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Dear Mr. Fantasy, play us a tune

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Dear Mister Fantasy, play us a tune

Something to make us all happy

Do anything, take us out of this gloom

Sing a song, play guitar, make it snappy 

You are the one who can make us all laugh

But doing that, you break out in tears

Please don't be sad if it was a straight mind you had

We wouldn't have known you all these years

 

- Dear Mr. Fantasy, Traffic

 

He’s trying to accept that the happily ever after he’s imagined and longed might never come. After all, he always has work to do, whether it’s to fix the mess his mother left behind or overall help everyone – humans and gems – adjust to their new lives on Homeworld and on Earth. Steven enjoys looking after people, and even if he may hesitate, he literally has empathetic powers, so it’s not like he can avoid it. At least he does something good with them, rather than purposefully hurt others.

Even if he won’t reach that fantasy of peace, Steven is sure he wouldn’t change anything about this life.

Except he knows there is… something off. It’s not like all the issues he comes across on a daily basis. It’s not external. It’s… It’s inside him. It feels tight… twisting itself and making it even tighter.

(It’s always been there, yet Steven manages to ignore it, busies his mind with all his responsibilities.)

One day, the headaches begin. They tend to occur together with the tightness when it’s too suffocating. Steven usually has these episodes when he’s alone, but he has been unfortunate to have them in front of others a couple of times. Luckily, never in front of Garnet, Pearl, Amethyst or his dad, but the many other gems he’s still getting to know. To his relief, they don’t tell anyone, and assume he’s just stressed out due to the hard work he has on his shoulders.

(Steven wants to believe that’s the only reason, but a small part in his chest tells him he’s wrong. That they’re wrong.)

When it happens, he hangs out with these new gems. It’s nothing out of ordinary, they just chat for a while, to distract Steven from the tightness that arises, and the headaches that have been deafening his thoughts. And it helps, for the most part, but it starts all over again at some point. It might even take a few days, but they never go away.

Yet, from the looks of it, it doesn’t seem his closest friends have questioned it. Steven hides it well, he hopes.

Until one night, he’s home, taking a long shower. There’s nothing unusual about it, he’s just tired from another busy day. There’s a sudden pang but Steven manages out a groan, aware that the others are waiting for him downstairs. It finally stops and he’s relieved.

When he comes out, though… what he sees in the mirror causes him to drop his towel and stare at his own image for the longest time. The tightness in his chest returns, even more so as Steven hasn’t had the time to look at himself and pay attention.

He’s exhausted. He’s…

He jumps when he hears a knock on the door. It’s Pearl calling him, asking why he’s taking so long when dinner has started a while ago. Steven masks himself with a lighthearted tone, joking that he’s doing his beauty routine before he joins in. As always, Pearl takes it and leaves. Steven grunts; he doesn’t have the heart to let her know, to let anyone else know.

When he finally heads downstairs, he’s covered his head with his towel, making up the excuse that he’s using a different hair product he’s heard of. Nobody seems to mind it. With that, Steven and his family share some pizza, and laugh together as always.

Later that night, the sixteen-year-old goes back to the mirror, removing the towel and his mask. He takes a deep breath, tries to think of flexibility, love and trust, and goes to bed. Maybe… Maybe it will be gone when he wakes up.

 


 

It’s still there in the morning.

It’s a good thing the gems aren’t home today, having gone to help Bismuth, Peridot and Lapis with Little Homeworld. Today has been arranged he would remain at Beach City, see how everyone is doing after what Spinel’s injector did to the Earth’s soil.

Instead of going out immediately, though, Steven tries to repeat the same process: take deep breaths, meditate, everything Garnet has taught him over the years…

It doesn’t go away. His chest is even tighter now, and there is no sign that… the thing is disappearing any sooner. Steven lets out a frustrated noise; he can’t figure out what’s happening.

He only leaves the house when it’s the middle of the afternoon, only then figuring out he should wear a hat (thankfully the weather is colder today, so it’s not too suspicious). He checks on everyone, who appears to be doing well. The people of Beach City are true fighters, overcoming all sorts of invasions and disasters coming with the package of Homeworld.

Everything is fine, honestly.

That is, when he greets Buck Dewey and Sour Cream, they’re carrying bags around. Steven asks what they’re for…

“It’s for our potluck at Lars’,” Buck explains.

As soon as he hears the word “potluck”, Steven freezes.

“That’s- That’s today?”

“Yeah, we’ve arranged it for two weeks, so you could take some free time from your alien work and stuff,” Sour Cream reminds him, not sounding annoyed at Steven’s forgetfulness.

“I completely forgot!” The curly-haired boy exclaims.

“It happens.” Buck tries to comfort him with his calm tone. “Besides, we’re doing this in advance, the potluck is only tonight.”

“Yeah, don’t worry about it, man.” Sour Cream gives him a supportive smile.

Steven, however, doesn’t feel better. With the gem stuff and his weird symptoms taking over his thoughts, he hasn’t been too available to hang out with his other friends. The Cool Kids and Lars have started a potluck tradition since the latter returned home, yet Steven hasn’t been to all of their parties for a while now, and after Spinel, he’s had even less time.

He sighs his frustration out and cracks a tired smile.

“Okay. I’ll- I’ll see you later, then?” Steven asks for confirmation.

“Yeah, sure.” The sixteen-year-old tries not to notice Buck’s furrowed brows.

“Coo. See ya, man.” Sour Cream waves him goodbye.

“Don’t work yourself up, Steven,” Buck tells him before they leave.

With the two gone, Steven rushes back home to think of anything he can get to the potluck. He feels even more stupid when he finally sees the text Lars sent him earlier to remind him of the party tonight.

Steven replies with a smiling emoji and explores the kitchen to have any ideas until night arrives.

 


 

He arrives at Lars’ house a little later than everyone but it’s still in time. He goes straight to the backyard where he can hear some uplifting music and cheerful talking, finding everyone – the Cool Kids, the Off Colors, Sadie and someone Steven doesn’t recognize – gathered in a wide, picnic table that replaces the trampoline.

They don’t take too long to acknowledge Steven’s arrival and they greet him with warm smiles and voices. Lars comes from inside the house, wearing his white apron and carrying some food with one of his arms as the other pats Steven’s back.

“Hey, Steven! It’s been a while, huh?” Lars grins, what would have been a rare sight just a few years ago. “How are you doing?”

“I’m fine, thanks,” Steven answers, almost automatically at this point.

“I predict Steven will arrive with a bag of chips!” Padparadscha, who’s close by, claims in joy.

“Yeah, I wasn’t too creative this time,” He laughs it off awkwardly, handing the bag of chips to Lars, who doesn’t seem to think much of it.

“It’s alright, dude. I’m just glad you’re here with us again.”

Steven’s heart warms all the way with these words, for a moment giving respite to the mess of feelings inside him still. Following this, Lars guides him to a seat beside Rhodonite, Rutile and Fluorite, while the Cool Kids, Sadie and the new person face them from the other side. He greets the newcomer, who turns out to be Sadie’s friend that she met during a festival with her band and has been part of their group for some time now. They seem very nice, much like the people with him today.

There’s plenty of food filling the table, some of it having been cooked by Lars, while he recognizes his bag of chips, the pizza box from Fish Stew Pizza, a few soda bottles and the even crazier assorted fruits. The upbeat music is still playing in the background.

For the most part, everyone just talks about their lives, their routines. They ask Steven about his, too, but he doesn’t have much to say about it, if not for some of the shenanigans featuring the gems in Little Homeworld. If anything, Steven finds himself listening more than tell stories, which he doesn’t mind all that much, honestly. At some point, the Cool Kids start dancing to a funkier song and they even drag Rhodonite with them, which leads them all to laugh.

Everyone, except… Steven.

At any other time, he would be the first one on the dance floor. Now, he simply finds himself seated, drinking a cup of soda and eating a pizza slice. If you could describe it, Steven is… quiet. Which is not like him, he recognizes. He would have tried to hide better, but… he’s just really tired.

He can tell other people notice it. His behavior. He can see it from the way their brows silently furrow in concern, much like Buck did earlier, yet nobody says anything at all. He doesn’t know if he’s thankful for it or not.

At the same time, Steven so desperately wants to have a great time. He wants to ignore the stress and the growing headache, because he should be happy now. He should be fine, but he isn’t. On one hand, he can’t open up about it, never has time to, and this occasion might not be the best one since all everyone wants is to have fun. On the other, he’s in pain and he wants to scream everything that’s stuck in his mind, in his heart.

Steven drinks his soda and for once tries to catch up with the conversation between Sadie, her friend, Lars, Fluorite and Rutile. The Cool Kids, Rhodonite and Padparadscha are still dancing in the back. Sadie is mostly telling about their concerts, the people that want her autographs, all that jazz. Steven can’t really get to the actual details, but he laughs with them when they do, and they don’t ask him anything specific, either. It lasts for a while, he supposes, since he’s mostly spacing out, until he pays attention to Lars.

“… I’m gonna go inside and grab some more stuff. You wanna help me, Steven?”

For once, he realizes Lars is looking at him, waiting for his reply. Steven snaps back to reality and nearly jumps out of his seat.

“Yes! Yeah, sure.” He wants to slap himself for the obvious desperation in his voice, and he hates to admit that he really wants to escape the party environment.

To his agony, Lars appears to frown in confusion but in the very least he doesn’t mention anything. With that, Steven follows the pink boy to the kitchen, the music from outside muffled by the door and closed windows. The black-haired teen contains himself from letting out a relieved sigh, reminding that Lars is still there with him – and he should help him, not allow his anguishes to get the best of him.

“So, uh, what do you need to get?” Steven asks.

“Oh, I just want to get more drinks… and we’ll have some dessert.”

“Really? What is it?”

“It’s a surprise.” Lars winks.

“I-I can help with the sodas!” Steven, finally, feels a bit of excitement, even though he’s… he can’t find himself able to breathe too well. Only then does he realize his body is rushing itself, as if he… were in danger?

Nonetheless, he already grabs the five, big bottles of soda hanging around in the floor, having no trouble to do that, as expected.

“Hey, Steven—” Lars calls him.

“W-What is it? Need me to grab anything else?”

“No, I don’t need to—” Before Lars can finish, Steven spots yet another soda bottle on the kitchen table and he makes his way to get it, too, when the other teen steps up.

“Steven,” Lars’ voice is stern, serious all of a sudden. “I think you should sit for a while.”

“What? B-But we’ve gotta go back, everyone is—”

“It’s okay, they can wait for a bit. Just sit for a minute, alright? You look like you’re about to pass out.” Lars guides him to the nearest chair and Steven almost falls backwards and drops the six bottles in his hands. He places them in the floor again, hating to find out that his arms are shaking.

“You alright?” The bright pink-haired teenager asks.

“Yeah, yeah. I don’t know what’s with me but I’ll- I’ll be fine."

He hears the deep breaths coming out of Lars and feels a steady hand on his shoulder. It’s then gone as the other appears to go for the sink and wash something. Steven doesn’t raise his head since, finds himself staring at the many bottles of soda, as well as clenching and unclenching his hands.

He frowns at himself. Why is he feeling like this?

A pang hammers his head yet again and Steven groans in pain, presses his fingers against his forehead. It immediately draws Lars’ attention as he hears footsteps rushing back towards him.

“Do you need anything?”

“No, it’s- just a minor headache.”

A sigh comes out of Lars. Despite his seriousness, he lowers his voice, “Steven, that’s not minor. You’ve been acting weird the moment you got here.”

Steven sniffs out of his control. He hasn’t realized his eyes started burning until now.

“I’m sorry,” He whispers.

“You don’t have to apologize—”

“Of course I have to, I- I was supposed to relax, just this one time!” Steven suddenly raises his voice and he can’t stop. “I have to check on Little Homeworld and Original Homeworld, see if Spinel is doing okay, I have to talk to Nanefua, watch out for any anomalies in the soil because of Spinel’s injector, there are stuff I still can’t get through, some gems, like- like Jasper, I – I have thousands of things to do, so I should have a break, right?! Things are over, even if for a while, and I should be able to, except I can’t have peace!”

The ache in his head is almost deafening now and it hurts so bad, but Steven is fed up, he wishes he could destroy something, tear it in half, anything so he could make it disappear.

“I didn’t even remember we were having this potluck,” He continues. “That’s why I grabbed the only bag of chips I had at home, I still wanted to come; I wanted to see you guys and I- I-I just wanted to have fun, but I can’t because everything hurts-!”

A piercing scream comes out of him and he finds himself against the cold ground. He faintly hears Lars yell his name, shake his body. Steven covers his face as it aches all over and he can distinct other people entering the room, too. They’re all talking at the same time and Steven can’t focus on anything other than the pain.

It hurts so badly.

Yet just like all the other times he’s had these episodes, it eventually quiets down a little. Steven is able to pay attention to his surroundings again and realizes he’s surrounded by the gems and humans that were once having fun. Now they’re staring at him with worry in their eyes. He feels so guilty.

He’s still hiding part of his face, exposing one of his eyes. When Lars realizes everyone’s staring at him, he follows them and gazes at Steven with desperation.

“Steven, can- can you hear me now? Are you feeling pain?” He asks, his speech rushed.

“No… it’s better now.” Steven’s voice is muffled by his hand.

Lars lets out a relieved yet shaky breath. “Oh, Steven…”

“My face feels funny, though…”

He touches his own skin, feels something… rough around his left eye. When he distances his hand away from his face, there’s a scared commotion.

“W-What is it?” Steven asks.

“Steven, your face…!”

He doesn’t understand until he meets his own reflection on the stove… although the image isn’t too clear, there’s a significantly darker region in his face and his left eye is… it’s a vibrant pink tone, in contrast to the dark hue around it. His hat can barely cover two pointy horns coming out of his head.

“Oh no, is that…?” Rhodonite starts a question but doesn’t dare to finish it. Except Padparadscha does so after long minutes of silence.

“… corruption?”

Steven freezes where he stands and shrinks even more, feeling utterly ashamed.

“How is that possible?” “He’s half human!” Rutile asks, frightened.

“He’s still half made of light, right?” Rhodonite answers.

“What’s going on?” Sour Cream voices his concern.

“Does that mean he’s…?” Jenny says something but he can’t hear it anymore. He doesn’t pay attention to anything until Sadie raises her voice.

“Guys, stop! He’s crying!”

Steven doesn’t seem to realize the tears rolling down his face before she says that. He hides his face, unable to get his own reflection out of his mind.

“I look horrible, don’t I?” He says. “I-I-!”

“Steven, no…”

“I’m sorry, I’m…” He sobs, can no longer breathe.

His nails are sharp against his face and all he sees his darkness. There are no other voices speaking now, leaving him with his pleading sobs. A part of him acknowledges Lars saying something and then he’s met with the sound of footsteps distancing themselves, until everything is finally quiet.

Steven’s crying noises cease for a moment and, when he opens his eyes again, he realizes everyone has left. Everyone, except Lars, who’s still close, staring at him with sympathy.

“I’m…” Steven sniffs. “I’m so sorry for ruining the potluck. You guys just wanted to have fun, I didn’t want to—”

“Steven, cut that out. The potluck is not more important than your well-being, got it?”

“But I…”

“Don’t apologize – talk to me. You’ve been bottling everything up for more than you can take.”

Lars sounds angry, but… not at him. If anything, he’s still really worried. He doesn’t know if that’s worse.

“How long has this been going on?” The pink boy asks.

Steven looks down, realizing they’re still sitting by the kitchen floor. He’s sure he’s not even able to stand up given his shaky legs.

“I… I guess it’s… been for… for a long time,” He answers honestly.

Lars doesn’t add anything, expecting him to continue. Steven’s tears keep on falling, even though he’s not breaking apart again.

“You know how… how there’s something… tight in my chest? I guess it’s always been there, but… I never gave much thought to it. Nowadays, it’s getting worse and- and to add up, I’ve been having some really strong headaches, too. I thought it was just the stress over taking care of everything, so I thought it wouldn’t last forever, except they kept happening more frequently until…” He gulps. “L-Last night, I… I had another one of those, but it was different because… t-these,” He touches his own head, reaching the horns. “These showed up all of a sudden and they wouldn’t go away.”

He feels Lars’ worried stare all the way through and Steven is almost hiding the dark smudge on his face when the other boy takes his hand gently yet steadily.

“Does anyone else know?” Lars questions.

Steven shakes his head. “I didn’t have the courage to tell the others… and they don’t really suspect anything, either.”

Lars sighs yet another time that night. “Dude, this isn’t healthy. You can’t keep it up forever.”

“I-I don’t want to worry them!”

“You can’t do that to yourself!” Lars raises his tone and immediately regrets it. “Steven, I know you never talk about how you feel. I get that it’s- it’s hard, feelings are really hard to deal with. You’ve gone through so much crap to get here, to save us… you’re not just going to come out clean – and that’s… that’s okay. It’s okay if you’re not happy. But you can’t keep bottling it up forever. You need to talk about this kind of stuff with someone because then… this is going to keep happening,” He gazes at the left part of his face. “Until you’re too out of yourself to get help.”

Steven can no longer protest because… because Lars is right. He won’t be able to mask it forever. Remembering how the corrupted gems behaved, losing their own senses, their lives and personalities, only fed by fear, confusion and sorrow… he doesn’t want to imagine himself going to the same path.

Silence returns to their environment, none of them sure what to say anymore. Steven doesn’t look up again until… until he feels two arms wrapping around him tight and feels Lars’ chest rising with a deep breath.

“Please, stop hurting yourself like this,” Lars tells him, squeezes him a little tighter. “At least… try to talk to them, okay? You can find a way to get through this. You… You don’t have to do that alone.”

Steven takes some time but eventually returns the hug and whispers, “Okay.”

He hasn’t realized just how badly he needed a hug, arms to help him put his pieces back together. Lars smells like butter and something sweet, most likely due to his apron; it’s weirdly soothing and Steven can’t let it go.

Losing track of time, the hug ends when Lars pats his back and exhales. Being the first one to stand up, he offers his pink hand and helps Steven get on his feet again.

“Thanks,” The sixteen-year-old mumbles.

“No need to thank me.”

“I… I think I’ll just let everyone know I’m going home. Don’t want to leave them worried like that.”

“It’s okay.”

They’re quiet for another moment. The bad feeling in Steven’s chest appears to have faded away, even if not completely. He’s just relieved it’s not distracting him out of reality again.

“Are you going to talk to the gems?” Lars asks him.

Steven shrugs and half jokes, “It’s not like I can hide it, right?” It doesn’t get a laugh out of his friend. “But still, you’re… you’re right. If this goes too far…” He gulps. “I won’t be myself anymore. I won’t be able to help others.”

A sharp breath comes out of Lars and he almost wonders why is that when his friend voices out, “No, Steven, this isn’t about them – this is about you. You’re important, too.”

These words leave Steven… speechless. They shouldn’t sound this shocking to him, but he can’t exactly hide his surprise; and he can tell Lars looks hurt when he sees his reaction.

“Well, um,” Steven looks at his feet and remembers the abandoned soda bottles, thus taking them again. “I can eat the dessert with you before I go.”

“Yeah… okay, great.”

He heads outside, where the rest of his friends await. They’ve been quieter since the episode and they don’t really hide it when they see him.

“Hey, Steven, are you feeling better?” Sadie asks him cautiously.

“Yeah. I’m better now.” For the second time today, Steven doesn’t lie; he’s proud of himself, to say the least.

“Sorry if… if we made you feel ashamed,” Rhodonite says, holding her own hands. “W-We didn’t mean to make you feel inappropriate.”

“No, don’t worry. It’s just… things have been really hard. But I’m going to get through it.”

The Off Colors smile supportively, while Padparadscha lets them know Steven is coming back.

“Are you staying?” Jenny wonders.

“Only for dessert. I’m going home after that.”

“Good, because I’ve been waiting all night for the surprise,” Sadie laughs. “And Lars told me you’re gonna love it.”

Steven smirks. “Now I’m even more curious.”

The joyful environment almost recovers from the scare he gave everyone. Lars takes a little while to join them, carrying a massive plate of…!

Steven gasps. “No way!”

Lars laughs loud. “I dunno if you’re still into them, but…”

“Are you kidding me?!” Steven yells like an excited kid as Lars places the multiple Cookie Cats on the table.

“These look amazing!” Jenny compliments.

“Wow, I haven’t seen one of those in years,” Buck comments in awe.

“What are those…?” Rhodonite mutters in curiosity.

“Just the best ice cream sandwiches of all time!” Steven answers her, already taking one and proving it. He instantly gasps.

“So, what did you-?” Lars almost asks before he’s interrupted.

“Holy smokes, this is even better than the original!” Steven’s eyes brighten up.

Lars blushes and scoffs. “Aw, c’mon…”

“He’s right, Lars,” Sadie giggles and everyone else agrees with them. Lars pretends to sigh in defeat, but his grin only widens.

“Thanks, guys. I’m glad you like it.” His cheeks are a darker hue of pink. He looks back at Steven and continues, “I, um… I meant to make these for you, yeah. I know that’s never making up for everything you’ve done for me but… I’m glad to be your friend.”

Everyone reacts with an “aww”. The black-haired boy cracks a smile, thinking to himself what he’s done to deserve such good friends.

“Thank you, Lars,” He tells him, his tone the most heartfelt he’s ever shown. “I’m happy to be your friend, too.”

They smile at each other, and then everyone is sitting together again. The music playing now is softer and his friends are happy with him. When he leaves, they reassure him he can talk to them about anything; Lars even offers himself to join him, to give him some support, but Steven convinces him to stay with his friends.

He’s not hiding the horns nor his pink eye anymore on his way home and knows it won’t be easy to talk to the gems about what’s inside him. But as he walks, having taken a couple of Cookie Cats for him and his family, Steven has a hopeful smile on his face.

 


 

When he gets home, his father’s and the gems’ happy greetings quiet down almost immediately. Steven enters the house, doesn’t say a word as he sits on the couch, leaves the Cookie Cats by the table and holds his own hands, feeling everyone’s stares.

The first to break is Pearl, who’s already crying and asks him why he hasn’t said anything. “I didn’t want to worry you,” is all Steven can say, and she proceeds to burst in tears and hug him as tight as she can.

Amethyst gets mad, not at him, but frustrated that he’s been suffering in silence. She reassures him sternly that he should never hesitate to talk to them about the things that bother him. She wastes no time to join the hug and doesn’t hide the tears in her dark eyes.

Greg can’t help crying too and manages to wrap the three of them in a bear hug. Garnet is still standing there, having not muttered a thing since he came in and Steven feels he has got himself to blame. Although he can’t see her eyes, he knows she’s feeling guilty. He knows she’s thinking to herself, how come she hasn’t seen this happening?

Steven shifts a little and Pearl, Amethyst and Greg let go of him when they understand. The boy manages to take one of Garnet’s hands and caress it, noticing it’s been trembling.

“It’s not your fault,” He says silently and then raises his tone for them all to hear, “I didn’t want to say anything. I thought it’d be over if I just… ignored it, but it didn’t help, and now… I look like this.”

Nobody says nor does anything else until Garnet stands on her knees and hugs Steven even tighter than Pearl managed to, and he feels her tears wetting his jacket. There are no words shared between them as all five of them hold each other, support him with everything they have.

He doesn’t like seeing them in this state… he hates it. But at some point, Greg tells them they’ll find a way and they’ll always have Steven’s back. Amethyst proposes they talk to the Diamonds, see if they can help with their powers. Pearl promises he’s going to be okay and Garnet does the same, while still protecting Steven and the others in her arms.

Although it will never truly be gone, Steven feels the tightness in his chest… relaxing, for the first time in what it felt like forever. Lars’ words echo in his mind again.

No, Steven, this isn’t about them – this is about you.

You’re important, too.

He’s never given thought to the fact he didn’t remind himself of that. That he’s… important. That he should matter to himself as much as everyone else does.

Regardless, he knows these scars won’t fade, remembering the healed gems. He doesn’t think he’ll fully believe Lars’ words just yet.

But he hopes he does, one day. He hopes it’ll stop hurting so much. Because he’s not alone.