amethyst leaned back into the sand and her head rolled back along her shoulders, seeing past the sky and the stars and out into the astral plane to memory of feelings. Without any desire to do so, she remembered XJ picking her up, or managing to wrap Skinny in a hug with only one of her stubby arms.
"I guess I don't know what I'm doing. But, thanks," she turned her attention slightly to Blue Pearl, who had craned her neck to watch Amethyst's change in posture. The small gem smiled sadly, and Blue bowed her head.
"I am sorry, too, for… their… um," Blue sputtered out a few words, not really sure what she was saying until the sentiment was out there. It was unrefined, and Blue suddenly felt very ashamed and averted her gaze.
Amethyst did not laugh at her awkward fumbling. "Thanks," she paused. "For telling me, that is. It's nice to know that most of them were still alive. I guess it could have been worse."
Allowing herself a long inhale with the finality of their exchange, Amethyst stood and brushed the sand off her form. She looked around her shoulder to make sure she was rid of the unwelcome gritty substance from her backside, turning her gaze back to Blue Pearl. She
"Let's go back to the Temple," the small gem suggested, and Blue Pearl compiled without an explanation. She had a reason (Beach City was now closer heading back to the barn), mind you, but Blue Pearl didn't question a Quartz.
Aside from the slow lull of feet against sand and gentle waves, lapping carelessly to the troubles of intergalactic conflict, no noises bothered the pair until the boardwalk came into view.
When sound did come, it was a murmur from the purple gem's lips. "Um, by the way…" She began, turning her head up at Blue Pearl. For once, the gem's eyes were visible given Amethyst's short vantage point, and they were a pretty azule, soft and predictably sad.
"… The day of the execution, back on Homeworld and stuff… you remember?" She asked, shifting a little awkwardly - of course Blue Pearl would remember. It was only, what, a week ago?
Amethyst tried to find her courage, but the trembling of her voice revealed her vulnerability, and she cursed herself for that.
"Steven fused with Holly Blue Agate in the Kindergarten. Again. He let us escape. He let you escape, eventually."
Blue Pearl hummed a response - she had been there physically, in the broken remains of Blue Diamond's palanquin, too consumed by the broken image of her Diamond falling to the earth. That was when she went numb, and the next thing she knew, she was with Yellow, in a room in White Diamond's Military District, and everything continued to fall apart.
"Do you think… we're doing the right thing? Steven staying here, White Diamond's threat, you guys setting up shop in the Temple or even the Barn - it, I don't know, I feel like we're not..." Amethyst was clearly struggling through whatever she was trying to say, and Blue really wasn't sure what kind of response she could be expected to forge without a clearer question.
Before she was tasked with trying to come up with an answer, the purple gem continued. "You know Homeworld better than anyone here. Even Peridot or Dans. You were there for thousands of years. Are you… or, do you think… what do you think? What are we supposed to do?"
That gave the quiet gem pause, and she lowered her head and fumbled with her fingers to busy herself while a tempest raged within her mind. She had never been asked that before, not once, in her entire life.
What did she think?
She had been busy feeling - mourning, searching, pining, wondering. In the background, she observed the rebels debate and Steven draw in on himself and Danburite get caught up in the strangeness of it all. Before, she watched Yellow Diamond turn to dust, and Blue Diamond fall, and she thought she had seen White Diamond be shattered. And before even that, she lost Pink Pearl, and Pink Diamond, and thousands of others in the tides of war.
She had never really been bothered to think on something; she just did as she was told and buried her reactions in the uncomfortable knots within her stomach.
Blue Pearl chewed on the inside of her cheek, suddenly uncomfortable with the looming nothingness around her. She didn't know what to think, or what she thought, or how to answer, and that was frightening.
"I…" she started slowly, after several tense minutes had passed. Amethyst looked her way, measuring the gem's reaction. "I think… there's… more."
"...More?" Amethyst echoed the statement, thinking she was going to say something grand and illuminating. It was unfair to Blue Pearl, Amethyst recognized, but it was still a little disappointing.
"More," Blue repeated softly, looking skyward now. She remembered Homeworld as everything and more. Her Diamond. Her whole life, and now, it was too simple, too empty, too vacant. There had to be more.
"Something's missing from this. There has to be a reason White Diamond sent Steven back here, why he wasn't better guarded on Homeworld. I was able to get to him much too easily. Something doesn't add up."
Connie crossed her arms and leaned back against the barn, not really interested in answering her dozens of missed calls and even more ignored text messages from her parents.
They were, of course, furious.
Stealing away in the middle of the night with the gems and no explanation could not have been the best way to put their worries to ease.
In fact, it might have been the worst way, but the deed was done.
Around the barn, chaos had befallen what had been the best night of her life only 12 hours ago.
Lapis came back, without Steven, and Connie could not say she was surprised. Steven had admitted to her in the early hours of the morning that he haa no intentions on staying.
He would go back to Homeworld.
Though their conversation was short, it didn't sound like he was about to be convinced otherwise.
Something about that felt wrong, and it wasn't just the tragic disappointment which festered in her heart like a brutal wound. This was more like suspicion, doubt, misunderstanding, some sort of listless teenaged worry.
She had been so convinced yesterday, during their evening together, that Steven was… well, Steven. Lapis' story recanted that, ripping through her convictions like a blade to tissue paper. It confirmed all of their worst fears, but they had agreed it was definitely a possibility that he hadn't been real.
So why was she having such a hard time accepting it?
Where acceptance or disappointment should have been building a home, her heart had other plans. Fluttery, soft, uncomfortable plans, dropping her heart through to her stomach.
It took form of memories, of a kiss, and an admission of love. It had to be real.
Connie couldn't accept less - that must have been Steven Universe who let Lapis fly away. No illusion could conjure up those feelings in her, the spark of life that ghosted her lips when she ran her fingers over them. He had been shaking, so nervous - or scared? It was hard to tell, but it sort of made it that much more thrilling when they pulled apart, his expression happier than she's seen in weeks.
It felt incriminatingly like hope. Maybe it was just hope - foolish, stupid, naive hope. A hope so strong it made her believe things that weren't real, or to accept the reality she wanted to be true.
But Connie couldn't just hope Steven back to the barn.
If that was possible, she was sure Pearl would have teleported him back to her arms the moment Lapis took flight.
"Connie." Garnet said her name in way of greeting, and she glanced sidelong at their leader.
"Hiya, Garnet," she cleared her throat, sounding unusually husky. "What's up?"
She took a moment to respond, listening to the crashing sound of angry metal being thrown around the barn by an irate Peridot. The green gem wouldn't speak to anyone - not even Lapis, especially Lapis - right now.
"How are you feeling?"
Connie pursed her lips, not really sure what sort of answer she should give. An honest one, or to just go with the reflexive dismissal that bubbled to her lips?
She opted for something with some semblance of normality. "I'm… fine, I guess."
"I don't think you are," the fusion replied flatly, and the young swordsman had to temper herself. She wasn't in much mood for a conversation right now, much less the way this one was starting.
Sharper than intended, she shot Garnet a look. "Then why did you ask?"
"It seemed like the polite thing to do. I need you to come with me."
Without time to catch her breath, Connie watched the fusion turn on her heel and march the other direction, towards the cows in the East. Brow furrowed, the pink girl scrambled after her, glancing over her shoulder at a very stressed-looking Pearl and a mournful-looking Lapis, perched on her silo.
They didn't walk very far before Garnet stopped, the rolling green hills catching in the breeze of mid-morning. For the horrible cloud that cast itself over the barn, this stretch of land was infinitely green and blue, sky and earth, for miles and miles - dotted only occasionally by a splotchy black or white creature, savoring their cud.
"So?" Connie asked, a little impatient. She wasn't one to mope around, but this morning was an exception.
"Let's meditate," Garnet suggested, voice soft. The fusion crossed her legs and easily sank into the grass, patting beside her. "I think it'll help."
Half-a-mind ready to ask "to help what, exactly?" Connie punched down the ungrateful sounding voice in her head and did as she was bid.
They settled after a moment of her fidgeting, hands tucked in her lap with intentional poise, measuring her breaths against the unusual pace of her pulse beneath her blushing complexion.
Without much invitation, Stevonnie came to her, not in a vision but in feeling. A foundation built from love, and from trust, and from everything fusion was supposed to be… their tandem existence was frayed by the creation of Opalite, like a scale thrown off kilter. It wasn't impossible to eventually imagine a day when the balance could be restored, but it was a distant thing that tasted too much like a daydream to be comforting.
All of this hope she had… it frustrated her. She should be screaming, or crying, or fighting or out looking for him. Not sitting here, meditating, when their situation lately seemed more hopeless than it did hopeful.
That was Steven's influence, though. It had to be. She never felt as confident or whole as when they were together, and the hours yesterday was like pure adrenaline that had been injected to her inanimate veins - an instinct, a reaction, a deep sense of what it meant to be human bloomed in her when they were together.
A little rueful, she squeezed her lids tighter in the irony.
"Garnet?" Connie's eyes fluttered open, and she could see one eye open beneath the fusion's visor glancing down at her.
"Why did you want to talk to me?"
"I think you might know why," she said with a tiny smile. "But let me give you the answer you deserve."
Connie felt her lips thin and waited, watching the fusion with measured breathing.
"Lapis is the only one who could... reach Steven. Not you, or me, or Pearl, or Greg. They're the only two people in the world who can communicate on this - though, Jasper and Holly Blue Agate might be exceptions…" Her voice dropped an octave, and Connie felt her hands twitch into a fist. "But fusion is so rare. So valuable. It's something I take for granted after thousands of years, of knowing who I can be, of knowing Stevonnie, and Opal, and Sugilite. Pree. Rainbow Quartz. Sardonyx, Smokey Quartz, Alexandrite. We can be so much more than ourselves, together."
The girl bowed her head, listening intently. Her fumbling thumbs were a welcome distraction.
"I… I know that, Garnet." Connie released a steady exhale. "But why are you telling me this?"
Her leader's lips turned up in an exhausted, but certainly happy, smile. It almost looked odd.
"... Communication? That's it?" Connie repeated inanely.
"Yes, that's it." Garnet adjusted her visor, her usual stoicism returned, and Connie caught her own confused scowl in the reflection of the dark glass. "Things fall apart if we stop talking. Lapis acted rashly, and you acted from your heart. But it was the most honesty we've had since returning to Earth. I - we - we nearly lost you in space, because I failed to be honest with me. It's the fundamentals of fusion, and I let it get away from me in fear."
Subconsciously, Connie rested one of her pink hands over her ribs, feeling the slow metronome of her heart beneath. Garnet continued, tone darkening by degrees, her teeth grit against the verbal sting.
"I was short-sighted and selfish before, and now, I feel the same guilt again. I… I was so afraid of losing me, that I drew in. If Ruby could keep Sapphire safe, and Sapphire could keep Ruby safe, then that's all that mattered. But it's not. Keeping Steven at arm's length only delayed the inevitable."
"... which was him being an illusion, and wandering off into the woods, alone." Connie muttered, unintentionally bitter.
To her surprise, Garnet's expression twisted to one of simple amusement. "I wonder... there must be some very tempting secrets out in the mountains. I can't imagine why else White Diamond would let him leave us."
Connie's head jerked up so fast she nearly gave herself whiplash. Pupils wide, she looked beside her in muted disbelief.
Was she saying…
"You don't mean…?" Connie bit her lip, trying to swallow down the words. They couldn't be said, else the hope would become real.
"I'm not." Garnet held up a hand, but her smirk seemed to tell a different tale. "But it's a rather likely possibility. If Steven was… not himself, then he would have resisted. When Lapis failed to keep him at arm's length, Steven made the choice to keep us at arm's length. And if a spy is only as good as its information…"
"Then… Steven was protecting us. That means…" Connie mouthed the words, sweeter than honey as they fell from her lips. "That means he is real."
"He's more than that, I think." Garnet nodded, looking at the sky. "If he's figured it out, then he's not just real. He's free."
"You think I'm being stupid, don't you?"
Lion huffed through his large nostrils, and the boy grumbled, embracing the softness of the pink beast's mane from astride his back.
With a low exhale, Steven replied to Lion's unintelligible noise - it sounded an awful lot like an insult, though. "I know, I sort of feel stupid." Steven promptly slid off his pink companion and onto the grassy earth.
After a few hours of walking, coupled with Lion's rhythmic pace, warm form and occasional internal humming, Steven felt himself grow tired. He coaxed his furry companion into stopping in the shade of a particularly isolated thicket in the mountains and it didn't take long for them to curl together comfortably, cuddled beneath the filtering charteruse-stained sunlight through their cozy verdant resting place.
Green canopy overhead, nameless trees in every direction, and occasional rustle of wildlife in the woods… now, if there had been any doubt before, Steven was definitely lost. Lapis hadn't given him a great sense of direction while flying, and he had been sleepy from a long night without sleep, so he hadn't really paid much attention.
It felt very different, though. Comfortable and cool, but maybe at a higher elevation than he was used to. As he and Lion got going into the forest, the gentle hills turned to sloping mountains and valleys. The scenic backdrop and quiet calls of nature were welcome distractions from his warring consciousness.
And though his body felt exhausted, Steven's mind raced. He looked at the soft texture of Lion's mane beside him and brushed it between his fingers, talking to the singular Earth presence that he had left.
"I feel bad about Dad… I wished I could have spent more time with him." Steven confessed, and Lion turned his gaze down and gave him a particularly unfriendly glare. Maybe he was reading into it, but Steven would have sworn there was judgement in his eyes.
"Okay, maybe that's a bit of lie," he admitted further, shifting slightly and closing his eyes. "I do feel bad, but, this is already so complicated with the Gems… I can't put him in danger too. I just want to protect him. Is that so bad?"
No response was given, so Steven sighed a second time and curled inward, surprised at the sensation of tears that started to spring at his eyes.
"Lion… I'm… I'm sorry."
The apology was thick in his throat, and Steven inhaled sharply when the pressure gave. He crumpled into his companions side and began to cry, heavy, thick, exhausted tears. The amount of stress that had latched onto him a month ago felt like it was ripped away, but instead of relief, he just felt empty. The metaphorical space rug had been pulled out from under him, and now he felt like he couldn't breath anymore.
He ran away.
He told Connie he loved her, like he had always wanted, and kissed her.
And then he left.
Now the Gems had to fight White Diamond on their own.
It wasn't fair to them. They didn't deserve to clean up the mess he made.
You're a disgrace. Opalite jeered internally, and he groaned before turning over in the dirt.
"I really messed up, didn't I?" Steven asked through a shuddering breath, peeking up at Lion, but the beast had shut its eyes. Perhaps he was already asleep - honestly, Steven should follow by his example. The boy rolled onto his back, feeling fifty years older, and slung an arm over his exhausted eyes.
" … I mean, Connie's alive... sort of. And none of the Gems died in space. Dad's here, and he's okay, and even Lars looked happy. That's gotta count for something, right?"
He let his lids close, trying to ignore a hungry pang in his stomach. The confidence he had managed to fake this morning, trying to leave Lapis and the others behind, was faltering with his exhaustion.
"Maybe Lars and Sadie will… finally... married before… go," he mumbled softly, the tiredness finally yielding into a warm ball of a half-gem, half-human and a magical Lion snuggled next to each other in the middle of a forest.
Sleep came easily, his half-human body needing the energy more than his brain needed to process the spiraling void. Lion provided a sort of security to Steven's subconscious mind that he was certain he could not have achieved if he was truly alone - but then again, he wasn't ever truly alone anymore.
The dreams were always a reminder of that.
When Steven's eyes fluttered open, he scrambled upwards and backed into a wall.
"Lion?" He rubbed the corners of sleep from his lids and looked around, seeing no pink beast, nor any sort of wooden sanctuary or calming meadow. No Lapis, or Connie, or Pearl, Amethyst, or Garnet.
He had left them behind, but not to come here.
"Where is this place..." Steven murmured, standing and walking forward.
He had been sitting at the edge of one of the most beautiful rooms he had ever seen. Steven was literally staggered by its magnificence. The sound of his footsteps echoed in the quiet space, and Steven gaped around at the curved walls and concave ceiling, the flush gray of marble smoothed out like a stone blanket that was somehow poetically simple.
A cupola, the maxima were as tall as the Temple, crawling up the length of towards the center far above his head where an oculus punctured the flawless walls like a brutal wound. Blood flowing out from the incision, a luminous moonlight created the image of a large cream-colored circle against the imprint of dark stone across the floor.
Each wall was wreathed in carved murals, and Steven wandered into the dome, completely unawares that he was not alone.
Captivated, Steven felt especially small as he passed under the skylight, the pale eclipse requiring more than a few strides to cross; for some reason, strolling beneath the oculus made him feel oddly at peace. The room itself was like ossified bone, smooth and soft but definitely not metal. This place was not like Homeworld, but it wasn't really much like Earth, either.
Warily, Steven ran his fingers along the exterior walls. The engravings were as tall as the Diamonds themselves, which was befitting – many captured the likeness of those very rulers. The surface of the figures extended out from the wall a few inches, like a statue that had never been fully released from its stony prison. These images were not statuesque, but modeled in that same style that characterized the murals on the Moon Base, or the one that had been plastered in his cell on Blue Diamond's ship, back when he had first been taken.
Tracing the curving dark stone, Steven flinched his hand away when he realized he knew this particular image. His wanderings had brought him to the feet of Yellow Diamond. Looking down the wall to his right a few meters, he recognized the somber look of Blue Diamond, eyes turned down upon some geometric subjects. They were a part of the same scene, their palanquins beautifully shelled out against the backdrop like stained-glass, each Diamond flanked by their massive palanquins as they faced each other. Between them, a small crowd of indiscernible rectangles and triangles and trapezoids gathered, but it wasn't clear what function they served.
Steven gently rested his hand against the surface of Yellow Diamond's massive form, studying the image like a storybook. There was tension in the scene, he wasn't sure how, but he could tell. They both looked very upset... maybe it was in respects to Pink Diamond.
Steven did not feel loss for either of them, not exactly, but he did muster up some definitive sadness at their deaths. They had both been cruel, but yet, they had suffered the same deceit from White Diamond. All three of them had been fooled, used as puppets in her elaborate show, and now they were dead and he was trapped.
He had survived, and this is where the Diamond's existed now. In memories and in stone.
A shiver ran through him, and he rubbed his arms together to dispel the chill.
"Steven." A voice called quietly from behind. He knew it was White Diamond, the refined quality was unmatched, but this was softer than he remembered.
Part of him knew he was asleep - a tiny piece of his consciousness knew he was nuzzled up comfortably beside Lion, so this couldn't be real, but he also recognized this was no normal dream. He could never cooked up such a magical room on his own.
The murals had been a dead giveaway that she would be here, but the piercing voice behind him still gave him a start.
White Diamond studied him across the length of the room, perhaps twenty meters away, her silvery robes just touching the floor. Steven should have been used to her incredible size, and even more her incredible, suffocating, pantheistical aura. Pale and glorious, she was the image of a god and a monster, a beau ideal in the effulgence of power.
A choked out response followed. "Um… hi, my Diamond, um, uh... what's up?" Steven sputtered.
Did you seriously just say that? Stupid, stupid...
White Diamond advanced until she was standing just in front of the oculus, releasing him from her unsettling glare momentarily as she scanned the skies. His eyes followed hers, one hand still resting against the raised stone mural, but he could not see the sky from so far away.
Steven turned and positioned his hands in front of himself shyly, anxiously shifting his weight as White Diamond gazed upon the austere atmosphere; for as terrifying she was, the monarch appeared picturesque in their runic chamber.
After pursing her lips, White Diamond relaxed her face and looked down at him once more. "I'm impressed. You made a strategic decision, Steven."
By the time Steven mustered the courage to look up, he wished he hadn't. She had silently moved closer – just in front of him, maybe ten feet away – and she was staring down at him. It was like looking into the sun, entrancing and destructive all at once.
It felt like she was patronizing him, and Steven wagered that he probably should have been more afraid, but he just swallowed and nodded. It felt like the past few days had been building up to this - her echoing in the back of his mind, him watching Lapis fall apart, sharing the special night with Connie, listening to their theories about his existence. He knew he would have to face her eventually, and while her haunting gaze made his skin erupt into chills, it was not from fear. Intimidation, maybe, but he wasn't afraid.
"Tell me, Steven," she said as her head tilted to one side in curiosity. "What do you hope to gain in doing this?"
She did not demand an answer from him, and that seemed intentional. Everything about her was intentional, though; orchestrated, pseudo-real, manipulative.
"I'm not playing this game anymore." His voice was flat, and she raised a brow at him.
"I can't - I won't do this to them. Not again." Steven clenched his fist, hating that his mouth had turned dry. He thought of Connie, and the gentle way her smile would reach her eyes, and how pretty and terrible her new rosy skin was. And then of Pearl's tired, defiant stare, and Garnet's quiet composure through an impossible maelstrom, and of Amethyst's hesitation and fear. The way Danburite and Blue Pearl seemed comfortable for the first time, sitting up by the laundry, confessing their feelings and, in Dani's case, her inability to feel at all. More images, Peridot laughing and hugging Lapis, wrapping an arm around her in the barn before they fused, or Blue Prehnite's many turquoise eyes, strained with worry, and, finally, Lapis flying away.
Really, he was the one who flew off, but the catch of her gem in the early morning light, clearly outlined between her shoulder blades, struck him with a particular kind of pain.
"I wasn't able to protect them the first time. And…" he coughed, refusing to let his voice crack. "And I'm not going to let you hurt them again."
White Diamond seemed unphased. "I see. So you've decided to let them go."
"No," Steven grit his teeth. "I'm not letting anything happen anymore. I'm doing what I have to. I'm not - I'm on Earth, and this is where Gems and humans can be free."
Tilting her head, White Diamond's eyes narrowed to furious white slits. She looked almost like a pale snake, long and deadly, waiting for the right moment to strike.
"So, you'd risk the lives of the ones you love so you can be 'free?' They are seeking a war, Steven. If my hand is forced, so be it." Her voice rose the hair on the back of his neck. "Again, and again, and again, you allow yourself to fall into weakness. It is a shame."
His hands began to tremble, but the strangeness of the moment brought a memory in lieu of fear: a voice, a claim, an admonishment.
Your human capacity for caring is your greatest strength, but you are letting it become your greatest weakness.
Dani had told him that, and it was the honesty he needed to get himself off Homeworld, and then Lapis gave him the second wave of painful truth.
You feel like you tried, and tried, and tried. But, did you? Did you try everything? It didn't look like it.
Above, White Diamond loomed, the room turning hotter with her fury. She clearly did not like to be defied, but Steven wasn't just doing this for him anymore.
"If - if being like this, being who I am, makes me weak, then fine." He held out his right arm, and for the first time in so long, a pink shield materialized at his wrist with furious pride.
"But I'd rather be weak and stupid than be like you. I love my family, I love my planet - you… you shattered two Diamonds! I shattered gems, too, but I regret it and… and I want to be better. Those were mistakes! You're - you're twisted. Blue Diamond, Yellow Diamond…" he paused, turning to look at the fallen leaders in their murals. His voice rose with every word, echoing with loud snaps around the room. Hot, furious tears spilled over his cheeks in guilt, but he hardly noticed.
"They cared about you - about Pink Diamond - and you just shattered them! It - you - I can't do this anymore! I won't."
With a quiet ring of finality, the last word hung heavy between them. Steven waited, shield raised, body shaking with overwrought emotion that fell from him - tears, words, labored breathing, all of it released more and more into the deafening silence.
He hated her.
He really, really hated her.
White Diamond's lips had grown impossibly thinner, her forehead creasing with severity he had never seen in her before, and in a blink of the eye, she shot out a hand in a graceful upper-arch over her head. A catching wind exploded in the chamber, a transient tornado that threw his small form high into the air, a ragdoll to atmospheric mercy. Steven released a startled shout, but he did not drop his shield, and without enough time to reorient himself, he was captured in a pale bubble once again.
White Diamond brought him to eye-level and flashed him a wicked grin. "Interesting. You do have some spine after all."
He wished he was closer to her, or he might have spat in her face.
Before he had a chance to gather his thoughts, all of the fury and fighting spilled from his lips that he'd choked down for the past several days. This was the single most evil, terrible, hollow being in the universe, and it was by his own mistakes that he let things get so wrong.
"You… you killed Connie! You tried to kill all of my friends - why would I listen to you? You might be in my head, but this is my head. You can't control me. You can come to Earth if you want," he paused and turned his shield around, on himself. Steven lifted his shirt to reveal his gemstone, and felt a flutter of satisfaction in his stomach when White Diamond's eyes grew a degree wider. "But I'll end it - all of it - if you do. I'm your stupid key, right?"
He widened his arms and legs, flicked his wrist to dissolve his shield, and replaced it with a bubble of his own. With some strain, he forced it back and away from himself, popping the one she had used to bring him to her level.
Shouting, angry tears at the corner of his eyes, Steven glared at White Diamond, and she stared right back.
"Everything is going wrong and I don't know how to stop it. So I'm finished. No more tricks, no more games."
A heavy silence settled as the last of his declaration settled in the strange, stone room. White Diamond's lip curled in distaste, and her eyes narrowed.
"... I see. Well." Her tone was horribly calm. "I think you'll find that I can make everything a game, depending on how badly I want to play."
He felt it before he really saw it, a massive hand, the color of death, swooping down at the top of his bubble and smashing him clear into the ground. Her palm did not let up, forcing down on him like a magnet grounding into the earth, seeking purchase against its opposite attractant. Only barely, Steven's bubble resisted, keeping him from crumbling with the crater that his impact made against the stones, but the pressure grew too much and his protection popped.
Heaving, Steven's eyes flew open and he shouted into a silent forest, his fuzzy pink pillow gone. Instead, Lion stood a foot in front of him, watching him with suspicious eyes. A few birds stirred from the tree-tops, and Steven clenched his furious beating heart.
Drenched in sweat and shaking, the boy looked up. It must have been dusk, judging by the midnight flush of amaranthine skies starting to overtake vermillion clouds, the air still and quiet through the woods. No wind stirred here, and it made the disorientation even more severe.
Lion inched forward as Steven's gasping began to slow, and after a pause, an adorable pink nose nuzzled into his clammy forehead. A low purr erupted from the magical beast, and Steven chuckled while gripping the side of his head.
"H-hey, buddy," Steven said, breathless. "I gues… we have somethings to take care of… But we'll do it together, right Lion?"
In lieu of an answer, a scratchy tongue lowered to his scarred arm and began to lick the unnatural lines like a wound.
Letting out a low breath, Steven half-laughed at the tickle against his scars. "I was sort of thinking the same thing, but first thing's first, there's treasure to find. We're like pirates now, matey!"
He rubbed the sleep from his eyes and dragged himself to standing, and Lion continued to nuzzle into him, unusually affectionate.
With a laugh, the hybrid added, "I'll be captain and you can be my First Mate and Cabin Boy."
The beast paused and leaned away, and Steven swore he was scowling.
"... Okay, just First Mate. We don't need a Cabin Boy."
That seemed to appease his pink companion, and Steven giggled when Lion yawned and settled back into the ground.
Pacing the clearing, he began to work through some of the finer details outloud. It was a little unsettling to think White Diamond was probably tuned in.
"Okay. So Homeworld's really mad. Diamonds shattered, gearing up for war, blah blah blah. I guess I should try to think like Mom? There's probably a joke in there somewhere, right?"
Lion made a face.
"Oh stop," Steven batted a hand towards him. "I was just trying to lion the mood."
At that, his only physical audience rolled over and went to sleep.
"...Geez, tough crowd." He scratched his chin and began to count off his fingers. "Mom had a few places she would hide things. The desert, her weird weapon room, the Temple, you."
Lion didn't reply.
"But I feel like Pearl and Garnet would know this place. So not you, and not the desert. Pearl knew about the weird weapon room…" He mused, unsure if Garnet had ever been shown the spot.
Steven shrugged and crawled on Lion's back, which was awkward since his magical pal had decided to lie on his side. "Gotta start somewhere, I guess. Geddup!"